By Linda B.
Murdoch Lancer stood tall in the stirrups as he studied the angle of the sun. The distinct lines on his weathered forehead deepened as he squinted in the harsh light. “You boys will have about five hours head start on me.” he said, as he cast a final glance at the sky. “I expect to find plenty of work completed when I arrive.”
“Need a watch?” asked Johnny seriously as he patted his clothes. “I have one here in my pocket, so you know exactly what time it is.” His young face broke into a cheeky grin as he watched his father’s face. “I know it’s here somewhere.”
Murdoch glared at his youngest son as he shifted position in his saddle. “Glad to know you still have it, Johnny. Too bad you don’t use it enough.”
“Why do I need it for?” Johnny shrugged and opened the palms of his hands as if to suggest he was innocently unaware of what his father was referring to, “if one of you is with me to tell me the correct time?”
“Sure, Murdoch,” interrupted Scott. He’d seen these two begin their quarrels enough to know neither was in a pleasant mood. “Little brother and I will do our very best.”
“Your best won’t be good enough if you don’t get a move on,” snapped Murdoch irritably.
“Yes, Sir.” Having spent some time in the Army, Scott recognized the order and responded without the slightest hesitation. His hand was chest high before he realized he was about to salute his father and not an officer. He covered his embarrassment by grabbing the brim of his hat and shifting it further forward on his head.
“Our best never is,” Johnny muttered bitterly as he turned and mounted his horse. The animal side-stepped as Johnny’s leg was halfway over the horse’s back. He had to quickly lean forward to regain his balance and avoid being thrown.
Murdoch eyed the young rider and even younger horse. He shook his head and frowned. “Don’t know why you’re riding that horse today. It’s not like he’s been completely broken in. He looks like he’s more trouble than he’s worth.”
“Sort of reminds you of someone doesn’t he, Murdoch?” chuckled Scott.
Johnny scowled as Scott’s face, then Murdoch’s broke into a smile.
“Scott, You know, as well as I, that Murdoch says we need more than one horse to ride at this time of year and what he says goes. This one is the best I could find out of the current stock we have corralled, that is after you took the one I was looking at. I ain’t had enough time to give to him and to get him the way I want. I ain’t had any time off recently to go looking at any of the other horses we have running loose on the ranch either,” said Johnny pointedly as he reached down and stroked the neck of the fidgeting horse. ”So I’m gonna use him today and get a few more kinks out. I think he’ll make it fine.”
“That’s all you were doing, Johnny… looking. If you did more doing, instead of looking, we’d get more work completed. All those horses need breaking, not just our two.”
Johnny opened his mouth to reply.
“That’s enough you two!” shouted Murdoch. “Have you decided how many men to take with you to repair the corral?”
“Ain’t taking any.” Johnny shifted his hat lower over his eyes. “It’s gonna be me and Scott and you.”
“Why only us, Scott?” Murdoch directed his question at his older son. “You know I need…we need that corral mended and ready to use immediately. Those recent storms we had blew almost half of it down.”
“Johnny says we’ll be able to finish it today because…”
Murdoch interrupted Scott. “Since when has Johnny made the estimations regarding how long a chore will take?”
“I’m sorta qualified for this one.”
“Oh you think so do you? Since when? You haven’t been on this ranch long enough to have that experience.”
“Suit yourself,” retorted Johnny and shrugged his shoulders. He sent an angry ‘told you so’ look to Scott, then spurred his mount forward and left in a cloud of dust.
“While you’re heading out in that direction, I want you to inspect along the bank near Broken Tree Gully. All that heavy rain we’ve just had may have piled up debris against the southern bend and if it has, we’ll need to clear it out to keep the water flowing. It’s not the best place for building a dam even if it is by nature.”
“Okay, we’ll take a look for you, Sir.” assured Scott. “See you in a few hours.”
“Not sure I want to go up that way, Scott,” said Johnny as he looked at the direction Scott suggested they take. He had his left ankle across his right thigh and was idly spinning the silver spur. In his mouth he chewed nervously on the chinstrap of his hat. The horse had caused him plenty of trouble on the journey so far and he was looking forward to a longer rest from riding him. For the time being it was content to obey Johnny’s command to stand still, while the brother’s discussed their immediate problem.
The stock trail looked easy enough for their horses to traverse, but that wasn’t what was concerning Johnny. Their detailed inspection of the watercourse had proved their father right. The raging storm waters had dug into the bank at the exact point Murdoch predicted. Deep ruts, almost a two feet deep in some sections, now cut into the embankment. No doubt they had been caused by runoff from further up the hill.
“Neither do I, but it’s the only way we’re going to get a closer look at the damage.”
“I don’t think I want to look that closely.” An uncomfortable hesitancy was creeping further and further into Johnny’s bones and now his voice.
“I agree and I’ll say it again, but you know Murdoch. He’ll want us to have the exact information about what has happened and what needs to be done to correct it.” Scott added, “He who rules, must be obeyed!”
The younger man spat the leather out and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “Yeah but…” He took one more concerned look at the trail. ”Guess you’re right. If doing this is the only way he’ll trust me again, then lets get it over and done with.”
“Well, little brother, you will go off chasing wild horses won’t you?” grinned Scott as he ruffled Johnny’s hair. “You really got him angry at you, didn’t you?”
“I think he was more disappointed than angry.” Remorse filled Johnny as he spoke. It was bad enough to have his best friend Wes die, but to experience his father’s displeasure hurt even more. It was not pleasant remembering his earlier months at Lancer and there were times when Murdoch made it hard for him to forget.
“Yes, you have a point there. We’d better get moving. This has taken longer than I thought it would. If we don’t get this finished and onto the corral, Murdoch will have our hides.”
“Betcha mine, more than yours,” kidded Johnny, but both knew his words might become truth.
They nudged their horses forward. When they were nearing the crest, Scott who was leading, felt the embankment shudder. He kicked Custer forward and turned to look over his shoulder as he shouted a warning to his brother. “Move Johnny! The ground’s giving way.”
Twenty paces behind Scott, the younger brother knew he was in danger. Futilely he kneed his horse, but their forward movement faltered before it even started. Instead he felt the shift of weight go from the front legs to the rear. The gravel slipped faster, gaining momentum at every second. The horse’s hindquarters bunched, but there was no solid ground to support him. He began to topple backwards as the front hooves thrashed into empty air.
From a short distance on stable ground, Scott watched in horror as the scene unfolded in slow motion in front of him. His brother dropped the reins and gripped the saddle horn with one hand. He kicked one boot free of the stirrup, but he was slower with the left for a reason Scott couldn’t see. Horse and rider were sliding rapidly. Scott heard Johnny’s voice cut through the roaring earth and his final image was of him disappearing under the weight of his mount.
Blue sky became brown as Johnny fell back. For a brief moment there was a sense of weightlessness. Instinct told him to curl into a ball to protect himself and roll. The idea would have worked except for one detail he overlooked in the madness that followed. Another thought crossed his mind when he couldn’t move one leg the way he wanted, and then that same leg was pulled sideways. He didn’t have time to see what happened before the air was knocked out of his lungs. All he could do was cry out as his horse landed on top of him, crushing him down into the earth. Dirt filled his mouth and cut into his eyes.
The moving soil cushioned some of the force, but not enough to prevent something in his body breaking. Man and beast continued down the bank, a jumble of bodies, hooves and limbs. Their slide came to a shattering halt against a rock half buried in the riverbed. Soil and rocks continued to pile on them. When the noise finally stopped, neither body moved.
Scott sprang from his horse. He ran to the lip of the slide and peered down. Through a thin film of dust at the water’s edge, he could barely make out the animal. Johnny was nowhere to be seen.
He ran back to his horse and began to untie the lariat. The knot refused to loosen and he was forced to slow down enough to remove his gloves and try again. When it was finally free he led his mount nearer to the edge, but a few feet away from the start of the slide. He hitched the horse and knotted the lariat to the saddle in a blur of movement. Then he uncurled the rope and scrambled down what he hoped was a more stable part of the embankment. He lost his footing and slid partly on his backside, the rope gripped tightly in his hand, but then he was back on his feet and running. As he got closer to the base, he could see the horse attempting to regain its feet. It managed to get up on three legs. The fourth it held at an unnatural angle.
Clearly frightened, the horse began to hobble backwards, dragging a dark shape with it from out of the dirt. As the horse shifted, Scott caught a glimpse of Johnny’s pants and pink shirt. A booted foot remained trapped in the stirrup.
“Whoa boy... easy…easy,” shushed Scott, as he held his hands out in front of his body. “You’re scared, but I can’t let you hurt Johnny anymore than he already is.” Scott’s calming voice had no impact on the horse. It shied away from Scott. Its eyes rolled so wide in fear that Scott had no trouble seeing the whites and ears flattened to its head. Behind Scott’s back he could hear more dirt sliding down as the horse changed position.
“Shoot it…Scott,” coughed Johnny as he spat out a mouthful of dirt. He swirled his tongue around his teeth and spat again.
“Johnny!” Scott stepped over to his brother and knelt down. He didn’t know where to start helping him. Dirt clung to his brother’s shape.
“Shoot it. He’s terrified, by what’s happened to him. I can’t get my foot out without your help and the more he drags me along the more its going to frighten him. He may try to bolt, lame leg and all. You gotta shoot him.”
Scott nodded, drew out his pistol and stood up. The gunshot echoed across the creek bed. Johnny cried out as the falling horse dragged him across the rough ground. The sound triggered another slide and Scott threw himself over his brother’s body as a wave of debris headed towards them. He grunted as a rock stuck his right shoulder, but he held onto Johnny’s shirt. Only when there was silence did he move. He pushed himself to his knees and shook the muck from his shoulders and hair.
“Johnny?” Scott called as he pulled his brother free of more dirt and rock. Johnny’s head rolled limply. Streaks of blood were scattered on the grubby face. Johnny was motionless.
“No!” Scott lowered his head to Johnny’s chest. Only when he was leaning his ear against his brother’s chest could he find a faint heartbeat and see it barely moving. “Thank God! You’re still alive!” He, on the other hand, could feel his own chest and head thumping with exertion and the blood ringing in his ears.
Using the time he had while Johnny was unconscious, Scott cleared the remaining dirt off his brother. Next he untangled the boot and stirrup. Johnny’s spur had somehow wedged itself in the stirrup’s side arm. It took him a few anxious seconds before it came free. Once that was done, he grabbed Johnny’s arms and towed him away from the slide. Satisfied they were out of immediate danger, he kneeled beside Johnny for a closer look at what injuries had befallen his little brother.
Moist soil hampered Scott’s task. His hands weren’t effective enough in removing the grim and he was forced to dash to the water and wet his bandana. Once he’d finished cleansing every inch of Johnny’s face and mouth as best he could, his examination located a bruise on his brother’s right cheek and an ugly gash in the hair above the right temple. Blood oozed from the cut and Scott made a mental note to find something to bandage it with. As he moved down further he unfastened the remaining buttons on Johnny’s torn shirt.
On the right hand side of the chest, along with numerous smaller cuts, he found a large bloody circular wound. Bruises were already forming around the gash. He used his fingers to press firmly against the ribs. Johnny groaned in response and his eyes flickered open. He blinked quickly and Scott figured he did so to remove specs of grit from them.
“Welcome back, brother, you had me worried there a bit. Looks like you’ve broken a few ribs there, or should I say your horse did?” Scott said lightly as he continued to explore each suspect rib. What he’d found so far didn’t look good for his brother. He would already be experiencing some discomfort and it would only intensify before they were back home.
“Stop it, will ya? groaned Johnny. He pushed Scott’s hands away. “You’re making it worse.”
“Need to know where you’re hurt, boy.” Scott grimly continued running his hands slowly down Johnny’s torso. The left side revealed no injuries.
“Everywhere hurts and all you had to do was ask me. What do you expect after what I’ve just been through?” hissed Johnny sarcastically.
“Not good enough. I need you to be more specific. Now let me finish, there’s not much more to do.”
“I don’t believe you.” Skepticism clouded Johnny’s voice and Scott smiled. Even through Johnny was lying injured and possibly badly, his humor remained.
“What about your legs? Back?” Scott’s hands ran down the right leg. The thick fabric was ripped in places, but he could find no bleeding.
Johnny shook his head and instantly regretted the small movement. A groan escaped his lips as he lifted his hand to touch his head. He drew his hand down closer to his face and stared absently at the bright blood on his dirty fingers. That was a difference he thought…seeing his blood, instead of somebody else’s he’d drawn in a gunfight. “Spinning… dizzy”
“Nasty cut and bruise on there. Could be enough to give you concussion, so try not to move.”
“Thanks for the advice and I won’t, unless you make me.” A moan escaped Johnny’s lips as long determined fingers touched his left ankle. “Uhhhhhh.”
“Appears to be sprained, maybe broken.” Scott’s voice sounded controlled in his own ears, but underneath the confident exterior he was fighting to keep calm in the situation. It was his brother lying on the ground and he didn’t need an older brother cracking under pressure. Scott had never been in adverse circumstances such as this before. Certainly he’d helped wounded comrades during the War, but this was his little brother. His own flesh and blood - even if it was only half. Johnny was a man so complex that Scott was still coming to grips with knowing and learning his ways, of seeing how he dealt with what occurred around him.
“Hurts.” Johnny closed his eyes and bit on his bottom lip. Now that Scott had brought his attention to his ankle, Johnny could feel it throbbing, along with his head, ribs and other places when he thought about it. The ankle felt worse than the others did, but that could have been because the boot was restricting the swelling.
“Yes, I’m certain it does.” Scott sat beside Johnny. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “From what I can tell, you’ve got three, maybe four, broken ribs on your right side, a sprained, possibly broken left ankle and maybe a concussion from two blows to your head. Considering a horse just rolled on you and four wagon loads of dirt landed on you as well, you don’t seem too badly hurt.”
“Yeah? I’ll swap places with you.” A smirk touched Johnny’s lips, then was gone.
“You could be worse,” Scott glanced past Johnny at the mound of horse lying at the bottom of the slide, “you could be dead.” It wasn’t a pleasant thought and he instantly regretted voicing his thoughts aloud. He shouldn’t have said that.
“Yeah, that’s right.” Johnny looked around carefully. He wasn’t about to turn his head too fast. “The horse…did you shoot it?”
There was a slight pause before Scott answered. “Afraid so. Couldn’t be helped.“ He continued, “I’m glad you weren’t riding Barranca after all.”
“Why?” Johnny frowned and looked up at his brother. If he had been riding Barranca, the outcome may have been different. Then again, maybe not.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to shoot him,” said Scott dejectedly. He quickly changed the subject from death. “Now I’ve got to see about getting you out of here and to somewhere where I can fix you up.” He eyed the hill behind Johnny’s head. “The way I see it we have two choices.”
“I see four,” murmured Johnny. The pounding in his head and ankle were getting worse. He lifted his left arm and crossed his eyes. Maybe if he shielded his eyes from the sun, it might be better.
“What are your four?”
“You could leave me here and go for help. Or you can get me up the top of the hill and go for help.”
“You leave me here and we wait for Murdoch to find us or get me up the top and we wait for Murdoch.”
“Not much of a choice is it?”
“When you get injured, there usually ain’t many good choices to make,” Johnny replied in his usual flippant manner.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Get me out of this creek bed and away from my horse. The smell will attract wolves and I never camp this close to a creek, no matter how slight the chance of rain is. Down in the border towns there ain’t much rain, but when it did you didn’t want to be anywhere near a water course.”
“I hadn’t thought of wolves or rain for that matter,” nodded Scott truthfully as he glanced up, “and it’ll be easier for Murdoch to find us if we’re out of here. I had come to the same decision as you, but for a different reason.” He turned back to look at Johnny’s face. Blood from the cut was dripping down a lock of hair and pooling on the ground. He had to tend to that and soon.
The arm was lifted and Johnny peered at his brother. “What was yours?”
“I can’t leave you alone, boy, hurt the way you are. Someone has to stay with you and until Murdoch finds us, that’s me.”
“Uh-huh,” Johnny uttered in surprise.
“You know getting you up there won’t be a piece of cake don’t you? I’ll have to use the rope and drag you up. If I try to carry you, I’m sure I’ll either drop you or we’ll both fall down. I could end up making your injuries worse than they already are,” Scott said worriedly.
“Yeah, ain’t life grand being a big brother,” sniggered Johnny.
Scott brow furrowed into a frown. He titled his hat back on his head and ran the back of his hand across his forehead. “Why’s that?”
“I’m the one hurt and you’re the oldest. You get to make the decision.” Johnny smiled and closed his eyes. Scott’s face dropped as the full implication of Johnny’s words struck him.
Scott slid the rope under Johnny’s chest and knotted it. He winced as Johnny groaned. The apologetic hand Scott placed on his brother’s shoulder shook. Both saw the tremor and as their eyes met, they recognized the same thought was in both their minds. What they were about to do wasn’t going to be easy…for either of them.
“You sure this is the choice you want me to make?” Scott was anxious. He didn’t feel comfortable about hurting his brother any further, but he needed Johnny’s reassurance that what they were doing was the best choice.
“Yeah. We need Murdoch to find us and down here he’s not likely to, unless he sees your horse. He’ll be thinking we should already be at the corral by now and he won’t bother to look down here. He may hear a gunshot, but unless we hear him first, we won’t know he’s gone past us. With the ground as soft as it is, we’d be lucky to hear his horse in time to fire off a shot. ”
“I could put you up on my horse and take you home that way,” suggested Scott.
“Chest hurts too much," replied Johnny as he held his arm against his side, “and my head feels strange. Might do more damage sitting up. Better if I stay lying down.”
“It’s going to take longer to get you home.”
“Yeah, but maybe not as painful.” Johnny grinned wryly. ”Got any Tequila in your saddlebags?”
Scott shook his head and stood up. “Ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Once I start hauling, I won’t be able to hear you. I’ll only stop when I can see you’re up on the top.”
“That sounds fair. Not very nice, but fair,” said Johnny calmly.
“I’ll see you up there.”
“Okay… and Scott?”
“But of course. Wouldn’t do it any other way.” Scott added to himself, “I hope.”
He passed one final look over his brother and turned to face the hill he was going to drag Johnny up. He’d taken the time to clear what rocks he could see and picked what he thought was the smoothest path possible. Now all he had to do was climb up the hill, get on his horse and haul him up. It all sounds so easy…
“Please God, I don’t want to let him down and I don’t want to hurt him. He’s relying on me to help him.”
After Scott had Johnny out of the watercourse and safely up the embankment, he threw himself off his horse and ran to his brother. Johnny was unconscious, which wasn’t a surprise. Scott quickly checked Johnny’s still form to make sure he hadn’t been injured further. When he found nothing, Scott untied the rope from brother and horse. Next he unhitched the saddle and placed it against the trunk of a shady tree. The saddle blanket was spread out so that Johnny would have a drier surface to lie on and be supported partly upright against the saddle.
Satisfied with his preparations, Scott slipped one arm under his brother’s back and the other under his knees. He grunted as he maneuvered first one leg, then the second until he had lifted Johnny off the ground. A slight shifting of the arm behind Johnny’s back and had the weight balanced in his arms. Scott staggered to the makeshift bed and gently lowered Johnny onto it.
He had to take a few deep breaths to recover from the effort. Although Johnny looked slight and narrow hipped, it belied a strong, muscular body. One that was deceptive in how heavy it really weighed. He then turned to taking care of his bother’s injuries.
The only suitable item he could find to make bandages out of was his own shirt which he hurriedly removed and set about ripping into strips. Johnny’s shirt was torn, but Scott didn’t want to use it because he would have nothing to keep him warm with and it was covered in dirt. He also needed something cleaner to use for the head wound. Bandaging Johnny’s ribs was Scott’s first task. He set the cloth out within easy reach and lifted his brother’s shoulders off the saddle and lent him against his own chest. Johnny’s head rolled against his own and Scott could smell the damp earth in the black hair. He reached down and began wrapping the bandaging around Johnny’s torso. There wasn’t a lot to use, but he hoped it was a secure as he could make it and would support the ribs.
Scott gently lowered Johnny back onto his temporary bed and began on the head gash. It was while he was tending to this wound, when Johnny began to stir.
“Why didn’t you tell Murdoch that you’d already started repairing the corral yesterday?” Scott gently tied off the remaining bandage. His brother was fully conscious and very much aware of his surroundings. While Johnny was unconscious, Scott’s thoughts keep turning back to the earlier strained conversation between his father and brother.
Johnny shrugged, grabbed his side winced. “He didn’t seem to want to care about what I had to say. He wasn’t much at listening was he? More about ordering us around.”
“No, I’d have to agree with you there. When are you going to get it into your thick skull that baiting Murdoch won’t help you?”
“I’m getting better! Ain’t I?” asked Johnny anxiously, but with the hint of a smile tickling the corners of his mouth.
“A little,” snorted Scott. “You could always improve your efforts.”
“Hard work taking orders from him. He doesn’t let me say anything,” Johnny protested.
“That’s because he’s used to running this place all by himself and giving the orders. He’s having a difficult time too, you know. He’s still the boss, but he wants our ideas.”
“Yours maybe, but not mine. As far as he’s concerned, I know squat about ranching.”
“If you show him what you can do and give him time, then he’ll do the same for you.”
“Not if he won’t give me a chance.”
Scott didn’t know what to say. He covered up his silence by picking up some branches and twigs in preparation for making a fire.
“You know if this had happened to me a few years ago, I’d a been dead for sure. I had to survive as best I could, usually by myself,” Johnny said thickly.
Scott nodded as he took a match from his pocket and struck it. The kindling was slow to take hold and he lent over to blow lightly on the flames. “Before I joined the Army,” he replied, “my grandfather did that for me. Life in Boston wasn’t without its privileges and its comforts. I managed to get myself into a few scrapes at times, but Grandfather always got me out of them.”
Scott expected a caustic reply or at least some sort of agreement from his injured brother. Instead silence greeted him and he glanced at Johnny’s face.
His brother’s head was pressed back, hard into his saddle. His fingers were tight white fists around the edges of the saddle blanket. The cobalt blue eyes hidden behind tightly shut eyelids and his pale red lips were pinched together. Johnny’s breath noisily hissed through his flared nostrils. Glistening beads of sweat pebbled on his forehead and one began to roll down the right side of his face towards the pitch-black hair. There was nothing Scott could do to ease his brother’s torment except be close to him.
“Easy Johnny...easy. Ride it out…you can do it...not much longer.”
The relaxing of Johnny’s shoulders back onto the ground told him the spasms had passed. Although his bother’s breathing was quieter, Scott saw his chest rising and falling sharply. His pain had to be fierce, but hopefully not as intense as what he’d just experienced. When Johnny’s eyes slowly reopened, Scott winked at him. “Bad one?”
“Yeah,” grunted Johnny as he choked back the urge to vomit.
“Yeah,” he swallowed again. “Talk to me, Scott…take my mind off my misery.”
“What do you want me to talk about?”
“What was it like? In the war I mean?”
“At least I knew who I was fighting and in which direction they were coming from. They weren’t wearing the same colored clothes as I. I could see them in the trenches they’d dug and they no doubt saw us in ours. A green field and a fence were all that separated us in one battle. The grass was so lovely and thick and so where the rolling hills. When a strong wind blew, you could see the strands waving.”
Scott fed some more branches into the fire. It was going to be a long, cold night and he couldn’t afford the fire dying out. The wood was damp, but the fire was building. Johnny would need all the warmth his brother could give him. They hadn’t bothered to bring any bedrolls or food with them. The corral repairs weren’t going to take long to complete and certainly not into darkness. They would have been home in time for supper.
He peered down the road, his eyes searching for a sighting of his father. Surely he wouldn’t be much longer. It couldn’t be much longer thought Scott. It was going to be hours before Murdoch or he rode to the ranch for a wagon and returned. They’d also need to throw in some blankets, food and pain medicine. And possibly some more bandages for Johnny’s ribs. He wasn’t comfortable with what how he’d tended to them. He didn’t feel the ribs were bound enough for a rough ride home. Johnny’s quiet voice broke into his thoughts.
“Uh-huh. Ya know it’s nice,” sighed Johnny.
“What is Johnny?” Scott couldn’t keep the puzzlement from his voice. “War?”
“Having someone to watch over me.”
“Glad to help brother. And I’ll always be around to watch over you.”
“Even if I don’t need it?” grinned Johnny.
Scott was solemn. “Even if you don’t need it.”
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