Word Count 12,287
Scott was finishing his report to Murdoch on the dammed-up creek just south of Winter’s Pond when a cry of, “Rider coming in!” broke into their conversation. They turned as one to scan the road beyond the gate.
The horse and rider were just barely visible, and certainly in no hurry; the pinto maintained a lazy plod, one that might get the rider to the hacienda by nightfall.
“Can ya see who it is?” Jelly asked, joining them, “Don’t recognize the horse.”
At this distance, the horse’s colored patches were all that could be easily discerned. The body the pinto carried was a study in browns: the hat that shrouded the rider’s face, the jacket, pants, and boots all blended into monochrome.
Until the slouched figure in the saddle moved.
And the smallest sliver of pink peeked out of the open jacket front. Almost simultaneously, the setting sun glinted off a concho on the rider’s pant leg.
“That’s Johnny!” Jelly was the first to put their joint realization into words.
“But that’s not Barranca.” Scott reached for Remmie’s reins, as he’d not yet unsaddled his mount from the workday.
“May not be, but yer blind if ya don’t think that’s Johnny.” Jelly snapped indignantly.
Murdoch put a calming hand on the elder man’s shoulder, even as he gave a nod of approval to Scott’s intent to ride out to meet his brother. “He wasn’t saying it isn’t Johnny,” his voice was very quiet, “But Johnny rode out on Barranca when he went to Pine Peaks.”
It took a moment for Jelly to understand. “Oh Lordy, if somethin’ happened to that horse, it’ll break Johnny’s heart. Do ya think that’s why he’s so late comin’ home?”
“I hope not.” Murdoch’s eyes followed as Scott broke the ‘no galloping in the yard’ rule with his unspoken blessing. Johnny was two days late from his first solo buying and water-rights networking trip to Pine Peaks. Murdoch’s first, and enduring, thought had been that Johnny had hung out in the notoriously rowdy town for a couple extra days of revelry -a belief seemingly reinforced after Jose said his brother heard there’d been trouble at the saloon in Pine Peaks. Murdoch only hoped, if Johnny had been involved in the trouble, he’d gotten the contract for the high-quality lumber they needed for the new bridge signed first.
He hated that he always expected Johnny to revert to his wild ways, yet Johnny’s barely upright posture in the saddle seemed to confirm Murdoch’s suspicions. It was only the absence of Johnny’s beloved horse that edged Murdoch more toward concern than anger.
Scott slowed Remmie to a walk a few strides before meeting up with Johnny. As he pulled up knee-to-knee with his brother, the pinto shied to the side from the nearness to the unfamiliar chestnut. Johnny made no move to rein his horse back alongside.
“Easy,” Scott crooned, reaching for the trailing reins of the skittish horse to settle it. He bent, trying to see Johnny’s face. “Hey, brother, it’s good to see you. Are you doing alright?”
Johnny didn’t raise his head or meet Scott’s eyes. His words were hoarse and barely audible. “I have to get home.”
Scott waited a beat to see if there was more. But the huddled figure didn’t move or speak again.
“Well, it’s good you’re almost there, then.” Scott said gently as he maneuvered Remmie around to head back, still guiding Johnny’s horse. He kept them at the same ambling walk as Johnny had been making, imagining a faster pace might unsettle his brother’s precarious balance in the saddle.
Scott looked for blood.
Spotting some redness on Johnny’s cheek, he reached over to tip his brother’s hat back. There was a strip of raw flesh from Johnny’s temple to his jaw, about an inch wide. The skin along the edges was blistered. It was surrounded by a large bruise. Scott grimaced. “Is this a burn, Johnny?”
Scott realized he could smell the singed leather of Johnny’s jacket. “Where else are you hurt?” He leaned back, attempting to see for himself.
There was no answer. Scott gently nudged the pinto to a slightly faster pace, trusting Remmie to keep close. He kept one hand protectively around Johnny’s elbow, staying him in the saddle.
As they approached the hacienda, Murdoch met them, with Jelly a half-step behind.
“Son?” Murdoch’s eyes narrowed as he peered up at Johnny’s face, settling on glazed blue eyes that quickly drifted closed. Getting no reaction, Murdoch looked to Scott.
“Hold him on while I get down, Murdoch. There was some kind of fire. He has a burn on his cheek and I think one across his back.” Scott waited until Murdoch’s grasp replaced his before dismounting.
“I’ll send one of the boys for the doc.” Jelly announced.
That roused Johnny. “Don’t need a doctor.” He rasped, dismounting in a barely-controlled fall. Scott scrambled around to catch him. “Just bed.”
“I beg to differ, brother, you’re quite shaky here.” Scott lent a guiding hand as Johnny wavered his way up the front step. Up close, the smell of smoke was overpowering. Murdoch nodded at Jelly, who wordlessly hurried off to send Walt for Sam.
Two steps into the house, Johnny stopped and turned. “Need my saddlebags.”
“We’ll bring them upstairs, son.”
But it was clear Johnny wasn’t going to wait for them.
“Hang on, I’ll grab them.” Murdoch went out, pulled the saddlebags off the pinto, and brought them inside.
“Got the contract.” Johnny coughed, as he took the saddlebags and dropped them onto the dining room table, pulling out a badly singed shirt before locating a sheaf of papers. “Don’t know if it’s legal now Granger’s dead, though.”
“Bill Granger is dead?” Murdoch parroted, praying he wasn’t about to hear about a gunfight. “What happened to him?”
Johnny’s expression went blank. “They’re all dead,” he whispered. He looked around the room without seeing anything until his eyes met his brother’s. “All of them.”
Scott took Johnny’s arm, seeing the younger man falter. “In the fire?” he asked gently. The deep blue eyes that looked back were clouded and distant.
“I’m so tired.” It was barely a whisper.
“Let’s get you up to bed, brother.” With a worried look at their father, Scott bore most of Johnny’s weight and carefully helped him up the stairs and into his bedroom. As he followed, Murdoch called out to Maria to bring a basin of water and bandages upstairs.
Scott gently lowered Johnny to sit on the side of the bed. Murdoch removed Johnny’s hat and steadied Johnny by his shoulder as Scott knelt to pull off his boots and socks. There were no visible burns on Johnny’s feet and only the one burn on his temple and cheek.
“We’ll get these gloves off, and then your coat.” Murdoch tugged at the right glove, stopping as Johnny gasped. He got down on one knee, exchanging a look with Scott. “Let me see what’s going on here.”
He gently pulled the wrist of the glove away with one hand as he tugged on the fingers with the other. The glove came off, partially unraveling a bandage below. Gingerly, Murdoch undid the bandage fully, easing it off spots where it clung to open wounds.
The back of Johnny’s hand was bright red, with two deeper burns across his first two knuckles and a third that wound toward his palm between his thumb and forefinger.
“We’ll leave this open for Sam to look at.”
Murdoch nodded at Scott to remove the other glove. As soon as he tried, Johnny cried out and grabbed his hand away.
“Okay, okay. I can see this one is stuck on a bit,” Scott soothed, squeezing Johnny’s shoulder. His eyes directed Murdoch’s to where blotches of dampness were visible on the glove. “We’ll wait for Sam on that one. How about your jacket, Johnny? Can we get it off without hurting you?”
When Johnny gave no protest, Scott stood and gingerly slid the jacket off his brother’s shoulders. The leather was burned through in several spots across Johnny’s back and under his left arm. The shirt below had several damp spots but clearly wasn’t the one Johnny had been wearing in the fire, as it was intact. Scott remembered the tattered remains of a shirt that Johnny had pulled out of his saddlebags downstairs.
Watching Johnny’s face for signs of increasing pain, Scott unbuttoned the shirt and drew it off his shoulders. Again, there were signs Johnny’s injuries had been ministered to, as ragged bandages were wrapped around his chest and over his left shoulder. They were at least two days old; the exudate from the burns had hardened, appearing to be deeply adhered to the wounds below. Scott sucked in his air, glancing at their father. “These are going to have to be soaked off.”
A gasp from behind them marked Maria’s entrance into the room and her first sight of her injured niño. She quickly set the basin of water and tray of bandages onto the bedside table, murmuring in Spanish. Her plump hand reached between Scott and Murdoch to gently tilt Johnny’s head so she could see the burn along his hairline. “Mi pobre chico, que pasa?” (My poor boy, what happened?)
Johnny’s exhausted eyes traveled to hers. “El Diablo vino y trajo el fuego, Mamacita. Quemo todas las almas.” (The devil came and brought the fire, Mama. He burned all the souls.)
Maria glanced in shock and concern toward Murdoch, who shook his head, indicating they still didn’t know the details of what had happened. She soothed, “Estás seguro, ahora, mijo. Cuidaremos de ti.” (You’re safe now, son. We’ll take care of you.) Her eyes were filled with tears as she turned away. “He has fever, Señor. I will get tea, butter, and make a honey/vinegar paste.”
“Thank you, Maria.” Murdoch’s gaze didn’t leave Johnny, who looked haunted and hazy with pain. “Can you tell us what happened, son?”
“The Devil came, Papa.” Johnny whispered, his voice raw.
Murdoch swallowed heavily. Johnny never called him ‘Papa’. “In Pine Peaks?”
Johnny gave a half-nod. “He threw fire from his hands… they were all inside… I tried to shoot him…” His pistol was suddenly in his right hand before they even saw him move. “But he kept coming… screaming… they were all screaming… I couldn’t get them…” He shivered and started coughing.
Scott gently covered his brother’s hand, sliding the gun out. “You don’t need this here, we’ll keep watch. Let me get you some water.”
Johnny tried to drink, but seemed unable to swallow, his hand going to his throat as he coughed and quietly moaned.
“Easy, try a little slower.” Scott was becoming more worried by the minute and wished Sam didn’t live almost an hour away. Johnny was able to choke a few sips of water down while Scott held the glass. His entire body shook with chills. “There, that’s good. Lie back now, and we’ll get you covered over.”
“Let’s get his pants off first,” Murdoch instructed, “make sure he doesn’t have more burns.”
Luckily, there were no other injuries, save one spot on his right hip bone in almost a starburst pattern, appearing as if gunpowder from a bullet in his rig had ignited. As they tried to lie him back, he fought them. “No, no! He’ll come back!”
Murdoch cradled Johnny’s upper body, mindful of the burns. “He’s not going to hurt you, son,” Murdoch crooned, “Scott and I will watch over you.”
“Not me, you!” Johnny forced his way back up, despite the two men’s holds. “He’s mad about the water rights. That’s why he burned them all.”
“The fire must have been the ‘big trouble’ Jose heard about at the saloon,” Murdoch realized aloud, “It’s where they were going to hold the water-rights meeting. My God, there would have been fifty men in there!” He swallowed in horror. “Is that what happened, Johnny, someone started a fire in the saloon?”
Johnny nodded as Scott carefully draped a quilt over him, avoiding his left shoulder. “He threw fire in the door and windows and it jumped right up to the roof. They couldn’t get out… we grabbed a couple but they were already on fire and just burned up in the road… The girls were upstairs…” Both hands covered his ears as if he was still able to hear the screams. “I thought I could get there but it was raining fire down the whole alley.”
“They must have just tarred the roof,” Scott surmised quietly, laying a comforting hand on Johnny’s thigh as he sat beside him. “And it was probably jars of lamp oil he threw inside. They would have ignited the wood walls and boardwalk quickly.” Scott felt sick, recalling how his unit had torched many a plantation during the war with that technique, and the one horrible time the main house hadn’t been as empty as they had believed.
Murdoch gently cupped Johnny’s uninjured cheek. “Why weren’t you inside, son? Thank God you weren’t inside, but why not?”
Johnny glanced at him, then away. “You’re gonna be mad.”
Murdoch raised his eyebrows, then settled them and said, “I’m definitely not going to be mad, son, no matter what you tell me.”
“There were too many people in there, I couldn’t breathe, so Vin Cooper and I went outside to listen by the door. I’d already gotten Granger to sign the contract. I know you said to wait until after the meeting, but I was gonna leave as soon as the vote was over, even had Barranca saddled and waiting.” Johnny’s gaze drifted out the window, remembering. “I heard him ride up. I saw the fire on his hands, but I thought… I thought he was hurt because he was screaming…so I ran over…” Johnny stopped for a coughing fit, “…then I realized he was screaming, ‘all your damn water won’t save you now!’…and he threw the fire… I shot him, right up close like that. It didn’t do anything… emptied my whole fucking gun into him… and he just rode back to hell, laughing.”
By the end, Johnny’s voice was gone and he was taken by another coughing fit. Scott again tried to help him drink, this time holding one of the towels Maria had brought to catch what water Johnny couldn’t swallow. Murdoch kept a hold of Johnny’s unhurt shoulder and moved his chair so his knees braced Johnny’s to keep him from pitching forward off the bed. When Johnny was able to catch his breath again, Murdoch gently asked the dreaded question, “What happened to Barranca, son?”
“An ember caught a piece of his blanket. He’s got a bad burn right where… the cinch would rub. Had to leave him… with Polly Saunders cuz Tate’s gone and no one to do the livery… except his boy who’s only eleven.” His pleading eyes went to Scott’s. “Will you send someone for Barranca?”
“Of course, little brother,” Scott was massively relieved that losing Barranca was not going to be added to Johnny’s obvious trauma and pain. “It sounds like we should send several of the hands there to help out.”
Murdoch nodded his approval. He worried Sam may have already been summoned to tend the wounded and wouldn’t be able to come for Johnny.
“There’s a lotta widows there now, and kids with no Papas. Don’t know what they’re gonna do.” Johnny moaned, wheezing, “Bunch of men rode over… from Alamos Ridge and I …sent a telegram from there to the army.”
“Why didn’t you wire us, Johnny?” Murdoch asked.
“I meant to come get you.”
Johnny blinked in confusion at his father. “I knew the way home.”
“Of course you knew the way home!” Murdoch snapped. “You should have stayed there, gotten better treatment for these burns, and waited for us to come get you.”
“But then I wouldn’t have been home yet.”
“You almost didn’t make it!” A calming hand on Murdoch’s shoulder drew the elder man’s attention upward. Scott gave a small shake of his head. Johnny had clearly never given a thought to asking for help for himself. This family stuff was too new for him.
Murdoch sputtered, “The doctor shouldn’t have let you ride.”
Murdoch indicated the bandages.
“Sent him to Pine Peaks, Sally needed doctoring real bad. She was upstairs with the other girls but close to the front window… I got on the overhang to pull her out, but it collapsed, and by the time we got out from under everything… she was… hurt bad.” Johnny shook his bowed head in abject misery. “No one else left for the doc to treat… just the few men that weren’t at the meeting who got burned trying to put the fire out. And the hysterical wives and crying kids. Oh God, that was almost… the worst of it. One crazy lady ran right into the fire sayin’ she was gonna die with her husband… And she did.”
The room fell silent at the horror of Johnny’s words. Johnny stared down at the floor until he realized he hadn’t answered Murdoch’s question.
“Polly fixed me up…after the fire was out. Gave me an extra pair of Tate’s gloves.” His gaze fell on the one still adhered to his hand. “Guess I’ll need to buy him a new pair.” A beat passed. “Oh. He won’t need them. He was inside.” A visible chill coursed through him.
“Let’s see what we can do about soaking this one off,” Scott said softly, reaching across Johnny for the basin of water. “Murdoch, would you lift the table over to this side? Unless, of course, brother, I can get you to lie down.” He looked at Johnny hopefully. Johnny didn’t respond, staring blankly at his hands. “Okay, then, we’ll do it here. I’m going to cut what I can of the leather away before it gets wet and possibly tightens up. Can you point to where the burns are so I don’t get too close?”
After a second prompting, Johnny made a vague circle over his palm on his left hand. Scott made a careful slice down the top of the glove toward the back of his hand, but could tell quickly by Johnny’s sharp intake of air and the resistance he met with the knife, the burns extended up to the wrist as well. “Sorry.” Gingerly, he made another cut down the seam by Johnny’s little finger without incident. “Okay, lay it in the water.”
As soon as Johnny dipped it in, he gasped and jerked it out again. “Hot!”
Scott checked it. It was lukewarm at best, but he remembered how sensitive to heat burnt flesh was. “I’ll get some cold water. It’ll help with the pain, too.”
Maria and Jelly came in as Scott spoke. “I’ll get it, Señor Scott.” Maria handed both the butter she was holding and the cup of honey/vinegar mixture to Scott. “Butter is for the red and unbroken blisters only. Open burns need the honey/vinegar. It will sting, very much, but will help keep infection away.”
Scott grimaced as he accepted it. If plain warm water was interlorable, what was vinegar going to feel like? “Maybe we should wait for Sam.”
“It has been too long now.” Maria pointed to the yellow exudate in the burn on Johnny’s left shoulder. “El amarillo es muy malo.” Scott didn’t have to speak Spanish to understand that the yellow wasn’t a good color. Jelly’s watery eyes were filled with worry as he sat in the spot Scott had just vacated, fixing the quilt tenderly around Johnny’s bare shoulders, carefully balancing the teacup he’d brought in. Maria continued, “I make the tea cold; I hear the burn in his voice. I will get cold water.”
“Bring the laudanum back, too, would you please, Maria?” Murdoch asked, then quietly, just to Scott, added, “If word of the fire has gotten to Green River, it’s possible Sam has been called to help.”
Scott’s face paled. “I’ve been counting the minutes until he gets here. Not only do these burns look horrific, I’m really worried about his cough and difficulty swallowing.” As if to emphasize his words, Johnny choked on the cool tea Jelly was trying to feed him. “If things swell up more, he could start having trouble breathing.”
“I’m a mile ahead of you down the worry road. We’ll just have to take it as it comes. If Jose’s brother only heard something vague about trouble at the saloon in Pine Peaks, maybe the whole story hasn’t gotten through yet. We know the closest telegraph office is in Alamos Ridge. And if your brother didn’t even think to wire us, it doesn’t seem likely the townsfolk would.”
Scott heard the tightness in his father’s voice. “Go easy on him, Murdoch. He’s clearly in shock, not to mention feverish and in pain. I imagine he’s only been able to focus on one thing at a time; first trying to save those people, then getting the fire out and finding help for them in Alamos Ridge, and then getting home. At least this is where he wanted to come. We’re lucky he didn’t hole up in Alamos Ridge, or worse, head right back to Pine Peaks.”
“I suppose you’re right. I just wish he’d learn to lean on us a bit more. It’s been almost a year, Scott.”
“Or it’s only been a year. He’s trying, Murdoch. He was so excited and nervous that you let him do this trip on his own.”
“Really? He seemed the opposite, complaining about the meetings he’d have to sit through.”
“He wasn’t going to let you see it. You know how he is about stuff like that. He never could show any uncertainty as a gunfighter, or even as a kid growing up in the border towns. But, he wanted so much to make you proud, Murdoch. I’m sure that’s why he was so fixated on getting home as soon as he could, so you wouldn’t be mad.”
Murdoch thought about the scene downstairs when Johnny had laid the signed contract down on the dining room table with such care, and his heart ached. It wasn’t a “so there, old man” act, but one that said, “I did this because it was important to you, to us as a family.”
And to think he’d been ready to pounce on Johnny for wasting two days drinking and carousing in Pine Peaks. “I’m very proud of him,” he said huskily.
“Tell him, not me.” Scott advised. Murdoch gave a curt nod, stepping away to the window to hide his emotion. Giving him privacy, Scott moved back to the bedside.
“Boy’s shiverin’ enough to crack his teeth,” Jelly grouched. “Think he’s wearin’ more of this tea than swallerin’ it.”
“His throat is pretty sore; he breathed in a lot of smoke,” Scott informed the older man. A bit louder, he said, “You must be exhausted, little brother. I bet you haven’t slept in days.”
Johnny shook his head. Scott wasn’t sure if he was arguing against sleep, or acknowledging he’d had very little.
“I’m going to lie you back so we can soak off that glove and maybe think about trying to get some of those other bandages off. You’re going to take some laudanum.” It was an order from Lt Lancer. “This isn’t going to be the greatest fun; the more you can sleep through, the better.”
“I don’t want to dream,” Johnny murmured, but he didn’t fight as Scott and Jelly carefully settled him back, propped up with several pillows, partway onto his right side.
Scott slid a comforting hand behind Johnny’s neck. “I can’t promise you won’t dream. But I can promise we’ll all be right here to watch out for you. We’ll wake you up as soon as it looks like you’re having a bad one.”
Sapphire eyes, now dull with pain and exhaustion, met blue-gray ones. “Promise?”
Scott swallowed a lump in his throat. “Big brother promise. And those are unbreakable.” His hands shook a little as he mixed up a dose of laudanum in a smaller than usual amount of water. He didn’t want the medicine going down Johnny’s chin instead of into his stomach. Surprisingly, Johnny drank it with minimal choking and no audible complaint.
While waiting for the medication to take effect, Scott lightly stroked his brother’s forehead, murmuring a teasing story about Remmie sneaking over to eat Johnny’s secret stash of carrots while Barranca was away. He smiled as Johnny’s trademark grin flashed, then dissolved into the laudanum’s warm clutches.
Maria came back with the cool water. They gently laid Johnny’s gloved hand into it and made soaks for the bandages on his upper body. Maria carefully cleaned the injury on Johnny’s face.
“It looks like he got hit by something that was on fire, ” Murdoch observed, peering closely at the injury, “or maybe it happened when the overhang collapsed. It’s mostly bruised, just this one small strip that’s blistered, so whatever it was didn’t stay in contact with the skin very long.”
“Si, butter is good for this one.” Maria was methodical as she checked every inch of Johnny’s face, hair and the back of his neck. She found several burn spots, attesting to Johnny’s description of it raining fire. Some were just reddened, others blistered or raw, two at the side of his neck still had a burnt substance stuck in them. Johnny stirred with a quiet moan as she scrubbed them briskly with a brush and the honey/ vinegar solution. Murdoch gently stroked Johnny’s brow to soothe him, not wanting to even imagine how much more awful it would be when she moved to the larger burns. “Where is Dr Sam?” Maria voiced Murdoch’s thoughts. “He should be here by now.”
He could see Scott’s jaw clench. “He may have been called to where the fire was, or may just be out at one of the ranches. It’s probably a good sign Walt isn’t back yet, it probably means he’s gone on to whatever ranch needed Sam. If Sam was going to be gone to Pine Peaks for at least 5 days, Walt would have come right back to tell us that.”
“Unless he rode to Cross Creek for Dr Chandler.” Scott proposed.
“True. Well, either way, we should have a doctor by morning.”
“It will be a long night,” Jelly grimaced as Maria pulled a soaked bit of bandage off Johnny’s shoulder, bringing a chunk of tissue with it, the open sore below pouring blood down Johnny’s chest.
And so it was.
A very long night.
It took three hours of soaking, pulling, scrubbing, and coating to get most of Johnny’s burns cleaned and, in some cases, rebandaged. Several were left to open air with a light layer of aloe to try to soothe the pain. Thanks to a second dose of laudanum, most of Johnny’s reactions to the pain were muted, soft moans or choked gasps. But when they peeled off the glove on his left hand, he cried out and fought them, forcing Scott and Murdoch to hold him down while Jelly helped Maria. Even so, they couldn’t get all of it. There were small sections of black in the vibrant red wounds. They feared at first it was charred flesh. Realizing it was pieces of Johnny’s own black work-gloves melted into the burn didn’t reassure them any. They left that for Sam or Dr Chandler to deal with.
“Thank God that’s over, I never want to have to go through that again.” Murdoch muttered, falling into the chair Maria vacated as she and Jelly cleaned up the soiled cloths and various basins, brushes, and bowls.
“You will mañana, Patron, and every day for a long time,” Maria said sadly, her eyes swimming with tears. “That is how it is with burns.”
Murdoch and Scott both looked at her horrified. Murdoch finally recovered enough to thank her and refuse her offer to make them supper before leaving. “I doubt any of us could eat. And if we need something later on, we can fend for ourselves. Please ask Elena to come in the morning. We don’t know how long it will be before Sam gets here. Until he does, I don’t want you to have to worry about anything but Johnny. Although, I don’t expect you to care for him alone.” He swallowed heavily, “We watched what you did, and with your guidance, we should be able to take turns as well.”
Maria made it as far as the kitchen before she broke down in great gasping sobs over the pain she had caused her niño. Jelly was prepared, gently guiding her to a chair and awkwardly patting her on the back while she cried. He caught himself sniffling a bit, “Danged smell of smoke burns the eyes…”
“Help them!” Johnny’s shout awoke Scott so abruptly, he nearly fell out of the chair he’d been dozing in. He lunged forward just in time to catch his brother as Johnny bolted upright in bed.
“It’s okay!” He assured quickly, even before he knew for certain that it was. Johnny was looking around frantically, trying to orient himself, his breathing stridorous. “Relax back. I’ve got you.”
Johnny allowed himself to be settled back, but his grip on Scott’s arm was vice-like. “There you go,” Scott soothed. He covered Johnny’s hand lightly with his own, unsure if the grip was one of fear or pain, although either reason would be making Johnny’s burnt hand throb. “I know it’s rough jerking awake like that, especially when you’re so sore. Try to slow your breathing down a little. It can’t feel too good on your raw throat.”
In truth, Scott was getting worried about the difficulty Johnny was having breathing. “Maybe we should sit you up a bit more.” He gently eased Johnny into a more upright position as Johnny began to cough, small moans interspersed when enough air got through for it. Johnny still had a tight hold of Scott’s arm. He lightly rubbed Johnny’s back, mindfully avoiding the larger burns; there were too many of the small ones to work around. Johnny didn’t seem to notice, he was too busy fighting for air.
When minutes passed with no improvement, Scott shouted down the hall for Murdoch. Murdoch arrived within seconds, his hair sleep-disheveled, and without a robe covering his nightshirt. “What’s the matter?”
“He’s having a hard time catching his breath. Maria said she’d leave a kettle simmering and a bowl of herbs out in case this happened. We’re supposed to pour the water over the herbs, and have him lean over the bowl to breathe. And a towel, for over his head, to keep the steam in.”
“I’ll get it.” Murdoch was gone from the doorway as quickly as he’d appeared.
The steam bath seemed to help. Johnny was exhausted though, he kept drifting off to sleep, then jerking awake to a spasm or memory of the fire. Scott’s strength stayed him, both with an arm across his chest to prevent him from falling forward, and quiet words of reassurance to keep him grounded in a safer world than the one that assailed his dreams.
Murdoch remained awake as well, maintaining the fire that was now kept low and shielded from Johnny’s sight by quilt-draped chairs, after a unseasoned log had created smoke that awoke Johnny into a vicious flashback of the fire. Johnny shivered constantly, chilled by exhaustion, pain, fever, and unease. His burns couldn’t tolerate the weight of clothing or blankets. They layered him heavily from the waist down and then carefully placed wrapped warming stones against his stomach and right side, the only other unscathed spots on him.
“Take a drink of water.” Murdoch held the glass at Johnny’s lips. “Then Maria left a cold tea with honey she wants you to drink.”
“Hope it tastes better than the last one.” Johnny’s voice sounded like sandpaper.
Scott chuckled as he brought the tea over. “Unlikely, I’m afraid, brother.”
Johnny lifted his hands to assist Scott with the tea but then grimaced and dropped them back into his lap. “Will you tell Maria I’m so sorry I yelled at her when she was trying to fix my hands?”
“We already did, son,” Murdoch replied, as it was at least the third time he’d asked. “She knew you weren’t angry with her. She said everybody yells with burns.”
Johnny struggled to swallow against the swelling in his raw throat. “Poor Sally, she’ll be really hurting with all her burns.” He shook his head. “If she is even still alive…” A shudder rocked Johnny’s body as his hollow eyes found his father’s. “Why did the devil come? Were we that wrong in what we were talking about?”
Murdoch sat back down in the chair in front of Johnny, gently squeezing his leg. “It wasn’t the devil, son. Probably a crazed person who had something against the ranchers.”
“No person could ride off…with six of my bullets point blank… in his body.”
“You’d be surprised the strength blood-fever can give a man, little brother,” Scott waited out a bout of coughing. “In the war, I saw soldiers who kept firing even after they’d spilled a pond of blood onto the ground, who kept riding even though their leg was severed and hanging from the stirrup.” Scott never spoke of his experiences in the war, and doing so now made his hands shake and his voice tremble. But, the idea of the devil having attacked the ranchers was clearly terrorizing Johnny’s memories and dreams. If he could at least convince Johnny that it was just a man behind the brutal attack, perhaps his brother could rest easier.
“He couldn’t have gotten far,” Murdoch concurred, his voice gentle. “I’m sure we’ll hear they found his body just outside of town.”
Johnny closed his eyes, leaning more heavily against his brother. “Guess you’re right. If it had been the devil, he woulda taken me first…”
“Johnny, no…” Scott protested.
“Don’t talk like that, son!” Murdoch admonished.
But Johnny was already asleep, or in laudanum limbo, and didn’t respond.
Sam finally arrived late the next morning. He’d been called to a ranch at the furthest edge of his coverage region to tend a youngster with a broken leg. Walt preceded him to Lancer by an hour, delivering the message that Sam was going to stop by his office to pick up burn supplies.
As always, Sam made everyone except Maria leave the room while he examined Johnny. He was very worried by Scott’s report of Johnny’s difficulty breathing and swallowing. He hid his concern with practiced ease as he greeted his young patient.
“Sorry it’s taken me so long, Johnny, I’m afraid I couldn’t have been further away from Lancer if I tried.”
“S’okay Sam,” He could hear the painful rasp in Johnny’s voice. “Maria took good care…of me. Even though… I was mean to her.”
“Hush now, niño,” Maria reprimanded, “You were not mean. I was sorry to hurt you.”
“Open your mouth for me please, Johnny, I want to take a look at your throat. I can hear how much it’s bothering you.” Sam tilted Johnny’s head slightly to catch the
light from the window, unable to hide a grimace at the raw, reddened flesh of the young man’s throat. He knew Johnny’s lungs could look the same. “How long were you in the burning building?”
“Wasn’t in it… that’s why I’m alive… when no one else is…” Johnny lowered his eyes in shame.
Sam easily read the guilt in his friend’s words. As he worked, he coaxed Johnny into telling him what happened. “You did everything you could to help those people, Johnny, as evidenced by all these burns. Don’t beat yourself up over one man’s evil.”
“If it was a man.” Johnny rasped, “Tell me, Sam… how many men do you know who…could take six bullets to his chest from a… gunfighter and still ride away, laughing over the people he’d just killed?”
Sam sat back, considering his answer. Johnny had made reference El Diablo in his recounting of the fire. “You said he was cloaked in black. Could he have layered metal or leather under the cloak to protect himself from the flames he carried, and perhaps it blocked the bullets, even close up?”
Johnny seemed to at least consider the possibility before he was consumed by a wheezing, barking cough. Sam had Maria set up another breathing treatment, complimenting her on having done it early on, and only adding two new herbs to the mix. Johnny was too weak to huddle over the bowl without help, so Sam asked Scott and Murdoch return to support him, for fear he’d fall forward into the steaming liquid.
Sam explained the seriousness of Johnny’s condition. “The burns across his back, the one along his ribs, and his left hand are very severe. He is highly at risk of infection. Maria’s quick action with the honey/vinegar scrub possibly saved his life, especially as he tells me the burns are three days old.” Murdoch gave a grateful nod to Maria, who lowered her head and crossed herself. “Unfortunately, the painful treatment is going to have to be repeated daily, until the burns start to heal, and we’ll have to do stretching exercises with his hand to keep it from scarring into a contracted position.”
“S’good it ain’t… my gun hand.” Johnny managed from beneath the towel draped over his head and shoulders. “Can we do… the scrapin’ and stretchin’… of my hand separate…” Johnny had to pause to gasp for air, “separate from the… others? Doin’ it all together… made me… mean.”
Maria, Scott, and Murdoch all argued against his characterization of having been mean. Sam simply responded to the concern beneath Johnny’s request. “Of course we can. We may even find that some sections don’t have to be done every day. Now, my bigger worry is about all the smoke and superheated air you breathed in.”
Scott listened with extra intensity to this portion of Sam’s instruction. When he was a child in Boston, there had been a huge fire down by the wharf. One of the police officers, the uncle of a friend, had helped with the rescue effort, and despite not having a burn on his body, had died two days later. The family was told it was due to him breathing in too much smoke and the chemicals from the fire.
“I’m going to have you do these breathing treatments every four hours, Johnny, not just when you’re having trouble breathing, although we can do extra ones in between if you need them. I’ve added some herbs to help lessen the swelling in your throat and hopefully in your lungs. It’s very important that you drink as much as you can, even though I know it’s painful to swallow. We have to do everything we can to stave off pneumonia.”
There was no reply.
“I think he’s out again,” Scott said in a low voice, able to feel Johnny’s weight pressed against him. Murdoch peered under the towel and nodded.
“Hold him there for another few minutes,” Sam instructed. “Each treatment should last at least fifteen minutes. Obviously, they’re more effective when he’s awake and we can urge him to take deep breaths, but the frequency is important.”
“How long before he’s out of the woods, Sam?” Murdoch asked.
“He was at highest risk those first two days when he had no treatment and thought it was a good idea to travel all the way from Pine Peaks in the rain.” Sam’s response held a combination of anger and awe over Johnny’s travel.
Scott had forgotten that it had rained heavily the day before Johnny got home. He looked anxiously at Murdoch, afraid the added information would set their father’s anger off again. But Murdoch’s tone was gentle, and his hand on Johnny’s bowed head even more so, as he replied, “He wanted to get home.”
Sam snorted. “Well, he may have met the devil in Pine Peaks, but he must have had an angel on his shoulder to get him here alive. Now it’s up to us to keep him that way. He’s still very much at risk, but if we can keep the deeper burns from getting infected and hold down the inflammation in his lungs, he should pull through.”
“He’s convinced the devil started the fire,” Murdoch said, “It is hard to imagine a human being both so cruel and so… invulnerable to bullets. He’s so traumatized by what he saw and his inability to help those people. My God, Sam, all those people who died…” Murdoch slumped into a chair, shaking his head. “Johnny could have been inside with them. Should have been inside with them. It was a miracle he wasn’t, and he thought I’d be mad because he left the meeting early.”
Scott kept the thought to himself that, but for the fire, Murdoch would indeed have been angry with Johnny for not staying around after the meeting to do the all-important hand-shaking and socializing with the other ranchers from the region.
“The experience will haunt him for a long while,” Sam acknowledged. “Burning to death is about the most horrific way to die, to my mind. And to watch friends die that way and be unable to help…” He shook his head sadly.
“Plus, he’s afraid the devil -or the man if it was one- is going to target us now,” Murdoch added. “He asked me last night to post a lookout and to have the men fill extra water barrels by the barn and the hacienda.”
“Who would be so angry about a meeting on water rights?” Scott pondered. “I suppose it will be difficult, if not impossible, to determine who wasn’t at the meeting who should have been.” The other men nodded in agreement. “And why weren’t people able to get out the back door of the saloon? I assume there was one, especially with there being an alleyway.”
“There was a back door,” Murdoch agreed. “We’ve held meetings in that saloon before.” The enormity of loss hit Murdoch profoundly. “All those lives… Bill Granger, Ned Parsons, Larry Toomey, Sam Halston, Red McGinty…” his voice failed him as the list of names went on in his mind.
“I’m sorry, Murdoch,” Scott offered. “I know most of the men who died were friends or long-time acquaintances of yours.” Even he had met many of them over the past year. “Hopefully, we’ll get a wire from Jose and the other men we sent to Pine Peaks tomorrow with more information. Maybe there are other survivors.”
“We can only pray that’s the case. And that they found the perpetrator’s bullet-riddled body on the edge of town.”
Sadly, neither was the case.
Jose reported that forty three men and four women had perished in the saloon and in the days following the fire. Another three men and one woman -Sally, they assumed- suffered severe burns, but were thus far alive. Witnesses confirmed Johnny’s account of a black-cloaked figure astride a massive black horse riding into town, spewing fire from his hands, and setting the saloon on fire. Many heard shots fired, but not realizing who had fired them, or how close he was to the target, they assumed all had missed, as the rider fled town without apparent harm. No body was found, nor did anyone recognize or find the black horse. Not surprisingly, several people agreed with Johnny’s assessment that they’d been visited by the devil.
Murdoch and Scott had been hesitant to tell Johnny the news, but knew better than to hide the truth from him. His only response was a somber nod. While his physical condition improved daily -much faster than Sam had predicted- Johnny became increasingly withdrawn. He didn’t fight, or even complain about, Sam’s restrictions. He barely ate, although they understood that it remained painful for him to do so. His nightmares worsened, even after he started refusing laudanum except when they worked on his hand. Soon he was resisting sleep, sitting up in a chair in his room, staring out the window for long stretches of time.
Scott recognized the signs of traumatic depression from his own experience after his imprisonment at Libby during the war. He was determined not to let his little brother fall into the same pit of despair he had lived in for over a year after his release.
It was evening, Scott was sitting beside Johnny’s bed, gently working his brother’s burnt hand, stretching the fingers and thumb out, then assisting Johnny’s effort to make a fist. The exercise was horribly painful, especially on the tails of cleaning the still weeping burns on his palm and fingers. Johnny refused to let anyone but Scott help him with it; nothing anyone said could help Johnny feel less guilty about how he had reacted to Maria’s ministrations that first day.
While Scott hated being the one to hurt his brother, he was glad for the trust Johnny placed in him, and the private time it gave them together every evening. Johnny’s defenses were down by then. He was exhausted from the treatment of his other burns earlier in the day, and was dreading the long night hours of fighting sleep. Despite Johnny’s protests, Scott slept in a cot by his brother’s side, so he could keep his promise to awaken him from nightmares. It meant Scott himself was exhausted, as Johnny sometimes endured three or four nightmares a night and would often end up pacing the room for hours, trying to keep himself awake and safe from more.
“Sorry.” Scott apologized as Johnny jerked and moaned as he pressed on the burnt underside of Johnny’s fingers to straighten them.
“Stop fucking apologizing!” Johnny grouched. “It hurts like hell and there’s nothing you can do about it!”
“I know.” Scott caught himself from adding an “I’m sorry” to that. “I hate being the one to hurt you.”
“I can do it myself then!” Johnny pulled his hand out of Scott’s and started doing the exercises quite roughly with his right hand.
“Stop.” Scott snatched Johnny’s hand back. “I didn’t say I don’t want to do it. You have to go easy to not break open the healing patches.”
“It sure as hell doesn’t feel easy when you’re doing it!” Johnny snarled. “I think you like getting back at me for all my comments about your clothes. My ring finger in particular is taking the brunt of the whole plaid pants thing!”
Scott just looked at his brother until Johnny finally turned away. After a long moment, Johnny muttered, “Sorry.”
Scott very gently turned Johnny’s face back to him. “Stop fucking apologizing,” he echoed quietly.
Johnny held his supportive gaze, tears brimming. After a long bit, he nodded his appreciation for Scott’s tolerance of his irritability.
Scott smiled. “ So now that you’re done being mad at me about that, I’m going to make you mad about something else.”
Johnny gave Scott a suspicious look. “Really?”
“Yes, really.” The voice was teasing but his eyes were compassionate as he said, “Feeling guilty about still being alive when all those people died isn’t going to bring them back.”
“I know that, dammit!” Johnny lurched out of bed, started to cross the room, took one look at the fire in the fireplace, and changed directions, crossing to the window.
“Your head knows it. Your heart, well, that’s a whole other story.” Scott followed him with his eyes, giving him space in the small room. “I know, because I’ve been where you are. It’s hell to be the one left alive when good people are dead.”
Johnny looked at Scott curiously, then asked, “From the escape attempt when you were in the prison camp?”
Scott nodded slowly. Those memories had taken years to battle into submission. It was only for his brother that he would bring them out. “ I felt… like a coward for staying behind and letting those sixteen men crawl into a wall of bullets.”
“It wasn’t cowardly to give everyone else the chance to get out first. Didn’t you believe the biggest danger from the guards would come from inside the camp? You were covering their backs.”
“That is what I thought I was doing. But when it turned out I was wrong, my nightmares and flashbacks put an entirely different meaning onto it. I wondered if subconsciously I was really trying to save myself.”
Johnny shook his head. “You wouldn’t do that, Boston. It ain’t in you to think of yourself before other people.”
It warmed Scott to hear Johnny’s absolute belief in him. “And what about you?”
“Hell, Boston, being a gunfighter is all about saving yourself over the other guy. Any other way and you’re dead in the street.”
“I think there’s a few dozen people down Mexico way who would argue against that, brother. You weren’t thinking of yourself first when you took on jobs for little or no pay to help the peons, or when you went to prison for helping the resistance. None of that was putting yourself first.” Scott got up and pulled his chair over behind Johnny, who clearly was not going to last long on his feet. “Sit.” Johnny did so without argument, although he gave Scott a look when Scott followed up by draping a quilt over his shivering shoulders. Scott leaned against the windowsill. “And I’m quite sure it isn’t how Sally feels about you putting yourself at risk to help her out of the upstairs room.”
Johnny bowed his head, his face a mask of pain. “Too little, too late. What she really needed, what they all needed, was for me to have stopped him before he could set the fire in the first place.” Haunted eyes met Scott’s. “All my years as a gunfighter, Scott, and the one time it really matters for my gun to kill someone, and I don’t do it. What the hell kind of gunfighter does that make me? Mierda, what kind of man does it make me?”
Scott crouched down, face-to-face with his tormented brother. “ A man who did his best in an impossible situation. Johnny.” He put his hand consolingly on Johnny’s knee, “I don’t know why your bullets didn’t kill that man, maybe what Sam postulated about the leather or metal chest plates is right, but I do know it wasn’t because you missed or because you didn’t try with everything in you to stop him.”
“How do you know? You weren’t there.”
“The same way you know I didn’t stay behind at Libby to save myself. You weren’t there either. But, I know you, brother, and I know if you couldn’t stop him, no one could have.”
Johnny looked away, at the floor, shaking his head. “I was supposed to be inside, Boston, I was supposed to die with the rest of them.”
“And I was supposed to be outside. I was supposed to die with my men.” It still ripped something inside for Scott to say those words.
Johnny scrubbed his right hand over his face, grimacing at the dual pains from his knuckles and cheek. “How do you get it to go away?” he pleaded. “How do you ever go to sleep and not have it come after you, digging into your soul?”
“Time, brother, and talking about it.” Scott answered gently.
“Who did you talk to?”
“Many bottles of brandy.” Scott cocked an eyebrow at his sibling. “Not a companion I’d recommend.” He was pleased to get a brief smile from the drawn face before him. “But I didn’t have a brother to talk to then, or at least didn’t know I did, and even so, he was a few thousand miles away.”
Johnny nodded, consumed by a coughing jag. Scott had noticed his voice becoming hoarser as they talked. He offered up a cup of heavily honeyed tea. “No more talking,” he ordered. “Just listen. I know how bad this is for you. I’m not saying what I went through was as awful as what you did, just that some parts were similar. With everything else you have to deal with; the pain, nightmares, flashbacks, and difficulty breathing, I just don’t want you to feel alone in this. I wish I could have been there to help you…”
“No, don’t say that!” Johnny choked, horrified. “You could have been in there… Murdoch could have been…” He stopped, coughing and shaking. “I couldn’t…”
Scott carefully enfolded Johnny in his arms. “Okay, easy. I know what you mean. We’re okay. And you’re going to be okay, too.”
Johnny shook his head vehemently, “He’s still out there… he’s coming…”
“No, Johnny, there’s no need for him to come here.” Scott could feel Johnny struggling against him. “Shh, shh. All right, I believe you. Murdoch does too. He posted the guard. We’d see him coming a mile away and stop him before he got close. Even so, we have plenty of water barrels set out.”
“How… how will you stop…him? Bullets don’t work.”
“Maybe not on an armored chest, but even with a hood I can figure out where to shoot -between the eyes, or an unprotected throat.” Johnny pulled back to look at his brother in amazement. “What, you don’t think I could make that shot?” Scott challenged his brother with a smirk.
“…never doubt you…”
“Good, glad to hear it.”
Johnny ducked his head in uncertainty. “What if… if it is El Diablo?” he whispered.
Scott ached at the torment he could read in Johnny’s expression and hear in his voice. He didn’t personally believe in the devil, but was well aware it was a strong cultural belief in Mexico. Dismissing Johnny’s worries out of hand would destroy the trust that had grown between them. “I don’t know very much about that, brother. But if the devil truly cares about water-rights up here, he has much bigger fish to fry across the country than to worry about one measly ranch in the San Joaquin Valley.”
Scott didn’t know if his argument had an effect, or if Johnny’s exhaustion overwhelmed him, but he felt the younger man’s body slump into his. “Come on, let’s get you back to bed before I have to pick you up off the floor.”
Johnny let himself be settled back into bed, drank a few sips of water, and closed his eyes. Scott knew his brother would fight sleep for all he was worth. He picked up the book he’d started reading aloud a few nights before. He doubted Johnny was interested in the topic, British history, but was just as glad for it. A boring topic could lull Johnny to much-needed sleep, and if nothing else, Scott knew the sound of his voice helped Johnny feel his presence and support.
Less than a chapter in, Johnny was sound asleep.
Johnny studied the pattern of orange and yellow light against the inside of his eyelids as he welcomed the warmth of the sun on his face from his seat on the veranda. It had been a battle to be allowed outside, and a second volley to be left alone. He was finally feeling well enough, almost two weeks after the fire, to buck Sam’s in-house restrictions. Murdoch had been so pleased to see his younger son’s feistiness return, he hadn’t fought as hard as he ordinarily would have against the added freedoms.
Nightmares still tormented Johnny, although the frequency had dropped off to only handful a week. Normal wood fires no longer set off flashbacks, although certain smells; hot tar, branding, and hot iron, still did. Luckily, branding season was still a few months away -only a newly purchased bull had been a trigger- and he’d learned the hard way to keep his window closed if the farrier or Murdoch was working the forge.
Harder to avoid, was the sound of men shouting or women screaming. Poor Theresa felt terrible after she’d screamed when a mouse ran out from behind the flour bin. It brought Johnny running, gun raised, but worse, left him secluded in his room, shaking uncontrollably for almost an hour afterward. Johnny was embarrassed as hell by his reaction, until Scott strode in, wrapped him in a warm embrace, and told him about the time unexpected fireworks before the July Fourth holiday caused him to throw his date onto a muddy path and smother her body with his. It had taken a lot of explaining to counter the accusation that he’d tried to assault Miss Candance D’Larouce in a bout of alcohol-induced lust. By the end of Scott’s recounting, both brothers were chuckling over Scott’s predicament.
Thinking back on how deftly Scott had turned horror into humor, Johnny marveled at how lucky he was to have his big brother in his life.
“Well, well, look at you, lollygagging in the sun in the middle of the day,” A familiar voice t’sked, coming up the side step onto the veranda. Johnny didn’t move, didn’t open his eyes.
“I have never lollygagged, don’t believe I even know what it is.” The expected swat to the side of his head from Val’s hat didn’t make Johnny flinch, but he did open his eyes and push himself up in the chair with an unconscious grimace. “What brings you out here, Val?”
Val dropped his lanky body into the chair beside Johnny. “I need a reason to come see my friend?”
“Don’t need one, but usually have one.”
“Maybe I just wanted to see how you were doing. Sam says it’s been a rough road for you with the burns and all. Sorry I ain’t been out sooner. I took a trip over to Pine Peaks to see if I could help out at all.”
Johnny’s body became very stiff and still. “And?”
“And a very grateful young lady named Sally asked me to give this to you. “ Val held out a sealed envelope. Across the front was written, “To the angel who saved me”.
Johnny’s breath hitched as he stared at the letter. “Vin Cooper helped her, more than me. He’s the one who pulled her out from under everything when the roof collapsed on us.”
“She’s been able to thank him personally. From what I heard, he hasn’t left her side during her recovery.”
“Oh, that’s good. I’m glad she has someone…”
“Are you going to take it?” Val waggled the envelope at Johnny.
Johnny took it, but dropped his hand back to his lap without opening it. Val winced at the raw flesh visible around the bandages.
“You, uh, need some help with that?”
Johnny shook his head, his gaze distant. After a long moment, he asked, “Did they find him yet?”
“No,” Val looked over his shoulder toward the great room, “but their investigation did uncover a few things. Are Murdoch and Scott around?” At Johnny’s look, Val added, “I’d just as soon only have to tell it once.”
Johnny studied his friend’s unease and nodded. “Scott rode in about twenty minutes before you did. He’ll probably be showing up in the next few minutes. As far as I know, Murdoch’s mother-hen eye is still watching me from the great room. I hear his footsteps come over to the French doors every ten minutes or so. Common’ inside, I’m sure Maria has some lemonade made.”
Johnny awkwardly got to his feet. The pull of healing burns across his ribs and back was painful, and it was hard to lever himself up from the chair without putting agonizing pressure on his hands. Val offered a hovering hand of support, uncertain where he could touch without adding to the hurt.
Murdoch welcomed Val warmly, even as he carefully surveyed Johnny to ensure the foray outside hadn’t been too much for him. Johnny grinned as Scott did the exact same thing when he came into the room a few minutes later.
When the men were all settled, lemonades in hand, Val shared what he knew. “That Lt Carver outta Fort Yuma is a smart cookie. He headed up the investigation of the fire. Rumor was the saloon owner, Mitchel Pryce, had locked the back door to keep his upstairs customers from sneaking out without paying.”
“Which would explain why no one was able to get out that way.” Murdoch groaned. “A waste of lives over a few dollars.”
“Except Carver found the door was chained to a hasp on the outside of the saloon,” Val supplied. “Unlikely Pryce would hassle himself to have to run outside every time he wanted to let someone in or out.”
“So somebody, or somebodies, likely chained it closed, specifically to increase the death toll in the fire.” Scott said soberly, glancing over at Johnny. “That doesn’t sound like the work of the devil, but rather of an evil man or men.”
Val had heard from Sam of Johnny’s impression that the cloaked rider had been El Diablo. He frowned at the pallor of his young friend’s face. It was clear that talking about how the firetrap was planned was stirring up some horrifying memories for Johnny. He glanced at Murdoch and Scott to see if he should stop. Scott quietly crossed the room to sit on the sofa, his shoulder gently brushing against Johnny’s.
“Was anything else found?” Scott asked Val, but his eyes remained on his brother.
“A possible explanation of how our masked murderer was able to survive a chest full of bullets.”
Johnny’s head shot up at Val’s words. “How?”
“A leather and forged iron vest with several dents and a fair amount of blood was found in an abandoned shack about ten miles outside of Pine Peaks. Also found was a singed black cloak, riding leathers, and bandage remnants. It’s pretty clear the arsonist stashed a change of clothes and supplies there to aid in his get away.”
“Did they find tracks?” Johnny asked.
“Unfortunately, no, a heavy rainstorm came through that night and washed any tracks away.”
Johnny remembered the rainstorm. It seemed cruel that it arrived a few hours too late to help contain the fire. The winds leading up to the storm only made fighting the flames harder. The storm plagued his ride to Alamos Ridge, chilling him to the bone, but at least soothed some of the throbbing from the burns.
“Do they have any suspects?” Scott asked, as he felt a shiver course through Johnny’s body.
“Not for the arsonist, but there’s a pretty strong motive. It seems the railroad has been looking to put a spur through the central corridor to avoid the marshy lowlands that flood every spring. With more than 3 dozen ranches from Visalia through Pine Peaks and down toward Yuma no longer having husbands and fathers to run them, land is going to be selling pretty dang cheap just where the railroad wants to buy.”
“Greedy bastards” Johnny muttered. And for once, Murdoch didn’t reprimand him for swearing in the house.
“I assume the army, the U.S. Marshalls, and the office of the governor will be looking very closely at those sales.” Murdoch gritted. “The state Cattlemen’s Association has already started a fund for the widows and children. I think a meeting is in order to ensure we have a plan to thwart that takeover, whether it’s by the railroad or by someone looking to make a profit off of the railroad’s plans.”
“No!” Johnny cried, “That’s just what they’d want, for the ranchers they didn’t succeed in murdering the first time around to get together and give them a second chance!”
Murdoch moved quickly to his son’s side, resting a calming hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, son. We aren’t going to let that happen. Whoever is behind this would be foolish to try anything with so many eyes on them now.”
Johnny grabbed his wrist, his eyes pleading. “Please don’t go.”
Murdoch gently covered Johnny’s hand with his massive one, letting his air out heavily. It killed him to see his strong, brave son so traumatized by what he’d been through. If only they’d been there with him to help, to soothe his wounds both physical and psychological. “All right. We’ve accomplished a lot by wire already. I’m sure we can do what we need to without a big meeting.” He felt the tension drain out of Johnny’s body. “Val, might I send a few messages back to town with you to have Patch sent out to a few of the members? They can wait until morning if you’d like to stay for dinner.”
“It’s a kind invitation, Murdoch, but I’d best be getting back to town tonight. I’d be happy to take those messages.” Val doubted Johnny would be eating much, if anything, for supper, and dinner without his friend there would be uncomfortable.
“Let’s get you upstairs Johnny,” Scott stood and urged his brother to do the same. “I heard you circumvented Sam’s orders this afternoon.”
“If that’s anything like lollygagging, I did not.” Johnny muttered.
Scott chuckled. “Not exactly the same, but regardless, it’s upstairs with you. Goodbye Val, thanks for coming out and bringing us the update.”
Val and Johnny exchanged goodbyes, then Val stayed behind to wait for Murdoch’s messages while Scott guided Johnny up the stairs.
“I hope I didn’t cause a problem letting Johnny listen in on all my talk. I’m sure it’s hard for him to be reminded of what happened.”
Murdoch sighed heavily. “We’ve given up on trying to keep anything from him, Val. Besides, I think your news may help him in the long run. As horrible as the reason for the arson may have been, knowing what it was is better than the uncertainty.” Murdoch sat behind his desk and pulled out paper and pen. He stared at the blank page for a long moment. “When he first came home, Johnny was convinced the devil himself had started the fire.”
“Sam told me. And if you don’t mind me saying so, I don’t think it’s so farfetched. A man can’t be too far from the devil to plot the murder of nearly fifty people in such a horrible way.”
“You’re right of course. When I think of how close Johnny came to being one of those killed…” Murdoch shuddered. “ I never thought I’d be so grateful to have him disobey me.”
Val didn’t know the story behind the second part of Murdoch’s statement, but latched onto the first. “I can’t imagine what he went through there, but I’ve been thanking my lucky stars he made it home.”
“Yes, he made it home.” Murdoch echoed softly, staring off into the fire. “He did come home to us.”
“I think you’re going to be happy with your supper tonight, little brother,” Scott tempted, as he bent to pull off Johnny’s boots. “Whatever Maria was putting through her hand grinder didn’t look the best, but it smelled wonderful. A little warm butter and it will slide down that sore throat of yours like a dream. You’d better find your appetite or you’re going to be facing one grumpy cook.”
Getting no response, Scott cocked his head at his brother. “Are you doing okay? Do you need something for pain?”
Johnny’s gaze drifted to the dresser on the opposite wall, but didn’t seem to focus on it. “Has Maria shown you her burn scars?”
“No, I imagine being a cook, she has several.”
Johnny shook his head slightly. “They’re from when she was a little girl. She and her brother were running in the kitchen and she knocked into a pan of frying oil. She showed me the scars on her arm and said she has many others in places she can’t show. It’s why she knows so much about treating them… and why she understood when I was yelling at her that first day. She said her brother had to do the cleaning and bandage changes because it took both her mother and father to hold her down.”
Scott grimaced. “It’s a horrible thing for anyone to go through, but especially for a child.”
“Yet, every day she’s in our kitchen, leaning over pans of hot frying oil. How does she do that?”
Scott surveyed the gray pallor of Johnny’s face. “She’s a very strong woman.”
Johnny fisted his hands despite the pain -or perhaps to feel it. “ I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back there.”
Scott placed a reassuring hand on Johnny’s arm. “You don’t have to.”
Johnny looked at him starkly. “Don’t I?”
Scott read both uncertainty and resolve in his brother’s eyes. “ I guess that’s up to you, brother. Sadly, there’d be little reason now for the ranch to have business in Pine Peaks, and even if we did, Murdoch or I could go. But if you need to go back…”
Johnny’s gaze dropped to the floor. “It feels… unreal, and yet… so real it’s right over my shoulder… reaching out to choke me…”
“I remember that.” Scott followed his brother’s line of sight to a knot in the pinewood floor. “Sometimes it felt as if the entire war was just a bad dream, something foggy and distant. But then, wham, something would jump out at me, and I’d truly believe I was back there.”
“Like with the fireworks?”
“Yes. Although sometimes, I had no idea what brought it around. Did something happen today?”
Johnny sat still for a long moment, then pulled Sally’s letter out of his pocket. Scott could see what she’d written on the front, and that the envelope was still sealed.
“Do you want me to give you some privacy to read it?” Johnny’s headshake was immediate. The ache in his brother’s eyes made Scott’s chest hurt. He laid his hand lightly over Johnny’s where it held the letter. “Do you want me to read it to you?” he asked gently.
Scott carefully drew the letter from Johnny’s fingertips and pulled his knife from his boot to slit the seal. The writing within was unevenly printed, with several mis-spellings.
“To the angel who saved me,
Vin told me yer name is Johnny Lancer. But to me, yer my angel. I was berning in the fires of hell, and you floo up to save me. I herd you was hurt and I hope yer doing ok.
I don’t no why you saved a whore wen other good folks died, but I promise I will make you proud you did. Vin sed he wood help. I hurt a lot now, and I ain’t pretty no more so I kent be a whore anyways. Miz Polly sed I can help the ladys who are gonna put all the ranchs together to keep the railroad out.
I hope you will come see us soon so I ken thank you proper.
Yer frend I hope,
Sally but my reel name is Gina Harpwell”
Scott folded the letter carefully, and slid it back into its envelope. “That is one of the nicest letters I think I’ve ever read. Thank you for sharing it with me.” He watched as Johnny bit his lower lip, still flexing and stretching his hands. “It sounds like the ladies of the region have embraced Sal… Gina. I’m glad to hear she has their support.”
It took awhile for Johnny to answer.
“I think the Cattlemen’s Association might have to change its membership criteria… and it’s name.”
Scott smiled. “That’s definitely a change I can support, and one I know Aggie Conway will be quite pleased to have company in fighting for.”
Johnny got up and crossed to the window, looking out past the barn, bunkhouse, and paddocks to the cattle grazing in the far fields. “A woman by the name of Nell Hardy tried to attend the meeting in Pine Peaks, but a bunch of the ranchers said there wasn’t room for a woman. I offered her my seat.” Scott felt a sense of dread at what the outcome of Johnny’s gesture would be. But Johnny smiled. “Nell said she had two good legs and could stand as well as any man. She was on the porch with me and Vin when the… arsonist rode up. She helped take care of Sally, uh Gina, while we were fighting the fire. I bet we could convince Aggie to take a trip with us to Pine Peaks to help support those ladies there.”
Scott tilted his head at his brother, “A trip with us to Pine Peaks?”
Johnny stared out the window for another long moment. “Well, to my way of thinking, if Gina is strong enough to stay in Pine Peaks and make a new life for herself after everything she went through, how hard would it be for me to make a trip there to help those ladies out?” He turned, giving Scott an uneasy smile, “Especially if I have my big brother along with his trusty rifle, in case El Diablo tries to make a reappearance?”
Scott could hear Johnny’s unease. He crossed the room to rest a reassuring hand on Johnny’s uninjured shoulder. “Absolutely, brother. Besides, I hear the devil is afraid of angels, especially those wearing pink.”
When the familiar, good natured dig sunk in, Johnny gave Scott a playful nudge to the stomach with his elbow.
“Red, Boston, I keep telling you, it’s just a faded red.”
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