(The Guardian Part 1)
This started out as a short story and ended up being a series of short stories. It did not start out as a Christmas story, but ended up as one.
I don't, of course, own the characters or any rights beyond the pleasure of sharing this story with other Lancer fans.
"Jelly!" Murdoch Lancer's voice boomed across the yard as he approached the barn. "Aren't you finished with that yet? I have to get moving if I'm going to meet that stage."
"Almost, Boss," came the reply from the far side of the wagon. "There, got it." The bewhiskered jack-of-all-trades straightened from his task of harnessing the team, unable to suppress a grimace as his back protested the sudden change of position. As he started to move, Jelly inexplicably found himself staggering against the horse, grabbing onto the harness as a wave of dizziness swept over him.
Not certain what he had seen, Murdoch's slightly harried expression shifted to concern. "Are you alright, Jelly?"
The old man drew in a deep breath and blinked several times, trying to clear his head. A moment later, the disorientation was gone leaving behind a weariness that just shouldn't have been there this early in the day. Nonetheless, Jelly pulled himself up and hooked his thumbs into his vest, nodding emphatically. "Right as rain, Boss. Sure will be good to have Scott back," he added, adroitly changing the subject.
A smile lit the big rancher's face, but concern lingered in his eyes. "Yes, it will. Three months is a long time, but Harlan's estate is settled, the house sold, and all the arrangements made to move Garrett Enterprises to San Francisco." He shook his head in amazement. "I've gotten used to Scott's business acumen but that was a stroke of genius; bringing a few key employees and their families to California and opening an office close enough to be overseen from Lancer."
Jelly's grin and proud tone matched his employer's. "Yessiree, that boy is plum runnin' over with smarts!"
"Do you have my list, Murdoch?" Both men turned at the feminine voice. The harried look returned to the rancher's face but the smile he turned on his ward was warm.
"Yes, Teresa," he responded, patting his pocket. "I have it right here. How many more items do you need to add? Should I take a second wagon?"
Even in her agitated state, her guardian's amusement was not lost on the young woman and she smiled in return. "There's nothing else for now. There's just a lot to do with the wedding only a month away. I hope the things I ordered have come. Don't forget to check at the freight office!"
Murdoch patted the small hand resting on his arm. "I would not, for the world, forget to check at the freight office . . . and I'll bring the mail . . . and stop at Baldemero's . . . and . . ." His gaze shifted off into the distance. What else?" His fingers snapped as he abruptly turned back to Teresa, eyes flashing with humor. "Oh, yes, remember to pick up Scott!"
His reward for the levity was an exasperated huff and a small slap to his arm. "You're laughing at me!"
He chuckled. "Just a bit, my dear. Don't worry, I'll remember everything and bring Scott home too. But I'd better get going." He turned to climb into the buckboard.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
"Scott!" Teresa's joyous shriek carried halfway to Moro Coyo as she threw her arms around the tall, blonde man.
Scott Lancer swept his sister-of-the-heart into his strong arms and swung her around. "It's good to be home." His quiet voice in her ear spoke as clearly of exhaustion as of contentment and obvious relief. Setting the excited girl back on her feet, the young Lancer turned to greet Jelly and the women who had followed Teresa out of the house.
Scott shook the older man's hand vigorously. "How are you keeping, Jelly? Being gone so long, I expected to find everything in ruins, but you and Murdoch seem to have muddled through without me."
The handyman broke off the handshake, with a snort, drawing himself up in a fine imitation of his pet goose mantling. "I'll have you know, Scott Lancer, that I been managin just dandy since long before you were born! And your pa somehow managed to build up this whole entire place without any advice from you neither, so just dont go getting too big for your britches!"
Scott affected hurt and dismay. "Now, Jelly, you're going to make me feel unwanted and unloved. Maybe I should just go on along to San Francisco and tend to my own business and leave the ranching to you two experts."
Jelly made a shooing gesture. "Just go along with ya, ya smark aleck. Go on inside and get yourself coddled while us old men unload this here wagon."
Promptly abandoning his good-natured tormenting of Jelly, Scott turned to hug the dark-haired, middle-aged woman standing just behind Teresa. "Maria, I've missed your wonderful cooking."
"Bienvenido a casa, Senor Scott," she replied. Gently pushing the young man away, she surveyed him with a critical eye. "You are too thin does no one in Boston know how to cook?" She clucked in exasperation but smiled as she went on. "But we will fix that . . . starting tonight . . . we are making a special dinner for you!"
Scott laughed. "A great many people consider the food in Boston excellent, Maria, but I've gotten used to your cooking and I'm afraid I'm hopelessly spoiled."
The housekeeper drew herself up with a huff of sheer indignation. "I should hope so! It would shame me should it be otherwise!" With that pronouncement, she turned and marched back into the house with all the determination of a general heading into battle, chivying the giggling maids to help with unloading the wagon.
The greetings over, Murdoch urged Scott to go on into the house and get cleaned up. Waving off his son's offer to help with the unloading, the rancher hefted a bag of flour and headed for the storage rooms off the kitchen. Jelly followed with another bag while the women carried in some of the lighter parcels.
Scott wearily climbed the stairs which seemed to have multiplied since he left hauling two of his smaller bags. He finally emerging into the upstairs hall with a sigh of relief, pausing a moment to catch his breath. After three months of endless meetings and sedate rides around Boston Common, broken only by a few solitary evenings of theatre and concert (at least being in mourning had insulated him from the husband-hunting mamas of Boston society), he was out of shape. The thought brought a grimace to his face as he contemplated the sore muscles and blisters he would suffer when he resumed ranch work.
As he moved through the house, Scott unconsciously absorbed the sights, the sounds, the smells; the texture of the adobe under his fingers; fresh air; the chatter of the women from the kitchen; the creak of the third step from the top. The young man allowed himself to relax into the end of the journey several journeys - quietly reveling in . . . home. He was home.
He had barely reached the haven of his room when a scream echoed through the house. Reversing course, the young man raced back down the stairs to the kitchen. One of the women turned toward the sound of pounding boots and pointed to the back hallway leading to the storage area. Whatever she was trying to tell him was lost on Scott as he pushed through the small group of excited women.
Rounding the corner, Scott pulled up short at the sight of his father and Maria kneeling on either side of Jelly who was lying on the floor, hands pressed to his heaving chest, gasping for breath. Murdoch was talking to Jelly but looked up when his son approached. "Scott, send someone for the doctor!"
The younger Lancer turned on his heel, sprinting back the way he had come and out the kitchen door. Not surprisingly, there was no one in sight except a vaquero with a splinted leg mending tack in the shade near the barn. Weariness forgotten, Scott sped across the yard and into the barn. Once inside, he paused momentarily to allow his vision to adapt to the shadowy interior of the big building.
"Senor Scott! It is good to see you home!" Emilio's floated from the dimness as the old vaquero came forward, dandy brush in one hand and a curry comb in the other.
"Emilio, something is wrong with Jelly. He collapsed. Is Wellington in condition to be ridden?"
"Jelly? Los santos le protegen! Si! Hernan has been riding him each day." The man turned to a boy of thirteen who had come out of the tackroom. "Hernan, help Senor Scot saddle his horse! Date prisa!"
Not bothering to reply, the boy raced to obey. Scott nodded his thanks to the stableman and moved to heft the saddle into place while Hernan slipped the bridle over the chestnut's head.
Man and boy watched the former cavalry officer gallop out of the yard as though El Diablo himself was on his heels. Shaking his head, Emilio crossed himself. Such an evil happening on such a joyous day. It was not fair. Madre Sagrada, por favor allow no more sadness to be visited on this house. With a sigh, the old man turned away from the cloud of dust that obscured the flying horse and his rider and noticed the still-laden wagon and untended team standing outside the kitchen gate. Beckoning to his grandson, he started toward the house. Whatever had happened, the supplies still needed to be unloaded and stored away, the horses still needed to be watered and curried, the tack still needed to be cleaned . . . there was work to be done.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
Jelly floated up from the comfortable darkness toward soft light. His eyelids fluttered, but he just couldn't quite make them open. He tried again and managed a quick glance around the room before the heavy lids dropped once more. His frustratingly foggy mind registered the fact that there wasn't any pain, then he wondered why there should be. Weariness so overwhelming it seemed to physically drag him deeper into the feather mattress tugged him back toward the darkness. Too tired his mind whispered. I'll figure it out later.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
He had no idea how much later it was when awareness returned. Again, he managed only a brief glance through slitted lids, but enough to reassure him that he was in his own bed in his own room. The light was different now, although he couldn't put a finger on how it was different. Does it matter? Why can't I keep my durned eyes open? Giving up the battle to keep his lead-weighted eyelids open, he concentrated on his other senses. He could feel the soft blanket beneath his hands. A cool breeze wafted across his face bringing the clean smells of early morning. Diffused light filtered through to his shuttered eyes. Sunlight. That's what's different; sunlight; not a lamp like before. He became aware of someone in the room; the soft rustle of skirts and hushed voices nearby.
"He is still sleeping, chica. If he wakes, try to get him to drink some broth. Lucera will come later."
Maria? What is Maria doing in my room? Before he could begin to puzzle that out, another voice spoke.
"Thank you, Maria. Now get some rest; you were up with him all night."
Teresa? What's going on around here?
The old handyman heard the door close quietly and movement someone settling nearby but try as he might, he just couldn't manage to open his eyes. In fact, he was unspeakably weary right down to his bones. How can that be when I just woke up? I don't even remember goin' to bed. In the next instant, without actually thinking about it he was much too exhausted to think Jelly decided it really didn't matter right now. When a man's tired, he's tired. Don't matter how he got that way. All I need is some shuteye and everything'll be fine and dandy when I wake up.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
Jelly was jolted from sleep by an irrepressibly cheerful voice. "Hey, Jelly! Getting' lazy in your old age? It's past sunup, old man. You're gonna miss breakfast if you don't get a move on."
The old man's eyes flew open. "Johnny Lancer, what're you tryin' to do? Scare a man to death?"
Grinning unrepentantly, the dark-haired young man seated himself on the bed, leaning back against the footboard and pushing his hat back to hang by the stampede string. "Jelly, you're gonna live forever. You're too damned ornery to die." The deep blue eyes danced. "Besides, the Devil most likely don't want you around figures you'd be trying to run things down there just like you do around here."
The ailing man fixed his friend with a stern glare. "The least you could do it show some respect to a sick man, ya' smartmouth. He paused as conscious thought caught up with the words. Sick? Am I sick? I don't remember takin' sick. He looked around, trying desperately to make sense of the situation. It was clearly morning, but he was in still in bed, still dressed in his nightshirt, and propped up on downy pillows. A vivid memory of feminine presences asserted itself. Maria was here . . . and Teresa . . . Jelly's face scrunched up as he considered his situation. Maybe I am sick. That time I had the grippe Maria and Teresa nursed me. Maybe that's it. I got the grippe again . . . and a fever that's it. Fever can do strange things to a man's mind.
Johnny's soft hoot captured Jelly's wandering thoughts. "Don't have to be so proddy, Jelly. I just came by to see how you're doing; maybe cheer you up a bit."
Jelly huffed. "Smart-alecky, that's what you are. No respect for your elders a'tal." He stopped mid-tirade as Johnny's earlier statement sank in. "Besides, what do you mean - the Devil? You cheeky, low-down, ornery, good-for-nothing . . ." The rant sputtered to a stop as Jelly failed to find words; a rare occurrence.
Johnny gently wagged a finger at his friend, his attempt at a serious expression faltering at the corners of his mouth and failing completely in the impish sparkle of his eyes. "Now, now, don't go getting' yourself in a pucker, Jelly. You're supposed to be restin' up."
Jelly cocked his chin up, preparing to renew the verbal assault, then stopped. He blinked a few times, frown lines gathering between his eyebrows as he concentrated. "Restin' up from what? I don't remember takin' sick . . ." With the last two words, the bluster faded and his eyes locked on Johnny's in unaccustomed uncertainty.
The younger man's grin faded to a look of concern. "You sure have been sick, Jelly. Doc says it's your heart." The grin returned. "Now me, I think you're just lookin for an excuse to slack off."
Jelly harrumphed and crossed his arms over his nightshirt-clad chest. "Slackin off! Since when have I ever slacked off? I do more work around here than you ever thought about doin and don't you forget it! And, anyhow," he bristled, "what if I was to slack off just a little now and then? 'Bout time you young rascals start pullin' your weight around here! Man my age is entitled to take is easy now and again."
Johnny's dark head bent for a moment, considering, before he turned a gentle look on his friend. "Kiddin' aside, Jelly, you're gonna have to take things a little easier from now on. You're not as young as you used to be, ya' know . . ."
The older man appeared to physically swell with the indignation that blazed in his eyes. "You callin' me old? The day I can't outwork any one of you smart-alecky young . . ."
The dark-haired cowboy put up a placating hand. "Whoa, Whoa! Just listen to me, will ya? Whether you like it or not, the Doc's right you been real sick, Jelly, 'cause of your heart. Don't you remember passin' out when you were helpin' unload the wagon?"
Jelly clearly had to think for a moment before drawing his bluster around him once again. "Course, I remember unloadin' the wagon. Murdoch brought Scott home, and then we unloaded the wagon . . . and . . ." His voice faltered. We did unload the wagon. Scott went inside, and Murdoch took a sack, and then I hefted a sack, and then . . . what? His body more than his mind remembered or thought it remembered an ache in his left arm that suddenly flared across his chest, squeezing the very breath from his lungs. And then . . . and then what?
Johnny was nodding, his eyes dropping to his hands again. The soft voice was muffled. "That was yesterday, Jelly." The younger man shifted uncomfortably, obviously searching for words. When the blue eyes flashed up, they were full of innumerable things the young man would never find a way to verbalize. His voice was gentle, almost faltering. "Like I said, you're real sick. You got everyone worried even ol' Murdoch." That smile ghosted across the handsome face for a fleeting instant before fading again. That's why I came to help you."
Jelly found himself unable to break that steadfast gaze. "Help me what?" His voice was little more than a whisper; his attempt at his customary gruffness stifled by the sudden feeling that maybe he didn't want to know what Johnny meant.
"Live, Jelly. I'm here to help you live. You have to fight or you'll just . . . fade away." The bottomless blue eyes fixed on Johnny's work-hardened hands. "That tiredness . . . you gotta fight it. I been there, old man . . ." A fleeting glance. "More than once. I know what I'm talkin' about. All you want is to go to sleep and let all the pain go away and it'd be so easy to just . . . let go." Johnny shifted, hands playing restlessly with the conchos on his pants. After a moment, he looked up again, pinning his friend with those knowing eyes. "But, if you do let go, Jelly, there's no coming back. You'll be gone to . . . wherever . . ." the merest ghost of a grin flitted across the mouth again ". . . and there's no coming back."
Johnny sighed, then turned slightly to look out the window where the light was growing stronger. His fingers now played absently with the stampede string. "A lot of people need you, Jelly. They care about you and they're not ready to let you go yet. Don't disappoint them." Facing the sick man again, Johnny jabbed a finger at him. "Don't you disappoint them! You hear me, old man?"
Stunned by his young friend's vehemence and struggling to accept the meaning of the words, Jelly could only nod.
Johnny looked away again and stood abruptly, hand automatically pulling his hat up and pushing his hair back before settling it on his head. The finger came up once again and those haunted eyes begged but the voice was as steely as it was soft. "You promise me, Jellifer Hoskins. You promise me you won't disappoint them."
"I won't, Johnny. I promise. I won't."
For an endless moment, the two friends looked at each other. Then Jelly found some of his normal spunk. "Now, why don't you get out of here, you cheeky devil and let a sick man rest. Don't you have some work of your own to do?"
Johnny flashed his best smile, resettled his hat on his head, and sauntered out the door, spurs gently chiming.
As the heavy door swung shut, Jelly felt the unbearable weariness creep over him once again, as if his strength had swept out that door with the young man he loved like a son. Even as the old man's eyes slid shut, he told himself firmly. You're just gonna rest. That's all. You promised that boy.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
The next time Jelly's eyes opened, they actually stayed open. He felt a bit stronger, taking in the details of his familiar room in the bright light of late morning.
He turned his head toward the soft voice and smiled at the sight of Teresa seated in a chair beside his bed, a smile on her face.
He returned her smile with an uncertain one of his own, eyes sweeping around the room once again. When his gaze returned to the young woman at his side, she was offering a glass of water.
Suddenly more thirsty than he could ever remember being in his life, Jelly accepted the water gratefully. He tasted medicine in it but his mind was moving sluggishly and he couldn't manage to fix on more than one thing at a time. Right now, there was something more important than questioning the medicine he was being given.
"Did you see him? Is he stayin'?"
Teresa's confusion was obvious as she set the glass on the bedside table. "See who?"
Jelly's eyes, moved restlessly over the room, then he tried to sit up, craning his neck to see out the window.
Teresa gently pushed him back onto the pillows. "Jelly, you need to stay put. You're very sick."
"You had ta've seen him! Didn't he talk to you?" Excitement crept into the hoarse voice.
"Did I see who, Jelly?"
The bewilderment in the young woman's face and voice was enough to momentarily subdue the nearly frantic man. He settled back into the bed but swiveled his head, once again searching the room. "Johnny . . . he was just here. You must have seen him . . ."
Stunned, Teresa stared at her agitated patient. When the she finally found her voice, it was soft and uncertain. "Jelly, you couldn't have seen Johnny. He's not here . . . remember? Johnny's . . . gone . . ."
"No! He was just here. I was talking to him!" He craned once again in a vain attempt to see out the window before turning back to Teresa. "Maybe he left before you came. He said it was past sunup but it's gotta be near noon now. I musta gone back to sleep for a spell." The animation drained from the handyman's face.
Teresa reached out to check the old man's forehead for fever. Her smile returned, albeit tremulous. "It must have been a dream, Jelly." A moment's hesitation to get a good grip on her emotions. "I've been here for hours and Maria was here all night. You haven't been alone for a minute."
Jelly opened his mouth to refute that statement, but no words emerged. His dazed eyes sought those of the girl who could have been his granddaughter before dropping in confusion. The last thing in this world the old man wanted was to hurt Teresa. But . . . he was here . . . I talked to him . . . Pushing aside the jumble of thoughts and emotions - he needed time to think about this Jelly made his voice firm. "Reckon you're right. Musta been a dream. Sure seemed real. Johnny was bein' his usual cheeky self. Told me I'd better quit slackin' off an' get well." The old man fixed his young nurse with a steady gaze. "He said I had a spell on account of my heart. Is that true?"
Still shaken, Teresa found herself laughing softly even though her eyes sparkled with tears. "That sounds like Johnny." She brushed away the moisture and squeezed the wrinkled hand she held between her small, soft ones. "It sounds like it was a nice dream, Jelly. Just the thing to make you feel better. And . . . yes, Doctor Jenkins says it is your heart. But you'll be fine as long as you rest and take it a little easier and take your medicine," she finished, the imperiousness of the last pronouncement considerably diluted by the twitching of her lips.
With sudden busyness, she released Jelly's hand and darted across the room to retrieve a mug from the small stove. Returning, she set it on a small table beside the bed while she helped Jelly to sit up a bit higher, stuffing more pillows behind him. Resuming her seat, she offered the drink to the man in the bed. "I have strict orders from Maria that you're to finish every bit of this broth. No arguments or we'll both be in trouble." Turning her best stern face on her patient, the young woman helped him wrap unsteady hands around the warm porcelain. "And you know very well that even Johnny never won when Maria made up her mind."
Avoiding Teresa's eyes, Jelly sipped the rich beef broth silently while he struggled to sort things out. Was it a dream? I never had a dream that real before. How could I talk to a dream . . . and how could it . . . he . . . tell me it was my heart when I didn't know? He was here . . . But why would he leave again? Why didn't anyone but me see him?
Without realizing it, he had finished the broth and absently handed the mug back to Teresa who accepted it with a frown of concern.
"Jelly, I think you'd better lie down again and get some more rest."
Jelly slipped down a bit in the bed, but shook his head. "I'll rest, sweetheart, but I'm comfortable right here." He wanted to lie down. He needed to lie down - desperately. He was too exhausted to hold his head up or his eyes open. But somehow lying down felt like giving up . . . and that he wouldn't do . . . he had promised Johnny . . .
The Guardian is also posted at Fanfiction.com
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