Word Count 80,907
This story has a slightly younger Johnny at age 18, and references to childhood abuse. Murdoch struggles with alcohol. Please pass if you don’t care for this kind of story.
Thankful nods to Southernfrau and Ronnie for some fun brother memories. Many thanks to the best-ever “non-beta” beta, Sherry.
Scott looked at his glass with surprise. He didn’t remember drinking the whiskey, and although it was at least his second, possibly his third, he felt no effects from it. As much as he wanted to be numb, he reluctantly turned down Teresa’s offer to refill his glass.
He’d been unsettled to open another bottle this evening, the third this week. At the time he’d looked toward Murdoch, concerned at how much his father had been drinking these last few months.
Perhaps he should be concerned about himself.
With no conversation, no chess or checkers games, not even any arguments, there was nothing to slow down the steady sipping that helped pass the interminable hours between dinner and bedtime. And always there was the hope –futile as it might be– that enough whiskey would bring sleep.
Sundays, like today, were the worst. The big meal was served in the early afternoon and there were few chores to fill the day. It wasn’t even 5:00 pm, and already Scott was seeking oblivion.
As if to stab the knife deeper into Scott’s heart, Barranca chose that moment to give a devastated trumpet for Johnny. Scott winced, glancing at Murdoch, hoping his father hadn’t heard.
But of course he had.
They all had.
Teresa’s fist held a sob back at her lips. Murdoch gripped his glass so hard, Scott feared it would shatter.
“I told Jelly to send that horse to the south pasture!” Murdoch’s words and jawline were etched in granite.
Scott looked down at the floor, blinking his burning eyes rapidly. “He jumped the fence.”
Most horses sought to jump out of the corral to get to the open pasture. But Barranca was as heartbroken as the rest of them over Johnny’s continued absence. Just as they constantly scanned the hills beyond the arch, hoping and praying to see Johnny coming home, Barranca kept checking the corrals and barn, pining for his compadre.
“He can’t be up here.” Murdoch commanded. “If he won’t stay away, we’ll have to get rid of him.”
Scott and Teresa’s horrified responses came in unison.
“Johnny would be devastated if Barranca isn’t here when he comes home.” Teresa cried. “He’d never forgive us.”
“If he was planning on coming back, he would have taken the horse. Apparently, he wanted no reminders of his time here.” Murdoch’s voice was flat and hollow.
Scott jumped to his feet. “Johnny did not leave us! He wouldn’t have gone without saying goodbye.”
Murdoch’s lips didn’t seem to move as he said, “He didn’t the last time.”
“But that’s exactly why I know he didn’t leave us. He promised after the last time that he wouldn’t. Johnny never breaks his word.”
Murdoch’s gaze dropped to the amber liquid in the bottom of his glass. “Evidently, he thought his little note was goodbye enough.”
“No!” Scott spun away. They’d had this argument, or a variation of it, a dozen times over the last five months.
– Going to find the proof you need. Take Barranca to Lancer with you. J.-
That’s all the note had said.
Within two weeks of Johnny’s departure, the evidence began to arrive, and Jebson Thatcher’s web of lies quickly unraveled. The Cattlemen’s Association of the San Joaquin Valley had voted to have Thatcher oversee a much-touted water security project. They were preparing the investment structure when they received an abruptly-worded wire from their counterparts in the Visalia region, suggesting they “hold off engaging” one Jebson Thatcher for business investments, “details to follow by mail”. While the Association scrambled to get more specific information, Val received a telegram from a fellow sheriff near Los Encinos, inquiring as to Thatcher’s whereabouts. Apparently, ranchers there were saddled with an unfinished water irrigation system after Thatcher had run off with all their money three weeks into the major project. It seemed Thatcher’s sterling reputation had suddenly developed significant tarnish.
Once word of his treachery started to spread, Thatcher and his entourage disappeared into the night, without a trace.
Scott had been sure that Johnny would be home within a week, with a well-earned, “I told ya so” on his lips. But he wasn’t.
Scott joined the posse that Val, on loan from Green River to Cross Creek for the high profile CMA gathering, led north, following Thatcher’s trail. They arrived in San Jose just a few hours after Thatcher caught the last train east. Val sent wires to colleagues along the rail stops, but Thatcher had wisely used his powers of persuasion, and more than a little of his ill-gotten gains, to surround himself with a network of loyal protectors. He went to ground quickly and invisibly. The posse turned around three days out. The entire way back, Scott believed and prayed Johnny would greet him at the door with his lopsided grin and a “Did ya have a nice trip, Boston?” But the doorway had been empty.
And now the entire ranch was.
Murdoch was certain Johnny had left angrily and permanently, so intense were the boy’s arguments that Thatcher couldn’t be trusted. But however vehement Johnny’s convictions had been, he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, provide any evidence to support them, other than Thatcher having been a less-than-honest gambler years back –a history the entrepreneur didn’t deny. In fact, Thatcher used Johnny’s own history as a gunfighter to prove a man could walk away from a less than stellar past to become a respectable businessman.
Murdoch was of the firm opinion that if Lancer, the biggest ranch and the one with the most water rights, held out against the water irrigation plan, it would garner suspicion, mistrust, and fear among the other ranchers. Some of the smaller ranches were already facing financial ruin due to the ever-worsening drought. Johnny insisted that his problem wasn’t with the irrigation plan, only with the charlatan who wanted to lead it. But Thatcher and his team had come highly recommended from key investors in Yuma, one of whom was Murdoch’s old friend, Carlton Bray. They reported that Thatcher’s ingenious water irrigation plan, while an expensive upfront investment, had literally saved the valley’s smaller ranches from bankruptcy, and had eliminated water-rights range wars.
Scott had wanted to support Johnny’s efforts to dissuade Murdoch from voting for Thatcher’s plan. “Give me something to work with, brother.” Scott pleaded, as they stood on the boardwalk outside the Cross Creek meeting hall on the night before the vote.
“He can’t be trusted, Scott.” Johnny replied, with a level of tension in his voice that Scott had rarely heard. “He hurt a lot of people… and he enjoyed doing it. A black soul like that doesn’t change.”
Scott leaned against the railing close to his brother’s shoulder. He thought about the pallor and strain he’d seen on Johnny’s face at the CMA kickoff meeting two days earlier. One minute, Johnny had been shifting restlessly on the hard wooden bench, cracking jokes under his breath about the very rousing lecture on feed grains they’d just endured. When Johnny abruptly fell silent mid-wisecrack, Scott turned to him, and thought for sure his brother was about to be sick.
“Hey, are you all right?” He had to ask twice, and nudge Johnny’s shoulder, to get an answer.
“Yeah,” Johnny rubbed his hands on his pant-legs, his shoulders hunched, a fine sheen of sweat visible on his face.
“You sure as hell don’t look all right. Is your stomach okay?”
“Uh, yeah. Just a little crowded in here. I’m gonna go get some air.”
“I’ll come with you.” Scott was worried by his brother’s pallor and the look of… panic? in his eyes. He knew Johnny hated crowds, but they’d been in this same meeting hall for the last two days with about the same number of people. It wasn’t even a tight room.
“No, no, I’m fine. Murdoch will be pissed if we both go. I won’t be long.” Johnny was gone from his seat in an instant. As soon as the next lecture started, Murdoch looked over from his seat on the Board, and frowned at Johnny’s empty seat.
“Great.” Scott muttered to himself. The trip had been going extremely well up to that point, but he knew Johnny would be in for it with Murdoch, who was pushing hard for Johnny to become more involved with the business end of Lancer. Scott guiltily hoped Johnny had a touch of a bug or some other valid excuse for leaving.
Murdoch was particularly angry that Johnny had ducked out of the meeting just before the primary guest speaker was about to take the podium. The Board, at Murdoch’s recommendation, had brought Jebson Thatcher all the way from Yuma, to present his multi-tiered, water security project, which had garnered rave reviews from ranchers and farmers alike throughout the region. When, afterwards, Johnny argued against the proposal he hadn’t even heard in person, Murdoch’s blow-up was epic.
Scott tried to see his brother’s face in the darkness, but it was angled away.
“Are you one of the people Thatcher hurt?” He asked it gently, knowing how reluctant Johnny was to talk about his past, especially the most painful parts.
Johnny didn’t answer for the longest time. When he did, his voice was terribly soft.
“Would Murdoch change his vote if I was?”
Scott wanted to say yes. He so wanted to say yes.
“It would change mine,” he answered instead. He let the impact of that sit on the silence for a moment before he added, “and I think you need to give Murdoch the chance to let it change his.”
Johnny remained rigidly motionless, staring off into the night. Finally, he shook his head.
“I can’t.” He drew in a shaky breath. “I can’t risk that it wouldn’t make a difference to him.”
In the end, of course, it didn’t matter what Scott’s vote would have been, at least in terms of the outcome. Murdoch called the tune, and therefore placed the vote for Lancer… in favor of Thatcher’s proposal. Johnny stood in the doorway during the vote, disappearing after the motion carried. When Scott and Murdoch returned to the hotel room several hours later, they found the note.
Scott had thought about going after Johnny right then. In the terrible months that followed, he damned himself daily for not going. And he still didn’t understand how he had let Murdoch talk him out of it.
If only he’d known it would be the last time he saw his brother…
A few weeks after the posse had returned, Scott had ventured south on his own as far as Visalia, retracing Johnny’s trail, wanting to speak to the ranchers there in person. Yes, Johnny had been there, and they’d been more than happy to confirm the younger Lancer’s opinion of Jebson Thatcher. They were out thousands of dollars, and were hungering for a piece of Thatcher’s hide. But Johnny had moved on weeks ago.
Scott had wired the sheriff in Los Encinos, trying to gauge Johnny’s timeline and direction. The response from Cole Atkins had both confirmed Scott’s belief that Johnny had headed home after securing the needed evidence, and piqued his worry. Johnny should have been home by now.
Where the hell are you, brother?
Every trail had gone stone cold. Scott returned home to an even more furious and intractable Murdoch. There had been word from Carlton Bray that Johnny Madrid had been in several gunfights near Fort Yuma. Murdoch was now solidly convinced that Johnny was gone from them for good, having chosen to return to his life as a gunfighter.
Scott hated how he’d failed his brother by not going after him in the first place, and then being unable to find him once he did go. Perhaps worse, was his inability to change Murdoch’s mind about why Johnny left.
Scott got up to refill his whiskey glass. There was a hole in his heart that he desperately needed to fill… or at least numb.
The sound of galloping hoof beats raised his head, and invariably, his hopes.
Please let it be Johnny!
Teresa stood anxiously, clutching her embroidery to her chest. Murdoch didn’t move. Scott crossed slowly to open the front door, fearful he couldn’t handle getting his hopes dashed for the hundredth time.
The door swung open before he got there. Scott was only barely registering the crushing disappointment that it was Val and not Johnny when Val shouted,
The sheriff waved a paper in the air. Scott grabbed Val’s arm.
“Johnny’s alive?” Scott was horribly afraid he’d misunderstood; Val hadn’t said Johnny’s name.
Please, dear God…
“Yes, I’ve got it right here! Sorry, I took the liberty of making Patch tell me the contents, sheriff’s privilege…”
“Where is he?” Scott grabbed for the telegram.
Murdoch had risen from his chair, but was just standing there. Teresa had come forward to clutch his arm in wary hopefulness.
“Don’t know, he doesn’t say.” Val replied breathlessly.
Scott held the telegram in both hands, finding it hard to read through sudden tears. His voice shook.
“Alive. Can’t come home yet. Love you all. J.”
Teresa sobbed and suddenly the room was filled with joyous cries. Unseen, Maria, Jelly, and Cipriano had followed Val’s arrival and were reacting to the news.
“Where was it sent from?” Scott ran his finger over Johnny’s name, wishing he could touch his brother. “We’ll go get him.”
“San Pedro, but he’s not there. I immediately had Patch wire back. Johnny didn’t send it himself. The man who sent it said the message was given to him in Tucson.”
“Tucson? Why didn’t he just wire us from Tucson? Is that where Johnny is?”
“Don’t know. I wired Ted Mercer who is the sheriff there. “ Val glanced at Murdoch before turning back to Scott. “It sounds like it was sent by relay.”
“Relay? But, why?”
“Because he doesn’t want us to know where he is.” Murdoch’s flat voice came as he sat back down in his chair. “He doesn’t want us to bring him home.”
“No, that’s not it!” Scott argued. “He says he can’t come home ‘yet’. Maybe he’s stuck somewhere.”
“Maybe he doesn’t have a horse,” Teresa offered, “or money. Scott, you said he didn’t have much with him.” Her voice was pleading.
“Then why didn’t he tell us where he is?” Murdoch countered. “Why didn’t he ask for money?”
“He said he’s coming home!” Scott shouted, thrusting the telegram in Murdoch’s face. “Read it! Dammit, Murdoch, he’s reaching out to us, telling us he loves us. And you’re giving up on him? You are a pathetic excuse for a father!”
“Scott!” Teresa cried.
“No, Teresa, it’s true. He gave up on both of us when we were kids and he’s been looking for excuses to give up on Johnny ever since he got here!” Scott’s tirade was not to be stopped. “ ‘Johnny’s gone back to Pardee’, ‘Johnny’s shot and dead’, ‘Johnny’s gone with Wes’, ‘Johnny ran off because he didn’t get his way with Thatcher.’ Every chance you get, you give up on him, when he’s done nothing but fight for this family and this ranch.” Scott leaned onto both armrests of Murdoch’s chair, his furious face only inches from his father’s. “Well, the tables have turned, Old Man, this time I’m giving up on you!”
Scott shoved his way back upright, and turned to the onlookers, his voice softening. “Jelly, please saddle Charlie for me, Maria, kindly pack some provisions, and Cip would you collect some medical supplies? I’m going after my brother.” As he passed by his father on his way upstairs to pack, he spat, “And you, Murdoch, can go to hell!”
The first twenty minutes of riding was in complete silence as Scott struggled to regain his calm after the confrontation with Murdoch. Val had learned from his years with Johnny that sometimes a man needed space when emotions were high, so he let Scott be. Val’s own emotions were running strong, too.
Finally, Scott spoke, “I didn’t even ask you if you were coming with me.”
“Didn’t need to.”
The sun was just starting to set, streaking the sky with orange, purple, and pink.
“God, Val, where do we start to look?”
For a stretch, only the horses’ hoofbeats and the soft creak of saddle leather filled the silence.
“Before we can answer that, we have to ask why he didn’t tell us where he is.”
“You have to ask? You saw the way Murdoch reacted back there.” Scott hissed. “He’s decided that Johnny left us to go back to gunfighting, and nothing can disabuse him of that insane notion.”
“Maybe. But why didn’t Johnny tell us? He could have sent a telegram to just you or me instead of to ‘Lancer’.”
“I don’t know, Val,” Scott exhaled tightly. “Maybe he doesn’t trust me anymore either. He probably thinks I secretly agreed with Murdoch on the vote when I didn’t follow him when he left. I should have gone after him that first day.” Heartbreak was heavy in Scott’s words.
Val hesitated for a few beats. “Can I ask why you didn’t?”
“You can ask,” Scott grunted with self-loathing. “I still don’t know the answer. I let Murdoch talk me out of it, I have no idea how or why.”
“Do you really think that Murdoch doesn’t want Johnny to come home? He seemed so happy to have you both home with him. And it even sounded from Johnny like things were better between them.”
Scottt tipped the brim of his hat down to block the strong rays of the fading sun. “I honestly don’t know what to think. It seemed like things were settling between them, but truthfully, Val, it looked to me like Johnny was doing all the compromising. Murdoch didn’t harp any less, Johnny just started letting it roll off his shoulders a bit more. It almost seemed like he was enjoying Murdoch’s nitpicking. He’d get that silly grin…” Scott had to swallow to get his words past the lump in his throat.
God, he missed Johnny’s grin.
“Deep down, I know Murdoch misses Johnny, and that he loves him.” Scott looked over at Val. “When things were really bad between them, Johnny told me he thought Murdoch didn’t like him. And, sometimes Val, that’s exactly how Murdoch acts.” He wiped his face with a gloved hand. “I think Murdoch is afraid Johnny will leave him just like Maria did. So he pushes Johnny away so it won’t hurt so much if he does.”
“That’s pretty messed up.”
“Yes, it is. Murdoch closed down so quickly and completely when Johnny didn’t come home. Maybe his reaction tonight was from being afraid to hope again. I don’t know. I just don’t understand how he doesn’t see how much worse off we all are with Johnny gone. Why can’t he put some effort into making Johnny want to stay instead of pushing him away all the time? No one wants to live like that.”
Val scanned the rutted road ahead. “Whatever is going on with Murdoch, you can’t let yourself believe that Johnny thinks you don’t want him at Lancer,” the disheveled sheriff grunted. “I never thought I’d see Johnny settle anywhere, never allow himself to care about someone, or rather, allow someone to care about him. He’s so happy to have a brother, Scott. More, he’s happy to have you as his brother. That boy worships you.”
Scott looked away, blinking furiously. “I’m the one who lucked out.”
He couldn’t believe how quickly and deeply the bond between them had grown. It felt as though a piece of him had been missing all his life, and Johnny had so easily and naturally filled it. Now, there was a gaping, festering wound where his beloved brother had been torn away.
“So, back to why Johnny ain’t letting us know where he is,” Val’s gruff voice interjected into Scott’s thoughts. “My guess is he’s hurt and doesn’t want us fussing.”
“I’m sure that’s part of it.”
“Which explains why you had Cip lay in enough medical supplies for a town.”
“We both know that Johnny has a tendency to use his body to protect others.”
Val snorted his agreement. A heavy silence fell.
“It must be bad.” Scott said quietly. “It’s been five months, Val.”
Scott saw Val turn away, swallowing convulsively. He knew the grizzled sheriff had deep feelings for Johnny. When Val had lived with Maria and Johnny years ago, he’d started to think of Johnny as his son. He’d been as devastated as Murdoch had been, when Maria had run off on him, too, taking Johnny with her. Val and Johnny had reconnected years later when Johnny was fifteen and already a renowned gunfighter. Johnny Madrid didn’t feel he needed a father, in fact, planned to find and kill his own for throwing him and Maria out to a life of destitution. But Johnny was smart enough to know he did need to learn a few things in life, so accepted Val taking on a more avuncular role. Johnny let Val teach him, guide him, and, rarely, take care of him. One of the main reasons the relationship worked was because Val needed someone to care for him pretty desperately as well.
Those were two lessons Murdoch hadn’t yet learned about Johnny. Johnny was eager to learn, but not at the cost of his independence. And Johnny needed to be needed. Murdoch’s rigidity in “calling the tune”, coupled with his stoic emotional control, robbed their relationship of those two essentials.
“And the other part of it?”
“Huh?” Scott roused himself from his musing at Val’s question.
“You said Johnny being hurt was probably part of why he didn’t tell us where he is. What’s the other part of it?”
“He’s protecting us from something or someone.”
Val nodded in immediate agreement.
“Probably. It’s unlikely just a coincidence that no one has seen hide nor hair of Thatcher.” Scott went over the telegram in his mind. “Val,” he struggled to give words to what he was thinking. “The way the telegram just said, ‘alive’…”
“Neither of us expected the next words to be ‘and well’.” Val seemed to understand where Scott was headed.
“No, but… it’s as though… the word ‘barely’ might be in front of it.”
Val’s gaze fixed on the distant horizon. “Yeah… or ‘only’.”
Scott thought back on that conversation weeks later as he stood outside a small barn in the border town of Carver. Val was in the main house with the farmer who had vehemently denied any idea of Johnny’s whereabouts, until he’d seen the utter devastation in Scott’s eyes as yet one more lead to his little brother fell through.
Ned had offered them coffee and lunch, which Val accepted for both of them, even knowing Scott wouldn’t eat. When they’d learned that Johnny had recently escaped from a notorious Mexican prison camp, where he’d been held for over four months, Scott had been physically ill. He’d eaten little to nothing in the week since.
That’s exactly how Scott had felt after he’d been released from Libby. The thought of Johnny enduring the same torture…
He knew Johnny had spent almost a month in a Mexican prison camp before he was sentenced to execution by a firing squad. It had been hard for him to think about his little brother enduring that. That had been before Scott knew him, before Johnny had a family, a big brother who should have protected him. Scott had to believe if he’d followed his instincts and gone after Johnny, his brother would never have become trapped in this new nightmare.
This was his fault.
How could Johnny ever forgive him?
As Ned had seen the love and desperate worry in both Scott’s and Val’s eyes, he’d carefully ascertained a few key bits of information about the two men. Convinced he did indeed have Johnny’s brother and best friend in front of him, he’d told them what they’d waited months to hear. Johnny was here.
Thatcher was furious that Johnny’s interference had cost him the lucrative San Joaquin water project. He’d hired men to capture Johnny and take him to Norgate prison. It had taken nearly two weeks of failure, and eight bodies, before a group led by Thatcher himself used the trick of taking a young woman hostage to get Madrid to give himself up. It had seemed to work like a charm.
What Thatcher hadn’t counted on were the many families in and around the border towns who had debts of gratitude to one Johnny Madrid. Families who remembered how he had fought for them against the corrupt land grabbers, kidnappers, and Rurales. Families who were willing to risk their lives to organize a prison breakout.
It had take months to get the plan together, to scout, to get someone on the inside of the brutal prison. By the time they finally got Johnny out, he was more dead than alive -brutally beaten, starved, and sick. They carefully tended to the young man’s battered body, gently moving him from place to place to keep ahead of Thatcher’s goons who were on the hunt for Madrid, and willing to kill anyone found helping him.
It’s why Johnny was hiding out in Ned’s barn and not being cared for in the main house. He wouldn’t risk the farmer anymore than he already had.
Scott’s stomach churned with nauseated anticipation and fear as he knocked the metal bucket at the entrance to the barn, Ned’s signal to Johnny that he was approaching and all was well.
Scott pushed the door open to the small tack room and stepped inside, dreading what he might find. Ned had warned him that it was bad.
Scott moaned as he looked over at the mattress on the floor against the far wall, and felt his knees begin to buckle.
“No, Johnny! Please don’t have left…”
The bed and the room were empty.
Scott was about to run back to the house when a gasp echoed behind him.
Scott spun to face his brother, and his brother’s cocked gun.
Relief and horror flooded through him simultaneously. Johnny was alive and here! Yet, the person looking back at him little resembled his younger brother.
Johnny’s perpetually over-long and unruly dark hair was shorn close to his head, multiple gashes and bruises visible through the fine covering. He was unshaven, but only a day or two so, the dark shadows along his jawline highlighting the pallor of his gaunt cheeks. Scott could count the ribs that were visible through Johnny’s open shirt, and saw the hands that held the gun were skeletal and scabbed. Clothing hid most of Johnny’s injuries, but Ned had told them about the poorly healing lash marks, cuts, sores, bruises, and likely-broken ribs and shoulder blade.
Scott wanted to embrace his brother, yet feared any attempt would only hurt him. “I thought hitting the bucket was supposed to keep me from facing the business end of your gun,” he cracked, his voice sounding weak and brittle.
“I heard horses come in, but not leave. I doubted it would be Ned coming out here.” Johnny carefully uncocked the hammer of his gun. “Who came with you?”
“Val.” Scott saw emotion flicker across Johnny’s face, but couldn’t tell if his brother had hoped it would be Murdoch –or feared it might be.
“Scott, you can’t be here.” Johnny rasped.
“And yet, here I am.” Scott said softly. He took a hesitant step forward. “I’ve missed you, little brother.” The last two words were a sob. He laid his hand on Johnny’s too thin forearm.
Johnny looked down at it, his breath shuddering through him.
“Me, too,” he whispered.
Scott moved the rest of the way forward, his hand going to the back of Johnny’s head to gently bring it forward against his own.
“God, Johnny, I should have come with you. I’m so sorry.”
He felt Johnny shake his head.
“…not your fault. Scott, you shouldn’t have come. It’s too dangerous.”
“Nothing could have kept me away.” Scott murmured. He could feel Johnny’s trembling, from emotion or strain or both, and could also feel Johnny’s fever. “You need to be lying down.”
“He’s still out there, he has people looking for me. They’ll kill anyone who helps me…or worse.”
“Shh, shh, you’re shaking. Come and lie down. Val and I have your back.”
“If you found me, they will too.” Too weak to remain standing, Johnny let himself be led over to the mattress.
“The people who helped us find you did it because your network of friends have a heavy-duty screening and misdirection process. Luckily, part of it is knowing you have a brother nicknamed ‘Boston’.” Scott realized as he said it, Johnny hadn’t called him that yet. Perhaps he was angry at him after all. Scott couldn’t blame him one bit. “Believe me, it was no easy task hunting you down.”
“Thatcher knows who you are. He’ll hurt you to punish me. You shouldn’t be here, Scott.”
“No worries, little brother. You have a whole army of people protecting you -not to mention a damn good sheriff and over-protective big brother. Easy now.” Scott grimaced as Johnny gasped in pain as he bent down toward the mattress.
In a graceless and painful move, Johnny threw himself down the rest of the way, grabbing a pillow to clutch in front of him as he choked for air, reacting to the pain. Scott crouched beside him, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder, then quickly removing it when Johnny sucked in his air sharply.
Hesitating only a moment, Scott moved his hand back to Johnny’s forearm where it had rested previously without worsening the pain. When the worst of the spasms had passed, Scott murmured, “Seems there was a less painful way you might have done that.”
Johnny grunted, but didn’t open his eyes.
Scott could see that the back of Johnny’s shirt stuck to him in several places with a thin, bloody drainage. His eyes fell to where Johnny had stuffed his Colt into the waistband of his much-too-large pants. “Can I take your gun out?”
Scott gingerly slid the gun out, grimacing at the outline of a wide gash that left a slash of bloody drainage on the mashed shirt at the small of Johnny’s back. He chewed on his lip, trying to brace himself to see what was underneath. “We need to get this shirt off you, little brother, before it sticks.” He could hear the tremor in his voice.
“No.” Johnny’s response was adamant. He had yet to open his eyes.
“I’ll be as gentle as I can.” Scott didn’t want to think about how much that simple act was going to hurt. “I know you hate beige shirts, but it’s really not a good idea to use your blood to dye it red,” he joked lightly. He leaned back slightly to pull out his pocket knife. “I can cut it off…”
In a lightening fast movement, Johnny rolled onto his back, grabbed Scott’s wrist, and yanked the knife out of his hand. The eyes that looked up at him were wide with panic.
“Easy, I’m not going to…”
Suddenly, Scott understood.
With a flashback of his own, Scott felt the cold blade of the guard’s knife as he slit Scott’s shirt up the back after he’d been tied to the whipping post.
Nausea and horror welled up in him.
“God, Johnny, I’m so sorry. I didn’t think… I’ll put it away.”
Slowly, his eyes never leaving his brother’s, he took the knife back from him, closed it and laid it on the floor. Equally slowly, he brought his hand back to stroke Johnny’s bruised cheek. “I’m sorry.”
They stayed like that for a bit until Johnny’s breathing came back under control and the raw terror faded from his eyes.
Scott took in a shaky breath, realizing that Johnny was now lying on his whip-torn back. “How about we sit you up and I can just slide the shirt off your shoulders?”
Johnny’s hand moved to Scott’s chest to keep him back. “Not you.”
The soft words were like a dagger to Scott’s heart.
“I’ll tell you what I’m doing before I do it, to give you a chance…”
“Not you.” This time more forcefully.
“Johnny, I’m so sorry about the knife. I should have known… I won’t be so stupid again. Please let me help you.”
But it wasn’t anger Scott saw in his younger brother’s eyes, it was shame and… protectiveness? All the air seemed to flood from Scott’s lungs.
Johnny was trying to protect him from memories of Libby.
“I… I want to help you. I’ll be okay…”
Johnny just held his eyes. Scott felt tears brimming in his.
“Please don’t send me away.” Scott’s voice hitched. “I need to be a better big brother than I have been.”
Johnny reeled back, as if struck by Scott’s words. He reached for Scott’s wrist.
“No one could be a better big brother,” he insisted, his voice hoarse. “But I’m in a bad place, Boston, and I can’t take you there with me.”
“But that’s where I want to be, need to be.” Scott grabbed both of Johnny’s hands in his. “All these months, all I wanted was to be with you. I didn’t care where, or how bad it might be. I didn’t want you to be alone. And I didn’t want to be without you. Please let me be with you.”
Johnny stared at Scott for a long moment. Scott could feel his indecision. Johnny needed him, yet was afraid for him. Scott keenly recalled those dichotomous feelings from the war: praying to be home then feeling so unsettled there; sobbing for his grandfather then feeling ashamed to face him; terrified to be alone, yet unable to tolerate people around him.
Finally, Johnny said, “Not for this,” motioning toward his back, “but later, okay?”
Scott wanted to argue, knowing the pain Johnny was facing. But he remembered his promise to let Johnny be in control.
“Okay, I’ll send Val out.”
“No,” Johnny argued firmly, “Ned. He knows what to do.”
“Let Val support you while…”
“No, just Ned. Boston, you gotta give me some room here.”
Scott held his brother’s sapphire eyes for a long moment.
“Okay, just Ned.”
It was bad.
Scott could see it in Ned’s eyes when he returned from the barn an hour later. The farmer’s hands shook as he tossed the remnants of Johnny’s bloody shirt and several cloths into the fire. The smell of burning blood and tissue flung Scott back to the war and threatened to turn his stomach inside out.
“I’ll go out,” Scott offered quickly, needing air and not wanting Johnny to be alone.
“No, he said to let him sleep for two hours.”
“Sleep hell, Ned,” Val argued before Scott could. “You know there’s no way the boy is sleeping after that!”
“Nope, he ain’t. But that’s what he asked for, and that’s what he’s gonna get.” Ned washed the blood and other stickiness from his hands at the pump. “Ya might as well sit yourself down for more coffee, boy,” he said to Scott as he dried his hands. “I could use some myself.”
The three men sat around Ned’s small, worn table, warming their hands on cups of coffee.
“How long has Johnny been here?” Val broke the painful silence.
Ned narrowed his eyes as he calculated, “Be a week tomorrow. Expect they’ll be coming to move him then, or the next day.”
“Move him? Where? And who?”
“To wherever the next hideout is. They won’t tell me, of course, so no one could get it outta me. Don’t know names neither, they just call themselves Emilio’s Friends.”
“Yeah, one of the boys Johnny rescued from that black heart Fusco a few years back was Emilio’s brother Juan. Another boy and my Dack didn’t make it out, but seven of them boys did, all thanks to Johnny Madrid.”
“I’m sorry about your son.” Scott said, with heartfelt sympathy. “Was Fusco one of the land grabbers we heard about?”
“Land grabber and worse,” Ned spat. “He and his maggots kidnapped boys for mine-work and girls for slave trade. They moved so fast and were so connected, it was almost as if the kids just disappeared. Johnny had just come off a range-war in Dalton. When he heard about it, he got some of his fellow gunhawks and went after the boys. It was a miracle they found them, and even more of one that they got the boys out.”
Scott sipped his coffee. “It’s a real tribute to your son that you are taking care of Johnny even though… even though he wasn’t able to get your boy out alive.”
Ned bowed his head, running his finger over a gouge in the tabletop. “Johnny was younger than most of the boys they rescued. Even though Red and Dack were gone before they got there, they brought our boys home.” Ned fell silent, his voice too unsteady to continue. He rubbed at his face then took a large gulp of hot coffee. “He didn’t even know my boy, but he helped me bury him on the hill out there, and stayed with me a few days. He said it was to make sure none of Fusco’s guns came back.” A faint smile touched the elder man’s lips. “But I know he was waiting until my older boy got here from Virginia so I wouldn’t be alone. Them boys never took a dime from any of the families. I reckon this ain’t even partial payback to him.”
Scott was deeply moved by Ned’s story and saw that Val was, too. He wished Murdoch had been here to hear it. Murdoch, who wanted to erase Johnny’s past as Madrid.
The three continued to talk for a while, Scott struggling to concentrate as his eyes kept being drawn out the window to the barn.
“I know you said two hours, but he really shouldn’t go that long without some water or broth.”
“Yeah, well, he wo n’t be holding either of those down for a while yet.” Ned drawled. Seeing the look on Scott’s face, he added softly, “He always gets sick to his stomach after the dressing changes. I’ll go out in a bit to empty the bucket. He don’t like no one with him when he’s getting sick.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Val huffed, “the boy will kick you out the room even with broken bones!”
“How often do you change the bandages?”
“Depends on what’s comin’ out and how much. He had a chunk of infection in one spot on his back when he got here that I had to cut out. I tell you, I was puking right beside him in the bucket for that one. That sucker bled like the devil after, so I was changing it every hour. Most can go a day. Sometimes, like earlier, I leave them open to air.”
“You had to cut…” Scott blanched and had to look away to settle his stomach. “Isn’t there a doctor we could get him to?”
“A doc’s peeked in on him a few times from what I heard. One did the first cutting at the hideout two before here. I heard the lady at the last place tried, but just couldn’t do it. He was real bad when he first came to me, but he’s much better now. Still gets fevers most every evening, but none so bad as the first that lasted near-to two days. I didn’t think he was gonna make it for a bit there.”
Val and Scott exchanged stricken glances. They’d come so close to losing Johnny so many times. And the risk wasn’t over yet.
“Has there been any word on Thatcher or his men?” Val asked.
“I don’t have any, but Emilio’s Friends will know when they come. If there’s word he or his guns are close, the Friends won’t risk coming here. If they show up tomorrow or the next day, we’ll know he ain’t around.”
“We hope if Johnny can travel, we can get him home.” Scott said.
“You’d have to talk to him and them about that.” Ned picked at a cracker crumb that had gotten caught in the indent of a nailhead. “He’s been real worried about Thatcher goin’ after you and your Papa. I don’t think he’ll go home until Thatcher isn’t a threat anymore.”
Val cocked an eyebrow. “Are folks hunting Thatcher? We had a posse out of Cross Creek, but he nabbed a train east and we had to turn back.”
“Don’t know that neither. All I can say is that Johnny is hoping to take care of Thatcher himself.”
Val opened his mouth to say something, then looked at Scott and snapped it closed again. “Why am I not surprised?”
Ned brushed his hands off on his pants as he stood. “I’m gonna check on him. Give me ten minutes or so, then bring your horses out to the barn. I’ll come out and let you know if he’s awake yet.”
Once Ned gave them the okay, Scott let Val go in to see Johnny alone, while he stayed back to brush and feed the horses. When Val came back out, he was so pale, Scott set down the curry comb and went to him.
Haunted green eyes met Scott’s.
“And this is ‘much better’ than when he got here?”
Scott squeezed Val’s shoulder.
“Did he talk to you at all?”
“You mean other than to tell me to get you the hell outta here? Nope.” Val scrubbed his face roughly with both hands, as if to wipe away his worry. “I’m thinking I want to head back into town, see what I can hear, maybe send a telegram to Ted Mercer to relay back home.”
Scott’s expression darkened, thinking about home. He almost didn’t want to let Murdoch know they’d found Johnny. He couldn’t help but feel the anger of their argument rekindling. But, even if he didn’t know deep down that Murdoch cared for Johnny and agonized over his well-being, he certainly felt an obligation to Teresa, Jelly, Maria, and Sam to let them know.
“Maybe via Sam,” Scott suggested. “Coded, something like: ‘located well-driver, broken bit, will stay til repaired.’”
Val grinned. “That’s a good one. I’ll see if Ned needs anything from town and plan to stay until sunset. I’ll be back to sit with him tonight.”
“If he lets us.”
“Hell, he better let us. I didn’t wear half my ass off in a saddle getting here to let him keep me from taking care of him.”
Scott raised an eyebrow. “You said that exact thing to him already, didn’t you?”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing I’ll repeat in polite company, but leave it that we’ll be sitting with him tonight.”
Scott smiled. “So I guess he’s in a good mood for me to go in.”
Johnny was lying with his eyes closed, a pillow keeping him from being fully on his stomach. He didn’t react when Scott came in, but Scott knew from the tension in his muscles and his tight breathing he wasn’t sleeping. The tack room held a small pot-bellied stove on which a pot of broth was kept warm. A pail of fresh water sat on milking stool beside it and the workbench held a variety of bandages and salves amid tools and leather pieces.
Scott bent to pick up the near-empty cup of water by Johnny’s hand. As he moved over to the stove, he spotted through a small window the hill on which Dack was buried, a small white cross barely visible at its crest.
“Do you think you can handle a bit of broth yet?” he asked quietly.
Scott filled the cup from the pail, then moved back to Johnny’s side, sitting cross-legged on the hay-strewn dirt floor. “How about some water.”
Johnny opened his eyes and reached for the cup. Through the touch of his fingers, Scott felt his fever.
“Thanks.” Johnny took a couple of sips before setting the cup down within reach. “How did you find me?”
Scott told him, adding, “Third time’s a charm.”
“Everyone okay at home?”
Other than the Old Man turning to stone?
“Yes. Worried about you, but safe. We were so relieved to get your telegram.”
“When did it get there?”
Johnny frowned. “That’s no help. I have no idea what the date is. In fact, I’m not even sure of the month, October?”
“November, the 17th. With luck, you’ll be home for Thanksgiving.”
Johnny grunted. “Luck hasn’t exactly been on my side. Besides, I’m not going anywhere near home until Thatcher is dead.”
Scott wanted to argue, but held his tongue. “Your telegram left a lot to be desired in the information category.”
Johnny smiled, but didn’t open his eyes. “And the one Val’s sending to Sam is so much better, ‘located well-driver, a bit broken’..?” He snorted a laugh, “I’d say more than a bit broken.”
Scott was once again amazed at Johnny’s hearing and quickly reviewed what he and Val had talked about to be sure nothing about Murdoch had come out. “With your luck, Sam will figure out where to send willowbark tea.”
“Ouch. Thank God they don’t seem to know much about that in these parts.” Johnny repeatedly ran his fingers over what looked like a square of silk. “Ned likes peppermint sticks as much as I do, so he makes like a tea with them. It doesn’t do much for the fevers but it sure helps my stomach.”
“What does Ned do about your fevers? You’ve got a good one cooking now.” Scott laid his palm on Johnny’s forehead to confirm what he’d felt earlier.
“Dunno. He’s always giving me somethin’. I don’t think too good with the fevers.” Johnny closed his eyes again.
Scott could see how much pain he was in by his pallor, the tight muscles of his face and arms, the rigid way he held his body. “And for the pain?” He stroked Johnny’s arm, unconsciously matching the rhythm of Johnny’s fingers on the silk.
“Don’t worry, Boston, I’ve had some laudanum along the way, and I think there was a doctor who gave me more than that early on. Don’t remember too much of that time… Whiskey helps, but messes with my stomach…” Johnny’s exhaustion was evident in his voice.
“Is there anything I can do to help you sleep?”
“I’ll sleep in a bit.” Johnny’s words sounded more wistful than expectant. “Tell me about home. What happened with the water plan?”
“The Cattlemen’s Association brought in a judge to nullify the contract once word came from down south about the problems with Thatcher and the missing money. It hadn’t gotten as far as anyone losing money, but it was close. Thatcher high-tailed it out of town in the cover of night. But I guess you know that part.” Scott cringed thinking that Murdoch’s resistance to Johnny’s claim that Thatcher couldn’t be trusted had put the boy right back into the monster’s brutal hands.
“I bet Murdoch was pissed.”
How the hell do I answer that one?
“Murdoch was grateful, as were all the other ranch owners, that you exposed Thatcher before they lost everything. You’re quite the hometown hero. We were so worried, though, when you didn’t come right home.”
“Mmm. I bet Murdoch figured I’d run off for good because I didn’t get my way.”
Tread carefully here. Scottwarned himself.
“He did fear that his anger, and the fact that he didn’t listen to you, had driven you away.” Scott got up to get water and a cloth to soothe Johnny’s fever. More, he was trying to keep his fury at Murdoch from showing, and needed physical activity to help calm him. “Teresa and I knew you’d be home if you could be, but Murdoch’s guilt was pretty intense. And, of course, none of us wanted to think about what was happening to keep you away.”
Scott sat back down and wrung out the cloth. “Cold on your forehead,” he warned. Johnny shivered in response to the chills he was already experiencing. “Ned told us a little bit of what happened with Thatcher’s guns.”
“Mmm, it was miles easier when he was just sending guys to call me out. Once he got close enough to show a personal interest…” Johnny shuddered again, this time not from the cold. His closed eyes scrunched tighter, and he turned his face down into the pillow. Scott could tell by the strangled breathing and clenched jaw that the memories were becoming overwhelming. Watching Johnny endure a flashback threatened to kindle one of his own.
He shoved it back. Johnny needed him.
“Hey, I’m going to tell Teresa you swiped one of her silk scarves. I bet she’s been looking for it.” Scott gently touched the back of Johnny’s hand where it was stroking the soft cloth, to remind Johnny that he was there for comfort.
It took a few breaths, but the diversion worked. “Not hers… Nice lady at the last place gave this to me.”
Scott chuckled. “Leave it to my little brother to be charming the ladies even when he can’t lift his own head up.”
Johnny smiled slightly. “Nothin’ like that. She has kids older than me. And I wasn’t so good company when I was there. She said that sometimes touchin’ somethin’ soft can help the hurting. She’s right.”
Scott let his hand ride lightly on Johnny’s for a few strokes before lifting it away. “I’m glad something does.” He remembered what Ned had told them about the woman being unable to cut out the infected tissue on Johnny’s back. No wonder Johnny wasn’t such great company there. “Can I get you to drink some more water?”
“Would you mind asking Ned to make me some peppermint tea? My stomach just ain’t getting better. I hope Val buys Ned more peppermint sticks in town; I think I’ve about used up his stash. And tequila… I don’t love whiskey at the best of times and it sure sits bad on a rocky stomach.”
“Oh, I’m quite sure Val is planning on getting tequila. Although, I don’t think anything is going to sit well on an empty stomach.”
“Ned makes a cracker mash that sometimes stays down. I tell you, the next time I need doctoring, I’m coming here. I like Sam a lot, but his whole ‘stay in bed and drink willowbark tea’ is for the birds.”
“You didn’t listen to the stay-in-bed part anyway. Or the stay-off-your-horse part. You were up riding two weeks after getting shot in the back. By the time I got my little graze in my arm, Murdoch was spouting Sam’s rules like they came down on tablets from the mountain. I felt like a real greenhorn wimp confined to my bed for two weeks.”
“You got that nasty infection, brother. Nothing wimpy about taking care of your shooting and lassoing arm.”
Scott grunted a laugh. “About the only thing I was lassoing that point was the ground.”
Johnny smiled, his eyes closed. “All you needed was a little practice lassoing your footboard while recovering from your bullet wound.”
“You knew about that?” Scott was aghast.
“Did you really think I ‘accidentally’ left my lariat in your room, and ‘forgot’ to come looking for it?”
Scott wanted to arm-punch Johnny, especially when his brother looked at him with the devil in his eyes. Instead, he laughed. Johnny’s “gift” had saved him much embarrassment with the men after he’d risen from his sickbed finally able to rope a steer. From day one, Johnny’s quiet tips, subtle demonstrations, and unfailing encouragement had eased his transition to the ranch tremendously.
Murdoch been impressed with how quickly Scott had learned and settled in. If only their father had been as impressed with how good a teacher Johnny was.
As the afternoon progressed into evening, Johnny’s fever and pain grew. The worse he felt, the more he withdrew into himself. Scott tried not to fuss, especially when there was little he could do that helped.
It became particularly bad when Johnny started getting severe muscle cramps in his stomach and legs. He would literally writhe in pain, his choked groans searing Scott’s insides. Johnny would push himself up to his elbows as if trying to crawl away, but then fall back down, muffling cries of agony in his pillow.
He didn’t seem aware of Scott’s presence and offers of comfort, which tormented Scott even more. The restlessness set the lashes on Johnny’s back to oozing, his shirt and the bandages twisted up to reveal a glimpse of one of the raw, ugly sores.
Johnny was blessedly out of it when Scott first caught sight of the whip mark, as it sent him vomiting into the bucket. He huddled in the corner afterwards, his arms covering his head, rocking in the horror of a flashback where he watched Thatcher in the place of a Libby guard, and Johnny in his own place on the whipping post. Scott could feel the pain, Johnny’s and his own, melded together in fire-forged agony.
He didn’t know how long he’d been crouched there, only coming out of the flashback when Val grabbed his arm, and shoved a cup into his hand.
Scott looked around, confused as to how Val got to Libby, then shocked to realize where he was, and what had happened. “Johnny!”
“He’s alright. Drink this.” Val shook the cup at him, with what looked like fury in his eyes. So Scott drank.
Hot and horrible as ever.
Next, a cold cloth was on his face.
“I’m alright,”he said, grabbing at it.
“Like hell you are. Shut up and let me do this!” Val groused. “Damn, you’re as bad as he is about accepting help.”
Scott sank back, exhausted and ashamed, as Val tended to him. He’d cracked and abandoned Johnny when his brother needed him.
“You did no such thing.” Val snorted. Apparently Scott had unwittingly spoken aloud. “You’re here, he’s fine -well, his definition of fine. Take another slug and then you’re gonna eat something.”
Scott drank down the second shot. His eyes were on Johnny. “He was in so much pain, Val.”
“I know. It must have worn him out because he’s out now. Here, eat these.” A handful of crackers were thrust at him.
“Shut up and eat the damn crackers!” Val hissed. “Look, you’ve had shit for food the last week and even less sleep. If you want to be able to take care of Johnny, you can’t be driving yourself into the ground.” The elder man sat back on his heels, surveying Scott with knowing eyes. “Of course what happened to Johnny is gonna trigger bad memories for you.” His voice was much gentler now, almost soothing. “There ain’t much you can do about that. I’ve had a flashback or two myself today from when he was a kid…” Val glanced over at Johnny, then wiped a hand down his face. “Hell, he’s still a kid. But my point is, ya gotta take care of yourself. And we gotta take care of each other or it’s gonna be all the worse for him.”
Scott closed his eyes and nodded. He could see why Johnny had developed such a deep affection for the grumpy lawman.
“Good. Now, get your ass up and fetch Ned to get his bandages changed while he’s out.”
“God, Val, his back…”
“I saw.” Val gritted his teeth. “I knew that’s what triggered you. So you’re gonna stay in the house while Ned and I get him fixed up.” There was only one small raw section visible; Val knew there was much more.
“He didn’t want you to see it either.”
“Good that he won’t know then, isn’t it? And eat those crackers as you go. Passing out ain’t gonna do any of us no good.”
The belt slashed down, the buckle-end biting into flesh, as Thatcher’s sneering taunts filled his ears.
“Weak, sniveling brat, getting just what you deserve!”
He tried not to cry, knowing it would only bring more and harder blows, but the pain was so bad.
Where was Mama?
Did he hurt her, too?
Why couldn’t she have stayed with Val?
Val never hit him, even when he spilled his milk.
“Papi, help me!” he sobbed. “Make him stop!”
He didn’t feel the warm arms that held him close or the tears that dripped down onto his cheek.
“Papi’s here, mijo.” Val whispered, rocking them both. “Papi’s got you.”
Scott handed Val a cup of coffee, wincing as the bloodshot green eyes met his.
“Rather have tequila,” Val rasped.
“There’s some in there.” Scott crouched down, surveying Johnny who had dropped off into an exhausted slumber when his fever finally broke just after dawn. “We need to talk about what we’re going to do if they come to move him today.”
“Nobody’s taking him anywhere!” Val scratched at his scruff of a beard as he risked a sip of the scalding coffee.
“Certainly not without us.” Scott slid down against the wall, his own coffee cradled in his hands. “But we have to be respectful of the work this group has done so far to get him out, keep him alive and away from Thatcher. They know the lay of the land, and hopefully any of Thatcher’s recent movements.” He grimaced as he sipped the bitter liquid, his minus the tequila. “It is an understatement that none of us are in any shape to take on Thatcher.”
“Oh, I don’t know, I think I could take him down with my bare hands about now.” Val snorted.
Scott had witnessed Val’s heartbreak as Johnny had cried out for him in a delirium-fueled reliving of one of Thatcher’s beatings. The sheriff looked gaunt and pale this morning. Scott imagined he looked no better himself.
“I can echo that,” he said with deep emotion. “But we both know we won’t get the chance to take him on one-on-one, he’s too well-insulated.”
“Once we find out where the bastard is holed up, I have a few friends who will be more than happy to take care of him.”
“I doubt we’ll be lucky enough to have him be in one of your friends’ jurisdictions. And it will be hard to get a posse together for a long-haul so close to Thanksgiving.”
Val looked at Scott over his cup. “I wasn’t thinking about my sheriff-friends. I know a few bounty hunters who will buy in. There’s already a thousand dollar bounty on Thatcher. My guess is that doubling the bounty will bring them and a few gunhawks out of the woodwork.”
“Make it $10,000.” Scott said quietly. At the look Val gave him, he added, “Do you think there’d be a problem if we made it, ‘Wanted: Dead Only’?”
Val gave a dark laugh. “For that kind of money, I suspect Thatcher’s own guns will turn on him. Do you, uh, gotta check with Murdoch first for the guarantee?”
“No, it’s not coming from Lancer. It’s coming from me. I’ll have the bank wire to my lawyer in Boston for the surety. Can you get the word out to your friends and… their friends?”
“Within the day, Scott.”
It happened that quickly.
Emilio’s Friends arrived just after breakfast with word that Thatcher had last been seen two days earlier near San Antonio, a three-day ride away. After much discussion, it was decided not to move Johnny, at least for a few more days. The risk of staying was that it wasn’t Thatcher himself, but rather unidentified, hired guns who were hunting Johnny. At least there were no new faces in town, except Val’s, as he made sure newly printed ‘Wanted’ posters for Thatcher were well-distributed there. Val smiled as he heard people talking about the $10,000 reward in both the saloon and outside the mercantile. Ted Mercer would ensure word spread quickly to sheriffs across the country, first and foremost to San Antonio.
Murdoch didn’t rise from his desk as Sam was escorted into the great room by Maria.
“Help yourself to a drink, Sam. What brings you out?”
“A little early for me.” It was only 10:15 in the morning. “Although, celebration is in order. They found Johnny!”
Maria exclaimed with joy and a string of excited Spanish. Murdoch only set down his pencil and looked out the window.
“They didn’t say. It sounds like he’s hurt and they’re staying with him until he can travel.”
Another exclamation -this one of dismay- came from Maria.
Sam was totally bewildered by Murdoch’s lack of reaction. Lancer wasn’t a demonstrative man by any stretch, and Sam knew he feared Johnny had left the ranch in anger and for good, but the doctor expected something more… joy, concern… anything.
“Maria, could you bring us some coffee, please?” Murdoch asked.
Sam didn’t miss the critical eye Maria cast toward Murdoch before she headed to the kitchen to attend to his request. He stood in silence, studying his longtime friend who still had not moved from staring out the window.
“So what am I missing here, Murdoch?” Sam moved to the window to put himself within Murdoch’s line of sight.
“What do you mean?”
“What do I mean? I just told you that Scott and Val finally found your boy, who has been missing for six months now, and that he’s hurt. You should be jumping for joy, or pacing with worry, not just sitting there staring out the damn window!”
Murdoch’s eyes tracked to his briefly. The big man levered himself out of the chair, moved to the sidebar, and poured a scotch. Sam fumed as Murdoch downed the drink, then immediately refilled his glass. A second glass was poured which Murdoch pushed toward Sam.
“You said we should toast.”
Sam batted the glass away. It knocked off the sideboard and onto the floor.
“What the hell is wrong with you? Are you so prideful that you aren’t happy to know your son is alive?”
“I’m happy.” Murdoch’s voice was devoid of emotion. He looked at his glass, but made no move to raise it.
“Well, you could have fooled me! When Cipriano told me Scott and Val went off to find Johnny, I naturally assumed you’d sent them, and probably needed to be hog-tied to keep you from going along.” Sam had sensed that the segundo was holding something back, and wondered if Cipriano was worried about how Murdoch was holding up under the strain with Scott gone as well as Johnny. Sam would have been out to Lancer to check on his friend weeks earlier if he hadn’t spent that time delivering three babies, taking care of Hem Potter who’d fallen off his barn roof, and covering for Doc Wills in Spanish Wells. “What part of the story have I not heard?”
“I’ll tell you what Cipriano didn’t.”
Sam spun around at the quiet voice coming from the archway to the great room.
“Teresa!” Murdoch roared, “This is none of your concern. Go into the kitchen with Maria.”
“I respectfully disagree, Murdoch.” Teresa’s voice shook slightly, but her gaze was steady. She turned to Sam, putting both hands out to him. “Good morning, Sam, thank you for coming out. Maria tells me you have word of Johnny?”
Sam took her hands in both of his with just the briefest glance at Murdoch. “Yes. It seems that Scott and Val found him, although it does sound as though he is injured.”
“Thank goodness they’ve found him. We’ve feared all along he could be hurt somewhere. Do you know any more about how he was hurt or how bad it might be?”
“I’m afraid not. The wire was in a bit of a code.” He recited the telegram word-for-word. “So I read it that things aren’t safe where they are, but they’re taking care of Johnny until he can travel.”
Teresa sat down on a footstool, her lips moving in silent prayer. Maria brought in coffee. She briefly clasped Teresa’s hands before withdrawing.
The silence in the room was leaden.
Sam was hesitant to prompt Teresa, fearing it would subject her to Murdoch’s wrath. So he turned to his friend. “Murdoch?”
Murdoch sighed heavily. “Johnny apparently knew Thatcher from his days as Madrid, and he didn’t trust him. He didn’t want me to vote for the water plan, but he wouldn’t tell me why, just that Thatcher was a gambler. After we voted for the deal, Johnny took off mad with just a note saying he was going to prove Thatcher was crooked. He never came back. I figured he left for good because he was mad about how I voted.”
Sam knew all that; it had happened six months ago. He’d been out to the ranch several times to talk with Murdoch, and had spoken with both Scott and Val numerous times in town. It was odd that Murdoch didn’t remember their discussions.
More than odd, worrisome. Something more had been going on these last few weeks while he’d been tied up.
“What happened the night Scott and Val left to look for him?”
“We’d gotten a telegram saying he was alive but he wouldn’t tell us where. Just like this telegram. I knew it was his way of saying he didn’t want us to find him. Scott disagreed and left with Val.”
Teresa’s wide eyes told Sam she was disturbed by Murdoch’s matter-of-fact accounting of the emotional evening. “They had a terrible argument, Sam. Scott and Murdoch. Scott doesn’t believe that Johnny is staying away on purpose. He left very angry.”
Murdoch tossed back his drink. “I guess that makes two sons who won’t be returning home again.”
“Murdoch!” Sam was horrified. Teresa’s hand flew to her mouth with a gasp and she fled the room.
In three furious strides, Sam stormed over to Murdoch, grabbing the bottle away as the rancher went to pour another drink. “This is not helping!”
“On the contrary, my friend,” Murdoch argued as he snatched it back, “It’s the only thing that is.”
“Dammit, Murdoch, I watched you agonize for years trying to get your boys home. How can you give up on them so easily?”
“That’s exactly what Scott accused me of doing with Johnny. How come no one sees that it was Johnny who gave up on me? He’s the one who left. And now he’s taken Scott with him.”
“Murdoch, Johnny left to find evidence against Thatcher. And thank God he did. It saved the ranchers from disaster. Whatever is keeping him away isn’t anger or pettiness. He got hurt, maybe because of this thing with Thatcher. He’s either had to hide out, or he’s afraid of bringing danger home with him. That’s why he won’t say where he is.”
Murdoch’s alcohol-sunken eyes stared off at nothing. “I knew all along he would leave me like Maria did. It’s in his blood.”
Sam gave Murdoch’s arm a rough shake. “What are you saying, man? Do you want to be right about Johnny choosing to leave? You’re not listening to the facts –he’s hurt, it’s not safe for him to come home.”
“Yes, I heard. He’s not coming home.” Murdoch trudged over to the stairs, pausing at the bottom, his weight leaning heavily on the bannister. “But he shouldn’t have taken Scott away. That just isn’t right.”
Slowly, he lumbered up the stairs to his bedroom, leaving Sam in open-mouthed shock below.
Scott curried Ned’s horse, Trudy, his mouth set in a grim line. He’d already mucked the stalls, changed the water, and curried the other two horses. He needed something to do, and found the repetitive motion and feeling of warm horseflesh comforting, something he’d learned from his brother. He hoped that Jelly had been able to prevent Murdoch from getting rid of Barranca.
He worried about what would happen once Johnny was well enough to go home. He hoped Murdoch had been shaken away from his morose dismissal of Johnny’s love and commitment, and would fall all over his youngest with joyful relief.
Sadly, Scott didn’t expect that of Murdoch. Their father was not an emotional man. Hell, his lack of welcome and the gruff challenges when they first arrived at Lancer was proof of that.
Scott hated his realization that if it had been him instead of Johnny raising the objection about Thatcher, Murdoch would have heard him out, and probably looked for an alternative to voting for the plan. And if Scott had been the one to ride out looking for evidence, it would have been with Murdoch’s blessing, several ranch hands at his side, and never a doubt over his motives or plan to return.
“Damn you and your mulish head!” Scott cursed aloud.
“Wow, ain’t never heard you talk to a horse like that,” Val mused, suddenly in the doorway.
“I wasn’t talking to Trudy.” Scott soothed his horse who’d been unsettled by his tone and harsh brushing.
“Which one of your male relatives then?”
Scott returned the brush to its spot on the shelf, glancing at the closed door to the tack room.
“It could apply to either.” He dropped down onto a hay bale.
“He still isn’t letting anyone in?” Val plucked a straw out of a bale, and leaned against the stall divider, chewing on it.
“No. I have a new understanding of how my grandfather felt when I came home. I was notorious for locking him and the staff out, or sneaking out the window.” Scott leaned forward, his forearms on his thighs, his hands intertwined between his knees. “But I’d already spent two months in a hospital. Physically, I was fine. He’s… not.”
“No, he’s not. But you know how he is when he’s hurt. He don’t want no one fussing.”
“Oh, I remember. And if it was just a physical hurt, I think I’d be okay about it. Or more okay about it. But you saw yourself last night how bad the flashbacks and fever-dreams are. I can’t stand him being alone again with the things he’s reliving.”
“I don’t even think he knew I was there last night.” Val said softly, not arguing, just acknowledging the depth of Johnny’s torment. He scuffed his boot through some loose straw. “Because it was Thatcher both times, he’s dealing not just with what happened in the prison, but what that animal did to him when he was little.”
Scott nodded. “You should have seen his face, Val, at the Cattlemen’s Association meeting when Thatcher came in. I thought he was going to be sick, that maybe he’d gotten food poisoning or something. He was sweating, shaking, and as pale as a ghost. He must have been having a flashback then. I wish he felt he could have told me about what had happened to him.”
Val looked at him intently, drawing the straw from his mouth.
“Do you talk to him about Libby, Scott?” he asked quietly.
“Uh, no… I…” Scott felt his intestines cramp.
“Exactly. Not only is it hard to talk to someone who hasn’t been through what you have, it’s hard to admit to things you’ve done when you were desperate, alone, and scared. Plus, you’re afraid to see the hurt –or God forbid, pity– in the eyes of someone you love and respect. Right?”
Scott rubbed sweating hands together. It felt as if Val had climbed into his head and read his thoughts. “Right,” he said in a voice husky with emotion.
“He never would talk to me about Maria’s men who beat on him, even when he knew I’d seen the scars. When he’d have a nightmare, he wouldn’t let me close. He’d go outside or walk outta camp to the horses.”
“He does the same thing at home.” Scott murmured.
If it surprised Val that Johnny was still tormented by nightmares –and that Scott knew about them– it didn’t show.
“And what do you do about yours?” Val’s question was gentle.
Scott pinched the bridge of his nose.
“I bury my head under the covers and conjugate Latin verbs.”
Val chuckled at that. “A very Harvard response, there.” After a stretch of silence, he asked, “Did you ever talk to other soldiers about the war or prison camp?”
“Yes,” Scott blew his air out. “It was part of the ‘program’ in the hospital. Plus, I met up with a Libby survivor in Virginia that next year.”
“Did it help?”
“Not so much in the hospital. It was a group of us. No one really opened up much. We were there because we were required to be. But with David, the guy in Virginia… We met in a bar and somehow realized what we had in common. We closed the place down, then walked until dawn, talking. After we slept off our drunk, we did the same thing for three nights in a row. The flashbacks were really bad the first two days, but once we talked about them, once the secret was out, the memories lost a lot of their power. Other than a few nightmares and flashes here and there, they largely went away. Yesterday’s flashback was the first I’ve had since coming to California.”
Val took off his hat and dusted it against his thigh.
“Johnny doesn’t want to disappoint you, Scott. He thinks if you see his reactions to what he’s been though, you’ll think he’s weak, or a baby, especially the ones that bring him back to his childhood. If you could show him some of your reactions to the war and to Libby, he might feel less ashamed of his own.”
“So he can be ashamed of his big brother instead?” There was no anger in the question, only fear.
“Are you ashamed of him crying in my arms last night?”
“Of course not.”
“He’d never be ashamed of you. You are both miles harder on yourselves than you’d ever be on each other. You said you didn’t want him to go through this alone. Yet, you see how alone he is, even when we are with him. Talk to him. Let him see that you’ve felt the same things he’s feeling.”
“I was never beaten as a child, Val, never hungry or alone. I always had people to take care of me.”
“True, but you know what it’s like to feel all of those things as an adult. You’ve been terrified, desperate, hopeless, ashamed, and many other feelings I know nothing about. You were both without your father growing up. You’ve got that in common.”
“I had it so easy as a child…”
“Really, growing up believing your father didn’t want you was easy?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“But it’s what you lived. What you felt was the same thing Johnny felt. Don’t think about the ways your experiences were different, think of how they were the same. Even though you were apart, there are things that you shared as brothers that no one other than your brother can understand. It’s why you grew so close so fast when you met. You each found the other half of yourself, something you never even knew you were missing. Like the two sides of a magnet; polar opposites but drawn together by an unseen power.”
Val placed his hat on his head. “Talk to him, Scott. Let him know this isn’t going to push you apart, but instead can bring you closer, even stronger than before.”
“More coffee, Sam?” Teresa held up the pot.
“Only if you sit and drink some with me, Teresa.”
The young woman looked uneasy, but refilled Sam’s cup then poured one for herself. The doctor watched as she put cream and sugar into her coffee, stirring it distractedly. He picked up his cup, but looked at her over it without drinking.
“How did I miss how bad Murdoch has gotten?”
Teresa froze, the spoon silenced. “It’s been awful, Sam,” she whispered. “It’s like everything just died when Johnny left. Murdoch doesn’t care about anything anymore. Not even the ranch. He sits at his desk, but hardly ever looks at the ledger or mail. He hasn’t given morning orders in months. He starts drinking before lunch, sleeps most of the afternoon, doesn’t talk at dinner, then drinks until it’s time for bed. It wasn’t quite so bad when Scott was home –although Scott was so sad it broke my heart.” She laid her spoon carefully on her napkin. “Since Scott left, Murdoch has been terribly angry at Johnny, saying he stole Scott away from him.”
“I was shocked when he said that before he went upstairs.”
Teresa nodded, biting her lip. “He’s convinced that Johnny purposely turned Scott against him. He says he doesn’t care about the ranch because he doesn’t have sons to give it to anymore. Sam, he asked me if I wanted it!”
Sam winced. “I imagine that this is a severe form of depression that, courtesy of the excessive alcohol, has warped his sense of reality.”
“What can we do, Sam? I can’t stand to see him this way. He was so happy at the holidays last year, the first time I had ever seen him that way. I’m afraid that this year, the holidays will kill him. Maybe kill us all.”
Sam rested his hand on hers. “I’m not entirely sure, dear. Obviously, controlling drinking is critical… and getting the boys back home. I’m just not sure how he’ll be toward Johnny, and how Johnny will react.”
“They had just started to get along.”
Sam took his first sips of his coffee, his brow furrowed. “It still seemed to me Murdoch was extra hard on Johnny.”
“He didn’t like that he always had to remind Johnny of the rules. Johnny was always late, or not where he was supposed to be, and he didn’t take ranching seriously.”
Sam cocked his head. “Is that what you saw yourself, Teresa? That Johnny didn’t take ranching seriously?”
“I, well, I’m not sure.”
“Because I think Johnny took ranching very seriously. Scott told me how much time Johnny put in to showing him things and helping him. I imagine that a lot of times it’s what put Johnny behind schedule or pulled him away from work he was supposed to be doing.”
“I suppose that’s true. Johnny always goes out of his way to help people out. Like that time he changed a wheel on Mrs. Smopes’ wagon when it broke down near Parsons’ Creek. Murdoch was mad that Johnny was late for Sunday dinner. Johnny didn’t say anything about what he’d been doing. I found out at my quilting circle.”
“From where I stood, it looked like their fights were getting better because Johnny was learning to keep his mouth shut.”
“That’s not right though, Sam. I mean, I was happy not to listen to them arguing all the time, but Johnny needs to speak up for himself. He shouldn’t have let Murdoch get away with bawling him out when he was helping out a neighbor.”
“I agree. Scott was worried, too. Not only did he feel it was unfair for Murdoch to treat Johnny like that, he feared the day would come when Johnny couldn’t take it anymore, and the boy would leave.”
“I had finally stopped being afraid Johnny would leave… and then he did. Oh, I know he didn’t leave for the reasons Murdoch believes he did. Murdoch is dead set in his belief, and now he’s certain Scott is gone for good, too.”
Sam ran his finger down the side of his cup, chasing a drip of coffee. “I wish I knew where the boys were and what’s going on with Johnny. At the very least, I can’t let them walk into this hornets’ nest without some warning.”
“Hey, Boston, why did you study Latin at Harvard if you weren’t gonna be a doctor or a lawyer?”
Scott looked over at his brother who was leaning over the end stall, holding himself up with the railing under his arms. Johnny could no longer bear the one position he could lie in, so had been up pacing most of the afternoon and early evening. He was exhausted and feverish, but unwilling to lie down.
Scott was rubbing saddle oil into Val’s battered saddle. He smiled. “A lot of English, French, and German words come from the Latin.”
Johnny frowned. “So you learned one language just so you could learn three other languages? Seems like you could have saved a lot of time if you just learned those three languages outright.”
Scott chuckled. “You might be right. Occasionally it helps when I’m reviewing a contract.”
“Or sitting in church?” Johnny turned his head so he could rest it on his folded arms.
“There’s not too much call for Latin in Protestant churches. It’s mostly the Catholic priests who speak it.”
“Maybe you should convert. I always thought church would be more interesting if I could understanding what we were prayin’ and singin’ about.”
Scott was a bit surprised Johnny had spent much time in church as a child. Of course, the missions and orphanages were all church run, although it sounded like Johnny didn’t stay long in any. “Do you remember any of the Latin prayers?”
Johnny recited one and Scott translated.
“Huh,” Johnny mused, “I always thought that one was about elephants swimming in the fountains. I wasn’t sure what that had to do with God –just that I ain’t never seen an elephant like we can’t see God.”
Scott smiled, loving Johnny’s childlike innocence. It was such a contrast to the hard grownup life he’d been forced into as a kid. “How about a song?”
Johnny quietly sang a Latin hymn, pausing after each line for Scott’s translation. Scott realized he’d never heard Johnny sing, just hum occasionally and somewhat tunelessly. He was surprised to hear his brother’s clear, sweet voice.
“Are you kidding me, that’s what those words mean?” Johnny was aghast. “I liked that song a whole lot more before I knew what it meant. It sounds so soft and comforting, but it’s all about burning in hell and crumbling to dust.”
“Well, some people think it’s talking about the kind of death Jesus saved us from, and the part about crumbling to dust just a reference that we won’t need our bodies in heaven.”
Johnny rocked a little, trying to ease a pain. “Is that what you think happens when we die, brother, that we go to heaven or hell?”
Scott set the saddle down, wiping his hands on a rag. “It’s what I grew up believing. After the war and Libby… I wasn’t sure there was a God, and honestly I don’t think too much about what happens after death.”
“Even sittin’ in church for two hours on those rock hard benches every Sunday?” Johnny grinned that lopsided grin Scott had missed so much.
“I usually try to focus more on what the scriptures tell us we should be doing while we’re alive, and leave the after death sorting out to whomever or whatever is responsible for that.” He screwed the top back on the oil. “What about you?”
“Aw, I just go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve and listen to the story of Jesus’ birth.” Johnny rubbed his cheek with the back of his hand, grimacing as the move pained cuts on both. “I always thought it was kinda funny that Jesus didn’t have a home either, and spent a lot of time wandering around like I did. We had a few other things in common too, that whole being forsaken,” he pronounced the word very carefully, “by his Old Man. Joseph had to be his Papi for a while like Val was for me. Then Jesus had to make his way on his own. Course, our lives went in pretty different directions.” Johnny chuckled.
Scott was speechless at Johnny’s translation of the Christmas story, yet it would have made complete sense to an abandoned little boy. “What about the heaven and hell thing for you?”
Johnny raised his head, achingly circling his injured right shoulder. “I guess I figure that if there’s hell right here on earth, why let some people wait until they die to go? Why not have the Thatchers of this world go right to hell and leave the rest of us alone?”
“You make a good point, little brother. You’re looking quite pale and feverish. How about if you try lying down again, and let me see if I can cool it down some.”
Johnny shook his head, grimacing as he flexed his fingers. “I wanna shave but my hands feel like somebody’s been steppin’on them.”
Scott got up from his stool. “Lucky for you, your big brother has solutions for both. Come sit.”
Scott gathered supplies and warm water. He held a warm towel to Johnny’s face for a few moments, then re-wet and wrung it, draping it over Johnny’s hands. He carefully soaped and shaved his younger brother, navigating around cuts in various stages of healing. ”Did they shave your head in prison?” Scott asked softly.
“Nope, after I was out. I think there were bugs, and somebody put in some stitches.”
“They shaved us all at Libby.” Scott remembered his earlier conversation with Val. It was going to be hard, but he needed to share some of his experiences with Johnny. “Not in the very beginning, but later when they found out there weren’t going to be anymore prisoner exchanges. It wasn’t so bad those first few months. I mean frustrating as hell to be cooped up, unable to fight in the war I had signed up for. But there was plenty of food, we lived in tents, the guards were pretty laid back. I actually felt guilty because I had it better than the soldiers who were still fighting. We were insulated from it, almost like being at summer camp.” Scott wiped away some of the soap and hair, rinsed and rewarmed the towel, laying it back over Johnny’s hands. He started on the other side. “They wanted us in good shape, because they wanted to get their own soldiers back in good shape. That’s the way it had been working.
“As the Union swarmed across the south, all the supply lines were shut off. With no exchanges coming up, the Confederates couldn’t see the wisdom of sharing scarce resources with prisoners. We were forced to march for miles, and could only carry so much. Any tents, cots, blankets, or food went to the guards. As things ran out, the guards got nasty.
“Tip your chin up a bit for me.” When Johnny did, their eyes met. The compassion Scott saw there nearly choked off his words. He swallowed heavily as he soaped his hands to lather Johnny’s throat. Drying them on a separate towel, he picked up the razor, and gently scraped it up Johnny’s neck. “On Sundays, they’d give out two razors, then stand back with their guns trained on us. I always lined up for a shave. There were a couple of guys who were good at shaving other people. I hated it when they first shaved my head. After a while though, like you said, it was best not to give the bugs a place to hide.
“One day, a guy by the name of Barrows grabbed the razor out of one barber’s hand to go after a guard. They shot him dead, wiped off the razor, and gave it back. As things got worse, ‘grabbing the razor’ became more common. Sometimes, it was to gain a quick death courtesy of a guard’s rifle. Other times, prisoners went each other, settling arguments over a piece of bread or dry sleeping spot. A few just ended it themselves, slitting their throats.”
Scott finished and stood there a moment, lost in the memory of when a young prisoner named Billy sliced open his own jugular. Scott had tried desperately to stop the bleeding with his bare hands, before realizing he was choking off Billy’s last breaths as he squeezed.
Johnny wiped his neck and face with the towel that covered his hands. “You ever think about doing that, Boston?” he asked in a low voice.
Scott closed the razor with infinite care before setting it down on the table.
“I did,” he admitted quietly. A long pause followed. “After the escape attempt, and I was the only one from our group left alive. I didn’t want to be.” He sank down on a hay bale, watching his hands shake, glad Johnny had waited until he was done shaving to ask. “They paraded me out in front of the other prisoners and tied me to a whipping post. They said I had ratted out my men to save myself. They…” A deep, raspy breath. “They let the other prisoners take turns whipping me. I lost count of how many did. Afterwards, I lay on the ground by myself for days, crying, wishing to die, praying for Sunday so someone could take a razor to me, or I could do it myself.”
In the following silence, rain could be heard hitting the roof and ground outside, thick and sparse at first, then heavy and pelting.
“What happened on Sunday?” Johnny asked gently.
“I don’t know.” Scott shrugged helplessly. “At some point we were moved, broken up, put in box cars. This old grunt who had been with us –funny because his nickname for some reason was Boxcar– told me that one of the guards admitted to some prisoners that the guards had made up the story because they wanted to watch prisoners whip prisoners. Still, I knew there were dozens of guys out there who believed I’d betrayed my men. And I couldn’t make sense of why I lived and they all died. I just wanted it over.”
A long, but not uncomfortable, silence rested between the brothers.
“We couldn’t have razors at the hospital when I got back to Boston. Grandfather had Niles, my manservant, come in every morning to shave me.” Scott absently rubbed his cheek. “The poor guy was so nervous the first few times, he sliced the hell out of my face.”
Johnny looked up and smiled slowly, rubbing his own cheeks. “You done good on me, brother. I’ll let you shave me any day.” His hand went to his barely-there hair. “I bet Murdoch would be happy to see my haircut. I hope it’s grown back in some before we go home, so he doesn’t get any ideas.”
Scott dropped his eyes quickly. But, perhaps not quickly enough, as Johnny cleared his throat and stood up, wavering a bit for the effort. “Thanks for the shave and the warm towel. My hands aren’t quite as bad now.”
“Let’s get you lying down. I’ve got something that will help even more. I think the shave may have cooled you down a bit, you don’t feel quite as hot to me anymore.”
Scott was able to get Johnny to eat a small measure of oatmeal and drink a little of the ‘fever tea’ that Emilio’s Friends had brought in a med pack, along with bandages, laudanum, and sleeping powders. It didn’t taste quite as bad as willowbark tea, but it wasn’t great either.
“Johnny, how about moving into the house tonight? Ned wants you there, and we really aren’t accomplishing anything hiding you out here. Plus, it’s going to be wet tonight.” Scott nodded in turn to two places where rain was leaking in through the roof. “We know Thatcher is at least three days away.”
“But we don’t know that his guns are. I’m already putting you all at too much risk being here.”
“Honestly, brother, if you came upon a farm with smoke coming out of both the house and the barn, where would you expect to find the guy hiding out? And don’t you dare say to put out the stove because that’s not going to happen.”
Johnny grinned, rubbing his sore neck with his even sorer hand. “The barn, which is exactly why I should be here to meet them instead of having them attack the house.”
“With that logic, we should absolutely all be in the house with the stove still on out here. It would give us plenty of warning if they hit the barn first.” Scott grinned back.
“Aw, but we couldn’t do that to the horses, use them as bait.”
Scott laughed. “Leave it to you to see things from the horses’ point of view.”
Johnny smiled, but it drifted away quickly. “I could sometimes hear Barranca calling to me when I was in Northgate. You know that special greeting he does?”
“Oh, believe me, little brother, I know exactly the one you mean. It is also apparently his ‘where the hell are you Johnny?’ whinny. We were hearing it every day.”
“I’m so glad I didn’t take him with me. I would have lost him when Thatcher caught up with me in Viejo.” Johnny flexed his hands. The pain in his back, shoulder blade, and stomach made him want to clench his fists, but they hurt way too much. Maybe that’s why they were hurting in the first place.
Scott saw the movement and got up to rustle through his saddlebags. “How did that go down?” He’d heard the story from Ned already, but hoped to get Johnny to talk about it.
“He sent three more pistoleros and they called me out. I didn’t even know he was there –which was damn good or else they would have taken me down. The sheriff there, Brown, was a good guy. I don’t know if Val knows him. He took up station to make sure there wasn’t any back-shooting afterwards.”
Scott looked up from where he crouched, guessing the answer to his question before he asked, “You took them on all at once?”
“Yeah.” Johnny got up to pace, too sore to sit still. “Thatcher had a shooter on the livery roof. I saw him and Brown followed my eyes and took him out after the dance was over. He woulda got me, Scott, the last pistolero almost did.”
Scott crossed the room, pulled the straw mattress away from a growing puddle, then nodded to it. “Come lie down and let me see if I can do something about the pain in your hands.”
Johnny looked at him warily, but Scott could see he was in miserable pain, and open to anything –short of laudanum– that could make it any better. Scott helped Johnny ease himself down onto the mattress, having learned the reason Johnny threw himself down the day before was to avoid putting pressure on his cane-battered knees. He positioned the pillows, covered Johnny with a blanket, then sat down beside him, and opened the jar he’d taken from his saddlebags. He scooped out some cream, took Johnny’s right hand in his, and very gently started to massage the cream into the swollen, bruised, and scabbed knuckles. Johnny gasped with the initial pain, but quickly gave his hand back to Scott to continue.
“So what happened after Brown took out the shooter?” Scott drew Johnny back to his story.
“I went with him to his office so he could do all the paperwork. It was almost dark when I got out. I was headed for the saloon when I heard this noise in the alley. I looked down it, and there was Thatcher holding one of the saloon girls with a gun to her head.” Scott could feel Johnny’s hand tremble in his. “He…uh, said he would kill her if I didn’t drop my gun and go with him. He had a couple of guys to back him up, to tie my hands, and they had horses waiting.”
Johnny fell silent. Scott let him have the time, gently working his way up to Johnny’s wrist which was still swollen and raw from months of being bound.
“Did Thatcher let the girl go?”
“Yeah.” Johnny chewed on his lip. “You see, the thing of it is, Boston, he didn’t even need to have grabbed her. The second I saw him, I was done.” Shame and fear were clear in his voice. “Kinda like at the Cattleman’s meeting… only worse. And he could see it. He laughed and… and…”
For a moment, Scott feared Johnny was caught up in a flashback. But, he could see Johnny blinking slowly in the dim light, and knew the boy was trying to get the words to come.
“He took off his belt.” Scott had to lean forward to hear.” It drove me to my knees. Just like that. He still has that power over me. Just like when I was ten.”
Scott changed his grip so he was lightly holding Johnny’s hand. He didn’t say anything. Had no idea what to say. He just wanted Johnny to feel his presence, to know –this time– he wasn’t alone.
“Every time he’d come to Northgate, he’d hit me with his belt. Not the bull whip the guards used or the canes. Just the belt. And always out in the courtyard for everyone to see.” Johnny’s entire body trembled. “Before, if I cried, he’d get mad, call me a baby, and hit me harder. This time, he was mad because I wouldn’t cry.” His voice fell to a whisper. “I thought he was going to kill me. I’d swear it was ripping me open all the way into my guts.”
Soft moans were accompanying Johnny’s telling, at first Scott feared they were coming from his own throat, so physically painful were Johnny’s words.
“Then I wished he had. It hurt so much. I woulda been one of those guys grabbing the razor, Scott.”
Tears ran down Scott’s cheeks and dropped off his chin. “I know, brother. I understand.” One of his hands stroked the soft fuzz of hair on Johnny’s head while the other still held Johnny’s hand in a grip that was probably painful. “I should have been there to protect you. I’m so sorry I wasn’t.”
“You couldn’t have protected me. I was actually glad you weren’t there. I didn’t want to worry about you. I couldn’t have stood to see you hurt.”
“I should have had your back. Thatcher would never have taken you if I’d been there.”
“Oh, he would have, Boston. I was a mess. Widow Hargis coulda taken me.” Suddenly Johnny sat up, taking Scott by the shoulders. “You have to go home, Scott. I know he’s coming for me and I can’t protect you. I’ll get you killed!”
“Shh, shh.” Scott soothed, trying to embrace Johnny without putting pressure on open wounds or broken bones. “He’s not going to get anywhere near you. And you don’t need to protect me. I’m the big brother here. I’m the one who will be protecting you.”
“You don’t understand what he can do with that belt. It’s worse than the bullwhip, and you know how bad that is…”
“Hey.” Scott leaned his forehead against Johnny’s. “He’s not going to hurt either one of us. There’s a $10,000 bounty on his head. He’s going to be too busy running away from every gunhawk, bounty hunter, and sheriff to even think of coming here. Anyone he might have sent after you has surely decided to turn the tables for a bigger payout.”
“$10,000? The ranchers put together that high a bounty?”
Scott swallowed heavily. “I told you, you’re the hometown hero.”
Johnny searched his eyes. “Does that mean Murdoch will let me come home again?”
Scott thought his heart would fall out of his chest at the desperate hope in his little brother’s voice.
“Of course he wants you to come home. We all do.” New tears flooded his cheeks. He cleared his throat to regain control over his voice. “But you have some heavy duty healing to do first. So tonight, brother, you are going to take some laudanum and get a good night’s rest.”
“What if it makes the nightmares come?”
“I’ll be right here to wake you up if it starts to.”
“You were up with me all night last night. You can’t stay up again.”
Oh, there’s no way I’ll be getting any sleep tonight after this conversation!
“I slept today while Val was with you, remember?” It was a lie. He’d gone up to the house, but had spent the morning pacing and fighting down panic attacks.
Scott got up to get the laudanum, mixing a full dose into a cup of water. Johnny drank it, his eyes never leaving Scott’s face.
“There you go.” Scott managed a weak smile. “Now let’s get you settled in. Are you warm enough?”
Johnny carefully sank down, flexing the fingers of his right hand. “Hey, that stuff works good. Where’d you get it?”
“If I tell you, you have to promise not to tell anyone else.” Scott welcomed the chance at levity, and a change of subject.
Scott sat back down, taking Johnny’s left hand into his, and gently starting to rub in a glob of cream. “I ordered it from Boston after my first week here. My hands were so sore and cracked, I couldn’t stand it.”
“I remember. Jelly made you up one of his concoctions.”
“Which didn’t work hardly at all. But I remembered how Nanny Rose’s hands were always so soft and smooth, even in the dead of Boston winter. She used this cream on her hands every night while she’d sing me to sleep. I loved the way it smelled, and the way it made her hands feel.”
Johnny smiled as his eyes fell closed under the laudanum’s effects. “So this is Nanny Rose’s hand cream?”
“Remember, you promised. Brothers’ honor not to tell anyone.”
And Johnny was asleep.
Two telegrams came to town the same day.
The first had Val whooping with joy.
Thatcher had been arrested in Sanborn, and was awaiting trial on half a dozen charges. They had been smart about how they’d written the bounty; it was not to be paid until his sentence was pronounced and Thatcher was in prison or dead. It wasn’t the “Wanted – Dead Only” that he and Scott truly wished for, but it was darn close. It certainly made for easier and quicker money if Thatcher was brought in dead.
Val was disappointed that it hadn’t worked out that way. He knew Johnny would never be able to rest, never feel truly safe, until Thatcher was worm meat. Even then, memories would continue to haunt the boy.
The second telegram was confusing and concerning. It was from Sam:
Bring water drill to Green River. Urgent need. Original destination must wait. Sam
Val and Scott discussed it at the house while Ned was in the barn, changing Johnny’s bandages.
“Basically, it says we’re not welcome at Lancer.” Scott looked out at the farm from where they sat on the front porch. The rain had stopped, but the air retained a damp chill. It was a pretty little farm. Maybe he and Johnny would buy one like it to live on.
“You know who it really is that Murdoch is not inviting home.” Val snorted with disgust.
“If that’s the case, he won’t get either of us. I’m not staying there without Johnny.”
They were supposed to be eating lunch, yet their meals were largely untouched, knowing what was happening in the barn.
“Now that the need for secrecy is done, we can get more detail from Sam about what’s going on.” Val had put aside his plate and was cupping his coffee in his lap. “Once we can send a wire explaining what has kept Johnny away, Murdoch’s bound to have a change of heart, and be all apologetic about what he was thinking.”
“Is that right?” Scott didn’t look away from the scenery.
“It’s not?” Val got up to lean against the roof support facing Scott, who sucked in his air loudly.
“I just don’t know, Val. Murdoch was so… adamant that Johnny left in anger and wasn’t coming home again. He started coming up with reasons that it was just as well.” Scott bowed his head, pinching his nose to hold back his emotion. “All he said on the anniversary of us coming home to Lancer was that we’d need to make another trip to the attorney to sign a new agreement, fifty-fifty.”
“I lost it with him. It was hard enough getting through that day without Johnny there, worrying about here he was, and what might be happening to him. For Murdoch to just write him off without a thought…”
The fury was still there. Scott got up to pace. “This is going to break Johnny’s heart. He’s already asked me at least three times if Murdoch will want him home again.”
“He’s asked me, as well.” Val admitted hoarsely. “I don’t know what to say.”
“I just out-and-out lied to him, said ‘of course, he wants you home’. Because what decent father wouldn’t? Your boy risks his life confronting an animal from his childhood to save your pride and joy of a ranch and those of your neighbors. He spends four months in a hellhole, being beaten by the sadistic megalomaniac he warned you away from in the first place. And you reward him by turning your back on him? That man should be crawling on his knees, begging Johnny for forgiveness. I thought my grandfather was cold of heart, but Murdoch is taking heartlessness to a whole new level!” Scott slammed his fist into the front door as he passed, too angry to register the pain.
Val watched him pace in silence for a stretch. “We could be readin’ Sam’s telegram wrong. Maybe he wants Johnny in his office first, knowing he’s hurt.”
“Nice try, Val. You know Sam wouldn’t delay Johnny’s homecoming for a minute if he thought it was going to be a welcoming one.”
Val grimaced his reluctant agreement. “The best we can do is send some more telegrams back and forth with Sam to get the truth of what’s going on. Then we’ll have a better idea what to tell Johnny.”
“God, Val, I don’t want to deliver Johnny that gut-punch.” Scott sank against the railing, massaging his now throbbing hand. “ And don’t say you’ll do it. It wouldn’t be any easier for you.”
“Hell no, I wasn’t going to offer! Murdoch wasn’t my favorite person to start with. No way I could soften the blow to that boy. I’d be cussing the old man so bad and nasty, I’d make a mess of it.”
“I won’t be any better. Damn.” Scott dropped his head, taking several heavy breaths to stabilize himself. “I’ll go to town to send those wires to Sam and to have my bank set to release the funds for the bounty after Thatcher is sentenced.” He didn’t want to think about what would happen if Thatcher bribed his way free or got off with a minor sentence.
The bounty should have been “Dead Only”.
They moved Johnny up to the house that night, despite his continued protests. There was another bad section of infection on Johnny’s back. Ned was holding off cutting it out, hoping that one of the powders Emilio’s Friends had brought might clean it out. It was hurting Johnny fiercely, causing a raging fever with bone-jarring chills, and aches in every muscle. On top of that, the muscle spasms were bad again.
It actually hurt to look at Johnny; his drawn, grey features, the glazed and bruised-looking eyes, his long fingers tapping out a constant litany of ragged pain against his leg. He alternated pacing the small livingroom with leaning against the front window frame, as he was doing now.
“Looks like that rain is coming back in.” Val took up residence on the other side of the window.
“Dang, and I know you’ve been aching to get up on that high barn roof to fix it.” Johnny drawled, tweaking Val’s fear of heights.
“Nah, it can hold a few days. But Ned did ask if you could go down into his dark, close root cellar to bring up some vegetables for dinner.” Val felt a little bad about his retaliatory comment when he saw the thought of the claustrophobic root cellar make Johnny shiver.
Or maybe it was just the fever.
Johnny didn’t tease back. He just rested his head against the wall, staring blankly out the window.
“How long a ride do you reckon it is back to the ranch?”
Val’s stomach churned at Johnny’s soft question. Although Johnny had been to Ned’s farm before, he definitely hadn’t been headed to Lancer when he’d left. “We came here pretty round-about, so I’m not sure about the direct route. I’d guess four or five days riding, double that by wagon.”
He expected an argument about the wagon, but Johnny didn’t say anything. Waves of pain tightened his jaw and hitched his breathing. Val wanted to make another pitch for laudanum and sleep, but he knew Johnny would refuse.
While the laudanum the previous night hadn’t incited nightmares, it made Johnny struggle through a shifting swirl of confused thoughts, unsettled memories, and raw emotions. He’d refused to take it ever since. After another sleepless, pain-filled night, Val and Scott had agreed that Johnny would take the sleeping powder tonight.
“Scott’s back.” Val realized as he announced it that Johnny had heard his brother coming before he became visible. The boy’s eyes followed Charlie and his tall, straight-backed rider as they came down the trail.
“Scott posted the entire $10,000 bounty, didn’t he?”
Johnny’s question was so quiet and out of the blue, Val looked over at him sharply. The sapphire eyes read their own answer before he stuttered, “Not… not all of it.”
Smooth, Crawford! He groaned to himself.
“Let me guess, $500 or $1,000 from the Cattlemen’s Association, and the rest from Scott.”
Val didn’t know what to say. He was sure Scott would not want Johnny to know he’d bankrolled the bounty.
Johnny didn’t wait for an answer. “I hope he brought more tequila.”
Scott had, along with a variety of other supplies, including new clothes for Johnny. He brought out a pair of dark brown pants which, while still too big for Johnny’s malnourished frame, would fit far better than the ones of Ned’s he’d been wearing.
“And look at this,” Scott grinned as he displayed one of the shirts to Johnny. It was burnt orange with black embroidery on the front. Johnny touched the soft fabric with a slow smile. “You bought this for me?”
“Well, he sure as hell didn’t buy it for me!” Val grunted. His taste in shirts was as beige as Scott’s.
“I thought you’d like it.”
“I do. Thanks, brother.”
Val couldn’t tell whose smile was brighter. “Great, you’ll be glowing in the dark so we can travel at night.”
“Any news in town?” Ned asked, grateful for the extra supplies Scott had stuffed into the oversized saddlebags Ned had loaned him. The roads –if one could call them that– between the farm and town were not passable with a wagon, so he’d sewn two flour sacks together with lengths of leather to transport goods to and from town on horseback.
“I don’t know people to know what might be new.” Scott set coffee beans, flour, and sugar on the shelf by the sink. “I overheard a conversation about a barn-raising next weekend for a new young couple.”
“Yep, the Mercers. Nice folks that bought Lem Seegam’s place. Given the bad shape it was in, I’m surprised they ain’t doing a house-raising, too.” Ned chuckled. “Oh good, I see Aaron Pierce finally slaughtered his hog. Do you boys like your pork roasted, fried, or in a stew?”
“Don’t look at me.” Johnny raised his hands, as all eyes turned to him. “I’m still in eggs and potatoes mode.”
Scott felt Johnny’s forehead and frowned. “This fever is really hanging in there.”
“Yeah, I don’t think that powder is helping that bad spot any. Ned, I’m afraid I’m gonna have to ask you to do some more doctoring on me…”
Val’s stomach turned at Johnny’s casual request. He saw Scott pale out. And, frankly, Ned didn’t look so good, either.
“We need to give the medicine more time to work.” Scott argued.
“I’ll give it until tomorrow. That’ll be three days. It hurts like a sonovabitch, Boston, and the fever makes everything else hurt worse.” Johnny met his brother’s pained gaze. “Yeah, cutting it out hurts bad at the time, but then it’s done. We need to get on the road home before the next batch of wild rains come through and before it starts snowing in the high passes. I don’t want to be traveling with a chunk of rot eating at my shoulder blade.”
Val and Scott exchanged looks.
“It’s too soon for you to be thinking about traveling.” Val took the lead. Although he didn’t know yet what the latest telegram from Sam said, he could tell by the grim look on Scott’s face that things were not good at Lancer.
“Dios, Val, I was traveling every few days from the day they got me outta Northgate. Three states in as many weeks. I’m miles better now, and just want to get home.”
“According to Ned here, you were nine-tenths dead by the time you got here. You oughtn’t have been traveling then, but there was no choice with Thatcher on your tail. You’ve got breathing room now, and you need to be better healed.”
“So what, we hang out here until the roads get so bad we can’t travel until next spring?” Johnny was pacing in anger, but not very steady doing it.
“That’s not what we’re saying, Johnny,” Scott rested his hand on Johnny’s forearm. “We’re only talking another week or two. I looked into getting a wagon in town. They have one that that looks solid enough for the trip, but they don’t have a matched pair of horses for it. The livery owner said he might be able to get a pair from Drury next week.”
Johnny clenched his jaw, his eyes on Scott’s bruised knuckles. Val had heard him comment on them before Scott went into town, something about being sure to pick up more hand cream. It had made Scott laugh uneasily and comment that it generally was best to not have your hand in the doorframe when closing a door.
“I’m not traveling in a wagon. I can’t get comfortable lying down in a bed that ain’t moving. I can ride.”
“No fucking way!”
Scott and Val’s adamant refusals came in unison.
“Johnny, you can barely sit in a chair without breaking a sweat. There’s no need to push yourself.” Scott said gently.
“Riding is going to be ten times as painful as a wagon,” Val added. “We can get you set up with a mattress and some pillows. It’ll be warmer, too.”
“I ain’t traveling in a fucking wagon! I think I’ve been through enough to know what I can and cannot handle.”
“No one’s questioning your strength,” Scott soothed. “I can’t believe you’re even up walking around. In your place, I’d be huddled in my bed howling for pain medication. Hell, little brother, I was in your place, and that’s exactly what I did. I know you want to get home. We want to get you there. But it’s going to be a rough trip. You need to heal some more, and at least be able to eat some decent meals, first.”
Johnny stood rigidly, not wanting to accept Scott’s argument. Scott moved his hand to the back of Johnny’s neck, his way of saying he understood Johnny’s position but the big brother in him wasn’t about to let Johnny do anything that could potentially bring more harm. Johnny’s eyes slid closed. “I’m going to go see the horses.”
The simple statement showed both defeat and defiance. He’d given up the argument –for now– but he wasn’t about to meekly withdraw to his sick room either.
The three men stood in uncomfortable silence watching Johnny trudge his way to the corral.
“Too freaking cold for him to be outside.” Val muttered. Scott nodded his agreement, although his thoughts were a state away in California.
Ned sensed the two men needed to talk. He went into his bedroom, returning with
a deerskin jacket. “It was Dack’s. I guess there was a good reason I couldn’t get rid of it.” He got his own jacket from a peg by the door. “I’ll make sure he’s warm enough and give you boys a chance to talk. It’d be real nice if you started cooking while you’re jawing.”
Ned disappeared outside. Val stood there a while more before moving to the kitchen and setting the frying pan on the stove. He unwrapped the pork, and started cutting it into chops. He trimmed chunks of fat to toss into the pan to render. “I vote for fried pork chops. Cut up a few taters, carrots, and that turnip to toss in. I’ll do the onion.”
Val busied himself with cooking, watching out of the corner of his eye as Scott followed directions. “What was the word from Sam?”
The blows of the knife against the cutting board became violent. “Not good, Val, not good.”
The elder man bided his time, knowing Scott had to harness his emotions before the details would come.
“He’s blaming it on Murdoch’s drinking.”
“Murdoch not wanting Johnny home.”
Val stopped in the middle of salting and peppering the chops. “He said that he didn’t?”
Scott gave an angry shake of his head. “Sam used the word ‘confused’. Murdoch remains ‘confused’ despite being told what really happened. Sam suggested we plan to stay in town with him due to Johnny’s injuries. He said we can sort things out together.”
“That’s not going to work. Even if Johnny was willing to hang out at Sam’s, the second he gets there and doesn’t see Murdoch, he’s gonna know what’s going on.”
Scott snorted. “I just sent back, ‘sober him up’. I was so livid, I couldn’t think of what else to say.” He shoved the sliced vegetables in Val’s direction, set the knife down, watching, without seeing, as Val laid the chops into the pan. “I think I have to tell Johnny while we’re still here. I can’t let him push himself to get home only to face Murdoch’s anger, or worse, his dismissal. I can’t do that to him. He’ll be furious I kept it from him. He’ll leave.”
Val tossed the vegetables into the pan, wiping his hands on a towel before using a fork to stir them around. “What exactly are you going to tell him?”
“Damned if I know, Val. Especially after I assured him that of course Murdoch wants him home.” Scott sank into a chair, resting his elbows on the table, and bowing his head into his hands. “There isn’t a way to soften the blow. ‘Guess what, little brother, our old man is now a drunk who couldn’t give a shit about us. Looks like what my grandfather and your mother told us about him when we were kids weren’t such big lies after all.”
“I don’t mean to poke a bullet hole, Scott, but it’s worse than that. It looks like Murdoch does want you back. I know, I know, you won’t go without Johnny. But that’s only going to cut that boy double. First, that Murdoch is choosing you over him, more though, he’ll chew himself up if you walk away from Lancer because of him.”
“It’s not because of him! It’s because that old bastard made a choice no decent father ever would!”
“Johnny won’t see it that way.”
“I know, Val. Goddamn it, I know.”
Johnny tried to eat supper, likely to meet Scott’s requirement he be able to eat meals before they headed home. After no more than four bites, he spent the rest of the meal tearing apart a biscuit, and pushing the crumbs around with his fork.
No one commented on his absent appetite, nor his lack of interest in checkers or poker, but both Scott and Val felt their worry escalate when he didn’t object to their insistence that he take a sleeping powder that night.
“Are you doing okay?” Scott stroked Johnny’s hair as the boy settled into bed. “You were awfully quiet tonight.”
Johnny didn’t look at him. “I’m tired of being sick. Please let Ned cut the infection out tomorrow.”
Scott grimaced. Johnny had to be pretty miserable to plead for the agonizing procedure. “If it’s not better by morning, I’ll ride into Drury to bring the doctor back. I think I’ll do that anyway. It’s been too long since you’ve seen one.”
“Why waste the time and money when the doc will only do what Ned can?”
“There are probably other things the doctor can do to make you feel better.”
“Not in my experience.” Johnny muttered.
Scott got out the hand cream and sat on the side of the bed. There were so few places on his brother’s body he could touch without worsening the pain. He sensed Johnny was in need of extra comfort tonight.
He held off giving Johnny the sleeping powder in case the boy wanted to talk.
He felt bad he’d crushed Johnny’s hope to leave for home in a few days. Still, it was a topic he hoped wouldn’t come up again tonight.
“I should be the one rubbing Nancy Rose’s cream into your hand.” Johnny said as Scott began to gingerly massage the tender joints of Johnny’s right hand.
“Luckily, I have one good hand that the door didn’t crunch I can use to rub the sore one. I was afraid you were gonna give me up to Val today when you saw it.”
“Nope. Brothers’ honor. I’d never break it.” Johnny answered without opening his eyes.
“I appreciate it. I’m sure the temptation to tease over my stupidity was very strong.”
“I’ve punched a wall or two in my time, Boston.” Johnny said quietly. “You should train yourself to lead with your left, though. It’s not a good idea to mess up your gun hand.”
Scott stopped. “I… ” He almost denied he’d punched something. But he didn’t want to worsen the lies. “I’ll have to remember that,” he finished weakly. He didn’t look at Johnny.
His gaze on Johnny’s rope-torn wrists, and scarred, battered hands tweaked sudden tears, so he kept his head bowed as he gently used his thumbs to soothe the brutalized tissues.
A long silence reigned. He feared Johnny would ask what had led to his loss of control. He scrambled for a plausible answer.
Johnny’s soft question a moment later was far worse.
“Will he at least let me take Barranca?”
All the blood rushed to Scott’s feet as an icy dagger ripped into his heart.
Holy hell, what do I say?
Scott couldn’t form a coherent sentence or bear to look at the penetrating sapphire eyes he could feel fixed on him. His own eyes closed.
God, please help me through this.
“Murdoch got himself all worked up when you left to find evidence on Thatcher.” The words came weakly, scattered. He picked at them like chickens at their feed. “His guilt drove him to start drinking way too much. He convinced himself you left in anger, and weren’t coming home again.”
Johnny’s hand had become ice cold in his. Or maybe he was the one transmitting the chill.
“Does he know what really happened?”
Scott moved his eyes to Johnny’s, but his brother was now staring off into the dimly lit room. He moved one hand to stroke the boy’s feverish temple. “Sam has tried to talk to him. It sounds like not much is getting past the alcohol. It’s hard to tell much through telegrams, though.”
“Except that he doesn’t want me to come home.” Johnny whispered, his features slack and ashen.
“We don’t know that, Johnny. It sounds like he may have given up on all of us, even the ranch. Cip has been running it for months now.”
“Because I left…”
“No, not because you left.” Scott gently tilted Johnny’s chin to make him look at him. “Because Murdoch couldn’t deal with the shame of having let you down so badly. We were both teetering on the edge, especially when the posse missed catching Thatcher by just a few hours in San Jose and we didn’t know where you were. We thought we’d lost you forever, and it was our fault because we didn’t come right after you from Cross Creek. We were going through a bottle of whiskey every other day, not to mention drinking our dinners in wine.”
Scott felt as though he could fall into the well of pain in his brother’s eyes.
“But you came to find me.”
And he didn’t, was the unspoken dagger.
Scott’s eyes filled with tears at Johnny’s desolation. Here, the boy had finally opened his heart to the idea that he could have a family, a father and a brother who would always love him, and be there for him. And the first time –the very first damn time– he allowed himself to need his father, Murdoch had shattered that fragile bond into a thousand jagged pieces.
“Yes. I did. And I’m not going to leave you, no matter what.” Scott stroked his slender fingers over Johnny’s cheek. “Together we will go home and knock some sense into Murdoch. If he doesn’t snap out of it, we’ll either stay at Lancer without him, or find a place of our own. Together. Always together. Nothing will get in the way of that.” He felt the dampness of his brother’s warm tears. “Brothers’ honor.”
Val checked on them when Scott never came back out of the bedroom. He found Johnny asleep, the empty glass, spoon, and sleeping powder packet on the nightstand giving testimony as to how that had occurred. Scott was in a chair angled between the bed and the fire, his blank gaze on the smoldering embers.
Val added a log after stirring the fire back to life.
“Everything okay?” He knew by Scott’s lack of acknowledgment that it wasn’t.
“He knew.” Scott rasped. “About Murdoch. He already knew.”
Val winced as he sat on the hearth. “How?”
Scott rubbed his face harshly, leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, still not making eye contact. “He reminded me he’s warned me not to bet big at poker.”
Val’s eyebrows lifted, but he didn’t respond.
Scott dropped his head, his fingers intertwined at the knuckles. “I know I was struggling to be encouraging when he’d talk about Murdoch. He figured out I’d been the one to up the bounty, not Murdoch.”
“He kinda caught me out on that while you were in town. I didn’t answer him outright, but my hesitation probably said it anyway. I’m sorry, Scott.”
“It doesn’t matter. He’d picked up on other things, not the least of which being that Murdoch didn’t come with us to find him, didn’t come running to see him once we were able to say where we were.”
Scott’s eyes drifted to his sleeping brother. “I knew it was more than him not feeling good tonight. I was still trying to figure out what to tell him, when out of nowhere he asked if Murdoch was going to allow him to take Barranca with him.”
Val let his air out in a whoosh as if gut-punched.
“Thank God I had Sam confirm that Jelly was able to take Barranca over to Aggie Conway’s.” Scott levered his long body out of the chair, pacing over to the bed. He feathered his finger across Johnny’s long eyelashes, a trick he’d figured out after his brother had played possum on him one too many times. Tonight it was a touch of affection, knowing Johnny was deeply in the hold of the sleeping powder. “He still wants to go ho… to Lancer. He says he wants to hear Murdoch tell him he’s not welcome there right to his face.”
“He isn’t going to give up his birthright without a fight.”
“Can’t blame him for that. And I wouldn’t mind a front row seat to him confronting Murdoch and giving the old bastard what for.”
Scott shook his head slowly, shuddering a bit. “Except he’s not angry, Val. It’s like he knew all along that this was going to happen. All those little digs Murdoch would throw at him, all the yelling about the rules, and Murdoch not being able to trust him. I told you, Val. I knew they were building up inside him, and one day it was going to explode. I was so worried that finding out about Murdoch was going to hurt him, but damn, seeing his resignation is almost worse.”
“Kid’s survived a lot of heartache over the years.” Val rubbed a finger across his unruly mustache. “It’s sad, but being rejected is more his norm than being loved. Even his Mama, God bless her flawed soul, hurt him more often than she protected him. He wouldn’t be surprised by Murdoch’s abandonment. He woulda been more shocked if Murdoch had come.”
Scott’s eyes slid closed, his face ashen. “He didn’t even think I would. That’s why he doesn’t blame me for not going after him that first day; he never expected me to come at all.”
“Did he say that?” Val frowned.
Scott reached to touch Johnny’s face again, then drew back and just stood there, looking down at the boy.
Scott crossed to sit on the other side of the fireplace. “Murdoch could never accept that Madrid was a part of Johnny Lancer. He wanted to wash it away, like a stain on a white linen tablecloth. It didn’t fit with the idea of who a son of Murdoch Lancer’s should be. As soon as he heard Johnny knew Thatcher, he assumed it was from his gunfighting days. He couldn’t see his boy was hurting, couldn’t countenance giving up a lucrative business deal. Instead, he gave up his son.
“The night before the vote, I asked Johnny if he had been hurt by Thatcher. I’ve seen him face down gunfighters, land pirates, wild horses, ignorant bigots, rattlesnakes, the current of Two Forks River, all without a flicker of fear or hesitation. So when I realized the reaction I’d seen from him at the meeting was from seeing Thatcher, I knew that animal had done something terrible to Johnny before Madrid had been there to protect him. I told him he should tell Murdoch, but he said he couldn’t risk that it wouldn’t make a difference.” Scott tossed a wood chip from the hearth into the fire. “Boy, did Johnny have Murdoch pegged.”
“He’s always been able to read people real good.”
“Mmm, he read me too. Knew I’d been lying about Murdoch wanting him home. He actually…” Scott swallowed against a thick lump in his throat. “…thanked me for trying to protect him.”
“So you know then, he trusted you’d come for him. Hopefully, he trusted I’d come, too. He ain’t one to like people trying to protect him. Or take care of him. That don’t mean he don’t trust us to try.. he just never thinks he’s worth it.”
“And damned if Murdoch Lancer didn’t just drive that home with a sledgehammer!”
“Bastard. Well, at least it will slow Johnny’s push to hurry home, give him more time to heal up, and to be around people who do care about him.”
“Oh, no such luck, Val. He’s insistent that Ned’s going to cut the infection out of that belt buckle mark tomorrow, and we’re leaving for Lancer on a horse I’m going to buy him in town the next day.”
“That’s just bullshit. Ain’t happening.”
“That’s what I said, almost exactly.” Scott leaned his head against the riverstones of the fireplace. “He said Emilio’s Friends are due back tomorrow, and if we don’t help him get back to Lancer, he’ll ask them to do it.”
“You’re kidding!” Val jumped up to pace. “That little shit. And you know he’d do it, too.”
“Oh yes, I know it.”
And so they found themselves on the road to the San Joaquin Valley two days later after heartfelt thank-yous and goodbyes to Ned and Emilio’s Friends. They added two new horses besides Charlie and Renegade, having decided they also needed a pack horse after they’d laid in every comfort item and medical supply they could think of.
Johnny rode on his own for several hours, then doubled with Val for a few more. He could only ride behind because of the lash marks on his back, and only bareback, which Scott couldn’t manage. It wasn’t much better than riding solo, as Val had no way to help hold him on, but it allowed Johnny short snatches of sleep, leaning against Val’s back, when the pain wasn’t overwhelming.
Those brief moments of relief dissolved with the morning haze. Johnny was not about to complain, though. It was his idea to be traveling this way and so soon. They’d hoped to make it to Drury, a town with both a hotel and a doctor, but Johnny was so drained when they stopped for lunch, he couldn’t even hold down water.
Scott declared they were making camp for the night. Johnny’s attempts to argue were undermined when he started retching and pitched off to get sick behind a tree mid-sentence.
“We’re not gonna let ya kill yourself!” Val admonished, pulling Johnny to lie part way across his lap, while Scott rolled mint leaves into a wad for him to chew. “Shut up and close your eyes.”
Surprisingly, Johnny slept most of the afternoon like that, after Scott propped pillows and rolls around him and Val, and buried them in a pile of blankets. Val dozed, too. Scott sat back, drinking coffee, watching them, praying the gathering clouds held off until after they reached Drury. His mind considered, and rejected, a dozen ways to confront Murdoch. Most of the scenarios started or concluded with him shoving a fist into his father’s face. He tried to take his brother’s advice and lead with his left.
Val stirred and opened his eyes. Scott rose and crouched by the two men. “Are you okay?” he whispered.
Val grimaced. “I have to take a piss.”
“S’okay, I do, too.” Johnny rubbed his face and tried to push himself up, the movement making Val groan as it pressed on his overfull bladder. The sheriff quickly crawled out, unbuttoning his pants as he hobbled into the trees on sleep-numb legs. His loud sigh of relief could be heard in the clearing. Johnny let Scott help him up, then took care of business by himself. He talked to and petted the horses for a few minutes before making his way back to the campfire.
“Thanks for being my bed, Val.”
“I think my legs are permanently cricked.” Val groused, gratefully accepting a cup of coffee from Scott before taking the elder brother’s spot against a deadfall.
Scott carried a canteen to Johnny. “How’s the stomach?”
“Okay, if I don’t push it.” Johnny took the canteen, swallowing a few sips while Scott felt his forehead.
“I don’t feel a fever.”
“Nope, don’t feel like it from this end either. Ned does wonders with his sharp little knife.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me.” Val stared into his coffee. As a condition of Johnny traveling, one of them had to watch Ned deal with the infection, so they’d know what to do if it came up again on the road. Val had been the obvious choice, not only because of Scott’s experiences at Libby, but because he’d cut a bullet out of Johnny once before, so digging a knife into the boy’s flesh wouldn’t be new.
That didn’t mean it wasn’t horrifying, even to watch it being done. First, Val had to see the entirety of Johnny’s whip-torn and belt-mangled back. Then he had to force himself to hold his stomach as Ned went to work. The fact that Johnny gripped both of his hands into iron fists to keep from screaming was the only thing that kept him from running from the room. He’d spent the rest of the day in the barn, snapping and cursing at Scott whenever he checked on him.
It wasn’t just for Johnny’s sake that Scott hoped the procedure wouldn’t have to be repeated on the trail.
“Sorry, I couldn’t make it to that town.” Johnny’s voice broke into Scott’s thoughts. “How far away do you think we are?”
“You don’t get to apologize for not pushing your battered body beyond reasonable limits on this ill-advised trip of yours.” Scott groused.
“Don’t be sorry,” Scott sighed. “Drink some more water. I think it’s three or four hours from here.”
“I hope they have good tequila. The stuff from that place near Ned’s is terrible.”
“How can you tell? All tequila tastes terrible.” Scott sat down shoulder to shoulder with his brother. “Do you need something for pain?”
“Nah, I’m fine.”
All three finished his sentence at the same time. He grinned sheepishly at his companions. “I guess I’m getting predictable.”
“A bit. Can you tolerate some broth, a biscuit, or maybe some of Ned’s cracker mash?”
“Possibly, when I’ve woken up a bit more.”
Scott entertained them with a story about a drunk party goer and an untimely delivery of a load of coal. He didn’t miss Johnny’s subdued reaction, nor the pattern his fingers were tracing on the silk scarf tucked inside his shirt.
Scott didn’t want to harp on Johnny’s pain, but neither could he bear to ignore it. “Do you want me to try some salve on your back? I can try sliding it under the edges of the bandages.”
Johnny dropped his eyes. “No, thanks.”
Scott pressed his lips together. “Or Val could do it.”
Val didn’t wait for Johnny’s predictable refusal. He hopped up and dug into the bag with the medical supplies. “Let me try that honey paste the lady at the livery raved about. I’ve always said you must be part horse with the way they respond to you, maybe a pony poultice will help.”
“I have been called a stallion a time or two.” Johnny cracked, getting groans from both men.
Scott sat cross-legged in front of Johnny to help him unbutton his shirt. “Wow, riding didn’t do your hands any favors.” They were swollen, blue-tinged, and cold. “Are you having a hard time holding on? And I need honesty, Johnny, not an answer to avoid us getting a wagon in Drury.”
Johnny flexed his fingers with a grimace. “I don’t think I am, but they sure hurt a lot.”
Val looked at Johnny’s hands over his shoulder. “My hands still hurt from you squeezing them yesterday. I think the pain is making you clench them, maybe you aren’t even realizing it.”
“Sorry I hurt you.”
“Really? That’s what you thought I wanted you to get from what I just said?” Val responded angrily. “Not even close! Look at how deep these marks are on your wrists. You were probably pulling so hard against whatever they tied you up with when they were whipping you that you cut off the circulation. Clenching your fists when you’re in pain is making the swelling and bruising worse. The message you should get from me is, you gotta let us help you manage the pain better.”
Scott could see that Val’s anger upset Johnny. The boy’s eyes were downcast, his breathing uneven. He gave Val an ‘anger isn’t the best way to deal with this’ look. The lawman was instantly chagrined. He gently rubbed the back of Johnny’s head.
“Sorry, mijo, didn’t mean to yell. I hate seeing you hurt.”
“I know.” Johnny rubbed his hands and glanced up at Scott. “Can we tell him what you’ve been doing to make them feel better?”
Scott couldn’t help but smile at his brother’s impish grin. He gave an exaggerated sigh. “I suppose, only because the secret will be hard to keep while we’re traveling. But I’ll tell it, I don’t trust you not to embellish.”
“Does that mean rib you?”
Scott laughed. “Yes, in this case it does.”
They made it to Drury by mid-morning the next day. It was a surprisingly attractive little town, with well-maintained buildings and clean streets. Unfortunately, the doctor covered four towns, and wouldn’t be back until the day after next. Scott and Val argued for staying until then, Johnny refused. They compromised by agreeing to meet the doctor on his way back in the town of Palin the next day.
They took time to get proper baths, as Ned only had a round, wooden washtub at the farm. The bathhouse had three tubs with heavy privacy curtains in between. Johnny hadn’t wanted Scott to help him get undressed, but Val had gone over to talk with the sheriff, and Johnny knew he couldn’t manage it alone.
“We’ll leave the bandages on so the water can help soak them off,” Scott suggested, so Johnny wouldn’t be worried about him seeing his back. “I’ll support you under your good arm so you can ease yourself down.”
Even without seeing Johnny’s back, Scott still swallowed back nausea at the sight of Johnny’s emaciated body and the various injuries that had been hidden beneath his clothes. He’d had peeks at Johnny’s ribs, but hadn’t seen his swollen knees, battered shoulder blade, rope-burned ankles, or the scabs, sores and scars beneath Johnny’s long johns. Scott bit the inside of his cheek to keep his horror from showing. “Nice and easy, let me support your weight.”
Although they’d made the bath water tepid, it felt to burn flayed skin. Johnny cursed in Spanish and began to tremble.
“Is it too much?” Scott worried.
“S’okay,” Johnny answered breathlessly, sinking down the rest of the way with a very American curse.
Scott waited until Johnny’s grimace had eased and he opened his eyes. “Better?”
“Yeah, I’m good.”
“Yeah, you sound great. Do you want some of the tequila?”
“No thanks,” Johnny slid a little further down in the water. Scott rolled a small towel for under Johnny’s neck. “Thanks. Get in yours before it gets cold. It’s gonna be a while before I’m willing to add any soap.”
“I don’t blame you for that, little brother.” Scott undressed and got in the tub. He kept the top part of the curtain open, so he could see Johnny’s face. The bath felt wonderful on Scott’s sore muscles, drawing him toward sleep. He fought it until Val arrived, then gave in.
He awoke to Johnny moaning twenty minutes later. The curtain had been pulled fully closed. He heard Val quietly soothing Johnny, and knew they were either pulling off stuck bandages or cleaning raw wounds. He wanted to offer to add his support to Val’s, but knew how Johnny would react.
It was actually worse to not see what was going on. His mind conjured Johnny being whipped and beaten. He had to bite his knuckle to avoid crying out in shared anguish.
“Dios, Val, is there a bucket?” Johnny’s voice came, followed by quick shuffling, then the sound of retching.
Scott quickly washed in the now-cold water and got out. He struggled with what to do as he hurriedly dried and dressed. “How can I help?”
“Shoot me,” came Johnny’s mournful reply.
Scott gripped the curtain in his fist, wishing he had a way to comfort his brother.
“Just one last stuck part,” Val said grimly. “I can see that the tequila wasn’t a good idea. Can you hold down some laudanum?”
“I can’t even hold down the lining of my stomach. Just pull the fucking thing off and get it over with.”
Val did, Johnny yelled a high-pitched curse, and Scott sat down abruptly as his knees buckled. He must have made noise as Val’s distraught face suddenly peered around the curtain, checking on him. He waved the elder man away, but not before catching a glimpse of Johnny’s whip-torn shoulders and the bright red blood that dripped down into the bath water.
Scott ground his teeth together to keep from vomiting, scrambling out the back door to the alleyway to fall on his knees, bringing up what little he had eaten. A couple walking by stopped, horrified by Scott’s shirtless and barefoot spewing, before the man hustled the woman away.
So much for spotless streets. Scott thought as he took careful breaths, trying to recover. He pushed some dirt over the mess he’d made, brushed his hands off on his pants, and stumbled back inside.
“Scott?” Val’s voice came.
“I gave him laudanum and he’s out. I’m sorry but I’m gonna need your help getting him out of here.”
“Not a problem.” Scott pushed back the curtain. One look at Val told him Johnny’s Papi was done in. Lieutenant Lancer came to the fore. “Go outside and get a few breaths of cold air. I’ll start getting the water out of the tub.”
“Hell, Val, none of us are anywhere close to alright! Go get some fresh air and rent us a couple of rooms.”
Val struggled to get up, but then followed Scott’s instructions. Scott knelt by Johnny’s tub, taking a moment to stroke his brother’s forehead before opening the drain. Johnny wasn’t totally out. He moaned and murmured something in Spanish.
“Easy, little brother, we’re going to get you fixed up and into a nice comfortable bed. Hang in there.”
Val was back sooner than Scott expected. The tub was nearly empty. Scott held Johnny forward while Val blotted his back dry with a towel. The two spots where the bandage had adhered tightly were still bleeding richly. Val fashioned bandages which he held on with a long strip of cloth wrapped around Johnny’s ribs and up over one shoulder. “I think we should just toss a shirt over the rest of these to get him upstairs, then leave them open to air for a bit. Ned said they’d relayed from the doc that air was good for them.”
Johnny murmured something and tried to get up.
“Shh, settle back.” Scott soothed.
“Actually, Scott, if we can get him to help us stand him up, it’ll be a hell of a lot easier to get him out and dressed.”
Scott saw the wisdom of Val’s suggestion. “Okay, Johnny, let’s get you out.”
Surprisingly, Johnny was able to help them get him up, out, and dressed. He was in his own world, unable to keep his eyes open, alternating between Spanish and English in quiet conversation with himself. Even though Val spoke fluent Spanish, he didn’t understand what Johnny was saying. Scott couldn’t understand the English either until Johnny’s suddenly looked at him as they were crossing the hotel lobby and asked, “Hey, Boston, whatcha doin’ in Mexico?”
Scott smiled faintly, glad Johnny was too drugged to feel the pain of having his right arm draped over Val’s shoulder, or the pressure both men’s crossed arms put on his back. “Oh, I just dropped in to say, ‘hello’.”
Johnny nodded knowingly. “Come to help me find Val?”
That got a laugh from both men.
“And he did a good job of it, too,” Val chuckled, “Cuz here I am.”
“Hah, that’s great. We should go to the cantina.”
“Nope, you’re going to bed.”
Johnny frowned, swiveling his head around to look out the windows of the hotel, making it very hard to get him upstairs. “Still light out.”
“Yup.” Val groaned as Johnny leaned back too far and nearly toppled them all. “Forward march, Johnny boy, up the stairs.”
Johnny bent forward to look at his feet, nearly knocking the men off-balance again. “Ain’t got no boots.”
“That’s cuz you’re going to bed. Common’ now, one step at a time.”
They maneuvered him up the stairs, down the hall, and into one of the rooms. It had two beds, a dresser with a wash basin, a table, two chairs, and nothing else.
Johnny flopped down onto his stomach on the nearest bed. “Whew, I drank too much.”
“Probably some truth to that,” Val said quietly to Scott as they gently stood him up again to peel off his shirt and pants. “I know you’re not supposed to mix laudanum with alcohol. I thought he threw up the tequila before he got much, but I musta miscalculated. I wasn’t expecting him to go out that quickly, and certainly wasn’t expecting this.”
“I’m sure everything is out of whack. Like you said, it was a blessing for getting him out and up here.” Scott winced, seeing where the two spots had already bled through both dressings. “Is one of those where Ned cut out the rotten tissue?”
Val nodded as he unraveled the bandage strip and put pressure over the wound on Johnny’s right shoulder blade. “This one here. The one you’ve got is from the time before. It’s still got a ring of yellow to it. Ned didn’t want to add to Johnny’s pain the other day by cutting it out too. He said the infected stuff tends to stick to the bandages hard, so sometimes you can just pull it out.”
“Sorry, I can hold both of these if you need some air.”
“I’m okay.” Scott sounded anything but. He was trying to hold the bandage without looking at the rest of Johnny’s back.
“Did you have another flashback downstairs?” Val asked quietly.
“Not really a flashback. Just imagining what it must have felt like…” His mind started to go there again, so he quickly shook his head. “Whatever it was, I guess I threw it up.” He laughed weakly, then immediately sobered. “I don’t care how much he argues, Val, he’s staying here until the doc sees him and says he can travel.”
“Agreed. In a way we lucked out. Emilio’s Friends ain’t coming here, so he’s got no other option but us for helping him travel.”
Once the wounds stopped bleeding, they left them all open to air. Scott, who hadn’t slept much the previous night, napped on the other bed while Val kept an eye on Johnny. The boy slept for a few hours, but restlessly, soft sounds somewhere between murmurs and moans punctuating his movements.
“Rest easy, hijo,” Val urged, lightly stroking an uninjured spot on the side of Johnny’s neck.
“…what am I gonna do, Papi?” The boy moaned, deeply in the throes of laudanum and tequila –and, much to Val’s dismay, a rapidly rising fever.
“Go back to sleep, I hope. Are you cold?” He drew the covers up over Johnny’s arm and chest, hoping to leave his back exposed to air a while longer.
He froze when Johnny murmured, “Murdoch don’t want me at Lancer no more…”
Val quickly cast a glance at Scott, who was now wide awake, his features streaked with pain.
“…thought I wouldn’t hafta run anymore…” The depth of Johnny’s despair was heartbreaking.
“No, no more running,” Val soothed, keeping his eyes on Scott, desperate for clues on what to say. “You got me and Scott. You’ll be with us.”
Scott got up and sat on the bed by Johnny’s legs, gently rubbing them through the covers. “I’m here with Val. We’re going to take care of you.”
Johnny’s eyes remained closed, his face toward the wall, his breathing becoming more strident. Sweat developed across his face as he suddenly raised his hands in defense. “…no belt, Murdoch…I’ll go…”
Scott’s eyes widened in horror, his hand moving quickly to Johnny’s cheek, trying to bring the boy away from his confusion and fear. “No, no belt. Murdoch would never hit you. No one’s going to hurt you.”
Despite both men’s reassurances, Johnny descended into a delirium of painful attacks. His thin body recoiled from remembered and imagined beatings. Witnessing the boy’s agony was made worse by the belief Johnny was envisioning Murdoch whipping him. Murdoch wore a wide leather belt with a massive Cattlemen’s Association buckle.
For the next twelve hours, they battled Johnny’s nightmares and fever. He started coming around for a few moments at a time, long enough to take sips of water. He was dazed and distant, not talking to them, not making eye contact. While they knew the pain was bad, they hesitated to give him more laudanum for fear of inciting more nightmares.
Finally, Johnny fell into a quiet sleep. Val dropped onto the other bed not long after, and Scott gingerly crawled over Johnny to lie on his side between him and the wall, tucking Johnny’s head under his chin as he closed his eyes. He wanted Johnny to instantly feel his presence if the boy woke up, even though their vigil the night before never seemed to have penetrated Johnny’s tortured consciousness.
Scott had to keep his eyes closed or he was looking down on the mess of brutality on Johnny’s back. The lash marks extended up over his shoulders and neck, across his ribs, over his buttocks and down his thighs. A month after his escape, some had twisted into scars, several alternated between scabs and healing, but half a dozen remained open and raw.
Johnny’s hair was still mostly a soft fuzz where it was growing back over cuts and bruised lumps. It smelled of soap and warm sweat, an oddly comforting scent. Scott inhaled deeply, easing himself out of the tension of the night’s ordeal. It would be light in a couple of hours.
Although he couldn’t consider eating, his stomach reminded him that none of them had eaten since breakfast the day before. They were all at the end of their strength, yet still faced with Johnny’s ongoing pain, coupled with worry whether the boy could survive this ill-fated trip, and then what faced them at Lancer.
Johnny shifted and moaned. Scott turned his head so his lips were right by Johnny’s ear, whispering of his presence and love. The boy settled quickly.
At some point, Scott drifted off, staying asleep until Johnny started to move toward wakefulness at mid-morning. Val was awake, standing over the bed. He offered a hand to help Scott out.
“I want to get his back covered before he’s awake enough to realize you’ve seen it.” Val didn’t bother with morning pleasantries. Scott held cotton pads over the deep gashes while Val wound strips of cloth under Johnny’s arms and over his shoulder. He slid a shirt over Johnny’s right arm, drew it across his back, leaving the other sleeve tucked under his shoulder. “Thanks, go take care of yourself. I’ve been already. Tell Evie in the kitchen that we’re up. She wants to bring breakfast up here and check Johnny’s injuries. She’s Doc Bennett’s nurse when he’s in town and takes care of people when he’s away. Irv, the sheriff, told her all about what happened to Johnny. She’s got a poultice and some elixirs she said will help with the infection, fevers, and pain.”
When Scott returned, Johnny was sitting on the side of the bed, mostly dressed, looking like he’d had exactly the rough night he’d had. Scott sat down beside him.
“You look like you could use a few more hours of sleep… or maybe days. There’s nothing to get up for.”
“Can’t sleep.” Johnny rubbed his eyes, looking every bit like an exhausted little kid fighting bedtime. An exhausted, scruff-faced little kid. Scott ran the back of his hand over Johnny’s pale cheeks.
“I can shave you again, if you want.” He wasn’t sure if it was because Johnny was so young, or if his beard just grew slowly, but there was only a dark shadow after four days, where Scott had to shave a second time if he was going out in the evening.
Johnny graced him with a grin. “That would be great.”
By the time they’d helped Johnny out to the privy and back, breakfast had been brought up. Evie fussed over Johnny, all gentle business as she checked him over, peeking under dressings, clicking her tongue at various injuries. Johnny was visibly uncomfortable as she worked, but because she didn’t over-mother or show pity, he warmed up to her. When he asked about her family, her favorite things to cook, and how she managed to have time to be a nurse, too, Evie succumbed to Johnny’s charms like virtually every other woman, young or old.
“I’m going to go downstairs to mix up some medicines and a poultice for you. While I’m gone, you need to eat breakfast and drink the tea I brought.”
“Willowbark?” Johnny asked with a grimace.
“No, I don’t deal with that nasty stuff. It’s raspberry and honey. For breakfast choices there’s hot creamed wheat and eggs. I’ll be checking to see that you do a good job.”
“I, uh, haven’t done too good with food.”
“Do you think I can’t see that, young man?” Evie gentled her response with a smile. “The tea will help you keep the food down. Do you like churros?”
“They’re my favorite.” Johnny’s face brightened enormously.
Scott smiled, reminded again of the little kid.
“I’ll make you some. If you’ve eaten at least half of either the eggs or cereal when I get back, I’ll let you have one, deal?”
“Uht, no ‘ma’am’, my name is Evie.”
Johnny ducked his head. “I can’t call you by your given name, ma’am.” Evie could be Johnny’s grandmother, perhaps his great-grandmother.
“Well, I do like a boy with manners.” Evie rubbed Johnny’s head. “How about Nanny? That’s what my grandchildren call me.”
“Nanny, like Nanny Rose?” Johnny looked at Scott with sparkle in his eyes. “I never had a Nanny. You sure your family won’t mind if I use their lovin’ name for you?”
“Oh, what a sweet one you are. Lovin’ name.” She held Johnny’s head to her ample bosom. “No darling, they won’t mind at all. Now you eat up before it gets cold, and I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
Johnny pushed himself to eat breakfast, a few bites of egg, even less of the creamed wheat. He quickly got to the point where another mouthful would bring all the rest of it back up again.
“Do you think that will count as half?” he asked mournfully, as clearly it wasn’t.
“I’d say so,” Val scooped several large chunks of eggs from Johnny’s plate into his mouth. “Don’t ya think so, Scott?”
Scott bought in, pouring half of Johnny’s cereal into his own bowl. “Yes, I’d say a good half.”
Johnny’s smile was so bright, it made Scott’s insides hurt. Sadly, Johnny probably wouldn’t be able to eat the churro either.
After breakfast, Scott gave Johnny a shave.
“I like this, now I have a Nanny and a manservant.”
“Oh, you think I’m going to be your manservant, do you, little brother?” Scott challenged with a grin as Val laughed.
“You’ve got the shaving and dressing parts down. What else do manservants do?”
“Keep your room clean…”
“I need that, then Teresa won’t feel the need to barge into my room. What else?”
“Shine your boots every evening…”
“I like that one, I ain’t never had my boots shined.”
“Put in your orders with the kitchen, make appointments for you, call your carriage…”
“Nope, don’t need any of that.”
“Open you mail…”
“He reads your mail?” Johnny sounded horrified and even Val raised his eyebrows.
“Opens the mail, he doesn’t read it.”
“Oh, so you don’t get like a paper cut or something?”
“Or something.” Scott grinned. “I’m afraid I am otherwise employed, but would you like me to put out a request for applicants for you?”
“I don’t know,” Johnny frowned as if seriously considering it, “I could end up with that Niles guy who cut your face all to hell shaving you.”
“Niles was actually a wonderful man-servant.” Scott said fondly, as he put away the shaving gear. “He was the closest thing I had to a big brother. He got me out of a lot of scrapes, taught me about seeing the real side of people, all kinds of people, certainly not something I would have learned from my grandfather.”
“You must miss him.”
“I do, but we write. He’s thinking of coming to San Francisco to open a clothing store.”
“He’s tired of… manservanting?” Johnny moved gingerly to the bed. Breakfast wasn’t settling too well and he wanted to be within grabbing distance of the chamber pot. Val excused himself to go talk with Irv again.
“He says I was a hard act to follow.” Scott chuckled. “He claims he is too old to manage snot-nosed, entitled kids who don’t know the first thing about surviving in the real world.”
“But you did?”
“Hell no. Not until I threw myself into it headlong in the cavalry. I was just as clueless and arrogant as his next round of boys. But we got pretty close after I got back.”
“Did you tell him about Libby?”
“Not really. He figured some things out from my nightmares. Mostly he talked about people he knew, his childhood, how much he missed his family. He’d tell me the gossip going around about different scandals. It didn’t matter what we talked about, it kept my mind occupied.”
“Kinda like talking about getting a manservant?” Johnny asked softly.
Scott sat down beside him. “Yes, kind of like that. Stomach not doing too good?” Scott had noted his brother’s worsening pallor.
“Nope. Do you think the deal with the churro is just for eating breakfast, or do you think I gotta keep it down?”
“I’m sure Nanny was hoping for the keeping it down part.” Scott put a comforting hand on Johnny’s thigh.
“I was afraid of that.” Johnny closed his eyes. “I’d like to meet Niles some day.”
“Oh, and he would sure like to meet you, little brother, after all I’ve written to him about you.”
“You wrote him about me?” The edge of Johnny’s mouth ticked up. “Good stuff?”
“Of course good stuff, like you pushing me into the creek, the day you shot Teresa’s chicken, the whole tail clips thing, how much you like to fish, mud-bogging with Horace…”
“Aww, you told him all that, Boston? What happened to brothers’ honor? Besides, I didn’t shoot Mirabel, I shot the snake next to Mirabel. It’s not my fault the dang fool thing had a bad heart or something. There wasn’t a mark on her.”
“You’ll never convince Teresa and Maria of that.”
“No tamales for Johnny.” Johnny pouted, remembering. Scott thought it was funny Johnny still hadn’t gotten over being wrongly accused.
“The bird was alive before you shot, and dead after. Res ipsa loquitor – it speaks for itself.”
“See more stupid stuff with Latin, chickens can’t speak –especially dead ones.”
Scott laughed. A knock came on the door. Scott opened it to Evie who was carrying a tray and a bowl. Scott helped her set both on the table. She smiled seeing the breakfast dishes. “I see you ate, Johnny.”
“He definitely earned a churro, but I’m afraid breakfast isn’t sitting too well now. Maybe can he have his reward later?”
Evie went over to lay the back of her hand against Johnny’s forehead. “The tea didn’t help?”
“It helped get it down,” Johnny muttered, “it ain’t helping it stay there.”
“You can lie on your side while I put the poultice on your back. We’ll bring the chamber pot close, just in case.”
“Scott has to leave.” Johnny stared at Scott.
“He does?” Evie asked, confused.
Scott took in a deep breath, holding Johnny’s gaze. “No, I don’t,” he said softly.
Johnny paled, quickly dropping his eyes, his hands knotted into fists.
Scott waited a beat before asking Evie how he could help. Following her instructions, he had Johnny stand up so he could pull out the bed, then undid Johnny’s pants. As Johnny sat down, he helped remove his boots, socks, and pants, then helped him lie down on his left side.
“I’ll shine your boots later,” Scott tried easing the tension by returning to their joking about manservants. Johnny wouldn’t even look at him.
As he saw Evie start to go at Johnny’s bandages with scissors, he quickly stayed her hand. “Let’s get these bandages untied.” Evie went along with it, without needing an explanation.
Johnny bowed his head into his fists. “Where’s Val?” he pleaded.
Scott thought about getting Val, understanding that, even realizing he’d already seen the whip marks, Johnny didn’t want him helping. But Val was exhausted, and helping Johnny through a painful procedure was no easier on Val than it was on him. He quietly asked Evie to give them five minutes alone.
“Of course,” she whispered back. Standing, she announced, “I just need to run downstairs to get one more thing.”
When they were alone, Scott climbed over Johnny to kneel beside him. He cradled the back of Johnny’s head in his hand. “Hey, look at me,” he coaxed gently.
Johnny closed his eyes more tightly, shaking. Scott pressed his lips to Johnny’s damp forehead. “I know you didn’t want me to see. I appreciate you trying to protect me, but I’m okay. The best way for you to help me is to let me do things that help you feel better. We can get through this together.”
Johnny shook his head, tears seeping from beneath his long lashes. Scott stroked them away with his thumbs. “Yes. Let me be your big brother. It’s the thing I love most in this world.”
Scott felt Johnny lean into his chest. “There you go.” He stroked the back of Johnny’s head with one hand, and used the other to pry his way into one of Johnny’s fists. “We’re going to be okay, I promise you.”
Evie came back a few moments later. Without speaking, Scott indicated they were ready. Evie finished undoing the bandages. Scott watched the horror reflected in her eyes as she unveiled the brutalized tissues below. Compassion was all that was evident in her soft voice as she worked, warning Johnny before she did something, apologizing when he flinched or choked back a moan.
The cream she put on the lash marks smelled musty and dank, all too much like the dirt prison cell floor. Scott breathed through his mouth. He studied the round contours of Evie’s cheeks, the sharp angle of her long, elegant nose, her rich brown irises. Anything to keep his mind from going to Libby.
“Now for some laudanum and a few minutes for it to work before I put on the poultice.”
“No laudanum.” Johnny replied.
Evie leaned back in surprise. Most of her patients pleaded for the laudanum before she even got to this point. “I can’t do the poultice without the laudanum, darling. It has to be hot to work. With all your open sores, it would hurt too much.”
“No laudanum.” Johnny reiterated. For the first time, he opened his eyes and held Scott’s.
Scott didn’t think Johnny remembered much, if anything, about the night before. But he certainly knew that laudanum was the reason Scott had seen his back while helping Val. Johnny’s gaze said, ‘If you want to help me, brother, let me be in control of this.’
It was clear to Scott that this was a defining moment in their trust relationship.
“No laudanum,” Scott agreed, his throat dry. “How about some tequila?”
“This boy is too young for tequila!” Evie protested.
“You heard the woman, Boston,” Johnny’s lips turned up in a grin. “I’m too young for tequila. It wouldn’t stay down anyway. How about just something to bite on?”
Scott got up to get a bite stick from their medical supplies, his shaking legs barely able to hold him. He quietly explained to Evie that Johnny didn’t tolerate laudanum well, and after what had happened to him, allowing him the control was the best thing they could do for the pain.
As Scott resumed his position, holding Johnny’s hand and the back of his head, he asked, “Do you want us to wait for Val?”
“Nope, just make sure Nanny keeps back in case I react bad.”
Scott inhaled deeply before nodding at Evie to begin. He watched in stomach-dropping dread as Evie removed the lid of a pot and used tongs to lift the steaming poultice out. If it was too hot for her to touch with bare hands, how was it going to feel on Johnny’s open wounds?
To Scott’s marginal relief, Evie held the poultice sideways, rocking it back and forth while the steam dissipated. “I’ll warn you before I put it on. Can you lay a little further forward, darling, or does it hurt your ribs too much?”
Scott experimentally moved the pillow away as Johnny leaned forward as much as he could.
“That’s perfect. Okay, honey, here it comes. Holler all ya need to.” She started at his lower back, laying the poultice down inch by inch as she moved up his back.
The first touch had Johnny hissing in pain. It built to a moan, and a cry, the sound muffled by the bite stick, but not the pain it represented. Johnny buried his face into the pillow, bearing down against the agony, his legs scrambling across the mattress as if trying to run away.
The hand Johnny squeezed felt crushed. Scott bowed forward to keep his lips near Johnny’s ear as he offered soothing encouragement that he doubted Johnny could hear above his own groans and cries. Scott could feel the driving heat of the poultice against his hand at the back of Johnny’s neck. He wanted nothing more than to rip the damn thing off his brother’s back. Evie offered her own words of comfort, as she held the poultice on.
Time seemed to stand still in the room. Scott prayed the poultice would cool quickly, or that Johnny’s nerve endings would become numb to it. Neither came to be.
Val walked in, uttering an expletive when he saw what was happening. “You should have gotten me!” The sheriff raged at Scott as he took up position to lightly hold Johnny’s legs, less to restrict his movements than to protect his feet from banging against the mattress supports.
Johnny was making growling, groaning noises in the back of his throat, not loud, but deep and visceral. The heat of the poultice combined with the pain broke out a sweat on his skin. Scott continued to talk softly to Johnny, in some language Val assumed was French or Latin.
“How much longer?” Val challenged.
“Until it’s cool, I’m afraid,” Evie responded. Val moved his hand to feel the poultice, still generating considerable heat. He groaned. His eyes traveled around the room, looking for distraction. He suddenly realized what he didn’t see.
“Damn, please tell me he didn’t do this without the laudanum!”
Scott wouldn’t look at him, so he had his answer even before Evie quietly said, “I’m afraid he refused it.”
“Stubborn boy.” Val grouched, but he massaged Johnny’s legs in physical support.
Every muscle in Johnny’s body was rigid with pain, but his breathing was quieter, less strident. After a few minutes, Evie tested the temperature again.
“Can it please be done?” Val pleaded. He just couldn’t bear to see his ‘hijo’ in such pain, knowing how much the boy had already endured.
“The longer it stays on, the better it works, but we’re close.” Evie stroked her fingers down Johnny’s arm. “You’ve done really well, darling. Pretty soon you can tell me to stop.” She was giving control back to him.
Johnny didn’t answer right away, but after a bit he spit out the bite stick. She was sure he was going to ask to have it removed. She was surprised when he said, “It’s not… so bad…now it’s not so hot.”
Evie raised her eyebrows. “Are you okay lying like this?”
“Yeah, I was afraid… at first I was gonna get sick… but that’s better too.”
They left it on for ten more minutes. As soon as it was removed, Johnny started to shiver violently.
“G…guess it was keepin’ me warm…” Johnny tried to get up to his knees, but he was too shaky, his battered knees too sore.
“It’s from how tight your muscles were, plus you’re sweaty. Let me get you washed and dried off.” Evie washed Johnny gently, keeping away from the sores. Those she patted dry.
The lash marks looked even worse to Scott, livid red, swollen and glistening. They appeared raw and new. He swallowed drily and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Val do the same.
“I’m just going to lay a cloth across your back and hold it on with a couple of bandages. I would keep it open to air, but I can tell you need a blanket or two. Can you sit up if Scott and Val help you?”
Johnny could, just barely. Scott held him from falling over as Evie finished.
“Drink some water for me, you’ve probably sweated out a gallon.”
Johnny looked down at the sheets that retained a damp outline of his body. “Ugh, that won’t be fun to sleep in.”
Val got up to open the other bed. “We’ve got a nice dry one right here.”
“Where will you sleep?” Johnny’s eyes were already closed; he was exhausted.
“In brand clean sheets right after you haul your skinny butt over here.”
Both men were required to get him the few steps, his legs were like rubber.
“When do I get my churro, Nanny?”
“When you wake up, darling.” Evie followed and planted a light kiss on his cheek. “You have them let me know, and I make some fresh for you.”
“Thank you, Nanny.” A bright smile lit his face. He was asleep before they got him covered over.
Johnny awoke four hours later feeling better than he had for months. He sat up, rubbing his eyes against the afternoon sun. Val was gone, sleeping in the other room, Johnny hoped. Scott was asleep on a blanket on the floor beside him, either too tired to change the bed, or wanting to be close.
Johnny guessed it was the latter. He felt so lucky to have found his brother, lucky also to have reconnected with Val. If only Murdoch didn’t hate him so. He wanted to have his father, too. He sighed. This family stuff had really lured him in.
The road with his father had been a rocky one. It seemed Murdoch was more pleased with the idea of having both sons home than the reality of his youngest son. Murdoch was all about rules and expectations. Johnny initially felt strangled by all the rules, and the intensity of Murdoch’s disapproval when he broke one. He had learned to cope by equating Murdoch’s rules with his own need to practice with his gun. His practice was rigid, unexciting, repetitive, and precise. He did it every day, the same way, time after time. In those “rules”, Johnny found skill, predictability, accuracy, and safety. He imagined Murdoch found something similar in his.
It was those damn high expectations that Johnny couldn’t hope to meet. Murdoch expected his sons to be everything that Scott was; cultured, educated, neat, polished, intelligent. Johnny only made one out of five, and his “intelligence” –about gunhawks, land pirates, range wars, rebellions, survival– was not the kind Murdoch was looking for.
Johnny didn’t begrudge Scott Murdoch’s instant acceptance and positive regard. He hadn’t expected it for himself when he arrived at Lancer, and hadn’t planned to stay. Everything turned around when he learned of his mother’s lies, when he fell in love with the land, and –most important of all– when he met his brother. There were even moments with Murdoch when Johnny felt accepted, cared about.
That’s what made this so damned hard. He’d started to believe he had something he’d never dared dream about after his Mama died; a family, a home, a future. Now that he’d tasted it, his soul ached that he couldn’t keep it.
Johnny looked down at Scott as he slept. Even in sleep, Scott looked tired, stressed, unwell. Johnny imagined Scott was reliving his time in Libby multiple times a day now. All because of him.
Perhaps worse, Scott was facing leaving Lancer, and again it was his fault. They talked often enough of how quickly they’d each fallen in love with the beautiful land, with being part of the ranch as it grew and prospered. Yet, Scott made it clear, he’d leave Lancer if Johnny did. Damn, it was just so unfair!
Needing to empty his bladder, Johnny quietly stepped over Scott, got dressed, and into his boots. Knowing Scott would worry if he wasn’t back when he woke up, Johnny thought about leaving a note, but couldn’t find pencil and paper. With a smile, he made a big arrow on the floor with bandages pointing to the door to downstairs. At least Scott would know he hadn’t been kidnapped.
He moved into the hallway, softly snicking the door closed behind him. He paused at the top of stairs, waiting for vertigo to abate. Clutching the handrail tightly, he made his way downstairs.
“What on earth are you doing up?” Evie’s exclamation startled him and nearly sent him crashing down the remaining steps.
“Call of nature.” He gave her his best smile.
She narrowed her eyes at him, assessing.
He was back in five, carefully sliding into a chair at a corner table. The dining room was almost empty as it was a little after three in the afternoon. Evie immediately reappeared and felt his forehead.
“I suppose you want your churro.”
“I do, but not yet.” He grinned up at her. “I want to make sure it stays where I put it.”
“You kept breakfast down, even with that nasty poultice.” She said gently as she poured him a glass of water.
“Pretty good, huh? Maybe I deserve two churros.”
Evie laughed. “I think Scott and Val deserve churros, as I figure they helped you make that breakfast disappear, yes?”
Johnny looked abashed. “Yes.” He flipped over the spoon Evie had set down by his hand a few times. “Does it count any that I ate more this morning than I have… well, in a long time?”
Evie sat down, placing a warm hand on his forearm. “Yes, it counts, darling. Now, what can I get you for lunch?”
“You don’t have to cook for me. Do you have crackers or bread? If not, we have some upstairs.”
“Nonsense, sit right here and I’ll warm you up some biscuits.”
Johnny was halfway through one with butter and strawberry jam when Val stumbled downstairs, Scott close on his heels.
“What in tarnation are you doing down here?” Val sounded mad, Scott looked half asleep.
“Eating lunch, want some?”
“Why didn’t you wake us?”
“Because you were sleeping.”
Val started to retort, got tripped up by the circular logic. “We didn’t know where you were.”
“I left an arrow.”
“An arrow, on the floor pointing to the door.”
“Oh, I though that was an ‘L’.”
“An L? How does an arrow look like an L?”
“I don’t know,” Val huffed himself to a chair. “I was still half asleep.”
“Then you should have stayed in bed.”
“I was already up…Aw hell, forget it. I need coffee.”
“I have some right here,” Evie appeared with a pot and two cups. “I could hear you bellowing in the kitchen.”
“I do not bellow.” Val groused.
Scott and Johnny exchanged smiles with Evie as Scott slid into a chair beside Johnny.
“How long have you been up?”
“A privy run and half a biscuit.” Johnny rolled his eyes as Scott checked his forehead. “No fever. I’m working my way up to a churro.”
Scott smiled as he poured coffee for himself, having wrestled it away from Val. “Sam would have kittens before letting you have a churro.”
“I know, way better sick rules here, huh? And you know what?” Johnny leaned forward to speak softly in Scott’s ear. “Nanny even figured out that you guys helped eat my breakfast and she’s still gonna let me have one! She even said she’d make some for you guys. How good is that?”
Seeing Johnny so happy and briefly free of pain and fever nearly brought tears to Scott’s eyes. “Pretty great, little brother, pretty great.”
Johnny never got his churro that day. He was exhausted by the time he finished his biscuit and had to be helped back to bed. He slept until late evening, stayed awake long enough to visit the privy and drink some broth, and was back in bed and asleep again in twenty minutes.
He’d read Scott the riot act about sleeping on the floor. Scott promised to sleep in the bed, if Johnny promised to wake him if he got up during the night.
They were up for about an hour just after midnight with Johnny pacing off pain, and again around 3:30 am after a nightmare. It was the longest Johnny had gone without a noticeable fever, and the first time he’d kept all three “meals” down. Scott was beginning to think Evie was a miracle worker.
Unfortunately, Johnny did too, translating the improvements as him being ready to hit the road. His traveling companions and his Nanny quickly disabused him of that idea. Doc Bennet was due back in late afternoon, and Johnny was going nowhere until he’d been seen.
It was nice weather, so they spent much of the day sitting in rockers on the inn porch, watching the town in action, and dozing. Johnny was rewarded with a trip to the livery after he ate both breakfast and lunch –meager portions aside– and he finally got his churro that afternoon.
“This is sooo good, Nanny. I would dream about churros when I was…” he stopped, licking the cinnamon sugar off his fingers as he tried not to mention Northgate, “…away, but I had forgotten how good they taste.”
“Don’t let Maria hear you oohing over another woman’s churros or she might never make you another one.” As soon as he made the joke, Val regretted it. With how things were with Murdoch, there was a good possibility Johnny might never be at Lancer again to get one of Maria’s churros.
If Johnny was thinking that way, he didn’t let it show. “Maria would never begrudge me a churro, no matter who makes it.”
When Doc wasn’t back by seven o’clock, Evie announced he wouldn’t be back that day. “He doesn’t travel after dark unless it’s an emergency, so he was either tied up with a patient somewhere, or he’s staying over in Palin.” She cocked her head at Johnny. “If he were here, I know he’d order another poultice.”
Scott winced. He was surprised when Johnny agreed.
“It sure don’t feel good going on, but it’s miles better than getting the infection cut out. And I think it’s why I felt so good yesterday.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to wait until the doc gets back tomorrow?” Val voiced what Scott was thinking.
“Nah. If we do it tonight and he’s back early tomorrow, we can get on the road after lunch. It’s only three hours to Palin.”
“We’re not going anywhere tomorrow, Doc or no Doc,” Val argued. “Those sores need to heal more before you travel.”
Johnny turned a Madrid glare on Val. “We agreed on this, Val.”
“Hell, no, we didn’t! Excuse me cussing, Evie. You threatened to go around us if we didn’t cooperate. That avenue isn’t available to you anymore.”
Johnny stared at Val for so long, the sheriff was about to pipe up that Madrid didn’t work on him –even though it kinda did. Finally, Johnny turned his glare on his brother.
“What about you, Boston? Were you also just appeasing me until we got far enough away from the friends that would help me?”
“Johnny…” Scott wasn’t sure what to say. It hadn’t just been a trick. But after seeing how bad the pain and exhaustion had gotten after six hours of traveling, he didn’t want Johnny traveling again until he was stronger.
“I see.” Johnny bowed his head. He breathed in and out several times before looking back at Evie. “Nanny, I’ll wait for you upstairs. I’m sure we’ll be given the courtesy of privacy while you do the poultice.”
“No!” Scott lurched out of his chair. “You are not going to do that without us there. Come on, Johnny, don’t do this to get back at us. It’s not what it looks like.”
“No? What is it then, Boston, huh? Because to me it looks like two people I’m supposed to be able to trust are playing games behind my back.”
“It’s not a game that you are too badly hurt to travel. It’s not a game that you’re killing yourself to get home when…” Scott caught himself.
“…when my own father doesn’t want me there ?” Johnny added softly, looking away from Scott. He turned to Evie, “Are we going to do the poultice?”
The older woman looked at him with a combination of compassion and regret. “I’m sorry, darling, not if your brother says no. You’re not old enough to consent for yourself.”
Johnny let his air out heavily.
“I’m going to bed.”
“That went well,” Val snorted.
Evie pushed herself back from the table. “I’ll bring him some tea to help him sleep and leave you boys to talk.”
Scott leaned his elbows on the table and buried his face into his hands. “Just what he needs now, to think he can’t trust us.”
“Hell, Scott, I’m sorry, but the kid has no business traveling and we shoulda stood our ground at Ned’s.”
“But we didn’t. We agreed to let him ride.”
“And a dang fool idea that was! Half a day and he’s puking in the dirt and bleeding all over himself. He’s got a good bed here, food he’ll actually eat, a fabulous nurse, and a doc on the way. I’m not going to let him give that all up to rush home just for Murdoch to tell him to hit the road again.”
“I know. We just have to think about how it looks to him.” Scott watched as Evie balanced a cup of tea as she climbed the stairs. “If we make it that a few days of poultices will help him gain enough strength to travel further each day…”
“Scott! Val!” Evie’s panicked voice carried down the stairs. “Come quick. Johnny’s gone!”
The first place they looked was the livery. Relieved to see all four horses still there, Scott’s heart rate dropped back into the double digits. Johnny had taken a blanket with him, and, of course, his rig, so he didn’t plan on coming right back. But, he couldn’t get far without a horse.
“I’ll check the bathhouse and empty rooms at the Inn,” Val offered. “You check the saloon.”
“No need to go running around looking for me.” A tired voice came from a darkened stall. “I’m right here and not going anywhere, but I don’t want any company.”
Relief washed over both men’s faces. After a moment, Val pointed at himself and out the door. “Don’t do anything stupid now, boy. We didn’t spend near three weeks looking for you to have you run out on us.”
“I already said I wouldn’t.” Johnny sounded more weary than angry.
There was silence after Val left, broken only by the soft sounds of resting horses.
“You go too, Scott. I said I don’t want company.”
“Nope.” Scott found himself a hay bale at the end of the stall where Johnny was. It was too dark to see his brother.
“Dios, Boston, if I wanted you to be holding guard on me, I’d be sleeping in my nice comfy bed.”
“So come back to the hotel.” Scott stretched out his long legs. The stall board behind him had an uncomfortable knot, so he tried a few positions before he settled. He didn’t expect a response, and didn’t get one. After a long stretch he said, “You know they’re going to charge us extra for you sleeping out here.”
“You can afford it. After all, you posted a $10,000 bounty on Thatcher.”
“$9,000. The Cattlemen’s Association put up the other thousand.”
After several minutes ticked by, Scott asked. “Do you want to know what really happened about you traveling?”
“No?” Scott raised his eyebrows. “You aren’t going to let me give my side of the story?”
“No.” Johnny sighed heavily. “I know your side and Val’s. You’re worried about me. Traveling was worse than any of us expected. No need to rush home for Murdoch to tell me I ain’t got one.”
Scott grimaced at the pained response. He waited, then asked, “Are you still mad at me?”
“Wasn’t really mad at you.”
“You sure sounded mad. You said we broke your trust. It wasn’t like that, Johnny. Yes, you called our hand with the Emilio’s Friends threat, but we really did…do want to support you getting home. That day of traveling was so bad… and that night with your dressings, and now you’re refusing the laudanum again. I just can’t let you push yourself that way. My heart can’t take it.”
“I know.” Johnny said softly.
“So then, what are you doing sleeping out here on the cold ground when you have a perfectly good bed waiting for you inside?”
“I needed to be by myself for a while… You can see how well that worked out.”
“Hell, I can’t see anything out here, brother. If you’re that intent on being alone tonight, you can sleep in the single room, and Val and I will bunk together.”
“Bullshit. You’ll be sleeping on the floor in the hallway outside my door.”
“Better than on a hay bale in a cold barn.” Scott wound a piece of straw around his finger.
“You told me how much you wanted to be alone after you got home from the war.”
“I did. What I didn’t say was how scared I was to actually be alone. Especially when the flashbacks or nightmares came. I wanted someone to be there to tell me it wasn’t real and that I was safe. Yet, I was embarrassed to still be having nightmares months later.”
“How about eight years later?” Johnny said unevenly.
“Brother, you had to deal with the worst possible nightmare – a real monster came back to hurt you again. There’s no shame in needing help to get through that hell.”
Johnny shifted positions. “Sometimes I feel as if I’m never going to grow up. Like I’ll always be ten and at his mercy.”
“And I think just the opposite, Johnny. You had to grow up so young, living on your own when you were only ten. It’s more like you never had a childhood.”
A long silence stretched.
“I don’t know how I’m supposed to deal with this, Scott. It’s like I can’t stand being inside myself.”
“It’s still so raw, Johnny. In a way, it was like you were ten again. Thatcher beating on you like he did when you were little, no one to protect you, just like before. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to protect you.” Scott swallowed down his deep guilt for not having gone after Johnny that first day. He cleared his throat. “But I’m here now and I’m not going away, no matter how angry you get at me, or how often you say you want to be alone, or how miserably uncomfortable it is in this barn when we have soft, warm beds waiting for us inside.”
Johnny tried to move and choked in pain.
“Are you okay?”
“So why are we still in the barn?”
Johnny pushed himself up and started pacing.
“I loved Val when I was five. I trusted him, was never scared with him. Then Mama took us away.” Scott could vaguely see Johnny’s outline in the darkness. “I loved my Mama, too. And she loved me… until she decided she loved the bottle, and getting pretty things from men, more. At first, if they hit me, she’d get mad and get in the way. But that made the men leave. So she started making me leave. I’d sleep outside, or in the livery. But at the end…with Thatcher… she’d just watch, Scott. Like she wasn’t even seeing me. I think that was the worst part.”
Scott felt nauseated. He bit his lower lip -hard- to keep it back.
“I was stupid to leave Val when we met up again. He was the best thing that ever happened to me back then. But I was too angry, too bent on becoming strong enough, fast enough, Madrid enough to kill Murdoch. I lived off that hate for a long time.” Johnny stopped pacing to lean his head on his arms on the stall divider. “Then one day, a Pink saves me from a firing squad, and offers me $1,000 to listen to the old man for an hour before I killed him. Well, that’s not exactly what he offered, but it’s how I took it. Until I climbed on a stage and discovered I had an eastern dandy for a brother… who wasn’t such a dandy after all.”
“I sort of was, I admit it. Certainly a greenhorn with no idea how to live in the west.”
“So, a very interesting big brother, an old man with a completely different story about what happened when I was two, and an offer of one third of the most beautiful land on this earth. I thought I was in heaven. Plus, the bonus of Val coming back into my life. All of a sudden, I had a family I loved and trusted.”
Johnny fell silent. Scott picked up the story,
“Then one day, the monster from your childhood comes back again. And to make matters worse, your family doesn’t listen to your warnings about him. So, once again, you had to live a nightmare all alone.” Scott was unable to sit anymore. He moved within touching distance of, but not touching, Johnny. “You got the proof everyone needed; he couldn’t be trusted, he stole money, he ruins people’s lives by stealing their dreams. It should have been enough. You should have been able to come home, to have the entire town –and, more importantly, your family– falling all over you in gratitude. Instead… instead…” Scott took in a bracing breath, “you became the proof of how truly evil Thatcher is. You were dragged away from the family that should have protected you, and you endured the worst possible torture at his hands.”
Scott was crying now and made no move to hide it. Johnny stepped just close enough for their shoulders to touch.
“Sometimes,” he said softly, “while I was in there, I thought the part about coming home had all been a dream. Maybe I had only imagined I had gotten the brother I always wanted, a father who hadn’t thrown me out, a beautiful home that would always be mine. I kept reminding myself that it was real, that I had to live to get home again.”
Scott heard the unsaid in Johnny’s quiet words. He’d fought to survive a nightmare, only to find his father didn’t want him home again. Scott pressed his face into his forearms, wiping his tears on his sleeves. What could he say to ease his brother’s devastation?
No answer came.
Johnny spoke again into the darkness. “I know this probably doesn’t make any sense, but I have to get to Lancer. I have to see Murdoch. Even if he throws the land deed in my face and orders me to leave, or he tells me how ashamed he is to have Johnny Madrid as his son, or he admits he only called me home to help with Pardee. I have to hear it from him, looking in his eyes. Until then, Scott, I’m still in prison. And I don’t know how much longer I can survive.”
It was a difficult journey home, in more ways than one. Doc Bennet cleared Johnny to ride on the third day. The poultices had cleared up nearly all of the infection in the lash marks, which in turn eased both the pain and the fevers. Johnny was able to eat more, and keep it down. Evie’s theory was, it didn’t matter what Johnny ate, just that he did, so she plied him with apple pie, tortillas, butter potatoes, chocolate cake, and, of course, his beloved churros.
Doc Bennet rode with them as far as Palin, both to see how Johnny tolerated the three hour ride, and to accompany them to the saddlers, who made a special support which allowed Johnny to sleep, leaning forward against it, while riding. A neighborhood boy had needed a similar support when he’d been partially paralyzed in a fall from a tree.
It was a blessing as they traveled from town to town. Although Johnny rarely slept, the ability for him to rest with his eyes closed while being led by one of the others helped them make excellent time. They only hit one bad stretch of weather, luckily near enough to a town with a hotel for them to hole up in to wait it out.
As exhausting and painful as traveling was, Johnny appeared to grow a little stronger every day. His face lost its death-like gauntness, his ribs looked less skeletal, and most days he could get himself in and out of the saddle without help.
Sleep was still a problem. Nightmares plagued him relentlessly. Something between a flashback and panic attack would jolt him awake, gasping for air, shaking with pain and nausea. He could never remember what triggered it, but invariably refused to try to sleep again for the remainder of the night. He couldn’t tolerate having anyone with him, which deeply troubled Scott and Val.
“The dreams seem to be getting worse,” Val observed the night before they rode into Green River. “Do you think anxiety over how Murdoch is going to be is triggering them?”
“I suspect so.” Scott sighed, looking into the darkness where Johnny had disappeared. “I know it’s wreaking havoc with my stomach. I’m glad we’ll be able to talk with Sam about everything.”
Sam wanted to meet them in Green River, as they would reach there first, also to minimize the chance of running into inquisitive neighbors or ranch hands. He’d alerted Cipriano to ensure no one from the ranch ran errands there for the next week.
Instead of having a house in Green River, as he did in Morro Coyo, Sam’s office had a private sitting room and kitchen in the back with stairs leading to two bedrooms above. Scott and Val were cooling their heels in the sitting room with large mugs of coffee, while Sam examined Johnny. They didn’t speak.
They were anxious to hear Sam’s assessment of Johnny’s injuries, while trying to brace themselves against his wrath over letting Johnny travel. They hoped he’d trust they’d done it out of love and concern for the boy’s desperate need to get home. They also needed to hear from Sam what was happening at Lancer, worried about subjecting Johnny to Murdoch’s fury when he was still so sick and in pain.
Their heads snapped up in unison as the door to the sitting room opened. Sam looked pale and distraught. As much as they’d attempted to warn him about the severity of Johnny’s injuries, nothing could’ve prepared the doctor for the horrific signs of torture on the young boy’s starved body. He bypassed the coffeepot for the bar cart, where he poured and downed a shot of whiskey.
Scott looked at the closed door. “Should I go in with him?” Sam, as always, dictated he examine Johnny in private. It had been over an hour, so some amount of painful bandage changing and wound cleaning had undoubtedly been involved.
Sam shook his head. “He’ll be out in a minute.” The doctor’s voice was harsh. “Because after traveling across two states in a condition he should be in a hospital for, why would he consider staying in bed?”
“Sam, we tried…”
A raised hand halted Val’s explanation. “Don’t bother. He already explained –as much as anyone could explain doing such a damn-fool thing. I’m sure you boys know how much of a miracle it is that he didn’t drop dead from infection, pneumonia, blood loss, heart failure, or myriad other things while getting here?”
“Yes, we know.” Scott responded solemnly. “Before he comes out…”
“Oh, no. He already made me promise to talk to all of you together.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for him to hear the details of everything going on.” Val argued. “We thought the three of us were going to talk about ways to approach Murdoch to get his head on straight before Johnny has to face him.”
Sam turned to Scott. “He wants to hear everything up front. You could overrule him. He’s a minor, and given Murdoch’s current, er, state of incapacity, I’d take your word as his guardian…”
Scott thought about it. He wanted nothing more than to protect his younger brother from additional pain. But would keeping him in the dark do that?
“No, Sam, I won’t overrule him. We’ve already been dealing with some issues of trust. I won’t risk making that worse. Besides, nothing you could say could be as bad as what Murdoch might say or do.”
Johnny chose that moment to walk in; Scott had little doubt he’d been listening at the door before entering. Sam motioned Johnny to his overstuffed reading chair.
“You could use a chair with some extra padding. I have tea brewing…”
“Willowbark?” Johnny groaned as he eased himself into the chair.
“Yes, it’s the best…” Sam stopped as all three men started to laugh. “What?”
“Oh, Sam, you have steep competition in the food, drink, and rest categories of medical advice.” Scott chuckled as he brought a quilt from the settee over to cover Johnny who was visibly shivering. “Peppermint stick or honey raspberry teas instead of willowbark; biscuits, cracker mash and churros instead of broth…”
“Churros!” Sam practically spit in his shock.
Scott, Val, and Johnny shared conspiratorial smiles.
“And wait until you see the special saddle contraception that lets patients get right on a horse the next day,” Val was taking it a bit too far, but the joking got the point across that Johnny was way past bedrest, broth, and the despised willowbark tea.
“If you have plain hot water, we have peppermint sticks for tea.” Scott offered in compromise.
In a few minutes, the four men were sitting in an uneven circle with warm drinks in their hands.
“So,” Scott prompted cautiously. “What is happening at Lancer?”
“The ranch itself is doing okay. Cipriano, Jelly, and Walt have things well in hand. Teresa really wanted to be here to meet you,” Sam turned gentle eyes to Johnny. “She asked me to tell you how much she loves you, and misses you, and can’t wait to see you.”
Johnny bowed his head for an emotional moment. Sam waited until he raised it before continuing.
“Murdoch continues to drink heavily. He’s distanced himself from everyone, including Teresa. He shows no interest in the ranch…or much of anything.”
“I thought you were going to work on sobering him up.” Val accused.
“We tried: watering down the liquor, pretending shipments didn’t come, trying to reason with him. None of it worked. I almost believe he started drinking more just to spite us.”
“Sounds like Murdoch.” Val grunted.
The ticking of the mantel clock filled the ensuing silence.
“Does he know we’re here?” Scott asked.
“He knows you were on your way here. We haven’t given him updates and he hasn’t asked.”
Johnny cocked his head. “Not even about Scott?”
The air in the room became leaden.
Sam glanced quickly at Scott before responding. “He did ask if Scott was with you.”
Scott clenched his teeth so hard, his jaw snapped audibly. “I’m not going to do that! Johnny, he’s not going to choose between us!”
Johnny let his air out quietly.
“He already has.”
Scott’s stomach hit the floor.
“Well, I refuse to play that game! If he doesn’t want to see both of us, we won’t go home.” Scott jumped up to pace. “He can’t get away with choosing favorites or trying to pit us against each other. We’re together.” He pointed between his chest and Johnny’s. “He’s the one on the outside, losing out.”
Sam proceeded delicately, “Part of Murdoch’s anger at Johnny is his belief that Johnny has turned you against him.”
“That’s bullshit!” Scott yelled.
“Of course it is. Bullshit fueled by alcohol. From the beginning, Murdoch has believed that Johnny chose to walk away from Lancer. I know that’s not the truth.” Sam met Johnny’s dark eyes. “We all know that’s not what happened. But that’s the base that Murdoch started from. His brain has been swimming in depression and alcohol for almost seven months now. Scott, when you left to find Johnny, he interpreted that as Johnny taking you away. He’s stewed in that conviction and anger for so long, it’s the only reality he can see.”
“So what do the boys do?” Val asked. “It’s not fair for them to give up their shares in Lancer, their home, because the old bastard is too soused and stubborn to hear reason.”
“There is the option of taking him to court.” Sam said, quietly, “Challenge his competency.”
“Dios, Sam, we can’t do that!” Johnny cried. He looked at his brother for agreement, and froze at what he saw on Scott’s face. “Scott?”
Scott paced a bit more before settling on the ottoman by Johnny’s legs. “We may not have a choice.”
“Johnny, at the least, we need to protect your interests. You’re a minor. Murdoch controls your share of Lancer. Even though you signed the agreement, it was really him signing in guardianship of you. He could take that away from you with a signature.”
“I don’t care about the damned land, Scott! We can’t parade him through court like that for everyone to see!”
Scott moved his hand to Johnny’s calf. “Even if I did believe that you don’t care about Lancer –which I don’t– it’s more serious than that. As your guardian, Murdoch can make decisions that are not in your best interests. He could send you away to school, sign you onto a ship or an apprenticeship halfway across the country.”
Sam and Val were as stunned as Johnny at Scott’s words. They had never considered any ramifications beyond the obvious emotional ones from Murdoch’s anger at Johnny –misguided as it might be.
“Not if he can’t find me!” The Madrid glare slid into place.
“Except that I’m not going to let you go off alone.”
“You can’t stop me! I’ve been on my own since I was ten. If I want to go, I’m going!”
Scott looked past the anger to the torment in his brother’s eyes. “I know you could, Johnny,” he said softly. “But I hope you know how devastated I’d be if you did. So I pray every night that you won’t.”
The emotion and dedication in Scott’s words made Johnny drop his eyes. Scott waited, gently rubbing Johnny’s calf, until the blue eyes met his again. In them, Scott saw the promise he needed. His muscles sagged with relief.
He feared, though, that Johnny’s anger would flare again at his next words.
“I had an attorney friend of mine file a petition for me to become your legal guardian.”
Johnny’s face went pale, and his mouth dropped open, but he didn’t say anything.
“Mostly a preventative thing.” Scott went on, “While the petition is pending, Murdoch can’t make any of those decisions we’re worried about. It gives us time, Johnny, time to try to straighten this mess out.”
“But won’t they have notified him and won’t that make things worse?”
“Plug your ears, Val and Sam.” Scott didn’t really expect them to. “Murdoch hasn’t been reading his mail. Someone offered to put the notification letter toward the bottom of the personal correspondence pile, where it’s likely to remain unread.” Scott knew he was walking a very fine line. He didn’t care. He was willing to do whatever he had to in order to protect Johnny.
“You’ve been doing all this stuff behind my back?” Johnny accused.
“No. You were sent a notice, too. I’m sure you’ll find it on your bureau.” The corners of Scott’s mouth twitched.
Johnny stared daggers at his brother, but couldn’t hold it. The impertinence of Scott’s response made him grin.
“You sly dog.” Val muttered appreciatively under his breath.
“Again, I hope we can avoid court on any count.”
“So if not court,” Val queried, “what’s next?”
Sam weighed in. “I’d suggest a meeting on neutral ground and I would offer to mediate. The problem will be getting Murdoch away from Lancer, never mind getting him sober enough for a meeting.”
“I could have one of my past associates shanghai him,” Val was only half joking. “Hold him til he’s dried out.”
Sam frowned at Val, then seeing the look on Scott’s face, exclaimed, “You can’t be serious! I can’t support kidnapping, no matter how good the cause. Not to mention, going cold-turkey from alcohol could send Murdoch into seizures, or worse.”
Scott rubbed his forehead. “Honestly, I can’t either, as much as I’m tempted. But I don’t know how else to get him away from Lancer and sober.”
“Offer to meet him,” Johnny’s quiet voice came. “At the north line shack. Tell him you want to talk about coming home –alone.”
“Absolutely not, Johnny! I told you that I won’t let him divide us. I’m not going home, without you.”
“I know that, Boston, but he doesn’t. He’ll want to see you to convince you to come home. Once he’s there, we grab the horses so he can’t leave, give him a few days to sober up, and we try to talk to him.”
The three men exchanged glances. It actually sounded like a reasonable plan.
“We wouldn’t want to leave Scott alone with him.” Sam said as he pondered the suggestion. “People in alcohol withdrawal can get violent.”
“There’s something special about the north line shack that not a lot of people, including, I suspect, Murdoch know.” Johnny continued to outline his plan. “It was once owned by horse breeders, which is why it has a massive barn.”
“I do believe I knew that.” Scott countered.
“Ah, but did you also know that because of all the snow that comes off the mountain and from the lake effect, they dug a tunnel between the cabin and the barn so they could get out to take care of their valuable horses even with five feet of snow?” Johnny grinned.
Scott smiled, too. “No, little brother, that I did not know. And I’m very curious as to how you do.”
“Well… maybe I spent some time in that line shack a few times over the years when I was curious about what was going on at Lancer. And maybe one of those times I heard some rustling in the back of what they had used as a broom closet, and when my heart restarted after the big old raccoon that was doing that rustling jumped out from behind the back panel, maybe I did a bit of exploring…”
Scott was stunned to hear that Johnny had checked out Lancer in the past. He’d assumed that if the boy was that close, he would have made good on his promise to put a bullet in Murdoch.
“How big is the tunnel?” Val asked. “I’m not hiding out in some cramped, varmit-ridden tunnel just in case Scott needs me. I like him, but not that much.”
“It’s not that bad, I can almost stand up in it. And you know if I can go in there, it can’t be too tight. Besides, the best part is, if the panel is off a bit and the closet door is cracked, you can hear everything going on in the cabin at the opening in the barn. I tested it when Jose, Marcus, and I stayed there after we moved the cattle up there and then got caught in that snowstorm. So, we wouldn’t even have to be in the tunnel, we could sneak into the barn and listen in. Of course, we’d have to be quiet as I’m sure sound travels both ways.”
“We?” Val glowered at Johnny. “There is no ‘we’ in this. You are staying here with Sam to teach him all about alternatives to willowbark tea and broth. Scott and I will go.”
“I’m going. My idea and my father –as much as he may wish otherwise.” Johnny’s response was absolute.
“Johnny…” Scott warned.
“Scott, I told you what I need to do.” Betrayal was dark in Johnny’s eyes. “I didn’t ride three hundred miles when I felt like crap so I could hide out here at Sam’s.”
“I know that. And I’m not going to stop you from confronting Murdoch…”
“But, not until he’s sober. Not out in the middle of nowhere if something happens. Not sleeping in an even colder barn than in Drury.” Scott attempted to soothe the fury he saw building in his brother’s rigid posture. “Your plan is a great one, and if Val will have my back in the barn,” Val nodded. “And Sam will guide me about tapering the alcohol,” it was Sam’s turn to nod, “we should be at a place where you can confront him in what, Sam, four or five days?”
Johnny jumped up, reacting to the resultant thrust of pain with a gasp, but angrily pulling away when both Scott and Sam reached for him. “I am not going to wait four or five days!”
Scott gave Johnny his no-nonsense, big brother look. “Yes, you are.” His voice was very quiet. “Or we don’t do this at all.”
“Madre de Dios!” Johnny swore, and stormed from the room, and the building.
The room fell to silence.
“I could lock him up in my jail for four or five days.” Val joked. Scott just closed his eyes, shaking his head.
“Aren’t you going to go after him?” Sam prompted.
“No need,” Val sighed heavily. “He’s either headed to the saloon or the livery.”
“You’re not going to stop him from riding out? Hell, I will.”
“He’s not going to leave, Sam.” Scott reassured quietly. “At least not today. He made me a promise. Now, if we do this whole line shack thing, Val may very well have to lock him up for a few days, as I have no idea how else we can keep him away. For now, he’s either gone to settle himself with the horses, or to drink some decent tequila at the saloon.”
“He shouldn’t be doing that either, Scott! You all treat him like an adult because of everything he’s been through, but he’s still a boy. Alcohol is bad for a healthy teenage body. In his shape, he could get alcohol poisoning from just a few shots.”
“I’m going after him,” Scott hauled his weary body out of the chair. “Maybe there’ll be enough witnesses that he’ll think twice before shooting me.”
“Don’t count on it.” Val snickered.
As Scott headed out the door, Sam snagged Johnny’s jacket off the coat rack. “Take this. Johnny might benefit from a little walk to Clem Walker’s.”
Scott wondered how Johnny would find the energy to even get across the street, never mind to Clem’s. But Sam’s wink and smile lifted some of the oppressive weight from his chest.
The saloon was closer, so he went there first. Johnny was at his usual spot at a table in the back corner, facing the door. Scott took a deep breath as he approached. “Mind if I sit?”
Johnny didn’t raise his head. “Would it make a difference if I said I did mind?”
“No. Are you ready for another?”
Johnny looked at the nearly full glass of milk in front of him. “Not hardly.”
Scott got himself a beer at the bar.
“Are you the one the kid said was coming to pay for his drink?” the bartender asked.
Scott laughed. “Apparently so.” He paid for both drinks then went back to sit at the table. “So I guess you were expecting me?”
“You or Val.”
“Sam was ready to come over and pull you out of here by your ear.”
“For drinking milk?”
“Well, honestly, we all expected tequila.”
Johnny slid his glass back and forth in the condensation on the table, scowling. “I didn’t want to give Val an excuse to lock me up while you’re gone.”
Scott spat a mouthful of beer back into his glass. Johnny smirked.
“Ah, he threatened that already, huh?”
Scott wiped his mouth on his handkerchief, shaking his head. “Little brother, you are going to be the death of me yet. How did you guess?”
“Val doesn’t have a wide range of reactions when he wants to keep me in line. He thought he would take me over his knee once when I was thirteen. It didn’t exactly go as he had planned. Jail is a safer bet.”
“Hopefully, it won’t come to that.” Scott studied Johnny’s tight facial features, trying to discern how much was anger and how much was pain. “Teresa and Jelly would be happy to come keep you company.
Johnny looked across the room, shaking his head. “I’m not done arguing with you on this, Scott.”
So, anger then.
Scott took another slug of his beer, then gave a light tap to Johnny’s upper arm with the back of his hand. “You’re not drinking that. Get up and come with me.”
“I’m not going back to Sam’s so it can be three against one. And I ain’t lettin’ Val lock me up.”
Scott chuckled, “No worries, little brother, we’re not going either place. I want to show you something.”
“I’m tired, Boston. Don’t wanna go anywhere but to bed.” A cocky grin. “I might just have a tequila nightcap.”
“The hell you will. Up, up. First, it’s only three o’clock, too early for a nightcap. Second, Sam is already pissed at me for letting you ride here, and at least six other things. I’m not going to let you add to his list. It’s a short walk, and I promise it’ll help you sleep. Put your coat on.”
“Wow, you’re bossy. You ain’t got my guardianship yet, Boston.”
Scott let the dig about guardianship slide. He understood how hard this was going to be for Johnny. Madrid always fought his own battles, no matter how dangerous, or how hurt he was. He wasn’t about to let Scott fight this battle with Murdoch for him.
They walked in silence for a while. Scott couldn’t help but notice how tired and unsteady Johnny was getting.
“So, I was serious about finding something to help you sleep a little better,” Scott said as they approached Clem Walker’s place. “Sam says Clem has something that ought to do the trick.”
Johnny gave Scott a disbelieving look. Clem was a kind and gentle man, but a bit of an eccentric. He took in every stray creature that wandered into town, and made bizarre yard ornaments out of discarded bottles and cans. He used to run the livery before he took a bad kick in the head from an unruly horse. Now, he made a small living by stabling the town-owned horses that Sam, Val, and the mayor used. Johnny liked him for his wonderful way with animals, horses in particular, but he was not keen on trying any potion Clem might have conjured up in his not-so-clean kitchen.
“We should have brought your milk out for the cats,” Scott said, as two circled their legs as they entered the yard through the gate. “You know, as good as he is with fashioning things, I bet Clem could work with Tom Felter making saddle supports like the one you used. I bet there’s a lot of call for them with all the injuries from the war…” Scott knew he was rambling, but he was hoping to get Johnny out back before the ever-talkative Clem spotted them.
Too late. Scott winced as Clem called out, “Hey, Scott, is that you?”
“Yes, Clem, it’s good to see you. I’m here with Johnny. We came for that thing you were talking with Sam about.”
The tall, lanky Clem frowned in confusion. “What thing? Was I supposed to be making a potion for Sam?”
Johnny poked Scott in the arm, “He’s forgotten. Let’s just go so he doesn’t feel bad.”
“It’ll just take a minute, Johnny.”
“What thing?” Clem persisted, getting agitated as he often did when he forgot things.
“Boston, I really want to just go lie down. I don’t need no sleeping potion.”
Scott was groaning inwardly as Johnny turned to leave and Clem lurched toward his front door, muttering a recap of his last conversation with Sam, trying to figure out what he was supposed to have done.
“No worries, Clem,” Johnny raised his hand in farewell. “It was Scott’s mistake, not yours. Sorry to have bothered you.”
Scott heard a faint noise from behind him, and smiled. “Could you say that a little louder, Johnny, I didn’t quite hear what you said about me.”
Johnny turned back, his exasperation and exhaustion showing. “I said, it was your mistake not Clem’s and we’re sorry to have bothered him.”
This time the trumpet from the barn was unmistakable.
Scott watched Johnny’s eyes light up as the plaintive cry that had broken Scott’s heart so many times over the last few months now flooded it with joy. Johnny took off at a run.
“Oh, you mean the horse!” Clem said with relief. “Why didn’t you just say so? Oh, that’s right, it was supposed to be a surprise. Gosh, Scott, I hope I didn’t ruin it.”
“Not at all, Clem, you did just right.” Scott clapped Clem on the back before dashing off to the barn himself.
He found Johnny with his face buried in Barranca’s neck, a string of emotional Spanish drowned out by the horse’s excited whinnying and stamping. Johnny’s loving hands caressed Barranca’s muzzle as the palomino nudged and head-butted his beloved compadre.
Johnny looked at Scott with tears unashamedly streaming down his face. “How?”
“Aggie has been keeping an eye on him. She is the only one he let ride him, and he needed to get out his nervous energy. A lot of nervous energy. I wired Sam to please ask her to bring him here, so you wouldn’t have to wait to see him.”
“Thank you.” Johnny whispered, his lean body trembling with emotion and exhaustion.
“You’re welcome. Now, no riding him today, and no, you can’t sleep in the barn tonight.”
Scott raised a quieting hand. “But, you can take your nap in the stall with him, and, if you’re up to it, exercise him on the lead later.”
“Okay.” Johnny could barely take his eyes off Barranca. But he could also barely keep them open.
“Come on, let’s get you settled in. Clem was going to put some extra straw down for you and, if Barranca is lucky, you may just find an apple in the barrel by the gate.”
“I’m surprised you were able to drag him back from the barn,” Sam observed, as he poured Scott and himself a brandy. It was late evening, Johnny was asleep in an upstairs bedroom, and Val had gone to his own place at the back of the sheriff’s office.
“Me too, frankly,” Scott chuckled. “I don’t know who missed whom more, Johnny or Barranca, but they were like little kids out there.”
“I’m glad he had some time to be a boy. He’s missed so much of that.” Sam settled himself into the chair opposite the fire and at an angle from Scott’s.
“If that isn’t the truth,” Scott sighed. He cradled the brandy snifter in his hand, warming it. Anytime he drank these days, he thought of how easily he could have followed Murdoch’s descent into drunkenness. Although, he never would have sunk as low as their father had when it came to Johnny. “I’ve never known anyone who could be so old and yet so very young at the same time.”
“It sure makes things challenging when he can wrap you around his finger with his little boy charm, then in the next minute tie you in a knot with his steel-trap logic.” Sam smiled affectionately as he said it.
“Exactly. He still won’t promise not to follow us to the line shack. I even threatened I wouldn’t go, if he didn’t promise to stay back. He just said he wouldn’t make a promise he knew he wouldn’t keep.”
“Is he that angry that he’s so anxious to confront Murdoch?”
“That’s just it, Sam. He’s not angry at Murdoch at all. Oh, I suppose underneath it all, he is. But he’s angrier at himself for letting Murdoch in, for dropping his defenses, for starting to think he could have a home at Lancer.”
Sam leaned forward, his drink supported on his right knee. “Johnny survived by creating Madrid so he’d never have to be vulnerable again. He gave Madrid up to come here, and look what happened to him.”
Scott stood and crossed to the rough-hewn mantel. “I know that’s a big part of why he’s insisting on going. He can’t let me step in to deal with Murdoch on his behalf.”
Scott had sent a carefully worded message off to Lancer late that afternoon. While Johnny had slept in Barranca’s stall under Clem’s meticulously watchful eye, Scott and Val had planned out the meeting with Murdoch.
I would like to meet with you to discuss the possibility of coming home. I know you are angry. I regret that our argument has led to our estrangement. If you are open to us meeting, the north line shack will offer us privacy. I will come to the cabin alone, and ask that you do the same. Kindly respond with the date and time you would wish me to arrive there, if you are so inclined.
It had been an artfully true little message, yet one Scott expected –hoped– Murdoch would interpret in a certain way. It could sound apologetic, submissive, and completely divorced from Johnny. If Murdoch read it that way, he would surely agree to meet.
It didn’t say, “the possibility of me coming home’. He indeed knew Murdoch was angry, but believed he was angry with Johnny, not him. It was true that he regretted their estrangement, however, he certainly was not backing down on his protection of Johnny. And he was going to the cabin alone, Val would be in the barn.
“So what will you do if Murdoch agrees to meet, but Johnny refuses to stay behind?” Sam’s question interrupted Scott’s musing.
“I honestly don’t know.” Scott lifted one booted foot to rest on the hearth. “I’ll certainly pull out my best big brother voice, throw in some heavy duty guilt, but, holy hell, Sam, what am I going to threaten him with for punishment? Murdoch’s already trying to take away his home. I guess I could say I’ll send Barranca back to Aggie’s, but he’ll think I only dangled Barranca in front of him to bend him to my will. I don’t want him to see me as that manipulative and hurtful. Hell, I don’t want to be that manipulative and hurtful. I swear, if he hadn’t been in that despicable prison, I’d be tempted to let Val lock him up to keep him out of trouble.”
Sam smiled as he took a sip of his brandy. “That might be what it would take. Oh, don’t look at me like that, Scott, we both know there’s nothing short of jail or drugs that will keep Johnny away from that line shack.”
“So are you suggesting spiking his tea?” Scott asked, mostly in jest.
“No, that’s not what I’m suggesting.”
The crackling fire was the only sound in the room. Suddenly, Scott’s head shot up.
“You can’t be suggesting we let him go?”
“No? So, which is better, pretending he’ll stay away while knowing he’ll figure out some fool way of getting himself there on his own, or coming up with as safe a plan as we can for getting him there? In either scenario, he’s going.”
Scott stared at Sam for a long time before taking a too large sip of his brandy.
“Alright, what do you suggest?”
Scott undressed in the hallway, leaving his shirt and pants carefully folded over his boots, before slipping into the darkened bedroom. Sam had offered again to sleep in the hospital room downstairs so he and Johnny could have their own rooms. As grateful as he was for the offer, Scott explained the problems Johnny had been having sleeping. Especially with it being their first night in an unfamiliar place, Scott didn’t want Johnny waking up alone.
He waited until his eyes adjusted before creeping over to the bed, lifting back the covers and gingerly crawling in. Johnny was on his left side, facing him, his breathing quiet and steady, although Scott knew better than to assume he was sleeping. He could feel heat radiating from the boy’s body and worried Johnny was running a fever again. He tried to decide if he should risk waking Johnny to see. Carefully, he slid his hand from under the covers.
“If you feel my forehead, I’m gonna punch you.”
Scott jumped at Johnny’s quietly spoken threat.
“One of these days, little brother,” Scott groaned, laying his hand on Johnny’s forehead, raising his other one slightly to fend off the expected retaliation.
There was none.
“Damn, I thought we’d beaten back the fevers.”
“It’s not a bad one,” Johnny murmured. “I was a good boy and drank Sam’s dang tea.” He rubbed his face with one hand. “I need a gun.”
Scott gave an abrupt laugh. “You’re not going to shoot Sam for making you drink the tea, are you?”
“Not that he doesn’t deserve it for how vile that stuff is, but no, I’m not going to shoot Sam.”
“I’m glad to hear that, and Sam would surely be too. Who are you planning to shoot then?”
“Hopefully, no one. But I need to practice.”
A deep ache rolled across Scott’s stomach. He turned on his side to better see his brother’s face in the darkness. “It’s a little early for that, don’t you think? Sam wants you to rest your right arm because of your shoulder blade and your hands are still hurting you a lot. Plus it would put strain on your ribs and back.”
“I’ll practice with my left hand if I have to because of my shoulder. I can go out in the woods behind Clem’s. I’ll just do dry draws so it won’t bother the neighbors.”
“You’re not still worried about Thatcher’s guns, are you?”
“Worried? No. But I need to be prepared. His gunhawks aren’t the only ones who could start calling me out now that I’m not hiding out in people’s barns anymore.”
With everything that had happened over the last several months, Scott hadn’t stopped to think that there were still gunfighters looking to take Madrid’s reputation, more so after word had spread of the gunfights Johnny had been forced into by Thatcher. They wouldn’t care that the boy was hurt, in fact, it might draw out those who’d hope to take advantage of that weakness.
And there was absolutely nothing Johnny’s big brother could do about it.
“Okay, we’ll get you a gun in the morning.”
“However, your barn-hiding days have not ended.” Scott said quietly. He saw a reflection of moonlight in Johnny’s eyes as he looked at him.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, within some very strict and inflexible boundaries, you can hang out with Val in the barn at the line shack.”
Scott felt those eyes boring into him.
“Why?” It was barely a whisper.
Scott almost made a wisecrack. But he could feel the intensity behind Johnny’s question. “Because it’s important to you.”
Johnny’s breathing became uneven, and he awkwardly pushed himself to sit up.
Startled, Scott reached for his arm. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I… just have to get up.” Johnny got out of bed, unable to hide a hiss of pain. Scott started to get up, thinking Johnny was sick to his stomach, or maybe having a flashback.
“Don’t get up.” Johnny put out his hand. “I’m okay. I’m… gonna get a drink of water.” He was out the door before Scott could respond.
Stunned, Scott threw his legs off the side of the bed as he sat up. They’d noticed that Johnny’s panic attacks had gotten more intense and frequent as they got closer to Lancer. Maybe the thought of confronting Murdoch was overwhelming now that it was so close. Scott got up, went to the door, then stepped back to grab the quilt off the bed, and quietly proceeded downstairs.
Enough moonlight filtered into the darkened sitting room for him to see Johnny wasn’t there. As he turned to check the water closet, he spotted Johnny leaning against the kitchen counter, his back to him. Scott scanned him briefly before moving to the other end of the room, and pumping a glass of water. Johnny was shaking so badly when he handed it to him, he didn’t let go.
“Take a sip,” he instructed softly.
When Johnny had, Scott set the glass on the counter so he could carefully wrap the quilt around the boy’s shoulders. He could tell by the sharp intake of air that the pressure hurt against Johnny’s raw back, but he couldn’t stand to watch his brother shiver.
“You know, the last time you said you were okay when you looked like this, there was a monster in the room with you.”
Johnny dropped his head, but didn’t say anything.
“If the thought of seeing Murdoch is too much right now –or ever– we don’t have to do it. We can walk away.”
“No.” Johnny moaned, shaking his head vehemently.
Scott gave him a moment.
“Talk to me, brother,” he said gently.
Johnny made a noise of frustration, pacing away.
“If I said the wrong thing…” Scott tried again.
Johnny spun around.
“Stop being so fuckin’ nice to me!”
“Wow.” Scott stammered. “And, uh, no.”
Johnny growled, bringing his forearms up to press against the sides of his head, the quilt sliding to the floor.
“Johnny, I don’t even know what I’ve done! Help me out here.”
“You’re giving up everything for me! Your whole damn life! And you don’t even know me!”
Scott narrowed his eyes. “I haven’t given up anything except a few nights’ sleep. You’re my brother, Johnny, I think I know you pretty well.”
“No, no, no. You have no idea… I’m not worth what you’d be giving up!”
The anguish in Johnny’s words cut into Scott’s soul.
“Of course you are,” he whispered. “Where is this coming from?” He took Johnny by the arms. “Come and sit down and tell me what’s going on.”
Johnny didn’t resist as Scott led him to the settee, then sat down beside him. Scott could feel his brother’s heart racing and hear his stridorous breathing. Convinced this was a flashback/panic attack, Scott said, “I’m going to get Sam.”
Scott chewed his lip, then stood and retrieved the quilt from the floor. “Put your legs up.” Johnny drew his legs up to sit cross legged. Scott tucked the quilt around him, and before sitting down pulled the other quilt off the back of the upholstered chair to cover both of them. He drew Johnny’s head to rest against his shoulder.
“Take a few deep breaths. Let’s see if we can slow that freight train in your chest on our own. If it doesn’t get better, I’m waking Sam.” He could tell Johnny was trying to settle. “Do you have any more Latin prayers or hymns for me to translate?”
“No… what about… the one… you were saying when Nanny did the poultice?”
“The one I was saying?” Scott didn’t know any Latin prayers. And the night with the poultice was a blur.
“Mmm, like the Christmas song,” Johnny was sounding less breathless, but his pulse still raced beneath Scott’s fingers. “Venite adoremus…”
Had he spoken the words to Adeste Fidelis to soothe Johnny through the pain? Why would he have picked a Christmas carol?
Suddenly, Scott realized.
“Voi venite, loro vengo?”
“Yeah, that one.”
Scott laughed. “It’s not a prayer. I was conjugating a verb.”
“I was repeating something I had to memorize when I learned Latin. I do that when I’m really scared or upset. It helps me calm my thoughts and steady my breathing, like what I want you to do.”
“I don’t know any Latin verbs to conjure.”
Scott smiled. “I have an idea. Let me recite a prayer in English, and you translate it for me into Spanish.”
For the next few minutes, they did that, with Johnny’s breathing becoming less tortured, and his heart rate calming. Gradually, more of his weight leaned against Scott. As much as Scott wanted to find out what had triggered Johnny’s dramatic reaction, he knew the boy was exhausted.
“Let’s do the next one upstairs, lying down.”
Johnny was asleep before the fourth line.
Scott lay awake for another hour, going over Johnny’s words again and again. Johnny already felt worthless and unlovable. How could he risk exposing the boy to Murdoch, who undoubtedly would reinforce those feelings?
He talked to Sam about it the next morning while Johnny was at Clem’s with Barranca.
“I don’t think Johnny’s worried about confronting Murdoch.” Sam observed. “There isn’t anything bad Murdoch could say about him that he doesn’t already believe, at least on some level, about himself. He’s worried you’ll lose Lancer because of him, either you’ll walk away in anger, or Murdoch will throw you out. He doesn’t believe he’s worth it. And to take it a step further, he fears that afterwards you’ll realize that too, and leave him.”
“That would never happen, Sam. First, I don’t intend to give up on Lancer without fighting… for both of us. And second, it wouldn’t be Johnny I’d resent if I did.”
Sam chewed on a mouthful of eggs for a bit. “He won’t think of it that way, given what life has taught him so far about people who should care about him. Scott, think about how fragile your own self-esteem was when you returned from the war.” Sam didn’t need to have known Scott then, he’d seen it in half a dozen prisoner of war survivors. “You had twenty-one years of security and protection behind you; Johnny has had none. Ever. Imagine if Johnny had grown up with you in Boston, and when you got home, you saw him risking his inheritance and home going up against your grandfather on your behalf. How would you have felt?”
“I see what you’re saying. But how can I convince him he’s worth it? How can I make him understand?”
“Right now, you can’t. Don’t get me wrong, everything you’ve been doing; supporting him, taking care of him, being there when he’s scared or in pain, listening to him… all those things can help show him, but only over time. A long time. You have sixteen years of brutality and loss to compensate for. On top of that, he has intense pain, fevers, flashbacks, and exhaustion throwing daggers at him.”
Sam saw the despair on Scott’s face. He reached out a hand to the younger man’s shoulder. “What you can do, along with all the excellent things you are already, is let him see your conviction to stay and fight. Not just for Lancer, but for your family.”
Allowing a moment for his words to sink in, Sam drank from his coffee. “You know, Johnny said something very interesting to me yesterday when you were running your clothes over to the laundry. I was telling him some local gossip, and mentioned that Billy Cummings up and left his wife and two kids with another on the way. Apparently he’s amassed some sizable gambling debts. He never did make the best decisions when he was drinking, I said. Johnny was quiet a bit before he said, ‘I don’t reckon most people do. Sometimes, I don’t think offering some folks a drink is the friendly thing it seems to be. If you wanna know a person, you gotta know them sober.’”
“Do you think he was talking about Murdoch?”
“Yes, Scott, I do.”
Scott tapped his finger thoughtfully against the table. “You know, Maria was drunk most of the time at the end. He told me she no longer intervened when her men beat him. In fact, with Thatcher, he said she just watched.”
“Oh Lord, Scott.”
“I know. I almost lost my stomach when he told me that. He said she loved him until she decided she loved the bottle more. I wonder if he’s thinking, if we can get rid of the alcohol, maybe Murdoch could love him too.”
Sam raised his eyebrows. “Could well be.”
“And, honestly, Sam, I wonder the same thing myself. It had seemed, for a while there, like Murdoch was moving in the right direction with Johnny. There were definitely times he enjoyed Johnny’s company. He was impressed with Johnny’s skill with horses, he noticed how quickly the men gained respect and trust for him, I think he even liked Johnny’s sense of humor, and how respectful he is of women. His biggest fears were that ‘Madrid’ would bring danger to the family, or that he’d start to care about Johnny and Johnny would up and leave him the way Maria did. With the help of alcohol, he translated the stuff with Thatcher into both fears coming true.”
“ I know the drinking has taken my long-time friend away from me,” Sam observed. “I’d like nothing more than to believe my friend is still under the alcohol. Unfortunately, we’re going to see a whole lot of ugly before there’s any chance of him resurfacing.”
“Coming in,” Scott warned as he neared the clearing where Johnny was practicing. He had no doubt Johnny had heard him long before he spoke, but didn’t want to take any chances.
“I’m almost done.” Johnny nodded Scott to a deadfall seat.
Scott bit his tongue from commenting that Johnny looked more than done. Sweat dampened his face and patches on his shirt. He’d taken off his jacket, even though the air was chill enough to to show his breath.
Johnny drew and dry-shot ten more times. Even knowing how much slower Johnny was than usual, Scott was still amazed at his speed. When Johnny pulled off his shooting glove and walked over, Scott said, “I thought you were going to practice left-handed.” There was more than a little admonishment in his words.
“I did.” Johnny was out of breath. “But left-handed will only get me dead. Hell, right-handed will too, at this point, but it’s a start.” He sat down beside Scott, putting his head down.
Seeing the color of his brother’s face, Scott asked, “Are you going to get sick?”
“Hope not…” Johnny shakily rubbed the back of his neck. He let his hands fall limply between his knees, struggling not to.
Scott was tempted to lecture him about pushing himself so hard. He knew it wouldn’t change Johnny’s determination, and he didn’t want to add to the tension between them.
“How are your hands?” They had been bothering Johnny before he started, and the Colt was not a light weapon.
“Got any of Nanny Rose’s cream?” Johnny joked, grimacing as he flexed the fingers of his right hand.
“Not with me, I’m afraid. I walked out. I’m surprised you had the energy left to practice after making the trek all the way out here.”
Johnny coughed a couple of times, then turned to spit off to the side. “I didn’t.”
“Didn’t walk out here.”
Scott looked around in confusion. “Riding your invisible horse again?”
Johnny laughed. “No, Barranca.”
“Uh, Johnny, I hate to tell you, but Barranca ran off on you.”
“No, he didn’t. I let him go. I’ll call him when I’m ready to go back.” Johnny’s ear-piercing whistle was legendary for its ability to carry over long distances.
“This just gets better and better. You shouldn’t be practicing, you shouldn’t be outside without a jacket,” Scott handed Johnny’s to him with a meaningful look. “And you sure as hell aren’t supposed to be riding. Please at least tell me Clem saddled Barranca instead of you, although I’ll have to kill him as I told him you weren’t to ride without me here.”
“He told me that.” Johnny hissed in pain as he tried to get his jacket on. “I didn’t want him to get in trouble.”
“So instead you lifted a twenty-five pound saddle with a cracked shoulder blade? Good choice.” Scott grabbed the jacket away from Johnny, then held it so Johnny could slide his arm into the sleeve.
“Uh, no, I didn’t saddle him. I just rode him.” Johnny squinted up at his brother hopefully. “But it was only at a walk.”
Scott stared at Johnny for a full minute, mouth open, unable to think of what to say. Finally, he just shook his head and continued helping Johnny on with his jacket. “How’s your stomach?”
“Telling me I need to sit here a while.”
Scott sat beside him on the log, struggling not to lecture. Silence fell.
“Have you heard back from Murdoch?” Johnny asked, without looking at him.
“Yes, he’s willing to meet on Friday. He said he would go out the day before to get the place cleaned up.”
“Which means we’ll have to go out tomorrow to make sure the tunnel is open and to lay in supplies in the barn.”
“Val and I will go out tomorrow to do those things. No arguments, Johnny, there’s absolutely no need for you to make that trip.”
Scott was amazed he didn’t get pushback. Looking over at his brother’s pallor and lines of pain in his face, he was sorely tempted to argue again about the boy going at all.
Johnny blinked a few times as he stared off into the distance.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you last night.”
Scott looked over at him.
“Can you tell me why you were so upset?”
Johnny’s jaw worked as his stare remained unbroken. “You shouldn’t have to risk your home at Lancer, and your relationship with Murdoch, because of me.”
“I don’t think I am. If anything, I’m securing it. Johnny, aside from any issue Murdoch may have with you, his drinking is putting Lancer and all our loyal workers at risk.”
“But he’s drinking because of me.”
“No, he’s drinking because his stubbornness shoved him into a corner where he’s decided alcohol is the best way out. Imagine what would have happened to Lancer, and all the neighboring ranches, if you hadn’t exposed Thatcher’s treachery. Murdoch surely would have gone down the path of drunkenness then, too.”
“No he wouldn’t have, Scott. We saw what he did with Pardee’s threat, he pulled out all the stops, including bringing his gunfighter son home.”
“He brought you home for the same reason he brought me home, because he wanted his sons back. It wasn’t for your gun.”
“No? Then why didn’t he bring me home the first time the Pinks found me?”
Scott stiffened. “What? What do you mean the first time the Pinks found you?”
Johnny reached down to pluck a slender weed from between his feet. “When I was fifteen. They made the connection between Johnny Lancer and Johnny Madrid while I was working a range war in Laredo. I saw the report before he burned it.”
Scott felt acid flood his stomach. He jumped up and stared down at his brother. This couldn’t be true. There was no way the father Scott loved could have willingly left Johnny to that despicable life as a teenager. “ I… maybe they lost your trail afterwards.”
“Murdoch told them to stop the search.”
“No!” Scott moaned as he sank back down again. “Please don’t tell me that, Johnny.”
Johnny ran his thumbnail down the stem of the weed. “He knew who I was, and where I was, and he decided he was no longer interested in bringing me home. What would the respectable Murdoch Lancer want with a gunfighter son? Well, until he needed one to help him save his beloved ranch.”
Scott’s eyes slid closed, his blood pounding so loudly in his ears, he thought his head would explode. When his voice could push past the strangling lump in the throat, he whispered, “How long have you known?”
“Since I was able to get downstairs after Pardee’s bullet. I was bored in the house by myself all day. I could lie and say I came across it on his desk, but I knew the Pinks made reports, and guessed that locked drawer in Murdoch’s desk was where he’d keep them. I was curious to see what they said.”
“Why didn’t you tell me, Johnny?” Scott breathed, battling nausea.
“No offense, but I really didn’t think it had anything to do with you, Boston. I mean, your reports were in there too, but I didn’t read them or nothin’. It wasn’t really a surprise that he didn’t want me back then after he found out I was a gunfighter. The surprise was him asking me to stay this time, and offering me a third of Lancer. Although, when you came after me when I left with Wes, I understood. You told him you wouldn’t stay if I didn’t. That’s why he asked me to.”
“Goddamn it, no! That wasn’t the reason!” Scott sprang up to pace. “He loves you, Johnny, I know he does! He wasn’t just using you as a carrot to get to me. He made a huge mistake not getting you when you were fifteen. He’s admitted that he failed us for not fighting for us when we were kids. Now…now he understands and knows how wrong he was…” Scott’s voice weakened as his argument did, his last words a whisper. “He loves both of us.”
Johnny said nothing. He bent the stalk onto itself over and over until he had a wad of broken prices between his fingers. Staring at his brother’s movements, Scott couldn’t help but see his family fracturing in a similar way. His rage at Murdoch was overpowering, perhaps irreparably so, yet, no small amount of it was also directed at Johnny.
“How dare you keep something like this from me? You helped me believe the lie that Murdoch brought you home as soon as he found you. You let me start to love a despicable, hateful man!” He jabbed his finger at Johnny, who bowed his head.
“I thought…” Johnny’s voice was very soft and uneven, his eyes running over the ground as if searching for words there, “…that it didn’t matter… as long as he loved me now. But I guess… I was wrong that he cared about me…” Johnny shrugged helplessly. “Sorry to bring you into my mess.”
“Oh, Johnny.” Scott pressed his young brother’s head against his stomach, wanting to weep for the despair in his voice.
“I just want to talk to him, Scott. I have to hear what he says.”
“So he can rip you open again? I’m not going to let him do that, brother.”
“You can’t protect me from it.” Johnny stood up, none too steadily. “What do I have to lose? The worst that could happen is he confirms what I already believe.” Sapphire eyes met slate blue. “But, Scott, what if he does care?”
And there, Scott saw it. That desperation to be loved. The need Johnny had buried so deep for all of his childhood, because every time he brought it out –with Maria, Val, Jose Madrid– every single time, he was crushed. Johnny had allowed himself one last try for a loving parent with Murdoch. He couldn’t bear to have it ripped away from him without a fight.
Scott wanted to believe that Murdoch had it in him to love Johnny. Good God, it was such an easy thing to do! Scott had started to feel it within days of meeting him. Teresa, Jelly, Maria, and Cipriano were each pulled into the irresistible force that was his brother. Surely, Murdoch had been moved, as they all had, by Johnny’s charisma and compassion.
“You keep telling me that Murdoch loves me.” Johnny spoke, as if reading Scott’s thoughts. “Is that a lie?”
“No, no, of course not.” Scott touched his brother’s cheek. “I do believe that. It’s just… I’m not sure that Murdoch remembers right now. He’s changed, Johnny, the alcohol has changed him into a stranger I don’t recognize. Sam said he and Teresa feel the same way. It’s like he’s broken.”
“But shouldn’t we try to put him back together?” Scott felt a fist squeezing his heart at Johnny’s pleading. “Isn’t that what family is for? You didn’t give up on me. We shouldn’t give up on him.”
Scott had never wanted to run more than he did right now. He’d put Charlie up in the barn beside Murdoch’s bay, Toby, feeling Val and Johnny’s eyes on him the entire time. They didn’t speak because of the risk of sound traveling into the cabin. Just before he went out, Johnny came over. They stood together, forehead to forehead, reinforcing their brotherly bond, giving each other strength.
As Scott trudged his way to the cabin, he felt that strength ebbing away, replaced by a heart-racing anxiety. How could he do anything but heighten Murdoch’s unreasonable anger? What words could possibly turn any of this around? His own anger was so strong, he absently wondered if Val would need to run out of hiding to protect Murdoch instead of him.
Appropriately, it had started to snow. Thick, heavy flakes that flung themselves at the earth, crashing wetly into any object in the way of their descent. Scott’s hat, cheeks, and jacket were quickly coated. He paused outside the cabin door, head bowed, taking in a deep, steadying breath before he pushed it open.
Murdoch was standing by the stove, the cabin warm from it and the roaring fire.
“Coffee, whiskey, or both?” was the greeting.
Scott was struck by the changes in Murdoch. His hair was too long, flattened on the top, and jutting out over his ears and collar. Although he’d shaved, his face was haggard and scruffy-looking. Large bags puffed beneath his eyes, accented by the hollows of his cheeks. He was stooped and wasted, no longer the imposing figure of a walking mountain. His stomach hung over his belt, elsewhere his clothes sagged. As Scott focused on The Cattlemen’s Association belt buckle of Johnny’s nightmare assault, he found himself wondering if Murdoch would be able to get it off, never mind swing it without falling down. It was obvious by the half-gone whiskey bottle and glazed look in Murdoch’s eyes, that he’d started drinking early.
“Just coffee, please.” Scott shook off his coat and hat and hung them by the door. He accepted the mug of steaming coffee Murdoch held out to him as he moved over to the fire.
“With the way it’s coming down, we could be snowed in by morning,” Murdoch observed, refilling his cup with coffee, and topping it with a liberal dose of whiskey. “How was your trip out?”
“It was fine, thank you, sir.” Scott dreaded the implications of being snowed in with his father. “We’ll have to keep an eye on the weather.”
Murdoch cocked his head then lowered himself into one of the two chairs in front of the fireplace. “We have plenty of supplies to last, I wasn’t sure how long you planned to stay… here. We could do some hunting. Did you get everything settled in Green River?”
“You and Val. He came back with you?”
Scott stared at his father. “Yes, Val helped me bring Johnny back, and Sam met us there.” He threw it out like a challenge.
Ask about your son, dammit!
“So that’s where your brother chose to stay, in Green River with Val?”
Scott’s eyes widened, and his jaw clenched. “No, Johnny’s choice would have been to go directly to Lancer. I was the one who decided Green River was a better choice. Thatcher had him locked up in a brutal prison in Northgate for more than four months. He’s badly hurt and shouldn’t have been traveling at all. I wanted him to get to Sam, as he hadn’t had proper treatment of any of his injuries.”
Murdoch nodded as if he’d been given a report on a cattle sale. “Sam is the best doctor for miles around. We’re lucky to have him. He really needs to get an assistant, though, especially now that Doc Camden is retiring in Spanish Wells. It’s too much for a man Sam’s age.”
Scott’s blood boiled. “I can see what you’d be so concerned about him. How about an ounce of concern for your son?”
“I’m sure you and Sam have done your best for him. Will he be staying with Val permanently, or just until he’s recovered?”
“His intention is to return to Lancer, just as it has always been.”
“Huh, I didn’t get that from your letter. And as I haven’t heard a single word from him…”
“He told you in his first telegram he was coming home, just not yet. He was protecting us from Thatcher after he escaped from that hellhole Northgate, barely alive. It’s why he couldn’t tell us where he was.”
“I see.” Murdoch sipped his laced coffee. “And the reason he didn’t come with you here?”
“Didn’t you hear me, Murdoch? He’s badly hurt. Thatcher beat him within an inch of his life. I refused to let him come.”
Fat lot of good that refusal did.
“We could have met in Green River, or you could have brought him to Lancer.”
“Could I have? Would you have welcomed him at the ranch? You’d pretty much written him off before I left.”
“I’m not opposed to him returning to Lancer. He needs to understand he can’t run off every time he doesn’t get his way. I don’t want to keep seeing you get hurt.”
Scott stared at the elder man, dumbfounded.
“He didn’t run away, Murdoch. He chased down leads to prove Thatcher is a liar and a cheat. He saved Lancer from financial ruin, and the other ranches as well. He risked his life for us, and almost died in that damn prison!”
“If that’s what he says.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Murdoch sighed as he sat forward. “Scott, I wanted to believe Johnny could give up gunfighting. I was willing to give up a third of Lancer on that belief. But, think about it, twice in the last year, Lancer has been on the brink of destruction. And both times, the person coming after us was someone from Johnny’s past.”
Scott was knocked back a step by Murdoch’s words. He was glad the table was there to catch him and his coffee. He surrendered his cup, needing both hands to grip the edge of the table for stability.
“You want me to believe that Johnny had something to do with the attacks?”
“Far too coincidental…”
“Good God, Murdoch, listen to yourself! Pardee was after Lancer while Johnny was in prison in Mexico. And Thatcher was one of Maria’s goons who used to beat up on him when he was ten. Ten, Murdoch. Long before Madrid existed. You are twisting this all around to justify your reasons for pushing Johnny away. Why are you doing that to him? He’s a good kid who just wants to come home!” Scott didn’t know whether to scream or cry.
“Then, bring him home. If you feel you can trust him, I’ll support you. I know how important it is for you to have your brother there.”
Scott shook his head in disgust.
“I thought it was important to you to have him home.”
Murdoch stared into the fire, the flickering light turning his sallow features ghostlike.
“That was my dream, to have my boys home.”
“Yet after everything he’s done, everything he’s sacrificed, you don’t want him there anymore.”
“That’s not what I said!” Murdoch’s eyes flashed. “Of course I want him home.”
“Then why do you make it sound as if you can barely stand the idea? You ‘wouldn’t be opposed’ to me bringing him there, if I feel I can trust him. Hardly a ringing endorsement, sir.”
Murdoch rose and poured another coffee. As he reached to top it with whiskey, Scott snapped, “Don’t.”
“Don’t taint our conversation with more alcohol.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Murdoch poured the whiskey anyway. “Maybe you need a little to calm you down.”
Scott moved to stand in front of his father. “I don’t need alcohol to have this conversation. And if you want me to stay to continue it, the alcohol has to go.”
Murdoch’s expression darkened. “Sam put you up to this, didn’t he? He’s become so paranoid about a few drinks.”
“It’s not a few drinks,” Scott said quietly, holding up the well-begun bottle. “And it hasn’t been for a long time. Your drinking has gotten out of control, and it’s affecting your family, the ranch, and your health.”
“Bullshit! There is nothing wrong with my drinking or my health. Sam is telling stories out of school, and I don’t appreciate it. Yes, maybe I’ve needed a few drinks to get me through my sons deserting me. It’s nothing I can’t handle, and none of Sam’s –or your– business.”
Your sons deserting you? Holy hell.
“Murdoch, when was the last time you gave morning orders?”
“Pfft. Cipriano is perfectly capable.”
“What was last month’s profit margin?”
Murdoch glared at him. Scott could see he didn’t know. Six months ago, Murdoch would have known the number off the top of his head. Scott wondered if the ranch was even making a profit now, without any of the partners at the reins. He let his air out heavily.
“I know how hard these last few months have been. I found myself drinking way too much when we didn’t know where Johnny was, or even if he was alive. I’m not blaming you for the alcohol. But I’m also not going to let it drive a wedge through our family. If you want me to stay to talk about us coming home, the alcohol needs to go.”
“You will not threaten me!” Murdoch bellowed.
“It’s not a threat, it’s a request that is also a condition. One drink in the afternoon, and a second at night.” Scott laid out Sam’s recommendation for tapering Murdoch’s alcohol intake. “No shots to get us going in the morning, to give us the courage to talk to each other, or to get us through a difficult evening. If alcohol isn’t a problem, it won’t be a problem for us to go without it.”
Murdoch fixed Scott with a contemptuous glare as he walked over and pointedly poured his laced coffee down the drain. “Happy?”
“Thank you.” It took everything in Scott to make himself sound grateful. He suspected he should have taken his afternoon shot now to brace himself for the rest of the day.
They made lunch, studiously avoiding serious topics. Scott could barely eat, thinking about Johnny and Val out in the cold barn, and how they were reacting to the conversation so far. Murdoch’s logic was terrifyingly warped. How could he counter it?
After lunch, Scott made the excuse that he wanted to check on the horses. He took a surreptitious note of the level of whiskey in the bottle before he left. It was alarming to find the snow up to his ankles already. He stomped his boots off quickly before entering the barn. Val was alone by the tunnel opening. The sheriff motioned that Johnny was in the far stall then covered over the tunnel opening with a bedroll, nodding Scott to a corner a distance away so they could speak safely.
“How bad?” Scott whispered.
“The kid had to hold me down from jumping through the tunnel to strangle the bastard.” Val’s voice was equally soft, but dripping with contempt. Scott grimaced, feeling the same way.
“How is Johnny taking it?”
“Like a few more lashes on his whip-torn back. How do you think he’s taking it? He shouldn’t be here, Scott. Not only is that asshole driving daggers into his heart, it’s too cold for him out here. And he doesn’t look good. I think he’s getting sick or something.”
Scott closed his eyes. The unexpected snow added a new layer of complication. They’d planned for Val and Johnny to spend nights at an abandoned miners’ camp only a few miles away, where they could be warm and protected from the wind that swirled through openings in the old barn’s walls. They’d stocked and cleaned it when they’d come out to check the cabin and tunnel two days earlier. “I want to get him to the miners’ camp before dark, and before the snow gets much higher.”
Scott pressed his lips together tightly and nodded.
Toby was a massive horse, eighteen hands high and barrel-chested. He needed to be big to carry a man of Murdoch’s size. He also loved to sleep lying down whenever he could, which for a horse that barely fit in most stalls, was a challenge. Murdoch had smartly put him in the furthest, largest stall, so he was indeed lying down, with Johnny lying right beside him. Scott smiled as he carefully stepped around the resting horse to avoid startling him.
“Looks like you found a smart way to stay warm.” He gave Toby a gentle pat as he slid into the tight opening to sit beside his brother.
Johnny smiled. “I wish Barranca liked to lie down more. Midnight kept me warm many nights.”
Scott could see what Val meant about Johnny looking unwell. He was no longer just pale, his coloring was grey, and his eyes looked punched. “Do you have a fever?” He found Johnny’s forehead was actually cool and damp.
Johnny sighed as he leaned onto Toby, the way he often used pillows to support himself. “No, although I don’t know why you ask when you always check anyway.”
“Just one of those annoying things big brothers do,” Scott laughed.
Johnny gifted Scott with a brief smile, his hand gently stroking Toby’s side. “I wish it wasn’t snowing. I feel bad for Barranca and Renegade.”
“That’s part of the reason I came out.” Scott lied, seeing a perfect excuse to convince Johnny to move to the miners’ camp. “You and Val should head over to the camp now, get the horses out of the snow, and get yourself settled before the storm worsens.”
“You shouldn’t be alone with him.”
With him, our father, whom we can no longer trust.
“ Murdoch may be blind, stubborn, and irrational, but he’s not violent.”
“He was pretty mad about the whiskey.”
“But he agreed without much of a fight.”
“Sam said it will get worse as he goes through withdrawal.”
“I’ll hide the weapons,” Scott joked. At the look in Johnny’s eyes, he touched his brother’s arm. “I’ll be fine.” He cocked his head. “Pretty crazy shit Murdoch has in his head about why you left, huh? You can see how much the alcohol has messed with his mind.” He watched his brother’s expression as he spoke, but couldn’t read anything there. “Even knowing it’s the whiskey talking, it was pretty hard to hear.”
Johnny didn’t answer, and didn’t raise his head.
“Please talk to me, little brother. I already think this was a bad idea. Not just exposing you to Murdoch’s drunken ravings, but to the cold and this stupid snowstorm.”
“He isn’t drunk.”
Of all the possible responses, Scott hadn’t expected that one. He heard the underlying meaning.
“Maybe not, but his ideas are. They were built up under the influence of alcohol, and grew so strong, he spouts them drunk or not.”
“He believes them, drunk or not.” Johnny corrected quietly. “So taking away the whiskey isn’t going to change his mind.”
Damn the boy’s logic.
“Not right away, that’s true, however, once the alcohol is gone, logic at least has a chance of getting through.”
“I hardly think logic is going to help me, brother.” Johnny rested his head against Toby’s withers. “No logic in keeping a gunfighter around unless there are more land pirates.”
“You’re not a gunfighter, Johnny, you’re a rancher, and a damn good one. Murdoch has let himself believe this myth about Johnny Madrid. It’s one that can’t survive in a sober brain.”
Johnny closed his eyes, his fingers trailing lightly over Toby’s coat. Scott thought back to their discussion about the silk scarf, how touching something soft helped with the pain.
“You look a lot more uncomfortable than you have been, Johnny.”
“You’re going to have to come up with a new line. No one believes ‘I’m fine’ coming from your lips. In fact, I tend to translate it to ‘I’m hurting pretty damn bad’.”
Johnny blinked up at Scott lazily. “You making up your own language now, Boston? Knowing four ain’t good enough for you?”
“I want you and Val to go over to the miners’ camp now, and stay there until after the snow stops. It’s best for the horses.”
“Nope, not happening. We’ll bring Barranca and Renegade in here, and it’ll be your job to keep Murdoch out of the barn. I suggest hiding his boots.”
“Come on, Johnny, it was never the plan for you to be here at night. It’s too cold. Four horses are going to make enough noise to carry through the tunnel. Murdoch will figure it out.”
Johnny sighed, trying to sit up. He caught his breath and lay back down against Toby.
“I can’t ride just now, Boston,” he admitted quietly, “Somethings going on under my ribs. It hurts something fierce. I had a hard time getting over here. I wouldn’t make it to the horses.”
“Dammit, Johnny, why didn’t you say something?” Scott got to his knees, motioned Val over, explaining to him what was going on as he bent to open Johnny’s jacket. “I bet it was from the trip out here. Show me where.”
“Wait,” Johnny moaned as they jostled him too much trying to see. He bowed his head to take in several painful but steadying breaths. “Okay, right side. I can’t tell if it’s from the front going to the back, or the other way around.”
Scott gently felt around, eliciting gasps of pain from Johnny. “Sorry. It feels like there’s something swollen there. Let me look at your back.” He untucked Johnny’s shirt and peered under the bandage below. “It’s definitely underneath one of the sores, but I don’t see any infection and you don’t have a fever. Is it by one of your broken ribs?”
“I don’t think so.”
“When did it start to hurt?”
“While you and Murdoch were talking. I thought… maybe that was why.”
Hearing the sadness in Johnny’s voice, Scott gave his arm a gentle squeeze. “We need Sam.”
“I’ll ride for him after we get Johnny into the cabin.” Val offered.
“No, it will ruin everything!” Johnny argued. “It went away before.”
Scott furrowed his brow. “When did you have it before?”
“In Northgate, at one of the houses, and when we stopped at that hotel when it was raining.”
“And you didn’t think you should tell us about it?”
“Nothing to do about it.”
“Did you tell Sam about it?”
“Unh uh, wasn’t bothering me then. It’ll go away again.”
“You hope.” Val grunted. He looked at Scott. “What do you want to do?”
Scott sat back on his heels. He could see the pleading in Johnny’s eyes, yet also the pain. And that scared the living daylights out of him. Johnny rarely showed pain. He stroked the soft hair along the side of the boy’s head.
“None of this is going as we planned,” he sighed. “ The chances of us getting through this without Murdoch figuring out our game is virtually nonexistent. I’d be willing to wait a few hours to see if the pain is better, as long as you’re honest with us about it, Johnny.”
“I’ll keep Murdoch occupied if, Val, you go get the horses to bring in. If the pain gets worse, come get me and we’ll deal with Murdoch’s reaction. If not… I still don’t want you in the barn all night, brother.”
“Toby will keep me warm.”
“Just be sure not to make Barranca jealous. Murdoch would recognize his ‘pay attention to me, Johnny’ whinny a mile away.” Scott scanned his brother worriedly. “I don’t like this, Johnny. You look like hell. And considering how bad I’ve seen you look, that’s saying something. Would you at least take some of the pain powder Sam sent? It’s not laudanum.”
“How would I know if it’s getting worse then? I’m going to try to sleep, as long as Toby here doesn’t roll around too much. Go back inside before Murdoch comes looking for you.”
Reluctantly, Scott went back to the cabin. It didn’t appear Murdoch had moved an inch from where he’d left him by the fire. At least the whiskey bottle hadn’t moved either.
Scott gratefully helped himself, guiltily thinking how neither Johnny nor Val had anything warm, other than the horses. He challenged Murdoch to a game of chess, wanting to keep his father occupied, and cover any noises from the barn. He asked about Teresa, about Cipriano’s niece who’d been expecting, about the ranch, and the goings on in town and with the Cattlemen’s Association. It was terribly obvious Murdoch had cut himself off from everyone and everything while Scott had been gone. He couldn’t answer most of Scott’s questions. So Scott moved to historical topics, asking Murdoch what he knew of the people who’d lived on the property when it was a working horse ranch.
“I noticed there’s a stove out in the barn. Do you think it would be safe to start it after I clean it out? There are some sizable cracks in the wallboards, and it’s so bitterly cold with the wind. I’m afraid the horses’ water will freeze, and you know how much Charlie hates the cold.”
“I’m sure that’s why it’s out there. As long as the chimney is clean, and there isn’t loose straw near it, it should be fine. It has a solid door, right?”
“Yes. Now that I remember they raised horses here, I’d bet the bigger stall you have Toby in was used as a foaling box.”
“You’re probably right. I’ll go out with you to help clean it.”
Oh, shit, no.
“Actually, sir, I was rather hoping you might offer to cook supper while I do that. I haven’t had one of your tasty stews in a while.” He turned his most endearing smile on Murdoch, the one he’d learned from Johnny.
“That’s a deal.”
Scott now had to make his way through eight inches of snow to the barn. Val had brought Barranca and Renegade in. He’d been back at the tunnel opening, listening in, but now it was covered over, and he met Scott by the stove that needed cleaning.
“I don’t think his pain is no better, but it ain’t worse neither. He’s maybe been able to sleep a might. Barranca has been snorting, either mad that Johnny’s lying with Toby, or because he can tell something’s wrong. Great idea about the stove, I’ll get cleaning it while you check on Johnny. I don’t suppose you can sneak us any of the venison stew Murdoch’s fixing up.”
“There’s venison jerky, potatoes, and carrots; you can probably make your own.”
“Not that he’d be able to eat it. I’ll make him some broth though.”
Scott gave Val a grateful nod as he moved over to Toby’s stall. It was lucky the big bay wasn’t spooky, and tended to be on the lazy side. He didn’t move as Scott crept in beside Johnny.
“How are you doing?” He looked for his own answer in the boy’s eyes while feeling his forehead for fever. There wasn’t one, but the cool dampness was far from reassuring.
“M’okay.” Johnny rubbed his face wearily.
“You promised to be honest with me.” Scott chided as he brought out Nanny Rose’s cream which he’d made a point of putting in the barn’s supplies.
“I am. It’s not any worse.”
“But obviously not going away. Let me check your stomach and back before I do your hands.” Johnny didn’t try to cover his low moan as Scott felt around. “Is there any change in it? Moving more toward your stomach or back? More pressure? Getting sharper?”
“Unh uh.” Johnny was draped over Toby as if it took his last ounce of energy to breathe.
“How long did it last before?”
“Not sure, hard to tell time. A day or so?”
“I wish Sam were here.”
“I doubt he’d be able do anything but poke, frown, and order me to stay in bed, which I’m doing… well, sort of. What have you and Murdoch been talking about while I’ve been sleeping?”
“I wish you’d been sleeping.” Scott took Johnny’s right hand in his, startled by how cold it was. “We’ve mostly talked about the ranch and about this place when it was a horse farm. Nothing about us.”
“He doesn’t know about the tunnel, does he?”
“No, I’m sure he doesn’t or else he would have suggested I use it instead of trapsing out here through eight inches of snow. Luckily, I convinced him the horses needed the stove. He’s making supper while I’m cleaning and stoking the stove.”
“Or Val is… ow!” Johnny jerked his hand in Scott’s.
“Sorry.” A moment later, Johnny did the same thing. “Either my technique is slipping or your hands have gotten worse.”
“Probably from practicing yesterday. But rubbing them helps a lot.”
“Hard to tell.” Scott snorted as Johnny jerked again.
“Murdoch’s going to be awfully suspicious when you came back smelling of honey and almonds instead of ash and horses.”
“No worries. I’ll wait until Val is all done cleaning and rub my hands in the ashes before we put them out. Then I’ll give all the horses a pat for good measure.” Scott could see that Johnny was fighting sleep. He fell silent and lightened his touch.
Johnny’s weight became heavier against Toby, and each exhale became a soft moan. Scott was getting increasingly worried about him. Without his smile and glinting eyes, he looked quite ill. He was shivering, even against Toby’s warmth and wearing his heavy jacket. When Val stuck his head over the stall divider a moment later, Scott asked him to bring over a heavy blanket, which he gently laid across his brother.
“This stall should warm up quickly being the closest to the stove,” Val observed. “Is he getting worse?”
“Hard to tell. Still no fever. He says the pain is the same. Clearly, he’s exhausted.”
“I’ll keep an eye on him.” Val surveyed the tall blond. “Are you holding out okay? I know it can’t be easy confronting Murdoch in the first place, but knowing Johnny is listening in, and sick and all.”
“It is overwhelming, “Scott admitted. “I’m kicking myself for letting him come.”
“I’ve been kicking you and Sam for it, too,” Val grumbled. “But I know if you didn’t let him come, he would have snuck out.”
Scott clapped Val on the shoulder. “I appreciate you doing this for us, and for cleaning out the stove. Now to make it look like I did all the work.”
Murdoch was irritable and contrary all evening. He complained about the one drink rule, the snow, Scott pulling him out into the middle of nowhere, chess, and Johnny. Sam had prepared Scott for the signs of alcohol withdrawal; irritation, confusion, and tremors. Scott was definitely the recipient of the irritation, and had noticed tremors as Murdoch lost –badly– at chess. It was difficult to tell withdrawal-based confusion from the alcohol-driven confusion Murdoch had been mired in for months. Scott tried valiantly to unravel the web of untruths their father had converted to his reality.
“Why would you think Johnny was working with Thatcher?”
“He said they were friends.”
“Not by a long shot. He said Thatcher was a liar, a cheat, and a very violent man.”
“That’s the gunfighter code, friends one minute, calling each other out the next. You saw that with his friend, Isham.”
“That was completely different, Johnny and Isham were friends, as much as two gunfighters could be; it killed Johnny to have to fight him.”
“But he did it. Hence, my point. To your brother, loyalty is a temporary thing, dependent upon where the money lies.”
“Certainly not! Johnny is one of the most loyal men I have ever met. He’ll give up anything –including his life– for the people he cares about. He went up against Isham to protect you! And that is exactly what he did with Thatcher. He gave up the security of his home and family to chase down a monster from his childhood. There was no money in it for him. Only risk and pain. How can you question that kind of loyalty?”
“If you believe his side of the story…”
“Murdoch, who invited Thatcher to the Cattlemen’s Association meeting?”
Murdoch rolled his eyes. “Yes, the Board did invite him.”
“Did Johnny ever mention him before the Board made that decision, suggest you invite him, or in any way influence you to support Thatcher’s proposal?”
“Not to me, at least.”
“Which he surely would have done if he were friends with Thatcher. In fact,
from that first day, he pleaded with us not to vote for the water plan.”
“We couldn’t pull our vote when everything pointed to the benefit of the project. Granted, we didn’t have all the information. If Johnny had stayed around to tell us what he knew, it would have saved us time and legal fees.”
“Johnny didn’t know anything about Thatcher’s business dealings, he only knew what a brutal sadist he was to a ten year old boy. He told us he was leaving to find evidence, and that’s exactly what he did. Thatcher was unmasked as a liar and cheat, so he snuck away in the dead of the night. But he went after Johnny in retaliation, first sending gunhawks to call him out, sometimes three at a time. When that didn’t work, he took a hostage so Johnny would surrender to him. Thatcher beat your son every day in that prison, Murdoch. With the buckle end of a belt, just like he did when Johnny was little. You should see the mess on Johnny’s back; it would make you sick!”
Murdoch turned his face away. Scott sat down in the chair adjacent to him, directly in his line of sight.
“Do you know what kept him alive in that hellhole? It was us. His belief in us. That we would come for him, get him out, bring him home to Lancer. He trusted us. And we failed him…” Scott put his steepled fingers to his trembling lips. “If not for people he fought for as Johnny Madrid –peons without a peso among them– he would have died all alone in Northgate. They were the ones who got him out, cared for him, and hid him from Thatcher and his guns. They even got that message to us that he was alive and loved us.” Scott explained about Emilio’s Friends, spoke at length about Ned and what Johnny had done for him. He shared what he’d learned about why so many families along the border viewed Johnny Madrid as a hero. “There are dozens of families out there who think of Johnny as part of their family, people who knew Johnny Madrid, the notorious gunfighter, and they love him, Murdoch. Why can’t you?” There was desperation in Scott’s plea.
“They love a myth, a larger than life hero.”
“No, Murdoch, not a myth. He did those things. He rescued their children, fought the Rurales’ corruption, got their land back, and then he refused their money. That is real. The myth is the story you’re telling yourself, that he’s a money-hungry killer without morals. That was never who Johnny was.”
“You didn’t know him then.”
“I didn’t, but they did: Ned, Val, Wes, Martin, the Mexican families. And they all describe him the same way. Where’s your evidence?”
“The Pinkerton reports. They recounted some pretty horrific things he did.”
“Oh, the same reports that told you who and where your son was when he was fifteen? Yet, you chose to cancel the search instead of bringing him home?”
It was out of Scott’s mouth before he could stop himself. He was as shocked as Murdoch was.
And Val is listening in!
It would be a miracle if the lawman wasn’t in the cabin in five minutes ripping Murdoch’s throat out.
“Where did you hear that?” Murdoch growled.
“Does it matter? Are you going to deny it?”
“I’m not even going to respond to it.” Murdoch launched himself out of his chair and went to the whiskey.
It took a moment for Scott to break himself out of his horror at having betrayed his brother’s confidence. As Murdoch lifted the whiskey to his lips, Scott warned, “Think carefully about whether you want that drink, Murdoch.” His voice was surprisingly calm. “I meant what I said about only being willing to be here without the alcohol.”
“I’ll do as I please on my land.”
“Our land, Murdoch. Yours, mine, and Johnny’s. We fought to save it from Pardee. Now we’re fighting to save it from that bottle.”
“Enough!” Murdoch slammed the cup down on the table, sloshing it’s contents over the side. “My scotch is no risk to my ranch. And it is still my ranch. You haven’t been here a year. In fact, Johnny’s been gone longer than he was at the ranch.”
“You took the year provision out of the agreement. We became equal partners the day we signed it. You can’t just change your mind because you’re mad at us.”
“It was my signature for Johnny. He’s not of age, so his third still belongs to me. I have majority ownership and you agreed in writing that all final decisions are mine. If you don’t want to be here, I will buy you out and you can be on your way.”
Scott inhaled a steadying breath. He took in the ruddiness of Murdoch’s face, his filmy eyes, his shaking hands. He reminded himself it was the alcohol –or lack thereof– talking.
“I never said I don’t want to be at Lancer. The opposite is true. I want to be here so much, I’m willing to make you angry by insisting on no alcohol. If you don’t need the scotch, going without it shouldn’t be an issue.”
“It’s an issue because I won’t be dictated to in my home by a boy only half my age. It’s completely disrespectful to me as your father.”
“I don’t mean it to be, sir. But somehow, alcohol has made you believe things that are not true about Johnny and it’s tearing our family apart. Yes, you built Lancer on your own. You always said it was your dream to bring us home to share it with us. That’s our dream, too. Please work with me on this.”
Murdoch knocked his cup across the table, spraying the remaining whiskey onto the floor and hearth. Flames spat out to catch what drops they could.
“It was an impossible dream. Johnny doesn’t want it. And you only want it if he does.”
“Johnny does want it. Please believe me, Murdoch. It’s what has kept him going through torture, sickness, and pain. It made him get on a horse to come home when he shouldn’t be out of bed. Murdoch, it was one of the first questions he asked me, ‘Does Murdoch want me home?’”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “He asked you that?”
“At least once a day.”
Murdoch rose and paced the small space between the table and fireplace. Scott could see he’d finally struck a chord with their father.
“Why would he ask?”
“Because he argued with you about Thatcher. He knew how important the water deal was to you and the other ranchers. He was afraid you’d think he had left because he didn’t get his way with the vote.”
Murdoch paused by the condensation-fogged window.
“That’s exactly how it looked.”
“I told him that you’d understand as soon as you heard the truth. He kept asking if you knew yet what had really happened. I promised him I’d tell you as soon as we got back.”
Murdoch moved back to the table, cursed as he spotted the whiskey bottle, then bent to pick his cup up from the floor. “He shouldn’t have run off like that. He’s so damn impulsive!”
Scott tempered his response. “I, too, wish he’d spoken with us first. I would have gone with him. We would have gone with him, shown him what family does when one of us is hurting.”
Murdoch stared stone-faced into the fire, the orange flames sharpening the angles of his bloodless features. Scott hoped to see a softening there, some fragment of an opening into his heart that Johnny might squeeze through. But, only a solid wall reflected back.
“I’m going to stoke the stove in the barn, and then head to bed. It’s been a long day after several very long weeks.” Scott put on his jacket, hat, and gloves and made his way out to the barn. One look at Val told Scott he’d been right about the sheriff’s furor at Murdoch.
“Does he know?” Val jerked his thumb to where Johnny was still lying down. Scott was relieved Johnny hadn’t heard any of the conversation with Murdoch, especially the part Val was referring to.
“He’s the one who told me. He read the Pinkerton reports before Murdoch burned them. But I shouldn’t have let on that I knew about it. Murdoch’s distorted view of Johnny just squeezed all reason out of my brain. Please don’t say anything to Johnny.”
“That arrogant, self-righteous, sonovabitch!” Val hissed. “He left that boy to a life that nearly killed him a half dozen times. Just to save his goddamned reputation! And then he has the audacity to blame Johnny for having lived it!”
“I was horrified when Johnny told me. And honestly, I don’t know how I’ll keep it out of our discussions. I can’t believe Murdoch did that, but more, he lied about it, Val. He said he didn’t know where Johnny was until the Pinks saved him from the firing squad.”
“A man who can abandon his teenage son to a life as a gunfighter, sure ain’t gonna have no bones about lying about it. Why does Johnny even want to live with an asshole like that anyway?”
Scott pinched the bridge of his nose. He wasn’t lying when he told Murdoch he was exhausted. Plus, he was worried as hell about Johnny. He didn’t need this from Val tonight. Yet, with all he was doing for them, Val deserved an answer.
“I’d guess it’s the same reason Johnny stayed with his mother when she let men like Thatcher beat the crap out of him, the same reason I love my grandfather, even knowing his lies kept me from my father for my entire childhood. We need family.”
“The kid’s got you and he’s got me. He don’t need a lying snake of a father.”
Scott wasn’t going to answer that. A tiny part of him thought the same thing.
“Is Johnny doing any better?”
“I’d say worse, but he won’t admit it. He wouldn’t take any broth, said his stomach was bad. He did drink some peppermint tea. I don’t like this Scott. Snow or no snow, I’m going for Sam in the morning if he’s not miles better.”
“I won’t stop you. I’ve even thought about how we should do it.” Scott explained his plan to Val, who reluctantly agreed. “Sam has a hard time riding, and his buggy isn’t going to get through deep snow. We’d better hope this stops soon and melts quickly.”
Scott was relieved the barn was much warmer with the stove. In particular, Toby’s stall was as warm as the cabin. He picked his way in to settle beside Johnny.
“Hey, brother, you’re lucky Toby here is a lazy bag of bones. It’s like having your own bed warmer.”
“He’s been up a couple of times to piss and drop and eat. He almost got me with the first piss, it was a long one.
Scott chuckled. “You’re lucky Barranca isn’t over here calling Toby out. He’s pretty jealous.”
“I had a talk with him when I got up before. Gave him the choice of lying down, he tossed his head and snorted at me. I took that as ‘the hell I will!’ And came back to trusty, warm, and lazy Toby.”
“He seems to like the company. How’s the pain in your side?”
“Still there. No worse, no better. But I’ve been sleeping.”
“I’m glad to hear about the sleeping part; you certainly need it.”
“You too, Boston, you look tired.”
“I am,” Scott smiled faintly. “But that’s why I’m out here. We’re heading to bed and I’m stoking the fire to keep the horses warm.”
“Us horses appreciate that. What did I sleep through?”
“Nothing major. A bunch more arguments over the ‘no alcohol’ thing. We talked about what really happened when you went to unravel Thatcher’s lies. I won’t say that he’s gotten it yet, but I think he’s starting to see some of the cracks in his misguided version of things. He’s pissy as hell, so I imagine the alcohol withdrawal is starting. We’ll see what happens come morning.” Scott pulled the blanket closer around Johnny’s shoulders. “How have the dreams been?”
“Ain’t been having any, too tired I guess.”
“That’s good news.” Scott tousled what there was of Johnny’s hair. “I wish it looked like it was helping. You still look like you feel pretty rotten.”
“Not my best day. But, not my worst either. Hopefully, I’ll be back up tomorrow. It doesn’t do me any good to be here, if I’m not listening to you guys talk.”
“You haven’t missed much, I promise you. I hope we’ll get further tomorrow, unless the withdrawal makes him even worse. I’m ready to punch him out.”
Johnny grinned. “Just remember to lead with your left, Boston, lead with your left.”
Scott was shocked at how suddenly and dramatically Murdoch began the downward spiral of alcohol withdrawal. It started with something akin to a nightmare; he awoke yelling and paranoid, confused as to where he was, and, for a while, even who Scott was. The fight over the whiskey bottle quickly escalated, coming close to physical.
Scott was able to keep Murdoch at bay throughout the night, tossing out reassurances which he also hoped would keep Val out in the barn: “We’ll get through this together.”; “A little coffee might help you feel better.”
The worst of the episode was the vitriol Murdoch spewed against Johnny. Scott knew there was no way Johnny and Val wouldn’t hear it in the barn. Hell, Murdoch’s bellows could probably be heard out there even without the tunnel. He raved about Johnny’s gunfighting days, declaring the boy wouldn’t have taken up the gun unless he loved killing. He twisted Thatcher having sent gunhawks after Johnny into ‘Madrid’ choosing to go back to gunfighting, viciously proposing that Northgate was due punishment for Johnny’s immoral ways.
Scott was starting to fear there was no way the family could make it back from Murdoch’s venomous assaults on his brother. Scott himself was struggling to believe he could forgive Murdoch; he couldn’t imagine how Johnny could. When Murdoch said he regretted bringing Johnny home, then had the audacity to apologize to Scott for doing so, Scott lost it.
“Murdoch, just shut up! You are making no sense, and pissing me the hell off! You have so addled your brain with alcohol, you are making up vicious lies about your own son… and my brother, whom I love dearly. So if you don’t want to feel my fist going down your throat, shut the hell up!”
“Don’t you tell me to shut up!” Murdoch raged, “I’m your father!”
“In blood only. You abandoned me for my entire childhood. I might have forgiven you for that. But I can’t forgive you for abandoning Johnny to the very life you are condemning him for. Where was he supposed to go? How was he supposed to survive?”
“He could have stayed at the mission. He chose to run away to become a gunfighter… to kill me! He told me that. He chose that life over coming home.”
“Because he didn’t know he had a home to come to. Maria told him you threw them out, that you were ashamed of him, and wanted nothing to do with him.”
“That was a lie! I loved that little boy with all my heart!”
“That little boy watched his mother be murdered right in front of him. She was all he had. At ten, he had to become a man. How can you blame him for doing anything that kept him alive?”
Murdoch slumped into a chair, its joints creaking ominously in protest of the abrupt weight. He cradled the whiskey bottle as if his life depended on it.
“I tried to bring him home. Whenever I had money, I sent the Pinkertons. When I didn’t, I went myself. I wanted my little boy back. But when they found him, he wasn’t my little boy anymore.” Murdoch was sobbing openly. “He was a cold-blooded killer. Don’t you see, Scott, Madrid killed my little boy!”
“No, Murdoch, Madrid kept your little boy alive. Johnny never would have survived without him.” Scott scrubbed his face with both hands, exhausted beyond all reason. “Go back to bed. Maybe you can sleep off this insanity the way you can sleep off a hangover. You’d better hope so. Because of the same arrogant, unreasonable, vicious man is still here in the morning, I swear I’ll tie you to your horse and send you home –all alone, snowstorm be damned.”
Val looked over at Johnny in the dim lighting from the wood stove. He was wrapped in a heavy blanket, leaning against the end stall divider, his eyes on the floor. He’d been in that same position for the last hour, ever since Murdoch awoke, shouting and swearing. Initially, Johnny was worried for Scott’s safety with the ranting man, frequently glancing at Val as the sheriff deliberated going into the tunnel. At one point, Val did drop down inside, creeping as far as the tunnel opening into the cabin closet, although stealth was hardly needed, given the shouting.
Once Murdoch’s initial bellowing, stomping, and paranoia eased and the malicious assault on Johnny’s character began, Val felt Johnny needed him close more than Scott did, so he made his way back.
They couldn’t talk by the tunnel opening, and Johnny refused Val’s attempts to move him away to where they could. Johnny spent the whole terrible conversation staring at the same spot on the floor. His facial expression never changed, even when Murdoch’s attacks made Val jump up to pace off his rage.
Oh, but Val could have fallen into the sadness and hurt in the boy’s blue eyes.
It sounded as though Murdoch had given into Scott’s command to go to bed without argument. Val brought Johnny a cup of peppermint tea and a couple of crackers, motioning for him to eat and drink while they listened to the sounds of the two men settling in for the night. There was no more talking. When Murdoch’s distinctive snoring made its way through the tunnel, Val covered over the opening and laid the heavy blanket they’d been using to further muffle sound over the top.
Val crouched down in front of Johnny, lifting the cup the boy held limply in his hand. “Drink.”
Johnny blinked a glance at him, then down to the cup before taking a few sips.
“Common’, let’s get you where it’s warmer.” Val hooked an arm under Johnny’s left shoulder, giving him a moment to get his feet under himself before lifting. Johnny hissed in pain and swayed, instinctively reaching to steady himself on the stall divider with his right hand, which led to a gasp of pain from his shoulder blade, and buckling knees. Val quickly shifted his grip to steady him, holding firmly as Johnny bowed his head against Val’s chest, battling for control.
“I’ve got you.” Val said quietly. “Take your time.”
As the minutes passed, Val could feel the calming of Johnny’s breathing, and the easing of his vice-like grip on the stall. But Johnny didn’t raise his head. Val understood he needed those extra moments of closeness to deal with the aftermath of Murdoch’s brutal attack. His free hand went to the back of Johnny’s neck, squeezing gently.
After a while, Johnny raised his head slightly. Without making eye contact, he allowed Val to lead him back toward Toby’s stall. They made a detour to the far door to take care of their personal needs.
“How’s your side?”
Johnny shrugged, his way of saying “lousy” without complaining. Val parked him on a double hay bale while he mucked Toby’s stall and put down fresh hay.
“If Murdoch can’t get his head out of his ass, I’ll haul him back to town, and lock him up until his brain dries out.”
“He hasn’t broken any laws.” Johnny argued softly.
“Hell, there should be a law against a father saying shit like that against his son!”
Johnny looked away without responding. With a deep sigh, Val dropped down to his haunches in front of him.
“I’m sorry, hijo, I know this is the last thing you need after everything you’ve been through. That bastard should be falling all over himself in gratitude to you.”
“I don’t want his gratitude,” Johnny murmured.
No, you want his love, understanding, and compassion. Sadly, none of which are in evidence.
Val put his hand on the back of Johnny’s head. “I know you didn’t want to take the pain powder before, in case it masked worsening symptoms, but it seems like the pain has stayed steady for a while now. I’d like to see you take it and get some rest tonight.”
Val got a sick feeling in his stomach when Johnny just nodded.
“Or is it worse?”
Again, Johnny shrugged.
“Is that an ‘I don’t know’ shrug or an ‘It’s worse but I don’t want to complain’ shrug?”
Johnny rubbed the back of his hand against one cheek. “It’s an ‘I feel like shit and all I want to do is sleep’ shrug.”
“Can’t blame you for that. Let’s get you settled in before I give it to you. I don’t know how quickly it will work.”
Val got Toby to lie down, helped Johnny get as comfortable as possible, then gave him the pain powder. It had the almost immediate effect of putting Johnny to sleep. However, he was moaning and whimpering into Toby’s side, so Val couldn’t tell if the pain was worse, or if the medication just blocked Johnny from hiding it.
Val twisted his body in beside Johnny so he could offer reassurance, and monitor Johnny for fever. Toby seemed to sense Johnny’s need, adjusting his position when Johnny did, and ignoring Val’s twitching and turning. Val thought it was incredibly sad that Johnny got more comfort from his father’s horse than from his father.
The snow had stopped by morning, leaving somewhere between twelve and fourteen inches on the ground. Murdoch awoke dazed but docile, Scott had some hope that the worst was behind them.
That flew out the window when Murdoch fell to his knees on his way to the back door, then crumbled to the floor in an apparent seizure.
Afterwards, Scott tried to get Murdoch back to bed, but was unable to lift the huge man’s dead weight. He propped his father up on his side so he wouldn’t choke, then made his way out to the barn. He stood looking at Val and Johnny as they slept, despair nearly choking him.
Johnny was moaning softly, yet his face looked more relaxed and unlined than Scott had seen in recent weeks. Every minute or so he would tense with pain, or what appeared to be the start of a nightmare, but after a few sharp breaths, he would settle again. Each time, Val reached out, without even opening his eyes, to give Johnny’s leg a reassuring squeeze.
Scott felt horrifically guilty leaving Murdoch alone as he had. Neither did he want to wake either Val or Johnny, not knowing how long they’d been sleeping. Completely drained, he sank down on a hay bale, staring blankly at the two men. He worried about how much of Murdoch’s ranting Johnny might have heard. He couldn’t fathom their father’s warped thinking, and had no clue how to help his brother deal with it.
Scott didn’t know if it was five minutes or an hour later when Val woke up. Time had been swallowed up by an overwhelming fog of emotional and physical exhaustion.
After checking that Johnny was okay, and Toby wasn’t champing to stand, Val stiffly extricated himself from the stall. “How long have you been here?” He kept his voice low.
“A bit.” Scott’s eyes were on his brother as the boy tensed, caught his breath, then shifted his legs before settling. “Has he been like that all night?”
“Pretty much. I don’t know if it counts as sleep with all his tossing around. He took the pain powder. There are times I think the pain is getting bad, or that he’s having those bad dreams, but then he settles.”
“I’ve seen that just since I’ve been in here.” Scott dropped his head back against the wall. “Oh, Val, this is the most fucked-up thing I could ever have imagined. What a nightmare! I take it he heard Murdoch last night.”
“Every vile word.” Val spat, brushing hay off his clothes.”It’s why he took the pain powder. He couldn’t stand to be conscious.”
Scott blinked slowly, struggling, and failing, to come up with a solution to watching his family disintegrating in front of him. “Murdoch had a seizure this morning. I couldn’t get him up off the floor, so I just left him there.” The words were hollow and numb.
“Exactly what he deserves, if you ask me. I gotta take a piss, I’ll be right back.”
When Val came back, Scott hadn’t moved. Val sighed, “Do you want me to help you get him up?”
“No.” Scott massaged his temples. “Probably safer where he is.”
Val moved to stoke the fire and heat coffee. “I still think I need to go for Sam today. If there was any way Johnny could ride, I’d take him to town instead. After last night though, I’m afraid to leave the two of you here with Murdoch. I was thinking –before you told me about the seizure– I should take Murdoch with me.”
Scott watched Val’s ritual movements without registering them. “Murdoch needs Sam now, too. I had no idea the withdrawal would move so fast or get this bad. Hell, Val, he had half a bottle of whiskey yesterday. More alcohol than most men have in a week. It’s been less than twelve hours from his evening shot. How the hell much has he been drinking?”
“Sam said Murdoch had tripled his scotch whiskey order, and that’s with no one to share it with him. I’d guess he’s been drinking upwards of two bottles a day.”
Scott shook his head in shocked disbelief.
“I’m sure you’re exhausted, Val, I saw how you were half waking up every few minutes when Johnny was restless. But, if you would be willing to go get Sam, I’d be grateful.”
“You haven’t gotten any more sleep than me. I’m surely willing to go, but I was serious about thinking it’s dangerous leaving you two here with Murdoch. I don’t think Johnny should have to be in the same room with that bastard.”
“Me neither, Val. If you have any alternatives to my plan of pretending Johnny followed me out here, I’d be open to hearing them.”
“If Johnny’s well enough to make the trip, I’d say the two of you go to the mining camp and leave the old man to his own devices.”
“We could do that,” Scott sighed. “Assuming he’s well enough.”
“If not and Murdoch is still out, we wouldn’t even have to get Johnny onto Barranca to make it believable, we could just bring him over to the cabin. I can help you get Murdoch in bed, and tie him there for your safety until I get back with Sam.”
A bellow from the cabin a moment later nixed Val’s latest idea. It came to the barn both through the tunnel and the chill outside air.
“Scott! Get in here! Scott!”
Johnny started to stir, pushing himself off Toby dazedly. He looked at Scott and Val blankly for a moment, then murmured, “I think you’re being summoned.”
“Not for the first or the last time.” Scott gave his brother a tired smile. “How are you feeling?”
The wince that accompanied Johnny’s change of position gave Scott a good part of his answer.
“Hopefully better after someone helps me up to take a piss before Toby here decides to get up and do the same.”
Scott helped Johnny to the back door, then led him back to sit near the stove. It was obvious by the way Johnny moved and the hitch in his breathing that the pain was no better.
“Val is going to ride for Sam. But after last night, we’re worried about our plan to have you show up at the cabin. Murdoch is just too unstable.”
“I don’t need Sam to come all the way out here in the snow. You know how much it pains his bad hip to ride, and his buggy would never make it.” Johnny stared at the entrance to the tunnel as he spoke, clearly reliving the previous night’s altercation. Scott ached for the distant, bereft look in Johnny’s eyes.
“You promised us honestly, little brother. The pain doesn’t look any better to me.”
Johnny’s gaze slid to each of them in turn, before he bowed his head and shook it.
“Is it worse?”
“Maybe, I don’t know. The pain powder from last night kinda messed me up.”
“It should be out of your system by now. Let me feel if that swelling is still there.”
As Scott moved to open Johnny’s jacket, Johnny’s hand shot out to catch his.
“No, don’t.” Without looking up, he grudgingly added. “It’s still there.”
Scott and Val exchanged worried looks. That surely meant it was worse.
“Do you think you could ride as far as the miners’ camp, if Scott went with you?” Val poured coffee into the two cups they had, giving one to Scott and attempting to give the other to Johnny.
“You can have it, my stomach isn’t ready for coffee, yet. Why would we go to the miners’ camp?”
“Because of the way Murdoch is acting. It’s not safe. He can hang out here until he sobers up.”
“Who would give him the alcohol to make sure he doesn’t go into withdrawal? We can’t just leave him here.”
“I’ll give him his afternoon dose before we leave, and Sam and Val can give him his evening dose when they get back.”
“There’s no way they’ll be back by this evening. And it defeats the whole purpose of us being here if we’re going to leave Murdoch to go through this alone.”
Scott cocked his head at Johnny’s response. “First of all, brother, it was never anyone’s plan but yours that you be anywhere near Murdoch while he’s going through withdrawal. Second, he’s much worse than I –or even, I believe, Sam– thought he would be. You heard how awful he was last night.”
“All the more reason we can’t leave him! He could hurt himself.”
“Far better him than you!” Val spat.
Another bellow came from the cabin with impeccable, horrible timing.
“Scott! I need you! Where are you!”
“Go,” Johnny pleaded. “I won’t leave him and I probably wouldn’t make it all the way to the miners’ shack anyway.”
That’s right, little brother, break my heart with your compassion for the man who has vilified you, and scare me to death for your life in the same breath.
“Go on,” Val gestured to Scott irritably. “See what the old man wants. I’ll get my stuff together and force feed something into this boy. I’ll plan to leave in half an hour. I’ll get him up on Barranca, lead him out back, then watch til you get him down and inside before I go. In the meantime, we’ll be listening. If you decide against going through with this idiotic charade, say something about…wishing you had a steak, and we’ll hold off.”
Scott hesitated, wanting another solution, knowing there was none. He nodded at Val, took a moment to brush a tender hand across the back of Johnny’s head, then reluctantly made his way to the cabin.
Scott had gotten Murdoch cleaned up, and had given him a cup of coffee with his afternoon dose of alcohol, even though it was still morning. He’d been generous in the amount, hoping the extra dose might stave off another seizure and/or rant. His stomach was in knots, waiting to hear the sound of an approaching horse, praying he wasn’t about to make one of the biggest mistakes in his life.
“I could use breakfast.” Murdoch grouched.
Scott couldn’t stomach the thought of food cooking, and doubted Johnny would be able to either. “I think we’d better wait for a while after your seizure.”
“I didn’t have a seizure. I tripped over the stupid blanket, and rapped my head.”
Scott wasn’t going to argue with Murdoch that the blanket had only been put on the floor after his seizure. “Even so, you know what Sam says about eating after a head injury.”
“It’s Sam’s busy-bodying that got me into this mess.”
Scott got up to pour himself another cup of coffee, even though the first two were sitting like acid in his stomach. He bit back the tempting, ‘No, it’s your drinking that got you into this.’ and simply chose not to respond to the comment. The last thing he wanted to do right now was rile Murdoch.
As carefully as Scott was listening for Johnny’s “arrival”, it was Murdoch who first heard Barranca’s snort.
“Did one of the horses get out?” Murdoch lurched for the door before Scott could react. “How could you be so careless..?!”
Murdoch stopped short as he opened the door to see Johnny astride Barranca. The boy was barely managing to stay in the saddle. Val had coated both rider and horse in enough snow to make it believable that they’d just ridden over from Green River.
“What the…” Murdoch sputtered.
Scott leapt into action.
“Johnny, what the hell are you doing out here? I told you to stay at Sam’s!” Scott brushed past Murdoch and into the snow to get to his brother. “You’re in no condition to be riding!”
Johnny lifted exhausted eyes to first his brother, then his father. “I heard there was a family reunion…”
“Murdoch, help me get him down. Be careful, he has open wounds on his back, and broken ribs, and a cracked shoulder blade on the right side.” Scott looked over his shoulder at his father who stood in the doorway, staring at his younger son as if he were a ghost. “ Murdoch! I need your help!”
Murdoch roused from his trance to move to Scott’s side.
“Okay, Johnny, come off easy,” Scott coached. “Murdoch, push in against his leg.” The move would help prevent Johnny from toppling off, if his left leg couldn’t support him as he swung his right over. Carefully, Scott guided Johnny to the ground, their balance all the more precarious in the snow.
Johnny sucked in his air as both men inadvertently hit sore spots, Murdoch on his shoulder, Scott against his back. He bowed his head against Barranca’s side, willing the pain to pass.
“Let’s get you inside.”
“Barranca… have to take care of Barranca.”
The horse had only been outside for a few minutes, but in this story, they would have traveled all the way from town, probably a three hour ride in the deep snow.
“Inside first. We’ll take care of Barranca in a few minutes.”
Scott helped Johnny inside, noting that Murdoch lagged behind.
“Sit on the bed and let’s get your coat off.”
It was a painful process. Scott cursed the need for all the play acting that had put his injured brother out in the snow, and on a horse. Even the brief trip had done Johnny in.
Johnny held himself up with both hands on the edge of the bunk, as Scott pulled off his boots. He looked up at the blank expression on Murdoch’s face. “Hey, old man, long time no see.”
Scott tensed for Murdoch’s reaction.
But there was none.
No answer, no change in expression.
“Johnny, Sam is going to have your hide! How on earth did you get past him and Val and out to Clem’s for Barranca?”
“Sam got called out for a baby last night and Val was still at his place. It wasn’t that far a walk to Clem’s…” Johnny gave the planned response, his teeth chattering.
“You’re lucky you didn’t fall off and freeze to death in this storm. Murdoch, would you go take care of Barranca, please? Toby and Charlie would probably enjoy some time in the corral after being cooped up.” Scott trusted that Val had left the barn with no sign they’d been there, and the tunnel entrance well-concealed.
The brothers waited anxiously to see what Murdoch’s response would be. They shared a look of relief when Murdoch turned without a word, grabbed his coat, hat and gloves, and went out to the barn. As soon as the door to the cabin closed, Scott jumped up, went to the back room, covered the panel over the tunnel entrance, and shut the closet door. He hurried back to Johnny’s side.
“Well, at least he didn’t shoot me on sight.” Johnny joked weakly.
Scott pressed his lips together. He’d actually emptied Murdoch’s pistol and rifle of ammunition. “How much worse did your little trip make things?” Scott’s hand went to the back of Johnny’s neck. He grimaced, feeling cold, wet there. “Did Val have to be so realistic? You’re soaked!” Grabbing a towel from the sink rim, he gently dried Johnny’s hair, face and neck. “Answer me, brother.”
Johnny shrugged. “I’m okay except for my stomach.”
Scott reached under the bed for the chamber pot. “Lucky for you, I didn’t use this last night. Let me get your shirt off, too, the collar is wet. You can wear one of mine until yours is dry.”
“You don’t want me to get gunk from my back onto one of your pretty shirts.”
“My shirts are not ‘pretty’.” Scott had to smile at the memory of Johnny telling him he looked “pretty” when he was dressed for an occasion soon after they’d arrived. “Let me see what your back looks like.” He winced, seeing the bandages had leaked through in two places. “Those same two damn spots just don’t want to heal. I’ll wait until later to change the dressing, though, with your stomach upset.”
“Not in front of Murdoch.”
Scott hadn’t considered how they would manage that piece of things. He retrieved one of his shirts. The sleeves would be a little long, and might be tight across the chest, but would do for a short while.
“Were you able to eat anything?” Not that Scott was going to offer Johnny food just yet.
“I ate some of a biscuit and had some mint tea. Oh, I don’t suppose we’ll be able to make any now.”
“Never fear, big brother is here.” Scott moved to his saddlebags and withdrew a bag of peppermint sticks. “Seems a little brother of mine turned me on to the delight of sucking on peppermint sticks, so I brought my own stash to the cabin.”
“You hate peppermint sticks, just like I hate your licorice.”
“Lucky for you, Murdoch doesn’t know that. I’ll make you some more tea. Are you warm enough?” Scott had seen Johnny’s eyes go wistfully to the quilt he’d used to support Murdoch after his seizure, which was now draped over one of the chairs by the fire. He grabbed it as he walked by. “Here let’s get you covered over and lying down. Maybe you can get some more sleep.”
“I’m not sleepy, and if I lie down, I’ll puke.”
“Okay, stay sitting up then.” Scott gently wrapped the quilt around Johnny’s shoulders. Johnny picked up the pillow to hug in front of him.
“I ain’t getting sick in front of him. If I can’t hold it down, I’m goin’ outside, and I don’t want you chasin’ after me.”
Scott shook his head. “I’m not letting you stumble around in a foot of snow after I just worked to get you dry. Hold on,” Scott raised a hand to stem Johnny’s objection. He picked up the chamber pot, and carried it to the back door and out to the workbench in the covered toolshed. “You can have some privacy out back, but stay under shelter, deal?”
Johnny shook his head at his brother with a half smile. “Deal.”
When Murdoch returned a few minutes later, he set about making breakfast.
“Uh, sir, Johnny’s stomach is unsettled after the long ride, maybe we should hold off on breakfast.”
Murdoch looked at Johnny with no particular emotion on his face.
“It’s okay,” Johnny said. “With the way my stomach’s been lately, I can’t expect you guys to starve.”
Scott gave his brother a look, but Johnny didn’t hold his gaze.
When the silence in the room felt deadly, Johnny said to Murdoch, “Thanks for taking care of Barranca for me.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t wait out the storm. Pretty brutal conditions for your beloved horse.”
Scott was about to respond, but Johnny threw him a ‘I don’t need my big brother fighting my battles’ look. “It wasn’t snowing much in town. I forgot how the lake effect and the mountains bring more snow out here.”
Murdoch laid bacon into the hot skillet. It crackled and sent wafts of meaty sweetness into the air. “How did Barranca get to Clem’s? I thought he was in the south pasture.”
“Remember how he kept jumping the fences looking for Johnny? We sent him over to Aggie’s.” There was a note of challenge in the elder son’s voice. “Aggie’s one of the few people Barranca will let ride him, so she graciously agreed to stable and exercise him. I asked Sam to please have her bring Barranca to Green River so Johnny could see him when he got there.”
“That was very… considerate of you.” Murdoch’s tone was difficult to interpret. He busied himself making biscuits, and dropping them into the bacon fat. “Barranca would have preferred to have been with his owner from the outset.”
“I’m glad he wasn’t.” Johnny’s eyes grew dark and hard. “At best, Thatcher would have gotten him when he grabbed me. At worst…” Johnny didn’t finish his sentence. “I wanted him home where he could be taken care of until I got back.”
Murdoch nodded, but said nothing more until “Breakfast is ready.” A few minutes later. Murdoch scooped a plate of bacon, beans, and biscuits for himself and Scott. “I’ll leave some aside in case your stomach is better.” He didn’t look at Johnny as he carried the plates to the table, sat, and tucked into his.
Scott could see that Johnny was struggling to hold onto his stomach in the face of the strong smells and felt bad for eating in front of him, but he was starved. He angled his back to his brother, trying to block his view of the food.
Breakfast was in silence.
As they finished up, Murdoch asked, “So Scott, are we going hunting today, or what?”
Scott raised his eyebrows. “We’re well past the golden hours for game. Besides, Johnny rode all the way out here to spend time with us, it wouldn’t be fair to leave him here alone.”
Murdoch poured himself a coffee, looking longingly at the whiskey bottle. “He can come.”
Scott stared at his father in disbelief.
“Johnny shouldn’t have been riding as it was. He’s hurt and exhausted after the trip out here in far from ideal circumstances.”
“He can sleep while we hunt.”
“I am here, you know,” Johnny got up, and crossed to the fire, a quilt around his shoulders. “I didn’t see any game or tracks on the way up here,” he said, knowing Scott didn’t want to go hunting with Murdoch for several reasons. “The snow has chased them to cover.”
Scott brought the dishes to the sink and washed them. Murdoch sat at the table moodily staring into his coffee. After a long stretch, he challenged, “So are you coming back to Lancer, or not?”
Scott raised his head sharply, glancing at Johnny, then over to Murdoch.
“Whom are you addressing, sir?”
“Either, both.” His voice was hard, angry. “It’s obvious the two of you have some kind of scheme going. I’d just as soon get it said and get home.”
“Scheme? I don’t follow.” Scott sat back at the table.
Murdoch pierced him with icy blue-gray eyes. “Give me some credit, Scott. You send me a letter, all sad and contrite, begging to come home. I come all the way out here, and all you want to do is talk about Johnny. Then he shows up here. I’ve said he can come back to Lancer, why do we have to play this game?”
“First of all, sir, I never begged to come back to Lancer.” Scott’s eyes flashed with their own brittle coldness. “I only said I wished to discuss the possibility. And while I am enormously saddened by what has happened to our family, I’m not apologizing for our argument. The way you dismissed Johnny was heartless and wrong. You need to get sober and help us fix this, or you’ll lose both of us.”
“I am sober, goddamn you, thanks to this ridiculous rule of yours. Stop laying all the blame at my feet. It was your brother who ran out on us when he didn’t get his way. Your argument is with him, not me!”
“Johnny didn’t run out…”
“Scott, I don’t need you defending me.” Johnny had shed the quilt, and in that moment had also shed Lancer. Scott recognized the hard, intense gaze of Madrid. “If you’ve got something to say to me, old man, do it to my face, not through my brother.”
Murdoch looked over his shoulder at Johnny, then shoved his chair back and stood.
“Hell, yes, I have something to say to you.” He took several powerful strides toward Johnny, his back erect, muscles tight, suddenly looking very much like the old Murdoch Lancer. Johnny met him without hesitation, his expression calm, the only tension in his hands that tapped slowly at his –unarmed– sides.
“You’ve been arguing since you came to Lancer that you are all grown up, and shouldn’t be treated like a kid. Yet, whenever things don’t work out your way, you run. Men don’t run.”
“Is that what you think I did with Thatcher? Hell, I might wish I had run instead of facing him down and ending up in that hellhole of his for four months.”
“You didn’t face him, boy, you ran from him. Too bad he was faster and smarter and caught up with you.”
Scott gasped at the accusation, especially knowing how terrified Johnny had been to face his childhood tormentor. Every nerve fiber in his body was screaming at him to intervene.
Johnny’s voice was deathly quiet and level as he responded, “So, you would have rather that I had meekly followed you back to Lancer and sat back to watch it be destroyed by that snake?”
“You should have brought your concerns and evidence to the Cattlemen’s Association board.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed.
“My own father didn’t listen to me. Yet, you think a room full of strangers would have?”
“You needed more of an argument than ‘he’s a gambler and a mean guy.’”
Scott saw the slightest flicker in Johnny’s eyes of the pain Murdoch’s words caused. Johnny had barely been able to hint to his beloved brother of the torture he’d endured as a child at Thatcher’s hands. He never could have admitted it to the ranchers, many of whom had reviled Murdoch for bringing a gunslinger into their midst.
“Which is what I left to find.” Johnny’s calm response revealed none of his pain. “I didn’t have evidence of his shady business dealings. I only knew the man was a vicious sonovabitch.” A slight cock of his head and twitch of his lip accompanied his thinly veiled retort, “Maybe if the Board had done their research before inviting him here, it would have saved me a trip.”
Murdoch’s hands clenched into fists. “I had excellent letters of reference and financials.”
“The thing is, old man, people can write anything they want on paper or in a ledger. You gotta talk to people to get the truth.”
“I didn’t have the luxury of time to go riding around two states talking to people. You have to go on a man’s word, on the bank’s endorsement, on land office records in business. It’s one of the many things you have to learn about running a ranch.”
Johnny leaned against the mantel, a casual stance with his left hand laid on his right forearm. It appeared to be a softening of his challenge. Scott recognized it to be anything but.
“Guess it’s good I didn’t learn that particular lesson too quick.”
Murdoch gave an abrupt laugh. “So again, this is all my fault, and you get to say your ‘I told you so’s. Go ahead.”
“I have no interest in assigning blame or saying ‘I told you so’. I just want you to understand that I didn’t run away. I wasn’t mad. I was trying to protect Lancer.”
“Because I didn’t, right?” Murdoch thrust his chin out in defiance.
Johnny shook his head, and Scott saw his shoulders droop. He was exhausted, sick, and in pain. Yet, his worst torment was being unable to reach his father. He moved over to the closest chair, eased himself down, and put his head into his hands. Scott so wanted to go to him, but knew this was not the time.
“I don’t know what you want from me, old man,” Johnny said wearily.
Murdoch, in turn, strode to the spot Johnny had just vacated. “I want to be able to rely on you. I want you to be where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be. I want you to do as you’re told, without argument or attitude. I need your past to stop interfering with what Lancer has the potential to become. And most of all, I need you to stop running away every time I think we’re starting to become a family.”
Johnny looked up at his father with eyes so sad and hurt, Scott felt his own burn in empathy.
“I’m not her, Murdoch.” The boy’s voice was low and pained. “I’m not going to leave you like Mama did, no matter how hard you push me to.”
The room fell to silence, only the crackling fire and creaking of old walls filling the void.
Murdoch’s response came from far away.
“You say that, but you don’t know. The next time someone comes from your past, they might be faster, or have more men behind them than Lancer can fight off, or be more persuasive than Wes.”
“That’s incredibly unfair, sir.” Scott could hold his tongue no longer. “Neither Pardee nor Thatcher came to Lancer because of Johnny’s past. In fact, on both counts, if it wasn’t for Johnny, we would have lost Lancer. And each time, he was badly hurt defending our land and our family.”
Murdoch’s eyes roamed the room without settling on anything. A long pause ensued.
“I can grant you that.” Murdoch admitted.
“Good. And part of that is not bringing it up again as an accusation against Johnny, as you have each time we’ve argued.” Scott waited for an agreement, but didn’t get one. “Wes was early on, and you have to admit none of us were settled at that point. And the bottom line is, Johnny came home.”
“Only because Wes got himself killed!”
Johnny jumped up at Murdoch’s nasty retort. For a moment, Scott feared things would get physical. Although Johnny’s voice was tight, he made no move toward Murdoch.
“Forget about it, Scott. He wants to believe what he wants to believe. You’re doing it again, old man, pushing at me, trying to get me to leave. Well, it ain’t gonna work. I’m committed to staying at Lancer, and committed to this family. Even to you, Murdoch.” Johnny’s blue eyes drilled into his father’s. “You hear me, Murdoch? You can act like an asshole, spit lies and hate at me like maybe you did at Mama, but I ain’t her, and I ain’t gonna leave. You might wish otherwise, but too damn bad. You’re stuck with me. Now, what I am gonna do is give you some pissin’ room. I’m gonna go out to the barn for a while. Alone.” He shot a meaningful look at Scott. “But, I ain’t running away. If you decide you want to work on our fucked up relationship, why you just holler, and I‘ll come on back. Regardless, I will be back later and we will keep at this until we figure it out.”
With that, Johnny grabbed his things and disappeared into the snow.
It had started to snow again when Scott made his way out to the barn two hours later. There seemed to be no division between the gray-white of the clouds, the heavily falling snow, and the white blanket already on the earth. He wondered if it was snowing in town, too, and if Val had made it back okay. While most of him prayed Val and Sam would soon be on their way back, concern for his friends’ wellbeing also made him hope they were smart enough to lie low if the storm was bad.
He opened and closed the barn door quickly, slapping his hat against his jacket and pants, and stomping his boots to dislodge snow from them. He heard a welcoming nicker from Charlie, and smiled. There was something very special about a horse greeting you even before they could see you.
Johnny was sitting on the stacked hay bales close to the well-fired stove.
“I thought you might be resting with Toby again, or hoped you would be, at least.” Scott set the pot of peppermint tea he’d brought onto the stove after pouring a cup and handing it off to Johnny. He went to greet Charlie.
“I hung out with Barranca for a while, as he’s been a might jealous. Thanks for the tea. While it’s far better than willowbark, I’m pretty sick of it. I’m dying for coffee.”
“Do you think you could hold it down? I’ll go get some for you.” Scott walked over.
“No, I’d literally be dying if I had any. So, here’s your report: no fever, threw up once right when I got here, side hurts like hell, but probably not worse than it has been, and no, I didn’t sleep. Did I cover everything?”
Scott sat down on the hay bale opposite, glancing over at the covered tunnel opening.
“Except what drove you out here,” he said, quietly.
Johnny sighed, leaning his head back against the barn wall. “I don’t think he’s ever going to see me as anything but Madrid. And as much as he doesn’t like me, he hates Madrid.”
“For a man who greeted us with ‘the past is the past’, he sure likes living there.” Scott stretched his long legs out in front of him, crossed at the ankles.
“You’ve got that right.”
Johnny flexed and rubbed his right hand. Scott realized then that he was wearing his rig.
“Wearing that isn’t going to help him move in the right direction,”
The look Johnny gave him made him prepare for Madrid, but all Johnny said was, “I won’t wear it in the cabin.”
“So you need it out here for… oh.” Scott exhaled tightly. “Johnny, I understand your need to practice, but it is not helping you heal. And especially with us not knowing what’s causing that pain…”
“I disagree, Boston. It is helping me heal, more than you can imagine. I can’t wait to practice until I need to shoot. It’s already been more than five months.”
“If you could just wait a few more days, until the pain is gone, or until Sam tells us what to do about it. You’re safe out here and if you are staying at Lancer…” Scott saw his brother’s eyes flash, and realized his mistake, even before Johnny drawled,
“Aw, now don’t you go doubting my commitment, too, Boston.”
“No, no, I’m not. Believe me, you’ve stuck it out further than I would have if Murdoch was spouting that shit at me. I only meant that Sam may want you back in Green River for a bit.”
“Not happening. I’m on Lancer now, and have no intention of leaving.” Johnny rubbed his neck. “What did you and Murdoch talk about after I came out here?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. He sat back at the table, Johnny, staring at that whiskey bottle as if it were an untapped gold mine. I tried to engage him a few times, but only got a grunt. His hands were shaking so much, he could barely get the cup to his mouth. I filled his cup up a few times because I didn’t want to risk him lifting the pot.”
“Do you think he’s getting enough alcohol to prevent him from having seizures?”
“Apparently not,” Scott answered more honestly than he wanted to. “He had what looked like a seizure this morning. He said he tripped and fell, but there was nothing for him to have tripped over. For a minute or so, he was lying there shaking, not opening his eyes. I have already given him his afternoon alcohol, and I was very generous. I don’t know what’s best. I certainly don’t want to run the risk of another seizure, but I also don’t want to undo what we’ve gained in trying to sober him up, as that’s the whole reason we’re out here.”
Johnny paced, his slightly off-kilter bearing telling Scott his side was hurting a lot.
“Did Sam tell you what to do if he started having seizures?”
“No. I don’t think he realized how much Murdoch has been drinking. He thought we’d be able to taper down to one drink by the third day.”
Johnny shivered. He moved back by the stove but didn’t sit down. “One time, when Mama was drinking a lot, I thought she wouldn’t notice if I put some water in her bottle, so it would last longer, and maybe she wouldn’t get so drunk. Looking back, she got all shaky and irritable even before she figured out what I’d done. I guess I put her into withdrawal without knowing it.”
“What happened when she found out?” Scott asked quietly.
“Oh, she whooped my butt good, threw me out of the house, and told me not to come without two bottles of whiskey.”
Nice mother. Scott thought. Boy, this kid really got a raw deal with both parents.
“Don’t look at me like that, Boston.” Johnny said, as if reading his mind. “She was a good Mama a lot of the time. She made bad choices, and we both got hurt by them a bunch, but she wasn’t usually mean. The whiskey made her that way.”
“And maybe the whiskey is making Murdoch that way?” Scott ventured gently.
Johnny drew a pattern in the straw-strewn dirt with the toe of his boot. “ I guess we’ll see. If we can get him sober enough without killing him.”
Scott prayed that was the case. “I hope he won’t have caused so much damage by then for you to ever forgive him for the things he’s said and accused you of.”
Johnny lifted his head slightly, but didn’t look at his brother. “All depends on what’s under the drink. I had my Mama for ten years. There was a lot of love in that time, even though at the end there was more hurt than love. Murdoch and I haven’t had that. It’s hard to hold out for something that may not be there underneath.”
His younger brother’s words took Scott’s breath away. Damn, that Murdoch didn’t seem able to open his heart to this sweet kid! Scott forced himself to remember times Murdoch had seemed to feel something warm toward Johnny –when they were chasing horses on South Mesa, after Johnny protected the Carvers from rough riders, last Christmas when Johnny was so overwhelmed with joy over getting presents. There was definitely something there once. If only Murdoch could somehow rekindle those feelings.
“I don’t know how anyone who knows you could not love you, little brother. Together, we’re going to get through this.”
The snowfall was even heavier as the brothers made their way back to the cabin a while later. Scott made lunch, buttered potatoes for Johnny, and a jerky stew for Murdoch and himself. Again, silence was the order of the day.
When lunch was done, Murdoch announced he was taking a nap, and proceeded to do so. Scott and Johnny lay down, too. Scott’s exhaustion drove him to nap, despite Murdoch’s snoring, and his worry over Johnny.
Johnny tried, but couldn’t stay asleep. The pain under his ribs was definitely worse, and it kept triggering the dreamless nightmares that left him gasping for air and emotional control. Wrapping one quilt around himself, and carrying a second, he moved to the more padded of the two chairs by the fire, bundled himself up, and fought down the demons. He alternately wished his father and brother would wake up so he wouldn’t be alone with the images, and hoped they’d stay asleep so they wouldn’t see him cowering from his own thoughts.
Scott awoke first. He gathered bandage-changing supplies, then had Johnny sit on the bench at the table.
“I told you I wasn’t going to do this in front of Murdoch.” Johnny hissed.
“He’s dead to the world.” At least with Murdoch having turned to his side, the snoring was no longer shaking the rafters. “And we really have put it off too long. I know how awful it is…”
Johnny was still more disturbed by the thought of Scott seeing his back again than the impending pain of the dressing change. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll just have to be quiet. You still have that chamber pot outside, right?”
“On the workbench to the left of the door.” Scott grabbed a pillow off the bed for Johnny to lean his upper body against. Johnny stripped off his shirt, while Scott made sure the water he’d be using wasn’t too hot. Scott peeled off the layers of bandages carefully, grimacing at the bottom layer that stuck to wounds in three different places.
“I’m going to hold this wet towel here for a bit to see if it will soften the crusty stuff.”
Johnny grunted a soft acknowledgment. While Scott waited for the towel to do it’s work, he gently rubbed Johnny’s shoulders and neck around the various lash marks.
“Thanks, that felt good,” Johnny sighed, as Scott stopped to take the towel off.
“You’re welcome. Unfortunately, this won’t. Here goes…” Bit by bit, Scott pulled off the bandages. He got about halfway through the first one when it stuck so hard, Johnny gasped in pain. “Sorry, let me soak this one a while more and try another.” The second one came off with blessed ease. The third only stuck in a couple of small spots, enough to draw blood. Johnny reacted with a soft hiss and fisted hands.
But that first one made Scott’s stomach sick. It was clear it was festering again and would need debridement. There was no way he could do that to his brother. They’d have to wait until Sam got there. Scott averted his eyes as he held the towel over it. It was then he saw that Murdoch was awake.
Scott checked quickly that Johnny hadn’t noticed, then caught Murdoch’s eye and firmly shook his head, praying their father would understand not to let Johnny know he was awake.
Murdoch held his gaze, which Scott interpreted as his willingness to comply. The way Scott was standing blocked Murdoch’s view of Johnny’s back, as did the towel. Scott tried again to manipulate the bandage without unduly hurting Johnny or exposing the boy’s back to Murdoch. It was impossible. With the way his stomach was roiling, Scott was afraid he’d need to make a dash for the chamber pot. His hands shook as he breathed slowly in and out through his mouth, attempting to quell the nausea. He should have listened to Johnny and never tried to do this here. There was no way he could proceed without Murdoch seeing Johnny’s back, or Johnny realizing that Murdoch was awake, or both. As Scott stood there in turmoil, he had a moment of painful clarity.
Murdoch needed to see Johnny’s back.
He needed to see what his arrogance had cost his son.
Scott knew Johnny would be furious. So, he’d need to make sure Johnny didn’t find out. Slowly, he turned his gaze back to Murdoch. When his father met it, he touched his index finger to his lips, then silently moved aside and lifted the towel away.
Murdoch’s eyes opened wide in horror and he gasped. Scott watched his eyes roam over the raw, flayed, and scabbed flesh. Murdoch paled.
Take a good long look, Murdoch, this is what your teenage son endured for you.
“Dios, Boston, just do it already,”Johnny groaned, his voice muffled by the pillow he had ready to mute his cries. “Waiting is killing me.”
Scott turned his back on Murdoch and attempted the bandage again. A big piece pulled and bled, but a dollar-size section remained rigidly adhered; any attempt to dislodge it threatened to tear Johnny’s flesh as well.
“Sorry, brother. I’m going to leave the rest of this for now, and try loading it up with salve overnight to see if it will loosen. Bear with me a second as I’m going to need to cut away the rest of this old stuff with my knife. Is that okay?”
Scott gingerly cut away everything he could, mindful to not touch Johnny’s skin with the knife, or pull too hard on the stuck gauze. “Okay, let me get the salve on. I’m sorry, I know you’re cold, I’m working as fast as I can.” He could feel Johnny shivering, could see the goose flesh on his arms.
“It’s not the cold you gotta worry about. My stomach only has about ten seconds left.”
Scott looked quickly at Murdoch and squeezed his eyes closed, signaling him to feign sleep. “Let me get your jacket around your shoulders…”
“No time.” Johnny choked, shoving the bench back, and diving toward the back room and out the door. Even though Johnny pulled the door closed behind him, the faint sound of retching could be heard. Scott clutched Johnny’s jacket to his chest, closing his eyes for a moment before glaring at Murdoch.
“The next time you want to question Johnny’s loyalty to this family, you remember what his back looks like. And don’t you dare let him know you saw it!”
Without awaiting a reaction or response, Scott grabbed the roll of bandages and the clean towel, and followed his brother out onto the back porch.
Johnny was done throwing up, still leaning on his forearms over the chamber pot on the workbench, shaking so violently, it was a miracle he didn’t collapse. Scott slid a hand under his chest as he handed him the towel.
“I told you before I didn’t want you chasing after me if I was getting sick.” Johnny muttered as he wiped his face with the towel.
“I thought that only applied if you were running out in the snow. My mistake.”
“Next time be more specific. Can you hold yourself up here? I want to get you wrapped up. You’re bleeding and need a jacket.”
“I don’t intend on staying out here long enough to need a jacket.”
“I think Murdoch heard the door close and might be awake when we go in.” Scott said quietly.
“You don’t think he saw anything, do you?”
“You were moving pretty quickly.” Scott hedged as he swiftly wound new bandages over the salve-covered wounds. “We have to figure out how to keep some kind of food in your stomach. You are skin and bones. And when it comes to your back, just bones.”
“I wouldn’t mind that myself.” Johnny sighed, pushing himself off his elbows but still holding onto the workbench. Scott slid a hand under Johnny’s left arm so Johnny could let go with his right while Scott eased his jacket sleeve up his arm.
“I think you should take more of that pain powder tonight. Val said he didn’t think it made you dream, what do you think?”
“No, not dreams, but foggy as hell. Aw, Boston, let me do that,” Johnny complained as Scott picked up the chamber pot. “You don’t need to be cleaning up my puke with everything else you’re doing for me.”
Scott took several steps out into the snow and emptied the pot. He tossed some snow in, swirled it around , and dumped that. “It doesn’t bother me,” he said, as returned the pot to its place. “I spent a lot of time in the field hospital in the war. Believe me, with all the typhoid and cholera going around, I dealt with far worse from guys I didn’t even know.”
Johnny grimaced. “Well, you definitely ain’t going there with me, let me be very specific about that.” He bent over, holding his stomach until a spasm passed.
“Is the pain getting worse?”
“Puking didn’t help.” Johnny leaned back against the workbench, carefully eyeing his brother. “Are you doin’ okay, brother? All this stuff reminding you of the war…”
Scott moved closer beside Johnny. “Yes, I’m doing okay with that. I hate seeing you hurting so much, that’s what’s hardest on my heart.”
Johnny bumped his shoulder lightly against Scott’s. “I know it ain’t easy on you. I hope you know how much it means to me that you came after me and have stuck around. I am very lucky, hermano mio.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Scott lifted his hand to the back of Johnny’s head for a moment. “Now, let’s get our asses inside before we freeze.”
The afternoon threatened to become another eternal silence. Even Scott and Johnny found it hard to make conversation. Murdoch stared into the fire, no longer even drinking coffee due to the severity of his tremors. They were all silently counting the hours until his next medicinal dose of alcohol.
Johnny had been pacing for the last hour. It added to the tension in the room, but Scott knew it was how he dealt with the increasing pain and anxiety, so bit his tongue rather than ask him to stop. He watched Johnny pace over to his saddlebags and bend to pull out a book.
Scott was surprised. First, that Johnny carried a book with him –he must have borrowed it from Sam– and second, that he wanted to read. It wasn’t something Johnny enjoyed doing. Reading in English was hard for him, translations were slow. It reminded Scott that Spanish was Johnny’s formative language, although oddly, Johnny had almost no accent, and didn’t make the typical verb-tense errors that the bilingual vaqueros and staff did. True, he used ‘ain’t’ a lot, but funny enough, that wasn’t a common habit for the others. Scott was doubly surprised when Johnny carried the book over to Murdoch.
“I ordered this for your birthday when we were in Cross Creek, and it came in to Baldemeros’ while I was away. I know it’s a few months late, but I wondered if you wouldn’t mind if Scott read some to us from it.”
Murdoch blinked a glance at his son, then down to the book he was handing to him: Under the Blue Mountain by Dolf Wallace. The elder man’s eyes narrowed as he shakily reached for it.
“The author is from Scotland,” Johnny continued. “It’s about a young man who leaves home in search of a valley he keeps seeing in his dreams. He takes his dog with him and talks to it. That part is written in Gaelic, and the bookseller told me the author included a… I don’t remember the word but where they tell you what the translation is.”
“Glossary.” Murdoch provided.
“Yeah, that’s what he said, glossary. I told him I thought there would be words you would know without us looking.”
Scott was speechless as he watched the interaction unfold. What a special and personal present Johnny had chosen for Murdoch! Who would have imagined that Johnny would search out a bookstore in May for Murdoch’s birthday in September?
Murdoch ran his hand over the finely bound cover of the book, then held it back out to Johnny with a silent nod. Johnny carried it over to Scott.
“Do you mind reading, Boston?”
Scott smiled widely. “Not at all, my brother.”
As often happened when Scott read aloud, Johnny’s curiosity about places and the meanings of new words interrupted Scott with questions. Tonight, though, the questions were directed at Murdoch. Did he know that town? Was it near his family’s home? Did his mother make black bun? Did he like it? Did he think the Valley the main character, Liam, sought was a real place?
With each question, Murdoch became a little more engaged, moving from one- and two-word answers to full sentences, sometimes adding some information of his own. When Murdoch corrected Scott’s mashed up attempt at a Gaelic phrase, Johnny’s face lit up with delight.
“You know that one? What does it mean?”
Murdoch searched his memory for a definition. “Loosely translated, it means ‘sparks on a whisker’, speaking too loudly, or saying something you shouldn’t.”
“Look it up, Scott!” Johnny leaned forward in anticipation.
Murdoch’s eyebrow lifted. “You don’t believe me?”
Scott thought he saw Murdoch’s lips twitch up before he looked away to find the glossary.
“I do. I just want to hear that Wallace guy say it.”
Scott found the passage and smiled.
“Whiskers afire. To let slip a secret, especially loudly in front of others, to speak out of turn.”
“Close enough?” Murdoch asked his young son. And this time, there was no doubting the smile.
“It’s like he heard what you said!” Johnny laughed. “Isn’t that something, Boston?”
“Yes, it’s pretty special all right, little brother.” Scott said quietly, feeling as though his heart could burst.
They talked more about the book and about Scotland over supper. Scott noticed that Murdoch asked Johnny if cooking would bother his stomach, offering to do it in the barn. His tremors were better and his intense concentration on the whiskey bottle lessened. Johnny ate some potatoes, a biscuit, and a little jerky broth. Afterwards, they went out to the barn to let the horses run in the corral, to muck the stalls, and change the water.
“This is quite the set-up out here, stove and all.” Murdoch commented as they watched the three horses cavorting in the snow –rather, two horses, as Charlie wandered no further than six feet from the door, shuddering in misery at the cold, while Barranca and Toby chased each other around like kids. “It must have been some operation in its day.”
Johnny leaned on the paddock door, smiling as he watched the horses’ antics. “We’ll have to bring the horses here when we go back to South Mesa this spring. It will be so much easier to work the different levels with all these paddocks. They’re in decent shape for how long it’s been since this place has been used for anything except a line shack.”
Scott cast a glance at Murdoch to see his reaction to Johnny talking about a future at Lancer that included another father/son outing. The elder man’s gaze was distant and gave nothing away.
Scott read more that evening, joining Murdoch in a single –albeit, quite generous– glass of whiskey. He became aware that Johnny’s questions had spaced out, perhaps because Murdoch now offered information without prompting. With closer observation, though, he saw Johnny’s cheeks were flushed with fever, and his fingers were slowly moving back and forth across the gifted silk scarf he had tucked inside his shirt.
“Would you mind reading for a bit, sir?” Scott brought the book to Murdoch. “I think the Gaelic language has suffered enough of my butchering for the day.”
Murdoch actually chuckled. Scott pointed out where he’d left off, then went to the medical kit to pull out pain powder and Nanny Rose’s cream. He mixed the powder in some water and brought it over to Johnny, who looked up at him with glazed eyes before reluctantly taking it and drinking it down. Scott brought the cup over to the sink, then carried the chair he’d been sitting in over beside Johnny, and unscrewed the cap of the cream. Johnny frowned, casting a quick look at Murdoch, but Scott held his hand out insistently. Johnny was in too much pain to argue. Murdoch ran his eyes over his sons in silent contemplation before starting to read.
The pain powder worked quickly, Johnny’s breathing became deeper and quietly audible, his head resting against the back of the chair, his eyes closed. Murdoch set down the book.
“Would you open Johnny’s bed, please, sir? And give me a hand moving him over?”
Murdoch did, watching as Scott used pillows to prop Johnny on his side before gently covering him over. Johnny was restless and moaning softly, just as he had done the previous night. Scott sat beside him, stroking his head.
“Whatever you gave him seems to have made the pain worse. Was it for the fever?” The signs that Johnny’s fever was raging were clear in his flushed cheeks, cracked lips, and the way his body radiated heat.
“No, it was actually for the pain. It doesn’t make it worse, it just prevents him from holding it in.”
Murdoch frowned thoughtfully. “It was lucky that you had it and the extra bandages…”
Scott sighed heavily. “I’ll be honest with you, sir, I knew it was extremely doubtful Johnny would stay with Sam and Val once I came out here. I wanted to be prepared.”
“Do you think Val or Sam will follow him here?”
“I pray they both do. One of the three lash marks that have given him the most trouble is badly infected again. He’s already had to have festering tissue cut out several times. The last thing I want is to have to be the one to do it to him. You saw how agonizing just changing the bandages was.”
Scott got up to get some water and a cloth to soothe his brother’s fever. Murdoch stood looking down at his pale, restless son.
“I’m afraid my hands aren’t steady enough to offer to help.” He kneaded his shaking hands. Scott didn’t say that there was no way he was letting Murdoch anywhere close to Johnny with a knife. Murdoch offered, “If they’re not here by mid-day, I’ll ride into town for Sam.”
“I would appreciate that.” Scott was surprised by the offer, more surprised that Murdoch had acknowledged his withdrawal symptoms.
“Thatcher did that? To your brother’s back?” Murdoch’s voice was weak and uncertain.
“Personally. He used the buckle end of his belt… just like he did when Johnny was little.” Scott gently mopped his brother’s sweat-damp face and neck. “That’s all Johnny knew about Thatcher, Murdoch, that he used to beat the crap out of Maria and him. Nothing about Thatcher’s business practices. But he reasoned that someone vile and twisted enough to hurt a woman and a kid, wouldn’t hesitate to swindle a group of ranchers out of their money. He had to leave to find some proof to put behind that belief.”
Murdoch sat on the bottom of the bed, using his large hands to settle Johnny’s constantly shifting legs. “He told you… what Thatcher did to him?”
“I guessed, but only in generalities. I couldn’t have imagined…” Scott swallowed heavily against the lump in his throat.
“Why wouldn’t he tell us?”
Scott looked at his father’s grizzled features for a moment before turning away to wring out the cloth.
“I asked him to tell you, sir. But he said he couldn’t risk that it wouldn’t matter enough to you.”
Murdoch froze. “He thought I would want to do business with a man who used to abuse him?”
Scott met the gray-blue eyes with steely ones of his own. “Wouldn’t you have?”
“Certainly not! What kind of a monster do you think I am?”
“Frankly, sir, the exact kind you have been these last six months.” Scott’s response was very quiet, but pointed. “You became everything Johnny feared to see in you: judgmental; blaming everything on Madrid; cold, angry, putting your reputation with the cattlemen over your son’s needs.”
Murdoch stumbled to form an argument. “No, I would have gone with him.”
“You even talked me out of going, although the blame for my decision resides solely with me. We failed him and look… look what we let that bastard do to him.” Scott’s voice trembled. “For four months, this kid endured torture for us. Torture. While we were at our cozy ranch, justifying our choices with whiskey, wine, and brandy.” Scott sniffed as he trailed a calming hand over his brother’s furrowed brow. “By the time I came to my senses, I couldn’t find him. So I gave up… I gave up on my little brother who never once, through all that hell, gave up on us.” Tears ran unchecked down Scott’s cheeks. “We came so close to losing him forever. If it wasn’t for the dozens upon dozens of friends Johnny made when he was supposedly the cold-blooded killer, Madrid, he would have died. Alone and in agony in that damned prison. Shh…” Scott bent down to soothe Johnny as his restlessness and moaning grew more intense. “You’re okay, we’ve got you.”
He wondered if Johnny was awake enough to hear them, or to sense the tension of the conversation. Even so, it wasn’t going to stop him from saying what he needed to to their father. He wiped his face on his sleeve. “Thank God, he got that telegram to us and that Val and I were able to find him. But not before the damage was done. Not just to his poor starved and brutalized body, Murdoch, but to his trust, his sense of safety. It took so much courage for him to open his heart to the idea of family. It would have been far easier for him to pocket the listening money and ride away. And damn, what incredible joy we would have missed out on if he hadn’t given us that chance.”
Scott laid another cool cloth across Johnny’s forehead, then lifted his gaze to bore into Murdoch’s. “But you have got to give up those ridiculous, hurtful lies that your whiskey-addled brain has created. You are so lucky Johnny is still willing to give you a chance at forgiveness, despite the despicable way you’ve treated him. I can tell you, if you’d treated me that way, I would have been long gone. And I assure you, the window of opportunity is minuscule. If you continue to question his commitment, his good faith, or dammit, the kindness of his beautiful heart, we’ll both be done with you, for good.”
Scott saw his father’s expression harden toward anger, but refused to let him get away with it. “This boy needs a father. And with all his heart, he wants that father to be you. Still, he can’t keep throwing himself out there only to be trampled under your judgment and disdain. I won’t let him. There’ll come a time when he won’t let himself either.”
Johnny started thrashing, whimpering in pain and torment. Scott slid off his chair to kneel close to his brother’s side. “Easy,” he pressed his cheek against Johnny’s fiery hot one, gently holding his head steady. “No one’s going to hurt you. Boston’s here, rest easy.”
For several minutes, he murmured reassurances into the boy’s ear, stroking his head and neck in a tender, calming cadence. When Johnny was finally quiet again, Murdoch was gone from his spot, standing at the hearth, staring into the fire with features of stone. Scott wondered if Murdoch would take anything he’d said to heart, or if their father was simply building ammunition for a return volley of fire.
Murdoch’s thoughts raced as his eyes traced the flames’ paths along the logs in the fireplace. His emotions were so fierce, he felt as though he could incinerate the logs to ash with the power of his fury. He was incensed that Scott would speak to him like that, would blame him for just one more example of Johnny running impulsively into danger. Why was everyone so angry with him? Couldn’t they see that it was Johnny who needed to be controlled, tamed, settled? How was it his fault that Johnny put himself into Thatcher’s clutches again when no one but Johnny knew the threat Thatcher posed?
The unwelcome image of Johnny’s belt-torn back visited itself upon him, making his stomach heave with nausea. No one deserved that kind of treatment. And Thatcher did that same thing to Johnny when he was just a boy? Good Lord, Johnny was still a boy! But seven years ago? What was Maria thinking, bringing a ghoul like Thatcher around their boy?
She wasn’t thinking, of course. Just like she hadn’t been thinking when she’d stolen Johnny away from him. She’d had no plan, no money, only her self-centered need to get away and find something better.
You didn’t find that, though, did you, Maria? Why did you have to take my boy? I would have let you go. I knew you weren’t happy. I kept hoping that if I built the ranch to where it could bring you the prestige and luxury you so craved, you could be happy with me.
In truth, the vibrant wanderlust that attracted him to Maria was their undoing. He’d thought they were kindred spirits, eagerly champing at the bit to build their dreams together. But where Murdoch had a specific dream and goal, and the willingness to work to make them happen, Maria only wanted better, more. She expected it to come to her with no effort or compromise on her part. Nothing was going to stand in her way. Not her marriage vows, not a beautiful little blue-eyed boy with the smile of an angel.
She killed not only Murdoch’s dreams for them, but any she may have had for herself. And she killed their sweet, innocent son, leaving him little option but to become a gunfighter to survive.
Scott was right that Murdoch couldn’t blame Johnny for doing anything he could to survive. Alone at the tender age of ten, with no one to guide or protect him. Yet, he was brought to a mission where there was safety and care. Why did he run? If only he’d stayed, the Pinkertons would have found him and brought him home before he’d turned into a killer. Now, it was too late, the die had been cast.
Murdoch felt such a strong urge for a drink, it was all he could do to keep from picking up the whiskey bottle despite Scott’s damn rules. How could he be expected to deal with all this turmoil without some liquid courage? His nerves were so shot, his hands were trembling!
He heard Johnny cry out in pain, and glanced over to see Scott bent over him, trying to settle him. It seemed clear that the pain powder had made things worse. Perhaps Sam had given Scott the wrong bottle. The boy had been fine before Scott gave it to him, smiling and laughing.
God, he missed that sound.
There was something so pure, so free in Johnny’s laughter. It reminded Murdoch of when Johnny was a toddler and small things could send him off into peals of laughter. Even now, Johnny’s laughter had that childlike innocence, as if he hadn’t a care in the world, and nothing bad had ever crossed his path.
Which, of course, was the furthest thing from the truth. In fact, aside from those first two years at Lancer, Johnny’s life had been nothing but hardship and pain. How miraculous then, that Johnny could still carry that spark of innocence so close to the surface.
An innocent gunfighter.
Murdoch sighed aloud. He couldn’t allow himself to be deluded by such ridiculous thoughts.
“Murdoch, I need some help,” Scott’s voice intruded. “His back is bleeding quite a bit. Bring me some bandages from that pack, please.”
Murdoch snapped out of his reverie to bring the requested items over. Yellow-streaked blood had leaked through the bandage Scott had applied earlier, soaking Johnny’s shirt and leaving a spot on the blanket covering him.
“Help me get his shirt off.” Scott was struggling to contain Johnny’s pained thrashing. “He wasn’t like this last night with the medicine. It must be the fever.”
“Last night?” Murdoch queried.
“The other night,” Scott corrected his slip smoothly, “ when Sam gave it to him. It made him moan a bit, but he slept and he never got agitated like this.”
Murdoch felt the fever radiating off his young son. “He’s burning up.” He helped wrestle Johnny’s shirt off, grimacing as the boy reacted with a cry of pain when he pulled on his right shoulder. “How do you find a place on him that isn’t hurt?”
“It’s almost impossible. His forearms are okay, and his temples. Although the back of his head has some cuts and bumps, it doesn’t seem to hurt him to touch it. And if you’re careful, there’s space between the lash marks on his neck. Okay, brace him. I have to cut the banadages, as if he feels the blade near his skin, he’ll panic.”
At Murdoch’s questioning glance, Scott explained about the guards cutting off Johnny’s shirt before a whipping. He even shared his own experience from Libby. Murdoch was stunned as Scott never spoke about that time in his life.
Johnny murmured in Spanish. Murdoch gathered from the context that his son’s mind was in his childhood, and not at Northgate. He had to avert his eyes when the festering wound on Johnny’s back was revealed from beneath the bandages. It was clearly the source of his fever, as it leaked blood-streaked pus down his back.
“Damn, damn…” Scott moaned, seeing how much the wound had worsened in the last few hours. “I don’t think I can wait for Sam.” His elder son’s face was gray with angst. “Talk to him in Spanish, Murdoch. I’ll put water on to boil.”
Murdoch spoke to his youngest in soft Spanish, reassuring him he was safe, and being taken care of. From the corner of his eye, he watched Scott pace, running his hand through his hair, talking distractedly to himself.
They prepared for the procedure by gathering towels, rags, and salve, positioning Johnny further toward his stomach, and pulling the bed out from the wall.
“Of course, it was Val who watched Ned do this, not me. I have no idea what I’m doing,” Scott railed.
That wasn’t really true. Scott had seen plenty of debridements in the war. Most were done under heavy doses of laudanum, which he hadn’t brought. Not that Johnny would likely take it. Scott wasn’t sure if it was safe to give him more of the pain powder. He tried to remember what Sam had said about the frequency of dosing, but his brain refused to work.
And, of course, Johnny was coming around more.
“I’m going to talk to him in case he can hear me, so he’ll know what we’re doing. Please translate, in case Spanish is all he can understand right now.”
The only way Scott could think of to hold Johnny still was to straddle his hips. Murdoch held Johnny’s hand and behind his head.
Praying and sick, Scott started.
“That nasty infection is back, Johnny, and we have to cut it out like Ned did. I’m sorry because I know it will hurt.”
He waited while Murdoch translated before leaning forward, knife in his right hand, whiskey-soaked cloth in his left.
“Here we go, sharp hurt…” Scott gritted his teeth as he quickly drew the blade down the border of the stuck bandage. Johnny only made a small sound, weak and mournful.
As if he knew what horror was coming.
“Now the bad part, I’m afraid.” Scott sliced the knife back beneath the raw, inflamed flesh, gouging out a section of infection. Johnny cried out and bucked slightly, although not enough to dislodge Scott. A second swipe took off another chunk, flooding blood down Johnny’s back. Johnny let out a gut-wrenching cry that almost did Scott in.
With his left hand, Scott held the whiskey-soaked cloth over the wound, the burn of the alcohol making Johnny plead for release. His legs moved restlessly beneath Scott, threatening the elder brother’s balance.
Murdoch continued to talk to Johnny in both English and Spanish, explaining why it hurt, soothing him, promising relief soon.
Scott could barely see through the combination of tears and sweat that burned his eyes. He wiped them quickly on his upper sleeve as he lifted the cloth and studied the wound below. Surprisingly, there was only one more spot of infection left, at the top of the wound.
“Last one, little brother, then you can rest.” Scott was vaguely aware that Murdoch changed the endearment from ‘little brother’ to ‘son’ in translation. He carved into the bad section of flesh. Johnny cursed in desperate Spanish and tried to jerk his shoulder away, which only sharpened the pain.
“‘¡Alto! Me ira.”
“No,” Murdoch soothed. “No, you don’t have to go away.”
Scott worried where Johnny’s mind had taken him. Back to his childhood with Thatcher? To the present with Murdoch being the one to order him away? Agony in either life. That thought along with the putrid mess that streamed from Johnny’s back made Scott gag.
“Hold this!” He grabbed Murdoch’s hand to hold the whiskey cloth, and lurched off the side of the bed. He had no hope of making it out to the shed. His stomach emptied onto the floor, his body arching with violent heaves. Bout after bout, as if his body thought it could rid him of every vile thing that had happened to his little brother. More tears were added to those already soaking his cheeks.
Finally, the spasms broke. Scott sank against the bottom of the bed, shaking too much to move, convinced his stomach would revolt all over again if he tried. “Is he alright?” he asked Murdoch.
“Yes, he’s settling, and the bleeding has slowed. Are you?”
“Hell no.” Scott leaned his head against the bed and closed his eyes, praying for strength for Johnny and himself, and for their family, that they could somehow survive this horror.
In the miasma of tangled thoughts and raging emotions, Scott thought he heard Johnny ask for water. He asked Murdoch if he’d heard correctly.
“Yes, I’ll get him some in a moment. I don’t want to release the pressure on this bleeding just yet.”
“I’ll get it.” Scott offered, then numbly considered how he might go about that. He shoved himself over to his hands and knees, then after two deep breaths, levered himself to his feet with the help of the bed.
He looked down at Johnny’s pale face. It seemed oddly serene, almost as if he’d fallen asleep, his request for water forgotten. Murdoch’s visage was haggard and wan. He was absently stroking Johnny’s temple and down his neck, watchful that he kept his fingers between the lash marks.
Scott stumbled to the sink and primed the pump. When the water flowed, he cupped both hands under the icy water and doused his face with it. Realizing his hands were bloody, he washed them, then splashed his face again. Dripping, he got Johnny a cup of water and made his way back to his brother’s side.
“Is he sleeping?” he asked, standing over them.
His answer was Johnny opening his eyes. Still mostly on his stomach, he couldn’t turn his head to see Scott. Scott fell to his knees, too exhausted to control his descent, the water sloshing over the sides of the cup. Murdoch moved out of the way. Scott stroked his brother’s face with icy fingers.
“Hey there, sorry that hurt so much.” Scott’s voice shook and tears threatened again.
Johnny blinked slowly as if trying to process what had happened.
“…cold feels good…”
It took Scott a moment to figure out what Johnny meant. He smiled and set the cup on the floor, freeing both hands to rest against his brother’s fevered cheeks. Johnny closed his eyes.
“Usually you’re fighting me when I try to cool you down when you have a fever.”
“…too tired to fight…”
“I hear you on that. I have your water whenever you want me to help you get into a position where you can drink it.”
“…‘kay…” Johnny lay with his eyes closed, breathing unevenly but quietly. After a bit, he murmured, “I’m afraid to move.”
Scott gave him a sad smile. “I’ll help. Or you can stay like that for a bit. You can’t drink like that, though.”
Scott watched as Murdoch cleaned up the mess he’d made. He remembered his conversation with Johnny earlier in the day. Murdoch noticed him watching and gave a little nod. Scott mouthed “thank you”.
He looked back down at Johnny and decided his brother had fallen asleep. He slowly removed his hands to test his theory. Johnny didn’t move. With a soft sigh, he carefully lifted the edge of the bloody bandage. The wound below tweaked his stomach again, but looked pretty good, considering. He pushed himself up and dropped into the chair at Johnny’s bedside, staring at nothing.
Murdoch washed up, then came back to lay a hand on Scott’s shoulder. “You did a good job. I know how hard that was for you. I’m proud of you.”
Scott brought his eyes back to his brother’s pale face. How he wished Murdoch could find it in himself to say those same words to Johnny.
“Why does everything for him have to be so damn hard, so painful, so life-threatening? I’ve only known my brother for a little over a year, yet I need both hands to count the times he’s almost died. And don’t you dare say that’s the life of a gunfighter, only two of those had anything remotely to do with Madrid.”
“I wasn’t going to say that.” Murdoch’s voice was surprisingly mild. “I was going to say that your brother has a tendency to use more than his gun to defend others. He throws his body at danger without a thought to the consequences for himself.”
Scott sensed Murdoch didn’t mean it as charitably as he himself had when he’d made a similar observation to Val. “It’s because he doesn’t think he’s worth protecting. Everyone he cares about, even people he’s just met, are worth dying for, hurting for, no matter the odds. He believes he… just isn’t.”
Murdoch was silent for a moment. “I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve been so angry with him.” The words came slowly, carefully. “That he would…risk the life of my son in such a cavalier way.”
Scott raised his head in surprise, in hope at the combination of insight and caring in their father’s statement.
“He needs to hear you say that, sir. He needs to know you care enough to worry about him. He only sees your anger and disappointment.”
Murdoch’s brow furrowed. “Your mother said something similar to me last night.”
Scott’s eyes widened. “My mother?”
“Yes, she…” Murdoch looked toward the table, clearly expecting to see someone there, then frowned and fell silent.
“You need sleep, sir.” Scott was drained. The last thing he and Johnny needed was Murdoch’s hallucinations. Although, maybe a little psychosis was required to counterbalance Murdoch’s insane misbeliefs about Johnny.
“I’ll sit with Johnny a while so you can sleep.” Murdoch offered, seemingly unaware of his lapse.
There was no way in hell Scott was going to allow that. “I don’t want to leave him. You go. I’ll wake you later if I need you.”
Scott was relieved when Murdoch didn’t argue and was soon asleep. It wasn’t even 7:30 pm yet, but it felt to Scott like 3:00 in the morning.
Mechanically, he changed the dressing on Johnny’s back and checked the level of fever. He was relieved that it seemed to have lessened, and surprised when Johnny opened his eyes.
“Are you ready for your water now?” he asked with a smile.
Johnny started to push himself up, which caused him to groan.
“Here, let me help.”
He got Johnny sitting up, shivering and gripping the edge of the bunk for dear life.
“Okay to let go to get the water cup?”
Johnny nodded, even as he clearly struggled for balance. Scott steadied him with one hand as he picked the cup up from the floor. “I’ll hold it.”
Johnny drank gratefully. Scott set the cup back down, and tenderly squeezed the back of Johnny’s neck. “Do you need to make a visit outside before we settle you in for the night?”
Johnny looked longingly at the fireplace. “Can we put the mattresses down in front of the fireplace?”
“Sure, I can pull your bed over.”
“Just the mattresses, that way there’s room for both of us.”
Scott smiled at Johnny including him. He first put the mattress from his own bunk down, then helped Johnny take care of his personal needs before easing him down onto it. He then moved the one from Johnny’s bed over, and after quickly taking care of his own needs, joined his brother on the floor. He reached over to stroke Johnny’s forehead, propped on his elbow, studying his brother’s drawn features in the firelight.
“Are you warm enough?”
“Do you need more pain medicine or water?”
“Stop fussing, Boston, I’m fine.”
Scott cocked a grin at him. “Fine, are you?”
Johnny looked sheepish. “Well, I don’t need nothin’. You look tired and need to sleep.”
“Ah, so that was your motive for moving us over here?”
“Part of it. The other part is, I can’t seem to get warm, except by the fire.”
“I’m sure your fever is causing that. Not to mention you lost more blood tonight.”
Johnny’s eyes dropped to the mattress. “I’m sorry you had to do that, brother. You’re right that I oughtn’t have come out here, making you do shit like that for me. I’ve just been causing trouble when you’ve got enough to do, working things out with Murdoch.”
“Oh, little brother, the last thing you’ve been doing is causing trouble. In fact, you bringing that book for Murdoch was the best thing that could have happened. You got through to him in a way that all my talking never could have. And don’t apologize to me for taking care of you, I should be apologizing to you for the pain I caused.”
“You were really quick. That helped a lot. Did you learn that in the war too?”
Scott’s fingers stuttered slightly in their repetitive path across Johnny’s temple. “Yes, when I helped out in the medical tent.”
“I’m surprised they made officers do that. In Mexico, they made us prison peons do it.”
Scott had forgotten that Johnny had been conscripted to service in the Mexican war against the French in lieu of going to prison when he was fourteen. Scott had only found out about it recently from Val. Another tiny window opening into Johnny’s brutal past.
“Second lieutenants are the peons of officers. We didn’t get assigned units until much later in the war, after we were made first lieutenants. It was all bookwork in the beginning, until I couldn’t stand it anymore, and asked for a different assignment.”
“Dios, Boston, talk about jumping from the frying pan into the fire… Besides, you love bookwork.”
Scott grinned. “Youthful naïveté… I’d done enough bookwork for my grandfather’s companies. I joined the war not only to fight for something I believed in, but for the excitement and adventure.”
“Ni-eva-tay… that mean you didn’t have a clue how ugly it would be?”
Scott laughed. “Exactly. I learned the hard way that instead of daring and glory, it was a whole lot of terror and body parts. As horrible as it was in the hospital tents, it somewhat prepared me for the front lines.”
Johnny shifted uncomfortably, and Scott noticed his fingers tapping on the mattress. He leaned back to pick up the silk scarf from where they’d left it on Johnny’s chair. He laid it between them, and moved Johnny’s hand onto it. Johnny’s fingers immediately began to pattern over the soft cloth, his head leaning forward against Scott’s shoulder. Scott supported Johnny’s need for closeness by leaning his cheek against the top of Johnny’s head. He could hear the pain in Johnny’s breathing.
Still, the boy kept up their conversation. “The hospital tent is where I learned to stitch quick.”
“And I’m grateful you did.” Scott had forgotten to wear gloves while stringing fence-lines soon after arriving at Lancer, and had gotten a nasty slice on his finger from the wire. He’d been shocked when he was told ranchers didn’t go to the doctor for that sort of thing, then horrified when it became clear that Johnny planned to stitch it himself right there in the middle of the field. He’d thought at first it was some kind of practical joke.
But Johnny was quick, neat, and confident. Scott was bandaged and back to work in a few short minutes, this time –and forever after– wearing gloves.
“Did you spend most of your time in the hospital tent?” Scott thought about how awful his own experience had been, and how much worse an assault it would be on the mind of a fourteen year old. He realized with a start that he and Johnny had served in their wars at the same time.
“Nope, only the first couple weeks. We were the cleanup detail, emptying pots, burning bandages and body parts, washing instruments and stuff. Only the officers had doctors. They threw away better things than the fighters had, so I would save stuff out to bring to the camp at night. One time a whole tray of catgut and needles fell on the floor, and the doc just threw them out. All they needed was boiling, and I could show the fighters how the doctors stitched.” Johnny gave a soft grunt of pain that he tried to hide by continuing. “I got to watch up close cuz the docs would have us stand there to cut the stitches. Even after I didn’t work the tent anymore, I’d go back to sneak stuff.”
Scott moved his right hand to massage the corded muscles in Johnny’s neck. “What did you do next?”
“Fought. Once they found out I could shoot…”
“Dare I ask how they found that out?”
“One of the prisoners escaped and started shooting up the officers tent. I shot him.”
“Their way of showing gratitude was to send you to the front lines?”
“I think they were more scared of me than grateful. How did you move from the hospital tents to leading troops?”
“I stole a general’s horse.” Scott explained the story. “I was lucky I wasn’t court- martialed. Nobody rode General Sheridan’s horse.”
“Instead, you impressed him so much you got your fancy picture with him.” The last few words were swallowed up in a choked-back groan.
“Believe me, it was a while between the two events. He felt how you would feel if some stranger jumped on Barranca and ran off into a fight.”
“Except all I’d do is whistle and Barranca would dump the stranger in the dirt and run right back to me.”
“I guess I’m lucky General Sheridan never trained Charlemagne to do that… please let me do something about the pain, Johnny.”
“You are.” Johnny whispered, pressing his head tighter into Scott’s shoulder. “Tell me another story about a time you got in trouble.”
“So listening to my embarrassing and ill-fated exploits makes you feel better?” Scott chuckled.
“If that means you doing dumb-ass shit, then yes, very much.”
So Scott told him about the time he was assigned to move a wagon of food and other supplies from one camp to the next, and the challenges he met with a skittish horse team, a steep hill, and calf-deep mud.
“Woo hoo, Boston, you’re lucky those men didn’t skin you alive. You don’t mess with no army man’s rations.”
“Very true. My saving grace was that the ammo wagon fared worse than I did, so the captain was more incensed by that, and the men were so filthy and exhausted after hauling its remains out of the gully, they didn’t really notice a little extra mud in their biscuits and beans.”
Scott noticed Johnny’s muscles had lost some of their rigid tension, and his breathing was less stridorous. He prayed that meant the pain was easing. He quieted his voice as he recounted another story about the difficulty he’d had learning to ice skate.
Soon it became clear Johnny was falling asleep. Scott shifted so he could settle himself in and still allow Johnny to use his shoulder as a pillow. Within five minutes of Johnny falling asleep, Scott was there himself.
Scott awoke to the sound of retching and quickly scrambled to his knees to help Johnny. The cabin was dimly lit by the creeping dawn, a recently stoked fire, and a kerosene lantern. It still took Scott several moments to make out Johnny’s form leaning over Murdoch, as the elder man heaved into a chamber pot. Scott disengaged himself from his blanket and crawled across Johnny’s vacated mattress.
“Can you rewet this cloth?” Johnny asked, handing one over. He was precariously balanced on the side of Murdoch’s bed, his slender body little match for Murdoch’s bulk as he tried to keep Murdoch from falling out as he twisted over the side, vomiting. Scott moved quickly, wetting the cloth, then adding his support to Johnny’s.
“Get away!” Murdoch gasped as soon as he had air, his arms flailing toward the younger men. “Leave me alone!”
Johnny took the cloth from Scott. “We will, once we get you cleaned up and settled. Let me wash your face here. Maybe Scott can make you some peppermint tea. It sure helps my stomach.”
“I don’t drink tea!” Murdoch batted at Johnny’s hands as he wiped his father’s mouth, face, and down the front of his shirt. “Must have been some bad venison. A couple shots of whiskey will burn it out.”
Johnny gave Scott a wry smile. “If it was the venison, Scott would be sick too. Face it, old man, you’re going through alcohol withdrawal and it’s gonna suck for a few days. I didn’t use to drink tea, either, but it’s better than turning your guts inside out.”
“Give me the damn whiskey!” Murdoch grabbed the cloth out of Johnny’s hands and tried to shove his way off the bunk, sending both sons scrambling for balance. As soon as he moved, another bout hit him, and he was on his knees over the chamber pot again.
“Let me handle this.” Scott wanted Johnny out of range of Murdoch’s anger.
Johnny shook his head, getting down on his knees to hold Murdoch’s head and rub his back. “Nope, he and me are just getting the hang of this. But making tea would be good.”
Scott sat back on his heels. “How long have you been up?”
“A couple hours. It started with belly cramps, he’s gotten sick a handful of times. Not much coming up now.”
“How the hell did I sleep through that?”
“It’s called exhaustion, Boston.”
“Johnny, you can’t… “
Johnny cut him off with a look. “I’ve got this.”
Scott watched in numb amazement as Johnny again cooled Murdoch’s face with the cloth and urged him back to bed.
“Close your eyes and try to rest while you’re waiting for the tea.” Johnny’s voice was quiet and soothing. “Do you want the cloth on your forehead?”
Murdoch huddled onto his side, rocking and groaning a little, his arms wrapped around his stomach. “Cold.” His teeth chattered in emphasis. Johnny untangled the blanket from the bottom of the bed. “Here’s one blanket. I’ll get you another.” After tucking the blanket close around his father’s shoulders, Johnny stiffly rose to retrieve his own blanket from his mattress, and added it on top.
As Scott moved over to the stove to stoke it for hot water, Johnny picked up the chamber pot and took it out back. When he came back in, he set the empty pot down beside Murdoch’s bed, used the cloth to clean up the floor, then went to the pump to rinse the cloth out and wash his hands.
He brought the cloth back to the bedside. It appeared Murdoch had fallen back to sleep, his breathing rumbling and even. Johnny stood there for a long moment, staring down at his father. Scott moved beside him, giving his shoulder a gentle squeeze as he gently took the cloth out of his hands and laid it across the footboard.
“You need to lie down, too.”
Johnny shook his head without looking away. “He has dreams like I get, but he talks to people who aren’t here, Mama, Paul, your Mama.” He looked at Scott. “Do I do that, too?”
Scott guided Johnny over to sit at the bench by the table. “ A little sometimes when you have a fever. Murdoch is having what’s called hallucinations, not really nightmares, as he’s awake. It’s part of the withdrawal. I cannot believe I slept that long and that heavy. I’m sorry I wasn’t here to help. You shouldn’t have to wrestle around with him like you were doing. He’s going to hurt you.” Scott set three cups on the table and broke peppermint sticks into two of them.
“I want to be the one to take care of him, Scott. If it wasn’t for me…”
“If it wasn’t for you, Lancer might be gone right now, and Murdoch would still be a drunk!” Scott said harshly. “You’re as bad as he is, blaming yourself for shit that isn’t your fault! You’ve got to stop letting him do that, and you’ve got to stop doing it to yourself!” He poured hot water angrily into the cups and banged the pan back onto the stove. He poured himself a cup of coffee, even though it wasn’t ready yet, the liquid pouring out pale and translucent.
Murdoch muttered and groaned, causing both men to turn to watch him, but he didn’t awaken. Scott dropped down onto the bench opposite Johnny, and bowed his head into his hands, staring at his watery drink. He didn’t know how much more he could take. Even though he’d slept almost seven hours, he felt like he hadn’t slept in a month. He pinched the bridge of his nose to push back a headache, then raised his eyes to his brother’s.
He expected to see anger over his outburst, or maybe hurt. He didn’t expect the faint grin that touched the boy’s lips.
“Somebody got up on the wrong side of the floor this morning.”
Scott opened his mouth, then shut it again, and groaned.
“Little brother… drink your damn tea.” He slid one of the two cups over in front of Johnny, then leaned over to grab a biscuit from a plate on the end of the table, smacking it down next to the cup. “And eat something. How’s the pain?”
Scott stopped his coffee’s progress toward his lips. “Better? Really?”
“Really. The bad pressure under my ribs is gone and it doesn’t hurt the way it was.”
“Wow, thank God. But you still need to take it easy. I’m serious that I don’t want you tending to Murdoch, especially not when he’s agitated like that.”
Johnny warmed his hands on his cup. “And I’m serious, Scott, that I need to. And no, not because I think it’s my fault. He said he needed me to be where I’m supposed to be, when I’m supposed to be. Well, this is where and when I need to be… for him.”
Scott took a sip of his coffee, grimaced, and got up to dump it. As he sat back down, Johnny slid the second cup of peppermint tea in front of him with a small smile.
“Try it. Your stomach probably isn’t feeling much better than mine or his.”
Scott sipped the faintly sweet tea, studying the haggard lump that was their father. “I think it’s very admirable that you want to take care of Murdoch. But it worries me. First, you’re supposed to be being taken care of, you’ve got a lot of healing still to do. Uht, I don’t want to hear about how long you’ve been able to take care of yourself. We’re family now, things are different.”
“With that argument, you should support me taking care of Murdoch, him being family and all.”
“Ordinarily, yes. But not with your injuries. And not with the way he’s been treating you. I fear you’re setting yourself up to be hurt even worse by him.”
“Well, the way I figure it, we’re the ones making him go through withdrawal, so we kinda owe it to him to take care of him. Now, seeing as you’re so busy taking care of me…” the flash of a grin, “…that leaves me to watch over him.”
Murdoch was starting to mumble and moan quietly. Johnny got up from the table. “When this is all over, maybe it’ll mean something to him. Maybe not. But at least I’ll know I tried.” He sat on the edge of Murdoch’s bunk and straightened the covers the elder man’s restlessness had set askew. He smoothed the blanket over Murdoch’s shoulder in a soothing, repetitive pattern. “When I was first starting out as a gunfighter, I promised myself I’d never call a man out to fight. I thought it… I don’t know, made me more honorable or something to not be the one to start it. Of course, a few times I pushed for it by acting so obnoxious, men would call me out just to shut me up.” Johnny shot a wry smile at his brother. “Pretty soon, I had enough of a reputation, all I had to do was breathe to get called out.
“This one time, though, a young kid, no more than two or three years older than me, got kinda teased into calling me out. After it was over, the lady who ran the cantina stormed up to me, slapped me across the face, and started screaming at me for not trying to talk him out of it.” Johnny touched the back of his hand to his cheek, remembering the sting of the slap, and the sharper sting of the woman’s accusation. “ ‘You didn’t even try!’ she yelled at me, ‘He was just a kid and you didn’t even try to save him!’ I said something about it being the priest’s job to save people, not mine, and I rode outta town. But I bet I didn’t even get a mile before I was off my horse, puking into the dirt, that lady’s words pounding in my head. I hadn’t tried to talk him out of it, in fact, I’d been excited when he called me out, cuz I knew I’d win. His gun was so shiny new, you could see yourself in it.” Johnny picked a piece of lint off the blanket, twisting it between his thumb and forefinger, frowning at the memory. “No way I could find anything the least bit honorable in that. After, I always tried to give the other guy an out, offer to buy him a drink, try to talk him out of dancing. It worked a few times. But even when it didn’t, at least I knew I’d tried.” Johnny’s eyes trailed back to their father’s face. He blew his air out in a long sigh. “I reckon if I can give a gunhawk I don’t know, or don’t like, a chance to change their mind, I owe my old man the same.”
Scott stared in wonder at his brother. How had that level of understanding and compassion made it into an abused adolescent’s mind? As the hours passed, Scott marveled at the gentleness with which Johnny cared for Murdoch. He’d seen his brother be tender and caring with children, animals, older women, and even with him, but to see it with Murdoch, after the accusatory and uncaring way their father had treated Johnny, simultaneously warmed and strangled Scott’s heart.
Murdoch was agitated and angry, getting digs into Johnny at every turn. Johnny either let them ride, or gave it back to Murdoch in turn. But never did his hands lose their gentleness. Scott helped when things were at their worst, when Murdoch swore there were fire ants in the bed or bats diving down from the ceiling. And the most frightening time, when Murdoch had a second apparent seizure, becoming rigid and tremulous for several minutes, then falling flaccid and somnolent for the next hour. The episode terrified them both and left them anxiously wondering where the hell Val and Sam were.
When Murdoch finally appeared to be sleeping normally, Scott forced Johnny to lie down as well, reminding his brother about their deal: Johnny took care of Murdoch, Scott took care of Johnny. Scott was relieved that the pain under Johnny’s ribs remained muted, and the sore he had debrided the previous night, although raw, had no hint of yellow. Johnny was spared an afternoon fever, but exhaustion paled his cheeks and rimmed his eyes with gray.
“Do you reckon it’ll be this bad for the whole four or five days of withdrawal?” Johnny asked, as he positioned himself so he could see Murdoch’s face.
Scott exhaled with a tired sigh. “The hopeful part of my brain says no, there ought to be a tipping point about halfway through where things start to get better. We should be right about there.”
Johnny closed his eyes, his head sinking into the pillow. “And what does the Harvard part of your brain say?”
Scott settled in the chair between Murdoch’s bed and the mattress Johnny was lying on. “I don’t think Sam thought it would get as bad as it has. It may affect the timeline.”
Johnny nodded without opening his eyes. “Should we give him a drink when he wakes up? Or should he be all done now?”
“I was leaning toward him being all done before he had the seizure. Now, I’m not sure. I’m praying Sam will be here by then.”
“Is it still snowing?”
Scott tried to tell, but the window was too far and too clouded with condensation to tell. He pushed himself up, crossed the room, and cleared off a small circle on the glass. “A little.” Earlier, he’d stamped down paths to the barn and outhouse, although they were largely using chamber pots dumped just beyond the back shed to avoid the weather. “There’s maybe another inch in the trail I made.”
He stopped on his way back to the chair to get himself a cup of the now overheated coffee, hopeful that the thick, bitter brew would give him enough of a jolt to not fall asleep in –and likely fall out of– the chair. He smiled as he saw Johnny had already fallen off to sleep, his features soft and child-like, now absent the furrows of pain and worry.
Scott’s gaze drifted to Murdoch’s face. In its calm repose, he was able to see, for the first time in months, reminders of the father he’d grown to care deeply for. He sifted through memories of their lives together at Lancer, before the foul shadow of Thatcher had descended upon them, shredding their fragile father/son bonds to tatters. There had been warmth, even among three men unused to feeling or expressing it. And tiny fingers of trust, commitment, and respect had carefully grasped them, drawing them closer together. They’d all been searching for, aching for, that connectedness for so long. To have it ripped away after such a heartbreakingly short time…
Scott hovered in the place where prayer used to live easily, before war and prison informed him that even the most desperate entreaties would go unanswered. He felt frozen, choked off from the comfort he’d so relied upon as a child and innocent young man. Closing his eyes, he summoned the calm faith of a young nurse who had tended to him after his release from Libby, feeling her warmth gently filling the hollow places in his soul.
He’d lost yet another friend to the scourge of disease and debilitation that had followed them to what should have been the safe haven of the field hospital. The unfairness of William having come so close to freedom only to have his life snatched away infuriated Scott, sending him into a rage, which he vented on his meal tray, bed linens, and the contents of his bedside stand. Nurse Marshall –Natalie, he soon learned– had tended to William in his final hours, cried for him, and said a quiet prayer over his forever motionless body. Scott railed at her as she quietly cleaned up the mess he’d made.
“How can you pray anymore? If there is a God, He certainly cares nothing for us! You see that, day after day, hour after hour, the pain, disfigurement, death. What loving God would allow this? Why do you ask him for help that he clearly has no desire to give?!”
Natalie returned the bible he’d thrown to its place on the small bedside stand. In a hospital short on even basic medical supplies, there was no shortage of bibles, one carefully laid at each bedside. Despite his desperate craving to read, Scott’s fury at God had left his bible untouched. She ran her hand lightly over the worn cover.
“I feel God’s tears.”
The quiet words softened the edges of Scott’s rage, even though he didn’t understand them. He watched Natalie clean up the rest of his mess, trying to puzzle out their meaning, hoping she’d add more. She didn’t. She adjusted his pillow and resettled his bed coverings, giving him a smile before quickly moving on to her other patients.
He watched her closely over those next two weeks, as she soothed her patients’ pain, washed their decimated bodies, carried away their most foul bodily fluids, always with a kind touch and gentle smile. She prayed with and for them; listened to their desperate fears, aching hearts, lonely tears; and held their hands as their time grew near. She worked the long overnight shift, arriving before dark and staying through morning rounds. In the small hours of morning, he would see her hunched over a flickering candle, putting her patients’ precious final words into letters to be sent to the soldiers’ loved ones. Of all her compassionate acts, Scott thought that was possibly the kindest, an enduring gift to bereaved families, which no one else could give.
The night before he was to be released, Natalie spotted him watching her as she finished one such letter. She carefully sealed it with a drip of wax, sliding it into her wide apron pocket as she moved to his bedside.
“Is there something I can get for you, Lieutenant Lancer?”
He’d apologized to her more than once for his brutish behavior weeks earlier, shocked he’d treated anyone, never mind such a sweet and gentle soul, so rudely. She’d accepted his apologies with her usual grace. And she did so again as he repeated one now.
“You were grieving. We’re all angry when we grieve.”
“You don’t seem to be. Forgive me, if I’m being too forward. Do you get numb to it?”
“Never.” She sat on the small stool that was moved from bedside to bedside as care was rendered. She folded her hands in her lap, her eyes meeting his despite the relative darkness. “I have a little box where I keep my anger. Well, not so little anymore, as there’s a lot of sadness, grief, and worry in there,too. There’s no time or place for that here, so it’s kept tightly locked.” A tiny smile graced her lips. “But, when it gets opened, watch out! My roommate actually has a wooden crate she keeps handy to use as a shield to deflect flying debris.”
He laughed. The first time he’d done so in forever. “So, you put my little temper tantrum to shame?”
“Quite.” She responded with a nod and a smile. “I understand you’re headed home tomorrow. Your family will be so excited to see you. Is there a special someone waiting?”
Scott thought briefly of Julie, but couldn’t fathom how he could ever feel normal enough to think about a relationship with her… or anyone else. Not to mention, his scarecrow-like body, shorn head, and scab-encrusted skin would likely send Julie running for more refined and palatable company.
“No ma’am. Just my grandfather, who probably won’t be speaking to me.”
“I bet your grandfather will have forgotten any silly argument you might have had, and will welcome you with open arms and a huge hug.”
“You don’t know my grandfather.” Scott chuckled, while secretly hoping it would be true. He missed the man desperately, although he was afraid he might lose his composure when they were reunited, and feared his grandfather’s reaction if he did. He was honestly quite terrified to go back to Boston. He had no idea how to refit his frayed nerves and raw emotions into the staid formality of his grandfather’s home and their reserved social and business circles.
“He should easily be able to see the strong, caring man you are, if I can see it, having only known you a few weeks.”
Scott cocked his head. “Might you be willing to come along to tell him that?”
Her smile was lovely. “I’m needed here. But if he doesn’t treat you right, write to me, and I’ll stomp over to set him straight.”
“Oh, now I’m hoping he’s a ghastly brute. That’s a hard offer to refuse.”
A man called out in his sleep. Natalie stood to survey the rows of bunks, listening for further signs of distress. But the room fell quiet again. She settled back in her chair. “Perhaps I should ask where exactly I’d be going when heading to your rescue?”
“Boston. Have you ever been?”
“No, I’ve never been out of North Carolina. I’ve always wanted to travel. Perhaps after…this.” She waved one hand slightly. “I have a friend in San Francisco. She says it’s lovely; so cultured and exciting. If the railroad is finished, I promised her my first trip would be to California.”
The name buffeted through Scott’s brain as he envisioned the land of his distant and disinterested father. Perhaps he should travel there as well; his father might make a fine receptacle for his simmering anger and resentment. “If you should need an escort, Lieutenant Lancer is at your service.”
“Thank you, kind sir. You should try to get some sleep, the wagons leave early for the train. I’m going to put that salve that’s been working well for your back in here. The medical staff on the train will have dressings and such, but this salve is one of Nurse Rhodes’ special blends.” She lifted the small satchel the local mission gifted to each of the departing soldiers. It contained a change of clothes, soap, a razor, cup, and another bible.
“You can leave that here.” Scott indicated the bible.
“Ah yes, I do recall that you and He are not on speaking terms right now. That happens a lot here, after what we’ve seen, and what you all have been through.”
Perhaps that’s why there were so many bibles around the hospital, Scott thought. Faith, along with lives and limbs, lost amid war’s ravages. Aloud, he said, “May I ask you about something you said the night William died?”
Natalie looked curious, but nodded.
“You said you could feel God’s tears. What did you mean?”
Natalie looped the clasp closed on the bag and placed it on the side table, still holding the removed bible in her hands. “When I was eleven, my Momma fell ill. She was a loving, generous, church-going woman who lived out her faith everyday. After my father left us, she worked two jobs, cleaning and as a seamstress, to support us. She’d be the first one to take care of a sick neighbor, or make food for a family going through hard times. She said that there were always people worse off than us, and God would reward us for thinking of others before ourselves. That’s how she got sick, taking care of a friend with influenza. The entire congregation prayed for her to get better. Her friend recovered, she didn’t.” Natalie’s care-worn hands clutched the bible absently to her chest. “I was so angry at God, and at the church that told me lies about miracles and the power of prayer. One lady told me God took Momma because He needed another angel in heaven; the deacon said it was part of God’s larger plan, one we weren’t meant to understand. That only made me more furious.
“Pastor Reynolds was a wonderful man who let me yell and scream and pound out my furor at God against his chest, and then held me when I sobbed for what felt like hours. Afterwards, he asked me if I’d ever fallen down and gotten hurt. I said that of course I had. He asked if I’d been mad at my Momma for not preventing it. I told him that was silly, she wasn’t the one running in the gravel.” Her long fingers stroked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “He said he thought of God as a loving parent, who guides us, gives us the tools to do the right things, but then lets us grow and have what Pastor called ‘free will’ to make our own choices. He doesn’t make the bad things happen, like Momma didn’t make me fall in the gravel, but He embraces us with his love when we hurt, and when He can’t make the pain go away, He cries with us.” Natalie lifted her head, her eyes glistening. “With everything here… I feel his tears often… and I’m grateful to not be crying alone.”
Abruptly she stood, patting his hand. “I’m overdue for my rounds, and you need some sleep, Lieutenant Lancer.” She set the bible on top of the other one on the side table and drifted into the darkness, following the moan of a distressed soldier.
Scott lay thinking about her words, then surprised himself by falling into a deep sleep, broken only when the wagons arrived in the morning. He never had the chance to say goodbye to Natalie, or to thank her for her care and comfort, both physical and spiritual.
He remembered little of the train ride to Boston, and less of the ride from the station to the hospital. He was hazy with drugs when his grandfather arrived in the ward, but aware enough to see the horror reflected on the elder man’s face, the hesitance to touch him, one hand pressing a handkerchief against his nose against the ghastly smell of a dozen sick and unwashed bodies lined up in rows with barely walking distance between. His grandfather backed away, barking orders to a waiting line of obsequious hospital administrators. Within the hour, Scott was moved to a private room in a distant part of the hospital, where he was bathed and shaved, his wounds cleaned and bandaged. Every inch of him was covered with pristine gauze, linen, or bedding, effectively dressing him for re-presentation to his grandfather. Harlan Garrett arrived only after all remnants of his filth had been hustled away. Looking somewhat pale but stoic, he took Scott’s upper arms into both hands for a brief squeeze.
“Welcome home, Scotty. I’m so glad you’re safe.”
“Thank you, Grandfather, it’s good to see you. How have you been?” Scott was amazed to find his own reservedness had slid easily into place. No tears threatened, no desire to throw himself into a welcoming embrace.
“Concerned for you, of course. But now that you’re home, we will put this wretchedness behind us and move on…”
We will, will we? Scott thought, as his grandfather went on to explain how he’d secured the best physician to oversee Scott’s care, in the privacy of their own home, of course, away from prying eyes and wagging tongues. Scott drifted off to sleep, comforted by his grandfather’s familiar voice, while remembering a softer, more feminine voice that had soothed his anger and pain, helping him to believe that one faraway day, he might become whole again.
A few days after he’d been moved home, Scott awoke from a nap to spy a bible sitting on the table beside his bed. Mrs. Jackson leaned forward as he pushed himself up with a grunt.
“Did you sleep well, Master Scott?”
Scott smiled. He was a grown man, well past the “master” appellation, but Mrs. Jackson couldn’t seem to give it up. He silently appreciated the maternal warmth implied in the childhood title.
“I did, thank you. Where did this bible come from?”
“A young man from the hospital brought it by. He said they found it in the satchel of items your grandfather donated, and thought you might be missing it.”
“It’s not mine…” As he picked it up, he recognized it as the one he’d asked Natalie to remove from his bag at the field hospital. He remembered that she’d done so, laying it on the other one upon the side table. Running his hand over the cover, he smiled. A sweet act of faith from a remarkable woman. “Actually, yes, it is… a gift from a friend.”
“I’m glad you’ve gotten it back then. I’ll get you some broth.” Mrs Jackson said, patting him gently on the arm as she rose and left the room.
Scott spied a bookmark amid the bible’s thin pages, and carefully opened to the marked passage: Psalm 34:18 “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart…”
On the narrow bookmark, in a light but elegant hand, was written, “He cries with us, Lieutenant Lancer. Someday, I hope you will feel the comfort of His loving tears as I do. Be well, Nurse Natalie Marshall”
Scott clutched the bible to his chest, closing his eyes. Deep, heaving sobs shook his thin body as he mourned the loss of so very much; friends, fellow soldiers, his innocent belief in the rightness and kindness of his world, his faith. Rolling onto his side, curled around the sacred tome, he sobbed until he fell into an exhausted sleep, blanketed by the warmth of a young nurse’s compassion.
He’d sent a thank-you note to Natalie from Boston, in care of the Army Medical Corps, but never knew if it had reached her. On each trip to San Francisco, he thought of her, once even asking a nurse he’d met at the Cattlemen’s Ball if she knew a Natalie Marshall. He’d stood outside the Pinkerton Agency for several minutes deliberating hiring them to seek her out, then walked away, shaking his head at himself, sure she was long married and probably wouldn’t even remember him amid the hundreds of soldiers she had nursed.
But he would never forget her.
Even now, the memory brought a spark of tears to Scott’s eyes. Natalie had opened his heart to the possibility of renewed faith. Not the innocent, trusting faith of his youth, but a rougher, yet somehow sturdier, faith that had given him the courage to confront his father and welcome the marvelous whirlwind that was his little brother into his life. As he summoned a prayer for his fledgling family, he did so seeking comfort, strength, and connectedness. A warmth descended on him.
Yes, Natalie, I do feel His tears.
Sam and Val arrived just before sunset. Val’s relief at seeing Johnny, not only still alive but looking better than when he’d left, was palpable. Equally evident, was both men’s horror at seeing Murdoch’s state. At Johnny’s insistence, Sam examined Murdoch first.
Val picked up on Sam’s hesitance to examine Murdoch in front of him and excused himself to take care of the horses. Scott offered to go with him, as he hadn’t tended to the Lancer horses yet, having been afraid to leave Johnny alone with Murdoch.
The cold air felt heavenly to Scott after the heavy warmth and closeness of bodies in the cabin. Val apologized for taking so long. The deep snow had fettered his progress for the first two hours, although it dropped off significantly once he entered the valley by Lone Rock, and was non-existent by the time he reached Green River. Sam wasn’t there. He was at the McMurtry’s ranch, caring for their 20 year old son, Randy, who’d been shot by a cattle rustler. As much as Sam desperately wanted to be able to go to Johnny and Murdoch, he couldn’t in good conscience leave Randy until the boy’s condition stabilized. Val understood it, and even reluctantly agreed with it, but he’d paced the floors in unison with Chet McMurtry, waiting for the boy to turn the corner.
He’d also used the time to ride to Lancer to pick up the buckboard and Linda, a slender but well-muscled mare who could both pull the buckboard with several people aboard, and be a perfect mount for Sam’s bad hip to tolerate riding. They’d left the buckboard at the edge of the valley and ridden Linda and Renegade through the snow to the cabin.
Scott caught Val up on all that had happened since he’d been gone, seeing the sheriff’s bearded jaw clench when he got to the part about Johnny insisting on caring for Murdoch, and how bad it had been.
“I wish just once that boy would think about himself before jumping headlong into the bear’s cave. He ain’t got no business taking care of Murdoch with him being as wrecked up as he is. Especially with the old man bashing on him the way he has been. Sorry, Scott, I know Murdoch’s your father too…”
Scott waved a forgiving hand as he set a wheelbarrow down in preparation for mucking the stalls of the horses he’d sent out to play. Charlie refused to go out. Not feeling up to battling with the stubborn horse when it wasn’t a necessity, Scott secured him to the grooming tie ring, and worked around him.
“And I’m as angry with him as you are. I’m only allowing it because it’s important to Johnny.”
“Murdoch damn well better appreciate it.” Val shook out Linda’s snow-caked blanket before hanging it on a rail. “I’ll clean out and restart the stove.”
“I don’t think the horses need it; it’s nowhere near as cold as it was before the snow started.”
Val snorted. “I’m starting it for me. No way I’m staying in the cabin with your old man. I’d punch him before an hour was gone. Besides, I don’t suspect it’ll be long before your brother makes a visit out here to see his compadre. And I’m talking Barranca not me.”
True to Val’s prediction, Johnny joined him in the barn less than two hours later, bringing a plate of beef, potatoes, and carrots from the massive basket of food Maria and Teresa had packed onto the buckboard along with bandages, blankets, and clean clothes.
“Did Sam say you could come out here?” Val sat on a crate near the newly-fueled stove to tuck into his meal. He was famished.
Johnny frowned at him from where he was treating Barranca to one of the carrot ends Teresa had thoughtfully sent out for that purpose. “If I wasn’t so grateful to you for riding to get Sam, I’d dump that lunch in your lap.”
Val grunted. “Sam tell you why we took so long?”
“Mmm hmm. I’m glad Randy’s okay, he’s a nice kid. But I’m also relieved Sam’s here. The hallucinations and seizures Murdoch’s been having are pretty terrifying.” Much to Barranca’s displeasure, Johnny doled out carrot scraps to the other horses, except Charlie, who turned up his muzzle at the offering.
“I think that horse believes he was born in Boston,” Val joked. “Too refined for carrot tops.”
“He sure wouldn’t last long there in winter with the way he hates the snow.” Johnny gave the horse an affectionate ear scratch. “But he’s a good mount for Scott, strong, calm, smart.”
“Kinda like Scott himself.”
“Yeah.” Johnny took his time with each of the horses before joining Val as the sheriff put down his empty plate and poured himself some coffee.
“You up to drinking coffee yet?”
“Not your coffee.”
“Smart ass. So what did Sam say about that pain in yer side?”
“It’s gone again so he doesn’t really know, thinks it may be related to something inside reacting when one of the sores is festering. Looking back, that makes some sense. He just said to be sure to let him know if it comes back. Course with the way he pokes those hands of his all the way to my backbone, he woulda popped anything swelling in there.”
“Not like there’s much distance between yer front and backbone. You eat any of the fine food Maria and Teresa sent?”
“Some potatoes, a little bit of meat. Gotta work my way up if I don’t want to be fighting Murdoch for the chamber pot.”
Val squirmed himself into a somewhat comfortable position against the barn wall. “What did Sam say about him?”
“That he never thought he’d get this bad. He gave him some chloral hydrate to settle his tremors and his stomach, and to make him sleep. He said it may even hold off another seizure. Although, he thinks Murdoch may have passed the worst of it.” Johnny played with the rowel of his spur. “I sure hope so. Between the puking and him seeing bugs and bats, I’ve been afraid his heart was gonna give out.”
“Murdoch Lancer is a tough old bastard. It’s gonna take a lot more than a few creepy crawlers and an upset stomach to do him in.”
Johnny pulled out a piece of straw that was stuck along the seam of his boot. “Not right now, he ain’t, Val. I tell you, I never thought I’d see Murdoch scared of nothing, but when he’s caught up in these hallucinations… whew! I was a little afraid at first that he’d be fighting at ‘em and catch me in the crossfire. But, it ain’t like that at all. He’s just plum scared, and nothing I say or do helps him feel any better.”
A part of Val felt Murdoch deserved that fear, after pushing Johnny into a situation where he had to relive one of his greatest fears with Thatcher. “Hopefully, the medicine will help. Maybe you can get some sleep too. It looks like it’s been a long time since you’ve seen the inside of your eyelids. Ol’ Toby’s all settled in and would be happy for the company.”
Johnny smiled with affection as he glanced over toward Toby’s stall. “Another time, I’m afraid, Toby. I gotta get back in. You gonna camp out here?”
“Yup, a bit crowded in there, noisy too. Plus, I don’t think Murdoch would like knowing I’d seen him… not at his best.”
“That’s mighty considerate of you, Val.” Johnny rose with an unconscious grimace and carefully stretched. “If you change your mind or need anything, just holler. I’ll bring you out supper… and Teresa sent chocolate cake.”
“Now, that’s an offer I can’t refuse. Maybe I’ll keep Toby company. He does make a pretty soft pillow.”
“See you later.” Johnny hesitated at the barn door. “Thanks again for going for Sam. I know it was a hard ride and…” he looked down at the dirt floor for a beat before raising his eyes, “…and I know you were worried being away from me. But Murdoch is a lot sicker than Sam thought he’d get, and us stranding him out here without a doctor coulda cost him his life. I don’t know that I could’ve forgiven myself if that happened.”
Val wanted to say that it hadn’t been Murdoch he’d gone for Sam for, and that, to his mind, Murdoch deserved anything his unrestrained drinking brought him. Instead, he said, “De nada, hijo, get some sleep while he does.”
Johnny lay in his bed, enjoying the feel of the cool sheets and soft mattress. They’d been home for a week now, but waking up to the wonderful sensations was still novel, and worth a few extra moments of enjoyment. It was barely dawn, yet he could already hear Maria’s breakfast preparations in the kitchen below. He needed to get moving or she’d be hustling up with a tray, wanting him to stay in bed. Her maternal fussing had felt wonderful for exactly one day. Now, he jumped up to wash and dress quickly. Once she fed him in bed, he was doomed to his room for a morning of over-protective hovering.
He washed, shivering from the cold water, then pulled on his cut-off long johns and pants, so he’d at least be decent if he lost the race of getting downstairs before Maria made it up. He slid his shirt on, too, but didn’t button it, needing to shave first. Neither Maria nor Teresa had been allowed to see his back, and he wanted to keep it that way. Scott helped him with the two lash marks that still needed dressings.
As he lathered the shaving bar between his hands, Johnny smiled. His hands had finally healed, no longer needing Nanny Rose’s cream. He made a mental note to have Mr Baldemero order more from Boston, to replace all he’d used of Scott’s. Of course, he’d have to sneak into his brother’s room to see the real name of the cream or the order wouldn’t get very far.
Peering at himself in the mirror as he shaved, Johnny was pleased to see his scalp was no longer visible through his hair. It would be weeks still before it was the length he liked, but it was better than the sad layer of fuzz that hadn’t covered the scars when he’d first seen himself in the bureau mirror at Sam’s. His face still looked hollow to him, and apparently to everyone else who continually pushed him to eat and sleep.
Although his ribs and shoulder blade still pained him when he moved too quickly or tried to lift anything, he overall felt pretty well, and was anxious to have everyone stop worrying about him.
He worried about his brother almost as much as Scott worried about him. With Murdoch locked away in his room, sober but gone from the family in an entirely different way than when he was drinking, the running of the ranch fell to Scott. Cipriano helped tremendously, managing the crews day to day, giving Scott insight into the needs and priorities of Lancer. Johnny wasn’t allowed to help in any way. At first he bucked against the restrictions, not wanting Scott to have to go it alone, but he soon realized his protests were actually adding to Scott’s stress. So, instead, he kept his big brother company as he toiled with the books or agonized over contracts.
Murdoch had kept much of the financial management of the ranch close to his vest in the early months after Pardee’s attack. With the brothers more focused on learning to be ranch hands than on being partners, they’d allowed it, figuring Murdoch would loosen the reins once they showed they had solid knowledge of ranching and commitment to the future of Lancer. Murdoch had relaxed his guard somewhat with Scott, by showing him the books, although rearing back when Scott suggested a more modern method of book-keeping. To Johnny, he gave mixed messages, pushing him verbally to get more involved with the business end of things, but then balking if Johnny made any type of suggestion or showed any interest in the books.
Johnny wished he’d pushed harder. At the time, he felt he was walking a very fine line with Murdoch, never quite meeting his fathers high, and sometimes unattainable, expectations, with the threat of being banished from the ranch and his family always dangling over his head. He’d thought he’d struck a decent balance by the eight-month mark, accepting most of Murdoch’s rules, trying to learn from Murdoch’s criticisms instead of becoming incensed by them, working his tail off from dawn to after dark.
Then Thatcher came.
And it all fell apart.
Johnny shook himself, not wanting to go down the path of thinking about Thatcher who was still being held in San Antonio, while authorities there worked out scheduling trials in Visalia and Los Encinos. In an interesting turn of events, Carlton Bray, Murdoch’s friend and the man who had originally recommended Thatcher to the Cattlemen’s Association Board, had tried to stake bail for Thatcher. Luckily, two wise Pinkerton agents had linked Bray to the money Thatcher had stolen from the ranchers and farmers. So instead of freeing his friend and benefactor, Bray found himself in jail in Yuma. The same detail that would be moving Thatcher from San Antonio to trial, would be stopping in Yuma to pick up Bray. Not only were the two bounty hunters who had captured Thatcher going to be part of the detail, Val was leaving in three days to join them.
There was no way Thatcher would escape those three men.
Johnny quickly dried his face, buttoned his shirt, and sat on the edge of his bed to put on his socks and boots. Familiar footfalls moved down the hall, stopped in front of his door, then quietly opened it to peer inside.
“Boston, you’ve acquired some bad habits… not knocking before entering my room, tsk, tsk!” Johnny grinned as he got to his feet.
“I was hoping you might still be asleep and I didn’t want to wake you.” Scott sounded and looked tired. Johnny knew he wasn’t sleeping well.
“Nope, I’m trying to get downstairs before Maria can decide I need breakfast in bed. Come on, we’re cutting it close.” Johnny looped his arm around Scott’s shoulder, stifling a grimace as his ribs twinged.
“I wanted to take a look at your back…”
“Later. I plan on working up a sweat braiding leather, oiling saddles, and bugging the living daylights out of Jelly. I’ll need a bath before dinner after all that hard work, and you can look all you want.. at my back that is. The rest, I’ll save for the ladies.”
Scott laughed. “You’ll need to save up a long time to have anything worth showing them, little brother.”
Johnny gave Scott a playful shove into the back stairs bannister. “Jealousy does not become you, brother.” He trotted down the stairs and right into Maria’s harsh glare.
“What are you doing out of bed?!” A string of angry Spanish followed, which Johnny tried to mitigate with some gentle Spanish of his own. Scott picked up something about being too hungry and biscuits, as Johnny deftly nabbed one off the warming plate. He was rewarded with a sharp smack of Maria’s spoon across the back of his hand.
“Oww! Not my hand, Mamacita!” Johnny howled, tucking his wounded knuckles under his arm as he quickly scooted into his chair to get his butt out of her range, too. “It already hurts from all the book work Scott is making me do. Hours, Mamacita. You saw he had me in the great room for hours yesterday.”
“I saw you pacing the great room for hours yesterday, driving your poor brother crazy.” Maria admonished, onto his game. “I did not once see a pencil in your hand.”
Johnny was pleased to see the relaxed smile that graced Scott’s face. He affected a pout, secretly reveling in the conversation going right where he hoped it would. “Fine then, I’ll go out to the barn, and leave Scott to his paperwork. Jelly will be happy to see me.”
“Doubtful, brother, doubtful.”
Breakfast was relaxed, and the morning passed quickly in the barn, despite Jelly’s blustering and nitpicking. Johnny was frustrated to find he was so tired by lunch, he knew he’d have to lie down for a while or risk falling on his face. He ambled into the great room, where Scott was predictably up to his elbows in paperwork at Murdoch’s desk, and plopped down on the couch.
“Hey, Boston, you’re gonna be as white as them papers you got your nose in if ya don’t get out into the sun.”
“Johnny, these contracts have to get done,” Scott groused without raising his head. “It’ll take two days just to get them to Cross Creek.”
Johnny rubbed a blotch of dirt off his wrist. “I could help, you know,” he said quietly. “I can read.”
Scott looked up, then sighed and tossed his pencil down onto the papers. He came around the desk and sank down beside his brother on the couch. “I’m sorry, Johnny. Of course I know you can read… and do math. That’s not why I haven’t let you help me. You need to be resting.”
“Boston, I’ve been resting so much, I’m about to turn to stone. You need to take a break before your head explodes all over those fancy contracts and makes them hard to read.”
Scott chuckled, massaging his temples with the thumb and middle finger of his left hand. “I have to admit, the exploding brain thing is not too far-fetched.”
The sound of a door unlocking and heavy footfalls in the upstairs hallway silenced them both. The water closet door closed. After a bit, the rush of water flushing preceded the sounds of footfalls returning up the hall, and the heavy door was closed and relocked.
“The ghost of Lancer lives…” Johnny muttered, slouching down until he could rest his head against the back of the couch.
For a long while, the ticking of the grandfather clock was the only sound in the room.
Johnny opened his eyes, patting Scott on the leg. “Go take Charlie out for a long ride. I’ll wade through the contracts.”
“I appreciate the offer, brother, but it doesn’t make sense for you to start from scratch when I’ve been wrestling with them all morning.”
“I tell you what,” Johnny proposed. “You go for a ride. Check on the crew out by Red Rock, if it makes you feel better to be doing something ranch-related. I’ll read through the contracts before I go in for my beauty nap and bath. You can check out my back and any other part of my anatomy you’re interested in, then after supper, you and I can talk about the contracts over the apple pie Maria is making.”
Scott’s eyebrow perked up at that. “Apple pie?”
“Mmm hmm, your favorite.”
“Well, isn’t that sweet of her.” Scott’s lips lifted into a smile. “Hard to pass up a deal like that. I guess Red Rock does need checking this afternoon.” He got up, leaned over the desk to pick up the pencil which he tossed at Johnny’s chest. “Enjoy, brother.”
Johnny listened by the closed door of his bedroom, until he heard Murdoch making his way down the hall for his after-breakfast trip to the water closet. As soon as the water closet door closed and locked, he slid across the hallway into Murdoch’s bedroom. As he passed, he snatched the key out of the inside door lock.
The air in the room was dark, hot, and foul, apparently bathing hadn’t been a part of Murdoch’s water closet routine. Johnny crossed and opened the curtains, and then both windows. After a brief hesitation, he dropped the key down into one of Teresa’s rose bushes. He proceeded to strip the bed and gather up the dirty clothes strewn about, and, holding them well away from his body, as well as holding his breath, he tossed them out the window, too.
The fresh basin of water Teresa had brought up that morning, like every morning, remained on the floor in the hallway. He brought it into the room, set it on the side table, and brought Murdoch’s shaving gear over to lay beside it. He kept the razor on him though, sliding it carefully under his belt. He knew Murdoch was going to be pissed, he didn’t need to give him any weapons close at hand.
Scott was probably going to be pissed too.
Hell, not probably, definitely pissed.
Johnny had waited until Scott and Teresa had left for church. Maria was off on Sundays, so it was only him and Murdoch left in the house. Initially, Johnny had planned to ask Scott to help him drag Murdoch out of his room. But the bridge at Parsons Creek had let go on Thursday, and Scott and the work crews had toiled for two days straight rescuing or euthanizing cattle, while Johnny could do little more than finish up the contracts they’d agreed on and update the books. Scott didn’t need to add hauling their father out of his bear cave to the mix.
Johnny cleared away half eaten biscuits and several cups of old coffee, placing them on the tray in the hallway. He emptied an overflowing ashtray into the garbage bin, carefully secreting away the jackknife Murdoch used to clean his pipes. As he reached out the window to add a couple of used handkerchiefs to the pile below, the bear roared, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”
Although he’d expected an angry reaction from his father, the sheer volume of Murdoch’s shout made him start. He turned around, and stared.
He almost couldn’t recognize the man in front of him. Murdoch’s hair was almost to his shoulders, and hung in limp, greasy strands which were partially entwined in his scraggly beard. He’d lost more weight, even from the considerable amount he’d lost before arriving at the cabin. His shirt was stained, drooped over bowed shoulders and pouched out across a swollen belly. Murdoch’s massive hands hanging out of his sleeves looked grotesquely large compared to his shrunken body.
“Dios, old man, you look as bad as I did when I got outta prison. And you had the key to your door.”
“Get out of my room!”
“Nope. You’re coming down to Sunday dinner today, if I have to hogtie you and drag you head-thumping down every stair. Your wallowing in self-pity time is over. We need our father back.”
“How dare you!” Murdoch stormed up to Johnny, his fetid breath cascading down onto his son.
Johnny held Murdoch’s murderous gaze. “ No, Murdoch, how dare you? You bring me and Scott here, ask us to fight for your ranch, and then you abandon us… again. Teresa isn’t even two years out from losing her father, and now she’s suffering through losing you to alcohol and whatever the hell this is!” He waved his arm at Murdoch’s room. “Scott is about to fall on his face with exhaustion, trying to run this ranch you said you loved more than anything on God’s green earth. What the hell is going on, Murdoch? Why are you doing this?”
“Leave me alone. What I do is my business.”
“Not when it affects the rest of us. Dios, don’t you care about anybody but yourself anymore?”
Murdoch laughed harshly. “Care about myself? Hardly. You all are better off without me.”
“Scott and I already tried that, remember? It wasn’t so hot for either of us. You’re hurting yourself and us by hiding out here. You’ve got to come back to the world of the living.”
Murdoch slouched down on the side of the bed, not seeming to notice the bare mattress. “I don’t know how. I can’t…” He stared at the floor. “I can’t make it right.”
Johnny frowned, sitting beside his father. “You can’t make what right?”
“Any of it.” Murdoch shrugged slightly. “I’ve turned everyone I loved against me. You all hate me, and I deserve every last bit of your hatred.”
Johnny turned on the bed, grasping his father’s arms. “Murdoch, we don’t hate you. We miss you… We want our father back.”
“He’s dead.” Murdoch spat.
“No he’s not. You’re right here.” Johnny firmly squeezed the once-muscled arms, now atrophied from disuse and malnutrition. “Granted, you aren’t looking so hot at the moment…” he tried to lighten the moment, “but we’re going to change that. Let’s get you shaved and cleaned up. You’ll feel a lot better, believe me.”
Johnny was surprised Murdoch didn’t resist as he led him back down to the water closet. “Sit here while I fill the tub. I was gonna shave you in your room, but the hot water will feel a lot better. Let me just trim off a bit of this length, you’ve got a gold-rush-miner kinda look going on here between the long hair and the beard.”
Johnny kept up a running conversation to Murdoch’s silence. He wasn’t sure what to do, and now wished he’d waited for Scott to be there. He’d expected Murdoch’s anger; he was pretty damn good at dealing with anger. He hadn’t anticipated Murdoch’s despair.
He helped his father strip, averting his eyes to give Murdoch what privacy he could, given the circumstances. After helping him into the tub, Johnny rolled up a towel to put behind Murdoch’s neck. “Relax back and soak for a bit. I’ll go get you some clean clothes.”
He raced back to Murdoch’s room. Despite Murdoch having been locked in his room for ten days of solitude, Johnny was now somehow afraid to leave him alone. He left the door to the water closet open as he dumped dirty clothes out the bedroom window and gathered clean ones. Then he ran downstairs to get clean sheets and towels. Murdoch drowsed in the tub while Johnny remade his bed and even while Johnny shaved him and cut some length off of his hair. The only time Johnny had shaved another man was after Val was shot one time in New Mexico. That was a long time ago, and he’d left a few nicks behind in the process. He was reminded of Scott’s story about the effects of Niles’ nerves on his face during their first shave, which prompted a small smile, and a quick prayer for a better outcome for Murdoch.
Luckily, the act was completed without bloodshed. With much prompting and a little help, Murdoch got washed and out of the tub. Getting him dressed almost killed them both. Murdoch might have lost a lot of weight, but he still outweighed Johnny by quite a bit, and the height difference made the process quite precarious.
“Scott and Teresa should be back soon, let’s get you downstairs and I’ll bring you some of the lemonade Maria made up. Teresa put in a roast before they left, and my mouth is watering for it.”
“I want to go to bed.” Murdoch spoke for the first time in over an hour.
“I know the feeling,” Johnny groaned, not giving in to Murdoch’s efforts to turn them into his room. “Grab onto the bannister there, Murdoch. Neither of us needs to go tumbling down these stairs.”
Johnny’s ribs, shoulder blade, and back were screaming from the pressure of Murdoch’s weight against them, but he was determined to get his father down the stairs safely. “There you go…ouch!” He couldn’t help but cry out as he levered Murdoch into his big leather chair, and practically fell in on top of him. Panting in pain, he unraveled Murdoch’s arm from around his shoulder, and straightened with a groan. “I’ll get that lemonade.”
Johnny retrieved the drinks, and physically settled one into Murdoch’s hand. “Give it a taste, I think Maria outdid herself on this batch.” He guided Murdoch’s hand, steadying it so his father could drink. “Good, huh?”
Murdoch cast his dull gaze on the untended fireplace. “I don’t want to see anyone. Take me back upstairs.”
“I don’t think either one of us has a trip up that set of stairs left in us. We’re best off to stay down here. Besides, Scott and Teresa will be happy to see you, especially looking as spiffy as you do.”
He hoped Scott and Teresa would be happy to see Murdoch up. He likewise hoped Scott wouldn’t kill him for having done it by himself.
As the grandfather clock struck one, Johnny heard the carriage coming down the road from the arch. He listened to the polite exchange as Mateo offered to take care of the horse and carriage. As the door opened, he heard Teresa say, “I’ll move the vegetables over onto the stove. Dinner should be ready in about half an hour.” She hustled down the hall to the kitchen.
Murdoch’s expression did not change at the sound of Teresa’s voice, but Johnny watched his eyes go to the liquor cabinet.
Dios! I never thought about all the liquor down here! I never should have brought him to the great room. I’m lucky as hell he didn’t grab any while I was getting the lemonade.
He silently positioned himself so he was blocking Murdoch’s view. The elder man’s gaze dropped to the floor.
Scott stepped into the great room. “Yes, brother, thank you, a drink would be welcome to wash away the road dust. I hope you’ve been toiling… what the hell is he doing down here?!”
Johnny was as surprised by Scott’s curse as Scott was to see their father sitting slouched in his favorite chair. Murdoch started to rise.
“I’ll go back upstairs…”
“No, Murdoch, you’ve closed yourself off for far too long. Sit down… please.” Johnny stepped toward their father and put gentle downward pressure on his arm. Murdoch sank down bonelessly. Johnny made no move to get Scott’s requested drink. “Murdoch needed a change of scenery. Come in and have a seat, brother. You can tell us all about the town gossip you heard at church.”
Scott’s posture was rigid as he stood frozen in the archway, his dress gloves clasped in a tight fist.
“We were just having a glass of Maria’s wonderful lemonade,” Johnny tried to push past the awkward moment, uncertain if Scott was going to walk away, or let loose on Murdoch. Of course, getting Scott lemonade meant leaving his father and brother alone, something he felt was not the best idea.
“John Lancer!” Teresa’s infuriated shout got louder as she progressed through the kitchen and down the hallway to the great room. “Explain to me exactly why there are piles of dirty laundry in my garden. Right on top of the rosemary I was planning to pick for the parsnips!” She stopped beside Scott in the archway, arms akimbo, glaring at him, then spotting Murdoch. “Oh, Murdoch, you’ve come downstairs, how wonderful!” She rushed to him and hugged him tightly. Murdoch lifted a hesitant hand to lay upon her bowed head.
“I’m sorry, Teresa, I was just helping Murdoch clean his room a bit. I’ll run out and get them.” Johnny ducked quickly from the room, grabbed a laundry basket from the back room, and quickly gathered up all the laundry, which had scattered remarkably far to his mind. He started back into the hacienda, then set the basket down, and went back to search for the key to Murdoch’s room in the bushes. He gave up after a fruitless and thorn-pricking few minutes. He deliberated picking some rosemary as a peace offering to Teresa, but wasn’t exactly sure which of the dozen green plants it was, and didn’t think he really wanted to eat something that Murdoch’s dirty underwear might have been laying on.
He stowed the laundry basket, started to walk to the great room, remembered the lemonade, and quickly poured glasses for both Scott and Teresa. He found the threesome exactly as he’d left them, Scott still standing in the archway, Teresa at Murdoch’s feet, jabbering away about everything that had happened at church.
“Here we go,” Johnny handed Scott the lemonade. Or tried to. Scott simply stared at him. Johnny leaned into his brother’s shoulder. “Come on, Scott,” he murmured. “We’ve got to start somewhere.”
Scott gave him a look that was half anger, half resignation, but accepted the lemonade. Johnny gave him a little nod, then moved to hand the second glass of lemonade to Teresa.
“Sorry about the mess, Querida, I’ve got it all into the wash basket. And you’ll be very proud of me, I made his bed with clean sheets. Well, maybe you better see what it looks like first. Proud might not be the word you’ll use.”
“Oh thank you, Johnny, thank you!” Teresa jumped up to throw her arms around him, the lemonade sloshing over a bit as he quickly stretched his arm out to the side to save it. He knew she wasn’t thanking him for making Murdoch’s bed, but for bringing him out of his self-imposed exile. He hugged her back one-handed.
Quietly, he said, “It’s still gonna be a long road. We need to be patient.”
She pulled back, meeting his eyes with tears glistening. “I know,” she said solemnly, “but thank you for starting.” She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, then turned to give Murdoch’s arm a squeeze. “I’m going to see to dinner. I’ll put some vinegar into the cabbage, just the way you like it, Murdoch.” She hurried off into the kitchen.
Johnny set her untouched lemonade down on the drink tray, wiping his wet hand off on his pants leg before picking up his own glass. He gave Scott a nudge toward the couch before settling himself on the edge of a chair, creating an uneven circle.
“So…” He looked back and forth between the two stone-faced men. “Teresa has her heart set on us having our first family dinner in months, and I’m thinking none of us wants to disappoint her in that. So, I propose we all commit to pleasant conversation until she leaves for her quilting circle. Then we can let it buck. Agreed?”
Johnny half expected to see smoke rising from the fiery glare Scott had fixed on Murdoch, but his brother gave an abrupt nod. “Agreed.”
Murdoch’s gaze shifted from one spot on the fireplace grate to another, never lifting to look at either of them. Johnny chose to take the slight bend of their father’s head as a nod of agreement.
“Great. So Scott, was there any word on how Randy McMurtry is doing…?”
Scott so wanted a drink.
Not just in fortification for the upcoming discussion, but because it had been his habit to follow a fine meal with a brandy or cognac. And Teresa had prepared a truly fine meal for them. Sadly, none of them had eaten much of it, their stomachs too twisted with anxiety and anger.
A product of his rigidly controlled childhood, Scott found comfort in certain routines: reading before bed, laying out his accoutrements in preparation for a night out, and having a brandy after dinner. These, at least, were the few that translated from life in Boston to that of a California ranch, where every day brought some form of unpredictability and, occasionally, chaos. It both exhilarated and exhausted him. Routine calmed his jangled nerves and renewed his strength for another day.
Johnny barging into his room unannounced in the morning, touching Scott’s things, moving them ever so slightly from their prearranged spots, had gone from being one bit of that daily chaos to being a comforting routine, one he had missed so dearly when Johnny was away.
As his eyes lifted from the brandy decanter to his brother’s blue eyes, Johnny gave him a quick grin and a “yeah, me too” nod before handing Scott a substitute coffee, and taking his own over by the fire he had just stoked. Murdoch was in his chair again, silent, remote. Scott carried his coffee to the couch, and sat down.
Silence descended like a heavy fog.
Clearing his throat, Scott looked to Murdoch. “Perhaps it would be helpful, sir, for you to begin.”
Murdoch didn’t immediately respond. Scott could feel anger seething through his pores, and took in a slow steadying breath, calling upon his military and social training to contain it. It flared when Murdoch mumbled, “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
But it was Johnny who responded, his voice low and steady. “Well, old man, it doesn’t mean much if we have to put the words into your mouth.”
Murdoch frowned, his gaze still averted.
“You’ve shown you don’t need me to run the ranch. Do you expect me to leave?”
“No,” Scott forced his tone to be civil. “That has never been a thought. You’ve made some poor decisions that have adversely affected the ranch, and more importantly, our family. We need to work through that, and find a way to move forward.”
“So it’s all on my shoulders?”
“We wouldn’t all be here if it was, Murdoch,” Johnny argued. “We all gotta work together.”
Another silence fell.
“I’ll begin then,” Scott ventured, hoping his tenuous hold on his temper lasted. He set his coffee cup on the side table. “You have treated Johnny abominably, even before your alcohol consumption became problematic. You owe him an apology, and assurances that those reprehensible behaviors won’t be repeated.”
Murdoch shot a look at Johnny. “Is that what you think, too?”
“I’m not sure about all the words Scott used, but if he said you were a mean drunk, and haven’t been a bowl of cherries sober either, then, yeah, I do.”
“I won’t be spoken to with such disrespect!” Murdoch growled.
“Like I said that first day we met, respect is earned,” Johnny countered. “For a while there, you had mine. I believed that you didn’t throw me and Mama out, and I saw the fair way you treat the men, and how good you are with Teresa. It’s clear you worked your tail off to build this ranch, despite the raw deal you got losing two wives and both sons. I thought we were starting to figure out this family thing. But the way you reacted about Thatcher…” He perched on the arm of an overstuffed chair, his head bowed for a moment as he struggled to find the words. “… it shook me.”
“But you wouldn’t tell me anything I could use!” Murdoch tossed back. “You walked out before the man even presented his plan. How could you expect me to vote against something the entire valley needed, just because the man used to be a gambler? We asked our neighbors to forgive your past as a gunfighter, yet you couldn’t forgive his as a gambler.”
Scott saw Johnny pale and knew the words ‘forgive your past’ had hit hard.
“I couldn’t tell you…” Johnny whispered, his eyes averted.
“Then how are you angry at me for not understanding?” Murdoch lurched out of his chair, pointing an accusatory finger at Johnny’s chest.
Scott stood and moved between them. “Resume your seat, sir.” He didn’t raise his voice, but his posture and tone brooked no argument.
After a long glare, Murdoch turned and moved away, but did not sit down. He stood at the sideboard, staring at the bottles of liquor. Scott held his breath to see if Murdoch reached for one.
Finally, Murdoch turned back. “I don’t see where this hashing over the past is going to get us.”
Scott remained standing. Even knowing Johnny was well capable of fighting for, and defending, himself, the big brother in him still saw Johnny’s vulnerability on the topic of Thatcher, and chose to be a physical barrier between father and son. “Murdoch, you convinced yourself that Johnny not only was in league with Thatcher’s treachery, but somehow also with Pardee’s, and that he’d chosen to leave Lancer permanently to return to gunfighting. Your excessive alcohol intake cemented that warped reasoning in your mind, and no amount of proof from any of us could sway your belief. You need to convince us that you recognize the errors in your thinking, or else the past is very much still in our present.”
Murdoch rubbed his face briskly. “Alright, alright. I’ll admit my thinking was out of line. But again, the reports I had at the time from Clayton Bray of Johnny Madrid being in multiple gunfights certainly seemed to support it.”
Johnny eased himself into the seat of the chair, one leg still over the arm, looking around Scott at Murdoch. “Don’t you think it’s too big a coincidence that the exact same man who recommended Thatcher to you was the one slanting the stories about those gunfights against me? Do you know Bray tried to use money Thatcher stole from those people down south to spring Thatcher from jail? Now he’s gonna be facing the judge right by that cobarde’s side.”
“Are you sure?” Murdoch looked to Scott.
“Why are you always so willing to believe anybody but me, old man?” Johnny challenged. “I get that I didn’t help the situation by not telling you everything about Thatcher. But I trusted that you were doing what you believed was right. I knew I had to give you something to work with. That’s why I left. Why couldn’t you have trusted me to be doing the same thing?”
“Because for you, doing what you think is right usually involves shooting people!”
Before Scott could fire back at the unfairness of the accusation, Johnny spoke, very quietly. “Is that really what you think of me?”
Scott was shocked that there wasn’t an ounce of Madrid in evidence. Murdoch actually seemed taken aback by the almost plaintive question. His rigid shoulders slumped a bit. “No, I… “ He grimaced a bit as he glanced at Johnny, then quickly looked away from the hurt in his young son’s eyes. “But you ran off with Wes when you didn’t get your way with the horses…”
“Will you make me pay for that mistake forever, old man? How come you only seem to remember that I left, and completely forget that I came back?” Johnny got up from the chair. “You never want to talk about the past, yet you throw mine in my face every time you get the chance. I ain’t saying that there aren’t parts of my past I ain’t proud of or I wouldn’t change, but they are what they are and they’re part of who I am. I thought for a while there…” He moved to the picture window, gazing out at the arch, his words becoming soft, aching. “I knew you hated a lot of it, but I thought you’d gotten to the point… where you didn’t hate me for it anymore.”
Murdoch’s head shot up. “I never hated you.”
“Hard to tell.” Johnny murmured, without turning around.
Scott ached to say something to ease his brother’s pain. But he knew there was only one person who had any hope of doing that. He prayed Murdoch had it in him.
Murdoch moved to the other side of the window. “You’re right that I’ve struggled to come to terms with your life as a gunfighter. But as much as I hate that you lived it, it’s not you I hate. It’s me, for not having been there when you needed me, for not making things work with your mother…” The gray head bowed. “…for not bringing you home when you were fifteen. Every time I see Madrid in you, I get so angry… and scared. You remind me so much of your mother…” A large hand reached up to touch the cool pane of glass, as if able to reach back to catch a long ago memory. “Your mother was all fire and fury in our first couple of years together. I never needed to guess at what she was thinking or feeling, it was in her eyes, her voice, her temper. Just what I saw in your eyes that first day.”
Scott grimaced, remembering the comment Murdoch had made about Johnny having his mother’s temper. Not exactly a warm welcome.
“But those last few months, her fire had tempered and the fury softened. I thought she was happy, settled. And then she was gone.” His fingers drew into a fist. “And you with her.”
Johnny had his arms crossed over his chest, his left shoulder leaning against the window casing, studying his father’s face. “So you mean when I was working so hard tryin’ not to buck you on everything, I was scaring the bejesus outta you because you thought I was getting ready to leave, too?”
Murdoch’s eyes tracked to his son’s. “Yes, Johnny, I think so.”
“Pfftt, all that hard work for nothing.” Johnny cocked a grin at Scott. “Hear that brother? I woulda been better off keeping on butting heads with the old man than tryin’ to get along.”
Scott managed a smile. “Perhaps so, brother, but I’m not sure how well my nerves would have fared if the two of you had kept at it.”
Johnny nodded, moving back to the mantel to take a sip of his now-cold coffee. He made a face, setting the cup back down. “And I know I don’t wanna go back to that, every day thinking it was gonna be the one you told me to leave and never come back.”
“Did you really think I’d do that? I brought you home. I gave you a third of Lancer.”
“You needed my gun for Pardee. And my third of Lancer means nothing for three more years.”
“That’s not true. You’re a full partner in the ranch. The fact that you’re still a minor is just a technicality.”
“That’s not what you were threatening at the cabin.”
It was clear Murdoch remembered little if any of their time at the cabin. Scott felt it an appropriate time to rejoin the conversation.
“If that’s truly how you feel, sir, we should amend the agreement to put Johnny’s share into an irrevocable trust.”
“What’s that?” Johnny asked.
“It’s a way of promising that your share can’t be taken away from you under any circumstances, even while you’re still a minor.” Scott could see the resistance building in Murdoch’s expression, and braced for an argument.
But as quickly as Murdoch’s ire flared, it calmed again, and he nodded, sinking down into his chair. “We can talk with Randall about it.”
Scott glanced at Johnny. His younger brother quickly picked up that there was more coming, even though he had no idea what it was. Johnny also came back to sit down, but on the very edge of the chair, both feet braced on the floor. Scott settled himself as well, although his churning stomach was anything but settled.
“And while we’re amending the agreement, we need to remove the section about you having final decision making.”
Even as he watched their father rear up in protest, Scott noted Johnny’s lifted eyebrow and proud-little-brother smile.
“Absolutely not!” Murdoch roared. “You boys don’t have the experience to be able to run the ranch without my oversight and guidance. I won’t put Lancer at risk of you teaming up against me to do some foolish new thing. I’m the one who made this ranch what it is. Maybe in five years, we can consider that change. Johnny will have made his majority, and you’ll have a better understanding of how things work and the financials.”
“Oh, I believe I’ve already gotten an excellent understanding of our financials, sir.”
“Don’t ‘sir’ me when you’re making such a disrespectful suggestion! You think that after two weeks of doing the books, you’re ready to run this place?” Murdoch gave a sarcastic laugh. “You don’t know the first thing about it!”
“Perhaps not,” Scott’s voice in turn was level. “But Cipriano is an excellent teacher. He’s done a fine job of running the ranch these last seven months while you abdicated all responsibility to him and then made yourself totally unavailable under a blanket of scotch whiskey.”
“How dare you!” This time when Murdoch lunged up out of his chair, it was Johnny who put himself between father and son.
“Now calm down, Murdoch. You’ve gotta admit Scott is speaking the truth. I’ve watched Scott work his fingers to the bone, staying up til all hours of the night, while you were hiding out up in your room. We could always ask Cipriano to come in to help refresh your memory about how things were before we got home.”
Murdoch huffed his air out, a modicum of control filtering back in. “I can admit that I was not in good shape when I believed that you ran out on me and then your brother followed, so yes, I put too much of a burden on Cipriano, for which I plan to compensate him handsomely. But I take exception to your assertion that just because I needed two weeks to recuperate from our ordeal at the cabin, you suddenly think you’re in a position to run this ranch without me!”
“Murdoch, you tried to give the ranch away to Teresa!” Scott flared. “You told everyone who would listen that you didn’t care what happened to it. How can you expect us to have confidence that won’t happen again? You can’t tie our hands like that by insisting on your “I call the tune” clause.”
“I was drinking then, right or wrong given the circumstances, but that’s done. I’m sober now.”
“You’re not drinking right now.” Scott amended stiffly. “That’s not the same thing as being sober.”
“So now you’re going to play your Harvard word-games with me?” Murdoch snarled.
Scott gritted his teeth so tightly, his jaw popped. He needed to put some distance between them to control his anger. He stood and crossed to the window by the dining room table and looked out into the front yard. Aside from the horses in the paddock and a couple of Teresa’s chickens that had escaped the coop, the yard was free of activity. The men who weren’t home with families were playing cards in the bunkhouse or horseshoes out of sight behind the barn. He breathed in and out slowly and deeply, tamping down his knee-jerk reaction, trying to regain control.
Behind him, he heard Johnny speaking quietly and calmly to Murdoch, using the same tone he would soothe a rampaging stallion. “No one’s saying we wanna run the ranch without you. We didn’t go through all that ugly at the cabin because we were looking to dump you in a ditch somewhere. We want you healthy and working with us. This drinking thing isn’t gonna just disappear Murdoch.”
“It’s already gone. I haven’t had a drink in two weeks.”
“Really? So we need to be worried that it was Teresa who drank up the bottle of twenty year old scotch that had been sitting on the top shelf of the pantry awaiting a special occasion? Or maybe Maria?”
Scott spun around at that. “You’re kidding me.” But he could see by the look on Murdoch’s face that he wasn’t. “Dammit, Murdoch, what the hell? You almost killed yourself with your drinking, and then almost killed the two of us trying to get you sober, and you’ve been sneaking alcohol all this time?”
“I won’t tolerate you berating me like an errant child.” Murdoch pulled himself up to his impressive height, although he no longer looked like the “walking mountain” Johnny referred to him as, given alcohol’s wasting effect on his body. “Yes, I’ve had a few drinks to help me sleep. I haven’t drunk to excess. I can control it, which proves my point that it’s no longer a problem.”
“You’re sneaking drinks in the middle of the night while you’re pretending to be sober, and you don’t see that as a problem?” Scott challenged.
“The only reason I snuck drinks was to avoid this exact attitude. I’m perfectly willing to drink in front of you to prove it’s no longer a problem.” Murdoch moved to the side bar, set out a glass, then reached for the decanter of scotch. Scott watched the show in silent fury, part of him poised to intervene, to lay down the same rules as he had at the cabin, to do something to prevent the downward spiral he saw unfolding. The other part was too exhausted and discouraged to move.
It was Johnny who took a step forward, although he made no effort to stop Murdoch as their father lifted the glass to his lips, savoring his first swallow of the fiery liquid.
Murdoch swung on him, prepared for a battle. Johnny held his father’s eyes as if the glass of scotch a few inches below didn’t exist. “Upstairs, when I asked you to come back to us, you said you couldn’t, that you didn’t know how to make it right. What did you mean?”
Johnny’s soft-spoken question froze Murdoch more solidly than any demand or argument. His hand holding the glass slowly sank away from his lips.
“I… I don’t remember…”
“You said you’d turned us all against you and you deserved our hatred. You’ve twice said you thought we’d want to turn you out.”
Murdoch’s glass came to rest on the sideboard; he turned away from Johnny, leaning on the solid oak cabinet now with both hands. His head bowed, he spoke unevenly,
“I… know I let things get out of control. I treated you both badly. I don’t blame you for hating me, for wanting me gone.”
“Yet you blame us for wanting to help you stay? We’re here trying to work things out, and you’re biting our heads off. It’s almost as if you want us to tell you to go… Oh.” Johnny lifted his head suddenly, staring at Murdoch’s back as his thoughts clicked. “You’re feeling like how I did when I got here. Afraid my past was going to rear up any minute and you were gonna throw me out. I couldn’t stand the waiting, so I fought you, so you’d just tell me right then to go. That’s it, isn’t it, Murdoch?” He cocked his head, trying to see the edge of Murdoch’s expression. “You know you behaved like an ass. You said and did some things you’re afraid we can’t forgive you for. So you want to fight us, so we’ll toss you out now and get it over with…”
Scott blinked several times, stunned by Johnny’s insight.
“It’s not gonna work, old man,” Johnny pressed on, “just like pushing at me at the cabin, trying to make me run, didn’t work. Scott and I are committed to you and to Lancer. Get that through your thick Scottish skull. We are going to find a way to make this family work, even if we have to drag you kicking and screaming all the way with us. Ain’t that right Scott?”
Scott held his brother’s intense gaze for a long moment before nodding solemnly. “Absolutely.”
Murdoch’s head bowed further. A moment later, his knees started to buckle. Both sons were quickly at his side, ushering him over to his chair. He sat on the edge, his elbows on his thighs, his head in his hands.
“I’ll get some water.” Johnny offered and dashed to the kitchen to do so.
Scott crouched at Murdoch’s side, one hand on his fathers arm. “Do you need to lie down, sir?”
Murdoch shook his head without raising it. Johnny returned with the water. “Here, drink some of this.”
Murdoch only dropped one hand to accept the water. It shook as he drank. The silence in the room was heavy.
Finally, Murdoch dropped his other hand to clutch the glass, his eyes fixed on the water inside.
“You’re right, Johnny,” he admitted hoarsely. “I do feel my actions… and words, especially against you…may be unforgivable.”
Johnny moved to sit cross-legged, directly in front of Murdoch, putting his face right in his father’s line of sight.
“Well, Murdoch, it seems to me, you won’t know until you try.”
Murdoch looked at him with a confused frown.
“I don’t know about Scott, but I’m open to hearing you ask.” Johnny’s eyes tracked to Scott’s, only scant inches away.
Scott exhaled heavily, then also turned his eyes to Murdoch’s. “I am as well, sir.”
Murdoch closed his eyes tightly.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. The following silence could have been him hoping the two soft words were enough. But Scott could see the tension in Murdoch’s jaw, the way his eyes shifted beneath his lids, and knew their father was struggling to find what to say.
When Murdoch’s eyes finally opened, tears glistened. He met Johnny’s patient gaze. “I should have believed you… should have known you wouldn’t ask what you did without good reason. And I should have trusted your commitment to the ranch… to me, to your family.” Johnny gave the slightest nod. Murdoch turned his eyes to Scott. “I should have listened to what you were telling me and should never have stopped you from going after your brother.” The hands on the water glass tightened. “I should have gone with you. I…” He worked his mouth, his head shaking back and forth as he remembered what he’d done instead. A little moan escaped his lips, and he ducked his head away, breathing harshly.
A moment later, he lifted tear-reddened eyes to Johnny’s, then, trembling, one hand to touch his son’s cheek. “You’re my boy, my little dark-haired boy, all grown up. I thought…you didn’t need me anymore… that you never needed me.”
“I did.” Johnny said softly. “I still do.”
Murdoch pressed his lips together, nodding his head. His hand and gaze moved to Scott’s face. “And you, my strong young man, so capable and steady. Of course you could run this ranch, hell, you could run the country. I forced you to be the parent, taking care of your brother, the ranch, me… It was wrong, Scott. I’m sorry… and ashamed.”
Scott felt a flood of emotion bringing tears to his own eyes. He found his voice, husky though it be. “There’s no place for shame in this, Murdoch.”
Murdoch closed his eyes tightly, squeezing tears down his leathered cheeks.
After a bit, he opened his eyes and drank down the rest of his water. Staring at the empty glass, he murmured, “I know I owe you more…much more, but I think I’m going to lie down for a while.”
Johnny took the glass as Scott helped their father up. Murdoch waved away Scott’s silent offer of assistance on the stairs, although he wavered alarmingly as he lifted his foot to the first step. Johnny joined his brother to watch the slow ascent. They listened to the distinctive creak of the floorboards, the sound of the bedroom door latching. In the silence where the turning of the lock used to be, Johnny whispered, “The key is somewhere in Teresa’s rose bush. Perhaps permanently. Those thorns can be pretty nasty, you know.”
The solemnity with which Johnny made the quiet pronouncement struck Scott funny. They were both exhausted and punch-drunk. He laughed, as he flung his arm over his brother’s shoulder. “I won’t tell if you don’t.”
Johnny smiled back. “Brothers’ honor?”
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