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Helen Cooper (Coop)

 

 

FPurging The Past

 

A WHN for ‘The Escape'
(Brief Episode Summary)

All the usual disclaimers; don’t own the characters; the copyright, don’t get a cent etc etc etc.  It’s all for love…..

This story is partly based on the episode “The Escape”, partly on actual historical fact and a fair amount of embellishment on my part. I take full responsibility for any screaming inaccuracies and, in my defense will plead creative license!  Mucho gracias to Lacy for her superb beta skills; I know I have a strange addiction to the semi-colon which she is trying to cure me of! Sincere thanks to Caroline, also for her initial thoughts and advice on my first ever Lancer story.  There are MANY others across the different Lancer groups who have offered advice, support and answered many of this kiwi girl's questions about the geography of California. Thanks heaps to everyone. What a fantastically supportive bunch you are. Any and all errors are mine for which I take full responsibility. 

 

 
Chapter 1

As he edged along the side of the converted cotton mill the young Lieutenant looked back at those who had placed their trust and lives in him. The shadows obscured the gaunt faces but he didn’t need to see them to know that the expressions they wore would be the same as his; excitement; trepidation and abject fear of what lay ahead, all rolled into one. Still, it had to be better than the inhumane treatment meted out to them over the past months. Once proud men had resorted to a primeval existence of survival of the fittest. But none of them were going to survive much longer here. That was what their captors counted on because the guards were as much prisoners here as the ones they kept incarcerated. They, too, were forced to survive on the meager rations that managed to get through the blockades.  The fewer prisoners there were to feed, the more food there was for them and so festering wounds went untreated and sickness was allowed to spread unchecked and thus the prison population diminished daily

The Lieutenant took a deep breath as he mentally tried to prepare himself for what he now had to do. His heart thudded so hard he thought it would burst clear out of his sunken chest and give them all away. He swallowed against the dryness in his mouth as the fear welled up inside of him. He heard the footfall on the gravel and the click of the guardhouse door as the sentry completed his circuit, affording them the opportunity they needed and had planned for these many weeks. He took one more breath and gave the signal for the men to follow. But as he turned to run out across the 100 yards or so towards the perimeter wall, his legs seemed to liquefy beneath him and he stumbled to the ground as his men ran out ahead of him. It was what saved him. Before any of them had even managed a few yards, a cacophony of shots rang out and they all collapsed one by one like marionettes whose strings had been cut. As he tried to rise, to futilely try to get away, he was suddenly propelled backwards as something thudded into his shoulder.  He screamed “Nooooooooooooo…” as the horror of what was happening hit him along with the bullet that imbedded itself in his flesh.  

 

He sat up abruptly, panting, his heart thudding in his chest; sweat dripping off his lean torso. It took him a moment to get his bearings. He was in his bed, the moonlight casting shadows across his coverlets, the gentle breeze teasing the billowing drapes he’d deliberately left open. The darkness bothered him lately. It reminded him of days where there was nothing but eternal night. Endless periods of pitch black with nothing but the sounds of the disembodied moans of men similarly consigned as they slowly succumbed to madness. Of rats scurrying, waiting for him to fall asleep so they could invade his tortured flesh with their insidious gnawing and pawing.   He heard the click as, right on cue, the door adjoining his brother’s room opened.

“Boston? You alright?”

He sighed. “I’m fine Johnny. Go back to bed.”

“Well, you don’t look it brother.” Johnny perched on the edge of his older sibling’s bed. Piercing blue eyes scrutinized the sallow skin, the dark circles under Scott’s eyes and the sweat matted bangs plastered against his head. The bluish tinge of the moonlight exacerbated his brother’s ghostly pale complexion. It was all evidence that Scott Lancer was anything but fine.    “That’s three nights running brother. What’s goin’ on with you?”

Scott rubbed at his left shoulder distractedly, the memory of the dream still all too vivid.

“Shoulder still bothering you?”

Johnny didn’t miss a thing, did he? Hell, was there no end to the scrutiny?  He couldn’t so much as sneeze without someone fussing over him and he found it stifling. It had been that way for two months since Dan Cassidy had careened back into his life and dug up memories that he thought he had long since buried; memories that had increasingly haunted his dreams ever since.

In fact, he hadn’t slept more than a few hours a night since and the strain was beginning to tell, the dreams intensifying when he did manage to, exhaustedly, snatch a few hours. He abruptly took his hand away from his stiff shoulder and did his best to keep his tone civil despite the growing frustration at the constant invasions of his privacy.

“Look Johnny, I appreciate the concern but I’m fine, really. I just got up too fast, that’s all.  I’m tired and I just want to go back to sleep. Now if you don’t mind….”

There was that steely gaze again.  It was as though those eyes could see right through to his very core; could peel back the barriers that he threw up to protect himself, to get to the very essence of his being; to see his fears, his vulnerabilities, to see the lie. He wasn’t used to it. It unnerved him. Growing up in the house of Harlan Garrett where things were left unspoken, were conveniently swept under the carpet, conditioned the introversion that prevented him from revealing what was slowly eating away at him; eroding him from the inside out.  That same conditioning that prevented him from reaching out for the help that, whether he cared to admit it or not, he so desperately needed, and his concerned family was so anxious to offer him.

He knew they were all worried about him; Johnny, Murdoch, and Teresa, he could see it in their eyes but he couldn’t bring himself to talk about it.  Cassidy showing up had already exposed him, had made him reveal more than he would ever be comfortable with. After Cassidy and his wife Sarah had left, all Scott had wanted to do was disappear. He wanted to go somewhere alone where he could come to terms with what had happened; deal with it, and bury it, the Garrett way, but he had been wounded and between Doc Jenkins and the rest of his well meaning family he had been confined to quarters. There really was nowhere to hide from their well-intentioned but, frankly, unwanted scrutiny.

“Alright Boston, have it your way but let me draw those drapes. I don’t know how you can sleep with that moonlight streaming in at you.” Johnny was already headed to the window but was stopped short by his brother who was no longer able to control his temper.

“Leave it!’ Scott snapped.  He swung his legs over the side of the bed, his hands gripping the mattress as a wave of dizziness enveloped him.  Straight away the younger man was there by his side, reaching out to steady him but Scott batted him away, angrily.

“Damn it Johnny, would you just let it alone? You’re suffocating me.”  There, he had finally said it. He didn’t need to look at his brother to know that that last broadside had wounded him.

“Suffocating you huh?”  The ex-gunfighter murmured softly in what Scott had come to know as his ‘Madrid’ voice, “Well, I’m not the one waking up half the household with my yelling and screaming every night. What am I supposed to do Scott? Just ignore it? Pretend its not happening just like your Grand Daddy would?”

“I can handle it Johnny, in my own time and my own way.” The civil tone was back but the intent was clear and Johnny Lancer was sensible enough to know when to push and when to gracefully back away. 

“Alright, suit yourself Boston but you’d better make it soon. Because sooner or later, people around here are gonna run out of patience. Try and get some sleep, you need it.” He didn’t give his older brother the chance to respond before he spun around and headed back to his own room.

Scott sat there for a while trying to regain his composure. It had taken all his willpower and self-restraint to control his heightened breathing, to prevent his brother from seeing just how much this latest nightmare had affected him. He could still feel the bullet thudding into the muscle and sinew of his shoulder; connecting with bone as it came to rest. He could still hear the cries of the men he had led to their deaths, as they lay mortally wounded; heard them brutally cut off as the guards came round and finished them off with a bullet to the head. Scott hadn’t known then why he was spared or why he was taken to what served as a crude infirmary and kept alive. All he wanted was to die with them, tortured in his fevered dreams by the screams of those sixteen men as the bullets tore through their flesh.

When he had emerged from his delirium, he was to learn just why they had kept him alive and why it would have been better if he had died with the rest of his friends.   Scott shuddered at the memory. With legs that threatened to fold beneath him like willow reeds, he shakily got to his feet and slowly made his way across to the nightstand on the other side of the room, reached for the porcelain pitcher and filled the wash bowl. He placed his cupped hands into the bowl and bent his face down towards it, sluicing the ice-cold water onto his clammy skin. He reached for the washcloth, wrung it out in the bowl and similarly ran it across his neck and chest, washing away the sweat; trying to wash away the remnants and the physical taint of the nightmare, and to wash away the fatigue. He had no desire or intention to sleep anymore that night. Walking over to his closet, he selected a shirt and pair of pants and quietly dressed before seating himself by the open window.  Reveling in the cool breeze on his skin, he waited for the first gray light of dawn to appear on the horizon.

 

 
Chapter 2

As Scott took his seat at the table, he could feel the atmosphere. He knew he’d been the topic of discussion prior to his coming down to join them.  Their unnatural silence confirmed it.  He had purposely delayed coming down too early, wanting to minimize the amount of time he had to spend in their company, and be exposed to their scrutiny. Food was the last thing he felt like but he knew it wouldn’t help his cause to get them to leave him alone if he avoided meals entirely, even if his chronic fatigue was killing his appetite. As he reached for the coffee pot and poured himself a generous cup, he could feel three sets of eyes boring into him. He could feel them sizing up the dark circles under his eyes, the pallid skin, noting the slight grimace as his healing shoulder muscles protested as he lifted the full to brimming coffee pot.  Watching to see what, if anything, he would select for his plate.     He reached for one of the freshly baked biscuits and started to butter it, all the while not looking up at any of them, waiting for the inevitable. He didn’t have to wait long.

“Sleep well son?”

“You know full well I didn’t Sir, as I know you were all discussing my nocturnal activities before I came in.”  This time defiant cerulean eyes met those of his father, ready for a fight if need be. They clearly hadn’t been expecting such a terse response from him but frankly, he was fed up with biting his tongue; he needed to assert his need, his right for privacy, and polite assertions that they were all fussing over nothing were clearly falling on deaf ears.

Teresa was the first to speak up, no longer able to disguise the concern that, under the guidance of her guardian, she had done her best to temper these past weeks.  “Well, alright, we were discussing you but it’s only because we’re worried about you and you look so…”

“Well there’s no need to concern yourselves and I’ll thank you all to refrain from discussing my personal business at the breakfast table for all to hear.”  Scott’s tone was sharper than he intended it to be and he winced to see the crestfallen expression that passed across the sensitive young woman’s face. She was the last person he wanted to take his frustrations out on and he immediately regretted his harsh words.

“Now hold on Boston, don’t take it out on Teresa. She’s only saying what we all feel and you gotta admit you haven’t been yourself since what happened with Dan Cassidy and Jed Lewis. And with those nightmares you’ve been having lately…”

All regrets were set aside, though, at the brutal reminder of the names of the men who had reawakened the inner turmoil that had lain dormant for so long.

“Not been myself?’ he spluttered incredulously,  “How would you really know what that is? What, you’ve known me for less than a year and you think you’re an authority on who and what I am? Well let me tell you brother, you know nothing.” He looked at the hurt expression that now passed across his fiercely loyal younger brother’s face. He didn’t deserve such loyalty, such compassion from them. Not after what he had done. Not if they knew what he really was. “Nothing at all” he muttered. Dejectedly, tossing aside his napkin, he rose and slouched off out towards the great room, his coffee and breakfast untouched yet again.

Shocked at the vitriolic outburst from the normally placid and polite young man she had quickly grown to love as a brother, Teresa started to sob. She ran off in the opposite direction, towards the parlor and the comfort of Maria, the Lancer housekeeper and closest thing she had to a mother figure.

“Teresa?” Johnny rose quickly to go after her but Murdoch stopped him.

“No Johnny. Let her go. Let Maria take care of her for now. You and I need to talk.” 

The Lancer patriarch had watched his older son and listened to the uncharacteristic outburst in silence, his mounting concern exacerbated further by the tone of self-loathing in his sons voice. Only the night before he had ridden into Green River to visit his old friend Sam Jenkins, compelled to do so by the declining mental well-being of the, usually, staid young man. He didn’t know what he expected from Sam. Aside from the lack of sleep, there wasn’t anything obviously physically wrong with Scott that he could put his finger on. The bullet wound had healed well and aside from some residual stiffness that was being countered by the exercises Sam had given him, there was really nothing that prevented him from taking up all his duties on and around the ranch. In fact, Scott had volunteered for all the solitary jobs that usually the men would draw lots for; anything that took him away for a day or more at a time, to be alone, and it wasn’t healthy. The more time alone he spent, the more introverted and distant he became and Murdoch feared that soon his son would be as out of reach to him as he had been for all those years he spent being raised by Harlan Garrett.

Sam had countered that slipping his son a shot of laudanum would help him sleep but it wouldn’t get to the root of why he wasn’t sleeping naturally and why, when he did manage to snatch a few hours, he was troubled by dreams that were becoming more and more vivid and disturbing. No, laudanum wasn’t the solution and neither was the amount of whiskey Scott seemed to be imbibing of an evening. It was clear his eldest son was hurting deep inside and something needed to be done before he retreated too far inside of himself for any of them to be able to reach. And so the two old friends had formulated a plan. One that they hoped would help Scott address and resolve whatever issues were eating away at him, away from prying eyes. Well, most of them anyway.

“You just gonna let him get away with talking to Teresa like that?”

Murdoch looked up from his pondering and regarded his younger son. The smoldering anger masked the deep-rooted worry that he also felt for his brother. True they had none of them known each other for long, but long enough for them both to know that there was something seriously wrong with the usually mild mannered and grounded young man who, despite his more reserved nature, had endeared himself to everyone at the Hacienda. The Lancer patriarch shook his head slowly and sighed.

“I think he’s probably feeling wretched enough right now.”

“How do you mean?”

“Sit down son.” He gestured to Johnny to take his seat back at the table. “What we have to remember is that Scott was brought up in an environment where he wasn’t allowed to talk about his feelings; so he had to keep everything locked up inside and its hard to change a lifetime of conditioning. Coming here and spending time with you and Teresa where everything is so much more relaxed, has done him the world of good.  You don’t know how happy I’ve been to see how well you’ve all bonded. But now he’s hurting and confused and he’s not used to people caring and worrying about him. He doesn’t know how to deal with it and like a wounded animal he’s coming out fighting. And knowing Scott, likely torturing himself all the more each time he loses that composure of his, like he just did with Teresa.”

Johnny took a moment to consider this. True, his older sibling was less inclined to reveal his inner most thoughts but before Cassidy had shown up Johnny had felt that Scott had shed much of that uptight eastern intensity he had arrived with and the two of them had grown as close as if they had known each other their entire lives. But since his past had so publicly caught up with him; it was as if the barriers that had gradually come down had been rebuilt. In fact, those barriers were now impenetrable stonewalls.  It had left Johnny with an intense feeling of loss to suddenly feel so cut off from his older brother.     “Well, what do you suggest we do? Let him alone until he’s so damned weak from lack of food and sleep that he makes a mistake and hurts himself or someone else? I can’t just stand by and watch that happen Murdoch.”

“No Johnny, and I’m not asking you to. What Scott needs is a change of scenery; to get away from Lancer but he’s too proud to ask and doesn’t want to let us down.  He’s putting himself under enormous pressure and we need to alleviate that pressure for him.”

This was what Johnny had been afraid of. He had spent twenty-two years of his life without any siblings but now, after only nine months of having an older brother, of having Scott in his life, he couldn’t face the prospect of losing him. “What, you think he should go back to Boston? Back to that ice cold Grandfather of his? Hell, Murdoch, that’s exactly the last place he should go and I can’t believe that after everything we’ve been through you would even consider….”

Exasperated, the older man rose, grimacing as his back brutally reminded him he wasn’t as young as he used to be.  “Johnny, will you let me finish? I don’t think he should go back to Boston and I don’t believe that’s where Scott would want to go anyway, but things can’t go on the way they are. On that we are in agreement.”

Pacified for the moment, Johnny was prepared to listen to what his father had to say.

“Alright. So what are you suggesting?”

The tall rancher walked over to the window overlooking Lancer land for as far as the eye could see to the south. He regarded the mounted figure galloping off towards the southern boundary, where he had spent the past few days in isolation mending fences. It would have been faster for the young Bostonian to get to the corral if he had exited through the kitchen door but Murdoch had a feeling that when he next went into the great room, he would find yet another bottle of single malt missing from his liquor cabinet. As the diminishing figure became obscured from sight by the dust trail kicked up by his mount, the worried father sighed and turned back to his younger son.     “Well, as far as Scott is concerned, I have a friend in Oakhurst, Joel Tyler. He used to own a large spread down near Modesto but he sold up a few years ago and moved further east to enjoy a quieter life. He still keeps his hand in the cattle business, breeding bulls, and it’ll be on that premise that I want you and Scott to go and pay him a visit.”

“You say as far as Scott is concerned? So, you’re not sending us, what, 150 miles or so to buy a bull? Because I’ll tell you Murdoch, Scott might not be himself right now but he’s not stupid. He won’t buy it.”

Murdoch never thought for a minute that Scott was stupid, far from it. Nine months ago, when he had first arrived, perhaps Scott would have fallen for such an implausible story but not now. He had impressed everyone at the hacienda with how well he had taken to ranching for someone who had lived a mostly privileged life back East for all those years. He allowed himself a wan smile.  “No Johnny, I’m not sending the both of you 150 miles just to buy a bull. I am sending you 150 miles to sign a contract with Joel Tyler to supply Lancer with breeding stock for the next five years, or that’s what we’re going to tell Scott.”

“But there won’t be any bulls or this Joel Tyler fella when we get there, right?”

“Right. Joel Tyler has been dead for ten years.”

Johnny toyed with his cup, swilling the remnants of his cold coffee around, as he considered where his father was going with this. “So, what are we going to do when we get there?”

“Well that all depends on how things go on the trip up there. I am counting on you to try and get him talking. You’re the closest to him Johnny. The two of you have developed a close bond since you arrived here because of your shared experiences of growing up without…..” He couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence, to say the words ‘a father’.  He turned away once more, suddenly ashamed to look his younger son in the eye but could feel those piercing orbs boring into him all the same.   “Well, because of the way you grew up.  If anyone can help him deal with whatever it is that’s bothering him, it’s you. It’s beautiful country up that way, right on the edge of the Yosemite, with clear lakes for fishing and breathtaking mountain scenery. If an environment like that can’t clear his head and get him to relax and open up, then nothing will.”

Johnny looked at his father dubiously. “Yeah, well, it’s that last part I’m worried about.”

The senior Lancer sighed, and turned back to his young son once more. He reached for the now tepid coffee pot and poured himself another cupful. He couldn’t discount the possibility that Scott was already too deeply affected by whatever was bothering him, and Murdoch certainly had his own suspicions regarding that, but it was the only thing he could come up with to try to help his first born. He had spent several sleepless nights himself trying to think of ways to help his ailing son but the strain of endless nights of worry were certainly beginning to tell. He took his place back at the head of the breakfast table again and sipped some of the sour brew.

“Well, Sam feels, and I agree with him, that it’s the only thing we can do for him right now. He needs time and space and its clear that he won’t get it here with feeling his every move is being watched. But neither can I allow him to go off and face this alone. That’s why I’m counting on you son. To look out for your brother and when the time comes, to be there for him because whether he cares to admit it or not, he’s going to need you.”

“Sam? So that’s where you went last night?” Johnny had wondered where his father had gone to after supper. It was unlike Murdoch to go out for the evening and Johnny had been unable to sleep until he had heard the sound of hoof beats heralding his father’s return.  It had been well past midnight when he had done so.

Murdoch nodded. The gruff exterior belied the depth of feeling he had for the two sons he had grown so attached to in the tumultuous nine months since they had been returned to him. In that time, each had struggled to establish their ‘place’ in this new world they had all found themselves in. He understood his elder son more than the intense young man gave him credit for. He, too, had difficulty in revealing his inner most thoughts and feelings.

Both sons had arrived at Lancer looking for answers from him, as to why it had taken so long for him to send for them.  Why he had allowed one of them to be raised by his Grandfather on the other side of the continent and the other to spend his childhood drifting from one border town to another, turning to life by the gun to survive. He couldn’t turn back the clock and change anything and to tell them both how it really was would mean casting aspersions on the actions of others, not there or able to defend themselves. As an honorable man, that was something that Murdoch Lancer could not and would not do. And so both young men had taken his refusal to give them the answers they sought as cold indifference.

In reality, it couldn’t have been further from the truth. With each passing moment that he spent with his sons, getting to know them, he had grown increasingly proud of the fine young men they had become.  He regretted more and more the missed opportunity of seeing them grow; cheated out of each other’s company as they grew up in isolation, oblivious of the existence of the other. That was why he was so heartened to see how quickly they had bonded. He accepted that he would never enjoy the closeness to his sons that most fathers had; but he could reconcile himself to that knowing that it wasn’t too late for his sons to develop the close affinity to each other that they had. That was why, much as it pained him to do so, he had to send the both of them away in order help Scott face his demons. It wouldn’t prevent him worrying every single moment that he was separated from them, but that was his burden to bear and one he was more than willing to bear alone if it meant freeing his son from the millstone around his neck; a millstone that was getting heavier by the day and threatening to drag him down completely.            

“Yes, Sam feels that he could be headed for a complete mental collapse if he carries on the way he is. It’s not healthy to keep everything locked up tight inside like he has been lately. Sam described it as being like a bottle of good champagne. You keep on shaking it and then the pressure builds to such an extent that the cork burst outs like a bullet. When the pressure finally does get too much for Scott; if it happens here in front of me, Teresa, Maria, Cipriano or any of the hands, he’s likely to reveal things that will leave him feeling so exposed that he’ll feel that his life here will become untenable. And he’ll feel he has no other choice but to leave Lancer. So that’s why Sam and I agreed that he has to go away for a while. It’s a risk but knowing how private Scott is, we think it’s the only chance there is to ensure that Lancer remains his home. Do you understand son?    

Johnny regarded his father with the same steely-eyed scrutiny he had used on his brother in the pre-dawn hours of that same morning. He could suddenly see through the layers that his old man protected himself with; could understand what his father was trying to do. He noted the dark circles under the older man’s eyes; the strain that told in the worry lines on his forehead. How could he not have noticed how much Scott’s decline had been affecting him too?    Murdoch and Scott were certainly cut from the same cloth. Heck, all three of them were. The ex-gunfighter smiled as he recalled the times the two of them; father and older son, had butted heads since that first day they had met.  Scott with that polite but dogged determination of his never to back down; Murdoch with the same stubbornness but more to match the fiery temper of his younger son. Yep, it was becoming clearer by the day that they were more alike than any of them would ever care to admit out loud.

“Sure Murdoch, I understand,” Johnny murmured softly. “So when do we leave?”

 

Chapter 3

The young Lieutenant took a breath. He was young, much younger than many men in his position but he had enlisted as soon as he was of age, much to the consternation of his Grandfather and legal Guardian. He had wanted to play his part for his country; full of the patriotic fervor that led countless young men to ride off to war, many never to return. The loss of his superior officer, and being forced to lead his men into a successful rear guard action, in one of his first tastes of battle, had propelled him to his current rank at the tender age of 18 years and four months.

That had just been a skirmish really. He was now lined up, as part of a much larger division, brought in to supplement the union contingent trying to end the month long deadlock. A cavalry officer by training, there would be no mount required for this advance.  Since two unsuccessful assaults over a month before, the union army under the overall command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant had surrounded the fortress town of Vicksburg, laying siege to the confederate force holed up there. There was no doubt in the young man’s mind that nothing short of victory was going to be acceptable before this siege was over. Taking Vicksburg and the neighboring Port Hudson was of huge strategic importance to the union to gain overall control of the Mississippi river and thus cut off Confederate supply chains. But Vicksburg was heavily fortified and the rebels wouldn’t capitulate their prize without a fight; and had not done so thus far, inflicting heavy losses on the union battalions.

He felt the sweat dripping down his collar. As a Lieutenant he had to set an example to the men but in the heat of the Mississippi summer the woolen tunic buttoned up tight to the neck was oppressive and impractical. But it wasn’t just the heat that had the sweat seeping from every pore; it was sheer unadulterated fear of what he was about to do. What they were all about to do. His rapier and pistol against the might of the confederate canons and riflemen seemed so inadequate but still, that was what he would lead the charge with when the time came.  To what he was sure, would be certain death. Even though he knew what the likely outcome of this day would be for him, still it was the waiting for it to start that was the worst. Every moment they delayed, it became harder to quell the paroxysms of fear that were rising up inside of him. Only a fool or a madman would be unafraid of the odds they faced but it didn’t do to show fear in front of the men. And hiding his feelings was something he was good at.  He had his Grandfather to thank for that.

He looked to his left at the young corporal he had been assigned. He didn’t look any older than he was but then this was certainly no old man’s war. He gave a smile of encouragement to the young man who was clutching a rosary and fervently muttering a prayer under his breath; asking for protection or forgiveness for what he was about to do, the Lieutenant couldn’t tell. He only hoped his prayers would be heard. The corporal returned the weak smile and returned to his litanies.

Even though they had all been warned to expect it as the cue to advance, the violence of the explosion took the waiting men by surprise. Union Engineers had spent days tunneling towards the fortress, setting charges that they hoped would breach the confederate defenses and allow attack from all sides, forcing an end to the month long stalemate.  The curtain of smoke would afford them some cover from the deadly rebel snipers positioned strategically around the fortress, but it wouldn’t last long with the cool breeze that swept off the meandering Mississippi river nearby. As the call to charge came a wave of union navy blue swept over the rise swarming down towards the thick black cloud that enveloped them like a sinister shroud. Their battle cries drowned out the panicked shouts of those in the fortress as they scrambled to check for breaches in their defenses and shore them up before the advancing Yankees overran them.

The young Lieutenant found himself swept up in the tide, caught up in the excitement and the fervor of the moment. Their own cannons commenced the bombardment of the fortress to support their infantry’s cause and divert the attention of the enemy. But the excitement wasn’t to last.  As the Lieutenant headed down towards the fortress, he realized too late, that hundreds of men had converged down into the giant depression caused by the explosion. As the smoke cleared they realized the charges had failed to breach the outer walls; instead, it had created a huge crater that many of them now found themselves caught in. Men began to panic as those overlooking them in the bastion realized that the union assault had backfired badly and those bottlenecked in the crater were sitting ducks. With a whoop of delight, they started tossing down grenades, which tore through the tightly packed hordes of union soldiers with devastating consequences.  Those who somehow avoided being maimed or wounded by the deadly shells were picked off with ease by the rebel snipers as they tried, desperately, to scale the blood slicked walls of the crater.

Soon the air was filled with the cries of the dying and maimed, the stench of burning flesh and screams as those who stumbled were trampled by their panicking comrades, trying to escape the ready made tomb they found themselves trapped in.   The Lieutenant did his best to maintain his footing as he desperately tried to escape but it was impossible to avoid all the bodies of the dead, the grievously wounded and those who had fallen and were now being trampled to death by those who had previously stood beside them as comrades in arms. Suddenly he was launched into the air by an explosion a few feet away as another grenade tore through the tightly packed throng of union blue, spraying the blood and gore of what used to be men in all directions.  As he was propelled through the air, everything seemed to slow down, as though time was coming to a stand still. He didn’t feel the connection as he landed atop the growing mound of bodies; could no longer hear the sounds of the dying nor smell the stench of blood and human waste associated with battle. The Lieutenant wondered if this was what it was to die. No pain, no feeling, nothing. Just numbness. It really wasn’t so bad. He closed his eyes and waited for death to take him.

He didn’t know how long he laid there in blissful unawareness but gradually his senses returned, smell, sound, and feeling. He could smell the sickening stench of charred flesh as it assaulted his nostrils; could hear the pitiful groans of the mortally wounded as they waited for death to claim them; the sporadic concussion of rifle fire as opportunist marksman picked off the survivors trying to crawl back to the union lines. He clenched his fingers, trying to find something to grip onto, to find purchase so that he could try and crawl over the dead and the dying and escape the hell he found himself in, but his fingers came away wet and sticky. He opened his eyes and stared straight into the sightless orbs of his dead corporal, the rosary gripped in his outstretched and rigid arms, as if making his finally entreaty to the God who had forsaken him. The Lieutenant looked down at his own hands, cradled in the exposed chest cavity of his fallen comrade, dripping with the gore of what had once been a man and screamed…..

             

It was his own sobbing that woke him. Scott hadn’t meant to fall asleep, had only sat down against a tree in the heat of the day to rest but his exhausted mind had betrayed him and he had fallen into a deep slumber under the unforgiving rays of the Californian sun. He gasped for air as he tried to calm his hysterical sobs and the frantic thudding in his chest that beat in time with the pounding of his head.     He squinted up at the sun and cursed. From its position in the sky he could tell he had been asleep for some time, and the pounding in his exposed head certainly confirmed it. The dreams were definitely intensifying, bringing back images and memories he had long since buried, had blocked out of his mind. He gasped once more as the latent memory of finding his hands covered in the blood and gore of his fallen corporal came to the fore once more. He launched himself to his feet, swaying as a wave of dizziness passed over him, and staggered to the creek, which snaked across the southern boundary of Lancer land. Not bothering to remove boots, socks or shirt, he waded into the slow moving creek, letting the water seep up to his thighs and he set about sluicing the water all over himself; scrubbing away the remnants of the dream, trying to purge himself of the taint it left on him. He paid particular attention to his hands even though he knew there was no blood on them now.  Still, he felt defiled, violated, and he wasn’t going to be satisfied until he had rubbed his skin raw. He was so preoccupied with his ablutions, he failed to hear the approaching hoof beats as his brother rode up and dismounted close by.  Johnny noted the still incomplete fence line and the bizarre site of his brother scrubbing himself raw, fully clothed in the creek, and sighed.  His brother’s increasingly erratic behavior certainly added validity to Sam Jenkin’s assertion that Scott was headed towards some kind of breakdown, if it hadn’t happened already. What he had just witnessed were certainly not the actions of a man in full possession of his faculties.

“What’re you doing in there, Boston?” Johnny tried his best to sound buoyant, despite the fear he held for his brother.

Scott turned with a start. Hell, when did he show up? How much had he seen?

“Johnny. How long have you been there?”

“Long enough. Aren’t you supposed to take your clothes off for a bath? Or you figuring on saving Maria the trouble of laundering your clothes?”

“Very funny. I was just trying to cool off, that’s all” The tall blond started to stagger back to the bank but the water sloshing around in his boots coupled with the shooting pains in his head as he tried to move, made him struggle drunkenly and lose his balance, falling on all fours.  Before he had a chance to recover his footing his brother was there on the bank, offering a hand to help him up

“Oh brother, you sure look a sight.”  Scott squinted up at him to see the darker haired man grinning impishly from ear to ear. Despite the memory of the dream and his aching head, he couldn’t prevent the wry smile from crossing his face. He envied Johnny his easy, carefree manner.  He took the proffered hand and allowed his brother to guide him up onto the bank where he promptly collapsed and proceeded to pull off his boots and pour out the water that had accumulated inside. He heard the younger man walk back over to his palomino, tethered and grazing contentedly next to his own mount in a sheltered copse of trees close to the boundary, and then return hurriedly, setting himself down next to him. As he pulled his boots back on, he saw movement out of the corner of his eye and felt something placed softly back on his head. “You’d best keep that on unless you want that pounding behind your eyes to get even worse.”

Scott looked at him tiredly, gratefully accepting the canteen of water his brother now offered him. He was parched. The quarter bottle of whiskey he had consumed before his ill-advised siesta partially responsible for that as well as contributing to the persistent throbbing in his head.  “How do you know I have a..”

He didn’t let him finish.  “Oh, stands to reason; you fall asleep in the heat of the day without a hat, with that fair head of yours, you’re gonna wake up with a fair sized headache.” Johnny interjected.

Scott almost spat out the water as he rounded on his brother angrily, wincing as daggers of pain shot through his skull. Just how much had he seen? “What, you’re spying on me now Johnny? Is that it?” he spluttered, thrusting the canteen back at him.

“Ease up Scott, no one’s spying on you. Murdoch sent me up here to see if you needed a hand finishing up. He wants to see us both back at the hacienda. Now c’mon, you need to drink some more of this…” Johnny offered the canteen back to him but it was batted away angrily.

“I’m tired of people telling me what I need and don’t need, and what I don’t need right now, brother, is any help from you.”

Johnny looked around at the far from finished fence line and then back at the flushed face of the blond.   “That’s not how it looks to me, brother.”

“Meaning?”

“Aw c’mon Scott. I really gotta spell it out for you?” The genuine concern reflected on the younger man’s face quelled Scott’s temper as quickly as it had risen. He couldn’t argue that he probably did look a sight; dripping wet as he was; hair plastered to what he was sure was a severely sun ripened face. He could already feel the tightness of the skin, which he was sure Teresa would insist on applying some of her foul smelling balm to.  And he did have to concede that his headache certainly wasn’t getting any better.

He sighed as he rose wearily, too exhausted to debate the point any further. “Alright, you win. We’d better not keep Murdoch waiting.”

He headed wearily over to the wagon he’d brought up there the first day he’d begun work on the fence and started to pack up the equipment.

“Leave it Scott.  I’ll get Cipriano to send some of them men to finish up tomorrow.”

The rakishly thin blond just nodded, too tired to argue or think to ask why he wouldn’t be coming back himself. He untied his mount and, grabbing the pommel, dragged his weary body up into the saddle and without further word to his brother, spurred the gray off towards the hacienda.

As Johnny watched Scott ride off, head dipped, shoulders hunched as if carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, he shook his head despairingly. With a heavy heart he climbed onto Barranca’s back and sped off after his brother.               

   **********************************************************

By the time they arrived back at the Hacienda the jolting motion of the two-hour ride had Scott’s head pounding even more fiercely than before.  His younger sibling had ridden steadily alongside him ready to make a grab for him if he showed any sign of sliding from the saddle. His cavalry training, though, stood him in good stead and he remained upright, even if his eyes were tightly closed for much of the journey, allowing the gray and his dark haired chaperone to guide him home. He vaguely remembered heading through the Lancer arch and then he was being helped to dismount by strong steady hands. The worried face of his father swam into view through his slitted eyes, and Scott winced as the brightness sent renewed shards of pain ratcheting through his head, forcing him to close them once more. He knew someone was talking to him but he couldn’t focus on the words. The sounds were just a jumble in his pain-addled head.  

He felt himself being guided into the house and gentle hands settled him onto the couch. His long legs were gently maneuvered so he could stretch out, and something soft was placed behind him to cradle his pounding head. The murmuring around him grew louder and he concentrated his tired mind to try and focus on what they were saying.

“What happened Johnny?’

“Looks like he fell asleep out in the sun, without his hat on. Aided, no doubt, by this.”

Scott didn’t have to look to know his brother had found the bottle of whiskey he had taken from his father’s liquor cabinet that morning.

“Young fool. He should know better than that by now.” He heard the words but his addled mind was too foggy to process the tone, his tightly closed eyes not able to see the worry on his father’s face. He just heard the rebuke.

“Yeah, well don’t be too hard on him.  I think he had another one of those dreams and this one looked as if it had him really spooked. It had him flinging himself in the creek trying to rub himself raw.”

Murdoch looked down at his stricken son. The intermittent dreams that his son had been experiencing these last months were definitely intensifying, as if they were building to some climatic event and from the look of him, he couldn’t take much more.

“Well, staying around here is certainly not helping him, that’s for sure. I think the sooner he makes that trip, the better.”

Scott felt a cool compress gently placed on his forehead  “Oh but surely he’s in no state to be going anywhere?” Teresa had been alerted to his plight by the Segundo and taking one look at her older ‘brother’ had fetched the wash cloth and water to help cool his burning skin and counter the pain behind his eyes.

“Well, no, certainly not for a day or so, darling but as soon as Sam says he’s fit to travel, there’s some business I need he and Johnny to take care of.”

“Oh but, he’s still not well, his shoulder…” She was cut off mid sentence by her guardian.

“Teresa darling, would you go and get some water for Scott, please? I think one of my powders might help that headache of his.”

Tough love was what was needed here. She wasn’t party to their plans and Murdoch didn’t think she would fully understand what they were trying to do for his first-born. He didn’t like keeping her in the dark but felt it was for the best, at least until Scott and Johnny were on their way to Oakhurst.

Although his tone was soft, Teresa O’Brien knew when to press the issue and when to capitulate. With a worried glance down at the prone young man on the sofa she nodded silently and headed off towards the parlor.    

They waited until she had disappeared from sight before Johnny turned to his father.    “You want me to ride for Sam? To look Scott over?”

“No, he’ll be here in a couple of hours anyway. I invited him over for dinner, wanted him to give Scott’s shoulder the once over, just to be sure he’s really fit enough to make that trip.” Murdoch turned towards his desk and retrieved a packet from the top draw and the long spoon he kept there for mixing the powders Sam supplied him with for when his back troubled him too much. 

Scott frowned. What trip? He was getting heartily sick of them talking about him as if he wasn’t there. He tried to lift his head but the pain that lanced through his skull made him gasp out loud.

“Hey Scott, you there brother? Thought you was out for the count?”

“Course I’m here. Where else would I be?” the ailing blond muttered petulantly, eyes still tightly shut.   He tried to rise again and this time partially succeeded, managing to swing his legs to the floor and regain a semi-seated position. He rested his head on the back of the couch and slowly opened his aching eyes. He squinted as he adjusted to the brightness of the room and concentrated on regaining his focus.  

“How do you feel son?”

“I’ll live sir.” There was that stiff politeness again, Johnny noted, the Garrett conditioning coming to the fore once more when the young Bostonian was in defensive mode.

“Oh Scott, your poor face. I’ll have to make up some balm for you.” Teresa had returned with the water and passed it to the tall rancher, who was busily mixing in the contents of the packet he had earlier removed from his desk.

Seeing his elder son grimace at the prospect of having that foul smelling unguent anywhere near him, Murdoch smiled. Teresa meant well but he could tell that Scott didn’t want or need her fussing over him right now. Once more, he interceded to protect his first born from the over enthusiastic ministrations of his ward.

“Darling, would you go and turn Scott’s bed down? He’s going to drink this and then we’re going to get him bedded down.”

“But I……”

“Go on honey, we’ll bring him up shortly, and I’ll even help you apply that balm when you’ve made it.”  Johnny flashed her a grin and she was unable to resist smiling back despite getting the definite feeling that they were trying to get rid of her.    She turned and headed off towards the stairs.

“Murdoch, I’m fine. It’s just a headache. I don’ t need to go..”

“It’s not up for debate Scott,” his father interrupted gruffly. “Now I want you to drink this. It will help kill that pain in your head, and once you’ve had a chance to lie in a darkened room for a while, you’ll feel a lot better. We have company for dinner and afterwards I have some business I wish to discuss with you and your brother.”

Scott reluctantly took the medicated water and gulped it down. He hated taking medication but he knew the pain in his head wasn’t going to abate any time soon without some assistance.

“This business involve me going on that trip you were talking about?”

“Hey Boston, were you playing possum on us?”    

“I don’t like being discussed as if I wasn’t here. Now what’s this trip you mentioned?” Scott persisted.  It was true, he was perturbed at being discussed as though he were invisible but his curiosity and hopes were piqued at the prospect of a trip away from Lancer, from them all; to regroup and find a way to bury the past once and for all.

“Later Scott. You’re in no fit state to talk business now. Now I want you to go lie down and let that powder do its work and I’ll see you down here cleaned up for dinner at seven.”

Before he could labor the point any further, the Lancer patriarch had seated himself at his desk, his attention turned to the numerous papers gathered there. It was a clear indication that the final word on the matter had been spoken for now and his tone had brooked no argument. Scott sighed, resigned to doing as he was told, for now, anyway. And a couple of hour’s peace in his room, alone, certainly held its attractions, although he had no intention, whatsoever, of sleeping.

“C’mon Boston, I’ll tuck you in if you want me to?”  The younger man was grinning from ear to ear but the blond couldn’t help returning a pained smile as he took the proffered hand and allowed himself to be pulled up, on legs that still threatened to buckle every step of the way.

“Enjoy it while you can little brother….” He groused wearily. He draped his arm over his brother’s shoulder, allowing the younger man to slip his other arm around his waist to steady him, and guide him towards the stairs and the safe haven of his own room.

Murdoch Lancer looked up from the papers he had been pretending to peruse and watched his son’s leave, grateful for the unspoken bond that had developed between them. He was counting on that bond returning both his sons to him intact in the coming weeks.

 

***********************************************************************

 

Murdoch was heartened to see that Scott looked much better for the couple of hour’s rest he had been forced to take. The angry burn on his face was already beginning to fade, thanks to the swift application of one of Teresa’s medicinal balms, which Scott had been in no position to argue about. The medicated preparation he had mixed for his older son had also seemed to counter the headache and nausea that had assailed him so completely when Johnny had brought him home. The Lancer patriarch was especially pleased to see that his son cleared most of what was on his plate too. It was the most he had seen him eat for days.

For his part, Scott had been more than a little suspicious at the coincidence of Sam Jenkins’s dinner invitation but had consented to the pre-dinner examination his father insisted upon, particularly if his being able to take this trip his father had planned for him was reliant on a positive report from the elderly doctor.   So he had endured the poking and prodding of his healing, but still troublesome, shoulder without a word of complaint and without being wholly truthful as to what still pained him. Once again, he had cause to be grateful to Harlan Garrett. Scott Lancer was really good at hiding things when he needed to.  He had even tolerated the lecture he had received on the perils of the Californian sun and how lucky he had been that his brother had arrived when he did. Finally, he had received a sermon on the ills of imbibing too much hard liquor, especially ironic as the elderly doctor never said no to an after dinner brandy and tonight was no exception.  It all added fuel to his heightened desire to get away.

Finally, having endured the prodding, probing and lecturing from the doctor and weathering the scrutiny of four pairs of eagle eyes as he forced himself to clear his plate, they had finally come to the business end of the evening. Scott had been determined not to give any of them any reason to doubt whether he was fit or able to take on this trip, no matter where it would take him. Such was his inherent desire to get away from Lancer for a spell.  The men had retired to the Great room while Teresa, sensing that business was going to be on the agenda, had excused herself and retired to her room for the night.

Scott listened intently as Murdoch spread out the map on the newly cleared table and revealed the intent and destination of the trip he wished his sons to take. What bothered Scott was why, for such a seemingly straightforward business deal, it would take two of them, especially at such a busy time for the ranch.  

“I still don’t understand why we both need to go. I’ve traveled to Stockton alone on business numerous times before now and it’s no further to get to Oakhurst than it is to go there.”

“Well the distance may be the same as the crow flies Scott, but the country is vastly different,” his father countered. “There’s an established stage route between Green River and Stockton but there’s a lot of mountainous and forested country between here and Oakhurst.” The senior Lancer referred to the map spread out in front of them all. “It’s not the sort of country that you really want to be riding alone in if you don’t have to.”

“Alright then, but why not send one of the men with me, Frank or Walt maybe?”  Scott was testing the water. If he absolutely had to have someone with him, he would rather it was Johnny than anyone else, but he wanted to know why the Lancer patriarch was so intent on sending both of his sons on what, to him, seemed to be a routine business trip. And even if it wasn’t as routine as it seemed, why risk them both if it wasn’t the safest country to travel in?

“Hey, if I was the sensitive type, I’d think you didn’t want me around big brother.” Johnny couldn’t hide the twinkle in his eye. He knew exactly what Scott was trying to do. While his brother had been resting, he and Murdoch had planned how the conversation was going to go and it amused him no end that it was going exactly as they had anticipated.

“It’s not that Johnny, I just think there’s too much going on around here for us both to go, that’s all.”

“Well, that’s why I have a Segundo and a full compliment of ranch hands.” His father replied.  “Cipriano and the men managed well enough before you both arrived and they’ll do just fine again while you’re gone. But if you feel so strongly that one of you should remain here, well, your shoulder is still healing and in light of today’s events… Sam, perhaps Scott should stay home this time?”

The doctor did not get the opportunity to play his ‘role’ in the conspiracy.

“That’s not what I meant sir,” Scott interjected hastily.  “I should be the one to go. I have much more of a head for business transactions than Johnny does. No offense little brother,” he added.

“None taken.” Johnny gave a wry smile. Scott was taking the bait hook, line and sinker. He had to hand it to the old man. As worried as he clearly was for the young Bostonian, he had known exactly how to orchestrate the delicate situation; to give Scott the opportunity he needed to get away while ensuring the proud young man didn’t feel anyone was doing him any special favors.  Sending him off on ‘business’ was inspired. The senior Lancer knew exactly how to give the young Bostonian what he both wanted and needed while ensuring Scott didn’t have anything else to add to his already overloaded and troubled mind.

“Exactly Scott, and that’s why I want you both there. You have a good head for business and its time Johnny learned that there’s more to ranch life than mustering cattle and maintaining fence lines. I can think of no better tutor. So, do I take it that we are all in agreement?”

Looking at the expectant faces all focused upon him, Scott had the distinct feeling that somehow consensus had already been reached between his brother, father and the elderly doctor and that he was being very subtly maneuvered into something. Ordinarily this would rankle him no end but the fact was, whatever the conspiracy, it suited his own agenda. All he could think of was that he needed to get away. It didn’t matter where, just away from Lancer and perhaps then the memories and dreams would leave him alone. They were getting worse and he didn’t know how much longer he could go on keeping body and soul together. Whether he was being manipulated or not, it really wasn’t a hard decision to make.

“Alright sir, I agree. When do we leave?”

 

Chapter 4

They had embarked on their journey two days later, deciding to travel light until they headed into the mountain country. They figured it would take three days at a steady pace to get to Merced where they would take advantage of the last opportunity to enjoy a good meal and sleep in a real bed before having to negotiate the rough trails across the Sierra Nevada range down into Oakhurst for what they figured, with good weather, would take them a further three days of traveling. It would also give Johnny an opportunity to send a wire home, just to apprise their father on Scott’s condition, which they all hoped would be improved by time and distance away from the hacienda.

It had been with some trepidation that Murdoch had waved his sons off at first light, but he had been heartened that, for the two nights prior to disembarking, Scott had slept untroubled. His demeanor, too, had been much more relaxed; his shoulders not so hunched as if part of what had been weighing them down had been lifted.  He was still paler than any of them would have liked and certainly leaner than was healthy for his tall frame but filling him out and restoring his previously healthy pallor wouldn’t happen overnight, that would take time. But the early indications were certainly positive and it gave the tall rancher hope that the decision he had made in sending his son’s on this bogus business trip was the right one.

They made good time in getting to Merced. Riding at a steady pace, they were there by mid afternoon of the third day. Johnny couldn’t believe how much more relaxed Scott appeared to be already. The banter flowed freely between the two young men as they enjoyed each other’s company, free from the constraints and routine of ranch life.  Like his father, Johnny was encouraged by the improvement in his brother’s disposition. Despite seeing the merits of what lay behind the trip, he couldn’t say he had especially relished such a long journey with Scott if he was going to be as mono syllabic and maudlin as he had been of late. After almost three uneventful days and nights on the trail, however, he had to admit that it was good to see the brother he had come to know and bond so closely with prior to the Cassidy episode, start to re-emerge.

As they arrived in Merced, Johnny left Scott to check them into the hotel while he took Barranca and Rambler to the livery to get them fed and bedded down for the night. Even though his brother’s overall state of health already seemed to be greatly improved, he still tired easily. After two months of not sleeping well, Scott was playing catch up and so Johnny offered to see to the horses and then go buy the supplies they needed. He figured a detour to the saloon for a cold beer and a hand of poker in between tasks would give Scott the respite he needed.

Merced was a rapidly growing frontier town, the last stop for hunters and trappers heading across the Sierra Nevada divide and into the Yosemite and much as Johnny enjoyed his brother’s company, it was good to be amongst the hustle and bustle of a predominantly transitory male community seeking one last night of fun before hitting the wilderness trail. It reminded Johnny of his time on the drift. Much as he had come to love life at Lancer with his new found family and the security it afforded him he still, at times, yearned for the freedom of being able to ride from town to town at a whim, answerable to no one but himself. The last two nights sleeping under the stars, by the warmth of the campfire had him nostalgic for those days. Not that he would trade his new found life for those days, which certainly had their trials as well as the good times. As much as this trip seemed to be benefiting Scott though, so too was it doing Johnny the world of good to get a break from the routine of life at Lancer, which he had so struggled initially to adapt to.

Johnny spent half an hour at the livery, giving both mounts a thorough rub down, and ensuring they had adequate feed and water to satiate them before heading back out onto the main street to get his bearings. The hotel where he had left Scott was on the western periphery of town, the first main building travelers saw as they rode in and far enough away from the noise of the saloon to guarantee a good night’s sleep. The telegraph office was next door to the mercantile which, in turn was opposite the saloon, which certainly seemed to be the main hub of activity. Johnny pulled out the pocket watch given to him by his father and checked the time. Three o’clock. The mercantile didn’t appear to close until six so, once he had sent his promised wire, there would be time for a couple of beers and a hand or two of poker before picking up the supplies and heading back to the hotel for dinner. Five minutes later he emerged from the telegraph office, pleased that he had been able to send such positive tidings back to the hacienda.    He grinned, as the sounds of riotous laughter emerged from the saloon, musing to himself, “Well, Juanito, best have your fun while you can”, before sauntering across the street, jauntily to join in the merriment in Merced’s finest and only drinking establishment.     

 

*********************************************************************

 

Awareness returned gradually. He lay there for some time as his dulled senses began to slowly reawaken. It was his hearing that came back first, a low buzzing sound in his ears that permeated his slowly returning consciousness.  He concentrated on the low hum, trying to make out the sounds around him; trying to gauge some clue as to where he was and how he came to be here. As his level of consciousness increased, so too did his blunted senses. Soon he could make out the low cries and moans of others around him, could feel that he was lying prone on a hard surface, some sort of coarse coverlet irritating his bare torso. He lay there, testing his body for hurts and became conscious of a throbbing ache in his left shoulder, its intensity growing in concert with his increasing levels of awareness.

He had been wounded he rationalized. But how it had happened and specifically where he was evaded him. He knew, to get the answer, he would have to test one more of his senses but he was apprehensive about opening his eyes and drawing attention to the fact that he was awake. He lay there for what seemed like an age, concentrating on keeping his breathing slow and deep to feign unconsciousness, willing his mind to remember how he had come to be here, wherever here was. It was no use though, after what seemed like an age probing the foggy depths of his mind for answers, he came away with nothing. He knew he would have to risk opening his eyes to determine the situation he was in.

He drew a shallow breath and opened his lids a crack. As his eyes adjusted to the transition from darkness to light, he could make out the high vaulted ceiling straight above him. He concentrated his focus until he was ready to try a different perspective to get some idea of what surrounded him. Flat on his back as he was, the only way he was going to ascertain where he was, was to incline his head slightly to either one side or the other. Conscious of the dull ache in his left shoulder, which he had no desire to exacerbate, he elected to move the opposite way. Closing his eyes once more he slowly began to angle his head towards the right. It took several minutes, stopping and starting to ensure that no one had been alerted to his change in condition, until he was ready to try opening his eyes again.  As golden lashes parted, his eyes met those of the man lying opposite, his head turned towards him. Dark hair was plastered against his chalky skin, beads of moisture clinging to his brow, fever bright eyes staring at him unblinkingly. Filled with hate. Suddenly clarity hit him and it all came flooding back….

“Cassidy!” Scott sat up with a start, wide eyed and panting. He closed his eyes again for a moment, trying to steady his breathing and then opened them once more. Instinctively he rubbed at his shoulder, the rude awakening jarring the still healing muscle tissue. Scott swung his legs over the side of the bed and buried his head in his hands, trying to regain his composure. In comparison to the other dreams he had had of late, this one wasn’t that disturbing. What bothered him was the sudden resurgence after four nights of undisturbed sleep... With the passing of each uninterrupted night’s slumber, he had been lulled into a false sense of security and now that security had once more been shattered. He was grateful that, at least Johnny had not been around to witness it and he was glad that they had elected, for their last night of comfort, for single rooms. It was an extravagance but they had both figured it would be a rough few nights on the trail and Murdoch wouldn’t begrudge them the expense. As the hotel had been pretty full, their rooms were located some distance apart. When he had checked them in, Scott had been slightly irritated by the inconvenience but now he thanked divine providence. If this last visitation signaled a return of the dreams, he at least wanted to keep it hidden from his brother as long as possible.

He took out his timepiece. It was five o’clock. He had slept for almost two hours. Running his fingers through sweat matted hair, he rose and walked over to the nightstand and filled the water bowl from the porcelain jug and sluiced it over his face with his cupped hands, relishing the feel of the cool water on his clammy skin. After dinner he would seek out the hotel bathhouse, get rid of his three-day stubble and luxuriate in a hot tub to ease his aching muscles and help relax him. They would have a rough three or four days ride ahead of them and he wanted to do all he could to ensure he slept before they set out. For now though, he made do with the quick sponge down and decided to go look for his brother.  All Johnny had to do was stable the horses and go get the supplies and then come back to meet him, so Scott figured he had most likely gotten sidetracked somewhere.  He had a good idea where to start looking. Grabbing his hat and gun belt from the chair next to his bed, Scott headed out down the main stair, through the lobby and onto the main street in the direction of the saloon.
His hunch had been correct. As he entered the batwing doors and looked around, his attention was drawn to a table at the far end of the saloon where quite a crowd had gathered. He navigated his way through the mass of drunken revelers, ignoring the propositions of saloon girls who eyed the handsome young blond hungrily. He pushed his way through the gathered throng just in time to witness Johnny scooping up the pile of notes and coins heaped in the middle of the table, one of the scantily clad saloon girls perched precariously on his knee.
 
“Thank you gentlemen, it certainly has been a pleasure doing ‘business’ with you.” He quipped. He glanced up and spotted the thunderous face of his brother glaring down at him. “Hey Boston, great timing. Boy, are we sure gonna eat well tonight. Hey, let me introduce you to a few of my new…”

“Johnny, a word, outside.”

“Yeah, in a minute brother; C’mon sit down, lemme buy you a beer. Barkeep?” He gestured over to the red-faced steward of the establishment who was having a hard time serving the drinks fast enough for his riotous clientele.

“No, Johnny now.”

The dark haired poker whiz looked up at his older brother; taking in the grim expression, the firm set of his jaw, thin lips pressed together. He sighed and patted the buxom hostess on the rump as he dislodged her. “Sorry honey, party’s over. Duty calls.”

The sour faced red head glared at the tall blond. She had worked hard for her meal ticket. It wasn’t often that they got a real nice looker in this town; trappers and hunters weren’t known for being handsome, usually all whiskers, black teeth and smelling riper than a skunk on heat. She had spotted the dark haired stranger, though, the moment he had walked into the saloon and had made a beeline straight for him. The more poker hands he won, the more assured she had been of being plied with drinks for the remainder of the evening. And with the money he was spending, buying rounds for all and sundry, she would earn a pretty good bonus from the barkeep too. But now the serious looking blond had put paid to that. Who the hell did he think he was?

Scott ignored the hostile stare of the hostess. Frankly, he had more important things to concern himself with than incurring the wrath of a cheap saloon girl. He spun on his heels and headed back towards the batwing doors, not looking back, expecting that his brother would follow.

Johnny rose from his seat, took a final swig of his beer and gathered the last of the money, stuffing it into his pockets. Seeing the retreating figure of his older brother as he strode purposefully towards the exit of the saloon, he lifted his hat from its perch on the table and followed hurriedly, through the dispersing crowd, who all headed en masse towards the bar to harass the overworked barkeep.

As he pushed through the batwing doors, Scott was waiting for him, leaning against the hitching rail, arms folded, lips pressed together. It was clear he was smarting about something.

“Scott?”

“You get those supplies yet Johnny?”

“Not yet. Store don’t close until six. I figured there was plenty of time…”

“Oh you figured there was time….?”

“Well sure. I mean it’s only just after five now…  What’s the problem?”

Scott shook his head disparagingly and set off purposefully across the street to the mercantile.  Johnny frowned and headed after his brother.

“Hey, Scott, wait up. What’s the matter with you?”

They were outside the store now. Scott rounded on his brother incredulously. “Look around you brother.”  Johnny looked at him confused. “Go on, look around, and tell me what you see?”

“C’mon Scott, just say what’s on your mind.”

“Alright. Well, in case it escaped your notice, this is the last town before three days of wilderness country to the East and the last town for supplies between here and Merced to the West. The permanent population here is outweighed, oh; I’d say about ten to one by those passing through. Which means, brother, most everyone in the town right now is going to need to buy supplies before heading out tomorrow. Now I am figuring that the store over there would have had a lot more of a selection two hours ago when we first arrived than there is going to be once we get in there now, if there is anything left at all.” 

Before the dark haired man had a chance to respond, Scott turned and stomped angrily into the store. Johnny stood there dumbfounded for a moment. It wasn’t like Scott to get so worked up over such a trivial thing. Through his years on the drift, the ex-gunfighter had passed through many a town that served as the last supply stop for several days and these places were always over stocked; they had to be. There was something else at the root of his brother’s foul mood and he had an inking of what it might be. For now though, it would have to wait. He sighed and followed him in.

The tall blond was already talking to the storekeeper when Johnny sauntered in after his brother. He took the folded piece of paper out of his pocket on which he and Scott had compiled their list the night before. He started to select the items they would need; coffee, bacon, beans, oats for the horses; some hard tack jerky, extra ammunition for their carbines and side arms, some rope, extra blankets.  It was a fairly extensive list but, as he knew it would be, the store was well stocked and there was still plenty of everything. They would need a pack mule to help carry the supplies but Johnny had already made arrangements to hire one for the trip to Oakhurst and back when he had taken the horses to the livery. At least that was one less thing for Scott to chastise him about. He watched as his brother continued to be deeply engaged in conversation with the storekeeper. After a few minutes, the trader gestured to his assistant to take over and signaled to Scott to follow him out back. ‘What the hell was he doing?’ Johnny wondered.  Enlisting the help of the storekeeper’s assistant, Johnny finished gathering everything they needed, and settled the account. He had just finished packing everything into a couple of crates when Scott emerged, folding what looked to be a map and tucking it down the front of his pants. “Got everything?” he enquired.

“Sure Scott, everything that was on the list.”  Deep blue eyes met cerulean ones; the one letting the other know that his afternoon of fun hadn't jeopardized their chances of getting the things they needed one iota.  The older man still didn’t look pacified. He grabbed one of the crates and gestured for Johnny to take the other.

“Well, I guess that was more luck than good judgment little brother.  Come on. Let’s get back to the hotel.”   He swept out the door before his younger sibling could offer a retort.

Johnny bristled. Scott was taking his big brother role far too seriously for his liking right now and he was sick of him striding off and expecting him to follow like some dog at his heels.  Something had definitely changed since they had parted company at the hotel a few hours earlier and it was more than disdain at Johnny’s afternoon spent in the saloon that had Scott hot under the collar. He sighed and followed anyway. He wasn’t going to find out what it was standing here, that was for sure.  

Scott was collecting their room keys from the clerk by the time Johnny caught up with him in the hotel lobby. The grim-faced Bostonian gestured for him to follow him up the stairs and feeling somewhat like a lamb headed to the slaughter, Johnny meekly followed.

With the crate tucked under his right arm, Scott fed the key into the lock and turned, the mechanism clicking as the latch released and he gained entry to the poorly lit room. He placed the crate down on the floor and immediately pulled out the map from his waistband and proceeded to unfold it and spread it out on the bed.  Hearing Johnny come in behind him, setting his own load down on the chair, he turned and tossed the other key towards him. Johnny caught it easily in one hand. Scott turned back to the map and before Johnny could ask confirmed, “Down the corridor, fourth door on the right hand side.”

Johnny wasn’t sure whether this was Scott’s way of dismissing him or not but if it was, he wasn’t going to have a bar of it. There was clearly something bothering him and the air needed to be cleared.  “That what took you out back with the store keeper?” he referred to the map that Scott was now poring over.

“Yes, I asked if there were any alternate trails to get over to Oakhurst and he pointed out a couple of options.”

“What for? There’s a well established one already there. We already got that figured before we left Lancer. What do you need to find another one for?”

“Because, brother, those people you were playing cards with this afternoon will be taking that same trail, on which, I am sure, there are any number of places where it would be easy to ambush the person responsible for relieving them of their hard earned money.”

“Oh hell Scott, don’t you think you’re being just a little paranoid here?”

“Paranoid? Well brother, I’m impressed, I didn’t think they used such sophisticated words down along the Mexican border but now you come to ask, no I don’t think I am being paranoid. I think I have very good reason to be concerned.”  

“Now listen Scott, there’s no need to…” Johnny retorted angrily but he was quickly interrupted.

“No, you listen Johnny. I can’t believe you were so stupid as to go get yourself into a poker game. I suppose I should be grateful you didn’t lose any money but you couldn’t have drawn any more attention to us if you’d tried.”

“Is that what’s really bothering you Scott?” Johnny replied softly, “Or is it something else?” He regarded his brother seriously. The haunted look was back. He had been so much more relaxed these past few days but there had been a definite shift in the last few hours and he was as uptight again as he had been before they had embarked on their journey. He suspected Scott had experienced another of the dreams during his siesta and after the brief respite he had enjoyed, it was clearly unnerving him and impacting on his ability to rationalize.

“What’s bothering me Johnny, is you.” The words came out more vehemently than he intended. The truth was, Scott couldn’t understand why he was as upset with Johnny as he was.  All he knew was that he was as churned up inside as he could be and his brother was an easy target.

Johnny could see it too and he silently cursed his own complacency. He had temporarily allowed himself to be distracted from the purpose of the trip by Scott’s seemingly short-lived respite.  He needed to try and somehow get Scott to open up to him and he wouldn’t do so if he were as riled up as he currently was.  “All right Scott,” he sighed, “you’re right. I wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry. We’ll play it your way, get on the trail before first light, and beat the rush. K?”

Scott nodded silently, not expecting his brother to back down so easily but relieved all the same. He didn’t like losing control the way he had with Johnny over the supplies and the last thing he really wanted right now was a fight.  

Still conscious of the tension between them, Johnny tried a different tack. “Well, I’m glad that’s settled. Now will you let me buy you dinner? They do a mean steak in the saloon. Last chance for a decent meal for a few days?”

The blond shook his head tiredly. “No, thank you. You go ahead. I’m not hungry right now. I might grab something later.”

That sealed it. The appetite was gone again; a sure indication that, whatever had previously been ailing him was reasserting itself. It was a worrying set back.

“You alright?” Johnny was unable to mask the concern that suddenly rose up within him at the implications this had, just as they were about to embark on the hardest part of their journey.

Scott cursed inwardly. He didn’t want to give Johnny any more cause than he already had to be concerned about him. His inability to keep things hidden as well as he usually could, bothered him as much as the memories and dreams that invaded his sleep. He forced a smile and did his best to sound buoyant as he rose from the edge of the bed where he had been perched.   “I’m fine. Nothing a visit to the bathhouse won’t cure. A good soak in a hot tub and the removal of these whiskers followed by a good nights sleep and I’ll be ready for anything.” His eyes met those of his brother to see if it was enough to pacify him for now.

Johnny scrutinized the tall blond carefully. He knew he was being fobbed off. It would take far more than a bath and a shave to remove the haunted look in those cerulean eyes; exacerbated by the dark circles that framed them, stark against the pale complexion that now replaced the faded sunburn.  But it wasn’t the time to challenge the lie. Right now Scott needed him to take him at his word and he’d accommodate him, for the time being.

“Alright Boston. Take it easy.” He turned to leave but his brother stopped him.

“Johnny, I….” He struggled to find the words. But Johnny understood. Scott didn’t need anything else to berate himself over.

“‘S’ok brother. I’ll see you in the morning.  Try and get a good night sleep, huh?”  He stacked one of the crates atop the other, and then bent to lift them both and headed out the door.

Scott flopped back down on the bed and shuddered, grateful to his brother for silently volunteering to be the one to load up the mule in the morning and for not probing any further. Johnny was too observant not to notice how his hand shook as he gripped the edges of the map; how he faltered on shaky legs as he rose from the bed; how he increasingly struggled to keep the memories from invading his conscious as well as unconscious moments. He headed towards the door and watched until his brother disappeared into his own room down the hall and then slipped out quietly, heading for the saloon to purchase the one thing he mistakenly believed would help him through the long night to come.

************************************************************************

The first gray light of dawn had not begun to slither over the horizon before Scott headed into the livery stable. After returning from the bathhouse the night before he had settled the account with the clerk so that all he had to do was leave the room key on the desk when he left, ready for a quick getaway if they needed it. 

Johnny was already there, working by lamplight to tighten the cinch on Barranca’s saddle. Rambler was already saddled and ready to go; the mule loaded up and waiting patiently.  He turned as he heard the approaching footfall. He could already tell the gaunt silhouette was that of his brother.

“Morning brother. Sleep well?’ he asked hopefully, as he continued to work.

“You been here all night, Johnny?”  Scott gestured to the bedroll still unraveled lying in the stall where his horse had been tethered.

“Yeah, couldn’t sleep in that hotel. Those walls were paper-thin and lets just say there was some ‘entertaining going on in the room next door. Besides, I reckon’ there was something living in that mattress.”

Scott gave a wry smile. He knew exactly what his brother meant. He had done a fair bit of scratching himself during the night as he had tossed and turned. He had hoped the amount of whiskey he had imbibed after he had returned from the bathhouse would send him off into a deep and dreamless sleep. Instead, it had only been a few hours before he had awoke in a cold sweat, Cassidy’s words “Why didn’t you die? You should have died!” ringing in his ears. He had spent the remainder of the night wide awake, the steady whiskey fueled throb of his head echoing in time with the driving snores of those in the surrounding rooms.  

“Don’t look like you slept none too well either.” Johnny hadn’t failed to notice how Scott had deftly side tracked his original enquiry nor the fact that puffy eyes and dark circles told their own story.

“Well, I guess whatever was living in your mattress, I had some of their relations residing in mine.” The blond grinned. “How was that steak last night?”

Johnny snorted “Like old boot leather. You sure didn’t miss much Boston.”

“That good huh?”

“Yeah, remind me never to criticize Teresa’s cooking ever again.” He finished tying his bedroll to Barranca’s saddle as Scott secured his own saddlebag to Rambler. The truth was, Teresa O’Brien was a very good cook but both young men enjoyed getting a rise out of her, especially Johnny.  

“Talking of which, you eat anything last night?”

“I had a couple of those biscuits left over from what Teresa gave us.” Scott lied. The truth was he had taken a solely liquid repast the night before, the effects of which were still being felt in his muzzy head.

“Hell Boston, is that all? They would have been like rocks after three days. You want some hard tack now? It’s a long ways on an empty stomach?”

Scott grinned.  “Well, they certainly weren’t the best batch of Teresa’s biscuits I have ever tasted.  Maybe we can stop in a few hours along the trail? I might be ready for something then, especially some coffee. All set?”   Outside the first shards of light were beginning to appear on the horizon as the sun prepared to make its appearance. Soon the town of Merced would be awakening and they needed to get on the trail before that happened. It was their cue to leave.

“Sure brother. Let’s go”

They both mounted, Johnny leading the pack mule behind him, and headed out of town into unchartered and uncertain territory for them both.

 

Chapter 5

Taking the lesser-known trail recommended by the storekeeper, the going was slower than they would have liked but, still, it was a fair trade for peace of mind. Johnny had noted that, for the first half-day or so, Scott had spent a lot of time checking behind them to ensure they were not being followed. He had not visibly relaxed until they had finally stopped for something to eat, and that had been at Johnny’s insistence.  If not for their own sake, he had reasoned, at least for the sake of the horses and the mule whom he had asserted, deserved a rest and some sustenance if they were to cover the amount of miles they needed to each day. They didn’t stop for long even then. Despite his assurance to his brother that he would be ready for some coffee and something more substantial than jerky when they stopped for a break, Scott hadn’t managed more than a couple of swallows of the chewy beef and enough water to slake his thirst. Despite Johnny’s protestations and the incessant growling of his stomach, which loudly confirmed to him that they both needed something more to sustain them, Scott had been insistent that they not risk a campfire this early on in the piece.  Johnny had never seen Scott so impassioned about anything in the time he had known him and not wanting to force the issue had reluctantly acquiesced.

By the time they stopped to make camp for the evening, they were both exhausted and Johnny was ravenous. Even though they had gradually been ascending higher into the heavily forested mountains, still the mid June heat sucked the energy out of them both and Scott in particular looked utterly spent. Johnny regarded him worriedly as he busied himself tending to the horses as his brother set about building a fire. Despite the blond’s pale complexion, there was a ripening flush to his cheeks and his eyes were unnaturally bright. Upon enquiry, the young Bostonian had assured him he was just hot and bothered and that Johnny really ought to look at himself in the mirror before passing comment on others. Johnny didn’t doubt it. Even though his darker skin was far more used to the Californian sunshine than Scott’s, still he could feel the heat of the sun as it had beaten down on them on more exposed parts of the route.

They made camp in a shaded copse a short distance off the trail. A small creek ran nearby fed by one of the many waterfalls that cascaded down the mountains. Currently it ran at a trickle but Johnny was sure in winter, it would run fast and wild. After seeing to the horses, Johnny replenished their canteens and returned to the camp savoring the smell of frying bacon sizzling in the pan and the rich aroma of the coffee Scott had set to brew. Before long they were sat in the advancing twilight silently eating their long overdue meal. As he polished off three rashers of the salted bacon and a full plate of beans, Johnny regarded his brother anxiously as he picked at his food. Scott had hardly eaten enough to keep a gopher alive in the past twenty-four hours but still his appetite seemed to be virtually non-existent.

Feeling eyes boring into him, Scott looked up and noted his brother watching him in the firelight, seeing the concern mirrored in his eyes. He reached for the coffee pot and poured himself a cup of the potent brew and smiled wanly at the younger man. “I guess I’m just too tired to eat,” he admitted. “Maybe a good night’s sleep will restore my appetite?”

“Sure brother.”  Johnny did his best to keep the doubt from his tone. “Why don’t you hit the hay, you look done in. I’ll take first watch. I’ll wake you in a few hours.”

As tired as he was feeling himself, Johnny was determined to take the lion’s share of the watch. They were in cougar country and it wouldn’t be safe for them both to sleep at the same time. He expected more resistance from his fiercely independent brother than he actually got though, adding fuel to his mounting concern over Scott’s declining state.

“Alright Johnny, you’ll wake me up in a few hours though?”

“Sure thing Boston, now go on”

He poured himself a cup of coffee and settled down against the trunk of a large cedarwood and watched as his brother wearily unraveled his bedroll and snuggled down into his blankets.  With his carbine laid across his lap, alert for any sights or sounds out of the ordinary, Johnny Lancer sat sipping the strong coffee, watching as his brother’s head lolled to the side as he quickly slipped into a deep slumber.

 

******************************************************************

 

As he lay there he suddenly became aware of a presence standing over him. He tried to still his breathing, stalling for time as he tried to ascertain who it was and whether they posed a threat.

“Y’ain’t foolin’ no one yank. Open yer eyes.”  He could feel his heart starting to race now. He had thus far managed to avoid the attentions of the over zealous confederate orderlies who were none too gentle in their treatment of the patients in the infirmary, but now they were on to him. There was no purpose in playing possum any longer. He opened his eyes and looked up with what he hoped was an expression of pure defiance. He was an officer after all.

There were two of them, one either side of him and he looked from one to the other as they each grinned down, sickeningly, at him.  “Well yank” spat the one who had spoken before, “Y’all don’t know how long we’ve been waitin’ for this moment. Ya wanna know why?”

He didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of asking, just stared back defiantly. But the way they were both looking at him, coupled with their apparent delight at his recovery, filled him with a sense of foreboding. Countless times in the days since he had emerged from his delirium he had asked himself the same question. Why had they tended him? Removed the bullet? Treated the infection? He had received better treatment than most in the infirmary and he had a feeling he was about to find out just why he had been singled out for such preferential treatment.

“Don’t say much, does he?” the other guard interjected.

“Oh he will, doncha worry ‘bout that,” his partner countered. “His tongue’ll get loosed up real good. ‘C’mon yank, there’s a willin’ audience just waitin’ fer you to entertain ‘em. Can’t keep ‘em waitin’ any longer.”

With a guffaw, the guards reached done and none too gently grabbed an arm each and dragged him to his feet. He gasped out loud as the pain lanced through his injured shoulder. He could feel the stitches beneath the crude bandage, as they pulled apart, felt the moisture as his blood spilled anew.  He tried to make his legs work as he was dragged unceremoniously through the length of the infirmary. Tears pricked his eyes as the pain in his shoulder intensified, as his arms were practically pulled out of their sockets. He could hear the jeers of his fellow prisoners as they cursed and swore at him, the words ‘traitor’ and ‘turncoat’ ringing in his ears. He couldn’t understand what he had done to merit such treatment from them, his fear and torment intensifying as projectiles started to hit him. Malodorous smelling fluids hit him, their acidity burning his exposed skin and he realized with horror that many were flinging their own waste at him.  He sobbed aloud as the guards ducked for cover, ensuring that most of the redolent matter hit the intended target.

He was dragged through the door and out into the main yard of the compound, and had to squint against the sudden intensity of the sun after weeks confined in the darkened interior. As his eyes adjusted to the bright hue of the sunlight he noted with horror the lines of union prisoners lined up, watching, waiting. In front of them confederate guards were lined up, rifles at the ready, daring them to turn away. He was suddenly conscious of his semi-nakedness dressed only in cut away undergarments, covered in purulent matter and reflected, ridiculously, on what his Grandfather would think of him now.  As he was dragged in front of the assembled throng he saw the upended wagon wheel set at an angle against the back end of a cart, and he realized with a terrible certainty just why they had worked so hard to heal him. They wanted him to be as healthy as possible when they applied the lash. To make the torture, the spectacle, last as long as possible, to make an example of him. He vainly tried to struggle against his captors, desperate to avoid what he knew to be inevitable. The very public humiliation and most likely death in front of the men who, if his treatment in the infirmary was anything to go by, believed he had betrayed them.  

He felt himself flung forward against the wheel, his arms splayed and bound above his head, his feet similarly constrained. He waited for the thong to be placed in his mouth but it didn’t come. So the guard had been right. They meant to make him scream. Well he would resist. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of crying out. He waited for an age for something to happen; but there was total silence, save for his own hitched breathing and the thudding of his racing heart in his own ears.  Then he heard the approaching footfall as someone, he couldn’t see whom, came ever closer to him. Then the clear authoritative southern tones of the camp commandant rang out.

“By the powers vested in me as Camp commander, I hereby sentence Lieutenant Scott Lancer to thirty lashes. Punishment will cease on the full application of the sentence or once the prisoner is dead. Whichever is sooner. May this be a lesson to you all that escape is futile. Let the punishment commence.”

Thirty lashes. He had never heard of anyone surviving that. He closed his eyes, tears falling freely down his face as he thought of his Grandfather; of Julie and of all those friends he would never see again. As prepared as he thought he was though, nothing could have primed him for the first lick of the cruel lash against his flesh. The man who yielded it clearly relished his role and spared him no quarter. Despite his resolution not to, he couldn’t help but cry out in agony as the harsh leather flayed the skin from his back, cutting through sinew and bone.  He lost count after the first five lashes, his whole existence a blur of pain and misery... In the midst of the white-hot agony lancing through his entire being, he could feel someone shaking him, a voice trying to penetrate the misery that he found himself residing in. He screamed once more in agony and the voice cut through his consciousness again, this time louder.

“Scott?!”

“Please, stop…No more…. please, no more!”

“Scott? C’mon, snap out of it. Scott? Wake up.”

He suddenly realized he was no longer lashed down. Where was he? Back in the infirmary? He felt the hands shaking him, more vigorously this time. His eyes flew open and he struggled to sit up, panting. Strong hands pushed him back down again.

“Whoa brother. Easy. I thought you were never going to wake up... Scared the hell outta me”

“What..? Where…?” He still seemed to be confused and was having difficulty focusing.

“Scott? Can you hear me? You know where you are? Look at me.”

Scott looked around wildly, and realized he was lying on blankets next to a campfire.  He looked up into the concerned eyes of his brother as clarity returned, then raised himself up onto his elbows and worked to control his breathing.

“Johnny?” He rasped.

“Yeah, Boston. Here, take some of this.” Johnny held the canteen to his stricken brother’s lips.  Scott reached up with shaking hands and took it from him gratefully, taking several long gulps.

“Thanks” he gasped as he handed the canteen back to his brother and ran his hand across his sweat-matted forehead.  He struggled to raise himself to a sitting position and his concerned brother reached to help pull him up. He was drenched with sweat, his navy shirt clinging to him and despite the warmth of the fire he was lying next to, he shivered. Johnny reached for the discarded blanket and wrapped it around him tenderly. 

“You wanna tell me what that was all about?”

Scott shook his head, still fighting to regain his composure. The memory of his public flaying was still too vivid, too disturbing. There were parts of it coming back to him that he had never recalled before now. Were those remembrances real or a figment of his tortured imagination? It was getting harder and harder to differentiate between what was real memory and what was being conjured up by his overwrought mind.  “Just a bad dream” he muttered.

“Just a dream?” Johnny spluttered incredulously, “Oh C’mon Scott, it just took me nearly ten minutes to rouse you. You were screaming enough to wake the dead. That wasn’t just a dream. Look at you; you’re soaked to the skin.” He made to wipe the sweaty bangs from his brother’s forehead but Scott flinched away from him.

“I’m alright Johnny, really. Please, I just need…..” his voice trailed off as he stared out into space, images and memories still plaguing his addled mind.

Despite his frustration at his older brother’s reluctance to discuss this latest and most violent nightmare to date, it was overruled by his concern for the Bostonian’s rapidly declining state of mind. He was clearly exhausted and Johnny didn’t know how much more of this punishment he could take.  

“You need to rest Scott, c’mon, I’ll get you a clean shirt out of your saddle bag and then let’s get you settled back down again.”

“No, it’s my turn to take the watch.” He struggled to get to his feet and if it hadn’t been for his brother's hands reaching out to steady him, he would have fallen flat on his face again.

“I got you, Boston, now lie back. You’re in no fit state…”

“I said I’m fine Johnny…” Scott pushed him away and staggered backwards, away from the fire, drunkenly.

“Hell Scott, you’re so far from fine it’s not funny. Look at you; you’re so exhausted you can barely stand. You need to sleep.”

Scott snorted as he wavered, grinning sardonically. “Now that’s exactly what I don’t need right now, little brother. In case you hadn’t noticed, I don’t seem to sleep so easily lately.”

He lurched over to his saddlebag, seeking out the one thing that would help dull the once suppressed memory that had re-announced itself in such a brutal fashion.

“So what, Scott, you gonna stop sleeping altogether? Because from where I’m standing brother, you look dead on your feet.”

His back to Johnny, while he rummaged in his bag, Scott smiled ironically to himself

‘Dead on his feet.’ If only his brother realized how accurate a description that really was of his current state. He felt like a condemned man, a dead man walking. Waiting for the fate that he had somehow managed to allude so many times; the memory of each occasion he had cheated death coming back to remind him, with brutal clarity, that he was living on borrowed time. His fingers closed around the glass receptacle, the contents of which would provide a modicum of comfort to him for the remainder of the night.  Enough to dull the memory anyway.

He turned; the bottle of whiskey gripped tightly in his hand and headed back to the fire.

“Well, Johnny, you’ll be pleased to know that I don’t intend to stay on my feet. I will sit against that tree, with that carbine in my lap and will keep watch for the remainder of the night.” He bent to retrieve the coffee pot; its contents by now stone cold, and poured himself a cup, adding a liberal dose of the potent liquor.

“And you think that stuff’s gonna help?” Johnny was dismayed to see the bottle of liquor in his brother’s hand. He must have bought it in Merced; he certainly hadn’t had it when they had left the Hacienda. Johnny had made sure of that.

“Well, I don’t know brother, but I certainly don’t think it’s going to do me any harm. The coffee will ensure I am alert enough to keep watch, this…” he gestured to the bottle, “Well, that’ll serve its purpose too,” he finished cryptically. It would dull the pain, suppress the images for a while, and relax him. He settled himself against the trunk, a position previously occupied by the younger man, laying the carbine across his own lap. 

“Now, there’s no point arguing, little brother.” He gestured to Johnny’s bedroll laid out on the other side of the fire. “One of us needs to sleep tonight; no point us both dozing in the saddle come tomorrow.”

Johnny regarded his brother dejectedly. How come Scott always managed to turn things around like that? Even in his wretched state he was making sense. It wouldn’t do any good for them both to be exhausted in the morning and it was clear after the blond’s latest nocturnal horror’s that he’d taken as much sleep as he was going to this night.

“Alright Scott, you win. I’ll take some rest but don't drink too much of that stuff, will you? Come tomorrow that sun will be just as hot as it was today and you don’t need a headache before you even start.”

Scott nodded slowly but didn’t confirm or deny Johnny’s request. He’d take as much as he needed to keep the memories at bay. He watched as his brother settled reluctantly into his blankets and sat back to wait out the night.  

 


Chapter 6

Despite his brother’s assertion that it was pointless their both foregoing sleep, still Johnny spent the remainder of the night unable to rest.   As tired as he had been when he had sat down to take the initial watch, witnessing Scott thrashing and screaming in the throes of the violent nightmare had unnerved him and had the adrenalin coursing through his veins, banishing sleep, at least for that night. The things that he had heard troubled him; the very personal insights into his brother’s past that made him feel like he was trespassing. He couldn’t forget the pitiful screams nor, more disturbingly, the desperate entreaties to anonymous tormentors to let him die. But nor did he feel he could challenge his fragile sibling about what he had heard. The incident with Cassidy had already left Scott feeling exposed and Johnny didn’t have the first notion about how to brooch the subject with him, even though it had been the ulterior motive behind taking the trip in the first place.  To get Scott talking and help purge him of whatever it was that was eating him from the inside out.

And so knowing he would find no rest all the while Scott was suffering the after effects of the nightmare, Johnny feigned sleep, surreptitiously watching out for his brother, for any changes to his precarious state. Scott had remained propped up against the tree, head forward, his hat and the firelight casting his face into shadow. At one stage, Johnny opened his eyes a crack and risked a glance. Though he couldn’t see Scott’s pale features, he could tell from the gentle shaking of his silhouetted form and the muffled sounds coming from him that he was quietly sobbing.     Johnny closed his eyes again, heartsick for his older sibling but feeling like an intruder all the same. He pretended to snort in his sleep and rolled over onto his other side, not wishing to encroach on his brother’s misery any further.  As he settled himself once more, he heard Scott rise from his seated position, and he cursed inwardly. He hoped that Scott hadn’t realized he was awake and thought he was ‘spying’ on him. That was exactly how Johnny felt it was though; that he was spying on his brother as he fought to battle some very personal demons.

He lay there as he listened to his brother tend to the fire, and set a fresh pot of coffee to brew. A few minutes later the rich aroma assailed his nostrils and he heard the tinny echo as his brother poured himself a cup. He listened in dismay as he heard the unmistakable ‘pop’ of a cork being released and smelled the potent liquor as it mixed with the equally strong brew. Johnny sighed, never feeling more helpless in his life as he did now. He realized he hadn’t the first clue how to help Scott and that he had been premature in Merced, sending the wire to Murdoch indicating that all was well. All was far from well and Johnny was afraid. After having him in his life for only nine months, Johnny Madrid Lancer, ex-gunfighter, who thought he would never care for anyone or anything, realized that he couldn’t bear the thought of losing the brother he had come to care for so very deeply. If he didn’t find a way to help Scott soon, that was a very real possibility.

Johnny spent the remainder of the night wandering in his own tortured imaginings; visualizing his arrival back at Lancer without his brother; seeing the pained expression on the Lancer patriarchs’ face at the loss of his older son; trying to console Teresa and stem the unstoppable tears from coursing down her face. He couldn’t let that happen. He’d just have to figure something out, he resolved, even if it meant hog tying Scott and forcing it out of him. He hoped it wouldn’t come to that.  

 

*********************************************************************

 

They were back on the trail again by sun up. Despite his own fatigue, Johnny was heartened to see that Scott looked and sounded better than he had thought he would. He had even been pleased to note that Scott had managed to eat a couple of rashers of the salted bacon. It wasn’t as much as Johnny would have liked but at least he had something more than coffee and whiskey to sustain him on the long trail ahead.  For Scott’s part, the improvement in his demeanor came with a palpable relief as the first light of dawn appeared above the trees. It meant he had come through another long night trying to fend off sleep and the nightmares that came with it; and, the reawakened memories of times spent in dark places that were brought to bear by the inky blackness of the previously starless night.

They pushed as hard as they were able, Johnny conscious that despite his brother’s fragility, it would be better to try and get to Oakhurst ahead of schedule, where Scott could rest in a proper bed and where Johnny could seek out the services of a doctor for his ailing sibling. Despite the blond’s assurances that he was fine, his gaunt appearance, sunken eyes, and the persistent sheen of sweat that beaded his sallow skin told another story.  Lack of sleep and adequate nourishment over the past weeks coupled with long days in the saddle had taken its toll. Johnny didn’t like pushing too hard but had finally resolved that it was better to get Scott somewhere where help could be found if needed as soon as possible rather than take regular opportunities to rest and risk Scott getting too sick to go any further. The wilderness, exposed to the elements, where predators were attracted to the smell of sickness was no place to take care of his brother if it came to that. 

Certainly Scott had raised no objections when the only stops they made were to water and rest the horses, affording them enough time to eat some of the stringy jerky and then continue on their way. He had chewed distractedly on the beef strips, more out of instinct than hunger, taking several large swallows from the canteen that Johnny literally had to thrust into his face, to counter the after effects of the salted beef. It was hard to tell whether the beads of sweat that clung to his brow, and plastered the hair to his head was from the heat of the day or the slumbering fever that Johnny suspected he was running and that assaulted him in waves. Remembering how susceptible his brother was to heat stroke, he made sure his brother kept his broad rimmed hat firmly in place.         

Johnny continued to keep a close eye on his brother throughout the day. He tried to keep the conversation light, to keep Scott both engaged and alert, but as the day wore on, and the sun meandered further around to the west, Johnny could see and feel the tension rise within his brother, as he grew more introverted with the approach of nightfall.   As the heat of the afternoon intensified, the blond grew less responsive and Johnny realized that his military training had once more taken over as he dozed in the saddle. It was as much as Johnny could do to stop himself doing the same. They continued on this way, for a few more hours, making the most of the mid summer daylight, only making camp as dusk fell.  Stiff and saddle sore himself, Johnny guided his virtually catatonic brother off his mount and settled him down onto his bedroll. He expected resistance, but the exhausted blond was asleep before Johnny had finished tucking the blankets carefully around him. Then he set about making a fire and preparing a light meal of beans and the rest of the salted bacon, for himself and for Scott if he woke up enough to take some.

Johnny was beginning to understand Scott’s lack of appetite; extreme fatigue really did curtail the desire for food but he forced himself to eat, neither really tasting nor enjoying the simple meal. He brewed himself up a pot of coffee and positioned himself, carbine within easy reach, where he could keep watch over Scott and wait out the night.

Despite his resolution to stay awake, however, his tired body had other ideas and Johnny soon fell into a fitful doze. He didn’t know how long he had slept before he jerked awake with a start and, unjustly, cursed his own weakness for succumbing to his fatigue while on watch.  His eyes were immediately drawn to where he had left his sick and exhausted brother sleeping but his stomach clenched with fear as he noted the abandoned bedroll and discarded blankets. With panic rising he jumped to his feet, scanning the campsite as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. Whereas the night before, the moon had been obscured by clouds, tonight, the sky was clear and soon his eyes had adjusted enough to see by the bluish light emitted by the celestial orb, that cast an ethereal hue on the surrounding trees and shrubs.  He scanned the perimeter of the copse they had settled in; noted the horses tethered silently. They would be fidgeting and fretting if a wolf or cougar had ventured close to the camp, but they both appeared to be resting contentedly. 

Instinctively he reached for the carbine, preparing to venture beyond the perimeter of their camp to search for Scott but realized it wasn’t there. Before he had time to chastise himself further for falling asleep and allowing the weapon to be taken, he heard the sound of a twig snapping behind him and spun around sharply, instinctively reaching for his side iron, set low in its holster.

“You want to point that some place else little brother?”

Relief and anger flooded through Johnny at the same time as his brother’s rich, low tones permeated the air.

“Dios Scott, you scared the hell outta me.”  He noted his brother had the carbine swung nonchalantly over his shoulder. “Where you been? Why didn’t you wake me?”

“Johnny, there are some places a man needs to go where he doesn’t need or want a chaperone.” Scott set the carbine down against the tree and went over to the waning fire, adding some more of the wood his brother had earlier gathered to build it up again.

“Well, when I woke up and saw you weren’t there I thought…” He trailed off, not sure how to verbalize the very real fear he had had that his brother might have gone off in the midst of one of the terrible nightmares to harm himself; especially in light of the missing carbine. The memory of Scott’s pitiful entreaties to be allowed to die, the previous night, still haunted him.

“You thought I’d gotten lost in the dark and you needed to come look for me.” Scott quipped, before Johnny could say what was really on his mind.

“No Scott, that’s not it,” the younger man countered, frustrated at his brother’s uncanny ability to deflect conversations away from avenues he didn’t want them to go down.

“Well, I’m glad to hear it little brother, because I’m a big boy and I can take care of myself. Especially when it comes to functions of a more personal nature.”  He reached for the coffee pot and set it to heat up over the fire, grinning sardonically as he did so. The firelight on his pale face exacerbated his sunken eyes and prominent cheekbones, and cast a deathly hue over him.

Johnny sighed. That was another tactic, referring to him as  ‘little brother’. It always had the desired effect; to make him feel like a petulant child.  Despite his brother’s attempts at humor, it was plain to see that Scott was very subtly telling him to butt out.

“Alright Boston, so long as you’re alright.”

“I’m fine.” The response was too clipped, too readily given.

“What woke you?” Johnny decided to try a different approach.

“I thought we just cleared that up?”

“Well, Scott, you were dead to the world when we made camp. I’ll bet you don’t even remember the last couple of hours in the saddle. I didn’t think you’d wake for the rest of the night, not unless you…”

“Unless I what?” There was an air of challenge in his voice, warning Johnny off but daring him to take up the gauntlet all the same. It wasn’t like Scott to spoil for a fight and despite his frustration at Scott’s stubborn refusal to let anyone help him, Johnny knew when to pick his fights and when to tactfully back away. Ironically, it had been Scott’s steadying influence over the past nine months that had exacted this change in the once fiery gunfighter.

“Forget it. You hungry? Want me to get you something to eat?”

Scott shook his head as he reached for the now steaming coffee pot with a gloved hand, “No, thank you. If I want anything I can get it for myself.  For now I’ll just stick to coffee.”

Johnny shook his head, exasperated. There was that stiff necked politeness back again. The Garrett defensive barriers were being rebuilt, reinforced with steel casing, and it irked Johnny more than he felt was rational. Hell, didn’t Scott realize how worried he was about him? He couldn’t prevent himself falling into the role his brother had cast him in as he offered the petulant retort.   

“Just coffee?”

“Meaning?”

“Hell Scott, I just hate to see you sousing yourself with liquor, that’s all. It’s not like you.”

Scott snorted. “Hardly sousing. Just enough to …” He was going to say ‘take off the edge’ but he didn’t want to give Johnny any more ammunition. Instead, he decided to shut down that line of enquiry once and for all.  “Just enough to drown out the sound of your snoring while I keep watch over your pretty hide. Now hit the hay little brother, there’s still a couple of hours until dawn. It’ll be another long day in the saddle come morning.”

Johnny sighed. Somehow Scott had twisted things around the same way he had the night before. His falling asleep on watch would not help his cause in assuring his older sibling that he could wait out the remainder of the night while Scott rested. Nope, weakened condition or not, Boston would be all over that one. Nor could he assert that the blond needed the rest. Aside from the fact that he clearly still did need to rest, the fact that he had slept several hours in the saddle that afternoon and at least four hours since they had made camp, would have Scott counter that he had taken his allotted sleep and it was now his turn to take watch. His pride wouldn’t allow Johnny to carry him in that way, even if his body was crying out for it.

“Alright Scott,” he surrendered,   “ I’m not gonna argue with you. And I’ll try not to snore too loud.” He smiled weakly, then added, “so don’t take too much of that liquor, ok?”   

“Good night, Johnny,” Scott replied, avoiding answering the question. He watched his brother climb tiredly and dejectedly into his blankets, the younger man’s back turned away from him this time.  “Pleasant dreams,” he muttered quietly.  He seated himself by the fire, resting his back against his saddle, staring into the flames. He reached into his jacket and took out the first thing he had reached for when he had once more been rudely awakened from his slumber, and poured a generous dose into his steaming coffee. He hoped the whiskey and the firelight would be enough to banish the memory of the sixteen staring faces that had come back to haunt his dreams. He shuddered, as he took a sip of the self-prescribed concoction, focusing on the bright hue of the flames as he waited for it to take effect. 

 

***********************************************************************

 

The next day followed the same pattern as the one before. Scott appeared to be much approved for the rest he had had and was able to manage a plate of beans for breakfast before they set out. After consulting the map that he had purchased from the storekeeper in Merced, he figured that, if they pushed hard, they could get to Oakhurst come nightfall. Johnny didn’t argue. He was as keen to get there as his hermano but filled with trepidation all the same.   He’d hoped he’d have had an opportunity to level with Scott before now about the fictitious business deal but with the Bostonian’s precarious state of mind over the past days, there just hadn’t been the right moment. But the closer they got to Oakhurst the more worried Johnny felt about what would happen when they got there. He had a terrible feeling the past few days had been building up to something and he couldn’t rid himself of the nagging feeling welling up in the pit of his stomach.

They pressed on hard again, the heat once more intensifying as the day wore on. Whereas Johnny had done his best to engage Scott in conversation the day before, this time, he was too preoccupied with thoughts of how Scott would react when he told him there was no Joel Tyler, no contract and no prize bulls.     The trail narrowed considerably as it traversed a ridge and so they were forced to ride single file which wasn’t really conducive to conversation anyway.   Scott seemed to have found renewed energy from somewhere and rode ahead, with Johnny hanging back leading the mule, mulling over the events of the past days and really starting to doubt the wisdom of making this trip in the first place.

He was, suddenly, jolted out of his reverie by a shout.

“Johnny!”

Looking up, he noted that Scott had stopped atop the crest of the ridge and had dismounted. Johnny quickly did the same and hurried over.  There spread, below them, was the town of Oakhurst, nestled in the midst of a thickly forested valley. Overlooking it to the east, the mighty Yosemite rose up majestically. The vista was breathtaking. To the south east the late afternoon sun glistened on a huge lake, which Johnny was sure would be jam packed full of fish, ripe for the taking. Murdoch had said to relax his brother, do some hunting; some fishing and this was certainly the place to do it. The old man had been right to send them here. The place was spectacular.

“Whew! It sure does look pretty don’t it?”  Johnny gushed.

“Make the most of the view, little brother,” Scott quipped, “ It’s all down hill from here.” He gestured ahead to the heavily forested trail that fed down towards the base of the valley where the town sat, but there was an undercurrent in his tone that hinted at something more than just the trail they were about to take. Johnny looked at him sharply but Scott had already turned away and was remounting the gray.

“Well, I guess we’d best get to it then,” Johnny retorted, lightly “I tell you what, I can’t wait to get me a good meal. Gone clean off bacon and beans, that’s for sure.”     But Scott didn’t respond, he had already turned Rambler around and was heading off down the trail. Johnny sighed and remounted Barranca, dutifully following after his brother, the tethered mule ambling obediently behind. The younger man detected a definite shift in his brother’s mood again as their destination and nightfall beckoned and he could no longer suppress the sense of foreboding that was rapidly rising within him.

 
Chapter 7

Two hours later, they emerged from the dense forest and into the outskirts of the thriving town of Oakhurst. Even though dusk had already fallen, there were still plenty of people milling around the main street. It appeared to be a vibrant and bustling town, despite its relatively remote location. It was said to be the gateway to the Yosemite and was a major stop on the trading route that led up through Mariposa and Bootjack.

The hotel was the first building on the left hand side as they traversed the main street of the town. They decided it would be better to check in first, make sure they could get a bed for the night, then they would seek out the livery and see to the horses. They tied their mounts and the placid mule to the hitching rail, retrieved their saddlebags and carbines and then entered the foyer.  The proprietor, a squat balding man with tiny round glasses perched on the end of his nose, looked them up and down as they approached; clearly sizing up whether they would be the kind of clientele he would wish to have stay in his exclusive establishment.

Scott strode up to him confidently. “Good evening, sir. We would like a room please, if you have one available.”

Despite the disheveled state of the tall young man, the hotel owner was impressed by his upright and respectful manner. He was none too sure though, of the darker man standing behind him. He looked like one of those Mexicans in his orange ruffled shirt and calzoneras and it was well known his kind couldn’t be trusted. He certainly wasn't the type of man he would usually allow in his hotel.

Johnny caught the man scrutinizing him and knew exactly what was on his mind and how to deal with it. He took out a handful of the gold coins, from his poker win, and flashed them in front of the provincial businessman. “Cash in advance?”

The proprietor wavered. He may have been an effete snob but he was also an astute entrepreneur and his greed was always going to take precedence over any ‘standards’ he might have, however parochial they might be. Johnny had read him well.

“Well of course sir,” Despite the darker man offering the money, it was Scott he directed his discourse to.  “I am afraid, we have only one room available though, a twin room. If you would prefer, on the other hand, to be accommodated singly, there is another hotel at the other end of town, where I am sure your…..” he struggled to find the right word, “companion… could be more suitably accommodated?”

Scott smiled sardonically at the man’s blatant hypocrisy.  “Thank you, but my brother and I will be happy to share.”     

Johnny grinned to see the shocked expression that passed over the proprietor's face, enjoying the way that Scott could take someone down a peg or two with just one simple statement.

“Very well sir,” the red-faced man blustered, “If you would just sign here.” He tapped the register and then turned to retrieve the key to their assigned room.

Scott picked up the pen, and dipped it in the well and signed with his clear and educated hand.  He hesitated as he considered the date. The previous entry said the 23rd of June. Johnny, who had now come to stand next to his brother to take the proffered key, noted the hesitation and how what little color his brother had had in his cheeks suddenly drained from them.

“Scott?” He placed his hand on the older man’s shoulder as the hotelier looked on curiously.  Suddenly conscious of their attention, with a visibly shaking hand, Scott finished signing the register.

“That’ll be twelve dollars for the room,” the proprietor asserted.  Johnny raised his eyebrow at the steep price, sure they were paying way over the odds but too tired to bother arguing the point.   The man clearly had an over inflated opinion of his own establishment but Johnny was happy to allow him his hollow victory, for now.  He tossed the money down on the counter, deliberately ignoring the man’s outstretched hand.

“Room is up the stairs and second door on the right.” The proprietor bristled at the arrogance of the dark haired ruffian.   “Doors close at 11 p.m. We run a clean establishment here, no visitors, no…”

"We get it Mister,” interrupted Johnny, in his soft ‘Madrid’ drawl. “We’ve been in the saddle for three days straight and all we wanna do is bed down for the night. You’ll get no trouble from us.” He looked at Scott again. It was clear his mind was in another place as he stared off into space. He suddenly looked very fatigued again and Johnny was keen to get him up to the room where he could finally rest in a decent bed.  But first the horses needed tending to. He turned back to the manager. “Now can you tell me where we can stable our horses for the night?”    

“Livery is down on the eastern side of town,” the balding man responded testily, obviously not used to having his well-rehearsed speech interrupted. “Best hurry though. Mac likes to close up early.”

“Thanks.” Johnny gently touched his hand to his brother’s shoulder again, holding out the key and his saddlebag with the other. “Scott, you go on up to the room, get freshened up. I’ll see to the horses and meet you back here in a half an hour or so and then maybe we can go find something to eat? K” 

“Sure Johnny,” the blond mumbled as if from far away. “I’ll see you back here later.” He suddenly looked dead on his feet again, the saddlebags slung over his shoulder as if they were dead weights, the effort of putting one leg in front of the other as he wearily climbed the stairs sapping what little reserves of energy he had left.

The look of concern on the dark-haired man’s face as he watched his brother’s weary ascent didn’t escape the eagle-eyed hotel manager. “Something wrong with him?” It wasn’t concern for the exhausted looking young man that prompted the enquiry, more so his own selfish fears of the damage it would do to his exclusive business should sickness break out on the premises.

Johnny shook his head. “Just tired. He’s just tired, is all.” The response was more to try and reassure himself than for the benefit of the snooty proprietor whose concerns he couldn’t have cared less about. But he knew deep down it was more than fatigue that assailed his brother and it was clear that, whatever it was, it was getting harder and harder for Scott to contain it. 

He found the livery opposite the town’s second hotel, at the other end of the main street. It was clear why the stuck up proprietor had suggested it would be an establishment more suited to the darker haired young man as he caught a glimpse of his dirty and disheveled appearance in the window. His three day growth of beard, sweat stained shirt, and low fitting calzoneras were clearly at odds with the image the man liked to paint of his preferred customers. Here, though, was an establishment favored by the more rustic clientele. He grinned sardonically to himself. He guessed he couldn’t blame the man for being concerned that Johnny’s presence in his higher-class hotel would lower the tone.

The hotel manager had been right in his prediction that the livery owner would be closing early.  He didn’t look none too happy to see the approaching man, clearly recently arrived off the trail, leading two horses and a pack mule. His mood lightened, considerably, however when he saw the color of the stranger’s money, and pulled the doors open once more. Not many people paid in advance around these parts.

He showed Johnny to a couple of empty stalls and the stockpile of straw that he used to bed the equines down with to make them comfortable for the night. The liveryman was happy to leave the stranger alone, evidently in a hurry to get somewhere and so he left Johnny to his ministrations.  He made light work of removing the saddles and harnesses and set to work tending to their trusty steeds. He curried both horses and the mule, to get rid of the dirt and detritus that had built up over the past few days, and then forked in a plentiful supply of hay to make them comfortable. Leaving his and Scott’s bedrolls in a corner of the stall he grabbed both their saddles and a few extra things they would need and headed out back in the direction of the hotel. Not looking back, he was oblivious to the shadowed figure, who had entered town on foot a short time after he and Scott had, silently ducking into the stable unseen by any of the townspeople and transients still milling about in the street. A man who unwittingly would provide the catalyst for the biggest test of Johnny Lancer’s relationship with his hermano since they had come together less than a year earlier.

As he headed back to the hotel he mulled over Scott’s reaction to signing the register, reminded of something that Murdoch had said the night before they had left. Scott had retired early; still recovering from his mild dose of sunstroke and Teresa had also excused herself for the night. Father and younger son had remained in the great room to enjoy a glass of scotch and finalize the plans for the trip. As they discussed the planned route and how long it would take, Murdoch had consulted the calendar and had asserted that they should be in Oakhurst before the 25th. At the time, Johnny hadn’t felt the reference important, figuring that Murdoch had meant, all being well, and bar no complications, they would be there by that date. But now he thought more on it, the intonation on the word ‘should’ had been different. Like Murdoch was hinting that they needed to be there by then. And with Scott’s reaction to the date in the register, Johnny couldn’t help feeling there was a link; that the date held some kind of significance and that maybe Murdoch knew what that was. Johnny couldn’t help feeling peeved that the Lancer patriarch hadn’t seen fit to furnish him with what might have been a crucial piece of information when it came to understanding what was going on with Scott but he couldn’t be sure it really was significant. Maybe he was just clutching at straws? Anyway, it was the least of his concerns for now. He was suddenly reminded of the supposed reason for the ’business’ trip to Oakhurst. He couldn’t put it off for too much longer. He’d go and see how Scott was faring and make a call on whether to wait for morning or not. 

As it was, the decision was taken out of his hands.

As he entered their shared room, Scott was standing by the open window, looking out onto the street as darkness began to fall. An oil lamp burned on the nightstand, casting an unnatural light, which made his brother's pallid skin appear even more ghostly in its hue. He had made no attempt to shave or clean himself up despite having had more than enough time to do so. The only change was that he had removed his gun belt and tossed it carelessly onto the back of the velvet-backed chair. Knowing how meticulous Scott usually was when it came to his ablutions and appearance, it was another indication that things were still far from right with him.

“Horses are all bedded down,” Johnny volunteered as he set the rest of their supplies down on the floor. There was no response. Scott just continued staring, arms folded, as if he was waiting for something.

“Scott?” Johnny ventured expectantly. “What’s up?”

The blond took a deep breath and turned towards him, cobalt eyes all the more iridescent thanks to the slumbering fever that was once more making its presence known.

“I’m fine. Just tired”

Johnny was tired too, and it wasn’t just his own fatigue from days in the saddle and lack of sleep that had his patience wearing thin, he was tired of his brother fobbing him off all the time

“Oh, you know what, Boston? You’re something else, you really are.”

“Get it said brother.”  There was the clipped, quiet tone that Scott used on the rare occasions when he bordered on losing his temper. Usually it was a warning that his brother heeded but Johnny was beyond walking away this time. He had had enough the past few days and if things needed to come to a head it might as well be here and now.  

“Alright, Scott, I’ll say it. I don’t’ care what you say; there’s something really wrong with you. You’re hardly sleeping and when you do sleep you’re waking up yelling and screaming. And don’t try and tell me they’re just bad dreams because I ain’t buying it. Yesterday you were so damned exhausted I had to ride alongside you for the last couple of hours to stop you falling off your horse and then had to haul your sleeping carcass into your bedroll. I’m worried sick about you brother not to mention what you’ve been putting Murdoch and Teresa through these past months and all you’re doing is pushing us all away. Now I wanna know, here and now, what’s going on. Don’t you think I’ve got a right to know?”

He looked at his brother pleadingly, to see if there was any indication that he was getting through to him. Scott seemed to consider for a moment and then turned away, walking towards the bed before rounding on him angrily.

“So Murdoch’s concerned is he? Is that why he sent me away on this fool’s errand, with you as chaperone? To salve his conscience?” he spat, contemptuously.

Johnny was incredulous. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

“Oh come on Johnny. You really think I would have fallen, for that cock and bull story, if you’ll pardon the pun?”  He laughed mockingly at his own attempt at humor.

“What you talking about Scott?” Johnny drawled quietly, his heart thudding in his chest.

Scott smiled and shook his head sadly, “Oh come on Johnny. Do I really have to spell it out?”

“I guess so,” the ex gunfighter agreed, stalling for time.

Scott seated himself on the bed.  If he hadn’t done so he didn’t think his legs would have held him up for much longer but he didn’t want Johnny to see that. Instead he fixed him with the coldest stare he could muster. 

“Alright, little brother. I’ll spell it out for you. There are no bulls, and no Joel Tyler here right now and I doubt there ever was. Am I right?”  He knew he was. He just wanted to hear what Johnny’s response would be.

Johnny returned his brother’s hardened stare. “How long have you known?”  He murmured softly.

“Since before we left.”

“How come you went along with it? If you knew all along?”

It had suited Scott’s own agenda to get away but he wasn’t about to let Johnny off the hook that easily. “I wanted to see how far you would take it.” Scott shook his head, still incredulous that they could have thought he would ever have fallen for such a pathetic story.  “Old friendship or not, Murdoch was never going to sign a contract to bring any kind of livestock across the trail we just passed, or any other mountain trail for that matter. It doesn’t make good business sense to have to bring valuable animals like that across such dangerous country when it’s easier to go to Stockton or Green River to the markets there. I could tell that just by looking at the maps, so there had to be another reason why Murdoch needed me out of the way.”

“Now wait a minute, Scott,’ Johnny interjected, crossing the room towards him, but Scott interrupted, rising from his seated position and headed away from his brother back towards the window.

“So the only conclusion I could draw,’ he continued, “Was that, clearly, I was causing him some embarrassment, which is why the elaborate business trip was concocted by Murdoch, you, hell, even Doc Jenkins was in on the little conspiracy. Oh, and Teresa even packed us some supplies. I thought that was a nice touch,” he added sarcastically. Johnny could feel the anger rising in him as Scott continued with his tirade.

“My Grandfather did something similar a few years ago when I came home from the war. Pulled a few strings, got me into Harvard but it was all for appearance. Truth was the nightmares were waking up the servants. You see Johnny, it doesn’t do to show weakness in front of the lower classes; I was an embarrassment to him.”

He turned back to face Johnny, his face now moist with sweat, as he continued.  

“I guess I should thank him though. Harvard focused my mind; gave me a chance to be anonymous, to not feel I was being scrutinized by people who thought they knew what was best for me.” He smiled ironically.   “I guess Murdoch and Grandfather are more alike than either would care to admit. What is disappointing, though,” he reflected sadly, “is that you, in particular, would have thought for one minute that I would be stupid enough to fall for your little conspiracy.”

Johnny couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Hold on a damn minute, Boston.  Now I know you’re not thinking straight. Yeah, Murdoch made up that story about Tyler and the contract, and for the record, I said you likely wouldn’t buy it, but he only did it because he figured you needed to get away; to get some time and space and deal with whatever it is that’s been eating at you.  Hell, Scott, he’s as worried about you as the rest of us but you were pushing everyone away and knowing how private you are he knew what it would do to you if things came to a head at the ranch. He didn’t want to send you away but he thought it was the only way to help you and not lose you.”

Scott stared at him impassively. “You really expect me to believe that?” he countered.

Johnny hesitated, taking in the sheen of perspiration on his brothers’ brow, the darkened sweat matted bangs plastered to his face, and the fever bright eyes, framed by dark gray circles. “Yeah Scott,’ he responded sadly, “and if you weren’t so turned around, and mixed up, you would. But you’ve not  been seeing things straight for a long time and it’s about time you faced it.”  

Scott seemed to consider for a moment and then continued.  “You know Johnny, you’re right about one thing. I guess I haven’t been seeing some things clearly but I suppose I do have to thank you and Murdoch for finally opening my eyes and for giving me some perspective. Because you’ve finally made me see that it was a mistake coming to Lancer. I neither fit in nor belong there. Murdoch proved that by sending me away.” He had reverted to the polite, controlled Garrett tones he had arrived with all those months before. “So you have my gratitude, brother, and I now absolve you of any misguided responsibility you think you may have towards me.”

That was it; Johnny could no longer control the frustration and anger that had been welling up inside of him. “Fine, brother, you wallow and fester in your own misery, if that’s what you want. I’m through trying to reason with you. You don’t deserve to have people care for you.” Feeling the blood boiling inside of him, Johnny stormed out of the room before his desire to floor his brother overcame him entirely. He needed some time and space away to regroup and work out his next move.

Back in their room, Scott was unable to hold onto his burgeoning emotions any longer and collapsed onto the bed sobbing uncontrollably. It was destroying him to push the one person away that part of him so desperately wanted to confide in, but he was scared. So very scared that if Johnny saw who and what he really was; he would despise him; as he despised himself, and he couldn’t take that. So it was better to push him away now, before he knew the truth, Scott’s flawed reasoning asserted. He continued to sob until, exhausted, he fell into a fitful and fever fueled slumber.

***********************************************************************

Johnny headed straight for the livery. He was too churned up inside to even think of food now. All he could think of was going for a hard ride, with the wind in his hair, to try and clear his head. He wouldn’t take Barranca, he deserved his rest, but he was sure there was any number of spare horses there and what the livery owner didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him for a few hours. There would be spare saddles there too but the way he felt right there and then, he’d ride bare back if he had to. He pulled open the door and reached for one of the oil lamps that hung just inside. He reached into his pocket for a match and lit the lamp, providing him with enough light to suit his purpose. He was startled to see a bewhiskered and disheveled looking man appear from the gloom.   His clothes were all tattered and torn and Johnny detected the distinct odor of hard liquor.

“Who are you?” Johnny demanded, taken aback at the man’s sudden appearance.

“Well, I’m in charge here Mister,” the man offered.

Johnny looked at him suspiciously, “You’re not the man I saw earlier?”

“Well, no sir, that’s right. He leaves me to take care of things at night, case of horse thieves, I reckon.” 

Johnny regarded him closely in the rapidly dimming light, noting the slight twitch at the corner of the man’s mouth. The smell of liquor was overpowering and Johnny doubted that any livery owner in his right mind would leave such a man in charge but his mind was too full of other things to argue.

“I need to borrow a horse for a few hours. Which ones belong to the stable?”

“Well, that’ll cost you two dollars mister,” the man responded quickly.

“What? Just to borrow a horse?”

“That’s the cost mister, take it or leave it. But I cain’t let you take one, unless’n you give me two dollars.”

Johnny shook his head in exasperation. Was everyone in this town out to con every hapless traveler?

He took out the coins from his pocket and tossed them at the opportunist Mudsill.

“Here, knock yourself out. Now which ones belong to the stable?”

But the drifter was too busy testing the coins between his teeth and gave an indifferent gesture towards the back of the livery. Johnny shook his head tiredly and headed off with the lamp to the rear stalls. He selected a spirited buckskin; it reminded him of one he had ridden back in his days on the drift. He attached the halter and led it out of the stall and back down towards the doorway. He passed Barranca and Rambler, the former sticking his head out at the smell and sound of his master. Johnny stopped and affectionately patted him on his neck, the palomino responding by nuzzling into him.

“Hey boy, don’t you fret, I’ll be back to see you later.”  He gave him one last muss and turned away again but as he did so, his shirt, at the shoulder, caught on a nail sticking out of the stall doorjamb and jerked him back. He heard the ripping sound and cursed. It hadn’t penetrated the skin but the shirt was ruined, a large flap hanging loose. Still, a ripped shirt was really the least of his worries right now. As he led the buckskin towards the main door, he failed to hear the gentle slap as something fell from him to the straw covered floor. As he headed out the door, replacing the oil lamp on the hook he had found it hanging from, the drifter called out, “Hey mister, ain’t you gonna take a saddle with ya? Can hire you one for an extra dollar?”

The only answer he received was the sound of galloping hooves as the dark haired young man mounted and sped off into the night.  The deadbeat chuckled to himself. There was one born every minute, he mused to himself as he retrieved the lamp and sauntered over to the spot where he had seen the object fall. He bent down with the lamp to take a closer look, the gold glinting in the firelight.  He picked up the medallion and placed it between what was left of his blackened and rotten teeth. As he took it out, a big grin spread across his face as he placed it in the breast pocket. That and the two dollars would be enough to keep him in liquor for a good while. With the lamp in his hand he headed back up to the hayloft where he had left his meager possessions and the bottle of whiskey that he planned to ply himself with for the remainder of the night.

 

**********************************************************************

He sat hunched in the pitch darkness, rocking back and forth, the damp seeping into his exposed flesh, the pain in his salt encrusted wounds not allowing him any rest. Even if the shards of agony that cascaded through his tortured skin every time he moved allowed him to sleep, he was petrified of what would happen if he did. He knew they were out there, beady eyes watching, waiting in the dark, for him to sleep so that they could gnaw on his ruined flesh. He didn’t know why he hadn’t died. He should have died. He wanted to die.  It was better than this living death; in the impenetrable darkness where time had no meaning and all he had for company were the pitiful wails of men similarly consigned slowly going mad, and the incessant scratching as they patiently bided their time and waited for him to falter. His rocking became more frenzied, as the insidious scratching escalated, the tortured cries around him intensified as if they were joining forces to torment him. He placed his hands over his ears to try and block out the noise. In the pitch dark, his mind started to play tricks as he imagined the thousands of unblinking eyes staring at him waiting for their moment to attack. He jerked himself around, trying to watch them coming from all directions, the tears coursing down his cheeks as the sudden movement ripped open his flesh anew; the coppery smell of his own blood in his nostrils. If he could smell it then so could they. And they were hungry.

The scratching was getting more frenzied now, and it was joined by the steady pitter-patter of tiny feet as they skittered across the room around him. They were taunting him; trying to wear him down, and they were succeeding. He grew more and more hysterical as they ventured ever closer. He flailed out, trying to protect himself but they were too clever for him, dodging him easily. They were used to this game and they always wore their prey down because they were patient; they could wait.  He grew more and more exhausted as he flailed out aimlessly at nothing, and felt the blood flowing freely down his back, as the crusted and fetid wounds split apart. Soon he was utterly spent. He curled up on his side in the rank smelling stream that tricked steadily through the darkened cellars that served as his dungeon. He closed his eyes and waited for them to come for him. He didn’t have to wait long. They knew they had him and wasted no time. The sound of tiny feet slapping against the wet stone intensified as they swarmed towards him. And then they were there, all over him, razor sharp teeth pulling and gnawing at his skin, their frenzied squeaks deafening in his ears as they called to others to join the feast. They quickly found his face, their whiskers tickling his skin, pawing at his eyelids, eager to get to the gelatinous matter that lay underneath. It all came too much as madness beckoned and he opened his mouth and screamed.    

Scott sat up with a start, gasping, drenched in sweat, his heart pounding. He sat there for a moment trying to regain his composure, still feeling the tingling on his skin.   It was getting harder to differentiate memory from nightmare. Had that really happened, or was it a figment of his troubled mind? Scott didn’t know anymore. All he knew was he wanted it to stop. He couldn’t go on like this for much longer. He was glad of the light from the lamp that still burned and that Johnny had not yet returned, if, he was going to at all. He had said some very unforgivable things to his brother and he knew that he’d hurt him deeply. But he couldn’t allow Johnny to know about his demons. He wouldn’t understand. How could he?  Not trusting his legs to carry him, he crawled onto the floor and reached for the saddlebag and the comfort of the bottle that lay within. This time he didn’t need the coffee to go with it. He wanted to drink himself into oblivion and there was enough left to do just that.  

 

***********************************************************************

Johnny headed north out of town. He realized it was foolhardy riding hard at night but there hadn’t been an opportunity to kick back and feel the wind in his hair on the journey thus far and he needed something to cool the fire that burned in his veins. He rode north out of town, the buckskin responding well to his urging, seemingly enjoying the late night sojourn as much as his rider was. The growing moonlight cast a silvery hue on the surrounding landscape, and it was a cool and calming influence on the impassioned ex gunfighter. After half an hour or so, he came upon a lake; not the one they had seen from the top of the ridge earlier that afternoon, but a much smaller one that had been obscured by the heavy forest that lay before it. The moonlight, glinting on the ripples of water kicked up by the gentle breeze, gave the impression of liquid silver. It was still warm and Johnny was suddenly conscious that he hadn’t had a chance to clean off the trail dust since his arrival in Oakhurst. The water looked mighty inviting too. 

He dismounted and ground tied the buckskin and quickly removed his boots, socks, shirt and calzonera’s and slowly walked, naked as the day he was born, into the sparkling water. He gasped as he waded to mid torso level. Despite the warm summer evening, the lake was icy cold, but he soon adjusted to the cooler temperature on his skin and lay back allowing the water to cleanse his skin as well as his soul.

He emerged twenty minutes later, shivering but clear headed once more. He quickly toweled himself with his shirt and dressed and then sat back against a fallen log to think before heading back to the hotel. He wanted to give Scott time to get to sleep. After living in each other’s pockets for the past 5 days or so they both needed a little time and distance apart. Especially Scott. He realized that his brother’s harsh words stemmed from a tired and overwrought mind rather than what he really felt. In his right mind Scott was too level headed to think that Murdoch would have just sent him away after the work that he had put into forging a relationship with his estranged sons over the past nine months. Even Johnny could see that and he had been the one that had taken longest to come around. Ironically it had been Scott’s influence that had made him see what he was throwing away when he had tried to leave in the tumultuous early days of their life at Lancer. Scott had been there for him and made him see reason, had penetrated the stubbornness and quelled the anger with reasoned arguments. And by still allowing the decision to stay to be his and his alone, Johnny had felt able to return to the hacienda without feeling he had lost face. 

Now the roles were reversed and Scott had gotten himself into a position where he had made it almost impossible to allow himself to accept help from anyone or for them to offer it to him. Murdoch had, at least, understood what his older son had needed and had tried to play it his way by giving him the ‘out’ that he wanted, sending him on the contrived ‘business trip’ but it had backfired. Even though Murdoch had done it for all the right reasons, he wasn’t to know that Harlan Garrett had done something similar years before for all the wrong ones. And it stood to reason in his overwrought state that Scott would make the comparison.

But finally, Scott had provided some clues as to what lay at the root of his precarious mental state. He had alluded to the nightmares he had when he came home from the war; the reason that his Grandfather had sent him away to Harvard. Over the past nights, Johnny had heard enough of his brother’s protestations and entreaties to know that Scott was reliving events from his past and that the memories were becoming more vivid and terrifying. Johnny had noted the scars on his brother’s back and had seen the haunted look that had been a constant presence in Scott’s eyes since Dan Cassidy and Jed Lewis had brought the latent memories crashing back.

Going to Harvard had maybe focused his mind back then and enabled him to suppress all the terrible things he had seen and experienced but they had only lain dormant and it was inevitable that somewhere along the line something would trigger them back to the surface. The way Johnny figured it, that was what was happening to Scott and he now seemed to be unable to bury them like he had before. The only way he was going to get through this was to face his demons, confront them head on, and talk them through with someone before they destroyed him entirely. He knew what it was like to live with things that you’d just as soon forget. Living by the gun for as many years as he did, he had more than his fair share, but sooner or later you had to face them and conquer them before they conquered you.  So that was how he had to deal with Scott; to quit pussy footin’ around him and start getting tough; make him talk and make him deal with the memories and help him move on.  Decision made, Johnny lay there lulled by the sound of the crickets and the gentle breeze as it whispered through the trees and, without meaning to, and overcome by the mental and physical exhaustion of the past few days, fell into a deep and dreamless slumber.    

 


Chapter 8

It was the pounding that woke him this time. At first he thought it was the incessant throbbing in his head, the legacy of the now empty bottle that lay on the floor in front of him, but as awareness returned he realized that someone was frantically hammering at the door.  He struggled to raise himself into a sitting position, wondering tiredly why he was lying on the floor and, particularly, why Johnny had allowed him to do so. It was still dark, the oil lamp long since burned down to the wick but through the window Scott could see an unnatural glow. Even in his whiskey and fever addled state he could tell that it was too bright, too artificial to be the first light of dawn breaking.

“Mister Lancer open up…you in there?”

He stumbled to his feet wearily, his stiffened body protesting from too long lying on the hard wooden floor. As he leaned against the bed, waiting for a wave of dizziness to pass, he noted that there was no sign of Johnny.  The other bed was untouched. He made his way slowly to the door and opened it.

The proprietor was now half way down the corridor but turned back as he heard the click of the door as it swung open. “What’s wrong?” Scott enquired wearily.

“Fire down at the livery; every available man is needed to help put it out.”

Scott took the information in for a moment. Their horses were stabled there. Maybe that’s where Johnny was.

“Is my brother down there?”

“I haven’t seen him but most all of the town is down there right now, getting the horses out and trying to save the stable. Best get down there, they need every pair of hands they can get.”   

Scott nodded. Despite the whiskey fueled headache and generally feeling wretched, he was concerned about Johnny and the horses. Fond as he was for his own mount; he knew just how much the palomino meant to his brother. He grabbed his hat, then closed the door behind him and followed the hotel proprietor down the stairs and out onto the main street. It wasn’t hard to see where he needed to head.

The livery was well alight when he got there and Scott could see that, despite the chain of men throwing bucket upon bucket of water at the hungry flames, it was clear they were fighting a losing battle.

He soon ascertained that all the horses had been saved. From the way the fire was burning when it was discovered, it appeared to have started in the roof and so when the alarm had been raised there had been time for the livery owner and a few volunteers to brave the smoke and lead the frightened animals out. Scott was relieved to hear that they had all been temporarily corralled on the edge of town. Amongst the frenetic activity he had looked for Johnny but couldn’t immediately see him. However, that wasn’t surprising; in the luminescent firelight it was impossible to tell one soot-blackened face from another.

Scott joined the chain of men as they futilely tried to contain the blaze but the origin of the fire made it impossible to extinguish. All anyone could do was watch as the blaze progressed to the lower levels, and try to prevent it from spreading to the surrounding buildings.  They continued on for an age, aimlessly flinging inadequate buckets of water at the flames that danced arrogantly, consuming everything that got in the way.  Suddenly there was a loud rumble and a shout to take cover as the upper level collapsed in on the rest of the building.

A loud cry of dismay went up from the livery owner, as the collapse confirmed what he had known ever since the fire had been discovered; that the building could not be saved. The collapsing roof however, turned the tide in the fight against the inferno.  Within an hour, as dawn began to break, the livery was nothing more than a smoldering shell, tiny pockets of flames still trying to assert themselves but easily contained.

The Sheriff of Oakhurst and a few men were busy inside the blackened shell sifting for clues as to origin of the blaze, with others busily forking out any combustible debris to prevent further re-ignition.

Exhausted, Scott turned his attention once more to finding Johnny. His brother didn’t appear to have returned to their room and the blond was concerned as to why, if Johnny had been here fighting the fire, he had not seen Scott arrive and make his presence known to him. He wondered if he was, perhaps, at the temporary corral checking on Barranca. He thought more of that horse than he did himself at times, Scott mused tiredly to himself. Still, it was one of the many things he admired about his newly found brother. As an ex-cavalryman, Scott had a lot of time for any man who tended to his horse before himself. He turned in the direction pointed out by one of the town’s men when he had enquired about the temporary corral, when suddenly he was stopped dead in his tracks by a cry.

“Sheriff, quick, over here.”

He turned and watched as the Sheriff slowly navigated his way through the smoldering debris in the direction of where the cry had gone up. Scott’s eyes were drawn to the source and the number of men who had already gathered there. He watched as one turned away and vomited. Scott swallowed against the dryness in his mouth as another cry went up.

“Best get someone to wake Tom Cole if he ain’t here already.”

Scott grabbed the arm of a man standing nearby. He had to ask the question, even though he already suspected he knew what the answer would be. “Who’s Tom Cole?”

“He’s the undertaker,” the man responded, “Looks like they found a dead one.”

Despite the fever that still burned within him, Scott felt his blood run cold. There was a body in there and Johnny was unaccounted for. He started to panic and looked around wildly, “Johnny?! Johnny!” he called, desperately hoping his brother was amongst the throng of exhausted and blackened faces but there was no response.

The man he had earlier spoken to touched his arm gently. “You missing someone, mister?”

Scott continued to pace desperately, trying to dismiss the growing fear that it could be Johnny lying in the blackened husk of the stable. He had sent him away, said some terrible things, and had hurt him. What if he had gone to the stable to sleep for the night? Not thinking he could go back to their room after the angry words that had passed between them? Many a time before now Scott had gone to his brother’s room and found the bed untouched and had eventually discovered him fast asleep in the straw next to his horse. What if that had been how things had turned out tonight? Then he would be responsible. He would have killed Johnny, the most important person in his life.

“My brother,” he murmured, “I can’t find my brother.”

He didn’t see the pitying look on the man’s face as he obviously drew the same conclusion that Scott was beginning to. He was too busy watching the Sheriff as the lawman extended a gloved hand for something then held it up to get a better look at it.

“Hey Sheriff.” The man who had been speaking to Scott yelled out, “This fella’s brother’s missin’” The Sheriff turned and started to make his way towards him. Scott’s legs felt like lead weights but he forced himself to put one foot in front of the other to meet the lawman halfway.   He could already see what the Sheriff held in his hand, he knew that medallion anywhere.  Johnny never took it off, would never be parted with it.

The Sheriff faced him grimly, the expression on the young mans’ face telling him all he needed to know but it was his duty to ask all the same.     “You recognize this son?” He held the medallion up. Part of it had melted in the extreme heat but it was still recognizable as his brothers’. There was no mistaking.

Scott swallowed and nodded. “I want to see him.”

The Sheriff shook his head. “Now that ain’t a good idea son, he don’t look pretty.”

“I said I would like to see my brother.” he said more emphatically this time. He tried to push past but the lawman barred his way, placing a firm hand on his shoulder. 

“I’m sorry, boy,” he asserted firmly, “I can’t let you do that. I don’t think your brother would want you to….”

He didn’t get time to finish.  Suddenly, Scott had taken the man’s .45 from his holster and had it trained on him. “Now I am going to take a look at my brother and you’re not going to stop me.”

Conscious that his deputy had become aware of what was transpiring and had drawn his weapon in response to seeing his Sheriff disarmed, the lawman held up his hand to warn him away. There had been enough tragedy tonight without another young life needlessly being lost. 

“Put your gun away Lou, I can handle this.”  He turned back to the young blond. It was clear he was in a state of shock, the color had drained from his face, and his whole body shook as he fought to steady the hand training the gun on him.

“Alright son, take it easy now. I’m real sorry about your brother but the body’s all burned up. You ain’t gonna recognize him. Wouldn’t serve no purpose to look on him.”

“I need to see for myself. Now stand aside Sheriff or so help me, I will shoot you where you stand.” Despite his obvious grief, it was clear that the young man wasn’t bluffing. He was past being reasoned with.

The Sheriff nodded sadly and stood aside, allowing the young man to go look upon the horrific site that had had one of the staunchest of his men heaving up the contents of his stomach.    

As Scott approached, he watched as the gathered men stood aside, every one of them respectfully holding their hats in their hands, shuffling awkwardly.  It was the smell that hit him first; an odor that he was all too familiar with, of charred and burnt flesh. And here was history repeating itself almost 8 years to the day since that hideous stench had first assailed his nostrils. You never forgot a smell like that. But back then, they had been nameless, faceless corpses, left to bloat and swell in the mid summer Mississippi heat. This, though, was his brother, the one person who had come to mean more to him than life itself. He looked down at the charred corpse. The sheriff was right; it was burned beyond all recognition but he couldn’t deny the brutal reality. Johnny was dead and it was his fault.

Scott Lancer could take no more. He dropped the weapon. It had served its purpose, and slowly turned and walked away, no longer aware of anyone or anything around him. He didn’t see the Sheriff holding what was left of his brother’s medallion out to him, instead walking right past him, his mind filling with the horrific memories and images that he had fought so long to keep at bay and now could no longer contain. All he saw was death, destruction and misery and he was always at the center of it. With a sob, he started to run, futilely trying to escape from the pain and the despair that assailed him. It was pure instinct that took him to the corral where he grabbed the first saddled horse he could find and rode out of town, he didn’t care where to. As far as he was concerned, he was already in hell. There was no place worse his mount could take him to.

The Sheriff watched sadly as the grief stricken man ran; watched as he took a horse and headed off in the direction of the Yosemite.

“Ain’t you gonna go after him, Sheriff?’ His deputy had appeared by his side and handed him back his side arm.

The Sheriff took it and placed it back in his holster and sighed. “Nope, grief’s a private thing Lou. Best leave him to work through it as best he can.”

“What about that?” The Deputy referred to the medallion the Sheriff still held in his left hand.

“Well, I’ll keep it here for when he’s ready to come claim it.”  He doubted though, that he ever would. It was as if seeing his dead brother had sucked the life out of the young man. With his sallow skin and pronounced cheekbones it looked like he, too, had been marked for death. He had bolted up into the Yosemite and looking at the clouds that had started to gather atop the mountains, he doubted the young man would last long up there. Nor whether he even wanted to.  He sighed sadly at the waste of a young life as he placed the damaged medallion in his pocket.

“C’mon Lou, ain’t no use thinking on one man. We gotta town to run and a helluva mess to clean up.”

 


Chapter 9

A strange sensation penetrated Johnny Lancer’s consciousness; a tickling feeling on his face, that persisted even though he tried several times to bat it away. He raised his hand once more and this time was answered with a derisive snort. He slowly opened his eyes and came face to face with the buckskin whose hunger had finally won over its patience and who had been trying, unsuccessfully for some time now, to rouse the sleeping man.

Johnny pushed its snout away and sat up with a start. The sun was already high in the sky, too high. It was clearly several hours past dawn, which meant he had been by the lake all night. The growling in his empty stomach confirmed it. It had been nearly twenty-four hours by his reckoning since he had eaten.

“Oh hell, “he cursed in dismay. He hadn’t intended to sleep at all. Scott would be wondering where the hell he was. Maybe even thinking he had run out on him entirely and that was the last thing he needed or wanted him to think.

He got up and quickly untethered the buckskin and swiftly mounted. “Sorry boy,” he apologized. “We’d best be getting back before we’re missed. If we haven’t been already.” He kicked his heels into the buckskin’s flanks and the horse responded, as eager to get back to town as he was, where it hoped a sumptuous meal of oats would be waiting for him.

Johnny headed back into town from the western end where he and Scott had entered only twelve hours or so before. He decided to stop at the hotel first to see if Scott was still there waiting for him. He tied the buckskin up at the hitching rail and went inside, taking the stairs two at a time. He knocked on the door first, just in case Scott was sleeping, to give him time to compose himself first, if need be, but there was no response. He tried the handle and found the door to be unlocked. He opened it and went inside.

The room was empty. One bed was slightly crumpled as if someone had slept atop it but the blankets were otherwise undisturbed. Both saddlebags remained where they had been left, and disturbingly, Scott’s gun belt remained draped over the chair. Johnny noted, too, with dismay the empty whiskey bottle discarded on the floor. There had been at least a third of it remaining when he had left his brother the night before. He knew because he had kept a very close eye on Scott’s liquor consumption.    Johnny cursed again at his own stupidity for allowing himself to fall asleep at the lake. He couldn’t seem to do anything right lately. It was clear that Scott still wasn’t thinking straight if he had soused himself up with whiskey, and he certainly knew better than to go out without his gun belt. He headed back down the stairs to see if he could find the hotel owner to see if he could shed any light on Scott’s whereabouts. However, the front desk was still unoccupied as it had been when he came in.

Johnny headed back out of the hotel and frowned. Strange, for the time of morning, he expected to see plenty of people milling about but nobody seemed to be around. He looked down the street and noticed the plumes of smoke rising from the eastern end of town. He had smelled wood smoke when he had ridden back in but really hadn’t given it too much thought. But now that he could see the smoke he realized the smell was too strong; too overpowering to come from ordinary woodstoves. This was something else. He unhitched the buckskin and headed down toward the livery.  It soon became apparent, though, that it was the source of the smoke he had seen. All that remained was a smoldering shell. Most of the town were still engaged in the clean up and shoring up the walls of the buildings either side to keep them safe. He dismounted and tied the buckskin up outside the hotel opposite and grabbed the nearest passer by.

“Hey, what happened here?”

The man looked at him as if he was an idiot. “Well, I would have thought that was obvious mister. Livery burnt down last night.”

“Yeah, but how?” Johnny countered testily. “What about the horses?”

“We got them out all alright. They’re all corralled on the edge of town, but some fella, well he weren’t so lucky”

Johnny’s relief that at least Barranca and Rambler were safe was short-lived.  “What d’ya mean not so lucky?”

The man rolled his eyes. “Well, whadd’ya think I mean, Mister? I mean they found a fella all burned up in there, unrecognizable so they say. Sheriff says it was some young fella passing through town.”

Johnny felt sick. There was no sign of Scott anywhere. What if he had gone to the livery looking for him after he had stormed out? Scott would have known he often sought out the company of his palomino when things were bothering him. After many years on the drift he still found it comforting at times to share a stall with his mount, having done so with the assorted horses he had had over the years. What if Scott had gone to make amends and something had happened and that was him now lying in the undertakers?

“Where’s the Sheriffs-office?” he demanded.

“Well, right back down the street next to the mercantile but you don’t need to go back down there. He’s right over there.” The man gestured to a broad looking man with his back to them, busily directing the clean up operation in what was left of the livery.

Johnny hurried over to him, his mouth dry, his stomach clenching at the prospect of what the Sheriff might tell him about Scott.

“Sheriff,” he called as the big man spun around.  “My name’s Johnny Lancer. I arrived in town last night with my brother. I left him at the hotel and camped out of town last night and now I can’t find him. I’m told that you found a body in here and….”

“Whoa, whoa, son, steady on,” the sheriff interrupted.  “Slow down there. Now what does your brother look like?”  The Sheriff was a smart man; you had to be to run a town like Oakhurst, and he was already beginning to put two and two together. Two men in one day, each looking for a missing brother, well it was more than coincidence.

“Well, he’s a little taller than me, lean, fair hair. Last time I saw him, he was wearing a dark blue shirt and dark pants.”

The sheriff nodded, it confirmed what he had surmised. “Yeah Mr. Lancer, I’ve seen your brother and don’t you worry, he ain’t the fella lying in the undertakers.” Johnny exhaled, unable to hide the relief he felt that Scott hadn’t been the one killed in the fire, although he now had a good idea who it really was. Despite his relief though, he noted the grim expression on the Sheriff’s face.

“But?”  He waited for the Sheriff to continue.  

“Well, like I say, while it weren’t your brother burned in the fire, he thinks it was you, as did we all until you just turned up.”

Johnny tried to take this in, “Well, how? I mean, what made him think it was me? Where’s Scott now?”

The sheriff put his hand in his vest pocket and retrieved the medallion and held it out to him. “This belong to you?”

Instinctively, Johnny reached up to his neck and realized that his medallion was no longer there. He hadn’t even missed it. With a sudden clarity he realized what must have happened. The chain was broken. It must have been ripped off when he snagged his shirt on the nail in the livery and the drifter had seen it and picked it up. It was obvious now that the body in the undertaker’s was his. The combination of the oil lamp and the amount of whiskey the man had been imbibing painted a very clear picture.

“Mr. Lancer?”

“Yeah, yeah it’s mine. Where’s Scott now?”

The Sheriff sighed. “Well, the whole town came out to fight the fire, including your brother, but, as you can see, we weren’t able to save the livery. As far as we could tell, the fire started somewhere up in the roof or thereabouts and so we couldn’t get to it before it spread too far. Eventually the roof collapsed and we were finally able to contain it by dawn. It was once we were going through the ruins that we found the body and he had this on it. Your brother came forward and said you were missing. When I showed him this, he insisted on seeing the body. I told him it was no good, body was too burned up to be recognizable, but he insisted. Before I knew what was happening he had my own gun on me and I had no choice but to let him look”

“Oh hell.” Johnny was suddenly very afraid for the young Bostonian. “Look Sheriff, where is he now? I need to find him, let him know I’m ok. It’s really important. Scott’s not well, and something like this, well I reckon it could send him over the edge.”

“I’m sorry son but I reckon it already has.’ The Sheriff reflected sadly. “Your brother took it real hard. I’ve seen that look before in a man, during the war. It was like he was suddenly dead inside; that there was nothing left to live for. He headed off to the corral and lit off on a horse up into the Yosemite. I don’t think he knew what he was doin’ or where he was goin’.”

“What? And you just let him go? What kind of people are you in this town? Couldn’t you see he was sick? ” Johnny was suddenly madder than hell but not just at the town of Oakhurst, mad at himself for letting his temper get the better of him the night before, for letting his own selfish needs outweigh those of his vulnerable brother by taking a ride out of town.

“Now hang on there a minute, young fella.  I got a whole town to take care of here and if I were to chase after every young fool who thinks they can take on the Yosemite then I’d never be around to do the job I was hired to do. For the record, if he hadn’t been back by tomorrow morning, I’d have taken a ride up the trail to see if I could find a sign of him and that’s more than I’d do for most. I kinda felt sorry for him if you wanna know.”

“Alright Sheriff, I’m sorry, but how long’s he been gone? I gotta get after him. He won’t survive up there on his own for long.” It hadn’t escaped Johnny’s notice that the top of the mountains were already obscured by thick dark clouds and he knew that conditions at that elevation could turn very quickly and be deadly if a man wasn’t prepared. And Scott certainly wasn’t.

“About four hours ago, a little after dawn. The pace he was going, he’ll already have a fair head start on you, if his horse hasn’t already thrown him or broken a leg and besides, there are any number of trails he could have taken.”

Johnny shook his head, four hours was a lot of ground to make up and he had no doubt that Scott would remain in the saddle. Despite his precarious mental state, his cavalry training was instinctive.

“Sheriff, I’m gonna go back to the hotel and get all the things I need and ask the hotelier to keep my brother’s saddle until we can come back to retrieve it. Can I ask you a favor?”

“Name it son.”

“Can I ask you to get me some trail grub, jerky, kinda stuff I can eat in the saddle, to last for several days, some extra blankets, things I might need up there while I look for Scott? I can pay.”

The hardened Sheriff looked at the shattered expression on the dark-haired young man’s face. He admired his loyalty to his brother, even if he didn’t share his confidence that he would find him and bring him back alive.

“Sure son.” He placed his hand gently on Johnny’s shoulder, “but you keep your money. The town’ll be glad to supply you with whatever you need.”

Johnny nodded his thanks, too choked up inside to say anything more.

An hour later, he had retrieved his saddle and all the rest of their belongings, entrusted Scott’s saddle to the care of the suddenly very helpful hotelier, and had gratefully taken receipt of the supplies gathered up by the sheriff and his deputy. In return he supplied them with the identity of the mysterious corpse so the sheriff could rule out any foul play and close the book on the case.  It was late morning as he headed out of Oakhurst on a heavily laden Barranca to find his ailing sibling and bring him back before it was too late.

The Sheriff shook his head sadly as he watched the weather close in. The Yosemite was very unforgiving towards those who were unprepared for her and he doubted whether Johnny would be able to find his brother before the rain washed his trail clean away.

 

************************************************************************

 

They died. Everybody died. Because of him.  His mother died so that he would live; his Lieutenant had died when he took the bullet that had been meant for him. He survived the disastrous assault on the fortress virtually unscathed, covered with the blood and gore of all the corpses around him. He had sent sixteen men to their deaths, and yet he still lived. And now he had sent the one person he had allowed himself to get close to, to bond with, his brother, Johnny, to his death too; his corpse burned and blackened beyond recognition. The vision played over and over in his tortured mind, along with the faces of all the others who haunted his dreams and memories. They all stared at him accusingly. He had killed them all and was damned, damned to the living hell he found himself existing in.  He no longer deserved to be around the living; he didn’t want to hurt anyone else. Let fate do with him what it would. With a sob he spurred his mount on and let him carry him deep into the wilderness and away from civilization. Within a few hours, and utterly spent, he fell forward over the creature’s neck and let merciful oblivion take him.

 

********************************************************************

 

It hadn’t been difficult to find the trail that Scott had taken, nor to see that he was pushing the horse hard. Johnny was concerned that, if he continued at that pace, he was going to run the horse into the ground. But it could be many hours before that happened and in the mean time there was no way that Johnny could match that pace on a heavily laden Barranca. Which meant Scott would get further and further ahead of him and with the weather closing in all the time there was a real risk of the tracks getting washed away entirely.

As predicted, the trail did get harder to follow as the day wore on and visibility diminished. It was only testament to Johnny Madrid Lancer’s tracking skills, that he was able to keep on the right path, and then it was only down to pure luck that he had chosen one trail over another by the toss of a coin and was rewarded a few yards on by the discovery of a pile of recently dropped manure. Johnny thanked divine providence for setting him on the right path and continued on his way. As he entered a heavily forested part of the trail he was heartened to see hoof impressions still visible, not yet washed away by the rain, which had more difficulty penetrating the thick canopy that hung overhead. He was also able to note that the horse appeared to have slowed down some. Which meant that one, or both of them, was beginning to tire. He suspected both of them.   

The higher he got on the trail, the colder and damper it got. Johnny was glad of the warm jacket the sheriff had supplied him with as well as the slicker he wore atop it to keep out the worst of the rain. Scott on the other hand had no such protection. He was ill dressed and ill prepared for the elements and Johnny was desperate to find him before night fell. If this rain kept up he didn’t like his chances out there exposed to the elements. 

 

 *********************************************************************

  

He had been in the saddle for hours. He didn’t know how long, it was so easy to lose track of time in weather like this. The rain had closed in and despite his broad hat and cape, it wasn’t enough to prevent the dampness penetrating his coverings and soaking the woolen tunic beneath, making it sodden, heavy and uncomfortable. He had dozed for a time but as second in charge of his company it didn’t do to set a bad example in front of the men, even if they all took turns doing so. If the Lieutenant riding next to him had noticed he didn’t say anything. Perhaps he understood what it was like. Still, he was an officer and he needed to remain alert. While they were behind their own lines, still the enemy had been know to make sudden and opportune hit and run attacks on union supply trains; to wear the enemy down by cutting off their stores and munitions. It was dirty fighting but both sides were just as guilty as they tried to gain the upper hand in the increasingly bloody war that was tearing the country apart.        

He pulled his collar up further to stop the water dripping off of his hat and running down the back of his neck. Dusk was falling, casting dark shadows in the heavily forested area they were passing through and the rain persisted as it penetrated the dense canopy, further enhancing the heightening gloom. The young 2nd Lieutenant listened intently to the hushed tones of his company as they rode two abreast behind him through the forest, and the pitter-patter of the raindrops as they slapped the foliage. There was something wrong. The forest was quiet; too quiet. Suddenly his horse reared its head up and snorted. He leaned forward and patted its neck, speaking in soothing tones to pacify it. It was what saved him. The bullet skimmed over his head and connected with the temple of the Lieutenant and commander of the company, who was riding next to him. He watched in horror as, as if in slow motion, the dead man toppled silently to the ground. His horse reared up in fright, its nostrils flaring, and it was all the young officer could do to stop his own from throwing him from the saddle.

He pulled back on the reins and got the startled creature under control, withdrawing his pistol from his holster. More shots rang out and two more men fell from their mounts. They were sitting ducks, being picked off as easily as tin cans on a rock. It was the weapons they were after, and he couldn’t allow them to take them. They had to get through at all costs. They were desperately needed on the front line and would mean the difference between victory and defeat.  The rebels likely knew that too, which was why they had risked flanking the enemy to launch such a daring attack. They had to know it was a suicide mission and doomed to failure. Unless…with horror the new Lieutenant, for he was now in charge of the company whether he liked it or not, realized what the true intent of the skirmish was. They weren’t trying to take the munitions; they planned to destroy them.

Flattening himself down against the neck of his foaming mount, to avoid the flying bullets, yelling “To me, to me” he galloped back down the line past the procession of wagons and carts to where the cannons were at the rear of the company, summonsing as many men as he could to follow him.

All the rebels had to do was take one cannon and they could blow the whole supply train to kingdom come. He could already see that was the plan as he spied the bodies of those who had been charged with guarding the rear gun carriage splayed across the rain sodden ground. There was only one man left, a young sergeant bravely trying to hold them off but already injured from a bullet wound to the upper chest. As he continued to fire on those that had him pinned down he failed to see the rebel behind him come charging out from the cover of the trees and plunge his bayonet into his back. With a whoop the rebel circled his hand in the air as signal to his hidden comrades that the coast was clear. His victory was short-lived. He was, quickly, downed by a single bullet to the head from the young Lieutenant.

It was too late to stop the charge though, the rallying cry had gone up and soon more then twenty rebels hurtled out of the dense forestation; their only intent to take the gun and blow the train and all the munitions to kingdom come. But they had left their move too late; the union soldiers had regrouped and thanks to the quick thinking of their surviving officer, had rallied to protect the precious cannons so badly needed on the front line.

A fierce gun battle ensued with heavy casualties on both sides, the young Lieutenant in the thick of it as he led charge after charge by those still mounted, cutting many of the retreating rebels down with his sabre. The skirmish raged for what seemed like an age as the rain intensified and the impending storm moved in. Lightning illuminated the deepening gloom making it easier to spot the rebel gray, as they tried to dart in and out of the trees to make good their escape. It was a lost cause though as the reinforcements arrived from the front line a mile ahead, sent back to make sure the munitions got through at all costs.

The Lieutenant reined his horse around as he watched the last of the scurrying enemy taken down with a bullet to the back. They had succeeded. But he didn’t see the mortally wounded rebel lying propped against the gun wagon, desperate to take a Yankee officer down before he met his maker, raise his rifle and pull the trigger. As the bullet creased the side of his skull, a sudden flash of lightning illuminated the sky followed by a tumultuous thunderclap. His mount reared up, and with pain exploding in his head, he fell to the ground and knew no more.  

 

***********************************************************************

 

It was with a great deal of reluctance that Johnny decided to stop for the night. Visibility was fading rapidly and dusk was falling. He had heard the low tones of thunder far off and realized that a storm was heading in. He still hadn’t found Scott and he was desperate to continue but he knew it was pointless to try and do so as night fell. It would be impossible to track him in the dark, and getting himself lost or set off for miles on the wrong trail was certainly not going to help Scott. Nor was it worth risking breaking one of Barranca’s legs or his own neck, as they fumbled across the rocky terrain in the thick of night. No, that wasn’t going to do Scott any good at all. It was better to make camp and set out again in the morning and hope that his brother had managed to find some kind of shelter to wait out the night.

With a heavy heart he set to making himself and Barranca a large enough bivouac, to shelter them both from the storm, as he could. After an hour he was sat propped against his saddle in his makeshift shelter, as dry and warm as he could be, chewing slowly on a piece of jerky. He had no appetite but he forced himself, knowing he would need all the strength he could muster if he was to find his brother and take him home. But sleep would not come. With every flash of lightning and crash of thunder he thought of his brother, out there in the wilderness alone and he was unable to prevent the tears from silently rolling down his cheeks at the thought that he might already be too late to save him.

 


Chapter 10

Cora McClintock pulled her slicker tightly around her as she set out leading her trusty mule, Esme, down the trail away from her shack. She cursed the unpredictability of the climate up in the mountains. The Yosemite had its own weather patterns and it didn’t much care if it was summer anywhere else. As far as the Yosemite was concerned, it did what it liked. And last night it had put on a dramatic lightning storm with torrential rain to accompany it that had made sleep virtually impossible. The aftermath meant the trails would be boggy and the bear sign difficult to follow if the traps she had set the day before remained empty. Now at least the rain had eased to a persistent drizzle but even that seemed to seep into every pore, as the drips ran off the top of her broad rimmed hat and crept down the back of her neck, soaking her from the inside out.

Staying hunkered down in front of a warm fire all day, listening to the persistent rain had been an attractive proposition after the sleepless night she had spent but Crazy Cora, as she was known to the town dwellers of Bootjack and Mariposa, made her living from bear trapping. She was reliant on trading furs for supplies and if she didn’t check the traps today there wouldn’t be time to skin and dry out the pelts in time for Eli’s monthly visit up from Bootjack. And so she had reluctantly harnessed the travois, on which she transported the carcasses, to the back of her aged mule and had set out to check her traps, the insipid cold wet drizzle seeping into her arthritic bones as she traversed the saturated trails.

After a few hours Cora wished she had gone with her first instinct to stay put at the shack for the day. The first three traps that she checked yielded no quarry; not even any bear sign to show they had been tempted. Not that she was surprised. The inclement weather would have prevented the grizzlies from wandering down from higher ground. She snorted derisively to herself “Even the bears have got more sense than to come out in weather like this.”

Tired, wet and ornery from the aching in her bones, all she could think of was getting back to the security of the shack and warming herself with a bowl of the broth she had prepared for herself the night before. It was a mighty tempting prospect to turn back and abandon the search as a bad job, especially as it looked like the weather was closing in again. The mist that accompanied the steady drizzle was reducing visibility and if she didn’t go back soon it would be easy to lose the trail. But supplies were running low and if she didn’t have enough pelts to trade with Eli, well, it would be a hard month making do without all the provisions she relied on. So, despite her yearning for the warmth of the fire, and the thought of a good meal, she pressed on. In the days to follow she would come to realize that the decision had been just another way of fate guiding the paths of two people who, in their own way, had been lost. That was how she came to find the young man; a discovery that was to change the course of life, as she knew it, forever.

He was lying just to the side of the trail, face down and unmoving when she first caught sight of him. Her first instinct was to grab the scattergun, sheathed on Esme’s back. She looked around, on high alert. Not many folk came up this way, certainly if they didn’t need to but the wilderness was a great place to dump a body if you didn’t want it found. Any number of predators would soon make light work of the corpse and destroy the evidence. She listened for some time, for any sign of movement in the undergrowth; any indication that she was being watched and this was some elaborate trap, but all she heard was the steady patter of the rain on the surrounding foliage. She turned her attention back to the motionless form on the sodden ground in front of her.

“Mister, ya got a scatter gun pointed right at ya so if this is some kinda ruse you’d best give it up now before I pepper ya with shot.”

There was no response. Cora took another look around and noted the charred tree stump close by. The lightning had cleaved the tree clean in two, sending the trunk crashing down and blocking the trail that headed back down towards Oakhurst, a days ride to the east.  She looked down at the prone form once more. From his position, pressed into the mud and the accumulating puddles around him, it was clear he had lain there for some time. He was soaked clean through to the skin. The frenzied hoof print impressions that now pooled with water, coupled with the evidence of the tree, told its own story. He had been on horseback and the lightning strike had spooked his horse and he had been thrown, which likely meant he had been there all night. There was no sign of his mount; that was probably long gone, if it hadn’t broken its neck trying to frantically get back down some of the steeper inclines of the trail.

Applying the caution that had kept her alive as a woman living alone in the wilderness for the past five years, she gently tapped the side of the man with her boot. Still there was no response. This time she dug a bit harder. If he was feigning he wouldn’t be able to suppress a groan as steel tips connected with ribs. But again, there was no reaction.

Cora sighed. Satisfied that it was safe enough to put down her gun she bent and turned the man over onto his back. She regarded his waxen features, the dirt matted hair plastered to his face, the bluish tinge to his lips. He was young, and handsome too, she reflected sadly, too young to have died alone this way. Aside from a few scratches on his face, there wasn’t a mark on him, that she could tell, but his ashen features displayed no visible sign of life. He had probably died of exposure, she reflected; dressed only in a thin navy shirt, and light slacks. The front of his body was caked with mud where the water had pooled beneath him, turning the dry trail dirt into a sticky quagmire.  It had been raining for most of the afternoon before and into the night and she wondered why he was so inappropriately dressed so far up into the mountains. The storm couldn’t have taken him by surprise. Anyone who knew this country would have seen it coming and would at least have had a slicker with them to protect them from the elements.

Well, she mused to herself, that didn’t matter none now. She couldn’t leave him here like this that was for darned sure. She didn’t have anything with her to dig a grave with but she had a shovel back at the shack. She could manhandle him onto the travois and take him back with her and make sure he got a proper burial. It wasn’t much but it was the very least she could do for the kin that he maybe had out there who would perhaps always wonder what had become of him, as she had wondered about her own boys.

She blinked back tears at the tragedy of a young life lost and the painful personal memories it evoked. “Heck, Cora,” she chastised herself, “Yer  gettin’ too soft in yer old age, for all ya know, he could have been a killer or somethin’.” Looking down at the finely sculptured features, though, and the well-tailored clothes now ripped and ruined by the elements, something told her positively that was not the case.

She grabbed both his limp arms and crossed them across his torso, like an undertaker would lay out a corpse, making it easier to get purchase under his shoulders and drag him to the travois. As she did so, she thought that she felt a slight flicker in one of his wrists. She looked down at him, eyebrows raised. Surely not? Removing her hat, to reveal graying hair scraped back into a tight knot, she bent down and placed her ear against his saturated chest. She listened for a moment trying to drown out the sound of the pitter-patter of the rain as it slapped the waterlogged ground. Her persistence was rewarded and she grew incredulous as she heard the faint flutter of a heart beat. He was still alive! Lord knows how and he wouldn’t be for much longer unless she got him out of the rain and warmed up, but somehow the comatose young man had managed to hold onto his tenuous grip on life.  Cora figured at least she owed it to the youngun’ to give him every chance she could as he fought to survive. Even if it was a fight he was destined to lose, she at least wanted to ensure his last hours on this earth would be warm and comfortable with someone who cared. Not lying here like this where no one would know what had happened to him. This was some mother’s son, Cora resolved. She had been a mother once, she knew what it was like to have sons who never came home; always wondering what had happened to them, whether someone had cared for them in their last hours, given them a decent burial when they had passed. She would never know. But this mother’s son would get the care he needed. She would see to that.

Used to dragging the carcasses of grizzlies three times the size of the young man, she easily manhandled him to the travois and covered him with the tarpaulin she used to protect the valuable carcasses from the elements, to shield him from the worst of the rain. She secured him in place and then finally, reached for the hat sitting pathetically a few yards away in the middle of the trail. It was a good one and the boy would need it if he got well, she justified to herself. Truth was though, she didn’t hold out much hope and, besides, it was a shame to let it go to waste she thought guiltily. Eli might accept it as trade.

She replaced her own hat, setting the boy’s on his chest under the tarpaulin and pulled on Esme’s halter, and set off back up the trail towards her remote shack with her unresponsive charge.

It took longer to get back up the trail than it had to come down it, partly because of the heavier load but more so because of the mud-slicked track that made it treacherous and had the old mule slipping and sliding as she tried to pull her cumbersome load. Gravity sent rivulets of water cascading down the mountains, turning the trails into mini rivers. Despite the cold and the damp, by the time the shack came into view, Cora was running a sweat from the strain of pulling and coaxing the skittish mule up the slippery terrain. There hadn’t been time to check on the boy; Cora figured it was better to get back as fast as they could rather than waste time fussing and fretting over him. He needed warmth and he needed it soon. Still, with the time it had taken to get back she expected to find him already expired on the travois but as she pulled back the tarpaulin closely tucked around him and pressed her fingers to the pallid skin at his neck, she was heartened to still find a faint pulse.

She positioned Esme in the covered lean to, out of the elements and made light work of releasing the unconscious boy from the bonds securing him to the travois, resolving to see to her trusty mule as soon as she had her young charge settled in a warm bed.

Despite his tall frame, he was not as much as a dead weight as she expected him to be. She slid her arms under his shoulders and easily dragged him into the shack.

She pulled him over to the far end of the dwelling to where her cot was situated and propped him in a seated position against the side of the bed, while she pulled back the meager blankets and coverlets. Bending, she set to stripping him, first pulling off his boots and socks and making short work of removing the thin shirt and ripped pants that clung to his clammy skin. Finally she paused as he sat there unmoving in just his cut away undergarments, his head lolled on his bare chest, oblivious to the ministrations of the middle-aged woman who had found him.

She shook her head, mentally chastising herself and grabbed the waist band of the sodden underwear, pulling them down and off over his ankles in a swift motion and tossed them aside with the rest of his ruined clothes. The boy needed to be warmed and fast, there was no room for modesty right now. Moving around to the other side of the bed, she leaned over and slid her arms under his shoulders and pulled his upper torso up onto the bed and then moved around to the other side again, lifted his legs up and positioned him lying prone on the cot. Next she gently lifted his head, placed the pillow beneath him and set him back down again. Finally she draped a cloth over his groin to afford the gravely ill man some dignity and set to work rubbing his extremities to get the circulation going again and bring some warmth back to his freezing skin.

An hour later, Cora had certainly worked up a sweat again, trying to bring warmth back to the waxen-featured young man. But the hard work was rewarded as he finally started to show some signs of life as his own body responded to the stimulation and he started to tremble. It was a sign that he was at least fighting back, an initial battle won, but it didn’t guarantee a victory in the war that was likely to rage in his weakened body once the inevitable fever took hold. Looking at his gaunt features, the pronounced cheekbones, hollow eye sockets and the prominent ribs, she suspected the boy had already been sick before being caught in the storm but she wouldn’t know for sure until he warmed up some more. She could also tell that this young man had suffered appallingly. The slithery white marks that hugged his ribs and criss-crossed his back horrified her; she had felt them before she saw them as she manhandled him onto the bed. Nor had the bullet wounds escaped her attention, at least one on either shoulder, and one of those pretty recent looking. What had happened to him to bring him to this state? And just who was this sick young man lying on her bed? She sighed. She would have to wait for those answers, if they would come at all. For now, she had done all she could.  He was settled under the inadequate blankets, supplemented with a couple of the diminished supply of dried out bear pelts and she would just have to wait and see whether what she had done for him was enough.

“Sorry boy,” she mused out loud referring to the bearskins covering him, “They don’t smell none too good, but I figure that’s the least of your worries right now.” She turned her attention to building up the fire and set a pot to heat up some water. He needed warming from the inside too and she hoped he could be roused enough to take some of the warmed fluids.  A loud braying outside suddenly reminded her that she had forgotten about Esme. “Aw, heck old girl, I clean forgot all about ya,” she called out to the perturbed mule. She hurried to the door, taking a brief look back at the unconscious man in her bed, before heading out to unhitch the travois and feed and bed down her faithful old friend.

 

********************************************************************

 

Johnny had set out again at first light. It had been a relatively sleepless night with the storm raging overhead and darkened thoughts about what he would tell Murdoch and Teresa if he had to go home without Scott.   

The rain had eased to a persistent drizzle but it was better than the torrential rain that had preceded it the day before and throughout the night. After feeding Barranca several handfuls of oats, which the palomino devoured gratefully, he slung the saddle over his trusty steed’s back, secured the cinch and loaded on all the other supplies he had gathered together.  He murmured apologies to his old friend in soft Spanish tones, for loading him down so, before remounting and heading off on the trail.

Luck was with him again. Scott’s progress had clearly slowed if the deeper hoof impressions were anything to go by. It had proven much harder for the rain to wash them away than if they had only been feint impressions left by a galloping horse. It meant that he was still on track and maybe had a chance of catching up with Scott today if the trail remained this easy to follow.

Two hours after starting out, he came across the bay. He was standing in the middle of the trail, nostrils flaring, cuts and abrasions all along his flanks. With his heart in his mouth, Johnny quickly dismounted and quietly moved towards the snorting creature, speaking softly so as not to spook it. He looked around for any immediate sign of Scott but there was none. From the look of the creature it was exhausted. He continued speaking softly to it as he ran his hand up and down its legs, checking for damage and was relieved to find none. He grabbed its halter and ground tied it to a tree stump nearby while he returned to Barranca and retrieved a good handful of oats, which the creature accepted gratefully. He placed more on the ground for the bay to eat its fill and rest up while he scouted around for any sign of Scott, calling out his name, but there was no sign and no response.        

So now Scott was on foot, wherever he was, if he wasn’t lying hurt or, worse, dead somewhere. Johnny swallowed his fear. Wherever he was, and whatever condition he was in, he couldn’t be too far away, he told himself. The bay needed more rest but Johnny had given him as much as he could afford to. He tied its bridle, to Barranca’s saddle and remounted, heading back up the trail, leading the exhausted bay behind them.        

By mid afternoon the weather appeared to be closing in again and he became more and more disheartened that he still had been unable to find any sign of Scott. He was fearful that he would have to spend another night out on the trail and that Scott, if indeed he was still alive, would spend another night exposed. Johnny was beginning to think about needing to build another shelter when he came upon the fallen tree across the breadth of the trail. It looked like it had happened recently. Beyond it he saw the remnants of the blackened stump where the lightning had struck, toppling the giant sequoia. There was just enough room to maneuver both horses past it, and that’s when he saw the sign that gave him the first real hope that he could be close to finding his brother. There was a hollowed impression in the boggy ground, the size of a man that showed that someone had been lying there for what looked to be some time. The frantic hoof impressions that showed a panicked horse had desperately tried to turn itself around, desperate to escape something. And then there were the smaller impressions now pooling with water, maybe a mule or a hinnie? Finally there were the boot impressions, a small man, or perhaps a woman and the curious looking drag marks. He looked around and saw they headed up another trail that deviated further upwards off the one he was on.

He tried to process it all. There had clearly been a lightning strike and it appeared that the frightened horse had reared up and thrown Scott and then bolted back down the trail before the tree had completed its descent. He couldn’t be sure but maybe Scott had lain there all night and someone had found him. He still didn’t know if he was dead or alive but he had to hope it was the latter. Why would someone bother with a corpse? Well, he wouldn’t find out waiting here and the weather and nightfall were once again, closing in. He remounted Barranca and turned him up the narrow and steep trail, the bay following dutifully behind.

 

*********************************************************************

 

It was mid afternoon as far as she could figure it by the time Cora headed back into the tiny shack, having cleaned all the caked mud off the elderly mule and settled her down with some good feed. The warmth of the fire was welcome as she opened the door, glad that there would be no further reason to go out in the rain. The mist had closed in and she pitied anyone traveling out there in the Yosemite in these miserable conditions. Many had been lost over the years and the Yosemite seldom returned those it claimed as its own. It kept its secrets well.

She headed over to the bed and looked down at the shivering form that occupied it. He hadn’t moved position at all; his eyes remained tightly shut. The blue tinge on his lips had been replaced with a more healthy pink but his skin was still too pale, his breathing still too shallow for her liking. She swept back the matted hair and laid her hand across his forehead. The heat was beginning to rise. She pulled back the bearskin and touched his chest, feeling the heat emanating from the clammy skin there too. He was definitely developing a fever. She frowned. It was too fast. Unless he had already been fevered beforehand and the soaking he had received had temporarily extinguished the fire that had burned within him. She replaced the pelt over him and turned to the hearth where she had left the heated water to cool. She poured some into a tin mug and returned to her patient. If he was going to battle a fever she needed to get as much water into him as she could before delirium took hold and made it impossible. She seated herself on the edge of the cot and tenderly lifted his head with her right hand, and guided the cup to his lips with her left, gently dribbling some of the warm liquid between his lips. Part of it flowed down his chin and pooled into the hollow of his neck but she noted his involuntary swallow action as at least a little of the fluid went where it was intended.

“That’s it son, you take a little more for Cora. I reckon yer gonna need all I can get ya to take for the next little while.” She offered some more and was rewarded as the insensible man instinctively took a few more swallows. She wiped the drips away from his chin and neck and gently laid him back down. “Alright, I’ll leave ya alone for a while youngun’. Ya need to sleep and I need to get out of these wet garments. Can’t have us both gettin’ sick now.”

She gathered up a pair of Joe’s pants, a fresh shirt and some clean under garments from her clothes trunk and walked over to the fire. She started to unbutton her shirt but stopped, suddenly self-conscious. It was foolish but as oblivious as the boy was to anything around him right now, it had been many years since she had undressed in front of a man and she felt uncomfortable doing so.  She walked back towards the cot and pulled across the drape that separated the living and sleeping area. It hadn’t been used since Joe and the boys were alive and took some tugging to get it across, but she managed.

“Sorry boy, it’s as much for you as for me. Don’t want this to be the first sight ya see if’n ya wake up,” she chuckled to herself, and turned back to the fire to change her wet clothes and finally take a bowl of that broth she had been promising herself all day.

Between the blazing fire burning in the hearth and the spreading warmth in her belly from the nourishing broth, Cora soon started to nod, the lack of sleep the previous night, sending her into a light doze.  She didn’t know how long she napped but she suddenly awoke with a start. She’d heard a man’s voice, or had she been dreaming?

“Johnny…no….please….not Johnny...” She realized with a start, it was coming from the curtained off sleeping area. It was the young man.

She jumped up and tugged back the drape. The young man had pushed off the pelt, leaving his upper torso exposed. In the waning light, she could see the fever flush ripening on his pale cheeks, and the sweat matted bangs plastered to his head. She cursed. While she had luxuriated in sleep, the predicted fever had been allowed to take hold of her young charge and he was already delirious.

She grabbed a bowl and filled it with the now cooled water that she had set to boil earlier and dipped a cloth in it and wrung it out. She headed back over to the stricken boy and started to bath his face, neck and chest, desperately trying to cool him down. He tried to bat her away but she persisted and soon the cool water on his skin seemed to calm him a little.

“Dead…everybody’s dead……my fault. I killed them… I killed Johnny”

“Shhhh, young fella, quiet now.” Despite her soothing tones, what he had said concerned her. She thought back to when she had first found him. She had told herself then that this boy could have been a killer for all she knew but she had dismissed the notion as foolishness. But now he was talking about killing someone.  She dipped the cloth in the water once more and wrung it out, placing it on his forehead. He frowned and turned his head away from her, lost in dark places, but the cloth remained in place.  

“Should have died….…should have let me die…don’t deserve…should have been me.”

Cora gazed at him intently as she reached for the cup again. There was something about the way he spoke. She had thought there was something different about him when she had first seen him lying on the ground, something about his chiseled features, the well-cut clothes, certainly not dressed for the Yosemite. That voice though, he didn’t speak like anyone she had ever heard. She had a feeling this young man was a long way from home, though she had no clue where that could be.

She put her arm under his head and lifted it to meet the cup now pressed to his lips. He turned away…  “ No……no more….please.”

“Now c’mon youngun’. Ya ain’t taken any yet,” she chastised, even though she realized it wasn’t the water he was referring to, in the depths of his delirium. She persisted and managed to coax him into taking a few swallows before he refused anymore, too lost in his nightmares to realize that someone cared and was trying to help him. 

 

*********************************************************************

 

It was dark. And hot, so very hot. He felt like he was suffocating. He tried to remember where he was and what had happened to him but the pieces were all jumbled and he couldn’t make them fit together.  He remembered the attack, the explosion preceding the order to charge, and the panic as the dust cleared and they realized they were trapped. He remembered desperately trying to escape as all around him union soldiers were picked off like rats caught in a trap, but that was where memory faded into nothingness. All he knew now was that it was getting harder to breathe. He tried to move and realized, in panic that he was pinned. Something was lying over him, weighing him down. He tried to move his head, realizing his face was pressed into something, compromising his airway. He managed to turn his head to the left and gasped for air. As he did so, his nostrils were assailed by the ripening stench that filled the air. His stomach waged an immediate battle with his gasping lungs for supremacy as he breathed in the fetid air and gagged.  What was that awful stench?  And why couldn’t he move?

He focused his senses, testing every part of his body as if conducting some bizarre role call. He wiggled his toes, and started to work his way up his body, rolling his ankles and flexing his knee joints. He could feel the latter but could not dislodge them, something heavy was pressing down on his upper thighs and calves. He focused on his hips and managed to raise himself half an inch but no more, the unseen weight pinning him too much to displace. Next he focused on his upper limbs, managing to clench and unclench his fingers. He could feel a coarse texture beneath them, and there was a sense of familiarity to it. Not earth, but something man made.  He managed to further extricate his right arm and moved it upwards. He felt something else, fine, greasy and wet but again, so familiar. He frowned, wishing he could move his head far enough to see, to try to penetrate the blackness and make out where he was but all he had to rely on right now was touch.

He moved his hand further down the object and felt something clammy, sinister, and unnaturally cold.  It made his skin crawl all of a sudden but he resisted the urge to pull away and persisted with his examination.  He ran his fingers over the contours of the object, feeling the surface texture change from smooth to coarse, lingering on the rough texture for a moment as he probed at the depths of memory to work out what it could be. He moved his fingers upwards and across and could now feel a bony prominence, fingertips lingering over the hollow indentations at the base. He felt his blood start to run cold as he moved his fingers up and across again and discovered bony sockets and then connected with smooth gelatinous surfaces on either side. He withdrew his fingers in horror as he suddenly realized what he was touching.  They were the open staring eyes of man. With a horrific clarity, he realized where he was and what that hideous odor was.  The initial surface he had felt had been the woolen tunic of the man lying next to him. And he was surrounded on all sides; buried alive under a mound of bodies left to pile up and rot in the hot Mississippi sun. With a gargantuan effort he summonsed all the strength he could muster and thrust his arm upwards and started to yell, his voice merely a croak to his own ears.        

“Help me, God in heaven, help me!”

“Shhh now, it’s alright, yer safe here, ” Cora grabbed his outstretched hand, trying to provide him with some kind of connection, to let him know he wasn’t alone, that someone was trying to help him. His face wrinkled up as she tried to lay his arm back down on his sweat soaked chest and re cover him with the bearskin, but he tried to push the cumbersome skin away again, as if he were trying to escape something.

“No…. not this way…please…please….don’t leave me here.”    

“I know it don’t smell so good boy,’ Cora persisted, gently trying to replace the skin once more, “But we gotta keep ya warm. T’weren’t so long ago, there was no heat in ya at all.” He responded by trying to push the skin away again but his strength soon gave out and he passed once more into a fitful sleep, muttering incoherently as he continued to wander in fever-fueled dreams.

Cora sighed as she once more wrung out the cloth and placed it on his forehead, figuring it was going to be another long and sleepless night.

Frantic braying interrupted her from her ministrations. It was the sound the aged mule used when warning of danger. Usually it meant an errant bear venturing too close to the shack, or on occasion, a cougar wandering down from the high ground. The mountain cats were attracted by the smell of the cured bear carcasses that Cora kept stored in an underground cool store she had dug to keep the meat as fresh as possible, but they could usually be scared off with a few well-aimed shots in their direction.  Cora headed for the door and grabbed the scattergun she had leaned there after she had returned from tending the old mule. She looked out of the shack's only window to see if she could see any sign of what had Esme spooked and was surprised to see a man on horseback slowly approaching. She couldn’t make out his face in the rapidly waning light. His hat, in the Mexican style, was pulled low over his face and the collar of his slicker was pulled up to ward off the rain.

The only person Cora McClintock saw from one month to the next at her remote cabin was Eli Gerrarty from Bootjack, who traded supplies in exchange for the bearskins, so two strangers crossing her path in one day, well it had to be more than coincidence.

She looked back at the feverish man lying on her bed. What if this dark figure was out to harm him? Had he been the one responsible for leaving him out there in the wilderness to die and, discovering him gone, come to finish the job? It was irrational really; she knew nothing about who the ailing young man might be but all the while he was sick in her bed, he was her responsibility and she suddenly felt very protective towards him; a maternal instinct that had lain dormant for many years.

Decision made, she opened the door and stepped outside to confront the newcomer.   

 

**********************************************************************

As he approached the ramshackle hut, despite the physical and mental exhaustion of the past days, Johnny was on high alert, fingering his.45 in its holster, ready for whatever came his way. It was pure adrenalin that kept him going. Scott’s trail ended here and he could already see what had made the curious drag marks he had been following. A travois stood stacked against the wall of the lean to, next to an aged mule, braying irritably at him.

“Well, so much for a silent approach,” Johnny muttered under his breath.

The door to the shack opened and a woman appeared pointing a scattergun straight at him.

“That’s far enough Mister unless ya want a belly full of shot.”

Johnny pulled Barranca to a standstill; the bay halting behind him, and slowly raised his arms to show no ill intent.  He regarded her curiously. She was by no means a young woman; her hair was silvery, swept back, with wisps escaping and falling across her face. She wasn’t thin but nor was she heavy set either, but it was hard to tell with the way she was dressed. She was wearing a pair of men’s corduroy pants clearly too large for her, tied high at the waist with a leather belt. Tucked into the pants was a dark green and blue checked shirt, with the sleeves rolled up, and underneath, what looked like a pair of red men’s long johns. Finally he noted the boots she was wearing. About the size of the tracks he had seen by the fallen tree. The mule and the travois were also consistent with what he had seen. The only missing piece was the man who had left the impression on the ground. It had to be Scott. This was where his trail ended.

“Who needed that, ma’am?” He pointed to the travois.

“Way I see it mister, ya ain’t in no position to be asking questions with a gun pointed right at ya. Now whadd’ya want?”

Johnny was cold, wet, tired and frantic with worry for Scott so he decided the best approach in this situation was the direct one. “Look, ma’am, I don’t mean you no harm. I’m looking for my brother, Scott.  He’s sick and he may be hurt. I found sign a ways back that he was thrown from his horse. This is his mount I’m leading. Now the way I figure it, you found him and brought him here. Please, he thinks I’m dead and that’s why he rode up here into the mountains. I don’t think he knew what he was doing.”

The woman seemed to consider for a moment and then responded. “I don’t know what yer talkin’ about Mister. Ain’t nobody here but Esme and me.” She gestured towards the, now, pacified mule. “Now best ya turn round and go back the way you came. Ain’t nothin’ fer ya here.”

Through his years spent as a gunfighter, Johnny Madrid Lancer had learned a thing or two about reading people; it had been what kept him alive. And he knew when he was being lied to. And that was what was happening right now.  Despite the persistent drizzle continuing to fall, Johnny slowly reached up and pulled off his hat and set it hanging on his back. He wanted her to see his face; to see the truth in his eyes and that he meant her no harm. He was convinced that Scott was inside but it was clear she lived alone up here. If there had been others, they would have appeared by now. He didn’t blame her for being wary.

“Well, ma’am can I at least come in and get warm for a while? I’ve been on the trail for two days straight. At least let me give the horses a rest and some feed?”   

He watched as she wavered. He could tell, despite her obvious mistrust of him, she was not the sort of woman who would see the animals suffer, but something was holding her back; maybe a misguided feeling that she needed to protect someone else? From him?

“Look ma’am,” he continued, “I’m not a bounty hunter or anything like that, if that’s what you’re thinking. My name’s Johnny Lancer. Scott, the man I think you’ve got in there, well he’s my older brother and before you say it, I know we don’t look nothing alike.  Same father, different mothers. But Ma’am, our horses need tending. I’m soaked to the skin and I’m real eager to see my brother.  Now I know you’ve got him in there. Please, I’ll give you my gun to show you I don’t mean no harm.”

He noticed a slight shift in her demeanor as she considered his words, the scattergun lowering slightly. It didn’t escape his notice either that she moved her head ever so slightly as if alerted by a sound coming from inside the shack. There was someone in there, someone who was maybe unable to come to her aid. It had to be Scott. He slowly started to lower his hands but seeing the movement she thrust the weapon back up at him. 

“Take yer gun out real slow, with yer left hand and toss it over there.” She gestured off to his right.

He slowly did as she requested. “What now Ma’am?” he enquired.  Now disarmed, he noted that she visibly relaxed.  

“You say yer name’s Johnny?”  She placed the emphasis on his name; like she had, perhaps, heard it mentioned before. Maybe recently.

“Yeah ma’am,” he nodded “That’s right. Johnny Lancer and my brother’s name’s Scott.” He reaffirmed,  “I’ve been looking for him for two days and I really need to take him home so we, his family, can take care of him.”

She nodded slowly, and seemed to be considering again. It gave him hope. If Scott really wasn’t there, well, there wouldn’t be anything for her to think on. She turned her head back to the side again, as if she was being distracted by something happening inside the small shack. Suddenly he was alerted to it himself as he heard the scream

“NOOOOOOO!!!! Johnny……..Please………God ……not Johnny!”

“Scott!” In a split second he was off Barranca and sprinting towards the door. He saw the woman set the gun down and stand aside for him.        

“Best go to him son, he’s real sick. Mebbe ya can reach him. I’ll see to your horses.”    

He nodded gratefully as he darted inside.

Johnny’s relief that Scott was, miraculously, still alive, was soon replaced with a deep-rooted fear when he saw his brother’s precarious condition. The low-grade fever that had plagued him since Merced had obviously taken a firm hold and now Scott lay, his head tossing from side to side, in the vice like grip of the nightmares that had been threatening to drag him down for the past few weeks.  Johnny sat down on the side of the bed and instinctively removed the cloth, smoothing away the sweat-matted bags from the blond’s forehead. He cursed as he felt the heat radiating from his brother’ s skin, hectic fever spots the only color on his pallid features, the four-day stubble, turned darker by his sweat, further enhancing his ghastly appearance. He was covered to his midriff with what looked to be some kind of animal hide that he had managed to push aside. Sweat ran down his lean torso, the prominent ribs further illustration of his brother’s rapid decline. Johnny couldn’t help feeling it was his fault. If he hadn’t lost his temper and gone for that darned ride….. 

“Fire…burning…dead…. all dead……my fault…don’t deserve…”

“Hell Boston,” he whispered, “What’s happening to you?” He dipped the cloth in the bowl of water, wrung it out and then gently wiped his brother’s face and neck, moving further down to sluice his chest. “I’m here hermano,” Johnny whispered, “I’m not gonna leave you.” He looked for any sign that Scott could hear him or was even aware of his presence but he appeared oblivious to anyone or anything around him, locked in a world of fever induced nightmares, where it appeared, he was reliving his brother’s death, or at least his tortured imagination’s approximation of it. 

Johnny heard the door open and turned to watch as the woman staggered in with both their saddles, one slung over each shoulder, as well as their saddle bags and dropped them on the floor. If Johnny hadn't been so concerned about Scott, he would have been impressed. She sure was sturdy; most men couldn’t carry more than one saddle at a time.

“How long’s he been like this?” he asked.

She busied herself lighting the shack’s only oil lamp, set on the table by the door, and then strode over to him, removing his .45 from her waistband and handing it back to him in a silent gesture of trust. He nodded his acknowledgement and placed it back in his holster.  Taking over, she took the cloth from him and proceeded to wet it, then placed it back on Scott’s head and covered his chest once more with the bearskin. 

“Found him late morning out on the trail where ya saw the tree down,” she replied. “Guess I don’t need to tell ya what happened; it don’t take too much figurin’. Well, I thought he was a goner at first, he was so cold, but somehow, I dunno how, he was still holdin’ onto life.  So I brung him back here as fast as I could to get him warmed up. But the fever came on real quick. Never seen one take hold of anyone so fast.”

Johnny shook his head, looking down at his stricken brother, his strong, stoic, steady older brother; now lying there looking so frail, so lost, as he weakly tried to dislodge the heavy pelt covering him.  “I reckon this has been coming on for weeks, month’s maybe. I just don’t know how to help him.”   Suddenly Johnny felt shattered; the strain of the past week or so since they had set out from Lancer, finally catching up with him.

“Well you ain’t gonna help him if you end up sick as well and I tell ya boy, I got better things to do with my time than nursin’ waifs and strays who show up off the trail. So c’mon, let’s get ya out of those wet clothes.”

Johnny hesitated. He had spent two days torturing himself, with each passing moment fearing more and more that he would be too late to help Scott. So now that he had found him, he didn’t want to let him out of his sight.

Despite her gruff exterior though, Cora McClintock was a perceptive woman. She had been a mother; had two sons who were as close as these two seemed to be, so she had a good idea of what the dark haired man was going through, seeing his brother ailing so.  

“C’mon, he ain’t gonna be but a few feet away if he starts to fret. Now ya got any clean clothes in those saddlebags of yorn?” She had already walked over to the door and had started rummaging in their belongings, pulling out a blue shirt belonging to Johnny. He watched her, bemused to see her pulling out the contents of their saddlebags. She flung the blue shirt at him.  “I ain’t seeing no pants in here?”

“Uh..no…” he responded. “These are the only ones I got with me.” He referred to his calzoneras.

She tsked. “Well, get ‘em off. I guess it won’t take long for them to dry in front of the fire along with yer brother’s there.”

For the first time, Johnny noticed his brother’s ruined clothes draped across a crudely fashioned clotheshorse; his smart blue shirt and pants ripped and caked in mud.  Beyond saving by the look of them.  

“Here.” She flung one of the blankets the townsfolk of Oakhurst had supplied.  “Wrap yerself in that for a spell until yer pants are dry. I’ll keep this other one for yer brother. Reckon those blankets he’s lyin’ on will soon get sodden and need changin’. These belong to you?”   Johnny looked incredulously as she tossed out a pair of undergarments from Scott’s saddlebag.

“Erm, no ma’am, those are Scott’s, I, uh…..” he stopped himself as he felt his face begin to flush.

She turned from her rummaging to look at him seriously. “Ya what?”

“I er..don’t wear em’ ma’am.” He shuffled awkwardly, trying to look everywhere but at her.

She looked him up and down, as if she could see right through him and smirked. He could feel his cheeks aflame as he felt her eyes burn into him.   

“Well, that’s one way to bring the color back into yer cheeks boy,” She chortled. “Here.” She picked up the undergarments and flung them at him. “Set them to warm in front of the fire; yer brother’ll need ‘em. He’s got nothin’ but skin on him under those furs.”

Johnny caught them instinctively and looked over to what was left of Scott’s clothes. He hadn’t noticed the sodden scrap of material lying in a heap under the clotheshorse where it had fallen. Now that he looked closely he recognized them for a pair of men’s cut away undergarments.

“You stripped him?” It was a stupid question, he knew. There was no one else around and Scott had clearly not been in any fit state to disrobe himself. Still he was glad that was one thing Scott wouldn’t remember. He’d be mortified if he found out.

“Well who d’ya think done it?”   She turned back to him, finished with her rummaging, and handed him Scott’s razor and a block of soap. Johnny was more inclined not to bother shaving while he was on the trail and so hadn’t bothered to pack his set, but Scott was more meticulous with such things. “Here, ya can take them whiskers off too. I reckon I got me two handsome boys here under all that face fur. Can’t take a razor to yer brother right now but I don’t reckon I have to put up with you looking like a grizzly.”

He watched her head over to the sleeping quarters and set to rewetting the cloth for Scott’s head and then she turned to pull across the drape, affording him some privacy while he removed his wet clothes. “Hell Boston,” he muttered to himself,  “What have you gotten us into now?” He removed his gun belt and quickly started to undress before she pulled the drape back once more and caught him in a state that they’d both regret her seeing him in.

     


Chapter 11

A few minutes later the drape was pulled back and Cora emerged from tending to Scott.

Johnny, now dressed in his clean blue shirt with the blanket tied around his waist, had hung his clothes to dry in front of the fire. Steam was coming off the leather calzoneras as the heat from the hearth worked to evaporate the rainwater that had soaked right through them. He noted the middle-aged woman nod in satisfaction that he had done her bidding.

“How’s he doing?” He looked past her to try and get a look at Scott but she blocked his view.

“He’s quietened down some. Reckon he’s sleepin’ as peaceably as he can be with whatever it is that he’s reliving.” She looked at him questioningly but Johnny didn’t take the bait. She regarded him closely and then seemed to concede for the time being. She thrust a woman’s hand held looking glass at him. “Here, I don’t have much call to use this nowadays but ya can use it to rid yerself of them whiskers.” She gestured to the table and the oil lamp. “Should be enough light there fer ya to get it done.”  She thrust a wooden bowl at him   “Ya can fill this from the rain barrel just outside the door. Meantime, I’ll heat ya up some broth and fix us both some coffee. Should be ready by the time yer done.”

Johnny took the mirror and did as he was told. He got the feeling there wasn’t much point in arguing and, besides, he figured he’d feel better for it anyway.  

Half an hour later he was sat leaning against his saddle in front of the fire, clean shaven and finishing his second bowl of the meaty broth. It was unlike anything he had tasted before, and he wondered what creature the tender chunks of meat had come from. He guessed the pungent smelling skins hanging around the sparsely furnished cabin afforded some clue but he figured he might be better off not knowing. The woman sat next to him in the cabin's only chair, impatiently trying to thread a needle by firelight, his ripped shirt in her hands. He realized suddenly that he didn’t even know the name of this remarkable woman living alone in the middle of the wilderness, this woman who had taken in two complete strangers.

“If ya ain’t got nothin’ better to do than sit and stare, then ya can thread this needle fer me. My eyes ain’t what they used to be,” she groused, thrusting the needle and thread at him and rising from her chair. She bent to retrieve the coffee pot where she had set it to brew a few minutes earlier and poured out a cup for each of them. She returned to her chair with her own, and set his down in front of him.

Johnny made short work of his assigned task, eager to partake of his first cup of coffee for days. He handed back the threaded needle, which she immediately set aside, and reached for his coffee, savoring the rich aroma before taking a sip. “That’s good coffee ma’am. Real good.”

“I ain’t nobody’s ma’am,” she grumbled. “Name’s McClintock. Cora McClintock. Just plain Cora’ll be fine.”

“Glad to know you Cora.” he smiled; relieved they finally had the introductions over.  “I wanna thank you for everything you’ve done for Scott, if you hadn’t found him..”

“Yeah, well, he ain’t outta the woods yet, boy,’ she interrupted, “Not by a long shot. Reckon ‘tween us, we’re gonna have our work cut out. Fevers always spike during the night, that’s the way of ‘em.”

Johnny nodded silently.  He had fought enough fevers himself over the years to know that.  He stared into the flames and mulled over the events of the past few days. Surely fate couldn’t be so cruel to put them through everything they had experienced just to take Scott now?  But the truth was, his brother was very sick, maybe too sick for them to help him.  If they were home at Lancer, Teresa, under the guidance of Doc Jenkins, would no doubt be plying Scott with several different herbal teas to try and break his fever but he doubted whether Cora had any such medicinal supplies at her disposal. No, they would have to do it the hard way. He didn’t know whether his brother had the strength left in him required to fight the fever that ravaged his weakened body.  

The adrenalin that had kept Johnny going these past few days, the euphoria of seeing Scott still alive, was wearing off now that he realized that the biggest test was yet to come. He was exhausted. The sound of the rain steadily falling outside coupled with the crackle of the fire, and the warm glow that filled the tiny dwelling had an almost hypnotic quality and he felt drowsiness creep over him, as he struggled to keep his eyes open.

“Don’t fight it boy.”

He tried to focus his tired eyes and saw her looking directly at him. The tone was of rebuke but the expression was of compassion.  “Ya look all in. You should sleep, Johnny, while ya can. I’ll listen out fer yer brother and wake ya if he starts to fret some.” It was the first time she had referred to him by his name. It was comforting. Barely able to keep his eyes open, he nodded silently and settled back against his saddle, finally surrendering to his fatigue.

Cora sat watching him for a few minutes as the flames illuminated his handsome features, the refuge of sleep smoothing out the worry lines that had been etched on his face. She turned and looked to the other boy lying sleeping, less peacefully, in the bed behind her. For a moment she allowed herself to imagine that she had her boys back once more, Caleb and Ben, come home to her at last. They would be around the age of these two boys had they lived. But that was the harsh reality. They hadn’t lived. Her boys were gone and it was no use pretending otherwise.

“Foolish old woman,” she muttered to herself as she fought to hold back the tears that pricked at her eyes. She bent to remove Johnny’s half finished beverage and set it down by the fire for when he woke up. Then she reached for the blanket she had laid out on the back of her rocking chair and bent to tuck it gently around him. It wasn’t cold but it made her feel good to be needed, to be able to take care of someone again. It had been a long time. She turned back to her other charge, who was becoming restless once more, his incoherent muttering growing louder. She reached for the jug of cold water and a cup and headed over to him. “Alright son, shhh now, I’m comin’.”

 

**********************************************************************

He lay there for some time, enjoying the warmth of the blanket tucked around him and the strange comfort he derived from listening to the rain as it continued to fall. It would have been so easy to drift back off but he knew that there was something more important that demanded his attention. His brother needed him.

“You want some more coffee?”

Johnny opened his eyes. Cora was sitting where she had been when he had drifted off to sleep, now attempting to repair Scott’s navy shirt. She didn’t wait for his response. Instead she set down her sewing and poured him a fresh cup.

“And make sure ya drink it this time,” she chastised, “Coffee’s too expensive to waste.” But the twinkle in her eye belied the words and the gruff tone.

Johnny propped himself up into a sitting position and took it gratefully. “How long have I been asleep?”

“Only a couple of hours. Feel better?”      

He nodded, as he took a sip of the bitter brew. “How’s Scott?”

“He was frettin’ some a while back but he’s quiet again fer now.” She reached for his calzonera’s and tossed them to him. “Here, ya can put these back on now.”

He caught them and flushed, wondering if she meant him to pull his pants back on right there in front of her. She certainly made no effort to move. “Maybe I should go and sit with him for a while, let him know I’m here?” He made to get up but she reached out and stopped him, pushing him back down again, a little more harshly than she intended.

“I told ya, he’s sleepin’ right now. No use disturbin’ him while he’s quiet.”  She reached down and poured herself a cup of the strong coffee.  “‘Sides, I reckon it’s about time ya told me how all this came about.” She looked at him enquiringly. “How come he thinks yer dead?”

Johnny sighed. He guessed he couldn’t blame her for wanting answers. She had been remarkably restrained up until now. But she had taken he and Scott in, undoubtedly saving his brother’s life; had fed him and allowed him to rest and now she figured she was due some explanation as to how they came to be here. He couldn’t argue with that.

He shrugged.  “It’s a long story.”

“Well, I reckon we got time,” Cora affirmed. “And if we’re goin’ to get yer brother through, it’s best I know exactly what we’re dealin’ with here.” 

Johnny looked at her doubtfully. He wasn’t sure he understood it himself but maybe talking it through would help assuage the guilt he felt for leaving Scott at the hotel. It certainly couldn’t hurt to try. And he got the impression that Cora was not there to judge, only to listen and help find a way forward. 

“Alright,” he acquiesced. He drew a deep breath.  “We had an argument….” He began.

He told everything from the moment they had arrived in Oakhurst.  About the angry words that had passed between them at the hotel, how he had ridden off to the lake and inadvertently ended up staying the night, and how, when he had arrived back, he had found Scott missing and gone looking for him. It was only then that he had found out about the fire and the discovery of the burned corpse.

“They found this on the body,” he pulled the medallion out of the pocket of his now dried pants. “I must have lost it in the livery stable and the drifter took it. Boston would have known it for mine and assumed the dead man was me. I don’t know why but he insisted on seeing the body even though they warned against it.” He tried to imagine what Scott must have been going through looking on that burned corpse and thinking it was his.  “I guess the shock was too much. By the time I got after him he had a half a day’s head start on me and was headed up here into the Yosemite…”

Cora looked at him, as he fiddled with the pants nervously. She slowly rose from her chair, a slight smile turning the corners of her mouth to see his discomfort at still sitting there with a blanket wrapped around him. She rose slowly and turned her back so that he could finally put them back on.  

“Well, that still don’t tell me much boy,” she said as she listened to the frantic creak of leather as he hastily pulled on his pants.  “That may explain what sent Scott over the edge but not what led to him teeterin’ there in the first place. What was the argument about? I need to know what’s got yer brother not carin’ whether he lives or dies.”

Johnny flinched at the stark reminder of the words that Scott had repeated over and over in his dreams. So, she had heard them too? He had hoped he wouldn’t have to go into too much detail but it was clear Cora needed to hear it all.

“The argument was over the reason we traveled to Oakhurst in the first place. To understand that, I guess I need to start at the beginning. You can turn around now.” He sat down again and picked up his coffee and took a sip. “Scott and I traveled up here from Morro Coyo. D’ya know it?”

She turned back towards him, shaking her head as she retook her seat.  “Can’t say as I do, but then I ain’t never been past Bootjack.”

Johnny raised his eyebrows. He couldn’t imagine staying in one place his whole life. Or at least he couldn’t before he arrived at Lancer.  “Well, it’s about five days ride west from here. Our old man owns a big spread near there.”

“Go on,” she encouraged.

“Well, Scott hasn’t been himself lately so Murdoch, that’s our old man, figured it’d do him good to get away for a while, work through what was eating at him. And knowing Scott, he knew the only way it could be done was if he thought there was a bona fide reason for him to be going. So he came up with this phony business deal and sent me along with him.”

“And Scott found out what that was?”

Johnny nodded. “Well it wasn’t the best story Murdoch ever came up with and Scott was onto it from the go get, but he didn’t say anything until Oakhurst.”

“Why not?”

Johnny shrugged.  “Well, I figure he really did want to get away but he was too proud or stubborn to ask.  So I guess it suited him to go along with it.”

“You say Scott ain’t been himself.  How so?”

This had been the part Johnny had been wary of, not sure how much to tell Cora about Scott’s past but knowing, too, that it was likely what lay at the root of his problems. Nonetheless, he chose his words carefully.

“Something happened a few months ago. Something from Scott’s past reared its ugly head.  Ever since then, he’s not been eating or sleeping well and has been having nightmares. These past few weeks they’ve been getting worse and more frequent.”

Cora paused for a moment, taking it all in. “Why d’ya call him Boston?”

“Huh?”

“Earlier, you referred to him as Boston. How come?”

He hadn’t even realized he had subconsciously referred to Scott by the nickname he had given him the first time they had met, and was somewhat taken aback at her sudden change of direction.

“That’s where he’s from,” he replied, simply. She had said the word “Boston” as if it had no meaning to her. Johnny figured if she’d never been past Bootjack and had never heard of Morro Coyo then the chances were she’d have no clue about Boston.

“And you ain’t?” she questioned.

Johnny gave a wry smile. “Hell, no, I was raised along the Mexican border. If you can call the way I lived being ‘raised’.”  He couldn’t disguise the bitterness in his voice as he stared into the flames, remembering the insecurity of his childhood years.

When she didn’t respond, he looked up and saw her waiting patiently. It was clear she expected more from him.

“Scott and I didn’t know of each other’s existence until about nine months ago,” he   continued. “Our old man married twice, first to Scott’s mother. She died shortly after he was born and his Grandfather took him back to Boston before our old man could come get him. Then Murdoch, our father, he remarried. My mother. They had me but she walked out on him when I was two years old taking me with her. She was good at walking out; did the same thing to me ten years later.”

“So neither of you boys really knew a mother’s love?”

He looked at her; at the sadness reflected in her eyes.  Johnny shrugged, suddenly feeling awkward, beginning to understand how Scott felt about discussing his personal feelings.   “Guess not.”

She shook her head. At least her boys had known a mother’s love, even if it was for such a short time. “Well, what about yer pa?” she persisted. “Didn’t he try and find ya?”

Johnny sighed. “I guess he did. At least he says he did but I figure I would have been hard to find.  I never stayed in one place for too long.” He took another sip of his coffee.

“And yer brother?”

“Scott? Yeah, Murdoch knew where he was and I guess he tried but old Harlan Garrett, Scott’s Grandfather; he had a lot of money and influence. I guess he made it too hard.”

Johnny stared into the flames once more, imagining for the umpteenth time what it would have been like if he and Scott had grown up together.   

“So what changed?”

He looked over to her once more, for clarification. “How come we all ended up together again?”

She nodded in acquiescence.

Johnny exhaled. “Well, our old man finally decided that he needed someone to leave the spread to and so he sent the Pinkertons off looking for us. Offered us $1000 for an hour of our time.” He smiled at the memory of their tumultuous first meeting. “That was when I found out I had a brother.”

Johnny went on to tell Cora about those first few months; about Day Pardee and the land pirates and how after initial doubts about having an eastern dandy as a brother, an unbreakable bond, one that Johnny still had a hard time understanding, had been forged.

“Sounds like you’ve both been through a lot.” Cora drained the remnants of her coffee and set her cup down.  She looked him up and down in that way she had, like she could see right through him. He figured she wasn’t someone you could ever lie to, or would even want to.   “Ya sportin’ as many scars as yer brother over there?” she asked.

Johnny hesitated. He wondered how long it would take before she mentioned that. She couldn’t fail to have noticed. “Yeah, Scott sure has had his share of trouble since coming to Lancer,” he reflected. “First off he gets shot because of something I did; all over a horse I had no business going after, and then an old friend of Murdoch's showed up on his way to Sacramento with a prisoner, someone I knew from my past in Sonora. Only it turned out that that ‘friend’ of our father’s had been fired and had gone rogue, helped the prisoner escape and Scott got shot tracking him. He was lucky. The bullet bounced clean off his collar bone otherwise the angle it came down at him from, could have killed him, so the doc said.” Johnny paused as he recalled his brother’s most recent wound. He’d known this woman less than a few hours and here he was telling her their life stories. It didn’t make any sense but, at the same time, it somehow felt good to off load.

“And that recent lookin’ one? On his left shoulder?”  She persisted. She clearly wasn’t going to let it lie.

“That only happened two months ago, he’s only just healed really.”  He took a moment before continuing, because now he was getting to the crux of what had led he and Scott to be here. He’d earlier sketched over the events of that time but he realized he couldn’t avoid telling her any longer.  He took a deep breath and went on with his telling.

“Some men from his past came looking for him. People he was in the war with, in a prison camp. It’s a long story but there was an escape attempt that went wrong. All the men were killed except Scott and this other guy Cassidy, who got sick the night before they were due to go. Because Scott was the only one who survived Cassidy blamed him for selling out the escape for all those years; was all eaten up with hate and vowed to kill him. Two months ago he finally came to do just that, and he nearly succeeded.”

Cora had been listening intently, taking all this in but had already drawn one significant conclusion. “But it weren’t yer brother who let the cat outta the bag? It was this Cassidy fella huh?”

Johnny looked up at her in surprise, nodding. “How’d you guess?”

She grunted. “Sittin’ listening to yer brother while ya was sleepin’. Nope, nuthin’ loosens a tongue like a fever.” She regarded him closely as he swilled the last of his coffee. “I guess those scars on his back were his punishment for survivin’ the attempt?”

Johnny winced. “That’s what I’m guessing,” he allowed.  “I only caught a glimpse of ‘em when I walked in on him changing once. Well he was madder than a hornet I can tell you. When I tried to ask about ‘em he just said he got ‘em in the war and the look he gave and his tone, well it was clear it was a closed subject. But since Cassidy showed up, well, I’m figuring that’s likely what happened. Not even the old man knows about that. Scott’s pretty private about that kinda stuff.  Talking of which, maybe I should get those draws on him, before he wakes up?” He gave a wry smile as he slowly rose, grabbing the warmed undergarments from the clotheshorse, and made his way over to his sick brother before she could stop him and ask any more questions.

Cora nodded sadly, a tear welling in the corner of her eye as she thought of the suffering the boy had endured. Had her boys suffered the same way? They would be a similar age to these two now.

“Cora!”

She was startled out of her reverie by Johnny’s panicked shout. She jumped up and rushed over to the bedside and noted the flushed face and the hitched breathing of her other young charge. Johnny had his hand on his brother’s forehead, his face pinched with anxiety. “Hell Cora, he’s really burning up.”

She placed her hand against the sick man’s cheek and quickly withdrew it as he moved his head away, mumbling incoherently. She tried not to display the shock she felt at the heat emanating from him.

“All right, you stay with him, talk to him, touch him, let him know yer close,” she instructed. “I’ll go and get some water from the rain barrel. It’ll be good and cold, and will help cool him down some.”

 

***********************************************************************

 

Hot, it was so hot. His eyes were closed but he could sense that fires were burning around him, the smoldering glow penetrating his golden lashes and burning his eyeballs. The flames were all around him, threatening to consume him. He tried to escape the suffocating heat but every time he tried to move, he was pushed back by unseen hands that seemed to delight in tormenting him, in keeping him in the fiery hell that he found himself residing in. Faces swam across his vision, staring accusingly at him; refusing to let him rest, reminding him of why he was there. He had killed them. He had killed them all. They were all there; Lieutenant Andrew Danholt, Luke Jackson, Ned Patterson, Matt Lewis, Dan Maddocks, Marty Fielder, Ethan Cole, Frank Jeffers, Henry Simpson, Tom Davison, Alec Finn, Thaddeus Cooper, Will Johnson, Brad Coffey, Ade McCaffrey, Gabriel Ferguson, Joel Gantry. Their voices overlapping, berating him, condemning him.

“You betrayed us”, “Judas!”  “Traitor!”

They were joined by the presence of the faceless souls who had died at Vicksburg, the nameless bodies who had been left to rot in the crater, when he had escaped with his life.  Even his mother was standing there, in the background, joining the growing throng of accusers.

“I had to die so you might live.”

“No mother…. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… forgive me…please?” he begged her.

“No wonder your father abandoned you. You ruined his life,” she persisted, her soft features contorted into a rictus of pure hatred towards him.

He sobbed and tried to escape again but his tormenters seemed hell bent on making him stand trial in the hellish courtroom they had him trapped in. But then the cacophony of voices waned until they grew silent. Grouped together, pale faces stared at him impassively, as they watched and waited.

“What do you want from me…Please? …..I don’t know what you want!” he pleaded with them, but they just stared back at him silently, defiantly, and accusingly. Judging him.

But then they started to slowly withdraw, and he could have cried with relief, but the respite was short-lived. They merely parted to reveal a shadowy figure coming towards him. He squinted at the dark form as it slowly advanced, the face cast into shadow. As he approached, the light of the flames lit his face and Scott gasped as he recognized him. It was Johnny. It was his brother. But he looked different from the others, not pale and death-like but real, flesh and blood.  He didn’t belong with these others. Had he come to take him away from here?   “Johnny! Help me, please?”  Scott cried.

Johnny continued to press forward, his arm outstretched towards him. Scott tried to reach for it, to take his brother’s hand, but something still held him back. He couldn’t move and he wanted to scream out of frustration. Then, suddenly, as his brother and perceived saviour got closer, the flames reared up out of nowhere and started to lick at his body, burning him up before his very eyes. Johnny’s face contorted and he started to scream. Scott tried to run towards him but the unseen force held him firmly where he was, compelling him to watch, to face the horror of his brother being consumed by the flames in front of him. He listened to Johnny’s pitiful cries. “Scott, save me! Where are you brother? Why have you abandoned me? Scott, don’t leave me to die like this!”

He thrashed to break free from the grip of his unseen tormentors and screamed as the flames took hold of his brother’s face. He closed his eyes to escape the horror of what he had seen; hoping that when he opened them again the horrific sight would be gone, that all his tormentors would leave him alone so that he could sleep. He was so tired. All he wanted to do was just slide away into oblivion. If only they would let him. He opened his eyes and came face to face with piercing blue eyes that stared impassively at him from the grotesque, smoldering abomination that had once been a face, its charred layers peeling off leaving raw patches of weeping skin. He could feel the heat of his fetid breath on his skin, felt his skin crawl as the webbed hunks of flesh that used to be hands, connected with his throat.

“You killed me brother,” the corpse rasped “And now I’m going to kill you”

 

********************************************************************

 

“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

It was all Johnny could do to try and hold him down.  He was amazed at his brother's strength as he thrashed to free himself from his grip.

“No..can’t be…Johnny…please… .I didn’t mean to ….I’m sorry………please…”

Scott's eyes were wide open in panic, the sweat dripping off him as he desperately tried to escape the vice like grip holding him down.

“No…please…didn’t mean to kill you…….not you…anyone but you…”

“Scott, calm down, it’s alright, calm down. I’m not dead. I’m right here….look at me.” Johnny desperately tried to placate him but Scott seemed to be beyond reasoning with.

His breathing was labored as he struggled more violently to extricate himself from Johnny’s grip, his cries becoming more and more hysterical, his eyes rolling wildly. Johnny was having increasing difficulty holding him down, and wondered where the hell the strength was coming from.

“Scott, please, calm down brother, you’re gonna hurt yourself.”

Johnny felt the cool air hit him as the door opened and Cora re-entered carrying a large pail of water. “Cora, help me with him. He’s going crazy. I can’t hold him much longer,” he pleaded.  

She dropped the bucket, amazed at how suddenly the fever had spiked into delirium again, and was quickly by his side. Johnny was desperately trying to calm the flailing young man who was fighting his brother with almost superhuman strength, his eyes wide open but completely unfocussed on anything in their immediate surroundings. Whatever he was seeing, it was clearly a figment of his tortured mind, and it likely involved his belief that his brother was dead, if his reaction was anything to go by. She placed her hand against his sweat- soaked chest to try and help push him down but was alarmed at the frantic beating she could feel beneath his pallid skin.

“Hell!’ she swore. “Too fast.  Let go Johnny,” she barked, “I’ll see to him.”

“But you can’t manage, he’s too strong…” Johnny protested but was quickly interrupted.

“Do as I say!”  She spat harshly, “His heart’s beatin’ dangerously fast and his fever is spikin’ too high. We’ve gotta calm him down and it’s clear he won’t be pacified while yer there. Now go on over by the fire, out of sight until I’ve settled him.”

Still he wouldn’t move, doubting she would be able to manage Scott alone.

“Go on, it’s the only way to help yer brother right now,” she persisted, physically pushing him away.

Johnny reluctantly let go of his thrashing brother and watched as Cora immediately took over. She sat on the edge of the bed, leaning over him, using her body as a barrier to keep him in place.

Johnny backed away, listening to her soothing tones as she tried to penetrate the depths of Scott’s delirium and calm him down.

“Now look at me boy…look at me. I ain’t no ghost…focus on me boy. C’mon.”

Scott's eyes still seemed glazed, as they darted around, looking for sign of the one who had been tormenting him, but it was the voice he responded to. “Johnny….dead…”

Cora shook her head vehemently. “No son. I don’t ‘spect ya to understand right now, but yer brother ain’t dead.  You’ll know that soon when we can get that fever down enough to have ya seein’ straight. Right now, ya need to rest. Now lie back now, breathe easy, c’mon now. ”

She could see the soothing tones were working, the wildness was starting to leave his unfocussed cobalt eyes as the vision of what had been terrifying him, appeared to diminish.

Ben had had eyes that color, she reflected. That boy could say so much with his eyes, in just a look, a sly glance, those deep, expressive eyes of his.  She’d been sure he would break a lot of girl’s hearts one day.  Cora wondered if this one lying here before her was the same? He had the same look about him.  “That’s it boy, that’s real good now, yer doin’ real well,” she coaxed. “Now ya go on off to sleep. I’ll be right here. Don’t ya worry now.”

His hitched breathing was starting to slow and his eyes were beginning to grow heavy as sleep began to pull him down again. She gently guided him back down onto the pillows, felt his sweat soaked body start to grow lax as, strength utterly spent, his eyes slowly slid shut. She laid her hand back on his heaving chest and was satisfied to feel his heart beat slowing. Still faster than she would have liked but that was the way fevers worked. It wouldn’t slow right down until the fever broke.  Satisfied that he was sleeping once more, she beckoned Johnny over.  He reached for the discarded bucket and set it down next to the bed. He looked shattered.

“Lift yer brother up,” she instructed him, gently, “I need to change that under sheet. It’s soaked clean through.”

Johnny nodded and wordlessly gathered up his brother's limp form, surprised at how light he was, as Cora made short work of pulling off the sheet and quickly replaced it. She nodded for him to set Scott back down again.  He did so, leaning Scott against his chest, his arm wrapped firmly around him, as Cora tried to get him to take some water. In the depths of his exhausted sleep, Scott frowned and tried to turn his head away, but Johnny held him steady as Cora persisted, all the while talking to him gently, coaxing him to take a little.  Their persistence was finally rewarded as he took a few swallows, licking his dry and cracked lips as the cool fluid provided some much needed moisture to counter the dry heat that dictated his existence.

“Lay him back down, son,” Cora coaxed gently, seeing his reluctance to break contact with his brother.

Johnny reluctantly complied, easing himself out from behind Scott, and gently cradling his head as Cora replaced the sweat soaked pillow with a fresh one. When she was done he set him down again, his brother’s head lolling to the side, once more oblivious to their ministrations.     

They covered him back up to waist level and silently set to work bathing his sweat stained torso to cool him off and make him more comfortable. Cora wrung out her cloth, tenderly swept back the sweat matted bangs from his brow and gently laid it on his head once more. Finally, she pulled the skin back up to cover him and prevent him getting chilled, satisfied that they had gotten him through one crisis but knowing there would likely be more. 

Johnny headed dejectedly back over to the fire and silently flopped down on the floor, staring into the flames. Seeing his brother so terrified at the sight of him had deeply disturbed him.

He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry I had to yell at ya like that, boy, but there ain’t no room for hurt feelin’s right now. Had to think of yer brother first and he was beyond being pacified. Heart racing like that’s dangerous in his weakened condition.”

“It’s not that Cora,” Johnny responded miserably, “It’s just seeing Scott that way.  He was terrified of me. I’m his brother, the one person who should be able to help him, but how can I if he’s gonna react like that every time he sees me?”

“It’s the fever son, it’s got everything turned around in his head. Where was he in the war?”

“Uh, Vicksburg I think. Why?”

“’Coz I think that’s where he is right now; there and the camp, seeing death and destruction and ghosts. And then that fire in Oakhurst, thinking ya were dead, it’s all mixed up together.   Ya say he’s been kinda maudlin’ and distant lately?”

“Yeah, since the incident with Cassidy…”

“Yeah figures,” she sighed as she collapsed heavily into the chair.

“You reckon that’s what’s making him so sick?” 

“Well, lying out there in the rain all night sure didn’t help none but yeah, I reckon the past has finally caught up with yer brother and seein’ that burned body and thinkin’ it was you was what finally brought it all crashin’ back. I reckon yer brother was doin’ his best to keep it all inside but that was the one thing, havin’ someone that close to him die, or thinkin’ that was the case, well, that finally sent him over the edge and made him run.”

She shook her head. For Cora McClintock it was like history repeating itself.   “Now them dreams and memories are trying to claim him, tie him to the past and if we’re gonna save yer brother, we’re gonna have to put a stop to it. We’re gonna have to claim him back.”      

 

Chapter 12  

Johnny regarded Cora seriously. She seemed to know a lot about it, as if talking from bitter experience.  “You’ve seen something like this before haven’t you?” he asked.

Cora sat back tiredly in the rocking chair, stretching her legs out in front of her and hesitated before responding. “Yeah, somethin’ like it. A long time ago.”

Johnny waited for her to continue but she just stared into space, as if she had been transported back to some far away time and place.  He realized that, perhaps, he had hit a raw nerve but much as he hated to dig up what could be painful memories for her, he was willing to do it if anything about her past experience could help Scott. He decided to try a different tact.  “Cora, how come you live up here all alone?” 

“Well, I ain’t exactly alone right now, am I?” she retorted. “Fact is, it’s getting’ mighty cramped in here all ‘a sudden with two uninvited house guests.”

Johnny allowed himself a wry smile. He knew a stalling tactic when he saw it. Still he was curious. “You know what I mean. It just don’t seem right that you should be living up here all by yourself. I just wanna know why?” he persisted.

“You sound just like Eli,” she groused.  “He’s been tellin’ me the self same thing fer the past five years and I’m still here.  Dang fool thinks I need takin’ care of   but I ‘ll tell ya exactly what I ‘bin tellin’ him all this time. I can take care of meself just fine.”

“Who’s Eli?” His curiosity was piqued.

“Eli Gerrarty from down Bootjack way.’ she explained.  “He comes up once a month and trades furs fer the supplies I need.   Every time he comes up here he tries to persuade me to leave but I like it up here. Esme and me, we got everythin’ we need right here.”

Johnny wondered who she was trying to convince, him or herself?  “Sure you do.” he chuckled.

“What’s that ‘sposed to mean?” she snapped, defensively.

“Well, I dunno. I just figure it must get lonesome is all. I spent a lot of time on my own, driftin’ from town to town and I thought that was all I needed but since I got me a family, well I don’t think I could ever go back to being alone again.”

“Well sometimes things is forced on us, we don’t got no choice in the matter.” That came out more harshly than she intended and she immediately regretted taking out her woes on him. She didn’t blame him for being curious. It was just having him and his brother here was reigniting painful memories.  Ones she had not had to face in a long time.   “’Sides, there’s one thing to be said for livin’ alone,” she countered.  “It’s a mite more peaceful than it’s been around here this past day or so. Now quit yer jawin’, reckon its time I got me some shuteye. Ya can listen out fer your brother, and call me if he frets too much. I don’t sleep too deep. Don’t pay to up here.”     She settled back in the rocking chair and closed her eyes. Johnny knew that was her way of shutting down the conversation and stopping it from going places she didn’t want it to.   So he took the hint. For now.

He sat back and reflected. Whatever had brought Cora McClintock to the wilderness, and he suspected there was a sad and painful tale attached to it, he had to be grateful.   If she hadn’t been here, Scott would undoubtedly have died where he had fallen on the trail and he, Johnny, would be making the heartrending trip back to Lancer without him, wondering how he would ever break the news to Murdoch and Teresa.

He sat there for some time, contemplating, trying to reconcile the guilt he felt that someone else’s suffering could be another’s savior, and as he reflected about that and the past week on the trail, suddenly a lot of things started to make sense. He thought back to some of the things that he had heard Scott say in the grip of his nightmares and, more recently, his fevered dreams. It was guilt that was dragging Scott down, guilt for surviving when others around him died. And it was the guilt, however misplaced, of feeling that he had somehow contributed to his, Johnny’s death in the livery stable that had finally plunged him into the abyss. Seeing the blackened and charred body, and thinking it was his brother, Scott had seen one death too many.  And now he was caught in a fevered tempest where his tortured mind warped and embellished the past to the extent that he now felt sole responsibility for each and every death he had witnessed.

“Hell Boston,” he murmured to himself, “that’s a helluva responsibility to take on yourself. Well, it’s gonna stop right now.”   

The despair that had been gnawing away at him, at not being able to help his older sibling was suddenly replaced with a renewed vigor. He now knew the ‘enemy’ his brother was facing as he waged his very private war, and how to help him engage it.

He spent the remainder of the night at his brother’s bedside, purging himself of the many things in his own past that had kept him awake at night; telling Scott that he wasn’t the only one visited in his dreams by faces from the past coming back to haunt him. If anyone had a reason to feel guilt for lives taken it was Johnny Madrid Lancer, he asserted to his insensible brother.  He reached out to him when he grew restless, calming him, cooling him when his fever threatened to spike, reassuring him with soft words. All the time giving him reasons why he had to assuage himself of the guilt, letting him know that he was still here. He was his hermano, he needed him and that he wasn’t ever going to run out on him again.

That night, Johnny Madrid Lancer laid bare his very soul, revealing things he had never shared with anyone before, nor would ever repeat. All he knew was that he couldn’t expect Scott to purge himself of the past if he wasn’t prepared to do the same.   He just hoped that wherever it was that Scott was locked away, it wasn’t too far for the words to penetrate and help him to find his way back.

Cora McClintock listened to his confession with tears silently coursing down her cheeks.

She had been awakened from her light doze by a low murmur. At first she had thought it was the sick boy muttering in his sleep, her automatic instinct to rise and go to him, but the timbre was different. She opened one eye and glanced over to the floor where the dark haired man had been when she settled to sleep. He wasn’t there.  As she strained to listen, she realized it was his low drawl that she could hear. Not wanting to alert him that she was awake, she sat there, unable to resist, and eavesdropped.   

She felt like an intruder listening to him bare his soul in such a personal way but she couldn’t stop herself. Her heart swelled with pride at the sacrifice he was making in order to try and reach his brother. She knew both what he was doing and why he was doing it and it made her feel ashamed. Not a few hours earlier she had been preaching to him about the dangers of letting the past dictate the present. Yet wasn’t that exactly what she had allowed it to do for the past five years, spent alone in this shack? Not being able to move on?

As she continued to listen she realized, to her eternal shame that he had begun to quietly sob. Not wanting to intrude further, she closed her eyes and concentrated on memories of Joe, Caleb and Ben. She had her own purging to do but for now, she’d let herself be carried away by her memories, and leave the brothers to privately cleanse themselves of their own.

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She was woken by a soft hand on her shoulder. She opened her eyes and looked into the red-rimmed eyes of the dark haired young man. Despite what she had heard him confess throughout his nightlong vigil, she didn’t think any less of him. In fact it was all she could do not to throw her arms around him and give him a hug. If anyone looked in need of one it was him. But she restrained herself. He could never know that she had heard his very personal confession nor that it had made her face a few home truths of her own.

“Hey boy, “ she yawned. “What time is it??”

“A little after dawn.”

“How’s yer brother?”

“Fevers down, he’s sleeping quietly.”

“That’s good. Maybe he’s turnin’ a corner. He been awake at all?”

He shook his head dejectedly, running his fingers through his hair distractedly.  “No.  I don’t know Cora, it’s like he’s given up or something. I can’t seem to reach him. I thought I had it figured but..”  His words trailed off. He looked utterly exhausted.

She rose slowly and put her hand out and patted his arm tenderly. “Give him time. He’s been in a far away place .It takes time to see the light when you’ve been in the dark so long. I should know,” she said cryptically. “Don’t give up on him now Johnny, you’ve both come so far.”

He swallowed against the lump in his throat and nodded silently.

“Now ya look as if ya could use some coffee but I’m gonna need some kindlin’ and wood, to build up this fire again.” Cora went into business mode.  “There’s a dry stack in the lean to and you’ll find an ax there.”

He nodded. “Sure. No problem.”

“Oh, and Esme’ll be needing some feed.”

“Fine.”

“Oh, and I guess yer own horses’ll need seein’ to.”

He couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across his tired features. “Anything else?”

She smirked back at him. “I’ll think on it. But that’ll do fer now.”

He grinned and headed out the door.

She turned to the other young man lying in the bed and stood over him, hands on hips.

“Right young fella,” she rebuked, “It’s time ya was waking up. You’ve been taking up my bed long enough.” 

 

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By the time Johnny came back in from his assigned chores, carrying an armful of wood, she had managed to stoke the waning fire enough to heat up the coffee and a bowl of the last of the oatmeal. Supplies were perilously low and she was worried that she didn’t have enough skins to trade for everything she needed. She wondered what she could sacrifice. Still, that wasn’t the boy’s problem and she’d go without before she allowed him to.

“Rains stopped.” he said as he placed the wood down by the hearth.

“That don’t mean it ain’t gonna start again,” she grumbled.  

He smiled as he busied himself building up the fire. The physical labor of chopping the wood and the cool air on his face had done him good. So had spending time with Barranca. He had often sought out the palomino as a source of comfort since his arrival at Lancer and after the fraught night spent sitting with his brother, it had felt good having his faithful friend nuzzling at him affectionately.

He couldn’t help thinking that Cora had known exactly what would be good for him when she had sent him out there.  She seemed to know what he needed before even he did.  And yet it was still less than twenty-four hours since their paths had first crossed.

Again, he reflected what a waste it was that Cora McClintock kept herself hidden away up here when it was clear she had a special knack of taking care of people.

“Here.” She thrust a bowl of steaming oatmeal at him “Now wipe that silly grin off yer face and get that inside ya.”

“Yes ma’am,” he teased good naturedly, enjoying the smirk that she was unable to prevent creasing her face.  He sat back down against the saddle and started to eat, not realizing how hungry he was. She handed him a cup of coffee and sat down on the rocking chair to join him in the repast.

They ate silently for a while before Cora spoke up. “I got an apology to make to ya boy.”

He looked at her inquisitively. “How so?”

“You asked two things of me last night and I never gave ya an answer to either one of ‘em.”

Johnny tried to wrack his brain, to recall what they were. So much had been said then and since, that it was hard to recall.

She helped him out. “You asked if I’d seen somethin’ like what yer brother’s goin’ through before and I said I had but I never told ya exactly what. And you asked me why I lived up here alone. I figure it’s about time I told ya since they’re both connected.”  

“That’s alright Cora, you don’t have to..” he spluttered awkwardly.

“Yeah. I do,” she interjected. “I deliberately avoided telling ya because I’m as guilty of lettin’ the past hold me back as yer brother over there lyin’ in that bed. And I got to thinkin’ it ain’t no use tellin’ others how to be if you can’t practice what ya preach. So if it’s all the same to you, I’ll tell ya and it’ll be done.”

“Alright,” he agreed, knowing how hard what she was about to do would be, but feeling strangely privileged that she would chose to confide in him.

Cora took a deep breath and began, the first time she had spoken it aloud for over five years. “I told ya last night I had seen what yer brother was going through before. It was a long time ago, but ya don’t forget somethin’ like that. Especially when it happens to someone ya love,” she recalled sorrowfully.

“I was married once, with a family,” she continued.  “Livin’ down in Bootjack, where I was born and raised. Didn’t know nothin’ different.” She smiled.    “Things were good until the day the army came recruitin’. There was war brewin’ down Mexico way and they needed men to fight. Made it all sound so romantic, promisin’ all the young men they could make more money in a year in the army than they could make in five years back home. We already had two young boys, Caleb was 2 and Ben was just a babe in arms. We didn’t have much money but enough to get by and we were happy. Joe worked as a logger and I picked up some extra money takin’ in sewin’ and mendin’. But we’d married young and Joe had never been outside of the mountains and I guess it all sounded like too much of an adventure to pass up,” she reflected sadly.

“Well, he wrote regular, let me know he was doin’ ok, and he arranged for the army to send most of his pay straight back to me to make sure me and the boys was taken care of but I sure did miss him. Ben was too young to know anythin’ but Caleb was old enough to miss his pa. Anyway, he’d been gone for six months when I got the letter to say that his unit was being sent into action. He couldn’t say where or how but I remember my blood runnin’ cold as I read those words. The letter was written at the beginning of September and I never got it until mid October so I had no ways of knowin’ whether he was still alive or dead. As the time passed, I figured more and more that somethin’ bad had happened and that he wouldn’t be comin’ home. So I just got on with life as best I could. Then one day, I was outside, tending to the vegetable patch and I saw a figure on horseback comin’ towards the house. I remember Ben had just taken his first steps.” A smile turned up the corners of her mouth as she remembered.

“The sun was right behind him so I had to squint to see who it was but as he got closer, there was no mistakin’. It was Joe come back to us.”

Here she paused, as if trying to muster the strength to continue. “I was so pleased to see him but somethin’ had changed. When he dismounted, I could see that he had been wounded. His leg was all broken up; he could hardly put any weight on it at all but all I cared about was that I had him home. Nothin’ else mattered.  But of course, it meant he couldn’t go back to the loggin’ and there weren’t a whole lot of other kinds of work he could do. For a while we barely made ends meet. I took some extra sewin’ work but we barely made enough to put food on the table. And Joe just got more and more closed up like somethin’ had died inside him. All I ever found out was that he got hurt at a place called Molino del Ray, and that was only ‘coz it said it on his discharge papers. I always did find it hard to reconcile that a place that sounded so romantic could be somewhere that caused so much pain.”

“It means King’s Mill,” Johnny murmured softly. He wasn’t sure why he said it, and it hardly seemed to matter now. He wasn’t sure that she had heard anyway, as she continued to stare into space, recalling that time.

“Although he refused to talk about what had happened to him, I heard plenty enough of his nightmares to know that he had seen a lot of his friends die and that he felt guilty for still livin’. I tried to give him reason to be grateful that he was still alive.  I tried to be a good wife and I hoped he’d take solace in his growin’ boys but he just seemed so distant. It was like he was slowly dyin’ inside just a little bit more each day.   

Eventually he took to bear trappin’ to make some money,” she continued. “He could still sit a horse just fine and it suited him to spend weeks on end up in the mountains on his own. Once the boys got old enough I tried to get him to take them with him, maybe bring him out of himself some and for a while it worked. After a few years, aside from the limp he would always have, he seemed to get better. He still had times when the moods would take him and he’d go real quiet but they became less frequent. He built this cabin and some times he’d bring us all up here. When I came up for the first time, he built that drape across the room so I’d have some privacy. The boys loved to camp outside so that’s what they’d do in the summertime and we’d all be up here together.” She smiled at the remembrance of the good times as she looked around the tiny cabin.

Johnny remained listening silently, as he sipped his coffee, not wanting to further interrupt her flow.

“Then one day, things changed. A man rode into town lookin’ for Joe. Soon as Joe saw him ridin’ up he told me to get into the house and shut the door. I’d never seen that look on his face before; it was pure fear. I watched out of the window and even though I couldn’t hear nothin’, I knew they was arguing about somethin’. After a while Joe got on his horse and rode off with him. He never came back until the next day and he was all closed up again. When I tried to ask him who the man was and what had happened, he backhanded me across the face and clean split my lip. I was glad the boys were at school and didn’t have to see that.  It was then the nightmares started up again. But this time he got real violent and one time when I tried to wake him he hit out and blacked my eye. He was all remorseful when he knew what he’d done and I knew it weren’t his fault, not really, but we had to stop sharin’ a bed after that.   I tried to get him to tell me what was botherin’ him but he wouldn’t talk about it. But I learned all I needed to know from listenin’ to him callin’ out in his sleep; the horrors he had seen, the things he had done, the guilt that was weighin’ him down.  During one particularly violent nightmare I got an idea of what happened to the man who came visitin’ too. And why Joe was slowly dyin’ inside right in front of me. And I just didn’t know what to do to help him, except love him. But it weren’t enough.”

The tears were starting to prick at the corners of her eyes but she irritably wiped them away with her sleeve.  “Anyway, one day Joe came in and it was like suddenly, the light was back in his eyes. I hadn’t seen him so excited, so full of life for such a long time and it was like a breath of fresh air. He was callin’ for the boys and it did my heart good to see how happy they were that their pa wanted to spend some time with them. But I should have known better.”

Here she looked over to the silent young man lying in the bed. “Joe had just got word of the war back east. Took a while for news to get through from the outside sometimes and with Joe spendin’ so much time trappin’ I guess he was one of the last to hear about it but he was real excited. I couldn’t understand it after everythin’ he had seen and been through, but he was makin’ it sound so glorious and adventurous and had the boys just itchin’ to go. Caleb was only 17 and Ben just 15. Too young to be goin’ off to war and I told Joe straight, ‘tweren’t his or the boy’s fight, but if he wanted to go kill himself that was just fine but he weren’t takin’ my boys with him.”

Johnny watched as she struggled to continue, the emotion rising within her. He wished at that moment that there was still some of the whiskey in Scott’s saddlebag that he could offer her to give her the strength to carry on. Instead, she took a sip of her coffee and continued. “But of course, what could I have done to stop them? I’ve asked myself that question time and again over the past years but short of hog tyin’ them, there was just no way I was gonna stop Joe takin’ ‘em off. Lord knows they must’ve been desperate to take a cripple and a couple of boys but take ‘em they did. I remember the expression on their faces as they rode off like it was yesterday. Caleb and Ben were so excited to be headin’ east, to do their part for the cause. To them it was just one big adventure. But Joe knew better and the expression on his face made my blood run cold. I knew then he didn’t mean to come back. It was his way of endin’ the pain. What I can’t forgive him for is that he took my boys with him. I should have seen it comin’, should have done more to stop him.” She started to sob, finally unable to hold back.  

Johnny set his cup down and went over to her, squatting in front of her, taking her hands. “Cora, look at me.”

She looked up, through the haze of tears, into his clear blue eyes, seeing the compassion reflected there. He so reminded her of Caleb. He used to look at her that same way when he found her crying over something his pa had said or done. He had that way of smiling at her that made it all right again. As long as her boys had been there, she could have coped with anything that life threw at her.

“Cora, there was nothing you could have done different.” Johnny assured her, softly.  “The Joe you fell in love with and married, well it sounds as if he died in Mexico. The man who came home in his place, you weren’t ever gonna be able to reach. He made his choices and I’m real sorry that you’re the one that’s suffered most because of ‘em, but I’ve seen for myself these past twenty-four hours the compassion and the love that you have inside you in the way that you’ve taken care of Scott and me, and it’s not right that you should stay up here alone after we’re gone punishing yourself this way. You gotta move on, same as we all have to move on from the things that we’ve done in the past.”

She clasped his hands tightly in return. He was right. Having these two boys here for such a short time had given her a renewed sense of purpose, and it had felt good to be needed again after so long. Perhaps it was time to go back to Bootjack? But what would she do? How would she live?  But that was her worry and hers alone. Right now, there was a sick boy to tend to.  

“I’m just a foolish old woman.” She sniffed. “Doncha pay me no never mind. I just don’t wanna see the same thing happen to yer brother. Now we gotta do all we can to persuade him to come back from wherever it is he’s locked himself away.”

Johnny smiled and gently extricated himself from her powerful grip as he rose.

“You leave Scott to me. He may be stubborn but it’s a family trait and I’m not leaving here without him”    

 

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As a semblance of awareness returned he tried to understand where he was and what had happened. He tried to get his tired mind to work but it was just a jumble of images and memories, horrific flashes that flitted across his subconscious, making him gasp and then disappearing as soon as they had arrived   He was hot, so very hot but from somewhere he could feel a cool breeze and it felt good on his burning skin.    He flinched as he felt something cold pass across his chest, sudden flashes of memory of a dark, cold, sinister place making him cry out, trying to push the object away. Then he could hear a low murmuring but he couldn’t make out the words.  His brain was still unable to process the information properly but something told him they were talking to him or about him, he couldn’t be sure.   What was that smell?  So close to his nostrils, pungent, and overpowering, he had smelled something like it before. And smoke, he could smell smoke. Something was burning. It had a terrible sense of familiarity, hovering at the periphery of his memory.  Something terrible had happened; what was it? Why couldn’t he remember? Suddenly an image flitted across his vision, a medallion, melted and charred. His eyes opened wide in shock as clarity returned.

“Johnny!”

Scott had almost propelled himself off the bed but Johnny was there to grab him by the shoulders before he collapsed in a heap on the floor. He could feel the heat coming off his brother but the beads of sweat on his forehead gave him hope that he was making progress. It had been a long morning but he finally felt he was getting through to him. 

“Scott, it’s alright. I got you. Calm down, you’re ok. I got you,” he soothed.

“No, no, it can’t be…I saw you die. I saw you burn.” Scott sobbed, shaking his head in denial, the images from his distorted memory suddenly trying to reassert themselves in his confused mind.

“No Scott, you didn’t’ Johnny asserted. “Maybe in those nightmares but they weren’t real. You gotta remember. Remember what was real. Tell me what you saw.”

“I saw you burn, why are you doing this to me? Why can’t you leave me alone?” He tried to thrash out of the grip of his tormentor but the one who claimed to be Johnny kept a firm hold on him.

“No Scott, look me in the eye.  Focus on me. Focus brother.” He physically shook the panicking blond, literally trying to shake some sense back into him.

“Johnny, it’s not workin’, let me…”

He felt a firm hold on his shoulder but shrugged her off.  “No Cora, not this time. I did it your way before, but this time Scott’s gonna come out of it.”

“Johnny, he’s weak. He can’t take much more, yer pushing him too far.”

“Yeah, he’s weak and if I let him sink back down into that dark hole he’s been hiding in he might never come back and I can’t have that Cora. I’m not going back home without him. Trust me, it’s the only way. I have faith in my brother.”

“Alright,” Cora nodded sadly. It had been a long time since she had had any faith but she admired his determination and his absolute loyalty to his brother. However it turned out, they needed a little privacy. “I’ll be right outside.”

Scott was confused. There was another voice. A woman’s. Who could it be? Teresa? Or Maria? No, too old for Teresa. And she didn’t sound Spanish that much he could tell.

What did it really matter though? He could feel his strength beginning to wane. It was too hard to fight. He was tired of fighting; he had been trying for so long. He just wanted to close his eyes and let the darkness take him, to block out the horrific images forever.

“Scott, stay with me brother, open your eyes.”  Johnny could feel his brother start to go lax. “God damn it Scott, don’t do this. OPEN YOUR EYES!” He shook him as hard as he could and was rewarded as his brother’s eyes flew open, his arms flailing as he tried to fight back once more.

“Why can’t you leave me alone, why are you doing this to me?” Scott sobbed.

“Because you’re my brother and I need you like I’ve never needed anything or anyone before,” Johnny cried.   “I’m flesh and blood, look at me, and touch me. Believe what’s in front of your eyes. Because I’m right here, right now, and this is where you’ve gotta stay Scott. Stop hiding in the past. You don’t belong there. Face your feelings and face your fears. Nobody’s judging you brother, nobody.   Now stay with me. I need you, Murdoch and Teresa need you, so don’t you make me go home without you else I will truly damn you to hell.”  He gently let go of his brother’s arms and cupped his hands on either side of his face. He tilted his head up and searched the wild cerulean eyes for any sign that he had gotten through to him.  “Now look at me. Focus. Please Boston. Please…” he coaxed.

Scott could hear his own hitched breathing, feel the frantic pounding of his heart in his ears, the sweat running down the back of his neck, the feel of his brother’s hands on the side of his face.  Flesh and blood. He worked to control his breathing, to dispel the images and memories that were trying to reassert themselves. How did he know that this wasn’t just another distorted memory? It was hard to know what was real any more. It looked like Johnny and it sounded like Johnny but he had seen the body. Who else could it have been?    Believe what’s in front of your eyes.    He reached out with his hands and ran them through his brother’s hair, running his fingers down the contours of his face, all the while looking straight into his eyes. Look at me, touch me.

“Johnny?” he asked, uncertainly.

“Yeah, Scott, it’s me.”

“I saw your body…the medallion.”

“No, Scott.” He gently took his hands away from his brother’s face and guided Scott’s hands away from his own, clasping them tightly “It wasn’t me, I lost the medallion.” He took one hand away and retrieved the medallion from his pocket   “Look. It’s a little burned up but the Sheriff gave it back to me.”  He guided Scott’s hand to touch it, to maintain the connection, to make him to see the truth.  “I came looking for you Scott. Hell, I’ve never been so scared in all my life wondering where you were. I’m sorry for the things I said but don’t you ever run out on me like that again, you hear?” He struggled to keep the emotion out of his voice as he searched his brother’s face to see if he had gotten through, reaching up to brush the sweat matted bangs away from his brow.

Suddenly the fog dissipated and clarity finally returned to Scott Lancer as the relief of seeing his brother alive, truly there in front of him, finally washed over him.  “Johnny! I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!” he sobbed.

Johnny gathered his brother towards him, wrapping his arms around him as the sobs wracked his painfully thin frame. “Shhh, it’s ok brother, it’s over, it’s all over. I got you,” he murmured. He sat there for what seemed an age, rocking his brother back and forth in a calming motion as Scott purged himself of all the pent up emotion that had plummeted him into the dark places since he had believed his brother was dead.    Johnny’s own tears fell unashamedly as he stroked the back of his brother’s head in a soothing motion.  After a while, he felt the sobs begin to subside, the hitched breathing ease and Scott’s grip around him start to relax. He continued to cradle him as the blond’s arms fell limp to his side and his head lolled heavily on Johnny’s shoulder. But still he held onto him. Now that he had him back he didn’t want to ever let him go.

Johnny had been oblivious to the fact that Cora had pulled across the drape when she had left him to fight for his brother, and he was only vaguely aware now of the swish as she pulled it back once more. He felt the hand on his shoulder and looked up with tear-streaked eyes to see that she was crying too.

“You can let him go now Johnny. C’mon,” she coaxed gently as she prised his hands away from his brother’s limp form. Johnny reluctantly let go and allowed her to take Scott’s weight and watched as she gently laid him back down. She placed her hand on his sweat soaked forehead and smiled. “His fever’s broken. You did it Johnny, ya brought him back.”

He nodded silently, suddenly too exhausted and overcome with relief to say anything. He couldn’t take his eyes off of Scott, who had fallen into a deep, dreamless and refreshing sleep; the first he had experienced for months.  Cora made light work of sponging the sleeping young man down, ridding him of the sweat that streaked his body and then covered him back up to let him rest. Johnny made no attempt to move from his perch on the end of the bed.

She touched his arm gently.  “C’mon, he’ll sleep for a good long while now. You look as if ya could use a drink. Wish I had something stronger to give you but coffee’ll have to do for now.”

He smiled weakly. “I’ll be out in a minute. I just want to sit with him for a bit longer.” She could hear the emotion in his voice and understood his need.

“Alright. I’ll go make that coffee.” She pulled back the drape to give him the privacy he needed.

A few minutes later, the coffee was brewed and she gently pulled aside the curtain to take it to him. The sight that met her was one that would forever be etched in her memory. Johnny lay on his side next to his brother one arm stretched out on the pillow over his brother’s head, the other lay across his chest. Both were in the welcome embrace of a deep and cleansing sleep. Cora smiled and nodded in satisfaction, the tears welling up anew. She turned away, setting the coffee aside by the hearth and grabbed the blanket she had left draped on the back of her rocking chair. She returned to the bedchamber and gently laid it across the younger man, tucking it around him. He responded by mumbling in his sleep and snuggling closer into his brother. She smiled at the unashamed closeness that the brother’s shared. Truly remarkable after the lives they had led and the years they had spent apart. She couldn’t resist smoothing back the hair of the blond before, taking one last look at them both, she turned and headed back to her chores. Now the rains had cleared, she had traps to check and she’d already left it too long.

 


Chapter 13

Cora returned to the house three hours later, empty handed, as she knew she would. She had only checked the first few traps. She didn’t want to leave the boys for too long but she figured if those were empty then so would the rest of them be.  As she approached the shack, with Esme following behind dragging the travois, she could see Johnny tightening the cinch on his saddle, his handsome palomino loaded up and ready to leave.

“Now where the heck d’ya think you’re goin’?” She barked in consternation.

Johnny looked around and grimaced. He’d hoped to have been gone by the time she got back.

“Gonna head down to Bootjack, there’s some things I gotta do,” he said simply.

“Well, that’s over half a days ride. Ya’ll barely get there by nightfall.” she protested.

“Yeah, I figured it’d be about that. I’ll stay there overnight, get the things I need and be back by tomorrow afternoon.”

“And what do I tell yer brother. He’s likely to wake up before ya get back and if you ain’t here….”

“He won’t believe I’m alive? Think it was all just a dream?” He finished by securing his carbine in its sheath and turned to her.

“Somethin’ like that,” she assented gruffly

“Don’t worry I got it covered. I left a note on the table inside.”

“Well, it sounds like ya got it all figured,” she grumbled as she started to unharness the travois from the back of the ancient mule. “Can’t say I cotton much to ya sneakin’ off like that though.”

He knew she would make it difficult for him but he couldn’t help that. “I’m sorry Cora,” he acknowledged, “But I never meant to sleep as long I did. I wanted to wait but, like you say, it’s a long way down to Bootjack and I needed to hit the trail.”

“Yeah, well, ya needed the rest,” she conceded reluctantly. “Betcha  ain’t eaten nothin’ neither. It’s a long way’s with nothin’ inside ya.”

Johnny smiled. “Cora that oatmeal from breakfast is still sticking to my ribs but I’ve got some trail grub left that’ll do just fine until I get to town.”

She didn’t seem convinced and he hated to think he had hurt her feelings, especially as the trip to Bootjack was partly on her account.  “But Scott’ll certainly need feeding up.” he said, hopefully, “Maybe some of that meaty broth you fed me last night. What was that by the way? Bear? It was real good.”

She knew when she was being ‘sweetened’ and it wasn’t going to wash.  “Raccoon,” she said matter of factly, arms folded, watching for his reaction.

Johnny swallowed, his stomach suddenly flipping.   “Uh, raccoon? I just figured…well...” he gestured to the bearskins hanging in the lean to.

“Well, ya figured wrong,” she interrupted, testily.  “After five years ya get fed up with bear meat; you kinda get a hankerin’ for somethin’ different.”

Johnny considered for a moment, an idea forming in his mind. “Sure, makes sense. I can understand that. Well, you be sure to give Scott a nice big bowl of that ..uh…raccoon broth. And make sure he finishes it all too. He needs feeding up.” He mounted Barranca, an impish grin spreading across his face. “Oh, and Cora? Don’t tell him what’s in it. What he don’t know won’t hurt him.”

She smirked back at him in that way she had. “Go on, get! I’ll be glad to see the back of ya for a spell.  And in case ya don’t know, ya take the North West fork, a way’s down the trail yonder. That'll lead ya straight to Bootjack. Ya can’t miss it.”

“Thanks, I figured as much.” He smiled. “Be seeing ya Cora.”  He turned Barranca and headed off down the trail.

She watched him go, her stomach doing somersaults. She knew it was ridiculous. She didn’t have the right. He wasn’t her son, but it didn’t stop her worrying anyway. To suddenly ride off when his brother had only just come through his crisis and before he had properly awoken, well, it just didn’t seem right.

She sighed, finished unharnessing Esme and went inside. A quick glance over at the bed confirmed her other young charge was still sleeping soundly and most likely would be for some time to come. She picked up the note left on the table and started to read.

“Cora, heading down to Bootjack. Back tomorrow. Tell Boston I’ve gone to see a man about a bull. He’ll understand.

Johnny
PS. I got his underwear on him”

Cora wrinkled her face up in consternation. “Bull?” she muttered to herself, “Ain’t no bulls in Bootjack. That boy’s plain loco.”

 

***********************************************************************

 

Johnny made good time on the trail. The rains had cleared and the hot summer sun was sucking the moisture out of the atmosphere creating a cloud of steam to rise off the dense vegetation and forest that surrounded the well-marked route. The crickets were chirping, making the forest sound alive and it lifted his pensive mood. It was a welcome change from the eerie silence of the rain sodden trail that had been his first introduction to the Yosemite. The temperature continued to rise and soon the sweat was pouring off of him, prompting him to reach for his canteen several times to replace the moisture he was losing.

Johnny’s mind wandered as Barranca kept a steady pace. The palomino was willing and eager to be on the move again after a day tethered up in the cramped lean to of the shack.  Johnny thought guiltily of Scott waking up in a strange place without him there. He’d wonder why his brother couldn’t have waited, why he would have left him alone with a strange woman. Johnny couldn’t help giving a wry grin, wondering what Scott would make of Cora. He had the feeling that Boston would be on the receiving end of one of her lectures and wouldn’t be able to get away with not talking things through while she was around. She would probably be the one person he would take it from, too. Not that he would have much choice, he mused. 

The truth was, though, Johnny needed some time to gather himself before he faced Scott again. He didn’t know how much his brother would remember about earlier that morning when he finally emerged from his world of nightmare, or even whether Johnny wanted him to. Which meant the last memory Scott would likely have of time spent with his brother would be the angry words that had passed between then in the hotel at Oakhurst. Johnny had told Scott that he didn’t deserve to have people that cared for him; that he could wallow in his own misery. They had been words forged from anger but Johnny was ashamed that he could have said such a thing to his hermano. Scott had been ill and not in control of what he was doing but Johnny had no such excuse. Not to his mind anyway. And if he hadn’t lost control, Scott wouldn’t have gotten so sick in the first place. Johnny winced when he thought of Scott lying out on that trail and how things could have turned out if Cora hadn’t found him.

The things he had to be grateful to Cora McClintock for were certainly mounting and that was why he needed to go to Bootjack, to try and find some way to repay her for what she had done for them. By the time he got back, he’d have figured out what he was going to say to Scott.

Dusk was falling as he finally emerged from the trail, into the small frontier town. He was gratified to see an oil lamp burning in the mercantile window, the title  ‘Eli Gerrarty, Proprietor’ hanging over the doorway confirming that he had found the right place.

He dismounted, wearily, glad to be out of the saddle and tied Barranca up at the hitching rail and tapped on the glass-fronted door.     

The shutter flipped up and a wiry, sharp-featured looking man appeared and eyed him suspiciously through the glass.  “I’m closed, Mister”

“You Eli Gerrarty?”

“Says it over the door, don’t it? Now whadd’ya want?”

Johnny grinned. Oh yeah, he and Cora would be a good match that was for sure.

“I’ve got some business I’d like to discuss with you.”

“Well, I’m closed, come back tomorrow.” the man snapped and pulled the shutter back down.

“It’s about Cora McClintock.” Johnny called out. He waited and listened, hoping his hunch was right. He was rewarded by the rapid sliding of the bolt as the door opened and the shopkeeper emerged with a carbine pointed right at him.

“How d’ya know Cora? He barked. “What’s happened to her? If you’ve harmed...”

“Whoa! Hold it, she’s fine.” Johnny held his hands up. “But I’ve got a proposition for you. Now will you point that thing some place else and give me ten minutes of your time?”

The man continued to eye him suspiciously, taking in his low hung gun belt, his calzoneras and Mexican style hat.

Johnny rolled his eyes. Was everyone around these parts so one-eyed? “Here.” He slowly unbuckled his gun belt and eased it off carefully, offering it to the skittish man. “Just to show good faith and that I don’t mean no harm. Now I reckon you and me got something in common.  I think we both care for Cora McClintock a great deal and don’t think she belongs up there in the wilderness on her own. Now I got an idea how we can fix that. You wanna listen?”

Eli considered for a moment then lowered his weapon. “Keep yer gun Mister, and c’mon inside. Ya got ten minutes to convince me.”

“Thanks. The name’s Lancer; Johnny Lancer.” He replaced his gun belt and followed Eli inside.”

 

  ***********************************************************************

Scott lay there with his eyes closed for some time as awareness returned, trying to sort out the jumble of memories in his head and figure out where he was and what had happened. He had some vague recollections but couldn’t be sure if they were real or not. He vaguely recalled another time when he had lain still, playing possum, trying to figure out the lay of the land before he dared open his eyes but he didn’t have the sense of danger now that he had then. He could feel that he was lying in comfortable, if somewhat musty smelling, surroundings, and the rich meaty aroma that invaded his nostrils had him salivating. He tried to remember the last time he had eaten. From the gnawing feeling in his stomach, it must have been a while.

He could hear movement as heavy feet trounced across a wooden floor. His curiosity got the better of him and he slowly opened his eyes.

“Well, well, ‘bout time ya was awake. Thought ya was gonna sleep the day away.”  

He looked up into the face of the most unusual looking woman he had ever seen in his life. At least, he thought it was a woman. The voice sounded like a female but the clothes, well, he’d never seen a woman dressed quite like it. He blinked at her in confusion.

“Ain’t no one never told ya it ain’t polite to stare?” the strange woman groused.

‘I’m sorry ma’am,” he croaked, his voice hoarse to his own ears as he tried to take in his surroundings.  “It’s just…”

“I’ll tell ya, what I told ya brother;’ she interrupted, “I ain’t nobody’s ma’am. The name’s McClintock, Cora McClintock. Just plain Cora’s fine. And no need to introduce yourself, we’ve already been acquainted fer quite a spell, Scott Lancer.”

“Johnny?” His heart in his mouth, he almost launched himself out of the bed at the mention of the word ‘brother’ and immediately regretted it as he was assailed by a wave of dizziness.  He closed his eyes until the sensation passed but could feel the sweat breaking out on his skin.

“Now that weren’t none too smart, was it?” He could feel the depression as she perched on the edge of the bed and gently pushed him back down. He opened his eyes to see the concerned expression on her face. As she took her hand away, he was conscious of his bare chest and flushed, and pulled the crude smelling coverlet up to his neck.  He noted this amused her no end.

“He said ya was kinda shy,” she chuckled, and then laughed out loud when she saw the flush rise even further. “Here.” She poured a cup of cool water and held it to his lips.

With shaking hands he took it from her and gulped it down, savoring the cool liquid as it eased his parched throat.

“Steady now,’ she gently rebuked, taking the cup away from him, “Don’t want ya bringin’ it all up again. Ya ain’t taken too much the past day or so. Ya weren’t the most cooperative patient I’ve ever tended.” 

“Sorry.”  He didn’t quite know what he was apologizing for, he had absolutely no memory of where he was nor how he had come to be here, but he said it anyway.

Flashes of memory flitted across his sub conscious again; the burned body; the medallion in the sheriffs hand; but, even stronger, clearer, Johnny himself holding the medallion in front of him, holding him, shaking him, yelling at him to believe his eyes. He instinctively looked at his upper arms and could see the bruising already starting to form.

“Please, my brother, Johnny. I did see him, didn’t I? It wasn’t a dream?”

“No boy, ‘tweren’t a dream. Ya ain’t been seeing much straight lately but that was one thing ya did see true. Yer brother’s very much alive, I’m happy to say, and he’ll be real glad to see ya awake and talkin’ again.”

“Well, where is he? Why isn’t he here?” Scott was confused.

“I’m sorry boy. He said he had some things he needed to go do, down Bootjack way. He’ll be back tomorrow. ”

Scott lay back, crestfallen. So Johnny was avoiding him. He didn’t blame him after the way he had treated him lately.

“Left a message for ya though, most danged fool thing I ever heard but maybe ya can make some sense of it.” She pulled the note out of her pants pocket. “Says, ‘Tell Boston I’ve gone to see a man about a bull’. Says you’ll understand. Now does that make any sense to ya?”

The transformation was remarkable as the grin slowly spread across his pale features, the worry lines on his forehead smoothing out as the relief washed over him. She looked at him questioningly “Well?” she demanded.

“Private joke,” he choked as the emotion threatened to overcome him. In that one simple statement Johnny had let him know they were all right.  

“Well, heck if ya ain’t as bad as he is with yer silly grins,” she muttered, but was secretly pleased to see the young man smile. It suited him after seeing so much pain, fear and despair etched on his face over the past day or so as he battled the fever. Sensing he needed a few minutes alone, she headed back over to the hearth to check on the broth that was bubbling away there.

Scott lay there for a few moments regaining his composure. His relief that Johnny was both alive and that things appeared to be ok between the two of them was palpable. He still couldn’t quite fathom why Johnny would have left him here alone with the woman but he figured Johnny would have his reasons.

Now that his senses had returned so too, though, had his inhibitions and he was feeling increasingly uncomfortable with his degree of nakedness in the woman’s presence. All sorts of things were going through his mind, like who had undressed him and just how naked was he. He looked up to see where she was and, satisfied that her back was turned, lifted up his covers and took a surreptitious look. He breathed a sigh of relief to note they, or Johnny, he hoped, had at least left him with his underwear.

Cora spooned a large helping of the broth into a bowl, and turned back to her recovering patient, just in time to see him drop the coverlet guiltily, the flush once more spreading across his face. A smile twitched at the corners of her mouth but she pretended not to have noticed. She couldn’t resist having a little fun though. She set the broth down on the nightstand next to him and perched on the edge of the bed and reached out to lay her hand on his forehead.   “Hmmmm, yer lookin’ a mite flushed again. Hope that fever’s not returnin’.”

He recoiled from her touch and she laughed again, mussing his hair playfully. “Alright, boy, you’ll do.” Scott just sat there bemused, not used to such familiarity. He watched as she bent down to a trunk at the side of the bed and pulled something out. “Here, it’ll smell a mite musty but I reckon it’s about yer size.” She tossed a faded undershirt at him. It had evidently once been red but repeated washes had it faded to a dark pink color. Still, it was better than nothing.

“Ya want a hand?” she enquired, seemingly enjoying his discomfort.

“No, I can manage,” he asserted, quickly. He hesitated, waiting for her to turn her back as she stood there watching him with her arms folded. Hell, she really was enjoying this, wasn’t she? Johnny better have a good excuse for leaving him alone with her like this, he reflected.  Finally, with a smirk slowly spreading across her face, she turned her back, allowing him to hurriedly scramble into the undergarment.  He lay back, exhausted. Just that one simple action of dressing, sapping what little strength he had.    

“Ya done?” It would have been tough if he hadn’t been because she turned anyway. She noted the fresh beads of sweat that had broken out on his forehead and tsked. “Well, whether ya like it or not youngun’, you ain’t gonna be doin’ a whole lotta things fer yerself for a day or two if a little thing like puttin’ a shirt on is gonna do that.”

Much as he wanted to, weak as he felt, he couldn’t argue. What bothered him most was that sooner or later, the slight discomfort he was feeling in his bladder would get much worse and that was one thing he certainly did not want her help with.

“Now open wide,” she commanded.

He lay back, propped up against the pillows and dejectedly allowed her to feed him.

 

**********************************************************************

 

“Well, she’s the most all fired stubborn woman I ever did come across,” Eli Gerrarty complained bitterly. “I ‘bin tryin’ fer five years to get her to come back down here. I keep tellin’ her t’ain’t no place fer a woman but she just digs those boot heels of hers in and then there ain’t no talkin’ to her.”

Johnny shook his head and gave a wry smile. He’d been acquainted with Cora for only a day or so yet he knew more about what made the woman tick than this other man had learned in five years. Still, he had to concede that the time he and Cora had spent together had been pretty intense with the two of them forced to let down their guard for the good of another.

He had told Eli all that had happened in the past few days and how he would be forever in her debt for finding Scott and for sheltering them and taking care of them. Despite his initial suspicions, Eli had proven to be a good host and had supplied him with a meal and several glasses of his potent home brew and now they were sat in the older mans dimly lit parlor discussing what they could do to help Cora.

Johnny knew his hunch about Eli had been correct when they passed through the mercantile supply room to get to Eli’s private living quarters. The room was stocked full of fetid smelling bearskins. Johnny suspected several months, if not years worth.  

He sat back on the couch and took another sip of the sour tasting beverage.  “Well, it seems to me Eli that you’ve been going about this all the wrong way.”

“How d’ya mean?”

“Well, you love her, don’t you?” Johnny regarded him seriously.

“Well, I reckon I do”

“And you wanna marry her?”

“Well, I’ve just said that, ain’t I?” the older man pouted.

Johnny sighed. “Well, no, not exactly. Have you told Cora how you feel?” 

“Well she knows.’ He blustered, defensively, “I’ve told her often enough that she needs to leave that place an’ come back down here.”

“Yeah, but have you given her a reason to leave?”

“Whadd’ya mean?” The look on his face was downright comical.

“Oh Eli, have you actually told her you love her and you wanna marry her?”

"Well, no, not in so many words,” he spluttered, awkwardly “But I have told her she needs takin’ care of. And I’m willin’ to be the one to do it”

“Well, no wonder she dug her heels in.” Johnny shook his head in exasperation.

“I don’t follow.”

Well, that’s abundantly clear, thought Johnny. “All right, look Eli, you gotta understand women,” he began, “and more specifically Cora and why she hightailed it to that shack in the first place. Her whole life was taking care of her husband and sons and when she lost them, she lost her reason for being. And that’s why she’s spent five years trying to hold onto the past in that trappers hut. Now you and I both agree that hasn’t been healthy, right?”

Eli nodded his assent.

“Right, but we can’t change what’s done.’ Johnny continued.  “What we can do, though, is influence what happens from now on. In finding my brother out on the trail, for which I will always be in her debt, she not only saved his life but she also found a new sense of purpose. For the past day or so, she’s taken real good care of Scott and me and I don’t know what its gonna do to her in a few days when Scott’s well enough for us to leave. Unless she finds something or someone else that she can turn her attention to. You follow?”

He emphasized the word ‘someone’ but still the older man looked confused.

“Oh, C’mon Eli,” asserted Johnny, rising and clapping the older man on the shoulder, “don’t you see, she don’t need anybody to take care of her.  She’s proven that surviving up there these past five years. But what she wants, what she craves is to be needed. That’s who she is. So what you gotta do is tell her how much you need her. Now I got an idea how that can be done. You wanna hear it?”

 


Chapter 14

When Scott awoke again, the light was rapidly dimming in the little shack. He hadn’t even remembered nodding off but guessed that was to be expected while he recovered. He wasn’t entirely clear what had been wrong with him and still hadn’t found out where he was or how he had even got here, and the woman hadn’t exactly been forthcoming with information.  With dismay, he realized the mild discomfort he had earlier been experiencing had upgraded to a much more pressing need. He grimaced as he tried to shift to a more comfortable position but all that did was exacerbate the pressure in his bladder. He looked around the tiny shack and noted that his nemesis (as he had already come to think of her) was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he could muster up enough strength to get outside, do what he needed to and get back inside before she returned from wherever it was she had gone to. He pulled back the skins covering him and swung his legs over the side of the bed, fighting back the wave of dizziness that assaulted him. He gripped the side of the bed until it passed and then gradually eased himself up. Once again, the sweat started to pour off of him at the exertion of the seemingly trivial task.

He figured it was about ten or twelve feet to the rocking chair and then the same again to the door, if he could do it in stages. He could feel the sweat dripping down the back of his neck, soaking through the clean shirt as he headed for his first goal, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. He had managed to get to the rocking chair and was leaning heavily against it, wiping the sweat off of his brow with his sleeve, when the door opened and his plan was rumbled.

“Well of all the stubborn, stupid things….ya wanna explain yerself?” she scolded.

He shook his head silently, just focusing on calming his hitched breathing and trying to muster the strength to stay on his feet. She looked at him for a moment and then set the pail she was carrying down on the floor and hurried over to him. “C’mon.” She took his left arm and draped it around her shoulder, placing her right arm tightly around his waist. Instead of leading him back to the bed however, she guided him towards the door.

“Where are we going?” he murmured breathlessly.

“To finish what you started,” she chastised. “And Lord help ya if this little stunt brings that fever back, coz you’ll get no sympathy from me.”

She guided him outside and took him around the side of the shack. She disengaged her arms and placed his against the side of the wall. “I’ll be right around the corner,” she instructed, “Shout when yer ready to go back inside. Unless of course, ya need me to…”

“It’s fine,” he interjected quickly, “I’ll call you.”  He didn’t have to look up to know she was grinning from ear to ear. He waited for her to move out of sight before adjusting his position so that he could do what was needed while still staying on his feet. He closed his eyes in relief as he relieved the pressure and focused on not passing out. Not until he was done anyway.

A few minutes later, and with Cora practically bearing all of his weight, she had manhandled him back into the cabin and into bed again. He lay back trying to catch his breath. The light was fading rapidly now and he opened his eyes again as he heard the match being struck as she lit the oil lamp. She walked over towards him with it, setting it down on the nightstand next to his bed. He watched as she walked back over to the table and dipped a wooden bowl into the pail she had entered with earlier and then retrieved two objects from the table and walked back over to him again. Finally, she bent down and retrieved a pot from underneath the bed and gestured to it before replacing it.

“Next time you use this, alright?”

He nodded silently but privately resolved that the ‘next time’ would wait until Johnny came back. He hoped it would be soon.

She sat down on the side of the bed and he wondered what was coming next. As she wet the soap and picked up the razor, it soon became apparent.

“Now, I’ve been figurin’ there’s a mighty handsome young fella under all them whiskers and I reckon its about time I found out.” Scott opened his mouth to protest but was soon silenced “And don’t even think of arguing because after that little stunt you just pulled,  you don’t got the right.”     

He closed his mouth, realizing it was futile to argue with her. And besides, he knew he’d feel better to be rid of the, however many days it had been, growth on his face and chin. It itched mercilessly

“Good, I was hopin’ ya’d see it my way.” She flashed the blade at him mockingly. “And while we’re at it. I reckon it’s about time you and me had a little talk.”    

“What about?”

“Oh, about you. How I found ya half dead in the rain, and why, for a spell there, all ya could talk about was wantin’ to die.”  

He turned his head away from her, uncomfortable at her directness, but she grabbed his chin and firmly turned his face back towards her. “And doncha try that again while’s I’m shavin’ ya coz that’s the fastest way to get yer throat cut,” she chastised. And then, more gently, “now ya can start with some listenin’ and then yer gonna do a whole lot of talkin’ to me whether ya like it or not.”

    

************************************************************************

 

“Well, Johnny was right when he said ya was stubborn but I reckon I can teach the both of ya a thing or two about stubbornness,” Cora asserted as she patted his clean-shaven face dry and set aside the shaving gear.

So far Scott had resisted her efforts to get him to talk about what had led to his break down. But she was right about one thing, she was stubborn and it was becoming increasingly clear that she wasn’t going to let him rest until she had some answers from him. She had told him how she had found him out on the trail, soaked to the skin and close to death from exposure and how she had brought him here and cared for him. She had gone on to explain how Johnny, realizing that Scott had mistaken the burned corpse for his own had chased after him and tracked him to this place, and how between them, she and Johnny had fought to penetrate the layers of Scott’s nightmares and memories of the past to coax him back to the present.

“Look, Cora,” he protested wearily, “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me over the past day or so. It’s clear I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for you finding me but there are some things that are just too hard, too painful to speak of.” His privileged upbringing made him feel uncomfortable referring to an older woman by her Christian name but he had already incurred her wrath once by calling her Ma’am and he didn’t want a repeat performance.  

“Well, if that don’t beat it all,” she spluttered angrily, “ya wanna know about hard? What’s hard is watchin’ someone ya love slowly dyin’ a little bit more each day ‘coz it’s too hard to talk about the things they’ve seen. That’s what happened to my husband. He came home damaged from war like you, and I ain’t just talkin’ about the physical scars.”

Scott winced at the painful reminder of the legacy of his war experiences that were permanently etched on his back. He realized she couldn’t have failed to notice them.   

“I spent fourteen years carin’ for him, lovin’ him, tryin’ to reach him,’ she continued “and all that happened was that he got further and further locked up inside himself. Can ya even begin to imagine what that felt like?”

Scott swallowed and shook his head silently, not knowing what to say.

“And then one day, he came home so happy, it was like the past fourteen years had been nothin’ but a bad dream. It was like I had my old Joe back and it made all the hurt and the pain worthwhile to see the light in his eyes again. But ya know, ‘tweren’t me that brought that light back; nope, it was another war, and what made him happy was that finally he saw a way out; a way that he could escape the pain of livin’ and he took it. But what was unforgivable was that he took my boys with him.”    

“I’m sorry.” It seemed inadequate somehow but he didn’t know what else to say to her.

She looked at him carefully, as the lamplight reflected off his golden lashes, illuminating the deeply expressive cerulean eyes that couldn’t quite hold her gaze. “Are ya Scott? ‘Coz what yer doin’ to Johnny, to yer pa and anyone else who cares about what happens to ya, is the self same thing that Joe did to me. Fer years I blamed myself fer not bein’ able to reach him but I’ve come to realize that ya can’t help a person if they won’t help themselves. My only regret is that I didn’t see it years before and stop him from takin’ my boys to die so far from home. But that’s my penance and I gotta live with it. But it ain’t too late fer you Scott. I seen fer meself how worried Johnny’s been about ya; and he told me how yer pa felt he was doin’ right by allowing ya to get away fer a spell. Lord only knows how much he’s worryin’ right now not knowin’ whats happenin’ to ya and I reckon that’s what’s taken Johnny down to Bootjack, to try and get word to him that yer all right.”

She regarded him carefully for any sign that she was getting through. The white knuckles as he clenched at the skins covering him and the way he had begun to tremble gave her some hope.

“So if ya wanna repay me for savin’ ya,’ she continued, “Well, the best way ya can do that is to learn from the tragedy of my life, by havin’ faith and trustin’ in those people who love ya, and won’t judge ya. I ain’t sayin’ its gonna be easy and that’s why I’m willin’ to let ya practice on me. But know this Scott Lancer, I ain’t leavin’ yer side until ya purge yourself of the past that almost claimed ya these past few days. So ya can start now or three hours from now, don’t make no difference to me. But yer gonna talk to me boy.”

Scott swallowed against the dryness in his mouth and felt the emotion welling up inside him as the truth of her words hit home. He thought of all the times in the past months he had pushed his family away when they had tried to help him, telling Johnny he was suffocating him, comparing Murdoch to his Grandfather for sending him away; for feeling they were all conspiring against him when their actions stemmed from a deep rooted concern for his well-being. And then finally he had told Johnny he absolved him from all responsibility for him. Johnny’s angered response echoed in his head   “Fine, brother, you wallow and fester in your own misery, if that’s what you want. I’m through trying to reason with you. You don’t deserve to have people care for you.”    And yet he had come after him; had fought for him, had refused to let him go when he, Scott, had practically given up. Perhaps Johnny was right, after the way he had behaved, maybe he didn’t deserve to have their love. But that was going to change. He would earn back that right and he would start right now.

“All right, Cora, I’ll try.” he said, resigned to the fact that she wasn’t going to leave him alone until he told her something. “But first I need to ask you something.”

She nodded. “Ask away boy.”

“What day is it today?” he asked, warily.

“Heck boy, I don’t have much time fer dates and calendars, but ya bin’ here two days if that helps ya?”

“Two days…..” he murmured as he tried to make the mental calculation. “It was the night of the 23rd we arrived in Oakhurst,” He recalled signing the register at the hotel. So it must have been the night of the 24th that he spent out all night in the rain. And the 25th lost in the confusion and turmoil of the past.

“What is it boy?” Cora was concerned to see the beads of sweat forming on his forehead and the far away look in his eyes.

“Today is the 26th,” he whispered, “its past.”

“What’s past?”

“25th June.  1863. That was when the nightmare really started.”

She patted his arm. “Go on.”

He took a deep breath.  “I’d only been in the army a few months,’ he began. “ I had enlisted as soon as I was 18, against my Grandfathers wishes. I’d already reached the rank of Lieutenant.  I was promoted in the field when my commanding officer was killed in a skirmish. Andrew Danholt was his name.  He took a bullet to the head that was meant for me. A split second earlier and I would have been dead. I didn’t really think about it too much then but looking back, that was the first time that someone died instead, or because, of me.”   He shuddered, the memory of that day still as clear as if it had been yesterday.

“I was in a cavalry regiment and that was my first real taste of action.   I came out of it with a bullet graze to the head but I was one of the lucky ones as we took significant losses that day. A few months later, I was deployed to Vicksburg. I saw my first major action there on 25th June 1863. Eight years ago yesterday. The day I should have died.”

He swallowed before continuing. “The siege had been going on for over a month and the union had failed twice to take the fortress so a considerable force was gathering to attempt another attack and this time take it once and for all. We were under no illusions how critical it was to take the advantage and close off the river as a means for the confederacy to replenish supplies.  Well, this time I was to go in on foot and had been assigned on secondment to the 45th Illinois regiment, leading an attachment of men. The engineers had been tunneling for weeks to set charges underground to try and breech the main wall so that we could go in and break the deadlock. When the explosion came, we all went in; wave upon wave of infantry, heading into the dust and haze from the blast. But when the smoke cleared, it became apparent that the walls were still intact and all the explosion had done was create a huge crater that thousands of men got caught in.”

He could feel his stomach clenching at the memory. The sheer horror of knowing there was nowhere to run or hide and that you were going to die. How could you explain that to someone?  “We were sittings ducks; the rebels firing shells at men who couldn’t escape, blowing them apart.” He shuddered at the memory. “I remember being blown off my feet and then nothing for a while. I came to briefly and there was the young corporal I’d been standing next to before the charge, lying dead next to me, his eyes just staring, his blood all over me.”  He took a moment to compose himself,  “The next thing I remember, I woke up with bodies piled up on top of me and I could smell burning.  They were burning the bodies to get rid of the stench and because there were too many to bury. I remember screaming at the top of my lungs for help and somehow someone heard me and pulled me out.” He squeezed his eyes shut as he tried to dispel the image of the bodies piled atop one another.

Cora remembered how he had cried out in his fever, reaching for someone or something and how she had provided that connection for him. Had that been what he was remembering? She couldn’t even begin to imagine the horror. She placed her hand over his, feeling that he needed the reassurance to continue. “Yer doin’ just fine boy.”

“I was covered in so much blood I don’t think they held out much hope for me. I suppose I was in shock, as they couldn’t get anything out of me so they put me in a wagon and sent me off with the wounded, headed for a field hospital some way behind the battle lines. But most of the blood on me wasn’t mine. I had survived the carnage with little more than a few scratches and a bump on the head but I couldn’t forget the things I had seen, the stench of death all around me….” He tailed off, trying to quell the nausea rising up within him at the memory. He instinctively pushed aside the bearskin that was covering him, the smell reminding him.

“We never made it to the field hospital though,” he went on. “The enemy attacked, desperate for any medical supplies and arms they could secure and rode off with the wagons, with those too sick or wounded to put up a fight still in them. Those of us who didn’t die soon after of our wounds were transported to a prison camp.”

He took a breath to compose himself before continuing. “It was there that I was reunited with Dan Cassidy. We had trained together in the 83rd cavalry and had been assigned to different units. He had been captured a few weeks before at Snyder’s Bluff.  It was soon apparent that our captors had barely enough supplies to keep themselves alive, let alone the prisoners and over the months, we watched fit, strong, young men wither away to nothing more than walking skeletons. And I watched as one by one, they gave up and allowed themselves to succumb to starvation or disease.    But I wasn’t ready to give up, I still wanted to live.” he asserted, “I didn’t want to die the same way or see anyone else lose their life needlessly and so Cassidy and I, we decided to take action. We figured that the only choice we had was to escape or die trying.  We planned for months, taking note of the routine of the guards, getting the timings right; knowing which part of the wall would be easiest to scale. Then the night before we were due to go, Cassidy fell sick. I wanted to call the escape off, and wait until he was recovered but there were sixteen other men to consider and no guarantees that Cassidy would ever come out of the infirmary, as not many ever did. And so the decision was made that we would go ahead as planned.”

He hesitated; the memory of that night still as raw as if it had been yesterday. He felt a soft hand on his arm, giving him the strength, the resolve to carry on. He suspected she already knew what was to come but still, he knew he needed to say it, to come to terms with what had happened and face how he was feeling.

“Well, something went wrong and the guards were waiting for us. As I led the charge for the wall, I stumbled and fell and that was what saved me.”  A solitary tear trickled down his face as he was mentally transported back to that moment.  “The others never stood a chance.  They were cut down before they had advanced a few feet.” he muttered bitterly, the horrors of that night playing out in his mind. He flinched as he felt the thud of the bullet connecting with him and instinctively rubbed his recently wounded shoulder. “I took a bullet and that was the point when I first felt that I wanted to die because I couldn’t reconcile the fact that I had led men I had come to know as friends to their deaths, and yet I had survived. I didn’t know how I could live with that and, back then, I didn’t want to.”

He looked her in the eye to see if she was judging him. Because, if she didn’t understand, then no one else would, he rationalized. But all he saw reflected back from her was compassion.

Cora McClintock recognized the look in those haunted eyes of his. She had seen it in Joe’s eyes when he had first come home and it had never left them.

“Once I emerged from the fever,” he continued with difficulty, “I couldn’t understand why the commandant had taken such pains to ensure I recovered but it wasn’t long until I found out.”

He was shaking now, the sweat running off him, his mouth dry. He felt the cup pressed into his shaking hand as she helped him guide it to his lips to counter the dryness, and gather himself so he could continue.  He nodded his thanks and, with a faltering voice, went on.

“One day they came for me and dragged me outside in front of all the assembled men. I was strapped down against a wagon wheel and lashed. Sometimes when I close my eyes, I can still feel the leather cutting into my skin.” He stared into space, not wanting to close his eyes and feel the cruel tongue of the lash anymore. He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder, giving him back that connection, grounding him to the present. It gave him the strength to carry on once more.  “They didn’t expect me to survive that and neither did I want to. With every lash, I wanted the darkness to take me and swallow me up for ever but I felt every single one of those thirty lashes before I finally passed out from pain and blood loss. I think they were amazed that I didn’t die from the whipping itself but instead of letting me die of the wounds, they treated me again. They rubbed salt into my flayed back to kill the infection, to keep me alive long enough to inflict my next torture.

Beads of sweat had broken out on his forehead again, and he was physically shaking, his teeth chattering at the strain of revealing what he had kept hidden for so long. He wiped his face irritably with the back of his sleeve, and bent forward, hitching his knees up to his chest, rocking himself back and forth. He just wanted to retreat, hide wanted it to all go away. “ I’m sorry,” he sobbed. “I can’t do this. I thought I could but I can’t.”

She put her arm around his shoulder, could feel the knots of tension there, and started to gently rub his back, reassuring him, comforting him. It was a familiar gesture but she knew it was what he needed. “ Yes ya can boy, you have to,” she crooned. “Ya can’t keep this inside any more, else it’ll destroy ya. I know it’s hard but it will get better, I promise.” 

He didn’t respond and she wondered whether he had retreated again, unable to reconcile the horrors he had witnessed and experienced, but she continued to rub his back, to keep him connected to someone, encouraging him to continue. Finally her persistence won out and he raised his head again.  “As soon as I was healed enough,” he whispered, “they put me into solitary confinement for a month. In a darkened cellar with no light filtering through at all, damp and rat infested with only their insidious scratching and the cries of men slowly going insane, for company. I guess they had finally broken me and I couldn’t take any more. I prayed for the wounds to get badly infected or to contract pneumonia or something so that it could just be over, but it was like somehow I was meant to suffer, like I had to serve penance for all those who had died because of me. There just seemed to be no end to it.”

“But ya came out boy, yer still here. “ she reminded him, gently.

He nodded slowly. “Yes,” he murmured. “Eventually I was released from the cellar,” he continued, “and I discovered that the attitude of the other prisoners had changed towards me. I guess I know now that they had found out that it was Cassidy who had unwittingly given away the escape but no one told me that and I guess no one told him either.”  He had always wondered about that but had spent nearly six years living with the stigma of knowing that men he had served alongside thought he had betrayed them. It might have made other things easier to live with had the truth been revealed back then. For him and Cassidy.

“Eventually the Union army liberated the camp as the war closed out and after a few months in hospital, I went home to Boston. But I guess I was haunted by all the faces of the men who had died when I had lived, and was plagued by the memories of being buried alive at Vicksburg; of the whipping and of the darkened rat infested cellar.” He shuddered again. To this day he had a pathological fear of rats.  “My grandfather didn’t know how to help me,” he reflected bitterly, “and found my increasingly strange behavior embarrassing in polite society. So he sent me away to Harvard to apply myself. And that’s what I did. As well as burying myself in my studies I had more than my fair share of wine, women and whatever else came my way. I’m not proud of my behavior back then but it was the way I coped with the pain. In truth, I wasn’t living; it was a miserable existence.  Like your husband, I was dying inside a little more each day and that’s how it went on for years.” He gave a pained smile. “ I once told Johnny that he’d be dead by the age of thirty, but the way I was drinking and behaving, that was what I was heading for myself and I really didn’t care.”

Cora nodded sadly. It was the spiral of self-destruction that Joe had been in. But she hadn’t seen it until it was too late to do anything about it.

“Nothing really changed until that Pinkerton agent found me.” he continued. “Thinking on it, traveling across the breadth of the country to see a man who had abandoned me at birth and who I despised, well it didn’t make any sense, but anything had to be better than the wretched existence I was caught up in. So I traveled to California. That was when I truly started to live again and found a place for myself. Where I found meaning to my life again.”

“And then Cassidy and this other fella came and brought it all back?” Cora could see that this had been the trigger that had brought the traumatic experiences flooding back, just as the mysterious visitor had for Joe all those years before.

“Jed Lewis,” he nodded. "He had been at Vicksburg, that day. I never saw what happened to him. I suppose I assumed he had been killed or captured. His brother, Matt, was one of those who was shot in the escape attempt at the camp.” he explained. “He and Cassidy must have somehow hooked up together after the war ended and came looking for me.”

“And that started all the bad dreams and memories up again?” It wasn’t really a question. To Cora it was painfully obvious.

“Yes. I didn’t want Johnny, Murdoch or Teresa to know about that part of my life. I didn’t want the past to ruin what I had found at Lancer. I wanted that all behind me and didn’t want them to think any less of me. That’s why I didn’t want to tell them what was wrong. I just wanted to bury it all like I did before but, seeing Cassidy again, getting shot, it just brought it all back to the surface and I couldn’t hold it down anymore.”      

They sat for a moment, Scott battling to keep a lid on the emotion that threatened to burst out of him before Cora broke the silence.                        

“Ya wanna know what I believe?” She looked at him thoughtfully.

“What?”

“Well, I reckon there’s a guidin’ force behind everythin’ that happens in this life. Some people think its God, others fate, or destiny, whatever ya will. Now I’m not sure about God meself, but listenin’ to everythin’ you’ve said just now and what I’ve seen and experienced this past day or so, well, yer still here because it was meant to be.” She paused to give him time to think about this concept before continuing.  “That Lieutenant took that bullet because it was his time and not yers. You came out of that crater at Vicksburg, because ya was meant to. Ya didn’t die in that escape attempt because there were still things ya needed to do. Ya survived the whppin’ when no one expected ya to, and even though ya were hell bent on dyin, somethin’ kept ya alive. Ya stayed sane, when all around ya were losin’ their minds in that dark cellar because somethin’ was guidin’ yer path and tellin’ ya you still had a destiny to fulfill. And somethin’ made me carry on lookin’ at traps in the pourin’ rain yesterday when I had plum decided to turn back, because I was meant to find ya, and keep ya from dyin’.  Yer brother told me last night, he was less than a minute away from being shot by a firin’ squad when that Pinkerton agent found him. Now what all that’s tellin’ me is that there was a real powerful force workin’ to get you boys together and keep it that way.”

She could tell that her words were getting through to him. The tears were falling more freely now and she could see the blood draining from his lips as he fought to stem the tide of emotion that was welling up within him.  “So instead of wastin’ precious time on feeling guilty about bein’ the one to survive when so many others didn’t, what ya gotta do is not make their sacrifice fer nothin’.  Ya got the chance to live and find a place fer yerself in this world. That’s a rare and precious gift in this life and one ya gotta hold onto.”

She gazed at him as he tried to hold onto his burgeoning emotions, the sense of her words driving home with a clarity that almost took his breath away.  "Guilt’s a mighty destructive emotion boy. ‘Specially when it’s misguided. Now let it go. Seems to me ya bin’ holdin’ it inside too long and its time it came out. Ain’t no one to see but a foolish old woman and she ain’t gonna tell no one.”

Suddenly the valves opened and he couldn’t hold back any more. She reached out for him and clasped him tightly as he was overcome with wracking sobs. She caressed his hair, giving him the mother’s love and wisdom he had never had and held him there for a long time, comforting him, absolving him of any responsibility for the death and destruction he had witnessed.  Her own tears flowed freely with his for the pain he had suffered, and for her own lost sons, as she rocked him back and forth.

After a few minutes, not wanting to, but knowing she had to, she let him go and gently guided him back down into the blankets. He needed time alone to come to terms with everything that had happened and to purge himself of the guilt that had weighed so heavily for so long.  It wouldn’t happen overnight, but he had taken the first pivotal step on the healing path. He turned on his side, facing away from her and curled up in the fetal position, hugging his knees to his chest as he silently continued to sob.

Cora left him for a while, pulling across the drape to give him the privacy he needed. A short time later, she returned to check on him and found that he had passed into an exhausted slumber, the mental and physical anguish of the past months, years even, taking their toll. She gently tucked the blankets around him, swept back the matted bangs from his brow and laid a tender kiss on his forehead. She didn’t know why she did it, but it felt right. With a last look down at him, she picked up the oil lamp and headed back over to the table and set it to rest and then took her place in the rocking chair. There, she wept anew for the sons she had never truly mourned until she too, fell into a deep and restful sleep.  

 

Chapter 15  

It was late morning the by the time Johnny approached the shack. Eli had opened up at first light and between them they had made short work of loading up the packhorse that the older man had loaned him.  Johnny was pleased that he had managed to achieve all he had set out to in Bootjack but it was now with a sense of trepidation that he rounded the last bend in the trail because now he needed to face his brother. He was tentative about how things would go with Scott. The past nine months of having a brother had been so intense that he felt that he had known him so much longer. But recent events had proven just how little they really knew about each other and how potentially fragile their fledgling relationship was. 

He could see Cora outside putting some sort of concoction of mud and moss on the bay’s flanks, treating the healing cuts and scrapes from its panicked flight the night of the storm. She turned to acknowledge him as he rode up.

Her eyes opened wide as she spied the supply-laden horse he was leading.

“Hey Cora.” He grinned, genuinely pleased to see her.

She looked at him suspiciously. “What in tarnation ya got there?”

‘Thought I’d stock up on some supplies for you while I was in town.”

“Now whadd’ya go and do a fool thing like that fer? I ain’t no charity case,” she griped.

“I know that Cora, but you ain’t been able to go and do your trapping for the past few days because of Scott and me, so call it payment for bed and board.” Johnny dismounted and led Barranca over to the lean to and started to undo the cinch.

“Yeah, well its too much,” she muttered as she finished her ministrations and rose, rubbing her stiff back as she did so.

“Oh c’mon Cora, whadd’ya want me to do? Take it back?” he protested mockingly.

“Well there ain’t no sense in that seein’ as ya brought it all this way,” she conceded grudgingly. “Guess that means Eli ain’t comin’ up this way in a day or two?”

Johnny was amused to see that she looked disappointed.  “Guess not,” he agreed, laying the foundations of his and Eli’s plan.  “Looks as if things are kinda busy down there for him.” He looked at her surreptitiously out of the corner of his eye to see if she was taking the bait.

“Well, don’t matter none to me,” she grumbled as she started to unload the supplies, “he just says the same old thing when he’s here anyway; gets wearisome. Besides, had me enough company this past day or two to last a lifetime. Reckon’ I’ll be lookin’ forward to some peace and solitude fer quite a spell.”

Johnny smiled to himself as he finished removing Barranca’s saddle and laid it over the rail, and moved to assist Cora with the unloading. “Well I tell you Cora, it don’t look like he’s managing too well on his own to me.  Reckon he could use some help in that store of his, else I can’t see how he’s ever gonna be able to leave it for a day at a time to come up here. Guess you might have to take your furs down to Bootjack yourself from now on if you wanna trade.”

She looked at him suspiciously and he wondered if he’d laid it on a mite too thick but she just sniffed and retorted, “Well, that’s if I ever get me any more furs. What with takin’ care of uninvited houseguests an’ all, there ain’t exactly bin’ time to go set any new traps. But now yer back to watch yer brother, Esme and me can go off and get to work.”

“How is Scott?” he asked tentatively, suddenly reminded, the knot in his stomach clenching once more.

“Ya got eyes, ain’t ya? Why doncha go inside and see fer yerself?”  she challenged, hands on hips.

Truth was, Johnny’s stomach was doing back flips at the prospect of facing Scott. What if he’d driven a wedge a mile wide between them with the angry words he’d fired at him in the hotel room? Despite everything he, Johnny, had experienced in the days since, that fraught exchange was likely Scott’s last tangible memory of any time they had spent together. Johnny had spent a sleepless night on Eli Gerrarty’s couch, worrying about it.

“Well, in a minute. Maybe I’ll get all the supplies unpacked first and then…”

“You leave that to me,” she interrupted, knowing he was just making excuses, “I’ll finish up here. Now ya get inside and go see Scott.”

“Well, are you sure?  I mean you were rubbing your back just now and..”

“Well you’d have a crick in yer back too if you’d slept two nights in a rockin’ chair.  Now quit stallin’ before I ferget I’m a lady and tan yer hide. And don’t go thinkin’ yer too big for it neither. Now go on, get!”

“Alright, I’m going, I’m going.” He didn’t doubt she’d do it either, from the expression on her face. He grabbed a small brown package from the unloaded supplies and backed towards the door. Fumbling for the knob, he turned it and edged inside.

Once he had disappeared into the cabin, her thunderous expression turned to a smug grin. Sometimes boys just needed a little push. She’d stay around for a while, make sure he stayed in there and then she’d head off for the afternoon to give them some space. She figured they’d need it. They had a lot of talking out to do.

As Johnny closed the door after him, he took a deep breath. He knew he couldn’t put it off any longer. He turned to face his brother.  Scott was propped up in the bed, still pale but now clean-shaven, and was watching him expectantly. Johnny leaned against the door and for what seemed an age, but was probably only a few seconds, they both just scrutinized each other, each looking for a physical sign of how things were between them after all they had been through. Unable to bear the tension any longer, Johnny was first to break the deadlock.

“Hey brother,” he murmured softly.

“Johnny. ” Scott responded, stiffly. Johnny’s heart sank. So his fears had been merited. There was a wedge between them. But he couldn’t blame Scott after the things he had said to him. His eyes sank to the floor dejectedly.

“How was the bull?”

Johnny looked up just in time to see the stupid grin spreading across Scott’s face. He felt relief flooding through him. It was like a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders and hell, it was good to see a smile on his brother’s face. He laughed back, “Oh brother, you know, it’s a funny thing. He was already gone when I got there.”

“That’s very funny,” Scott agreed, his own relief at seeing Johnny standing there alive in front of him just as palpable after the nightmare images he had been plagued with during the past few days. The smile faded, as he looked down at his bedding, suddenly unable to meet his brother’s eyes.  Despite Scott’s humorous response, Johnny could tell that his brother had been as anxious about this moment as he had.

“Cora been looking after you?”  He asked softly.

Scott looked up again with the most comedic look of frustration that Johnny had ever seen.  “That woman….” he spluttered, as he pointed towards the door.

Johnny laughed out loud again, interrupting. “Yeah, she’s really something, ain’t she? Has a way of kinda getting under your skin?”

Scott couldn’t help giving a weak smile again, still somewhat bemused at the way she had gotten so much out of him the night before.  “Under it, over it and all around it, ” he groused.  

“Yeah, that sounds like Cora,” Johnny murmured, softly. He sauntered over to the bed, and perched on the end. He sat there silently for a moment, staring at the floor, trying to find the words to express how the events of the past few days had made him feel. There was so much he wanted to say, that he needed to say, but he didn’t have the first clue how to begin.  

He could feel Scott’s eyes boring into him and finally felt compelled to look up and meet the blond’s intense gaze. Piercing blue eyes met resolute cerulean ones, more passing between them in that moment than words could ever have expressed.

“So, you alright Boston?” Johnny asked finally.  Are we, all right? He thought

Scott nodded.  “I will be, thanks to you.”  And so will you brother, so will you. I’ll make sure of that, he affirmed to himself.

Johnny leapt up, tossing the parcel down on the bed, and strode away towards the fire. He ran his fingers through his hair distractedly.  “Hell, don’t thank me Scott,” he countered, bitterly, “Yell at me, hit me but don’t thank me. If it hadn’t been for me running out on you…”

“Don’t Johnny, none of this was your fault,” Scott stopped him, as he threw aside the coverlets and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He knew all about misguided guilt and wasn’t going to allow Johnny to take that path.

“What, you absolving me of responsibility again Boston?’ murmured Johnny softly, turning back towards his brother, “Because it’s not gonna stop me feeling responsible for what happened to you.” 

Scott sat on the edge of the bed gripping the side of the mattress as he waited for the wave of dizziness brought on by his sudden exertion, to pass.  “If you mean what you said to me in the hotel, I deserved ever word of it.”

Johnny opened his mouth to protest but Scott stopped him. “No, hear me out, Johnny. All I could think of was how I was feeling and I couldn’t see what I was doing to you, to Murdoch, and Teresa, by pushing you away. I’ve tried so hard to put the past behind me and coming to Lancer was the fresh start I needed. Finding I had a brother and a family to belong to gave me a renewed sense of purpose and then that all came crashing down again when Cassidy showed up. I guess I was scared that the past was never going to leave me alone.” Scott was shaking like a leaf. He quietly cursed his weakened body as he struggled to maintain his composure. After a moment he felt the depression on the mattress as Johnny silently sat down next to him.

“You could have trusted us, Scott,” the younger man countered softly. “You know there’s nothing you could say that would change the fact that you’re my brother and my life’s better with you in it. Hell, you don’t think I’ve got things in my past that keep me awake at night?”

“Yeah, I know it Johnny,” Scott conceded, wearily. “I suppose I wasn’t seeing things too clearly. Talking things through has never been a strong point of mine and it’s hard to change a habit of a lifetime. I guess you’ll just have to be patient with me.”

Johnny nodded.  “Yeah, well, that habit nearly killed you Scott,” he murmured.

“I know, I’m sorry for what I’ve put you through Johnny but seeing that body and thinking you…” He gripped the mattress anew, his knuckles turning white as he tried to hold back the emotion once more. He wasn’t used to being this way and it disturbed him not being able to keep a tight rein on his feelings.

“Hey, forget that now,” Johnny interrupted   “It’s over. I’m here, you’re here and that’s all that matters. OK?”  He reached out and gave Scott a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder.

“All right,” Scott conceded weakly, remembering Cora’s words the night before. It wasn’t healthy to dwell on the past if it dictated the present and future. “So where did you go anyway?”

“Huh?” Johnny hadn’t expected Scott to concede so easily and was taken aback at the sudden change of direction. He rose and strode back towards the fire.  “Oh, yeah, I had some things I needed to go do in Bootjack”

“Such as?”  Scott looked at him expectantly, wanting to know if there was an ulterior motive for Johnny leaving him before he had awoken. He needed to know that he hadn’t been trying to run out on him again.

Johnny turned back towards him and looked him straight in the eye. “Such as letting Murdoch know you’re ok.”

He saw a flicker of wariness cross Scott’s face “You wired him?”

“Nah, they don’t have telegraph there yet. Got someone to take the message up to Mariposa and get it wired from there. Left instruction for Murdoch to send the reply to Oakhurst and we’d pick it up in a few days.”

Scott licked his lips nervously. “So what did you tell him?”

“Only what he needed to know. That everything’s fine and we’ll be home in a couple of weeks. Whatever else he gets to know will be up to you”

Scott swallowed and nodded gratefully.  “Thanks.”

Johnny sat down on the bed next to his brother once more and slapped him on the leg.

“So, Boston, did you miss me?”

Scott grinned. “I can’t believe you left me alone with Cora. I figured it was payback.”

“Well, what about me?” Johnny retorted. “I had to deal with her all alone while you were lying there lolly gagging. Fair’s fair.”

Scott shook his head, chuckling. “Little brother, you have no idea what I had to endure from that woman.”

Johnny grinned, he could guess. “Well you sure do look a whole lot prettier than when I last saw you, with those whiskers gone. And you really oughta wear pink more often.”

“Cute, little brother, very cute, ” Scott groused.  “She point blank refused to get me any clothes, her way of keeping me confined to bed since…” He stopped mid flow, realizing he was about to inadvertently reveal something that Johnny would never let him live down.

“Since what?”

“Forget it.”

“Nah. Come on, what were you gonna say?”

Scott sighed. He might have known Johnny wouldn’t let it go.  “Well, she caught me out of bed” he replied, grudgingly.

Johnny looked at him curiously. “What were you doing?”

“Look it doesn’t matter.” Scott tried to shut down the conversation but Johnny was like a dog with a bone once he thought he had a sniff of something. 

“No c’mon Boston, you got me curious. What were you trying to do?”

Scott rolled his eyes and grabbed the cup of water by his bed. “Well, lets just say what goes in has to come out.”

Johnny laughed out loud, his imagination already running rife. ”Oh Heck, Boston. What happened?”

Scott was trying to keep the flush from spreading across his face at the memory of being manhandled outside in just his underwear. “Well, lets just say, Cora helped me to take care of business.”

Johnny looked at him incredulously, suddenly sympathizing.  “What, you mean she…..?”

“No she didn’t,” Scott interjected emphatically. “Although I barely managed to stay on my feet long enough to…..well you know.”  He looked at Johnny who was doing his level best not to burst out laughing again, his face contorting as he fought a losing battle to hold back.   “It’s not funny……..” Scott grumbled, as Johnny finally lost the fight. His brother’s laughter was infectious, though and he was soon unable to hold back his own grin.  “Alright, maybe it is. But I am really glad you’re back little brother.”

Johnny slapped Scott’s leg, shaking his head. “Oh, Boston, that’s priceless.” He reached over to his side and grabbed the parcel and tossed it to the blond.

“Here.”

“What’s this?”

“Open it and see.”  Johnny rose and headed over to the other side of the room where Scott’s saddlebag still lay discarded. He opened it and pulled out the spare shirt that Scott had packed before they had set out. It seemed like such a long time ago now. Grabbing his socks and boots, he returned to his brother just as Scott had unwrapped the package and discovered a new pair of pants. 

“I took your old pair to make sure they were the right size,” he explained. “Between you and Cora, that’s all my poker winnings gone so I figure that’s worth at least two nights of fun in Green River on you.”

“I guess that’s fair enough,’ Scott agreed.

"You may as well get dressed before Cora gets back. Once it’s done, she can’t argue. You wanna hand?”

Scott shook his head, already pulling on the pants, glad that along with his recovering health, he could finally recover his dignity. He pulled the undershirt over his head, his weakened body protesting at the exertion, his wounded shoulder, especially making its presence known.

Johnny watched his brother struggle, wanting to help but knowing that Scott needed his independence.  As the shirt came off, he was shocked to see the livid bruises on his brother’s upper arms, and he wondered what had caused them. He hadn’t noticed them before when Scott had been lying there unconscious.

Scott noticed Johnny staring at them just as realization suddenly hit his brother.

“Hell Scott, did I do that to you? I’m sorry.” He was mortified.

“Don’t be. It’s a small price to pay for my life. Cora told me you held on and wouldn’t let go. Shook some much needed sense into me.  I’m glad you did brother.”   He pulled the brown checked shirt on gingerly, trying not to irritate his wounded shoulder any more than he had to, and focused on slowly buttoning it up.

Johnny didn’t know how to respond to that. The bruises were a stark reminder of just how close he had been to losing his brother. For a moment he was too overcome with the image of Scott closing his eyes and starting to go limp. He recalled the desperation he had felt, knowing that if he didn’t hurt him, make him feel real, physical pain to tie him to this world, he would have lost him.   

“Johnny? You all right?”  Scott looked up at him as he worked to tug on his socks and boots.

Johnny awakened from his reverie to see Scott’s concerned gaze. He smiled, “Sure brother, never better.” He punched him playfully on the arm. Needing that physicality, that connection to his hermano.

“Ow,” Scott winced, playfully. “Careful, I bruise easily.” 

Johnny laughed out loud and pulled his brother to his feet, wrapping his arm around the blond’s shoulder and guiding Scott’s other arm around his own waist. “C’mon, how about some fresh air? I’ll put the chair outside for you while I give Barranca a rub down. I can tell just by looking at you, you’re coming down with another dose of fever.”

Scott looked at him quizzically. “I am?”

Johnny grinned. “Yeah, cabin fever.”

“Oh that’s very good brother.”

“I thought you’d like that”

“How long did it take you to think of that one?”

“You wanna come outside or not…..?”

 

***********************************************************************

A few hours later, they were back inside the tiny shack. Scott was dozing in the rocking chair while Johnny had begun to start preparing a meal for them all, fried corn patties with bacon and beans. He wondered how long it had been since Cora had eaten anything that didn’t have a face and fur. He couldn’t help grinning at the thought of Scott eating the raccoon broth. Scott had told him about the indignity of being hand fed like a baby by Cora but that he’d been ravenous and the meat had been surprisingly succulent and good after so long without any real nourishment. It had been all Johnny could do to keep a straight face.  Fortunately he had been busy brushing Barranca and had his back to his brother, when he relayed the story so was able to hide the lazy grin that spread across his face.

Johnny turned to look at his sleeping brother once more, worried that he had overdone it by sitting outside for so long. By the time he had done a thorough job with Barranca he had noted that what color Scott had regained, had drained from him again. Johnny had insisted he go back inside but Scott point blank refused to go back to bed. And so a compromise had been reached and he agreed to sit in the chair while Johnny mixed some batter to make the corn patties. He had soon dozed off though and had been asleep for some time.

Johnny was just thinking that perhaps he should wake Scott and persuade him to go back to the bed when the blond suddenly woke with a start. For a moment he looked disoriented.

“Scott.  You alright?”

“Yeah, fine.” He didn’t sound too convincing and Johnny was worried that he was still being plagued by the nightmares.  

“Bad dream?”

Scott nodded, looking disturbed.

“Wanna talk about it?”

“I guess maybe it would help,” he acquiesced.

Johnny stopped what he was doing and bent next to his brother, concern etched across his face. Hell, he’d thought the dreams would have ended now that Scott had faced his past and conquered it.

“Go on brother, I’m listening.”

Scott paused for a moment, composing himself before beginning. “Well, I was back at Lancer. It had been a hot day rounding up strays.  You’d gone off into Green River to the cantina.  Murdoch was working on some papers and Teresa had gone to bed. I decided to go to the bathhouse to clean up, have a long soak in the tub.” He paused for a moment as if trying to muster the strength to describe what happened next. “I took off my clothes and climbed in, enjoying the feel of the hot water on my body and then ducked down, to submerge myself and clean my hair. When I resurfaced that’s when I saw…. ” He stared into space, seemingly unable to continue.

“What? What did you see?”  Johnny was panicking now, to see his brother so stricken again.

Scott looked at him an expression of pure horror on his face. “Oh Johnny, it was terrible, really awful” 

“What Scott, tell me? What was it?”

“It was Cora. With a loofah in her hand”

Johnny took a minute to take this in watching the stupid grin spreading across the blond’s face.

“Hell Scott,’ he groused, realizing he’d been had.  “Don’t do that to me. You had me really worried there.” He turned back, grumpily, to his corn patties, transferring the batter he had mixed into the heated pan on the grate.

Scott was laughing aloud now, “Well. If you’re going to watch over me like a mother hen you’re going to get plenty more like that.  Stop worrying Johnny. I’m fine”

“Yeah, well from where I’m sitting you still look pretty pale. Now c’mon, why don’t you go lie back down again? Cora’ll have my hide if your fever comes back.”

“Now that I would enjoy watching.”

“C’mon Boston, you’ve still gotta lot of sleep to catch up on. It’s a long trip back to Lancer.”  Johnny persisted.

“No, I’ve spent too long flat on my back lately,” Scott asserted, serious once more. “Besides, I’ve taken up that bed long enough and I don’t think I’ll ever get the smell of those bearskins out of my nostrils.” They emitted the fetid odor of death. It was a stench that Scott would never forget.     

“Yeah, you sure didn’t like ‘em on you when you were sick that was for sure, ” mused Johnny as he turned the patties in the pan.

“You know Johnny.  It just doesn’t seem right.”

“What doesn’t?” He turned to look at him quizzically. Scott had an uncanny knack of changing direction in a conversation and sometimes Johnny had a hard time keeping up with him.

“Cora. Living alone up here like this. What’s going to happen to her when we’re gone?”

Johnny pondered for a moment. “She tell you what brought her up here?”

“Yeah Johnny, she doesn’t even know what happened to her sons. Just kept waiting until she eventually realized they weren’t coming home. It’s strange.  I’ve known her only a day or so but in that time she’s shaved me, fed me and got to know more about me than I’ve ever let anyone see.”

She’s seen more than you think, thought Johnny but kept that one to himself. It wasn’t the right time.

“She’s the most frustrating, annoying woman I have ever had the misfortune to meet,” Scott continued,  “and I cursed you every minute that you were gone leaving me with her but now, the thought of leaving her alone up here makes my blood run cold. I just hate to do it.”

“Yeah, she really does get under your skin, huh?” Johnny murmured

“Well, I want to help her, Johnny.  She said something to me last night that made a lot of sense. About fate guiding us to certain paths in life and I can’t help thinking that the reason we ended up here was that maybe we’re meant to help her. I’d like to do what I can to find out about her sons. I still have some contacts in the army. Maybe I can find out where they were, what happened, bring some closure for her?”

“Yeah, I think she’d appreciate that. And I gotta plan too. That was partly the reason I went down to Bootjack.”

“Want to let me in on it?” Scott enquired, a little peeved that Johnny hadn’t already revealed his plan to him.

They were interrupted by the sound of braying. The cantankerous mule was letting the three horses tied up in the lean to know, in no uncertain terms, how displeased she was to see them still crowding her space.

“You’ll know soon enough,” Johnny countered, cryptically, as he rose and headed over to the window. He pulled back the netting and looked outside. The travois was empty, as he’d figured it would be. “I don’t think Cora will be staying up here much longer.

 

 
Chapter 16

Ten minutes later, Cora McClintock blustered through the door, to the smell of fried bacon and corn patties. It had been years since she had smelled such a mouth-watering aroma and she couldn’t recall a time when she had returned home to have a meal already waiting for her.   For a moment, seeing Johnny busying himself at the hearth and Scott sitting on the chair, she allowed herself to half imagine, once more, that it was Caleb and Ben come home at last but it was a foolish fancy and she knew it. They were never coming home

She set her scattergun down and closed the door behind her. Johnny looked up at her expectantly, but she noted that Scott, now fully dressed, kept his eyes firmly on what was cooking on the fire. The beginnings of a smile twitched at the corner of her mouth but she soon suppressed it. If he wanted to act like a naughty little boy, then she could give him what he expected from her. “I thought I told ya to stay in bed?” she scolded.

“I’m feeling much better.”

“Well ya still look whiter than a ghost.” she strode over to him  “Ya’ll only have yerself to blame if ya get sick again.” She reached out to touch his forehead and as predicted, Scott flinched. “Kinda warm but I guess y’are sat right close to the fire,” she conceded. “Talkin’ of which I ‘spose it ain’t enough that ya hog my bed for two days straight, now ya gotta take my chair as well?” She stood there with her hands on her hips.

Scott rolled his eyes, as he rose and settled himself down on the floor where Johnny had placed the bay’s saddle for him to lean against. Scott had already insisted that Cora would get her own bed back tonight and he would settle in front of the fire with his brother. Johnny hadn’t put up too much of an argument, secretly pleased that he would get that proximity to Scott and be able to keep a close watch on him.

Johnny grinned up at her as Cora settled in the vacated rocking chair. He handed her a steaming cup of coffee, which she accepted gratefully. “Anything in the traps? “ he asked innocently, knowing what the answer would be anyway.

“Nah, brought ‘em back with me.” She sighed. “Bears know they’re there. I’ll go out again in a day or two and lay new ones.”

Johnny nodded and turned his attention back to his cooking and started to serve out the contents of the pan onto three platters.

Cora was salivating in anticipation as Johnny handed her a heaped plate. “What in tarnation’s that?” she griped, just for appearances sake.

Johnny grinned as he handed Scott his plate, seeing his opportunity to get back at his brother, “Well, I thought you could do with a change from raccoon meat.”

Scott had just started to lift a forkful of bacon to his mouth but stopped suddenly, turning to look at them both. “Raccoon?”

“Ain’t nuthin’ wrong with ‘coon meat,” Cora replied simply.

Johnny could barely contain the snigger at the look of incredulity on his brother’s face.

“You fed me raccoon meat?” Scott was beginning to turn a distinct shade of green.

“Well, I didn’t hear ya complainin’ none,” Cora asserted as she shoveled a forkful of corn pattie into her mouth.

“Well, no, I wasn’t exactly in a position to.”

“’Sides, ya got all the juiciest bits in there. ‘Coon meat can be kinda stringy but I know where to find the best parts.”

“Which are?” Scott was getting greener by the minute.

Johnny noticed the twitch at the corner of Cora’s mouth as she ignored the question and continued with her repast. He couldn’t help grinning. “Uh, Scott, I don’t think you’re gonna want the answer to that question.” He looked to Cora and she shook her head in confirmation as she tried to shovel an entire rasher into her mouth in one go.

“Let’s just say I have to make sure I shoot me a ‘coon of the male persuasion.”        

Scott spat the mouthful of coffee he had just taken all over the hearth and this in turn had Johnny rolling across the floor in guffaws of laughter at the horrified expression on his brother’s face.  Still shoveling food in like there was no tomorrow, Cora allowed herself a surreptitious grin before adding. “ Well I dunno what yer laughin’ about.” She tapped Johnny with her foot. “You ate it too.” 

Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, Scott looked down at his hysterical brother, bemused that he could find something so ridiculous so funny. He looked up at Cora to see what she made of it and noted the intense gray eyes fixed on him. In those few seconds he saw a myriad of emotions cross over her face, compassion, affection, sorrow and regret as she studied him. After a moment she spoke softly, “Go on boy,” she encouraged,  “It’s a kind of release. It’ll do ya good too”

It was then that he saw it. The Cora McClintock smile. Not a smirk or a grin but a full bona fide smile that lit up every inch of her face, a smile that he didn’t think she had had cause to use for a very long time. He felt honored and more than a little emotional that she had saved it for him and smiled back at her, in silent acknowledgement of everything she had done for him. He knew he owed her more than he would ever be able to repay, but there was one thing he could do and he silently resolved to do everything in his power to get her the closure she needed.

Her gaze shifted back down to his brother, the tears of laughter rolling down his cheeks and she shook her head in mock exasperation. “And folks call me crazy..”  She started to chuckle enjoying the young man’s mirth after the tension of the past days.

Soon Scott was laughing too. He had no idea why, but Johnny’s laughter was infectious and he couldn’t hold back. Cora was right. It was a release and they all needed it.

As dusk fell they were all exhausted. Cora took some persuading that she should finally take her bed back but finally the combination of her aching back and seeing that the boys wanted some time alone won her over. As they arranged their blankets on the floor, Cora headed over to the sleeping area and reluctantly pulled back the drape. She hadn’t wanted the evening to end. She knew it was foolish but having them here, hearing the laughter of young men in her home again, made her feel whole when previously she had been an empty shell. And now they were set to leave again. She had known that they would leave eventually but she couldn’t imagine staying in the shack alone after experiencing how good it felt to feel needed again.  She lay there for a while, listening to their low murmurs, allowing the tears to silently course down her cheeks.

Scott lay, propped against the bay’s saddle, staring into the fire. Johnny lay by his side with his eyes closed but Scott could tell from his breathing that his brother wasn’t asleep yet.

“So,” Scott murmured, “What’s the plan?”

“Plan?”

“For going home.”

Johnny smiled as he opened his eyes. It was good to hear Scott say those words.

“Well, we don’t need to push it, whether you want to admit it or not, you’re not up to long days in the saddle yet.  So I figured we’d ride down to Bootjack, stay the night there, then we’ll head down the trail to Oakhurst. Pick up some of the things we left there. Like your horse and saddle.”  He grinned  “Besides, there’s a Sheriff down there who’ll be real pleased to see you alive and well.”

“Sheriff?’ Scott looked over at him quizzically. 

“Yeah. Don’t you remember?”

Scott furrowed his brow. It had been hard to determine fact from the fiction of his fevered mind these past few days. Since he had awoken, finally clear-headed he had tried to piece together all that he had been through but there had still been gaps. He hadn’t recalled much after the argument in the hotel room, until the time he had awoken in Cora’s bed but, prompted by Johnny’s mentioning of a Sheriff, a sudden flash of memory hit him.

“Oh hell.”

“What’s up?” Johnny looked at the stricken expression on his brother’s face.

“That Sheriff.  I think I held his own gun on him.”

Johnny smirked. “Yep, that’s how I heard it.  You wait ‘til I tell Val about that one. He’ll laugh his socks off.  Not to mention the horse you stole.”

“Oh, that’s just great,” muttered Scott, dismayed. “The whole town probably thinks I’m a mad man.”

“Yeah, well, they tell me horse stealing’s a hanging offence in these parts.” Johnny was enjoying himself now.

“Is that a fact?” Scott folded his arms in mock displeasure but was secretly pleased at the banter. He figured he’d let Johnny enjoy it while he could.

“Of course, it would help if you had someone to vouch for you.”

“And that would be..?”

“Me of course.”

“They’ll throw away the key…”

“Well, look at it this way Boston. I spent all my poker winnings on Cora and those shiny new pants of yours. So if you’re in jail, at least we save on bed and board.”

“Will you two stop yer yabberin. How’s a person ‘sposed to get any shuteye around here?” came a grouchy voice from behind the curtain.

They looked at each other and grinned. “Sorry Cora,” they called out in unison.

“And ya can wipe them silly grins off yer faces too. Don’t need to see ya to know yer wearin’ ‘em. Now go to sleep.”

They both lay there for a while, enjoying the warm glow of the fire and each other’s company. Scott felt himself begin to go drowsy but there was one more thing he needed to say before he allowed sleep to claim him and now seemed like the right moment.

“Johnny?”

“Uh huh?” Johnny grunted, sleepily.

“I want you to know me brother.”

“I know all I need to know, Boston.” Johnny responded simply.

“No, you deserve more. It just might take a while. Some things, well…”

“Its alright, Scott. We got time, and I reckon we’ve made a real good start. Now go to sleep before Cora tans both our hides.”

‘And doncha think I won’t do it neither’ thought Cora McClintock to herself, smiling as she rolled over and finally settled down to sleep, satisfied that the young blond would keep his promise. 

************************************************************************ 

 

The next morning they had packed all their things and had the horses all loaded up and ready to go but Cora was confused. Firstly, they didn’t seem to be in that much of an all fired hurry to go. Secondly, they had readied their own horses but the packhorse Johnny had returned from Bootjack with still stood in the lean to. She got the distinct impression they were waiting for someone or something. It wasn’t that she wanted them to go but the longer they stayed the harder it would be to see them leave. They were only prolonging the agony.

“Well are ya goin’ or not? I can’t be hangin’ around here all day waitin’ fer you two to make up yer minds. You mightn’t have anything better to do but I have.”   she grumbled.

“Such as?” Johnny challenged as he continued chopping wood. He knew she wouldn’t need it for much longer but it gave him something to do and helped keep up appearances.

“Well, tidy up the mess you two have made fer a start.”

“Scott’s already inside sweeping the floor out. We’ll leave the place as we found it.”

“Well, he don’t have no call to be doin’ that,” she snapped, “And ya don’t need to be doin’ that neither. ‘Bout time you was hittin’ the trail.”

“Sounds like you’re trying to get rid of us, Cora.”

“Danged right I am,” she spluttered angrily, pulling open the door. “Scott Lancer, ya get yer hide out here right now.”

Scott emerged with the broom in his hand and looked at Johnny quizzically. His brother just shrugged his shoulders.

“Now, I don’t know what’s goin’ on here but it’s time you two was leavin’. I hadn’t wanted to hurt yer feelin’s but the plain truth is you’ve outstayed yer welcome.”    

She looked from one to the other, and could feel the desperation rising. It was clear they, neither of them, were buying it. Was she that transparent?  

Scott had his arms folded and Johnny was leaning on the ax, both of them scrutinizing her. It unnerved her.

“Now what are ya both waitin’ fer? I said get goin’. There ain’t nothin’ fer ya here but bad memories. It was time ya was movin’ on.”

“We will if you will Cora,” murmured Scott softly.

It took her breath away, to hear the compassion in his voice, to see the determined set of his jaw and those deeply expressive eyes. So like Ben …..She swallowed against the lump rising rapidly in her throat. “I think I preferred ya when ya couldn’t argue back.” she griped. “Shoulda left ya on the trail is what I shoulda done.”

He smiled that beautiful smile of his again. “Well, I’m glad you didn’t Cora, otherwise I would never have known what it was like to taste raccoon …er…meat. You really must give me the recipe.”

Johnny laughed out loud. “Heck Boston, I’d love to see Maria’s face when you ask her to cook that. She’ll chase you all the way to Spanish Wells.”

Cora laughed too. She couldn’t keep up the pretence any longer. There was no point, they’d seen right through her. After such a short but intense period of time, they had left an indelible mark on her and she didn’t know how on earth she would fill the gap in her life that they would leave. 

As the laughter subsided she couldn’t hold back the emotion any longer and the tears started to flow. She turned away in frustration, not wanting them to see her weakness, for them to feel awkward with such a public display of emotion. She felt a soft hand on her shoulder.  “Let it go Cora. It’s time you let go of the past.” Scott reached out and gathered her towards him.  She sobbed quietly into his shoulder, purging herself of the pent up emotion that she had kept locked away for so many years.

They were both oblivious to the sound of the rider approaching but Johnny heard it and silently slipped down the trail. The sight of Eli Gerrarty was a comical one to behold. A days worth of black and gray stubble peppered his chin; what was left of the hair on his head stood on end as if he had seen a ghost and his clothes looked as if he had slept in them and then rolled several times in the dry dirt. Johnny suspected that was exactly what he had done. “Hell Eli,” he exclaimed  “Don’t you think you might have overdone it just a little?”

“Well, ya said to come lookin’ all unkempt so’s that’s what I done.” he griped defensively.

“Yeah, well Cora’s not stupid and she’s already suspicious.”

“Doncha reckon she’ll come?”

“She’ll come Eli. It might not be today or tomorrow but I reckon she’s already made up her mind to leave. You just gotta persuade her that she’s got somewhere she can go to.”

“Well I’m here, ain’t I?”

“Yeah, you’re here.’ Johnny sighed. “C’mon.”  He turned to lead the disheveled looking suitor up to the shack, to finalise their plan when he suddenly remembered something.

“Oh, Eli? Tell me you got rid of those skins?”

“Oh hell boy, nobody wants ‘em.” Eli complained  “They’s the mangiest lookin’ bearskins ya ever did see. I swear she only got the sick and the old ones.”

“Well burn em’, bury em’. I don’t care,” Johnny sniped, exasperated,  “but they’d better be gone before you get her home otherwise she’ll be back here again so fast it’ll make your head spin and you’ll never get her back down again.”

Johnny shook his head. Cora sure would have her work cut out with this one.

 

**********************************************************************

 

Cora disengaged herself from his embrace and wiped her nose on her sleeve. Scott smiled at the unladylike gesture. It was amazing how the west had gradually worked all his eastern preconceptions and prejudices out of his system. He figured he was a far better person for it.

“How’d ya get so all wised up all of a sudden?” she sniffed.

“I had a very wise, and very stubborn, old woman for a teacher.” He grinned.

She couldn’t hold back the smirk from her own face. “Who ya callin’ old? I still got me a lotta livin’ ta do. And any more of yer cheek Scott Lancer; I’ll take the broom to ya. And doncha think I won’t do it neither.”

“I know it.” Scott smiled.

“Now what in tarnation….?” 

He turned to see what had her staring open-mouthed. Johnny strode up to him and tapped him on the shoulder. Scott looked at him questioningly, gesturing to the pathetic figure on horseback. “Don’t tell me that’s your plan?”

“Watch and learn brother,”  Johnny replied, with a smug grin on his face. “Watch and learn.”

“Eli Gerrarty, in all my born days I never saw such a sight.  What are ya thinkin’ comin’ up here lookin’ like that? What in all creation’s happened to ya?” Despite the gruff tone, worry was written all over Cora’s face.

As Eli dismounted, Scott took in the torn and disheveled clothes, the ruffled hair and graying stubble and smirked.  “Very good little brother, I’m impressed.”

“Yeah, I thought you’d like that.” Johnny took the halter of the mercantile owner’s horse and tied it to the hitching rail.

“You don’t think he’s overcooked it just a little?” Scott mused.

Johnny grinned. “Well, maybe just a little.”

Cora was already clucking and cooing over her unkempt beau and it was apparent that despite her staunch exterior she had a lot of feeling for the man.  She started to usher him into the cabin and it afforded them the perfect opportunity to make their departure.

“Oh no ya don’t. Y’aint sneakin’ off again,” Cora chastised, turning, and seeing Johnny about to mount Barranca. “I told ya once before, Johnny Lancer, I don’t cotton to folk doin’ that sorta thing.”

Johnny turned and allowed her to give him an affectionate squeeze.

“You take care of yourself Cora.” He kissed her on the cheek.

“I don’t ‘spose ya had anything to do with that?” She gestured to the hapless Eli, now safely ensconced in the cabin.

“To do with what? I don’t know what you’re talking about Cora,” Johnny replied, innocently.  

She looked at him suspiciously, as he grinned again. “Hmmmm, well, looks as if I’m gonna have ma work cut out. Can’t manage three of ya, that’s fer sure. Now g’on get. I’m sick of the sight of ya both”

Johnny laughed and turned to mount Barranca. Scott made to follow but she reached for his arm and stopped him. “And you, Scott Lancer, just ya remember yer still here coz it was meant to be.” she reminded him softly,  “so ya make yer life count for the sake of all those young boys who never made it home to their families.”  He knew she referred to her own boys.  “Ya let the past go.”

He swallowed. “I will Cora.” he gave her a peck on the cheek too and she responded by throwing her arms around him once more.   “Heck boy,” she sniffed, recalling what he had looked like when she had first set eyes on him, “Ya surely do get under a person’s skin. Now go’n get outta here, before ya make a foolish old woman outta me.”  She batted him away impatiently, frustrated at the tears that welled up anew but so grateful to see him riding out after being so close to death just days before.

“Goodbye Cora.” He turned and mounted, his stomach churning. The intensity of the past few days still played havoc with his undulating emotions and he wondered if this was how it was always going to be now that the floodgates had been opened after keeping his feelings in check for so long.

He felt his brothers’ arm on his.

“It’ll get easier Scott. I promise.” he drawled.

Scott nodded silently. He hoped so.

 

As they rode off, Cora McClintock watched them go, reminded of the time almost ten years earlier when she had watched her own boys ride off. Then her stomach had been knotted with dread; somehow knowing it was the last sight she would ever see of her handsome boys. She didn’t figure on seeing these two again either but the departure was a happier one by far. Fate had brought three damaged souls together against all the odds and they had helped set each other on the healing road. She figured they all had a lot more mending to do but the boys had each other, and time enough on the trail to talk things out, and she had Eli. Not one of them would ever be alone again.  

She had enjoyed the banter of the past day or so and couldn’t resist one last retort as she sent them on their way.

“Hey you, Johnny Lancer!” she yelled.  They both turned to look back. “I’ll give ya one last piece of advice to leave ya thinkin’ on.”

“What’s that Cora?”

“Best start wearin’ some underwear son. Wet leather can chafe somethin’ awful.”  She grinned.  Suddenly a loud clatter from inside the shack caught her attention. “Hell, Eli, can’t I leave y’alone for five minutes?” With a last wave at the two figures on horseback she bustled into the house, yelling and cussing as she went.

Johnny chuckled to himself.  If he was embarrassed by the personal remark he didn’t show it.

Scott looked at him quizzically. “You want to tell me what that was all about?”  

Johnny shook his head. “Believe me Scott, you don’t wanna know.”

“No, c’mon, sounds interesting little brother…how does she know you don’t wear any?”

Johnny looked at the blond and grinned mischievously. Scott had walked right into this one, as he reckoned Cora knew he would.  “Ok…you asked…”

 


EPILOGUE

Murdoch Lancer stood at the window behind his desk and gazed out. It was Lancer land for as far as the eye could see and he never tired of that view. Today the vista was especially gratifying as it also contained both of his sons set against the magnificent backdrop.  It had been a month since they had arrived home and almost two since they had first set out on their trip to Oakhurst. With the Lancer patriarch’s blessing, they had taken their time on the journey home to allow Scott the time he needed to recover his strength and composure. Neither Scott nor Johnny had spoken much about what happened, just that they had taken the time as Murdoch had intended, to relax, go fishing and spend the time they needed to deal with some very personal demons. Although the intent of the trip had been primarily focused on dealing with Scott’s problems, Murdoch suspected that Johnny too had done his share of purging and that the brothers had shared some deeply personal experiences

Neither son went into detail about what had passed between them, and Murdoch knew that he didn’t have the right to ask, but there wasn’t much about his sons’ past that he didn’t already know. The Pinkerton reports on both boys before they had come home were very detailed.  That was why Murdoch had known that no son of his could ever have sold out an escape, not after reading Scott’s comprehensive army conduct record. He had read with pride how Scott had been commended for his valor in his very first taste of action after seeing his commanding officer killed in front of his eyes. He had read the report of the doomed attack at Vicksburg and of the carnage as the union soldiers unwittingly swarmed into the crater that became a bloody tomb for many. He knew of the incarceration in the prison camp and the inhumane conditions in which the men were kept, slowly succumbing to starvation or madness. But after Dan Cassidy had reappeared into his son’s life, and Scott had begun to be troubled by the nightmares, Murdoch had made further enquiries, pulling several strings and calling in several favors to do so, and received the report just after he had sent the boys away.

He had read the official military inquiry report, convened in secret, which had identified the source of the leak as Lieutenant Dan Cassidy. The officer had been delirious with fever as he fought typhus and had, therefore, been deemed not responsible for his actions. It had been the recommendation of the report that while the consequences had been tragic, it would serve no purpose to reveal the source of the leak, and particularly in the unlikely event that Lieutenant Cassidy should survive.  But Cassidy did survive and after several months in hospital both in the prison and after it had been liberated, he had become obsessed with only one thing and that was finding the man who had survived, and making him pay. And that had almost cost Scott his life.

There had been one further thing in that report. Murdoch had almost missed it looking for the information on Cassidy. It was just one paragraph but it made his blood run cold when he read it.

The Board of enquiry also regrets the treatment meted out to the sole survivor of the ill-fated escape attempt. It is unfortunate that the officer in question was ostracized by his fellow men, mistaken in their belief that he had perpetrated the betrayal. Because, to exonerate this man would condemn another, it cannot be a matter for public record but let it be recorded here that the board recognizes that Lieutenant Scott Lancer endured the public flogging with the forbearance befitting his rank, and commends him for the example he set to the enlisted men in the face of extreme adversity.” 

Murdoch had lain awake for several nights plagued with images of his son, his son suffering so much pain, so much anguish while he was oblivious, building an empire when he should have been nurturing a family.  And then there was Johnny, scratching out a living by the gun, forced to sell his soul to the highest bidder, as he, Murdoch Lancer, built his wealth and social standing in the San Joaquin.  Yes, Murdoch had faced his very own demons while his sons were off facing theirs.

When they had returned, he had had difficulty facing them, initially.  He was so relived to have them home again but so ashamed that they had endured so much suffering in their young lives. But he took consolation from one thing. After a rocky start, and despite their very different upbringing, or perhaps because of it, they had forged a close bond. And now that bond seemed ever stronger, cast in wrought iron, unbreakable. 

He smiled as he watched them flinging water at each other as they cooled off after a hot day in the late Californian summer.   Scott’s pallid features of a few months before had been replaced with a healthy light tan. He would always be lean but the gauntness and frailty had gone, courtesy of Maria and Teresa who had made it their personal mission to fatten him up.   Johnny was darker than ever, looking more like his mother every day, enhancing those startling blue eyes of his. Murdoch’s heart swelled with pride as he watched the brothers enjoying each other’s company, taking solace in their affinity for each other. He wondered if they would have been so close had they grown up together. He suspected not. They were making up for lost time.  He reached for the second of the three envelopes that he had retrieved from his locked draw and placed on his desk, replacing the first.    He pulled the crumpled hand written note out and read it again.    

Dear Mr. Lancer

You don’t know me. My name is Cora Gerrarty. McClintock as was. I recently became acquainted with your boys, Scott and Johnny. Don’t matter how and I’m sure they’d have told you themselves if they’d had a mind to, but we had cause to cross each other’s paths when we all three of us needed it most. I helped your boys and in doing so they helped me more than they will ever know.  For a time I was lost and didn’t even know it. But in the brief time I knew them, your boys helped me find my way and learn to live again

I had two sons myself who went off to war and never came home but today I got a letter from the army telling me where my boys were when they died.  A place called Shiloh. I’ve never heard of it and don’t expect to ever go there but at least it’s a name to hold onto.  I know that was likely Scott’s doing and I want you to know I’m mighty grateful.

I know I was lucky to have my boys as long as I did.  I watched them grow and turn into fine young men but I feel right sorry for you that you missed out on all that with yours. But I’m glad you finally got your boys with you and I want to tell you to hold onto them. You should be right proud of the young men they have become.

It was destined that our paths crossed for the brief spell they did but I don’t expect we should ever meet again. They need to move on with their lives as I have my own and I don’t want to be the one to reawaken bad memories. So I am writing this letter to you to tell you that I was proud to know your sons and mighty grateful to them for all they’ve done for me.

I ain’t never gone past Bootjack but if I do hear tell you ain’t doing right by those boys, I just might break a habit of a lifetime and pay you a visit.

Sincerely yours

Cora Gerrarty (McClintock as was)      

Murdoch smiled to himself. He had heard the name Cora mentioned a few times when he had inadvertently walked into a room when his sons were deep in conversation. They had never elaborated over who she was and he had never asked but he got the impression that this lady had had a profound effect on them both.      When he had first read the letter he had wondered at the effrontery of the woman, telling him how to feel about his sons, offering him her pity that he had been barren for so long without them. But the more he read the words, the more proud he became that someone would take the time to write to him and let him know just how much his sons had meant to her. He was more proud of them than he would ever be able to adequately express, of the men they had become, of the trials they had both faced and overcome, and how they had adjusted to life at Lancer after the very different lives they had led before.

He slotted the letter back into the crumpled envelope and placed it back on the table. Finally he reached for the third, unopened one. It had arrived for Scott while they had been away. He turned it over and read the return address again.
D.E. Cassidy, Philadelphia, PA

He recalled Dan Cassidy’s final words to Scott when he and his wife Sarah had departed the hacienda, after the tumultuous events four months earlier. Scott had almost lost his life and then had been plagued by a debilitating reverie that had severely compromised his health. Yet Cassidy and his wife had ridden off to start a new life, blissfully unaware of the pain and the anguish that Scott had suffered since, because of them. Perhaps he was being uncharitable towards them. Cassidy had been deluded in his quest for revenge and his wife merely blinded by her love for her husband but all Murdoch cared about was Scott. And their actions had almost cost him his son.

He ran his fingers across the envelope, feeling the stiffness of the photographic print within. It was perhaps wrong of him to withhold something personally addressed to his son but after everything Scott had been through he didn’t think it would serve any purpose to further remind him of such a painful episode in his life.  The past was irrevocable, it was always there but it was something to learn from and to move on from. It didn’t do to dwell on it.

Murdoch watched as, saturated, his sons sauntered towards the house, arms around each other’s shoulders, laughing and joking and as free and easy with one other as if they had known each other their entire lives. All that mattered now was the future and his boys home, by his side, at Lancer.

Decision made, he placed all three envelopes back in his drawer, locked it and went to greet his beloved sons.

 

 

~end~
February /March 2010

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