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.”
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
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.
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
“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
“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
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.
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.
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!”
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
“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
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.”
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
“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
“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
“What are you saying,
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
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?”
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,
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
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
“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.”
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
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
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…”
more. Just shadow…on my soul. It’s here…waitin’…take me…hell. I ain’t…bringer…no
more. Seen it…here...in corner. Waitin’…take…me. Don’t wanna…go…leave Scott…you…Jelly…Teresa….
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.
for me. Scott…gonna need…you.”
Johnny’s hands. “You’ll tell them yourself. Stop talking as though you’ve
given up. You’re going to fight this, remember?”
“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 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
“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
“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
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
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,
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.
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
“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
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
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’
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,
“No…” Murdoch’s voice
“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
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
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
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.”
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
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
“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
“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
“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.”
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.”
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’
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.
“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
“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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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?
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
“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.
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--”
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
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
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
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
“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
“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.”
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?”
“Okay. We’ll get
you some water. Then, I’m going to give you an injection to take care of
“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
“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.
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.”
“He’s still ornrier’n
a rat-tailed horse tied short at fly time. Doc musta missed his sassy bone.”
don’t…plan losin’…any more…my…anat…anat…what Sam…call it, Murdoch?”
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.”
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.”
“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.
Johnny’s hand. ”Please, son. You’re using up all the strength you have. Just
go to sleep. We won’t leave you.”
you…will you…tell Teresa…I love her…she sure…pretty…Scott gonna…have watch…
fellas…come a courtin’ her…”
“Johnny…” Scott interrupted.
“I know, brother.
Go to sleep now.”
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.
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
“NO! I…I can’t leave
him, Sam. Johnny needs me,” Scott insisted, glaring at Sam like a defiant
“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,
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.
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
“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
“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
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.
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
“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
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
“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
“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.
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
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
“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
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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
“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
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
“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
“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
“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
“What happens now,
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Faith leads those
who walk tall
the hand of mercy
Love takes the
hand of all
Some falter by
Some guide the
blind and the lost
Some become judge
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
Those who fear
Truth will be
Peace our guiding
Compassion a staff
to lean on
Should the last
step be too far
The path leads
to a gateway
Where all shall
The wanderer will
find peace at last
Forgiven for all
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.
quote from Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 2