Long Nights for Johnny by Martha

Word count: 2,285

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Murdoch Lancer rose as he heard the clock in the other room strike two. He stretched wearily, but the aches in his back and his heart did not seem to diminish. The lamp on the bedside table did little to push back the shadows in the room or in his soul; as he approached the bed he could see that Johnny was still pale, too pale, and still, much too still. He sighed heavily as he felt his son’s cheek, glad that the fever had lessened. He took the towel off Johnny’s head, dipped it in the cool water and replaced it. There was so little he could do to help and he prayed silently, knowing that whether his son lived or died was in God’s hands.

The door opened slowly and Scott came in and glanced first at his father and then at his brother lying there in the bed, so still, his bandaged shoulder visible above the blanket.

“Do you want me to stay with him for awhile? You need some sleep too, so I can take a turn with him. He’s your son, but he’s my brother and precious to me, too,” he offered, looking pleadingly at Murdoch. He’d only known this brother and his father for a little over eight months, but in that time he’d learned to value and love both of them. Now Johnny lay near death and Scott found it intolerable to think that he could lose his brother so soon after finding him.

Murdoch started to refuse Scott, unwilling to risk not being there if Johnny awoke, but a look at Scott’s face made him change his mind. “How about we both sit here with him? Maybe having both of us here will somehow reach him.” Scott pulled a second chair over and the two sat on either side of the bed, each holding one of Johnny’s hands.

Five days earlier Barranca had come cantering into the yard without Johnny. Teresa had been the one who had seen him and then seen the blood on Barranca’s saddle. She had called out frantically to Murdoch and Scott that Johnny had been hurt and was somewhere out there. The thought that Johnny could be dead was not possible, not to her. Murdoch had quickly organized men into groups to search the ranch, but since no one knew exactly where Johnny had been working that day, it was going to be hard to find him. Though it was late in the afternoon five groups of men took off, determined not to return until they had found the boss’s son. Murdoch had waited behind, pacing, in case Johnny showed up.

When night fell Scott and Chet had reluctantly stopped for the night. There was no moon and they feared that they might miss something in the dark, and Johnny’s life depended on them missing nothing. Scott had spent a sleepless night worried about his brother out there wounded. Johnny would know that they were looking; Scott was sure of that.

The sun had barely risen when Scott and Chet set out again, but it wasn’t until midday before Chet spotted the telltale red of Johnny’s shirt among some rocks. As they sped over Scott had found himself praying they were not too late. Jumping off his horse, he had rushed over to his brother’s prone form and felt frantically for a pulse. Tears of relief had formed in his eyes as he felt the feeble heart beat which indicated that his brother was still alive. Chet and Scott had examined Johnny closely and had discovered the bullet wound in his left shoulder.

The bullet had gone through rather than lodging in the shoulder, but it was evident that Johnny had lost a lot of blood and that the wound was starting to be infected; it was red and puffed, although it had stopped bleeding. Johnny had been warm to the touch and Scott knew he was starting to develop a fever. What scared Scott the most was how still Johnny was lying. He was deeply unconscious and there was a lump at the back of his head in addition to the bullet wound. The sooner they got him back to Lancer the better.

“Help me lift him onto my horse, Chet, and then hold him while I mount. We need to get him back to the house as quickly as possible. While I take him there I want you to ride to town and get the doctor,” Scott had said as he started to lift his brother. The movement had caused the wound to start to bleed again, and Johnny had moaned slightly, so Scott had to delay while they bound the shoulder.

When Scott was mounted behind Johnny with his arms securely wrapped around his brother, Chet had taken off at a gallop to get the doctor and Scott had ridden slowly back to Lancer, careful not to risk opening the wound again. It had been two long hours before they had ridden into the yard, but when they did Teresa and Murdoch had been there, scanning the horizon.

Teresa had run to get hot water, towels, bandages, and lineament and Murdoch had gently lifted his younger son off the horse and carried him into his bedroom. The doctor had cleaned the wound, hoping to stop the infection, and bandaged it better, but that was all he could do, aside from cautioning them that his fever was likely to go up before it went down, and all they could do was wait and pray.

So here they sat on either side of the young man who had become so important to them both in such a short time, each man willing his strength into Johnny and lost in his own thoughts.

Murdoch shuddered to think of those four days since Scott had brought Johnny home. Shortly after the doctor had gone, the nightmare had begun. Johnny’s fever spiked rapidly and Murdoch, Scott, and Teresa had been in a fight to try and keep it down and to try and keep Johnny still enough that he would not re-open the wound as he thrashed in the throes of a feverish nightmare. He cried out frequently and it tore at Murdoch’s heart that it was his name that Johnny called out; it was his father he wanted and Murdoch wondered if his son had cried out to him as a child.

So Murdoch stayed by the bed, refusing to leave because Johnny needed him. He sent Scott and Teresa away at night to sleep and relied on them to keep the ranch running. Teresa and Scott both spent much of the day, and night, with him in the room, but Murdoch would not leave; Johnny needed him. Alone at night with his son, Murdoch talked because his voice seemed to soothe Johnny as he fought the fever. Murdoch told Johnny of meeting Maria in Matamoros and falling in love with her, of the whirlwind courtship and the wedding, less than two weeks after meeting each other. He spoke about their happiness as they worked together to build Lancer.

Murdoch reminisced about his joy the day Maria told him she was pregnant with Johnny and how they both celebrated every stage of that pregnancy and tears filled his eyes again as he told Johnny of the thrill of feeling him kick as he placed his hand on Maria’s stomach. He spoke of the hours of worry waiting for Johnny to be born and the thrill he felt when Maria placed his son in his arms for the first time and he saw the baby’s blues eyes looking up at him.

On and on he talked through the nights, telling Johnny of his desire to somehow get Scott back so his two sons could grow up together. He spoke about the long days and hours he’d spent building the Lancer ranch, a heritage for his sons. Even though his days started with the sun and often ended long after sunset, Murdoch spoke of still, somehow, being there to see Johnny grow.

He smiled wistfully as he told of Johnny’s first steps from his mother to Murdoch, not quite a year old, a head of dark curls, his arms outstretched to his Papa and a wide grin on his face, blue eyes shining. Murdoch still recalled the wonder and the joy of seeing Johnny staggering towards him. He recalled the first time he took Johnny out on the range seated in front of him on his horse; Johnny had laughed out loud that day thrilled to be with his Papa on his big bay horse. And his voice filled with pride as he recounted his love when Johnny first called him Papa.

As much for himself as for Johnny, Murdoch talked on and on, until his voice was hoarse. He spoke of things he’d never spoken of before, things he would probably never have spoken of to Johnny except in the stillness of that sickroom as he fought to keep this son alive. His voice broke repeatedly as he spoke of the pain he felt the day he came home and found the house empty, Maria gone and Johnny taken from him. He recounted the many, many futile attempts he’d made to track his wife and find his son; how he’d gone out to try and find them after every false report he’d had of a Mexican woman with a child traveling alone or with a man.

And so it went for three days and three very long nights. The fever raged and the family did everything they could to keep Johnny cool and calm and time seemed to stand still at the Lancer ranch. And then yesterday morning a change had come. Johnny had stopped thrashing around and lay still, too still. The fever ebbed slowly from his body, but what was left in its place was even more frightening. He lay there, hour after hour, not moving, as though he were drawing inward to himself and had stopped fighting. A hush fell over the ranch and Scott, Teresa, and Murdoch sat with Johnny, looking for any sign of movement until Murdoch had sent the other two off to bed and he sat his lonely vigil alone. It was good to have Scott here now on the other side of the bed; together they would be there for Johnny.

On the other side of the bed Scott was lost in thoughts about Johnny. He thought about the first time he’d seen his brother as he entered the stage and nearly fell into Scott’s lap. Scott had sneered to himself then about this rustic in his odd clothes and wondered to himself if this trip had really been the good idea it had seemed to be in Boston. He smiled when he remembered the shock he had felt when he heard that this man was his half brother, a shock that had quickly turned to intrigue in and then to respect for his little brother.

“Oh, Johnny,” he thought, “You have to get better, I need my little brother. We’ve had so little time together and there is so much I want to share with you. Remember laughing when we told that insurance salesman we were gunfighters and chasing Jelly’s goose around with the axe. I’ve never known anyone before whom I could laugh with so freely. We come from such different worlds and yet we are both here now learning to love and respect Murdoch, learning to protect and tease a little sister, learning to love and work this ranch together. I don’t know if I can do it if you aren’t here. You have to live,” and he squeezed Johnny’s hand. Did he just imagine it? Was there a faint response? Looking at his brother, Scott decided he had imagined it; Johnny lay so still and pale against the pillows.

Murdoch and Scott sat through the waning hours of that night on either side of Johnny’s bed, each holding a hand and willing him to live. Each knew that the dawn was likely to mark the end or a new beginning and each prayed for the strength to face the new day.

When Teresa slipped into the room at dawn she was met by the sight of Scott and Murdoch sitting in their chairs each holding one of Johnny’s hands and both sound asleep. A smile hovered around her lips, a smile that widened when she looked at the still form on the bed and saw two blue eyes looking at her and an answering smile on Johnny’s lips.

“It seemed a shame to wake them,” Johnny whispered, but he might as well have shouted it. The sound of his voice had Murdoch and Scott awake instantly. Neither man let go of the hand he was holding though, and Scott put his other arm around Teresa; for several long moments the family reveled in the relief of having Johnny awake again. It was Murdoch who broke the spell by asking Johnny how he felt.

“I feel good, considering,” he said and looking at his father he continued, “I knew you were here with me and that you would not leave. Somehow I knew that it wasn’t my time; that I had to stay. I have a brother who needs me here; you told me wonderful stories and I had to stay to hear them, Papa.”

Scott and Teresa both looked up when they heard Johnny call Murdoch Papa, and both were confused when Murdoch nodded and quietly answered, “I’m glad you liked them, Johnny. We do need you here for a very long time.”

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~ end ~

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