It happened so quickly, in the blink of an eye. Shots were fired and angry voices were heard shouting words of vengeance as the sound of pounding hooves raced through the center of town, fleeing desperately before the townspeople knew the full extent of the horror that awaited them, lying on the dusty dirt road in front of the bank.
Val reholstered his gun after firing off several rounds toward the departing enemies backside but only after he was sure his aim was a good one and the unknown thief and killer lay deceased on the ground. A tightly held moneybag fell limply from dead fingers, the tie on the bag having come unraveled, while the money inside drifted out of the opening to float helplessly in the breeze, littering the street. A single gold double eagle, rolled beside the lifeless body only to find a resting place near the toe of the strangers shiny silver tipped boot.
Val knelt beside the body of the innocent and his heart lurched inside his chest when he saw who it was. Shaking his head at the senselessness of such a death and the ultimate heartache it was going to cause his friend, Val was hard pressed not to cry before God and all the gathering townsfolk.
The crowd was thick and the murmuring words of woe and sorrow echoed in his ears as women cried and men put their arms around their shoulders, hoping in vain to shield their delicate eyes from the terrible tragedy.
From somewhere near, Val could hear the sound of approaching steps running hurriedly upon the throng of people. He registered the voice of Scott Lancer excusing himself and knew he was making his way toward where he knelt and that meant that his brother, his closest friend in the whole world was not far behind.
Where tragedy reared its ugly head, heartache would soon follow. Val swiped at his swimming eyes and cringed his brow as he remembered, if only briefly, the happiness that had finally found its way to the one person who needed it and wanted it most in the world.
The party at Lancer was in full swing. Between Maria and Teresa the whole affair was a sight to behold and one that the whole town would be talking about in the weeks to come. Lanterns were hung from every nook and cranny; tables were strategically placed around the courtyard and held foods of every kind from delicate seafood dishes made of the choicest lobster and crab shipped especially for the occasion to the rich spicy flavorful Mexican dishes made popular by the people’s who lived on the ranch and in the neighboring valley. There were twisted loaves of hot bread and buns that Maria boasted could melt in your mouth if not eaten quickly enough. Fresh pies made of apple, cherry and peach accompanied other deserts like cakes and cookies with enough sweetened lemonade and tea to wash it all down.
Murdoch was proud of Teresa and how well she had managed and orchestrated the entire event. There was no one she invited, with his approval, who wasn’t there and he smiled as he watched her being twirled in the arms of young Nathan Tanner on the terra cotta tiles where a lively band was hired to play.
The party was in honor of his two sons who had come to live with him only a short time ago. Both were new to the area and hadn’t yet met all the neighbors and business associates due to all the reconstruction and hard labor required right after the long battle with land pirates that had nearly cost him his sons and his ranch. Now, six months later, they were celebrating the success of their first completed cattle drive as united owners of the vast Lancer holdings that Murdoch was proud to share with both Scott and Johnny. Thanksgiving had come and gone; another first in a line of celebrations to which Murdoch hoped would be a long-standing tradition with their newly reunited family.
Murdoch had taken great pride in introducing both of his sons to his friends and neighbors. He was especially pleased when he introduced them to his fellow Cattlemen’s Association members. Scott readily shook hands with each man and offered an insightful comment to one and all having spent many hours and with his father in the great room weeks before, familiarizing himself by asking questions about who they were and what they liked. He knew something about each one of them and found a way to strike up a conversation just by showing an interest in something he knew they cared about.
His pleasure was increased tenfold when Johnny met each man in turn. Though his youngest son hadn’t learned anything personal about any of the men he was introduced to, Murdoch found that his shy smile and softly spoken directness, firm handshake and easy manner, soon put them all at ease. He didn’t say much but when he did it was soon apparent that he had a knack for getting people to talk about themselves thereby leaving him free to wait the conversation out before gently finding a way to excuse himself and move on to the next introduction.
An hour later with drink in hand he gazed over the crowd, finding Scott quickly and frowning when he saw that Johnny had somehow slipped away unnoticed and was no where to be found. ‘I guess I did good to get him to stay as long as he did,’ he thought, walking over to Scott’s side and clamping him on the shoulder in greeting. When Scott turned to him, they both smiled and the conversation with Randall Jennings was picked up from where it had been interrupted, only this time the conversation was joined in by a very proud father.
Johnny made his way to the corral by the big barn that housed the horses for the night. His palomino Barranca had been allowed the freedom to roam the enclosed arena, his finely brushed coat shining gold and silver in the light of the full moon.
With his arms across the top of the rail, Johnny put his chin on his arms and sighed a sigh of relief that he had gotten away from the crowd of partiers with no one the wiser. He wasn’t much for crowds and parties only increased his desire to stray as far away as possible. He just hoped his father and his brother wouldn’t miss him and come looking for him. Just the thought of having to rub shoulders with so many people gave him a feeling of utter claustrophobia that he couldn’t control without practically feeling the need to shoot his way out. It was ridiculous he knew and rather than tell anyone about it he chose to simply walk away and hide out at the first opportunity that presented itself.
Lost in thought, Johnny watched the moon as it glowed in the starry sky above. Smiling he reached toward the glowing orb and made as if to touch it, awed by the beauty of its size and brilliance on this night.
“Nice moon tonight isn’t it?” a gentle voice said from behind, startling Johnny out of his reverie.
“It looks like a big giant diamond in the sky,” came that same voice Johnny didn’t recognize.
Johnny turned and found to his pleasure, a beautiful face to go with the feminine words spoken. Johnny tilted his head to the side his eyes going wide as they traveled from her face, down the soft column of her throat toward the daringly low cut décolletage of her pink satin dress. Not stopping there he continued to peruse her, his sapphire gaze traveling onward, down her hourglass waist all the way to her dainty white slippers barely peaking out from beneath the voluminous skirt she wore and back up again. The smile he felt in his heart hesitantly appeared and grew wider with each passing second that he drank in her beauty.
Sun kissed hair framed her face and eyes so dark he couldn’t see her pupils smiled back at him as long lashes fluttered timidly like the wings of a butterfly. He watched as she put her hands on her hips and dropped her ebony eyes from the top of his head to the tips of his boots in the same manner in which he had appraised her. When last their eyes met again she asked, “So do you like what you see?”
Johnny’s eyes crinkled and the smile on his face grew wider; “Do you?” he countered.
“I asked first,” the woman told him.
Johnny put his hands on his hips, a chuckle coming deep from within his chest as he looked toward the ground at his feet and then back up at her, his bangs falling across his forehead and over his right eye, “Yeah, I do. Do I know you?” he asked brushing his hair back with a nervous hand.
The woman turned her golden head just enough to look up at the moon and said, “I do too, and no you don’t.” When she turned back to him Johnny thought his heart would jump out of his chest. She had taken the last few yards to stand next to him at the corral rails and he watched as she put her arms on the top rail in the exact same fashion as he had earlier. Taking a deep breath and praying he didn’t say anything that might make this vision disappear he followed her example and resumed his position at the rail.
They stood like that for several minutes, neither one saying a word and yet it seemed as if they communicated in some magical way. Sly glances were directed one to the other alternately, and the sound of soft laughter filled the space between them as Barranca chose this moment in time to prance the arena in front of them. His head was held high and his tail arched and flowed as he paraded to and fro, lifting his legs and pounding his hooves into the ground with each and every step as if dancing to a tune in his head that only he could hear. He high stepped past them, snorting with pent up energy and shook his head as Johnny reached across the rail and tried to touch him as he passed. The golden palomino was giving them a show and it delighted Johnny to watch his horse show off, for that was what he knew the horse was doing. The grand finale came when he rushed to the center of the pen and reared onto his hind legs, neighing loudly as he rolled his front hooves in the air and pointed his head toward the moon. He landed with a mighty thump onto the hard packed earth, racing up to them for the touch he had so daringly dismissed only minutes before. Barranca allowed them both to touch and caress the front of his face, nickering softly as Johnny pulled a small treat from the pocket of his pants and held it out for him. As soon as the treat was taken the powerful stallion took his leave and once again Johnny found himself standing alone, next to the woman he still had no name for.
As if reading his thoughts she said, “My name is Sarah Foster. My daddy is a friend of Mr. Lancer.” She turned to face him laying her cheek on her folded arms, “What’s your name?”
Johnny lifted his chin from his arms and said, “Johnny…Johnny Lancer.” He shifted his eyes in her direction then back towards the inky darkness beyond the corral without turning his head.
“It’s nice to meet you Johnny Lancer,” came the wispy reply. She turned her head toward the same direction letting her chin rest on her arms as he was now doing. “You have a beautiful place.”
“Thanks,” he said, his voice quiet in the night, “I think so too.”
“Why aren’t you at the party dancing?” she asked conversationally.
Johnny shrugged, “Don’t dance much,” he told her, “Ain’t much good at it. What about you? Why aren’t you dancing? You can’t tell me that there isn’t a line of men a mile long just waitin to get their chance.”
Lifting her head off her arms she turned to study him as she leaned back against the rails, “Is that a compliment?” she asked.
He laughed and turned his back to the rails to stand next to her, “Are you looking for one?”
Quickly she looked up at him sideways and then back to her shoes, “Do you always answer a question with a question?”
“Do you?” he asked deliberately.
She thought for a moment and Johnny was just beginning to think he had upset her when she said with a hint of laughter in her voice, “No, but I’d like to get to know you better and it’s a little hard when you do that,” she replied, her voice soft and velvety to his ears.
He hadn’t expected her to say that and it took him by surprise. Pushing off the rails just slightly and bending his head toward her ear where her head was still bent looking down at her shoes; Johnny said huskily, “That was a compliment, only I think I could do better if I tried a little harder.”
His words brought a radiant smile to her face. Johnny was close enough to smell the honeysuckle fragrance of her perfume and he felt the whisper of her breath on his face as he stared into her eyes and melted in their ebony depths. He suddenly wanted to kiss the pink lips she offered up to him with her smile and wrap his arms around her with a need more powerful than anything he had ever felt in his entire life.
The feeling was unexpected and totally foreign to him with someone he didn’t even know. The urge to close the distance between their mouths was interrupted when a masculine voice he was unfamiliar with broke the spell between them.
“Sarah, is that you?” asked a tall man that Johnny judged to be at least Scott’s age if not a little older when he finally approached them. Johnny stepped back from Sarah and leaned casually against the rails of the corral, his arms at his side, his right hand thrumming a repetitive beat against his thigh where his gun was usually worn.
Ike Thornton walked briskly up to Sarah and completely ignored Johnny. Taking her hand into his he asked with a tinge of irritability in his voice, “What are you doing out her all alone?”
Sarah tried to pull her hand from the man but was unsuccessful; “I’m not out here all alone. If you had taken the time to mind your manners you would see that I am with someone.” She tried again to get her hand from his gripping fingers but try as she might the man would just not let go.
Ike Thornton cast his eyes toward where Johnny stood leaning, dismissing him as unimportant in the scheme of things where Sarah was concerned. Flashing her a smile of even white teeth that seemed to shine through the darkness, he spoke as if speaking to a child he felt needed reprimanding, “Sarah, It has not gone unnoticed by me that you are out here with a man, but really, you must see how unseemly it is to be carrying on a private conversation with the hired help. Now come with me,” he tugged none to gently on her hand, “I told your father I would find you and bring you back to the dance.”
Outraged at his behavior, Sarah pulled with all her might and got her hand free from his grasp, “How dare you talk to me like I’m your property and how dare you assume that Johnny Lancer is the hired help! I’ll thank you to keep your hands off me and I’ll thank you to go away and leave me alone.”
Ike ran his tapered fingers through the dark curls on his head and sighed loudly, “I’m sorry about the mistake.” He held out his hand toward Johnny, “Johnny Lancer is it? I’m Ike Thornton, soon to be Sarah’s fiancé if she says yes to me.”
Johnny dropped his eyes to the outstretched hand but ignored taking it in his. When he lifted his eyes to the tall man’s darker gaze, his face showed no signs of a forgiving nature. It was taking everything within his soul not to punch the man solidly on his square chin and the only thing saving him from said punch was the fact that Sarah was standing so near him.
Ike dropped his hand when he realized that Johnny Lancer wasn’t going to accept his peace offering, such as it was. He readjusted the tie at his neck and nodded his head acknowledging the fact that neither one of them liked one another but were man enough to sustain from a show of fisticuffs for the time being. ‘Another day, another time,’ his eyes told the dark cowboy.
Ignoring Sarah’s previous statement, Ike took her hand in his again before she knew what he was going to do and said, “You promised me a waltz Sarah and it’s about to begin. Come with me darling and we’ll forget this whole incident ever happened, shall we?”
Ike turned away pulling Sarah after him. Before he had gotten more than three feet a firm grip was placed on his hand causing him to stop and turn back around, “Now see here!” came an indignant cry.
“Let go…Now,” came the quiet but deadly voice issued from Johnny.
Ice-cold eyes met a stormy resentful glare, “The lady promised she would dance with me,” Johnny told the man who still dared to clutch Sarah’s hand in a tight grip.
Johnny squeezed the hand even harder, knowing that he was probably hurting Sarah in the process, but if he figured this coward out right, he would let go as soon as he knew he couldn’t win, which should be right about…now. The hand holding onto Sarah’s let go pulling back from Johnny’s just when he thought it would. With a smile on his face he took Sarah by the elbow and escorted her past the pompous jackass that ruined his last minutes alone with the angel that graced his side.
As Johnny escorted her toward the party, Sarah chanced a look at his profile. He didn’t look mad and he never raised his voice a pitch higher even with all that had just happened. What she saw was pure confidence and stoic strength with each tightening of the jaw muscles. When they reached the edge of the lights and the mass of partiers Sarah brought them to a stop by pulling on Johnny’s arm and calling his name, “Johnny.”
Brought up short by her sudden stop, Johnny turned to her as he held onto her hand. For just an instant he had forgotten why they were headed for the lights, the people and the music, so caught up he was with his thoughts toward the man he would have pummeled had he been anywhere else but here, where his friends and family were gathered for a good time.
Johnny licked his lips, worried now that they were getting closer to the dance floor, “I’m not a very good dancer,” he told her, letting go of his previous thoughts and swallowing hard at the thought of them together on the dance floor. He nervously played with her fingers held lightly in his hand. It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to dance. He had been taught a long time ago, in deference to what he had told his family, in another place and another time, but the idea of dancing in front of so many people he barely knew, his family included, frightened him more than any gunfight ever had.
She pulled him closer to her bringing them face to face, friends walked by, some laughing, some talking, all blissfully unaware of the tension that had just taken place well away from the gaiety of the night. Sarah looked up into his eyes and she smiled at him. In that instant Johnny knew that everything had changed for him. All that he knew and all that he was no longer mattered to him. He didn’t know how it happened but he knew when it happened, he had only just met her but he was certain without saying it that everything had changed instantly with just that one simple smile. She had captured his heart, hook, line and sinker. Just like that. He wouldn’t tell her just yet. He had made that mistake before and he wasn’t fool enough to do it again. This time, he would take his time, use a slow hand and let it come to him.
Sarah too was caught in the moment. Time seemed to stand still for her and as she found herself falling into the deep blue depths of Johnny’s eyes, her heart swelled and she knew this was forever. Like Johnny she was afraid to speak it, afraid to believe that you could meet a person and almost instantly know that that person was your future. A vision passed in front of her eyes and it was a glimpse of things to come, a passionate tomorrow and a bright new beginning starting now with the seed of protectiveness that would see them through even the roughest of times.
Thoughts of each other were quickly broken when an older man walked up to them both with Johnny’s father right along side the stranger, “Ah ha, daughter of mine, I see you have finally returned and who is this fine young man standing by your side if you don’t mind me asking?” the older man said with a twinkle gleaming in his eyes for his daughter.
Jeremiah Foster was a merry man with an enormous sense of humor and just enough mischief in his demeanor to get him in and out of trouble, depending on the situation and who all was involved. He stuck his thumbs into the side pockets of his striped vest after pushing back the flaps of his matching jacket over a rather rotund belly. His speckled gray hair seemed to spring on top of his head and thick matching sideburns ran down the length of his jolly face.
Murdoch Lancer laughed and leaned in towards his shorter friend and said with more graceful humor than Johnny thought he ever possessed, “This is my younger son Johnny, I was telling you about Jeremiah.”
“Ah, so it tis, so it tis. He’s a right fine good-looking fellow Murdoch Lancer,” the jolly man said, as he looked Johnny over from head to toe. “I see you have rescued my daughter from the clutches of that dastardly Ike Thornton my dear boy. Else wise he would be here himself. Good man,” he said pulling his right hand out of his pocket and clamping Johnny on the shoulder. He shook the wooly mane atop his head, “Never did like the man but he seems to think he has some kind of claim here on my Sally girl if you ask me.”
“Oh Papa stop it, you’re embarrassing him and me,” Sarah said to her father. It was a small reprimand but one that apparently they were used to having. She leaned over and gave her father a kiss on his cheek and said, “Johnny and I were just about to have a dance Papa. Do you mind?”
Murdoch raised his eyebrows at this news and glanced at his son to see how he was taking it. In all the time since the boys had returned, never once had Johnny taken a girl out on the dance floor and he claimed furiously that he had two left feet and therefore wasn’t ever going to embarrass himself by even attempting to try. What he found was a mortifying blush creeping up the neck and cheeks of his son the longer the conversation lasted. Murdoch wanted so much to say or do something to help him out but he couldn’t think of a thing to ease the situation.
Jeremiah shook his head and then pulled a gold timepiece from his pocket, taking note of the time, “Good Heavens child it’s still early, why of course I don’t mind. You two young ones go off and have a good time. Don’t mind me, Murdoch and I have a lot of catching up to do.”
Sarah leaned over and kissed him again, “Thank you Papa, I’ll catch up with you later.”
Jeremiah patted her on the cheek, “That’s a good girl, you do that.”
Before they could leave though, Jeremiah had one last bit of affection to show, stepping up to Johnny’s chest he threw his plump well tailored arms around a shocked and stunned Johnny giving him a great big bear hug, “It was nice to meet you Johnny. I look forward to getting to know you a bit better later on. Take care of my Sally girl.” He then leaned in closer to Johnny’s ear and said to him only, “And don’t let that Ike have his way with my daughter. I have a hard time telling him no because he’s so bull headed. But you don’t look like the sort to put up with that sort of nonsense.” The older man pushed away from him and the twinkle that was so apparent before was doubly there after his little speech.
Johnny lowered his head and was almost speechless until he felt the firm grip of his father’s hand on his shoulder. Looking up at him and swallowing hard, he knew that all would be all right. His father’s strength and good will for him shown in his eyes and it gave him the courage to acknowledge what had been said to him, “I will Sir. You can count on me.”
Jeremiah winked and said, “ I knew I could boy, as soon as I laid eyes on you. You have your father’s grit written all over your face.”
“Come on Jeremiah and lets leave these two alone, I have some wonderful old Scotch just over at that table and I think you will like it very much,” Murdoch told his friend as he took him by the arm and led him away from his clearly embarrassed son.
Johnny stood stock still, right where they left him; he wasn’t sure what he should do next after that encounter. The whole scene had him wondering if the world had gone suddenly insane. He never had anyone accept him as readily as this man had done and it unnerved him to say the least.
Sarah reached for the hand at his side, pulling Johnny from his thoughts, “He’s a little much right at first, but once you get to know him you’ll love him.”
Johnny nodded his head and smiled at her, still shaken from the demonstrative introduction, “I’m sure I will.” How could he not when the old fella was the father of the most beautiful woman on the earth?
Sarah laughed, the sound of it tinkling in his ears, “Come on cowboy and show me just how bad a dancer you really are.”
The band had stopped playing and the lead troubadour stepped forward for an announcement, “Ladies and gentleman, the next dance is a waltz. Please pick your partners.”
There was a loud murmuring in the crowd as men and women alike turned to their partners or searched for the one that was promised the special dance. The specially made dance floor for tonight’s entertainment was suddenly overactive as couple’s left the area while others came to stand in wait for the musicians to start.
Teresa made her way to Scott’s side and wistfully took him by his arm hugging it close to her as she laid her cheek on his bicep, “Oh I wish you had found the time to teach me this dance Scott. I so wanted to be able to dance the waltz with you tonight and show off a little in front of the other girls.”
Murdoch and Jeremiah came to stand next to them and Teresa smiled up at her charge, threading her free arm through his. “Well at least if I can’t dance the waltz, I at least have two of my favorite men standing next to me.”
Scott looked down at her indulgently and said, “I’ll teach you next week Teresa and I promise that come the next big social you’ll be the belle of the ball as we waltz around the dance floor.”
Teresa smiled happily and replied, “I’m gonna take you up on that Scott Lancer. You just remember that a promise is a promise and can’t be broken.”
Scott and Murdoch chuckled, “I’ll remember,” Scott told her.
Teresa stood up on her toes to see over the crowd of people that were fast gathering around, “Where’s Johnny?” she asked of either man beside her.
“Don’t know,” Scott remarked, “I haven’t seen the boy since he took off after meeting Hiram Jones.”
“We saw him several minutes ago with Sarah,” Murdoch told them. When he saw the look of confusion on Teresa’s face he said, “Jeremiah and I bumped into them on their way to the dance floor.”
Jeremiah leaned forward and smiled at the curious Teresa, “Yes my dear, we just spoke to them both. Fine fellow he is, I must say.”
Teresa grinned at the odd sounding man and said around Murdoch’s chest, “I didn’t realize that Johnny had even met Sarah yet or that he would be willing to dance.”
Jeremiah Foster puffed out his chest and reminded her of their new resident and friend Jelly Hoskins, “They met on their own accord my dear child and they assured us they were on their way to the dance floor. Quite the handsome young man, I’m sure they will make a lovely pair dancing together.”
Scott suddenly nudged the dark haired girl who had her arm in the crook of his, “There he is!” Scott exclaimed, pointing toward the dance floor, surprised to see just where his brother was. All eyes looked toward the dance floor that now held several couples waiting for the music to start. Alarmed for Johnny and sensing that he would rather be anywhere else but the center of attention, Scott turned his head to his father and asked with concern, “What’s he doing on the dance floor when they’re about to play a waltz?”
Jeremiah couldn’t help but answer the question, “Why he’s going to dance with my daughter of course,” he said as if it were no surprise to see them together on the dance floor.
Scott realized that the man didn’t know that Johnny couldn’t dance. His little brother never danced no matter how hard he tried to convince him or how easy he said it would be to teach him the most popular dances. No, his brother was not a dancer and had never shown that it was a skill he had learned or wanted to learn. ‘So why is he up there?’ Scott wondered. ‘What is it that his brother expected to accomplish by putting himself in such an uncertain situation like the one he was now witnessing? Total and humiliating embarrassment awaited him if he stumbled or stepped on his dance partner’s feet,’ Scott thought and worried for his brother.
Scott could see the nervous tension on Johnny’s face even from where they stood watching, but there was something else too. His little brother looked as if he were entranced by the girl standing in front of him. He noted that as they stood there waiting, their eyes never left each other’s face and a slow smile began to find its way onto Johnny’s features. He had to admit they made a perfect pair. Johnny’s dark looks were made even darker by the black trousers and stark white shirt he wore, his hair too long in Scott’s opinion, hanging just past his collar. In contrast to his appearance, Sarah was radiantly beautiful, with cascading corn silk hair flowing down to the back of her waist, her pink satin gown enhancing the glow in her cheeks. Dark eyes sparkled and never wavered as the musicians took their seats.
Murdoch, Scott and Teresa, stood transfixed as they waited to see what would happen. The man who had made the announcement of the dance, sat down in his chair and placed a violin upon his shoulder, nodding to his other companions all holding similar musical instruments and preparing for the start of the most beautiful and graceful dance a couple could perform. All three Lancers held their breaths without knowing it as the music began, the tone lilting and sweet as it floated through the night and into the hearts of all who listened.
Johnny held out his left hand and Sarah placed her dainty palm into his. With his right hand upon her waist she moved into him and with grace made natural by long hours of practice with a dance instructor, she placed her other palm on his right shoulder and the dance began as the melody of the romantic Viennese Waltz overcame them. The couple floated and whirled across the floor as gracefully as any King and Queen had ever danced in royal court and all were stunned and mesmerized by their natural grace and beauty.
Scott’s jaw dropped and Teresa’s eyes filled with joyful tears as they watched them spin around the dance floor with the greatest of ease, held closer together than proper society dictated was allowed by unmarried youth. Murdoch too, was overwhelmed to see that his son had a hidden talent that none of them had ever suspected or guessed he had after all his constant denial of his dancing abilities. This only heightened his need to know the secrets that hid behind the masked veneer of his otherwise hot-tempered youngest son.
“They make a lovely couple, do they not?” Jeremiah asked of his friend who stood captivated by the floating pair.
Murdoch turned his head just slightly to look at Jeremiah’s face, not wanting to take his eyes off his son, “They do at that,” he agreed, his eyes squinting at the shorter man. He almost felt a tinge of jealousy that his friend found their offspring to be such a wonderful couple. Johnny hadn’t been home long enough for him to know him any better than he did the first week and the prospect of someone coming along and claiming his son’s heart and possibly taking him away again did not set well in his mind. Overwhelming panic thrust its ugly head into his heart and he turned away from his old and dear friend, not wanting him to see the hurt that suddenly placed a seed in his heart, take root.
The dance ended finding Johnny and Sarah, left standing in the middle of the dance floor still holding on to one another as if lost in the strains of the romantic melody. Her eyes were closed and her head was tilted upward enough for Johnny to see her clearly, just as spellbound by the atmosphere of the dance and the woman in his arms. She continued to hum the tune playing in her head and Johnny couldn’t help himself, he leaned his head toward hers and kissed her lightly on the lips, closing his eyes as he pulled away and swallowing the sudden lump that formed in his throat.
Heavy applause from the spectators who had watched the dance broke the magic of the kiss and both sets of eyes flew open and hurriedly looked around them in panic as they realized what they both had done. Breaking apart and flushing profusely, Sarah touched her lips with the tips of her fingers, wishing the kiss could have gone on but worried that her father might be upset at her wanton behavior in front of so many people. She couldn’t help it though her heart cried out. When Johnny had kissed her it was if the world had come to a complete stop and they were magically transported to somewhere else, completely alone and as far away from prying eyes as a person could get. But sadly this was not the case and she had her father and her reputation to think about.
Sarah backed away from him and licked her dry lips as sudden nervousness settled within her heart and soul, “Thank you Johnny, I’ll always remember this moment, this special time.” She turned and fled in the direction where her father stood waiting.
He was on the verge of following her when Scott and Teresa, with Murdoch following close behind, descended upon him like vultures upon a dead carcass, excited and eager to praise him for his superb dancing skills, “Little brother I think you have some explaining to do,” Scott told him as he clasped a firm hand on his shoulder and gave it a shake.
Teresa wrapped her arms around his middle and hugged him fiercely, “Oh Johnny, that was magnificent! Why didn’t you tell us you could dance so well? All this time you told us you didn’t know how!” she exclaimed her surprise and pride in him clearly evident in her tone.
Grasping her by the waist and hugging her back while his eyes still sought after the path that Sarah had taken Johnny answered without thinking about what he was saying, “I can’t.”
“Can’t what son?” Murdoch asked Johnny who was getting more and more frustrated with all their clinging and questions. His view of Sarah had been effectively hindered by Murdoch’s large frame and the more he tried to move from one side to the other the more frustrated he got.
“Nothing Murdoch, excuse me,” and with that little phrase Johnny managed to take a step back and sidestep around his father with the hopes of catching Sarah before she left. He made it half way through the crowd as a startled trio of family members watched him leave threading his way across the courtyard, before running into Ike Thornton.
The tall man blocked his way and shoved Johnny roughly on the chest sending him stumbling backwards. His back came up against another man Johnny didn’t know, but was grateful had been there, otherwise he would have found himself flat on the ground sitting on his rear. “I suggest next time you watch where you’re going Lancer,” Ike said his voice filled with venom. He turned to walk away, satisfied that he had shown the cowboy just who he was up against. Ike was taller and heavier than Johnny. He felt confident that if the two of them were to square off in a real match he would come out the victor and so he never suspected the shorter man would take him on. He twisted his head and looked at Johnny over his shoulder, “And stay away from my girl. She’ll be lucky if she’s still got a decent reputation after that obscene performance you just put her through.” He laughed as Johnny stood there staring at him. Ike was fairly new to the area and didn’t have a clue about Johnny or his previous reputation. If he had, he might not have turned his back on his adversary so calmly. But fate had other ideas for one, Ike Thornton; before the night was over he would regret bullying Johnny and apologize for his remarks concerning Sarah.
Johnny’s blood boiled. His mind saw nothing but a red haze as he watched the tall lanky man walk away from him, his shoulders straight, his posture full of self-righteous mocking attitude, telling him better than any words ever could that Ike thought he was somehow better and Johnny was somehow lower than him. Ignoring the calls from Scott inquiring across the floor if he was alright, Johnny stormed after the man and tapped him on the shoulder as he reached the outer perimeter of the lights in the courtyard.
Ike Thornton turned around, “Yes what is…” he started to ask, only to get a mouthful of fist in his face as Johnny hit him with all that he had. Ike stumbled backwards landing on his rear end, his mouth and nose a bloody mess. His hand went quickly to his face and came off again covered in thick red blood. He grimaced and jumped to his feet angry that the cowboy had dared to hit him with such force probably breaking his nose in the process. He lunged forward his fists flying furiously towards Johnny’s face.
Johnny ducked when Ike threw his fist at him and punched the man in the stomach with his right hand and then gave him an upper cuff with his left. Ike grabbed at his stomach and once again found himself staggering backwards but managed to keep his balance by pure force of will. He lunged again, roaring as he raced toward Johnny swerving at the last second, punching him in the gut. Johnny was hard as a washboard and the punch did little to knock him off his feet. He whipped around and punched Ike on the side of his face. Blood and spittle spewed from the taller man’s mouth.
Several men saw what was happening and soon gathered around the two fighting foes very quickly. Ike hit Johnny in the chin, sending him flying backward into Frank Henderson’s arms. Frank pushed him off yelling, “Go get him Johnny!”
Johnny stumbled across the circle of men and swung hard at Ike’s stomach, only to have the same punch thrown back at him. Scott and Murdoch heard the shouting from the men and ran to the outer courtyard surprised to find Johnny in the middle of a fray. More punches were thrown and it was soon apparent who the winner was going to be.
Scott started to make his way past the ring of men, but Murdoch’s hand held him tight by the upper arm. “No Scott, It looks as if it’s almost done. Just wait, there’s no sense in you getting hurt too. We’ll know soon enough what’s going on.”
Seconds later the fight was over and one man stood staring down at the other. The beaten man lay on the ground, heaving deep uneven breaths, unable to fathom being beaten in a fistfight. He stared up from the ground at his opponent, “I… give,” he said through bloody lips.
Johnny held up his fist and made as if he were going to throw one last punch, “Apologize now!” he demanded.
Breathing hard and not wanting to go another round with the underrated cowboy Ike said through gritted teeth, “I apologize.”
Johnny glared at him as blood trickled down from a split lip, wiping it off on the sleeve of his white shirt he said, “Good, now get off my land and don’t ever come back.”
Johnny walked away from Ike Thornton, the congratulating drunken men, his father and brother. He walked to the corral and placed his arms across the top rail, resting his forehead on his arms. He could hear the approaching heavy footsteps but refrained from lifting his head.
A firm hand grasped his right shoulder and squeezed gently, “You ok?” his father asked.
Johnny kept his head down and answered his father with a muffled voice, “Yeah, I’m ok.”
“You want to tell me what just happened or should we wait for later?”
“Later,” was the one word reply from Johnny.
“All right then. Make sure you talk to Scott. I was hard pressed to keep him away from you during and after.”
Johnny lifted his head and without looking at his father said, “I will.”
“Folks are starting to leave so I’m going to say our goodbyes for the night.” Murdoch turned from his son and started to walk away.
“Murdoch?” Johnny called when his father was just a few feet away.
Trying to see if his son was truly alright, Murdoch peered through the darkened night at Johnny’s face, not seeing it as clearly as he would like, “What is it John?”
Johnny leaned his back against the rails and rubbed at his sore hands, “Do you know them very well?”
Murdoch wondered if this was what the fight was all about. He didn’t ask though, he chose instead to honor their agreement and replied with a knowing grin, “They live on the edge of town. I’m not sure where just yet since I haven’t been to their place. And Jeremiah has a business he just opened up in Green River.” He watched for a reaction from his son but got nothing, “Does that help?” he asked gently.
Johnny shook his dark head, “Yeah, that helps a lot.”
Murdoch nodded his head, “Good, I’m glad I could help son.” He turned away and started back again.
Johnny called out one last time, “Murdoch!”
Murdoch stopped in his tracks but didn’t look back. He didn’t have to. Johnny said what he wanted before he had a chance, “Thanks,” came the barely audible word to his ears.
Murdoch smiled, glad that he had handled the situation with Johnny in a manner that kept them both from getting angry at each other, “Your welcome son. Come in soon. The nights are getting colder.”
Murdoch left him standing there and made his way back to the house and an anxiously waiting Scott near the courtyard. “How is he?” Scott wanted to know.
“He’ll be fine. We agreed to talk things over later and he’s promised to come see you. He knows you’re worried.”
“Worried, scared, appalled and a dozen other feelings. I just sent Ike Thornton packing. I’ve heard a little about him from some of the men. It seems he used to live back east near Baltimore. I was told he was a professional boxer before heading west,” Scott informed Murdoch.
Murdoch’s eyebrows rose with the information, “Well I don’t know what kind of boxer he was in Baltimore but apparently it isn’t the same as we have out here.”
Scott chuckled, “I’ll say.”
Murdoch laughed and threw his arm around his son’s shoulders, “Come on. Let’s say goodnight to the rest of the guest and call it a night.”
It was long after the entire guest had departed and the lights in the courtyard had been extinguished before Johnny finally made his way back to the house. All the lights were out except one that was left burning in the great room for Johnny when he came in. He found Scott slouched in one of the chairs, sound asleep, a thick book resting on his lap face down on the last page he had been reading.
Johnny rubbed his tired eyes and cleared his scratchy throat. His body ached but not from the fight with Ike. He had come through the whole incident with little to bother him other than his sore knuckles and a few bruises forming on his cheeks and chin and a small cut on his lower lip. His throat had started feeling sore about an hour ago and his body protested the late night hour with each and every step. He was in for a cold, he could tell by the signs his body was giving him.
Picking up a bottle from the table behind the couch, he poured himself a small glass of whiskey. He didn’t usually like the stuff but it helped to ease his aches and pains when he suffered from a fever and he felt one coming on.
With the chink of glass upon glass, Scott stirred in his seat, the heavy book sliding off onto the floor with a loud thunk. Opening his eyes he saw his brother was finally in, and rubbed his eyes saying, “Glad you could finally make it brother.”
“Me too,” he replied as he watched Scott bend over and retrieve the fallen tome. “Want some?”
Scott glanced at the grandfather clock against the wall; “At this hour?” he asked noting that it was a little after two.
Johnny looked at the clock, “Yeah, I guess it is a little late. Sorry I kept you waiting so long.”
Scott shrugged his shoulders, “It’s ok, and I don’t mind. You all right?” he asked as he watched Johnny walk around the corner of the couch and take a seat.
“I’m fine,” Johnny said after taking a sip of the fiery drink. “Little tired.”
Scott knew it was going to be difficult to get Johnny to tell him why things happened the way they did tonight, but he felt the need to try, “You want to tell me why you two were fighting?” he asked point blank, hoping the direct route would be the shortest.
Johnny downed the last of his drink and said, “Nope.”
Scott snorted. This wasn’t going to be easy at all and difficult sounded like too tame a word trying to get Johnny to tell him about what happened. He decided to try again, “Why not?” ‘There, that should get him,’ he thought keeping to the direct route in his mind.
Leaning back against the couch and clearing his throat as he massaged it, Johnny said, “Cause it’s personal.”
‘Damn,’ Scott thought. Now what was he supposed to say he wondered, “Is that what you’re going to tell Murdoch when he asks about tonight?”
Johnny swallowed and the act hurt his throat even more after drinking the whiskey that burned his already sore throat, “Yep,” he said a little hoarsely and with his eyes closed.
“Johnny, Murdoch isn’t…” Scott started to say but was interrupted by what he perceived was now a very cranky brother sitting across from him.
Johnny sat up and said irritably, “Scott, stop it. It’s late and I’m tired. I told you it’s personal and that’s what I’m goin to tell the old man. It doesn’t have anything to do with you, the ranch or Madrid. It’s just personal and I don’t want to talk about it. Ike Thornton knows why I kicked the stuffin out of him and that’s good enough for me.”
As soon as the tirade left his mouth, Johnny regretted being so harsh with his brother who was only trying to be helpful. But he was tired and getting more so by the second and didn’t want to answer any more questions about something that didn’t concern any of them. He set his glass down on the table, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to take your head off.”
Johnny stood up and so did Scott, “Me too, little brother. I’m sorry I pressed.”
Johnny smiled and Scott knew that things were right between them. If Johnny said it was personal and it had nothing to do with any of them, the ranch or Madrid then this was something his brother had to work out for himself. Scott too, saw the tired look on his face and knew that both of them needed to go to bed before either of them fell flat on their faces from exhaustion. “Come on before you pass out right here in front of me Mr. Grumpy,” Scott said teasing his brother and throwing an arm around his shoulders.
“I’m not grumpy!” Johnny retorted swatting at Scott’s midsection with the back of his hand.
“Yes you are,” Scott said laughing and swatting back at Johnny.
“Am not,” and “Are too,” were said back and forth as the boys made their way to the upper level of the house. When they reached the second floor landing they stopped their bantering and said their goodnights to each other. By the time they both reached their bedroom doors Scott remembered to ask his brother a question and quickly whispered down the hallway before Johnny disappeared into his room, “Hey Johnny!” he called out.
Johnny with his hand on the doorknob to his room turned in his direction and whispered back as loud as his sore throat would allow, “What?”
“I’m going into town tomorrow. You want to go with me?”
Johnny smiled, “Yeah sure. See ya in the mornin.”
If Scott had any shred of doubt left in his head about their little argument downstairs, it was gone with Johnny’s answer. He went to bed looking forward to the next morning and the time they would spend together.
A third door, the last at the end of the hallway silently closed and a tired Murdoch Lancer made his way back to his bed. He hadn’t been able to sleep and had kept a silent watch on the slightly ajar door to his room, waiting for his sons to come upstairs. When he heard their not so quiet voices coming up the staircase he had gone to the cracked doorway and listened in on their brief conversation, such as it was. Relieved to hear that they were joking and playing around as they hit the landing, he watched and listened as they said their goodnights and agreed to go to town together. Now, as he lay here in the darkness of his room he thought more about his youngest son and wondered, not for the first time, if the fight had been over the sweet and innocent Sarah Foster.
Hugging his pillow he smiled thinking that his assumptions had to be correct for there was no other reason he could think of that would make Johnny fight someone he hardly knew in the presence of his family and friends. He hoped his son wasn’t already falling in love with the girl. He remembered when Maddie left him and the heartache his son had gone through for days afterward. He didn’t think Johnny was ready for that kind of commitment yet, much as his son had wanted it with Maddie. There were also his concerns about not wanting Johnny to leave the nest before he had the time to develop completely the new relationships he was forming with his family. Murdoch felt a little miserly about his feelings but nevertheless this was how he felt, at least for now. He wasn’t in the mood to share after only just getting Johnny and Scott home for the first time in eighteen years.
Scott entered the kitchen from the back door hoping to find Johnny sitting at the table and having a late breakfast. The family had slept in after having a late night but it was nearing nine o’clock, which by their standards was late since they were usually up at the crack of dawn. He pulled off his favorite yellow leather gloves and stuck them into his pocket. Maria wasn’t in the kitchen but he knew she must be close by since there was still plenty of food warming on the stovetop. It looked in fact as if no one had come down yet with the amount of fare that sat warming.
He picked up a cup and filled it with hot steaming coffee and smiled when he heard a shuffling just beyond the kitchen entry. It was Maria who came bustling through the door laden with a tray of used cups and glasses left over from last night.
“Ah, Buenos Dias senor Scott,” said the motherly cook and housekeeper.
“Buenos Dias Maria. Where is everyone?” he questioned.
“Aye yi yi, still in bed I think, everyone is muy cansó esta mañana. (very tired this morning)
“Has Johnny been down at all this morning?” he asked her.
Maria shook her head no at el patrón’s hijo.
“Gracias Maria,” he said and left the kitchen to go get his brother out of bed.
He climbed the steps to the upper landing and made his way to Johnny’s room finding the door still closed and no sound of his morning rituals indicating that he was up yet. This wasn’t like his little brother to sleep in so late. Even with a late night and a drink under his belt his little brother was usually one of the first persons up in the morning, often times making it downstairs well before their father who it turned out was a very early riser.
He cracked the door open and saw that the room was still dark inside with the drapes closed. Making his way to Johnny’s bed he found him sleeping on his side with the covers drawn up under his chin and a pillow firmly tucked and held inside the curve of his arm next to his chest.
Scott made his way to the drapes and slowly pulled back one side to allow a little of the morning light inside the room. Walking back to where Johnny slept he shook him by the shoulder and called his name, “Johnny.” No answer. He shook his shoulder a second time saying, “Hey Johnny wake up sleepy head. It’s almost noon and you’re still in bed.”
This was enough to cause the young man to wake up. Johnny slowly opened his eyes and looked at his brother through the one that Scott could see. Groaning he turned over onto his back and rubbed his eyes with his two fists.
Johnny’s throat hurt even more this morning and he found it excruciatingly difficult to find his voice but after clearing his throat and closing his eyes against even the little bit of bright light that filtered through the window he managed to say, “What time is it?”
“It’s nine o’clock little brother and time for you to get up. We’re going to town today or did you forget?” he asked smiling and taking a seat in a chair by the window. He sipped his coffee and waited for Johnny to rouse himself, not really expecting an answer to the question he had just posed.
“I don’t feel good,” came the raspy words from the bed.
Misunderstanding what Johnny meant by not feeling good Scott replied, “I would think not after the night you had. Get on up though, you’re always telling me that if you let your body rest too long you’ll stiffen up. Maria’s got breakfast and coffee waiting downstairs and I have one of the men getting our horses saddled for us.”
Johnny sighed deeply and threw the covers back feeling like the room was too cold and chilly to get up but he did. He sat on the edge of his bed and rubbed his face with his hands, his bare feet hating the cold that met them when they touched the floor. ‘Why is it so damn cold?’ he thought.
“I’m going downstairs, you want me to bring you up a cup of coffee?” Scott asked now that his brother was at least sitting up.
Head bent, Johnny waved him away and said, “Naw, I’ll be down soon enough, just make sure you got one waitin when I get there.”
Standing, Scott passed his tousled haired brother and said as he left the room, “It’ll be ready and waiting when you are. See you in a few minutes.”
Johnny sighed deeply, “Yeah,” came the softly spoken reply to his brother’s all too cheery morning attitude.
Ten minutes later a very tired and aching Johnny made his way downstairs and into the kitchen. Scott was there and poured him the promised cup of coffee as he sat down at the table, planting his elbows on the hard surface with a barely contained groan. With his face buried into his palms he heard the distinctive clump, as the mug was set before him. He uncovered one bleary eye and sat staring at the steam that rose from the hot liquid wishing he were still in bed, covered by his warm inviting blankets.
Resignation took root in his head and he lowered his hands around the hot steaming mug taking some satisfaction that at least his hands were now warm. He sipped the coffee after blowing on it being careful not to touch the hot cup to the cut on his lip; all the while his brother sat staring at him with a silly grin on his face.
Dull sapphire eyes traveled to Scott’s “What are you grinning about?” he asked perturbed that his brother obviously felt much better than he did and seemed to be taking a great deal of pleasure in his discomfort.
Scott chuckled, “You look awful,” he said calmly to Johnny’s irritated question.
“I know,” he shrugged, “But then you would too if you felt like you’ve been run over by a herd of wild horses.”
Scott took pity on him and said, “You don’t have to go with me if you don’t want to.”
Johnny glared at him, “Who said I don’t want to?”
Scott shrugged, “No one.”
Johnny sat his cup down staring at it as he countered, “That’s what I thought.”
Scott heaved a big sigh and threw his hands in the air, “I give up.” He pushed his chair back and stood up, “When you get done I’ll meet you outside.”
Scott left through the back door and Johnny was instantly sorry he was so ‘grumpy’ with his brother. It wasn’t his fault that he felt like dirt this morning. Hearing a snort from near the pantry, Johnny saw that Maria was eyeing him disapprovingly from across the kitchen with a frown upon her face. This was enough to make him feel even worse than he did only seconds ago. Pushing his chair back from the table he left the kitchen and the frowning Maria and made his way to the front foyer where his buckskin jacket hung on a peg near the door.
Grabbing the jacket roughly from the hook, he shrugged into it and reached for his gun belt, strapping it to his waist angrily and tying the leather thong to his thigh to keep it from getting caught in his coat. He pulled the front door open a little harder than he intended and snatched his hat from the rack as he left the house with the door slamming just as hard and just as unintentionally as he had opened it. There was just no way his day was going to be a good one but he hoped that by the time he got to town his mood would improve a fraction. Otherwise he just might as well crawl into a hole and bury himself before his brother got the idea in his head to do it for him.
The ride to town seemed like it took forever in Johnny’s opinion. Scott had tried his best to have a conversation with him but the longer they rode the worse Johnny felt. He knew by now that he was sick and the last thing he felt like doing was having a pleasant conversation with someone who obviously wasn’t. This was how they rode into town and dismounted in front of the mercantile. Johnny did his best not to be the ‘grumpy man’ his brother thought he was today and followed him inside as Scott picked up an order for some books that had arrived and sorted through the various new items that Mr. Hanson wanted to show him.
The little shopkeeper had an array of new fangled toiletries to show to Scott whom he knew took great pride in his appearance and even tried to get Johnny interested in a new assortment of knives and fancy colts with pearl covered handles, he thought might interest the retired gunfighter. It didn’t and Mr. Hanson soon gave up when he got no response other than a few unintelligible grunts and some irritating thrumming on the counter.
An hour later and with a much happier Scott leading the way, the two brothers left the shop and stood on the boardwalk. “I have some mail to pick up and I thought we’d get a drink. You feel up to it?”
Johnny lifted his hat and gazed up and down the street and then behind him where there sat two large wooden rockers. “Naw, you go on ahead. I’m not up to drinking anything today.” He squinted his eyes toward the sunny sky, “Think I’ll wait right here in this little ole rocker while you take care of business.”
Scott studied him reflectively trying to gauge what was going on in his brother’s head. He knew he might be a little sore from the fight last night but this was just not like his brother at all. He was grumpy as all get out and seemed listless and tired. Maybe he was coming down with something and shouldn’t have come with him in the first place. It only just occurred to him that when Johnny said he wasn’t feeling good this morning that maybe he took it wrong, thinking that he was referring to the way he felt after the fight. “You all right Johnny?”
Johnny didn’t want to spoil his time in town and said as he lowered his hat to cover his eyes from Scott, “I’m fine. Now go on.” Jutting his chin in the direction of the saloon he told him, “Looks like Brent’s at the saloon. Go on over and have a beer with him when you’re done. I don’t feel real sociable today so I’ll just wait for you over here.”
“Johnny if you want to…” Scott started to protest.
Johnny shoved at his arm to get his brother moving, “Scott I’m fine. Stop worrying and go do your thing. It’s not gonna kill me to sit this one out for a change. Ok?”
“If you say so little brother, but don’t forget that I gave you a chance,” Scott replied teasingly.
Johnny smiled at him, the first genuine smile he had on his face all morning, “I do say so and I won’t forget.”
Scott was glad to see his brother smiling again. He felt better about leaving him to his own devices and promised not to be gone too long. Sitting in the rocking chair Johnny waved him off as Scott left for the post office down the street. Within seconds he had his boots propped up on the rail, his hat lowered and his jacket pulled tight around his middle to ward off the numbing chill that still bothered him. He fell asleep to the sounds of Mr. Hanson working in the store, humming a tune he thought no one but him could hear.
Johnny opened his eyes when he felt a light tap on the brim of his hat. Lifting his head and forcing the tiredness from his eyes, he tipped his hat back and turned slowly toward the source that woke him up. He smiled, his eyes crinkling with amusement to find Sarah sitting next to him in the other rocker.
She smiled back at him and asked, “Do you remember me cowboy?”
Johnny’s smile broadened, “Of course I do.” Johnny dropped his booted feet to the boards beneath him and said, “How could I forget?”
“Oh I just thought you might have is all,” she said licking her pink lips and looking down at her hands. “Was that your brother I saw with you earlier?” she asked.
A sudden flash of jealousy pierced like and arrow in his chest as Johnny answered, “Yeah, why?”
Sarah shook her head, “No reason really, Papa said your brother looked nothing like you and I just wondered.”
Johnny lowered his eyes and looked back up into her face, “His name is Scott.”
“Oh that much I knew. Papa told me this morning that he met him last night for the first time.”
“And you didn’t?” he questioned, fighting off the unwarranted jealousy that still poked and prodded at him.
Sarah smiled and Johnny thought there wasn’t any need for the sun to be in the sky. The look she gave him was all the light he needed, “Nope, I had a more important person I was meeting last night for the first time.”
The green-eyed monster left him just like that and in its place was nothing but pure pleasure as her meaning sunk into his soul. He swallowed hard, grimacing with the act and trying hard not to show it. Pursing his lips together he glanced down at the arm of the chair wondering what he should say next.
Sarah helped him out by asking, “Why didn’t you go with him?”
Lifting his eyes to her dark thoughtful countenance he replied, “I don’t feel so good.” As soon as he said it he wanted to kick himself. The last thing he wanted was for her to feel sorry for him or think he was complaining.
Before he knew what she was up to, Sarah leaned over the arm of her chair and tipped his hat back a little farther, feeling of his forehead when she was done. “You have a fever,” she commented, sitting back again in her chair.
Johnny blinked rapidly and replied, “I figured as much a couple hours ago.”
She stared at the corner of his mouth; “You have also mysteriously gotten a split lip since last night.”
Johnny had the good grace to grin, “Yeah, well, that happens when you’re protectin a ladies honor.”
Sarah was honored by his show of chivalry towards her, “Thank you,” she said feeling like the sentiment was not nearly enough considering how he looked.
Johnny lowered his eyes, finding it hard not to reach out and touch her just to make sure she was really there, “Your welcome,” he told her glancing up.
Sarah tilted her head sideways, her golden halo of hair shifting from the heavy weight. Brushing back a wispy strand that brushed against her cheek she said, “You should be in bed.”
Johnny grinned and Sarah thought it was the most handsome and sexy sight she had ever seen. ‘Oh my Lord,’ she thought. ‘What in the world would he say if he knew I was thinking such a thing about him, sitting right here in front of me.’ A deep blush crept up her neck and her face as forbidden images raced through her mind right in the middle of broad daylight. ‘Hells bells the man would probably think I’m a harlot. Oh dear God please take these images out of my mind before he sees my thoughts written all over my face.’
Johnny chuckled as he watched her discomfiture take over and couldn’t help but add to the dilemma, “I’m glad I’m not…in bed.” He was being bad but couldn’t help it. There wasn’t any other place he wanted to be right now other than with her, unless it was to find them both in bed, together, and since that wasn’t going to happen any time in the near future he at least liked the idea of making her think about his bed.
Sarah didn’t know if a person could die of mortification, but she sure felt like it was a distinct possibility at this very minute. Did he know what he was doing to her she wondered? Her father raised her all by himself and did the best he could without a woman’s touch to help. She felt sure that the thoughts that were running rampant through her head were brought on by the fact that she hadn’t had her mother’s guidance to teach her any better. She just knew that what she imagined about Johnny was wicked and sooner or later the devil was going to come along and take her soul at any time if she didn’t stop.
Johnny touched her hand, “Sarah?” he said leaning over just slightly and bending his head to catch her eyes with his.
Sarah found herself blinking back her thoughts and cleared her throat saying, “I’m sorry.”
Johnny grinned, “Where’d you go?” he asked.
She gazed at him as if seeing the ocean for the first time and her heart melted into the liquid depths of his mesmerizing deep blue eyes. She whispered, “No where…here.” She reached over and touched his face with one tiny finger running it down his bruised cheek and then over those lips. Those lips she wanted so desperately to kiss her like they had last night. “You look tired,” she said almost breathlessly.
He took her hand in his, stopping the slow torturous feelings her touch brought to his skin. He felt hot; raging hot and wondered where the chill that had racked his body the whole nightlong and morning, went. He had the sudden need to shuck the jacket he wore but couldn’t find the strength to let go of her hand and take it off.
‘I have to leave,’ Sarah thought wildly, “I have to leave right now or I’m going to do something that I just know I shouldn’t.’ She shook her head and pulled her hand away from his, feeling his hesitancy to let her go. ‘Does he feel the same way I feel?’ she briefly wondered. ‘No he couldn’t possibly. It’s just my wild imagination playing tricks on my mind. We just met for cryin out loud,’ she thought. But as she stood to take her leave, she hoped and prayed, that he did feel the way she was feeling.
Johnny stood up nearly reeling from the suddenness of it, but determined not to let her get away from him as quickly as she had the night before. He grasped both her hands in his as they stood in front of the rockers and took the last two steps that brought them almost chest-to-chest. He was a least a good foot taller than her and had to bend his head down near hers to speak to her without towering over her. “I want to see you again.”
Sarah tilted her head to meet his lowered one, “I would…like that,” she told him, her heart skipping a beat at the nearness of his body to hers. It reminded her of their dance and the visions she saw, the feelings she felt and the overwhelming desire she had to cling to him with every fiber of her being.
“My father said you live on the edge of town, can I meet you there or should I meet you someplace else?”
“You can always meet me there,” she pointed after pulling one hand from Johnny’s, toward a building down the street.
Johnny turned his head without letting go of her other hand, “Where?” he asked puzzled by where she was pointing.
Sarah giggled and it sounded like sparkling rain drops to his ears, “There…the restaurant.”
Johnny squinted and pulled them both toward the rail of the boardwalk, “Foster’s Fine Foods,” he said. Turning to her he grinned and his eyes were like a little boy at Christmas, “Your father owns the new restaurant?”
Sarah laughed, “Yes. He only got the sign delivered two days ago. It looks mighty fine too if you ask me.”
Johnny kept turning his head from her to the restaurant, surprised to know that they were the owners of the newest eatery in town. “Can your father see us from there yuh think?” he asked.
This time Sarah’s laugh was full of fun as she realized what Johnny was getting at with his question, “How do you think I saw you?”
“I didn’t,” he replied. “Does your father know that you’re over here talking to me?”
“He’s the one who told me it was Ok to walk over,” she supplied. She heard the concerned tone in his voice and wondered about it, but decided that it was just the possibility of having her father watching them that unnerved him. Why shouldn’t it? It unnerved her to know it was a possibility when she sat with Johnny having her wicked and sinful thoughts about him and his… ‘Oh drats, there I go again. For Heavens sake can’t I keep my mind off his…?’ She stopped her line of thinking once and for all by pulling her other hand from his, missing his touch as soon as her hand was free. “I really do have to go.”
She started to walk away by going around him, but Johnny grabbed her hand as she swept past him and twirled her back around to face him, “Will I have to ask you father’s permission if I want to see you?”
Sarah smiled and Johnny touched the small indentation next to her mouth with his finger, “Stop that right now Johnny Lancer.”
He tugged on her hand, “Stop what?” he asked with mischief.
She squinted her eyes at him, “That!” she said slapping his hand away from her face. “I can’t take it any more. You’re driving me crazy!” she said in whispered frustration. Her body was on fire and she didn’t think she could handle one more touch from his hands without exploding from deep within.
He took a step closer, “Am I?” he asked huskily and with a promise of more to come.
“Yes,” she said weakly backing away from him and his fiery brand every time he touched her skin.
“So, do I?” he asked, but the question he wanted an answer to escaped her mind as she continued to back away and he continued to approach her, keeping their bodies in close proximity to each other without touching.
Breathing more heavily she came to an abrupt stop as her back came against the post that held up the awning over the storefront, “Do you what?” she asked.
“Do…I…need…your father’s permission?” Johnny repeated stepping closer and closer with each pronouncement. His lips were so close to hers she thought she was going to die from the panic that raced through her heart at his nearness. She blinked rapidly unable to control the fire inside her belly. Closing her eyes she waited for the inevitable and was rewarded with the touch of his lips to hers. The kiss was short and sweet but lingered tantalizing on her lips and seared her soul. Her mouth was on fire and she felt her body begin to sag only to be held upright by strong hands gripping her waist as his firm and rigid body pressed her into the wooden post at her back.
He pulled away and Sarah chanced to open her eyes. She wondered if she had just died and gone to Heaven. She must have, because she felt like she was floating on a cloud. She stared at Johnny and watched as he traced his mouth with his tongue and sucked on his lower lip showing strong white even teeth. He stepped back and tilted his head to the right and watched her the way she was watching him, “Well?” he mouthed the word.
Sarah couldn’t speak, not now, her mind was spinning but somehow she managed to shake her head ‘yes’ and quickly turn away from him to run across the street and to the restaurant. Her cheeks were flaming and she was certain that if there had been anyone around to see them, they would have surely stoned her for such a display as the one she just gave.
Johnny wrapped his arm around the post and watched her run down the street. He was still looking down the street where she ran when Mr. Hanson stepped out onto the boardwalk and stood next to him. The short little shopkeeper pushed the spectacles on his face up the bridge of his nose and offered up to Johnny, “You think that one’s a keeper Johnny?”
Johnny didn’t look at the man; he knew him as a friend and as a business associate to him and his family, he simply replied, “Yeah Mr. Hanson, I think she’s a keeper.” Johnny shoved off the post, “If she’ll have me,” he said without really thinking about his words.
Johnny hadn’t had the best of luck when it came to women. Oh he could have most any girl that was willing to sell herself and most times he didn’t even have to pay. It was the nice girls he had the most trouble with. He had fallen in and out of love so many times in his life with nice girls who never gave to commitment when he needed it and wanted it the most, that he was leery of feeling this way again. He had promised himself last night that he would move with a slow hand, be more cautious this time, but it was his body and his heart that didn’t seem to understand his thoughts or want to obey his commands.
Sick as he was, his traitorous body gave him away, pulling him closer and closer to the light that was Sarah. Every time he touched her, every time he was near her, he felt as if he could finally breathe the freshness of life. The colors of the world around him were brighter, more beautiful and radiant than ever before. She was like a beacon in his soul, casting rays of brilliant light and chasing away the darkness that dwelled within him. He wanted her, he needed her, but there was a cloud of doubt that even now began to slowly creep its way back into his heart now that she was no longer in his presence.
Never in his life had anything come to him so easy or so lovingly without there being a hitch of some kind or a price to pay. Anything good he had ever had in his life had been torn from him one way or another and that included his family. It scared him to love his family; it scared him to think of falling in love with someone like Sarah. He lived each and every day wondering and waiting if the worst was going to happen again. He knew it was ridiculous to think that way. But he had spent so many of his years with nothing and no one by his side, that even now, six months later he wasn’t completely settled in his head with the idea that things could be permanent for once in his life. He was ever doubtful and his past life was proof that he should remain so for now until life or whatever powers may be convinced him otherwise.
The next week was one of the most miserable of Johnny’s life. By the time Scott had rejoined him and they had traveled half way back to the ranch, his cold had set in hard and deep in his chest. He felt like his throat was being ripped right out of his neck and nothing looked more better than when he saw the Lancer hacienda far below in the valley.
They stopped as always to take in the view, even sick as he was he couldn’t resist. He and Scott had both come to love the land as much as their father and neither one of them ever tired of drinking in the glory that lay in front of them. This was their home, the one they should have grown up in and each and every time they looked upon it, both men regretted that their father hadn’t found a way to bring them home sooner than he had. The words were never spoken; they didn’t have to be. The past was the past and nothing could change what had happened to any of them. Each man, including their father had a different story to tell but what was more important than that was the future that awaited them all. The past would one-day right itself with the promise of tomorrows to come and the legacy that would one day be passed down to future generations.
Scott looked over at his ailing brother, knowing that he was just as entranced by the view as he was, “Come on little brother, lets get home and put you to bed before you fall over.”
Tired and feeling rotten, Johnny could only nod his head and hope he didn’t fall off his horse as Scott predicted might happen. He was glad they stopped though, if even for a second.
They were finally riding underneath the grand archway that was the symbol of their land and home when Scott said, “Almost home little brother. You still with me?”
Johnny was grateful that his brother had spoken up; his thoughts had begun to drift like petals in the wind the closer they got to what was now considered their home. This was one of those habits it turned out that Scott was so good at, knowing when he needed to get his brother’s attention and steer him on the right track. The trick worked but didn’t make him feel any better as he responded, “Yeah,” with a tiredness in his voice that even Scott could not deny was there.
Johnny’s eyes felt like they had lead weights on them and he was hard pressed to keep them open the closer they got. A minute later he was unable to hold them open any longer and more exhausted than he realized, Johnny’s head began to bob up and down and the grip he had on his reins went suddenly lax in his hands. Barranca sensing a change in his master came to a gentle stop twisting his head around to see what was going on.
Scott turned back and found that he had left his brother several yards behind never noticing until he no longer heard the gentle pounding of the hooves that echoed those of his own horse. Pulling the reins to the left he turned Scout around and loped back to Johnny pulling on his sleeve as he began to slowly lean forward against the neck of his horse. “Good boy Barranca,” he told Johnny’s horse.
Giving Johnny a little shake, Scott was relieved to see his brother wake up. They were so close to the house now that if Johnny could just stay awake a little longer he would soon have him in bed.
“Are we there yet?” a very groggy Johnny asked.
“Almost little brother. Hang on and try not to go to sleep all right?”
Johnny nodded his head and after pulling his jacket a little tighter to ward off the cold only he could feel, they traveled on. Several minutes later they were by the hitching rails near the French doors of the house. Scott could see his father inside the house sitting at his desk and called out to him as he held on to a barely conscious Johnny at his side, “Murdoch! Come here, I need you,” Holding on to Johnny’s jacket sleeve to keep him from falling he saw their father rise from his desk and hurry to the glass double doors and open them.
Concerned Murdoch asked as he approached, “What’s going on?”
“It’s Johnny, you need to take him quick. He’s sick.”
Murdoch hurried around to Johnny’s left side and as Scott let go, Murdoch pulled him from the saddle and into his arms. The hat on his son’s head fell to the ground and Murdoch was astonished at the high color on his Johnny’s face and the heat that radiated from his body.
Scott dismounted and came around to where Murdoch held his brother and attempted to take him from his father’s arms. “No, no Scott I’ve got him but hurry up and open the doors, he’s heavier than he looks.”
Scott ran to the glass doors and opened both sides allowing enough room for them to go through. When Murdoch got inside he put Johnny on the couch and began taking off the buckskin jacket his son wore and his gun belt.
“Teresa’s gone with Maria for the day, go get some cold water and cloths while I get his shirt off,” he told Scott. “We’ve got to start getting this fever down a bit. He’s awfully hot.”
Scott nodded, needing no further encouragement to do what Murdoch wanted. Now that Johnny was home and he had a chance to get a really good look at his condition he knew he never should have asked him to go to town. The trip had probably done more to aggravate the fever than if he had simply stayed home and rested in bed, as he was prone to do when he said he didn’t feel good. He mentally kicked himself for not understanding that Johnny was truly sick. All the signs had been there and he had ignored them thinking Johnny just didn’t feel well after the rough night he had, fighting with Ike Thornton.
He hurried back with bowl of cold water and a handful of cloths, setting them beside his father who was kneeling on the floor at Johnny’s head, “Shouldn’t we get him upstairs?” he asked watching Murdoch wring out one of the cloths and place it on Johnny’s forehead.
“Soon,” Murdoch answered, “Go tell one of the men to get Doc.”
Scott hesitated, not wanting to leave just yet but knowing that he should. Murdoch turned an anxious eye to his son and said, “Go now Scott. I’m very worried. The fever is really high and I’m not sure what else I can do.”
Scott nodded and left the room. By the time he came back Murdoch had pulled a footrest to the side of the couch and was sitting on it as he changed the wet cloths from warmed ones to cool every few minutes.
“How’s he doing?” a worried Scott asked coming to stand by the end of the couch.
Murdoch continued to swab Johnny’s neck and chest without looking up, “I thought he was going to come around a minute ago.” He looked up at Scott and asked, “Was he like this when you two left this morning?”
Scott shook his head, “No. He told me he wasn’t feeling good but nothing like this.” Scott slapped his hand on the corner of the couch, frustrated, “And I didn’t listen to him Murdoch. He told me and I didn’t listen to him.” He walked away from his father’s side and paced the floor in front of the empty fireplace, “For the first time since we came here, he finally told me he didn’t feel good and I took it to mean something else. What am I, stupid or what?” he exclaimed after slamming his fist down hard on the mantel.
“Scott, stop it! I think your brother is starting to come around.” Murdoch waved him over to his side.
Leaving his self-recriminations behind, Scott hurried over to the couch and watched as Johnny, breathing faster than he liked, rolled his head from one side to the other and moaned. His hand came up toward his forehead and Murdoch clasped it with his own and made him put it back by his side. Johnny’s chest heaved when Murdoch moved it and his eyes moved back and forth rapidly beneath his lids as he tried to open them.
It seemed an eternity but Johnny finally managed to get his eyes open and tried in vain to focus on what was going on around him. For the first few seconds he couldn’t remember where he was or why he felt so terrible and the ceiling over his head was unrecognizable to him. His lids felt like they weighed a ton and he had trouble keeping them open. He was just about to close them from the pure exhaustion when he heard his name being urgently called from somewhere near his head.
He twisted his head to the left where his name seemed to be coming from, but closed his eyes just as soon as he did when sharp pains pierced his neck. He reached for his throat and moaned from the intensity of the shooting darts and when he tried to swallow he thought he was going to buck right off from where he lay because the pain was so terrible. Feeling someone trying to pull his hand away, his opened his eyes to find two worried faces peering down at him. His eyelids slowly closed and opened several times as he tried to remember who these two people were. In his haze of pain it suddenly came to him that it was Murdoch and Scott and they were both calling his name now and trying to get him to speak to them. He swallowed and the feeling was not a good one. His throat hurt something fierce and he wasn’t sure he could talk to them even if he wanted to.
Closing his eyes, he started to tremble with cold and felt himself slipping back into that void of darkness that kept him from feeling any pain at all. His spiritual travel was abruptly halted though when he heard his father calling out to him again, with more concern and fright than he had ever heard before in his voice. He opened his eyes with every last bit of strength he had and locked his dull gaze onto that of his father’s.
Murdoch put a palm to Johnny’s forehead, brushing back the wet strands of hair off his brow, “Can you hear me son?”
Johnny’s tired eyes closed and opened, he reached for his throat and did his best to answer even though it hurt to do so, “Yes,” came the raspy answer.
Murdoch sighed a sigh of relief, “You have us really worried young man. Doc’s on his way and he’ll have you fixed up in no time.”
Breathing heavily through his nose and trying hard not to fall asleep on his father, Johnny nodded his head the best he could. It was just a little movement but one that Murdoch took as an affirmative to what he had just told him.
His trembling was getting worse or so he thought, he couldn’t tell if he was just cold from being sick or if he was truly freezing to death right before his family. Knowing that it would hurt he decided to tell them anyways, hoping they would cover him up and make him warm again, “I’m…so…cold,” he rasped, still holding his throat.
Scott was quick to respond by grabbing two blankets from a nearby chest. Handing one to Murdoch he made quick work out of covering his little brother with the first blanket then reached for a second to add on top.
Squatting down beside the couch, Scott looked at Johnny then to Murdoch. Johnny had closed his eyes again and neither one of them were sure if he was still awake or not. Murdoch felt his warm cheek and winced at the heat that radiated from his son’s face.
Opening his eyes groggily, Johnny once again locked onto Murdoch’s visage so close to his own; “I…can’t…keep my…eyes…open. Throat…hurts.”
“Then close your eyes son and go to sleep if you can. We’ll be right here.”
Johnny swallowed and tried to reply the best he could, “kay…”
Johnny fell asleep this time, still feeling cold but not freezing like he was earlier. The knowledge that he was at home and his family was there to take care of him eased his mind making it possible to relax and drift off to the welcoming darkness that had been calling to him almost as urgently as his worried father.
Two hours later Sam Jenkins arrived to find both Murdoch and Scott looking lost and forlorn as they worried over the condition Johnny was in. The fever still raged and nothing they did would bring it down. Sam shooshed them away from the couch surprised to find Johnny downstairs instead of up in his room where he should have been in bed.
Pulling back the heavy blankets on his patient he asked the other two men, “Is Teresa here or are you two on your own for the night?”
Murdoch answered the doctor as he watched him strip the blankets back; “She’s out for the night with Maria. She won’t be back until tomorrow.”
Sam sighed, “That’s what I thought. When I get done here, I want this boy taken up to his room. A bed is a whole sight better than a couch if you ask me.”
Seeing the aggravated looks on their faces Sam told them, “And don’t look at me that way. I could tell as soon as I got in here she wasn’t home. Otherwise this young man would be up in his room where he belongs.” The reprimand was met with more disapproving glares but neither one of the Lancer’s said a word. “Now what seems to be the trouble with him, other than the fact he obviously has a fever?”
Scott cleared his throat and answered the doctor’s question, “He complained about having sore throat.”
Sam felt along Johnny’s throat and under his chin. He opened the bag sitting on the floor next to him and shuffled through the contents until he found a long thin flat looking instrument that looked similar to a knife but without the sharp edges or pointed tip. Prying Johnny’s mouth open he looked inside and used the flat utensil to press his tongue down to get a better look at the back of Johnny’s throat. Sam could see that his throat was severely red and swollen, fearing the probable cause of Johnny’s sudden illness; he pulled the depressor from his mouth and began to unbutton Johnny’s shirt and then his pants at the waist.
Scott who had been watching from the fireplace with his arms crossed, quickly looked at his father with concern when Sam started to undress Johnny and pull back the waist of his pants without an explanation as to why this was being done. He tensed when he saw that his brother was getting agitated in the throes of the fever, ready to help Sam if there should be a need.
Johnny’s dreams took on a sudden nightmare when he felt hands groping for him in his sleep. Suddenly apprehensive and scared his eyes opened wide and he knew with swift awareness that something wasn’t right. He felt hands pulling on his pants and with a strength no one would have guessed he possessed, being sick as he was, Johnny sat up and grabbed them from his waist crying out ‘NO!’ as he shoved the doctor away from him. He tried to scramble up off the couch only to find himself being held in place by his father’s strong grip on his shoulders and Scott’s grip on his legs. This further incensed him as the dream in his head still played out before his eyes, “NO! Let me go! Let me go!” He tried to kick and jerk his way from their grasp, but he was weak from the fever and though he had been able to get himself up in the first place, getting his father and brother to let him go took more effort than he had in his reserves.
Murdoch could see and hear that his son was terrified of something that only Johnny could see in his mind. Sam took a step back as Murdoch released his son’s shoulders and made his way quickly around the end of the couch to sit on the edge next to his trembling son. Johnny was breathing heavily, his eyes wide with unexplained fright as he took in his surroundings and the people in front of him. Where his father’s strong image and Scott’s steady faith in him usually gave him the courage to battle his demons, it wasn’t working this time. He could still feel the hands that groped him in his dreams and the unsettling images they created made him want to flee from everyone. His mind screamed for his gun and he groped toward his thigh panicking when he couldn’t find it. “Where’s my gun!” Johnny croaked loudly. “I want my gun!” He continued to tremble and to wrest his body from Murdoch’s grip on his arms as he ignored the fiery pain in his throat.
“Johnny settle down! Settle down now!” Murdoch shook him but to no avail.
“No! I want up! I want you to let me go!” Johnny heaved, “I want my gun!”
Sam saw that Johnny was breathing fast and hard and if the boy wasn’t careful he would hyperventilate, “Murdoch, you need to get him to calm down. Don’t yell at him. Talk to him. Make him hear you,” he said hoping Murdoch could calm him down.
Johnny thought they must have all gone mad. Didn’t they all realize that he could hear them and that there was no calming him down? In his fevered state he didn’t know what was going on but there was no way anyone was going to be touching him the way the doctor just tried to do. He couldn’t breathe and he couldn’t get away, he had tried. Tears of frustration swelled in his eyes and he felt light headed, like he was going to pass out. He fought it though, his determination to get up winning out over the dizziness that he felt. He struggled once again and found that he could no longer make out what anyone was saying. Feeling betrayed by their dominance over him and his body’s inability to do what he wanted, he pushed and shoved harder, kicking under the blankets with all his might, when suddenly and without warning the tirade ended.
Dark ebony eyes stared into welling deep blue depths that followed her every move. Sarah put her hands on his cheeks and brought his head toward hers and whispered soothing words as their foreheads touched. “Calm down. Shhhh…shhhh…everything’s going to be all right.”
Still holding his head, Sarah carefully pushed him away from her a couple of inches, holding on so that he could see her face. “I’m here and your family is here. No one is going to hurt you.”
Johnny held his breath, not taking his eyes from her, “I don’t feel good Sarah,” he said with a hitch in his voice. He was trying hard not to cry. Men don’t cry he thought, but seeing her here made him want to cry. He wanted to bury his head in her chest and cry until he couldn’t cry any more. He hurt everywhere and he was angry that his family didn’t understand why he didn’t want the doctor touching him the way he had without a warning. It brought back too many nightmares and too many dark memories left buried in his mind until, in his fever-induced sleep, he had felt those cold fingers loosening the buttons of his pants.
He wasn’t prepared for it and now he didn’t know how to explain his volatile temper without having to explain his past and the physical tortures he had endured at the hands of a few men who were now long dead. The vicious beatings had been buried and locked away in his mind a long time ago as a way of coping and surviving mentally, a ritual his mother had taught him while she wiped away his tears and tended his bruised and battered body.
He never once blamed his mother when he was a child, but now that he was an adult, and new the true reality that was his past life, those hateful memories sometimes had a way of breaking through the barriers in his mind and overwhelming him with their intensity. And with those memories came the knowledge that his mother had lacked the faith and the courage to protect him as well as making him live a life he never had to in the first place with lie after lie mixed in with her false motherly words of love and affection for him. A fact he would never forgive her for in his lifetime.
Sarah scooted closer to him and wrapped her arms around him bringing his head down upon her shoulder, “Shhhh, I know.” With Johnny’s head lying on her shoulder she glanced around the room and caught Murdoch Lancer’s eye. “Would you please take my father to the kitchen and make him a cup of coffee? I’m sorry we barged in but there was no answer when I knocked. I need a moment alone with Johnny if you don’t mind.” She didn’t include Scott or the doctor in her request but she hoped the other men knew by her words that she meant everyone. It was bold of her to ask in the first place being a virtual stranger and all, but she felt more than they could possibly fathom that Johnny needed this time alone with her.
Without a word, they all left the room and Sarah was left alone with Johnny. She was grateful that Sam Jenkins had been eating dinner at their restaurant when the Lancer hand had come to tell him that he was needed at the ranch. She overheard the whole conversation and soon learned that Johnny had apparently taken a turn for the worse since she last saw him and was very ill. For some unexplainable reason she had a sudden indescribable need to be at his side. She had heard the doctor mumbling as he readied himself for the long trip to the ranch something about high fevers running rampant lately in the community and fearing it was the dreaded scarlet fever. An illness she knew something first hand about since this was how her mother had died when she was but a small child.
When they were finally alone and Johnny knew it, the tears he had been holding back spilled from his eyes and racked his body like a tidal wave with the force of his emotional upheaval. Sarah held him to her, cradling him in her arms, as he wept with pent up anger, hurt and humiliation. As she held him tight and let him release the violent storm in his heart she rocked him back and forth, cooing words of tenderness and love for his ears alone.
By the time he was done he was so drained he felt like a rag doll in her arms. He didn’t know if he could even look at her after crying like a baby. But when he pulled away and did look at her through bleary red eyes, he was relieved to see that she had only concern for him in the gentleness of her touch and the tenderness on her face. Taking out an embroidered handkerchief she wiped the moisture off his face and kissed him on the forehead. It was barely a touch but it was enough to drive away any thoughts he might have had that she thought he wasn’t a man after what he had just done in her arms.
She smiled at him and asked, “Is your room upstairs?”
He nodded his head.
“Then lets go. Think you can make it without me calling in your family?”
“Yes,” he said hoarsely.
Sarah stood up and pulled the blankets off his legs. “Don’t bother buttoning up. Just hold it together until we get to your room,” she said seeing that he was disconcerted that his buttons were partly undone.
She grabbed one hand while he held his pants together with the other one, letting him lead the way to the entrance at the bottom of the staircase. They made their way up the stairs and by the time they got there Johnny thought he would pass out from the exertion of the climb. Having her here with him though gave him the strength he needed to stay on his feet, at least until he reached his bed. He found his room and opened the door after letting go of her hand.
The room was dark but Sarah managed to find the matches on the table next to his bed and light the lamp that was there. Johnny had sat down in the only chair in his room by the window; leaning back he closed his eyes and let her do whatever she wanted. He wasn’t going to dictate a thing with his angel of mercy.
Sarah folded back the covers on the bed and went to his dresser to rummage through it looking for a nightshirt. She finally found one in the top drawer and went to where he sat with it draped across her arm.
He felt her nearness and opened his sleepy eyes, obeying her orders for him take off his shirt. “Arms up!” she said, holding the hated nightshirt out to him. He usually slept with nothing on but knew that wasn’t going to work this night. Obeying her command he lifted his arms and she pulled the nightshirt down over his head and told him to, “Stand up and take your pants off.”
He did and soon she led him over to his bed and told him to, “Get in.”
When he was at last snuggled deep within the covers Sarah sat on the edge of the bed and brushed the newly familiar hair away from his eyes, “Now when the doctor comes up, he’s going to have to take a look at you. And that means even down there,” she said as her eyes traveled to the middle of his body. “He has to make sure you don’t have a rash on any part of your body. If you do, what you have could be scarlet fever.”
Johnny pulled the covers tighter against his throat, “I don’t have no rash!” he said wincing tightly with the effort to speak.
“Johnny Lancer, don’t you get a tone with me. I won’t have it now or later,” she admonished softly to his heated words while laying a gentle hand on his brow. “No one is going to hurt you and he’s your doctor. A man you can trust.” She leaned down and kissed his forehead, “Besides that, you need to think about someone else other than yourself.”
She sat up and put her hands in her lap, watching as he crinkled his forehead at the statement, “What are you talkin about? No one else is sick but me,” he managed to croak out the words.
“What if I am and I just don’t know it yet?” she countered. “Wouldn’t you want to make sure you don’t have a rash just in case it is scarlet fever, and I get it too, not to mention your family as well?”
“I didn’t think of that,” he answered with tiredness lacing his voice, feeling the pins and needles in the back of his throat once again now that he wasn’t preoccupied with trying to fight off everyone.
She leaned over and kissed him on the top of his head, “I know,” she whispered and kissed him again on each of his eyes. “I’m going to send Doc up and if you’re good I’ll be right back when he’s done. Do we have a deal?”
Johnny sighed, he wanted her to come back up and if that meant enduring an inspection of his private bodily parts then so be it. He would do it. “Yeah, we have a deal. I don’t like it though,” he said feeling sick and belligerent about what the doctor was going to have to do.
She tilted her head at him smiling at him, “You don’t like the doctor coming up or me?” she teased him.
“Sam!” he said roughly, “You, I don’t mind. In fact you could…”
“Oh no you don’t cowboy. That is quite enough and you’ve had your fun,” she said laughing. “Now be good or else.”
She left him lying there, and not long after she departed Sam Jenkins came walking warily through the door, “Is it safe to enter?” he asked with mock seriousness.
Johnny rolled his head to the side and said, “Yeah.”
Sam sat his bag down next to the bed looking long and hard at the young man who lay in the bed like a limp rag doll, “That’s some gal. She seems to have a way with you that I haven’t been able to grasp hold of since the first time I had to work on you.”
Johnny grinned but it was short lived as his throat cut like a knife when he replied, “She’s prettier than you.”
Sam eyes raised, “Is that so? Well I’ll try and remember that the next time I catch you sick and in my care.”
Johnny’s eyes drooped and he fought the urge to sleep now that the adrenaline pumping through his body had settled down and he no longer feared that Sam was one of the demons from his past come to do him physical harm. He felt foolish and groggily embarrassed at having lashed out at this man who’s only fault had been that he had tried to help him and find out why he was so sick and feverish, “I’m sorry ‘bout downstairs Doc,” he said sleepily, trying hard to keep his eyes open and at the same time wondering if Sarah would make it back before he finally succumbed to his drowsiness.
Sam patted the limp hand that lay on the outer blanket, “It’s all right Johnny. You think I could take a look now and hopefully rule out at least one bad diagnosis?” he asked.
Johnny moved his head with an almost imperceptible nod and closed his eyes in dreaded anticipation of what Sam had to do.
Taking a quick look behind him, Sam made sure the door to Johnny’s room was closed and spent the next two minutes pulling down the blanket and checking Johnny for any rashes that might have been a sign of scarlet fever. He had found two cases of it recently at one of the more remote ranches on his route as a doctor and had quarantined the family as soon as he realized what it was. Fortunately the cases had not been severe and the two members had come through the epidemic quickly without anyone else in the rather large family catching the contagious ailment. Since then he was quick to respond when anyone came to him complaining of high fevers and sore throats just to be on the safe side.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Sam returned Johnny’s gown to where it was supposed to be and pulled the covers back up to his patient’s chest with a smile. “No rash. So we can rule out the scarlet fever. Now lets take another look at that throat while I still have you awake young man.”
Glad the worst was over Sam checked his throat and once again determined that it was indeed swollen and redder than he liked but at least there were no other signs that it could be something worse than just what it was, a severe sore throat accompanied by a high fever. Nothing extremely unusual considering that the weather was much cooler and the nights were downright cold lately with Christmas less than a month away.
Sam knew that Johnny was used to a much warmer climate than the one he now lived in and with the long hours and hard work from sunup to sundown, he was a little more susceptible to catching colds quicker than his Boston raised brother, who no doubt must feel like the weather was overly warm this time of year compared to where he had grown up.
Sam put away his instruments after listening to Johnny’s chest as a precaution against pneumonia and told him sternly, “Stay in bed. Get plenty of liquids and rest. I’ll check on you in a day or two unless things worsen and your family sends for me. Otherwise young man, I’d say all you have is a really nasty cold coming on. I’ll leave a list of instructions for Teresa and I expect you to follow my advice to the letter. Is that understood?”
He waited for Johnny to reply but with his eyes closed, Sam suspected that Johnny had already drifted off and didn’t hear a word he had just said. Shaking his graying head, Sam mumbled to the walls of the room, “This boy is going to make me old before my time,” and picked up his bag primed to leave the boy alone, hopefully to sleep the night away without any further disturbances that might incite the terrors from his past. As he arranged to depart he made a mental note on the instructions he wanted to leave with his family for the fever and prayed silently for the ones that had to care for this boy who had a hard time letting anyone help him when he needed it most.
Sam chuckled as he bent over the sleeping young man, “Well I take that thought back. Apparently there is one person you don’t mind taking a hand at caring for you. Guess I’ll go spend a few minutes getting to know who the young lady is that can tame Johnny Madrid Lancer in two minutes flat.” Sam brushed the dark hair from Johnny’s forehead and pulled an extra blanket over what he thought of as Murdoch’s boy, wishing him a good nights sleep as he made his way out of the room.
It would be a full week before Johnny felt well enough to get out of bed. In the meantime, he spent his week being irritatingly coddled by his family and Sarah, who stopped by as often as she could. He didn’t mind those visits though, or her coddling. In fact he relished the anticipation of her arrival and did his best to follow Sam’s instructions to the letter, as he requested. He didn’t want to lose the privilege of having Sarah sit by his side and talk until it was time for her to leave, which was a constant threat from his father if he gave Teresa or Maria a hard time while they cared for him. Each visit was a treasure and Sarah’s father even managed to come with her on a few of the trips, giving Murdoch a chance to get further caught up on Jeremiah’s newest adventure in the restaurant business.
Life was good Johnny thought, almost too good. In the back of his mind, a tiny voice questioned how long this would last, forever doubtful that any of it was real or lasting, ever fearful that he was living a life destined to turn out to be nothing more than lies like the life he once had before his mother died.
A month later Christmas was in full swing. The Lancer family had decorated their home for the first time as one big family. A tall sturdy pine had been cut down by the two brothers who for the first time were glad to share in an experience that other families took for granted during this holiday time of the year. Teresa had gone along with Scott and Johnny and laughed as her brothers argued over which tree was the fullest, which was the tallest and who was going to do the hard part of cutting it down. It turned out that with Teresa’s exuberant encouragement both brothers did their best to be the one who laid the final axe blade that brought the towering pine falling to the snowy ground amid happy ‘Hoorahs and That-a-boy Johnny’s, thrown in with a few That’s the way to show ‘im Scott’s.”
The tree was pulled back with the aide of a strong pulling stock horse and Scott, with Teresa’s help, tried to teach Johnny a few of the Christmas songs that were so much a part of their past and hopeful tradition for their future. By the time they got to the house, Murdoch had opened the front door and stood smiling at the scene he never imagined he would ever see in this lifetime as his fully grown brood, pulled up to the house singing the last chorus of ‘Deck the Halls’.
The tall patriarch held the door open as Teresa bounded up to him, quickly giving his cheek a kiss while standing on her tip toes and glowing from the cold outdoors. Turning back to the boys, she called out to them and urged them to bring the tree in straight away to the designated spot the entire family had fussed over before the three of them left that afternoon for the base of the mountain range.
The tree was carried in with much grousing between the two brothers and loud directions called out by their father who took great pleasure in being part of the excitement now that they were all home again. While they were gone he had wished over and over again that he was younger and strong like he used to be and able to go with them. The house had been so quiet and the grandfather clock ticking away the minutes in the great room had sounded louder than he ever remembered it being in his life. A sign of what he could be hearing all the time if he hadn’t called his sons home when he had.
Decorating the tree and the house had become his sole source of real pleasure time with his family. Boxes of decorations had been carefully unpacked, some old, some new, in honor of their first year. Tales were told, some good, some not so good but always with a happy ending from each person as they all took turns talking about at least one Christmas that was special to each of them.
When the decorating was done the family stood back and took it all in with smiles on their faces. This was a time of the year for joy and gladness, and Murdoch was determined that the ‘tune’ would stay that way. “A toast!” he said, holding up a drink in his hand and indicating that the rest of his family should do the same after he poured them each a small drink, including Teresa, “To family and to the many wonderful Christmas’ we will all share from this day forward.”
Scott, Johnny and Teresa smiled, lifting their glasses in the air with a salute and drank to Murdoch’s toast. A new tradition they would carry on for years to come.
For Johnny, late Christmas Eve was spent with Sarah. He told her he would be attending midnight mass at the Catholic Church and asked if she and her father would like to go with him. Jeremiah declined stating that midnight was way too late for his old bones to be getting out in the cold but gave his permission for Sarah to go with him. Johnny had breathed a sigh of relief hoping the older man would say just that. He had a special gift he wanted to give to Sarah afterward and really didn’t want to put it off any longer now that he had worked up the courage to give it to her.
Sarah bundled up warmly and Johnny met her at the front door of her house with Jeremiah wishing them a nice evening and a safe return. He liked Johnny and he liked the way his daughter’s eyes lit up when she knew he was coming over for a visit. The two of them had been almost inseparable since the night of Murdoch Lancer’s dance and once or twice he wondered if his old friend would come knocking on his door demanding that their two children slow things down a bit. Johnny was known to work late and still take the time to ride out to their house if only for a few minutes of time spent with Sarah in the front parlor of their home, which usually turned in to several hours speaking to one another in hushed tones as he drifted off to sleep in his favorite easy chair next to the fireplace. That routine had started soon after the severe cold that had Johnny laid up for almost a week and kept his daughter out at the Lancer ranch for most of that time.
He understood her passion for spending as much time with the young man as she did. He remembered all too well how he had felt about Sarah’s mother when they had first met and there were times when his eyes misted over at the resemblance he saw in her manner toward Johnny. He wondered, and not for the first time since they had met if fate was unfolding right before his very eyes and his future for his daughter was already set in stone. He believed it was, but was happy about it. Jeremiah couldn’t ask for a better man to court his daughter than Johnny. The older man knew about his past, for his daughter never kept anything from him. Especially something as important as who Johnny used to be. He respected Johnny for telling her what he at least had deemed necessary for her to know and though many a father might have had an issue with his past, Jeremiah did not. In fact the way he saw it, his daughter was the perfect match for someone with his past. She wasn’t judgmental; instead she was supportive, understanding and caring of what he had to do in order to survive as a child and a young man, with no one and nothing to guide him through life properly. Johnny was a self made man, a feat Jeremiah could well appreciate first hand.
In turn Sarah made sure that Johnny knew she would be telling her father about his past and that he shouldn’t be ashamed or embarrassed that he would know the truth as well. Johnny reluctantly agreed that her father could be told but asked that she keep some things to herself, the private things that only he would share with her and no one else, things he hadn’t even told his own family about. With their agreement came trust and with that trust, love had a foundation and with that foundation came a bond between them like nothing Johnny nor Sarah had ever had before with another living soul.
During mass, Johnny was pleased that Sarah was following his lead and taking part in a ceremony that up until then held very little meaning to him, other than to mark another year alone, with no hope for the future. As he watched her sing, kneel and take communion right along side him, he knew in his heart that she was the one he wanted to spend the rest of his life with and for this he would go to mass everyday of his life if that’s what it took to have her be in his life forever.
As they knelt for final prayer, Johnny touched the bulge in his left pocket, forever worrying that somehow, someway he would lose his special gift. It was still there and he closed his eyes in thankful prayer as he bowed his head and clasped his hands together in front of him.
When the Priest was done and they were making their way out of the church, Johnny pulled her close to his side and wrapped an arm around her waist as they exited the church. Once outside he left her standing there and went for the buggy he left picketed nearby and within minutes had it pulled up beside her. Jumping down he helped her into the buggy and then climbed up after her.
Several minutes later they pulled up to her house and Johnny jumped down again and helped her out of the buggy. It was cold and she stood there beaming at him with her hands tucked snugly into a cozy fur muff, “That was beautiful Johnny. I really liked the service and all the families were so kind and friendly to us.”
Johnny wrapped his arms around her and smiled into her warm loving eyes, “That’s because they’re nice people querida.”
She smiled back at him glad to see the happiness in his own pair of eyes, “They seemed more than nice mi querido,” she said using the endearment for the first time after having asked Maria, while at Johnny’s home, how to say the words in Spanish.
If the smile on Johnny’s face could have gotten any bigger she thought it would have fallen on the porch steps at their feet. “Where did you learn that mi querida? Or do I have to even ask?”
She pulled one hand out of her muff and playfully poked him in the stomach, “You already know you don’t have to ask.”
“No, I guess I don’t. Are there any other new things that I need to know about that Maria has taught you? Hmmmm?” he asked kissing the tip of her nose as he squeezed her tighter in his embrace.
Reaching up, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him on the lips in between each of her words, “Only…(kiss)…your…(kiss)…favorite…(kiss)…foods…(kiss)…mi…(kiss)…querido…(kiss).”
Johnny laughed gently and kissed her back each time, “I think you need to spend more time with Maria, if I get to keep having answers given to me like this,” he said giving her a more thorough kiss than any of the others and making her head swim with the heady passion it caused inside her heart for him.
Johnny dropped his arms and took her hand in his pulling her toward the wooden swing that sat silently waiting for them at the end of the porch. As he passed by one of the elongated windows to the side of the front door he stopped and peered in, seeing Jeremiah sitting in his chair as always snoring away and waiting for his daughter to come home.
“Is he there?” Sarah whispered and giggled into Johnny’s ear, placing a wispy kiss on his earlobe as he was bent over and looking in.
“Shhhh,” he said, putting his finger up to his lips and reaching for her middle with both hands. He led her with silent steps to the swing and pulled her around with his hands and had her sit down.
Sarah was about to start giggling again until she saw Johnny squat down in front of her with one boot planted firmly and his other leg knee down on the porch with the most serious expression she had ever seen on his face.
Sarah knew he had something to say and that it must be very important if he went from being playful and touchy to unexpectedly serious and almost brooding as he looked into her eyes and seemed to want to speak but couldn’t find the words.
She was suddenly fearful that something was dreadfully wrong and her eyes welled up at the thought that things could go so drastically wrong in the blink of an eye.
Johnny blanched when he saw the tears well up in her eyes and had the sense to realize instantly that his demeanor must be giving her the wrong impression about what he was about to do, “Don’t cry mi querida, there is nothing wrong. I have only happiness in my heart for you and I want to ask you something,” he said, wiping a single stray tear that managed to find it’s way down her rosy cheek. He swiped it away with his finger and gave her that smile that had melted the hearts of so many in his past.
Relief flooded her whole body and Sarah thought she might sink to the porch her relief was that great. Blinking her eyes and wiping away at the remaining wetness she asked, “Then what is it, you had me very scared for a minute?”
“It’s this,” he said pulling his gift out of his pocket. It was a tiny black box with a little red bow tied neatly around it. Johnny couldn’t help smiling as he watched her sit and stare at it as if it might bite her. The longer she took the more excited he got until he thought he would burst with the feeling.
Sarah didn’t touch the tiny box, instead she simply said in the barest of whispers, “But it isn’t time to exchange gifts yet. We’re supposed to do that tomorrow afternoon.”
Johnny didn’t think that this woman could be any dearer to him than she was at that moment. For once in his life he was doing something right and this angel of innocence wanted him to wait until tomorrow thinking this was just some Christmas gift he was giving her. “No querida. This can’t wait until tomorrow. I want to do this now, with just you and me. Please honey, just open the gift,” he told her gently, giving the little box a tiny push to plant it firmly in her hand.
She sighed, wondering what in the world could be so important that he just had to give this gift to her now when she didn’t have his to give to him. Seeing the contained excitement on his face she relented and began to undo the tiny red bow on the box and then gently pried the top off. Inside, nestled on a billowy cloud of black velvet sat an intricately etched gold ring, shiny and bright in the light of the oil lamp that lit the front porch.
She stared at it for what seemed like an eternity to Johnny and then watched as the forgotten tears that had welled up in her eyes slowly began to trace a pattern down both her cheeks. She looked up at him and tried to blink the tears away but they would not stop no matter how hard she tried, “It’s beautiful Johnny,” she whispered brokenly her hand shaking almost uncontrollably as the dawning realization suddenly hit her.
Johnny put both his hands around hers with the box tucked firmly inside them and asked, “Will you marry me?” His voice choked but not because he had fear in his heart, but rather from the deep emotions he felt as he watched her face and knew with absolute certainty that she would say yes and he was just seconds away from all his dreams coming true. As he waited the tears that sprang so diligently from Sarah’s eyes affected him as nothing else could and he found himself swallowing hard and desperately trying to stave off that same physical attribute he so detested in himself when he was overcome with emotion.
It seemed like forever but it was only mere seconds when she threw her arms around his shoulders and cried full blown into the collar of his jacket saying “Yes…oh yes…oh Johnny I love you so.”
The tears were now both theirs as he realized what her answer was and it was no longer an unanswered certainty in his mind. They clung to each other and wept for joy, neither one of them seeing the brimming eyes that watched them both secretly from the narrow window by the door.
These memories and many more precious ones just like them ran through Johnny’s mind as he made his way through the thick crowd gathered round the prone body that lay dying in the streets of Green River. Blood thick and bright red in the glaring sun, spread across Sarah’s chest and Johnny felt the air rush out of his body as his world started spinning out of control at a dizzying speed.
Scott was there to catch his brother by the shoulders as Johnny sank to his knees reaching for her through blinding tears that refused to spill down his rugged cheeks. Sam Jenkins was heard tearing through the crowd as Scott clung to his distraught brother and kept him from touching Sarah before Sam had a chance to get to her first.
Though the crowd had closed in and the muffled sounds of anguished cries could be heard, there were also the distinctive and comforting sounds of masculine voices helping make room for the astonished doctor who couldn’t believe that of all people, it was Sarah Foster who lay at deaths door upon the ground.
Johnny sat stone still in Scott’s clutches, watching and yet not seeing any thing that Sam was doing. Visions of her smile, the sound of her laugh and the way she played with his hair at the nape of his neck ran like a sequence of moving snapshots through his brain. His fingers dug painfully into his thighs and even that was not enough to break the spell that momentarily had him frozen on the ground.
It wasn’t until his brain registered the fact that Sam was touching his Sarah that the dam broke and all hell broke loose in his mind. He shoved at Scott and half crawled, half scrambled on his knees, the small distance that separated him from Sarah. The tears that only seconds ago refused to fall slid in great torrents down his cheeks and a torrential rain of fright gripped his heart and soul and made him shake with unsuppressed tremors.
Through Johnny’s haze of pain and sorrow, he felt the strong grip that Sam placed on his hands when he started to touch her cheeks and her hair with trembling fingers. Looking up into Sam’s kind but worried eyes he saw the doctor’s lips moving but couldn’t hear what he was saying. He only knew that his Sarah lay dying in the street and he had to do something.
Ignoring the hands that tried to hold him back, Johnny pushed his left arm under her neck and his right under her legs and lifted her reverently in his strong arms. Numb with shock but with one thought on his mind, he picked up Sarah’s lifeless body, mindless of the fact that her arm dangled and droplets of blood splattered the dirt at his feet. The crowd parted making room for him and his precious cargo as he carried her down the street without a word or acknowledgement of the concerned voices he could not hear. Slowly and with infinite care he climbed the steps to Sam’s office and was ushered through the door not knowing how it was that Scott had reached it well before he did. Just as suddenly the door to Sam’s operating room was opened and Johnny found himself placing Sarah’s body ever so gently down on the padded table.
Hands gripped his shoulders as Sam stood in front of him, blocking Sarah from his sight. Soundless words were spoken and Johnny found himself being propelled back into the front room as the door to Sam’s medical room was closed in front of his face. The darkness of the door seemed to expand and surround him, making him feel as if the world had gone unexpectedly dark and dreary, with no light left to show that the world still existed or that he was alive. The sinister specter of death hovered eerily between him and the dark door taunting him as never before. On this occasion death laughed in his face and with a merciless voice taunted him for ever thinking that he could have happiness handed to him like a gift on Christmas morning, without there being some kind of price to pay.
Scott watched horrified, as his brother wiped the tears from his face and speak in a harsh whisper, to what, he did not know, “She’s mine and you can’t have her,” while fingering the gun that rode low on his hip.
Taking a chance, Scott stepped between his brother and the door that kept them both from seeing what was going on in the other room. “Johnny?” he said, putting his hands on his brother’s cheeks. “Johnny…Listen to me.”
Scott thought his heart was going to break, Johnny looked him right in the eyes and the tears that his brother had so harshly brushed away now filled those magnificently blue orbs again as silent, aching sorrow sprang forth, filling his brother’s chest, making it impossible to breathe as he tried valiantly to suppress the urge to break down in Scott’s arms.
Scott wrapped his sinewy arms around his brother regardless of how hard Johnny was trying not to collapse. He felt Johnny lay his forehead on his shoulder and return the gesture with a halfhearted effort that was made more difficult by the soundless shudders that racked his body in grief as they stood there holding on to one another, waiting and praying silently for the nightmare to end.
Brushing the back of Johnny’s head and feeling terribly inadequate in his desire to give his brother comfort, Scott hoped and prayed that Seth Parker got to the ranch in record time after shouting out to him in the streets to go get their father. Holding tight he whispered into Johnny’s ear hoping against hope that Johnny was listening, “She’s still alive Johnny. You have to have hope. You have to believe. Don’t give up on her… please,” he urged strongly, not wanting his brother to believe the worst when the woman inside Sam’s operating room still had a chance at survival, slim as it was.
An hour passed with no sign of Murdoch and no sign of Sam coming through that dark door to say that all was well or that her time has ended. Scott had managed to finally get Johnny over to the sofa and it was there that his brother sat, the tears now long gone, but the ever present fear still clinging tenaciously in Johnny’s posture. As yet he hadn’t uttered anything other than that one single sentence when he stood staring at the door to Sam’s room.
Scott had tried to get Johnny to say something…anything to him, just so he would know what the tormenting thoughts were that had to be running rampant through Johnny’s tortured heart and mind. But all his efforts were in vain as Johnny sat on the couch and waited without a word, deathly still and unmoving, almost as if his soul had left his body and he was in the room with his beloved. The unnatural stillness of his brother unnerved Scott and the longer it went on the more panicked he got. If Sarah died he knew that Johnny would never recover from it completely in this lifetime. He wondered if this was how his father felt when he discovered the death of his first wife, his mother so many years ago. Scott had never lost anyone this near and dear to him as his father and now possibly Johnny.
Scott’s eyes and thoughts turned to the older man seated in the far corner of the room, Jeremiah Foster. Val sent Mr. Hanson to get the restaurateur and the man had fairly burst through the doctor’s front door red faced and with tears streaming down his burly cheeks, shouting as he entered the building, “Sally, where’s my Sally girl! What in God’s name has happened to her?” he cried frantically.
Since Johnny was seated and unresponsive to anything and anyone, Scott directed his attention to the flustered and frightened parent. He took the man’s thick arms in his hands and told him where Sarah was and ushered him to the corner seat, pulling a handkerchief from his back pocket for the man to use. When Jeremiah’s wails were finally settled long enough for Scott to explain he told the gregarious man what all he knew of Sarah’s accident. For that was what it was. An unfortunate and deadly accident brought on by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Earlier that Day:
Clutching the envelope tightly in her hand, Sarah began to make her way across the street. Today’s deposit was their biggest yet since her father had opened Foster’s Fine Foods and she was glad that all the hard work and long hours put into the restaurant were finally starting to pay off.
This week in particular had been good all the way around. Her father had hired a full time cook and now had two waitresses that worked for him instead of one. With all the extra free time on her hands, Sarah found she was able to devote most of her day planning and working on wedding plans that for the past six months would have had her completely overwhelmed had it not been for Teresa and Maria’s exuberant help. What she would have done without Johnny’s family to help her with all the details was a mystery to her. Everyday since that beautiful night he had asked her to marry him; the restaurant had taken off in popularity like a wild fire with no end in sight. Without the hired cook and the extra waitress, Sarah had found herself completely swamped helping Jeremiah and fitting in the planning whenever she had a free moment, which between her work and Johnny’s late hours working on the ranch were sparse at best.
Nevertheless the planning was in full swing, her dress was almost complete, Johnny’s specially made suit was finished and fit comfortably, while the invitations, decorations and meal planning were done late at night or on days off, sitting at the formal dining table at Lancer.
Smiling at the envelope in her hand and grateful for the success that the money inside represented, the smile on her face suddenly disappeared as a man on horseback, rode swiftly past her, nearly knocking her down in his haste to get by her.
Angry shouts echoed from down the street, but Sarah didn’t comprehend what was being called out, irked that the man on horseback had been thoughtless and had nearly run her down. She turned to stare after him and it was at that exact moment when the man turned in his saddle, a wicked and desperate look on his face, gun pointed in her direction, that the words that were shouted pierced her mind.
She could hear Tom Whitfield, the bank manager, shouting at the top of his lungs, “Stop! Thief!” and then two shots fired from the Sharps rifle held shakily in his hands. “The bank’s been robbed!”
Another shout from Val Crawford telling her to hit the dirt, but in that second as her eyes zoomed in on the man who tried to flee, she heard only one remembered instruction taught to her by Johnny in her head as she realized that the inevitable was about to happen. She obeyed the instructions in her mind, but was stunned when the bullet hit her, surging her back several steps before the world went gray and hazy, then blacker than any night she had ever seen in her life. The envelope in her hand went flying into the air landing just a few feet from her prone body, landing on the ground, silent like the gentle flap of ravens wings she somehow heard in her head before closing her eyes to the darkness that overtook her.
The world was silent and dark. She couldn’t move and she couldn’t speak. There was only the darkness and the quiet that blanketed her soul. She knew there should be pain, but she felt none. Instead there was only the dark shroud that refused to be lifted and then she was cold. It crept up on her like a fog in the early hours of morning, swirling and moving from her toes to her heart with slow infinite patience. And then, there was nothing.
Thundering hooves could be heard from inside the doctor’s front room. Scott pushed away from the door that still remained closed and rapidly made his way to the front door, relief on his face when he saw that it was his father.
Murdoch Lancer jumped down from his big bay gelding; heedless of the pain the movement caused his aching back and sore leg. The worry in his head overrode any thoughts of pain in his haste to get to his sons and most especially to Johnny.
He saw the door flung open almost as soon as he hit the dirt, “How is she?” he asked with worry and deep concern lining his features.
“We don’t know yet Sir. Sam is still in there with her.”
With one boot firmly planted on the first step he eyed Scott warily, “And Johnny?” he asked.
“He’s inside. He hasn’t said anything. He’s…he’s in shock I think.”
Nodding his understanding, Murdoch climbed the last of the stairs and made his way into the front room. When his eyes adjusted to the darkened interior of the room he found Jeremiah Foster sitting in an overstuffed chair in the far corner of the room, elbows on his knees and his head buried with grief in his hands.
Shifting his head, Murdoch found Johnny sitting on the doctor’s couch. His hands held together in his lap, staring straight-ahead and unmoving. This, more than anything made the older man worried. This was not like his son at all. He expected him to be crawling up the walls, pacing back and forth, yelling at himself, at the world, or at God. But he wasn’t doing any of those things, in fact he didn’t even seem to register the fact that he had finally gotten there and this had Murdoch troubled more than he would say.
Murdoch took the few steps to where his son sat and knelt down on the floor in front of him. Johnny seemed not to notice even this close contact and Murdoch knew he needed to get his son out from the dark depths to which he had retreated to if they were to keep him there with him if the worst should happen.
Laying one hand on Johnny’s knee and the other behind his head he called his name, “Johnny.” The one word said soft and gentle, yet with a father’s clear command behind it, was all that was needed. Murdoch saw him blink and move his bright blue eyes to his face.
Johnny swallowed trying hard to hold back the tears that wanted to break through the tough mask that held his emotions in check. But the look on his father’s face made the mask crumble at his feet in a million shards and he was left with nothing but the raw wounds that inflicted his heart. Leaning forward he laid his head on his father’s big sturdy shoulders and held on for dear life.
Never in his life had he needed this man, more than he needed him right now and the comfort that his strong unyielding arms brought to him as they encircled his shoulders gave him some measure of hope. He wanted nothing more than to hand his problems over to his father, believing as all children do that their parents are invincible and can solve any problem brought to them by the simple means of just asking. Faith and trust glowed brightly in his eyes when Johnny pulled back and Murdoch was astounded by the amount of expectation he saw in them through his own blinding tears.
“Papa?” Johnny asked calling him by the name he had used when he was just a little child.
Wiping the tears off his face Murdoch answered, “Yes son?”
Johnny held his breath, fearing to ask the question, but needing an answer, “Where do broken hearts go?” he asked, holding his breath once more to hold back the tears as he waited for his father to answer him.
Murdoch lowered his eyes to his son’s hands held in tight fist in his lap and knew the answer to the question. How many times had he asked that very same question and had come up with the very same answer more times than he cared to admit. Squeezing Johnny’s hands and lifting his pale blue eyes to that of his son’s stormy dark blue gaze he said in a near whisper, “They go to Heaven son, to be with the ones they love.”
Scott who stood listening just a few feet away, wiping the sad tears from his eyes, was the only one who heard the door slowly open from behind him. Turning he watched Sam walk blearily from the side room, wiping his wet hands on a clean towel as he surveyed the room and the men who waited for his word.
All eyes were finally upon him when he cleared his throat. He saw a haggard and defeated father sitting in the corner of the room. A father and son, held together by bonds that only the tragedy and fear of losing a loved one could instill, and a brother, who’s anxious and caring eyes spoke volumes of his belief in the doctor’s skilled hands and the love he has for his family.
Sam cleared his throat one last time and with a lifting of his hands said to all, “All I can say gentlemen, is that this is one miracle I plan to write about in my journal.”
Jeremiah was the first to jump to his feet and boisterously make his way across the room. “Thank you Doctor! Dear God in Heaven, thank you! You not only saved the life of my dear, dear Sally but you’ve saved the life of this old man.” He shook the doctor’s hand repeatedly; the tears in his eyes flowing freely down his cheeks.
It was then that Murdoch and Scott surrounded him, both men clapping him on the shoulders and telling him what a miracle worker he was. The room got quiet as all eyes turned to Johnny who sat warily on the couch, not daring to believe the news that his family so staunchly believed in when they had yet to see her for themselves.
Sam, knowing what a doubting Thomas Johnny was, walked over to the couch and held his hand out for him to take. Johnny reached up and grasped the lifeline held out to him and stood when Sam pulled him up from his seat, “Go see her Johnny. I know it won’t sink in until you do. But keep things quiet. She’ll need a lot of rest and recuperation before she’s well enough to do much of anything else.”
Johnny nodded his head mutely and stumbled toward the open doorway where he could just make out her form laying on the table inside the room. When he got to his father’s side he stopped and looked up at him, tears brimming his eyes again.
Murdoch turned around and hugged him fiercely, saying quietly in his ear, “It’ll be alright now. Papa’s here and I won’t let anything happen.”
With tear filled eyes, Johnny pulled away and said just as quietly, “I know.”
They all watched as he entered the room, slowly closing the door behind him. Murdoch sighed and remembered at least two times in his life when he had wondered the same thing as his son, ‘Where do broken hearts go?’ glad that on this occasion there would be no broken hearts that needed to go be with a loved one in Heaven.