Word Count 38,810
My most heartfelt thanks to Ros and her friend Mara for help with the Spanish translations. Muchos gracias, Ladies!
Also, much thanks to Geraldine for helping me coordinate the sequence of events and giving me great suggestions and insights. In other words, for being my beta. Thanks, G!
Note: This story addresses the subject of rape and is rated R.
“So? Are you going to tell me?”
Johnny’s lips twitched as he glanced over at his brother and considered. “I’m not so sure you’re old enough to hear it, brother.”
Scott nearly choked with that remark. He pulled on the reins and slowed his gait, waiting as Johnny matched it. “I’m older than you.”
“That don’t mean a thing, Scott. I’m pretty sure I’m not old enough either and I’m older than I was then!” He laughed and reached over, slapping his brother lightly in the gut.
Scott sighed and shook his head. Would he ever stop being frustrated by Johnny’s teasing? Not that he didn’t enjoy it but, sometimes his brother pushed further than he should. Scott was sure that was intentional. He looked down the road they were traveling.
“I wonder where the nearest town is.”
Johnny was disappointed his brother didn’t want to continue their badinage. He loved to watch Scott get worked up. He grinned a little then. “Not tonight, brother. We ain’t near enough to anything like a town. Gonna have to camp out again.”
Scott’s brows pulled together in annoyance. “I’ll be very glad when this trip is over.”
“Two or three more days, I’d say.” Johnny lifted his hat then resettled it on his head. “At least it’s not too hot.”
“Not yet but,” Scott paused and looked over with a wicked glint in his eyes, “you haven’t told the story yet. I’m sure that will raise the temperature.”
Johnny laughed and nodded his head. “Well, I’ll tell you this much for now. I was down in …”
He never finished the sentence. Johnny was propelled to the ground suddenly and painfully. He landed nearly flat of his back, the air rushing from his lungs. Sound seemed to be drowned out as he fought to suck in some oxygen.
Scott jumped from his horse, grabbing his rifle from the scabbard and squatting low to the ground as his eyes scanned the hills to the right. He moved around Remmie and pushed Barranca aside then knelt next to his brother. One eye on the landscape and one trying to survey the damage to his brother, Scott spoke in panted breaths. “Are you alright?”
“No, I’m not alright! I’m shot!” Johnny ground his teeth together as he felt the pain in his upper right chest.
Scott jerked his head toward his brother and saw the steadily growing red stain on Johnny’s green shirt. He winced but before he could do anything more, a second shot rang out.
Leaning low over his brother, Scott’s eyes raked his surroundings even as the horses took off for safer ground. He spied a clump of trees twenty feet to the left and made the decision. Laying the rifle down, he moved to crouch above Johnny’s head and grabbed him under the arms, dragging him to the protection of the trees.
“Scott, stop. Get the horses!”
Breathlessly, Scott replied. “Too late, brother. They’re long gone.”
Gritting his teeth against the pain, Johnny tried to whistle for Barranca but he was having too much trouble getting enough air in his lungs to survive, much less call his horse. Aggravated beyond measure at the loss of their mounts, he relented and tried to relax his body a little so the dragging wasn’t so rough.
Scott nestled him in as close to the trunk as he could then, scanning the area, ran out and grabbed his rifle then returned. He waited ten minutes but it was quiet now. Finally, he turned his attention to his brother.
Without a word, Scott unbuttoned Johnny’s shirt and looked at the wound. He hid a grimace by busying himself with pulling a bandana from his pocket. He pressed it on the wound and heard the grunt and hiss. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, I know. How bad is it?”
“Not as bad as it could have been but bad enough. I think I should try to find the horses.”
“They’re long gone now. We’re gonna hafta walk.”
Scott took in the sweaty forehead, labored breaths and pale face. “You won’t make it ten feet, brother.”
“Watch me.” Johnny’s voice was full of anger and determination as he pulled himself to sit upright. “Just help me to my feet.” When Scott hesitated, he sighed heavily. “We can’t stay here, Scott. We don’t even have water. We don’t know the area that well. We need to find some help. There’s got to be a farm or somethin around here.”
Knowing Johnny’s words were true and hating the entire situation, Scott nodded. “Let me do something about that wound first.”
He pulled his shirt tail out and ripped a long strip from it. “Like this,” he said as he fashioned a make-shift bandage. “It’s not much but it might slow the bleeding down.”
Once he’d fixed Johnny up as best he could, Scott helped him to his feet and hung on as Johnny righted himself. Slowly, the younger man pushed away from his brother and stood on his own then took a few steps. He raised his head deliberately.
“See? Nothin to it.”
Scott pulled his shoulders back and assumed a rigid, familiarly military stance. “Uh huh. You’re ready to pass out now. You stay here and I’ll go for help.”
Johnny was already shaking his head before Scott even finished. “No way. I’m goin. You might need some backup.” A grin lit his face even as a drop of sweat left his chin.
Scott rolled his eyes then wrapped an arm around his brother’s waist. Sometimes, Johnny was too stubborn for anyone’s good.
They’d walked barely half a mile in over an hour and Scott was practically dragging Johnny along. He guided them to the shade of some trees and eased his brother to the ground.
“Why’d we stop?”
“Because you can’t go any farther and I’m worn out. I need a breather and to check that wound.” Even as he was speaking, Scott was taking a peek under his crude bandage of bandana and shirttail. Shaking his head, he sat back on his heels. “It’s still bleeding. If we keep this up, you’ll bleed to death.”
Johnny didn’t say anything. His eyes were closed, his head back against the tree trunk, a frown on his pale face. “Maybe you should find that help now.”
“I already would have if you’d stayed put in the first place. One of these days, brother, that obstinance of yours is going to be the end of you.”
Johnny opened his eyes and took in the frown of anger. “Excuse me for gettin shot! Sorry to ruin your day!”
“That’s not going to work, Johnny. I shouldn’t have listened to you.” He took in a deep breath and tried to quell his anger. “Look, I’m going to climb this hill and get a better view. Just stay here.”
He didn’t say a word as Scott took off up the incline behind them. Mostly, because he knew his brother was right but, he hadn’t really felt that bad at first. Sure, it hurt but he could stand that. Now, he knew he couldn’t go on and whoever had done this could still be watching them. He pulled his brows together as he wondered why. It wasn’t a robbery. Why would someone just shoot him? Target practice? A blind hunter?
His anger rose as he thought about it. Why couldn’t they just have a simple trip without everything goin to hell in a handbasket?
Scott skidded back down the hill and stopped in front of him with a little smile. “There’s a cabin. I saw the smoke through the trees. I’m not sure how far away it is but I’ll get there as fast as I can.”
“Okay just, be careful. We don’t know who or why and there probably ain’t another farm around here for miles.”
Scott nodded and looked hard at him. “Try to lie still. The more you move around, the more it will bleed.”
“Gee, thanks, brother. I’ve never been shot before. I didn’t know how that worked.”
Scott grit his teeth and refrained from arguing. He knew Johnny was hurting but it wasn’t as if he’d shot him. He found he had no words that weren’t inflammatory and he’d just be wasting his breath. “I’ll be back soon.” It was all he could manage to choke out as he set off again.
Scott approached the run-down cabin cautiously, his eyes taking in the surrounding yard. There was a small barn which he hoped sheltered at least one horse they could borrow. A well stood to one side of the cabin. The rest of the yard was littered with old wagon wheels, rusted tools and general trash. His eyes fell on the animal skins nailed to the side of the barn and he felt a little ill. Whoever lived here, they weren’t the neat and orderly type. He felt a prickling sensation down his spine then shook it off as ridiculous. Still, his hand went to his right side as he patted the gun there for reassurance then, with no other choice, he stepped onto the small porch and knocked.
His eyes went up to the tall man standing before him. Scott tried very hard not to pull a face but, if he had to wager, he’d bet this was the ugliest man he’d ever seen. He was a good six foot two inches, his long, tangled hair was brown, Scott thought. His full facial hair seemed to simply be an extension of his hair. He had a very flat nose, thick lips and bulged eyes and a scar that ran the length of his right jaw.
“Help ya?” he asked with a hint of a twang.
“I hope so. My brother was shot and our horses scared off. He needs a doctor.”
The man looked at him for a second then stepped outside, turned to the side and spat before facing Scott again. “Who shot ‘im?”
Scott’s anger flushed his cheeks. “I don’t know. It was an ambush. We never saw the shooter and he didn’t come after us. It’s all very strange.”
The man nodded and looked out at the yard. “Yep, lot’s of strange things happen in these parts. Well, reckon we should go and get ‘im. Where is he?”
Scott sighed with relief. “Just over that hill to the west, at the bottom maybe half a mile. I’d be glad to hitch the wagon.”
“Got nothin ta hitch it to and, besides, there ain’t enough left of it to hitch. Mule died last month. Ain’t got the money to replace it.”
Frowning and feeling a bit defeated, Scott ran a hand through his hair. “How are we going to get him here?”
The man shrugged. “I’ll carry ‘im. How big is he?”
Scott looked him over and figured he could carry Johnny easily. Not that his brother would like it one bit. Well, it wasn’t as if they had a choice. “He’s not tall but he’s stout. It’s all muscle, though.”
The man’s lips twitched into something Scott assumed was supposed to be a smile. “Reckon I can handle ‘im, then. My brother’s out huntin.” He tossed his head toward the back of the cabin to indicate his brother’s general location. “Well, come on, then.”
Scott watched the man trudge down the hillside easily. He supposed he and his brother had lived in these hills their whole lives and were used to the terrain. He was having a little trouble keeping up which bothered him for a few reasons.
“Just a minute,” he finally called out. The man stopped and Scott took the opportunity to catch his breath. “I don’t even know your name.”
“Jebediah Suffolk. You?”
“Scott Lancer. My brother’s name is Johnny.”
“My brother’s Luther. Where you boys from?”
“We have a ranch near Morro Coyo with our father.”
Jeb looked at him closely. “Reckon he’ll be worried about ya.”
“Not yet. We aren’t due home for several days. Look, I think you should let me approach Johnny first. He’ll be wary and he might be inclined to shoot first and ask questions later.”
Again, the man’s mouth twitched but all he did was nod once.
Scott took the lead and made it down the hill, sliding part of the way in his hurry. He knelt beside Johnny and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, brother. You awake?”
“Sure. Just restin my eyes, is all.” Johnny opened those eyes and looked past Scott. “There’s a mountain standin over you.”
Softly laughing, Scott nodded. “He’s here to help. He’s going to carry you back to his place. He doesn’t have a wagon or horses.”
“Carry me? Hell, Scott, you coulda done that!”
“Not here, he can’t. Pretty tough land if ya ain’t used to it. Might as well get it over with, mister. Unless you wanna just stay here.”
Johnny looked at the talking mountain, trying not to gawk. He knew he didn’t want the man touching him let alone carrying him. He could smell him from where he was now.
“He’s right, Johnny. It was rough going there and back.” Scott leaned very close to his brother. “I know it’s not ideal but we don’t have any other choice.”
Sighing, Johnny knew it was true. He didn’t have to like it but he couldn’t exactly be choosy. The man was willing to help, after all. He managed a small smile. “Well, guess we should get goin if you’re ready. Johnny Lancer.”
“Jeb Suffolk.” The man said nothing else, leaned over and scooped Johnny up in his arms, cradling him like he was a new bride being carried over the threshold.
He blushed furiously with embarrassment. He turned his head aside so he wasn’t staring at the man’s chest. Christ! Did he ever bathe?
“It’s a gut shot to the pride, I know, but, it’s better than dyin.” Suffolk shifted him a little then started up the hill without further delay.
Johnny grunted through his clenched teeth. Every step Jeb took was an assault on his wound. It was still bleeding, he knew and he wished he’d pass out but it wasn’t happening. He wouldn’t look at Scott, too ashamed of his infirmity and present situation to face his brother. He knew Scott would say nothing and would think no less of him but, it was still hard.
When they returned to the cabin, another man was standing on the porch watching them intently. Scott could swear they were twins almost. They dressed identically and had the same unwashed and scraggly appearance. But, as they drew closer, Scott could see this one – Luther, he thought was the name – was younger than Jeb.
“What did ya catch there, Jebediah?” Luther asked with amusement.
“Couple of cowboys, Luther. Hear tell they’re good eatin.”
The scruffy brothers laughed at their own joke and Scott had to smile a little himself. He looked at Johnny who was not amused at all.
Luther opened the door as Jeb walked in and deposited his load on a cot, then explained. “Fella got hisself shot up.”
Scott sat on the mattress and grimaced at the odor. Johnny finally looked at him with a miserable expression. “I’m sorry, brother.”
Johnny nodded at the barely audible sentiment. He knew it wasn’t Scott’s fault and they couldn’t exactly look a gift horse in the mouth. He’d just have to deal with it. Hell, he’d been in worse places, he reckoned. Maybe. He looked around the one room which held kitchen, bedroom and well, that was it. The smell was indescribable. Like dead animals and unwashed humans, he guessed. Trash littered the floor, rusted tools were tossed around and there was a couple of inches of dust on almost everything. He could see two photographs hanging on one wall but they were so filthy, you couldn’t see the people in them. Then, there was the pelt – wolf, he thought – tacked to a wall like it was a decoration.
Luther produced hot water and some burlap sacking for bandages. Jeb handed Scott a jar of salve and swore by it’s healing properties although he wouldn’t tell Scott the ingredients. He said it was a family secret and grinned widely.
Scott swallowed hard as he saw the crusted teeth, the few that were left when Jeb smiled openly. He focused his attention back on his brother and started cleaning the wound. “That bullet has to come out.”
“I know. Just do it, brother.” Johnny was flushed and sweaty from the treatment he’d endured so far. He figured this would put him right on over the edge.
“I got some experience with diggin out bullets if ya want.”
Jeb stood behind Scott which unnerved the young man enough. He didn’t like someone hovering over his shoulder, never had. “Thanks, but I can do it. Can you heat up a knife for me?” He heard Jeb move away and relaxed a little. Then, a jug appeared in front of him and he looked up at Luther.
“For the pain. He’s gonna need it.”
Scott took the jug and nodded his thanks. He uncorked it, sniffed and his eyes watered.
Johnny gave his brother a knowing look. He inhaled the liquor like a starved man.
Scott sat back and wiped a shaky hand across his forehead as he watched his unconscious brother. Johnny hadn’t passed out right away but he’d borne the agony well. Now, Scott only prayed there’d be no infection though he had his doubts about that. He stood and stretched out his back before turning to the brothers who were sitting at a rickety old table.
“Is there a town nearby?”
“Closest is about thirty miles. They got a doctor but, like I told ya earlier, we ain’t got no horse and the mule died. Ain’t no sense in walkin all that way. Time ya get back, I bet that fever’ll be all but gone. He just needs to rest up, is all.”
Scott shook his head adamantly, pulling his shoulders back. “No, he needs a doctor. Johnny has a way of turning being sick into a life-threatening event. I intend to make sure he gets the care he needs.” Could he ask either of them to go for him? This wasn’t their problem and they’d been very helpful already. Still, he didn’t like the idea of leaving Johnny alone so sick. “I know we’ve put you out too much already but, I’d be willing to pay one of you to go.”
A look passed between the brothers. “Well, we would but we got crops ta tend. Gotta get ’em in this week or they’ll be useless. Without that ole mule, it’s gonna take all we got to finish in time,” Jeb explained.
Scott’s face fell, his disappointment clear. “Of course. You’ve been more than kind already. I just hate leaving him.”
“Well, no sense in startin out this late in the day. Ya won’t get very far. Best ta leave first thing in the mornin. Reckon I’ll fix up some stew for us.” Luther stood and walked to the sink, grabbing a bucket and walking outside.
Scott sat back down on the cot and felt Johnny’s forehead. With a sigh, he shook his head. He was too warm.
“Fever?” Jeb asked.
“Some. It’s only going to get worse.”
“I’ll fix up a poultice. It’ll help some. Least, it might keep away the pneumonia.”
Scott looked over at him, his eyes wide. He hadn’t thought of that but it was a likely prospect. This day just kept getting worse. “Is there a telegraph in this town?”
“Yeah, they got one not too long ago.”
Scott played with his stew, his head down and feeling a bit overwhelmed. It would take him two days to get to this town, he was sure. Then, he’d have to rent a wagon and hope the doctor would come with him to get Johnny. Three days most likely, he’d be gone and Johnny would be stuck here in this filth. It wasn’t his business how people cared to live but he couldn’t understand how anyone could live like this.
A large hand clamped down on Scott’s shoulder. “Why don’t ya come outside and get a little air? Luther will watch your brother for a few minutes.”
Scott looked up, a little surprised by the gentleness of Jeb’s voice.
“I got a brother, too. Reckon I know how ya feel.” Jeb glanced at Luther then stood up. “Come on. It’ll help.”
Scott nodded, looked over at Johnny lying so still then followed Jeb outside. He stood in the yard and took a deep breath of the fresh air, wishing Johnny could have some, too.
Jeb walked over to the well and pulled the bucket up, offering the ladle to Scott.
“That’s good and cold.”
“Just dug it. The old one out back went dry couple of months ago.”
“Have you lived here long?”
“All our lives. We was both born in that cabin. Ain’t much but it’s ours. Folks staked out this land when they come from back east. My old man fought Indians and squatters to hang onto it. Reckon me and Luther just never thought about leavin.”
“The family home. That’s important.” Scott’s voice was distant as he thought about Lancer and all Murdoch had endured to hold onto it. He blinked then focused back on Jeb. “It’s just the two of you?”
“Yep. Folks died long ago. Buried ’em up on that knoll.” He looked to the east and Scott’s eyes followed. “Come on, I’ll show ya where ya need to head in the mornin.”
He took Scott around the back of the cabin and up a small rise. “Just down the valley and straight across. You’ll run into a road. It’s a pretty rough rut of a road really but it’s easy ta see. Follow that due east and you’ll walk right inta town.”
“Thanks. I figured it would take two days to get there.”
“That’s about right, I reckon.” Jeb looked sideways at him. “Are ya sure you want to be doin this? Maybe ya don’t understand just how far a walk that is.”
Scott sighed and looked up at the man. “I know how far it is and, yes, I’m sure. I just wanted to thank you again for all your help. You and your brother. Johnny wouldn’t have made it this far without that help.”
“You two don’t look nothin alike. He looks mixed.”
“We had different mothers. Johnny’s was Mexican but, we don’t think of ourselves as half brothers.”
“No reason to. Blood is blood.”
Luther knelt next to the cot and stared at Johnny for a long moment. He reached out and felt for fever, finding a decent one going and figuring it would only get worse.
Johnny frowned. He could feel someone watching him. He forced his eyes open and was surprised to see a man he didn’t know smiling at him. His thoughts started unscrambling and he remembered. This was the brother. He couldn’t recall his name but he didn’t like the way the man was looking at him. Johnny cleared his throat but he still sounded like a frog when he whispered his own brother’s name.
“He’s outside with Jebediah just now. Don’t worry none. You’re gonna be just fine. I’m Luther. Don’t reckon we was introduced.”
Johnny gave him a wary look. He was reminded of a hunter stalking his prey. It made no sense and he thought maybe it was just the fever but he was thinking clearly, he knew. There was something not right here. He shivered uncontrollably.
“Cold? Well, I’ll get ya another blanket.” Luther got up and moved away and Johnny relaxed just a little.
His eyes went to the door when it opened and he sighed thankfully when Scott came back in and moved quickly to his side.
“He just woke up. Was kind of shiverin. Here’s another blanket,” Luther prattled. He looked at his own brother standing behind him and smiled.
“Here we go, brother.” Scott wrapped the blanket over him. “How do you feel?”
“Lousy but I can make it. When are we leavin?”
Frowning, Scott felt his forehead again. “We’re not. I’m going to town tomorrow to get a wagon and a doctor.”
Johnny felt his gut clench. “How far?”
Scott dipped his eyes before sucking in a breath. “Two days on foot then another day to get back.”
He looked curiously at the younger man, more taken aback by the cold tone than anything. “It’s the only way, Johnny.”
“No, it ain’t. We can both go. I can make it, I swear.”
“Like you made it here? That’s not happening, brother.”
Johnny ground his jaw and quickly glanced at Jeb and Luther. He reached out and tugged on Scott’s shirt to bring him closer and spoke in a whisper. “You can’t leave me here.”
Scott pulled back, stunned by the words. “You’ll be fine, Johnny. Jeb and Luther will take good care of you.”
“You don’t understand.” He knew his brother was clueless. How could he tell him? How could he say anything with the two of them standing right there and what the hell could he say anyway? He had a bad feeling? He licked his lips and Scott immediately got up. Johnny reached for him but he was gone.
Scott grabbed a cup of water and went back to Johnny, lifting his head and helping him drink. “Alright, you need to rest. You already have a fever, Johnny. You can’t go anywhere.”
Desperation took hold and Johnny’s breathing increased. He closed his eyes and tried to calm himself but he felt the panic trying to take over. Slowly, he made himself settle then looked back at his brother.
“No me abandones aqui. Ellos me haran dano.” (Don’t leave me here. They’ll hurt me.)
Frowning, Scott took a second to let the words sink in. He hadn’t expected Johnny to speak Spanish.
“What’d he say?” Luther asked, intrigued.
Scott turned his head slightly toward the man. “Nothing. Nothing at all. He’s a little feverish. Not making much sense.” He turned back to Johnny. “Eso es loco. Ellos nos han ayudado.” (That’s crazy. They’ve helped us.)
Johnny grabbed his shirt in his fist. “Te digo, que ellos me haran dano.” (I’m telling you they’ll hurt me)
“Por que piensas eso?” ( Why would you think that?)
His eyes darted to them then back to Scott. “Yo lo se. Creme, Scott. Tu me tienes que creer.” ( I just know. Trust me, Scott. You have to believe me.)
Scott frowned and shook his head. “You’re sick, Johnny. You’re … dreaming or delusional. It’s going to be fine, brother.”
Johnny raised his head and the world went hazy. He closed his eyes and dropped his head back down, sighing out. His hand relaxed the grip on Scott’s shirt and dropped to his side.
Jeb and Luther just looked at each other.
“It’s the fever, is all.” Scott swallowed hard and stood then turned to face them. “He seems to think you want to do him harm.”
Jeb gave a surprised look then shrugged. “Reckon bein sick, he’d think crazy things. Besides, he don’t know us so he’s probably not real comfortable bein left with strangers.”
“No, Johnny doesn’t like being vulnerable at all. He likes to be in control.”
“Can’t say as I blame ‘im for that. Anyways, you best try and get a few hours sleep. You can take the other cot.”
Scott looked at the cot and shook his head. “Thank you but, I’ll be fine right here beside Johnny. I want to be close by if he wakes up.”
Scott raised up, grimacing with soreness as his back protested the night spent on the floor. Johnny hadn’t stirred as far as he knew. Hadn’t awakened him, anyway. He got to the side of the cot and checked for fever. It was higher now and he was starting to really worry. He had to get to help, that’s all there was to it. Johnny’s words last night haunted him. Why would his brother think such things?
He watched as Johnny’s face became lively, twitching and frowning as he came out of sleep. He watched as those eyes opened and tried to focus.
“Hey, brother. Feeling any better?”
Johnny looked at him and took a moment, remembering last night and feeling his heart race again. He raised his head less than an inch and felt like the room was spinning then eased back onto the pillow with a sigh. “Fine. I’m ready to go.”
“You’re not going anywhere, Johnny. You’re too sick. The fever is even higher now.”
Johnny looked around the cabin but saw no one else. “Where are they?”
Scott looked, too, then shrugged. “I don’t know. Outside, I suppose.”
“You can’t leave me here, Scott. That man, he was lookin at me real funny last night.”
“What does that mean?”
“Like he wanted somethin from me. Like I was dinner or somethin. I’m tellin you, if you leave me here, they’ll kill me and do worse before that. I know that look, Scott.”
“Johnny, you’re being ridiculous. I know you don’t want to be left behind but I can’t take you with me. You’d never make it.”
“I ain’t gonna make it here, either. I’d rather die out there with you than stay here and be their… You can rig somethin up to haul me in. I know it won’t be easy but we have to, Scott!”
Scott stared at his brother, aghast. “You’re totally out of line. Those men have done nothing but help us. I know they aren’t the cleanest people in the world but they offered us what they have, which isn’t much. Walking thirty miles isn’t my idea of fun but, taking you along will be impossible. Now, stop acting like a fool!”
Johnny stared at him as Scott stood and stalked out the door, slamming it behind him.
Scott stormed across the yard infuriated, then he saw the brothers huddled together, talking in low voices.
Jeb’s eyes went past his brother as Scott approached. “Looks like you got bit by a rattler.”
Scott kept the scowl on his face for a second longer then relaxed his expression. “Nearly. Johnny is prickly when he’s sick.”
Jeb chuckled a little. “Well, let’s get some food in ya. I fixed up some supplies for ya. Ain’t much but it’ll get ya there.”
“Thank you. I really can’t repay you for this but I’m going to try.”
“What’ya mean?” Luther asked.
“Well, I don’t want to offend but I’d be glad to reimburse you for the supplies you’ve used and I’d like to replace your mule.” He pulled his wallet from his jacket pocket and opened it, his hand on the bills, waiting with held breath and knowing a man’s pride sometimes got the better of him.
Jeb looked at the wallet and the several bills he could see then scowled himself for a few seconds. “Ain’t no need for that but, a man’s gotta do what he thinks is right.”
Scott checked his supplies and wished he had a rifle but he couldn’t ask these men for anything else. He had his pistol and that would have to do. He knew Johnny was staring a hole through him but he also couldn’t believe his brother thought these men would do him harm. Johnny was always suspicious of strangers and Scott understood that but, this was so far off he couldn’t even fathom it.
Almost reluctantly, he walked to the cot and sat beside his brother. “Well, I’m going now.”
Johnny sucked in a breath, feeling the effects of the fever drain his strength. He didn’t have a chance here. He tried to raise up but it was useless, he was too weak. He laid his hand on the older man’s arm, squeezing tightly. “Scott, por favor. Te estoy suplicando. Suplicando, hermano! Entiendes? No me abandones aqui.” (Scott, please. I’m begging you. Begging, brother! Understand? Don’t leave me here.)
Scott bit his lip and brushed the hair from Johnny’s eyes. The heat coming off him was all he needed to know. “You have a fever, Johnny. A very high fever. You’re not thinking straight. That’s all this is. It’ll be fine, you’ll see.”
Johnny fought with everything in him to maintain his decorum. The last thing he wanted was to get all teary-eyed but he was terrified. “Tengo miedo, Scott. Por favor, llevate contigo.” (I’m afraid, Scott. Please, take me with you.)
Scott looked sympathetically at him, feeling his throat close a little at the prospect of even attempting to take Johnny out of here. His brother would die, simple as that and he couldn’t. No matter how much Johnny pleaded, he couldn’t do that. He took Johnny’s hand and removed it from his arm with some effort as the younger man didn’t want to let go.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Al menos, dejarme mi pistola,” (At least leave me a gun.)
“It’s right here just under the mattress but, Johnny, you aren’t thinking clearly. You’re safe here.”
“Sure, Scott. Fue muy lindo conocerte.” (It was nice knowing you)
Scott rolled his eyes. “I’ll see you soon.” He spoke with conviction and meaning then turned and walked outside with Jeb.
Luther stood by the door as it closed and grinned knowingly at Johnny.
“Well, I’ll be back in no more than three days.”
“Don’t worry, Scott. We’ll take good care of ‘im whether he wants us to or not.” Jeb smiled reassuringly and Scott laughed a little.
“He can be a handful. Whatever he says, please don’t hold it against him. Johnny has had a rough life so he doesn’t trust easily. That’s really all it is. He’ll be fine once he relaxes a little.”
Jeb stopped at the top of the slope and nodded. “By the time you get back, we’ll all be thick as thieves.”
Scott nodded and smiled. “I’m sure of that. Once he lets you in, Johnny is a good person to know. Well, I’m off.”
Jeb smiled and waved then watched as Scott reached the valley floor. He kept watching until the man disappeared into the tree line then he headed back to the house.
Inside the cabin, Luther moved from his spot by the window as soon as he saw Scott and Jeb disappear around the house. He went about cooking breakfast without a word. Jeb returned and the two men sat down and ate silently. Once the meal was over, they leaned toward each other and started whispering.
Luther cleared the dishes and set them in the sink then pumped water into two pots and put them on to boil.
Johnny watched them like a hawk, wondering when they’d make their move and unsure what that move would be. But, his instincts told him he was in trouble here and he listened to them closely. He turned on his right side slowly and painfully and managed to reach under the mattress with his left hand. The gun wasn’t there and he cursed his brother.
“It ain’t there. Your brother said you wasn’t real trustin so I moved it last night.” Jeb never looked at him as he spoke but opened a drawer and pulled out some blankets. He shook them out and went to the windows, using the blankets as curtains and securing them well, dimming the room substantially. Then, he locked the door.
Luther stripped and Jeb followed suit. Neither spoke at all. The brothers, both buck naked, stood by the stove and spoke in low voices for several minutes then turned and looked at him.
Johnny’s stomach was turning as he watched the men undress, his worst nightmare unfolding before him. Their hairy backs were turned away from him but he could see the muscles of their arms and legs from long hours working the farm. The metallic lock of the door had turned his blood cold, leaving him feeling more forsaken than anything that had transpired so far. He flinched as they came nearer and nearer, their bare feet padding silently across the floor, the only sound the occasional creak of a loose plank. Each took one side of the cot and knelt down beside him.
Jeb reached out and caressed his cheek and Johnny pulled away. Jeb smiled. “Time to get better acquainted, Johnny. We been waitin a long time for somethin like you ta come along.”
“Yeah,” Luther chimed in, “we ain’t had no fresh meat in a long time. Bet you’re real sweet tastin, too.”
Johnny pushed his head as far into the pillow as he could but it wasn’t nearly far enough to escape what was about to happen. Luther leaned down and nuzzled his neck, biting him hard. Johnny took a swing only to have his arm caught by Jeb.
“Boy, you can take this easy or hard. Well, it’s gonna be hard.” He glanced over as his brother laughed. “Either way, it’s gonna happen. We can tie ya up, that’s alright with us.”
“Let’s tie ‘im up, Jebediah. I love ta tie ’em up!”
Jeb seemed to consider this for a long moment. “Yeah, get the rope, little brother. Let’s tie Johnny boy up. That way, he can enjoy the show without all this useless fightin.” He threw the blanket off Johnny and tugged his clothes off roughly.
“I’ll kill you both – slow, for this,” Johnny hissed as he struggled against the disrobing. His hand flailed out again, this time connecting with Jeb’s jaw.
Jeb grabbed a handful of his hair and held him still then leaned down, pressing Johnny’s body into the mattress, his lips touching Johnny’s as he spoke. “You ain’t gonna live long enough. We’ll be usin you up til ya turn too cold and stiff for it ta be any fun. That takes a day or two, ya know. But, first, you’re gonna know what it is. Hell, ya might even like it.” His tongue snaked out and licked Johnny’s mouth.
Johnny spat, or tried to but his mouth was so dry, he couldn’t find any moisture to be of any use. He figured that was because all the water was in his eyes and he cursed himself for that. But, he’d never been so terrified in his life. Never so paralyzingly petrified.
Scott looked up at the sun. It was about noon and he wasn’t sure how many miles he’d walked. He’d kept a good, steady pace but, as he looked around, he felt suddenly desolate. This land was completely uninhabited. He had to wonder why anyone would build a town anywhere near here.
Of course, he still had quite a way to go so, things could change. He hoped so. His thoughts went to Johnny and he found himself angry with his brother. Why couldn’t he be grateful for the help they’d received? Instead, he’d tried to guilt Scott into taking him along. He could just see that now. Him, dragging Johnny along in some sort of travois. They’d be a week getting to a town and Johnny would never survive that.
That his brother knew that and would rather die on Scott instead of stay where he was safe, he’d never understand. He was beginning to wonder if he knew Johnny at all. He didn’t think all of it was from the fever. Johnny hadn’t said anything else crazy. Still, he’d been so focused on getting Scott to do what he wanted, he wouldn’t talk of anything else.
He decided once Johnny was home and healed, they’d have to have a very serious discussion about his brother’s selfishness.
Johnny slowly became aware he was awake and prayed that wouldn’t last. He was on his stomach, facing a wall. His body felt like a dishrag. A very painful dishrag. No one was near him at the moment but, he was sure that would change. They were just resting up. Lord knew, they needed it after what they’d done to him. How long had he been here now? He tried to raise his head and stifled a groan, his eyes finding the covered window. There were parts the blankets didn’t cover; small slits along the sides and he saw daylight. At least one day then, maybe more. He’d lost track of time.
Tears sprung up in his eyes and he squeezed them shut, still unwilling to allow the weakness to show. He almost laughed at himself. Weakness? He could barely lift his head off the bed. He could feel the burning in his wrists from the ropes that had been pulled and twisted as they tortured him. He could feel the pain elsewhere as well and that was more excruciating than any rope burn.
His shoulder was bleeding, too. It throbbed with each beat of his heart. He was cold, his naked body uncovered and splayed out like … he couldn’t think of anything else it was like. There was nothing else to compare this to. He tensed when he heard movement.
And he prayed to die.
“Hey, Jeb, I think he’s awake.”
“Yeah? Good! Just in time for another round.”
Jeb appeared in front of him, leaning in close to his face. “How’d ya like that, Johnny boy? Feel good? Yeah, I bet you’re just wishin we’d get back to business. Well, alright, if you insist. Now, now. No need to beg for more. We’re more than happy to oblige. Now, I know what you’re thinkin. That your brother is missin out on all the fun. Well, don’t you worry none about that. He’ll have his turn soon as he gets back.”
His heart stopped then, he was sure of it. Scott would be walking right into a trap his brother could never fathom, Johnny knew. He prayed Scott would find help before returning to this hell. Prayed his brother would never fall victim to this torture. His eyes burned with the thought of Scott in this position.
He heard Luther snickering and never wanted to kill anyone so badly in his life. He felt hands on him from behind, lifting him and twisting his body so he was on his back. His wrists screamed in protest as the ropes twisted, looser now from all the abuse. He almost thought at least he wasn’t on his belly but then he wondered if they really would try making him do … that. He knew he’d bite it right off no matter the consequences. He was going to die anyway. He might as well have some kind of revenge.
But, that didn’t happen. Jeb and Luther kneeled on the cot on either side of him and started groping and fondling each other. Their eyes rolling back in their heads in some twisted sort of ecstasy. Johnny could look nowhere else as their bulky bodies blocked any other view. He didn’t think he could feel any more wretched but watching these brothers go at each other made him sicker than anything so far. He had to close his eyes.
Suddenly, he felt a hand between his legs and gasped, his eyes popping open. They were still going at each other but Jeb was fondling him. Johnny fought against it, sickened as his body betrayed him. He pulled against the ropes only causing himself more pain. He felt his own reaction from the touch but couldn’t control himself.
Jeb pulled away and looked at him with an evil smile. “Looks like Johnny has decided to join the party.” He moved and lowered his head to Johnny’s crotch.
He closed his eyes again, praying this was some horrible nightmare and he’d wake up soon. He felt Luther’s hands on his body then felt his breath on his cheek. He turned his head but the man wasn’t deterred. He was biting Johnny, suckling his neck, working his way downward. The noises from the two of them was too much. Johnny screamed out then went slack.
Scott stood in the street, slack-jawed. This couldn’t be happening, he thought. He walked slowly down the street, hoping against hope as he passed building after building. It was a ghost town. There wasn’t a living soul in sight. He shouted out without response.
Feeling light-headed, Scott began running through each building, constantly calling out for someone to answer him. Finally, he reached the end of the only street in town and stopped, dropping to his knees and hanging his head.
It can’t be. They had to know there was no one here. Nobody had lived here for years, that was obvious. His head jerked up and he stared blankly at nothing.
Scott stumbled as he started up the hill, falling on his knees and grinding his teeth against the pain. He took a minute to breathe then forced himself back on his feet. He’d been running almost the whole way. When he couldn’t run anymore, he walked at a fast gait. The same thought ran round in his head. It was the only thought his mind could deal with.
Please, God. Please let my brother be alright. His mind went to the animal hides on the barn walls and he felt sick as images of Johnny being laid out, skinned and mutilated flew across his vision. He shook his head, berating himself for his own disgusting thoughts. Still, what were they doing to his brother? Were they torturing him?
He hadn’t stopped when darkness fell. He stumbled along, the quarter moon supplying little to no light. There had been times when he crawled along, feeling his way with his hands. He stopped only long enough to take a quick drink and a short breather. He had to get to Johnny.
It was still dark though he had no concept of time now. He topped the hill and looked down on the quiet cabin. Smoke rose from the chimney. It all seemed so peaceful, so sedate. He prayed again and gave himself time to think. He couldn’t go barreling in there. If Johnny was in trouble, he needed to keep his wits about him. He proceeded slowly and quietly down the hill.
Crouching low, Scott rounded the cabin and stepped gingerly onto the porch. He stopped and frowned. He could see a little light coming from the windows. That wasn’t right. There’d been no curtains on those windows before. He made his way to the first one, nearly on his knees as he tried to peer inside.
It took some angling to get a look inside but he finally found a spot open enough to afford a view. Scott sucked in air and thought his heart stopped beating just then.
Johnny was on his stomach with Jeb straddling him. Even though all he could see was Jeb’s backside, it was clear what was happening. Jeb was naked, Johnny was naked and Luther was standing beside the bed naked as well. Jeb was whooping like a cowboy riding a bronc as he humped and ground his pelvis.
Scott fought back the bile rising in his throat. He seemed to be frozen in place, unable to move for a long moment. Finally, something inside his mind snapped and Scott stood up, drawing his gun and approaching the door.
The door burst open and both men turned, Jeb a little more awkwardly. Scott advanced boldly, determination in his stride and murder on his mind.
Luther opened his mouth but never made a sound as the shot resounded in the room. Then, he screamed as his hands went to his groin, blood pouring from the organ then he felt the second bullet slam into his chest as he crumpled to the floor.
Jeb jumped off the bed and rounded on Scott, fire shooting from his eyes for a split second before that fire died. He staggered backwards and howled. Looking down, disbelief colored his face as he stared at the blasted remains of his manhood. Blood splattered over him, the floor and the wall behind him. He fell to his knees, looking up in terror as Scott pumped a bullet into his head and another in his chest. He fell atop his brother’s body.
Scott stood motionless, gun still aimed at the dead men as his body began to tremble. He discharged another round into Luther’s head then, cocked the gun and pulled the trigger only to be met with an impotent click. His hand shook so hard, he had to grab it with his other hand as he holstered his weapon then, he slowly made his way around the bed. Johnny’s eyes were closed and Scott called out in a shaking voice. There was no response and he reached out, feeling Johnny’s neck. Sighing with relief at feeling the thready pulse, he hung his head for a moment.
Scott rose and looked around at the carnage. He grabbed a blanket off the floor and covered his brother’s body then began the task of dragging the dead men out of the cabin and as far from his brother as he could.
He piled Jeb on the porch. Having no intention of burying the sick bastard, he remembered the old well. He dragged Jeb around the house then pried the wooden plank off the mouth of the well. Without ceremony, Scott hauled Jeb over and dumped him in then went for Luther and repeated the process. He nailed the plank back over the opening then walked over and leaned against the cabin.
Two seconds later, Scott’s stomach emptied itself. After several minutes, he staggered back into the cabin, relieved Johnny was still out cold.
He didn’t want to think so he went about cleaning the blood off his hands and arms. Rummaging through the drawers he gave a twisted smirk at actually finding soap and towels. He found a basin and filled it from the water on the stove. Scott walked slowly to his brother, towels, water and soap in hand then knelt at the bedside.
He untied his brother’s mangled wrists. Gently, he began washing Johnny’s body, taking great care at the most abused areas. Tears dripped off his chin but he didn’t really notice. He concentrated solely on his task, unable to look at Johnny’s face as he rolled him onto his back and washed the rest of him.
He looked around and knew he’d find nothing clean to make a bandage of. Scott went to the other cot and pulled the cover back. Grimacing, he took the yellowed sheet and tore strips from the very hem of it, frazzled as that hem was. But, he figured it was the cleanest part. He bandaged his brother’s wrists then his shoulder wound. The old bandage, the bed linen and the pillow case were all soaked with blood from that wound.
Once he’d cleaned Johnny’s body and tended his wounds, Scott forced himself to look at his brother’s face. Johnny was pale and sweaty and Scott washed his face. Johnny was still burning up and Scott felt like putting a bullet in his own head in that moment.
He sat back on his haunches and lowered his head, the tears streaming at a steady rate now. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d cried. But this, he could no more control this than he could control his heart beating. He could not imagine the agony Johnny had endured for the past … what? Four days? Four days! And probably with no food or water. Oh, there was food on the stove but he was sure his brother had gotten none of it. Maybe, they’d given him water to keep him alive a while longer.
For he knew they’d had no intentions of allowing Johnny to live to tell this. He imagined a similar fate was planned for him on his return. They knew of course, even after he’d discovered the ghost town, Scott would return for his brother.
With a deep and mournful sigh, Scott rose and began rummaging through the stores, finding something to make a soup of for his brother. God! How could he face Johnny? His brother would hate him for this. Scott knew it as well as he knew his own name and he couldn’t blame Johnny, either.
How he was going to get Johnny out of here was the most important question. They couldn’t stay here no matter what. He couldn’t do that to Johnny. Scott stopped stirring his soup and brought his head up. They’d lied about everything, he imagined. So, what made him think they hadn’t lied about having horses or a wagon? They had to have some means of transportation. He moved the pot to the middle of the stove and, with a glance at his brother, headed for the barn he’d never been inside.
Scott gawked, still unable to fathom what he was seeing then wondering why he was surprised. He walked slowly to the wagon. It was sound. Then, he walked over to the two draft horses in their stalls and looked them over. Sound, as well. He looked around and saw several bales of hay then hung his head and shook it slowly. He’d been right beside this barn. Right beside it! And he’d never heard a sound from the horses. If he had … if only he had.
Feeling more miserable by the second, he headed back inside, planning the morning to come and wondering again, how he was going to face his brother.
Scott held Johnny’s head up and placed the cup to his lips, hoping he’d respond to the cold water. His heart fluttered as Johnny opened his mouth and began to drink thirstily. Finally, he had to pull the cup away before Johnny got sick. He eased his head back down then went to the stove and filled a cup with cooled broth. Returning to the bedside, he repeated his actions, grateful when Johnny took the broth well.
The sun was rising now. He’d spent the rest of the night finding supplies for the trip and getting Johnny dressed. His brother had not stirred until just now. Scott imagined he was beyond exhausted, physically and mentally. He couldn’t bring himself to think of how this was going to affect Johnny.
He headed to the barn and hitched up the wagon, laying a deep bed of hay in the back. He found a tarp and attached it so the sun would stay out of Johnny’s face then drove the wagon close to the front door. He grabbed up the blankets he’d laid on the porch and spread them in the back for Johnny. Looking everything over, he nodded, satisfied as he could be his brother would be comfortable as possible.
Scott stared at the young man and wondered if Johnny was playing possum. He knew his brother was still very sick and weak and that fever wouldn’t abate but, he’d taken the water and broth. He had to have been a little conscious for that. Maybe that was all he could handle doing. He looked at the door then back at Johnny and rolled his shoulders as he prepared to carry his brother out of this hellhole.
He was still trying to decide. He felt every rumble and jerk of the wagon as they headed, hopefully, for home. Johnny knew everything that had happened. From the moment he’d heard the first gunshot, he’s been mostly aware of what Scott was doing. He drifted in and out some but, not enough that he couldn’t put it all together. He couldn’t look at the man, though. Knew if he did, he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from trying to go at Scott. He wasn’t in any shape for that and it would only bring him more grief. But, before they reached Lancer, he would have to speak to the man – briefly.
He took the water and broth Scott fed him, all without ever opening his eyes. Most times, he wasn’t sure he could have if he wanted to. He’d never felt more tired, more miserable and more humiliated in his life and he knew he never would. He was just waiting for Scott to speak to him. Try talking him awake. Scott hadn’t so far and Johnny knew why. He couldn’t face him.
Finally, after what seemed a week of traveling to Johnny, Scott spoke to him as he finished feeding him more broth. Rabbit this time, Johnny thought.
“We’ll be home in about an hour, Johnny. Then, Sam will take care of you. The fever is much better and that wound hasn’t bled anymore.” Scott eased Johnny’s head back down and pulled the blanket up. He’d left his brother in the wagon bed the whole time, unwilling to move him more than was necessary.
“Scott,” he whispered huskily.
Scott’s head jerked up and he stared into the blue, nearly lifeless eyes. His brother wasn’t in there. Not the brother he’d known. Scott swallowed convulsively. “Hey, how do you feel?”
Johnny’s eyes turned to ice. “If you tell anyone, I mean anyone what happened, I’ll kill you soon as I’m able.”
Scott pulled back a little. “Sam should look at…”
He lowered his eyes. “Alright, Johnny. I swear I won’t tell anyone, not even Murdoch.”
“Johnny, I …”
“I said, let’s go!” Johnny glared at him for a second, his voice strengthened by anger, then closed his eyes again.
Scott turned quickly and climbed out of the wagon bed. Â
He became aware, slowly, that he was in a bed. From the feel of it, he thought it was his own. Hoped it was. He opened his eyes warily and found a familiar and welcome face. One he had a hard time looking into. Johnny forced a small smile for his father.
“How do you feel, son?”
He sighed and took inventory. God! How did he feel? Like he wanted to crawl under a rock, that’s how. “Sore,” is what he settled for.
“I can imagine. Sam said you’re going to be just fine. It will take a little time, is all. Don’t worry about anything, son. Scott told us what happened.”
Johnny tensed then relaxed. If Murdoch really knew, he wouldn’t be in this room. Wouldn’t be able to hide the disgust from his face. He saw his father’s eyes move and he turned his head, seeing Scott standing by the window. Johnny bit back what he wanted to say and swallowed hard. He focused his attention back on his father.
“How long have I been out?”
“Well, you weren’t completely out. We’ve been able to get liquids down you but, five days. The fever is gone and the wound looks clean now. Speaking of fluids,” Murdoch smiled and lifted the water pitcher. “Empty. Figures now that you’re really awake. I’ll be right back, son.”
Johnny started to object but kept his mouth closed. Murdoch didn’t seem to notice and left the room. The air went with him. Johnny felt pressure on his chest and he couldn’t look at Scott.
Scott closed his eyes briefly before walking to the foot of the bed. “I told them we were ambushed but managed to fight them off. I told them the horses were run off and I found a shack. No one was home so I borrowed the wagon and left a note and money. Murdoch wanted to send someone else to take the wagon back but I insisted on doing it. I let the horses go and ran the wagon over a cliff then came back.”
Johnny didn’t say anything for a minute. “Okay, now get out and stay out.”
He chewed his lip but didn’t move. “Don’t you think it will look strange if I suddenly disappear? Don’t come to check on you?”
Johnny looked up slowly and locked eyes. “I don’t give a damn how it looks, Scott. You’re so good at lyin, think of somethin. But, don’t come back in here. Don’t speak to me again. Not ever.”
“Johnny, I didn’t know …”
“Yes, you did! Get out!”
Scott winced at the loud voice and glanced at the door. He decided now was not the time so he walked out. Â
Murdoch looked around as he came back in. “Where did Scott go?”
Johnny shrugged. “Had to go to the outhouse.” He frowned then and managed to look his father in the eye with a worried gaze. “I don’t guess anyone’s seen Barranca.”
“I sent men out looking for them both. They found them two days ago a little worse for the wear. Having their saddles on that long was tough on them but Jelly has made it his personal business to get them back into shape. They’re doing well.”
Johnny smiled a little at that then sat up and drank a full glass of water. “Thanks, for the water, too.”
Murdoch smiled and patted his arm. “You’re welcome, son. I’m just grateful you’re going to be alright.”
His face fell and he lowered his head, hoping Murdoch didn’t see. “I’m pretty tired, I guess.”
“I’m sure. Come on, scoot back down there and get some rest. Sam should be out sometime today.” Murdoch tucked him in a little and sat back down, frowning. “Are you alright? You seem … I don’t know … a little down in the dumps.”
“Just hate bein sick, ya know?”
“I know but you’re doing very well.”
No, I’m not, he thought but just nodded and closed his eyes. When he heard the door click closed, Johnny opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. Tears burned his eyelids and he rubbed his face vigorously. I can’t do this. I’m not gonna be able to do this. I have to go away. I can’t face Scott every day. I can’t live like this. I can’t lie to my old man, either. Â
He turned on his side a little, grimacing at the pain that had nothing to do with his shoulder. He sighed and closed his eyes then immediately opened them as visions of his horror exploded in his mind. “God, please help me. I don’t think I can handle this.”
His mind wouldn’t stop. He knew he had to let it go where it must. He remembered a great deal of what had happened. After a while, he almost didn’t feel the pain anymore. Almost. Seemed like there were times when Luther was almost gentle with him. Like he cared or some stupid thing like that. But, Jeb had never been gentle. He enjoyed causing Johnny pain. He’d said as much. Â
His stomach rolled and he took a deep breath in through his nose then let it out slowly, fighting the nausea. He spied the bandages on his wrists and frowned. How the hell had Scott explained that? He didn’t care, really. It was obvious Murdoch wouldn’t ask him any questions. That was good, at least.
Johnny breathed out, just realizing he’d been holding his breath while Sam examined him. He smiled when the doctor gave him a curious look.
“You can start getting up and moving around but you’re still weak. You’ll probably be a little light-headed at first so make sure someone is with you the first few times. How are you eating?”
“Pretty good for what they give me. Mostly soup.” He made a face.
Sam smiled. “Well, eat whatever you can tolerate just go slow. You know the drill.”
“Yeah,” Johnny breathed out but he wasn’t so sure he did know. He hadn’t a clue if he should be worried about anything else. Maybe he should talk to Sam. No, he couldn’t do that. He just couldn’t.
“I’m going to talk to Murdoch about your care. I’ll ask Scott to come up and help you.”
“No!” Johnny stared at the man then swallowed hard. “I mean, uh, I’d rather Murdoch help me this first time up.”
Sam raised a brow at the outburst then shrugged. “Alright, I’ll tell him. Are you okay?”
“Sure, Sam. I’m fine. Just that I wanted to talk to Murdoch anyway.”
The doctor nodded though he wasn’t sure he bought that explanation. Well, it wasn’t his business.
Johnny sighed and rolled his eyes when Sam left. That was stupid. No, he didn’t want Scott anywhere near him but he also didn’t want Murdoch either. He didn’t want anyone there when he got dressed. He wasn’t sure he could hide the pain he still felt and he sure as hell didn’t want anyone seeing him completely naked. Somehow, he’d avoided that so far. He always managed to feel good enough to wash himself when they came every day, even though it was a bald-faced lie. He felt like hell all the time.
And he couldn’t even check himself since he couldn’t get out of bed. Well, he had to get up now. Right now and before Murdoch came in here.
Hissing and cussing, Johnny got slowly to his feet, jerking his nightshirt down below his waist. His head spun for a few seconds but then it seemed alright. He walked slowly and painfully to the door and locked it then went to the full-length mirror he’d always meant to take out of his room. He never had a need for one and didn’t know why it was there. Now, he was glad for it.
He stood in front of it for a long time before finding the courage to do this. Lifting the nightshirt up around his chest, he turned halfway around and checked the damage.
Johnny stumbled as he made his way to the trashcan then threw up. He made it back to the bed staggering a little and sat on the mattress, sucking air in through his clenched teeth as he connected with the surface. Nearly in tears, he rolled over and grabbed the blanket, throwing it over himself and curling into a ball. He pulled the blanket over his head and started rocking gently back and forth.
His head came up and he pulled the blanket back, wiping the wetness from his face as he heard the knock.
“Johnny? Why is this door locked? Young man, I hope you haven’t done something crazy like trying to get up alone. Johnny?”
“I’m alright!” Dammit, he hadn’t meant to shout like that. In a lower voice, he called out. “I’m fine, Murdoch. Just leave me alone. I don’t want to get up today.”
There was silence for a moment, then he heard his father’s voice, soft and a little shaky. “What’s wrong, son? This isn’t like you. Let me in now.”
Please, please, please just leave me alone, he prayed. “Nothin’s wrong. I’m tired and I just want some peace and quiet.” He knew his voice was shaking and he knew his father wouldn’t buy it.
“Johnny, open the door or I’ll open it. Something is wrong, I can hear it in your voice.”
Christ! Okay, okay. I can do this. Just suck it up. He groaned at his choice of thought. He cleared his throat and answered, “just a minute.” Drying his eyes thoroughly, he got up gingerly and made it to the door, unlocked it then scuttled back to the bed as fast as he could. It wasn’t fast enough as Murdoch opened the door and watched him.
“Why are you walking like that?”
He froze for just a second before making it back and sliding into the bed on his side. “I’m sore. Took a bad fall, ya know.”
Murdoch frowned, unsure he believed that then walked to the bedside and sat on the edge of the mattress. “What’s wrong, son? Something else is going on with you.”
Johnny bit his lip hard. He could feel the tears coming again and he wouldn’t look at his father. In barely more than a whisper, he spoke. “I’m just really tired. Please, I just want to sleep. Please.”
He was stunned by the melancholy in his son’s voice. Murdoch couldn’t understand what would cause Johnny to be so incredibly sad. He put a light hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “You know you can talk to me.”
“Alright, son. I’ll leave you to rest but, please don’t lock the door. It worries me.”
“I won’t, I promise.”
He sat there a while longer then sighed softly and left Johnny be.
“Something else had to have happened, Scott. He’s not acting like himself.”
Scott faced the fireplace, unable to look his father in the eye and lie. He shook his head. “I’ve told you everything.”
Murdoch set his mouth in a tight, thin line and walked over to his son. He took Scott’s arm and turned him around. “Look at me.”
Scott slowly brought his eyes up but he couldn’t hold the stare.
“You can’t even look me in the eye. Whatever is going on, it’s tearing Johnny up. Don’t you think you owe it to your brother to tell me?”
“There’s nothing more I can tell you, Sir.”
Murdoch let go of his arm and stared at him, confused and a little hurt. “I never thought you would ever lie to me, Scott. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am.”
Scott clamped his jaw shut and lowered his head. “I’m sorry.”
“You promised him you wouldn’t tell, didn’t you? Well, that would be alright if it didn’t hurt him but it’s pretty clear it *is* hurting him. He won’t talk, he barely eats and he doesn’t want to get out of bed. That’s not like Johnny and you know it. Sam cleared him to get up two days ago but he hasn’t. Scott, I’m very worried.”
“I understand. I do. But, I can’t tell you anything.”
“No, you won’t tell me and neither will Johnny.”
He sucked in a deep breath and glanced at his father. “You need to leave him alone, Murdoch. He’ll come around. He just needs some time, is all.”
“Leave him alone? He’s killing himself! He can’t go on like this, Scott. I’ve already sent for Sam. Johnny just stares at the wall. He won’t even answer me anymore. Now, tell me what is wrong with my son!”
Murdoch turned toward the door as the knock resounded sharply and fairly growled at the interruption. He looked back at Scott. “We aren’t finished here.” He strode to the door and jerked it open to find Sam waiting.
Sam walked into the room and took in the figure in the bed, shocked at the sight. Johnny had the blanket over his head and he was curled into a ball, facing the door. Sam sat on the mattress and heard the gun cock.
“It’s me, Johnny. I hope you aren’t planning on shooting.” Instantly, he heard the hammer released. “What in the world is going on?”
“I can’t hear you with that blanket over your head, son.” Sam had heard him but he wasn’t about to have a conversation with a piece of bed linen.
Johnny pulled the blanket off, revealing his disheveled hair and pale, gaunt face.
“Good grief! You looked better than this when Scott brought you home. What’s going on?”
He wouldn’t look at the man. “Thinkin about just goin ahead and dyin, Sam.”
Sam felt his heart palpitate just then. “Why?”
Johnny shrugged. “Just feel like it.”
“There has to be a reason, Johnny. People, especially you, don’t just give up on life for nothing. Whatever has happened, you know I won’t repeat a word you say to me.”
He did know that. Knew Sam would never tell another soul. The only problem was, he couldn’t stand anyone else knowing,. It was bad enough Scott did. He also knew as soon as he took his last breath, Scott would blab it to everyone. Tell them how it wasn’t his fault and he didn’t know what was going to happen. Only he did know because Johnny had told him. Anger fueled him enough to raise his eyes and look at the doctor. Look at his friend.
Sam was waiting patiently for him, his face expressionless. Johnny knew he could trust this man and, maybe he didn’t really want to die. He knew he didn’t but it seemed his best option. Maybe talking to Sam would help some. Besides, if he was going to live, he had to let the doc look at him. He cheeks flushed and he lowered his eyes.
“Close the door and lock it, please.”
Sam was surprised by the request but he carried it out quickly then returned to the bedside. Johnny scooted up to rest his back against the headboard. Sam didn’t miss the grimace of pain on his face. He watched as Johnny reached for the glass of water beside his bed, his hand shaking badly. Sam casually picked the glass up and handed it off, waited for him to finish then set it back down, refilling it from the pitcher.
Johnny squirmed around, trying to find a more comfortable position but it wasn’t working. He sighed lightly and stared at his hands.
“As long as you need, Johnny. Take your time.”
When Johnny finished telling his shame, he took a chance and looked at Sam, stunned at the tears on the man’s face. He’d done pretty well, himself. Hadn’t gotten weepy at all though his voice was shaking so bad, he wasn’t sure Sam could understand him at times. Apparently, he had understood.
Sam sniffed and wiped his face then pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his nose and eyes. Clearing his throat loudly, he took a deep breath. “Well, my boy, I don’t know what to say. You know as well as I do this wasn’t your fault. There was nothing you could do to stop it.”
“No, I couldn’t, but *someone* could have.” Anger marred his features as he thought about it.
He hadn’t missed that anger throughout the telling. It was the only time Johnny seemed to be able to speak strongly. Sam couldn’t fathom Scott’s actions but he hadn’t been there and it wasn’t his place to judge. His place was right here and what he had to do next, he dreaded. “I need to examine you, Johnny.”
“I know. I … I looked the other day when you were here; after you left. Sam, it’s … really bad. I don’t know …”
Sam grasped his arm firmly. “It’s okay, son. Let me take a look now.”
He’d seen a lot, had served the army in the Civil War, certainly had seen worse done to the human body but not like this. This wasn’t a bullet or a cannon ball or even a burn. This was done viciously and sadistically. And it had been done to his good friend. Sam wanted to throw up. His stomach turned over and over. He controlled his breathing and tried to control the frightening rage that consumed him.
He covered Johnny back up and laid a hand on his hip, hopefully staying the young man while he pulled his professional face back on. He moved his hand and Johnny turned back over.
“There’s been a lot of damage done. It will heal but it will be painful. There are several tears but they aren’t infected and have already closed up for the most part. You’ll have some scar tissue there.” He took a moment before continuing. “Is that why you won’t eat? So you don’t have to … so your bowels won’t move?”
Johnny’s face flushed brightly and he stared at nothing. He simply nodded.
“I don’t blame you for that and it was a good idea at first. But, now I think it’s safe. It will hurt at first, until the healing is done. But, you have to let it happen, son. Not going is very dangerous and will make you sick.”
He scooted back up, unwilling to listen any more while flat of his back. He grunted as he settled. “I feel so … ashamed,” he whispered.
“I understand but it’s not your fault. I know, Johnny, I know. That doesn’t help. What you need is time to deal with it and come to terms with what’s happened to you. I know you can get past this if you’ll let yourself. Cutting yourself off from your family isn’t helping. Murdoch is going crazy with worry.”
“I can’t tell him this. I can’t stand the thought of telling him …” The tears were there before he even knew it.
Sam pulled him into an embrace and rubbed his back slowly as he let it all out. All the while grateful Johnny allowed the touch. “It’s alright, my boy. It’s going to be alright. You don’t have to tell him. It won’t be easy but I’ll make him stop asking you. You just have to let yourself get better, let yourself heal.” He held the young man until he was spent. He felt Johnny go slack in his arms and leaned him back against the pillows. “How do you feel?”
“Wore out but, it helped to tell you. I was so worried about … the physical stuff, too. I think I can do this now.”
Sam smiled softly at him. “I know you can, son.”
“Thanks, Sam. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to know you.”
The physician flushed a bit, thinking he was the lucky one. “I’ll go talk to Murdoch. I’ll tell him you’ve talked to me and that’s as far as it’s going and to stop asking you about it.”
Johnny gave him a wary look. “Think he’ll buy it?”
“He won’t like it but I’ll tell him it’s in your best interest to back off. As long as he knows you’re going to get better eventually and that you still need his support, Murdoch will leave it alone.”
“I ain’t so sure about that, Sam.”
He smiled again. “Well, I am. I can be very persuasive.”
Johnny actually laughed at that. “Yeah, I know you can.” His face fell and he frowned. “I just can’t stand bein around Scott and I don’t know how to deal with that.”
“The only advice I can give you is to take it one day at a time. If you really can’t be around him then don’t be. And, if some day, you do want to talk to him about it, I’m sure he’ll be willing.” Sam ducked his head to look into Johnny’s face. “Scott is most likely being eaten up with guilt. I don’t know if that makes a difference or not. Maybe you can’t care right now but, you might some day. Don’t close that door completely unless you’re absolutely sure you’re ready to lose your brother forever.”
Johnny raised his eyes. “I already lost him. I’ll never trust him again. Never.”
“I don’t understand, Sam. Scott knows, you know but I don’t get to be in on the big secret?” Murdoch scowled at his friend across the dining room table.
“This isn’t about you, Murdoch. It isn’t about Scott, either. It’s about Johnny and what he needs which is your love and support. He does not need to be interrogated! Look, I know it’s hard not knowing but I can’t break doctor-patient confidentiality and, I suspect, Scott can’t break his word, either. What’s happened has happened and nothing will change it. The most important thing now is that Johnny is ready to start healing. That has to be your only focus. If he wants to talk to you, he will in his own time. You *have* to give him what he needs, Murdoch. I can’t stress that point enough.”
The scowl was still there as Murdoch glared at his older son then back at the doctor. Finally, he relented a little. “I’ll always give Johnny what he needs.” Mumbling, he added, “I don’t know what could be so terrible, anyway.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “Just treat him normally and let him tell you what he needs. And, I don’t want him working until Johnny says he’s ready.”
Murdoch slumped back in his chair. He noticed Scott’s pained expression just before his son bowed his head.
Sam tossed his napkin on his plate. “I have to get back to town now. Goodnight.”
“I’ll walk you out, Sam.” Scott stood quickly, desperate to get away from his father.
Outside, Scott took Sam’s arm. “How is he … physically?”
Sam sighed and considered. “He’s a mess but he’ll heal. It’s his emotional state I’m most worried about. Scott, he’s so angry with you and he said he would never trust you again. But, I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know.”
“No, you aren’t.” Scott sighed heavily and looked out at the pastureland. “I’ll never forgive myself for not believing him.”
“Why didn’t you?”
He looked at the older man and frowned. “I’m not sure. I thought it was the fever. I thought he was just being Johnny, wanting things his way. I thought a lot of things. But, I never thought he was right. I wish to God he hadn’t been. When I saw …” he shivered and turned away.
“You saw?” Sam choked the words out, stunned.
Nodding, Scott spoke softly. “When I got to the town it was deserted and had been for a long time. I knew then we’d been had. I ran nearly the whole way back. When I got there, I looked through the window and …” he shook his head, unable to describe the horror he still saw nightly in his sleep.
“Dear God. I can’t imagine. Scott, if you need to talk, come see me.”
He turned back with a sad little smile. “Thanks, Sam. I might just do that. I think I’ve lost him forever.”
Sam didn’t say anything but he thought Scott just might be right. No matter his reasons, Johnny had suffered in the worst possible way. He doubted it would ever matter to that young man why Scott had done what he had.
It took two weeks for Johnny to return to work. During that time, he stayed mostly to himself, waiting until everyone was off to work to emerge from his room. He avoided the kitchen as much as he could, unable to take Maria’s fussing so he spent a lot of time with his horse. He was close to the edge every minute, feeling as if he would just crawl out of his skin and wanting to. He took his supper meals in his room much to Murdoch’s chagrin, he knew. He just could not face Scott. He wasn’t sure what he’d do if he saw the man.
It wasn’t his nature to hide out like this but he felt very different now. Sometimes, he thought people would be able to tell just by looking at him and his shame overrode his normal personality. He wondered if he would ever be the same man again. If it were even possible.
Now, he was herding cattle and it had been with great trepidation he’d mounted Barranca this day. It wasn’t bad, though. Just a little uncomfortable but he knew he’d be saddle sore after so long. Just what he needed, he thought darkly.
As he rode in that evening, he saw the familiar figure of his brother heading toward the yard. He increased his gait to get there first then handed Barranca off to a hand. He couldn’t deal with taking care of his horse much as he hated that. He also couldn’t deal with sharing a barn with Scott. He walked into the house and headed for the stairs only to be stopped by his father.
Johnny sighed and walked into the great room, stopping in front of the desk.
“How was it?”
“Okay. Gonna be saddle sore, I imagine.” He stared at the desk top.
“Have supper with us tonight.”
“I’m really tired, Murdoch.”
“You have to eat, son.”
He looked at his father briefly and saw only concern. He managed a small smile. “Yeah, okay. I need to clean up now.” He turned and took three steps.
He stopped and turned his profile to his father. “Yeah?”
“It’s good to see you out and about again. I, um, I hope you can get back in the swing of things soon.”
“I’m doin okay, Murdoch. Gettin there. Well, see ya.” He moved more quickly, wanting to get away without further conversation and before Scott walked in.
Murdoch stared after him. How will you see me if you won’t even look at me? he wondered. He rubbed a hand down his face and leaned back in his chair. His eyes went to the doorway as he heard the front door close.
Scott walked in and immediately scanned the room then stepped further inside.
“How long will you two be avoiding each other?”
He looked at his father and shrugged. “Forever, I imagine.”
“Scott,” he sighed wearily, “whatever is going on, you need to fix it. You can’t stay away from each other all the time. Now, I got Johnny to agree to have supper with us tonight. What can I expect?”
He pulled his shoulders back and answered with dread. “A lot of quiet, I guess. Murdoch, I can’t make him talk to me. Until he’s ready, if he ever is, this is how things are going to be.”
“Why? What could you have done that was so terrible?”
He lowered his eyes and ambled across the room.
“Right, you can’t say. Well, the three of us are going to have to hash this out.”
“No, Sir. You can’t do that. Remember what Sam said. You can’t push Johnny. It isn’t fair to him.”
He studied on that for a moment. “Are you saying that whatever has him so angry with you is justified?”
Scott flinched. “Yes, Sir. It is.”
Surprised, Murdoch had to ask. “Did you betray your brother, Scott?”
He fell into the chair he was standing near and buried his face in his hands. “I didn’t mean to. I never meant to. I was wrong. There’s no justification for it, Murdoch. There’s nothing I can do to fix it.”
He got up and went to his son, placing a hand on the man’s trembling shoulder. “You made a mistake then. People do that, son. Johnny will come around when he’s had some time.”
Scott sucked in a stuttering breath. “No, he won’t.” He stood and walked quickly from the room.
Murdoch stared after him, unable to fathom what Scott could ever do to make his brother turn against him. Okay, he made a mistake and it hurt Johnny somehow. Hurt him badly, by all the evidence. Still, Johnny wasn’t a vengeful man. He could hold a grudge but not forever. They’d tire of the anger and pain they were causing each other. They’d realize in time that it was fruitless and they’d start relaxing around each other again. He just needed to be patient with them. Let them deal with it themselves as long as it didn’t come to blows.
He knew Scott had not seen his brother since the day Johnny awoke after being brought home so injured and sick. He hadn’t understood it then but it was apparent now Johnny must have thrown Scott out of his room. Scott was accepting responsibility for his actions and maybe Johnny just needed to see that. Maybe, now that they could all sit down together, the brothers would start to mend their relationship.
He nodded, confident this was how it would happen. He relaxed a little and went back to his desk, hopeful things would return to normal soon.
Johnny slowly pulled his shirt on and started buttoning it. His hands were shaking and he cussed under his breath. He was exhausted, barely able to stand and Murdoch wanted him to have supper. Dammit! I have to sit there across from Scott for an hour and hope I don’t just pass out.
He walked to the chair and eased himself down. He was so sore, now from being in the saddle again after so long and trying to do a full day’s work. The other pain had eased to little more than an ache from time to time. All the bruises and bites were healed now and his wrists were fine other than the scars left behind. He still didn’t know how Scott had explained all that and he didn’t care. Maybe he should start caring though, since it seemed as if Murdoch was going to start in on him now.
He supposed he should have expected it no matter what Sam said. He was impressed the man had held off for so long as it was. Whatever Sam had told him had worked in the short term anyway. Now, he didn’t know what he was going to do or say to his old man.
He leaned over, his head nearly between his knees and tried to get hold of himself. Where was he? Where was Johnny Madrid Lancer? Just when he needed that man, especially Madrid, now more than ever, he’d been abandoned. Again. Scott had abandoned him and now he was abandoning himself. Â
Anger rose from somewhere deep inside and Johnny took to his feet, pacing his room, his hands clenched into tight fists. He smacked those fists against his thighs as he worked with the anger, welcoming it finally. After all this time, it had finally arrived; heeded his call and he needed it like he needed air to breathe.
He could feel the heat in his face and pressed his lips together, stopping at the window and leaning his forehead against the pane. Please, just stay with me. I can’t face them alone. He took a slow, deep breath and turned then walked out the door and down the stairs.
Murdoch kept looking from one son to the other during the meal. Both had their heads down, focused on their plates. Neither was eating much. He wondered again if he should leave this alone. Sam’s words rang in his head but this had gone on long enough in his mind. They’d never get past it if they didn’t hash it out. He decided to start slowly.
“How was your day, Scott?”
Scott looked up, surprised by the sudden sound of a voice and looked at his father. His eyes couldn’t help sweeping over his brother who didn’t raise his head. “It was fine. No problems.”
Murdoch nodded then looked over at Johnny. “And you, son? Maybe you should take it a little easy tomorrow.”
Johnny closed his eyes for a second then shrugged. “Yeah, okay.”
“How’s Barranca doing?”
Murdoch sighed. “Johnny, at least look at me when I’m speaking to you.”
He raised his head slowly, his eyes only on his father. “He’s good,” he said then went back to studying his plate.
“Well, everything is fine and good. I should be so pleased. Odd how I’m not. Boys, whatever has happened between you, it really needs to get talked out. You can’t avoid each other forever.”
“I can,” Johnny said softly.
Scott looked at his bowed head, pain in his own eyes. “I can’t,” he replied as softly.
Johnny didn’t reply.
“Johnny, we need to talk.”
Again, he slowly raised his head, his eyes scorching his brother’s. “No.” He stood up quickly and walked outside.
Scott and Murdoch watched him for a few seconds before Scott sighed and tossed his napkin on his plate. “Please don’t come outside.”
Murdoch reached out and grabbed his arm. “Why not?”
“Because, Johnny needs to yell at me and he won’t do it if anyone else is around. Whatever happens has to happen.” He pulled away and followed his brother.
Murdoch sat back and pondered what that was supposed to mean. For some reason the thought that Johnny was unarmed came to his mind. The look on Scott’s face had told him this could turn violent and it seemed his son was willing to take whatever Johnny dished out. He decided to give it a few minutes then watch from the window.
Johnny was pacing the courtyard near the oak tree, his arms wrapped around his body, his head down. Scott watched for a bit before making his presence known.
“Told you to stay away from me.”
“I know you did but, that’s almost impossible. We live in the same house, Johnny. We’re bound to cross paths.”
He stopped, his back to Scott. “Long as you just keep on goin, it’ll be fine. We don’t need to speak to each other.”
“Yes, we do. We’re partners. We have to discuss business at some point.”
He sighed and turned to face Scott. “You keep makin those excuses all you want. I ain’t talkin to you about anything. Get out of my face!”
Scott wavered, unsure if he should push the issue but he saw a look come across Johnny’s face and braced himself.
“Before you go, tell me one thing. Where’d you get the wagon?”
Scott dropped his head and crossed his arms over his chest. When he spoke, his voice was too soft. “It was in the barn along with two draft horses.”
Johnny leaned in to hear him then pulled back, his shoulders tensed and disbelief coloring his face. “You never even looked in the barn?!”
“They told me there was no wagon, no horses. I had no reason not to believe them!”
“But you had plenty of reason not to believe me. Is that it, Scott?”
“No, Johnny. I thought it was the fever. I thought you were talking out of your head.”
“You’re a liar! I was makin perfect sense you just didn’t want to be bothered with me. Didn’t want to have to haul me because it would’ve been too damned hard!”
“That’s not true! I thought you just wanted your own way like always. You’re always so stubborn! You always say you can make it only you couldn’t have made it this time, Johnny. You would have died if I’d taken you with me.”
Johnny took three steps and leaned into his brother’s face. “That would have been a damned sight better than what I got now wouldn’t it? I begged you, Scott. When have you ever heard me beg anybody for anything? You sonofabitch! Walk away. Walk away right now!”
“No! Don’t you know how sorry I am? Don’t you understand I never wanted this to happen? Johnny, please, I … God! I am so sorry!”
“So am I. Sorry I ever met you. Sorry we have the same blood. They were gonna do you, too, ya know. They told me and you know what? I was actually more afraid for you than myself! I prayed you wouldn’t walk in there blind. Can you believe that? I was worried about *you*!” Johnny shoved Scott backward as he shouted, “Get away from me!”
Scott stumbled a few paces then, out of primal reaction, he shoved Johnny back and the fight was on. Johnny connected his fist to Scott’s jaw and the older man staggered backwards but was able to maintain a standing position. Scott just looked at him and Johnny came for him again.
Scott blocked the punch this time and shoved Johnny away but the younger man was undeterred and came back with a vengeance. He tackled Scott and they rolled around on the ground for a minute. Johnny pushed his hand into Scott’s face and Scott tried to grab both his brother’s hands.
“Stop it, Johnny!”
Johnny pushed himself back and saw he was straddling his brother. He moved like lightning to get to his feet. Sweating and breathing hard, he pointed his finger at Scott. “I hate you! Stay away from me!”
Scott got to his feet and wiped a hand over his face, panting and feeling a bruise starting on his jaw. “I know you hate me but no matter what you say, I had no idea something like that would happen. Do you honestly think for one minute I’d have left you there if I did? Come on, Johnny. Be reasonable!”
Johnny stared at him for a long beat then turned to walk away but Scott grabbed his arm. Johnny turned back, his fist connecting with Scott’s face. Scott crumpled to the ground, holding his nose as blood spurted down the front of his white shirt and puddled in his hand. On his knees, his hands held to his nose, Scott rocked back and forth a little as light exploded in front of his eyes then turned to black dots.
Johnny stood over him, fists still clenched at his sides and watched the blood pour. Enraged and unrepentant, he spat his words. “Damn you to hell, Scott Lancer. If you ever speak to me again, I’ll kill you.”
Murdoch watched from the French doors as his sons argued. He couldn’t hear the words but he could tell by their posture and movements they were quarreling. He could see Johnny was one big knot of tension. Scott’s back was to him but it appeared he was pleading with his brother, trying to explain something to him. He saw Johnny push Scott then Scott push back then watched in shock as they started fighting in earnest. That’s when he decided to step in.
He moved quickly through the door and out into the courtyard in time to hear Johnny threaten his brother’s life. “Johnny, stop!”
Johnny’s head jerked up but his stance didn’t change as he glared at his father.
Murdoch moved quickly to Scott, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and pressing it into his son’s hand. “Here, hold your head back, son.” He spoke gently as he helped Scott to his feet. “Are you alright?”
Scott sucked in a breath through his mouth and shook his head very slightly. “I think it’s broken,” he said nasally.
Murdoch fairly growled as he pulled Scott’s hand from his face. He couldn’t see well in the dim light. “Let’s go in the kitchen and see about it.” He looked over at Johnny but found he had no words so he guided his elder son into the house.
In the kitchen, Murdoch turned the wick of a lamp higher and placed it close to Scott. “Alright, let me see now.” He pulled Scott’s hand away long enough to see the young man was probably right. His nose was offset from it’s normal position and he sighed heavily. “I’ll send for Sam. I think it’s broken, all right. Stay here and keep your head back.”
Scott only nodded as he pressed the handkerchief to his nose once more. The pain shot through his entire head and he felt dizzy. He closed his eyes and breathed through his mouth.
Murdoch returned shortly and got a cold cloth, pressing it to the bridge of Scott’s nose. The young man hissed from the pain but said nothing. Murdoch sat next to him, nothing to do but wait and ask. “Why?”
Scott looked sideways at him and shook his head. “I can’t talk right now, Sir.”
He nodded his understanding. “Will you be okay here for a minute?”
“I think so.” It didn’t occur to Scott that Murdoch was going after Johnny until the man had already left the room. He felt his stomach turn a little and hoped Johnny had gone somewhere their father couldn’t find him. In his present state of mind, he might just clobber Murdoch, too.
It took Murdoch a while to find Johnny in the barn sitting on a stack of hay bales, his back pressed to the wall. He walked over and stood, fists on hips and stared his son down.
“Why, Johnny? You broke Scott’s nose. I want to know why right now!”
He didn’t look up, couldn’t look at the man. He wasn’t sorry about Scott but he couldn’t explain it to Murdoch.
“I asked you a question!” Murdoch advanced on him and Johnny tried to press himself further into the wall. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Leave me alone, Murdoch. Just leave me alone.”
“That’s not going to work anymore. I can’t leave you alone now. You hurt your brother and I want to know why. This cannot go on, Johnny. Now, either tell me or leave!”
His head shot up and he stared incredulously at his father. “Leave? You want me to leave? He’s the one who should leave! He didn’t get anywhere near what he deserves for what he did!”
Murdoch’s expression softened slightly as he looked curiously at his son. “And what was it he did?”
Johnny bowed his head again and shook it. “I can’t,” he whispered.
“No, you won’t. You can because you have the ability to speak but you won’t tell me. Whatever happened, Johnny, it can’t possibly be that bad.” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, frustrated by the whole mess. “What are you so afraid of?”
Johnny pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around them, burying his face.
Murdoch watched him trying to make himself small or, was he simply trying to disappear? He thought back on the past few weeks. Johnny avoided everyone, spent his time alone or with his horse. He wouldn’t look anyone in the eye. It was as if the boy were ashamed. Beyond ashamed. This was not his son’s normal behavior. Johnny always faced every challenge, every pain, every hurt full on. He walked over and sat on the haystack near Johnny’s feet then reached out and put a hand on his son’s knee. Johnny jerked and pulled away. Â
“Talk to me, son. Whatever it is, I promise I won’t think less of you.”
He shook his head slowly, his voice almost a moan when he spoke. “I can’t. Please, don’t you understand? I can’t!”
Murdoch’s mouth tightened, his temper ready to flare again when he heard the buggy in the yard. “I guess Sam’s here. He must have been close by. We aren’t finished here, son. This has to stop.” He left then, more determined than ever to find out what had happened.
Johnny held his head in his hands and rocked back and forth, still ready to give his brother more of a beating. No, Murdoch could never know what happened. No one else could ever know. But, he couldn’t trust Scott to keep his big mouth shut. Scott couldn’t take the pressure from Murdoch, he was sure. He’d crack eventually, wouldn’t he? Pain shot through his gut at the thought and Johnny knew he had to find a way to keep that from happening but he wasn’t about to get all friendly with Scott just for that. Besides, he was pretty sure Scott believed him when he said he would kill him. He’d better believe it.
He needed to talk to Sam which meant going back in the house. Well, it was *his* house, too, dammit! He had every right, more right than Scott, to be there. He scooted to the edge of the haystack and eased to the ground. Wiping a hand down his face, he sucked in a breath and headed inside.
He stood in the kitchen doorway and watched as Sam reset Scott’s nose. His face was a mask of nothingness as his brother hissed and grunted from the pain. Hell, that wasn’t nothin. He had no sympathy. Finally, Sam noticed him there and Johnny simply tossed his head, indicating he wanted a word. Sam nodded then went back to his ministrations as Johnny stepped backward out of the doorway.
“I’m sorry, Scott. I know this hurts but I’m almost done.” Sam’s sympathy went far beyond the pain he was causing the young man. He had a very good idea how this had occurred and when he saw Johnny in the doorway, saw his face, he knew he was right.
“Will his nose heal okay, Sam?” Murdoch asked.
“It should but you’ll have to stay down and rest a few days and be very careful. If you start having problems breathing, let me know right away.” He stood back and examined his work with a small smile. “It’s not as if I can bandage it.”
“No, I suppose not,” Scott said then frowned. “Will I always sound like this?”
“No, that will go away as it heals and the swelling goes down. You should go to bed, young man. Try to stay lying on your back and keep a cold compress on it.”
“I think I will.” Scott rose slowly. “I’m very tired.”
“Need some help, son?”
Scott looked at his father fully for the first time since the fight. “No, Sir. Please, stop being so sympathetic. I deserved what I got. Don’t yell at Johnny about this.”
Murdoch’s face hardened but he said nothing, just nodded his head. When Scott left them, he turned that hard gaze on the doctor.
Sam held that gaze firmly. “I’m not sure I agree with Scott about deserving it but, if you’re going to ask me why it happened, you’ll be wasting your breath.”
“Sam, my sons hate each other. Rather, Johnny hates Scott who seems to think it’s a righteous hate. Neither of them will talk to me. What am I supposed to do?”
“Leave it alone and let them work it out.”
“They aren’t working it out! Should I just watch them kill each other? I heard Johnny tell Scott he’d kill him tonight and he meant it, Sam. What the devil is going on here?!”
Sam frowned deeply at this information then rubbed his cheek. “I need to see Johnny. Excuse me.”
Murdoch watched him walk away, his mouth hanging open.
Johnny stood by the cold hearth facing the doorway when Sam walked in. “He’s still yellin, I hear.”
“He’s upset, Johnny. Surely you can understand that.”
“Yeah,” he sighed out. “I understand only he told me to either tell him what’s wrong or leave. You believe that? Like Scott couldn’t have done anything to deserve what he got tonight.”
Sam took in the anger, the grinding teeth and walked over to the young man. “I take it Scott tried to talk to you.”
“Yeah, he sure did. Oh, and guess what? There was a wagon and horses there the whole time. All he had to do was walk in the barn but he didn’t. Know why? He said he had no reason, no reason to doubt they were tellin him the truth. After I told him I was dead meat if he left me there. Unbelievable!”
Sam waited a few seconds to see if the rant was over before speaking. “I know you don’t want to hear this right now, but, at some point, I’d like to talk about what happened again. You’re too angry now but it *will* help you, son. I want to talk it out with you, help you get past the anger and pain and anything else you may be feeling. That’s what I’m here for. Not just to heal the body but, hopefully, help heal the spirit, too. Of course, you could always talk to the priest.”
“No way. I’m not telling anyone else. It’s bad enough two people know.” He sucked in a breath and made himself calm down. “Sam, I appreciate all your help, I really do. But, you’re right, I can’t talk about it anymore tonight.”
“I understand but you don’t realize just how much this is affecting you. If you try to push it away, it will only get worse. There are things you haven’t even considered yet, Johnny. Things that will come up down the road and you need to be prepared before that happens.”
He frowned and cocked his head to the side. “What things?”
Sam grimaced a little. “Nothing we need to get into right now. Like you said, you’re not in a place where you can deal with anything else tonight. Try to get some rest and take it easy tomorrow. Scott’s going to be fine, by the way.”
His eyes turned hard. “I don’t care.”
“I know,” Sam said with sadness. “I told Murdoch to lay off but I don’t know if it will do any good now.”
Johnny turned to the hearth and leaned forward, his hands on the mantle, gripping it tightly. “I can’t tell him, Sam. I just can’t.”
“It’s alright, Johnny. You don’t have to tell him. When I come out in a couple of days to check on Scott, maybe then we can talk?”
“Yeah, okay.” He turned back and managed a small smile. “Thanks, Sam.”
Murdoch watched Johnny smile and thank the doctor and he felt more left out than ever. Whatever was going on, he didn’t rate high enough to be told apparently. He realized at this point it didn’t even matter what the details were. All that mattered was his sons were tearing each other apart in one fashion or the other. He watched Sam leave and Johnny turn back to the hearth, his head hanging.
“Son, go to bed. You must be exhausted.”
Johnny tensed at the voice then relaxed a little as he realized his father wasn’t going to lay into him. His emotions started welling up and he squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. “Yeah, I am.”
“I … I’m sorry about before. When I told you to leave. I didn’t mean it. I’m just so worried.”
“I’m sorry, too. I’m sorry I can’t tell you. I just …” he shook his head, having no words.
Murdoch stepped a little closer. “I know. Well, I don’t but I’m trying not to push you. But, when I saw you hit Scott … I just hope whatever it is, you’ll find a way to deal with it and your brother.”
Johnny turned around but he still could not look his father in the eye. Would he ever be able to again? He knew the man was just trying to be a good parent and it warmed him inside to know it. But, if anything could turn his father’s love to shame, this was it. Johnny was convinced of that. “I know it’s hard on you especially since Sam knows but I had to tell him.”
Murdoch gave a start as a thought came to him. “You aren’t sick, are you? Something besides your injuries?”
“No, nothing like that. Not really. I mean, I’m okay now.” He rubbed his forehead, feeling a headache coming on. “I’m doin the best I can. I don’t like bein this mad all the time, Murdoch. I don’t mean to be.”
“I hope so, son. I miss you.”
He looked up then, perplexed for a moment until he realized what his father meant. He swallowed hard and lowered his eyes. “I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again.”
Murdoch frowned at that and, as his son walked past him, he reached out and rubbed his shoulder. It didn’t escape his notice that Johnny flinched at that touch. Well, he’s so wound up, he probably won’t be able to sleep much. He figured both his boys would be sleeping in tomorrow and that was alright if it helped them at all.
Johnny was up and out the next morning as if nothing had happened. Well, that’s the appearance he assumed. His hand was sore and, as he sat the saddle, he grimaced at that soreness, as well. He knew he’d work it out and he intended to do as little work as possible today. But, he also knew Scott would be staying home so he wasn’t about to hang around there.
He still felt exhausted, the little sleep he did get filled with nightmares. It had gotten a little better over the past week or so but he reckoned mixing it up with Scott had brought it all back. Waking up drenched in sweat, his heart pounding in his ears and his lungs feeling collapsed into his rib cage didn’t help make him feel rested. The last thing he wanted to do was work or even be around anyone else but that’s what was expected of him. He’d been acting crazy enough, he figured. He didn’t need anymore grief.
When he arrived in the pasture, the men were already there moving the herd. Johnny fell in at drag and pulled his bandana over his mouth to avoid eating half the dust on Lancer and avoid the hands. After twenty minutes, he saw Frank riding up to him and he moved to the side to meet the man. He pulled his bandana down and waited for the hand to speak.
When Frank seemed reluctant, Johnny lost any patience he may have had. “What?”
Frank looked him square in the eye. “How come ya reckon I always get elected to talk to the boss?”
Johnny’s lips quirked but he kept his face impassive. “Guess you’re just lucky that way, Frank. What’s on your, their, minds?”
The man sighed heavily and looked past Johnny’s left shoulder. “You. We was thinkin there’s a real nice spot down by the lake where you could sit under a tree today. Nobody’d have ta know. Thing is, we know you’re tryin to just jump back into things, Johnny, but well, we don’t think you’re ready just now. You look plumb tuckered.”
He grimaced and lowered his eyes. His normal response would have been anger, telling Frank he could outride and outrope any man here after five days of no sleep. It was bull, of course, but that wouldn’t have stopped him from claiming it. Somehow, his pride didn’t feel dented right now, though. Matter of fact, he was touched by their concern. He lifted his gaze and gave the man a small smile.
“Ya know somethin, Frank? I always figured my old man hired the very best and I was right. I think I’ll take you up on that.” He reined Barranca to the right then stopped and looked back at the man now beside him. “Thanks, amigo.”
Frank smiled with relief and nodded, tipped his hat and went back to work.
Johnny settled under a big oak tree and pulled his hat over his face. He was asleep in a few seconds.
When he arrived home that afternoon, Johnny had every intention of telling his father he’d slacked off today. He had to admit, he felt a lot better after getting some decent rest. Besides, he’d lied to Murdoch enough. He figured not telling the man something was as good as lying. So, when he walked in the living room, he headed to his father’s desk but he pulled up short when he saw Scott lying on the sofa. Quickly, he decided to ignore the man and confess to his father.
“Did the herd get moved?”
Johnny smiled a little. Business first, always. “So I was told.” He almost laughed at his father’s quizzical expression. “Frank said no one would say a thing but I thought you should know anyway. I spent the day under an oak tree at Willow Lake. The boys suggested I get some rest.”
Murdoch’s lips twitched then he smiled. “I’m glad to hear that. You were gone so early, I didn’t think you’d gotten much sleep.”
Johnny lowered his head and his voice. “No, not much. Anyways, I feel better now. I’m gonna get cleaned up.”
“I’ll see you at supper.”
He looked up at Murdoch, heard the ‘order’ in that voice and wondered if the man had some sort of memory problem. He also knew he couldn’t keep going like he had and it wasn’t fair to Murdoch so he simply nodded and walked out of the room.
Scott opened his eyes when he heard the jangle of the spurs receding and looked at his father.
“I’ll see *you* at supper, as well. Even if you can’t talk to each other, I’d still like to spend time with my sons.” Murdoch didn’t wait for an answer, he went back to studying his contracts.
The next day, Johnny did work and he felt better, more like his old self – physically anyway. When he rode in, he saw Sam’s buggy and tensed a little. God! Now, he had to talk about this again.
Supper the night before had been a chore. It reminded him of times he’d had to eat with men he hated, men he knew he’d be killing soon or would kill him. Eating with the enemy. Murdoch had spoken to each of them and they answered but that was the extent of it. Johnny knew he couldn’t go on like this. He hated every minute of every day anymore. He hated himself and he hated Scott. And he hated hating Scott. He figured he’d be crazy pretty soon and talking to Sam should move that along nicely.
In the living room, Sam was leaning over Scott who sat perched on the edge of a chair, his hands gripping the arms. Murdoch was standing just to Sam’s left watching like a guard dog. Johnny had to smirk a little. He couldn’t help himself. He walked over and leaned against the hearth, waiting his turn.
“How was it today, son?”
He looked over at Murdoch and smiled. “Good. I did some real work.”
“Scott, try to relax a little. I know it hurts but your face is all squinched up,” Sam chastised.
Scott muttered a ‘sorry’ in a nasally tone.
“The swelling is going down nicely. You’ll still have to breath mostly through your mouth for another day or two and keep the compresses on. How’s the pain?”
“Not bad as long as I don’t lie on my side or rub my face. I forget sometimes.”
Murdoch walked over and studied Scott’s face. “I think it looks better.”
“I don’t,” Scott muttered.
“Give it time, Scott.” Sam gave him a sympathetic look then turned to Johnny and nodded.
Johnny looked at his father then back at Sam and shrugged then headed for the stairs.
“What’s that about?” Murdoch asked.
“Just some more doctor-patient stuff, Murdoch.” Sam felt a hand on his arm and looked back down at Scott.
“Can you help him?”
“I’m going to do everything in my power, Scott. But, you two have to stay down here and leave us alone for as long as it takes.”
Scott nodded and Murdoch scowled as Sam headed out of the room.
Johnny’s bedroom door was open so Sam walked in and closed it. “How are you feeling?”
“Stronger. I put it a full day today and I don’t feel like I’m gonna pass out.”
“That’s good. Now, tell me about the fight with Scott.”
Johnny frowned and sat down, waving a hand of invitation for Sam to join him. The doctor took the seat across from him and waited.
“I told him not to talk to me but he wouldn’t go away. I asked where the wagon came from and … it was just one more thing, Sam. You know I don’t want to hate him but I can’t help it.”
Sam nodded thoughtfully. “Johnny, when you tried to warn Scott not to leave you alone with those men, what did you tell him?”
“I told him they’d kill me or worse. I didn’t know for sure what they were gonna do. Tell the truth, I thought they were gonna slice me up and fry me for breakfast. I had no idea …”
Sam leaned forward and touched his arm. “Then, how could Scott know?”
Johnny glared at him. “I told him if he left me there, they’d kill me! I wish to God they had!”
“You don’t mean that, Johnny. It may feel like the world has ended in a way. You don’t feel like the same person and you aren’t acting like yourself right now. Eventually, the pain will ease, the memories will fade some and you’ll be able to enjoy life again. I know it sounds impossible right now but, it will happen, son. Maybe, Scott did make a mistake. But, Johnny, if he’d known what they were going to do he never would have left you behind.”
“That’s what he said but what’s the difference? I mean, whether they did … what they did or they just killed me, what’s the difference? I was in danger.” He leaned forward. “I begged him not to leave me there, Sam. I begged. Do you understand how hard that was for me? The plain truth is he was mad at me and didn’t want to listen.”
“Why was he mad at you?”
“We’d been kind of goin at each other since I got shot. Reckon neither of us was in the best mood but that don’t excuse it. He didn’t even really need to go. I mean, a doctor couldn’t have done more than he already had. He took the bullet out and cleaned it up.”
Sam looked at him, unconvinced. “You had a fever.”
Waving his arms at his sides, Johnny retorted. “Yeah? And what would you have done about that? The same thing *he* could have done if he’d just stayed.”
Pausing for only a second, Sam reasoned it out. “Maybe he was afraid to take that responsibility alone. If you’d died in his care, Scott couldn’t have forgiven himself that. He would have always wondered if a doctor could have made a difference. The fact is, he can’t forgive himself now. Johnny, it’s always easier to see a thing after it’s done. To say you should have done this thing or that after the fact. But, in the moment, it’s not always so clear. Scott was worried about you and he wanted to get you the best care. Whatever you saw in those men he obviously didn’t see.”
“He should have trusted me enough to believe me. He didn’t want to be bothered.”
Sam sat back and let out a sigh. “Are the nightmares any better?”
Frowning, Johnny lowered his voice. “They were until the other night when I bashed his face in.”
“What did happen to those men?”
Johnny glanced at him. “Scott killed them. Shot ’em both down. I guess you could call it murder but I don’t. No less than they deserved.”
Sam raised a brow at that. “For a man like Scott, that has to be weighing heavily, too. Why do you think he did that?”
“What would you have done if you walked in and saw that bastard on top of me?!”
Shaing his head slowly back and forth, Sam replied. “I honestly don’t know. But, it’s the same thing you would have done for Scott.”
“I wouldn’t have left him there if he was so scared. It don’t matter if nothing happened. Don’t you see? I told him I was scared. I told him they’d hurt me, kill me and he walked out that door anyway. Matter of fact, he slammed the door on me. And he told them I was suspicious of them. They moved my gun because Scott told them I didn’t want to stay there alone. If he’d kept his big mouth shut, I could’ve at least had some protection. The fact is, he trusted two total strangers over me. I’m done with him.”
Sam thought through what Johnny was saying and, honestly, the young man made some valid points. He knew in his heart Scott did not leave his brother to the wolves purposefully but he could also see where Johnny would believe that. This was never going to be resolved as long as Johnny felt such anger and it was much too soon to expect this young man not to feel that very thing. He hadn’t come up here to try to defend Scott or even listen to Johnny rage about his brother.
“I understand how angry you are with your brother but I really want to talk about you now, John. How you’re dealing with this because I don’t think you really are. You’re focusing on Scott when you should be trying to heal inside.”
Johnny relaxed into the chair cushion, resting his head, his eyes half-open. “What am I supposed to do, Sam? How do I get over this? I feel like people can just look at me and tell. I feel …”
“What, Johnny? You feel what?”
He sighed heavily and lowered his head to his chest. “Ashamed. Like I’m not a man anymore. They took that away.”
“No, they did not and you can’t allow it to happen. They took a lot from you, Johnny, but they can never take who you truly are. You’ll find that man again and you’ll feel strong and confident.”
“I don’t think so. Most of the time all I want to do is curl up and hide.” His hands clenched into fists and he stood up pacing the room, the anger and desperation painting his face red. “I hate them! I hate this! I hate feelin this way and it’s not fair! It ain’t right, what they did. Nobody has that right. I wanted to kill them myself! I wanted to gut them like fish! Just take a knife and …” he stopped suddenly, his words and his movements, and started shaking. Johnny dropped to his knees in the middle of the floor and hugged himself, rocking back and forth.
Sam moved quickly to his feet then advanced more slowly. He could hear Johnny sniffling and his heart broke again. Slowly, he made it to his own knees and put a tentative arm around the young man, relieved that Johnny allowed it.
Some time later, the younger man finally moved, pulling away and wiping his face as he got to his feet and kept his back turned. He walked to the dresser and washed his face but he still wouldn’t look at Sam.
Sam struggled to his feet and looked at the younger man’s back. “There is no shame in crying, John. People have the ability to cry to help them grieve whatever sadness they feel. Things get too overwhelming at times and all you can do is cry.”
Johnny only nodded his understanding. He returned to his chair, his head still bowed as he fell into the seat and turned his head toward the window. “Sometimes, I think I want to die but then, I know I don’t. I guess that’s about the only thing that keeps me going.” He shook his head ruefully. “Funny, I’ve always been like that. Always fighting to survive. I don’t know why. I used to think it was because of this place. That I was just waiting for this time to come along when I could have a real family. Now, I don’t have that anymore so I don’t know what the hell the reason is.”
“You do still have a family, son. You have Murdoch, your friends, me. And you have Scott if you ever want him back. I know without a doubt he’d welcome you,” Sam said as he lowered himself into the other chair.
He snorted at that. “I broke the man’s nose, Sam. I don’t think he’s real happy with me.”
“He doesn’t blame you and he told Murdoch not to blame you either. He said he deserved it.”
Johnny looked sideways at him, a little disbelieving of that.
“I told you he feels guilty. Frankly, I’m almost as worried about him as I am about you. You see, he’s done the unthinkable. Something he never thought himself capable of doing. He betrayed you or, that’s what he believes.”
“That’s because it’s true,” Johnny snapped.
Sam shrugged and settled back in his chair. “Maybe but it wasn’t deliberate and, if it wasn’t deliberate, it doesn’t count. Look, I know you can’t hear anything good about Scott right now so I probably shouldn’t even try. But, let me ask you a question. Have you ever hurt someone unintentionally? Have you ever done something that caused another person pain? And you didn’t realize that would be the end result because you thought you knew best even though that person told you it would hurt them?”
Sam had to smile fractionally. “That was a pretty fast answer. Think about it a while. You know, I think you’ve made a good start tonight. You have a long way to go. What do you think you need most right now?”
Johnny thought about that. What did he need? His mind screamed at him when Scott’s face appeared and he clenched his teeth. “I don’t know. Maybe, I need to be alone for a while but …”
Sam quirked his lips thoughtfully. “You’re afraid?”
Johnny just nodded, ducking his head in shame.
“Well, what if you were to come stay with me for awhile?”
He looked at the doctor and considered it. “No, Sam. I don’t want to go to town. I don’t want to be where people might see me. I know it’s crazy but I can’t help it.”
Sam nodded his understanding then had an idea. “What about Val? He lives out of town and he’s gone all day.”
“Maybe,” Johnny sighed. “I’ll think about it.”
“I’ll be back to talk wherever you end up.”
He smiled at the man. “Sam, I don’t know why you put up with me but I’m real glad you do. You really have helped me and I’ll never be able to repay you.”
“There’s no need. We’re friends and that’s what friends do. Think about Val and try to get some sleep.” Sam stood to leave and Johnny came to his feet.
“Yeah, I’ll think about it. Thanks again.”
Johnny stared out his bedroom window and thought about Sam’s idea. Val would take him in, of course. He wouldn’t ask a bunch of questions, either. His only problem was Val’s house was pretty small and he didn’t think he could stand feeling that closed in. He already felt that way right here in this big ole house. Closed in and cold down deep in his bones.
What he really wished was that Scott would go away. He could at least admit that to himself. He shook his head, completely flummoxed that things had come to this place. How? More importantly, why? He sat down in the chair and decided to try and think this through rationally. He knew he hadn’t really. Had spent all his time ashamed and angry. Maybe it was time to try and figure some things out. Sam’s question came back to him. Had he ever hurt someone without meaning to? Of course he had.
He’d hurt a lot of people in his life and some of them he was sorry about. But, he’d never done anything like this. Never done anything so … so completely out of character. For that’s what Scott had done. Gone against everything Johnny believed the man was about. Scott had always seemed so loyal, so honest and true. An officer and all that. A real gentleman, whatever the hell that was. Johnny didn’t know how to be those things.
He felt totally betrayed. But, he tried to think past that. Tried to sort out what Scott might have been thinking. He was sick, yes. He probably needed a doctor, he agreed. And it was a long walk to the town. He frowned then. What about the town? What had happened there and why hadn’t Scott brought back help? He’d never asked. Didn’t want to hear the man’s voice much less his excuses. Maybe he needed to. As much as it sickened him, maybe he really did need to talk to Scott. To hear what happened on his side of things.
His stomach rolled as he thought of that conversation. He leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes knowing with everything he was, that’s exactly what he had to do.
Johnny awoke confused. He rubbed his eyes and realized he was still in the chair. The sun was rising outside the window. Hell, slept here all night. He sighed then stood and stretched and started getting cleaned up. And he thought about last night and what he’d decided to do. Could he face it today? Was there ever going to be a day he could? Probably not so there was no sense in putting it off any longer. After breakfast, he reckoned he’d talk to Scott.
Decision made, he stood in front of his door and wavered. Once more the anger came – at himself for his waffling. If he was ever gonna get over this, he needed to stop feeling so damned scared all the time and take control of his life again. Sucking in a deep breath, he opened the door and headed downstairs.
When Johnny walked into the kitchen, Scott looked up from his seat at the table. Johnny had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing and he averted his eyes as he headed to his own seat. Totally inappropriate he knew and not really funny but, both Scott’s eyes were blackened and he looked like a raccoon. Had someone else caused the injury, he might have been able to joke about it. He thought about the rest of the day and that wiped any humor from his mind.
Murdoch was eyeing him like a hawk and he felt even more uncomfortable. No one spoke and the meal was eaten in silence. He watched from under his lashes as Scott seemed to be finish then faltered, wondering if he wasn’t just going to make things worse for himself. Finding some resolve, albeit not much, he looked across the table.
“I’d like to talk to you.” He kept his voice even and nonthreatening yet Scott was looking warily at him. “Just talk.”
It took Scott a moment to answer but he finally did. “Where?”
Well, that was the question, wasn’t it? Johnny thought about it for a long while. “The garden?”
Scott nodded and stood but Murdoch’s voice halted any further motion. “I want your word, Johnny, that this won’t turn into another row like the other night.”
Johnny, who had stood when his brother had, looked down at his father with a grim face. “You have it.”
“I’d like your word that you won’t be spying on us, Sir,” Scott spoke with an authority in his voice that had been lacking for quite some time.
Murdoch looked at his son, a bit surprised but he finally agreed. “You have it.”
Johnny wandered the garden for long moments, his hands brushing across the roses without really seeing them. He turned at last and looked at Scott standing there waiting for him. He looked pale and his brows were pulled together in a deep frown. The bruises were deeper now, a few days later and he still sounded like he was talking through his nose.
“You need to sit down?”
“Yes, I think so.” Scott moved to a bench in the center of the garden.
Johnny stood a good ten feet from him but faced him as he thought how to start this. “I talked to Sam some last night and I tried to think things out without … feelin anything. It wasn’t possible. But, there are things I need to know about.”
Scott leaned back on the bench and nodded his head.
“What happened when you got to the town?”
Scott dropped his head a little and closed his eyes briefly. “It was deserted. It looked like no one had lived there for a long time. It felt like I was at the end of the world.”
“What did you do?”
He glanced up, his shoulders so tense, they almost touched his ears, it seemed. “I ran through the buildings at first, trying to find anyone. When I stopped and gave myself a second, I realized you’d been right and they’d set us up. I ran back to the cabin.”
Johnny raised a brow at that. “Ran?”
He looked up then and nodded. “When I couldn’t run anymore, I crawled or staggered. I didn’t stop, only to grab a quick drink of water. I didn’t want to think about what was happening there. I never could have imagined … that.”
Johnny bowed his head, rubbing his fingers together then clenching his fists and relaxing his hands to his sides. “I heard the gunfire. Heard them screaming. Heard you drag them out.”
“I shot them both in the groin then in the chest and head.”
His lips curved upward for an instant then he turned away and paced off, plucking a rose and shredding it slowly. “What did you do with them?”
“There was a dry well at the back of the house. I threw them in there. I wish I’d burned the cabin to the ground.”
“You cleaned me up and got me dressed.”
The words were so soft, it took a moment to reach Scott’s ears. He blushed and nodded, his head still down. “I fixed you some broth then I got to thinking about how they’d said they had no livestock. It was only a guess but when I walked in that barn, I felt like throwing up again.”
Johnny noticed the ‘again’ and grimaced then turned and walked back to his place before the bench. “You were cryin when you were fixin me up.”
Scott’s head shot up and his face turned red. He swallowed convulsively but he could only nod.
Johnny blew out a harsh breath and stared at the ground. What else was there? He knew the rest. Scott carried him to the wagon and brought him home. The end. And the beginning of the end of everything else. “Tell me the real reason you didn’t believe me.”
Scott didn’t answer. He stood up and walked around the bench, wandering in a slow small circle, his arms crossing over his chest tightly. When he spoke, he tried to make his voice strong but it was a struggle.
“On my way to town, I was thinking about how you always say you’re fine and you can make it even when it’s obvious you can’t. I was thinking that sometimes you do that, get so stubborn so you can have your own way. I was angry with you for trying to put that burden on me. Trying to carry you out of there would have been the same as killing you. I couldn’t do that.” He stopped and turned to face his brother. “And I really didn’t see what you saw in them but, I do know it wasn’t fever talking. I just thought you didn’t want to be there and would do anything to leave.”
Johnny held the stare. “You told them I was worried. You told them I thought they were gonna hurt me. They took my gun the night before you left.”
Scott blanched, his face turning white, his eyes widening. He slowly shook his head back and forth.
“You trusted two complete strangers. You put my life in their hands. Two characters you wouldn’t have trusted to work this ranch, I’d wager. But, you trusted them with me. I guess I ain’t worth as much, though.” He bit his lip. He hadn’t wanted to do this, get all emotional but the anger was back and the sarcasm proved it. He took in a deep breath and closed his eyes.
“I didn’t think …”
“No,” Johnny cut him off. “No, you didn’t think. All you thought about was how far you had to walk to get me help. How much I put you out again. How much trouble I am.”
“You don’t put me out, brother. It wasn’t your fault you were shot. It could just as easily have been me!”
“It should have been you. None of this would’ve happened then.”
Scott walked slowly toward him, stunned. “You don’t mean that.”
“Yeah, I do mean that, Scott. I never would’ve left you with those animals. And don’t you think it’s odd they were the only ones livin around there? Who do you think shot me in the first place?”
“Then, why did they let me go?”
Johnny shook his head. “I’m not sure. I guess they knew you’d come back. You didn’t have any choice. Maybe they liked to share one at a time. And I reckon if you hadn’t gone, they would’ve trussed you up til they were ready for you, anyway. God knows, you never woulda known what hit you.”
Scott fumed at that. “I’m not an idiot, Johnny!”
A cocked brow was his first response but he let it go. “This ain’t gettin us anywhere. You answered my questions. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
Scott clenched his jaw. “Then, it’s my turn. I listened to you, answered your questions, now I want to have a say.”
Johnny considered him for a minute. Should be interesting anyway. He just nodded his head and waited.
Scott took another moment to gather himself before speaking. “This was the biggest mistake of my life and I doubt I’ll ever do anything worse. All I can really do is tell you how sorry I am. I’ve explained what I was thinking and, no, they were not charitable thoughts. I was angry with you and maybe I did feel a bit put upon. I was irritable, I know. That’s no excuse. There is no excuse for leaving you there after you begged me not to. Maybe, if I hadn’t been so upset with you, I would have realized the importance of your words. It wasn’t until I reached that town and felt that betrayal myself that I understood that you were terrified and, now I know, completely defenseless.”
He stopped and took a breath, shaking his head and folding his arms across his stomach. “I’ll never be able to make this up to you. I’ll never be able to make it alright. I know what I’ve lost. The most precious thing there is to me. Your trust and respect. And, I know, even if you haven’t said it aloud, that you want me gone from here. Seeing me every day is a constant reminder of what happened. I can’t bring myself to leave forever, Johnny. I can’t bring myself to believe we won’t ever be able to get past this. I’m sure I’m just lying to myself but, that’s how I feel. If I stay and hang on, I might be able to at least earn your forbearance. I know I’ll never earn your friendship back.” Slowly, he looked up into his brother’s eyes and shifted his stance a little.
“But, the truth is I care a great deal for you and I don’t want to leave. I don’t have anyplace else to go. I don’t want to be anyplace else and I suppose that makes me selfish. If it helps you at all, I can go away for a while. But, this I swear on my life, on Murdoch’s life, on everything I hold dear. Never will I tell another living soul about this. You have my word on that. It may not mean anything to you but, if I ever break it, I’ll end my own life so you don’t have to. Just, please don’t leave.”
Johnny felt the deep ache in his chest, his breath short and hard to come by. He felt the stinging in his eyes and he turned away. He’d already known their friendship was over but, hearing his brother’s words verified the truth of it for him. That Scott was sincere, he had no doubt. When he spoke, his voice was husky and shaking.
“I have a lot of scars on my body but the bad memories, the images in my head are the scars you can’t see. They never go away either. Every time I look at you, I see it all over again. I won’t ask you to leave your own home forever but I will ask you to leave for a while. I need some time to deal with this and I can’t do it with you here. That’s all there is to it.”
Scott clenched his eyes tightly, fighting off the same stinging sensation. He cleared his throat but it didn’t help. It still shook when he answered. “I’ll talk to Murdoch and I’ll try to make him understand not to push you.”
“He does understand.”
Scott sniffed a little. “I’m sure there’s some business I can do for him somewhere. If not, I’ll just … go. In the morning.”
Johnny just nodded and walked away, toward the barn.
Murdoch paced the entire length of the living room. He’d stopped counting his trips round after ten. It did no good and it didn’t keep him from thinking about what was happening outside. Johnny had given his word he wouldn’t attack his brother but his son’s present state of mind didn’t bode well for him keeping that word. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. What the devil could have been so horrible? He couldn’t fathom it, frankly.
He pulled up short when he saw Scott standing in the dining room watching him. He didn’t have to ask how it went. Scott looked even more miserable if that were possible.
The young man walked toward him but stopped a few feet away and dropped his eyes. Pulling in a breath, he looked back up at his father. “I need to make a trip and I was hoping there was some meeting or other business you need handled. If not, I’ll just go to San Francisco maybe or, someplace.”
Brows raised, Murdoch regarded his son. He was putting on a good show. His voice even and strong but, it seemed forced. As if he were working hard at keeping himself calm. “How long?”
“I don’t know exactly. A week, maybe two.”
“Did Johnny ask you to leave?”
Scott’s eyes moved from his father’s face and settled somewhere past the older man. “I offered and he took me up on it. He just needs time and having to be around me makes it harder. If I’m not here, I really believe he’ll be able to deal with this faster or better, at least.”
Murdoch nodded, his features creased in deep contemplation. It was several seconds before he asked. “Did Johnny ask you leave for good?”
Immediately, Scott shook his head. “No. In fact, he said he couldn’t ask me to leave my home forever. But, he did ask for some time and I have to give it to him.”
“That’s something, I suppose.”
“Murdoch, you need to understand that Johnny is never going to forgive me. I only hope that some day we can work together without the animosity. I’m willing to do a great deal to help him get through this, give him whatever he needs but, I won’t leave forever.”
The older man sighed and wiped a hand down his face then turned and walked to his desk. “There are some contracts coming due. It’s early yet but we may as well get it taken care of. You’ll need to go to Stockton. No more than two weeks, Scott. If Johnny needs more time than that, we’ll have to come up with another plan.” He found his son’s eyes and held them to make his point.
“While you’re gone you might want to think about giving yourself a break. Whatever happened, I can’t believe it was purposeful or malicious. You apparently made a bad mistake but you are human and it happens. So, come to terms somehow, son.”
Scott bowed his head and nodded. “I’ll do my best.”
Murdoch sighed heavily and nodded, unconvinced but with a spark of hope. Â
Johnny spent the next week pushing himself hard to finish his day’s work. A few afternoons, he rode in to see Sam and they’d spend an hour or two talking through what happened. It was getting to the point that Johnny was sick to death of talking about it. Sam had also talked to him about lasting effects. Things that may crop up seemingly out of nowhere and cause him anger or distress. The one thing Johnny had been stunned with was Sam’s warnings about intimacy.
“I’ve never had a problem with that,” he said with a slightly flabbergasted tone.
Sam gave him a sympathetic little smile. “You’ve never been through anything like this before.”
Johnny’s face fell and he nodded his understanding but, he decided he would have to test that theory. Sometime soon – maybe. His gut flamed at the thought of being with a woman. He honestly had not considered it before and, now he found that a little strange, too. Well, it wasn’t as if he didn’t have enough to think about.
He thought about it on the ride home, though. When he was ready, he figured he’d have to go someplace he wasn’t well-known. Just in case. His face reddened at the thought of failing that task. Anger soon followed as he wondered if he’d ever be free of this nightmare. In his mind, he knew it would be with him for the rest of his life. But, lately, he’d really started to believe he could get on with things. Start trying to have a life again.
Sighing heavily, he knew it would be a while before he felt up to trying to be with a woman. Right now, all he could focus on was working, trying to relax and not thinking about Scott.
One evening, eight days after Scott left for Stockton, he sat in Sam’s backyard with lemonade and listened to the quiet. It was a peaceful place there on the swing. He felt better, too.
Sam re-emerged from his house with a slight smile on his face after having had to tend to Timmy Jones’ tummy ache. As he sat down with a loud grunt and knocking Johnny’s rhythm in the swing off balance, he chuckled a little. “Children think their woes are the end of the world.”
“Timmy Jones ate six green apples.”
Johnny grinned widely and shook his head. “He’s a brat, anyway.”
“Yes, he is.”
Johnny burst out laughing at that. “Thought doctors were supposed to help their patients.”
“Oh, I helped him but he’s still a brat. It’s nice to hear you laugh.”
Johnny’s smile faded a little but it was still there. He got the swing going again to his satisfaction, Sam going along for the ride, and he stared at the grass. “I feel better.”
Sam closed his eyes for a quick prayer of thanks for the soft-spoken words. “I’m so glad.”
“It’s because of you, Doc. I can’t ever pay you back but I’m gonna spend the rest of my life tryin. You ever need anything, anything at all, you tell me. Don’t matter what it is.”
“I will, Johnny. I will.” He patted the young man’s knee. “I hate to break the good mood but, I suppose you’d wonder if I didn’t ask.” Sam looked sidelong at him.
Johnny grimaced, knowing full well what the man wanted to say. “I don’t know. I guess I won’t til I see him again. To be honest, I haven’t been thinkin about him much at all. This talkin we’ve been doing and all this … soul searching, I guess, wears me out most days.”
“Can you think about it now?”
He stopped the swing and leaned forward, resting his forearms on his thighs, his glass dangling precariously from his left hand. “I still have a problem with what he did. No, not what he did. How he ignored me. Ya know, Scott tried to ease things between me and Murdoch in those early days. I guess I got to depending on that. Got to depending on him. I trusted him and he said I could. Maybe … maybe I am too hard to deal with. Maybe I do put a lot of burden on him.”
Sam didn’t say anything for a while. He needed to think about this but with everything Johnny had been through and as much as he knew Scott never intended his brother be tortured, he didn’t see a way for them to ever go back to the way things were. “I’m not sure what to say, Johnny. I think you’ll agree Scott never wanted this to happen and he’s sick at heart with the guilt of it. I don’t know if you two can ever be close again. I don’t believe that you’ve been a burden to him, though. I don’t think Scott believes that, either.”
“Maybe. But, I can’t ever let myself be in a place where I have to depend on him again, Sam. I just can’t trust him.”
“Time is a great healer, son. Sometimes, it’s the only thing that does heal. It may take months or years and sadly, it may never happen. I wish I could give you some guarantee. But, I think at least now, you aren’t quite so angry with him. Am I right?”
Johnny leaned back against the swing’s back, casting a long sideways look at Sam as he did. He rested the glass on his leg and stared at it for a while. “I’m not as angry, period. Like I said, until I see him again, I don’t know what I think. I’m just so tired of it, Sam. Maybe we can just agree to get along. Hell, wouldn’t be the first time I hung around someone I didn’t trust.”
Sam frowned deeply. “When is he coming home?”
“He said two weeks so about five more days, I reckon. All I know for sure is I want to start livin again.”
A smile brightened the doctor’s face at this statement. “You know something? You’re going to be just fine, Johnny. You really are.”
Murdoch noticed the change, subtle at first but now, more apparent. As he watched Johnny ride in this evening with the hands, he found a slight smile on his own face. Johnny was laughing with Frank and Jose. When they all dismounted, he stayed and talked with them a minute longer, ending the conversation with a playful slap to Jose’s gut. Maybe, he thought, maybe he’s finally free of whatever has been torturing him for the past two months.
For Murdoch believed whatever had happened to his boy had indeed been torture. Especially for his heart and probably even his soul. Johnny’s reactions to Scott convinced him the latter was true as well. And the dread and suspicion in his own heart almost convinced Murdoch he didn’t really want the details. But, now it seemed Johnny had been able to get past it. He also knew the true test was about to happen. Scott was in the living room, home from his self-imposed retreat, and he was worried, too. Murdoch had been able to give him some hope, reporting Johnny seemed more relaxed very recently but, Scott wasn’t terribly convinced.
“Hey, Murdoch!” Johnny waved as he approached.
“Son, good day?”
“Yeah, it was a great day! Everything went just right. Might want to mark it down somewhere.”
Murdoch chuckled, more for the pure happiness in his son’s face than anything. He hated being the one to wipe that away but he couldn’t blindside Johnny either. He laid a hand on his son’s shoulder and gave him a gentle shake. “Scott’s home.”
Johnny’s smile faded and he sighed out, bowing his head for a moment. When he looked back up, he shrugged. “Yeah, okay.”
“It’s okay, Murdoch. At least, I think it is. Won’t know til I face the man and I might as well get to it.”
Johnny frowned. “I can’t help that.” He walked toward the door and his father’s hand slid from his shoulder.
Murdoch turned and followed him, not about to leave them alone just then.
Scott stood by the fireplace, a glass of whiskey on the mantle next to him and watched his brother enter the room. He had thought to try and be serious, not stern or unreachable but certainly without levity. He smiled despite himself.
Johnny stopped in the middle of the room and nodded his head. It didn’t escape his notice that Scott’s bruises were fading well now. His stomach flipped once but there was no rage. There wasn’t much of anything and he wondered about that. Was it over? The being mad part? He found himself hoping so. “Good trip?”
Scott hesitated. He hadn’t expected that question. “It was alright.”
Johnny walked over to the sideboard and poured himself a drink. He sensed his father in the doorway and turned, the question on his face. When Murdoch nodded, he poured two glasses and passed one off as his father walked up to him. He gripped his own glass a little too tightly and wondered why he was suddenly feeling edgy. It’s alright, he told himself then closed his eyes as he took a long drink.
Scott was watching him. He could see Johnny’s profile and he saw the tight hand on the glass. His heart fell. His brother still hated him. Well, did he really expect anything else?
Johnny didn’t face him when he spoke. “So, I guess you’ll be ready to get back to work tomorrow.”
Scott blinked, feeling a little off putting by Johnny’s sudden voice in the quiet that had consumed the room. “Uh, yes, yes. More than ready.”
“Things have been goin real smooth here.”
“That’s good. Maybe our luck will hold a while.” He clenched his teeth together. Why the hell had he said that? He watched Johnny but he didn’t seem to take it the wrong way.
“Never can tell. Well, guess I should wash up for supper.” Johnny sat the glass down and headed for the stairs, fighting to keep from running. Why was he acting like this? He wasn’t mad, not at all, but he could barely stand to be in the same room with the man.
Scott watched him take the stairs quickly and shook his head. “He doesn’t want to be around me.”
Murdoch had been watching Johnny, as well. He turned back to Scott, as perplexed as his older son. “I thought he was okay. He was laughing with the boys outside. He didn’t seem angry when I told him you were home. Maybe it’s just this first meeting, son. Maybe he just needs to get used to you being back.”
“I hope so.” Scott offered up a small smile for his father. “I guess it is easier when you aren’t around the person. While I was away, I convinced myself I was going to just go about my business and let him do whatever he was going to do. Now that I see him again, it’s not so easy to keep that resolve. I guess he’s going through the same sort of thing.”
“I suppose but, I hope you do keep that resolve, son. Johnny really has been doing better. He’s been smiling and laughing with the hands. He seems … more settled. Once he’s used to you being here again, I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
Johnny leaned against his bedroom door after closing it. He stared at the wall across the room and wondered what was going on. Seeing Scott had made his skin crawl. Was it just the reminder back again? He’d been doing really well lately. He’d convinced himself it was over. Sam’s words came back to him. Things would sneak up on him when he least expected and he’d react in strange ways.
Well, seemed like Doc was right – again. He thought briefly of going to see the man then shook his head. He couldn’t keep runnin to Sam every time he felt uneasy. He pushed away from the door and wandered around his bedroom. Maybe, I just need to get used to him being around again. I just have to give it a little time, is all. Yeah, that’s it. I wasn’t expecting him today. I thought I had another day at least. That’s all it is.
He figured he’d done a good job of convincing himself and that was fine and dandy until he went back downstairs and looked at Scott again. Then, would he react the same? Feel like getting the hell out of there? Wish Scott hadn’t come back? Because part of him did wish that and he wasn’t particularly sorry for it.
No, he didn’t feel the same anger toward Scott but he still did have *some* anger for the man and he reckoned that wouldn’t be going away. He’d just have to deal with it somehow. Johnny knew, no matter what had happened, this was Scott’s home, too.
And he decided that was all they would have in common ever again – a home. One thing they could come together for. Working the land and, if necessary, defending it again. Well, it was better than nothin. It was better than what he’d wanted two weeks ago. Maybe, with more time he could …
He sighed heavily. Could what? Forgive? No, he could never do that. Tolerate, he guessed was the word. Well, whatever happened, he needed to get back down there for Murdoch’s sake if nothing else. He walked over to the dresser and started cleaning up.
Scott reported on his trip during the supper they were now trying to enjoy. He spoke hesitantly whenever he said something that might indicate he’d enjoyed himself. Truthfully, he had at times but he felt Johnny would slit his throat for saying so. He hated feeling that way but his brother had come downstairs with that nonexistent expression on his face and he’d known then, it was still a struggle for the younger man to even be in the same room with him.
That Murdoch hadn’t had to demand his presence at the table might be a good sign but Scott didn’t know that. At least, Johnny seemed to be listening when he spoke. He did look better, less … drawn and haunted. Maybe … no, he mentally berated himself. No, he wasn’t going to hold onto hope any longer. All he could really do was live his life and make sure he was available if Johnny ever did decide to cut him a break.
“Well, that’s one less thing to worry about.” Murdoch raised his wine glass in a toasting motion toward his older son. “Now that you’re back, Scott, there’s a problem that needs the attention of both of you.”
Johnny looked up at his father, his eyes narrowed. He said nothing, waited to hear Murdoch’s grand idea before stomping all over it.
“That bridge over the river needs to be checked thoroughly this week. I want each of you to take a small crew and start on opposite sides. Test the support beams, the whole structure. We need to get it done quickly before the mountain rains swell that river. It’s been raining a lot up there from what I heard yesterday.”
“Heard from who?” Johnny asked.
Murdoch turned to his younger son. “Jay McKillen. He came by yesterday morning and told me it’s been very wet up there. It shouldn’t take more than three or four days provided there’s no extensive damage.”
Johnny only nodded. He wasn’t going to balk. At least they’d be working on opposite sides of a bridge that spanned a half mile. He wouldn’t even have to talk to Scott. But, he also hated that bridge. It was too long and, at twenty feet, too high for them to have to maintain. He wasn’t about to point that out, though. He knew it would do him no good because he knew they needed the damned thing. He glanced over at Scott to find him watching him and he scowled just a little. Just enough to tell the man he didn’t like being watched by him.
Scott turned his eyes to his father. “I hope there’s not much damage. That’s a huge project to undertake.”
“So do I. It would be expensive as well but, we have to have it.” Murdoch looked over at Johnny. He knew how the young man felt about that bridge because Johnny had told him about a year ago. He almost smiled. At the time, he’d wondered if Johnny was afraid of heights but he’d since learned Johnny wasn’t afraid of much of anything.
“Well, I’m gonna turn in. Reckon we’ll have to start early tomorrow.” Johnny pushed his chair back and knew his father was frowning at him but he didn’t care. He was tired and spending any more time in Scott’s presence would just make him more tired.
The bridge was twenty feet above the river and six feet wide, used by supply wagons as well as horse, man and cow to traverse this part of the ranch. When the rains came, the river was too swollen to cross the water safely. Johnny still believed there had to be a better way. He’d never felt comfortable on this particular bridge and had always thought it wasn’t built very well. The fact that it had been standing for ten years didn’t sway his opinion. It only told him the thing was old and ready to fall down.
They spent the next four days half a mile or so apart. Anytime Scott ventured out onto the bridge itself, Johnny didn’t. Sometimes, he felt like some stupid kid giving a schoolmate the cold shoulder. Not that he’d had much experience with schools but he knew all about being given the cold shoulder by other kids. It was childish and he decided to stop doing it. They had to talk sometimes, he reckoned. Besides, he needed to know how Scott’s side of the bridge was holding up. He watched his brother walk to near the center so he made his way there.
Scott turned at the sound of boots on boards and was surprised to see who was walking toward him. He steeled himself but tried not to show it. “How’s your side look?”
Johnny didn’t answer until he came to a stop. He leaned over the hand railing and looked down at the now raging river. “It’s fit which is good. Guess those rains didn’t care if we had to fix it or not. Yours?”
Scott kept his head up, looking past Johnny to the other side. “It’s good, too. Just a few planks but we’ve replaced them all just about except this one. Murdoch will be happy.”
Johnny looked down at the plank Scott had tapped with his boot then up at the man and nodded. Then, he noticed Scott looked a little pale. “Somethin wrong?”
“What?” Scott blinked as he found his brother’s eyes.
“You sick or somethin? You’re white as a sheet.”
Scott refrained from the quip that came to mind. He shook his head. “I’m fine. I’m not fond of raging rivers, is all. The sooner this is over the better. I’m sending my crew back. I just need to nail down a few planks over there and replace this one. I don’t need them for that.”
Johnny nodded, a hint of a smirk on his face. “Yeah, I was about to do the same. Just need to pack that post hole down and I’m done.” He turned and walked away without so much as a ‘see ya’.
Scott frowned at his back. At least he talked to me and noticed I was … Damn! Noticed I was afraid, I guess. He sighed and went back to his side of the bridge. He’d never told Johnny about his near-drowning at ten years old. It had never come up but since that time, Scott had a problem with water more than a few feet deep. Oh, he could ride across it fine but as far as trying to swim, he couldn’t. He thought it odd. He’d traversed deep waters on the drive last year but the water had been calm. The river below him now reminded him too much of the unpredictable Atlantic Ocean where he’d nearly died. He supposed it was just the sound of the turbulent water he had a problem with.
Graves Island. It was only ten miles from the harbor. He hadn’t thought that was so very far no matter what Grandfather had said and he’d said plenty. Most importantly, he had forbidden Scott from sailing out alone. But it had been such a short distance and he’d wanted to take out his new sailboat. It was the perfect size for him to handle alone. He’d never understood why Grandfather wouldn’t let him go by himself. Until that day. He’d understood after that day.
It had been such a beautiful day, the sky was blue, no clouds to be seen. The weather had been warm and the water calm. Until he got almost to the island. That’s when everything had changed so dramatically and so quickly. The winds had changed course, buffeting against the small vessel and tossing it about like a tin can. Scott had tried to navigate but in the end, simply hung onto the side until he was tossed out. He’d never forget that feeling of flying through the air before plunging into the shockingly cold water. He’d swallowed a mouthful of the salty water and nearly choked on it.
It seemed to him he was miles from shore but, fortunately, he’d been closer to the island than he’d realized. Another boater had seen him go over and gone out to save him, pulling him to safety. For a short while after, Scott had wished he hadn’t been saved. His grandfather had never been so angry with him. But, it had left him with a fear of unsettled waters he couldn’t seem to conquer. Or, perhaps, had seen no reason to try conquering.
The last of the crew disappeared from sight as Johnny worked on securing the support beam. He was thankful this one was on land. There was no way they could have done anything with the columns in the water now. He’d inspected those the first day. That was before the water got crazy. He smiled a little thinking of Scott’s pale face. Afraid of water? It was strange. He’d never noticed it before. Scott never said anything either. Of course, Scott never said much about his life before Lancer.
He packed the last of the dirt in and looked up at the bridge. Scott was out there pulling up that bad board but Johnny couldn’t tell if he was still pale as a ghost. He climbed up the slight incline to the entrance to the bridge. By now, Scott was on his knees placing the board with his head down. Johnny could just imagine he was trying not to look at the water. It wasn’t really funny, he guessed. Everyone had their demons.
His face fell at that thought. He turned his back to the bridge and his brother then went about cleaning up. He just had the shovel left so he tied it to his saddle bags, glad to have Barranca to ride home on instead of an uncomfortable wagon seat. He’d noticed Scott had brought Remmie, too. For a brief moment, he felt something strangely familiar touch his heart but he shook it off. Too stubborn or, maybe, too raw to let in any good feelings for his brother.
Johnny grabbed the reins and was just about to mount up when he heard a loud crack. He whirled around in time to see Scott fall through the bridge and into the water soundlessly. For the briefest second, Johnny froze then took off running to the water’s edge, unbuckling his gunbelt as he went. He dropped the belt behind him and scrambled down the embankment to plunge into the icy cold water.
His head came up and he sucked in air, shocked by the near freezing temperature. He shook his head to clear the water from his face then looked all around. He fought the current’s rough pull as he swam toward where he’d seen Scott go in. He had no clue if Scott would still be there. The water was raging by now and could easily sweep a man downstream. His brother hadn’t come to the surface and Johnny knew he had precious little time.
Scott felt like he’d hit a brick wall, the impact with the water’s surface was so severe. His leg screamed in protest when it twisted unnaturally as it slammed into the support column. His pain was short-lived as he realized he was deep under the raging, blood-freezing water. He was overtaken with a panic that squeezed his heart nearly to a stop. His lungs were devoid of air and he fought the incredible need to inhale. He couldn’t see a thing. All he could do is feel the terror he was reliving. Not again, his mind screamed. Not again!
He twisted all around but he couldn’t tell where the surface was, couldn’t figure out his own body’s position. Was he upside down? Sideways? He hadn’t a clue and he knew he was about to die. He felt his body bump against what he thought was one of the support beams. He tried to relax, thinking he could follow the beam upward if he could figure out which way was up. He also knew he didn’t have the time. He had to breathe and right now. He was about to open his mouth when he felt hands grab his shirt collar and yank hard.
Instinctively, Scott began to fight. What had him? What dark ocean monster was claiming him as its own? He knew the stories from his friends at school of what lurked in the ocean. Now, he was about to find out for himself. He clawed at the hands clutching him but he was so cold and so weak, he couldn’t free himself.
Suddenly, he broke through the surface and immediately sucked in deeply of the fresh air over and over. He couldn’t seem to fill his lungs with enough of it. Then, he started coughing and that made the breathing harder. And the hands were still there pulling at him. He started fighting again until he heard the coarse voice shouting.
“Stop it, Scott! Stop fighting me! You’re gonna drown us both!”
On hearing his brother’s voice and his words, Scott calmed down. He relaxed into Johnny’s hands then an arm wrapped around his chest from behind.
Johnny looked heavenward for thanks when Scott stopped fighting. “Just float. I’ll get you to shore. Don’t try to help.” He wrapped his left arm tighter around Scott then started swimming to land. Every stroke was exhausting and he felt like he wasn’t getting anywhere. He needed to stop and rest but he couldn’t. They’d both be swept away by the current if he gave in. He could feel the water pulling at his legs, trying to take them both downstream as he kicked for all he was worth.
Finally, Johnny felt the soggy bottom of the riverbank and dropped on his back, Scott nearly laying atop him and staring at the sky.
“I can make it now,” Scott wheezed out.
“Ya think so cause I don’t.”
Johnny let out a harsh breath and raised up with a wince and a grunt. “Do yourself a favor and let me pull you the rest of the way out.”
“Shut up! Just do what I say for once!”
Scott craned his neck back to try and see his brother’s face but Johnny was up again and pulled him completely out of the water. He didn’t stop until he got Scott under a tree and leaned him back against the rough bark. He knelt in front of Scott, blocking his view of everything else but Johnny.
“Look, I’m sorry I yelled but …” he stopped and looked in Scott’s eyes and knew he still didn’t feel it. He would and very soon and Johnny had to tell him first. He sucked it up. “Your leg is broken, Scott. It’s real bad. Understand? Now, I’m gonna go get my bedroll and saddlebags and I’ll be right back, okay?”
Scott only nodded at him blankly. His leg couldn’t be broken. He didn’t feel a thing. How could that be? But, when Johnny stood and walked away, he looked down and his eyes grew wide as silver dollars. He stared in some sort of dazed fascination at the bone sticking through his skin. It was so white. He looked at that skin and frowned. No blood? Why wasn’t he bleeding?
Johnny ran the fifty feet to Barranca, bringing the horse back with him. They’d been pulled downstream a little but he was surprised it wasn’t further. He came back and threw a blanket over Scott then rifled through his saddlebag, producing a shirt and ripping it into strips. His hands were shaking, his whole body was shaking. He was freezing.
“Why isn’t it bleeding?” Scott asked in a raspy voice.
Johnny glanced at him then went back to what he was doing. “You’re too cold. It’ll start again in a minute.” He looked around them. “Be right back.”
Scott kept staring at his leg. He barely acknowledged Johnny’s words before his brother was back with two sticks. “I’m gonna put a bandage and splint on it but there’s no way I’m gonna try and set that.” He worked as quickly as he could knowing that any minute Scott was going to start feeling the pain. As he wrapped the wound, it started oozing blood. It wouldn’t be long before it was flowing more steadily. Johnny tied the splints in place and just as he gave the last good tug, Scott hissed.
His eyes went to Scott’s and he saw the man’s face get even paler if that were possible. Then, Scott turned gray and Johnny moved to him. He pushed Scott over a little to the side away from himself and Scott lost his stomach contents. Johnny rubbed his back until he finished then set him back straight. He offered his canteen and Scott rinsed his mouth before taking a small sip and grimacing as it hit his fragile stomach.
While he was doing this, Johnny started examining him for any other injuries but he found none. “Okay, that’s all, I think. I’m gonna ride to the ranch and get help.”
Scott grabbed his arm in a surprisingly vise-like grip. “No, Johnny. Don’t leave me here alone, please.”
His ears buzzed and his head swam. Johnny blinked a few times and shook his head. “What?” It was but a whisper.
“Don’t leave me here alone. Just get Remmie. I can ride back.”
“No, Scott, you can’t. Your leg…”
“I can. I know I can make it. Just help me a little.”
Johnny sat back on his haunches and stared at the man, dumbstruck. “Why? You’re safe here.”
“No, I … this isn’t the first time I almost drowned. Please just get me away from the water.”
“The water ain’t gonna hurt you now, Scott. You’re plenty far enough away. Look, I can get help in no time. Be back before you know it.”
Scott grabbed his shirt and bunched it in his fist. “No! Don’t leave me!”
Johnny dropped his head and closed his eyes. He couldn’t believe he was hearing this. After a few seconds, he looked back at Scott. They couldn’t waste time arguing here. “Let me get my rifle.”
Scott nodded and let him go but watched him as he went to Barranca.
Johnny pulled the rifle and squeezed off three shots in the air then walked back to him and handed the Winchester over. “Hang onto this. I’m goin to get Remmie. It’s gonna take me a few minutes.” A few minutes! He’d have to ride downstream at least two miles to cross safely now and Remmie didn’t exactly come when called. Still, he had a feeling he was going to need the horse.
“Okay. I’ll be right here waiting.”
He frowned. “Yeah, I know. Ain’t like you can go anywhere.”
Scott closed his eyes, the pain had started a few minutes earlier and it was growing with each passing second, each beat of his heart. He knew the bleeding was getting worse, too. He was getting more dizzy and weak. He thought he was going to die and he didn’t want to die alone. He wanted his brother by his side no matter the circumstances. He needed his brother beside him.
His head jerked and he looked all around, disoriented for a moment until his leg started screaming. Scott winced in pain, then remembered. He searched as much of the area as he could but he didn’t see Johnny. Did he leave me here? His eyes fell on Barranca and Remmie and he sighed his relief. Then, he jerked as he heard three shots.
Johnny appeared from behind the tree after a moment, planks of wood cradled in his arms. He dropped them and started mumbling to himself. “Murdoch’s gonna have my head for this. Probably disown me for bein so damned stupid. House is an hour away. The hands probably can’t hear the rifle now. Probably sitting around the bunkhouse waitin for supper.”
Scott listened and watched as Johnny laid his supplies out then cut lengths from his rope. He pulled a hammer and nails out of Scott’s saddlebag and started piecing his contraption together all the while muttering about Murdoch and losing his hide.
Scott cleared his throat. “What are you doing?”
“Building a litter. Can’t stay here forever. Nobody’s gonna hear the gunfire.” He looked right at Scott. “I hafta get your sorry ass home somehow.” He went back to his work with diligence and Scott smiled a little through the pain.
Johnny shook his head. “Why? That’s what I want to know. The water ain’t a threat now. Why are you bein so stubborn?”
Scott opened his eyes half way. “Truth? I don’t want to die alone.”
Johnny stopped and looked up at him slowly. “You ain’t gonna die at all.”
Scott didn’t argue. He couldn’t even keep his eyes open any longer. He sighed out and his head dropped a little.
Johnny reached out and felt the pulse in his neck then went back to what he was doing. His mind was whirling faster than that damned water. He couldn’t believe Scott had asked him not to leave. He couldn’t believe he was staying. Any sane person would get on a horse and go get help. Johnny figured sane never much described him and lately, it was a real belly laugh to be compared to anything sane in this world anymore.
He assembled his carrier with the two blankets from Scott’s bedroll stretched between the frame, using the ropes, wood and nails to hold it in place. It wasn’t the best looking thing in the world but, he hoped it would hold. He secured rope to each of the four ‘handles’ then brought the horses closer.
Scott frowned then groaned as he felt the pain in his leg. He was being moved and he couldn’t quite figure out what was happening. Slowly, he opened his eyes and they grew wide quickly. Barranca was staring right at him, standing there at his feet with those big, brown and completely alert eyes. A soft snort emitted from the beast then Scott saw a glimpse of his brother from his periphery.
“Johnny.” His voice was raspy, barely more than a whisper and he tried to swallow.
“Here.” Johnny put a canteen to Scott’s mouth and held his head up.
“Thanks. What’s Barranca doing?”
Johnny sat back on his heels and recapped the canteen. “Nothin at the moment. As soon as I’m ready, though, he’s gonna hold your legs up while I get you home.”
Scott had to take a moment to think about that then he shook his head. “What?”
“Well, I’m ridin Remmie cause I don’t trust him. Got you hitched up to him and Barranca here will keep your legs from draggin on the ground.”
Scott raised his head as much as he could and saw the litter Johnny had constructed. “I’ve seen this before in the army.”
Johnny stood up and walked to his horse, patted him on the neck then looked down at Scott. “Yeah? Well, I wouldn’t know about that. It’s the only way to get you home without tearin your leg off.”
Scott thought about it, knew it was the best option and nodded.
“Just hang on cause it might be a rough ride.” He reached down and checked his knots again before lifting the end of the litter off the ground and securing the ropes in his stirrups. “Keep a steady gait, Barranca. Comprende?”
The horse snorted but kept his head still, his eyes locked on Johnny’s as the man spoke to him. “Good boy. Te amo, amigo.”
Scott closed his eyes and tried to prepare himself. He could hear Johnny whispering to his horse but he couldn’t hear the words. It didn’t matter as long as Barranca was able to match his gait to Remmie’s. If that rope slipped or the horse strayed, Scott couldn’t imagine the agony. He shuddered a little.
Johnny watched Scott from his periphery and shook his head slightly. Well, he can walk home, he thought. It was bad enough having to do this but his hands were numb from the cold. For that matter, he felt it deep in his bones and he ached all over. They could have both been home by now if Scott had just let him go. He couldn’t even begin to think about that right now. He started past his brother and simply said, “we’re goin,” then mounted Remmie.
Scott’s head was slightly lower than his feet and it occurred to him that was a good thing. Had Johnny realized this would be the result? Had he raised his stirrups for that very purpose? He could have made Scott’s head higher so his body would be more level but it was better to have that leg elevated. He was pleasantly surprised as he swung slightly back and forth with the sway of the horses’ easy gaits. He looked at Barranca and smiled but the horse didn’t seem to see him. Barranca had his eyes down like he was in deep thought. Scott smiled again.
He thought about trying to look behind him at the direction they were going but quickly decided that wasn’t a great idea. He’d probably throw himself right out of this sling. He had to admit it was a fairly comfortable ride considering he had a bone sticking out of his leg. He grimaced at the idea, the sight he’d beheld, and his stomach churned a little. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead and the nausea got worse. He thought to call out to Johnny but figured he’d throw up if he tried. So, he swallowed hard and focused all his thoughts on keeping his stomach from rebelling.
Just when he didn’t think he could hold out any longer, they stopped. Scott sighed in relief at the break. When he opened his eyes he realized it wasn’t a break. They were home. Very soon, he heard a lot of commotion and Murdoch’s voice loud above the rest. Then, he heard his brother’s voice break through as well. He raised a hand to try and draw their attention. He didn’t want Murdoch taking Johnny to task for what was his fault. It wasn’t working. He could still hear their voices so he tried a different approach.
Clearing his throat, he spoke as loud as he could. “Barranca, help me out here, boy. Make some noise.”
The horse didn’t move for a few seconds then he raised his head and released a loud whinny. Scott smiled and hoped the sound would break through the argument going on somewhere behind him.
Johnny hadn’t even dismounted when half a dozen men appeared from the bunkhouse. Immediately, he sent someone for the doctor and immediately following that, he heard the thunder of Murdoch’s voice. Cringing a little and wincing at the ache in his whole body, he turned to watch the man stride across the yard.
“What the devil happened?”
“Scott fell off the bridge and broke his leg. It’s pretty …”
“What?! Well, why didn’t you come get help instead of dragging him all this way?”
Johnny jutted his chin out. “I didn’t drag him. He didn’t want me to leave him so this is what I came up with.”
Murdoch stared at him in shock. “Didn’t want you to leave him? It’s less than an hour ride! He could’ve died, Johnny!”
“I know that! He knows that!” His father didn’t seem to hear him, though.
“Are you still that angry with him that you’d risk his life! What’s the matter with you?!”
Johnny took a step back at the assault then lowered his voice. “I did what he asked me to do, old man.”
Murdoch opened his mouth again then they both turned as Barranca seemed to be shouting at them to shut up. Murdoch pulled a face and walked over to his injured son. He knelt beside the sling and took the rig in, surprised and impressed.
Scott glared at him for a second, it was all the longer he could hold the expression. “Stop yelling at Johnny. He did what I wanted. I’d like to get inside now, though.”
Murdoch stared at him for a split second. “Walt, Hank, lend a hand!”
“It’s a bad break. Be real careful with his left leg.”
Murdoch looked up to find the face that went with that soft voice staring down at them both. Johnny looked him in the eye, daring him silently to start up again. He didn’t. Instead, he helped the men carry Scott inside.
Johnny went to Barranca and gave him a big hug. “Gracias, amigo. You did so good. I’m very proud of you, Barranca. Now, come on. You deserve to be coddled a little, too.” He felt someone beside him and turned to find Frank there. Slightly embarrassed, Johnny lowered his head as Barranca nuzzled him.
“I’d be honored to tend him and Remmie, Johnny. I never seen anything like that. I’ll make sure they get the best we got.”
He considered it for a second then nodded and handed the reins over. “Thanks, Frank.” Turning to his friend, he whispered in the horse’s ear. “I’ll be in to see you later. Gotta let Murdoch yell at me some more.”
He watched Frank lead the palomino and chestnut to the barn then sighed and headed inside. He made it to the veranda tiles before he stumbled and nearly fell to his knees. Leaning against a column, Johnny waited for the dizziness to ease up then went inside. His head felt like it was going to explode, the pounding was so fierce and he figured he’d probably caught a cold out there. Damn that Scott!
Johnny stumbled to the sofa and fell onto it, stretching his legs out and sighing tiredly. He thought to make a fire but he didn’t think he could make it the hearth. He closed his eyes and waited for Sam to get there. Waited to hear exactly how much damage he’d caused by staying with Scott.
There had to be backlash. He’d known that from the start. Murdoch was going to skin him alive and what else could he say? That Scott had asked it of him wasn’t gonna wash with the old man. It wouldn’t have with him, either, he reckoned. Was there any difference between what just happened and what Scott had done two months before?
His brows knitted together as he thought about that. Both times, one of their lives was in danger. Johnny knew Scott could get an infection in that leg, maybe even lose it or die from that infection. It would be a bit of a miracle if it wasn’t infected.
And his life had definitely been in danger in that shack. Only, Scott hadn’t acknowledged that. He opened his eyes and leaned forward. That wasn’t true. Scott had known which is why he’d gone for a doctor instead of staying as Johnny had begged. It still turned his stomach to think about begging his brother and being completely ignored.
If he were a petty man, he would have ignored Scott today and rode out, gotten help and gotten his brother home a lot faster. But was it pettiness or common sense? There was no other danger lurking around Scott. He realized it hadn’t mattered if it was the sensible thing to do. Even if what had happened to him had never happened, he would have stayed with Scott. Â
How had things gotten so out of hand? He couldn’t deal with this anymore. He was just so tired and his whole body ached. He pulled himself up and went to his room where he dried off and fell into bed.
Sam tossed the towel on the dresser and rolled his sleeves back down. He glanced in the mirror and saw Murdoch standing near a wall, arms crossed and waiting for him. “That was a bad break. I can’t say for certain it will heal right. He may end up with a limp.”
The doctor turned at the clipped, angry tone. “I scrubbed it with carbolic acid but that’s no guarantee. All we can do is wait. He’ll be in bed for a few weeks. I don’t want any pressure at all put on that leg. Once the wound has healed, I’ll cast it.”
Still with a stern frown, Murdoch nodded crisply. “Did delaying treatment make it worse?”
Sam hesitated and considered the question. “It could have if an infection sets in. The sooner I could have gotten to it the better. Then again, Murdoch, I can’t say it would have mattered had I been right there when it happened. Scott was in the water and all that debris and mud rushing over that wound was bound to have some effect.”
Â “Johnny should have gone for help straight away.”
“I can’t disagree with that. Why didn’t he?”
Murdoch sighed with exasperation and relaxed his arms to his sides. “He said Scott asked him not to leave him alone. Scott said the same thing and that I wasn’t to blame Johnny.”
Sam quirked a brow at that. He could easily guess how that request had sent Johnny spinning. “But, you do blame Johnny.”
“Who else am I supposed to blame? His brother could have died while he built that sling or, whatever it was! It had to have taken at least an hour to get Scott ready. What was he thinking?”
He knew, of course, what Johnny was thinking. At least, he hoped he did. Johnny would never put his brother in danger simply for some sort of revenge. He knew that about the young man. “Maybe you shouldn’t blame anyone, Murdoch. It was an accident.”
“Yes, it was an accident and any rational person would have gone for help immediately. Johnny hasn’t been rational for weeks!” Murdoch raised a hand to stay the doctor. “I know, I know. He went through *something*. That doesn’t mean he has the right to put his brother’s life on the line.”
“I’m sure that was not his intention. You know Johnny well enough to know he would never do such a thing. He made the wrong choice as far as Scott’s health is concerned but, as long as Scott was thinking clearly, this was his decision to make.”
“How could he be thinking clearly? He had to have been in shock after almost drowning then seeing that bone sticking out of his leg!”
Sam sighed tiredly and rubbed a hand down his face. “People react differently in any given situation. You’ll have to ask Scott about that. But …”
“Don’t, Sam. Don’t tell me to leave Johnny alone this time. I can’t do that. This has to be explained.” He turned and walked out the door before Sam could utter another word.
Johnny bolted upright in bed as the door slammed against the wall. His hand went immediately to his bedpost then froze in midair when he heard the voice.
“It’s me, John.”
He relaxed just a little then turned over and looked at his father standing in the middle of the room looking ready to take his head off. Johnny swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up. “How is he?”
“Do you care?”
He sighed and lowered his head, shaking it slowly.
Murdoch grimaced a little at his own callous remark but his anger didn’t abate. “Sam had to operate to set the bone and he’s going to be in bed for a few weeks at least. We don’t know yet if there’s infection. We’ll just have to wait and see. The bone may not heal properly. Now, tell me exactly what happened.”
Johnny looked up slowly and nodded. “We sent our crews home. We both just had a little left to do. Scott was replacing a plank in the middle of the bridge. I was about to leave when I heard a loud cracking noise. I turned and saw him fall through the bridge into the water and I went in after him. The current was pretty strong but he was caught up against a support column. I guess that’s good, otherwise I might never have found him. I pulled him out and bandaged his leg then put a splint on it. I told him I was goin for help but he told me not to leave him.”
“So, you just stayed.”
“I tried to tell him it was a bad idea but, he was pleading with me. He said he was afraid and didn’t want to die alone. I told him he wasn’t gonna die but he thought he would. I … I couldn’t leave him, Murdoch. I just couldn’t. I know it was wrong.” He lowered his head and waited.
Murdoch stared at him and tried to imagine the scene in his head. He could easily see what had happened and he supposed he could understand to a degree. “Yes, it was wrong, Johnny. We can only hope you didn’t do permanent damage to your brother.” He hesitated a second before continuing. “I only wish you could tell me what happened between the two of you before as easily as you’ve told me this.”
Johnny closed his eyes for a second before looking back up at his father. “It was worse than this if that helps you any.” He straightened his shoulders and tried to explain his position better. “I know I should’ve gone. It ain’t like it woulda bothered me if he was mad at me. But, that wasn’t it, Murdoch. It was his voice, his eyes. He was scared. Really scared. How could I leave him alone like that?”
“By thinking that being scared is a hell of a lot better than being dead.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed and his face grew red with anger. “Guess that depends on what you’re scared of!”
Murdoch’s mouth tightened but he didn’t know what to say to that.
Shaking his head in some awe, Johnny spoke in a husky voice. “Is it that easy? You were all set that whatever Scott had done to me I should be able to forgive. That he’d just made a mistake. Well, I made a mistake, too. So, what’s the difference?”
“I don’t know, Johnny. I don’t know what Scott did.”
Sam cleared his throat to gain their attention as he stood in the doorway and listened unabashed. Both men turned to him. One with relief, one with anger for being interrupted.
“How are you feeling, Johnny?”
“Just tired and cold, Sam.” He shot a look at his father. “Thanks for askin.”
The doctor frowned then walked to the bed and put a hand on Johnny’s forehead. “You’re a little warm. You should be resting now. Talking can wait a while. It won’t change what’s happened anyway.”
Murdoch took a deep breath and let it out slowly, calming himself a fraction. He should be ashamed. He hadn’t asked Johnny if he was alright. He’d been so angry. “I’ll check on you in a while, John. I’m going to sit with Scott.”
Johnny didn’t say anything until his father walked out, closing the door behind him. “Thanks for the save, Sam. Seems you’re always saving me.”
“Seems that way. Alright, in bed now.” Sam pulled the covers back and looked expectantly at the young man.
Lying back down, Johnny sighed with the relief. He felt like he’d been beaten by ten men. “I messed up, didn’t I, Sam?”
The doctor sat on the edge of the bed and patted his knee. “I’m afraid you did, Johnny. Was Scott lucid?”
He looked at the man and frowned. “Seemed to be makin sense. Well, not right at first but after a few minutes. He needed a little time after seein his leg.”
“And he asked you to stay with him even after seeing that?”
“Yeah, especially after seein it. He said he didn’t want to die alone. What was I supposed to do with that?”
Sam shrugged. “I wasn’t there so, I can’t say. It must have been difficult for you.”
“Yeah, felt like somebody gutshot me. My ears started buzzin, ya know? I mean, I couldn’t believe what I was hearin.” He lowered his eyes and fiddled with the blanket hem. “Truth? I almost did leave right then just to get away and think. I mean, it’s just crazy, ain’t it?”
“It’s ironic as hell. You made the choice to stay with Scott and he made the choice to leave you. Neither of you were right but, I don’t think either of you were wrong, either.”
“I don’t know anymore. All I know is I was wrong to stay with him. There wasn’t anything out there that could’ve hurt him more. Can’t say that about my situation. But,” he sighed heavily and swallowed, “I’ve been thinkin and it wouldn’t have made any difference if Scott had stayed. They woulda had us both then. That was their plan and they would’ve gotten Scott when he came back. Only, they didn’t realize somethin.”
“What’s that?” Sam asked, his heart rate increasing as he listened to what he knew was a kind of breakthrough.
Johnny looked him square in the eye. “They underestimated Scott. They didn’t know what he was capable of. Matter of fact, I couldn’t have done it better myself.”
Sam nodded and smiled a little. “And now that you see Scott staying wouldn’t have made a difference, does it change your mind about him at all?”
He shook his head and frowned. “Part of me is glad he didn’t have to go through that. Part of me knows if he had stayed, we’d both be dead right now and probably still the entertainment of choice for those sick bastards. But, Sam, there’s still a part that can’t get past how Scott treated me. How he ignored me and turned his back. So, where does that leave me?”
“I don’t know, Johnny. Only you can answer that. What I think is, you’re coming to terms with everything that happened. It’s going to take some time. You’re still going to have a lot of doubt and anger and, even sadness at times. Right this minute what you need is a lot of rest. Stay warm and sleep and maybe, if you’re very lucky, you won’t get pneumonia.”
Johnny was very lucky. He didn’t get pneumonia. He was tired and sore for a few days but he got better. Murdoch hadn’t climbed down his throat again and he was moving around pretty well. It was the third day after the accident and Scott had shown no signs of infection in his leg. Johnny knew the hour was at hand that he’d have to face his brother. Sam had come out that morning and said Scott was doing better and could tolerate a conversation as long as Johnny didn’t get him worked up.
He’d promised not to and promised himself if he found that he couldn’t keep his word, he’d leave the room quickly. He knocked and waited for a response. Murdoch opened the door and Johnny almost turned and walked away. His father stepped aside for him to enter and he did so, haltingly.
His first sight of Scott made him feel a little better. He was sitting up in bed and was wide awake. He found his throat was closing up and that just ticked him off. He walked slowly around the room and worked on reining himself in. Finally, he faced his brother from the foot of the bed. His eyes first going to the broken leg, the splint detectable under the blankets, before settling on Scott’s face. “How’s it feelin?”
Scott had watched his progress around the room, seeing more tension than he cared for in his brother’s movements . “It’s very sore.”
Johnny nodded then glanced at Murdoch. Scott took the hint and looked at their father as well, and with expectation. The older man frowned but left them alone against his better judgment.
Scott shifted a little, biting his lower lip to silence the sounds of pain. “I’ve been thinking about what happened at the bridge and about … what happened to you. I understand now. I mean, I thought I did before but now, I really understand what you were trying to tell me, Johnny. I want to thank you for staying with me. I told Murdoch I was perfectly sound of mind when I asked and it wasn’t your fault.”
Johnny looked at him blankly for a moment then, the shield cracked just a little. “I’ve been thinkin about some things, too. If you hadn’t left me, we’d both be dead and wishin for it long before it came. So, I guess it’s a good thing you did go for help. But, the thing that bothers me is the way you treated me, Scott. That’s always been the biggest problem for me.”
“I should have taken you out of there when you asked me. I wish to God, I had. I’d given anything to change what happened. But, that isn’t what you want to hear, is it?”
“No, it ain’t.”
Scot sighed and rested his head on the mound of pillows behind him. He winced a little then pushed the pain aside. “I told you before I thought you were just trying to get your own way. Had I taken a minute to really listen to you, I would have understood. I was angry with you, unreasonable as it is, for getting shot. You didn’t do anything wrong and certainly didn’t deserve it. Maybe … maybe I did feel put upon. It’s no excuse. You couldn’t help what happened. I guess I was just angry with the whole situation. Sometimes, it seems like we can’t do anything together without one of us getting into some sort of trouble.”
Johnny nodded and was quiet for a while. “Seems that way, don’t it? I mean, this is a perfect example. Even when we’re fightin, we still find trouble. Maybe that’s why it’s best if we just steer clear of each other from now on.”
Scott lowered his eyes and swallowed at the painful lump in his throat. “That’s not what I want, Johnny. Spending time with you has always been enjoyable for me. Well, almost always. I had no idea how having a brother would change my life, make it better, change the way I look at the world.”
“I can’t do it, Scott. See, it doesn’t matter if it was a good thing that you left. It doesn’t even matter what they did to me as much as the fact that you didn’t trust what I was saying to you. And, I can’t trust that you’ll ever believe me about anything again. Without that, we got nothin.”
“Just two strangers on a stagecoach,” Scott mumbled.
“I reckon so. As different as night and day then and now.”
Scott looked up at him sadly. “You’re still my brother and I still love you. No matter what happens between us from here on out, I *will* do anything in my power to help you if you’re in trouble.”
Johnny sighed slowly. “I’ll help you out, too, if you need it but that’s all I can promise right now.” He looked down at his boots and rested his hands on the footboard of Scott’s bed. He frowned deeply and shook his head. “Ya know, I’ve spent most of my life not trusting too many people. There’s really only one man I’ve trusted since almost the moment I met him. It’s not easy for me to let people in and I know you’re the same way. Maybe … maybe I expected too much from you.”
“No, you expected only what any man would expect from his blood kin. I know, I know. We didn’t know each other but, still, there’s an expectation there, I think. I know I expected to be able to trust you and I do.” Scott stopped for a moment and thought. “I made a mistake. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d stayed with you. I might have been able to stop them and I might not have. We’ll never know. I was angry and I didn’t want to hear you and for that, I apologize deeply. But, I think if things hadn’t gone so horribly wrong, you might have been able to forgive me.”
Johnny looked up at him, an odd expression on his face that lingered for several seconds. He turned away and walked to the window, leaned against the wall nearby and looked out at nothing. He thought about what Scott just said and wondered if he wasn’t right. People get mad and they say and do things they wouldn’t normally do. Could he really separate everything like that and try to see this from a different point of view? It wasn’t as if Scott had raped him.
Johnny’s stomach cramped with that thought and he broke out in a cold sweat, nausea rising into his throat. He leaned more heavily against the wall and clenched his fists. He pressed his forehead into the right fist resting against that wall.
Scott watched his brother turn ghostly white and saw the other physical signs of his torment. He leaned forward, shifting his leg and grunting. “Johnny, are you alright? Johnny!”
He opened his eyes and blinked then ran a shaking hand down his face. Johnny turned his head fractionally and nodded ever so slightly to indicate he’d heard. In a raw whisper, he spoke. “Give me a minute.”
Scott stayed himself then leaned slowly back against his pillows, his eyes never leaving Johnny. Slowly, the color started to return to the younger man’s face but he wasn’t convinced at all his brother was okay.
Johnny took slow, deep breaths and wondered at what had just happened but, he knew. He’d never let that word come into his mind, never uttered it before. That’s what it was – rape. But, for some reason, he just never thought of it that way. Women were raped. He felt panic rear up inside him, felt the same feelings he’d had right after the attack trying to surge forth again and he fought hard to quell it all. He had to get out of this room.
He pulled himself straight and turned toward the door. “I need to go. Iâ€™ll be back later.”
“Are you sure you’re alright? You don’t look too good, boy.”
He made it to the door, staggered a little as he reached for the knob and pulled at it, then hesitated. “I need to lay down for a while is all. I’ll be back, Scott.”
Scott watched his brother leave the room rather shakily. He had no idea what had just happened. It couldn’t have been what he’d said. Johnny must have started thinking about the attack again. He sighed and wished his brother would talk to Murdoch. Scott knew, even if Johnny didn’t believe it, that Murdoch would never think less of him for this. He also knew their father may not handle things just right and Johnny needed to be handled with kid gloves. As much as Scott understood his father cared for them both, Murdoch wasn’t the most subtle man in the world. He consoled himself with the knowledge that Sam would be there for Johnny while he wished fervently his brother would let him offer comfort as well.
Johnny leaned against the wall in the hallway next to his bedroom door and told himself he was not going to throw up. After several seconds, he pulled himself together and made it inside his room. He walked straight to the bed and fell into it, grabbing the edge of the quilt and throwing it over himself.
Deal with it, Lancer. Just deal with it for once and for all! Why had this happened to him? Why him!? Dammit! He didn’t deserve this. Nobody deserved this! He remembered they’d said something about a pansy or something. Talked like this wasn’t the first time they’d done this. Had they killed the others? He had to wonder how many there had been. He heard the gunfire in his mind and it was the only thing that gave him any cold satisfaction – any feeling of justice – about the whole damned thing. They were dead and they’d known extreme pain before they died.
Hell, if nothing else, he really should thank his brother for killing those bastards. His only regret with that was he hadn’t gotten to pull the trigger himself. Brothers. As sick as the whole thing was, that just made it all the worse. Were they brought up like that? Had their parents taught them to do this or was it living out there in the middle of nowhere? And why the hell was he even wondering? He couldn’t care less why they were so sick and twisted.
He suddenly remembered Scott saying he wished he’d burned the place to the ground. Johnny was all for that. All for destroying any sign they had ever existed in this world. He’d never been a particularly vengeful man but this – he could come up with all sorts of punishment for those two.
He sat up and wiped his face, a little surprised when his hand came back wet. Great! Thought I was past all that. Talking to Scott had brought it back, he knew. Would he ever be able to talk to his brother again without thinking about this? How the hell could he get over it? He thought he’d been doing so well. Sam said so.
Sam. His words came back then. His warning. Things would creep up on him. Yeah, they sure did! He wished he could wipe the memories away forever but, he’d tried doing that with other events in his life and it never really worked. They just faded in time. He prayed this would, too. He scrubbed his face and let out a low, primal growl. This has to end and right now!
Sitting up on the side of the bed, Johnny focused his mind on Scott and the words he’d said. If he hadn’t been attacked, would he have been able to forgive Scott’s actions? In his heart, he knew the answer was yes. Before all this had happened, Johnny thought he’d be able to forgive his brother anything.
What had Scott really done? Escaped hell, for one. Johnny would always be eternally grateful for that no matter what happened now. Scott had lost his temper, had a little fit and stormed out on him. He almost smiled thinking of how many times he’d done that himself. Only, it was always with Murdoch. And he always came back and sometimes he’d apologize if he thought it was warranted. Sometimes, he wouldn’t and they pretty much acted like whatever caused the argument had never happened at all. Â
Of course, he couldn’t do that in this situation but the question he had to answer was, could he forgive his brother?
Scott set the glass on the small table next to his chair on the veranda and watched the work crews straggle home. Five here, ten there, twenty on this crew. He figured he’d be stark raving mad before his leg healed and he could do something besides sit and count how many men were in each crew.
It had been almost two weeks since his talk with Johnny and, though his brother had returned to his room as promised, Johnny hadn’t said anything of significance. He had told Scott he needed a little time to work some things out in his head but that was all. Every day, Scott waited to see if that had happened.
He’d been doing some thinking of his own, as well. He would never forgive himself for his behavior but he had come to terms with the rest – for the most part. The pain his brother had endured as well as the humiliation would always be with him in some fashion. He’d been able to take that out of the equation now that he knew it wouldn’t have mattered if he was there or not. Scott knew he hadn’t distrusted the Suffolk brothers but he’d always wonder if he would have seen what Johnny saw in them at some point. Regardless, he was certain it would have been too late.
Had he not intended on leaving for town that next morning, he knew neither he nor Johnny would be in any condition to do a thing come sunrise. For whatever reason, they had allowed him to leave and he supposed they would have been lying in wait on his return. Maybe they had been but figured he’d just walk on in the door and they’d have him. Something had changed that plan though, because neither of them had been prepared for his return. He shook his head. He hadn’t thought about it before and he didn’t suppose it really mattered now. Maybe they were just too damned stupid to think anyone could get the drop on them. He really didn’t care at this point.
What mattered now was if Johnny could work it out for himself. If he could forgive Scott’s behavior at some point. He knew very well things would never be the same between them again, but his hope was they could come to an understanding. At least, be friends again. Scott figured he would be witness to a miracle if Johnny could ever trust in him again.
His head jerked up as his eyes sought out the young man whose laughter he’d just heard set his heart beating a little faster. It had to be the sweetest sound in the world to Scott right then. Johnny’s pure, joyful and unencumbered laugh. He saw him near the corral with a hand and watched the smile grow wider on his brother’s face. Johnny punched the cowboy on the arm then walked toward the house. Scott felt a small smile on his own face.
Johnny slowed his gait as he saw Scott sitting on the veranda, his leg resting on mounds of pillows in a chair set in front of him. He walked over, still with a slight smile. “How’s the leg?”
“Well, I haven’t a clue. It hurts but Sam said it would for quite a while.”
“Gonna get blisters from sittin so much.”
Scott laughed a little at that. “I know. It looks like you had a good day.”
Johnny walked around him, careful not to bump his leg and sat in the chair next to Scott with a tired sigh. “Yeah, it was pretty good. Where’s Murdoch?”
“Where he always is.” Scott waved a hand toward the great room.
Johnny turned round in his seat to see his father at his desk. “It’s a wonder he ain’t gone blind by now. He’s always readin or writin something. He should get out in the fresh air more.”
Scott cocked a brow. “Maybe you should suggest that to him.”
“I don’t think he’s too interested in what I have to say these days.” Johnny’s face fell and he looked out over the yard.
Scott didn’t know what to say to that. All he knew was, it made him angry to think Murdoch still blamed Johnny over his leg. He’d explained that to the old man but, apparently, Murdoch wasn’t convinced. “Is he still giving you a hard time?”
“Nope. Just don’t have much to say, is all.”
Biting his lip, Scott decided not to suggest what came to his mind; telling Murdoch what Johnny had been through. “I’ll talk to him if you like – again. Seems his hearing isn’t what it may once have been.”
Johnny snorted softly at that. “You ain’t figured it out yet? Don’t make no difference what you say to the old man. Once he makes up his mind how things are, that’s how they are. Stubborn old mule.”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
“Right or wrong, that’s how it is. Anyways, you need some help or did you want to stay out here a while?”
Scott’s eyes widened a little as he looked at his brother. He swallowed hard. “No, I, um, I think I’ll stay out here. I haven’t been out long but, thanks for the offer.”
Johnny nodded and kept his eyes on his brother’s. “Fresh air will do you good, too, I reckon.” His face relaxed a little more as he leaned forward in his chair and rested his forearms on his thighs, his head bowed. “Ya know, I did what you said. Took everything else out of what happened. It wasn’t easy and it took me a while to get there. The thing is, you asked if I could have forgiven you for treating me that way if nothing else had happened. Well, yeah, I could have.” He looked back up at Scott. “I just ain’t there right now and I don’t know how long it’ll take.”
Scott’s heart was in his throat and he found his chest was tight but he managed to speak. “I’ll wait for you then.”
Johnny nodded and stood up, turning to look through the French doors at his father. “Guess we’ll both wait as long as it takes.” With that, he made his way to the front door.
Scott leaned back and closed his eyes, feeling the stinging there and not caring about that. Hope had just been handed to him and he found himself remembering what he seemed to have forgotten. His brother was a remarkable young man.
SIX MONTHS LATER:
Johnny tossed the match just inside the doorway of the cabin then walked into the yard, turning back to watch as the structure ignited quickly. The flames, ravenous and intent, consumed the building within minutes. While the full effect was in play, he mounted Barranca and reined the horse in as it nervously pranced before the fire.
Scott lit the barn then mounted Remmie, walking the animal further away from both buildings and coming up alongside his brother. Scott had watched Johnny’s face closely the entire time. Since they’d first arrived, first opened that door, first stepped over the threshold. It didn’t take a genius to know Johnny would take this hard but, the few seconds of terror Scott had seen on that face sucked the breath from his lungs. Then, Johnny had closed off – Madrid came to the fore and went about his business.
They’d both drenched the inside of the building with kerosene then splashed it along the outside walls of the barn, knowing the straw inside would to do the rest for that structure. And so they sat their saddles and watched the last vestiges of Johnny’s worst nightmare collapse into itself then disintegrate into nothing but ash.
Johnny’s eyes focused past the smoke to the covered old well he could now detect. That was their tomb. Their final resting place and it was fitting they be thrown away like so much garbage, left to rot together, meld into one stinking corpse, indistinguishable and unrecognizable. Nothing would ever satisfy him about this whole mess but, that was as close as he was going to get and he’d found a way to accept it.
He’d found a way to accept his brother as well. After many painful talks and more painful silences, he’d been able to get past his shame and horror well enough to get on with his life. To say he was in a place where he could trust Scott might be pushing things but, he wasn’t as sure now that it would never happen. His brother had committed murder for him in the eyes of the law. Johnny found that act very hard to accept from this man of principle. He’d tried to talk to Scott about it but the older sibling wasn’t willing to discuss it at any length. He’d simply said he did what he had to do and didn’t regret it.
Johnny believed that part. The not regretting it part. For he knew, had the tables been turned, he sure wouldn’t regret it. Then again, his life was such that he was able to accept these things more easily than he thought Scott could as an officer and a gentleman. He wouldn’t push it again but had left the door open to his brother should he ever feel the need to talk it out.
The smoke and embers were all that was left now. Through it all, neither of them had spoken a word. Johnny lowered his head and stared at his hands resting on the saddle horn then raised those hands and reined Barranca around, turning his back to the destruction.
Scott watched the embers a moment longer then backed Remmie up so he was alongside Johnny. “Ready?”
“More than.” Johnny looked into his brother’s eyes and offered a small smile. “It’s over and done now. Time to move on.”
Scott nodded, knowing Johnny’s words were not as innocuous as they may sound to an outsider. He smiled a little as he turned his back on the past and pressed Remmie to match Barranca’s gait. Within a minute, both horses were galloping full out toward home. Scott kept a nose behind his brother, ready for whatever may happen. He didn’t know that anything *would* happen but Johnny’s facade would surely slip. He knew his brother was doing much better but he also knew there would be times when he wasn’t so good. All he could do was be there as much as Johnny would allow.
For his part, Scott knew he’d been the lucky one. His now healed leg had set well and, even though sometimes he felt an ache when the weather changed, he had no limp. His nose was straight again, he thought with a slight smile that faded quickly. It was little enough to deal with considering. And Johnny’s vigilance in trying to get him to talk about the killings had lessened for which he was grateful. Scott had worried about his own blase attitude toward what he’d done but he wasn’t dwelling on it. Today, he’d buried any shimmer of guilt or remorse that may have arose. He could honestly say, however, those emotions had never come up.
As for their father, well … Murdoch had stopped grousing at everyone some time ago. He’d accepted the things he couldn’t change and that Johnny hadn’t confided in him. Scott now knew, his brother would never tell their father about what happened and he wasn’t so sure he blamed Johnny. Aside from Murdoch’s initial reaction which had always worried Scott, he knew Johnny felt it was unfair to burden their father with this pain. It was enough burden for the two of them.
He pressed his legs to Remmie’s sides as Johnny started to pull away. His eyes were on his brother’s back and when Johnny turned, he saw a smile on the younger man’s face. And he saw the challenge there, as well. Scott grinned and leaned low over Remmie’s neck in acceptance of that challenge. Â
TWO MONTHS AFTER THAT:
Johnny rode into Merced where he wasn’t well-known and found a brothel. He stood in the foyer, his hat in his hands as a beautiful red-head walked down the stairs before him. Her pale green eyes raked him over and he felt his muscles bunch in his shoulders. Johnny felt like a boy going after his first piece of action. He almost laughed at himself for this was exactly the way he had done that very thing.
He lowered his head, twirling his hat in his hands then slowly looked back up at her with a small grin.
She smiled, her eyes full of humor. “My goodness! You must have all the girls swoonin, honey. What with those pretty blue eyes and that smile. Tell Josie what you want, sugar.”
Johnny cleared his throat which had gone dry when he first walked through the front door and cocked his head to one side. “Well, ma’am, why don’t you just surprise me.”
She leaned against the newel post of the staircase and eyed him seductively. He already thought she was very good at her trade and waited to hear what she came up with.
“Come on upstairs with me, honey. We’ll find some way to amuse ourselves.”
Johnny nodded and followed her, his heart pounding in his ears the whole way. He wasn’t so sure he really could do this now. It seemed a simple task; one he’d done many times before without a bit of thought. As he entered her bedroom, the fear clutched in his gut. He walked in slowly, taking in the subtle colors and warm scent of lavender. The bed seemed to take up most of the space and he was impressed with the size of it.
He turned to find her leaning against the now closed door, a hint of a smile on her face as she watched him. She pushed away and swayed toward him, her hips moving just a little more dramatically than necessary. “I can’t imagine somethin as sweet lookin as you showin up at my door but, I sure am glad ya did. Now, why don’t ya have a seat and let Josie show you a good time?”
Johnny smiled at her and tossed his hat on the bedside table. He sat on the mattress and found it soft. He watched her move to him, sitting beside him and putting her hand on his thigh higher than would have been proper in any other circumstance. As a matter of fact, he wasn’t so sure it would qualify as his thigh anymore when she moved her hand upward a little.
He felt the familiar stirring in his loins and his shoulders actually slumped with relief. He saw the understanding look in her eyes mixed with a little sympathy. He knew she saw what the problem may be for him and he felt his cheeks heat up.
“Oh, sugar, you and me are gonna have such a fine time tonight. I promise you, I won’t let ya down.”
Johnny rode out of Merced feeling like a new man and more than grateful to the lovely southern lady who had been so surprisingly sensitive. Josie hadn’t let him down. She’d worked a miracle as far as he was concerned. He had relaxed under her touch and let go. There had been a couple of perilous moments for him but, once he took control of the situation, he focused only on what was happening in that bedroom. He knew he’d be going back to Merced more often now.
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