Word count: 11,850
Johnny woke up and looked toward the open window. The sun was already high in the sky and he muttered a heartfelt “Damn…” as he struggled to swing his legs over the edge of the bed. He combed his hand through his tangled hair and sighed deeply.
Six days in bed and he still felt as weak as a kitten.
Well, Teresa would surely not let him out of the house today…it was gonna be a fight just getting out of this room.
“Chicken Pox.” He cursed. How does a grown man get chicken pox? It was humiliating…that’s what it was. And all because Teresa insisted that they take care of the Shellworth’s kids while their parents went back to South Dakota to help rebuild their family’s ranch after burning in a wild fire. Hell, he would have built the ranch single handed rather than listen to them two hollering and screaming all day.
He knew the boy didn’t look good. But no one would listen to him. Then Jelly had to open his big mouth and tell Teresa and Murdoch that he was looking off his feed a couple weeks later. Of course he was looking off his feed…with two little hellions running around the house all day, screaming and crying. “Lord, never let me get hitched. I don’t think I could take another day of kids.”
The door opened slowly and Teresa peeked her head in. Seeing him eyeing his pants on the chair in front of the window, she scooted across the floor and whipped them into her arms. “Sam says you are to spend at least one more day in bed,” She admonished. “You know that.”
“Can’t do it, Teresa. Come on meil…” He gave her his best puppy eyed look and jutted his bottom lip out. She could never resist that hangdog look.
“Forget it, Johnny. It won’t work this time. I know your little game. Now, climb back in bed and I’ll bring you up some breakfast.”
“Steak and eggs?” he called after her.
He heard her laughing as she walked down the hallway. “You’re very funny, Johnny.”
“Yea, real funny!” Johnny fumed. “Well, two people could play that game!” he thought, heading for his closet and the pair of worn pants he hid beneath an extra blanket on the floor.
He shook them out, eyeing the holes in the knees and the torn pockets. They really weren’t wearable, but he couldn’t stand to see them thrown in the rag bag…they had seen him through some rough times when they were literally the only clothes on his back.
He pulled them on and noticed they hung off his hips. Being sick always make him lose weight fast. Sam said it was because he ate like three men most of the time.
He found his boots under his bed, freshly polished, that was Jelly’s doing. He would have to thank him.
The only thing he needed now was a shirt and socks. He opened the top drawer to his dresser and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror.
“Madre Dios!” he muttered. “Why me? Why did I have to catch them Chicken Pox? Nobody else did.” The angry red pox marks still covered his face. Not to mention his back and his hands and his stomach and his legs and…well just about every inch of him. And they itched something fierce. But everybody warned him what would happen if he scratched them, and he didn’t want to look like Hang Dog Charlie. The old man had more holes in his face than his dog had fleas.
He slipped on his shirt and swayed a bit. He wasn’t feeling like himself yet, he admitted that. The headache and buzzing in his ears told him he still had a fever. But staying here in this room another day was gonna drive him crazy.
He pulled on his boots and poked his head out the door, making sure the hall was empty.
“I’ll just make sure Barranca is doing ok without me then sit in the sun for a few minutes. Then I’ll hightail it back up there. Teresa will never know I’m gone.”
Satisfied with his plan, he tiptoed down the stairs, made sure the coast was clear to the front door and…”Make sure you give Barranca an extra portion of oats, Son,” Murdoch called from the great room, “he’s been missing you too. Then get back to bed. You know, you are either the bravest man I know, or the dumbest. Teresa and Sam are gonna be all over you when they find out.”
Johnny perked his head into the den and grinned. “They don’t have ta know, not if you don’t tell em…cause I ain’t.”
“Johnny, Johnny, Johnny…” Murdoch sighed, pushing his chair back, “Haven’t you figured it out yet? You can’t keep anything away from that girl. She knows everything. Believe me…” He shook his head. “You get that girl riled and you’ll pay for it.”
Murdoch looked at his son for a long moment and smiled sympathetically. The boy did look a mess. His black hair tousled, his shirttail hanging out of pants that had seen better days eons ago. His face and hands were still covered with red dots. It never occurred to him when Sam diagnosed Andy Shellworth with chicken pox that Johnny may have not have been exposed. He knew Scott had them, when he was seven. He had received an occasional note from a friend of the family in Boston telling him how Scott was doing. She reported a mild case of Chicken Pox which Scott recovered from quickly.
Unfortunately, Chicken Pox in an adult was much worse, and Johnny had been terribly sick for most of the week. The whole family was exhausted by the time the worst was over. Sam had ordered cool baths three times a day, constant sponge baths and at least half a glass of water every hour.
His fever hadn’t broken completely, Murdoch could tell by Johnny’s flushed cheeks and glassy eyes. But he also knew that his son hated to be confined, and he had already behaved better than anyone had expected.
“Would you like some company?” Murdoch asked.
“Thanks Murdoch, but I kinda want some peace and quiet, ya know?”
Murdoch smiled. “I know. Just take it easy. To the barn and back, that’s all. Then straight to bed, or I will tell Teresa.”
Johnny smiled. “Promise.”
Johnny made it across the courtyard unseen. He knew he looked unsteady on his feet, he was already feeling lightheaded. But the crisp sunshine felt so good on his face and the fresh air cleared his lungs of all the sick room smells he couldn’t stand.
He heard Barranca whinny as he walked into the stable.
“Hey compadre, I missed you too. Everybody been taking good car of you?” Johnny stroked Barranca’s silken mane and ran his hands down his strong chest. “Looks like Jelly just brushed ya down. Give me a few more days then no one will see anything but our dust. “Barranca nodded his head as if he understood Johnny’s every word. Johnny smiled and retrieved a couple of apples he had stashed beneath a sack of oats he kept just for Barranca and watched the horse devour them, looking to Johnny for more.
“Sorry pal, but that’s all ya get for today. Besides, I hate to admit it, but I gotta get back to bed. Ain’t feeling so good. But I’ll be back tomorrow. Promise.”
He took a couple of peeks out the barn door and was happy to see the courtyard deserted so he rushed for the house and headed for the stairs.
The stairs proved more of a problem than he expected. Exhausted now, he had to draw himself up the steps, using the banister to pull himself hand over hand until he reached the top step.
Covered in sweat he took a deep breath and let it out slowly, thankful that the hallway was deserted. Luck was still with him… almost.
He pushed the door open to his bedroom and found the bed sheets changed and a fresh nightshirt lying neatly on the bedspread.
“Boy oh boy, now you’ve done it,” he muttered. “She knows.”
“Of course I know.”
Johnny spun around at the sound of Teresa’s voice and lost his balance. He grabbed for the door and missed, ending up on his backside with a grunt, more embarrassed then hurt.
Teresa stepped over him, towels folded over her arm. “Jelly is bringing up the tub.”
“Come on Teresa, I’ve been soaking so much I’m gonna get webbed feet.”
“Sam said we could reduce the baths from three times a day to two once your fever is gone. Now do you need someone to help you off the floor?”
Johnny glared up at her.
“I take that as a no. I’ll be back after your bath. Oh, and by the way…you just added one more day to your bed rest. Sam’s orders. He knew you would pull something stupid like this. One of these days you’ll think before you act.”
“Hey, watch it!” Johnny sputtered as Jelly dumped another pail of cool water over his head.
“Got yerself caught, didn’t ya boy?” Jelly chuckled. “I warned Teresa, told her ya had that corralled look on yer face. Now yer not feeling so peppy again. Boy, when are ya gonna start ta use them brains the good Lord gave ya?”
Johnny grabbed the pail from Jelly’s grasp and tossed it into the corner where it teetered on its edge then finally fell over.
“I’m tired of takin’ baths, Jelly. I’m tired of feeling tired. And I’m tired of everyone fussing over me. I just want things like they were.”
Jelly relaxed his hands over the rim of the tub and dipped his fingers into the water. “Is kinda cold ain’t it? Look boy,” he softened his voice, “ya know everyone here love’s ya. You just don’t know how ta be sick.”
“No, ya just wait a darn minute and let me finish. Ya been on your own so long that ya forgot how ta let people care for ya. It means a lot to them, Johnny. It means a lot ta me. Remember when Scott took that nasty fall a few months ago? You was all over him for the next two weeks makin’ sure he was doing all right. It made ya feel good didn’t it? Made ya feel like ya was doing something important for yer brother. That’s the way everyone feels about you Johnny. Ya got ta let them feel like they are just as important ta you as you are ta them.”
Johnny contemplated Jelly’s words then nodded his head. “You know Jelly, if you don’t get me out of this water soon, I’m gonna have goose bumps along with my webbed feet. Dewdrop might get jealous.”
“Yer impossible!” Jelly huffed. “Impossible.”
“I agree,” Scott said as he poked his head around the door. “Just couldn’t behave yourself, could you, little brother? Teresa’s fuming downstairs. She’s threatening to padlock the door so you can’t get out.”
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t ya?” Johnny sneered up at his brother.
“You got to admit, Johnny. You are one pathetic sight. Now let’s get you out of that water before Dewdrop comes a courting.”
Johnny glowered at him and tried to push Scott and Jelly away but sighed in disgust when he realized he didn’t have the strength to get out of the tub on his own.
Five minutes later he was dried off and sporting a fresh nightshirt and tucked in bed.
Scott felt his forehead and sat down on the edge of the mattress. “You’ve got to give yourself time to get over this, Johnny. You’re still running a fever and Sam says you’re not completely out of the woods until that fever breaks. In a couple of days you can get up and wander around the house, make a nuisance of yourself. But for now, just stay in bed…please.”
Johnny nodded, too tired to argue. A couple more days was not forever, and though he would never admit it to the two men hovering over him, he did feel terrible and didn’t want to do anything but sleep.
“Two days,” Johnny agreed. “But no more.”
“A couple of days if Sam agrees.” Scott amended. “Now get some sleep. I’ve got to get back to work. This ranch doesn’t run itself you know.”
A huge grin spread across Johnny’s face as he settled into the pillows. “Miss me, don’t ya, Boston?”
Johnny spent his two days in bed, complaining vehemently about the room being first too cold, then too hot. The food tasting too bland and the cool baths, still fostered upon him three times a day, chilling him to the bone and causing his lingering fever.
On the third morning Sam arrived and performed another through examination. He sighed heavily as he sat on the edge of the bed putting away his instruments.
“Well Johnny, I’ve got to admit I’m baffled. You shouldn’t still have this fever, and I can tell you’re still continuing to lose weight. I don’t have much experience in treating adults with Chicken Pox. We’ll just have to wait and see. Meanwhile, if you feel strong enough I can’t see why you shouldn’t be able to go down stairs for short periods of time. But I want you off your feet, do you understand? Lying on the couch is preferable, but sitting up is alright too, for a little while.”
Johnny nodded, finding it impossible to hide the smile that crept across his face.
“Do you understand what I’m saying, Johnny? That means no trips to the barn to see that horse of yours. You are to stay inside.”
“I understand, Sam.”
“We’ll make sure he follows orders, Sam,” Scott promised.
“There’s enough paperwork that needs to be done to keep him busy,” Murdoch assured him.
“That sounds fine. Now,” Sam patted Johnny on the shoulder, “I’ll stop by in a couple of days to see how you’re doing. I suggest you rest a little before going downstairs today. Give yourself a couple hours.”
He turned to instruct the small gathering to step outside the room. “Come get me if he takes a turn for the worse, his fever rises or he starts coughing or he has trouble breathing. I’m concerned about that fever. It could be the early stages of pneumonia. Everyone has a weakness, Johnny’s seems to be his lungs. I suspect he was sick as a child and it went untreated, and left scarring on his lungs.”
Murdoch bit down on his lip. Once again Johnny’s past came back to haunt him. The boy should have been raised here, on Lancer, where he would have been safe and warm and loved.
“Watch him,” Sam cautioned. “Let him do a little, but not too much. Knowing Johnny, he’ll push himself. Meanwhile I’ll do some more studying and see if I can come up with an answer. If he shows no improvement in a couple of days I may have to confine him to bed again and medicate him for pneumonia. We’ll lick this, one way or the other we’ll get that boy healthy again.”
Teresa folded her arm around Sam’s. “Maria has a slice of pie and a hot cup of coffee waiting for you down in the kitchen. And we made an extra pie for you to take home.”
“You are a sweetheart my dear. If you were twenty years older and I was…well…there’ll be a lot of hearts broken when that special man takes you away.”
“I’m not going anytime soon, Sam. I have Johnny and Scott to watch over. They wouldn’t last a month without me.”
“Too true.” Scott grinned.
Three hours later Johnny was lying on the sofa fiddling with the fringe on the throw blanket Teresa insisted he leave on. He had found a pair of light white cotton pants and pull over shirt, much like the peasants wore in Mexico, on the edge of his bed. He had to admit it was more comfortable than his usual jeans and shirt against his itchy skin.
But he was bored to distraction. His eyes smarted from the low-grade fever and sensitivity to light, so he couldn’t read. He was tired of looking out the window and seeing the world pass him by. He knew he promised Sam that he wouldn’t leave the house…but this was just more than he could handle. They had no idea how trapped he felt.
He looked over the back of the sofa toward the dining room and saw Teresa sitting in her chair, lost in concentration.
“What ya doing, Quidera?” he called out.
“Writing a letter,” she answered absently.
Teresa set the pen down and looked over at him. “It’s personal, Johnny. Why don’t you finish your book?”
“I don’t feel like reading. Do I know this friend?”
“Yes! Johnny, would you please find something else to do other than pestering me?”
“Ain’t nothing else ta do.”
“Well, find something.” She picked up her pen and started writing again. Soon she was lost in thought. And Johnny was even more bored.
“Does she live around here? Morro Coyo or Green River?” Johnny asked, breaking the short silence.
“He…?” Johnny flung the blanket off and jumped to his feet, his enthusiasm stronger than his legs, and he unceremoniously flopped back down on the couch.
Teresa watched him from the corner of her eye, letting him collect himself. She so wanted to go over and take him in her arms and tell him she understood, that it was natural to feel angry and sad and every other emotion all at once. He was sick and he had to allow himself to be sick. But she knew that was not want he wanted to hear. So she let him be.
Standing up again, slower this time, Johnny walked around to the other side of the couch and leaned his hip up against the back.
“Are you going to tell me who she…he is?”
“He never was a she. But I’m sure if he were a she, she would be quite beautiful. In fact he’s quite handsome. At least I’ve heard some of the women in town say so. But I’m not so sure if I’d call him handsome. Maybe cute would be more like it. And no…I’m not going to tell you. Now why don’t you lay back down before you fall down.”
“Teresa, you’re not old enough to be writing love letters to strange men.”
Teresa looked up, a flare of red on her cheeks. “First of all, I am old enough to write to anyone I please. Second of all, he is not a strange man. I’ve known him long enough to know that he is an honest, decent man. You would like him, Johnny.”
“Why don’t we find out? You ask him out here for lunch one day and…”
“I don’t invite men out to the ranch for lunch, Johnny Lancer.” She turned back to her writing, her shoulders set in defiance.
Johnny made his way over to the table and stood behind her chair just long enough to get a glimpse of the letter she was writing. “Love…” was the only word he read before she swooped up paper, pen and inkwell and marched toward the kitchen.
“Love…huh? Sounds like he’s pretty special to you. Ya can’t keep this a secret for long, Teresa. Ya tell me who he is and I won’t tell Murdoch or Scott. It’ll be our little secret.”
Teresa turned around in time to see him sway for a moment then slowly retreat back to the couch.
She watched him punch the sofa pillow in frustration and grinned in sympathy. “Sam told you to stay on that couch. You should listen to him for once.”
She watched his anger rising. “That’s all I’ve been doing, is listening. For almost two weeks now. Drink this water, Johnny, swallow this medicine, Johnny. Get in the tub, Johnny, get out of the tub, Johnny. Sit up, Johnny, lay down, Johnny. Well, I’m through with listenin’. Just because Sam doesn’t know how to treat a grown man with Chicken Pox doesn’t mean I have to stay in this house like a prisoner.”
“But you will stay in this house.” Murdoch’s voice roared from the front door. He had opened it just in time to hear Johnny’s tirade with none of the benefits of hearing the rest of the conversation. “You are going to follow Sam’s orders to the letter, even if I have to hog tie you to that bed of yours upstairs. Now, it’s your choice.”
Johnny stood up slowly, his anger deepening. “Back off, Murdoch,” Johnny warned, his voice low and controlled. Madrid was rising to the surface, always there to protect the gentler Johnny Lancer. “I’m not a child.”
“Then stop acting like one,” Murdoch yelled.
Johnny swayed and sat back down on the couch. It was better than falling flat on his face.
“One more day,” Johnny said, his voice still cold and in control. “Then I’ll do things my way. The way I always have.” He stretched out on the couch and turned his back to Murdoch. He thought he was too angry to sleep, but he drifted off anyway, making plans for tomorrow.
When he awoke he found Teresa back at the table writing her love letter. He felt sincerely sorry that he had blown up at Murdoch. He knew the old man was just trying to get him well. But they all had to understand that he had his own ways of healing. That meant facing whatever was wrong straight in the face. He wasn’t gonna get better lying around the house all day. He needed fresh air. He needed to be riding Barranca and airing all the cobwebs out. He never babied himself when he was sick, and he always got better quicker than he was getting rid of these Chicken Pox. In fact, if he didn’t look like he went face to face with a mad porcupine and lost, he’d be in town getting a cold beer right now.
“You still writing that love letter?” he asked.
“It’s not a love letter, Johnny.”
“You’re sure putting a lot of thought into it.”
She looked over at him. “It’s not the thought, it’s the interruptions.”
Johnny hung his head for a moment, chastised. But he would not be denied. “He got dark hair or light hair?”
“Light eyes or dark eyes?”
Johnny thought of all the men he knew in Morro Coyo and Green River. All the men he knew working on the nearby ranches.
“Dark hair, light eyes…hmmm…Simon Dent?”
“No!” Teresa squealed, “He must be thirty years old and he spits when he talks through that space between his two front teeth.”
“Johnny, Tony is fifteen if he’s a day. You know Scott will be here in a few minutes. He told Jelly he’d help you with your bath this afternoon since Jelly had to go into town for Murdoch.”
“I don’t need another bath. I ain’t got a speck of dirt on me.”
“You know it’s to help calm the itching and maybe bring that fever down. We’re not trying to be difficult, Johnny. We all want to see you better. Some of us more than others…” she added under her breath.
“You tell me who the letter is to and I’ll take my bath without a word.”
Teresa smiled. “Nice try, Johnny.”
“Nice try Johnny.” Johnny echoed Teresa’s reply and shoved himself off the couch.
“Where are you going?”
“In the kitchen. Maybe Maria knows some more dark haired, light eyed men in town.”
Teresa returned to her letter. She had exactly two acceptable words written down. It was harder than she thought, writing a Valentine Greeting.
Johnny shuffled into the kitchen, his legs shaking after the short walk. He really was getting tired of being sick.
He found the kitchen empty and he was relieved. He really didn’t want to talk to Maria about Teresa’s new beau. He just wanted her to think so. Finding the name of her new infatuation was his only entertainment.
He dropped into a kitchen chair and folded his arms over the table, resting his heavy head. The smells in the kitchen were making his stomach do flip flops, and if he wasn’t so tired he’d have returned to the sofa right away.
He didn’t hear Maria rush in through the back door, her arms laden with fresh vegetables from the garden.
“Oh, mi poco el enfermo,” she cried softly as she put the vegetables in the sink, “why do you not listen to your familia? They only wish to see you well again.”
“Jaunito, por favor,” Maria leaned over Johnny, feeling his forehead, “the fiebre, it is still with you,” she tisked. She shook his shoulder gently until he slowly opened his eyes. “Jaunito, por favor, you must go back to the couch in the patron’s room, or to your own bed. You still have the obstinado fiebre. You must rest to get strong to fight it. Si?”
“Si, Maria,” Johnny mumbled. “Pocus minutos…in a few minutes. I’m kinda tired.”
“Por favor, Jaunito. Not here. Come…” She helped him up and steered him toward the door.
“Maria…” Scott was just on the other side of the door, “is my little brother bothering you?” he smiled.
“Jaunito is never a bother, senor Scott.” Maria huffed. “But he does not belong in the kitchen.”
“You hear that Johnny?” Scott pulled Johnny’s arm over his shoulders and began to lead him toward the stairs. “It’s time for his bath anyway.”
Johnny tried to push Scott away angrily. “I ain’t no baby. I don’t need help taking a bath. `Sides…I’ve had enough baths to keep me clean `til next year.”
“You listen to your hermano, Jaunito. He only wants you to be sano…healthy,” Maria called after them.
Johnny bristled at the idea that still one more person was telling him what to do. He tried to push Scott away but nearly lost his balance. If not for Scott’s strong hold on him he would have somersaulted down the stairs.
“Come on Johnny, no more games.” Scott pulled him toward the top landing. “You’re getting that bath, now. Maybe I should have let you fall. A broken bone may have kept you in your bed where you belong.”
“Just leave me be, Scott,” Johnny shouted.
“Gladly, after your bath. Now come on, I want to get this over as fast as you do.”
“You know Teresa has a new beau?” Johnny asked out of the blue, as Scott added another tepid pail of water to the wooden tub in the center of Johnny’s room. He decided he couldn’t fight his brother, so he would endure one more bath.
“Don’t know. She won’t tell me.”
“Then how do you know?”
“Saw her writing this love letter. She’s spending lots of time on getting just the right words down. Must be someone special.”
Scott raised an eyebrow. “Do we know him?”
Johnny nodded. “She says we do. Says he has dark hair and light eyes. And the ladies in town think he’s handsome.”
His curiosity piqued, Scott put the pail down and gently pushed Johnny’s shoulders deeper into the water.
“Come on, Scott, this water is cold,” Johnny protested. The heat from the fever was being replaced by the cool water and he began to shiver. “Scott…let me out. I’m freezing.”
“Ten minutes,” Scott replied, lost in thought.
Johnny took the washrag floating in the water and started buffeting himself with it, trying to ward off the cold, but Scott snatched it away from him. “You’ll break all those pox open. Now just stay still. She said we know him…huh?”
Johnny nodded, a small smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. “I told her to invite him out to the house for lunch so we could meet him.”
“What did she say?”
“She’d think on it. She’s a pretty girl, Boston. Any man would love to steal her away from here.”
“Well, just any man isn’t good enough for our little sister, brother. You keep working on her, and I’ll see what I can find out in town. She talks to Bonita Mendez at the mercantile all the time. Maybe she knows something. You know, girl talk.”
Johnny was pleased with himself. Between the two of them they would get to the bottom of the letter. “Do you think we could get me out of this tub now, before I’ve got nothing left to brag about?”
Scrape, snip…scrape, snip…
Johnny slowly opened one eye and then the other and listened to the sound.
Scrape, snip…scrape, snip…
He brushed the back of his hand over his eyes, trying to clear away the groggy cobwebs.
He was on the couch. A fire was burning in the hearth, its warmth doing little to chase away the chill he felt deep in his bones.
Tiny pinpoints of sunlight peeked through the heavy red drapes that were pulled across the huge window behind Murdoch’s desk.
He remembered falling asleep, but that was last night. He even remembered feeling a little guilty that he had taken up the entire couch while forcing Scott to sit on the floor.
But it was definitely daytime now. They must have left him to sleep here.
Scrape, snip…scrape, snip…There was that sound again.
He levered himself up on one elbow and raised his head just far enough up to see over the back of the couch at Teresa sitting at the dining room table. She had rectangles of colored paper and a small bowl of white lumpy paste sitting next to her. He recognized the paste used to make piñatas when he was a boy.
He watched her, fascinated, as she carefully cut out designs from the colored paper. She inspected each one carefully, discarding the ones that were not to her liking.
He waited as long as he could then asked, “What ya doing, Querida?”
Teresa jumped, the scissors cutting a gouge in the paper she was so carefully snipping away at.
“Johnny! You nearly scared me to death.”
“Sorry. What’s all that?” He pushed himself to a sitting position, but decided to stay there. He was feeling even weaker than he did yesterday. He really did have to get out of this house and get some strength back in his muscles.
Teresa gathered her colored paper and bowl of white lumpy paste and arranged them in a basket and folded a cloth over the top. “I was…I was doing some mending.”
“Looked like you were cutting paper to me. Is that for your new beau in Morro Coyo?”
“He’s not in Morro Coyo,” Teresa said hastily, then blushed.
“Green River then.” Johnny nodded. “That narrows it down a bit. A dark haired, light eyed man, younger than thirty but older than sixteen.” Johnny rubbed his hand over his face. “Don’t know who he is, but I’ll figure it out.”
Teresa looked at him, exasperated. “There’s nothing to figure out, Johnny. I have no new beau.”
“Then why won’t you tell me who the letter’s too?”
“Because, it’s the principle of the thing. If I wanted you to know, I’d tell you.”
Johnny thought about that, decided it made sense, then ignored it. He was having too much fun to stop now. Besides, it was the only thing he could do. By the way he felt, he wouldn’t be going much further than the couch today.
“Would you like some lunch?” Teresa picked up the basket and disappeared into the kitchen. When she returned she had Maria on her heels.
“Jaunito. You have missed breakfast already. You will eat lunch now, si?”
Johnny shook his head. “Not hungry, Maria. Sorry. Maybe later.”
“But you will drink some water.” Teresa insisted, her skirts swishing as she hurried for the pitcher of water on the table. “I want you to drink all of this, Johnny.”
Johnny started to protest but Teresa would have none of it.
“You will drink that water, Johnny Lancer. If you don’t, Sam will find a way to make you.”
Johnny glowered back at her and took a few sips. He knew that it was not an idle threat. Sam would find a way. And it wouldn’t be pleasant. And it did taste good going down, but it made him feel queasy.
“Scott should be back soon,” Teresa said as she made sure Johnny was lying back comfortably on the pillows. “He said he had a few errands to take care of in town. Can’t for the life of me figure out what they are though. I thought Jelly took care of everything yesterday. Oh well, I’ll find out soon enough. Secrets don’t last long here.”
“Only one I know keeping secrets here is you, Querida.”
“I’m not keeping a secret, Johnny. I just don’t want to tell you right now.”
“Because you don’t think Scott and I will approve of your new beau?” Johnny shivered and drew the blanket up around his shoulders.
“I don’t need yours or Scott’s approval when it comes to my friends,” Teresa bristled, “I’m perfectly capable of deciding who to like and dislike.”
“It ain’t a matter of like and dislike, Teresa. It’s a matter of trust.”
“I trusted you.”
“And that was a big gamble, now wasn’t it? It could have backfired on all of you.”
“But it didn’t.”
“But it could have.”
“Oh…you are impossible, Johnny Lancer,” Teresa huffed, her hands on her hips. “Absolutely impossible. And if I did have a new beau, you would be the last person I’d introduce him to. You probably wouldn’t trust him if he was the son of the President of the United States.”
Teresa spun on her heel and marched out of the room indignantly.
Johnny smiled and slipped back down on the couch. She was getting mad now. Soon she would slip. Maybe Scott found out something from Bonita Mendez. In any case…he would know soon.
Johnny waited a little while then heard the back door close. It was washday and Teresa and Maria would be busy all day. That gave him the perfect chance to do some snooping. That basket that Teresa whisked away might just be in the kitchen, in plain sight if he was lucky.
On legs that were feeling more and more shaky, he made his way to the kitchen, listening for the sounds of anyone approaching either door.
He knew he didn’t belong on his feet. His legs were wobbly, his stomach protested and his chest felt tight. But he wasn’t one for staying in one place too long. He always had to be moving, to be doing something. It came from years of being on his own, trying to ward off the loneliness.
He made it to the kitchen and to his disappointment, it was already straightened up, nothing out of place. No basket. No letters. But it was just possible that Teresa had hid it in one of the cupboards. His surrogate sister might be a little sore at him for doing this, but he was only looking out for her best interests, and he HATED secrets.
He was half way through the second cupboard when he heard the door open behind him and whirled to see who it was. He lost his balance and fell against the counter, sliding to the ground with a resounding plop. Damn…that was the second time he’d landed on his butt. He could see that he was quickly losing any semblance of dignity.
“Not very graceful.” Scott grinned, standing over him and offering him a hand up. “Can I help you find something?”
Johnny slapped the hand away then found he couldn’t get his legs under him enough to stand up and grudgingly accepted Scott’s help.
“What were you up to?” Scott asked, leading Johnny back to the couch. He noticed Johnny was hanging onto him weakly. If it had been any longer to the couch he would have had to carry him.
“Teresa hid her love letter somewhere in there,” Johnny panted as Scott lowered him onto the couch. “I was trying to find it.”
“Johnny, you heard Sam. He told you to stay here on the couch, with maybe a few minutes in the chair. He wasn’t saying that just to hear himself talk. You have to take this seriously.”
“We don’t know who this guy is. She could get herself hurt. I don’t wanna…”
“And you getting sicker isn’t going to hurt her?” Scott waited for his words to sink in.
Johnny nodded, a deep frown crossing his face for a moment.
“What’s wrong?” Scott demanded.
“Don’t give me that, Johnny. What’s wrong?”
“I kinda feel funny, that’s all.”
“Like I’m talking to you from a long way away. Everything kinda feels like it’s drifting around.”
Scott leaned forward and felt Johnny’s forehead. His skin felt cold and clammy.
“You did too much,” he admonished. “Sam told you to stay put for a reason.”
Johnny lowered his head. “I’m just doing the best I can, Scott. I ain’t good at being sick. Especially when there ain’t no reason for me not to be getting better. I’m getting mad and…” he looked up at Scott and Scott caught his breath, for in those deep blue eyes he saw something he seldom saw in Johnny Lancer’s eyes…fear.
“I know.” Scott took Johnny’s right hand in his, saddened at how weak it felt. This was Johnny’s gun hand, strong and limber, honed by hours of practice to draw and fire faster than the human eye could see. He doubted Johnny could even lift the gun at the moment. “But you’re not alone. We’ll be here with you every step. You just have to be patient.”
Johnny pulled his hand free, embarrassed and angry at the same time. Embarrassed to be sick, angry that he was so weak.
“Can we forget me for a minute? What did you find out about Teresa?”
Scott sighed heavily and sat down on the coffee table in front of the couch and pulled off his gloves. “If you promise to stay on the couch until Sam gets here.”
“I talked to Bonita Mendez. I couldn’t very well just come right out and ask her if Teresa has a new boyfriend, but I hinted around enough. Bonita said she didn’t know of anyone.”
“It’s gotta be someone. She just ain’t acting like Teresa.”
“Bonita did say she picked up a package from the stage depot last week. Seemed real happy to get it.”
“A package? What kind of package?”
“I don’t know. Bonita didn’t go into detail. But it must of have been small enough to put in her carry-all bag, because I didn’t see her with it. I was the one who took her into town, remember? You were busy coming down with the Chicken Pox.”
Scott grinned. “I thought it was.”
“Now how are we gonna find out what was in that package?”
“Other than coming straight out and asking her, I don’t know,” Scott admitted.
“There’s gotta be a way. We could ask Maria. She is always looking out for her chica. She would know, and if she didn’t, she’d find out. Believe me.”
“Oh, I believe you little brother. There are times when I’m grateful that I don’t understand Spanish all that much.”
Johnny grinned, a little lopsided, but it made Scott laugh. “You try to get some rest. I’ll do a little snooping on my own.”
Johnny nodded, satisfied for the moment, and closed his eyes.
Scott found the two women working over the washtubs. Neither woman said a word, both were lost in their worries for Johnny.
They both looked up as he approached. “Scott, how is he?” Teresa asked. “He wouldn’t eat a thing this morning.”
“I know. I spoke to Sam in town. He’s coming out later today. He’s done some research, says he might have some answers. Meanwhile, we have to keep him off his feet. That means he can’t be left alone. I already found him in the kitchen.”
“Juanito was hungry?” Maria asked anxiously.
“No, just bored.”
“Si. He is not happy with manos ociosas…idle hands.”
“There’s not much he can do, Maria,” Teresa said. “He can’t even read. Sensitivity to light is one of the symptoms of Chicken Pox.”
Scott nodded. “But there’s more going on here. Teresa, would you see if you can get him to drink a little more. He seems to listen to you more than anyone else.”
“That will be the day,” Teresa laughed. “Johnny Lancer listening to anyone. But I’ll try.”
Scott watched his sister disappear through the kitchen door then leaned over Maria’s shoulder and asked, “Who is Teresa’s new beau?”
“Teresa is not acting herself and Johnny says she has been writing a love letter the past two days. Do you know anything about it?”
“Even if I did, that would not be mine to share.”
“We are not trying to be nosy, Maria. We just want to protect Teresa. She is so young.”
“Si. But not ingenuo…naïve. Your hermano put you up to this, no?”
“Not really…Maybe,” Scott hedged. “I’m just concerned because he is.”
“It is good that you protect la nina so. But I have no knowledge of any man in Teresa’s life.”
“And what about the package she picked up in town?”
“That is personal. But I can tell you that there is nothing to worry about. She sent for something in the catalog from New York City.”
Maria shrugged. “She has not seen fit to tell me, Senor Scott. And I have not been rude enough to ask.”
Rebuffed, Scott headed back to the house. If he knew anything in this world, it was that once a woman made up her mind not to discuss a subject, neither hell nor high water would drag it out of her. But he also knew that when Johnny sank his teeth into something it was like a bulldog clamping down on a bone. Nothing would shake him free. If Johnny were not ill he could see himself sitting back and watching both their antics.
“But,” he sighed to himself as he stepped into the room, “little brother did need his help this time.” Little brother…the phrase made him smile. Johnny was anything but a little brother. In age he was a few years younger, but in the experience of living he was far older than his years. The boy had grown to manhood on his own. Had never had the comfort and care of a family in sickness or happiness. He had missed so much. And now, when he was sick, and frightened, because he no longer had control of his life, he was reverting back to the boy who never had a chance to be.
Well, he would see that that boy was well taken care of. There was plenty of time for the grown Johnny Lancer to face the highs and lows of life. But for now…Johnny Lancer the child needed love and understanding.
Scott found Johnny struggling to stand up from the sofa.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, boy?” Scott roared.
“I need to get outside.” Johnny panted. “I can’t breathe in here no more. I gotta get outside, Scott. Please.”
Scott saw the eyes of a trapped animal and knew that, for whatever reason, Johnny needed to be outside.
He grabbed the blanket and pillow and pulled Johnny up, waiting for him to steady himself, then slowly led him out the French doors onto Teresa’s flower garden.
“This is as far as we go.” Scott said, carefully lowering Johnny onto the bench.
Johnny nodded. “This is fine,” he said. Scott noticed a tightness to his voice and the slightly labored breathing. He arranged the pillow against the arm of the bench and settled Johnny into a half sitting position.
“I always like this place,” Johnny said.
“It reminds me of the flower gardens in Boston in the summer.” Scott sat down on the edge of the bench, absently lifting a magazine off the seat and putting it in his lap. “They would die each winter, too cold. Back in the spring. We’re lucky here. We have it all year.”
“We never had a flower garden when I was a kid. There was never enough water. Just enough to drink and grow a few vegetables. Baths and washing clothes was done down by the stream when it was running. When it went dry each summer the men would head up into the high country and bring water back in barrels strapped to their mulas…mules. But the water was expensive, so we only bought a little.” Johnny smelled the fragrant roses filling the air and smiled. “Mama would have liked these flowers. She liked pretty things.” Johnny’s voice trailed off…
Scott remained silent. If she liked pretty things how could she have let her son live in such poverty? What made her sacrifice her son’s happiness? He looked back at Johnny when he heard a deep cough. Sam had said to watch for coughing or labored breath. It appeared that Johnny was developing both.
He noticed the magazine on his lap and absently looked at the cover. One of Teresa’s catalogs from back east. Everything other than the essentials of day to day living had to be ordered through catalogs like these. He never realized growing up in Boston with never a care about food or money how lucky he was.
He started leafing through it. He could see why Teresa would spend hours looking through these magazines…then he came to a page that had been folded in half. He opened it up and read the heading. `Give that someone special in your life something to remember you forever.’
“Johnny, look at this.” He shook Johnny’s knee gently.
Johnny looked at him groggily. “What?”
“I think we’ve found what Teresa has been working on. Listen to this: Give that someone special in your life something to remember you forever. Send them a Valentines’ Greeting. Be the first in your town to start a new tradition. Join those in England and France who have celebrated February 14th for years. Learn the history of Valentine’s Day as you create a keepsake for only the most treasured in your life. In a short three months you will have all the supplies you need to make that one of a kind gift. Send one dollar to…”
“Valentine’s Day?” Johnny voice sounded labored. “Never heard of it.”
“I have. But it never crossed my mind that Teresa…”
“Teresa is making one of those Valentine things for her new beau?”
“That’s what it looks like. Now all we have to do is…..Johnny?” Scott let the magazine slide off his lap…he looked at Johnny’s startled look, his hand weakly clawing at his chest.
“…I…can’t…breathe…” he whispered.
“What’s going on here?” Sam was beside him now, pushing him out of the way. “What’s he doing outside?”
“He said he couldn’t breathe inside. He…”
Sam quickly placed his stethoscope in his ears and listened to Johnny’s chest.
“He can’t breathe because his lungs are congested. When will any of you learn to say no to this boy? Take him to his room. Teresa, I want a steam pot brought to his room and have Maria make up a mustard plaster. Murdoch, I need all the lamps you have, set them around his bed.”
Sam’s alarm startled Scott and he wrapped Johnny in the blanket and carried him into the house.
Scott and Murdoch watched silently as Sam carefully studied the pox marks on Johnny’s skin with a magnifying glass.
“Help me turn him over.”
“No…” Johnny protested, even though his breaths were coming in short pants.
“Just for a minute, Johnny. Try to relax.”
Teresa rushed in with Jelly on her heels carrying a steaming bucket of water.
“There.” Sam announced. “There it is.” He probed gently around a pox mark that looked a little larger and redder than the rest just above his knee. “Let’s turn him over. That’s it.”
They settled Johnny against a mound of pillows and covered him with a blanket. “You’ll need to keep a hot compress on that area,” he ordered.
“What is it, Sam? What is making Johnny so sick?” Teresa asked.
“I sent a few wires out to New York and Philadelphia. They confirmed what I had suspected. Sometimes one of the pustules will become infected. I don’t know how, but the infection gets into the bloodstream and in most cases causes acute pneumonia. The low-grade fever, the weakness…his body was trying to fight the infection but it didn’t have a chance. This type of pneumonia is very aggressive, very hard to treat.”
“Sam…?” Murdoch couldn’t take his eyes off Johnny.
“I don’t know, Murdoch. I really don’t know.”
Teresa reached down to her pocket and she felt the card sitting in her pocket.
“He has to be all right,” she whispered. “He has to be.”
Afternoon turned to evening, evening turned to night and night turned to day and still the small assembly of people waited and watched as Johnny struggled to take each breath.
The world beyond the four walls still went on as usual. Cipriano took the reins and oversaw the day to day duties required to keep a ranch the size of Lancer in order. He did it willingly for the Patron and his sons. Johnny and Scott had returned to their birthright, and with them they brought friendship and laughter, and above all a love for the land. Lancer was truly a home now. Not just for the ones who resided in the hacienda…but for the entire ranch.
And as families do, the entire ranch stood in quiet vigil, waiting for word that Johnny Lancer would return once again to them.
Sam’s dire diagnosis hadn’t prepared Scott for the mind numbing grief he felt as he watched Johnny succumb to the pneumonia that had stalked him for so many days.
His complicity in Johnny’s illness, not forcing him to stay in bed, allowing him to go outside, weighed heavy on his shoulders. He promised himself if…no, when, Johnny fought and won this latest battle, he would never allow his stubborn brother to have his way again when his health was at risk.
Everyone was at the point of exhaustion as they constantly tended to his every need. Medications and sponge baths, mustered plasters and steam tents. Everything Sam could think of to fight the infection that wouldn’t release its hold.
Teresa and Sam administered the medication every two hours, coaxing him awake enough so he wouldn’t choke on the liquid, hoping the Aconite and Belladonna would lessen the fever and the Bryonia and Phosphorus would break though the congestion in his chest. Pillows were stuffed behind his back so he laid half sitting up. It seemed to help a little, but the sound of his breaths rattling in his chest unnerved everyone.
For three days they labored to break the pneumonia’s deadly hold on Johnny’s lungs.
On the fourth morning Sam awoke to see Johnny staring at him, droopy eyed and pale, but with a hint of a smile touching his lips.
“You…always sleep…like that?” Johnny asked, his voice little more than a croak.
Sam smiled, lifting his head off the mattress. He had meant to only rest for a moment on the chair that was pushed up close to Johnny’s bed. “It’s about time you decided to wake up.”
Sam looked behind him and chuckled at the collection of gangly arms and legs as each family member had given way to exhaustion. Teresa had cleared the top of the bureau and curled up like a kitten.
Scott had fashioned a bed from blankets and pillows and stretched out on the floor. Jelly had simply slid down the wall and slept where he landed. Murdoch sat on the rocker beneath the window, his long legs stretched out before him like long tree limbs.
“I pride myself in a little more decorum,” Sam whispered as he straightened up. “How do you feel?”
“Chest hurts.” As if to punctuate the reply, a deep painful cough erupted from his chest. “If I was a horse,” he continued when he could get his breath back, “I’d say I was rode hard and put up wet.”
“Hey,” Scott’s voice drifted up from the floor, “is that my brother I hear complaining?”
“It shore is.” Another voice came from across the room. “And I ain’t heard prettier words in a month of Sundays,” Jelly called.
“Can’t a man get any sleep around here?” Murdoch grumbled, a wide smile plastered across his face, “the rooster hasn’t even crowed yet.”
“Johnny?” Teresa uncurled herself from the top of the bureau. “Oh Johnny. Don’t you ever scare us like that,” she admonished through a rainstorm of tears.
Johnny found himself surrounded by worried, but happy faces.
“All right now.” Sam slipped his stethoscope around his neck and motioned toward the door. “I need to examine my patient. I want everyone out, except you Scott, I could use your assistance. Teresa if you could heat up some broth for Johnny here, and Murdoch, if you and Jelly could bring the tub back up, I think Johnny will feel much better after a warm bath.” He emphasized the word warm and got a thankful smile from Johnny.
Sam waited until the room was clear of everyone but Scott and turned back to Johnny. “Now, young man, tell me how you really feel,” Sam ordered.
“Awful.” Johnny conceded, “I hurt everywhere.”
Sam nodded, listening to Johnny’s lungs. “Well, you’re probably going to feel that way for some time, Johnny. You had a serious bout with pneumonia, and it will take time to rebuild your strength. Your fever has broken, but it’s not unusual for it to return so I want you to stay in this bed, understood?”
“Ain’t going nowhere, Sam.” Johnny sighed.
“That’s how you feel right now. But in a couple of days when you feel a bit stronger, that’s when you are going to have to bite the bullet and stay put.”
“I think Jelly already has the rope ready to hog tie him to the bed.” Scott laughed.
“If that’s what it takes to make this boy mind, you have my blessing.”
Johnny glared at them both, before a bout of coughing caught him again and he lay back exhausted, panting for breath.
“I’m afraid that cough will be with you for a time, Johnny. It is a good thing. I know, I know, doesn’t feel like it, hurts like hell, but it’s going to get rid of the congestion in your lungs. Scott help me turn him over.”
“Sam I can…” Johnny started to protest.
“No you can’t. Now you relax and let us do the work.” Scott removed the pile of pillows under Johnny’s head and gently helped Sam roll Johnny onto his stomach.
Sam listened to his lungs again, checked the infected pox on his leg and nodded.
“I still hear a lot of congestion in your lungs Johnny. I know it hurts, but you are going to have to cough as often as you can. I’m going to have Maria brew up some herbal tea and I want you to drink it as often as you can. It will help to break up the congestion. I am also adding Antimonium-tartaricum. I know, it’s a mouthful, but if you feel like you can’t get your breath again it should help. Scott, let’s roll him back over.”
Once settled, with the mound of pillows back in place and the blankets pulled up tight over Johnny’s chest, Sam sat down in the rocking chair. “Scott, if you could have Maria make up a bed for me, I’d like to get a few hours’ sleep before I head back into town. I do have other patients, you know.” This was directed at Johnny, and it elicited the desired grin from his patient.
“Meanwhile, you try to get some sleep young man. Rest is the best thing you can do. And to make sure you get that rest…” Sam held up a small brown bottle and Johnny cringed.
“I don’t need that stuff,” Johnny protested. “I’ll go to sleep right away. I promise.”
“Johnny, you need the rest, you also need to cough. This laudanum will take the bite off the pain of coughing and allow it to be more productive. Now open up.”
Johnny did as he was told to the surprise of both Sam and Scott.
“Well that was easy.” Sam turned and winked surreptitiously at Scott, “too easy,” he whispered. “I’ll check on you before I leave.”
Johnny nodded as his heavy eyelids slid closed and he drifted into a deep healing sleep.
Sam stopped by Johnny’s room before he left, as promised. He found Johnny fast asleep, and his family quietly watching him.
“I guess I don’t have to remind you that he should not be left alone.”
There was a chorus of yes’s.
“His temperature is slightly elevated. I expected that. But keep a close eye on it, if it starts running high come get me. The most important thing is that his cough is productive. If it isn’t, I’ll have to increase his medication. Oh, and let him take a warm bath when he wakes up. He can soak for awhile if he wants. The warm water may help to break up the congestion too. But don’t let him take a chill. Any questions?”
He waited, but there were no questions, just weary smiles as they watched Johnny sleep.
“I’m sorry, Murdoch. I let you and Johnny down this time. I should have known. I should have started him on a regiment of medications for pneumonia. If I had only thought it through. It was so obvious…the low grade fever, the weight loss…his body was fighting the infection.”
“Sam, if there is blame to be had, then Johnny himself deserves a large share. The boy never considers the consequences of his actions when it comes to his health. I think that he didn’t really care for so many years, because no one else cared.”
Sam nodded. “Sad but true. It still doesn’t excuse my part in all this. Well, there will be time for more discussions later, right now I want you all to get some rest too. You will do Johnny no good if you are sick yourselves. That goes for you too Scott. I suggest you draw up a plan where each person spends no more than two hours at a time watching him. Tired people make mistakes. He is out of the worst danger now…but he is still not out of the woods.
“We understand, Sam.” Murdoch wrapped his arm around his friend’s shoulder, “And thank you. I was afraid I was going to lose my son again there for awhile. We’ve been together for such a short time, I couldn’t bear it again.”
“None of us could, sir,” Scott said. “And don’t you worry about my brother following orders this time.”
Sam chuckled. “I have a feeling that boy isn’t going to be able to twitch a finger without someone watching. But remember, while he needs watching, he also needs his space. Now, come get me if he needs anything. I’ll stop by in a couple of days to see how he’s doing. “
Johnny heard the sounds of water splashing and he immediately thought of the bath Sam had promised him.
He opened his eyes, still heavy from the laudanum, and saw Scott and Jelly busy filling the larger of the two tubs they kept in the bathhouse with steaming water. A tiny smile tweaked his lips. He was going to get a proper bath this time.
He pushed back the blanket that covered him to the neck, and tried to sit up, startled by how weak he felt.
“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” Scott glanced up, looking at Johnny through a haze of steam.
“I can’t wait to get into that tub. You know how long it’s been since…”
“It will be a hell of a lot longer if you don’t stay put until we’re ready for you.”
“Seems ta me that Teresa’s been fretting over her flower garden of late. We could just bail this water outa that window there and she’d be as happy as a flea on a dog.”
Johnny glowered at them both, but settled back into the pillows. He would do nothing to jeopardize that soak in the tub.
He had to admit, even to himself, that he felt too weak to do more than lift his head off the pillows. His chest still felt heavy and he was conscious of every breath he drew, each inhalation threatening to trigger another fit of coughing.
He closed his eyes for a moment.
“Hey boy, do you plan to sleep the day away or do you want that bath?”
Johnny snapped his eyes open, realizing he had dozed off. Scott and Jelly stood over him, silly grins plastered on their faces.
He nodded and Scott was pulling off his nightshirt.
“Now you listen to me Johnny, we are going to do this my way, understand?”
Johnny felt his temper flare, he never took ultimatums well, then he saw the tub again and quietly acquiesced.
Scott took Johnny’s silence as a yes and carefully helped him sit up and swing his legs over the edge of the bed.
The simple maneuver left Johnny dizzy and panting. He sat very still, Scott’s strong arms holding him steady. Waiting as the world righted itself.
With a nod of his head, Scott and Jelly carefully drew him to his feet and slowly walked him toward the tub.
“We gotta put some meat on them bones, boy,” Jelly teased. “I swear we could see right through ya if we stood ya in front of the window, just like some a Teresa’s fancy writin’ paper.”
“Funny, Jelly.” Johnny hissed. They were standing in front of the tub now, and he didn’t have the strength to lift his leg over the top.
Before Johnny could object Scott and Jelly lifted him off the floor and settled him into the tub.
Johnny could barely suppress a moan of pleasure as he felt the warm water rising up over his legs and across his stomach, caressing his chest like the warm fingers of a beautiful woman, tugging at the fine ringlets of dark hair, spilling over his shoulders until it reached his chin.
He laid his head back, letting the hot water creep through his hair, the water filling his ears, muffling the sound until the only thing he could hear was the beat of his own heart
He sighed deeply, welcoming the touch of the soft flannel towel as Scott carefully washed him down. The warm water lapping at his chin.
“Any chance of ditching this beard?” Johnny asked languidly.
“Not yet,” Scott answered with a grin, “unless you want your face to look like the road into Morro Coyo in the dead of summer. You got a hot date or something?”
“You can never tell when a beautiful woman just might …” He began to cough, deep, painful spasms that left him gasping for air. Scott supported his back, eyeing Jelly with concern.
The old man nodded and returned with the bottle of laudanum.
“No…” Johnny rasped.
“You promised you’d do it my way, remember?”
Johnny glared at him, accepting the vile liquid before another spasm caught him. He felt Scott’s strong arms holding his head above water. And they waited.
Slowly the cough subsided, but it left him feeling incredibly weak. He closed his eyes and wondered if he would ever feel like his old self again.
“Better now?” Scott asked.
“Time to get out.”
Johnny shook his head. “Just a few more minutes, Scott.”
Scott motioned Jelly to give him the time.
“Hey brother, do you know what tomorrow is?” Scott asked.
Johnny had settled deeper into the water, his eyes still closed. “No.”
“February 14th is Valentine’s Day.”
One eye popped open and Johnny looked up at Scott. “Teresa’s beau?”
“You know who he is yet?”
Scott shook his head.
“You gonna ask her?”
Scott shook his head again.
Scott grinned. “One brother out for the count is enough. Now, let’s get you back in bed before you take a chill and Sam is all over me again.”
“We’ll talk about it later.”
It took Scott and Jelly several minutes to lift Johnny out of the tub and put him back in bed. The combination of the warm water relaxing him and the coughing depleting what little strength he had left him exhausted. He was asleep before Scott slipped a fresh nightshirt over his head and settled him against the mound of pillows.
“Sleep tight, Johnny.” Scott whispered and sat in the rocker, picking up the book he had been trying to read since Johnny fell ill. He looked out the window at the world waiting for Johnny’s return. Nothing seemed the same when Johnny wasn’t a part of it.
February 14th dawned crisp and cool. Johnny was allowed to sit for a few minutes before the window, the sun light warming his face. He was looking more like Johnny Lancer now. Most of the red marks had disappeared. Sam cautioned that he still needed to be watched, and bed rest was still vital to his recovery.
Scott had arrived earlier in the morning, scowling. Seemed that Teresa was nearly dancing through the house, humming to herself. There was a flush of excitement to her face.
She had asked that Murdoch and Jelly join them at noon.
“You think she’s gonna tell us who her Valentine’s for?” Johnny asked.
Scott nodded. “I’m not sure how I feel about it. I mean, what if he IS someone we disapprove of?”
“I’ve been thinking about that. She’s almost a grown woman now. And we trust her on everything else, why not picking out the right man?”
“What would you say if she picked Johnny Madrid…not Lancer but Madrid. I’ve heard stories that there were many fine young ladies that would have followed him anywhere.”
Johnny looked up at Scott and said earnestly, “I would have shot him.”
Scott stared at Johnny, not sure what to say until he saw the twinkle in his brother’s eyes.
“Yeah? And maybe I would have lent you my gun.”
“You’re welcome. Now, let’s get you back in bed.”
“Come on Scott…”
“Sam said ten minutes at the most. Let’s go.”
Scott gently pulled Johnny to his feet and guided him back to his bed.
“What time is it?” Johnny asked after he was settled in. Scott noticed Johnny’s pallor return, the simple exercise of walking from the chair was still too much for him, but he would never admit it.
They heard footsteps in the hallway and recognized Murdoch’s heavy step. He arrived with Jelly in tow, a quizzical look on his face.
“I don’t know either,” Scott said before the question could be posed.
“How are you feeling, son?” Murdoch asked moving over to Johnny’s bed.
“Better. You know about this Valentine business?”
“Everyone knows, but no one knows who it is.”
The door opened and Teresa stepped in. She wore a smile large enough to light up the entire room.
“How are you feeling, Johnny?”
“I’m fine. You look happy.”
“Do you have something to tell us?” Murdoch asked, hesitation in his voice.
“Well…?” Jelly groused. “You gonna tell us who this new feller is, or are we gonna have ta play more of them fancy games ya like so much?”
Slowly she pulled an envelope from her pocket.
Johnny could see it was made from one of the pieces of colored paper she was working on at the table.
“This is for you, Johnny.”
Johnny looked up at Scott who simply shrugged, just as confused as Johnny.
Johnny accepted it with a trembling hand. “Quidera…?”
“Open it,” she urged.
Johnny carefully pulled back the flap on the envelope and withdrew a red card. He stared at it… On the front were small cutouts of everything Johnny loved. Horses, the moon, a slice of chocolate cake…the Lancer hacienda.
“Open it and read it,” Teresa urged again.
Johnny cleared his throat… “It’s in Spanish.”
Teresa nodded. “But before you read it…”she pulled three more envelopes from her pocket and handed one to each of the men staring at her in loving confusion.
Scott looked at his; small cutouts of books and a pair of plaid pants and Lancer adorned the front. Jelly had Dewdrop and Lancer. Murdoch’s had profiles of two men, Johnny and Scott, and Lancer.
Teresa smiled. “They each say the same thing. To the most important man in my life.”
“Teresa…?” Johnny looked up at her and she nodded almost imperceptibly.
“Today is the day that we tell that person who means so much to us how we really feel. Well, I guess I must be about the richest woman in the world because I love four very special men.”
Scott looked at the card then at Johnny, lowering his head and beginning to chuckle. “We thought…”
“I know what you thought.’ Teresa giggled.
“You did?” Johnny gave her a wary look.
“Of course. Why else would I leave that magazine on the bench with the page folded back. You two were so funny. Benita and Maria played their parts perfectly.”
“Just about every woman on the ranch did. I never thought you would think that I had a secret beau, then when Johnny tried to drag the information out of me, even as sick as he was, I knew I had you.”
Murdoch slipped the card into his shirt pocket. “I will treasure this for always,” he promised.
“Same here.” Jelly said, excusing himself from the room. He never felt comfortable about showing his feelings.
Scott kissed her lightly on the cheek. “You really had us going.”
Johnny motioned for her to come sit on the bed next to him.
He repeated the words on the card to her, kissing her gently on the cheek… “Amor a usted siempre, amor.”
Happy Valentine’s Day!
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