As she turned, glass in hand to drink she was startled by Johnny who had crept in stealthily behind her.
“Boo!” he whispered at her playfully in his soft drawl.
Startled more than she ought to be, Teresa jumped, the glass falling, shattering on the stone floor, leaving shiny tracks in the dust of Johnny's boots where the water had splattered.
Automatically they both crouched down; bent-kneed to pick up the shards and banged heads as they did so. Johnny pulled away, looking into her face to see if she were hurt.
“Sorry,” his voice was soft, deep, and questioning. “You sure are jumpy, Teresa. Somethin’ worryin’ ya?”
Teresa stayed in a crouch, gathering glass pieces into the folds of her skirt. Her face reddened, “No,” she replied, a little too quickly. “You just surprised me. I didn’t hear you.”
Johnny added a couple of pieces to her collection, “Looks like all of it.”
Teresa noticed that he was still looking into her eyes and she felt uncomfortable. She had not noticed before how much those deep blue eyes could search when they made contact. They seemed to be reading her mind; as if he were making a direct connection from her own hazel eyes to the secret she was trying to hide.
His cry aroused her to the fact that he had moved his hand down against his heel in order to balance more easily and was now raising it into the space between their chests to examine it. Johnny's cry broke the spell allowing Teresa to shift her gaze to Johnny's hand. He looked at it for a split second of surprise, then quickly drew it to his eyes to examine it.
“Oh you’ve cut yourself. Here-“
She reached for the hand but
Johnny was already unbending to stand above her sucking at the heel of
his palm. Droplets of blood stained his lower lip. He mumbled around the
Teresa quickly stood up, grabbed a rag from the shelf and moistened it with water from the pump a When she turned around; she was amused by the mock pitiful look Johnny was giving her.
“Here, let me see it.” Taking control, she reached for his wrist and pulled it towards her, and smiling, studied the cut. It was small but deep and was still oozing blood. She pressed the cloth onto it. Johnny winced.
There was a tender look about her face as she clasped the cloth around his hand. She could feel the heat radiating from his body and sensed that he was unnerved by her closeness. She wondered at his reaction for she had never noticed him react to her with discomfort before. There was a faraway look in his eyes as if he were seeing something else, something not in the room at all. The she saw his unhurt hand raise and drift over the strands of hair that lay on her shoulders. He rubbed the hair between his fingers as if he was seeing it for the first time. Then before she knew it he was staring into her eyes again and the distance between their faces had narrowed. She could feel his breath warm her face.
Teresa broke the spell by whispering his name. Her face was flushed with embarrassment and confusion. She turned away to put the glass with the trash. Johnny remained where he was, frozen; hand still raised a bemused expression on his face.
Teresa dusted off her hands and drew in a deep breath before turning back to face him, her eagerness returning.
“Johnny, can you keep a secret?”
He appeared to recover his senses, and he slouched down in the wooden chair by the kitchen table where he stared at the burn marks that Teresa knew were a faded reminder of an arm wrestling match with Scott.
“What do you mean?”
Johnny had turned from fingering the stains to look at her again. Scott had told her that the reason Drago had wanted to kill his brother was because of an infatuation a 14-year-old girl had for him years ago. Some memory about it was obviously worrying him. Teresa wondered if maybe it would be better if she just sneaked up to her room and ignored the strange feelings that had just passed through her. Who knew how Johnny would react when she told him her secret. Still she was burning with a desire to tell someone, each day she was having more difficulty keeping it to herself. After all what fun was to be had in feeling like this when you couldn’t share your excitement with someone else? Then again, was Johnny the right person to tell? She hadn’t the courage to tell Murdoch yet, and Scott was too, well far too sensible. Johnny however had that air of mischief about him. She hoped he would approve.
He was still staring at her, waiting for her to continue, possibly noticing her hesitancy,
“Well? What dya want to tell me?”
“Johnny, how did you feel about seeing her again,” Teresa indicated the stained table top with a nod of her head. He responded by staring down at his hands which he now clasped one in the other.
“I didn’t remember her, not really anyways. I guess I recognised her face some, but I sure didn’t know her name. She was just a kid.”
“Violet, Scott told me, her name was Violet.”
“Violet,” Johnny’s voice was soft, “I guess I never did know her name.”
Teresa yawned over widely.
“I’m going to bed now Johnny.
You sure your hand is better?”
Johnny nodded at her, lifting his hand up to show the cut, clean and no longer bleeding, “Sure, it’s fine. But, hey, you were about to tell me something-“
Teresa hardly heard his last
words as she drifted out of the room towards the stairs, chewing thoughtfully
on a strand of hair.
And so it was that less than an hour later, they set off in the bright sunshine, Teresa clutching her precious bag, and Johnny, the lines loose around his fingers, grinning widely.
“What’s so funny?” Teresa asked him when she could bear no longer to see him amused without, as far as she could see, any good reason.
“Oh, just enjoying this fine morning.”
“No, I know you, Johnny, it’s something more than that. Are you laughing at me?”
“Well,” he replied, not taking his eyes away from the road ahead, “You sure look funny holding on to that great bag there. I was imagining what might be in it.”
Teresa clamped her lips firmly together. She had no intention of letting Johnny know now, not when he was so obviously amused by her attempts to keep the contents of her bag safe. She had seen him glance sideways at her several times as they rounded corners. She was also pretty certain that he was doing his best to unseat her. He really could be quite mean to her sometimes. To think she had almost told him her secret the night before. She held her precious cargo gently against her body, looked out over the range in an attempt to avoid his eyes completely, and promised herself she would never tell.
It seemed an interminable journey and Teresa was soon bored of the silence. Johnny could be such fun when he was in a good mood and now she was regretting having rebuffed his first few attempts at engaging her in conversation. Furthermore, the bumps in the road had grown more frequent and Johnny seemed to be taking some of the bends at an unusual speed. She was determined not to speak to him even if it meant travelling in discomfort. Her father’s comment about her mother’s desire to “cut off her nose to spite her face” came to her mind, for some reason. He hadn’t often talked about her mother but when he did, Teresa committed it all to memory, even if most of it was negative. It had seemed to her, lately, that she was becoming more and more like her mother: stubborn and determined to do her own thing. She was finding it quite exhilarating.
As they approached Morro Coyo, it seemed to her that Johnny relented a little and he slowed the pace of the horse. Teresa shifted in her seat to get more comfortable; her arms were aching with the unwieldy bag and its contents. As she moved her head around she caught Johnny staring at her, all traces of humor gone now. She waited for him to speak first, unwilling to show a weakening of her resolve.
“Ya know Teresa, you shouldn’t be keeping secrets from Murdoch. You should tell him-whatever it is. And if you really can’t tell him, well you know,” his voice dropped so low she had to strain to hear him add, “You can always trust me. I won’t let you down.”
They were entering the main street now, full of people going about their business, strolling on the boardwalk, and visiting the stores. Weary horses tethered at street rails, nickered softly and tossed their manes. Teresa enjoyed watching the activity around her; she particularly liked to look at the women to see what fashion was popular, what kind of hat she should wear, how to walk finely. It was all very well living with a bunch of men on a ranch but it was no place to learn how to become a lady. When Johnny had given her a few dollars to buy a dress a year ago, she had stored the money in her treasures box. She’d had no idea how to go about choosing a dress. Later, when he had returned to the ranch and it looked like this time it was permanent, Johnny had asked her to show him the dress she had bought. Embarrassed she had admitted to him that she still hadn’t got one. Scott had heard and had immediately taken her to Spanish Wells and helped her choose something a girl back east would approve of, even though he had to lend her a dollar so she could buy it. They were good brothers to her; maybe she should trust them with her secret.
Then she remembered exactly what it was she was involved in, and the way her brothers could be over-protective of her and made her decision. Giving him what she hoped was her sweetest and most innocent smile she replied,
“What secret is that Johnny? You know I would never have secrets from you men. Not ever.”
She swung herself round and clambered down from the seat, not letting her grip on the bag relax for even a second. She knew how fast Johnny’s reflexes were and she did not care to give him the slightest chance to grab her bag and look in it.
“I’ll be over in the new Church
Hall. A Women’s Meeting. You can pick me up from outside the livery
in two hours. I’m sure you’ll find plenty to amuse yourself here
The sun was high in the clear blue sky, when slightly more than two hours later, Teresa waited outside the Livery, bag on the ground by her feet, impatiently tapping the toes of one foot on the dusty earth. Pulling off her hat to smooth her hair down, she shook out the long tresses and stretched her neck muscles. She could only imagine what was keeping Johnny-probably a card game or an old girlfriend; the sort of pull he found irresistible. He may have generally settled down to ranch life, but the desire to cut loose was ever-present.
She was sure he had the means to measure the time, she’d seen him take an old gold pocket watch out of his pants on several occasions; a watch that looked ever so much like one Murdoch used to own. She knew she must not get too angry with her adopted brother; after all he had lived most of his life without the need for timekeeping, had probably never even owned a watch before. Sometimes she envied him his lack of attachment, of responsibilities; but not now, not when it was she who was relying on him to take her home. Tired after the day’s activities, she was longing for a soak in a warm tub to ease out her stiff muscles. When he finally arrived, she was going to give Johnny a lecture on the importance of timekeeping and how discourteous it was to leave a young lady standing outside alone in the afternoon sun in the middle of town.
In order to pass the time somewhat more entertainingly, she recalled the commotion outside the church hall not long after she had arrived. The windows were too high to make out precisely what was happening, all she could ascertain was that someone had had a fight or maybe an accident. There had been a lot of scraping and scuffling noises followed by a thud and a yelp of pain and the sound of something heavy falling over. Then there was a low murmur of different voices that faded gradually into the distance. She’d lost track of what was happening outside as her attention was drawn once more to the activity in the hall.
She speculated on what it was that had happened and came to the conclusion that someone had been touching up the paintwork and had fallen off the ladder. Being a kind natured type of girl, she privately wished the workman well and hoped he hadn’t broken any limbs.
“Afternoon, Miss Teresa.”
Teresa nodded back at the
blacksmith who disappeared through the great doors of the Livery. She wondered
if she had imagined the crooked grin he had tried to hide as he addressed
her. It seemed almost mocking. She was getting embarrassed
now as standing out here was drawing a lot of unwelcome attention from
passers by. She was contemplating going over to the saloon herself to drag
Johnny out when the object of her ire rounded the corner. Relieved,
she rather firmly replaced her hat, picked up her bag and began to march
purposefully towards him her mouth in a thin line, hoping to show Johnny
from the way she held herself that she was far from pleased with his tardiness
and would brook no excuses.
As Teresa approached him, it seemed to her that Johnny was limping slightly and that when he saw she was scrutinising him, he straightened up some. He was decidedly unsteady on his feet, which confirmed her suspicion about him having been delayed in the saloon. She was relieved now that she had not gone to look for him, for who knew what sort of company he was keeping there. To Murdoch’s dismay, he often remarked that he had a reputation to maintain. Johnny was still a puzzle to her; she would think she had worked him out then he would just up and surprise her by doing something totally unexpected.
Together they walked round to the buckboard, Johnny lagging behind a little, Teresa assumed because he was trying to avoid her for fear of her wrath. They climbed up to their seats in silence, Johnny taking up his position as driver awkwardly. Good, she thought, maybe he wouldn’t be able to drive so fast if he were, stiff and she would have a more comfortable journey home. It was probably the result of sitting over long in a saloon chair playing poker, or possibly, as he seemed to have some discoloration on his face, he had gotten into a brawl. She could not help remark how quietly he took up the lines and how he was holding them in one hand, keeping his left tight against his side. He would not look at her, even though he must have been able to sense her own intense scrutiny of him. His were such familiar features to her she took them for granted, yet at this moment she could not help thinking that even bruised, his face was pleasing to look at. And so, she continued to stare and enjoy the view. Yes, the bruises seemed consistent with a brawl, and that was a common occurrence where Johnny was concerned. Why -he had been banned from the Red Dog a few months back for damaging the stock and furniture. Teresa was annoyed that she had not discovered the reason for the fight and pondered whether it would be a good idea to trade secrets- whether she could offer to tell Johnny what she was doing in exchange for the story behind The Big Brawl, as she now chose to call it. It had fallen to her to nurse him for a few days afterwards because he’d been so sore with his cuts and bruises.
He raised the lines with difficulty
and urged the horse forward with a click of his tongue and so they began
what threatened to be a tense journey back to the ranch.
Teresa was finding the lack of communication unbearable. Her innate stubbornness stopped her from initiating a conversation, yet she could not bear the atmosphere of tension the silence created. She wanted Johnny to ask her about the bag so that she would have an excuse to tell him- but he would not oblige now. The unfairness of the situation cut into her; why had he lost interest in her affairs? Really, men could be far too complicated and unpredictable in their behaviour. How much more dependable were women. Of course, she could not count Murdoch amongst those inconsistent men; he never let her down. Tomorrow she planned to ask Scott to take her in to town for he would surely show more interest in her affairs than his brother was doing. It was getting to the stage that Murdoch would be asking her what was going on; and it was inevitable that he would find out sooner rather than later. It was not easy to keep secrets in a small community and Murdoch in particular seemed to have a very wide circle of contacts. There had been a close call only last week when she had aroused his suspicions by asking for help with the cooking on Maria’s day off. She was still uncertain if her excuse of needing a rest from all the chores for a while in lieu of a vacation had been totally accepted. Nevertheless, Murdoch had conceded and had arranged to employ a young niece of Maria’s in short order.
Her train of thought was interrupted by Johnny pulling sharply on the lines bringing the buckboard to a sudden halt by a scrubby clump of mesquite and some cottonwood trees. He was bending awkwardly over his stomach, his knuckles white where they gripped the leather straps and she could see now how dishevelled he was, his clothes more than usually dusty, his hand crooked and dented, a stain of blood on his jacket. Bent double as he was, she could not make out the expression on his face, however the hurried panting issuing from his mouth was cause for a little alarm. Was he having difficulty breathing? Although he did not respond when she called his name, she was still cautious. Johnny was not averse to playing tricks on her-pretending he was hurt then coming to life suddenly and unexpectedly to frighten her. There were times when she found his sense of humour totally incomprehensible.
Turning from him in irritation, she gazed over at the cool shade of the cottonwoods, noting how the leaves waved lazily in the breeze. The gentle sound of running water was borne on that breeze and it seemed to her the most compelling urge was to go cool her hands and face in its freshness and rub away some of the cloying trail dust.
Her reverie was broken by Johnny’s muffled complaint about having a sore head and wanting a drink of water. Teresa wondered if this was a ruse to get her to leave her bag unattended so she held on to it with one hand, twisted round in her seat and hooked a canteen from out of the back of the buckboard with her free hand. She shook it and heard the satisfying splash of water before offering it to him as she turned back.
“Much obliged,” he whispered as he received it, then he proceeded to unscrew the cap one handed in a manner that impressed her, took a couple of sips then bent back his head, his hat falling backwards, to pour the rest of the water over his face. He shook his wet hair like a dog does then turned and grinned at her. She couldn’t suppress the thought that whatever hurt he was feeling was well deserved. Then the grin faded, his face went completely colourless in the space of a heart beat and peculiar noises issued from his throat. He dropped the canteen as if it were on fire and groped blindly at her precious bag. She whisked it away deftly and pushed his head down between his knees. There was no way he was going to empty the contents of his stomach into her bag.
Johnny’s response to her brusque action was to yelp in pain. Thankfully, he managed to hold onto whatever noxious brew he’d consumed in the saloon thus sparing her the indignity of cleaning him up. He remained bent over and groaning in a pitiful way. Teresa hardened her heart; he did not deserve her sympathy. After all, she had seen him the worse for drink far too many times.
When the groans finally stopped, she took the opportunity to address his bowed head and the hat dangling from its straps, still secured to his neck.
“What’s going on?”
He spoke into his linked hands, “I saw yer.”
“What do you mean, you saw me? Saw me where?” She could not stop her voice from quavering. What on earth had he seen?
“In the hall. I saw yer…with that old feller.”
She bent to hide her reddening cheeks and told him she had no idea what he was talking about.
His voice was a whisper as if it hurt him to say the words, “I saw you holding his hand - a feller as old as Murdoch. It ain’t proper. You ought to be ashamed.”
Teresa finally responded with indignation, “Johnny Lancer. How could you see anything? You must have been peeping. Why the windows on the outside must be eight feet high; you’d have to have climbed up-“
The realisation dawned on her as soon as the words left her mouth. “It was you - that noise and commotion. It was you! Why you peeping Tom-you were spying on me!”
Johnny turned his head round to look at her with a blue-eyed stare. Teresa stared back unwilling to back down, a face off. How dare he spy on her? The fingers of his right hand were by his gunbelt, twitching. She got the impression that had she been a man he’d have most likely drawn on her.
Jumping down from the buckboard seat in annoyance, she walked over to the shade of the cottonwoods and turned her back to him.
“You had no right. No
right at all.”
Johnny did not follow her; rather he remained seated, his posture stiff, left arm hugging his midsection. Teresa folded her arms across her body and toed a clump of sagebrush with her boot.
“I have a right to privacy.” She hoped her voice would carry to him and not be caught by the wind. “I don’t pry into your dealings. I respect your privacy.”
His reply showed that indeed he had heard, “It ain’t right you keeping secrets.”
Teresa was angered even more by this. “And why not? You are a fine one to talk about secrets. Why your whole past is one big secret. Not to mention your present. You are always going off after supper to who knows where. And no one pries. Why can’t I have a life of my own without you men poking your noses in?” She kept her back rigid towards him, unable to look at him for fear of bursting into tears.
“Cos yer just a girl, that’s why.”
There, he’d said it. She’d been expecting just that comment.
“You make me feel trapped. I feel sometimes as if I have three fathers and when Jelly starts fussing, I feel like I have four. I want you all to start trusting me to be able to make my own decisions.” Now she’d unburdened herself she felt she could face him, so she turned round to see him begin to rise from his seated position. She watched him forsake his usual grace to struggle down as if from a fractious horse. He tottered unsteadily before regaining his balance and taking a hesitant step towards the trees, towards her.
Teresa was so cross with him she chose to ignore the fact that he was still hugging his side with his elbow and that his head was bowed, chin tucked tightly into his throat. If he’d banged himself up falling off a ladder spying on her then he deserved every bruise, ache and pain. He would get no sympathy from her-she was the real injured party when all was said and done.
She steeled herself to disregard his squeals of pain, turning to pick at the bark of a tree for distraction. She could hear him suck in his breath and the uneven tread of his boot step as he approached. Then his soft drawl close to her ear.
“It’s because we care for you.”
Teresa bit down on her lip hard, drawing a salty bead of blood, in an attempt to halt the tears of frustration brimming in her eyes.
He was so close now she could feel the moistness of his breath on her ear. She raised her knee and kicked the tree trunk with unusual force then leant her forehead against its roughness.
“Don’t, Johnny.” She hadn’t noticed before how warm his breath was, how soft his voice.
”It ain’t right, Teresa. You carrying on like that with a man old enough to be yer Pa. Who is he? I sure haven’t seen him around before now. He got a name?”
His hand was on her shoulder now and she shivered. Brushing it off she pulled her shawl tighter over her arms. She wasn’t going to let him sweet-talk her into revealing anything. She’d witnessed him many a time using that honeyed tone to reduce girls to pathetic simpering puddles of mush. It wasn’t going to sway her, she was made of sterner stuff than the girls he was used to and besides, she was wise to his ways.
“You won’t get round me, you weasel, Johnny Lancer. If I tell anyone before I am good and ready it most certainly won’t be you.”
She expected a witty and cutting retort from him, but when none came, she was disappointed. The only sounds were the soughing of the wind through the cottonwoods, the rushing water and the scrape of the horse’s hooves as it waited patiently on the trail. Then the chink of spurs and the uneven tread of his boots as he turned away. She felt cooler almost immediately. He was obviously returning to the buckboard where she had left her bag. Admonishing herself for giving into anger, she whipped round from her refuge and sprinted after him. He already had his hand on the bag as she reached him.
“No!” she squealed, pushing him out of the way with a well-placed elbow in his ribs. As she pulled the bag into her stomach, she heard him give a grunt, which she ignored in favor of checking her treasures to ensure they were all intact. Sighing relief at finding them undamaged, she clicked the clasp firmly shut and placed the bag in the buckboard.
“Leave it alone. Don’t you ever touch my things again. It’s not funny-”
She was working herself up into a full flow of vitriol when she realised he was not rising to the bait as he normally did. She was disappointed, she’d been hoping for a good verbal sparring with him. Maybe she had been too harsh on him, maybe he was hurt worse than she thought.
Crossing round to the other side of the buckboard, she climbed into her seat to wait for him.
Johnny did not follow her.
He was leaning against the wooden side of the buckboard by the wheel, resting
his forehead on his arm, obscuring her view of his face. She wondered if
he was he laughing at her, but as there was no sound coming from him apart
from the hitch of a gasp, she reconsidered. Perhaps he was really
hurt. She smiled. If he was suffering that was a good thing.
She was quite willing to wait as long as it took for him to come to his
senses and apologise.
Of course Teresa was too impatient to wait long. The sun was hot and her stomach was groaning. She wanted to be home in the shade drinking hot coffee and eating fresh baked cookies.
“You coming?” She finally asked.
He replied uncharacteristically, with a grunt and levered himself away from the support of the wheel. The obvious signs of his distress gave Teresa some degree of satisfaction, enough to soften her a little and rub the edge off her anger.
He was still favoring his side as he crept to the front of the buckboard where he paused swaying slightly. As he steadied himself by clawing at the rail, she could not suppress a giggle. He scowled at her to reveal a face flushed and damp, his eyes oddly bright.
“You can’t say you don’t deserve it.”
He grimaced, “Hurts some.”
“Not sure I care to tell ya, if you’re jus’ gonna laugh at me.”
He truly looked miserable, battered, bruised and forlorn. She asked him if a doctor had looked him over.
“Sure. After a bunch of old women folk told me off for lookin’ in the window. Tried to tell ‘em I was doin’ some mendin’. They wouldn’t have none of it- said my reputation preceded me.”
Teresa told him she agreed with them and that he was wrong to do what he did. “And you still haven’t apologised to me.”
“Ain’t apologising till you explain yourself. I have a right to know.”
Scooting nearer, Teresa studied him, incredulous. He was determined, that was certain. Even more certain was the fact that the more he asked; the less likely she was to tell. She could see now that he was closer that his face was lined in an effort to control the pain and that he seemed to not even have strength to climb up, let alone drive. He rested his head on his hands and sighed loudly.
“What did the doctor say when he saw you?”
She had to strain to hear his hoarse reply, “Well he weren’t ‘xactly a doctor.”
Teresa’s grin widened in delight as she asked him just who did look at him. His answer set her to chuckling aloud-the doc was out of town so Johnny had to make do with an examination from the vet. He complained to her that this vet had been very rough in resetting his dislocated shoulder and had told him to rest up a while. He added that he had goaded him so much that he would have drawn on the sorry excuse for a horse doctor if he hadn’t have been in such agony. Even a glass of beer hadn’t deadened the pain and now he was feeling mighty sick.
Teresa’s resolve weakened
as it always did whenever Johnny cast that hangdog look at her reminding
her of the puppies she never had the heart to give away. She leant
over to feel his forehead, which was slick with perspiration. His
skin was clammy and overly warm- a possible indication of fever. She could
feel heat radiating through his shirt where she held his shoulder, and
the strong curve of muscles beneath the skin. She was near enough to smell
his leathery musty scent and was surprised at the trembling this set up
in her hands. She quickly drew them away and recovered the canteen
in order to avoid letting Johnny see her unusual reaction to his nearness.
She held the canteen tightly whilst her heartbeat returned to its normal
rhythm. This was a strange sensation and she was unable to make any
sense of it.
As Johnny gulped at the water, Teresa questioned him further. She was amused to hear from him that he had only allowed the vet to look at his shoulder and not his ribs. He hadn’t realised how much he’d banged them until they went over the bumpy ground. And now that he was on his feet, he found himself unable to uncurl enough to get back up next to her. Teresa’s amusement turned to concern as he doubled over again making small hurting sounds. She jumped down to stand next to him.
“Let me look, Johnny.”
Turning his back to her, he shrugged the hand she had placed on his shoulder away and wiped his forearm across his brow. Teresa noted how he kept the other arm close in against his ribs.
“Leave me, I’ll be fine, just give me a minute.”
“You didn’t let the vet look? Why Johnny, you could have cracked a rib. Why do men have to let pride stand in the way of looking after themselves?”
She could tell from the way he looked down at the ground that she had hit the mark. He had been too embarrassed to reveal how hurt he was.
“ You must let me look.”
The soft and earnest tone of her voice must have soothed his ego, because Johnny finally did look up at her from his bent over position. His eyes were unfocused at first, but then with effort he seemed to manage to fix her in his sight and give in to her with a deep sigh.
“Feels like I been stepped on by a bull.”
“Here, let me help you sit under the tree.”
Teresa took the canteen from the firm grip of his hand and led him carefully to the shade. He slid slowly down the trunk of the tree and rested legs outspread, almost boneless. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly through clenched teeth. “Whoooweee, Teresa, it hurts some.”
Wincing in sympathy, she gently pulled away the arm that was fixed tightly against his middle as if he were trying to hold something in. He resisted her at first, but then, in response to the no nonsense look she gave him, he relaxed, allowing her to pull his arm away. “Let me see.”
He pulled his shirt slowly out of his pants then paused to catch his breath. Teresa wondered how falling off a ladder had caused so much damage. She continued to watch as he undid the buttons, starting at the bottom, and pulled the two pieces of cotton aside to reveal tanned skin overlaid with colourful bruising on one side.
“Ouch!” she exclaimed, more to break the tense silence than anything. She could see how he was hitching in his breaths as if afraid of the pain of filling his lungs too deeply. His face was turned away from her now; he seemed to be gazing at a far off point, making out something of great interest in the haze.
She raised a hand to probe the area, and with the contact Johnny sucked in his breath with a little gasp and turned back to look at her.
“It needs binding.”
He nodded in response, seemingly
too busy coping with the throbbing in his side to find energy to speak.
Leaving him to recover from her probing, Teresa crossed to the buckboard
and looked around for suitable binding material. There was a little
sacking in there, a couple of canteens, Johnny’s saddlebag and her precious
bag. The only thing that would be of use was in that holdall.
There was no alternative but to use it - Johnny’s ribs needed binding and
the material was more than suitable. She would just have to ignore the
probing questions it would provoke. She picked out her bag in resignation
and carried it back to the cottonwoods where Johnny sat waiting for her.
She was starting to feel a little guilty now for her harsh treatment of
him earlier. She resolved to try to be more sympathetic towards him from
Teresa could feel Johnny’s eyes on her as she stopped a little way from him and crouched down. She was determined not to give him eye contact and instead opened the bag by its large brass clasp and looked inside. She moved away some of the heavier objects, carefully, so they would not be revealed to those prying blue eyes, and pulled out a long gossamer piece of cream silky cloth. It floated behind her as she rose and crossed to the tree. Johnny’s eyes were now fixed firmly on it; he looked entranced by its delicate softness. It was obvious that it had been sent from back east and was out of place in this wild land.
Teresa knelt by him and grasping the flimsy material in both hands and stretched it taut, calculating its length. She figured it was just long enough to go around his body twice and was soft enough not to chafe beneath his shirt. She grinned wryly at his uncharacteristic silence. Maybe he was too surprised at what her bag had revealed to make a comment or maybe it reminded him of something or someone. He sure seemed to have a faraway look in his eyes. One day, perhaps he would tell her some of the secrets from his past.
Johnny was clutching his ribs again; he really looked a pitiful sight. How was she going to get him to release his grip to get the cloth round him? Could he even raise his arms enough for her to bind him? If she were quick about it, she might be able to forestall any questions from him about the material. She decided on a direct approach hoping he would be too startled to argue.
“Raise your arms.”
As soon as he obeyed her with some difficulty and a fair amount of grumbling, she pulled open the shirt and keeping it in place with her elbows, threaded fine cloth around his waist. Her eyes lingered over the bruising and she had to resist the temptation to brush the tips of her fingers over the swollen area on his side and chest beneath the wiry dark hair. The bruising seemed to extend past his gun belt; no wonder he was having difficulty climbing and bending. She wondered how she was going to get him back into the buckboard-was he resilient enough to put up with the discomfort such a movement would cause? She contemplated asking him to remove his gun belt so she could see how much further the bruising spread, but knew that he would tell her that a gunfighter never removes his gun belt outdoors. There was still a lot of Johnny Madrid firmly ingrained in his character. So instead, she apologised.
“I’m sorry I can’t do more than bind you up; it looks very sore. You know you ought to have let that vet take a look. I am no nurse; I’ll just do the best I can here. All right, brace yourself.”
When she pulled tight to knot it in place he hissed in pain.
“Sorry – I’m sure you will start to feel better soon, now that your ribs are bound.”
“Feels like a lasso round me.” Johnny was gasping the words out through tightly clenched lips.
“I think maybe you need to relax a little.” Teresa secured the knot and pulled down the shirt then leant back on her heels so that Johnny had room to breath more easily and so that he could work on fastening the buttons. “You should feel more comfortable,” she stated with more conviction than she felt.
Gradually his breathing seemed to regulate till he was finally able to rest his head back against the tree trunk. He peered at her through strands of hair damp with sweat.
He nodded in response and Teresa felt he was holding something back. She wondered if it was another lot of questions about her friend and her bag.
“I’ll get you some water, the other canteen is still full.”
He nodded again and then shifted a little as if to make himself more comfortable. Taking the bag with her, Teresa retrieved the canteen from the buckboard, and returned to press it into Johnny’s hands. She watched him drink, thirstily from it, gulping the cool liquid down like a horse at a trough. He didn’t take his eyes from her as he drank, as if she was a puzzle he needed to work out.
He handed the canteen back for her to take a swallow and wriggled around some more, “Teresa, you done a good job. Feels a deal better now. I think maybe I’m ready to get back up there.”
His voice sounded full of confidence but that was belied by the expression on his face as he tried to get his legs under him to rise. She dropped her bag in order to free her hands to support him by his armpits and with her help, he managed to stand without much effort.
“I need to get moving so’s I don’t stiffen up,” he told her, brushing her away and testing his balance.
She stepped back to give him room, musing that sometimes he was so much like a wild animal it was a surprise he had remained living with them for so long. She kept herself poised ready to give him further support, all the while hoping he wouldn’t need it.
Sure enough, he managed to get the balance to take a step towards her.
She hovered by his side till he reached the haven of the buckboard where he leant triumphantly and smiled at her in satisfaction.
Teresa picked up her bag and placed it carefully into the back. She looked over at the raised bench seat and sighed.
“Now all we have to do is
get you up there.”
Teresa hoped she would be strong enough to support Johnny’s weight enough to get him up to the seat. If she wasn’t, she would have to try getting him onto the back of the buckboard and she was sure he would not appreciate that. He looked quite small really, but she knew he was a lot sturdier and heavier than one would expect. Nevertheless, he had a sore arm and an injured leg and bruised ribs to contend with. Furthermore, she still had to locate the wound that had caused the bloodstain on his jacket. She was beginning to regret her earlier frivolous treatment of his injuries. If she had taken them seriously, she would have never allowed him to drive.
“Do you think you can do it?”
Johnny looked up at the seat and took in a deep breath to prepare himself for the effort of raising his leg and putting pressure on the one that hurt. He reached up to clasp the rail and tried to muffle the hiss that issued from his mouth.
Before she could react, he was a heap in a cloud of dust on the ground at her feet. The dust seemed to hover for a moment above him, before settling on his clothes and face, coating his long eyelashes.
He lay still for a second before moaning, a small defeated sound. She thought she could hear a stream of Mexican and American expletives; muffled on her account to be sure. The blue eyes revealed themselves in the smudge of his face as he turned his head to look at her, daring her to comment, to make a smart remark. Teresa clamped her mouth shut, bit her lip, and turned away to allow him to regain a more dignified position. When she next looked, he was upright once more and brushing the dust from his studded pants with his hat. Looking for the entire world like a saddle tramp, he straightened up, replaced his hat, wiped his face with the right sleeve of his dirty shirt and lifted a leg slowly up to the step.
She watched him grip the rail again and take a few deep breaths to combat the ensuing agony. She moved closer. However, before Teresa could help him, he had levered himself up on to the bench where he sprawled gasping for a few seconds, eyes clenched shut and knuckles white where he gripped the seat with his good hand.
She waited patiently and quietly till he calmed enough to pull himself upright, then she climbed up beside him.
“Do you want to wait a while before we start off?”
It was all he could do to nod and grunt in agreement, bent over as he was. She couldn’t see his face, but she suspected it was pale and damp with effort and pain.
“Where is it hurting?”
“Everywhere. Specially my shoulder. And my ribs.”
Teresa wished she had something she could give him, willow bark tea, arnica…but there was nothing so useful in her bag. When she left Lancer that morning, she hadn’t planned on playing nursemaid to her adopted brother. She had only had one thing on her mind.
She waited patiently until he indicated his readiness to continue. She clicked at the horse, raised the lines, and tried to set up slow steady pace avoiding holes and bumps in the track. Johnny was a silent companion and time seemed to pass slowly. However, it was not long before Teresa noted the light beginning to fade in the east; there was no way they would reach Lancer before nightfall. Her heart sank. How would they manage through the night out here? She was not used to living rough though the prospect did not scare her, having spent time out doors with her father often enough. She was concerned about caring for Johnny and his injuries overnight. The sooner they were at Lancer, the happier she would be. When she pointed out to Johnny that it would soon be sundown, he looked carefully around to see exactly where they were. He reminded her that they were really not far from an old line shack, which would provide an adequate if not luxurious refuge for them for the night.
Reassured, Teresa urged the
horse on towards their goal before it got too dark to see.
The line shack was a modest log and sod affair and had fallen into disuse. However, it was sturdy enough to provide protection against the elements, and curious wild animals. Teresa was sure there would be a pump, wood, a stove, and a hopefully pallets on the floor - or at least blankets. If they were lucky, there might even be a couple of beds.
They reached it just as the sky was reddening in the west casting a glow on the scrub land around, filtering through the cedars to cast streaks of light onto the woodwork. As Teresa dismounted she thought it looked almost romantic, a deserted hut in a rosy hue in an arboreal haven, lightened even more by the singing of a mockingbird. She brushed the road dust from her skirt and followed the mites as they were lit by the fading sunlight, and she stretched, lengthening her own shadow even further. She patted the horse, and looked around for a place to tether it.
As if he had read her mind, Johnny waved a hand and muttered, “Round back,” then proceeded to manoeuvre himself around and into a position ready to get down and join her. Again, she was too late to get over to help, and before she could move to him, he had launched himself off the buckboard to the ground where he fell in an ungainly bundle of limbs. Teresa could not help but smile, Johnny was usually so graceful and athletic particularly when mounting or dismounting. He lay for a moment staring up at her, then sense of humor returning he chuckled, “This sure is getting old. Help me up.” She grabbed his good arm and hauled him to his feet. He swayed for a moment then with determination, headed for the shack.
Teresa led the horse round the back where she unhitched it and removed the harness. The poor animal was sticky and dusty and in need of food and water. She realised then that she was hungry, and was sure Johnny was as well. She wondered where she would find food here. It was already getting too dark to fish or lay traps. Still, she knew how resourceful Johnny could be and was sure he would think of something. She rubbed the horse down with some long grass, combed it through and then led it to the trough which she pumped full of water so that it could drink. Then she tied it on a long rope, fetched her bag, the saddlebag and the canteens from the buckboard and went into the shack to find Johnny.
She opened the heavy door to find the interior comfortably lit by an oil lamp and Johnny by the rusted iron stove lighting the sticks of wood inside. He blew on the tiny flame, pushed the door shut, shook the match, let it drop to the floor then stood back gingerly. His leg was obviously giving him some trouble and he still held his left arm close against his ribs as if to give them extra support.
He turned as she let the door swing shut and told her to look on the shelves for coffee and a pot or pan, adding that line shacks normally had an emergency stock of victuals-dried stuff on the whole, maybe some cans of tomatoes or beans. She dropped the canteens and saddlebag onto the dirt-encrusted table and went to the back wall where there was a row of sturdy but well-worn shelves.
In amongst the tobacco and the whiskey bottles, she found a couple of small sacks, one containing coffee and the other some sort of hardtack. A further perusal revealed some rusty cans and a coffee pot, which she took to the pump to clean out. The pump itself was stiff but being loathe to ask Johnny to work it, she steeled her muscles and managed with effort to release a trickle of water. By the time she returned to Johnny at the other end of the shack’s only room, she found him seated on a rickety old chair and bent over onto his knees. He had shrugged out of his jacket and had removed his hat so she was able to see a brown stain of blood on the collar of his pink shirt by the knot of his neck. He must have cut the back of his head when he fell.
There was no sound save for his deep breathing as his blew air out from between his lips, and the crackling of the fire licking the dry sticks in the stove.
“Seems this shack hasn’t been much used lately.”
Johnny grunted in resignation and raised his head stiffly to look up at her. He smiled.
“We’ll manage. Should be able to find enough wood to keep the stove burning all night - could get a mite chilly up here.”
Encouraged by his optimism, Teresa set about making coffee. It was nothing like the well-equipped kitchen she was accustomed to at Lancer where there was every new fangled device. Murdoch loved his food and required it to be well prepared, often urging her to experiment with recipes. Since the arrival of Scott and Johnny at the ranch, she had found more ways to cook beef than there were weeks in a year. She put the pot on the stove and cast around for cups. They were used to taking coffee from fine china, purchased by Scott’s mother all those years ago. She could only find one old tin mug, which they would have to share. She rinsed the spiders and dust out of it and set it on the table with a sigh.
“You never been in a line shack before, Teresa?” Johnny was looking at her quizzically, a smirk playing about his lips.
“A couple of times, yes. But I will never get used to them. They are so uncomfortable.”
“Yep, it can get a mite lonely, but then there are the stars to look at in the night, trees in the day. Breathing in the cool air and smelling the sweet cedars and eucalyptus. Sit out there, smoking tobacco in a clay pipe, strumming on a guitar-time to make up some tunes with no one to disturb you. Fine bottle of tequila by your side. Listen to the owl hooting. Sometimes it can calm a man’s soul to be alone awhile. Got to keep your eyes open for the mice though.”
His voice had softened and she looked at him, marvelling at how a man of so few words could come over so poetic at times. He kept so much of himself hidden from his family, that when he let something slip like this it was like a streak of sunlight revealed by a break in the clouds.
“What can we eat? There’s a can of tomatoes I could heat that up, better than nothing I guess. I think the other can might be beans. The other stuff looks unappetising. I could go out and try shoot something if you’ll let me have your gun.”
He laughed. It was a feeble sound, but nevertheless raised her spirits enough for her to continue, “I’m sure I could hit something, a turkey or a rabbit-“
“Or a snake.”
Was he making fun of her again? She could not tell, but knew she shouldn’t have considered asking for his gun. She was beginning to realize lately that there was no such thing as an ex-gunfighter. There were some habits that Johnny would never break, and maybe that was a good thing. His instincts had saved the family more than once.
Despite the weariness his voice revealed, he offered to help, “I’ll have some coffee then I’ll go out and see what I can hit with my knife. Meantime there’s some jerky in my saddlebag. And if you pass me the cans I’ll get them open and we can heat them up.”
Teresa watched him stab the cans with the knife he pulled out of his boot and then she put them on the potbellied stove with the coffee pot.
When she returned to the table,
she saw him wince and favor his side again. He stretched his hurt
leg out to the side and leant back, closing his eyes. The knife fell from
his fingers to lie on the rough-hewn tabletop. Between one sibilant
breath and another, he was asleep.
After two attempts to get them into her mouth by using the knife, Teresa gave up trying to eat the beans. They may have been warm but they were far from appetizing, the taste of metal was too persistent for her to continue. Instead, she chewed on some of the jerky from the saddlebag and sipped at the strong coffee all the while watching Johnny as he slept fitfully. He looked far from comfortable stretched on the old chair, his arms still tense around his middle, he’d be much better off lying down. She wondered whether waking him would be a good idea. She was well aware that you never woke a cowboy, and certainly not a gunfighter by touch unless you wanted a cocked pistol in your face. It was a better idea to call his name if you wanted to rouse him safely. Johnny always rested with his right hand too close to his gun as far as she was concerned, so although she would have liked to throw a blanket over him, she was wary of the consequences of disturbing him.
She thought about an article she had read in a journal recently about head wounds and how they could affect a person many hours after the bang that caused them. Should she wake him and clean the wound up? Or would it be better to just let him sleep it off? At least he was allowing his body to rest and mend itself. She was finding the quietness of the shack a little unnerving- the only sound was apart from the wind outside was Johnny’s uneven breathing. She needed a distraction. She remembered then that in her bag was that poetry book she had been enjoying so much. She had purchased it mail order before Christmas and had only recently got the confidence to read it. Of course, she had kept it well hidden from Murdoch and his sons - it would embarrass her far too much if they caught her reading such poems. Johnny would certainly make fun of her about them.
Opening her bag, she pulled out the slim burgundy leather bound volume. With its gold leaf binding, it was a touch of culture in this frontier land and she treasured it for all that. Before opening it, she raised it to her nostrils and breathed in deeply the scent of Europe, a far off and exotic land of romance where folk had never even seen a buffalo or a cowboy.
She flicked through the pages
to her favorite poem and after taking another sip of coffee, stood up and
began to read in the way she had been taught.
“ I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went--and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light:”
She paused for a second in her rendition, as Johnny shifted position and thought she saw a glimmer of a smile on his lips. The furrows of his brow seemed to smooth a little also. She continued, pacing now and giving more passion to the language.
“ And they did live by watchfires--and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings--the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum'd,
And men were gather'd round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other's face;”
She stopped again as Johnny moaned in his sleep. Perhaps this poem was too gloomy. She had developed a fondness for dark poetry recently, since she had met the person who had taught her how to put feeling into her performance. She often read aloud to Murdoch in the evenings but had never really thought about making the content dramatic because he was happy enough with the way she always did it. It was a wonderful release to be able to put one’s soul into a performance and she relished the euphoric feeling reading in this way gave her. She flicked through the book to find a happier poem and resumed:
.“She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.”
Stopping once again, Teresa sat back down in the old chair and looked at the book. She rubbed her finger over the fine words and mused. Then she opened her bag, pulled out a small notebook and a pencil, and began to write.
On finishing, she read the words aloud, “Oh wouldn’t it be just glorious to have a man write such words for you? Byron’s girlfriend was so lucky to have someone so talented think of her in that way, like she was the most beautiful thing on or above the earth. And to be able to put words together like that. The boys hereabouts think only of beef and horses and drinking and dime novels. They have no style, no finesse, not like-“
Her monologue was interrupted by a scuffling sound as Johnny, in the action of drawing his pistol, almost pitched out of the chair. She froze as his vision cleared, he steadied his hand and realised where he was. He rubbed the hand holding the gun through his hair, and then reholstered it casting an embarrassed smile her way. She closed the books and put them on her lap where they were hidden from his view; the pencil fell to the floor and rolled away.
“What was that?” he asked in confusion, “I heard talking, strange words.”
“I think you were having a bad dream, Johnny. We are in a line shack, remember.”
He frowned in concentration, “ I was dreaming about a fire, the ranch was burning to the ground and I couldn’t see to help. It was frightening. There was a king there too, don’t know how he fitted in to it all, his palace was on fire. Then Mattie came to me out of the sky wearing a long cloak with stars on it. Never had a dream like that before.”
“Do you still think about her, about Mattie? Do you miss her?”
She regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth, for his reaction was to look down towards the floor, his shoulders hunched over.
“Yeah,” he muttered, “from time to time. Still, never had a strange dream like that one about her till now.”
He shook his head, puzzled then winced with the discomfort of the movement. He rubbed the back of his neck and when he brought his hand away, there was dried blood on it. He stared at it for a moment as if he didn’t recognize what it was, before wiping it off on his pants’ leg.
“You fell, remember? Hurt your head and your shoulder. I bandaged up your ribs.”
He moved his hand to his side and let it lie there, against his shirt, “Yeah, I remember. Is it morning?”
Teresa told him he had only slept for less than an hour and that she hadn’t slept at all, yet. She urged him to have a few cold beans but he refused. He had the last of the jerky however and offered to go out to find something she could cook for them both.
“You sure you feel strong enough? You look so pale. And before you could hardly walk properly.”
“I’ll be fine,” he smiled reassuringly at her, the old Johnny she knew she could rely on showing through.
“All right, what have you got in mind?”
“I’ll need my knife.”
She picked it up off the floor and passed it to him, taking care to keep the books hidden in the folds of her skirt. She didn’t know why she felt the need to do this; she suspected he might make fun of her if he found out about her new love of poetry.
He rubbed the blade on his pants and stood up slowly and stiffly. She watched him suppress a grimace as he arched his back like a cat. Then he limped carefully to the door, where he paused for a moment to lean on the doorframe and get his breath back before giving her the benefit of his most charming grin.
“Rattlesnake do for you?”
Before she could think of an adequate retort he had unhooked a lamp from the wall and slid noisily out of the door.
She prayed he would be all
Teresa took the opportunity his absence provided to slip her book of verse and the journal back in her bag. It wouldn’t do for Johnny to read her journal, no all her private dreams and wishes were in there as well as a few mentions of him. Then she cleared away the coffee mug by force of habit and rinsed it through at the pump. She hoped that Johnny would make out fine outside; he had seemed a little better since his nap. Maybe he wasn’t as hurt as he had suggested to her. She gathered up the blankets from the rickety bed and took them to the door to shake them out. Who knew what kind of bugs the threadbare wool was harbouring. She didn’t care to spend the night scratching. The shack had a very small porch with a rail over which she slung the blankets. She beat at them with a tree branch causing clouds of dust to rise up in the semi darkness, making her cough. When she was satisfied that they were clean enough to sleep on, she left one out on the porch and put the other back on the bed. By the time she had fed the stove fire with more sticks, dusted herself down and washed her hands and face, Johnny had returned. Wearing a smile of triumph, swaying a little, his face flushed and his hands hidden behind his back, he asked her to guess what surprise he had for her.
Her face lit up, “Oh Johnny, do say you caught a rabbit...”
“No!” he declared and brought his good arm round to display a small rattlesnake.
Teresa was far from pleased but tried not to let it show.
“Oh well, I guess I could roast it, maybe it won’t taste so bad.”
“I know it don’t look much but I have eaten it before and it didn’t make me sick.” He took a step forward, not really steady on his feet.
Teresa looked over at the stove, “I don’t feel all that hungry any more.”
Johnny dropped the dead snake onto the table and collapsed into the chair looking disheartened. He stretched out his aching leg.
“I guess I don’t neither.” His voice was soft and weary.
Teresa crossed over to sit in the chair opposite him noting how he was rubbing his stomach with the palm of his hand, a slow circular motion.
“Tell me about the time you ate rattlesnake.”
“Oh I’ve eaten it many times when I was a kid, when I was wild and free. But the last time I ate it was when Jelly’s boys found me shot – remember?”
Teresa grinned. She certainly did remember, especially the way Jelly had her running herself ragged waiting on him. He seemed to have the hugest appetite. And then he’d had the gall to steal her jewelry.
He continued, “Those poor little mites cooked some for me, offered it me like it was prime steak. Nice to think they all got proper homes to live in now.”
She nodded in agreement; she still saw some of them at church, at the store, with their proud new parents. How different those boys looked scrubbed up and clothed in decent shirts and trousers, how proud they looked too, of their shiny boots. She wondered if Johnny had been such a boy, on the run, barefoot, living off his wits. He rarely talked to them about his childhood, maybe because he was afraid of offending Murdoch or embarrassing Scott. Or maybe because it was just too painful to revisit.
“You want me to wash your jacket? It has blood on it. I could rinse your shirt. It would be dry by morning.”
Johnny looked down at his stained shirt and shook his head.
“Don’t think I could get it off anyhow. Everything aches too much. Just wanna rest.”
Teresa indicated the bed and the fact that she had done her best to clean up the blankets. “I put a blanket out on the porch because I thought maybe I should sleep out there.”
Johnny replied with a grunt that was almost a chuckle. “I’d hate to think of you sleeping out there, Teresa, could get a mite dangerous. Snakes, mountain lions, all sorts of wild critters out there. I can sleep on the table, done it before. You can sleep on the bed…and don’t argue with me.” He pushed the snake onto the floor, his weariness all too apparent.
Teresa was relieved to hear him say that. Truth to tell she had not relished the thought of sleeping outside. She would feel much more secure knowing Johnny was not far away from her, even injured, he would be a force to be reckoned with.
With her help, he managed
to get himself onto the table with a few groans and complaints about his
ribs and stretched himself out stiffly. She retrieved the second
blanket from the porch and placed it on the table, smoothing it down over
him. When he smiled gratefully at her, she could see the creases
of pain around his eyes and mouth and his skin had a colorless cast.
She smiled back at him and then, taking her bag with her she went to the
bed and lay down. In no time at all she fell into a deep sleep.
Teresa bolted into wakefulness, her heart hammering against the wall of her chest, her blood chasing through her veins. What on earth was happening? She could hear noises like someone was moving around, and a man’s voice, low but urgent. She lay still for a few seconds, concentrating on the sounds, focusing on them. When she was certain there was no threat, she opened her eyes slowly. It was still night. In the cabin the only light came from the stove, a warm fiery glow that was comforting. And through the drapeless window, a bar of weak moonlight illuminated the sod floor. The sound was coming from the far wall, where Johnny slept on the table. Swinging her legs over the wooden frame of the crude bed, she tried to ease the aches from her spine. Thinking about her own feather bed set forth another longing for Lancer and its comforts.
Peering through the gloom she could just make out the table, and the body of Johnny, tossing back and forth precariously. He was muttering something too indistinct for her to understand. As she approached him, she could see his eyes were still closed and there was sweat in his hairline, so she reached out to feel the temperature of his skin. Very gently, she placed the back of her hand on his forehead and found it too hot for her liking. How would he react if she got some cold water and bathed his face, would it startle him? She really felt there was a need to get him cooled down; she was just not so sure how to go about it. A long moan left his half parted lips and settled her resolve. Fetching her bag from the bed, she pulled out a silk scarf and took it to the pump to soak it in fresh water. If she was noisy enough, she might wake him slowly that way.
The pump was still quite stiff with disuse and she had to work hard to get the water flowing into the enamel bowl. She could hear his small agitated movements above the spurt of liquid then she heard a new sound, a slow creaking that she did not recognise.
Leaving the bowl and the scarf,
she turned in time to hear a voice she recognised whisper, “Teresa” and
to see the shack door begin to open tentatively. The next few moments
seemed to her to unfold in slow motion. In the space of a breath,
Johnny was on the floor crouched in defensive mode, pistol drawn in a shaky
hand facing the door, which now stood open. Teresa knew she must
act quickly in order to avoid a catastrophe. Shouting a warning to the
intruder, she emptied the contents of her bag hastily onto the floor and
selected the heaviest object, which she threw towards Johnny’s right hand.
She knew he could be lethal even when sick, even when unable to see properly.
The book hit his hand just as the gun fired and both Johnny and the visitor
fell to the floor. She stood still for a second, unable to move from fear
of what had happened, trembling with the adrenalin rush. She observed
both men, lit as they were by the shaft of moonlight through the open door,
for a sign of movement. It was as if the world had stopped turning for
a moment. There seemed to be no sound at all, no movement as Teresa took
a hesitant step forward.
By the time she reached Johnny, he had started to stir. He was lying on his stomach, his glistening face turned towards her, his one visible eye wide open and looking at her. She could not tell whether he could see her properly for he neither spoke nor acknowledged her presence. He just fixed his blue eye on her as she knelt at his side. Keeping her own eyes on him, as if he were a wild animal caught in a trap, she placed her trembling hand over the warm gun and dragged it along the floor ever so slowly, away from his fingers. He did not even twitch in response to being deprived of his weapon.
“Johnny,” she whispered tenderly and with concern, “can you hear me?” Even as she spoke, his long eyelashes closed slowly to shutter the blue eyes. Alarmed, she pressed her free hand against the side of his neck in search of the pulse of life. Her own breathing settled to a more even rhythm as, relieved to find a strong warm throb of heartbeat, she brushed away a recalcitrant strand of hair from his jaw line and in doing so revealed a red and sore looking cut behind his ear. Leaning closer, she could see signs of infection around it and yellow pus oozed from the raw edges. No wonder he had a fever. She knew she must try to clean the pus away with boiled water but first she needed to check on the other man.
Putting her dread to one side, she scooted over to the door where the man lay as motionless as Johnny in the white moonlight, praying that he was just stunned, not dead. She could not bear to think that Johnny might have killed him.
“Josiah,” she whispered, her voice weak and breathy. “Please Josiah…”
In response to her pleas, the intruder moaned a little and started to move his legs around as if making to sit up. “Josiah, where are you hurt?”
As he pushed himself upright, blocking the light from outside and darkening his body with his own shadow, he raised a hand to his forehead and brought it away sticky with blood. “Grazed my head. Thanks for saving my life-you threw off his aim just enough with this-“
Chuckling sardonically, he lifted up the book and squinted through the darkness to make out the title, “Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. By Mary Shelley. The best present I ever gave to any one, I am sure.” He dropped his head towards his bent knees and sighed then sifted through his pockets and drew out a lacy handkerchief. He pressed this to his head wound to staunch the bleeding. “Sorry about the bloodstains on it - and the broken spine.”
He placed the book carefully on the floor between them. Teresa looked at it and scowled. Her precious book – ruined, and she was less than half way through it. For some reason it made her feel unutterably sad and she felt tears prickling the corners of her eyes. She wiped them away weakly with the back of her hand and sniffed.
“I’m so glad he didn’t hurt you too badly. He has a fever and didn’t know what he was doing. He has these reflexes…” Teresa shrugged and looked down at the pistol that was still in her hand, cooling now and heavy too, Johnny’s pistol. She felt she needed to make excuses for her “brother” even though his actions had almost cost the life of her good friend. “He thought he was protecting me, you see, he used to be a gunfighter before he came to live with us. I did tell you.”
“I remember. Still I never envisioned being the recipient of his not inconsiderable skills.” She watched Josiah struggle up to standing and cross stiffly to the chair. He sat down with a sigh and stretched out his long legs, still pressing the handkerchief to his head. He was looking at her as if seeing her for the first time. Uncomfortable under such intense scrutiny, Teresa stood up, found a lantern, which she lit and set on the table with the pistol, then returned to the pump.
“I need to see to Johnny, will you be all right for now?” She could see him well enough in the lamplight, distinguished and handsome, as he nodded in reply.
Satisfied, she filled the bowl with water, the pump working somewhat better now and carried it over to where the ex-gunfighter lay showing no sign of returning to consciousness. He looked far from comfortable so Teresa pushed a blanket under his head to protect it from the hardness of the shack floor and allowed her trembling hand to rest a moment on his fine glossy hair as she gazed tenderly down. The tears started to fall now, soundlessly.
“Don’t you need to boil that water first? It’s thought that a lot of good men died in the war from dirty water. Boiling it-“ She turned round in response to Josiah’s melodious voice.
“I know -” Teresa snapped, “ I can read.”
She stood up, her whole body shaking in reaction, trying to work out why she could not concentrate, why her body was refusing to co-operate, wanting only to quiver like cactus in a windstorm, her knees threatening to buckle. Wondering why a damaged book should make her want to break her heart with crying.
Solicitous as always, ever the gentleman, Josiah stood, forgetting his own discomfort, and guided her gently to the chair, pushing her into it with just enough force to stop any resistance. He then placed the pot of water on the stove to boil before returning to stand behind her where he placed his large hands at either side of her head, smoothing her long hair away first.
Rubbing her shoulders
in a soothing circular motion, he encouraged her to relax and to give in
to her feelings. Teresa lowered her head and surrendered herself
to the sensation and allowed herself to weep freely whilst Josiah recited
poetry to her in a deep, mesmeric tone of voice.
The lamplight glowed warmly in the tiny shack lighting up Teresa’s sad face as she finally stopped sobbing.
“I’m sorry Josiah, I was really trying to heed your advice. Thank you for helping me just then. I have to see to Johnny now.”
She rubbed her stained face with a fold of her skirt and went to take the pot off the stove. The water had come to the boil so she wetted the silk with it and resuming a kneeling position by Johnny’s head, wiped the dried blood and oozing pus away from the cut as delicately as she could.
She could feel Josiah watching her from across the shack. Finally, he spoke breaking the silence in the confined room.
“What do you mean you heeded my advice?”
“Remember you said I had to try to be less sensitive to others? That I was too kind for my own good? Don’t you recall you commented on my love of romantic poetry and said that though my sympathetic nature was a wonderful thing, it would one day lead to someone taking advantage of me?”
Teresa leant back on her heels to wring out the cloth and watched the orange stained water drip back into the bowl. Then she wiped around the wound once more, and satisfied it was clean enough, brushed Johnny’s hair back over it with her hand, and stood up. During all her ministrations, he hadn’t moved a muscle. She shook out her skirt and pondered on why he hadn’t roused yet. Maybe he was plain exhausted, or maybe he was hurt a lot more than it first seemed. She felt it discreet to leave him be, to try to rouse an unconscious man like Johnny could be dangerous.
She put the bowl down in the sink before continuing; “You said I had to be harder if I were to be able to keep the secret. So, I tried to be hard and unsympathetic and it was so difficult to do. I ignored Johnny’s hurt and now look what’s happened. Both of you injured and it’s all my fault. And he still isn’t awake, even though I cleaned him up. Why isn’t he awake?”
Josiah rubbed at his sore head, messing the fine gray powdered hair. “Could be because it is the middle of the night when most folk are asleep anyhow. Let him be, he is exhausted. As am I. After all, I rode exceptionally hard to catch up with you. Tracking you wasn’t that easy. Though it did help knowing you were on the way to Lancer. Just this little -” he waved his hand theatrically, long stained fingers waving like starfish feet, encompassing the shack in the gesture, ”diversion was unexpected.”
Teresa sat on the bed, weary, as she hadn’t felt in a long while, not since Day Pardee threatened Lancer.
“Why? Why were you following us?”
He reached into his
pocket, “Because, my dear Teresa, you forgot this.”
Teresa did not have chance to look at the object in Josiah's hand because her attention was diverted by a noise from Johnny, indicating he was awake. She rose from the bed and went to crouch at his side. It was still quite dark in the room apart from localised light from the lamp for the moon had begun to set and no longer provided the extra illumination. Johnny was already beginning to sit up and look bemusedly in her direction. He was quite flushed and when she reached out to touch his cheek, she felt the heat before she made contact. She halted there, before him, her hand in the air in front of his face and they stared at each other. He had his feet planted on the floor now, still shod in boots decorated with his characteristic Mexican spurs. He rested his elbows on bent knees and rubbed the base of his skull by his ears, taking care not to touch the wound. She noticed how the light picked up the shine of the studs along the edge of his leg, and the shank and jinglebobs of the spurs. It seemed to her that light always picked something of Johnny out, illuminating him like water in a thunderstorm. His eyes shone too as he directed his gaze past her to the person behind. The expression on his face changed slowly from confusion to clarity, and something else – something that reminded her of the Johnny she had first known, the rootless Johnny who found life on a ranch confining; the look he had when he slipped into being Johnny Madrid. Teresa recognised that look now and it chilled her. Josiah had so far not made a move – she hoped he had the good sense to continue to remain frozen in place.
His mouth formed a thin line as he struggled to his feet, fumbling at his empty holster, swaying, and fighting his body’s weakness. Seeing the sign of danger, Teresa rose; keeping herself between her brother and Josiah, creating what she hoped was an effective barrier. Her heart was pounding again and she could not suppress an involuntary shiver that traversed her spine. She tried to guess what his intentions were, what was going through his mind, as there was no indication at all on his face of what he was thinking. She reckoned he was not even thinking clearly, possibly was not even aware of where he was, yet the instinct to survive was clear in the way his hand had dropped straight to his holster.
“Gun?” he breathed, accelerating the tension more. His eyes did not move from Josiah still behind her, squinting as if to bring him into focus.
Automatically Teresa looked at the table where the pistol lay in the lamplight and immediately regretted it. Both Josiah and Johnny made a lunge for the gun, Johnny confounding them all by getting to it first. Supporting himself against the table, he pointed it in both shaky hands at a smiling Josiah.
“I know you,” he grunted out, “What were you doing with my sister, you no good snake?”
“My dear man,” Josiah spoke before Teresa could attempt to reason with Johnny. She was rooted to the spot anyway, far too scared to move. She watched as Josiah raised his hands carefully away from his body in an unthreatening gesture as if he were dealing with a cornered rabbit and not an injured gunfighter. His voice was reasonable, gentle and the smile did not leave his lips as he spoke. “You could not be more mistaken. I am a good friend of Teresa’s, a very good friend who would only have her best interests at heart. I simply followed you out of town to return something to her.”
Teresa hoped Johnny would believe her friend and accept the situation for what it was; entirely innocent. It hadn’t escaped her notice when he relaxed his grip on the trigger. She could only begin to imagine what was going through his mind. She knew so little about his past and the people he mixed with - he had no doubt learnt caution at an early age. From his point of view, the scene must have looked very suspicious. She decided that it was up to her to intervene, no matter how afraid she was of igniting the spark that was the gunfighter’s temper.
“Johnny, this is Josiah Rossetti, a friend from back east, from Boston. Josiah, this is my, my sort of brother – Johnny Lancer. “
She knew that as far as introductions went this was a feeble attempt, nevertheless she hoped it would serve its purpose – to lessen the tension in the tiny room and give Johnny an excuse to holster the gun before it went off.
Her brother, however seemed to have other plans and disregarded the introduction, or possibly, he had not even heard her, so intent was he on keeping his aim and his steely gaze on target. Then horrified, Teresa watched him approach her quite determined, his eyes still on Josiah, watched him bend his knees, transfer the gun to one wavering hand and scoop something up from the floor.
“You meant no harm,” the tone was threatening, chilling her to the bone. “Then what is this?”
As he waved the object in
the air, Teresa put her hand to her mouth and gasped. “No Johnny.
No, you’ve got it all wrong.”
Teresa stared at the garment in Johnny’s hand, “It’s not what you think, Johnny…”
He cut her off sharply, tossing the lace to the floor like it was garbage, “Oh no,” there was steel in his voice in spite of his fever, or maybe even because of it, “Just what is the explanation then? What sort of a woman carries lacy nightwear in her bag, huh? And stuff like this- he gestured to the silk bandage that supported his ribs. “What have you been doing, Teresa? First off, I see you kissing this…this no-good, then I see you hiding stuff in your bag, keeping secrets. Sort of women who wear stuff like that are…well you know what they are.”
Johnny repositioned his free hand on the gun butt.
“Keep your hands where I can see them, Teresa, I’m not gonna let you put me off my aim again.”
Teresa could see he was having difficulty maintaining a grip as his palms greased up with sweat. He was working himself up into such a lather. Still she couldn’t underestimate the serious nature of the situation, she needed to think quickly and pray he wasn’t past all reason.
“Yes, I have been keeping a secret but it isn’t what you are thinking. It is something for Murdoch that I don’t want him to know about.” Her voice quavered as she continued, “I didn’t want you and Scott to know, in case you told him, accidentally, or on purpose even. I wanted it to be such a surprise for him and it would have been too if you hadn’t been so persistent.”
Johnny’s voice still held a hint of suspicion about it; he screwed up his eyes at Josiah. “What about him? Huh? He part of your surprise?”
“Well yes, as a matter of a fact, he is. He-“
Johnny would not let her finish, “I knew it. He’s spun you some web of lies and you fell for it. Charmed you into letting him…well, till he got your confidence. And you old enough to be her father. You planning on marrying her, Mister Josiah Rossetti? Or just abandoning her to her shame like you done other women? Huh?”
Teresa was unable to fathom what Johnny meant, what had angered him so much. Surely, he was delirious. “Josiah, tell him, tell him he is wrong.” Teresa pleaded, hoping Johnny would come to his senses soon.
“I ain’t listening to a word from his honeyed tongue, he’ll tell all kinds of stories. I bet you are real good at that, telling stories, deceiving folk.” The way he was tightening his grip on the gun, the trigger finger twitching, made Teresa’s heart miss a beat. She frantically tried to distract him without provoking him into firing.
“Johnny, please listen to me, you are sick, you cut your head, your ribs are bashed up, and you have a hurt shoulder and leg. You need to lie down and let me have a look at you again. You have a fever and you aren’t thinking clearly. Please don’t do something you’ll regret.”
“Yes, Johnny, listen to her.” Teresa marvelled that her friend’s voice was so calm and even. He appeared to show no fear. If he knew Johnny as well as she did, he would be terrified.
Josiah continued in that same pacifying tone, “She has done nothing to be ashamed of. She just enlisted my services in order to make a wonderful gift for Murdoch. Something he could treasure for the rest of his life. You don’t appreciate this beautiful, kindhearted sister of yours at all. And it is quite plain that you do not trust her either. And though I commend your brotherly vigilance and responsibility, I do think it is about time you gave her the benefit of the doubt. Now put that weapon down, do.”
Johnny started to sway almost imperceptibly, yet his grip remained weakly on the raised gun and it still pointed at Josiah. Then through the open door Teresa spotted a shadow, which transformed into a person who very gently pushed the door open wider till he was completely visible to both Josiah and herself.
Scott, pistol drawn, looked meaningfully at her and put a finger to his lips, aware that Johnny had not heard his soft footfall as he sidled further into the shack. Teresa relaxed her shoulders, as the tension began to drain from her body. Scott would put an end to this madness.
By the time Johnny was aware of movement behind him and had swung around into a crouch, Scott already had his own pistol against his brother’s temple.
“You sure are a dangerous man to be around brother.”
Johnny raised both arms in acquiescence, loosening his grip on his gun, and then moaning in pain as the movement hurt his healing shoulder. Scott reholstered his own weapon and relieving Johnny of his, helped him sit down.
“You hurt, Johnny?”
Defeated, Johnny lowered his head to his chest, and mumbled a feeble, “Guess I am.”
He added something else in a low tone, which Teresa could not hear.
“Why you’re burning up, let me help you to lie down.”
Teresa dropped into the vacant chair as Scott supported Johnny round his side and under his arm and helped him walk to the bed. Once there Johnny flopped down into the blankets and closed his eyes. Teresa closed her eyes, and leant back with a sigh.
She could hear the creak of
the wooden bed as Scott sat on it. “Anyone care to tell me what’s
going on here?”
The tiny shack was silent apart from the heavy breathing of Johnny who lay still on the bed. Teresa opened her eyes to look at him but couldn’t make out whether or not he was asleep or merely conserving energy. Then his soft voice, which chilled her, “Let her tell you.”
The emphasis he put on the word ‘her’ endowed it with scorn. She hated him to think badly of her, Johnny was her guardian’s son, and she had come to adore him.
Scott looked at her, furrowed brow underscoring his concern
“It was just a simple trip into town, what happened?”
Teresa looked down at her fingers. They seemed to have entwined themselves into the folds of her dress, almost without her realising. She was aware of Josiah at her side waiting to hear her response.
“Johnny got hurt in town, he was hurting too much for us to get to Lancer by nightfall and so we decided to stay over here. I left something at the hall and Josiah followed to return it to me.”
From the direction of the bed came a peculiar sound, it almost sounded like a laugh, and a strangled one at that. Teresa frowned, why would Johnny react so when she was telling the truth. Really, his behavior had been very confusing all day. Even the business with the snake had been bizarre – she could tell a day old dead snake from one that had been freshly killed, what was he thinking of with a trick like that? Was it just another one of his pranks? She planned to tackle him about it as soon as he was better.
Scott asked her how Johnny came to be so hurt, had he got involved in a fight? Johnny interrupted the conversation at this point to remark in a voice laced with annoyance that he was able to answer questions himself and would they stop talking about him as if he were an idiot who couldn’t understand them.
Scott, patient as always, concurred and repeated the question. From his position stretched out on the bed, Johnny related the story from his point of view filling in the details Teresa had omitted. He added that in his opinion, Josiah was a scoundrel and that between them, he and Scott should, “give him a pasting.”
Scott seemed to be considering the story. He turned to Teresa for confirmation, “That right, Teresa? Did Josiah hurt you or cause you offence in any way?”
Teresa stood up again, wrinkled her face in annoyance and folded her arms across her chest. “Quite the opposite. He has been a thorough gentleman and far from hurting me has been a deal of help with a project of mine. Johnny’s just cross with me because he was caught spying. He’s been trying to find out my secret, which I don’t want him to know because that’s just what it is-a secret. And now it’s all ruined. Why do you all have to interfere so much?”
Scott was conciliatory, “Teresa, we love you, we want you to be safe. You are still underage and you are Murdoch’s responsibility. In his absence we are responsible for you.” He nodded at Johnny who was still scowling. “You would need his permission to leave home or to get married-“
“Married!” Teresa could
not believe her ears. “Why on earth would I get married? Who
would I marry?” She waved her arms around in exasperation. “Really
you men have no idea.!”
Johnny pushed himself up to sitting position on the narrow bed. It squeaked as the wooden slats protested. Teresa made a mental note to tell Murdoch that the line shacks were in need of some attention. “Who would you marry? Why him of course. After the way you both been carrying on. Ouch.” He rubbed at his sore shoulder.
Both Teresa and Josiah snorted with laughter. “What are you talking about?” she grinned across at her friend.
Josiah in his turn, added, “We have not undertaken a romantic liaison, nor do we intend to. Rather our relationship is totally platonic. I am merely an artist and Teresa my-“
“Shh.” Teresa cut him off before he could reveal her secret. “I don’t want him to know. He doesn’t deserve to know.”
From the look on his face, it seemed Scott was trying to solve the puzzle too. “Do I deserve to know the secret, Teresa?”
“Haven’t decided yet,” she replied petulantly. She liked Scott, and admired the way he had thrown himself heart and soul into learning about ranching, but he and Johnny were far too close. Telling him would be almost the same as telling Johnny.
“Fine, your choice,” he replied, standing and surprising her with his resignation. “Let’s fill the canteens and ride back to the ranch where Johnny can have his hurts seen to.”
“Suits me fine, but what about him.” Johnny had begun to swing his legs gently over the edge of the bed and as he spoke, he inclined his head towards Josiah.
Josiah rose to his feet, “If it’s all right by you gentlemen, I will return to town.” He threw the stained handkerchief down, which had served as a pressure pad for the graze on his forehead. The bleeding had stopped a while since and he was obviously recovering well.
“Well now, don’t be so hasty…” Teresa was disturbed by the hard threatening edge to Johnny’s drawl. The situation seemed somehow to have gotten out of hand. Johnny was leaning over holding his sore ribs as he spoke. Then he looked up and revealed the menacing glint in his eyes as he stared directly at Josiah and continued, “We have matters to straighten out. For one – what you’ve been doing with Teresa and what your intentions are.”
“I am sure Teresa can answer your questions. I have done what I came here to do and now I am going to take my leave of you good folk.” Josiah bowed his head at Teresa, “Teresa,” he said. Then indicating goodbye to Scott and Johnny, he walked backward to the door in long strides and slipped out.
By the time Johnny had stood,
unsteadily and made his way out of the cabin in pursuit, Josiah was mounted
and disappearing into the brush. The first sign of dawn, a steak
of insipid light was painting the sky, low on the horizon and the early
songbirds had started their chorus. The air smelt crisp and sweet
to Teresa, standing in the doorway, watching the birth of the new day.
She was relieved beyond measure that Josiah had managed to escape before
Johnny had chance to do something really foolish. Neither man was
in any condition for a fight. She offered up a little prayer for Josiah’s
well being then called for Johnny to come back into the cabin. When
he failed to respond, she shouted for Scott and at the same time rushed
over to where the ex gunfighter was swaying, barely keeping his balance.
She no sooner got to him, her heart thundering painfully against her chest
alarmingly, than he crumpled against her, the force of his fall tumbling
them both to the dirt.
Leaning on one hand Teresa propped herself into a sitting position and pushed Johnny’s dead weight from her legs with the other hand. He rolled bonelessy onto his stomach, his limp limbs all tangled, his hair matted over his face. She heard Scott’s footsteps, then felt his hand, reassuringly on her shoulder, stilling the shudders that had started up without her knowing. “ Is he -?” She could not finish the sentence, for fear of making the thought come true. Her “brother” was lying so motionless and vulnerable like she had never seen him before. The sight made her feel sick to her stomach.
“He’s breathing. “ Scott reassured her as he knelt by his brother, gently pulled him onto his back and rearranged his bent limbs till they were in a more relaxed position. He rested his palm against Johnny’s cheek. Teresa crawled to Scott’s side, and then folded back on her heels. She stroked the hair away from Johnny’s eyelids. His skin was burning again, slick with perspiration. She shook her head at Scott in puzzlement. “He still has an infection somewhere. Where? Scott what are we going to do?”
Ever practical, Scott bade her help him carry Johnny back in the shack and on to the flea-ridden bed. It was not easy to manipulate such a dead weight, for Johnny offered no resistance at all as they manhandled him across the clearing, up the step and in through the narrow doorway, Teresa clinging tenaciously to his calves, Scott bearing most of the weight, his large hands firmly gripping under the arms. They worked silently together to remove his spurs and boots, to undo the buttons on his shirt, to fill an enamel bowl with cold water from the pump and soak a rag in it to bathe his hot skin before the fever took too strong a hold on his body. Johnny trembled and sighed as the treatment took effect but still did not rouse to full consciousness.
“There’s a cut on his head,
Scott. I cleaned it up as best I could. Maybe we should look
Scott acknowledged her words with a nod then carefully repositioned his brother’s head till the cut at the back was revealed. It looked clean enough, no pus and no blood - just a raw wound.
“Looks like you cleaned
it up good, Teresa.” Scott smiled weakly as he let Johnny’s head
roll back. His words were reassuring to her, but did not totally
ease her concern. “I’ll just check his ribs here too.” She helped
Scott pull the silk wrapping away to reveal a large swollen mass of colorful
bruising. Scott scowled and observed that there was the possibility
of a cracked bone there, which could be a reason for the fever. Whatever
the case they both agreed that they had to get Johnny’s temperature down
then head back to the ranch as soon as possible. Teresa carried the bowl
back to the pump and exchanged the warm water for cold. As she turned back
towards the bed, the cabin door flew open with a crash and two men rushed
in, rifles pointing towards her.
"Stop right there, Missy." The mountain of a man who addressed her looked about Murdoch's age and wore a salt and pepper beard. His clothing was serviceable but grimy and protruding from his mouth was a thick earthy and unlit cheroot. All this Teresa noted as she froze in place, startled like a deer under threat.
Scott had been quick to draw his pistol, but before he could make use of it, the second man, who looked a muscular and moustachioed younger version of the first, was upon him and resting the rifle barrel against his shoulder. Scott let the pistol fall from his fingers and the intruder kicked it to one side with the toe of a dusty worn boot.
"Where is he?" demanded the first man, in a gruff voice, coming further into the room and seeming to fill it at once with his bulk. " Where is that low down varmint, Josiah Rossetti? We knows yer a hidin' him." He pulled the cheroot from his mouth and spat tobacco at the grubby floor before reinserting it. Teresa turned away, disgusted.
"Rossetti?" Scott's voice revealed his puzzlement. "He left a while back. What do you want with him?" Tentatively, he pushed the rifle barrel from his shoulder with one finger, all the while maintaining eye contact with his adversary. It was a trick he had learnt in the war.
It was the younger man who responded in a deep gravely voice. "We follered him here, bin tracking him nigh on 3 weeks. Heard he was in Morro Coyo, up to his usual tricks, I reckon. Where's the varmint hid?"
Still frozen in place, Teresa surprised herself by having the nerve to look up toward the younger man and ask, albeit in a quiet voice, "What do you mean - his usual tricks?"
The older giant motioned with the rifle for Teresa to sit on a chair.
"You bin seein' him?" he growled around his cheroot, fixing her with a steely glare. Now he was closer to her she could smell the unpleasant ripeness of unwashed skin and clothes, which hung about him like fleas on cattle.
Fighting the desire to gag,
Teresa nodded slowly. "Yes. He's been painting my portrait. A series of
miniatures. He's an accomplished painter; he's traveled all over Europe,
studying with great artists there. He was painting miniatures of me dressed
as Greek goddesses because Murdoch so likes his Homer. It was going to
be a surprise." She cast a glance over at Scott.
There: the secret was out now.
Both strangers lowered their weapons and looked at each other. "Yup, sounds about right. That's what he tole ma little Annabelle. Name's Luke, Luke Harvey, an' this here's ma boy, Jared." He inclined his head towards his companion who was in the process of picking up Scott's gun. As Jared handed the pistol back to him in a bear paw of a hand, he winked at Scott, "I guess you'll be wanting to catch him too, fer similar reasons as us."
"What do you mean?" The older Lancer holstered the gun but maintained a wary posture. Teresa could see that he was still on his guard even as he sounded the Harveys out.
"Did he hurt yer friend there?" Luke pointed at Johnny, who had made no noise since the strangers had entered the shack. He seemed to have passed into a dreamless sleep.
"No, Josiah didn't hurt him. He fell and hurt himself. In fact it was Johnny who shot Josiah."
Nodding his approval, Luke rested the rifle against the table and fished in his pocket for a Lucifer. He finally lit the cheroot and drew deeply on it.
He blew out a snake of smoke and nodded his approval.
Meanwhile, Jared walked in heavy strides over to the pump and stuck his head under the flowing water. Stretching upright with a belch, he shook the liquid out of his long lank hair and brushed the back of his hand against his moustache. "So he's hurtin' is he? That'll make catchin' him easier."
"But why are you chasing him?" Teresa asked. "What did he do? And what are you going to do when you do catch him?" Teresa could not keep the concern for her friend out of her voice, for these men seemed quite desperate and capable of any atrocity with or without good reason. Each one of them would make two of Josiah, for although the artist was tall, he was wiry rather than bulky.
Instead of answering her, Luke faced Scott. "What he done ain't suitable fer her ears, if yer git ma meanin'. That varmint ain't no suitable friend fer a decent young gal." Once more, he removed the cheroot and spat out the contents of his mouth as if he were aiming at the itinerant painter.
Scott turned serious eyes on Teresa. "How did you meet him?"
"Why, at the Church dance at the beginning of last month. Remember? I went with Lucy, oh, and Jelly came also. You and Johnny said you had too much paperwork to do to come with us though we begged and begged you. You know how much Lucy likes to dance with you."
"I remember," Scott nodded, then licked his lips before continuing, "Was his behavior…gentlemanly towards you?"
"Why, of course it was." Teresa laughed, "He is the most polite, well mannered, well bred man I have ever met. He is also very learned. He introduced me to some beautiful poetry. And we talked about cultural things - he knows as much about opera and literature as Murdoch does - maybe even more."
"Yup," Jared nodded, sniffing loudly. "That's jus' what Annabelle said. Then we found out she was … ya know what I mean? Shamed us all." He punctuated the statement by wiping his nose with the back of a hairy hand leaving glistening residue amid the moustache hairs. Teresa tried to keep her eyes away from the repulsive view in vain.
Scott nodded again but Teresa felt confused. "He was always a perfect gentleman. Always. Scott?"
"I believe you, Teresa." It was a relief to Teresa to hear him say that. She had kept her relationship a secret through honest motives, and she had never intended to deceit, she merely wanted to give Murdoch a nice surprise. "But I must admit, I did not care for the man, and it worries me to think you spent so much time alone with him, and in unsuitable attire."
"But I was never alone with him. Lucy was always with me; I insisted she was. And Scott, the paintings are truly wonderful. He is a great artist. If you saw his work, you would agree. I can't believe he was lying to me."
Teresa looked down at the table top, distressed and wondering how the situation could have spun so out of control. She had only ever wanted to do something kind for Murdoch and now they were stuck in a filthy shack with two unspeakably dirty ruffians, Johnny sick, and Josiah on the run. How had all this happened?
Luke and Jared both sighed in relief. "Well I guess you got nuttin' ter worry 'bout with her. So I reckon we'd best be on our way. First off, we'd like some water and vittels if you have any. Canteens are empty."
Biting down her fear, Teresa gathered together some dried food and cans for the two men, and filled their canteens from the pump. She tried to avoid making contact with his hands as she gave the cans to Jared. She was reluctant to believe that Josiah could have done anything wrong or immoral and was sure these rough men were lying. As soon as they were gone, she would tell Scott her suspicions and encourage him to do something to help Josiah.
She did not have long to wait,
as both men were eager to be on the trail of their quarry. Jared assured
them he had tracked for the army and would have no problem picking up the
painter's trail. Luke growled out his thanks and they crossed to the rickety
door, their weapons tucked under an arm, clutching the bundles of food.
Although relieved to see them go, Teresa did not watch them, but diverted
her worries for her friend by going to check on Johnny. Scott closed the
door securely behind the hideous men and she breathed a sigh of relief.
Johnny seemed to be resting still, his eyes, shadowed, were softly closed and his breathing was even. A sheen of perspiration stood out on his brow and keeping her eyes fixed on his familiar features, Teresa wiped it tenderly away with the end of the sheet. He moaned in response, coughed a little then moved his arms and legs as if to get more comfortable, so she shushed him as she did the cat when it was birthing kittens.
“Go back to sleep Johnny, it’s all right now, shhh.”
He responded obediently, stilling his restless limbs and turning his face away from her towards the wall, to sink into a deeper slumber. She stroked a lock of glossy hair away from where it had fallen across one moist eyelid, and then turned back to Scott who was gathering up their belongings and grouping them all on the table top. As she spoke, she kept her hand on Johnny’s clammy forehead in the hope that the warmth of her palm would keep him comforted.
“What a relief those sickening men have gone. You didn’t believe them, did you Scott? Josiah is the most perfect gentleman I have ever met and as mild as a kitten. He could never hurt anyone. I am sure he hasn’t a mean or hurtful bone in his body. He never behaved other than with utter propriety and consideration. He is the type of man to get on really well with Murdoch. And he is so knowledgeable, so learned about so many subjects. And cultured too. Why, he has seen Shakespeare performed in England, can you imagine that, Scott?”
Scott’s brow furrowed as he thought out an answer. “I must admit that were I to make a judgement on what I saw of him, I would be inclined agree with you. Those two fellows were rough and ready, that’s true, but we have no reason to disbelieve them either. Think about it, Teresa, why would they chase him without good reason?”
“Scott, I am sure they were lying about Josiah. Maybe they are common thieves and he has something of value they want - I don’t know. But I am sure he is in great danger and we have to do something to help him. We can’t just let it be. They looked the sort of men who would think nothing of taking the law into their own hands. Why, they might even lynch him! We can’t let that happen. Oh Scott, you do see that we must do something, don’t you?”
Scott’s answer was muffled by the sound of a stifled squeal from Johnny, quite unlike anything Teresa had heard from his lips before. Turning urgently back to the gunfighter, who was tossing his head and moving his limbs in an uncoordinated way, and at a loss to do anything else, she stroked his head again as softly as she could and made soothing noises. After a bout of violent coughing, Johnny seemed to quieten a little at her touch, his lips parting to utter sounds, which were halfway between words and sighs.
Scott dragged a chair over next to her and sat by the tattered bed. He looked at his brother’s lax form with great concern, “He doesn’t seem to be getting any better and that cough is strange. I think we should try and rouse him, get some water in a cup, Teresa. I’m going to try to wake him up. We should get him fit to travel as soon as possible…I don’t wish to spend any more time here than necessary, he could need more care than we are able to give him.”
As Teresa retrieved one of the mugs they had used the previous evening and pumped it full of clear water, Scott was urging his brother to wake up. Johnny did not seem willing to respond, and this caused Scott even more concern. In reaction to the tap across the cheek, which Scott administered, Johnny turned his head away and gave a pitiful moan, batting at his brother’s hand weakly. Heat was radiating from the exposed parts of his body: he was burning up once more and needed to be cooled down.
Teresa repositioned herself on the bed and called his name. “Johnny, I have some water for you here.”
She was pleased to hear him respond with an almost inaudible moan and a slight cough, and then she saw confused reddened blue eyes as his eyelids parted slowly. It looked as if Johnny was having trouble opening his eyes completely, as if his eyelids were a burden too great to bear or he feared the light, dim as it was, yet he seemed to be responding to her voice, and for this she thanked God.
Scott smiled at her, encouraging her further by asking, “When did you get to be such an accomplished nurse?”
“I have had a lot of practice. I nursed your father and mine through many fevers, Scott.”
She could tell Scott was intrigued and added, “ I will tell you more in time. It must be hard for you sometimes, knowing what you missed. A brother, a father…All that time you could have had together, gone now.”
Scott laid a large hand on her forearm, pondering on her words. “I’m pleased he had you to take care of him when he needed a woman’s touch.”
Teresa shot him a rueful grin, “A girl’s touch, Scott, but then I had to grow up quickly on Lancer.” She turned her attention back to the younger of the siblings, “Please Johnny, try some water, it will help you feel better.”
As her patient lifted an arm Scott grabbed him round his shoulders and eased him into a more upright position. The movement seemed to drain the energy away from his body and his eyes closed again.
“So tired.” he whispered through pallid and half open lips. “Hot.”
Edging onto the narrow bed, Scott supported his brother, holding the dark head against his shoulder so that Teresa could get the rim of the chipped mug against Johnny’s lips and force the water into his mouth. Johnny spluttered; losing most of the cool liquid down his cheeks, but it had the right effect on him. He opened his eyes again and seemed to bring Teresa into focus. She couldn’t be sure if he knew where he was or was aware who she was, but she was thankful that at least he was awake enough to take refreshment. She allowed another trickle of water to flow into his mouth, and this time he swallowed.
“There, Johnny, that’s better,” she soothed as Scott began to pull apart the sides of the open shirt exposing the silky bandages which stood out in sharp relief beneath the matted dark hair. He proceeded to remove the shirt as gently as he could, trying to avoid causing his brother further hurt. From the rapidity of his breathing, it was obvious that Johnny was suffering quietly.
“He’s burning up again, can you feel?” he addressed Teresa, “ We have to cool him down.”
Teresa was quick to return to the pump and fill a bowl with water and to fish another strand of satin from her bag. By the time she brought them over to the bed, Scott had rolled Johnny over onto his side where he supported him with one hand to stop him falling back.
As she approached the bed
walking slowly in order not to spill the water, she could see the bewildered
expression on Scott’s face turn to disbelief then realisation. In
response to his quiet utterance of one word, “Look,” she placed the trembling
bowl on the dusty floor and knelt beside him, her mouth open in shock.
Teresa brought her hand up to her open mouth as Scott whispered, “how on earth…?”
“Is it – do you think it’s –?” She was afraid to say the word in case naming it would somehow call it into existence like a conjured up sprite. “Could it be the smallpox?” Her face fell as she contemplated the implications.
Scott rested his open palm on Johnny’s back, hesitantly, as if he too wanted to deny what his eyes were showing him.
“Not raised…so I would say it’s likely measles, not smallpox. Check his forehead” He allowed his brother, then, to roll gently onto his back. Teresa fixed her eyes on the sad sight of Johnny’s limp hand as it fell boneless to the bed and seemed to turn itself over to dangle freely. Sniffing down a lump in her throat, she picked up his left hand in hers and held it still between her thumb and two fingers. Johnny offered no resistance; his eyes open still a slit, water glistening at the edges. Then unexpectedly overtaken by a fit of coughing that shook his whole body, and startled his companions Johnny doubled over fighting for breath. Teresa dropped his hand like it was alight and fell back to rest knelling upright on her heels. Scott laid one hand on his chest to calm him, and taking the soaked cloth from Teresa with the free hand he sponged his brother’s shoulders and face with a care that belied his strength.
Thankfully, the hacking sound lasted barely a minute, after which Johnny’s eyes closed completely as his body finally went limp under Scott’s hands.
Sighing, Teresa leant over and pushed back the errant lock of hair to reveal, true enough, a browny red blotch of a rash. “Yes, it looks like measles. No wonder he felt so sick and got so fevered. But how come he never had it as a child?” She could feel the tears pricking at her eyes and brought the back of her hand up to wipe them.
“And who did he catch it from?” Added Scott, puzzled. “Last week he was with the kids at the schoolhouse - one of them must have it. But I know it is worse for an adult to get it – my nanny had it once, she caught it from me. I felt badly that I had been the cause of her taking so ill. It was weeks before she regained her strength. Johnny is going to be very ill with fever, stomachache, and sore eyes and I’ve heard of people getting complications like brain disease, blindness, fits.”
Teresa settled back, letting the hair fall back over Johnny’s forehead, “Oh Scott, poor Johnny. How can we take him home like this? We can’t do, can we? Yet, we can’t stay here with no food and no medicine. What are we going to do?”
It was all too much. She had tried to put on a brave face, tried to have courage when faced with the Harveys and their accusations, but she was so tired and her beloved “brother” was now very ill and in need of more help than she could give. She hated this feeling of powerlessness. She had tried to be resourceful and strong but it was all too much to bear. Could this be her fault? She had only had the very best intentions in mind when she decided to have the miniatures painted, and she really had thought Johnny was feigning illness yesterday. Was it only yesterday? It seemed like a lifetime ago now: almost as long ago as the day she first met Johnny and Scott from the stagecoach. Her first impression had been of a dark and dusty ball of anger; how disagreeable he’d been, and how she had tried to pacify him. She recalled fiery eyes that challenged her; a man far different from any she had ever met before. It was hard to reconcile his status as Murdoch’s son with his dangerous appearance and background. Yet, somehow she had found enough nerve to put him right about his mother and Murdoch that afternoon, by the river, when she had only known him a day. Then when everything had calmed down, Pardee dead and Johnny was recovering from his gunshot wound, she had been thrilled to have a gunfighter in the house. She had read romances of young gunfighter’s in Dime Store Novels. They were usually barely out of their teens, lived dangerous lives and destined to die heroically before they reached thirty. Women swooned before them and they left broken hearts behind in every town they visited. Her friends had been eager for details of the new houseguests and she had been the most popular young woman in the district, still was. It seemed like her friends never tired of hearing what style and color of shirt Johnny wore, what he ate for breakfast, how straight he could sit a horse, how fast he could ride, how many steers he could rope in an hour, what he wore to swim in the river. She was never short of visitors eager to catch a glimpse of her dark and dangerous “brother”.
And not just Johnny - for
some of her friends wanted to hear about Scott and his refined manners.
Scott had been easy to get on with from the very first moment. He had an easy way about him, serious when necessary but good humored as well. He had accepted with easy grace her offer to help him buy suitable clothes and they shared a common interest in reading matters. He had lived in places she had long dreamed of visiting. Her father had often promised her that they would visit Boston together; he died before they ever had that chance. Scott shared tales of his youth with her in a way that Johnny never could. She recalled how willing he was to answer her questions about the latest fashions in hat and dress and what the well bred women in the east liked to do in their spare time.
Scott had found a trunk under the bed and was pulling out a moth-eaten sheet, grayed and unpleasant in appearance. He studied it before shrugging and placing it over the lower half of Johnny’s body.
“Look how the rash is spreading, from what I recall it is very infectious. Even if we could move him, I don’t know if it would be wise. Have you had measles? I don’t believe you can get it twice.”
Teresa nodded. “I had it over ten years ago. So, we are all right. I do remember having stomach ache and a cough. It was summer and Angel boiled up water to keep my room steamy, pots and pots of it. I hope Josiah hasn’t caught it what with those two chasing him, if he’s sick he won’t have a chance. We must do something, Scott. We must help Josiah. Oh this is all so hopeless, how can we help both of them?”
Staring at his brother with obvious concern, Scott replied that he was trying to work out a plan of action in his mind.
Finally he spoke.
“We have three options. One of us leaves the cabin to get help and warn Josiah that he may have measles and that he is being pursued. I would suggest that person be me in case the two Harveys are still around. Second: we both stay here until a ranch-hand comes to check the shack, or Murdoch comes looking for us. The obvious problem there is we may run out of food and we have no way of treating Johnny if he takes a turn for the worse. And we can’t help Josiah if we are here. Three: we get Johnny into the buckboard and take him home. From there we can send men out to deal with Josiah and the Harvey’s.”
Teresa looked down at Johnny
who had become restless again, but not awake, moving his head slowly from
side to side. He looked to her like he was having a nightmare so she wet
the cloth, wrung it out tightly and folded it neatly onto his forehead.
She felt that neither option was ideal and was afraid to commit to a decision. Let that be Scott’s responsibility, she didn’t want to cause further harm to anyone. This situation was bad enough.
“You choose.” She offered,
Scott thought for a moment then decided. “Let’s try the third option. That way we are all together. I don’t like to think of leaving you here alone with the Harvey’s around. They could have been telling the truth, but there was something about them I did not trust. Staying here is not a good idea either; we could be trapped. If they decide we are lying and are harbouring Josiah, they might come back. Yes, the best plan is to get Johnny back to Lancer straight away and deal with Josiah from there. I’ll go hitch up the horse and bring the buckboard round front. You try to get him in a fit state for travelling.”
As he spoke, Scott gathered together as many of the much-needed items as he could lay his hands on. He scooped up cans of food, mug, Johnny’s knife and gun, Teresa’s precious bag, two water bottles that were covered in a thick layer of dust and grease, and a worn blanket. He placed them all on the table apart from the bottles, which he put by the pump.
“We’ll need as many provisions as we can find in here and lots of water. You might have to sponge him down in the buckboard so look around for more containers. Oh and more blankets to keep him from being jolted around. Measles makes you ache in every joint and muscle. Even if we drive very carefully, it shouldn’t take us more than a couple of hours to get to the ranch. We may need to cover our tracks - that will slow us down. Anything else you can think of, Teresa?”
Teresa considered a second before asking Scott if he could find her some willow tree bark. “I could make a tisane for him, help ease the pain. That might make it easier for him to get in the buckboard.”
“Are you sure willow bark is good for measles? “
Teresa shook her head, “No I ‘m not, Scott, but we need something to get his fever down and to help with the pain. I can’t think of anything else, can you? At least the steam from the boiling water may ease his breathing.”
Nodding, Scott left the shack, pulling on his gloves and whistling tunelessly through his teeth in what Teresa assumed was an attempt to give comfort to her. As soon as the door creaked shut behind Scott, Teresa stoked up the pot-bellied stove, refilled the kettle and put it on to boil. She wiped her hands on her dress, all the while listening to Johnny in case his breathing altered in tone signifying a change from sleep to wakefulness. She had only a little knowledge about measles, but she was aware it was a dangerous and contagious affliction and that it could be deadly. She hoped she was right about the willow bark and that it wouldn’t make Johnny worse. She recalled with sad clarity how Elisa Fairhurst’s baby had died of it only last year; how his mother had held him tight as he shook with convulsions and yelled in pain, until his tiny body stilled forever. That must not happen to Johnny. It would be vital to make sure he did not become delirious, or have fits or start to vomit. Those symptoms would indicate the illness was taking too great a hold on him for his body to cope. The best place for him would be safe in his bed at Lancer with proper care and facilities. And as for Josiah, she wondered how he was fairing. Was he still running? Or had he found a safe haven somewhere? He could even have got as far as the ranch if he rode in the right direction. She prayed he was safe for she knew in her heart that he was honorable and trustworthy.
Sighing deeply she turned back to consider Johnny again and was surprised to encounter his piercing eyes staring at her glassily. She watched him run a white slip of tongue along his lower lip; the moisture glistened in the low light. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he coughed feebly. She could see how the rash was more obvious now on his cheeks and his neck; in a few days it would turn his whole body a mottled brown. Teresa placed her hand on his forehead to find it still too warm. Johnny tracked her hand with his eyes then reached up his own rough one to enfold hers. Teresa’s heart thumped against her ribs at the sensation of his large calloused gunfighter’s hand; she held her breath for a long minute wondering what he would do next. She could barely hear the noise of the nickering horse and Scott’s soft encouragements to it as he hooked it up to the buckboard, above the thudding of her own heartbeat. Then the moment passed in a sigh as she pulled away to reach down for the mug of water that was on the floor by the bed.
“Here, drink this, “ she said, unnerved by the intensity of his stare as he continued to follow the shaky movements of her hand. “I have to get you ready to leave, but you need to co operate a bit.”
He was still looking at her
hand, in a manner that was making her skin prickle, for his eyes were shining
with an uncommon intensity as if there were a film of moisture preventing
him from focusing properly. She wondered if he was really seeing
her at all, or if he was in the grip of some delusion. She supposed it
was possible that he wasn’t awake at all, but in a waking dream like a
Supporting his head in the crook of one arm, she managed to place the mug against his lips and eased the rim into his mouth. The water trickled in and he seemed to swallow reluctantly. “Is your throat sore?” She asked him, frowning, but the only answer he gave was a deep shuddering inhalation, which shook his body like a wind driven leaf. Then he relaxed a little in her arms, closed his eyes for a second and re opened them to stare at her quizzically. She turned away, uncomfortable again, from his penetrating eyes, which were quite obviously seeing someone other than her, to busy herself with getting him fully dressed.
As she reached for his shirt, preparing to fasten it up properly, her fears that he was in the grip of a delusion were confirmed when Johnny struggled upright, as if through mud, to grab her elbow with surprising ferocity.
“Dolores,” he whispered, through
dry lips. “You came back.”
Before Teresa could respond with a protest, he had shifted his grip to her shoulder, and was encircling her waist with the other hand to pull her down on to the bed beside him. She tried to resist, but in the throes of the delusion, he seemed to have developed a greater strength than she could counter. As he pulled her closer, she lifted her hands up to her chest to form a barrier between them and tried to push him back down to the bed.
"Don't leave me again, don't go, Dolores" he whispered plaintively, his lips close to her ear. " I did everything I could to find you again¦ you're here now, it 'll be all right."
She could hear and feel that he was breathing heavily, and seemed to be reliving a scene from his past. Although her heart pounded in fear, she knew he would not willingly try to harm her, so she relaxed in his grip and tried to play along with his illusion. As she tried to calm him by whispering, "shhh" over and over as gently as she could under the circumstances, she wondered who Dolores could be. An old girlfriend from his days in border towns? She certainly could not be an aunt or other kind of female relative. In response to her shushing sounds, he was repeating over and over some Spanish words so quietly that she could hardly make them out, "Te amo, Dolores, te amo." Then to her surprise a small tear escaped from the corner of one of his glazed eyes and rested on the lower lid like dew on fern. She wriggled her right arm from where it was trapped between their warm bodies and caught the tear on her forefinger. If only it were that easy to take away Johnny's pain, she mused.
The moment of quietness ended as he caught her raised finger in his hand and brought it fiercely to his mouth, where he pressed a kiss onto it, then spoke to it breathily, "Hermosa, Chiquita,Dolores."
Teresa knew that they were about to reach a precipice, a point of no return, and that whatever was happening had to be stopped, but she could not bring herself to act. Remembering the moment in the kitchen - a moment that had lasted a lifetime - and seemed now to be a lifetime ago, she wished that someone could have for her the feelings that Johnny obviously had for Dolores. Yet, she knew in her mind that she could never be a Dolores, certainly not for Johnny, but oh, how her heart ached for romance and love. That brief contact with him had sparked something in her that was both new and exciting together, as if her life were beginning anew and feelings were awakening within her that were a revelation. His grip on her tightened as he tried to pull her closer still and she felt the hand that was still between them stiffen and cramp. She feared to complain to him in case her words agitated him; in case he felt that Dolores was rejecting him. It was safer to play along with the delusion. So, she let him rub the back of her hand with his fingers and turn it over to raise it to his lips to kiss her palm. It was a strange sensation, almost like having a pony lift food from your hand with its tongue, and it sent a shiver through her body. He was still murmuring, the sense of his words lost to her ears, her eyes slid shut of their own accord as she rested against the barrier of his chest. His free hand was caressing her hair now, lifting each strand to let it fall haphazardly, and then lifting it again only to rub it into the nape of her neck. She found herself unable to free her gaze from the silty blue grip of his eyes. She was mesmerised. And was it her imagination or was the shack becoming warmer, the air thicker and harder to breath in?
What must it be like, she wondered again, to have a man like Johnny come home to you at the end of each day. To welcome him with an embrace, to have him look at you like you were the most important thing in his life. To share the warmth of his body close throughout the night. One day those experiences would be hers, one day in the future but not now, and not with Johnny, never with Johnny. Murdoch wouldn't approve, in fact he would probably be scandalised to see her in this odd position, uncomfortably balanced on the edge of the bed, the only thing keeping her off the floor his fevered son's grip. He was so very protective of her; he would not want her to live with a man as full of potential danger as his younger son. He would be more likely to approve of her having a relationship with Scott. Teresa gave herself a mental shake. Where were these thoughts coming from - so intrusive and odd? These men were like brothers to her, they treated her like a kid sister, they never looked at her like they looked at young female visitors; in fact some days it seemed they hardly noticed her at all except when they needed coffee or cakes or washing done. Was it wrong then, to think of them now as potential lovers? It wasn't uncommon for young girls to marry cousins, and neither of the Lancer boys was related to her. And Johnny was so appealing in a roguish way and the kisses he was still bestowing on her hand felt far too good to be wrong. He was looking at her again, and it seemed for a moment that his vision cleared and he scowled as if trying to make sense of the situation. As if he were working out in his mind that she was not Dolores, but Teresa, and that he was not in some rough border cantina, but in a flea ridden bed in a deserted line shack.
He dropped her hand and pressed
his fingers to her lips so she parted them ever so slightly to taste a
salty warmness, to feel the whorls and the hard pad of skin at the joint
of his trigger finger. The significance of the calluses did not escape
her, and the thought of it thrilled her for some perverse reason. Was this
love? To be excited by a man despite the violence of his past? The banging
of the door and the sound of Scott's horrified voice shouting over her
heartbeat, "Get your hands off her, brother", suddenly and violently broke
the tension of the moment.
There was a hardness in Scott's tone when he said "brother" that made Teresa freeze in place. Striding across the room he grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her roughly away from Johnny and up off the bed. Still holding her tightly, his nails pressing into the hollow of her collarbone, Scott guided her to a chair and pushed her down onto the creaking seat. He scowled at her before turning angrily back to his brother. "What do you think you were doing? She's not some cheap whore you picked up in a saloon. She's Murdoch's ward, you take your hands off her."
Before she could stop him he was at the bed pulling Johnny into sitting position by the collar of his half open shirt and staring at him threateningly. Johnny's right hand was at his waist in an instant, flailing for a gun and finding only an empty holster. Teresa could only watch open-mouthed in shock, as Johnny lifted a weak hand, fist clenched, to punch Scott ineffectually in the jaw. Scott countered by slapping his brother across the cheek, an action that left Johnny dangling dazed, hanging by his shirt from Scott's white knuckled hands. In contrast, Scott's face was red with a rare fury.
Johnny continued to struggle, trying to break free like a racoon in the jaws of a mountain lion, but his efforts were futile and, strength ebbing, he let his head fall back and collapsed as Scott, hand still raised in a fist, allowed him to sink to the bed. Astounded, Teresa noted a change come over Scott as he realised just what he had done in giving in to instinct. Shame-faced he turned away from his brother and towards her, an expression of helplessness on his face. He mouthed, "I am sorry" to her and hung his head in embarrassment. Teresa took the opportunity to spring up and rush to Johnny to check that he wasn't having a convulsion, or fallen into unconsciousness. She was relieved to see that he was still conscious, if dazed. He lay quietly against the lumpy pillow, eyes open and staring into the far distance, breathing heavily. Then before her eyes, he began to heave hacking coughs as if a huge weight rested in his lungs and he had to raise a supreme effort to expel it.
"Johnny!" she squealed, paralysed with fear. "Scott - do something" Scott was at her side in a second; eager to redress the harm he had done his brother.
"Help me turn him on his side, and get him a bit more upright," Scott was all business. Teresa could not express her relief at seeing him take charge. This was the Scott she never knew, the officer, used to being obeyed in an instant and without question. At home he was the novice, the student, eager to learn from the more experienced ranch hands, rather than the person in authority.
She held onto Johnny's arm and back at one side of the bed, a task that was made harder by the force of him thrashing his limbs. How had he regained his strength? It was like holding onto an unbroken horse. She gripped under his arm as tightly as she could and at Scott’s nod, hefted the gunfighter into a more upright position then relaxed her grip to allow Scott to push him onto his side so that he faced her. His eyes were a disconcerting shade of violet, and still were focussing on something: Dolores perhaps? Or some part of his past that he had been transported to in his delirium? The awful hacking sounds were subsiding now to harsh sobs, as he was able to gulp in enough air to satisfy his lungs. Under the soothing motion of Scott’s hand on his upper back, Johnny started to relax and stop fighting whatever it was he was feeling. His coughing was now producing gobs of pallid spittle, which dribbled from his mouth. Teresa pulled out her handkerchief and gently wiped it all away trying to disregard the fact that it was a yellow color.
“Bring the kettle over, the steam should help him with his breathing,” Scott continued his circular rubbing motion as Teresa went for the kettle which had slowly heated to boiling, and carefully brought it back to the floor by the bed. The steam rose in foggy wisps to surround Johnny’s face eliciting feeble moans from his half hidden lips, between the pitiful coughs. She could hear the plaintive tone of regret in Scott’s voice as he repeated over and over, “I’m sorry, brother,” and all her anger faded. She understood now, that it must have seemed to Scott as if she was under attack and his first instinct had been to protect her. In a perverse way, she found this gratifying. She did not enjoy it that Scott had hurt his brother, but it gave her a secret pleasure to ponder the implications of Scott’s actions – that he considered her safety of paramount importance, more so than that of his own flesh and blood.
They watched together as the steam dissipated and the awful broken sounds of Johnny’s efforts to breathe began to fade.
Johnny's eyes were half open now, looking the way babies do when they sleep, small slits of darkness between the long eyelashes. The coughing was fading now, replaced by indecipherable murmuring as Johnny tossed his head from side to side.
"The steam is working, he's recovering. Let's get him in the buggy. "
"Wait, Scott." Teresa wiped the hair back from Johnny's forehead where it had stuck in a thick black clump almost in his eyes.
"Did you find willow bark?"
Scott shook his head and helped her lay Johnny back flat onto the bed. As he pulled his hand away from the back of his brother's head, he frowned and lifted the hand to his eyes. Teresa saw the blood there and gasped.
"That head wound, he must have reopened it with all that thrashing."
"Or when you hit him." Regretting the harsh words as soon as she said them, Teresa did not wait for a response. Instead, she retrieved a canteen from the table and held it to Johnny's lips in desperation. She ignored Scott who jumped to his feet as if stung and turned his back to her.
"Come on, Johnny, drink," she coaxed, hoping that the cool water would be enough to keep him from sinking into a deeper illness. As soon as a trickle of water hit the back of his throat, he coughed it out again, then pushed the canteen away with the back of one hand, muttering, "No, Dolores, no mas, no mas."
Scott returned to the bed with the other canteen and a wet bandanna. Teresa lowered the canteen so that he could push Johnny's head over to the side to expose the cut. It was oozing just a small amount of blood into Johnny's hair behind his ear and had stained a strip of the area of skin over the thick muscle that joins neck to shoulder. He dabbed the cut with the moist cloth then waited to see if it was bleeding. When more blood welled up, he sighed and hunched his shoulders. The pale eyes that met Teresa's over Johnny's head were moist with tears of remorse.
"I'm sorry Scott, the cut
wasn't your fault. I know you thought you were helping me. I don't
know what's worse, this stillness or the delusion he was in. I wish
he was back to normal."
Teresa opened her precious bag and drew out yet another strand of silken cloth, this one pink in color. She studied it a moment, recalling other gifts given to her by Angel, then took it to the bed and handed it to Scott.
“Can you stop the bleeding with this? At least it’s clean,” she looked around the dusty cabin meaningfully, “Any cloth we might find in here would be too filthy to use.”
Scott was sitting on the edge of the bed, by his brother’s waist. The expression on his face was so remorseful; Teresa’s felt her heart might break. Putting a comforting hand on his arm, she felt the hardness of muscle. She could not allow him to lose control now for she was relying on him to keep her and Johnny safe. He held his hand out for the cloth, and when he grasped it, she did not release her end, but anchored him there, pulling on the silk until it was taut and he had to look into her eyes. She hoped he could see the sincerity there as she insisted, “It isn’t your fault, Scott. We have to get him ready to leave.”
As she let the silk fall, he clenched his fist tightly around it and turned back to his brother. His voice was cracking and she had to step closer to hear him clearly.
“I lost so many young men in the war. Men too young to be away from their mothers, but young enough to follow orders without question. On my say so they would go into the thick of the fighting. Very few survived. Too many young men have suffered because of me. Teresa, I just found my brother, and I don’t want to lose him, like I lost them. Often in the night I get these dreams of those young men following my orders, and some times one has Johnny’s face. It doesn’t make sense but when do dreams ever make sense? And now look at him. I can’t order him better, I have only rudimentary medical skills – enough to patch a man up and send him out to be killed. And both of you are depending on me to get us out of this mess. I hate feeling powerless.”
Teresa was startled by such a heartfelt admission from Scott and not a little scared at the way he appeared to be falling apart before her eyes.
“We can manage together Scott, I’m sure of it. Let me – “
Taking the silk from him, she gestured for Scott to lift his brother’s head whilst she wound the material around his head, securing it with a knot. They watched together for a half-minute and when no blood seeped through the makeshift bandage, they both sighed.
Scott allowed his brother’s head to rest gently back on the pillow. “It’s working. Now we have to get him on his feet and out of here.”
It seemed to Teresa that he had begun to shake off his earlier maudlin mood in the space of that half-minute. She marvelled at how he could switch roles so easily. Getting to know these two men was a slow but enlightening process.
Teresa looked at Johnny, trying to gauge his condition. How easy would it be to get him out of the cabin and into the buggy? At the moment, he seemed to be offering no resistance, unlike the violence of his earlier movements; he was still now even though he appeared to be awake. She noted how his breathing was noisy once more, that he was sucking in air twice as deeply as he normally did, through an open mouth. Droplets of perspiration were forming once more on the side of his head, close to the hairline and his complexion was sallow beneath the sprinkling of spots.
Scott pushed his arms beneath Johnny’s upper body and began to lever him up.
“Pull his legs over the side of the bed, that’s it…now you take his other arm and I will try to support most his weight on this side…good girl…got him…ready?”
Teresa nodded and together
they lifted a grumbling Johnny to his feet. He was a dead weight
in their arms. As they took the first coordinated step toward the open
door, their burden cried out unintelligibly and tried to pull his arm away
from Teresa. It ‘s like struggling with a new foal, thought Teresa
as Johnny squirmed his way out of her grip to fall against Scott’s chest
where he dangled, head supported on Scott’s shoulder. Scott adjusted
his burden by shifting his arms to balance Johnny in front of him.
He looked down at the glossy crown of his brother’s head and rubbed his
chin into it in a gesture of affection. Johnny’s reaction took Scott
by such surprise he almost let him fall. Instead of relaxing, Johnny
brought his head sharply back and opened his eyes wide. As Teresa
came closer to offer help, she heard another strange guttural rasp and
could only watch dumbfounded as the blue eyes rolled back to reveal only
red flecked whites and Johnny collapsed once more against his brother’s
supportive body. She placed her palm on his forehead, wondering at
the number of times she had performed that action in the past day, and
felt the heat that radiated. He was still burning up; all their efforts
were achieving too little. If he developed pneumonia, would she be
to blame? Scott, all business, interrupted her reverie again, by
asking her to get more cold water. As she busied herself at the pump,
soaking a cloth, she could see how Scott was trying to shift Johnny’s weight
again, so that he could see his face more clearly. When she returned
to place the folded cloth across the fevered brow, she noticed the thing
that was holding Scott’s attention and her chest tightened in fear.
Trickling down Johnny’s chin casting a shiny trail like a snail’s was a
large gobbet of green-tinged blood-dotted spittle.
There was no time for either of them to act on this discovery for a heavy footstep at the door announced the arrival of a very much out of breath and trail-dusty figure. Alerted by the noise, Teresa looked up in time to see Josiah stumble over the threshold to sprawl at her feet where he lay still for a few seconds before finally stirring. He levered his upper body from the dirty floor and stared at her as if to make sure she was Teresa, his friend. Then spitting more dirt from his mouth he wheezed, “They’re behind me- quick, shut the door.”
Without a thought, Teresa rushed to the door and slammed it shut as Scott awkwardly placed his brother back on the bed.
She paused for a moment her back pressed tightly against the worn wood until Scott, grasping her by the shoulders, pulled her away to make room for the table, which he upended and shoved firmly in place.
Josiah still seated on the floor, knees raised, rubbed his head and sighed. “Weapons, we need guns, pistols, what have you got?” He looked up at Scott in supplication, acknowledging the ex soldier’s expertise.
“A couple of pistols is all. A Sharps. Why? Are we going to need them?”
Josiah pushed himself to his feet, and once upright swayed, exhausted. “They want to kill me.”
Scott did not look up from checking the ammunition available to them, “You. It’s you they want, why should they threaten us? Why do they want you?”
“It’s the Harveys, they will be after you as well as me, they know you’re on my side.”
“Josiah, what makes you-“
Scott’s reply was interrupted by a gruff voice from outside, “Send ‘im out mister an’ ya won’t git hurt.”
Teresa felt the blood drain from her face, and she sat on the bed beside Johnny to hide the weakness she felt in her legs. She wiped the spittle from his mouth with the end of her skirts and distracted herself in holding his clammy hand and listening to the uneven hitch of his breath.
The sound of sibilant laughter was too loud to ignore. Teresa raised her hand to her nose to wipe away the moisture that had been gathering there, and blinked fiercely to rid the smarting from her eyes. What was it? That smell was familiar, from somewhere. Now she remembered, the fires that Pardee set round the ranch… it was the acrid smell of damp vegetation on fire.
“They’re trying to smoke us out!” Scott vocalised her fears, his voice loud and unwavering. His logical mind would be working out a solution. “Is Johnny awake yet?”
“No, he’s still burning with fever.”
“Try to rouse him. Sounds like they have set fire to wood and put it against the door and windows. All they have to do is wait till we run out for air then they can pick us off one at a time, or force us out.”
She could hear Scott’s feverish movements as he strode from one part of the shack to another, pausing to attend to some task. She trusted his abilities and resourcefulness; she could rely on him to work out the practicalities of getting out of the shack. For her part, she had to make sure Johnny was fit to be moved, ready for whatever Scott had planned.
To that end, she tapped the younger of the brothers on the cheek and whispered his name. Slowly the long lashes parted in response to reveal the blue eyes she treasured.
“Johnny we have to move, but you have to help us get you out of here. You have to try to get up.” Although he didn’t answer her, with her support, a dazed Johnny managed to get himself into an upright position on the bed. He rested in a seated position leant against her strong arm as Teresa swung his legs over the edge of the cot. Then Scott was at her side thrusting wet rags into her hand, his voice muffled and only just discernible over the pop and crackle of burning wood.
“We are going to climb out the back window, when we do put the rags over your mouth and nose and Johnny’s too. Don’t breathe the smoke. We have to be quick; I will cover you both, keep them occupied with a few rounds. You have to make a run for the buckboard if you can, the bush if you can’t. You understand Teresa?”
“How will we get him out the window, Scott? I’m not sure he can stand on his own.”
“You and Josiah, you have to work together. Keep the rag over your nose and mouth and try not to breath the air without it.” Scott stopped to wipe the tears streaming from his stinging eyes with the back of a hand. Teresa noticed how smudged tracks of dirt trailed down his cheeks. No doubt, she looked equally grimy. She watched him turn away to head back to the window where he started to dampen the walls and furniture there with water from the pump.
Now she had Johnny seated on the cot, she motioned for Josiah to help her manoeuvre him into a standing position. Josiah was strangely silent, the energy all gone from him like a hard ridden stallion. He appeared almost listless as he came over to stand beside her.
This uncharacteristic demeanor
unnerved her. She licked her lips, her tongue felt like a wool sock in
her mouth, and she tried to swallow. All the moisture was being sucked
out of her. Pressing the rag to her lower face, she rubbed the other palm
against her skirt to clear away the sweat. Funny how inside she felt
so dry, yet outside there was moisture enough to cool her itching skin.
She steeled her nerves and concentrated hard on blocking out the far from
homey smell of wood smoke, the sound of hoarse guffaws from the horrible
men outside the shack, in order to be the rock Johnny would need.
She knew he needed her strength, her willpower, and her resourcefulness,
to get through what remained of the day. This was going to be her
chance to prove to them all that she wasn’t a girl any longer: that she
was a capable and mature woman and up to any task.
It was quite evident to Teresa that Scott was having difficulty breathing through the rag while simultaneously pressing a large cloth over the windowpane at the far side of the shack, near the pump. The cloth served to muffle the sound of breaking glass as Scott fashioned an escape route for them.
The window, positioned as it was in a dark corner, was covered with an overhang of ivy thus obscuring it from the eyes of the Harvey brothers. Whispering to Josiah to help her, she set to rousing the disoriented Johnny in order to wrap a soaked bandanna round his face and get him off the bed and out to freedom. Johnny surprised her with his ability to co-operate, as if he had drawn on some deep inner resources that enabled him to sway to his feet and hold the mask in place over his nose with a mottled hand. Teresa supported his weight on one side and motioned for Josiah to do the same on the other. Her mentor was uncharacteristically compliant.
The short distance across the rough hewn floor to the far window felt like a long uphill struggle. Not for the first time, Teresa wondered how she had got herself into this state of affairs. It was becoming increasingly apparent to her, that since the two brothers arrived at Lancer, her life had changed in unusual, exciting and often dangerous ways. But this time, she was sure that she was the cause of this situation, not Scott or Johnny. Far from being endangered by a figure from Johnny's shadowy past, or an old enemy of Scott's, it was her silliness, and girlish ambition that had brought them to this cabin and this desperate situation. This was truly her fault, and she must make amends for having formed such a disastrous relationship with the foolish Josiah.
They reached the flyspecked window at last, no mean feat when supporting Johnny. Even through the damp mask the smoke still penetrated, tickling the back of her throat and making her eyes water. She rubbed at them with the inside of her wrist.
Joshua still appeared cowed and compliant as he shifted his burden in order to force a larger opening in the window. The sound of shattering glass went unheard under the crackling of tinder and the noise of gunfire. Then Joshua took all of Johnny's weight to allow her to climb through the window first. Johnny roused as Joshua attempted to hoist him through the window and found enough strength to lever himself through and into Teresa's waiting embrace. Urgency and desperation gave him the strength to support his own weight as he slipped through. Their eyes met as they clung to each other in the fog, and she discerned and unspoken gratitude in his shining blue eyes. Don't thank me yet, Johnny, she whispered.
Josiah had started to climb through the window when she realised the sound of gunfire had stopped, and the air was quieter apart from the dying crackle of the smoldering wood. Josiah had paused, head cocked to one side, one leg poking through the window frame, his hands grasping the frame. Then he turned his grimy face inwards as if listening to sounds in the shack. Scott's voice broke the silence, a volley of words too indistinct to make sense from where she stood. Then the world was in motion again as Johnny stumbled against her, taking both of them to the sharp earth. She broke his fall; trapped beneath him she watched his eyes shut slowly. She clasped him close, his grimy flushed face pressed against her breast, unaware of the lack of dignity or even propriety. His heart thudded against her, a little too quickly and his soft breath cooled her cheek with moisture.
Was it all over? Had the Harveys run off? Could they get Johnny back to the ranch where he could be cosseted and cared for by Maria and the doctor? She lay still now, holding on to her burden and listening carefully as the crackling sounds died down to leave a strange calmness. There were voices again, no longer distant but getting louder. Then a thud as Josiah finally jumped out of the shack. He stopped to look down at her, and she tensed, ready to let him relieve her of her burden. He stared at her a second, as if about to speak and then he turned away and sprinted off into the trees. Stunned, she let her head fall back to the dirt, and stared at the dust he left in his wake.
What was all that about? Where was he going? Her musings were interrupted by a release in pressure against her as Johnny slipped away from her grasp. He was awake again and lying on his side now, unsupported, facing her, looking intently into her eyes with a quizzical expression.
"Your friend jus' took off?" His voice was hoarse, the words croaked out with effort, but the concern was evident in his tone. Not mocking at all, like she expected from the cynical and laconic gunfighter.
"Yes. He's gone."
Her heart was thudding again, and in that quiet moment before the world turned again, the emotion she had felt the day before, in the kitchen, returned. A moment in which her gut twisted, her pulse quickened and her throat froze. Could he tell? Did he feel it too?
"Shhhh," he replied, a whispered breath of warm air and she felt his callused forefinger on her lips, sealing them.
Then, breaking the spell,
a pair of tan calfskin boots came into view.
Teresa recognised the dusty worn boots immediately, but it was Johnny who pulled away the dirty cloth mask covering his mouth and spoke first. Although his breath was ragged, the words were clear enough.
“Hey brother, give me a hand here.”
“Stay right where you are, Johnny, till I get a look at you.” Then he was crouching down beside them, placing the rifle carefully on the earth, removing a glove and rubbing his hands together.
“The Harveys took off. I think maybe I winged one of them. I guess I scared them more than I expected to. They didn’t expect their fire to die down so soon. And looks like Josiah is gone. I’m sorry, Teresa.”
She nodded a response, unable to think of a retort. Josiah was in the past now, and she was surprised to find she didn’t really care that he was gone. She had a new future to consider. She shuffled backwards away from Johnny as Scott put the back of his hand to his brother’s forehead. His smile was reassuring.
“You’re not so hot. I think your fever is going. Rash is getting worse, though.”
Johnny grimaced, “You got a mirror on you, brother? I want to see just how much like a ladybug I look.”
Teresa marveled at his bravery – able to jest when in such obvious pain. She wasn’t surprised when Scott admonished, “Save your breath, Johnny, you’re going to need all your strength to get to the buckboard. You’re too heavy for Teresa and me to carry.”
On cue, Johnny bent double as a fit of coughing consumed him again, each breath coming out forced and wheezy. Teresa pushed herself into sitting position and allowed him to lean against her as automatically she massaged circles on his back until his breathing eased. As he rested in the support of her capable arms, she looked down at the place where her hand rested warmly on his left side and moved with each hitching inhalation, she saw that the action of her rubbing had pulled his shirt away to reveal the rash of measles.
She pushed the shirt up Johnny’s side to reveal where angry brown-red blotches now covered all parts of his skin right down into his pants.
“The rash is still spreading, look.”
Scott came closer and scowling. “You need the doctor, Johnny. Soon as possible. Let’s get you home.”
Together Teresa and Scott helped Johnny to his feet. He leant between them swaying for a few seconds, then pushed Teresa’s hand away. “Let me to do this.” His mouth twisted in an effort to get control, and, she suspected, because he was biting hard on the inside of his cheek to divert the pain.
Teresa shook her head in exasperation, and wondered if he would learn the hard way that his body was sicker than he thought. She noticed that Scott still had his arm around Johnny’s waist ready to hold him up, should he fall.
She watched anxiously as he summoned that resolution she so admired, that inner fortitude that kept him going when others gave up. He took one step forward, in the direction of the buckboard where the horse waited patiently, then, as anticipated, his legs began to fold and he lost his balance. Teresa could see how much Scott had to control his facial muscles to avoid giving an “I told you so “ look as he caught his brother expertly before he did himself too much damage. As the men wove their way carefully to the buckboard, Teresa followed trying to make sense of her feelings. Why had Josiah run? He was certainly a good artist and the stories he had told her had the ring of truth about them. Was she wrong to trust him? Had she really misjudged him? Was she really the naïve idiot her friends accused her of being? Would she ever understand men?
They were soon at the buckboard and with help from both Scott and Teresa, Johnny was finally settled on some burlap in the back, his upper body propped up to ease his breathing.
Scott retrieved his Charlemagne from the hitching rail and secured him to the rear of the buckboard. His bedroll was still tied to the saddle so he undid the latigos and took it to where Johnny lay and tucked it snugly round him to protect his body from jarring. Then he turned his attention to the other horse, running his fingers under the harness to checking for snags, aligning the buckles, testing the lines, whispering words of reassurance to it as it skittered restlessly. Teresa admired the easy way Scott had with any type of horse – a quality that had surprised her when he was new to the ranch. She had never considered easterners to be horse people. Once satisfied that it was in good condition for the journey home, he returned to the shack for the rest of the provisions, leaving Teresa to see to Johnny. She dug out the canteen from under the makeshift bedding and offered it to him, studying for a second his reddened eyes, the silken bandage around his head, the flush left by fever, which, intermingled with the rash, spread down his throat, onto his chest.
He drank greedily, his body starved of fluids through heat and sweat. As he handed the canteen back to her, their fingers met and again she felt it – that lightning jolt. Flushed almost as much as he was, she turned away from him to swallow a big gulp of cool water.
Funny how being in danger made you thirsty.
She could feel he was looking at her, from the way the skin on her neck was prickling. She wished for her bonnet: it had passed midday and the heat was building up again and the shade would have been a relief. It would also serve to shield her face from his scrutiny. What did he want from her? Could he read her mind? She wouldn’t underestimate him; he had an uncanny sixth sense. Did he still think she was Dolores? Or even Violet? Playing the part of Dolores had been thrilling until Scott put an end to it. Could she ever be a Dolores? She looked down at her skirts, smudged and torn now; she tried to rearrange the folds so they lay more evenly. It was no use: it was ruined. Her hair was limp and sticky and her face felt dry and dusty. And what of her bag? No doubt it was still in the shack, battered, kicked around and full of soot; damaged beyond repair along with the secrets within. Her precious bag – possibly the cause of all this. Maybe not the measles but everything else that followed. And all because she wanted to do something special for Murdoch. She had little opportunity to be independent out here in this wilderness. Was she becoming more like her mother as she got older? It wasn’t the first time she had pondered that possibility. Wasn’t it said that the curse of a girl was to grow to look like her mother, be like her mother? Murdoch often praised her for taking after her father in character. Paul O’Brien had been sensible, steadfast, reliable and trustworthy. Such a rock of a foreman, he had been irreplaceable and his death had hit Murdoch as hard as it had hit Teresa. Yet, there were so many times recently that she had wanted to be completely unlike her father. She longed for freedom, for creativity, to express the femininity that she had to keep hidden in this man’s world. She wanted to cut loose like her mother had.
Sometimes she just wanted to live her dreams.
Did Johnny guess all that? And if so, would he be the one to set her free? He was cast in the same mold, wasn’t he? A free spirit, a loner, a wild horse. Yet, he had stayed at Lancer and had not shown signs of fleeing again since the horse business.
She turned back to Johnny, her thoughts disturbed by a movement next to her. He was trying to shift his body into a more comfortable position, easing the ache in his side. He moaned and complained that it felt like every muscle in his body was burning.
“That’s the measles. Keep still, Johnny. We’ll be setting off as soon as Scott is back. More water will help.”
It was all she had to offer him as respite, yet pitiful as it was, he took the canteen and emptied it quickly. She did not notice she was crying until he reached out a finger and brushed at her cheeks. She bent to his touch and heard him whisper, “Tears for me, chica?” Looking up through matted lashes, she caught a glimpse of some indefinable expression in his eyes. Then he let his hand drop, as a grinning Scott appeared at the side of the buckboard, a gray bundle in his arms.
“Take this,” he threw the burden to Teresa and she unfolded the dirty blanket carefully. In the folds nestled her bag; a little worse for wear but serviceable nonetheless.
“We’ll soon be home.” She felt the buggy shake as Scott levered himself onto the front seat. A soft breath of wind lifted the wavy edges of his hair as he concentrated on taking a sip of water from his canteen. She raised her head to contemplate his slim athletic form as he picked up the smooth leather lines in a gloved hand, and clicked at the horse to move him off. The swaying of the buckboard, the warmth of Johnny pressed quietly against her, and the soporific sound of his breathing as he fell into a deep sleep soothing her, set her thoughts idly spinning off again. Both her “brothers” were pleasant to the eye, blue eyed, strong and dependable. Her friends thought she was the luckiest girl alive to be living with such desirable young men. Were they right? She had laughed the comments off, thinking her friends were mocking her; but had she been blind all the time?
Some time later as the shadows were beginning to lengthen, her thoughts were interrupted as the buckboard rocked with the movement of Scott turning round to speak to her.
“Teresa, you going to tell me what the story is with that bag?”
Teresa smiled enigmatically, clutching the bag tight against her breast. In the distance she could see the sun lighting up the white grandness of her Lancer home. Then she turned her gaze to Johnny and her expression saddened.
“No Scott, what’s inside here is my secret.”
Yes: her secrets were safe and hidden where they belonged. All of them.
“Let’s go home. Murdoch will be waiting for us.”