The Boy

Part Seven

by  Karen and Nancy



Murdoch gaped in dismay at the limp body in his arms. “Johnny!” He shook his son. “Johnny. Look at me!” His voice rose in panic.


Jelly grasped Murdoch’s hands and pulled him away. “Boss! Stop it, Boss.”


Murdoch struggled to comprehend what Jelly was saying to him. He wanted only to hold his boy, unwilling to believe what had just happened. His brain was unable to think beyond the stark reality of that still form on the bed. There was a roaring in his ears, the sound reminding him of the windstorms called twisters he’d seen in Kansas. He wished Jelly would leave him alone, but the older man seemed to need him urgently. What could possibly matter now?


“Boss!” Jelly shook Murdoch as hard as he dared, the movement snapping the rancher’s head back and forth. He sighed in relief when Murdoch’s eyes finally focused on him.


“It’s all right, Boss. Johnny just passed out. That’s all. Best thing that could happen. He’s breathin’, see?”


Murdoch turned his gaze back to his son’s body and felt relief flood through him when he saw the boy’s chest move. He heaved a shaky sigh. “Oh, God. For a second I thought…”


“Well, don’t let no more thoughts like that loose in this room,” Jelly admonished. He slipped an arm around Murdoch’s shoulders and pulled him to his feet, leading him to the leather armchair.


“Here. Set a spell in this chair. I’m gonna go get us somethin’ to paint our tonsils with. Reckon this here qualifies as medicinal purposes.”


Murdoch slumped forward and held his head in his hands, concentrating on taking deep, calming breaths. His heart threatened to burst through his chest and his hands trembled. He’d been so sure that Johnny…


No! Jelly’s right. Can’t even think that. Where the hell are you, Sam?


“Here ya go, Mr. Lancer. Take a big swig of this.” Jelly pressed a glass of brandy into Murdoch’s hand. He nodded in approval when Murdoch took a gulp of the amber liquid.


Murdoch spluttered as the liquor burned a fiery pathway down his throat. “Thanks, Jelly.” He blew out a breath. “I needed that.”


Jelly seated himself on the edge of the bed and began bathing Johnny’s face with the cool water. “Sure wish Doc’d get here.”


“I hope Sam was still at the Jackson’s. If the men had to go all the way to town…”


“’Spect Walt’s bringin’ him along right now. Doc wouldn’t head home if’n he promised to stop by.” Jelly turned to face Murdoch. “Dadburnit. I tried to get Johnny to see the Doc yesterday. Talked me out of it…he could talk the moon out of the sky, this boy of ours.”


“How long has this been going on, Jelly?”


“Can’t say for sure. Johnny put it down to the nightmares. Scott says they started up right after he brung Tommy here. Reckon he’s had a bellyache off and on for about a week. I been watchin’ him close, but he’s been hidin’ it.”


Murdoch stared at his son, anger and despair edging his voice. “Why, Johnny? Why will you never let anyone help you? Well, you’re paying for that damned pride now, son.”


Jelly stood up. “Why don’t you sit over here, Boss? I’m gonna get some cold water from the well. That fever’s still climbin’.”


Murdoch nodded numbly and stumbled to the bed, sinking down to sit beside his son. He reached out a still-shaky hand and clasped Johnny’s clammy one. “I’m here, son. I won’t leave you. Please don’t leave me.”



Swoon—such an elegant expression for how a genteel woman passes out. He remembered how he and his brothers laughed at Lady Burgess and her swoons—boys poking fun at society ladies and their finicky sensibilities. Perhaps he had his own set of finicky sensibilities, for Murdoch thought he might just swoon with relief when he heard two sets of feet on the stairs and Jelly escorted Sam Jenkins into the room.


“Sam’s here, John. Everything’s going to be all right now,” he whispered to his semi-conscious son before standing to greet the doctor.


“Sam! Am I glad to see you.” Murdoch folded his arms across his chest.


And those words don’t begin to describe it. I’m so happy to see you that I could kiss you. And I’d like to break your neck, too. Where the hell have you been? My boy needs you.


Sam walked toward him with his hand extended. “Sorry, Murdoch. I came as soon as I could leave Jake Jackson. Walt met me on the way.”


Murdoch shook the proffered hand. “How is Jake?”


“He’s going to be just fine. He’s probably feeling better than this young man.” Sam studied the flushed, groggy boy on the bed, making a quick initial assessment before seating himself beside his patient.


He felt the damp forehead and then lightly clasped Johnny’s wrist, taking his pulse. It was much too fast, a combination of fever and pain. This was one time when he wished his instincts had been wrong, but they hadn’t failed him—Johnny was in bad shape. Sam hid his concerns behind a practiced, professional veneer and smiled encouragingly at Johnny.


“Well, Johnny, you’re keeping me in business and losing me a great deal of sleep. What seems to be your trouble?”


“Belly hurts.” Johnny whispered.


“How long have you been having pain—any pain at all?”


“I don’t…few days.”


“I see. You’ve quite a fever, too. Have you been sick to your stomach?” Sam studied Johnny’s eyes, gently pulling down the lower lids to search for signs of anaemia.




“Right. Well, let’s take a look at you.” Sam opened his bag and pulled out his stethoscope. “Murdoch, Jelly, please wait outside.”


Johnny caught Sam’s arm. “No…want…my father…here.”


Sam swallowed his surprise and nodded his consent.


“I’ll stay out of the way, Sam.” Murdoch moved to the left side of the bed and took Johnny’s hand in his. “I’m right here, son.”


Sam listened to Johnny’s heart and then moved the stethoscope lower, touching it lightly to his abdomen to listen for bowel sounds. The silence echoing though the instrument was ominous. He set the stethoscope aside and pulled Johnny’s nightshirt above the boy’s waist. “Now, Johnny, this will hurt a bit. I’ve got to examine your stomach and I know it’s tender. You need to stay still for me, okay?”


Johnny gulped and nodded.


Jelly and Murdoch watched helplessly as Sam palpated Johnny’s abdomen. The boy stifled a moan, but as the relentless pressure continued, he tried to twist away from the hands inflicting the agony, grasping at Sam’s hands with his right hand.


“Johnny, be still.” The firm, but gentle, reprimand from Sam stopped Johnny’s thrashing.


The ruthless hands began the torture anew and Johnny struggled to bear the pain. He threw the back of one arm across his eyes and squeezed his father’s hand so tightly that the man’s bones ground together unpleasantly. As the examination continued, he could no longer remain still, moaning and once again trying to twist away from those merciless fingers.


Johnny’s distress ripped at his father’s heart. “Is this really necessary, Sam?”


“Maybe you should wait outside, Murdoch.” Sam motioned for Jelly to hold Johnny still.


“Sorry.” Murdoch brushed back Johnny’s sweat-matted hair. “Hang on, son.”


“Just a bit more, Johnny. Stay still for me.” Sam paused to take Johnny’s pulse before continuing to probe the boy’s abdomen.


The examination seemed to take forever. Johnny was unable to stifle his anguished moans and tears of pain trickled down his cheeks. Murdoch felt his patience ebbing rapidly.


“Sam, for God’s sake!” Murdoch snapped.


Sam shot Murdoch a warning glare, never pausing in his careful examination. At last, he sat up. “I’m almost finished, Johnny. Jelly, please get me some warm water, soap, and a towel.” He watched as Jelly hastened from the room and then bent to retrieve a jar of lubricant from his bag.


“Help me turn him onto his side, Murdoch.”


Johnny lay quietly, thankful that Sam had stopped pawing at his belly. He didn’t resist as Murdoch and Sam rolled him onto his left side. It was hard to concentrate on what they were saying to him. He felt as though he was hearing and seeing everything from under water. Now Sam was pulling his nightshirt up above his waist in the back, too. What was that all about? He was naked as a jaybird from the waist down—thanks to Murdoch taking his drawers.


“We’re nearly finished, Johnny. Now, this may hurt. I’ve got to examine…”


Johnny heard Sam’s words, but they were so hazy. He didn’t care what Doc did if he’d just stop the pain in his gut--


Whoa! He’s gonna do what?!


“No!” He struggled weakly, moaning when his movements seared fire through his belly.


“Hush,” Sam scolded, restraining him easily. “Johnny, be still! Now, take a breath and blow it out.”


“No—” He protested, but all thoughts of dignity fled as the pain radiating from Sam’s gentle pressure rendered him nearly senseless and ignited another round of agonized retching.


When Johnny could string his thoughts together again, he was on his back with his nightshirt pulled down and the covers pulled up to his shoulders, and his father was wiping his face.


Sam finished washing his hands and dried them before seating himself on the edge of the bed. “Well, young man, you’ve got appendicitis and we’re going to have to remove the offending piece of your anatomy.”




“You need an operation, Johnny—surgery. I have to take out your appendix.”


“Knew somethin’…wanted out.” He paused to catch his breath. “What’s ‘pendix?”


“It’s something you don’t need and by the looks of things, something you don’t want. Don’t worry, Johnny, you can live just fine without your appendix. You won’t even miss it.”




“Good. Jelly, sit over here with Johnny, please. Murdoch, I want a word with you.” Sam steered Murdoch out the room.


“Sam?” Murdoch didn’t like the grim look on the doctor’s face.


Sam knew he had to make the situation very clear and he wasn’t looking forward to explaining it to Murdoch. Almost certainly they were dealing with a ruptured appendix and he’d faced a similar situation three months ago. That situation ended with a funeral.


“Murdoch, this is serious. Johnny’s appendix is about to burst. It may have burst already. I won’t know until I get in there. Johnny’s been having pain for several days—the symptoms have been going on too long and if his appendix has ruptured, or ruptures before I can remove it…well, he’ll almost certainly succumb to peritonitis. That’s what killed Martha Davies. Her appendix ruptured before her father could get her to me.”


Murdoch stared at him in fear and utter disbelief. “Oh, no, Sam. No. I can’t lose that boy again.”


“I’m giving this to you straight, Murdoch. I know that’s how you want it. I’ll do everything I can and the Lord only knows that Johnny is a fighter.” He paused thoughtfully. “Where are Scott and Teresa?”


“Scott’s in Fresno and Teresa’s in Sacramento. I’ve sent wires to both of them. I expect Scott tomorrow, but it will take a couple of days for Teresa to get here. Cipriano’s gone to bring her home.”


“I see. I wish they were here.”


“What are you saying, Sam?”


Sam sighed and put his hands on Murdoch’s shoulders. His eyes met those of his friend and he steeled himself to tell Johnny’s father what he needed to know. “I wish I didn’t have to tell you this, but you need to prepare yourself, Murdoch. There’s a strong probability that Johnny won’t make it.”




Murdoch stared at the doctor in horror. Johnny might not make it? No. That just couldn’t be true. He felt the same sense of helpless disbelief that he had when Johnny went limp in his arms and he’d thought…. Slumping against the wall, Murdoch let a low moan escape his lips as he whispered, “No. Not again. Please, not again.”


Sam gripped Murdoch’s upper arms and shook him. “Murdoch! Listen to me. There is no time for this. We have to move quickly. Now, when did Johnny last eat or drink?”


Murdoch struggled to listen to Sam, but his head spun with a dizzying combination of fear, dread, and anger. He was like those damned coyotes howling at the moon.


Why? Why now? I just found him again. Please, don’t take him. Please, don’t take my boy…


“Murdoch!” Sam shook him again. “Snap out of it! When did Johnny last eat?”


Murdoch sucked in a deep breath and forced himself to pay attention to the doctor. “Eat? He…supper time—no, he didn’t eat anything. I don’t think he’s eaten in a day or two. Jelly tried to give him something for his stomach this morning, but we don’t think he kept it down. Oh, and we tried to give him some laudanum mixed with a little water about half an hour ago, but it came right back up. He’s been vomiting—there’s nothing left in his stomach.”


“Okay. Now, I want you to go sit with your son. Send Jelly out to help me get organized for the surgery. I’ll use the kitchen table, but I’m going to give Johnny the initial dose of ether in his room. I want him unconscious before we move him.”


Sam studied his friend’s face. Murdoch was the most capable man in a crisis he’d ever seen. The man was calm, cool, and decisive—he took charge, organized men and resources, and did what needed to be done. Sam had witnessed it time and again over the years. But not now. He’d never seen Murdoch Lancer look so uncertain, so…lost.


Sam gripped Murdoch’s shoulder. “Murdoch, pull yourself together. This isn’t like you.” He pointed to Johnny’s door. “Your son needs his father now. And he needs you to be strong.”


Sam’s words struck Murdoch like a slap across the face. Johnny needed him to be strong. He could do that. It might be the last thing he would ever do for his younger son. 


He straightened and cracked his shoulders back. “I’ll send Jelly out, Sam.” The three steps to Johnny’s door were the longest walk he’d ever taken.



Jelly paused in the kitchen doorway, silently observing as Maria and Sam transformed the Lancer kitchen into an operating theatre. Maria, hands red from carbolic and steaming hot water, scrubbed the kitchen table while Sam meticulously sterilized his equipment. As Jelly watched, the doctor began organizing his surgical instruments, laying them out in the order he expected to need them. Once his instruments were arranged to his liking, Dr. Jenkins counted out the swabs he anticipated needing, placing them painstakingly on his tray.


Jelly didn’t want to think about how those cold steel implements would soon be used, so he bustled into the kitchen and set his handful of lamps onto the center island next to the others he’d already collected. “Well, Doc, you reckon this’ll be enough light?”


Sam surveyed the collection of lamps and nodded. “That’ll do fine, Jelly. Did you send someone to my office for the additional Aconite and morphine? And what about the extra linseed we’ll need for poultices?”


“Frank’s on his way, Doc. By the time you’re done with this here operation, he’ll be back. He’ll bring more Cone Flower, too. Teresa keeps a fair amount on hand. I’ll have it ready when ya need it. You gonna want to use it as tea or a tincture?”


“It’ll have to be the tincture first.” He motioned toward a coiled black rubber tube. “I’m going to thread this tube through Johnny’s nose into his stomach.” He acknowledged the revulsion on Jelly’s face.


“I know it looks unpleasant, Jelly. But I’ll need it to withdraw gas and pus from Johnny’s stomach after the surgery. And if all goes as hoped, we’ll be able to give him water and medication through it even if he is unconscious.”


Jelly fiddled with a suspender. “Doc, is Johnny…” He had to take a deep breath. “Johnny’s gonna be okay, ain’t he?”


Sam led Jelly to one of the chairs pushed back against the wall and sat facing him. “Johnny is very sick, Jelly.”


“But you’re gonna fix him up, ain’t ya, Doc? You’re gonna cut out that ’pendix thing and Johnny’ll be good as new.” Jelly’s eyes pleaded for reassurance.


“I hope that is what will happen, but it may not be that simple, Jelly. Johnny’s appendix may have burst. If it has, he’ll become very ill. And he might not get better.”


“Oh, Lordy.” Jelly’s left hand stole to his cheek and began pulling his whiskers. “We can’t lose Johnny, Doc. You gotta make him better. You just gotta.”


Sam leaned forward and placed a hand on Jelly’s shoulder. “If there’s a way, I’ll find it. And I’m going to need your help, Jelly. I’ll have to focus on Johnny, but Murdoch and Scott will need your strength to get through this. Can I count on you?”


“Well ya know ya can.”


“Good. Maria will help me with the surgery while you take care of Murdoch. This has hit him hard and he needs a friend.”


Jelly nodded, “I know you and Maria patched up lotsa fellers together. I’ll take care of the Boss, Doc.” He dabbed at his eyes with a sleeve. “Kinda dusty in here. Reckon I better go fetch more towels.”


“Yes, we’ll need several more. And I want four clean blankets that are rolled up like a bedroll. Put them on the island where I can reach them easily.” He saw the confusion in Jelly’s eyes. “I may need them to elevate his legs or upper body.


“Maria, dry the table and set another kettle to boil, please. I need a basin of hot water and soap right by the table so that I can wash my hands before operating. I’ll need the carbolic and iodine, too. And please light all of these lamps. We can arrange them after we have our patient on the table. I’ll go upstairs now and give Johnny the anesthesia.”


Jelly watched as the doctor picked up his bag and headed for the stairs. Then the older man paused in the kitchen doorway to send up a short prayer for the boy he thought of as a son.



Murdoch sat on the edge of the bed beside his son, running his finger up and down the lax hand resting so limply in his. Johnny seemed to drift in and out of awareness and he’d been mostly unconscious since Murdoch had sent Jelly out of the room to help the doctor. He didn’t want to think about the reason for Sam and Jelly’s preparations and turned his thoughts in a different direction.


He contrasted this situation with the last time Johnny had been so ill. Then, recovering from Pardee’s bullet, Johnny had pushed him away. Now, his son wanted him to stay and welcomed Murdoch’s clumsy attempts to comfort him. He remembered Pete Adam’s story about his father and how the man was so full of regret that he’d never said the words, “I love you.”


Gratitude flooded through him—to Pete, Scott and Jelly for opening his eyes, to Johnny for giving him another chance, and to God for giving him the strength to say those words to his son. He might regret not saying them sooner, but at least he’d gotten them said.


He used his free hand to wipe Johnny’s face with cold water, letting it linger on the boy’s forehead. He was almost afraid to look at his son. Johnny seemed to be fading before his eyes—a firefly in a jar, his light growing dimmer and dimmer.


The flicker of the lamplight lent a surreal air to the scene and for a moment Murdoch imagined that he was living in one of Johnny’s nightmares. But he couldn’t wake up from this dream. It was all too real and his son was about to face a surgeon’s knife.


What if Sam is too late? What if Johnny…. No! Stop it. I’m being a coyote again. Please, Lord, please don’t take my son.


He felt Johnny‘s hand tighten on his, the weakness of the grip sending a hot prickle of tears behind his eyelids. He looked into the worried blue eyes and forced himself to smile. “Hey.”


“What…Sam tell you?”


“He said you were upholding your tradition of being his most difficult patient.” Murdoch busied himself with straightening the quilt.


“Don’t lie to me, Old Man!” Johnny forced out through clenched teeth. “You ain’t lied…before….”


“No, son. I haven’t and I won’t.” Murdoch met Johnny’s eyes. “Sam says there’s a risk. Your appendix might burst and if it does--”


“I’m a dead man.” Johnny closed his eyes and turned his head away.




He turned his face back to his father. “That’s what happened…Joe’s little girl…ain’t it? I went…funeral…we all did.”


Murdoch couldn’t bear the bleakness in his son’s eyes. “Listen to me, John. All I know is that you have to fight this. You’ve had to fight all of your life and you can’t stop now.”


Johnny’s grip tightened on Murdoch’s hand. “I been here…before…lookin’ at death. Used…think it…friend. Take me…place…no one…hurt me…nuthin’ bad…happen. I wasn’t…afraid to die. Nuthin’…no one…to keep me here…”


“Johnny, don’t.”


“Ain’t friend…no more. Just shadow…on my soul. It’s here…waitin’…take me…hell. I ain’t…bringer…no more. Seen it… corner. Waitin’…take…me. Don’t wanna…go…leave Scott…you…Jelly…Teresa…. I’m scared.”


Murdoch leaned close to Johnny’s face and took both his son’s hands in his. He couldn’t let Johnny face his fears alone, but the words of comfort he wanted share eluded him. He wished Scott was with them. The blue eyes boring into his soul prompted him to speak.


“John, when life is at its bleakest, we look for a way to escape. You saw death as a way to escape, welcomed the release you thought it would bring. When life treats us kindly, we cling to it. And when we feel loved and wanted, well, that gives us so much more reason to hang on. That isn’t fear you’re feeling, son. It’s your desire to stay with your family. And your family isn’t ready to let you go.


“That dark shadow isn’t some devil waiting to take your soul to hell. I can’t tell you why, I can only tell you what I believe—that we answer only to God for our sins. You have less to answer for than you believe and you’ve done more for others than most men. You’ve already lived through hell here on earth, son. You don’t have to be afraid of it anymore.”


“You saved me…from that hell…you and Scott. Didn’t plan…stay here. After Pablo…didn’t let nuthin’ hurt me…scare me. When…came here…scared of…needin’ you and…lovin’ you…and you not lovin’ me. Scared of…old man and…Boston dandy.” Johnny tried to smile. “Never scared of fracas…but scared…talk to you. Glad we…talked…tonight.” He looked down at his father’s hands holding his. “Love you…Murdoch.”


“I’m glad we talked, too, son.” Murdoch brushed Johnny’s cheek.


“Tell…Scott…Jelly…Teresa for me. Scott…gonna need…you.”


Murdoch squeezed Johnny’s hands. “You’ll tell them yourself. Stop talking as though you’ve given up. You’re going to fight this, remember?”


“That…an order?”


“No. No, I’m asking you, John. But I’ll make it an order if it’ll help. Please fight it.” Murdoch tried to keep his voice even, but he knew it quivered with emotion.




They both heard the tap on the door and Sam walked into the room. “Time for you to go to sleep, Johnny.”


Johnny nodded, watching as Sam removed several items from his bag.


“Murdoch, I need to sit there.”


Murdoch stood, leaving a place for Sam to sit, but keeping his hold on Johnny’s right hand.


Sam settled into the spot vacated for him. “I’m going to put this cloth over your nose and mouth, Johnny. Then I’ll use this cone to funnel the ether. You’ll smell it, but just breathe normally. The ether will make you go to sleep. Are you ready?”


“Yeah.” Johnny turned his head, looking for his father. “Murdoch?”


“I’m here, son, and I’ll be here when you wake up. I love you, Johnny.” He met Johnny’s eyes, forcing an encouraging smile.


Murdoch watched as Sam administered the ether. He was unaware of time passing, just the gut-wrenching sensation that his son was slipping away. Johnny’s grip on his hand slackened, the muscles seeming to grow soft. His breathing slowed and his eyelids fluttered, the blue eyes rolling back before closing. Johnny’s head lolled to the side, seeming to sink deeper into the pillow. Murdoch gulped and sent up a quick prayer that he’d see those blue eyes open again. He felt Sam squeeze his arm.


“All right, Murdoch. He’s under.” Sam hooked his stethoscope in his ears and listened to Johnny’s heart rate. Then he checked his pulse. Satisfied, he stood up. “I’ll get some of the men to bring him downstairs.”


“No.” Murdoch moved forward and gathered Johnny into his arms, taking care not to dislodge the cloth from his face. “I’ll bring him.”


“All right. Let’s take it slow and easy. Let me walk alongside so that I can keep an eye on his breathing.”


Murdoch carried his precious burden to the kitchen table and laid him gently on the hard surface, carefully arranging Johnny’s lifeless arms. He felt Maria touch his shoulder as though to reassure him that she would let nothing happen to Johnny. He met her eyes, thankful for the faith shining in their depths, and nodded his appreciation.


He watched Jelly tiptoe forward and take Johnny’s hand, bending to whisper in his ear. Maria and Sam removed Johnny’s nightshirt and Maria began following Sam’s directions and painting the site of the incision with iodine while Sam lifted Johnny’s eyelids and checked his pupils.


Murdoch knew it was time to leave, to let the doctor do his work. But he couldn’t let go. Johnny’s accusation ran through his head, “You should have been there. I needed you, damn you.”


He needs me now. I can’t leave him alone again.


Sam’s hand gripped his shoulder. “It’s time, Murdoch. You have to let go now.”


Murdoch forced himself to release Johnny’s hand. He felt Jelly’s arm encircle his waist and for once, allowed himself to lean on someone else. He was profoundly grateful for the reassuring presence of the man beside him.


Pausing in the doorway, Murdoch took one last look at his son. Maria was arranging the lamps around the table at Sam’s direction while the doctor administered more ether through the cone. The doctor lifted Johnny’s eyelids to check his pupils and took his pulse before turning away to wash his hands one final time before the surgery. When he saw Murdoch, Sam pointed emphatically toward the door.


Murdoch acknowledged the doctor’s directive and turned to leave. He froze as he remembered Johnny’s words and fears. His eyes narrowed menacingly and he turned back, forcing himself to ignore the brightly lit table and the frightfully still form upon it. Instead, he searched the room, and especially the corners, for any threatening dark shadows.


“C’mon, Boss. Let’s go have us a drink. Then we’ll do some jawin’ with the Lord.” Jelly urged him forward and Murdoch took one last, quick look back at that inert form on the table before they turned the corner and he lost sight of Johnny.


I’m not abandoning you, son—I’m leaving you in good hands…the best hands.


And you, you shadow on my son’s soul. You back off. You can’t have him. He’s mine. And I’ll fight you through hell itself to keep him.





Murdoch shifted in his seat, aching to find a more comfortable position, but knowing that was impossible. He glared at the stately clock, blithely ticking away what might prove to be the final minutes of his son’s life. He’d always taken comfort in the massive timepiece’s orderly expression of the passing seconds, admiring the simple control that the marking of the hours brought to his life. But tonight he wanted to stop time, hold it in his hand until he could control the outcome of the drama playing out in the kitchen. He was a man who thrived on control, yet he had absolutely none over what was happening to his son. At least shifting positions gave him the illusion of doing something.


He attempted to think positive thoughts, but the image of Johnny on that hard table—so still and yes, so small—kept filling his mind. Every muscle in his body strained to the breaking point, yet he welcomed the physical discomfort, grateful for the slightest distraction. Fear shrouded his thoughts like a mist, reminding him of the time on that fishing boat outside Gloucester when he’d fallen overboard.


He’d become entangled in one of the nets, held tightly no matter how he twisted or squirmed. Unable to think clearly, trapped in a whirlpool of dread, the tug and twist of panic swelled within him. He’d had no control then, totally dependant on others to rescue him. At last they’d pulled him from the icy water, more dead than alive.


He felt that way now—cold and water-logged, unable to fill his lungs with enough air. It was as though he were sinking into dark, hostile water and needing to thrash for the surface, hoping for someone to help drag him from the icy depths and force the water from his lungs. 


Worry for Johnny draped him like a net, sapping his strength. The clock’s monotonous ticking echoed through his skull and he dropped his head into his hands, leaning his elbows on his scarred desk, forcing himself to listen as the long anxious minutes ticked away.


Murdoch wished he could turn that clock back to happier times. He wanted to retreat into the past, to a time before Maria shattered his dreams and set Johnny on his harrowing walk into hell. He wanted to remember those happy times. But the good memories couldn’t hold his attention for long, losing their battle to fear and dread as he remembered the boy lying in the next room. His boy, fighting for his life…fighting off death.


I’m here, Johnny. You fight, you hear me? Don’t you quit now, son.


He glanced outside and saw that night had almost fled; it wouldn’t be long before night’s shadows skulked away from the light of a new day. Already, the faint rays of sunrise were visible. Yes, there was some measure of control in that. No matter what, the sun rose every morning. He’d learned that lesson a long time ago. No matter the grief or pain, life went on. Your own life seemed to stand still, but time marched on. When he’d knelt beside Catherine’s grave, he’d wanted to stop the sun from shining, keep the birds from singing. He didn’t want to see the beauty in a cold, ugly world.


But the sun shone and the birds sang and only a few years later he’d set his eyes on Maria—his earthy, exotic Maria who had given him his second son. And suddenly, the world wasn’t ugly anymore and he began living again—until Maria left him, taking Johnny from him as well. The sun had kept on shining then, too. Life had gone on around him just like now. Just like it would go on if Johnny…


Murdoch glanced up as Jelly came through the front door carrying a tray with a coffee pot and several mugs. Jelly shot an anxious look toward the kitchen before bringing the tray to Murdoch’s desk. He poured a steaming mug of coffee and pushed it into Murdoch’s hands.


“Drink that down, Boss. It’s nice and hot. Miz Elena brung it over.”


Jelly’s firm instructions to drink registered among the thoughts whirling through his mind and Murdoch swallowed the beverage. He found its warmth a surprising comfort and the familiar, fragrant smell seemed to stir him back to life. Murdoch sat up and looked around for Jelly. The older man stood behind him, staring out the arched window, watching the sun begin its patient climb into the sky.


“Jelly, you better come and drink some of this coffee while it’s hot.”


Jelly walked to the other side of the desk and poured a cup before sitting down. He eyed Murdoch sympathetically. “Long night, huh, Boss?”


“Too long, Jelly.”


“Well, Frank got back with the things Doc wanted from his office. I got a room ready for Doc. He’ll be limp as a wore out fiddle string what with operatin’ on Jake and then Johnny. And me and Elena got Johnny’s room straightened up, changed his sheets. Everything’s all ready for him, soon as Doc’s finished fixin’ him up.”


Murdoch studied his friend, knowing the depth of love Jelly was hiding behind his bustling, offhand manner. “Jelly, there’s something you should know. Sam said Johnny’s appendix…”


He tried to speak, but his mouth was so dry he had to take a swallow of coffee. “If his appendix has ruptured, I…we might lose him, Jelly. I want you to know that.”


Jelly bowed his head. “Doc told me. Reckon I don’t wanna think about that.”


“I haven’t been able to think about anything else.” Murdoch stared into his coffee cup. “I talked to my son tonight, Jelly. For the first time since he came home, I really talked to that boy.” His eyes lifted to Jelly’s face. “I learned a lot about who he is and why. Now, I understand how much I really need him, how much he means to me.”


Jelly refilled his cup. “That boy means a lot to me, too. He’s kinda special, ain’t he?”


“Yes. Johnny is…special.”


Both men sat in silence for awhile until the clock chimed the passing of another hour and Murdoch snapped, slamming his fists down onto the desk.


“God, I can’t stand it! How much longer, can it take? I want to know what we’re up against. It’s the not knowing. I want to see him, Jelly, I want to see my son.” Murdoch slumped back into his chair and rubbed his burning eyes.


Jelly walked around the desk and laid his arm across the broad shoulders. “I know, Boss. And if anybody deserves to air it out, it’s you. But you just can’t do it now. You gotta swallow yer pain and paint that brave face back on, so’s you can be the strength that boy needs. Whatever happens, Johnny’s gonna need you.”


Murdoch drew a deep breath and his voice quivered. “I don’t think I can lose him again, Jelly.”


Jelly squeezed the trembling shoulders, dashing his sleeve across his own eyes. “You never really lost him, Boss. That boy was always in yer heart and he always will be…no matter what happens. But we ain’t givin’ up, we just ain’t givin’ up.” He tugged on Murdoch’s arm. “C’mon, let’s go set a spell in front of the fire.”



Sam limped into the great room, trying to stretch his screaming back and shoulder muscles. Exhaustion pressed inexorably on him. All he wanted to do was ease his aching body onto a soft mattress and give in to sleep. But first he must break the news to the two men who were waiting for him.


Jelly scrambled to his feet when he saw the doctor, but Murdoch remained seated—the grim expression on Sam’s face rendered him paralyzed.


Sam sank down onto the sofa beside Murdoch and turned to face him. “Johnny’s appendix was ruptured, Murdoch.”


“No…” Murdoch’s voice quivered


“I’m sorry.” He ran a hand over his weary face. “When it ruptured, an abscess formed. It’s possible that the abscess contained the infection. I’ve inserted a tube to drain it-”


Murdoch gripped Sam’s forearm. “Are you saying…is there a chance, Sam?”


“Murdoch, there is still a very high risk of peritonitis. All we can do now is wait,” Sam sighed.


“But Johnny’s got a chance?”


Sam rubbed a hand across his eyes and met Murdoch’s eager gaze. He hesitated, not wanting to raise false hopes. “Yes, he’s got a chance. But, Murdoch, right now, all I can really offer you is a slim hope and a prayer.”


“I want to see him.” Murdoch unfolded himself from the sofa.


“Of course. We need to get him settled upstairs, but you can’t carry him like you did before. I want him moved on something solid like a fence panel. We can’t put any pressure on the incision or that abscess.”


Murdoch started for the kitchen, but Sam grasped his arm and pulled him back down onto the sofa. “Before we go in, let me tell you what to expect. I’ve put a tube down Johnny’s nose into his stomach. It looks uncomfortable and it is, but it’s there to keep his stomach empty. That’s critical until we’ve ruled out peritonitis. It also allows us to give him medication even if he is unconscious.


“There is a glass tube in his side to drain that abscess. We’ve got to be careful that he doesn’t move around and disturb it. The abscess could still cause infection to spread and if it does…well, you do understand the danger, don’t you?”


Jelly sat down beside Murdoch, gripping his friend’s shoulder. “But Johnny won’t quit, Doc. He’s strong and he’s a fighter.” Both men nodded emphatically.


Sam stared at both of them and sighed. “No. You’re wrong, Jelly. Yes, Johnny fights harder than anyone I’ve ever seen. But Johnny isn’t strong right now.”  He scrubbed his eyes with both hands and shook his head.


“I don’t know what happened before his appendix started giving him trouble, but that boy,” Sam gestured vehemently toward the kitchen, “hasn’t eaten in days and is dangerously dehydrated. He’s about as strong as a newborn kitten. Johnny was in no condition to withstand an operation, much less try to fight off the effects of a ruptured appendix.”


He threw up his hands in frustration. “How in the world did you let him get into that condition?”


Jelly and Murdoch sat silently, heads bowed, each asking himself the same question and finding no answer.


Sam squeezed the top of his nose and stood up. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m just…very tired. Let’s get Johnny up to bed and then I need to get some sleep.”


“But you said he’s got a chance, Doc. That’s all Johnny needs, just a chance. You’ll see. He’ll fight it.” Jelly accented his words with vehement nods of his head.


Sam looked Jelly straight in the eyes. “As your friend and Johnny’s, I hope you’re right, Jelly. And as a friend to the Lancer family, I’ll pray with you.” He turned his gaze to Murdoch, noticing how the man seemed to flinch away from what he intuitively knew was coming. “But as Johnny’s doctor, I have to tell you that this will be a long, uphill fight and Johnny just doesn’t have the strength he needs to win it.”




“Thanks, fellers,” Jelly called after the departing ranch hands that had helped carry Johnny to his room. He turned back to the bed and watched Sam and Murdoch carefully settle Johnny onto the mattress.


“Here, Murdoch, help me get these pillows behind Johnny’s shoulders. He can’t lie flat if we’re to get that abscess drained.” Sam stacked two rolled blankets near the headboard and he and Murdoch arranged several pillows until they had Johnny’s upper body at a satisfactory angle.


Murdoch stared down at the stranger in the bed. This wasn’t Johnny; this was some wax figure crudely fashioned to resemble his son. Johnny’s skin was tanned, sun-kissed; but this figure’s skin-tone was ashen, almost grey beneath a bronze veneer. Johnny was strong and well-muscled while the figure on the bed was drawn, lean as a greyhound, and frail. Johnny radiated energy and life, yet this figure lay limp and lifeless. His son was vibrant and alive, but the boy on the bed was so young, so very ill—only a heartbeat away from…


He turned his face away, unable to watch as Sam sat on the edge of the bed and set about assuring himself that the trip upstairs hadn’t harmed Johnny in any way. Murdoch felt Jelly’s steadying arm around his back and was once again grateful for that silent support.


Sam scrutinized Johnny carefully, using his stethoscope to listen to his heart and for bowel sounds. He re-checked the drainage tube and dressings before testing for fever by first feeling Johnny’s forehead and then touching the back of one hand to his cheek. He lifted Johnny’s eyelids and examined his pupils and finally, took his pulse. Satisfied, the doctor straightened and turned to Jelly and Murdoch.


“Well, we didn’t do any damage moving him. He’s still got a fever, but that’s to be expected. It will rise as a result of the abscess and the surgery,” Sam informed Murdoch and Jelly.


“What…what do we do now, Sam?”


“Now, it’s a waiting game, Murdoch. I can’t tell you how long it will be before I can say that Johnny is out of danger. Until then, we watch for the symptoms of peritonitis. 


“If they occur…” Sam sighed and glanced at his patient. “Well, then all we can do is keep him comfortable and free from pain.”


“What must we watch for, Sam?” Murdoch moved close to the bed.


“The first order of business is to try and stay ahead of the fever. Keep sponging him with that cool water.” He looked toward Jelly. “I know Teresa keeps lavender water prepared. Use that on his pulse points.”


“I know where she keeps it. I’ll fetch it,” Jelly volunteered.


“And let’s start the linseed poultices, Jelly. I want one on Johnny’s abdomen constantly and it must be kept hot. That means you’ll need a steady supply of hot water up here.”


“I’ll take care of it, Doc.” Jelly hurried toward the door.


“Thanks. Now don’t run off yet, Jelly. I want both of you to hear this.” Sam waited until Jelly returned to the bedside.


“Keep an eye on the exudate from the drainage tube in his side.” The doctor pulled the sheets back to show them what he was talking about. “Drainage like this is what we want to see. Yes, I know it is unpleasant, but that pus and serous fluid is exactly what we don’t want leaking into his belly. You’ll have to change the dressings often, I expect quite a bit of drainage.”


He indicated the neatly stacked strips of bandaging material on the dresser. “Good, Jelly. Those will work well as dressings. We’ll need many more, though.


“Watch for any change in consistency. If the drainage becomes thicker and greenish, staining the dressings with a blackish tinge…well, you both know the smell of gangrene. Just pray that you don’t smell or see it.”


Jelly and Murdoch looked at each other and nodded solemnly.


“As for medication—that presents a problem. Normally, I wouldn’t put anything in his stomach until I can rule out peritonitis. But there is nothing normal about this situation. So, I’m going to take the risk and begin medicating Johnny. If the abscess hasn’t ruptured, the medicine will help Johnny fight the infection. If it has…then it won’t matter. Do you agree, Murdoch?”


“You know I trust you, Sam. I’ll do whatever you say.”


“Right. Well, let me show you how to do this. Aconite will help fight the fever and slow his heart rate. This bottle is mixed and ready for use.” He held up a bottle of Aconite tincture that he had diluted with water.


“We’re going to give him ½ teaspoon every ten minutes for the first two hours. Then we’ll drop it back to 1 teaspoon every two hours. Draw the solution into this syringe and inject it slowly into the tube.” Sam demonstrated the procedure, instilling the liquid into the nasal tube.


“Any questions about how to administer this? Good. Remember, accurate measurement is especially important for the Aconite. Now, the next thing we’re going to give him is this Cone Flower tincture. He’ll need it to help fight the infection. This large bottle contains boiled water. Fill this dropper with the water to this line and squirt it into this container.”


Sam carefully pointed out the materials and markings, but he didn’t actually prepare the dose of medication. “Then add 20 drops of the Cone Flower tincture. Draw the solution into the syringe and it’s ready. We’ll give him the Cone Flower every two hours for the next twenty-four hours.”


Sam turned to Murdoch. “Here, Murdoch, you give him this dose. Go ahead, mix it up and inject it into the tube.”


Murdoch quickly mixed the appropriate dose and drew it up into the syringe. But when it was time to touch the nasal tube, his movements became hesitant. He looked toward Sam, who nodded encouragingly, and forced himself to handle the alien black rubber tube, infusing the medication into it. After the Cone Flower tincture disappeared down the tube, he looked back to Sam for approval.


Sam smiled at him. “That’s just fine, Murdoch. Make sure to sterilize the syringe after each use. Now, do you remember how often and how much?”


“Ah, ½ teaspoon of the Aconite mixture every ten minutes for the next two hours and then 1 teaspoon every two hours. Every two hours, he gets 20 drops of the Cone Flower mixed with boiled water measured using the dropper.”


“Good. Keep the poultice hot and try to stay ahead of the fever.”


Jelly stepped forward and helped Sam to his feet. “We’ll take care of Johnny now, Doc. Yer out on yer feet. I got a room all ready for ya. When Frank picked up that medicine from yer office, I had him pack you a bag so’s you’ll have yer shavin’ gear and fresh clothes. When you wake up, we’ll get ya fed up right.”


“Thanks, Jelly. I’m so tired I can’t see straight. And thanks for thinking of bringing back a bag for me.” He looked at Murdoch. “Send someone to town to find ice. We may need it later to fight the fever.”


“I’ll ask Walt to go, Mr. Lancer. I want him to send another wire to Fresno, see if we can figure out when to expect Scott. I’ll bring you the poultice and lavender water and then see Walt off.”


“Thanks, Jelly,” Murdoch nodded.


Sam sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “You sit with Johnny now, Murdoch. We can’t leave him alone until he’s out of danger. He will sleep for several hours until the ether wears off completely, but if he shows any sign of waking up, call me immediately. In any case, wake me in three hours so I can check on him.” He squeezed Murdoch’s shoulder.


“When he comes around, Johnny may be disoriented and nauseated.” Sam took a deep breath and met his friend’s questioning gaze. “We’ve got to stay ahead of that fever—I’m  afraid it’s going rise rapidly. If the fever gets out of control, Johnny might not wake up. Call me at once if he becomes delirious.


“And keep him still—be very careful of the drain in his side. If that abscess ruptures before we get it drained…. And don’t let him pull on the tube in his nose.” Sam wobbled as he took a step forward.


Murdoch laid a steadying hand on Sam’s arm. “You get some sleep, Sam. You’ve had a busy day and night. Thank you for everything you’ve done.”


Sam rested his hand atop the big hand supporting his forearm and met his friend’s eyes. “Spend this time alone with your boy, Murdoch.” He didn’t speak all of his thoughts aloud—he didn’t have to. The look on Murdoch’s face told Sam that Johnny’s father heard his thoughts as clearly as though he’d shouted them from the rooftop—It may be the last time you’ll have with him.





The lathered roan stumbled over a clump of grass, but Scott’s hands held it together, the muscles of his forearms aching with the effort. He could feel its breath coming short and fast and hear the sob when it tried to draw enough air through its distended nostrils. The horse was almost winded. He glanced at the angle of the sun, passed a hand down the steaming neck, and urged the roan on.           


The miles stretched ahead and it seemed to Scott that despite his long hours on the trail, he was no closer to reaching Johnny. Every minute of those hours had been laden with fear as the carefully worded wire had left him in no doubt of the seriousness of his brother’s condition. It wasn’t what the message said; it was what it didn’t say that worried him the most.


He’d been dining at the hotel with Randall Masters, sharing an epicurean triumph of roasted goose sautéed in a delicate wine sauce with asparagus and poached pears. A sumptuous feast with champagne meant to celebrate their agreement. They’d bargained hard, yet reached an understanding quickly and signed a contract. Their reward was to be a festive dinner. But the delivery of the urgent telegram brought their revels to an abrupt halt.


You owe me a dinner, brother. That’s the best meal I’ve had in months—and I had to run out in the middle of it, thanks to you.


Waiting for the morning stage was out of the question, so Scott purchased the best horse available from the livery stable and pushed the poor creature mercilessly. He had to get home, his brother needed him. But he’d urged the roan to its limits and if he didn’t give it another breather, the animal wouldn’t get him to Lancer.


Reluctantly, he reined the horse to a halt and dismounted, loosening the cinch. The roan heaved, legs trembling and sweat pouring from its lathered hide. Scott patted its neck, speaking softly and led the horse at a slow walk.


Guilt assailed him and Scott cursed himself with every phrase he’d learned in the army. When he ran out of expressions, he started over, cursing Johnny this time.


Damn you, Johnny! You stupid, stubborn…I should have dragged you kicking and screaming to see Sam. I knew it. I knew something was wrong. I even put my foot down. But you turned on the charm and used that silver tongue. You lulled me into believing that you were okay—or that you would be.


You know what a sucker I am, don’t you, little brother? Oh, you give me that puppy dog look and I just do whatever you want. Damn you. I know you better than that. I know you’d lie through your teeth to avoid admitting that you just might need someone’s help. I’ve learned that the hard way. But what did I do? I let you pull the wool over my eyes again! Damn you, Johnny Lancer. And damn me for being a blind idiot!


The sudden image of Johnny slumping over his shoulder after the gun battle with Pardee tempered Scott’s anger. The boy’s fierce determination to make it on his own then and during the first few days of his recovery had taught Scott just how accustomed Johnny was to surviving alone in the world—and how difficult it was for his brother to submit to any help at all.


He couldn’t blame Johnny for his independence. It had kept him alive, after all. And Johnny was making a valiant effort to accept assistance from his new family—but it was a real challenge for him to overcome the habits ingrained over a lifetime.


No, I’m responsible for not seeing just how desperately you needed help—in spite of all your denials and assurances otherwise. Damn it, why didn’t I drag you to Sam? Why did I ever agree to leave the ranch? I knew you needed me. I can’t believe what a fool I’ve been.


Please, Lord, let him be all right. Please don’t punish Johnny for my mistake.


The roan’s breathing was normal now and Scott tightened the cinch and remounted. “Only about fifteen miles as the crow flies, boy. We’ll cut across the mesa and come in over the north range.”


He sent the roan forward in a ground-eating trot, posting in rhythm with the long strides. His agile mind raced through calculations of just how hard he might be able to push the horse. They were both exhausted after traveling much of the night and all day. Scott had driven them both to the limits of endurance, riding as though the outcome of a battle depended on their performance.


And the outcome of a battle is riding on us—the battle for Johnny’s life. I’ve got to get home.


His heels itched to dig themselves into the roan’s sweat-streaked sides, but Scott forced himself to keep his mount in a trot. He posted lightly, using all his skills as a horseman to hold the animal together.


I saved a lot of time going cross country instead of sticking to the roads. But if I’d followed the road, I could have changed horses. That might have been a smarter move. Too late to worry about it now.


Scott’s mind ticked off the miles as they drummed beneath the roan’s hooves. When he could stand it no longer, he urged the big horse into a swift lope, stifling the desire to kick the animal into a gallop. Weariness threatened to overwhelm him and for a moment, it seemed as though he’d never been anywhere but on this horse’s back. Would he never reach home?


The monotony of the journey reminded him of that first stagecoach ride to Morro Coyo. His upper lip twitched upwards as he remembered the scruffy young man who stopped the stage and talked his way into a ride; pushing his way onto the crowded coach. Scott couldn’t forget the mocking voice, taunting eyes, and insolent manner, “Didn’t mean to mess up your outfit.”


And what a shock it had been to discover that this impudent cowboy was his brother! Johnny just looked him up and down and laughed out loud. Scott refused to believe that the brash and cheeky ruffian could possibly be related to him. For some unexplained reason, he had a fierce desire to prove to this impertinent young man that there was steel behind his own finely tailored garments.


He took advantage of the first opportunity to prove it, sending Johnny rolling end-over-end almost into the creek with a powerful clout to the jaw to “thank” him for his refusal to help in the fight with Pardee’s men. Scott shivered as he recalled the fury in Johnny’s eyes. For a brief instant, he had expected to be gunned down, but Johnny’s tongue was just as destructive as the weapon strapped to his hip and he used it in combination with his quick fists. “Don’t you call me brother because we share that old man’s blood. You mean nuthin’ to me.”


I’ll never forget the words you used. You meant them at the time. We were nothing to each other—just strangers. You looked at Murdoch with hate and at me with suspicion, and I soon found that you had good reason for both.


You could have let those reasons drive you away from us, but you stayed, didn’t you Johnny? You stayed to find the truth and that truth hurt you just as much as those lies you were raised on.


You didn’t trust me at first; but this big brother wasn’t going anywhere, was he Johnny? I dug my heels in and you had no choice but to accept me. You and Murdoch are stubborn, but I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’m more stubborn than the both of you. I’m just not as vocal or obvious about it.


So I didn’t give up and I found a way to get past that wall you’d built around yourself. And you let me. You let me in because sharing that old man’s blood means as much to you as it does to me—and to him. All of a sudden, “nuthin’” became brothers, partners, and best friends. You’ll always be special to me, Johnny. Even though I wasn’t impressed that first day, either.


Yes, his first reaction to his brother had been disdain and distaste, followed quickly by disbelief and a curious desire to win the young man’s respect. There was something about his brother that drew him in. It didn’t take long for Scott to like and respect Johnny. And though he couldn’t put his finger on the exact moment, that liking soon deepened into love. There was no denying that he loved his cocky, brazen, vulnerable, compassionate brother. And he knew Johnny felt the same way about him.


I’m coming, Johnny. I’ll be there as soon as I can.


The roan stumbled as they crested a rise and Scott’s heart leaped into his mouth. But the horse staggered forward, catching its balance, and in the next instant, Scott saw several Lancer hands driving a small herd of heifers. He kicked the roan toward them at a gallop.


“Jose, Don, Pepe! Hold up.” Scott was busy evaluating each of the cowboys’ mounts as he pulled the tired roan to a halt.


Hola, Señor Scott.”


“Jose, I need you to change horses with me. Pronto, por favor.” Scott was already sliding down from the roan.


“Si.” Jose didn’t blink an eye at this request, leaping off his horse and handing the reins to Scott.


“Thanks.” Scott pulled himself into the saddle of Jose’s horse and clapped his heels into its sides, heading for the estancia at a gallop.


A sense of disorientation swept over Scott. He felt as though he were standing outside himself and watching the drama unfold. Inside, worry and fear for his brother resounded like cannon fire. But around him, everything looked so normal. Cattle grazed calmly in the pastures and the ranch hands seemed to be carrying on as usual.


He passed a cluster of hands working on the fence by Yokut Creek. Darned fence just wouldn’t stay mended. Maybe things were not as bad as he had imagined. Maybe tomorrow he and Johnny would be helping to patch that fence…


He could see the hacienda in the distance now, and Scott had never been so relieved to see his home. He used the ends of his reins, slapping them against the horse’s shoulders to urge it even faster.


A flash of gold off to the right caught his attention and he saw Barranca galloping across the pasture toward the fence. The palomino wanted to race and skimmed along the fence line, easily keeping pace with Scott’s mount. The sight of the flashy horse in flight without his rider tore at Scott’s heart and he swallowed a sob.


Barranca ran ahead of Scott until the fence at the end of the pasture forced him to a sliding, plunging halt. He reared and squealed angrily, then thrust his head over the top rail and whinnied plaintively as Scott galloped by. Scott’s guilt-ridden mind imagined the palomino accusing him of letting harm come to his master and wondering what had taken him so long to get home.


Sorry, Barranca. I know I should’ve been here.


At last, they rounded the corner of the hacienda and Scott’s feet hit the ground before his horse came to a halt. Legs that were numb and stiff from hours of riding at speed refused to support him and Scott had to grasp the hitch rail to stay on his feet. He leaned against it as exhaustion, lack of food, and worry overwhelmed him. For a moment, he thought he might pass out and then he felt a strong arm encircle his waist.


Alerted by Barranca’s whinnies and the sound of galloping hooves, Murdoch had come through the door in time to witness Scott’s near-collapse. He ran to his son’s side, shocked at young man’s haggard appearance. “Easy, son. I’ve got you. Let’s get you inside.”


Murdoch helped Scott into the kitchen where Sam sat slumped over a cup of coffee. The doctor pushed back from the table and hurried to Scott’s side.


Scott waved him away impatiently. “Johnny?” He’d seen the grim expressions on both faces.


“Scott, come and sit down.” Murdoch tried to coax Scott into a chair.


“NO!” Scott shouted. “Where’s Johnny?” A rising panic forced him to grip the back of the chair as he fought off a wave of dizziness.


Sam pushed Scott firmly into a chair. “Sit down before you fall down, Scott. Murdoch, get him some brandy.” Sam sat down and pushed a glass of water toward Scott.


Scott ignored the water. “Please, tell me about Johnny. Is he…”


“Johnny’s very ill, Scott. He had appendicitis. He must’ve believed his symptoms were a result of his nightmares. In any case, he ignored them for too long. By the time I got to him, his appendix had ruptured.” 


“But…but that’s what killed Martha Davies…”


“Yes, it is. And the only reason Johnny is still alive is that when his appendix ruptured an abscess formed. I’ve inserted a tube to drain the abscess—“


“But that’s good news!” Scott stared at Sam. “Isn’t it?”


“Scott, your brother is extremely ill. He hasn’t regained consciousness since the surgery and his fever has risen steadily all afternoon. It looks as though the infection is spreading. There is a high risk of peritonitis and if that happens…well, I can’t do any more than keep him pain free.”  He laid a hand on Scott’s forearm. “I wish I could offer you some real hope here, Scott, but Johnny has only a glimmer of a chance of pulling through.”


“No.” Scott whispered, dazed by the doctor’s words.


That can’t be right. Johnny will get well. He has to. He…I…He’s just got to.


“I want to see him.” Scott pushed himself to his feet, but his father came back into the room with a glass of brandy and restrained him.


“Son, sit down and let Sam prepare you for what you’ll find upstairs. And drink this.”


Scott jerked away. “No, I’m going up to see my brother.”


Sam stood in front of him and pointed at the chair. “Scott, sit and listen.”


Scott knew when he was outnumbered. And he suspected that he could use the brandy. He sank back into the chair. “All right, I’m listening.”


Sam sat down next to Scott and described the tubes, the medications, and the symptoms they did not want to see. Then he gently explained Johnny’s debilitated condition, clarifying how it was working against him now as the boy attempted to fight the infection and trauma from the surgery. The doctor didn’t soften his prognosis, emphasizing how Johnny’s weakness substantially diminished his chances of survival.


Scott listened in numbed horror and swallowed the brandy in one big gulp. “You…you’re saying Johnny won’t make it.”


Sam laid his hand on Scott’s arm. “Scott, I’m saying that Johnny is sick and weak and you need to be prepared for that. Now go sit with your brother for a while.”


“Go on upstairs, son. I’ll bring you a tray with some supper in a few minutes.” Murdoch squeezed Scott’s shoulder.


“Thank you, sir.” Scott hurried out of the kitchen and up the stairs. He tried to take them two at a time, but his legs weren’t up to it at the moment.


Jelly met him at the door. “Scott! Thank the Lord yer home. Our boy’s awful sick and he needs you bad.”


Now that he was actually in the room, Scott was afraid to look at Johnny. “How…how is he, Jelly?”


“Not so good. I’m plumb scairt, Scott. He ain’t woke up and his fever’s climbin’. He’s weak as a gutted coyote—got no strength to fight with.” Jelly’s worried eyes met Scott’s.


“He’ll fight for me. And he’s got my strength, now.”  Scott’s gaze shifted to the still form on the bed. As though of their own free will, his feet moved closer to the bedside chair and he felt Jelly’s steadying arm around his shoulders. He sank down slowly, the chair a sudden comfort to his leaden legs.


Jelly squeezed his shoulder. “I’ll leave you alone with him. Holler if ya need anything.” Jelly padded softly from the room.


Scott stared tentatively at the face he barely recognized. How could someone change so much in—what? Little more than two days?


Johnny’s flushed cheeks were gaunt and sunken and the dark circles under his eyes made him look like a raccoon. Beneath the flush of fever, his face was grey. His lips were dried, cracked, and bleeding. His breaths came in raspy, shallow pants that were painful to hear. Johnny’s dark hair was matted and soaked with sweat. Scott suddenly understood what Sam had tried to tell him—his brother was barely clinging to life.


“Oh, Johnny.” Scott reached down to take Johnny’s limp hand in his trembling one.


Johnny’s long brown fingers lay still and pliant and that sight sent a shaft of pure terror through Scott’s heart. He’d never seen anyone with stronger hands than his brother, yet now Johnny’s hand seemed so weak. His usually animated brother lay as inert as some inanimate object. That stillness frightened Scott to his soul.


He couldn’t bear to look at the sick boy on the bed, but he was unable to tear his eyes away. Scott was grateful that Sam and his father had forced him to listen and helped to prepare him for this. He breathed deeply to help steady his voice and began to talk to his unconscious brother.


“Well, Johnny, you did it again. You jabbed trouble in the nose and it punched you back hard. I told you—didn’t I tell you?—to see Sam. But as usual, you ignored the wisdom of your older brother. Now your little error is going to cost you several weeks in bed.


“Serves you right, too. You listen to me, Johnny. That’s where you’re going to stay—flat on your back in this bed. Sam’s learned his lesson and he brought some rope with his medical supplies. And Jelly and I will sit on you if we have to.”


Scott managed a tiny smile at the thought of past threats the doctor had used on the various occasions that he tried to tend an indignant and rather petulant Johnny Lancer. Johnny always resisted until Sam lost all patience and admonished him sternly. Then, much to Scott’s amusement, his brother squirmed like a naughty child. His faint smile faded as his eyes settled on the tube in Johnny’s nose and he shuddered. It would be difficult for Johnny to accept that assault on his dignity. 


“I’m so sorry I wasn’t here when you needed me, Johnny. That’s the story of your life, isn’t it? None of us are ever there when you need us. Well, I’m here now, brother. So you fight, you hear me, Johnny? Damn it, you fight this.


“You have to get better so I can kick your butt all the way to the barn and back. You owe me that, little brother. And a damn fine meal, too.” He mimicked Johnny’s words in a sarcastic sing-song. “I’ll be fine, Scott. Don’t worry about me, Scott. Trust me, Scott.


“Well, Johnny, it won’t work any more. I won’t fall for that Prince Charming act again. That’s the last time I ever let you talk me out of doing something to…” Scott choked back a sob as the impact of his remark hit him like a sledgehammer. It might very well be the very last thing his brother ever talked him out of doing. He squeezed Johnny’s clammy hand tightly, hoping to force his own strength into his frail brother.


Did I let you talk me out of saving your life, Johnny? Fight, damn you! Don’t you dare die on me. You mean everything to me, Johnny. I need you, little brother.




7 pm—approximately 14 hours after surgery…


Time lost all meaning for Scott as he focused on nothing but the boy in the bed. Scott kept talking, hoping that somehow his brother would understand that he was with him now and would keep him safe. Johnny gave no sign of hearing him, lying still as death in his nest of pillows.


The tap on the door startled Scott and he looked up to find Murdoch and Sam entering the room. Murdoch carried the promised supper tray.


“I’d like to take a look at Johnny, Scott. Why don’t you let me in here while you sit over by the window and eat your stew.” Sam hung his stethoscope around his neck.


“I…I’m not hungry.” Scott didn’t want to leave Johnny’s side.


Sam gripped Scott by his upper arms and dragged him to his feet, nodding when the blond staggered. The doctor marched Scott over to the chair Murdoch hastily set by the window. He pointed at the chair and the tray.


“Sit yourself down and eat. I don’t need another patient just now.”


“Yes, sir.” Scott mumbled as he sat. He felt Murdoch’s hand on his shoulder, squeezing compassionately. Scott had the feeling that Murdoch had been on the end of a similar scolding from Sam. His stomach reacted with excitement to the smell of stew, reminding him that he’d eaten little in the past twenty-four hours. He might as well follow Sam’s good advice. Scott pulled the tray onto his lap and began to devour the stew and biscuits.


Murdoch walked back to the bed and watched as Sam carefully examined Johnny. When he was finished, the doctor motioned Murdoch to follow him out of the room.


“Johnny’s temperature is still rising. I’m worried that his pulse is increasing, too. It could be due to the abscess or a reaction to the surgery.” Sam sighed and looked at his feet. “It could also mean the onset of--”


Murdoch interrupted him, holding up a hand as though to push away Sam’s words. “No! Don’t say it. I don’t want to hear it. My boy’s a fighter, Sam. He’s fought every day of his life to survive. He won’t give up, I won’t give up, his brother won’t give up, and neither will you. Every fight he’s been in, Johnny had to buck the odds…and he always wins.” Murdoch failed to keep the anger out of his voice.


Sam nodded and took a deep breath. “I know that, Murdoch, and I’m not giving up, either. But Johnny’s got quite a fight on his hands this time.”


“Yes, but this time he isn’t alone. This time he has his family by his side and this time he knows he’s loved and wanted. I’d like to believe that will tilt the odds in his favor for once. Sam, I’m not as brave as that boy—I’m not prepared to face losing him. I won’t lose him…I…I can’t.” Murdoch’s eyes pleaded for reassurance.


Sam smiled at his friend. “I’ve seen the power of a family’s love work miracles. You go sit with him, Murdoch. Make sure he knows you’re all here. I’ll be back to check on him later. Call if you need me or if he starts to come around.”


Murdoch walked back to the bedside and sat next to Johnny, clasping his limp hand. “You’re not alone this time Johnny. I’m with you, son.”


Scott had heard the exchange between his father and the doctor and pushed aside the tray to join Murdoch at Johnny’s side. Both men sat in silence with their eyes on Johnny’s face. They worked together to keep sponging his fevered body. An hour passed and Johnny became increasingly restless, moaning and tossing.


“Get Sam, son.” Murdoch placed his hands on Johnny’s shoulders, gently restraining him. He kept an anxious eye on the drainage tube, terrified that Johnny’s movements might burst the abscess.


“Easy, John. You have to be still, son.” Murdoch spoke softly and stroked Johnny’s hair—he’d learned that gesture calmed his son. It worked again and Johnny ceased his tossing. Murdoch bit his lip when Johnny groaned and the blue eyes blinked open.


He felt a bone-melting relief at seeing those eyes open again and reached down to squeeze Johnny’s hand. “Well, hello there.”


The blue eyes sought his face, dazed and unfocused. “M…Mur…doch?”


“I’m here, John. I promised you I’d be here when you woke up.” Murdoch’s other hand brushed the hair back from Johnny’s forehead.




“You’ve had surgery, son. Remember that pesky appendix? You’re back in your room now.”


Sam, Scott, and Jelly hurried into the room as Johnny raised his hand to his face, seeking to remove the alien tube irritating his nose and throat. Murdoch grasped Johnny’s hand before he could pull on the tube and Scott knelt beside the bed, gently ruffling Johnny’s hair.


“Hey, little brother. Are you trying to get out of work again?”




“Yes, it’s me, Murdoch, and Jelly. We’re all here.”


“May I take a look at him?” Sam signaled for the two men to move back and they reluctantly obeyed him.


“Johnny, it’s Sam. Listen to me, son. You have to keep still and leave that tube alone. It’s there for a purpose. Are you in any pain?”


Johnny nodded. “Hurts….”


“Okay. I’ll take care of that.”


Johnny touched Sam’s arm. “Tell me….”


“I found an abscess, Johnny. Your appendix had burst and if that abscess clears up and there is no further infection, you’ll be just fine. You have a tube in your side to drain it. You’ve got to lie still and stay on your back.”




“Your body formed a protective wall around your appendix and that contained the infection when it burst. The important thing now is to drain the infected area and keep it from spreading into your belly.”


“And if…can’t…”


Murdoch stepped forward and grasped Johnny’s hand. “If that happens, we’ll fight it together.” His voice became gruff. “And that is an order.”


To Scott’s astonishment, Johnny looked up at his father and managed a tiny smile. “’kay.”


Sam leaned forward. “Tell me about the pain, Johnny. Is it just in your side?”


“Every damn where…” Johnny cursed in Spanish as Sam began to palpate his abdomen.


Sam couldn’t find any of the tell tale signs of peritonitis, but he couldn’t rule out the early stages either, Johnny’s whole abdomen seemed too tender.




Sam took Johnny’s pulse. “I’ll let you rinse your mouth out, but don’t you swallow. You forget your manners and spit it out. Agreed?”


Johnny nodded.


“Okay. We’ll get you some water. Then, I’m going to give you an injection to take care of that pain.”


“No.” Johnny pleaded. “Don’t want…sleep…Please, Murdoch…not yet.”


Murdoch glanced at Sam. “Does he really need it, Sam?”


Sam laid his hand on Johnny’s forehead. “Do you want to talk to your family for a minute, Johnny?”




“Okay, we’ll leave it for a few minutes. But you let me know if it gets too bad.”




Sam moved back and let Jelly take his place. He walked over and sat beside the window.


Scott followed the doctor. “Well?”


“I don’t know, Scott. His temperature is rising and his whole abdomen is tender. Both are signs of peritonitis, but not enough to label it so. Go talk to him. He’s so weak, I don’t know how long he can stay awake. In any case, I’m going to give him some morphine in a few minutes and that will knock him out.”


Scott closed his eyes and inhaled deeply letting the air out slowly to steady himself.

“Thanks Sam.”


He walked back to the bed in time to see his father support Johnny’s head while Jelly held a glass of water to his brother’s lips.


“Rinse and spit,” Murdoch ordered. “Don’t swallow it.”


Scott stared in amazement as Johnny meekly obeyed Murdoch’s order. And he watched, fascinated, as his brother’s eyes sparkled with the kind of mischief the boy had never before shared with Murdoch.


“Make up…mind, Old Man…Last night…you…forcin’…down my throat,” Johnny teased his father, pleased when his efforts brought a smile to Murdoch’s lips.


“He’s still full of sass, Murdoch. Sam should have removed that along with his appendix.” Scott grinned.


“He’s still ornrier’n a rat-tailed horse tied short at fly time. Doc musta missed his sassy bone.” Jelly nodded.


“You two…funny…but don’t…plan losin’…any more…my…anat…anat…what Sam…call it, Murdoch?”


“Your anatomy.”


“Yeah…Need all…my pieces…Never know…when come…in handy.”


Scott shook his head. Johnny was certainly putting on a show for them. “You need to rest. So lie still and be quiet…and don’t look at me like that.”


Murdoch laughed at Johnny as the boy feigned hurt. “Your brother’s right, Johnny. Try to rest.”


Johnny closed his eyes, but the silence bothered him and the pain seemed to grow worse by the minute. “Where…Teresa…Want…see her.”


“She’s on her way home, Johnny. Cipriano went to Sacramento to get her.” Murdoch read the signs of increasing pain and motioned for Sam.


Johnny looked at Scott. “Shoulda listened…you…Scott…Sorry…causin’ trouble…”


“We’ll talk about that when you’re on your feet again, brother.”


“You mad?”


“Later, Johnny.” Scott moved aside to let Sam get into position, holding Johnny’s arm while the doctor injected the morphine.


“That shot will send you to sleep Johnny. Don’t fight it. You need to rest.” Sam laid Johnny’s arm gently on the bed and within moments, the boy was asleep.


All of Sam’s baleful threats and lectures couldn’t budge Scott or Murdoch from Johnny’s side, but he did manage to convince Jelly to get some sleep so that he would be able to spell them and sit with Johnny later.


Sam watched as Jelly stomped from the room, grumbling all the way. He turned back to the two men on either side of the bed. “Neither of you will be any good to Johnny if you collapse from exhaustion. This is absolutely the last time that I let both of you sit with him together.”


He didn’t speak his thoughts aloud—that he was relenting only because he was afraid they had precious little time remaining to spend with Johnny.



Scott and Murdoch opened all of the windows to circulate the air and sponged Johnny with cool water as his temperature continued to rise. He slept fitfully, growing increasingly restive and resisting the hands that sought to keep him quiet. It grew steadily more difficult to keep him still as he shivered uncontrollably, the tremors increasing in severity as time went on.


Johnny moaned and once again his hand reached up to the tube in his nose. Scott grasped his hand, moving it away from the tube and holding it tightly. “Easy, Johnny.”


“Scott…I don’t…feel too good.”


“I’ll get Sam.” Murdoch hurried to the door to call the doctor.


“I know, Johnny. Sam will make you feel better. You have to keep fighting, okay?” Scott stroked Johnny’s hair, torn by the suffering on his brother’s face.


“Try.” Johnny lay still for a moment and then tried to turn onto his side. Two pairs of hands held him gently in place.


“No, Johnny, you have to stay on your back. You’ve got that tube in your side, remember?” Murdoch said firmly, holding Johnny’s other hand.


“Here, Murdoch. Let me see him.” Sam sat on the edge of the bed, and laid the back of his hand against Johnny’s cheek. The boy was burning up. “I’m going to give you another injection, Johnny. Now stop fighting it. You need to sleep,” he ordered.


“No…I don’t want….” Johnny struggled feebly.


Murdoch squeezed Johnny’s hand. ”Please, son. You’re using up all the strength you have. Just go to sleep. We won’t leave you.”


“No…I need…want…tell you…will you…tell Teresa…I love her…she sure…pretty…Scott gonna…have watch… fellas…come a courtin’ her…”


“Johnny…” Scott interrupted.


“Scott…I ain’t…givin’ up…but so…tired.”


“I know, brother. Go to sleep now.”


“Scott…l…” Johnny struggled to speak.


“Hush, son. Rest.” Murdoch stroked Johnny’s hair and the boy’s eyes closed.


Scott watched as once again, Johnny responded to their father. He felt a glimmer of hope—had Murdoch spoken with Johnny? Had they reached an understanding? Certainly he could see an easiness between them, a trust that had been markedly absent in the past.


And Johnny’s glances at Murdoch lacked the carefully hidden plea for acceptance that had characterized them previously. It appeared as though his father and brother had at last began forging the relationship they both wanted. He whispered a silent prayer that they would have the time to build on the foundation they’d constructed.


Johnny slept quietly for several minutes as the morphine took effect and then became restless again. The restlessness soon turned into delirium as his temperature soared. The three men fought the rising fever desperately, but Johnny thrashed weakly, struggling against the visions and memories invoked by the fever.


“Keep him still. He’ll burst that abscess.” Sam cautioned.


But the little strength Johnny had was quickly depleted and he lay exhausted, ranting against the torment in his fevered mind. Johnny was once again trapped in his past and he begged: for his mother’s life, for Pablo’s life, and at times for his own. He cowered and cursed at unseen hands that abused him. He threatened and swore at men who tried themselves against his gun. He called out for Tommy. And he cried out to his brother and father for help.


Sam watched Murdoch and Scott struggle with their emotions as they heard and witnessed Johnny’s distress. His heart ached for his friends and he raged at the helplessness he felt. There was simply nothing more he could do. Yes, he’d continue to fight the fever and give Johnny morphine for the pain. But the boy just didn’t have the strength to take much more.


Despite all of his efforts, his friend was going to lose his younger son for a second time. And this time, there would be no chance of bringing him home again. The words of the old nursery rhyme ran through his head: all the King’s horses and all the King’s men…. Even the mighty Murdoch Lancer couldn’t defeat peritonitis.


Sam looked at Johnny—his patient and his friend. He’d liked the boy from the first time he’d met him and the feeling had grown stronger as their friendship deepened. Johnny was like a candle that drew every moth to its flame. When Johnny rode into town, men flocked around him as though mysteriously drawn to him. He was so easy to like—cheerful and fun-loving—even though fate had blown Johnny’s candle about capriciously, cruelly. And now, fate seemed poised to snuff it forever.


He recalled a favorite line from Shakespeare: Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. That sentiment was so appropriate to Johnny. The boy’s candle burned brightly, its flame enticing all who saw it. And now it seemed that candle would flicker no more.


The resulting darkness would devastate Johnny’s family. Sam knew he needed to prepare them, difficult though the task might prove. He took a deep breath and reluctantly pulled Murdoch and Scott aside.


“Despite everything we’ve done to lower his temperature, it’s still climbing. Johnny really should be showing some improvement by now. I know you don’t want to hear this, but it looks as though we failed to contain the infection. I’m so sorry.”





9 pm—approximately 16 hours after surgery…


Sam and Scott bathed Johnny’s fever-ravaged body with cool water, struggling to lower his critically high temperature. Sam had tried everything he knew to reduce the fever, including fanning the breeze from the open windows throughout the room and adding Baptisia tincture as an additional medication administered through the nasal tube. Yet the fever continued to burn through Johnny, leaching away his remaining reserves. The boy no longer had the strength to move beyond turning his head restlessly on the pillows.


The men caring for him found it increasingly difficult to watch Johnny’s torment. Earlier, Sam had forcibly ejected Murdoch from the room with orders to rest and eat. His real reason was to spare the man the anguish of seeing his son suffer through the horrors of the delirium that clutched him. The doctor noticed the distress on Scott’s face and decided he’d had enough for the time being, as well.


“Scott, I want you to join your father downstairs. You need to eat and get some rest. I can manage here.”


“NO! I…I can’t leave him, Sam. Johnny needs me,” Scott insisted, glaring at Sam like a defiant child.


“Yes, he does. And he’s going to need you even more as time goes on. That means you will have to be strong, both physically and emotionally, in order to get through the next few days. That won’t be possible if you don’t make yourself take the time to eat and rest. Now please, for Johnny’s sake, go downstairs, have something to eat, and take a nap.” Sam pointed toward the door. “Go on. I’ll let you know if there is any change.”


Scott wanted to protest, but he knew that Sam was right. He sat on the edge of the bed next to Johnny and ran his fingers through his brother’s sweat-soaked hair. “I’m going downstairs for awhile, Johnny. I don’t want to go, but Sam’s got that ‘don’t argue with me, boy’ look on his face—you know, the one he always uses on you. So as soon as I’ve eaten, I’ll be back. You hang on, little brother. Keep fighting, okay?”


Sam watched as Scott left the room, then turned his attention back to the youngest Lancer. Wearily, he sat beside Johnny and sponged his face with cool water. “Don’t worry, Johnny, I’ll get your father and brother through this. And, God willing, I’ll get you through it, too.”



Scott trudged into the kitchen, shoulders bowed with dejection. He found Jelly and his father slumped at the table, their meals untouched. Murdoch glanced up at his elder son and Scott felt a lump form in his throat. Had his father been weeping?


“How is he, Scott?” Jelly could read the answer in Scott’s drooping posture.


“No improvement, I’m afraid. He’s still delirious. Murdoch, what about Teresa? She’d want to be here.” Scott pulled up a chair and poured himself a cup of coffee.


“I’ve sent Cipriano to bring her home, son. I wish she was here now. I wish…I wish she had never been away. If Teresa had been here, she’d have put a stop to Johnny’s nonsense. It would have never gotten to this point.” Murdoch slammed a fist onto the table. “What the hell was that foolish boy thinking?”


The worry and frustration of the previous day caught up with him and Murdoch’s fears exploded into irrational fury. Scott and Jelly drew back in shock as Murdoch thrust himself away from the table, kicking aside the overturned chair and pacing the length of the kitchen with agitated strides. Snatching a cup from the table, he flung it against the wall, shattering it to bits.


“Why the hell is he always so damned independent?” Murdoch rubbed his eyes with both hands and his entire body quivered with exhaustion and emotion. “If only I’d known he was sick….” A wave of guilt swept over him and ignited an even hotter rage. He rounded wrathfully on Scott and Jelly, stalking back to the table and towering above them.


“But you two…,” Murdoch pointed at Scott and Jelly, bellowing at the top of his lungs. “Both of you knew Johnny was ill. Why did you ignore it? You know what he’s like. Why didn’t you do something…anything? Why didn’t you at least tell me--”


That was too much for Scott. He sprang to his feet and squared up to his raging father, his own face tinged red with anger. “Tell you? Why the hell should we have to tell you anything? You’re Johnny’s father.” Scott gestured vehemently, his finger jabbing into Murdoch’s chest and his voice rising with each point. “Why didn’t YOU see? Why didn’t YOU know? Why couldn’t he tell YOU?”


Scott froze as he realized that he and Murdoch were yelling at each other when they should be supporting one another. He held up his hands and backed away, sinking down into his chair. “For God’s sake, Murdoch, he’s my brother and I love him. I didn’t want this to happen. I tried, Jelly and I both tried. And we all failed him—again.” Scott fought back a sudden rush of tears and hung his head.


The anger flowed out of Murdoch as suddenly as it had arrived, leaving him weak with self-loathing as he stared at his son’s bowed head.


Now I’ve made Scott hang his head just like I made Johnny hang his…


He stepped quickly to Scott’s side, big hands reaching out to grip his son’s shaking shoulders. “I’m sorry, Scott. I don’t know why I said that. I didn’t mean it. I know that you and Jelly did all you could. And you’re right. You shouldn’t have had to tell me. I should’ve seen it myself. Johnny’s so used to looking after himself…too proud to admit he needs help. And he was afraid to let me know there was anything wrong with him. No Scott, you didn’t fail Johnny. I did.”


Jelly stood and faced both men, hands on hips. “Oughta be ashamed, the two of ya, bellerin’ like a couple of fresh-cut bulls. Stop it right now or I’ll kick ya both so far it’ll take a bloodhound six weeks just to find yer smell.” He glowered at the two Lancer men.


“It would tear that boy apart if’n he heard the pair of ya blamin’ each other, blamin’ yerselves. Johnny loves ya both, he just don’t know how to let you love him. But he’ll learn. He’s tryin’ and you gotta allow him his mistakes. Now, I’m gonna go help Doc.  You two best talk it through. Get it settled now so’s yer there for Johnny later—both of you…together.” He turned on his heel and stomped out of the room.


Murdoch watched Jelly’s receding back and silently thanked the older man for his wise words. The Lancers were lucky to have a friend like Jelly Hoskins.


Scott’s head remained bowed, eyes locked on his clenched hands, and Murdoch’s heart ached to reassure his son. He couldn’t promise Johnny’s recovery, but he could try and say some of the things Scott needed to hear from his father. His older son still needed his father just like the boy upstairs and Murdoch swore again to be that father.


He slapped Scott on the back. “Well, son, I think we’ve just been well and truly told off.”


Scott lifted his head at that, the corners of his mouth twitching. “Well and truly, sir, and by a master.”


“Yes, he is a master—and full of good advice. Why don’t we go sit by the fire for a while? I know I could use a drink.”


“That sounds good to me, too.” Scott rose to his feet and wearily followed his father to the great room.



“Scott, I’m sorry. I should never have turned my anger on you.” Murdoch handed his son a glass of scotch and settled himself on the sofa beside him. “I know you love your brother, and I know it’s your love that kept Johnny here. You gained his trust and you helped him close doors on things that needed shutting away and open other doors. You haven’t failed Johnny, son.” Murdoch gripped Scott’s shoulder.


“Jelly’s right—Johnny just doesn’t know how to let us love him, but he will learn. He’ll learn to turn to us and depend on us and eventually he’ll find himself asking for help whenever he needs it. I’m going to make damned sure of that. I’ve let Johnny down for the last time.”


Scott stared at his father. At least, he thought it was his father. This man looked like Murdoch, but Scott had never heard Murdoch talk about Johnny with such understanding and caring in his voice. He’d certainly never heard his father use the words “love” and “Johnny” in the same sentence. Scott cocked his head and studied the man beside him.


“What is it, son?”


Scott took a sip of his whisky. Ah, yes, the good stuff. “It’s just that the last time I spoke with you about Johnny, you were calling a different tune.”


Murdoch sighed. “I gave you my word that I’d talk to Johnny. I meant it.” He swirled the whisky in his glass, staring at the reflections of the firelight in the amber liquid.


“I had a feeling that something had happened between the two of you. I noticed the difference in the way you interacted upstairs.” Scott lifted his glass as though making a toast. “It was nice to see.”


Murdoch cleared his throat and looked toward the fire. “I was afraid to talk to that boy, Scott. I don’t know why, but I was. You, Jelly, Pete, Tommy, and even Sam—all of you helped me see that I needed to do it.” He felt the need for a dose of courage and sipped on his malt.


“Last night, Johnny and I talked—really talked. He told me about Maria and Pablo.” Murdoch took another sip of whisky. “God knows it wasn’t easy for either of us, but we got through it together.”


“You told me Johnny was afraid that I’d reject him if he confided in me.” Murdoch ran a hand through his hair. “I didn’t want to believe that; but you were right, Scott.  My own son was too afraid to ask me for help, scared I’d turn on him, turn him away. That boy didn’t think he could trust his own father. I guess he had reason to feel that way.” He held up his hand, his fingers measuring a gap of approximately four inches. “I felt about that tall.”


Scott gripped Murdoch’s forearm. “One of the things I admire about you, sir, is your willingness to persevere. You don’t back away just because the going gets tough.”


Murdoch met Scott’s eyes. “Thank you, Scott. I guess it’s a good thing that I’m willing to persevere. You warned me. You told me that listening to Johnny would be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. You were right.” Murdoch took a gulp of his whisky.


“Scott, I need to talk about what Johnny told me—about how it affected me. You’re the only one who will understand because he’s shared these things with you. And you and I think alike, so I’m guessing that you might have a few things you want to say about it, too.”


Scott was stunned at his father’s request. This was not the Murdoch he had left only a day or so ago—the Murdoch who hid his feelings and kept his emotions in check. This Murdoch seemed to genuinely want to be a father. This Murdoch had fallen under Prince Charming’s spell. Scott knew that sensation. He felt a wave of relief flow through him. He’d prayed that his brother and father would learn to communicate with each other and admit that they cared.  Now it appeared that his prayers had been answered.


He needed to talk to Murdoch, too, discuss the rage that coursed through his veins whenever he thought of his brother’s years of pain and heartache. He’d had no one he could share his sense of helplessness and frustration with before. Now he could talk about it with Murdoch. They did think alike.


Scott rose from his seat and walked over to the decanter. He carried it back to the sofa, holding the cut crystal up to the light. “I think we can both use more of this.” He poured a refill for both of them.


“I’m glad that you and Johnny were able to talk, sir. And I understand how hard it was to listen to what he had to say. Like you, I’m appalled at what Johnny went through. I welcome the opportunity to talk about it with you. I think that might help both of us.” He held up his glass in another toast. “You go first—age before beauty.”


Murdoch tapped his glass against Scott’s. “Remind me to make sure Sam removes your sassy bone if you ever need surgery.” The two of them shared a much-needed chuckle before Murdoch’s face grew serious again.


“I…I can’t bear to think about it, Scott, but I can’t get the images out of my head. I keep seeing my eleven year old son standing over his mother’s body, forced to shoot her murderer before that man killed him. I see that boy compelled to watch the horrific slaughter of a man he loved, a man who willingly took my place and loved my boy when I wasn’t there to do it. And I see that boy forced to become a man before he ever had a chance to be a child. His mother expected him to earn enough money for them to live on. When he couldn’t, she sold her body and made him believe it was his fault.” 


Murdoch rested his forehead in his hand and Scott felt a lump form in his throat. He’d never seen his father like this and it hurt to see him in so much pain. He didn’t know what else to do so he filled his father’s glass again. Murdoch looked at the full glass and took a healthy gulp.


“I’ve loved Maria for all these years. Oh, I was angry and bitter about how she left me and especially about how she took Johnny. But beneath it all, I still loved her. Now, I don’t know how I feel. Part of me still loves her, but another part hates her for what she put Johnny through.” Murdoch leaped to his feet and began to pace back and forth in front of the fire.


“She took my son—MY son—from me. I loved him and I wanted him, but she took him. I suppose she loved him in her own way, but I don’t understand how she could let those men who kept her, who used her…. Murdoch paused to pick up a bundle of the same kindling he’d asked Johnny to break the previous evening. He began methodically snapping each twig into tiny pieces.


“Scott, she stood by while they called him all those filthy names, she stood and watched as they beat my son…. How could she? If she really loved him, how could she let that happen to him?


“He…he says that she tried to protect him, tried to stop them. But she should never have put him in that situation. The border! Scott, do you have any idea how dangerous it is? From San Diego to El Paso, the only place anywhere near as dangerous is Indian Territory between Texas and Kansas—wild, lawless, a haven for every kind of scum. What was she thinking to try and live there? A woman without the protection of a man and with a child—a child of mixed heritage.”


Murdoch flung the remaining kindling into the fire. “I don’t understand how he can still love her, but he does. I don’t want to change that, but I can’t forgive what she did. I never will.”


He halted in front of the fire and leaned against the mantle, gesturing to make his points. “Johnny should have grown up here with me, slept in his own bed, ate at that table, played out there. I wanted to bring you home, too, see the pair of you grow up together, safe and loved. But that…that…she took him into hell and left him to face it alone. She made damned sure that he wouldn’t try to come home to me. God only knows how he survived. By rights that boy should be dead.”


Murdoch bowed his head. “I let him down, Scott. He told me that I should have been there. He’s right—I wasn’t there when he needed me. I can’t believe he can forgive me for that, but he does.” Murdoch sank down onto the sofa and sipped on his whisky, needing its warmth.


Scott moved closer to his father, resting his arm along the back of the sofa and letting his fingers brush Murdoch’s shoulder. “Johnny knows you tried, sir, and knowing that is enough for him. He lived most of his life believing that you didn’t love or want him. Finding out that he was wrong—that you searched for him for the last eighteen years because you did want him—wiped out his anger. He knows you would have brought him home if you could, so in his mind there isn’t anything to forgive you for. Now he has to forgive himself for hating you without cause.” Scott swallowed hard, searching desperately for some way to comfort his father, but words failed him. He could only imagine the agony Murdoch was going through now.


“I couldn’t see past the pain Maria had caused me and I expected Johnny to leave, to hurt me like his mother did. You know, he looks just like her, but inside he’s not like her at all. I almost drove him away before I understood that. It took you, Jelly, Pete Adams, and Sam Jenkins to make me see what I was doing.” Murdoch stood up and began to pace again.


“I never asked Johnny about his mother. I never asked him about the bastards that took their anger out on him. I never asked him why he became a gunfighter. I never even asked him how he managed to stay alive. I wanted to know, but I couldn’t look him in the eye, Scott. I was afraid he’d see my guilt.


“Those first few days after you both came home he seemed so defiant, so insolent. I didn’t like what I saw. Johnny wasn’t the same boy I’d cradled in my arms and rocked to sleep. My little boy had been innocent, trusting, laughing, and so loving. But the boy that stood beside you that first day was so distant, so hard and cold. He was a mercenary, looking for a quick dollar. I didn’t know him, and I didn’t want to know him.


“He didn’t trust me, he didn’t trust anyone. He had good reason not to. He hated me then and he believed he had just cause for that hate. He’d built walls around himself and my actions forced him to build them higher. I’m his father—I should have knocked them down. He needed me, Scott. Even that first day, Johnny needed me to tell him that he was home and that I wanted him, but I didn’t.”


Murdoch shook his head and laughed bitterly. “Instead, I told him that I didn’t know what to think of him. I let him believe that I thought he’d thrown in with Pardee and yet he almost died for me. But I still didn’t accept him and he knew that. Could I have hurt him any more?”


Scott watched his father, aching for the pain etched in every line of the man’s body. He’d learned in the war that misery has a way of stripping all vestiges of power, control, and self-assurance. Murdoch didn’t look like the larger-than-life rancher who’d carved an empire with his own hands. At this moment, he was just another sad man about to suffer a bottomless loss. Scott stood and placed his arm around Murdoch’s shoulder, leading him back to the sofa.


“Last night I told Johnny I loved him, that I was proud of him. It was so easy to say. Why couldn’t I have said it before? I was so wrapped up in my own hurt, in saving my pride. Because of my damned pride, my son is lying up there trying not to die. And all because I was too proud to tell him how much I loved him.” Murdoch drew a shaky breath and took another substantial gulp of whisky.


“Sir, the important thing is that you did tell him. I know how much hearing it meant to Johnny.”


“Yes. I could tell that it meant a lot to him. Knowing that makes it even harder to think about how long it took me to say it to him.” Murdoch bit his lip and took a deep breath. He studied Scott’s face. “Yes, well, ‘Age’ has had his say. Now, Beauty, it’s your turn.”


Scott smiled at his father and took several moments to gather his thoughts. “Sometimes when I’m with Johnny, I’m ashamed of the life I had growing up. I never went hungry; I was never scared or cold. No one ever raised a hand or a belt to me. I had all of the advantages of Grandfather’s wealth and position. Yet Johnny doesn’t begrudge me a single minute of what I had. Instead, he’s grateful that I didn’t have to experience what he did. I swear, Murdoch, if I could, I’d go back in time and take his place.” He met Murdoch’s level gaze. “But I don’t think I could’ve survived what he lived through.”


Scott paused for a fortifying gulp of whisky. “I can understand a little of how you feel about Maria. I hate what she did to my brother. I can’t tell Johnny that, but you understand that hate, don’t you, Murdoch? Every ugly, hurt-filled moment of his life is because of what she did, but he loves her in spite of it. I can’t understand that, either.


“Earlier, I was thinking about when we were all together for the first time. I didn’t know what to think of Johnny, either. No, he didn’t trust anyone then, but he wanted to trust you, Murdoch. He tried to hide it, but I knew.


“Johnny has every bit of the stubborn pride that you do. He learned early on how to take care of himself, found out the hard way that he couldn’t depend on anyone else. My first taste of his bulldog independence came after the gun battle with Pardee’s men. Even with a bullet in his back, he was determined to make it on his own. He told me, ‘I can make it.’ And he tried. Carrying him back to you, watching you dig that bullet out of him…it scared me…and I wasn’t prepared for that. I guess that’s when I really accepted that he was my brother. I knew he needed me so I promised myself that I’d knock down his walls. That hasn’t been easy, but we made it.”


Scott took Murdoch’s hand and met his eyes. “I don’t care what Sam says, we’re not going to give up. Johnny’s entire life has been an uphill battle, a struggle against the odds. He’ll beat this—he has too. We love him and that love will keep him here. Johnny will fight for us, Murdoch, you know he will.”


“Scott, Johnny told me he was afraid of dying, of leaving our love behind. He’s scared his past will reach out to claim his soul—he believes death is skulking in the corner to take him. I don’t want him to think he’s going to be all alone again.” Murdoch squeezed Scott’s hand.


“We have to face the fact that he might…d…die, for his sake. If the worst happens, if he continues to deteriorate, he’s going to need us more than ever. Scott, I don’t want him fighting to hold on because he’s too scared to let go. I want that boy to finally know some peace.” He shook his head. “I’m not giving up, son. I’m not ready to let Johnny go.”


“That’s the way I feel. I’ll go up and sit with him now. Do you mind, sir, just the two of us?”


“No, son. Now you just have to convince Sam. And please send Jelly down. I owe him an apology and I’d like to get that said.”


“I will.” Scott started to rise, but Murdoch didn’t release his hand and pulled him back down.


“Son, I…well, I just want you to know that I love you.”


“I feel the same way, Murdoch. Thank you for telling me and for sharing what talking with Johnny was like for you. It made me feel better.” Scott stood up and stretched. “Why don’t you take a nap? If you don’t, you’re liable to hear one of Sam’s lectures.”


Scott headed for the stairs, smiling as he considered the changes he’d witnessed in his father. Murdoch might be stubborn, but he was a man who wanted to do the right thing. And the man finally understood that the right thing meant dropping his pretense and armor and admitting he wanted and needed his younger son. Scott prayed that Murdoch and Johnny hadn’t waited too long to begin building a relationship.


Please, Lord, don’t let it be too late. My father couldn’t stand to lose Johnny. I know I can’t.




11 pm—approximately 18 hours after surgery…


Jelly absently fingered the rubber sheet covering the bed as he watched Dr. Jenkins carefully wrap Johnny from chin to toes in a wet bed sheet. He stared at the end result and shuddered. “Lordy, Johnny looks like one of them mummy fellers ya showed us in that book, Scott.”


“Help me layer this ice over him,” Sam barked at the three men. He began applying a thick layer of ice over the wet sheet as Jelly, Murdoch, and Scott stepped forward to help him.


“I haven’t seen this done before, Sam. Don’t you normally use an ice bath when a fever gets as high as Johnny’s?” Murdoch spread a layer of ice over Johnny’s legs.


“Yes, and I’d use that treatment now if Johnny didn’t have that tube in his side or the incision. Since he does, I believe this method will be safer.”  The doctor had carefully protected the area over the incision and drainage tube before wrapping Johnny in the sheet. “Here, Jelly, add a bit more ice over his chest and shoulders. Good. Get a blanket ready, Scott.”


“I don’t understand why we’re putting a blanket on top of the ice.” Scott stood ready with the heavy Indian blanket.


“It will hold the cold in, giving Johnny the most benefit from the treatment. We’ll put this other rubber sheet over the ice and layer the blanket on top of that. The two rubber sheets capture most of the cold and the blanket seals it in. If this cold pack treatment doesn’t bring his temperature down, nothing will.” Sam surveyed the finished ice layer and nodded. “Let’s get that rubber sheet over him.”


Jelly moved forward to help Murdoch spread the rubber sheet over the mound of ice. Sam tucked it underneath Johnny’s body, cocooning him in an insulated sack of ice. “Now, cover him with the blanket, Scott.”


Murdoch watched as Scott carefully smoothed the blanket over his brother’s still form. Johnny was completely encased in ice, only his head protruding above the blanket. Jelly was right; he did resemble an Egyptian mummy. “How long does he have to stay wrapped up like that, Sam? He’s shivering already.”


“I’m going keep him packed in ice for thirty minutes. Yes, he is shivering, but he had chills even before we started.” He faced the Lancer family, drawing himself to his full height. 


“All of you listen to me. This isn’t going to be comfortable for Johnny. It won’t be easy to watch, but I haven’t been able to reduce his fever any other way. If his temperature gets much higher, he’ll go into convulsions and even if we later control the fever, his brain might be damaged. We simply have to get that fever down.


“Now, we won’t know anything until the treatment is complete, so it’s time for you three to get some rest. All day I’ve urged each of you to rest and you’ve ignored me. I know you’re worried sick about Johnny, but he needs a lot of care and you won’t be able to provide that if you’re exhausted.


“Murdoch, you haven’t slept in…I don’t know how long, but I do know it’s been too long. I want you to take a nap—preferably in your room where you won’t be disturbed. Jelly, you and Scott need to get off of your feet and sleep if you can.”


Sam held up both hands to cut off their protests. “Quiet! All of you get out of here, right now! Go on. I’ll call if there is any change. Murdoch, I’m serious about you going to your room and resting. I’ll sedate you if I have to.” He herded the muttering group of men to the door and closed it firmly behind them.


The doctor turned and looked at his patient who shivered in his wrapping of ice. There was simply no way he could put the boy’s family through the torture of watching this treatment.  He walked back to the bed and sat down in the chair, brushing Johnny’s hair back from his face. Noticing the cracked lips, Sam prepared a glycerin solution and used it to gently moisten Johnny’s lips, tongue, gums, and outer nostrils.


“Hang on, Johnny. I know this isn’t very comfortable, but I’m hoping you’ll feel better when it’s over. I’ve got to get you cooled down. Just keep breathing, boy.”



Scott and Jelly lounged in the great room, both too troubled to retire to bed. Jelly watched the young man sprawled on the sofa. He recognized the signs of self-recrimination on the handsome face and wished there were words to alleviate Scott’s pain. The silence between the men was comfortable, the guilt they both felt an unspoken bond.


Jelly pondered the differences between the Lancer brothers as he kept an eye on Scott. Both boys had hearts as straight as a rifle barrel and the daring and courage to stand up for what they believed in. Yet their temperaments were dissimilar. Where Johnny could, and usually did, spit fire at the drop of a hat, Scott simmered invisibly, slowly reaching the point where he would finally unleash his ire on an unsuspecting world. Once roused, Scott’s anger was every bit as intense as Johnny’s.


Pushing Scott to talk when he didn’t want to was a surefire recipe to light his fuse, so Jelly opted to bide his time. He knew that if he waited patiently, Scott would talk when he was ready—unlike Johnny, the oyster, whose shell had to be forcibly pried open. He marveled at how relaxed Scott appeared, eyes staring unfocused into the fire and hands resting quietly on his thighs. A stranger might think he was daydreaming, but Jelly knew that the furrowed brow and the periodically clenched jaw meant that Scott’s thoughts weren’t pleasant. If their positions were reversed, Johnny would be pacing like a caged tiger, his restless hands picking up and handling every object within reach that wasn’t nailed down.


Jelly’s patience finally paid off as the younger man’s eyes met his. Scott leaned back against the cushions and shook his head wryly. His voice remained calm, but his eyes flashed with anger.


“Part of me wants to knock him into next week for letting this happen. All he had to do was ride over to see Sam, but no, not my brother—that would be too easy!”


Jelly managed a lopsided smile. “Johnny don’t know the meanin’ of easy…ain’t never had it so. Heard it said that if’n there’s a hard way, Johnny’ll find it.” The grin quickly faded as he realized the bitter truth of those words. “That boy don’t deserve this, life’s punished him enough.” Jelly bowed his head in despair.


“Life and every other damned thing that ever crossed his path.” Scott’s anger boiled higher. “Why? I keep asking myself why and how. How could I ride away knowing he was ill?” Scott began twisting one of the buttons on his shirt. “Johnny told me once that he trusted me with his life. Well, the first opportunity I had to prove his trust was justified, I walked away and left him alone.”


Jelly walked over to the couch and sat down next to Scott. “Scott, that just ain’t fair. Johnny went outta his way to hide it. Now, he ain’t a kid and he shoulda knowed better. And if’n we’d a knowed what was really goin’ on, we’d a had him under Sam’s nose quicker’n he can draw that gun of his.” Jelly’s hand stole to his whiskers, pulling them.


“Your Dad said he was askin’ for Sam. Well, he musta knowed then he was in trouble. If’n we’d ignored him when he was actually askin’ for help, well, then we could blame ourselves. As it is, I reckon we got enough misery on our plates without pourin’ on some more.” Jelly paused and squeezed Scott’s shoulder.


“We’re all responsible for carin’ about Johnny, but we ain’t responsible for his decisions. Like I done told you, we gotta admit he made the wrong one this time. And we gotta forgive him for bein’ wrong and forgive ourselves for lettin’ him make that mistake.


“I know yer beatin’ yerself up about it—I am, too. Sometimes, seems like doin’ that makes you feel better, and not doin’ it is about as easy as trimmin’ the whiskers offa the man in the moon. But ya can’t let it go too long, Scott. Then it turns to bitterness and that’s a stinger of venom to yer soul. Johnny wouldn’t want that; he’d hate seein’ you caught in yer own loop. Don’t hurt him by hurtin’ yerself.”


Scott sat silently, his inner turmoil evident in his distracted twisting of the button. The thread holding it to the shirt broke with an audible pop and Jelly and Scott both jumped as the button flew across the room. Each man covered his actions with a nervous laugh.


“I’d better hold on to this. Teresa won’t be amused if I lose it.” Scott scrambled after the button and retrieved it. He returned to the couch and turned to Jelly. “You’re right, Jelly. Johnny wouldn’t want any one of us to hold ourselves responsible—and that includes you. That stinger full of venom will wither your soul, too, if you let it.” He stretched his back muscles, groaning as they protested.


Their eyes met again and Scott forced a smile. “Johnny charmed us both, as always, and we fell for it, as always. And that’s the only thing we’re guilty of. He told Tommy that he was the brother who got all the charm and as much as I hate to admit it, he does have more than his fair share. And if you tell him I said that, I’ll swear you’re lying. He knows how to use that charm, too.”


Jelly nodded. “He spreads it on thick and then stands back and waits for us to take a bite.”


“And we do it every time.”


“Every time.” Jelly became serious again. “That boy’s been grabbin’ the brandin’ iron by the hot end his whole life. He likes takin’ them chances. Do it often enough and yer bound to git burnt. Reckon we all got a mite singed this time.”


“Yes, we did. And I promise you that Johnny’s ears will be more than singed. I plan to blister them off of his head—as you’d say, Jelly.”


“Well, he sure ‘nuff deserves it. I hope ya get on him like a duck on a June bug. If’n ya don’t, I plan to. May do it anyhow. Sometimes that boy ain’t got the sense to spit downwind.”


“It wouldn’t hurt him to hear it from both of us.”


The men sat in companionable silence for several moments, planning in loving detail the exact words they wanted to say to Johnny on this subject. Scott broke the mood, meeting Jelly’s eyes as his face twisted with fear.


“I…I hope we get the chance, Jelly. He’s so sick…” Scott swallowed hard.


Jelly shook Scott’s forearm. “He’s weaker’n a dragged cat, but Johnny ain’t played his last card yet. He’s got his hat pulled to a fightin’ angle and it’s up to us to keep it that way. Don’t you holler calf rope on me, Scott.”


“You mean don’t give up? No, I’m not giving up, Jelly. I just…” Scott couldn’t continue and he bowed his head, fighting back tears of frustration and exhaustion.


Jelly moved closer and slipped his arm around Scott’s shoulders. “Reckon yer plumb wore out. Time you laid down in yer own bed and caught some shut eye.”


“I’m not going anywhere until Doc lets us know how that cold pack treatment worked.”


“It worked as well as could be expected.” Sam walked into the room.


Scott and Jelly scrambled to their feet and hurried toward him.


“His temperature is lower now so the treatment bought us some more time.” Sam poured himself a small glass of brandy and tossed it off in one swallow. He glanced around the room. “I see that Murdoch listened to me, for once. Jelly’s right, Scott—you need to sleep. I plan on doing that myself. Jelly, you sit with Johnny. Keep fighting that fever. Maria is with him now, mopping up. I’ve just medicated him so you’ll need to give him another dose of both Cone Flower and Aconite in two hours. Wake me in three hours—sooner if you need help.”


“Sure thing, Doc.” Jelly started for the stairs.


Scott grasped his arm. “Wait, Jelly. I’ll sit with him.”


“No you won’t. You are going straight to bed, young man.” Sam pointed at the stairs. “Now march.”


Scott sighed, but he knew better than to argue when Sam got that expression on his face. He rolled his eyes at Jelly. “I’m marching.”


Jelly followed the two men up the stairs, thankful that the doctor had Scott in hand and would see to it that the young man got some much-needed rest. That left him free to focus all of his attention on Johnny. He paused in the doorway to observe the boy on the bed. At least Johnny seemed quieter, but that stillness sent a shiver of eerie foreboding along Jelly’s spine. His elbows began to ache.


Maria stood, relinquishing the bedside chair as Jelly searched her face for any hint of her thoughts. Her eyes met his, the two exchanging silent vows to do everything in their power to help Johnny.


“You reckon Doc’s ice pack worked, Maria?”


“He is cooler. Now we must keep him so.” Maria gathered the mop and bucket, preparing to leave Jelly alone with Johnny.


“Would you bring me some water in a basin with soap? I reckon our boy here might like a bath. I’ll tidy him up a bit.”


“Si, it will do him good. I will bring it and more hot water for the poultices.”


“Thanks.” Jelly settled onto the chair next to the sickbed as Maria hurried out to prepare the bath water.


Jelly confirmed that Johnny did indeed feel cooler by laying a hand on his forehead. “Yessir, Doc was right. Reckon bein’ a mummy in alla that ice done ya some good.” He wrung the cold water from the cloth in the basin and methodically sponged Johnny’s face and body.


“Nuthin’s gonna happen to you, Johnny. Ol’ Jelly’s here. I’ll make it right.” He lifted Johnny’s limp hand. “Yer dad and brother are plumb eat up worryin’ about ya and it can’t go on much longer. Time for you and me to have us a powwow.”





“Yessir, we gonna do us some jawin’, Johnny. Well, reckon that ain’t quite true. I’m as fulla wind as a horse with colic, so I’m gonna do the talkin’ and yer gonna listen to me for a change.” Johnny’s hand lay limply in his and Jelly carefully arranged it on the quilt.


“Maria brung us some soap and water so I reckon it’s bath day. I’ll just tidy you up while I’m yappin’ at ya.” He lathered a clean rag and soaped Johnny’s shoulders and chest.


“I hope yer restin’ that stubborn determination of yers along with yer eyes, boy, ‘cause yer gonna need it. You got a long hard fight ahead of ya. It ain’t the first, I know, but it’s more’n likely the hardest.” He held Johnny’s right arm up at a slight angle, gently wiping it down with the soapy cloth. “You just gotta get that hard head of yers around the problem. You can do that, can’t you Johnny? You ain’t never passed up a fight yet.


“I know what this place and these people mean to you. Ain’t no way yer gonna let it all slip through yer fingers—not after all them years you spent alone and driftin’.” He focused on Johnny’s thighs and legs, afraid to scrub hard, but needing to feel that he was somehow helping his friend. The boy had the legs of a horseman—someone who’d spent hours in the saddle—with well-defined muscles in the backs of his thighs, inner thighs, and calves.


“You finally come home and found Lancer’s heart beats in time with yer own. I seen the way you look at this land and I heard yer voice when ya talk about it. You love this place nigh as much as yer Dad does.” Jelly worked his way up Johnny’s left side, meticulously swabbing him with the soapy rag.


“You best be listenin’ to me, Johnny Lancer.” He paused to pull a basin of clean water forward and began retracing his journey with the rag to rinse the soap from Johnny’s still body. “There’s lotsa folks waitin’ on you to get well, so get on with it, will ya? Folks is worried sick—not that that’s anything new as far as yer concerned.”


He lingered over the young man’s left hand—the hand of a gunman, with tough calluses on the palm from fanning the hammer and steely muscles in the wrist and forearm. “You sure got a real knack of catchin’ a dose of trouble, even with yer eyes closed. Scott says that trouble is your middle name, but I think—and your Dad would agree with me—it oughta been yer first.”


Jelly cared for Johnny as tenderly as though he were a newborn baby, keeping the touch of the cloth against his body as soft as the kiss of a butterfly. The older man’s chin quivered slightly and he focused his entire attention on completing his task.  “Trust you to need one a them fancy operations. Mighta  knowed yer innerds was as ornery as the rest of ya! Don’t never do things by half do ya, boy? You couldn’t just have a little ol’ touchy ‘pendix. No sir, Johnny Lancer had him a sassy one that went and busted. Reckon that don’t surprise me none.”


Jelly darted to the dresser and picked up a comb. “I remember the first time I set eyes on Johnny Lancer. I come back to that old shack where my boys was waitin’ for me and asked ‘em if there was any trouble while I was gone. Then you piped up, ‘Just me.’” He paused when he noticed Johnny’s spurs and carried them back to the bed with him. “I took one look at ya and knowed you was trouble. And I was right, as usual.”


“Reckon I give ya a hard time, but I didn’t know then that you knew more ‘bout my boys than I ever could ‘cause you was a lost boy just like ‘em once.” Jelly began combing Johnny’s tangled hair using the same tender touch he’d demonstrated during the bath. “Sure wish I’d been around to help you when you needed it. But you didn’t have nobody’s help, so ya just figured out how to make it on yer own. You don’t gotta do it alone no more, Johnny.


“You made sure my boys got some real good homes, hand-picked each new Ma and Pa yerself. Them boys all got a good life now ‘cause of you, Johnny. You saw to it that they had somethin’ you never did. Little Alice, she’s got you to thank for gettin’ her back with her Uncle Wilf and Miss Florida.” He lifted Johnny’s head and combed the hair in the back. “And Silas—ya saved him from that ol’ devil, Weir. Then there’s Tommy and that young ‘un got hisself a good father in Pete. You oughta be real proud of what ya done for ‘em ‘cause without you, them two mighta never got back together.”


Jelly set aside the comb and admired the results. “Now yer lookin’ right pretty. Oughta see yerself. If’n you’ll open yer eyes, I’ll fetch a mirror for ya.” He watched hopefully for any sign of waking, but Johnny didn’t respond. The linseed poultice on Johnny’s abdomen felt cool so Jelly exchanged it for another one Maria had left steeping in hot water.


“I wish you’d let yerself see all the good you done, boy, but yer blind to the fine man who carries the name of John Lancer. Life tried to beat the self worth outta ya. It threw you fists and cruel words to bruise yer soul with the kinda scars that never fade.” Jelly’s gaze fell on the holstered revolver hanging in its usual place on Johnny’s bedpost. He bent forward and hefted the gun. Johnny practiced safety with his firearms—the hammer rested on an empty chamber while the other five were loaded.


“Then there’s them things you done to survive. Learned to use this here gun, didn’t ya? You’re just too damn fast with it for yer own good. Reckon it kept you alive, but it sure made ya curse yerself. Ain’t many souls walkin’ that would condemn ya for what you done, exceptin’ you. Maybe a few more years here will help ya lay them ghosts to rest. You gotta start seein’ the man you really are and not the man yer scared ya are.”


He ran his finger down the oiled barrel, noticing the filed-off sight and the competent handiwork of the adjusted trigger action and hammer. The barrel had been shortened and the revolver was beautifully balanced in his hand. An illicit thrill ran through him at the thought that he held Johnny Madrid’s gun. The weapon seemed to pulse with a life of its own, trembling with stored energy and waiting to speak—and he was strangely attracted to it. Its walnut butt was worn and polished, but unmarred by any notches.


Exactly how many men have you faced down? How many of them fell after you spit death at them? You been with him a long time, ain’t you? He takes good care of you, but you return the favor. Lordy, listen at me talkin’ to a dern gun.


“This here gun ain’t you, boy. It’s cold steel and hard wood. But you, you got a soul as bright and warm and fresh as the sun on the first day of spring. And you got that ol’ haystack in yer heart, too. Wish ya could look at yerself that way.” Jelly couldn’t resist the temptation—the gun seemed to beg him to use it. He stood, aiming and firing at the door after assuring himself that the hammer would fall on an empty chamber. The hand-honed action made cocking the hammer and pulling the trigger as soft and smooth as squeezing your hand around a stick of butter and he stared at the gun in admiration.


“Yessir, Johnny, you got a heart soft as the action ya tinkered with on this here gun. I never told you this, but I seen Johnny Madrid before. It was about five years ago in Dodge City. You was just a kid, but you already had a reputation spreadin’ like a prairie fire. You saved that Marshal’s life, took a bullet for him in the bargain. Never seen nobody move that fast. Why you was faster’n a diamondback with a tarantula runnin’ up its backside. But my point is that you didn’t have to do what ya done. You risked yer life that day. I heard tell that Dillon feller done some powerful good in that town since. He wouldn’t be alive to do it if’n tweren’t for you. So everythin’ you done with this gun ain’t been bad, Johnny.”


Jelly reluctantly holstered the gun and began sponging Johnny’s body with cool water to keep the fever at bay. He studied the closed lids for any sign of awareness, but Johnny’s dark lashes lay unmoving against his pale face. “Now, Johnny, anytime ya wanna tell me to tighten the latigo on my jaw, you just speak out.” There was still no sign that Johnny could hear him. “Reckon that means you want me to keep a jabberin’ at ya.


“You know that I planned on settlin’ down closer to my sister after I paid off my debt to yer Dad, but this place kinda grew on me. I could see Scott needed a hand to steady you and keep you in line. And yer Dad…well, he just didn’t know how to talk to you. His scars run pretty deep, too.” Jelly ran the tip of his finger over the scar from an old bullet wound on Johnny’s shoulder. “You was scared of lovin’ him, wasn’t ya, boy? You needed him too much and it scared you—spooked ya so bad you couldn’t let him know how you felt.”


Jelly pursed his lips and shook his head. “So many times I wanted to bang yer dadblasted heads together, tell ya both just what you was tossin’ away. And yer brother—reckon you and the Boss ain’t got no notion of how yer faunchin’ and fumin’ cuts him up. He looks calm, but he bleeds on the inside and when you and yer Dad get to fussin’, the pair of ya cut him deep. It wears on him, tryin’ to keep you two offa each other’s throats.”


“I’m hopin’ we might be over the worst of that. You finally opened up to yer Dad, didn’t ya? The pair of ya talked, I could see it plain as a new saloon in the church district.” Jelly paused to dab Teresa’s lavender water over Johnny’s pulse points.  “And he didn’t let you down, did he, Johnny? I knowed he’d come through if ya just gave him a chance. Reckon you each said some things needed sayin’. You both lost out on a lotta good years together, and if’n you’ll quit spittin’ on the handle and get to work helpin’ me fight this fever, you two can have some years to make up for that.”


Johnny’s exquisitely crafted spurs gleamed in the lamplight and Jelly picked one up, examining the cunning metalwork on the shanks and rowels. “Sure is a fine pair of spurs. I know yer right proud of ‘em. Cip told me ya had to earn ‘em, that them’s the spurs Pablo made for ya hisself when he decided you was good enough to be one of them mustañero fellers.” He spun the rowel. “Make pretty music, don’t they? Wish you’d wake up and look at ‘em. Yer gonna need ‘em to ride ol’ Smoky. He’s getting’ right sassy without you workin’ him.


“He’s a fine one, all right. You got a good eye, boy.  Scott’s gonna need that sharp eye to help with breedin’ that colt. Yer brother’s a real judge of them thoroughbreds, but—now don’t you go tellin’ him I said this—his eye ain’t quite as keen as yers when it comes to cowponies.”


Jelly kept spinning the spur rowel, remembering all of the times he’d watched Johnny do just that. “That brother of yers is as stubborn as you are. Onliest difference is he’s polite about it. He don’t know when to give up, either. When this thing gets too hard to fight, you can lean on him. He’s gonna be walkin’ alongside you every step of the way so if’n you stumble, he’ll be there to catch ya. Scott ain’t gonna let ya fall.”


He laid the spur aside and used Sam’s glycerin solution to moisten Johnny’s lips. “Sure wish you’d wake up and sass me. I…uh…I ain’t ever told nobody this before, so don’t ya go blabbin’ it. I nearly got myself married once—back when I still traveled like a colt. Pretty little thing she was, a free spirit like you. She had me cinched to the last hole. But I lost her to the influenza. Nobody never lit that fire in my soul again. Still think on her sometimes, dreamin’ what our sons woulda been like.”


Fear sliced through him at Johnny’s lack of response. He knew he shouldn’t expect one, but the boy’s stillness worried him. Jelly clasped Johnny’s hand, moving it up to the young man’s shoulder as his other hand caressed the back of the dark head. Jelly bent his head down so that his lips were close to Johnny’s ear and whispered, “I ain’t got boys of my own, but I reckon you know I kinda look on you as my boy. I…well, I reckon I…l…love you.” He dashed a hand across his eyes and straightened before dabbing the lavender water on Johnny’s temples and throat.


“I…well, I...where was I? Oh, yeah, no call for you to fret over Barranca. I been takin’ good care of him. He’s squealin’ and kickin’ up his heels, ready for a good run. Yer gonna have to kick the frost outta him afore ya ride him again.


“All this chin waggin’s makin’ me dry.” Jelly took a moment to exchange the poultices. “I can smell the coffee Maria’s got goin’ downstairs. Johnny, ya got poor Maria so catawampus, she’s bakin’ in the middle of the night.


“Mmm mmm. Sure smells like she’s cookin’ up a storm, too. Betcha she’s makin’ lotsa yer favorites. Course you ain’t up to eatin’ ‘em yet, so I’ll take care of that little chore for ya. I’m happy to do it so doncha go sayin’ I don’t never do nuthin’ for ya.


“Maria sure does fall over herself to please you. She’s got a real soft spot for that smile of yers, like most of them fillies you charm and chase. You ain’t roped yerself one yet, though.” Jelly used the glycerin solution to moisten the corners of Johnny’s eyes.


“Sets me to wonderin’ if you really try. Ya know, they ain’t all like yer Ma, Johnny, so you keep chasin’ ‘em, ‘cause one of these days the right one will let you get a rope on her. This here place needs new blood and the Boss wants to spoil his grandkids the way he never got to do with you or Scott.


“Teresa’s gonna fly the nest one of these days. Course she’ll need protectin’ from some of the galoots that might take a shine to her. You thought playin’ big brother to Tommy was hard, but just wait’ll yer playin’ big brother to a sister who’s got the whole state bangin’ on the door. Ain’t easy, I can tell ya. Learnt that with my sis. Gonna keep you and Scott busier’n ferrets at a rat hole.


“Oh, that reminds me. I sent word to Pete about you bein’ sick an all. I figure him and Tommy’ll be stoppin’ by to check on ya. Well, you know that kid—he’ll be pesterin’ you to open yer eyes and tell him a story. He sure likes yer stories. You know the stories I mean, Johnny—the ones about a dark haired Prince, his magician, and the Hope of the World. Only this time, the dark haired hero is in some kinda trouble and the magician’s magic don’t seem powerful enough to break the spell.”


Jelly took a deep breath and forced himself to change the dressing around the drainage tube. Sure was a lot of drainage. His heart seemed to freeze—was it thicker than before?


No. Ain’t gonna think like that. Just my ‘magination is all.


He squeezed Johnny’s slack hand and his voice trembled. “Our hero, well, he’s up against it this time. He’s real sick and it looks like he might…. Well, I ain’t gonna say it.” Jelly’s lips quivered as he stroked Johnny’s gaunt cheek.


“Gonna have to shave ya tomorrow, get you all tidy for Teresa. Tomorrow…. Johnny, them stories of yers always have a happy endin’. Don’t you go breakin’ that little Tommy’s heart and let our hero…d…die.”


Jelly turned his face from the bed and wiped tears from his whiskers. “We’re all countin’ on ya to give us a happy endin’, boy. Please don’t let us down.”




Pre-dawn…almost 24 hours after surgery…


“Well, Sam?” Murdoch prompted impatiently.


“Be quiet, Murdoch.” The doctor glared at him, gesturing for silence. He moved his stethoscope over Johnny’s abdomen, listening intently.


Scott laid a restraining hand on his father’s shoulder, understanding his frustration and anxiety. The previous forty-eight hours had drained the patience and tact from all three men, leaving raw nerves and short tempers. Scott fancied that he could actually feel the tension crackling through the air. He felt a sudden urge to escape, to leave behind all of the pain, hurt, anger, and fear that simmered below the surface, waiting to erupt should just one wrong word be said. Even the great hacienda seemed to hold her breath along with her inhabitants; waiting, hoping, and praying that death wouldn’t steal away her long lost, precious son.


After what seemed hours to Scott and Murdoch, Sam removed his stethoscope and stood up. They swarmed around him, but Sam deftly herded both men toward the chairs by the window.


“Sam?”  Scott’s voice begged.


“I believe that second cold pack treatment turned the corner on the fever. Johnny’s much cooler and his temperature isn’t rising again. I heard bowel sounds just now—they’re faint, but they’re there. The last time I listened, there were none. That means we can rule out peritonitis.”


Murdoch sagged with relief. “Thank the Lord.”


Scott’s eyes never left the doctor’s face. “That’s great news, Sam. So why do you still have that grim look on your face?”


Murdoch’s head snapped up. “Sam?”


“It’s a miracle that Johnny avoided peritonitis. Last night, I was afraid he’d developed it.” Sam rubbed his eyes. “But we’ve another set of problems now. I’m concerned about Johnny’s kidneys—they don’t appear to be functioning at all—and fighting the fever has taken everything that boy’s got. He’s so weak…. I’m going to start giving him fluids and pray that he’ll tolerate them. We’ve got to get him rehydrated.” He walked back to the bed, Scott and Murdoch on his heels, and drew a small portion of water into the syringe, instilling it into the nasal tube.


“What happens now, Sam?”


“More waiting, Scott. We have to continue fighting the fever—it’s no longer life-threatening, but it’s done its damage. Even combating a slight fever taxes the body’s resources and Johnny’s fever was dangerously high for hours. We need to help him with the remaining fever, keep medicating him with the Aconite and Cone Flower, and give him regular, small doses of fluids. If he can handle the fluids, we’ll introduce sugar water and some salt, and that will start building back his strength.”


“Sam, is Johnny…” Murdoch had to pause for a moment. “will he die?”


“Not if I can help it, Murdoch. The Lord knows he’s put up one hell of a fight to keep peritonitis at bay. If we can get him through the next twenty-four hours, we’ll be able to breathe again.” Sam gripped Murdoch’s shoulder. “We’re not out of the woods yet. We still have one very sick boy on our hands. He’s won the first battle, but the war isn’t over.”


“I understand.” Murdoch stepped forward and knelt by the bed, brushing his fingers through Johnny’s hair. His voice was shaky when he whispered, “You’re doing a fine job, son. I’m so proud of you. Please keep fighting for us, Johnny. We’re all here with you.”


Scott carefully measured a portion of water and injected it into the nasal tube. He stared at the foreign black rubber contraption; it looked so unnatural and he was uncomfortable even touching it. Yet according to Sam, this ugly snake-like tube might make the difference in Johnny’s survival. It allowed them to give him medicine and fluids while he was unconscious—without it, Johnny wouldn’t stand a chance. At least, his brother appeared to be tolerating the fluids and Sam was steadily increasing the amounts. Unfortunately, the doctor was gravely concerned about Johnny’s kidneys.


He dabbed lavender water on Johnny’s temples, the smell reminding him of Teresa. Scott wished she was here with them now. Johnny responded to Teresa and she was capable of comforting Murdoch. Scott’s heart ached for his father—the man had lost so much, a victim of cruel and twisted fate. To lose Johnny again would destroy him.


The thought of losing Johnny ripped through him so powerfully that Scott recoiled from his brother, terrified to touch him while such negative thoughts were uppermost in his mind. He strode to the window, leaning his head out into the cool night air and trying to decide how he would go on without his brother if the worst happened.


A closeness Scott had never thought possible existed between the two of them. Yes, they had the bond of flesh and blood, but there was so much more. Johnny was his best friend, a friend who’d taught him what it really meant to live every minute. The war had shown Scott the horrors of life. Johnny had shown him the true joys of living. His brother taught Scott how to be opened by life’s betrayals, to stand in the center of the fire, to laugh with unbridled joy, to find beauty even in the midst of ugliness, and to truly like the man he looked at in the mirror.


He needed his brother and more importantly, Johnny needed him—Scott’s trust, his faith, and more than anything else, his love. That desperate need had laid the unshakable foundation of Scott’s determination to keep this family together no matter what. He’d thrown himself into the breach between Johnny and Murdoch, mediating endless disputes. Now a different kind of force sought to destroy his family and Scott felt powerless to confront it. Question after question pounded through his head, but one haunted his soul: how could Lancer survive without Johnny?


A shooting star caught his attention and Scott stared up at the night sky. Even as a small boy, the heavens had fascinated him. Perhaps it was time to wish upon a star the way he’d done as a child. A wish on a shooting star was supposed to bring good luck. Every evening before his nanny, Emma, tucked him into bed, the two of them stared at the evening sky and recited the old rhyme, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight…”


Well, I have a wish. Please don’t let my brother die.


One of his most treasured gifts from his grandfather was the telescope he’d received for his eighth birthday. Yet with all of his knowledge of astronomy and the classical myths and lore surrounding it, he’d never appreciated the stars as much as he did after hearing Johnny talk about them with Tommy. Scott gazed upward, knowing that never again would he be able to look at the night sky without thinking of his brother.


The stars were faint now, grudgingly relinquishing their splendor to the onslaught of the dawn. The shooting star had disappeared and Scott’s breath caught painfully in his throat at the thought of the fading stars—their light dimming like the flicker of life in Johnny. A chill shook him as a favorite quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet flashed through his mind: “When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night, and pay no worship to the garish sun.”


Not yet, Johnny. Please, not yet.

Scott sat down on the edge of the bed and felt Johnny’s forehead. It was definitely cooler, at least they seemed to be defeating the fever. If Johnny could just hold on a little longer…


“Hey, little brother. I’m right here. You don’t have to fight it alone.” He wondered if Johnny could hear him and convinced himself that somehow, his brother heard and understood.


As he studied the vacant, gaunt face; Murdoch’s words preyed on his mind: “I want that boy to know some peace.” But Johnny’s sense of worthlessness kept his soul in constant turmoil.


Damn that padre who told you that your soul was black. He convinced you that he was right. But he lied, Johnny, he lied. You’re the finest man I know.


Scott clasped Johnny’s hand. “Johnny, no one could have tried harder to be a good man than you did. No man has ever walked the straight and narrow without tripping up. You have to look back and accept the mistakes you made for what they are—mistakes. We all make them and when you think of your mistakes, you must offset them by remembering all of good things you’ve done. You deserve forgiveness and peace as much as anyone.”


A sudden urge to write down his thoughts brought Scott to his feet. He stumbled to the table by the window and found pen and paper. The unbidden words came swiftly and Scott’s elegant hand flew across the page as he attempted to keep pace with his muse. But as the words flowed, so did the tears, leaving telltale blots on the page. He brushed his left hand across his eyes and continued writing, compelled to record his ideas.


The squeak of the door hinge distracted him and Scott glanced up to see Murdoch coming through the door. He didn’t understand why, but at the moment, he couldn’t bear to speak to his father. The quill fell from his suddenly nerveless fingers, he mumbled an inaudible excuse, and fled the room.


“Scott?” Murdoch reached out to his older son, but Scott turned his face away and brushed his father’s hand aside. An explanation for Scott’s behavior stole the breath from him and he stumbled to the bedside.


“Johnny?” His trembling hand found his son’s chest and Murdoch thought he might be sick with relief when he felt Johnny breathe. For several minutes he simply sat and reveled in the rise and fall of his boy’s chest, while he fought to control his own breathing. Gradually, the quaking left him to be replaced by curiosity. Johnny was no worse than he had been, so what had upset Scott? 


Murdoch walked over to the table where he’d seen Scott writing. A piece of paper lay on it and he picked it up, eyes widening as he read his son’s words.


For my brother:

Journey to Redemption


The path is long and narrow

With sharp thorns to tear our feet

Hills and valleys make harsh our journey

But we walk onward and carry the weak


Hope will lead the dreamers

Faith leads those who walk tall

Charity takes the hand of mercy

Love takes the hand of all


Some falter by the wayside

Some guide the blind and the lost

Some become judge and juror

Some defend right at incredible cost


The proud, the poor, and the rebellious

The wronged, the bad, and the good

The young, the old, and the innocent

The men who shed and spill life’s blood


Grace lights the way of the wanderer

And those who stay true to the path

The ones who seek redemption

Those who fear no wrath


Truth will be our compass

Peace our guiding star

Compassion a staff to lean on

Should the last step be too far


The path leads to a gateway

Where all shall enter in

The wanderer will find peace at last

Forgiven for all sin


Murdoch looked over at Johnny and whispered, “Grace lights the way of the wanderer and Grace finally brought you home to me, son.”


Please, God, don’t let Johnny take that last step. Not yet.


*Shakespeare quote from Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 2


Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
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