Mid-morning…approximately 30 hours after surgery
Jelly shaded his
eyes against the morning sun, heaving a long sigh of relief as he made out
the silhouettes of the two riders loping beneath the arched gate. If anyone
could help the Boss through these next few trying days, it was Pete Adams.
Jelly had gained respect for Pete when he came to the ranch to take Tommy
home. He felt that Pete possessed a certain wisdom—the man made no bones
about stating the facts as he saw them and his eye seemed genuinely straight
and true. Pete had a knack of opening people up whether they liked it or
not—much like his son. He obviously had Murdoch’s measure and the Boss seemed
to think highly of Pete, too.
Murdoch had finally
talked with Johnny, and Jelly was certain Pete had steered the Boss in that
direction. As a father himself, Pete would understand the depth of Murdoch’s
fears and grief much better than Jelly ever could—no matter how much he loved
the younger Lancer son. Sending a message to Pete had been a spur of the
moment thing, and Jelly patted himself on the back for it. The Lancer patriarch
needed an understanding friend to turn to, even if he wouldn’t admit it.
Jelly believed Pete could be that friend.
The sight of Tommy
brought a lump to Jelly’s throat. The little boy adored Johnny and telling
the tyke that he might lose his best friend would be a heartbreaking task.
Tommy waved madly and urged his pony forward when he saw Jelly walk out of
the barn. Jelly forced a smile and swung Tommy out of the saddle and into
an embrace. The child hugged Jelly tightly and giggled helplessly as the
older man tickled him. When he finally caught his breath, he asked about
“Johnny’s very sick,
Tommy…” Jelly gave Pete a meaningful look and tousled Tommy’s hair. “I just
left Uncle M in the kitchen. Why doncha run along and surprise him. He’s
plumb worried about Johnny, so one of them hugs of yers will do him a world
Tommy looked up at
his father, who nodded his consent, and then sprinted toward the kitchen
“Jelly?” Pete stared
into the older man’s worried eyes and felt a surge of dread.
“Johnny’s awful sick,
Pete. Somethin’ inside him—reckon Doc called it an appendix—busted. Now the
boy’s fightin’ for his life and we’re all fightin’ to hold onto him. The
Boss…well, he needs a friend.” Jelly fought back tears.
Pete wrapped his
arm around Jelly. “Well, he’s got two here with him now, Jelly. Thanks for
Murdoch leaned his
elbows on the kitchen table and swallowed his coffee without registering
its taste. His mind and heart were in the room upstairs where his son seemed
to be losing ground in his battle to survive. Johnny was worse now and Murdoch
couldn’t bear to think of losing the boy. He’d sat with him throughout the
morning until Sam shooed him from the room about an hour ago, but he was
unable to sleep. At least Sam had gotten Scott into bed. He jumped when the
door banged open and a smile creased his solemn face at the sight of the excited
blond boy running toward him.
“Uncle M, Uncle M,”
Tommy squealed in delight as he threw himself into Murdoch’s arms.
“Well, hello, young
man. It’s good to see you.” Murdoch hugged the boy tightly, drawing comfort
from the child’s boundless love. Tommy’s warmth filled his soul while the
action of holding him close filled his mind with a precious memory of his
“I missed you, Uncle
M—and my brothers.” Tommy settled himself on Murdoch’s knee and snuggled
up, prompting another memory to sear a father’s heart.
“Pa said Johnny was
sick, so we come to wish him better. Can I see him now, Uncle M?”
Murdoch pulled the
boy close to him and sighed. “Johnny’s very sick, Tommy. The doctor’s with
him now. You can see him…later.”
Pete and Jelly walked
into the kitchen and Jelly held out his hand to Tommy. “C’mon, Tommy. Let’s
take us a look-see at ol’ Smoky.”
“Okay.” Tommy bounced
in excitement and turned big brown eyes back to Murdoch. “But I can see Johnny
later, can’t I, Uncle M?”
“I…yes, Tommy, you
can see Johnny later.”
Tommy nodded and
the smile faded from his face. He reluctantly followed Jelly toward the barn.
Uncle M looked so sad—sad about Johnny. He would have to talk to Pa about
what that might mean. Right now, he could see that his Pa wanted to talk to
Uncle M without him around.
Both men watched
the boy leave and Murdoch offered his hand to the younger man. Pete was shocked
at the pain and fear on his old friend’s face. He hoped things weren’t as
bleak as Murdoch looked.
“Jelly says your
boy’s real sick…I--”
“God, Pete…he’s so
ill…he may be d…dying.” Murdoch shook his head in disbelief at his own words.
He remembered his manners and motioned for Pete to take a seat at the table.
“I…I’m sorry, Murdoch.”
Pete remembered the fiery, sass-filled young man who had recently slammed
him up against the barn wall. He had a difficult time picturing that same
spitfire at death’s door. He’d brought Tommy to wish his friend well, but
now it seemed his son might have to say goodbye to someone else he loved.
Pete sent up a quick prayer for Johnny’s life—and to spare Tommy and the
Lancer family any further heartache.
“He seemed fine the
last time I saw him. What happened, Murdo?”
Murdoch shook his
head and stared into his coffee. “He fooled us all, Pete. Seems he’s been
ill for a while. It started with nightmares, horrific nightmares about his
past. He relived all the terrible things that happened to him in those nightmares.
They made him sick and when the appendix flared up, he blamed the symptoms
on the dreams.” He ran his hand through his hair.
“He needed to tell
me all those things so he could let them go, but he couldn’t tell me—he was
afraid I’d turn him away. He stopped eating, stopped sleeping, worried himself
sick. It left him in no condition to fight off a cold, let alone a burst
appendix. Everything you told me about my son was true. He was scared to
talk to his own father and that just might have cost him his life.” Murdoch
dropped his head into his hands.
Pete knew Murdoch
would punish himself relentlessly now and moved his chair closer to his friend.
“So you’re gonna eat yourself up about this, huh? If that boy does die, you’ll
turn all that guilt inward. Murdo, the self hate will kill you, slowly but
Murdoch whirled to
face him and snarled, “You’re one to talk. I seem to remember your using
your tongue to try and find the bottom of a bottle.”
“That’s right. Without
your help, I woulda ruined my life and my son’s. I don’t want to see you
make the same mistake.” Pete rested a hand on Murdoch’s forearm. He could
feel the anger rushing out of his friend and watched as the man seemed to
shrivel before his eyes.
“Sorry, Pete.” Murdoch
hung his head.
“It’s okay, Murdo.”
Pete squeezed the tense forearm beneath his hand. “Did you talk to your boy?”
“I did. I told him…told
him I…loved him.” Murdoch lifted his head and stared at Pete. “I took your
advice—did just what you said. When he shot off his mouth and stormed away,
I stopped him and we talked…really talked. You made me see that my son needed
me to make the first move, needed to know that I cared enough to do that.” Murdoch placed his hand on top of the one on his forearm.
“Thank you, Pete.”
Pete smiled and nodded.
“I’m glad you and Johnny talked, Murdo.”
Murdoch turned away,
staring unseeingly ahead. “He told me about his life in hell, about the times
he needed me…all the times when I wasn’t there. And in spite of that…he told
me he loved me. He really believed I’d reject him. My son thought he was
so worthless that his own father would despise him.” Murdoch bowed his head
in defeat and Pete had to strain to hear the quiet words spoken next.
“I can’t imagine
the courage and strength he had to find to live through those things, yet
he needed even more before he could tell me about those horrors he endured.
He’s carried all that pain locked inside for so long, eating away at his
soul. He punished himself for simply surviving.”
Murdoch tried to
take a sip of coffee, but his hand was trembling too much to lift the mug
without spilling it. His voice cracked. “I told him I…loved him, but I waited
too long. I was too late to help him.”
A feeling of utter
helplessness swept over Pete. He remembered the bleak emptiness that swallowed
him when he lost Mim and instinctively threw his arm around Murdoch’s shoulders.
“It’s never too late to tell someone how you feel, Murdo. Johnny will cherish
your words, lock them safely away in his soul forever.”
Pete searched Murdoch’s
face, but saw no fight in his friend’s eyes; only a deep and resigned sadness.
“You don’t wanna hear this, but I’m sayin’ it anyhow. You lost Johnny before
and you kept him in your heart and loved him through all those empty years.
If you lose him again, that’s what you’ll do.”
Murdoch bowed his
head to his chest and Pete momentarily cursed his directness, but decided
now was the time to offer hope of a different kind. “If you have to, you’ll
learn to live without that boy again. It won’t be easy, but you’ll reach
a point where you won’t wake up every day expectin’ to see his smile and
hear his voice; where you can think about him without it burnin’ like pourin’
whisky over an open cut; where you’ll smile at his memory instead of sheddin’
a tear. You done it before, Murdo. I sure hope you don’t have to go through
it again. But if you do, you’ll get through it with the help of your family,
friends, and the Lord.”
“I…I don’t think
I want to, Pete.”
Pete placed both
hands on Murdoch’s shoulders and shook him. “Don’t matter what you want,
Murdo. You gotta. You still got a son and a daughter. They’re gonna need
their Pa more’n ever if they lose their brother. Like you told me, you can’t
just stop bein’ a father ‘cause you’re all froze up inside.” He let go of
Murdoch’s shoulders and slapped him on the back.
“’Sides, I figure
folks is put into this world for a purpose and your purpose is to take charge
and run things. There’s lotsa things need doin’ in this valley and you’re
the feller gotta make sure they get done. You ain’t got the option to quit.”
He sat back in his
chair and eyed his defeated friend. “You remind me of a story Mim used to
read to Tommy all the time. It was about a little red hen. Everybody brought
their problems to that hen, fussin’ about what had to get done and whinin’
why they couldn’t do it themselves. And that little ol’ hen, she took care
of doin’ what needed doin’. That’s you, Murdo.”
Murdoch glared at
him. “I remind you of a little red hen?!”
Pete laughed, “Yeah,
‘cause you take care of what needs doin’. This valley needs you to keep on
takin’ charge and makin’ things happen.” He shook Murdoch’s forearm. “I figure
there’s cluck left in you yet. If it makes you happy, we’ll change the title
of the story to the Big Red Rooster.”
Murdoch managed a
wan smile and turned when he heard footsteps approaching.
Pete stood hastily
as Scott walked into the kitchen.
“Pete! It’s good
to see you, sir.” Scott grasped the outstretched hand and found himself being
steered to the table.
“Sit down there,
boy. You look ready to drop.” Pete noticed the plate of sandwiches Maria
had left on the table and pushed it in front of the young man. “Eat, Scott.
You too, Murdoch. What good will you be to Johnny if you collapse? Force it down if you have to, but do it for that boy.”
“He sounds like Sam!”
Scott exchanged a wry look with his father. Both Lancer men did as they were
“Any change while
I was asleep?”
Pete brought a fresh
pot of coffee to the table and sat beside Murdoch once more. “I think Tommy
needs to see Johnny, Murdoch. He’s got things that need sayin’.”
“Yes, I know Pete.”
“Do you think letting
the boy see Johnny is a good idea? Johnny looks so…he’s very ill, Pete.”
Scott questioned the wisdom of Pete’s request.
“Tommy needs to tell
his friend and brother that he loves him.”
Murdoch nodded his
agreement with Pete. “Scott, it might be the only chance Tommy has to tell
Johnny…. We have to accept that possibility.”
Scott bowed his head.
“I’d like to be the one who takes Tommy up to see Johnny, sir.”
“Yes, son, the three
of you together…”
“Where is he, Pete?”
Scott stood hastily, unable to bear the anguish in his father’s voice.
“He doesn’t know
how sick Johnny is, Scott. Let me talk to him first. Wait here, I’ll bring
him to you.”
Pete left the room
in search of Tommy, and Murdoch and Scott each stared bleakly into their
mugs. Both men wondered how on earth they were going to get through this terrible
nightmare. And neither found an answer.
Pete sat on a bale
of hay and pulled Tommy onto his knee. When Jelly disappeared through the
barn door, he gently turned Tommy’s face to his.
“Tommy, I got somethin’
to tell you that’s gonna hurt--”
“About Johnny, Pa?”
“Uncle M looks so
sad…Johnny’s real sick, ain’t he?” Tommy stared at his father’s face.
“Yes, Tommy, real
sick. Scott’s gonna take you to see Johnny, but…he’s asleep. He ain’t gonna
be able to talk to you. I want you to tell Johnny how much he means to you.
He’ll hear you.”
“Pa, Johnny ain’t
gonna…die…is he? I don’t want him to…to go away like Ma.” The big eyes filled
Pete pulled Tommy
close. “I know you don’t want to lose Johnny, son. He’s fightin’ to stay
with us, but sometimes…sometimes the fight is too hard.”
“No, Pa, no! Why
does Johnny have to die?” The boy buried his face in his father’s chest.
“Tommy, do you remember
when we talked about how sometimes life don’t seem fair? That bad things
happen and we can’t always understand why?” He stroked the back of Tommy’s
“This is one of them
times. There ain’t an answer to your question, son. What you have to do now
is pray that Johnny will be okay, and you have to take care of your Uncle
M and Scott. They need folks that care around ‘em just now. That’s the best
way you can help Johnny. Can you do that, Tommy?”
“Yes, Pa. I’ll do
that for Johnny.”
Pete wiped the tears
that trickled down his son’s cheeks. “I’m proud of you, son.” He stood and
lifted Tommy into his arms. “Let’s go see your big brothers. They both need
you right now. You tell them both that you love them—and tell Johnny that
you always will.”
Sam smiled down at
Tommy, “Is that you, Thomas Adams? Why you’re growing like a weed. You must’ve
grown at least three inches since I saw you last.”
“Yes, sir, it’s me.”
Tommy smiled back.
“Tommy would like
to see Johnny, Sam.” Scott met the doctor’s eyes.
Scott led Tommy to
the bed and felt the tiny hand tighten around his. Tommy’s eyes focused on
Johnny’s still form and the strange black snake running into his nose, and
he stopped in his tracks.
voice came out as a whisper.
“You can sit on the
bed here, Tommy.” Sam patted the bed on Johnny’s left side.
Tommy withdrew his
hand from Scott’s and began chewing on his fist. He stood frozen, staring
at Johnny’s motionless body.
“It’s all right,
Tommy. Those are the tubes we talked about. You can go closer.” Scott gave
Tommy an encouraging pat on the back.
Tommy crept around
the bed to the doctor, wide eyes locked on his friend in the bed. Sam lifted
him up and Tommy delicately stretched himself alongside Johnny. He rested
his hand gently on Johnny’s chest and snuggled close, nestling his head against
“Johnny, it’s me,
Tommy. I just seen Smoky. Mr. Jelly let me pet him. He’s gettin’ real friendly.”
Tommy trailed his finger along Johnny’s jaw. “You growin’ a beard, Johnny?
You gonna look just like Mr. Jelly!” Tommy attempted a giggle, but it wavered
into a whimper.
“Pa said you was
real sick. I come to see you so I could tell you to get better. Please, Johnny.”
Tommy hid his face in Johnny’s shoulder “I…I…don’t want you to die, Johnny.
Please don’t die. You can’t die ‘cause I ain’t got a star for you. There
ain’t no star that shines as bright as you, Johnny. I love you. Please don’t
die.” Tommy began to cry, gusty sobs that shook his entire body.
Scott moved quickly
to disentangle Tommy, pulling the child into his arms. “Shhh. Shhh.”
Tommy buried his
face in Scott’s chest and clung to him desperately. “Please don’t let my
brother die, Scott.”
Scott choked back
a sob and carried Tommy from the room. Murdoch had heard Tommy’s sobs and
met them on the stairs. He took Tommy from Scott, aching for the tears coursing
silently down his older son’s face. Watching Scott stumble back to Johnny’s
room, Murdoch wondered how he could possibly comfort the wailing child in
his arms or the young man weeping for his dying brother.
Murdoch slumped down
onto a stair, pulling Tommy close as the boy cried inconsolably for long
heart-crushing minutes. As his tears subsided, Murdoch sat the child upright
on his knee. “Crying helps a little, doesn’t it?”
Tommy sniffed and
nodded. “Johnny said tears help wash away the pain.”
“Johnny said you
was always right.” Tommy looked up at Murdoch’s face.
“He did?” Murdoch
smiled weakly, wondering just what else Johnny had told Tommy about him.
Tommy’s finger traced
a crooked path down Murdoch’s cheek. “You been cryin’, Uncle M?”
“Yes, Tommy. I’ve
“I don’t want Johnny
“I know, son. I don’t
want…to lose him…but he’s very sick.”
Tommy threw himself
against Murdoch’s chest. “Don’t let him die, Uncle M…please.”
“Please, Uncle M.”
the brown eyes bored into his soul, Murdoch found himself promising the child
something he had no right to promise—but all the right in the world to hope
and pray for. “I won’t let him die, Tommy.” He wrapped his arms around Tommy
and the boy hugged him tightly.
“You mean that, Uncle
M? I…I don’t want Johnny to go to that special place yet…” Tommy slowly pulled
away from Murdoch’s embrace to look into his eyes.
Murdoch asked gently.
“God’s special place.
I asked Scott why my Ma died and he said that some people are too special
for this world, so God takes them to his special place—heaven. Johnny’s real
special. Maybe God wants him in heaven, too.” Tommy’s big eyes filled with
the lump squeezing his throat and desperately sought an answer to Tommy’s
question. “Johnny is special, but God knows how much we need him with us.
And although God doesn’t always answer our prayers as we would like, I pray
that he will this time. Johnny’s only just come home to me, Tommy. He’s been
without a home and family for a long time. I believe God will grant us some
more time together.” He rested his cheek on Tommy’s silky hair.
“You been prayin’,
“Yes, Tommy, I’ve
done a great deal of praying. And when I can leave Johnny, I’m going to go
to church and pray some more.” Murdoch straightened Tommy’s collar.
“Johnny says you
don’t have to go to church to pray. He says it don’t matter where you are
when you talk to God.” Tommy snuggled closer.
“Johnny’s very wise.
Life has taught him many things and it’s treated him badly at times. He deserves
to spend some time with…the people who love him. And we deserve to have him
with us, don’t we?”
Tommy nodded “I always
wanted a big brother, Uncle M.”
“Well, you’ve got
two fine ones now and I know Johnny always wanted a little brother. He’s
lucky to have one like you, Tommy.”
“Can I see Johnny
again later?” Tears still trickled down Tommy’s cheeks, but the boy no longer
“Yes. Now let’s go
find your Pa.” Murdoch and Tommy walked downstairs hand in hand, the boy’s
grief weighing on the man’s already heavy heart.
Sam guided Scott
to the chair beside Johnny’s bed and stood behind him, kneading the younger
man’s tense shoulders. “I’ll leave you alone with him for a while, Scott.
You know where I am if you need me.”
Scott dashed away
his tears and moved to sit beside Johnny on the bed, lifting his brother’s
cold hand. Johnny was never still like this, even in sleep he was animated,
his face especially mobile. Now his face was slack and vacant with no hint
of its normal zest for life. The delirium had stolen his strength and Johnny
lay still and cold as a stone. Staring at him in dismay, Scott realized just
how thin was that line separating life from death: one simple beat of the
heart, one slight breath of air, a simple decision to let go….
“I know you’re tired
of fighting to survive. Murdoch said he wanted you to know peace, and so
do I. So if peace is calling you, Johnny, answer it. But don’t….don’t you
dare give up just because the fight seems too hard this time. I’m here and
I’ll fight for you. I won’t let you go.”
Scott smoothed the
hair from Johnny’s forehead and swallowed when he felt the coolness of his
skin. Just a few hours ago, his brother had blazed with fever, and they’d
prayed that his temperature would drop. Now the very ice that had helped
conquer the fever seemed to run though his veins, slowly but surely damping
the fires of Johnny’s life.
Scott felt an overwhelming
need to hold his brother, perhaps if he gathered Johnny close, he could keep
him from crossing that thin line. He slipped beneath the covers and gently
gathered Johnny into his arms. His brother needed warmth and not just the
physical kind. Scott rested the dark head on his shoulder, snugging the frail
body close and taking great care not to disturb the drainage tube. He rested
his cheek on the soft crown of Johnny’s hair.
“I’ve watched you
hold Tommy this way when you put him to bed. You’d hold him just like this
and tell him stories. You listening, little brother? Because I’m going to
tell you a story now.
“Once upon a time,
a young man had a dream and he carried that dream across a vast ocean and
into a new world. He dreamed of building a beautiful kingdom with rolling
green hills and clear lakes. The young man worked hard and built his kingdom
with blood, sweat, sorrow, and tears.
“For a brief moment
in time, two women shared his dream—first a pale white lily and then a wild
red rose. But the lily wasn’t strong enough to survive in his kingdom and
the rose was far too wild to put down any roots. Each gave him a son and
then each left him alone. But fate stepped in and decreed that his sons would
not grow up with him in his kingdom.
“For years, he reaped
heartache while he built an empire. Then one day a black knight came to threaten
the kingdom and the man called his sons home. Both sons answered his call,
each seeking answers. The three stood apart, but united in their efforts
to save the kingdom and the dream. As a reward, the man divided his kingdom
and shared it with his sons.
“Both sons heard
echoes that called them back to two different, but parallel, pasts. Yet they
found the kingdom’s earth clung to their feet, drawing them closer to the
land and preventing them from responding to those echoes. The two sons began
to work together and a lonely soul reached out to a haunted soul. Need drew
them closer and time opened their hearts. The two sons became brothers; but
guilt, shame and fear kept their father and the wild rose’s son apart.
“One day father and
son crossed their pride in battle. Love and truth won the day. But fate stepped
in again and struck down the wild rose’s son. Now the dream teeters on the
edge, supported only by hope and prayer….”
Scott tightened his
arms around his brother, whispering, “How’s my story going to end, Johnny?
If the hero gives up, then the dream will crumble to dust; but if he fights
for those who’ll ride into battle with him, then the dream will live on.
“I know it’s a selfish
demand made of a selfless soul…hard to heed, but so easy to ask. I’m asking
and you won’t get any apologies from me, boy! Hell, I’m starting to sound
like the Old Man now, Johnny.
“I know that dream
means more to you than it does to me or even to the man who crossed that
ocean. It’s all you ever wanted…all you never had—a home, a place where you
belong, a family who cares about you. You can find peace here, too, Johnny.
“When you really
are ready to let go, I promise I won’t ask you to hold on. But I don’t think
you’re ready. I just want you to know, brother, that I want to stand in that
door someday and watch you holding your own children just like this and listen
to you telling them stories. Please don’t let our dream die, Johnny.”
Late-afternoon…approximately 37 hours after surgery
Pete found Murdoch
slumped on the couch, staring into the fire. The air of defeat radiating
from the big man was palpable. Whatever happened to Johnny, Pete could see
that Murdoch needed some guidance and support in order to cope. He remembered
how compassionately his friend had handled him during the dark, monstrous
aftereffects of losing Mim and vowed to provide the same caring support to
Murdoch now. He poured a small glass of Scotch and handed it to the stricken
“Sip on that.” He
pulled up the ottoman and sat facing Murdoch. “We need to finish that little
talk we were having earlier.”
Murdoch sighed in
resignation. He didn’t want to have this discussion, but knew that Pete wouldn’t
let it rest until he did. After all, he’d been relentless at forcing Pete
to talk when the man resisted, and now the boot was on the other leg. At
least Pete would listen and offer honest opinions. “It keeps running through
my head. Over and over I ask myself why I couldn’t talk to Johnny before.”
He clenched his fist and punched the arm of the couch. “If only I’d known
sooner, if I’d talked to him sooner, if I’d--”
“No!” Pete interrupted,
causing Murdoch to stare at him. “No, Murdoch. Don’t you let that two letter
word haunt you for the rest of your life. Johnny wouldn’t want that. ‘If’
won’t change what happened, ‘if’ won’t keep you strong, and ‘if’ won’t get
your boy through this. So no more ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’. From now on, I want to
hear only ‘can’ and ‘will’ out of you.”
Murdoch looked down
at his hands. “You’re right. ‘If’ won’t help my son now. But Pete, there
have been so many times since he came home…things I said…things I didn’t
say…the way I treated him.” He looked up at Pete, the anguish on his face
like a beacon. “I saw the hurt in his eyes and I did nothing…nothing. I missed
all of those chances to hold him, tell him I’m sorry, and tell him how empty
my life was without him. There’s so much I need to say….”
His head throbbed
and Murdoch squeezed the top of his nose between his fingers. “How can I
say all those things now? If I could just have one more day….” He met Pete’s
gaze. “Tomorrow may not come for Johnny, but it will start for me. I…I’m
so afraid Johnny won’t be here.”
Pete laid his hand
on Murdoch’s knee when his friend bit back a sob. He started to speak, but
straightened when Murdoch paid him no attention and plowed ahead.
“I want more time
with him. I want to get to know him…really know him. Johnny’s such a mystery
to me. I want to know what it takes to make his heart skip a beat, what makes
his soul soar, why he sings and whistles and laughs.” Murdoch began to gesture
with his hands.
so feral, so lost in those eyes. I want to tame him, gentle him like he did
that colt.” His voice quickened. “Yet even more, I want to be like him—chasing
dreams with no thought for tomorrow, braving all, daring sorrow. Johnny drinks
up life in big gulps, really lives every second. He doesn’t hold anything
back.” Murdoch sat very still for a moment and when he spoke; his voice was
tinged with wonder. “I used to be like that. I want to be that way again.”
Pete smiled. “Back
in Texas, I knew an old Comanche warrior, a real wise feller. He told me
that when he was decidin’ on whether to be a man’s friend, he wanted to know
if that man would chance lookin’ like a fool for love, for his dreams, and
for the adventure of bein’ alive.”
“He would’ve wanted
to be friends with Johnny.” Murdoch bowed his head.
Pete leaned forward
and put his hand back on Murdoch’s knee. “Most folks do. I don’t know if
you realize it, but folks ‘round here think a heap of your boy. Johnny’s
his father’s son. There’s only one difference between you—you’ve let old
wounds crush your zeal while Johnny lets his fly free. Yet you both stand
up and fight for what you believe in, you both demand perfection from yourself,
you both hurt, and you both hide it from the world. The pair of you put up
a wall that keeps folks who care about you on the outside and you alone on
the inside. Johnny’s no mystery—he’s Murdoch Lancer’s son.”
Murdoch sat pondering
Pete’s words and his train of thought led him to his inappropriate promise
to Tommy. He groaned and dropped his head into his hands. “Oh Pete, I promised
Tommy I wouldn’t let Johnny die. I had no right making that promise. What
kind of man makes a promise like that to a child?”
Pulling himself to
his feet, Murdoch began pacing in front of the fireplace. “I don’t deserve
to be a father. I don’t deserve to be Johnny’s father and God knows that.
He knows, so he’s going to take my boy away from me again. He gave me another
chance with my son and I failed.” He leaned against the mantel, resting his
head on his arm and propping one foot on the hearth. His next words strained
out in a whisper, “I can’t lose him again, Pete. I won’t…I won’t let him
Pete stood slowly,
sensing his old friend’s mounting rage. He knew he’d been the same during
their talks about Mim, swinging randomly between fury, despair and hope.
He waited for the anger he knew would come next.
Murdoch looked upward
and bit his lip. His voice rose steadily until he was shouting and Pete listened
in silence as Murdoch turned his anger on God.
“Why is God punishing
my son for the wrongs I’ve done? Damn Him, damn Him to hell…He took
Catherine…Scott…Maria…Paul…now He wants Johnny.” Murdoch faced Pete and clenched
his fists. “Well He’s not having him! I love that boy. He can’t love him
any more than I do. He can’t want and need him as much as I do.” Murdoch’s
voice faltered and he sank to his knees, burying his head in his hands. “Please,
Pete knelt beside
him and wrapped his arms around the shaking shoulders. This final defiant
cry to God seemed to crack Murdoch’s dam of grief. Slowly at first—a quiver
here, a tremble there—and then a thundering wave of misery roared out of
him like a river in high flood. Murdoch begged for his son’s life and Pete
watched with surprised compassion as tears spilled down his friend’s face.
The silent tears swelled into shuddering sobs, leaving Pete to rock Murdoch
gently as the older man wept for his dying son and all of the precious time
together fate had stolen from them.
I’ll bet you haven’t cried in eighteen years. Even the mighty Murdoch Lancer has a breaking point. It’s all right, Murdo. You just let it out. It’s just you and me here. Let it go.
Pete began to speak
softly, hoping to say something that might reach through Murdoch’s abject
despair. “Mim used to say that God works in mysterious ways. She truly believed
things happen for a reason and that good always comes out of bad. Take Tommy
runnin’ off from me like that and Johnny findin’ him. Don’t it seem like
a heck of a coincidence—a boy desperate for help bein’ found by another boy
who savvied his need? Nobody coulda understood the way Johnny did. And you,
knowin’ from experience how I felt, gettin’ through to me when nobody else
He rubbed Murdoch’s
back. “I used the things you told me to talk to you and Johnny so you’d turn
to each other. Maybe that was God’s plan all along—bringin’ us all together
to teach us how to reach each other. I don’t believe God’s punishin’ Johnny
or you, Murdo. Maybe he is testin’ you—I don’t know. I do know that no man
should lose what you have already and have to face the loss of a child.”
He felt Murdoch sag against him and supported his weight.
“You’re the strongest
man I know and Johnny bears your mark. You need to hold tight and believe
that God’s plan is for you both to see just how much you do love each other.”
Murdoch clung to
the words. “The time Scott almost left me to go back to Boston…I told Jelly
that even a hard drought can do some good—that it makes us appreciate what
we sometimes take for granted. I took the second chance God gave me with
Johnny for granted. Maybe he wants me to realize that.”
Pete helped Murdoch
to his feet and settled him on the couch. He started to pour him another
glass of whisky, but closed the decanter with resolve. He knew only too well
the false comfort of its contents. Instead, he walked back to the couch and
sat next to Murdoch, slipping his arm around the broad shoulders and giving
the only succor he thought capable of reaching a tortured soul.
Silence filled the
great room, punctuated only by the ticking of the clock and the crackle of
the fire. Murdoch was uncomfortable with the silence and searched for a way
to fill it—perhaps a passage from a book? He mentally reviewed the pages of
his preferred reading materials and remembered a stanza he’d recently read
and discussed with Scott. They both enjoyed Shakespeare and Macbeth
was Murdoch’s favorite.
He spoke the
lines softly: “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak
whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.” He turned his head
to face Pete. “But I have no words to give sorrow.”
Pete sat deep in
thought. Finally, he sighed and turned moist eyes to Murdoch. “When you sent
me home by myself to be alone and think, I wrote Mim a letter. Yes, I’d told
her I loved her on the mornin’ of the accident, but there was so many other
things left unsaid. I ain’t much for writin’ letters, but doin’ that…well,
it helped me deal with my thoughts about them things I shoulda said.”
Pete stood and pulled
Murdoch to his feet, leading the bewildered older man to his desk and pushing
him into the chair. “Write a letter to your son, Murdoch. Pour your heart
into every word and your soul into every line. Write all the things you wish
you’d said to Johnny. You don’t gotta show it to nobody.” He handed Murdoch
the quill and walked back to sit in the armchair beside the fire.
Murdoch stared at
the blank sheet of paper and fingered its edge. He had no idea how to begin.
For long minutes, he fidgeted with the pen, inkwell, paper, paperweight, and
other objects on the surface of his desk. At last, he pulled the paper toward
him and tentatively scratched a salutation. “To My Precious Son, John.” Deciding
on just the right words to open his letter proved to be the most difficult,
but once he had written them, Murdoch’s thoughts flowed freely as he opened
his heart to his younger son.
Murdoch lost himself
in a world where Johnny walked and smiled, where his eyes flashed anger and
their blue depths darkened with hurt, and where his head bowed in shame.
He focused his entire being on capturing on paper the things he should have
said to his son.
Pete watched the
emotions parade across Murdoch’s normally stoic face. He smiled at the sight
of the large hand moving so quickly and with such purpose across page after
page. As he scribbled faster and faster, Murdoch’s tongue poked out of the
corner of his mouth. Finally, he sat back in his chair and Pete watched his
lips moving as Murdoch read through his thoughts, pausing at times to cross
out and rewrite or add additional words. When he was satisfied, he folded
the letter in half, caressing the crease. He placed it reverently in the
inside pocket of his vest before walking over to stand in front of Pete.
“If he lives, I’ll
tear it up and say to his face everything I just wrote to him. If he…dies,
I’ll read it at his…grave.” Murdoch sank down onto the couch.
Pete laid a comforting
hand on his friend’s shoulder. He could see that the letter had eased some
of the pain, but he knew it fell far short of helping a father to let go
of his son. “Now you’ve given sorrow words, Murdoch. Sorrow may break your
heart, but it won’t break your spirit and it won’t break Johnny’s, either.”
“This is Draco, the
Prince’s magic dragon. See his wings? And he can breathe fire out his mouth
and nose.” Tommy proudly displayed the picture he’d drawn to the group of
men sitting around the kitchen table.
“That’s a wonderful
picture, Tommy. You did a good job on the wings and the tail.” Scott ruffled
the boy’s hair, relieved that his suggestion of drawing this picture had
focused Tommy away from what was happening to Johnny. The child’s breakdown
earlier that morning had tortured Scott and he wasn’t sure he could endure
Pete felt a smile
tugging at the corners of his mouth as he watched his son. Like any child,
Tommy had the ability to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all else.
At the moment, the boy was wrapped up in explaining Johnny’s stories instead
of thinking about just how ill his friend was. Pete knew it hadn’t been easy
for Tommy to see Johnny that morning, but at least his son had gotten a chance
to say goodbye. The boy had cried for hours, finally dropping into an exhausted
sleep. Tommy’s nap lasted most of the afternoon and thankfully, Scott had
interested the boy in drawing pictures, thus averting another emotional outburst.
As he listened to
Tommy explain Draco’s role in Johnny’s stories, Pete surreptitiously studied
Scott and Jelly. Both men seemed to have aged over the course of the afternoon,
keeping time with Johnny’s downhill slide. They were trying to cover it,
but Pete knew that both men were slowly crumbling at the thought of losing
Johnny. He wished he could divert their attention as easily as Scott had
distracted Tommy. There was no hope of that, though. The thoughts of both
men were firmly fixed on the boy in the bed upstairs and his rapidly dwindling
hold on life.
Murdoch leaned against
the courtyard wall watching as dusk shrouded his land. It seemed to spread
a dark and oppressive cloud of despair across Lancer. Tonight, Murdoch was
afraid of the dark, of the trials the evening hours might hold. Johnny’s condition
had worsened throughout the afternoon despite all of Sam’s efforts to stabilize
him. His own will to live seemed to be ebbing away with his son, but Murdoch
wouldn’t give up.
I’ll fight for you, boy. Boy. According to the state
of California, you aren’t legally a man. I know that bothers you. You like
me calling you Boy about as much as I enjoy you calling me Old Man. And I
know you’ve been a man since the night you had to kill Jeeter. But you are
my boy, Johnny. And I’m your Old Man.
You have so much to live for. I built this place hoping
my sons would find a future here. That future is waiting for you, son. Your
place is here with your father and brother. But Sam seems to think that you…No.
I’m going to stay positive, Johnny. There’s an old saying, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” I’m not giving up on you. You would never give up on me. I know you’re far away now, but you come home, you hear me, son? Please come home to me.
Tiny flickers of
light in the pasture drew his attention. The first of the fireflies began
their courting ritual and Murdoch watched as they hovered and danced around
the trees and flowers surrounding the hacienda. He smiled at the memory of
a laughing toddler who chased the darting lights, reaching out chubby little
hands in futile attempts to catch his prey. The little boy was never quite
quick enough, but it didn’t stop him from trying; and his determination never
failed to amaze his father. After numerous unsuccessful tries, the child
would demand, “Papa, catch!” And Papa could refuse those dazzling blue eyes
I always had a jar ready, didn’t I, son? It was a nightly ritual—me chasing fireflies with you hard on my heels.
Murdoch choked back
a sob at the memory of the look of pure delight on Johnny’s face when Papa
placed the jar of fireflies into his tiny hands. The big blue eyes grew wide
with pleasure as father and son counted the contents of the jar. At bedtime,
the boy rode upstairs on Papa’s shoulders. After prayers and stories, Papa
set the jar on the nightstand beside the bed, telling his sleepy boy that
the shooting stars in the jar would light his dreams.
A sudden inexplicable
urge overwhelmed him and Murdoch strode into the kitchen. He barely glanced
at the group around the table, ignoring Scott’s greeting and questions. Finding
what he’d come inside to retrieve required rummaging through several cupboards,
but his search was successful. Murdoch left the kitchen without saying a
word, carrying his prize with him.
Scott watched as
Murdoch ransacked the cabinets and couldn’t quite make out what his father
had in his hands when he hurried back outside. He called after him, but there
was no response; so Scott excused himself and followed his father out the
door. He leaned against the courtyard wall just as Murdoch had done previously,
eyes fixed worriedly on his father.
Why is he running around the pasture that way? What is he snatching at? He seems to be chasing something. Is it possible that this has driven him mad?
Scott stood transfixed
at his father’s unprecedented behavior. He couldn’t figure out what the man
was doing. When Jelly and Pete joined him, he pointed toward Murdoch and
asked, “Do you think I should call Sam? I’m afraid he’s losing his mind.”
Pete draped an arm
across Scott’s shoulders. “No, don’t call the Doc. Let’s see what happens.”
“What is he doing?”
Scott’s concern was evident in his voice.
“Doncha know, Scott?
He’s catchin’ fireflies. I’m gonna go help him.” Tommy raced out to Murdoch
and joined the chase.
Murdoch placed the
jar into Tommy’s eager hands and the child’s giggles echoed through the stillness
of the evening. Scott stared in amazement at the sight of a giant chasing
a speck of shimmering light. Tommy whooped each time Murdoch carefully added
another captive to the jar.
Jelly shook his head.
“I don’t know how he’s still standin’, let alone runnin’ around like some
kid.” He watched Murdoch with a rising sense of alarm in his chest. “He ain’t
ate or slept since…since…well he’s overdue for both. He’s gonna be ill next—if
he ain’t already,” Jelly added as Murdoch disappeared behind a tree.
jar in one hand and Tommy’s hand in the other, and the two walked towards
“Are you all right,
sir?” Scott asked nervously.
“I’m fine, son.”
“Whatcha doin’, Boss?”
Jelly couldn’t keep the worry from his voice.
stars for my son.” Murdoch and Tommy strode past the three concerned men
and disappeared inside the hacienda.
“Come on, Johnny.
Don’t you do this to me!” Sam uttered his desperate thoughts aloud. Johnny
continued to deteriorate and everything Sam had learned over his long years
of caring for the sick and injured told him the boy wasn’t going to make
it. He’d tried everything he could think of without success. Johnny was just
too weak. He turned at the sound of the door opening and stood to greet Murdoch,
biting back the words he would have spoken when he noticed Tommy.
“We brung Johnny
a present, Dr. Jenkins.” Tommy held out the jar.
Sam stared in wonder
at the jar’s contents. “Fireflies?”
Murdoch nodded. “I
used to catch them for Johnny.” He took the jar from Tommy. “Go ahead and
say hello to Johnny, Tommy.”
Tommy tiptoed to
the bed and slid his hand into Johnny’s. “Your Pa and me brung ya a surprise,
Johnny. Your Pa’s gonna show you. I drawed a good picture of Draco. Scott
said I got the wings and tail right. You can see it when you’re better. Mr.
Jelly liked your stories. He said—”
Tommy chattered on
and Murdoch looked at Sam, asking a silent question.
“He’s no better,
Murdoch. If anything, he’s worse.” Sam kept his voice low and wrapped his
arm around Murdoch. He knew the pain that those simple words would cause
his old friend.
Murdoch closed his
eyes and nodded. He let Tommy talk to Johnny for several minutes before stepping
forward and resting his hand on the child’s shoulder. “It’s time for you
to go downstairs with the doctor, Tommy. Say good night to Johnny.”
Tommy nodded and
bent forward to kiss Johnny’s cheek. “G’night, Johnny. Sleep tight and I’ll
see you in the mornin’. I love you.”
Sam took Tommy’s
hand, pausing to ask Murdoch, “Are you all right?”
“Take Tommy and go
get yourself something to eat, Sam.” He turned to Johnny. “We’ll be fine,
won’t we, son.”
Sam squeezed Murdoch’s
shoulder, knowing there was nothing he could say to ease this father’s sorrow.
He walked Tommy out of the room, glancing back at the desperately ill boy
and the man beside him. He had no doubt who was suffering the most.
Murdoch waited until
the door closed before sitting down on the edge of the bed. He wrapped his
son’s limp hand around the jar, holding it in place with his own large hand.
His other hand tenderly brushed the dark hair from Johnny’s forehead. He
bent his head close to Johnny’s ear. “Papa caught you some fireflies, John.
Shooting stars to light your dreams and guide you home. Please come home
to me, son.”
*Shakespeare quote from Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 3
Early morning…approximately 46 hours after surgery
Sam felt all vestiges
of hope slip away. His heart insisted that Johnny would play a hidden ace,
find some way to survive; but his medical mind cataloged the signs of a failing
body and he knew time had run out. Johnny’s hands and feet were icy while
the tips of his fingers and his lips showed a telltale tinge of blue. The
doctor could detect only the weakest of pulses, the irregular rhythm deepening
his despair. The boy’s breathing was growing more labored as he fought for
every breath. In spite of the fluids, Johnny’s kidneys weren’t functioning.
Sam completed his examination by checking Johnny’s pupils, finding, as he
expected, that the young man was deeply unconscious.
The doctor closed
his eyes momentarily and steadied himself. How was he going to tell the Lancer
family that Johnny was about to lose his fight for life? Sam felt the four
pairs of eyes boring into his back and forced himself to stand, turn, and
face them. Pete and Jelly stood on either side of Murdoch and Scott, and
he met their eyes first, silently asking for their support. Both men stiffened
at his gaze. The doctor stepped forward to stand directly in front of father
“I’ve done everything
I know to do, but Johnny is getting weaker. It’s just a matter of time now.
Sam’s words ripped
through Murdoch, more deadly than a bullet, shredding his heart and his soul
into helpless pieces. The strength drained from him and he staggered forward.
Jelly forced down his own grief and reached out both hands to steady him,
helping Murdoch to the chair beside Johnny’s bed. Sam laid an empathetic hand
on the heartsick man’s slumped shoulder and looked at Scott. Pete had slipped
an arm around Scott’s shoulders, holding the young man upright. Scott’s eyes
pleaded for Sam to take back his words.
“I’m sorry, Scott.”
Sam moved forward and helped Pete guide Scott to the edge of the bed beside
The doctor faced
Scott and Murdoch. “Johnny will just slip away slowly. Don’t let his breathing
disturb you. I know it looks and sounds distressful, but he’s not aware of
anything now. I can’t tell you exactly how long you have left with him, but
I don’t believe it will be much longer--” Sam broke off abruptly as Murdoch
stood and strode from the room.
Scott started to
rise and follow his father, but Sam’s hand on his shoulder held him in his
seat. “No, Scott. Stay with Johnny. I’ll--”
Before Sam could
finish his sentence, Murdoch returned carrying the old armless rocking chair
that had stood sentinel beside his bedroom window for the last eighteen years.
All four men watched as Murdoch positioned it in front of Johnny’s window.
His fingers traced the curved outline of the high back before he turned to
face the other men.
“I’d like you all
to leave. I want to spend some time alone with my son.” He pointed to the
A sense of unease
crept over Sam. Murdoch seemed to be looking right through him. “Murdoch,
“I said out! All
of you leave—now.” Murdoch’s eyes blazed and he drew himself to his full
height, meeting the gaze of each man in turn.
All of the men took
a step back except Scott who glowered at his father. “I won’t leave my brother.”
“OUT!” Murdoch bellowed,
pointing toward the door.
Scott lunged forward,
mouth opening to reply, but Sam yanked him back and stepped between father
“Take this outside
NOW!” Sam demanded in a furious undertone. His voice and expression made
it clear that there would be no further raised voices in Johnny’s room.
Murdoch’s eyes shifted
from Sam to Scott and then rested briefly on his younger son before he marched
into the hall with Pete right behind him.
Scott bent his head
close to his brother’s, “I’ll be right back, Johnny.” He stalked from the
room with Jelly beside him.
Sam closed the door
behind them and hurried back to sit beside Johnny. He was completely at a
loss as to how to help the Lancer family contain its grief. The doctor hoped
Johnny’s death wouldn’t create a damaging rift between Murdoch and Scott.
He used the glycerin solution to moisten Johnny’s lips and rested a hand
on the boy’s bare shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Johnny.
I couldn’t help you and it looks like I can’t help your father and brother,
Pete and Jelly positioned
themselves between father and son as both Lancer men locked glares, each
refusing to be the first to look away. Murdoch didn’t blink, his eyes smoldering
in furious desperation while wrath blazed in Scott’s.
“I want to spend
some time alone with my son.” Murdoch repeated his earlier demand.
Scott’s grief exploded
into anger. “Damn you! You never wanted to spend time with him before.” He
plunged toward his father and it required the combined efforts of Pete and
Jelly to hold him back. Murdoch’s forlorn gaze never wavered from his elder
“Oh, go ahead and
glare at me. But you couldn’t look Johnny in the eye. For God’s sake, FATHER,”
Scott spit out the word, voice dripping with scorn, “you’re too late. You
waited until he was dying before you--”
Pete moved directly
in front of Scott and shook him firmly. “That’s enough!”
“Oh no it isn’t.”
Scott leaned around Pete to lock eyes with his father again, a sneer marring
his handsome features. “Where the hell were you before? All the times he
needed you, you weren’t there. Isn’t it a little late to try and make up
for those times now?”
“Scott!” Jelly stared
at the irate young man in stunned amazement, unable to believe that the poised,
self-assured Scott Lancer he knew was capable of such poisonous words.
“He doesn’t need
you now, Old Man…” The fight gushed out of Scott abruptly
and he bowed his head and began to shake violently. Murdoch moved quickly
to pull Scott into his arms, holding him close while the young man wept.
“He does need me,
son,” Murdoch whispered. “And so do you. Please, Scott. Just give me an hour
with him. I need him, too. I swear I’ll call you if there’s any change. Please,
Scott pulled away
from his father and looked at the floor. “I’d like a few minutes with him
Murdoch nodded and
Scott headed into Johnny’s room.
Sam met him at the
door and placed both hands on Scott’s shoulders. “Scott, don’t let your father
lose both of his sons again. Face this together.” He left Scott alone with
Scott sat beside
Johnny and clasped his hand. “I love you, Johnny. I don’t want to leave you
now, but…our father needs to be with you. He wants some time with you, the
time you were robbed of…the time you were both too scared to share. I’m not
going far and I’ll be back, little brother.”
He leaned forward
and kissed his brother’s forehead. Scott realized that his tears had fallen
on Johnny’s face and brushed them from the waxen cheeks with a trembling
hand. “Please don’t…don’t leave before I have a chance to say goodbye.”
Jelly watched Pete
and Sam disappear down the stairs and turned his attention back to Murdoch.
“Don’t worry over Scott, Boss. I’ll take care of him. You just say what ya
gotta to Johnny.” Murdoch met his eyes and Jelly cringed at the utter devastation
he saw there.
Scott emerged from
Johnny’s room and Murdoch squeezed his tense shoulder. “Thank you, Scott.”
He stepped into Johnny’s room and shut the door firmly behind him.
Scott flinched at
the sound of the closing door, looking for a moment as though he might follow
his father back into the room. Jelly slipped his arm around Scott’s shoulders
and led the young man to his room. He motioned for Scott to sit in the armchair
and sat on the ottoman facing him. Scott leaned his elbows on his knees and
held his head in his hands, struggling for control.
“Yer Dad needs to
say goodbye to Johnny, find a way to let him go. We gotta let him do this
his own way and try not to make it no harder for him. He knows you need yer
Scott lifted his
head and his eyes met Jelly’s. “I know how much he loves him, Jelly. I just
wish they weren’t so damned alike—determined to do everything alone.” He
took a deep breath. “I don’t think I can…let Johnny go. I…Oh God, Jelly…”
Scott began to tremble again, losing his battle for control.
Jelly moved to the
arm of the chair and put his arm around Scott “You ain’t never lost a relative,
have ya, Scott? Reckon ya seen lotsa death in the war, lost fellers you cared
about. But this ain’t the same. Johnny’s a part of ya now. You share the
same blood and that’s a bond like no other. And ya have yer love for each
other.” Jelly stroked the back of Scott’s head.
“That ain’t gonna
die with him, Scott. His death is gonna bring ya to yer knees. Ain’t no way
‘round that. The price of lovin’ someone is never more dear than when ya
lose ‘em. But ya pay it, ‘cause love is worth the cost.”
Scott dashed a shaking
hand across his eyes. “Pablo told Johnny that love is the one gift a man
can give that lasts forever.”
“I reckon Pablo was
right.” Jelly walked to the window and looked out at the pasture where Barranca
pranced back and forth at the fence. The golden horse wheeled and pawed,
tossing his head and periodically thrusting it over the fence to shrill a
mournful call toward the house. His ivory mane and tail floated wraith-like
in the darkness and soapy lather matted his neck and flanks. It was as though
the palomino knew what was happening to Johnny.
The horse’s unnatural
behavior and plaintive nickers chilled Jelly and his elbows ached fiercely.
Murdoch, Scott, and Johnny would laugh at him, but he could sense a presence
in the hacienda; mysterious, dark, and powerful. He hadn’t
needed Doc’s words to know that Johnny was on his way to another place.
Lordy, Johnny. This is the worst thing ya ever done to me. Reckon I can’t think about it now, boy. I gotta take care of yer brother and yer Dad. Last thing I’ll ever be able to do for ya. Lemme get ‘em through this and we’ll talk some more. By then, you’ll be eatin’ peaches offa some mighty fine trees…
Jelly drew a deep
breath and dragged his sleeve across his eyes. He had to think of Scott now.
Losing his brother was the greatest challenge the young man had ever confronted.
Maybe talking about Johnny would help Scott face the ordeal to come.
He walked back to
the armchair and sat on the ottoman. “Tell me ‘bout the first time ya met
A sad smile lightened
Scott’s tear-stained face, “He called me ‘Boston’…”
wrapped Johnny in a blanket and carried him to the rocking chair by the window.
He’d snuffed all of the lamps but one and turned that one down low. The full
moon shone through the open curtains and he lowered himself into the rocker,
gently positioning Johnny so that the dark head rested on his right shoulder
and the limp body canted inward to ensure there was no pressure on the drainage
tube. The moonlight cast eerie shadows, erasing all of the sharp lines in
the room and blurring the distinction between what he really saw and what
he imagined. If he closed his eyes, Murdoch could believe that he was holding
his toddler all those years ago.
Long minutes passed
as Murdoch rocked his boy, listening to the short ragged breaths that tortured
his soul. When he could bear the sound no longer, Murdoch began to speak,
hoping to drown out the harsh pants, or at least distract himself.
“I’ve been such a
bull-headed fool, Johnny. Everything I ever wanted arrived at Lancer that
day you and your brother came home. But life’s been a harsh task master and
I learned my lessons well. I built a wall around my heart to protect it.
I guess you know about wounds that never completely heal. You told Tommy
it’s like a big scraped place inside. That’s an apt description.
and Scott sent me reeling, but your mother gave me something that made me
stand tall again. She gave me you, John. The two years we had together here
were the happiest of my life. You were the center of my world.
“The day Maria disappeared
with you, she left a scraped place on my soul and it stayed raw until the
day you came home. I got a second chance that day, but I chose to keep my
distance from the one who needed me the most because he was the one who had
the power to hurt me the most.
“Life taught this
old dog a new trick recently—I learned that I was wrong to hide my emotions.
All I accomplished by doing that was to hurt myself further and hurt you
even more. You and Scott are the most precious things I possess…I don’t own
you, I know. How could anyone ever hope to own a spirit as free as yours?
I do own all of the worry I invested in you, all those sleepless nights.
I loved you from a distance, you know.
“You were so eager
to be born. You arrived weeks early, taking your mother and me completely
by surprise. Her pains began around suppertime and the dawn chorus welcomed
you—a new day and a new life. I watched you enter this world and you filled
my world with joy. I was thrilled, Johnny, and I swore that this time nothing
would separate me from what was mine. But I couldn’t keep that promise.
“You were so tiny—perhaps
because you were early. Holding something that small terrified me. I was
afraid you’d break or that these big clumsy hands would drop you, but I soon
forgot my fears as you slept contentedly in my arms. I spent many hours holding
you just like this, son. You didn’t seem to need much sleep, like me, so
we’d sit out those wakeful hours in this chair right here in front of this
window. It was our time together.
“I’d tell you about
my dreams for our future, of bringing Scott here and watching you both grow
up together. I talked about the stock and my plans to upgrade the herd and
build a reputation for fine horses. I explained what I wanted to do with
the land and the water rights. You listened so intently that I swore you
understood my every word. You sighed and yawned in all the right places and
I knew then that you had your own ideas about how to run this place.
“You grew so quickly
and before I knew it, you were walking and talking and you had me wrapped
around your little finger. It was almost impossible to say no to you and
even harder to scold you, so I let you get away with so many things. Your
laughter filled the house. I couldn’t bear to see a single tear fall from
those blue eyes, but your tears were rare.
“You were such a
happy child, always a big smile on your face. I was the first person to see
your smile. Do you know that when I saw it, I had the thought that it branded
my heart as yours forever? Your smile was the last memory I had of you and
I carried it with me for eighteen years.
“I dreamed about
you, Johnny. Dreams where you called to me and needed me. I searched for
you, son, I swear I did. I looked everywhere, but I failed to find you. I’ll
always wonder if there was something else I could’ve done to locate you sooner.
“I dreaded your birthday.
It mocked me year in and year out, marking another year in your life, a life
I should have been part of. I’d spend the day alone, grieving for you. You
were lost to me and it couldn’t have hurt more if you had been dead. I prayed
that God would keep you safe and loved. And I kept asking Him to bring you
home. I told Tommy that God doesn’t always answer our prayers the way we
would like, but I’ve always believed that He does answer them. Maybe my prayers
helped you survive, but they didn’t keep you safe or loved. It took so long
to bring you home.
“For years, all I
had of you were memories. The last few years, those memories seemed to grow
more painful. I wanted more than memories, I wanted you. Jelly said that I
never really lost you because you were always in my heart. You’ll always
be there, son. But it isn’t enough, Johnny. I want both my sons standing
He kissed the top
of Johnny’s head. “I’m sorry for the times I wasn’t there and for the times
I hurt you. I love you, John. Goodbye, son.”
Tears ran silently
down Murdoch’s cheeks and fell on Johnny, but he ignored them as he rocked
his son. The moon and stars were fading and he heard the big clock bonging
4 A.M.—the hour when life runs most weakly through the body. Please don’t go, Johnny.
His head fell to
his chest as despair and exhaustion inundated him, dragging him down into
Johnny eyed the roiling
clouds with trepidation. He needed to get home before the storm hit. Judging
by the color of the sky, they were in for a real humdinger. The last time
he’d heard the wind moan with that unearthly keening note was when Weir tried
to take the Hackett land. The first drops of rain were already falling on
his face. Stupid mistake to be caught out in the open in such threatening
weather—what was the matter with him? Barranca thought so, too—he could hear
the palomino bugling his disapproval.
Where was this place?
The rolling hills looked familiar and he could see the faint glow of the
hacienda on the horizon, but he didn’t recognize the spot. The trees here
were leafless and stark, the ground bare of grass and criss-crossed with
cracks and crevasses. It reminded him of a Sierra Madre alpine woodland after
a forest fire. The heavy air smelled faintly metallic and carried a whiff
of sulphur. South Mesa should be off to his right, but it wasn’t. This empty
wasteland extended for miles. And why did he feel so strange, so light-headed?
He turned to whistle for his horse and shuddered as he caught sight of the
daunting figure that towered before him.
The glossy raven
wings were folded, every feather in perfect order. Johnny stepped back as
fear squirted through him, leaving him gasping for breath. He fought to control
his breathing, but he couldn’t seem to draw enough air into his lungs. The
menacing figure remained motionless, but its presence made his heart race,
skipping the odd beat. The immense wings unfurled and the figure loomed closer.
Johnny’s breath caught
in his throat, but he gathered his courage and called out, “What do you want
The silky voice was
deep and resonant. Johnny couldn’t decide if he actually heard it or simply
imagined echoes in his head. “What is it that you want, Johnny Madrid?”
“I don’t like you
callin’ me Madrid,” Johnny shot back.
“You prefer Lancer?”
“Yes. That’s my name—Johnny
“It wasn’t your name
when we traveled together. Then, you hated that name—and the man who gave
it to you.”
Johnny shivered as
the old familiar coldness swept over him. It was true, he had hated his father
and planned to kill him. “I was wrong. I…I don’t hate him now.”
“What is it that
you want, Johnny Lancer? Do you know?”
“I want my family.
I…I want to share our dream with my brother and father.” Johnny glanced toward
the hacienda in the distance, shivering when he realized
that the figure now stood between him and home.
“I love them and…”
“They…they want me…”
Johnny hung his head and whispered, “They love me.”
“They love YOU?”
Johnny’s head came
up defiantly. “Yes! They love ME.”
“And you believe
you deserve to have a family, a home, and a dream?”
Johnny felt hot tears
sting his eyes and hung his head again. “No…”
“You…you know why.
You know who I am, what I was, what I did.” Johnny started to pace, jumping
at a resounding clap of thunder and the sizzling lightning bolt that struck
“You tell me. What
did Johnny Lancer do?”
“Not Lancer! It’s
what Madrid did.”
“You answer to both
Lancer and Madrid. If one is guilty, so is the other. Tell me what you did
to blacken your soul.”
Rage and shame surged
through Johnny and Padre Miguel’s hateful words echoed in his mind. “I WAS
BORN.” Johnny began pacing again. “I ain’t a Mexican and I ain’t a gringo. I couldn’t take care of my mother. Then I let a man
murder her. I killed a man when I was eleven years old and four more on my
fourteenth birthday. They were the first of many. Pablo died because of me.
I hated a man who loved me and I wanted to see him dead.” Johnny swallowed
a sob. “I lived by my gun and that gun was the only thing I let close to
me. I was as cold as that gun.”
“That first man you
killed, why did you kill him?”
“He…he killed my
“But why did you
“He was gonna kill
me. I was scared. I told him to back off, but he kept comin’ after me and
“You killed him in
“Yes…no…I don’t know.”
“Would you be alive
today if you hadn’t killed him?”
Johnny shook his
head and whispered, “No.”
“Do you believe any
child deserves the life you were forced to live?”
Johnny didn’t answer,
but his legs gave out and he sank wearily to the barren ground.
“Put Tommy in your
shoes. Does he deserve to live cold, hungry, afraid, and alone?”
“NO! No one should
“That’s right. No
one deserves to live that way. But you had to, Johnny Lancer. Through no
fault of your own, you had to. And you stayed alive. Does that bother you?”
Johnny wrapped his
arms around himself. “I ain’t worth it. Why am I still here when lots of
folks better’n me didn’t make it?”
“You believe your
life is worth less than the lives of others?”
Johnny remained silent,
gazing up at the clouds massing in the angry sky.
“Who are you to make
that determination?” the figure persisted.
“I’m the one gotta
live with myself,” Johnny snapped.
“Ah. But would Scott
agree with you? How about your father or Jelly or Cipriano? What would Teresa
and Maria say? Or your little friend, Tommy—who believes there isn’t a star
in the sky worthy of your name? What would they tell you about the value
of your life?”
Johnny stared at
the mesmerizing play of color the lightning created on the shimmering ebony
feathers and swallowed hard. “They think…I’m worth somethin’.”
“Are they wrong?”
smile crawled up the side of his mouth. “Well, they’re smarter’n me. Reckon
they know better’n I do. Guess I been wrong.”
“You guess? We’ve
traveled many miles together. We had an understanding, you and I. I walked
by your side and you wanted me there. I watched you teach yourself to survive
and I heard your anger at and disappointment in yourself. But it was the only
life you knew. Still, it chafed you when I came to collect souls in answer
to your summons.
“Those dark memories
torment you now. But I’ve watched you offer a helping hand to others and
those times far outnumber the dark days. Why do you choose to forget them
and remember only the black times?”
“I don’t…they didn’t
cost me nuthin’, so…”
“Sometimes they cost
you nothing. Other times they cost you a bullet or a broken bone or the risk
of injury. Regardless of cost, they bought you something priceless.”
Johnny stared at
the figure in confusion.
“Johnny, love and
compassion don’t flow from a black soul, but they pour from a good one. And
yours overflows. Are you an honest man?”
“I try to be.” Johnny
“Then be honest with
yourself. Do you deserve a family that loves you and a home where you belong?”
Johnny drew a shaky
breath. “I…I don’t think…”
“Can you not be honest
with your oldest friend?”
Johnny hung his head.
“Yeah…maybe I do deserve it.”
“Are you ready to
back your words with actions?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your family is fighting
to keep you with them and right now they are losing that battle. Why do you
run from them, Johnny? Isn’t it time you accepted their love?” The figure
gestured toward the hacienda. “That’s your home there in the distance. It’s
a difficult journey and you must start now, before the storm breaks and makes
travel impossible.” A wingtip brushed Johnny’s cheek. “It’s quite a distance
for one so ill to walk. If you’re caught in the open, alone in the storm,
you won’t reach home again.
“One day I will come
for you, Johnny Lancer. Tonight I’m here to collect your dark memories of
Johnny Madrid, those moments in time that cause you to hesitate and use the
words ‘guess’ and ‘maybe’ when asked if you deserve a family. It’s time to
let go of your past and look toward your future.”
The thunder rolled
overhead and lightning struck a tree behind Johnny, shattering its trunk
in half. The sound jerked him to his feet and he whirled to stare at the
burning tree before turning back to face the figure again. But it was gone
and his old traveling companion had taken a large chunk of his shame and self-loathing
with it. Warmth flowed through Johnny as he trained determined eyes on Lancer.
He had to get home before the storm broke. Johnny tried to run, but he was
too weak, so he settled for stumbling forward at an unsteady walk.
The rain blurred
his vision and the wind made every step difficult, threatening to blow him
off his feet. Johnny struggled to reach home, but he was too cold and tired
to keep going. His legs buckled and he lay gasping in the dirt, raindrops
falling over and around him. He’d let himself be caught in the open, alone.
I can’t make it.
Oh boy, that riled
him. He’d never said those words before. But that didn’t alter the facts—he
wasn’t going to make it home. The lightning crackled above him, searing a
sudden thought into his brain.
NO! I can make it. Just can’t make it alone. And I don’t have to.
Now he knew what
he had to do. Scott and Murdoch would be out here somewhere, looking for
him. Johnny called out to his father and brother for help. They were out
here. They would help him get home. Together, they could make it.
The storm roared
over him, frightening in its intensity, and Johnny crawled inch by painful
inch, dragging himself toward home. Lancer was just over the rise, but the
wind blustered and buffeted him, the clouds blotted out all of the light except
the dazzling display of lightning, and the thunder reverberated painfully
between his ears. He felt himself slipping into darkness and realized he couldn’t
go much farther.
He needed to rest
and he slumped on the cold, wet ground in exhaustion. Where were Scott and
Murdoch? He called for them, his voice growing fainter until he lay silent
and defeated. The fury of the storm battered him, forcing the sinking realization
that he wouldn’t make it this time. Johnny collapsed in frustration, his
cheek resting in the mud, too weak to move.
He felt himself being
gathered into strong arms, cradled, supported and rocked with a steady and
powerful motion. He rested against the support—long arms that could only
be Murdoch’s—and let the rhythm of the action carry him. He heard Murdoch’s
voice from far away, its tone comforting.
I’m a tiny child again, cradled in my father’s arms.
He drew strength
from the sensations and sounds for some time, but then the severity of the
storm increased, seeking to rip him from the solace of those arms. The world
was dark, but a cluster of shooting stars lighted the way to the hacienda, filling him with renewed determination to resist
the storm. He fought it with all of the stubbornness he could muster, refusing
to be swept away.
I've always been stubborn. I was a stubborn kid and I grew into a stubborn man. That's what I am now and fightin’ is a good way to die. But I ain’t gonna die. I just gotta get home.
The arms around him
loosened, becoming lax, and he pleaded. “Don’t let me go.” He marshaled his
remaining strength and struggled with his heavy eyelids. It felt as though
the Lancer archway rested on top of them. But he didn’t quit, determined
to open his eyes. First, the merest slit between his eyelids, then a painful
squint, and finally he forced them wide. Then came the battle to focus.
He didn’t know where
he was, but he could make out his father’s face hovering above him in the
dim light. Something was wrong. Murdoch’s face was drawn and haggard, the
deep lines of his forehead standing out starkly in the shadows. With a flash
of insight, Johnny understood that Murdoch was worried about him.
He inched a trembling
hand up to his father’s weathered face, the effort almost too much for his
depleted strength. Tears glistened wetly in the ghostly light and Johnny
wiped one from Murdoch’s cheek, rubbing the warm wetness between forefinger
and thumb. He tried to speak and was shocked at the weak croak that came
out instead of his voice.
Guess you really do care. You found me. Now I just need your help to get home. I can't make it alone. Here, hang on to my hand. Help me, Murdoch.
Darkness closed in
on him again and Johnny knew he had to rest. He clung to his father’s hand
and let his head loll against Murdoch’s shoulder as he drifted back to that
safe, dark place where nothing could touch him. It was okay to rest now.
His father would keep him safe.
Scott paused at the
door to Johnny’s room. He’d stayed away more than an hour, giving his father
time alone with Johnny. Now it was his turn and he was prepared to fight
for his right to sit with his brother. He took a deep breath and pushed open
The dimness of the
room surprised him. Only one lamp still burned and it was turned down low.
He closed the door and lit one of the lamps beside the bed. The bed was empty
and his eyes raked the room, finding the figures in the rocking chair in
front of the window.
as he realized that Murdoch held his brother in his arms. He started toward
them, but stopped dead in his tracks when he heard Johnny’s faint whisper.
Johnny was awake and talking! A blaze of hope propelled him to the window
and he knelt beside his father and brother.
“Johnny!” Scott bit
his lip when he saw that Johnny’s eyes were closed. Had he imagined that
voice? He searched the pale face, finding a hint of color in the cheeks. Johnny’s
breathing was easier, quieter, and when he placed a hand on his brother’s
forehead, he felt warmth that hadn’t been present earlier. He caught his
breath on a sob.
“SAM!” Scott whooped,
unable to contain the surge of relief that blasted through him. He ran to
the top of the stairs and shouted again. “SAM!”
Scott’s yells jolted
Murdoch back to awareness. He opened his eyes and the anguish of the past
several hours returned with a vengeance when he remembered that he was holding
his dying son in his arms. His back and leg complained and he started to shift
position when he froze. Johnny’s hand rested on top of his, holding it loosely.
Johnny had been awake!
He shifted Johnny
so that he could study the boy’s face…did he look better? Animation had replaced
the vacant expression and the bluish tinge around Johnny’s lips was gone.
His son’s hand was warm now with no hint of the previous iciness. The harsh,
rasping gasps had evened out into long, easy breaths.
hugged his son to his chest. Johnny murmured softly and Murdoch squeezed
his hand. “Thank you, God…” He hid his face in Johnny’s hair and let his tears
flow, aware of warmth spreading through his heart—and wetly across his lap.
Scott dashed back
into the room to find his father laughing softly. He knelt beside the rocking
Murdoch grinned at
his older son. “We don’t have to worry about his kidneys working. I can assure
you that they are.”
An answering grin
spread across Scott’s face and he added his hand to the clasp of Johnny’s
and Murdoch’s. A look of relief passed between the two men and Murdoch cupped
the back of Scott’s head, drawing it forward until their foreheads touched.
Scott’s voice trembled,
“Johnny always could communicate without words.”
Three sets of feet
thundered up the stairs and into the room. Sam, Jelly, and Pete stood rooted
in the doorway, staring in astonishment at the laughing men by the rocking
Jelly slapped Pete
on the back. He knew he was grinning like fox peeking in a henhouse door,
but he couldn’t help it. His elbows felt fine now. Johnny was still with them.
Sam felt a wild,
improbable hope grow within him. Scott’s cry had left him chilled, so sure
that…but Scott and Murdoch wouldn’t be laughing if… “Scott? Murdoch?”
“He’s been awake,
Sam. Come look.” Murdoch managed to find his voice.
Sam hurried forward
and bent over Johnny, smiling when he found a stronger pulse with a regular
rhythm. His smile grew as he listened to the easier breathing, noticed the
absence of cyanosis, and studied Johnny’s pupils.
“Sam?” Murdoch pleaded.
and shook his head in wonder. “If it were anyone else, I wouldn’t believe
it. But it’s Johnny. Murdoch, your boy’s fighting his way back to you. He’s
still very ill, but he’s asleep now and not unconscious. If we can just get
“Oh, his kidneys are working. Trust me.”
Sam glanced down
and joined in the laughter when he saw the damp blanket. “I can see that
they are.” He let out a heart-felt sigh of relief. “Let’s get him back into
“Johnny’s gonna be
all right, Doc?” Jelly’s voice trembled.
“He’s got a good
chance, Jelly.” Sam looked Jelly up and down. “Are you okay?”
quivered, but his smile could’ve lighted Morro Coyo. “Reckon my innerds feel
like they’re all squoze together, but I’m happy as a fly in a currant pie.”
Scott lifted Johnny,
mindful of the drainage tube, and all the while maintaining his grip on his
brother’s hand. He transferred Johnny back to his bed where Sam conducted
a more thorough examination.
As Sam evaluated
Johnny’s condition, Scott squeezed his brother’s hand and whispered to him,
“I’ve got you, Johnny. I won’t let go.”
He heard Jelly cry
out and glanced toward Murdoch in time to see him falling as his legs buckled
when he tried to stand. Pete and Jelly surged forward to catch him, lowering
him back into the rocker. Scott winced at Murdoch’s haggard appearance and
feared for his father’s health. “Murdoch?” he called.
Sam hurried back
to the rocking chair, bending to take Murdoch’s pulse. “Right. Enough is
enough. You are going to bed, Murdoch. Pete there’s a small bottle in my
bag there…yes, that’s the one. Thank you. Get him to his room and into bed.
Then see that he swallows two of these.”
“No, Johnny needs…”
Murdoch whispered weakly.
“Yes, he needs you
and you won’t be any good to him if you collapse. Now, you WILL take those
pills and you WILL sleep, so that when that boy opens his eyes and looks
for his father, you WILL be there.” Sam motioned to Jelly and Pete and the
two men helped Murdoch to his feet.
“C’mon, Boss. Now
don’t fuss about it. Kickin’ don’t never get ya nowheres less’n yer a mule.”
Jelly’s voice threatened to crack. “Come to think of it, ya are a derned
mule. But yer still comin’ with us.” Jelly and Pete shepherded Murdoch toward
Murdoch was suddenly
content to lean on his friends and let them help him to bed. He was exhausted,
but his wandering boy had found his way home. He paused at the door and turned
back to the glorious sight of his living, breathing younger son.
A tender smile lighted
his grief-ravaged visage. He felt tears on his face and didn’t care as he
called softly. “Welcome home, son. Papa loves you.”
The buckboard crested
the ridge overlooking the Lancer ranch and Cipriano slowed the horses, instinctively
understanding that his passenger would wish to savor the view. As he expected,
Teresa craned her head around him to stare at the peaceful vista. Yet Lancer’s
beauty couldn’t hold her attention against her concern about Johnny’s condition.
“Don’t stop, Cipriano.
Let’s hurry on home.” She squeezed the stalwart segundo’s
Senorita Teresa.” Cipriano felt Teresa’s worry pulsing through her tight grip
on his arm and clucked to the team, urging them along as quickly as he dared
on the steep, twisting road. He’d tried to hide his own anxiety from her,
but his chica saw through the bravado, reading him effortlessly
as she’d been able to do since childhood.
Both of them were
painfully aware that Murdoch wouldn’t ask Teresa to cut short her visit without
good reason. Their fears about Johnny caused them to travel as swiftly as
possible, pushing the bounds of acceptable decorum. Murdoch might think their
journey unseemly, but the two were united in silent agreement to reach Lancer
as quickly as possible and Raoul followed Cipriano’s orders without question.
Teresa wanted to
shout with relief when Cipriano pulled the team to a halt in the hacienda’s courtyard. She didn’t wait for his assistance, lithely
climbing down and hurrying toward the door. Her every thought was focused
on finding out about Johnny, so when the door flew open just as she reached
for the latch, she stopped in surprise.
A blond boy she’d
never seen before looked her up and down. “Howdy. Who are you?”
Teresa wondered briefly
if they’d somehow come to the wrong house. Dewdrop’s honking as he waddled
to greet her proved that she really was at Lancer. She knelt to greet the
gander and met the child’s eyes. “Well hello yourself. I’m Teresa and I live
here. What’s your name?”
The boy giggled as
Dewdrop pushed his head against Teresa’s hand. “I’m Tommy.” He put his hands
on his hips and stared at her. “If you live here, how come I ain’t seen you
“I’ve been visiting
a friend.” Teresa straightened and matched Tommy look for look. “Just like
you’re visiting here. And who are you here to see, Tommy?”
clearly showed his astonishment at such a foolish question. “I’m Johnny and
Scott’s brother. I’m here to make Johnny get better.”
Teresa was spared
a response as Maria bustled through the kitchen door and caught her up in
a tearful hug. Tommy watched wide-eyed as the two women chattered in Spanish.
Their hands flew as rapidly as their tongues, both gesturing vehemently.
At one point, Teresa collapsed against Maria and sobbed. The older woman
held her tightly, patting her back.
He didn’t understand
Spanish, but Tommy recognized Teresa’s fear and tugged at her sleeve. “It’s
all right, Teresa. Johnny’s gonna be okay. Uncle M promised.”
forward and took Tommy’s hand. “Come muchacho. Help me take
care of this team and then we will find some calves for you to rope.”
“Oh boy!” Tommy bounced
in excitement. “See ya later, Teresa. ‘Bye, Maria.”
The two women walked
toward the kitchen arm in arm, Maria continuing her voluble explanation of
Johnny’s illness and catching Teresa up on all of the events that had occurred
while she was away—including a description of the new Lancer “brother.”
Teresa halted in
the center of the kitchen, fingers tracing the outline of the chipped tile
beside the oven and the dented spot on the surface of the grill. Those tiny,
well-loved imperfections made the space hers and for the first time since
she’d received the telegram, her tension eased. She was home and Johnny was
going to be okay.
Thank heaven Maria
had been on hand to explain the situation. If Scott, Murdoch, or Jelly had
met her at the door, she’d still be trying to drag the truth out of them.
Her menfolk tended to be overprotective of her, treating her as though she
needed to be shielded from any troubles and conveniently forgetting who ran
their household and nursed them through injury and illness. Now, armed with
all of the facts, she formulated tentative plans for the next several days.
“You must see to
Juanito now, chiquita. Jelly is with
him, but he should rest. The others, they are all asleep.”
Teresa pulled off
her bonnet and dropped it on the table. “I’d like to have a real family lunch
today, Maria. Let’s say at one o’clock. That will give the men plenty of
time to sleep before we wake them up and feed them. I’m sure they haven’t
eaten regularly over the past couple of days—no matter how hard you tried
to make them.” She fluffed her hair. “We’ll sit them down at the table and
make sure they eat right. Then we’ll talk to the doctor and set up a nursing
It will be as you say.” Maria nodded with enthusiasm. “Senor Sam has not left
the rancho for two days.”
That Sam had remained
at Lancer for so long told Teresa just how serious Johnny’s illness had been.
She glanced around the kitchen, noting the beef tea simmering on the stove
and the crisply folded sheets and bandages on the table, ready to be carried
to the sickroom. Trust Maria to have the household organized and ready for
the intensive nursing task ahead. The terrible fear that had crushed her
throughout the journey reared its ugly head again and she chewed a fingernail.
“Maria, do you really
think Johnny will be all right?”
“Si—now that you
are here to make him behave.” She swept Teresa into another embrace. “Oh
chiquita, it is good to have you home.”
Teresa kissed Maria’s
lined cheek. “Thank you for taking care of them for me, Maria.” She gave
the older woman another quick hug before climbing the stairs to check on
“Well, Johnny, I
can see I’m going to have my hands full with you.” Teresa finished changing
the dressing beneath the drain in Johnny’s side. Even though he seemed sound
asleep, she carried on a normal conversation, hoping to take her mind off
of the foreign tube. She’d seen a nasal tube and drains before, but never
one like this glass tube.
“From the looks of
you, Sam will expect you to stay in bed for at least three weeks. I’d better
lay in a supply of rope to tie you down.” She smoothed the quilt back into
place, tucking it around his bare shoulders.
Her voice caught
in her throat and her fingers trembled slightly as they trailed across Johnny’s
sharply defined collar bones. Tears stung her eyes as she studied him closely,
sorrowing at the gaunt, sharp angles that made him look like a gangly newborn
foal. She thought she’d been prepared, but how could she have imagined that
the strong, teasing brother who had lifted her into the stage only a few
weeks ago could possibly be reduced to this frail shadow in the bed.
Teresa smoothed Johnny’s
heavy bangs back from his forehead, her fingers idly combing through the
dark hair as her thoughts returned to the day she had left Lancer for the
trip to Sacramento. Scott had maneuvered Johnny into driving her and Murdoch
to catch the stage in Morro Coyo, hoping that his brother and father would
resolve their latest argument. Unfortunately, scarcely had they driven through
the arched gate before Murdoch admonished Johnny over some trivial matter
and the pair of them exchanged heated words. Then Johnny had sulked in silence
for the duration of the trip to town. She’d seen the hurt in his eyes and
it was a look she prayed that she would never see again.
She loved Murdoch
dearly, but the man was a wrong-headed fool when it came to dealing with
his younger son. As for Johnny—well, it was difficult to stay angry with
Johnny. He put up with a lot from his father, but he did have a habit of
showing Murdoch the chip on his shoulder and daring the man to knock it off.
Teresa was sick and tired of trying to place peacemaker between them and
she sensed that Scott felt the same way.
Maria and Jelly had
both hinted at a change in Johnny and Murdoch’s relationship. Jelly claimed
that Johnny and Murdoch had finally talked, reaching an understanding. When
he described Murdoch’s reactions to Johnny’s brush with death, Teresa wished
she’d been there to comfort her guardian. She trusted Maria and Jelly when
it came to their observations of Johnny. If they had both noticed a difference
between Johnny and Murdoch…. She damped her hopes, vowing to reserve judgment
until she spoke with Scott and actually saw Murdoch and Johnny together.
Johnny moaned and
she leaned toward him. “Johnny?”
He rolled his head
toward the sound of her voice, eyelids fluttering.
“That’s it, Johnny.”
Teresa lifted Johnny’s arm from under the quilt, clasping his hand. “Open
your eyes and look at me.”
“…resa?” he blinked
up at her, struggling to focus on her face.
“Yes, it’s Teresa.”
She bent forward, moving her face closer to his in order to help him focus.
His lips twitched
in a weak smile. “You home?”
“I’m home, Johnny.”
She stroked his hair. “I can’t let you out of my sight for a minute, can
I? You just get yourself into all kinds of trouble.”
home.” He tried to squeeze her hand, but barely had the strength to tighten
his fingers around hers.
“So that’s your excuse.”
Teresa chuckled at Johnny’s audacity—gravely ill, and still his impish streak
peeped out. “Next time, just write a letter asking me to come home, okay? You really don’t have to go to all this trouble to get
“Oh, you…” she dropped
a quick kiss on his cheek.
“You caught…in storm?”
Johnny’s eyelids fluttered.
Storm? Teresa stared
at him. “Ah…no. I guess we missed it.”
“Good. It…bad one.
… I was…lost. … Murdoch…found me…carried me…home.”
“I’m glad he found
you, Johnny. Now you’re home and I’m home. I’m going to take good care of
“How do you feel?”
She dabbed his chapped lips with the glycerin solution.
“Then close your
eyes and rest. Shhhh.” She watched as he sighed and closed his eyes, slipping
into a deep, healing sleep. Teresa’s fingers wandered back to Johnny’s thick
fringe of bangs. “Welcome home, Johnny.”
Teresa glanced down
the long table and congratulated herself on the success of her idea, sending
a silent thank you to Pete Adams for taking Tommy for a ride. The family
needed this meal together and she knew Johnny was safe in Maria’s hands.
She watched Murdoch, Scott, Jelly, and Sam visibly relaxing as they devoured
Maria’s roast as though they hadn’t eaten in days. A veteran at reading between
the lines, she realized that what they weren’t saying spoke volumes about
their shared experiences of the past few days. Teresa let them eat in peace,
waiting until Maria’s niece set out pieces of pie before speaking.
“Sam, do you honestly
expect us to keep Johnny in bed for three weeks? You know how he is.” She
smiled at the effect her question to the doctor had on Murdoch, Scott, and
Jelly. The three of them lowered their forks and stared from her to Sam in
“Yes, I do.” Sam’s
glance included the entire table. “Johnny knows about weakness from loss
of blood. In the past, he’s been able to push himself and reduce his recovery
time. He’ll think he can do it this time.” He took a sip of water, making
sure he had everyone’s attention.
“But this is different
than an injury. Johnny had to use all of his body’s reserves to fight it.
He won’t bounce back quickly. He’ll be tired and weak for some time and he’ll
have a hard time accepting that.”
“I understand, Sam.
But try telling that to Johnny.” Teresa’s comment drew the desired chuckle.
“I will tell
him.” Sam picked up his fork and gestured at each of them in turn. “And I’m
telling all of you that you’re in for a long recovery. Johnny hates depending
on others. It frustrates him and he fights it. However, he needs to put all
of his energy into getting well.”
“So how do we help
him, Sam?” Scott voiced the question they were all thinking.
“You take care of
him—even when he resists you and swears he doesn’t need help. Let him get
mad. Let him be embarrassed. You just carry on with what needs doing.” Sam
studied Scott and Jelly.
“He’ll sleep most
of the time for the next few days. The problems will start once he’s awake
for more than a few minutes at a time.” He pointed at Scott and Jelly. “At
that point, maybe the two of you should take the night shift and leave dealing
with Johnny to people he can’t twist around his little finger.”
Scott blushed and
studied his plate closely before lifting his head and meeting the doctor’s
amused eyes. “Jelly and I have discussed the matter and there won’t be a
problem.” He raised his eyebrows at Jelly. “Johnny won’t find us so malleable
in the future.”
“What Scott means,
Doc, is that we’re gonna ride herd on Johnny like nobody’s business.” Jelly’s
chin jutted out as he nodded for emphasis.
Sam snorted. “I’m
serious about this. Johnny needs complete rest.” He folded his arms across
his chest. “That means no climbing in and out of bed, no sitting in the armchair,
no visiting his horse in the barn. It means leaving that nasal tube in place
until he has the strength to take the proper nourishment. It means he takes
all of the medication I prescribe—whether he wants it or not. It means that
you don’t put up with any of that boy’s nonsense.”
“Don’t worry, Sam.
That boy pushed his luck too far this time.” Murdoch slapped his hand against
the table. “He is about to find out the real meaning of mother hen—and father,
brother, and sister hen. He’s not going to open his mouth without my say
Sam met Teresa’s
twinkling eyes. “I’m relying on you to hold them to these promises, Teresa.”
“I’ll take care of
it, Sam.” She bit her lip, warm with the knowledge that something had indeed
changed between Murdoch and Johnny. She could see it in her guardian’s expression
and hear it in the timbre of his voice as he spoke about his younger son.
Johnny well again is going to take all of you working together.” Sam glanced
up and down the table, making sure he had their complete attention. “Patients
who have been as sick as Johnny are often despondent or even depressed. Don’t
be surprised if he is. Expect him to be extremely emotional. That will frustrate
him as much as his physical weakness will. Don’t tease him. He needs you all—whether
he admits it or not.”
“We need him, too,
Sam.” Murdoch lifted his glass in a toast, smiling when his family hastened
to mimic his action. He could see the determination on their faces. His hard-headed
boy might fight them, but together they’d see that Johnny recovered—in spite
Scott leaned back
and watched his brother sleep, contrasting the current picture with his chilling
memory of how Johnny looked this time yesterday afternoon. Death had been
in the room then, Johnny visibly wearing its mark. He forced the vision from
his mind, unwilling to remember the harrowing events of the previous twenty-four
He felt the draft
of the breeze gusting through the open windows. Sam had insisted that they
remain open, explaining the importance of fresh air to Johnny’s recovery.
Scott pulled a quilt from the linen chest at the foot of the bed and spread
it over his brother. As he tucked the blanket under Johnny’s chin, the blue
“Well hello there.”
Scott rested his hand on Johnny’s shoulder.
“I’m here, brother.”
“He’s just fine.
He sat with you most of the afternoon.”
“Was bad…storm. He…found
Scott didn’t understand
what his brother was talking about, but that didn’t matter. “Yes, you’re
safe now. Are you warm enough?”
“Yeah. You…I was…so
cold. You…held me…made me…warm. Thanks.”
“You remember that?”
Scott helped Johnny swallow a few sips of water.
Johnny managed a
weak smile. “You told…me story.”
“I did. I guess you
were listening to me—for once.”
“You mad?” Johnny
stared up at Scott.
“We’ll talk about
it when you’re back on your feet.”
“Mad is not the word
I’d choose, little brother.”
doesn’t even come close, Johnny. You lied to me. You promised me you were
okay, that you’d see Sam if you didn’t feel better. Instead, I nearly lost
you…. And believe me, you’re going to hear all about it. But not until you’re
strong enough to listen without falling asleep in the middle of my little
“What word…you use?”
“Later, Johnny. You
need to rest now.”
Johnny turned his
face away, but the quilts moved as he tried to lift his arm.
Scott slipped his
hand beneath the blanket and gripped Johnny’s hand. His brother didn’t look
at him again, but Scott felt the feeble squeeze around his fingers. He returned
it and ran his other hand through Johnny’s tousled hair, stroking it gently
until the boy’s even breathing confirmed that he was sound asleep.
“That’s right. You
sleep, little brother. I’ll keep you safe.” He smiled. “You need your beauty
rest. I want you to get strong enough for us to have our little discussion—the
one you owe me about what words might be more appropriate than ‘mad’.”
body craved sleep and he could not deny its insistent demands. He floated
through shrouds of fog in his mind, slipping in and out of awareness. Conversations
flowed together and he drifted away talking to Scott only to awaken to find
Murdoch speaking calmly to him. Teresa, Jelly, Maria, and Sam intertwined
with Scott and Murdoch, but he couldn’t make sense of the conversations,
his thoughts jumbled, refusing to string together. The soft intonations soothed
him, but Johnny was unable to distinguish their voices. Gradually, the similar
tones merged into one omnipresent voice. The voice was with him constantly,
urging him to rest, and he obeyed it.
Hands touched him,
turning him, moving him, stroking his hair, and making him comfortable in
various ways. At times, he found a glass of water or mug of broth or barley
water held to his lips, his head supported as the voice encouraged him to
drink. Sometimes he felt the tube in his nose moving, irritating the back
of his throat. The warmth of the poultice on his belly comforted him and
he relaxed with the pleasant smell of Teresa’s lavender water on his pillow
Johnny existed in
a twilight world, suspended between oblivion and awareness. His dazed brain
interpreted the situation as the aftermath of the violent storm he remembered.
He realized that he was sick, weak, and unable to defend himself. Yet for
some unknown reason, this fact didn’t worry him. His father had found him
and carried him home so he was safe with people he trusted. The voice and
hands would take care of him.
Murdoch studied his
younger son as the boy slept. He admitted to himself that he had come to
treasure these quiet, private times he was spending with Johnny. His son would
awaken soon and smile shyly at his father, self-conscious at their enforced
time together, a trace of his old uneasiness lingering still. Murdoch understood
Johnny’s nervousness—he felt it, too—and shared the natural desire to run
from their unaccustomed intimacy. Yet he swore that he wouldn’t back away
or allow Johnny to, either.
prior to Johnny’s ardent battle to live had opened both of their hearts,
and Murdoch was determined to forge ahead and build a strong relationship
with his younger son. Everything he had learned told him just how desperately
this boy needed him and he reciprocated that need. It would be a long time
before Johnny recovered completely, and Murdoch vowed to make the most of
having his usually fiercely independent son so dependant on him.
Johnny stirred and
the blue eyes blinked open, immediately finding his father. Murdoch’s heart
swelled when a warm smile spread across Johnny’s face. He returned the smile,
moving to sit on the bed alongside his son.
“Hello, son.” He
freed Johnny’s arm from beneath the blankets, smoothing them across the boy’s
chest. “You awake or just opening your eyes for a minute?”
Johnny attempted to pull himself into a more upright sitting position and
silently cursed himself as he realized he needed help for even this simple
act. He felt Murdoch’s strong arms lift him higher. Anger flared and he found
himself glaring at his father.
“I don’t need…” Johnny
bit back his anger and stared shamefaced towards the window. He hated being
this dependent on anyone, least of all his father. He yearned for Murdoch’s
respect, yet felt he’d shown him only weakness. He couldn’t earn the man’s
regard by being such a burden. He was nothing but trouble.
“Yes, you do need
help.” Murdoch ignored Johnny’s outburst, calmly positioning him more upright
against his pillows. The boy’s face remained turned toward the window, eyes
down. Murdoch laid his hand on the tense shoulder. “Son, you can’t run until
you’ve learned to walk. This is going to take time and you have to accept
that. You can get angry at me if you like--”
“I ain’t angry!”
Johnny snapped, eyes blazing at his father.
Murdoch just smiled
at him and Johnny flushed. “Guess I’m angry at myself, huh?”
The big hand squeezed
his shoulder. “You always are. It’s time you gave yourself some credit. You
have a lot to be proud of son.”
Johnny bowed his
head and his father sighed. A long silence followed as Johnny grew increasingly
uncomfortable in Murdoch’s presence. But his father proved his determination
to draw them closer.
“What’s on your mind,
Johnny didn’t know
how to answer him. There were so many thoughts running through his head.
He did want to talk, but talking about himself had never been easy and talking
to Murdoch was something he had never been able to do—well, not until that
night when he had shared his darkest secrets with his father. Then, he’d found
comfort in Murdoch’s words and arms.
Knowing his father
loved him in spite of his past had given him a sense of peace. But that peace
was incomplete. Part of him had still believed he wasn’t worthy of Murdoch’s
love. His old traveling companion, the black-winged figure, had opened his
eyes to his own self-loathing and the reasons behind it. For the first time,
he really believed he could start fresh with no ghosts to haunt him. He was
both Johnny Madrid and Johnny Lancer—and that was okay. His family thought
he was worthy and he accepted their evaluation. His old friend had shown him
the path to a lasting peace with himself and the world. Only he didn’t know
how to explain that to anyone.
He met his father’s
questioning eyes. “I…it’s just…I don’t…. Murdoch, I ain’t much…good at talkin’.
You know that.”
“You’re just like
me, you know.” Murdoch ruffled the dark hair.
Johnny grinned. “Yeah.
I…well, there is something…” Johnny paused and fingered the edge of the quilt.
He glanced up, but broke eye contact immediately, staring down at his fingers
pleating the brightly colored material. “When I was sick…you know…I…” Johnny
“I’m listening, son.”
“I had this…dream.
Well, I guess it was a dream…only it seemed so real.” He bit his lip, eyes
focused intently on his hands worrying the quilt. “I was lost in this bad
storm. I couldn’t get home…not on my own. So I yelled for you and Scott.”
Johnny broke off as Murdoch’s hand clasped his. He
drew a deep breath. “See, I knew you’d find me…and…and help me get…home.”
“You did call to
“You were with me,
I know. I heard you…and Scott and Jelly. But when I…I couldn’t go on, you…you
found me and…brought me home.” Johnny met his father’s eyes and squeezed
his hand. “Thank you for bringin’ me home.”
“It’s all I ever
wanted to do, son,” Murdoch whispered as tears stung his eyes.
Johnny closed his
eyes, fighting to keep his own tears from falling. He felt Murdoch’s hand
brush his cheek.
“I want to tell you
something, Johnny. I wrote you a letter when I thought you might…when I thought
I was losing you.” Murdoch eased the letter from his pocket. “It contains
everything I wanted to say to you. The things I should have said that first
day you came home, all the things you needed to hear, but I was too stubborn
and too proud to say. I was terrified you would…die and I’d never have the
chance to tell you. It…well, I swore when I wrote it that I’d share everything
in it with you…if you lived.”
Johnny opened his
eyes, gazing intently at his father. The expression on the weathered face
took his breath away. He didn’t know if he could listen to this. “Murdoch…”
Johnny nodded and
Murdoch unfolded the letter, his trembling fingers clumsy. He took a deep
breath and stared at the words, then met his son’s gaze.
“To My Precious Son,
John…” Murdoch gulped back a sob and blinked away tears.
Johnny reached out
and slipped the letter from his father’s slackened hold. He swallowed hard
and began to read. The words carried him along, warming and soothing him
just like his father’s arms had during the storm. He fought his tears, refusing
to let them fall because he wanted to see every word clearly. He couldn’t
tear his eyes away from the last page…from the last line, because if he did…if
he did…he would….
Then Murdoch’s arms
swept around him and he was once again a child in his father’s arms. All
the tears he’d swallowed, all the emotions he’d suppressed, all the resentment
he’d carried, flowed from him in gasping sobs as he nestled his head against
Murdoch’s shoulder. He’d waited all his life for these words, for this feeling.
The final paragraphs of the letter seared through his brain as he basked
in the sensation of being held in his father’s loving arms.
‘When you came home,
I didn’t know how to relate to you. I was struggling with three separate
things, all competing in my head: the reality of you as a child, eighteen
years ago; the way I’d imagined you would turn out; and then the man you
really had grown to be. I wasn’t prepared for the way those visions differed.
The truth is, I wanted that imaginary son—or I thought I did. God help me,
Johnny, I punished you because you weren’t the boy of my imagination. I was
so wrong, son, and I’m sorry. I hope you can find it within yourself to forgive
me. I’ve come to realize that Johnny Madrid Lancer is a remarkable man, a
good and honorable man. I’m proud to be the father of such a man. I'm proud
to be your father, son.
I love you, Johnny.
There, I put it in writing. That includes the Madrid part of you, son. Good
or bad, right or wrong, you’re my son and I love you. I always have and I
always will. I swear I’ll prove that to you, if it takes the rest of my life.
I want to see you standing by my side with your brother, here where you belong—at
Lancer. I need you, Johnny, and I want you. I only hope that I can prove
myself worthy of your love. Please know that I do love you, my precious son.
Humbly yours, your father, Murdoch Lancer.’
Johnny hid his face
in his father’s shoulder and let the waves of relief and warmth wash over
him. His father loved him and wanted him…felt unworthy of him. The emotion
left him exhausted. As his heavy eyelids threatened to close, he managed to
lift his head. His blurred gaze met Murdoch’s own watery smile. He couldn’t
speak past the lump in his throat, but he nodded and tightened his grip on
Murdoch, knowing his father could read the thoughts in his eyes. Then his
head fell forward and he slept while his father held him tenderly and wept.
Later that day…
Jelly finished plumping
Johnny’s pillows and settled him back against them. He draped a towel across
the young man’s chest and began spreading soapy lather across his lower face
and throat. Johnny’s nose twitched as some of the soap found its way into
a nostril, stinging and irritating. He reached quickly with both hands to
support his tender belly, grimacing as the stitches tugged sharply at the
force of the sneeze that followed. Jelly fingered on some more lather and
Johnny sneezed again.
“Here now! Stop yer
fidgetin’ or I might just slip. Don’t wanna spoil that pretty face, do we?
This here blade’s mighty sharp—honed it myself not more’n half an hour ago.”
He bit back a grin when Johnny rolled his eyes. “Whatcha lookin’ at me like
that for? It ain’t the first time I shaved you—and you lived to tell the
Jelly shivered and
dropped his eyes. “Not that you’ll remember the last time…you was…” He didn’t
want to think of Johnny so desperately ill, barely alive. They had come too
close to losing this boy. But his thoughts dwelled on that black time when
the estancia steeped in sorrow, the pain of the long anxious
hours unbearable. The remembered grief of those hours churned inside his
stomach and he steadied himself with a deep sigh.
He felt Johnny’s
hand tighten around his arm. The boy knew—could sense his pain—and had reached out to comfort his friend. Warmth flowed through
Jelly and he sought to conquer his emotions by continuing his ramblings.
sure come in handy.” One hand shifted the black rubber tube out of the way
and Jelly felt Johnny tense at the reminder of its presence. Not that Johnny
could forget it for long. He’d heard the boy complain about how it irritated
his nose and throat. Of course he never said so, but Jelly knew the tube
chafed Johnny’s pride most of all.
“Gonna tackle that
cactus patch on yer head, too. How you see through all that hair, I’ll never
know.” Jelly began carefully manipulating the razor over Johnny’s face and
throat. “Ya look like one of them sheep dogs—them one’s you can’t tell their
head from their… What you grinnin’ at? Ooohh, nearly sliced yer lip off then.”
He shook the razor under Johnny’s nose. “Not that that woulda been such a
bad thing, mind you…we could do with hearin’ a lot less of yer sassy lip.”
Johnny grunted and
Jelly sniffed and rolled his eyes. “Yessir, that hair needs a good going
over. Might hafta borrow Barranca’s curry comb…now don’t ya go shakin’ yer
head at me, boy. We had us a little chat—Teresa, Scott, your Dad—and we all
agree on that. I sharpened my scissors special…got me plenty of volunteers
to hold ya down if need be.” Jelly chattered on as his hands guided the razor,
scraping the lather from Johnny’s face.
Johnny sighed contentedly.
His family seemed to delight in teasing and taunting him with their idle
threats and for some reason he didn’t quite understand, he enjoyed it. He
closed his eyes and let the gentle hands perform their ministrations, lips
quirking in a crooked smile as Jelly tilted his head upwards and glided the
blade over his throat.
”You ain’t plannin’ on sneezin’ now are ya, boy? Ya know I can’t stand the sight of blood—‘specially when it ain’t my own.”
Jelly’s poker face
made Johnny want to laugh, but he didn’t dare.
Jelly wiped away
the remaining lather with a warmed flannel towel and sat back to admire his
handy work. “Umm…mighty fine job I did there.” He picked up the scissors
and snapped them theatrically. “Now, time for the painful bit!”
“But I like it the
way it is.” Johnny put up a token protest. He knew it was expected of him,
but he also realized that Jelly wanted to do this for him. The old man was
willing to do anything for him. A rush of emotion surged through him and
he admitted to himself that he wanted this close time with this man. Jelly
was his friend and Johnny was proud to call him amigo. But
he was so much more than a friend—he was family. Johnny hoped Jelly understood
just how much he meant to him.
He suddenly felt
the need to tell Jelly, to thank him for being there…every step of the way.
Scott had told him how Jelly had cared for him, prayed for him, grieved over
him, and still found the strength to support both Scott and their father.
“I ain’t listenin’
to yer excuses. It don’t pay to…I learned that the hard way this last couple
of weeks!” Jelly plumped the pillows higher, tipping Johnny slightly forward
in order to drape a towel around his shoulders.
Johnny winced as
Jelly eased him back into the thick nest of pillows and Jelly paused when
he noticed the pain flicker across the young man’s face. He brushed the dark
bangs out of Johnny’s eyes. “You had enough for today, ain’t ya?”
“Now stop yer fussin’.
We’ll leave it…’til the mornin’ anyways.”
“The Boss’ll skin
me alive if’n I don’t keep ya lookin’ yer Sunday best.”
“Yer bound and determined
on wearin’ out my name, ain’t ya?”
“Jelly!” Johnny demanded.
all steamed up about?” He pulled back the quilt to check the stitches and
drain. “You hurtin’?”
“No!” Johnny met
Jelly’s eyes. “Jelly…I just need to…”
Jelly snorted. “Well,
why in tarnation didn’t ya just say so?” Jelly reached for the bottle by
“No, Jelly. I don’t
need to do that…I…will you just listen to me?” Johnny groaned as a wave of
exhaustion spread over him, but he was determined to tell Jelly how he felt.
“What is it, Johnny?”
Concern lay heavy in the older man’s voice and he sat on the edge of the
“Jelly…I…when I was
so sick…well, I know you were with me…like always. Ready to get me outta
some…dose of trouble.” Johnny closed his eyes and sighed deeply. Sleep beckoned
but he had to tell Jelly… He felt the callused hand clasp his and Johnny
forced his eyes open.
“Go on to sleep,
boy…” Jelly could tell that Johnny was fighting to stay awake.
to say this now.” He glanced down at their entwined hands. “I know you were
there with me…I recall some things. It’s like I was lost in a dream…a nightmare.
I heard voices callin’ to me. I remember yours…” Johnny gazed up at Jelly,
eyes moist and the color rising in his cheeks.
“The voices made
me wanna fight, steered me through the darkness. I knew I wasn’t alone…that
I’d never be alone again.” He swallowed hard. “Me and you done enough driftin’,
Jelly. Comin’ here gave both of us a home.”
“It sure did. Now
hush up and go to sleep.” Jelly believed that his gruff manner concealed
his emotions as he moved Johnny into a more prone position.
Johnny squeezed his
hand. “You understand me…always have. I’ve changed some, though, and that’s
due to you. You made me see things I didn’t wanna see…I…” Johnny forced his
eyes to stay focused on Jelly’s face. “I don’t like havin’ folks tendin’
me, watchin’ out for me. It ain’t pride, not really. It’s mostly ‘cause I
didn’t wanna need anybody.” He hung his head and stared at the quilt.
“But I did, and you
helped me see that. Most of all, I needed my father. Pablo took his place
for such a short time, but it was enough to let me know that I needed somebody
to guide me and I liked havin’ somebody care about what happened to me.”
Johnny had to pause, fighting the sudden lump in his throat. He felt Jelly’s
hand brushing his hair back from his forehead. The old man’s eyes were soft
and full of love and Johnny fought back tears.
“I know I been lucky,
findin’ four men willin’ to take me on…steady me and keep me in line.”
those words. They were the exact words he’d spoken to Johnny as the boy fought
against the raging fever. Somehow, they had gotten through to him.
“Pablo, Scott, my
father, and you. Reckon if those four good men can love me, then I ain’t
so bad…” Johnny yawned, finding the lure of sleep nearly irresistible. His
eyes met Jelly’s again.
“You’d have made
a good father, Jelly. You sure been a good one to me. If you’d married that
“Here now! I told
you not to go blabbin’ ‘bout that.” Jelly huffed, amazed that Johnny recalled
“Ain’t blabbin’ nuthin’.
Just ‘member you sayin’ that. Said somethin’ else, too…” the grin he flashed
Jelly brimmed with mischief, “but I can’t think what it was…”
“Just never you mind
‘bout that. Close them eyes and go on to sleep.”
Johnny’s eyes flickered
shut, but the smile remained on his face. “If I could ‘member what
you said…well, reckon I’d feel the same way ‘bout you.” His grip on Jelly’s
hand slackened as sleep won the battle.
Jelly stared down
at the boy, tears falling unnoticed down his face and clinging to his salt
and pepper whiskers. “We been the lucky ones, Johnny. And no, you ain’t so
bad, boy. It’s about dern time you figured that out.”
He pulled the covers
up over Johnny’s shoulders, brushing the wayward strands of hair from the
boy’s closed eyes yet again. Johnny had heard him during those desperate
hours, heard him and understood—and felt the same way about him. A sense
of peace washed over him.
“I ain’t yer dad,
Johnny, but yer my boy just the same.” He settled himself into the armchair
and kept watch as his boy slept.
Scott instilled the
beef tea and water into the tube, conscious of the two blue eyes staring
up at him. He forced himself to ignore them as he added the medication before
sealing the tube and positioning it on the pillow next to his brother’s pale
“Take it…out.” Johnny’s
weak voice pleaded.
Scott clasped his
brother’s hand. “No. Sam says it stays in until you’re stronger.”
Johnny turned his
head away in frustration and Scott sat beside him on the bed. “You’re too
weak to take more than a few sips at a time and that’s just not enough. This
tube lets us make sure you get enough fluids and nourishment.” He smoothed
the quilt across Johnny’s chest. “You need it to get stronger.”
Johnny whipped his
head back to face Scott. “That’s just it, Scott. How come I’m still so weak?”
he glared up at his brother.
“You’ve been very
ill, Johnny. It’s not the same thing as an injury. Sam says your weakness
is normal. It’s going to take quite a while for you to regain your strength.
Pushing yourself will only slow down the process. Until you’re stronger,
you just have to accept help of every kind and that’s all this tube is—help.”
Scott mentally kicked himself, Johnny didn’t need any reminders of just how
helpless he was…
No! He does need to know how close he came…we came to…
Johnny sighed. “But
I ain’t gettin’ no stronger. I can hardly lift my head.”
“You’re already much
stronger than you were a couple of days ago.” Scott smiled fondly at the
petulant expression on his brother’s face. “I know it seems slow to you,
but you are improving. At least you can stay awake for more than a
couple of minutes at a time.”
Johnny blew his breath
out through his nose and frowned. “Reckon I could improve without this…this
thing stuck up my nose.” He glanced sideways at his brother
and decided to risk it. His hand moved up and grasped the tube, preparing
to pull it out.
“Oh no you don’t!”
Scott calmly disengaged Johnny’s fingers and moved his hand back to his side.
“Don’t you even think about it, little brother.” He put his hands on his
hips and gave Johnny the sternest glare he could muster. “That tube stays
right where it is until Sam takes it out. Do you understand me?”
turned his head away and hunched his shoulder, lips pouting. Scott grasped
Johnny’s chin and rolled his head back so that they were face to face. “I
asked you a question, Johnny.”
“Leave me alone.”
Johnny gripped Scott’s arm and struggled to free himself, but Scott easily
held his head still.
“Stop it, Johnny.”
He grasped Johnny’s shoulder, pressing it into the pillows and holding him
immobile. “Settle down.”
Johnny finally collapsed
against the pillows, panting. He shot his brother a dirty look. “Let me go,
“When you’ve answered
my question. Do you understand that I expect you to leave that tube alone
until Sam removes it?”
Johnny’s eyes flashed
fire, but Scott met his glare implacably, refusing to look away. Johnny gritted
his teeth. “Quit treatin’ me like a kid.”
“Then stop acting
“C’mon, Scott…” Johnny
gave his brother his most persuasive look.
Scott knew he couldn’t
withstand that look for long. He relented a bit, releasing Johnny’s chin.
Then he bent forward and ruffled the dark hair. “I nearly lost you, Johnny.
I can’t easily forget that. Now, I’ll ask you again. Do you understand that
I expect you to leave that tube alone until Sam removes it?”
Johnny sighed and
squirmed. He’d never seen his brother so adamant before. Finally, he heaved
a huge sigh and drew out his answer in a soft voice. “Yeah.”
Scott smoothed Johnny’s
bangs with his fingers. “I’m serious, little brother. You pull that tube
out without Sam’s okay and I’ll cut that switch Jelly’s always threatening
you with. And I’ll use it!” He maintained eye contact until Johnny looked
They sat in companionable
silence for several minutes until Johnny became restless. Scott recognized
the signs, they’d played this game before. “Do you need to…”
“No!” came Johnny’s
“You sure?” Scott
grinned. He knew what was coming next. Sure enough, Johnny cursed in Spanish.
That was a new one. I haven’t heard him use that one before.
Scott waited several
more minutes, noting his brother’s increasing restiveness. “Are you sure
Johnny glared at
“We were terribly
concerned about your kidneys, you know. They didn’t appear to be functioning
A sudden healthy
glow stained Johnny’s cheeks. “Well, now they won’t quit functionin!”
“Oh, so you do need
Yes! I need to…”
Johnny ground out.
“Then why didn’t
you say so, little brother?” Scott chided. He dealt with the situation efficiently,
striving to minimize any additional embarrassment to his brother. After smoothing
the covers back into place, he supported Johnny’s head and held a glass of
water to his lips.
Johnny took a couple
of sips and turned his head away. “Goes right through me.”
Scott grinned at
him. “It’s supposed to.” He settled Johnny back onto the pillows. “Feel better?”
“Yeah.” Johnny grasped
his brother’s hand. “Thanks, Scott.”
Scott combed Johnny’s mussed hair with his fingers. “Rest now, okay?”
Johnny gave him a
sweet, sleepy smile and closed his eyes. Scott moved to the armchair, expecting
his brother to fall asleep immediately, but Johnny’s eyes snapped open again.
“When’s Sam comin’
“He stopped by this
morning, but you were asleep the whole time. I expect he’ll be back…umm…not
tomorrow, but the next day.” He looked at Johnny suspiciously. “Why? Do you
Johnny shook his
head. “No. I’m fine.” He looked around the room and gripped Scott’s forearm.
“Scott, I gotta have some clothes. Please?”
“Clothes. Why can’t
I have some drawers and a nightshirt?” Johnny’s voice rose franticly.
“What’s the matter
with you?” Scott stared at him in astonishment. He couldn’t understand why
Johnny was suddenly agitated—and about clothes of all things.
“You gotta get me
some clothes before Sam comes. Please, Scott?” He gazed wide-eyed at his
“I…I don’t trust
Scott felt Johnny’s
forehead, assuring himself that the fever hadn’t returned. “Since when do
you distrust Sam?” He didn’t understand this concern at all.
“I…I just don’t trust
him.” Johnny blushed and turned his head away. “Now, you gonna get me some
“No, Johnny. You
can’t have any pressure over that incision. But I’ll put a nightshirt on
you before Sam comes if you want me to.”
drooped as his body demanded rest. He sighed mournfully. “Want my drawers.
Murdoch took ‘em. How come I can’t have ‘em back?”
Scott covered Johnny’s
arm with the blanket. “Shhhh. Sleep now.”
Johnny gave him one
last, pleading look. “Ain’t safe without ‘em…” His eyes closed as sleep claimed
Scott watched him,
assuring himself that Johnny was actually asleep this time. He made a mental
note to ask Murdoch about his brother’s sudden concern about his drawers
and his distrust of the doctor. Unless he was sorely mistaken, there was a
good story lurking there somewhere.
He bent forward to
tuck the blanket firmly over Johnny’s bare shoulders. His aristocratic mouth
quirked into a fond smile as he recalled his brother’s trademark defiance.
Yes, Johnny was getting better. At least he felt well enough to rebel against
his helplessness. Keeping his stubborn sibling under control would prove
difficult from now on. He sat back in the armchair and grinned, proud of
the way he’d handled his brother’s rebellion.
Of course, he can’t get into too much trouble without his clothes. Maybe I’ll just keep them away from him until Sam says he can get up. That might do it. I don’t think he’ll dare try to pull that tube out now. I guess I do know how to put my foot down.