“Dammit, Johnny!” Murdoch roared as he went flying, his arms whirling, he caught himself just before he went headlong into the feed bin. He glanced around to see if anyone had seen as he straightened and tried to recover his dignity. He mumbled as he looked back at what he had tripped over. “How many times have I told you…” He had seen the offending object a split second before tripping on it.
Murdoch turned back and bent to pick up Johnny’s rifle and scabbard that was laying crossways across the path from the stalls to the door in the large barn. He hefted its weight, his brow wrinkled in a worried scowl. Why would Johnny drop his rifle here? Of all people, Johnny knew that taking care of firearms was paramount, next to taking care of your horse. Johnny was scrupulously careful with both his handgun and his rifle, cleaning and oiling them regularly. Murdoch froze when he turned the scabbard over and saw a large ugly blotch of dried, blackened blood.
Without an instant’s hesitation, Murdoch raced for the door and out into the paddock. All of his hands were out working, Jelly and Scott were in town and Teresa was in San Francisco. The resulting absence of activity, while usually benign, was disconcerting. Murdoch hurried to the house, through the paddock gates and around to the nearest door. Throwing open the door, he shouted, “Johnny!” He stepped into the living room and looked around. “Johnny, are you here?” No answer.
He hurried to the kitchen, and then finding nothing, out again. Next he ran upstairs, still shouting, “Johnny!” He froze in the upstairs hallway when he saw a single boot lying across the threshold of Johnny’s bedroom door. He covered the distance in three long strides and swung around the door, stepping over the prostrate form of his younger son.
Johnny was lying mostly inside the room, on his stomach. One arm was down along his side, the other reaching over his head. His face was still and pale, but Murdoch could see immediately the deep, ragged breaths and the effort Johnny was making to breathe. There was a blood soaked rag tied around his left thigh and some of the blood had dripped onto the carpet where Johnny lay. Murdoch noticed a mostly empty bottle of his own scotch lying under a nearby table where it had rolled when Johnny fell. The thick carpeting had prevented it from shattering.
Stooping, Murdoch placed a hand under Johnny’s shoulder and on his hip, and rolled him onto his back. Johnny’s head rolled as well, facing away from Murdoch. He gently took Johnny’s chin and rolled it back. “Johnny? Can you hear me?”
Johnny’s eyes flickered and then slowly opened. Looking around, they came to rest on the face of his father hovering so close to his own. “Hi, Murdoch. Glad you’re home. How ya doin’?” His voice was soft and weak, but filled with the humor that Murdoch had found came out at the most unexpected times.
“Well, son, I’m just fine. How are you doin’?”
Johnny looked up at the ceiling and shrugged. “Aw, okay I guess. Just hanging around.”
The alcohol smell rolled off him in waves with each word. Johnny didn’t seem in any immediate danger, nor did he appear in a lot of pain. Murdoch played along. “I wasn’t expecting you home tonight. Have you had dinner?”
“I stopped in the kitchen downstairs, but didn’t see anything I wanted.” Johnny was gazing up at the ceiling, examining the stucco. “Am I lying down?”
Murdoch smiled. “Well, yeah, you are. Don’t you remember?”
“How you got here?”
“No, how’d I get here?” He looked around the room. “Oh, this is my room. I remember now. I wanted to go to bed.”
As absurd as the situation was, and as concerned as Murdoch was about the wound on Johnny’s leg, he still felt like indulging his son. “Why didn’t you just lay down on the sofa downstairs?”
Johnny appeared to think very hard about that one. Then he said, “I didn’t want to get blood on it.” He closed his eyes and appeared to relax.
Murdoch was unaccountably touched, the tears threatened. Murdoch cleared his throat and plowed on. “You have a leak in your leg you know.”
It was Johnny’s turn to nod. “Yeah.” He heaved a heavy sigh and continued, “Yeah, it’s kinda been a bother for a couple of days.”
“A couple of days! C’mon, son. Let’s get you off the floor and into bed.”
Murdoch moved around Johnny’s head and placed both hands under his shoulders and lifted. Johnny came up easily, but once up, Murdoch had to hold him up. He pulled one of Johnny’s arms around his shoulder and walked him, mostly carrying him, over to the bed. Swinging him around, Murdoch sat him on the edge of the bed and began taking off his jacket.
Johnny slumped forward and leaned in, the top of his head resting against Murdoch’s stomach while Murdoch tugged and pulled to get the bolero jacket off. Next came the formerly white, now dirty brown shirt off over his head. Johnny was unresisting and pliable. Murdoch idly wondered how much of that bottle had been in there before Johnny got ahold of it. Thinking back to last night, he remembered having one glass and he thought he’d opened just a couple of nights ago. He figured that Johnny had drunk well over half of it.
Murdoch stooped down to take off Johnny’s boots, but missing his support, Johnny continued leaning down further and further until he was bent over Murdoch’s back. Okay, that’s not gonna work. Standing back up, Murdoch pushed Johnny back to a more or less sitting position. Taking his shoulders, Murdoch eased him back into the pillows and then reached down and swung his feet up to the bed.
“Johnny? You still with me?” he said as he began the difficult job of tugging the boots off.
Johnny’s eyes opened, watery and unfocused. “Yep. I’m here.”
“How did this happen, son?”
“I fell,” he said absently, trying to focus on his boot.
“You fell? You mean this isn’t a gunshot?” he said, gesturing to Johnny’s leg with a newly liberated boot.
“Hm? Oh, no. I mean, yes, that’s a gunshot.” Johnny was watching with great interest as Murdoch struggled with the second boot, pulling so hard that Johnny was in danger of sliding down the bed off the pillows. He had the presence of mind to reach up and grab hold of the headboard to counter the pulling with a little resistance of his own. Finally, the recalcitrant boot popped off and Murdoch had to take several steps back to steady himself and stop his backward momentum.
Johnny released the headboard, his limp arm falling and landing on the pillow above Johnny’s head, as he didn’t have the energy left to move it.
Murdoch sat on the edge of the bed and began unwrapping the filthy bandage from around Johnny’s left leg. Next would have to come the pants. “So, you gonna tell me about this?”
Johnny’s voice never sounded more child-like. Murdoch stopped and looked at his son’s face. It was pale, tending toward having a greenish tint. His expression was one of distress, not pain. Murdoch’s instincts kicked in and he lunged for the washbowl on the stand near the bed. “I know, son, hang on!”
He grabbed the bowl and managed to get it to the edge of the bed just as Johnny leaned over the side and heaved. Murdoch never considered himself much of a caregiver, he always left that to the womenfolk, but at that moment, in this place, he realized he wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. His son needed him, and that was a rarity in itself. He reached over to Johnny’s back with his free hand and rubbed it, making comforting circles. When Johnny finally finished, he hung limply over the side of the bed and took deep, shaky breaths.
Murdoch set the bowl on the floor and helped Johnny sit back up. Johnny’s face was wet with sweat and he was breathing hard and fast. His face was paler than Murdoch had ever seen him. Johnny had a dark, tanned complexion, but today, it was fairer than Teresa’s.
With his eyes still closed, Johnny gasped out between breaths, “I guess that’s what I get for drinkin’ on an empty stomach.” He continued to pant as he opened his eyes and favored his father with a grin.
“That’s what you get for drinking my good single malt sippin’ scotch.” Murdoch moved over to the washstand and took a clean cloth and dipped it in the water pitcher. He moved back over to the bed and laid it over Johnny’s forehead. Johnny took it and wiped his face, and then held it in his lap.
“Sorry, it was the first thing I grabbed,” he said with an embarrassed smile.
“I’ll forgive you if you’ll start telling me what happened. You were supposed to be in Modesto until next week.” Murdoch hoped that getting Johnny talking would distract him while he finished getting the bandage and his pants off. Both were more than likely stuck to the old wound.
Murdoch continued slowly unwrapping the rag. “I never made it to Modesto.” A grimace of pain shot across Johnny’s face as Murdoch pulled a particularly stiff piece of cloth away.
Murdoch stopped and looked up. “You never made it? What happened?”
Through clenched teeth, Johnny began again as Murdoch continued the slow, painful process. “Murdoch, you mind if I don’t talk right now? I’m having enough trouble trying to stay with you.”
“Sure, son. Uh, this is gonna hurt…” He pulled the last layer of the bandage off, which in turn pulled on the pants leg that was stuck to the wound underneath.
“Ah!” Johnny began to laugh, and then to cough. “Ahhh, that was a good one.” He held his head and squeezed his eyes shut, some tears squeezing out at the corners.
Murdoch shuddered to think how much that would have hurt if he hadn’t been tanked to the gills on scotch. He knew that was why Johnny had gone for the scotch. He wasn’t normally much of a drinker, and when he did drink, he preferred beer or regular whiskey.
Murdoch had never seen either of his sons drunk, but he was happy to see that Johnny was apparently a happy drunk. With his background, and especially his quick temper, he could so easily have gone the other way. That, and his fast gun could have been a lethal combination.
“Okay, son, we have to get these pants off.”
“Aw, do we hafta?” Johnny, his eyes still closed, had relaxed as the pain faded and his alcoholic haze settled back over him. Johnny tried to roll on his side away from Murdoch. “Can’t I just go to sleep?”
Murdoch reached over, took hold of his shoulder and pulled him back. “No, son, we have to get this thing cleaned up. I’ll do most of the work, I just need you to lift up when I say.”
Murdoch began unbuckling Johnny’s belt. Johnny reached down and tried to help, lifting his head to try and see what he was doing. Murdoch sat back for a minute and watched him struggle with the buckle. Fearing that Johnny was about to loose his temper with it, he laid his hand over Johnny’s and gently moved it out of the way. “Look, you got it! See? I’ll just do this…and a little of this…” Murdoch quickly unbuckled the buckle, his hands covering what he was doing. “Okay, now I need you to lift up…”
Johnny had closed his eyes and sighed, but he obeyed. He raised his hips up an inch or two, and Murdoch slid the pants down over them. Getting down near where the wound was, he slowed down, and peeled them away carefully. When they began sticking, he got up and fetched the water pitcher from the washstand. Pouring a little water on the area helped to loosen the stiff cloth. Johnny jumped at the cold water on his leg, but he didn’t move. The pants came away easier than Murdoch thought they would, and he was finally able to pull them off over Johnny’s feet. That left Johnny just wearing some long johns that he had cut off mid-thigh to wear as underwear, and his filthy not-so-white socks. Murdoch pulled off the socks and pulled the blankets over Johnny’s legs, then folding it back to expose just the area where the wound was.
It was in the outer aspect of his left thigh. The bullet had gone through the fleshy part and probably some muscle, and out the other side. Murdoch couldn’t tell, but if it hit the bone, it must have only glanced off it.
The area around the small hole was red and angry and puffy and the edges of the wound itself were black with encrusted blood. It was infected, but not seriously so. Probably just needed a good cleaning and to be left alone to heal.
Murdoch looked up at Johnny. He was lying still with his eyes closed, pale and sweating. He was stiffened, his hands clenched. After a moment, he began to relax and opened his eyes again. “Where’s that whiskey?”
Murdoch chuckled. “Don’t you think you should lay off that? You still haven’t eaten anything.”
“Oh yeah.” He thought hard for a minute. “Can I have something to eat?”
“What would you like?”
Johnny thought hard again. He seemed to be having trouble concentrating. Murdoch watched him, amused and sympathetic all at the same time.
He looked up, glowing with his new idea. “How ‘bout some of Teresa’s biscuits?”
“Alright, I’ll go see if there are some leftover from breakfast.” Murdoch stood up. “I’ll be right back. Don’t you try to get up now.”
“n’kay.” Johnny settled back down and laced his fingers together across his stomach.
Murdoch left and made his way down the stairs. In the kitchen, Consuela had just come in to prepare the evening meal. She lived with her husband, one of the ranch’s hands in a cabin about three miles from the main house. She came twice a day to prepare meals when Teresa wasn’t home, and sometimes, when she was. She also came every few days to clean. Entering the kitchen, Murdoch startled her.
“Consuela! I’m so glad you’re here. Do we have any biscuits?”
“Biscuits, Mister Lancer?”
“Yeah, Johnny’s been hurt and I think he needs to eat something. That’s what he wants.”
Consuela’s wrinkled, leathered face revealed her shock, but she hid it immediately and turned away. Murdoch knew that Consuela was very fond of Johnny, always treating him with just a bit more favoritism than anyone else. He flirted with her and she ate it up. He could have her blushing like a schoolgirl in minutes.
Without another word, Consuela bustled her considerable bulk over to the breadbox and pulled out a basket. It was empty. “I’m sorry, Mister Lancer, but I will make some right now.” She immediately set to work. “How is Mister Johnny?” She tried to make the question sound casual, but Murdoch could hear the strain in her voice.
“He’ll be alright. Just a leg wound, but he’ll be laid up for a few days.”
“Should I go get the senor doctor?”
“It won’t do any good. He’s in Stockton until next week.”
Consuela nodded solemnly. “I make very fine biscuits for Mister Johnny and I bring them up to you.”
“Thank you, Consuela.” Murdoch turned and left the kitchen, heading back upstairs to Johnny’s room.
As Murdoch approached Johnny’s room, he heard singing. Low, soft, but definitely singing. “…got a ten dollar horse and a forty dollar saddle…” Murdoch paused and listened for a minute, smiling. He rounded the corner into Johnny’s room. Johnny was still lying just as he’d left him, hands clasped on his stomach, eyes closed, and singing with a beatific grin on his face.
“What are you thinking about?” Murdoch interrupted, interested to see what wonderful thoughts were passing through Johnny’s head. Obviously they were happy ones.
Johnny stopped singing, but didn’t stop smiling. “I was just thinking about Teresa’s biscuits.”
Murdoch couldn’t help himself. He laughed out loud. “Well, Consuela’s making biscuits as we speak. Teresa’s in San Francisco, remember?”
Johnny’s eyes opened and looked to his father. “Oh yeah, I remember now. Well, Consuela makes good biscuits, too.” He continued humming the little tune he had been singing.
Murdoch went to the washstand and pulled a couple of towels down. Then he went to the bed and slid one of the towels up under Johnny’s leg. “Johnny, I’m going to have to clean this thing out.
Johnny stopped humming and frowned. “I know.”
Murdoch sat on the edge of the bed and looked at his son. He reached over and felt his forehead. It was warm, but not unduly hot. He decided not to put Johnny through anymore until he had eaten something and could drink some more of the scotch. If he were lucky, maybe he’d just pass out.
“You wanna tell me what happened now?”
Johnny struggled to focus on his father with watery blue eyes. “It was an accident.”
“Whose accident?” Murdoch sat straighter. “You didn’t shoot yourself, did you?”
Johnny laughed. “No, no, no.” He shook his head. “It was a mule.”
“A mule shot you?”
“Yup.” Johnny nodded his head up and down vigorously. “Whoa.” He reached for his head and held it still with both hands. “I shouldn’t do that.”
“Johnny, how did a mule shoot you in the leg?”
“Well, he didn’t mean too. Like I said, it was an accident.”
Murdoch nodded indulgently, “I know, but how did he do it?”
“With his hoof.”
Murdoch let out the deep breath he was holding. Amusement was quickly turning to frustration. He reined himself in. He really didn’t want to lose his temper. He had to fight it. He found that he had to fight it a lot since the boys had come to live with him. Some days, he was more successful than others. Right now, Johnny was so oblivious that he really couldn’t be angry with him.
Murdoch smiled, trying to engage Johnny so he wouldn’t fall asleep yet. “So, was it his rifle?”
“No, it was mine.”
“The mule…shot you…with your own rifle?”
Murdoch raised his hand. “I know, I know, it was an accident.”
“It really was. He was a good mule, he didn’t mean to hurt anyone.” Johnny’s face looked like he had lost his best friend.
“Was? He’s not…is he?” Murdoch said, suddenly worried.
Johnny looked up, surprised. “Oh, no! No, he’s not…” He didn’t say the word, only making a gesture with his hand.
Johnny’s eyes were drooping, his head bobbing. Murdoch knew it was hopeless to try and get any more information out of him. The story would come out eventually, but it wasn’t important right now. What was important, and what he was immensely grateful and relieved about was that Johnny was home, he was safe, and he would be all right. He’d have one heck of a hangover in the morning, but he would be all right.
After a few minutes of watching Johnny doze, sitting straight up, Murdoch turned as Consuela bustled in with a tray full of biscuits, butter and honey. Johnny woke immediately on her arrival. Murdoch stood to make room for her.
“Consuela, my love!” Johnny reached out both arms to her. She put the tray down on his lap and took both of his hands.
“Mister Johnny, I am so glad you look okay. You feel okay?”
“Si, si, I feel very okay. How are you?”
Consuela apparently caught a whiff of Murdoch’s fifty-year-old single malt scotch on Johnny’s breath. She glanced briefly at Murdoch who shrugged.
“I am quite well, Mister Johnny. You have been drinking, no?”
“No. I mean, yes. Well, I had just a little…” He held up his thumb and finger about an inch apart. He gave up trying to explain and said simply, “My leg hurt.”
Consuela nodded her head. She reached for the tray and moved it over to the bed. Pulling the blanket back, she looked at the inflamed leg. “Madre de Dios! No wonder! We will have to take care of this!”
Johnny made a futile grab at the blanket. “Consuela! I’m in my shorts here!” No one paid any attention to him.
Murdoch stepped forward and interjected, “I was just about to, but he needed a little bit more…uh…anesthesia.”
Consuela nodded knowingly. “Ahhh, I see. Yes, we must…but first, you eat.” She quickly covered the leg again and reached for the tray. “I made you nice hot biscuits and your favorite- butter and honey.”
Johnny’s eyes widened at the spread before him. He reached for one of the small biscuits and didn’t even bother with the butter. He was too hungry to wait. He ate that one while Consuela broke a second one and spread butter and honey on it. When he finished the first, she handed him the second. While he was eating that she asked if he wanted another. He didn’t answer, just nodded. His head bobbed up and down. He reached up with one hand and squeezed his eyes shut. He moaned, but he didn’t stop eating.
He only ate half of the third and then held up his hand to stop. He remembered throwing up earlier and decided he didn’t want to risk that again. He did feel better though. Having something in his stomach helped with the gnawing, burning sensation that the scotch had caused.
“Mister Lancer, please allow me to take care of this. I have had much experience with this kind of wound.”
Murdoch was happy to let Consuela take over, but he planned on staying and helping. He sidestepped over to where the bottle of scotch had rolled across the floor and picked it up. He handed it to Consuela. “You might need this,” he said with a smile.
Consuela looked askance at it and set it on the bedside table. Johnny looked longingly at it, but didn’t attempt to pick it up.
“Mister Johnny, you will let me clean this for you?”
Johnny cast a worried look over to Murdoch. “She’s right Johnny, she’s had a lot more experience with this sort of thing than I have.”
“I know. Why can’t we just leave it be? It’ll be better in the morning.”
“If we don’t clean it, Mister Johnny, you could be dead in the morning.”
Murdoch knew she was exaggerating, but he was grateful for her directness. “Johnny, you know we need to take care of it, it’s gone too long already.”
“I know.” Johnny looked resigned to his fate. Having Consuela messing around with his naked leg was not high on his list of lifelong ambitions, but he decided that it would not be any better to have Murdoch do it. He reached for the bottle from the bedside table. He drank, less to ward off pain, and more to squelch the embarrassment.
Consuela sent Murdoch to find bandages, while she made quick, efficient work of the job. She had it thoroughly cleaned and ready to be bandaged inside of five minutes. Johnny clutched the bottle by his side. After the first two swallows, he had forgotten all about it in his effort to keep from crying out or moving too much while Consuela put hot pokers, he was quite sure, into his wound and twisted them around.
Without a word, and almost in one motion, Consuela glanced over at Murdoch perched on the other side of the bed, took the bottle of scotch from Johnny’s limp hand, took a big swig of it herself, whispered “sangre de Christo!” and then poured a fair amount of it directly onto the red, raised wound on Johnny’s leg.
Murdoch rose up on his haunches, Johnny arched and ground his teeth, determined not to cry out, but a moan and a squeak escaped nevertheless. He breathed hard through clenched teeth and a fresh sweat broke out on his face. Murdoch reached over and put both hands on Johnny’s shoulders, holding him down until he calmed and sank back into the pillows.
Johnny summoned strength enough to laugh, “Thanks, Consuela, that’s just what I wanted you to do with Murdoch’s good sippin’ scotch.”
Her eyes twinkling, but with a no-nonsense air, Consuela quickly wrapped the leg with clean white bandages and tied them off. Johnny was pale and sweating profusely. Consuela took a clean washcloth and began bathing the rest of Johnny’s body as she hummed under her breath. The cool felt good on his face, arms and chest. He began to relax and finally feel somewhat human again. She even washed his feet before pulling the blankets back into place.
Johnny knew he must not have smelled too fair, what with three days of sweat, dirt, blood and not a small amount of alcohol permeating the air around him. He lay back, closed his eyes and allowed this angel of a woman to wash away the pain, the exhaustion and what was left of his dignity.
Murdoch went to Johnny’s dresser and pulled out a nightshirt and brought it back to Consuela. Johnny was lying pale against the pillows, eyes closed and breathing heavily. The flurry of activity had sapped what was left of his strength.
“Johnny, I’m gonna raise you up a bit so Consuela can put this shirt on you.”
Johnny nodded and tried to help, holding Murdoch’s arms and pulling himself up. Consuela slipped the nightshirt over his head and pulled it down. “There now, Mister Johnny, you feel better.” It wasn’t a question, it was a demand.
Johnny sighed and nodded without opening his eyes. He was about to drift off when a loud bang and “Johnny!! Murdoch!!” broke the silence of the mostly empty house. It wasn’t empty anymore. “Where is everybody?! Johnny!!”
Murdoch hurried out to the hall, “Scott, we’re up here!”
Consuela came behind him and ducked under his arm. “I go fix dinner now, you come down in one hour.” Her directives sounded like commands, but they were loving and she had nothing but respect for her employers.
Scott passed Consuela in the hallway and tipped his hat as she wordlessly passed him. “What’s going on, Murdoch? Johnny’s horse is running around loose out there and his saddle’s on the ground…”
“Come on in, Scott. Johnny’s been hurt.”
Scott paled, and rushed past Murdoch into Johnny’s room. Scott removed his hat and pulled his gloves off as he crossed the room and sat on the edge of his brother’s bed. “Well, brother, what’d you do this time?” taking in the pale face, and exhausted features.
“Scott! Thank God, you’re here. Consuela’s trying to kill me!”
“Johnny, are you drunk?”
Johnny looked up into his brother’s eyes. “Yes. Yes, I am,” Johnny said matter-of-factly.
Scott picked up the bottle of scotch and examined it, noting that it was almost empty. Still holding the bottle aloft, he turned to Murdoch with a questioning gaze. Murdoch helpfully submitted, “A mule shot him.” When Scott opened his mouth to reply, Murdoch quickly added, “but it was an accident.”
Scott continued to stare at his father, mouth open, still holding the bottle. “Murdoch, are you drunk, too?”
A moan from Johnny turned their attention back to him. Johnny was turning over on his right side and settling in. In seconds, his breathing deepened and he was fast asleep.
Scott rose from the bed and straightened the covers, pulling them up to Johnny’s shoulder. “Well, I can see I’m not gonna get anything else out of him tonight.” Looking down at his brother, he felt his father’s hand on his shoulder.
“Believe me, son, it will be worth waiting for.”
Scott eyed his father. “You’re unusually chipper.”
Murdoch’s gaze strayed back to his younger son, sleeping peacefully and pain free. He was sure to pay the price in the morning, but tonight, Murdoch could only be glad Johnny had made it home, and he had his family to take care of him.
found that sometimes, not knowing is okay. Sometimes the end of the
story is all we have, and sometimes, it’s enough.” He clapped his
older son on the shoulder. “So, how about having dinner with your