La Madrugada (The Dawn) by Lisa Paris

Word Count 18,510

“Post nubila phoebus “
“ The Darkest Hour is that before the Dawn “

Sighing wearily, Scott Lancer stretched out his long legs, and tried to settle back more comfortably in his father’s armchair.  Although his body found it easy to relax, his mind wasn’t quite as lucky, and glancing across the room at Teresa, he could tell that she was suffering from a similar problem.  He smiled slightly.

“Good book ?”

She looked up at him with a small start. 

“Um, yes. Very good thank you.”

His smile widened even further.

“So good in fact, that you’ve been on the same page ever since you first opened it up.”

She flushed guiltily, and snapped it closed with a sigh.

“It’s that obvious ?”

His smile faded as he regarded her anxious little face, the shadows that seemed to be deepening round her fawn-like eyes.

“If we haven’t had any word by tomorrow lunchtime, I promise I’ll take either Cip or Ruis and set out to find them.  You never know, the fact that they’re overdue could be a good sign. It may mean they’ve decided to sort things out between them a little bit, that they’ve taken some time to talk things over.”

In spite of her anxiety, she couldn’t help making a slight face at him.

“Either that or they’ve killed each other!”

He laughed as well, but in truth, her words were an uncomfortable echo of his own worries regarding the unexpected and disquieting trip that Murdoch had been forced to undertake, not a fortnight since.  Scott winced as he recalled the look of towering rage on Murdoch’s face the day that Val Crawford had ridden over from the Green River Sheriff’s office with the telegraph in his hand.  With the automatic sixth sense he seemed to have developed when it came to his younger brother, Scott had known immediately it contained bad news about Johnny, and unfortunately, he was right.

Johnny had been on his way back to Lancer from Barstow.  The trip in itself had been a kind of punishment, as things around the hacienda had been decidedly bad for awhile now, and Scott had sensed that Murdoch needed some time and space to cool down a little after one particularly flaming row.  But it was just like Johnny to have sensed it too, and along with his outraged feeling of injustice, Scott knew that deep down, he felt hurt and slightly troubled by the fact that Murdoch had sent him away.

On his way back home, Johnny had stopped overnight in a small town called Jubilee, and as usual, he’d stepped headlong into a commotion. There had been some sort of gunfight, the details were sketchy, but the up-shot of it all, was that Johnny had been arrested and thrown in jail by a man Val Crawford described as “A real zealot of a Sheriff.”

Apparently the man had found out that it was Johnny Madrid who graced his town, and accused him of using Lancer as an alias for his own nefarious purposes.  Hence Murdoch’s enforced journey down-state to vouch for the validity of his youngest son, a journey he’d begun with an expression of such rage, that Scott had worried about it ever since.  And he knew Teresa had too.

He hadn’t missed the look of intense preoccupation on her face as she moved about the hacienda, getting on quietly with her life, but with an air of unease hovering around her like a miasma, as she fretted over the breakdown in the relationship between two of the three men she loved most in the world.

Scott knew what frightened her.  It was the same thing that caused him sleepless nights.  The unspoken worry that one-day, things would get so bad that Johnny would get on his horse and ride away again.   Only this time, he would never come back.  He sighed, and looked up with slight surprise at her touch on his arm.  Whilst he’d been sat there, sunk in despondency, she’d risen from her chair and poured them both a large brandy.  A supplication to the concern that filled each one of them, a temporary panacea for the fear of losing Johnny.

****

Murdoch Lancer kept his eyes firmly on the horizon, glancing neither left nor right as he rode ahead, his face like granite.  They’d left Jubilee the day before yesterday, and after some particularly difficult wrangling, and a certain amount of money changing hands, he’d managed to persuade the over-ardent Sheriff that Johnny was indeed his son.

From the sound of it, the gunfight had been fair and square, but it was the same old weary tale, and Murdoch was sick of it.  Someone in the saloon had recognised Johnny, and the stories had spread like wildfire.  And then of course, there had to be just one idiot who fancied his chances with a gun.  One fool, who fired up with whisky, had forced a fight with his son, and lived to regret it.

If only Murdoch had been prepared to listen to the whole story, he might have discovered just how hard Johnny had tried to avoid that fight, and how he’d had to swallow and ignore some insults that would have tried the patience of a saint, let alone a certain hot-headed young man…….

But Murdoch wasn’t in the mood to hear it right now, and instead, the whole incident seemed to confirm yet again, his darker fears concerning Johnny.

As it was, the man had lived.

Johnny had eventually been forced to fight for his life, taking him down in a blur of speed, his bullet piercing his opponent’s shoulder with deadly accuracy and severing the tendons to his gun-arm, but preserving his foolish life.  It was always a risky shot to take.  If you didn’t make sure of your opponent with the first bullet, there was always the chance that he’d come back at you again.  But senseless killing had soured Johnny, and it was a risk he was prepared to accept.

And that’s when his troubles had begun.

He’d signed into Jubilee’s only Hotel as Johnny Lancer, and the Sheriff knew it because he kept an eye on all the strangers passing through his town.  But then he’d been outed as Johnny Madrid, notorious gunfighter and shooter for hire, and the ball game had suddenly changed.  Even though the man he’d shot was a braggart and an idiot, he was local, and known in the area.  But Johnny was a gunfighter, and as far as anyone could see, he’d lied about his name, and that was all the proof the Sheriff seemed to need.  So therefore, instead of spending the night in the comfortable Hotel bedroom that he’d booked, he’d ended up in jail, no amount of talk or explanation good enough for Sheriff Micah Carrick, until Murdoch had arrived in person to bail him out.

Suppressing a sigh, Johnny leaned back in the saddle and observed Murdoch clandestinely through narrowed eyes.  The Old Man was clearly still mad as hell.  He’d barely said two words to him since they’d ridden out of that God-forsaken town two days ago, speaking only when necessary, his expression as grim and unyielding as his rigid back.  Johnny wasn’t sure what he could do about it.  Anything he said just seemed to make things worse, and Murdoch had already told him he didn’t want to listen to excuses.

Excuses!

If Murdoch only knew!

It had taken an awful lot for him to ignore that punk’s insults, to try and turn the other cheek…

The other Johnny, the old Johnny Madrid, wouldn’t have bothered wasting his time, wouldn’t have allowed it to spoil his evening.  No, that Johnny would have taken him down.  But he wasn’t that Johnny any more, or at least he was trying his hardest not to be.  For better or for worse, he was trying to change his ways, to change his life…

But it sure as hell wasn’t easy sometimes!

He looked at Murdoch again, and a sudden wave of loneliness swept over him.  Was it futile trying to build a relationship with this man who was his father?  A lost cause?  He sometimes felt like raging at him and telling him all the bitter truths he knew the Old Man wanted to hear.  No more secrets.  No more dirty hidden past.  But in his heart he was terrified.  So afraid that if he did, the Old Man would be horrified, that he’d reject him out of hand.  And Johnny wouldn’t blame him if he did, either.

A man who’d stained his soul the way he had, maybe didn’t deserve a decent shot at life. A second chance.  Redemption.  No.  He’d borne many cruel and terrifying things in his life, but he knew he couldn’t bear to see the disgust and condemnation in his father’s eyes.  The past would stay the past.  Dead and buried like layers of leaves.  Ashes on his tongue.

Glancing towards the horizon, his heart sank as he saw the sun beginning to drop down behind the mountains.  It meant that they’d soon be stopping to pitch camp for the night.  The previous couple of nights had been a disaster, and Murdoch had barely spoken more than two words to him, talking only when necessary about practical things such as settling the horses, and preparing the meal.  Any other attempts at initiating conversation had been met with peremptory answers followed by a cold and stony silence that seemed to stretch on and on forever.  In the end, Murdoch had rolled himself up in his blanket and gone to sleep, facing away from Johnny as though he’d turned his back on him forever.

Johnny had watched him for a long while, and sleep for him had been elusive and out of reach.  Instead, he’d lain facing upwards just mapping the stars, a hard knot of misery forming tightly in his chest.  He’d been at Lancer for six months now, and it was hardly proving to be easy.  Whereas his bond with Scott just kept leaping from strength to strength, his relationship with Murdoch seemed a perfect example of the old adage, one step forwards – two steps back.  Any progress they made seemed to be transient, almost ephemeral sometimes, and just when Johnny dared to believe that things might actually be improving, some kind of setback would occur to dash it all aside again.  And Johnny was the first one to acknowledge that a lot of it was probably his fault.

He’d been on his own for so long now.  He was so used to being his own master, to having things his own way, to never doing anything for anyone if he didn’t like them or agree with them.  It was hard having to work for the Old Man.  Hard to obey him unquestioningly, to put up with his barked out orders and terse instructions, his high-handed belief that he was always right.

Johnny often found himself envious of Scott who seemed to cope with it better than he did, treating some of Murdoch’s dictates with an amused sense of philosophy, and a gentle sense of humour.  Maybe it was because he’d been an Army Officer, maybe he’d become used to being told what to do, or perhaps he was just a damn sight more patient than Johnny was, with a better understanding of what made the Old Man tick.

Well, whatever it was, it seemed to be working far more successfully for Scott than anything that Johnny tried, and at least he managed to get along with Murdoch on a friendly and civil basis most of the time.

Teresa had told him once, a couple of weeks after he’d recovered from the bullet Day Pardee had put into his back, that Murdoch had refused to leave his bed-side the whole time he’d been really sick.  But his memories of that week were scattered and vague.  Tainted by pain and fever and curiously fragmented dreams. 

He could remember the girl.  The faint, sweet smell of roses on her hair, the gentle touch of her tiny hands on his hurt-filled body, and under his head as she helped him to drink.

He could remember Scott.  His firm, kindly voice cajoling him to stay still and do as he was told, to refrain from pushing at the bulky dressings that had swathed his back.

Even the doctor, Sam Jenkins.  Poking and prodding him, taking out the stitches, rebuking him lightly for some of the choicer language he’d used in front of Teresa before he’d realised she spoke fluent Spanish…..

But he found it hard to remember his father.

Later on of course, once he was well on the road to recovery, the Old Man had popped in every evening after suppertime to spend at least an hour with him.  But either Scott or Teresa had always been there too, and a three-way conversation was far easier to maintain then the awkward silences that punctuated things when it was just him and Murdoch alone.

There was the odd flashback or two that seemed to give credence to Teresa’s words though;  A jumbled memory of waking in the night, confused and panic-stricken, so hot it felt as though he’d been plunged into a furnace….

A hand on his forehead, pushing back his hair, sponging him with cool, lavender scented towels and exhorting him to lie still.  A hand that was huge and gnarled and definitely did not belong to Teresa, or even Scott….

Another time, in a moment of near lucidity, seeing the silhouette of a tall man standing in the window as the dawn came up, pensive and motionless as he watched the red sun rising in a ball of golden flame.

But it was getting harder and harder to equate those emotions with the man who rode beside him now.  The man whose face was as grim as the rock it appeared to be hewn out of.

The man who was his father.

****

After another hour of silent riding, the light had begun to soften and change from blinding yellow to rose-tinted and shadowy, and the sun began to sink into the west.  Squinting up at the sky, Murdoch turned perfunctorily to Johnny and nodded briefly.

“There’s a water-hole a half a mile or so from here, we’ll pull up and make camp there.”

“Alright…”

Any attempt at further conversation was effectively halted as Murdoch spurred on the enormous Caledonia, and horse and rider stretched ahead.  Johnny watched him with a mixture of anger and sadness, and patted Barranca ruefully on the neck, the gesture made as much for his own comfort, as a mark of affection to the glossy palomino.

“Esta bien, no importa….” he murmured sarcastically, pushing Barranca into a canter to keep up.

The palomino whinnied and flicked his ears in sympathy, and Johnny drew a small measure of comfort from the show of equine solidarity, as he watched the Old Man dismount next to a large, bowl-shaped waterhole set below the overhang of an impressive rock-formation.  There was some scrubby Rabbitbrush, and a few Mesquite, but the vegetation on the whole, was pretty sparse, and Johnny whispered sympathetically to Barranca as he swung down from the saddle.

“Not much for supper, I’m afraid compadre, but I promise I’ll make it up to you when we get back to Lancer.”

Barranca head-butted him affectionately and appeared resigned to the lack of victuals, and looking up, Johnny was suddenly aware that Murdoch had been watching the two of them closely.

“What is it ?”

“Nothing. “ The Old Man looked away.  “You’re good with that horse. With most horses as far as I’ve seen.  Look around for something we can burn, and I’ll set up a fire.”

“Okay…” Johnny paused, surprised by the reluctant compliment and wanting to say more, but Murdoch was gone, and the moment had passed leaving him feeling curiously bereft, as he began to scout about for dead brushwood to build a fire.  He’d soon collected enough to keep them going for awhile, and by the time he got back to the camp-site, Murdoch had already set-up a ring of stones in preparation, and unrolled their beds for the night.

“Should be enough here.”

Johnny placed it down, determined not to let the situation fester any longer.

“We gonna spend another night in silence, or you actually gonna listen to my side of the story about what happened back there?”

“Not now Johnny. “

Murdoch’s voice was curt and dismissive, as he turned his back and looked around for something in his pack.

“Well when then?” said Johnny, angry, in spite of his resolution not to be.  “When you decide I suppose. Just like everything else has to be, always on your terms!”

“This isn’t on my terms,“ said Murdoch sharply.  “I’ve got a lot better things to do with my time, then ride across the state to bail you out of jail every time you get into another damn mess!”

“That’s not fair. What happened back there wasn’t exactly my fault…”

“It never is, is it?”

“No sabes nada!” muttered Johnny under his breath, as his fists clenched tightly.

“No, “ agreed Murdoch frowning.  “No, I don’t know anything. You’re so damned secretive all the time.”

“Why?” said Johnny sarcastically, “because I don’t chose to tell you everything about my past?  Didn’t you get your snoopy little Pinkerton boys to find out all the juicy details, all the nasty little twists, every single, bloody thing you need to know so you can confirm your bad opinion of me?”

Murdoch ignored his outburst and continued to rummage in his pack for some matches.  “Oh grow up, Johnny.“

“Grow up!”  Johnny laughed bitterly, in spite of the hollow pain in his heart.  “I grew up years ago, Old Man.  I haven’t been a child since I was ten years old. Maybe even before then! “

“Part of being an adult means taking responsibility for your own actions. You could always look to your……”

Murdoch paused and took a deep breath, aware that he might have been about to go too far.  But Johnny wasn’t stupid, and he smiled sardonically, his lips twisting acidly.

“My brother. You were about to say I ought to look to my brother.”

“Johnny….”

“Well it’s good to know there’s one son who’s not a disappointment to you. And you’re right of course.  He’s everything I’m never gonna be.  Polite, nice society manners, wealthy in his own right…  A war hero, a damn fine man…” his voice faltered.

“Johnny !”

Murdoch looked up at him now, unable to miss the hurt hostility in his youngest son’s face, or the flicker of pain present in the furious blue-eyes.  He banked up the pile of boulders to light the fire.

“I didn’t mean…”

Something moved in the corner of his vision, darting out of the rocks he’d dislodged with a fast and lethal intent.  He’d barely registered the ominous hiss and rattle, or noted the dark and familiar diamond-shaped blotches, before the spade-shaped head struck at him with deadly precision.

Something solid cannoned into him, barrelling him backwards into the dust and away from the snake.  Someone who spun and fired two rapid shots before the silence surged swiftly backwards, and Murdoch sat up shakily, his eyes drawn irresistibly to the creature’s bloody remains. He brushed himself down and got to his feet, knees shaking slightly in-spite of himself.

“Goddam it…” He looked round at his younger son.  “That was neat shooting !”

“Thanks…”

Johnny’s voice was a pale imitation of its usual drawl, and Murdoch crouched beside him in sudden realisation and alarm.

“Did it get you boy ?”

Johnny smiled slightly. “Leg.  Guess it wasn’t such a bad shot either. “

He lay back on the ground and closed his eyes briefly, seeing the small scene play over in his head once more.  The rattlesnake rearing and ready to strike, tail shaking, tongue flickering.  Murdoch’s bared forearm, there within its reach…  He’d only had a portion of a second in which to act, an infinitesimal fragment of time in which to lurch across and shove the Old Man sprawling backwards…  Feeling the strike of the diamond-back against the calf of his own left leg as he did so, the needle-sharp fangs sinking deep into his flesh before he’d whirled and fired his gun, blasting it into perdition!   The bite was already incredibly painful, and forcing himself to sit-up, he watched as Murdoch got out his big hunting knife, and slit up the side of his pants.

“Hey, “ he murmured, with vague chagrin. “Those were my favourite!”

Two neat, round puncture holes marked the swell of calf muscle above his anklebone, and even now, the fleshy area around them was becoming puffy and discoloured.  Murdoch caught his breath in dismay as he sat back on his haunches for a second, and surveyed the wound.  The small hope that the snakes fangs might have only grazed Johnny’s leg was sinking fast now, as he examined it closely, and tried not to let his disquiet show.  There was no doubt that the fangs had gone in deep, and he knew from experience that he was going to have to act both swiftly and brutally.  He looked up at Johnny with concern, and was astounded to see the ghost of a smile upon his face.  Maybe the poison had already begun to act and was making the boy delirious, but as if guessing his thoughts, Johnny shook his head quickly.

“So this is what it takes to get you to talk to me !”

Ignoring the words and the flush of shame they brought him, Murdoch regarded him grimly.  “This is going to hurt like hell, but it has…”

“To be done !” finished Johnny through gritted teeth.

Murdoch took a deep breath and sliced into his son’s flesh, fast and deep in a criss-cross pattern, making the fang marks the apex of the wound.  The sudden gush of blood over Johnny’s foot was hot and scarlet, and he closed his eyes whilst the world spun round as his stomach began to rock and heave.

“Johnny !”

Murdoch’s voice was loud and sharp, jolting him uncomfortably back to reality.  And opening his eyes again, he nodded with another faint grin.

“You were right again as always, it hurts like hell .”

“Maybe this is one time when I wish I wasn’t!” muttered Murdoch under his breath.

Johnny tried to struggle upwards as Murdoch got to his feet.   He was determined not to create any more problems as he watched Murdoch trying to calculate the setting sun’s position in the sky, his spirits sinking as he saw the deepening frown upon his father’s face.

“We can’t stay here…” said Johnny, shaking his head, “we’re not that far from Green River now, you could leave me, ride for some help…”

“Out of the question, “ replied Murdoch curtly, turning his back and moving over to the horses.  “Stay where you are and lie still. I’m going to irrigate the wound with some water. If you lie as still as you can, the poison won’t travel so quickly around your system.”

He unhooked his canteen and came back over to Johnny, kneeling at his side, and undoing the kerchief from around his neck as he did so. He bent over and tied it tightly just below Johnny’s knee, pulling the knots as hard as he could, and trying to ignore the trembling flesh beneath his hands as he forced himself to remain as detached as possible under the circumstances. Then he began to irrigate the deep wound, watching as the pink stained water ran back copiously into the thirsty ground, the blood of his son returning to the earth. 

Glancing up briefly at Johnny’s face, he noted the pallor beneath the tan, the tight, white lines around his mouth, and his own heart began to sink.  He’d lived out in this country long enough to know that these bites could be fatal for a lot of men.  Whether or not you lived or died depended on so many things.  How much poison the snake struck you with, how deep the fangs had punctured your flesh, your age and general state of health, and how fast you acted afterwards.

Well Murdoch knew that Johnny was young and healthy, and he had acted as fast as he possibly could, but the snake had bitten in deep and hard, and it had been a decent-sized reptile.  It was a certain fact that the bigger the snake, the more venom it produced.  Using the last of the water, he bared the wound and lowered his head to it, but Johnny’s hand shot out and gripped him by the shoulder, and his hold was surprisingly firm.

“You gonna suck it out ?”

“I have to try.”

“No,” Johnny shook his head decisively. “You don’t have to do that.”

Johnny’s grip may have been strong, but Murdoch’s was even stronger, as he gently removed his son’s preventative hand.

“Yes I do Johnny.” He sighed.  “Will you please, just for once, stop arguing with everything I say or do !”

Their eyes met for a second, and to Murdoch’s relieved surprise, Johnny lay back as meek as a lamb, and let him get on with it.

It was probably a forlorn effort.  He knew it as he sucked and spat, sucked and spat, but he had to try, even though experience told him that the venom was already circulating viciously around Johnny’s body and beginning on its path of deadly damage.  After a few minutes he gave up, and loosened the tourniquet.  The sun had disappeared below the mesa, and the rocks were casting their long shadows over the ground, as Murdoch sat back on his haunches and considered the options.  They were pitifully few.

They could stay here and ride it out, or he could leave Johnny as comfortable as possible and head on for Green River alone, but something inside him baulked at leaving the boy, and he knew he could not do it.  There was one other alternative.  About five or six miles onward down the trail, Murdoch knew there was a deserted miners shack.  It was pretty tumbledown and basic, but there was water there and it was trailside.  If they could make it there before the sun went down completely, then at least Johnny would have some proper shelter, and they might get lucky if someone else happened to pass by.  He glanced down at his son, and met his steadfast blue gaze.

“How do you feel ?”

“A little thirsty, dizzy-some. It’s not too bad.”

Murdoch watched him closely, admiring his careful nonchalance.  “There’s an old shack a few miles on. Can you make it ?”

Johnny nodded determinedly.  “No problema. Just point Barranca in the right direction and he’ll do the hard part. “

As he got to his feet to untie the horses, Murdoch put a quick hand on Johnny’s head as he passed by.  It was the briefest of gestures, but Johnny felt his eyes fill with sudden, unexpected tears.  It must be the pain he told himself, as he dashed them hurriedly away with the back of his hand, and hoped his father hadn’t seen them. But Murdoch had turned away from him now, and Johnny was able to recompose himself in time.

But everything else aside, he felt uneasy at the frightening onslaught of weakness that assaulted him. The pain really was beginning to get worse.  There was a persistent, burning throb in his leg from the wound itself, and a curious tingling sensation in the rest of his body that felt as though someone was piercing him with thousands of tiny needles.  He shook his head angrily at his own feebleness.  This was the very last thing he needed right now, the final nail in the coffin.  If he got sick and became even more of a burden to the Old Man, it might finish things off between them forever.  With that in mind, he began to struggle doggedly to his feet, but Murdoch was beside him in a second.

“Steady on there, boy, wait for me to help you.“

Murdoch led him over to Barranca, grim-faced and silent.   He sighed in his heart for the stubborn streak in Johnny that refused to let him help anymore than absolutely necessary, and watched as the boy shook off his arm, and insisted on mounting the palomino by himself. He sat there swaying slightly for a moment, beads of sweat breaking out on his top lip as he clutched on to the reins, and gripped the saddle tightly with his knees.  Barranca stirred uneasily and snickered softly at him, the horse quickly sensing that something was wrong, as Johnny put a gentle hand on the golden neck.

“Se bueno Barranca, se bueno.“

It only took a minute for Murdoch to re-pack their gear, and then he was up on Caledonia, and nudging the big bay alongside Barranca.

“We’ll walk the horses Johnny, it’ll be dark by the time we reach the shack, but it won’t jolt you about quite as much.  Keep close to me, and for God’s sake, let me know if you start to feel worse.  If you fall off, you could hurt yourself even more, and that’s the last thing I want just now!”

Murdoch saw the quick flash of rebellion in Johnny’s eyes, the unbidden look of desperate determination even as he chafed against the order, in spite of being aware that it made the only sense.  But he quickly forestalled any further argument by urging Caledonia forwards into a gentle walk, knowing full well that Barranca would follow automatically.  It took everything he had not to keep turning round to see if Johnny was all right, but he knew that it would only slow them, and he didn’t want to see the hurt that the boy tried so desperately to suppress.  He tipped his hat and set his jaw, silently praying with all his heart, that they’d make it safely home.

****

The journey was agony for Johnny.  By the time the sun had vanished in a spectacular show of rose and amber, plunging to its rest behind the distant hills and leaving the moon behind in its wake like a silver penny, he was hurting more than he thought it was possible to hurt.

It was becoming so hard to remain in the saddle, and he was just about able to roll with Barranca’s gait, gripping on tightly with his knee as he gave up, just trusting the palomino to follow Murdoch’s huge bay, because he was no longer capable of guiding him on his own.

The landscape seemed to have taken on nightmare proportions, and everything had assumed an eerie yellow glow. He vaguely remembered hearing somewhere, that a particular sign of rattlesnake bite was so-called yellow-vision.

As a child, he’d heard the old Mexican women talking about it one day at the well.  A child in the village had been bitten and had subsequently died.  He could still recall the Old Senoras discussing the signs and symptoms, and they came back to him now with peculiar clarity.

Yellow vision, spasms, paralysis…

He fought hard against the cold knot of fear that was forming inside him, and tried to rationalise it in his mind.  The child had been a toddler, a nino.  He hadn’t stood a chance, but he, Johnny, was strong and healthy, and Murdoch had opened the bite almost immediately.  He would be fine.  He just needed to rest awhile.   To lie down.

He got his wish an awful lot sooner than he’d planned, aware suddenly of Barranca’s missed, uneven step, and the burn of the reins sliding through his weakened grasp, as the ground surged up to meet him and his body slammed into it hard!  For awhile he just lay there, too numb and dazed to move, the unyielding stones beneath him merely adding to his discomfort, the pain and misery all at one with the night.

And then Murdoch was beside him, his hands gentle on his body. “Are you hurt Johnny, can you move ?”

If he hadn’t been in so much agony, he would have laughed at the irony of the question.

Did he hurt?

He hurt all over.  There wasn’t a part of him that wasn’t exquisite with torment or unpleasantness, and he lay there for a moment just trying to gather his strength.

“I…I’ll be alright…”

But then Murdoch was gone for a while, leaving him to lie there alone staring up at the yellow moon, as his body ached and twisted with tremors.  He barely had time to wonder where his father had gone, before he was back again, not wasting any time on words as he gathered Johnny into his arms like a baby and bundled him up onto Caledonia, mounting behind him, and leading Barranca in their wake.  Johnny tried to find the strength to protest, but it felt strangely comfortable cradled here against his father’s massive chest.  He forced his eyes open and studied Murdoch’s face.  As usual, it seemed carved from the very land itself.

Strong, immovable.

Rugged in aspect and expression, hammered and hewn from years of sweat and toil, a love of and connection to the country that he’d worked so hard to become a part of, the country that he’d made his own.  Johnny wondered how much further they had to go.  The fact that Murdoch himself suffered continuously with a chronically bad back, began to obsess him and add to his feelings of guilt, as he realised how difficult it must be for the Old Man to hold him here like this.  He hoped that Murdoch was okay, hoped that Barranca hadn’t damaged his foreleg, hoped that they’d reach the promised shack before he passed out all together and became even more of a burden, as a morass of nightmarish thoughts jostled round inside his head.

They picked their way steadily onwards, and although he didn’t actually lose consciousness, the whole of reality became suspended as he sank into a disjointed haze.  At last, at long, long last, he was vaguely aware of Murdoch speaking firmly to Caledonia, and pulling backwards on the reins.

“Whoa there, fellow, steady…”

Johnny opened his eyes again.

“We here?”

“We’re here, son.”

Murdoch’s voice sounded surprisingly gentle, as he leant Johnny forwards over Caledonia’s neck and dismounted himself. Johnny slumped where he was, too dazed and weak to move, before Murdoch came back and reached up to pull him down carefully into his arms.  The shack was crude, but because of its situation alongside the trail, countless travellers used it regularly as a stopover point, and Murdoch could see that it would afford them with a reasonably decent standard of shelter.  There was an old cot in the corner of the room, and he helped Johnny across to it, settling him down on his bedroll, before examining the rest of the cabin.  The fireplace was still viable, and in-fact, someone had obviously lit a fire in the hearth only days before, as the pile of silvery ashes were still quite fresh.

Pausing to let the fine powder run through his fingers, Murdoch was aware of a small spark of hope.  With any luck, someone would pass by tomorrow.  Someone who could go on into Green River and summons help, get hold of a doctor, maybe even send a message forwards to Lancer so that Scott could ride out to meet them.

With any luck!

Sighing heavily, he got to his feet and turned back to Johnny who lay on the cot and watched him through slitted blue eyes.

“Someone’s been here….”

“Yes, and recently too. That’s a good sign.  I’m going to settle the horses and get a fire started.   You rest for a while. “

But Johnny’s eyes had already closed, and he lay so motionless that Murdoch felt a quick beat of anxiety, moving across the room to check he was still breathing, and only reassured when he saw the uneven rise and fall of the boy’s chest.

****

“Scott…… “

Teresa called to him up the stairs, as he finished patting his freshly shaven chin dry. He always liked to shave before supper, after he’d washed all the dirt from the range off his body, and made himself feel half human again.

“It’s Val Crawford !”

Snatching up his shirt, he drew it on hurriedly as he left his room, doing up the buttons as he took the stairs two at a time.

Teresa had taken Val through into the library and already invited him to supper by the time he got there, and Scott guessed that he’d come bearing news of Murdoch and Johnny.  Striding across the room to shake Val’s hand, Scott was suddenly immeasurably relieved by the slight twinkle in the other man’s eyes.

“Good news, I take it ?”

“Thought I’d ride on out and tell you, put your minds at rest. “

“Thanks, “ said Scott looking over at Teresa, “we sure appreciate it. “

Val nodded.  “I cabled Micah Carrick at Jubilee.  Murdoch sorted it all out, and he and Johnny left a couple of days ago. Should be back this evening, all being well.  In fact, I thought they might just beat me to it !”

Teresa gave a huge sigh, unaware up until now that she’d even been holding her breath.  “Oh thank the lord…” and glancing a little mischievously at Scott, she laughed. “Now all we’ve got to worry about is whether or not they’ve survived the journey home.”

He grinned back at her, and shook his head in admonishment.

“They’ll survive alright, they’re both as tough as old buffalo hide.   It’s whether or not we will, that frightens me!”

And suddenly aware that Val was looking at them both with slight bewilderment, he took him by the arm and led him through to the dining room, where a cheery Maria was busy setting plates.  Teresa left them to it, and vanished into the kitchen to check that there would be enough food ready for Johnny and Murdoch when they did eventually arrive home, whilst the two men poured themselves a drink.

But later on, when Val had gone to bed a happy man, his belly full of Teresa’s excellent cooking and Murdoch’s expensive brandy, Scott took a cigar out onto the veranda and sat beneath the trailing jasmine, thinking hard.  They’d exhorted Val to stay the night and not bother with the journey home until morning, and Scott had been glad that he’d agreed to it so readily.  He may have joked about things with Teresa, but in reality, he was filled with concerns both recognised, and unacknowledged, about his father and his brother.

They were both at fault.  Both of them so stubborn and pig-headed, both of them so damnably alike.  He smiled a little ruefully at the night.

Amongst the other officers in his regiment, he’d been so famous for his own particular brand of intractability that they’d pulled his leg and teased him for being so persistent.  Well, so much for that, they should have met his family!  He was a positive pussycat in comparison with either Murdoch or Johnny.

When it came to slices of the family pie, he figured that Johnny had gotten far more than his fair share from Murdoch, whereas he must have inherited a little of his mother’s grace.  And that was probably what saved him, what enabled him to remain reasonably sanguine about Murdoch’s high-handedness whilst his more volatile brother flew into yet another furious rage.  It didn’t help when Johnny’s belief that he’d been abandoned was still so raw and painful. Still such an obvious and open wound.  Or at least it was obvious to Scott, and clearly to Teresa as well, who saw far more then people ever gave her credit for.  It was only Murdoch who didn’t seem able to see it!

Poor Johnny.

After years of bleak and bitter hatred, to have your whole world tipped upside down the way that Johnny had, all your carefully held ideas proven wrong.  Scott knew how difficult it was for him, how hard he’d had to struggle against himself in order to adjust to all the changes that life had slung in his direction within the last, was it really only the last six months?   Not very long in the scheme of things.

Not much time to come to terms with the fact that one minute you’re a penniless gunfighter, hiring out to whoever can afford to pay you, living on your wits and taking all that life can offer you, because the next day that you wake might be your last… The next man that you meet might be the one who’s faster…

Scott still found it hard to envisage the kind of life his brother must have led, and his heart bled for it.

Johnny was so watchful, so full of suspicion, still not quite able to believe that anyone could be kind to him just for the sake of kindness, and not because they wanted him for anything.   That they wanted to use or exploit his skill with a gun.  Not yet ready to trust that they only needed him to be himself, and that they didn’t want to take anything from him.   Scott knew that those kind of wounds, the unseen wounds, could take along hard, time to heal.

He knew it from the bitter experiences that he’d suffered during the war, from his own share of hard and harrowing times.  Surviving the bloody conflict of the Civil War had been a salutary lesson in the cruelty and inhumanity that man was capable of perpetrating, and his nightmares still resounded with the screams and thunder of the battlefields, the torture of the surgical tents, the living hell of Libby prison.  No, his life had not all been wealth and privilege, Boston society and glittering parties.  He’d had his share of pain and anguish, he knew what it was like to hold a dying friend in his arms, to watch as men and horses perished in gruesome agony, to feel the certainty of death fold it’s cold and shadowy wings about him.  But he’d never been alone.

Not even in Libby.

Not even when his life had been at its lowest ebb, and it had seemed as if there was no way out.  Companionship had kept him going, had kept them all going.  It had given him the will to fight and stay alive.  Friendship, comrades in arms, the loyalty of the men around him, something that was a pearl beyond price, precious and invaluable.  Something that Johnny had never known.  In all his time as Johnny Madrid, he’d always been alone. Too wary to let people get close to him and always on his guard.  Too afraid of becoming vulnerable, of being taken down.

Scott sighed, and stubbed out the cigar as he inhaled the sweetness of the jasmine instead. Its scent seemed to intensify in the moonlight and become stronger than it was in the day.  It was perfumed, exotic as the night-sky, and Boston seemed a million miles away right now as he stared up at the stars.  One of the things he loved most about living out here was the unbelievable diversity of the landscape, the lush foliage and beauty of the flowers.  Teresa’s garden itself was a stunning mass of herb-beds and fruit trees, flower borders and rose bushes.

The vegetable garden behind the walls cultivated row after row of fresh produce that Maria, Juanita, and Teresa used to grace their dinner table every single day.  He loved to eat it all.  The fact that it was all grown and tended here on Lancer made him feel more of a connection to the land, the valley, to California itself.  His father’s land, his brother’s land, and by rights, his own land too.

Strange then, they should all feel like outsiders.  He, himself, alienated by the land and its Spanish-tongued inhabitants.  Murdoch, feeling excluded from the strengthening relationship that was growing between his two sons.  And Johnny, what of Johnny ?

Feeling insecure despite all the bravado, and in his heart, outcast from Murdoch’s love.

****

The fire caught well, greedily consuming the dry brushwood and licking up the chimney.  In no time at all, Murdoch had a pot of strong coffee brewing, and the dusty old shack had taken on a much more cheerful air.  It afforded him little comfort though.  By the time he’d done all he had to do, Johnny had woken up again and by now he was in considerable pain, barely able to lie still despite his valiant attempts to play it down for the benefit of his father.

Sitting beside him on the rickety old cot, Murdoch re-examined the leg, and tried to hide his dismay.  The whole of Johnny’s left calf was swollen and discoloured now, the wound from the knife-cut black and congealing.  Murdoch did what he could, bathing it, and using the spare shirt he always carried in his pack for a compress and bandage.  It wasn’t much, but it made him feel better to be doing something, anything, and Johnny lay there watching him with grateful, and slightly curious eyes.

“Well, “ his voice was a blurred whisper.  “What’s the verdict ?”

Murdoch looked at him sharply and then shrugged.  “It’s too soon to say. The wound looks swollen, but then I’d expect it to. What about you, and the truth this time ?”

Johnny shifted onto his back, the words of the Old Senoras ringing once more in his ears.  “I feel like I’ve been looking at the sun too long. Everything’s kinda yellow and hazy.  I’m so dry….”

Frowning, Murdoch put a massive hand upon his forehead.  “Thirst’s a classic symptom. Here, drink some water…”

He leant forward and helped Johnny to sit up, holding the canteen to his lips as he gulped thirstily, some of the water missing his mouth and running down his chin.  As he cradled him closely, Murdoch was secretly dismayed at the heat that was radiating off his son’s body.

“You’ve got a fever.  We’ll need to get you out of your boots and jacket, cool you down a bit. How’s the pain ?”

Johnny grimaced.  “Bearable…” he tried again. “Murdoch, if you want to ride on into Green River, I’ll be alright here for the night…”

“I’m not leaving you alone,” said Murdoch wearily, a hint of anger back in his tone.  “Please don’t suggest it again.  Now, let’s get these boots off.“

“A child in our village was bitten by a diamondback once, “ said Johnny dreamily, as he acquiesced to Murdoch’s ministrations.  “He died within half a day. I remember it well.”

“You’re not going to die!” said Murdoch brusquely, undoing the buttons of Johnny’s salmon coloured shirt.

Johnny chuckled weakly. “The mighty Murdoch Lancer has decreed it !  If he says I’m not gonna die, then I won’t dare go against him.”

Murdoch paused, his fingers hesitating on one pearl button, as he looked up a little sadly.  “Is that what you think of me Johnny, that I’m some kind of tin-pot dictator ?”

“Well you have to admit, you kinda like to have things your own way all the time.”

“And you don’t ?”

“Maybe, “ Johnny regarded him through narrowed eyes, as he lay back on the bedroll and tried to stop his teeth from chattering.  “Difference always used to be that if I didn’t like something or someone, then I just used to walk away.”

“Is that what you’ve been wanting to do these last few months, just walk away ?”

“No…” Johnny closed his eyes wearily.  “It’s not as simple as that anymore. Before, there was only me to think about.”

“You were on your own along time Johnny, maybe too long.  You’re so independent, so….”

“So what, so stubborn ?”

Struggling up onto one elbow, his face flushed and hectic, Johnny stared at Murdoch accusingly.

“And just who do you suppose I take after then ?”

“Lie back down son, you’ll aggravate the fever, speed the poison….”

“No !  You listen to me Old Man, one of the first things, the very first thing you ever said to me that first day in your study, was that I had my mother’s temper. “

“I remember. “

“Well you know what ?  The more I’ve gotten to know you, the more unjust that seems.  My mother sure as hell may have fought with you, but most of the time she was with me, she was happy, light-hearted.  She always used to sing…” His voice caught slightly.  “She may not have been all that responsible, but she always looked on the bright side of things, and I guess that’s maybe why life hurt her so much.” He paused again in distress.  “But you… seems to me that you’re the one with the bad temper, and if I inherited it from anyone, then it’s you I have to thank!”

He fell back with a gasp of pain, and shivered as a violent chill ran through him, clenching his teeth and fighting to control the shudders that racked his body.  Filled with anguish, Murdoch tried to lower him back down onto the cot, but Johnny resisted him rigidly, his breath coming in short, harsh gasps between his teeth.

“An….other thing you said to Scott… you said he had his mother’s eyes.  Well if you ever wanted to d..draw a line between the way you felt about our mothers, you sure as hell d…did it then…”

“No Johnny !” Murdoch shook his head in distress.  “I never meant it that way. It was spur of the moment, thoughtless.  The last thing in the world I meant to convey.”

“B…but that’s how it came across t…to me !”

“You’re wrong son. So wrong.”

He sat back with a sigh, still refusing to relinquish his son’s tense body, as he stared broodingly into the flames, a small frown creasing his brow.

“I met your mother down in Mata-Morros. She was so beautiful, she took my breath away.  I remember it was a warm night and the stars were shining….  But none of them shone as brightly as her eyes!”

He smiled reminiscently, and Johnny watched the tender curve of his lips with a spark of amazement in his ravaged body.

“She was dancing to an old Spanish song, and no one could take their eyes off her, least of all me. She was wearing a white dress, and she swayed like a flower in the moonlight, she was so beautiful, so graceful, and I knew I had to stay awhile longer.  I recall that I gave her a red rose and she tucked it just behind her ear, like so….”  He paused and shook his head;  “I knew then I was the luckiest man alive!”

He moved his hand across Johnny’s silky hair, and rubbed a strand between his thumb and forefinger, face a thousand, million miles away.

“She had hair like a black waterfall.  When she moved, it seemed to ripple with a life all of its own.  I used to love to touch it, to run my fingers through it.  I’ve never felt anything as soft since then…. until now.  You have her hair son.”

“I remember her hair. “

Johnny began to relax softly, the rigidity seeping from his muscles as he eased back against his father’s chest.

“She u…used to let me brush it for her.  She said I had a gentle way with my hands, th…that I reminded her of the only other person that she’d allowed to t…touch it….”

“She’d sit before me in the firelight, and I’d brush it out for ages, it was like a ritual between us, “ murmured Murdoch quietly.  “Her beautiful, beautiful hair.”

He was silent for a while, and Johnny’s eyes drifted closed as his head lolled sideways, and he curled in closer to his father’s body.

“Tell me more….”

Murdoch sighed.  “She was like a wild thing, alive and vibrant.  And I’d been dead inside for so long then…..” he paused heavily.  “Cold and dead inside since Scott’s mother died, but Maria, Maria was like this fire here, a dancing flame!  I just held out my hands to her to be warm again, to feel something again, and to be alive too.  Can you understand that, Johnny ?”

Johnny nodded drowsily, the dense black lines of his eyelashes like two crescents on his cheeks.

“I used to think of her like sunshine….Her smile would make me happy.  Los ninos used to c…call me names, gringo, half-breed, mule!  But she’d take me on her lap and smile at me, she’d t..tell me;  “No importa, Juanito, usted es hermoso mi hijo. Te amo….”  His voice wavered and broke-off into a whisper.  “Te amo….”

“Did they call you names often ?” asked Murdoch soberly, trying to control the catch in his voice.

“Only for a while,” Johnny’s fists clenched. “They soon learned not to.”

Murdoch nodded understandingly, a small ache in his heart as he tried to picture the ragged little boy, same stubborn light in his vivid blue-eyes, fighting his way through the insults alone.   It hurt.  It hurt a lot.

Johnny shivered again as another spasm racked through his body, the pain increasing in severity as the poison began to work its way into every system.  He felt strange and light-headed, as though his spirit was already dancing free from his corporeal body, as though all he needed to do was to give-in and let it happen.  Just float away.

“Johnny !” Murdoch’s voice was loud and almost brutal. “Here, drink some water for me. “

Even though his thirst raged mercilessly and his lips were parched and dry, he turned away from the effort of having to drink until Murdoch forced his head back round again, and held the canteen to his lips.

“Drink boy!”

“Yes Sir!“ he thought sardonically, unsure if he’d actually said it or not, as the brackish water trickled down his throat.  But it did help a little. It felt wonderfully moist, and he raised his hand for more, glad when his father understood and brought it patiently back whilst he drank again.

“G…gracias. “

“You don’t have to thank me Johnny.” Murdoch’s voice was still gruff.  “It’s me that should be thanking you.  I could be lying here now, if you hadn’t done that crazy, fool thing back there.  I owe you my life Johnny.…”

But Johnny had drifted off against him, his breathing fast and shallow, and as Murdoch looked down at him a lump in his throat, he was reminded again of Maria, and the pain was almost more than he could bear.  A bittersweet memory of sunlight and shadows.

****

Johnny dreamed he was drowning.  Falling down and down into clear blue water that forced and crushed the air out of his lungs.  He kicked his legs and tried to break the surface, but the water pulled him under again and weighed on his chest like a stone.  Couldn’t breathe.  He couldn’t breathe.  The water felt like hot sand in his mouth.  It was blinding him, choking him….

He fought and thrashed to break free, tearing at his throat with panic-stricken hands and trying to call-out….

A gentle touch on his shoulders, other hands pulling him upright.  A cool towel on his head.  Someone speaking to him calmly, reassuringly, as the terrifying tightness eased a little, and he fell back in exhaustion onto something soft and warm.  The nightmare faded as the darkness reclaimed him.

But it did not fade for Murdoch.  When Johnny had fallen into an uneasy sleep, he’d laid him gently down onto the cot, and poured himself a mug of coffee.  The hot, bitter liquid tasted incredibly good, and he welcomed the burst of astringent stimulation that it sent charging round his veins. He felt restless and alive with memories.  It had not been easy uncovering all those buried emotions, and he felt wrung-out and raw, immensely worried about Johnny, and sore at heart about Maria.  He’d been so hurt and angry when she left him.  The pain and rejection turning into bitterness and recrimination after a while, so much so, that he’d half forgotten that magical night in Mata-Morros, the passion of their first couple of years together, the way she’d felt against his skin.

He thought back to the day when Johnny had first slouched into his study.  The frisson of shock that had doused through his body, as he looked into the face of his son and saw her looking back at him.  He hadn’t been prepared to feel that way again, and it had hurt him.  Maybe it had hurt so much, that subconsciously, he had held it against her son.

His son.

His words had already re-bounded back at him once tonight, and now it looked as though they might do so again, for in truth, he’d been alone for far too long as well.

He’d had the O’Briens, and Paul’s friendship had been a sustaining light for many years.  Both men had been on their own with no women-folk around to cosset them or complicate their lives, as they’d gotten on with the business of carving out a home.  Of bending the land to their will, and creating the corner of God’s earth that was Lancer.  And the only thing in all that time, that had managed to get even close to his heart, was O’Brien’s tiny daughter who became the apple of both their eyes.  Their practical little Teresa who was daughter to both men, and who came to run the Estancia and their lives.  When Paul had been murdered, he and Teresa had supported each other over that ordeal.

He’d been so badly wounded himself that the entire burden had fallen onto her slim shoulders, and anyone with less heart might have been sucked under and destroyed.  But not she, not his indomitable Teresa.  Putting aside her own grief for awhile, she’d braced herself and nursed him back to health, before insisting that he call for both his sons, the Pinkerton report on Johnny arriving in the midst of that grim and terrible time.

His misgivings had been enormous, his hope had been immense.  But he’d done it and summoned them home, not least of all for Lancer, for the sake of the land he’d given-up so much for, so much blood, sweat and toil.  But Teresa’s faith had been infectious, and he had to admit that she’d been right.  It felt good to have them home where they belonged.

Scott so much like his dear Catherine, and Johnny like Maria.  His beautiful and passionate Maria.

Watching Johnny in unguarded moments like this was the only real chance he ever had to study him, to compare him to his mother.  The similarity between them was remarkable and other than the blueness of his eyes, there didn’t seem to be any part of Johnny that was his. That truly belonged to him.  The black silky hair, warm golden skin, the shape of his lips, the set of his jaw, they were all Maria.

Of Maria, from Maria….

And every time he looked at him, he saw her in his face.  Vivid and wilful, independent and a little wild. Strong, but with that hint of vulnerability in his eyes.  Murdoch sighed, and looked again at the restless figure on the cot.

And suddenly, he saw only Johnny.

His son.

His youngest son.

A part of them both, some good some bad, but mostly his own man.  A man and a son to be proud of, a man who’d defied the hand of fate, and all the odds that had been stacked against him to hold on to his self-respect and come up fighting.   A man who, despite the fact he tried to hide it, was soft-hearted enough to tame the wildest bronco, patient enough to calm the timidest mare.

He sighed again.  He’d been a stubborn fool, stubborn and proud for far too long.  What point pride when it came to those you loved, to those you’d be prepared to die for, when it all came down?  Just like Johnny had been prepared to die for him this evening when he’d taken the snakebite in his stead.  If he looked at himself as other men saw him, he saw a man who was blessed.

He had Lancer.

He had Paul O’Brien’s brave and beautiful daughter.

He was the father of two fine sons to carry on his legacy, two sons as different as the day was long, as the women that had born them, yet so strong in their diversity, so true in the bond of brotherhood that united them.

Scott, conscientious and dependable.

Johnny, passionate and independent.

Both of them big of heart and noble of spirit, and as he gazed into the fire and sipped his coffee, Murdoch was filled with pride for both his sons.

And then Johnny started to choke.  Twisting and thrashing on the cot as his chest muscles tightened and his trachea constricted, fighting and wheezing for every stricken breath as his face clenched in panic, and his lips began to turn blue.  Knocking the tin mug over in his haste, Murdoch gathered him into his arms and dragged him into a semi-upright position, whispering to him softly and pouring more water from the canteen onto the rest of his torn up shirt.  The sound of Johnny’s laboured breathing tore at Murdoch’s heart, and for the first time since the damned snake had bitten him, Murdoch felt like weeping for his son.

He didn’t though.

He stayed there merely holding him, bathing his greying skin, and talking to him gently for all the times when Johnny had needed him in the past, the times he hadn’t been there.  The thought that he might lose him now was strong.  Not some vague terror to be thrust aside by practicalities, but a real and sentient fear.  Murdoch knew that when the poison began to affect the respiratory system, the outlook was never very good, and the majority of those bitten usually died.

“Not Johnny…” He whispered, filled with dread, “not my son !”

And as he held the fever-racked body in his arms, he found himself muttering half-forgotten prayers and threats.  He who was not, and never had been a praying man, beseeched and entreated God as he sat there in the dim glow of the dying fire, just rocking Johnny in his arms.

****

Thick black serpents twisting round her.  Coils as cold as the darkness that slid about her limbs and dragged her into the writhing pit with them… A woman’s voice, soft and unknown, calling to her across the gauzy veil of sleep and dreams.

“Ayudalo….ayudalo!  Solo tu los puedes ayudar….  Teresa, ayudalo…”

The heaving mass of the snakes, her worst terror, tongues forking and flickering across her skin….

Teresa awoke, her heart pounding, palms wet with fear and lips drawn back in a silent scream as she sat bolt upright in the tangled mess of sheets.

A nightmare, it was only a nightmare!

And pressing her hand to her breast, she took a deep breath and leant over to light the oil-lamp on the nightstand.  So why did she still feel so uneasy ?  Why did the unassailable sense that something was dreadfully wrong, refuse to go away?  She thought suddenly of Murdoch, and then of Johnny.  But no, they were all right weren’t they?

Granted, they hadn’t arrived home last night as Val had expected, but they would be safe home in the morning. Murdoch had bailed Johnny out of that stupid jail, and they would be safe home in the morning.

Safe and sound.

But something was wrong, something was horribly wrong, and she hadn’t felt this afraid since the night her father had died.  Getting out of bed, she padded over to the window and looked out across the moonlit hacienda and beyond.  The silvery light was pure and strong, and normally she loved its ethereal effect upon the white stonewalls, the silver oaks, and the ghostly trails of jasmine that hung from the sides of the house.  But tonight it just seemed eerie, threatening almost, as if there were danger lurking out there in the shadows, something menacing waiting for her in the dark.  She sighed and gave herself a mental shake.   Perhaps it was a result of all the tension during the last few months.

Johnny and Murdoch.

Murdoch and Johnny.

Hard to know where one ended and the other one began.

Johnny leaving and coming home again.  The rows and arguments, silences and disapprovals.  She loved Murdoch Lancer more than any man alive, but for someone so capable of being wonderful, he was pig-headed and intractable at times!  It saddened her that he failed to see what was so clearly obvious to her and Scott.  That deep down, Johnny was desperate for his approval, and needed his love so much!  That he and Johnny were both involved in this stupid, obstinate standoff, too afraid to back down, too full of pride to be the first one to say, “I’m sorry”.

Sometimes she felt like banging their stubborn heads together, and sitting them down like two naughty school-boys to make them shake hands and be friends, but she knew that they had to do it in their own, sweet time.  That was if Johnny stayed.  The thought of him leaving again caused a small inexplicable pain in her heart, and she hated the threat of losing the fledgling relationship they were beginning to build.  Whereas Scott treated her with big-brother courtesy and kindness, things were always different with Johnny.

She hadn’t even been sure that she’d liked him at first when he’d caused so much anguish for Murdoch, and brought so much upheaval into their lives.  She’d thought of him as just like a whirlwind, kicking up the dust around their heels, as he’d blown into their lives like an electric storm!  But it hadn’t taken her long to see the vulnerability he strove so hard to hide.

He was playful and protective with her, teasing and provocative, but sometimes he was the only one who seemed to know how she felt.  No one else had noticed how sad she was, on the day she’d found an old shirt of her Daddy’s hanging in one of the out-houses.  No one else had come looking for her out in the garden to present her with an enormous peach, or to peg out the basket of washing that lay forgotten at her feet.

But Johnny had.

And she’d been so touched and surprised by the gesture, that she hadn’t ever forgotten it.  No, she did not want Johnny to go.  Suddenly cold, she shivered and the hair on the back of her neck began to prickle as she got back into bed. Knowing that it would be useless to even attempt to read, she turned out the oil-lamp and tried hard to get back to sleep.  But the feeling of disquiet wouldn’t leave her, and it was only in the first, pearly light of dawn, that her eyes eventually closed again and she fell into uneasy exhaustion.

****

Twitching awake from a troubled doze, Murdoch found Johnny lucid again in his arms; his body jack-knifed with pain, and his breathing still harshly audible above the dying crackle of the fire.  His brown, suntanned skin had an oddly grey tinge, and seemed to be stretched too tightly over his cheekbones, accentuating the darkened hollows beneath his eyes.

Murdoch sat up very carefully, amazed that his hand should be so steady, when his heart was beating with such frightening rapidity as he laid it gently on Johnny’s forehead.  The heat of it appalled him as Johnny opened his eyes, and looked at him through heavy lids.  He seemed to be having difficulty in focusing, and his brow creased into a scowl of pain and confusion.

“M…murdoch…?”

“I’m here son.”

“Where are we ?”

“The Miner’s shack. On our way home.”

“Home…”

The word was a whispered sigh, and it tugged at Murdoch’s heart as he hitched his arms a little tighter around Johnny’s shoulders, and pulled him even closer.

“Scott…..” murmured Johnny with bewilderment. “Where’s Scott ?”

Murdoch swallowed hard.

“Scott’s not here, Johnny. Just you and I, remember ?”

Johnny licked his lips, his eyelids flickering.

“I…I remember. The snake…”

“The worst is over.” Murdoch lied without compunction. “ You’re going to be alright.”

There was a faint hint of humour in Johnny’s voice.

“You said so!”

“Yes.” Murdoch smiled back at him. “I said so. Therefore it will be so, and don’t you go and forget it!”

“Thirsty….”

“Here, drink this.”

And Johnny drank obediently, his head falling drowsily back against his father’s chest, as the water cooled his sand-dry throat.

“My mother, you were t…telling me about my mother.”

“Yes, “ said Murdoch slowly, and to his surprise, the words flowed from him easily, as though a dam inside him had suddenly been breached and burst, as though he knew that it was vitally important that he told Johnny the truth, that it might be the one and only chance he ever had….
 
“I was son. I was telling you that I……,I loved her. How much it hurt when she took you and left me.  How I went after you both and searched the border towns, following every damn trail, every forlorn hope, every sighting, every tip…… I never found you, and it broke my heart.”

“I d..didn’t know, I never knew…”

“How could you know? It was a cruel combination of fate and circumstance. I just thank God that I’ve found you now.”

Johnny shivered with dizzy stupidity, the pain in his heart like the pain that tormented his quivering body, as he pushed himself away in distress, the air rasping and struggling in and out of his tortured lungs as he fought and gasped for breath, the skin around his lips becoming cyanosed and blue.

“I’m not like Scott……I’ve been places, done things……”

“I know son….”

“No…no, you d…don’t know what I was, what I am…..!”   Johnny shook with anguish as he tensed his muscles and resisted Murdoch’s hold, but it was a pathetic effort, and his eyes began to roll as the darkness tried to take him once again, and he whimpered with uncontrollable agony and shame!

“Shhh, “ said Murdoch firmly, appalled and alarmed by Johnny’s difficulty in breathing, pulling him back into his arms and rubbing his heaving back, as he stroked aside the sweat-soaked hair.

“You survived and that’s all that matters to me. I’ve seen who you are Johnny, you’re the man who loves his brother.      The man who treats Teresa with such kindness.  The man who was prepared to sacrifice his own life to save mine, when that bloody rattlesnake struck.  I think that maybe, we ought to try putting the past behind us from now on, and looking forward to the future.”

“I’d like that, “ whispered Johnny fuzzily, closing his eyes and shaking with ague as the fever racked him all over again, and the spasms of pain trembled through his ravaged body.

He hated being so weak, hated being dependant, but the hurt and confusion had robbed him of the will to withstand anything anymore, and he couldn’t even fight the frailty or pretend to hide the suffering that rampaged throughout him so exhaustively.

“So would I,” said Murdoch fearfully, as Johnny collapsed against his shoulder, limp and boneless, as the last remaining shred of resistance was drained from his body, and the poison began to invade and overrun his weakening systems, to steal his very soul.

He did not recover consciousness again until well after dawn, and all through the rest of the night, Murdoch held him and bathed him, cooling him with water and trying to soothe his fears.

He talked.   Sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish, muttering, babbling and raving.  Shouting defiance at someone with his fists clenched tightly, threatening another to back off, his voice a deadly, icy drawl.  Once he turned to Murdoch, his eyes wide and blazing with fever, hands clutching wildly at his father’s waistcoat, as he thrashed and ranted in distress.

“No me acuerdo, no me acuerdo……sal de ahi!  Oh Dios, oh Dios……lo siento mama……”

Murdoch had been truly afraid then.  Holding him close, his own heart filled with cold and silent dread, too frozen to think, too numb to pray.

Johnny tossed and turned and mumbled of duels and gunfights, ambushes and enemies, memories and sacrifices, and the stupidity of fools.  Fools who’d tried to call him out and challenge him, fools who’d paid the ultimate price.  Things that Murdoch knew he’d never hear if Johnny were well or clear-headed, things that made his soul cringe and his spirit weep for the man who was his son.

But towards the sunrise, Johnny became quieter, icy grey and still at last, whispering ceaselessly in Spanish, his hoarse exhausted voice barely audible.  His skin had become waxen, cool and clammy to the touch, and  Murdoch listened to the endless, incomprehensible words, aware through some kind of inner instinct that Johnny was talking to a woman.  And only when the sky began to fade from blue to mauve to pearly silver, was he able to lie him gently down upon the cot and stretch his weary limbs, using the last of the brushwood to bank-up the fire and re-set the coffeepot down in the hearth.

He went outside to check on the horses, speaking quietly to Barranca, and patting Caledonia on his soft, velvety nose.  Was it his imagination, or had the palomino snickered anxiously at him?   Another time, and he would have laughed at his fancy, but this time, something made him turn back and gently reassure the horse, as he recalled his own, grudging words of praise to Johnny, was it really only late yesterday afternoon?

“You’re good with that horse.”

There was so much he should have done differently, so much he would have changed.  And he wasn’t only thinking about taking the bloody snakebite in Johnny’s place either…  Murdoch shut his eyes briefly with grief and remorse, and turned back to the golden pony.

“It’s alright, Barranca, he’s going to be alright !”

But he didn’t know if he believed it anymore, and the dawn seemed suddenly bleak and full of fear.  He carried in some more wood for the fire, and refilled the canteens. There was no question of leaving here today as far as he could see, Johnny wasn’t even conscious, and there was no way he was going alone.  Not while Johnny needed him.  He looked up sharply as Caledonia whinnied, twitching his ears back flat against his head. Barranca too, his golden nostrils flaring as he danced nervously backwards and away from Murdoch’s calming hand.

“What is it fellas, what do you hear ?”

He strained his own senses, but could neither hear nor see anything, as he looked back along the trail, hoping for the tell-tale dust of riders or the distant rattle of a cart.  The brief surge of hope died, and he went back inside to check on Johnny and drink his coffee, sitting with his back against the cot, and listening to Johnny’s erratic, ragged breathing.  It was the only real sign now that he lived, for his body lay limp and motionless without so much as a flicker or a twitch.

****

By lunchtime, Teresa had had enough, and Scott was trying to calm the agitation that raged inside his own breast.  By his own calculation, even if they’d started back at sun-up, and knowing Murdoch well enough by now, to know they would have done.  Even if they’d started back at sun-up, they should have been home at least three hours ago.

He paced up and down the library, pouring himself another cup of coffee to replace the one he’d let grow cold, and looking across at Teresa’s anxious face from time to time, unsure of whether or not to just go on out and saddle his horse.  Val Crawford watched them both with bemusement.

“Why so worried Scott ?  They probably just slept in, or maybe they stopped over in Green River for ham and eggs.”

But it was Teresa who shook her head at him.

“Oh no they wouldn’t have. Take it from me, Val, Murdoch was in an awful hurry to get home.”

Val’s smile faded slightly, as he sensed the undercurrents swirling in her words, and glancing over at Scott, his shrugged his shoulders a little awkwardly.

“Why don’t you ride back awhile with me ?  Then you can meet-up with them on the road, and put your mind at rest.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” said Scott with a rush of relief. “I believe I’ll do just that. “

“Me too, “ said Teresa determinedly. “I could do with a decent ride and the Pinto needs some exercise. Give me ten minutes to change, and I’ll meet you out front.”

They watched as she dashed up the stairs in a swish of petticoats, and Val looked back at Scott.

“None of my business of course, so tell me if I’m outta line. This little er….upset down in Jubilee, it soured things up between Murdoch and Johnny?”

Scott frowned.  “You could say that Val. Things are always kind of prickly between them, but lately…..” he made a face, “ and the Jubilee business sure hasn’t helped.

Val nodded thoughtfully.

“I’m sorry to hear it. Murdoch’s a fine man, and I like Johnny.  The boy’s got a good heart.”

“Yes, “ said Scott, his frown fading slightly, “he has, at that.”

Teresa was as good as her word, joining them out by the corral just over ten minutes later as they were preparing the horses.  Scott saw that she’d been via the kitchens for she had a large pack with her that he guessed contained some food.  He was slightly worried about her, let alone Murdoch and Johnny.  She was pale and heavy-eyed, as though she’d spent the night awake, and he hated to see the anxiety on her face.  He watched as she mounted the Pinto and gave her a quick smile.

“Are you alright Teresa ?”

“Yes, “ she nodded reassuringly at him, grateful for his kindness and concern. But she didn’t tell him of her dream last night, or the feeling of cold presentiment that had clutched at her heart ever since.

****

Johnny did not recover consciousness again, and the cruel spasms that had traumatised his whole body seemed to have left him alone.  Instead he lay like one already dead.  Limp and boneless, as the harsh drag of his laboured breathing caught in his arid throat, and his skin burned hot and dry as old parchment.

Murdoch cared for him automatically, his heart refusing to believe what his head was telling him, that these were really last offices, and that Johnny was dying.  Each agonised inhalation seemed to be a minor victory, and Murdoch felt his own breath stop and flutter in his throat, with each prolonged pause in between, with every rasping gasp.  He bathed the shuttered ivory-coloured face, staring down at the strong-lined jaw and angled cheekbones as a savage pain ripped through him.  Whatever problems the two of them might have, however many difficulties and differences between them, he knew how much he loved this boy.   This was his little Juanito whom once he’d lost; he’d be damned if he would lose him all over again!

“Come on boy….” His voice broke and strangled in his throat. “Come on Johnny, fight it for me….for yourself!  I….I need you. I love you.”

Was it his imagination, or did the black eyelashes flicker slightly?  And suddenly, there was an answering voice that spoke like an echo in his mind.  Maria’s voice.

“Don’t let our nino die, don’t let Juanito die!”

He shook his head in despair to rid himself of the illusion, realising that the strain of the last eighteen or so hours was eating away at his grasp on reality.  But all he could see or hear was her.  Her smooth heart-shaped face with its big dark eyes, reaching out, imploring him…

“It’s up to you Murr-dock, you must not let him die!”

“Maria…….”

Her name sounded strange on his lips, forgotten and bittersweet as a whisper, a long-ago echo of what might have been.  The air around him seemed to shiver, and almost….he felt her touch.  He’d pushed her so deliberately out of his mind, carved her so ruthlessly from his heart. It had been the only way he’d known to survive the hurt.  And now she needed something of him once again, she needed him to save their son.  But he wasn’t sure if he could do that anymore, and a rare and lonely tear rolled down his face.  He hadn’t managed to save her, what made her think he could save their son?

“Save him Querido….excepto nuestro hijo….”

“I don’t know if I can!”  The words were forced from him, torn and broken hearted.   “Forgive me Maria, I don’t know if I can!”

“M..urdoch……?”  It was Johnny’s voice, weak and bewildered, dry as the desert.  “No me deje, please d…don’t leave me, I’m sorry, lo siento….”

Murdoch took a breath as the world tipped and re-orientated about him and with a pang, he knew she had slipped away.

“It’s all right Johnny, I’m here. I promise I won’t go away.”  He paused, and all of a sudden, he knew just what to say.  “No importa Juanito, tu es hermoso mi hijo…”   His voice broke huskily. “Te amo Johnny, Te amo!”

And Johnny turned his head against him with a tiny sigh, and Murdoch felt the muscles of his fever-stricken body relax.

“I love you too… “ He whispered, as he slipped away again, and then Murdoch just held him, face still and full of pain.

At first, Murdoch hardly heard Caledonia’s impatient calls, or Barranca’s nervous whinny, but when the sounds did eventually register, he laid Johnny down gently, hardly able to bear it that he had to relinquish him again, as he left the shack, his heart alive with sudden hope.  It was dashed as soon as it was started, for although there was indeed someone coming down the trail towards him, it was a lone Mexican farmer driving an Oxen cart, his progress lumbering and slow.  But it was still a chance, and however slender, it was better than nothing, and he strode forwards anxiously as the man pulled the oxen over to a halt.

“Senor?”

Murdoch didn’t waste any time.

“My son is very sick.” He indicated the shack. “A snake, una serpiente!  Can you take my horse, mi caballo, into Green River, llame al medico, por favor ?”

The farmer looked sympathetically but apprehensively at the massive Caledonia, and shook his head.

“No puedo, Senor. Perdone…….”

“Please, “ said Murdoch desperately. “Please, my son is very ill, es muy enfermo, por favor !”

But the farmer shook his head again.

“No monto un caballo, Senor!”

Murdoch’s spirits began to plummet again as he saw his options fading. The shafts of the cart were too wide to hold a horse, and leaving Johnny alone with a stranger was a non-starter.  There was only one thing he could do, and that was to place Johnny into the cart.  It would take slow and painful hours, but at least they would reach Green River eventually.

Who knew when the next traveller might pass by. It could be hours or days ahead, and Murdoch couldn’t afford to wait any longer.    He had to get Johnny to a doctor now.  To Murdoch’s relief, the farmer was a kind and cooperative man with children of his own.  He cleared space in the back of the cart, and helped Murdoch to rig-up a make-shift canopy to keep Johnny shielded from the sun, shaking his head sombrely, as Murdoch carried Johnny from the shack and placed him tenderly onto his bedroll in the futile attempt to make him as comfortable as possible.  His body was as limp as a rag-doll’s, and the vivid flame of fire that always seemed to burn so brightly inside him was barely flickering now, a dimly glowing ember, struggling to remain lit.

Murdoch arranged his limbs as carefully as possible, and pulled the garish Mexican blanket up to his chest, before taking a step backwards, and looking at him for a brief, heart-rending second. He was loath to leave him, even for a moment, but he had to be practical and get on with the reality of fighting to keep him alive.  Tying Barranca and Caledonia to the back of the cart, Murdoch rode up alongside Johnny and held his head in his lap.

Johnny was still unconscious, but the frightening parchment dryness of his skin seemed to have faded slightly, and there was a flush of perspiration on his brow.  It wasn’t much, but it gave Murdoch a tiny grain of hope, the deathly, ivory pallor had scared him most of all.  And as the cart dipped and rumbled along the road, he protected Johnny from the bumps and jolts as best he could, and wondered whether or not Maria’s help had been in time.

****

Scott looked down at Green River with tight lips.  The lines on his forehead had increased with every mile they’d ridden, and eventually they’d abandoned all pretence at light conversation as the time had passed with no sign of Murdoch and Johnny.

“Well so much for that theory, “ said Val Crawford softly to Scott, as he tried not to look into Teresa’s anxious eyes.

“We’ll rest the horses and check around town.” Scott reached across and smiled reassuringly at her. Much more reassuringly than he felt. Like her, the feeling that something had gone badly wrong was beginning to be an obsession with him.  Where in God’s name were they?  She nodded back at him.

“They’re not here Scott, I can feel it.”

He stared harder at her, a slight enquiry in his eye. It wasn’t like her to be fanciful or fey.  This was a side to her he’d never seen before, but he wasn’t about to scoff at it, not when all his own instincts were so alive with pessimism.

“Let’s just check and see.”

They rode into town, keeping a watchful eye out for the distinctive Barranca, or for Murdoch’s big bay, leaving their own horses at the livery whilst Val made a few enquiries at the Hotel, Saloon, and at his own office.  But it soon became clear that these were all fruitless, and Scott’s feeling of unease grew stronger.  Murdoch and Johnny had not made it as far as Green River.  After a while, they met back at Val’s office for coffee.

“What do you want to do now, Scott?”
 
Crawford played it cool, still partially unable to understand why both Scott and Teresa were so upset.  In this kind of country, there were a thousand reasons why a person could be late. A horse could blow up or loose a shoe.  They might have come across someone who needed assistance, and if things were as bad between the two of them as Scott had intimated, why then, they may have simply stopped to talk.

But on the other hand…  It was pretty wild country.  There were bushwhackers out there; there was dangerous terrain and wild animals…  He shrugged ruefully, and almost grinned.   He was getting as jumpy as Scott and Teresa.

Scott finished his coffee and looked up at them both with his clear, ice blue gaze.  “I’m going to keep on back-tracking. Val, this Sheriff over in Jubilee, Carrick?  You’re sure he’s trustworthy, that they left when he said they did?”

Val nodded firmly.  “I’m sure. The man’s over-zealous to say the least, but he’s not without his own peculiar sense of honour. He’ll fine people all right, but the money goes straight back into the town.  Most likely through the church knowing Carrick.”

Scott turned to Teresa.

“It’s probably better if you stay…”

“No,” she interrupted baldly. “I’m coming with you. I can’t go back to Lancer alone, and I’ve no wish to remain here kicking my heels.”  She shot Val an apologetic look.  “Sorry Val, but I might just as well go with Scott. He may…he may need me.”

Scott sighed, knowing her well enough by now to recognise the look of singular determination in her eye, and realising that her words did indeed, make sense.  He gave her a wry smile.

“Well come on then, let’s make a move. You never know, with any luck we maybe home in time for a late supper tonight.”

“Ready when you are,” she retorted, already knowing in her heart that his words would not prove true.

Scott shook Crawford’s hand.  “Thanks Val, we’ll let you know.”

“No need. There’s nothing keeping me here right now, so if you can stand the company, I think I’ll join you a ways”

Scott’s grip tightened to show his gratitude and relief.  “I’d sure appreciate it. “

“Well then, we’d best get after Teresa or she’s gonna find them all on her own, and then we’ll have to explain to Murdoch what she’s doin’ out and about by herself!”

They smiled at each other in mock-horror, and then followed her out of the door.

****

“Come on, son, just a little drink. That’s it………”

The water ran down Johnny’s chin and Murdoch wiped it gently away, sighing in frustration at their slow progress, as he looked up at the sun and realised that it must be well into the afternoon by now.  His pocket-watch was in his pack, but he didn’t need it to tell him that they would not make Green River much before sundown.  Senor Colinas looked over his shoulder as though guessing his thoughts.

“No esta lejos, Senor. Como esta?”

Murdoch frowned.  “No se. I don’t know. A little better maybe, but it’s hard to tell.”

Johnny was still hot, but the perspiration ran off him in rivulets now, and his cheeks were hectic with fever. Truth was, although instinct told Murdoch that this was more optimistic than the waxen fugue he’d been in before, he knew that Johnny’s temperature was sky-high, and he knew it wasn’t good.  He fretted and fumed at the clumsy oxen, looking with impotent longing at the useless horses tied up to the back of the cart, but knowing there was nothing he could do about it.  He could not subject Johnny to the rigours or discomfort of horseback.  In his present condition, he would never be able to stand it, and looking down at his son again, a lump began to form in his throat.

“If there’s a hard way then you’ll find it…”

There was no answer of course, and they rolled over a pothole that jolted and flopped Johnny’s wayward fringe across his eyes.  Pushing it back again, Murdoch suddenly remembered another time, another place, oh so many years ago.  A little black-haired cherub with chubby arms and bright blue eyes, toddling towards him on fat brown legs.  Pitching over and bursting into tears, his face all crumpled, the riot of black curls sticking to the tears that streaked his face.  Murdoch had lifted him high into his arms, brushing them aside and feeling his heart contract as the little hands had clutched around his neck.

“Papa.”

The memory engulfed him, as his fingers trembled on that same hair now. The curls had long gone, but the feeling they’d evoked remained.  It had just been buried and forgotten somehow as the years had passed, sinking to the bottom of his mind like a layer of dead autumn leaves.  There had been times when he’d hated Maria, had longed to have her long, slim neck between his fingers.

She’d deprived him of so much, stolen so much from him that he’d almost forgotten what it was like to have sensations like these, to actually feel like a father, with this almost unbearable contraction of emotion at the touch of a beloved child.  To his deep sorrow, he’d never really known it with Scott, only an aching grief that the beginning of one life had meant the devastating loss of another.  Too numbed and filled with despair to think rationally, as he’d made a huge mistake and left his tiny son with Harlan Garrett, pouring his life into Lancer instead.

But Johnny, Johnny had been different.  He’d nursed him and played with him.  He’d held him and soothed his baby tears, carried him about the Estancia on his shoulders and imagined their future together, as he’d dreamt one day of sending for his eldest son, and re-uniting his whole family.  But then Maria had left and taken his dreams and future with her, and up until six months ago, he’d thought it gone forever.

Poor Maria.

Her dreams had certainly turned to dust, and he hated to think of their dreadful outcome.  He’d been too late for Maria, and almost too late for their son, but fate had granted him a wonderful, miraculous second chance.  He was determined not to squander it again.  That was, if Johnny lived.

“Senor!”

“Si Alfredo?”

“Cabelleros…”

But Murdoch had seen for himself by now.  Three horsemen coming towards them in the distance, something vaguely familiar about the outline of the lead rider, the way he sat his horse…

And then his heart lifted in huge and overjoyed relief.

It was Scott !

Scott and Val Crawford, and by God, was that Teresa? He took a deep and heartfelt breath as he looked down at the man in his arms.

“It’s alright now Johnny, your brother’s here. It’s going to be alright.”

****

“There’s someone up ahead of us on the trail,” Teresa squinted hard, and pointed on in front of her.  “A cart I think, no wait….”

“By God, that’s Barranca. And Caledonia…”

Scott had already spurred his horse into a gallop, and Val and Teresa weren’t far behind him.  The minute he saw the cart, Scott knew that something was wrong, something was very wrong indeed, and casting the Mexican driver a cursory glance, he drew rein and met Murdoch’s steady gaze.

“Johnny…..?”

Alfredo trundled to a halt as Murdoch quickly explained who the new arrivals were, and then turned to regard Scott and Teresa’s anxious faces.

“He was bitten by a diamondback. He needs a doctor. Val, is there anyone decent in Green River ?”

“I’ll go on back and sort it out. Come straight to the Hotel and we’ll be waiting for you.”  He sketched a brief salute, and turned to gallop back up the trail as Teresa took one look at Murdoch’s haggard face, and got down off the Pinto.

“Let me Murdoch, I’ll sit with him.”

But to her surprise, he shook his head.

“No!” then more softly, “I’d rather stay here. I promised I wouldn’t leave him.”

Their eyes met, and she nodded swiftly with sudden understanding.

“Then I’ll help you. I brought a few things with me just in case.  I…I had a feeling we might need them.”

He held out a hand and pulled her up beside him, as Scott continued to stare at him, a thousand questions in his eyes.

“I’ll tell you everything when we get back to Green River,” said Murdoch gruffly.

But he knew in his heart that he wouldn’t. There were a few things he would most definitely omit, things that would remain private, and just between him and Johnny, whatever the outcome might be. Between him and Johnny alone, and maybe the woman who linked them both.  He looked up at Scott again, and shook his head.

“We can’t afford to waste anymore time now.”

Scott lingered for a minute, his face bleak and white-lipped as he touched his brother softly on the hand.

“Come on little brother, this is the time to show us that stubborn streak we all know and love.”

“Scott…..” said Murdoch more gently this time.

“I know.” Scott replied abruptly, before wheeling his horse and looping the Pinto’s reins round the back of the cart next to the more patient Caledonia.  Barranca snorted unhappily at him and bared his teeth, and Scott knew just how he felt. Not risking a pat, he raised his eyebrows at the palomino instead.

“It’s alright pony, he’s going to be just fine.”

And he hoped that it was true, he prayed with all his heart that it was true, as he recalled the shocking way that Johnny looked, the drawn expression on his father’s face !  The cart trundled on along the bumpy track, and this time, Murdoch just held Johnny, whilst Teresa cleaned and changed the dressing on his leg using the first-aid provisions she’d known, deep inside that she’d need.

As he watched her small deft hands at work, Murdoch thought that she was as truly his daughter, as Scott and Johnny were his sons, and he thanked the Lord for her usual, practical foresight in bringing the equipment along.  When she’d finished she felt his eyes on her, and looked up at him, a question on her sweet, grave face.

“Murdoch, what is it ?”

“You knew something was wrong didn’t you?”

“Yes.” She said simply, “I did. I had a dream, a nightmare…. I haven’t had anything like it since the night that Daddy died, the night that you were shot.”   She paused slightly, and bit her lip.  “There was a woman’s voice calling to me, a voice I’d never heard before, she told me that I had to save you both…… I wish I knew who she was, she sounded so sad. The strangest thing is, that there were snakes, snakes and serpents writhing….”  She shuddered, looking down at Johnny and touching his arm gently, as if for reassurance.  “I knew that something awful had happened, but now it seems so strange!”

He watched her face and shook his head slightly, remembering his own experience in the dawn, the in-between time between night and day, when everything has that vaguely supernatural quality, and the veil seems thin between the worlds.  Had Maria’s voice been all in his head, an illusion, a result of stress and tiredness?  Or had she really been reaching out to him to save their son, to save Johnny….

And suddenly, he knew the truth.

Deep in his heart, he knew the truth, and whatever else might happen, he’d believe it until his dying day. She had known, and she had come!

It was as simple as that.

“Murdoch?”

Teresa’s voice was soft and questioning, as she laid her small hand on his arm.  He smiled at her despite his great anxiety, the understanding patent in his eyes.

“I’ve lived too long, and heard too much to ever discount anything Teresa, and don’t forget that in the Old Country, my Granny was one of seven sisters.  There was a story in my family, don’t ever cross Granny McLeod, they used to say she had the sight!”

Teresa nodded, stroking Johnny’s face.  “Let’s hope that she’s protecting him now for us.”

Murdoch looked down at his son, and let his hand linger gently on the soft black hair.

“I know that someone is.”

****

Val Crawford was as good as his word, and he’d arranged to have a doctor and a suite of rooms waiting for them at the Green River Hotel, when they eventually arrived in town.  The doctor took one look at them all, and shooed everyone but Murdoch from the room once they’d got Johnny safely ensconced in a suitable bed.  Rather than wait outside pacing or twiddling his thumbs, Scott went off in search of the kindly Senor Colinas, and insisted on reimbursing him for his troubles and treating him to a no-holds barred meal at the Hotel. He was unable to eat a thing himself, though, his stomach tight and contracting with dread.

Murdoch watched as the tall thin man, as different from Sam Jenkins as you could ever hope to meet, packed up his equipment and closed his bag with a snap.

“Well ?”

The doctor nodded briefly.  “It’s a little too early to be truly optimistic, but he’s survived the first twenty four hours. If the bite is fatal, then the decline is usually rapid and the victim doesn’t often make it this far. There’s still fever, and his heart rate is a lot faster than I’d like, so I’ll give you something to slow it down a little, and tell you how to administer it.  Keep him cool; give him lots of water and some of this tea.  It’ll help to reduce his temperature.  Twenty drops of the heart medicine in half a whisky tumbler of water, try and make sure he takes it all, and I’ll be back first thing in the morning. If there’s a problem during the night, then the Sheriff knows where to find me.”

Murdoch nodded tiredly, his own exhaustion starting to catch up with him now, as the hours of sleeplessness and excruciating emotion began to take their toll.  The doctor looked at him more closely, and belatedly held out his hand.

“The names Golightly by the way. Tom Golightly……..”  He smiled slightly mournfully, “doesn’t exactly fit does it?  But Doc will do. You look as though you’ve been through the mill a bit yourself.”

“That’s putting it mildly, “ agreed Murdoch shaking his hand. “It got close there a couple of times during the night.”

Golightly nodded, a curious shade in his eye.  “He’s a strong boy, that’s in his favour, and he’s obviously survived more than his fair share in the past, judging by those bullet scars he bears.”

“Yes,” said Murdoch abruptly. “Yes he has. More than anyone should ever have to. That’s why this seems so…..” his voice cracked with fatigue; “so unfair !”

There was a knock at the door and Teresa came in quietly, a tray of coffee in her hands. Scott was just behind her, and as Murdoch quickly filled them in, she caught the doctor’s eye.  Golightly duly obliged her.

“Can one of you sit with him tonight?  Mr Lancer’s almost out on his feet. Another night up worrying, and you’ll have two patients on your hands instead of one.”

Teresa inclined her head before Murdoch had a chance to protest.  “Yes of course we can.”  She turned her soft, anxious gaze on him.  “Scott and I will take care of Johnny whilst you have a decent sleep. Doctor Golightly’s quite right, you must look after yourself now.”

And he was far too tired to argue with her, leaving Johnny in her more than capable hands as Scott bore him off for a meal, and then guided him straight to bed.  He hadn’t expected to be able to close his eyes, let alone sleep, but he was unconscious almost before his head had hit the pillow, falling into a deep and dreamless well, as the welcome darkness claimed him.

****

“How is he ?” whispered Teresa to a weary Scott, as she came back into the sickroom just before the dawn.

“A little better I think. Cooler. The lavender water you brought seems to soothe him.”

Sitting down on the side of the bed, she took Johnny’s hand and noted that he was indeed cooler. Her fingers felt round for his pulse, and to her enormous relief, his heart rate had become slower and more regular.  She let her fingers rest there for a moment, just feeding off the sense of relief his steady heartbeat gave her, as she dared to allow herself to feel a little hope.  Either doctor Golightly’s medicine was working, or Johnny’s body was fighting off the shock and poison.  Maybe it was a combination of both, but she really didn’t care. All that mattered was that Johnny seemed to be winning, and for the first time in weeks, she felt some of the tension that had been knotted inside her start to unravel, as she looked back at Scott.

“I agree. He seems far more settled and his colour’s better, not so high.”

Scott’s shoulders sank, and for a second, he seemed to cave-in as a boneless sense of relief swept through him.

“Thank God, oh thank God. I can’t lose him Teresa, not when I only just found out I even had him !”

Placing her arms around him, she hugged him to her wordlessly, knowing that it wasn’t just the snakebite he was talking about.  It went much deeper than that, and he’d voiced the fear that had secretly tormented them all for the last few months.  The fear that he might leave them.  The fear of losing Johnny.   After awhile he pulled away from her, and gave a shaky grin.

“Sorry about that, guess I kind of lost it for a moment.”

She smiled back at him compassionately.  “Nothing to be sorry for Scott. It’s been difficult for us all. I don’t want to lose him either, and neither does Murdoch.  He…he may not find it as easy to admit as we do, but it’s there, I know it is. I can see it in his eyes.”

Scott frowned again.  “I only hope that Johnny can.”

“He can,” said Teresa optimistically, “you’ll see, they’ll work it out. I know they will.”

“You’re a good girl Teresa,” Scott was curiously touched by her unfailing confidence, and it warmed his fragile heart. He just wished he had as much faith as she did, when it came to the relationship between his unmalleable father and his wayward brother.  He yawned suddenly, and she touched his hand.

“Go. Sleep. Murdoch will be up soon.”

He nodded, getting sleepily to his feet, and feeling Johnny’s forehead for one last time just to reassure himself that it really was getting cooler, as her words proved prophetic, and Murdoch came in through the door.  Reaching out her hand, Teresa drew him closer to the bed and the expression on her face told him everything he wanted to know, and nodding firmly to Scott, she took him by the elbow, and led him silently from the room, knowing somewhere deep inside her that they were trespassers here.  Murdoch suddenly found that his own hands were shaking, as he sat down in the vacant chair and looked at Johnny.

Looked at his youngest son.

It was dawn again.

But a new dawn now.

The soft blues fading to a milky opal grey, as the Morning Star clung stubbornly to the sky.  Murdoch watched it with a deep sense of peace in his heart as he listened to Johnny’s soft breathing and held onto his hand.  A slight movement on the pillow, and Murdoch turned with a surge of hope to see that Johnny’s eyes were open as he also watched the star.

“La Madrugada……” his voice was barely a whisper, hazy with sleep and disorientation.

“You missed the last one,” said Murdoch, trying to hide the catch in his voice.

“I did?”

“Sleeping in as usual,” it was a poor attempt at humour and he knew it, softening his flippancy by placing a large hand on Johnny’s forehead, and rejoicing that it felt so cool.
 
“We’re back at Green River, Scott and Teresa are here….”  There was a genuine smile in his tone now as he continued; “Apparently they were worried about us!”

“Were they now,” there was an answering understanding in Johnny’s words as he looked up, and their eyes met slowly.

“But now they know that it’s going to be alright,” finished Murdoch, and they both knew that he didn’t mean the snakebite.

Johnny’s eyes fluttered closed again, but there was a slight smile on his face, and after a while, Murdoch thought that he’d fallen asleep again. But as he rose to watch the town start stirring to life, Johnny spoke once more, his voice tight and edged with pain.

“I dreamed she was with me……”

“Who son?”  But he didn’t really need to ask.

“She kept telling me to stay with you, not to leave you on your own……”

Murdoch could have cried at the irony, but he didn’t. Instead, he felt a wash of bittersweet acceptance settle over him like a mantle, and his voice shook a little as he replied.  “I wish she never had, son, but it’s done now. I’ve got you back Johnny. I don’t ever intend to lose you again!”

Johnny paused. “Be kinda careless if you did.”

Murdoch smiled. “It would wouldn’t it?”

This time Johnny did begin to doze again, the lashes bequeathed to him by Maria dropping softly onto his cheeks, as the careworn lines that had haunted his face finally began to smooth away at last.  Murdoch waited until his breathing was slow and even again, watching him wordlessly, with a prayer of gratitude in his heart. And leaning back in his chair, he stretched each leaden muscle, as the exhaustion and seeping tension began to take its toll on him, and he allowed himself to relax.  It was a good tiredness though, the kind of tiredness that comes at the end of a job well done, and moving to the window again, Murdoch watched as the Morning Star began to fade at last into the backdrop of azure blue, and the sun began to brighten in the sky.  The curtain fluttered gently in the breeze from the half-open window. A wisp of white lace that reminded him of the white lace dress she’d worn that night a lifetime ago, as she’d danced with his rose in her hair.  His scalp prickled slightly as he turned back to the bed, and for a moment, he thought that he glimpsed her standing there beside her son…….

He blinked, and of course, she was gone.

It was just his imagination, like her soft voice in his head……

“Gracias querido, gracias para mi Juanito….”

“De nada,” he whispered, his voice soft and breaking, “Para siempre Maria…….”

He kissed his fingers to the vanishing star, and felt her presence slip away like La Madrugada, her mission over, her purpose done, as she faded into the morning, and left him behind with their son, to face the brand new day.

~end~
Lisa Paris 2002.

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4 thoughts on “La Madrugada (The Dawn) by Lisa Paris

  1. A lovely story, Lisa. I like the way you have Murdoch coming to realise what Johnny means to him as he looks after him as a father should after he saves Murdoch’s life and when he fears he may lose Johnny for good. I like how Maria is carefully woven into the story – you have it so it seems really natural and fitting for both of them to see and sense her. The imagery of the lace curtains at the end which Murdoch likens to the dress she was wearing in the scene he described to Johnny of when he and Maria first met, as her ‘presence’ disappears with the new dawn breaking, is very clever. Thank you for writing and posting.

    Like

  2. Ciao Lisa a very beautiful story one of my favorite with the interaction between Johnny and Murdoch and the sweet touch of Maria’s visit.
    Grazie
    Silvia

    Like

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