The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Clementine

 

 

Never Smother Your Sorrow

“Get down Johnny! Get down!”

I had no trouble hearin’ the orders from Murdoch as he roared across at me, but I had to staunch the bleeding from Val’s head. I whipped the bandana from my back pocket and was real glad that it was clean. Only ‘cause Scott had poked it in my pocket that morning.

“You never remember to pack anything do you” he’d chipped me.

As I quickly folded it into a pad and then covered the wound, a bullet knocked the hat clean off my head.

The want to kill surged up in me like a poison river as I looked from Val’s white and bloody face into the direction the shooting was coming from. Before my head exploded with the fury, two massive arms came around me and Val, and we was both lifted up. Only Pa could’ve had the strength to do that. Scott was there too, and he grabbed Val’s legs and then all four of us staggered across the campsite and fell behind Hera. She was dead.

“Scott, draw fire. I’m going to try and circle round.”

I was busy with Val’s wound, but I started to yell at Murdoch, and that was a waste of time because he was already gone and Scott was firing fit to bust. Fire was coming back too, but I heard Scott grind out what he thought.

“All from the one place. So one shooter.”

He stopped to reload the rifle, and soon as he’d done that, he jerked a bandana from his back pocket and shoved it to me. I folded it and added it to the one that was soaked. Val had not made a sound or moved a muscle.

Scott started firing again.

We were in a clearing with the stream behind us and cottonwoods in front. The shooter had plenty of cover, but Pa would too, as long as he’d made it. My hand was hot with all the blood over it, but my heart had gone cold. I should

be the one stalking the fucking bastard who’d done this. But I couldn’t afford to take the pressure off Val’s head for even a moment.

Scott hunkered down as more fire came, and I heard the sickening sound of  bullets thudding into Hera’s flesh. My nose was filled with the smell of blood and gunsmoke and worse.

The bleeding under my hand seemed to have stopped at last. My heart started to twist inside me though, as I wondered was that good or was Val dead. I looked at Scott, and he must have seen something in my face, because he fired one shot and then his right hand went to Val’s neck.

“He’s alive, Johnny.”

I felt scalding tears flood my eyes and run down my face, and I dropped my head till my forehead was rested on Val’s. I felt like I was goin’ to pass out, but I had to grip my weakness on account of I couldn’t take the pressure off the pads I had held tight to Val’s head, high over his left ear.

Scott started firing again, but then I heard the sound of a six gun. Scott and me looked at each other, both of us too scared and out of breath to say a word.

There was utter quiet from us and every critter in that clearing. All I could hear was the gurgling of the water near us. Then I heard the worried snorting of our horses. One of them was stamping.

I thought I was going to throw up. Scott’s face was goin’ pale, the blood draining away. Then Scott yelled and I jumped.

“Murdoch?!”

Still silence.

“PA!” He yelled louder, but strangled sounding as well.

Still nothing.

At long last, after what seemed like an hour, Pa’s voice carried to us.

“I’m here. You two alright?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“You can come out. I got him.”

++++++

Scott jumped up as Murdoch emerged from the trees.

“Murdoch? You okay? You’re not hit?”

“Just a scratch.”

“Jesus, Ol’ Man! Where’d he get you?” I heard my voice ask, but it didn’t sound like me.

Scott raced to Murdoch and I tried to peer over poor Hera’s big belly without losing contact with Val’s head. Pa and Scott loomed above me and both dropped down next to me.

“He just winged the back of my calf, its fine.” Pa felt for Val’s pulse. “It’s quite strong, Son.  But we need to get help. Fast.”

“Murdoch, let me see your leg.” Scott’s voice sounded calm, but firm.

“First get our bedrolls, Son. We’ve got to keep Val warm.”

Scott raced around and by the time he was back, Pa had straightened Val out and put his own jacket under Val’s head. Pa’s big warm hand dropped on my shoulder and he squeezed tight.

“Johnny – do you think the bullet is in his skull?”

“I don’t know. Too much blood. But it’s stopped, I think.”

Murdoch took the blankets from Scott and arranged them over Val. Then he told Scott to please saddle our horses.

“Not till I’ve checked your leg, Sir.”

Murdoch sighed, but stood and pulled his bloodied pants leg up. Just above his boot was a gouge as big as my little finger, and there was blood already drying down the leg and congealing in the wound. Scott went and got the bottle of whisky from Pa’s saddle bag and poured some over and then wrapped the gouge with Pa’s bandana.

Soon as that was done Pa took a large handkerchief from his pocket and folded it up and doused it with whisky.

“Johnny, take the pad away so we can see what we’re dealing with.”

I looked at Murdoch, and his eyes on mine were so kind and strong, but I felt like I couldn’t move.

He didn’t break my gaze but I felt his hand gentle as anything clasp mine where it was holding the pad. I looked down at our two hands, and slowly removed the wadded up bandanas.

Val’s blood rose out of this big gouge, but it rose real slow.

Pa grunted and very carefully wiped all around the wound and then poured some whisky in it. He pressed the whisky soaked handkerchief on the gouge. Scott must’ve been back to the saddle-bags, ‘cause he handed Pa a proper bandage which Murdoch wound around Val’s head, with me helping.

Val had still not made a sound or moved one muscle.

++++++

The night before, about an hour before we stopped for the night, we had passed a sign on a tree which said ‘Double O Ends’. It also said ‘No trespassing’, but Pa said we didn’t have the luxury of obeying their wish.

He had Val in his arms and only a man as big as Pa could have managed that, Val being a long drink of water like he was. He was spare though, so Pa had no trouble keeping him tight held, and he’d got Scott to wrap a shirt around Val’s head and to tether it to Pa’s shoulder by the sleeves tied around.

“I don’t want his head falling forward,” Pa had explained.

We made horrible slow progress, but the ranch house wasn’t that far off the road from the sign we’d passed, thank the Lord.

The owner was a man who didn’t look much older than Scott, and who cut us off before we reached the house. Pa explained that Val was a sheriff and we were his posse, and we’d been bushwhacked.

“Follow me.”

His wife came out on the porch, and she had a sprout clingin’ to her skirt, and the way the skirt was swelled, she had another sprout on the way.

“Ouida – this man’s shot – get Lyle’s cot ready!”

The man helped Scott smooth-like take Val from Pa and carry him into the small house.

I shoulda been helping too, but I found I could not even unfork. My legs – hell, all of me – had gone to jelly. I hung my head down, couldn’t even seem to hold up my own damn head. I heard the creaking as Pa dismounted, and I heard him stifle a groan. I felt his hand on my arm and he pulled me towards him and caught hold of my other arm and dragged me to the ground.

I got myself together then and turned away from Murdoch and strode into the house.

++++++

We’d been waiting three hours.

The rancher – Oliver Endersby – had sent a hand back to Mercer to find the town doc.

Val was in the little tacker’s bed, with pillows under his head and shoulders as Pa thought we should keep the wound up. Miz Endersby had changed the dressing, and she’d cut Val’s bloody shirt right off, and had sponged his chest. After she’d patted him dry she piled blankets on him. Then she’d put a cold-water dressing all over the bandage.

He still hadn’t come to or moved at all.

“His pulse is still good,” Pa said.

++++++

Miz Endersby drew me outta the room. Anyone else’d tried and I wouldn’tve gone, but I wasn’t goin’ to manhandle or backchat such a good lady.

She led me out back and told me to take off my bloodied shirt and to wash up. She had a big kettle of hot water which she sloshed into the bowl there, and she pointed to a bar of yellow soap and a towel.

“This is an old shirt of Mr Endersby’s.”

She hung a blue bib shirt on the peg by the back door, and then she scarpered.

I peeled off my shirt which was some stuck to my skin and washed up with the soap which smelled of musk sage. As I finished drying my face I spied the little boy watching me.

I pulled her husband’s shirt over my head. It was soft with age and wear, but it felt good to have something clean on. Even though it was too big.

“Hey.”  I talked soft to the kid.

“Pa’s shirt,” he answered. He turned tail then, and disappeared back inside.

++++++

Miz Endersby changed the cold water dressings, and later she came in and told us she’d made an early supper.

“I ain’t hungry.” I realised I sounded terse so I added a ‘thank you, M’am’.

Before Pa could fuss, she said that I should stay with my friend while my pa and brother ate, but then she expected me to come eat too.

I did like she told me. She had set out some rabbit stew and biscuits, and me and the kid, Lyle, ate together while she commenced washing dirty dishes.

Lyle was watchin’ me with these big eyes the colour of Scott’s eyes.

“You want to see the scab on my knee?” he asked, real serious.

I stopped with a forkful of stew halfway to my mouth.

Before I could say ‘yes’ his Mama hushed him up, telling him no-one wanted to see that, thank you, and for him not to bother the boy. Only she stopped when she started to say ‘boy’, and changed it to ‘young man’. Lyle was only quiet a moment before he had another question.

“Why your eyes all green and yeller?”

“Lyle! It’s not good manners to remark on a person’s appearance!”

“I didn’t ask ‘bout his ‘pearance, Mama, just his eyes.”

“It’s alright, M’am. I got sucker punched, Lyle, but my eyes are nearly better.”

“You been fightin’? I hadda fight with Tim Welker and Pa said I’d better not think of doin’ that agin.” He glanced at his Mama as he said it.

“And you’d best heed your Pa, young man.” she said sternly.

I was about to explain what a sucker punch was, but as I carried my empty plate – I’d eaten every scrap without I even knew – we heard the buggy outside and I dumped the plate in the dish tub and barrelled through the front door.

The doc was stepping down from his buggy and I rushed down the steps and told him I’d take care of the horse, could he just get inside fast as he could.

“Here, boy, I’ll tend to old Frosty,” Oliver Endersby told me as he took over.

I ran back inside, nearly collecting his wife who was just inside the door. The doc was opening his bag as I rushed into the room where Val was still lying motionless on the cot.

Sam would have chucked us all out of the room, but this doctor ignored us all as he checked Val’s signs and then started exposin’ the wound. He asked how long since Val had been shot, and some other questions.

As he redressed the gash, he told us it was good that the bullet hadn’t cracked the skull, and that the pulse was still fairly strong and even. But the danger was that the bullet hitting was the same as the head bein’ hit by a lump of wood. So the wound would probably heal over nice, but the brain getting jarred by the impact wouldn’t like that one bit and was likely to swell up.

He told Ouida to keep the cold compresses going, to change the dressing every four hours, and to keep Val up on the pillows. He would come out again next morning. He was sorry, but all we could do was wait.

Murdoch walked out with him.

Jesus! I sunk back onto the floor as he left, and I did all I could to just keep from flying into little pieces.

++++++

Mr Endersby made up beds in the barn for Scott and Murdoch, and threw down a pallet by the cot for me to sleep on. Murdoch and Scott took turns going out to the barn to sleep, but they didn’t even try and get me to leave.

Murdoch sat with me first, sitting himself down on the other side of the cot.  The young rancher had replaced the spoolbed chair with a nice comfortable easy chair for him. Miz E brought us both a pot of coffee and two cups, all which she set down on the blanket box at the foot of the cot.

Pa thanked her and said how much we appreciated their help, and she said all we needed for medic-ing was in the basket, and to please call if we needed anything at all, and to help ourselves to more coffee or biscuits during the night.

While they were talkin’ I shifted closer to the low cot, and I edged my hand under the blankets and found Val’s hand. I was just going to feel for his pulse in his wrist, I decided, but my hand closed around Val’s and I couldn’t let go. I put my head down on my other arm on the cot, and I tried to will my life into Val.

++++++

I woke some time later, and I was stretched out on the pallet with an old quilt over me. I sat up, knuckling my eyes as I tried to clear them so’s I could check on Val.

“Johnny, I’m here. There’s no change. Please try and sleep some more.”

Pa’s voice was soft. The lamp was turned down so low he was just a big shadow on the other side of the small room. I knelt up and looked at Val’s face. I reached out and felt the half of his forehead that was not bandaged. It was cool, and the dressings around the main one were cold, so Pa must’ve changed them not long before.

“Pa, the bastard who did this – did he say anything before you killed him?”

My voice was low, and so was Pa’s when he answered.

“I didn’t kill him.”

I jerked up, my eyes wide awake suddenly.

“I should say – he wasn’t dead when I left him. He took a mortal wound though, so I would say that he would have died by now.”

I hope he did!” I gritted out.

“He did speak. He asked if we still had the money. He said half of it was his. He’d given it to Beardsley for safe-keeping as he was heading down to the –“

Pa stopped talking and glanced at me over the mound that was Val.

“Down to the what?” I demanded.

“He was going down to the cribs by the river, so left his money with Beardsley. Next morning he came back into Bluffs Crossing and found out what had happened, and had headed straight for Millertown. Primrose told him we’d arrested Beardsley and found the money stash, so he’d been on our trail ever since, trying to catch up to us.”

I buried my head in my arms which were alongside Val’s still form.

“He thought if he took out the sheriff and the main deputy, then he wouldn’t have trouble with the two boys – they’d be easy to kill, or they would flee in fright. He passed out then. He had a bullet in the chest and another in the gut  I didn’t wait around. He may not have regained consciousness. Or he might be lying out there in agony.”

Gut-shot is a fearsome way to die. I was not going to waste my time thinking about that.

“Doctor Fielding was going to see the Sheriff in Merced and give him directions out to the campsite. He’ll come here with that man and his horse and our gear. I’ll talk to him when he does.”

I slipped my hand back under the blankets and took Val’s in mine. It made me feel like I was holding him with us, and it stopped me from falling all to bits. His hand was warm. Hard and warm. But not one bit of movement.

++++++

I don’t know how long it was before the door opened and Scott’s head came around the edge.

His eyes looked to Murdoch with a question.

“No change.” Pa answered the look as he wearily got to his feet.

They talked soft and then Pa went off to get some sleep. Scott took over the chair and I dropped my head back into my arms.

++++++

The doc came and went. The sheriff came and went.

He brought the outlaw’s poor horse as he needed it to carry the body and Val’s tack and the few bits we’d left behind. The horse had been ridden into the ground by Bob Hull – that was the dirty bastard’s name. The sheriff said he would shoot the poor nag soon as he made town. There was paper on Hull, so the incident would be closed.

Pa borrowed the wagon and went into Merced and came back with provisions for all of us, and the Endersbys protested but Pa said it was not fitting for them to have to take in and care for an ill man and three others beside, and unless we were allowed to help out we would be obliged to leave. All of us knew that wasn’t possible, but it smoothed the waters.

++++++

 “I’m not happy.”

Doc Fielding was a round man who wore a droopy moustache and a check waistcoat under his brown suit.

My stomach grinched me awful bad and I looked down at the bump in the blankets which was my hand and Val’s. Soon as the doc had stepped away I’d slipped my hand back where I felt it belonged.

“His pupils have stopped responding to my light. They’re dilated and one has become crossed. This indicates brain compression, and I’m afraid if I don’t act then this man will not survive.”

I wanted to squeeze the bejesus out of Val’s hand, but I stopped myself. I wanted to squeeze the life out of the doc’s neck, and Dios, he was tryin’ to help.

“You can do something?” Pa’s voice was low and sounded bitter to me.

“There’s a procedure called trephination.”

“I’ve read about it – in the hospitals, in the battlefields.” Scott sounded real bitter.

“You would have read how seldom it was successful. But those conditions were appalling, as you can imagine. I am not saying that it will succeed here – I need to tell you though, that I believe it may be this man’s only chance.”

The silence was awful. The doc sat down on the end of the bed and rubbed his hands over his face. He’d been all brisk and business all the time, but now he looked haggard as hell, and sad too.

“You done it before?” I asked, and I kept my head down.

“Two years ago, on a child. I’ll tell you straight – the girl did not live. But I believe I waited too long. That’s why I want to proceed right now. But not without the family’s permission.”

There was another deep silence, and then Pa spoke out.

“We’re his family.”

My head jerked up and my eyes met Pa’s. He held my look steady, and his eyes were stern, like he wouldn’t brook no interference from me or anybody. The hair stood up on the back of my neck, and yet again I had this feeling like I was about to lose control of everything and fly into bits. I dropped my head and I struggled to breathe.

++++++

Pa and Mr Endersby were assistin’ the doctor. The missus wanted to help but the doc said in her delicate condition he would not allow it, and we all agreed. Pa said for me and Scott to go and exercise the horses for the next hour and when I bucked the doc said he wouldn’t operate with me in the house so to get. I was angry as hell, but I knew if I stayed I couldn’t hold Val’s hand anyway. I don’t know why the fuck holding his hand was so important to me, but it felt like it was all that was keeping me from dying. I was too tired and too angry and too everydamnthing to figure it out.

So Scott and me took our horses for a good run, and then Scott gave Pa’s big Chieftain some exercise, and then we tended them. I wanted to go inside then, but Scott said to wait till we saw the doc leave, which we did. As he pulled away, Miz E came out on the porch and beckoned us.

++++++

Val had looked a fright before, with this disgusting red rubber tube up his nose. It went all down inside to his stomach, and we’d been pouring a little water down it every hour, and this milk punch every four hours. That was made of milk and brandy.

Now he had a round hole drilled right in his head and the doc had sort of stitched it but not closed it – I couldn’t believe it. I grabbed the pot from under the bed and heaved my insides out, and Pa tried to drag me outside but I struggled and told him I wasn’t leavin’ and Scott grabbed me and told Pa he’d take care of me and for Pa to go get some fresh air after the ordeal he’d been through.

Pa looked real torn, and he looked sick too, and he folded, and told Scott to apply the cold dressings all around the wound and to not be alarmed if Val had a seizure. If he did, to put the piece of leather on the table into Val’s mouth and just try and keep him as still as he could. Mrs Endersby was making a flaxseed poultice, but not to let her into the room – we had to protect her.

Soon as he and Endersby left Scott came where I stood by the bed and he stood behind me and he put his hand on the back of my neck. I was thankful he didn’t say nothin’.

I just concentrated on breathing in and out, in and out, and making myself get used to the look of Val with that godawful hole in his head. When my breathin’ evened out some I closed my eyes to the sight, and I spoke low and pained.

“Scott, there’s been times when things were not good, when I would go to sleep thinkin’ I didn’t much care if I woke up or not. But I can’t ever remember being awake and not ready to deal with what I had to. I can’t deal with this Scott. I don’t know if Val’s goin’ to make it or not, but I can’t even deal with right now. I feel like any minute I’m going to shatter into a hundred pieces, and I never felt so scared.”

As I’d spoke, Scott’s hand had tightened on my neck, and even though I was breathin’ big and little and not at all, I could hear him struggling to breathe as well.

And then both his arms came around me and his hands took big handfuls of my shirtfront and though at first I resisted, he pulled me back hard against him and held me so tight I couldn’t move. And then his voice was in my ear. He was talking harsh, but the words were not one bit harsh.

“You’re not going to fly apart, Little Brother, because I’m not going to let that happen. I’m going to hold you together if it takes all night or forever. You do whatever it takes, Johnny – you scream or cry or swear – whatever it takes…  And I’ll share it all with you. You’re my brother and that means everything to me, and I’ll do anything for you – anything. You hear me? I won’t let you go, Johnny. Not now. Not ever.”

I was so straught I felt like I would explode, and again I started to struggle, but ol’ Boston, well, his arms just pinioned me and all the fight left me in a whoosh and I felt like I couldn’t even stand, and that didn’t worry Scott either, he took all my weight. And then I started to bawl, big heaving gasps and Scott’s arms held me wrapped tight and safe as could be, and I howled like a nino.

++++++

I don’t know how long I cried, but at some stage I petered out into small hitchin’ gulps and Scott dragged me around to the pallet and pushed me down onto it and told me to sleep. I tried to buck but he said to lie down and sleep and if I didn’t he was goin’ to sit on me.

I was so strung out exhausted I could hardly speak, but I had to let him know he’d saved me.

“If you put on a dress before you sit on me, I’m goin’ to get real worried ‘bout you, Boston.”

I heard his sharp intake of breath. Then he called me a real rude word.

“Scott, wake me up in half an hour, wouldya? I just need to doze a little.”

“I promise” he said.

++++++

Two hours later the ruckus woke me. Val was having a seizure and my guts turned to water as Pa and Scott dealt with it. Pa was just about lying on Val, trying to keep him still, and Scott was strugglin’ to get the piece of leather between Val’s teeth. It was all over in a few seconds, but we all stood there looking at Val and all of us looked like wrecks.

Scott was panting, but he said that Val had the slightest tinge of colour in his face. Even before he finished sayin’ it though, the colour faded.

Pa sort of sunk down into the easy chair, and the dispirited look on his clock didn’t do me no good.

“Right. Doctor Fielding said that was to be expected. Now, Mrs Endersby has taken to her bed. You boys can please go out there and prepare supper. No Johnny – not a word. You’ll be five feet from here, and I’ll call at the slightest change. Oliver and Lyle and Mrs Endersby – and we three too, need a meal, and you two need to have a break out of this room. Go.”

++++++

Me and Scott made up a hash which everyone seemed able to get down, and which little Lyle said was real tasty even though it looked like the chuck-up that the barn cat did last week.

He wanted to know was his Mama ailin’, and his Daddy said that she was in bed waiting for the new little brother or sister they’d told him was coming.

“Is that baby coming out the same place the kitties come out of their mama?” he asked with those big eyes on his Pa.

Me and Scott and Mr Endersby all just about choked on our hash, and Mr Endersby went scarlet red and told the little tacker to get to bed. Lyle was outraged and said it weren’t even bedtime, and just where was he goin’ to sleep anyway. That sick man was in his bed and he’d been told he couldn’t sleep in their room any more till the baby had come.

“Oliver, Lyle could sleep out in the barn with me, if that is agreeable to you?”

Pa had come to the bedroom door.

Oliver nodded as his eyes met Pa’s and some understanding passed between them.

“Thank you – that would keep him out of the house.”

“My thoughts exactly. Have you sent for Fielding?”

“He’s coming later to see the Sheriff, but our neighbour, Mrs Bamfield is coming soon.”

Pa nodded and turned to Lyle.

“You and I will go do the chores, and then how’d you like to camp in the barn with me and with Scott tonight?”

Lyle looked to his Pa, and when he got the nod he wasted no time racing for the door.

Pa followed and Scott offered to do the dishes and I went back to watch over Val.

++++++

Fielding didn’t arrive for hours as he’d been to a dying at the blacksmith’s shop. He looked as worn to a frazzle as all of us were, Mr Endersby included. Mrs Bamfield had arrived after dark and every now and then we’d hear a horrible loud moaning coming from the room where the baby was on its way. The doc checked in on her and then went over Val.

Scott was out in the barn as Murdoch didn’t want the little tacker to wake out there alone. I thought Pa would be surprised to hear how many times I woke alone when I was the kid’s age. Best I never told him that.

Endersby was sitting by the stove in a rocker, and smoking one quirly after another.

++++++

 “I’m pleased” said the doc as he finished with his examinin’ of Val.

“His pupils are reacting to the light again, and not crossed. None of the brain has erupted through the interrupted sutures over the trephined aperture, so I’ve no need to debride it with the Vienna paste I prepared. There was a minute amount of laudable pus coming from the wound, and the edges of the wound are starting to granulate. So, we appear to have healing by second intention. His pulse is weaker than I’d like, but it is steady – that is very encouraging.”

“So you reckon on him making it?”

I couldn’t stop myself asking, as I didn’t understand what the fuck he’d been rabbitin’ on about.

“We are by no means out of the woods. I don’t want to overstate his condition. But I, ahhh, let me phrase this carefully. I have some hope that he may recover where previously I had very little.”

I would take some hope any time.

“Keep up with the water and the milk punch and the flaxseed poultice and the cold dressings. And perhaps you would care to talk to the Sheriff – one never knows if the sound of a familiar voice may soothe the patient, even though we have no way of knowing if it reaches him in his unconscious state.”

The Doc left then to see how Miz E was progressin’. I went ‘round to kneel next to the bed and hold Val’s hand. Soon as Pa fell asleep, and that didn’t take long, I started to talk, soft and low.

“Hey Val, you know I do remember that time you talked about, when I set fire to the barn. I’d lit the kindling and then shook the match like I’d seen you do, but I only shook it once before I pitched it. I didn’t know I hadda keep shaking till the match went out. Jesus, did I panic when I smelled the smoke and turned from my fire to see I’d started another!

I remember lots of other things, Val. Like riding on your shoulders. And hangin’ on tight to you, not ‘cause I thought I’d fall, but because I didn’t ever want to let you go. I don’t want to let you go now either, which is why I’m holding tight to your hand. Maybe you’re awake inside there, and wondering why the hell I’m holding your hand like I’m a button, when I’m full-growed. Well, not full-growed – least I sure hope not, ‘cause I plan to be tall as you even if I don’t make it to P- , that is, tall as Murdoch.

And hey, remember when I swiped a whole handful of crackers at the store and the store-keeper cracked me across my behind? And you told him to not do that again – to tell you ‘cause you was the only one goin’ to lay a hand on me? Well, when you put me in school, the first time the teacher switched me I told her she’d be sorry, that you would come in and set her straight. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell you, but you roused on me good and proper instead! After that I sure as hell kept quiet when I got in trouble at school. And I got in trouble a lot! Guess it took me a while to get used to rules, at home and at school. Guess I still have a bit of trouble with that…”

I glanced over at Murdoch, and I wasn’t sure, but it seemed I’d caught him just closing his eyes. I quickly looked down at my hand twined with Val’s, and I felt the heat rise up in my face as I thought on what I’d been saying. I was pretty sure Pa still felt bad that he hadn’t found me a lot earlier than he did. And I felt too that he wanted to know about those years I was away, but any time he did hear anything about that time, it seemed to pain him some. I had a hard time figgerin’ out what was best, plus I didn’t see no good in talking about the bad things or the good things, so I’d made up my mind to keep my trap shut until I felt I had it sorted in my head.

I waited a while until Murdoch’s breathing sounded like he’d fallen asleep again, and I started soft talking to Val.

++++++

When I woke next morning Val seemed unchanged. I’d talked till I was hoarse, and as I’d fallen asleep I’d heard Pa start telling him all about a book he was reading by Dickens.

I’d woken when Pa and Scott swapped places, and Scott started reading from a book that he’d borrowed from Mr Endersby. It was called ‘Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter’. I looked at the pictures before we left.

I got up from the pallet, and I bad needed to use the jake, but when I left the bedroom I was brought up short by the sight of Mr E standin’ by the table with a baby in his arms. Lyle was standing on the chair peering at the baby.

Mr E looked up at me with a huge smile, and I had to smile back.

“Johnny, we’ve got ourselves a little girl! She’s like a little doll-baby!”

“She’s real ugly Pa! And I wanted a brother!” Lyle was real disgusted.

Mr E just laughed as I went up and looked into the tiny screwed up face. She was no picture, but I knew her skin would iron out soon enough. I got a snootful of that sweet baby smell and it straight away reminded me of Armando, Scott’s baby that turned out not to be. That pequeno bebe (little baby boy) was thrivin’ with his new family.

I roughed up Lyle’s hair and told him his new sister was going to turn out pretty soon enough, and now he’d have someone to boss around.

“Ya reckon?” he asked hopefully.

“Why sure. Scott bosses me all day long – I gotta do whatever he tells me, or he blacks my eyes!”

Lyle looked thrilled at that, but Mr E rolled his eyes and shook his head at me, and Pa had just come through the door with an armful of kindling and he told me that putting ideas like that in the child’s head was not helpful. And to bring water back with me as he was going to get breakfast started.

As I came back in with the bucket of water, Scott yelled for us to come.

Pa was right behind me as I burst through the bedroom door.

Val’s eyes were shut, but his mouth was moving, and his fingers were just lifted off the blanket.

I took hold of his hand and gentle squeezed, and I felt the slightest tremble in it, and I saw that he was trying to lick his lips.

“Val! We’re right here! Can you hear me, Val? Can you open your eyes?”

“Johnny, here, put this water to his lips. Don’t crowd him, Son.”

Murdoch handed a cup to me with hardly any water in it, and I held it to Val’s mouth and barely wet his lips. When I did that, the tip of his tongue poked out, and I felt that he was trying to move his fingers again.

“It’s alright, Val, you been real sick, so don’t try too hard. We got you, Val. You just rest easy. We’re right here, so you just take it real slow…”

I stopped talking, account of my throat had closed up and my eyes started stinging fearful and I started having trouble trying to get a breath. The empty cup rolled out of my hand and down Val’s chest and clattered to the floor, and I let go Val’s hand and put both mine to my chest and looked up at Pa.

“Scott – get some brandy.” Pa barked out the order as he reached for me from where he was stood at the foot of the bed.

His left arm came around my shoulders and he put his other big mitt on my chest.

“Just breathe, John, come on Son, you’re alright, just relax…”

He gave me a shake then, and he gave my face a slap, and I gasped in some air.

“That’s it, Son, you’re just shocked, you’re overwrought and you’re shocked, but just breathe and relax Son.”

I started to breathe normal then, but I sure didn’t feel too good, when I shoulda been feeling best I could be in a long time.

I looked at Murdoch, because I didn’t understand what was wrong with me and I hoped he had an answer.

And I guess he did.

He pulled me into his chest and he was rubbing my back. I felt like I was bein’ a weak and pitiful kid, and I tried to pull away, but Murdoch held me.

“Johnny, please let me comfort you, Son. I’ve never been there to do it when you’ve needed it in the past, but I’m here now…I’m here now, Johnny. So please let me comfort you, Son, if not for yourself, then for me.”

Half of me wanted to just pull away and stand on my own two feet.

But half of me wanted to just give in and accept the warmth and the heft of him that he was offering me.

And that half won.

I buried my head in Murdoch’s shirtfront and I let him hold me tight and keep rubbing my back and holding my head to his chest, and I held onto handfuls of his shirt - and maybe handfuls of him - the way he jumped. I stood like that and it felt like I’d been there before, and I even felt like maybe I hadda right to be there and be comforted by my Pa. Like all my troubles and my fear were being drawn outta me and he was there to take it all. I didn’t feel embarrassed or weak neither.

I felt safe.

I don’t know how long we stood like that, but then Murdoch eased me just sideways enough to hold a glass to my mouth.

“Drink this, you need it.”

I took the glass from his hand and he sat me down on the side of the bed and I threw back the brandy. Murdoch still had a warm hand on the top of my head.  I looked up and Scott was lookin’ at me all worried, but he tried to give me a smile and it came out all draggled.

“What’s happened?” Mr E’s voice came from the doorway, all worried too.

++++++

We were all anxious as hell for the doc to arrive and tell us what he thought, and maybe take that sonofabitch red tube away.

We felt like Val was sleepin’ now, rather than in a coma, but he was awful still again.

About three hours later, after we’d all had breakfast and all admired the new baby, Val opened his eyes. He didn’t seem able to see nothin’ though, but he did try to say something, and I told him not to worry, he could talk when he was damn well ready.

When the doc did come, he was as thrilled as could be, and said as how he was going to write a paper on the case for his Medical College. It was McDowell in Missouri he told Scott when he asked.

He left the tube in, and he told us to keep talkin’ to Val.

“There’s something you need to be prepared for, I must tell you. As he recovers you might find he doesn’t remember much – possibly anything at all. He may be…changed.”

“Changed how?” I rapped out.

“His usual demeanour may be different. For instance, he may be irritable.”

“Jesus, Doc, he’s been irritable his whole life!” I laughed.

“Then you may find he’s become equable.”

“Huh?”

“Easy going, Johnny.” Scott translated for me like usual.

I tried to imagine Val being easy going, but couldn’t quite do it.

“Anyway, just be aware that a severe injury to the head such as the Sheriff has sustained can have long lasting or permanent effects to him in many ways. You’ll need to be patient and he’ll need support – for quite some time I’m afraid.”

“He’ll get it.” Pa’s voice was real firm. “Is it likely that we can move him in the next week?”

“No – I would not think so. I know you are all anxious to let Oliver and Ouida have their home back, but they understand. Salt of the earth, as you no doubt have surmised for yourselves.”

“We surely have.” Pa ran a hand over his face as he said that softly.

++++++

The Endersbys named their new baby Frances. Miz E was up and about the next day and she was looking powerful tired but also happy.

She didn’t look too pleased though when she said how screwed up the baby’s ‘dear little face’ was and I tried to reassure her.

“Don’t worry Miz E – remember what they say – ‘homely in the cradle, comely at the table’.”

Miz E looked peeved. Scott groaned and slapped a hand over his eyes. Mr E laughed and Murdoch did this choking sound.

“What?” I asked, annoyed.

I looked around at each of them but they all seemed real busy all of a sudden.

Miz E might’ve been disappointed at how her baby looked, but she was  pleased as all gettout that Val had begun to stir.

He had been opening his eyes, and he’d even followed me with them when I walked around the bed to get him some water. He’d tried to put his hand up to the tube, but his hand was awful wavery.

“Don’t worry Val, Doc said he’ll take that out in the next couple of days.”

++++++

The Doc took the tube out the next day, and he covered the healing hole in Val’s noggin with a light pad.

Miz Endersby had made beef broth and a custard, and we got some of that into Val. His throat woulda been pretty sore we knew, but he seemed to manage the food as we gave it to him in small doses.

Lyle was allowed to visit, and he offered Val his toy horse, and I swear Val’s eyes went to water.

The next day the Endersbys all set off for church to give thanks for the safe delivery of their baby, even though she was plain as a pound of candles. Murdoch went in too, but he spent his time in town taking every scrap of clothes and linen from the house in to the Chinese laundry.

He’d told Scott and me to take the opportunity to have a hot bath while the family was not there. Scott went first as he said he would never get into bath water that his grubby sibling had been in it. Meanin’ me. Didn’t bother me bathing after Scott. He was fussy as hell but me and dirt had a long acquaintance.  Neither Scott nor me wanted to haul and heat all the extra water needed to refill the old iron tub which we’d set up in the house in front of the stove.  He did offer though.

I realized how good we had it at Lancer, with runnin’ water and a stove to heat it all in the bathhouse. And we’d just shuck our clothes and Maria would collect them and they’d arrive back in our rooms washed and pressed and smellin’ sweet. Whereas here soon as we were both dressed we used the water to scrub our duds. I gave my new calzoneras a swipe over with saddle soap, too.  We hung it all on the wash line out the back. Scott even filled a bucket with cold water and doused his washed clothes with that. ‘To rinse out the soap’ he told me. Yep, real fussy. We emptied the tub of grimy water onto the vegetable garden, and smart mouth Boston said as how the layer of dirt off my hide would probably raise the level of the garden bed about two inches.

Even though Ol’ Boston liked to be clean it was a fact that he never shied away from doin’ anything that had to be done. I’d checked Val was okay before my bath, but when I was towellin’ myself dry Scott had come outta Val’s room carrying the chamber pot. He didn’t make no fuss about that, just went striding past like a man on a mission.

I’d dropped my head and studied the pool of water ‘round my feet. I swallowed a lump in my throat, and thought how sometimes, when I least expected it, Scott could make my heart feel so full it might bust.

++++++

While Murdoch was in town he also planned to see the man at the sawmill to order all this timber. He had worked out a deal with Mr. E that he would buy the Conestoga which the family had come out in four years previous, and the money would buy timber which the four of us would use to build a big room on to the side of the house.

“I’ve got two strong sons, Oliver, who need to be kept out of trouble till we leave.”

He was real peevish ‘cause the night before Scott had decided to go into town with the three ranch hands, Ben, Orson and Gilly. I felt safe enough that Val would be fine without me for a few hours, and I wanted to go too. ‘Course, Murdoch got all in a knot and said ‘no’, and that just riled me up. So I made sure not to go near Pancho, in the barn. I just wandered out to the pasture and borrowed a green broke pony of Oliver’s and rode it in bareback.

I caught up with the others near town and Scott tried to get me to go back, but of course I ignored his advice and gave him some of my own.

“Alright, you damn contrary, stubborn little blackguard, come along and good luck with facing Pa in the morning.”

We all had a fine time, and got properly roostered. I didn’t have a centavo to my name, but they brought me drinks – beers, and even a couple of tequilas. I tried to get them to pony up for me to poke this sassy little piece who was giving me the glad eye, but Scott refused and the other three said they needed the lucre for their own needs. When I said to Scott she was obviously desirin’ me something bad, he laughed and said she saw me as a way to make three dollars in three seconds. The others thought that was hilarious, but I didn’t see what the joke was.

I wondered could I talk her into a free ride, and headed over to see her, hoping to maybe at least get an arm around her or accidentally brush her bub or her round little duff.

That was when a very mean looking Murdoch stepped into the saloon. His massive paw dropped on my shoulder and he said real quiet that I could march right out that door without a fuss or I could get dragged out by my ears.

I was lickered up enough and roused up enough to nearly make a real bad choice, but Pa’s hand had squeezed down on my shoulder enough to sober me up some, and I did some very cantankerous marching straight out the door.

When we got back Pa said he’d half a mind to give me the balance of the licking he’d started on the Chewehilla River. I think the only reason he didn’t was I’d already had to stop twice on the way home to cast up my accounts. I still felt a bit peaky. That was the Ol’ Man’s fault, as I’d been a fair drinker before he’d started running my life, but now I weren’t used to drinking. I pointed that out to him and he ground out something like ‘God give me strength’. God must’ve heard him because there was a lot of strength in the clap across the breeks I got when he spun me round. The crack sent me forward about ten feet, and I covered the rest of the distance to the porch in a very smart fashion.

Scott was pretty peaky himself when I saw him in the morning. He didn’t hardly eat any breakfast, but was coping, until Lyle, who was right at home with us all by now, ran at Scott and his hard little head butted Scott right in the cojones. Poor ol’ Boston sure made a hasty exit then, and we all heard him throwing up outside.

Miz E looked embarrassed, Mr E looked sympathetic and Pa looked peevish as hell.

I kept my head down, grinning and brushing my mouth across the downy head of Frances who I was holding against my chest.

++++++

We were busy as gettout all the next week. Pa continued to tend to Val’s personal stuff and Miz E did the feeding and such. We each of us spent time with him, talking and reading through the day, and I usually did my spell while I jiggled the baby. Val’s eyes seemed to light up when he saw Frances in my arms. I slept on the pallet every night, and Scott or Pa would only come in once through the night to check that we was both travelling alright.

The lumber had all been delivered, and the teamster had also brought out the piles and piles of clean wash from the Chinese fella.

Miz E was plum grateful.

Oliver E was busy all day with his ranching, but soon as he could he’d be with us throwing up the frame for the new room. It was going to be for him and his missus, and Pa pointed out it was big enough to partition off if more little tackers came along. Lyle was having a fine time helping us, but his ‘help’ got him more than one swift smack across his little ass, and then he would howl the place down.

“Why, Johnny, he sounds just like you when Pa tans your little behind.”

If he’d said it quiet I just would’ve given him a mouthful, but Mr E heard and grinned, so I was then beholden to wipe the smirk right off Scott’s face.

That little fracas didn’t end till Pa emptied a full bucket of water over us.

He’d had enough of us I think, ‘cause he yelled at us both to get to the barn and wait for him. I never seen anyone go as red as Scott did then, and he got his dander right up on his high horse and mouthed of, only polite just like he always was, saying ‘Sir, I must protest-‘  but Pa roared for him to do as he was told.

When Pa yelled like that I reckon even Scott’s favourite buscadero, Attila the Hun, he would have scarpered. Scott didn’t slope off like I did – he walked very tall and dignified.

In the barn he ranted and raved about being too old to be being ‘physically chastised’, but I noticed he didn’t up and leave. Half an hour later Lyle came into the barn all important and said our daddy said if we could behave ‘like gennel men’ we could come out and change into dry duds and finish our work.

So we trundled out real sheepish, and I think Boston was grieved that he didn’t get to use the four hour speech he’d prepared for Pa-urdoch. I was just pure relieved. I could handle a licking, but I couldn’t have survived listenin’ to Scott’s one hundred reasons he shouldn’t ever get one. Jesus…

++++++

I was reading to Val that night, an interesting part of the Bible where God got all these soldiers agreeable to getting circumcised, which Scott explained was having their peckers topped. Then when they were all writhing in pain that night they was real easy for God’s followers to slaughter the lot. A good plan, but probably not easy to use in California.

As I closed the book, Scott came in with a cup of hot chocolate for me.

Right then is when Val spoke for the first time.

“Has cuidado Chayo, Juanito?” (Have you tended Chayo, Juanito?)

He was looking right at me, and the words came out soft and whispery.

I was so taken aback I just gawped at him.

Chayo was my first pony.

When I was about six.

Val speakin’ ‘bout him, and in Spanish…

“What did he say, Johnny? Tended?” Scott’s voice was even softer than Val’s.

Val was still fixed on me, wanting an answer, so I told him ‘Si’, and he sort of smiled and closed his eyes.

++++++

At the week’s end the new bedroom was almost finished and Murdoch had outfitted the Conestoga for our trip home. He’d bought two fine big powerful horses from the ranch next but one to the Endersby’s, and he reckoned they’d be a fine addition to Lancer and ease Conal and Corc, our big fellas, into retirement. He rigged a tarp inside which was tethered at all four corners and meant that Val could travel on it without being banged about. Like a hammock that sailors used and some men rigged between wagons at night.

Val was improving every day, but still weak and not himself.

He didn’t talk much. What he did say was always in Spanish.

The Doc said we just had to be patient.

He sat with Val the night before we were heading back to Lancer. He told Val that he expected him to make a full recovery, but that even when he did, he would advise caution in his actions.

“I’m just saying, for instance, that it would be unwise to take a job such as breaking horses. However, you can’t live your life in fear. So, I’m not saying you should never ride again. Let us say that your own horse shies and throws you and you die. Well, the way to look at that was to see it was unhappily one of life’s little accidents and God had decided to call you home. You see what I’m saying here?”

Madre de Dios. I looked at Val, and damn if he wasn’t concentrating hard and had got this amused look in his eye which he bent on me.

I ran a hand down my face and turned away, and Pa put his arm around me and turned me back, but kept his arm across my shoulders.

++++++

Saying our goodbyes to the Endersbys was sort of good and bad. We’d landed on those nice people one day and stayed long enough that now we were friends. Scott and Oliver got on real well and Murdoch had enjoyed sharin’ a lot of his ranching know-how with the younger fella.

Lyle had gone from being wary of all these strangers to hanging off of us every chance he got. Seemed every time I hunkered down to pick up timber or nails or anything, Lyle would appear out of nowhere and jump on my back, all excited to play. First time he did it to Scott the look on my brother’s face made me howl laughin’. I played Tops with Lyle, and I was forever making arrows for his bow, and looking for all the arrows he lost. I taught him how to swear in Spanish. Nuthin’ bad, just some like polla and mear and perra, (dick, piss, bitch) so he could impress his little amigos when he started school. His mama and daddy didn’t speak any Spanish so he was safe there.

We were glad to be heading home, me mostly because it meant that Val was well enough to travel. That was a good feeling which had taken too long to happen. Murdoch of course was real anxious to be home and seeing what the hell was happening back there with all of us gone so long.

Miz Endersby had been like this angel, only a real one, not one of those who sat around playing the Jews harp or something. Since she’d finished being with child and I had allowed myself to look at her properly, I’d found her to be quite a looker. I had to concentrate hard not to think about what a pretty face she had or what a magnifico set of lusty hills she sported. If I’d noticed those things, and her full bottom lip and her curvy hips, I’dve been a low sort of guest.

It was a shame though that she didn’t give me a sisterly sort of hug goodbye. I mean, her shaking us each by the hand, and dropping a kiss on each of us on the cheek, well, that was some disappointing, but probably more lady-like.

When she’d shook hands with Val she’d taken his hand in both hers, and wished him a speedy and blessed recovery, and he’d whispered ‘Siempre obligado’ (forever obliged) which Pa had explained to her. I could tell that Val was struggling fierce to say with his eyes what his voice still wouldn’t come to easy, and she did see that and her eyes got all wet and she shook Val’s hands even firmer.

I gave Frances a buss on the top of her head and handed the sleeping bundle over to her daddy. We all shook hands with Mr E and said our thanks again.

Lyle was overwrought and hiding in his mama’s skirt like when we’d arrived. His mama was tellin’ him to come out and say goodbye but he was grumping that he didn’t want us to go and he wasn’t goin’ to say no goodbyes.

“Lyle, do what I tell you,” she insisted.

“No! Mujerzuela! (floozy) he bust out with.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph! The hardest word to say and he did it perfect!

I saw Mr and Miz look at each other uncertainly, and I closed my eyes.

A hard hand grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and the seat of my britches and I found myself pitched up onto Pancho. Pa was growling out that he’d deal with me later. I studied my hands while I tried to push down the blood that had rose up in my face at being treated like a shaver.

Then Lyle was cryin’ and hanging off my stirrup and I reached down and grabbed a handful of his shirt and hauled him up and I roughed him up and tickled him and mussed his hair till he was laughing. I kissed him all over his face so that he fought me off saying ‘yuk, you bastardo Johnny!’ and I quick put him down and he ran back to his Pa laughing. I cut a glance at Murdoch but he hadn’t heard the cussword.

Murdoch and Scott had got Val settled in his ‘sling’ and Murdoch hied up the team and set off. I waved my hat at the family and I took off too.

But then I looked back to wave again, just as Scott shook hands with Oliver. What he did next had me pull Pancho up and made me jealous as hell. I felt like unforking and rushing back.

He threw his arms around Ouida and gave her this big hug.

He hugged her so tight her bubs musta been pressed flat against his scrawny, no-account sneaky as hell chest! What sort of a gentleman did that?

Or was my dirty mind readin’ something into it that wasn’t there?

Scott was what you would say was a natural ‘gennelman’, where I had to think about it. A lot. So maybe he wasn’t being sneaky.

Mierda! Even if he wasn’t he still got something I would have liked. And I was not happy about that.

I slapped my hat on Pancho’s rump and we surged forward on the road home. I started plannin’ my revenge on that brother of mine. I had to come up with something that would irritate the hell out of him. That shouldn’t be hard.

This could be a real entertaining trip home…

 

 

~end~
Sept 2017

‘Make the most of your regrets;
Never smother your sorrow’

Henry David Thoreau

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