Word Count – 12,162
A tag for The Experiment
Thanks to Chris Petrone for the beta and to Diana Littner for the read-through.
He had too much blood on his hands. His father hated his gunfighting past, and after the shooting death at Cedar Canyon, he didn’t want Johnny around. And this time, his finger hadn’t touched the trigger. What difference? It all trailed back to his bad choices. Why else would Murdoch send him up here?
His Old Man probably saw something of Johnny in every one of those prisoners—must have figured HIS son, the notorious Johnny Madrid, carried every lousy trait they tried to reform in those men. If his father failed with those prisoners, it stood to reason that Johnny would eventually go wrong as well.
But he wouldn’t. Murdoch may not know it, but he had banished Johnny Lancer, not Madrid, from his sight. Didn’t his father realize that Madrid had long since gone to ground?
A gloomy Johnny Lancer watched the high peaks above Cedar Canyon as they sucked down the last drop of daylight—greedier than a thirsty cowpoke. What he wouldn’t give to be sitting in Green River gulping down his last drop of beer. But no, the Old Man had given him his orders, and sent him to this cold and haunted place.
As if the mountaintops mocked his thoughts, they spewed dark rolling clouds spoiling streaks of orange and red that, for a minute, had been a peaceful scene. Lancer had been calm until that prison mess blew up. Since then, his father carried a big ol’ burr under his saddle.
Even his brother, Scott, usually soft-spoken, had gone sour and snapped off for no reason earlier in the week when Johnny asked him to run a roll of wire to the work hands at Oak Bend. Hell, it had been on his way to that survey job.
Johnny pounded the gate post with his fist, startling Barranca, and when he rubbed his golden neck it calmed the horse. Reading people, knowing what they were thinking and what they’d do next, had been part of surviving, but understanding what happened between him and Murdoch and figuring out what got his brother sideways sure had him stumped. He’d been fool enough to think they cared about him.
Rubbing his gloved hand over the rough corral fence, Johnny shook it to test its steadiness. Looking again toward the darkening skies, he thought about his home and family. Johnny Lancer didn’t miss living as a gunfighter. No, not living; he had been dying day by day, keeping Johnny Madrid at the top of the heap.
“You think we’ll have rain?” His brother threw an arm over his shoulder. Troubled clouds kept growing in the west. Maybe Scott came along to work things out and tell him what was going on with their father.
“Not too familiar with the weather up here—too early for snow, according to Murdoch—sure feels cold enough.” Johnny scratched Barranca under the chin and gave him a carrot. “I better stack some extra firewood—could be we’ll need it.”
“Too cold to camp out; I’ll clean out the bunkhouse.” Scott tapped Johnny’s back and headed toward the largest of the few buildings their father had built for what they all called ‘the experiment.’
“No, wait. Heating a smaller building would be easier, the one where Murdoch stayed. Pull an extra mattress over there.” Johnny nodded at the small cabin where their father had overseen the experimental prison camp. Too bad it hadn’t succeeded.
Scott hesitated. “You’re sure about that, brother?
“We’ll have to cut more wood to keep that big ol’ bunkhouse warm.” Johnny understood Scott not wanting to sleep where that kid had died, but the temperature kept dropping, and they only had enough wood for a couple of nights if snow moved in.
Scott eyed the wood the prisoners had cut a couple of months ago. “You’re right. It makes sense to heat the smaller building.”
Johnny wondered about Murdoch’s brooding as he moved the firewood, stacking some on the cabin’s small porch. It had been two months, and the Old Man still wasn’t over the death of that young prisoner. But lately there seemed to be more to it than grief for the passing of Billy Kells.
“Ouch, dammit!” Johnny jerked the glove off his left hand and stuck his thumb in his mouth. Splinter went right through—too dark to see. He might as well finish with this wood.
The way Johnny figured it, his growing up in the rough border towns probably gave rise to his father’s dream of giving prisoners a place to change their path.
“Johnny, you need help with the wood?”
“Nah, I’m almost finished. The cabin ready?” Johnny straightened as Scott walked toward him.
“Place is clean, two beds ready—once YOU come in and start a fire, we ought to be comfortable in there. I’ll bring in the last supplies if you don’t need my help here.”
“Uh, Scott, what’s going on with Murdoch?” Johnny put the piece of wood back and wrapped his arms around himself. He was as cold as an ice-house corpse. “What did I do that’s got his saddle sideways?—He mad cause I talked to that kid? Dammit, Scott, does he think I’m to blame for what happened?”
Scott stopped in his tracks. With his hands on his hips, he stared at the ground for a beat and shook his head. When he finally looked up, Boston opened his mouth as if to explain, but he only said one word, “Johnny.”
When his brother walked past him to the buckeye tree beyond wood stack, Johnny followed. “I need to hear something from you, Boston, more than you saying my name.”
Scott grabbed a low-hanging branch and gave it a shake. Johnny wondered if maybe his brother wished he had a hold of his neck instead. “What’s so damn hard to say that you’re white-knuckling that tree-limb and can’t look me in the eye?”
“You’ve done nothing wrong, Johnny. But you need to talk to Murdoch.”
“How the hell am I going to do that? He avoids me like I’ve got yellow fever. And what about you? Do you think that boy died because of me? I reckon Kells untied Murdoch on account of what I said at the well.” Johnny gazed up at the dark sky and focused anywhere but on Scott. For some reason, he hated seeing his brother’s reaction. “I told the kid Murdoch got wound up in all this because of me—had to be why Kells backed out of the escape. So, I reckon in a roundabout way it’s why he got shot.”
“The Old Man blames me for something, or he wouldn’t have sent me here.” Johnny started pacing with his hands on his hips. “Ever think we shouldn’t have brought them cows up here? I damn well know things might have turned out differently if I hadn’t said anything to Billy Kells.” He finally searched Scott’s eyes. “What? Do you think the same way? Is that it? Is that why you snapped off at me the other day?”
“No. Johnny!” Scott came to him and grabbed his shoulders. “But it’s not my place to tell you, that’s all. Murdoch, he’ll talk to you about all of this. And he doesn’t blame you, neither do I.”
Johnny moved away from his brother and kicked at a dried-up cow pie. Probably from the cows he and Scott brought before everything went wrong. “I’ll finish moving this wood to the porch.” He needed to settle down and see if Scott would tell him more later.
“Don’t be too long, Johnny; the temperature is dropping fast. Where’s your other coat?”
“I won’t.” Johnny had given his ‘other coat’ to Pedro Martínez. The man had a cold or something worse and had been working in the rain outside of Tanner Horton’s corral—only had a threadbare shirt on his back. He’d meant to go to town and buy another one, but Murdoch kept sending him away on these cold assignments.
‘Talk to Murdoch.’ Johnny groaned at Scott’s suggestion. The wind picked up, and he smelled rain, or was it cold enough to snow? How many damn times had he tried to approach his father since this happened? Ten words hadn’t passed between them. A gust caught his hat and tugged his stampede string, whipping it sideways. Well, at least he had a warm place to sleep tonight.
Johnny stacked the last of the wood, wondering if his past caused the whole mess. Murdoch must carry some guilt, not being there to guide Johnny as a kid, then him becoming a gunfighter.
The Old Man probably thought he should have found a way to stop Mama from leaving all those years ago and taking Johnny from him, but not likely. She always got restless. Anywhere they landed, Mama started making plans to go after about a year.
Figuring Johnny’s growing up in the border towns had him on the road to prison must have started Murdoch’s dream of that experiment. That stung a bit. Johnny Madrid never broke a single law—could be, he might have cut it close a time or two. But being a gun for hire didn’t mean forgetting what’s right and wrong, not for him, anyway. It might be that Murdoch created this experiment, thinking that reforming prisoners on a ranch instead of a hell-hole like San Quentin would ease his conscience.
Everything came to a head when the prison department returned the donated land to the ranch last week. Murdoch had pressed his lips together after reading to him and Scott from the letter. “The land at Cedar Canyon has been returned to Lancer.” He threw the papers toward the edge of his desk before pouring himself at least three fingers of Scotch. Not sipping it like usual, the Old Man tossed most of it back before setting his glass on the wooden desk, hard enough to break the silence and cause the pages from the prison board to flutter. And when Johnny had reached for the papers, Murdoch cut his eyes at him. It was like he locked on to what had been bothering him.
Was it possible that his father didn’t stare in anger? When Johnny met Murdoch’s eyes, he thought there was an instant of regret or defeat before his Old Man’s gaze hardened. The thing was, the brooding, throwing hard looks, walking off when Johnny tried to approach him, none of it rang true for his father.
Then two days ago, Murdoch caught him off guard right before supper. “John, tomorrow gather whatever you need, early Thursday morning, you can head up to Cedar Canyon, clean the buildings out, make repairs, and draw up a supply list. Take your time, a week or two. We’ll be using the place as a line camp.”
Cedar Canyon’s location in the mountains would be perfect for housing a crew to tend a large herd. The grass stayed green longer there in the dry season. But Dios, Johnny didn’t want the job of getting it ready. For one thing, it was damn cold up there this time of year. Johnny rubbed his arms, still chilled from clearing the stream in the east pasture the last three days. He figured he drew that chore as punishment too, but at least it had gotten him away from his father’s brooding.
How would he convince the Old Man to send someone else? Then before he could quit staring at the floor, his brother stepped in, “I’ll go with him.” And Scott wasn’t asking. Murdoch, displeased as hell, just said “Fine.” and slammed his ledger book closed.
So here he was at Cedar Canyon, feeling guilty. Was that what his father had in mind? Send him up here to think about all the wrong turns he had made. Had he become Murdoch’s personal ‘experiment’? Turn the gun-hawk into a respectable rancher’s son. Surely, his Old Man knew that Johnny Madrid had already settled in—being Johnny Lancer, son, brother, rancher. Hell, it was a dream come true.
He carried a couple more stacks of wood to the small building’s porch. One thing for sure, his brother had his back even if Johnny carried some blame.
He should have given Scott a chance to talk on the ride up. Instead, Johnny pushed Barranca to gallop ahead the first few miles, leaving his brother to lead the packhorse and slowly pick his way along the ten miles to Cedar Canyon.
When Scott arrived a tired hour behind him, he had given Johnny the ‘eye’ like Murdoch did when he came to the supper table late. Johnny laughed to himself, thinking of how much ‘Murdoch’ he saw in his brother. Of course, he had seen them bump heads more than once.
“The temperature’s dropping faster than I anticipated.”
Scott’s voice startled him. He never used to find himself so deep in thought that a man sneaked up on him like that.
Picking up a few smaller pieces of wood for kindling, Scott shivered as he checked over the stacked wood. “It’s getting too damn cold for you to be out here. You’ll freeze if you stay out much longer.”
“Won’t be much longer—I’m almost finished here.” Johnny dusted some bark off his arms.
“I’ll start a fire before the cabin gets any colder. Shaking from the cold, Scott picked up smaller pieces of wood. “Johnny, you’ve got enough wood stacked to heat the cabin for a week.”
“Yeah, we’re probably good on the wood. If the weather’s moving in, it probably won’t hit till later tonight.” Johnny searched the dark skies. Not many stars showed but they still had some moonlight. “Too dark to tell what’s blowing in from those mountains.”
Scott put a couple more pieces of wood in his arms. “And we have ample supplies. Jelly saw to that. Oh, I unloaded Molly and put her and the horses in the barn outback. They still need feed and water.”
“I’ll tend the horses, be right in.” Johnny stretched his tired back.
Scott shifted his load. “Then I’ll store our supplies away while you’re in the barn.” His brother studied his face and stared like his father had been doing. “Johnny, it wasn’t your fault. No one thinks it was.”
When Johnny didn’t respond, Scott did his military about-face and took the arm-load of wood to the cabin. Sometimes he wondered if Boston read his thoughts as easy as he read the books on Murdoch’s shelves.
Dammit, he read people too, and something was going on that neither Scott nor Murdoch wanted Johnny to know. He would bet next week’s pay on it. If only his brother would come clean, tell him what had everyone so jumpy. When the horses were fed and watered, Johnny planned to have a little talk with his brother.
The five-stall barn seemed to be in decent repairs. But as Johnny lifted the lantern higher to check for feed he saw a full water barrel that Scott must have filled. Johnny decided to make quick time of settling the horses for the night. “Hey, I’ll make it up to you tomorrow.” One more brush to his horse’s neck, and his thoughts drifted to confronting his brother. But some noise outside interrupted his plans; it didn’t sound like Scott.
When the three horses nickered and Barranca’s ears perked, he drew his gun and moved to crack open the door—a rider coming in, slow. Who’d be showing up here after dark? Had Murdoch sent someone?
Slipping out the almost closed door, Johnny stayed in the shadows to move closer to the cabin and his brother. Whoever it was dismounted and appeared to be taking stock of the place.
“You lost, mister?” Johnny stepped from the dark overhang of the small porch.
The man turned toward him, and his eyes gazed directly at the gun in Johnny’s hand. He moved his hands away from his body. “I didn’t expect to see anyone up here.”
“You wanna step away from your horse. Keep your hands where I can see ’em.” The fellow came closer. “You know you’re on Lancer Land?”
“I’m aware. And you, do you work for the Lancers?” The man wore a dark suit with a string tie, and he slowly removed his tall hat. When Johnny didn’t answer, the man stretched out his hand. “Benjamin Sanders, on my way to see Murdoch Lancer. I’m with the prison’s inquiry board that’s meeting at Lancer tomorrow.”
“Inquiry board?” Johnny felt like he’d been punched in the gut. “So, Murdoch’s expecting you?” He heard the cabin door open and saw Scott standing in the doorway.
“I’m Scott Lancer.” And his brother stepped off the small porch to take the fellow’s hand. “And this is my… “
“I’m Johnny, and yeah, you had it right. I just work for the Lancers.” And he couldn’t help the anger, hurt, and hopelessness that welled up. “Scott, if you and Sanders need anything, I’ll be in the barn.” Holstering his gun, he turned to leave.
“Johnny!” Scott started toward him, but Johnny cut him off with an angry glance.
Sanders took in every inch of them, his eyes finally dropping to Johnny’s gun and his holster strapped low on his hip. Squinting as if putting some thoughts together, he said, “You’re him. The wayward son, Johnny Madrid.”
“Not that I make a secret of it, but I go by Lancer now.” Stopping in mid-stride, Johnny faced the man who at least had the nerve to put a name on what everyone thought. ‘The wayward son.’ That summed it up. No matter how hard he tried, everything boiled down to choices. Well, right now, he chose to sleep with the horses. At least they didn’t care about his past.
Have to hand it to Big Brother, running to catch him like that. Scott grabbed both his shoulders. “Come inside; you need to listen to me. This isn’t what you think.”
He removed Scott’s hands from his arms. “You best see to the inquiry. I’m sure Mr. Sanders will have lots of questions.”
“The weather’s too cold to sleep out there. I’ll bring in another cot. Johnny!” Scott’s eyes bored into his.
Closing his eyes for a beat, Johnny shook his head. “Go on, now. I’ll be fine.” Right now, he needed time alone, time to decide his next move. If, after almost two years, his father and brother didn’t trust him, and his place at Lancer remained tainted by his past, then perhaps he needed to explore new options.
One thing Johnny had learned about his brother, he was usually right. And it was too damn cold to sleep in the barn. He’d slept in horse stalls many a time and in winter weather. So, sleeping under a roof every night must be making him soft. His teeth even chattered, and his back and legs ached from lying on the cold hard bed he tried to make from the hay and his bedroll. Hell, there were plenty of cots in the other building, and it had to be warmer and better than this.
When Johnny opened the barn door, icy air assaulted his body. No use putting it off. A roaring fire would warm him soon enough; it would only take an armload of wood from next door. So, he headed for the bunkhouse with his gear and blankets under his arms. And before taking half a dozen steps, the sky opened up, pelting him with stinging sleet mixed with bitterly cold rain. “Dammit!”
He started running to try and avoid the worst of it. But with his arms loaded down with gear, his feet slid out from under him when his boots hit the iced-over wooden porch. The pack scattered, and his shoulder rammed into the rough edge of the building. Hell, he might as well get used to being cold, wet, and sore.
The saddlebags, bedroll, and food sack lay strung out over the icy ground, and every single damn piece had landed outside the protection of the overhang. When Johnny finished gathering his gear, his head began to pound, and he had to be as cold as one of the icicles hanging from the roof.
At least he had all his belongings back together and finally stood at the bunkhouse door. Freezing and soaking wet, he shifted the load to turn the doorknob. It wouldn’t budge. What the hell? Johnny dried his hand on his pants, tried turning it again, shoved, and pushed with his sore shoulder. Then dumping all his wet gear, he used both hands, fumbled with the knob and turned it again trying to force the door open. Something finally jiggled and gave way; yeah, it jiggled all right. “Dios!” The knob fell off in his hand. “Dammit!” He kicked the door hard, and the shock of pain ran from his ankle to knee and hip. What! Did they put steel bars behind it? It had to be more solid than the one at the hacienda.
What was it that preacher in Green River had rambled on and on about––’Pride goeth before a fall’? Well, he would give the reverend his due cause pride put him on the ground. And it had him limping back toward the barn to bed down. Shaking with cold, his blankets and supplies getting wetter by the minute, Johnny looked toward heaven to ask for a bit of mercy and relief. All he got was a face full of sharp ice.
Dios, had he ever been colder than this? Johnny drew his legs up and pulled his thin damp cover plus Barranca’s saddle blanket over his shaking body. Once, he tried hugging his willing horse to steal some of his body heat. But after a bit, his aching legs grew so tired of standing that he gave up. At least it had helped dry him off some.
The cold numbed his feet and hands. Chills jerked his body into spasms that almost scared him. Why in hell hadn’t he listened to Scott? He and Benjamin Sanders were warm and cozy in the building next door.
And what about Sanders and this Cedar Canyon mess? Why hadn’t Murdoch told him about the inquiry board meeting? Scott knew.
What did Sanders call him? ‘Wayward.’ Dammit, he wasn’t wayward. No, Johnny had dug in, worked hard to make a go of life as a rancher—even danced to Murdoch’s tune. Why else would he be freezing his ass off in a barn in Cedar Canyon, wet, cold, and half sick?
Learning how to live as part of a family hadn’t been easy, but it became all that much harder when Murdoch and Scott tried to put blinders on him. Johnny knew the three of them had built strong ties and feelings over the past months. So, there had to be a reason for all this secrecy. Could be his past might harm the Old Man’s case with this inquiry. If so, Johnny still had the right to know.
When Johnny finally wore himself out trying to figure out his father and brother, he slipped into a troubled sleep. A fever, body aches, the beginnings of a sore throat, and a pounding headache added to his restlessness.
Voices and the faint light of dawn woke him. “No, I must be on my way. I only wanted to see the scene of the crime. It helps to have a visual point of reference when investigating something like this.”
“Your board surely won’t blame Murdoch. He offered a second chance to those prisoners. They rejected it when deciding to escape.” His brother’s voice drifted over the stall. The sounds of horse movement around the other side let Johnny know they were saddling Sander’s filly.
“I’m sure your father will share our findings with you. Most certainly, the board will take his and Nathaniel Benedict’s intent for the project into account. But to be thorough, other factors will need to be considered.”
“Other factors?” Scott’s voice came from just outside Barranca’s stall where Johnny had slept.
“For one thing, Mr. Lancer, your father dismissed guards who might have prevented the escape attempt.”
Johnny crawled up to stand against the stall’s partition and hung his arms over the side. “What else might this inquiry board be considering?” His voice came out rough as a squawking crow. Too concerned about Murdoch to care, he stepped toward the opening. And since the barn started spinning, Johnny realized he didn’t feel too good.
“The board has shared its concerns with your father, boy. You being a hired gun, him using your services instead of professional prison guards.”
“Now wait a minute, at no time has our father used Johnny as a hired gun. Nor would he.” Scott placed a hand on Johnny’s chest when he started toward Sanders. Then he stepped between the two of them.
“I have statements from your neighbors that lead the board to believe otherwise; one said he withdrew funds in order to pay Johnny Madrid two thousand dollars to rid this valley of highriders raiding here.”
This time Scott stepped forward, and his face turned red. Boston seemed to grow about six inches when he squared up with Sanders. “I repeat, Murdoch has never hired Johnny’s gun. I suggest you follow that money trail to the Pinkerton Agency. Not that it’s the board’s business, but Murdoch Lancer used the money and their services to bring his sons home.” Then his brother put a finger right in the man’s face. “If valley gossip is the basis of this inquiry, you’ll find your board clamoring to pay when we win a lawsuit for libel. Check MY background; you’ll understand why we won’t lose.
Big Brother was as good with words as any gunslinger ever hoped to be with a six-shooter. But Johnny still wanted to let the man in on a simple truth. “We brought a couple cows up here, stayed overnight cause Scott and me were worried about the Old Man. That’s all.”
Sanders looked from Scott to Johnny. The man nervously fingered the bridle in his hand; unlike the evening before, his eyes no longer made contact, but still, he pressed his point. “We owe it to the surviving family to look at everything that might have led to the death of Billy Kells. Their requests should be honored.”
“So Kells’ family, they’re pushing this little inquiry?” Now they were getting to the real reason for this meeting at the ranch. And perhaps Johnny had found the source of his father’s disgruntlement, and it wasn’t all him, or maybe partly; but it could be his ‘Pa’ might be trying to protect him.
Everything that held Sanders stiff and rigid seemed to melt. The man dropped onto the stack of hay bales, and while he turned the bridle he’d been holding over and over, the man gave up what he knew. “That’s where it gets interesting. Billy Kells had an uncle, James Burns. He partnered with Judge Joe Crocket back in the day.” Sanders looked at Scott, maybe to see if the judge’s name meant anything to him. Boston tilted his head but didn’t seem to recall the name.
“Turns out Burns’s younger sister was Kells’ mother. The girl must have been fifteen or sixteen when she ran off and married some ne’er-do-well.” Sanders looked at Johnny, like he might understand some of this. “She died a few years later, leaving Billy to be raised by a drunken outlaw down around the border towns.”
“Damn. No wonder the kid’s death weighed so heavy on Murdoch.” Johnny bowed his head and stared at the empty feed bucket. His Old Man must have seen Johnny’s face every damn time he looked at Billy Kells.
“Burns tried to find the kid, but it was too late when he got word of him. Billy had already received a sentence of fifteen years for a first offense. Witnesses said the boy shot into the air, but his bullet wounded an innocent bystander. Kells had been running from a sheriff. He’d stolen some food, probably hungry.”
Johnny closed his eyes and eased back inside Barranca’s stall to lean on the partition. This story kept getting worse and worse. “This judge that Burns knows… “
Sanders cut him off. “Crocket, he’s an associate justice of California’s Supreme Court. Burns retired from practicing law, but the board hopped onto the investigation when he dropped Crocket’s name.”
“Just because someone dropped his name, it doesn’t mean Crocket’s gonna want to stick his nose into a mess like this.” The more Johnny stood there and talked, the harder his head pounded and the worse his throat hurt. He sounded worse than Jelly’s squawking goose.
“Johnny.” His brother stepped into the stall with him. “Boy, are you okay?” Scott motioned to a bale of hay. “Sit down before you fall down.”
“I’m fine.” When Scott came closer to help him, Johnny tried to push him away, but he did sit down.
Scott looked at the bedding on the stall floor. “You slept in this barn? Explain why you didn’t go to the bunkhouse, and build a fire. It’s freezing in here.” Scott placed a palm on his forehead. “You’re burning up. Dammit, Johnny.”
Pushing Scott’s hand away, he wanted to hear more from Sanders about this inquiry. “I tried, the door, it’s messed up—one of the repairs to do for Murdoch.”
Johnny looked at Sanders. “Don’t blame Murdoch. He only wanted to save that boy and the rest of them.”
Sanders stared at Johnny. “Son, how old are you?”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Johnny preferred looking down on this man, so he used Scott’s arm to steady himself and stood back up. His brother’s hand touched his back. The support meant something to him. Maybe Boston didn’t blame him for all that happened, or he must have forgiven him if he did.
“Nothing, I suppose.” Sanders stood and stepped closer, tilting his head as if studying them. “You’re younger than I would have thought.” The man looked at Scott.
Johnny wondered if he had been a topic of discussion between the two. He started to ask his brother outright if he’d been gossiping, but a spasm of coughing caught him.
“Johnny!” Scott’s hand tightened around his ribs, and without his brother’s support, the hacking would have taken him to the barn floor.
“You should take him to bed.”
“I—cough—can take—cough—myself to bed—cough—when I’m good and ready to go.” And he swayed a bit, but Scott grabbed him around the waist. “I’m fine, Boston.” Johnny tried to brush the hand away, but his brother tightened his hold.
“I think you’re right, Mr. Sanders.” Scott then pulled at Johnny, intending him to follow. “Come on. We need to warm you up.”
For some reason, Johnny wanted to be stubborn; he hesitated until another chill spread through his body. Then he nodded. A fire and a soft bed sure sounded good. The truth was, he couldn’t remember his body ever feeling so heavy and tired. Walking and breathing took energy. Even with Scott’s help, the cabin seemed far away.
“Johnny?” Scott’s voice sounded muffled, but Johnny nodded. Someone opened the door and helped him through. Damn, if it wasn’t Sanders. His head buzzed as if he’d stirred up bees in a hive, and his breathing came in pants. Lord, he sounded like Murdoch’s cow dog, Riley.
“Here’s water.” Sander’s voice.
“Johnny.” Scott repeated and guided him to a chair to give him the water to drink. Then he placed a cold cloth on his head, which Johnny pushed away.
“Why don’t you lie down, get some sleep?” His brother nodded toward a neatly made cot.
“In a bit.” For some reason, sleeping while Sanders stayed placed him at a disadvantage. Even sitting down had him in an awkward position. Put it down to his gunfighting days. You always meet a stranger eye-to-eye.
Scott must have sensed his discomfort since he pulled a wooden chair over and sat next to him. “Would you like another cup of coffee before you head out, Mr. Sanders?”
Johnny must have drifted off to sleep because words floated through a haze.
“Go to the ranch… be late… “
“Murdoch needs to … “
Someone had moved him from the chair to the cot. The heavy covers weighed his body down, and the fire blazed high in the small fireplace. At times he burned with the heat of the desert, and then the cold would seep in, chilling him to the bone.
Later, Johnny ran through wet snow, his heart pumping as his eyes searched for a safe place or some way out—Johnny had to get away from the posse because they would hang his father if they caught Madrid. “Murdoch!” He jerked awake when he cried out, then started coughing.
His brother immediately appeared at his side. “What is it, Johnny?” Scott sure looked worried. “Need to help M-Murdoch. We should leave, go to the meeting.”
“You have a fever and need to rest; Murdoch will be fine, Johnny.” Scott helped him sit up. “Here, drink some of this.”
“That’s awful. What is it?”
“Coffee; you need to drink it. It will help warm you up. You’ve got a cold; or something worse.” Scott pushed the cup back to his lips.
“No. I can’t drink this shit.” Shaking his head and handing the cup back, he grinned and rubbed his head. “Who taught you to make coffee? This is as weak as Maria’s dishwater. I’ll make a fresh pot.” And Johnny pushed himself up but started coughing again before heading to the stove. “I got some… peppermint sticks… ” Cough, cough. Dammit. “In my saddlebags. They might help.”
Scott brought the bags over. Johnny sat with his elbows resting on his knees; head hung down. Finally, taking out a single candy stick, he stared at it before breaking off a piece and popping it in his mouth. “Boston, you wanna tell me why you and Murdoch kept this inquiry from me?”
“Johnny, I wasn’t trying to keep anything from you. But Murdoch asked me to let him discuss this with you. Here. At least this is hot.” Boston poured more of the brown water he called coffee and pushed it into Johnny’s hands. Maybe Big Brother was stalling for time, but he continued, “He didn’t tell me either. Murdoch sent me to survey the south boundary next to the old mission grounds.”
“Anyway, I left the circumferentor in my room—realized it and turned around before reaching the flats.” Scott got up and walked to the window. He moved the thin checkered curtain aside. “It’s started snowing. We should go before this sticks if you’re serious about heading back. But I’m not sure you should be out in this weather. Do you think you can ride?”
Yeah, Scott was stalling some; maybe he dreaded telling Johnny what he found out. “Yeah, I can ride; I’ll be fine, but first, tell me.” Johnny stood. Being trampled in a stampede couldn’t feel much worse. But he walked over next to Scott and looked out to see light snow drifting down. “Go on.”
Scott kept looking out the window. “Murdoch had Randolph with him. I thought they were working on some legal documents for the ranch. So, I walked right in on their strategy session.” Finally, he turned back toward Johnny, picked up his coffee cup, made a face when he took a sip and continued. “You’re right about this coffee.”
“Scott, Murdoch and Randolph, what were they doing?”
“Best I could deduce, they were developing a defense plan should our father be charged with negligent homicide.”
The defeated sound of his brother’s voice told Johnny all he needed to know. Scott didn’t look him in the eyes. “We’d better pack up.” Johnny nodded toward the window. “That snow’s coming down harder.”
“Johnny, being in snow won’t do your cold any good.”
“Shouldn’t be snowing once we head down into the warmer valley. We need to hurry, though.” Johnny killed the cup of hot brown water; damn, he needed to teach Boston how to make decent coffee. At least it warmed him up. They had to make sure this inquiry went Murdoch’s way.
An hour of riding in the snow chilled Johnny to the bone. Damn, he hated being sick; this cold had been like an enemy taking him down bit by bit—first ambushing him while cleaning out the stream. He recovered some, but the attack resumed once Murdoch sent him to work in Cedar Canyon’s wintery mountain weather. The nasty congestion, aches, and fever came at Johnny full force when he slept in the barn—getting soaked with icy rain and sleet, and now this snow, all wounds from an unseen traitor.
He pulled up and waited for Scott to catch up. “Why do you reckon he didn’t wanna tell us? And how long did you keep this from me?” It hurt to think about this.
“Johnny, I’ve only known for a few days, the morning you asked me to take the wire out to the crew at Oak Bend, I’d just come from walking in on the two of them. Murdoch’s had you cleaning that stream, kept us separated on purpose, most likely. And yesterday, you ran off with Barranca before I had time to say two words. Now you are almost dead with a cold because of your stubbornness.”
“My stubbornness! I wouldn’t be sick at all if Murdoch hadn’t sent me to clean out that stream in the dead of winter. I ’bout froze my butt off and then where does the Old Man decide to send me? Up here in the snow, just so he can keep his secrets.” Johnny pulled the collar of his jacket up. Hell, the longer they rode, the harder snow kept coming down.
“You think we’ll ride out of this anytime soon?” Scott squinted at the trail ahead. “Put on your heavy coat! What are you thinking?”
“I gave it away and I ain’t had time to get another one. Anyway, the trail goes downhill pretty quick from here—ought to move through the worst part of this once we come out on the valley floor.” His throat hurt when he talked. Even his brother’s hot brown water would feel good going down about now. “Scott, keep it single file and slow ’till we make it off the mountain. This snow makes the rocks slippery.”
As they headed down the narrow path, Johnny noticed the rocky areas had ice. No way would he risk Barranca slipping off the side of this mountain. Pulling on the reins and dismounting, he figured they had two choices, turn back or pick a safe path and slowly lead the horses down.
“Scott, it ain’t safe to ride. See the ice on some of the rocks.” Johnny nodded at the glazed-over space just ahead.
“I don’t know, Johnny. The snow is picking up, even more so behind us. It won’t be any safer to turn around and try to climb back up that mountain. We shouldn’t have left.” Scott looked back toward the trail behind them—nothing but white snow.
“We did leave. So now, we’ll need to lead the horses. Follow me; try to stay off the rocks.” Johnny swayed a bit, and Scott grabbed the sleeve of his coat.
“Are you sure you can do this, Johnny?”
“Don’t have a choice. We can be on the valley floor in an hour. Let’s go.” Johnny figured he had some fever. The air hurt when he took it in, and it was damn cold. He had to lead them out of this snow. Sure couldn’t think about being sick now. It took every ounce of his energy to look for a safe way to the warmer valley below.
Leading Barranca around the iced rocks worked fine until they hit the steepest section near Dayton’s Drop. “Scott.” Johnny held a hand up. Damn snow had drifted, covering the narrowest part of the passage. He couldn’t tell if the next few feet might be dangerous; flip a coin, icy rocks, or wet snow. But it was a matter of life and death to figure out with the trail only inches from the high drop-off.
Scott came up beside him. “We’ll have to move that drift. There’s a shovel on Molly. You rest while I clear the trail.” Boston headed back to the packhorse.
Johnny pulled the rope from his saddle. “It’s a long way to the bottom. Here; tie this around your waist, just in case.” And Johnny secured it around Scott’s middle with an extra tug. The thought of seeing him slip over the side of the cliff sent shivers down his back.
When Scott stood there looking at him, Johnny said, “What?”
“Nothing. Thanks for watching out for me, brother.” Scott tapped him on his belly.
“Always.” Johnny looped the rope over Barranca’s saddle horn and grabbed onto the center section. “Careful, Brother.”
After moving most of the drift, Scott rested on the shovel’s handle. “Johnny, perhaps, I should have made more effort to tell you what I stumbled onto that day. I know Murdoch should have told us both.”
“Thought we got past keeping secrets, at least when it involves all of us.” Johnny walked ahead where Scott had cleared the snow.
“Maybe Murdoch thought to protect us by keeping us out of it.”
“And what happens if we’re not there to stop some committee and crooked judge from sending our Old Man to prison? How does he protect us then?” Johnny threw his hands up and kicked at some of the snow still clinging to the rocks. His boots hit the ice-slicked rock, and the cliff’s edge sped toward him before he could grab onto anything but ice. Sharp stones and gravel scraped against his body. Whomp. Damn, that hurt. And then there was air. “Scott!”
Had he fallen? Johnny couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. Everything turned purple. But something pulled on his collar. His coat was slipping. No-no-no! His arms were slipping out of his jacket! He looked down, and his head went round and round. He couldn’t breathe. How could he get some air in his lungs? So, this was it. Johnny Madrid would not die by a bullet. He would fall to his death. At least he owned the mountain and the place he would land. What a strange thing to be thinking.
“Johnny. You gotta help me.” Scott grunted at him and grabbed at his elbow. “Give. Me. Your. Arms. Raise them higher, give me your hands, Johnny. That’s right.”
“K.” Had he hit his head? This foggy feeling. He kicked his legs. Nothing. An awful lightheaded feeling consumed him. No way would he take Scott down with him. But his brother needed to know. “S-Scott, It’s been… ” He started to let go with one hand, but his brother jerked him up. His silvery blue eyes bored into his.
“Johnny, don’t. Be still.” His brother held onto his arms tightly, so he did the same. “That’s right.” Scott pulled, and he slid upward. That’s when he looked down for the second time. “No. No. Don’t look down. Look at me.” Scott’s breath came in pants. His face had turned red with the effort of holding him.
“Boston.” Maybe they could get out of this.
“You still— got that rope— tied around your middle?”
“Tell Barranca— back. I ain’t— got— breath.”
“Back, Barranca! Back Boy. That’s right. Back. Back.”
They moved bit by bit. The minutes passed like hours and the cuts and scrapes Johnny felt as his body was dragged over the rough rocks of the cliff’s edge hurt like hell. And the pain seemed a good thing, a reminder that his body hadn’t tumbled down to become a broken pile of bones and flesh at the bottom of the mountain.
He had no idea how long they were on the cold ground. Even though hard, cold rocks poked and prodded his sore body, Johnny had no desire to move. And lying there head to head with his brother, he wouldn’t let go of his arms. Instead, he tightened his hold on Scott, wrapped his fingers around Boston’s forearms, used what strength he had, and pulled him closer.
Scott raised his head. “Brother, are you okay?”
He didn’t trust himself to speak but gave a short nod and looked around. The wind had quieted. Johnny heard nothing but the two of them breathing and an occasional snort from the horses.
“You don’t sound too sure—anything broken?” Scott let go, breaking their contact and slowly rolled away. Rubbing his arms, he stood, wiped his eyes with his sleeve, and looked down the trail. “Think you can stand up?”
Looking around, kind of in amazement to be alive, Johnny turned over to his back. Instead of getting up, he stayed in position. Damn, he couldn’t be sure that his legs would hold him up.
“Yeah. Gimme a minute.” Johnny sat there with his arms hanging over his knees. No way would he admit how bad his legs shook, or how his insides still trembled.
Scott brought Barranca over to stand beside him and handed him the lead rope. “We’ll pony my horse and Molly. We need to go before the snow drifts back over the pass. You ride; I’ll lead Barranca.”
“Johnny.” Squatting next to him, Scott eased down beside him. “You can do this.”
“I’m fine, Brother. Sorry, I just…” The words to describe how he felt didn’t exist. And he hated agreeing to ride while Scott walked. Johnny despised feeling this weak, but they needed to make it down this mountain so he nodded. “Scott, keep that rope on.”
“You don’t have to ask twice.” Standing, Scott stretched out a hand and pulled Johnny up, and helped him mount Barranca. Once in the saddle, he took some deep breaths. “Let’s go.”
Scott stayed as far from the mountain’s edge as the trail’s width and icy rocks allowed, and Johnny couldn’t help but be thankful for that. As he led them down the rough mountain trail, the snow started mixing with rain, but the wind picked up.
“The snow’s slowing some—ought to ride out of it soon. Likely to be raining at Lancer. And speaking of Lancer, I suppose Murdoch will be angry about us coming back like this.” Scott stopped to pet Barranca.
“I reckon so. But dammit, Scott, he’s always shutting us out.”
“And you remember what happened last time we weren’t ‘obedient sons’.”
Yeah, Johnny recalled Murdoch telling them to try and act like ‘obedient sons’ when they brought cows up to Cedar Canyon. “We made a mess of things, didn’t we? You think we’re doing the right thing?”
“At least we’ll be there to support him.” Scott started walking again. “I don’t see how that translates to a bad thing.”
“What if this inquiry board believes Johnny Madrid is a bad thing? Me being there might hurt Murdoch.” It made his belly tighten to think of hurting his Old Man’s chances.
“On the contrary, if they meet Johnny Madrid Lancer in person, I think that little group might be impressed. Sanders certainly seemed to be amazed.”
“For one thing, you’re young. I took the liberty to tell Sanders about your ownership and work with the ranch. The changes you’ve made in your life in such a short time set you up as an example, a role model. You make Murdoch proud. He believes in second chances, and that’s part of what this prison experiment was all about.” Scott turned back and smiled. “And yes, I think Sanders seemed pretty amazed.”
“Scott! Watch for the ice!” Johnny saw the icy rocks too late to warn his brother in time.
Before Scott had time to turn back or watch his steps, he slid to his knees; Johnny tightened the rope.
“Stay in the saddle. I- I’m fine.” Scott held up a hand, but when he didn’t stand up, Johnny ignored him and slid off Barranca to go to his side.
“Where are you hurt?”
“I told you to stay in the saddle. What will I do if you pass out?”
“It’s twisted or something. I’ll be fine. Can you help me up?”
“First, let’s move you off these slick rocks.” Johnny used the rope and a few commands to Barranca to move him to where they wouldn’t land on their butts while getting Scott upright. “We should both be able to ride now. The path is wide from here on out.”
“Help me stand next to my horse, and I can throw myself over.” Scott hobbled on one leg and got into position next to his stirrup.
“Are you ready?” Johnny hung onto the saddlehorn, grabbed Scott’s belt loop, managed to hoist him upward, and with Scott’s help, landed him neatly in the saddle. While he tried to catch his breath, he noticed his brother’s green-faced grimace where his weight had fallen on his left knee. “Sorry. I should have wrapped it first.” While Johnny shivered with cold, Scott had drops of sweat running down his face, and his color changed from green to being as white as the snow-covered ground. “You sure you can make it?”
“What choice do we have?” Scott wiped sweat from his face with his forearm.
“None, but I’ll ride double with you if you need me.” Johnny gently rubbed the knee, felt the heat through the pants, and saw the leg had started to swell. “You think you broke it?”
“Don’t think so. Let’s head out. The sooner we make it home, the quicker we can both see a doctor and be able to help Murdoch.” Scott said it through gritted teeth, then pressed his lips together and nodded toward the trail.
Damn, it would be good to see the Lancer arch.
The snow let up, but a cold heavy rain poured, and the wind blew hard enough to chill them all the more. Fortunately being used to the road and knowing the way home kept them moving in the right direction. Neither of them said a word but suffered in silence. The weather would have drowned their voices out, so why bother?
They had ridden for hours, or maybe he only thought it had been hours. It might have been minutes, but the wet and cold had his brain confused. And the throbbing going on up there, fever too, didn’t help his thinking any. Johnny didn’t think he could remember existing in a dry and warm place. If they ever reached the hacienda, he would beg Murdoch to build a fire in his room.
“Johnny.” Scott stopped on the rise just ahead.
He could barely hear him call out. When Johnny tried to answer, his sore and swollen throat didn’t allow a sound above a whisper to come out. So he rode up next to his brother to see what might be wrong.
“We’ve made it. We’re almost home.” Scott pointed off to his right.
“What? It’s raining so hard; I can’t see a thing.” Johnny croaked and lifted his hat just a bit, and, of course, water poured in a stream down his back. Not that it made much difference as wet as he already was.
“Johnny, ‘the most beautiful place in the whole world’? We’re at the overlook where Teresa first showed us Lancer.” Scott looked at him as though he should be able to see the hacienda through fog and rain.
“Let’s don’t sit here trying to see the place. Come on, let’s go home. Dios, if the road weren’t so wet, I’d race you.” The more Johnny tried to talk, the worse his throat hurt.
“Let’s go, little brother. I see the Lancer Arch from here.” Scott started moving first.
Johnny pointed at the house as they rode under the arch. They needed to ride up to the French doors to unload next to the hacienda and be able to move Scott inside quickly; he would take care of the horses later.
Damn, his spinning head felt strange, pounding with every move, and the aching throat and chest felt tight enough that he had to work at breathing, but, looking at his brother’s gray face, Johnny figured he must be hurting worse. “Scott, give me a minute. I’ll help you off your horse.” Where was his voice?
“Johnny, we’re both freezing, and you can’t even talk. Go inside for help to get me down. I want a hot bath, dry clothing, warm fire, and a doctor.”
“Right, if I can just lift my leg over the back of this saddle.” Johnny had almost reached his foot to the ground when a booming voice made him jump out of his skin.
“Why don’t you even pretend to obey my orders? What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be working at Cedar Canyon. You can’t be here today.” Murdoch had his arms crossed. “You’re both soaking wet. Go out to the bunkhouse. I’ll send someone with some dry clothes.” Then he started back inside.
“Murdoch. He knows.” Scott couldn’t say much. Any fool ought to be able to see the set of his jaw against the pain.
When their father walked back toward them, Johnny saw he had lost all patience.
“Murdoch!” Johnny tried to yell; he didn’t want the Old Man tearing into his brother over telling him about the inquiry. But only a scratchy whisper came from his lips. Leaning his head on the saddle, he wondered if this was the coldest, wettest, most tired, and angry moment he ever remembered. He talked without raising his head. “Old Man, Scott’s hurt, and I’m sick, but I reckon me and Scott still own two-thirds of this hacienda. Now, we’re going inside.” Dammit, he hadn’t meant to throw it all out like that. Johnny heard his brother clear his throat. So he raised his head and gave the Old Man his best Madrid stare. “We’ve been through Hell getting here to help YOU. The least you could do is get Scott down off his horse; he’s hurt that left leg.” Even his ears didn’t pick up every word he hoarsely whispered from his scratchy throat, but Murdoch must have gotten the message as his face melted from angry to worried.
“I’m sorry, Son.” Murdoch swiped both hands down his face and stepped to Johnny’s side. “I didn’t want you hurt by this.”
“Damn, Murdoch, you’ve ’bout killed me, ‘not wanting.’ me hurt’. Next time, just let me be hurt. Go help Scott. Careful of his knee, it’s what’s messed up.”
“I’ll help you first.” Murdoch guided him to the door with an arm around his middle, and he popped a hand on Johnny’s forehead. “Where’s your coat, Son? Stay there until I help Scott down. We’ll go in together.”
“Careful of my left knee.” Scott told the Old Man. “I can’t bear weight on it to dismount.” Every word came out through gritted teeth.
“Okay, Son. Take your foot out of the stirrup, place your arm around my shoulder, ease down until your right foot’s on the ground .. just .. like .. that. There you see? Now, let’s hobble over to your brother.”
“How’s it feeling?” Johnny slid an arm to support Scott’s right side, and the three men made a clumsy entrance into the great room of the hacienda.
Scott rolled his eyes. “Just help me inside. I want to sit down, and get warm.”
Six men and two women sat around the table where they usually ate their evening meal. But instead of plates of food, papers sat before each of them. Johnny saw every eye land on him. He reckoned he’d give them their money’s worth soon as they found Scott a chair.
“Ladies, gentlemen, excuse us, please. My sons, Scott and John, have been working at one of our ranch sites north of here. It appears they may need my attention for an hour or so. Shall we take a break? Maria will fix an early supper. Drinks are here while you wait.”
One of the men stood. “How fortunate. We’ll be able to speak with your sons after all.”
“Fortunate indeed. I had thought neither would be available to appear before the committee.” A round, bald-headed man wearing spectacles came from the head of the table where Murdoch usually sat.
Sanders walked over to the chair where Scott slumped, his head bowed in pain. The man tilted his head toward Johnny and nodded a slight greeting. “Seems to me you need your own hospitality. Shall I pour?” As he picked up the decanter sitting on the drink cart, he turned to answer the round man. “I’m sure that it is next to impossible on a ranch this size to reach a man working its outer borders.” He poured three glasses of Murdoch’s whiskey and brought them over, offering the first one to Johnny.
“Thanks, Mr. Sanders.” When the man tapped his finger to his lips, Johnny realized that he must not want anyone to know they’d met before. His voice hadn’t carried to the others since he couldn’t make a sound above a hoarse whisper. But Murdoch cut his eyes toward him.
“Ben, might I impose upon you to help me with these two weary sons of mine?”
“I can take myself up, Murdoch. You help Scott.” Johnny stood, and the room tilted to one side until his father leveled it up when he grabbed him under his arms.
“I’ll be fine, Johnny.” A blurry image of Scott attempting to stand, grabbing for T’resa’s large flower vase to steady himself, said otherwise. Good thing for his brother that Sanders caught the vase and his brother.
“Your sons are alike, perhaps not in looks, but temperament.” Sanders told his father, and when Murdoch’s smile started, a little at first, then stretching bigger than it had in a couple of months, Scott caught Johnny’s eye and sent him a lopsided grin. At that moment, Johnny felt the best he had in a long time. Even half-dead with this damn cold, seeing the smile from his Pa meant he still had his family. And they would take care of their own.
“Boys, why have you come home in this rain? Johnny, you shouldn’t be out in this weather, and Scott, how did you hurt your leg?” Murdoch shifted his hold on Johnny to slide an arm around him for support as they headed up the long staircase to his room.
“It’s a long story, but we came down the mountain in ice and snow. I twisted my knee on some icy rocks.” Scott did let Sanders support him as he hobbled toward the steps.
“What if you slid off that mountain? Why would you make such a treacherous journey? Even if Johnny needed a doctor, you should have sense enough to know that traveling in that weather would worsen his cold.” Johnny knew without looking that the Old Man had lost his smile, that he’d have that stern ‘I’m calling this tune’ look on his face.
“We wanted to be here to help you at that inquiry.” Johnny looked up and saw Murdoch tilt his head slightly like he might be tasting something to see if he liked it.
“John, I didn’t want you or Scott hurt by this. I told the board you weren’t available when they asked to speak to you.”
“Why’d you do that?” Without warning, Johnny stopped walking, Murdoch with his long legs, continued, as did Scott and Sanders directly behind them.
“Damn it, Johnny! I’ve twisted one knee!” Boston almost fell and would have if Murdoch hadn’t shifted Johnny to right, and nabbed Scott to place him back into Sander’s hold.
“Sorry.” Johnny hung his head, and Murdoch ruffled his hair a bit.
“Everyone okay to continue?” Murdoch asked. “Scott, let’s help you off that knee. We’ll have the doctor look in on you soon. It’s fortunate for you boys that Doctor Hastings is on his way here.”
“Why’s the Doc headed to Lancer?” And when Johnny tried to stop to ask, Murdoch kept him moving this time. He was too tired and too sick to walk and talk.
“We had two injuries this morning—a dislocated shoulder and I suspect a broken rib. A couple of the boys, Nate and José, had trouble pulling stock from that bog up above the flats.”
“Guess I’m lucky you didn’t send me up there too, been everywhere else on the ranch that’s wet and cold.” Johnny grumbled.
“And I am damn tired of trying to follow you to cold, wet places.” Scott hobbled to his room, opened the door, and leaned on the large dresser right inside. “I can make it from here, thank you, Mr. Sanders.”
“John, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. In trying to protect you, I almost killed you and Scott.” The Old Man looked so guilty that Johnny felt sorry for him.
“We’ll be fine, Murdoch. We do want to make sure you’re okay.” His father helped him into his room and got him to the overstuffed chair next to his bed.
“Stay there until I can have some hot bath water brought up for both of you. Then off to bed with you until we see what the doctor says.” Murdoch cupped his shoulder and shook it easy-like. “I’m glad to have you home, Son; I’ll check on your brother. I fear that Scott might be a bit put out with me.”
“Scott might be put out with everyone until he gets that knee looked after. He didn’t complain, but Murdoch, he was hurting, and I reckon it’s my fault. He wanted to help me. The only reason he went up there in the first place was to protect me.”
Murdoch patted him on the leg. “Your brother will be fine. And John, you don’t need to shoulder the blame for any of this. Whatever the outcome of this inquiry and no matter what they ask or how you answer, be proud of what you’ve done to persist through difficulty, look how you changed your life.”
“Ain’t ever-body thinks about it like you do, Murdoch.”
“Since when do you care how everyone else thinks about it?” Murdoch jostled his shoulder and grinned.
“Since it affects you and Scott.” Johnny looked out his window. The sky had turned pink and he could barely see the last glow from this day’s sun. Conversations like these sure were hard. “Neither of you ought to suffer on account of decisions I made.”
“Like you and Scott suffered because of my decisions?” Murdoch picked up the carved horse he’d given Johnny last Christmas, and he rubbed the chisel marks like he remembered making each one. “Son, love doesn’t travel lightly. Along with the good, it carries some hurt. Perhaps we can’t love deeply without suffering or even causing pain along the way.” Murdoch stopped talking for a minute like he was trying to figure out how best to explain it. “Caring tenders the heart, opens it to joy. But in opening ourselves, we become an easy target for heartaches.”
“And you’ve had plenty of heartaches?” Johnny figured Murdoch spoke from more experience than most men might ever know. How badly he’d misjudged this man.
“A few, Son.” His Pa patted the carving that he still held. His eyes got watery right before he looked away.
“Murdoch, you ain’t serving time for trying to help those men, not while I’m alive and breathing.” Johnny couldn’t help saying that one truth because his father needed to understand it.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, John.” Murdoch gently set the carved horse down, and he walked out of the room.
Never did he remember a bath feeling this good. The bag of herbs Maria sent to sprinkle in the steaming water already had his breath coming easier. He reckoned her cooking for that inquiry board kept her from fussing over him. Johnny wondered if she might put hot peppers in their food out of spite. Maria didn’t take kindly to anyone threatening the Patron.
A knock at the door interrupted Johnny’s thoughts. While he struggled to reach the towel, the door opened. Doc Hastings and Murdoch entered. “Don’t get up, John. Finish your bath. I can check your throat, ears, and chest while you soak.”
“I’m feeling better. You ought to check on Scott first.”
“I’ve seen your brother. He had dislocated his knee. Let me tell you, that’s a painful injury.” Doc tapped his own knee and shook his head like he knew. “Now, you don’t sound too good. Breathe for me, John.”
Johnny took a deep breath, but that started a cough. He didn’t want to do this breathing thing anyway. “Wait a minute.” Cough, cough. “Doc, about Scott…” Cough cough. “Is he going to be all right?”
“Your brother is fine, Son.” Murdoch brought the towels he’d left on the bed.
“He is.” Doc said, “We popped the knee cap back in place. However, he will need to use crutches, stay off that leg for six weeks, and let it heal. He’ll be as good as new. Now, Johnny, I need to hear you breathe. Take a DEEP breath.”
Johnny tried to breathe deeply and hold it when Doc said to and even tried hard not to cough. The water had turned cold, and he started shaking.
“John, you have some fever, nothing profoundly concerning. But Murdoch, you need to keep a check on that. If his temperature rises too much, send for me. I hear some congestion in the chest. I’ll tell you that pneumonia is my concern.” Doc rummaged around in his bag, and he handed a bottle of pills to Murdoch. “Here’s some quinine. Give him one three times a day. Have Maria make up a mustard plaster. I’ll be by to check him tomorrow. Stay in bed, Johnny.”
“Doc, I’m better. It is just a cold.” He did need to come out of the chilly water, so grabbing the towel, Johnny shivered, shook, and wiped the water away from his tired body. Murdoch brought a second towel over and helped, rubbing his hair and back. He slipped his long johns on and sat on the bed. “Can’t remember being this sleepy or worn out.” Yawning and drawing his legs up and over the bed was the last thing he recalled..
“Here, Son, drink this.”
“No. No. It will help you. Leave it on your chest.”
“Johnny, you need to drink some of this. Keep your strength up.”
“Brother, let me help you. Okay. That’s it. Need another pillow?”
“The fever is down. The congestion sounds aren’t as prominent.”
“Doc? You still here?” Johnny’s mouth had gone as dry as if he’d taken a walk in the desert. “Water.”
Murdoch and Scott nearly knocked the pitcher over, getting his glass filled. And Scott had a crutch under one arm, which didn’t help. “Here, Son. How do you feel?” Murdoch handed him the water.
“I’m fine. I told you, it’s just a cold.”
Scott rubbed his forehead and shook his head.
“How’s the leg, Boston?”
“Feeling much better—needed some adjusting, a few more days’ resting it, my knee will be as good as new.”
“Doc, you think you could take this stuff off my chest and let me have something to eat?”
“That, young man, is a mustard plaster, and it very possibly saved your life. I suppose we can remove it now. Open wide.” Johnny rolled his eyes but did as the doctor asked. “Looks much better. I suppose you might be allowed to eat a soft diet—eggs, oatmeal, creamed wheat, biscuits, honey is good.”
Doc Hastings gently tapped Johnny on the cheek. “Son, you were pretty sick the past couple of days. Don’t push yourself. Stay in bed today; take it easy with naps tomorrow and the next day.” The doctor looked at Murdoch like he wanted to be sure he heard all the orders for Johnny. “I don’t want you doing any strenuous labor for a couple of weeks or until those lungs are completely clear. Even then, pneumonia can make a nasty return. Stay out of the cold and the wet weather.”
“We’re running a ranch here, Doc! I can’t run to the hacienda every time a cloud comes up.”
“Yes, you can, John, at least until Doc clears you to be one hundred percent well.” Murdoch squeezed his shoulder; he had a determined look about his eyes.
“Give yourself six weeks. It might mean a big difference to your health.” Hastings picked up his bag to go. “I’ll check back at the end of the week. But send for me if any fever comes back or if he has trouble breathing.
I’m off the knee for six weeks as well.” Scott tapped his left leg. “Murdoch, I suppose you’ll be hiring extra help?”
“Salvador’s boys want to help him clean up and do the repairs at Cedar Canyon. They might cover our needs until the busy season. Both of you should be in top form for branding in the spring.” Murdoch slapped both his knees and stood.
“Wait. When do I have to talk to that inquiry board?”
“No one told him?” Scott looked at the Old Man and rubbed his head like it started hurting.
“John, I’m sorry, Son.” Murdoch gripped the wooden post at the foot of the bed and nervously rubbed the Lancer ‘L’ carved there. “The board cleared me of any charges yesterday.”
“And you forget to tell me THAT?” Johnny sat straight up, and Scott pushed him back toward his pillows. “You knew I worried enough to ride through snow and rain, and me sick, so I could help.”
Murdoch moved quickly to the head of the bed. “I know, Son. And I forgot to tell you because of worrying about your high fever.”
Sitting down on the side of the bed, Murdoch explained how the board had cleared him. “Joe, er, Judge Crocket, sent a letter commending Nate and me for the project. The message clearly stated that he would like to see the experiment tried again in two years. This next time, hand-picked personnel, not guards, would guide prisoners in their reform. After Randolph shared the letter, the inquiry board asked a few questions, voted to clear me of any neglect, and left.”
“So you knew that judge personally?” Johnny asked
“Crocket has a ranch up near Sacramento. We served on a state committee a few years back. He and I became good friends. He’s spent more than a few nights here at Lancer.”
“Dammit.” Johnny had too many raw emotions boiling up, and he preferred sorting out his feelings alone.
“What’s wrong, Brother?”
Where to start—how to explain all the hurt he had felt? “Murdoch, I thought you couldn’t stand to be around me anymore, that I’d lost everything I’d found. You kept sending me away to do these cold, dirty jobs.” Johnny chewed on his lower lip. This family thing, how much did a man say, or should you keep shit like this to yourself?
“I’m sorry, Son.” Murdoch looked to the ceiling as if muttering a prayer. “John, I tried to protect you from knowing about or having to talk before this board.” His father shook his head. “What a mess, and I hurt you and almost killed you both.”
“Murdoch, you don’t know half of it.” Scott rolled his eyes. “If Johnny hadn’t had the foresight to tie a rope around me, he and I would have slid off Dayton’s Drop.”
Murdoch turned as white as Johnny’s pillow. “So, going forward, Scott, Johnny, your ‘Old Man’ will call the tune better and more straightforward. No more keeping you in the dark, or taking chances of any misunderstandings, deal?”
When Murdoch placed his hand out to seal the promise, Johnny not only shook it but hesitantly topped his father’s weathered knuckles with trembling fingers. Had it only been a few days ago that everything had seemed wrong between them? Scott made a wobbly stand on his crutch to place one hand on top and one on the bottom of their hands. And wasn’t that exactly right? Scott so often held them together when they were too stubborn to come together on their own.
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