Disclaimer: They aren’t mine. *sniff*
He was drifting. At least, that was the sensation he thought he was being subjected to. But, where was he and why was he here?
Had he been hurt ...again? He tried to think, searching his mind for the answer, but nothing came to him that would explain what he was experiencing.
His next sensation was one of complete silence. He couldn’t even hear himself breathing. Was he alone in this nothingness?
With a sudden shock, he realized he couldn’t feel his body. Perhaps, he was paralyzed. Had a bullet struck him in the spine, or had he fallen and broken his neck? No, that couldn’t be the case. He’d most likely be dead if that had happened. And, that wouldn’t explain away the silence.
Panic began to rise, as he focused every ounce of his concentration on trying to feel something - anything. A toe, a finger. Something that would tell him he existed as a physical entity. It was a daunting idea to think that he may not be.
Oh God, maybe he was dead. That must be why he had no feeling in his body: He didn’t have one! He had become a disembodied spirit, drifting around in some kind of void. Not exactly what he was expecting from the Afterlife.
This couldn’t be Heaven, and surely it wasn’t Hell. Or was it? The feeling of total isolation certainly could qualify as a place of torment and punishment. He wasn’t overly religious, but he went to church, most of the time. Call it arrogance on his part, but he honestly didn’t think he really deserved to be in this place.
It wasn’t just the loneliness in and of itself, though that was disconcerting enough. It was the sense of loss, of total separation from the people he loved and the places he knew.
After years of believing he had been abandoned by his father, he had gone to Lancer and found that Murdoch was not at all the uncaring bastard he had envisioned, when he had thought about the man at all.
Then, of course, there was his brother, a brother he never knew even existed, but who had become closer to him than anyone in his life ever had. He had even emotionally adopted Teresa as a little sister.
He was happy and relieved that his family weren’t here. This was not an existence you would wish for those you cared about, yet he couldn’t deny that he missed them all terribly. This must be both the torment and the punishment he was meant to endure.
The sensation of movement increased, as he began to drift faster and faster. To where, he had no idea; he may even be going around in circles, but he fervently hoped it would eventually lead him to a place where he could ultimately find peace. He had tried to be a good man, and despite setbacks along the way that he preferred not to think about, he hoped the good Lord would look kindly on him and grant him that peace.
Time had no meaning in this limbo world of darkness. He laughed, or would have, if he could have done so. How did he know it was dark? ‘You have no body, which means no eyes,’ he reminded himself. No eyes to see, no ears to hear, no mouth... He stopped the thought. That way led to madness, if indeed, it hadn’t claimed him already.
He wondered how he was able to think so clearly. What purpose did lucidity serve in this nightmare world? There may not be the physical torture that Hell is described as having, no fire and brimstone either, as far as he could tell, but he had lost everything, except the memory of the ones he loved, so maybe this really was Hell.
He tried to shut down his mind, to prevent his memories from tormenting him, as he continued to drift.
“Has there been any change?” Johnny asked Murdoch, when he walked into Scott’s room.
“None,” came the dejected reply.
The emotional pain of watching his eldest son dying in front of him, an inch at a time, was taking a toll on Murdoch Lancer.
It wasn’t that Johnny didn’t suffer just as badly as his father, by any means, but the younger man had forced his Madrid persona to the forefront to keep his inner turmoil from overwhelming him.
Murdoch had no such alter ego to lean upon. He wore his feelings on his face, and the way he held his body. His voice alone betrayed any attempt at keeping the fear at bay.
No one, not even Dr. Sam Jenkins, had used the word dying or had expressed in any other way, the seeming hopelessness of Scott’s situation, yet the truth was there for all to see. The older Lancer son had come down with pneumonia - in both lungs - and could take his last breath at any moment.
Sam knew a healthy young man like Scott would not have gotten pneumonia from simply getting cold and wet. It was only when Johnny had told him that Scott had just gotten over a bad head cold, that Sam realized Scott’s system had not completely healed from that experience before he had been subjected to the foul weather that had felled him now.
Johnny pulled a second chair up to the bed and sat down, as his thoughts drifted back to last week.
The rains had come with a vengeance and brought with them the frigid weather of an early winter. Or perhaps, it had been the other way around. Johnny unconsciously shook his head. It didn’t really matter.
He and Scott had gone out to check one of the bridges over the north creek. Low clouds had been threatening, but it hadn’t rained yet that day.
Both of them had made the repairs that they had discovered needed to be made to keep the bridge from washing away, when halfway through their work, the sky opened up. Both men were not only soaked through to the skin, despite their slickers, but were shivering by the time they got back to the hacienda.
He and Scott were in a relatively good humor, amazing under the circumstances, and had flipped a coin to see who would be first to get a hot bath. He had won, and had promised Scott he would be as quick as he could. He remembered laughing as he had gone off to enjoy his victory, feeling only a slight twinge of sympathy for his cold, wet brother. To his eternal chagrin, he had completely forgotten about Scott’s recent head cold.
Johnny hadn’t been in the house after his bath more than two minutes when Frank had knocked on the front door and announced that a section of the barn roof had collapsed, though luckily, none of the men or the horses inside had been injured.
Johnny had been about to head out the door, when Scott had pointed out that, since he was the one still wet, it would make more sense for him to be the one to go help make the temporary repairs that were needed. It certainly wouldn’t make sense for Johnny, who had just bathed and put on dry clothes, to go out and get drenched and cold all over again. Common sense prevailed, and Scott followed Frank out into the wintry gloom of gathering dusk. This time, too, the recent head cold had been forgotten.
So, Scott had spent another two hours on the roof of the barn with two other ranch hands, doing the maintenance that would keep more of the barn roof from falling in before permanent repairs could be made.
Murdoch was on the verge of going out and telling Scott and the men helping him to forget the rest of the work and get themselves indoors to dry off and get warm, when the blond Lancer had come in through the kitchen, so as not to drip water all over the wooden floors inside the house.
He made his presence known and then waited for Johnny to go upstairs and get him some dry clothes.
Wrapping himself in a blanket provided by his father, he waited by the kitchen fire until his clothes arrived.
“Son, you need to get into a hot tub,” Murdoch told Scott. “It’s the quickest way to get warmed up.”
Scott shook his head. Frankly, he was just too tired. “I think sitting in some dry clothes in front of a roaring fire with a nice glass of brandy in hand will warm me up enough,” Scott assured his father and brother, who had just entered the room with the clothes he had requested over his arm.
“You sure, Boston? You agreed we both needed a good, hot soak when we first came in. And you, dear brother, were out there a lot longer than I was.”
“I’m sure,” Scott insisted, with a small smile for his concerned brother.
Johnny wasn’t totally convinced about the wisdom of that idea and started to argue, but, in the end, he bowed to Scott’s wishes and simply handed over his brother’s clothes.
Scott never had fully recovered from that day, but it wasn’t until the coughing started two days afterward that everyone became truly concerned.
It had taken only a few more hours for the fever to arrive, followed closely by difficulty breathing and chest pains.
Murdoch had sent for Sam, and after the doctor’s examination, no one was surprised at the diagnosis.
Now, two days later, Scott’s condition had only grown worse. He was deeply unconscious, no longer responding to anything said to him. Even being shaken by the shoulder did nothing to rouse him.
Sam was due back for his daily visit in a few hours. Both Johnny and Murdoch kept to themselves their fears that there was a dreadful possibly that Scott may not live much longer.
Finally, after a two-hour vigil by father and son, Johnny talked Murdoch into going to bed to get some much-needed rest, telling him Scott would need him more during his recovery.
Murdoch was reluctant but saw the wisdom of his youngest son’s words, even though they both knew there was little chance the man would get any beneficial rest.
Before agreeing to leave, Murdoch had insisted Johnny promise to wake him when Sam arrived.
The promise was made, and the Lancer patriarch went to his room, praying every step of the way that his firstborn would survive this ordeal.
An hour before dawn, Johnny was roused by a noise. He cursed himself for having dozed off, not allowing for the fact that he had been as exhausted as his father. He was younger and could handle it, he had steadfastly reminded himself.
Sitting up straight in the chair, Johnny realized with alarm what the noise was that had woken him.
It was the sound of Scott’s labored breathing. It was a combination of rasping, wheezing and rattling in his brother’s chest, and it scared Johnny more than he had been thus far.
There was no point in alerting Murdoch. He couldn’t do anything for Scott and would only succeed in driving himself even farther down the road to collapse. And, there was no need to send anyone to town for Sam, since he would be arriving soon anyway.
There was only one thing Johnny could think of to do, and with Scott like he was, it was likely more to comfort himself than his brother.
Johnny stood up and moved closer to the bed. He bent over, lifted Scott forward and then slid in behind him. He scooted back, pulling Scott with him, until he was resting against the headboard. Then Johnny leaned Scott back against him and wrapped his arms protectively around his brother, careful not to restrict the blond’s heaving chest.
With Scott’s head on his shoulder, the painful effort of his brother’s struggle to breathe was only inches from his ear, and the awful sound made him shudder. But, as horrible as that sound was, at least it meant Scott was still alive and fighting to stay that way.
Johnny rested his chin on Scott’s silky hair and closed his eyes. He prayed for his brother’s life, as he had never prayed for anything before.
It wasn’t long before Johnny’s mind began drifting. The young man knew he had beaten the odds that had been stacked against him most of his life. He had found a family to belong to, a home where he was happy and a future that spread out before him with limitless promise. To his own amazement, he loved it all, but the one thing he prized more than any other was the man he now held in his arms.
Scott had been a surprise, to say the least, and in the beginning, one he wasn’t sure he could ever accept, much less care for. It went beyond the eastern dandy looks and stiff manners of that first day, not to mention the later attire of plaid pants and turned up hat with the feather in it. He had told Scott early on, in a fit of anger, that he meant nothing to him, and God help him, he had meant it.
That notion hadn’t lasted very long, though. Scott had risked his life, running out in a hail of gunfire to save Johnny’s life after Pardee had put a bullet in his back.
After that, Scott had been - just Scott. No pretence. No arrogance. No recriminations. He had accepted Johnny, both Madrid and Lancer, as his brother and had gone about simply adjusting to life on a California cattle ranch, a far cry from his former life in Boston. In the meantime, in his unassuming way, Scott had quietly and quickly wormed his way into Johnny’s heart, burrowing so deep that now he was a permanent part of it.
The man was just plain likeable, and from the start, no amount of pushing, pulling, arguing, challenging or anything else to keep him at arm’s length had worked. Scott had proven he wasn’t soft or easy to move around. The man could definitely get in your face.
Johnny had to smile. How on earth had it ever worked out that they had become each other’s best friend when they approached life from two completely opposite directions? Johnny, out of necessity, didn’t trust anyone until they proved that they could be trusted. Scott trusted everyone until they proved they couldn’t be. Maybe, that was the key. They fit together like a hand in a glove. It was easy to see once you analyzed it a bit. What Johnny didn’t realize was that they were also alike in just as many ways as they were different, loyalty and a good heart being two of the main ones.
Scott possessed a quiet confidence, sharp intelligence, courage, honesty, compassion, and the willingness to work hard and learn. There was also a wicked sense of humor thrown in for good measure. And, it all came in a tall, slender frame with a backbone of pure steel.
No, Boston wouldn’t be denied. He was Johnny’s big brother. He was going to be there for Johnny no matter what and that was all there was to it. Scott loved him unconditionally, and the very idea of that scared Johnny to death, because he knew once he had something that precious, he couldn’t bear to think how devastating it would be to lose it. If Scott didn‘t make it, the young ex-gunfighter didn’t know what he would do.
Johnny gripped Scott a little tighter, thanking God for the treasure he held.
With renewed determination, Johnny was hoping to impart some of his own strength into the struggling and overheated body.
“Whatever you need from me, brother, you have it. No questions. No doubts. No hesitation.”
The next days had been hell with Scott balancing between life and death. But, by the time Sam arrived that fifth morning, Scott’s fever had broken and his breathing had eased. His pulse was still a little faster than Sam would have liked, but overall the kindly old doctor was pleased.
He gave his obligatory warning that Scott wasn’t out of the woods yet, but he also told the family that if no complications set in and his recovery wasn’t rushed, Scott should return to full health.
For the first time since the ordeal began, there were smiles, not only in the hacienda but all over Lancer, where many prayers had been said for the well-liked Lancer son.
When Scott finally woke up, he gazed, somewhat blearily, into the smiling face of his brother. In a raspy voice barely above a whisper, he said, “No questions. No doubts. No hesitation.”
Johnny frowned. “What?”
“I heard you, Johnny. You said those words to me, while I was drifting. It’s what brought me back.”
“It is, huh?” Johnny said shyly, almost overwhelmed by emotion.
“Yes, it is.”
Johnny graced Scott with his brightest smile. “Yeah well, Boston, I meant what I said.”
“I know you did. That’s why I came home.”
Scott yawned, and then frowned. It was a beautiful moment he didn‘t want to let go of, but he was already on his way to surrendering to sleep once more. “Back at you, little brother,” he mumbled. “Always.”
Johnny turned his head to hide the mist that had suddenly gathered in his eyes. He needn’t have bothered. When he looked back, Scott was sound asleep.
Johnny sat back down in the chair, smiling to himself. It looked like he wasn’t going to lose this treasure after all.