As always, I don’t own the characters or any rights beyond the pleasure of sharing this story with other Lancer fans.
My thanks to Margaret P. for being a patient and terrific beta.
For those who read The Guardian series, this story picks up in the altered reality in which Johnny is alive.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Proverbs 31:10
Abigail Lancer straightened her aching back and wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her wrist as she scrubbed the ground-in dirt from her husband’s shirt. There was nothing pleasant about laundry except the end result, but a smile appeared as she anticipated one of those pleasant end results; snuggling into a clean, fresh bed with Johnny when he returned.
Scott and Johnny had ridden out with a crew early the previous morning to move a herd to new pasture. They were expected to return tonight or tomorrow.
“Señora.” Maria had paused in pegging out laundry to stare off across the pasture, shading her eyes against the afternoon sun. Two horsemen were making their way slowly toward the hacienda. One of the horses was clearly a palomino and his rider was slumped in the saddle.
Abandoning the wash, Abby raced toward the men. Scott pulled Wellington up sharply as she ran heedlessly across his path. The palomino shied and his startled rider straightened. Abby halted abruptly. Johnny’s unsteadiness was plain; one hand clung to the saddle horn. Barranca continued walking slowly toward the house and Abby fell in beside the big animal, her hand on Johnny’s leg.
“I’ll be fine.”
“What happened?” He didn’t look fine but she could see no obvious injury.
“Had an argument with a steer—he won.” His tone made it clear he didn’t want to discuss the event.
Over her shoulder, Abby glanced at her brother-in-law.
Scott shook his head. “It happened early this morning. I sent Mateo for the doctor, but you know how that goes. It’s taken us most of the day to get home.”
Abby nodded and tightened her grip on Johnny. “We’ll just get you into the house and take care of it.” Somehow she forced confidence into her voice.
When they reached the kitchen door, Scott moved quickly to Johnny’s side while Abby slipped to Barranca’s head. Scott’s body blocked her view as Johnny slid down with a grunt. For a long moment, he leaned against the horse, hands gripping the saddle.
“Stop hoverin’, Scott.”
“Stop being an idiot, Johnny.”
With obvious reluctance, Johnny accepted his brother’s help. Abby bit her lip.
The unbuttoned leg of Johnny’s pants flapped with each step, revealing a blood-soaked bandage just above the knee. Only Scott’s strong arms kept him on his feet as they made their way into the kitchen. Johnny settled into a chair, head down and eyes closed, jaw set against the pain. Scott lingered close by, a hand on his brother’s shoulder.
Maria was already preparing; towels and a basin of hot water were on the table. She returned from the pantry with more supplies and knelt beside Johnny’s chair. He roused at her touch, grabbing the hand that held the scissors.
“Wait.” The abrupt movement plainly cost him. Head bowed, he swallowed hard before continuing. “Abby, I want you to leave. I don’t want you to see this.”
Abby stood behind Maria, hands fisted in her skirt. She didn’t want to get in the way, but she wanted to do what she could. Leaving had never crossed her mind.
“Johnny, I want to help. I won’t leave you.” The calm assurance in her voice surprised Abby. She didn’t feel calm or assured. What she wanted to do was fling her arms around Johnny’s neck and cry.
Johnny’s head came up. “Abby, I don’t feel up to arguing right now. I don’t want you here. Just go. Please”
Abby opened her mouth to respond sharply but the words remained unspoken. Johnny was hurting… and frustrated… even angry. But, in his eyes, she saw… fear?
Fear for me? No, not fear exactly… Johnny knows I’m no frail flower.
Her gaze flicked to the bandage, then back to Johnny’s set face. The silence stretched. Understanding came.
He’s trying to protect me.
Her eyes held Johnny’s and her voice was firm. “Maria, what can I do to help?”
Johnny slumped in the chair, eyes closed once more and breathing heavily.
Scott nodded and Abby was heartened by his open approval. She knew he liked her, but his confidence in her ability to deal with this emergency proved a deeper level of trust.
So don’t disappoint anyone.
Following Maria’s instructions, Scott stood behind the chair to steady his brother and Abby dosed Johnny with laudanum. She watched closely while the older woman carefully cut away the bandage and exposed the raw, bleeding flesh.
Steady, Abby. You will not faint. You will not throw up. Teresa warned you that things like this would happen. You have to prove you can deal with it; that Johnny – everyone - can trust you not to fall apart.
Once focused on the task at hand, she was able to push aside everything except Maria’s quiet voice directing and explaining. “Por favor, Señora, we need a pitcher of hot water - but not so hot it will burn him.”
Abby mixed water from the kettle on the stove with cold and carried the pitcher to Maria. The housekeeper took it, motioning Abby closer. With a deep breath to steady her stomach, she knelt beside Maria.
“We must get the wound as clean as possible. Like so.” She tipped the pitcher, allowing the water to wash gently into the gash. Johnny gasped and flinched. Scott’s hands tightened on Johnny’s shoulders, as much for comfort as support. Pink-tinged water flowed steadily over Johnny’s leg and into a bucket.
When the pitcher was empty, Maria handed it back to Abby. “We need more water.” The entire process was repeated.
When Abby returned the third time, Maria poured water into a small bowl and plucked a blue bottle from the table, tilting it so Abby could see the label. Carbolic Acid – Poison. “Add this much.” Her fingers measured. When the mixture was ready, Maria trickled it into the wound.
Laudanum notwithstanding, Johnny bucked and moaned; his hands gripped the edges of the chair. Scott pressed him down and spoke quiet encouragement. Abby bit her lip, fighting back a sob.
It has to be done. You can do this for Johnny.
Maria directed her new apprentice in tightly bandaging Johnny’s leg. “It needs to be sewed but we can wait for el medico. For now, Señor Johnny needs to be washed and put to bed.”
When they were finished, Abby helped Scott maneuver a groggy Johnny up to their room.
“His fever is getting worse,” Scott said as he poured water into the basin on the commode. “I suspected it earlier, but I couldn’t be sure until I helped him into the house.”
“Scott, what happened?”
“We were moving cattle. A new man—former new man—decided to shoot a rattlesnake. The herd spooked and Johnny caught a horn. We did our best to clean it up and stop the bleeding but he lost a lot of blood. It was a long ride home…” Scott shrugged as he set the basin on the dresser beside the bed. “You know the rest.”
Abby nodded and turned her attention to Johnny.
Hours passed. Dusk had settled over Lancer when Abby wrung out the cloth and again applied the cool wetness to Johnny’s fevered body. Dwelling on how handsome he was and memories of happy times together helped to distract her from the worry that knotted her stomach and unwelcome memories of the sickening wound.
A soft rap was followed immediately by the door swinging open. Abby rose as Murdoch and Scott ushered Doctor Jenkins into the room.
“Thank goodness you’re here! He’s been sleeping for quite a while, but his fever is getting worse.
The doctor set his bag on the table and took off his coat. “First, tell me exactly what happened.”
Scott repeated his summary of the morning’s events, while Dr. Jenkins removed instruments from his bag. “All right, then, let’s get to it. Abby, would you pour some carbolic in a basin and sterilize those instruments?” He picked up Johnny’s wrist to check his pulse.
Maria swept in with a fresh pitcher of hot water and clean towels.
“Abby?” Johnny’s raspy voice surprised them.
The doctor leaned close. “Johnny, how do you feel?”
“Been better. Abby…” He licked dry lips.
Murdoch moved quickly to lift his son’s head and Abby pressed a glass of water to his lips. “I’m here, my love.”
When Johnny pulled away, Abby set the glass aside and grasped his hand. Johnny sank back into the pillows, eyes closed.
Johnny’s smile barely curved his lips but his hand squeezed hers.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
It was late. The lamp burned low in the room when Murdoch entered. Abby sat beside the bed, a book in her lap. Murdoch offered her one of the steaming cups he carried before taking a chair across the bed.
“How is he?”
She sighed wearily. “He still has some fever but he’s sleeping quietly.”
They sat in companionable silence for several minutes. Murdoch took stock of his son’s wife. To say she was exhausted would be an understatement. Her face was pale and there were dark smudges under her hazel eyes. The ashy-brown hair was neat but lacked its usual luster. Despite the best efforts of the family to relieve her, the young woman had scarcely left Johnny’s side during the two days in which they battled infection and a raging fever.
Finally, Murdoch spoke again. “I want you know, Abby, how happy we all are that you are part of this family. I’m… I give thanks every day that my son has a wife who loves him and...” He sighed deeply, searching for words. “Johnny loves you and he trusts you. Trust doesn’t come easily for him. And I will never be able to express my gratitude for…” His gaze fixed on Abby and his big hand enveloped hers.
Abby regarded him uncertainly. “I was so frightened.”
Murdoch’s smile was reassuring. He understood too well the multitude of fears encompassed in that simple admission. “Child, we were all frightened. It’s part of loving someone to be anxious when that person is ill or injured.” He paused. “I wish I could tell you it won’t happen again, but I can pretty much promise that it will. A cattle ranch is a dangerous place; California can be a dangerous place. Johnny doesn’t go looking for trouble but it seems to find him all too often. I’m afraid you—all of us—will have plenty to worry about. What’s important is that Johnny trusts you; knows he can depend on you.”
Abby’s eyes were bright with unshed tears. “How do you do it?”
Murdoch rose and gathered the young woman into a hug. “You know how, my dear. You just did it—and did it very well.”
“Yeah, you did.”
Abby pulled away and eased carefully down on the bed. “How are you feeling, my love?”
While Abby poured a glass of water, Murdoch rearranged a few pillows and helped Johnny sit up enough to drink.
Johnny drained the glass before settling back.
“Are you hungry?” Abby asked.
“I could eat.” His voice was weak but he managed a smile.
“I’ll get it,” Murdoch said before she could move. He left the couple alone, closing the door behind him.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
Abby smiled as she wiped Johnny’s face with the damp cloth. “Doesn’t that feel good?”
“Mmmm.” Johnny grasped the hand that held the cloth. “I knew you were here.”
“Where else would I be?”
He studied her face while his thumb caressed the back of her hand.
“You look dead tired, querida. How long have I been sick?”
Abby’s smile dimmed a bit. She looked down at their still-joined hands. “Two very long days.”
Don’t lose it now, Abby. The worst is over.
Her head came up and she flashed a smile. “But I’m fine.”
Johnny laughed softly. “I’m glad you were here, but you need to get some rest.”
“Scott and Murdoch were here too.”
“I know, but I’m not married to them.”
Johnny sank further into the pillows, eyes fixed on the wall, but he did not relinquish her hand. “I heard what you said to Murdoch—about being scared. I wish you hadn’t seen it.”
Her hands clasped Johnny’s. She leaned closer to kiss him. “I love you, Johnny Lancer.” She tugged on his hand, commanding him to face her. “For better or worse. Now that the worse is behind us, we need to work on getting you better. Right now, you should probably sleep.”
“The boyish grin she loved appeared. “I just woke up. You’re the one needs sleep.”
“Shhhhsh.” Abby brushed his hair back. “I’ll sleep if you do; promise.”
“There’s something in the Bible about a good wife bein’ worth more than rubies.” Johnny’s voice was soft and a bit slurred as his eyes slid shut. Abby moved to get up, but his grip tightened on her hand. “I reckon it’s true.”
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