Word Count: 3000
Checking, and repairing where needed, Lancer’s northern border of line shacks for readiness for possible winter occupation was a lonely, tedious yet necessary chore. So during the discussion of who was to be given the unpopular job that year, it took everyone by surprise when Scott straightaway insisted he be the one to go. His reasoning was he felt it only right to cover every aspect of the ranch of which he was part-owner, and to gain some experience in what the men in their employ had to do.
Murdoch was surprised and pleased at his eldest son’s way of thinking. Johnny, meanwhile, just rolled his eyes and gave him a look which plainly indicated he thought Scott an idiot to volunteer for such a boring task. However, undeterred by his brother’s negative reaction and with his father agreeing to his request, Scott took off a few days later.
Scott enjoyed the solitude of his surroundings during his time away, for the truth was he had just wanted to keep his own counsel for a while — give himself a chance to think his thoughts without interruption, to take stock of his new life in California, and after the traumatic visit from his grandfather several months before, to reflect on his old life back in Boston.
However, Scott was now eager to return to his family. He’d missed them — Johnny especially. Often he’d start chuckling to himself as thoughts of the escapades the pair of them had got up over the past couple of years filled his mind. If there was one good reason to stay at Lancer, it was his brother, and Scott was inwardly smiling again at happy memories when he came to a fork in the trail and pulled his horse to a halt.
Looking about him, Scott’s eyes were drawn to the left where he knew there was a shortcut across a harsh desert terrain which would save many hours riding time. However, on two occasions, he’d been left close to death when passing through similar wasteland on his own. Maybe it was third time lucky and his journey would pass without incident for once, he thoughtfully pondered.
So disregarding the drawl of a familiar voice in his head advising him to stay clear of the inhospitable wilderness when travelling alone, the usually sensible Scott turned away from the safer but longer option, instead pointing his horse in the direction of the shorter and more hostile route towards home.
Soon he began to regret his decision as with every mile travelled the air became stifling to the extreme. The heat grew more oppressive and hotter, causing rivulets of sweat to trickle in a continuous stream down Scott’s face. His shirt was soon soaked wet and clung uncomfortably to his body. He stopped, unhooked his canteen and swallowed down a long, cooling gulp of water.
Mildly refreshed, he pulled the brim of his hat low onto his brow to protect his face from the blistering sun overhead. He was about to urge his mount into a gentle lope when Scott suddenly sensed something strangely different and threatening about his surroundings. He frowned uneasily; he looked up and could see the cloud-free sky was turning darker. His sensitive ears picked up the sound of a strange roaring growing louder behind him.
As he looked back, Scott’s eyes widened fearfully at the sight of a huge wall of potentially choking dust being propelled towards him at an alarming rate by an unusually ferocious wind. Churned up sand, soil and debris collected over several miles swirled hundreds of feet up in the air. With no chance to react and outrun the danger, it was pitch black within a few moments as the dust cloud blocked out the sunlight and enveloped everything in its path in an instant.
Blinded and made wild by the extraordinary phenomenon, the horse squealed and reared in terror, twisted and side stepped, and reared again before galloping off in a fear driven frenzy. Using every ounce of strength, Scott attempted to regain control of his panic-stricken mount but with no immediate success. Before he was able to pull it to a stop the inevitable happened, for as the animal stumbled in the abnormal darkness; it lost its footing on the rocky terrain, pitching forward and unseating its rider in the process.
A piercing blast of pain ripped across Scott’s body as he landed heavily on the hard-packed, rock-strewn ground. His last recollection was of a scream — whether from him, his horse or both he couldn’t tell — before he quickly slipped away and blacked out altogether into a dark abyss of nothingness.
How long he remained unconscious Scott had no way of knowing. When he did eventually come around, his mind cleared just enough for him to realize the land was now quiet, and the sun once more beat down its intolerable heat from a clear blue sky. It was as if the freak dust storm had never happened.
However, it left one unpleasant souvenir in its wake — a fine sandy powder which clogged Scott’s nostrils and irritated his eyes to such an extent that he could barely see further than an inch in front of him.
He couldn’t mistake the dull, agonizing throbbing from a broken leg and the sharp jarring sting of several cracked ribs. Feverish and dazed, the pain from both injuries was intense. Scott wanted to throw up but forced the sickness back down, knowing the fresh agony it would cause him should he retch. A soft groan of expletives at his unbearable discomfort escaped his parched lips and a realization dawned. In this heat and unprotected, he’d be cooked raw by nightfall, and with barely the strength to crawl to safety, he was going nowhere fast.
It was then Scott was sure he heard a shout from not far away and a second replying yell. Whoever was out there, he knew they may be his only chance of seeing the day out alive. He felt for his gun with the intention of firing a couple of shots and so raise the alarm. To Scott’s dismay, the holster was empty, his pistol having been dislodged and lost during his fall. So gritting his teeth determinedly, he braced himself for the agony to come as he attempted to push himself up to his feet, and so alert his would-be saviors to his position.
Suddenly, to Scott’s surprise he had a vague, shimmering glimpse of a familiar figure through his blurred vision; he felt a hand gently rest on his shoulder and push him down. He heard a voice he knew and loved so well and he almost cried with joy and relief at the hearing.
“Listen to me, Boston; you’ve got to keep still. Don’t move for a couple of minutes more and then everything will be all right. Okay, brother?”
Scott tried to answer, but with a throat now raw and dry from swallowing down dust, no sound came. So instead he just gave a sluggish nod of understanding and complied with the request, happy in the knowledge he was found and safe in Johnny’s capable care as he felt consciousness slipping away from him again.
The next time he came around, Scott slowly and painfully blinked open his reddened and sore eyes. There was no blue sky above, just a familiar ceiling and light streaming through a window. He knew straightaway he was back in his bed on Lancer. It took a moment longer to remember why, and when the memory returned, he shifted slightly to a more comfortable position, wincing and giving a quiet moan at the movement. He felt strapping around his chest, and more securing a broken leg in place.
A shadow crossed his vision and a work-worn hand gently touched his forehead, lingering for a moment before it moved away. “Good to have you back with us, son. There’s still a little heat left from the fever, but no need to worry; you’re going to be fine.”
There was still faint concern in the gravelly tone as Scott squinted towards his father’s weather-beaten face. “How long have I been out?” he asked tentatively.
“Only a couple of days but the Doctor left laudanum for when you came round. I could give you a dose now if you want.”
Scott considered for a moment, then shook his head. “I’m fine, sir, but it’s good to know its there if needed,” he answered croakily. “I’d appreciate some water, though.”
Almost immediately Murdoch lifted Scott’s head and placed a glass to his lips, watching with a tender smile as his son greedily drank down the refreshing liquid. Once finished, Scott sank his head back onto the pillow and eyed his father questioningly. “Is Johnny around?”
“I’m here, Scott.”
From his chair on the opposite side of the bed, Johnny leaned forward and studied the drained and painful looking sun-burnt face of his elder brother, which had turned towards him. “You look like hell,” he observed with an affectionate grin. “But then you never were a pretty sight.”
Scott managed a faint smile back. “Still the smooth talker, aren’t you, brother.”
For a second or so, they just looked at each other, sharing the humor of the moment. Then Johnny gave a silent nod and his expression turned somber. “I tell you, Boston, don’t you ever learn, or is it that Harvard education making you think you’re too damn clever to listen to advice from me? What were you thinking taking that desert route on your own?”
“Johnny, I don’t think this is the right time for cross examination,” Murdoch mildly scolded, though his mouth curved gently upward as he pulled up a chair. “You’ll have plenty of opportunity to question your brother’s actions when he’s regained his strength and can answer back.”
However, Scott shook his head. “It’s all right, sir, I deserve what’s coming, so might as well get it over with,” he murmured quietly, willingly allowing himself to be chastised by his younger sibling. “I guess you’re pretty mad at me.”
“Damn right I am,” Johnny responded. “Don’t you realize how close you came to getting yourself killed? I tell you, brother, if you keep this up, I’m going to have more grey hairs than Murdoch worrying about you.”
His tone was in jest but the blue eyes reflected tired strain and Scott couldn’t help but feel guilty for the worry he’d caused him. “Sorry. I know I was stupid for not taking your advice. The truth is I just wanted to get home as quickly as I could, but it seems the fates were against me yet again.”
A muscle twitched in Murdoch’s jaw. “Don’t be too hard on yourself, son. At least you’re here now, in one piece.”
Unable to mask his feelings, Johnny let out an exasperated groan. “But only just.” He sank back in his chair and took a calming breath. “So what happened to you, Scott?”
For a few seconds Scott seemed lost in thought, his eyes glazed over at the memory. Then he came out of it and gave a sigh. “I was caught up in a dust storm and it spooked my horse. After I was thrown, everything else is somewhat of a blur.” He hesitated for a moment as his forehead wrinkled. “Now I come to think on it, how did you know where I was?”
Murdoch smiled knowingly as he explained. “Fortunately for you, two of our men were tracking down a cougar in the area; otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”
Confusion clouded Scott’s face. “But Johnny found me…”
“Not me, brother,” Johnny quickly interrupted. “Dave and Steve are the ones you need to thank and I’ve already told them you’ll be good to settle their drinks tab at the saloon for the next six months. You may have a busted leg and ribs but I have to say you don’t know just how lucky you are, even considering the state you’re in.”
Noting his expression of bewilderment Murdoch nodded. “That’s right, Scott. You were lying dangerously close to the edge of a ravine when Steve first noticed you. He told us if you’d regained consciousness and moved six inches to the left before he got to your side, you’d have ended up falling a hundred feet down and joining your horse as crow feed.”
Visibly shocked at the revelation, Scott stared wide eyed for a few moments as if trying to make sense of something. He then opened his mouth to speak but before the words came, he felt a spasm of pain which hurt like hell. “Damn!” he groaned, automatically placing a hand over his bandaged chest. “Maybe I should have some of that pain killer after all.”
Without hesitation, Murdoch filled a small vial and passed it over. Scott swallowed it down, his face contorted at the unpleasant taste. He then accepted a second class of water from his father’s hand.
“You okay, brother?”
“I will be,” Scott murmured, blowing out his cheeks and managing a faint tentative smile as he passed the empty glass back. Then in a long silence which followed, he just stared blankly in front of him, his expression one of a man trying to come to terms with the impossible.
“What’s the matter, son? Are you in more pain?”
Scott shook his head. “The laudanum is working fine sir.”
“Well something’s on your mind, brother. Care to spit it out?”
With a look of apprehension, Scott eyed them both in turn. “It’s to do with what happened just before Dave and Steve found me.”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed as he sensed his unease. “Go on.”
Preparing himself for ridicule, Scott took as deep a breath as he dared, considering the condition of his ribs, then exhaled loudly. “I heard them shouting so I tried to get up in an attempt to be seen. But someone held me down.”
He paused and glanced at the figure by his side. “It was you, Johnny. I know my vision was blurred, but I recognized you and I heard your voice as clear as I hear you now telling me to lie still. If I hadn’t done what you told me, from what I’ve just learned, there’s no doubt I would have fallen down that ravine, just as Steve said.”
There was no sign of laughter, just a bemused look as Johnny mulled over what he’d said. “You saying I turned into some sort of ghostly apparition?”
Abruptly it occurred to Scott they must think him mad but he refused to back down. “Hardly a ghost. I felt your hand on my shoulder, keeping me from moving.”
Johnny eyes crinkled skeptically. “Sorry, brother, but this is way too weird for me. I reckon you had too many hours in the sun and just dreamt it all,” he finally offered by way of explanation.
“No! It wasn’t a dream!” The words were emphatically spoken and Scott looked toward his father with an almost pleading expression, as though desperate to be taken seriously. “You believe me, don’t you, Murdoch?”
Contemplating his question for a long moment, Murdoch sensed he was in need of reassurance. “I believe that’s what you thought happened, son, so it’s good enough for me,” he answered in an attempt to placate him.
Growing visibly agitated, that was obviously not the response Scott wanted to hear. “In other words you think I imagined the whole thing. But I’m not crazy; I know what I heard and what I saw.”
Noting tiny beads of perspiration clinging to Scott’s brow, Murdoch laid a comforting hand gently on his arm. “You need to rest, son. We’ll talk later and try to make more sense of it all when the fever’s fully gone.”
As a sudden bout of weariness hit him and hardly able to keep his eyes open, Scott sighed resignedly. “Very well sir, but it was Johnny. I just wish you’d believe me…”
His voice and his thoughts drifted off as tiredness claimed another victim. His eyelids slid shut; within a few moments, Scott had fallen fast asleep.
Father and youngest son exchanged a glance and Murdoch reached across to brush a rogue lock of blond hair off the face now relaxed in pain-free slumber, his gaze lingering thoughtfully on his eldest for a few moments.
“One of us needs to keep an eye on your brother until the fever is completely gone, to make sure he doesn’t move about too much and ruin all the good work the doc’s done. So why don’t you go and grab yourself a cup of coffee and a bite to eat, Johnny? You must be hungry after sitting up here all day.”
Although tempted, Johnny shook his head. “Reckon I’ll stick around here, if it’s all right with you,” he said as he stretched out his legs and gently rested his feet on the edge of the bed, careful not to disturb the sleeping figure inches away.
Murdoch nodded understandingly. “In that case, I’ll bring you up a drink and sandwich in a few minutes.”
He made to leave but stopped as Johnny called after him in a low voice. “Murdoch? Scott seemed pretty convinced about what happened out there. What do you reckon really went on?”
For several seconds, Murdoch said nothing as he just looked wonderingly between the sons he loved more than life itself, his heart swelling with emotion at the sight. They’d been brought up poles apart, but in such a short while had forged a bond between them the like of which he’d never thought possible.
Finally Murdoch broke the silence. “It’s hard to explain the unexplainable, son. Though if I have to hazard a guess, I’d say, in his hour of need, Scott was being looked after by a guardian angel of the brotherly kind.”
Without waiting for a response, Murdoch just smiled over to his youngest affectionately, before quietly closing the bedroom door behind him.