Don’t Let The Wolverine Eat Your Pants
Thanks to Cat, Chris, and Rob for the beta. Rowdy language
Word count: 12,815
They all thought him crazy, and maybe he was, but when Murdoch announced the chore needed doing, Johnny jumped at the chance to get away. The monotonous routine of ranch life had begun to chafe; restrictions pulled tight, and everything annoyed him. Memories of ol’ Wally Burke invaded his mind. Ol’ Wally was as looney as they came. Rumor had it he worked so hard one day, passed out, and smacked his head on a tree stump when he fell an’ was never the same since. Well, Johnny wasn’t waiting for no tree stump to smack him. No siree! And he needed to find something away from the daily grind before he found himself in trouble with the old man… again. Murdoch’d prob’bly be mad at me for hittin’ my head on his tree stump. Anyway, this reconnaissance trip to the newly acquired property on the furthest northern range of Lancer dropped in his lap. It was perfect. This way, the Tune Caller wouldn’t see if Johnny smacked his head on that precious stump, and Johnny wouldn’t have to explain anything!
Johnny didn’t know if the ol’ man didn’t trust him to go alone into the mountains or if he was suddenly stricken with a rare sense of guilt when he said, “Johnny, I can send one of the other hands to get this done. It’s going to be cold up there, and I know how you feel about that.” Murdoch offered the chance for Johnny to decline, but it didn’t happen.
“Murdoch, I pull my weight around here. Don’t need special treatment. I’m sure mosta the hands would rather not do this, so I will. How long do ya figure it’ll take ta get everything done?” Johnny queried, hoping for a couple of weeks anyway, but also hoping the sudden Wally memory was not an omen of what was to come. Why had he thought about ol’ Wally after all these years?.
“Well, it depends on what kind of shape the line shack is in, then you’ll need to check out the stream to the north and make sure it’s flowing as it should. I don’t think Clem Haggarty attempted to keep things in working order in his later years mining that property. I really don’t know what you will find up there, so I’m guessing about a week at the very least. Just look it over and fix what you can in the time you’re there, then note what you can’t fix. We can send some men back to make any major repairs once we know what we’re up against.
“You’ll have to take a packhorse with provisions, of course, and some tools.” Murdoch stopped the narrative, thoughtful and not wanting to overlook any detail. “I know there’s a lake up there if you want to fish…”
Johnny fishing! Scott choked on his Scotch at the word ‘fish’. He muffled his cough with a softly mumbled, “Excuse me.” They all knew Johnny’s fishing technique didn’t leave much left to eat after he shot it, having no patience to wait for his nemesis to bite the hook.
Johnny’s brow raised as the tiny smirk tugged the corner of his mouth, thinking his older brother was a bit too smart for his own britches. Scott could beat him fishing, but Johnny won hands down when they hunted for game.
Johnny shrugged, and he had to ask. “What was so important about this property that ya wanted ta buy it? It’s an old mine, nothing but piles of rocks an’ dirt. What good’s that gonna do us?”
Murdoch wondered when one of his boys would ask that question. He smiled and looked at the Scotch in his hand before he answered. “Clem said the stream that runs down that mountain never dries up, and it’s the stream that supplies this ranch with water. He was thinking of our best interests when he approached me about buying that property. But I’ll know for sure when you get back with your report. If nothing else, there is a sizable stand of timber should Lancer need it. Besides, he sold to us for a good price!”
That was good enough for Johnny. He was getting what he wanted, time to himself, and he would find out more when he got there just how long he could be away from the restrictions that of late chafed and bound him in a suffocating web. If water was the only benefit, that would be reason enough to buy the place, buy it before someone else got wind the land was for sale.
With his composure now under control, Scott offered an apologetic smile, then held his glass in a toast to his brother. Satisfied, Johnny accepted his brother’s gesture as apology enough, finished his tequila, and headed off to bed. Tomorrow would come soon enough. Getting ready for the trip north would take a while, then another early night, and the following morning, Johnny would leave, and he anxiously anticipated the time alone.
The miles fell behind him as he made good time crossing Lancer land. Johnny relaxed in the saddle with the warmth of the late summer sun on his back and took in all that was around him. The towering stands of timber, mountain peaks, and billowing white clouds cloaked him in their comfort, like supporting arms that offered peace and protection. But, the comfort was nudged away as guilt took hold; shades of black and gray pushed into his mind, sending his thoughts spiraling down in self-reproach. He had the world by the tail with his new life at Lancer. He had a family, a roof over his head, and food in his belly. Why did he need this time alone? Why did he crave the solitude? Wonder if ol’ Wally ever wanted solitude?
There was enough turmoil in his life before coming to Lancer; he didn’t need to make things any more difficult now. But the compromises he’d made adjusting to family life were difficult, and if a little solitude would ease the restrictions he felt, that shouldn’t be too much to ask. There was no sense in compounding the issue. Let it go, Madrid. Nothing was perfect, nothing, but Johnny had to admit that he needed this time. Did there have to be a reason? With a sigh, he did his best to shove the troubling thoughts away, clear his mind and enjoy the ride. There would be enough time to find sense in this conflict while he was here alone. No interruptions, no conversations, no aggravations. Just himself, the horses, and the mountains. The solitude would serve him well.
Travel was slow. Parts of the trail were steep and kept him from making any time. There were meadows with good grazing and sufficient water but grazing the Lancer herd this far into the mountains didn’t make much sense. This newly acquired property was the highest elevation of anything on Lancer, but Johnny now knew why Murdoch was so intent on purchasing this land. Acquiring Clem Haggerty’s mountain property would ensure that Lancer would always have water.
He built a fire and started his coffee, then unsaddled Barranca and unloaded supplies from the packhorse. Glad to be camping out for only one night, he settled down early to be on his way before dawn. Wrapped in his bedroll, he enjoyed the warmth from the fire, closed his eyes, then let the soft wind whisper through the trees and sing him to sleep.
He wasn’t sure what woke him, but something had; he lay still, not moving, and let his instincts take over. Nothing seemed out of place. The horse’s soft munching was a good sign there was no danger, and Johnny opened his eyes. The sky was still dark; dawn hadn’t yet begun to shed her sweet light over the mountains, but it wouldn’t be long before she did. Sensing all was right, Johnny chanced a look around as his fingers curled around the butt of his Colt, a habit born of living his life as Madrid. Seeing nothing to concern him, he yawned and stretched in the bedroll, then tossed the blanket aside and got to his feet.
He took time for another stretch, then realized the trip away from the grind of ranch life had already begun its restorative powers. And he smiled. Johnny threw a few pieces of wood on the glowing embers, then started the coffee, burning his fingers in the process. With a quick inspection that determined it wasn’t bad, the task was finished in record time.He was going to enjoy this time by himself and, though it was work, he was glad he’d volunteered to do this job. Damn, his fingers were tender! Hope Maria packed some arnica salve…
He craved this time alone, but Johnny began to think of a brother trip, too. He wondered if Scott would be interested in a hunting trip; hell, Johnny would even go fishing with him if he wanted. He smiled again; the last time he went fishing with his family, he had to rely on the fish the others caught. Scott was right teasing his brother about his techniques. There wasn’t much left of a fish after Johnny Madrid shot it.
Okay, Johnny-Boy, ya better start payin’ attention. They’ll never letcha live it down if ya walked right inta trouble before ya even got ta where you’re supposed ta be… Although he sensed no trouble, Johnny pulled his thoughts together to watch around him; he needed to stay vigilant. The warm sun on his shoulders and the calls of the birds lulled him into relaxation that had the potential to be deadly. He learned that lesson the hard way and would never forget it. Johnny straightened in the saddle and, ever alert, enjoyed the tranquility around him.
They were making good time now… until Barranca stumbled. The horse tossed his head, then sidestepped; he took a tentative step, whinnied, and refused to go any further. Johnny dismounted with a sinking feeling in his heart; he hoped Barranca would be alright. Picking up the left front hoof, he discovered a stone wedged tight, then carefully pried it loose with his knife and making a thorough inspection, he thought it not serious. He gently let the hoof settle on the hard-packed earth, then patted the sleek golden neck and sighed.
“Ya OK, amigo?” Johnny knew he would be walking the last few miles. There was no way he would jeopardize Barranca and let him go lame.“Well, c’mon, boy. We’ll get ta the shack an’ I’ll getcha that salve Jelly gave me. Don’t look too bad, though. Hafta wait an’ see.”
The days were still warm, and a breeze cooled the heat away, making the journey… not miserable, except for Johnny’s sore feet. Damn! Feels like a blister. Mierda, I hate when that happens! But he had no choice. He would sacrifice a few blisters to save his horse, so he kept on walking. It shouldn’t be too far now, anyway. Stepping on the ball of his foot instead of heel first was difficult in his boots, but it took most of the pressure off the offending blister.
An hour later, he spotted the miner’s shack perched on the side of the hill. Built of lodgepole pine logs, the small two-story structure stoodlooking over the mountain meadow. A covered porch protected the door, and a lean-to attached on the side of the cabin would be Barranca’s home for the time they were there.
The trees were thick but cut back, leaving a clear space around the exposed rock, a prime place for mining. It was a small operation; no chemicals were used and left the water pure. Johnny looked around and noted the stream, close to both cabin and the mine, in a steady flow coming down from the top of the mountains. It was the perfect setup. Too bad the ore played out.
Well, time to look at the surroundings later. Right now, Johnny needed to get Barranca cared for, then he’d settle in and begin to check the cabin and see what had to be done there first; he hoped there were no holes in the roof. Damn, his feet hurt!
Johnny took Barranca, and the packhorse to the lean-to, then tended his amigo as best he could. There didn’t appear to be much bruising, but he would care for the injury as if there were. Grabbing a small tin of salve from his saddlebags, he popped off the top, and his eyes watered as the powerful vapors nearly took his breath away. Jelly musta got carried away with the turpentine an’ whatever the hell else he puts in there. Whew! That stinks! Then he smiled. Should he use this stuff on his blisters? No way in Hell would that happen! He wished for a bucket of ice to pack around the hoof but would have to make do with the things he had. A bucket of cold water would do in a pinch if he needed it, but Johnny would rather not soak the hoof if he could help it.
After tending Barranca, Johnny brushed the horses down, fed and watered them, then put his provisions into the shack. He loaded supplies in both arms and limped to the cabin, hoping that Maria had packed that arnica salve; he sure could use it now!
He grabbed the door handle, but the door stuck, forcing him to put his weight behind it and give a hard shove without dropping the load in his arms. The door swung into the room and bounced against the wall… and all hell broke loose! A thick brownish cloud billowed into the room as the nest hanging on the inside of the door exploded, disrupting hundreds of angry wasps looking for revenge. Sonuvabitch!
Johnny dropped the bundles from his arms, not caring what broke when they hit the floor, and, ignoring the painful blisters, ran out into the yard, waving his arms around him in a hand-to-hand but futile battle with the vicious little beasts. And he was losing the war. Not bothering to assess the damage, Johnny ran-limped for the stream, hoping it was deep enough to submerge his body, clothes, and all.
“Ya little bastard! Get the fuck offa me!” He reached inside his shirt to brush the offender away but not before said offender pierced his finger with an agonizing attack. Immediately the digit began to feel hot, and Johnny felt the searing pain tear through his hand sharp as lightning. And he felt four more agonizing wounds on his chest, shoulders, and arms resembling tiny bullets raining down on his body. Damn, damn, damn! That hurts! Mierda, this water’s getting’ too cold- Damn them little sons-a-bitches! Johnny swore he heard ol’ Wally laughing at him.
Damn it! He was Johnny Madrid! Ain’t no brainless bug gonna beat him! He dragged himself out of the water and stood watching for another attack. Then wondered how he would rid the cabin of the menace. Smoke! That was it! He’d smoke the little bastards out of there! OK, Madrid, just how’re ya gonna do that? After a minute of thought, he came up with an answer. What the hell, there was no one to see him, it didn’t matter what he would look like an idiot… With his mad boiling over, Johnny could somewhat push aside the discomfort of his wet clothes. Somewhat…
Leaning against the wall in the lean-to was a shovel with a broken handle; further scrounging around produced a can of kerosene. Johnny grabbed the shovel and the can of fuel, then brought them close to the front of the cabin. All he had to find now was something that would burn. And old Clem provided that as well. Draped over a rail in the lean-to was an old, worn and dirty saddle blanket. Johnny smiled. Perfect! Grasping the handle of the knife in his boot, he pulled the weapon from its sheath and slit a sizable piece from the blanket, crumpled it, then doused it with the kerosene, not too much, though; he didn’t want the cabin to go up in flames.
A wicked smile crawled across his face as he tied his bandana around his head, then pulled his bedroll around his body for protection from the stinging vermin, and he lit the blanket with a match. Smoke billowed up in a choking black cloud as Johnny hurried across the porch and into the cabin where he set the shovel on the floor, keeping the flaming blanket on the blade while it smoldered a death song for the wasps still inside. He quickly made it back outside and slammed the door shut.
Let’s see them little bastards get outta that! He wanted to laugh out loud, but he suddenly realized that many of his supplies still lay on the floor in the cabin where he dropped them. Mierda, hope I don’t burn the cabin down!
Fighting the shivers that crawled down his spine, he gave the smoke time to get the job done as he stood guard and watched. He only hoped the smoldering didn’t produce too much soot and blacken everything inside but had to give the smoke time to work.
Relieved there was no sight of flames flickering through the grimy windows, Johnny felt it safe to enter. Tugging on his gloves, he gently pushed the door open. Immediately, a cough tore from his lungs, and he backed away as smoke hung heavy in the cabin. But there were no angry, vindictive buzzes to indicate the threat still lingered. He pulled the bandana over his nose and mouth; then, he started a fire in the hearth to produce the draw that would siphon the smoke out of the cabin.
Once the cheery flames danced over the logs with a mocking snap and crackle, Johnny threw the remains of the wasp nest onto the burning logs and watched it explode in a fireball accompanied by a shower of sparks and a sizable sizzle. Next, he swept the dead insects off the floor and tossed them into the flames. The air began to clear, and soon he could close the door. For the first time, he was able to take a good look around the interior.
He was impressed; Clem Haggerty left everything in place, and though only modest furniture, it was comfortable and in good condition, what he could see of it anyway now that the wasps were gone. The smell of scorched kerosene hung heavy in the air, and he opened the door again, certain the place would air out sufficiently before having to close it for the night.
Coffee. That’s what he needed, along with dry clothes. There was a fire going now; it would help warm him while he dried out. Johnny limped to the stream, filled the bucket, and carried the water into the cabin, but the trip chilled him to the bone. The hot brew would be a good start toward any comfort, well, as much as he could until he had the chance to get settled and get into dry clothes.
Retrieving the supplies he’d dropped on the floor when the wasps attacked, he sorted through them, sending up a brief prayer for Maria’s foresight when he found the arnica salve with other medical necessities. Oh, the woman was a saint! Arnica would go a long way to relieve the pain from his blistered feet, burned fingers and ease the sting from the wasp attack.
With the supplies stowed away on shelves, hot coffee in his hand, Johnny’s next thought was to get a good night’s sleep before getting down to business and begin the reconnaissance of and around the cabin. But before sleep, he needed to wash the trail dust and the stench from the smoke off his body. He grabbed the bar of soap and towel from his saddlebags, along with the spare pair of pants and a clean shirt, then wandered to the stream, knowing he was about to be chilled yet again. After a quick check on Barranca to satisfy himself he was alright, Johnny made it to the water.
So far, so good. Barranca was doing well, allowing Johnny to stand by the stream for a quick bath in the chilly flow. Damn, never been this cold before! His teeth began to chatter, and he clenched them to stop it. A clump of brush near the water provided a place to hang the clean clothes while Johnny quickly washed the dirt and grit from his body. The leather calzoneras needed a cleaning, so he washed them as best he could and hung them up to dry along with his shirt and long johns; then, with great determination to complete his task, Johnny ignored the shivers produced by the mountain stream and took a bath, not sure if the cold water soothed his aches and stings from the wasps or nearly froze the blood in his veins. It was no proper bath, but it was enough at the moment.
A snort from close by made him start; it sounded like Barranca voicing his displeasure about something. Observing the horse, everything appeared alright, but at the angle from his place in the stream, he couldn’t see much at all. He would check on his amigo when he was dressed, but it was not a sound the horse had ever made before— Ya got your ears fulla water! No wonder it was different.
Finally done, he dragged himself from the water, and now, from his place out of the stream, he could see Barranca toss his head as if vexed. Reflex had his Colt in hand as he studied the ground for tracks. And tracks he found, but not made by a man. He quickly dried off with the towel, all the while looking around for a threat, and seeing none, he grabbed for the clean pants that… weren’t there. What the hell! Where’re they?
Sonuvabitch! The animal that made the tracks had come close, close enough to make off with the clean pants Johnny had draped over the bush. Dammit! When I catch that little bastard, ‘m gonna skin it! But upon further investigation, that ‘little bastard’ wasn’t so little. The tracks were nothing Johnny had seen before. Not quite as big as his hand and more elongated than a dog’s paw, the long claws determined this was no wolf. Well, whatever it is, it made off with my pants! Then it occurred to him that his pants had been in the saddlebags, along with his stash of jerky. He pulled on the wet calzoneras and shivered, but he had no choice. He wasn’t about to chase an unknown critter through the woods naked.
At the edge of the clearing around the cabin lay the mangled pile that was Johnny’s clean pants. He bent down and scooped them up, only to throw them to the ground, and he wrinkled his nose in disgust. Mierda! That stinks! What the hell’m I dealin’ with here? Oh, that was bad! It was worse than bad! He’d never smelled anything like it and hoped to not ever again! Gotta burn them things! He didn’t think Teresa could repair all the damage, not to mention to get them clean again, and he wasn’t going to ask her, not now, not ever.
The tracks around the bush where the theft occurred overlapped, the back paws almost directly on top of the front, but that changed now, no doubt, as the animal broke out in a run. A full print of front paws clearly marked the ground with back paws a few inches behind the front. Well, Johnny would deal with the ‘neighbors’ later. He needed to check on Barranca and find dry clothes… somewhere. For now, his mad was keeping him warm… kind of. It was going to be a long night. No dry clothes and an unknown and uninvited visitor wouldn’t promote any sweet dreams. And he wondered just what the ‘neighbor’ was…
Johnny checked Barranca and, other than a snort that seemed to express concern that Johnny was dallying in the water and not standing guard, made him think the horse was smarter than he was. He would be more diligent in his care.
Thankfully, the inside of the cabin was warm, and Johnny shucked the wet leather pants and wrapped in a blanket. Having no other choice than to clean the chair of soot, he hung the calzoneras on the ladder back to dry; the blanket wrap would be the only clothing at his disposal until the leather pants dried. Pleased the blisters didn’t look too bad, he applied the arnica salve. One blister had broken open, making it more painful than it should have been, but the arnica worked fast and reduced the pain to a dull ache.
A brief trip to the second-story loft confirmed to Johnny the place appeared stable. No holes in the roof that he could see was a great start, but leaks had a way of hiding… until it rained. He couldn’t detect any water damage but couldn’t get a good view of the entire ceiling in the deepening light, and the coating of soot didn’t help, but he would check that out once he made it to the roof. At the moment, the place appeared to be sound.
He was beat and yawned long and loud but knew the thoughts of a comfortable bed and good, sound sleep that were occupying his mind weren’t going to happen. Johnny gathered his bedroll and Colt, then settled on the not-so-comfortable, thin and smelly mattress in the loft and sighed. He would rest, and if there was trouble, Barranca would alert him.
Then his eyes shot open, thinking he’d not checked for snakes. With the way his luck was going, that would be his next battle. Well, too bad for the snake. He’s gonna hafta share the bed. The last thing Johnny remembered before exhaustion overtook him was low rolling thunder in the distance; then, there was nothing.
Johnny had always liked the rumble of thunder and the drumming of the rain on the roof… As long as the rain stayed on the roof. It had lulled him into comfort before, the soft beat of the rain falling, soothing and singing to him as sweetly as his mother’s sweet voice had done years ago.
But that was not the case as the first fat drops gathered, seeped through the rotted wood, and clung to the ceiling, then aimed for the target below, and right on course, landed on Johnny’s forehead then ran into his ears.
“Sonuvabitch! Can anything else happen?” The mad boiled over as Johnny Madrid Lancer threw himself out of bed. He wanted nothing more than to shoot something! Marching down the narrow stairs, he grabbed a kettle from a shelf, then pounded back up the stairs where he positioned the pot under the drips… and listened to the metallic ‘plink, plink, plink’ as the rain fell, the sound amplified by the tall sides of the kettle.
Tired and frustrated, Johnny dragged the bed to a safer spot in the loft and threw himself down to sleep. When his body hit the thin mattress, he sighed long and deep, then thewooden frame cracked and dumped him on the floor. That’s just great! But he didn’t move and spent the night lying on the flimsy mattress, feeling every broken slat gouge into his back and backside and listening to the tinny music of the rain gathering in the pot. Sonuvabitch! Gonna be a long night…
After another application of the arnica salve, he tested the soreness in his feet and was satisfied it was nothing serious. He stepped out onto the porch. Wandering to his amigo’s side, he gave Barranca’s hoof another check, and with relief there was no further sign of damage, Johnny trekked along the stream. It was deeper and wider here than where he’d taken his bath yesterday. Old Haggerty built a bridge from one side to the other, no doubt to make the trip into the mine easier in his declining years. The bridge was stable and linked the two banks together without needing to hop from rock to slippery rock, something Haggerty shouldn’t have been doing in his advanced years and living up here alone.
Once on the other side, Johnny entered the mine, intending a brief exploration. A lamp hung just inside the entrance, and once lit, the flame flickered and sputtered and produced wisps of smoke. Johnny knew if he were going to be in there for any length of time, he would have to replace the fuel; it was too old and contaminated with water from the damp interior to cast a steady light. But for the moment, he saw what he wanted to see, mainly to check it out and make sure there weren’t any ‘neighbors’ that would object to his intrusion. There were bear tracks and a few other critters who visited, and Johnny also found the same animal tracks belonging to the varmint that stole his pants and ripped them to shreds. But there were no current residents that he could tell… just yet.
Johnny headed out the way he’d come but stopped in his tracks as the rattle warned of potential trouble. Slowly he searched the ground to find a huge timber rattler lying two feet away, coiled up and ready to strike. Shuddup, Wally! Johnny cut off the remark in his head that old Wally would certainly have made. Well, dammit all ta Hell! Can it get any worse? OK, snake, I ain’t gonna hurt cha. Just lemme get past an’ you can have the place ta yourself… Guess you’re better out here’n in my bed. He took a few tentative, slow steps backward, then gave the snake a wider berth, successfully getting around it without incident. Heblew out the lamp and walked out into the sunlight, letting it calm a few ragged nerves from the snake encounter. He stood, soaking up the rays, letting them wash over him and warm the damp of the mine from his body.
He turned and took in all around him. On the left of the mine entrance and farthest away from the cabin, a large pile of rocks excavated by Haggerty tumbled down the mountainside, leaving a wash of gray rubble as it covered the steep decline below. On the right, lush grass grew in a thick carpet down to the stream that divided the mine from the cabin.
Once more at ease, Johnny looked around and absorbed the quiet, the beauty, and the solitude. It was what he craved. There was nothing like the peace of the mountains; no one demanding your time or ordering you here or there. No one to say… anything.
He shook himself loose of wandering thoughts. There would be time enough for a few hours of idle enjoyment, but for now, he should get the job started and do some checking around before indulging in any relaxation. Going back to the cabin, he retrieved his rifle and walked along the stream bank as the water tumbled down the side of the mountain.
The sound of rushing water, louder now, spurred a notion enforcing why Murdoch wanted this land. Johnny’s pace quickened, and as he rounded a massive pile of boulders, there before him was a junction where the stream joined a larger, deeper waterway, a small river, but substantial. Here was the primary source of water for the ranch. Murdoch had to protect the lifeblood of Lancer, the reason why the ol’ man purchased this land; it was not fit for cattle, too far away to be of much benefit, except for the water it provided. And now, it was protected and part of the ranch. There would be no chance for anyone to dam or divert the water from getting down into the valley, assuring the Lancer Ranch of a steady and reliable supply.
With sure-footed balance, Johnny stepped on exposed rocks and crossed to the other side of the river, then continued down to the lake. There would be no crossing in the spring when the water level was higher, but it was doable now. Through the trees, he could see the tarn; a mirror surface reflected a perfect image of the surroundings, lending another degree of serenity to the tranquil scene before him. And, although Johnny knew he was in for some chilly weather, he was glad he volunteered for this job.
The breeze switched direction, bringing with it a vile stench. What the hell? Johnny thought. Smells like my ruined pants did yesterday, like a skunk got caught in a overflowin’ outhouse! His eyes began to water, and he held his breath, then decided that whatever it was, he didn’t want any part of it. Johnny turned and went back the way he came.
But then, his curiosity got the best of him. Part of him wanted to know where that stench came from and what the hell it was; the other part said, ‘Are you crazy? Let it alone!’
Once again, at the junction where the two waterways melded into one and flowed down the mountain, Johnny studied the surrounding area. If Murdoch ever decided to go into the timber business, he’d make a fortune off the growth here, but it would ruin the water supply. With no trees to hold the ground, the soil would wash away and clog the streams, even the deeper of the two, so logging was out of the question. And he was relieved. Logging would spoil the tranquility of these mountains.
It was getting late; Johnny turned back to the cabin. He’d explored most of the day, and now evening was closing in. The morning would come early, and he needed to get a jump on his reconnaissance; he would start with the roof, give it a thorough inspection, and repair what he could. That leak was history! But for now, his belly rumbled, and he wanted coffee and supper, then he would settle himself down to sleep, and with any luck, there would be no interruptions, and he wouldn’t wake until morning.
Heat from the cup warmed his hands, and Johnny’s eyes began to close. The long ride into the mountains yesterday and the day’s aggravations took their toll. Breathing the thin, pure air lulled him into a lazy and comfortable state. With help from the warm fire and a full belly, he fell asleep in the large chair facing the hearth; the chill outside dropped as night claimed the sky. The broken bed upstairs was still in pieces and would stay that way until Johnny was ready to fix it, but tonight, the chair or the floor would be his bed.
The cold morning didn’t encourage one to dilly-dally in getting dressed and starting a fire. The flames from the night before had long died out when Johnny opened heavy eyes, then stretched to relieve the kink in his back. After a satisfying pop, then a snap, he was ready to move. Why didn’t he lay on the floor in front of the fireplace to sleep instead of spending the night in the chair? Clutching the blanket around his shoulders, he hoisted himself to his feet and sighed. Coffee. That’s what he needed, and soon.
Throwing kindling on the coals produced a cheery fire that danced over the wood in no time. Johnny poured water and grounds into the pot; coffee would be ready shortly, and with a hot meal to follow, he’d feel like a new man. The fact that Johnny could see puffs of vapor inside the cabin when he breathed would promote a better plan for stoking the fire tonight. He shivered inside the blanket and wondered why he hadn’t slipped into his heavy, sheepskin-lined coat before this as the blaze began to throw off warm relief; then, he headed out back.
He finished his business and hurried back inside the cabin. It had taken a little longer than anticipated having to fend off several mosquitoes; They musta been talkin’ ta them damn wasps! After grabbing a quick breakfast, he headed outside to find a ladder and check out the roof before any more rain had the chance to ruin another night of sleep.
Behind the cabin, Johnny found what he’d been looking for, leaning on its side along the back wall. Nearly covered in billows of catchweed, catchweed bedstraw as Scott informedhim of the proper name months earlier, and black nightshade,he tugged the ladder out of the nest of growth that held it captive. Johnny tested its strength, and though a few of the rungs were missing, he thought it would hold his weight. It was old, and it was rickety, but it was all he had at the moment.
Leaning the wooden steps against the side of the cabin, he tested the first two rungs, and judging them safe enough to hold his weight, he went higher. Gradually adding his weight with every step, Johnny advanced up until he could step onto the roof. At least I didn’t break my leg getting’ up here… Thinking over the calamities of yesterday, he sighed, then went about the task of checking the roof.
He knew there was at least one bad spot where the rain assaulted him that first night and taking tentative steps, he started up to the roof peak.
Any other day, a chore on the roof in the hot sun would have induced grousing that would make Jelly’s cantankerous behavior look like that of a newborn calf. But today, the sky was clear, the sun was brilliant in the blue expanse and not hot, and the quiet of the mountains was a soothing balm to his soul. It was as if yesterday had never happened. But it did… and it leached into this day as tentacle-like fingers snaked out to trip him up yet again— quite literally.
A loose shake caught his boot, and Johnny went down, then began to slide down the steep decline to the edge of the roof. He tried digging his boots into the cedar shakes to stop the descent, thinking that seventeen-foot fall was going to hurt like hell! Fingers grabbed at the raised sides of the shakes for a handhold, and it worked; his slide jerked to a halt. But not before his boot hit the ladder and knocked it to the ground, stranding him on the cabin roof.
“¡Hijo de puta! ¡Voya disararle a esa maldita cosa y a quemarle hasta convertirla en cenizas! (Sonuvabitch! I’m gonna shoot that damn thing an’ burn it ta ashes!) Resting his head on the ragged shakes, Johnny laid until he caught his breath and his rampaging temper. Was the bad luck from yesterday about to follow him through this day as well?
A growl rumbled in the back of his throat as Johnny Madrid fought to control his temper. The bad luck from yesterday had shadowed him and apparently was not through in its torment. But Madrid was bound and determined he would win the battle. With a maddened, exasperated snort, he sat up and assessed the situation. Peering over the edge of the roof, he spied the ladder lying as if in mocking laughter on the ground.
“¡Maldito sea todo al infierno!” (Damn it all ta Hell!). With a shrug, Johnny hauled himself to his feet. As long as he was stuck there, he’d check it out and find the leak that assaulted him the night before while he pondered the problem of how he would get himself down off the damn roof.
Roughly estimating where the leak was hidden in the shakes, Johnny dropped to his knees and began poking and prodding the cedar pieces, determined to find where the rain found its way into the cabin. Funny, he thought, the roof looks a lot worse from up here than it does from insi…” and instantly, the wood beneath his knee gave way; Johnny’s leg plunged through the splintered roof with a sickening crash. With a sudden fling of outstretched arms, he broke the descent into the loft below, then carefully pulled his leg out from the jagged hole, rolled onto his back as he assessed his body for damage. It had been close! He was eternally grateful he hadn’t gone any further through the broken and rotted wood. His trips to The Angels Nest for the company of warm and willing arms could have been at risk had he not reached out with his arms to stop his fall.
“Sonuvabitch! What else can happen?!” And he immediately regretted saying those words. What the hell’s wrong with you, Madrid? Ya know it can always get worse. And it did.
Not having sufficient supplies for a roof repair of this extent, Johnny would have to do the best he could with what he had. As long as he was stuck on the roof, he should determine how much damage there was for an accurate report to take back to Lancer.
Moving carefully over the shingles, Johnny avoided other traps, finding only two other places where the spongy wood was ready to crumble beneath his weight. And they were small, nothing compared to the damage caused by his fall. The chimney was sound but could use a spot or two of fresh tar to patch a few seams between the rocks, mortar, and cedar shakes, just as a precaution. Everything else appeared to be in good condition. So, how was he going to cover the hole made when he fell through the rotten shakes? Stretching a tarp across the roof was his immediate solution.
But the first issue would be to get off the roof. Once again, he looked over the edge and glared at the ladder; it appeared to be hiding at first glance, or maybe the tangle of weeds wanted it back… Wastin’ time, Madrid! Johnny focused again on the problem he faced.
Not finding any reason to put it off any longer, Johnny carefully walked the edges of the roof and decided on his best course of action. And it was far from good. There was no sense in putting it off, after all, why the hell would he want to spend any more time than necessary on a roof? Hopefully, he’d walk away unscathed, but considering how things were going, he wasn’t counting on it.
The tentative journey over the peak of the cabin and controlled slide, which wasn’t so controlled, went relatively well, all things considered, but resulted in a sizable splinter in his little finger on his left hand when he fell on his butt and dragged both hands to slow the descent. Dammit! Why didn’t I have my gloves on? He hoped that Scott wouldn’t find out about this slide down the roof and not wearing his gloves. With the many times Johnny had chastised him for not wearing his, Johnny was sure Scott wouldn’t let this go without an “I told you so!”
At the brink of the roof, the covered porch below would be the way to get down to the ground. All he would have to do would be to lower himself over the edge and drop down onto the top of the porch. He smiled, thinking that perhaps everything was going to work out after all.
The cold water in the bucket eased the pain, and Johnny flexed the fingers of his left hand, then slowly rotated his wrist. He assessed the damage and thought it wasn’t too bad. It would be sore for a while. Maybe he’d give it a rest, no more work for the day.
Alright, so it wasn’t such a great idea to drop down from the cabin roof onto the porch. But had it not been for those seven bad-tempered wasps carryin’ a grudge, he would have made it to the ground with no incident. Just as Johnny turned on his belly to drop down on the porch roof, the little bastards swarmed, all seven of them, and attacked; their vengeance directed at their helpless victim, hanging defenseless, and at their mercy, of which they had none.
Johnny fell, his ribs slammed onto the ridge of the porch, and he gasped with the impact, then felt himself roll off the roof, and the ground came up to meet him for a second assault that left him nearly unconscious. His breath whooshed out in an agonizing grunt as his body contacted the hard, rocky earth. All he wanted to do was close his eyes and pass out. He didn’t even care about the wasps that continued their quest for blood.
To say he was sore was an understatement. He knew he was bruised from landing on the peak of the porch roof, and he hoped there wasn’t anything too serious. Well, he’d been bruised before, and he would be again, so forget it. The splinter in his hand proved no problem, other than a little pain, but then, the rest of him had pain, so why should his hand be any different?
The deep sigh was abruptly cut off as the muscles in his chest stretched beyond their tender limits and made Johnny groan. Sonuvabitch! Alright, change of plans. No more strenuous work outside. He would take a chance on the weather and leave the hole he’d put in the roof to fix first thing tomorrow.
He turned the bucket over and emptied the water on the ground, then with slow and careful purpose, Johnny pushed himself to his feet and walked into the cabin.
He wanted more than anything to lie down but knew it would be better to keep moving. If he took it too easy, the stiffness would take over and prevent him from getting anything done, and that couldn’t happen. There was a job for him to do, and he would do it, only now, it would take longer to finish. Well, the incidents weren’t entirely his fault, and it was only his second day here… Nope, it was the third day. Wasn’t it?
Johnny stood and looked around the room. Despite a few dark smudges from the smoke and soot and a couple of good-sized cobwebs hanging around, the place seemed relatively clean. He absently rubbed at the wasp stings across his shoulders as he surveyed the cabin but stopped when they began to hurt. Little varmints!
More coffee, that’s what he needed. It would taste good about now, he thought. He searched for the bag of grounds on the shelf holding the other supplies, moving things around to find the makings for the craved brew. And the sugar bag moved… by itself… What the hell! He investigated, then discovered a hole eaten into the sack that left a sugar-covered shelf and counter underneath. Little tracks with long toes and dragging tail danced their way through the crystals, scattering the white mess everywhere. It even crunched on the floor under Johnny’s boots. Sonuvabitch!
Then he saw the bag move, again— the little bastard! Johnny pinched the chewed hole closed with his fingers and picked it up, then marched to the door, and threw the cloth bag out onto the ground, and watched the little varmint exit through the hole and run for safety; its tail whipping about in angry protest. “An’ stay out!” Johnny shouted at the retreating terror, vowing war should the critter try and return.
Once again in the cabin, he checked over the food, wondering if that four-legged thief had ruined anything else. Relieved the coffee suffered no assault, Johnny started another pot, and soon the magic elixir filled his cup; the strong, black liquid did much in offering comfort to his exhausted and frayed temper.
But that soothing comfort quickly dissipated when, just as he was taking another sip from his cup, out the window, Johnny noticed the sky to the northwest had suddenly turned dark, signaling a mountain storm. Though the window was small, the view was enough to let him know he needed to get moving and fast. Dammit! He had to cover that hole in the roof, now, or risk a drenching. Sonuvabitch!
There was a tarp in the lean-to, along with a tin of nails. But no hammer. Hafta make do with a rock, Johnny thought. No, there was a hammer in his supplies! Well, that was one thing in his favor. He grabbed a rope off the hook on the wall, took his rope from his saddle, and walked behind the cabin where the ladder had taken its fall into the weeds.
Hauling the ladder out of its nest, he propped it against the cabin, making sure it wasn’t going to tip and force another unplanned exit from the roof. His wrist was throbbing, but he couldn’t stop to rest. The splintered finger began to bleed, but he brushed that off, too; the rain was coming and coming fast. He stuffed the hammer in his belt, then gathered the necessary things for the temporary repair job.
With the two coils of rope looped around his neck, he picked up the tarp, threw it over his shoulder, and slowly advanced up the rickety ladder. One rung, then another, and another. So far, so good… And then, he was eye level with the edge of the cedar shake roof. Johnny tossed the tarp on the cedar shakes, along with one of the ropes; he used the second to tie onto the ladder, then coil the other end around the chimney and secure it tightly. Johnny snorted. Stinkin’ ladder’s not gonna fall again!
Satisfied now there was a sure way down off the roof, he unfolded the tarp, then shook it out and carefully spread it over the shingles, satisfied it was large enough for the job. Metal grommets in all four corners were soon fitted with ropes that Johnny would nail to the underside of the eves. The hole was covered and was soon was stretched over the roof’s peak, tied and nailed in place.
“What d’ya think of that, Wally? Huh? Think ya could do any better?” Dios, I’m talkin’ ta him now! That was ten years ago; he’s gotta be gone by now. Maybe I need some sleep…
Pleased with the job well done, he was happy that he’d pounded his index finger on his left hand only once during the process. But it wasn’t bleeding that badly. It would be fine.
He crept to the back edge of the roof and smiled. What’dya know! The ladder’s still there… Tossing the hammer to the ground, Johnny stuffed the nails into his jacket pocket, turned around, and stepped tentatively onto the ladder, again going slow, and proceeded to the ground.
But his descent happened faster than he anticipated when the crack of splitting wood announced the broken rung, and he fell the last five feet, landing flat on his back, the air forced out of his lungs in a woof. He tasted blood in his mouth when his teeth clamped onto his tongue, and the first fat drop of rain landed in his eye. It hasta be the ghost of Wally. No other explanation… Sonuvabitch!
He waited out the rain. For over two hours, it pounded on the roof, sounding like the end of the world. But, if nothing else, it confirmed the patch job that covered the roof would hold until a proper repair could be made. The wind whipped at the tarp; it popped and snapped as it was buffeted about but did not allow any drop of rain to penetrate the cabin. Johnny smiled as he soaked the sore and swollen fingers slit from the splinter and smacked with the hammer.
He sat before a warm, crackling fire and relaxed. Now, this was something he could get used to. No ornery cows to herd, no barbed wire to slice his hands. And no early hour to prompt him out of bed. Yup, this ain’t all bad… The attacking wasps, ruined pants, sore wrist, smacked and slit fingers, bruised ribs, and bitten tongue were now all forgotten, kind of. Until he moved.
It was late afternoon when the rain stopped. The sky did not clear, and it looked like rain would pick up again any minute. As Johnny observed the gray around him, he thought of Jelly’s remark declaring his fishing expertise. Gray skies, ‘specially after a good rain, an’ t’ward evenin’… That’s when them fish’ll bite! Well, there were gray skies, and it just finished with one helluva downpour, and evening was coming on fast.
Wish ol’ Boston was here! Then he’d have a fight on his hands— My fish against his fish…
But Scott wasn’t there, and Johnny was hungry, so he better get busy. A pan-fried trout would taste pretty darn good right about now. Johnny tugged on the slicker, just in case the rain decided to let loose again, took the string, and hook Jelly so graciously packed, scrounged around to find a few carcasses of dead wasps from the corners of the cabin, then headed down to the stream.
Keeping an eye on the threatening skies, Johnny followed the water to where it flared out and provided a deeper pool-like spot that he was certain any self-respecting trout would love to call home. On the muddy banks were the tracks he’d seen by the stream that day when his pants went missing. Well, keep your eyes open for danger; it was all he could do.
Johnny found a suitable sapling, and with his boot knife, had it cut and trimmed down in no time. A stub of a branch was left toward the tip of the pole, and he quickly tied the string, looping it around the cut-off branch and the pole, assuring it wouldn’t come off when he snagged the monster fish he knew was waiting for him. Carefully, he retrieved the hook packed safely, again Jelly’s considerate gesture, from a pocket of cloth, threaded the line through it and secured it with an expertly tied knot. If ol’ Scott was here, he’d be eatin’ his words! The wide grin on Johnny’s face confirmed the competitive streak now washing through him. Competitive… and alone!
Now came the bait… the vicious little beasts that showed him no mercy. Ha! It was payback time! However, technically, the payback was already exacted when he smoked them to death. No matter. They were dead, and now they were bait.
Johnny secured the yellow-brown corpse on the hook, then checked out the water for the best spot to start his hunt for the biggest fish that Scott would never see. Guess Scott’ll just hafta take my word on it… And with a precise toss, Johnny Madrid Lancer launched the bait out over the water. The grin on his face was devilish, and he anticipated the tasty meal to come. He licked his lips as if savoring the tender meat on his tongue at that very moment!
Keen eyes watched from the tree, catching every move, every motion, sensing a meal and prepared to claim it.
Johnny watched as the fish got closer; he jerked the line and made the wasp skip on the water. He pulled again, and splash! The trout attacked, nearly ripping the pole out of his hands, but he tightened his grip, and with a whoop of excitement, Johnny fought, amazed at the strength the fish possessed as it thrashed in the water. After several careful minutes, he finessed the fish to the shore and plucked it out of the water. The battle was won.
Johnny slid his fingers between the gills and the body, then lifted the fish high to admire the catch. Ol’ Boston ain’t gonna believe this! This fish is five pounds if it’s an ounce! Boy, it’s a beaut…”
The bright eyes narrowed, and it pushed off the branch with a mighty shove. The wings spread out, pumping the air around them and its sight zeroed in on its prize. The wily hawk swooped down on an unsuspecting Johnny Lancer and, with razor-like talons extended, sunk them through scales into the meaty flesh and stole the large fish right off his fingers; then, as if to add insult to injury, immense, muscular wings smacked the back of his head!
“SONUVABITCH!” Johnny bellowed as he watched the fish swing in the hawk’s grip as it flew away.
“Damn, damn, damn!” His composure left as quickly as the thieving hawk; Johnny threw the pole on the ground and drew his pistol. The slugs entered the water until the Colt was emptied. And mangled fish floated to the surface.
His mad boiled over as he processed what had happened. Johnny stood, weight on one leg and hands on his hips. “I don’t believe this! How did… Scott ain’t gonna believe this either! Damn! That fish sure would have tasted good!” In disgust, Johnny reloaded the Colt, then picked up the pole; he wouldn’t try again.
Walking to the edge of the water, he glanced down and saw something floating. What the hell? Pieces of fish bobbed on the surface— he hit one, or two, he couldn’t tell.
Rain began to fall as Johnny plucked fish parts from the water. He gathered them and put them in a cloth, then started for the cabin. Fish mush was better than no fish… or fish mush. The trouble was, how would he determine what was edible? He’d heard Scott say something about nutritional value, and Johnny thought it meant how good it was for you to eat. Did fish guts and scales have any nutritional value, he wondered? Because he sure as shit didn’t know what parts of the fish floated to the surface of the water…
It didn’t matter. Soon, he would be enjoying fish and happy for it. He was starved! Occupied with thoughts of a nice dinner, he suddenly had the feeling he was being watched. Johnny stopped and turned, trusting his instincts, but there was nothing there. Hmmm, must be hungrier’n I thought. I’m imaginin’ things. Halfway to his destination, he heard a snort, then a guttural snarl. Johnny stopped and slowly turned around to face the menace behind him. It was something he’d never seen before… Wait, that picture Scott showed me in one of his books. That’s a wolverine!
Don’t show fear; they can smell fear. That’s just great! Don’t run. Huh? Johnny grabbed for his pistol, then fired a few shots in the air, grateful he’d taken the time to reload the piece. But the beast stood his ground. Beady little eyes stared at him, the black leathery nose twitched and tested the wind, but it was the mouthful of teeth that got Johnny’s undivided attention. And combined with the massive paws nearly the size of his hand equipped with lethal claws, kept his attention. He knew he was in deep trouble should this animal decide to attack.
And he did. It charged with a vengeance and a howling scream that sparked the reflex that sent Johnny running faster than he thought possible. He had always been blessed with the proverbial wings on his feet, but he was instantly faster than ever before. And the reason for that speed was bearing down on him; the vicious snarl seemed so close, he swore if he reached behind him, he could touch it. Suddenly, Johnny could hear cackling laughter through the woods, crazy cackling… Wally! Ain’t funny, Wally! I’m hearin’ things, an’ I ain’t smacked my head on anything except the damn hawk’s wing!
He ran as fast as his legs would carry him through the pine-covered terrain as the branches grabbed at his clothes and exposed skin. The rain-slicked ground covered in pine needles hampered his escape attempt… Run faster! The slap in his face from a branch of long pine needles rivaled Patty Anne’s hand when he tried to kiss her at that dance two weeks ago, but he paid no mind. He should have pursued her— Patty Anne didn’t have those fangs or claws that were only a few feet behind him now!
Damn! Throw him the fish! So Johnny tossed the cloth, filled with his pieces of dinner, over his shoulder. And the snarl persisted behind him. Sonuvabitch!
He honestly didn’t want to kill the wolverine but did want to show that he was a worthy adversary. Johnny reached for his pistol and discharged two rounds, then chanced a quick look. It worked. The animal turned, then buried its short snout in the fish, and Johnny took his leave, without his dinner, thinking he was lucky to get away with these pants intact.
Wonder what the damn mouse left for me ta eat? Shuddup, Wally, it ain’t funny!
Johnny stepped onto the porch, got out of the rain, and tried to catch his breath. It was just not his day. Oh, he had luck catching a fish and a great fish at that! But that hawk had different ideas. Musta been working with that wolverine.
At least the cabin was warm when he entered. He shook off the slicker and found a long rip that extended over his left shoulder and down the back. The reckless run trying to outdistance that hungry critter sent Johnny through trees and brush, and he’d torn the protection that would have kept him dry. Sonuvabitch! That’s just great! Now he was wet, again.
It was a long night. The jerky he had for dinner was hard and difficult to swallow, nothing like the fish he should have been eating. He hoped the hawk choked eating that fish! At this point, Johnny was sure he would have eaten the guts, bones, and scales and enjoyed it! Damn, he had a hard time swallowing…
He woke with a shiver. The pounding in his head made the room spin, but it quickly became out of control when the sneeze came out of nowhere. And it was a doozy. Where the hell is that handkerchief? He slowly got to his feet, and dizziness swirled around him.
The trip out back did not go without incident either. The mosquito was relentless, but Johnny thought he’d swatted it dead against his hand. He hadn’t. He proceeded with his business, and suddenly there, on his most delicate appendage, was the little blood-sucking bastard helping himself! Sonuvabitch! Johnny gently swatted it away, but not in time. The welt immediately began to redden and itch. Wonder if that arnica salve will work on that?! Ah…CHOO! Again Johnny thought he heard a cackle. He looked around, eyes blurry and straining to see. “Shuddup, Wally!”
Dammit all ta hell! The damaged ribs, wasp stings, smacked finger, gashed finger, mosquito bite, and bitten tongue, not to mention the fall down the ladder, should have been enough, but no! And now he was haunted by crazy ol’ Wally!
It was not turning out the calm, healing time away from the ranch that Johnny thought it would be. It was good that Barranca’s hoof was better because he was soaked and battered, and he was going home, and he hoped that the spirit of ol’ Wally stayed here!
Rain pounded the earth, leaving muddy puddles and promoted curses from any unfortunate enough to be out battling the onslaught. Murdoch looked out the window and wondered if the storm missed the mountain cabin where Johnny had been working. He was looking forward to hearing the report Johnny would give on the property and building.
Just as he walked into the kitchen, the back door opened, and rain splattered the floor in no time. Johnny stood, swaying dangerously, as the water cascaded off his torn slicker and added to the mess on the floor. The red, watery eyes screwed shut as he convulsed with a loud sneeze; he staggered and grabbed the door frame to keep himself on his feet, then stepped gingerly into the warmth of the room.
“Here, son, lean on me, let’s get you out of those wet clothes!” Murdoch raced to his weary son’s side and pulled Johnny’s arm over his shoulder but stopped at the sudden groan and tense stance that prevented Johnny from moving.
“Johnny, what’s wrong? Tell me where you’re hurt, son!” Worry filled Murdoch’s heart.
A surprised Johnny turned as if seeing Murdoch for the first time, and a slight smile began to form. “Hey, M-Mur…doch! Whatcha’” a deep cough interrupted the gravelly words. “Whatcha doin’ up here? Ya come” more coughing, “up here ta help me?”
The red eyes were too painful for Murdoch to look at, and he cringed when he felt the heat radiate from his younger son’s body.
“Scott! Come help me with your brother!” Murdoch called out and hoped Scott was within earshot. Murdoch tried to get Johnny in motion with a gentle nudge from his arm on his son’s shoulders. The sooner he was warm and dry in his bed, the better off he would be. But it wasn’t going to happen.
At the first touch, Johnny balked. “Uh, uh, Murdoch, I ain’t gonna, uhhh,” another rumble from deep within Johnny’s chest threatened to send him to his knees. Chattering teeth made it difficult to understand what Johnny was struggling to say. “Ain’t gonna mess up T-T-T’resa’s floors! S-she’s g-gonna yell… ah, ahh, achoo!” The sneeze nearly knocked him over, but it did propel his hat to the floor with a splat. Johnny stared, watching the wet leather drip rainwater onto the clean floor. He raised his wide eyes to Murdoch. “Uh, oh…”
“Don’t worry about your hat, son; let’s just get you to bed,” and again Murdoch urged Johnny across the kitchen and up the back stairs.
The coughing shook his shivering body. “Hope she’s not home. S-somebody hasta c-clean that up. P-please don’t let ‘er be mad at m-me…, will ya?” More coughing chased the words, not allowing him to talk.
Scott hurried from the hallway at the top of the stairs. “Murdoch, what’s… Johnny! What happened?” Stunned at the sight of his drenched, shivering, and coughing brother who stood, correction, swayed before him, Scott came down to give Johnny and Murdoch a hand. “Johnny? What happened?”
Again the blurry eyes struggled to focus, this time on his brother. “B-Bost-on! What’cha doin’ here?” A silly smile tipped crookedly across Johnny’s mouth. “Seen,” Johnny bent as another bout of coughing wracked through him. “W-Wally?”
“Are you alright, brother? And who is Wally? Is he a friend of yours, and did you offer him a job at Lancer?” Scott asked as he took his brother’s other arm and wondered if Lancer had a new employee. Together Scott and Murdoch helped to navigate Johnny up the stairs to his room.
Johnny laughed. Did I offer W-Wally a j-job?! He stopped and weaved dangerously between the two men. “Sure, I’m f-fine, B-Boston. Wally ain’t, t-though…” Then as the image slammed into his brain, he had to warn his brother before it was too late. “Scott! That, that crit-critter ate ‘em, he ate ‘em! Don’ let ‘im eat yers! They’ll st-stink!”
Scott could feel the shudders thunder through Johnny’s shivering frame. The half-thoughts and ramblings, although not making any sense… began to make sense. Johnny’s feverish condition was the cause of gibberish, nonsensical talk. All they could do was get him into bed and send for Sam.
“Ate what, Johnny? Who ate what?”
“Pants, fucking wolv-wol-ver-ine ate my… pants!”
“Oooops, s-sorry, Murdoch.” A rumbling cough took over, making it impossible for Johnny to talk, but he fought it down.
The gravelly voice, now worse with the whisper, scratched into Scott’s ears.
“Scott, don’t t-tell.. old man, b-but that fuckin’ wolver-verine ate my pants!”
Another wave of violent coughing interrupted Johnny’s desperate need to warn his brother.
Thank God we’re close to his room! He’s delirious! Murdoch thought as he fought to hide his laugh.
The change in direction registered in Johnny’s feverish mind, and he voiced his displeasure. “Nuh-uh! Gotta fix the h-hole ah, ahh… achoo! Sorry M-Murdoch… didn’t m-mean ta make a messss on, on yer s-sleeve!” They ain’t helpin’ m-me! “Wait a-a minute! Stop!”
They did their best to hold him through another coughing attack.
But Johnny wasn’t letting it go. No siree! He took his obligations seriously and wasn’t going to stop until that damn roof was repaired, don’t matter that it rained an’ was cold! “Gotta f-fix the d-damn roof! I t-tried but them f-fuckin’ wasps…”
“Johnny! Language!” The father in Murdoch was persistent. And he nudged his muddled son closer to the bedroom.
Johnny’s room never looked so good as it did when they reached the destination! They maneuvered Johnny to his bed, battled to sit him down, but Johnny didn’t want to have T’resa mad at him for getting the spread and sheets dirty.
“Johnny, it’s alright, son! Teresa’s not going to be mad at you! Just sit and let us help you,” Murdoch coaxed.
“Nu-nuh-uh, she won’t, ah, ahh-choo! make me any- any cake… damn!”
“Johnnnny,” Murdoch drew out the name.
“Oops, sorry, M-Murd-doch…” Johnny turned away from his father, unaware he hadn’t said anything Murdoch would object to, and sought an understanding with Boston. “Scott, them wasps,” he whispered loudly, “them fuckin’ wasps ‘ttacked me! Fell offa the roof, almost b-busted my ribs!” And he pointed with his bandaged finger at the bruised area Murdoch had just uncovered. “Owww! Pounded this finger… hammer, it hurt… an r-ripped this one open on a sh-shingle!” He inspected them closely, then stuck the two thickly wrapped fingers in Murdoch’s face for him to check out.
Murdoch unwrapped the dirty cloth and examined the swollen and scabbed-over digits; they weren’t too bad, he thought.
“An’ did I tell ya, wait, gotta cough,” And cough he did until he nearly turned blue, “there’s a damn mouse in the s-sug-ar? Tossed ‘im out on his wiggly a-ass.” A smile crept Johnny’s face as he thought of the battle won with that little rat-tail rival.
Scott met Murdoch’s eyes, each holding much sympathy for the younger man they tried to undress and wrestle into bed, but each struggled to keep the smiles from their faces and battled the laughs that begged for release.
They felt horrible laughing when Johnny’s cough sounded painful, but Maria had something they could use to ease the pain until Sam arrived. He would be feeling better very shortly.
“Hey, M-Murdoch,” Johnny raised bloodshot eyes, looking up into the older man’s face. “I thought it was gonna- gonna be q-quiet, but it… wasn’…t. Thunder ‘bout b-blew m-my head off an’ rain drippin’ in that pan, plink, plink plink, all night…”
Scott was near to losing his composure. Hearing Johnny Madrid say the words ‘plink, plink, plink’ in a high-toned, sing-song voice was nearly his undoing. The laughter began to escape, and he looked to Murdoch for help, but Murdoch was having his own problems with the situation. It was a battle they would not win. Johnny was not ready to shut up and settle down and rambled senselessly, endlessly.
“Damn! Bit my t-tongue when I ah, I landed on the ground. Then, that fuckin’ wol-wolvern-ine thing came back for the r-rest a my c-clothes!”
No, Murdoch wasn’t going to try to curb the language any longer… In Johnny’s condition, there would be no getting through, not tonight… maybe not ever! And he could no longer call back the laughter he fought so hard earlier to keep inside. It began deep in his chest and rumbled out in thunderous rolls, billows that no longer would remain contained. And Scott was worse. And it got no better after Johnny’s final confession.
“Wolv-rine musta been in cahoots with that fuckin’ hawk when the bastard flew outta that tree where he was h-hidin’ and snatched the fish outta my hand! Honest, S-Scotttt, got me a f-fish, ya know, with a p-pole, honest, an’ that vul- vulture stole it an’ damn n-near took my fing-gers with! Sonuvabitch!”
Nope, it wasn’t going to happen. Delirium claimed one Lancer, and the two older Lancers, their control completely out the window at Johnny’s last declaration, were unable to handle the trials of poor Johnny Madrid and his battle with the varmints he faced on the mountain.
They did their best to get Johnny tucked into bed and warm as he mumbled incoherently about someone named Wally. Maria would soon bring up the potion for Johnny’s sore throat and cough, and Jelly worked on a mustard plaster to slather on his chest. All they had to do was keep Johnny quiet, and before long, hopefully, Sam would arrive, and things would be under control. They could only hope…
“Johnny, sit up a little, and Scott will tuck another pillow behind your back. It will help your breathing, son.” Did Johnny hear him? Probably not; it appeared to Murdoch that Johnny was still up on that mountain battling the demons there.
But Johnny did sit up. His scratchy eyes teared as his breath came in gasps, and Murdoch had just enough time, and none to spare, to pull his handkerchief from his pocket and cover Johnny’s mouth and nose before the sneeze erupted in a violent explosion. The watery indigo irises, enhanced by the irritated white-turned-red around them, raised to meet his face, reminding Murdoch of his little two-year-old whirlwind of those many long years ago. And a smile twitched the corners of his mouth.
All he could do was slowly shake his head, and he looked to Scott for support. But finding none, he said the only thing he could.
They thought Johnny was out for the night until the wheezy whisper alerted Scott otherwise.
“Yes, Johnny, what is it, brother?”
“Scotttt, don’t let that woll-lvern eat yer pants…” Then the voice faded, and sleep overtook him.
Scott pulled the curtains open and let the brilliant rays of the sun flood into the room. The hoarse groan emitted from the bed told him that Johnny was waking and not all that happy about it.
The wicked sun pierced hot lightning bolts through his head, and the fire in his throat set off a bout of coughing. Johnny’s belly flipped in knots, and he thought he would puke.
“Go ‘way…” he muttered and pulled the blankets over his head.
Scott huffed. It was going to be one of those days, he thought. A movement under Johnny’s blankets drew his attention as it seemed Johnny’s hand was… was inching toward his…
“Johnny, can I help you with the chamber pot?”
“The chamber pot, Johnny, do you have to… relieve yourself?”
The nasally response made Scott want to clear his throat, and he hesitated to ask. But he did. “Then why are you, you know…”
“Itch. M’squito bite…”
“Oh…” he murmured as he fought off the chuckle that threatened liberation.
Again, Scott fought the laugh that was oh so close to escaping. It wasn’t that he had no compassion or sympathy for his brother, but there were times when the fierce Johnny Madrid Lancer looked so incredibly young and child-like, it was hard to believe it was the same man.
He busied himself measuring out a dose of medicine from the side table; he poured out a spoonful when the door opened, but no one entered. Puzzled, Scott came around the foot of the bed where he saw Murdoch standing in the hall, his robe over one shoulder and dragging on the floor. The old man’s hair stood on end, looking like he’d spent a long, hard night with a bottle. Bare feet padded into the room.
Yup, this was definitely going to be one of those days as he watched his father, the strong, dependable Murdoch Lancer, sneeze, dab at his red, watery eyes, and cough, then blow the equally red nose.
He tried to speak but had to clear his throat before he rasped, “Is there any more medicine left?”
“Murdoch, go back to bed. I’ll see that Maria makes another batch. Here, I’ll help you back to your room.”
Minutes later, Scott entered Johnny’s room and doled out the medicine; now, all he had to do was get Johnny to take it.
The hoarse, gravelly voice met Scott’s ears. “Was Murdoch, ah choo! just in here?” He hoped it was Murdoch and not ol’ Wally…
After another deep sigh, Scott addressed his brother. “Yes, brother, he was here. It appears that he’s not doing too well this morning, though.”
The barely discernable voice under the blanket mumbled again: “Whassa matter? That fuckin’ wolv’rine get his pants, too?”
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