Word Count 7796
Thank you to Sherry for the beta and to Diana for the hysterical laughter.
Scott Lancer’s long legs took the stairs to the rooms above the cantina three at a time. Still, the stairway seemed never-ending, an insidiously lengthening barrier to his progress.
“Please God… Please God…” He’d repeated the same frantic mantra since he’d heard what had happened. In his mind, the prayer included, “…let him be okay…” but those words never made it to his lips. He was somehow afraid that if he spoke them, the tightly woven litany would be broken, and any protections his fervent prayers had invoked might be lost.
Mariela, the cantina’s owner, tried to follow, but her legs were far too short to keep up. “Last room on the right!” she called breathlessly.
The door was open.
In the two seconds it took for Scott to cover the length of the hallway, he wondered if that was a good sign or bad. As he entered the room, he was surprised to find it bright and breezy. Both windows were open. For a heart-stopping moment, he feared he was too late, that Johnny had died here, and now the room was left to air.
Even as devastation threatened to drive him to his knees, Scott registered that a middle-aged Mexican man was sitting in a straight-backed chair beside a huddled form on a narrow bed. As he looked past the stranger to the person curled into a pain-wracked ball on the thin mattress, Scott knew a breath of hope.
It couldn’t be Johnny.
This boy was far too young, and many shades too pale. Yes, the hair color was right, but his brother’s fingers were long and slender. These hands that held a death-grip on the covers were cramped and gray-blue. Scott’s eyes roamed the partially hidden face, convincing himself that the jaw was too angular, the cheeks too hollow.
Someone else had been bitten! It wasn’t Johnny who had suffered the horrors of rattlesnake venom these last three days with no family to comfort him!
The man from the chair rose. “I’m Pedro, Señor. You are Scott? He ask for you.”
The breath suddenly gone from his lungs, Scott forced himself to look back at the quietly moaning figure. He fell back a step, and bit his lip to keep his own moan from escaping. Falling to his knees by the bed, Scott brushed the covers back from his brother’s face.
“God…Johnny…” he breathed, tears brimming. He stroked the dampened hair from Johnny’s forehead and worked to insinuate his fingers into the boy’s grip. “Johnny, it’s Scott. I’m here.”
There was no reaction from the tortured soul.
“He no talk mucho with bad fiebre.” Pedro said as Mariela moved past him to pick up and wring out a cloth in a basin of water. She folded it and gently laid it across Johnny’s forehead. “Hoy, very bad fiebre.”
Scott could feel the raging heat as he moved his comforting touch to Johnny’s cheek to accommodate Mariela’s ministrations. “Where’s the doctor?”
God, was that hoarse croak of a voice his?
“No doctoro.” Pedro said, sadly. “He no help…Mexicanos. Mariela…help.”
“What do you mean the doctor won’t…?” Scott was well-aware that many whites held biases against Mexicans. But how could an educated physician who’d sworn an oath to save lives turn his back on a human being who was suffering so?
“Get him.” Scott gritted. “At gunpoint, if necessary.”
Pedro dropped a calming hand to Scott’s shoulder. “You no want him to touch tu hermano, Señor,” he said, quietly. “Fernando do what doctoro do. Cut bite and take out veneno con la boca” Pedro mimed sucking out the venom and pouring water over the wound, gesturing to Johnny’s left leg.
Scott caught sight of the purple-red mass of ulcerated and weeping tissue on the side of Johnny’s calf. He had to look away quickly to control the gagging that threatened to bring up his stomach contents. He swallowed drily several times as Pedro continued to explain in broken English how Mariela’s herbs, salves, and poultices had saved the life, and leg, of a snake-bitten Stanley Martinson last month, when even “el doctoro malvado” could not save the “gringo”.
Scott’s eyes went to Mariela’s, where he found a look of comfort and confidence. He nodded slightly, and tried to swallow again. He felt Johnny’s body spasm beneath his hands, and dropped his eyes back to his brother as the boy writhed in pain. He stroked Johnny’s hair. “Is there something for pain?” he asked shakily.
Mariela drew what looked like a small twig out of a glass of liquid that was among many cups, bowls, and jars on a small table by the head of the bed. Scott could smell the tequila as she handed it to him. “En la boca.” She bared her teeth to demonstrate that Johnny should bite on it.
Scott couldn’t imagine how anything could pass through Johnny’s rigidly clenched jaw. Pedro reached over Scott’s shoulder, and, as Mariela coached in soft Spanish, Pedro applied gentle pressure behind Johnny’s ear. “Ahora.”
Scott applied some downward pressure on Johnny’s chin, and was surprised when he was able to easily slide the stick between the young man’s teeth. Immediately, Johnny’s jaw clamped down again.
He spoke softly to Johnny, Mariela falling silent to allow his voice to take precedence.
“I’m here, little brother. Open your eyes.”
At first, there was no response, but gradually, amid winces of pain, Scott saw Johnny’s effort to open his eyes. Every time Scott spoke, Johnny would become still briefly, as if trying to determine how to follow the path the soft voice created. “That’s it. I’m right here. Let me see those bright blue eyes of yours.”
Johnny’s eyes blinked open and closed a few times, without being able to focus. Scott laid a cool hand on Johnny’s fiery cheek to hold his head still. “Right here, brother. Look at me.”
Johnny’s eyes opened, narrowed, and almost closed but were forced back open again. Scott smiled encouragingly. “Here I am.”
As the exhausted gaze fixed on him, Scott felt the impact of his brother’s desperate need like a double-fisted blow to his stomach. It took his breath away.
Johnny grabbed his arm in a vice-like grip, pulling him forward, and almost off-balance with shocking strength. Scott continued the momentum, wrapping his free arm around Johnny’s back to press him into his chest.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, close to Johnny’s ear, choking on his tears. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here.”
For three days, Johnny had been in agony and needed him.
All because of a damn game!
Johnny didn’t respond to his apology. All he did was clutch Scott’s arm and press his fevered forehead against him.
Even when Scott had to shift to ease his aching back and knees, Johnny silently held on. He didn’t answer Scott’s questions about the pain, nor did he open his eyes again. Scott kept up a soft and soothing litany, unsure if his brother could even hear it.
Mariela cleaned the wound on Johnny’s calf. Between the foaming, bloody ooze the treatment created and the almost soundless whimpers Johnny made in response to her briskly scrubbing the raw flesh with a stiff brush, Scott had all he could do not to run screaming and retching from the room. Still, Johnny remained utterly still, except for the rigors his high fever created.
“Do you think we should close the windows?” Scott didn’t want to question the people who had been keeping his brother alive for days, yet the air in the room had a distinct chill, and he remembered dire warnings of pneumonia if he’d ventured near a draft whenever he was sick.
“He say he cannot breathe when they are closed,” Mariela explained. “Very bad when we try. I bring blanket.”
Scott helped tuck the bright blanket around Johnny’s back and shoulders. Mariela fashioned it under Johnny’s left leg, folding the bottom up over his foot, but leaving the hideous bite wound uncovered.
“Will he be all right?”
Scott didn’t want to ask, for fear of what the answer might be. And he would have preferred not to ask it in front of Johnny. But there was no way he was leaving his brother again.
“He is past el peor… the worst. He will still have mucho pain and enfermedad. We must watch la fiebre and infecciòn and…” She searched for a word, then settled for touching his swollen and discolored fingers, which were ice cold despite his fever, then tapping her own chest in a heartbeat rhythm, “… el corazòn. But he much better with you here. He no sleep. Now sleep.”
With you here.
Scott ran his eyes over Johnny, who did appear to be resting despite his two-handed hold on Scott’s arm.
“He was asking for me?” Scott’s voice sounded small to himself.
Mariela quietly cleared away some of her used supplies. “Yes, he had worry for you.”
“Yes, he think you have anger with him. He think you maybe not come.”
Scott’s heart folded in on itself at Mariela’s words. Not only had he not been here when Johnny needed him, but his stubbornness had made Johnny fear he might not come at all.
“We argued, because I wanted to stay in Sacramento to play some cards and roulette, and he was anxious to get here for the fiesta. He decided to come ahead alone. If only I’d come with him or he’d have waited for me.”
Mariela’s hand went to Scott’s shoulder. “It no matter to the snake if you be here. And it be death to la chica Arianna, if Johnny no be here.”
Scott understood that she was trying to assuage his guilt, but his heart would have none of it. “He needed me,” he whispered.
“And you are here.” Mariela soothed. “That is all that es importante now.”
It was nearly an hour later before Johnny’s grip on his brother eased as he finally fell asleep. Scott stood carefully, stretching his sore back and legs. Mariela motioned him over to a small table by one of the open windows, where she had a bowl of tortilla soup waiting.
“Eat. You need for strong.”
Scott feared anything he put into his stomach would make a repeat appearance, especially spicy Mexican food.
Jesus, that had been part of his argument for not coming with Johnny – his inability to tolerate three days of Mexican cooking.
“Little spice. Okay.” Mariela nodded at the bowl, seeming to read his mind.
Reluctantly, he raised it to his lips and took a small sip. He was extremely relieved that Mariela’s “little spice” was far closer to his definition than his younger brother’s.
“Thank you. It’s very good. Has Johnny been able to eat or drink anything?”
“Drink, yes. Better yesterday. Before, too sick.” She held up a napkin and mimed dripping water into her mouth.
Scott’s gaze drifted past her to where Johnny was already getting restless again. “I’m so grateful to all of you for your kind and expert care of him.”
“We are grateful, Señor. Johnny make to get bit in place of Arianna. Very big snake. She no live if snake bite her.” Tears brimmed in Mariela’s eyes as she looked at Johnny, too.
“Is there any other place besides that wretched doctor where I could get him something for the pain?”
Mariela shook her head, rerolling the end of a bandage on the table. “Nothing… tequila.”
Scott grimaced. He had to find a way to get Johnny to a doctor, or, better yet, home to see Sam. “Where might I send a telegram? Our father needs to know what happened.”
“In Cerrano,” she motioned with her hand. “Three hours.”
There was no way he was leaving Johnny. “Is there someone I could pay to go there to send one?”
“Pedro go, No pay.”
A choked noise came from the bed. Johnny recoiled suddenly, as if being stomped on. Scott rushed to his side. “Easy there.”
Scott was well aware of the horrific muscle spasms snake venom caused. Johnny’s lean body was rigid with them, growls and hisses of pain escaping his lips as he battled the pain.
Over the next two hours, Scott tried everything he could think of to soothe his younger brother’s torment; rubbing his back, offering tequila sticks, murmuring reassurances. The only thing that seemed to help was being close, as, once again, Johnny buried his face into Scott’s stomach and held onto his big brother’s arm for dear life.
“He need water.” Mariela had flitted in and out, as concerned with Scott’s comfort, kneeling by the low bed, as with Johnny’s. She’d brought him a pillow to kneel on, and another to lean against. She’d rolled a thick towel behind Johnny to prop him against Scott, so he wouldn’t have to hold on. She moved it now. “We try the glass. If not, we…” She demonstrated the drip technique again and motioned for Scott to help Johnny roll back.
That was easier said than done. While Johnny didn’t actively fight them, he was so rigid with pain, it was hard to get him to uncurl.
“Sorry, I know I’m not very good at this.” Scott apologized as Johnny smothered a cry at his attempt. “Try to relax back and let me hold you.”
Johnny at least attempted to obey. The spasms twanged as he tried, and he tensed again.
“Just a bit more, brother. There you go. We’ve got some nice cool water here. Can you open your eyes?”
Johnny forced his eyes open. Scott felt as though he could fall into the agony reflected there. He swallowed tightly. “A little water first, then some tequila to help the pain.”
Mariela nodded in agreement. She helped steady Johnny’s head as she brought the glass to his lips. Scott was relieved to see Johnny able to drink. They gave him several sips, resting for a bit in between. By the time they got to the tequila, Scott’s back was screaming from holding Johnny up.
Mariela set the tequila glass down and dipped her finger into a light brown paste. “Ginger y menta for stomach.”
Johnny opened his mouth. Mariela unhesitatingly rubbed the paste on the inside of his cheek.
“… gracias…” It was the first time Johnny had spoken in the four hours Scott had been there.
“De nada, Niño.” Mariela brushed a damp lock of hair from his forehead. She could hear the rasp in his voice and the stridor seeping into his breathing. She ran her fingers over the corded muscles of his neck. “Te duele?”
Scott was far from fluent in Spanish, but recognized the word for pain.
“…si…Mamacita…” It was barely a whisper.
“I give tu hermano medicine to help.”
Mariela came around the other side of the bed and held out a bowl containing a creamy salve, motioning for Scott to dip his hand in. Scott could feel the burn of the pepper on his skin, and even from any arms length away, his eyes began to water.
“Bad espasmos in neck after he swallow. Make headache and hard to breathe,” she explained, setting the bowl back down, then rubbing her hands together and demonstrating applying the salve on her own neck. “Warm and soft for muscles. No…” She tapped a finger by Scott’s eyes and then Johnny’s.
No chance I’m getting it anywhere near either of our faces! Scott thought as he carefully slid his hands behind Johnny’s neck, mindful not to get the salve on the pillowcase. Grimacing at how rock-hard the tendons were, he gently worked his fingers over the muscles. He was surprised when Johnny’s eyes opened.
“I was very glad to find this bowl here didn’t contain my lunch,” Scott joked, “There’s not enough buttermilk in the state of California to ease the inferno it would cause.”
Amazingly, Johnny smiled, even though Scott could feel him flinching from his touch.
“Look, I’m sweating already.” Scott continued, indeed feeling overly warm from the burning of his hands.
Mariela cleared a place for a bowl of water, soap, and some towels on the bedside table. She held up five fingers to show how many minutes he should rub the salve in for, then showed he should wash his hands carefully. After checking that he understood, Mariela left them alone.
Johnny continued to stare up at Scott, blinking slowly, tiny grimaces crossing his ashen features. Scott felt a hollow ache in his stomach. He cocked his head slightly to see Johnny full on. “Are you doing okay?”
Johnny gave a little half nod.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here, brother,” Scott whispered.
The exhausted eyes fell closed. “…s’okay…”
Scott shook his head. “No, it’s not. It was supposed to be our brother time and I bailed on you. I should have been here.”
Johnny managed a small smile. “…did ya win?”
Scott snorted, then smiled in return. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I did quite well.”
Johnny’s features tightened as a particularly strong spasm shuddered through him. But the smile stayed on his face. “I had faith in you…”
Johnny had faith in him. Unshakeable faith in his big brother. Except…
“Mariela said you were afraid I wouldn’t come because I was angry at you. I wasn’t angry, Johnny.”
“Yes, you were, Boston,” Johnny said quietly, not opening his eyes until after he’d taken a few steadying breaths. “But it’s okay, brothers get mad sometimes.”
Scott thought about their argument as he started to wash his hands using the strong soap. In particular, he recalled the hateful comment he’d made about “far preferring the culture of the private game room in Sacramento to burning my guts out at a drunken picnic in San Patricio.”
Yes, he’d had too much to drink, and yes, he really missed Boston’s sophisticated game rooms, and yes, he was angry that Johnny didn’t want to stay the extra days, but he never should have reacted that way.
Scott glanced at Johnny, then away as he dried his hands. “I shouldn’t have said what I did, and shouldn’t have broken my promise to come with you here, especially after we’d already stayed an extra day in Sacramento.” He looked back up to meet his brother’s eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“Believe me, I understand about missing things from before.” Johnny sighed. “It’s easier for me. If I miss the food, Maria makes me some, or I can go to a cantina. You’ve got a lot further to go. I shoulda just been happy you didn’t go all the way back to Boston.”
Scott frowned. “Do you really think I’d go back to Boston? I wouldn’t, Johnny, this is my home now.”
“Okay,” Johnny said softly, but not at all convincingly, as he curled tighter around himself, rocking slightly from the ongoing assault on his body.
Scott sat back down and started rubbing Johnny’s back. “Were you afraid I was going to leave Lancer just because I missed a few things from living in the city?”
It wasn’t hard to see why Johnny might fear that, given how no one or nothing good had ever lasted long in his childhood. It was exceedingly rare for Johnny to show any vulnerability around being abandoned again. But Scott was deeply aware it was a fear Johnny still struggled with.
It was a long time before Johnny spoke again.
“I heard you and Randall talking…”
“About..?” But as soon as he asked, Scott knew exactly the conversation Johnny had overheard. “Oh, Johnny, that was just drunken bluster. I wouldn’t want to go back to Boston.”
“But you do want to live in Sacramento,” Johnny said quietly, his glassy eyes fixed around knee-level. “That’s why you bought land there, and contracted with Haney, and offered to be the Cattlemen’s Association’s representative there.”
Scott’s heart sank. He’d hoped to talk to Johnny and Murdoch about his plans well in advance, but the opportunity with Haney came with an immediate deadline, and the vineyard had been too good a deal to pass up. For Johnny to have overheard him talking to Randall about it first, though, must have felt like a huge betrayal to his younger brother.
“I’m sorry, Johnny, I never meant for you to hear about it like that. I wanted to talk to you and Murdoch together. I shouldn’t have said anything to Randall.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Johnny’s voice was so low, Scott could barely discern it. But he had no trouble detecting the shuttering of his brother’s features and the subtle stiffening of Johnny’s back muscles beneath his hand.
“Of course it matters. You misunderstood. I’m not moving to Sacramento. I’ll just be making regular trips up there. And I thought you might like to become part owner of the vineyard with me. We could go together, have regular brother time…”
“Who’s gonna help Murdoch with the ranch? Besides, I ain’t got money for a vineyard. I’ve been saving to build another barn for the horses.”
“So it’s okay for you to want to start your own business, but not for me?”
As soon as it was out of his mouth, Scott regretted the harsh words.
“I never said there was anything wrong with you buying the vineyard, just that I ain’t interested in it.” Johnny said softly, closing his eyes. “I’m kinda tired, Boston. I’m gonna see if I can sleep.”
Scott knew Johnny wasn’t asleep; his muscles were too corded, his breathing too heavily controlled. Catching a sigh just short of it becoming audible, he sank back in the chair, staring at the death-grip Johnny had on the blanket.
Johnny had every right to be angry at him. Hell, he was angry with himself. As hard as it was to know he’d been away when Johnny needed him, it was ten times harder to be in the same room with his brother with this distance between them.
Pedro came in to get the wording for the telegram.
Johnny’s eyes flashed open. “Don’t wire Murdoch.”
“He’d want to know, Johnny. And we’ll need a wagon to get you home.”
“No, you know he’ll kill his back gettin’ here. By then, I’ll be able to ride.”
“You’re not going to be able to ride for weeks. Uht, don’t give me the ‘I’ve done it hurt worse’ line. You won’t be doing it this time.”
“No telegram.” Johnny’s eyes shot fire.
Scott leaned back. After a moment, he turned to Pedro. “I guess we’ll hold off for now. Thanks for offering to go, though.”
Pedro left the brothers alone, seeing they had some talking to do.
Scott could only wish he knew what to say. Finally, he went with, “It’s time for more water.”
Johnny didn’t argue, and didn’t resist Scott’s help to sit up. He grimaced as he tried to reposition his swollen calf. Scott glanced at the bite wound, then quickly away.
“How’s your leg feeling?”
“Like Barranca ran over it…twice.”
Scott gave him a sympathetic smile. “Do you want some more tequila?”
Johnny shook his head. It was obvious to Scott that the pain was bad, but he decided not to push…yet.
“Did you at least get to enjoy the fiesta before the snake intervened?”
Johnny smiled a little. “Not too much. Was just on my way to get tamales…dang snake.”
“I’m sorry,” Scott meant for far more than the missed tamales. “I promise I’ll get you some as soon as you’re ready to tolerate them.”
“Ready according to who? I ain’t waitin’ until… you think I’m ready…” Johnny curled tighter into himself, enduring another twisting spasm. His breathing was measured and difficult. He was far from out of the woods and Scott felt Murdoch should know.
Johnny gave a little shudder as he came out on the other side of it, slowly flexing his hands from their grip on the blanket. “Tell me more about your vineyard.”
Scott felt another stab of guilt. But he spoke quietly about his days in Sacramento, realizing that the day he toured the rolling hills with Preston Davis was likely the day Johnny had been bitten. Johnny listened quietly, asking questions if Scott fell silent, uncomplaining as his body was ravaged by gnawing teeth and bone-breaking cramps. Scott wiped the sweat and pain-tears from his brother’s ashen face, his voice faltering as he witnessed the torment. He fed Johnny Mariela’s tea until, ignoring Johnny’s protest, he switched over to tequila.
Johnny allowed only a few sips before turning his head away, “…makes it… sneak up on me…”
Scott frowned, freeing a damp lock of hair from Johnny’s temple. “The pain?”
Johnny fought to find his voice again. “Mmm… kinda like movin’ beeves… gotta pay attention… or ya get trampled…”
Scott’s lean fingers massaged the tight muscles of Johnny’s neck. “You’ve been riding drag a long time on this drive,” he observed sympathetically.
Johnny gave a small laugh that turned into a cough. “Yeah, sure feels like it.”
“Anything I can do to help?” Scott reluctantly set down the tequila and picked up the water. He had to wait out a double spasm before Johnny could drink.
“Doin’ it, Boston.”
Scott didn’t feel like he was doing much of anything. He noticed, though, that Johnny’s hand had migrated back in contact with his arm. The tight, cold fingers traced an erratic pattern against his sleeve. Even hours later, when it appeared Johnny was finally falling asleep, his forehead now pressed against Scott, too, the fingers never stilled, as if keying out a comforting lullaby through their connectedness.
Scott refused to be relieved by Mariela, or Pedro, or newcomer, Fernando. If the only solace Johnny could find from the simmering and flaring pain was that touch, Scott would not break it.
As the hours ticked into night, he noticed a distinct increase in Johnny’s restlessness, and the venomous spasms that took Johnny’s breath away.
“Fiebre es bad at night.” Mariela acknowledged the increasing heat Scott had already detected as she set a fresh bowl of water and cloth on the table beside him. “I pray last night was el peor, and no more tonight.”
There was no luck for that.
It seemed impossible for Johnny’s pain-ravaged body to muster the perpetual restlessness that never allowed him a moment’s respite. Fernando wordlessly jumped in to bathe Johnny’s fiery skin or gently brace his injured leg which wasn’t exempted from the unsettled movements, yet stole Johnny’s breath whenever the muscles contracted.
Through it all, Johnny remained heartbreakingly silent. Scott had seen it before, after Johnny had been shot in Pardee’s raid. Once Johnny slid into the dark cavern of high fever, he unconsciously shifted into Madrid mode —a base survival instinct that smothered all sound to keep enemies at bay.
Scott longed to rescue Johnny from that lonely protectiveness, to help him understand that his big brother was watching over him, keeping him safe. But Johnny was too immersed to hear his gentle reassurances.
Although intended to ease the strain on Scott’s back and leg muscles, Fernando’s suggestion that they push the bed against the wall provided just that opportunity. Scott could sit on the bed and lean back against the wall, cradling Johnny in his pillow-supported arms. Within moments, Johnny’s restless thrashing eased. He pressed his hot forehead into Scott’s stomach, allowing a soft moan.
“There you go, brother,” Scott murmured, bowing his head down close. “I’m here. Let yourself relax.”
As the fever raged, Johnny mumbled, or called out warnings to his mother or to Scott, but Scott’s gentle, reassuring voice would quickly settle him, no matter which language he was mired in. Fernando continued to cool Johnny’s fever until it finally broke around midnight. The pillows he had arranged around the brothers created a comfortable cocoon. Knowing Johnny felt safe in his arms helped Scott relax and sleep when Johnny did. The night passed quietly, with only a few spasms that were strong enough to cut through Johnny’s exhausted slumber. The brothers rode them out together, and then, together, drifted back to sleep.
Johnny rallied as the morning sun streamed through the window, a soft wind rippling the short, white curtains. He was able to take a little soup, propped up with several pillows. His pain was less, or he hid it better. Scott suspected it was the latter. Johnny drifted somewhere shy of sleep for most of the day. Sudden spasms would make him catch his breath and tense, but he rarely opened his eyes or seemed aware of Scott’s words of comfort.
Johnny held that bond to his brother, though. He might grip the bedclothes into tight fists when a spasm tore through him, but always afterwards, he’d slide his hand to lie just touching Scott. Against his knee or hand if Scott was holding vigil in the chair, or his stomach if Scott was kneeling by the bed to hold him while Mariela cleaned the bite wound.
It was a quiet, restful day. But a rapidly rising fever and vicious, tearing spams hit simultaneously in the early evening spiraling Johnny into a terrifying delirium and writhing restlessness that nothing seemed to soothe. They bathed him in cool water, applied Mariela’s poultices and potions, dripped water and tequila between his cracked and bleeding lips.
The pain broke before the fever did. It terrified Scott when Johnny abruptly fell limp. He was so desperately pale and barely breathing. Scott climbed back into the bed, drawing Johnny into his lap and tight against his chest, pleading with his brother not to leave him. For an hour, he cajoled, cried, and begged, never seeing any response from Johnny’s limp and gray-hued body.
Until, suddenly, Johnny took a deep shuddering breath as if breaking to the surface after nearly drowning. Within minutes they were both soaked in sweat as the fever broke and Johnny’s breathing fell into a deep and even pattern. Scott leaned his head back against the wall, unashamed of the tears that streaked his face as he murmured an exhausted prayer of gratitude.
The terrible night was indeed a turning point. The next morning, Johnny was arguing to get out of bed, wheedling tortilla soup out of Mariela, and bugging Scott about going home.
“Johnny, your fever was so high just twelve hours ago, Mariela used your forehead to roast the peppers for her soup!” Scott was at once exasperated and relieved by the return of his brother’s sickbed behaviors. “You are not going anywhere until you’ve been at least twenty four hours without a fever!”
Scott could swear he saw Johnny pout, before a somewhat glassy-eyed glint returned to his brother’s expression. “Would you take Barranca for a run for me? He’s got to be going crazy in that little corral by the livery. You know he won’t let anybody else ride him.”
“And whose fault is that, little brother? You spoil him rotten so he doesn’t know what to do without you.”
“Like you spoil me.” Johnny murmured so low, Scott barely caught it. Louder, he said, “You need to get out of this room as much as Barranca needs to get out of the livery. Maybe while you’re gone, Mariela will bring me up some tamales.” He gave the older woman a hopeful look.
“No, no, Niño,” Mariela shook a finger at him, but her smile was wide. In Spanish she said she would have Fernando help her wash Johnny up and change his sheets while Scott was gone.
Even though he didn’t catch all the words, Scott got the gist of it by the crestfallen look on Johnny’s face. He chuckled, patting his brother consolingly on the knee. “You enjoy your bath, little brother, while I suffer through riding Barranca flat out on the beach on this miserably sunny day.”
Johnny cursed him with a word that was practically the same in English and Spanish as he laughingly left the room.
Scott walked Remmie down the first length of the stone path toward the river’s edge, then ground-tied him under a sprawling oak within nickering distance of his stable mate, Barranca. Remmie was about as sure-footed as they came, but the rounded river stones that covered the remainder of the steep path seemed to lie in wait to wrench an unsuspecting hoof. Or twist an unsuspecting ankle, Scott thought, as a solid-looking foothold suddenly shifted beneath his right foot, sending him into a half-hobble, half breakneck slide the rest of the way down to where his brother was perched on a large, flat rock.
“How on earth did your sore leg tolerate the trip down here? And do you have any idea how much harder it’s going to be going back up?”
Johnny chuckled without taking his eyes off the glittering pool of crystal clear water that ponded quietly off to the side of the fast current. “That horse soldier straight back of yours will git ya every time. Ya gotta become one with the earth instead of fighting it.”
“Don’t pull that Apache bullshit on me.You probably slid down here on your ass.” Scott leaned over to check what he could see of the back of Johnny’s pants, earning him a swat on the leg from his brother.
“Did not.” But the enigmatic smile made Scott suspect he’d guessed correctly.
“Sam would have your hide if he knew you were out here. He doesn’t want you up on your leg, doesn’t want you riding, and sure as heck doesn’t want you to risk breaking open that wound on that ridiculous rock slide.”
“I hope you didn’t come all this way just to nag me. I get more than enough from Sam, Murdoch, Teresa, and Maria.”
Scott quickly checked the base of a cottonwood tree for critters before easing himself down against it with a grunt. “So I’m the one who doesn’t nag, yet I always get stuck chasing after you to drag you back home again, nearly breaking my neck in the process.”
“That’s what big brothers are for.” Johnny smiled as he collected several water-worn stones and rolled them around in his hands.
“I wish I’d known that before I signed up for the job, I might have worn better boots.” Riding boots were definitely not made for walking over rocky ground. Scott pulled his off, then his socks, and began rolling up his pant legs in preparation for wading into the water.
“Aw, now, ya ain’t gonna tease me by going in the water when I’ve been a good boy and stayed out…” Johnny whined.
“I most certainly am.” Scott grinned, carefully picking his way down to the edge. “Payback for making me search all over kingdom-come for you.” He gasped as his feet hit the icy water.
“A bit cold, brother?”
“Not at all.” Scott gritted, holding his breath, waiting for the daggers of pain to subside. “Cool and refreshing…”
“Try saying that without your teeth chattering.”
Scott bent and hand-shoveled two scoops of water at Johnny’s face.
“You are so lucky I’m being an obedient patient or you’d be struggling to come up for air in those rapids over there!” Johnny wiped his face off on his sleeve and started pitching stones at his brother’s feet, knowing even the tiniest hits would feel like bullet wounds to the frozen limbs.
“Quit it or I’ll drag you in here and let Sam and Murdoch take turns tanning your backside.”
Scott didn’t linger in the frigid water, as he could feel the cold kindling a headache. He settled himself back under the tree, angled so his upper body was in the shade but his feet captured the warmth of the sun. He enjoyed the brotherly banter, especially after the terrifying ordeal in San Patricio and the exhausting and uncomfortable ride home.
But the light mood wouldn’t last.
He was leaving for Sacramento in the morning and he knew Johnny was upset about it. The younger man made a good play at hiding it. He even helped Scott convince Murdoch of the benefits of diversifying and of having Scott’s politically influential presence at the governor’s side. But while Johnny Madrid was a master at masking his emotions and reactions, Johnny Lancer wasn’t… at least not from his big brother. Scott noticed Johnny lost his voracious appetite whenever the topic came up at dinner. As Scott described his plans while the family gathered in the great room, Johnny listened intently and asked well-considered questions, but, invariably, he’d quickly excuse himself to an early bedtime.
Scott couldn’t blame Johnny for having residual anger over what happened after the last trip to Sacramento, but neither could he stand to have it lying between them, as dangerous as the rattlesnake that had bitten Johnny. Sam said Johnny would likely carry a permanent scar from the encounter. Scott feared their relationship might as well, if they didn’t find a way to work it out.
Johnny apparently sensed the unease his thoughts wrought.
“So, Boston, what really brings you out here if not to nag me about my rule-breaking?”
Scott glanced over to find Johnny’s gaze on the swiftly moving water and a large branch that was caught up in thick brush on the opposite bank. Scott watched for a bit while the current twisted and pulled at the limb, trying to break it free. He exhaled slowly, hoping to settle his churning stomach.
“I wanted to talk about my trip to Sacramento tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry about me being laid up. I’ll just switch out jobs with Walt and oversee the controlled burn for the firebreak over on Horsehead Ridge. I can do that from Barranca’s back, or, if worse comes to worst, from a wagon, if Murdoch makes me. We’ll be fine.”
“I’m not worried about the work. Remember that we agreed to bring on Cole and Martin to cover my jobs while I’m away, paid for out of the vineyard profits?”
“Yeah,” a little half grin, “though why you think it takes two men to cover your lazy ass, I’ll never know.”
Scott was only close enough for his backhand to barely catch Johnny’s arm. “ Ha, ha. You’ll notice that we didn’t have to hire anyone to cover your jobs these last three weeks.”
“So how come you and Jelly have done nothing but bellyache about how exhausted you are at dinner every night?”
“We haven’t…ugh, stop trying to sidetrack me.” Scott became serious. “I want us to work out this stuff between us before I go… or maybe I don’t go at all. I’m not willing to sacrifice our relationship for anything in Sacramento.”
Johnny looked at him with confusion. “What are you talking about, brother?”
Scott groaned in exasperation. “I understand if you’re still mad at me over staying in Sacramento instead of going to the fiesta. And if the mention of Sacramento makes you relive the hell you went through because I wasn’t there for you, I’ll sell off the vineyard and step down from the Cattlemen’s Association position. I don’t blame you a bit for being furious at me for not discussing it with you before I made those major decisions and I’m not willing to let it keep coming between us!”
Johnny turned to face Scott. “Whoa. None of what you just said is true. I’m ain’t mad at you and I don’t want you to give up any of that stuff that you want to do up there. I thought you knew I supported you. I even talked it up to Murdoch with ya.”
Scott studied the earnestness of his brother’s expression and saw the truth beneath the words. It confused the hell out of him because he knew something was going on behind Johnny’s sapphire eyes. “Every time we talk about Sacramento, you lose your appetite and go out to the barn or up to your room. And don’t tell me you weren’t still mad at me on that awful ride home, you almost bit my hand off every time I tried to help you. It’s okay that you’re mad, I would be in your position.”
Scott saw realization spark in Johnny’s eyes. Immediately, the young man went pale and dropped his gaze to his hands.
“Aw, jeez, brother. I ain’t mad. Sorry I’ve been an ass.”
“Johnny, I’m not saying you’ve been an ass or that you’ve done anything wrong. But something is obviously bothering you and I want to know what it is. No, I need to know what it is. I never meant to hurt you with any of this.”
“You didn’t,” Johnny responded, so quietly Scott had to lean forward to hear him. “I’m just being stupid.”
“About..?” Scott moved closer, sensing Johnny was really struggling with something.
Johnny tilted his head away. “I… sorta don’t want you to go… but not cuz I’m mad or anything.”
Understanding hit Scott like a lightning bolt. “Because you’ll miss me?” he asked gently.
Johnny blinked several times, staring off over Scott’s shoulder at the water. “Worse.”
Scott knitted his brows. “Worse? There’s nothing wrong with missing family when you’re away. In fact, it’s part of what family is.” He put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “I’ll miss you, too. Very much. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Johnny shook his head, looking absolutely bereft. Scott gave him time to find his words. “After Mama died, I was alone.” His dark hair shadowed his face as he bowed his head. “Sometimes, even when she was still alive, I felt that way. Those last couple years…” He fell silent.
Scott remembered feeling the same way with his emotionally distant grandfather —totally alone, even when surrounded by people. He didn’t share that thought, though. Johnny had been more than lonely. He’d been abandoned to a horrific existence no child should have lived. Scott let his attentive silence and a gentle squeeze to his brother’s shoulder show his support.
“For a lot of years, I was kinda proud to be on my own, ya know? I didn’t need anyone. What bad stuff came, I took. I pulled myself up and kept going. I always came out the other side.” Johnny picked up a small twig and began peeling the bark off it. “In San Patricio, it was different. I needed you…”
“And I wasn’t there. God, Johnny, I’m so sorry.” Scott’s words came out in a sob. “If I could do it over…”
“No!” Johnny grabbed Scott’s arm in a vice-like grip. “That’s not what I’m saying. You were there! You kept me alive, made me keep pushing. But I know if it wasn’t for you coming for me, I wouldn’t have survived. I didn’t have the strength. I needed you!” The anguish in his brother’s eyes tore into Scott’s heart. “What’s wrong with me that I can’t stand on my own two feet anymore? How can I be a grown man, yet need you so much I’m afraid you’re going to decide you like Sacramento better than Lancer?”
“Oh, Johnny, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you.” Scott drew Johnny’s head to lean against his. “I feel the exact same way about you. You have no idea how many nights I’ve lain awake in bed, thinking that if you ever decided to go back to Mexico, I wouldn’t know what to do without you. And, God, when I heard that you’d been snake bit, and saw how close you were to dying, I literally could not breathe. The second night when you had that horrible fever, I thought I was watching the life being burned right out of you. I prayed that God would take me in your place, or at least take me too, because I didn’t want to live without you.”
Scott held Johnny close, letting his words sink in, getting comfort as much as he was giving it. He whispered soothingly, “It’s scary as hell, but I think that’s what being brothers means.”
The silence that followed eased the turmoil that had plagued each of the brothers over the past weeks.
After a while, Johnny leaned back, rubbing the back of his hand across his face. “Damn, this family shit is complicated.”
Scott chuckled, moving back beneath the tree to don his socks and shoes, feeling as if a massive weight had been lifted from his shoulders. “And it’ll be even more complicated when we try to explain to Murdoch where we’ve been. But before we tackle that mountain, I have a proposition for you that will have us spending more time together than we’ll probably want. Would you consider letting me become a junior partner in your horse breeding business?”
“I’m not letting you give up your vineyard, Scott,” Johnny argued.
“That isn’t what I’m suggesting. You invest a small amount of money in the vineyard as a junior partner. I, in turn, will invest the same amount of money in the horse breeding business. You’ll be managing partner with the horses, I’ll be managing partner with the vineyard, but we’ll still need to work together on both as well as carry our weight here at the ranch.”
“Managing partner,” Johnny echoed, running the idea over in his head with a frown of concentration that abruptly turned to a smile. “Does that mean I’ll call the tune with the horses?”
Scott grinned in return. “Yes, and I’ll call the tune in the vineyard.”
“Well, Brother, I think you have a great idea there. And I’m in, on one condition.”
“And what would that be?”
“You explain it to the Chief Tune Caller back at the hacienda.”
“Deal,” Scott chuckled. He lost his smile as he eyed the steep trail back to the horses. “I really hope that leg of yours can make it up there.”
Johnny eased himself to his feet, unable to hide the grimace that accompanied the movement. He followed Scott’s gaze. “I tell you what, Boston. Being the considerate little brother that I am, to ease your worry, I’ll allow you to carry me back up. I remember reading in that big brother book you always call on that big brothers have to give their little brothers piggyback rides. Page seventeen.”
At the look Scott gave him, Johnny laughed and pointed to a second trail hidden behind the tree Scott had been sitting beneath. “That’s the way I came down. A nice gentle slope…” He ducked as Scott swatted him with his hat.
“You couldn’t have told me that before I nearly broke my neck getting down here?”
Johnny threw his arm over Scott’s shoulders to use him as a crutch. “Now what would be the fun in that, brother?”
March 2020 rev July 2021
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