Word Count 85,430
RATING: Rated PG-13 for mild profanity
DISCLAIMERS: The world of Lancer and its characters is not ours. The following is a work of fanfiction, not intended to infringe on any copyrights. The story is ours with a tip of the hat to Jack Schaefer, Walter Farley, Logan Forster, and Louis L’Amour and written for fun, not profit.
SUMMARY: Sometimes, the greatest gift is hope
HISTORICAL NOTES: This story remains true to the same errors in weaponry and historical events/characters so often seen in the original Lancer episodes—although the series was set in the early 1870s, the weaponry used and many other references were more appropriate for the mid-1880s. We acknowledge the historical inaccuracies of references like Colt Peacemakers, Winchester model 1873, and Billy the Kid and claim creative license.
TIMELINE: This story is set a couple of months after our fan fiction story, The Boy
NOTE: We did not have the benefit of using betas for this story. Any errors are ours alone.
“NO!” Johnny Lancer cringed at the sharp edge of fright he detected in his voice. He bit his lip hard and mastered the fear, relentlessly forcing it to the back of his mind and brutally locking it away. He had to be strong – he had too.
“No! Get up.” His voice, under control now, rang with authority. But it was ineffective and Johnny steeled himself to do what had to be done.
He sucked in a deep breath and slapped the broad chest before him open-handed, with all the force of his body behind the blow. And kept slapping – measured, shockingly loud wallops, striving to ignore the red-rimmed, terror filled eyes that burned into his own.
“Now.” SLAP. SLAP. SLAP.
Johnny shook his head savagely in an effort to clear the sweat from his eyes. At least he hoped the scalding wetness in his eyes was sweat. His right hand stung from the force of the blows and his left arm felt numb with strain. He realized that he was losing the fierce battle to keep Barranca on his feet, but continued fighting with dogged determination. This was no time to accept defeat. The palomino’s condition was worsening by the minute and if the horse went down now, Johnny was afraid that he’d never get up again.
“C’mon, Barranca. Get up, fella.” He landed another sharp slap to the palomino’s sweat-streaked side as the big horse’s knees buckled and he struggled to go down. A fleck of foam from the lathered neck struck his cheek as Johnny used all his strength to force the horse upright and forward. Man and horse warred against each other, each hell bent on achieving his goal.
Johnny’s boots slipped on the barn floor and his grip on the halter faltered. Barranca surged past him and he saw the golden knees moving toward the dirt. Leaping between the horse’s right side and the ground, Johnny thrust his shoulder against the horse’s and refused to let Barranca go down. Every muscle in his body screamed with the strain of supporting the great weight and Johnny knew he couldn’t sustain the effort. And if the palomino collapsed now, he’d be trapped beneath the animal’s body!
In desperation he whipped his head forward, chomping on Barranca’s ear, biting hard enough to draw blood – and was rewarded when the palomino flung up his head and lurched forward. The horse swayed and shuddered and rolled his eyes, but stayed on his feet.
Johnny willed the tremors from his hand and stroked the dripping neck. “Good. You’re a good fella.” His mouth was so dry the words seemed to stick to his tongue. He couldn’t even muster enough spit to clear the blood and hair from his lips.
Barranca groaned and stamped his right foreleg, turning his head to look back at his sweat-drenched flank. His expression would have been comical if the situation weren’t so grim.
Johnny gave him no opportunity to try and lie down again. He tugged on the lead shank. “Let’s go, compadre. You gotta walk a little.”
Together they trudged the length of the barn and back, Johnny crooning encouragement and Barranca lumbering along with a halting, careful gait so unlike his usually elastic steps. He paused frequently to stamp and paw, resisting the urge to lie down only because he’d learned to trust and obey Johnny. The beautiful head drooped low and his eyes and nostrils were red-rimmed and flared with pain and fear.
Johnny noted the palomino’s quick, shallow breaths and sweat-soaked hide. His horse was in a bad way and getting worse with every minute that passed. If he couldn’t get this thing under control soon, Barranca wasn’t going to make it.
//I need help here! Where is everybody?//
Johnny’s eyes flickered from the shadows stretching across the deserted corral toward the tack room. There was medicine in there, medicine he’d prepared himself just as Pablo had taught him. The old horseman had kept a supply of the special ginger-cardamom-aromatic herb mixture on hand at all times and now that he was building Lancer’s horse business, Johnny followed his example.
He could picture the exact shelf where the brown bottle sat, but it might as well be on the moon. He couldn’t leave Barranca for even the handful of seconds necessary to retrieve the bottle. If he did, the horse would go down and Johnny knew he couldn’t get him back on his feet alone. And if he couldn’t keep his horse up and moving…
//Nope. Ain’t gonna think about that. Damn! Where are they?//
His family and at least some of the hands should be home for the evening by this time. The main corral and barn were never empty at this time of day. A fragment of thought niggled in the back of Johnny’s mind. He was forgetting something… something important…
It hovered there, just out of memory range and Johnny realized that he couldn’t afford to divert any of his attention away from the task at hand. Saving Barranca meant walking and so they plodded on.
The pair reached the double door opening to the corral and Johnny leaned his head out and hollered toward the hacienda. “Murdoch! Scott! Jelly! Cipriano! Teresa!”
Barranca reacted to that strident shout with a snort and tossing head and Johnny soothed, “Easy, fella. That’s a good fella. C’mon, we ain’t stoppin’.” He tugged the shuddering animal forward. “That’s it. Let’s keep movin’.”
Johnny kept up a constant litany of encouragement to Barranca, but his heart was as heavy as the horse’s stumbling footfalls. He wished desperately for Murdoch or Scott or Jelly. All were knowledgeable horsemen and might know something else to do for the palomino.
At the least they could help him get a dose of medicine into the animal, get the horse covered with blankets, and keep Barranca on his feet and moving. That was the critical thing. In Johnny’s experience, if a horse could walk off the cramps while nature took its course, he had a chance. But a horse that went down rarely recovered.
Johnny grumbled to himself. It just wasn’t like the Old Man to be late. Or Scott, for that matter. His father and brother were both clock watchers, prizing punctuality. He shook his head ruefully, recalling numerous instances when his often nonchalant attitude toward the time had sparked confrontations. Learning to run his life by a clock had been one of the most trying adjustments in his attempt to make a new beginning for himself.
//Well, I ain’t the one late today. Damn it, Old Man… Brother. I could sure use some help!//
“Yeah, you’re a good fella. Just keep walkin’, compadre.”
Teresa’s heart pounded as she sprinted through the corral. That imperative shout from the barn frightened her. She hadn’t realized Johnny was home and something in his tone that warned of Trouble – and with Johnny, Trouble usually came with a capital “T”.
She slid to a halt inside the barn door, prepared for an unpleasant surprise, but dismayed by the sight of Barranca quivering and reeling. The once proud palomino glistened with sweat, literally dripping with soapy lather. Beneath his satiny hide, the gelding’s stomach bulged, bloated and taut. He shuddered in pain, and the moaning, rasping breaths were distressing to hear.
Her horrified gaze found Johnny’s and the bleakness in the blue eyes wrung her heart. “Oh, Johnny! Is it…” her voice trailed off as though she were afraid to voice the word.
Johnny hung his head. “Yeah, it’s colic.” He kept the palomino moving, working both hands on the halter and lead rope. “Where’s Murdoch? Scott?”
With a jolt, Teresa realised that Johnny appeared outwardly calm but his eyes betrayed his inner turmoil. She looked beyond the distressed horse and took stock of Johnny’s sweat matted hair, the way his damp shirt clung to his body, the characteristic easy grace now noticeably absent from his movements. This ordeal had obviously been going on for some time and Johnny looked exhausted.
She bit her lip at the sight of his strained face, recalling how they’d nearly lost him to a ruptured appendix not so long ago. Teresa knew that his family’s constant vigilance and concern exasperated Johnny to no end. But they were all vividly aware that he wasn’t completely recovered. Much to his chagrin, he still tired easily.
From the first day that Johnny arrived at the ranch, Teresa had marvelled at his boundless energy. He reminded her of a whirlwind, leaving them all a bit breathless at the way he embraced each day and lived it to the fullest. Falling into bed worn out every night, he somehow leaped up before dawn, bursting with eagerness to welcome the morning.
Except that in the aftermath of his illness, that well of strength couldn’t replenish itself overnight anymore. Dr. Jenkins had repeatedly reminded Johnny that it would take several months of recuperation before he felt – and actually was – 100% again, that the illness and surgery had depleted all of his reserves. Yet with true Lancer stubbornness (or was he just plain mule headed like his father?), the young man drove himself relentlessly, bristling at any hint that he might be trying to do too much too soon.
Frustrated by his unaccustomed fragility, Johnny constantly pushed his body beyond its limit. This persistent denial of any weakness forced his family to balance on the razor’s edge between overly protective coddling and prudent intervention to contain the boy’s headlong approach to life – a difficult situation that continually taxed their ingenuity.
//Well, he’s “worn himself to a frazzle”, as Jelly would say. We’ll be lucky if he doesn’t end the night in a high fever. Murdoch will be worried out of his mind. And there’s nothing for it – Johnny and Barranca have such a special bond. The only thing I can do is try to help him with the horse any way I can.//
She stepped toward them to offer assistance, halting as Barranca groaned and attempted to sink to his knees. Teresa recoiled as Johnny faced his horse, shouting and actually striking the animal over and over.
//How awful, Johnny. I’ve never once seen you hit that horse. This is really bad. Oh, Murdoch, please hurry home…//
As Teresa watched in horror, the palomino abandoned his effort to lie down. Beside himself with pain, Barranca flattened his ears, darted his head around, and sunk his big yellow teeth into the top of Johnny’s shoulder! The horse attacked his perceived tormentor in blind fury, actually jerking Johnny off of the ground and shaking him as a dog might kill a rat.
Johnny stifled a groan as wave after wave of white-hot fire stabbed through his left shoulder where Barranca’s vice-like grip ground into the hard muscle and bone. He gritted his teeth and clung to the halter, using the horse’s anger to keep him moving. The big horse still had some fight left in him and that was a relief – even if the bite lanced arrows of agony through his torn shoulder.
Barranca’s fury subsided as swiftly as it had arrived and Johnny broke free from the painful grasp that left behind a throbbing bloody furrow on either side of his shoulder. His voice never faltered, quietly soothing and encouraging his horse to keep moving. He forced himself to ignore the fiery pain that screamed through the gashed and bruised muscles each time he moved his upper body.
Teresa pressed her hand hard to her mouth to stifle her distress. Johnny didn’t need to hear that. She took a deep breath and stepped forward. “How can I help, Johnny?”
“Medicine. Brown bottle. Third shelf on the right. And bring some blankets.” He panted with the effort of pulling Barranca forward, forcing the horse to walk. The ache in his shoulder seemed to spin his head in sickening circles and keeping his own feet moving forward was a chore.
//Can’t hardly keep myself from fallin’ down, much less Barranca. Yeah, guess I’ve got some kinda trouble…//
Teresa returned in a trice with the requested items, relieved to see Barranca moving alongside Johnny. At least the palomino was still on his feet. She knew enough about colic to realize that the horse going down usually signaled the beginning of the end. As the pain grew progressively worse, the animal would writhe and roll in agony, attempting to relieve its suffering through violent action.
Her father had explained to her the deadly consequences – the horse’s frantic thrashing could twist its intestines, a death sentence normally carried out by the compassionate horseman to end the animal’s suffering. She blanched at the thought of Johnny having to make such a decision about his palomino.
//Lord, please don’t take Barranca away from Johnny. Please.//
“I’ve got the medicine, Johnny.” She handed him the long necked bottle and flung two of the blankets over Barranca’s back, smoothing them around his neck and over his hindquarters.
“Thanks, T’resa,” Johnny shook the bottle to thoroughly mix the contents, biting his lip against the pangs of protest shooting through his left shoulder.
“Here, come stand at his head. Hold it up so he can’t try to lie down.” He moved to the side to give her room. “Just watch yourself. Don’t let him jump on you. He ain’t thinkin’ too clear just now. He don’t mean to, but he can still hurt you.”
She nodded, eyes assessing the ugly wounds in his shoulder. Those wounds needed tending – and soon. He’d need a good, tight support bandage and maybe a sling…
The violent jerk of the lead shank as Barranca tossed his head yanked her forward for two steps, focusing her thoughts back on the horse. The rope burned through her hands, but she didn’t let go, regaining her balance and setting herself to keep the horse’s head as still as possible.
“Hold him!” Johnny moved with the horse, scrambling to stay away from the palomino’s sharp hooves.
Teresa didn’t understand how Johnny managed to evade the horse’s desperate leaps, but there he was, in position by the side of the palomino’s head, bottle held ready. As soon as Teresa set her weight against the horse, he eased the bottle into the side of the Barranca’s mouth and tilted a dose of the medicine down his throat. The big horse slung his head and wheeled to the side, but Johnny stayed with him, bottle held firmly in place. At last, he pulled the bottle from the horse’ mouth.
The blue eyes met hers and Johnny heaved a sigh of relief. “Thanks, I’ll take him now.”
Teresa longed to tell Johnny to sit and rest, to let her lead the horse, but she knew there wasn’t a chance of that happening. She swallowed her concern and pressed the lead rope into his hand. “What now, Johnny?”
“We keep him movin’. He gets another dose in twenty minutes.”
She fell into step beside him and draped a blanket around his shoulders. He was soaked to the skin with sweat in spite of the uncommonly frosty evening air, fueled by a bitter north wind. The shoulder of his shirt hung in tatters and Teresa frowned at the damage to the skin and muscles. She hoped no bones were broken. Those nasty gashes in his shoulder needed attention now, but she understood they would have to wait.
He thanked her with his eyes and a tiny smile that acknowledged her restraint, prompting her to grip his arm. “The medicine will help, Johnny. He’ll be all right. I just know he will.”
“I hope so.” Johnny peered out into the empty corral. “Where are Murdoch and Scott?”
“They went to Green River. I expected them home before now.”
He cocked his head, trying to puzzle it out. “Green River? What for? They never said anything to me about it and Scott and I were workin’ horses together all mornin’.”
Teresa sighed. She hated to spoil the surprise, but this was no time for secrets. “They went to pick up your Christmas present.”
“Christmas pres…,” he stared at her, mouth working. “I… I clean forgot.”
//How could I forget Christmas Eve? Teresa and Maria ain’t talked about anything else for weeks. The Old Man acts like it ain’t nuthin’ special, but he can hardly keep his feet on the ground. Even Jelly is excited.//
The holiday preparations had been well underway for more than a month. Maria and Teresa spent every spare minute organizing the celebration they viewed as a momentous first – a Lancer family Christmas. Their manic enthusiasm proved contagious and even disconcerting at times, but now the holiday spirit captured the entire family – even if the Lancer men were determined to pretend the Christmas celebration was nothing out of the ordinary. Johnny had overheard bits and pieces of the women’s excited chatter, chuckling at their rapt attention to details he considered totally irrelevant. He was certain that Scott and Murdoch would agree with him.
Yet Teresa and Maria had also put into words what Johnny realized would never be openly expressed by the man they both discussed so lovingly. For Murdoch, it would be the first time he had both his sons home for Christmas – a dream he’d clung to for twenty years! Maria openly wept when she pointed out how different this year would be from the past when “El Patron” quietly acknowledged the season, but failed to celebrate, unable to overpower the deep melancholy that always gripped him at this time of year. And Teresa grinned from ear to ear describing to Maria over and over again how Murdoch himself had brought up the topic of a Christmas fiesta, making it clear that this year was special. He’d decreed that they spare no expense in planning a Christmas celebration that neither of his sons would ever forget.
Johnny was bemused by the whole thing, but unwilling to reveal that he’d overheard them. Intensely curious about the seasonal customs, lore, and Lancer family traditions, the young man unobtrusively watched and listened, drinking in the experience with quiet delight. He hadn’t celebrated Christmas since he’d been on his own – and the ones he’d spent with his Mama hadn’t all been happy. To Johnny Madrid, Christmas rarely meant more than finding a town with a bed, a bottle, and a woman – a cozy armful who knew how to use her mouth for something besides chatter or asking questions.
When he first overheard Maria and Teresa, he’d been amused. And then the truth hit with the impact of .50 caliber slug from a Sharps rifle – this Christmas he would be spending the day with people he loved, people who loved him regardless of who or what he’d been. For the first time, he was home where he now truly believed he belonged.
Home with his father and brother. At his very own ranch. Home for Christmas! He wanted to shout it from the barn roof, but Scott and Murdoch acted so matter-of-fact about the approaching celebrations that Johnny concealed his own enthusiasm.
Scott seemed blasé about the coming holiday, but Johnny felt his brother was secretly thrilled and finding it difficult to feign indifference. Ol’ Boston was darned excited, even if he was pretty close-mouthed on the subject. Of course, a Christmas celebration was nothing new for Scott. Johnny could only imagine the number of gifts his brother had found waiting for him every Christmas morning. But all the gifts in the world couldn’t make one lonely little boy happy. And they couldn’t replace the love of a parent. Scott had grown up surrounded by material things, yet in an environment devoid of warmth and feeling.
Although he disliked Harlan Garrett, Johnny acknowledged that the old geezer loved his grandson in his own way. But from what he’d gleaned from Scott – and witnessed for himself – the relationship was a stiffly formal one. A solemn handshake replaced a hug, tears weren’t tolerated, peerless schoolwork and athletic competitiveness were expected, and elegant manners were demanded at all times. Garrett required Scott to behave like a gentleman with few outlets for boundless youthful energy. This year, for the first time, Scott would experience a Christmas overflowing with the warmth that only a loving family can provide.
//Yeah, Boston is lookin’ forward to this as much as I am.//
So the three Lancer men pretended to be nonchalant while eagerly anticipating the day, swept along by the women’s enthusiasm and excitement. When the ladies drew them into the preparations, they grumbled and complained, but outward appearances aside, all three were willing participants.
Teresa and Maria saw right through the talk and sent the Lancers on a quest for the perfect Christmas tree. They stalled, argued, pretended boredom, and had a ball. The hunt for the tree consumed an entire day – and what a glorious day of fun. The magnificent pine, decked out in all its finery, now stood proudly in the center of the great room. The whole family had pitched in to decorate it, assisted by Pete and Tommy Adams.
//Maria and Teresa been cookin’ for a week to get ready for tonight and tomorrow… Tonight… guess I’m gonna spoil the Old Man’s plans… Again…//
Teresa watched the dismay cloud Johnny’s eyes and guessed the direction of his thoughts. She could only imagine how much he’d anticipated their first Christmas together as the Lancer family. She was well aware that Johnny and Scott were bursting with excitement and determined not to show it. Like their stalwart father, both brothers kept their emotions to themselves, but to someone who knew them as well as she did, their feelings were evident in their tone of voice, expression, and actions.
Scott’s and Johnny’s broad smiles, teasing pranks, and jaunty strides had betrayed their enthusiasm about the upcoming festivities for days. The way they acted when Pete Adams and his son, Tommy, stopped by for dinner last Sunday offered a perfect example. Their boisterous antics as they decorated the hacienda and the gigantic Christmas tree goaded Teresa to observe tartly to Murdoch, Pete, and Jelly that it was difficult to tell that Scott and Johnny were any older than their seven-year-old friend. The Lancer brothers seemed to take an unholy delight in that comment, seeking to prove the truth in her remark.
But there was no trace of that laughing, carefree Johnny in the figure before her now. Those drooping shoulders and downcast eyes told her loud and clear that, in addition to his concern about his horse, Johnny blamed himself for spoiling Murdoch’s plans. And if there was anything Johnny was fanatical about, it was a determination not to disappoint his father.
It seemed to Teresa that the young man had bent over backwards to please his father from the moment he arrived at the ranch. Yet Murdoch’s and Johnny’s early interactions had sorely tried the patience and tempers of Scott, Jelly, and herself. They’d fluctuated between exasperation, helplessness, and pure fury at the confrontational, mule-headed behavior of father and son.
The heated arguments and disagreements came perilously close to driving Johnny away forever. Yet some time during Johnny’s brush with death and subsequent illness from the ruptured appendix, the two of them had come to an understanding. To the delight – and relief – of the rest of the family, father and son’s relationship blossomed and now seemed to progress from strength to strength on an almost daily basis. Oh, there were the occasional fits and starts, the inevitable setbacks, but the two had obviously put their differences aside and forgiven each other for real and imagined wrongs. And Johnny’s desire to earn his father’s respect was stronger than ever – a desire reciprocated by Murdoch.
//He’s already feeling guilty – certain that he’s ruined Murdoch’s plans. As if Murdoch would expect him to leave that horse for one minute! Well, he doesn’t need to worry about that in addition to taking care of Barranca. And if Murdoch would just get himself home where he belongs, he could make Johnny understand that.//
Teresa slipped her arm around Johnny’s waist, careful not to jar his injured shoulder. “Everything will be all right, Johnny. It is Christmas, after all.”
Johnny gave her a wan smile and his voice was strained, “About tonight, Teresa… Well, this thing could go on for a while. I ain’t leavin’ him,” he glanced at the stricken palomino and hung his head, “but Murdoch, he…”
Teresa hugged him, aching at the desolation in his voice. “He’ll understand, Johnny.”
“Yeah, I know he will. But it’s just that he wanted everybody home, under the same roof, sittin’ down together to a big meal… all of us around the table. You and Maria spent all week makin’ nice and fancy and all he wants is all of us together when the clock strikes midnight….” Johnny stared down at his feet. ”That ain’t askin’ for much. I mean, it’s like he’s waited for this for twenty years, you know?”
“No, its not asking for much,” she felt the sigh run through him and hugged him close, careful not to interfere with his handling of the ailing horse, “but sometimes we don’t get exactly what we want in exactly the way that we want it, Johnny Lancer. Now, as you’re so fond of saying, ‘you let me worry about that’. You just take care of Barranca.” She reached up to brush a quick kiss on his cheek. “And whatever happens tonight, I promise you we will all be together for Christmas morning.”
Johnny met Teresa’s earnest brown eyes, embarrassed and nearly overwhelmed by the understanding and love blazing in their depths.
//Hell, why do I even try to hide how I feel from her? She reads me like a book. The whole bunch of them understand me better than I understand myself. They’ll all be in here with me tonight, helpin’ when they can and just bein’ here when they can’t – like they always do…//
Johnny suddenly realized why the previous frantic hours he’d spent caring for Barranca had troubled him far beyond his concern for his horse. He’d been alone. He’d grown accustomed to the support of his family and facing a difficult situation without their encouragement and reassurance was unsettling.
There had been a time when he’d convinced himself that he wanted to face life alone – no strings, no one to worry about or to worry about him. Well, those days were long gone. Johnny Madrid might pretend that he didn’t want or need anybody, but Johnny Lancer saw through the lie. Being part of a loving family was the best thing that had ever happened to him. It meant that he didn’t have to be alone anymore. And, come to think of it, he wasn’t allowed that option anyway – Scott, Murdoch, Jelly, and Teresa saw to that.
“Thanks, T’resa.” He tipped her forward, planting a kiss on her forehead.
Johnny never heard her reply. She squeezed his arm and started to speak when Barranca suddenly lashed out with his right foreleg and then plunged forward in another attempt to lie down. Johnny moved like quicksilver, thrusting Teresa out of harm’s way, shrugging out of the blanket, and slapping Barranca’s chest and sides to focus the animal’s attention on something other than the urge to lie down. The growing feebleness of the palomino’s efforts chilled him.
“T’resa, find somebody who can help me keep this horse from goin’ down. And hurry!”
Jelly Hoskins slapped the reins on the backs of the team, urging them to a quicker pace. The heavy supply wagon bounced over the ruts in the road and the winter wind howled through the thin spots in his woollen jacket. He tugged the collar up around his ears, reminding himself to buy a new coat first chance he got. This one had seen better days. It sure wasn’t keeping him warm in this infernal cold snap. He’d seen bitter weather like this in Colorado, Wyoming, and Kansas, but never in California. Why, it was so cold the cows were givin’ icicles instead of milk! His old bones protested each icy gust and his elbows were particularly troublesome today.
//My elbows achin’ thisaway means somethin’ bad is gonna happen. But it’s Christmas Eve! Surely nuthin’ can go wrong…//
The Lancer hacienda loomed in the distance and Jelly sighed with relief, picturing the fire sure to be crackling merrily in the hearth. The festive great room would be toasty warm, welcoming the family to the long-awaited Christmas-Eve celebration.
//I’m gonna spend the evenin’ in front of that grand fire come hell or high water. Nuthin’s gonna drag me away.//
Teresa’s shrill rendering of his name yanked Jelly away from his cheerful thoughts; plunging him back into the real world of frigid wind and hard wagon seats. He searched with narrowed eyes and soon located the frantically waving form perched atop the upper corral rail.
“What is it?” Terrible chills of foreboding coursed down his back and his elbows throbbed.
“Quick, Jelly! Johnny needs help.” Teresa gestured vehemently toward the barn.
//Johnny! What has that boy gone and done to hisself now?//
Jelly whipped up the team and pointed them toward the corral at a gallop, all thoughts of elbows and hearths forgotten in the face of a crisis.
Jelly pounded into the barn two minutes later, gasping for breath and terrified at what he might find. He stopped short as he took in the sorry spectacle of Barranca and Johnny, understanding now why his elbows ached so. The woeful look on Teresa’s face confirmed his initial assessment – this was not a good situation.
“What is it, boy? You all right?”
“Yeah, I’m in one piece, but he ain’t. Colic – and it ain’t goin’ away.” Johnny fingered Barranca’s mane, eyes locked on Jelly. “What d’you think, Jelly?”
Jelly searched the haggard face of his friend and sighed. The boy thought the world of his horse and the palomino was struck bad. A mean ailment, colic, striking down even the strongest of horses. Things must be pretty grim if Johnny wanted for his opinion.
As for Johnny, the boy had managed to get hisself hurt. He looked all in and that shoulder needed care. But no sense in even tryin’ to look at it until the horse was squared away. Jelly stepped over to the distressed beast and stripped off the blankets, his experienced eye telling him everything he didn’t want to know.
Johnny watched Jelly run his hands over Barranca, marvellous, weathered hands that revealed an abiding love for animals in every gentle touch. He felt a sense of relief – there wasn’t much Jelly didn’t know about horses and what he didn’t know he made up for with his caring nature.
//He’ll know somethin’ I don’t. He’s cured lotsa cases of colic. Jelly’ll help Barranca.//
But the old horse wrangler lingered over the examination, laying his ear against the palomino’s swollen belly and probing along both sweat-streaked sides. Barranca stamped and kicked, clearly uncomfortable with even the slightest pressure.
“Well, Jelly?” Johnny demanded impatiently.
Jelly draped the blankets back over the horse, taking time to smooth them across the shoulders, and stepped back, shaking his head. “Tell me what you done for him so far.”
“Kept him up and walkin’. He’s gotten two doses of medicine and I’ll give him another one in about fifteen minutes. What else do I need to do?”
“You used that medicine Pablo showed you how to make?”
“Well, that’s pretty close to my own recipe.” Jelly lifted his cap and scratched his head, not wanting to say the words he knew the young man dreaded.
Johnny swallowed hard, “Well, go on.”
“He’s bad sick, Johnny.” Jelly pointed toward the palomino’s flank. “Look how he’s all swole up with gas in his belly.” His eyes met Johnny’s anguished ones. “He’s young and strong so we just gotta hope he can fight it off. There ain’t nuthin’ more we can do now – just hafta let nature run its course.”
Johnny glared at the grizzled face, his voice raised in disbelief. “That’s it? That’s all you can say – let nature run its course?” He slammed his right fist against the ladder to the hayloft. “Come on, Jelly, you can do better than that! Ain’t you got a concoction that works on colic? You got one for everything else.”
Jelly frowned at Johnny, momentarily stung by the younger man’s words and the blaze of anger in the blue eyes. He would (and did) take any amount of teasing from the boy, but he wasn’t about to accept his misdirected anger.
He pulled himself to his full height and matched Johnny glare for glare. “Now you hold that tongue, boy, before I put salt on it! Ain’t no call to go screechin’ like a plucked jaybird. I done tole you all I can and if it ain’t what you wanna hear, then I’m sorry. But shoutin’ at me won’t help him none neither, you hear me?”
Johnny’s temper flared and he pointedly turned his back on Jelly, shutting his mouth firmly against the furious words he longed to spit at his friend. He funnelled his rage into action and began leading Barranca around the barn again, their battle of wills stronger than ever before as the palomino continuously struggled to sink to the floor.
Jelly watched the drama in silence, his own temper ebbing away to regret. The boy was worried sick about his horse; the last thing Johnny needed was a scolding from him. Teresa’s reproachful glower made it clear that she agreed.
As Johnny circled him for the third time, Jelly noted the torn and bloody shirt, forgotten in the intense aftermath of his examination of Barranca. He hurried to Johnny’s side, fingering the fabric aside for a better view of the nasty injury. Johnny shrugged the inquisitive hands away, but Jelly wasn’t having any of it.
“Darn it, boy, if that ain’t cleaned up, it’ll be swollen to twice the size by mornin’!”
“It can wait.” Johnny snapped, jerking out of Jelly’s grip and tugging his horse forward.
//What the hell is Jelly fussin’ over me for when Barranca’s fightin’ for his life?//
Jelly rolled his eyes heavenward. Johnny had ignored injury and illness to his cost before and he wasn’t about to let him do it again. He whispered a quick command to Teresa, “Find the Boss, honey. We’re gonna need him.”
As soon as Teresa disappeared through the side door, Jelly took a firm grip on Johnny’s arm. “How come ya always gotta kick like a bay steer? Look where waitin’ got ya last time!”
Johnny tried to jerk away, but Jelly had anticipated his reaction and moved with him, peeling the tattered shirt back from the young man’s battered shoulder. “You’re reelin’ round like a pup lookin’ fer a spot to lie down and if’n you won’t let me see to it, you’d best prepare to argue the toss with your Dad. The Boss ain’t gonna stand for any of your nonsense!”
Johnny opened his mouth to retaliate, but before he could deliver the blistering retort, Barranca lurched sideways, dragging Johnny with him. Bolts of agony slammed through his shoulder, radiating down his arm, and wrenching an involuntary groan from him. Closing his eyes against the pain that savaged him, Johnny held on to Barranca for dear life. Seconds later, he felt Jelly’s strength working with his, the older man’s coaxing demands adding to his own entreaties.
“C’mon on, Barranca. C’mon on, boy!”
“Get up, fella!”
The two men grappled with the terror filled horse for long agonizing minutes, struggling to keep the palomino on his feet. As the battle dragged on, Barranca’s resistance became more frantic even as he grew steadily weaker. Jelly realized that this war couldn’t be won no matter how desperate the fight.
His eyes sought out those of the younger man. “Johnny, we gotta let this horse lie down,” Jelly panted.
“No!” Johnny’s voice came out as a hoarse rasp. “That’ll be the end. I ain’t givin’ up on him, Jelly!”
“I ain’t askin’ you to give up on him. I’m askin’ you to let him lie down.” Jelly struggled to speak past the immense effort and concentration needed to keep the horse upright. “Johnny, he’s plumb wore out and so are you!”
“That’s his death sentence.” Johnny spat, unable to believe that Jelly was willing to let go so easily.
“No, that ain’t certain,” Jelly snapped. “But it would help ease his misery,”
//What’s wrong with that boy? He wouldn’t let any other horse suffer this way!//
“You go ahead and quit if you want to,” Johnny thundered, “but I ain’t givin’ up. Get out!” He gestured vehemently toward the door. “Go on… I don’t need you.”
//I can’t let him lie down – he’ll die. Why can’t you understand that, Jelly?//
“I know what you do need, boy. And you ain’t too big, neither!” Jelly threatened, face like a thundercloud.
“Just shut up,” Johnny snarled. “I don’t have time for your jabberin’.”
Jelly’s expression softened when he saw the anguish on Johnny’s face. “I’ll go when I’m good and ready. I don’t need no smart aleck tellin’ me what I should be doin’.” He continued the struggle to keep Barranca on his feet with renewed vigor.
Johnny leveraged his efforts with Jelly’s, already regretting the verbal attack on his old friend.
//He was just tryin’ to help the best way he knew. I didn’t have to chew on him.//
The effort to manage the horse along with his emotions and pain from his shoulder left Johnny unable to speak again for the next several minutes. At last he managed to whisper, “Sorry, Jelly.”
Jelly barely heard the apology, but knew it was heartfelt. “I know you are, boy. I’m sorry, too.” He took a deep breath, trying to decide how best to help Johnny.
“Johnny, yer tyin’ yerself up in knots over somethin’ you got no control over, blamin’ yerself, wonderin’ what ya did or didn’t do to cause it. Yer all squoze together inside ‘til it hurts.” He sneaked a peek across Barranca’s neck, dismayed by the signs of exhaustion he saw in Johnny.
“Well, you can just stop it right now ‘cuz it ain’t helpin’ him or you… it’s just causin’ that tongue o’ yourn to flap in the breeze. You know yore tongue’s liable to slap you itself one of these days.”
Johnny found himself listening to Jelly’s remarks. The old handyman knew him too well, knew what made him tick. That comment about Johnny’s tongue really hit the mark. The deuced thing landed him in hot water all the time. Heck, it was capable of firin’ sass as quickly and deadly as he fired his pistol – and he usually regretted every word.
“Yeah, I know. Sorry, Jelly.”
Jelly paused a moment to slap Barranca’s shoulder, forcing the horse to walk forward. “All right then, don’t go over doin’ it! We got work to do.”
The two of them continued working together, locked in mortal combat with the ailing horse. Both understood that Barranca’s condition was deteriorating at a frightening pace. Johnny hated the measures he employed to keep his horse upright, but he vowed not to give up the fight until Murdoch and Scott had a chance to evaluate Barranca.
Jelly forced himself to hold his tongue, assisting in every way he could. He believed they should let palomino lie down, but Johnny‘s condition concerned him far more. The boy was past the point of exhaustion, the wound on his shoulder ugly. And when they lost Barranca…
// I’ve buried men what looked better’n you do right now, Johnny. Yer wearin’ blinders about this here horse and makin’ you see that is like barkin’ at a knot. You ain’t in no shape to keep this up. Yer gonna need a week on the bed wagon afore this is all over. I sure wish yore Dad would get home.//
“Oh, my God…”
Scott Lancer leaped to his father’s side, almost afraid to see what had dragged the horrified exclamation from Murdoch. He expected a desperate situation – Teresa had met them at the Lancer arch with a chilling explanation of the drama playing out in the barn. Yet Murdoch’s uncharacteristic outburst meant that things were even worse than he’d imagined.
A split second later, he laid eyes on Johnny and Barranca and caught his lower lip in his teeth to hold back an exclamation of his own. His eyes locked immediately on his brother’s bloody shoulder and for a moment he simply stood aghast, appalled at Johnny’s condition. The boy was in rough shape, but the despair on his drawn face froze Scott’s heart.
He forced himself to look at the horse, his breath rushing out in a soft sigh as he studied the palomino’s distress. The animal stumbled along, on his feet only because of Johnny’s and Jelly‘s tremendous effort. He breathed in awful, panting wheezes that came out as piteous groans. The wretched sound filled the barn, exacerbated by the echoes of the slips and scrapes of iron-shod hooves and the grunts, gasps, and encouraging words of Barranca’s weary handlers. Great blotches of sweat darkened the blankets on his body and neck and the veins on his low-hanging head bulged, pulsing angrily. It was a picture to sicken the heart of anyone who admired fine horses.
For the barest of moments, Scott and Murdoch stood rooted just inside the door, and then Johnny’s eyes were on them, hot and pleading. Scott blanched at the relief on his brother’s face.
//He thinks Murdoch or I will be able to do something for that horse. He’s counting on us…//
“Murdoch… Scott…” Johnny rasped.
No power on earth could keep Scott from his brother’s side when he heard the note of desperation in Johnny’s voice. Three hasty strides brought him alongside the younger man. He had to coax the lead shank from the boy’s white-knuckled grip.
“I’ll take him, Johnny. Let me see him.” Scott’s calm voice carried a hint of the cavalry officer’s authority. Not a twitch on his face or a tremor of voice or hand betrayed the sense of hopelessness he felt. The bleeding mess on Johnny’s shoulder and the fatigue in every line of his brother’s body scared him – those awful memories of nearly losing the boy were still too fresh. But taking care of Johnny meant dealing with the horse, so Scott turned his attention to the palomino.
“Am I glad to see you, Boss!” Jelly fought to keep Barranca still enough for Scott to examine him.
“Johnny…” Murdoch covered the distance between himself and his son in two long strides, arm snaking around the boy’s waist to steady him.
Johnny stared up at his father. “I…it’s colic, Murdoch.”
“I know, son.” The Lancer patriarch studied the palomino through narrowed eyes and dread clamped icy fingers around his heart. Barranca was in a bad way and his son didn’t look much better.
Murdoch watched Scott run his hands along the palomino’s side, bending his head to listen to the gut sounds. He felt the tremors rippling through Johnny’s body. Exhaustion? Sorrow? He didn’t know, but they galvanized him to action.
“I’d like to look at him, Scott.” He stepped to the horse’s shoulder, relieved when Scott moved back and took up position beside his brother. He exchanged a brief glance with his older son, not missing the slight shake of the blond head, before conducting his own examination of the animal.
“How long?” A frown marred Scott’s handsome features.
“A little over five hours,” Johnny admitted, knowing time was a critical factor in the decision to end a horse’s suffering. “I kept him on his feet. I knew you’d help him.”
The blue eyes flickered from Scott to Murdoch and fixed on Murdoch’s face, hopeful and beseeching. Murdoch drew a deep breath, every instinct crying out to do something, anything to keep from disappointing his son. He’d seen those same pleading eyes from his toddler, expectant and vibrant with the faith that Papa possessed the might needed to put things right.
So easy to play the hero back then, so simple to apply a healing salve to a scraped knee, gently kiss a sore spot, and chase away any and all of his son’s fears. But Mother Nature was too great a force to be reckoned with. His examination told him clearly that Barranca’s survival was out of human hands. Murdoch’s heart quailed as he acknowledged the devastating blow he was about to deliver to his younger son.
He turned away from the palomino and walked back to stand in front of Johnny, one hand resting lightly on the boy’s right shoulder. “Scott, make a bed of straw out here. I don’t want to chance him getting cast if he goes down in a stall.”
“No!” Johnny tried to move toward his horse, but Murdoch held him in place.
“Son, we have to let him lie down.”
Murdoch fought to keep his voice soft. Emotions, especially concern, tended to turn his tone into a bark. “Johnny, look at him. His heart will give out if this goes on much longer.”
Johnny shivered as he absorbed his father’s words. He’d clung to the hope that Murdoch would be able to offer some advice. After all, his father had battled with colic long before he was born and probably knew as much as any man could know about the agonizing spasms that gripped the palomino now.
Well, the advice flowed freely as always, but it wasn’t what he’d longed to hear. Still, he accepted the wisdom in Murdoch’s words. Barranca’s strength ebbed with every tortuous step he took. And as he grew weaker, he became less able to fight off the affliction. If they let the palomino rest, he still had a chance to recover. He read the agreement on the faces of Scott and Jelly.
//He’s right. He’s always right. Gotta let him go down. Sorry, fella…//
Johnny nodded his consent, not trusting his voice. He drew a deep breath and took the lead rope from Jelly. A quick scratch under his horse’s jaw and he led Barranca to Scott’s hastily prepared mound of hay. The four men helped the palomino sink to his knees and then eased him to his side, the beast shuddering with some relief when he finally came to rest.
Johnny closed his eyes and swallowed hard as Jelly and Scott smoothed blankets over the swollen belly. Three pairs of eyes lingered on the heartbreaking sight of what was once a proud and magnificent animal now reduced to a quaking, pain ravaged mass of misery.
The palomino suddenly hurled himself from one side to the other, twisting and kicking in an effort to rid himself of the torment. Scott leaped astride the golden neck, using his weight to pin the horse’s head and neck to the floor, preventing him from thrashing so violently. He stroked Barranca’s head, murmuring soft words of comfort to calm the animal.
Johnny moved toward his horse, but Murdoch gripped his good arm. “No! Not until I’ve seen to your shoulder.”
Johnny stared at the palomino’s rolling, red-rimmed eyes and felt the fight gush out of him. As the stress of the past hours caught up with him, he bowed his head and turned toward his father. His eyes avoided the older man’s, but Johnny allowed Murdoch to examine the injury.
Murdoch grimaced at the bruised, bloody mess. “Jelly…”
“On my way, Boss!” the older man called over his shoulder as he scurried for the medical supplies.
Johnny swayed and Murdoch swiftly ushered him to a bale of straw. He eyed his younger son, daring a rebellion, but it never came. Johnny flopped down on the bale and glanced from Barranca back to his father, dejection in every line of his body.
Murdoch began unbuttoning Johnny’s shirt, slapping away his son’s protesting hand. The wound troubled Murdoch; deep and with extensive tissue damage extensive. It bled freely when disturbed, but the red tinge mingling with the angry bruising worried him the most.
“There are some signs of infection. How does it feel?”
“A little sore, I guess.” The youngest Lancer stifled a groan as Murdoch’s fingers explored the damage. The truth was it hurt like hell. A quick glance up at his father’s worried face told Johnny the Old Man knew that, too.
Murdoch pursed his lips and forced his son to meet his eyes. “This wound can’t be ignored, John. It’s nasty and it won’t heal by itself. I’ll clean and dress it and YOU, young man, will treat this injury with the respect it demands. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir.” Johnny cringed at the ring of authority in the raised voice – the Old Man’s usual means of getting his message across. He’d learned the hard way to listen and to acknowledge his father at such times.
“Sam will be dropping by for coffee and cake tomorrow afternoon and he can take a look at it then.” Murdoch’s fingers probed along Johnny’s collar bone, searching for any sign of a break. There was massive bruising, but he didn’t detect any evidence of one. Dr. Jenkins might disagree when he examined Johnny tomorrow, but at least there wasn’t an obvious fracture.
//I’ll clean this up now and get that arm in a sling when things calm down. It’ll keep until Sam gets here tomorrow. He’ll want to stitch portions of it.//
Jelly and Teresa burst through the side door laden with the box of medical supplies, a stack of bandages, and a bowl of steaming water. “Here ya are, Boss. We got everything ya need to fix Johnny up. Even brought my special salve. It helps stop the hurtin’.”
“Cipriano is taking care of the horses and buckboard, Murdoch. He says to call if you need him.” Teresa set the bowl of hot water on the bale and handed Murdoch the pad of bandaging material soaking in it.
“Thanks for taking care of that, darling.” Murdoch wasted no time, using the hot compress to begin the painful process of cleansing the wound. Jelly worked with him, years of experience telling the old handyman exactly what Murdoch required without being asked. Teresa kept a constant supply of thickly padded bandages and clean cloths ready for use.
Johnny closed his eyes as his father trickled carbolic over the open wound, clenching his teeth at the searing agony. The urge to surrender to peaceful, painless darkness surged through him, but he fended it off. He needed to care for his horse.
At last, the ordeal was over and he felt Murdoch carefully applying Jelly’s salve. Johnny sighed with relief as the ointment slowly extinguished the blazing trail of fire left by the carbolic. But the next instant, he bit his bottom lip bloody as Murdoch and Jelly wound a bandage around his shoulder and upper torso. He knew they were making every effort to be gentle, but the slightest touch seared angry flames through his shoulder and down his arm. The bulky bandage felt uncomfortable, but Johnny knew he would soon appreciate the support it gave.
He stared numbly at his horse. Scott no longer straddled the horse’s neck. Barranca had ceased his attempts to roll and now lay on his side with all four legs thrust straight out away from his body. He still breathed with those agonizing, throaty moans and his eyes were vacant. In this position, the distended stomach beneath the blankets was even more prominent. Now and then, the gelding shuddered as the pain ravaged him.
Johnny stumbled to the palomino’s side and sank to his knees next to Scott beside the animal’s head, smoothing the golden hair on the big jaw with fingers that were not quite steady. He tried to speak, but couldn’t manage any words past the lump in his throat. He’d done all he could – Barranca would live or die now, but it was up to the horse.
//Fight it, fella. You gotta fight.//
Several minutes passed as Johnny collected his thoughts, quietly soothing the palomino. Finally, he turned to his father. “There’s no need for you to stay.”
Murdoch opened his mouth to inform Johnny in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t about to leave him alone. The words never came as comprehension flooded through him – his son needed to pull himself together and he didn’t want an audience. He nodded his understanding.
“We’ll check on you later, son. You call if you need us.” Murdoch walked to the barn door, wrapping his arm around Teresa and sweeping her along with him. Jelly followed hard on his heels. The party paused at the door, waiting for Scott.
Scott had been admiring Murdoch’s handling of the situation, but at this statement, he stared at his father as though the man had lost his mind.
//What are you thinking, Murdoch? Johnny shouldn’t be alone now!//
He stood deliberately and faced Murdoch. “I’ll stay.”
Murdoch fixed Scott with that determined, domineering stare no one, not even Scott, dared argue with. Scott despised that look – it never failed to raise his hackles. But experience had taught him that most of the time his father had a damn good reason for putting his foot down. It paid to listen to him at those times.
Scott hesitated briefly and turned to his brother “I won’t be long, Johnny.”
Johnny didn’t even appear to hear him. He was on his knees at the horse’s head, stroking the wet neck and murmuring in that hypnotic sing song Scott thought of as his horse talker voice. At least it seemed to be keeping the palomino quiet – although the horse just didn’t have the strength to put up much of a fight.
Scott rested his hand on Johnny’s shoulder for a heartbeat and then joined Murdoch, Jelly, and Teresa just outside the barn door.
“Teresa, would you make some coffee and sandwiches, please?” Murdoch asked as they began walking toward the hacienda.
Teresa nodded, unable to trust her voice. She hurried towards the kitchen, wishing she didn’t have to tell Maria what was happening out in the barn.
The three men fell into step behind Teresa, but as soon as they were out of earshot of the barn, Scott made his feelings known to his father. “We can’t just leave him, Murdoch! He shouldn’t be alone.”
The taller man came to an abrupt halt and spun to face his son, hands on hips. “Scott, your brother needs a little time alone to pull himself together. We are going to give him that time.” He stared at Scott’s concerned face until he was certain his son understood and would follow orders. Then he spun on his heel and stalked toward the hacienda.
Scott and Jelly exchanged long, sceptical looks before traipsing reluctantly after the Lancer patriarch. Both understood Murdoch’s reasoning, yet neither agreed that Johnny should be left alone. Each vowed to return to the barn before very many minutes passed.
Scott brushed a stem of straw from the sleeve of his shirt as they walked, “How does he look to you, Jelly?”
“Start with the horse.”
Jelly stopped and faced Scott. “He’s bad. He’s about as bad as he can be.”
Scott nodded. “Do you see any chance of recovery?”
“Now that there ain’t an easy question.” He tugged his whiskers as he considered his response. “I reckon there’s a chance. But if yer askin’ do I think that horse is gonna make it, then I think he’s got about as much chance as a jackrabbit at a coyote association meetin’.”
“That’s the way I see it.” Scott started walking toward the hacienda. “And Johnny?”
“I’m plumb worried, Scott. That boy looks like he’s been rode hard and put up wet and he ain’t thinkin’ straight about that horse. He’s worn hisself to a frazzle over this. Doc’s gonna be madder’n a rained on rooster when he sees Johnny. I’m thinkin’ we gotta put an end to it right quick.” He glanced up at Scott. “What are you thinkin’?”
“I’m thinking that it’s time to have a discussion with my father.”
Scott stood just inside the great room watching his father watch the flames flickering in the massive fireplace. Murdoch stood in a familiar pose, leaning slightly forward with his right hand on the mantle and one foot resting on the hearth. But unlike his usual relaxed stance, tonight his left hand slowly clenched and unclenched and the broad shoulders were bowed. His father had the look of a man grappling with a weighty problem that had no satisfactory solution.
He considered the best way to approach the task at hand, finally determining that in his present frame of mind, a frontal assault was the only choice possible. Scott poured a round of whiskey for both of them and joined his father at the fireside.
“Thank you.” Murdoch accepted the glass gratefully, but paused at the expression on Scott’s face. His eyes narrowed. “Well, go on, say it.”
“Sir, we need to discuss Barranca.”
“You’ve got the floor.”
Scott swirled the liquor in his glass, uncomfortable with what he had to say. His eyes sought Murdoch’s. “We can’t let that horse suffer any longer. It’s been almost six hours now! Johnny must realize…”
“What would you have me do?” Murdoch whirled to fully face his son. “Go out there and demand that boy put HIS horse down?” He slammed his crystal glass on the mantel, shattering it to bits. He stared at the wet spot and pile of shards for several seconds and then shook his head violently. “No! I won’t do that. This is your brother’s decision. One I know he will make if the time comes.”
“If it comes?” Scott snapped in disbelief. “It has come, Murdoch! Surely you can see that.” He paused, trying to gauge Murdoch’s thoughts, struggling to put his concerns and beliefs into words his father would understand. Murdoch’s face remained set in stone so he plunged on.
“We must help Johnny see that it’s time.” Scott swallowed a fortifying gulp of whiskey. “He’s hurt, exhausted… That boy’s not thinking clearly now, but when this is all over, he’ll see the situation for what it was and he’ll hate himself for making such a mistake. You know as well as I do that he’ll punish himself for not doing what needed to be done. We can spare him the added grief…and that horse more agony.”
“No!” Murdoch slammed his right fist into his left hand.
//Yes, Johnny is upset. He is struggling to accept this, but he isn’t beyond rational thinking. He just wants to be sure he’s given the horse every chance. He’ll do the right thing for Barranca. And it is his decision.//
His eyes met Scott’s troubled ones. “Johnny knows that horse better than anyone else. Barranca is his and his wishes have to be respected, Scott.”
“I realize that, sir,” Scott set his glass next to the remains of Murdoch’s and took a deep breath,” but I honestly believe Johnny’s judgment is clouded in this instance – and understandably so.” He rolled up the left sleeve of his shirt, deliberately making each fold the precise width as the one before it and smoothing each crease.
Murdoch watched him for a moment and then glanced around the room. “Where is Jelly? I’m sure he wants to weigh in on this.”
“He’s out by the barn door. He won’t go in until he hears from me or you, but he’ll make sure Johnny has help if he needs it.” Scott finished with the left sleeve and started on the right.
“That’s good thinking.” Murdoch ran a forefinger over his lips. “Let me summarize what I’ve heard from you – and I’m sure Jelly supports your position.”
“Jelly can speak for himself, sir, but yes, we are in agreement on this.”
“Fine. The two of you believe,” Murdoch locked eyes with Scott and ticked the point off on his fingers, “one, Barranca is going to die.”
Scott held that challenging stare, not moving a muscle.
Murdoch’s fingers moved again. “Two, Johnny doesn’t understand – or won’t accept – that.”
A muscle rippled along Scott’s jaw.
“Three,” Murdoch ticked the point on his fingers, “the horse must be destroyed.”
Scott squared his shoulders, eyes still locked in the battle of wills with his father.
“And four,” Murdoch held up four fingers, “you or Jelly or I should go out there and shoot it because Johnny won’t.” He put his hands on his hips. “Does that about sum it up?”
Scott’s eyes flashed, but he didn’t look away. He took a deep breath, “I wouldn’t put it in those words.”
“Just how would you put it?”
Scott shook his head, searching for the right response. His father’s statement was essentially correct – it just sounded so… well, offensive. The situation simply wasn’t that cut and dried. Murdoch had twisted the words to his own advantage.
//I don’t want to destroy the horse against Johnny’s wishes. I just want to help him understand that it is the right thing to do for Barranca. Once Johnny realizes that, he’ll be okay.//
He turned back to the mantle and retrieved his whiskey, taking a quick sip before replying. “It’s up to us to make Johnny accept how dire this situation is. We must talk to him, try to get through.” He slapped his hand against the mantle in frustration. “I know he doesn’t want that horse to suffer.”
Murdoch made no response, but his eyes smoldered.
Scott inhaled deeply, aware his next statement would ignite the bonfire. He looked Murdoch square in the eyes. “If you’re not prepared to tackle the issue with Johnny, I am.”
”You. Will. Not.” Murdoch ground out the words, holding onto his temper by the flimsiest of threads. When he saw the fury on Scott’s face, he swallowed his own rage and tried a different tack. “You’ve never questioned Johnny’s judgment on a horse before, Scott. So why now?”
Scott had a blistering retort ready, but that calm question stopped him in his tracks and he wracked his brain for an answer. He did trust Johnny’s judgment regarding horses implicitly. So why the questions in this case? Yes, the horse was suffering, but he’d seen other horses suffer and recover. Barranca’s pains were from the gas trapped in his stomach. If he hadn’t twisted something inside, the horse might well fight through the illness. The palomino had proven his toughness before. No question, there were valid arguments that the horse could conceivably recover. But what would hours more of this torment do to Johnny? His brother was suffering, too. And it was all so damned futile! The horse might pull through, but the odds of that were… well, slim and none came to mind.
He took another deep swig of whiskey, mentally comparing point and counterpoint. Scott’s innate honesty forced him to admit that his concern for Johnny far outweighed the regard he had for Barranca.
//Johnny just can’t take much more punishment. He’s all in, physically and emotionally. Maybe the fact that I don’t want him out in that barn all night is tainting my evaluation of the situation. Johnny suffered almost exactly like that horse with the stomach pains from his appendix. All of us refused to give up on him. Maybe that’s how he feels about his horse. I need to think this through some more.//
Murdoch saw the uncertainty on the handsome face and pressed his advantage. “Your brother knows exactly how serious this is.”
“I’m not so sure, Murdoch. Barranca is more than a horse to him. I think he’s denying what his own eyes are telling him.”
Murdoch gripped his son’s shoulder. “Scott, you know he has his own way of dealing with things – and his approach is often different than the one you or I would choose. He’s trying to handle this in his own way and we have to let him. Your brother believes his horse can make it if we give him a chance and that is all that matters. Just now, our opinions aren’t needed – or wanted.”
He let go of Scott’s shoulder to run his hand over his silver hair. “As I’ve said to you before, talk is cheap. Sometimes, it’s much harder to remain silent.”
“And if I disagree?”
“Disagree all you want, but you’ll hold your tongue in front of your brother.”
Murdoch closed his lips on the biting rejoinder that threatened to erupt and strode to the side table. He poured himself another drink and held the decanter toward Scott. “Refill?”
Scott strolled toward his father and held out his glass. “Thanks.”
“Please sit down, son.” Murdoch gestured toward the sofa. “Let’s talk.”
The strained silence hung heavy in the room, broken periodically by a spit or crackle from the fire or the clink of glasses. The two men on the sofa sat only inches apart, yet their earlier furious exchange had created a distance much wider than inches between them. Each searched the flames for solutions, feeling the immense burden of a problem with no easy answers.
Murdoch reflected on the irony of the situation: how many times had Scott tried to reason with him about Johnny? Tonight, it was the other way around. He sneaked a glance at Scott’s determined face. Murdoch knew full well how close the brothers were, how quickly they leaped to the other’s defense. Scott was especially protective of Johnny – more so than usual in the aftermath of his illness.
//Maybe that’s the problem here. Scott is reacting like a concerned big brother, but Johnny doesn’t need to be sheltered. What he needs is a friend who will support whatever decision he makes. Now, how do I help Scott accept that?//
He drew a breath and broke the daunting silence. “Scott, I understand that you believe the horse should be put down.”
“That horse is suffering, sir. He could suffer for endless hours to come. Johnny’s tried everything. There’s nothing more he can do.” Scott leaped up and began pacing in front of the fireplace. “I believe Johnny is only postponing the inevitable.”
“You may be right. But don’t you agree that it is Johnny’s decision?”
Scott paused in front of his father. “Damn it, Murdoch. We’re arguing in circles.” He threw up his hands. “I’ll say it again: if keeping that horse alive and suffering doesn’t bother you, think about Johnny. He’s at the end of his rope.”
Murdoch stood, standing motionless but letting his greater height force Scott to look up at him. When he spoke, the edge was back in his voice. “Johnny knows all about the end of that rope. He’s spent a good portion of his life there. That boy is never stronger than when he is at the end of his rope. Whatever happens, he’ll handle it.”
Scott resumed his pacing. “He’s not up to this, Murdoch. We both know that.”
“No, I don’t know that.” Murdoch took a step to the side, out of Scott’s path. “Son, you once told me that there are times that you feel Johnny needs to be coddled, that even though he resists, you go ahead and coddle him. Is this one of those times?”
Scott halted and stood still for several heartbeats. He turned deliberately to face his father. “You think that my concerns about my brother’s health constitute ‘coddling’?”
“I think you’re trying to protect Johnny, to shield him.”
Scott turned his back. “That’s ridiculous!”
Murdoch grabbed Scott’s upper arm and forced his son to face him. “Scott, do you have your brother’s best interest at heart?”
“You know I do.” Scott yanked his arm away.
Murdoch continued his thoughts as though Scott hadn’t spoken or moved. “Because if you truly have Johnny’s best interest at heart, you’ll give him the support he wants and needs – no more, no less.” Murdoch met Scott’s anger-bright gaze. “And that means accepting his decisions – not protecting him.”
Scott closed his eyes and counted to ten. His father was as stubborn, if not more so, than Johnny.
//Keeping that horse alive and miserable is cruel. You or me – or both of us – can help Johnny understand that. He’ll listen to us and he’ll know what to do. Why won’t you support me on this, Murdoch?//
There was no reasoning with the man in this mood. Further discussion would be senseless, so he decided to abandon the argument.
//Don’t think you’ve won this one, Old Man. If you can’t – or won’t – help Johnny arrive at the correct conclusion, I will.//
He held up both hands and took a step back. “You’re right. The decision is Johnny’s.” He turned on his heel and headed for the kitchen. “I’m going to bring some food to the barn. I’ll be there with my brother.”
Something in Murdoch’s voice reined him to a halt. Scott turned his head and growled over his shoulder, “What?”
“Get a sling on Johnny’s arm while you’re out there. Please?”
A curt nod was the only response. Murdoch watched Scott’s stiff departure. That military quick-time march revealed the extent of his son’s anger. He wished he could help Scott understand why pushing Johnny to a premature decision was the wrong answer.
//Scott thinks Johnny is so close to Barranca that he can’t accept the inevitable. But I think Scott is so close to Johnny that he is willing to sacrifice the horse in order to protect his brother. He’s worried sick – and rightly so. But Johnny needs to see this through in his own way… I wasn’t able to convince Scott, though. He’s going out there to have a go at Johnny. Ah well, isn’t that what brothers do?//
He didn’t really expect anything else from his elder son. Scott possessed a healthy sense of right and wrong. The young man would do what he believed to be the right thing no matter the difficulty of the task. He was just built that way. And nothing – not hell, high water, or an irate father could deter him!
Murdoch paused a moment to laugh at himself, reflecting on his own growth as a father. When they first returned to Lancer, Scott’s and Johnny’s thoughts and actions had mystified – and often aggravated – him. Now he found himself trying to understand their point of view, figure out what drove their actions and reactions. The ability to empathize – to put himself in another man’s shoes and recognize why he acted in a certain manner, to predict his next moves – was a foundation of his empire. Yet until recently, that skill had deserted him when he tried to apply it to his sons. It flowed naturally now and with it came acceptance of his boys’ behavior. He’d even learned to remain comfortable when they agreed to disagree. He and Scott usually saw eye to eye, but this enhanced ability played a critical role in his new-found success in dealing with Johnny.
Johnny. Murdoch’s tension eased a bit with the thought of Scott rejoining his brother in the barn – even if the two locked horns over the question of Barranca’s fate. They’d given Johnny ample space to rein in his thoughts and emotions and it was time for one of the family to go to the boy. He’d hated leaving his son alone, but understood the young man’s need for the solace sometimes only found in solitude.
He wouldn’t have minded a few minutes to himself at that moment, but he heard the French doors open. Then a concerned pair of eyes stared out at him from a be-whiskered face and he knew he wasn’t in for an easier ride with Johnny’s other advocate.
“Well, spit it out, Jelly.”
Jelly twisted his cap in his hands before blurting out, “How much longer ya gonna let that fool boy stay out there?”
Murdoch sighed. “That’s not my decision to make and I won’t ask him leave that horse. You know what he’s like…”
Jelly hurled his cap to the floor. “Sure I do and that’s what’s worryin’ me! Johnny’s ailin’ already and he’s only gonna get worse. We come a cat’s whisker of losin’ that boy and he ain’t back to full strength yet. He needs to be in bed with the Doc tendin’ to him.”
Murdoch leapt to his feet, unable to contain his frustration in the face of justifying a difficult decision he wasn’t happy with. “Damn it, Jelly, give me a little credit, man.”
He towered above the older man, one finger pointed at Jelly. “I don’t need you to remind me of how sick that boy was. I appreciate your concern, but Johnny is MY,” Murdoch jabbed his finger into Jelly’s chest, causing him to take a step back, “son.”
“He’s MY,” Jab, “responsibility.”
“And I’m not about,” Jab, “to let him jeopardize his health,” Jab, “ again.” Jab.
Murdoch paused at the expression on Jelly’s face, forcing a tight hold over his anger and drawing a long breath. He deliberately lowered his voice. “But he’s a grown man, not a little boy.” He placed his hand on Jelly’s shoulder, noting his old friend’s involuntary flinch, and willed an even softer note into his tone.
“Jelly, we have to respect Johnny’s wishes. Unfortunately, his need to be with Barranca right now outweighs everything else – even if he has to spend some more time in bed.” He sighed at Jelly’s frustrated head shake. “Whether you and Scott agree or not, Johnny’s not giving up on that horse.”
Jelly pulled his whiskers. “I know all that, Boss. Johnny wants that horse to be okay so bad he’s got his spurs tangled up. But its just empty hope. You can warm yore socks in the oven, but that don’t make ‘em biscuits.” He nodded his head hard to emphasize his point.
A slight smile curled Murdoch’s lips, “I happen to disagree, Jelly. I know a little bit about hope – and I don’t believe hope is ever empty.”
He ran his hand across his hair. “In any event, I won’t argue about it with you. Instead, I’ll give you something else to consider. Barranca is a lot like his owner – he doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘quit’. Johnny’s giving him a fighting chance.”
Murdoch’s eyes pinned Jelly in place. “We can best help Johnny by supporting whatever decision he makes.”
Jelly sighed, “I hope yer right, Boss. I sure do hope yer right.” He turned and left the room, shaking his head the whole way. He never heard Murdoch’s whisper.
“So do I, Jelly, so do I.”
Scott stormed through the kitchen door, nearly colliding with Maria. He swerved in the nick of time, but most of the coffee and several of the sandwiches Maria carried on a tray landed on the floor with a loud splat. The next instant, the diminutive woman rounded on Scott and let him know in no uncertain terms what she thought of men who barreled through her kitchen door with no thought as to who might be on the other side. She berated him in rapid-fire Spanish, but Scott had no trouble grasping the gist of her remarks.
He cast Teresa a desperate look that begged for her help and she took pity on him, leaving a pot simmering on the stove to skip to the table and stand beside him. She spoke with the agitated housekeeper and words and hands flew swiftly. Scott had picked up quite a bit of the Spanish tongue during his time in California, but he didn’t even try to follow this conversation. As he watched the storm build on Maria’s face, he actually gave thanks that he couldn’t understand more than a handful of the words.
At last, Maria fell silent for several seconds, her bright black eyes boring into Scott. She placed one hand on her hip and snatched up a wooden stirring spoon from the table with the other. Scott squirmed when Maria rapped the spoon against the tabletop.
“You will take food to Juanito, yes?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Scott glanced from the spoon back to Maria’s face.
“You will see that he eats, yes?” Maria pointed the spoon at Scott and shook her head. “Juanito, he is still much too thin. Ai yi yi, he should not be in the barn in such weather.” She shook the spoon under Scott’s nose.
“You bring him inside, Señor Scott. But first, you see that he eats.” The spoon tapped against Scott’s chest now. “Do not come to me for your supper until Juanito eats.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Scott’s eyes locked on the spoon pressing into his chest.
//Maria mothers all of us to death, but Johnny is undeniably her favorite. Why does she always make me responsible for getting a meal into him? I wish she’d put that spoon down!//
Maria cocked her head and glowered at Scott. “Why do you leave Juanito alone in the barn?” The spoon waved under his nose again.
“He is hurt, yes? He needs help with el caballo, yes?” Disgust fairly dripped from every word. She dropped the spoon on the table and gestured grandly with her arms. “Why do you leave him now?”
One look at those snapping dark eyes and Scott took a hasty step back, his glance at Teresa a plea for help. Sure enough, Maria launched another tirade in Spanish. The one word Scott could understand sounded like “idiot”. He backed up another step and then the brainstorm struck. A sly smile curled the corners of his mouth as he pointed dramatically toward the great room.
Maria’s rebuke ceased in mid-sentence. Her head swung in the direction of Scott’s pointing finger like a cougar’s head might follow a hunted calf. She caught Teresa’s eye and shook her head, making a tsk tsk sound. Then she set about cleaning up the spilled food and coffee, smoldering eyes returning often to the great room and her new quarry – every inch the cougar on the stalk.
Scott felt a momentary glow of satisfaction at the realization that he’d sentenced his father to one of Maria’s tongue-lashings. She would bide her time, waiting for just the right opportunity, but sooner or later, the cougar would pounce!
//I’d like to be a fly on the wall at that little lecture!//
He had to bite his lip when Teresa slapped him lightly on the forearm and he saw her dancing eyes. She knew full well what he’d done and shook her head at him. But the next instant, her face hardened into lines of worry and she picked up a wooden packing crate and set it on the table.
“I’ve put some things together for you to take out to Johnny.” Teresa began transferring items from the pile on the table into the crate. “Blankets and a pillow, a jacket, a couple of towels… Maybe you can at least get him to dry his hair.”
“Here’s a clean shirt for him.” She hugged it to her for a moment before continuing to load the other items on the table into the crate.
“It would be best to bind that arm to his body to keep it still, but I know that won’t happen. Maybe you can coax him into wearing this sling.” It joined the other articles inside the crate.
“Maybe.” Scott picked up Johnny’s shirt and rubbed it between his fingers. He still seethed inside as a result of his confrontation with Murdoch and dreaded what he feared would prove a difficult emotional exchange with his brother.
//My father and I usually think alike. So why isn’t he supporting me now? Am I wrong?//
Teresa read the hint of doubt on his face. “I know it won’t be easy, Scott, but will you at least try?”
“You know I will.” He carefully refolded the shirt and laid it in the crate.
“Yes, you will, won’t you? The ‘Steadfast Tin Soldier’.”
They shared a moment of quiet satisfaction, remembering a recent time around the Christmas tree as Murdoch read aloud from an old book of children’s stories. Teresa and Scott had called out their favorite Christmas titles, laughing and interpolating their own comments as they listened avidly to Murdoch’s expressive renderings of each tale. Johnny watched them in ill-concealed wonder, unfamiliar with most of the stories, yet drinking in their message and the experience of enjoying them with his family. The story of the brave little soldier wasn’t really a Christmas story, but it was one of Scott’s favorites and Johnny seemed especially taken with it. He covered his childlike delight by proclaiming the title, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” as a new nickname for his brother. The memory constituted one of the happiest times they’d spent as a family and Scott and Teresa allowed themselves a brief interlude to appreciate it.
//I must be a steadfast soldier now… approach this as a military problem with a targeted campaign and plan of attack.//
Teresa hefted a red and white cloth covered basket. “I’ve packed both turkey and ham sandwiches, apple pie, chocolate cake, cookies, and biscuits.” The basket disappeared into the crate.
“Here’s a fresh pot of coffee – hot and strong just the way Johnny likes it…” She brushed away a stray tear and busied herself with swaddling the coffee pot in several cloths to keep it warm.
Scott reacted to the distress on her face by wrapping his arm around her waist. He stacked the cups in the crate.
Teresa sniffed, leaning against him. “Here’s a little something extra,” she snuggled a flask of whiskey on top of the other items, “in case you need it.”
“You’ve certainly given me ample treats to tempt him. That crate is packed as though we were traveling to San Francisco.”
Her quick smile wavered into a sob, “Oh Scott, I’m so worried about him.”
He hugged her close, letting her hide her face in his shoulder while he stroked her hair. “We all are, honey.”
“Barranca was the first living, breathing thing Johnny trusted at Lancer. It must be awful for him to watch that horse hurting so.” She sniffled a moment longer and then straightened. “Go to him, Scott. He needs you with him now – even if he won’t say so.”
“On my way.” He hoisted the crate, entertaining her with a theatrical grimace and buckling knees, as though the weight of it was more than he could carry.
“Get out of here, you.” She held the door open for him, swatting him with a towel as he ducked through it. “I’m cooking some of my special broth. I’ll bring it out later.”
The frigid evening air chased away the remains of Scott’s anger, leaving behind an all consuming need to be with his brother. He marched briskly toward the barn, using the practiced cadence and speed to stimulate his military mindset. He had a mission with a clear objective and a plan of attack to execute. Framing the situation as a military problem bolstered his confidence. It wouldn’t make the upcoming discussion with Johnny any less trying, but Lt. Lancer possessed extensive battle-hardened experience in suppressing emotion and soldiering on to the bitter end. He suspected that he’d require every bit of that training before the morning.
Scott paused at the barn door to speak to the sentry on duty. He wasn’t surprised to find Cipriano instead of Jelly. The segundo greeted him with the news that Jelly had headed toward the hacienda wearing his mother hen look and that nothing had changed inside the barn. Scott thanked him, wondering briefly if Jelly would enjoy any success with Murdoch.
He took a deep breath, mentally preparing himself for the coming ordeal. He didn’t relish the task, but somebody had to coach Johnny through the decision process. The boy just wasn’t thinking clearly – and his father wouldn’t step up to the chore. The persistent wisp of doubt niggled again.
//Maybe Murdoch is right… No, I can best help Johnny by persuading him to accept what needs to be done. Then we can put him to bed where he belongs.//
He stepped through the door and quietly assessed the situation. Barranca sprawled on his side, three legs thrust straight out from his body and one foreleg curled. He no longer struggled against the obvious pain that ravaged him, seemingly without the energy to lift his head. Intermittent shudders rippled through his distended body, visible even through the heavy blankets covering him. He breathed in harsh, groaning pants.
Johnny slumped beside his horse’s head, periodically reassuring the gelding with soft touches and murmurs. He clutched a blanket around his shoulders, shivering in the chilly confines of the big barn. The purple-hued circles under the downcast eyes betrayed his exhaustion. Johnny didn’t acknowledge the arrival, but Scott had the impression that his brother was well aware of his presence in the barn. He crossed the distance between them.
“How is he?”
“Not good.” Johnny glanced up at his brother. “But he ain’t no worse.”
Scott let that comment pass. “How about you?”
“I’m all right.”
Scott swallowed his reply; Johnny looked like hell, but telling his brother that wouldn’t win him any points. The first task was to make Johnny more comfortable – and that started with propping him up. The boy looked as though he might keel over at any moment. Scott eased the crate to the floor and set about stacking several bales of straw into a low wall near Barranca’s head. He settled himself on the edge, dug the pillow and a blanket out of the crate, and arranged them between his feet.
“Lean against this, Johnny.” Scott patted the pillow.
Johnny scooted backward until his back touched the pillow and leaned against the straw wall with a long sigh. He looked up and back at his brother’s face.
“Thanks.” His hand rested on Scott’s ankle and Johnny expressed his deeper feelings with an affectionate squeeze.
Scott knew better than to acknowledge the gesture, but it kindled a warm glow deep in his chest. His plan was working – Johnny appeared more comfortable already. With the straw wall supporting his back and Scott’s legs on either side, he was certainly propped up. Scott rifled through the contents of the crate, deciding on a hot drink as the next step in the “Make Johnny Comfortable Plan”. He poured two cups of coffee and offered one to his brother.
“Teresa sent you a care package. Wrap your mouth around this.”
Johnny needed no urging. He took a long, appreciative sip and smacked his lips. “Ahhhhh. That hits the spot.”
“Good.” Scott rummaged through the crate, producing the towels and shirt. He draped a towel over Johnny’s head. “Your hair is soaking wet. Can you dry it with one hand or do you need help?”
Johnny muttered something through a mouthful of towel. Scott didn’t hear a word he said, but set to work scrubbing Johnny’s hair dry. “Sure, brother. Glad to help.”
When the towel had absorbed most of the moisture, Scott tossed the damp material aside. He had to bite the inside of his cheek at the expression on his brother’s face. Before Johnny could speak, Scott executed the next stage of his plan.
“Here’s a clean shirt and your jacket.” He stood and hooked his arm under Johnny’s good shoulder. “Stand up and let’s get a dry shirt on you.”
Johnny’s face darkened in frustration, but Scott pretended not to notice. He hauled his brother to his feet and helped him don the blue shirt over the heavily bandaged shoulder. Although Scott handled the injured arm delicately, Johnny couldn’t completely stifle a groan.
“Sorry about that. That shoulder is awfully tender.” Scott snapped his fingers and whipped the sling out of the crate. “I’ve got just the thing.”
Johnny stared from the sling to Scott’s face. “No, but thanks.”
Scott locked eyes with his brother. “Actually, it isn’t a choice.”
“Me… or Murdoch?”
Johnny scowled ferociously, but Scott refused to look away. At last he bowed his head. “Okay, you win. Help me put this thing on.”
Scott hung the sling around Johnny’s neck and eased his injured arm into it.
“Damn, Scott. Loosen it up some. I can hardly move it.”
“That’s the point, little brother.” He slipped the sleeve of Johnny’s jacket over his right arm and draped the left shoulder over the sling. “Feeling any warmer?” Scott sat down on the bales of straw, mentally congratulating himself on the success of the campaign thus far.
“Yeah, thanks.” Johnny sank to the floor, and bent forward to soothe Barranca. Then he settled himself back against the straw wall in his former position. He drained his coffee and held the cup up to Scott for a refill.
Scott poured more coffee before moving on to the final phase of his initial campaign. He arranged a selection of goodies from the picnic basket on a plate, hoping something would tempt Johnny. His brother’s ravenous appetite was notorious – the boy burned up so much energy that he was constantly hungry. But when he was worried, he didn’t eat. And when Johnny didn’t eat, his family worried.
He bent forward over Johnny’s uninjured shoulder, setting the plate on his brother’s lap and picking up a turkey sandwich for himself. “Hope you don’t mind if I help myself to some of this feast Maria prepared for you.”
“Go ahead. I ain’t hungry.”
Scott braced himself to decipher just the right combination of cajoling and threats required to get some food into his younger brother. The judicious use of advance and retreat tactics would play a critical role in achieving ultimate victory in the “Make Johnny Comfortable” campaign.
//Well, I didn’t expect it to be easy… I’ve told you before that I’m even more stubborn than you, little brother. And like it or not, you are going to eat.//
Johnny set aside the empty plate and licked chocolate icing from his upper lip. “Oh boy, Maria and Teresa ain’t lost their touch in the kitchen.” He glanced up at Scott and noticed the grin on his brother’s face.
Scott picked up the plate and held it toward Johnny. “Do you have any idea what this empty plate means, little brother?”
Johnny just gave him a perplexed look and shook his head.
“It means I can eat now.”
//And it means my first campaign was a success.//
Johnny’s eyes asked the question.
“Your guardian angel, Maria, is convinced that you are going to starve to death out here. She charged me with the mission of getting food into you and threatened me with a starvation diet if I failed.” He waved the plate under Johnny’s nose. “But steadfast soldier that I am, mission accomplished. Thanks, brother.”
Mischief sparked in Johnny’s eyes. “Now see, if I’d known that, you’da worked a lot harder, Boston.”
“Strategy, brother, pure strategy.” Scott laughed softly, “And a healthy fear of Maria, of course. That woman acts as though she’s a mother grizzly and you’re her only cub.”
Johnny smiled at that. Maria mothered all of the Lancers, but she treated him as though he was a part of her family. She frankly doted on him and Johnny enjoyed her fussing. His grin widened at the thought of the look on her face when she opened her Christmas gift, a delicate black lace mantilla. His friend, Ramon Ortega, had procured Johnny’s present to Scott from Chihuahua and Johnny asked him to choose a mantilla from one of the famous lace makers there at the same time.
The smile vanished as Johnny remembered that the mantilla lay unwrapped alongside all the other gifts he’d so carefully chosen. He’d actually looked forward to wrapping them tonight – a new experience and one he’d wanted to savor.
“Darn, why did I leave it until the last minute?” he groused under his breath.
“Leave what?” Scott had a good idea of what troubled Johnny now.
“I guess you got all your presents wrapped.” Johnny rolled his eyes at the amused expression on his brother’s face.
“Don’t tell me that you haven’t wrapped your presents yet! Really, brother, you do surprise me.” Scott wagged a finger at Johnny. “That will teach you not to put off until tomorrow what can be done today.”
Johnny looked at Scott from under his lashes. “Guess you wrapped your present to me, huh, Scott? A little bird told me it’s sorta on the big side. You have enough paper?” He fed off the light banter – it provided needed sustenance of a different kind.
Scott shook his head and clicked his tongue against his teeth. “Well, that little Jelly-bird got it wrong because my gift to you is no bigger than a hat box. And no, that is not a clue.”
Johnny couldn’t deny the gleam of excitement the thoughts of Christmas sparked inside. “Do you know what the Old Man got me?”
“Did he get you something?” Scott managed to look convincingly surprised. “I distinctly heard him say that you were getting lumps of coal in your stocking – one for each stunt you pulled during your recovery.” He grinned. “Of course, Jelly advocates substituting switches for the coal.”
Johnny ignored that sally and instead offered Scott his patented puppy dog look, the one that rarely failed to get what he wanted from his brother. “Aw, come on, Scott,” he wheedled, “I heard it took you and Murdoch and the supply wagon to bring it home.”
“I’m surprised at you, Johnny. You know better than to believe everything you hear.” Scott shook his head sorrowfully. “I will tell you this much – Murdoch’s present is no bigger than… an envelope.”
Johnny searched his brother’s face but Scott’s expression was unreadable. “The size of an envelope, huh? Would that be a small envelope or a big one?”
“Now, Johnny, I’ve already said too much. I can not divulge further.”
Johnny’s eyes widened. His brother never ran out of fancy words and Scott loved to bandy them about. “No, I wouldn’t go doin’ no divulgin’. It sounds kinda painful.”
“If you tell me where you stashed your presents, I’ll wrap them for you,” Scott offered innocently. “I promise not to look when I wrap mine.”
“Hey, thanks, Scott. They’re…” Johnny suddenly registered Scott’s last remark. He shook his head. “I don’t believe you just said that, Boston!”
“And I don’t believe I almost got away with it,” Scott shared a chuckle with his brother.
Their laughter died away as Barranca groaned, deep and throaty, and thrashed his head. Johnny was beside him instantly, comforting with hands and voice. The palomino quieted abruptly beneath his hand, ears flicking toward the sound of Johnny’s voice. Scott marveled at the silent communication between the two friends.
//Magic. There is simply no other word for it. Johnny has magic hands on a horse… especially that one.//
Now was as good a time as any to initiate the next campaign. Scott acknowledged that success was by no means certain. This campaign promised to be gut-wrenching. It would likely leave casualties.
//Johnny doesn’t want to accept the reality of this situation. I have to help him see what needs to be done. No use putting it off.//
Scott knelt beside his brother and peeled back the horse’s upper lip, checking the color of the gums. “He doesn’t have much left, Johnny.”
“I know.” Johnny met Scott’s eyes. “But he’s still fightin’. He ain’t givin’ up yet.” He looked back at his horse, right hand combing through the heavy forelock.
Scott thought he could discern the relentless internal struggle raging within his brother. He well knew the experience of two stubborn inner voices each passionately arguing opposite positions. That’s what Johnny was going through now – one voice demanding that he support the horse as long as it kept struggling to live and the other stressing the peace a bullet would bring. Both voices debated with conviction, but Scott realized that Johnny favored the plea for life.
//Perhaps if I focus him on the way this horse used to be, he’ll see how unfair it is to keep him alive like this. It’s worth a try.//
“Do you remember that first day – when you rode Barranca for the first time?”
Johnny’s crooked smile crawled up one side of his mouth. “Yeah.”
“I’ve always regretted that I didn’t get to the corral first.”
“Well, you can quit frettin’ ‘cause it wouldn’t have done ya any good, Boston.”
“Nope. See, Cipriano had cut out two broke horses. I wasn’t very excited about either one of ‘em.” He tugged Barranca’s forelock, a flush of embarrassment creeping up his neck. “Out here, a man’s horse says a lot about him, you know?”
Scott smiled at Johnny’s self-consciousness. “I’m aware of that. And it’s not just ‘out here.’ Even in Boston, the horse a man rides or drives makes a statement about him.” A man’s horse was a universal yardstick, but to be honest, it counted for more west of the Mississippi. Owning the finest horse he could secure, whether through hard work, cash, ingenuity, or just plain theft, epitomized a man’s deepest pride. Especially here in California, a man’s mount was just as important in the eyes of the community as his profession – or skill with a rope or gun. Scott admitted to himself that similar thoughts had contributed significantly to his decision to purchase his handsome – and decidedly showy – chestnut gelding.
He gave Johnny’s hair a brotherly tousle. “I get the picture. You wanted a horse that complimented that flashy pistolero persona you worked so hard to show us, Mr. Madrid, sir.”
The flush deepened and Johnny’s throat tightened. How well his brother knew him! “I guess so.”
He combed his fingers through Barranca’s mane until he felt he could speak with a steady voice. “Anyhow, me and Cipriano had a little talk and he agreed to show me the remuda. We walked over to the holdin’ pen and I saw him right off. He picked his head up and looked at me and I looked at him… and, I just knew…”
Scott studied Johnny’s face as his brother’s memories flooded back. “Knew what?”
Johnny swallowed, eyes fixed on his horse. “Pablo used to talk about the once-in-a-lifetime horse. He said God only made a fixed number of ‘em and there aren’t nearly enough to go around. Most fellas never get one, but a lucky few find theirs. And some get real lucky and find more than one.” He glanced up at Scott and then hung his head.
“I been one of them real lucky fellas. This yella pony is my second one.”
Scott bit his lip at the faint catch in the soft voice. “You could tell that just by looking at him?”
“Somethin’ like that.” Johnny paused, lost in the memories. “It was the look in his eye. I ducked through the fence and walked out to him and he didn’t run away. He’d never even had a rope on him before, but he stood there and let me stroke his forehead.” Johnny raised his hand and examined it with a look of wonder, fingers flexing.
“The second I touched him, it was like sparks jumped between him and me.” He laid his hand on Barranca’s broad forehead without conscious thought.
Scott’s eyes riveted to that point of contact between man and horse.
“He sorta leaned his head into my hand and my fingers started tinglin’. He gave this big snort and I don’t know how to explain it – somehow I knew what he was thinkin’ and I knew he could understand me. There was a…” Johnny struggled to find the right word, “well, a bond between us. Just like Pablo said.”
His fingers caressed the swirl of hairs in the center of the palomino’s forehead. “I told Cipriano I wanted the palomino. Cip said the Old Man wanted us well mounted. He figured that if I broke him, Murdoch wouldn’t have a problem with me keepin’ him. So I worked with him some in the pen and then we brought him to the corral and I rode him.”
Scott recalled the palomino’s determined pitching with a wry smile. “I suppose he forgot all about that bond while he did his level best to buck you off?”
Johnny snickered. “Oh, that was just a little show Barranca and me cooked up for the Old Man’s benefit.”
“I see. You are sneaky, aren’t you?” Scott’s smiled faded as his eyes returned to the wretchedness that lay before them. Barranca heaved another rasping groan – the only way he was able to express his pain.
Scott glanced sideways at Johnny, noting the agony of indecision rife on his brother’s tense face. The silence hung heavily between them as their moods darkened and spirits sank even further. Scott watched his brother scratch Barranca under the jaw. He knew the two voices in Johnny’s head were waging a vicious struggle – he only hoped the advocate for continuing the fight was losing ground.
For Scott, the battle was with his tongue and its incessant demands to form the words fighting to burst forth, words that would help Johnny understand what needed to be done. The minutes dragged by, each endless, empty expanse deepening his despair. The miserable, sick gasping of the stricken horse disturbed the stillness in the barn. Scott fancied he could hear Johnny’s heart thudding in time with those ghastly breaths. He ached to his very soul as he witnessed his brother’s anguish.
Finally, the words refused to be denied. They won their escape and with them flowed an immense fountain of relief – the decision to speak out was made, time to soldier on. “Johnny, this can’t go on any longer. We must end his suffering. I’ll do it if you…”
Scott trailed off, cringing at the stunned disbelief in the blue eyes – his brother hadn’t expected that! Not from him. He experienced an unpleasant, sinking sensation of having betrayed Johnny’s trust before the disbelief melted to hurt and flashed to fury, propelling the boy to his feet. Scott remained kneeling beside the horse, hoping he could maintain control of the volatile situation.
“No!” Johnny lashed out with one foot, sending an empty mug sailing through the air to smash against the far side of the barn.
Barranca was too weak to react, but Scott flinched at the sound of breaking glass. Yet he met the furious glare Johnny fixed on him.
Johnny cocked his head and looked his brother up and down. “Is that why you came out here? To shoot my horse for me?”
“I reckon if he was yours, you’d be pointin’ a gun at his head about now.”
“No.” Scott licked his lips. “If he were mine, I’d have used the gun hours ago.”
Johnny drummed his fingers against his thigh. His tone froze Scott to the marrow. “Well, he ain’t yours. He’s mine. And if it needs doin’, I’ll do it. But there’s still a chance and I ain’t givin’ up on him.”
Scott inhaled deeply, eyes never wavering from his brother’s accusing glare. He was determined to get his message across as swiftly and painlessly as possible and that meant remaining calm. He laid his hand on the palomino’s neck, shocked to the core when Johnny savagely kicked his arm away from the horse.
The toe of Johnny’s boot bit deeply into the flesh and the sharp pain ignited Scott’s temper. He leaped to his feet and squared up to his brother, fists clenched at his sides.
”Barranca is suffering. Can’t you see that? He has endured what can only be described as agony for more than seven hours. Seven hours, Johnny!”
“I can tell time.”
Scott began pacing. “How long are you going to let it continue? It’s not fair to the horse – in fact, it’s cruel,” he stopped in front of Johnny and locked eyes with his brother, forcing the shorter man to take a step back, “and you know it. You can put a stop to it, do right by that horse.”
Johnny’s infamous glare scorched Scott. “The right thing for Barranca is to help him fight it.”
His brother’s clenched jaw and aggressive posture clearly signaled a warning. Scott bit his lower lip, forcing himself to soften his tone and relax the threatening lines of his own stance. He reached out to place his hand on Johnny’s shoulder, but the boy shrugged away from him, right hand subconsciously blurring toward the spot where his gun would rest – if he were wearing it. Scott didn’t miss that reaction and recognized the need to cool both of their emotions. He held his hands out toward Johnny, palms up.
“I just want to help you, Johnny. I can understand how difficult it is for you to make this decision. I’ll do it if you can’t.”
Scott’s hasty plan to defuse the tension backfired as Johnny erupted. He snatched a fistful of Scott’s shirt and shoved his brother down onto the stacked bales. His face was only inches from Scott’s, the voice soft and indescribably deadly. Scott felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
”You listen hard, brother. I said if it needs doin’, I’ll do it. But I’m the one that’ll make the choice.” Johnny held Scott’s eyes in that intimidating stare for several heartbeats, then deliberately straightened and stepped back a pace.
Scott exercised every ounce of self-control to hold himself motionless. His balled fists itched to retaliate for Johnny’s manhandling, but he’d already let his brother down and vowed not to do anything that might widen the sudden rift between them. He sensed that Johnny was on the ragged edge of control.
“You’re right, Johnny. It’s your decision.”
Johnny’s fingers drummed against his thigh. “If the time comes, I’ll know it. I won’t need tellin’.” He turned away from his brother and stared down at his palomino. “Barranca is a lot like me – he believes in ‘I can make it,’ too.”
Scott sighed. He wasn’t getting through; nothing he said had made any impact other than infuriating his brother and straining the foundations of their relationship. His iron control began to dissolve in his urgency to reach Johnny and the concerned big brother shoved the competent Army officer aside. “Sometimes a man can be too much of a believer. He can want something so bad that he won’t let go – even when he should.”
Johnny’s eyes challenged him, but Scott refused to pick up the gauntlet. His own eyes strayed to the hapless beast, the hopelessness of the situation striking him harder than ever before.
“You’re wrong, big brother.”
The insolent sneer in Johnny’s voice pushed Scott over the edge. The remaining shreds of control disappeared as he sprang to his feet, gesturing vehemently towards Barranca. His voice soared, echoing into every corner of the barn. “Look at that horse, Boy. He’s trying every way he knows to tell you that he’s suffering. But you,” he pointed his finger toward Johnny’s face, “just won’t listen. Your mouth is still bigger than your ears.”
The caustic words of frustration spewed out before he could stop them. Johnny froze and it seemed to Scott that the world held its breath, suspending the accursed moment in time. He desperately wanted to recall those devastating words. They were his uncensored innermost thoughts, not appropriate for outside ears – and certainly not his brother’s. He damned the notorious Lancer temper for his disastrous loss of control.
//I never meant to say that to him. I’d cut out my tongue before I hurt him that way.//
The next instant, Scott damned himself as the staggering impact of that careless, provocative utterance reflected back at him in Johnny’s blue eyes.
//Too late. The damage is done.//
His brother closed his eyes and bowed his head for a moment. Then the dark head lifted defiantly and Scott was face to face with Johnny Madrid. Those weren’t eyes; they were chunks of glacial ice. Every line of the tightly coiled body exuded cool, complete control. His heartbeat accelerated when the gunman spoke in that hushed, deadly voice.
“Well, you got your ideas and I got mine. Fact is, that is my,” Johnny pointed to himself, “horse, my responsibility. I’ll make the decisions.” His hand moved smoothly and in the blink of an eye, the finger pointed at Scott’s chest.
“Now, you made your offer and I refused. So why don’t you just go turn in that clean plate,” Johnny seized the discarded plate and slammed it into Scott’s hands, “and get your supper? Your mission’s accomplished, Lt. Lancer.”
Johnny pointedly turned his back on his brother. Scott distinguished the exact moment when Johnny Madrid vanished and Johnny Lancer sank into the straw beside Barranca.
He cursed himself as Johnny’s slumped shoulders pressed home the extent of his blunder. He longed to touch the boy, somehow communicate his regret. It wouldn’t work, though. The wound was too fresh, too raw. Johnny needed some distance before he’d accept any attempt to repair the damage.
//I’m so sorry, Johnny. I know I’ve gone too far…//
Scott retreated to the barn door, melting into the shadows there and sitting atop a storage trunk. He bit his lip as he watched the forlorn figure kneeling beside the afflicted horse. A pang of self-loathing swept through him. He’d hurt his brother – unintentionally, to be sure, but no less devastating regardless of intent.
//Tonight’s performance was more tarnished than steadfast. Grandfather is fond of saying that the combination of good intentions and lack of information is a certain recipe for disaster. Caring and the desire to do right don’t count. Only results matter… Well, Lt. Lancer, this mission ended in failure.//
He vowed to make things right with Johnny. But if he had any hope of making amends, he must rethink his own position and try to better understand Johnny’s. Scott took advantage of this involuntary isolation to begin his analysis and plan the next campaign.
//He’s not denying what his eyes are telling him. Johnny really believes Barranca can make it. He has faith in his horse… Murdoch was right and I… I’ve been so wrong.
Barranca is so much more than a horse to Johnny. I said that to Murdoch, but why didn’t I see the real truth in that statement? Teresa knew. She recognized that Johnny placed his trust in that horse long before he began to trust his family. The first living, breathing thing he trusted at Lancer…
He’s never said it in so many words, but I know Johnny sees Barranca as a tie to Murdoch. The Old Man gave him the horse and that fact alone makes him special to Johnny. All those times he and Murdoch bumped heads… Barranca was a thread that kept Johnny tied to Murdoch and Lancer. The horse even played the role of confidant when Johnny had no one else he trusted.
Johnny said it himself – Barranca is his once-in-a-lifetime horse. They share that rare and inexplicable bond that sometimes just happens between a blessed individual and one of God’s creatures. Their bond is giving Johnny the strength of his convictions right now. He truly believes Barranca will make it – just as he once told me that he always believes he can make it.
The signs were clear all along, but I let my concern over Johnny’s physical condition blind me to what he’s really thinking. I should’ve listened to Murdoch, kept my opinions on Barranca’s condition to myself.
Johnny is ripped up inside. He’s convinced he is doing the right thing for his horse. But part of him is appalled at Barranca’s suffering. He’s in a terribly lonely place, grappling with life and death decisions. What he needs is reassurance. What I gave him was… Well, it wasn’t reassurance or support. I’ve blown my opportunity.
But Johnny still needs to talk to someone who will offer some support. He won’t trust me to do that just now. Better get Murdoch.//
Murdoch slumped at his massive desk, one hand supporting his chin while watching his son watch the flames flickering in the fireplace. Scott stood in an unfamiliar pose, leaning toward the fire with both hands braced against the mantle. The muscles along his jaw rippled and his knuckles gleamed white in the firelight as he tightened and loosened his grip. His son had the look of a man furious with himself and desperate to correct a mistake.
Moments earlier, Scott had stalked through the French doors, pausing at the side table to pour a stiff drink and tossing it off in one deep gulp. His head turned slightly toward the desk, but he didn’t look in that direction. Instead, he refilled his glass, but immediately slammed it down on the table without taking another sip. Then he marched to the fire, searching for answers in the flames. Even as Murdoch watched, Scott whirled and began to pace the length of the fireplace, fists clenched at his sides.
//Damn it, son… you marched out there and locked horns with your brother over that horse. You let Johnny down. Now you have to forgive yourself. … Why, Scott? I told you to hold your tongue. … And if you’re this upset, what about Johnny? I’d better get to the barn.//
He set his teeth against the all too familiar aggravation caused by his sons’ flagrant disregard of his orders. Losing his temper with Scott wouldn’t accomplish anything. And his older son appeared to have sentenced himself to a far harsher punishment than his father – or his brother – could ever decree.
Murdoch flattened his palms against the desktop and pushed gingerly to his feet. He stretched his stiff back muscles, unable take his eyes from Scott’s frenzied pacing – so unlike the young man’s normal composed demeanor no matter the circumstance. The next instant, Scott altered his path to stand beside the Christmas tree and began fingering the baubles hanging there.
//He’s more upset than I thought. He’s using his hands like Johnny.//
Scott stripped a handful of decorations from the tree, staring down at the items a moment before rearranging them with swift, surgically precise movements. His hands flew ever faster as he ordered the placement of garland and trinkets to hang in neat, symmetrical rows. Despite his compulsion to reach Johnny, Murdoch felt a paternal response to the overt distress so uncharacteristic of his older son. He walked around the desk to stand beside Scott. The young man wouldn’t meet his gaze, troubled eyes locked on the seemingly fascinating tree ornament in his hand. Murdoch fixed his son with his best fatherly stare and waited.
Scott stood, eyes lowered, in the heat of that commanding look for several heartbeats. Then his head whipped up and he met his father’s stare with a defiant one of his own.
“Do I have to spell it out for you? You were right. I was wrong.” The ornament in his hand shattered beneath his fierce grip and Scott glanced away from his father’s face to study the broken trinket.
The self-loathing in those blue-grey eyes shocked Murdoch. His son was one of the most confident men he’d ever known. The confrontation with Johnny had obviously shaken him badly. He certainly didn’t need to hear “I told you so” from his father. Murdoch moved closer to Scott, standing before him and reaching out to rest his open palms against the young man’s upper arms – not a grip, simply a light, affirming touch.
“Son, right or wrong, you did what you thought you had to do.”
Scott glanced up at his father and Murdoch thought he saw a hint of relief in his son’s troubled eyes. He squeezed gently and dropped his arms to his side.
//At least I was able to help this son.//
Scott drew a shaky breath and sank down to sit sideways on the back of the long sofa. He bit his lower lip and stared at his hands. “You’d better go to him, sir. He needs… he needs to talk with someone he can trust. Johnny needs someone who will just listen to him – not tell him what to do. He… I…” He sat up straight and squared his shoulders, glancing up at his father. “Tonight, that’s you.”
Murdoch patted Scott’s shoulder in what he hoped was a supportive gesture and headed for the barn. He hated leaving his son alone with his self-castigation. The young man needed someone to talk to – although he’d die before he admitted it.
//I swear I’ll come back and talk with you, son. Right now, I suspect your brother needs me even more than you do – he’s bleeding on both the inside and the outside.//
As he rushed through the French doors, he nearly bumped into Jelly. The old handyman stomped back and forth in front of the windows, twisting his cap in his hands, eyes darting from the barn to the hacienda. The look on his face would have been comical in other circumstances.
“Sorry, Boss. I feel like I’m walkin’ on raw eggs. Scott high-tailed it outta the barn lookin’ like a teased weasel. He won’t say what happened, just told me not to go in there. I sure don’t like it. Them boys is thicker’n feathers in a pillow, but I’m thinkin’ some ‘o them feathers just got a mite scattered.”
Murdoch nodded, relieved that Scott wouldn’t be alone. Jelly might be exasperating and notional, but when the chips were down he’d proven to be all heart above the waist and all guts below. “I imagine the barn is knee deep in feathers about now.” He pointed toward the great room. “Will you take care of that one for me?”
“Well, ya know I will.”
“A loose rein and no spurs.” The anxious father resumed his journey to the barn, dreading what awaited him inside.
Murdoch paused just inside the barn door, watching his younger son with growing concern. As expected, the youngest Lancer paced back and forth with long, cat-like strides.
//Between Scott, Jelly, and Johnny, they’ve paced enough miles tonight to walk to Sacramento.//
He didn’t like the pinched look around the boy’s mouth or the empty sling around Johnny’s neck. The fingers of his son’s injured arm alternated between tapping against his thigh and clenching into a fist, but his right hand caused Murdoch to gasp and peer more closely.
The six-gun twirled smoothly around Johnny’s trigger finger. Six spins forward… six spins back. Six spins forward… six spins back. There was no fumbling or hesitation – Johnny spun the gun with the precision of a well-oiled machine. The quiet competence and control of the weapon in his hand contrasted sharply with the agitated pacing. The boy had the look of a man staggered by the responsibility of a haunting, soul-shattering decision.
//He reminds me of a caged jaguar. If he had a tail, he’d lash it.//
Murdoch tore his gaze from his son and forced himself to look at the horse. The animal seemed to be in an exhausted stupor, breathing with groans that reminded Murdoch of Johnny’s tortured breathing when they thought the boy was dying from the ruptured appendix. Beneath the sweat-drenched blankets, its bloated stomach appeared even more swollen than previously. Barranca hadn’t improved – if anything, his condition had deteriorated. Studying the suffering palomino, Murdoch could understand why Scott felt he must advocate putting the horse out of its misery.
//Lord, please help me help my son. I’m a dab hand at making a tactless remark… a thoughtless comment. Don’t let me live up to my reputation tonight. My boy needs my support.//
Johnny whirled at the sound of his father’s unmistakable tread. He’d hoped to be left alone until he corralled his temper, but sure enough, Murdoch was striding toward him. He stared blindly down at his horse, counting silently to a hundred in an effort to harness his rebellious emotions. He’d already lost control and attacked his brother; he didn’t want to lash out at his father, too. He was acutely aware of Murdoch beside him, a towering fortress of strength and control.
“Any change, son?”
The Old Man’s voice sounded worried. Johnny blinked away the sudden wetness in his eyes, fighting to swallow the lump swelling his throat in the face of his father’s blatant concern.
“No.” Johnny forced himself to look up at Murdoch. “Look, there ain’t any point in you bein’ out here. I’ll call if I need you.”
His voice came out gruff, not at all what he’d intended. Johnny hung his head, avoiding Murdoch’s searching eyes. He needed his father, damn it! Right now he wanted nothing more than to talk through this nightmare with the Old Man. And because he needed him, he realized that sooner or later he’d end up lashing out at him – just as he’d jumped down Scott’s throat. Murdoch didn’t deserve that anymore than his brother had.
//I’ve already pissed all over the celebrations the Old Man had planned. He don’t need to hear any lip from me.//
Murdoch settled himself onto Scott’s straw wall, looking like a man who intended to stay awhile. “I’d prefer to stay – if that’s all right with you, son.”
“Please yourself,” Johnny cursed himself for his curt reply. He turned his back on Murdoch and began pacing again, gun hanging heavily in his lax grip.
//I wish you’d just leave, Old Man. I’m gonna chew on you sure as shootin’.//
Several long strides later, he froze and stared down at the gun in his hand. A long sigh shook his entire body and he closed his eyes to block out the sight of the six-gun.
//Please don’t go, Pa. I gotta make a choice… a real hard choice… and I wanna talk it over with somebody. No, that ain’t right. I need to talk it over with you. My brother, he… well, his mind is made up and he ain’t gonna listen to me…//
He wanted to run to his father, sit beside the man and share all his doubts and uncertainties – the way he could usually do with his brother. But after the way he’d acted toward Scott, he just didn’t trust himself.
//What was I thinkin’? Kickin’ him, pushin’ him around? I sure don’t deserve no understandin’. Not from Scott and not from Murdoch…//
Johnny resumed his pacing, setting the gun spinning around his finger.
Murdoch’s heart went out to his son. He thought he could read the fluctuating body language. Johnny was desperate to talk, but he didn’t trust himself to put his thoughts into words. And because his need was so great and he was unsure of what to say, he was scared to talk with his father. The boy usually relied on his brother in such a situation. He’d learned he could count on Scott’s support and understanding, regardless of any difficulties in expressing himself. Johnny wasn’t afraid to open up to Scott because he trusted his brother not to exploit his resulting vulnerability.
//He’s still wary of my disapproval – expects me to judge him. That’s my fault. I must overcome that now. I have to be here for him tonight – the way Scott usually is.//
Murdoch remembered his older son’s atypical behavior and realized that Johnny’s actions bespoke an even deeper agitation than distress about his horse. No question, his sons had managed to hurt each other badly. Murdoch had observed many arguments between his boys in the months they’d been home. He’d listened intently to numerous calm and not so calm debates. Yet not once in all that time had a disagreement progressed beyond reasonable and short-lived anger. Heated words were quickly forgotten and neither brother expressed a trace of regret or lingering hurt.
Yet Murdoch feared tonight was different. This time, his boys had crossed a boundary, straying into unknown enemy territory and losing themselves in a vicious cross fire. It was obvious to their father that they’d hurled some deadly ammunition at each other – with devastating impact on both. Murdoch had no idea how to help his sons rebuild the bridges they’d burned this night.
Several minutes dragged by. The only sounds in the barn were Barranca’s tortured breathing, Johnny’s agitated footfalls, and the muted scratch of the six-gun spinning around the young man’s finger.
Murdoch fidgeted, unable to find any words that might comfort his son. The unbroken motion of the gun grated on his nerves as his aversion to visual proof of Johnny’s comfort with the weapon reared its head. In Johnny’s supple hands, a gun wasn’t merely a tool. It came alive, as though it were an extension of his body. This chilling legacy of Johnny Madrid never failed to disturb Murdoch. He decided to plunge ahead and break the uncomfortable silence.
He brushed the boy’s forearm as Johnny’s path brought him alongside. “Johnny…”
That one word dripped with sympathy and tenderness and Johnny spun toward the sound, erupting without giving his father the chance to finish what he was saying. “I KNOW he ain’t gettin’ any better and I KNOW it’s been goin’ on too long.” He glared at Murdoch, nostrils flared. “I don’t need YOU to tell me what I already know, Old Man.”
“Would you mind sitting here with me… so we can talk?” Murdoch patted the straw beside him.
His eyes remained focused on his younger son. Not so long ago, he’d have answered Johnny’s rage with an equal measure of his own, rising to crush what he’d then viewed as a challenge. In those days, every clash, whether major or minor, escalated into a full scale war of words. He and Johnny allowed their tempers full rein, wounding each other and thrusting themselves further apart. It took a near tragedy to bring him to his senses, force him to realize the depth of anger in his son – and understand how to help the boy work the bitterness out. Distressing to admit he’d had to teeter on the very brink of losing Johnny to the grave before he could open his heart and accept the man his boy had grown to be.
Now, when Johnny vented his spleen, he listened calmly and encouraged him to talk out the frustration. The simple act of absorbing Johnny’s anger rather than adding to it, recognizing that it wasn’t really directed at him, had improved their relationship immeasurably. Being the father Johnny needed and deserved meant tempering his usual dictatorial, no-nonsense approach with understanding and compassion, asking instead of ordering. He’d told Johnny he needed guidance on when and how to help the young man build a new life. His fiercely independent son had agreed to ask for help when he needed it. Thus far, the two of them had honored their pact.
Johnny stood before him now with bowed head, color staining his cheeks. The gun dangled from his son’s slack hand. Those expressive blue eyes met his and Murdoch’s stomach turned over in the face of the turmoil raging there. He prayed he was approaching the situation the right way. He was still new at being a father in more than name alone – and being a father to this high-spirited son had never been easy.
He held out his right hand, a gesture clearly asking Johnny to hand him the gun, while patting the straw beside him with his left. “Please, son?”
Johnny squirmed uncomfortably under his father’s gaze. The Old Man seemed determined to have his say and Johnny admitted to himself that he wanted to hear every word. He didn’t deserve it, but oh, how he needed it!
//Oh boy, if the Old Man ain’t gettin’ good at this father thing…//
He glanced briefly at Barranca, then surrendered the gun to his father and settled beside him, dark head bowed and hands clasped firmly in his lap.
Murdoch laid the gun on the straw and rested his left hand on Johnny’s knee. He squeezed it in what he hoped was a reassuring manner, relieved when he felt the slightest hint of relaxation in response.
//I can do this. I can help my boy through this.//
He knew Johnny was having difficulty with the prospect of putting an end to Barranca’s misery. The boy would never allow a horse to suffer beyond what was reasonable, but he also realized his son was afraid he was letting his love for this particular horse outweigh common sense. Frankly, Johnny was scared he’d let it go on too long – and the clash with his brother must’ve increased his uncertainty tenfold.
But unlike Scott, Murdoch didn’t believe that Johnny was wrong to keep the horse alive. Yes, the animal was suffering and it was dreadful to see, but Barranca, like his indomitable owner, could go that extra mile, or ten, if necessary. If any horse in California could survive such a serious case of colic, it was the palomino.
Right or wrong, the decision was Johnny’s alone. The boy had to weigh the alternatives and decide for himself – and his son was painfully aware that he had to live with the consequences of his decision. He needed encouragement to talk through the options so that he could make his own choice – not pressure to arrive at a particular conclusion.
“John, I know what Barranca means to you. I know you’ve done everything you can to help him. Yet there’s no improvement.” He paused. Johnny didn’t say anything, but Murdoch heard him swallow hard. “I can imagine what you’re thinking and I’m willing to bet that you’re feeling guilty for having those thoughts. Am I right?”
“Yeah, you’re right… as always.”
Johnny’s voice was so soft; Murdoch had to strain to hear it. He sighed inwardly and patted Johnny’s knee. “Will you tell me what you’re thinking?”
Johnny clenched his fingers and shrugged, gesturing in a motion of frustration that was as close as he would ever come to wringing his hands. He looked up at Murdoch. “I don’t wanna give up on him, but… I don’t want him to suffer because I can’t make the decision to…to…”
Johnny’s voice trailed off and Murdoch heard and felt him take several deep, shaky breaths before he continued. “But he deserves a chance, he deserves…”
Johnny bit back what sounded suspiciously like a sob. Shaking his head, he jumped up and stalked outside. He stood in the corral, a desolate figure with eyes lifted to the night sky, shivering as the icy wind curled around him. Murdoch followed on the boy’s heels, removing his own jacket and wrapping it around Johnny. He stayed directly behind, resting his hand on his son’s right shoulder.
He felt the boy lean back against him. Johnny’s shoulders shook. “Any other horse and I’d have… you know.”
“Any other horse and I’d have expected you to.”
“I keep hopin’…,” Johnny shrugged and bowed his head. “I guess hope just ain’t enough.”
“Well, that’s not the way I see it.” Murdoch stepped around Johnny to face his son. He waited until the boy looked up at him. “Don’t ever give up on hope, son. Sometimes, hope is all we have, but it manages to carry us through life’s trials.”
He covered his suddenly trembling voice by bending forward to insert Johnny’s arm into the sling and shepherding the boy back to the barn door. He halted just inside where they could still see the sky while enjoying some protection from the brutal wind.
Johnny shivered despite the added weight of his father’s jacket and Murdoch hurried to the crate he’d noticed beside the stacked straw. He found a coffee pot and mugs inside, a slight smile breaking through the worry on his face when he discovered the flask of whisky.
//I can use a stiff drink. I’ll bet Johnny can, too.//
Murdoch doctored two cups of coffee, slipped the flask in his pocket, and carried the steaming mugs to where Johnny leaned against the door frame, eyes locked on the night sky. Murdoch didn’t have to follow the young man’s gaze to know that the blue eyes were fixed on the North Star.
//Our boy needs your wisdom now, Pablo.//
He pressed the cup into his son’s hand and leaned against the opposite side of the door.
Johnny took a quick sip. His eyes widened and he drank deeply, licking his lips and smiling at his father. “Thank you.”
Murdoch nodded, sipping from his own cup before tipping it toward Johnny to acknowledge the thanks.
Johnny stared into the contents of the mug, running his finger around and around the rim. He glanced sideways at Murdoch and then ducked his head. “You b’lieve in hope, huh?”
Murdoch turned, upper body now facing Johnny. “It certainly carried me through some terrible times. All those years you were gone, hope is all I had.” He wiped his upper lip with his thumb, “The hope that one day I would find you or by some blessed miracle you would walk through the door.”
He pulled the flask from his pocket and took a swig. “If I had given up hope of ever finding you, stopped my searching…,” another slug of liquid courage, “well, son, you wouldn’t be here now.”
Johnny studied his fathers face. The Old Man looked older somehow, the harsh light and stark shadows from the oil lantern emphasizing the lines that marked the passage of time – the worry lines as Ma O’Grady used to call them.
//He musta worried himself sick over me… and Mama too//
He set his empty mug aside and fiddled with the sling. “There musta been times when… well, when just forgettin’ about us seemed the best thing you could do, huh?” Johnny glanced up in time to see disbelief cross his father’s face followed closely by anguish. He suddenly regretted his question.
“No, Johnny!” Murdoch crossed the distance between them in one bound. “I could never give up on you.” He grasped both of Johnny’s shoulders, shaking his son in his urgency to make the boy understand.
“You were my son and I loved you.” His head fell forward and he closed his eyes. “All I could think about was kissing you goodnight, all the time planning our tomorrow,” Murdoch began shaking his head back and forth, “and then waking to find you and your mother gone.”
Johnny bit his lip against the flames shooting through his shoulder from Murdoch’s iron grip. It hurt like heck, but it was okay, because Murdoch didn’t mean to hurt him; because that painful clutch spoke more clearly than words the depth of his father’s love. And it couldn’t come close to the agony so plain on the weathered face.
//I never knew, not really. Guess I won’t ever know. But he did suffer. All those years he fretted. Over me. Because he cared… Damn, Old Man, you gotta let go ‘fore I pass out!//
The moan hissed between his gritted teeth before Johnny could stop it. Murdoch raised his head and gasped when he realized what he was doing.
“Oh, God, son. I’m sorry.” The iron hands softened to velvet in an instant as Murdoch pushed aside the jackets to check the bandages. “Are you okay?”
“Take it easy, Murdoch.” He touched his father’s frantic hands with his right hand. “I’m all right.”
Murdoch hesitated a moment, eyes moving from their joined hands at Johnny’s injured shoulder to his son’s face. He stared at Johnny as though trying to make up his mind whether or not to believe him. The man’s deep sigh spoke of relief.
The next instant, Murdoch glanced down at his son’s trembling knees and leaped into action. He dragged a bale of straw to the doorway and sat Johnny down on it.
His hands went to the bandage again, probing and smoothing.
//Don’t start playin’ mother hen, Old Man!//
Johnny slipped the flask out of Murdoch’s pocket in one deft motion, tapping his father’s forearm with it. When Murdoch glanced up from the flask, Johnny cocked his head, raising his eyebrows. He smiled when he saw the understanding spread across Murdoch’s face. His father moved his hands away from the injury and accepted the flask. Then he turned to lean on the door frame and face the night.
Johnny watched Murdoch from the corner of his eye. He could only see the man in profile, but the turmoil within his father was obvious. Murdoch gazed up at the night sky, seemingly lost somewhere back in those stolen years, repeatedly running his hand along the side of his head. His tightly compressed lips gave the impression of a man embroiled in a bitter inner struggle.
//It ain’t easy for the Old Man to talk about the past. Sayin’ how he felt… how it hurt him… that spooks him ‘bout as bad as it does me. Sure wish he would, though.//
“Uh, Murdoch?” Johnny cleared his throat. “You were tellin’ me about when Mama left?”
Murdoch didn’t look at him, but his father slowly straightened to distribute his weight evenly on both feet and squared his shoulders. He paused for a quick nip from the flask. A moment later he began to speak in a voice hushed and at times, trembling.
“Not knowing if you were dead or alive was the worst part.” Murdoch turned his face toward Johnny. “I prayed you were alive. I bargained with God to keep you alive.” He bit his lower lip and closed his eyes. “I would have sold my soul to the devil if it meant finding you.”
Murdoch expression seemed to wilt into melancholy. He walked out into the night and looked up at the heavens. “Days turned to months and months into years and I looked up into that sky,” he pointed upward, “every single night, hoping you were somewhere looking up at the same stars.”
He glanced over his shoulder at his son. “Nooooo, Johnny,” he faced front again and took another sip of whisky.
“I couldn’t give up hope. That would’ve been the same as admitting you were dead.” He shoved the flask into his pants pocket. “And I wasn’t prepared to commit you to being only a memory.”
The rush of emotions released by those words propelled Johnny to Murdoch’s side. He stood beside his father and lifted his own eyes to the sky. How many times had he done just that? The stars had always fascinated him. The Evening Star and the North Star in particular allowed him to keep two special people alive in his heart. But just maybe, something else had drawn his gaze upward all those years. Had his father’s prayers and desperate pleas somehow reached him? Had Murdoch’s faith, his unrelenting love – disguised as hatred in his own heart – been the extra spark that kept him alive, the reason he’d beaten the odds so often? Had some unseen force called to him, finally dragging him home?
He swayed, suddenly dizzy from the combination of stress, injury, the whisky, and raw emotion. Murdoch’s arm encircled his waist and he found himself being led back to the bale of straw and settled firmly on it. He felt his father’s hand rest against his forehead for a moment and Murdoch shook his head.
“There’s some fever, son. Please sit for a while.”
Johnny nodded and peeked up at his father beneath his lashes. He patted the straw beside him, thrilled when Murdoch sat next to him and draped one strong arm around his shoulders. He leaned against his father. “What kept you hopin’ all that time?”
“I don’t know how to answer that, John.” Murdoch was quiet for several seconds, seeming to struggle with putting his thoughts into words.
“I just knew in here,” his free hand pressed against his heart, “that I couldn’t give up.” He moved his hand from his heart to press it against Johnny’s. “Just as you know that somehow Barranca will find a way to beat this thing.”
Johnny’s every muscle went momentarily limp with gratitude. “Yeah… Yeah. I do believe that.”
//That’s just how I feel. He does understand!//
The memory of Scott’s accusing eyes roared back and he struggled free, jumping to his feet and standing with his back to Murdoch. “But Jelly and,” he bowed his head and swallowed hard, barely able to whisper the next name aloud, “Scott…”
Murdoch rose slowly and stood directly behind Johnny. He rested his right hand on top of the Johnny’s tense shoulder and kneaded the knotted muscles with his thumb. “Jelly and Scott aren’t the ones who must make this decision. In the end, it is what you believe. You and Barranca and no one else.”
He turned Johnny so that the boy faced him, leaving his left hand atop Johnny’s right shoulder. Johnny kept his head bowed, staring at his feet. “Look at me, son.”
Murdoch waited until the Johnny looked up at him. “I know that whatever you decide will be the right choice – because you’ll do what your heart tells you to do.”
Johnny swallowed and fingered one of the silver conchos on his belt. “You think so, huh?”
“I know so, John. I know because you’re a man who wants to do the right thing – a man who will follow the path his heart tells him is correct – even when it is the most difficult path of all.” Murdoch paused and wetted his lips with his tongue, assuring himself that he held Johnny’s complete attention, “Just like your brother.”
Johnny hung his head at that, seemingly intent on digging a hole with the toe of his boot. “Yeah…”
Murdoch remained silent, allowing Johnny to digest what he’d said and draw his own conclusions. He thought he understood how Johnny counted on – even expected – his older brother’s support and approval. When he didn’t receive it tonight, the boy must’ve felt as though the ground was collapsing beneath his feet. He hoped his words offered Johnny a lifeline to cling to as far as his relationship with his brother was concerned.
//Scott recognized from the first just how much Johnny needed someone to have faith in him. He bent over backwards to give his brother what he needed. But tonight his heart told him the horse needed to be put down and he wasn’t able to support Johnny. Scott’s disapproval really jolted Johnny.//
He slipped his arm around Johnny’s waist and steered him back to the bale. The boy just stood there, head bowed until Murdoch pressed him firmly onto the straw. He stared down at the top of Johnny’s dark head for a moment, before sitting beside him.
//Johnny’s feeling the way I did when everyone around me lost hope and I was the only one who still believed in my quest to find him and Maria. He feels totally alone.//
Murdoch scrubbed at his upper lip with his thumb, steeling himself to reveal far more than he was comfortable sharing. “When you and your mother first disappeared, it seemed the whole valley was behind me, offering to help in any way.”
He leaned forward, resting his forearms on his thighs. “But it didn’t take long before folks began advising me to forget about you both.”
“Over the years, even close friends and family,” he glanced sideways at Johnny, “people I trusted and counted on, counseled me to accept that you were gone and get on with my life.”
Murdoch lifted his hand to his forehead, rubbing it as though he felt a physical ache there. “It was so hard to cling to hope in the face of what I saw as their betrayal.”
He heard Johnny’s quick intake of breath as the boy cocked his head and stared up at him. “So how’d you do it?”
“It comes from inside, son.” He patted Johnny’s stomach. “From those guts I told you I wanted to see before I accepted you as a partner in this ranch.”
He closed his eyes in relief when his son grinned at him – a genuine Johnny-grin that lighted the boy’s strained face. “Do you remember when you told me that your mother always looked to someone else to make her happy? You told me she didn’t understand that no one can make you happy – happiness is something you give yourself.”
“Yeah…” Johnny sounded wary.
Murdoch reminded himself how sensitive his son was concerning his mother and ruffled the dark hair to reassure the boy. “I was proud of you because that’s not an easy lesson to learn. Some men never learn it.”
He watched as Johnny’s crooked smile crawled up the corner of his mouth and laid his hand on his son’s knee. “Hope is like happiness, son. No one can give it to you. You can only find it within yourself.”
Johnny’s eyes never left Murdoch’s as he pondered those words. Murdoch studied the changing expressions flitting across his son’s face as the young man fitted the pieces together like a giant puzzle. Johnny breathed out in a loud sigh, his right hand reaching across his chest to rub his injured shoulder. He turned his head to stare at his stricken equine friend.
Murdoch lifted his hand to Johnny’s shoulder and lightly squeezed. “It’s not an easy thing and I can’t tell you how to do it. I can only tell you how it was for me.”
Johnny turned away from Barranca, back to his father. “I’d like to hear it.”
“It’s difficult to explain.” He wetted his lips with his tongue, thinking of how to put his experience into words. “It felt like there was two of me – two very different Murdochs.” He enjoyed a silent chuckle at the bemused expression on Johnny’s face.
“One let go easily. He was determined to give up.” He pounded his clenched fist against his thigh, shaking his head in self-contempt. “The other hung on for dear life. He simply refused to abandon hope.”
Murdoch leaned forward, forearms resting on his thighs, and rubbed his hands together. “The first Murdoch was convinced my friends were right – that I needed to forget you and carry on with my life. That Murdoch did his damnedest to convince me that you were gone forever.” He sighed and ran his hand through his hair.
“But the other Murdoch was a stubborn Scotsman and he met the challenge head on. That Murdoch had faith and turned a deaf ear to the naysayers. My head pounded everyday with the echoes of their brawl.”
Murdoch pinched the top of his nose, eyes narrowing at the remembered ache. He was vividly aware of Johnny beside him. The boy’s entire being seemed focused on his father and he didn’t move so much as an eyelash. Murdoch was struck for perhaps the thousandth time by how rapidly Johnny could change from a bundle of restless energy to absolute stillness.
“The only way I could keep myself sane was to throw every ounce of energy into building Lancer. I loved this place,” Murdoch picked up a handful of dirt and let is sift through his fingers, “but as much I as loved it, I hated it,” he brushed his hands together, wiping the dirt from them, “because it cost me first Catherine and Scott and then Maria and you.”
He paused, reflecting on just what his obsession with Lancer had cost Scott and Johnny. That thought required a quick sip from the flask. “But love it or hate it, focusing on the land gave me something to hold on to, helped me survive those battles raging in my head.
Murdoch sighed. “All year long, the struggle continued. Every day a tiny piece of my hope died as the discouraged Murdoch seemed to grow stronger and more convincing while the determined Murdoch’s hold on hope grew weaker. By the time Christmas rolled around each year, my hopes of finding you had dwindled to a gossamer thread.”
He studied Johnny’s face, warmed by the compassion he found there. “I think you’ve guessed that Christmas is a very special time for me.”
Johnny hung his head at that, rubbing the lapel of his jacket between his fingers. “Yeah, I figured.”
“Well, the reason is because Christmas is all about hope. Every Christmas I’d spend time up at that spot you like so much on the hill,” Murdoch paused when a smile quirked the corners of Johnny’s mouth and the boy nodded, “staring up at the stars and thinking about you and your brother.” He glanced in the direction of the hacienda at the thought of his older son.
“Somehow, that time, those thoughts, refilled my heart with the hope that had waned through the long empty year. In the morning, the stubborn Murdoch would be full of hope again and have the ammunition he needed to weather what always turned out to be another year without you both. ”
He had to pause a moment as emotions threatened to overwhelm him. He admitted that his trembling shoulders weren’t a result of the chill air in the barn. Then he felt Johnny’s arm around his waist, the boy’s shoulder brushing lightly against his own. Hot tears rose in his eyes and Murdoch struggled to prevent them from spilling over. He felt Johnny’s tension and ragged breathing as the boy pressed against him and realized his son was wrestling with the same problem.
Johnny leaned against Murdoch and stared at his feet as he fought to master the tornado of emotions his father’s words – and the Old Man’s own war with tears – churned inside him. All those years he’d hated Murdoch Lancer and his father had never stopped searching for him – never given up hope. Humbling, to know that someone cared that much about him.
He glanced sideways at his father, eyes alight with mischief. “Guess that stubborn Murdoch won, huh?” He backhanded an affectionate slap to Murdoch’s stomach. “I just wanna know how that other Murdoch felt about time off?” He cocked his head and grinned. “That Old Man pay any better?”
Murdoch just stared at him for several seconds. Then, to Johnny’s delight, his father roared with deep belly laughs that swept away the tension. Johnny laughed with him, thinking how far he and Murdoch had come together.
//Me and the Old Man are doin’ all right.//
But there was still so much they didn’t know about each other, especially the past that just refused to die. Tonight marked the first time Murdoch had ever even hinted at the details of his tortuous search or the early days of his loss. Those memories were obviously still raw and painful for his father, but Johnny wanted to hear more. He and his father had lowered their barriers before; little by little letting each other glimpse past hurts – and joys. Each uncomfortable episode rewarded their perseverance by drawing them closer together.
He rested his hand on Murdoch’s tense forearm and asked in a voice that wasn’t quite steady, “Will you… will you tell me about that first Christmas… after we left?”
Murdoch’s huge hand covered his for a heartbeat and then his father abruptly stood, striding over to stare out into the night. For a moment, Johnny thought he wasn’t going to respond. Then Murdoch’s voice floated back into the barn and Johnny hurried to stand beside him in the doorway.
“That first Christmas Eve, you’d been missing little more than a week.” Murdoch thrust both hands into his pant pockets and turned his head to look at Johnny. “I wrapped your presents, hoping against hope that Maria would bring you back to me on that special night. I laid them beneath the tree,” he looked back out into the night, “and then I came out here…”
//It was a night much like this one; an incessant, bone-chilling wind beneath a cloudless star-studded sky. I ached with the need to hold you, son. I wandered around the barn, the corral, the house, just walking aimlessly. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I stayed out here for hours until I finally realized you weren’t coming back. Then I… I lost control for a little while. My world had come to an end and I didn’t care anymore, not about anything…//
He felt Johnny’s eyes searching his face and smiled when his son’s hand brushed by his to whisk the flask from his pocket. Johnny didn’t say a word, but his eyes held Murdoch’s as he sipped from the stolen prize before offering it to his father.
Murdoch took a grateful sip. “I stayed out in the corral most of the night with only the wind for company. I’d never been so alone. At last, the wind carried the sound of the church bell as it welcomed Christmas morning. I looked up at the fading stars,” he gazed up into the sky, vividly aware that Johnny’s head followed his, “and that’s when I realized they were the same stars that shone on the very first Christmas. And I remembered how Christmas is all about hope.”
“I was so empty inside,” Murdoch rubbed the flask absently across his chest, “desperate for some shred of hope to go on. I prayed… begged, for some sign,” he stuffed the flask back into his pocket and rubbed his hands together, “anything I could cling to.”
He stared at Johnny and then back up into the sky. “That’s when I saw the shooting star – the brightest I’d ever seen.” He pointed upward, finger tracing the remembered path across the sky. “It reminded me of the star that guided the Magi.”
“The Magi, huh?” Johnny fiddled with the sling.
“Yes. You know, their faith in that star never wavered. They followed it unquestioningly and were rewarded.”
He faced his son, placing both hands on Johnny’s upper arms. “That’s what kindled the flame of hope inside me, John. From that moment on, I knew I’d find you one day.”
Murdoch wasn’t surprised when Johnny hung his head, apparently unable to look at him. He shifted position so that he and Johnny stood side by side and wrapped his arm around the boy’s trembling shoulders, humbled at how his uncharacteristic openness had touched his son. He found it incredibly difficult to bare his soul, but sharing past hurts was the foundation of his new relationship with his younger son. Like it or not, he’d come to realize the boy would always have some measure of doubt and insecurity where he was concerned. It was an unfortunate fact of life, a legacy from the lies Johnny had grown up with.
He turned his head sideways, the better to study the boy’s face. He didn’t like the pallor, tinged with the telltale flush of fever staining the high cheekbones. Johnny was certainly paying the price for pushing himself too hard. He just wasn’t able to totally disguise his pain and exhaustion. Murdoch tempered the urgency to bundle his son into bed with the satisfying knowledge that the boy was safe, and, thank the Lord, home.
“Tonight is the first Christmas Eve since you disappeared that I won’t look up there,” he pointed toward the stars, “and pray that you’re alive.” He stroked the back of Johnny’s dark hair before dropping his hand to the top of the boy’s shoulder and squeezing.
“My prayers have been answered and my hopes rewarded. You and your brother will spend Christmas day together, here with me…” he swallowed the hitch in his voice, “where you belong, son.”
Johnny’s heart threatened to pound through the wall of his chest. Long uncomfortable moments passed as he searched frantically for the right thing to say. Finally, realizing there was nothing he could say, he cocked his head so that his cheek rested against Murdoch’s hand on his shoulder and brought the conversation back to the present.
“I’m sorry, Murdoch.”
”What in the world for?” Murdoch straightened and stared at his son, clearly taken by surprise at the apology.
The perplexed expression on his father’s face helped Johnny regain control of his voice. “Well, you wanted our first Christmas together to be special, centered on Lancer and the family, all of us gathered around the table…” He gestured toward the hacienda. “Guess I ruined your plans, huh?”
“Nonsense, Johnny!” Murdoch shook his head, his expression changing to one of disbelief.
“Yes, I had planned to celebrate a certain way, and the fact that we need to be out here,” he pointed into the barn, “has changed some things. But that really doesn’t matter, son.”
His arm swept around Johnny and he pulled the boy hard against him. “We’re all here – safe and well. That’s what really matters to me.” He rested his cheek on the top of Johnny’s head.
Father and son stood still for a moment, neither trusting himself to speak.
Murdoch raised his head and loosened his grip. He didn’t want Johnny to feel restrained or cornered. But his son didn’t pull away immediately and the fact that the boy remained within the shelter of his father’s arms chased away Murdoch’s goose bumps caused by the icy evening air.
Johnny closed his eyes and bowed his head, reflecting on everything he’d learned about hope from Murdoch tonight. It did come from within – just like happiness. Every man had to accept the responsibility for his own hope. All of a sudden, things didn’t look so bleak. Just as his father’s hope had dwindled and rekindled, so had his own concerning Barranca. Johnny swore he could feel it flare anew, its flame once again burning brightly inside him.
He’d nearly lost it, that gossamer thread fraying almost beyond repair. But the Old Man had shown him how to muster his strength and harden his will to find the hope within himself. Yes, it did come from inside, but tonight, his father had presented him with a precious gift. And Johnny could only call it a gift of hope.
//Thanks, Murdoch. I needed that.//
Johnny took a step back and looked up at Murdoch, trying to thank his father with his eyes. His heartbeat accelerated at the way the deep crinkles around Murdoch’s eyes and mouth seemed to disappear in response. When his father smiled, he gave him a thumbs up sign before turning away to head into the barn – and his horse.
He knelt beside the golden head and rubbed the palomino’s broad forehead, concentrating every ounce of energy into conveying his hope through his hands. Barranca could make it. The palomino wouldn’t quit.
Johnny remembered his own recent illness. He’d been lost, trapped in a smothering darkness – far, far away and yet aware of his family’s presence and their words. That peaceful void beckoned seductively, so easy to surrender and let it carry him away forever, bringing an end to the agony. But the love that surrounded him forced him to fight, to resist the temptation to let go. Then Murdoch somehow found him, brought him home, and he’d survived.
Barranca was lost somewhere in that void now, fighting to hang on. He must find his compadre and bring him home, just as his father had refused to let him die. Johnny set out to do just that with hands and voice.
//I gotta find him, lead him back home. Then he’ll be okay.//
“You’re a good fella, compadre. You’re gonna be all right,” Johnny murmured as he rubbed Barranca’s ears and jaw. Gentle fingers cupped the horse’s eyes, stroking down the dished face to caress the mole soft skin of muzzle and lips; light silky touches the gelding usually loved. But the palomino lay silent and unresponsive.
Time lost all meaning to Johnny. He stepped through a door in his mind and into another realm, a zone of calm, quiet tranquility where nothing existed but him and Barranca. It was the place he went when he gentled a horse – a region in his head where he become totally animal, communicating in some mystical, unknown way with voice and hands, every sense totally attuned to the horse. The constant gnawing pain in his shoulder; the exhaustion that dragged at his limbs as though he was slogging through quicksand; the dizziness that threatened to slam him, retching, to the floor – all were thrust resolutely aside as he focused only on his cherished palomino.
Murdoch knelt beside the horse and examined it as Johnny continued the crooning and stroking. He wasn’t happy with the results. True, the animal’s belly wasn’t as swollen as it had been when he first arrived at the barn. Yet its breathing was faint, rapid and shallow. Its eyes were closed and despite his firm attempts, Murdoch couldn’t elicit a response from the palomino. In order to have any realistic chance of recovery, Barranca needed to rally – and soon. But the horse seemed to be slowly slipping away.
//Maybe he’ll just die and Johnny won’t have to shoot him. … But then he’d never forgive himself for making the horse suffer needlessly for so long… Come on, big horse. Time to wake up!//
He sighed and rose on creaking knees to find a more comfortable seat on the stacked bales of straw. Johnny remained at his friend’s head, trying with voice and touch to reach into the void and bring his horse home. Barranca sprawled in the straw, still as stone, with no visible response to Johnny’s ministrations. The three of them remained that way for what seemed hours. The only sounds in the barn were the horse’s raspy gasps and Johnny’s lyrical cadence.
Murdoch’s heart broke for his son. The boy wanted the horse to get well with every fiber of his being and Murdoch prayed that Johnny’s hope would be rewarded. Yet the minutes ticked away with no response from the palomino while Johnny seemed to grow weaker.
//I tried to help him rekindle his hope. Was I wrong? Did I make it that much harder for him to let go?//
The young man shivered despite the two jackets and the blanket Murdoch had smoothed over his shoulders. His injured arm stroked and soothed the horse instead of finding much needed support from the sling. As the golden-toned voice grew weaker and steadily hoarser, Murdoch’s concern for his son intensified.
Dr. Jenkins had warned him that Johnny was susceptible to a variety of illnesses as a result of his lowered resistance and depleted strength. The events of the afternoon and evening added the complications of exhaustion, possible infection, and intense emotions to an already mercurial mixture. And the frigid air of the barn didn’t help matters. Johnny could easily succumb to pneumonia! He noted the tell-tale signs of rising fever and reached a decision. His son needed to rest and warm up before he became seriously ill.
//Sorry, son, but its time to take care of you now. Sam’s going to blast me with both barrels for not getting you to bed! I know you can’t leave your horse, but you will rest.//
Murdoch steeled himself for a major battle. Johnny wouldn’t want to leave his horse’s side for an instant, but his father vowed to get the boy warm. The adverse combination of fever and chills terrified him, bringing back the awful memories of Johnny’s suffering both before and after his surgery. The young man had writhed in the deadly grip of fever and chills then and Murdoch prayed he would never again see his son so ill.
//I won’t allow him get so sick again. I’ll get him warm and then force him to rest. No, not force. Ask, don’t order. And keep your temper, ‘Old Man’…//
Even as he reached out to put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder, Barranca’s ear twitched. First one golden ear flicked toward the sound of that mesmerizing voice. Then the second ear swiveled forward and the palomino moved his head in the straw.
“Barranca!” Johnny’s fingers brushed the horse’s muzzle. “Hey, fella.”
He caught his breath on a sob and stretched out in the straw beside his horse, head pillowed on the tangled ivory mane. His mouth rested just outside one ear and he continued whispering to Barranca, one hand smoothing the hair on the palomino’s jaw and then reaching up to rub the broad forehead.
Murdoch gaped open-mouthed as the horse groaned and kicked feebly with his hind legs. He knelt beside his son and patted the palomino’s neck, not quite trusting the signs of life in the horse. What were the odds of the animal even regaining consciousness? Yet Barranca was reacting to Johnny’s voice and hands. He marveled once again at the power of hope and faith.
Johnny turned a fever-flushed face up to his father. “He’s tryin’, Murdoch. If there was just some way to get rid of that gas in his belly…”
His son’s words touched a chord in Murdoch’s brain. It hovered on the periphery of his thoughts, a tantalizing idea that seemed to evaporate into meaningless wisps of smoke when he tried to capture it as a coherent thought. After several unsuccessful attempts, he abandoned the effort. If he left it alone, allowed those subconscious thoughts to percolate unrestrained, the idea would eventually emerge.
He sat back on his heels, watching in amazement as the horse wriggled its upper lip along Johnny’s forearm and nuzzled into his hand. Such trust between man and beast! How was it possible for a man and a horse to enjoy that kind of bond?
He remembered the surprise, swiftly followed by button-busting pride, when he’d watched Johnny’s first ride on the furiously bucking palomino. The boy had made it look easy and for the first time, Murdoch experienced a parent’s delight in the accomplishment of a child. That’s my son!
Yet that simple pride was nothing compared to his feelings on observing Johnny gentle the wild colt, Smoky. His son staged an astonishing exhibition, one that Scott described simply and eloquently as ‘magic.’ Murdoch couldn’t think of a more appropriate description for his son’s vaunted prowess with horses. Many vaqueros possessed the skill to stick on a determined bucker, but Johnny’s abilities went so much deeper. A tiny smile quirked the corner of his mouth as he recalled Cipriano’s rare praise, “muy mustañero.”
//Both of my boys are uncommon horsemen. Just look at that horse respond to Johnny!//
“Yeah, you’re a good fella. You gonna wake up for me? That’s it, c’mon.” Johnny struggled up to his knees, continuing his exhortations.
Murdoch reexamined Barranca, taking care not to come between the horse and Johnny. The palomino was certainly like his owner – fighting to stay alive, to survive against the odds. He seemed stronger and his stomach was less distended and not as tender. There were even some faint gut sounds that had been ominously absent earlier. But Murdoch remembered how long the animal had already been off his feet and noted the size of the still-swollen belly.
They weren’t out of the woods yet, the horse might still die. No, it was the other way around – instead of certain death, there was now a faint glimmer of hope. Johnny had hit the nail on the head – they must find a way to quickly rid Barranca of the trapped gas. He wracked his brain for a solution or even a lame idea.
Nothing came to mind, but that elusive thought still tickled in the back of his head, tingling with importance. Try as he might, Murdoch couldn’t capture it. Then, without warning, Johnny pitched forward, collapsing in a lifeless heap across the horse’s mane and his only thought was tending his son.
//Vat of molasses. I fell into molasses and I can’t get out. Where’s the surface? Hard to breathe. So dark and heavy… Which way is up? Can’t breathe… hurts… I’m trapped!//
Johnny struggled against the cloying darkness, thrashing his head and legs in a desperate effort to find and reach the surface. A great weight pressed on his upper body, hampering his ability to move, and his heart pounded as he fought another battle against rising panic. But he wouldn’t give up, his razor-honed survival instincts urging him to flail and kick.
His shoulder screamed in outrage. Flaming tongues of fire sizzled up and down his arm, chest and back. A low-pitched roaring filled his ears and he gradually became aware that the sound was his father’s voice and the weight on his body was those massive hands holding him still. He was safe! Murdoch’s calm, authoritative tones allayed his fears and Johnny went limp with relief beneath his father’s hands. He panted, trying in vain to find a way to draw air into his lungs without fanning the inferno on his shoulder.
“Easy, Johnny.” Murdoch brushed Johnny’s unruly hair back from his forehead. “Lie still, son.”
“Murdoch?” He blinked, trying to clear the treacle and cobwebs from his eyes. Then he remembered the palomino and struggled to sit up. “Barranca!” Murdoch pressed him back into the straw.
“He’s awake. He hasn’t tried to stand up.” Murdoch held a mug of broth to his son’s lips. “Drink this.”
“Gotta see him…”
“You stay put, young man.” Murdoch wagged a warning finger.
Murdoch’s tone cut through the wisps of confusion. Johnny had learned that it didn’t pay to argue with the Old Man when he turned into a big mother hen. And his tone clearly signaled that his father had reached the clucking point. He forced himself to lie quietly, aware that his head and upper back were supported by the stacked bales of straw and a pillow, his arm was tucked into the sling, and he was draped in blankets. As always, such assiduous attention to his comfort left him feeling vaguely uneasy. Yet these carefully considered displays of his father’s thoughtfulness and concern touched him with warmth of another kind.
“That’s better.” Murdoch’s voice carried a hint of approval. “Now, I want you to drink this broth Teresa brought.” He slipped his arm behind Johnny’s head and held a mug to his son’s lips.
Johnny drank obediently, recognizing Teresa’s “nasty broth” as he’d dubbed it. Not that the name had anything to do with the broth itself – it actually tasted pretty good. But he’d always gotten a big chuckle out of Teresa’s claim that her little gem could cure any general nastiness. It sure felt good sliding down his throat now, spreading a warming glow that eased his chills. He licked the last drop from his upper lip, relishing the taste.
Murdoch settled Johnny’s head back on the pillow. “Feeling better?” He inspected the mug, satisfied when he realized the boy had downed its entire contents.
“I’m all right – just kinda dizzy for a minute.” Johnny turned his head away from Murdoch. If his father couldn’t see his face, maybe he wouldn’t recognize the lie.
“Well, that ‘little bout of dizziness’,” Murdoch’s dry drawl left no doubt that he wasn’t fooled for a second, “left you unconscious for a while.” He lifted Johnny’s uninjured arm and laid his son’s hand on the horse’s nose. “You’re right next to Barranca. You can touch him and talk to him. So there’s no need for you to move around or sit up.” He put his hands on his hips and fixed Johnny with a stern stare. “Understand?”
“But…,” a flash of rebellion sparked in Johnny’s eyes at the dictatorial tone.
Murdoch quashed the insurgency with his best parental glare. “No ‘buts’, John.” He rested his hand on Johnny’s forehead. “You have fever and chills and you passed out. I am not going to argue with you.”
Johnny slumped against the pillow. No use pushing it when Murdoch clucked that way. Besides, the fire in his shoulder just wouldn’t quit and his head swam when he tried to sit up. His entire body ached and throbbed. No matter how he shifted his weight, something hurt. He was bruised, exhausted, and if his head was any judge, maybe even a little tipsy. He tried to take his mind off of his physical discomfort by focusing on his horse, tickling the palomino’s chin.
Barranca wrinkled his upper lip in response to Johnny’s touch, moving his head to follow the trail of those stroking fingers. But his eyes and nostrils were still red-rimmed with pain and he made no effort to raise his head or attempt to stand. Johnny admitted that they still faced an uphill battle for the palomino’s life.
//Gonna be a long night. Gotta rest up a little or I’m gonna pass out again.//
He pulled the blanket tighter under his chin as a new wave of chills jerked through him. He felt Murdoch’s hands supporting his head and pressing a cup of something warm to his lips.
“Take some more broth, Johnny. We’ve got to get you warm.”
Johnny sipped the broth, eyes closed. He was so damn tired! It was the same debilitating weariness he’d felt after his surgery – as though every last ounce of energy had drained out of him and raising his head required a heroic effort.
//Oh boy, Sam ain’t gonna be happy with me.//
His eyes snapped open when he heard Teresa and Cipriano. Johnny realized that these two had been near the barn throughout the long evening, poised to offer any help he might need. Guilt pricked at his conscious – how could he drag them out into the cold, monopolizing their time on this most special of nights? Yet he knew they didn’t mind, were pleased to be able to do this for him. This evidence of his extended family’s love moved him to the brink of tears. He closed his eyes and drank in the sound of their voices.
“Cipriano has the hot bricks, Murdoch. I’ve brought more broth and coffee.”
Johnny felt Teresa’s hand on his cheek, caressing it much as he’d stroked Barranca’s jaw. He tried to smile at her, but just couldn’t find the strength.
“Thank you, Teresa. Here, Cipriano lets get a brick by his feet and one on each side.”
He felt their hands beneath the blankets, arranging the warmed bricks. The heat emanating from the heavily wrapped bundles felt heavenly and Johnny heaved a grateful sigh. “Thanks,” he managed to whisper.
His eyelids were so heavy. Johnny let them droop, marshalling his strength before attempting to open his eyes again. The familiar voices droned in the background, but the conversations made no sense to him and he was too tired to try and unravel his tangled thoughts.
“I don’t like the fever and those chills, Murdoch. He looks ill.”
“It can’t be helped, darling. Cipriano, did you send-“
“Walt is on his way, Señor.”
“Good. Now tell me what you think about this horse.”
“Barranca, he is better… yet it goes on too long. For both of them.”
Johnny drifted then, floating on the warmth of the bricks and broth. He kept his right hand on Barranca’s muzzle, part of him alert to any change in the horse’s condition while he attempted to store energy for the battle to come. He wasn’t sure he was up to a major struggle, his reserves were all but gone. That thought scared him, yet as quickly as the fear tightened his chest, it subsided. He didn’t have to ride into battle alone anymore – Scott, Murdoch, and Jelly would be beside him every step of the way. And with that reinforced sense of security, Johnny succumbed to the darkness.
He roused with a start when he felt Murdoch’s hand on his forehead and scrubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. “How long…”
“A few minutes, son. It’s all right, nothing’s happening. You need to rest.” Murdoch settled himself on the straw bales beside Johnny.
Johnny glanced around, noting that he was once again alone with his father – the same father who kept staring at him with such concern that it made him uneasy. He looked up at Murdoch and sighed, a hint of mischief peeking from his lopsided smile. “Guess I did it again, huh?”
Murdoch responded to that trace of deviltry and flashed his son a teasing grin. “You know, on the way back from Green River, Scott suggested locking you in the wine cellar until Christmas morning. Just to keep you out of trouble’s way.” He bit his lip to hold back the laughter that threatened to explode at the chagrined expression on Johnny’s face.
“Given your record of mishaps, I had to agree it seemed a sensible idea.” Murdoch had to chortle then; his younger son’s indignant glare and hang-dog look were priceless.
“My record of mishaps?” Johnny spluttered. “Oh boy, I don’t go lookin’ for trouble, but it sure as shootin’ comes huntin’ me.” He glowered at his father. “I don’t enjoy havin’ my bones set, or gettin’ stitches, or havin’ a bullet dug out. And I sure don’t like havin’ a whole flock of mother hens cluckin’ over me ‘cause they think I’m sick.” He grabbed the empty broth cup and shook it at Murdoch.
“The only person to benefit from my ‘record of mishaps’ is Sam.” Johnny dropped the cup, snatched up a handful of straw, and tossed it at his grinning father, “And even Sam gets fed up with seein’ me.”
Murdoch brushed the straw from his shirt before replying. “He has seen rather a lot of you, son!” He couldn’t resist that little zinger and snickered when Johnny blushed to the roots of his hair.
“I ain’t ever gonna be allowed to forget it, am I?” Johnny sighed and shook his head. “The wine cellar, huh? You really think lockin’ me in there would do any good?” He slapped his father’s leg. “When me and trouble are set on bumpin’ heads, no ol’ wine cellar’s gonna keep us apart.”
Murdoch ruffled Johnny’s hair. “I don’t even want to think about you and trouble bumping heads in my wine cellar! No doubt you’d destroy the best bottles. Perhaps the outhouse is more suitable.”
“Outhouse? You’re the one needs the outhouse, Old Man.” Johnny retorted. “You’re so full of it that if I stepped on your toe,” he swatted the toe of Murdoch’s boot, “it’d squirt right outta your ears. You’re even worse than Scott!” The spark died out and Johnny’s expression drooped noticeably when he uttered his brother’s name. He turned his head away as the memory of his confrontation with Scott reared its ugly head.
Murdoch instantly realized the reason for Johnny’s sudden change of mood. He prayed he could use this chance to sew seeds that would enable his sons to heal the rift between them. He leaned forward and touched Johnny’s shoulder.
“John, you know that Scott did what he thought was the right thing.”
Johnny nodded, but he didn’t look at his father.
“He made that decision because he was concerned about you. Rightly or wrongly, only about you.”
“Yeah, I know.” He swallowed hard and glanced at Murdoch, then quickly dropped his gaze back to his lap. “Is he all right?”
Murdoch took a moment to consider his reply “I’d say your brother is feeling as bad as, if not worse, than you do concerning your argument.”
“He told you, huh?” Johnny’s tone revealed his surprise at the thought that Scott would discuss their confrontation with Murdoch.
“He didn’t say a word to me. He didn’t have to. I don’t know any details,” Murdoch shook his head, “and I don’t want to know. That’s between the two of you.” He rubbed the side of his head. “Son, I hope you remember that whatever passed between you was said in the heat of the moment.”
Johnny kept his head down, but Murdoch knew his son was listening intently.
“Sometimes, when you feel strongly about something,” Murdoch leaned forward, rubbing his hands together, “it blinds you to everything else. Today, all Scott could see was you,” he let his hand drop to the nape of Johnny’s neck and squeezed, “and all you could see,” he pointed at the palomino with his other hand, “was Barranca. You didn’t find a middle ground because you both cared too much.”
Murdoch left his hand in place on Johnny’s back as he watched his son out of the corner of his eye. The boy’s dark head remained bowed, but his right hand revealed his tension as it flew from picking at the blanket, to shredding pieces of straw, to fiddling with the sling. Murdoch smiled, reflecting that it often appeared as though his younger son thought with his hands. In any event, he was satisfied that Johnny was pondering his words.
Johnny leaned into his father’s hand, grateful for Murdoch’s wise words and the physical demonstration of his support. He detested being at odds with his brother, it left him “all catawampus” as Jelly would say. So he’d tried to block out the argument, forcing it to the back of his mind. But it refused to be dismissed so easily, the whole sorry scene replaying endlessly in his head. He hadn’t been able to push it aside or make sense of it all. Until now…
//Scott said what he had to. I wasn’t fair to him – expectin’ him to tell me I was right. It ain’t in him to sit by and watch a horse hurtin’. Him disagreein’ with me that way kinda blindsided me. Like he didn’t trust me no more…
Johnny Madrid, he couldn’t trust nobody. I wanted to, wanted a friend, a friend to have faith in me – Joe, Day, Ishem, a few others. But they just had faith in my gun hand. They weren’t really friends, just trail partners. And I found that out the hard way.
When I came here, I wasn’t gonna trust any of ‘em. I knew better. Nope, just take ‘em for what I could. But I didn’t count on ol’ Scott. He knew who I was, what I was. He’d read the newspaper articles, heard the stories. But that didn’t matter to him. He used his ‘kind eyes’ to look at me… just like I told Tommy.
He had faith in me from the first… made it clear he trusted me. First person since Pablo to trust me. So it threw me, him treatin’ me like a kid and tryin’ to tell me what to do… even sayin’ he’d do it for me like I’d disappointed him so bad he couldn’t trust me to do the right thing. Felt like he’d bushwhacked me.
But that ain’t how he meant it. And I didn’t give him a chance to explain – I just jumped him. Only thing he really did was try to protect me. Wish he didn’t think he had to do that… but I reckon as long as he’s the big brother, he’s gonna act like it sometimes. I gotta tell him I’m sorry.//
Jelly poured himself another drink and refilled Scott’s glass, too. His anxious eyes stayed on his charge, satisfied that their lengthy discussion had helped ease Scott’s self-condemnation and remorse. The young man was thinking things through, no doubt about that. Jelly fancied he could see Scott’s brain working like some complex machine, weighing arguments and drawing conclusions in that efficient, competent way the easterner had.
//That boy’s as quiet as a hoss thief after a hangin’. Means he’s thinkin’. Most times he don’t need advice any more’n a steer needs a saddle blanket. But tonight he sorta got tangled in his own rope and locked horns with Johnny. Good thing he was willin’ to powwow with me about it. Reckon I nudged his thoughts in the right direction. He’ll chew on things fer a while and then he’ll mosey out to the barn and smoke a peace pipe with his brother.//
Scott bent forward with his elbows resting on the back of the sofa, eyes locked on the fire and both hands warming the brandy in the crystal snifter he held. He nodded his thanks when Jelly refilled his glass, thinking how lucky he was to count the older man as his friend. Funny to remember now just how drastically his first impression of the man differed from his current feelings. He’d originally dismissed him as a fraud, a freeloader taking advantage of Lancer’s hospitality and repaying it by stealing.
//I’ve been teased and even criticized my entire life for being too soft-hearted. I don’t know why I refused to give Jelly the benefit of the doubt. But I didn’t… until I saw those kids.//
Jellifer B. Hoskins was a member of the Lancer family now. Scott supposed both he and Johnny considered him as they might a roguish uncle. But he was a stalwart friend and confidant as well. Jelly might not have the benefit of a good education, but the old rascal possessed an abundance of the sort of wisdom and cunning that couldn’t be learned at a school. Scott could only guess how many times Johnny had benefited from Jelly’s shrewd assessments and sensible advice. Jelly instinctively knew how to handle his impetuous younger brother.
He admitted that Jelly knew, all too well, how to handle him, too. Yet he’d never needed the older man’s wise counsel as desperately as he did tonight. And Jelly hadn’t let him down. The handyman’s astute observations concerning his brother offered abundant food for thought, enabling Scott to gradually herd his thoughts into order. Thanks to Jelly, he could see the situation more clearly and understand what he needed to do to rectify his mistake.
//I made a mistake tonight. That mistake wasn’t in expressing my belief that the horse’s suffering has been allowed to continue for too long. No, my mistake was in telling Johnny what to do. I practically ordered him to shoot his horse! And I know better – Johnny and orders don’t mix.
How many times did Grandfather explain the difference between analysis and advocacy? “Scotty, you are a superb analyst with a true gift for defining the differences of opinion while illuminating the areas of agreement. But, my boy, there are many times when being an analyst isn’t enough. At those times, you must become a persuasive advocate and eschew objective analysis in order to promote your business, political, or ideological agenda.”
I crossed that line with Johnny tonight. I could have been a sounding board, encouraged him to talk out his decision, explore his options, and arrive at his own conclusion. Instead, I advocated my position and tried to force him into my way of thinking. I treated Johnny like a kid brother who needs his big brother to make the decisions for him. No wonder he was so angry with me.
I’ve tried to always give Johnny faith and trust. I encouraged him to rely on my acceptance. I withheld it tonight and at the same time acted as though I didn’t trust him to make the right choice. I owe my brother an apology.//
Johnny set his teeth against the groan that threatened as Murdoch checked his shoulder. His father tested the tightness of the bandage and explored along the bruised collar bone. The strong fingers probed over a particularly tender spot and a faint moan escaped.
“Sorry, son.” Murdoch shook his head at the fresh bloodstains. “It’s bleeding again. I have to stop it.”
Johnny sighed. The last thing he wanted was more poking and prodding of the injury. The thing already burned like the dickens and the slightest movement torched his upper body. The pain left him queasy and light-headed. If his father ever guessed just how bad he really felt, he’d send him straight up to bed in his room.
“You know, if you closed your eyes, you wouldn’t even know it was bleedin’.”
“If you closed your eyes,” Murdoch wagged an exasperated finger at his son, “You just might wake up in your bed, young man.”
“C’mon, Murdoch. It ain’t that bad. Can’t you just leave it until Sam comes this afternoon?” Johnny ignored the wheedling tone in his voice. He just didn’t care. The smothering concern was getting on his nerves. “It’s just a few hours now.”
“It is that bad,” Murdoch snapped.
//I thought we had a deal, son. I let you stay out here against my better judgment, but you’re trying my patience now!//
Murdoch laid his hand on Johnny’s forehead, pressing firmly when his son tried to twist away. “You agreed to treat this injury with the respect it deserves. I expect you to honor that agreement. Clear?” He aimed his challenging glare directly at Johnny, holding it until his son sighed and turned his head away.
“Those stains aren’t from seepage. That wound is bleeding freely and needs to be treated and redressed.” Murdoch sighed and shook his head. “If you closed your eyes and swallowed some laudanum, you wouldn’t feel it.”
Johnny opened his mouth, but before he could reply, Murdoch threw up his hands. “Don’t even bother saying it. I know how stubborn you are.”
“They say,” Johnny cocked his head and grinned at his father, “that the apples don’t fall far from the tree.”
Murdoch snorted. “Yes, I think I’ve heard that before.” He patted Johnny’s uninjured shoulder, looking around for the box of medical supplies. He remembered that Teresa had carried them back to the hacienda.
“The medical supplies are in the house.” He rested his hand on Johnny’s hair. “You stay put. I’ll go get them.”
“’kay.” Johnny lolled his head against the straw wall and closed his eyes, trying to settle his stomach. He wished he could have some more of Teresa’s broth. It warmed him and helped suppress the nausea.
He heard Murdoch at the barn door, asking Cipriano to sit with him. Then the segundo’s confident strides echoed in the barn and he grunted as he knelt beside Johnny. Cipriano’s work-gnarled hands adjusted the blankets around Johnny’s shoulders and the segundo clicked his tongue against his teeth.
“Ai yi yi, muchacho.” He fingered the bloody bandage. “This is not good.”
“It ain’t as bad as it looks, Cipriano.” Johnny managed a weak grin. “Hey, is there any more of Teresa’s broth?”
“Sí,” Cipriano poured a mug and held it out to Johnny.
Cipriano pulled a brown bottle of liniment from his jacket pocket. Jelly claimed this bottle was muy especial and asked that he rub it on the stomach and back of el caballo. He shook the bottle and peeled back a corner of the blankets. The segundo worked quickly, leaving the palomino covered and only exposing a small area at a time. He spoke softly as he worked, keeping the horse calm and still.
Johnny sipped his broth while watching Cipriano care for Barranca. He studied Cip’s hands. They reminded him of Pablo’s hands in the deft, sure way they touched the horse, the care and respect so obvious in each comforting motion. Just having the big segundo’s help fueled his conviction that Barranca would pull through.
Cipriano felt Johnny’s eyes on him and looked up. He studied those blue eyes, remembering how they had glowed like the luz del llano the first time Johnny saw the palomino. In the dim stillness of the barn, he continued his ministrations to the horse while recalling his first one-on-one encounter with the muchacho who had come to mean so much to him. That day the early morning sunlight had reflected in the highlights of Barranca’s golden coat, much as the flickering lamplight did now…
The son of El Patron sized up the two cowponies ordinario tied to the fence. His blue eyes glittered with scorn. Cipriano felt an inexplicable sense of pride when el muchacho rejected them and, with the easy encanto of a caballero, asked to select his own mount. Such a silver tongue. How could one refuse this muchacho anything?
At the remuda Cipriano watched Johnny choose the golden horse. Or did el caballo choose Johnny? The segundo knew the spirited palomino well – the finest horse in the remuda, indeed the entire San Joaquin. Muy guapo. This Johnny had an eye for a horse. The golden one would test el muchacho and Cipriano would soon know if Johnnyhad the makings of a vaquero.
But something unexpected happened. A pistolero ducked through the fence and walked toward the palomino, but a mustañero laid his hand on the horse’s head. The hands, the words, the voice… it was as though he watched his cousin Pablo as a muchacho.
He’d known then. El Patron’s son, Johnny, was Pablo’s Juanito – the little one with greatness in him, the chico Pablo swore was el mustañero más talentoso de todos. Señor Murdoch was his patron and his amigo and Señor Scott was un heredero apreciable, a primogénito to be proud of. But Juanito, Juanito era como familia, a muchacho his cousin thought of as un hijo.
Cipriano kept Pablo’s cartas wrapped in oilskin and hidden in his esposa’s hand-carved wooden trinket box. Those cartas, penned in Pablo’s bold, flowing hand, told the story of the niño from the mission. How Pablo took el chico under his wing and then into his heart. Told, too, his cousin’s increasing respeto y admiración for el muchacho’s genius with horses. How Pablo had loved his ‘little one’!
And how proud he would be of Juanito now – as orgulloso as El Patron. Señor Murdoch did well by Juanitothis night, un padre maravilloso. His amigo had at last opened his heart to el muchacho.
Caramba, it had not always been so. When Juanito first came home, all of the rancho’s vaqueros could sense the mala voluntad between el muchacho and El Patron. Cipriano held his breath every time Juanitorode away from the hacienda, afraid that el muchacho might not return.
But that was in the past. Now, Juanito and El Patron acted as father and son. Juanito era feliz finalmente. And Pablo would be so happy for his ‘son’. Perhaps it was time to share those letters with Señor Murdoch and Juanito…
Johnny sensed Cipriano’s eyes on him and glanced sideways at the segundo. He’d found an amigo in Cipriano from his first day at the ranch. During those uncomfortable and sometimes hostile early weeks at Lancer, Cipriano, his wife, Elena, and Maria had often seemed more like family than Scott, Murdoch, and Teresa. Now that he knew Cipriano was Pablo’s cousin, Johnny and the segundo had grown even closer, spending hours talking about the man who had made such a difference in both their lives. He didn’t know how to explain it, but having Cipriano here gave him a tangible link with Pablo and added to his confidence.
“You know anything more to do for him?” Johnny gestured toward Barranca and scratched his cheek. “What would Pablo do?”
“Juanito, has hecho todo lo possible. Pablo could do no more.” Cipriano smoothed the blankets over Barranca. He moved to sit on a bale of straw beside Johnny. “Now it is in los manos del Dios. Perhaps it is time to pray.”
Murdoch rested his hip on the kitchen table and rifled through the medical supplies to ensure that everything he needed for Johnny was inside. Something pricked the end of his finger and he yelped at the sharp stab, yanking his hand out of the box and shaking it. A flannel-wrapped object hung from the tip of his middle finger. He gingerly plucked it loose, sucking on the injury while examining the offending item with his other hand.
It was a long, thin needle, left behind by Sam along with a syringe just in case they needed to administer morphine to Johnny during his recovery. Murdoch had meant to give it back to the doctor, but it had slipped his mind. He stared at the needle now – a hypodermic needle, Sam called it. That meant hollow – the better to inject medication beneath the skin. He caught his breath when that thought coalesced the elusive idea that had hovered in the back of his mind.
//That new procedure I saw at the Chicago stockyards… The vet used a hollow needle to save a bull with gas trapped in its stomach. I brought notes about it home with me!//
He palmed the needle triumphantly and started for the door, tossing a directive over his shoulder, “Teresa, please take care of Johnny’s shoulder. It’s bleeding again.”
He hurtled into the great room, startling Scott and Jelly, and skidded to a halt behind his desk. Eager hands ransacked the meticulously organized drawers, searching for the notes. He retrieved the sheaf of papers and settled down in his chair to study the crinkled pages.
Scott and Jelly abandoned their seats in front of the fire and hurried to stand before the desk. Murdoch ignored them, devouring the words and crude diagrams. He tapped the flannel-wrapped needle on the desk.
“What’s that, sir?” Scott pointed at the piece of flannel.
“The answer,” Murdoch extricated the hypodermic needle, holding it up to the light as though it were an impressive spoil of war, “if we’re lucky.”
“The answer?” Scott turned one of the chairs in front of the desk around and straddled it, resting his forearms along the top of the chair back. Jelly took his cue from Scott and sat primly in the other chair.
“That horse is coming around.” Murdoch raised his eyebrows at the twin looks of disbelief. “That’s the truth, gentlemen.” He palmed the needle and pumped his fist. “If we can just find a way to eliminate the severe bloating, I think he can make it.
“While I was in Chicago, I watched a veterinarian use a needle similar to this one,” he rolled the needle in his fingers and it gleamed wickedly in the lamplight, “to save a bull with severe bloat cause by trapped gas. He inserted the needle directly into the animal’s stomach and the gas trapped inside escaped through a tube threaded inside the needle.”
Jelly shook his head and looked down his nose. “I ain’t ever heard of such a thing!”
Scott rested his chin on his hands atop the chair back. “That procedure is called trocarization.”
“You know of it?” Murdoch drummed his fingers on the desktop.
“Yes.” Scott sat up straight. “During the war I observed Army veterinarians execute the procedure several times. It’s been fairly successful on cattle, but a cow is much different inside than a horse.”
His forefinger traced shapes on the desktop. “For one thing, a bovine has four stomachs while the equine has only one.” Scott held up one forefinger and then tapped it on the desk. “That fact seems to make a critical difference in the success rate.”
“A cow’s innerds sure ain’t the same as a horse’s.” Jelly slipped the needle out of Murdoch’s hand and turned it slowly, studying it. “But it makes sense that ya can stick a holler needle in and the gas’ll come a spewin’ out.”
He looked up at Murdoch. “You gonna try it on Barranca, Boss? Troka whatsis, Scott?”
“The needle used is called a trocar and the procedure is trocarization.” Scott turned from Jelly to Murdoch. “Sir, even the trained veterinarians failed nine times out of ten when attempting the procedure on a horse.”
Jelly gasped and Scott glanced at him. “That’s right. Not an encouraging record, is it?” He looked at Murdoch. “I believe it should only be considered as a last resort.”
“When ya put it thataway, sounds more like a death sentence than a way to save poor Barranca’s life.” Jelly dropped the needle on the desk and scratched his head.
“That’s about the size of it, Jelly.” Scott picked up the needle and rolled it back and forth in his fingers. He met his father’s questioning stare with an assured look of his own.
Murdoch scratched his nose the side of his forefinger. “Why are you so determined that this won’t work?”
Scott stared at the needle twirling in his fingers. “I have three reasons. First,” he held up one finger and looked at his father, “the procedure is a long shot, even for someone who knows what he’s doing,” he laid the needle on the desk and rolled it toward Murdoch.
“Second,” Scott held up two forefingers and shrugged his shoulders, “you don’t.” He bent his head back and gazed up at the ceiling, holding up three fingers.
“And third, this,” he straightened his head and nudged the needle even closer to Murdoch, “isn’t a proper trocar.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“It should be at least an inch longer,” Scott measured the length with the space between his thumb and forefinger, “plus have a wider gauge in order for a tube, a canula,” He mimed threading a tube into a tiny space, “to be threaded inside.”
“Well, maybe it isn’t perfect, but it does offer some chance to improve a bad situation.”
Scott crossed his arms over his chest. “If you insist on trying this, you could easily make this bad situation worse.”
Jelly stared from father to son. “Man’s got a point, Boss.”
Murdoch compressed his lips in annoyance, running his hand through his hair. “Do we all agree that the situation can’t get much worse without losing the horse?” He fixed the pair of them with a searching stare, continuing only when he received a curt nod of agreement. “Well, then I’m going to go ahead and try it on that palomino.”
Murdoch made an angry chopping motion with his hand. “Just save it, you two. Didn’t you just agree that there isn’t anything left to do?” He gestured with both hands, staring from one to the other, then changed tactics to give them his most persuasive smile.
“I know this is a long shot, but I’ve always been a successful poker player – as both of you well know.”
Murdoch looked at Jelly. “Fact is I’ve won most of your next paycheck.” He patted his side where his wallet rested in the inner pocket of his vest. “It’s here in my wallet right now!”
The smile faded when he noticed the skepticism on Scott’s face. “You’ve obviously got something on your mind. Go ahead and get it said.”
Scott sighed and shook his head. “It’s terribly risky.”
“Of course it is,” Murdoch huffed. “I thought we’d agreed that now is the time for desperate measures.” He studied Scott’s face, frustrated by the doubt he still saw there.
“Son, I’m not just a good poker player,” he extended both hands, palms up, “I’m lucky, too.” Murdoch acknowledged Jelly’s snort with a smile. ”I’m betting that my luck will hold true now.
“Your brother knows all about beating the odds with a losing hand,” Murdoch rubbed his upper lip with his thumb, “and I’m going to deal him the ace he needs to win this one.”
He pointed at Scott, “Earlier you said Johnny needs this to end. You’re right. He does need this to end. So let it end here and now,” Murdoch smacked his palm on the desktop, sweeping it across the surface, “one way or another.”
He laid his other palm on the desk and pushed to his feet. The glare he fixed on his older son dared the young man to disagree.
Scott refused to be intimidated. “Sir, have you thought about what will happen if you make a mistake?” He turned his head to stare into the fire – and to escape Murdoch’s infamous “look.” He gazed at the flames for several moments and then slowly turned back to face the desk, staring at his hands.
“I’ve watched horses die after a botched procedure.” Scott pulled the heavy curved blotter toward him and absently rocked it back and forth on the desktop. “It isn’t pretty. If that happens,” he locked eyes with his father, leaning forward to emphasize his point, “and it probably will, it could destroy your relationship with Johnny.”
Scott dropped his gaze to the blotter and nibbled on his lower lip, seemingly lost in an unpleasant memory. He shook it off after several seconds and looked up at Murdoch. “He might never forgive you.”
Murdoch flung up his hands. “Maybe, might, could’ve, should’ve… I promised Pete Adams to rid my vocabulary of those words. I’m not thinking about what bad things might happen,” He slapped his hand on the desk, “I know what will happen if I don’t try this.
“And just maybe, I have a little more faith in your brother,” Murdoch clenched his fists and rested them on his hips, “I think he’d rather that I tried and failed than just not try at all.” He locked eyes with Scott in a direct stare, the challenge of the alpha wolf to an upstart, until his son looked away.
“Now, I could use your help – both of you. Are you coming?” Murdoch shoved his hands into his pockets and stomped toward the French doors.
“Right behind you, Boss,” Jelly followed obediently on Murdoch’s heels, but Scott remained seated, staring at his hands.
Murdoch paused at the French doors and stared back at Scott. When his son still refused to look at him, he sighed, sharing a glance with Jelly that involved a shrug and raised eyebrows. He opened the door.
“Wait!” Scott’s commanding officer’s voice knifed the order through the air and Murdoch felt his back straighten involuntarily. He whirled to face his son. Jelly scrambled aside, anxious not to be caught in the white-hot line-of-sight between father and son.
“Get it said, Scott,” Murdoch barked, in no mood to listen to any more objections from his older son, yet intrigued by Scott’s change in tactics from respect to giving orders.
Scott stood slowly, deliberately. He seemed to stand at attention, back ramrod straight and shoulders cracked back. When he spoke, the respect was back in his voice. “I’ll do it, sir.”
Scott took a deep breath. “I’ll trocarize the horse.”
Murdoch walked back into the room and leaned against the side of his desk, arms folded across his chest. “Well, here’s a different tune.”
“Look, the success of this procedure depends on inserting the trocar in exactly the right location. That site is difficult to pinpoint,” Scott stepped forward to stand directly in front of his father. “If you miss, the horse dies.” He jerked the side of his hand across his neck in a throat-slitting gesture.
Murdoch studied Scott’s face, “At least you’ve seen it performed on a horse. I’ve only seen it done once – and to a bull…
“But, Scott,” Murdoch gripped Scott’s upper arms, “what you said before… if you do this and Barranca dies…” He released Scott’s arms and rubbed his hands together, shaking his head. “It could be your relationship with your brother on the line.”
Scott acknowledged the statement with a nod and caught his lower lip in his teeth. “I agree with your earlier point – Johnny would rather we try and fail than just not try at all.”
A quizzical smile teased at the corners of his mouth, but his eyes never left Murdoch’s. “And, sir, regardless of tonight’s evidence to the contrary, I do have faith in my brother.”
Murdoch met Scott’s gaze and a slowly spreading smile softened his weathered features. “I know that, son. And he knows it, too.”
“There’s more.” Scott smoothed the creases on his rolled sleeves, one finger lingering a moment on the tender, blue-black bruise caused by the toe of Johnny’s boot.
Murdoch’s eyes riveted to the ugly abrasion on Scott’s forearm. He had the sinking feeling that it was a relic of his sons’ earlier confrontation, but assured himself that his boys would work things out. He forced himself to concentrate on Scott’s next words.
“Those times in the war – I did more than just observe the veterinarians. I actually assisted in several of the procedures.” Scott swallowed. “I even performed one myself when there was no vet available.”
“Well how come you didn’t just speak out?” Jelly demanded.
“Jelly…” Murdoch held up a restraining hand.
Scott met Jelly’s accusing stare full on. “You want to know why? I’ll tell you why. Because I inserted the trocar in the wrong place.” He dashed his hand across his forehead and squeezed his eyes shut as though to block out a horrific memory. His voice came out whisper-soft with the trace of a tremor.
“The horse died.” Scott pressed the back of his hand to his lips.
“I… I’m sorry I pressed ya, boy.” Jelly pulled on his whiskers, eyes downcast.
“Scott…,” Murdoch extended a hand to his son, realizing why Scott had sounded so negative about his plan.
Scott stepped back, away from the comfort offered by that hand. “That’s not all.” He glanced from Murdoch to Jelly and back before continuing. “I only witnessed one successful procedure.”
Scott walked to the Christmas tree and crushed the pungent needles between his fingers. “In every other case, the horse ended up dead.”
Murdoch stepped forward to lay his hand on Scott’s shoulder.
//You never mention the horrors you lived during the war. You slip sometimes and give us a tiny glimpse – like you did just now. Johnny and I have talked about Johnny’s nightmares and that seems to have helped him just as Sam said it would. When this is over, I must convince you to discuss your wartime experiences with me – or your brother.//
“I realize it’s a long shot, son, but it just might be Barranca’s only chance.”
Scott stared at his boots. “I understand that, sir.” He glanced up at Murdoch, “We seem to have run out of options and that’s the only reason I’m willing to consider such a drastic action.”
Murdoch squeezed his shoulder. “I understand if you feel you can’t do this. Just tell me what to look for and I’ll do it.”
Scott fingered one of the ornaments on the tree, struggling to quench the unexpected anger Murdoch’s words evoked.
//Damn it, Murdoch. If it needs to be done, I’ll do it! I don’t need you to offer to do it for me as though I’m a child who needs his Daddy… … My God… Like a child… that’s just how Johnny felt when I offered to put Barranca down for him.//
He looked his father in the eye. “I believe our greatest chance for success is if I execute the procedure.” He squared his shoulders and put his hands on his hips. “I said I’ll do it and I will.”
“All right, son,” Murdoch studied Scott’s face a moment. “If you’re sure…”
“Then let’s get started.”
“Not yet.” Scott walked to the French doors and stood with his hand on the door handle, looking out into the night. “I’ll need your help and I’ll call you when I’m ready.” He faced the room and stared directly at Murdoch and Jelly, in turn.
“First, I’ve something I need to say to Johnny… alone.” Scott executed a perfect military about-face and marched through the doors and toward the barn.
Jelly looked up at Murdoch and shook his head. “Oh, Lordy. I sure hope they ain’t gonna scatter no more feathers.”
“No, Jelly, I think those feathers just might get stuffed back into that pillow.”
“Johnny, will you please sit back against that bale?” Teresa scrubbed her blood-stained hands in the basin of warm water she’d used to redress Johnny’s injury. She pointed one dripping finger at Johnny. “And put your arm back in that sling. Do you want to start bleeding again?”
Scott leaned against the door frame, smiling at her harassed tone. His brother, the scamp, was up to his usual tricks, one of which was behaving like the worst patient in California. He looked from Teresa to Johnny and the sight of his brother kneeling beside Barranca wiped away all traces of the smile.
He crossed the barn floor to Johnny’s side, dismayed at the boy’s noticeable deterioration since he’d last seen him. The flush of fever on his brother’s cheeks accentuated his pallor. The intermittent chills that shook Johnny’s entire body appalled Scott. It reminded him of his brother’s misadventure with ‘his sassy busted innerds’, as Jelly referred to the ruptured appendix. And Scott didn’t like to think about that.
Johnny’s head jerked up when he realized Scott was in the barn. He struggled to his feet and faced his brother, wobbling from the effort. Scott couldn’t decide if he saw defiance, suspicion, or something else entirely in Johnny’s expression.
//Now why do you feel you have to greet me standing up? Still don’t want me here? Too bad. I’m not going anywhere, little brother. You need me now and I’m not going to let you down.//
Johnny staggered and nearly fell. Scott leaped to his side, grasping Johnny’s uninjured arm to steady his brother. Teresa hurried to Johnny’s other side and Scott caught her eye, motioning toward the door with his head. Her lips tightened in frustration, but she obeyed him and flounced to the door, swaying hips betraying her annoyance. At last, Scott was alone with Johnny.
He turned to his brother, “Take it easy.”
“I’m fine.” Johnny jerked his arm away, but his gaze fell on the ugly bruise discoloring Scott’s forearm. He froze.
That vivid mark mocked him, glaring proof of his unforgivable conduct. The blemish stood out in stark relief, visibly marring the smooth skin of Scott’s tanned, steel-muscled forearm. Johnny swallowed hard. How many times had that same forearm supported him – patted his shoulder in encouragement, encircled him in a brotherly headlock, held him when he was sick or when the nightmares attacked, carried him when he couldn’t make it on his own? The steadfast tin soldier had extended that forearm with a helping hand to steer him into a new life here at Lancer. If not for Scott… And he’d defaced that same forearm in a childish fit of anger unworthy of even the lowest back-shooting gunfighter!
Johnny tentatively touched the bruise with one not-quite-steady forefinger. “That’s a pretty nasty bruise you got there.” He swallowed and fixed his gaze on Scott’s face. “Your arm all right?”
“This?” Scott’s forefinger tapped Johnny’s, holding it in place against the blue-black contusion. He met Johnny’s gaze and allowed a slight smile to stretch the corners of his mouth.
“Oh, this is sore right now,” he removed his finger from Johnny’s, all too aware that his brother snatched his hand away as though he’d unexpectedly singed it on a hot stove, “but it’ll heal.”
Scott bit his lip when Johnny flushed and hung his head.
//How do I help him understand that I’m the one who needs to apologize?//
As they so often do, the right words seemed to come from nowhere. “It’ll heal,” he gently touched Johnny’s bandaged shoulder with his forefinger, “just like this will.”
Johnny became intensely interested in the toes of his boots, but his forefinger tapped Scott’s. “Yeah…,” He glanced up at Scott’s face and back down at his feet. “Scott, I…”
Scott interrupted. “Are you angry with Barranca for biting you?”
Johnny raised his face to his brother’s, confusion in his eyes. “Course not. He was hurtin’, sick – he didn’t mean it.”
Scott shrugged his shoulders, “And you’re willing to give him the benefit-of-the-doubt because he is a once-in-a lifetime horse?”
“Somethin’ like that.”
“Well, I’d like to think,” Scott stepped forward and laid a hand on Johnny’s uninjured shoulder, “that a once-in-a-lifetime brother should receive the same consideration.”
The breath rushed out of Johnny in a huge sigh. “You think so, huh?” He blinked back tears and bit his lip. “Thanks, brother.”
Scott ached to sweep Johnny into an embrace, but realized that he’d already pushed his big brother act to the limit. He settled for squeezing his little brother’s shoulder. Then he took a deep breath and dove into his own confession.
“Johnny, I’m the one who owes you an apology.” Scott dropped his hand to his side.
“No,” Scott held up a restraining hand, “please let me finish.” He bit his lip. “I tried to force you into my way of thinking instead of listening to you.”
Scott snorted; a self-deprecating, derisive sound. He thumped his chest. “I’m the one whose mouth is bigger than his ears.” His eyes met Johnny’s. “I treated you like a kid brother and I’m sorry.”
Johnny moved to stand side by side with his brother, so close that their shoulders touched. He stared down at his feet. “Oh boy, I’ve learned so many things from you. But one lesson really stands out. So I gotta ask you, did you do what you thought was right?” He glanced up at Scott. “Did you do the best you could at the time, given the facts you had?”
He waited for a reply, but Scott wouldn’t look at him.
Johnny cocked his head sideways and stared at Scott’s face. “Huh, Scott?”
Finally, Scott nodded his assent.
“Well, you remember the night we talked about what that General Sheridan told you in the war?” Another pause, another reluctant nod.
“I won’t ever forget it. Ever.” Johnny fiddled with his sling. “You said that sometimes a man’s best just ain’t good enough and he disappoints himself, even hurts the folks he cares about. But if he’s done his best,” Johnny cocked his head and the blue eyes met Scott’s, “then he has to forgive himself and soldier on.”
Johnny traced the stitching on his jacket cuff with his finger. “I told you then that you didn’t have it in you to disappoint me.”
He bumped Scott with his shoulder and turned to face him. “I ain’t changed my mind.” He swallowed, “I’d be proud to ride into battle beside you. Any place, any time … Lt. Lancer.” Johnny’s voice turned that last nickname into a verbal embrace in marked contrast to the last time he’d spoken it. He held the eye contact for several heartbeats, and then his hand flashed up to bestow a brotherly slap on Scott’s cheek.
Scott laughed aloud then, relieved when Johnny’s chuckles joined his. He caught his brother in a headlock, careful not to put any pressure on the injured shoulder. The world seemed to rock for a moment while it righted itself on its axis and Scott felt as though a great weight had tumbled away. They were going to be all right.
He had precious little time to relish the satisfaction. Johnny’s knees buckled and he would have fallen except for that playful headlock. Scott wasted no time in lowering the boy to the floor and propping him against the pillow leaning on the straw wall.
“Whoa, Johnny.” Scott kept a steadying hand on Johnny’s uninjured shoulder.
Johnny lolled his head back against the straw and took several deep breaths. His hand patted Scott’s. “I’m okay.”
Scott sighed. “Yes, I can see that you are.” He pressed his hand to Johnny’s forehead, shaking his head at the heat he felt there.
“I know you can make it,” Scott tucked a blanket around Johnny’s shoulders, “but since you’re sitting down anyway, I have a proposal I’d like you to listen to.”
His fingers flicked from the blanket to Johnny’s forehead, brushing back the inevitable strand of dark hair. “Then you can decide if you want to ride off into battle together.”
Johnny decided to ignore Scott’s fussing. He cocked his head and looked at his brother from under his lashes. “I’m all ears, brother.” His eyes danced.
Scott rewarded this sass with a brotherly rap on the top of the scamp’s head. “You’d better enjoy those ears while you still have them.” He moved to a bale of straw so that he sat above Johnny with his legs on either side of the boy’s shoulders. “When Sam gets a look at you, he’s going to blister them right off your head.”
Johnny sighed, but his grin spoiled the effect. “He ain’t gonna be happy with me, but I got faith.” He leaned his head back and looked up at Scott. “My big brother will protect me, huh, Scott?”
Scott shook his head and wagged a forefinger at his brother. “Sorry, Johnny, but I’m not about to ride into battle against Sam.” Scott put on his best ‘are you crazy’ expression, “You’re own your own for that one.”
//Have you lost your mind? I have my share of ‘mishaps’, you know. No way will I risk angering Sam.//
Johnny gave him the sad puppy-dog look, complete with quivering bottom lip. “You’d throw your little brother to the wolves? Just like that?”
Scott leaned over Johnny’s shoulder and slipped the injured arm into the sling. He straightened, pausing to whisper in his brother’s ear, “When the wolf is Dr. Jenkins, the answer is ‘yes,” he snapped his fingers, causing Johnny to jump, “just like that’.’’
Scott pulled the blanket back up over Johnny’s shoulder. He sat up and clapped his hands. “Now hush up and pay attention.”
“Okay, I’m listenin’. Even if you are a low-down, sneaky varmint who’d leave his own blood kin to the mercy of a rabid lobo sawbones like Sam.” Johnny couldn’t hold back the ear-to-ear grin that stretched across his face. He felt giddy with relief. The easy banter was back – they were gonna be all right.
Scott rested his hand on the top of Johnny’s head for a heartbeat, acknowledging the rebuilt bridge.
//Laugh it up, Johnny. I can’t wait to see the look on Sam’s face when I share your little ‘rabid lobo’ simile.//
He took a deep breath and nodded toward the horse. “Barranca is fighting this illness with everything he has. He seems much improved from when I last saw him.”
Johnny glanced from Barranca back to his brother, “But?”
“Yes, there’s a ‘but’.” Scott pointed at the palomino. “He’s been down too long. We have to find a way to neutralize that gas in his stomach faster than he is doing it on his own. Do you agree?”
“Yeah.” Johnny cocked his head, hope spreading across his face and through every line of his body. “You know a way?”
“There is an experimental procedure that has been successful on cattle.” Scott closed his eyes at the elation on Johnny’s face and held up a restraining hand. “Now just hold on. A cow is totally different from a horse on the inside.”
“But you’ve seen it work, huh?” Johnny scooted around until he sat cross-legged on the floor, facing Scott. He fixed his brother with hot, eager eyes.
“It’s last ditch, Johnny, for use only when everything else has failed and the only alternative is a bullet.” Scott bent forward and gripped Johnny’s shoulders with both hands.
“I want you to fully understand just how bad it can be. You insert a hollow needle, a trocar,” he mimed a stabbing motion with his left hand, “into the animal’s bloated stomach and the trapped gas is released through the needle.” He rested his hand on Johnny’s shoulder again.
“Sometimes you purge the gas, but the horse dies anyway. Then there are the times when the trocar is inserted into the wrong spot.” He shook Johnny. “That’s sickening to watch and it leaves you no choice.” He released his brother and propped his elbows on his thighs.
“But sometimes it works and the horse is okay afterward. That’s what you’re sayin’, right?” Johnny ran his fingers up and down one suede pant leg, creating and then erasing lines in the leather.
“Rarely.” Scott squirmed in the face of the hope shining from his brother’s eyes.
“But there’s a chance. Is that right?” Johnny grasped Scott’s wrist.
“A minute chance.”
Johnny shook Scott’s forearm. “Is it right, Scott?”
Scott sighed and capitulated. “Yes.”
“And you know how to do this troker thing?”
“I’ve done it once and assisted a vet a few times.” Scott looked down at his hands. “I haven’t had much success with it.” He clenched his hands into fists. “I’m not very lucky and I might guess wrong.”
Scott looked up and locked eyes with his brother. “If I do make a mistake, it means the end. There won’t be any other alternative. Clear?”
“But you’ll try?” Johnny’s grip on Scott’s forearm tightened. “Barranca, all he asks is a chance.” He gazed at Scott’s face, giving his brother the full treatment with wide beseeching eyes. “Will you give it to him?”
Scott knew he couldn’t resist the plea in those eloquent blue eyes, but he soldiered on. “Johnny, do you understand that a mistake is fatal?”
“I got you! Now will you, “he shook Scott’s arm, “help Barranca?”
“Yes. If you want me to try, I will.” Scott hung his head. Part of him was afraid to hear Johnny’s reply. What if his brother would rather trust their father? But Johnny deserved to make the decision. “Or Murdoch is willing to make the attempt, if you prefer.”
Johnny struggled to his knees and slipped his arm from the sling. He braced himself with one hand on the bale on either side of his brother and looked directly into Scott’s eyes. “There ain’t anybody I’d rather trust, Scott.”
He gripped his brother’s knee, “Barranca and me, we want you to try.” He sat back on his heels, hooking his thumbs in his belt and resting his hands on his hips.
Scott met Johnny’s gaze and the overwhelming trust in the blue eyes clutched at his heart. “I’ll try. I…”
Johnny silenced him with a playful swat on the leg. “You just give it your best shot. That’s all we ask.” He rubbed his eye with the back of his hand, “And if it don’t work, we understand. Okay?”
Scott just nodded, unable to speak past the lump in his throat.
//Ain’t gonna be easy for you, is it, Boston? And if it don’t work… well, you’ll be cryin’ inside. You’re really layin’ it on the line for me. Not many folks got the guts to take that kinda chance. Sure am glad that steadfast tin soldier is my brother. Thanks.//
Johnny made a thumbs up sign and bumped Scott’s bicep with it. “Well then, if I can just find a darned bugle, I reckon we’re ready to ride into battle.” He turned to his horse, whispering the news to the palomino.
Scott closed his eyes and sent up the age old soldier’s prayer.
//Dear Lord, please don’t let me &*%@ up.//
Notes on trocarization: Truth among friends? We couldn’t find information on the history of trocarization and don’t know the exact date it was first used. The procedure is described in The Practical Stock Doctor, published in 1912. The book actually describes how to perform the technique on a horse as a means to relieve what it refers to as “Flatulence (or gas) Colic”. That book is a great reference for fanfic writers, by the way. You can find it on line at www.thelitterbox.org/librum/i-tpsd/.
Trocarization is routinely used on many animals, but can be risky when performed on equines. Today, the procedure is carried out by a trained veterinarian, usually within the sterile environment of an operating theatre. For purposes of our story – and because we found no evidence to the contrary – we wrote as if the procedure was still experimental in the 1870s. If we’re wrong, we claim creative license J.
In the golden age of TB racing (roughly 1920-1960) this technique was the provenance of elderly, highly skilled and experienced grooms. There is much folklore concerning non-clinical use of the procedure, but little real facts. Some claim that Mr. Webb used it on Kentucky Derby winner, Black Gold, at one time. Black Gold raced at the Fairgrounds in New Orleans, When I worked on the racetrack and bush track circuit of Louisiana’s Cajun country in the early 1970s, I heard many stories and references to the technique, but never actually saw it done. If someone on the backstretch had a particularly ‘fragrant’ case of gas (and farting seemed to be a favorite pass time!) the joke was “stick a trocar in him.” If the procedure was attempted (on a horse, not a stinky backstretch inhabitant), it was truly considered to be the last resort as we presented it here.
Karen’s research found several actual supply orders from veterinarians in the Union Army. These orders requisitioned trocar needles, thus the basis for our references to Scott’s Army experiences with the technique. Scott Lancer may have been one of the first in the US to actually perform this procedure on a horse. Go Scott!
luz del llano – swamp fire (glows phosphorescent)
encanto – charm
el mustañero más talentoso de todos – the most talented mustañero of them all.
Muy guapo – very handsome
un heredero appreciable – a worthy heir
primogenitor – first born son
Juanito era como familia – Juanito was family
Orgulloso – proud
un padre maravilloso – wonderful father
mala voluntad – tension, bad blood
feliz finalmente – happy at last
has hecho todo lo possible – you’ve done everything possible
los manos del Dios – the hands of God
Johnny hunched on his knees at the barn door, clutching the doorframe for dear life. He retched miserably into the night, striving to block out the harrowing sounds of the battle raging inside the barn. The slaps and shouts, groans and snorts, flailing hoofs and stomping feet created a din he couldn’t ignore. The rank air smothered him with the rancid stench of terror and pain. He clenched his fist inside the sling until the nails bit into his palm.
Scott’s orders reverberated through the barn. “Pull, Cipriano! Come on, Jelly, push on his hindquarters. Help him, Teresa. Murdoch, get the slack out of that rope around his rump. Harder!”
The need to touch his horse, to comfort him, sliced through Johnny in heaving gasps. He staggered to his feet, but his head spun when he tried to move. Barranca’s distress demanded action. He gritted his teeth, pushing away from the doorway, determined to go to the palomino. And crashed forward onto his face.
“Teresa, help Johnny. Now!” Scott continued barking orders. “No, Murdoch! Keep your eyes on the horse. Cipriano, grab that rope Teresa dropped. Keep pushing, Jelly. Let’s MOVE.”
Johnny panted, frantic to climb to his knees. Why was he shaking so? He felt Teresa’s hands on his shoulders. Maybe with her help he could stand up. But he couldn’t. He could only lay there with the world spinning in sickening circles and the terrible groans of his horse echoing in his ears.
“It’s okay, Johnny. Scott and Cipriano rigged a block and tackle. They’re using it to get Barranca on his feet.” Teresa laid the back of her hand on Johnny’s flaming cheek, disturbed at the intensity of his fever. His chills were constant now, violent shivers that shook his entire body. Those limp, sprawled limbs reminded her of a puppet with severed strings.
Johnny’s feeble, futile attempts to rise alarmed Teresa. He flopped on his stomach, seemingly in a daze, making convulsive, uncoordinated efforts to gather his legs beneath him and push up with his arms. She knelt at his waist, wrapping her arms around his chest and pulling his torso sideways and upward so that his head lolled against her.
“Help me, T’resa.” He tried to get his arm up around her neck, but his fingers tangled in her shawl. “Gotta go to him.”
“Shhh. Lie still.” Her heart lodged in her throat at his brittleness. She bit her tongue, physically subduing the urge to call Murdoch. She didn’t have the strength to lift Johnny. And he needed immediate care. But he’d never forgive her if they stopped helping the horse in order to see to him.
Teresa pressed Johnny’s cheek to her bosom. “This part’s almost over.” She stroked his hair, a gesture that calmed him – as she knew from experience. Her voice remained soothing and soft, but she couldn’t explain how. She really wanted to cry like a frightened child.
Her lips brushed Johnny’s ear. “Once they get Barranca on his feet, Scott can go to work and help him.”
Johnny moaned in frustration. He’d asked Scott to help Barranca, but the reality of what that simple request entailed left him sick inside. Scott had explained that he must locate the exact spot to insert the needle. He could find that point only when the horse stood without outside support.
Barranca must stand up on his own. But the palomino wouldn’t cooperate. He’d bared his teeth, pinned his ears, and snaked his head flat along the floor, stubbornly refusing to move. The horse doggedly resisted every attempt to coax him to his feet.
//I tried. I tried so hard, but he’s hurtin’ too bad.//
He closed his eyes at the memory of Scott dragging him away from his horse. His brother wore the mask of the commanding officer. Scott’s hands were kindly, although his voice held nothing but steel. Even thinking about his brother’s precise tone and the direct orders tickled the hairs at the nape of Johnny’s neck. This was a different Scott – one he’d rarely glimpsed before.
“We’ve got to force him. It’s the only way to get him upright.” Scott had hoisted Johnny to his feet.
“You’re not strong enough to help us. Don’t look at me like that.” A momentary lapse of control as the frustration broke through, but Scott shook it off and cracked his shoulders back.
“If you want me to help him, get over by the door,” Scott pointed toward it imperiously, “and stay there, out of the way.”
Johnny gawked at Scott’s eyes. Usually ol’ Boston’s eyes spoke as fanciful as the words that came outta his mouth. Now they were flat, totally devoid of emotion. But overflowing with command.
//Like one of those Roman fellas Scott told me about. Rulers with absolute authority. Betcha their eyes looked like Scott’s. What’d he call ‘em? Oh yeah, Seizers. Reckon they could seize anything they wanted… like Day or the Sexton…//
“Now, Johnny.” Scott emphasized his order with a regal gesture and imperial voice and Johnny had felt like a child sent to the corner.
For once, he received more sympathy from his father. “Come on, son.” Murdoch had half-dragged him to a bale of straw near the door and much too far away from his horse. “Right here. This is a good spot for you.” A quick pat on the back before Scott summoned Murdoch, putting him to work along with Jelly, Cipriano, and Teresa. … Leaving Johnny alone.
Johnny had made one attempt to rejoin the group at Barranca’s side, thwarted by a fierce glare from his brother. He’d never encountered such an expression in those cool blue-grey eyes before. He slumped on the bale, physically ill at his helplessness. Long ago he’d sworn never to be powerless again. Yet here he sat, unable to help when his horse needed him the most. And there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.
“Gonna hafta wallop him.” Jelly’s voice carried with disastrous clarity.
Then it started – the shoving, coaxing, grunting, shouting, slapping. The men – clamoring with harsh voices, hitting with their open palms, pushing and shoving with unforgiving hands and shoulders. The horse – thrashing his head and neck, rolling filmed eyes, and snorting and wheezing with those sickening, wretched groans.
Johnny couldn’t just sit and watch. His horse suffered horribly. And it was just as hard on his family. They had to be ripped up inside at their actions. Part of him wanted to grab his gun and end it. End it just as Scott thought he should have done hours ago.
But the other part of him still insisted Barranca could make it. He believed – and he’d do what he had to do to make it happen. If they’d just let him try one more time… He’d get the palomino on his feet, or die trying.
Or maybe he’d die if he tried. Scott just might kill him if he didn’t stay by the door. He didn’t dare disobey the steel-clad authority in his brother’s eyes.
//Always knew I could make a professional outta you, brother. Even Johnny Madrid don’t have a glare that good.//
So he’d turned away from the battle for Barranca’s life, unable to just watch and do nothing. He intended to wait outside in the corral where he might find some reassurance from the North Star. But the dizziness had other ideas. He took three steps and keeled over, landing heavily on his injured shoulder. His head exploded and pinwheels of light flashed along the back of his eyelids. Were those ants crawling across his eyeballs?
A fountain of pure fire geysered down his arm and across his upper body. He clawed his way to his knees, slumping against the doorframe. He grasped the sturdy frame, refusing to relinquish his hard-earned progress. His hand shook on the wood. He focused on his trembling hand, willing it to hold him.
Just as he thought he’d won the battle, his furious stomach revolted, demanding its share of his attention. Johnny’s entire world narrowed to his mutinous belly. It punished him with deep, retching heaves that seemed to rip his flaming shoulder from the rest of his body. He gritted his teeth and rode the waves of nausea.
Then he’d tried to stand again and now here he was – eating dirt.
Johnny sought to master his traitorous stomach for days – at least it seemed like days. He lost all sense of time, concentrating on controlling his defiant body. How long? Long enough for Scott to rig a block and tackle to pull Barranca upright, according to Teresa.
//Block and tackle. That’s pretty good, Boston. You always think of somethin’…//
Johnny forced himself to look at his horse. The ropes had succeeded in winching the palomino into a sitting position. Barranca’s weight rested on his left hindquarter, both of his hind legs thrust sideways and to the right. His forelegs spread wide and his head hung low, resisting the pull of the ropes. He struggled to flatten his neck and shoulders to the ground and lay down again. Barranca panted, rolling his eyes and making no attempt to use his hind legs. The sight of the horse sitting like a dog was actually funny, but Johnny had no desire to laugh.
He watched his family fight the horse, doing everything they could think of to convince the animal to stand. Cipriano guided Rojo, one of the massive Belgian draft horses, pulling Barranca upward, playing the tension in the rope like a master… Scott labored at the palomino’s head, heedless of the danger from the horse’s thrashing head and front hooves… Jelly and Murdoch knelt behind Barranca, muscles straining, ignoring their protesting joints, shoulders thrusting against the sweat-slicked hindquarters… Each man giving his all to save Johnny’s horse.
His family waged a valiant struggle – every one of them with the exception of the horse himself. Barranca wasn’t even trying to use his hind legs. Johnny realized that the pushing motion caused his horse intense pressure and agony. But Barranca had to help. They’d never get him up unless he did. Even using those ropes in Scott’s ingenious configuration. If Barranca wouldn’t try, if they couldn’t get him on his feet… Johnny glanced at his six-gun and shuddered.
//No. Not now. Not tonight. Nope… C’mon fella. I’m right here. We’ll do it together, compadre.//
Johnny squeezed his eyes shut and willed his trembling body into control. Control the breathing… slow the heart rate… slowly, so slowly. Breathe through the pain, push it to the back of your mind and shut it away. Breathe in… Breathe out… At last he mustered the strength to lift his head.
His eyes sought the red-rimmed eyes of his horse, catching the animal’s attention. As soon as the golden head turned toward him, Johnny looked down. He didn’t want direct eye contact. He could hear Pablo’s voice, ‘When you look the horse directly in the eye, he sees the stare of the leader of the wolf pack or the hungry jaguar.’ Now was the time to communicate with the angle of his shoulders, the curved line of his head and arms, the sound of his voice.
His compadre stared at him. Johnny summoned every ounce of will he had. He forced his tongue over his cracked lips, at last finding a drop of spit to wet them. He sneaked a breath past the pain. He almost passed out from the effort, but held the darkness at bay by sheer grit. Johnny whistled – the special whistle that never failed to draw a response from his horse. It didn’t fail him now.
The palomino flung his head up, whiffling through his nostrils to acknowledge that signal. His ears swiveled toward Johnny. He moved one foreleg – as close to pawing as he could manage.
“C’mon, fella. Let’s go!” Johnny huddled awkwardly against Teresa, barely able to hold his head up.
Barranca slung his head back and forth, swinging it like a pendulum. He heaved a great sigh and gathered himself, bugling in distress when his movements aggravated his cramps.
Johnny managed another whistle. The palomino grunted and gasped. Barranca jerked his head up. The muscles along his neck, shoulders, and sides rippled as he strained with effort. And then the muscles danced along his hindquarters.
Barranca thrust with his hind legs. He lurched forward, front legs spraddled and slipping as he scrabbled for balance. He teetered back, fighting to steady his hind legs underneath his body.
Johnny whistled again. Barranca hurled himself forward, obeying his owner’s summons. His hind legs slipped and he careened frantically, searching for a purchase in the deep straw. He whinnied in terror as the ropes around his barrel tightened unmercifully, pulling him forward and upward.
Johnny couldn’t see how he did it, but Scott orchestrated the reactions of all of the men. His brother moved like greased lightning, orders flowing in a non-stop staccato as he took advantage of Barranca’s efforts. The men worked with the horse now, steadying, balancing, helping move the weight forward onto his forehand so the horse could gather his hind legs beneath him.
The pain and cold overwhelmed Johnny. He felt himself swirling away, spun round and round as though trapped in a sucking whirlpool. The darkness cascaded over him, leaving him powerless to resist it. The last thing he saw was Barranca, wobbling and staggering, supported by Scott’s ropes. But standing on four feet.
//We did it, compad…//
Time stood still for Scott. He acknowledged only sound and motion as every fiber of his being focused on forcing his brother’s palomino to its feet. His narrowed vision provided perfect clarity. He observed the horse’s feet, head, and eyes, reading the animal’s next move and directing his troop of helpers without conscious thought.
When Barranca responded to Johnny’s whistle, Scott seized the opportunity. The combined efforts of men and beast did the trick. One moment the barn echoed with sound and frantic movement. The next, time started ticking again, the horse stood upright, and all sound and motion ceased.
Scott broke the spell. He sucked in a deep breath and his eyes met those of his father. The triumph on Murdoch’s face reflected his own victorious expression. He stretched a reassuring hand to the palomino, stroking the heaving horse’s neck.
Teresa’s panicked scream galvanized Scott into action. He sped toward the horrifying site of Johnny’s boneless form, aware of Murdoch directly on his heels. Scott knelt beside Teresa and Johnny only to be unceremoniously elbowed aside by his father.
“I was afraid of this.” Murdoch tested the degree of fever, laying the back of his hand on Johnny’s cheek.
Scott reached out his own hand – only to find himself jostled aside once again, this time by Jelly.
“Derned Lancer stubborn!” Jelly brushed the hair back from Johnny’s forehead. “Boy wouldn’t move his camp for a prairie fire.” His fingers traced the outline of fresh blood on the bandages. “I knowed we oughta put him to bed. Hmmph. Limp as a neck wrung rooster.” He jutted his chin and shook his head.
Scott gritted his teeth and counted to ten. He stood and squeezed Jelly’s shoulder in a purposeful grip. “Help Cipriano with Barranca, Jelly.”
“We can’t allow the horse to lie down again.” He pulled Jelly to his feet. “Go help Cipriano. Keep him standing.” Scott turned Jelly toward Barranca. “Now.” A warning push started the old horse wrangler on his way.
Jelly looked over his shoulder. He rolled his eyes and spluttered. He opened his mouth, but one look at Scott’s resolute eyes convinced him to reconsider. He swallowed his retort and hurried to do as he’d been ordered.
Scott turned back to his brother, not surprised to see Murdoch scooping the boy into his arms. He bent to assist his father.
“Here, Murdoch. I’ll take his legs.”
The two men worked together, paying close attention to Johnny’s injured shoulder. Murdoch positioned Johnny’s back against his chest and wrapped his arms around the boy’s torso, lifting him from the waist. He stood facing Scott. Scott’s arms supported Johnny’s knees. Teresa stayed between them, ready to help if needed, ensuring that the injured arm didn’t fall out of the sling.
“Ready?” Murdoch waited for Scott’s nod. “Let’s go.”
Murdoch stepped backward toward the barn door. Scott stepped backward toward the interior of the barn. Johnny moaned at the sudden pressure on his injury.
“Stop!” Teresa cried.
Scott sighed and patted his brother’s stomach. “Sorry, Johnny.” He looked up at Murdoch. “Where are you taking him?”
Murdoch stared at Scott as if the young man were daft. “Upstairs to his bed,” he compressed his lips and shook his head, “where I should have sent him when we first arrived home.”
Scott cocked his head and scrutinized his father’s face. Murdoch fancied he could read disbelief on the handsome features. No doubt the young man wondered about his sudden change of tune. Scott’s expression told him that his son had other ideas about where his brother belonged.
“Scott,” Murdoch drew out his son’s name as a way to emphasize his point. “Johnny can’t,” he shook his head and sharpened his tone, “stay out here any longer.”
Scott’s eyes locked with Murdoch’s. “Isn’t it a bit late to reach that conclusion?”
Murdoch closed his eyes and blew out his breath. He spit out each word. “He needed to take care of his horse. Now it’s time to take care of him.”
Scott took a cautious, subtle step backward, gratified when Murdoch subconsciously followed his lead. “Don’t you think he still needs to take care of his horse?”
Scott nodded toward the palomino. “Did you see Barranca respond to him? Johnny is the only reason that horse found a way to stand up.”
Murdoch glared at his older son, furious that they were carrying Johnny back inside the barn instead of to the house. “I saw that, Scott.” He inclined his head toward Johnny. “Do you see how sick he is?”
//Make up your mind, son. Earlier you wanted me to order him to bed. Now, when he’s unconscious and burning up with fever you want him here by his horse. I don’t understand.//
Scott halted beside the row of stacked straw bales. “Teresa, please bring more broth and some of your willow bark tea.” He bent forward to touch Johnny’s cheek. “Better bring some cold water and compresses, too. We need to get this fever down.”
He waited until the girl ran through the door before replying to Murdoch’s question. “I see exactly how sick he is.”
Scott lowered Johnny’s legs to the straw, motioning for his father to follow suite. He put his hands on his hips and faced Murdoch. “You had to know this would happen, sir.”
“I knew nothing of the kind!” Murdoch threw up his hands. “I knew Johnny needed to stay with his horse. I knew he’d suffer consequences.” He shook his head, running his hand through his hair. “I hoped it wouldn’t come to this.”
Murdoch knelt beside Johnny and tucked a blanket around his shivering son. He smoothed it across Johnny’s shoulders, repeating the movement over and over again.
He shook his head. “I swore I’d never allow him to be this sick again.” He forced himself to look at the boy, appalled at Johnny’s flush of fever and the dark circles under his eyes. “I guess I broke that vow.”
//He looks about Tommy’s age, unconscious like this. He’s so vulnerable, fragile really. That’s no larger-than-life, tough gunfighter… just a sick kid. … Damn it, I don’t know what to do. I should take him straight upstairs with no detours – ‘don’t put up with any of that boy’s nonsense’ as Sam would say. …
Only I know how much Barranca means to him. He’d worry himself even sicker if I forced him to go to bed. And he wouldn’t stay there anyway. … The simple truth is that putting Johnny to bed like a child isn’t an option. It’s his decision whether to go to bed or stay out here. I’ll support his choice… But I don’t have to like it.//
Scott noted the play of emotions on Murdoch’s face, discerned the defeat in his voice. He realized how difficult it was for Murdoch to act in the exact opposite manner to the actions his parental instincts demanded. He had to hand it to his father. The man was trying his level best to balance Johnny’s physical and emotional needs, to do the right thing for his son.
//Except that determining ‘the right thing’ in this particular instance is the equivalent of untying the Gordian Knot and it’s tearing Murdoch apart.//
Scott spared a glance to check on Barranca. The horse appeared steady enough at the moment, the sling performing its role under the watchful eyes of Cipriano and Jelly. He knelt beside his father. “This isn’t your fault, sir.”
He bumped Murdoch with his shoulder. “Look, every one of us realized that it was the height of foolhardiness to indulge Johnny in this matter.” He sighed and shook his head.
“But Johnny is a big boy.” He wrapped one arm around Murdoch’s broad, bowed shoulders. “He can make his own decisions.” Scott pushed the sling back with his other hand, ensuring the bloodstain wasn’t growing any larger.
He glanced at his father’s bowed profile. “Johnny decided he must stay with Barranca. You understood why he made that choice. You helped me see it.” Scott patted Murdoch’s back between his shoulder blades. “You supported Johnny, just as he needed you to.”
Murdoch’s head came up and he turned it slowly to gaze at Scott, a quizzical expression on his face.
//Aren’t you the one who demanded I make Johnny listen to reason? Put his horse down and go to bed? You even sicced Maria on me! You owe me one or two for that, young man! … So this is certainly a change of tune.
Ah well… you’re a passionate advocate, Scott. …So go ahead and convince me why Johnny must be out here now. I need to hear it.//
Scott couldn’t interpret Murdoch’s expression, but he realized the depth of his father’s concern. “It’s important for Johnny to see this through.”
He dropped his hands to his lap and scratched his left palm with his fingers, “You read this whole situation clearly from the first, sir. You were right about everything.” He shot a sideways glance at Murdoch’s stern profile and attempted to relieve his father’s tension with a hint of humor. “Johnny says you’re always right.”
“I don’t want to be right, son,” Murdoch refused the bait, “I just want your brother to be all right.” He laid a massive hand on Johnny’s dark hair, combing it with his fingers.
“I know.” Scott bit his lip at the bleakness in his father’s eyes. He let his hand rest atop Murdoch’s in Johnny’s hair. “He will be. Sam will sort him out.”
Murdoch snorted. “Sam is going to have a few choice words for all of us. Especially me.” He shook off Scott’s comforting hand and adjusted Johnny’s blanket again.
“Some father I turned out to be.” Murdoch shook his head and closed his eyes. “How could I let him get into this condition again?”
He sat back on his heels, squaring his shoulders. “I think it’s time we listened to common sense. I’m going to put this boy to bed where he belongs.”
Scott leaped to his feet. “No, you aren’t!” He put his hands on his hips and glared down at his father. “We’re at a critical point. How do you think that hauling him away,” he gestured toward the hacienda, “against his wishes,” the soft voice hardened to flint, “will help him?”
Murdoch couldn’t hold Scott’s challenging stare. He looked away, focusing on Johnny’s face.
Scott pressed his advantage ruthlessly. “Taking Johnny inside now would work against him. He does need to be out here,” he motioned toward the horse, “for his sake as much as Barranca’s.”
He tempered the ring of command in his tone. “Sir, your idea has merit, but the timing is wrong.” Scott stooped to grasp Murdoch’s shoulder. “Packing Johnny upstairs now won’t change the damage that’s already been done.” He flashed his father a rueful smile. “Right or wrong, that’s past and gone. We deal with it and move on.”
Murdoch closed his lips on a stinging rejoinder, secretly pleased at his older son’s grasp of the situation. He nodded his agreement and sat back against a bale of straw. “Help me sit him up.”
Scott and Murdoch positioned Johnny so that he lay with the back of his head and injured shoulder supported against their father’s broad chest. Johnny sighed and murmured as they settled him. Murdoch stroked his son’s hair and the gesture calmed the boy.
Teresa bustled into the barn laden with cloths, jugs, and cold water. She arranged the supplies within easy reach as Scott bared Johnny’s chest. One look at the tension on the men’s faces and the girl closed her lips on the questions she burned to ask. Instead, she prepared cold water compresses to use in fighting the fever.
Jelly started toward the group around Johnny, but Scott caught the movement from the corner of his eye. He rounded on the older man and pointed toward the horse. Jelly thrust out his chin, but one look at Scott’s face persuaded him to drop his eyes and turn back to Barranca.
Murdoch accepted a folded cloth soaked in cold water from Teresa. “Thank you, darling.” He caught her arm, aware that his next order would vex her. “Will you wait for Sam in the house? Bring him out here just as soon as he arrives.” His eyes warned her not to protest.
Teresa glared at him and blew out her breath in a huff. She glanced over at Jelly, shocked that he’d actually obeyed Scott. That startling fact told her everything she needed to know. She nodded to her guardian and retreated to the hacienda.
Murdoch sponged his younger son’s face and wished he could do more. He glanced at Scott, admiring the tenderness in the young man’s actions as he carefully tended his younger brother. His older son’s quiet determination gave him the courage to subdue his own doubts about his decision.
//Scott is right. It’s important to Johnny that he be here with his horse. I really want him upstairs in his bed. … But I can’t order him there. Maybe I can persuade him, encourage him to see the sense in what I’m asking him to do. … Hmmph. Johnny will act sensibly about the same time as that sow, Arabella, grows wings. … But I can try…//
//That hungry jaguar after Barranca… he’s got me. Eatin’ my shoulder… Get him off me, Scott! My gun, Murdoch. Where’s my gun? No, don’t want the gun. Nope. Ain’t shootin’ Barranca. Barranca… gotta help him.//
Johnny fought his way toward consciousness, aware of tantalizing fragments of conversations spiraling around him.
“Upstairs… sent him… can’t stay…”
“…take care… horse”
“…still needs… Barranca… respond…”
“…you see… sick…”
“…didn’t think… allow… sick…”
“…your fault… foolhardy…”
Even with his eyes closed, Johnny gagged at the dizziness and burning pains that wracked his upper body. He wanted to wake up, but dreaded what he might see. He tried to make sense of the conversation, but his brain couldn’t seem to put the words into any kind of order. He abandoned the attempt and drifted aimlessly from word to word, content to remain in this safe place.
Bitter experience had taught him that opening his eyes invited the full force of the agony and dizziness. He wasn’t ready to deal with them just yet. No, he’d stay in this sheltering void a little while longer. Just a little more time. He was so tired…
The voices disturbed him. An inner instinct insisted he pay attention – the voices were discussing something he needed to hear. He tried to silence the concern. The voices held an edge, but they weren’t addressing him. If they really needed him, they’d call his name. When they called him, he’d leave this place, go to them. The inner voice nudged him – hard. Why weren’t they calling him?
Then it hit him. They were talking about taking him away from Barranca – putting him to bed upstairs. Intense fury roared through him. Would they ever stop planning for him? Trying to make his decisions? What would it take to convince them that he wasn’t some green kid?
His rage, and the urgency in their voices, booted him over the brink of the dark nothingness and into awareness. He lay in someone’s arms – long arms, tall, solid chest – had to be Murdoch. His father was behind him, leaning Johnny back against him, spindly legs stretched alongside Johnny’s. But Scott was beside him. That hand on his cheek – those long, strong fingers could only be his brother’s. Johnny blinked, squinting against the lamplight.
Scott gripped Johnny’s chin between his thumb and forefinger, tilting his brother’s face upward. “You did it, brother. Barranca is standing. I’m ready to trocarize him.”
Johnny’s eyes met Scott’s. “I gotta go to him.”
“No. You’ll stay right here.” Scott emphasized his directive by shaking Johnny’s head back and forth, his grip relentless.
The blaze of anger sparked by that action cleared the confusion from the blue eyes. Encouragement buoyed Scott. There was still some fight in his brother. He released Johnny’s chin and squeezed the boy’s uninjured shoulder.
“We’ve rigged a sling to keep him on his feet. When I’m ready to find that spot, he’ll have to stand on his own. I won’t be able to locate it if he leans on the sling.”
Johnny nodded. He studied his horse, carefully assessing the animal’s condition. What he saw didn’t encourage him. Barranca was in bad shape.
//He looks like I feel… He don’t have the energy to stand on his own.//
Scott registered the concern in Johnny’s eyes. “It’ll be more difficult to keep him standing than it was to raise him. But Cip and Jelly and I will find a way.” He patted Johnny’s shoulder, attempting to reassure his brother even as he girded himself to explain the other information the young man needed to know.
“When I pierce him with the needle, he’ll explode. But he must be restrained. If he flings himself about, the needle will damage him inside.” He closed his eyes against the sudden memory.
//Another young face so full of hope, another stricken horse… the bitter wind rustled the barren trees and the stench of death wafted from the battle field… He felt for the spot, found it, inserted the trocar… his hand slipped when the horse jerked away… the animal screamed as the instrument tore through its bowels – the horrific, piercing screams of a horse in agony… “Noooo”… the blast from the pistol drowned out the young trooper’s cry. Then blessed silence… except for the anguished sobs of the boy kneeling at the horse’s head… And Lt. Lancer knew that the shrieks of the horse he’d murdered would resound in his ears forever…//
Scott blew out his breath and shoved the memory to the back of his mind. He looked at boy before him now. “You’re not strong enough to hold him.”
“No, Johnny. End of discussion.” Scott stood and looked down at his brother. He squared his shoulders and slapped his fists to his hips. “If you want me to do this, you’ll promise to stay here.”
One forefinger pointed vehemently at Johnny. “And you won’t break that promise. Do we have a deal?” The fist found the slim hips again and Scott’s eyes bored into Johnny’s.
Johnny stared wide-eyed at the flat, level look from Scott. He’d seen it before, that glare of finality a man gets in the heat of battle when he’s running on pure adrenaline. It meant take no prisoners; I’m goin’ on or goin’ down. Do what I say, or someone will die. Scott’s fellow soldiers must’ve seen it often during the war. But Johnny had never seen that expression in Scott’s eyes before.
//Look at my brother. Damn, he’s good! That’s exactly what a born leader looks like. Makes me wanna follow his orders… I don’t believe I just thought that…//
He gazed at the toes of Scott’s boots, a curiously proud smile quirking his lips. “Yeah, we have a deal. I’ll stay here.” He didn’t see Scott exchange a satisfied glance with Murdoch.
“Right then.” Scott stooped to cover Johnny’s chest with the blanket. “I’ll get started. Cipriano can hold the… Barranca.” He straightened and turned on his heel.
Johnny struggled to free his arm from the blanket. He managed to clutch Scott’s pant leg. “Scott…”
Scott turned. “Now what?”
“Just… just thanks. That’s all.” Johnny chewed his lower lip, eyes locked on the ground.
Scott knelt beside Johnny, brushing his hand over his brother’s clenched fingers. He held the contact for a heartbeat before working his pants leg free. He stood.
“Wait.” Johnny gazed up at his brother. “If it don’t work out,” he swallowed hard. “I gotta be the one, Scott. Me. My gun.”
“I know.” Scott clenched his teeth against the lump rising in his throat. He marshaled a faint smile. “Hey, what happened to all that faith in your big brother?”
“You mean my brother, the low down, sneaky varmint?” Johnny cocked his head and mischief sparkled in his eyes. “That faith’s bein’ chased by the big bad wolf.” Johnny shared a look of understanding with his brother and slumped back against Murdoch.
Murdoch monitored their exchange with relief. His boys had rebuilt their bridge. Johnny was fully aware of his brother’s sacrifice. Now he had faith in his older son. Scott would do what he had to do. And right now he had to save Barranca for Johnny. He watched the competent cavalry officer march toward the horse.
Johnny lay back against Murdoch’s chest, grateful for the strong, supportive arms. They warmed him inside and out and he didn’t think he could sit on his own. His father’s heartbeat thumped in his ear, its steady rhythm reassuring. Murdoch pressed a cold cloth to his face and it felt wonderful. The Old Man didn’t say anything, just held that cloth against his forehead. Johnny blessed his father’s silence and thoughtful nursing.
He watched Scott scrub Barranca’s right upper flank with a carbolic acid solution. Jelly hovered beside his brother, holding the bowl of sterilizing solution and the needle. Scott nodded to Cipriano and the husky segundo hauled Barranca forward, forcing him to stand without the aid of the sling. Scott’s nimble fingers explored and probed along the palomino’s side, feeling, searching.
Johnny knew Scott had found the spot he was looking for when he froze for a fraction of a second. His brother glued his left forefinger to his selected entry point. He held out his right hand and Jelly slapped the needle against his palm.
Johnny caught his breath, vividly aware that Murdoch held his breath exactly the same way. The needle reflected a sinister gleam in the lamplight as Scott buried it in the golden body with one single, masterful thrust. Murdoch gripped Johnny’s shoulder tightly. Johnny bit his lip until he tasted blood.
Barranca jerked up his head and gave a strangled squall – a sound unlike any Johnny had ever heard a horse make. The palomino’s eyes fairly popped out of his head as he fought Cipriano, desperate to leap forward and outrun the painful, noisy thorn embedded in his flank. Cipriano set all his weight against the horse to hold him still and Jelly threw his own body into the fray, assisting the segundo. Scott moved with the grace and power of a ballet master, mirroring Barranca’s actions and holding the needle in the correct position.
Johnny heard the roar, a great whoosh of sound, but didn’t understand what it was. It filled the barn, like an angry rush of wind. And then he realized that the noise was the gas from inside Barranca escaping through the needle. He bit back a sob. Would it never end?
He felt Murdoch’s hand on the nape of his neck, massaging in a comforting manner. His father’s breath tickled in his ear as Murdoch whispered, “Shhh. Shhh.” Johnny realized Murdoch’s breathing was none too steady either.
At last the sound stopped. Barranca hung miserably in the sling, muzzle nearly touching the straw. Sweat poured from his body, trickling over his trembling sides, dripping down his flanks, darkening his body to nearly black. His muscles twitched and jerked and he panted as though he’d run for miles. Scott pulled the needle free.
Another sound. Johnny realized it was a whimper. From him. He hung as limply in his father’s arms as Barranca did in Scott’s sling. The foul odor of the gas hung in the air.
Johnny turned an anguished face up to Murdoch. “Did it work?” Surely that pleading voice wasn’t coming out of his mouth?
“I… I think it did.” The wonder in Murdoch’s tone matched the astonishment on his face.
“Now what?” Johnny swallowed, still trying to gain control of his breathing and voice. He swallowed blood from his bitten lip. “Will he… will he be all right?”
“I don’t know, son. Your brother will tell us as soon as he can.” Murdoch hugged his son closer to him. He had to give Johnny credit – there was no half way in him. When he decided to tackle a task, he gave it everything he had. But the boy had nothing left now. He’d given it all.
Murdoch dabbed the cool compress across the boy’s flushed face. He pondered his best course of action regarding the welfare of his younger son. Johnny’s emotional well-being required him to be in the barn with Barranca – at least until the horse’s fate could be ascertained. His father understood completely – had even supported that position vehemently in direct opposition to his older son. But now the boy was sick – and growing steadily worse.
He shook his head, mentally wringing his hands. On the one hand, a caring father should respect his son’s wishes to care for his equine partner until the bitter end. On the other hand, a responsible father should view his son’s physical well-being as his top priority. Murdoch sincerely aspired to be both a caring and a responsible father. But he didn’t know how to be both under these circumstances. He wished fervently for the advice of his old friend, Dr. Jenkins.
//Where the hell are you, Sam? Walt’s had time to ride to San Francisco by now. No matter. I know what you’d say. …
And he’s right, Johnny. You need to be in bed. I know you want to be with your horse, son. But it’s time to take care of you now – even if you disagree. As soon as Scott talks to you, you’re going upstairs.//
He felt rather than heard Johnny strangle a moan. Murdoch used his thumb to rub comforting circles in the nape of his son’s neck, straining to control his anxiety about the boy’s health. Johnny’s deteriorating condition generated grave concern in all his family, but not, apparently, in the young man himself.
Murdoch couldn’t quell the surge of anger that thought provoked. Why couldn’t his boy respect his own health the way he fretted over the well-being of the people he loved? The elder Lancer could easily imagine Johnny’s dismay and exasperation if a family member lay in the barn in the same condition Johnny was in now.
//Maybe that’s a way to get through to him. I’ll ask him what he would do if Scott were so ill and refused to take care of himself…//
But Johnny laid claim to more than his share of Lancer stubbornness. Murdoch admitted that he faced an uphill fight to convince his son to leave the barn. He prepared to give it his best shot. It was about time this particular father used some parental might.
He lifted his hand from Johnny’s back to rest his fingers on his son’s cheek. He made a tsk tsk sound and bent his head to position his mouth near Johnny’s ear. “Your fever’s climbing, son. I-”
“I ain’t leavin’ Barranca!” Johnny twisted upright, pulling away from Murdoch. He glowered over his shoulder at his father, ignoring the pressure this action exerted on his injury.
“Hear me out, John.” Murdoch swore that the boy would at least listen to what he had to say. He watched the big muscle in Johnny’s jaw constrict with tension and softened his tone. “Please?”
Johnny sighed and faced forward, bowing his head. His son’s olive branch – well, maybe a twig – encouraged Murdoch to continue. “You’re burning up with fever, you’ve passed out several times,” he smoothed the sling over Johnny’s shoulder, “that wound is bleeding again, and-”
The dark head jerked up as Johnny interrupted Murdoch. “And you’re just wastin’ your breath!” He shot his father a smoldering look over his shoulder. “I already told you… I. Ain’t. Leavin’. Barranca.”
He glanced at his horse, noting Scott’s careful examination of the palomino. The gelding looked all in as he hung in the sling, muzzle nearly on the straw. Scott’s clever rope contraption was the only thing keeping Barranca on his feet. How could Murdoch expect him to leave the horse now?
Johnny clenched his fist and summoned his deadliest voice. “Let it go.”
Murdoch studied Johnny’s determined face, not missing the significance of that hushed voice. The boy obviously had plenty of fight left in him. But how much of it was bluster and how much could he actually back up with actions? He decided his son was relying on adrenaline, raw nerve, and not much else. The young man wore his confident poker face, but Murdoch sensed a colossal bluff and refused to be deterred. He pressed on.
“I heard you the first time.” Murdoch squeezed Johnny’s shoulder. He bent forward and cocked his head sideways, searching his son’s eyes. “Son, I’ve respected your wishes up until now.” His fingers brushed the boy’s fevered cheek. “But I can’t let this go on. I won’t allow you to do this to yourself.”
Johnny’s eyes closed in disbelief and his lips thinned into the recalcitrant line Murdoch knew all too well. He’d said the wrong thing again…
Johnny scorched his father with his eyes. “I been takin’ care of myself without your help my whole life, Old Man! I don’t need you,” he pointed at Murdoch, “lookin’ out for me,” the finger rotated smoothly to point at himself, “now.” An unsuccessful attempt to disguise a wince caused by the movement detracted from his declaration.
Murdoch flinched inwardly. Johnny had just resorted to a familiar tried and tested means of cutting his father down to size. This was the first step in their old, hurtful dynamic. It began with Johnny rebuffing Murdoch’s clumsy attempts to act like a father by throwing up the fact that Murdoch hadn’t been there when the boy was growing up – and had really needed him. Johnny wielded that particular weapon adroitly, striking unmercifully to punish his father by pushing him away. In the past, the boy had experienced spectacular success with that tactic.
He kept a tight rein on his temper. He’d learned not to react defensively to those provocative statements. The wrong reaction poured oil on the flames, escalating the conflict. Murdoch reflected that it had been some time since Johnny had flung this particular accusation in his face. And his son wasn’t proud of what he’d done. He watched as the young man hung his head, attempting to hide his remorse.
How should he respond? Ignoring the comment seemed the easiest answer, but it was the wrong one. The rebuke must be addressed. But the last thing Johnny needed was a heated argument.
Murdoch took a deep breath, ensuring there was no hint of anger in his tone or manner. He decided to use one of Johnny’s favorite tricks – answering with a question. ”Are you sure about that, son?”
The dark head remained bowed, but Johnny glanced sideways at Murdoch, “I’m sure that I ain’t leavin’ Barranca.”
Murdoch nodded. “I understand that you feel that way.” He used another maneuver he’d learned from his son, allowing his heartfelt plea to reflect in his eyes. “Will you indulge me for a minute?”
Johnny didn’t miss the altered approach and heaved a resigned sigh. “You want a minute, huh?” He bit his lip and nodded.
“Suppose the sick horse was Charlemagne and Scott was lying here injured and ill, refusing to leave Charlie.” Murdoch paused when Johnny stiffened. He watched the young man glance from his brother beside the horse, back to his father, and down to his hand in his lap. The boy’s throat worked and Murdoch prompted, “What would you say to your brother?”
Johnny clenched his fist. “Look, it ain’t him.”
Why did Murdoch and Scott insist on playing these “what if” games with him? Whatever happened, he’d do what he had to do to make it right, just as he’d done his whole life. He felt his father’s hand between his shoulder blades. The Old Man wasn’t going to drop it.
Murdoch pressed ahead with his strategy. He could tell that Johnny was thinking hard on the scenario he’d presented. The boy’s innate honesty would force him to see this situation from a different perspective. “What would you say to your brother, John?”
Johnny sighed and worried the stitching on the edge of the blanket. He kept his eyes down. Murdoch’s face and eyes would be swimming with concern and he didn’t want to see it. “It don’t matter. I might not agree with him, but I’d respect his decision.”
Johnny looked up and met Murdoch’s searching gaze. The muscle of his jaw rippled. “If Scott thought he needed to be out here, I’d help him any way I could – even if I didn’t agree with him.”
He cocked his head and let the twin devils dance in his eyes. “Even if I thought he was actin’ like a darn fool.”
His crooked smile faded and the imps retreated when Murdoch didn’t laugh. Johnny swallowed and bowed his head. His restless fingers plucked at the blanket. His soft voice took on a desperate tone. “I thought you understood…”
Murdoch squeezed Johnny’s shoulder. “I do, son, but the situation has changed and so have my priorities.”
He cupped Johnny’s cheek in his hand and turned the boy’s head so he could look him straight in the eyes. “You are my main concern right now. I have to do what is best for you.” He held the gaze for a handful of seconds and dropped his hand back to Johnny’s shoulder.
Johnny hung his head. He was so tired. He didn’t have the energy to keep arguing. How could he make the Old Man understand?
He rested his cheek on his father’s hand. “Then don’t ask me to leave him, Murdoch.”
Murdoch stared at the point of contact between his hand and Johnny’s cheek. His son lifted his gaze to his father’s, eyes begging in that eloquent manner that was uniquely Johnny’s. Murdoch rubbed his forefinger back and forth along Johnny’s cheek.
The boy’s hushed voice cracked, “I ca… won’t do that.”
Murdoch sighed, squeezing the boy’s shoulder to acknowledge defeat. He’d tried, probably not as hard as he should have, but he’d given it his best shot. Johnny’s aim had held true and Murdoch was out of ammunition. But then he’d known going in that the battle would prove futile. Short of forcibly removing Johnny from the barn and locking him in his room, there was nothing he could do except support his son’s decision to stay. Maybe Sam would have better luck.
He wrapped his arms around his son, pulling Johnny back against his chest, and rested his cheek on the boy’s dark hair. “All right, son. I won’t ask.”
Murdoch felt Johnny’s shuddering sigh of relief. Johnny’s hand brushed over Murdoch’s hands where they lay clasped around the boy’s chest – a soft skim as delicate as a hummingbird’s wing.
He barely heard Johnny’s whisper, “Thanks.”
Murdoch chewed his lower lip in frustration. He despised being in this position, firmly impaled on the horns of the dilemma. He had no control over the situation and that fact disturbed him. He felt Johnny swallow hard and found himself blinking back tears at the boy’s next words.
“Hey, Murdoch? I just… well,” Johnny tapped Murdoch’s hand with his forefinger. He swallowed. “You were right. I’m gettin’ used to you lookin’ out for me.” He nestled deeper into his father’s chest. “I kinda like it.”
Murdoch captured his son’s finger and squeezed it. He swallowed, regaining token control over his eyes and voice before pointing toward Barranca. “Look, your brother is finishing his examination. He’ll come over to talk to you soon.”
Father and son watched as Scott soothed Barranca. He used the edge of his hands to scrape the sweat from the horse’s neck and sides. Cipriano and Jelly came forward to help him. They murmured endearments to the quivering palomino, rubbing him with towels.
Scott bathed the puncture site with more carbolic solution. Johnny nearly lost it when his brother stopped to pull the golden ears, bestow a friendly scratch beneath the jaws, and rub Barranca’s forehead.
//That’s what I’d do. Scott knows it. He’s takin’ care of Barranca for me.//
The group managed to wring most of the sweat from Barranca’s coat. Scott and Cipriano detached the ropes from the block and tackle and helped ease the horse down to the fresh, thick bed of straw Jelly spread for him. Barranca gave a huge sigh of relief and stretched out his neck and head, snuggling it into the clean bedding. Scott and Jelly covered him with dry blankets while Cipriano began coiling the ropes and stowing the gear they’d used.
“Rub more of your liniment on his stomach, Jelly. And get a dose of that aconite and belladonna mixture into him. If he can fight off peritonitis…” Scott broke off; meeting Jelly’s rolling eyes as he remembered, all too well, another vigil and protracted war to stave off peritonitis. They’d managed to win that one.
//Thank you, Lord, for guiding my hand. There’s nothing more we can do now. It’s in your hands, so please, help this horse recover. We’re battling our old nemesis, peritonitis. You helped us beat it once before. We need your help again… for Barranca this time …
And Lord, please, please take good care of that boy over there. He’s worried himself sick over his horse.//
Scott waited until Jelly retrieved the liniment and medicine. Then he left the older man to soothe the horse and apply liniment while he walked to his brother and father. He was painfully conscious of Johnny’s hopeful eyes tracking his every move.
“It worked, brother. He’s much more comfortable.” He stooped to flip Johnny’s unruly bangs. “Now we wait.”
Johnny didn’t know what to say. The enormity of his brother’s gallant offering overwhelmed him. He felt a teardrop spill over, quivering on his cheekbone. Scott’s eyes met his and the compassion and love Johnny saw within them threatened to breech the dam holding back the torrent of tears. He swallowed hard and fixed his eyes on his boots. His entire body shook with the effort of controlling his rebellious emotions.
He felt Scott’s steadfast, bruised arm around his waist. “Do you want to sit by him? I think he’d appreciate your company.” Scott heaved a theatrical sigh. “Although there’s just no accounting for taste.”
“Yeah.” Johnny leaned into Scott, letting his brother haul him to his feet. He glimpsed the disapproval on Murdoch’s face from the corner of his eye and nearly missed the emphatic gesture Scott made to effectively silence their father. It took a second to realize that Murdoch actually obeyed Scott.
//Gonna have to call him General Lancer now. The steadfast tin soldier won himself a battlefield promotion.//
Scott tightened his right arm around Johnny’s waist. He used his left arm to cradle his brother’s chest and supported him to the palomino’s side. Johnny admitted to himself that Scott virtually carried him; he could see the telltale furrows caused by the toes of his dragging boots. But however he accomplished it, Scott brought him to his horse.
Scott propped Johnny against the bale of straw near Barranca’s head. He draped a blanket over the boy. “I’ll be back soon. Then we’ll take care of you.”
“Gracias.” Johnny couldn’t look at him. He never saw Scott’s bloodless face or felt the slight tremor in his brother’s hands.
He had eyes only for his horse. He tentatively stroked the big jaw, letting his fingers trail down Barranca’s head and tickle at his muzzle. The palomino responded, wriggling his upper lip against Johnny’s hand. Johnny traced the swirl of hairs on his horse’s forehead.
“You’re a good fella.”
Barranca lifted his head. He whickered, the low breathy whicker that he reserved for Johnny alone. His head flopped back into the straw, but his eyes stayed on Johnny. They were brighter and steady, not rolling or red-rimmed with pain. His stomach no longer bulged beneath the blankets. Barranca breathed easier, the harsh panting noticeably absent.
Johnny stretched out in the straw beside his horse. He pillowed his head on the ivory mane, legs pointing toward Barranca’s tail. He scratched a favorite spot at the juncture of the palomino’s neck and shoulder, feeling the horse’s contented sigh, noting the wiggling upper lip. The tears fell then, scalding and cleansing, shaking his shoulders and torturing the injury. Johnny didn’t care.
He’d brought Barranca back from that black void. And Scott had found a way to keep him here. Barranca was gonna make it. Murdoch’s flame of hope blazed inside him. Scott and the others could worry about peritonitis, but Johnny knew the truth. All the palomino needed was a chance. His brother had given him that chance. Barranca would do the rest. He’d be all right.
Johnny buried his face in Barranca’s neck. That simple movement blasted raw agony up his arm and into his head. Something was wrong. He tried to fight back against the darkness, but it whirled around him, smothering him. The loss of control terrified him. He resisted it with everything he had. He lost. And it took him down.
His knuckles gleamed white in the moonlight. Scott leaned into the sturdy wood planks of the corral and panted, blowing his breath out in a measured, deliberate cadence. His hands shook and his knees threatened to buckle. Beads of sweat dripped down his face despite the clouds of his breath hanging in the frosty air.
He’d performed brilliantly in the heat of battle, juiced to the eyeballs with adrenaline and hardened to steel with raw determination. But now the battle was over, the excess adrenaline evaporated into the vapor of his breath, and he felt like a broken piece of driftwood tossed in the violent storm surge of a winter nor’easter off the wild, rocky coast of Maine.
//I did it. I really did it. Thank you, Lord. Now breathe, Scott. Hang on and breathe. It’ll pass. General Sheridan called it the after-battle slump. Ride through it. Soldier on.//
He breathed. He refused to think about the tableau in the barn. He journeyed to another place in his mind. Anywhere as long as there were no stubborn, injured brothers with trusting, expectant eyes; no fathers with stern, frustrated faces; no golden horses squealing in terror and groaning in agony. Anyplace where he didn’t have to make it right or better or fix it. Where just being Scott was enough.
//The snow tickled the back of his neck, falling in dry, powdery flakes that dusted everything around him with a sugary coating out of a fairytale. The thick snow absorbed the sound of children’s laughter and the sleigh bells on the horse’s harness. He halted the handsome Norfolk Trotter in a secluded grove of trees. The muffled sounds and snow-laden branches ensured they were in their own hidden world.
He turned to her, cupping her waist with both hands… so tiny, his fingers nearly touched. She laughed the breathy, seductive laugh he loved so and turned her face up to his. Her eyes were luminous; huge… a man could lose himself in those eyes. The cold air rouged her cheeks with luscious color. She whispered his name… no one ever pronounced his name in that fashion -‘Sscahtt’ – tickling sublime, feathery fingers up and down his spine whenever she purred it. Her hand snaked to his shoulder and he plunged into her eyes as he lowered his lips to hers, “Julie”…//
The decidedly masculine hand on his shoulder jolted Scott back to reality. He wasn’t on the snow-covered Boston Commons, he hadn’t heard Julie’s voice caressing his name, and those certainly weren’t Julie’s delicate fingers. That huge hand remained on his shoulder and another hand appeared under his nose. Holding a silver flask.
“Scott. You look like a man who might appreciate a drink.” Murdoch offered the flask.
Scott accepted it and belted back a big slug, savoring the burn of the fiery liquor down his throat. He blew out his breath and shook his head. “Thanks. I needed that.”
Murdoch squeezed his shoulder, moving to stand beside Scott, facing the fence. “Sometimes it’s worse when the fight is over. It’s almost as though your bones turn to water and you can’t stop shaking.” He glanced sideways at his son. “At least, that’s the way it is for me.” He removed the flask from Scott’s fingers, took a sip, and handed it back.
Scott swigged another deep draught and felt the control seep back in the wake of the liquor’s warmth. He turned his head and gave his father a slight smile, “Thank you, sir.”
Murdoch gently turned Scott until they faced each other. He raised his right hand toward his son’s left shoulder so that both hands rested on the young man’s upper arms. His eyes found Scott’s. “Son, what you did in there… you were magnificent.”
He bit his lower lip and shook his head. “You really laid it on the line for your brother.”
Murdoch dropped his hands and turned to face the corral, leaning his broad shoulders back against the fence. “I can only imagine how difficult it was for you, but when the chips were down, you came through.” He slung his arm around Scott’s shoulders and pulled the boy to him.
Scott felt a flush of embarrassment spread across his cheeks. “All I could think was ‘please, don’t let me make a mistake.’”
Murdoch patted his son’s shoulder. “I’ll bet. I’d have the same thoughts, only with far stronger language.”
Scott laughed and treated himself to another swallow from the flask. “To tell you the truth, my actual thoughts were a bit ‘saltier’, as Jelly would say.”
Murdoch joined in the laughter. He cupped the back of Scott’s head in his hand. “I’m so proud of you, son.”
Scott allowed himself to lean against Murdoch’s hand for several astonished heartbeats, relishing this closeness with his father, the words of pride a treasure to be preserved for all time.
//He understands what it was like. He knows how damned scared I was and it doesn’t matter. My father is proud of me. We’ve argued and disagreed, but when we had to, we worked together. Now we’ve gained even more respect for each other. We’re doing fine with this family thing – Johnny and Murdoch and me.//
He straightened slowly, reluctant to step away from his father. “I’d better get back to Johnny. He’ll be fainting again if we aren’t careful.”
Murdoch dropped his hand to the small of Scott’s back and the two men walked toward the barn. “Yes, your brother is quite ill. He…”
Jelly’s urgent shout interrupted him, “BOSS!”
Scott and Murdoch exchanged “I knew it” looks and sprinted for the barn, not surprised to find an unconscious Johnny collapsed across Barranca’s neck with Jelly and Cipriano kneeling beside him. They lost no time in joining the pitched effort to revive the boy.
Murdoch paused beside the corral fence and drained the dregs from the flask. He braced against the solid wood and stretched his back until he heard and felt a satisfying pop. He rolled his head slowly, attempting to relax the knotted muscles of his shoulders and neck.
The night air tasted cool and earthy – a welcome contrast to the fraught-with-tension atmosphere surrounding the prone Barranca and his miserable owner. He felt a flash of guilt for leaving Scott in charge inside the barn and promised himself that he would return quickly. He simply couldn’t bear the sight of his younger son so ill. Not again.
But taking refuge out here couldn’t change the fact that he had a sick boy on his hands. No two ways about it, Johnny was due for some more time in bed. He’d given them a real scare with this latest bout of unconsciousness, not responding to their best efforts to awaken him. Jelly had finally resorted to some horrific mixture that he held under the boy’s nose. That ‘coction had worked. The tiny whiff Murdoch caught convinced him that the vile substance was enough to wake the dead.
In any event, it brought Johnny around when their other attempts ended in failure. The boy was conscious and that was the main thing. He’d even consented, at his brother’s insistence, to swallow a tiny dose of laudanum. But his fever skirted the edges of control and he was alarmingly weak. Johnny still refused point blank to leave his horse.
//I think Johnny realizes what it cost Scott to take the risk with Barranca. He agreed to take the laudanum because he sees how worried his brother is. I wish he’d go to bed, but he won’t leave that horse. And Scott is right – it’s Johnny’s decision. … I only hope I can explain it to Sam.//
Just as he envisioned the doctor’s furious face, Murdoch heard the welcome sound of a horse trotting rapidly along the roadway. He hurried through the corral gate and stood by the hitch rail to welcome Dr. Sam Jenkins to another early morning house call at the Lancer ranch.
He stepped to the side of the buggy as Sam pulled up his horse, arm outstretched to assist the doctor. “Merry Christmas, Sam.”
Dr. Jenkins fixed Murdoch with a stare that could curdle milk. “Bah. Humbug.”
He brushed Murdoch’s hand away and climbed down from the buggy, retrieving his bag from the seat. “Did I misunderstand your invitation? I swear it said two o’clock Christmas Day for coffee and desert.” He glanced around the darkened courtyard. “But perhaps you actually meant two in the morning?”
Murdoch sighed. Sam was already in a foul mood. This ordeal might prove even harder than he’d anticipated. He shook his head. “I’m sorry to call you out at this time of the morning.”
Sam waved him to silence. “Well, out with it. What has that boy done now?”
“It’s his horse, Sam. It’s come down with colic and-“
Sam’s craggy brows shot straight up. “Barranca? Don’t tell me you dragged me out here to see to a horse!”
“NO. No.” Murdoch threw up his hands. “Sam, would you just let me tell you what’s happened?”
“I’d appreciate it if you would.” Sam pulled his coat collar tighter and took a step toward the house. “Preferably inside by the fire.”
Murdoch turned with him, placing his hand on the small of Sam’s back and gently herding him in a serpentine away from the house and toward the barn. “The horse has been critical since late afternoon. Johnny won’t leave him. The boy’s exhausted himself – in addition to the bite.”
Sam looked longingly over his shoulder toward the house before the significance of the words registered. When they did, he whipped his head back toward Murdoch. “The bite?”
“Barranca nailed him good, a huge chomp between his shoulder and neck.” Murdoch squeezed the spot over the top of his own shoulder. “Teresa said the horse picked him right up off the ground and shook him like a rag doll. It’s pretty torn up both front and back. You’ll want to stitch parts of it and the collar bone may be broken.”
Sam’s eyes widened at the gruesome description. An injury, especially one as severe as Murdoch made this one sound, was the last thing Johnny needed at this point. He tried to turn back toward the house, anxious to see about the boy, but the hand on his back hardened to keep him pointed toward the barn. An unwelcome suspicion assailed him and he glanced sideways at Murdoch. “I trust you have a good reason for walking me out to the barn instead of upstairs to see my patient.”
Murdoch took a deep breath. Sam knew perfectly well why they were going to barn. His question meant the doctor wasn’t going to accept Murdoch’s answer with good grace. “Your patient is in the barn.” Murdoch met Sam’s questioning gaze. “I told you he wouldn’t leave his horse.”
The doctor halted abruptly and spun to face Murdoch. “You’re telling me Johnny is out in the barn,” he waved his arm in that direction, “with his shoulder ripped open?”
“Yes…” Murdoch recoiled at the sudden rush of fury on Sam’s face. “I mean, no.” He rubbed his thumb across his upper lip. “Look, we dressed the wound, kept it clean. He’s been resting since he passed out and the fever—“
“Passed out? Fever?” Sam’s eyebrows couldn’t climb any higher.
Murdoch gulped at the storm clouds massing on Sam’s brow and his incredulous tone. He couldn’t meet the doctor’s accusing stare. “He… he’s running a fever and… well, he’s passed out a couple of times.” He stared at Sam’s hand clenching on the handle of his bag. “He was out just a few minutes ago and we had a hard time bringing him around.”
Sam stifled the urge to race to Johnny’s side. An injury, fever, and unconsciousness… his stomach lurched. This might not be his worst case scenario for this particular patient, but it was close. He decided to obtain more information before seeing the boy for himself. Johnny must be relatively stable now or his father would be at his side. Besides, he needed a minute to rein in his temper.
He closed his eyes and sighed. “You said he’s exhausted. Exactly how long has he been out here?”
Murdoch swallowed and contemplated the toes of his boots. “Nine hours or so.”
“Nine…” Sam spun away from Murdoch, fists clenched. He stood with his back to his friend, struggling to contain his anger.
//What is wrong with you, Murdoch? I love you like a brother, but Lord God you can be obtuse. That boy nearly died. I still don’t know how he pulled through. But he did and we’re slowly getting him well again. In spite of himself. I’ve told you, I’ve told the family, and I’ve told him – he’s still weak and that means he’s susceptible to a variety of illnesses he’d normally shrug off without a second thought. He’s under strict orders not to overtax himself. And I expect the family’s help to restrain him.
But what do I find? He’s been taking care of a horse in the barn for 9 hours – with a wound requiring stitches in his shoulder. Not to mention a fever – the very last thing that he needs. It’ll draw down all of those reserves we’ve been working so hard to replenish. Oh, and let’s not forget that he’s fainted – more than once!
Damn it, Murdoch! Don’t you realize that Johnny could easily end up with pneumonia or worse because of this? And if he does, I’ll probably lose him? Or do the whole lot of you just not care?//
Murdoch regarded his friend miserably. Facing the doctor was proving much harder than he’d imagined. Sitting beside his son in the barn, watching the boy’s face when the horse responded to him, seeing Johnny’s respect and trust for his father shining in those eloquent eyes – at least then he’d been able to convince himself that supporting Johnny’s decision was the correct move. Even if he didn’t agree with it. But when he tried to put the reasons behind his choice into words, it sounded so… well, irresponsible.
He cleared his throat, daunted by the sight of Sam’s rigid back. “Johnny’s in rough shape, Sam. But you know how he feels about Barranca.” Murdoch bit his lip and touched Sam’s shoulder. “Johnny needed to be with his horse.”
Sam slapped Murdoch’s hand away and whirled to face him. “Johnny needed to be in his bed!” He glared at the taller man and put his hand on his hip. “Have I failed to make clear just how fragile he is? Is there something about ‘Do not let Johnny tire himself’ that you don’t understand?”
“I have had it up to here.” Sam slashed his hand across his chest, “How much of that boy’s nonsense do you expect me to take? I can’t help him if he won’t follow my advice – and if none of you will make him.”
He shook his finger at his friend. “You’re his father. You’re supposed to be the man in charge.” His eyes torched Murdoch and his voice rose sharply in disbelief. “So why in the world is your injured and ill son still out in the barn?”
Murdoch took a step toward the doctor, using his height to dominate the smaller man. He put his hands on his hips. “That’s enough, Sam. You aren’t telling me anything I haven’t told myself a hundred times.” He held out his arms, palms up. “I tried… I tried more than once. Believe me.” His aggrieved eyes pleaded with the doctor’s angry ones.
Murdoch laid his hand on Sam’s upper arm and this time the doctor didn’t pull away. He allowed the plea to infuse his voice. “Sam, you know how much that horse means to Johnny. There just wasn’t any way to convince him to leave the barn.” He rubbed the side of his head. “Yes, I’m his father, but Johnny’s not a little boy.”
Sam gave vent to a sarcastic snort.
Murdoch dropped his hand and glared down at him. “All right, let’s get one thing straight before we go inside.” He gestured toward the barn and his voice sharpened. “Johnny is staying with his horse until we know – one way or the other.”
Sam withered Murdoch with a glare powerful enough to slay a dragon. Then he turned on his heel and marched back to his buggy.
//If you want to kill your son, Murdoch, you can damn well do it without my help!//
Murdoch watched his old friend’s retreat with dismay, wondering what he could possibly say to convince him to stay. He jogged after the doctor, mind racing.
//I’m asking him to accept a situation, act completely counter to his professional judgment. But if he’d been here, seen how that horse stayed alive for Johnny and how much it means to the boy… I know he’d have made the same decision I did. Now how do I calm him down enough to explain that?//
Sam paused beside his buggy, swinging his bag back and forth. He waited until Murdoch caught up with him. “I honestly don’t know why I bother coming out here. Especially since my medical judgment is consistently questioned and overridden by Dr. Lancer, Sr. and Doctor Lancer, Jr.”
He set his bag on the seat and crossed his arms over his chest. “I ought to turn around and trot right back home to my nice warm bed.”
Murdoch stared at the doctor, remembering why his friend rarely played poker. Sam was certainly in a high dudgeon, but he couldn’t mask the innate compassion that glowed in his eyes. The doctor wasn’t about to turn his back and leave Johnny in distress – no matter how furious he was.
He fixed Sam with a sympathetic, knowing look. “You probably should.” Murdoch reached around the doctor and retrieved the bag. “But you won’t.”
Sam snatched the bag away from Murdoch. The rancher’s smug expression annoyed him. Murdoch knew darn well he wasn’t going to leave without seeing about Johnny. He drew himself up to his full height, determined to play out his bluff. “Won’t I?”
“No,” Murdoch slipped the bag out of the doctor’s hand again, “you won’t.” He rested his other hand on the small of Sam’s back and coaxed him forward, walking toward the barn. “It’s two o’clock in the morning and Johnny needs you.”
“Johnny needs a good piece of my mind… amongst other things.” Sam submitted to Murdoch’s firm herding.
“I’m sure he’ll get it. With my blessing.” Murdoch stepped in front of Sam and turned to face him, hands on hips. “But Sam, let me be clear about this, – we – none of us,” he pointed at the doctor, “including you – will force that boy to leave his horse until he is ready.”
He grasped Sam’s shoulders in his big hands. “I know you don’t agree with that. I realize it makes your job twice as difficult. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way things are.”
Murdoch flinched at the ruddy rage on Sam’s face. He lowered his arms and his shoulder slumped. “Be as angry with me as you like, I’ll do any penance you say. But I’m begging you – as my friend and as a caring physician,” he pointed toward the barn and clasped his hands as if in prayer, “please, please go in there and treat my son.”
Sam closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again he elbowed Murdoch aside. “Well, get out of my way. I have a patient to see to.”
Murdoch followed him, dreading the doctor’s reaction when he laid eyes on his patient.
The doctor’s familiar voice drifted into the barn, eliciting a decidedly wicked grin from Scott. “Sounds as though the wolf just arrived!”
Johnny rolled his eyes and braced himself for the inevitable.
//Ai yi yi. I’m in for it now. Sam don’t mince his words. Gotta respect him for that. I just don’t like bein’ on the receivin’ end. He and Murdoch are the only men alive who can make me feel like a ten year old. Don’t know how they do it, but they do.//
The brother’s exchanged glances when Murdoch’s raised voice sounded only to be cut off by Sam’s noticeably harsh tones.
Johnny gulped. “Sounds like the rabid lobo is in full cry.”
“Good luck, brother. I think you’re going to need it.” Scott’s grin faded as Dr. Jenkins stalked through the barn door. He couldn’t remember ever seeing the doctor so incensed.
Johnny noticed Scott’s sudden change of expression. He took one look at Sam’s scowling face and closed his eyes.
//Madre de Dios!//
Dr. Jenkins stared down his patient, mentally assessing the boy, and the scowl deepened into a ferocious frown. His stomach lurched as he cataloged Johnny’s symptoms: drawn, flushed face; fever bright, glassy eyes ringed with purple shadows; sweat-matted hair; slumped posture… He hadn’t liked Murdoch’s description of Johnny’s condition at all. He liked what his eyes told him even less.
“Hey, Sam!” Johnny forced a jaunty smile that shriveled pathetically under Sam’s wrathful glare.
“Don’t you ‘hey Sam’ me.” The doctor bit off his words so deliberately that his teeth showed. He appeared very much like a snarling wolf to Johnny at that moment.
Sam motioned for Murdoch to set down his bag and put his hands on his hips. “Just what mess have you gotten yourself into this time, boy?
Johnny squirmed. The doc seemed more irritated with him than usual. If he didn’t calm down, he was liable to have an apoplexy!
//Teresa calls him ‘No Nonsense Sam’. This is more like ‘Savage Sam.’//
“Awww, it ain’t really all that bad…” Johnny protested, but his voice leaped into a near squeak when the doctor knelt beside him and stared at him eyeball to eyeball.
Sam let Johnny feel the full impact of his enraged eyes. “I’ll be the judge of that, John!”
“Yes, sir.” Johnny’s eyes wandered to the three men who now stood side by side, anxiously overseeing the doctor’s ministrations. Apparently his father, brother, and Jelly were in total agreement with Sam’s sermon.
//Great. Sam’s gonna chew me out in front of the whole flock of mother hens. And they’ll cluck so loud you can hear ‘em in San Diego.//
He rolled his eyes at his father. Murdoch seemed to understand his silent plea because he shepherded Scott and Jelly to the other side of the palomino, instructing them to remain there. He silenced their protests with one emphatic gesture and returned to Johnny and Sam.
Sam’s face tensed in concentration, his right hand clasping Johnny’s wrist to check his pulse rate. Johnny could feel his heart galloping at a frightening pace. Sam must concur because his lips narrowed to a thin line as he counted the beats. He cupped Johnny’s face in his hands, feeling under his jaw on both sides and pulling down his lower eyelids. When the doctor pressed his hand to Johnny’s forehead, he sighed and Johnny figured Sam wasn’t pleased to find him in the grips of yet another fever. He’d guessed it was too high by the way he felt and Sam’s reaction confirmed his conclusion.
//Reckon he thinks I’m a real mess. Wish he’d talk to me like he usually does. Guess I really did it this time.//
He bit a painful hole in his lower lip when he sought to stifle the agony that exploded in his shoulder as the doctor’s gentle hands eased him out of the sling. Sam didn’t miss the gasp or the shudder that reverberated through his patient. He stopped unbuttoning the shirt; turning to his “bag of torture” as Johnny thought of it, to retrieve a pair of scissors.
Sam snipped deftly at the blue material, holding on to his temper by the barest thread. As the shirt fell away beneath the sharp blades, the doctor turned his attention to the thick bandage concealing the wound.
The slightest jarring seemed to cause Johnny intense pain and the heat fairly radiated from the boy. As he cleared away the last of the soiled bandage, Sam could see why. Barranca had inflicted a vicious wound and infection had already set in. The young man’s existing weakened condition only exacerbated matters. Johnny didn’t have the strength to fight off an aggressive infection.
//You did it again, Johnny. This is even worse than I expected… We’re nearly back to square one. Of all the stubborn, headstrong… But I suppose the only reason you’re alive today is because you are stubborn and headstrong. … I suppose I shouldn’t expect anything else.
But I refuse to let you off the hook because you’re stubborn. Or your father or brother, for that matter. You can ignore my advice, but you’re damned sure going to hear an earful from me.//
For Sam, a man known for his unusual patience and empathy, Johnny’s physical condition proved the last straw. He could almost feel his blood boiling as he surveyed the crude ‘nursing station’ the family had arranged beside the young man. The doctor could just imagine how carefully Murdoch and Scott had prepared it. Did they actually believe that blanket and pillow on a pile of straw was a valid substitute for Johnny’s bed?
Johnny’s feebleness appalled Sam. The boy had fretted himself into a fever and his foolish family had sat by on their hands and watched him do it. The doctor vowed to use this time to show the Lancer family that he was not a man to be disregarded. And he planned to start by making that point crystal clear to the cause of this whole sorry situation.
//Didn’t I explicitly warn all of you not to let this boy get into such a rundown condition ever again? Do you have no respect for my profession? For me? Obviously, you don’t. Well, things are about to change. I’ve been too soft. Especially with you, John Lancer!//
Sam probed the wound and collar bone with knowing fingers. “Your father tells me you’ve been out here for hours.” His tone left no doubt that the remark was a question and the doctor expected an answer.
The cool gray eyes held no trace of their usual empathy and Johnny cringed. He’d never heard that flat tone in the doc’s voice before. Sam was really riled and Johnny felt a desperate need to justify his actions.
“Yeah. You see, Barranca, he–”
“I didn’t ask you about Barranca!” Sam snapped. “I want to know about YOU.” He tapped Johnny’s chest. “I can’t wait to hear why you’ve seen fit to do such a foolish thing.”
Johnny hung his head. He’d expected a royal tongue lashing, but Sam must be part Apache. At least he seemed intent on roasting Johnny over the coals.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” Sam demanded.
Johnny’s head snapped up. He felt like a ten year old already. He’d actually been relieved when the doctor arrived, confident that Sam would poke, prod, and fuss – and then fix him up. But the man’s disapproving glare charred him; Johnny thought suffering just might be preferable to dealing with the rabid lobo in front of him. He swallowed hard.
The doctor gave him no chance to finish. He put his hands on his hips. “I have been called out here in the middle of the night,” his finger wagged, “and not just any night, mind you,” he rummaged inside his bag, “to attend a most irresponsible young man WHO,” he pulled out a bottle and glanced around for the inevitable pile of bandages and compresses Teresa was sure to have nearby. He located it and pointed at a compress.
Johnny handed one to him.
Sam never missed a beat, snatching the compress and dampening it with the contents of the bottle, “…who somehow managed to persuade his knuckleheaded father,” Sam glanced up, giving Murdoch the benefit of his most withering glare, “AND his soft-hearted brother,” the doctor’s voice echoed in the barn, “to be equally irresponsible!”
Johnny glanced at his chastened father and a spark of anger kindled inside. The older man stood with his shoulders slumped, looking suitably ashamed of his perceived parental failings. And Sam continued to stare Murdoch down like some alpha wolf.
//It ain’t the Old Man’s fault, Sam. Don’t blame him. He tried to make me see reason. He’s never been more of a father than he was tonight. It took sand for him to accept that I needed to be with Barranca.
And do you actually believe he could ‘make’ me go to bed? That’s the problem with the whole flock of you cacklin’ biddies. You think I’m your little baby chick. Well, I got news for you. You wanna play wolf games? Bring it on. This wolf’s ready.//
Johnny grasped Sam’s wrist and waited until the doctor’s eyes swung back to his own frosty ones. “Don’t blame him. I refused—“
Sam wasn’t about to be intimidated by Johnny Madrid. He didn’t pull away from that iron grip on his wrist or break eye contact. He simply pressed the carbolic saturated compress against the raw injury and waited for the inevitable.
Johnny gasped as the shard of agony sliced through his shoulder, all thoughts of setting Sam straight disappearing as his focus narrowed to holding on to consciousness. He released the doctor’s wrist and inhaled deeply as the world spun around him. No way could he pass out now. He’d wake up in his bed if he did, Sam would see to that!
//Trouble is I’m feelin’ like a newborn pup instead of a mean pack leader… Owwww. Damn that burns… Breathe. Look at Sam’s belt buckle. Breathe. See how it shines? Breathe. Leather’s a bit worn, though. Breathe … yeah, that’s better.//
Sam continued swabbing the compress against the wound. It had to be done, and this intense discomfort just might convince Johnny to swallow the laudanum he’d need to endure the required stitches. He allowed the boy a brief time to recover enough so that his words wouldn’t lose any impact.
“I know full well whose stubbornness is to blame for this. I can only imagine how you conned and connived your way around your father’s and brother’s better judgment. For heaven’s sake, boy, there are times when I think you must be stuffed with rice pudding between the ears.”
“Sam…” Murdoch interrupted the doctor’s tirade.
Dr. Jenkins read the paternal protectiveness on the weathered face and hardened his heart against it. “Shut up, Murdoch! I won’t listen to any more of his excuses.” He climbed to his feet. “Or yours.”
“You should have put this boy to bed and sent for me hours ago.” Sam’s fuming eyes locked with Murdoch’s. “That he is out here in this condition is disgraceful.” Sam shook his head. “It is simply the height of irresponsibility and idiocy.” He tried to calm himself with a deep breath.
//Well, I’ve indulged my desire to throw a temper tantrum. I suppose some might say I’ve behaved unprofessionally. But these hardheaded Lancers need to understand how volatile and dangerous this situation is. So I don’t regret one word – and I won’t regret it in the morning either. In fact, I feel another tantrum coming on…//
Murdoch pressed his fist to his mouth, biting his knuckle to restrain his own fury. Now wasn’t the time to argue with the doctor. Let him treat Johnny’s injury. He could put up with anything long enough for that. Then he’d have a few words to say to Dr. Samuel Jenkins!
His eyes flickered to his older son, recognizing the signs of simmering anger about to erupt in molten fury. If Scott engaged Sam in a war of words, the doctor just might carry out his threat to leave! Murdoch caught Scott’s eye and signaled for silence. The young man frowned at him, but mercifully held his tongue.
The ensuing silence grew increasingly strained. Johnny kept darting glances between the doctor, who was busy stripping off his coat and rolling up his sleeves, and his father, who stood with his head bowed and his hands shoved deep in his pockets. He wished Sam would ease up on the Old Man, but the doctor’s condemning glare shifted back and forth from him to Murdoch.
Johnny was beginning to think he’d caused some irreparable damage to the family’s relationship with Sam Jenkins. He wanted to make some sort of peace with the older man, but just now didn’t seem to be a good time. He clamped his mouth shut, vowing not to be the cause of any more upset.
//‘It ain’t prudent’. That’s what Wilf Guthrie would say, //
Sam draped his coat neatly across a bale of straw. “That bite is infected. It must be cleaned and stitched.” He folded his arms across his chest and stared down at Johnny. “The wound is deep and jagged. It’s going to hurt like hell, Johnny, so I’m going to insist that you take some laudanum.”
Defiance flashed across Johnny’s face, but Sam was in no mood to put up with even a hint of rebellion “If you prefer, I can knock you out with an injection of morphine.”
Johnny opened his mouth, but Sam gave him no chance to refuse. “Your only choice is laudanum or morphine.”
Murdoch stepped forward. “He’ll take some laudanum.” He turned to Johnny, prepared to quiet the rebellion he knew he’d find. He let his concern fill his eyes, “Won’t you, son?”
Battle weary, Johnny capitulated. “Yeah.”
Sam ignored Johnny’s reply. Discussion wasn’t necessary, the boy would follow his orders, like it or not. He’d had enough of Johnny’s nonsense. “He’ll take it if I have to pour it down his throat.” He pointed at Johnny’s face.
The doctor’s dictatorial tone and challenging finger raised Johnny’s hackles. He slapped the finger away from his face. Icicles dripped from his hushed voice. “Look, I said I’d take it. Nobody’s forcin’ me to do nuthin’.”
Sam felt his last shreds of control crumble to ashes in the heat of the conflagration Johnny’s actions and attitude ignited. He slapped his fists against his hips and turned the full wildfire of his rage on his patient. The young man glowered back, but Johnny Madrid didn’t scare him anymore than Johnny Lancer did. His voice deepened to a bellow.
“How many times have I told you that I don’t advise you on health matters because I like the sound of my own voice!” Sam began to pace, oblivious to the stunned looks directed his way from all of the Lancers.
“I give you medical advice for your sake, not mine. I told you,” he pointed at Johnny, “and your family,” he swept his hand in an arc that included all of them, “exactly how serious any further infection could prove while you were still recovering. I told you,” the finger pointed down at Johnny again, “to avoid any situation that placed you at risk or under stress. I told you,” he ticked the points off on his fingers, “don’t tire yourself, don’t get chilled, don’t sustain another injury…”
Sam threw up his hands. “But what do you do? What do you force your family to do?” He shook his head, gesturing broadly. He ticked off more points. “You willfully ignore my instructions. You show me total disrespect. And you jeopardize your own life.”
He put his hands back on his hips and stared down at Johnny. His resolution resounded in his voice. “Make this the last time, John, because if it ever happens again,” Sam paused, shaking his head and deliberating his next words. He locked his eyes with Johnny’s, “you can find yourself another fool to patch you up.”
Johnny hung his head and Sam turned his eyes to Murdoch, Scott, and Jelly, raking them with a glare that warned them to remain silent. Satisfied that they wouldn’t interfere, he turned his attention back to Johnny.
Johnny met the doctor’s furious stare and he whispered, “Sorry, Sam.”
Sam had to strain to hear him and the tone of voice and Johnny’s facial expression convinced him that the apology was heartfelt. But the doctor’s belief that the boy was truly sorry didn’t dampen the burning rage he felt inside. Johnny needed to be taught a very important lesson and learn it he would.
“You just remember how sorry you feel right now.” He stepped to Johnny’s shoulder, towering above the boy, and pointed vehemently toward the floor. “Think about how sick, weak, and helpless you are and tell yourself you don’t ever want to feel this badly again.”
The doctor glared holes in the top of Johnny’s head, but the boy kept it bowed, fingers pleating the discarded bandage.
“Have you heard a word I said?”
“Yes, sir,” Johnny muttered, biting back the reply he really wanted to utter.
Sam turned to face Murdoch, certain the man was bursting at the seams with heated rebuttal comments. He wasn’t surprised to find his old friend flanked by an ally determined to have his own say. He refused to respond to the easterner’s engaging smile.
Scott took a step toward the doctor. “We all heard, sir.” He attempted humor. “There are probably people in San Francisco who heard you.”
Sam didn’t laugh. “Do you have anything constructive to contribute?”
Scott paused to collect his thoughts. Sam’s demeanor and merciless attack astonished him. The doctor appeared more interested in berating his brother than in treating him. And the man seemed determined to rebuke his father, too. He decided to explain their seeming lack of regard for Johnny’s health.
“I realize how this must look, but that isn’t…” Scott’s voice faltered under the doctor’s venomous glare. When it came right down to it, his vaunted vocabulary failed him and he couldn’t actually express their reasoning as a coherent argument. None of the words he thought of seemed weighty enough to excuse their apparent irresponsible behavior.
He soldiered on. “Sam, you make it all sound so…so…” The grey eyes flashed with disdain and Scott suddenly felt very, very small.
Sam crossed his arms across his chest. “Just how do I make it sound? Do I make it sound like you’ve all been incredibly foolish,” he rolled his eyes at the ceiling, “by needlessly allowing a situation to spiral,” a spiraling hand motioned accompanied his narrative, “dangerously out of control?”
He stared hard from Scott to Murdoch, his stance suggestively pugnacious. “Well, I hope so! Because I believe each of you,” he gestured toward them, “is guilty of that.”
Scott bit his tongue on his own heated retort. He didn’t have a prayer of successfully explaining anything while the man was so furious. This situation called for a judicious retreat. He had a few choice words to share with the doctor – after Sam tended Johnny.
//The good doctor and I are going to have a little discussion later. I wanted Sam to scold Johnny, but that boy didn’t deserve the verbal flogging he just received. Neither did Murdoch.//
Sam read the intent on Scott’s face and mouthed, “Later,” at the young man. Then he turned his attention back to his patient, only to find that the boy had crawled closer to his horse, stroking the animal’s neck and whispering to it.
“What in heaven’s name are you doing now?”
“We upset him with all that yellin’. I’m just tryin’ to get him to rest, that’s all.” Johnny turned his smoldering eyes away from the doctor and bent his head to murmur into Barranca’s ear. The horse whiffled and rubbed his upper lip along Johnny’s arm.
The doctor studied the interaction between boy and horse. He knew Johnny and Barranca enjoyed a special relationship, but this blatant evidence of their bond startled him. The animal did respond to Johnny. And the boy wore his heart on his sleeve where his palomino was concerned. If Murdoch and Scott had witnessed the horse grow calm beneath Johnny’s touch, seen the tenderness in the young man’s eyes and hands…
Sam suddenly understood their reluctance to separate Johnny and Barranca. He used this opportunity to study the horse. Earlier, he’d barely glanced at the animal, all of his attention and concern focused on Johnny. Now he noticed the same threatening signs of exhaustion and illness in the palomino as he’d observed in the horse’s stubborn owner.
//Nine hours… that horse should be dead. But like his rider, he just won’t admit defeat. Barranca’s alive because Johnny won’t let him go – just as Johnny’s family refused to let him go when I thought the boy wouldn’t make it with the ruptured appendix. I suppose that horse knows more of Johnny’s secrets than anything alive. The boy refers to the two of them as compadres.
All right, Murdoch. I understand why you made the decision you did. I don’t agree with it, but I understand.//
Barranca snorted wetly, reminding the doctor of the infection festering in Johnny’s shoulder. “I need to take care of that shoulder now, John. It can’t wait.”
He turned to Scott and Murdoch. “I want him moved away from Barranca; I want as clean an environment as is possible in a barn!” Sam gestured to the recessed area next to the tack room. “Sit him over there. Now, I’ll need–” He continued to bark instructions, gratified when everyone leaped to obey him without the slightest quibble.
Johnny slumped against the wall, clinging desperately to consciousness. Judging by the way his shoulder felt, Sam had repeatedly buried a Bowie knife to the hilt in it. Waves of white hot fire washed over him and a loud buzzing jangled inside his head.
He clung to Scott’s hand, using his brother’s touch as his tether to awareness. The laudanum managed to take the edge off of the pain, but it also tantalized him with the promise of oblivion. His body demanded that he surrender to the quiet, pain-free darkness and he longed to comply. But if he did, he’d wake up in his room and he couldn’t abandon Barranca. Not now. The palomino needed him. His horse wasn’t out of the woods yet.
Someone spoke to him, holding a glass of tepid water to his lips, but he couldn’t recognize the voice past the ringing in his ears. He sipped reluctantly as nausea rushed through him in endless waves. He met them doggedly, rode the waves, refusing to go under. They receded at last, leaving him gasping and coughing, but taking the raucous buzzing with them. Several voices replaced the droning and he forced his protesting brain to sort them out.
“Easy, John. Deep breaths.” //Sam’s voice… sounds kinda concerned, not so mad…//
“It’s over now, son,” //Murdoch, scared to death and cluckin’…//
“I’m right here, Johnny,” //My steadfast tin soldier… always right beside me when I need you… wouldn’t have made it without you, brother…/
“Open yer eyes, boy. You ain’t had all the slack took outta yer rope yet.” //Jelly… cluckin’ worse’n the Old Man…//
He blinked his eyes open and managed a crooked smile for them, embarrassed by the blatant relief on their faces. Sam offered the glass of water again and Johnny took a hesitant sip. He tried to turn his head away, but Sam remained adamant.
“Drink it all, John. You need plenty of fluids.”
He forced the rest of the water down, but the doctor didn’t allow him time for self-congratulation. Johnny found a succession of spoons filled with evil smelling, mean tasting medicine pressed against his teeth. He closed his eyes and choked them down, relieved when another glass of water signaled the end of the ordeal.
Sam laid his hand on Johnny’s forehead. “Good lad. We’ll give this medication the chance to work and you’ll soon be feeling better.”
He smoothed the bandages over Johnny’s shoulder. “I’ve bound this arm to your chest for support. That’s a nasty wound and moving your arm will pull those stitches out. Your collarbone isn’t broken, but it’s badly bruised.”
He pressed a cold compress across the back of Johnny’s neck and another on his forehead. “We’re going to attack this fever. It’s the fever that makes you feel so weak. And speaking of weak,” Sam moved his head closer to Johnny, looking him straight in the eyes, “you will spend the next week in bed.”
Johnny sat forward wide-eyed. His mouth hung open for a second and he swallowed hard. “A whole week?” He glanced toward his family.
“Longer,” Sam stood deliberately, “if I,” he pointed at himself, “decide it’s necessary.” He had to work hard to hide his amusement at Johnny’s rolling eyes and sudden slumping posture.
“But it’s Christmas! What about Christmas dinner?” Johnny’s voice took on a pleading note, matched by the beseeching eyes directed at the implacable doctor.
Sam was fully aware of just how eagerly Murdoch Lancer’s younger son had anticipated that meticulously planned Christmas dinner. Those eyes were almost impossible to deny, but the boy had bent and outright broken far too many rules this evening. He’d played fast and loose with his health and it was time to pay the piper.
The doctor put his hands on his hips and laid down the law. “Your Christmas dinner is going to be toast soaked in broth, young man. Trust me, you’ll be sound asleep in your bed while the rest of the family is enjoying their yuletide feast.”
Johnny hung his head and Sam smiled at the noticeable pout on his face. But he refused to be diverted by the boy’s antics. “I want to be very clear about what ‘bed’ means, so let me tell you what is does not mean.”
Sam ticked off his points on his fingers, “It does not mean sitting in a chair looking out the window, it does not mean walking around your room, it does not mean sitting by the fire or anywhere else in the great room, it does not mean sitting at the kitchen table, and it most certainly does not mean” he pointed toward the barn floor, “putting one foot inside of this barn or even dreaming about getting on a horse.”
Sam’s glare encompassed Johnny, Murdoch, Scott, and Jelly. “Now, is there any one of you who is unclear about what I mean when I say I expect Johnny to stay in bed?” He stared at each of them in turn, waiting until they acknowledged his question with a negative response. He stared down at Johnny.
“So tell me where you are going to be for the next week, young man.”
“In bed.” Johnny’s quick reply and sharp voice left no doubt about his feelings on the matter.
Sam chose to ignore the surly tone. “Good. I’m glad we’re all in agreement.” He turned to wash his hands in the basin of warm water Cipriano brought in. He spoke over his shoulder, “I want you to rest a while, Johnny. That means sitting right where you are and staying still. Is that understood?”
Johnny’s head snapped up and he pointed toward Barranca who lay at the other side of the barn, too many yards away. “I can rest over there just the same, Sam.”
Sam whirled to face his recalcitrant patient. The boy was starting already! “Give yourself a little time.” He fixed Johnny with his most intimidating glare. “If you try to stand up right now you’re going to feel as sick as a dog, young man!”
Johnny held Sam’s stare, set his jaw, braced his good arm against the wall, and climbed to his feet. He staggered and swayed, clenching his teeth to hold back the nausea.
Sam watched the boy fight to stay on his feet, shaking his head at the Lancer stubbornness for the thousandth time. Even with the evidence in front of his eyes, he had difficulty believing the young man had found the strength to stand. It had to be pure muleheaded spunk keeping him on his feet. He stepped to Johnny’s side and steadied the stubborn fool, narrowly beating out Scott, Murdoch, and Jelly for the honor.
Johnny stared pointedly at the doctor’s hand on his arm. “Thanks, Doc, but I can make it.”
Sam rolled his eyes at Murdoch, counted to ten, and removed his hand. He folded his lips tightly over a stinging retort.
Johnny swayed and nearly fell the second the supporting hand was withdrawn. He managed to catch his balance, but not without paying the price in protest from his injury. He blew out his breath and wetted his lips with his tongue, but the eyes he turned toward the doctor sparkled with mischief. “I gotta ask, Sam. How does it feel to be right all the time?”
Sam put his hands on his hips. “I’m used to it. How does it feel to be stubborn all the time, Johnny?”
That drew the familiar devilish, glinting smile. “Oh, I’m used to it.”
Sam wasn’t proof against that charming grin and his stern face returned it. “Yes, no doubt you are.”
“Murdoch!” The doctor turned his attention to the man who’d lived a lot longer with the same inherent affliction. “Get this boy of yours settled over by his horse while I wash up.”
Sam stared after his patient, shaking his head in disbelief as the boy shuffled over to his horse under his own steam, a guiding hand from his father all the assistance he would allow. Where Johnny found the reserve of energy, Sam just didn’t know. The young man apparently felt the need to prove his resiliency to the doctor.
Scott hovered anxiously behind the two men, helping to ease his younger brother into place beside the palomino. Sam washed his hands, watching as father and son spent the next several minutes fussing, cosseting, and making sure Johnny was comfortable.
Despite their obvious care and devotion, Sam couldn’t let go of his disappointment in them. If they would only cooperate with him, Johnny would be in his bed where he belonged! He unrolled his sleeves and fastened the cuffs as he observed, evaluating the unstable, perilous situation. As each minute passed, he felt more uncomfortable with it.
His disappointment in Scott and Murdoch paled in comparison to the disillusionment he felt with himself. How could he allow this nonsense to continue? Especially after his earlier vehement argument? Yet here he was, calmly washing his hands while his frighteningly ill patient prepared to baby sit a horse. He shook his head in self-disgust and shrugged into his coat.
//Not only am I an old fool, I’m a hypocrite to boot. Now I’m condoning that foolish boy’s insanity. Just how long is this nonsense going to continue? He managed to drag himself over to Barranca, but he isn’t up to much more. He’s weakening rapidly and no matter what he believes, he can’t recover without proper rest and recuperation. And the only place he is going to receive that is in his own bed. I’d better find a way to get him there – quickly.//
Sam frowned as he watched Murdoch climb stiffly to his feet. His old friend was suffering the consequences of the long, cold night in the barn. The rancher gritted his teeth as he tentatively stretched his back muscles, hesitant to place his weight on his bad leg. When he glanced over at the doctor, Sam beckoned him over. It was time to have another go at talking some sense into Murdoch Lancer.
“Well?” Murdoch quizzed his old friend, looking back at his younger son as he escorted the doctor out of Johnny’s earshot.
”I’d prefer him to be in bed…” Sam’s voice betrayed his increasing annoyance.
Murdoch sighed, feeling a compelling need to reiterate his feelings on the matter. “So would I, Sam, but…”
Sam silenced the Lancer patriarch with an upheld hand. “Then get him there, man!” He gripped Murdoch’s forearm. “He’ll do what you tell him to do.”
Murdoch glanced over at Johnny. A tiny smile lighted his face as the boy stroked the palomino. He drew strength from that sight and faced Sam. “Yes, if I asked him, he’d go.” Murdoch rubbed his upper lip with his thumb and locked eyes with the doctor. “But he’d never forgive me for forcing his hand that way. It would destroy all of the trust we’ve built together.”
Sam’s anger ignited again with a vengeance. “Is that all you’re worried about?”
“No, of course it’s not.” Murdoch gripped the doctor’s upper arm and steered him into the tack room, closing the door behind them. He faced Sam, fists on his hips.
“Yes, I’m scared of letting him down and I have every reason not to want to. But this is not about my fears.” He moved directly in front of the doctor, clasping his upper arms in both hands. “Johnny needs to do this, Sam. He has to do this.”
Murdoch released Sam and shoved his hands into his pockets. He paced back and forth. “I won’t overrule his judgment or try to negate his feelings. Not for anything.”
Sam rubbed the back of a weary hand across his forehead. His anger bubbled ominously as his frustration with the hard-headed Lancer family soared. How in the world could he force the blind to see?
“Damn it, Murdoch! The situation is taking a drastic toll on the boy’s health, don’t you see that?” Sam heaved a sigh and did some pacing of his own as he spoke. “The longer he’s out here,” he pointed toward Johnny, “exposed to the elements, the sicker he’s going to get and the longer he’s going to take to recover.”
Sam halted in front of Murdoch and glared up at his friend. He pitched his voice low, aware that it vibrated with accusation and fury. “There’s also the possibility that he won’t recover. Have you considered that?”
Murdoch sucked in a deep breath, contemplating his answer. His eyes never wavered from the doctor’s. “Yes, I have, and I’m trusting Johnny’s judgment on this. He knows his limitations better than anyone.”
The muscles along the Sam’s jaw rippled and he shook his head savagely. “Well, I don’t agree. Johnny believes he’s indestructible, and one of these days, Murdoch,” Sam jabbed Murdoch in the chest, “he’s going to find out he isn’t,” another sharp jab, “and you along with him!”
With that parting shot, Sam turned on his heel and stormed out of the tack room, through the barn, and into the blackness of the early morning.
Sam strode into the bone-chilling cold, unconcerned as to where his feet might carry him. He simply needed a few solitary moments to himself, a brief interlude to order his thoughts and regain his customary ironclad control.
His rage still sparked and flared. His failure to make Murdoch Lancer see the facts right under his obstinate nose only poured more fuel onto the fire. It had been a great many years since he’d let his temper get the better of him. Sam wasn’t proud of the fact that he’d so totally lost it tonight with a patient – and with the patient’s family. But if he were honest with himself, he didn’t feel any real regret for doing so. Murdoch Lancer’s younger son could try the patience of a saint. And Saint Samuel he most certainly was not.
The sound of footsteps hot on his trail prompted an irritable sigh from the doctor. He stopped in his tracks, leaning against the corral to allow the young man to catch up.
Sam buttoned his coat with not-quite-steady fingers. The tremor in his hands taunted him with just how far he’d let his control slip. He really did need some time alone to regain his equilibrium. But he wasn’t going to get it – as those determined footsteps told him all too clearly.
//I told him ‘later’. I suppose this is as later as it gets with him. I wish he’d just drop it, but I don’t see any pigs flying.//
The swift, military strides left no doubt that Scott Lancer was a man on a mission. As he drew closer, the milky moonlight revealed his fury in the rigid set of his shoulders and angle of his head. Sam read the resolve on the irate, handsome face and pulled himself up to his full height, ready for battle, despite his weary and protesting muscles.
Scott ground to a halt in front of the doctor and glared daggers at him. “Was that really necessary, Doctor?” The emphasis on and pronunciation of the last word left no doubt that the young man questioned that title in the wake of Sam’s recent behavior.
Scott’s sarcastic tone and angry attitude stung, serving to further inflame the doctor. It seemed the elder Lancer son was equally as capable of trying his patience as his younger brother!
//So now I’m not worthy of being addressed by a title I’ve earned? After I put aside every scruple and principle to treat your brother under deplorable conditions? I know I said some harsh things to you, young man, but they were the absolute truth. So don’t think you can march out here and intimidate me. I won’t stand for any more of your disrespect.//
“I obviously believe it was necessary or I wouldn’t have wasted my breath.” Sam turned his back, praying that Scott would take the broad hint and back off. With both tempers flaming, the chances of a productive conversation were nil. In fact, further discussion could only lead to disaster. He barked over his shoulder, “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like a few minutes to myself.”
Scott watched the older man turn his back in disbelief. He felt the flush of rage heat his cheeks. Sam had hurled some cutting accusations and Scott intended to call him to account for those vitriolic words.
//Surely he is having second thoughts about how ruthlessly he behaved toward Johnny… and his brutal condemnation of Murdoch. I can’t believe he turned his back on me. Does he think he is dismissing me? He’ll discover that I won’t let the matter drop that easily!//
“Sam.” The word echoed through the night and Scott realized the wind would carry his words into the barn. He lowered his voice, but deliberately allowed his anger and disappointment to infuse the tone.
“Johnny didn’t deserve that vindictive diatribe,” he grasped Sam’s shoulder, as though requesting him to turn around, “and neither did my father! You had no right-”
Sam whirled to face the younger man, jabbing one warning finger to rest on Scott’s chest. “Don’t you dare tell me I had no right! Don’t you dare tell me how to deal with a patient.”
He grasped Scott’s upper arms and shook him. “Especially a patient I’ve invested a great deal of time, expertise, and prayer in.” He dropped his hands, shoving Scott backward and away from him in the process.
Scott had to scramble to keep from landing on his backside. Only the swift footwork necessary to remain on his feet kept his hands off the doctor.
Sam tapped his own chest, “I am the doctor, Scott. Not you,” he jabbed his forefinger at Scott, “and certainly not that boy!” The forefinger gestured toward the barn before Sam clenched his fists.
He turned sideways and rested a hand on the upper corral rail, looking away from the incensed young man and into the night. “I didn’t spend all these years tending the sick and the dying, helping bring new life into this world, to have my instructions questioned and stomped on by some foolish,” Sam slapped his open palm against the corral fence, “youth who thinks himself invincible and,” he turned back to face Scott, choosing his words deliberately, “his besotted family who panders to his foolish whims.”
Scott’s eyes flashed in defiance and his nostrils flared. He smacked his fist into his hand. “That’s not fair. It wasn’t like that–”
“Yes, it was. It was exactly like that!” Sam took a step forward, leaning into Scott’s space. He shook his finger under the young man’s aristocratic nose. “You, as a family, allowed that boy to get sick again. You knowingly disregarded every piece of advice, every medical order I explained to you.”
Sam jabbed his forefinger into Scott’s chest hard enough to force the younger man to take a step backward. “You, in particular, are responsible for Johnny not being up in his room.” He shook his head and crossed his arms across his chest. “He respects your opinions and with some encouragement, you could’ve convinced him to go to bed. But instead, you sanctioned his foolhardiness.” The doctor began to pace, fists clenching and unclenching.
Scott watched the unexpected and uncharacteristic performance open-mouthed. His knuckles itched to knock the doctor into next week for his offensive remarks as well as the provocative manhandling, but he suppressed that violent urge. Sam obviously needed to vent his frustration at the impossible situation. If he could help his brother by acting as a lightning rod for the doctor’s wrath, then he’d listen and absorb those high voltage shocks. Even if he disagreed until the smoke poured out of his ears!
“You call me out here to put right what should never have been allowed to happen in the first place.” Sam halted in front of Scott, “Then you have the unmitigated gall,” he gestured furiously, “to question my right to be angry about such utter disregard for a life.” He shook his head and placed his hands on his hips.
“Well, I’m sorry if you don’t like my reaction, Scott, but nothing you say can convince me to see your family’s actions in a better light.”
Sam shoved his hands into his pockets and kicked at a stone on the ground. “I fought long and hard to get Johnny well. I was proud of the job I did, but it looks as though I wasted my time.”
“Damn it, Sam!” Scott grasped the doctor’s upper arms, flustered by Sam’s sustained vehemence and uncertain how to respond without making an abhorrent situation worse. Yet he couldn’t just let such inflammatory and patently untrue assertions pass by without refuting them.
“Would you just stop? You know you didn’t waste your time and you know damn well that our family doesn’t consider it wasted.” He dropped his hands to his hips and cocked his head. “You speak as though we don’t care about what happens to Johnny, but you know that just isn’t true.”
Scott held his arms out in a peace-making, palms up gesture, “I realize that you’re furious about the condition he’s in, but that boy doesn’t deserve-”
“Johnny deserves a future!” Sam stepped nearer to Scott, searching the troubled blue-grey eyes with his own sincere ones.
“Especially considering the life he’s led, that boy deserves a future.” Sam crossed his arms across his chest and his eyes hardened to flint. “But that’s something I seriously doubt he’ll have if he’s continuously allowed to roll the dice with death – and that’s what you,” he jabbed Scott in the chest, “are enabling him to do.”
Scott grasped Sam’s jabbing finger and hand with the quickness of a striking rattler, gently lowering them to the doctor’s side. He never broke eye contact. “No. That’s not true, Sam.” He took a step forward, forcing Sam to take a step back.
“What we are doing is supporting Johnny.” When Sam’s back pressed against the corral fence, Scott released his hand. He moved to stand next to the doctor and slammed his hand against the fence, blowing out his breath in a huge sigh. He leaned his upper arms on the top rail and stared sideways at Sam, desperate to help him understand.
“It’s the only thing he’s ever asked of us. If he’s prepared to risk his health, even his life,” he sighed and hung his head for a moment. Then he lifted his head proudly and resolutely met Sam’s eyes, “for something he believes in so strongly, then his family has no choice but to respect his decision.”
Scott dashed the back of his hand across his mouth as though wiping away a repugnant taste. He broke eye contact, pushed away from the fence, and took a step back, shoulders slumping from their rigid parade-ground posture. “Sam, please. We love Johnny. You know we do.” He threw up his hands, “If there were any other way, don’t you think we would have tried it?”
The doctor shook his head. Scott had scored several telling points and he could understand why they’d submitted to Johnny’s desire to stay with his horse. Perhaps he had been harsh, but he’d delivered a message the Lancers needed to hear. At least he’d gotten their attention – for once. Now wasn’t the time to relent. “He won’t walk out of that barn this morning, Scott, not on his own two feet.”
Scott sighed. Sam Jenkins could be as pigheaded as Murdoch Lancer. “Then I’ll carry him.” His face creased in a tender smile. “It won’t be the first time, and knowing Johnny, it won’t be the last.”
Sam looked him over from his head to his heels. When he spoke, his voice rang with the authority of a prophet. “I’m sure you will carry him. But think hard on this, Scott – it just might be in his coffin.”
The doctor brushed by a stunned Scott Lancer and stalked back inside the barn.
“Come on, pony. It’s time for you to get up on your feet so your master can get up to his bed,” Scott patted Barranca’s neck as he completed his examination of the animal. The horse snorted, moving one foreleg in a pawing motion, but the palomino made no attempt to stand.
Scott smoothed the blanket back over the area where he’d inserted the needle. At least there were no indications of peritonitis. The palomino appeared stable and fairly comfortable, although the horse showed no signs of standing and lacked any interest in the bran mash and water Jelly had lovingly arranged near its muzzle. Scott knew he could relax only when the horse stood, moved its bowels and emptied its bladder, and ate and drank.
He stole a glance at his brother, his throat tightening at the forlorn expression on Johnny’s face. The young man slumped back against the bales of straw, his sprawling limbs reminding Scott of Barranca. He looked sore and used up and just plain exhausted as evidenced by his gaunt cheeks, dark ringed eyes, and weighted eyelids. The whiteness of the cold compress on his forehead accentuated the pallor on his drawn face. The boy’s entire demeanor seemed subdued.
//Its no wonder after that royal chewing Sam handed him. I realize that Sam is upset about Johnny’s condition, but that was no excuse for what he did. Most of that rebuke was totally uncalled for.//
Scott walked forward on his knees and settled himself in the straw beside his brother, draping one arm around the boy’s shoulders. At least Murdoch had shepherded Sam off to the house. He still didn’t trust his tongue – or his itching knuckles – around the doctor. No matter what Sam said, his insinuations and remarks weren’t fair. Not to mention that he’d scared a good five years off of Scott’s life with his unerringly aimed parting shot. He tightened his grip on his brother’s shoulders.
//This evening is NOT going to lead to a coffin. Not for Johnny and not for Barranca.//
He felt Johnny stir beside him and then a slight weight as the dark head moved to rest companionably against his shoulder. Johnny peered up through his lashes and his crooked smile climbed the side of his face.
“How’s he look, Scott?”
Scott nodded. “I think he’s holding his own.” He glanced at Barranca and back to his brother, “I’ll feel better when he stands and eats.”
“Yeah.” Johnny played with the bandages binding his left arm to his chest, shifting his weight in a futile effort to find some relief for his aching body. “He’s pretty tired, huh?” He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand and yawned.
A tender smile quirked the corners of Scott’s mouth as he watched his brother’s attempt to fend off sleep. “I’d say he’s totally exhausted.” He brushed Johnny’s hair back from his forehead, letting his fingers linger beneath the compress in order to gauge the fever’s progress. “I expect he’ll pluck up after some rest.”
“He’s tough.” Johnny tried to bite back another yawn and failed. “He ain’t gonna give up.”
“So I’ve been told.” Scott glanced at Johnny out of the corner of his eye. “He can make it.”
“And don’t you forget it!” Johnny’s cheeky grin flashed across his face and he pointed a finger at Scott. The finger wavered and his hand flopped back into his lap with fatigue. “He’s gonna rest awhile.” He swallowed and hung his head. The soft words sounded more like a plea for affirmation than a declaration. “Then you’ll see. He’ll feel stronger and hop right up.”
“I don’t doubt it for an instant.” Scott squeezed Johnny’s shoulder, mind racing to find a way to encourage his brother to rest. Barranca sighed, moving his head in the straw, and the idea sparked. “Hey?”
“Huh?” Johnny didn’t resist Scott’s subtle pressure, relaxing into his brother’s welcome support.
“I think Barranca’s strategy might work for you, too.” Scott patted his thigh invitingly. “How about catching a nap?”
“But what if-” Johnny’s eyes locked onto the horse.
Scott held up his hand in a restraining motion. “If there’s the slightest change – anything at all – I promise I’ll wake you.” He didn’t wait for a refusal, scooting sideways away from Johnny and guiding his brother’s head and shoulders toward his lap.
Johnny tensed, prepared to resist, but Scott held a slight, insistent pressure that coaxed instead of demanding. “Please, humor me, hermanito.”
Johnny grinned up at Scott, delighted with his brother’s use of the affectionate Spanish word for little brother. He slapped a backhand to Scott’s stomach and stretched out, pillowing his head on the proffered lap. “Gracias, hermano.”
Scott pulled a blanket from the stack on the straw bale behind him and spread it over the boy. His idea was a success! He tucked the blanket around Johnny’s shoulders with one hand while idly combing the young man’s bangs with the other. The fever didn’t seem any higher so perhaps Sam’s medication was helping.
Johnny moaned softly, turning his head restlessly on Scott’s thigh. Scott stroked the dark hair, shaking his head at that simple gesture’s power to soothe the boy. How childlike his brother appeared with eyes closed, hair falling forward over his forehead, and cheeks flushed with fever.
//Johnny didn’t have the chance to think of himself as a child for very long. He had to grow up and accept a man’s responsibility while I was still in short pants. Yet he’s never lost his childlike sense of wonder and joy, the inquisitiveness and spontaneity, or the playful way a child turns every day into an adventure.
I want to see more of that carefree, happy side of my brother. As Johnny becomes more comfortable with us, he relaxes his guard and lets that mischievous childlike side of himself peek out. That’s my brother, the scamp. But while the scamp often appears childlike – he isn’t childish. There’s a significant difference.//
“Hey, Scott?” The blue eyes blinked open.
“Hey, what?” Scott tucked the blanket firmly around Johnny’s shoulders. He couldn’t quite strip the exasperation from his tone. “I thought you were going to follow Barranca’s example and rest.”
“I will.” Johnny wormed his right arm free of the blanket and squeezed Scott’s lower leg. “It’s just… it’s just that… well, I just wanna say thanks – for lotsa things,” He picked at the seam of his brother’s pants leg, “but mostly for tryin’ to save Barranca, and for helpin’ the Old Man understand why I need to be out here, and well,” he stared up into Scott’s eyes, “for stayin’ out here with me.” He looked away, a touch of color staining his cheeks. “You bein’ here – it makes it easier, you know?”
Scott had to fight a painful swelling in his throat in order to speak. “I’m glad I make it easier for you, Johnny,” he squeezed the boy’s shoulder, buying the time to recover control of his voice, “but you don’t have to thank me.”
Johnny came up on his elbow at that. His eyes found Scott’s. “Oh, yeah I do. What you did… it was important to me. I know it wasn’t easy and you weren’t comfortable tryin’ that troker thing with the needle. But you did it, brother.”
He let Scott help him lie back again. “Pablo always said that everything worth doin’ is harder than you think it oughta be.” Johnny tugged on the bandages at his shoulder. “He called it the gap between wishes and life. You bridged that gap, Scott.” He motioned toward the palomino with his head, locking eyes with his brother. “Whether Barranca lives or dies, you did everything you could to give him a chance.”
He swallowed and turned his head away, hand brushing at his cheek. Scott had to strain to hear him. “It means a lot to me. That’s why I gotta thank you.”
Scott closed his eyes, willing the tears away. The touch of Johnny’s fingers, once more worrying the seam of his pants leg, coaxed a smile from him, driving the lump from his throat. “I’ll accept your thanks, but I’m sure that somewhere there is a code of conduct manual for brothers.” He grasped Johnny’s restless hand, rescuing the stitching along his pants leg by steering his brother’s hand and arm back beneath the blanket.
“That book explicitly states that one of the foremost duties of one brother to another is to ‘make it easier.’” He laid his hand lightly on Johnny’s bandaged shoulder, surreptitiously checking to be sure his brother’s ever-questing fingers hadn’t loosened anything.
Johnny clawed his arm free from the blanket again. “A code of conduct manual, huh?” He slapped Scott’s leg. “Well, I hope you don’t find it. If you do,” he rolled his eyes, “I’ll be hearin’ quotes from it for the next fifty years.” His hand rested on Scott’s in one of the brief, yet indescribably eloquent gestures that only Johnny could make.
//And don’t think for a second that I don’t know that ‘duty’ has nuthin’ to do with it!//
“I’m surprised at you, brother.” Scott raised his eyebrows and wiggled them theatrically, gratified by that quick, speaking touch to his hand. “You know I remember everything I read. I don’t have to find the book in order to quote from it.” He put his hand on his hip, the teasing note in his voice drawing an answering gleam in Johnny’s eyes.“And now that I know just how much you enjoy hearing material from that tome…”
Johnny cocked his head and shot Scott a sideways glance. “Well, I’ll tell ya, you did real good, Lt. Lancer,” he had to pause for another face-splitting yawn, “no, I forgot. You won yourself a battlefield promotion tonight. My ol’ steadfast tin soldier is General Lancer now.”
He tried to backhand Scott in the stomach, but the angle was wrong and he settled for an awkward pat on his brother’s ribs. His teeth flashed in a brilliant smile, “Hell, you even had me wantin’ to follow your orders.”
Scott chuckled, disguising his surprise. “Well heck, let me go hitch up the buggy.”
“We must take a drive.” He reached over and tucked Johnny’s arm back under the blanket.
“Oh, yes. I’ve waited all my life to eat at the ice cream parlor in Hell.” Scott laughed at Johnny’s stunned expression. “If you want to follow orders – anybody’s orders – today must be its grand opening.”
Johnny joined his brother’s laughter, “That’s pretty good, Scott. Go harness ol’ Zanzibar and we’ll check the place out.” His eyes widened as his strength suddenly gave out. Heavy eyelids fluttered and drooped closed and he sighed, resting heavily against Scott’s thigh.
Scott shook his head while sending up a brief prayer of thanks. The bowl of cold water and additional compresses sat on one of the bales and he pulled the bowl toward him. He wrung out the cloth inside it and exchanged it for the warmer one currently draped over Johnny’s forehead. Johnny sighed and Scott used another compress to bathe his brother’s face. The boy reacted to the pleasant coolness against his skin by murmuring and turning his head toward Scott.
“Hush now, just rest,” Scott soothed softly, relieved when the blue eyes remained closed.
He heard footsteps behind him and looked over his shoulder. Jelly hurried through the straw to kneel beside the brothers. Scott tapped his forefinger to his lips, satisfied when Jelly spoke in a whisper.
“That poor boy looks about as wore out as a tomcat walkin’ through mud.” Jelly studied Johnny sorrowfully. “Ya done good gettin’ him to lie down, Scott.” He laid the back of his hand on one flushed cheek, shaking his head at the still evident fever.
Scott delicately plucked Jelly’s hand away from Johnny’s face and dropped it against the older man’s thigh. “I think he’ll rest a bit if we let him. The fever doesn’t seem to be any worse and Sam’s medication is working.” He met Jelly’s eyes. “Has Sam’s mood improved any?”
Jelly sighed and settled himself against the straw bale beside Scott. “Your Dad has him in the kitchen stuffin’ him full of Maria’s Christmas cookin’.” He shook his head and stared at Scott.
“Lordy, Scott, I ain’t never seen Doc so all fired pure-D mad. Why, he come in here as techy as a teased snake and swooped down,” his hands illustrated his point, “on poor Johnny like a chicken hawk on a quail. Them words of his coulda sizzled bacon.”
He tugged on his whiskers, “How come Doc can’t understand how Johnny feels about his horse?”
“Doc understands, Jelly. He just wants to be sure that all of us realize what a risk we’re taking with Johnny’s health.” Scott glanced down at his fevered brother and thought about his next words.
“And I suppose he’s tired of having to pull Johnny’s bacon out of the fire. Sam had that boy a good way along the road to recovery and now…” He pointed at the compress and the bandage swathing his brother’s shoulder and chest. “Well, it’s not quite where he started from, but Johnny lost a great deal of ground tonight and it won’t be easy to regain.” He shook his head and one fist clenched on his thigh.
“Did you notice what we all did when Sam walked through the door?” He waited until Jelly shook his head, “Well, we all stared at him, pinned all our hopes on him. We expected him to ‘fix’ Johnny, to make everything all right.”
“Sure we did,” Jelly nodded vigorously. “He’s the doc, ain’t he? He’s supposed to make folks all right.”
Scott wrung out a fresh compress and replaced the one on Johnny’s forehead. “Yes, he is.” He met Jelly’s gaze. “But Doc Jenkins is human, Jelly. He’s not perfect.” He stared down at his hand resting on Johnny’s hair.
“Perhaps living with the pressure of such high expectations wears on him,” a tiny smile lifted the corners of his mouth, “maybe even enough to cause him to react much like a teased snake.”
“I declare, yore smarter’n that ol’ rat what lives under the bunkhouse.” Jelly picked up a handful of straw and began shredding it. “When ya put it that way, I reckon Doc might get outta sorts over it,” his eyes lifted to lock with Scott’s.
“But mebbe them words wasn’t about Doc Jenkins.” Jelly stared hard at Scott, certain he’d spotted a message in the young man’s comments. “Do we do you that way, boy? Look at ya and expect ya to make everythin’ right?” He sighed and allowed the straw to sift out of his hand. “I know Johnny did that to ya tonight.”
Scott found himself unable to meet Jelly’s concerned gaze. He kept his eyes on his lap. “This isn’t the time or place for such a discussion, Jelly.”
“Now don’t go gettin’ yer feathers ruffled.” Jelly thrust his chin forward. “Just sounds like you an’ me need to have a talk is all.”
“Not now.” Scott’s brief smile acknowledged Jelly’s shrewd interpretation of his comments, but he shook his head to dismiss the older man’s concern. “If you’re so interested in ruffled feathers, go help Murdoch smooth Sam’s.” He pointed imperiously toward the hacienda, certain his lofty manner would divert Jelly’s attention. “Oh, and Jelly, please employ your most sophisticated diplomatic behavior.”
Jelly scrambled to his feet and glared down at Scott. He didn’t miss the smile threatening to burst through the serious mask. “I’m a goin’. Ain’t no need to spit them decorated words at me. Always gotta spout off words so polished ya could skate on ‘em.”
He stomped off toward the door, grousing the whole way. “Betcha think I don’t know beans about diplomatic behavior. Well, I got a news flash for you, Mr. Harvard man. You ain’t ever seen a better diplomat than Jellifer B. Hoskins.”
Jelly paused at the door to hurl over his shoulder, “And don’t think I’m gonna fergit that you an me need to have us a powwow.”
Scott watched Jelly’s huffy departure over his shoulder, chuckling at the older man’s tirade. Johnny sighed, moving his head restlessly and Scott turned back to his brother. The boy’s lips were pressed tightly together, a telling sign of his physical discomfort. Scott squeezed most of the cool water from another cloth and lightly sponged Johnny’s face.
//I was unfair to you earlier, little brother. I experienced quite an after-battle slump and indulged myself in a good old-fashioned bout of self-pity. I told myself that you, Murdoch, Jelly, and Teresa always looked to me to make things right. I complained about living with those high expectations, whined that you all treated me unfairly. I wished that I could travel to some place where just being Scott was enough.
But you know what? That place doesn’t exist in the past. My entire life, I’ve struggled to live up to high, often unrealistic expectations. Grandfather accepted nothing less than perfection, adamant that I fulfill my ‘potential.’ If I’m honest, only one person in my life has ever accepted me as just “Scott” – no expectations, just plain Scott. That person is you, Johnny. My little brother believes ‘just plain Scott’ is a pretty decent fellow. So if you throw me an expectation once in a blue moon, I can live with that. It’ll keep me on my toes.//
Johnny stirred, shrugging his arm from beneath the blanket to grasp Scott’s wrist. “Scott?”
“Now why are you not sleeping?” Scott sighed, struggling to hide his vexation.
//Brother, you are the most hard-headed…Why can’t you just let go and sleep for a while? Anyone else would surrender to their body’s demands, but not you. Oh no, you’re nearly unconscious and still trying to talk. Now I have to worry about those sharp ears of yours. I hope you didn’t draw any unwelcome conclusions from Jelly’s careless musings. Just how much did you hear?//
Johnny’s next comment informed Scott that his fears were not unfounded. “I wanna know if Jelly was right.”The blue eyes bored into Scott’s, demanding an answer.
“Have you been playing possum again?” Scott parried the request, keeping his tone light and refocusing the conversation on his brother.
“C’mon, Scott.” Johnny’s grip on Scott’s wrist tightened. “Was he right?” He attempted to sit up and Scott caught his shoulders, settling the boy back down to a prone position.
“You always say he may not be right,” Scott shifted smoothly to another diversion, “but he’s never wrong.”
Johnny shook Scott’s wrist. “I’m serious. I know I put you on the spot tonight, pushed harder than I should’ve.” He looked down and away. “But do we… do I, treat you that way all the time? Like I expect you to fix everything, I mean.” His eyes remained focused on the straw for several heartbeats, then he swallowed and stared up into Scott’s eyes, his determination to hear an answer to his question written plainly on his face.
Scott shifted his position and drummed his fingers against his thigh. Johnny had that bulldog look on his face and the boy had doggedly pursued him through two skillful conversational feints. Johnny was hot on the scent and his obvious seriousness left his older brother feeling uncomfortable. He forced a bantering note into his voice and evaded in yet another direction.
“You must be feeling pretty rotten. The only time you wallow in guilt is when you’re ill.” He watched Johnny swivel his head up and back to stare at Scott’s drumming fingers and immediately closed his hand into a fist before snatching the compress from Johnny’s forehead and replacing it with a fresh one.
“You think I’m wallowin’ in guilt, huh?” Johnny smirked at Scott’s lame attempts to cover his nervousness and his irritation at the evasiveness resounded in his voice.
“I think you need to stop worrying about me,” Scott bent forward and pulled the blanket up around Johnny’s shoulders, “and get some sleep.” In his haste to cut off the conversation, he pulled it too far and covered his brother’s mouth
Johnny pawed the blanket away from his mouth and struggled up onto his elbow. He glared at Scott, concern and determination warring on his face. Scott looked away from that earnest gaze, furious at himself for confirming Johnny’s suspicions by his furtive actions.
“But I am worried. I’m tryin’ to tell you that I agree with Jelly.” Johnny pushed himself to a sitting position and leaned back on the bale next to Scott.
“I saw your face before you stuck that needle in Barranca. You remembered somethin’ – somethin’ bad.” He rested his hand on Scott’s forearm, “One of those dark times, huh?”
Scott kept his eyes on his lap, unable to hide a tiny smile when Johnny bumped him with his shoulder.
“I want you to tell me about it, that’s all. Trust me. I know it ain’t no fun, but talkin’ about it helps.” Johnny backhanded Scott’s stomach. “You taught me that.”
The brothers exchanged glances that deepened into warm smiles. Johnny attempted to sit up straighter and that action drew a soft moan. He wilted back against Scott’s shoulder. His brother’s arm encircled him instantly.
Johnny patted the hand gripping his shoulder. “I’m okay, but you’re right, this isn’t the time or place. I’m so tired, I can hardly keep my eyes open and I’m not thinkin’ straight.” He sighed and carefully lay down again, resting his head on Scott’s thigh. His exhaustion was plain in his labored movements. He gazed up at his brother. “Will you talk to me about it later? Mañana, maybe?”
Scott looked away, shoulders slumping from their normal military erectness, “Johnny…”
Johnny slapped his hand against the straw. “Look, I been doin’ most of the talkin’, Scott. It’s my turn to listen. So how about it?” He cocked his head and gazed up at Scott, the pleading look that rarely failed to get what he wanted from his brother plastered firmly to his face, “You gonna trust me like I been trustin’ you?”
“That’s pretty good, brother.”
The muscles along Johnny’s jaw rippled at his big brother’s continued elusiveness. Scott took one look at his expression and had the sinking feeling that his little brother wasn’t going to back down now.
A touch of the hushed deadliness frosted Johnny’s tone. “I asked you a question. Stop tryin’ to change the subject like you always do.”His eyes glittered with challenge.
“Like I always do?” Scott replied with the diverting question out of habit, vainly attempting to hide his surprise at the comment. He’d always been accomplished at concealing his feelings; after all, Harlan had drilled him daily on that skill for as long as he could remember. But Johnny’s accusing glare left no doubt that this particular game was up.
“Yeah,” Johnny’s teeth flashed white in a smile that failed to reach his eyes. They stayed glued to Scott’s face, demanding an answer. “Whenever the talk turns to you, especially how you feel or somethin’ that happened before, you get this sly little ‘keep away’ look around your eyes and start makin’ comments to try to lead the talk in another direction.” He reached up and cuffed Scott’s chin. “Just like now.”
Scott wanted to deny the observations, but Johnny had his reactions nailed cold. He shook his head. “You aren’t going to back off, are you?”
//Well, this is a switch. Johnny is acting like the oldest, wisest brother now. He even has his big brother feeling like the little brother for a change. No trace of the childlike scamp here. … Maybe he needs to play the big brother part sometimes. If I’m honest, there are times when I wish I had a big brother to talk to. Perhaps we should exchange roles every so often…//
“Nope.” The piercing blue eyes never wavered from Scott’s face.
Scott sighed, “All right.” He smoothed the blanket across Johnny’s shoulders. “You get some sleep now and when you’re feeling better, we’ll talk about me. Agreed?”
Johnny rewarded him with a sweet, sleepy smile. “Agreed.” He sighed and lolled his head toward Scott’s body, long lashes brushing his cheeks. His breathing evened out and Scott felt safe enough to take a deep, shaky breath.
//What have I gotten myself into? I really don’t want to talk about me. But I have pushed Johnny to talk about himself when he just wanted to clam up. I suppose turnabout is fair play. So it appears I’ll play the little brother for a change and “confess” to Johnny.//
Johnny’s head turned restlessly and Scott stroked his hair. “Shh, it’s all right.” His brother quieted beneath his hand. For one brief moment Scott believed Johnny was actually asleep.
Then Johnny shattered that illusion with a tap to his leg. “Scott?”
“What’s a Magi?”
“A what?” Scott couldn’t keep the astonishment out of his tone. The question came out of nowhere and there was a terrifying instant when he couldn’t imagine what Johnny was talking about and thought the boy must be delirious.
The amazement in Johnny’s eyes reminded Scott of Tommy. Whenever the child asked him a question and he didn’t immediately rattle off a response, Tommy’s eyes held the same expression as Johnny’s did now – as though he couldn’t conceive how it was possible that the ‘eddicated’ Scott didn’t know the answer.
“They had faith in a star…” Johnny prompted, opening his eyes wider.
Scott sighed with relief as enlightenment dawned. He didn’t have a clue as to why Johnny was asking the question, but at least he understood what his brother was asking. The boy wasn’t out of his head with fever.
“Do you remember when we read the Christmas story from the bible?” Johnny nodded and Scott continued, “Remember the wise men?”
“Yeah, the fellas that brought gifts to the baby.”
“That’s right. They were guided to him by a star.” Scott bit his lip to hide a smile as comprehension flooded Johnny’s face. “In those days, one of the meanings of the term ‘Magi’ was a mysterious person who had access to knowledge not normally known to most people. The three wise men and the word ‘Magi’ are interchangeable.”
“I see.” Johnny chewed his lip, lost in thought.
Scott watched Johnny closely. His brother seemed to be fitting the pieces of a jigsaw together and Scott never tired of the simple joy on Johnny’s face whenever he solved a puzzle. The childlike look of wonder lighted the expressive face now.
“They had faith that the star would lead them to the right place, so they followed it.” Johnny glanced at Barranca. “They never gave up on that star.”
“An excellent summation, brother.” Scott ruffled Johnny’s hair. “If that answers your question, how about closing your eyes again?”
Johnny obligingly shut his eyes and Scott wondered at the genesis of the boy’s questions on such a subject. Judging from Johnny’s comments and the subject matter, his brother and father had discussed faith and hope. It must’ve been some conversation.
//He couldn’t talk to me about faith and hope tonight. I let him down on that. I’m glad he was able to talk to Murdoch.//
Scott crossed his legs at the ankle, dismayed when Johnny’s eyes blinked open at the movement. “What was it the Magi brought the baby Jesus?”
“Gold, frankincense, and ah… ah…,” Scott snapped his fingers in relief, “ myrrh.”
“Just what is frankincense? And myrrh?” Johnny plucked at the bandages on his shoulder.
“Well, they’re pretty much the same thing. They’re a gummy type of aromatic resin that is used to make incense and perfume.”
“You mean they stink. Kinda like Jelly’s ‘Wild Flowers in Spring’ cologne?”
“I suppose that depends on your taste in cologne.”
“Well, how come anybody’d be dumb enough to bring a baby cologne? And still be called a wise man?”
Scott stared at his brother suspiciously as thoughts of Tommy’s incessant questions raced through his head. That child could fire questions so rapidly your head would spin and Johnny was performing an impressive imitation at the moment. And Tommy was never satisfied with one answer. Oh no, he demanded every last detail – names, places, definitions, and anything else he could think of – all the while devoutly convinced that the ‘walking cycalpedia’ could provide them. At least his brother wouldn’t go to that extreme.
“Perhaps because in that time, frankincense and myrrh were valued almost as highly as gold.” Scott changed the compress on Johnny’s forehead. “You know, brother, I’ve never had the opportunity to interrogate the gentlemen in question.”
Johnny chuckled, “Boy, I bet Jesus’ mama didn’t think they were very wise.”
“No doubt she didn’t.”
The boy was silent for several moments and Scott began to hope that he’d fallen asleep again – only to be disappointed.
“How’d they get there?”
Scott revised his opinion – Johnny could pester him for even more details than Tommy! “How did who get where?”
“Them Magi. Did they have horses? Did they get there on foot?”
“No. They had to travel across a great desert so they rode camels.”
“Yes.” Scott shook his finger at his brother. “And don’t ask me what a camel is, Master Tommy. I know that you know.” He glared at Johnny who met his irritated stare with wide-eyed innocence. “And if you don’t, I’ll bring you a book tomorrow and let you look it up for yourself.”
//The scamp is trying to wind me up. He’ll keep at this little game until he finds a question I can’t answer. Then he’ll gloat.//
The spark of pure mischief glowing in Johnny’s eyes confirmed Scott’s deduction. That spark was so short-lived that Scott questioned whether he’d actually seen it. Especially when the sorrowful expression seemed to pour over Johnny. Every line of the boy reinforced the dejected demeanor. His lower lip quivered and his voice quavered.
“I’m sorry, Scott. Didn’t mean to bother you.”
Scott came within a hair of responding to the hurt-laden voice. Then he remembered that fleeting spark – and the fact that his brother could have easily enjoyed a career as a celebrated stage actor. He administered a gentle cuff to the top of Johnny’s head. “Just turn it off, little brother. I’m on to you.”
Johnny tried to grin at him, but the grin stretched into a yawn. “Master Tommy, huh?”
“Yes. You know exactly what I’m speaking of.”
Johnny squirmed, attempting to find a comfortable position. He closed his eyes. “Well, I got just one more question. What were their names? The Magi, I mean.”
Scott rolled his eyes and thought furiously for the answer. “Ah…Melchoir and… um… ah… oh, Balthazar, and… uh…” Damn, he hated to admit defeat. The scamp would have a field day with this. He steeled himself to meet the triumphant glee in the blue eyes.
But those eyes were tightly closed. Johnny murmured softly, sound asleep.
Scott leaned back and let relief flood through him. Finally, the boy was resting. He shook his head in exasperation, but couldn’t help offering his brother a silent salute. He’d managed the last laugh even though he’d fallen asleep in the middle of his prank. Scott still had to go look up the damn third man’s name because Tommy and Pete were coming for supper this evening and Johnny would sic Tommy on him with that very question.
Barranca lifted his head, turning it toward Johnny, and Scott felt hope flare. He held his breath as the horse nosed the bran mash and water bucket, but Barranca only sighed and flattened his head in the straw again. Although disappointed that the palomino hadn’t sampled the contents of either bucket, he felt encouraged that the horse continued to show increasing signs of life.
Scott debated on whether to awaken Johnny, but decided that since the horse was resting, his brother could do so, as well. He combed his fingers gently through Johnny’s hair, thinking back on their conversation. A pensive smile curled the corners of his mouth as he reflected on the many faces of his brother he’d witnessed in the past few minutes – the passionate, adoring younger brother, the scamp, the hint of Madrid, and the determined, supportive brother intent on reversing roles.
//No one alive can make me laugh – or frustrate me – as effectively as Johnny. I wouldn’t miss a split second of his company for ten times Grandfather’s wealth. Murdoch and Jelly feel the same way. I’d better let one of them have some time with him. I’ll go inside, make a note of that third Magi’s name, and gauge Sam’s mood. The doctor and I still have unfinished business…//
Meanwhile in the Lancer kitchen…
“Thank you.” Sam Jenkins wrapped grateful hands around the mug of coffee Maria set before him.
The welcome warmth drew a small sigh of contentment from the weary and unbelievably cold doctor. He’d grown accustomed to surviving on little or no sleep over the years, but admitted that he would never get used to the numbing cold of a winter’s night. Fortunately, such bitter weather was rare here in California. It certainly didn’t exist in the confines of Maria’s toasty kitchen.
Ah, Maria. No other living soul could admonish Murdoch Lancer so ferociously and live to tell the tale. Sam bit back a snort of mirth, remembering how Murdoch had urged her to go home and get some rest, promising to inform her immediately if anything changed with Johnny. The diminutive woman straightened to her full height and fixed him with a priceless glare, full of reproach and accusation, informing him in a hushed tone dripping with disapproval that she would rest in her bed when Juanito rested in his. Her words and tone left no doubt that she considered Murdoch Lancer fully at fault for not getting the boy into his bed already. Then she pointedly turned her back on her employer and proceeded to ply the doctor with all manner of delicacies, including the cup of coffee.
Her wise eyes darted from Murdoch to the doctor, recognizing that the two men needed to exchange words. Alone. She set the silver coffee pot on the table and motioned for Teresa to follow her out of the room. When Teresa paused beside the doctor, obviously intent on asking for more details about Johnny, the older woman swept her arm around the girl’s waist and whisked her from the room, leaving the men free to speak their minds to each other.
The doctor sipped on the steaming brew, studying the bowed grey head across the kitchen table. His old friend stared into his coffee and Sam knew Murdoch’s thoughts were in the barn with his younger son. He’d witnessed the same scene countless times throughout the long years when they had no idea where the boy might be or even if he were still alive. He’d seen that pensive, defeated expression most recently during those terrible hours when Johnny battled desperately for his life against the ravages of a ruptured appendix.
//Well, Murdoch, here we are again. Sitting together during another difficult time, worrying about how we’ll get through it, how things will turn out. Only this time, I didn’t offer you any encouraging words or support. I know you needed – still need – both. Desperately. I’d better find a way to help you through this. As your friend, I want to offer encouragement. As your son’s doctor, I have a duty to support you. It’s time to adjust my bedside manner.//
The atmosphere remained strained; their earlier harsh words a formidable barrier. Well, it couldn’t go on. They’d been friends for too long to have this kind of distance between them. Sam believed Murdoch was as uncomfortable as he was, but was undoubtedly wary of making the first move to put right the situation. His friend probably feared another withering lecture calculated to cut him down to size.
Sam surveyed the kitchen table, groaning under its load of heavenly scented dishes that Maria had arranged for his delectation. The food was no doubt delicious – after all, Maria was undisputedly the finest cook in the San Joaquin. Yet the doctor had no appetite and realized he wouldn’t have one until he cleared the air.
“Murdoch.” Sam watched as his friend’s head snapped up, the guarded eyes searching his. “I think we need to talk.” He chuckled. “And I do mean talk. No shouting.”
Murdoch smiled in spite of himself. “I can manage that – if you can.” His eyes and voice hardened. “Although I’m sure you’re hoarse from shouting.”
Sam snorted. Murdoch knew full well that he couldn’t resist a challenge. At the same time, the seemingly teasing remark carried an edge. His friend was ready to offer a rebuttal and the doctor realized he must listen to it. He set aside his coffee, folded his arms across his chest, and leaned back in his chair. “Go on, you first.”
Murdoch scowled. He’d expected – hoped – that Sam would start the discussion. He had a trunk full of points he wanted to make to the doctor, but saying them would be far from easy. He sat back in his chair and ran a nervous hand through his hair, his mouth growing dryer by the minute. He took a gulp of coffee.
“You told me once, not mincing your words, that I wasn’t being a father to Johnny.” He locked eyes with Sam. “I remember exactly what you said. You said that I had my son back, but Johnny was still waiting for me to be a father to him.” His shoulders slumped and he leaned forward, resting his forearms against the edge of the table. He turned the mug around and around in his hands.
“I wanted to knock you through the door for that comment, but I couldn’t because it was true.” A rueful smile hovered on his lips. “Johnny likes to say that I’m always right. Well, that’s the way I feel about you, Sam. You’re always right.” He held up a restraining hand. “I know – you’re used to it.”
“Yes, I am used to it and yes, it is good to hear you admit it!”
Murdoch chuckled and stared down into the dregs of his coffee cup. “You said some other things that same day. They were true, too, especially the part about how I’d been pushing my son away, keeping him at arm’s length so he wouldn’t hurt me like his mother did.” Murdoch took a deep breath and met Sam’s searching gaze.
“Well, that isn’t true any longer and it hasn’t been since that day. I’ve done everything I can to draw us closer.” He lifted his cup halfway to his mouth and set it back on the table without taking a sip, as though his next words were in a hurry to be heard. “I’ve worked my behind off to forge a relationship with my boy.” He waited for Sam to make a comment, but the doctor remained silent, his compassionate eyes inviting Murdoch to continue.
“Gaining his trust was the hardest thing of all, but I did it.” Murdoch slapped his open hand against the table. “I did it and Johnny trusts me like a son should trust his father.” Murdoch pushed away from the table and lurched to his feet, wincing as his bad leg took its share of his weight.
“I’ve always loved him. He didn’t know that then, but I’ve made damn sure that he does now.” He began to pace. “I’ve shown him and I’ve told him how much I love him.” He threw up his hands. “You know how hard it was for me to say those words, Sam. But I damn well did it. Johnny doesn’t doubt my love for him now.” He halted in front of the doctor and loomed above him, hands on hips.
“That’s why I won’t stand for you implying that I don’t care about that boy, that I’ve willingly let him endanger his own life.” Murdoch pointed an admonishing finger at the doctor. “The only thing I’m guilty of is supporting my son – supporting his decisions even though they went totally,” he slammed his fist into his hand, “against my better judgment.”
He whirled and began pacing again, long strides carrying him quickly from one end of the kitchen to the other. “I don’t want him out in that barn anymore than you do. What I really want is to bundle him into my arms, carry him up to his room,” he pointed upwards in the direction of Johnny’s room, “and get him well.”
Murdoch stopped beside Sam and rested a hand on the doctor’s shoulder. “But that’s not what Johnny wants. It’s not what he needs and, as his father, I have to respect his wishes.” He squeezed Sam’s shoulder, eyes begging for understanding. “He’s a grown man, fully capable of making his own decisions.”
Sam didn’t reply and Murdoch sighed. He shuffled back to his chair and refilled his coffee from the silver pot. After a deep gulp, he plopped into his chair, pulling the cup toward him and encircling it with both hands.
The doctor watched as Murdoch stared into his coffee. No doubt his friend expected more harsh words in response to the spirited defense of his actions. Well, he was going to be disappointed this time. Sam prepared to dine on a morsel of crow.
“I remember that conversation very well. Do you know what I remember the most?” He waited until Murdoch met his eyes and shook his head. “I remember how desperate you were to help your son. And how horrified you were when you realized just how badly you’d been treating him.” Murdoch’s head bowed at that remark and Sam leaned across the table to lay his hand on his friend’s forearm. He squeezed reassuringly.
“Since that day I’ve watched you – with a great deal of pride, I might add – work to build a relationship with Johnny.” He smiled as Murdoch’s eyes widened in disbelief. “I can only guess just how hard you’ve tried, everything you had to overcome. I’m sure it’s been one of the most difficult – and the most rewarding – things you’ve ever accomplished.” Sam paused to take a sip of coffee, pleased at the stunned elation on Murdoch’s face.
“You’ve come far as a father, Murdoch. Being a father to Johnny is never going to be easy, but you’ve succeeded. In my opinion, you’re doing an excellent job of it.” Sam broke a piece of bread off of the loaf near his elbow.
“Loving Johnny, caring about him, is difficult because so often his physical requirements and what he needs – or thinks he needs – mentally are at odds. Like tonight.” Sam popped the bread into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “That isn’t ever going to change, although we can hope that the effect will become less and less pronounced as his past becomes his ‘distant’ past.”
Sam sighed and squeezed Murdoch’s arm again. “Until then, you and I will both have to accept that there will be times when ‘being a good father’ to Johnny means going against both of our better judgments.”
Murdoch stared at the doctor for a moment, seeming to ponder the words. He refilled Sam’s cup. “Well put, Sam. Being the kind of father Johnny needs means juggling hard choices.” He set the coffee pot down and rubbed his upper lip with his thumb. “Thank you for realizing that – and for saying it.”
Sam sat back in his chair and idly stirred his coffee. “I think you know how I feel about Johnny.” He acknowledged Murdoch’s nod with one of his own. “I helped bring that boy into this world. The nightmare of his disappearance and those lonely years of fruitless searching, well, I lived those vicariously through you.” He withdrew the spoon from his coffee and tapped it against the table, staring into the rich brown liquid in the cup.
“I don’t have children of my own and I sometimes allow myself the luxury of thinking of my patients’ children as mine. That’s especially true of your boys because we’ve been such good friends for so long and because I know how much it means to you to have them home. I suppose that applies even more to Johnny considering all the time, lost sleep, and expertise I’ve invested in him.” Murdoch’s deep laugh caused him to look up. He returned his friend’s smile, joining in the laughter.
“Believe me, Sam, there are times when I’d gladly let you borrow Johnny – take him home with you.”
“No doubt.” Sam’s chuckles died and he stared back into his coffee. “Murdoch, I don’t regret saying most of the things I said tonight.” He raised his eyes to his friend’s. “I thought, and still think, that all of you needed to be made aware of just how serious this situation is. In my opinion, you all knew Johnny would get sick,” he crossed his arms over his chest, “but you didn’t consider that that he might actually die as a result. Am I right?”
Murdoch stared into his own coffee cup. “You’re always right, Sam.” He took a sip. “I did realize that it was a possibility. I didn’t want to dwell on it, but I knew it was real. I can’t speak for Jelly and Scott.”
“That’s fair. So, as I said, I don’t regret making that possibility vividly real in rather harsh terms.” He swallowed and met his friend’s eyes. “But perhaps I did over react. And I certainly do regret any implication that any of you don’t care about Johnny. I know that isn’t true and I’m sorry that I said it.”
Murdoch’s huge grin reminded the doctor of the man’s younger son. “Thanks, Sam!”
“There goes your theory about how I’m always right.”
“No, your instinct, your opinion was right – you just didn’t say it the right way. That’s a problem I constantly face – especially with Johnny.” He waved his arm toward the barn. “This whole situation has just been impossible. No ‘right’ answers.” He ran his hand through the hair on the side of his head.
“But now you’ve scared me again.” Murdoch met Sam’s eyes. “Am I going to lose Johnny because of this?”
Sam dropped his eyes to his coffee cup. “Ask me that when I’ve given the medication an opportunity to work and examined him again.” He flicked open his pocket watch. “In about half an hour, I’ll have a better idea.”
He shook his head and looked at Murdoch. “It depends on how aggressive this infection is and how much strength his body can muster to fight off this fever – and any other illness attempting to take advantage of his lowered resistance.”
Murdoch swallowed, shoulders slumping, and Sam grasped his forearm again. “If it helps, my instinct says we’ve dodged this bullet and Johnny will recover.”
“I sure hope you’re right this time.”
“So do I. But remember, this is Johnny we’re talking about. If anyone alive can weather this, it’s that boy.” He shook his head, remembering Johnny’s epic battle to survive the ruptured appendix. “Knowing Johnny, he’ll breeze through this setback just to prove me wrong.” Sam’s stomach growled loudly and both men snickered.
Murdoch pushed a platter of turkey toward the doctor. “Well, what are you waiting for? Go ahead and eat!”
“I will, thanks.” Sam began serving himself from the collection of dishes. “I’m fine here. Why don’t you go on back to the barn?”
“I think Scott and Johnny need some time together. What Scott did tonight, Sam…”
“Did I hear someone say he trocarized that horse?”
“That’s exactly what he did.”
“Incredible.” Sam leaned toward Murdoch, resting his forearms against the table and listening intently with a healer’s natural interest in an uncommon medical treatment. “I didn’t realize that procedure would work on a horse.”
“It doesn’t usually, but my son got the job done.” A proud smile hovered on Murdoch’s mouth.
“Yes, he would. Scott is full of quiet determination.” Sam shook his head at his choice of words, remembering his earlier encounter with Scott and the young man’s not-so-quiet determination during that exchange. “His abilities constantly surprise me. Where did he even get the idea to attempt something so drastic?”
Murdoch patted the table with his palm, searching for the right words. “What he did tonight was so much more than simple determination, Sam. Scott felt Barranca should be put down, that he had no chance and keeping him alive was cruel.” He paused, catching his lower lip in his teeth. “His concern over Johnny’s health colored that opinion. He was desperate to get Johnny up to bed.” He met Sam’s inquiring stare with an intense one of his own.
“Believe me, Scott made all of your arguments hours before you stated them – and just as passionately.” He nodded at the change in Sam’s expression – this was the first the doctor had heard of Scott’s opposition to Johnny’s resolve to remain with his horse. “The boys exchanged some pretty hard words over it. The only other time I’ve ever seen them so put out with one another is when Johnny pulled out that nasal tube.”
“So Scott did try to persuade Johnny to go to bed.”
“More than once.” Murdoch tapped his fingers on the table and his eyes hardened. “So perhaps you can cut him some slack in that area. He didn’t need to hear that his conduct was ‘disgraceful’ or the ‘height of idiocy.’”
Sam nodded thoughtfully. “Is that your diagnosis Dr. Lancer? More slack?”
“It most certainly is.” His eyes narrowed to a challenging stare. “An apology wouldn’t hurt.”
Sam chuckled. “I’ll take it under advisement. Now,” he leaned forward and clasped his hands together, “I’m dying to know what prompted Scott to think of trocarizing that horse.”
Murdoch stared into his coffee. “I actually brought up the idea of trying the procedure. I remembered seeing it performed while I was in Chicago earlier this year. I knew it was ‘last ditch’, but we’d certainly reached that point.” He allowed himself a fortifying gulp of coffee.
“It turns out that Scott assisted several veterinarians in performing the trocarization procedure during the war. He even did it himself once, but lost the horse.” Murdoch’s shoulders slumped and he ran a weary hand through his hair.
“Scott refused to say much about it, but I could tell it was terribly traumatic for him. He told us the procedure failed nine times out of ten and there was no chance that I could do it successfully.” He sighed and blew out his breath, recalling Scott’s resolute shouldering of the awful responsibility.
“Yet even with those odds and feeling that the horse should be spared any more agony, even with a previous failure weighing on him, even though he was afraid Johnny might never forgive him if he killed the horse, Scott stepped up and made the attempt.” Murdoch’s eyes glistened and his lips trembled. “I’ve never been more proud of him, Sam.”
Sam let his breath out in a long, low whistle. “You have reason to be. That kind of action requires a rare inner courage.”
//I do owe that young man an apology. And some praise for an uncommon act of valor. I couldn’t be more proud of him if he were my own.//
He cut his turkey into bite sized pieces, following up on a thought that had waved warning flags in his mind. “Scott might need to talk about losing that horse during the war. If it was traumatic enough that he couldn’t hide the impact from you, then that memory has the potential to affect him in much the same way that some of Johnny’s old memories triggered nightmares.”
“I thought so, too.” Murdoch sighed, realizing that it would be no easy task. “Maybe I can tackle that job while we’re both sitting upstairs watching Johnny sleep this afternoon.”
Sam rewarded him with a sympathetic smile. “I know it won’t be easy. Just look at it as another test of fatherhood.”
Murdoch scratched his nose with the back of his hand. “Scott’s easy to talk to – when it’s his choice of subjects. But when the talk turns to him…” Murdoch flung up his hands. “I swear Sam, if it’s possible, it’s even harder to get Scott to talk about himself than it is to drag the same type of thing out of Johnny. I think Scott-“
“Did I hear my name?” The object of the discussion strolled into the kitchen, Jelly hard on his heels.
Sam leaned over and pushed a chair away from the table, motioning for Scott to be seated. “Yes, we were just saying that it’s time for you and I to continue our discussion, young man.” Sam bit back a smile at the astonishment on Scott’s face. “How is your brother doing?”
“He’s sleeping at the moment.” Scott colored at the glances of approval from the doctor and his father. He poured himself a cup of coffee and sank into the chair. “The fever isn’t any higher and I don’t see any blood on his bandages.” The blue-grey eyes met and held Sam’s grey ones. “Of course, I’m not a doctor, but in my unprofessional opinion, Johnny is holding his own.”
Sam let his smile peep through before turning to Jelly. “Jelly, I want you to go sit with Johnny. I realize Cipriano is in the barn, but we need one set of eyes for the horse and another set minding Johnny. If that fever gets any higher, you come get me right away. Keep him down and asleep as much as possible.”
“Sure, Doc. I’ll take good care of Johnny.” Jelly turned toward the door.
Sam put his hands on his hips. “Remember what I said, Hoskins. Don’t let that boy twist you around his finger the way you usually do.”
Jelly thrust out his chin and his whiskers quivered with umbrage. “Don’t nobody ride herd on that boy good as me. I reckon I don’t need no fancy medical degree to tell me how to deal with that sassy smart aleck.” He huffed out of the kitchen, righteous indignation expressed in every stomp of his feet.
Sam watched in amusement as Jelly hastened to follow his orders. His head swung to Murdoch and his eyes indicated the door.
“I’ll go talk to Teresa and Maria. I’m sure they want to hear an update on Johnny.” Murdoch followed Jelly’s path out of the kitchen, leaving the doctor alone with his older son.
Scott leaned his forearms against the edge of the table and turned his coffee cup around and around. Sam’s eyes followed his every move, he could feel them on him, but Scott was reluctant to say anything. He still didn’t trust his tongue around the doctor. But nothing could be as uncomfortable as this strained silence. He raised wary eyes to meet Sam’s quizzical ones.
Sam held up a restraining hand. “May I have my say first?”
Scott sighed and nodded his consent, certain he wasn’t going to like what the doctor had to say. He fixed his eyes firmly on his hands and clenched his teeth.
//You’ve already had plenty to say, Sam, but go ahead, tell me again how stupid and callous my family is…//
“Your father has just finished telling me how proud he is of your actions tonight.”
The doctor’s comment caught Scott totally by surprise. Expecting to hear a further dressing down, the unexpected positive statement left the usually articulate young man speechless. He felt a rush of color heat his cheeks and made a conscious effort to shut his mouth.
Sam pressed on, ignoring the young man’s obvious embarrassment. “He also put me right on several facts.” The doctor laid his hand on Scott’s forearm. “So before we go any further, I want to apologize to you, Scott.”
“Apologize?” Scott’s eyes widened in surprise – that was the last word he’d expected to hear from Sam.
“That’s what I said!” Sam sat back in his chair and crossed his arms across his chest. “So listen carefully. This is not something I have the need – or the inclination – to do very often.”
Scott responded to the flash of humor in the grey eyes with a huge grin. “I’m listening, Doc.”
“A Lancer who listens.” Sam rolled his eyes, “Now there’s a rarity. Most of the Lancers I know have mouths bigger than their ears.”
Scott’s smile faded as he recalled accusing Johnny of that very affliction. “Well, I certainly belonged in that category earlier tonight, Sam.”
The doctor nodded. “Yes, it seems that I did as well.” He took a deep breath and looked Scott full in the face. “What I’m trying to say is I now know that you did everything you could to encourage Johnny to go to bed. I apologize for implying you don’t care about your brother. I know that boy means the world to you, son.” Sam leaned forward and gripped Scott’s shoulder.
“I realize that you found yourself in no-win situation and I believe you did the best you could under the circumstances.” He responded to Scott’s rather relieved smile with a firm squeeze to the young man’s shoulder.
“Thank you, sir.”
“In fact, I understand you did something tonight that went far above and beyond what could reasonably be expected of you. Like your father, I’m very proud of what you did for Barranca and ultimately for your brother.” The doctor let his hand drop from Scott’s shoulder to briefly cover his hand.
“Thank you for acknowledging it, sir, but Murdoch,” he gestured in the direction Murdoch had taken when he left the kitchen, “was prepared to do the same thing.” Scott stared into his coffee cup and shrugged. “Under the circumstances, anyone who cares about animals would have done what I did.”
Sam leaned forward and grasped Scott’s upper arms. He forced the younger man to meet his stare, wishing he had Johnny’s ability to speak so articulately with his eyes.
//No, Scott. For some reason you’re having difficulty accepting this praise. The reality is that 99 out of 100 animal lovers would have run screaming in the opposite direction. But you stood tall and did everything in your power to help the horse.//
“You showed a rare inner courage, Scott. I think your actions tonight are the epitome of heroic.”
Scott chewed on his lower lip, overwhelmed by the ringing praise from the irascible doctor. Meticulously ingrained habits cried out for him to acknowledge Sam’s comments with a ‘thank you’, but he was simply too stunned to speak. He bowed his head and stared at his clasped hands.
//I’m no hero, Sam. I’d already let my brother down once tonight. I wasn’t about to do it a second time.//
Sam sighed at the young man’s uneasiness in the face of a well-deserved compliment. Scott was one of the most self-assured men he’d ever met so this behavior confirmed Murdoch’s earlier concerns. Some facet of the situation had affected Scott deeply, igniting some difficult and disconcerting emotions within the young man. There were ample warning signs to address the observation with Scott.
He watched the fair head bow to hide the telltale mark of embarrassment. That simple action reminded him of another young Lancer. He sat back in his chair, hoping to ease Scott’s discomfort.
“I’ve been informed that performing the procedure brought some difficult memories to the fore.” He smiled at the vexation on Scott’s face. “No, you didn’t hide it this time.” He chewed on his bottom lip for a moment. “My medical opinion – if you’re willing to accept a medical diagnosis from me – is that those memories must be faced and dealt with.”
Scott sighed and forced himself to meet Sam’s concerned eyes. “It’s my turn to apologize, Sam. I was…” He rolled his eyes and pursed his lips, “well, angry, when I made that crack discounting your abilities as a doctor.” Scott looked down at his hands. “It’s not what I really believe and I’m sorry I said it.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Your opinion matters a great deal to me, son.” He leaned forward, clasping his hands together. “I think that tonight we all let our anger at the situation – our fears, really – drive us to say things better left unsaid. I’m prepared to forget it – if you will.” Sam extended his right hand, offering a friendly handshake.
Scott gave a hearty sigh of relief and shook that extended hand. “I’m sure glad to hear you say that.”
“Good.” Sam straightened and slapped the table. He stared at Scott and pointed at him.
“But you aren’t going to sidestep me so easily, young man. As I said, you must deal with those difficult memories. I can only surmise that there are many things that happened during that period in your life. Your brother,” he gestured toward the barn, “can attest that discussing those memories with someone who cares about you will help you defuse them.”
Scott read the determination in Sam’s face. Between the doctor, his brother, and Jelly, he was well and truly caught red-handed. He sighed in resignation and nodded his acceptance to the doctor. “Well, Jelly and Johnny both questioned me about it. I agreed to talk to Johnny.”
//I know that discussing his past with Murdoch and me has helped Johnny deal with his nightmares. He swears that talking to me helps him. It isn’t very comfortable for either of us, but I learn a lot about my brother that way and it’s gratifying that he thinks so highly of my advice and support. Perhaps it will prove therapeutic for me to discuss losing that horse during the war with Johnny. And I treated him like such a kid tonight that the opportunity to empathize and offer advice to me can’t help but prove to him that I value his opinion as highly as he does mine.//
“Good. Don’t be surprised when your father asks you about it as well.”
“Not him, too?”
//I suppose I know who ‘informed’ Sam. For once, it wasn’t Jelly.//
“Yes, he’s quite concerned about you. It seems as though you’re surrounded by people who care about you and are ready, willing, and demanding to help you.” Sam leaned forward and squeezed Scott’s forearm. “You are going to talk to someone about this, Scott. It simply has to happen or you’ll make yourself ill. If you’re not comfortable talking to any of your family, my door is always open.”
“I appreciate that, Sam.” He picked up the coffee cup and turned it again, staring into the sloshing liquid. Sam’s eyes weighed heavily upon him and Scott sensed that the doctor was waiting for some assurance as to his intentions.
//Johnny claims that Sam and Murdoch both have the ability to make him feel like a ten year old. Now I can see why. The expression on his face reminds me of the headmaster at Andover.//
He met and held Sam’s eyes. “I’ll talk it through with Johnny or Murdoch.”
Sam stared him for some time, seeming to evaluate the truthfulness of Scott’s declaration. He patted the table with his fingers. “Good. See that you do.”
“Yes, sir.” Scott sat back in his chair and put his hands on his hips. “Now I have a question for you. You scared a good five years off of my life earlier. Is there a chance that I’m going to lose my brother to this,” he shrugged, holding up his hands, “‘situation’ as you called it?”
“I’ll have a better idea after I’ve examined him again. I told your father that my instincts say we’ll get Johnny through this.”
“Well, according to Murdoch, you’re always right. I haven’t seen any evidence to contradict that belief, so I’ll accept your opinion – Doc.”
Sam laughed and pushed his chair back from the table. “Let’s just go see for ourselves how your brother is doing.”
Meanwhile, inside the barn…
Johnny jolted awake, crushing the overwhelming urge to slap yet another well-meaning hand away from his forehead.
//Damn mother hens! They fuss and hover and beg me to go to sleep. And that’s hard to do ‘cause I feel like an old dog that’s been kicked up and down Main Street. I can’t lay any way that I don’t hurt. My body can’t decide if it’s hot or cold. I don’t have the strength to hold my head up. I really don’t wanna sleep ‘cause Barranca might need me. But just let me manage to shut my eyes… Boy, here come the biddies – smackin’ me on the head to see if I still have a fever and cluckin’ to wake the dead.//
He opened one eye to see which hen hovered over him this time. Jelly. The grizzled old man crouched beside him, studying him so closely that Johnny felt like some rare bug in a jar. He rolled his eyes in frustration.
“Not you, too, Jelly! I don’t need you fussin’. Scott and my Old Man got that down pat.”
“I ain’t a fussin’! I’m just followin’ orders.” Jelly glanced over his shoulder, tugging on his whiskers. “It’s Doc’s orders and he ain’t gonna be pleased with me if’n I don’t do just like he told me to.”
He pointed toward the hacienda. “Scott come inside to talk to the Boss and Doc don’t want you alone. Doc says Cipriano is watchin’ the horse and that means you,” he patted Johnny’s stomach, “still need a minder. That’s me.” He tapped his chest and leaned closer to Johnny.
“I don’t recall ever seein’ Doc so stirred up. Why he was buzzin’ worse’n a whole swarm of mad hornets. I sure don’t want him aimin’ any more stingers my way.”
Johnny opened his mouth to enter into Jelly’s gentle kidding, but an unexpected wave of weariness surprised him and he sighed and closed his eyes.
Jelly laid the side of his hand on Johnny’s cheek. “You all right, boy? Should I get Sam?”
Johnny’s eyes blinked open, flashing with alarm. “NO!” He clasped his hand around Jelly’s forearm and took a deep breath. “Are you crazy? You just been tellin’ me how cranky Doc still is. I sure don’t want him in here snappin’ at me again,” he rubbed his right ear ruefully. “Don’t have any ears left after his last sermon. ‘Sides,” he attempted to reassure his old friend “I was only restin’ my eyes a spell.”
Jelly snorted. “I don’t suppose you’d consider restin’ them eyes a spell up in yer room?”
Johnny heaved a mournful sigh. “Now, Jelly, you know darn well that as soon as…well as soon as this,” He gestured toward Barranca, “is over, I’ll be doin’ plenty of restin’ up in my room.”
He fiddled with the bandages on his shoulder and wished it was all over, one way or the other. Barranca sure looked better, but he hadn’t tried to eat or stand up yet. He might still lose his horse. Johnny didn’t know how much longer he could hold on.
He was so very tired and the faces of the people surrounding him spoke of their own exhaustion. His determination to pull the palomino through had cost them all dearly. Scott and the Old Man had argued about him and he’d forced them to make hard choices, leaving them worried sick. As for Sam… He’d never imagined that the doctor could swell so with rage and Johnny hoped he could mend the Lancer family’s fences with their friend. Now Jelly looked all but done in, too.
Jelly could read some of Johnny’s thoughts as they flitted across the younger man’s face. He regarded the boy with a mix of exasperation and concern and shook his finger at him. “Don’t you doubt it, Johnny Lancer. Yore gonna be lyin’ up there in yer bed as helpless as a froze snake.”
The smirk that crossed Johnny’s face irked the older man. The boy just didn’t realize how sick he was. “I swear, Johnny, sometimes yore plumb weak north of the ears!” His outburst surprised him as well as the intended recipient, but Jelly felt a bit of his tension spurt out along with the words.
“Well, for once Sam would agree with a diagnosis of yours.” Johnny’s eyes twinkled irreverently and he patted the floor beside him, knowing his friend would take the hint.
Jelly ignored that barb, easing down to sit along side his young friend. He failed to stifle a moan of discomfort. The prolonged exposure to the cold and damp night air had seeped into his old bones and his joints were playing merry hell in protest.
“You all right, Jelly?” Johnny struggled up on his elbow, eyes locked on Jelly in concern.
“Now who’s fussin?” Jelly snapped, annoyed at himself for worrying the boy. He tried to ease Johnny back down onto his back, but Johnny managed to pull himself into a sitting position alongside Jelly. The older man sighed in frustration, but relaxed a bit as Johnny leaned limply against him. He rested his hand on the back of Johnny’s neck, kneading the knotted muscles.
An easy silence filled the barn as both men became lost in the same thoughts. Jelly remembered how sick his boy had been not so very long ago while Johnny recalled Jelly’s loving care as he lay so ill. Each man acknowledged to himself that the experience had bound them even closer to one another.
The corners of Johnny’s mouth twitched and mischief sparkled in his eyes. “You know, if you was to ever get sick, I’d do for you what you did for me.”
“You would?” Jelly glared suspiciously at the wide-eyed innocent.
“Sure I would! Let’s see, first thing I’d do was see to it you had a good dose of all of your special ‘coctions.”
Jelly rolled his eyes. “Any particular ‘coctions you got in mind?”
“Definitely an extra large dose of the black one,” Johnny wrinkled his upper lip in disgust. “You know, the one that tastes like hell and keeps a body, uh, regular.” He shrugged. “Yep, since you thought it was so necessary for me, I’d be sure you got plenty of that one. I mean, I’d want you to have the same consideration, ya know?”
Jelly glowered at him. “Oh, I’d say my special black ‘coction is gonna to prove very necessary for a certain smart aleck over the next week or two, ‘specially as he ain’t gonna be up to refusin’ it!”
Johnny made a face at him and scratched a non-existent itch on his shoulder.
Jelly decided to encourage the banter, knowing how the boy thrived on it. “Is that all you’d do for me? Seems like you’d wanna pay me back fair and square like.”
“Oh, I would. Sure I would.” Johnny pretended to ponder on the matter before stating, “I’d make up a batch of that liniment you swear by, you know the one that smells like the devil’s breath and burns the fire outta ya. I’d keep it plastered all over you.”
Johnny shuddered at the unpleasant memory before continuing in a serious tone “Only thing is, I’d need me some goose fat and that ain’t so easy to come by ‘round here.” He glanced around the barn, as though looking for something. “Goose is in short supply. Reckon there’d have to be a sacrifice made to take care of you proper.” Johnny choked down a snort of mirth as the older man seemed to swell with indignation.
“Course I’d hone the axe to a fine point.” He gestured with a sharp chopping motion. “I’d wanna make sure it was a clean kill.” He paused, gratified by the hard glare trained on him.
”You’d understand, wouldn’t you, Jelly? I mean, it would be for a good cause an’ all.”
Jelly sniffed. He averted his eyes and sat in stiff silence.
Johnny watched him out of the corner of his eye. Jelly’s reaction should have been to threaten him with all manner of dire consequences. He wondered if his teasing had been a little off the mark.
“Huh?” Jelly turned slowly and stared at Johnny. “Oh, you were talkin’ to me. Sorry. I was just wonderin’ where that liniment got to.” He met the horrified gaze of his young friend, “You sure could do with a smatterin’ of it right now.”
Johnny gulped and moved away from Jelly.
“Somethin’ wrong, boy? Mebbe I’d best get Sam.”
“Oh no.” Johnny paused, on the verge of begging if necessary, and then he spotted the twinkle in Jelly’s eyes. “I was just jokin’, Jelly. Just like you were.”
“You sure ‘bout that? Dewdrop don’t take kindly to havin’ his neck threatened. Don’t please me none, either.” He wagged his finger under Johnny’s nose. “Froze snakes best keep the folks around ‘em happy if they wanna stay comfortable. Besides I got enough of that liniment made to last a lifetime. Ya’d best be rememberin’ that, Johnny Lancer!”
Jelly snorted. “And if this whole evenin’ is any indication, I’m gonna need every drop I got stored. I ain’t never seen a body what can get hisself into as many picklements as you.” His fingers tightened around the scruff of Johnny’s neck and he shook him gently.
“Scott’s right, yer middle name is ‘Trouble’. I oughta cut me a switch, that’s what I oughta do. Ya keep takin’ years offa my life with yer shenanigans, boy.”
Johnny laughed. “Reckon that’s why your whiskers are so grey, huh?” He winced as the grip on the back of his neck tightened in warning. “I heard you already cut those switches – and gave them to Murdoch to put in my stockin’.”
“Humph! I sure did. I wish he’d listen to me, but ya done gone and got him wrapped round yer finger, ain’t ya.” Jelly picked up a piece of straw and made a big show out of wrapping it around his forefinger, waving the finger in front of Johnny. The young man’s delighted grin warmed Jelly’s aching bones. “I ain’t gonna get no help keepin’ ya in line from him.”
A crafty look transformed his face and his eyes twinkled. He smiled a wicked smile as Johnny’s eyes widened in trepidation. “But the doc…” Jelly snapped his fingers, gratified when Johnny jumped. “Now there’s an idea. I’ll give them switches to Doc. He’ll help me ride herd on ya.”
“Aw, Jelly, nuthin’. Serve you right if Doc and me both took a switch to yer feisty backside. One of these days… just you wait, one of these days…”
Johnny laughed appreciatively, but it died in the middle as he blanched, slumping back against Jelly.
“Here, boy. What’s wrong?”
“I… I gotta lie down, Jelly.” Johnny made a series of restraining motions with his hand. “Please don’t call Sam, or Murdoch, or Scott. I’ll be okay, but I gotta rest a minute.”
“You feelin’ all right, Johnny?” Jelly supported the boy’s shoulders and helped him into a prone position in the deep straw.
“No, I ain’t feelin’ all right.” Johnny groaned as he sought to find a position that didn’t aggravate the ache in every bone in his body. “I feel like Barranca fell on me and is still lyin’ on top.”
“I think I oughta get—“
“No!” Johnny snapped, sighing when he realized he’d raised his voice to his friend. “No, Jelly. Please don’t call Doc out here. If you call him now, he’ll be upset and think I’m gettin’ worse.” He squeezed Jelly’s forearm. “I’m alive and mostly in one piece. I’ll be all right. Just let me catch some shut eye.” The blue eyes fixed the older man with a tried-and-true pleading look.
Jelly knew he didn’t have a prayer of withstanding that expression. He shook his head. “Sure, Johnny.” He felt Johnny’s forehead, relieved to discover that the fever hadn’t spiked any higher. “You just close your eyes.”
Johnny moaned. “Promise me, if Barranca does anything more than flick an ear, you’ll wake me up?”
Johnny shook Jelly’s arm. “Promise?”
Jelly cursed himself for a fool, realizing he should call the doctor, but knowing full well that he wasn’t going to do it because Johnny didn’t want him to. Besides, the doc was due to check on his patient anyway. A few more minutes wouldn’t hurt. “I ain’t got no more sense than a suck-egg mule where yore concerned. I promise.”
He lifted Johnny’s head onto his lap and laid a fresh compress on the young man’s forehead. “Go on to sleep, boy. Doc’ll be out here to check on you soon enough. He’ll wanna see ya for hisself.”
Johnny didn’t even hear Jelly’s last comment, already sucked down to the bottom of the deep well of exhaustion. His lashes trembled against his cheeks and he tossed restlessly, unable to find any position that didn’t cause further discomfort. When Jelly stroked his hair, he sighed and relaxed, finally lying still.
Jelly rested his hand on the boy’s head, content to watch him sleep. He soaked up the satisfaction of this quiet time with Johnny. The young man needed the one-on-one interaction with his father and brother, but Jelly demanded his share of Johnny’s company and he relished the rare times like this. He knew it would end all too soon. Before very long, Doc Jenkins would be in to see his patient and Murdoch and Scott would be right behind him. Teresa, too. Maybe even Maria. The whole family would surround Johnny and the pleasant spell now enfolding him and his boy would be broken.
//Sure has been a long night, but I reckon these stubborn Lancer mules have managed to eat outta the same manger ‘cause of it. I can remember when gettin’ them three to talk was about like tryin’ to scratch yer ear with yer elbow. But the Boss has figured out that with Johnny, ya can’t run from somethin’ yore tied to, so it’s better to have a good hold than a good place to fall. He done right by that boy tonight. And he seen Scott at his best, too. Why the Boss is struttin’ like a turkey gobbler in a hen pen when he looks at him. So it might just be worth Johnny spendin’ some more time in bed…//
Doctor Jenkins paused just inside the barn door to observe his patient. The boy lay curled on his right side, head on Jelly’s lap. He tossed restlessly, in obvious discomfort. Jelly murmured softly to him, sponging his face, and endeavoring to keep the blanket tucked around his shoulders.
“NO! Barranca!” Johnny cried out and struggled to sit up. “Get up!”
Jelly held him down, pushing firmly on both shoulders. “Easy, Johnny. Yer dreamin’ again.”
Johnny fought him, disoriented and frantic. “Barranca. No!”
Sam rushed toward them, aware that Murdoch, Scott, and Teresa were close behind him. He knelt beside Jelly.
“Don’t hold him down.” Sam brushed Jelly’s hands away from Johnny’s shoulders. The sudden removal of those resisting hands calmed the young man immediately. The doctor cupped Johnny’s cheek in his hand and spoke softly, but with unmistakable authority. “John! Johnny, look at me. Wake up, son.”
The blue eyes fluttered open and Johnny blinked up at Sam and the other faces peering at him so anxiously. They seemed to hover in the air above him, pressing down on his chest with cloying concern. There wasn’t an inch of his body that didn’t feel as though it had been run over by an eight horse hitch pulling a fully loaded ore wagon. His stomach turned over and the faces above him wavered disconcertingly. The moan escaped before he had the chance to suppress it.
“That’s good, John. Take a deep breath. Good.” The soft voice was laden with understanding and compassion – traits Johnny had always associated with Sam, but qualities that had been noticeably absent the last time he spoke to the doctor.
Johnny blinked rapidly to clear his vision and struggled to sit up. His attempt brought a rush of helping hands from Sam, Jelly, Scott, and Murdoch. The hen flock lifted him upright to a sitting position and that action brought a speedy reprimand from his outraged stomach. He gritted his teeth against the queasiness and pushed back against the bales of straw, straining to see beyond the bodies blocking his view to his horse.
He heard the low nicker and then Scott cleared a space and he could see his horse.
“He’s okay, Johnny.” Scott pointed toward the horse with one hand and patted his brother’s shoulder with the other. “See, he’s raising his head, looking for you.”
“Barranca.” Johnny grinned as the palomino lifted his head and neck, turning toward the sound of his voice. The horse nickered again and Johnny tried to go to him.
“Oh, no you don’t.” Sam held him firmly in place. “I’m going to have a look at you first. That horse is just fine, isn’t he, Cipriano?”
“Si. Do not worry about him, Juanito. I am with him.”
Johnny brushed his cheek against Scott’s hand, acknowledging his brother’s silent support. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, preparing himself both physically and mentally for the conversation with the doctor.
The sudden animosity between Sam and his family dismayed him. Murdoch and Sam were friends of long standing and Johnny hated to be the cause of a rift between them. He knew Murdoch and Scott had both exchanged heated words with the doctor on his behalf and he hoped those arguments hadn’t irreparably damaged their friendship.
//Sam can call me every low name in the book and I reckon I deserve it. But I won’t stand for him chewin’ on Murdoch and Scott. He stepped over the line and I’m gonna tell him so. And I ain’t fallin’ for that sneaky trick with the carbolic on the towel again!//
“Hey, son. How are you feeling?” Murdoch touched his shoulder briefly.
Johnny smiled at his father. “I’m all right.” He motioned toward Jelly with his head. “Jelly’s been takin’ good care of me.”
“Darn tootin’ I have. And doncha fergit it.”
“Oh, Johnny, you look so… so tired.” Teresa clapped her hand to her mouth, vexed that she’d blurted out her first thoughts.
“Well, some of your chocolate cake will fix me right up, querida.”
Sam fixed Johnny with an admonishing glare. “Not any time soon, young man.” He raised his eyes and that stern stare encompassed the entire group around Johnny.
“I’d like to examine my patient now. Alone.” He made a shooing motion with his hands. “I’ll speak to you all after I’ve checked Johnny.”
Johnny watched appreciatively as his flock of mother hens obediently backed away. Sam kept waving his hands at them and making shooing noises until they were almost at the door. Johnny cocked his head and peeped up at the doctor through his lashes.
“The ol’ disappearin’ mother hen trick.” He nodded and a smile stretched across his face. “That’s pretty good, Sam. Mind tellin’ me the secret?”
“Oh, there is no secret.” Sam had to bite his lip to hold back a guffaw. Staying angry with Johnny for any length of time was not only useless, it was well nigh impossible! “They simply don’t dare to disobey my orders or disregard my advice.” He knelt beside Johnny again, one hand clasping the boy’s wrist to check his pulse and the other resting briefly against his forehead. “Unlike some patients I won’t name.”
Johnny decided that ignoring Sam’s last barb was his wisest move. He tried to determine Sam’s reaction to his condition, but the doctor’s face was as inscrutable as ever. Sam busied himself with the bandages on Johnny’s shoulder.
“How are you feeling?”
“Oh, I’m al—” Johnny gulped and winced when Sam’s grip on his sore shoulder tightened in warning.
“How about the truth, young man.”
He smiled weakly at the doctor, hoping to break the tension. “Like I’d dare lie to you, Doc.”
“I don’t know why you wouldn’t – you dare everything else. Now, I asked you a question and I’d like an answer. A truthful one,” Sam urged, eyebrows raised in expectation.
“I don’t feel too good …,” Johnny hesitated as the doctor’s eyes narrowed. That wasn’t the answer Sam wanted to hear, either. He hung his head. “Truth is, I feel pretty rotten…,” the doctor snorted and Johnny’s head snapped up, “but I ain’t leavin’ Barranca!” he added defiantly.
“So I’ve been told. Repeatedly!” Sam’s expression softened a little as he reached into his bag to retrieve his stethoscope.
“Here, sit up straight now. I want to listen to your chest.” Sam unbuttoned Johnny’s shirt and slipped it off his shoulder, baring his patient’s chest.
Johnny followed Sam’s instructions to the letter, coughing, inhaling, and exhaling on his command. Sam had incessantly warned Johnny and his family just how susceptible he was at the moment to the dreaded pneumonia. Johnny bit his lip and hoped the doctor would find no trace of the illness.
Sam seemed to listen to his breathing for hours, moving the stethoscope to different areas on Johnny’s back and chest. Finally, the doctor tucked the instrument back into his bag and resettled the boy’s shirt, fastening the buttons.
He gestured around the barn. “Your being out here in this cold weather and already ill with infection, fever, and exhaustion simply terrifies me. Your chest is clear at the moment and I plan for it to stay that way. So, here is what we’re going to do to keep that pneumonia at bay.” Sam smoothed the front of Johnny’s shirt.
“When we’re injured or ill, we tend to take shallow breaths. This is especially dangerous for you just now. So every hour when you’re awake, I want you sit upright, relax, and then take five deep breaths – really expand your lungs. Then take another breath and cough – good and hard – three times.” Sam demonstrated and then put his hands on his hips. “Let me see you do it.”
Johnny obeyed the doctor’s orders, feeling much like a dancing bear in a circus.
“You’re going to do this until I tell you its okay to stop. If you’re asleep for more than three hours at a time, we’ll awaken you in order perform the exercises.” Sam straightened the shirt over Johnny’s shoulders. He tapped the young man’s chest.
“I’ll arrange the bed so that you’re propped upright with pillows rather than lying flat on your back – like we did when you were ill before.” He pointed toward the group by the barn door. “I’ll also show your family so they can assist you in following my instructions to the letter.”
He locked eyes with his fidgeting patient. “I’m absolutely serious about this, John. You are going to perform those exercises religiously and drink plenty of fluids. Trust me, you do not want pneumonia.”
Johnny rolled his eyes. “You can say that again.”
Sam didn’t miss a beat. “Trust me, you do not want pneumonia.”
Johnny sighed. “I got ya, Doc.”
“Good, then for once, you’ll do as I tell you. Show me your exercises again.”
Sam spent several minutes observing Johnny’s performance of the exercises. When he felt certain the young man understood exactly what, when, and how to execute them, he turned his attention to the shoulder wound, the expression on his face indecipherable.
Johnny squirmed as the doctor poked and prodded his throbbing shoulder, biting his lip to hold still beneath the probing fingers. At last, Sam smeared more soothing ointment across the injury. He dressed it with a clean bandage and began securing the arm to Johnny’s chest.
Sam Jenkins owned one of the few faces Johnny had trouble reading. He never could tell what the doctor was thinking when the man examined him. Sam seemed to take pleasure in withholding his diagnosis, forcing Johnny to come right out and ask him. Almost as though the cunning doctor realized this tactic irritated his uncooperative patient and so used it to repay Johnny with a small measure of the annoyance he regularly caused Sam.
Johnny stood the silence as long as he could. “Well, Sam?”
Doctor Jenkins paused in his task of winding the bandages around Johnny’s body and met the searching blue eyes. “You’re no worse and there are no signs of pneumonia.” He finished binding the injured limb. “That’s all I’m prepared to say at the moment!”
Johnny sighed and watched dejectedly as the doctor retrieved a selection of bottles filled with nasty medicines. He choked the vile liquids down, warring with his rebellious stomach to keep them inside him. After tipping the last spoonful down his throat, Sam held a glass of water to Johnny’s lips. The young man managed three swallows and pushed it aside.
Sam handed him the glass. “I expect you to drink it all. Now.”
“All of it?”
Sam turned to his bag and slowly pulled out a rather ominous coiled piece of rubber tubing. He lovingly ran its entire length between his fingers, biting the inside of his lip to preserve his serious expression as Johnny recoiled in horror.
Johnny scrambled sideways, eyes huge in his face, shaking his head vehemently. “Oh, no!”
“You need plenty of fluids. If you’re not able to drink them on your own,” Sam rolled the tube between his fingers, “I have no choice but to provide some help.”
Johnny’s eyes spit revulsion at the familiar, despised tube. He shuddered and gulped the remaining water in the glass so quickly that his eyes watered and he coughed and spluttered.
Sam patted him on the back to help ease the coughing. “That was a wise decision.” He coiled the tube and replaced it inside his bag.
Johnny fixed the doctor with his best Madrid glare. “That’s the second dirty trick you’ve played on me tonight, Sam. You know, you can be lower than a snake’s belly?” He rubbed his shoulder. “That bit with the carbolic on my shoulder was downright mean.” He gestured toward the doctor’s bag with the back of his hand, “And your latest threat was pure orneriness.”
“It got your attention.”
Johnny rolled his eyes. “Oh, yeah, it did that.”
“Perhaps it’ll help you to remember that I’m a good man not to mess with, young man.” Sam began washing his hands.
Johnny studied him, relieved at the return of the easy banter between them, but wondering just how to start the conversation they needed to have. The air still needed clearin’. Sam seemed to feel Johnny’s eyes on him and he slowly raised his eyes to meet Johnny’s, as though reading his thoughts.
“Is there something you want to say to me, John?”
“Yeah.” Johnny inhaled deeply, his restless fingers tormenting a button on his shirt. “Yeah, there is.”
Sam settled himself onto the straw next to his patient, his full concentration focused on Johnny. “Well, go on.”
Johnny looked him square in the eye. “It’s just that what you said to Murdoch and Scott wasn’t right, that’s all.” He slapped his hand against the straw. “You had no call to say what you did, Sam. Their conduct wasn’t disgraceful and they ain’t idiots.” He leaned toward the doctor and his voice dropped lower, brittle with anger.
“And I won’t have you sayin’ they don’t care about what happens to me ‘cause that just ain’t true.” Johnny gestured harshly and grimaced when the movement pulled at his shoulder. “Tonight they proved just how much they do care.” He tugged on the tight bindings.
Sam leaned over and moved Johnny’s hand away from the bandages. “Did they now?”
“Damn right they did.” Johnny gripped Sam’s wrist and the blue eyes flashed passionately, boring into Sam’s. “I put them in an impossible situation and they stood by me even though they believed the last thing I should be doin’ was stayin’ out here with Barranca.” He let go of Sam’s arm and twisted the button on his shirt. “Don’t blame them. If anybody is a foolish, knuckleheaded idiot, it’s me.”
Sam snorted. “You’ll hear no argument from me on that score.”
Johnny chuckled. “No, I didn’t think I would.” He worried the button and crossed his legs to sit Indian style, leaning toward the doctor. His eyes hardened to flint.
“Now, I may be an irresponsible fool, but there’s somethin’ I ain’t.” His eyes frosted the doctor. “I ain’t a kid, Sam.” He held the challenging eye contact until Sam blinked. Then Johnny used his forefinger to trace shapes in the leather of his pants, eyes glued to his finger. “I reckon I ain’t been a kid since I was five. I been makin’ my own decisions and lookin’ out for myself since then.” He raised his head and found Sam’s eyes again.
A daring smile curled his lips. “I fork my own broncs and I stomp my own snakes,” he leaned into Sam’s space, “and I sure as hell,” he slapped the doctor’s thigh – hard enough to draw a wince from the older man, “don’t need anybody’s permission to stay with my horse!” His fierce eyes never left Sam’s.
Sam caught his lower lip in his teeth and swallowed. “Are you finished?”
Johnny’s eyes flashed. “No, I ain’t finished.” He ran his hand through the straw, lifting clumps and letting them sift through his hand. “Murdoch ain’t responsible for my decisions. He did all he could to persuade me to get up to bed – everything short of orderin’ me to go. Scott, too. In my book, they deserve some credit for that.”
The older man didn’t even try to squelch the smile forming on his face. He couldn’t deny the delight this proof of Johnny’s and Murdoch’s blossoming relationship brought him. Johnny’s desire to defend his father spoke volumes. Sam stared into the earnest blue eyes. “Yes, they do. I told each of them so myself.”
“Yeah?” Johnny cocked his head, studying the older man. “So you and Murdoch buried the hatchet, huh? And you ain’t still mad at Scott?”
“Yes, your father and I understand each other very well. As for your brother,” Sam lifted Johnny’s wrist and checked his pulse, “being angry with him is nearly as fruitless as being angry with you. So no, I am not mad at Scott.” He pressed his hand to Johnny’s forehead. “Now are you finished?”
“Nope.” Johnny shook his head. He was relieved to know Sam wasn’t still ticked off at his father and brother, but he couldn’t figure out just where he stood with the wily doctor. On the one hand, Sam was joking with him again, but on the other, he still had that pinched, determined look around his mouth and eyes.
“Look, Sam, I didn’t wanna get sick again.” He threw his hand up in a frustrated shrugging motion. “It ain’t like I planned it.” Johnny sighed and stared at his lap, bouncing his fist off of his thigh. “Sometimes the price of what needs doin’ comes high.”
He turned his head to stare at his horse, a tender smile spreading over his face. “That yella pony means a great deal to me. He’d give me his life if I asked.” He turned to face the doctor again, the eloquence bright in his eyes.
“I reckon it’s hard for you to understand. I know he’s just a horse to you, but I consider Barranca my compadre. And there’s no cost too high, no price I wouldn’t pay to help my friend,” He laid his hand on Sam’s knee and squeezed, “even if that price is my life.”
Sam sighed. “I know you mean that, John, but I honestly don’t believe you realize how close you are to paying just that price.” Sam grasped Johnny’s upper arms. “As always, you’re showing no regard for your own life. You seem to think you’re indestructible.” He shook the boy. “Well, you’re wrong, Johnny.”
Johnny covered one of Sam’s hands with his. “I don’t—“
“No.” Sam interrupted him, snatching his hand away. “It’s my turn again.” He pushed himself to his feet and began to pace.
“Death comes to us all, but it comes far sooner to those who continually dare the devil.” Sam paused to point at Johnny, “You’ve been unbelievably lucky so far. I have no idea how many times you’ve cheated death, but it’s more times than I care to think about.” He put his hands on his hips and shook his head.
“You came within a whisker of dying when your appendix burst. Your recovery was nothing less than a blessed miracle. And you certainly tweaked the devil’s nose during that process.” Sam sat down on a bale of straw.
“When I think of all the stunts you pulled…” He shook his head and began ticking his points on his fingers. “Hiding your illness. Climbing out of bed before you were strong enough to stand without falling. Pulling out the nasal tube…” Sam’s voice trailed off as he remembered another trick. His face suffused with an angry hue of red and Johnny’s eyes widened. He gulped and hung his head, all too aware of exactly what topic Sam was preparing to lecture about – for the thousandth time.
“But those were nothing compared to the way you went riding off into the night,” Sam gestured in the direction of the door, “disappearing for hours, the very first time I allowed you outside!” He paused, shaking his head in disbelief as he recalled Johnny’s antics.
“You were to sit on that bench around the tree in the garden, but what do you do? The minute Teresa turns her back; you head straight for the barn and gallop off on your compadre.” He pointed toward Barranca. “To go sit on a hill and look at stars!” The doctor’s voice soared and Johnny cringed at its volume and the inflections.
“You scared your father and brother half to death that evening – not to mention me. You completely ignored my medical advice in the process and that foolish action,” Sam wagged an admonishing finger in Johnny’s face, “set your recovery back by at least two weeks.”
“You behaved irresponsibly then, just as you’re behaving irresponsibly now.” Sam folded his arms across his chest and glared at his patient. “This is a pattern with you, Johnny.”
Johnny sighed and hung his head. “Look, Sam, I told you then that I had somethin’ important to do, somethin’ that couldn’t wait. Like tonight, stayin’ with Barranca,” he gestured toward the palomino, “was somethin’ I just had to do. No matter what. I don’t expect you to understand.” He stared at his boots and tried to coax a smile from the doctor. “Some mistakes are too much fun to make just one time.”
Sam sighed. “Your trouble is that you follow your heart, leaping from one mess straight into the middle of another.” Sam rested his forearms on his thighs and leaned on them, rubbing his hands together. “And I suppose you always will.”
“Yeah, I reckon I do.” Johnny smiled sheepishly at the doctor’s accurate observation. “But I don’t mean to disrespect you, Doc. I’m sorry for draggin’ you out here tonight of all nights – and into such a mess. I know I’ve caused plenty of angry words, bad feelin’, and lots of worry. That ain’t somethin’ I’m proud of.”
“But you’d do it all over again.” Sam’s tone left no doubt it was a statement, not a question.
“Yeah.” Johnny stared down at his lap.
“That’s exactly the same answer I heard from your brother and father.” The doctor sat up straight. “Do you know what that tells me?”
Johnny shook his head.
“It tells me that something good did come out of this… It brought you all quite a bit closer, didn’t it?”
“I guess so.”
“Well, I don’t have to guess, I know.” Sam patted Johnny’s shoulder. “I wish you could’ve heard each of you defending the others to me. Murdoch carried the banner for Scott and you. Scott upheld you and Murdoch. And just now you fought,” he nodded his approval, “for your brother and father.”
“I’m still furious at finding you in this condition. I stand by my statement that you behaved irresponsibly.” He looked toward the palomino. “But I do understand why you acted as you did. And I appreciate why you’d do the same thing again.” He folded his arms over his chest and locked eyes with Johnny. “I trust that you understand why I’d say the same things to you again?”
“Yeah.” Johnny looked away, suddenly intensely interested in the toe of his boot. “Reckon I’d deserve it just as much the second time, too.”
“That flippant, self-deprecating shrug-off won’t work, John.” Sam leaned toward Johnny and laid a warning finger on the boy’s chest. “I’m quite concerned by this continued callous disregard for your own well-being.” The finger tapped in authoritative emphasis of the doctor’s thoughts.
“Why, if Murdoch or Scott or even Jelly acted as unconcerned about their own welfare as you do – or if they flung,” his arms leaped skyward, all akimbo, “themselves into the kind of danger you seem to thrive on, you’d…,” Sam paused, totally at loss for the words to describe Johnny’s hypothetical actions.
Resting his forearms on his thighs, he studied his hands. He examined his fingers for several heartbeats and then glanced at Johnny. “Well, I just don’t know what you’d do. But I do know that you’d be incensed,” he slapped his thigh, “with them.”
Johnny hung his head. “I guess we’re both lucky that they ain’t irresponsible fools like me.”
“You’re doing it again.” Sam stared at his patient in exasperation, shaking his head.
“Okay. I realize how it might look,” Johnny raised his head and met Sam’s eyes, “but you,” he pointed at the doctor, “gotta understand that a long time ago I accepted that we all gotta go sometime.” He heaved a contemplative sigh and began tracing patterns in the leather of his pants.
“I spent lotsa years livin’ with the knowledge that the odds were pretty damn good that I wouldn’t see the next sunrise.” He rubbed his eyebrow with the edge of his hand, the empty wretchedness of those years vibrating in his voice. “Now a man don’t stay alive very long if he don’t come to terms with death lookin’ over his shoulder that way.” Johnny patted his shoulder and glanced sideways at the doctor, a fatalistic smile twisting his mouth. “You learn to just laugh and accept it.”
The expression on Sam’s face prompted Johnny to hang his head again. “I can’t just stop thinkin’ that way overnight, Sam.”
Sam contemplated the top of Johnny’s head, digesting the young man’s words. “No, I don’t suppose you can.” He sighed in resignation. “But I’m asking you to put some effort into revising that way of thinking. You’ve made a new beginning and its time to alter the thought patterns that served you so well in the past. Work on it – if not for your yourself, for the sake of all of the people around you,” he gestured toward the group milling in the barn doorway, “who care about you and don’t accept your resigned cynicism toward death. Will you do that?”
Johnny twisted a button on his shirt. He glanced up, but immediately looked away from Sam. “Yeah.”
“I’ll accept that, for now.” Sam squeezed Johnny’s shoulder. “But you can expect to find me looking over your shoulder.” His grip tightened, “Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, sir.” Johnny cocked his head and gave Sam the full effect of his cheekiest grin. “Just as long as you keep in mind that I got this habit… uh, pattern of tweakin’ the nose of anything or anybody peekin’ over my shoulder.” He made a tweaking motion with his hand, exaggerating the twist. “Clear?”
Sam was only one in a long line of recipients who couldn’t withstand that glinting smile. He shook his head. “Did I hear Jelly mention that he’d cut some switches?”
The twin devils danced in Johnny’s eyes. “Yeah, but he gave ‘em all to Murdoch to put in my stockin’.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “Well, I suppose the only thing left to do is get you well for your next stunt.” He slipped one arm under Johnny’s uninjured shoulder and the other around his waist, assisting the boy to the palomino’s side. “Why don’t you sit with your horse while I have a word with your family? Then you can lie down again.”
“Thanks, Sam.” Johnny scooted closer to his horse and stroked the big jaw, letting his fingers drift upward to scratch behind the flicking ears. Barranca closed his eyes and pressed his head against Johnny’s chest. The boy swallowed and closed his eyes briefly before glancing up at the doctor.
“Time for the ‘ol reappearin’ mother hen trick, huh?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Well, before you call ‘em back, would you take a look at Barranca?”
Sam’s eyes widened in surprise. In all his years of practice, he’d never been asked to examine a horse – not surprising considering he wasn’t in any way qualified to do so. But those compelling blue eyes shone so openly with trust and the request was so sincere. The least he could do was offer what was obviously a valued opinion.
“I suppose so.” He knelt beside the palomino, murmuring soothing phrases to his ‘patient’.
Doctor Jenkins peeled its lip back to check the gum color. His competent hands explored the area surrounding the trocarization site. He found no evidence of distention and the examination appeared to have caused no undue discomfort, so he reached for his stethoscope, holding it gently against Barranca’s abdomen and then moving it to listen to the heart. Relieved to hear the reassuring rumblings of a healthy bowel and a strong, steady heartbeat, Sam tucked the instrument into his pocket and sat back on his heels to contemplate the exhausted beast.
In Sam’s judgment, the horse’s reserve of stamina was the main concern now. Hours of excruciating pain had drained every ounce of strength as the animal suffered, clinging to life with stubborn, even miraculous, endurance. It seemed that Barranca, like all of God’s creatures – with perhaps the exception of his owner, knew instinctively what was required of him. He’d rest until he slipped away or the urge to stand suddenly came upon him. Human intervention had played an invaluable role, but now it was up to Barranca and some sixth sense told Sam the palomino wouldn’t let his compadre down.
“His gum color is good, heart and gut sounds appear normal, his breathing is fine, his eyes are bright, and I can find no signs of peritonitis.” Sam patted the horse’s shoulder.
He smiled at Johnny. “This horse is totally exhausted. I’d say he’s feeling just about like you right now. The only difference is that he has the sense to rest.” Sam put his hands on his hips. “In fact, I’ll take bets that Barranca is up on his feet before you are.” He shrugged grandly. “Not that I know much about equine medicine, mind you. The equines I specialize in are mules of the two legged variety!”
Johnny gave him a thumbs up sign to acknowledge the characterization. “Thanks for lookin’ him over,” Johnny rubbed Barranca’s forehead. He cocked his head and shared a lopsided smile with the doctor. “Sure feels good to hear you teasin’ me again, Sam. For a while there, I was afraid I’d gone and busted your ‘give a damn.’”
Sam climbed to his feet and bent to rest his hand on the dark head. “I think you know that isn’t very likely, John.” He shared a long, solemn look with his most difficult patient before walking toward the knot of family members hovering anxiously near the barn door.
Doctor Jenkins joined the group of worried onlookers in the barn doorway. He’d obviously taken longer to examine his patient than they thought necessary. He decided the best course of action was to immediately answer the question on everyone’s lips.
“Well, Johnny is doing better than I could have hoped. His fever is no higher and he is stronger than I thought he’d be. Not that that should surprise me.”
Sam winked at Scott, “I am a doctor, and in my professional opinion, the boy is holding his own.
“So Johnny is going to be okay?” Murdoch couldn’t help blurting out the question.
Sam sighed. “There’s still the very real danger of pneumonia. We must prevent that from developing – and we won’t know for sure that we’ve succeeded for another day or so. BUT – if we can avoid that complication, Johnny will make a full recovery.”
Scott touched the doctor’s shoulder. “What are the odds, Sam?”
Sam shook his head. “I’m a doctor, not a bookmaker. I don’t quote odds. Johnny either comes down with pneumonia or he doesn’t.” The doctor stared from the bowed blond head before him to the two bowed grey ones and relented.
“If it helps, my instincts tell me Johnny’s luck will hold. Frankly, I feared I’d find signs of congestion when I examined him, but his chest is clear.”
Every person in the group let out an audible sigh of relief and Sam smiled. “Yes, I’m relieved, too. Now we just have to keep it that way. So when we go back inside I’m going to demonstrate a series of breathing exercises and coughing I want Johnny to perform hourly.”
He swept them all with a deadly serious stare. “I can’t emphasize enough just how vital these exercises are if we’re to avoid pneumonia. There can absolutely be no excuse for Johnny not to do them. I’m counting on every one of you to see that he does.” His gaze shifted back and forth between Jelly and Scott. “Anyone who can’t do that?”
“He’ll do them, Sam. We’ll see to it.” Murdoch shoved his hands in his pockets, smiling when Scott and Jelly hastened to assure the doctor in no uncertain terms that Johnny wouldn’t twist them around his finger this time. He glanced at his younger son and his voice revealed his anxiety. “Are you sure there’s no sign of pneumonia?”
Sam squeezed his shoulder. “Yes. There are no indications at the moment,” Sam glanced toward Johnny and Barranca and then toward the hacienda, “but I’ll feel much more confident when we have him bundled up nice and warm in his bed.”
“We all will, Sam,” Scott nodded. “But he isn’t going anywhere until that horse recovers… or dies.”
Sam shook his head and stepped nearer to Scott. “Turn around, son.”
Baffled, Scott did as he was told.
Sam began pressing his hand along Scott’s spine, as though probing for an injury.
“What are you doing?”
Sam smiled. “Why, I’m merely verifying that your back is strong and uninjured. It’ll have to be to carry your brother up to his room when the time comes.”
Scott snickered. “Don’t worry, Doc. I’ll be ready.
“I don’t doubt it for an instant.”
Sam watched Murdoch out of the corner of his eye. His friend was paying scant attention to the friendly banter, worried eyes focused on his younger son. The doctor decided the father needed some time alone with his boy.
“Brrr.” He pulled his coat tightly around him. “Why don’t we go back inside and get warm? Jelly,” he handed his bag to Jelly and draped an arm around Scott’s shoulder, “Scott, come with me. Teresa, please get a mug of that broth you prepared and bring it out to Johnny. He needs something more than water.”
He turned, as though an afterthought, and spoke over his shoulder, “Murdoch, why don’t you sit with Johnny for a while?”
The doctor headed for the hacienda, warmed by the quick smile and eager look on Murdoch’s weathered face as the man hurried toward Johnny. Teresa scampered ahead of the group to do Sam’s bidding and Scott and Jelly marched along beside him.
Sam felt a sense of the world righting itself from a skewed angle. He’d made his peace with all of the Lancers and for the first time since he laid horrified eyes on Johnny earlier this morning, he actually felt confident that the boy would be all right.
//I suppose it’s because I’ve grown so very close to this family that I feel so responsible for them. Murdoch’s like a brother to me and I feel like an uncle to those boys. Thank heaven we’ve settled our differences. It feels good to help them with more than just medical advice – they need, and value – my counsel, too. Now if I can just get Johnny into bed…//
Murdoch knelt beside the palomino, disappointed to find no real change for the better in the horse’s condition. He turned to look at his son, heart constricting painfully. Despite Sam’s reassurance that Johnny was slightly improved, he thought the boy looked worse.
He eyed the steaming mug of broth held loosely in Johnny’s hand. Teresa had brought it at Sam’s insistence and Murdoch wanted his son to drink all of it. He hadn’t missed Sam’s earlier warning with the nasal tube and Johnny’s revulsion. He and Scott had chuckled about the doctor’s effective threat and the boy’s reaction, but Murdoch realized Sam hadn’t meant it totally in jest. If Johnny wasn’t strong enough to consume the proper amount of fluids and nourishment, the doctor wouldn’t hesitate to use that tube again. He hoped to spare his son that ordeal.
“Well, don’t just look at it!” Murdoch climbed stiffly to his feet, pointing to the beverage clasped in Johnny’s hand.
The blue eyes presented their most eloquent plea, but the elder Lancer wasn’t having any of it. “What’s it to be? The easy way or the hard way?” He’d offered his son that same choice while the boy recovered from Pardee’s bullet. Johnny had only opted for the hard way once. So Murdoch knew those specific words would spark a reaction. He grinned when his son glared at him.
“I ain’t forgot how you forced that stuff down my throat,” Johnny growled.
Murdoch put both hands on his hips. “Then you won’t want to repeat the procedure.” He fixed his younger son with his best paternal stare and motioned toward the mug with his finger. “Get that down you right now, young man.”
Johnny really didn’t want the broth. As sick as he felt inside, he was afraid he couldn’t keep it down. He couldn’t afford to offer his brood of mother hens the slightest reason for forcing him upstairs. So if he drank the broth and it made him sick…
But the mulish expression on his father’s face gave him pause. The big man was so insistent and Murdoch’s old threat packed a powerful punch. To tell the truth, he was still a little afraid of the Old Man. And he wasn’t up to a physical or verbal confrontation at the moment. He decided that drinking the broth was the lesser of the two evils.
Johnny took a tentative sip of the hot liquid. To his surprise, it went down easily, leaving a soothing trail of warmth. Acutely aware of Murdoch’s commanding stare, he swallowed another mouthful.
Murdoch kept staring and Johnny kept sipping. Before long, he realized that the warmth of the broth actually quelled his nausea. There was only about a third of the cup left, so he took care of it in three healthy swallows, handing the empty cup to his father.
The older man accepted the mug, checked to be sure it was empty, and nodded his approval. “Thank you.”
Johnny watched him turn the cup over with a quizzical smile.
“What’s so funny?” Murdoch smiled indulgently.
Johnny shrugged, his smile fading. He wasn’t sure he was ready to share this particular memory with his father. He wanted to think about it, but not necessarily talk about it.
Sensing his son now had something a little weightier on his mind; Murdoch lowered himself to sit beside the boy. He nudged Johnny encouragingly with his elbow. “Well?”
Johnny sighed. Murdoch wouldn’t back off now. Maybe it was best just to get it said, even if he knew where it could lead. “I was just rememberin’ how it was after Pardee shot me – the way you forced that herbal tea of Teresa’s down my throat.” He pulled at the stitching on the blanket and cocked his head. “You always checked to see if I drank it all. You turned the cup and looked at it like you did just now.”
Murdoch shook his head “You remember that?” He raised his eyebrows when Johnny nodded. “I thought you were pretty much out of it.”
Johnny flushed and focused intently on his fingers pulling at the blanket. “I was most of the time.”
He remembered how hatefully he’d treated his father then, hurling sass and insults; savoring the satisfaction of hurting the older man. He’d been torn between fury and dismay, shocked that his father actually believed he’d sold out to Pardee. Part of him had vowed to force a taste of rejection down the stern, disapproving man’s throat.
But his infuriating father had managed to do all the forcing – pouring herb tea and medicine down Johnny’s throat! Fighting and cursing didn’t help at all, yet Johnny had continued to respond with all the hostility he could squeeze from his battered body. Pretty shameful conduct, about what you’d expect out of a smart aleck kid. And he couldn’t even claim he’d won a single skirmish… Murdoch Lancer knew how to stand his ground and make his point.
He glanced up at the Old Man, quickly dropping his eyes back to his hand. “Part of the time, I was just,” he sighed and shrugged, “well, I was givin’ you a hard time.”
“Ohhhhhh,” Murdoch bit back a smile. “So that’s what you were doing. I see now.” He wondered why his son was dredging up these uncomfortable memories.
//It’s the fever. At least when Johnny is ill, he talks more freely.//
“You knew all along, didn’t you?” Johnny searched the pale blue eyes.
“Yes, son, I did.” Murdoch laid his hand on Johnny’s arm.
//I knew what you were doing, Johnny. But I believed you still hated me, that you’d never be able to overcome the lies you were raised on. I didn’t understand that you were pushing me away to a safe distance because you thought I didn’t care. …
Oh son, if I’d only stopped to think, to consider. Instead, I hardened my own heart, determined not to let you reject me the way your mother did. I could’ve saved us both a great deal of heartache… But I promised Pete – no more regrets or ‘if onlies’. We’re past all that now. So if you need to talk about that time, son, I’ll listen. But I thought we’d forgiven each other for those mistakes.//
Johnny drummed his fingers on his thigh. “I never really meant what I said…” he swallowed, struggling to push the words through his cotton-dry mouth. “I was so wrong about you.”
He closed his eyes, searching for the appropriate words. He’d blurted out his shameful admission and now he wasn’t sure what to say next. “I guess I didn’t give you much of a chance.”
The regret on Johnny’s face registered deep within Murdoch and without thinking, he wrapped his arm around his son’s shoulders, pulling him as close as physically possible. “You gave me more of a chance than I deserved,” he rested his hand on the nape of Johnny’s neck, squeezing slightly, “more than I gave you, John.”
Murdoch sighed, unconsciously mirroring his son’s actions and staring at his lap. “I was so determined not to let you hurt me that I didn’t realize what I was doing to you. I told myself that it was what you deserved. I was wrong about you, too.”
“I gave it my best shot,” Johnny forced himself to look his father directly in the eyes, “aimin’ to hurt you, I mean.”
“And your aim held true.” Johnny hung his head and Murdoch folded his free hand around Johnny’s. “You had your reasons, but we’ve come a long way, you and I.”
Johnny glanced up at Murdoch’s face at that comment. Murdoch met his son’s uncertain gaze with a reassuring one of his own and willed determination and purpose into his voice. “We can put those angry times behind us now, son.”
Johnny swallowed the lump in his throat, blinking back tears. They had come a long way. He had a father now and Murdoch had himself a prodigal son who could manage to give him more gray hairs than the ranch ever had.
He slapped Murdoch’s knee and grabbed the discarded mug, shaking it at his father. “Even if you’re still forcin’ stuff down my throat?”
“Yes, even then.” Murdoch smiled as he tousled Johnny’s hair. “I think you know that I wouldn’t push it if it weren’t important.”
“Yeah,” Johnny stared back at the blanket and worried the stitching. “Look, Murdoch, I… I know I didn’t make it easy, mouthin’ off, sayin’ things I really didn’t mean. I wish-“
Murdoch pressed his fingers to Johnny’s lips. “Shh. We both made mistakes, son, and we’re both sorry. I’ll let it go if you will. Deal?”
Johnny rested his head against Murdoch’s shoulder, not trusting his voice. He nodded his head and whispered, “Deal.”
He felt his father’s arm tighten around him and leaned against the man, content to savor this rare moment of physical and emotional closeness. He bit his lip when Murdoch casually checked the level of his fever by laying the back of one massive hand against his cheek.
//I put him in a no win situation tonight. He’s worried to death about me, but damn if he didn’t accept my decision to stay with Barranca. He stood up to Sam and even Scott for me. My old man is one tough hombre.//
“I hoped you were sleeping, young man.”
“No, I was just thinkin’.” He glanced up at Murdoch. “I know you wish I’d go to bed.” He grasped Murdoch’s forearm and shook it slightly. “Thanks for understandin’ why I can’t – and for stickin’ up for my right to make the decision.” He chuckled, “You even stood up to Sam for me.” He hung his head and worried the blanket stitching again.
“When I needed you tonight, you were here for me, lookin’ out for me, supportin’ me… just lettin’ me be me… do what I had to do.” Johnny glanced at his father as though seeing him clearly for the first time. “I sometimes make it hard on folks who care about me, huh? But it’s good knowin’ you’re on my side.”
Murdoch squeezed his son’s shoulder. “That’s how it should be between fathers and sons, John.” He bit his lower lip, “Caring, supporting, and loving a son enough to let him go… allowing him to follow his heart, no matter the consequences.” He stroked Johnny’s hair. “It all comes with the territory; it’s what a father does.”
He turned his upper body to face Johnny, waiting until his son met his eyes. “Thank you for letting me be a father to you, son.”
Both men looked away from each other, struggling to contain their emotions. Johnny felt as wrung out as one of Maria’s dishrags. He vowed to lighten the atmosphere with some teasing. He was just too sick to handle the feelings so obvious in the expression on his father’s face.
He swallowed. “You think there’s some kinda code of conduct manual for fathers that says some sons are just plain ornery and the best thing is to just stand aside and let them get on with it?”
Johnny glanced sideways at his father and the twin devils pirouetted in his eyes. “Well, I’m glad you finally got around to readin’ the darn thing. Sure took ya long enough.” He covered the side of Murdoch’s face with his hand and playfully pushed it to the side.
He felt Murdoch’s chest rumble with laughter. “So am I, son. So am I.”
Johnny joined in his father’s laughter, but an insistent wave of weariness flowed over him and he wilted against Murdoch’s wall of strength. He sighed as his father’s arms enveloped him, pulling him closer. It felt so damn good to just lean against the Old Man. Murdoch wouldn’t let him fall.
“Sleep now, John. Please?”
Johnny nodded and snuggled his head against his father’s broad chest. He let his body go limp and his mind drift with the regular, comforting thump of Murdoch’s heartbeat. His shoulder throbbed in time with the steady cadence.
With his son finally asleep, Murdoch was left alone with his thoughts. Even Cipriano had disappeared – no doubt to give him some privacy with his son. Despite Sam’s encouraging words, he couldn’t escape the somber mood of the barn and his spirits sagged in the midst of the gloom.
//This won’t do! No more negative thoughts. I must find something else to think about.//
It didn’t take long. Earlier in the evening he’d resolutely thrust aside all thoughts of the Christmas he’d dreamed of for eighteen years. He’d managed to keep those thoughts out of his head for most of the night, but they were never very far away. Now he let his mind wander through the planned celebrations again. He smiled at the familiar frisson of excitement that shot up and down his arms as he considered the festivities.
Unfortunately, Johnny wouldn’t be able to participate in them. His son would be disappointed, but no more so than the rest of the family. He must speak to Teresa about altering some of the plans to accommodate the boy’s invalid status. But even that thought didn’t dampen his enthusiasm. His son was safe and home – and in the end, that was all that mattered. At long last, both of his boys were with him at Christmas and Murdoch Lancer had every intention of giving thanks for that miracle and celebrating it fully.
His son gave a moaning sigh, moving his head. Murdoch stroked the boy’s hair and draped a cold compress on his forehead. He rubbed Johnny’s back, thinking how still and peaceful the barn seemed now contrasted to the earlier atmosphere of frantic desperation. Now, the palomino and its owner both rested in a healing sleep. Murdoch began humming his favorite Christmas carol.
Johnny hovered in the twilight world between awareness and slumber. He dozed rather than slept, loathe to surrender to the sleep his body demanded in case Barranca needed him. His aching body had other ideas, creeping ever closer to the edge of the beckoning precipice. He teetered on it, ready to plunge into the peaceful darkness when his father unwittingly pulled him back.
Deep, rumbling tones resonated through the Old Man’s chest. At first, Johnny couldn’t understand what they were or where they came from. He had to shake the sleepy cobwebs from his mind before he realized that Murdoch was humming. He couldn’t remember ever hearing his father hum or sing before. Then a long forgotten memory surfaced.
//Well, sing it out, Old Man. Listen at you. I know that song… it’s… it’s Silent Night. And you used to hum it to me when I was kid. I remember! You rocked me and I put my head right where it is now ‘cause I liked the way the tones vibrated through your chest. I remember, Pa!//
Murdoch felt Johnny stir. He could feel the boy’s grin through the fabric of his shirt. He glanced down to find a pair of mischievous eyes sparkling back at him.
“Now what’s so funny?”
“I was just thinkin’ about that song.” Johnny twisted a button on Murdoch’s shirt. “You always liked it, huh?”
“Why, yes.” Murdoch rescued his button from Johnny’s busy fingers. “It’s my favorite Christmas song.”
“You used to hum it to me, didn’t you?”
Murdoch’s throat constricted painfully. Johnny actually remembered something from that time before Maria stole him away! The catch in the boy’s voice proved he recognized the significance as well. He pressed his son’s head against his chest. “You loved it, too. Even when you were teething and cranky, you’d go to sleep for that song.”
Johnny swallowed hard, blinking back tears. Time to lighten the mood again! “Well, I know you want me to go to sleep now, but you gotta admit that song’s not really appropriate.” He waved his hand toward Barranca, “After all, it ain’t been a very silent night…”
Murdoch leaned his head back and roared with laughter, enjoying his son’s wit and ability to find humor in even the bleakest situations. He felt immeasurably closer to his boy as a result of this long, difficult evening.
He recalled Johnny’s earlier words, savoring them and the resulting warmth – like that of a fine malt whisky. ‘When I needed you tonight, you were here for me’… He compared that simple, heartfelt declaration to an accusation Johnny had hurled in the throes of appendicitis. ‘You should have been there. I needed you… Damn you.’ The boy had apologized immediately, but Murdoch still felt a crushing guilt whenever he remembered the devastation on his son’s face and the anguish in his voice as he made the fateful statement. Johnny’s affirmation went a long way toward assuaging his father’s guilt.
//I can’t ever change the fact that I wasn’t there when you needed me as a child. Just thinking about that tears me up inside, even though it wasn’t my choice to be parted from you. But you still need me, Johnny. And I swear I’ll be here for you now. Damn it feels good to hear that you think I’ve been successful in that endeavor.//
Johnny’s shout and his sudden leap away from his father and toward the horse startled Murdoch out of his reverie. He came to his feet in time to see the palomino heave itself into a sitting position. Johnny stood at the horse’s head, tugging on its mane and offering encouragement.
“C’mon fella. You can do it. Let’s go!”
Murdoch hurried to the other side of the horse, slapping it on the hindquarters. “Good boy. Get up now.” He hoped Johnny had the strength to stay out of the way of the horse’s head and hooves when it attempted to balance itself and stand.
Barranca swung his head back and forth, shifting his front feet to find secure footing. He responded to Johnny’s urging with a deep grunt, seeming to gather every ounce of strength in his body. The muscles of his shoulders, hindquarters, and ribcage rippled with effort. The palomino filled his lungs, tossed his head and lurched to his feet! He blew a congratulatory snort through his nostrils and swished his white tail in satisfaction.
“Barranca…” Johnny’s voice broke and he buried his face in the tangled ivory mane. The palomino snorted and bumped him with his muzzle, arching his neck over Johnny’s shoulder and resting his nose on the small of his back. Johnny’s shoulders quivered and his arm swept around his horse’s neck.
Murdoch bit his lip, watching the two friends. The harrowing events of the night flashed through his mind as he briefly relived all of the arguments, dread, and ebbing spirits they’d endured. Hope and faith on all of their parts had brought them through the storm. In time, those bad memories would fade and the happy memories, the incredible highs of the evening, and especially the newly explored depths to their relationships would remain.
//The old saw says “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It’s certainly true. For a while, I thought this situation would rip us all apart, but it actually brought us closer together. … Oh, and THANK YOU, Lord for rewarding my son’s faith with his horse’s life.//
He thought about hope and the faith required to keep it alive – the sacrifice necessary to fuel the flame. His son had believed in his horse and here was his reward. He brushed a tear from his cheek.
Barranca snorted and sighed, moving his feet restlessly in the straw. Johnny’s face stayed pressed hard against the golden neck. The palomino tossed his head and stretched his hind legs out behind him. Murdoch leaped to Johnny’s side and pulled him away from the horse.
“Stand back, son.”
“Trust me, just stand back.” He kept his arm tightly around the boy’s shoulders.
Johnny stared fearfully at his horse and then a huge grin lighted his face. “Oh. Well, this is a good thing, but it ain’t gonna be pretty.”
“No. That poor animal has held all that inside him for hours.”
“Yeah.” The grin stretched even wider and Johnny pinched his nose shut. “Phewie. My belly would hurt, too if I had all that in it!” He glanced at Murdoch. “Now if he’ll just eat somethin’…”
Murdoch squeezed his shoulder. “Give him time, son. He’s showing you every sign that he’s going to be all right.”
Johnny moved back to Barranca’s head, carefully avoiding the spreading puddle on the floor. “Yeah, you’re a good fella. But you sure could use some of that frankincense and myrrh from the Magi about now. Whew.” He grasped a strand of mane and slowly led the palomino to his stall.
Murdoch followed with the bucket of mash, anxious eyes locked on his son. The boy wasn’t strong enough to be walking on his own… But he wasn’t really. His hand tangled in the palomino’s mane and he leaned against the horse almost imperceptibly. And Barranca tread carefully, appearing to subtly alter his course whenever necessary to keep Johnny balanced against him!
//True compadres… They’re looking out for each other without violating the dignity of either. I don’t suppose I’ll ever be blessed enough to experience that kind of relationship with an animal…//
Johnny took the bucket of mash from Murdoch’s hand and poked his finger into it. He shook his head. “I’ll go make him another one. He ain’t gonna eat this cold stuff.”
Murdoch caught him around the waist and pulled Johnny against him. “Just stay right here. Cipriano looked in and saw us. He’s gone to get everyone from the house and you’ll soon have no shortage of volunteers to prepare another bran mash. Just lean against this railing and relax.”
“Okay.” Johnny stayed where he was, leaning against his father instead of the stall. He stared at his horse and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. He sniffed.
Murdoch’s arm tightened around him and Johnny looked up at his father. “Hey, Murdoch, Merry Christmas.”
//Boy, the Old Man wasn’t kiddin’ about volunteers. Feels like the whole ranch is out here.//
Johnny stared at the crowd around Barranca’s stall. Just as Murdoch had predicted, Cipriano had spread the good word to the hacienda. Now Scott, Jelly, Sam, Teresa, and even Maria were in the barn with them.
Scott stood inside the stall, running his hands over Barranca yet again. Jelly bustled about forking fresh hay into the manger, filling the water bucket with cool, fresh water, and periodically stirring the bran mash brewing inside a burlap-covered bucket. Cipriano curried the dried sweat and matted straw from the palomino’s sleek coat, taking care not to interfere with Scott’s examination.
Teresa passed out coffee cups and filled them with piping hot coffee while Maria offered a tray of her fluffy steaming biscuits with homemade preserves and honey. Murdoch slathered butter on a biscuit and drenched it with honey – just the way Johnny liked it.
“Here, son. Why don’t you have a bite to eat?”
The sight and smells of the biscuit, usually a well-loved staple of his breakfast, caused Johnny’s stomach to flip-flop. “No, thanks. I’m not hungry.”
Those three words swiveled Maria’s head around. She handed the tray of biscuits to Murdoch, stepped in front of Johnny, placed her hands on her hips, and proceeded, in rapid-fire Spanish, to vent some of her tightly held concerns directly to the cause of them all. The longer she spoke, the faster her words came, and the increasing speed brought accompanying dramatic gestures and expressive delivery.
Johnny stood before Maria, head bowed and cheeks scarlet with embarrassment and guilt. He made no attempt to defend himself – he knew full well how much worry he’d caused her and besides, when a woman got this worked up, there was no talking to her anyway. She’d fuss until she had her say, no matter what.
He’d learned at an early age that the most effective course of action was to hang his head, accept the blame, and apologize –whether he was guilty or not. Nine times out of ten, the woman in question would take one look at his remorseful face and contrite body language and then feel guilty for reprimanding him. The results usually proved pleasant.
“Lo siento, mamacita,” he repeated the words at appropriate intervals, keeping his eyes down and his demeanor chastened. When Maria’s tirade showed signs of ebbing, he shot her a repentant look replete with wide, puppy-dog eyes, and sorrowful, quivering lips.
Maria’s outburst wound itself down when she became aware of Johnny’s sorrowful expression. “Pobrecito!” She hugged his head hard against her bosom and kissed the top of it. Several obvious endearments followed before she gave him a last hug, pointed emphatically toward the hacienda, and ran from the barn before her threatening tears spilled.
Johnny blew out his breath, puffing his cheeks. Murdoch handed the tray of biscuits to Jelly and stepped in front of his son, hands on hips.
“That was some performance, young man. I wish I’d seen it earlier – before she bit my head off for not getting you to bed. I could have put some of the lessons I learned from you just now to good use.”
Johnny’s crooked smile flashed. “She fussed at you, huh?”
“’Fuss’ doesn’t do justice to the verbal flaying I received,” He glared at his older son, “courtesy of your brother.”
Johnny glanced from his father to his brother, trying to interpret the comment. Scott looked sly and downright pleased with himself while Murdoch seemed mad that he’d received the brunt of Maria’s rage, but at the same time proud of Scott for turning the tables on him. He wondered what had really happened.
Scott leaned over the railing of Barranca’s stall, sharing an appreciative smile with his father. “What exactly did she say? I couldn’t follow most of it.”
Murdoch stared from him to Johnny and shook his head. “Son, you don’t want to know. Take it from me; your brother is highly accomplished at ‘managing’ the ladies.”
“Me? What’d I do?” Johnny’s wide eyes brimmed with innocence. “I’m the one who just got most of his backside chewed off.”
Murdoch laughed and swatted him there. “Well, she left you plenty.” He shook his head, mimicking Maria, “Pobrecito!”
He turned to Scott. “She started out ‘fussing’ at him. Then she fell for his little penitent act and decided he was a ‘poor little thing’, just a dear boy in need of love and understanding.” He flung his hands up in exasperation. “And then she apologized for scolding him!”
Scott and Jelly cast Johnny glances of considerable admiration. Scott shook his head and walked out of the stall to face his brother. He put his hands on his hips as his tongue tasted the word for the first time, “Pobrecito.”
Johnny gave his brother a self-satisfied smirk and Scott cuffed him on the cheek. He glanced at Murdoch, “You’re absolutely correct, sir. This boy is an accomplished and obviously highly experienced rake. I don’t understand how we tolerate his sass.”
“Me neither. Sly as a fox raidin’ a chicken coop, that’s what he is!” Jelly hurried to add his two cents. “And all the while lookin’ as innocent as a newborn colt.” He gave a decisive nod of his head.
“What’s a rake, Scott?” Teresa had been watching the byplay in fascination.
“Yeah, Scott.” Johnny waged a tremendous battle to hold a straight face, but the triumphant eyes he showed his brother danced in gloating glee. “What’s a rake?”
Scott blushed and wished he could throttle his little brother. How was he going to explain his remark to a girl Teresa’s age? He added another mental check to his “payback” list for Johnny.
Jelly came unexpectedly to his rescue. “Scott just means Johnny’s a slick-talkin’ scamp, honey.”
Sam moved to stand beside Teresa. She’d be terribly disappointed by his next words, but the doctor wanted the men to be able to speak freely. That couldn’t happen in the presence of a woman.
“Teresa, dear, would you please run inside and see to it that Johnny’s bed is warmed and ready? He’ll need another bowl of broth, too.”
Her glare of reproach left no doubt that Teresa knew exactly what the doctor was doing. She made a sound rather like an infuriated kitten, pointedly turned her back, and huffed out of the barn.
“Aw, Sam.” Johnny hung his head. “I’ve already had broth. I ain’t hungry.”
“I’m not Maria, so don’t try your tricks on me. You’ll eat when and what I say.” He pointed toward his bag. “I’ll make it happen the hard way if I have to.”
Johnny rolled his eyes. “Boy, I’m gonna hear that threat for the next week, ain’t I?”
“You’ll hear that promise as often as you need to hear it.” He looked toward Barranca. “Well, the horse seems fine. He’s standing in his stall. It’s time for you to get up to bed.”
“He is standin’, ain’t he?” Johnny cocked his head and regarded Sam. “And what do you know – I’m standin’, too.” He hooked his thumb in the waist of his pants. “I had to stand up to get Barranca up. So I was up on my feet before he was.” He smiled wickedly at the doctor. “Guess you lost your bet, huh?”
Sam pinned his impudent patient with a stare hot enough to heat a branding iron. “That dog won’t hunt, young man. You know perfectly well that I meant ‘on his feet’ as in ‘recovered’.” He pointed at Barranca, “He is on his feet and will stay that way.” His hands found his hips, “You, on the other hand, aren’t going to be on your feet for very much longer. In fact, we need to get you off of them and into bed before you pass out again. Let’s go.”
“Not yet.” Johnny turned to lean against the stall and gaze at his horse. “When he eats and drinks I’ll know for sure that he’s all right. Then I’ll go.”
Sam blew out his breath in exasperation. He glanced from Johnny to Murdoch who raised his eyebrows and shrugged. The doctor clenched his jaw and marched into the stall. He put his hand under the horse’s chin, lifting its head so they were eye to eye and pointed toward the water bucket with his other hand.
“Take a drink. Right now.” He pointed toward his bag. “That tube will work on you, too.”
Barranca snorted and rolled his eyes. He rubbed his head against the doctor hard enough to stagger the man. Then he plunged his muzzle into the bucket of cold water and drank noisily.
The last remnants of tension dissipated with the rush of laughter from the men around the stall.
“Would ya look at that? Why Doc oughta be a vet on the side.” Jelly stirred his bran mash, eager to see if the palomino would eat now that he’d taken water. He decided it still needed another minute or so before attaining peak flavor and texture.
“Nah, Jelly. Doc only works on the two-legged mule variety of equines.” Johnny grinned at Sam, “Huh, Sam?”
“That’s correct and there is no shortage of that animal in this barn.” Sam walked out of the stall and picked up a biscuit from the tray Jelly had set on a bale of straw. “Mmm. Maria’s biscuits are heavenly.”
Jelly followed the doctor’s example, taking a huge bite of a biscuit dripping with honey. He caught Murdoch’s eye and his own eyes twinkled. “Yessir, this here biscuit is the best goldarned sock I ever tasted!”
Murdoch and Jelly seemed to find that remark hilarious, bellowing with laughter. Scott and Johnny rolled their eyes at each other, both thinking how silly old men could act on occasion. A chortle caught in Johnny’s throat and he coughed. The sudden silence was deafening. Every head in the barn swiveled to face him, pinning him with wide, fearful eyes.
“I was just laughin’ too hard, that’s all,” Johnny hastened to reassure his flock of mother hens. “I swear it ain’t pneumonia.”
Sam’s lips thinned into a straight line and he brushed the crumbs from his hands. He marched back into the stall and snatched the burlap from the bucket of bran mash, holding it to Barranca’s muzzle.
The horse butted Sam in the chest and buried its nose in the bucket, big jaws rippling as it chewed the soft mash.
Sam set the bucket on the floor, patted the golden neck, and gave a mock bow to the astonished onlookers. “Your compadre is a far more cooperative patient than you, Johnny. Take notes.”
Johnny was so relieved he couldn’t even respond to Sam’s barb. “Barranca…” He rested his forehead on his hands for a moment, hiding his face against the stall railings. The men watching could see his physical battle to subdue his emotions. “That’s the best Christmas present I ever had.”
Murdoch stepped beside his son and hugged the boy against him. “He’s going to be just fine, son.”
Sam walked out of the stall to join them. “I agree. The horse is going to recover completely. It’s time to focus on you, John. Let’s get you to bed.”
Johnny’s eager, pleading eyes found the doctor’s. “But I’ve got my second wind, Sam. I’m not even tired anymore.” He stared at his horse, a smile wreathing his face at the sight of the golden muzzle still buried in the bucket of bran. “I wanna stay with him a little longer; just to be sure he’s all right.
“Besides,” he glanced at Murdoch and Scott, “it’s Christmas morning – we gotta open presents!”
Sam rested his palm against Johnny’s forehead. “You still have a fever. And that ‘second wind’ is simple excitement over that horse’s recovery.” He put his hands on his hips. “It’ll pass in a minute and you’ll be too weak to stand.” Experienced, critical eyes sized up Johnny’s waning strength.
“I realize you’ve been looking forward to this Christmas morning for a long time, but you’ve had your Christmas for the day, young man.” Sam pointed toward the hacienda. “You’re going straight up to bed. You might be awake long enough to open your presents – or pull those switches out of your stocking – this evening.” He folded his arms across his chest. “But I doubt it.”
Johnny sighed and hung his head, tracing a pattern in the straw with the toe of his boot. “I guess I promised, huh?”
“Yes, you did.”
“I’m sorry, son.” Murdoch squeezed his son’s shoulder. “We’ll wait until—“
“No, Murdoch.” Johnny looked at his father and his eyes grew misty. “You don’t have to be sorry and you don’t have to wait. Those presents under the tree?” He pointed toward the hacienda. “They’re just things. Christmas, well, it’s about everything we talked about and lived through last night.”
Johnny hung his head as he stumbled over the words. His thoughts jumbled together, crying to be spoken out loud, but he’d rarely uttered such sentiments aloud since losing Pablo. He knew that speaking of his feelings would prove difficult, and even more so with the size of his audience. But some things just needed sayin’ and this was one of those times. A quick look at the watching faces told him the other men were all too aware of his quandary.
“You told me how the Magi never lost faith in a star. Well, those wise men used their faith to bring gifts to a baby.” Johnny glanced around at the group, face glowing with mischief. “Now you all insist on treatin’ me like a baby – or at least the only chick – lotsa times.”
This sally drew the hoped for smiling reaction from his audience and he continued. “Well, tonight I had a whole group of wise men bringin’ me gifts.” The smiles faded as the men realized that the humor was simply Johnny’s way of initiating a serious conversation.
“Cipriano there,” he gestured toward the segundo standing beside the palomino, “he never left the barn. He was always here helpin’ with Barranca and remindin’ me of another friend we both knew.”
Johnny had to pause as thoughts of Pablo threatened to overwhelm him. A quick glance at Cipriano confirmed that his thoughts paralleled Johnny’s. Johnny closed his eyes and chewed his lower lip. “He did whatever needed doin’ and stayed by Barranca all night. I sure felt better knowin’ he was here and ready to lend a hand.” The older man gifted him with a rare smile, acknowledging the boy’s words, and Johnny returned it before gesturing toward the doctor.
“Sam, well he came out here on a special night, in the bitter cold, to see about me.” Johnny laid his hand on the doctor’s arm. “And he stayed to take care of me even though I was hell-bent on disregardin’ his good advice.” He turned an irresistible grin on Sam.
“At least I’m not the only fool in this barn.” The doctor rolled his eyes. “No doubt I’d do it all again.” As the others snickered, he added under his breath for Johnny’s ears only, “And probably will.”
Johnny gave him a thumbs up before turning to Jelly. “And Jelly,” he gestured toward the blushing handyman, “well, I told him if we could just keep Barranca on his feet, Scott and Murdoch would find a way to save him.” Johnny closed his hand into a fist and bounced it off of the stall railing. “He helped me keep Barranca alive until they got here. He stayed by me all evenin’, bein’ a devoted friend.”
He gazed at Jelly, a long thankful look, allowing his eyes to express the sentiments he couldn’t put into words. “I can always count on Jelly to be here when I need him.”
“Now don’t go kickin’ over the milk pail.” Jelly’s whiskers quivered as he blustered to hide his own emotions. “You know I just can’t stand seein’ ya get your tail in a crack.”
Johnny chuckled before turning to his brother. He gripped Scott’s forearm, taking care to miss the bruise. “Then there’s my steadfast tin soldier. He’s always around when I need him.” He dropped Scott’s arm and worried a button on his shirt. “I don’t even have to think about it, I just know he’ll be here.
“He does plenty for me every day – little things mostly – that he probably don’t even know he does.” Johnny glanced up at Scott and smiled before hanging his head to stare at his boots.
“He’d tell you it was his duty as the oldest and wisest brother. But tonight, he sure went beyond the call of duty,” He raised his head and locked eyes with his brother, “and he gave me Barranca’s life. I sure am glad he’s ridin’ into battle on my side.” He laid his hand on Scott’s arm again. “I couldn’t ask for a better brother.”
Scott covered Johnny’s hand on his arm and allowed a warm smile to spread across his face. The brothers remained standing that way for a brief slice of eternity, two men in complete accord without the need of words to express their understanding. At last, Johnny dragged his eyes away, backhanded Scott’s stomach, and turned to stare up at his father.
“The baby Jesus had three wise men that each brought him one gift,” he laughed, but the fingers tapping against his thigh exposed it as nerves, not mirth, “kinda silly things, too. I’ve got five wise men right here.” His sweeping gesture encompassed all of them. “And each of you has already given me more than one precious gift.”
Johnny bumped Murdoch with his shoulder. “You’ve given me at least three. “ He pointed at Scott and winked at him. “Way back before I was even born, you gave me a brother. And not just any brother,” he cuffed Scott’s chin, “that one. I gotta say that when you do somethin’, you do it right, Old Man.” A smile danced across his face and in his eyes, but Johnny didn’t join in the general laughter elicited by his last comment.
The blue eyes found Murdoch’s again, but then Johnny hung his head and spoke in a near whisper. “Then, when I was standin’ in front of that firin’ squad,” he twisted the button on his shirt, “and again when I was so sick – you gave me my life back and helped me start a new life.” His head came up and his eyes found his father’s, holding Murdoch’s gaze with a patented silver-tongued expression.
“And tonight… tonight, well, when I really needed it, you showed me how to look inside myself and find hope.” Johnny shook his head and scratched his shoulder. “No present wrapped up under that Christmas tree can be any better than that.”
Murdoch appreciated Johnny’s struggle to put his feelings into words. Listening to his son speak them thrilled him to no end, but Johnny didn’t need to voice his thoughts, not when he possessed such articulate eyes. He draped his arm around the boy’s shoulders, following young man’s lead and letting his eyes do his talking.
After a few moments, he cleared his throat. “Well, if I remember correctly, the baby received his gifts lying down.” He pointed toward the hacienda. “So now it really is time to get you into bed.”
Johnny gave him a look of such blinding warmth that Murdoch’s iron-fisted control of his emotions slipped and he realized he needed to be alone for a few minutes. He encircled Johnny’s waist and helped him toward the stall door. “Why don’t you look Barranca over one more time, tell him Merry Christmas and good night? I’m going to run to the house and make sure your bed is warmed and ready. Scott will be right here with you.” He hurried from the barn.
Murdoch’s hasty excuse didn’t fool Johnny for a second, but he pretended not to notice. “Okay.”
He leaned against his horse, murmuring endearments into the golden ears and resting his cheek on the arched neck. Barranca whickered his low, breathy greeting, lipping Johnny’s cheek.
“Hey, fella. You’re feelin’ better, huh?” Johnny rubbed the palomino between the eyes, letting his hand trail behind the horse’s ear and down under his jaw. “I gotta go to bed now so I’ll start feelin’ better, too. But I’ll see you soon.”
Sam’s head snapped up and he fixed Johnny with a stern stare. “You won’t see him one day sooner than a week from now. And then only if I decide you’re up to it! So don’t get his hopes up with promises that you can’t keep.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Johnny groused. He patted Barranca’s neck and casually moved his lips close to the horse’s ear, one eye on Sam as the doctor talked quietly with Scott. He whispered for Barranca alone, “I’ll see you a lot sooner than a week, compadre, and that’s a promise.”
Barranca whiffled softly, nudged Johnny’s chest with his nose, and turned back to his manger and the sweet smelling hay Jelly had stacked there for him.
Cipriano made a tsk, tsk sound behind him and Johnny flashed the segundo a huge grin. He knew Cip wouldn’t betray his secret.
Jelly bustled into the stall and began shooing Johnny toward the door. “Well, hustle yerself off to bed. Slower’n molasses at the North Pole. Don’t you fret none about this here horse ‘cause Cip and me is gonna stay right here by him. He’s gonna be just fine.”
He chased the young man out of the stall, nearly tripping over Johnny’s rifle, leaning against the side of the stall. “Don’t fergit yer hardware.” He picked it up and retrieved the boy’s gunbelt, hanging from the stall door. “I don’t want ya rememberin’ ‘em in the middle of the night,” his eyes rolled theatrically, “and thinkin’ ya gotta climb outta bed to come out here and get ‘em.”
“I’ll take those.” Scott stepped forward and hung the gunbelt over his left shoulder. “Where’s the gun?”
Johnny paused in the stall doorway. He pointed toward the straw stacked near the spot where Barranca had laid for so many hours. “On that bale over there.” He met Scott’s eyes, knowing his brother recognized the significance of the gun’s presence in that particular location.
As Scott hurried to retrieve the six gun, Johnny turned back to his horse. He watched him for a moment, relief engulfing him and leaving him weak-kneed. Barranca was really going to be all right. He could believe that now.
All at once, Sam’s prediction came true! Johnny’s strength deserted him and he sagged against the stall, senses reeling as the stall rails, Barranca’ golden coat, the straw-bedded floor, and barn walls whirled crazily, blended together, and began to fade. He clung to the railing, determined to stay upright. Steadying hands at his waist supported him, holding him on his feet.
“Easy, John.” Sam’s voice cut through the swirling fog, offering him a lifeline back to reality.
“You were right again, Sam.”
“Yes, it’s a pattern with me.”
Johnny sensed Scott beside him and managed a smile for his brother. “Thanks for gettin’ my gun.”
Scott picked up the rifle in his left hand. “I’ll clean these after you’re asleep.”
“Let’s go.” Scott rested his right hand firmly in the small of Johnny’s back, guiding him toward the door. The gesture reminded Johnny of Murdoch.
He stumbled and would have fallen, but for Scott’s hand. His brother’s next words seemed eerily familiar.
“Easy. Take your time.”
For a moment, Johnny accepted the help. He glanced back at the doctor. Sam’s smug “I told you so” expression hardened his resolve. The man couldn’t always be right! Johnny took a deep breath and pushed away from Scott’s hand. Sam folded his arms across his chest and plastered an infuriating ‘I’m always right – it’s a pattern’ smirk on his face.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed in determination and he met Scott’s quizzical stare. “I can make it.”
He started the journey to the barn door, forcing one foot in front of the other. It seemed miles away – the distance reminding him of how it felt to stand at the beginning of that barren, ninety mile stretch of merciless desert known as the Jornado de Muerto. And the estancia was even farther away!
His head swam and Johnny concentrated fiercely on walking, struggling to make his quicksand-bogged legs obey him. The darned door wouldn’t stay still – it kept moving away from him. He vision grayed around the edges. Johnny took a deep breath and focused every muscle on reaching that door.
Scott kept pace with him, poised to catch him if he fell. So good to walk with a brother at your side… And then Scott wasn’t beside him anymore… His brother was in front of him, walking backwards to face Johnny… and now he was pausing… dipping his shoulder… hadn’t they played this game befo…
Johnny passed out.
Scott had only seen Johnny take those mincing, faltering steps once before – and knew exactly what they meant. He turned in one smooth motion, dipping his right shoulder to catch his brother as Johnny slowly crumpled forward. He met Sam’s rolling eyes with a grin and mouthed, “I told you I’d carry him.” He used his right hand to secure his precious burden, taking care not to jostle the injured shoulder, and hefted Johnny’s rifle in his left hand.
As Christmas morning dawned brilliant and cold above the Lancer hacienda, the steadfast soldier strolled toward his waiting father and sister – a rifle in one hand and his brother tenderly slung over his other shoulder.
Karen & Nancy @ 2005
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6 thoughts on “The Gift of Hope by Karen and Nancy”
Bravo! This was excellent. I loved it. Thank you
Woe. One emotional turn after another. Great explanation of Sam’s feelings too.
This is one of my favourite Christmas stories because I love how the relationships have developed. Thank you
A few words can’t do justice to this testament of the power of faith and love to overcome the seemingly impossible. Your story is truly a gift. Thank you for sharing it with us.
Wauw, this was sooo beautiful. So much emotion, I’ve never seen Sam so angry, and all this love between the Lancer’s men, the help of Jelly and Cipriano. Well done and thank you.