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Diana

 

 

After The Fall

Warning: This is a first-person Teresa story, which some folks might find even worse than cuss words, sex and violence. Complain to diana1187@yahoo.com

 

There is a terrible tension in the house this morning. The air almost crackles with it and the hair on my arms is prickling as if I’ve been caught in a summer thunderstorm and lightning has struck close by. 

Murdoch has gone early to his desk. He says he is behind in his correspondence, but when I sneak a look, I find he is just sitting there, staring out the window as he absently drums his fingers on the arm of his chair. Scott is no better. He is supposed to be doing herd count with Cipriano. Today they were going to check on the bunch grazing out on the Rivera place. But Cipriano rode out alone twenty minutes ago and Scott is still at the dining room table, sipping what must be his third cup of coffee, and studiously ignoring his father.

The kettle begins to rock on the stove – the tea is boiling. I count slowly to twenty-five and then move the kettle away from the firebox to simmer. From across the kitchen I hear Maria’s snort of exasperation. I turn to look at her, but she is elbow-deep in the dishpan and her back is to me. Ours is an old argument anyway. She thinks my willow-bark tea too strong and bitter; I suspect hers is too mild to do its job. She makes hers the way her mother did and I make mine the way Tia Elena taught me when I was barely tall enough to put the kettle on the stove.

“He won’t drink it,” she says now as she stacks breakfast dishes on a clean cloth to dry.

Despite everything I can’t help but smile. This, too, is an argument we’ve had before. Maria loves to coddle her “Juanito.” If I don’t watch her, she’ll slip honey into the tea. “Yes, he will,” I counter. “He’ll complain but he’ll drink it. He knows that if he doesn’t I’ll call Scott to help me. Or Murdoch.”

My mention of Murdoch draws another snort from Maria, this one angry, and I realize then that she, too, blames Murdoch for the accident. Myself, I’m not sure what to think.  I wasn’t there when it started, I didn’t see what he did. I was in the garden trying replant the potatoes rooted up by Jelly’s new sow when she broke through the rickety gate my brothers keep promising they’ll fix. All of a sudden I heard the shouting and I knew something was wrong, desperately, desperately wrong.

I’m so confused. I know Murdoch would never intentionally do anything to harm any of us. But I also know what he can be like when he gets his dander up, and Scott says that when Murdoch came out to the corral yesterday afternoon he was in high dudgeon. High dudgeon. I roll the phrase over in my mind, trying to give it shape. Like so many of Scott’s pronouncements, it’s something I’ve never heard before. But Scott says it’s the only way to describe the explosive combination of blind anger and righteous indignation that sent Murdoch storming out of the house to confront Johnny about that contract.

Even so, it’s hard to believe that Murdoch at his absolute angriest could have done something so foolish as waving a piece of paper right beneath the nose of a green horse, especially one as flighty as that filly. She nearly trampled Frank twice last week. No, Murdoch should know better. But Scott says that’s what he did and that’s why Scott blames him for the accident.

Maria comes over to stand beside me at the stove. She uses a corner of her apron as a pot holder and lifts the kettle’s lid. She sniffs the contents. “Too strong, chica,” she says, shaking her head. “See how dark? It is too strong already.”

I take the lid from her and replace it. “A few minutes more and it will be just right.”

Maria raises her eyebrows questioningly. “Perhaps a little honey?”

I shake my head.

“Just a drop,” she suggests in a wheedling tone. “It will make it so much easier for Juanito to get it down. Just a little bit of sweet.”

I giggle. Who could help it? “Willow-bark tea is not supposed to be sweet, Maria.” I try to make my face stern. “Remember what Doctor Jenkins said?”

She shrugs dismissively and I can tell she is unconvinced. We will have this discussion again, I’m sure. But for now she has decided to retreat. I watch as she walks over to the cupboard and retrieves the blue-flowered tea pot, a clean cup and a saucer. She sets these down noisily on the kitchen table and then chooses a carved wooden tray from the sideboard.

“What kind of medico is it that says an injured man must starve?” she grumbles as she places the cup and saucer on the tray. “Nothing of substance until tomorrow – my poor Juanito.”

I am about to repeat Sam’s warning when I meet her gaze and see the twinkle in her eyes. Caught out, she smiles and slips an arm around my waist. “No te precocupes, Teresita. I will be good.” She kisses my hair and then disentangles herself to go back to her dishes. “We will kill one of the older hens, ?” she calls over her shoulder. “Chicken broth tonight for the invalid and a stew for the others.”

“Fine,” I agree, but secretly I wonder whether the day will be long enough for me to negotiate a truce between Scott and Murdoch. And a truce is what will be needed to get them to sit down at the same table this evening. I don’t think Scott has said more than two words to his father since his angry outburst last night. No sooner was Sam out the door then Scott let loose. We could hear him all the way upstairs in Johnny’s room. It must have been the brandy taking over because Scott’s not normally a shouter. Thank goodness Johnny didn’t hear.  He was awake but groggy and very sick to his stomach.  He didn’t even notice when Tia Elena left us and went down to give the two arguers a piece of her mind.

The tea is ready. I pour it into the china teapot and wrap the pot snugly in a towel.  “If he is still sleeping you must not wake him,” Maria says anxiously. I nod. We share a sense of guilt about persuading Johnny to allow Sam to give him chloroform. I’m sure he only agreed because he recognized it would be easier on the rest of us if we didn’t have to see him in pain.  The break is a bad one – both bones were out of place and pushing against the skin of his leg. Sam had to use all his strength to set them. If Johnny had been awake, well, I’m not sure I could have stayed in the room.

But now? Now I feel guilty. I suspect Johnny would have rather tried to tough it out, like always. Instead, today he will be paying the price for my weakness. Last night, as we waited for him to wake up, Sam reminded us that the aftereffects of chloroform can be unpleasant and lingering. Today Johnny may be sick again. He will probably have a pounding headache. “He’ll want to sleep a lot,” Sam said. “Let him.”

He was asleep when I checked on him first thing this morning. And so was Scott. Scott volunteered to do the late night shift in Johnny’s room and this morning we found him sprawled in the sagging armchair by the window. He looked exhausted, but I woke him anyway, just as he’d asked me to. Johnny slept on, his breathing deep and even. But he was sleeping almost upright, propped against a small mountain of pillows. “He was sick most of the night,” Scott whispered as Tia Elena pushed him toward the door. “Better keep the basin handy.”

The groan of the kitchen pump suddenly reminds me of where I am and I realize I’ve been woolgathering. I look up to find Maria watching me closely. She must think I’m a complete ninny. I give her a reassuring smile, pick up the tray and leave the kitchen. 

Once in the hallway I’m undecided. For a minute I’m tempted to walk through the Great Room to check on Murdoch. I feel so sorry for him. At breakfast he sat like a stone, his emotions hidden behind that hard, cold shell we all know too well. The boys have a harder time with it that I do, which is odd when you think about it. Scott and Johnny both do the same. They both have ways of hiding what they are feeling, Johnny especially. His Madrid face, I call it, and it frightens me and reassures me at the same time. 

No, I will leave Murdoch to his thoughts. And, for that matter, Scott to his. I am no better equipped to handle their pain than I was Johnny’s. I saw that at breakfast. When Scott grabbed his plate and stalked out of the kitchen without a word Murdoch didn’t even look up. But that muscle along his jaw jumped and he sawed away at his eggs as if he was cutting the toughest steak. I longed to put my arms around him. But I’ve learned there are times when he will not accept comfort or affection from anyone. This is one of those times.

So I avoid the Great Room and use the back hallway to reach the main staircase. The tray in my hands makes me awkward, I have to hold it high as I climb each step. It would have been so much easier yesterday if we’d taken Johnny to one of the guest bedrooms on the main floor. But Murdoch was firm about it. He said that when Johnny woke up he should be in his own bed, in his own room. Scott gave Murdoch a funny look but he didn’t disagree.

Tia Elena is at the top of the stairs, we meet as she is about to start down. She has been sitting with Johnny and I assume the basket of soiled laundry in her hands is his. She steps to the side, pressing the basket against her hip so that I can get by.

“He’s awake?” I ask.

Elena nods and makes a face. “, but he is not feeling very well.” She looks at my tray. “He may not be able to keep anything down, Teresa, but you must try the tea anyway, entiendas tú?”

Sí, lo entiendo.”

Bueno,” she says. But her expression turns thoughtful and I see there is something on her mind. Her eyes catch mine and I can tell she has reached some sort of decision. Before I can say anything, she speaks, lowering her voice as if afraid someone might overhear. “Your father and brother, they are still in disagreement?”

“More like at war,” I tell her. “They’re not talking to each other. Scott is still really angry and Murdoch . . .”  I hesitate. How to describe it? He seems surly, stubborn and oddly forlorn all at once. Daddy used to call it his “dour Scot” mood. My throat tightens and I feel the tears well up. I miss my Daddy.

“Teresa?”

The tray suddenly seems heavy and demands my attention. I lift my knee and use it to balance the tray as I readjust my hold on the handles and blink back silly tears.

“Teresa?” Elena asks again.

I take a deep breath and the tightness eases a little.  “Sorry.”

She gives me a sharp look but merely shakes her head. Then she says, “Cipriano is very angry, too.”

My heart sinks. “With Murdoch?”  

“No.” She shifts her hold on the basket and brushes an invisible strand of hair from her forehead with the back of her hand.  “With himself, I think,” she says tiredly. “I think he believes he could have prevented the accident. Last week he told me he thought that horse was not right in the head. Loco, he said, what she did to Frank. He was going to talk to Johnny about it when Johnny returned. ”

I look at her curiously. “Did he?”

She shrugs. 

“Probably not,” I decide. “There wouldn’t have been time. Look how late Johnny was getting home. He was supposed to be back Tuesday night and he didn’t make it until yesterday morning. I bet Cipriano was already out with the fencing crew when Johnny rode in. They would have missed each other.”

Elena gives me a sidelong glance. “Did Juanito talk with his father on his return?”

“You mean about the contract?”

Sí.

I shake my head and can’t help but give a sigh of frustration. If only Johnny had taken the time to sit down with Murdoch and go over the contract. For that matter, if only Murdoch had held on to his temper long enough to reread the section that had set him off. Maybe that’s why Scott is as angry as he is. He feels Murdoch should have known Johnny wouldn’t agree to anything that would hurt Lancer. It was all a misunderstanding, and look what came of it.

“The tea is getting cold, little one,” Elena says. She switches the basket from her right hip to the left and rests her right hand on the banister as she looks at me apologetically. “You do not need me? I have promised Rosa I will help her with Benito’s chores.” She frowns. “That devil horse!”

“No, I’m fine. How is Benito?” I’m embarrassed to realize I’d almost forgotten Rosa’s husband had been injured, too. In his eagerness to help, he had got too close to the filly’s feet and been kicked. Doctor Jenkins says the wrist should mend quickly, that the blow cracked the bone rather than breaking it. But the wooden splints are awkward and will make it impossible for Benito to do the milking or even work with the cheeses which are his specialty and his pride.

“He will heal,” Elena says absently, her concentration now focused on the stairs she is descending. “Make sure your hermano finishes the tea,” she calls over her shoulder.

“I’ll try.” For a moment I stand watching her, my Tia Elena, with Maria the only mother I have ever known.  When I was little, I wanted nothing so much as to be like her. I still do, really – well, maybe when I’m older, because right now I can’t bear the thought of  long dresses every day and corsets and putting up my hair . . .

My footsteps are strangely loud as I make my way toward Johnny’s room. The floors are bare; the rugs are hanging on the clothesline still covered with the dirt and manure the men tracked in yesterday when they carried Johnny upstairs. One of us will have to tackle the cleaning job later, I guess. Halfway down the long hallway a large clod of dried manure catches my eye and I stop, intending to push it toward the wall with my foot. But from the end of the hall comes the sound of someone being sick. Cup and saucer clattering, I half-run to Johnny’s room. Elena has left the door open and when I cross the threshold I find him sitting up in bed, his arms propped at his sides for balance and his head bent over a white enameled basin. He doesn’t look up as I set the tray on the table under the window.

“Johnny?”

He shakes his head slightly but says nothing. Then his body tightens and he gags. Hurriedly I busy myself uselessly rearranging the things on his bedside table, moving the empty glass, the pitcher, the book that Scott left behind last night. I know better than to try to comfort him right now. Illness of any sort embarrasses him. He hates what he calls what he calls “the fuss” of it.

There’s a silence, and after a long moment I hear him spit.

“Sorry,” he mutters hoarsely as he leans back against the pile of pillows with an exhausted look on his pale, battered face.

“Don’t worry about it, it can’t be helped,” I say as matter-of-factly as I can and take the basin from his lap. There is hardly anything in it – there can’t be anything left in his stomach to throw up -- so I slip it under the bed so it will be close at hand if needed again. The tea is going to have to wait.

“Sorry,” he says again, and he looks so miserable and uncomfortable that I feel like crying. I slip my hand into his and he squeezes my fingers lightly before gently but definitely withdrawing from my grasp. He closes his eyes, which gives me a chance to secretly study his face more closely. In the light of full morning I can see more clearly the dark bruising along his jaw, which is where the filly’s head must have struck him, and now the area around his right eye is deep purple and swollen.  Under his nightshirt there’s probably more bruising. The filly crashed him into the rails as she fell.

A shiver shudders through me. I didn’t see what set her off, I don’t know who’s to blame, but I saw the fall and I can’t get the memory of it out of my mind. The filly fighting Scott’s rope, throwing herself backward, rearing so impossibly high that for a precarious moment, a heartbeat, she and the man on her back were lost in the glare of the afternoon sun. And then the crack of splintered wood and a split second of silence before the uproar of men shouting to one another as they fought to control the animal’s flailing head and legs.   I stood in frozen terror until finally a gunshot stilled her struggle and muted the scream in my throat. It seemed to have taken a lifetime. Cipriano, just in from the south range, was the only man wearing a gun.

“They shot her, didn’t they?” Johnny asks suddenly, as if he had been reading my mind.

Startled, I stammer, “Th-they had to!” I clear my throat and continue more confidently. “They had no choice, Johnny. She’d broke her leg, the off rear, below the hock, and besides, she was –”

Loco.”

“You knew?”

He opens his good eye and gives me a wry look. “Yeah, I knew. But I thought I could bust her out of it. Gentling wasn’t gonna do it, I figgered. Some horses you gotta bust or leave alone.” His mouth twists as if he’s in pain.

“Are you all right?” I ask anxiously.

He shakes his head sadly but he hasn’t really heard me. “She’s one shoulda been left.”

“Well . . .” I say uncertainly. There’s a tone of regret in his voice that confuses me.  “You shouldn’t blame yourself. I mean . . .”

“Who else, T’resa?” He shifts his head on the pillow and laces his fingers over his chest. “I shoulda left her be. But no, I thought I could get the better of her. Guess I’m payin’ the price of pride. He ain’t said it yet, but Scott’s got every right to say, ‘Told ya so.’”

“Told you so,” Scott says from the doorway and as I turn in surprise I catch Johnny’s grin, slightly lop-sided because of the swelling and bruises, but a grin just the same. My worries lift a little at the sight of it.

“How come I get laid up, you get a day off?” Johnny asks as Scott settles into the overstuffed chair beside the bed. “You make a deal with the old man?”

Scott coughs and gives me a quick glance before studying his boots. His face is a little pinker than usual and I realize that he’s embarrassed, which seems odd. What does he have to be embarrassed about? 

“Scott?”

“Yes, Johnny?”

“You okay?”

Scott’s head jerks up and he stares at Johnny in astonishment. But Johnny’s eyes are closed again. Maybe we’ve worn him out already. No, it’s something more. With dismay I realize his left hand is raking at the bedclothes, bunching them so tight that his knuckles have turned white.

“Johnny?”

“A cramp,” he whispers huskily. “Just a cramp, Teresa.” He sits forward suddenly and clumsily gropes for his calf, which is buried beneath the sand of the fracture box. Scott and I look at each other helplessly. Four weeks, Sam said. Johnny will be confined to this clumsy device for four weeks. “What then?” I’d asked. “Then we see,” Sam said. “If things go well, I’ll be able to put him in a cast. If not . . .”

Four weeks. I can’t imagine it, can’t see Johnny consenting to staying still for that long. Or allowing us to do for him. Then again, he’s no fool; he’s going to know that he has no alternative, not if he wants that leg to be right again. Sam was blunt with us about that, and he’ll be just as blunt with Johnny. Blunter, I’d guess.

A long minute passes. The pain lines in Johnny’s face ease; the cramp is gone.  He noisily lets out his breath. Then, settling himself back against the pillows, he glances at Scott warily. “Murdoch must be fit to be tied, huh?”

The look of confusion on Scott’s face is, I’m sure, a mirror of my own bewilderment. I’m not sure what Johnny’s talking about. Murdoch’s reaction to the contract? The dead filly? But before either of us can say anything, Johnny gives a sour laugh.

“I sure pick my times, don’t I?” He closes his eyes and swallows, his Adam’s apple bobbling convulsively. “Roundup comin’ up, all them calves to be cut. Branding.  And that new Army contract  – yeah, I picked a great time to bust myself up.” He swallows again and then says, his tone light but somehow mournful, “Maybe they should have shot me along with that filly.”

I can’t help it, I feel a sudden rush of impatience, almost anger, and I blurt, “For heaven’s sake, Johnny Lancer!”

He looks at me in surprise and then ducks his head as his restless hands begin to fiddle with the hemmed edge of the sheet. “Sorry, Teresa, didn’t mean to sound sorry for myself.” A wan smile. “But you gotta admit this wasn’t the best time for me to let my pride get the better of me. Murdoch’s got every reason in the world to be sore. Scott, too.”

Scott clears his throat. “Look —” He stops, uncharacteristically at a loss for words.

“That bad?” Johnny asks wryly.

Now I really am angry. “You’re the one who’s loco,” I snap. “Tell him, Scott.” But Scott is studying his boots again and remains obstinately silent. I feel like stamping my foot or, better yet, using the tea tray to smack some sense into these fools. Men! They’re so exasperating. I take a deep breath. “Listen, Johnny, no one’s mad, no one’s blaming you. In fact, from what Scott said, it’s you that should be mad. At Murdoch.”

“And at me,” Scott says flatly.

I stare at him in confusion. “What are you talking about?”

“It was my fault.”

I’m stunned, I can’t believe what he’s saying. After everything that’s happened, after all the misery everyone’s gone through – well, the world’s turned upside down. I feel a little shaky, as if someone has knocked my knees out from under me.  Gingerly, I sit down, perching on the edge of Johnny’s bed so that my weight won’t disturb him or the short boards Sam has placed strategically under the fracture box. “You said . . .”

“I know, I know.” Scott abruptly stands and walks over to the window. For a moment he is still, as if whatever is going on outside has demanded his attention. Then he turns, leans his weight back against the window frame and folds his arms over his chest.  “I was . . .upset.” His voice cracks. He clears his throat and starts again. “But I’ve been thinking about it all morning, can’t stop thinking about it, in fact. I’m sorry, Teresa.”

From the bed comes a snort of disgust. “You mind telling me what nonsense you’re goin’ on about, Brother?”

“The accident. The fall.” Scott’s tone is flat. “I was stupid, I thought if I played her a little, if I held on a little longer . . .” He grimaces. “Well, I held on too long, unbalanced her when she reared up.” He gives Johnny a look of pure misery. “That filly wouldn’t have fallen if I had known when to let up on the rope. It’s all my fault.”

Johnny mutters something under his breath. I don’t catch it but Scott does and shakes his head.

“It’s my fault,” he repeats.

“Damn it, no it ain’t!” Johnny says impatiently. “She did it, not you. Horse threw herself. Guess she figured it was the best way to get rid of me. There was nothing you or anyone else coulda done.  She was loco. That’s all there is to it.”

“But—”

Johnny rubs his temples wearily. “It was an accident, plain and simple. I reckon you could argue I never should have tried to bust the craziness out of her. And you’d be right. It’s easy to see, after.” He sighs. “But you know, if I had it to do over, I’d probably do the same thing. Done it before, thought I could do it again. Always been kind of hard headed that way,” he adds, giving me a sidelong glance. “Leastways, that’s what some folks tell me.”

Vaguely I’m aware he’s trying to tease me, but I’m too distracted to rise to the bait. I look at Scott, who is looking at the floor. His face betrays nothing, yet I know he is torturing himself.

“Scott?” I begin tentatively.

It’s as if he hasn’t heard me. He meets Johnny’s gaze and says, “I don’t agree.”

“About me being hard-headed?”

“About what happened yesterday.”

“¡Dios mio!” Johnny groans. “Gimme strength!”

“Are you all right?” I ask anxiously. If anything, he actually looks a little better than he did earlier. But then Johnny can fool you like that – right up to the minute you realize you’d better send someone off to hunt down Sam Jenkins. “Can I get you anything?”

“No!” He glares at Scott.

“I’m not going to argue with you about it,” Scott says. “But—”

Johnny waves his hand in frustration. “You shoulda been Catholic, Scott,” he drawls. “’Cause you sure got yourself a taste for confession.”

“Blame it on the Garrett side of the family,” Scott says crisply. “All those Puritans.”

“But what about Murdoch?” I ask doggedly.   

 Scott grimaces. “I owe him an apology, I guess. He was in the wrong but he certainly didn’t deserve to have all the blame laid at his door.”

“Murdoch?” Johnny seems genuinely puzzled. “What’s he got to do with this?”

“You’re kidding!” Scott reclaims the chair beside Johnny’s bed, ignoring my pointed looks as he straddles the padded arm. “You’re kidding, right?”

“No.”

“Do you remember Murdoch stomping out there all hell bent for fury? “ Scott asks curiously.

“Sure,” Johnny says. He gives a little shrug. “Didn’t pay too much attention, though. Already had my hands more’n full ‘cause of Jelly’s pig.” He gives me a wan smile. “Sorry – hog.”

Scott raises his eyebrows. “Matilda?”

“That what he calls her?” Johnny asks tiredly. He stares across the room at the window, and the expression is one of longing. He takes a deep breath and then turns back to look at me.  “Don’t tell Jelly, huh?”

“Tell Jelly what?” Scott still doesn’t understand. But I do.

“Matilda got loose again, didn’t she?” I ask Johnny. He nods.

Scott, leans back, sitting cavalry straight, his expression doubting. “I didn’t see her.”

“No,” Johnny agrees. “You wouldn’t ‘a. Probably didn’t hear her either, huh? But the filly did – her ears were just a-twitching at all the squealin’ and gruntin,’ and Jelly  hollering – he musta chased that pig all over the barn.”

Scott cocks his head and considers his brother.  “One minute everything seemed fine, like we had it under control, and then all hell – sorry, Teresa. And then the filly just exploded.”

Johnny rubs his temples again. “Yeah well, horses hate pigs, Scott. You know that.”

“Your head ache?” I ask sympathetically.

“Yeah,” he admits. He lets his head settle back on the pillows and closes his eyes. “Everything aches, T’resa.”

He does look worn out. His face looks strained, and I’ve noticed his drawl becoming deeper, something that happens when he is tired or ill or very angry. “I think you’ve had enough company for now,” I say as I stand up. “Do you think you can manage some tea?”

“Yeah.”

Scott leans over and touches Johnny briefly on the arm. Then he, too, stands. “Get some sleep. We can argue about this later.” He takes a deep breath, as if he’s about to swallow one of Jelly’s ‘coctions. “Right now I have to go make amends with Murdoch.”

“Tell him I’m sorry, too, will ya?” Johnny opens his good eye and gives Scott a crooked smile.

“I thought we settled that,” Scott says with dismay.

“Oh, we did,” Johnny assures him. “We decided there’s blame enough for everybody who wants a piece of it.”

Scott laughs. “Well then?”

Johnny’s smile widens. “Well then, tell Murdoch I’m sorry I didn’t listen the last time he lectured me about pride going before a fall.”

“Why?” I ask curiously as I smooth the sheets over his chest.

“’Cause of what comes after.”

“What’s that?”

“Willow-bark tea,” Johnny says, catching my hand in his. He gives me a mock scowl and adds gruffly, “Cold, bitter willow-bark tea.”

 

~end~
February-March 2006

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