Summary: Becky’s portion of the LancerTV chain story – Scott and Johnny have been walking all over the desert with various bullet wounds inflicted by a man from Scott’s past, who blames Scott for the death of his pregnant sister when their regiment burned her land during Sherman’s march. The man is dead, and Murdoch and Jelly found the brothers and brought them home. How’s that for a quick synopsis???
Word Count: 16,800
The battle for Scott Lancer’s life dragged on for days. The doctor had been waiting for them in the living room, but as soon as he heard the sound of the wagon he dashed outside, barely ahead of Teresa. One look at Scott was sufficient to tell him he was in for an extended fight, but he could see that Johnny Lancer needed help, too. He started issuing orders.
Jelly dashed to open the doors to the ranch house so they’d have a clear path carrying Scott to his room. Teresa ran to the kitchen to fetch the hot water she’d kept at a near-boil all morning. Murdoch shouted for more men to help carry his oldest son inside.
The doctor climbed up into the bed of the wagon next to Johnny and gently detached his hand from his brother’s.
“Johnny,” he called, snapping his fingers in front of the younger man’s eyes. “You’re home, Johnny, you can let go now.”
“Can’t,” mumbled Johnny. “Gotta stay with Scott or he’ll leave.”
Doc Jenkins sighed. It was going to be like that, was it? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time he’d seen the grit and determination of one family member help save another. In the meantime, though . . . “Let me see that shoulder,” he said, pushing the exhausted young man back against the side of the wagon. He lifted the makeshift poncho someone had given him, like his brother, to help protect them from the sun.
“No, can’t leave–”
“Leave him be for a minute so your father can get him upstairs. The quicker you let me tend to you, the quicker you can join him.”
“The doc’s right,” came Murdoch’s calm voice from behind him.
“He’s gotta help Scott,” Johnny answered desperately.
“He will,” soothed Murdoch. “But he may as well tend you while we get Scott upstairs. Now, behave yourself, son; you’re just delaying things.”
At that, Johnny finally acquiesced – he wouldn’t let anything get in the way of helping his brother.
Relieved, Doc Jenkins helped him to the ground, finally allowing the men room to get to Scott. He and Murdoch eased Johnny into the house, but as soon as they got him onto the couch, Murdoch was back out the door to supervise the moving of his other son.
Johnny relaxed into the corner of the couch, his head tipped back against the soft cushions as he slowly tried to relax. A sharp prodding at his shoulder brought a low moan to his throat, and he caught his lower lip between his teeth to stifle a second.
“This needs to be cleaned out good,” said the doctor, “but I don’t have much time.”
“Do . . . what you gotta,” he gasped.
Doc Jenkins studied him for a moment. “All right. This is going to hurt like hell, Johnny, but it’s the quickest way to stave off any infection.”
Johnny nodded. Even in his increasingly bleary state, he knew what the doctor had in mind. “Brandy . . . in the cabinet.” He watched as if from a great distance while the doctor gathered his tools. He heard him call out, “Jelly, over here,” then the raspy voice answering, “Jaysus, Doc! You sure?”
Then someone put a rolled cloth between his teeth, he was pushed forward onto Jelly, somehow his shirt was off, and cold liquid poured fire on his aching shoulder. He saw the flame move quickly from the fireplace to someplace behind him, and tried to brace himself. He buried his head in the old man’s shoulder, but even so, his scream was heard throughout the house. He didn’t feel it when the doctor touched the burning stick to the alcohol-soaked wound on his chest, though – he’d passed out into Jelly’s arms.
Fortunately, the men had already lowered Scott to the bed when Johnny’s scream tore through the house, for everyone in the room flinched. Teresa turned white at the sound, but Murdoch steadied her with a touch on the arm.
“Doc’ll be up here in a few minutes. Let’s get Scott ready for him.”
She nodded and set about removing Scott’s bloodstained poncho by virtue of cutting it off of him with her sewing shears, but her eyes traveled often to the open door.
Taking pity on her distress, Murdoch rose. “I’ll check on him and be right back.”
She nodded once more, and he smiled. “Good girl. Time enough for all of us to fall apart later.” He waited for her to smile back, and when she did – granted, just a slight tilt of the upturned lips – he headed downstairs.
He found his youngest unconscious in Jelly’s arms, tears running unashamedly down the old man’s face.
“That’ll do for now,” the doctor said, tying off the last bandage around Johnny’s chest. “He’s likely to feel sick when he wakes up, so get him up to bed. I’ll wrap his ankle later, after I finish with Scott.”
Full-grown Johnny Lancer might be, but his father was tall and strong, and he easily lifted his son from Jelly’s arms into his own. He stood for a moment, gazing down on his son’s face, now tucked almost trustingly against his shoulder, his boy’s arms and legs hanging like a gangly colt’s.
“Anybody’d think you was makin’ up fer lost time,” muttered Jelly roughly as he wiped the moisture from his face.
Murdoch headed for the stairs, and Jelly thought he heard his boss and friend answer, “Anybody’d probably be right.”
Teresa had just finished getting Scott settled in his bed and was trying to decide whether or not to remove the rough dressings on his wounds when the doctor finally arrived. He looked approvingly at the shears she still held.
“Let’s see if we can get these bandages off without doing any more damage,” he said.
They worked side by side, Teresa ready with whatever the doctor needed. Once they had the bloody cloths free, they set to work to repair the damage wreaked by the three bullets. Teresa took care of the scrape on Scott’s arm while the doctor examined his other wounds. She gave the bloody gash a quick wash with a cloth and a liberal rinsing with the bottle of brandy, followed by a simple gauze wrapping. Doc Jenkins nodded approvingly. They both knew that, although the other wounds were more serious, as weak as Scott was, an infection from even this scrape could be deadly. Nothing could be ignored.
Teresa had already cleaned the medical instruments for him by laying them in a shallow bowl and pouring boiling water over them. One night when he was their dinner guest, she’d overheard him talking to Scott about medical treatment on the battlefield. A casual comment by the doctor had led Scott to ask some pointed and discerning questions. Soon Doc Jenkins found he had a willing, educated and interested listener for discussions of the latest theories on cleanliness and infection. Johnny, Jelly and Murdoch had retreated hastily to the porch for after-dinner cigars and brandy at the first mention of amputation, but Teresa had found herself fascinated. She didn’t understand as much as Scott, but she had a frontierswoman’s practical experience with injuries and medicine, and she’d learned a lot that night. She had hoped she would never have to practice what she’d learned, especially not on her family, but she was comforted, knowing that Doc Jenkins would be able to give her dear friends – brothers by love, if not blood – the very best care available.
Doc Jenkins saw the tears in her eyes, but also knew she would never falter. He smiled at her, wondering once more how anyone could speak of women as the weaker sex. In purely physical terms, perhaps they were, but in everything else – fortitude, resilience, stamina, enduring both physical and emotional pain – he’d rarely seen men who could consistently match them.
“You’re doing fine, Teresa. If I manage to pull him through this, it will be because of your help.” He was pleased to see fresh strength in the way she straightened her spine. Yes, this girl had courage.
They continued to work on the ugly wounds, and he was dimly aware of other people appearing at the doorway as he probed, cut, cleaned, and sewed. He took no real notice of them, though, until Murdoch Lancer’s hand appeared practically in front of his face, holding a glass of pure, sparkling, cool water. Lancer held it for him, for his own hands were covered in gore from trying to repair Scott’s damaged lung, and he drained it gratefully. Lancer then wet a spare cloth and gently wiped his face. Refreshed, the doctor went back to work.
A while later, when he was cleaned up a bit and about to start on the wound from the bullet that had torn through Scott’s side, Murdoch pushed him back from the bed for a moment and handed him a steaming mug of coffee, liberally laced with cream and sugar. Not only was it fixed exactly to his taste, it was also a welcome boost to his energy.
He took a deep breath, straightened, and blinked in the lamplight, suddenly aware of the reason for his fatigue – he’d been working all afternoon on Scott Lancer, and now dusk had fallen.
Murdoch took advantage of the break in the doctor’s attention to ask, “How’s it going?”
“He’s still alive,” Doc Jenkins answered brusquely.
“How much longer?” Jelly asked, his face creased in worn-down grief.
“Don’t know,” he shot back. “And the longer we jabber, the longer it’ll be.”
Jelly started to huff in indignation, but Murdoch soothed him with a hand on his shoulder. “Doc, he just wants to know so he can bring you something to eat if you need it.”
Jenkins calmed, already ashamed of his outburst. “Sorry. Thank you, Jelly, but I think I’ll be finished soon. Or at least I will have done everything I could. After that, it’ll be mostly up to your friend.”
“Teresa, how are you holding up?” Murdoch asked.
“I’m fine,” she protested.
Jenkins checked her over professionally. “She’ll last, Murdoch. She’s got sand. But she’ll likely need to sleep for a good three days when this is all over.”
“Three days!” she squeaked, indignant. “I will not!”
The others all laughed, a relief of tension that left them a bit giddy.
“Now, go on, you two.” Doc Jensen shooed at Murdoch and Jelly. “We’ll let you know if we need anything.”
“All right,” said Murdoch. “I’ll go check on Johnny, then make sure there’s something cooking downstairs.”
Teresa started to say something but Jelly cut her off. “Don’t you worry none, little gal. I found everythin’ you set out, and I got a right tasty stew goin’ from it. You know it’ll just get better, the longer it cooks, so jest take your time.” He sobered then, as did they all when they followed his gaze to the blonde young man lying so still and silent on the bed. “Jest . . . take your time.”
Johnny had passed from unconsciousness straight into an exhausted sleep, so Murdoch didn’t disturb him. He stood in the darkened room for a long time, though, staring down at his youngest son, seeing his older boy in his mind, wondering if he was going to lose one or both of them.
That long night by the campfire, Johnny had told him what happened to them, and a bit of why, but they’d both been too busy trying to keep Scott alive to think much about the scars the eldest Lancer son already carried. Now, though, Murdoch was thinking about what Scott had been through. Everyone knew or could guess that Johnny’d had a rough time growing up – it showed in his easy way of walking, the soft drawl, the straight look in his eyes. Everything about him declared that he was a man to be respected.
In contrast, Scott appeared almost frail sometimes. He was thinner, almost fine-boned, and his ready smile and friendly gaze, along with the knowledge that until recently he’d spent his life in the civilized East, led people to think he was an easy mark. Murdoch had known better almost immediately upon meeting his older son, and it hadn’t taken Johnny or the more perceptive of the ranch hands much longer. The locals soon learned that Scott had one of the finest minds in the Valley and was as hard to best at business as he was at cards. Then the word got out that he’d fought in the War, that he’d survived a year in a Confederate prison. Few who heard chose to take him on physically, either, after those revelations. There was a resilient, whipcord strength in that slim body. Murdoch hoped that it would be enough to keep him alive.
The dark young man who lay before him was, at first appearance, much sturdier, but the emotions of this second son, Murdoch had decided, were much more fragile than his brother’s. A legacy of growing up without any parents, he supposed. He hadn’t been able to be parent to either boy, but Scott, at least, had had Harlan Garrett. For better or worse, his grandfather had loved him and cared for him. Johnny’s mother had done the best she could by their son, but once she died, his youngest had been alone, and it had marked him. Murdoch worried for Scott’s life, but he worried for this one’s soul if he should lose his new-found brother.
Johnny stirred restlessly, and Murdoch pulled a chair up next to his bed. He checked for fever and, finding him a little warm, dampened a cloth to lay on his forehead. Johnny’s eyes opened, their vivid blue dulled by fatigue and pain.
“Murdoch?” he whispered.
“I’m here,” Murdoch answered quietly, his deep voice a reassuring rumble.
“Scott?” The hopeful expression on his son’s face filled in the rest of the question.
Never one to mollycoddle people, Murdoch answered bluntly. “Doc’s still working on him. So far so good, but we probably won’t know anything until tomorrow. He’s in pretty bad shape. How are you feeling?”
“Oh,” Johnny murmured lightly, “all things considered, not too bad.”
“Are you up to eating anything yet? Jelly has some stew going, he could make up a bowl of broth.”
Johnny’s lips twisted in a grimace. “Don’ think so, yet. My head’s still swimming. I’d about kill for some water, though.”
Murdoch poured a glass from the pitcher on the endtable, then slid an arm under his son’s shoulders, carefully avoiding his wound. He lifted him just enough to drink, and waited patiently for Johnny to finish the glass. “Do you want more?”
“No,” he answered faintly, eyes closing. “Maybe later. Just . . . keep me up on Scott . . .”
“I will,” Murdoch promised.
Johnny nodded once, satisfied. He and Murdoch understood each other. Neither would be thankful for someone trying to save them from eventual pain. They’d rather hear the truth, no matter how tough. So Johnny could rest, knowing that his father would tell him straight out if the worst happened. And Murdoch knew that, no matter what pain it might bring his son, if Scott didn’t make it, he would wake Johnny and tell him.
So Johnny slipped into deep slumber while his father sat, unable to sleep, at his side.
Teresa didn’t stay asleep for three days, but the sun was well up in the sky the next day before she opened her eyes. She groaned softly when she tried to move. Every muscle in her body ached, and she desperately needed a drink of water. And a scalding hot cup of coffee, she thought as she dragged herself to a sitting position. She stretched, trying to work out some of the soreness, and realized she’d been hearing voices murmuring on the other side of her door.
“It ain’t botherin’ someone just to peek to see if they’s awake,” came the unmistakably gruff voice of the old man she’d come to love as a grandfather.
“If you wake her up, I’m going to–” but here Murdoch Lancer had to break off, because Jelly had opened the door and discovered she was not only awake, but ready to get up.
“See? I tole ya she’d be needin’ somethin’ to eat.” He brought his cloth-covered tray to the table by her bed, and his voice instantly changed from gruff and haughty to soothing and concerned. “You doin’ all right, honey?” he asked, eyebrows raised in worry.
Murdoch followed him, as usual when dealing with the ranch foreman, exasperation warring with amusement.
“Scott and Johnny?” she asked immediately, though she knew Murdoch and Jelly well enough to know the news wouldn’t be devastating. They wouldn’t have been sparring in that half-serious, half-fooling way if either of the Lancer boys had died in the night.
“Pretty much the same,” said Murdoch calmly. “Give Johnny a day or so to sleep and he’ll be on the mend. As for Scott, he’s still holding on. Doc Jenkins says if he can make it through the next couple of days, then he has a chance. I hope you slept well, because we’re going to need your help.”
Jelly had been fussing with the tray, setting it across her legs, laying the cloth on her lap and pouring her coffee. She drained it, followed by the glass of fresh juice and began to feel more human. “I slept just fine, though I feel like I spent the last few days in the saddle.”
Murdoch smiled at her description and with satisfaction, watched her dig into her meal. “It’s hard work to stand like you did, especially when you’re worried and strained tight. I imagine that after you’ve had some breakfast and had a short ride you’ll feel a lot better.”
She’d picked up a piece of preserves-covered fresh bread and now waved it at him as she looked him straight in the eye. “If you think I’m going to go riding when Scott and Johnny–“
Murdoch interrupted. “Teresa, this is going to be hard on all of us. We can’t afford to wear ourselves out or skip meals or not get any fresh air. You’ll have your turn with the boys, believe me.”
“I’m sorry,” she said and dropped her gaze to the napkin she was twisting into knots. “I’m just so worried about them, and I’m the best qualified nurse we have.”
He took the long step to stand at her side and cupped the side of her head in his large, work-roughened hand. She leaned into it, her trust for this man almost overcoming her worry for the two she considered her brothers.
“I know you are,” he said. “That’s why we have to be especially careful not to wear you out. When you can rest, you will, because we don’t know what we’re facing with Scott.”
“Yeah,” Jelly inserted. “He could take on a fever, gettin’ all delirious and rollin’ around in bed, rip them wounds open, and if you was all tuckered out, why, where’d we be then?”
“Jelly,” Murdoch warned. “I don’t think we need to create any more excitement than we already have.”
“Oh. Yeah.” He snatched up Teresa’s finished tray. “I’m just gonna take this back down, now she’s done et it all. Some folks around here know how to follow advice, unlike them’s what gives it and then turns right around and ignores it.”
Teresa’s lips quirked up in amusement as Jelly left the room. “You didn’t finish your breakfast?”
Murdoch had the grace to look a bit abashed. He shook his head. “I thought I’d heard Johnny calling.”
“Well, if he hasn’t yet, he will soon, and I’d better be dressed and ready. I want to speak with the doctor before he leaves, too.” She started to scoot out of bed.
“We’ll likely be in Scott’s room,” Murdoch said. “Join us either there or downstairs for coffee.”
“Murdoch . . .” she said pensively, her gaze on the far wall as if she could see through it to the deathly ill man in the next room.
“I don’t know, Teresa,” he answered her unspoken question. “I just don’t know.”
Scott had spent a restless night, though he’d never regained consciousness. Jelly had tried several times to get him to drink some water, but only a few trickles went down his throat. His skin was taut and dry as well as hot to the touch with more than sunburn. The doctor was shaking his head when Murdoch entered.
“Too high,” he muttered.
Doc Jenkins looked up. “Yes. Too high too soon. I have to tell you, this isn’t good.”
Murdoch sat on the edge of the bed and rested his hand on his son’s forehead. Scott seemed to relax against it for a moment, then turned his head fretfully to the side. His lips moved, but no sound came out. “What can we do?”
“Try to keep him cooled down.” He sighed. “I have some medicine you can give him, but there really isn’t much else. Keep trying to get him to drink. The more water you can get into him, the more it’ll help the fever. Juice would be good as well, if he’ll take it. From what Johnny said this morning, they were out in that desert for quite some time without proper food or enough to drink. He’s come into this weak, Murdoch, and it’s not helping.”
Murdoch nodded, but his attention had been caught by the doctor’s reference to his other son. “Johnny was awake?”
For the first time, Doc Jenkins smiled. “Trying hard not to swear, first because his ankle hurt so bad he couldn’t walk on it, then because it hurt when I strapped it up, and finally when I told him to stay put in bed for two days, to give the swelling time to go down.”
“And the bullet wound?” Teresa asked as she entered the room.
“No infection. It’ll heal clean. He’ll be weak for a couple of days from the blood loss, which is one reason I don’t want him up and about on that ankle. It would be hard enough for him to get around on two sound legs, because he’s going to be dizzy until he gets some good food into him and some decent sleep, and it would be too easy for him to fall.”
Murdoch sighed. “He’ll be like a caged mountain lion, once he gets his wits back about him.”
“Keep him in bed anyway,” the doctor advised. “I said the wound would heal clean, but if he busts it open again, anything could happen.”
“He’ll stay put. I’ll see to that.”
Scott shifted restlessly on the bed. Teresa soaked a cloth in the bowl of cool water and started wiping his face. “Why don’t you all go downstairs and get some coffee,” she suggested, glancing meaningfully at her patient. “I’ll take care of him.”
They did, but Scott didn’t settle. As the day drew on he grew more restive, until Teresa finally asked for one of the men to stay with her all the time to help keep him from moving around too much. She took breaks because Murdoch insisted on it, but she spent them in Johnny’s room, watching him sleep peacefully.
It was early evening and her third silent visit to his room. She was just getting up to leave when she heard him whisper her name. She sat on the bed next to him and felt his forehead for fever. Good. It was cool. But when she lifted her hand, Johnny grabbed at it to keep it in place.
He smiled slightly, though his eyes stayed closed. “Mmm,” he murmured. “Feels good.”
“Headache?” she asked sympathetically.
“Yeah.” He cracked one eye open. “Got any water?”
“Right here,” and she smiled, “but you’ll have to let go of me.”
He let his hand fall, but she suspected it was as much because he was too tired to hold onto her anyway. She helped him drink a glass, then flipped his pillows so he could rest on the fresh, cool linen. “You’ll be needing one of the men in here, soon, I’d think,” she commented.
“Yeah,” he agreed, “but first tell me about Scott.”
She settled herself on the edge of his bed again, and took his left hand. “It’s bad, Johnny. He’s so weak, and his fever keeps getting higher. He won’t lie still, and I’m afraid he’ll open up his wounds again.” She tried to keep the worry out of her voice, but it wobbled anyway.
“I could go sit with him, talk to him–“
She shook her head vehemently. “It’s too soon for you to be moving around. Your own wound would open up, and then we’d have both of you to take care of.”
He subsided then, as she knew he would. The only thing that would keep him from his brother was the knowledge that he’d be taking help away from him.
He turned his head away in frustration. “I wanna do something.”
She stroked his hand. “I know you do, Johnny, but honestly, he wouldn’t even know you were there. He doesn’t recognize any of us, doesn’t even respond when we talk to him or touch him.” Her breath hitched, and he turned back to her. A single tear slid down her cheek. “I’m afraid we’re losing him. Oh, Johnny–“
He drew her down onto his chest and she broke down completely, sobbing out all her fears. He stroked her hair, letting her cry, murmuring wordless assurances until she began to regain control.
“I’m sorry,” she hiccupped into his good shoulder.
“I’m not,” he said softly. “You needed that. It’s how we all feel, Teresa.”
She sat up, her words muffled as she tried to wipe her face clean. “But I’m the one who broke down.”
He was silent a moment, trying to find the words to explain. “Men and women are different. Our tears are all on the inside, women’s are on the outside. It’s not good or bad, it’s just the way we are. It’s when you let yourself go, and what you do when you’re done, that’s important. You’re all worn out from all you’re doin’ and you needed to let loose a bit, but now you’ll be ready to go back and help Scott, right?”
She took a deep breath and nodded.
He reached up and touched her face lightly. “You know, for such a young gal you’ve got a lot of sense, Teresa O’Brien.”
She sniffled a bit, but found a smile for him. “Thanks, Johnny Lancer. For an old man, you make pretty good sense, yourself.”
“Old man!” he huffed, but she saw the glint in his eye. “I’ll ‘old man’ you! You got any food downstairs, and I’ll show you how fast this ‘old man’ can get back on his feet!”
She rose and shook out her skirts. “Then I’ll send Jelly up here right away with something for you, and he can make you a bit more comfortable while he’s at it.”
“You do that,” he called as she headed to the door.
She paused with her hand on the latch, then turned back to him. “You said you wanted to help,” she said quietly. “You did.” And she left him, if not exactly happy, at least more content.
Johnny had to depend upon reports from the visitors to his room. He fretted at the restriction to bed, but every time he thought about getting up to see his brother for himself, he remembered Teresa’s warning about taking their attention away from Scott by hurting himself. He was honest enough to acknowledge that if he couldn’t even sit up without getting dizzy, he’d never make it down the hall, but he also vowed he’d do everything he could to get well as fast as possible. So he ate what they brought him, slept as much as he could, and generally astounded everyone by his seemingly cheerful compliance.
His father knew what he was doing, though, and finally took pity on him the afternoon of the second full day he’d been home. Murdoch looked terrible; his face drawn, his eyes dark wells of grief. He moved like an old man, settling into the chair by Johnny’s bed with a deep sigh.
“That bad?” Johnny asked.
“It was a rough night,” Murdoch answered. “A rough morning. A couple of times I had to hold him in bed.” The pain of that moment still showed in the shadows of his eyes. “He’s getting quieter now, but whether that means he’s better or worse, I can’t tell.”
Johnny thumped his free hand on the bed. “I need to see him, Murdoch. I’m tryin’ to do what Doc Jenkins said, stay in bed and get well, not make any more trouble for you an’ Teresa, but I’ve gotta see him.”
Murdoch snorted a short laugh. “As if I didn’t know this was coming.” He stood, stretching his long, lanky body. “Come on, then, let’s see if we can get you down the hall without having you trip or pass out or something.”
Johnny felt a sudden upsurge of energy. “Really?” he asked with a grin, and started pushing himself up.
“Slow down, boy, slow down. We’ll get there.” He helped his son to sit on the edge of the bed and peered into his face. “Any dizziness? And be straight with me.”
He knew his father was serious. The room swam for a moment, then steadied. “I’m all right, now. I think as long as we take it slow . . .”
“One step at a time, then.” He adjusted the sling that held Johnny’s right arm in place, then bent so his son could put his left arm around his shoulder. The arm he put around his son’s waist was comforting as well as supportive, and Johnny stood with more confidence than he’d felt a few moments before.
He yelped, though, when his sore ankle took his weight for the first time. “It’s okay,” he quickly assured his father. “Just need to get better at this.”
They maneuvered through the door and down the hall, the tall rancher supporting his barefoot, nightshirt-clad son. Johnny’s hair fell in his eyes, and he knew he looked a mess with one arm in a sling and his tightly wrapped ankle, but he didn’t care if it meant he could see his brother. He was grateful, though, to see the cushioned rocking chair that had been placed near the head of Scott’s bed. He settled into it with a sigh that turned to a groan when he took in his brother’s condition. He waved away Teresa’s concern and reached for Scott’s hand.
He looked awful. He was pale, which Johnny had expected, but he’d become impossibly leaner, the fever burning off any excess flesh and leaving the fine bones of his face delicately outlined. It was his utter stillness, though, that worried Johnny. Murdoch had said he’d settled from the ravings of his fever, but Johnny had seen a lot of men die, and his brother had the look. He held Scott’s hand tighter. “You can’t give up,” he said softly. “You promised me you wouldn’t leave, an’ I’m gonna hold you to it.”
In the end, they had to give in to Johnny’s insistence on staying with his brother. He agreed to anything they wanted – that he eat, that he take the medicine the doctor had left, that he have his ankle elevated, that he sleep, even if just naps in the chair – but they couldn’t get him to move from Scott’s room. He was convinced his presence would make a difference, and if his own recovery was delayed, it was a small price to pay if it helped Scott live.
Murdoch couldn’t find it in his heart to disagree.
He watched and he listened as Johnny fought for his brother’s life, his weapons soft words and gentle touches, constant reminders of the world that lay waiting if Scott would just wake up. Slowly, through the long night, Murdoch came to realize the depth of the bond that had formed between these two young men. He felt deep pride in them, a primitive satisfaction that both had grown strong and tall, but also a warm pleasure that they’d been willing to allow this strong love to develop between them. Love was something that Murdoch Lancer felt deeply, but he was glad that neither boy had inherited his difficulty in expressing it. True, they showed their affection by jokes and teasing and a certain amount of physical tussling, but it was there for all to see.
His vast empire had become a home when his boys arrived, and he couldn’t bear the thought of losing them. He had to face it, Scott probably wasn’t going to make it, and when Johnny lost his brother, he wondered if he would be anchor enough to keep his remaining son here.
He sat across the bed from Johnny, occasionally wiping Scott’s face with a cool cloth, but watching over both boys. Teresa and Jelly came and went, bringing coffee and food that Murdoch ignored but Johnny took in acknowledgement of their silent agreement, but otherwise the two Lancer men sat vigil over the third.
Johnny’s voice grew hoarse, and after his third coughing fit, only restrained himself from more talking when his father took up the task. Murdoch opened his heart that night, telling of his love for Scott’s mother, his sorrow at her passing, and his deeper, wounded grief at not being able to bring Scott back to Lancer. He talked about his anger with Harlan Garrett for using Scott as a pawn in his games of power, and he told of his own refusal to play those games at Scott’s expense.
He knew Johnny was taking in every story, every fact, realizing that Murdoch would never again be able to say these words, but remembering them in the hopes he would be able to pass them on to his older brother in their father’s place. Maybe that was the difference, Murdoch thought. He was telling Scott, yet not telling him. Somehow it made it easier.
He took the coffee next time Teresa brought it, to soothe his throat. The room grew close as he continued his monologue, the light of the single lamp drawing everyone in, centering all thought on the man who lay so still and silent on the bed. There was no motion to the air, and it seemed a moment frozen in time, a moment Murdoch never wanted to end, for as long as nothing changed, his son would be alive. His voice faltered, stopped, and the room was silent. Not a sound, no movement, not even the steady rise and fall of the blankets that covered his son.
A deep wrenching anguish grabbed at Murdoch Lancer’s heart, and when he could gather the strength, he looked to his younger son. Tears streamed down Johnny’s face, but to his surprise, his son’s expression held not sadness but joy, for the miracle had happened and Scott had opened his eyes.
My sister died . . .
Flames. The whole world was consumed in flames. He stood in the center of a burning inferno, the screams of the innocent almost lost in the roar of fire-engulfed fields and forests and the thunder of collapsing buildings.
Almost lost, but not quite.
A child cried hysterically for her mother.
She lost the child she was carrying . . .
White faces made black by soot, black as the slaves surrounding them, shouting curses on him and his children in eternity.
A man running back into his doomed home for who knew what imagined treasure, then buried, shrieking, under a fiery beam.
My brother was killed . . .
Other faces, crowding close, holding torches, surrounding him; hotter, sweating, the heat . . . the terrible burning heat, scorching his body, his soul.
My sister died.
The world collapsed onto him, burying him in implacable darkness, eternal nothingness.
A voice intruded into his existence. Not the hated echo of unbearable guilt, but a soothing voice, one that brought with it feelings of comfort, friendship, and something deeper. He let it draw him from the darkness, but then it faded and he felt himself falling again, falling farther—
No, there was a hand reaching out to him. A rough, aged, scarred hand, large and strong, one that offered a safe haven. All he had to do was hold onto it. But he wasn’t strong enough, and he felt his grip slide free with a vague sense of sorrow.
And then he heard the second voice. Deep, resonant, he was drawn to it; he drew strength from it. He couldn’t understand the words, but he felt the underlying love, and suddenly, he knew he wouldn’t be descending into the darkness this time.
Scott Lancer woke to pain, nausea, thirst, exhaustion, and a world that whirled around his head. Even so, he saw his brother and his father sitting at his side, watching him with almost silly grins on their faces.
He croaked, “Wanna let me in on the joke?”
If anything, their grins got bigger. Bewildered, he just gazed at them a bit muzzily. He saw Johnny swipe at his face with his shirtsleeve and Murdoch pinch at his nose.
“Better get him somethin’ to drink, if that’s the best he can talk,” suggested Johnny.
While Murdoch rose and filled a glass, Scott noticed his brother was in his nightshirt, right arm in a sling and bandaged ankle resting on his bed.
“What happened to you?” he asked, too worn to comprehend much of anything. Murdoch raised his shoulders and head, and held a glass to his lips. He drank deeply and gratefully.
“You an’ me had a bit of an adventure,” Johnny replied as his father lowered Scott to the pillows again. “Nothin’ to worry about, but we’re both gonna have to rest up a bit.”
Scott looked at his father, seeing the ravages of deep desperate emotion, and began to have an inkling that whatever had happened, it had been bad. Shaken, he reached out a hand. “Murdoch?”
His father took hold, the same hold as the dreams. “Johnny’s right, you’ll both be fine if you just take it easy a while.”
Still confused but reassured, too tired to figure it all out, he simply accepted their words at face value. His lids drooped, too heavy to hold open, and he murmured, “Gonna sleep.”
He heard the deep voice again, the one that had pulled him from the abyss. “That’s a good idea, son. We’ll talk more later.”
He smiled and slept.
The next time he woke, Teresa was at his side. The pain seemed worse, and although he didn’t want to complain, she seemed to understand. She gave him a glass of water tainted with the bite of laudanum, and he slept.
In a confusing kaleidoscope, every time he woke, someone else was with him. Jelly, Murdoch, Teresa, the doctor – but after that first night he didn’t see his brother. Any time he tried to ask, he was told to hush and to drink or eat something, to sleep, but not to talk, not to worry, not to do anything. He began to think he’d imagined his presence and worried himself into exhaustion. He wanted to shout with vexation, except that he could barely get enough breath to whisper, yet alone attain the volume he needed to get their attention.
Something was wrong with his lungs, he decided. Any exertion at all left him gasping for air. Nightmares continued to haunt him, images of death, destruction, barren dirt where there had been fields of corn, tall grass for hay, vegetable gardens, flowers . . . why did the destruction of borders of azaleas bother him so much? Gay, welcoming, rainbow colors lining the roads as he approached tall white-columned houses, all blackened skeletons when he left. He woke from the dreams desperate for breath, chest heaving, pain ripping through his side.
Someone was always there to help him. They raised his shoulders, propped pillows behind his back and head, held his hand and talked soothingly until his heart settled from its mad hammering and he calmed. He didn’t always understand what was going on around him, for his world centered around the pain in his chest and his increasing fears for his brother.
How he knew something was wrong with Johnny, he couldn’t explain, then or later, but as the pain eased over time, his conviction grew. He heard snatches of conversations between Murdoch and the doctor, words like “. . . infection . . . not looking too good . . . need to give him this medicine . . . can’t do much more . . .” and from his father, “Can’t lose him, Doc . . . it would kill his brother . . .”
“Johnny,” he moaned, his voice devoid of any substance and almost impossible to hear. His father’s face swam before him, brows drawn together in worry.
“Quiet, son. Your brother’s sleeping. You need to rest, too.”
“Johnny,” he repeated, “where’s Johnny?”
Murdoch sighed. “See what I mean? He doesn’t seem to hear anything we say.”
Scott felt the cool hand of the doctor on his forehead.
“Fever’s mostly gone, he should be getting his wits back about him by now.”
Stop worrying about me, he tried to say. Make sure Johnny’s okay. The words remained unspoken, though, as he slid back into darkness.
“He’s not resting,” Doc Jenkins told Murdoch over a welcome glass of whiskey. “The fever’s mostly gone, but something else is keeping him from getting the healing sleep he needs.”
“His worry about Johnny?” Murdoch asked.
“That’s a good part of it, but from what you’ve described of his nightmares, I’d say there’s more. How’s Johnny feeling, anyway?”
“Better. He’s sleeping all the time, but I can take you up to him—”
“No need,” interrupted the doctor. “I dropped in before I saw Scott and took a look at his shoulder. It’s healing well. He just wore himself out watching over his brother. Sleep is all he really needs now.”
Murdoch shook his head. “Sure scared the pants off me when he passed out going back to his room.”
“It’s the way with men of his type. Strong, stoic, steady as a rock until the worry goes away, then they collapse. No problem, usually, you just let them rest for a while and they’re back to normal. It’s when they overdo that you have to ride them.”
Murdoch raised an eyebrow. “Is that a comment or a warning?”
“Know thy limits, friend.” He gestured at the stairs to the second floor. “Both of them need you, so just make sure you don’t turn into a third patient for me.”
“Good advice,” Jelly interjected as he entered the room. “Not that I ‘spect him to take it. There’s good reason why them boys is so stubborn. You’d a thought that havin’ give all that stubbornness to his sons that he wouldn’t a got any left, but it ain’t worked out that way at all.”
“And a good thing,” interrupted Murdoch. “That stubbornness is what’s kept them both alive.”
“True enough,” said the doctor. “Now take advantage of it. You, Murdoch, get some sleep. Go ahead and wake Johnny up, to go sit with Scott. Both of them will rest easier for it, and he can always call if he needs something he can’t deal with.”
And so Johnny found himself once more in the rocking chair at Scott’s bedside. This time, though, he was dressed in his range clothes, even if he still wore the sling and had a slipper on one foot to accommodate his bandaged ankle. He slipped his arm free whenever Teresa and Murdoch weren’t around and exercised it. Jelly was no problem – he understood Johnny’s need to regain the strength in his arm. The other two were likely to pitch a fit, Murdoch loudly, Teresa quieter but more effective with her soulful, doe-eyed gaze. Both of them were in bed and long asleep, though, so he was free to do as he wished.
“How’s he doin’?” asked Jelly as he brought another in the endless procession of trays he seemed to be carrying these days. He set it down on the small night table at the head of Scott’s bed, within easy reach of Johnny’s good arm.
Johnny lifted the corner of the napkin that covered interesting-looking lumps, but Jelly swatted his hand away.
“Jest you wait your turn,” he ordered, the effect considerably lessened by the affectionate exasperation on his face. “First we gotta try to get Scott to take some of this broth. Can you hold him up, or do you wanna feed him?”
Johnny shook his head. “Considering the mess I made last time, you better handle the spoon. I’ll prop him up, try to get him awake enough.”
He sat on the bed and gently lifted his brother with his good arm, then shifted behind him to prop him against his chest. “Scott,” he called softly. “Wake up, brother, Teresa sent up some of her special soup for you.”
Scott didn’t open his eyes, but his breathing changed slightly so Johnny knew he’d gotten through at least some. “That’s it, open your mouth. You don’t have to do anything else, we’ll take care of it for you.”
“Johnny?” Scott’s eyelids fluttered open. He searched the room, came to rest on the old man. “Jelly.” He gazed at him in bewilderment. “Jelly, where’s Johnny?”
“Right here,” he said into his brother’s ear.
Scott raised his free hand. “Where? I can’t see you. Where are you?” His breaths came faster.
Johnny caught his hand and said, “I’m right behind you; I’m the wall you’re leanin’ on right now.” He could feel the tension loosen a bit in his brother’s body.
“Yeah, I’m all right. I’ve been resting up, too.”
“You sure?” he asked again, still worried.
“Hey, it takes a lot to knock me on my backside, unlike a certain city boy from Boston.”
Scott smiled faintly. “I’ll show you how fast a city boy can get back on his feet.”
“I’m gonna hold you to that,” Johnny answered, pleased to see the smile. “Can you eat something? You gotta get your strength back.”
“Eat?” he asked, as if he’d never heard the word before.
Jelly brought the bowl up under his chin. “Yeah, eat,” he said as he spooned the rich dark broth into Scott’s mouth. “Teresa made this special, an’ she’s gonna be mighty unhappy if you don’t get at least some of it down.”
“Maybe it’ll help . . .” Scott muttered between swallows.
“Help what?” asked Johnny.
Jelly nodded at him to keep his brother talking. Between the two of them, he hoped to keep Scott distracted enough to feed him the entire bowl.
“Nightmares,” Scott answered in between Jelly’s interruptions with the spoon. “Burning, everything’s burning . . . flames everywhere, scorched . . . dead horses, dead dogs, dead people . . . a desert. We made a desert out of what had been people’s homes . . .” His eyes closed and he pushed the bowl away, sank against his brother’s chest. “No more, Jelly,” he whispered. “Too tired.”
They laid him back into his pillows, exchanging worried glances. Jelly uncovered the rest of the tray and left, shaking his head, but Johnny was no longer interested in food. He moved back to his rocking chair and eased carefully down. He went back to exercising his arm – flexed his elbow, then his fingers, making sure they moved as smoothly as ever – as he kept company while Scott slept. It was instinctive, as if he could protect his brother from his nightmares with a fast draw.
Six months later . . .
The words floated softly through the room that served as living area, dining room and office. The voice came from one who was a girl in age, but a woman’s responsibility and worry shone from her dark eyes.
A deep sigh, almost a grunt, came from the man behind the desk. “I know,” Murdoch Lancer said.
“I thought it was just reaction to surviving that attack,” she continued, approaching the man who served as guardian, mentor, and now, since her own had been killed, father. “Once he was well enough to get around, I wasn’t surprised he wanted to have some fun, but it’s been months and he’s getting . . . well, wild.”
Murdoch nodded. He knew what Teresa was saying, had observed it himself, but he didn’t have an answer either. “We just have to let him get it out of his system.”
“But that’s just it. He’s not.” She came around to Murdoch’s side and leaned against the desk, her dark red riding skirt brushing at his chair. “He never eats breakfast any more, doesn’t have much lunch, and half the time he’s not here for dinner. He doesn’t take care of his clothes, and—” But here she broke off, suddenly blushing.
“And?” he asked, looking up at her quizzically, his interest caught.
“It’s really none of my business,” she prevaricated, suddenly fascinated by the toes of her boots.
He tilted her chin up with one finger, forcing her to meet his eyes. The gaze that would have been harsh for anyone else was soft, gentle, for this girl who had always been as a daughter. “What’s bothering you?”
“It’s . . . it’s the gossip in town,” she finally blurted.
“And since when has gossip ever concerned us?” he chided.
“Since it’s been true.”
He settled back in his chair, elbows resting on the padded arms, fingers steepled in front of his chest. “I think you’d better tell me everything.”
“I don’t know everything, but I know enough to recognize when a woman is telling the truth about. . .” She paused, trying to find the right word. “Well, about being with Scott.” She flamed scarlet.
Murdoch tapped his chin. “I’m sure that’s nothing new, even if it’s true.”
“Oh, it’s true, all right. You should smell his shirts, the perfume that Laura—!”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Well, you couldn’t miss it,” she said defensively. “She may as well have spilled the bottle!”
“Aside of the fact I would have thought Scott had better taste than to squire around a spiteful, brittle harpy like Laura Armstrong, it really isn’t any of our business.”
“It isn’t just Laura,” Teresa explained, and the list of women she reeled off soon had both of Murdoch’s eyebrows climbing.
He calmed her somehow, saying something soothing along the lines of boys will be boys, but his mind was racing. In fact, though he didn’t realize it, it wasn’t his words that reassured her, but the look of abstraction on his face. He’d taken her seriously, and now the burden of worry seemed lightened, since it was shared.
He wandered out to the yard, just in time to see his eldest vault up onto a half-broke mustang and tear down the drive and through the main gate of the ranch. He walked up to Jelly and jerked his head toward where dust swirled across the road. “Where’s he headed?”
Jelly glanced up at his employer. “Town. Agin.” He shook his head. “I don’t understand where he gits the strength. Twarn’t that long ago he could barely sit up, and now you cain’t keep him nailed down. Even Johnny cain’t keep up with him.”
Murdoch turned his gaze on the old man. “Where is Johnny, by the way?”
Jelly sighed. “He should be comin’ through any time now.”
Murdoch’s quizzical look was answered when his youngest son burst from the barn, already mounted on his big palomino, and dashed past the two older man with a wave of his hat. Then he was gone down the same road as his brother.
“Well,” he sighed, “we don’t have to worry about him tonight. Johnny’ll keep an eye on him.”
But Jelly just shook his head.
Murdoch had cause to wonder, too, when the boys didn’t return by midnight. He by no means imposed a curfew on his sons, knowing they were both responsible enough to make sure they got enough sleep for the next day’s work. He usually went to bed when he was ready and didn’t worry about them. Tonight, though, he found he couldn’t sleep. He kept waiting to hear the sounds of horses’ hooves, but they didn’t come until shortly before dawn.
He belted on his robe and waited downstairs. They came in through one of the terrace doors, Scott leaning heavily on his brother. Alarm leaping in his chest, Murdoch strode forward to help, those long tense days of fearing for his son’s life still all too vivid.
“What happened?” he asked, but then caught a whiff of whiskey. He stopped, disgusted. “Drunk.”
“For the sword outwears its sheath, and the soul wears out the breast,” Scott slurred. “And the heart must pause to breathe, and love itself have rest . . .” He pulled away from his brother and started to stagger toward Murdoch’s brandy decanter, all the while declaiming, “Though the night was made for loving, and the day returns too soon—”
“Will you be quiet,” Johnny demanded, grabbing at an arm. “Bad enough I had to beat that fella off you, hush up those gals, pay your tab, drag you outta that cantina, and haul your sorry ass home without havin’ to listen to your poetry, too.”
“You coulda left the girls alone . . .” Scott grinned. “We were just—” he hiccupped once “—beginning to have a good time.”
Murdoch took his other arm with silent resignation. “Let’s get him upstairs.”
Scott went along cheerfully, continuing his recitation at full voice: ”Yet we’ll go no more a roving, by the light of the moon.”
“Shh!” Johnny hissed. “Teresa’s asleep.” He turned to his father, shaking his head. “I don’t know what’s gotten into him lately.”
Scott had apparently finished his poem, because all they heard from him now was “go no more a roving . . . light of the moon,” over and over.
Johnny winced. “Sure wish that moon hadn’t been out tonight,” he muttered. “Soon as he saw it, he started in. You know, he used to go to town with me sometimes if we pushed it, but mostly, when me and the boys went in, he’d want to stay home with some book and a bottle of your best wine. Now, he’s going in more than me an’ the other boys together.”
They levered him into his room and over to the bed, where Johnny dropped him none too gently. Scott didn’t appear to notice; he merely went to sleep with a final whispered “the moon be still as bright . . .”
“And how long have you been covering for him?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny grimaced as he pulled Scott’s boots off. He should have guessed his father would know. He was mad enough at his brother, though, to be completely honest. “Near as I can tell, it started about two months ago. Once he really got well. He’d been moping around here like a dog that lost its bone, so I dragged him into town, figuring to cheer him up. You know, get him interested in something. It’s hard, being that sick. After a while, you feel like you can’t do anything. You need something to jolt you back.”
“Well, it certainly looks like he’s found that something.” He scowled down at his older son, who repaid his brother’s and father’s worry by coughing once, murmuring a few words, and turning over. Murdoch gestured to the door and followed his other son down the stairs. He wandered over to his desk, picked up one of the objects on it and turned it around in his hands, studying it. “Teresa says he’s been seeing a lot of the women in town.”
“Yeah, he’s havin’ a fine ol’ time.” He paced to the fireplace and stared into the dead ashes. “I’m sorry she heard about it, though. It’s not really right for her to be bothered with things like that.” He turned to his father suddenly, worry clouding his expression. “Thing is, he’s been with those women before, but there was never a word about it. I know I’ve kidded him about it, but he’s always been a gentleman, and in his book, that means if he sees someone, no one else knows. Now he’s the center of all those conversations that suddenly stop when you walk in a room. He just laughs. It’s like he doesn’t care, anymore.”
“Teresa says he’s changed.”
“Teresa’s a smart girl.”
Murdoch put the paperweight back on the desk. “Well, we’re not going to solve it tonight. We both need a good night’s sleep,” and he looked out the window at the lifting darkness, “which we’re not going to get. I’ll talk to Scott, see if I can find out what’s going on. You listen around, too, all right?”
Johnny sighed and nodded. “See you in the morning, then.”
“Good night, Johnny.”
Johnny laughed. “Not much of one, but I appreciate it.”
But Murdoch didn’t get a chance to discuss anything with his son, as Scott was out of the house and on the road before either he or Johnny came downstairs. Johnny was seated blearily at the kitchen table holding a cup of steaming coffee in front of his nose when Murdoch entered, waving a piece of paper.
“Your brother,” he barked, “has gone off to Sacramento without so much as a word to either of us.” He narrowed one eye. “Unless he told you about it?”
Johnny shook his head ever so carefully and took a long swallow of coffee. He rubbed at his eyes and then answered in his softest drawl, “Not me. He’s not tellin’ me anythin’ these days. What’s that in your hand?”
“A note. A single piece of paper that says, Gone to Sacramento – back in a week.” He tossed it on the table in front of his son and sat heavily. Johnny used one finger to turn it around so he could read it.
Teresa brought the coffeepot and a clean cup, placed the cup in front of Murdoch, then filled it for him. “It’s probably about the mine.”
Johnny emerged from his cup again, this time his eyes a little more open and with just a hint of their normal sparkle. “What mine?”
“The silver mine. You know, the one in Nesbitt’s Spring, over by the Nevada border.” At his quizzical expression, she refilled his cup and sat down at the table with him.
“That area’s about played out. Scott knows that,” Murdoch said.
“He got a letter from one of the owners, Jander Martin,” she explained. “Scott met him one time in San Francisco. Anyway, the letter said that Martin wanted to sell his share, and if Scott was still interested, he should meet him in Sacramento.” She looked at the two men, puzzled. “I thought you knew . . .”
Murdoch wadded up the paper, his face grim. “Just what we need. A part-share in a silver mine that’s going bust.”
“He’s got his own money, Murdoch,” Johnny put in. “If he chooses to place it all on a wild chance, that’s his business.”
“As long as it is his money, and not the ranch’s,” his father said sourly.
“Surely he wouldn’t . . .” Teresa started, but her expression said she wasn’t sure.
Murdoch merely shook his head. “I don’t know, any more. I just don’t know.”
Teresa gazed thoughtfully into her coffee as if she could read the mystery to Scott Lancer’s behavior in the swirling brown liquid. “Johnny, are you going to town later?”
Johnny glanced at his father, who nodded and said, “Since Scott’s taken off, you could deliver some papers to the bank for me.”
“Guess I’m goin’ then. You need something?” he asked.
“I’d like to come along, if you don’t mind,” she answered. “I have a few . . . things I’d like to take care of.”
One week stretched to two, then three, and still Scott Lancer didn’t return. He’d sent a wire, saying he’d been delayed, a message that drew a pithy, “Well, at least he remembers we exist,” from his father.
When he finally rode in one afternoon, no one thought to question the length of his absence, though – their attention was riveted on the stallion he was leading. At almost eighteen hands, the animal was one of the biggest horses the ranch hands had ever seen. His coat was a deep burnished auburn and his mane and tail were black, as was his muzzle. It appeared all four socks were black as well, though it was difficult to see them through the dust he kicked up as he danced on the end of the rope.
He had a slightly dished nose that spoke of Arabian blood somewhere in his past, which would also have explained his high-strung behavior. The wild look in his eye, though, had nothing to do with breeding and everything to do with a primitive killer instinct.
Johnny and Murdoch exclaimed over the horse, but Jelly held back, catching Teresa by the arm. “Don’t you go near that horse, Miss Teresa,” he warned.
“But, Jelly, he’s beautiful,” she exclaimed as the stallion tossed his head and neighed, the sound ringing throughout the hills.
“Beautiful is as beautiful does, lil gal, and I’m bettin’ he ain’t gonna act beautiful. Look at him. Scott can’t hardly hold onto him.”
“Nonsense.” She took his hand and squeezed it once. “Scott knows more about horses than just about anyone on the ranch. I’ll bet he’s brought him all the way from Sacramento, and it doesn’t look like he had any trouble.” She smiled for his concern, but left him behind, muttering.
Murdoch had intended to blister his son’s ears at first sight, but, perhaps as Scott intended, the stallion distracted him. He was as quick as Johnny to see how the animal’s strength and wind would benefit their horse-breeding program. Not that he intended to give up his cattle, but it was always better to raise your own quality horses than to have to depend on someone else’s.
Johnny noticed the wildness in the stallion’s eye, but he wasn’t surprised or particularly worried. He knew how his brother loved a spirited horse, and most of what they had on the ranch simply wasn’t any challenge for him. He snorted in appreciation. He was looking forward to the upcoming battles.
“Wait’ll you see him run,” Scott was saying.
One of the hands spoke up. “Don’t look like he’s gonna be much good on a roundup.”
He laughed. “You’re right enough there. He’s not built to be much a cowpony – too big for all that. But he can run forever, outlast anything we have. If we can breed that into our stock . . .”
Murdoch nodded. “If he can pass that on to his get, cross it with some mares that are good cutting horses, we’ll have an lot easier time of it on the range. So,” he challenged, “how fast is he?”
Scott grinned. “Just you wait and see. Johnny, hold onto him for me for a minute, will you?”
Johnny agreed cheerfully, but he had his hands full while Scott disappeared into the barn. When his brother came back, he was carrying a cavalry saddle – higher cantled than a stock saddle, but considerably lighter-weight. He tossed a blanket up onto the horse’s back, and as tall as he was, he still had to stretch a bit to get the saddle placed correctly. He tightened the girth, waited a moment for the horse to let out the air he was holding, then tightened it again.
“Don’t want the saddle to slip,” he laughed. “I’m going to take him down to the creek, then I’ll bring him up the road and through here. He’ll have hit his stride by then, and you can see him in action. I’ll take him back down to the creek to finish.”
“A long course,” Murdoch commented, but Johnny could see he was as excited as the rest of them.
The horse started to dance, as if he knew what was coming. He bared his teeth and went for Scott’s arm, but Scott was ready for him and simply tapped him on the nose. Not hard enough to injure the animal, but enough to let him know who was boss. Then he had a foot in the stirrup, the stallion was swinging away, but Scott was in the saddle and settled deeply. The horse crow-hopped twice, then paid attention to the message of Scott’s heels and shot suddenly forward, as if from a catapult.
Many would have been caught by surprise, but not Scott Lancer. Johnny marveled again at his brother’s horsemanship as the pair moved seamlessly together. Scott’s legs barely moved against the stallion’s side, and he appeared part of the horse as they galloped down to the starting point.
“He sure can move,” Jelly commented.
Murdoch nodded. “I have a feeling we haven’t seen anything yet.”
Johnny glanced at his father, then went back to following his brother. Murdoch didn’t ride as well as his eldest son, but he had an affinity for horses that he’d passed on to both of his boys. It showed in Johnny’s exceptional relationship with his palomino, and in Scott’s instinctive attunement to the moods of any horse. He seemed to know what they were thinking, and they responded to his almost invisible signals.
Scott reached the creek and pulled to a stop. They turned and the horse pranced in place, ready for a command, but even from a distance they could see him shaking his head, pulling impatiently at his bit. Then Scott leaned forward, and they took off.
The gallop to the creek now looked like it had been a casual canter as the horse strained forward, head extended, ears flat on his neck, forelegs reaching forward, reaching, reaching . . . Powerful hindquarters bunched and propelled them faster until it seemed his hooves weren’t even touching the ground.
The hands all stopped whatever they were doing to watch the magnificent animal run as horses were meant to run. Scott’s hat flew from his head and his hair streamed back from his face as he urged the stallion to go even faster. He leaned down closer to the horse’s neck and disappeared into the flying black mane.
The pounding hooves grew louder and people scattered in every direction as they approached, a red-brown and black blur that blew past them in a haze of noise and dust and wind. Several of the hands stood with mouths open, and someone was overheard to comment, “If’n I could ride that fast I wouldn’t care if he can’t cut cattle.”
They could see the horse slow as Scott gradually straightened and then sat deep into the saddle, his body sending a signal harder to ignore than a tight hand on the reins. The stallion objected at first, but gradually gave in and came to a stop. He tossed his head and neighed loudly, almost a scream of challenge.
Several answering calls came from the corral, where a group of mares was bunched at the rail. Everyone burst out laughing. Johnny shook his head. “Scott ain’t gonna have any trouble finding takers for that breeding program.”
When Scott approached, his horse barely even blowing, everyone but Jelly went to greet him. No one heard the old man say, “An’ we’ll be lucky not to get someone killed when Scott gets him into a corral with that on his mind.”
Jelly’s words proved prophetic. The stallion was difficult at best, and often downright dangerous. Breeding him just made him worse, as he came fully into his power. Some horses were like that, Scott said. They knew they were the fastest and the strongest, and putting them to mares just made them more arrogant. A funny word to apply to a horse, but Jelly thought it was exactly right.
After Hank had his arm broken and Slim was laid up in bed for two days from encounters with the stallion, no one was willing to help Scott with the breeding but Johnny, and he did it only because he wanted to be able to protect his brother in case things got out of hand. He always made sure his pistol was loose in its holster, though he was careful not to do it when Scott was turned his way.
Scott, though, was fearless. He was ready for every trick the horse tried, every bite, every kick, even when the stallion tried to crush him up against the side of the stall. He simply got out of the way, speaking sharply or occasionally tapping the animal with a quirt. The only time they seemed to get along perfectly was on the wild dawn rides Scott had begun taking. Johnny had tried to go along a couple of times, but his horse, good as he was, simply couldn’t keep up with the stallion. No one else even tried, not after word got around about the gulch Scott liked to jump. In a burst of wit, one of the ranch hands had sarcastically named it Glory Gulch, because every man or animal who got near it seemed to end up at the bottom, backside up, displayed in all its glory. Scott and the stallion sailed over with seeming ease, but no one else wanted to risk the crumbling edges and rock-studded creek at the bottom.
Scott and his horse were well-suited, Johnny began to think. There was something wild and reckless and untamable about both of them. His efforts to urge caution on his brother were met with an amused smile – it had always been Scott trying to get Johnny to be more careful – and generally followed by some outrageous escapade.
He’d shimmied down a hair-raising cliff to pick some flowers for Teresa one day when she wasn’t feeling well. The next, he taunted a new bully in town into a fight, when ended with him bruised and bloody, but the victor. He continued his nightly visits to town, and Johnny had caught him more than once slipping out of a dark bedroom window. He routinely jumped his stallion over fences and trees that no one else would attempt. He never seemed to sleep, subsisting on a few hours at night and the occasional nap in whatever field he found himself in at midday.
His moods swung wildly from happy and joking to morose and snappish, and Johnny began to wonder if he was still bothered by nightmares. There had been a couple times Johnny had woken for no discernable reason and, when he checked his brother’s room, found him standing silhouetted against the window, a shadow in the dark.
Scott always replied to Johnny’s soft questions with, “Couldn’t sleep – don’t worry about it. Go on back to bed.”
But though Johnny did as his brother asked, he still wondered.
One morning, after Teresa once again took Scott’s untouched breakfast back to the kitchen with sighs of disappointment, Johnny decided he was going to have to confront his brother. He looked around the house, the yard and the corrals before finally cornering Scott in the barn as he was backing the stallion out of his stall.
“Scott,” he started hesitantly. “We gotta talk.”
“You want to go into town with me tonight? If you do, be ready at eight, because that’s when I’m leaving.” He led the horse to the center of the barn and cross-tied him to keep him in place with his head in reach.
“No, that’s not it.”
His soft, hesitant words caught Scott’s attention. “Everything okay with Teresa? I thought she was feeling better. There’s little enough I can do for her, aside of finding more flowers.”
“No!” Johnny said quickly. “She don’t need more flowers. If she knew what you did to get those, she’d tell you that was more than enough.”
“Well, then it must be you.”
For a moment, it seemed to Johnny that the old Scott was back. It was good to know he still cared about them – and maybe this was the opening he needed. “I guess, in a way, it’s all of us.”
Scott’s gaze narrowed in puzzlement, but he continued to brush the horse’s back, getting the hair all laid down in the right direction for the saddle blanket. “What’s going on?”
Johnny fiddled with a nearby bridle. “I don’t really know. There’s this man we know, well, he’s changed. He used to be a calm, thinking kind of fella, but lately he’s gotten kind of wild. He takes crazy chances, can’t seem to sleep, won’t talk with his family. He’s headed down a road that . . .” He paused, not sure how to phrase it.
Scott placed the blanket on the horse’s back and smoothed the wrinkles from it. “You’re afraid he’s headed straight to hell.”
Johnny nodded slowly.
He placed the saddle on the horse and tightened the cinch. “You’ve got two things wrong, there, brother. First of all, I haven’t changed. I’m the same man I was in Boston.”
“What are you talkin’ about?” Johnny asked, getting his own horse ready. It looked like Scott was about to set out on another of his wild rides, and some nagging instinct told Johnny he’d better go along this time.
“Just what I said. You’ve said often enough that Johnny Madrid has never really died, that he’s still deep inside you somewhere. Well, it’s the same with me.” He slipped the bridle easily into his horse’s mouth, since the tie-down kept his head in reach. He unhooked the rope from the halter and started for the door. “The Scott Lancer you know, the one who’s lived on this ranch for the last couple of years, well, he doesn’t exist. I learned that when we were out there in the desert. I don’t think that he ever did exist.”
“But—” Johnny objected.
Scott stood in the doorway, a shadow against the bright outdoor sun. “The second thing is,” he said over his brother’s words, “I’m not on the road to hell, I’m already there.” He swung up into the saddle and was gone.
Deeply disturbed, Johnny finished tacking up his horse and mounted, kicking him into a run before they even left the barn.
Murdoch stared at the envelope the ranch hand had just brought. He didn’t usually get mail this early in the day, but Pedro Perez had stayed overnight in town because of a bad storm that had blown through, and brought the journals and letters back with him first thing this morning.
The script on the address had drawn his attention immediately – though he’d had little correspondence with his father-in-law, Harlan Garrett, what he’d had was memorable for its acrimony, and he recognized the writing at once. He unsealed the envelope with trepidation. He didn’t know what he’d expected, but it certainly wasn’t what he found. There was another, smaller envelope inside, unsealed, and a single sheet of paper which read:
Your ward, Miss O’Brien, wrote to me recently with a concern. I am of an age where I cannot in good conscience sanction correspondence with a young girl without the knowledge of her guardian. Therefore, although I have responded to her letter, I leave it to your conscience as to whether or not you allow her to have it.
I shall be frank with you. I realized, when I returned to Boston from that disastrous visit, that Scotty had found a measure of peace with you and his half-brother. His happiness is all I have ever desired, and so I reconciled myself to his new life. If what Miss Teresa wrote is accurate, however, I suggest, though only if you deem it in Scotty’s best interests, that you send him back to Boston. A bout of supposed ill-health on my part would be sufficient reason, announced by this letter. I sincerely hope, though, that you and his family are able to help him set his demons to rest forever, as I was not.
It took every ounce of Murdoch Lancer’s not inconsiderable control to keep from opening the second envelope. Obviously Harlan Garrett was providing a clue to his son’s behavior, but Murdoch also believed firmly in a person’s right to privacy. He compromised.
“Teresa!” he bellowed.
Johnny followed his brother as best he could. His palomino was one of the fastest horses on the ranch, and probably the only one capable of keeping up with the stallion, but even so, Scott had a head start on him. On the other hand, Johnny had gone along on enough of these rides to have a few ideas about where his brother might be going. As soon as he established the general direction, he took a chance and headed over a ridge that could cut some time.
As he rode, Scott’s words repeated in his mind. The Scott Lancer you think you know doesn’t exist. I learned that when we were out there in the desert.
The desert. Was that the clue to Scott’s behavior? As he thought back over the last months, he swore at himself for not seeing it sooner. They’d all been so glad Scott survived his physical wounds that they hadn’t bothered to think what those days and nights in the desert had done to his soul.
McLean’s words came back to him:
My sister lost the child she was carrying because of the destruction you ordered.
My sister died.
My brother-in-law did join the Confederates, but was killed two months later.
You’re the one who ordered the destruction of their farm.
Those last words in particular echoed – You’re the one who ordered the destruction . . . You’re the one . . . The one . . .
It didn’t matter what Johnny or any of the rest of them said, Scott had given those orders, he knew he was responsible for those deaths, he had to live with that knowledge . . . and it was destroying him.
McLean had had his vengeance after all.
Johnny pulled up at the top of the ridge, scanning the terrain below for the big bay stallion. He was above Glory Gulch, positioned so he could see the creek that meandered down the meadow a good eight feet below the level of the grass. He frowned. Something was different.
He stood in his stirrups and squinted, trying to make it out. There was a deeper shadow under the near edge. The storm last night . . . there’d been heavy rains up in the hills, up at the source of the creek. The water would come down the gully in a flood tide, washing away everything in its way, carving the earth from its path, widening and deepening the gully as had happened over the years to create it. But this time, if the water had undercut the edge where the stallion usually launched his jump . . .
He started slowly down the hill, hoping that he’d missed Scott, that he was already past the meadow, but then saw him emerge from the trees and brush. He could see the stallion was acting up more than usual – a measure of Scott’s conflict, he suddenly thought. As attuned as they were, the horse mirrored his brother’s every mood.
The horse fought as he ran, turned so he seemed to travel almost sideways. Head down, tail thrashing in protest, he nonetheless went in the direction Scott demanded.
Surely he wouldn’t try the gulch . . . Johnny thought in alarm. Not with his horse in this mood But then he realized that of course Scott would. Especially with the horse in this mood. If he couldn’t conquer his own demons, he’d try to win in everything else. He was a fighter, no doubt about it, but he was fighting the wrong battle.
Johnny loved to watch the stallion in action – he’d seen him take this gully before, in one long, almost unbelievable jump, frozen in time like an artist’s sculpture as he hung almost suspended in the air. Mean and contrary he might be, but this horse was something to see. This time, though, Johnny didn’t hesitate. He kicked his horse into a run, heedless of his own danger in galloping down the steep hill.
“Scott!” he yelled, hoping to catch his brother’s attention, but knowing it was unlikely over the sound of the horses’ pounding hooves. He waved his hat as he rode, but Scott was completely focused on the gulch, urging his horse forward.
Teresa looked up at Murdoch, the letter shaking in her hand. “It’s the war. Mr. Garrett says Scott acted just like this when he got home from the war. He couldn’t sleep at night, or if he did, he had terrible nightmares. Mr. Garrett says he never got over what he had to do under General Sherman.”
“So he’s either punishing himself or trying to run away from the memories.”
“Or, knowing Scott, both.”
Murdoch nodded slowly. “It’s a hard thing, to have survived something like that. It’s a hard thing to survive any battle, or a war. The man on your left gets shot through the head, the one on your right has a leg blown off, and there you stand, not a scratch on you.”
“No reason for it,” put in Jelly. “Hadn’t got a thing to do with good a fighter you are, or how good a person. The coward’ll live and the preacher’ll die.”
“If Scott could accept that, if he could understand, down in his heart, then do you think he’d feel better?” she asked.
Murdoch shifted uneasily in his chair. “Well, it would certainly help, but I’m afraid there’s more to it, if he fought under Sherman in Georgia. In military terms, what they did was necessary. It shortened the war, saved a lot of lives. But to act against civilians, against the innocent . . .”
Jelly shook his head in sorrow. “Scott’s a good man, Murdoch, a peaceable man. That’d rip him clean apart.”
Teresa looked down at the paper again. “So now we know what’s wrong, what do we do about it?”
Murdoch was still trying to come up with some answer to her question when Perez raced in. “Señor Lancer!” he gasped. “Johnny and Scott – you are needed in the east pasture – come, quickly!”
Johnny had done his best. He tried to console himself with that thought, but as he held his brother’s limp body in his arms he knew he’d failed. Scott looked peaceful now, the terrible memories unable to torment him.
The stallion thrashed in the water downstream as he tried to get to his feet. He’d made a magnificent jump, but the immense pressure of his hindquarters pushing him into the air had been too much for the unstable ground. It had given way, and the horse’s tremendous power hadn’t been enough to get his legs onto solid ground on the other side. Johnny had watched, horrified, as the horse tried valiantly to clamber up. He’d screamed at his brother to jump, but they slid inexorably down the muddy bank until the stallion completely lost his balance and went over sideways, Scott disappearing from sight.
Johnny had raced to the edge of the gulch and skidded to a halt, his palomino’s hooves cutting furrows into the soft earth. He’d flown from the saddle and slid down the side of the gulch, unaware of the gash a trailing branch gouged into his arm or the water that soaked his chaps as he splashed and scrambled across the creek.
“Scott!” he called.
His brother was crumpled against the bank of the gulch, face down, one arm stretched out and gloved fist clenched as if he’d been grasping desperately for something, anything to break his fall.
Fear made his heart pound, made his hands shake as he gently pulled Scott over to lie in his arms. He brushed sweat-darkened locks of blonde hair aside as he searched for injuries. “Scott?” he breathed. “C’mon, brother, don’t do this—”
He was interrupted by a faint groan, so soft it was almost a sigh.
The stream was a handy source of cool water, and, one-handed, he undid his bandana and soaked it. Scott flinched as he pressed the cold cloth against his face, then blinked and squinted, obviously dazed and disoriented. As awareness flooded back into his pale blue eyes, Johnny’s relief was quickly followed by a rush of anger. His hands were still gentle, but his voice was harsh. “What the heck were you doing? Didn’t you even think that bank might be soft after all that rain we had?”
“Rain?” Scott echoed.
“Yeah, rain. You know, that stuff that falls from the sky and soaks into the ground and turns it into mud?”
Scott looked around and raised one hand to his head. His filthy glove left streaks of dirt on his forehead. “Mud . . .” Scott said, then looked up at his brother. “What happened?”
“What happened?” Johnny repeated, wordless for a moment while Scott looked up at him questioningly. “You fell off your damn horse, that’s what happened,” he snapped. “You took a fool jump and you’re damn lucky you didn’t break your neck. I don’t know what’s goin’ on with you these days, but if you don’t start bein’ more careful you really are going to end up dead.”
Such an expression of bleakness crossed Scott’s face that Johnny stopped, appalled. “That’s it, isn’t it?” he whispered.
Scott closed his eyes and turned away. “Leave me alone,” he groaned.
“I should,” Johnny answered with iron softness. “I should do just that, leave you to ride or drink or fight your way to perdition. Just one problem with that . . . I can’t. I don’t have all that many brothers hangin’ around that I can feel comfortable losin’ one.”
“No use . . .” murmured Scott, shaking his head. “No good for you, Johnny. Killing, burning, death . . . it follows me . . .”
Johnny held Scott’s chin in his hand, forced him to turn back to him. “You’re wrong,” he said, trying to make his brother understand. “Scott, you’re wrong about this, about all of it.”
But Scott’s eyes were closing, and he grew heavier in Johnny’s arms.
“Don’t you give up on me!” Johnny cried. “Scott! D’you hear? Don’t you dare give up on me!”
“Amigo?” a voice came from above.
Johnny’s head whipped around. “Pedro! Go get a wagon – get help – hurry!”
Pedro’s vision had adjusted to the shadows, and when he saw the limp body of the eldest Lancer son, his eyes widened. “Si! I go now!” He halted only long enough to throw a canteen down to Johnny, then the hooves of his horse beat a fading tattoo on the wet ground.
Johnny was left alone with his brother, with only the echoes of Scott’s horrific memories to keep him company.
“Will he be all right?” Theresa asked softly. Even so, her voice carried through Scott’s room, though it didn’t disturb the man in the bed.
Johnny stood motionless at the window, gazing out into the darkening evening. Jelly was helping the doctor clean up, and Murdoch sat on the far side of his son, worried eyes waiting for an answer.
“Well,” mused Doc Jenkins, “physically he’s shaken up a bit. A fall like that will take a lot out of you, but if he gets a good night’s sleep and takes it easy tomorrow, he should be fine in a day or so. As for what made him do it in the first place—” He shook his head. “There’s nothing I can do to heal that kind of wound.”
Johnny finally turned. “It’s the war, isn’t it? What he had to do.”
Murdoch nodded. “I think so. We had a letter from his grandfather. This isn’t the first time he’s gone wild, trying to get away from the memories.”
Johnny looked at the floor, but Theresa was sure he was reliving those endless hours at the stream while he waited for help.
“I’ll stay with him,” she said.
“No . . .” came Johnny’s soft voice. “I’d kind of like to sit with him a while.”
The doctor crossed the room to his side. “Not until I take care of that arm, young man.”
Johnny looked at it, almost surprised to see the bloody tear in his shirt. He flexed his arm and winced. “Guess you’d better.” He went to Theresa’s side. “I’ll be back in a while.”
She gazed into his eyes, seeing the grief, and gathered him into her arms. “It’ll be all right,” she said. “Now that we know what’s wrong, we can help him.”
He stroked her dark hair. “I hope so. I sure do hope so.”
Jelly followed the doctor and his next patient from the room, and closed the door behind them.
“Why don’t you get some rest. I’ll get you up in a while, and you can sit with him then.”
He didn’t answer right away, just watched the steady rise and fall of his son’s chest. “There are some things you never really get over,” he said finally. “You just have to let go and find a way to move on.”
“How?” came a weak voice from the bed.
“Scott?” Murdoch leaned forward.
Scott turned his head on the pillow. “How do you let go of something so awful, something you did—”
“First of all,” Murdoch interrupted, “what you did was under orders. That changes the rules.”
“It doesn’t change anything. I’m the one who ordered those houses burned, the fields destroyed, the livestock driven off or killed.” He thumped the bed hard with his hand. “People died because of me, Murdoch. They died!”
The older man held his son’s gaze with sad wisdom. “And if you hadn’t been there? Would it have been any different?”
“That doesn’t change the facts—”
He was interrupted by an unexpected voice. “Did you let your men hurt those people?” Theresa asked.
She advanced on the bed with grim determination. “Did they shoot any of the men, rape any of the women?”
“Of course not!” he exclaimed.
“Did they beat the woman who was pregnant?”
Aghast, he stared at her. “I’d never let something like that happen!”
She sat on the edge of the bed and took his hand, kneading it gently. Her voice was suddenly softer, compassionate. “Then you made a difference, a big difference. It was awful, Scott, I’m not saying it wasn’t. But it would have been so much worse with someone else in command.”
Scott looked from her to his father, conflicting emotions flitting across his face.
“Think about it, son. Not too hard, not tonight; you need your rest. But just consider what happened at plantations that other troops covered.”
He sank back into the pillow, suddenly exhausted. “Yeah,” he whispered in a thin thread, his eyes dark hollows in his face.
Murdoch rose and walked heavily to the door. He paused with one hand on the doorknob and looked back at Scott. “Let it go, son. Just let it go.” Then he left, closing the door silently behind him.
Scott closed his eyes. “I can’t,” he told her. “I can’t forget those people and what we did to them.”
He looked up at her, saw her bowed head as she concentrated on aimlessly pleating the fabric of her skirt. He was tired to the very bones, but he couldn’t deny her. “Yes?”
“I’m sure they knew.”
He wrinkled his brow. “Who knew what?”
“The people. I’m sure they knew you hated what you were doing, and that you never would have done it without direct orders.”
He pulled himself up a bit on the pillows, grimacing a bit as various pulled muscles and bruises made themselves known. His eyes narrowed in desperate concentration as he tried to figure out what she was saying. “How can you know that, Teresa? You weren’t there, you didn’t see their faces—”
“It doesn’t matter.” She looked up at him, her clear, steady gaze holding the mysteries of a woman’s wisdom. “I don’t need to have been there to know. I know you, I’ve seen your face when you’re reminded of those times, and I know that anyone who saw you then would know you hated what you were doing. And, Scott?”
His eyes were bright with emotion, but he managed to choke out, “What, Teresa?”
“They’ve forgiven you, most of them. Some, like McLean – they can’t ever forget or forgive a hurt. But that was him, not you.”
He was breathing deeply now, trying to control himself, but he couldn’t help but ask, “How do you know, Teresa? How could you possibly know that they could forgive—” His throat constricted, his voice choked.
She took his hand again, helped him to sit up. She gently wiped the tears that were streaming down his cheeks. “I know because I would forgive you, too. If you had come to this ranch with those orders, I would hate your cause, I would hate your commanding officers, but I could never hate the person who had to carry out those orders, not once I’d seen your face.”
He made a sound, deep in his throat – a moan, a cry, a deep, harsh sob – and buried his face in her shoulder, and she held him as a mother holds a grieving child.
Two days later . . .
The afternoon sun had just broken through the heavy clouds of the last few days as Johnny wandered out onto the terrace, apple in hand. He found Scott half-asleep in a chair that was tilted back on two legs, stabilized by propping his feet, ankles crossed, over the hitching rail. Johnny briefly contemplated kicking the back legs of the chair out from under his brother, but, figuring that Scott’s body had taken enough physical abuse lately, decided against it.
That didn’t mean he wouldn’t give him a hard time, though.
“Hey, brother, catch!” He lobbed the apple into the air and waited with an expectant grin to see how awake Scott was.
Scott’s reaction was all he could have wished for. His eyes flew open, his legs slipped from the rail, and the chair teetered as his arms windmilled between trying to keep his balance and catching the object that was quickly descending toward his face. He managed to grab the apple, but landed flat on his back on the ground.
Johnny grinned. “Won the battle, but lost the war, huh?”
A gleam appeared in Scott’s eye as he dragged himself to his feet. “If it’s a battle you want, just stay right there while I – Ahh!” He bent over in pain, left hand rubbing at his back.
Foolery instantly forgotten, Johnny grabbed him by the arm with one hand, set the chair upright with the other, and helped him sit down again.
“Sorry, Scott – didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“I’m . . . all right.” He leaned forward in the chair, trying to get his breath, and wiped his brow. “Just give me a minute. After all the aches and pains I’ve had lately, this won’t bother me for more than a minute or two . . . or an hour . . . or a day . . .”
Johnny finally saw that the gleam was still there. “Why, you—!” He took off his hat and hit his brother’s shoulder with it. “After all you’ve put me through lately, I oughta give you a few more aches and pains!”
The fun faded from Scott’s face. “I have, haven’t I? You and everyone else.” He shook his head in wonder. “But you never gave up on me. All the stupid things that I did, that I thought—”
“No,” Johnny interrupted. “Not stupid. Mistaken, confused, maybe. I can’t say, ‘cause I’ve never lived through something like that.”
Scott sank back in his chair. “But you’ve done things you aren’t proud of, things that bother you in the night.”
Johnny nodded and leaned against the hitching rail. “Yeah, one or two.”
Scott’s words were casual, but his voice showed strain. “So how do you keep the nightmares away?”
“Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you wake up a split second from screaming. But once you realize it was a dream, maybe get up and walk around a bit, you go back to bed.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. You just go on.”
“That’s what Murdoch said.”
Johnny snorted a laugh. “Yeah, well, he’s a master at it. Lost two wives, two sons, struggled here for all those years through banditos and drought and sickness . . . He’s a tough old man; you’d think he’d have nightmares, too. But whether he does or not, he just gets up the next day and . . . goes on.”
Scott stood and looked out over their land. “Concentrate on today, not yesterday.”
“That’s about all you can do.” He moved to his brother’s side and squeezed his shoulder. “People died in that war, soldiers and civilians. You survived. So make your life worth something. Don’t throw it away. Scott, you may never be able to forget what happened, but you can find the good in every day from now on. You can make your life – and their sacrifice – worth something if you just don’t give up.”
Scott tossed the apple idly. “Go make something of every day, huh?”
“Yeah.” He hoped his brother had found something in all of his ramblings that made sense.
“Well, then, I think I’m going to go see about a horse.” And he strolled off in the direction of the barn.
Johnny leaned against the rail again just as Jelly wandered over.
“He gonna be all right?” the old man asked.
“I hope so,” Johnny answered.
“I know all of us have talked to him till we got dry as a desert wind and used up more words than a revival meetin’, but it’s gotta make sense in his own head.”
“He’s thinking about it, and you know once he starts thinking on something he’ll eventually get it figured out.”
Jelly stroked his beard, pulling it a bit in his frustration. “Wal, he’s a smart fella, that’s for sure true, but sometimes them’s what’s the smartest sometimes don’t think the straightest.”
Johnny laughed. “Don’t let him hear you say that.”
“I ain’t crazy. He’d me set down and make me listen to him explain how that just couldn’t be true. ‘Bout how a man can think his way outta anything.”
They stood in companionable silence, gazing across the yard at the barn. One of the terrace doors opened, and Teresa joined them.
She took in their expectant demeanor and looked around. “What are you waiting for?”
“Scott,” Johnny replied.
“Is he okay?” she asked, suddenly worried.
The door to the barn opened, and they straightened as they watched Scott lead the stallion out to the corral. He was saddled and ready for a ride, but there was something different about him. Scott held the apple under the horse’s nose, and they watched, astounded, as he took it carefully from Scott’s hand. Scott rubbed the animal’s nose and mounted, and though he tossed his head once and swished his tail, he went willingly and with no fuss past the barn and down the road to the main road.
“Is that the same horse?” Teresa asked.
“Same horse, different man,” replied Jelly, a satisfied smile on his face. “I’ll jest be gettin’ back to what I was doin’.”
Puzzled, Teresa watched the old man traipse over to the barn. “What’s going on?”
Johnny straightened. “A horse like that, he picks up on a person’s feelings. His rider’s hell-bent, he will be, too.”
A slow smile grew on her face. “So, you’re saying Scott’s going to be all right?”
He put an arm around her shoulders and smiled as well. “Yep, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Now let’s go see what you’ve got cookin’ in that kitchen . . .”
Author’s Note: The poem Scott was reciting the night he got drunk is titled “So We’ll Go no more A Roving,” by George Gordon, Lord Byron. Scott got the lines mixed up, though.
One thought on “Desert Nightmares (by Becky)”
I recently ran across your story Desert Nightmares and noticed that it seems to be the conclusion of a chain story. It sounds very interesting and was wondering if you could tell me where I can locate the other parts of the chain? Thank you.