Laughter and smoke filled the saloon while whiskey glasses could be heard cheerfully clinking against one another or being pounded onto the wooden tabletops, with loud boisterous drunken voices calling out across the room for refills. Oil lamps were lit high upon the ceiling, perched on weathered wagon wheels, casting a soft orange glow that lit the saloon and the darkened street just outside the swinging doors. One man clung, his arm draped over the arched curve of said door, singing at the top of his lungs, his free arm swaying to the melody of an old, slightly off key, cowboy tune. No one minded, leastwise not Johnny Lancer.
The room was crowded; bursting to the seams it appeared to any passersby who may have ventured a courageous peek into the raucous establishment called The Misty River. So named because of the morning mist that forever covered the Green River that gave the town and the rowdy saloon its name. Some folks thought the name too prosaic and tame for such a heathenish place, but the name had stuck and every cowpoke, from every neighboring ranch was usually found within its four walls either on a Friday or Saturday night.
Such were the findings on this night, the hottest most horrendously uncomfortable day of the year since summer had wrapped its sultry wings around the heads and hearts of every working man who had suffered unbearably while they worked the fences, herded cattle or in some cases, fearlessly stomped, flagged and stifled fields that had caught on fire. All hard working men who deserved a little break, a time for letting off steam and drowning their complaints, with the promise of a morrow that would allow them all to sleep off their shared binges, their pockets a little lighter for having done so.
Johnny sat at the poker table, his brother Scott to his right, his friend and sheriff of Green River, Val to his left. They shared their table, their beer and the ever-present saloon girls, Betty and Sue Ann, with three others from the D-Bar-D ranch, Clay, Pete and Trent. All young, fair haired and full of youthful energy and a penchant for the gaming tables as soon as they had two cents to rub together after payday.
The hand Johnny held was good, more than good he thought without letting on to any of the others. He held the club and spade of Aces, the club and spade of Eights, with a five of diamond kicker just to give the hand a little color. His musing of such a hand was cut short when another twinge caught him up good. This time the pain was a little stronger and he shifted in his seat, his eyes never leaving his cards, his face devoid of any inconvenience he was feeling.
To the other onlookers at the table, Johnny’s discomfort was taken as a sign of mild concentration, all of them wondering if and when he was going to make the first bet. They didn’t have to wait long. Johnny tossed in five dollars, his dark blue eyes shooting up and catching the light flashing blue of Clay’s without so much as a flinch when he felt another slight twinge the movement of his arm cost him.
“Bout damn time,” Val groused from beside him, tossing in his five dollars to stay in the game.
Johnny laid his cards face down, catching Val from the corner of his eyes while making a conscious effort to keep his mouth shut concerning his friend’s grumbling comment. Instead, Johnny fingered the shot glass filled with tequila watching each man as they made their bets until it was time for his brother to place one or fold as Pete had done right after Val’s first bet.
He was hurting and he didn’t know why, but Johnny had to smile in spite of it when it came time for Scott to bid. His brother didn’t have a poker face at all and Johnny knew right off that Scott thought he had a winning hand. Johnny made a mental note to talk to his newly acquired brother again about what it meant to have a poker face and how to go about achieving the look one needed to keep ones hand a secret before all bids went round the table.
It wasn’t that Scott lit up like a beacon or anything, no, his brother was more subtle than that, but his eyes would get a gleam in them that even the worst poker player could read. He also noted that when Scott’s hand was good, he had a habit of flicking the corners of his cards on the table a few times subconsciously before sitting back, with his cards held tight in his hands and close to his chest.
Trent threw in his five-dollar bet to stay in the game, rubbing a sandy brow above one arched earthy brown colored eye before glancing over at Scott to see what he would do with his turn. As expected, Scott, ever the strategist in Johnny’s opinion, leaned back in his chair, his beer mug going to his mouth as he pretended to contemplate whether or not he wanted to bet the hand he held. Johnny knew his next move would be to set his beer down, rifle his coins thoughtfully and then lean back one more time, his mouth going up on one side as if the debate to fold or stay in was a momentous decision he had to make. Which it wasn’t. But what the heck, his brother was making all the rest of them sweat, or was it the stifling heat? Johnny didn’t know for sure as he rubbed his fingers over the nagging spot that kept bothering him every so often.
Johnny sat back in his chair, more comfortable now that the twinge he had been feeling seemed to be subsiding, the next bid his, when Scott threw down his bet, as he knew he would and raised him.
The coins were tossed, five dollars with five more to the next man who wanted to stay in. Scott grinned at his brother and said, “That’ll be five more little brother. Still want to play?”
Johnny picked up his cards, Aces and eights. Not a bad combination and one that Johnny didn’t think any of them at the table could beat. With his head slightly bent and his hat effectively hiding a small portion of his face from the others, Johnny smiled his eyes narrowing, considering his next move carefully before taking a quick look at Scott then back again to his cards. With a flick of his wrist, he tossed ten dollars in the pot, two five dollar half eagles and hoped the bidding went round one more time before anyone else threw in their cards.
“Neither one of you boys is getting off that easy. Ten dollars and I’ll raise yah another two Clay iffen yah wanna stay in!” Val told everyone a little louder than he intended too, by now the mix of beer and the occasional shot of whiskey, loosening his thick tongue and making him anxious for a win as the pot began to grow on its second go round.
Clay shifted his hat, pulled a drink on his beer and with a lopsided grin, threw in twelve bucks, “I’m still in you old buzzard. I gotta a good hand and the rest of yah can eat my dust when I take all your money.”
“Who you callin’ an old buzzard, yah tight fisted little mongrel?” Val asked the young man sitting to his left, his complexion under his scruffy beard a ruddy red from all the liquor he had been consuming while they played.
“I’m a callin’ you an old buzzard Val,” Clay remarked sluggishly as he ran long tapered tan fingers through his sun-bleached hair and resettled his hat when he was done. Sparkling light blue eyes, danced with laughter as he chugged at his beer and drained the glass. “You’re up Trent, in or out?” Clay asked, his voice just as thick, sluggish and loud as Val’s sounded.
Trent threw his cards on the table with disgust, knowing better than to keep up the bluff he’d been making with his last bet, “Too rich for my blood. I’m out boys. It’s up to you now Scott.”
Seeing that Trent was done with his hand, Betty sauntered over to his side, hands on her hips and with a red lipped smile sat down on his lap, a welcoming grin and open arms, all the encouragement the lady in blue sateen and black flouncing feathers needed to wrap her arms around his neck while they watched the rest of the game get played out. Trent held her tight, playing with the dark spiraling curls that tickled his neck when Betty leaned in, putting her painted face up next to his, giggling in his ear when she felt his hand move down her back and toward her bottom.
When Johnny saw that his brother was getting a little distracted by the exhibition sitting next to him, his right boot found a mark on Scott’s and brought his brother’s thoughts back to his hand.
‘Red Kings and black Tens,’ Scott reminded himself. ‘Too bad this isn’t a full house. Still though, it has to be the best hand.’ Scott looked at his brother, gauging what he thought his brother might have. Seeing nothing on Johnny’s face, no clue whatsoever, Scott moved his eyes to Val. ‘So he thinks he’s got a hand better than me. I can’t wait to wipe that smug look off his face when he finally gets to see what I have.’ Scott moved his eyes from Val and took in the pot sighing, ‘That’s a lot of money on the table.’ His gaze drifted past Val to Pete, Sue Ann stood right behind the man who had to be about his age he guessed, wondering how it was that Pete could just sit there while the pretty redhead kept rubbing her bosom all over the back of his head and nibbled on his neck. ‘Maybe, that’s why Pete cut out so soon. He couldn’t concentrate on his cards with Sue Ann hanging all over him.’
Scott felt the touch of Johnny’s boot again, effectively bringing him out of his reverie, “Twelve dollars. That’s a hefty bet fellas, but I’m in and Johnny, I raise you eight more.”
Without any thought at all to it, Johnny tossed a gold double eagle onto the table. Now the stakes were really high. If these men wanted to keep playing it was going to cost them. He wanted the game to end, but he didn’t want to lose all the cash he had on the table either. Scott had surprised him just a little when he upped the ante, but then his brother thought he had the best hand, so why not. Hell bent on winning this hand and then getting out of the stuffy saloon as soon as he could, Johnny threw in a bet he didn’t figure the rest of the men would follow.
Val eyeballed Johnny and with a frustrated huff, threw his cards face down, crossing his arms magnanimously in defeat after shoving back the old tattered hat he wore on his head. Sue Ann giggled, releasing Pete’s neck from her large ample breast and plopped down on the lap of the rumpled sheriff, pulling his arms apart and wrapping them around her tiny waist as she did so. The dark velvety red of her dress a stark contrast to the rumpled black and white that Val wore. “Don’t worry ‘bout it sugar, you’ll win next time,” the fancy girl told him, tinkling with light laughter, kissing Val on the cheek to help cheer him up, which it did tremendously.
Pete’s honey colored eyes looked temporarily put out by the fact that Sue Ann had left him for Val, but he was drunk and tired, and gave the situation little more than just a passing quick flash of jealousy before he saw that Val was mollified by her attention and it was his friend Clay who now had to make a bet.
Clay didn’t think he had enough in his hand to make it pay in the end. He had one pair, and a sad pair it was being that it was only a set of sixes. With the bets on the table as high as they were, he didn’t think a bluff would get him anywhere, so he folded and now it was up to Scott. Brother against brother.
Scott knew it was his turn, but he wasn’t quite sure if he should play on or let it go. Being of a competitive nature though, he soon convinced himself that playing out the hand was for the best. He wanted to see what his brother had because he didn’t really think there was any way that Johnny could have gotten lucky enough to draw better pairs than he had. Curiosity and a desire to win the game got the better of him and so it was that Scott Lancer met his brother’s bet and called him on it.
Chipping in his coins, Scott laid down his red pair of Kings and his black pair of Tens. “Read ‘em and weep, brother.” Scott smiled and drank the last of his beer, sliding a sidelong glance at his little brother who hadn’t said more than just a few words the whole game.
Johnny made no move to show his cards right away. Betty and Sue Ann were shoved off the laps of Val and Trent, as all four men who had folded, sat up and leaned in toward the table, waiting to see whether Johnny won or lost to his older brother. Everyone, including Scott, expected Johnny’s hand to be of little or no consequence after seeing the Kings and Tens laid out on the table.
Johnny sighed, wincing when another twinge tweaked his stomach. Every man at the table saw it, mistaking the hurtful sound for that of defeat. Scott grinned and started to reach across the table, his hands splayed to gather his bounty, when he felt a firm grip on his left forearm.
Looking down first at the dark hand that had stopped his movement then up to Johnny’s face, Scott knew in that instant that he had lost. ‘But how?’ his mind asked, his slate gray eyes darting to Johnny’s left hand which was slowly planting the cards face up for all to see.
In that very moment, time stood still, the only registering thought in Scott’s head was how loud the piano player suddenly sounded to his ears as the musical keys under nimble fingers played on and on, until laughter and mayhem around the table jolted him out of his time warp. ‘Aces and Eights, Aces and Eights,’ his brain then repeated over and over as his hands slumped to the table coming to an abrupt halt.
Then as if by magic, the crowded noises invaded Scott’s thinking. The smoke suddenly seemed stifling and the fancy girls, too bright and colorful to look at any longer with their garish makeup, frilly dress and puffed up hairdos.
The pomp and starch was completely drained out of him as Scott leaned back in his chair, listening to the congratulatory comments from their friends and neighbors and those too of men who had been watching from the bar or from nearby tables. Unlike what he had planned to do, the money still sat in the middle of the table, untouched by a very quiet and shy grinning Johnny who didn’t know what to say or do with all the sudden attention that was aimed in his direction.
Looking over at his brother, Scott could see that a faint flush of red was creeping up his brother’s neck and his eyes, those oceanic blue eyes, never wavered from hands that were laying palms down on the table, fingertips still touching those damn Aces and Eights. Johnny shifted in his seat and from Scott’s vantage point he thought his brother was getting more and more uncomfortable with the attention the longer it went on.
Though he had lost the game to his little brother, Scott was glad that it was Johnny that beat him and not one of the other men. In the short time that he’d known his little brother he figured that if anybody deserved to win, it was Johnny. He’d won so little in his life other than gunfights, who was he to begrudge a win such as this.
Scott tapped Johnny’s forearm to get his attention. When Johnny looked up at him, his heart skipped a beat for the brief look of panic he saw registered there, before it was completely wiped away with one blink of Johnny’s long inky lashes. “Good game brother,” Scott said. He nodded toward Johnny’s untouched shot of tequila, “You want to finish that up?”
Val clamped Johnny on the back before he could answer; “Well that’s it for me Johnny Boy. You two take it easy goin’ home tonight. Don’t get any fancy notions about ridin’ out helter skelter and breakin’ your darn fool necks afore you git home.”
Johnny lifted his chin to his friend, eyeing him from beneath the brim of his hat, “You do the same Val.”
Pete, Clay and Trent stood up too, “Guess we’re all headin’ back to the D-Bar-D. See yah both next Saturday maybe?” Clay asked, his bright blue eyes just a little duller now that the hour was late, and the drink was all gone.
With an imperceptible nod of his head, Johnny said, “Maybe.”
Clay nodded back, “Scott we’ll be seein’ yah then. It was nice to get a chance to play some cards with yah.”
Scott stood up and always the gentleman, even if he felt like he was three sheets to the wind, held out his hand and shook Clay’s and then the rest of them before they all turned and left the saloon with hearty goodbyes called out behind them to a few of the ranch hands still drinking the night away. Betty and Sue Ann followed them out into the night, squeals of delight and playful teasing laughter floating over the curved bat wing doors of the saloon as they batted and swung closed behind them.
Scott sat down and Johnny tilted the shot of tequila back and forth on the table surface as they took a few minutes to themselves before saying anything. When several minutes passed, Scott finally asked his brother, “You want to stay a little longer?”
The glass stilled. No Johnny didn’t want to stay any longer, but he wasn’t sure if he got up or leaned across the table, he could do it without causing that nagging ache to come right back again. He wasn’t feeling all that well and if the truth be told, he was so tired right now he didn’t think he could make it all the way back to Lancer without falling asleep in the saddle. But Scott wanted an answer and so Johnny gave him one, “Nope.”
Resigning himself to the inevitable pain he might get for doing it, Johnny leaned sideways and pulled a small leather pouch from the right side of his backside pocket and feeling no soreness, began to put the winning coins inside it. When he was finished and had the little bag tied, he looked over at Scott and gave him a nod. “Guess I’m buyin’ the first round, next time we’re in town.”
Scott smiled at his brother and clapped him on the shoulder, “I guess I’m going to let you.”
They stood up and amidst the drunken gaudy behavior of the men who stayed inside the bar, the two brothers made their way across the room and out the swinging doors and to their horses.
Johnny put his money pouch inside his saddlebags first thing before unwrapping the reins from the hitching post. Before he mounted up and while Scott looked on, Johnny gave Barranca’s neck a smooth hand, talking to him all the while in Spanish, the melodious words uncomprehending to the eastern man who grew up learning many languages, Spanish not being one of them. He marveled not for the first time, when he watched Barranca’s ears perk up and sway his golden head toward the lilting voice, soft nickering the answer to whatever it was that Johnny was saying to him, then a gentle nudge, Barranca’s way of reaching out and making a connection to Johnny that was almost ethereal under the velvet night sky.
As Johnny responded with a hearty rub to the back of Barranca’s ear, Scott wondered again at the relationship between this man, his brother, and the powerful stallion. He didn’t really understand it. But then again he hadn’t had to depend on an animal for survival the way Johnny had growing up in the west. Maybe that was the difference he mused, watching his brother put his boot in the stirrup and mount up with a fluid grace that always surprised him.
Johnny pulled to the left and nosed his horse in the direction of Lancer, no thoughts on his mind other than the long ride back. He was tired but he was alert, for traveling back even at this late hour could always present a danger. Scott reined his horse around and was soon riding beside him, glad that the moon was high and the light that radiated from it was enough to let them see the road clearly.
It would take them nearly an hour to reach home Scott thought, a little longer than normal with the slower pace they had to maintain in the darkness that enshrouded them when they rode away from the bright lights of the saloon. The silence was truly quiet now that they were well past the town city limits, the stillness more than Scott could bear with such a long trek back, he decided to try and start a conversation with his brother. “It’ll be good to get home.”
There was a temporary moment of stark silence that stretched between them, almost to the point where Scott thought his brother wasn’t going to respond. “We’ll be back to Lancer before you know it,” came the soft, carefully worded words from Johnny.
Scott held his reins lightly, letting his horse Sheridan, do all the work. It hadn’t escaped him that Johnny still referred to their new home as Lancer. Not once in the past five months could Scott ever recall Johnny calling the land and the house they now shared, home. He wondered why that was and decided to ask, “How come you never call Lancer, home?”
Scott could hear a deep sigh from Johnny, wondering if he would get an answer. He looked sideways at his brother, noting that Johnny shifted in his saddle and readjusted the bandanna he wore around his neck.
Without turning to look at his brother Johnny finally answered him the best he could, “Guess I’ll call it home when it starts to feel like home to me.”
“You don’t feel like Lancer is your home?” Scott questioned, hardly expecting this answer.
Johnny glanced over at his brother and then back to the road, his shoulders stiff with unexpected tension, the words in his head, carefully guarded from saying too much and from saying something he thought might offend his brother. How could he explain that he had never had a real home before and at any minute he expected this windfall in his life to just up and disappear just like so many times before. What would his brother, a man he didn’t know very well, other than what he’d learned since coming to Lancer, know about not having a home? Hadn’t he been brought up with the best that life could offer? Hadn’t he always had a roof over his head, food in his belly and clothes on his back? Hadn’t Scott always had someone in his life that loved and cared for him, treating him the way any boy with a good family should be treated?
He laughed under his breath and Scott heard it. Johnny knew he heard it because he could sense his brother tense up and Sheridan was instantly spooked by the agitation emanating from his rider and the tightened grip on the reins. Scott leaned over Sheridan’s neck, rubbing the velvety smooth hair and strong muscles with a steady palm, calming the horse with reassuring words, “Easy boy, it’s all right.”
Johnny took a deep breath, that twinge from earlier was coming back, Scott’s question now forgotten as he kept his brother from seeing his brief torment. Through his dulling senses he heard Scott say, “So what will it take for you to feel like Lancer is your home and not just some place where you hang your hat for the time being?”
The quirky pain began to subside just as quickly as it made its presence known. Johnny could breathe normally again. He swallowed, not wanting to do this question and answer thing with Scott right now, but if he didn’t give his brother an answer he thought Scott would just keep pestering him all the way back. “Guess it’ll just take time,” came the slow drawling response.
With that answer, Johnny spurred his horse and the two of them took off at a faster pace, effectively letting Scott know that the question and answer game had come to an end. Scott watched him ride away, the silvery light from the moon doing little to dispel the shadows that haunted his brother’s past and even less the darkness that filled his soul.
The following day was just as hot and just as sticky as the day before. The only thing good about it in Johnny’s opinion was that he wasn’t expected to get up early. He lay on his bed, the covers everywhere else but on him, having been kicked or shoved off during the night because the heat hadn’t let up much. The morning light was still faint, early, but not nearly as early as he normally got up because then it would have still been dark outside.
Murdoch and Teresa would be up, he was sure of that. They always went to church on Sunday and Johnny didn’t expect that this Sunday would be any different. His brother Scott usually accompanied them, but he figured after all the drinking and the late night gambling, his brother would forego the weekly ritual and sleep in.
Lying on his bed, with little on but a pair of cut off underpants, Johnny rubbed his flat belly and touched the spot where the little twinges had been plaguing him lately. No sign of them this morning and he was grateful for small favors. He reasoned as soon as they started that it must be some after effect from having been shot on the same side in the back by Pardee’s bullet. He’d been shot and stabbed before, several times in fact and there had been times when his wounds had given him grief weeks sometimes months afterward. He chalked this nagging recurring little pain in the lower part of his stomach to the same set of standards all his other wounds had given him in the past and chose to ignore it just like he had all the other times.
Rolling over, he crossed his arms under his face and closed his eyes. Hoping he would fall back to sleep but knowing that he wouldn’t. Once he was awake in the morning that was usually it for him. The best he could look forward to if he hadn’t got much sleep the night before was a short siesta under a nice shady tree in the middle of the day. A habit he had formed years ago when he was still but just a child, a custom his mama’s people partook of whether it rained or shined, every day of the year.
Thinking of his mama made him sigh into the crook of his arm. Dark sapphire eyes opened, clouding over, Maria’s memory, one mixed with a deep abiding love, sorrow, fear and now, hate. He still didn’t know what to think of Teresa’s revelations to him. Johnny hadn’t asked his father. He couldn’t. If he didn’t ask then there was still the chance that Teresa and her father had gotten it all wrong. But somewhere deep down in his heart he knew the story of his mother and how she had left, taking him with her was true. And for all that he hated her, his mama, his heart warring with the long held love he had always felt for her even when she hadn’t been the kind of mother he had needed and wanted in his life for those too few years he’d had her and knew no differently.
His mama had told him that his father had kicked them out. She told him that she had been forced to take him with her and that he was just as unwanted by the rich gringo as she had been. Johnny squeezed his eyes closed hearing his mama say, “He never wanted you niño. You were always a reminder of his evil sins. Never go to him. Never seek him out. He will do nothing but destroy you if you dare. He hates me for being Mexican and he hates you even more for being his mestizo.” Johnny never understood how his father could have married his mother if he had always felt that way about her.
Back then the words had hurt. He had wanted his father and this was the response he got when he had asked about him. He remembered running from the tiny shack they had been living in, running and running as fast as his feet could take him, finding refuge in the dark interior of a stable, throwing his little body down into the hay, crying his heart out for all the lost dreams he had been building in his heart, that one day his father would come for him. Those dreams were shattered and broken by the only person he had ever loved, so how could they be not be true. He never dreamt that his mother would ever lie to him. He never thought for one minute that all that they had endured had been from his mama’s choosing and not because his father had kicked them out.
A little boy didn’t know how to put the shattered dreams back together again, but now here he was, twenty years old, his life a mosaic picture, still broken and shattered but now roughly pieced together creating a new image that had hope and promise looking back at him. All Johnny had to do was accept the hope and promise his father, the man he had despised for years, offered him, setting aside all the wrongs his mother had accused his father of. Doing so meant that he had to believe the story Teresa told him, a hard thing to do when all he had to do was close his eyes and see his mama’s laughing, smiling face before the dreadful day that changed his life forever.
The room was getting brighter, the sun shining vivid and gold just beyond the dark drapes that lined his window. His nose crinkled, the wafting aroma of breakfast cooking, drifted up the stairs and under his closed door. His stomach rumbled. Johnny remembered he hadn’t eaten much the day before and suddenly he was very hungry.
He flipped over, wanting to get up but at the same time wanting to be lazy and just stay in bed. However his stomach was having no such thoughts. Johnny sat up, swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat there, wondering what he wanted to wear, his thoughts about his mother and his father, wiped away from his mind as soon as his bare feet hit the floor.
Standing up Johnny walked over to his window and shoving aside one panel of the drapes, looked out upon the front courtyard of the hacienda. In the distance he could see Murdoch and Teresa riding away in a carriage on their way to church he supposed, no sign of his brother tagging along behind on his horse. Johnny rubbed at the hairs on his chest, then felt the side of his face, realizing he needed to shave and get dressed if he hoped to get any breakfast any time soon.
There was water waiting for him in the washstand. Johnny splashed his face, remaining undressed while he lathered his face and began his shave. When he was all done, he walked to his wardrobe and opened the doors wide. There were several clean shirts hanging and so he picked one of his favorites, a soft cotton blue, with little sprigs of flowers patterned throughout, and a pair of dark gray trousers, neatly folded and lying in the top drawer. Not his favorite pair of pants, but probably his most comfortable and today it was all about comfort.
After getting dressed, he donned his socks and then his boots, feeling more human now that he was cleaned and fully clothed. His bed still looked inviting, messy as it was, but Johnny ignored it, tossing the covers that had fallen to the floor back onto his mattress, haphazardly pulling on the corners for some semblance of order. He wasn’t much for making his bed all neat and proper, the way his brother had a habit of doing. What did it matter? He was just going to get back in it tonight and kick the blasted things off the bed again if it turned out to be another hot night.
He reached for his gun belt, slung over the post of his bed, wrapping the weighty leather around his slim hips. The buckle fastened quickly with deft sure fingers that cinched it tight and slung low on his right side. Checking his appearance in the upright mirror, Johnny’s hand grabbed for his pistol, pulling not so fast as he would in a fight, but just enough to test his balance and the reflexes of his nimble fingers. His hand automatically found the butt of his gun, his finger the trigger and as he stood facing the mirror, his left sought the hammer and stopped just short of feathering it back at the image that faced him dead on. Without a word, and silent as a cat, the gun slipped right back into the holster, the grainy walnut handle warm from Johnny’s handling.
The man in the mirror stood there, eyes unblinking, unwavering, his stance cool and nonchalant, wondering what the day would bring, if he simply took the gun off and left it behind just this once while he went downstairs and ate his breakfast without it. Would he, could he do it? The always cautious, deadly man in the mirror thought not and so Johnny Lancer turned away from his other half, ignoring the question that Madrid thought was stupid in the first place.
Opening his door and closing it behind him, Johnny walked down the hall and then down the steps to the kitchen. When he got there he found the table still laden with food and Scott drinking a cup of coffee. There was no Maria; it was her day off, so Teresa must have made the breakfast before she left.
Johnny sat at the table and Scott finally looked up at him, laying the newspaper down that had his attention while he sipped on his coffee. “Good morning,” Scott said, glad to see that his little brother was finally joining him.
“Mornin’,” Johnny said, picking up a biscuit and taking a bite out of it.
“There’s coffee. Want some?” Scott asked, his eyes and quick jerk of his head indicating that there was coffee in the pot behind him on the stove.
Johnny nodded, “I’ll get it,” he said, before Scott had a chance to get up and get it for him. He took his cup and filled it, carrying it back to the table in one hand while he ate another bite of biscuit with his other.
“Murdoch and Teresa have gone to church,” Scott told Johnny when his brother was seated once again.
“Yeah, I saw them leave,” Johnny commented in return.
Johnny loaded up his plate with scrambled eggs, bacon and potatoes. He didn’t say anything else and Scott watched him, amused by the amount of food the boy could put away when he was hungry. Scott waited until at least half the food was gone before saying, “I’m taking a ride down to the south pasture. I know it’s Sunday and we don’t usually work but Murdoch asked if we would go down there and see if any strays have wandered that far. If there are any then we’ll have to round them up and bring them back.”
Johnny set his fork down, looking for the pitcher that usually held the milk. Spying it on the end of the table where Teresa usually sat, Johnny picked it up and poured himself a glass. When he was done he took a long swallow, washing down his breakfast while he eyed Scott over the rim of the glass. Setting it down, he smiled and said, “Okay,” then picked up his fork and finished off the rest of his plate.
Scott thought the whole thing was too easy but refrained from saying so. Apparently his little brother was in an agreeable mood, so he kept his mouth shut and let the sleeping dog lay. “How about we do a quick clean up so Teresa doesn’t have to come home to a kitchen that needs cleaning? You game?”
Johnny drank the rest of his milk, popped the last piece of bacon into his mouth and after it was chewed and swallowed said, “Sure.”
Now that he was done eating, Johnny’s restlessness seemed to activate of its own accord and before Scott had a chance to help out, the plates were gathered and set next to the sink. “You know I’m supposed to be helping,” Scott reminded.
Johnny gathered up the empty platters off the table, “So when you’re done…help.”
Scott drained his coffee cup and while Johnny pumped the water into the sink, gathered up the glasses and cups and set them with the rest of the dirty dishes. Twenty minutes later, they had the kitchen clean and everything put away. All without a word being said between them. Scott hoped that someday his brother was more open and did more talking than he was prone to doing. So far, the only thing any of them had seen or heard from Johnny was the sparse word or two and sometimes the hint of deviltry hidden beneath the exterior that always seemed like it was just on the verge of showing itself to all of them.
As he watched Johnny wipe down the table, Scott wondered where that talkative, do it my own way, boy had gone, that first presented himself that fateful day they came home and later when they went up against Pardee and his gang of cutthroat killers. Things had changed while Johnny recuperated and ever since he was well enough to get around again and then go to work, he just seemed to clam up and withdraw into an impenetrable shell that no one, least of all their father, had been able to breach.
Scott reasoned that they were all seeing the side of Johnny, that once the job was done, wasn’t sure of where he stood exactly. He figured that in all his other times of fighting causes, Johnny had just simply walked away, or rode off into the sunset, never once finding a place to put down roots or stay long enough to make friends. A sad life, to Scott’s way of thinking, but a life that made him understand just a little the way Johnny must be feeling, knowing that this time, his brother didn’t have to walk away or ride off anywhere now that the fight was done.
Johnny had told him it would take time. Scott hoped that was all his brother needed. He wanted to get to know him better. To find out whom the real Johnny Lancer was. Scott thought of Lancer as home now and he wanted that feeling and sense of permanence to extend to the brother he always longed to have. So he would give his little brother that time he thought he needed, but in the meantime he would work like the devil to make sure that Johnny wanted the same things that he did when it came to family, home and hearth.
The kitchen cleaned, the boys made their way to the front door. Scott donned his gun belt, still feeling odd about the everyday use of such a thing, but realizing that life in the west was a whole different kettle of fish. A place where a man had to arm himself or be shot down for little more than what was in your pockets or your saddlebags. Reaching for his hat, Johnny opened the door for him and they went to the barn and saddled their horses.
Barranca and Sheridan fairly pranced their way out the barn doors, excitement in every step as they followed Scott and Johnny out into the bright light of a glorious morning. Scott laughed when the golden palomino shoved at Johnny’s back, causing the young man to nearly stumble and fall from the force of his push.
“You’d think these two ain’t ever been out before,” Johnny said, smiling as he pulled on Barranca’s reins.
“They do act like they’ve been penned up for days,” said Scott, rubbing his horse on the face before going to his side to mount up.
Johnny laughed and went to Barranca’s side slipping a boot into the stirrup. His horse shied away, pulling Johnny with him just before he lost his foothold. Two steps to his playful horse and Johnny’s boot was back in the stirrup, swinging his leg over the saddle and settling in with a lot less grace than usual with Barranca acting up.
Scott now in the saddle, kneed his horse and Sheridan, catching Barranca’s playful spirit, tossed his head, dark mane flying and sidestepped anxiously, every muscle in the big roan’s body taut and ready for a run.
“They’re itching for a run,” Scott said laughing as he pulled on Sheridan’s reins and brought him in closer to Johnny and his horse.
Barranca snorted as if he understood what Scott had just said, his upper body lifting off the ground, while Johnny gripped his sides with his thighs, and held onto the pommel with his free hand. The palomino landed on the hard packed earth, one hoof lifting off the ground, pounding the dirt several times in anticipation of a run.
“Race yah to Rock Creek,” Johnny baited, keeping a tight rein on his horse.
Scott smiled showing even white teeth, “You’re on!” he shouted, giving Sheridan his head as soon as the words were out of his mouth.
Johnny watched them ride off, pulling tight on Barranca’s reins, giving his brother a head start. Thundering hoof beats churned up the ground and dust flew from beneath Sheridan’s hooves, blending with the beige of Scott’s shirt and tan pants, making it almost impossible to see the man. A vaquero whooped and hollered as Scott rode past at an astonishing speed, but not fast enough Johnny thought for him and Barranca.
“You ready?” Johnny asked his horse.
Barranca snorted and stomped his front hooves, his head dipping up and down with restrained power, ready for Johnny’s command. Johnny relaxed the reins, “Lets go,” he said, the command soft, but enough for Barranca to hear and understand. No urging other than that was needed. The horse took off like lightening, muscles straining with every stride, hooves reaching out, stretching as far as the horse could make them.
Johnny leaned forward, low against Barranca’s neck and let his horse do what others would have thought impossible with such a large lead as Scott had. His dark felt hat swept backward, flopping up and down in the wind, held only by the storm straps that kept it from flying completely off. Bent low and letting Barranca do his thing, Johnny felt the power that was underneath him with each and every stretching, striding beat, reveling in the feel of his horse as they glided as one on air, through the compound, past the corrals and pens, the stone archway and south, toward Rock Creek. He never heard the calls of the men who watched him race after his brother. His thoughts were centered solely on his horse, being one with him as they flew across the vaqueros field of vision only to be lost seconds later as man and horse disappeared in a cloud of dust and haze.
Hooves pounded on the ground, echoing across the fields, sounding like the thundering of Buffalo on the run. Both horses stretched and strained, their heads bobbing up and down, nostrils flaring with each beat. Heaving woofs of air whooshed from their mouths in rhythm to their heaving chest, neither horse wanting to give up.
Scott, his blonde hair flying back from his forehead, chanced a quick look over his shoulder, knowing his little brother was close but not knowing how close. He could barely see Johnny, so low was he over Barranca’s neck, but the dark patch of hair he could see was enough to make him lean over Sheridan’s neck and urge his horse faster with a harder press of his knees. Scott felt the surge of renewed energy and power, smiling as Sheridan’s dark red mane whipped furiously in front of his eyes and his horse gained a little more ground ahead of Johnny and Barranca.
There was a steep wash in the land, just a little further ahead, covered with dense brush, rocks and scattered trees, several hundred feet deep. At the bottom lay Rock Creek, a meandering little stream than ran across the valley, usually shallow during the hot summer months, but deep enough to water the cattle and keep the grass around the banks nice and green all year round. Waters melting off the snowcapped mountains that surrounded the valley fed the little stream year round and this was the place that Scott and Johnny were racing to.
Scott, assuming that his little brother would slow down for the steep drop into the wash, pulled hard on Sheridan’s reins, letting his horse go slow and pick his way down the steep slope with Johnny just seconds behind him. But Scott was wrong. His heart skipped a beat and nearly jumped right out of his chest, when the golden horse and dark haired man went flying right beside him, to land nearly ten feet lower than where he was just now.
Holding his breath and coming to a halt, Scott watched as Barranca landed on the ground, his hooves seeming to disappear into the ground, his rider, his brother, leaning as far back as he could, right arm held high into the air, boots and spurs held almost horizontal to Barranca’s head. As if in tempo and time to one another, horse and man rhythmically rode down the slope, Johnny’s arm whipping to and fro with every leap and landing of Barranca’s sturdy legs and hooves upon the ground. The scene was magical, as together they see-sawed their way past branching tree limbs and scrub brush, rock and dirt spitting out with every churning step the golden horse landed without so much as a falter, until they reached the bottom.
Scott watched his little brother ride his horse to the creek until they walked into the water and turned toward them, Johnny’s smile; bright and clear even from the long distance that separated them. Johnny’s laughter echoed up the slope and Scott watched him reach for his hat and pull it off, waving it at him merrily as if what he had just done was of little or no consequence other than a fast romp down a hill. Which Scott supposed that it was to his little brother, who didn’t seem to know that what he had just pulled off had been a very scary stunt, one that he, cavalry trained as he was, would never have tried even if he had been asked to.
Scott clucked to his horse and they started their decent once again. His lean body swaying side to side as Sheridan carefully picked his steps with caution all the way to the bottom.
Johnny rode up to him when he finally reached the green grasses that lined the streambed, “You gotta try harder than that if you want to beat me brother.” Johnny swiped at the sweat on his brow with the sleeve of his arm, “Why’d you slow down? You could of beat me if you hadn’t,” Johnny remarked, squinting at his brother in the bright light as he cleaned the inside band of his hat with his bandanna.
Scott pulled a white handkerchief from his back pocket, swiped at his face and twisted his upper body around to look at the slope they had just ridden down, “I’m not that brave brother. That was pretty dangerous, what you just did.”
Johnny pulled Barranca up closer to Scott and his horse, looking up where Scott just commented on, “That ain’t dangerous Scott. Not for a horse like Barranca. Is it fella?” he asked, leaning over and brushing a hand on Barranca’s neck. “We knew what we were doin’.” Barranca nickered, his breathing still labored but calmer now that they weren’t racing hell bent for lather down a steep slope.
When Johnny finally looked up at him, Scott said, “You scare me little brother. You truly do.”
The smile on Johnny’s face faded just a little, his thoughts more sober now that he was stilled by his brother’s words, “Don’t mean too.”
Scott watched his brother dip his head, realizing that he had broken the spirit of the morning with his older brother commentary. “That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” Scott said, hoping to bring the light back to Johnny’s eyes.
That just as amazing smile returned and Johnny lifted his head to his brother, his eyes alight with mischief and fun again as Scott had hoped, “It was?”
Scott pressed his lips and smiled back, “It sure was.”
After the horses were rested and taken to the stream for a drink of cool water, Scott and Johnny made their way to the far south pasture. The excitement of the race now well behind them as they split up and looked for stray cows that weren’t supposed to be there.
Scott thought about his brother, wondering what he would tell his father, feeling that he should say something about the careless chances Johnny seemed to think nothing of. He didn’t want his brother to get in trouble with their father, but he thought Murdoch should know that Johnny had a wilder streak in him that was probably more intense than any of them had at first thought. The telling was to Scott, only a way to make his family more aware of who Johnny was and what kinds of things he was capable of doing if not held in check for his own sake.
Scott shook his head, wondering for the millionth time how his little brother had survived so long without anyone to watch his back or make sure he didn’t break his neck in some reckless adventure. Here he was with all the education in the world, feeling worldly wise and more in control of his life, and there was his brother, Johnny, without a proper upbringing or education, worldly wise just from being a part of the earth and the surroundings that made him what he was. His brother Johnny, intelligent, strong, courageous, a force to be reckoned with when faced with danger, a man among men, yet so young and so heedless, uncaring of whether he lived or died. His brother lived for the moment, reckless and free willed, and Scott wondered if a man like that could ever call one place, home.
While Scott pondered on the life and times of his brother, fretting over his reckless actions, Johnny was thinking about how hot it was. He couldn’t wait to finish this task and head back. The afternoon was well upon them and the heat of the sun was blistering, sucking dry, every ounce of moisture his body cared to give up. There hadn’t been one sign of any cattle and Johnny didn’t think there would be by now. “Dumb cows wouldn’t come this far from the water,” he said aloud, venting his frustration in the tone of his words.
Barranca’s ears perked up, his steady steps leading them toward the thin shady undergrowth of a few trees that bunched together in the middle of nowhere and so far away from water, Johnny wondered how they could have survived. The sweltering heat was making him feel nauseous and that damned aching twinge was back again.
Pulling his horse to a halt beneath the sparse overhang of the branches, Johnny leaned forward, hoping to ease the pain that seemed worse today than it had last night. With his left arm crossed over his lower stomach he held his breath, hoping the feeling would pass soon. His breath gave way before the pain subsided and Johnny was forced to get off his horse. ‘Maybe standing will make it feel better,’ he thought.
He pulled his leg around and went to set his foot on the ground when the throbbing suddenly intensified. Johnny quickly pulled his left boot out of the stirrup and held on to the pommel of his saddle as wave upon wave of hurt assailed him. The worst he had felt since the persistent shooting pains started nagging at him. Johnny’s hands tightened, his breathing coming in short small gasps as he did his best to weather through the pain. When that didn’t work, he went back to holding his breath for short periods, but to no avail as his lower stomach continued to ache and throb. The new sensations, robbing him of his strength, making him feel weak and more nauseous than when he had first stopped.
His stomach churned, and Johnny knew he was going to lose it any second. When his chest tightened and his throat began to feel thick and swollen he knew it was all over. Shoving off Barranca’s side, Johnny ran to the nearest tree and doubled over, the entire contents of his stomach emptying out upon the ground, heave after heave, his belly retching uncontrollably for several minutes until he thought he might pass out from the wretchedness of it all.
When he thought he was all but done, Johnny pushed away from the tree, his limbs shaky, his brow sweaty from the hardship his body had just put him through. The pain was gone now, gone just as quickly as it had appeared, but leaving him trembling in the aftermath, troubled and a little concerned that an old injury could be taking its toll on him the way it was. He stumbled unsteadily to where Barranca waited for him patiently and grabbed his canteen, pulling the cork with a trembling hand, before filling his mouth with water and spitting it out. When he was done, he poured water over his head and then drank a healthy swallow or two. He was tired, so tired now he could hardly stand, but he fought the weariness and corked his canteen, wrapping the leather strap around the pommel, then mounted Barranca as quickly as he dared. Johnny pulled his reins around, doing his best to remain in the saddle without falling off. Pointing his horse in the general direction he thought his brother would be, spurring Barranca into a quick paced canter with the hopes he would find Scott soon and they could head back to Lancer.
Scott saw his brother riding up about an hour later, looking hotter, tired and sweatier than he felt. He had a brief thought that maybe Johnny wasn’t feeling too good by the pallor of his skin tone, but chalked the notion up to all the heat they were having.
“You find any?” Scott asked.
“Nope,” Johnny answered.
Scott looked up into the sky and the blazing sun, “I think we should head back. What do you say?”
Johnny’s brows arched and a grateful sigh passed through his lips. Nodding his head, Johnny said, “Sounds good to me. I’m ready.”
“Lets go then,” Scott replied, giving his horse his head and spurring him on with a gentle nudge of his heels. “I think we should stop at the creek and refill our canteens.”
Johnny didn’t respond with words, a quick nod was his answer and Scott took it as an affirmative; leading the way back to the creek, with Johnny following close behind. An hour later, they reached the cooling waters and both men dismounted, grabbing their canteens in the process. Kneeling on the bank of the creek, Johnny and Scott cupped water in their hands and splashed their sun bronzed faces, luxuriating in the cool comfort the water afforded them.
Filling their canteens, they then led their horses to the water and let them drink, pulling back before either horse had a chance to guzzle too much and make themselves sick. Another hour and half later, after finding a another way around the slope Johnny had so precariously thundered down, the boys were riding under the stone Lancer arch, both grateful to be back and anxious to get inside the cooler domain of the house.
They rode straight to the barn, unsaddled their horse and set them loose inside the corral so that they could have a dust roll before being rubbed down and stabled for the night. Inside the house, Murdoch sat behind his desk and Teresa sat on the sofa, both of them occupied by trivial little tasks that were quickly place aside as soon as Scott and Johnny entered the room, looking worse the wear for being out all day in the hot sunshine.
Murdoch noted that both boys looked hot, tired and drawn, their faces flushed from the heat, their hair matted with sweat when they took off their hats and hung them on the rack by the front door. Scott unbuckled his gun belt, hanging it with sure fingers next to his hat, while Johnny kept his on and tiredly crossed the room and sat on the sofa, his dark head, resting on the back cushion, eyes closed as he relaxed in the cool dimness of the great room.
Scott followed his brother into the room, stopping at the sideboard behind the sofa and poured a stiff drink, swallowing it in one quick gulp, while his father looked on and waited for him to finish.
“You and Johnny go down to the south pastures?” Murdoch asked.
“Yes we did,” Scott replied.
“Find any strays?” asked Murdoch.
“Not a one,” Scott remarked, his tone dry and tired, now that he was cooling down.
“You two look done it,” Murdoch remarked watching his older son walk to the end of the sofa and perch on the arm next to Teresa.
“It’s hot,” came a tired reply from Johnny, his eyes still closed, sleep beckoning him to go up the stairs and climb into bed.
Murdoch chuckled, “Yes it is.”
“How about some cool lemonade?” Teresa asked looking up at Scott and then over to Johnny.
“That would be real nice querida,” Johnny answered, his eyes opening, lifting his head and turning to Teresa.
Teresa smiled at Johnny, reached over and gave his hand a loving pat and then left the men while she went to the kitchen.
“How’s the creek look?” Murdoch wanted to know.
“Good,” Scott commented, taking Teresa’s spot on the sofa. Murdoch got up from his desk and walked to the empty fireplace, sitting in the blue chair so that he could talk to his sons.
“It’s running low. But there’s enough water to last out the summer if it don’t get any hotter than it is now,” Johnny told Murdoch.
Murdoch rubbed the side of his nose with one thick finger, smiling, “I suppose it can’t get much hotter than it has today,” he remarked to his son.
Scott laughed, “No I don’t think it could. Is it always this hot in the summertime out here?”
Murdoch’s blue gray eyes twinkled with amusement, “Most summers it does son. You’ll get used to it with time.”
Scott’s eyes darted up from his hand lying idle on the armrest of the sofa, to eye his father wonderingly, thinking how it was that he had just heard a similar remark from his little brother in regards to time. The idea struck him, the similarity of their manner, their tone, more alike than he thought either of them realized.
Teresa came back into the room, carrying a large tray laden with tall glasses of cool lemonade. She stopped first by Johnny’s feet, leaning over and the young man took one of the glasses, “Gracias,” he said to her.
“Your welcome,” Teresa replied, smiling at Johnny with big blue eyes that held a wealth of comfort in them.
She stepped over Johnny’s outstretched legs with ease, telling him not to move when he was about to move them out of her way.
The tray was stretched out to Scott who took a glass with a grateful smile and a thank you. Murdoch took his drink and when they were all served she sat down, putting the tray on a chair side table and took the last one for herself.
The room was quiet as everyone sipped and cooled off. Johnny was the first to set his drink down, hardly a taste taken from his glass, “How long ‘til supper?” he asked Teresa.
Teresa glanced at the grandfather clock behind him next to the French doors and said, “A couple hours maybe.”
Johnny sighed, saying as he stood up, “I’m gonna lay down for a while then.” He looked over at his father who was watching him from across the room, “Unless you have something you want me to do first?”
Murdoch set his lemonade on his knee and waved Johnny off with his left hand, “No son, I don’t. You go ahead, we’ll call you if you oversleep too long.”
Johnny’s eyes closed and opened wearily, breathing through his nose with a heavy sigh, “I’ll be up in time.” He left them then and went upstairs, his tired footsteps echoing back into the great room with each fading step.
“I suppose I should get started. Do you two need anything before I get supper going?” Teresa asked standing up and grabbing the tray.
Scott and Murdoch looked at each other questioningly before Murdoch said, “No honey. I think we’re just fine for now. But thanks for asking.”
When she was out of the room, Murdoch glanced at Scott thoughtfully and asked, “Is Johnny feeling all right?”
Scott’s thin cheeks balled when he grimaced and his brows puckered, “I wondered that same thing myself a little earlier. He doesn’t seem to be his usual self sometimes, but I haven’t quite put my finger on what it might be.”
“He hasn’t said anything?” Murdoch asked.
Scott shook his head, “Not to me.”
“He hardly touched his drink. Did he eat breakfast before the two of you took off this morning?” asked Murdoch.
Again Scott shook his head, “Yes he did. Quite a bit in fact.”
Teresa game back into the room and walked over to where Scott sat, the conversation effectively closed off for the time being. She leaned over and kissed Scott on the cheek unexpectedly.
Scott looked up at her, mild shock written plainly on his sun kissed face, “What was that for young lady?” he asked.
Teresa put her hands on her hips and smiled down at him, “I forgot to say thank you.”
Scott’s face scrunched wondering what she was saying thank you for.
When Teresa saw that he didn’t have a clue, she said with exasperation, “That’s for cleaning my kitchen this morning.” She sauntered away from him, her boots clicking loudly on the parquet flooring, calling over her shoulder, “You and Johnny will get a special treat for being so sweet.”
Scott blushed, he’d forgotten about them cleaning the kitchen for her. When he looked back at his father, Murdoch was smiling and drinking his lemonade.
“You two really surprised her when we got back. If you don’t watch out, you’ll find yourselves on her good side,” Murdoch said.
Scott shrugged, smiling back at him, “I hope so. She does rule the roost when it comes to that kitchen.”
“That she does,” Murdoch commented, leaving any other thoughts on the subject at rest.
“Murdoch?” Scott said.
“Hum?” Murdoch voiced, draining the last of his drink.
“You know that big slope just before Rock Creek?” Scott asked.
Murdoch nodded, “Yes, What about it?”
“Johnny and I were racing this morning. Top speed in fact,” Scott told him.
“And?” Murdoch asked.
“I stopped when I got to the slope. I was way ahead of Johnny. I started down, letting Sheridan pick his way to the bottom when Johnny and Barranca went flying past me through the air.”
Murdoch shifted in his seat, his glass nearly dropping from his hand. “That drop is at least two hundred yards or more!”
Scott nodded his head, “I know.”
“Is that what’s wrong? Did they fall?” Murdoch asked, his worry turning his face an ashen color.
Scott held up a hand and stilled his father’s sudden concern, “No sir, they didn’t. The two of them rode down that hill never missing a beat.”
Murdoch stood up, putting his glass down heavily on the table in front of his son, “He could have broken his fool neck! What was he thinking?” Murdoch demanded.
“He was thinking of winning,” Scott said. “Please sir, sit down. I wasn’t telling you this to get you agitated or angry at him.”
Murdoch paced in front of the fireplace, his hands on his hips, “I’m not angry. I’m frustrated…worried…concerned. Do you understand that?” he said, looking to Scott for understanding.
“I do understand sir. But getting yourself worked up over something you didn’t even see isn’t going to do you any good,” Scott tried to placate. “I was only telling you about it, because it was the most amazing thing I think I’ve ever seen a man on a horse do. Scary but amazing.”
“I don’t care if it was amazing or not Scott. The fact still remains that your brother could have gotten himself killed going over the precipice that way. It was foolhardy and dangerous. And I won’t have him putting himself in danger that way just to win some foolish race. He should have known better,” Murdoch shouted, pounding his fist on the mantle of the fireplace.
“Murdoch you need to calm down and lower your voice before you have him coming downstairs and wondering what the hell is going on. He’s a man, not a child and you can’t protect him every minute of the day. He knows what he’s doing and it would be best if you accept that about him, instead of always looking to change the things about him that you can’t change. He’s wild, a free spirit and untamed. If you break his spirit then you break the man,” Scott warned.
Murdoch calmed his racing heart. He knew his son was right, but at what cost would it be to Johnny. The boy was as wild as the land around them. Murdoch didn’t want to break his son’s spirit but he did want his son to take more care with his life. No man, not even the most skilled vaquero had ever attempted a wild ride down the Rock Creek slope. It was dangerous enough to a horse with no rider, let alone one with his son on its back and riding as if the very devil were hot on his tail. The thought sent shivers down his spine just thinking of it.
Pointing his finger at Scott, Murdoch said relenting this time, “No more racing down to Rock Creek. Got it?”
Scott swallowed and shook his head, “Got it,” he said.
Murdoch smiled then, the frustration and anger put behind him for the time being, “He was amazing huh?”
Scott smiled back, “Yes sir, more than that. I held my breath the whole time.”
Murdoch laughed, the sound throaty and low from his belly, “I’ll just bet you did.”
The rest of the afternoon was spent in relative quiet as Murdoch went back to his bookwork and Scott, tired from the heat and exhaustion of the day, fell asleep on the sofa. His afternoon dreams were filled with sparkling waters running through an emerald green valley and a dark haired brother, racing wildly through the fields, only to disappear down a dangerous slope, laughter the only sign of his ever being there in the first place.
Teresa hummed as she and Maria set the table for supper. The men would be coming home any minute and she wanted everything to be just right. The past week had been so hot and tiring for everyone. Work was made more difficult with tempers flaring at the drop of the hat by one and all.
She hoped and prayed for rain to come. The land was dry and parched, the temperatures reaching well above the hundred mark if what Maria told her was true, her words of wisdom coming from the expert opinion of her husband Cipriano. If rain didn’t come soon, the watering holes would dry up, the creeks and streams would run no more and cattle would begin die, a fate more horrendous and costly than any of the ranchers could ill afford just before the biggest cattle drive of the year for most of them.
Teresa’s faith was strong and she had every bit of belief her prayers would be answered soon. In all her sisteen years since she was born on Lancer land, there had never been a drought that had totally devastated them or their friends and neighbors. Always the rains came and she knew in her heart it would come again this year too. Teresa had no doubts, she only hoped the rains would come before her family tore each other’s heads off.
Teresa shifted a plate over by the smallest measure, satisfied that the table was ready and looked its best. The boys weren’t home yet and Murdoch was working the irons in front of the stable and tack rooms. New shoes were being wrought for the horses, each one specially made to fit a particular man’s mount. The work was hot and tiring, ‘backbreaking’ Murdoch would say. Teresa hoped, watching him from the large picture window behind his desk, work the hot coals, the heavy iron hammer clanging, shaping the horseshoes against the weighty black anvil, an iron clamp held tight by leather clad hands, that Murdoch wasn’t pushing himself too hard in the heat. He wasn’t as young as he used to be and Teresa worried over him. She didn’t want to lose him like she had her father.
From the corner of her eyes, she saw a lone figure riding in. It was Scott. Teresa beamed with pleasure. ‘One home and one more to go,’ she thought. She looked beyond the blonde man, hoping she would see Johnny riding in right behind him, not far away. He wasn’t and Teresa sighed. She hadn’t really expected to see the golden horse and dark haired man, for Johnny was always the last to return, a habit she tried to break him of with promises of cold suppers and no dessert, with little or no success the reward for her efforts. He knew her threats were just that; feminine idle warnings with no intention of backing them up, especially when all he had to do was smile and tease his way back into her good graces, if he was of a mind to. He wouldn’t leave, never did until the last of his work was done, never telling anyone that he had on occasion been tempted to do that very thing, when the feeling of wanderlust assailed him. Johnny’s tardiness was sometimes the cause for consternation when his father wanted them both home in time for supper. The one time of the day when Murdoch anticipated them to all be together, a tradition he expected on their first day home and ever since thereafter. One of those ‘tunes’ he informed them of on their first night at the dinner table.
Teresa left her post by the window and went to the front door, pulling it open, feeling the rush of warm air invade the coolness of the hacienda immediately, before closing it behind her. She walked up to the rail fence, her arms draping across the top wooden rail as she watched Scott dismount, noting he wore his favorite dark brown trousers that fit snuggly to his body and showed off his well defined muscles and toned legs. Scott smiled at her, his face covered in dust, his hair bleached almost white by the rays of the sun, his face tanned from days spent working the land.
Murdoch covered his coal bed with a thick heavy iron lid, laid his tools down and wiped the sweat and smudges off his face with a used up old handkerchief that had seen better days. “How’d it go today?” he asked his son.
Scott took his hat off, handing off the reins of his horse to a young Mexican boy, Jose, who came to take his horse for him. “Gracias,” he told the boy and faced his father. “It went well. We got all the debris cleaned from Perkins creek up north. Stocked the line shack as you requested and fixed several fence lines that were down as well.”
Murdoch clapped his son on the back, “Good job. Have you seen Johnny?”
Scott let out a sigh, swiping at the dust on his pants with his hat, “Not since early this morning.” Pushing up the blue sleeves on his arms and planting his hat back on his head, Scott walked over to Teresa and tweaked her on the nose, “Supper about ready?” he asked.
“Soon as you two clean up and Johnny gets here,” she replied, trying to grab his hand before he could pull it away.
“Well little brother better get here soon. I’m starved,” Scott said, turning his back to the fence and leaning against it with his elbows perched back behind him.
Teresa pushed off the fence, “Well you two get washed up and come in soon. If Johnny got real busy he might not be back for a while yet.”
Murdoch eyes narrowed at the remark, hoping his charge was wrong. He liked both of his sons home for supper and being too busy wasn’t an excuse to his way of thinking. There was a time to work and a time to rest. He thought he made that clear with both of them the first week. It wasn’t that he minded all the hard work or the effort that went into it, but he’d been without his family for so many years, he thought he was due the honor of their presence for at least one sure meal of the day. A ritual his father and his father before him always insisted on in the Lancer family. He supposed at times it was a ridiculous and assumptive way of thinking, living on a working ranch, but he had called the tune on this one and he planned on sticking to his guns come hell or high water.
Johnny might have been home on time for supper had it not been for one lone calf, heard bellowing from the wallows of a drying mud hole, surround by thickets, and stuck like glue right smack dab in the middle of it.
From his perch atop Barranca, Johnny eyed the little calf, his mama nowhere in sight, the little thing crying out in desperation, up to his neck in mud that was quickly turning to pasty clay in the dry heat. The little red calf with his bright white face and rolling terrified eyes, bore right through Johnny’s heart and he couldn’t leave it there, even if he didn’t think the little fella had a chance in hell of living once he was freed.
The animal looked as if he had been stuck there for days. Johnny got down from his horse, grabbing the rope from the right side of his saddle and tied one end to the saddle horn. Patting Barranca on the side of his neck he said, “Hold still boy. I’m gonna need all your help.”
Johnny tossed his hat on the ground, unbuckled his gun belt, looked around swiftly and tossed it next to his hat. Standing, he pulled off one boot and sock, balancing carefully on one foot, then pulled off the other ones, both landing with a dull a thud next to his hat and gun belt. With a final pat to Barranca’s neck, Johnny let out some of the rope with each step, working his way tediously to where the animal lay buried, the calf’s head bobbing up and down frantically with every inch Johnny got closer.
The getting there was difficult. The muck and mire was so thick and dense, it made the muscles in Johnny’s thighs bulge from the effort it took. By the time he made it to the bawling calf, he was hip deep and barely able to push one leg in front of the other. “Shhhh little fella, I’m gonna get you out. Just give me a minute,” he soothed the frightened animal, stroking his hand down its face and rubbing the back of one ear. The calming words, had no effect on the mud-shrouded calf, but he said them nevertheless, hoping he would be able to get the animal free.
Taking the end of the rope, Johnny shoved it beneath the surface, his face only inches from the mud as he groped and felt his way toward the underside belly of the baby calf. By pushing hard, he was able to get the end of the rope under the calf, pushing further until he thought it was at least half way or part way underneath it. Mucking his way around to the other side, he bent low, pushing through the mud with his hand until he could feel the nubby end of the rope, pulling on it with all his strength until he had it cleared on the other side of the bawling bovine. Johnny knotted it and pulled it tight, catching the calf under his belly and behind his legs.
Holding the rope in his hand, he spoke loud to his horse, “Back up Barranca, back up.” The horse obeyed and when the rope was taut, Johnny called out, “Stop!” Barranca stood still, his eyes trained on his master, waiting for another command.
Johnny moved in behind the calf and pushed his arms into the mud, making sure his hands where well underneath the calf’s rump and looking up at Barranca, yelled, “Back up, pull hard!”
The horse planted his hooves into the ground and heaved backward, another step and the calf began to move, slowly, but it moved. “Pull Barranca, that’s it boy, pull hard!” Johnny yelled, straining to help get the calf out of the mud.
The grinding, halting steps were hard to make, the effort to get the calf pulled out made difficult by the suction of the mud. Sucking noises filled Johnny’s ears as the veins in his head bulged, straining with all his might, until with one last final tug from Barranca, his haunches nearly down to the ground, pulled the calf out of Johnny’s arms and out of the mire that had him trapped.
The calf lay still, his crying quieted now that his little body had a chance to breathe. Tiny nostrils flared and a pink tongue lolled gangly from its open mouth, the calf too exhausted and too tired to move now that he was free.
Johnny wiped at his face, mud covering him from head to toe as he flopped down into the mud after Barranca had freed the calf from his arms, his breathing short and heavy as he tried to catch his breath and find the strength to push his way to the bank of the mud hole.
It was in that moment, as he lay there gathering his strength to get up, that large droplets of water began to rain down on him. Clouds that weren’t there only minutes ago, now dark and heavy in the sky above his head. At first it was a welcome sight, ‘Better late than never,’ he thought. But by the time he made his way out of the mire, his body tired and weary from the strain of it all, he wished the pelting rain had waited until he was at least on his horse and riding through the gates of Lancer. Not only was he covered with mud, but he was also soaked to the bone by the time he got the calf cleared of the rope. The little animal was so exhausted he had yet to move and the only thing left that Johnny could do, was throw him across his saddle and take the poor little creature with him.
This was the picture that Cipriano saw from his home when Johnny came riding in, wet and bedraggled, covered in mud, a tiny calf resting in front of him, thin little legs dangling from both sides of his horse, flopping waywardly with every clop of Barranca’s hooves. Cipriano quickly grabbed his sombrero and a rain slicker, running out to help the boy as soon as he entered the compound, his lead taking him straight toward the barn.
Cipriano ran after Johnny, his boots stomping in the rain, pellets of muddy water shooting out from every step he took to get to Johnny’s side.
The skies were dark and heavy with rain clouds that had suddenly descended upon them without warning, causing the late hour to look that much darker than it really was as he reached up and took the calf from Johnny’s arms. Cipriano called out to Jose, who ran quickly from the barn and helped the Segundo get the calf into the barn. When Cipriano saw that Jose had the situation under control he went back outside where Johnny still sat on his horse.
The older man approached his side and touched his thigh with a firm hand, “El es seguro ahora chico, usted puede bajar.”
Johnny sat stone still and Cipriano wondered if he understood that the calf was safe now and he could get down. When he got no reply or action from the boy, Cipriano reached up and pulled on Johnny’s arm, pulling him down off the saddle to stand on his feet in the pouring rain.
“Vaya adentro, cuidaré de su caballo,” Cipriano told him, pushing him in the direction of the house with instructions to go inside and that he would take care of his horse.
Johnny nodded mutely, tired and unable to think clearly. He dropped Barranca’s reins into Cipriano’s hand saying, “Gracias,” before making the trek to the house.
Johnny opened the front door and stepped inside, moving mechanically as he closed the door behind him. The next several minutes, much to Johnny’s tired amazement, were a haze of touching, pulling hands as his family immediately got up and strode toward him, anxious because of his sodden and pale appearance. Scott stripped off his hat and gun belt, much to Johnny’s chagrin and protest as Teresa bustled up the stairs to get towels, while Murdoch gently prodded the two boys toward the bathhouse past the kitchen.
Later, when he finally opened his eyes, he found himself looking up at the roof of the bath house, wondering how it was he couldn’t remember getting into the steamy hot tub, until his brother’s voice called to him from the door way. “May I come in?” Scott asked.
Johnny swiveled his head on the back of the tub facing the direction from whence his brother spoke to him, “Sure, come on in,” Johnny drawled.
Scott came in, his arms laden with clean clothes, “Feeling better?”
“Never felt bad. Just tired,” Johnny replied sleepily.
Scott indicated the clean clothes and laid them down on the bench underneath the curtained window of the room, “Teresa says you’ll need these.”
“Why? I don’t plan on getting out of here,” Johnny said lethargically, closing his eyes.
“You have to come out. Teresa has a plate for you and Murdoch is fit to be tied, wondering what happened to you today,” Scott told him.
Johnny raised his right hand off the rim of the tub, “Ranch work brother. That’s all it was.”
Scott sat down and studied his brother’s face. It looked drawn and tired, more than what was considered normal for the average workday. There too, were dark smudges beneath his brother’s eyes, a sure sign that something else was going on. Scott ventured to ask, “You don’t look well. Are you feeling sick?”
Johnny sighed, his chest heaving. Soap bubbles drifted on the surface of the water, white and fluffy against the dark chest hairs moving with each breath. “Nothin’ a good meal and a good night’s sleep won’t fix.”
Scott’s eyes narrowed, “You sure?”
Johnny sat up, looking over at his brother with controlled patience. He splashed water on his face and soaped his hair, “I’m sure. Now get out of here so I can get cleaned up.”
Scott didn’t think his little brother was being altogether honest with him, but what could he say or do. If his brother didn’t want to admit to not feeling well then he couldn’t make him. What he could do however was keep a closer eye on him. Something was wrong, he was sure of it. Murdoch had wondered about it too hadn’t he? Yes, he remembered. They had just talked about it the day before, but neither man had said much more on it than a generalized comment, a quick unanswered observation, never once investigated, but cast aside when other thoughts had gotten in the way.
Scott opened the door to the bathhouse and said before he walked out, “You’ll be out soon…right?”
Johnny dunked his head under the water and came back up, “Right!” he called out, wishing Scott would leave him alone and get on with whatever it was he was wont to do. He didn’t need a babysitter and Scott was acting as if he did. “I can take care of myself,” he added just as Scott was about to walk out, “I don’t need a baby sitter.”
“No one thinks you need a sitter, little brother. So stop being difficult and get dressed. Supper’s waiting for you,” Scott told him, ignoring the jibe for what it was. Johnny may not need a sitter, but he was hell when it came to taking care of himself no matter what he told all of them. The fact was Johnny did little for himself and more for others than he should. Most likely and he would find out soon enough, the reason Johnny was late, Scott considered it would have nothing to do with work but more likely because he had done some selfless act in the late hour of the day.
It wouldn’t be until the next day, but Scott would soon find out that he was right. For in the barn, lying warm and mud free lay a tiny little calf, alive because Johnny had taken the time to see to its safety regardless of the late hour, the mud, the rain and most of all, Johnny’s health.
The food on Johnny’s plate was pushed around and around, not a bite eaten the entire time he sat at the formal dining table while his family conversed in the great room just a few feet away. His meal had been served there instead of the kitchen, Teresa not wanting him to eat alone.
The food smelled good and looked appetizing, roast beef, potatoes, greens and a fresh hot roll, but Johnny couldn’t eat it. His body ached and his muscles felt like they were on fire every time he moved. Pulling that calf out had taken every last bit of strength he’d had and now he was paying the price for it with a sore body and a stomach that rebelled at the thought of eating anything.
When he thought his family wasn’t paying attention, Johnny picked up his uneaten plate of food and carried it into the kitchen, quickly scraping off the meal into a slop bucket outside the back door. He sank the plate into the sudsy water and washed it, not wanting Teresa to have to clean up behind him after coming in so late. When he was done, he drained the water, dried off his dish and put it away, no one the wiser that he hadn’t eaten a single bite.
It was almost bedtime but he decided that he would spend time in the great room with his family before going up to bed. He didn’t want them suspicious and thinking as Scott had mentioned earlier that maybe he wasn’t feeling well. The terrible cramping that had plagued him the past few days hadn’t bothered him at all today and he was thinking that maybe all he had needed was a little hard work, stretching his muscles to get things back into proper working order. In the past hard worked had helped and he hoped that the day’s energy spent was all he needed on that particular issue to bring him round to feeling like his old self.
Johnny walked back into the great room, planting a smile on his face when Scott looked up at him from the floor with a hopeful grin on his face, the chessboard set up and ready to be played.
“Play me little brother. I’ve beat Murdoch and Teresa. Now it’s your turn,” Scott told him smiling behind a closed fist when Murdoch harrumphed in his chair, twisted in his seat and flicked the pages of the newspaper he was reading with mild indignation.
Johnny stopped short by the end of the sofa, not wanting to play chess with his brother, but not wanting Scott to think any more on him not feeling well either. He was tired and wanted to lie on the sofa and just listen to them talk, maybe join in if he was of a mind to now and then. The setting was just right with the blessed rain still coming down in torrential sheets and the clothes on his back, dry and comfortable after the long hard day he’d had. But he was cut short from giving a negative when Murdoch made his next comment.
“Go on and play him Johnny. He’s been a little too smug all evening about winning both games. See what you can do,” his father said. “I know you play,” Murdoch said from behind his paper, his eyes barely peeking over the top.
“How do you know that?” Johnny asked.
Murdoch set his paper down on his lap and looked at Johnny carefully, realizing that he knew something about his son that Johnny didn’t know he knew. “Cipriano told me. He says you’ve played him a time or two.” Murdoch turned the page of his newspaper. “He says you’re not too bad, but that you still have a thing or two to learn if you want to beat him on a regular basis.”
Johnny’s brows furrowed, his fingers doing a tap dance on the armrest of the sofa. He planned on having a talk with Cipriano the first chance he got about telling his family he could play. It probably didn’t matter any, but still, he didn’t like the fact that they were talking about him behind his back. But then what could he do, it was inevitable that people would talk. It’s not like they were saying anything negative, but still it bothered him that Cipriano told his father of the times they spent together playing chess. He wondered if Scott had told their father of the wild ride down to Rock Creek. If he had, Murdoch made no mention of it, for which he was grateful. He didn’t feel up to defending his actions, nor did he see a need to. Johnny sighed tiredly, giving up his thoughts for the bright-eyed girl sitting in the chair next to the fireplace.
“Come on Johnny, play him. Murdoch’s right. Scott’s been gloating all evening,” Teresa said smiling down from her chair at Scott.
Scott twisted around to look at Teresa, “I will have you know that I don’t gloat young lady, so you can take that remark back if you please,” Scott said, teasing Teresa in spite of the fact that he did indeed gloat just a little when he won the second game in a row, the last, from his father.
Johnny shrugged and walked over toward the fireplace and sat down opposite his brother. Scott adjusted the chessboard and placed the white pieces in front of Johnny. “You want to go first or shall I?” he asked.
Johnny looked across the board at Scott, “You wanted to play, so you go first,” he replied with mild interest, turning the game board around so that the white figures were in front of his brother.
Scott rubbed his hands together, glad that he was going first; his strategy for a win clearly mapped out in his head against his little brother. He didn’t know if Johnny could play well but if he played Cipriano several times then there must be something to Johnny’s ability for the old Segundo was well known around the ranch for playing a very strategic game and only the most confident of players chose to play against him. Scott had played the older man a time or two and watched his father play the man as well. Both of them having lost and won on several occasions. The news that Johnny had played Cipriano was a surprise because Scott had gotten it into his head at some time that Johnny didn’t play or know how to play so he had refrained from asking him. It never crossed his mind to ask his little brother if he would like to learn, for Johnny never seemed interested in the game enough to raise the issue in Scott’s mind.
Scott moved his first pawn and Johnny very quickly followed suit. Several moves later, Johnny moved the ottoman over to where he sat and while he waited for Scott to think over his next move, he would lay his head down and close his eyes, waiting for the nudge he knew would come when it was his turn.
Ten moves into the game, Scott nudged his brother and Johnny opened his eyes. Leaning over and without thinking, Johnny moved his bishop and took one of Scott’s few remaining pawns. Murdoch had forsaken his paper in lieu of watching the game and had to smile at the look on Scott’s face when Johnny made his move.
“Don’t you want to think that over before you make that kind of move?” Scott asked his brother.
Johnny, with his head lying down on his crossed arms, opened his eyes and replied, “Does it make a difference if I’m still gonna make the same move?”
Scott shook his head, “Well no. But this is a game of strategy and thinking. You’ve made every move without thinking and that could be dangerous if you want to win.”
“So if I think about my moves before I make them, it’s much less dangerous and I might have a better chance of winning?” Johnny asked, his question almost childlike to Scott’s ears.
“You don’t understand. This game is all about strategy. You have to see what the other man will do several moves through the game. And to do that you have to think and plot out a course of defense and offence,” Scott informed.
“Like you’re doing now?” Johnny asked, watching his brother study the pieces with his fist under his chin.
Scott’s eyes tipped upward without his chin leaving his fist, “That’s right. Now I can tell what you have planned just by playing out the pieces in my head and I have to tell you brother…”
“What?” Johnny asked when Scott hesitated and scanned the board as if seeing it somehow differently as they talked.
Scott smiled up at him, dropping his fist from his chin. He grabbed up his knight and took the Bishop that Johnny had just moved taking his pawn. “I don’t think you have a chance,” Scott finished his sentence.
Murdoch eased forward just a touch, not enough so that either man would notice. He looked across the room at Teresa, winking when he caught her eye. She lay down her darning and leaned forward, her eyes glued to the game. It was Johnny’s turn.
From amidst his game pieces, Johnny picked up his rook and slid the figure across the board, putting Scott’s king in check, with little more thought than any of his other moves.
“You have me in check,” Scott exclaimed, his eyes scanning the board, telling him he had but only one move he could make if he wanted to save himself. He took his queen and pushed Johnny’s rook off the board.
Johnny reached for his second bishop and moved the piece over one square, putting Scott’s king in check again.
Scott scanned the board seeing what he hadn’t seen the entire game, no matter where he moved at this point, Johnny had him in a check mate from here on out. Sighing, he laid his king over and conceded defeat, his head bowing in supplication to Johnny and his masterful playing.
Scott glanced over at his father, the smile on Murdoch’s face stretching a mile wide, “What was that you said earlier about Johnny beating Cip on a regular basis?”
Murdoch laughed, “I said, if Johnny wanted to keep beating him on a regular basis.”
“Meaning that he’s won every time?” Scott asked finally getting it.
Murdoch nodded his head, “Yes. It seems your brother here is unbeaten so far. But Cipriano doesn’t seem to think his streak will last that long, playing the way he does. Apparently Johnny’s gotten the same advice from him that you’ve given.”
Scott looked over at his brother, whose head was back down on his arms, fully asleep now that the game was over. “It appears that I have underestimated my little brother...again.”
Early Tuesday Morning
The time was late or early depending on how one looked at it. Johnny lay on his bed, tossing and turning, the pain in his stomach almost unbearable, waking him with a jolt from his sleep. He groaned and pulled a pillow in close to his chest, hoping if he switched to his left side, the throbbing would stop. It didn’t and Johnny thought he was going to go mad from the pain he felt. He sat up, tossing his pillow across the room and swung his legs over the bed, doubled up with misery as another shocking wave ripped his lower stomach and forced his eyes closed.
He tried breathing in and out, slow and steady but to no avail. The pains kept getting sharper with each inhale and exhale. With no relief in sight he tried to stand. A wave of dizziness swamped him, bringing him to his knees as he clutched his arms around his waist. The ache was so intense he leaned forward too far and found his forehead pressed against the flooring of his room. The coolness of the floor giving him little comfort as he weathered out the tide of unbearable sensations that ripped him in two.
Tears of pain squeezed between his closed eyelids, “¡Dios!” he cried holding on to whatever senses he had remaining, “¡Ayúdeme por favor!”
His whispered, pleading cries for God to help went unanswered as another wave coursed through his lower belly and Johnny found himself tumbling over to his side, curled up in agony. The pain too much to bear any longer, Johnny’s mind went totally blank as he passed out on the floor, his arms splayed wide as he rolled onto his back, oblivious to any more torture his body had for him.
Hours later, the faint light of morning broke through the part in the drapes, a shiny shaft of golden light moving ever forward across the floor until it passed over the face of the unconscious man who lay lifeless and still while the world around him carried on as if nothing were amiss.
Scott finished his second cup of coffee and Murdoch his third. Setting down his cup, Murdoch eyed the empty chair for the last time and spoke abruptly to Scott, “Go up and see what’s keeping him.”
“Yes sir,” Scott said.
Scott left the table apprehensively, wondering why his little brother hadn’t already come down in the first place. Things just weren’t adding up. Johnny hadn’t looked well last night even though he’d said time and again that he was fine. He played a game of chess and fell asleep soon after, not waking until Murdoch roused him an hour later, sending him off to bed for the night. That in itself wouldn’t have been so unusual if it weren’t for the fact that Johnny wasn’t much for having anyone tell him when he should go to bed in the first place, at least not without an argument, which uncharacteristically there wasn’t. Scott was beginning to think he needed to press a little harder to find out just what was going on with his little brother and what better time than the present.
Scott climbed up the stairs and walked down the hall to Johnny’s room knocking two times, waiting for an answer. When none came, he opened the door; a shaft of light from the dimly lit hallway illuminating the bed on his right. The first thing Scott noted was that Johnny wasn’t in it. The main room was dark; the heavy drapes drawn closed making it very difficult to see anything before his eyes had a chance to adjust. “Now where in the world are you?” Scott asked under his breath.
Scott started across the darkened room and before he could get to the drapes and pull them back, walked into something heavy with his boot. Looking down, his eyes went wide when he realized it was his brother sprawled out on the floor.
Stepping over him, Scott strode quickly to the window of Johnny’s room and threw back the drapes. The bright light lit the room completely; casting away the dark shadows affording Scott a clear view of his prone brother on the floor. He knelt down beside him, tapping Johnny on the face with the palm of his hand. Scott was shocked, Johnny’s room looked as if a hurricane had hit it. Blankets, sheets and pillows were scattered everywhere, the bed completely devoid of any coverings.
When he got no answer from his brother, Scott tapped him on the side of the cheek a few more times and called his name, “Johnny!” Getting no response, Scott put his arms under him and picked him up, noting the difference in his weight from the one and only time he had ever had to carry his brother before. The difference was remarkably lighter and this gave Scott reason to worry all the more. He’d thought something was wrong and now his suspicions were confirmed. He wanted to call out to his father but he was at the other end of the house downstairs and he didn’t want to leave Johnny alone without doing more to bring him round first.
Placing Johnny as gently as he could upon the mattress, Scott grabbed up a washcloth from the stand and wet it, hoping the cold wetness of it would help bring him to consciousness. He wrung it out and knelt next to Johnny’s bed, patting his face with the cloth and calling out his name, “Johnny. Come on boy. Come on Johnny, wake up for me.”
His brother seemed almost dead to the world and Scott began to panic. He put his ear on Johnny’s chest, relieved to hear his heart beating and tried again with the wet cloth; feverishly calling to him, more frantic as the minutes began to slip by and Johnny remained lifeless and unmoving.
From the dark depths of oblivion that Johnny had retreated to in the wee hours of the early morning, he heard his name being called as if through a fog. Somewhere in the shadows of his mind, the compelling urgency of Scott’s voice broke through the miasma of his dreamless empty world and brought him closer to the brink of awareness.
Scott sighed with relief when he saw Johnny’s eyes under the closed lids begin to move back and forth, his tongue darting out to wet his lips as he tried to swim back to the surface where light and life awaited him. “Come on Johnny. That’s it brother. Wake up for me. Please wake up.”
Johnny’s eyes slowly opened and closed, heavy and sluggish, wondering why his brother seemed frantic as he called out to him, no memory of his collapse recalled for the time being. A deep sigh escaped him, his senses somewhat returning as he struggled to wake up, though still unclear as to why Scott was there beside him. He opened his eyes; blinking back the rays of light that made his eyes hurt and want to tear.
From next to his ear, he heard Scott call his name again, “Johnny.”
Johnny turned his head and found Scott not two inches away from head. Dark brows furrowed, eyes listlessly closed and opened again, wondering what on earth was going on and why was Scott looking at him that way. He tried to sit up, but felt a firm hand hold him in place.
“Uh, uh. You just wait one minute there,” Scott commanded, pushing Johnny back onto the mattress.
Johnny swung his arm over his forehead and asked, “What’s going on Scott? Why are you in my room so early?”
“You’re incredible. Do you know that?” Scott said, his tone sounding irritated to Johnny’s ears.
Johnny threw his arm off his head and started to sit up again, pushing Scott’s hands away when he tried to stop him. “Scott let go of me,” he shouted, his voice tinged with anger and frustration.
“Fine little brother. I’ll just get our Father and we’ll see how you act when he gets up here,” Scott threatened.
Johnny grabbed his arm when Scott started to turn and walk out the door, “¡Estoy apesadumbrado, yo estoy apesadumbrado! ¡No lo llame por favor!”
Scott shook Johnny’s hand off and glared at his brother, “I don’t know what that means, but if you don’t want me to get our father, then you better tell me what’s going on and tell me fast. I’ve about had it with you. Something is wrong and I want the truth…now.”
“I said I’m sorry and don’t go calling the old man up here,” Johnny said petulantly, explaining the words he said to Scott.
Scott closed the bedroom door and walked back to the bed and sat next to Johnny who scooted back against the headboard. “Now tell me what’s going on. The truth.”
Johnny swallowed and turned his face away from Scott’s. Unfortunately his brother wasn’t having it and took him by the chin and forced Johnny to look at him.
Johnny shrugged, his normally bright blue eyes dull as his eyebrows shot up and he tried to explain what he thought was going on. “I had an upset stomach last night, so I didn’t eat any of my supper. I guess I should have.”
“That doesn’t explain why I found you lying on the floor passed out,” Scott said.
“I tried to get up last night, thought I’d get something to eat. When I got on my feet, I guess I just got a little lighted headed and passed out,” Johnny explained as truthfully as he dared, omitting the fact that his stomach had burned like fire half the night until he thought he might die from it.
Scott searched his brother’s face. He did look better now that he was up and talking. The color of his skin was more normal and Johnny’s eyes didn’t look near as dull as they had at first. “That’s all?” he asked, “You’re sure it’s nothing more?”
Johnny wet his lips again, and breathed through his nose to control the scare he felt inside. Nodding his head adamantly, Johnny said, “That’s all,” his brows shooting up again with his answer. “I feel fine now,” he added, hoping to mollify his brother’s concern for him.
“Maybe you should stay home today. Relax a little. Eat something!” Scott exclaimed quietly, but firmly.
Johnny thought that maybe his brother was right. Though he hadn’t told Scott about the terrible pain he’d been experiencing, he thought it best to stay put for the day. See how things went. If he had another bout like the one he had last night, Johnny made up his mind he would go see Sam and have him take a look at his old injury. He still believed it had something to do with it, and if that was the case, the last thing he wanted to do was have his father or brother know about it. Hadn’t they already done enough for him, nursing him back to health the first time, without him complaining that it was still bothering him?
Johnny rubbed his face with the palms of his hands, and nodded his head in agreement. “What do I tell the old man?” he asked Scott.
Scott clapped him on the shoulder, “Don’t worry about him. I’ll take care of it. Just make sure you take it easy today and get something in that belly of yours,” he said, giving Johnny a pat on the stomach. Looking around Johnny’s room he added, “And if I were you, I’d pick up this mess before Teresa sees it. You know she’ll hound you to death if she finds all those blankets thrown all over the floor.”
Johnny bent his head again, his chin nearly touching his chest, “Okay,” came the quiet reply.
When Johnny looked away, Scott pulled on his chin again and forced him to look him in the eye, “You sure you’re feeling alright now?”
Nodding his head and genuinely feeling better now that he was awake, Johnny said, “I’m sure. You go on and set things right with the old man for me. I feel better but I’ll stick around the house today like you said…I promise.”
Scott nodded his head, agreeing that Johnny did look better, but looks were deceiving and if Johnny had any more signs of sickness he would insist that he go see Sam or have the old doctor come out to the ranch.
“I’m telling Murdoch what happened, you don’t feel well and that you have an upset stomach, all right?” Scott asked.
“That’s fine,” Johnny said from his bed, pulling his knees up to his chest now that Scott was off the bed and standing by the door.
Scott accepted his response but added, “If anything else happens, we’re taking you to see Sam.” Johnny nodded, already having come to this conclusion himself. Without further comment Scott left Johnny on his own, prepared to let their father know what happened. He still felt that there was something more going on with his brother, but unless Johnny told them about it, there wasn’t much else he or Murdoch could do to help.
When he got to the kitchen, Murdoch looked up and questioned him with his eyes, “Johnny’s not feeling well today.”
Murdoch put his fork down and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“It seems my little brother, your son, was sick last night.”
Murdoch started to get up, but Scott stopped him, “He’s fine. But I am a little worried. He was on the floor when I got up to his room and he wouldn’t wake up at first.”
“I don’t like the sound of that,” Murdoch commented, ready to make the trek up the stairs and check on Johnny himself.
Scott put a hand on his father’s shoulder, getting him to stay put, “Give him a few minutes. I told him to stay home today and take it easy. He didn’t eat his supper last night and he thinks that maybe that’s the reason he wound up on the floor.”
“I still don’t like the sound of this,” Murdoch insisted, shaking his head.
“Neither do I. But he’s up now and feeling better. He should be down in a little while and then you can make him stay around the house and eat something today.” Scott sat down at the table, “That may be all it is sir. He came in late last night. I know he didn’t have a lunch with him, so he was probably just tired overworked and hungry, especially after not eating anything for supper.”
When his father still looked as if he was going to barrel up the stairs, Scott said, “If we notice any thing else we’ll make him go see Sam.”
Murdoch let out a deep breath, his worry still plain and not forgotten so soon. “Any sign at all and he goes. Got it?”
“I got it and Johnny does too,” Scott said.
Scott got up from the table, not really wanting to leave the house but having work that needed to be done. He grabbed his hat and gun belt, striding out the door toward the barn, thankful that the day was cooler after the heavy rains from the night before.
Opening the door to the barn he went inside, adjusting the gun belt around his hips and found Jose, kneeling in the hay in one of the stalls. Scott stopped and asked the boy where the calf came from.
“Señor Johnny,” the boy replied, his big brown eyes roaming from Scott back to the little calf whose head lay in his lap. “His mama left him to die in a mud hole. But Señor Johnny pulled him from the mire and brought him home to us. He gave the little one back his life. He is muy bueno, our Señor Johnny. Muy bueno.”
Scott didn’t know a lot of Spanish but he knew when his brother was being complimented. His heart swelled and the pride he felt for having such a loving caring person for a brother, made him glad that their father had sent for him. He couldn’t imagine his life without Johnny any more than he could imagine not having his soul. Johnny was a part of him and he was grateful more than ever that he knew him and lived with him, that they were of the same blood, that Johnny was his brother.
By the time Johnny came down the stairs, breakfast was cleared but there was a plate laid out for him, still warming in the oven. He promised Scott he would eat, but honestly his stomach this morning wasn’t feeling up to putting food inside it. Like he’d done the night before, Johnny took out his plate, no Teresa, Maria or Murdoch in sight, and carried his plate to the back door, scraping off the food once again. He mixed it up with the other scraps just in case someone should happen to look and took his plate to the sink. He dropped it in with the others and walked out of the kitchen, pulling back his shoulders and ready for a confrontation with the old man.
Murdoch looked up from his paper work when his youngest son came striding into the great room, dressed as usual in his salmon colored shirt and leather pants, conchos fully buttoned, bright and gleaming down the side of his legs. Murdoch noted the absence of his gun belt and relaxed, thinking his son would stay home as Scott had told him to do without a fight. If Johnny had intentions of leaving, his gun belt would have been fastened to his waist like a second skin and the arguing would commence.
Johnny walked up to the desk, his eyes never leaving those of his father’s. When he reached the desk he picked up Murdoch’s paperweight and fiddled with it, going from one hand to the other in a nervous gesture that Murdoch had become accustomed to. “Scott says you aren’t feeling too well and that he found you lying on the floor when he went up to get you.”
Johnny nodded his head and set the paperweight down, his fingers thrumming the sides of his legs as he paced around the near perimeter of Murdoch’s desk. “Yes.”
“Do you feel better now?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny stopped his pacing when he came to the corner of the mantle over the fireplace, “Yes.”
Murdoch hated the one-syllable answers; he felt as if he were talking to himself, “Tell me what’s going on John.”
Johnny shrugged, his head bending down to look at the toes of his boots, “I don’t know. I have and upset stomach,” he answered half truthfully.
“Did you eat when you came down?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny’s eyes, hidden from Murdoch’s view went wide in his face. He didn’t like to lie. In fact he hated it but what could he do? If he told his father the truth, then Murdoch would make him eat something and he really didn’t think his stomach could handle it. Wasn’t a little lie better than making himself sick again? Damn, he didn’t know for sure. He made a decision though in those quick few seconds, deciding that telling the truth even partially, was better than telling an all out lie. So he said, “No.”
“Why not?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny turned toward his father and then walked over to the sofa and plopped down on it, “I don’t want to. My stomach hurts and I’ll only throw it up if I eat.” There he said it. The truth was out there, now let his father just try and make him eat when he didn’t want to.
“If you feel like eating later, will you make sure that you do so?” Murdoch asked Johnny, surprising him completely.
Johnny blinked rapidly, his shock plain for Murdoch to see. Nodding his head he said, “Yes.”
Murdoch nodded back, “Good, make sure that you do.” Murdoch went back to doing his figures, smiling inward as he waited for his son to make up his mind how he was going to handle the ease of this discussion.
Johnny looked down at his hands, then back to his father’s bent and graying head, “I will.” He got up and left the room, heading outdoors and to the barn to check on the baby calf he rescued yesterday.
Murdoch didn’t try to stop his son. The two-word answer a great leap from the norm in his opinion. Johnny left the house without his gun, a first Murdoch thought since coming home. He hoped and prayed he saw more of these moments with Johnny. They were few and far between and Murdoch cherished each new step of progress as they came, at times wishing things moved faster but grateful just to have them all the same.
Early Wednesday Morning
Like the night before Johnny found himself tossing and turning in his bed. His dreams caught between a spiraling, agony filled reality and that of the spiritually active netherworld. A woman’s voice, arousing, lyrical and sickly sweet, spoke to him, “Juanito… Juanito. Come to me… Come to me,” hypnotically, over and over again, a repetitive rhythmic demonic whisper in his ear. He tossed his head to and fro, raven black hair slick with sweat, a growing fever taking its hold on him, making him unable to fight or run away from the vision that called to him in his dreams. His hands clutched at the bedcovers tangled around his legs and waist, fear gripping his entire body, his chest taut, his breathing rapid as air rushed past dry trembling lips.
Maria’s ethereal form, ill defined and wavering, glided toward him, closer, bloodied arms and hands outstretched, long nailed fingers seeking to feel, to lay hands on him. In his nightmare Johnny stepped away frenetically from the specter that was his dead mother until he felt himself falling back into nothingness, a black tunnel devoid of life until Maria’s wraithlike hands were suddenly plastered on each side of his face, his spiraling decent stilled by the power of her touch. He stared into black empty eyes that had no soul, unable to move as rose red lips moved ever closer, forming vaporous tendrils of spiritual words he could hear only in his mind, in his heart, as she pressed her otherworldly body next to his. Long midnight flowing hair swirled around them, each strand seeming to have a life of its own as it twisted and twirled, capturing him to her like a spider in her web.
Johnny’s agitation increased tenfold, he moaned in his sleep and thrashed about, unable to wake up, unable to cry out, so caught was he in a sea of agonizing pain and terror when his mother’s unearthly hands held him fast, chanting his name over and over. Maria bade him to follow her, to give up his life, to let go the loyalty and love he was beginning to feel for the man she claimed, ruined her life and his.
“No…No…You lied to me! You lied to me!” he accused his mother again and again, Johnny’s voice getting louder and louder in his head, the more Maria clung to him, willing him to follow her. He pried and pushed away at the hideous fingers that dared to touch him, feeding him repulsive memories not his own, of hurt and betrayal, fear and hate, emotions that were amplified by the unwanted nearness and touch of his mother’s unforgiving and restless spirit.
Ghostly fingers curling and ashen gray, tinged with blood, reached for him time and time again as the apparition moved, gliding ever closer. The need to touch to drain her son’s spirit Maria’s one and only desire. Johnny wrenched the hands away when they dared touch him again, fighting back with every breath, yelling at her angrily, “Don’t touch me! Don’t ever touch me again! Leave me alone!”
“Juanito… Juanito. Come to me my son. Come to me,” Maria’s ghostly diminishing voice called, her spectral image beginning to fade and drift away in the face of her son’s anger and fierce determination to force her from him with his strong will and faceless desire to remain with the living.
Phantom hands tried reaching for him again but to no avail, curling, supplicating until Johnny shook with rage, shooting to an upright position in his bed, his eyes opening wide, wild and frantic as he searched his room and found… nothing. He doubled over, pushing and shoving at the blankets until they were unwrapped from his waist and off his bare legs, hurting and not knowing what to do. He could still hear his mother’s voice calling out to him, so he covered his ears, ignoring the pain in his stomach just to block out the sound of her pleas.
Scooting off the bed, Johnny found himself frantically searching for the doorknob in the dark, throwing open the door as soon as he got the knob to turn for him in his haste. He backed out of the room, his mother’s voice dissipating with each retreating step from the room he made, until his back was planted firmly against the wall across the hall.
He bent over, clutching at his knees, breathing in and out, the pain subsiding just enough for him to catch his breath. He looked down the long hallway toward his brother’s room and thought about going to him, but it seemed so far away as the hallway seemed to double visually in length. He shot a glance down the opposite end, to where his father slept, the distance looking much shorter as if that was the way he was supposed to go by virtue of the shorter distance or maybe something more. He didn’t know. His feet moved unintentionally of their own accord, taking him closer to the closed door of his father’s room. Johnny held the cool doorknob in his hand shakily, his forehead pressed against the wood frame, feeling for the first time in his soul, that he was making a decision that was the right one, but not understanding why it seemed so right, when all he felt was miserable.
Garnering his courage to speak to his father, Johnny knocked, waiting only a few seconds before he heard a deep resonating answer through the door. “It’s open.”
Johnny turned the knob with trepidation and opened the door. The room was dark but Johnny could tell that his father was lying on the far side of the large, made to order bed, his dark form pushing up on one elbow, his features hidden in gloom.
“Johnny?” Murdoch asked, knowing instinctively it was his youngest son standing in the doorway.
Johnny took a deep breath, holding back the pain that threatened to double him over again. “Can…can I come in?” he asked his father quickly before he lost all his bravery in the face of the man who sired him.
“Of course,” Murdoch answered hesitantly a little startled by the way Johnny sounded. He turned so that he could light the lamp on his bedside table, his fingers searching precariously in the dark for matches, only to go completely still with Johnny’s next words.
“Don’t light the lamp,” Johnny said hastily, clutching at his waist as he entered the room a few feet. If Murdoch lit the lamp and exposed his fears first thing, he would never go to him, of that he was sure. He walked, swaying blindly with pain, to the side of Murdoch’s bed, stopping when his knees hit the edge of the mattress. Not sure what he should do or say next, now that he was this close to his father. Unshed tears blinded him, making it more difficult to see his father’s shadowy figure, giving him the illusion being all alone, when Murdoch remained still and unmoving, waiting and watching him from the far side of the big bed.
“Johnny, what’s wrong son?” Murdoch asked softly, his tone concerned and worried to Johnny’s ears.
Johnny squeezed his eyes closed, trying to shut off the tears that kept pooling up in his eyes, his chest hurting from the effort it took not to breath too quick for fear he would lose all his self-control, in the face of the one man he felt so inadequate around.
Murdoch could tell his son was hurting, that something terrible was going on with him, that he was trying not to cry, for deep racking breaths kept escaping from his son, “Come here John,” he said, patting the empty side of the mattress where Johnny stood.
Johnny broke his resolve to stand tall and climbed on top of the large bed, throwing himself near his father and the comfort of his waiting outstretched arms, arms that were nothing like the wraithlike apparition that tried to ensnare him in his dreams. His father’s arms were strong, hard and protective, not usually something that Johnny needed, but on this night, it was the exception, for he needed his father’s strength and compassion, his total care and protection since he felt incapable of doing it himself.
Johnny curled up next to him, putting his head on his father’s chest as he kept his arms wrapped around his hurting body. Murdoch stroked his hair and shushed him, speaking to him nonsensically, worried out of his mind and fearful for this boy who was at last trusting in him, coming to him for some form of comfort and stability.
When he thought his son could finally understand him, Murdoch asked, “What’s wrong son? Talk to me...Please.”
Releasing his breath and feeling like a child who had a bad nightmare and didn’t feel good, Johnny cried into his father’s chest, “I had a bad dream.”
For the first time, Murdoch truly felt like a father, having imagined a scenario just like this one, only all those times were in his dreams and never real as this moment was, “What was the dream son?”
“It was mama,” Johnny cried, his chest heaving with the memory of it. “She…she…she”
“Calm down, shhh, shhh, calm down. She what?” Murdoch soothed, brushing the back of Johnny’s head and pulling him in tighter, Johnny’s evident fear, out of the ordinary for him.
“She…she… wants me to go to her. She…she touched me…she kept calling me, touching me with blood on her hands.” Johnny said, the terror in his voice very real, an angry emphasis on his last words.
Murdoch shushed him, rubbing his bare back with his rough hand, “It was just a dream Johnny…just a dream.”
He could feel Johnny’s head nodding, feel the tears that spilled from his son’s eyes onto the front of his night shirt, “I…I…” his breath caught, “I…know. But I’m scared. My stomach hurts Pa. It hurts really bad. I…I…think she’s trying to take me away from you again. Don’t let her! Por favor, don’t let her!” Johnny’s pain and tears wracked his body.
Murdoch sat up quickly, pushing Johnny on the shoulders with big strong hands toward the mattress. When Johnny whimpered and cried out from the move, Murdoch apologized, smoothing back the damp hair on his son’s forehead. “Lay here just a minute. I’m going to light the lamp and take a look.”
Johnny’s hand shot up and grabbed Murdoch’s bicep, “No…” he gasped.
Murdoch covered his hand and pulled it away, “Yes!” Murdoch snapped, his fear gaining more ground by the second. “You’re hurt and by God I will take a look whether you like it or not! Now be still and let me light the lamp.” The last was said on a softer note, but still the command was there, not to be ignored this time.
Johnny left his hand where Murdoch put it, unable any longer to fight his father and really, not wanting too any longer. He hurt terribly and if his father could fix him then he would have to let him.
Murdoch swung his legs over the side of the bed, finding the matches near the lamp and with fumbling fingers lit it. He nearly dropped the match before putting it back out when Johnny cried out in pain and rolled over away from him. He clutched at his stomach with such a fierce grip that Murdoch had trouble releasing Johnny’s arms when he climbed up behind him and tried to get him to let go.
With Johnny on his back, Murdoch looked and his son’s stomach, not finding any sign or clue to what could be going on. There didn’t appear to be any bruising, nor had he fallen and hurt himself recently. Perplexed he questioned Johnny, hoping that his son would be able to answer in the throes of so much pain, “Where does it hurt son? Can you show me?”
Johnny let out a sobbing breath and lifted his head, moving his hands down his stomach until they were very near the lower right side of his belly. Between agonizing takes of air, Johnny said, “Here…right here.”
Murdoch moved Johnny’s hands away and as soon as he touched the spot that Johnny indicated, he thought his son was going to jump right off the bed. Johnny arched his body, twisting away from his father and cried out, “No…don’t touch me…don’t touch me…it hurts.”
That was it. Murdoch didn’t know exactly what was wrong with his son, but it had to be more than just a little bruising of that he was sure. He jumped from the bed, telling Johnny as he ran from the room dressed in his nightshirt that he was waking his brother. He ignored the pleas from Johnny for his father to stay and not leave him, breaking his heart with every running step he made down the hallway.
Throwing open Scott’s door, Murdoch ran in and started to shake his son’s shoulder saying loudly, “Scott wake up, wake up! It’s your brother!”
Scott opened his eyes immediately and sat up groggily, but instantly on the alert, “What’s wrong him?”
Murdoch shook his head, “I’m not sure, but he’s sick. Hurting. We have to take him to town now. Get dressed, get the buckboard ready and meet me outside.”
Scott swung his legs off the bed, wearing nothing except the clothes he was born in. Murdoch looked back from his door and said, “And Scott?”
Scott pulled one leg of his trousers on, looking up at his father, “Yes sir?”
Holding the knob to Scott’s door, Murdoch said worriedly, “Please hurry. I think it’s bad.”
Scott’s heart leapt to his throat, but he nodded and finished getting dressed as if the house were on fire, hearing Murdoch storm back down the hallway in a great rush.
Ten minutes later, Murdoch was carrying Johnny in his arms down the stairs, a blanket wrapped around his ailing son, who whimpered from pain while he was carried. Teresa was up, holding the door open, having heard the ruckus when Scott went tearing down the stairs, calling her name, telling her to get up as he passed by her door with a quick heavy knock before running out to the barn.
The buckboard was loaded with Murdoch’s precious cargo, his son, blankets from Teresa, with Scott on the seat to drive them to Sam Jenkins house in Green River.
It took them nearly an hour in the faint dawning hours of the morning to get to town and Sam Jenkins house. Murdoch worried the doctor would not be in, for Johnny seemed worse, his pain coming and going, his temperature rising, heating Murdoch through the blankets that cocooned his son’s body. Johnny lay against his chest, moaning, in and out of delirium as the minutes ticked by slowly, a mere shell of the vibrant boy who never, ever complained of any kind of pain, even when he had been shot in the back. A testament, Murdoch thought, to the grim determination and self-reliant attitude his young son had been forced to live with his entire short life. A life he hoped wasn’t on the verge of being snuffed out too soon like a shooting star whose fading light only lasted but seconds in the heavenly skies above.
Scott pulled to a stop in front of Sam’s house, braking the rig quickly before he jumped down and ran to the front door, while Murdoch sat with Johnny, waiting, praying the doctor was in, not wanting to let go while at the same time, wanting to bust the door down in his desire to get Johnny inside.
Scott knocked, pounding his fist on the door, eventually hearing a shout from Sam that he was on his way. The door was unlocked from inside and thrown open, a sleepy eyed doctor surprised to see Scott Lancer at his door so early in the morning. Panic set in, though he knew better than to feel that way, his thoughts instantly taking on the image of an injured Murdoch, his old friend. “Scott?”
Scott grabbed his arm and pulled the old doctor out the door, “It’s Johnny Doc. We don’t know what’s wrong with him except that he’s hurting bad.”
Sam stepped to the edge of his porch and he could see Murdoch sitting in the back of the wagon. He ran down the steps and to the tailgate, motioning for Scott to unhook the one side while he released the other.
Murdoch remained quiet, his sole thoughts on his son who seemed like death warmed over. Desperate eyes looked up once the tailgate was down, beseeching his old friend without words to help.
“Get in there Scott and help your father get him over here. We need to get him inside quickly,” Sam said, taking control over the situation at hand.
Scott climbed aboard, squatting down beside his brother, taking him in his arms so that Murdoch could get up. Murdoch scooted out, his large legs and feet landing with a dull thud on the ground. Scott carried his brother to the end of the wagon and handed him over to their father. Johnny moaned from all the moving and shifting, his eyes closed, his body lax in his father’s arms as Murdoch carried him inside right behind the doctor.
Sam opened the door to the examination room and pointed to a black padded table in the middle of it, indicating the boy should be placed on it. Murdoch laid Johnny down carefully, noting the flushed cheeks and the chalky tone of his skin, coloring that up until now, he hadn’t been able to see clearly until Sam lit an oil lamp and brightened up the room with light.
“All right, lets take a look at him and see what’s going on,” Sam said, pushing Murdoch and Scott away, pulling apart the layer of blankets Johnny was wrapped in. Thankfully Johnny was still in just his underpants, which made Sam’s work that much easier.
The doctor walked around to the far side of the table and asked, “What do you know for sure Murdoch?”
“Here,” Murdoch pointed, “He says it hurts here.”
Sam leaned over and with firm fingers pressed the spot where Murdoch indicated. Johnny cried out, his eyes, which were dull and fever ridden, shot open, filled with pain. His knees pulled up and his hands went to the source of his torment, frantically trying to push them away, unable to comprehend where he was or what was happening to him.
“Get his hands and hold them!” Sam called out, pushing on Johnny’s knees and trying to get him to settle down, without much success.
Scott grabbed Johnny’s hands and bent near his brother’s face, speaking to him as calmly as he could, trying to get Johnny to hold still. It didn’t work, for all Johnny knew at that moment was pain and unfamiliar surroundings.
Murdoch dropped his hands from Johnny’s knees, taking Scott by the arm and moving him so that he could get near to his son’s face. He grabbed Johnny’s hands and spoke to him with stiff commanding words, “Johnny look at me. Look at me son.”
Johnny turned tortured eyes to his father, reacting more to the tone than to what was said. When his eyes made contact with his father, Murdoch said, “It’s me. Your Pa.”
Silent tears spilled slowly from Johnny’s deep blue eyes, “Where am I?”
“We’re at Sam’s. He’s going to take good care of you and make this all better. Do you understand?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny looked around him again, this time he registered the old doctor who had helped him once before and his brother, standing right behind his father’s shoulder, his face a mask of concern and worry, his brother’s normally neat hair rumpled and out of place. Looking back at his father, Johnny asked, “What’s wrong with me? Why does it hurt so much?”
Murdoch smoothed back Johnny’s hair, “That’s what we’re about to find out, but you have to do your best to cooperate. Okay?”
Johnny reached up tiredly to his eyes and wiped away the wetness, “Okay,” he said, the one word coming out tired and broken. “I’ll try.”
“Good boy,” Murdoch said, squeezing Johnny’s head and giving a nod to Sam and Scott. “Put you knees down son. Sam has to finish looking you over so he can figure out what he needs to do.”
Johnny did, his eyes scrunching up with pain when he did so. Sam poked and prodded some more, much to Johnny’s anguish, his hands nearly crushing Murdoch’s as he weathered out the torment and tried not to shed anymore unwanted tears of pain, hard to do when it hurt so very bad.
“All right, I think I’ve seen and felt enough. Scott you stay with your brother, Murdoch you come with me and I’ll tell you what I think needs to be done,” the doctor said.
Murdoch followed him into the front room, leaving Scott to sit with his brother. “What is it Sam?” Murdoch asked getting right to the point.
Sam sighed, “His appendix as far as I can tell.”
Murdoch bowed his head, fingers tapping on his belt as he pondered Sam’s diagnosis, “Are you sure?”
“As sure as I can be. I’ll have to operate…now,” Sam replied with warning.
Murdoch looked up, his light blue eyes filled with pain, “Will he…”
“I don’t know Murdoch. Not until I get in there. I’ll be honest with you. If its ruptured then I don’t see how he can make it. But if it hasn’t then everything should be fine, barring any infection that might set in of course,” Sam told him truthfully.
“And if you don’t operate?” Murdoch asked already knowing the answer.
“He’ll die,” Sam said. “Murdoch we have no time. I have to get in there and get started. Are you with me?”
Murdoch nodded and together they went back into the room. “I’ll wash up and get the instruments readied. You two have about ten minutes and then you’re out of here,” Sam told them, opening up a cabinet and placing operating tools on a small cloth covered tray.
Scott pulled up a stool for his father to sit on next to Johnny, standing behind him while they spoke to him one last time before waiting in the next room.
Murdoch held his son’s hand in his, “Doc has to operate Johnny. Right now.”
Johnny’s breathing started getting shallower, his head rolled back and forth, not wanting to hear this news, “Does he have to?” he asked, his chest feeling like it was going to explode from the terror he was feeling.
Murdoch nodded, his eyes clouding up with moisture, “Yes son, he does. But we’ll be right here the whole time, in the next room.”
Johnny squeezed his father’s hand, “You promise?”
Murdoch kissed Johnny’s forehead, a gesture so unfamiliar for him, “I promise. I won’t leave you.”
Tears ran from the corners of Johnny’s eyes, “I’m scared.”
Murdoch put both his hands on either side of Johnny’s face, “I know you are. But I’m here for you. Nothing will happen and no one and nothing will take you away from me.”
Johnny believed his father…he had to. If he didn’t he’d rather die than to be put to sleep and let someone cut him open. “Okay.” The one word, cracked and broken sounding, tore at Murdoch’s heart.
Murdoch got up and motioned for Scott to take his place. Brother sat head to head with brother, both their hearts making a silent connection that was hard for others to understand. Scott took Johnny’s hand and held it in his. “You got me worried good little brother. You scare me. You truly scare me.”
Johnny threaded his fingers through Scott’s, “I don’t mean to.”
Scott leaned down and whispered in his ear, remembering the very same passage that Johnny did, “I know little brother. I know. I love you.”
Johnny reached up and grabbed Scott behind the head with what little strength he had and whispered back to him, “I love you too. Don’t forget in case I don’t make it.”
Tears ran down Scott’s face, choking back a silent cry, “You’ll make it. You always make it.”
Murdoch touched Scott’s shoulder lightly and he stood up, swiping at the tears that otherwise would have seemed unmanly and walked away with a parting smile and hopeful look in his eyes for his son.
Murdoch leaned down one last time, brushing the hair that was already pushed back out of habit, “We’ll be just in the next room, waiting.” He stood there, gazing down at his son. Sam made a coughing sound and Murdoch took that as his cue. He turned to leave.
Johnny grabbed at his dangling hand before he had a chance to get away and Murdoch turned back. The pull from Johnny brought his father back down near his face, “You promised.”
“I promised. And I always keep my promises,” Murdoch said.
“I haven’t told…” Johnny said, not finishing his sentence.
“Told me what?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny pulled on his hand and Murdoch got down close to Johnny’s face, “That I love you.”
Unshed tears pooled in Murdoch’s eyes, “I love you too son. Never forget it,” he whispered, his voice cracking with emotion.
“I won’t,” Johnny said, holding back the pain and the tears he felt welling in his eyes.
Murdoch and Scott left the room and Johnny was left alone with Sam. Scared but ready to go on now that he had said the things he wanted to say to his family. “You ready Johnny?” Sam asked.
Johnny nodded, “Yeah Doc…let her buck.”
The surgery was successful. Better in fact than what Sam had hope for. Johnny’s appendix hadn’t burst, a good thing for it made the surgery a simple enough operation and with Johnny’s uncharacteristic cooperation, the best thing that could have happened.
It wasn’t until late evening of that same day, Wednesday, that Johnny finally awoke, groggy and a little disoriented but feeling much better. When he finally opened his eyes, it was to find his father and his brother there beside him, just as Murdoch promised, for which Johnny was eternally grateful.
Murdoch looked tired and after a few encouraging words to his son, took the doctor’s offer and laid down in the guest room for a short nap while Scott sat with Johnny.
“He looks so tired,” Johnny, remarked sluggishly, “So do you.”
Scott smiled, “We are. But it was worth it. Sam says you’ll be just fine.”
Johnny’s eyes closed wearily then opened with the greatest of effort to talk to his brother, “Scott?”
“Yes?” Scott answered.
“When can we go home?” Johnny asked, each word coming out slow, the words barely audible as he fought to stay awake.
“Home,” Scott whispered his eyes welling up with the significance of the word and what it meant to have Johnny say it.
“Home,” Johnny whispered back, his voice faint, deep sapphire eyes closing heavily, exhaustion just from talking setting in.
Scott squeezed Johnny’s hand affectionately as he fell into a deep healing sleep, fingering the ever-present strands of hair that fell across his brother’s brow. Johnny, his amazing little brother, won another high stakes hand with his life, time now on his side, his mind readjusted by the strength, love and presence of his family, a winning hand, just like his Aces and Eights.