Or: Johnny goes to the cattle auction and nothing good comes of it
Summary: This is a Lancer/Big Valley CrossOver. I think you can enjoy this even if you don’t know the other show. It is primarily a Lancer story.
Feedback welcome and appreciated.
Thank you to Cat - who devoted a great deal of time, effort and understanding. Thank you.
For Buttercup – You have no one to blame but yourself. This started from your question regarding Johnny’s dislike for laudanum.
It was hot. That oppressive kind of heat that sapped the energy out of a person and left them wilted. The big man silently cursed convention that made it necessary to wear a jacket and vest in mixed company and stagecoaches built with smaller people in mind. He would have wiped the trickle of sweat that was running down the back of his neck, but they were packed inside so tightly that it was difficult to move. At least he was close to the window and occasionally got a breath of the oven hot air. He flicked his gaze out the window at the flat, seemingly unchanging landscape and suppressed another weary sigh. It would be half an hour before familiar landmarks began to show themselves.
His gaze swept over his companions for this sweltering ride. Directly to his left was a pretty, young woman. Her hat feathers were limp, the lace at her neck and collar were damp and her clothes were dusty. Next to her was her equally young and equally rumpled husband. Murdoch had to smile; had he really been that young when he was married?
Across from him were two matching matrons in black dresses and black hats that looked as if they were willing themselves not to perspire. Next to them sat an overweight, red-faced fabric salesman on the last leg of his route.
And down on the floor sat Johnny. He was sitting with his back against the side of the coach, his legs bent, and his forearms resting on his knees. Murdoch knew his son must have been uncomfortable, but he never said a word, only holding his hat by the brim as he turned it in endless circles.
His son must have known he was being watched, because his head came up slowly and their eyes met. A small smile played at the corners of Johnny's mouth and Murdoch couldn't help but shake his head. Some things about his younger son always seemed to amaze him and his son's amusement at this trying situation was one of them.
Murdoch was relieved when out the window he began to see more signs of civilization. The road was wider, and there were more and more side roads. The ruts were smoothing out, too, and he knew it wouldn't be much longer before they would arrive at their destination.
The coach lurched and slowed and Murdoch could hear the driver crooning to the team of horses, bringing them to a smooth stop. Everyone began to shift in their seats without seeming to move. Johnny grunted when the salesman bumped him with his shoe.
Buildings began to pass by the windows and the coach slowed until the horses were down to a walk. Murdoch sat a little straighter and tried not to think about the stiffness in his left leg from sitting still for far too long.
Finally, the stage rolled to a stop and they let out a collective sigh. The stage depot operator quickly came forward and placed a step stool down and opened the door as if he knew good and well how much every passenger would want out of the rolling cook stove.
The two matrons stepped down first with Murdoch following as the salesman slid across the seat and scurried past him with amazing speed for such a large man. The young couple disembarked as Murdoch stretched his back. Last of all his son stepped down.
Murdoch watched as Johnny pushed his hair back off his forehead as he settled his hat before he absently wiped his hands on his shirt.
The driver tossed the luggage down into a pile and Johnny quickly pulled each of their bags out and set them aside. "So, where to?" he asked as he reached up to take his gun belt and handgun from the driver who had stored it in the strongbox during the journey. He strapped the well-worn rig on and restlessly seated the weapon a couple of times in the holster as if checking the fit before letting it lie in its resting place.
"I thought the Hamilton House." Murdoch didn't wait for a response as he picked up his two bags and headed down the boardwalk.
Johnny picked up his bag with his left hand and followed along behind, his eyes taking in the surroundings with interest.
Stockton was an interesting town, a mix of cow town and booming society center. One street was filled with saloons and bawdy houses and gambling dens; the next had nice hotels, fine restaurants and an Opera House.
The Hamilton House was a quality establishment. The front walk was wide and well maintained. A doorman in an elaborate uniform held open the elegant oak door as they entered.
Murdoch through the double doors first with his usual powerful stride. Johnny entered behind him, adjusting his hat and flicking his gaze both left and right, taking in the well-dressed patrons mixed in with the fancy furnishings. His father stopped so suddenly that Johnny had to take a half step to the right to keep from crashing into him.
Johnny quickly scanned the lobby for a threat, his right hand dropping to brush the handle of his revolver. "Is there a problem?"
"Did you see…?" Murdoch's eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched.
Johnny again scanned the lobby. A well-dressed couple was entering the dining parlor. The back of the man showed fine business clothes, the woman wore a well tailored gray dress that whispered as she walked on the business man's arm. Two bellboys lingered near the front desk, a man sat behind a newspaper near a potted plant and another man stood behind the long, highly polished oak counter.
The bigger man shook his head as if to clear his mind of some troubling thought and moved ahead. "Nothing - it was nothing." He continued on to the front desk and was greeted by the concierge. "Two to check in - Murdoch Lancer."
"Yes, Mister Lancer, we got your wire, but we've been overwhelmed because of the stock auction. I'm so sorry, but we only have one room." He glanced at Johnny and was barely able to hide his dismay at the thought of the cowboy staying at the plush hotel.
Murdoch slid his eyes sideways to gaze quickly at his younger son. Johnny was standing with his back to the desk, facing the lobby, leaning his elbows on the counter, looking relaxed. "Two beds in the room?"
The man shook his head regretfully. "No, sir, I'm sorry. Only one large bed."
As nonchalant as Johnny seemed, Murdoch didn't miss the twitch of amusement on the young man’s face.
"Fine," Murdoch said with a sigh. "Will you let us know if a second room becomes available?"
"Yes, sir. Of course." The concierge spun a ledger book around for him to register.
Murdoch dipped the pen in the inkwell and signed his name to the big book. "Can you have a bath sent up?"
"Right away." The balding man rang a little bell with a sigh of relief that this well-known patron was not upset, "Front." A young man, maybe sixteen came forward wearing a slightly less ornate uniform than the doorman. "Take these gentlemen's bags to room 216."
"Yes sir," the boy said with a bob of his head and a wave of his hand. "Right this way, sir."
Johnny pushed off from the desk and trailed behind his father. "Whooee. Ain't never seen such fancy doin's," he said in a slightly overloud voice. "They got big ol’ rugs on the floor and everythin’."
"Johnny," Murdoch hissed in censure.
But both Johnny and the bellboy were chuckling
as they mounted the large, curving staircase.
The auction wasn't until the next day, but Murdoch wanted to go down to the stockyards and look the animals over in advance of tomorrow's high paced bidding. After cleaning up from the journey they headed to the east end of town.
The sounds and smells of the cattle could be heard long before they got to the pens. Murdoch was there to look at cattle, but Johnny's eye was immediately drawn to the horse corrals. They walked together, commenting on the condition of various herds, peering through fences to look at hides and hoofs and eyes on the cattle until Murdoch heard his name called in a loud, boisterous voice. "Lancer! Murdoch Lancer!"
Murdoch spun on his heel to see a tall, lean cowboy stepping from around a pen holding a herd of Mexican shorthorns and heading his way in long sure strides.
"Friend of yours?" Johnny asked casually.
By that time the dark-haired cowboy had come close enough to stretch out a black gloved hand. Murdoch shook the hand vigorously, "Nick Barkley, how are you?"
"I'm good, Mister Lancer. And you?" Nick asked the question of Murdoch, but his eyes were locked firmly on Johnny.
"Call me Murdoch, Nick, please." Murdoch gestured between the two men. "Johnny, this is Nick Barkley. Nick, this is my son, John."
"Nice to meet you, boy," Nick said with a quick handshake and a big smile.
Johnny narrowed his eyes at the dismissive term, 'boy', but bit his tongue.
A wistful look came over the older mans features. "Nick's father and I brought some herds up from Mexico together in the early days when there was more profit in tallow and hide than beef and his Uncle Jim and I still trade Palomino stock."
"Thought I knew the name," Johnny said with a nod. He couldn't tell if under the black Stetson Nick Barkley was taller than Murdoch or not. But they were of a similar height, but not of build. Murdoch was by far, much broader and heavier. "That mare we got back in April was from Barkley stock."
"We haven't seen you in ages, Murdoch. How've you been?"
"Good. Actually better than good, thanks." Murdoch looked briefly at his son with a smile.
"Well, you'll have to come out to the house. Mother will flay me alive if I let you leave town without coming to see her."
Murdoch smiled at the thought of the energetic woman who was his friends' widow. "After the auction, Nick. We'll be sure to stop in before we leave town."
"Good, good." Nick patted the older man on the shoulder. "I'd love to stay and catch up, but I promised my brother Jarrod I'd meet him to sign some papers. And I'm sure we'll see each other tomorrow at the auction."
They shook hands again, "I'm sure we will, Nick."
The lanky cowboy moved off and was lost in the crowd in seconds. "Interesting fellow," Johnny remarked dryly, jumping lightly to sit on the top rail of the fence. "Shame he's so shy."
"Nick's like sourdough starter. He's a little bitter and he'll get a rise out of you, but you really like having him around." Murdoch watched Johnny as he followed the tall cowboy with his eyes. "Let's take a quick pass through the horse corals and then get some supper."
"Sounds like a great idea." Johnny jumped down off the fence and followed along behind. "But I don't want to eat at the Hotel. Can we eat someplace else?"
The Cattlemen's Club was too crowded for either of them, so they headed down Adams Avenue and over to C Street. The Magnolia was a fine restaurant that was busy due to the auction, but not so crowded that they had to wait for a table.
They ate a good meal and Murdoch ordered a fine wine while they discussed which stock might be worthy of attention in tomorrow’s bidding.
Johnny pushed his chair back from the table, rocking up on the back legs, and hooked a thumb in his belt as his eyes fleetingly scanned the room. Idly he noticed the dark-haired woman in the gray dress that he'd seen in the Hamilton House this afternoon. His eyes followed her across the room to where she took her seat at a table near the back, but he never got a real good look at her. There was just something about her that attracted his notice.
"Huh?" Johnny's attention was dragged back to the table.
Murdoch could barely contain his amusement. He glanced around the room, briefly, but saw no one that would have attracted his younger son’s attention. "Who is she?"
"Who?" Johnny asked as he looked around.
"Never mind. I was asking about that Morgan mare. What did you think?"
"Oh, the mare. Well, it's okay. They're good sturdy animals, but we got enough good sturdy animals of our own. What about that little Arabian mare? Did you see the chest on that little filly?"
Murdoch tossed the money for the bill on the table and they continued their conversation as they headed back to the hotel. Murdoch begged off going to the saloon in order to relax with a book so Johnny took off on his own.
Murdoch entered the room and shrugged out of his jacket and headed to the window. He pulled back the deep red curtains and looked out at the street. The sun was just beginning to set and shades of orange and pink painted the sky in variegated stripes. Murdoch picked up his book and stared at the binding as if he hadn't seen it before. With a frustrated sigh, he put the book down and poured himself a drink from the heavy cut glass decanter on the table.
He slugged back a large gulp and mentally kicked himself. He should never have let Johnny go out on his own. Not that the boy couldn't take care of himself. No, there was no doubt about that. But Johnny was on his own too much as it was, and the times they had together were rare enough. He shouldn't have passed up a chance to spend an evening with his son.
Recognizing that regretting his actions
wouldn't change anything, he sipped his drink and settled into an overstuffed
armchair and found his place in his book.
Just after midnight, Johnny paused outside the door to the hotel room and unhooked his spurs. Holding the rowels in one hand to keep them from jingling, he eased the door open. The lamp beside the bed was turned low, but not out, providing him with enough light to maneuver around the strange room with out bumping into the furniture.
Slipping into the nearest chair, he set the spurs on the floor as quietly as he could before pulling off his boots. He pulled off his socks and stuffed them in his boots. Next he took off his gun belt. Then unfastening his heavy conch belt he slipped off his jeans and added them to the pile on the floor.
Leaving on his drawers and his shirt he
cat-footed over to the bed. He could hear his father’s rhythmic breathing
from the far side of the bed. As quietly as possible he set his revolver
down on the bedside table and slid beneath the covers. Reaching out he
gripped the little brass knob on the side of the highly polished lamp and
turned it until the last of the flame winked out. A soft sigh escaped
his lips as he was enveloped by the comforting darkness.
"So, did you have a good night?"
Johnny swallowed his surprise, certain that his father had been asleep and he had gotten in without disturbing him.
"Yes, sir. Mighty fine."
Johnny could hear an affectionate chuckle that filled him with warmth. "Good night, son."
"Night." He couldn't stop grinning as he rolled to his side and closed his eyes. Morning would come very early.
Murdoch remembered that in his youth he had loved the thought of staying in a hotel or an Inn. But the idea of it was much more romantic than the real thing. Even in the good hotels where the sheets were changed daily and the rooms were kept clean he found towns noisy, dirty places.
Something had awakened him again tonight. He shifted under the bedclothes and realizing he was hot, stuck one leg out letting it lie on top of the covers. He listened to the noises from the street and knew that it must still be late. He'd guessed that Johnny came in around midnight and thought maybe he'd gotten a couple of hours more sleep.
Raising his arms he cradled his head in his hands, smiling at the thought of Johnny slinking into the room in an attempt not to disturb him. It had been a nice gesture, but quite honestly, it didn't matter. Murdoch knew that he wouldn't sleep until his younger son was in safely. Reminded of his son, he turned his attention to the far side of the bed.
The younger man was turned on his stomach, his dark head resting on a balled up feather pillow, another pillow hugged to his chest in a firm grip. It was dark in the room, and his son's face had a ghostly quality in the pale light. He cocked an ear and listened to his son’s breathing and could hear it was coming in short, frantic gasps.
Murdoch came to the sudden realization that Johnny was trapped in the grips of a nightmare. He sat up quickly; hoping the simple jarring of the bed frame would jostle the younger man awake. When nothing changed, Murdoch fumbled around the bedside table for a match. Striking it with one hand, he lifted the lamp chimney with the other and lit the wick.
The lamp made a pool of warm light that fell over the bed. "Johnny! Johnny wake up!" Murdoch could see his son’s eyes moving rapidly behind closed eyelids. He reached out a hand and shook the younger man’s shoulder. "Johnny." He shook his son, again, firmly.
Johnny's eyelids popped open, but Murdoch could tell that there was no recognition in the murky blue depths. Johnny was gasping for breath, his eyes wild, and his hands gripping the pillow in white-knuckled terror. Murdoch knew he had to do something, anything to stop his son's distress. Leaning over, he firmly gripped Johnny's shoulder with one hand and with the other he slapped his son's cheek watching as Johnny blinked, once and blinked again.
Johnny took a deep, shuddering breath and struggled against the hand holding him down.
Afraid that his Johnny still wasn't completely awake, Murdoch released him, but kept a wary eye on his son.
As soon as Johnny felt himself being released, he lunged across the bed for the revolver that still lay on the bedside table. Murdoch saw the move and dove across the distance, throwing his bigger body across the smaller man, pinning him to the mattress. "Johnny, no!"
He felt his son shudder beneath him. "Get offa me." Johnny's muffled voice came from the mattress. Murdoch sat back on his side of the bed and watched as Johnny rolled over and scuttled up against the headboard, the pillow still clutched to his chest.
"Are you awake now?" Murdoch asked softly.
"Yeah. Sorry if I spooked you." Johnny pushed the hair back from his forehead with the back of one wrist and gave a weak smile. "It don't happen often."
Murdoch got to his feet and went to the side table and poured a glass of water. He brought it back to the bed and handed it across into his son's shaking hand.
"Thanks." Johnny gulped half of it down, relishing the feel of the cool water on his parched throat.
Murdoch settled at the foot of the bed, leaning against the foot rail. The air in the room was stiflingly still and made him long for the cool breezes that swept threw the ranch house at night. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"It was just a dream,” Johnny said with a sheepish look.
Murdoch remained silent wondering what might have triggered this nightmare. He watched as Johnny raised the glass again, only this time he sipped the water slowly. A memory of a cherubic baby looking up at him and asking for 'wata' flashed like lightning across his mind.
"Sometimes it's easier if you talk about it?"
"No," Johnny's tone was a dismissive. "It's sort of stupid." A weak imitation of his boyish grin slipped across his face. Murdoch was relieved that he didn't have to argue the information from his son. "I'm in this room and it's bright, like when you been out in the sun too long, and everywhere I look…" he shrugged. "I look around and I'm all alone."
Murdoch nodded, a tight knot in his stomach as he thought about the many times his son had been left alone.
"I mean, there's no monsters or anything. Just me and this big empty room." Johnny shifted slightly and set down the glass on the bedside table.
"Have you had this dream before?" Murdoch watched, but Johnny paid no attention to the gun on the bedside table.
Johnny shrugged and dropped his chin to the pillow, pulling his knees up. "Couple a times."
The older man was thinking of the next question he wanted to ask when Johnny made a soft chuckle.
"I was just thinkin' about before, when I went for the…" Johnny indicated with his head toward the revolver.
Johnny grinned. He was shaking his head and toying with the corner of the pillow. Slowly a big yawn escaped, and his eyes drooped heavier as the adrenaline that had forced him awake left him in a rush, leaving exhaustion behind.
Murdock could tell that Johnny wasn't going to say anything else and wondered to himself if he should change the subject when a wayward thought crossed his mind. "You were about a year and a half old and you had a persistent fascination with the fireplace."
Johnny slid down under the covers, but his eyes never left his father’s face, always enthralled by stories of his childhood. "Your mother and I were at our wits end. Tagging after you as you charged around the house with more energy than one boy should be allowed to have."
Johnny rolled over onto his side, still clutching the pillow tightly, his eyes growing heavier with each inhalation.
"It seemed for about a week all we ever said was, 'no-don't touch that'. But you were intent on doing just what you wanted to." Murdock spoke slow and easy, hoping to use his voice to lull Johnny back to sleep. "You kept trying to put your hand in the fire and I kept yanking it back until one time when I wasn't quick enough." Murdoch smiled as Johnny's eyes drifted shut. He eased off the bed to turn down the light, wondering if this conversation would ever have occurred in the light of day.
"So, I got burned?" Johnny was burrowing deeper under the covers; his eyes never opened as he slipped toward sleep.
"Yes, but not badly though. You held out your hand and your mother put a salve on it. I thought for sure you'd cry, but you didn't. That evening I was putting a log on the fire and you grabbed my hand and looked straight at me and said, 'papa-no!"
Johnny's grin was cut off by another yawn.
Murdoch pulled the covers up over his son’s shoulders and settled back
down on his side of the bed. He stared up at the ceiling, knowing good
and well that it would be a lot longer for him to get to sleep. He smiled
to himself at the thought that his son still didn't like to be told 'no'.
Morning came all too early for both men. Murdoch woke first and rubbed gritty eyes before looking over at his son. The noises from the street came up into the room before sunrise and there was no familiar chill to the air, it was already warm and would prove to be a hot day.
Johnny lay sprawled on his stomach; the covers kicked down and tangled around his waist. The bigger man fought the urge to straighten the blankets and tuck his son in, and he smiled at the thought. Instead he got up and crossed to the basin, poured out some water and washed his face.
When Murdoch turned back, Johnny was sitting up in bed. "Good morning to you to."
Johnny was scrubbing at his face with his hands. He took a deep breath and blew it out between pursed lips. "I always forget how noisy hotel rooms are."
"It's going to be a long day. We should get breakfast and get going."
Johnny only nodded his head in agreement before heaving himself up and getting ready.
Getting dressed and shaved had gotten Johnny up, but it would take a cup of coffee to get him going. They decided to eat at the restaurant in the lobby of the Hamilton House and then head over to the stockyards.
Johnny ate with the usual gusto, but needed two cups of coffee to get him past his lack of sleep. "I'm getting spoiled," he said as he sat back in his chair.
"How so?" Murdoch asked as he stirred a small amount of sugar into his cup.
"Used to be able to sleep through almost anything.” Johnny scrubbed at his face with his open palms and heaved a sigh. “ And I never used to have trouble waking up with half as much sleep as I had last night."
"Maybe you're not spoiled, maybe you're getting old." Murdoch asked with a raised eyebrow and a hint of a grin at his son's shocked expression.
"I think it's 'cuz I'm…. hey, there she is again." Johnny pointed with his coffee cup and Murdoch swirled in his chair. Again, he just caught a glimpse of the woman he'd seen the night before.
She was wearing gray this time, too, although a darker shade than last night’s eveningwear. Her dark, black hair was upswept with a dark-veiled hat perched on top.
Johnny leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table. "She seems familiar, but I never get a good enough look at her."
Murdoch blanched, and almost got to his feet. Forcing himself to remain seated, he swiveled back in his seat his stomach clenching.
After she'd gone from the restaurant Johnny turned back to see his father’s stricken face. "Do you know her?"
Murdoch cleared his throat and became very interested in the bottom of his cup. He gave a half-shrug. "I haven't gotten a close enough look at her."
"Maybe you should," Johnny said with a grin. "She's a fine figure of a woman."
Murdoch frowned but looked back over his shoulder as if hoping to get a glimpse of the woman. "There's more to a woman than her looks, Johnny."
"Sure, but you gotta start somewhere."
"I'll take a plain woman that's true, over a beautiful woman with a heart of ice." Murdoch growled more fiercely than he intended. It was easy to see the surprise on his son’s face. He silently cursed his outburst and softened his voice. "If you're done we should get going."
Johnny drained his coffee cup and stood, pulling his jacket off the back of his chair. "I didn't mean nothing'," he said softly, instantly regretting his ability to say the just wrong thing at the right time.
Murdoch dropped the money for the bill on the table and clapped a hand on the younger man's shoulder and squeezed. "I know."
Johnny ducked his head, his hat in his hands and tilted his gaze upward. "I'm sorry about last night."
"I didn't mean to bring up bad memories," Johnny said as he reached for the door.
Murdoch shifted his grip to Johnny’s arm and pulled him off to the side, out of the way of people coming and going from the hotel. They moved into a semi-secluded corner and Murdoch lowered his voice. Johnny was still looking at his boot tips, twisting his jacket in his hands.
"Son.” Murdoch’s tone finally drew Johnny’s eyes upward. “Remembering you as a boy, could never be thought of as a bad memory." He held his son’s gaze for a long moment before letting go of Johnny arm and spun his son back toward the door. "Let's go before Nick Barkley buys every good head of beef here."
Johnny wanted to say something, anything, but he couldn’t think of a single thing.
For Johnny the day wore on with agonizing slowness. Bored with the endless display of beeves, he'd been amusing himself by carving his name with his pocketknife in the wood plank he sat on.
The one time he'd tried to tip his hat over his face and catch a few minutes of sleep, his father had elbowed him sharply in the ribs, with a growl of "Pay attention". He sat up straight, but he was no less tired of the auction, the noise and the heat. Instead of looking at the Herefords currently on display, he searched the crowd to see if there was anyone there he knew.
He spotted a few friends in the gathering; Nick Barkley was on the far side of the arena, standing next to a stocky blond cowboy, near to his own age, who looked vaguely familiar. He saw a couple of other men he'd met yesterday.
"These beeves would look better on a plate with some potatoes. How ‘bout we eat soon?" Johnny tried to keep the weariness out of his voice.
"Shh!" Murdoch hissed.
Johnny squirmed again, taking off his hat and wiping the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve. "I gotta stretch my legs."
Murdoch glared, but said nothing. Johnny grinned and eased himself off the hard plank, down the steps and through the throng until the crowds thinned. He sucked in a deep breath as he felt the crush of people lessen around him and the din ease in his ears.
He took in his surroundings looking down the wide dirt street at the boardwalk-fronted buildings. The fresh painted storefronts spoke of how the town of Stockton had prospered since the last time he'd been here almost six years ago. He thought about going into one of the many saloons, but changed his mind at the last minute. He'd told Murdoch he was going to stretch his legs, so that was what he intended to do.
He made his way down the uneven boardwalk past ladies dressed in the latest styles interspersed with businessmen and cowboys. His pace was leisurely as he glanced in the store windows. He strolled to the end of the street, crossing over behind a heavily laden buckboard and started back to the arena.
This side of the street was in the shade and with the slight breeze was drying the sweat that trickled down his back. He stopped in front of a shop, pressing his fingers to the glass as he looked at the rows of leather bound books with gilt bindings. He almost went in, but decided he could shop for Christmas gifts later and come back when he had more time.
Pushing back from the window he waited for a trim, black buggy pulled by a badly matched team to pass before crossing the street and heading to the stockyard. He stopped suddenly when he heard a sound from the alley.
Caution warred with curiosity as he looked down the shadowy passageway. He heard the sound of glass breaking and decided he had to check it out. Maybe it was only a drunk looking for a place to sleep, but perhaps it was someone trying to break into a backroom.
He checked to be sure his gun wasn't tied
down, and went to investigate the noise.
Murdoch glared at the street that led to the stockyard and wondered where his younger son was. He'd bid on a pair of prime bulls and there wasn't any other stock that he was interested in. He wanted to make arrangements to have the stock shipped to Cross Creek, where Scott could meet the train and bring them home, but he didn't want to leave until Johnny got back.
He paced back and forth before the entrance, occasionally glancing at his watch. The sounds of the auctioneer, the crowd and the stockmen making a droning noise behind him.
Murdoch spun around only to see Nick Barkley right behind him. "Excuse me?"
"You look mad enough to spit nails."
Murdock flicked his gaze over to the cowboy standing at Nick's elbow, unwilling to share his troubles in front of a stranger and jammed his watch back in his pocket.
"Oh, sorry." Nick waved a hand between the two men. "Murdoch Lancer, this is my brother Heath. Heath – Murdoch Lancer."
Murdock shook hands as he looked the young man over. Heath Barkley stood six feet tall with dark blond hair, a square jaw and deep-set blue eyes. There was something about the firm jaw and the squared shoulders that very much reminded Murdoch of his deceased friend, Tom Barkley. "You certainly have your father's mark," Murdoch said vaguely as he turned and glanced back out to the street, missing the look the two brothers shared. "It seems my younger son is…"
"Stockton can be a pretty rough town." Heath watched the older man as he paced.
Murdoch snorted. "My son can take care of himself. I'm just afraid he's in some saloon, twenty dollars deep in a poker game."
"So, do you want to go look for him, or are you going to stay here?" Nick shared another amused look with his younger brother. "Mother is anxious to have you out to the ranch for supper."
Murdoch's lips tightened as he pondered his decision. He checked his pocket watch, again, silently fuming. Johnny had gone to stretch his legs almost three hours ago. "Let's go back to the hotel, we'll leave a note with the desk clerk. He can find his own way out to your ranch."
Nick nodded and fell into step with his brother behind the older man as he stalked toward the boardwalk.
"Boy howdy," Heath drawled softly. "Glad
he's not my old man."
The reunion with Victoria Barkley was bittersweet. She was as beautiful as he remembered. A tiny woman who radiated confidence from her warm brown eyes. Victoria reminded him of a diamond; seemingly delicate, very pretty and the strongest thing around.
Murdock hadn't been back to the Barkley Ranch since Tom's funeral, but everyone was welcoming. He found himself ushered into the front room, like his own a huge fireplace dominated the room, but there the similarity ended. This room had elegant, delicate furniture with stylish upholstery. The tables and shelves were covered with dainty knick-knacks and lacy doilies. The walls had expensive flocked paper and the windows were covered with luxurious draperies.
His attention was quickly brought to the children and how much they'd changed. Audra had only been a slip of a girl the last time he was here, but now she was stunningly beautiful young woman with the same blonde hair and blue eyes of her half-brother Heath.
Nick was not much different physically, but he had matured since having taken over the reins of running the ranch. With Heath at his side the ranch hadn't seemed to lack for Tom's control. Of course, he remembered, Tom had said he'd never really been in control in the first place, that Victoria really ran the ranch. He thought back on those times with a smile.
He wished that Johnny was there to meet this fine family but he pushed the thought of his wayward son to the back of his mind. He'd talk to Johnny later about promptness and being where he was supposed to be.
The conversation ebbed and flowed in a boisterous jumble. Audra and Victoria talked about church work and community events, Nick and Heath about the ranch and the auction. He wasn't surprised that Nick's ideas were so similar to his own, having worked and run his own ranch for so long. He liked Heath, too, with his soft-spoken drawl, and no-nonsense approach to business.
Tom's brother Jim had told Murdoch the story of Heath's arrival in Stockton, in great detail. The story had been told with a curious mix of sadness and glee that his older brother wasn't as perfect as once thought. But as Murdoch observed the young man it was obvious to him that the boy was indeed Tom Barkley's son. Not just the eyes and set of his jaw, but the way he carried himself, the tilt of his head, that mischievous half-smile he had when he teased his older brother. Did his own sons carry his traits? He'd never noticed before.
When Silas announced that dinner was ready he took Victoria's arm and they went in together. His mind was filled with odd thoughts. How long had it been since he'd escorted a beautiful woman to dinner?
Murdoch smiled at the easy affection that filled the conversation around the table. At home he usually set the tone of the conversation for the evening. Here it bounced around him in a chaotic swirl. All of them joining into each other’s conversations in a joyous bundle of noise. They all seemed so happy to talk to each other and fill each other in on their day’s news. Fervently he hoped Johnny would get to join them and see that sharing information at the table wasn't supposed to be like pulling teeth.
Tom and Victoria's eldest son, Jarrod, came in just after they had sat down to eat. "I'm sorry to be so late," the well-dressed attorney started as he opened his napkin with a flick of his wrist. "I was just getting ready to leave when Jeremiah Wade came in and asked me to defend his boys." Jarrod shook his head with irritation. He had his mother's classical looks and almost jet-black hair, but he, too carried Tom's brilliant blue eyes. "It’s not a case I want to take, but I had to listen to the man." The look on his face showed his distaste for the situation.
"What did Chase and Wills do this time?" Nick was not surprised at their neighbors' plight. He turned to include Murdoch in the conversation. "The Wade boys have been nothing but trouble since they moved here five years ago."
"They're bullies," Jarrod said bluntly. "They're up on charges of assault."
Nick snorted. "Stands to reason. Who'd they assault?"
Jarrod poured himself a fresh cup of coffee. "I didn't get that much. According to Wade, his sons were walking through an alley, minding their own business, when this cowhand jumped them for no reason.” Sarcasm tinged his words. “The problem is, they nearly beat the boy to death."
A cold lump formed in the pit of Murdoch's stomach. "Do they have any idea who the cowboy was?"
Jarrod turned his attention directly to Murdoch. "No, I just got Wade's story that it was some cowboy from the auction."
There was a hesitation in the attorney’s voice and they all caught it. "Jarrod?" Victoria asked as she passed Heath the blue china bowl of peas.
"It's just Wade is so… disagreeable." Jarrod frowned and cut his steak with vicious swipes of his knife.
"Why, what else did he say?" Nick pressed.
"Wade just said…" Jarrod's expression soured as if the word left a bad taste in his mouth. "He said 'he was just a 'chilli bean', as if that was supposed to make it better."
Murdoch got to his feet so suddenly that his chair would have toppled over if Heath hadn't caught it. "Dear Lord," he half whispered, a knot of fear lodging in his stomach.
"Murdoch?" Victoria queried.
"Jarrod, do you know where I can find the boy that was beaten?"
Jarrod looked first at Nick and then back to Murdoch. "At the Doctor's office I presume. Why?”
“You don't think this is Johnny, do you?" Nick asked as he got to his feet pushing his chair back hastily.
Victoria also rose to her feet, tossing down her napkin. "Nick, take Murdoch to town and stay with him, help with what ever needs doing. If it is Murdoch's son, you bring him back here as soon as he's able to be moved, understand?"
Audra scurried ahead to get their hats and coats, casting a worried eye at Murdoch and then her brothers.
Nick following along behind, "It's probably not him."
"I pray you're right Nick. I pray you're right, but you don't know my son."
Nick hitched the buggy to his best team and was grateful for the full moon. He knew the road to town well enough, but he also knew from the agitation of his guest, that he'd be going a little faster on this trip than he usually did. Heath had come with him to help with the team and they were ready in record time. "I get the feeling there is a story here that I'm missing," Heath muttered under his breath.
"I'll fill you in on what little I know." Nick whispered back in unusually subdued tones. "Johnny's mama was a Mexican. Pretty, from what little I remember.” Nick smiled at the memory. "She made these little sticks of sweet dough with cinnamon." He chuckled before continuing. "It’s funny the things you remember from when you're a kid. I have no idea what there were called, kinda like doughnuts only better." He shook his head. "Anyway, Murdoch's wife took off when the boy was just a couple of years old, and headed back to Mexico, taking the boy with her. He's only just come back. Murdoch must think Chase and Wills beat up his son and that's why he's late."
"And what do you think?"
"I haven't the faintest idea. But I hope it's not. We'll hit the saloons until we find him and be back in the morning." Nick struck a match and lit the lantern on his side of the buggy while Heath did the same on his.
"Don't worry about things here. I can manage."
"I know you can, Heath my boy. Just don't fall behind if I'm gone a day or two." Nick jumped up into the buggy with an agile leap.
"I probably won't even notice you're not here." Heath smirked.
Nick clucked to the horses and started toward the gate to pick up their guest, "Very funny. You just mind you manners, little brother."
Heath only laughed and patted the horse
on the flank as it passed.
Nick watched the older man pace back and forth from one end to the other of the tiny waiting room while Mrs. Merrar went to tell her husband they were there. They followed the sturdy woman to the back room where the Doctor met them.
"Nick." Dr. Merrar was a no-nonsense man with a direct approach and an appraising eye.
"Doc, this is Murdoch Lancer."
"Mr. Lancer, I'm not sure if that man is your son, but I need to warn you, it's not pretty." The doctor wiped his hands on a towel before taking Murdoch’s hand in a very firm grip.
"I understand." Murdoch took another step closer to the door.
Dr. Merrar put his hand up to stop the bigger man. "I'm not so sure you do, Mr. Lancer. That boy in there is in very bad shape. Those men came very close to killing him. They may very well still accomplish their task."
"I do understand, Doctor. I need to see if he's my son."
Dr. Merrar stepped back and pushed open the door. The room was lit with one lamp on the bedside table and one on a table near the foot of the bed, as well as one overhead that cast the room in bright relief, chasing the shadows under the bed.
On the bed lay a dark-haired man. At least it appeared to be a man. The face was so badly swollen that it was hard to recognize the features. Underneath bright red scrapes and dark ugly bruises the skin was a pasty gray color. The arms, lying on top of the white sheet were as bruised and swollen as the face.
"Johnny." Murdoch's dismay came out in a whisper. He stepped into the room, close to the bed and reached out a hand, but hesitated to touch him.
"This is your son?" Doctor Merrar stood at his elbow.
"Yes." Both anguish and sadness filled Murdoch's voice. His features hardened as he clenched his jaw.
"Good. He'll need his family around him now."
"What can I do?" Murdoch's voice was still pitched in low soft tones, and he fought to keep his anger and desperation at bay.
The doctor pulled a chair away from the wall and indicated to the one next to the bed as he took a seat. "It's in God's hands, now, Mr. Lancer. The only thing we can do is wait."
Nick leaned against the doorframe staring at the battered body. Dark hair lay in stark contrast against the bleached white sheets. He seethed in anger that anyone could do this to another human being. Sitting vigil made his stomach hurt. It made him feel useless and as if he was waiting for the patient to die. His gaze lingered on the two men who seemed to be willing their strength in to the battered young man on the bed, each holding a swollen hand gently in their own.
He pushed away from the wall and headed
downstairs to see if Mrs. Merrar had coffee and anything they could eat.
It was going to be a long night.
Morning came to find all three men sprawled in three different chairs in various states of awareness. Mrs. Merrar, an amazingly cheerful woman with graying hair and sparkling eyes, brought in a tray with fresh coffee and bowls of porridge with fresh cream and roused each man gently.
Nick and Murdoch ate in a bleary silence as they watched Dr. Merrar examine his patient. "No change," he proclaimed before rubbing a hand over his face and sat down with a heavy exhalation. He picked up his spoon, wiped it with his napkin and wearily ate his own breakfast.
Murdoch let out a ragged sigh and then turned his gaze into the dark depths of his coffee. "Nick, when does the telegraph office open?"
"I need to send a telegram to my son, Scott."
"I can take care of that," Nick said as they both got to their feet.
"No, Nick, I need…", Murdoch spun on his heel and left in haste. He burst out the front door and out onto the street. Sucking in lungfulls of air, he tried to clear his head. The sight of his son, so still and unmoving, was causing his heart to race. He took another deep breath and with a glance heavenward, turned and headed for the telegraph office.
Dr. Merrar's office was five blocks from the transportation section of town. A walk in the crisp morning air would do him some good. He noticed that the houses and businesses had given way to shops and warehouses.
Stockton was doing its best to overcome its cow town reputation and show itself as a hub of society and it was reflected in the hotels and office buildings. Every storefront on this street had a fresh coat of paint and sparkling clean windows.
The telegraph office was in the lobby of the train station. It was a spacious room with many plush chairs, highly polished wood floors, and attractive paper on the walls. Murdoch took a form from a box on a long oak table and filled out his message to send to Scott to catch the first train down to Stockton. He tried to convince himself that Johnny would be up and moving by the time Scott arrived, and he would need help getting the injured young man home.
He turned to take his message to the clerk, when a woman stepped from the waiting room, her elegant gray traveling suit rustling as she moved into the lobby of the train station. Murdoch stopped suddenly, his hands clenching, unaware he was crumpling the missive. "Maria." His mouth suddenly dry, the word barely croaked past his lips. He cleared his throat harshly and again called her name.
The woman, dressed in an elaborate hat with black feathers, turned her head and looked his way. At first there didn't seem to be any recognition from behind the black lace veil, but after a few seconds she raised her hand to her throat and looked away.
"Wait!" He said louder than he'd intended, and heads turned his way.
She took a half step away from him and turned toward the door. "You have me confused with someone else," she said simply. Her voice was still like music, deep and throaty and exotic. Her eyes were still mesmerizing, turned up at the edges, but they were hard and chillingly empty.
"I want to talk to you." She turned away as if she hadn't heard him. Following after her, he played his hole card. "Johnny is here."
Her step faltered, but then she continued on, her head stiffly erect, looking straight ahead.
"I just need to know…"
She turned to face him, her eyes icy cold. "What?" Her whisper carried across the few feet that separated them. "How could I leave you?"
All the years of curiosity and anger and disappointment he'd felt suddenly left him in a flood. He couldn't work up the energy to be hurt anymore. "Not me," weariness tingeing his voice. "Him."
She blinked as if stunned by the question. "You wouldn't understand."
"He's here. He's hurt." He stepped closer to her, but she stepped away. It was a desperately tragic dance they'd created. Behind them the train whistle blew and the people in the station began to make a more determined push to the door. His shoulder was jostled and he flicked his gaze toward the old woman who bumped him and then turned back to Maria. "Do you want to see him?"
Her eyes narrowed and her chin tipped up. "I'm sorry," she said coolly. "You must have me confused with someone else." With a swish of her gray silk dress she pushed into the crowd of people boarding the train.
"Too bad," he said as she turned her back. "He's a remarkable young man."
Her steps slowed, but then she straightened her shoulders and marched directly to the train, passing up her handbag to the porter and disappearing from sight.
Murdoch let go a breath he didn't realize
he'd been holding. A cold, heavy lump was lodged in his stomach and
he felt vaguely nauseous. Closing his eyes, he sucked in a lungful of air
and counted to ten before letting it out. When he opened his eyes, the
lobby was mostly empty and the room was very quiet. He looked down at the
crumpled paper clutched in his hand and took a moment to reread the note.
He felt like he'd taken root, wanting to move, needing to move, but seemingly
incapable of doing anything.
Behind him he heard a deep-voiced man, softly chastising a small child. "Will you come back here, you little rascal?" A small, dark-haired boy, maybe two years old, running on just the tips of his toes, toddled past him, laughing in high-pitched glee. "Jimmy, come back here." The boys’ father caught up to his child and swung him up into the air causing the laughter to turn to shrieks of joy.
Murdoch felt his blood pounding in his ears and a cold shudder run down his spine. He had to get back, it was the only thought in his mind and it kept repeating over and over. He shoved the message at the clerk and fished coins from his pocket. It was all he could do not to bellow for people to get out of his way as he swallowed down his anxiety. He had to get back. He had to get back to his son. He needed to get back to his son, right now.
Murdoch pushed open the door to his son's recovery room, only to see a struggle in progress. Doctor Merrar had his hands on Johnny's chest, the muscles in his neck cording with strain as he tried to keep the younger man from rising. Nick was kneeling at the foot of the bed, a hand on each leg, holding down the struggling man.
Johnny's eyes were still swollen shut, deep guttural moans filled the air, and Murdoch could imagine that Johnny was disoriented and in pain and had no idea who was keeping him pinned. Murdoch crossed to the other side of the bed from the doctor and the tall cowboy and dropped to his knees. "Johnny!" He tried to break past his son’s pain-filled confusion, but didn't want to add his touch to the situation, without warning. "Johnny, it's me. Can you hear me?"
Johnny's thrashing stopped so suddenly it caught them all by surprise. Nick stood up from the bed, flexing his hands. The doctor wasn't quite as willing to admit the crisis was past but relaxed the pressure he'd been applying.
"Johnny? Can you hear me?" Murdoch tried again. This time his voice was soft and low despite his own anxiety.
Johnny nodded his head weakly before he sagged back against the pillows.
"Johnny, you've been hurt pretty bad. The Doctor is here and he wants to look you over. Are you willing to let him do that?"
Johnny nodded again, but the effort seemed to sap all the strength from him and with a sigh, he slipped back into unconsciousness.
Murdoch's day was spent caring for his son. Damp cloths soaked in a poultice were applied to Johnny's swollen, bruised body. Each time Johnny managed to rouse himself, water and beef broth were as gently as possible forced down his throat in a desperate effort to keep dehydration at bay, but by midday Johnny began to develop a fever and had thrown up what little was on his stomach.
While the doctor and Murdoch wiped down the fevered body with a mix of water and rubbing alcohol, Nick went to the edge of town and purchased a block of ice. He spent half an hour on the back porch relieving his frustration by wrapping the block in burlap and smashing it into tiny pieces with a sledgehammer.
They tried everything they could think of to cool him off, from granny's tea to packing water bottles full of ice around his body, but his fever continued to climb. Johnny remained blissfully unaware, rarely making a sound during their ministrations. It was late in the evening before his fever finally lowered.
Nick stayed even after Murdoch made several entreaties that he go back to his ranch, but the tall cowboy politely refused. "I'll bust ya' in the mouth, if you ask me one more time." Nick said, balling up his fists and planting them firmly on his hips.
"I meant no offence, Nick." Murdoch shook his head with chagrin. "You are very much like your father. Did you know that?"
Nick grinned as he reached out and dragged a chair closer to the bed and sat down with a sigh. Johnny was sleeping relatively peacefully and they took their periods of rest when they could snatch them. "My mother told me a little about your search for your sons. I see you succeeded."
Murdoch placed his hand gently on his son’s brow, pushing back the damp hair, before sitting down in the chair on the other side of the bed. "It was a long quest, but I've got both my sons home with me."
"My Uncle Jim wrote about the problems you've had over in your neck of the woods. He said there were land grabbers."
"He wrote me about your little fracas with the railroad, too." Murdoch pondered his next words carefully, but before he could say anything Nick jumped in.
"So, he must have told you about Heath. How he came to be living with us and all?"
Murdoch nodded. "Your mother is quite generous to open her home to the boy. I may have doubted the story, with so little to go on, but he's the spitting image of Tom at that same age."
Nick shook his head. He had to admit he only remembered his father as a big, boisterous, self-assured man a with full beard that he’d been just before he died. That image was nothing at all like the soft-spoken half-brother who had been living with them for almost a year. "I think Uncle Jim needs to get a better hobby than being town crier."
Murdoch laughed. Johnny shifted uncomfortably in the bed, and they fell silent watching to see if he'd either wake or stay asleep. Johnny let out a soft cough and stilled.
Jarrod came in just after a supper of pork roast and beans again eaten in shifts around the tiny bedside table. He handed Nick a large valise and set Murdoch's smaller one on the floor. "Mother sent a change of clothes." Jarrod said with a gentle smile, "Heath sent two dime novels and wanted me to tell you everything is going fine and don't bother to hurry back."
"Heath's got quite a sense of humor, doesn't he?"
Jarrod sat down in the only empty chair and flicked a glance toward the badly battered young man and hid his dismay well. "I met with Jeremiah Wade this morning." He gently smoothed the edge of the thick blanket. "I told him if he didn't get his boys to confess, I'd take over as Prosecuting Attorney."
Murdoch cocked his head and appraised the man before him. "Can you do that?" He was thinking of the information that Wade had shared with Jarrod, hoping to hire him as the attorney for his children, and the resulting conflict of interest.
Jarrod chuckled ruefully. "No, but Wade didn't know that. Wills and Chase pled guilty to assault and attempted robbery. They'll get two years each."
Murdoch shifted in his chair and rested his elbows on his knees. "Did they say why? Why would they beat him like this?"
Jarrod frowned, but continued on. "It seems they were breaking into Daniel Brockman's gun shop. Brockman's out of town until the end of the week. Your son caught them in the act. Wills hit Johnny from behind and they just…"
"Went to town on him," Nick finished for him.
"Yes, they assumed he was with the auction, and hoped to get some cash off him. I'm so very sorry, Murdoch." Jarrod noticed that the man in the bed hadn't stirred despite their carrying on a conversation in fairly normal tones. "Murdoch," Jarrod prodded gently. "Why don't you go get some sleep? Neither you nor Nick could have gotten much last night. I'll sit with him awhile."
Murdoch hesitated to accept Jarrod's generosity. The Barkley family had done so much already, but Nick stepped away from the window and came to put a strong hand on his shoulder. "Come on. You won't do Johnny any good if you drop over from exhaustion."
"You're right," Murdoch conceded as he let the younger man lead him to the room next door. He dropped down heavily on the spare bed, convinced that with his anger and frustration and worry, he'd never get any rest. He had barely put his head on the pillow before he was asleep.
Jarrod sat in the chair beside the bed and read his newest Legal Association Journal. When Johnny stirred, Jarrod paused in his reading to gently lay his hand on Johnny's wrist. The poultices were doing a lot of good and the swelling had gone down, but the skin was still mottled in blacks and blues and purples. Johnny moaned and one blue eye showed as he forced his eyelid open.
"Hey there." Jarrod spoke slowly, but he was sure that Johnny didn't yet comprehend anything. Jarrod went to the door and called for Dr. Merrar who bounded up the stairs.
Afraid of another physical battle the Doctor banged on the door of the room where Murdoch was sleeping as he went past, but Johnny was lying still on the bed. Dr. Merrar took a hold of a tense wrist and felt a rapid pulse. "Johnny, can you hear me?"
Johnny looked up at the doctor with his one bloodshot eye. "Can you hear me, son?" The doctor asked again.
Johnny nodded and bit back a moan.
"I know you're in a great deal of pain, but I need you to tell me if one part hurts more than the others." The doctor gently but efficiently probed the battered body under his hands. As the sheet was pulled back, Jarrod got his first look at the extensive damage. Johnny's arms and legs were covered with most of the bruises, showing that he'd done what he could to protect himself from the brutal beating.
Jarrod cursed himself for not having investigated the beating further, knowing now that this boy had not been unconscious after he'd been hit from behind. And the extent of the wounds showed that this was not a few casual blows to make a man give up his wallet. He wished now that he'd pushed for a stiffer sentence than two years.
He attention was turned back to the bed as Johnny's soft breathless moans were interspersed with an occasional gasp when the doctor found a particularly painful spot.
Merrar nodded and clucked and continued his assessment. Murdoch came in partway through the examination, tucking his shirttails into his pants. "How is he?" he asked, but no one answered him.
The doctor put an earpiece to the young man's chest and listened for a moment before straightening up and gave his patient one long appraising look. Moving to the side table he mixed a white powder in a glass of water turning the liquid murky.
Johnny watched him intently with one red-rimmed eye.
As the doctor came back to the bed, Johnny turned his panicked look first at Jarrod and then lingered on his father. Murdoch could easily see the anxiety his son was feeling.
"Come on, son, drink this down." The doctor moved to the edge of the bed, glass in hand.
"Wait." Murdoch put his hand gently on the doctor's wrist. Johnny and Murdoch stared at each other across the bed. Johnny's breathing had become rapid and Murdoch gently laid a hand on his son's chest. "We don't need that right now, do we?"
Merrar humpfed. "When the boy gets to feeling too much pain you have him drink that down." But he set the glass on the side table. "He needs to get some rest and so do I. It is very late, Mr. Lancer."
Jarrod picked up his dropped journal, folded it in half and passed it to Murdoch. "I'm going to head on home. I have a younger brother who seems to have the same aversion to pain medication. I don't know what gets into these young folks these days." Jarrod pulled his jacket off the back of the chair and slipped it on, shrugging his shoulder to ensure it lay flat. He shook a finger in Johnny's direction, and mock-lectured, "In my day we were lucky to have a doctor around, and glad for his medicine." His smile took the sting out of his words and Jarrod turned his attention back to Murdoch, "I find reading from that journal does an amazing job of putting Heath to sleep. Maybe it will work for your boy."
Murdoch chuckled and flipped through the first few pages of the Journal. He had to admit, it seemed to be pretty dry reading. "I see what you mean." He doubted that even he would be able to stay awake while reading it.
Jarrod retrieved his hat, stood in the doorway for a moment and watched as Murdoch pulled his chair up closer to the bed. Even from his vantage point he could see the care taken to straighten the bed covers, and the wariness as Johnny watched his father’s every move. Jarrod wondered at the relationship between father and son before he turned to make his way down the darkened staircase.
"Can I get you anything?" Murdoch asked as he gently put a hand on his son’s forehead, checking for fever.
Johnny licked his lips, but no sound came out, "Water?" Murdoch asked. Johnny nodded and watched his father closely to insure no medication was added to the liquid. Murdoch brought the glass over and then took a big gulp as if to show nothing had been slipped in.
Johnny tried to sit up, but the motion caused him to gasp. "Let me help." Murdoch said gently as he put a strong hand behind his son’s neck and eased him only the slightest bit upright and held the glass to his lips. Johnny took three tentative sips before turning away.
Murdoch set the glass down on the bedside table and adjusted the bedspread again as Johnny took a shuddering breath. "There's some broth here. Can you try and get some down? You need to eat a little something."
Johnny nodded minutely and watched as Murdoch got a bowl of broth and brought it up to the bedside table. Murdoch noticed the wary look in his son's eye and had to smile. He picked up the spoon and dipped it in the tepid liquid and sipped at the first spoonful himself. "You have a very suspicious nature, my son."
One side of Johnny's lips tipped upward in a weak imitation of his normally vibrant smile. Murdoch edged in and offered Johnny the next spoonful. Murdoch could see that even the act of opening his mouth to accept the broth was a painful chore for the young man. Johnny managed to get down six spoonfuls before turning his head away, showing he was done. Murdoch accepted it and picked up the water glass again. "How about a little?"
Johnny had to force open his one good eye to stare blearily at the glass. He licked his lips and tilted his head up to ease the process as Murdoch brought the glass to his son's battered lips. Johnny took one little sip and then a bigger one before pulling away weakly. He lay back against the pillows and shut his eye. His breathing was ragged and the effort to eat had sapped his strength.
Murdoch set the glass back down and wrung a cloth out in the basin before placing it gently on his son's forehead. Johnny acknowledged his pleasure at the gesture by unclenching one fist.
"You did very well. Now I want you to try to sleep." Murdoch said in a gentle voice. He watched and Johnny's other hand opened and closed, clutching at the blanket. "Did I ever tell you about the time I was a boy in Inverness?" One thing he knew about his son was that he loved to hear a good story. Johnny continued to clench and unclench his fist, but the tension seemed to ease from his face and shoulders.
"I was working in a chandlery on the waterfront when these two wharf rats came into the store." Murdoch watched Johnny carefully, the younger man was relaxing back against the pillows, and his breath still ragged, his skin still pale and clammy. "I can still remember the smell of the sea and the docks and the ships. Anyway, these two men had come in to rob the place. Mr. Erickson emptied the till, but they were drunk and decided to tear the place up. During the course of the fracas I got hit with a box of rigging pins. I don't know if you know how heavy one of those boxes are, but they are mighty heavy."
Johnny shifted back under the blankets and a small moan stuck in the back of his throat and he squeezed his eyes tight. Murdoch gently ran his fingers over the back of Johnny's hand mindful of the bruises and scrapes. "I woke up the next day with a knot on my head the size of a goose egg." Absently, Murdoch raised one hand and his long fingers touched the spot where the lump had been thirty years ago. He brought his hand down and lightly brushed his fingers down the length of Johnny's puffy cheek. "I know you're hurting son, I do." Murdoch reached over and picked up the glass with the laudanum. "Will you take a sip of the medicine, son?"
Johnny seemed to deflate against the pillows and slowly nodded his head. "Thank you."
Murdoch helped Johnny take a few sips. One large hand cradling his son’s neck and could still feel the heat from his son’s slightly raised temperature against his palm. As he set the glass down, he reached for a cloth, rang it out and gently laid it on the warm forehead.
"Sleep now, son. Go to sleep." Slowly the tension eased from Johnny’s face, his breathing eased and he drifted off into a heavy, drug laced sleep.
For two days the battle to keep his younger son alive raged. Hours of fever-induced delirium were interspersed by moments of painful exhaustion. And through it all Johnny said not one word. A moan or a gasp or a nod of the head was their only indications that he was alert enough to understand their words.
Forcing liquids down his throat to keep dehydration at bay were interspersed with worry when he had little use for the bedpan. Doctor Merrar began to fear that his patients’ kidneys were failing to function. It was only a transitory worry and then they were struggling to keep from causing him extra injury as they changed the sheets.
Murdoch stayed at his son’s bedside until half forced from the room by either Nick or Dr. Merrar. He read to his son, in the quiet lulls between storm fronts. Sometimes he would put down the book, lower his head and simply pray for a change - any kind of change in his son’s half existence. They got his fever lowered during the day, only to have it spike at night. And Johnny’s bruised jaw made it hard for him to eat anything other than broth. Murdoch began to count each success, no matter how small.
At 6:38 on the third morning after the
attack the 6am train pulled into the station in Stockton. Forgetting
all of his manners Scott Lancer was the first one off the steps before
the train had even come to a complete stop. He accosted a porter
to get directions to the doctor’s house. He hailed a cab even though
it was only five blocks - it was worth it to him, to ensure that he didn't
He knocked on the door less than ten minutes later to be met by Mrs. Merrar who was amazingly cheerful at that hour of the morning. She led him up the stairs to the recovery rooms using a candle to light the way in the dark passage.
As she opened the door, Scott saw a scene that caused him both consternation and relief. Murdoch sat in a chair; his head and shoulders slumped over so that they rested on the bed. A tall, lean, dark-haired cowboy slouched in another chair, his sock-clad feet propped up on the edge of the bed, snoring softly. A thin, distinguished man in what was once a nice suit sat in another chair on the far side of the bed. His jacket had been draped over the back of his chair, his waistcoat was unbuttoned and his shirt partially untucked.
Sprawled in the center of what must have, at one time, been the three men's attention, was the only person in the room aware enough to notice his arrival. With one blue eye open and the other open a partial slit, Johnny gave his brother a bleary look and a weak attempt at a smile.
Scott smiled back and navigated around his father to come to the side of the bed. He didn't sit on the edge, for fear of waking the older man, but instead, kneeled beside it and took his brothers hand in his.
"You look dreadful," Scott whispered, but not soft enough to prevent waking the doctor. The man came to his feet with a snort and a grunt and cast an appraising eye at both his patient and the new visitor. He reached down and took Johnny’s other wrist and felt for a pulse.
"This boy has managed to give us quite a scare." The doctor put a hand on Johnny's forehead and checked for any lingering heat. "He took another turn for the worse in the middle of the night."
The Doctor’s voice roused both Murdoch and Nick. Murdoch sat up and putting his hands on his lower back, stretched. "Scott, when did you get here?"
"Just a couple of minutes ago." Ignoring the doctor, Scott turned his attention back to his brother. "And how are you doing?"
Johnny shrugged one shoulder and let out a shuddering breath.
Scott surveyed the small dark room and got to his feet. He thrust his hand out across the bed. "Scott Lancer."
The Doctor introduced himself and Nick Barkley.
"You three look like you've had a tough go of it for the last few days," Scott remarked at their unshaven, dark eyed appearance. "Why don't I take over the easy part and sit with him for a little bit?"
Nick rubbed his eyes and shook his head to clear his blurry vision. "He seems to do good for a while, then goes south."
Scott looked down at his brother in the bed and when their eyes met he gave smile, "My brother likes it down south, don't you?"
Johnny nodded his agreement.
Murdoch gently placed his hand on his son's leg. "How are you feeling this morning?"
Johnny shrugged his one shoulder again.
Scott helped his father to his feet and then took his chair. "Shall I bring you back something to eat?" Murdock asked.
"I ate on the train, thank you."
Murdoch motioned to the broth in the covered
bowl. "See if you can get some of that down him."
"I will." Scott got up and got the broth and the spoon and pulled the chair up closer to the head of the bed.
Murdoch stood in the doorway and watched his two sons together for a moment. Scott balanced the bowl in one hand and was fixing his entire concentration on his younger brother.
"Care to tell me what happened?" Scott asked as he stirred the broth.
Murdoch wanted to listen, wondering if Scott could get more than a one-word grunt for an answer, but Nick Barkley nudged him from the room. "Let's get some breakfast and sit at a table like human beings."
Johnny watched his father leave the room with the tall dark haired cowboy on his heels. His gaze lingered on the open doorway before his eyes glazed over with a faraway look.
"Hey, boy – where are you?" Scott asked softly.
Johnny relaxed back against the pillows and a tiny smile played across his lips. His eyes closed heavily.
"You're being awfully quiet." Scott watched the younger man with concern as he reached out and gently laid a hand on his brothers' chest. "Talk to me."
"Hurts t’ talk." Johnny said with in a stilted, slurred voice.
Scott gave a mischievous smile. "This could be interesting. You just sit there and be quiet and I'll do all the talking."
Johnny attempted to roll his eyes in mock
frustration, but the gesture was aborted by a yawn that broke off with
"Who ever did this sure did a job on you," Scott muttered. He tried to get Johnny to eat a spoonful of the broth, but the younger man turned his head away, so Scott set the bowl back down, the spoon clanging against the porcelain. "What can I get for you?" he asked, as he rung a towel out and gently laid it on his brother's still warm brow.
Johnny opened one eye and flicked his gaze over to the window.
"I agree," Scott said as if his brother had spoken. "It's too dark in here. And much too nice a day to keep the curtains drawn."
Scott got up and pulled the heavy green drapes back on both windows in the room. The room was washed in warm morning light. Knowing how much his brother hated to be trapped in doors, Scott eased one of the windows open a small crack and a slight breeze stirred the stale air in the sick room.
Scott could see Johnny relax and shift under the blanket. He came back to the side of the bed and again picked up the bowl. "I want you to eat." It wasn't said as a question and Scott brought the spoon up to his brother’s lips.
Johnny opened one eye and viewed the spoon with distrust but he opened his mouth to let his brother feed him. Scott managed to get half the bowl into his patient before Johnny failed to respond to his prompting of the next spoonful. Johnny's eyes had drifted shut. His dark lashes lay in crescents on his pale, bruised cheeks. His breathing was slow and even and for the moment his features seemed pain free.
Scott reached out and gently removed the cloth and turned to re-wet it. He rung out the extra water and gripped the towel in his fist. Before he put it on his brother’s forehead, he pushed back the damp black bangs. "When I get my hands on those…" Scott's jaw clenched at the unfinished thought. Hearing footsteps, he moved to the doorway and leaned one shoulder against the jam. Murdoch was coming back down the hall, with Nick Barkley just behind him.
"How soon before we can get him out of here?” Scott asked, twisting the towel in his hands. “The city is no place for him to get well.”
"Scott, he's been pretty sick." Murdoch frowned as he peered into the room, taking in the dark circles under Johnny's eyes and the pallor of his cheeks.
"I can tell." Scott abruptly cut off anything else Murdoch might have said. "But staying here, with the noise and dirt and …it's just not good for him."
Nick cleared his throat. "We've got more than enough room at our place."
Scott flicked a gaze at the man standing behind his father. Scott couldn't tell but it seemed as if Nick Barkley was even taller than his father, but built on leaner lines.
"We couldn't impose," Murdoch started.
"If it wouldn't be too much trouble," Scott said at the same time.
Nick glanced from one to man to the other barely suppressing his amusement at the palpable awkwardness he could feel in the crowded little hallway. "When the doctor says he's up to traveling, you are all more than welcome at the ranch."
Scott met Murdoch's gaze with a firm one of his own and the older man hesitated. He wanted nothing more than to have his son get well. The swelling was going down, but fever continued to rack the young man's body. "If the Doctor say's he's up to traveling…" Murdoch hesitated again before looking over his shoulder at Nick. "We'd appreciate your offer."
Nick nodded and Scott smiled his relief. "Come on, Murdoch, let's eat before Mrs. Merrar changes her mind and gives it to the chickens."
"Thank you, Nick Barkley." Scott said softly as they passed him in the hall.
It was late in the morning when the Doctor came back from his rounds to give his patient a thorough examination and Johnny endured it in jaw clenching silence. Only once did he cling to his brother's hand with a bone-crushing grip. Satisfied with what he'd seen the Doctor stood up and met the gaze of the family. " I can't say the trip will be pleasant. The boy is very badly bruised."
"Is it safe for us to move him?" Murdoch's tone clearly implied that he didn't think it was a good idea.
A quick squeeze on his hand diverted Scott's attention to his brother in the bed. Johnny's dark blue eyes vividly spoke his request. Scott nodded. "I still think it would be better to get him out of town. No complaints to your hospitality, Doctor, but he needs fresh air and more room to move around."
The doctor smiled. "No offence taken, young man. Most of my patients are cowboys and I understand. But the only way I'll agree to this is if he lets me medicate him."
Johnny's brow furrowed. "Don't need it," he ground out, his teeth clenched and one hand clutched in the sheets.
"My terms, young man. Either you take the morphine or you don't go." The doctor was adamant and crossed his arms over his chest.
"You're decision, brother. What'll it be?" Scott did his best to keep his face impassive, letting Johnny decide for himself.
"Go." Johnny said resentfully.
"I'll be along this afternoon to check on him," Dr. Merrar said as he pocketed his watch.
"I'll get a wagon," Nick said briskly as he gently patted Johnny's leg. "We'll get you home in time for lunch." He quickly left the room and headed down the stairs to the livery to rent a wagon.
Nick had lined the bottom of the wagon with a thick layer of clean hay and the doctor’s wife provided blankets and pillows to make a comfortable nest. Johnny was given the morphine before being transferred to a litter. Murdoch took one end while Scott took the other and they maneuvered slowly down the wide stairs to the first floor. It was a little more difficult to move Johnny, litter and all, into the wagon but with the help of Jarrod and Nick Barkley it was done swiftly and Johnny never woke up.
Scott got into the back of the wagon and made himself as comfortable as possible near his brother’s head. Murdoch sat next to Nick on the wagon seat. He shifted on the hard bench and looked back at his two sons in the back. For the moment at least they both seemed comfortable.
Jarrod still had business in town so he waited until the wagon was safely on its way before he headed back to his office with a shake of his head and a worried frown.
The ride out seemed longer than Murdoch remembered from his other trips. Nick kept up a steady steam of information about the changes in the ranch and the other business the Barkley owned.
After assuring himself that his brother was completely under the effects of the medication, Scott joined in the conversation. He noticed the wide main road that led to the ranch was well maintained. There was an orchard across a small stream that was heavy with fruit.
Lancer had a small grove, but he'd thought about talking to Murdoch about expanding it. An association with the Barkleys could be a valuable source of information. They crossed a small stream over a sturdy bridge. The road straightened out and a grand house came into view.
It was a large white house built in the Colonial style and reminded Scott of some of the houses he'd seen along the Hudson River, and with a pang of regret, some of the houses he'd seen in the South during the war. Four columns flanked the front doors. The gracious home sparkled with large windows on two stories. The well-manicured front lawn presented a feeling of welcome and hospitality.
Nick drove the wagon as close to the front steps as he could and jumped down with an agile leap. He bounded up the front steps and threw open the large mahogany door. "Mother!" he bellowed into the front room.
Without waiting for an answer he simply turned on his heel and came back down the steps. Scott was pulling the litter out of the back of the wagon, hay falling to the ground in huge clumps. Nick gripped the other set of handles near the edge of the wagon, blatantly elbowing Murdoch out of the way.
Two ranch hands bustled over to help carry the drugged cowboy into the house as others milled around the steps, watching with interest. Johnny was groggy and restless, but still unaware of his surroundings.
Victoria Barkley stood at the top of the step observing the proceedings. In a matter of moments she was maneuvering men in a manner that would make a battlefield general proud. With few questions she directed the men up to the bedroom at the end of the hall and followed along behind.
With gentle care Johnny was lifted from the litter and tenderly laid on the bed. The last motion was too much for the groggy man. Johnny rolled to his side and heaved the minor contents of his stomach onto the floor.
"I'm sorry," Johnny mumbled with a groan.
"Poor boy." Victoria Barkley frowned as she bustled Scott away from the mess and quickly cleaned it up with a cloth from the wash table. "You boys all look pretty done in. Why don't you go down and get some lunch and I'll get him settled." She didn't wait for an answer before turning to her daughter. "Audra, go get the big basin, some cool water and some extra cloths."
Audra moved from the room swiftly and gestured for the men to follow her.
Murdoch and Scott were at a loss as they stood on the landing. Nick led them down the back stairs to the kitchen. "We'll get your stuff in a bit and I'll show you to the rooms you'll have for your stay."
"Nick - " Murdoch started.
"Murdoch, if you thank me one more time, I swear I'll punch you." His words were said with a smile that took out the sting. "My father told me of all the times you and he pulled each other’s fat out of the fire. It's an honor for me and my family to help out an old friend."
Victoria made quick work of getting the battered cowboy settled. She made light, inconsequential chatter as she assessed his wounds and made him as comfortable as possible.
He blinked open bleary eyes and stared up at her. The light was coming in from the windows behind her, casting her in silhouette and causing her silver hair to glow in a halo around her head. "Are you an angel?" he mumbled as he looked up at her.
Her laughter was a warm comforting sound. "No," she said softly, "and there is no reason for you to be even thinking of angels." She adjusted the blanket and sat in a chair she'd pulled up close to the bed. She was, however, concerned. This boy wasn't reacting the way she expected. She'd had many young men under her care in her forty years in the west. From minor cuts and bruises to broken bones and gunshot wounds - she had nursed them all.
This boy looked as if he'd been caught in a stampede. His body was a mass of dark, almost purple bruises. His arms were swollen and puffy. Obviously he had been protecting his head and face, and his arms took most of the blows. His hands were so enlarged that his fingers didn't bend. Johnny's lips were cracked and dry from dehydration.
All of these things worried Victoria, but they were not the reason for her anxiety. His reactions were not what she would expect for someone given a shot of morphine more than two hours earlier. He was still groggy and confused and almost completely unaware of his surroundings.
She leaned back in the chair and waited until her daughter came in with the water and towels. They soaked the towels and covered his fevered body in the cool wet cloths. He sighed his contentment, but never woke from his restless sleep.
"Audra, dear, I think you need to go see to supper. Silas has a pan of cornbread in the pantry, ask him to make up some chicken gravy and bring it up on a tray."
The blonde girl, just a few months past nineteen, spun on her heel and headed back down the stairs, her silk skirts rustling as she moved. She passed Scott in the hall and flashed him a brilliant smile. He paused on the landing to watch her go by before slipping into the room set-aside for his brother’s recovery.
Victoria watched silently as the blond young man made a hesitant entrance. It was her warm smile that encouraged him to move next to the bed.
"How is he doing?" Scott asked as he looked down at the sleeping man. Damp towels covered his brothers' arms and legs. A smaller cloth lay across his brothers' brow. Scott lightly brushed the backs of his fingers against Johnny's cheek before he perched on the edge of the bed.
Victoria observed each gentle action silently. When Scott's concerned gaze finally left his brother's face to look at her she let her confidence show. "He'll be fine."
"There are times when I feel like we've known each other all our lives," Scott half-whispered. "There are other times when I know I barely know him." Scott watched his hostess with a guarded expression. "I suppose you know the story."
"Of you boys?" She took the cloth off Johnny's forehead, soaked it in the basin, wrung it out and replaced it. "I may know more than you do."
A hesitant smile played over Scott's lips. "You probably know a different story than we do, too,” Scott agreed.
"You've all had a long few days. Why don't you let me stay with him and you can get some rest?" She hoped to encourage him from the room, but he shook his head gently.
"I'd like to sit with him for awhile."
She nodded her understanding. "Well, come sit here by the window. He really needs to rest."
Johnny was shifting restlessly under the damp towels. Scott reluctantly agreed and got a gold brocade upholstered chair and came to sit on the other side of the bed, closer to the window. He was happy that Mrs. Barkley had pulled open all the drapes and flooded the room with light. A soft breeze came into the room from a partially open window. Scott looked out at the view and was pleased to see the corrals and the barn. It was not the most inspiring view for a guestroom, but it would surely comfort his brother to hear familiar sounds in a strange location.
Victoria turned her chair sideways so she could observe both brothers. "So, tell me of the day you met."
Scott smiled as he turned away from the window and settled in the chair, shaking his head ruefully as he remembered that first encounter, crammed in the hot, cramped stagecoach so close that they had to struggle not to touch. An ache tugged at Scott's heart. Now all he wanted to do was touch his brother, and he had to be so careful not to inflict more pain on the battered body.
An hour later, just as Murdoch joined the vigil, Victoria noticed that Johnny slipped from the drug-induced sleep into a normal restful sleep. Father and son had both held their breath as the dark haired boy shifted partway onto his side and sighed heavily. His eyes opened briefly before drifting shut without taking in his surroundings. She removed the towels as his fever abated and covered him with a sheet and a light blanket.
Audra had brought up the covered plate of cornbread and gravy and left to finish supervising supper.
Nick had put in a brief appearance in the sick room to see if either man wanted to go with him to check on work details, but getting no offers he left quickly. He'd been inactive at this young man's bedside for too long and needed to get out and stretch his muscles for a while.
It was just at dusk that the Doctor made an appearance. Victoria knew that if it were at all possible he would show before suppertime. A hot meal was one of the perks of making house calls and the Barkleys spread a fine table.
Silas, the butler/housekeeper showed Doctor Merrar up the stairs. Murdoch and Scott Lancer were sitting near the window playing a game of chess. Victoria sat near the bed working on her sewing. The two men rose as he entered the room.
The doctor looked down at his patient and was surprised to see two vivid blue eyes looking up at him from the bruised and battered face.
"Well, hello young man. How are you feeling?"
Johnny blinked slowly as if trying to bring the man towering above him into focus. His gaze went to each person in the room before he croaked out a "been better" from between cracked lips.
Dr. Merrar appraised his patient carefully before pulling back the sheet, grasping Johnny's wrist firmly and taking his pulse. He made a quick examination, checking Johnny's eyes and breathing before turning to pull a small bottle of white powder from his bag.
Victoria noticed the frown of worry that flashed over the young man's face and quietly came around the bed. "Jacob, may I have a word with you?" She nodded her head toward the hallway. The doctor set the dark brown bottle on the table and followed her out into the hall.
She gently pulled the door shut and met the doctor's eye. "Is that medication really necessary?" she asked bluntly.
"Victoria, I know the boy has an aversion to it, but rest is what he needs, and he'll rest better with it."
"I didn't like the way he was brought in all feverish and muddled. Scott tells me that Johnny's fever has peaked every night, and you've given the laudanum to him every night to sleep. Could he be having some sort of a reaction to it?" Sometimes the body knew what it wanted. Maybe Johnny's reluctance to take the drug was well founded.
Dr. Merrar thought over her question very carefully. "Try taking care of him without it, but if he's not sleeping, we'll have to do something. And I can't imagine that he'll get much sleep if he's in pain."
She nodded her agreement. "But I can't imagine him getting well if he's burning up with fever, either. And I can't get him to eat if he's not awake, can I? I have some other recipes that might work."
The doctor frowned, but declined to comment on the subject further. "I'll be leaving town for a few days. There is a lecture in San Francisco at the Medical College on new surgical techniques. I have no doubt you can handle things here, just try to get the boy to rest. I'll leave the laudanum with you, just in case. You can wire me if you truly need me." She nodded her understanding. He checked his watch and cleared his throat. "Am I late for supper?"
She smiled as she realized he wasn't going to push any further, "Not at all. Let me get the Lancer men to join us."
Victoria went back into the room and saw father and son standing on each side of the bed. Murdoch was helping his son ease back against the pillow as Scott set a glass of water on the bedside table.
"Gentlemen, supper is about to be served." They had been so intent on helping Johnny that neither of them had heard her come in.
"We'll be back after we eat," Scott said softly and Johnny nodded.
"I'll be down shortly," Victoria said as they passed her. She perched on the edge of the bed and pulled the covered plate onto her lap. Johnny followed her every movement with his eyes. "I have the feeling that you might like something with a little more substance than broth."
A lopsided smile crept across his bruised face. His stomach rumbled, encouraging him to fill it. The cornbread had been soaking in the gravy and was soft. It broke into small pieces and his thick fingers struggled to hold the spoon. She let him do as much as he felt comfortable with knowing that boosting his morale would aid his recovery. She sat with him as he ate about half the plate until he was too tired to continue.
She set the plate back on the bedside table and helped him to lie down. Gently she pushed his heavy dark bangs back from his brow and surreptitiously checked for fever in the same way she did with all her children. Finding none she smoothed the covers over him as he watched her through heavily lidded eyes. "Sleep now and I'll be back soon."
He reached one hand up and touched her arm with a thick finger. "You sure you ain't an angel?"
"You go to sleep before I begin to think you're delirious." But there was no way she could hide her amusement.
Johnny smiled back, before exhaustion took over and he was back to sleep.
Supper was a very relaxed affair. Jarrod was a good conversationalist and kept the evening light and told an amusing story about a neighborhood feud revolving around a missing French horn.
They moved from the dining room and into the game room and Scott continued with a light-hearted tale about a fast moving beagle at a cotillion that had both Heath and Nick laughing so hard they were wiping tears from their eyes. Audra played a short piano piece to cap the evening off before they said their goodnights.
Ten minutes later Scott and Murdoch met up outside the door to Johnny's room. Murdoch turned the brass doorknob and slowly eased the door open. Moonlight gave the room a soft pale glow but as his eyes adjusted quickly it was easy to see the outline of his younger son, lying in the big bed, sound asleep.
Scott pressed forward from behind and maneuvered around the bed aiming to take up the chair on the far side of the room that Victoria had been using.
The room came into better relief as their hostess entered the room a minute later, carrying a small oil lamp. "The two of you need to go on and go to bed," she chided softly. "The only thing this boy needs tonight is sleep."
Murdoch took in the determination of the small woman who stood in front of him, but he was determined as well. "Victoria, I know it's rude to argue when you're a guest in someone's home, but I'm not leaving him tonight."
Scott fully intended to add a similar sentiment, but was cut off before he had a chance to speak.
"It won't do for both of you to stay up. One of you needs to get some rest." Her voice was soft, but firm.
"Murdoch," Scott said gently. "You probably haven't had a decent night’s sleep since this happened. Let me sit up with him."
Murdoch appraised his son carefully, his lips in a firm line. But his tone softened at the look in Scott’s eyes. The pupils were large enough that the gray-blue eyes looked black. But it was the worry that showed in his son's face that finally convinced him. As much as he wanted to be here, Scott needed to be here. "If you need anything, anything at all, I'm right next door."
Scott nodded visibly relieved that his father understood his concern. "I'll come and get you if I need anything."
"And my room is the door at the top of the stairs," Victoria added as she gently laid her hand on his arm.
"I'll be fine," Scott said with more confidence than he felt.
"I'd be fine, too," Johnny said, shifting weakly onto his side, "if you'd all go away and let me sleep."
Murdoch felt his heart leap at the first full sentence his younger son had completed in days. He moved closer to the bed as he heard Victoria beside him lifting the chimney on the bedside lamp and striking a match. "How are you feeling, son?"
Johnny briefly closed his eyes as the match flared and then looked up into the worried blue eyes of his father. His usual understatement that he was fine died on his tongue when he saw the anxiety that radiated from the bigger man. He suddenly realized that both the other people in the room were just as concerned. "I feel kind of thick and fuzzy and I ache all over." His sudden honestly brought smiles of relief from his family and a long appraising stare from Victoria. A smile wavered at the corner of his mouth, "course a beer and hot soak would do wonders."
Victoria smiled at the flippant attitude and took up her small lamp, holding it high enough to assure herself that the fevered glaze was gone from his blue eyes. "There's not a thing I can do about the beer, but if you behave yourself and do as your told, I can arrange the hot soak tomorrow."
"Thank you ma'am," he said softly. "I'll look forward to it."
She shook her head at his obvious attempt at charm. "Good night, gentlemen." She turned on her heel and left the room leaving the door open.
Scott settled into the chair and dropped a book into his lap as Murdoch swallowed his relief. "You rest and I'll see you in the morning."
"I'll be here," Johnny said wearily, his eyes heavy with exhaustion.
Murdoch hesitated before gently pulling the covers up around his sons' shoulders. He looked over at Scott who was making himself comfortable for the night.
"I'm just next door," he reiterated.
Scott nodded, understanding his fathers concern. As Murdoch left the room and pulled the door shut behind him, Scott got up and brought the lamp around to the other side of the bed and sat back down. "Do you want me to read to you?"
Johnny didn't respond and Scott realized his brother had already drifted back to sleep.
It was late, or very early when Scott woke with a start. Worried that his brother's fever had returned he sprang to his feet to check on his patient. The leather-bound book he'd been reading thumped to the floor.
Johnny rolled over and groggily looked up at his brother. "Do you mind," he grumbled. "Some of us are trying to sleep."
Scott mumbled his apologies.
Johnny squirmed around and fumbled with the blankets.
"I'm cold." Johnny struggled to wrap the covers over himself.
Scott got up and opened a chest at the foot of the bed and pulled a heavy quilt from inside. He shook it open and then gently covered the younger man.
Johnny shifted under the new weight to get comfortable. "I can…" he paused as if unsure of his next words.
Scott perched on the edge of the bed afraid Johnny would simply decide it was too hard to say what needed saying.
"I can still feel their hands on me. Whompin' on me. Kickin' me." Johnny regretting the words as they left his mouth.
"Shove over." Scott pushed a pillow against the headboard and stretched his long legs down the length of the bed. "They're in jail you know, they can't hurt you any more."
Johnny snorted out his disagreement. "Ain't you ever been hurt by somethin' other than fists?"
"Certainly." Scott let himself relax into the big bed, his back relishing the soft feather mattress after attempting to sleep in the stiff chair, but his mind whirled. "Did they say something to you? Did they say why?"
Johnny huddled deeper under the covers aware that he was cold from the inside. "It don't matter."
Scott rolled onto his side and gently touched a strand of hair that stuck up, dark against the sun-bleached pillowcase. "It matters to me."
"Sometimes, growing' up, it was hard to be half gringo in a Mexican border town."
Scott nodded his understanding, words thick in his throat.
"Sometimes, it's just as hard to be half Mex in a gringo town."
Scott closed his eyes against the pain of his brothers' words.
"Johnny…" The light from the moon cast Johnny's face into shadow, making it hard for Scott to see his brother's face clearly, but he could tell that the younger man was observing him.
"I liked that about you right off. You don't judge people by what you see." Johnny traced a pattern on the quilt between them that only he could see.
Scott longed to still the hand; instead he kept his voice soft and low, not allowing any of the anger he felt to color his tone. "In the war I met a lot of different people. People of "high birth" with no backbone at all, "common folk" that were the bravest, most heroic people I'd ever met. As well you know, when there are bullets whizzing past your head, color and breeding don't mean a hell of a lot."
Despite the darkness, Scott could see his brother nod.
"On that stage," Scott smiled, "the day you mussed my clothes," that brought a snort of amusement from Johnny at the shared joke, "I met a man I learned to like. Not a 'mex' or a 'gringo'. Just a man. Don't let their words hurt, Johnny."
"You're a good man, Scott Lancer." Johnny barely whispered the words.
"And so are you, little brother." Finally, unable to think of anything else, Scott took the restless hand in his own and stilled its frenetic movements.
Johnny squeezed the fingers that wrapped around his hand. "Night, brother."
Scott gently squeezed back. "Good night, brother."
Scott awoke again just as the sun was turning the sky a dusty shade of pink, blinking the unfamiliar room into focus. Johnny was sprawled across the width of the bed and Scott found himself clinging to the side. He swung his feet softly to the floor and fumbled for a loaned robe tossed over the back of a chair.
"Help me up," he heard from behind him.
Johnny had pushed the covers down past his knees and was struggling to sit up.
"Just where do you think you're going?"
"The privy," Johnny said with a halfhearted growl, attempting to get his bare feet on the floor.
"There's a perfectly good pot under the bed." Scott replied even as he felt Johnny take a hold of his arm and lever himself up.
"No. Come on, lend a hand." Johnny pulled himself to his feet and stood swaying for a moment as his head and stomach lurched. He heaved two deep breaths and then grinned over at his brother.
"Proud of yourself, are you?" Scott muttered.
Johnny's grin only grew. Scott was amazed at how much the swelling had gone down and although Johnny's skin was a myriad of colors, his features were recognizable again. "I won't be so proud if I piddle on the carpet. Let's go."
Reluctantly, Scott helped his younger brother into a robe that hung a little too long and drug on the floor. Lending an arm as support they made their way, in a slow, shuffling pace down to the little room at the end of the hall with indoor plumbing.
It took a few minutes before Johnny reappeared. Scott leaned his brother against the wall with a stern warning to wait for him, and then used the room himself.
Johnny was still waiting when he came out, with a fine sheen of sweat covering his brow. The excursion had turned the pallor of his skin under the bruises a pasty gray.
"How I ever let you talk me into these things is beyond me." Scott muttered angrily as Johnny leaned on him more heavily on the trip back to his room.
But when Johnny sat back down on the edge of the bed he had a smile of satisfaction, despite his weariness. "You won't tell Miz Barkley, will you? I still want that hot soak."
Scott shook his head, but had to smile. "You stay in that bed until breakfast and I won't say a thing."
"Say a thing about what?" Victoria half knocked as she entered and pushed the door the rest of the way open.
Johnny blushed scarlet and Scott found himself amused at his brother’s discomfort. The younger man was not adept at deceit, more likely to blurt out the first thing that came to mind, but it was obvious at this moment, there was nothing that he could think to say.
His back still turned to the older lady, Scott smirked down at his younger brother as he leaned over to swing Johnny's legs off the floor and under the blankets, still swaddled in the heavy robe. Scott tucked his brother in and stepped back, "Look how much better he looks this morning, Mrs. Barkley," Scott smoothly changed the subject.
With a graceful step she came to the edge of the bed and looked down at her patient. She noticed his slightly flushed pallor, raised by his journey down the hall and back, and the drop of sweat that ran from his brow down the side of his cheek. She had seen the end of the trip down the hall and with barely masked disapproval she mildly replied, "Oh, yes, so much better." But the blue eyes looking up at her were clear and bright and had a sparkle of mischief.
"I'm going to get dressed and then I'll bring you up some breakfast." With a quick flick of her wrist she tugged the quilt back into place.
"I can come down," Johnny said with little hope of it happening.
Mrs. Barkley planted one fist on her hip and chidingly shook a finger at the younger man. "I don't think so, sir. You'll stay put, understand?"
Johnny ducked his head and looked up at her through dark lashes, "Yes, ma'am. I understand."
Murdoch had come into the room and leaned one square shoulder against the doorjamb. "Victoria, that's a trick you will have to teach me. It's been quite a chore keeping my boys in bed when they've been injured."
She stepped closer to him and had to look up into the face of the man who was a good foot taller than her. "Then don't let them get injured. It's much easier that way." She patted his arm with parental understanding that there was no way to keep their children safe.
Murdoch and Scott had every intention of sitting at Johnny's bedside the entire day, but Nick was at his most persuasive and boredom at watching the younger man sleep finally turned the tide. A morning of inactivity was more than either man could stand, and knowing that Johnny was in the very capable hands of Mrs. Barkley and her daughter Audra allowed them to slip outdoors with only slight pangs of guilt.
Johnny woke at mid morning and convinced Mrs. Barkley that he was deserving of his soak. She helped him down the hall to a room whose sole purpose was for taking a bath. Copper pipes brought hot water up from a tank in the kitchen that was heated to boiling with a wood stove. The porcelain tub sat against one wall and was surrounded by shelves lined with oils and powders. Large green plants in white painted vases helped to soak up the moisture from the steam. The Italian tile floor was covered in thick, soft cotton rugs.
Johnny stood patiently as Mrs. Barkley adjusted the flow of water from the two spigots and hung two pale blue towels over one of the copper pipes. She poured a handful of orange powder into the water and gave it a quick stir with her hand. The familiar scent of sandalwood filled the air.
Waiting until she left, he let the robe drop to the floor and grabbing the borrowed nightshirt in his swollen fists and dragged it over his head. It was hard to get his aching muscles to obey his wishes, but he finally got his legs up and over the edge of the large tub and lowered himself into the warm water. The water lapped against his chest as he laid his head back to rest against the lip of the tub letting the warmth soak away the pain in his muscles and joints. A rolled towel behind his neck and a cool cloth over his eyes helped him to drift off to sleep. He woke when the water started to cool, but he simply let some of it drain out and then filled it again with hot water. Mrs. Barkley knocked once on the door to make sure he hadn't drowned but he told her he was fine and continued to soak and sweat the last of the laudanum from his system. He was so relaxed and comfortable after his soak that it took some effort to get out of the tub and dry himself off.
The towels that had been lying over the hot water pipes were warm and soft. Bending over to dry his legs made his head pound and was grateful that there was a chair in the corner for him to sit on. It took him a few minutes before the nausea passed and he could get back into his nightshirt. He towel dried his hair, using his fingers to comb the dark locks into some reasonable semblance of order before wrapping himself in the over sized bathrobe.
It took all his strength to make it back to the room completely unaware of his hostess hovering at the far end of the hall. Trailing his fingers he admired the rich gold-flocked wallpaper. He had to stop occasionally to lean heavily against the wall when he found his breath deserting him. But his spirits soared as he made his way back to his room. Finally he was doing things for himself and he grinned as he rubbed his stubbled chin. He thought about a shave, but it was a transient thought. Sitting on the edge of the bed he felt his eyelids growing heavier. After his long soak he felt like his bones had gone soft, so he let himself lay back, sinking into the soft mattress and was instantly asleep.
He woke three hours later very hungry and covered with a blanket. The bedside table held a covered plate with a large piece of apple pie on it. He ate it quickly, licking the residue off his fingers fully aware that he’d never heard anyone enter the room.
Mrs. Barkley came in a few minutes later with a small blue china teapot filled with a sweet tea designed to ease his aches. He had resisted the tea at first, but when he realized it was that or the laudanum, he accepted the tea. It didn't kill the pain or make him groggy, but it did seem to take the edge off. She set up a table near the window so that he could look out the window while he ate as Silas brought up a plate of sliced meats, fresh baked bread and a small bowl of diced fruit. It didn't pass his notice that all the foods brought to him were soft and easily eaten with his fingers, but it was plentiful and delicious and he ate his fill. It wasn't long until his head was nodding and he crawled back between the sheets to sleep until supper.
Scott came in with the setting sun and sat lightly on the edge of the bed as Johnny rolled over and stretched. "Morning," Scott said with a grin.
"Did you have fun playing gentlemen rancher today?" Johnny asked with a certain longing in his voice.
"This is a well run spread." The admiration was obvious in Scott's light tone. "They are quite diversified and quite successful. Nick has some very innovative ideas." He shifted back on the bed, resting his back against the corner post at the foot of the bed. He was glad to see his brother moving with a little more ease. "He's a bit brash for my taste, but we could learn a lot from him."
Johnny had to smile. "He seems," Johnny remembered all the times he'd seen Nick in his room, "very tall."
Scott laughed and crossed his arms over his chest. "He is. So, how are you feeling?"
"Sick of that question. I think I'm about ready to get up."
Scott patted his brother's leg and watched as the younger man fidgeted. "I'll have to talk Mrs. Barkley, but I wouldn't get my hopes up."
Johnny reached around and pushed a pillow up against the headboard and sat up straighter. He wiggled his toes under the covers. "I'm tired of being in this bed."
"You look better though."
"Miz Barkley's been feeding me like I'm up as the prize goose at the county fair."
"Are you complaining?"
"No," Johnny said with a chuckle. "I'd just like to eat with the rest of you." He plucked at the nightshirt he was wearing, "and I'd like to get into some clothes, and get up and walk around, and…"
"Johnny my boy, I'm just glad you're up to griping and moaning." Scott reached out and grabbed the wiggling toes.
"I'm so glad that I'm making you happy," Johnny's tone was sarcastic but light.
Audra Barkley swept into the room in a swirl of brushed cotton and silk. The blue of her gown set off the vivid blue of her eyes. Her blonde hair hung long down her back tied off her face with only a small blue silk ribbon.
"Scott, supper's ready," she said with a breezy air. "Johnny, mother wants to know if you want coffee or tea with your meal."
Scott grinned up at the stunning young woman in the doorway. "Buttermilk," he answered for his brother.
"Really?" she said with a smile. "I'll go tell her." She swept from the room with a warm smile and a swish of silk.
"You poor boy, having to suffer through a day with only her for entertainment." Scott laughed. "However did you manage?"
"She's a pretty little filly, ain't she?"
"Gentlemen, I'm not sure this is the most appropriate topic of conversation." Both men jumped and turned to see their father standing in the doorway. His arms were crossed over his chest, but he was amused at the embarrassment on his sons' faces. Aware of their discomfort he changed the subject. "How you feeling, son?"
"Much better, thanks." Johnny tugged up on the covers, but with Scott sitting on them, they didn’t budge. "They got a big ol' tub indoors with hot and cold running water. I will personally give up six months pay if we can get one put in."
Murdoch had to laugh at that thought. Johnny was already notorious for not drawing his pay. He often went a whole month drawing only enough to stake him in a Saturday night poker game. "I'll check out the bath if it'll make you happy."
Johnny tipped his head down and looked up at his father, the sooty lashes almost the same color as the bruises around his eyes, "It was wonderful, soaking neck deep in hot water that never seemed to get cold."
"Sounds like a small slice of heaven," Scott agreed.
"Gentlemen," Victoria came in with a covered tray, "You have a few minutes before supper is on the table to get cleaned up."
Scott nodded to the tray. "There goes any hope of you coming downstairs to eat."
"Heavens no. If you're lucky you'll be up for breakfast." Victoria frowned.
Both Murdoch and Scott left while Johnny tried to peek under the silver lid to see what he'd been brought. His jaw still ached and his appetite wasn't back to where it used to be, but he was improving quickly and Mrs. Barkley's varied and un-broth like menu was a big reason for his improvement.
Victoria made light conversation while he ate and gratefully drank down that glass of cold buttermilk. He smiled as he handed the glass back to her to put on the tray.
"Buttermilk's my favorite." A childlike grin slid across his face.
"The only one of my sons that will drink it is Heath."
"Wasn't something I had much growing up, maybe that's why I like it so much." Johnny fiddled with his napkin for a moment before carefully folding it into a square and then putting it on the tray.
"Murdoch mentioned it took a long time to track you down. Where did you grow up?" She'd heard most of this tale from her husband, but it was always good to get the information from the horse’s mouth.
"Grew up in the border towns mostly. Here and there." His blue eyes narrowed and Victoria was quite aware that he was trying to see how she would accept the information.
"I've heard some stories that they were wild and woolly places." She cocked her head slightly and it was her turn to judge his reactions. She was pleased to see that her answer wasn't what he expected, but she hadn't expected how warm his laugh was.
"That is certainly one description."
She leaned in, as if the information she was going to impart was a close kept secret. "I wasn't born in this house, you know. I came west in the early days, pushed cattle right along side my husband. I've bellied up to the bar and drank my whiskey straight from the bottle. Don't let this silk dress fool you, boy. I've seen my share of high riders and low lifes."
"Miz Barkley, I learned a long time ago, a strong woman is God's most perfect creation."
"For someone so young, you are very wise." They shared a conspiratorial laugh.
"Miz Barkley, can I get up and come down for breakfast tomorrow?" He tilted his head down and looked up at her in like a lost little boy. It was a look he practiced on bar maids and innkeepers and had perfected on Teresa.
It fell woefully short of the mark with his nurse. "Don't try that look on me, my boy. I have four sons, and there isn't a trick in the book I haven't seen." He mock pouted for a moment and then couldn't help but grin. Where the pout had failed the smile succeeded. "I think we'll give it a try in the morning. If you can get up and get dressed, you can come down to breakfast. But, don't think for a moment it goes any further than that. You'll be resting for the day on the downstairs sofa."
Inwardly he was touched by her concern for his welfare. Outwardly he rolled his eyes as if being greatly put upon. "Yes ma'am."
"I'm going down for my supper now. Is there anything you'd like before I go?"
She shook her head. "I'm not overly fond of "ma'am", why don't you call me Victoria?"
He cocked his head to one side and smiled at the familiarity, "Thank you ma'am, uhm, Victoria, uhm, ma'am."
They both laughed and she picked up the tray. "Here." She tossed a dime novel on the bed. "It's one of Nick's. I thought you might enjoy it."
He studied the drawing of a cattle stampede carefully before reaching over to turn up the lamp and settle against the pillows. He barely noticed her pulling the door shut on her way out.
Murdoch held Victoria's chair out for her as they all took their places around the table. "I can't express how grateful we are that you would open your home to us and nurse my son."
She patted his hand. "Don't be silly. We love having you here, we just all wish it were under better circumstances."
Dinner was again a lively affair. Jarrod told tales of town that were only one step above gossip. Victoria and Audra filled Scott and Murdoch in on Johnny's rapid recovery. And then Nick began with his dealings of the day.
During the day Murdoch had pared off with Nick to observe the running of the ranch. Scott had found that he and Heath, the younger, quieter brother got along very well.
The after dinner conversation consisted of improving and expanding the orchard at Lancer. Murdoch was against it, and so was Heath. On the other side were Nick and Scott as they discussed expansion, new markets, and using the train to ship to San Francisco and points north.
The discussion got quite lively for a while and Jarrod took up his usual role of moderator. Again, after supper, they had moved from the dining room into the game room and the debate took on more scope over a game of pool.
Eventually it was decided that nothing could be decided until Nick and Heath had a chance to come up and look the area over. They were quickly invited and agreed to come up that fall to look at the orchard. "And the vineyard," Scott hastily added.
Nick roared with laughter as Murdoch sputtered. "We are not going into the wine making business, Scott Lancer, so just put it out of your mind." Murdoch sipped at his coffee. "I work with a very fine vintner that keeps me well supplied."
"No vision," Scott muttered, not quite under his breath.
Nick wasn't quite sure just how irritated the older man really was, so he offered drinks and changed the subject. "Scott, do you want to go with Heath to mend fence tomorrow, or with me to check on the summer water?"
Scott took a seat on the settee across from Victoria and Audra and rested his drink on his knee. "I'll go with Heath." He looked over at the blond cowboy who was nodding in agreement. "It's Johnny's job to muck ponds, and I'll continue to leave that to him."
"I don't have any intention of actually mucking the ponds." Nick handed two drinks to Jarrod before taking his own drink and leaned against the edge of his black walnut desk. "I just look at them and decide which one to get Heath to do next week."
"Don't think he's kidding," Heath added with a dramatic sigh. "I don't know who did this work before I got here."
Jarrod clucked his tongue in mock sorrow and passed his blond brother the second glass. "Nick fired three hands after you came here. You've been great for payroll expenses."
Heath looked shocked and glared at Nick, who only burst out laughing. Jarrod could see the confusion clearly written on Scott face. He put his drink down and turned his attention fully to their guest.
"Heath only came to live here about seven months ago."
Scott kept his features bland as if the interesting news was of no importance. "So, Murdoch, how many hands did you let go when Johnny and I arrived?"
Murdoch addressed Scott with all seriousness, "If you'll remember we were already short handed when you arrived. I just didn't hire back quite as many."
Scott spoke conspiratorially to Heath, "I smell trickery in the air."
Heath leaned over toward Scott. "It smells more like skunk to me." Heath realized suddenly that Scott had deftly changed the subject and he hadn't had to tell the story of his not having been raised on the Barkley Ranch.
Scott downed his drink and hoped to swallow some of his curiosity at the same time. "I'd like to check on Johnny before I turn in, so I'm going to say my good nights."
A chorus of good nights met him as he rose. He'd made it half way up the stairs when he heard his name called, "Scott." He turned to see Heath at the bottom of the stairs. "I don't know if you know the story…" Heath seemed tongue-tied.
Scott came down two of the steps until they were closer and patted the younger man on the shoulder, "It's a story for another time, maybe tomorrow, when we're digging post holes, if you feel like it. But it doesn't seem like something that needs to be dragged out in front of everyone." Scott was again reminded on how much this blond cowboy reminded him of his brother. Not in looks, but something less tangible. A certain something that lingered in their eyes.
"Tomorrow then," Heath agreed with a soft smile that only turned up one corner of his mouth.
Scott continued up the stairs and peeked in on this brother. Johnny was curled up on his side, fast asleep, a book open on the floor beside the bed where it must have fallen. Scott soft footed his way into the room and silently picked it up and looked at the vivid cover. He suppressed a chuckle at the dramatic tale, turned down the lamp to the barest glimmer, and with an unguarded look of concern at his brother's battered features, he quietly left the room.
Scott woke early when he heard his bedroom
door open. Pushing himself upright against the headboard he scrubbed
his hand over his face. When he blinked his eyes open he saw his
brother leaning heavily against the doorjamb, dressed only in a nightshirt.
"What are you doing out of bed?" Leaping out from under his warm blankets
he quickly covered the distance between the bed and the door and grabbing
his brother's elbow led the younger man across the highly polished oak
floor. Scott lifted the bright quilt he'd recently been sleeping
under and indicted with a tilt of his head for the younger man to slide
Johnny refused to climb into his brother's bed, no matter how inviting it looked at the moment, and tugged his elbow out of his brother's grasp. "Help me get dressed." A fine sheen of sweat had broken out over Johnny's brow, but he had no intention of letting his goal of going down to breakfast slip through his fingers because of an overprotective older brother.
"I think you should stay in bed another day." Scott frowned but stepped back so he could get a better look at his brother.
Johnny took a deep breath, and while wiping a hand across his forehead, looked up at Scott with clear eyes. "Come on, don't hog tie me."
Scott shook his head. "One of these days I'm going to learn how to say no to you."
Realizing that he'd succeeding in pleading his case, Johnny's humor rose with his spirits. "What fun would that be?"
"Fun for you or for me? Because I'm really not sure I'm having fun." Scott frowned but shucked off his nightshirt and hastily pulled on tan trousers.
Johnny decided to sit on the bed after all and leaned back on one elbow. "You're having fun. It just ain't fancy back east fun."
Scott's tone was exasperated as he hastily buttoned up his shirt and tucked in the tails, "If this is what you westerners call fun, I can do without it." He took two long strides and came over to the edge of the bed and held out one hand to haul his brother to his feet. Scott took advantage of their close proximity to examine the younger man.
Johnny briefly swayed and closed his eyes but quickly reopened them and flashed his older brother a grin. The swelling in his face was gone and the bruises were fading from their vivid purples and blues to more rich shades of yellow and green.
But it was a light in the younger mans eyes that convinced Scott that he needed to let his brother continue with his quest. It never failed to amaze him how much energy his brother had, even when life was giving him a swift kick. In this case it was a literal kick, and still Johnny was anxious to get up and get back in the fight.
"Didn't know you studied doctoring in that college of yours," Johnny said with a grin.
Scott frowned. "I didn't."
"Well with the examination you been giving me I figured it might be your next job." Johnny didn't wait for a response, but turned toward the door.
"I thought about it, but I didn't want a job that keeps me away from home nights."
For half a minute Johnny thought his brother was serious, but the more he thought about it the sillier it seemed. A single bark of a laugh passed his lips and Scott joined in with a deep, warm chuckle of his own.
They made their way to the bedroom next door and Scott pulled some clothes from a large bureau that stood between the two floors to ceiling windows. Johnny's own clothes had to be cut from his body after the beating and were somewhere being mended. For now Scott helped Johnny slip into a pair of black jeans and then got a blue chambray shirt out of the drawer.
Johnny attempted to fasten the shirt but his fingers, still swollen, couldn't manage the buttons. Gently Scott slapped the younger man's hands away and did the buttons up quickly, muttering under his breath about the folly of youth. Johnny did manage to tuck in his shirttails and fumbled with the bigger brass buttons of his fly. He stopped his futile attempts with a sigh. Their eyes met before Johnny turned his head away to stare, red faced out the window.
Frantically Scott searched his mind for some topic of discussion that he could use to break the tension as he stepped in closer and swiftly worked the buttons through the holes. They were both embarrassed by the time he was finished. Finally it was over and Scott took a step back and fumbled for a moment with his own cuff buttons.
"Well, that couldn't have been much worse." Johnny grunted out as he ran his fingers through his unruly hair.
Scott grinned as he picked up a knick-knack that sat on the dresser. "Let's not talk about it and pretend it didn't happen."
"Fine by me." Johnny looked down at his new borrowed clothes, running his hands over the fresh washed cotton. They were a good fit and he felt better out of a nightshirt and dressed for the first time in almost a week.
Johnny reached for his boots, but Scott jerked them away swiftly, tossing them back under the bed. He put a pair of thick, warm socks into the startled man's hands. "Don't tempt your luck. You'll only get these boots back when I'm positive you're well and not one minute before. Do you understand me?"
"Yes mother." Johnny's voice dripped with sarcasm and then continued on in a teasing tone. "The fact that I been taking care of myself for twenty odd years don't mean a thing. I can't go outside until my big brother says it's okay."
"That just about sums it up, little brother." Scott said with a smirk, "I'm gonna get you well if it kills you."
Johnny frowned, planting his hands on his hips in mock indignation. "With a bedside manner like that it's no wonder they didn't let you become a doctor." He made his way to the door and headed down the stairs.
"I didn't go to medical…" Scott started, but realized that if he didn't hurry Johnny was going to leave him behind.
Scott caught up with his brother at the top of the curving staircase that led to the front foyer. Its wide steps were covered in the same thick carpet from the hallway and curved down in a golden half circle.
Johnny's right hand clung to the highly polished oak banister in a white-knuckled grip. He took a shuddering breath and looked over at Scott. "It's a long way down."
"Johnny, are you sure you're up for this?" His blue eyes narrowed in concern, but Johnny nodded and swallowing down his anxiety he took the first step.
Scott hovered at Johnny's side all the way down, concern and pride warring with each other as he watched his brother's slow, deliberate descent.
Each step was a jarring reminder of how long he'd been bed ridden. Johnny made his way to the bottom of the stairs and sucked in a deep breath. The foyer swam in and out of focus so he sat on the bottom step. Closing his eyes he took two more deep, powerful breaths and then grinned over at his brother, very proud of his accomplishment.
"How are you feeling?" Scott waited another minute before helping Johnny to his feet and leading him toward the dining room.
"Like a new born colt, a little wobbly but rarin' to go."
Together they made their way down the short hallway that opened into a large sunlight dining room. The table was set with fine bone china on a cream-colored tablecloth. Scott pulled out a chair and Johnny sank into it gratefully. He propped his elbow on the table and rested his forehead in his hand and closed his eyes as another bout of vertigo swept over him. At that moment all he could hear and feel was his own breath and his heart pounding in his ears. He tried to concentrate on keeping his stomach from rolling. He looked up when he felt a tap on his shoulder and a plate of scrambled eggs was put before him.
He blinked his eyes as he realized that many of the other chairs which had been empty when he sat down, were now full. Victoria sat the end of the table closest to the widow. The morning sun lit her from behind making her silver hair glow like a halo. It was hard to miss the look of worry in her eyes, so he flashed her a sheepish grin. Turning away he looked the other side table only to see a warm smile directed his way.
Across from him sat Audra Barkley. She was barely eighteen years old and still a mix of woman and girl. She was gracious and demure but Johnny had seen her strength and been on the receiving end of her quick wit. She had long blonde hair that she wore loose down her back like Teresa did and cornflower blue eyes. She was obviously doted on by her older brothers, but she was by no means shy and retiring. She was outspoken and liked to be included in the conversations. As Johnny's nurse she spent many hours by his bedside, reading to him and keeping him informed as to what was going on with the ranch business.
"Now that'll make a man feel better." He didn't realize he'd spoken out loud until he heard Murdoch clear his throat and Scott gave him a swift yet gentle kick under the table, while Audra blushed prettily.
Nick and Heath were sitting across from each other discussing a road project that needed to be seen to. Jarrod came in a moment later, giving his mother a quick peck on the cheek and going over to the heavily laden sideboard and filling his plate. When he'd taken his seat Victoria said grace.
Jarrod picked up the conversation, "Well, you're looking much better than the last time I saw you."
"Have we met?" Johnny asked before he forked a helping of eggs into his mouth. He chewed slowly trying to keep the ache in his jaw from killing his appetite.
Jarrod nodded as he cut his steak into small pieces. "I'm not surprised you don't remember me. You were a little worse for wear at the time."
"Sorry, I don't recall."
"It's really not important. What is, is that you're looking better. I’m Jarrod."
Murdoch began further introductions, "You remember Nick, don't you?" Johnny nodded as he buttered some toast. "And this is Heath."
"How do," Johnny said as he reached for a cut crystal bowl of jam.
"Howdy." Heath twisted his napkin as he looked across the table. "You look familiar to me." His tone was distant as if he were trying to place just where they might have met.
It caught Johnny's attention and he studied Heath's face, considering the possibility that they might have met before. "I saw you at the auction the day…I thought you looked familiar, too. We musta crossed paths somewhere along the way."
"Heath grew up in Strawberry." Audra jumped into the conversation with a lively air. "It's a mining camp east of here."
Johnny shook his head. "No, I don't recall Strawberry."
"It's more of a ghost town than anything these days." Heath continued in his slow drawl. "I don't think that's where I remember you from."
"Mother said Johnny used to live down near the border. You were down that way after the war, weren't you Heath?" Audra was determined to solve this mystery now. Her favorite brother and this poor battered cowboy may have known each other in both their wandering pasts.
Heath nodded his head. "Texas a bit and the Arizona Territory."
Johnny shrugged one shoulder. "Been both those places, and most every place between here and there."
"How are you at book work?" Nick reached across the table for the coffeepot, absently changing the subject. "It might give you something to do while being laid up."
"Nick!" Victoria reproached. "Johnny’s a guest."
"We'll, I'd rather clean a chicken coop than do bookwork." Johnny looked up to see both his father and brother nodding in agreement with this fact, but they were both smiling. "But I can add a column or two." Johnny pushed his eggs around his plate before taking another bite.
"What you need is rest, young man. And Nick can do his own book work." Victoria glared at Nick down the length of the table, but he only laughed.
"Nick will do almost anything to avoid doing it," Jarrod said with a grin and Murdoch nodded with sympathy.
"I understand completely. I think these sons of mine work extra hours just to get out of doing it."
"Johnny, my boy, we've been found out," Scott added with mock-horror.
"Lincoln County!" Heath said abruptly. "There was a range war. You were there."
Johnny put his fork down and turned all his attention to the blond cowboy on the other side of the table. His right hand dropped to his hip even before he realized that he wasn't wearing his gun.
"You didn't go by Lancer then."
Johnny nodded, "and you didn't go by Barkley." He, too, remembered the other man.
"You're a gunfighter. You're Johnny Madrid." Heath pushed back his chair and glared across the table.
A slow, easy smile played across Johnny's face and if they had been anyplace else Scott would have gotten out of the line of fire. Instead Johnny turned sideways in his chair and hooked his left arm over the chair rail.
"Retired gunfighter," Murdoch put in, but it was easy to feel the atmosphere in the room had changed.
Audra's confused gaze went from one face to the other as the two men stared hard at each other.
"Murdoch?" Victoria tried to ensure her tone was neutral.
"I don't hide the fact, Miz Barkley." Johnny answered before Murdoch had a chance, but his tone had turned cold. "Ain't like it's against the law or nothing."
Heath got to his feet, but Johnny stayed seated. If he'd had his gun this might have turned very ugly very quickly.
"You're a hired killer." Heath snapped out.
"And just what were you doing at that little fracas? Hiring your gun out, wasn't it? Got yourself back shot if I remember right. What are you upset about? That I was a gunfighter, or that I was better at it then you were?"
"Johnny!" Both Murdoch and Scott censured at the same time.
"Heath," Nick growled a warning.
"Sit down, Heath," Jarrod said firmly.
Heath paused, thinking hard, as all eyes turned to him. He realized that the dark haired gun fighter was still pinning him with his eyes, that annoying little smile still on his lips. Heath sat heavily and scooted his chair up to the table, his eyes fixed firmly on his plate.
Johnny turned back in his chair and looked over at his hostess. "You want me to go, Miz Barkley, you just say the word. I could travel if need be."
Her mind whirled; her first instincts were to get this dangerous man out of her house, away from her daughter and sons. But her next thought was of Murdoch - an old and trusted friend, a business associate of both her late husband and her brother in law. But what convinced her was him. She looked into his face, the colorful bruising just now beginning to fade. There was a curious mixture of emotions flicking over his battered features. It seemed he was both resigned to his fate and hopeful for a second chance. She realized the table had gone silent as they waited for her to make a decision. "The furthest you're going to travel today is to the downstairs couch, young man." She saw not only his relief but also the relief on all the Lancer men's faces.
"Mother!" Heath let his dismay be known.
"Do you think Johnny is going to harm me, Heath?" She poured herself some coffee and silently offered it to Murdoch. "I think this is a discussion we can have tonight after supper, and one more day under our roof won't make any difference." Her tone made it clear that the conversation was closed.
Heath silently fumed into his plate before giving up and throwing down his napkin. He stormed from the room, leaving an awkward silence filling the space.
"I'd better go," Scott said abruptly. "I think he and I are working together today." He came to stand behind his brother and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Get some rest, will you?"
Johnny nodded, but kept his eyes focused on his plate.
Audra looked at each of the men at the table. Murdoch was silently glaring at his plate cutting and recutting his steak into tiny pieces. Nick was playing with his food, too. It was obvious he was hungry, but his emotions were conflicted as to stay with their guests and eat or make a show of support for his brother and go with him. Johnny had taken up eating as if the incident had never happened.
Jarrod was just as busy watching all of them as Audra was. Their eyes met across the length of the table and Audra could easily see the amusement lurking in her eldest brother's eyes. They grinned at each other. This was a fine kettle of fish and they had landed right in the middle of it.
"So, Nick, you never did tell me about the stock you got at the auction." Jarrod had effectively broken the ice. Having been asked a question about his beloved ranch Nick was eager to discuss the auction and filled the air with casual chatter.
Scott entered the barn in time to see Heath stuffing his saddlebags with pliers and small sections of wire and rope.
"Heath?" Scott watched the angry movements of the blond cowboy.
"You come to defend him?" Heath reached for the reins and backed his mount out of the stall.
"No. I was wondering if we were still working together? If you'd rather not, I'll understand." He made sure his tone stayed neutral.
"You gonna sing his praises?" Heath glared at the older cowboy. In the last few days he'd come to like the blond Lancer brother. Scott was calm and hardworking, reminding Heath so much of Jarrod, but not minding getting his hands dirty. "Gonna tell me how I just don't understand?
"I'd never underestimate you like that. I'd just like to …I don't know." Scott pursed his lips and realized that there was little he could say that might change Heath's mind. From where he stood he could see Heath's jaw working.
"First time you tell me how wonderful your brother is, I'll knock you off your horse and leave you afoot."
Scott nodded. "Fair enough." He quickly headed down to the next stall and got his mount.
Breakfast finished with a strained sense of normality. Johnny pushed his plate away and stared into his coffee cup.
Victoria realized that her charge was quickly becoming worn out from the morning's activities. "Johnny, would you like to try out the sofa in the front room or the game room?" She wasn't sure that she could read the expression that flicked across his face.
"Thank you Miz Barkley, but I think I'd like to go back to my room."
"Nonsense," Victoria pushed back her chair and got to her feet. "I think you've been cooped up in that room for far too long.” She tilted her head to one side and cocked an eyebrow, "I've got plenty to do today, and you're not going to slow me down making me go up and down those stairs."
He could tell she didn't intend to be argued with so he acquiesced with a shrug of his shoulders. "Yes ma'am," Johnny said and got to his feet. She took hold of his arm and let him escort her to the game room.
The dark paneled room had a good view of the corrals and it was such a fine day that she pulled open the double set of French doors and let a fresh breeze into the room. Johnny sat heavily on the couch, disappointed in the way his energy was leaving him in a rush. He leaned his head back and before he realized it, he was fast asleep.
Nick Barkley stood in the center of the foyer and pulled on his black gloves. Part of him wondered if it was a good idea to leave the gunfighter alone in the house with his sister and mother with only a few house servants as protection, but he really didn't think the young man meant any harm to his family. He swallowed down any feeling of apprehension he might have and reached out to grasp the door handle.
Murdoch strode into the foyer with his jacket in this hand and adjusted his gun belt on his hips. He met Nick's gaze almost as if daring the younger man to leave him behind.
Nick shrugged and led the way to the barn.
A few minutes later Nick spoke again as he mounted his chestnut gelding and waited for his father's friend to follow. "So, tell me about him."
Murdoch admired the muscled bay he'd been given to ride that morning, running his hands over the gelding's flanks, before pulling himself into the saddle. "Johnny?"
"No." Nick nudged his horse to a walk and went out through the whitewashed gate and onto the wide smooth road as Murdoch followed close behind. "Scott. He seems very strong-minded."
Murdoch laughed, "I guess you could say that. He’s…" He gazed out over the well-manicured property. "He is his mother's son. Strong, determined, level headed."
Nick smiled, "Sounds a lot like my brother Jarrod. Scott was in the cavalry, wasn't he?"
"Yes. Did you know him during the war?"
"No, can't say as I remember him, but I can't say it was a small club. During those four years there were an awful lot of officers in Lincoln's army."
The morning was clear and cool and Nick rubbed a gloved hand over his sleeve, brushing away the chill. He turned down another well-kept path and headed east, the opposite direction that Scott and Heath had gone just fifteen minutes earlier.
Murdoch tipped his hat down to keep the rising sun out of his eyes. "Since coming to Lancer, Scott's jumped into the running of the ranch with both feet. He's got a head for business, but I have to admit, he's a little naive about the west. He keeps expecting business to be done like it's done back east."
"Got a lot to learn about how we do things?"
"College boys. What are you going to do with 'em?" Nick said with mock-exasperation. "And Johnny?"
Murdoch pressed his lips together as he thought about his other son. "He reads people very well." He rubbed a big hand across the back of his neck. "Sometimes so well it's frightening. Other times, it's like all he sees is the good in people."
Nick cocked his head to one side. "Maybe he wants to see the good in people."
"I've decided the more I know about Johnny, the less I know about him."
"How so?" Nick clicked his horse into a mile-eating trot and Murdoch followed.
"Just when I think I have him figured out he goes and does something I don't expect. He follows my orders for weeks on end then suddenly goes off half cocked without even checking with me." The frustration in Murdoch's voice was obvious and Nick had to force down a chuckle. "Sometime I think I'll know just what he'll do in a situation and then he does just the opposite."
"So, he's the wild card in your deck?"
"Precisely," Murdoch said with venom.
"But isn't it good to have a wild card? Mother Nature is a practical joker and she loves to keep us guessing."
"Are you saying my son is force of nature?" Murdoch had to laugh at that thought, but then sobered abruptly. "You don't know him. I don't even know him."
"My father used to say that our country was based on the second chance. And the west is the most current example of that. People come west for just that chance." Nick glanced over at the older man riding beside him. "I guess the least we can do is give him that second chance."
Murdoch nodded with a grateful sigh. "Thanks, Nick. I know Johnny will appreciate it, and I know I do."
"Johnny?" Nick frowned, "It's not Johnny that needs a second chance. It's the Easterner." Nick grinned and he could see the older man relax. "They're starting to swarm over the countryside like locusts." Nick frowned and shook his head moaning forlornly, "What's a man to do?"
"Persevere, Nick, persevere." But Murdoch was thankful. His friend Tom Barkley had raised a fine family.
Scott and Heath spent the morning in a companionable silence. Heath was more than a little stung by Johnny's accusations of him being a hired gun, but Scott didn't press him to explain his feelings. They rode the fence line from the spring meadow eastward. They weren't out to build fence, just checking for problems. If a line had sagged they propped up the post, or if a wire broke they repaired it with the wire from their saddlebags.
They stopped in a meadow near a grove of oak trees. Scott watered the horses as Heath refilled their canteens. It wasn't a particularly hot day, but the slow moving across open fields with the sun on their shoulders was thirst inspiring.
Scott took in a huge lungful of air and savored the smells of warm grass and sunshine and dirt and smiled to himself. This was a spot that Johnny would like. The grove of trees was on a hill and he could see for miles before him. The main house was only a speck in the distance.
Heath came up beside him and took a sip of the fresh, chilly water before clamping the lid shut on his canteen.
"So," Scott started and he could see Heath stiffen. "You were going to tell me about how you only arrived here a short time ago."
Heath visibly relaxed and cocked his half smile. He found it amusing that he was relieved not to talk about the gunfighter but instead share his own sordid past. "You know Strawberry?"
"The mining town you mentioned."
"Twenty five years ago it was a going concern. A boomtown, and Tom Barkley had bought an interest in a mine. He came up one time to check on his investment and buy into some other mines. He got beat real bad and left for dead in an alley. My mother took him in and nursed him back to health. I don't know all the details, but he came back here and my mother never told him about me."
Scott listened silently, nodding his understanding.
"When I came here I wanted what was mine."
Scott nodded again. "Your birthright."
"It must have been hard," Scott said thoughtfully.
"You can say it," Heath said biting back on his bitterness. "It wasn't easy growing up as Tom Barkley's bastard."
Scott opened his canteen and took a long drink. "Did you spend your whole life in Strawberry?"
"Until the war. I joined at 16. Only served seven months before I got captured and ended up in Carterson."
"I'm sorry. I heard that place was a hole." Scott frowned. "I spent a year in Cahaba, myself." A heavy silence hung between them, shared memories of a time best forgotten.
Heath squatted and pulled a blade of tall grass and then released it into the wind. "My guess is you were an officer."
Scott frowned in mock seriousness. "It's the way I sit a horse that gives me away, isn't it?"
Heath chuckled. "Your diplomatic skills."
"Oh, those." Scott smirked, "I didn't learn those on the battle field. I learned those at school."
"School?" Heath flung a few more blades of grass into the air.
"I was the only boy whose father didn't want him."
Confusion was clearly written on Heath's handsome features.
"My mother died in childbirth and I was raised by my grandfather in Boston. But it's hard to explain to your friends why a boy with a father wasn't living with him. I was pretty angry, thinking he didn't want me. I think he did, it was just one of those horrible chain of events that don’t let things work out the way they should." Scott squatted down next to Heath and pulled out a blade of grass and twisted the long stem between his fingers. "I'm in no way trying to say that my life was anything like yours. Don't get me wrong. I've had it pretty good. Let’s just say maybe I can understand."
Heath nodded, "I think I follow you."
"Yeah, I can see where that might be hard."
Scott nodded, "and what about your mother?"
"She passed away a year ago last March."
"I'm sorry." Scott sat down on the grass and stretched his long legs out in front of him.
"She was…" the wistful smile was back, as Heath stretched out next to Scott, leaning back on one elbow. "She was patient and strong and gentle and kind." A mild blush turned the back of his neck red.
"Your description reminds me very much of Mrs. Barkley."
"It should, they are a lot alike." Heath pursed his lips. "She's been good to me, too, since I’ve been here. I think she was more willing to believe in me than Nick and Jarrod were."
"Murdoch says you look a lot like your father."
Heath turned to look Scott full on. "Don't you feel funny calling him Murdoch? I mean, it just seems …"
Scott shrugged. "I guess, but you can understand, I can't actually call him Pa, either."
"I don't think I could call Mother "Victoria". She's treated me like her own son since I got here. I'm not saying we haven't had our problems, but mostly it's been good."
"Certainly sounds like it has been good." Scott agreed and as Heath got to his feet and brushed grass off his pants, Scott followed more slowly. "Can you imagine what it might have been like if you didn't have your mother?"
"No. Her and my Aunt Rachel did more for me that I can say."
Scott got his horse and tugged the reins free from the low hanging tree branch. "I understand completely. Having my grandfather and my friends were a great help to me growing up." As Scott saw Heath nod in agreement he continued. "Johnny didn't have anybody."
Heath turned and glared at Scott with narrowed eyes.
"He was on his own since he was very young. He was working as a brush popper at ten down in Texas. I don't know how he got there or where he went from there." Scott shook his head, even as close as he and his brother had become Johnny was still tight-lipped about his youth. "He calls it living like an alley cat."
Heath's glare turned contemplative. He'd had more than his share of living rough, and the thought of doing it as a child sent a chill down his spine.
"I'm sure some of the choices he's made are not the same choices you and I would make," Scott continued. "But Johnny is a good man. You have to know him with out the reputation. And you have to admire the way he's trying to put it all behind him"
Heath tugged the reins free and mounted, thinking over the words Scott had said. Quickly Scott mounted up and trotted alongside. He said nothing more as he let his new friend think things over, the only sound in the air the soft plodding of their horses hoofs on the trail. They worked together for the rest of the afternoon and Johnny’s name was never brought up again.
Johnny awoke with a start. Coming to his feet he looked around trying to place unfamiliar surroundings. It took a half a minute before he remembered where he was and it took three deep breaths to calm his frantically beating heart. Hearing footsteps behind him, he spun in a crouch, his right hand reaching for his gun, realizing too late that he wasn't wearing it.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you." Victoria's hand came up to her throat as she recognized the instinctive threat.
"No, it's fine. I, um, was thinking of going out for a walk." He rubbed his sweaty palms down the side seam of his jeans. He was uncomfortable under her scrutinizing gaze and couldn't help but squirm.
She stopped her review as her gaze landed his socked feet. She cocked her head to one side and smirked openly.
He looked down and wiggled his toes and realized he'd been found out. "Scott says I can't go out without his permission." It was a comically forlorn statement.
Victoria's laugh was warm and reminded Johnny of spring sunshine. This time her smile was one of understanding. "He's just the tiniest bit protective of you, isn't he?"
A small smile slid across Johnny's bruised features until he was grinning. "Hardly at all."
"How about we go sit on the back porch and that way you won't need boots and you can still be outside."
"I don't want to interrupt your day. I can go sit out by myself."
Her cotton dress made soft ruffling sounds as she moved across the carpet and put her hand on his forearm. "The only thing you'll be taking me away from is writing a letter to my sister. And it is really no great interruption. I can do it tomorrow or the next day." She smiled up at him. "If I wait long enough she'll come for a visit and I can put off doing it entirely."
He smiled down at her, knowing full well she was accommodating him. His steps were a little hesitant and he had to stop once in the kitchen to catch his breath. She walked slowly out to the porch she matched his uneven steps keeping up a running conversation of trivial matters.
They sat in matching rocking chairs in the shade and looked out over the yard. Ranch hands were working at various jobs in the outbuildings and corrals, their voices and the sounds of their labor lending a familiar feeling. Three young women were working in the garden gathering vegetables for the evening meal, their laughter floating on the air as they went about their tasks.
Victoria pulled her mending from a small basket she kept near her chair for moments like this and began to thread a needle.
"It's nice out here." Johnny's voice was soft as he looked over all the grounds of the ranch he could see from the rocking chair.
"I like to come sit out here in the afternoons when the house starts to get stuffy and work where it's cool."
"I can see why."
She could hear the longing in his voice. His mind was sharp and clear, but his body wasn't up to getting back to work. She watched as he leaned against the back of the chair, but noticed that he didn't close his eyes.
They had fallen into a comfortable silence, so when his question broke the stillness it startled her. "How long have you known him?"
"My, uhm, Murdoch."
"My husband, Tom, knew your father before I did. They met moving cattle somewhere between here and Abilene." She bit off a thread and began to put on another button. "I met him just a few months before Scott was born."
"What was he like back then?"
She considered her answer carefully. "Not much different than he is now, and at the same time very different." She finished with the shirt she was working on and began with a new one. She expected him to question her, but when he didn't she felt the need to continue. "His hair was darker and his waistline was a little smaller.” Johnny chuckled softly. "He was still driven to succeed."
Johnny rocked back in the chair, his eyes sliding over to watch as the girls gathered their baskets and headed over to a covered portion of the yard to clean and prepare the vegetables.
Victoria finished the shirt and reached again into her basket. Heath was very hard on his cuff buttons and she was constantly reattaching them, and his shirts were most of what was in her basket, but this shirt wasn't his. It was a white shirt with tiny blue flowers. She held it up and saw that the sleeves had been slit up the seams and she realized that this was the shirt her young guest had been wearing the day he'd been so badly beaten. Every button down the front was missing and it was obvious the doctor had not bothered to take the time to unfasten them when he removed the shirt. It would take quite a bit of work to get it back to being wearable.
Johnny's gaze flicked over to the damaged shirt and then returned to the yard.
She continued the conversation where she'd left off after she’d sewn a few stitches. "Your father used to laugh a lot in those early days. Both he and Tom were a little wild. A little reckless."
"Well, youth and adventure tend to bring out the exuberance in a man."
Johnny shook his head, obviously not believing what he was hearing.
"They had every intention of setting the world on end. And maybe to some extent they did." Her tone turned a little wistful as she thought of some of the things her husband had succeeded in completing in the years they were married.
"Did you know Catherine?"
"We'd only corresponded by letters. I had Jarrod and Nick at home and in those days long distance travel wasn't as easy as it is now. And with Catherine expecting Scott and all…But she wrote some wonderful letters." She paused and turned her eyes upward. "I wonder if I still have them? Scott might enjoy them, don't you think?"
"I’m sure he would.” He paused and rocked back in the chair a few times before asking his next question. “What did you think of her?"
Victoria checked her seam to ensure it was lying flat and continued. "From everything I heard she was a very nice woman. But she was stubborn. Murdoch and Tom used to have some long conversations about their women and that they never did what was expected."
Johnny grinned. "You mean you didn't stay at home and quietly knit?"
Victoria laughed. "Of course I did, it just wasn't all I did. I understand she was beautiful and intelligent and charming."
"But you never met her?"
"No, I only corresponded with her."
"Did you like her from her letters?" For the first time since the conversation started, he looked at her.
"Yes, I liked her very much." Victoria smiled as he accepted the information with a firm nod.
They fell silent again; the only sound was the soft squeak of his rocking chair on the pine porch boards. Just when Victoria was convinced that Johnny had finally fallen asleep he asked another question. "Did you meet my mother?"
"Yes." She expected him to look at her, but he continued to stare out at the yard, his eyes following a robin that had landed on the grass. She waited for a minute expecting another question, but again when none came, she continued on. "She was beautiful, so vibrant and full of life. She had glossy black hair and…exotic eyes."
"Exotic?" This got the young man's attention and he shifted in his chair to face her.
"They were a deep mossy green, almost brown, but not quite. But that's not what I remember most about her."
"What was?" Johnny tried to sound casual, but failed.
"She had," Victoria's voice lowered as if divulging a secret, "the most perfect baby ever to walk the face of the earth." She sat back in her chair and watched a startled look flick across his face. "Never in the history of babies was there ever a sweeter, better baby."
A deep line creased between his dark brows as his forehead furrowed in confusion.
"She adored her son." Victoria leaned over and patted his arm. "She adored you."
It almost seemed like she was speaking a foreign language and he had no idea what she was talking about. She couldn't help but laugh at his confusion. "Nick was about six I think, when we took a trip up to your father's ranch. It was still a little rough. I fell in love with the house. The hacienda was being rebuilt, it had fallen into disrepair during the trouble Mexico had with Spain. The Don that built it had left long ago, and the successive owners didn’t care for it well. Tom was helping bring up a load of oak beams to replace some in the roof that had water damage. Anyway, we brought up the whole family for a visit. You were just barely born, and I thought I'd see what I could do to help. Maria was a little homesick, I think, and missed that her family couldn't be there. She was a beautiful woman."
"What was he like?"
She was surprised by the change of topic, but then realized it wasn't that big of a change. "He was spontaneous and outgoing and a little impulsive. I thought poor Maria was going to have a spell when your father took you out on horseback, but I told her it was just something men do. Tom did it with my boys, too. It does take a bit of getting used to. This tiny precious bundle held in the crook of the arm of a man six feet off the ground. You men have no idea what that does to us mothers." Her tone was a mix of amusement and exasperation.
"I'll keep it in mind," he said seriously.
"You do that," she mock scolded. "He was quite the proud papa. Of course Tom lorded over him with our boys. Jarrod was almost eight by then and Nick was six. It's so much easier to brag over boys that are walking and talking and helping out."
"What were they like together?" His tone was cautious, as though expecting bad news.
"Johnny," Victoria paused, so much of the man before her was still a boy who didn't understand what had happened to his childhood home. "I really don't…" she stopped herself. She did know a little. Her loyalties were divided between the boy beside her and her friend. Part of her felt it should be Murdoch telling him these things. But she'd seen them together. The long silences spoke more to her than any of the words they used. "You have to know that they were using their Sunday manners around us."
Johnny nodded, but scanned her face with his piercing blue eyes as though he might be able to read what she wasn't saying.
"Once, near the end of our stay your mother said to me that she thought Lancer was haunted. I laughed at first, thinking she was joking. How could such a beautiful house, in such a remarkable setting be subject to ghosts? But she looked so sad, saying that Catherine was still there, still in the house."
"Do you think he compared them?" He snorted and looked back out at the yard. "Of course he did. He still does, he compares me and Scott all the time." Sighing, Johnny shook his head.
"I think Murdoch fell in love with your mother because she was so very different from Catherine." Victoria searched for just the words she wanted, but they were elusive. "But that was the very reason they had such difficulties. When Catherine died, so did a part of your father. Maria brought him back to life, she showed him about laughter and loving and all those good things again."
"And squashed them flat when she left." This time he closed his eyes as he shook his head in dismay. It took him a minute to get to his feet, pushing himself up with none of his usual graceful movements. He first looked out over the yard then turned to face Victoria, "I'm tired, Miz Barkley. I think I need to go lay down."
She rose and stood next to him, gently laying a hand on his arm. "Don't dwell on what was, or what might have been, Johnny. The past, good and bad, makes us what we are today."
Johnny gave her a smile that almost reached his eyes and his left hand covered hers and gave it a pat. "You know that, and I know that, but what about Murdoch and Heath?"
"Murdoch knows, and Heath will come around. You'll see."
Patting her hand again, he moved back into the house with slow careful steps, his shoulders slumped with regret.
It was late afternoon and long shadows painted the ground in patterns of dark and light. Sitting in the window seat of his room Johnny pulled back the heavy curtain and watched as Audra Barkley rode down the road from town. He was amused to see that she had much the same attitude toward convention as Teresa had. She was dressed in a long black skirt that slit up the center to form a pair of wide legged trousers so that she could sit her horse astride. Her honey blonde hair hung long down her back, tied back with a black ribbon. He pulled the curtain back further and watched as she passed the reins of the chestnut mare to a ranch hand and then she moved out of his line of sight.
Looking off into the distance he could see two sets of riders meet up and head toward the corrals. Even from this far away he could easily recognize the way Scott sat a horse. His back straight, his seat strong, it was easy to see his cavalry training in the controlled way he managed the big animal he was riding.
He could recognize Murdoch, too. His big, square silhouette against the sun was hard to confuse with anyone else. He assumed the other two riders were Nick and Heath Barkley.
He wondered what had transpired out on the trail today and was certain he'd soon be asked to leave. His dark thoughts were broken by a shriek that was suddenly muffled. He leapt to his feet and raced to the dresser. In the second drawer was his gun and gun belt. Johnny muttered curses in four languages as his fingers fumbled with the buckle and tie down.
He didn't bother with his boots as he headed down the back stairs through the kitchen sliding slightly as he rounded the corner, and out on the porch.
A frantic gesture from Silas prompted him in the direction of the stables.
"Just toss down yer weapons. I don't want to hurt the girl," Wills Wade yelled as Johnny rounded the corner. Johnny recognized the voice as one of the men who had beaten him in that alley in town and his stomach clenched.
Wills' attention was shifting between Nick and Heath, who were standing together, and Scott and Murdoch, shoulder to shoulder only a few feet further away. None of them had noticed Johnny standing at the edge of the barn. Wills held Audra with one hand tangled in her blonde hair, the other held a stiletto knife at her throat. "Do it!"
Heath glanced at his older brother, his hands opening and closing into fists.
"Do it!" Wills shouted again, jerking Audra's head back, exposing more of her throat and wrenching a gasp of pain from her.
Nick nodded, and slowly released the small strap that kept his gun seated in the holster. Without making any sudden moves he dropped his revolver into the dust. A few seconds apart Scott and Murdoch's guns softly thudded into the dirt. Wills jerked Audra around in a quarter turn making her cry out again as he indicated to Heath. "You too, cowboy."
"Heath," Nick hissed, never taking his eyes off the man threatening his sister.
Heath's lips tightened into a grim line, but finally his revolver followed the others.
"Now, all of you back up a few paces," Wills shouted. "I don't want to hurt her, but I will. I just want the boy."
"What boy?" Nick asked, knowing full well who Wills wanted.
"That little chili bean. The one got me and Chase two years in prison."
"You got yourself two years, Wills, and you know it," Nick shot back. "And harming my sister won't make things any better for you."
"Get him. I know he's here. I want that …"
Before he could hurl another ugly epitaph Murdoch spoke up. "He's my son."
"Then you know where he is. Get him so's I don't have to make this pretty little girl not pretty."
"I'm here," Johnny said softly and Wills spun around again, keeping Audra in front of him like a shield. Johnny held his hands away from his body to present the smallest threat and indicated to Audra with a nod of his head. "You wanted me and here I am. Let the girl go.”
Wills frowned, as if now, having what he wanted, he wasn't quite sure what to do about it.
"No need to hide behind the girl. Let her go and we'll settle this, just you and me." Johnny kept his voice was soft and low.
"How do I know they won't get involved?" Wills eyed each one of the cowboys standing off to the side.
A half smile played around Johnny's lips as he moved forward slowly, directing Wills attention away from the others and back to himself. "Don't worry about them. This is just between you and me. Let go of the knife and the girl and then you can have a go at me. You're not afraid to take me on, are you?"
Wills glared and shoved Audra into the arms of her brother Heath. Heath folded her into a protective hug and turned her away from her captor. Wills held the knife out in front of him and pointed it at Johnny.
Johnny grinned at Wills. "You ain't seriously thinking of using that, are you?"
Nick frowned at Johnny's flippant attitude and glanced over at Scott, but Scott's gaze was firmly locked on the tableau before them.
At that moment, time both speeded up and slowed down. Wills threw the knife toward Johnny who turned sideways allowing the blade to pass him harmlessly and fall between Scott and Nick. While their attention was momentarily diverted to the object at their feet Wills reached for the revolver strapped to his hip.
Johnny did the same and two reports sounded within seconds of each other. Heath threw Audra to the ground, covering her body with his own. Murdoch dove to one side and Nick and Scott dropped to the ground.
But Johnny spun in a half crouch and fired into the darkness of the barn just as the roar from a shotgun ripped through the air. Johnny hurled himself into the dirt trying to avoid the spread of pellets.
Chase Wade fell heavily into the straw in the doorway of the barn.
Silence filled the air. Nick and Scott scrambled to their feet. Nick went to check on Heath and Audra as Scott edged over to his brother.
Johnny still held his gun in his hand, laying flat on his back, breathing heavily. "Make sure," he grunted out between gritted teeth.
Scott scrambled over to Wills and found the man groaning and clutching at a seeping hole in his chest. He picked up the fallen revolver and tossed it a few feet away. Wills moaned and grabbed at Scott's hand. Hastily, Scott pulled the bandana off from around his neck to press over the wound, already knowing it wasn't going to do any good. Wills coughed and blood covered his lips. The next cough was his last.
Murdoch had gone over to check on Chase. The shotgun had discharged both barrels and blue smoke still hung in the air. Chase was dead, his brown eyes staring blankly at the barn roof. A messy, bloody hole was directly through the man's heart.
Nick came over to Johnny and dropped down on one knee. With a quick movement he ripped open the buttons of the blue shirt and examined the bronzed chest before him. Five tiny wounds seeped blood from Johnny's side.
"Be carefully Nick, I like this shirt and your mother's gonna kill me if she has to fix another one."
Nick snorted and shook his head, his attention solely on the wound.
"Thought I'd gotten out of the way," Johnny said stiffly.
"You thought wrong," Nick said bluntly.
"It's not bad," Johnny said as he twisted to look down at his side. "Just help me up."
"I don't think so." Nick laid a hand on the younger man's chest and pinned him to the ground.
Johnny lay back with a groan and closed his eyes. "Your mother's gonna make me go back to bed, isn't she?"
"Damn straight, boy," Nick growled as he pulled off his own bandana and attempted to clear off the worst of the blood.
"I should'a just stayed there."
"Yes, I think you should'a."
Not twenty minutes after Johnny had been moved back into the house and the Wade boys had been moved into the icehouse, Jarrod drove his buggy into the yard at a dead run.
He leapt from the shiny black coach with little concern for his good suit and dashed up the wide front steps and threw open the front door. "Mother!" he shouted in a manner more associated with his younger brother.
Silas came into the foyer, eyes wide at the uncharacteristic behavior. "Mr. Jarrod?"
"Silas, where's the family?" Jarrod looked into the front room, but was already heading toward the game room.
"They are all upstairs in Mr. Johnny's room."
Jarrod started up the stairs taking two at a time. The sight that greeted him stopped him in his tracks. Nick and Heath leaned against one wall, arms crossed over their chests. Scott was across from them, his entire body showing his impatience. All three of them turned to face him as he moved more slowly down the carpeted hallway. "I came to tell you that Wills and Chase Wade broke jail."
"We already got the news." Nick waved a hand toward the closed door.
"Wills took Audra hostage in order to force a showdown with Johnny."
Jarrod paled. "Good Lord, how are they?"
"Pretty dang lucky if you ask me," Heath muttered under his breath.
"Audra's fine. Johnny took some buckshot in the side, but it didn't look too bad. From as close as Chase was, I don't know how he could have missed." Nick continued, not noticing just how pale Scott had gone. "Chase was hiding in the barn. It all happened pretty quick, but Wills went for his gun and Johnny out drew him, at the same instant Chase was gonna shoot him from inside the barn, but Johnny turned and got him too. If Johnny hadn't moved when he did, he'd have been cut in half. As it was, Chase blew the daylights out of the water barrel."
Scott had to close his eyes as an image of his brother replaced the shattered barrel and Johnny's blood replaced the water seeping into the dust. Jarrod noticed and could easily empathize, as his own younger brothers were apt to put themselves in harm's way. "Why don't we go back downstairs? You look like you could use a drink."
Scott smiled weakly. "More than you could ever know."
Johnny gritted his teeth on the rag that had been wedged between his teeth. Victoria had taken up the job as surgeon to pull the small pellets of shot from the skin just above his left hip. Her tiny fingers were better suited for working on the small wounds.
Audra was again her nurse, providing swabs to clean most of the blood from the wounds and handing her mother the instruments. Murdoch was holding a lamp high to provide the best possible light.
Four of the pellets had been removed and Victoria was now working on the last one. She took a moment to wipe the sweat off her forehead onto her sleeve and glanced down at her young charge's face. She had hoped that he'd passed out by now, but his pain-filled eyes showed every twinge of agony.
Breathing deep during the break in the incessant pain, he relaxed back against the pillows and looked up at the ceiling. His jaw relaxed and three shallow breaths were followed by one more deep breath. Tension oozed from every part of his body and he seemed to sink in the mattress with out really moving. Closing his eyes one more time his relaxed posture seemed complete. He wasn’t sure which was worse – her poking around the wound or the tugging and pulling as she stitched it closed.
Murdoch stopped her from continuing with a worried glance. "Son, do you want another drink?"
Johnny nodded minutely and Audra removed the rag from between his teeth. He licked his dry lips and swallowed.
Murdoch put one large hand behind his son's neck and the other held a bottle of good Scotch Whiskey. "One more to go and then were done," he said gently. As he put down the bottle he picked up a soft cloth and wiped the sweat from his son's brow, pushing back the dark bangs.
Victoria flexed her fingers and prepared to remove the last pellet. "Here we go," she said firmly. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the dark haired young man clutch at the sheet beneath him. She saw Murdoch put down the cloth and take hold of his son's right hand.
Audra picked up the roll of cloth and gently held it to Johnny's lips. "One last time." She looked down at him as he bit the roll between his even white teeth. It was all she could do to keep her eyes from welling with tears at the cowboy's misery.
He did his best to flash her a reassuring smile before biting down hard on the cloth. He squeezed his eyes shut and indicated with a nod that he was ready.
Murdoch watched with morbid curiosity as Victoria's delicate fingers worked the probe that opened the hole. His attention was momentarily diverted when a shudder ran through Johnny's body.
Johnny clutched his father's hand and failed at the attempt to swallow a moan. It seemed that every movement that Mrs. Barkley made went straight from his side and shot out the top of his head. "Done?" came out muffled from behind the roll.
"Soon." Murdoch used the back of his free hand to wipe a tear from his son's cheek.
"No, done!" Johnny started to squirm and Victoria had to halt her excavation and jerk her bloody hands from the wound.
"Johnny, you need to stay still," she censured in her best parental tone.
He spit out the roll from between his teeth. "No! You're done!" Johnny continued to try to slide out of the bed. “Leaving the bullet in has to be better than this.”
"Johnny!" Murdoch snapped. "Do I need to get Scott and Nick to hold you down? Let Mrs. Barkley finish." He wanted to use both hands to hold his son to the bed, but Johnny's grip was on his hand was crushing.
Those pain filled eyes turned up to look at his father. So many questions were being asked in their depths. Murdoch swallowed the lump in his throat and gently put his hand on his son's forehead. Johnny's skin was clammy under the sweat. "Please son. We're almost through."
Johnny's brow furrowed, but his eyes never left his father's face. Johnny's chest heaved and another shudder ran through him. With his gaze still locked on his father's face he nodded his agreement to continue.
Audra gently put the roll back between his teeth before she took up holding the lamp as now both Murdoch's hands were occupied. One hand locked in Johnny's, the other carding through his son's dark hair. Their eyes remained locked, Johnny's seeking strength from the man above him. Murdoch trying to will away the pain that racked his younger son's body.
The tip of Victoria's probe popped the little pellet out of the incision and Victoria thoroughly checked to ensure no bits of cloth had been driven into the wound. She poured a liberal amount of whiskey into the hole.
The sudden burst of fire in his side finally forced those blue eyes shut. Swallowing down a moan, he spit out the rag from between his teeth, "Dios mio, ain't you done yet?"
"Almost." She swiftly used the needle that Audra had threaded to sew the wound shut. Her stitches were tiny and strong and would keep the wound firmly closed. She cut the suture off close to his body and stepped back to view her work. The other wounds were looking good, with not too much swelling. "It won't help to bandage it. We'll leave it alone for now."
Johnny's relief was palpable as he sank back against the pillows.
Victoria washed her hands in the basin on the dresser while Audra cleared up the bloody implements of the surgery. Drying her hands on a towel, she looked down at her patient.
Johnny's chest still heaved, but his breathing was slowing down. He swallowed hard with his eyes still squeezed tightly shut. One hand was tangled in the sheet, the other still clutching his father's, although his knuckles were no longer white.
"Do you want another drink?" Murdoch brushed back the damp bangs one more time.
Johnny shook his head and swallowed hard, his stomach rolling at the thought of putting anything more in it, and knowing full well that now that the pain was easing he'd soon be drunk.
"Then just rest." Murdoch's tone was soft and low. When he tried to pull away, Johnny clung tighter to the hand held in his. "It's alright, I'm not going anywhere." Gently he ran his fingers through Johnny's dark hair. It was softer than it looked, and the normally unruly locks were laying flat and heavy with perspiration.
Johnny relaxed only slightly and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly.
Victoria nudged Audra gently and they left the room together.
Murdoch sat quietly at his son's bedside holding his hand and stroking his hair. He could tell that Johnny wasn't asleep, but he watched as his younger son lay so very still as if even the thought of moving was too much for his abused body. He listened to his son's regular breathing as the room turned dusky. Behind him the sun was sinking lower in the sky casting a warm glow. The sound of crickets began to fill the air with a cheery symphony of sound. "Well, here we are again. Isn't this how we started the week?"
Johnny smiled despite the pain in his side. "What can I say?"
"How about, it'll never happen again?"
"I wasn't raised to be a liar."
Murdoch chuckled, the tension broken for now. "Perhaps you could try not to worry your old man so much. Don't I have enough gray hairs?"
"Sorry.” His words were slurring softly together. “I'll practice ducking next week."
"See that you do." Murdoch's tone was light, with no hint at the anguish he was feeling.
"I don't like that Scotch as much as I like Tequila."
"And I'm sorry but Mrs. Barkley didn't have any Tequila." Murdoch said with an amused shake of his head. “And I’m sorry she seems to have wasted some very fine Scotch on your uncultured taste buds.” His smile softened his words.
"I'm sorry, too." Johnny used his free hand to rub at one eye blearily, his movements becoming uneven as the alcohol began to take effect. He blew out a breath and pursed his lips before a yawn took over.
Murdoch smiled at the weak attempt to stay awake.
Johnny shifted and a pain tore through his side. He muttered a profanity and swallowed hard. "That was not a good idea," he ground out between clenched teeth.
Murdoch nodded his understanding. "Just try to stay still and rest."
Murdoch toyed with the edge of the bedspread for a few minutes. "I…you… we." He stammered to a stop finding it difficult to articulate what he wanted to say.
Johnny blinked blearily and cleared his throat. "Are you not finishing your sentences or am I drifting off?"
"You're drifting off."
Johnny nodded. "Tell me something."
"What?" Murdoch continued to fidget with the quilt, twisting it around one finger.
"I don't know, anything. Tell me something."
Murdoch grinned as he realized that Johnny was asking him to 'Tell a story, papa.' "Did you know the cattle in Scotland are woolly?"
"Did I hear right?" His eyebrows knit together, clearly showing his doubt.
"They have shaggy coats to keep them warm in the snow."
"I'd like to see one of those." A smile twitched at the corner of Johnny's mouth. "Are you planning on having some shipped over?"
"No. I don't think they'd do well in our summer heat." Murdoch smiled as he smoothed the wrinkles from the bedcover. "Did you know that you are named for my youngest brother?"
Johnny frowned at the sudden change of subject. "No. I didn't know you had a brother."
"I have a sister who is about twelve years older than me. I didn't know her very well. My mother passed away when I was two years old. My father remarried a wonderful woman who raised me as her own. I have two younger brothers and a younger sister."
Murdoch chuckled as Johnny glanced around the room as if he expected him to be at the foot of the bed. "None of them wanted to leave the home country, so I came over alone. I still write to them."
"No, they died long ago.” Then Murdoch realized Johnny was asking about his own Grandparents. “My mother, I mean my step-mother, died when I was twelve. My father died about six years ago." Murdoch hadn't realized it until that moment how much he missed his own father.
"That's good." Johnny was barely able to keep his eyes open.
"Good?" Murdoch was a little surprised at the notion.
"Don't want to meet any more Grandfathers."
"Oh," Understanding dawning as he thought back to the unpleasant experience of Johnny's one visit with Scott's grandfather.
"Did you get along with your brothers and sisters?"
"Well, my eldest sister, Sarah, was married and on her own when I was still a boy. So I was the oldest and the others thought I was a little bossy." Johnny snorted a laugh. "Don't you laugh, boy!" Murdoch mock scolded. "It wasn't easy being the oldest son. Especially back there. I was expected to carry on in my father's foot steps." He shook his head. "It wasn't for me."
"Wha'd your Pa do?" Johnny's eyes were only staying open with strength of will.
"He was a book seller. He ran a shop." Murdoch lowered his voice in the hope of lulling his son to sleep.
"Can't see you as a shop keep."
"No, neither could I. My brother Angus is very good at it, though."
"Do you miss him - them?" Johnny's voice was getting softer, the effects of the alcohol and the day's events finally catching up with him.
"Tell me about my Uncle John."
"Well, his name is Iain, but he was dark, like you, and had these long, dark eyelashes and vivid blue eyes. And the first time you looked up at me," Murdoch's voice trailed off softly unable to find just the right words to describe that morning so long ago when he'd held his son for the first time.
"Wa' wus your favorite memory of me?"
Murdoch knew it was the alcohol talking, as Johnny would never ask this question so outright had he been sober. But he looked down at his child, those same dark lashes laying in crescents across his cheeks. With his free hand he rubbed his fingers gently over the now mostly bruise-free skin. He leaned over and softly whispered, "The day you came back to me."
But Johnny had already slipped off to sleep.
Scott stood at the edge of the pool table and idly rolled the cue ball so that it bounced off the far rail and returned to him. His eyes vacantly stared off into the distance and he was completely unaware of the conversation behind him.
Nick was sitting on the couch, his elbows on his knees, his hands hanging loosely. Jarrod sat next to him, slowly rolling whiskey around in his glass. Heath sat across from them tugging on the button on his shirtsleeve.
"Rotten time for the doctor to be out of town," Nick growled.
Jarrod shook his head, but he agreed completely. "I think it's high time we arranged for another qualified doctor to come here. Stockton has a big enough population for more than one reputable physician. Bill Haley, the veterinarian, doesn’t count."
“And I wouldn’t let that quack Bellows work on anyone I liked,” Nick agreed.
"Three or four new doctors would be fine if you ask me," Heath muttered. "I'd give up some of my pay if we could keep one on the roll right here."
"You want to put a doctor on the payroll?" Jarrod snickered.
Heath's head snapped up and glared at his oldest brother. "If it would help with the tragedy that happened here today would it be so bad?"
"Part of me regrets that that boy upstairs is being operated on by our mother instead of a trained physician. But I truly hope we never have so many injuries on this ranch that we need to keep a doctor working here full time." Jarrod swirled his whiskey in his glass again before taking a sip.
"Well, a big part of me hopes that Wills
Wade burns for all eternity in the hereafter for what he's done to both
our families." Nick tossed back half his drink in one gulp.
"Gracious, mother, that poor young man." Audra absently wrung the towel in her hands she didn't know she was holding.
"And how are you, my dear?"
"I'm fine, Mother. It all happened so quick and then Heath was pushing me to the ground and I didn't see what happened." She almost sounded disappointed, but she was grateful for the outcome.
"Go change your clothes dear and then come down for supper." Victoria leaned in and gave her youngest child a hug - so very thankful that her daughter was safe.
"Mother? Why did Wills Wade want to hurt Johnny Lancer? First the beating, and then trying to shoot him."
"There are times, my dear, when I don't think I understand people at all." Using her hands to smooth nonexistent wrinkles showed just how frustrated she was.
Audra shook her head and headed into her room to change as Victoria headed down the wide sweeping staircase and into the game room.
Scott stopped rolling the cue ball when Victoria entered the room. "How is he?"
She came over and stood next to him, gently placing a hand on his arm turning her gaze up to meet his worried eyes. "He'll be fine. Your father is with him now. We didn't want to take the chance of giving him any more laudanum, so he's a little worn out, but I think he's doing very well."
"If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go up." Scott glanced turned upwards as if he could see through the ceiling.
"You'll do no such thing." She tugged on his arm and nodded to her sons. "Let's go in and get some supper and then you can go up. He's going to sleep for sometime, I'm sure."
Murdoch came down a few minutes after they had all started to eat and confirmed that Johnny was indeed asleep.
Audra seemed to be unconcerned by her abduction and was still unclear as to why Wills was so intent on doing harm to Johnny. They skirted the issue of prejudice and bigotry until finally Heath decided he didn't want to hear her ask again.
"Audra, he was hating Johnny just for what he'd decided he didn't like without really getting to know him."
Audra turned her brilliant blue eyes to her brother and bit the side of her lip. "But isn't that what you did?"
Heath opened his mouth to retort and then closed it with a snap when Nick snorted a laugh.
Jarrod cleared his throat and folded his napkin and set it beside his plate. "Yes, well," he attempted to divert the conversation.
"I hate it when she's right." Heath shook his head, abashed. "Yes, little sister, that's exactly what I was doing."
"So you'll get to know him?" she asked earnestly.
Heath frowned as he studied his sister carefully, wondering if he saw the first signs of a crush in her eyes. "I'll give him a chance," Heath conceded.
Her brilliant smile lit the room in a way
that no candles ever could.
After a fine supper of prime rib with summer squash Scott made his way from the dining room and up to the room generously given to his brother. He took the time to admire the gold-flocked wallpaper and the highly polished wainscoting and the plush carpet, so different from the rustic elegance of his father's home. It was because of the thick floor covering that he didn't hear Heath when he came up behind him and touched his arm.
They faced each other in the hallway, just outside his brother's door.
"I was wondering if maybe I could have a word with Johnny? Just for a second?"
Scott considered all the things that Heath might say to his brother. Heath did his best not to squirm under the appraising stare. "Don't work him up."
Heath let a crooked smile slide across his face. "The last thing I want is to be on his bad side."
Scott acknowledged the younger man with a grin and tip of his head. "Give me a minute and then come in."
Scott opened the door slowly. The bedside lamp was burning low, but it cast enough of a glow to show his younger brother, curled on his side. Scott could see that even in his sleep his hand was curled in a fist, near his hip, as if protecting himself from further injury.
Scott hesitated, unwilling to disturb Johnny now that he was getting some much needed sleep, but a floorboard creaked and Johnny blinked open bleary eyes.
Looking up to see his brother hovering in the doorway, Johnny blinked again, trying to get Scott into better focus. A cough started, but he did his best to suppress it when the pain gripped him. "Water," he managed to gasp out.
Scott moved swiftly and filled a glass half full. He took a moment to help the wounded man onto his back and pile pillows up behind him. After helping Johnny get a few sips, Scott set the glass back down on the side table and sat on the edge of the bed. "You had me worried there for a while."
Johnny grinned and let his head loll back against the pillows. "Takes more'n buckshot to keep me down."
"Try to stay out of the line of fire for a few days, will you?"
"Heath's outside. He wants to talk to you."
Johnny smiled before opening his still whiskey-glazed eyes. "Is he armed?"
Scott was still chuckling when then the door creaked open again and the big, blond cowboy edged into the room.
"Come on in." Scott stood up and walked to the window where he pushed back the curtain to stare at the moonlit corral.
Heath glanced from one brother to another, before moving to the foot of the bed and clearing his throat. With out realizing it he was tightly gripping the foot rail of the bed. "I, uh…”.
Johnny watched the stocky man at the end of the bed as he stammered. Not wanting to watch the man struggle any longer Johnny took pity on him. "I understand and it's all right."
"I behaved like a jackass," Heath said in a rush.
"You ain't the first man to not want Johnny Madrid under his roof."
Heath cleared his throat and forced himself to let go of the bedrail. "Well, maybe so, but I want you to know that Johnny Lancer is always welcome."
"I especially want to thank you for saving my sister." Heath came around and perched on the edge of the bed, nervously playing with a cuff button then let it go abruptly when he realized his nervous habit.
"I didn't save her. Wade didn't want to hurt her."
"How can you be so sure?"
Johnny's eyes took on a faraway look and he fell silent for a moment. "Let's just say I know his kind."
"Well, if you need anything…" Heath got up and headed for the door. Stopping suddenly he looked back. A small smile crept across his features, "Except one thing."
Both brothers turned to look over at him. Heath shook a finger at Johnny with mock anger. "You stay away from my sister. Understand?"
The both laughed, but Johnny's laugh broke off with a gasp.
"Good night." Heath said softly from his place in the doorway.
Johnny was holding his side so tightly that he couldn't respond, but Scott made their goodnights for both of them. He watched his bother very carefully as Johnny caught his breath and lay very still against the snow-white pillows.
"So, how are you feeling? Do you want some water?"
Johnny sighed heavily. "How about a beer?"
Scott made a show of patting his pockets. "I'm fresh out."
Johnny rocked his head from side to side as if trying to work out the kinks in a stiff neck. "I am so tired of being in bed."
Scott crossed back over to the bed and made a back handed pat on his brother's shoulder urging him to move over on the large bed. Johnny frowned but shifted under the covers to the other side.
Scott toed off his boots before plumping two pillows and leaning them against the headboard. He sat on the bed and pulled his long legs up on top of the coverlet. He made himself comfortable, squirming and maneuvering his long frame on the soft mattress. Turning up the lamp on the side table cast a warm glow on the bed. He picked up a thin pamphlet and heavy leather bound book and turned both toward his brother. "Your choice," he gestured with the pamphlet. "Showdown in Stanleyville or…" he wiggled the book. "The Pathfinder."
"Oh please, anything but the dime novel," Johnny rolled his eyes.
Scott took a long look at the graphic cover again and chuckled, before setting it on the bedside table. He opened the book in his lap and ran his hand over the cream-colored page feeling the heavy stock under his fingers.
"I found this downstairs, I think you're going to really enjoy this."
Johnny had an arm thrown over his eyes, so his next words came out muffled. "This ain't a history book is it?"
"No, it's not a history book." Scott had tried to get his younger brother to read a few of his favorite novels about Thomas Jefferson, but the younger man had graciously declined.
Scott took a sip of water and then began. "The turf shall be my fragrant shrine; my temple, Lord!, that arch of thine;”
"I don’t like poetry, you know that." Johnny interrupted, trying to turn the book so he could see the page.
Scott moved the book out of his brothers' reach and continued.
"My censor’s breath the mountain airs, and silent thoughts my only prayers."
"I don't like poetry." Johnny grabbed at the book again and Scott slapped his hand.
"It's not poetry, and you'd like it if you gave it half a chance." Scott settled into place. "Are you going to quiet down and listen?"
"Are you gonna read something that I understand, or should we go back to Slaughter at Stanleyville?"
"Shootout." Scott shook his head, knowing just how much his brother disliked the exaggerated tales of the dime novels. He cleared his throat and watched Johnny settle against the pillow, still eyeing the gilt-edged page of the book skeptically.
Johnny interrupted again. "What does that mean?"
“What?” Scott sighed.
“Sub,” Johnny paused as if tasting the new word on this tongue. “Sublimity. What does it mean?”
Scott shook his head and tried to pull the definition out of the air. “It’s reverence or awe for something beautiful.”
Johnny nodded and then waited while Scott picked up the book again.
“The sublimity connected with vastness is familiar to every eye. The most abstruse…”
“You are.” Scott mock-glared at his brother. “It means difficult to understand.”
“Ah, like this book.” Johnny wiggled against the mattress settling into a more comfortable position.
Scott closed the book with a snap. "That's it."
"No," Johnny said softly. "Go on, please." From his prone position he looked up at Scott with anticipation. "I'll be quiet."
Scott frowned at his brother skeptically before opening the book again and finding his place. He shot a glance at Johnny out of the corner of his eye, but the younger man was waiting silently. He couldn't help but smile. He paused to take another sip of water and began again. "The most abstruse, the most far-reaching, perhaps the most chastened of the poet’s thoughts, crowd on the imagination as he gazes into the depths of the illimitable void."
An hour later, Murdoch came to check on his younger son, only to find both of his sons together. Scott was half sitting up, a copy of the "The Pathfinder" open and cradled on his chest. Johnny was curled on his side, his right arm coiled around a pillow protecting his wound.
He moved down to the chest at the foot of the bed and pulled out a large, brightly patterned quilt. He gently lifted the book from Scott's hands and laid it on the side table and shook out the quilt, covering both his sons. With an affectionate smile he turned the lamp down and the room faded into quiet darkness. He watched them sleep for a moment longer before leaving the room and quietly shutting the door.
Stepping out into the darkened hallway he saw Victoria standing in a puddle of lamplight. It cast her into a warm glow and she seemed to shimmer before his eyes.
“I was just coming to check on my charge before turning in.”
“He’s asleep. They both are.” He felt a rueful smile cross his lips.
She moved closer, bringing the pool of lamplight with her. Gently she laid her hand on his arm, looking up at him. “He’ll be fine, Murdoch.” Her voice was soft, full of the shared understanding for the fear and apprehension caused when your child was hurt.
Murdoch stepped forward. They were so close, he wanted to hold her, to cling to someone who could understand what he was feeling, what he was trying so hard not to feel.
Without words, she stepped in, holding him close.
He could feel the warmth of her pressed down the length of him, smell the clean scent of her hair and the faint smell of lilacs. He could even feel the heat from the lamp as she held it away from his back. After a moment he stepped back, but her face was cast in shadows only her eyes were bright in the darkness.
His emotions were in a whirl. He couldn’t think of a way to put what he was feeling into words. He wasn’t completely sure he knew what he was feeling. He knew that he felt, for just a moment, safe. As if he’d been pulled out of the sea and into a dinghy as the storm still raged around him.
But then a sudden cold feeling came over him and he took two more steps back. “My God!” he whispered. “I’m still married.”
“What?” She had no idea what he’d been thinking, but this seemed to come out of thin air.
“I saw her. Maria, Johnny’s mother. In the train station in town.” Murdoch’s words seemed to tumble out in a rush.
She stepped back one more step, bringing the lamp between them and again putting them both in the light.
He ran a hand through his hair in a quick, jerky movement. “At first when she left me, I didn’t file for divorce. I thought I’d find her, bring her back. Then later, I couldn’t bring myself to, and then after that, there didn’t seem to be a point.”
“Did you think she was dead? Did Johnny ever tell you she was?” Her worried brown eyes searched his face.
“No, he never said. The closest he’s ever come was saying that he woke up one morning and she was gone.”
She shook her head. There was no way she’d leave her child, and she’d fight like a momma bear to protect all her cubs. No matter how old they got. “You’ll have to tell him.”
Murdoch blanched at the thought. “No.”
“Murdoch, you have to tell him. He’d want to know. And you can’t keep this kind of thing a secret. Secrets like this will always get out, and it will be worse if he knows you’ve been hiding it from him.”
Still he shook his head, clenching his jaw.
Victoria raised the lamp so she could better see his face and he could see her displeasure. “You will tell him, Murdoch Lancer. He’s a man, not a boy and he deserves to know the truth.”
His resolve wavered and she saw it, and moved in. Again her warm had rested on his sleeve. “It will be better coming from you. Trust me on this.”
With a huge sigh, he nodded his head.
Just then Jarrod came up the back stairs from the kitchen, and without slowing his stride moved past them in the hallway. “Now, now, move along you two. What would the children think?” He had to make some quick darting steps to avoid the swat his mother aimed at his backside, but he’d broken the tension in the hall.
“Good night, Murdoch.” She moved past him, leaving him standing in the dark.
Slowly he moved to his own room. “Good
night, Victoria.” He sat heavily in a rich brocade chair near the window
and looked out over the front drive and the lawn and let his thoughts run
Johnny woke the next morning with a humdinger of a hangover and was grateful to sleep in. With the bedroom window open he could hear when Scott and Murdoch rode out to work. Swinging his feet onto the floor he took a moment to examine his wound.
It didn't look bad. This skin was puckered where the stitches held it together, but it wasn't irritated or red. His fingers probed the wound and felt the spots that were numb to the touch. It wasn't as bad as it looked. Most of the pellets had been close to the surface, only one had been deep enough to cause him any real discomfort. His fingers lingered on that wound, the stitches poking his fingers, the spot sore if he probed it too much.
He dressed carefully, leaving his shirt untucked and not bothering with a belt. It took longer for him to fish his boots out from under the bed than it did to get them on.
He made his way down the narrow back stairs and stood hovering in the doorway to the kitchen. At first there didn't seem to be anyone there, but then Silas came from out of the pantry.
Silas stopped half way across the spacious kitchen and gave his new visitor an appraising glance. "Should you be out of bed, Mister Johnny?"
Johnny closed his eyes and rubbed a thumb against his temple. "Probably not, but I couldn't get the man with the drum in my head to stop up there, so I thought I'd try coming down here to get away from him."
Silas smiled and pulled a chair away from the kitchen table and made a gesture for Johnny to sit. "What can I get you, Mister Johnny?"
"A cup of coffee and a biscuit if you got it. And please, just Johnny."
Silas filled a heavy mug with coffee and set it before the dark haired man who sat cradling his head in his hands. "I just took a loaf of bread out of the oven. Would you like some fresh bread?"
"Sure," Johnny looked up with a grin.
Silas went back into the pantry and cut two slices of bread still warm and soft from the oven. He also grabbed a crock of strawberry preserves and some cutlery.
He set them on a plain white plate in front of Johnny. "Can I get you anything else?"
"No, this is great," Johnny mumbled around his coffee cup.
"What would you like for lunch, sir?" Silas moved to the other end of the table and began to peel a large cucumber.
"Don't do anything special for me, Silas. I'll eat whatever the ladies are having." Johnny spread some of the preserves on the bread.
Silas looked down and busied himself with his chore. "The ladies will be having cucumber sandwiches with the Ladies Beautification Guild."
Johnny grimaced and again rested his head in his hands. "What will you be having?"
Silas had finished the first cucumber and started on the next one. "I usually just have what ever is left over."
Johnny looked over at the cook with the most pitiful look of desperation.
Silas couldn't help but laugh and it was a deep, musical sound. "I think I have some left over fried chicken in the pantry.”
"Silas, you are a saint."
"No, but I'm very good at what I do, sir."
Feeling a little cautious after his foray into the outdoors the day before, Johnny heeded his nurse’s counsel and stayed inside. He moved into the library and watched the line of carriages pull up into the front drive. The Ladies Beautification Guild had arrived in a colorful array of cotton, satin and lace. High fashion mixed with plain serviceable clothes. Presumably they had come to talk about the memorial park and the cemetery upkeep. The true agenda was to find out about the shooting yesterday and the three men that Victoria had been keeping as guests under her roof.
At first Johnny tried valiantly to focus his attention anywhere but the ladies in the front room, but every so often his curiosity would get the better of him and he’d crack the door open to eavesdrop.
He was gratified to hear that Victoria only spoke of the Lancer men in the most general of terms before turning the conversation back to the planned agenda. It didn’t take long, however, before some one would bring the topic back up.
With a disinterested glance he scanned the books lining the shelves. The Pathfinder had proved to be an excellent sleep aid, but now he needed something a little more distracting. But minutes later, he found himself back at the large oak door, failing at his attempt to discern where the conversation was going.
Finally, disgusted with himself for acting like a schoolboy, he turned his back on the door and took a minute to tuck in his shirttails. With quick movements he ran his fingers through his hair and squared his shoulders.
He plastered a smile on his face, exited the room and headed down the hall. Letting a deep breath out he rounded the corner and came to the edge of the front room. “Miz Barkley, I’m just gonna go out for a bit. I’ll be back soon.” Johnny indicated the front door with a nod of his head and then flashed a smile at the ladies present. “Sorry, to interrupt, ladies.”
Victoria had gotten to her feet and Johnny
knew he didn’t have much time if his escape plan had any chance of success.
“I sure don’t see how the town of Stockton could get any prettier if it
already has all you lovely ladies living there.” He slid a sideways glance
at his hostess before made a gesture, as if tipping his non-existent hat
and moved swiftly for the door.
“Oh, heavens.” Myrtle Hastings was fanning herself with a white lace handkerchief. “Audra dear, is that the man that saved your life?”
Audra laughed sweetly and then sat forward a bit in her chair to tell her story of daring-do and heroism, only mildly exaggerated.
Victoria frowned, her attention to her patient thwarted by Lily Caulder’s tug on her skirt. “He’s a charmer, that boy, Victoria.” Lily said with barely concealed humor. “I’d keep him away from that girl of yours.”
Victoria smiled at her old friend.
“Of course, if he’s interested in an older woman, you be sure to let him know I’ve been widowed eleven years now.”
“Lily!” Victoria mock scolded and tried, in vain, to divert the conversation away from the tale Audra was telling and get back on track.
Johnny stopped just outside the front door and took a moment to untuck his shirt again. The material was rubbing on his wound and he knew he wouldn’t have the strength to get far. Clenching his jaw, he set his sights on the low-roofed shed just to the left of the barn. If he was going to sit around, he could at least be useful.
Scott woke with a headache and a stiff neck. He’d slept at an odd angle, half-sitting in the bed. He vaguely remembered sliding down under the covers in the middle of the night, but the crick in his neck hadn’t loosened up yet. He pulled off one glove and used his fingers to try and work the knot that sat where neck and shoulder jointed. He glanced over at his work companion. He had again ridden out with Heath, checking fence line and checking the herd. It was hotter here in Stockton than it was back home and they found excuses to move under the wide spread oak trees to cool off in the shade.
He and Heath worked side by side for most of the morning, with the only conversation between them about work. It didn’t take long for him to recognize the signs as Heath worked up his nerve. Scott decided it would be easier if he broke the silence first. “Did you know my brother, back there in Lincoln?”
Heath almost seemed relieved to have the topic broached for him. “No, not really.”
“Were you on the same side, or is this the beginning of a family feud?”
Heath smiled slowly, shaking his head. “No. I mean, no feud. I’d hired up and was just sitting off to the side. I really didn’t know what I was doing there, or what I was supposed to do next. And then the room got real quiet. This kid came in. I mean, he wasn’t much older than me, maybe 17 or 18. But he had this look.”
Scott waited for the story to continue, shifting under a low-hanging branch, before sitting straight in the saddle again.
“It wasn’t like in the dime novels where he quelled the room with a dark glance or anything like that. It was more like,” Heath’s even white teeth nibbled on the edge of his lip before he continued. “It was more like he owned the room. And it wasn’t arrogance, more like confidence. Like he was the best man in the room and he wasn’t even going to take the time to explain it to you.”
Scott nodded, he’d seen people have that reaction to Johnny. “Oh, trust me, Heath. That’s arrogance.” The smile on his face softened his words and Heath gave in to a little smile that played at one corner of his mouth.
“Couple of days later I got back shot and left for dead. As soon as my head stopped pounding I high tailed it out of there, realizing that that wasn’t the life for me.”
“I only wish Johnny had gone with you.” The words were out of Scott’s mouth before he realized he’d spoke aloud.
“He’s right though, it’s not illegal. I have a blind spot where hired guns are concerned, but it is an honest profession. I just don’t have to like it. It doesn’t sit well with me. But I’m sure glad he was there yesterday.”
“Well, Johnny is retired from that profession and has taken on the backbreaking of job of ranching. And how do you like it?"
“Best job I ever had.” Heath looked out over the valley below him. His valley, his grass and his cows and his fences and his dusty roads. “No sky bluer, no grass greener.”
Scott took a deep breath, inhaling the smell of summer grass and the land around him. “It gets into your blood like an infection.”
Heath chuckled and his blue eyes danced. “And eventually, it’ll kill us. But we better get to that east fence line or Nick’ll kill us first.” And with a click of his heals he moved his mount into a trot with Scott keeping pace right along side.
Murdoch woke with a pounding headache. He was still sitting in the chair and the first pink streaks of dawn were touching the sky. His morning routine was quick and he left the house before anyone else. Strolling the length of the front porch he tried to get his thoughts in order.
It was a beautiful morning. The air was crisp and cool, but already hinted at how hot it was going to be. He wanted to go home, to attend to his own ranch and his own business, but he was determined to stay with Johnny until he was sure his son was home safe.
Nothing on this trip had gone the way he’d intended. First the auction, then after, then – her.
“Ready to go?” Nick’s voice boomed from the front door breaking his reverie.
“Then let’s get moving. I’ve got some stock I can’t wait to show you.”
It would be almost dark before they got back.
“Senor Nick.” A vaquero named Diego hissed in their direction waving his hand in gesture to make them come his way.
“What is it, Diego?”
Diego led Nick and Murdoch to the work shed near the barn. The room was filled with the smells of leather working. It was dark and cool in the little room and it took a moment before their eyes adjusted to the gloom.
After a minute they saw what they were supposed to see.
Johnny Lancer was sprawled length wise on a wooden bench, a tangle of half-braided lariat laced through his fingers.
“For the love of heaven,” Murdoch let out an exasperated sigh.
Johnny stirred at the sound of that deep rumbling voice.
“He came down from the big house to work with me,” Diego explained. “I only gave him jobs he could do while sitting down.”
“You did fine, Diego,” Nick assured.
“He is a good worker. He makes the lariat nice and tight.” Diego continued as Johnny blinked up at them owlishly.
Johnny sat up slowly, the wrist of one hand pressed against his side. “Hey.”
“Hey, yourself. Aren’t you supposed to be inside? Perhaps in a bed?” Murdoch reached down and assisted Johnny to his feet.
“I was inside, for awhile.” He grimaced, but it wasn’t in pain. “Then the Ladies Beautification Society showed up.”
Nick’s laughter filled the air. “I’d head for the hills, Murdoch.” Nick watched the older rancher, his face still in a frown and reached out to pat him on the shoulder. “And you would, too.”
Murdoch thought back to Teresa’s fifteenth birthday party and the house filled with twelve of her friends. “Yes, I’d have run, too.”
Johnny didn’t need any help walking back to the house, but Nick and Murdoch slowed their steps to match his. All the while Nick talked about the work, his warm, laughing voice filling the silence between Johnny and Murdoch.
Victoria was waiting at the top of the steps, her arms akimbo, a stern look on her face.
“If we stick together, she can’t get us both.” Murdoch teasingly whispered in Johnny’s direction.
In an instant, Johnny realized that his father wasn’t angry with him, but did wonder at what was keeping the older man silent.
“I wouldn’t count on that.” Johnny teased back. “Maybe we should split up, and Nick can create a diversion.”
“Leave me out of it,” Nick grinned. “I have to live here after you leave.” But being a good host, he did create a diversion anyway. He swooped in and gave his mother a bear hug and kissed her cheek. “Hello, mother. You don’t usually come out to greet me.” He half picked her up, bringing her up on her toes and temporarily left her speechless.
By the time Nick had put her down, Johnny and Murdoch were already on the stairs and heading up to change for supper.
Johnny let out a sigh of relief that he’d avoided a scolding and flashed a grin at Murdoch. But his relief was short lived when the bigger man did not smile back. “Murdoch?”
Murdoch looked at Johnny, but he wasn’t seeing him. His mind was miles away at the train station in town.
“Murdoch, I know you think I was crazy to…”
Murdoch snapped back to the conversation and reached out to squeeze Johnny’s shoulder. “I know you won’t push yourself too hard or too fast.”
“No,” Johnny stammered.
“Do you want to get home as much as I do?”
“I surely do.”
“Then go get changed, quick, before Mrs. Barkley murders us both.”
And in a flash, Johnny was gone, but Murdoch
moved much more slowly to his room, his thoughts still miles away.
Scott went with Nick to view the working operations of one of the wineries, much to his father's dismay. He found the sights and smells of the dark cellars and huge vats fascinating. Nick left Scott there mid morning when the conversation with the vintner became too dull for him to bear. He met him again at lunchtime. The vintner spread a fine table of sliced meat and cheeses, and although Nick enjoyed the conversation, he longed for something more to fill his stomach, but he was a good guest and didn’t complain.
Scott, on the other hand, was truly enjoying himself. He left the vintner after his shaking his hand and warmly expressing his gratitude for the day’s education and with suggestions filling his head and notes filling his jacket pockets.
They spent the afternoon touring the orchards. Nick told him of their success in picking their peaches green in order to get them to market earlier, having them ripen in the boxes.
They had a grove of oranges, which were just starting to produce, but Nick still feared the young trees might fail if they had any of the harder winters he remembered in his youth.
Scott plucked one of the oranges from the tree and peeled it. The juice flowed over his fingers and he licked it off before tugging out a bandana and wiping his hands. "Nick, these are wonderful."
"Makes your fingers sticky," Nick said with a laugh as he opened his canteen and sloshed water over his hands and then offered to do the same for Scott. Scott rinsed his hands and then wiped them again on his bandana. "The thing with any new venture is to only use money you can afford to lose. It's been five years getting these trees shipped in, cultivated, grown and ready to harvest. Jarrod thought I'd gone 'round the bend, but then he thinks most of my ideas are a little harebrained. Heath thinks we should stick to cattle and horses, but I never like the idea of having all my eggs in one basket."
Scott smile became a grin.
"Did I say something funny?"
"I think you just gave me the only argument that might work with Murdoch." Scott folded his bandana and put it into his back pocket. His gaze lingered on the horizon.
"Problem?" Nick asked staring the same direction as his new friend.
"I just want to go home." Scott was surprised at the longing in his own voice. "I don't mean that to sound rude or ungrateful. I can't express how thankful we are for your hospitality."
"I understand. My heart is here. I can't think of being any place else for long. How soon before Johnny's well enough to travel?" Nick paused as if hearing his own words. "Not like I'm trying to get rid of you."
Scott laughed. "Johnny's raring to go, it's Murdoch and your mother that won't let him leave yet. I have the feeling that your mother thinks my little brother is made of spun glass."
"Well, mother takes great pride in her guest staying happy and healthy. She doesn’t feel she's done a very good job with your brother."
"Upon occasion he can be less than helpful," Scott confided.
"Throwing yourself in front of a shotgun
is definitely less than helpful," Nick agreed.
Victoria insisted that her guest stay until he was fully healed, and she fussed over him to ensure that happened. She knew that he was mostly well when he fidgeted and squirmed as she checked his wounds. His modesty was back in place and he no longer allowed Audra in the room.
He didn't exactly blush but he was increasingly uncomfortable with her attentions and the fact that he had to unbutton his trousers to expose the one wound just an inch over his hip. This was the one that was causing the most problems. It had been the deepest hole and his trousers rubbed against the sutures slowing the healing process.
She attempted to distract his attention as she carefully bathed the wounds and applied a liniment. "So how did you become Johnny Madrid?" She felt him stiffen under her hands, rigid with tension.
"I didn't mean that quite how it sounded," she pressed on. "What made you pick the name Madrid?"
He took a deep breath and turned his face toward the window. He bit on his bottom lip and gave the matter some serious consideration. "I was in jail where I met a man. His name was Brett Taker. He was an educated man and sometimes, late at night, when neither of us could sleep he'd list all the states and their capitols. Then he'd move on and list the countries of Europe and their capitols. He knew a lot. I think I learned more from him in thirty days than I ever did in school."
"And what did an educated man like Mr. Taker do to find himself in jail?"
She smoothed the liniment on with gentle fingers.
"Killed a man. It's an ugly story and not one you want to hear."
She let it drop, sensing that she shouldn't push the issue. She helped him sit up and turned her back as he dressed.
"He was a good friend, " Johnny said simply. "When I got released from jail the Sheriff took me to Santa Fe to the orphanage there. I was afraid they'd send me back to my old man, so I gave 'em a new name." He chuckled ruefully. "If only."
"If only," she agreed as she washed her hands. "Well, you are mostly healed, we could have a party before you go. Let you and your family meet some of the nice folks that live in this valley."
"Don't have a party on my account. I'm not the party type."
She turned back to study his face and he flashed her his best smile.
"Heath was very shy of people and parties when he first came here, too."
"Well what do you know," Johnny adjusted his trousers to ease the rub on the wound. "Just one more thing we got in common."
"He's still doesn't take a fancy to dances. Now why do you think that would be?" She let him hold the door open for her as she carried her medical supplies out into the hall.
"You ever watch one of those dances from the outside? I wouldn't know a Reel from a Minuet, but that's not all. There's way too many rules involved." Together they walked down the back stairs that led to the kitchen. This was a narrow, dark hallway with only one window to light their way and he followed behind her. "You can't dance with the same girl more than three times in a night, dancing more than two waltzes means something, but I'm never quite sure what." He laughed at his own ignorance. "I will never understand what is so, um," he fumbled for the word he wanted.
"Provocative?" Victoria assisted.
"Yeah, provocative about a waltz. You want to see provocative, you should see some of those Spanish dances."
Silas came into the kitchen as Victoria was putting away her supplies and offered to help, quickly washing up the pan with hot water off the back of the stove.
Johnny moved to stand near the kitchen table out of the way. He watched the two people working side by side as they made casual chatter about preparations for supper.
Victoria Barkley, ever the gracious hostess, turned to include her guest in the conversation. "Well, if I can't give you a party, do you have favorite meal?"
"According to Teresa, hot food is my favorite."
"There must be something you like," she pressed and Johnny could see Silas, behind her, waiting for the answer.
His thought about enchiladas and refried beans that were the comfort food of his youth, but he didn't think that would be something that this family was likely to enjoy. Even Murdoch who had lived in California for the last twenty years wasn't overly fond of some of his favorite dishes. Then he considered the changes that had come to his life in the last few months. "I've come to like a lot of food I've never eaten before, so you pick and as long as it's not liver, I promise to show up."
Victoria smiled and Silas turned away quickly, failing to hide his grin. "It won't be liver."
"Good enough." Johnny turned on his heel and headed out to the foyer to find his hat.
Murdoch had ridden out with Heath that morning. In the afternoon he’d need to go into town and meet with Jarrod. Jarrod would be acting as their attorney at the inquest at the coroner’s office. It was a formality, but not one he relished. On top of having to relive the shooting, Chase and Wills Wade’s father would be there. No matter what those men had done to Johnny he wouldn’t want to be in Wade’s shoes at this painful time. Wade had buried his two sons and Murdoch couldn’t think of a worse thing.
“Everything okay, Mr. Lancer?” Heath finally asked after they’d spent most of the morning riding to the North pasture in silence.
“I’m not such good company today, am I, Heath?” Murdoch shook his head ruefully.
“Somethin’ on your mind?” Heath nudged his horse onto a narrow trail that led down to the meadow below and waited patiently at the bottom for the older rancher to catch up.
“The inquest and…” Murdoch paused, his jaw tightening.
Heath let it hang there in the air for a minute as he started his horse across the meadow. The air was already warm and it would be another hot day in the valley. “And?”
“And.” Murdoch stopped and scanned the sky. Two small brown birds circled and spiked at a red-tailed hawk, chasing it from their territory. “And other things.” He hoped that the blond cowboy would get the hint and move away from the subject just as they were moving away from the foothills.
“Like?” Heath adjusted his hat, pushing it back a little from his face now that the sun was more behind them. He also cast a glance over at the rancher and studied the man on the sly. It was easy to see the pride there, the fierce stubbornness that men like him had used to carve their first toeholds into this territory. There was also a glint of obstinacy that set men like him above the many dreamers that come here, wanting this life yet failing to hang on to it. Nick had it, even Jarrod in some ways. He looked at himself in the mirror in the mornings and wondered if he had it. He loved this land, and would work it until the day he died, but he was never sure that he could have built it, from the ground up, as Murdoch Lancer had, and like his own father had.
“I’ve got something to do, that I don’t want to do.” Murdoch purposely made the statement as vague as possible.
“Just do it and get it over with. Sometimes the thinking of it is worse than the doing.”
Murdoch nudged his horse forward a few steps so that he could look at Heath more carefully. “Did you ever meet your father?”
“No.” Heath was surprised at the change of subject and turned startled blue eyes on the big rancher.
“You sound just like him. Although I don’t remember him having that drawl.”
“My mother was from Kentucky. Her and my Aunt Rachel raised me. They’d come west with my Uncle Matt and his wife and Aunt Rachel’s beau, but he died on the way across. They settled in Strawberry when it was a going concern.”
“I remember Strawberry and some of the other mines Tom bought. I’ve never liked mining. I don’t like those small, dark shafts. I need the sun on my face.” There, he’d done it, he’d changed the subject.
“There’s more than one way to find yourself in a hole.” Heath remarked blandly, but he knew what he was doing. “Avoiding the tough things don’t get the job done.”
Murdoch fumed. He was not as good at this as he thought, and the fact that Heath was so much like his old friend was very disturbing. He pulled back on the reins and stopped his horse. The bay put its head down and nibbled at the tops of the summer grass.
Heath stopped his mount in just a few paces and turned sideways on the trail, tipping his hat back so that he and Murdoch could face each other squarely.
“My son’s mother is alive. The woman that abandoned him was in Stockton the day after Johnny took that terrible beating, and I have to tell him.”
Heath looked down at the ground for a moment, pondering the words he’d just heard then looked up. “Yes, you do.”
“And I don’t want to. She’s a part of the past.”
Heath nodded at that statement. “She’s a part of the present, and maybe the future, and that’s what you’re worried about. Not the past.”
“I don’t want him hurt. Not anymore, not by her.”
“Don’t want him hurt – or you?”
Murdoch blanched and gripped the reins tight, bringing up the horse’s head.
“She’s a big part of your past, ain’t she?” Heath charged ahead, just like he did with Nick. “Are you afraid of the memories she brings up? Are you afraid he’ll want to go find her? Don’t you see, Mr. Lancer, you can make this problem so much bigger in your head. What if you tell him and he doesn’t care? What if he already knows she’s alive?”
Having opened his mouth to declare his reasons for not telling his son, Murdoch now closed it with a snap.
Heath tone was much softer now. “You can’t know how Johnny will jump until you tell him. And until you tell him, all your dwelling on it will just make it worse.”
“A cow in the garden.”
“That’s what my foreman calls a big problem that no one wants to talk about. A cow in the garden.”
“So, you tell me, Mr. Lancer. Is this a little heifer you can get moving with a little prompting, or it all,” Heath paused, but he could tell that Murdoch knew what he was going to say by the way the rancher rolled his eyes, “bull?”
“It’s a good thing you’re not one of my
sons.” Murdoch’s sigh was both exasperation and amusement.
Murdoch rode into Stockton that afternoon. He’d planned to meet Jarrod, who would represent them at the inquest. The air hung hot and heavy and fit his mood.
He wanted to stall, dreading the legal proceedings he was about to address, so he slowed his horse and appraised the town.
Something about how the area had acquired its name, due to the political infighting between Stockton and Fremont, had left a bad taste in his mouth. This trip didn’t improve his opinion of the big, sprawling town.
In the back of his mind he knew that Morro Coyo and Green River would grow like this, or disappear into the landscape. Aggie’s new husband, Buck Addison was putting in a rail spur that was sure to bring in more people and more business to Morro Coyo. He knew that the way of life in his small, sleepy town was soon to change. The growth of Cross Creek, which had been nothing but a ferry crossing four years ago, was the proof of what a train stop could do to a town.
There were some things he could see objectively. There was a greater variety of stores and supplies. There were bookstores and candy shops, milliners and haberdasheries. He also knew there were other streets lined with nothing but saloons and brothels. Stockton boasted an Opera House and a Theatre but he also knew there were opium dens and gambling houses.
Money flowed down river from San Francisco and Sacramento and was building Stockton into a bustling industrial center. But the veneer of respectability was thin in places, like the whitewash on the picket fences around the well-manicured lawns.
He liked the small, community-mined minded town of Morro Coyo and felt like it was a part of his family; unruly, a little wild, and growing up fast. Riding down that wide, dusty street he longed for his own home. All the hospitality of the Barkley’s was no substitute for his own house, his own furniture to sit on, where he could put his feet on the coffee table if he felt like it. With a shift of his shoulder he realized he was soul sick for his own ranch and his own work.
Turning off the main street he made his way to Jarrod’s office. The office was on a well-kept street and an ornate shingle hung from the awning. Tying his horse to the hitching post he put a hand to his back to ease the ache and went inside. Jarrod had tried to assure him that it was just a formality, but there was a nagging voice in the back of his mind that warned him that things might not go as planned. He was gratefully surprised that all went quickly and smoothly with Jarrod handling the proceedings.
That afternoon the house was full of activity. Preparations for a fancy supper were well underway. Extra help had come into the kitchen and Johnny had to maneuver his way around a crowded table to get to the coffeepot.
“Mister Johnny, you are not supposed to be in here,” Silas chided as he put a bowl of stew into the young man’s hands and steered him toward the dining room.
Johnny ate at the table alone, enjoying the quiet, but still wishing he was outside. He stretched and scratched at his stitches, before reaching for the salt.
Audra breezed in a minute later. “Oh, you’re here.” She smiled at him in a slightly distracted way.
“Am I in the way? I can move.”
“No, no.” Smiling again, she pulled out a chair and sat in the chair across from him. “I left that book of sonnets on my desk. I was hoping we could go over one of them, but I won’t have time today.” Idly, she untied the bow at the back of her neck and then retied it.
“Audra, you don’t need to entertain me.”
“I know.” Her cornflower blue eyes danced with merriment. “But I love the look on Nick’s face when he thinks you’re sparking me.”
Johnny chuckled at her teasing comments. There was no romantic feeling between them, and they both knew there never would be, but Audra had decided that she wanted to tease her brothers with the thought that she might marry and move away. She had no intention of marriage, yet, and Johnny respected her wish to see more of the world. He only hoped that Teresa would feel the same. The thought of Teresa marrying out of a sense of duty or social pressure made him want better things for her.
“I was going to go out in just a bit. Stretch my legs.”
“Just don’t go far. Mother has plans for an early supper.”
“I promise I won’t get into any trouble.” He grinned at her before pushing his now empty plate in her direction.
“Oh, don’t worry. Mother’s already made Nick promise to make sure you don’t.” She left the table, his bowl in hand, without a backward glance and a laugh at his indignation.
Johnny went out the front door, through the lavish gardens and wandered the grounds until he found himself standing by the horse corrals. A few minutes later Nick came and stood next to him. "How ya' feeling?"
"Sick of being housebound," Johnny tone was light and a sparkle was back in his eyes. "And by the way your books are caught up."
Nick chuckled as he pushed his hat back and leaned his forearms on the top rail of the corral. "Scott told me about that Palomino stallion you ride. He says you've got him real well trained."
"It's not hard, they're smart horses." Johnny turned his back to the corral and leaned his back against the fence rail, toeing a furrow in the loose dirt.
"Too smart, if you ask me," Nick muttered. "I don't have a lot of use for Palominos. They tend to sunburn and they've been known to be ornery."
Johnny chuckled. "Show me a single cow pony that hasn't been known to be ornery."
Nick bent down and picked up a stray piece of straw. "My Uncle Jim sent Audra down a little mare earlier this year. She's a pretty little thing, but she's only half broke." Nick cleared his throat. "The mare, not my sister."
Johnny's question about why the mare was still untrained was obvious on his face and a hint of a smile twitched on his lips.
"She's a smart little thing." Nick grinned and shook his head. "The mare, not my sister. I mean my sister is too."
Johnny tipped his hat back exposing his face to the evening sun and grinned up at Nick.
"You know what I mean," Nick growled. "This mare, she's the type that'll ride under a low hanging limb when you're looking away, rub you against the fence, back step while you're opening a gate."
Johnny laughed. "So?"
"She's got good confirmation, and…"
"I know, she's smart."
Nick nodded. "I was wondering if maybe you wanted her. Heath says he could train her, but neither of us ever seem to have the time." Nick waved to a hand that led a beautiful four-year-old mare out of the barn. Her confirmation was good, and her coat was creamy with a blonde mane and tail. She had clear, warm brown eyes and stood about 15 hands high. The ranch hand leaned over to tie the reins to the fence when the mare began to side step and almost pinned the man between her and the fence. He skirted out just in time with a glare.
Johnny chuckled and held his hand out, fingers flat and the mare nuzzled his palm. He rubbed her muzzle with one hand and tugged her forelock with the other.
"Her name is Buttercup." Nick offered as he pulled his black Stetson lower to shield his eyes from the mid-morning sun.
Knowing full well that plugs were often given names like Lightning or Dynamite, Johnny wasn't the least bit surprised at the gentle moniker for the feisty mare. He crawled through the fence rails with only a small grimace as the stitches in his side pulled and ran a gentle hand over the mare's flanks. She stood quietly under his hands.
Nick watched carefully as Johnny crooned softly to the horse in low tones, his hands never leaving the horse. Johnny checked her feet, lifting each hoof, ran a hand up under her mane, checked her eyes and teeth. The mare remained docile and even seemed to lean into his hands. Not once did Nick see the peckish behavior that he'd come to associate with this animal.
Johnny nodded as the mare again nuzzled his hand and wished he had an apple or a carrot to give her as a treat. "How much?"
"Nothing," Nick shook his head and rubbed a knuckle under one eye. If he hadn't seen it with his own eyes, he wouldn't have believed the good nature of this animal.
Doubt clearly showed on the younger man's face. "She's a fine animal, Nick."
"She's no good to me." How could he put a price on the fact that Johnny had saved his sister, no matter how many times Johnny insisted she was in no real danger? "I'd hate to put her out just to breed with the jug heads and ruin her line. Murdoch has mentioned that you have 600 head of Palominos. Take her, you'll be doing me a favor."
Johnny grinned. He wasn't buying this story for a minute. "Let me pay you what she's worth, Nick."
"Don't insult me." Nick put his fists on his hips and glared at the young cowboy. "Do you want her or not?"
"Sure, Nick, sure."
"Fine then," he put out his hand and they shook to seal the deal.
In the distance, Johnny could see Murdoch riding in with what must be Jarrod.
“Think you’re going to jail?” Nick teased. For some reason he liked this dark-haired cowboy that reminded him so much of Heath.
“Think your sister will bake me cake and visit me everyday if I do?”
Nick laughed. “Not if I have anything to say about it.”
“I don’t think you have as much control over her as you think.” Johnny teased back.
“Johnny-boy, you have no idea.”
Together they moved to the barn as the two men dismounted.
Jarrod passed the reins to a hand and made quick brushing movements at his jacket. “Nothing to worry about, Johnny.”
“Good,” Johnny nodded and extended his hand. “Thank you, Jarrod.”
“My pleasure and if you,” he turned to exclude Murdoch in the conversation. “If you or any of your family needs any other legal advice, you feel free to contact me.”
Nick leaned in as if to impart a secret. “At the usual fee, of course.”
Jarrod gifted his brother with an indulgent
smile. “I’m not a charitable institution, Nicholas.”
"We better get into supper, Mrs. Barkley is making something special, and I'm afraid if I make her mad she'll make me go back to bed."
Nick laughed again, a big jolly sound, and moved down to open the gate and after waiting for the younger man to pass through, he pushed the latch back into place. "She would never do that," it was difficult for Nick to keep the laughter out of his voice.
"She might adopt you, though," Jarrod added.
Dinner was a boisterous affair. The meal came served in a silver dish and was brought to the table flaming.
Johnny pushed his chair back a little from the table and hooked his thumb into the waistband of his trousers, pulling the taut fabric away from the one last spot on his side that ached.
He watched the conversation fly around the table. Scott and Jarrod were arguing politics; Heath and Nick were hashing out details of a cattle deal. Looking down the table he observed his father and Victoria leaning close together, speaking in hushed tones, and idly wondered it there was anything more between them than he could see.
That left Audra. Johnny looked up and met her gaze. Her blue eyes sparkled with an internal spark of mischief. He couldn't help but stare down at his plate even as he found himself grinning.
She rested her elbows on the table and her chin in her hands. A quite unladylike position for all her formal manners. "I'm glad you came," she said in a whisper soft voice.
"It's been fun."
Her laughter was light and airy. "Liar," she teased.
He grinned and toyed with his fork. "Well," he started but she cut him off.
"Will you come visit again?"
"I'm sure we will. I'd like to come back and see the rest of the ranch."
She grinned, knowing how frustrated he'd been at having to be kept off a horse. She folded her napkin and set it on the table. The conversation was slowing down, coming to a natural lull.
"Shall we move into the library?" Victoria started to rise and Murdoch was quick to rise and pull out her chair. Offering his arm, they moved from the dining room and down the hall.
The next morning was a clear day and they all rose early. They would have to get to town early enough to load the stock on the train before it left at noon. Victoria had prepared a breakfast feast and the families assembled, filling the dining room with a cheerful hum of noise. She sat in her usual place at the table and watched as they reacted to each other. Out of the corner of her eye she saw that Murdoch was doing the same.
Nick and Scott were in a heated, but friendly discussion over the merits of planned wilderness areas. Heath and Johnny, who had started off with such a rocky beginning, we now discussing different horse breaking and breeding techniques. Jarrod, who was sitting at the other end of the table, was observing both conversations with an amused look on his handsome features.
Murdoch leaned over toward Victoria and smiled. "It's nice to see them all get along."
She smiled back and patted his hand. "It's the way it was supposed to be. Tom used to talk about it happening. He always knew that someday you'd have your boys with you."
Murdoch shook his head, regret tinting his words. "He always had more faith in me than I did."
"Stubborn Scottish pride, Murdoch Lancer." Victoria's smile softened her words. "All you needed was time."
"Well, with Johnny it was a little more than pride. The boy was a bit on the elusive side." He cut his steak with angry movements.
"I never did hear the whole story of how you found him." Setting down her silverware she leaned in, as Nick was getting more verbose in his descriptions.
"I hired Pinkertons. I'd hired detectives off and on over the years, but Pinkertons came with such a good reputation. Well deserved as you can see. He found a record where Johnny Lancer had been arrested, but Johnny Madrid signed for his possessions. It was much easier to track Johnny Madrid, as you can guess. But the agent had to go to Mexico to finally find him." Conversation at the table had come to a halt and Murdoch realized that all eyes were on him. Murdoch cleared his throat and continued. "He and Scott showed up at the same time. When you consider the odds it's pretty impressive. Scott having to take a ship to San Francisco and then an overland from there to Morro Coyo and Johnny taking the train from Mexico City to San Diego and from there he bought a horse and rode up the coast road."
"Until my horse stepped in a hole and left me afoot." Johnny said with a shake of his head. "I sold her to a farmer and caught the stage about ten miles outside Morro Coyo."
"Mr. Wilson thinks he half stole that horse from Johnny and he's still guilty over it," Scott laughed.
"He didn't steal it, I gave it away." Johnny pushed his plate away with a frown and leaned in conspiratorially to Nick, "And good riddance. The animal was a plug."
"Wilson loves that horse. Thinks it's the best animal he's ever owned."
"Wilson's not a very good judge of horseflesh." Johnny rolled his eyes in Heath's direction, who chuckled.
"As I was saying," Murdoch continued. "They both showed up on the same day. Together, they managed to get rid of Day Pardee and his crew and…"
"Johnny threw himself in front of a bullet that day, too," Scott interrupted with a grin at Nick.
Johnny rolled his eyes dramatically again and cast a pleading look at Mrs. Barkley. "I didn't throw myself in front of a bullet. I just didn't manage to get out of the way."
"Don't forget, you promised me you'd practice ducking," Murdoch interjected.
"I give up." Johnny rested his head in his hands as everyone around the table laughed.
"So, Scott," Jarrod diverted the attention away from Johnny. "How are you liking it out west?"
Scott ran a finger over the edge of his coffee cup as the table grew silent waiting for his answer. Johnny raised his head and looked at his brother sideways wondering what was taking so long. "Jarrod," Scott shook his head and a tiny smile twitched at the corner of his lips. "There aren't words. I'm busting my," he cleared his throat. "I'm working harder than I ever have. I'm learning something new everyday. I'm up early and doing things I'd never have dreamed of five years ago. I can't imagine being anyplace else."
"Apparently there are words," Johnny said with a grin.
"Victoria, I'd love to say we've had a wonderful stay," Murdoch got to his feet.
"Yes, well, it has most certainly been an exciting week."
"And I think your son, Nick, is an instigator. Trying to convince Scott to start a vineyard and Johnny to go into the business of breeding Palomino horses. We are in the cattle business, unless you two forgot."
"I don't foresee a problem with diversification." Scott sipped his coffee.
"Me neither," Johnny added.
“And when you two decide on any business ventures, I’ll be glad to look over the paperwork,” Jarrod joined in, much to Murdoch’s frustration.
“We’re not going into the winemaking business,” Murdoch muttered before draining the last of his coffee. "We have a cellar full of fine wines. So, gentlemen, we'd better get going." Murdoch growled and turned his attention back to their hostess, taking her hand in his. "Victoria," he smiled before pressing his lips to the back of her fingers, "I don't have the words to thank you."
"That's because Scott had them," Johnny said softly to the enjoyment of the group.
She smiled and ignored his comment. "Just tell me you'll come back, and it won't be six years this time."
"It won't be six years."
They made their way out to the front steps where horses were saddled for all of them. Nick and Heath were planning to ride along, to bring the borrowed horses back from the train station.
Johnny lagged behind. "Mrs. Barkley?" She turned and faced him. "Thank you. Not just for the doctoring, but for everything."
"John Lancer," she took his hand in hers and smiled up at him, warmth shinning in her eyes. "You just take care of yourself and come back and see me."
Audra come up behind him, putting a gentle hand on his arm so he turned to face her. Her long blonde hair fluttered in the soft breeze. "And don't forget to come back and see me, too," she said a little over loud and watched out of the corner of her eye as both her brothers stiffened.
Johnny winked at her and kissed her hand. She winked back at him and they both grinned. He moved quickly down the front steps to the waiting horses. He patted Buttercup gently before mounting the sleek mare. She shifted under him and danced in place. He determined it was best if he didn't wait for the rest of them and started out first. Scott rode close behind keeping a watchful eye on both horse and rider.
After the brothers, Heath started the beeves bought at the auction down the trail and the rest followed with Murdoch waiting until the others were on their way.
"Victoria," he said simply.
“Have you told him?”
Warmth flushed his cheeks as he looked away. “I thought at home. I’d be more comfortable there.”
She shook her head. “I understand, but it’s not something you can put off forever.” He nodded, but she could see how uncomfortable he was. She offered him a reassuring smile. "Go take care of your family, Murdoch."
"Tom Barkley was one lucky man." He tipped his hat to her and then to Audra. The bay gelding waited at the bottom of the steps and he mounted swiftly. Jarrod had come out and lifted his hand in farewell and Murdoch acknowledged it before nudging the horse into a trot to catch up with his sons.
The Stockton train station was a noisy, dirty, bustling place. While Johnny got Buttercup settled in her stall in the stock car, and checked on the steers, Scott found himself on the train platform with Heath and Nick. He extended his hand and shook. "So, any words of advice?"
"To get Murdoch to give in and let Johnny and I work a few new projects?"
Nick shook his head. "The only thing I know is patience. My father fully intended for me to run the ranch some day, so I think it was easier for me."
"You've just got to let it be his idea," Heath added softly.
Scott raised an eyebrow in question.
"Bring it up and then let it lie."
"I don't understand." Scott pulled off his tan gloves and tucked them behind his gun belt.
"Same here," Nick added.
Heath smiled a crooked smile and his soft drawl filled the air. "Bring up the idea and then let it go. Wait awhile and bring it up again. Do it a couple of times, soft like. Don't fight about it. Pretty soon, it'll be his idea."
Nick frowned while Scott laughed. "It sounds like you've had some practice with this method. Has this ever worked?" Nick growled.
"How do you think we got that upper ridge meadow irrigated?"
"That was my idea." Nick balled up his fists and put them on hips, squaring his shoulders and glared at his blond brother.
"Sure it was, Nick," Heath grinned.
Scott laughed outright. He looked over when Johnny appeared next to him and nudged his shoulder with his own. Scott couldn't help himself quickly checking his brother over; afraid the journey into town on the spirited mare had been too much for his younger brother.
But Johnny returned his appraising glance with a look of mischief in his clear blue eyes. "Did I miss the joke?"
"No!" Nick growled.
"I'll explain later," Scott said at the same time.
"How much time we got?" Johnny asked looking down at the shadows on the ground to judge the time.
Nick pulled out his pocket watch and checked the time against the time written on the chalkboard. "Only about five minutes."
A single blast from the train signaled the passengers to start boarding.
Johnny sighed. "I was hoping for a beer before we left." He tipped his hat backward so that it hung down his back by the stormstrap. "I get the feeling it's going to be quite awhile before I get to town again."
"Don't you worry, little brother," Scott leaned over and wrapped his arm around his younger brother’s neck. "I promise I'll buy you a beer when we get to Cross Creek."
"I'll hold you to that," Johnny said with a slap at his older brother’s stomach. "Where's the old man?"
Murdoch had come in to pay the freight bill and found himself standing just inside the door to the train station lobby. His eyes scanned the passengers waiting, but he couldn't put his finger on just what he was looking for, until he realized, he was looking for 'her'. His wife. It had been a long time since he thought of her as his wife and not just as Johnny’s mother.
A sudden heavy weight settled on his chest when he remembered how less than a week ago they had stood here, on this very platform, together. He'd never considered the possibility of seeing her again. Feelings he'd thought he'd buried came welling up to choke him.
Part of him thought of wiring the Pinkertons and getting them on her trail. Another part of him thought perhaps it should be Johnny’s decision. Yet another part wanted to bury it in the past, where that decision wouldn’t be necessary. Whatever they might have had was long gone and he was almost afraid of what answers might come in a cream-colored Pinkerton report.
When the train whistle blew to start loading, he realized he'd been standing in the same place for quite awhile. He looked down the length of the platform. Johnny was wrestling with Scott and even from this distance he could tell that Scott was being very careful.
He let his gaze hold on his older son. Scott was long and lean and the sunlight lit him in a golden glow. Murdoch couldn't believe his luck that Scott had not only come at his summons, but had stayed on at Lancer.
Murdoch didn't attempt to fool himself. He knew a major reason that Scott had stayed was because of Johnny. There was something between them from the minute they stepped off the stage and learned of the other's existence. It seemed as if they were determined to make up for the years lost.
He slid his gaze over to look at his younger son. Johnny was shorter and stockier than Scott and reminded Murdoch of his own younger brother, Iain. He wondered if Scott and Johnny would be as close if they had been raised together. He and Iain had been raised together, and they’d never had any of the same interests. And then Iain - no. He cut himself of from thoughts of his youngest, wayward brother.
A sudden realization came over Murdoch. Everything he wanted from Maria was down at the other end of the platform. He took a deep breath and felt the pressure lift off his chest. He adjusted his hat and squared his shoulders.
"Boys, we need to load up."
Scott and Johnny again shook hands with Nick and Heath. "We'll expect you sometime after the fall drive."
"We'll be there, Scott." Nick gave Scott a hearty slap on the back. "And Jarrod says he wants to come, too."
"Patience and persistence," Heath drawled and Scott grinned.
Johnny grabbed the handrail and pulled himself up into the train without ever touching the steps. "Window," he shouted before heading down the narrow aisle to his seat.
Scott shook his head with mild exasperation and followed at a more dignified pace.
Murdoch took one last look at the train station, the town and Nick and Heath Barkley. He tipped his hat in farewell and boarded the train.
The train lurched and he grabbed for the seat back. His sons were sitting across from each other. Johnny was adjusting the curtain that half covered the window. Murdoch almost growled out to leave it alone when he stopped himself. Up until recently he would have given his right arm to have his son alert enough to fidget.
He sat in the seat next to Johnny and their shoulders brushed. Johnny shifted in his seat to give his father more room and when Murdoch looked over he was stunned by the lightning quick smile that came his way.
“I am so glad to be going home.” Johnny poked at the window with a long finger.
“I am, too.” Scott shifted and took off his hat, balancing it on his knee.
Johnny wiggled his leg, which jiggled Scott's causing the precariously balanced hat to wobble. Scott grabbed for it and glared at his younger brother, threatening to swat him with the disturbed hat.
Murdoch knew that usually he’d already be telling them to settle down, but he couldn’t. He just watched their antics with a grin plastered to his face. Never had a man been so happy just to take a train ride. He was going home with both his sons beside him. Tom Barkley wasn’t the only man who was lucky.