To Kate who kept telling me to stop sweating the small stuff
... so I took her advice.
The windowpane was startlingly cold against his too-warm cheek, and at the shocking initial contact, he immediately jerked away. The abrupt movement increased the roaring din in his ears and sent lightning bolts of pain skittering from his still-tender side to his already pounding head. ‘Shouldn’t have missed that last laudanum dose,’ he mused, as he stepped gingerly back from the offending glass. Shivering from the brief encounter, he pulled the homemade afghan tighter around his neck and shoulders and peered outside. The overcast December skies dimmed with the onset of dusk, yet he could still make out the solitary figure of his brother riding away from the ranch. An intense sadness welled up inside him ... sadness and regret. ‘It’s because of me,’ he thought mournfully. ‘He still blames himself for what happened.’
Sick at heart, Scott Lancer turned his face away from the window and peered back through the shadowy dimness of the bedroom. A lone kerosene lamp lit the area surrounding his bed with a warm, inviting glow, and he felt a compelling tug in its direction. He allowed himself to be pulled forward and shuffled slowly toward its beckoning comfort. However, a tiny spark of anger ignited within him, and as he neared the bed, smoldering embers kindled into a flame that burned brighter and hotter with each successive step.
‘Just a week ago he promised to put this all behind him!’ he thought, feeling resentment fan the already burning anger. Abruptly, he veered toward the dresser and began haphazardly pulling clothes from the drawers. He selected a cream-colored flannel shirt, tucked it beneath his right arm, then added hand-knit socks, woolen undergarments and leather gloves to his collection. With these items clutched in his hands, Scott made for the bed again, but another detour took him to the small occasional table near the side window. There, lying on a linen doily and painstakingly wrapped in white tissue paper, was his Christmas gift from Johnny. He scooped it up in his left hand and continued on his original course. Cautiously easing himself down onto the side of the mattress, Scott rested for a moment before doffing the crocheted blanket from his shoulders and depositing the clothing beside him.
The only item left in his hand was the tiny package Johnny had given him. He turned it over, examining every fold and crease, before reaching for the twine that held the wrapping together. As he untied it, the paper blossomed, peeling away from the gift inside. Fingering the remaining tissue out of the way, he opened the small box and gazed down at the contents. Two small pink figures stared back up at him with wide confection eyes.
The sight of his brother’s perceptive gift brought an involuntary sob to the back of his throat. He managed to bite it back, but his chest muscles constricted painfully, as though the outcry he held captive inside was too much for the small space within.
With extreme care, he deposited the box and its contents on the bed table, then, as quickly as his weakened body would allow, he dressed himself in the heavy winter clothing. When he was finished, he forced himself upright and started for the door.
Already unsteady on his feet, Scott’s equilibrium momentarily winked out when he arrived at the threshold. Reaching for the singular, round doorknob, he was filled with a sudden confusion as it duplicated right in front of his eyes into two ... then three ... wavering spheres. In another time and another place, he might’ve been tempted to surrender to his frailty and crawl back to the haven of his sick bed, but now that weakness only served to fuel an inner strength and iron will. With a renewed resoluteness of purpose, his hand again sought out the doorknob, and he felt a grim satisfaction when his fingers curled around the tangible smooth surface. He rotated the knob, pulled and finally succeeded in opening the heavy oaken door. The added exertion cultivated beads of perspiration on his forehead and back. The latter slid down his spine, merging with other droplets to effectively dampen the whole of his woolen undershirt. Shaking with a sudden cold and fatigue, Scott swiped grudgingly at his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt, then strode stiffly between the door frame.
He emerged into total darkness. Almost immediately, an icy wind rudely slapped his face and harshly sucked the breath from his lungs. The cold weather brought tears to his eyes, and he reacted with a short, involuntary gasp. Hunkering down against the elements, he descended the outside stairs and fought his way to the barn.
Once inside, he was forced to sit and recoup his waning strength. The sound of his own heartbeat thrummed loudly in his ears, and the niggling pain in his side was no longer just a minor annoyance. He couldn’t afford to acknowledge the distraction, however, so he quickly set to work, lurching to a standing position and selecting a horse. Lifting a heavy saddle and securing it were beyond his current physical capabilities, so he stepped up on a bale of hay, mounted the nearest beast and rode off into the cold winter night.
"Can you believe this weather?”
Johnny Lancer looked up from his task of heating a breakfast of day-old beans and bacon in a single frying pan. “What about it?” he answered, chuckling at the sight of the lump that was his older brother. The sun had been up for more than an hour, and Scott was still entrenched in his bedroll.
“How lovely it is out here in mid-December.”
“Well, brother dear, that might have something to do with the fact that you’re still lying there all snug and cozy in that warm bedroll of yours. Some of us more industrious types have been up since before daybreak. And, believe me, it wasn’t very balmy at sunrise!”
At this, Scott suddenly sat up and tossed the confining blanket aside. Blinking into the bright, early morning sun, he yawned widely, then let his lips relax into a slightly wistful grin. “You should see Boston at this time of year, Johnny ... snow and ice everywhere ... people all dressed up in layers and layers of clothes. It’s so cold that your words freeze in mid-sentence and just hang in the air until they thaw in the spring.”
His younger brother wrinkled his nose at the statement and shot him a look of disbelief.
Scott adopted an indignant air and continued unabated. “By now, my grandfather should have a 12-foot tree up in the foyer, and the packages under it will be stacked three and four-layers high. Mathilda ... that’s one of our cooks ... will have spent hours sculpting tiny marzipan animals and lining them up, two by two, on the dining room buffet. She always used to set them out to tempt me because she knew how much I loved marzipan. But then she’d go and complain when I helped myself to ... a few ...” The smile on his handsome face grew pensive.
“Missing home, eh?” Johnny said softly.
Gray-blue eyes sought out and locked with azure, but Scott severed the visual connection almost immediately. Sometimes the intuitiveness of his newfound younger brother was disturbing. Shaking his head slightly, he said, “I don’t think so.”
A disbelieving snort met his ears, and he felt the blood rush to his face and ears. Embarrassed, he reached out, helped himself to a plate of food and continued. “Well, not that much anyway. You ... and Murdoch and Teresa ... you’re my family now ... and Lancer is my home. I guess we get to start on a whole different set of traditions this year.”
“Well, they’ll definitely be new to me,” Johnny said, chewing enthusiastically. “Most I ever remember getting for Christmas was a stick of candy from a visiting priest.”
At this Scott grew somber and quiet, and both men finished their breakfast in silence.
Later, after they had washed and packed away the utensils, Scott cleared his throat. “Uh ... Johnny?”
“I didn’t mean to sound all uppity there ... going on and on about how grand my Christmases were. Sometimes I forget that you didn’t have the same ... upbringing I did. I’m sorry...”
“What for? Having a privileged youth? Ain’t no need to be sorry for something you couldn’t help ... anymore than I have a right to feel sorry for the things I didn’t have.” Johnny let an easy grin brighten the finely-chiseled features of his face. “You don’t miss what you never had, Scott.” His words and twinkling blue eyes seemed to bring about the desired emotional effect.
Scott stood and stretched the stiffness from his rigid muscles, then joined his brother beside the fire. “So,” he asked, changing the subject, “What’s our plan today?”
Johnny picked up his saddle blanket and threw it over his horse’s broad back. “No plan really. Just ride up into those hills and hunt down the mountain lion that’s been helping himself to our cattle. Why? You in a hurry?”
Scott’s long fingers worked at smoothing his tousled, ash-blond hair into some semblance of order. He bent forward, retrieved his own horse blanket. “Well, I ordered Murdoch a special one-of-a-kind rifle for Christmas and, as of yesterday, it hadn’t arrived. I’m getting worried that it won’t be here by next week.”
Johnny threw the saddle over Barranca’s back, leaned under the animal and grabbed the cinch. “One-of-a-kind? That’s sounds rather expensive.”
“Mmmhmmm ... even had his name engraved on the stock.”
“Must’ve cost you a month’s worth of wages.”
“Near about. So what’d you get him?”
“Nothin’ yet. He’s kinda hard to buy for.”
“I know what you mean.” Scott stooped over, lifted his saddle with a muffled grunt. “So, what have you got for Teresa?”
“Nothin’ yet. She’s kinda hard to buy for.”
Flinging the saddle onto his horse, Scott’s voice was amplified with the effort. “And I suppose I’m kinda hard to buy for too?”
Johnny grinned toothily, placed his left foot in the stirrup and swung easily into the saddle. “You know, Boston, you never cease to amaze me. You’re absolutely right ... again! Race you to the top of Rocky Head!” With that, he repositioned his wayward hat onto his head and urged his mount forward.
Momentarily stunned, Scott watched as his younger brother galloped away. Then, “Wait up! Darn you, Johnny! I don’t even have my saddle on yet. JOHNNY!!!”
Tattered dark clouds periodically hid the late afternoon sun, substantially cooling the air and bringing a deep stillness to the land. Morning had departed with no initial progress or sightings, and in the hours since breakfast, the Lancer brothers had spotted only two other living beings – a noisy, circling hawk and the unfortunate jack rabbit that became his meal.
After stopping for a quick lunch of beef jerky, both men continued the almost vertical climb up the side of Rocky Head. Located in the northernmost corner of the Lancer ranch, it was aptly named for rocks of all shapes, colors and sizes virtually covered the landscape. Huge stones jutted out of the ground, casting giant shadows over the terrain. Above them were earthen parapets and rock ledges, and still higher lay a series of caverns with interconnecting passages and tunnels. A man or animal could safely bivouac for months against any enemy in that maze, and it was this highest section of the mountain that made Scott Lancer more than a little troubled.
“Scott! Over here!”
The sound of his brother’s excited voice brought his gaze downward from the rocky precipice above. To his left, he could see Johnny rocking back and forth on his heels, and he directed his horse toward the site.
“Woooweee! Wouldja just look at the size of these prints! That cat must be well over five feet long.”
At first, he was disappointed to learn that only the prints of the animal they were hunting had been found, but on closer inspection, his heart beat faster with anticipation. The tracks showed an animal with paws the size of flapjacks. “So, where do you think he is right now?”
Johnny returned to a standing position, then pointed toward the overhanging ledge directly above them. “Up there ... probably watching us right at this very moment.”
In spite of himself, Scott raised anxious eyes to the earthy protuberance. “Um ... I don’t want to be a wet blanket to your obvious enthusiasm, but it appears to me that we just might be at a slight disadvantage down here.”
Johnny retrieved his horse and bolted into the saddle. “What’s the matter, Scott? Feelin’ a might edgy?”
“More than a ‘might’.”
“Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret. So’m I. And the longer we stay in the shadow of that ledge, the more nervous I get. Come on, let’s go.” Johnny directed Barranca forward, but the sensitive animal balked, stepping backward instead. He tossed his head from side to side, and his hooves pranced restlessly up and down on the uneven ground.
“What’s the matter with him?” Scott said as he made to mount his own horse.
“I don’t know. He seems edgier than both of us put together. I don’t like it, Scott. I think we should go back to...” He never got to finish the sentence. Ear-splitting feline screams tore the daylight asunder. The cat’s snarling crescendos seemed to come from everywhere around them, and both men and horses reacted.
Unexpectedly, his horse reared, sending an unprepared Johnny heels over head from the saddle. He hit the ground hard but recovered almost immediately. Springing up, he yelled “Barranca!” and added the special whistle that almost always made the horse reverse and return to his master. But this time, it was to no avail. He watched helplessly as the animal galloped away, down the rocky cliffs and back toward the ranch. To make matters worse, he was joined by Scott’s riderless mount, and Johnny stomped his foot in helpless frustration.
“Damn it!” He spat the curse and whirled on his brother. “What the hell happened to you? Now we’ve lost our horses, our rifles, and all our supplies! We’re stuck out here in the middle of nowhere, on foot, with a thunderstorm brewing to the north and a puma the size of Goliath breathing down our backsides.”
Anger rose up in Scott, but he capped his own emotional explosion. He’d known Johnny for almost six months, long enough to realize that most of the man’s verbal temper tantrums were really directed back at himself, and a quick apology would be forthcoming. He stooped over to retrieve his hat but froze in mid-bend. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a huge mountain lion, directly above where his brother now stood. It was crouched down and poised to spring.
Less than twenty feet away, Johnny Lancer fumed in silence. An unnecessary long hike back to the ranch loomed large in his future. Complicating matters, they also had no food, no water, and no shelter from what looked to be heavy rain storms gathering in the north. And then there was the very real problem of the overgrown wild cat. Johnny sighed and looked over toward his brother. What he saw made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. Less than fifty feet from Scott was an approaching mountain lion. Its sole focus was on its intended victim, and his brother wasn’t even aware of the danger.
His gun appeared in his hand before a warning shout could leave his lips. “Scott!” he screamed, simultaneously firing two quick rounds toward the encroaching beast. “Look out!”
He heard his brother’s voice just before something smacked him hard in the side, knocking him back to the ground. From his prone position, he watched as a second cat, bending and twisting in mid-air, barely missed the spot where he had a split-second before been standing. A shadow fell over his face; instinctively, he fired a third time. The pain-filled grunt that ensued filled him with a grim satisfaction. Rolling over and pushing himself up on all fours, he crabbed sideways, then regained his feet. “Scott!” He yelled for his brother once more. “Get to one of the small caves and cover yourself with brush. I think I hit one of them, and he’s gonna be even more dangerous to deal with. Stay down and stay quiet!”
With that, he was up and running, sprinting the several yards between his position and a small depression he’d already eyed in the side of the cliff. Diving for it, he burrowed inside, then reached back and pulled as much dead brush and weeds as he could manage behind him. When he finished, he was breathing heavily, and his heart was slamming painfully against his ribs and diaphragm. He wanted to yell again, get some response from his silent brother, but with the cats’ near position he didn’t dare risk it. As if in confirmation, a feral growl came from close by, and he froze in terror. The deafening sounds of his heartbeat and his ragged breaths frustrated him. With the distraction, he couldn’t pinpoint either animal’s exact location, but after a moment, he knew he didn’t need his sense of hearing. Through the tangled pattern of dried leaves and twigs covering the entrance to his hideaway, he could see the heads and bodies of two magnificent mountain lions. The larger of the beasts, a male, was at least five feet, four inches long and had a lean, muscular body. Its mate was also unusually large for a lioness. Both animals treaded lightly on the rock-strewn ground; neither seemed in any kind of hurry, as if they both knew their prey was practically defenseless.
Johnny glanced at the almost useless pistol he still gripped in his hand. The small caliber bullets could maim but, unless his aim was perfect, they wouldn’t kill the monsters drawing ever nearer to his hiding place. Finally, when it seemed as if they couldn’t help but know his exact position, they abruptly veered off. As he watched them turn and move away, Johnny heaved a great, silent sigh, lowered his head and murmured a silent prayer of thanksgiving.
Darkness slowly crept in, pushing the reluctant daylight past the edge of the western sky. Still squatting uncomfortably in the small recess he’d found, Johnny remained frozen in the same position. His legs had long ago lost all feeling, and he knew if the cats should find him, he would be completely defenseless. At this moment, he was physically incapable of running ... or even walking ... away.
The cats’ howls seemed to move about several times during the interminable wait. At first so close he knew they could hear his heart racing, they had fanned out, separated, encircling the area at least twice. Coming up with nothing, they screamed their disappointment loudly, then relocated somewhere far behind him. His ears could only discern the occasional snarls of frustration as they nursed their disappointment. As night continued to advance, the noises dissipated until finally, they disappeared altogether.
Worry gnawed at his insides, yet Johnny was still reluctant to move. If he were to be caught, and if Scott were lying out there somewhere, injured, then he would be unable to help him. He forced himself to wait another few moments and, when the cats still didn’t return, allowed his rump to settle onto the ground. The rustle that slight movement made paralyzed him again, and he remained still for a few minutes more. Finally, when he was reasonably certain that the animals weren’t going to swoop down on him, he pushed away the twigs and leaves, then stretched out his numb legs. He rubbed and massaged both until life came screaming back into them. Wriggling his toes, Johnny forced his feet to full wakefulness and lurched to a wobbly standing position. Once upright, he again froze and listened to the sounds around him.
Approaching nightfall had ceased the hawk’s endless daylight cries. Now nocturnal creatures took up the melody, clicking and chirping wantonly to prospective mates.
Johnny took a tentative step, then another and another, until he was stiffly trampling in the opposite direction from where he had last heard the cats’ cries. He moved as swiftly as his stiff muscles would allow, keeping a sharp eye out for any unusual clumping or shaping in the bordering cliffs. He hoped to find his lost brother before the steadily declining light disappeared entirely.
The whisper was hoarse and quiet, so low to the ground that Johnny at first thought he had imagined it. He paused, straining his ears to hear, and was rewarded with the sound of his name again.
“Down here,” came from a quaking thicket of brush and dried vegetation. Johnny tossed aside the dead bushes, revealing a blood-smeared Scott, huddled inside a makeshift den.
“Oh my God!” Johnny said, dropping quickly to his knees and tugging at Scott’s shirt. “Did they get you? Where are you hurt?”
“... accident ... not your fault ... when I pushed you out of the way ...” Scott forced the words through clenched teeth.
The younger Lancer brother blanched as he suddenly recalled the gun appearing like magic in his hand, the sound of the explosions as he fired at the first menacing cat. Then he remembered the anonymous shove, the airborne cat, and another instinctive report of his gun. And he remembered the unknown shadow and the sharp blurt of pain. Realization hit him hard, ripping the breath from him. “I did this?” he gasped, his voice rife with disbelief and horror. “Oh my God, Scott, I’m so sorry... didn’t mean to. I didn’t see you ... ”
Even as he spoke, he could see a dark, welling depression through the ripped, blood-soaked shirt. He eased Scott into a reclining position, pulled the sodden cloth away from the injury and sagged in momentary defeat. It was an ugly, tearing wound, located just below and to the right of Scott’s navel, and it was bleeding freely.
Reaching in his pocket, he yanked out a white, linen handkerchief, wadded it into a thick square and jammed it into the puncture, pressing hard. His actions brought an immediate wavering cry from Scott. Instinctively, Johnny’s free hand moved to clamp down on his brother’s mouth, and Scott stared up at him with wide, pain-filled eyes.
“I’m sorry, Scott. I know it hurts, but you can’t make a sound. Those damned cats may still be in the area, and I’ve only got a couple of bullets left. Do you understand?”
Scott managed a curt nod, then closed his eyes in agony.
Johnny turned his attention back to dressing the wound. He pressed down again on the wadded handkerchief, holding it in place as he tried in vain to staunch the flow of blood. He felt Scott’s body stiffen beneath his hand, saw his brother’s face go ashen in the twilight, but the injured man remained steadfastly silent. He pulled his own shirttails from his trousers, tore a wide strip off, then wrapped that piece around Scott’s body, tying it tightly, but the makeshift bandage was already saturated and, in spite of the pressure, blood continued to seep through to stream ominously down Scott’s side. “It’s not stopping!” He almost sobbed the words.
On the northern horizon, lightning bolts flickered, illuminating the approaching blackness. Almost immediately, thunder rumbled in the distance.
“Oh, great!” Scott whispered. “First mountain lions ... now rain. Think you can find us a nice ... cat-proof ... cave somewhere near here, brother?”
Although he struggled to keep it light, Johnny caught the hint of fear laced in Scott’s voice. It scared him too. “We’ll find shelter soon, Boston. I’ll get you out of this, brother. Just hang on, please.” Abruptly, he stood, listening carefully for any signs of life other than forest dwellers. “I think the cats have moved on,” he said hopefully and squatted back down. Squinting into the ever-encroaching darkness, he peered toward the animals’ last known position.
Scott looked up at him with slitted eyes. “What are you going to do?”
“Find that safe haven you requested, some place out of the elements. You’re going to need shelter and a fire. He leaned over his prone brother. “I’ll be back as soon as I can ... probably won’t need to go far. These steppes have caverns just about everywhere and in every size.”
With mixed emotions, Scott watched Johnny until the only things visible in the darkness were his silver spurs. When those, too, were swallowed up by night’s blanket, he lay alone in the darkness, uncertain of what, if anything, to do until Johnny returned. Curiously, he let his hand rest lightly on his abdomen, gently maneuvering it across and down his side. His sensitive fingers told him the bleeding hadn’t stopped. Blood continued to leak through the layers of linen and trickle down his side to pool on the ground beneath him. He wiped his sticky fingers on the grass and sighed regretfully. His own mortality was something he could face without fear; but his biggest regret would be leaving his brother behind with the guilt of his death.
“It’s not your fault, Johnny,” Scott breathed aloud. He was panting now, his breaths catching occasionally in his throat as he struggled to keep from crying out. “I didn’t have to push you out of the way ... but I chose to! I hope you understand ... if something ... should happen. It won’t be your fault. Remember that.”
A series of lightning flashes lit the night sky, making everything temporarily visible. Scott closed his eyes against the burst of thunder, impotently bracing against the steadily mounting pain.
Raindrops, at first sparse and tiny, began to drizzle from the heavy clouds. Almost immediately, they became larger and heavier, and a howling wind arose.
As the downpour began, Johnny crept back. Hunkering down beside his brother, he noted Scott’s pallor in the white light of the storm, saw the clenched fists. “I’ll remember,” he whispered over the clamor of the storm. He placed a hand over Scott’s face, ineffectually shielding him from the rain. “Scott?” He called out his brother’s name, but there was no reaction. A touch of his hand on the damp cheek yielded no response; Scott had lost consciousness.
Although the unusual warmth of the day had been wiped out by the intense thunderstorms, the dismal dugout was still stiflingly warm. In one corner, a single pile of a previous occupant’s rotting dung added to the oppressive stench of stale urine that permeated the air. Cool, soft breezes, laced with the refreshing odors of rain and pine, filtered through the single opening above, but the freshness wilted almost immediately in the foul odor of the cave.
Johnny noted their bleak environment with distaste, but he couldn’t afford to dwell on it. It had been all that he could find and, with Scott’s condition and the still-real threat of the cats, there had been no opportunity for choice. Besides, there was another matter of urgency to attend, and he busied himself with nursing a sickly fire.
Although relocating Scott had been relatively painless for the semi-conscious man, the movement seemed to worsen the bleeding. He had already lost a significant amount, but now, it was becoming disturbingly obvious to Johnny that Scott was in danger of bleeding to death before his eyes.
Johnny maneuvered Scott’s limp body onto the hard dirty floor. The movement forced the awakening Scott to frown, but he still made no sound.
“Gotta get these soaked clothes off you,” Johnny said as he doffed his own rain-drenched shirt. “I’ll leave the bandage in place and take it off at the last possible moment.”
“What are you going to do, Johnny?” Scott asked hollowly. There was an undisguised anxiety in his voice.
“The only thing I know to do in a situation like this,” Johnny said, stoking the fire to a larger blaze and wiping away the droplets of rain and perspiration from his chin and forehead. He removed his knife from its sheath, pierced the yellow center of the flame with the metal tip, and left the blade there, then returned to his brother.
He tugged at a stubborn sock, finally removing it and its mate, and flinging them across the dugout. When he turned his attention to the wound, he touched the bandage on Scott’s abdomen tentatively. A fresh stream of dark-colored blood gushed from beneath and oozed out to stain his brother’s damp briefs.
Scott watched Johnny’s ministrations with a mixture of curiosity and dread. Now completely awake and alert, he shivered with a sudden chill and surveyed his gloomy surroundings. “God ... what stinks in here?”
“Presents ... left by former inhabitants,” Johnny replied.
“How thoughtful of ... them ...” started as a whisper and ended in a sharp intake of breath.
“Is it bad, Boston?”
“Not yet, but it’s getting there.” he whispered. “... I can handle it.”
“Sure you can. Nothin’ to it, right?” Johnny smiled at the encouraging, sarcastic snort he received in reply.
“Been shot worse lotsa times ...” Scott said. He was quiet for several moments. Then, “Johnny?”
The teasing tone had changed, and Johnny heard an unfamiliar desperation in his brother’s voice. “Yes, Scott.”
“ I don’t want you to hold yourself responsible. This wasn’t your fault. It was just an accident. No matter what happens ... no matter what the outcome ... promise me that you won’t eat yourself up about it!”
“Shhhh, save your strength ...”
“Will you listen to me!” Scott’s voice was stronger, resolute, but the incessant panting changed suddenly to short pain-filled gasps.
Johnny sought Scott’s hand in the darkness, gripped the long, cool fingers reassuringly. “I’m listening,” he said quietly, forcing himself to remain calm for his brother’s sake.
“ ... okay ...” the breathless voice continued, “ ... okay ... if I don’t make it ... I don’t want you to blame yourself for the rest of your life. It was an accident; it could have happened to anybody... ” Scott’s hand squeezed harder, then jerked convulsively in Johnny’s.
“Easy. Take it easy.”
“I don’t want this to be an albatross on your shoulder. Promise me that you won’t let guilt eat you up, destroy the rest of your life.”
Johnny clamped down on his emotions, swallowed the lump of fear that rose suddenly in the back of his throat. When he could finally speak, he said, “Don’t worry about it, Scott. It’s not going to happen. I’m going to get you out of this.”
“ ... but, if you can’t ... Johnny ... if you can’t ... I don’t think I can go in peace knowing that you’ll blame yourself ... ”
“Scott, please stop talking like this!”
The continued effort to communicate was costing Scott dearly, but a growing terror fed the struggle to speak. He met Johnny’s tortured face. “ ... please ... promise me ...” he whispered.
Johnny looked deeply into the worried gray eyes and hesitated. Finally, “All right, Scott. I promise.”
At this, Scott’s hand relaxed, and the weak gasps diminished again. “But if you don’t keep your promise ...” he began, caught his breath as a sharp spasm of pain threatened to rip him in half. When he could breathe again, he continued, “If you don’t, Johnny ... I’ll ... I’ll ... come back to haunt you at ... the most ... inopportune time ...”
Johnny put a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “It won’t come to that, Scott. I won’t let it.” He paused for a moment, then lowered his voice. “Besides, we have a more pressing problem.”
Scott look up at him bleakly.
“The bleeding isn’t stopping on its own. You know what I’m going to have to do.”
Scott was silent for a long moment as the implications of Johnny’s words unfolded. At last he said, “What about the cats? If they’re nearby ... well, without something ... I’m going to yell my guts out.”
“I know ... I know!” Johnny said sympathetically. “But I think we’re safe here. The cave opening’s only big enough for one cat at a time. I can nail ‘em dead center at this range.” He turned away from his brother, suddenly unable to look him in the eyes. “Scott, I don’t want to do this,” was an agonized whisper.
“I already have. Now do me a favor?”
Johnny turned around, met his brother’s earnest gaze. “Anything.”
“Hurry up and get it over with, willya? This waiting’s starting to hurt worse than any treatment ever could.” Even in his weakened condition, Scott managed a tremulous smile. It was a soothing ointment to his younger brother’s invisible wounds.
“Why don’t you come with us, Johnny?” Teresa finished pulling on her thick, mouton gloves, then reached to smooth the woolen blanket that covered the lower half of her body. Their Sunday-go-to-meeting surrey had been designed for looks, not practicality, and provided almost no protection from the December chill that had finally settled in the San Joachin Valley.
Standing beside the buggy, Johnny applied a faint smile to his lips. “Nah,” he said in a low voice. “Sittin’ in a church fulla dressed-up people just ain’t my style.”
“But it’s Christmas Eve. Everything will be so beautiful tonight with all the candles and singing. We’d be together as a family, for the first time ever.”
At this, Johnny jerked his head up. “No, we wouldn’t,” he snapped, regretting the harshness of his tone even as the words tumbled out. Teresa’s youthful face registered shock and hurt at the curtness of his reply. Reaching out a conciliatory hand, he took her small gloved one in his own, squeezed it tenderly. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I only meant that ... well ... with Scott not able to go, we really wouldn’t all be there.”
The slight smile she managed didn’t quite make it all the way up to her large brown eyes. “You’re right, of course. It’s just that ... I so wanted us all to be there. But I understand.” She loosened her hand from his grasp, scooted farther back on the hard seat, and pretended to straighten the blanket again.
“Johnny’ll be all right here, Teresa,” Murdoch interceded. “He’ll keep Scott company until we get back. Perhaps they’ll both join us for dinner and presents later on this evening.” The older man leaned out of the coach, scrutinizing his son closely. “Are you all right, boy? It appears to me you’ve been brooding about something ever since you got back from San Francisco day before yesterday.”
“I ... I’m fine, Murdoch.” He wanted to look up, peer into the faded blue eyes of his father one final time, but he kept his own gaze glued to the ground. The old man was as perceptive as Scott and would see completely into his soul. He didn’t want his plans revealed, not until he was ready to unveil them himself.
Johnny watched as Murdoch reluctantly pulled his upper body back inside the buggy. It was obvious that his answer hadn’t satisfied him, and Johnny knew that time was short. Murdoch would dwell on it all the way to Morro Coyo, perhaps even through the service. But if he was lucky, his father wouldn’t arrive at the truth until it was long past time to do anything about it. The younger Lancer moved forward, touched one of the horses on the rump. “Go on now, or you’ll be late. We’ll be just fine here.”
Murdoch gave his son another sharply intense glance, then reluctantly clicked to the horses to move. Johnny watched them depart, and as the buggy neared the Lancer entrance archway, he lowered his head. “Goodbye Teresa ... goodbye ... Mur ... father.”
Turning quickly on his heel, he jaunted up the outside stairway that took him to Scott’s room. He opened the door, being careful not to let it creak, and went in. The air inside was considerably warmer, making the heavy odor of sickness even more unmistakable. The smell brought back unwelcome memories of another time, another place, another patient, and he shoved those thoughts into the back recesses of his mind. He tried not to think of his mother any more, at least not that last year he had spent with her, the year she lay dying in a room that smelled oh-so-much like this one.
He shook off the unwanted recollection and tiptoed over to the bed where his brother lay. The soft amber glow of a small kerosene lamp added warmth and color to Scott’s cheeks, and he stood beside the sleeping man, gazing down at him. After tonight, he would not see his brother again, at least not in this lifetime, and his eyes hungrily registered his sibling’s facial features, filing them away in his mind for future reference.
Ash-blond hair lay in damp ragged swirls on Scott’s aristocratic forehead, and his straight nose and high cheekbones lent their own aspects to a kind of nobility. His pewter-blue eyes were closed, but long lashes, comprised of the unlikely combination of gold and silver threads, rested upon dark moon-like circles. That he had suffered, and greatly, was still quite evident.
Johnny stepped back, momentarily staggered by the intensity of the unbidden memories that suddenly arose. The horrifying occurrence in the cave was etched forever on the canvas of his mind. He could still see his brother’s face as his own right hand wielded the glowing instrument of torture... could see the white-hot knife plunge downward in slow, deliberate motion... could still smell the overpowering stench of burning human flesh. His own body straddled his brother’s, one leg draped across Scott’s slender hips to hold him still, and as the knife touched the wound, Scott’s slim torso arched upward helplessly. A single agonizing scream started ... then abruptly ceased.
In the loud echoing silence that followed, Johnny’s steady hands maneuvered the blade around and inside the wound. His face was set, his entire mind and body focused singularly on the task at hand. In slow motion, he saw himself remove the knife and examine the wound closely. Hesitating for only a moment, the broad shoulders squared suddenly in determination, and Johnny carefully reinserted the knife into the puncture. When he removed it a second time, his free hand touched the blade as it emerged, and his blood-stained fingers closed around a tiny metallic object -- the bullet -- his bullet.
There was no water to cleanse the wound, no liquid to wash his hands, but an examination of the injury showed that the bleeding had stopped. Satisfied that the treatment was successful, he moved away from his brother’s unconscious body and allowed his own physically and emotionally exhausted frame to collapse. Bonelessly, he fell to his knees and let the scalding tears of grief, regret and frustration come. After a time, the intensity of feeling and terrible sobbing dwindled to only an occasional dry catch in the back of his throat. Finally, virtually drained of all emotion, he felt fatigue reach out to embrace him. Eager to escape a physical world that now offered only pain and despair, he surrendered, letting himself be swallowed up by a dark, emotionless oblivion.
By morning, a pale winter sun that brought no warmth to the suddenly chill air had replaced the evening storm clouds. Although water was the greatest need, he had busied himself first with constructing a crude travois. Ever mindful of the danger the mountain lions still posed, he kept one eye out for wooden branches and the other on the treacherous ledges and caverns around him. It took him most of the morning to find the items he needed, the rest to build the travois and deposit his still-unconscious brother on it. Finally, as the sun reached its zenith in the sky, he started on the long trek back to the ranch. On foot, pulling a dead-weight Scott, would have taken more than a day’s travel but, for once, Lady Luck seemed to smile down on him. Within an hour of leaving Rocky Head, they had rendezvoused with a search party. The two horses’ earlier return to the ranch without their riders had signaled that they were in trouble, and Murdoch had immediately dispatched men to look for them. Another three hours and they were both safe at Lancer.
That had been almost a week ago. Since then Scott’s condition had steadily improved while he spiraled down into a dark depression of self-remorse, self-doubt, and self-pity. Sensing the crux of the problem, an intuitive Murdoch manufactured a transparent distraction – a business trip to San Francisco. There Johnny had accomplished the elementary task in record time, shopped for Christmas presents, and then spent a night of liquid soul-searching. It was then and there that he had come to a life-changing decision. It was time to leave Lancer. Forever.
“I see they left you behind to babysit me.”
Scott’s voice, still gravelly with sleep and illness, startled him back to the present. He withdrew a step. “Uhhh .... Maria’s still here... she’s downstairs cooking Christmas Eve dinner. And a couple of the hands stayed behind. They’re out in the cold right now.”
“I don’t envy them. Teresa told me the wind’s like ice out there.” Scott used both his hands as levers to push himself into a sitting position on the bed. The simple action brought a sharp hiss of pain to his lips.
“Still sore?” Johnny’s face took on a familiar look of regret.
“A little,” Scott said. In the week since the accident, he’d grown to recognize the wounded expression on his brother’s face. It usually signaled an immediate and rapid exit from his presence. Not wanting to be alone, he changed the subject quickly. “So, why didn’t you go into town with Murdoch and Teresa? I know they really wanted you to be with them tonight.”
"Didn’t feel up to all that singing and celebratin’, I reckon,” Johnny replied. Retreating another step, he pulled a small wrapped item from his pocket, deposited it gently on the occasional table near the window. “I got this present for you in San Francisco. Took me the better part of a whole day to find it. Anyway, I’ll just leave it here. Need to run down to the barn, take care of the horses. It may be Christmas Eve, but they’ve gotta eat too.”
“The animals can wait a little while, Johnny. Come over here, sit down,” Scott said, patting a spot on the mattress beside him. “I think we need to talk, get some things said. Murdoch tells me you’re carrying way too much emotional baggage. He’s concerned about you.” Scott paused for a moment to catch his breath, then continued. “I’m worried about you too. It’s not good for one man to bottle up so much guilt ...”
“I don’t wanna talk about it right now, Scott. I know you mean well, but there ain’t no need for you or Murdoch to worry about me anymore. My mind’s made up on what I’ve got to...” He stopped in mid-sentence and drew in a shaky breath. It took a moment to collect himself, regroup his thoughts. Finally, he continued, “I’ve gotta go feed the animals. Talk to you later.”
“Johnny...” Scott began, but the man was already opening the door, escaping into the night. A cold wind whooshed in, swirled around the room, rattling papers on a nearby desk and lifting lace curtains into an obscene dance.
“Merry Christmas, Boston! Take care of yourself,” was hastily thrown over a departing shoulder, and then Johnny was gone.
Lost in thought, the older Lancer sibling sat in stunned silence for several minutes. Unless he was mistaking the physical and verbal signals, his brother had just bid him goodbye ... permanently. Pushing his sore body into action, he crawled to the bottom of the bed, retrieved the crocheted afghan that lay draped across the footboard. Tossing its warmth haphazardly across his shoulders, he eased protesting legs over the side of the mattress and forced himself into a standing position. The hardwood floor was abominably cold on his bare feet, but he ignored the minor discomfort, shuffling across the room to the oversized window. The pulled curtains revealed the truth he already knew – his brother was leaving Lancer. And it was all because of him.
An indigo sky held at its apex a single brilliant white beacon. The full moon appeared much larger than usual, and the colorless light it gave off threw a shroud of daylight over the surrounding landscape. Complimenting their luminous host, the stars twinkled brightly, lending their weak glow to the panorama of a silent winter night.
Scott estimated that he had ridden for more than an hour when the telltale scents of wood smoke and brewing coffee alerted his olfactory sense. To his right, spiraling above a copse of towering pines, were the telltale wisps of a campfire. Not expecting anyone to follow him, Johnny hadn’t even attempted to hide his whereabouts. Scott licked dry, cracked lips and steered his horse toward the thicket. Moments later, he emerged from the tangled brush into a small clearing.
Startled by the unexpected intrusion, Johnny shot to his feet. A revolver, cocked, aimed and ready to fire, materialized in his right hand before he was completely vertical. Recognition made him gasp aloud, and he quickly reholstered the weapon. He greeted his brother with a sharp, “Are you out of your mind?”
Scott lifted his heavy head from the withers of his horse, smiled weakly as a slightly out-of-focus Johnny rushed toward him. “Well, if I am ... it obviously runs in the family... ” he retorted, suddenly aware that he was slipping sideways. He clutched ineffectually at the reins, but his physical strength had deserted him, and the action did nothing to stop his descent. He was falling, and the resulting impact was going to hurt a great deal. He closed his eyes to the ground rushing up to meet him, but just before he hit, strong arms reached out, pulled him into a shaky embrace. He looked up into Johnny’s worried eyes. “Thanks, brother,” he whispered just before awareness slipped completely away.
The tantalizing smell of coffee revived him, and he opened his eyes to see Johnny piling more wood onto the already blazing fire. A quick personal assessment of his situation showed him to be in a prone position, wrapped in a blanket, with his head resting against a heavily padded saddle. He felt chilled and so physically drained that even holding his eyes open was a strain. His head pounded; his wound ached and felt suspiciously damp. On impulse, he reached down with a trembling hand to examine it.
“Here!” Johnny appeared at his side, holding out a small metal cup of steaming brew. He put the drink in his brother’s outstretched hand, helped him maneuver it to his mouth. “No need for you to go touching that wound. You managed to tear it open all right. I got it rebandaged, and the bleeding’s stopped. Now lie still and rest. It’s going to be a long, hard ride back to the ranch.”
Scott carefully sipped the hot coffee, shivered slightly as the warm liquid flowed downward to his stomach then branched out to his upper body and limbs. “Thanks again. That’s two I owe you – one for Rocky Head and one for ...”
“I don’t want you to owe me for nuthin’,” Johnny snapped, turning his back and his attention to the fire. “I want you to get yourself rested, get back on that horse, and go home where you belong.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, brother,” Scott returned, “but I’m not going anywhere soon without help. I couldn’t sit a horse alone, especially one without a saddle, for several more hours. Looks like you’re stuck with me ... at least until morning.”
At this, Johnny whirled around. “You planned this game, didn’t you, Boston! You wagered that if you actually managed to find me, you wouldn’t be able to make it back on your own. And you bet that I wouldn’t be able to let you go.”
Scott calmly let his mouth rest on the lip of the cup again, felt the liquid warm the inside of his mouth. He swallowed and nearly sighed with pleasure. “Good coffee, brother,” was all he said.
“I don’t like being trapped, Scott. This kinda thing’s beneath you.”
“And sneaking out without saying goodbye is above board and respectable? Not to mention making a promise and then throwing it to the wind. At least I’m not a welcher.”
“I don’t know what you’re gettin’ at,” was a growl.
“Yes you do. You promised me that you wouldn’t let what happened up on Rocky Head tear your guts out – but, brother, I’m looking at you and what I see isn’t a very pretty sight!”
“My leaving Lancer ain’t got nothing to do with what happened last week. I just decided to go back up to Rocky Head and find those lions. I have a score to settle with them.”
“Now why don’t I believe you? You know what I think? I think the only score you have to settle is with yourself.”
Johnny turned his back once more. “I don’t give a damn what you think or what you believe. I’ll give you another hour to rest, and then I’m taking you back to the ranch. But when that’s done, I’m leaving again, and neither you nor Murdoch is going to stop me.”
“Well, if that’s what you really want...”
“It’s what I really want.”
The thick silence that ensued was almost palpable and, for a long while, only the occasional crackle and hiss from the fire disturbed it.
Finally, Scott spoke up. “Johnny, if you really don’t want to stay, I won’t try to make you. But I will miss you. These past few months have been ... well ... let’s just say that I’ve grown to care about you a great deal.”
Johnny licked his lips, swallowed and stared down at the ground. “I don’t want you or anyone else to care about me, Scott. Believe me, it’s much better this way. Once I’m out of the picture, you and Murdoch won’t even remember I was ever there, and you can go on with...”
“Excuse me,” Scott interrupted, “but if I’m not mistaken, just last week it was you who told me you didn’t miss what you never had. Well, for six months I’ve had a younger brother in my life, someone I didn’t even know existed for over twenty years. So whether you want me to or not, I will miss you. And whether or not you want to admit it, Johnny, you will miss me.”
“You don’t understand ...” was almost a moan.
“No, I guess I don’t. I thought that we all felt the same, grateful to have found each other, happy to finally be together as a family. Maybe I was wrong ...” Scott set the now ice cold cup of coffee on the ground beside him and struggled vainly to rise. “I think I can sit that horse now. If you’ll just help me up and onto him, I’ll do us both a favor and get the hell out of here.”
A restraining hand held him down. “You’re not going anywhere in the shape you’re in.”
“I can make it on my own. Looks like that’s how it’s going to be from now on anyway, so I might as well get used to it.” He tried once more to get up, but again Johnny’s strong arms pushed him back.
“Will you stay put, Boston! I swear, you’re the stubbornest man I ever met.”
“Another one of those family traits we’re both so very blessed with. Runs on our father’s side, I believe. Now, will you please help me up and put me on that horse?”
“No.” The single syllable was firm and loaded with finality.
Scott persisted. “I’m telling you, I want to go home.”
“And I’m telling you, you’re staying put until I decide you’re okay enough to go. Face it, Scott, it may be your game, but I’m holding all the high cards.”
“I suppose this is one of your ‘Mexican standoffs’?
“Not even close, brother. You’ve been dealt a complete and total defeat. Now, are you gonna fold?”
“No, I’m not giving up.” Scott lifted his chin defiantly. “Are you?”
Reluctantly, Johnny locked gazes with the man who was now his brother. In those deepset gray-blue eyes he found a strong resoluteness of purpose and a depth of emotion so profound that it both stunned and surprised him. The knowledge that he was exposing identical emotions to Scott made him sever the visual connection. Outwardly shaken by what had been revealed, he turned away and pulled in a long, shaky breath. Finally, he said in a very quiet voice. “Would you really miss me that much?”
“I would,” came back immediately. “And so would Murdoch. He’s grown to love you too.”
A resigned sigh came from the younger Lancer’s lips. “You don’t play fair, Scott, but you do play well. All right, you’ve called my bluff. I fold. You win.”
Scott’s eyes were heavy and growing moist. He finally allowed them to close as he relaxed back into the saddle pillow. “No, brother,” he whispered tiredly. “We all win.”
Barranca whinnied and tossed his head up and down. He could sense that they were nearing the ranch, and he was anticipating the customary rubdown and the bucket of oats he always received after a long ride. A warm woolen blanket would replace the two riders who now straddled his broad back and rump. One more ridge and the barn would be in sight.
“Almost there, Scott,” Johnny said. He could tell his brother was tiring; Scott had slumped farther forward, and the effort to hold him upright was becoming difficult. He shifted his numb bottom forward, wriggled his legs, and pulled his brother upward into a more vertical sitting position.
“Getting tired, Johnny?” was muffled.
“My butt’s gone to sleep, that’s all.”
This brought a weak chuckle, and Scott raised his head, peered around at the familiar landmarks. “You’re right. We are almost there. What time is it?”
“I don’t know – after midnight I reckon. Why?”
“Merry Christmas, brother. Looks like we made it after all.”
Johnny Lancer felt a smile take over the features of his handsome face. “Yep, I guess we did at that. Merry Christmas, Scott!”
“I just wish I’d been able to get to town and pick up Murdoch’s and Teresa’s gifts. Now they won’t have anything from me to open and ...”
“You know, I forgot to tell you. I went into town last week and picked them up for you ... just before I left for San Francisco. Wrapped them both up in that pretty shiny paper too.”
Scott reached deep within, found the last reserves of his waning strength and tapped them. “Thanks,” he whispered. “I really appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome. By the way, Murdoch’s gonna love that rifle. I stole a peek at it, and it’s beautiful.”
“It should be for the price. Pinpoint accuracy, perfect balance, sleek appearance.” Scott turned his head sideways, but the angle didn’t afford him a look at Johnny’s face. “Was the name engraved on it correctly?”
“Yeah, exactly like you ordered ... “MURDOCH LANCER”. And I know Teresa’ll probably wear that fancy new bonnet every day for a month. Never seen anything so busy with all those feathers and lacy doodads.”
“The latest thing from Paris.”
Johnny’s wide grin faded, and his body tensed.
Scott felt the change. “Something wrong?”
“No ... nothin’ wrong,” Johnny said. “How ‘bout you? You feelin okay? Warm enough?”
“Fine, just fine. You’re sure nothing’s wrong?”
“Nope, everything’s just great,” Johnny said much too quickly.
Okay, if you say so.” Scott leaned back into the warmth of his brother’s chest, closed his eyes for a few moments.
“Uhhhhh ... oh, never mind....”
“Are you sure there’s nothing wrong?”
“.... yes .... I’m sure ...” he muttered. Then “No, there is something else!”
“Well, spit it out, brother.”
“Okay! I can’t stand it anymore. I know what you got Murdoch, and I know what you got Teresa. And you already know what I got you. So ....”
Scott’s slight smile remained hidden from his brother. He feigned ignorance. “So?” he repeated.
“So.... what did you get me?”
In his mind Scott imagined the upcoming scene at the Lancer ranch, the excitement that would undoubtedly light up his brother’s face when he opened the special gift. Luckily, Johnny had been in San Francisco when it arrived. He had sent Murdoch into town to pick up the package that contained a rifle, identical to their father’s in every way, except the name engraved on the stock said, ‘JOHNNY LANCER’. Scott felt the self-satisfied grin on his face grow even larger, but he managed to keep the amusement out of his voice. At last, he said, “Nothin’ yet! You’re kinda hard to buy for.”
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