The Boy

Part Eight

by  Karen and Nancy



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.


“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 of good.”


Tommy looked up at his father, who nodded his consent, and then sprinted toward the kitchen door.


“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 sendin’ word.”



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 younger son.


“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 surely.”


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 told.


“Any change while I was asleep?”


“No, son.”


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?”


“Yes, son.”


“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 with tears.


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 head.


Tommy nodded.


“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.


“Of course.”


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.


“Johnny?” Tommy’s 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’s shoulder.  


“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’s right.”


“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 been crying.”


“I don’t want Johnny to die.”


“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.”


 As 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.


“Special place?” 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 tears.


Murdoch swallowed 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’, Uncle M?”


“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 sobbed.


“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 man.


“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.


“There’s something 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 die.”


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, God…”


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 could.”


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 another episode.


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. Stop it.


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 nothing.


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.


Murdoch reappeared, jar in one hand and Tommy’s hand in the other, and the two walked towards their audience.


“Are you all right, sir?” Scott asked nervously.


“I’m fine, son.”


“Whatcha doin’, Boss?” Jelly couldn’t keep the worry from his voice.


“Catching shooting 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 and son.


“I’ve done everything I know to do, but Johnny is getting weaker. It’s just a matter of time now. I’m sorry.”


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 his father.


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 door.


A sense of unease crept over Sam. Murdoch seemed to be looking right through him. “Murdoch, what--”


“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 and son.


“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, either.”



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 son’s eyes.


“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, son?”


Scott pulled away from his father and looked at the floor. “I’d like a few minutes with him first.”


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 his brother.


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.


“Thanks, Jelly.”


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 time, too.”


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 Johnny.”


A sad smile lightened Scott’s tear-stained face, “He called me ‘Boston’…”



Murdoch tenderly 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.


“Losing Catherine 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 beside me.”


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 the hour.


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 oblivion.






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 from me?”


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 Lancer.”


“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 nearby.


“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 mother!”


“But why did you kill him?”


“He was gonna kill me. I was scared. I told him to back off, but he kept comin’ after me and I…shot him.”


“You killed him in self defense?”


“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 have to…”


“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?”


Johnny’s crooked 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 conceded.


“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.


“Tears for…me…Old Man?”


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 door.


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.


Tears threatened 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.


“John…Johnny?” He 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 chair. “Murdoch?”


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 chair.


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.


Sam straightened 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 his kidneys--”


Murdoch laughed. “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 bed, Scott.”


“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?”


Jelly’s whiskers 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 the door.


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 next morning…


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 thick forearm.


Si, 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 before?”


“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?”


Tommy’s expression 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.”


Cipriano stepped 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 schedule.”


Si. 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 Johnny.



“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.”


“Just wanted…you…come 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 me here.”




“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 you.”


“You…always do.”


“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 unison.


“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 so.”


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.


 “Getting 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 of himself.



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 hours.


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 eyes opened.


“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 me.”


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.”


“You are…mad.”


“Mad is not the word I’d choose, little brother.”


//Mad 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 lecture.//


“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’.”





Johnny’s weakened 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 and face.


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.



4 days later…


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.


Their discussion 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?”


“Awake…I think.” 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?”


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 shrugged.


“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 us, Johnny.”


“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…”


“Please, Johnny.”


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 tale.”


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.


“This contraption 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. “Jelly…”


“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.


“Whatcha gettin’ 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 the bed.


“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 bed.


“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.


“Please, Jelly…need…want 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.”


Jelly recognized 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 little gal—”


“Here now! I told you not to go blabbin’ ‘bout that.” Jelly huffed, amazed that Johnny recalled that conversation.


“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 face.


“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?”


Johnny pointedly 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, Scott.”


“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 like one.”


“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 away.


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 irritable reply.


“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 you’re okay?”


Johnny glared at him.


“We were terribly concerned about your kidneys, you know. They didn’t appear to be functioning at all.”


A sudden healthy glow stained Johnny’s cheeks. “Well, now they won’t quit functionin!”


“Oh, so you do need to…”


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.”


“You’re welcome.” 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’ back?”


“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 need him?”


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 brother.




“I…I don’t trust him.”


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 drawers?”


“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.”


Johnny’s eyelids 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 him.


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.




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