“Johnny, there is no reason for you to go with me. I’ll be back in ten days.”
Johnny was standing next to the fireplace, his arms wrapped around himself. “I’m goin’,” he said stubbornly.
Scott shook his head and turned toward his father. “Would you PLEASE tell him that I don’t need a babysitter?”
Murdoch took a breath and looked back and forth between his sons. Scott and Johnny rarely argued; they normally got along perfectly, but both were convinced they were right this time, and neither one was likely to back down. He didn’t know exactly what was going on, but he was sure he’d find out soon enough. He was sure that none of them would get to bed tonight until they had ironed this out.
He had asked Scott to go to Arizona to the new Fort Call and try to negotiate for a beef contract. Lancer had contracts with other Nevada forts, and Murdoch was eager to get more. The army was a steady buyer, and they paid a fair price, even if local beef prices dropped. Johnny had gone last time, and he didn’t want to show any favorites, so he had asked Scott to go this time. He didn’t know he was going to start a war.
He hated to see the two boys arguing. He wouldn’t even say fight, because as far as he knew, the two had never really had a fight. When the boys had first come home, before Pardee had been defeated, he had thought the two of them might have fought, but neither Scott nor Johnny had ever mentioned anything about it, and he had never asked.
He was sorry the boys hadn’t grown up together here at Lancer, but even if they had, he didn’t think the two boys could be any closer to each other than they were now. He had been amazed and a little jealous that his two sons had become so close so quickly. Even though he called the tune, he felt that he was definitely the odd man out between them. He knew if it came down to it, Scott and Johnny would side with each other. Even though that thought should bother him, for some reason it didn’t. For some reason, it made him feel good.
The only thing that bothered him was the fact that he wasn’t as close to them as they were to each other. While he had fought and argued with each of his sons, the two young men had hit it off almost immediately. He still felt that his sons, especially Johnny, held him at a slight distance. Scott and Johnny, however, were closer than he could even imagine. There were times when the connection between the two of them frightened him.
“Well?” Scott demanded.
Murdoch shrugged his shoulders. “I’m sure Johnny doesn’t think you need a babysitter, but on the other hand, it wouldn’t hurt for both of you to go.”
Scott glowered at his father. “What about all of the chores that need doing?” He asked sarcastically.
“Scott, why are you bein’ so darned stubborn? Why don’t you want me ta go?” Johnny demanded.
“It isn’t that I don’t want you to come along; I just don’t think it’s necessary, that’s all.”
“Well I do!”
Johnny’s head dropped. “I don’t know.”
Scott shook his head in frustration. “You just think it would be fun to take a bone rattling, dusty, boring stage ride?”
Scott turned once more toward his father. “Would SOMEONE PLEASE explain this to me?”
Murdoch turned his attention toward his youngest. “Well?”
“I told ya, I don’t know. I just have this feelin’, that’s all. I think there’s gonna be trouble, and somethin’s tellin’ me ta go.”
Scott ran his hand through his hair in frustration as he stared at his brother. “It’s a routine trip! Both you and I have taken it dozens of times. There’s never been any trouble.”
Johnny sighed. “Look, Scott, I can’t help what I feel, and I feel trouble. I’m goin’.”
Murdoch looked at Johnny thoughtfully. “Maybe neither one of you should go. There has been some Indian trouble down there lately.”
Scott’s mouth gaped open. “Oh, come on! Don’t tell me you really believe him!”
Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t believe or disbelieve, but I don’t want to put either of you in danger. The trip can wait.”
“I don’t believe this! I’m not a little kid!”
Johnny shook his head. “No one said ya were.”
Scott snorted. “No, you just think you have to go along and hold my hand.” He ducked his head. “Johnny, even if there is trouble, don’t you think I can handle it?”
“Scott, I know you can handle it. That’s not the point. I just…I think I need ta go this time.”
“Well I don’t!”
Johnny looked at his brother quizzically. “Why are you so against me goin’? Usually you jump at the chance.”
“Because, there’s no need, it’s a waste of time, and there’s plenty to do here.”
Murdoch shook his head. “I think I can spare Johnny for a couple of weeks.”
Scott glared first at his brother and then at his father. “I’m going…alone.”
Murdoch studied him with a worried expression on his face. “No.”
Murdoch shook his head. “IF you go, you’ll both go.” When Scott started to protest, Murdoch interrupted. “That’s final.”
Scott glared at his father and then, without even glancing at his younger brother, he headed for the stairs. “I’m leaving at six, with or without you.”
Scott stomped up the stairs and uncharacteristically slammed the door. He smiled briefly. Usually it was Johnny that did the door slamming, but he had to admit, it did feel good. He walked over to the window and looked out, still too upset to sit down. He didn’t want Johnny going with him, but he’d never admit the real reason to either his father or brother. He’d been having dreams lately, and in them, Johnny was in trouble. He couldn’t remember everything, but he did know that they were in the desert, just like where he was planning on going tomorrow morning. They were in the desert, they were together, and Johnny was dying.
Scott awoke early the next morning, determined to sneak out before his brother awoke. As he walked by Johnny’s room, he hesitated, listening for any sign of movement. He stood quietly next to the door for several minutes, but when he didn’t hear anything he hurried past, holding his boots in his hands. He headed down the stairs, avoiding the squeaky fourth stair, and headed toward the kitchen still carrying his boots in his hands. He glanced up at the clock as he walked past. He was only a half an hour early and he figured it wasn’t his fault he couldn’t sleep. Scott pushed open the door and peered cautiously into the kitchen, halfway expecting to see his brother, but the kitchen was empty. He breathed a sigh of relief and smiled to himself; Johnny hated to get up early and had gotten in the habit of relying on Scott to wake him up, only this time Scott had no intention of waking up his little brother.
Scott grabbed some food and stuffed it into his saddlebags. Even though he was planning on taking the stage most of the way, saddlebags were still the easiest way to carry his belongings. He went over to the table and then sat down and pulled on his boots. When he was done, he stood up and looked slowly around the kitchen; he had a strange feeling he wouldn’t be seeing it again. A shiver of apprehension washed over him, and then with an effort he shrugged it off. He had never believed in premonitions but it seemed as if lately someone was trying to tell him something. At least the dream he had been having involving his brother wouldn’t have a chance of coming true.
Scott walked quickly out to the barn and headed toward Charlie’s stall. He would leave the horse in Green River and Jelly would pick him up and bring him back to Lancer next time the handyman was in town. Scott walked over and then stopped dead when he saw the empty stall. He whirled around and looked into his brother’s grinning face.
“You sure slept late this morning, brother,” Johnny smirked. “I thought about wakin’ ya up, but I figured ya needed your beauty sleep.”
With a glare at his brother, Scott grabbed Charlie’s reins from Johnny and threw the saddlebags onto the horse. Tying them quickly, he swung aboard and without looking back, he spurred Charlie out of the barn, with Johnny trailing along behind.
Johnny waited until they were halfway to Green River before urging Barranca up next to Charlie. “Come on, Scott, ain’t ya gonna talk to me at all?”
“Why” Johnny asked indignantly. “What did I do?”
Scott turned and glared once more at his persistent brother. “You’re here with me instead of home where you belong.”
“I ain’t a kid.”
“Neither am I! I think I made it perfectly clear last night that I didn’t want you to come with me.”
Johnny grinned, totally unconcerned that his big brother was upset with him. “What’s the matter, you have some pretty senorita stashed somewhere?”
Scott pulled Charlie to a halt. “This isn’t funny! I want you to GO HOME!”
Johnny stopped Barranca next to Charlie and looked at his brother in confusion. “What’s goin’ on, Scott?”
Johnny merely arched his eyebrows and waited. Finally, Scott sighed. “Look, Johnny, I just have bad feeling about this trip, and I don’t want you going with me.”
Johnny continued to stare at his brother. “So it’s OK for you to go ridin’ into trouble?”
Scott shook his head. “There isn’t going to BE any trouble if you don’t come along. Besides, why is it so important for you to come? Usually you’d be doing everything you can to get out of it.”
Johnny shrugged uneasily. “Yeah, but not this time.”
“Why?” Scott shot. “What’s so different about this time? Usually you’d be doing everything you could to get out of it,” Scott said sarcastically.
Johnny dropped his head and then slowly raised his eyes toward his brother as he bit his lip. “So what was your dream about?”
Scott looked back at his brother in surprise. “How did you know that it was a dream?” He asked quietly.
Johnny shrugged. “’Cause I had one too,” he said quietly.
Scott froze and studied his brother. “What was yours about?”
Johnny ducked his head. “You were in trouble, that’s all.”
“Come on, Johnny, it was just a dream, tell me.”
With a sigh, Johnny shrugged again. “We were in the desert and …well, you weren’t doin’ so good.”
Scott continued to stare at his brother, unsure of what to say. Finally he shook his head. “It’s a coincidence; that’s all.”
“You dreamed the same thing?”
Scott nodded slowly. “Yes, only in my dream, you were the one that was in trouble.”
Johnny and Scott sat on their horses and looked at each other, trying to figure out what their dreams meant. Neither one wanted to admit that they were more than a little spooked by their premonitions. Finally, Johnny shrugged uneasily. “It don’t mean nothin’. It’s probably just ‘cause we’ve been eatin’ our own cooking for the last week or so.”
Scott nodded reluctantly. “I guess. But I’d feel better if you went home.”
Johnny shook his head and gave his brother a crooked grin. “Ain’t gonna happen. Besides, I’d feel better if YOU went home, so I guess we’re both goin’.”
Scott looked at Johnny in exasperation. “Don’t you know you’re supposed to listen to your big brother?”
“Nope. Actually, I thought little brothers were supposed to annoy their big brothers.”
“Well you’re doing a great job of it.”
Johnny grinned. “Thanks. I try.”
Scott shook his head and snorted. “All right. But don’t complain to me when you’re stranded in the desert.”
‘Wouldn’t dream of it, brother. Now let’s see if we can go get that contract and manage ta get home without gettin’ into trouble.”
Scott grinned. “THAT, brother, would be first.” Scott kicked Charlie and took off down the road with Johnny and Barranca in hot pursuit, but both men were thinking about the dreams they had had, and wondering what was in store for them on this trip.
Johnny gave Barranca’s neck a pat. “I’ll see you later, Compadre. Don’t you worry; Jelly will take good care of you while I’m gone.” He turned to his brother and grinned. “Aren’t you gonna say goodbye to Charlie?”
Scott rolled his eyes at Johnny. “Good bye, Charlie. Now come on brother, the stage is due in a few minutes.”
Johnny gave Barranca’s neck one last rub and then grabbed his saddlebags and followed his brother. As he approached the door he turned and took a long look at the palomino, and a feeling of unease came over him. For some reason, he had the feeling that they should ride instead of taking the stage.
“Hurry up, Johnny. We’re going to miss the stage!”
Johnny took another last look at his horse, and then turned and followed his brother.
While Scott was purchasing the tickets, Johnny wandered outside to look around. He hoped that the stage wouldn’t be crowded; the ride was uncomfortable enough without having to be jammed in with a bunch of other passengers. Johnny hated traveling by stage, and he avoided it whenever he could. Being crowded into the small confines of the stage made him feel nervous and vulnerable somehow, but for this trip, the stage was the safest way to go. They would be crossing some pretty rough territory, and trying to taking that route on horseback was asking for trouble.
Scott came out of the building a few moments later, and Johnny looked at him hopefully. “Well?”
Scott grimaced and shook his head. “I’m afraid we’re in for a rough ride. The stage is full. Are you SURE you want to come?”
“No, but I plan on doin’ it anyway.”
Scott sat down on the bench and handed his brother a ticket. “Here, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Johnny took the ticket and joined his brother on the bench. An exhausted looking woman with a rambunctious young boy approached the bench and wearily sat down after glancing at Scott and Johnny apologetically.
Johnny turned toward his brother and whispered. “YOU get ta sit next to them, brother. I aim on sleepin’ the whole way and I have no intention of havin’ a kid crawlin’ all over me the whole time.”
Scott gave Johnny with a disgruntled look. “All right, but you owe me.”
Johnny grinned and sat back, well pleased with himself that he had gotten his dibs in before Scott had a chance to open his mouth. His big brother was definitely slipping. Johnny watched as the boy started doing flips off of the nearby hitching rack and nearly knocked a passing lady into the water trough. Then Johnny’s face darkened and he turned back toward his brother. “Are there more kids comin’ on?”
Scott shook his head. “Not that I know of.”
Johnny sat back, relieved, until another thought popped into his mind. He turned back toward Scott. “Who else is comin on board? Maybe I’ll sit next to the kid after all.”
Scott looked at his brother in frustration. “Whatever you want to do. Just make up your mind.”
Johnny bit his bottom lip as he thought. As he was trying to decide, the boy managed to fall in the horse trough himself. Johnny shook his head decisively. “You can sit next to the kid.”
Scott nodded his head in resignation. “All right, whatever will make you happy,” he said sarcastically.
Johnny sat back, satisfied that he had gotten the best of his brother. When the driver called for them to board a few minutes later, Johnny grinned to himself. It looked like the four of them would be the only passengers, and he would be able to stretch his legs a little. He climbed aboard, and smirked at his brother, who was trying to make himself comfortable in the far corner of the stage. The little boy was sitting between his mother and Scott, and was managing to take up more room than both of them combined.
Johnny grinned as he saw Scott grimace as the boy leaned up against him with his soggy clothes and then Johnny made his way to the far side and sat across from Scott. After a moment, he leaned back against the side of the stage and stretched his legs out on the empty seat next to him.
“Young man, get those filthy boots off of my seat!”
Johnny’s boots hit the floor with a thud and he scrambled upright, trying desperately to see who he was going to have to sit beside for the next week or so. The old harridan climbed agilely aboard and sat down regally on the seat where Johnny’s boots had just been. She gave him a scowl and then pulled her skirt a little bit closer, obviously not wanting to get any closer to Johnny than she had to. She spared him another glance. “Aren’t you planning on taking your gun off for the trip, young man?”
Johnny gaped at her for a moment, and then shook his head. “NO, ma’am!”
She glanced over at Scott, who also shook his head, and with a disgusted sniff, she turned her head away and looked straight ahead, her nose in the air.
With a sigh, Johnny resigned himself to sitting upright for the rest of the journey, because he knew without a doubt if he tried to relax and get comfortable, she would somehow prevent it. He had just managed to find a somewhat agreeable position, when a portly old gentleman clambered aboard and tried to wedge himself into the seat on the far side of the lady. The lady looked at him in horror as she realized she was being pushed almost into Johnny’s lap.
Johnny glanced at Scott, and his brother shrugged, the boy fast asleep with his feet in Scott’s lap. Johnny knew his brother couldn’t move without waking him up. With a resigned sigh, Johnny stood up and then sat down on the floor. Johnny glared at Scott, and then with a sigh, he pulled his hat over his face. He should have listened to Scott and stayed home. He knew this was going to be a bad trip.
Scott was dying; Johnny could see him, but for some reason he couldn’t reach his brother. Johnny struggled harder to get loose from whatever was holding him, but he couldn’t free himself. His struggles became more frantic as he realized that his brother was getting weaker, but to no avail.
He finally stopped fighting for a moment and watched in horror as his brother stumbled to his hands and knees in the deep sand. He could see Scott’s sunburned skin and parched lips and also noticed that his brother had stopped sweating; a bad sign. He knew that without his help, his brother would be dead in a matter of hours, and he was the only one who could help him. Johnny once more struggled to reach him.
He knew that if he could just catch up to his brother, he could save him. Johnny knew a lot about the desert; he had been taught some survival tips from an old Indian he had befriended years ago, and the knowledge had helped him many times throughout the years. He knew how to survive in the desert, and with that knowledge, he could save his brother’s life. That is, he could if he could somehow reach him. The problem was, someone or something was trying to keep him from his brother, and he was getting too weak to break free.
He panicked for a moment, afraid he was going to lose Scott, but he vowed that wouldn’t happen. No matter what it took, he would get to Scott and help him, and nothing would prevent it. He would fight the grim reaper and the devil himself to save his brother, and to hell with the consequences.
Johnny continued fighting until exhaustion overcame him, and then he sat back, panting heavily. He couldn’t understand why he couldn’t get to Scott, but he vowed once more that he wasn’t going to let his brother down, no matter what. With an effort, he struggled back to his feet and started fighting again. Finally, slowly, he managed to gain some ground, but Scott stayed just out of reach. Johnny called to his brother to wait, but Scott seemed not to notice, and kept crawling away from Johnny.
Finally, just when Johnny knew that he could go no further, Scott turned back toward him. Johnny realized that his brother didn’t see him; his brother had that glazed, unseeing look of a man who is near death. Panicked, Johnny called out once more, and this time Scott saw him. Johnny fought his way closer and Johnny pleaded with his brother to wait for him. Instead, Scott gave his brother a sad smile and shrugged resignedly and then he disappeared, leaving Johnny all alone.
Scott was trying to get help. His brother was in bad shape, and Scott knew that time was running out for him. If Johnny was going to survive, he needed help immediately. Scott felt like he had been fighting the sand and the heat for years, but he knew it had probably been just days. At least he thought it had. Time seemed to have blurred in his mind, and he was no longer sure of anything. He knew he was delirious, but he didn’t care. All he cared about was getting help for his injured brother. He looked behind him, motioning for Johnny to hurry up, but Johnny ignored him. His badly injured brother kept lagging further and further behind, and no matter how much Scott urged him to keep up, Johnny just couldn’t do it.
Scott slogged through the sand, no longer sure of what to do. He knew he had to get help or his brother would die, but he didn’t want to go off and leave him, either. However, if he stayed back with his brother, they would both die. He didn’t care about himself, but he wasn’t going to let Johnny die, not if he could help it.
He looked back again at the rapidly disappearing form of his brother and decided to hurry ahead and bring back help. Johnny would never be able to last long enough to make it to safety; it was up to Scott to bring help to him.
Scott just hoped he could make it. He was tired, and his legs weren’t working right any more, and for that matter, neither was his mind. He stumbled forward, certain that he was doing the right thing, the only thing that would give both he and Johnny a chance of surviving.
He had only gone a few yards when he began to second guess himself. He looked back but he couldn’t see Johnny, and he panicked. He called out to his brother, but there was no answer; just the low moaning of the wind. He turned around and hurried back to where he had last seen his brother; clumsily tumbling down the low rise he had just spent his precious energy climbing. He landed in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the small depression, dazed and sore.
After what seemed like forever, he had the energy to look around, but there was nothing but sand surrounding him in all directions. He called out as loudly as his parched throat would let him, but was greeted with only silence. In despair, he lowered his head to the sand and closed his eyes. He had failed to keep his brother safe, and the knowledge of his failure sapped him of all of his remaining strength. Without his brother, he had no will to keep going, and he accepted his coming death.
Suddenly, he heard a weak shout, coming from somewhere behind him. He raised his face out of the burning sand, and fought to listen more closely. The shout came again; further away this time, but definitely Johnny’s voice. Forcing himself to his feet, Scott stumbled toward the sound of his brother’s voice, his panic giving him strength.
Scott continued to doggedly follow Johnny’s calls, but they progressively became weaker and weaker until they disappeared altogether, leaving Scott all alone.
Scott startled awake when the stage hit a large bump, confused for a moment and uncertain where he was. The young boy also woke up, and immediately slid to the floor and stood up. Scott looked around and caught the concerned look of the young mother.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
Scott scrubbed his hand over his face and nodded. “I’m fine.” He looked at her sheepishly. “I guess I must have been dreaming,” he explained.
She looked at him uncertainly. “More like a nightmare, I’d say.”
Scott shrugged, unwilling to explain what he’d been dreaming about. She nodded toward Johnny. “It must be contagious.”
Scott looked in concern at his brother, who was jerking and mumbling as he slept. He watched him for a moment, and then nudged his brother with his foot. Johnny immediately woke up and glanced around to make sure there was no danger. After reassuring himself that all was well, he looked up at Scott questioningly.
Scott shrugged and smiled. “Seems like you were having a bad dream, Brother.”
Johnny held his brother’s gaze for a moment, and then dropped his head, a frown momentarily crossing his features. Scott eyes narrowed as he remembered his own dream and wondered if Johnny had also been having a dream about the desert. When they stopped at the next way station, he was going to make sure he talked to his brother about it.
Scott watched as Johnny tried unsuccessfully to stretch his legs in the cramped confines of the stage, and with a sigh, he caught his brother’s eye. “Why don’t you sit up here for a while? I’ll sit on the floor.”
Before Johnny could respond, the young mother broke in. “Jason here doesn’t sit much anyway. He can stand or sit on my lap.” She scooted over and patted the seat. “You can both sit up here.”
Gratefully, Johnny picked himself up and slid into the seat and smiled at the woman. The wet young boy immediately crawled into Johnny’s lap and started chattering away at him. Johnny shook his head, resigned to the fact that getting wet was the price he was going to have to pay in order to sit in the seat. After a moment, he grinned and ruffled the boy’s hair. He decided dealing with a wet and over active kid was much better than sitting on the floor.
Two days later, the stage slowed as it pulled into the road toward the way station just inside the Nevada state line. The ride had been tiring for everyone, and they were all eager to reach their destination. Scott poked his head out and tried to see where they were headed, but everything looked deserted. He pulled his head in and caught Johnny’s glance and then shrugged slightly.
As the stage pulled to a halt, Scott went to the door and looked out before opening the door. He was puzzled for a moment, and then realized that no one was around. When they had stopped at the other stations, there had been a scurry of activity when they had pulled in, and now there was only silence. He stepped out, cautiously looking around, and as he took a step away from the stage, he saw what the stage itself had hidden.
The building’s doors and windows had been broken out, and the cause of the destruction was made obvious by the numerous arrows decorating the structure. Scott felt his brother’s presence next to him, and he took a step toward the station. Johnny turned around and spoke quietly to the other passengers, who had remained in the stage, and then he joined his brother.
The stage driver joined the two brothers as they made their way cautiously toward the building, their guns drawn. It was apparent fairly quickly that there was no need for their weapons. Whatever had happened here had happened several days previously. The men put their handkerchiefs over their noses as they entered the structure, but there were obviously no survivors.
They left the building quickly and walked back toward the stage. The driver stopped several yards away and looked at the two men.
“The women sure can’t stay in there tonight, and it probably wouldn’t be safe, anyway. Never know when those bloodthirsty savages will come back.”
Johnny nodded in agreement. “We should leave here and make a camp as far away from here as we can get.”
The driver nodded. “That’s what we should do, but I’m afraid we can’t go very far with these horses. They’re about done in, and I’m sure the replacements are gone.”
Scott looked around nervously. “I think we should at least go a few miles and then try to find a place that’s as protected and hidden as possible and let the horses rest up for a while there.”
Johnny nodded in agreement. “We can’t stay here.”
“What about them?” Scott nodded toward the station. “Do we have time to bury them?”
The driver shook his head. “Our first concern is for the living. We need to leave here as soon as possible.”
Johnny nodded. “We can send someone back to give them a proper burial, but for now, we’d better leave.”
The driver agreed. “If you don’t mind, maybe one of you can ride up top with me and help me keep an eye out.”
Johnny nodded. “I’ll do it. Scott, you stay by the far window and keep an eye toward the back.”
“All right.” He stepped toward the stage and swung aboard, and the other passengers looked at him enquiringly. Scott shrugged. He didn’t want to frighten the women, but he was sure they knew that something was wrong.
“It looks like we’ll have to go on and camp out tonight.”
“Camp out!” The old lady protested. “I refuse! We were promised that we would be able to stay at way stations along the way! There’s no way I intend to sleep out in the open surrounded by all sorts of creatures!”
“Ma’am, I’m afraid we have no choice.”
The younger lady looked worriedly at Scott. “What’s wrong? Is everything all right at the way station?”
Scott sighed as the stage lurched out of the yard. “No, ma’am, I’m afraid it’s not, but I’m sure we’ll be fine. The driver feels we need to get some miles between us and the station. We’ll camp out tonight and let the horses rest, and then we’ll be on our way again early tomorrow morning. By tomorrow evening, with any luck we should be at Fort Call.”
The stage rocked down the road at a slow pace, giving the team a chance to catch their breath. Johnny kept a close eye on the surrounding terrain for any sign of trouble and then he glanced over at the driver. “How long have they been attacking stations?”
The driver shook his head. “This is the first station that I know of that’s gotten hit. They attacked a stage about two weeks ago and killed the driver and stole the horses, but they’ve been quiet ever since then.”
“Well, they’re not quiet now.”
The driver nodded. “They’ve been actin’ up ever since the soldiers arrived. Evidently they’re not happy with the new fort.”
“Evidently.” Johnny turned and studied an outcropping off to his right. He saw a flash of movement and he watched carefully as they got closer. Finally he made out several shapes hidden among the rocks. “Looks like we’re bein’ watched,” he said calmly.
The driver squinted carefully at the nearby hill, and then glanced at Johnny’s hip. “You any good with that thing?”
Johnny smiled quietly. “Sometimes.”
The driver nodded. “Well, ya better make sure now is one of them times, or this is gonna be an awfully short ride.” He clucked at the team to pick up their pace, and the horses responded by breaking into a lope.
Johnny reached back and grabbed Scott’s rifle and saddlebags, and then leaned over and lowered them toward the stage window. “Scott, on the right!”
Scott scrambled over to the right side of the stage and earned a glare from the elderly spinster when he accidentally bumped her knee. He stuck his hand out and grabbed his saddlebags and then threw them at the portly gentleman. “I have some ammunition in there. Get it out and be ready to hand it to me when I need it.” He reached out again and grabbed the rifle, then squatted on the floor, bracing his legs to keep from being thrown around in the rocking stage. He stuck the end of the rifle out the window and aimed it toward the hill as the stage picked up more speed.
He turned toward the young woman. “You’d better get down on the floor with your son. It will be safer.”
The lady nodded and pushed her son to the floor and quickly joined him.
“What about me?” The older lady squealed.
Scott glanced at the woman. “Lie down across the seat, and keep your head down!”
A few moments later, ten painted braves swept down off of the hill in pursuit of the stage and the laboring horses. Johnny turned and watched as his brother began firing as they came in range of the rifle. He saw several braves fall and he smiled at his brother’s expertise as he waited for the Indians to get in range of his handgun.
A few seconds later, Johnny raised his revolver and began firing. The lurching and rocking stage made it difficult to aim, but shooting arrows from horseback was equally difficult, and although several arrows hit the stage, none of them caused any damage. Johnny and Scott were more successful, however, and several more braves fell off of their horses into the dirt. The Indians started to lose their taste for the battle and a minute later, the survivors decided to retreat. As the Indians disappeared into the nearby hills, the driver slowed the lathered horses to a slow jog and turned toward Johnny. “Good shootin’.”
“Thanks.” Johnny looked back, but could see no trace of their attackers. “Looks like they’ve given up, at least for the time being, but as soon as they get reinforcements they’ll be back. How far away from Fort Call are we?”
“Well, as the crow flies, only about seventy miles. But the main road doesn’t go straight. It goes in sort of a semi circle by the old fort, and that adds another twenty miles or so. They closed that fort down about two years ago, and no one ever bothered to map out a new route.”
Johnny turned back toward the driver. “The Indians have to know the route the stage takes, right?”
“Yep. I’ve seen ‘em sittin’ up on those rocks watchin’ as the stage went by dozens of times.”
“So they’ll be expecting us to stay on the road. We won’t be able to hide even if we try.” Johnny bit his lower lip as he quickly thought about their options. “How about if we don’t stay on the road? We’ll get there quicker, and it might throw the Indians off long enough for us ta make it to the fort.”
The driver studied the man sitting next to him. “You know how rough a ride that would be?”
Johnny shrugged at the man and grinned. “Better than no ride at all.”
The driver grinned and took the reins in one hand as he held out the other. “Name’s Billy Jones.”
Jones nodded. “Uh huh.” He stared at the road. “I thought ya looked familiar, but I couldn’t place ya till I saw ya shoot. Saw ya once down in Escondido.”
“Musta been someone who just looked like me.”
Johnny dropped his head and smiled. “You got a problem with that?”
Jones grinned. “Not on your life. We’d be dead right now if it weren’t for you and your friend.”
Johnny smiled. “He’s my brother.”
The driver looked at Johnny skeptically. “Uh huh.”
Johnny laughed. “You sure are cynical, old man. He IS my brother.”
Jones grinned. “If you say so.” He pulled the team to a halt and jerked his thumb toward the passenger compartment. “We’d better tell ‘em what we’re doin’. Do you mind doin’ the honors?”
Johnny climbed down and opened the door. “Everybody OK in here?”
Scott poked his head out of the window. “We’re fine, but the good widow has fainted.”
Johnny shook his head. “Figures,” he mumbled. “Well, we don’t have time to worry about that now. The driver asked me ta tell you that we’re gonna leave the road to try to avoid another attack. It’ll be a pretty rough ride, so ya better hang on.” Johnny locked eyes with his brother for a moment, and then shut the door.
Scott heard his brother climb back on top, and then the stage rumbled forward before making a right turn and heading out into the desert. Scott leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes, trying not to think about the dream.
The next several hours were difficult for all concerned. The stage swayed and rocked, jolting the passengers and throwing them around until all of them were bruised and sore. Scott did his best to keep the women from being thrown around, but was mostly unsuccessful. He had a hard enough time keeping his own balance in the wildly pitching stage.
The spinster complained bitterly the whole time, and Scott could hardly blame her. He grinned to himself; there wasn’t much padding on those old bones. The only one who didn’t complain was the boy; he seemed to consider the wild ride an exciting adventure. Scott grinned at the boy’s attitude and wondered just when adults lost that ability of making everything an adventure to be experienced. Probably, he thought ruefully as his elbow connected painfully with the side of the stage, when things started to hurt more.
Even though only one portion of their anatomy was being bruised, Johnny and the driver weren’t faring any better than the passengers. They were hard pressed to merely stay on board, and more than once came close to being thrown off. They only managed to stay on the stage by grabbing each other or the small rails next to the seat. They gamely fought the trail for several hours, but finally the driver turned toward an outcropping.
“The horses can’t go much further,” he explained to Johnny. “If we push ‘em any more, we’ll all be walkin’.”
Johnny nodded. “I’m surprised they made it this far. Hopefully, those rocks will hide us until dark.”
Jones nodded. “We mighta bought us enough time by leavin’ the trail. If we can manage ta stay hidden until tomorrow morning, and they don’t catch us by then, we should be able ta make it to the fort by tomorrow afternoon.”
The driver pulled the stage around the rocks and into a small ravine. Johnny was pleased; he couldn’t have asked for better cover, and for the first time since the attack, he began to feel that maybe they would be all right after all. The outcropping offered some protection in case of attack, and also hid them well enough that they couldn’t be seen from any distance. Johnny stood up on the seat and stretched; his sore muscles protesting every motion.
Scott helped the women off of the stage and then lifted his hands up to Johnny, who passed some trunks down to him. Scott placed the trunks on the ground to make a more comfortable seat for the women, and then went to a nearby rock and sat down while Johnny climbed up to the top of the outcropping to keep watch.
The driver unharnessed the horses and tied them in the bushes, hoping they could at least grab a mouthful or two of food. They had no water to give the horses, and Jones cursed himself for not watering them earlier at the way station. He had been so eager to get away from the scene of devastation that it hadn’t even crossed his mind. Now they would probably pay for it.
Jones went back over to the stage and picked up one of the canteens. He took a few swallows and then motioned for Scott to come over. When Scott approached, the driver handed him the canteen. “We need to make this go as far as we can. We only got a little bit left.”
Scott nodded and took the canteen. He walked over and offered it to the women, cautioning them to only take a swallow or two. He wasn’t sure how much longer they would be out here, and they’d need to conserve it as much as possible if they were going to survive. After the women drank, the older man took a few swallows, and then passed the canteen back to Scott. Scott shook the container, and then climbed up on the rocks to where his brother was sitting.
Scott handed the canteen to Johnny, who looked at him enquiringly. “Did everybody else get some?”
At Scott’s nod, Johnny downed the few mouthfuls that were left, and then patted the rock next to him. Scott sat next to his brother and looked out at the barren landscape. “What do you think our chances are?” Scott asked quietly.
Johnny shrugged. “I’ve had worse.”
Scott dropped his head and smiled. “That’s not what I asked.”
Johnny smiled at his brother. “Not too good. I guess we shoulda listened to each other.”
Scott smiled back. “Yeah. Next time.”
Johnny laughed. “Doubt it.”
Scott looked at his brother seriously. “We’ll be OK as long as we stick together.”
Johnny looked into his brother’s eyes for a long moment and then nodded. “Yeah, you’re right.” He dropped his head and smiled. “Guess that means I’ll have to stick with ya and keep ya outta trouble.”
“You’re going to keep ME out of trouble?”
Instead of laughing at Scott’s attempt at humor, Johnny merely nodded and looked out at the sandy landscape. “I know the desert, Scott. I can survive out here.”
Scott tried once more to lighten the mood. “Then I guess I’ll have to stick with you, brother.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t run out on ya.”
“That, little brother, I’ll hold you to.”
Johnny turned and gave his brother an unfathomable look. He looked out at the desert once more and then nodded. “I give ya my word; I’ll stick with ya no matter what.”
Scott shivered and he too looked back out at the desert, not trusting his voice. He knew that his brother was serious, and he was also afraid that before this was over, Johnny’s resolve would be tested. He just hoped that trying to keep that promise wouldn’t put his brother in any more danger. He turned back, intending to tell Johnny that he wasn’t going to hold him to what he had said, and that he didn’t want him risking his life for him. Before he could say anything, however, there was a piercing scream from one of the women, and both men went scrambling down the rocks, their guns drawn and ready.
Johnny jumped down the last few feet, looking around frantically for the source of danger. The women were crowded up against the rock outcropping, and as he followed their gaze, he saw the source of their fear. He looked up just as the elderly gentleman pulled a pistol from his pocket and took aim.
“NO!” Johnny yelled, but it was too late. The gunshot echoed throughout the small canyon, and rolled across the nearby desert. In disgust, Johnny grabbed the gun away from the man while Scott picked up the King snake and threw it into the bushes.
“How dare you!” The man spluttered as the driver hurried up to where the group was gathered.
The driver marched up and shook his fist in the man’s face. “Ya durn fool! The injuns’ll know where we are now for sure!”
“I was trying to save the life of those ladies!”
Scott shook his head in disgust. “It was a harmless snake. It wouldn’t have bitten anyone!”
“You don’t know that for sure! It was a snake!”
“It was harmless,” Johnny agreed. “But now we have a more serious problem. If the Indians are anywhere near, they heard that shot for sure. If we stay here, I can almost guarantee that we’ll be attacked before morning.”
“Then we have to leave!” The older man insisted.
Johnny shook his head. “If we leave, the Indians will see us and there’s no way we’ll be able to outrun ‘em. Not with those horses.”
The driver looked at Johnny worriedly. “What do ya think?”
The portly gentleman drew himself up straight. “Why should we listen to him? Whatever makes HIM such an expert?”
Scott shook his head in frustration. He had spent many hours listening to the man’s incessant rambling, and had finally had enough. “Believe me, he knows what he’s doing. Now why don’t you shut up and try listening for a change?”
In spite of the serious situation, Johnny dropped his head and grinned. Apparently Scott hadn’t been as comfortable as Johnny thought he had been inside that stage.
“Well?” The driver asked.
Johnny sighed. “I don’t like either option, but I think we probably have a SLIGHTLY better chance if we make a run for it. We can wait until dark so it won’t be so obvious. At least we’ll have a head start. If the Indians decided to wait until tomorrow morning to attack, we might have a chance.”
“You mean leave tonight?” The spinster asked, incredulous.
Johnny looked up at the sky. “It’ll be a full moon tonight. We’ll be able ta see well enough.” He turned and looked back at the driver. “The only question is whether the horses can make it.”
The driver shook his head. “I don’t know. They’re awfully done in.”
Johnny kept his gaze on the man. “It’s your call.”
Jones looked over to where the horses were tied, and then at the assembled group. Finally he sighed. “I’ll get the team hitched up. It’ll be dark by the time I’m done.”
Johnny nodded. “Any water left?”
Jones nodded. “Two canteens up top.”
Johnny went over to the stage and climbed up. He grabbed the water and then climbed back down and handed the canteens to the driver. “Better give it to ‘em.”
The older gentleman and the elderly spinster both started protesting. “You’re NOT planning on giving OUR water to those ANIMALS are you?” The lady finally yelled.
Johnny turned to her and said, more patiently than he felt, “Ma’am, if those horses don’t get any water, there’s no way they’ll be able ta haul us out of here and over to that fort. And I can guarantee that if they don’t make it, we won’t be needin’ those canteens. The Indians will see ta that.”
“I thought that you and your friend chased them away this morning!” The gentleman spluttered.
“Yeah, we did.” Johnny said, looking pointedly at the man’s pistol he still held in his hands. “Without your help, I might add.”
“I was saving my ammunition for an emergency!”
“I’d sure hate to think what your idea of an emergency was!” Scott retorted, earning a glare from both of the older people.
Johnny continued, “It doesn’t matter now. You’ll probably get a chance ta use that ammunition of yours before this is over. Scott and I chased away a small scouting party. When they come back, they’ll have plenty of reinforcements.”
“Are you sure they heard the shot?” The young lady asked. It was the first thing she had said since the argument started.
Johnny sighed. “No. I ain’t sure of anything right now. But if they did, we’ll be sittin’ ducks here. If they didn’t, we really won’t be any worse off by leavin’ tonight, except the horses may be a little more tired.”
Scott smiled at the young woman. “We’ll do our best to get you and your son out of this.”
She managed a tremulous smile back. “I know,” she whispered. “Thank you.”
Johnny went over and helped Jones hitch up the horses as Scott picked up one of the trunks.
“Leave it,” Johnny called. “We need ta lighten the load for the horses.”
“I will NOT let you leave my things!” The spinster protested.
“Then YOU can carry it!” Johnny snapped. “Now get in the coach and sit down!”
Scott knew that his brother was worried, or he’d never speak to the old lady that way, but he couldn’t really blame his brother. He hadn’t exactly been polite himself. Scott helped the ladies into the coach, listening the whole while to how the two older passengers were planning on reporting both Johnny and the driver. After the other passengers were on board, Scott climbed up top. He figured it was his turn to ride with the driver and give his brother a chance to be comfortable. Besides, he had more room to aim his rifle out in the open, and he had a feeling he’d need to use it before too long.
Johnny looked up at his brother with a questioning look, and Scott shrugged. “I’ll ride up top for a while.”
Johnny hesitated, and then reluctantly climbed aboard and shut the door. He sat down next to the now subdued boy, and the stage lurched forward.
Scott watched the barren landscape, illuminated by the moon, and occasionally glancing behind him for any sign of movement. So far the desert was empty. He glanced at the grizzled driver. “How far to the fort?”
Jones shrugged. “Probably another fifty miles or so: we didn’t make much time earlier.”
“And we’re going to make less tonight,” Scott surmised.
“We’re gonna go till the horses can’t go no more. It’s the only chance we got. With any luck, they won’t drop till we get to the fort.”
“Will we make it?”
Jones shrugged and nodded his head toward the team. “Ask them.”
Scott sat back and thought once more about the dreams he had been having. Apparently, his brother had been having similar dreams, only in reverse. He had never believed in premonitions, but he had to admit there was definitely something spooky about the fact that both he and Johnny had been having visions of the two of them in trouble in the desert.
Scott thought about his dream, and knew that at least part of it wouldn’t come true. He would never leave his brother behind, no matter what. He and Johnny had become close almost immediately, and even thought they came from two totally different backgrounds they both had a way of understanding the other that defied explanation.
The stage hit a sharp bump, and jolted Scott back to reality. He looked back along the trail once more, and was relieved to see that nothing seemed to be moving. He sighed. Maybe this whole thing would turn out all right, and he and Johnny would be sitting in a saloon in a day or so, laughing at their supposed premonitions. Maybe, but for some reason he doubted that it would be that easy.
Scott realized the driver was watching him surreptitiously, and he turned an enquiring look at the old man. The driver chuckled and pointed at the gun on Scott’s hip. “You as good with that thing as Johnny?”
Scott smiled. “Every bit.”
Jones nodded his head and chuckled. “I guess you really are his brother.”
Scott raised his eyebrows in surprise. “He told you that?”
“What else did he tell you?”
“That he wasn’t Johnny Madrid.”
Scott froze, uncertain of what to say. Jones took one look at the blonde’s face and laughed. “Didn’t believe him for one second.” He laughed again. “I saw him a long time ago down in Mexico. Don’t worry, he and I get along just fine. Besides, even if I didn’t, you think I’d be stupid enough ta tell him, especially in the situation we’re in?”
Scott shook his head. “I guess not.”
“I meant ta thank you before. That was some mighty fine shootin’ earlier.”
Scott grinned. “I told you I was as good a shot as my brother.”
Jones snorted. “I wouldn’t go so far as ta say THAT, but you ain’t bad.”
“Thanks, I think.”
The driver chuckled. “Don’t worry, bein’ almost as good as Madrid ain’t nothin’ ta be ashamed of.”
“I hope you didn’t tell him that, or I’m sure he’ll never let me live it down,” Scott said glumly.
Jones laughed out loud. “Now I’m SURE you’re his brother!”
The two men laughed quietly for a moment, and then the driver became quiet. “Look behind us,” he said softly.
Scott whipped around, cursing for allowing himself to become careless, but he didn’t see anything. He looked at the driver quizzically. “What’s wrong?”
The driver shrugged. “They’re out there.”
Scott looked back once again. “How do you know?”
The driver merely shrugged. “A feelin’. Just keep your eyes peeled.”
For the next several minutes, Scott looked nervously behind the stage. He had just started to think that the old man was imagining things when he saw a flash of movement behind them. Hoping it was some animal, or better yet a figment of his imagination, he kept his eyes locked on the spot. Finally, he saw it again, and then more splashes of movement caught his eye. He turned toward the driver. “We’ve got company.”
The driver nodded, not even bothering to look. “We’ll never be able ta outrun ‘em. We’re still too far from the fort.” He pointed to a raised strip of rock up ahead on the left. “That’s Coyote Ridge, and directly ahead of us is Gold Canyon. I’m gonna make a run toward the canyon, then turn left and try ta come around on the far side of the ridge. There’s lots of cover there, and we MIGHT be able ta hold ‘em off, at least for a while.” He slapped the reins down on the backs of the horses, and they responded gamely with an impressive show of speed.
Scott looked behind, and saw that the Indians were now visible in the bright moonlight. He swallowed hard as he realized the number of braves that were following them. There was no way they could fight off that many, even with Johnny Madrid on their side. He turned around and watched the progress of the stage, wondering if they could make it to cover ahead of their attackers. It seemed doubtful, but Jones was doing his best.
“Lean down and tell ‘em ta hang on, we’re gonna make hard left in about a minute,” Jones yelled at Scott.
Scott nodded, and then relayed the message before sitting back and grabbing the rail on the side. As they passed the end of the ridge, Scott tightened his grip, and Jones pulled the reins hard to the left. The horses began to turn, but their momentum carried them well past the end of the rocks and toward the canyon edge. Jones stood up and pulled harder, and the team struggled to keep their feet as they turned. The stage rocked alarmingly as it made a sharp left turn. It wobbled for a moment, and then Scott felt the stage hit a bump and then start to roll.
Scott lost his grip on the rail and went flying through the air, landing on his side and rolling into some heavy brush. He looked up and watched as the doubletree broke as the horses continued their turn, sending the stage rolling toward the canyon edge.
Scott watched in horror as the stage rolled and skidded toward the canyon edge. It slowly came to a stop, and Scott heaved a sigh of relief and a short prayer of thanks. A moment later, the stage teetered alarmingly, and tumbled over the edge.
He lay there, stunned and in shock for a moment, and then a sound began to infiltrate his brain. He heard the approaching Indians hollering and screaming in victory, and then the sound of their horse’s hooves as the braves approached. Scott ducked his head, hoping that he couldn’t be seen in the shrubbery. He lay as still as possible, hoping that if they could see him they would think he was dead and leave him alone.
He waited until the sounds passed him, and then cautiously raised his head. He watched as the Indians went to the lip of the canyon and gazed downward, pointing and talking excitedly among themselves. They appeared to be arguing, and then one of the braves turned his horse and went after the runaway team.
Several other braves followed the first, but a few of the Indians stayed and studied the wreck. Scott was afraid they would climb down and finish off the survivors, and he vowed he would take as many of them down as he could before he allowed them to kill his brother.
Two of the braves dismounted and headed for the edge, talking back and forth between them. Scott slowly reached for his revolver and drew it out and aimed it at the closest brave. Suddenly, a chorus of shouts came from the other side of the ridge, telling Scott the stage horses had been found. The remaining Indians looked at each other for a moment, and then gave up on their plan to check out the stage. The two braves ran toward their mounts and jumped on, kicking their horses into a run before they were even fully astride. They quickly disappeared behind the rocks; their wild cries gradually disappearing into the distance.
Scott waited for a moment and then began crawling toward the canyon, trying to stay hidden in case the Indians returned. After several minutes, Scott reached the edge of the canyon and cautiously peered over. He swallowed hard as he saw the wreckage lying approximately one hundred feet down a steep slope. At least it hadn’t been a straight drop, but it was far from certain that anyone had survived. The coach was lying on its back, its wheels still spinning lazily. As he watched, the last one came to a slow halt.
He glanced around; straining his eyes and ears for any sign of the Indians, but all was quiet. Scott figured they had been content with taking the horses and wouldn’t be back, but he wasn’t sure. However, it really didn’t matter. He had no intention of waiting to see if they returned. His brother was down there, probably hurt, and he was going to go down and help him.
He looked up and down the edge, trying to decide the best way to get down, and he finally decided there was no good way. He stepped over the edge, and felt the dirt give below his feet. He allowed his body to slide, striving desperately to keep upright, but he gave up about half way down and sat down to prevent himself from falling. He grinned ruefully as he slid; he’d just about bet that Johnny was laughing his head off at his brother’s undignified entrance. At least he hoped he was.
When he reached the bottom, Scott glanced up uneasily, and was relieved to see no sign of the braves. He turned back and stared at the wreckage for a moment, getting up enough courage to look inside. Finally he walked over and tapped lightly on the stage. “Johnny?” He called softly.
There was no answer, and Scott hesitated only a moment before resolutely yanking the door open and staring inside. He couldn’t see anything at first, but he could smell the blood that splattered the inside of the coach. He swallowed hard and called out again, louder this time, “Johnny!”
Once more there was no answer from the silent stage, and the first threads of panic began to wind their way into Scott’s brain. “JOHNNY!”
He heard a soft moan, and he reached his hand toward the sound and grabbed the unseen body. He pulled the limp form toward him, and saw the broken body of the older woman emerge. She was still alive, but Scott knew there was no hope for her survival. He laid her gently on the ground, grateful that the woman was unconscious, and he went back and tried again.
A tear coursed down his cheek as he pulled the young boy from the wreckage, his neck obviously broken, and his panic intensified. He finally saw a flash of silver as the moon caught something shiny and reflected its light back toward him. He frantically grabbed the Concho studded pants and yanked his brother out of the stage and placed him gently on the ground.
He wiped the blood from Johnny’s face and put his ear to his brother’s chest, straining to hear the reassuring beat of his heart. He finally found a weak beat, and he sat back, relieved. He searched his brother’s body for more injuries, but the only thing that was immediately apparent was the deep gash on the back of Johnny’s head. He ripped the bottom of his own shirt and bound the material tightly around his brother’s head, trying to stop the profuse bleeding.
When he was satisfied that the bleeding was under control, he sat back for a moment, and then looked back toward the coach. With a sigh, he walked over and pulled the rest of the passengers out, one by one. When he was done, he walked over to where he had laid the spinster and checked her pulse. Sadly, he shuffled back over to his brother and sank down in the dirt by his side. “Well, brother, it looks like we’re on our own.”
Scott was worried. Johnny was still unconscious, and his breathing was shallow and labored. Scott had managed to stop the bleeding, but he was afraid that there was something seriously wrong with his brother. Scott had seen numerous head wounds during the war, and he knew how serious they could be. The longer a man remained unconscious, the less likely it was that the man would come out of it, and Johnny had been unconscious for quite some time. He reached down for the hundredth time and felt his brother’s forehead. There was still no sign of fever, but it was small consolation.
Scott pulled the blanket up more securely over his brother and put his arm around the unconscious man. The desert might be like an oven during the day, but at night the temperatures dropped alarmingly and Johnny needed to be kept warm. He felt Johnny shiver, and looked down. Scott’s grip tightened on the unconscious man when he realized that his brother wasn’t shivering; he was having some type of seizure. It continued for almost a minute, and then gradually stopped.
Scott looked skyward, sending a desperate prayer to the night sky. There was nothing he could do for his brother except to keep him warm. Scott looked up toward the top of the canyon, and realized that even if someone came looking for them, they would never be found. Not down here. They were miles off of the usual stage route, and completely hidden from view. The only ones that might find them were the Indians.
He sighed deeply and checked his brother once more, but he realized it really didn’t matter. Without help, they were both doomed, and no help would be coming anytime soon. He snuggled down into the blankets, hoping their combined heat would keep his brother’s temperature up enough to prevent him from going into shock, but he knew that was wishful thinking.
Scott put his head back against the rock and closed his eyes. He was sore all over and it was hard to get comfortable, but he refused to put his brother down. He was afraid if he did, Johnny wouldn’t be able to breathe. Scott closed his eyes and waited until morning.
Raucous calls woke Scott abruptly in the morning, and he sat up quickly, confused and disoriented. He looked over at the stage, and realized the cries were from a group of ravens in the surrounding trees who were trying to get up enough nerve to approach the body strewn site. He waved his arms and yelled, and the birds flew off a short distance, and then settled down to wait.
Scott looked down at the dead weight on his lap, and panic overwhelmed him. “Johnny! JOHNNY!” He shook his brother slightly, and Johnny’s head lolled bonelessly on its neck. Scott grabbed his brother by the shirt and laid him down on the ground, frantically looking for some sign of life.
“JOHNNY, PLEASE! Don’t leave me, brother!”
Scott ripped open Johnny’s shirt and put his ear to his brother’s chest. After a long while, he sat up and stared at Johnny’s still face. He took his hand and swept a stray lock of hair from his brother’s forehead and then began talking.
“Johnny, you promised, remember? You swore you wouldn’t leave me, and I’m going to hold you to that promise. We need to get out of here. The Indians might come back, and besides, we don’t have any water or food. If we stay here, we’ll die, but I’m not going to leave you. The horses are gone, and I can’t carry you, not all the way to the fort. You’re going to have to walk with me, understand? I can’t do it without you. You’re the one that knows the desert, remember?” Scott waited in vain for a reply, and then dropped his head and moaned.
Scott looked around, wanting to look anywhere but at the still form of his brother, and the movement in the nearby trees caught his attention. He watched the black shapes for a moment, and then cursed at the waiting ravens. He watched as they continued to wait, and then picked up a rock and threw it, cursing loudly. The birds shifted their perches but didn’t leave. Scott laughed coarsely; the birds knew just how weak he was. It was just a matter of time and both he and Johnny would be on the menu.
With a sigh, Scot realized he should bury the dead. It was the only decent thing to do, but Scott knew he didn’t have the strength. He was sore and hurting, and he thought that he had probably at least cracked a couple of ribs when he fell. He thought for a moment and then walked over to the stage. If he put them back inside, it should at least offer them some protection from the marauding animals.
He went over to one of the bodies and started dragging it toward the stage, and then stopped and looked at his brother. He didn’t want to leave his brother here in the stage with the others, but if Scott had to leave him, there was no choice. The stage offered the only protection from the elements and the animals. He stood there for several minutes, undecided, and then made up his mind. He would wait until tonight and then start out. It would be too hot during the day, he knew that much, and maybe by then Johnny would be able to walk. He wanted Johnny to come with him; his brother could get them out of this mess. That thought startled him; he knew he wasn’t thinking rationally.
He looked back at his brother and shook his head. He COULDN’T leave his brother, he had given his word, but he had to get help.
Scott sank down to the ground in frustration. For some reason, he was having trouble thinking. He rubbed the back of his aching head and then stared dully at the blood on his hand. He sat there for a few minutes, and then struggled to his feet and walked over to the stage, searching for anything that could be of use for his long trek to the fort.
Scott looked down at the stage from the rim of the canyon. The moon was still full, and the stage was illuminated by a shaft of light. It was already late; it had taken him much longer to fight his way to the top than he thought it would, and it had taken all of his strength. He was already about done in. He lay on his side for a moment, wondering if he had the strength to get to his feet. How far had old Jones said it was to the fort? Fifty miles? There was no way he could drag himself that far. It just wasn’t possible.
He stayed down for a while, gathering his strength, and then he tried to get to his feet. He only made it to his knees before giving up. He’d have to rest a few more minutes before he could start. That climb had been brutal. He swayed weakly for a minute, and then started to lie back down.
“Come on, Scott. If I can make it, you can too.” Scott felt Johnny grab his hand, and after a moment, Scott tightened his grip.
Scott sighed as Johnny helped him to his feet. He didn’t know whether to thank his brother or curse him. All he wanted to do was to sit back down and rest after his climb, but apparently Johnny had other ideas.
“Come on, brother. We gotta leave now if we’re gonna cover any ground before sunup.”
Scott nodded resignedly and scrambled to his feet. He studied his brother’s pale face, the blood still caked on the back and side of his head. “Are you SURE you’re all right?”
Johnny nodded and then grinned. “You and Murdoch always said I had a hard head, now I guess I really proved it to ya.”
Scott watched his brother dubiously, His brother had been so bad earlier that he had thought he had lost him, but he had to admit, right now Johnny looked like he was in better shape than he was. Johnny had turned and was walking away at a fairly brisk pace, while Scott felt weak and tired already. He stood watching his brother for a moment, and then with a sigh, Scott started walking after him.
“Jones said the fort was about fifty miles away.”
Johnny nodded. “We covered some ground last night, but we backtracked tryin’ ta get away from those Indians. My guess is we got about forty miles, give or take.”
“It had better be take.”
“It’s only forty miles.”
“Well never make it.”
Johnny grinned. “Sure we will. All we gotta do is keep walkin’.”
Scott snorted. “You make it sound easy.”
Johnny chuckled. “It is. Easier than dyin’.”
Scott became serious. “We don’t have any water.”
Johnny shrugged. “We’ll find somethin ta drink.”
“You don’t seem very worried for someone who is going to have to walk forty miles through the desert.”
“I done it before.”
Scott stopped and looked at his brother. “When? That sounds like a good story.”
“Keep walkin’ Scott, and I’ll tell ya all about it.”
Scott grinned. “Deal.”
“Well, it was about five years ago, down in Mexico. I had hired on ta deliver the payroll for a silver mine down there. They had been havin’ lots of trouble with payroll thieves and bandits, and nobody else wanted the job.”
“You were only, what…”
“Sixteen. Anyway, no one else wanted the job, and I needed money, so I took it. Boy, was that a mistake.”
“Well, it seems like it wasn’t just a few poor desperate bandits after the payroll. Seems as if the owner had made a few enemies. Everybody in the country was tryin’ ta get that guy’s money. There were more people shootin at me for the three months I was there than I could even count.” Johnny grinned. “Thank goodness none of them had decent aim.”
“So how did you wind up out in the desert?”
“Well, every time I had ta pick up the payroll in town, I had ta go through this canyon. Nobody shot at me on the way into town, but on the way back there were more people in that canyon than were in town on Saturday might. I got fed up with getting’ shot at and decided ta try somethin’ different. I figured nothin’ could be as bad as runnin’ the gauntlet through that bunch of desperados again. My luck was bound ta run out sometime.”
Scott shot his brother a sly look. “I thought YOU were the desperado.”
Johnny grinned. “Only sometimes.”
Scott smiled. “So you decided to take a shortcut.”
Johnny nodded. “Uh huh. Only it was more like a long cut. I figured I’d go around that canyon and pull a fast one on all those bandits just waitin’ for me.”
“Did it work?”
Johnny snorted. “Sure did. They was all waitin’ up in the canyon, while I was laughin’ my head off at ’em out in that desert.”
Scott looked at his brother and waited for the rest of the story. When Johnny didn’t say anything, Scott nudged him. “Well?”
Johnny shrugged. “Well, I wasn’t laughin’ for too long. My horse got bitten by a rattlesnake and left me high and dry forty miles from the mine.”
Scott smiled. “Same distance that we have to go.”
“That’s right.” He grinned at his brother. “And I made it just fine.”
Scott shot his brother a sideways glance. “No problems?”
Johnny hesitated. “Well I didn’t say that. But I did it. Just like we’re gonna do it.”
“How long did it take you?”
Scott stopped and stared at his brother. “Four days! To walk forty miles?”
“Keep walkin’ Scott.”
Scott moved forward. “Why did it take so long? I can walk thirty miles in one day. I’ve done it before.”
Johnny shrugged. “The desert is different. I started out makin’ pretty good time, but the longer I walked, the slower I got.”
Scott shook his head. “Did you have any supplies that time?”
Johnny nodded reluctantly. “Yeah, a canteen and some jerky.”
Scott sighed. “We don’t have anything.”
Johnny grinned. “We got each other.”
Scott looked up at the sky. “It’ll be light soon.”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah. We can walk for a while, but when we see some cover, we’d better take it.”
Scott looked at his brother. “Cover? Out here?”
“There’s usually somethin’. This part of the desert ain’t flat, and that’s a good thing.”
“It is? It seems like it would be a lot easier walking on flat ground.”
Johnny smiled. “It is easer. Problem is, the easier it is ta walk in the desert, the harder it is to survive.”
“What do you mean?”
Johnny shrugged. “When it’s flat, there’s very little ta survive on. It’s a no man’s land.”
Scott smiled and swept his hand out over the barely visible landscape. “And this isn’t?”
Johnny snorted. “No way. There’s plenty out here ta keep ya alive, ya just got ta know where ta look.”
“Ah hah! That’s the problem. I have no idea about where to look!”
Johnny grinned. “That’s why I’m along, brother. I’m gonna teach ya everything I know.”
Scott laughed shortly. “You’re going to teach ME everything YOU know?”
Johnny shrugged and grinned. “Well, almost everything.”
The two men continued walking, and Scott thought that it wasn’t as hard as he thought it would be. Of course, it was night and they hadn’t been exposed to the midday heat yet, but he thought that they just might make it. He had been trying to more or less count his steps, and he figured they had covered maybe fifteen miles so far, and it wouldn’t get hot for several hours yet.
Johnny was slightly ahead of him when he veered to the left and walked over to a small round cactus. Scott smiled. “That’s a barrel cactus! I read about those in a book. There’s water inside!”
Johnny grinned and turned toward his brother. “Well, you’re half right.”
Scott watched as Johnny bent down and plucked some buds off the top of the cactus and handed them to Scott. Scott took them and examined them. “What am I supposed to do with these?”
Scott raised his eyebrows and looked at the buds cautiously. “Are you sure?”
Johnny laughed and took one off of a nearby plant and popped it into his own mouth. After a moment’s hesitation, Scott followed suit. He chewed for a moment, and then grinned. “Not too bad.”
Johnny nodded. “It’s not a lot, but out here, you take what you can get.”
Scott pointed at the cactus. “What about the water?”
“There’s no water in there. There’s some liquid all right, but it won’t do ya any good.”
“But if it’s liquid, it’s better than nothing.”
Johnny turned and looked at his brother. “Trust me, Scott,” he said softly.
Scott looked at him and then nodded. “Now what?”
Johnny smiled. “Now we walk some more.”
Scott smiled back wryly. “I was afraid you were going to say that.” Scott turned and started walking, then turned and looked at his brother. “Well, come on.”
It was mid morning when Johnny stopped once more and headed in a slightly different direction. Scott hardly noticed; his ribs were killing him, and he was starting to have trouble breathing. Now he regretted passing up that last drink of water; his lips were dry and he knew he was becoming dehydrated. He stumbled slightly, and then looked up quickly to see if Johnny had noticed. His brother was still walking and Scott felt a flash of irritation. If they didn’t stop and rest soon, they wouldn’t stand a chance.
Scott looked up when had almost crashed into his brother. Johnny had stopped and was studying a group of rocks carefully. Finally he turned to Scott. “We gotta get out of the sun. It looks like this is as good as we’re gonna get.”
Scott looked at the rocks and then looked at his brother in disbelief. “Those rocks won’t give us any shelter. They’re only about two feet tall.”
Johnny shrugged. “We’ll make ‘em work. First we gotta dig a hole.”
“Our hands. It’s the only thing we got.”
Scott looked at his brother like he was crazy, then shook his head and began to dig. The hole was about three feet deep and gradually sloped to about four feet wide when Johnny finally said it was good enough. By then Scott was breathing heavily and his ribs felt like they were going to explode any second. He knew he should say something to Johnny about his injuries, but he didn’t. It bothered him, though, that Johnny hadn’t noticed that he was hurting. Usually his brother was very astute at recognizing any weakness, but so far Johnny hadn’t said anything.
Johnny walked over to the rocks. “Now we push these rocks over around the rim of that hole.”
Scott once more shot his brother a strange look, but bent down to shove the rock. He went to slip his hands under the rock and was startled by Johnny’s sharp cry.
Scott stood up and looked at Johnny. “What?”
“You never, ever, put your hands anywhere ya can’t see. Ya never know what’s underneath.” Johnny walked over and took his foot and put it against the rock. After a moment, Scott put his foot next to Johnny’s, and a second later, the small boulder began to move. As it rolled, several large scorpions scurried out from underneath and Johnny turned and looked at his brother.
“See what I mean?”
Scott nodded, and started moving the next rock. When the rocks were finally arranged to Johnny’s satisfaction, he went over and picked up some small pieces of branches he had found and laid them in a criss- cross pattern across the top of the boulders. Then he smiled at Scott. “Get in.”
Scott looked at the ring and then stepped into the hole. “Great shelter, brother. But aren’t we supposed to be out of the sun?”
With a smile, Johnny pulled off his shirt. “Get undressed.”
Scott stared at Johnny in disbelief. He was afraid the sun had addled his brother’s mind. A moment later, however, he saw exactly what Johnny was doing, and he ripped off his own shirt with a grin and handed it to his brother. Johnny buttoned the two shirts together and then spread them across the hole, using the sticks to prop them up. Suddenly, they had a functional shelter from the sun. There was plenty of air circulating between the boulders, and Scott felt the temperature inside drop almost immediately. Scott gave his brother a smile, and then put his head back against the boulder and almost immediately dropped off to sleep.
It was late afternoon when Scott woke up. He glanced around and saw that Johnny had already left the shelter. Scott felt a moment’s panic that his brother had left him, and knew that he was being irrational. Johnny wouldn’t leave him, and Scott knew it. He shook his head; he was still having some strange thoughts, and he wondered briefly if he had suffered a head wound, too. He felt the back of his head and winced as his fingers touched a sizeable lump. Well, at least that explained it.
Scott stretched, and then winced as his ribs protested the movement. He sat for a few seconds longer, and then stood up, grabbing his shirt off of the frame and putting it back on. He looked around and finally spotted Johnny picking something a few hundred yards away. Johnny looked up and motioned for his brother to come over.
Scott looked around to make sure that nothing had been left at their makeshift campsite, and then headed toward his brother. He sure hoped that Johnny had come up with something to drink, although food wouldn’t be bad either. He trudged over to where his brother was poking around the bushes. Scott watched as Johnny plucked something that looked like berries off of a tangle of shrubbery and handed them to Scott. “Scrub off the thorns, and make sure you get them all off or you’ll regret it.”
“These are to eat?”
Johnny snorted. “Well, they ain’t ta sit on.”
Scott looked at the small pieces of vegetation dubiously. “They sure aren’t going to fill us up.”
Johnny shook his head, ‘they aren’t supposed to. There’s some liquid inside. Not much, but it’ll help. We’ll get somethin’ ta fill ya up later.”
Scott nodded, and followed his brother as he walked off. Scott plucked the thorns off of the berries and popped them one by one into his mouth. Johnny was right, they weren’t much, but Scott could feel some liquid running down his throat, and it felt wonderful.
“So what are we going to get to eat?”
Johnny shrugged. “Whatever we can get.”
Scott sighed. “I’d rather have a steak.”
Johnny chuckled. “Well, ya might get a steak, as long as you’re not real picky about what kind of critter it comes from.”
Scott snorted. “Would it do any good to be picky?”
“How far do you think we have left to go?”
Scott shot a sideways glance at his brother. “You’re sure talkative.”
“Tryin’ ta save my energy; you should too.”
Scott nodded, and fell into step next to his brother. Not for the first time, Scott said a silent thanks that his brother was with him. Without his brother to encourage and guide him, he knew he wouldn’t stand a chance. He looked up at the moon and wondered just how far that they had come tonight. He knew they hadn’t covered as much ground as they had the night before. Scott knew without a doubt that he was becoming weaker.
Scott glanced at his brother, but Johnny still seemed fresh. Scott worried about his brother’s head wound, however. Back at the scene of the crash, he had thought he’d lost him. He hadn’t been able to find a pulse or a heartbeat, and couldn’t see Johnny breathing. He had thought he was dead. Scott had just about given up then, and if the Indians had come back at that moment, Scott doubted if he would have even fought them.
He had sat there by the stage, unwilling to leave his brother even in death, and he had dozed off. He must have slept for several hours, and he awoke with Johnny standing over him, urging him to get up. Scott had thought he was dreaming at first, but then he realized that his brother was alive. That realization had sent a surge of adrenaline coursing through his body, and he felt his earlier lethargy disappear.
Johnny had spent several minutes scolding him for not leaving him and Scott had listened to the scolding with delight. The fact that his brother was alive was enough to keep him in a good mood for weeks; he couldn’t believe that Johnny was really all right. By the time he had climbed out of the ravine, however, his mood had darkened considerably and he realized just how rough this trip would be.
With a sigh, Scott looked up once more, hoping Johnny would stop soon. His ribs were hurting badly, and he was having trouble breathing. His head hurt, and he wanted nothing more than to stop and curl up in a ball and go to sleep. He stopped and sat down, knowing he was unable to go any further. He watched as Johnny disappeared in the darkness, and then closed his eyes.
“Scott, GET UP!”
Scott startled awake, and glared angrily at his brother. “I need to rest a few minutes.”
Johnny shook his head. “Now’s not the time. You can rest in the mornin’. If ya stop now, you’ll never make it. Now GET UP!”
Scott sent his fiercest glare at his brother, but Johnny wasn’t intimidated. “Come on, brother, let’s go. You can make it.” Johnny held out his hand, and after a few seconds, Scott grabbed it. With a sigh, Scott lurched to his feet. He stood silently for a moment, waiting for the dizziness to pass, and after several minutes it did, and he started walking once more.
Scott lost track of time as he trudged through the sand on the heels of his brother. It took all of his concentration and strength just to keep upright. Finally, Johnny called a halt, and Scott collapsed where he was, no longer able to force his body to move. He vaguely heard his brother calling to him, but he was unable to answer, and he wasn’t even sure he wanted to. His last thought before things went black was that if he died and Johnny no longer had to wait for him, maybe Johnny could make it back.
Scott pushed the hand away, wanting to just be left alone. He was hurting and he knew he couldn’t walk any more. “Leave me alone,” he muttered.
“I ain’t gonna leave ya alone. Now get up!”
“Scott, I mean it, ya need ta get up.”
Scott shook his head. “I can’t make it. You go on.”
Scott felt his brother hauling him to his feet and he struggled to free himself. “I told you, leave me alone!”
“I ain’t gonna leave ya alone, Boston. We’re gonna stick together, remember?”
“No! You go on. You can go ahead and get help. I’ll be fine.” Scott managed to free himself from his brother’s grip and sank to the ground one more time.
He felt his brother settle beside him and braced for the argument that was sure to come. Instead, Johnny merely sighed. “All right, Boston. If ya can’t go any further, I’m not gonna force ya. But I ain’t gonna leave ya, either. Guess we’ll both just sit here.”
Scott turned his head and glared at his brother. “That’s not fair, brother. There’s no reason for you to stay here. You can make it.”
Johnny shook his head. “No, I can’t. I told ya, I ain’t leavin’ ya. We either both make it out, or neither of us do.”
Scott shut his eyes. He was angry with his stubborn brother, but he wasn’t going to let Johnny force him to go on. His brother could use all the guilt he wanted, Scott was going to stay put, and if Johnny was stupid enough to sit here and die, that was his problem. Scott sat there for another minute, and then with an oath at his brother, he lurched to his feet and stumbled on.
Scott had totally lost track of how long he had been walking, and he really didn’t care. Occasionally his brother had handed him something to eat and he had blindly swallowed it, not even questioning what it was. At this point, he really didn’t care.
Scott merely concentrated on putting one foot in front of another. As long as he had any strength left in his body, he would keep walking. He knew Johnny wouldn’t leave him, and he wasn’t going to be responsible for his brother’s death. He knew Johnny could make it easily. His brother still seemed to be in good shape, in spite of the head wound. He had apparently recovered, or maybe it hadn’t been as bad as Scott thought it had been.
Scott wondered idly how far they were from the fort, and if they were even going in the right direction any more. He tripped over a small bush and cursed; he could hardly see. His eyelids were so badly burned they felt as if they were going to crack off every time he blinked. Even his eyeballs hurt. He felt as if he had sand in them, but he figured they were probably just sunburned and irritated.
Scott stopped and looked at his brother in frustration. “What?”
“We need to stop for a while.”
Scott looked at his brother, uncomprehending.
“It’s getting’ hot and we’ve gone far enough today. We need ta get out of the sun and find somethin’ ta eat.”
Scott squinted up at the sun and realized that it was morning. He shivered slightly; he had totally lost track of time and hadn’t even noticed the rising sun. He vaguely remembered his brother bullying him to get to his feet, but that must have been last night. At last he thought it had been, but he really didn’t know. He sank to the ground, grateful for the rest. He thought that he should help his brother find something to eat, but as he was telling himself that, he fell asleep.
Scott woke up when he felt something damp in his mouth. He opened his sunburned eyelids and peered up at his brother. “What?” He asked in confusion.
“Just relax, brother. It’s not much, but there’s a little.”
Scott sat up, eager to get some more water. He opened his mouth and Johnny squeezed some water from a rag into Scott’s mouth. Scott took several swallows until all of the water had been wrung out of the cloth. The water was gritty, but it still tasted wonderful. He looked at Johnny. “Where did you get it?”
Johnny shrugged and pointed off to his right. “There was some greenery in the bottom of the ravine over there. I took a chance and dug down. There wasn’t enough ta scoop out, but when I put the rag in the bottom of the hole, it gradually soaked some up.”
Scott looked around. “Can we get some more?” He couldn’t believe how much the little bit of water had revived him.
Johnny nodded. “I’ll put the rag back down there, and in the meantime, we can eat.”
Scott managed a smile. “You found a steak?”
Johnny smiled and dropped his head. “Well, sort of.”
Scott looked at his brother suspiciously. “Do I want to know?”
Johnny shook his head. “Nope, but I’ve had worse.”
Scott shook his head and gave his brother a wry smile. “Why doesn’t that reassure me?”
Johnny grinned back. “I have no idea.” He handed Scott the food. Scott studied it for a moment, and then sighed deeply. “I don’t think I can eat that.”
“Sure ya can. It tastes somethin’ like chicken.”
Johnny shrugged. “Well, it tastes somethin’ like raw chicken.”
Scott closed his eyes. “What is it?”
“Come on, Scott. Ya need your strength, and there’s some moisture in that meat.” He held up a small fruit. “I even have some prickly pear for desert.”
Scott reached for the fruit. “I think I’ll skip dinner.”
Johnny shook his head. “EAT!” He ordered.
Scott stared at his brother for a moment, and then obediently choked down the offering, glaring at his brother the whole time. When he was done, he held out his hand once more for the prickly pear and gulped it down, trying to get the slimy taste of the raw meat out of his mouth. He glared again at his brother. “Thanks,” he said, and managed to sound somewhat sincere.
Johnny grinned. “You’re welcome. Now let’s take a hike.”
Scott looked up at the moon, willing it to move in the sky. He no longer hoped to make it to the fort, and prayed that once the sun came up Johnny would call a halt. He didn’t know how he was staying upright; sheer stubbornness he supposed. That was one thing his whole family had an abundance of; Johnny was sure proof of that. His brother just wouldn’t let him quit.
He still didn’t understand how Johnny could keep going. His brother had to be just as exhausted and weak as he was, but for some reason, Johnny never seemed to tire. He wondered briefly if Johnny had a hidden stash of water. Scott shook his head, disgusted with himself for even thinking such a thing.
He glanced over at his brother, and for just a minute he didn’t see him. He rubbed his eyes and shook his head, wondering if he was starting to become delirious. After looking again, he was reassured to see Johnny’s familiar form trudging mechanically along beside him. Scott shook his head; he knew his mind was starting to wander.
The blond wondered how Murdoch would react to their deaths. He hoped the man wouldn’t blame himself for letting them go, but Scott was sure he would. If it was anyone’s fault it was his own; he knew he shouldn’t have let Johnny come with him. If his brother had stayed home where he belonged, their father would only be mourning the loss of one of his sons.
He looked over to where his brother had been a moment before and saw only empty desert. Panicked; he looked back and thought he saw his brother’s figure about a hundred feet back. He stopped and waited, but Johnny didn’t seem to be gaining, and finally Scott turned around and headed back.
The figure didn’t move, and Scott forced his tired body to move faster.
Finally, the form started moving again, and Scott sighed with relief. “Johnny, you frightened me. What’s wrong?”
Johnny shook his head. “Nothin’ brother. Just getting’ tired, that’s all. Let’s go.”
Scott darted a glance back at him. “How far do you think?”
Johnny shrugged. “Don’t know. Probably at least ten miles or so.” He pointed toward a jumble of rocks on the distance. “We should be able ta see the fort from there.”
Scott nodded, not bothering to answer. Ten miles…might as well be a hundred. He stumbled forward, eyes focused on an outcropping in the distance. All he cared about was to make it to that point. That was as far as he could go. He concentrated on that point, forcing his shaking limbs to obey his commands.
The weakened man tripped over a bush and went to his knees. He glanced up at the outcropping and saw with dismay that it didn’t appear to be any closer than it had before. He stared at it for a moment, and then closed his eyes and rolled over onto his side, too tired to even care.
Once more he felt his brother lift him to his feet. Johnny never said a word, and Scott didn’t think he could talk even if he wanted to. His throat felt like sandpaper and he was sure that his lips would split in two if he tried to move them. His eyes weren’t working right either; everything was blurry and wavery, as if he were underwater. He noticed dully that the sun was out again. Even though he knew he would be burning up soon, Scott was glad that it was daylight. He would rather die during the day than in the dark.
He shuffled forward once more, the outcropping blurring and tipping in front of him. He went to his knees several times, and each time he felt the steadying hand of his brother on his arm, coaxing his back to his feet. He looked at Johnny and tried to talk to him, to thank him, but nothing came out, and eventually he stopped trying. He shut his aching eyes, confident that his brother would guide his steps. He thought he might have dozed off for a moment; his thoughts had become disjointed and time seemed to alternately stand still and race forward.
When Scott pried his eyes open some time later, he was standing in front of the outcropping. He stared at the rocks; mesmerized by the sight of the rocks jutting out of the ground in front of him. He knew that in order to see the fort, he’d have to climb those rocks, and he knew without a doubt that it couldn’t be done. He looked over at his brother and shook his head.
Johnny looked around and then pointed toward the north. Scott looked in that direction, but didn’t see anything.
“Is the fort there?” Scott mumbled incoherently.
Johnny nodded and Scott turned his gaze in that direction and shook his head. “You go on; I can’t make it,” he mumbled.
He felt Johnny pushing him along, but he was too far gone to even fight his brother. He retreated into himself, and memories flooded his mind. He wondered aimlessly if that was what was meant by having your life flash before your eyes, but it didn’t matter. Gratefully, he let his mind wander away from the nightmare he was in now, allowing past events to block the truth from his consciousness.
His eyes flew open, knowing something was different, but not sure what. He was sitting on the sandy ground, unsure just how he had gotten there. Blinking rapidly, he tried to focus his eyes, but everything was still blurry. He looked around, trying to figure out where he was, but his mind was too muddled. Scott tried desperately to think, but it just wasn’t possible. He looked around at the barren desert, and at last, bits and pieces of the last few days filtered down into his brain and he remembered where he was. With a sigh, he lay down and shut his eyes. He couldn’t make it any further; it was over.
Scott struggled up out of the fog and felt a wet cloth on his face. At first he thought he was hallucinating, but the dampness persisted and he seemed to hear voices in the background. He listened intently, but the words didn’t make sense and the voices weren’t familiar. He remembered something about Indians, and he thought he might be a captive. He tried to open his eyes, but they were swollen and seemed to be glued shut. Panicked, Scott struggled to sit up, fighting the hands that held him.
“Hold on, son. Just relax.”
“You’ll be just fine. Here, can you swallow some water?”
Scott held his hands out, grabbing for the canteen. When he felt it, he tipped it desperately and sloshed it over his face, gulping in mouthfuls of the cool liquid. After several moments, someone pulled the container away from him, but Scott refused to let go. He felt hands prying his grip from the canteen, and he almost sobbed in frustration.
“Take it easy. If you drink too much, you’ll get sick. You can have more in a minute.”
Scott finally managed to pry his eyes open, and saw the blurry form of a soldier squatting in front of him. He tried to smile at the apparition, but he knew it came out as more of a grimace; his lips felt like sausages. He felt an overwhelming sense of relief at his deliverance from hell and he relaxed back for a moment, trying to make sense out of things. His mind was foggy and he was having trouble thinking clearly, but he knew he was forgetting something very important. He struggled to make his mind work, but it was like swimming in mud. He shook his head to try to clear it, and all of a sudden he knew.
He sat bolt upright. “Johnny!”
Hands pushed him down once more. “Just relax.”
“NO!” He finally fought off the hands and struggled to his knees. “Where’s Johnny?”
The lieutenant glanced at his sergeant, who shrugged.
“Was there someone else with you?”
Scott nodded, finally managing to lurch to his feet, where he swayed dizzily. “Johnny,” he managed to croak once more. He felt his strength start to leave him, and he struggled with the words. “Stage…Gold Canyon…brother…find Johnny…” Finally spent, the blackness claimed him and he collapsed into the waiting lieutenant’s arms.
Murdoch raced through the desert, unsure what he would find when he reached his destination. Val had given him the news that the stage his boys were in had been attacked by Indians and had never made it to Fort Call. He had left immediately, without even packing any supplies. He had caught the stage as far as Beatty, but then had been informed that the stage was not going any further due to Indian problems. That bit of information did nothing to calm his fears, and against the stage company’s advice he had bought a horse and headed out into the desert.
So far he had not encountered any problems, and had managed to trade horses in the few small towns he had ridden through. The townspeople had all warned him not to try to cross the desert while the Indians were on the warpath, but Murdoch didn’t care. He was going to find out what happened to his sons or die trying. Actually, right now he’d almost welcome an attack; in the mood he was in he thought he just might be capable of wiping out the whole tribe of the savages that attacked that stage.
As he automatically rode through the night, he once more cursed himself for letting his boys go. He should have taken Johnny’s premonition more seriously, but instead of keeping both Scott and Johnny home and safe, he had sent both of them into danger. Now he didn’t know if they were alive or dead. He felt a small hope because they were together and he knew they would both fight to their dying breath to protect the other. Murdoch shuddered; he hoped that hadn’t been the case.
He spurred his laboring horse on through the endless desert. By his reckoning, he should be at the fort sometime tomorrow morning. As he rode, he scanned the moonlit desert for any sign of life. He wasn’t sure just were the stage had been attacked, but it had to have been on this road; it was the only road to Fort Call from this direction.
As he rode, his mind insisted on going over the possibilities, none of them very hopeful. Scott and Johnny could have been killed outright by the Indians, or they could have been wounded and left for dead. If they survived, they would either have been taken prisoner by the Indians, or they would have had to cross the desert to reach the fort. Murdoch wasn’t optimistic enough to think the attackers would leave the horses, so the boys would have to make the trek on foot, through some of the harshest desert on the continent.
The only thing that gave him any hope at all was the knowledge of how stubborn his boys could be, and the fact that they would stick together and help each other through it. He knew that Johnny was an expert on desert survival, and if they had survived the attack, there was a possibility they had made it to the fort.
His horse stumbled wildly, and for a moment, Murdoch thought he might be on foot, too. Then the animal recovered and forged gamely on. Murdoch shifted uncomfortably in the saddle; his back was screaming at him, and had been the last fifty miles or so. He looked up worriedly at the sky. It was dawn, and if he didn’t reach the fort soon, he would have to stop and give his mount a break. As he topped a small rise, he looked down and was relieved to see the fort below him. He said a quick prayer, both for his safe arrival and for the safety of his sons, and then he nudged his horse down the hill, dreading what he would find.
Murdoch rode up to the fort and waited impatiently for the sentry to open the gate and let him in. After a seemingly endless wait, the large log door finally creaked open and Murdoch spurred his horse though the opening. He pulled his lathered horse to a halt by the commander’s office and jumped down, almost collapsing as his back protested the quick movement.
He pounded on the door for several minutes until the Captain finally yanked opened the door and looked at Murdoch angrily. “This had BETTER be important. I just got to sleep an hour ago.”
Murdoch shook his head in frustration. “I’m Murdoch Lancer. My sons were on the stage that was attacked.”
The Captain stared at him for a moment and then shook his head slowly. “I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer. I’m afraid it’s not good news.”
Murdoch felt his knees go weak and the officer grabbed his arm and helped him into the room, where he was guided to a couch. He sank down gratefully and looked at the officer in trepidation, then forced himself to ask the question. “Are they alive?”
The officer hesitated and Murdoch closed his eyes, waiting for the words that would end his world.
“Your son, Scott, is alive.”
Murdoch’s head snapped up, a surge of conflicting emotions flooding through him. The news that Scott was alive gave him an overwhelming sense of relief that at least one of his sons was alive, but by omission, he guessed that his younger son hadn’t made it, and that knowledge almost did him in. He sat there, tears forming in his eyes, and praying for both of his sons. He struggled to control his emotions, and then locked his eyes on the officer.
“Are you sure?”
The Captain looked puzzled for a moment, then nodded. “We found Scott this morning about a half mile from the fort. A routine patrol had just left when they heard a gunshot and when they checked it out, they found your son. He was unconscious, but he came to long enough to tell them where the stage was and to tell them that Johnny was missing. We weren’t sure who Johnny was, and it wasn’t until later we found out it was his brother.”
“Scott’s all right?”
“Yes. The doctor said he would be all right. He’s come to several times and told us a little more, but he’s obviously confused.”
Murdoch went back over what the man had just told him, and he honed in on something the officer had said. ‘You said Johnny is missing?” Murdoch asked hopefully.
The Captain nodded his head. “We can’t quite understand it. Your son seemed to indicate that his brother was with him, but after they sent Scott back to the fort, the rest of the patrol tried to find your other son.” He looked at Murdoch and shook his head. “There was no sign of him.”
“What do you mean there was no sign? If Scott said he was there, he was there. I insist you go back out and look!”
“Mr. Lancer, please calm down. I have a patrol out now, backtracking the route your son took from where the stage crashed. They should be back sometime today.”
Murdoch nodded his head, once more hopeful that Johnny was alive. “I want to see Scott.”
The officer nodded his head. “All right. Give me a minute, and I’ll walk over with you.”
Murdoch nodded, even though his impatience was eating at him to get to his son. Finally the Captain was ready, and Murdoch followed him over to the infirmary. Murdoch was introduced to the doctor who had been taking care of Scott, and the rancher got right to the point.
“Where is my son?”
“He’s right here in the room behind me. He’s resting now.”
The doctor shrugged. “He’s badly dehydrated, and he has some cracked ribs. The most disturbing injury is a concussion. Outwardly, the injury doesn’t seem life threatening, but it bothers me that he still seems confused.”
“He keeps saying that his brother was with him, but there was no sign of anyone else being anywhere in the area.”
Murdoch shook his head. “Johnny’s out there, somewhere, and we have to find him.” He turned and looked at the Captain. “I’d appreciate it if one of your men would take me out to where you found Scott. I’m going to look around and see if I can find Johnny.”
The Captain shook his head. “Mr. Lancer, I told you, I already have a patrol out looking. There’s a good chance they’ve already found him and are on their way back, and if that’s the case, you might miss them. Besides, I have no intention of letting another civilian get lost in the desert, especially with the Paiutes on the warpath.”
“If my son is out there, you WON’T stop me. I’ll go, with or without your help.”
The officer dropped his head. “I tell you what. You wait until this afternoon when my patrol gets back. If they haven’t found your son, I’ll send another patrol out after him, and you can go with them. Besides, in the meantime maybe you can make more sense out of what your son is saying and figure out where to look. Agreed?”
Murdoch hated waiting; Johnny might not HAVE another day if he was out in that desert, but he finally nodded his head. He needed to talk to Scott.
Murdoch turned toward the doctor. “I’d like to sit with him for a while. I won’t wake him.”
The doctor nodded. “Go ahead. If he comes to, try and get as much water down him as you can.”
Murdoch nodded, and then opened the door and stepped inside. He walked over to the pale form of his son, and said a silent prayer. He bent over and brushed his hands along Scott’s cheek, checking for fever and relieved when he found none.
Murdoch stood by his son for almost an hour, waiting for him to wake up. After the long ride, he had no intention of sitting down for quite a while. Finally, Scott’s eyelids fluttered and he gazed around in confusion.
“Murdoch?” He finally managed to croak.
Murdoch immediately picked up the glass of water by the bedside. “Here son, drink this.”
Scott took several swallows, the relaxed back. “Johnny?”
Murdoch sighed. ‘They haven’t found him yet, but I’m sure he’s fine.”
Scott tried to sit up. “What do you mean, they haven’t found him? He was right there with me the whole time! He CAN’T have been far!”
Murdoch shook his head in frustration. “Calm down, son. I’m sure they’ve found him by now.”
Scott sank back once again. “They have to. Murdoch, he’s the only reason I’m alive. If he hadn’t been with me, I never would have made it.”
Murdoch bowed his head, praying once more for the safety of his lost boy. Finally, he raised his eyes to Scott. “Tell me what happened.”
Scott shook his head. “We were all right until we arrived at the final way station. The Indians had been there and killed the people that were there and stolen the horses. Our driver decided to leave and try to find shelter along the trail for the night and to let the horses rest.” Scott shook his head. “It didn’t work.”
Scott snorted in disgust. “The Indians chased the stage, but it was only a small scouting party, and we were able to drive them off. The driver found a perfect spot to hide and rest the horses, and then one of the men got a little trigger happy. He shot a harmless snake and we were afraid that the noise gave away our position to the Indians. We decided to try to go on and make the fort.”
“We had only gone a little ways when the Indians showed up. This time, there were too many to drive off. They chased us for a while, but our horses were just too tired. The driver was trying to give us a chance; he tried to make a turn right by the edge of a canyon, and…” Scott’s voice trailed off, and Murdoch realized just how upset his son was. The rancher reached over for the glass of water and offered it to his son. After a moment, Scott continued.
“The doubletree broke and the stage rolled. I had been riding up top and fell off before…before it went over the edge.”
“Johnny was inside?” Murdoch’s voice sounded panicky.
Scott nodded. “I thought…I thought I’d lost him. The Indians went after the horses and disappeared. I guess that’s all they were after from the beginning.” He dropped his head and sighed. “It would have saved a lot of lives if we’d just given them the horses.”
Murdoch waited patiently, knowing how hard this was on Scott. Finally, his son went on. “I went to the edge and looked over, and I didn’t see any movement. I went down and looked in the stage.” His voice broke. “They were all dead. There was blood everywhere.”
“Johnny?” Murdoch whispered.
Scott continued as if he hadn’t heard his father. “I started pulling everyone out, trying to find Johnny. Finally I saw him and yanked him out. I thought he was dead. There was blood all over his face and I didn’t think he was breathing.”
He looked up at his father. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to leave him, but I knew that no one would find us if I stayed, and I couldn’t carry him.” Scott shook his head. “I didn’t know what to do,” he repeated softly.
Murdoch put his hand on his son’s arm. “I’m sure you did the right thing.”
Scott nodded. “I had wanted to put the rest of the passengers in the stage to protect them from the animals, but I didn’t want to put Johnny in with them.”
Murdoch was listening quietly, and realized that his son had been irrational after the wreck. Now he was beginning to wonder just what had really happened and if Johnny was really dead, back at the stage. He kept his emotions under control and nodded, urging his son to continue, praying he would hear something that would reassure him.
“I took the rest of the passengers out and covered them with the back tarp from the stage, then put Johnny inside the coach. There was a tiny bit of water left in the canteen, and I left it for him.”
Murdoch shook his head, realizing Scott had left water for a man he believed to be dead. “What happened then?”
“I crawled out of the canyon. I didn’t think I was going to make it; in fact I had just about given up when Johnny started helping me.”
Murdoch shot a startled look at his son as Scott continued. “I guess he had only been knocked out. I almost left him, and he was still alive. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for that.”
Murdoch sighed in relief that Johnny was indeed alive. “Scott, you did what you had to do to survive.”
“I LEFT HIM!”
“Scott, you were badly injured and not thinking clearly.”
Scott dropped his head and nodded. “Anyway, we made it to the top. He must not have been injured as badly as I thought, because he didn’t seem weak at all. In fact, he helped me most of the time. He found things for us to eat, he made a shelter to get us out of the sun during the day, and he even managed to get some water somewhere. I wouldn’t have made it without him.”
Scott slammed his fist down on the bed. “Where did he go? He was with me the whole way, I know that. Did he wander off? What? Murdoch, you HAVE to find him!”
“We will, don’t worry.” He brushed his hand across his son’s forehead, checking once more for fever. “I’m glad you’re here, and I’m so glad you were able to come around long enough to fire that shot and draw the attention of the patrol.”
Scott looked at his father, puzzled. “What shot?”
Murdoch stared at his son. “The army patrol heard a shot and checked it out. That’s how they found you.”
Scott shook his head. “I didn’t fire a shot. I couldn’t have. I lost my gun when I was trying to get out of that canyon, and I didn’t have the strength to go down after it.” He shook his head again as he tried to figure out what had happened. Suddenly, he sat up. “Murdoch!” He said excitedly. “That means Johnny WAS there. It HAD to have been him that fired that shot!”
The rancher stared at his son for a moment, and then stood up abruptly. “I’ll be back. I’m going out to look for your brother!”
Murdoch sat next to his son, waiting for him to wake up. When he had returned to the fort, he had immediately gone to see his eldest son, but the doctor told him that Scott had been asleep since the rancher had left. The doctor seemed to be worried that Scott was sleeping so much and that he still seemed to be confused. Now Murdoch sat next to the bed, wondering if he was going to lose both of his sons.
After an intense argument with the Captain, he had finally been allowed to venture out to try to find a trace of his missing boy. The Captain grudgingly assigned a small group of men to go with him, saying that he wasn’t going to lose anyone else out in that desert. The sergeant in charge of the group had been one of the men that had found Scott the day before.
The sergeant had been extremely helpful, even though the rancher knew the man thought it was a waste of time, and he had been right. Murdoch had been taken to the place where Scott had been found, and Murdoch had looked around carefully. Even though the patrol that the Captain had sent out the previous day had started in the same place, they had been careful not to obliterate any tracks or signs, and for that Murdoch had been grateful.
Murdoch clearly saw the signs in the sand where Scott had lain, and the tracks showing his son’s stumbling and erratic steps up to the spot where he had collapsed. Murdoch had walked carefully around the spot, gradually increasing the diameter of the circle, but he didn’t see any sign that someone else had been with Scott.
He had slowly followed Scott’s tracks as they weaved through the desert, thinking that maybe the two men had become separated further back and Scott was too out of it to realize that fact. The matter of the gunshot still bothered him, however. He had talked to the sergeant who had found Scott and the soldier was insistent that there had been a gunshot, and it had come from where Scott was lying.
Murdoch had questioned the man closely. “Are you SURE it came from the place where Scott was found?”
The man nodded his head emphatically, becoming frustrated with answering the same question numerous times. “Yes, it was the only way we would have found him. If we hadn’t of heard that shot, we never would have gone over there.”
Murdoch shook his head, and then thought of something. “You brought my son back to the fort, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I carried him on my horse.”
“Did he have a gun on him?”
The man’s brows knitted and he shook his head. “No, he didn’t.” He turned toward the other men. “Did any of you see a gun anywhere around Scott Lancer?” The men looked at each other and slowly shook their heads. Murdoch stared at the sergeant. “Where did it go? Was it hidden in his clothes?”
One of the Privates spoke up. “No, Sir. I helped undress him for the Doc when we got back to the fort. There was no gun.”
Murdoch looked out at the landscape and shook his head. It just didn’t make sense. He looked at the sergeant. “Let’s go. I want to follow these tracks.”
For the rest of the day, Murdoch followed Scott’s stumbling steps as they continued for miles. He continually scanned the desert for any sign of life, hoping against hope that he could spot his younger son before it was too late, but all he saw was sand and scrub. It was late afternoon when the sergeant told him they had to start back. Murdoch had wanted to stay out overnight and continue looking, but the sergeant had refused. They had still been arguing when a rider had appeared in the distance, and galloped toward them through the sand. When the rider had finally reached the tracking party, he had told Murdoch that the first patrol had returned, and that Murdoch needed to come back immediately.
“Did they find Johnny?” Murdoch asked anxiously.
“I don’t know, Sir. The Captain just told me to give you that message.”
Frustrated and full of apprehension, Murdoch had jumped on his horse and spurred him back toward the fort, the rest of the patrol following behind.
Now he was sitting and waiting for his son to wake up. He needed to talk to him. He needed to find out what had really happened out there, even though he was painfully aware of the results. Murdoch sat back in his chair and closed his eyes, exhaustion finally overcoming him. As he slept, he dreamed, and in the dream they were all back at the ranch and things were as they had been before this whole mess started, but even in his dream he knew that things had changed.
Murdoch woke up and looked around, confused for a moment, and then he remembered. With a sigh, he looked down at his son, and noticed that Scott’s eyes were open. He stood up and peered at his son. “Scott?”
Scott raised his eyes to his father, and Murdoch was relieved to see that the confusion so obvious before appeared to be gone. He handed his son the glass of water, and Scott gulped down the whole thing, his body obviously still needing the liquid. Finally he set the empty glass on the table, and sat back and stared at his father.
“Johnny?” He asked softly.
Murdoch dropped his head. “Scott, you said before that Johnny was with you out in that desert. Do you still think that?”
Scott looked at his father in confusion. “Of course I believe it. He WAS with me.”
Murdoch slowly shook his head. “I went out looking for him. Scott, I didn’t see any sign he had been there. There were no tracks, nothing.”
Scott sat up. ”He was THERE!”
Murdoch looked into his son’s eyes and shook his head slowly. “No son, he wasn’t.”
Scott shook his head in confusion. “What do you mean he wasn’t?”
Murdoch sighed. “The patrol followed your tracks back to Gold Canyon. They found the stage, and the passengers under the tarp, just like you told me.”
Murdoch dropped his head. “They also found…Johnny. He was in the stage where you had left him. His head wound…Scott, he couldn’t have been with you. I’m sorry.”
Scott stared at his father for several seconds, and then his breathing increased as he started to shout, “NO! I don’t BELIEVE you!”
Murdoch tried desperately to keep his son from getting up and re-injuring himself, but it was no use. Scott’s strength in his panic was overwhelming. Murdoch felt his grip on his son loosening, and then he saw the doctor appear with an aide. The doctor quickly gave the young man an injection, and a moment later, Scott went limp.
Chapter Twenty One
Scott stared at his father. “No,” he said simply. “I don’t believe you. He was with me. He helped me, he found things for us to eat, he made us shelter, he was THERE, and no one is going to convince me differently. You’re mistaken, Sir!”
Murdoch shook his head. They had been arguing for several minutes, ever since Scott had awakened from his drug induced slumber. “Scott, I know you don’t want to hear it, but you were confused. The doctor said that between your concussion and your other injuries you probably weren’t thinking very clearly, and then the dehydration made it even worse. He said it isn’t uncommon for people who were lost in the desert to hallucinate all sorts of things.”
“I WASN’T hallucinating! He was THERE, Murdoch. I talked to him! I didn’t imagine the food he found or the shelter he made! Those things kept me alive! I didn’t know what to do; I would have died if he hadn’t been there!”
“Scott, you were alone out there. If you stayed alive, it was because of your tenaciousness and your will to survive.” Murdoch shook his head. “I can’t explain it. Maybe you found something to eat on your own.”
“I DIDN’T! Murdoch, you have to believe me!”
Murdoch looked into his son’s eyes, and he finally knew that no matter what his logic told him, SOMETHING magical had happened out in that desert, and had saved his eldest son’s life against all odds. Somehow, Johnny had managed to transcend his body and help his brother out in that desert. “Scott, I know that someone or something kept you alive, but Johnny wasn’t with you; at least physically.”
“But he was,” Scott whispered.
When his father continued to shake his head, Scott dropped his eyes, trying to come to terms with what he knew verses what the facts were. He knew his father wouldn’t lie to him, but still….it had been so real. He looked up at his father with an expression of disbelief on his face. “I have to believe what you’re telling me, but I’ll never believe that somehow Johnny wasn’t there with me, helping me to stay alive.”
Scott shook his head. “You said they found him. Is he…” he raised his eyes up to his father pleading with his eyes to give him some hope.
“He’s still alive, but the doctor said…he said he’s not going to make it.”
“But he’s still alive!”
Murdoch shook his head sadly. “He’s got a fractured skull, and the wound bled profusely. He lost a lot of blood. That, plus the heat and lack of water, not eating anything for several days… he’s too weak.”
“It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have left him,” Scott said flatly.
“NO! You’re wrong! Scott, if you hadn’t left him and hiked out, the stage would have never been found. No one would have seen it in that canyon. If it hadn’t been for you walking out, you both would have died out in that desert, and no one would have known what had happened to you.”
“I should have tried to carry him, but Murdoch, I KNEW he was with me! I didn’t KNOW I was leaving him,” he said pleadingly.
“I know that, Scott. But even If you HAD known, you did the right thing. There was no way Johnny could have walked out, and you certainly couldn’t have carried him. You made it to the fort and sent back help. It was the best thing you could have done. That canteen you left in the stage with him kept him alive. The lieutenant said the canteen was empty and the lid was off. Johnny obviously came to enough to drink, at least once or twice.”
“So he knew I had left.” Scott’s head dropped and his voice broke. “He must hate me for leaving him. We promised each other we’d stay together, and then when he wakes up I’m gone. I let him down.”
Murdoch stared at his son. “No, you didn’t, and Johnny knows that. You’re the only reason he’s still alive; the only reason he didn’t die alone out in that desert. Scott, I don’t know what went on out there, but I believe you when you say your brother was with you. Don’t you see? HE’S the one who helped you out. He’s the one that made sure you made it to safety. He wasn’t going to let you die.”
Scott nodded. “Well I’m not going to let HIM die, either!” He tossed the covers back. “Where is he?”
Murdoch put his hand on Scott’s arm. “The doctor said for you to stay in bed.”
“I don’t give a DAMN what the doctor said. Where is he?” He looked at his father accusingly. ‘And why aren’t you with HIM?”
“Scott, calm down. Johnny’s unconscious, and I HAVE been with him. But I wanted to check on you, too.”
Scott sat up. “Where are my pants?”
Murdoch sighed in resignation. He didn’t want Scott to hurt himself more by getting up, but he knew that there was no way he could get his elder son to stay in bed and not go to his brother. He helped his son put his clothes on, and then supported him as he shuffled down the hall.
Scott stood just inside the door for a moment, and then went over and sat down in the chair next to the bed. He took his brother’s hand and willed him to wake up, but Johnny’s eyes remained closed. Scott took a ragged breath and started talking to his brother.
“Come on, Johnny. Wake up. I’m sorry I left you but I’m here now, and I won’t leave you again, I promise. You saved my life, brother. I don’t know how you did it, but you did.” Scott put his head down and tried desperately to control his voice. ‘I’m grateful to you, but I’m not going to let you go now. You promised me, Johnny, and I’m not going to let you break that promise, do you hear me?”
Murdoch watched Scott plead with his brother and his heart broke. He knew that the connection that his two sons shared was about to be broken irrevocably, and he was afraid that Scott’s heart would be broken in the process.
Scott sat by his brother’s bed, coaxing him to keep trying. He could see how pale his normally dark brother was, and it frightened him. He couldn’t remember ever seeing his brother so still. He looked up as the door opened, and saw that the doctor stood in the doorway. The doctor surveyed the scene for a moment and then walked over to the bed, giving Scott a glare that was eerily reminiscent of Sam.
“You’re not supposed to be up yet.”
Scott calmly met the man’s gaze. “It doesn’t matter. I’m staying with my brother.”
The doctor nodded; he had been told of the men’s loyalty to each other. He had also been told about the strange circumstance of Scott’s rescue. He wasn’t sure if he believed it, but he didn’t disbelieve it, either. He’d seen a lot of strange things in his life. He picked up Johnny’s wrist and felt for a pulse, then looked at the boy’s pupils. He stood up with a sigh. There was not going to be any easy way of saying this.
“He’s getting weaker.”
Scott shook his head. “There must be SOMETHING you can do!”
“No, I’m sorry.”
“ANYTHING! We can’t just sit here and let him die!”
The doctor shook his head. “I’m sorry, but when the blood test came back as incompatible…”
“Doctor Miller,” Murdoch hurriedly interrupted. “Are there any medications we can give him?”
The doctor looked confused for a moment, and then shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. He’s not in any pain.”
Scott looked between the doctor and his father and then his eyes narrowed. “What were you saying about a blood test?”
The doctor had finally realized just what Murdoch had been trying to do, and he glanced at the older man before shaking his head. “Nothing, it was just a test we did.”
Doctor Miller sighed. “To see if your father’s blood was compatible with your brother’s.”
“Why? And why wouldn’t they be?”
Murdoch interrupted once more. “Scott, leave the doctor alone. I’m sure he’s a busy man.”
“What’s going on?”
Murdoch froze as he heard the cold voice, eerily similar to Johnny’s, coming from his elder son.
Murdoch shook his head. “Nothing, Scott. We have to face the facts.”
“Well I don’t! I have no intention of letting my brother go. Now tell me know what’s going on, or you’ll lose both of us!”
Murdoch kept Scott’s stare for a moment, and then looked at the doctor and shrugged. The doctor hesitated, and then spoke. “We tested your father’s and your brother’s blood to see if Mr. Lancer here could give a blood transfusion to Johnny. The blood has to be the same type, and even close relatives don’t always have compatible types.”
Scott’s eyes narrowed and he nodded. “Go on.”
“They weren’t the same.”
“If you give my brother this transfusion, he’ll live?”
Miller shook his head. “He’ll have a better chance, that’s all. It might help with the dehydration and blood loss.”
“So why wasn’t my blood tested?”
Murdoch jumped to his feet. “NO!”
“We can’t take blood from you, even if your type was the same. You’re too weak,” Doctor Miller stated.
“The hell I am. I’m not too weak to save Johnny’s life!” He glared at his father and the doctor in turn.
“Scott, calm down,” the doctor pleaded. “The transfusion probably won’t even make a difference, and I’m not going to endanger your life to do it. Even when the donor is completely healthy there are significant risks, and you are still too weak yourself. You’ve been severely dehydrated, and your body still isn’t normal. Taking blood from you now would be unconscionable for any doctor to do.”
“Scott,” Murdoch started.
“DON’T!” Scott snarled.
“Scott, I won’t do it, son, it’s too risky,” the doctor calmly reiterated.
Scott ran his fingers through his hair in frustration. “I’m not asking you, I’m telling you! You don’t have to feel guilty if something goes wrong. I’ll even sign a paper to that effect; that it was my decision and that you were against it, but you WILL do it.”
Murdoch took Scott by his arm. “I won’t allow it.”
“You won’t ALLOW it! You’re that willing to lose your son?” Scott stormed.
“NO! I’m not! I’m not willing to lose EITHER of them! Scott, listen to me. I understand how you feel, but I won’t let you die doing something that probably won’t even help your brother. I don’t want to lose Johnny, but I CAN’T lose both of you, and if you go through with this, there’s a good chance that’s what will happen.”
Scott dropped his head. “I’m sorry Murdoch, but I don’t have a choice. This is something I have to do.” He looked at his father. “You were willing to do it for him…”
“But that’s different. You heard the doctor, you’re too weak.”
Scott held up his hand. “Let me finish. You were willing to do it. If your blood was compatible but the doctor had told you that you would die if you gave him the blood, would you have done it?”
Murdoch stared at him, and then dropped his head in defeat.
Scott looked at the doctor and nodded. “Test my blood.”
Miller looked at Murdoch, who nodded slightly. With a sigh, the doctor shook his head. “I’ll test it, but I haven’t decided whether I’ll do it or not. “ He looked at Scott pointedly. “I want you to eat a good meal, and then go to bed and sleep while I perform the test. I want you as rested as possible IF I decide to go ahead with this.”
“But I want to stay with Johnny. I can rest here.”
“That’s the deal. You either do as I say, or I won’t even make the test, and believe me, that won’t make me sad.”
With a sigh, Scott shakily stood up, his father rushing over to help him. Murdoch shot the doctor a look, and Miller shook his head. There was no way that young man would be in any shape to give blood.
Scott turned back and looked at Johnny. “I’ll be back, brother. You just hang on. Everything will be OK. I don’t need a test to tell me we have the same blood.”
Chapter Twenty Three
“Scott, I don’t want to give up on your brother, but I don’t want you to do this.”
“We’ve already discussed this, and it’s not your call.”
“I don’t want to lose you.”
“And I WILL not lose Johnny! I’m not going to discuss it again.”
With a sigh, Murdoch dropped his head in defeat. It was out of his hands and in God’s.
Scott watched as Miller prepared his brother for the procedure, and then lay quietly when the doctor began working on him. The cot that Scott was lying on was moved right next to his brother and Scott felt peace descend upon him. He was determined to give as much blood as his brother needed, no matter what. And if the transfusion didn’t work, he hoped they would both die here together.
The doctor stood looking at him for a long time, the needle and tubing in his hands. “Are you sure you understand the danger to you if you go ahead with this procedure?”
“Yes! Now get on with it.”
Miller looked at Murdoch, who, after a last glance at his sons, reluctantly nodded his head. With a sigh the doctor bent over Scott and inserted the needle. Scott watched as his blood flowed through the tubing, and he prayed that it would be enough. He turned his head toward his brother, “It’ll be all right now, brother. Just hang on.”
The doctor inserted the needle into his brother’s arm, and Scott watched as the precious fluid began flowing into his brother’s veins.
It had only been a few minutes when Miller left Johnny and came over to Scott. He looked in Scott’s eyes. Frowning, he stepped back. “What’s your name?”
“I want to hear you speak. What’s your name?”
Scott did his best to untangle his tongue, knowing that if he slurred his speech at all, the doctor would stop the procedure. He took a deep breath. “Scott Lancer.”
Miller’s eyes narrowed. “All right, another few minutes.”
“I’m fine,” Scott protested.
Scott lay on the cot, looking over to where his brother lay. He thought Johnny might be becoming a little less pale, but it was probably just wishful thinking. The doctor had been very clear that he wasn’t expecting Johnny to pull through, even with the transfusion, but Scott knew he would. He had to. The doctor had talked about infection and brain damage, but Scott was convinced his brother would come out of it all right. Murdoch had shaken his head at Scott’s calm conviction, but hadn’t said anything.
Doctor Miller picked up Scott’s wrist and felt his pulse, and Scott jerked his arm away and glared at the man. “I’m fine. You take what you need for Johnny.”
The doctor shook his head and glared back. “I’m not going to do that. I will only take enough to give him a chance, and I won’t even do that if you appear to be getting too weak.”
Scott stared at him for another moment, but Miller’s eyes never wavered and Scott then turned toward his father. “Tell him, Murdoch.”
The rancher stared at his elder son for a moment and then sighed. “No, Scott. This time I agree with the doctor. I’m not going to endanger your life anymore than I already have. We’re allowing you to do this, but I’m not going to lose both of my sons.”
“If Johnny dies….”
“If Johnny dies, there was nothing more anyone could do. It won’t be your fault.”
“I don’t give a damn whose fault it will be, I refuse to let it happen.”
The doctor and Murdoch exchanged glances, and both shook their heads slightly and then turned their attention to the dark haired young man lying so still on the cot. He hadn’t moved or made a sound yet, and the doctor was becoming more worried. It certainly wasn’t looking good.
The doctor turned back toward the blond and watched him closely. Scott tried desperately to keep his eyes open, hoping that as long as he appeared somewhat alert, the doctor would continue the transfusion, but gradually his eyes slid shut and he passed out.
Scott opened his eyes slowly, trying to make his mind work. He blinked several times, trying to focus his eyes. He felt tired and light headed and it took him a moment before he started to remember. A second later, he bolted up into a sitting position and then almost toppled off of the bed. Murdoch grabbed him and helped him lie back down.
Scott lay quietly for a second, trying to get his thoughts together and then he stared fearfully at his father. “Johnny?”
Murdoch nodded slowly. “He’s alive.”
Scott felt relief course through him, and he allowed himself to relax and he once more closed his eyes. “He’ll be all right?”
When he didn’t hear Murdoch answer, Scott’s eyes flew to his father.
Murdoch shrugged and slid his eyes away from Scott. “Hopefully. He’s stronger and his color is better, but he’s still not awake.”
Scott’s lips tightened. “He’s going to be fine. It will just take some time, that’s all.”
Murdoch dropped his eyes and then reluctantly nodded his head. “Doctor Miller had hoped he’d wake up by now. He thought maybe it was the blood loss that was preventing him from waking up, but Johnny’s still deeply unconscious. The doctor is worried about his head.” Murdoch’s voice broke. “He’s afraid there’s been brain damage.”
“It doesn’t matter! As long as he’s alive, I don’t care.”
Murdoch shook his head once more, unable to meet his son’s eyes. “Are you doing this for Johnny, or for you? Do you really think Johnny would want to live like that?
Scott glared at his father angrily. He knew that Johnny was going to be all right; he just knew it, and he was furious with his father for not believing it. It didn’t matter if it took Johnny a while to get back to normal, Scott would make sure he did.
Chapter Twenty Four
Scott glanced over at his brother, and asked for the hundredth time, “Are you comfortable?”
“Scott, I’m fine, quit fussin’.”
Scott looked at his brother again, trying to make sure that Johnny was comfortable, knowing that his brother would never complain. His eyes locked on Johnny’s eyes and he shrugged slightly as he saw his brother’s grin. “All right, I will quit fussing. Just make sure you tell us if you get too tired.”
“I ain’t pullin’ this buggy, why should I get tired?”
Scott sighed and looked at his father, who smiled and looked out the window. Scott couldn’t believe they were going home, and he couldn’t believe Johnny was coming home with him. They had been gone for almost four months, and at first, Scott had despaired at ever having his brother back again. It had been a long haul, but finally his brother had started to improve.
At first, Johnny had been unable to talk or even communicate with them. Scott had seen the look of panic in his brother’s eyes, and knew that he was aware enough to know that something was wrong. Scott had tried to reassure him, but he knew he wasn’t totally successful, and Johnny would turn away and refuse to even try. That was the lowest point, and Scott had wondered if he had done the right thing by trying to save his brother’s life. His father’s cryptic words had come back to him, and he wondered himself if he had been doing it for Johnny or for himself.
Slowly, however, Johnny had started to improve, and the more he improved, the more Johnny fought to fully recover. His recovery was nothing short of miraculous, and Scott thanked God that it looked like he had his brother back for good. There was still a ways to go, but before they had left, the doctor had told them that he expected Johnny to have a complete recovery.
Now they were on their way home, and Scott knew that once they were back at Lancer, things would quickly return to normal. Johnny would have to take things slow for a little while, but he knew Johnny would be back to normal soon, and he would be back all the way.
After he had recovered enough to talk, Scott had asked his brother if he remembered anything while he had been unconscious in that stage. Scott was hoping that Johnny could give him a clue to what had happened. At first his brother looked at him like he was crazy. “How could I remember anything when I was out cold?”
But after repeated questions, Johnny had finally shrugged; a far off look in his eyes. “I know I dreamed. I can remember some of it, but not all.”
“What did you dream about?”
Johnny shrugged again. “We were in the desert, and tryin’ ta make it to the fort. You were hurt and I was afraid you wouldn’t make it, but you did. At least you made it most of the way. We were almost there, and you couldn’t go any further. I didn’t want to leave you, but I had to get help. Finally, I saw a patrol leave the fort, but they were too far away to see us. I drew my gun and fired a shot, and they changed directions and came toward us.” Johnny dropped his head. “I don’t remember any more.”
Scott had felt a shiver go down his spine as realized that the gunshot that had saved his life had just been explained. He had looked over at his father, and saw a look of shock on his face as well. None of them had discussed it since, but Scott was convinced SOMETHING strange had happened out in that desert. Scott looked at his brother sleeping peacefully, his head resting on the side of the buggy and he said a prayer of thanks that he had his brother back.
Scott sighed and put his head back against the back of the coach. They had considered taking the stage, but they were afraid that the trip would be too tiring, so Murdoch had purchased a coach and team. It had been difficult to find one, but Murdoch had finally succeeded. With their own coach, they could set their own pace, and if Johnny needed to stop and rest, they could.
Now they were almost home, and Scott couldn’t wait to arrive. The stress and uncertainty of the last few months had exhausted him, and he hadn’t been able to truly relax. He knew that once they were home, a lot of the tension would disappear. He looked over at his brother, and saw that he was already asleep, a sure sign that he was exhausted. His father was also asleep, and Scott put his hat over his face and closed his eyes.
Scott opened his eyes, then grabbed his hat away from his face and sat up. He looked over at his father, who was still asleep, and then shifted his gaze to his brother. Johnny was looking out the window, and as Scott watched, Johnny turned toward his brother. “Guess what I see out there?”
Scott’s eyebrows went up. “As long as it’s not Indians, I really don’t care.”
Johnny grinned. “Even if I told ya that we just passed the Lancer boundary line?”
Scott bolted forward and looked out the window. At first he wasn’t sure, but soon familiar landmarks came into view, and Scott sat back and grinned at his brother. “Think we should wake the Old Man up?”
Johnny shook his head. “Nah. He needs his sleep; he’s had a rough time.”
Scott chuckled. “All right, but I’ll bet you he wakes up anyway. Even if he’s asleep, he’ll know we’re home.”
Johnny grinned back. “I ain’t takin’ THAT bet.”
At that moment Murdoch stirred, and after one last snore, he sat up and blinked his eyes. Both young men bust out laughing, and Murdoch looked at them suspiciously for a moment, and then joined in.
He woke up; the moon washing through the window indicating it was still late at night. He sighed, knowing sleep would be a long time coming, and knowing it was useless to even try. With a groan, he scooted toward the edge of the bed and pulled on his pants, stopping for a moment and resting his head on his arm. A moment later he struggled to his feet and stumbled out of his room.
He stopped at his brother’s door, wondering whether he should check on him, but knew he was being silly. He turned away and continued down the hall, trudging down the stairs and making his way to the Great Room. He plopped down on the couch and watched the still flickering fire. Evidently his father had stayed up late again, and from the level of whisky left in the bottle, he had been putting the time to good use.
After an argument with himself, he stood up and grabbed the nearly empty bottle before sitting back down. His eye caught one of the pictures above the mantel and he studied it, reminiscing about the day it had been taken. He and his brother had sat for the photograph as his father had stood proudly watching. They had both been a little angry at Murdoch for making them quit work and get cleaned up just to have a picture taken, but now the young man was glad they had done it. The picture showed the two of them, their arms around each other’s necks, grinning at each other. He knew that no matter what the future held, that picture reaffirmed the connection between them. He put his head back against the couch and closed his eyes.
“Are you all right?”
He looked up and saw his father standing uncertainly by the stairs. Murdoch hesitated for a moment, and then walked slowly in and sat down next to his son. “Did you have that dream again?”
He nodded and took another swig of whisky. “Yes.” He looked at his father pleadingly. “Why won’t they stop?”
Murdoch’s hand came down on his son’s arm. “It’ll take time.”
“Í know, but it’s so hard to have to keep remembering everything that happened.”
They sat there together for a few minutes, both of them lost in their own thoughts. Finally, the young man started talking. “Why do I have to keep dreaming about it, over and over again?”
Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Every night I have to relive the whole damn thing, what we went though out in the desert, and then after…”
Murdoch nodded. “Sam said it was your subconscious. He said you were probably thinking about it during the day, too.”
“I do. I keep wondering how it could have happened, but no matter HOW impossible it seems, I know we WERE together out in that desert.
Murdoch stared into the fire. “I know you were, too,” he said softly. “I’m convinced of that.”
“We were together the whole way, except in my dream, it doesn’t end the same. I think that’s what’s the hardest. Knowing how it COULD have been. It starts out the same, when we’re in the desert together, but then it always takes that last twist.”
Murdoch sighed. “I know, and I know it’s hard for you to have to relive it every night, but we’ll be OK, all of us.”
He sighed and squeezed his father’s hand. “I know. It’s just taking longer than I expected, and the dreams don’t help.”
“I know.” Murdoch looked at his troubled young son, and then motioned toward the stairs. Why don’t you see if you can get some sleep?”
The man glanced at the picture one last time, and then nodded. “All right, just hope if I DO fall asleep, I won’t start dreaming again.” He stood up and downed the rest of the whisky before starting for the stairs. Before starting up, he turned around once, and saw his father staring sightlessly into the fire.
As he walked past his brother’s room, he stopped and opened the door. He stood there a moment, gazing into the room, and his eyes wandered to the bed. Then with a quiet smile, he closed the door. The connection was still there, he could feel it, and knew that no matter what, it would never be broken. He headed for his room, knowing he would finally be able to sleep.