The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Susan

 

 

The One I Feed

Disclaimer:  Don't own 'em, just play with them a bit
Rated: PG for language
Feedback: All feedback welcomed both on the site and in private.

 

Part 1

When I get my hands on him, I will flatten his nose, no, I think I'll black both of his eyes.  That's better.  Wait.  A fat lip. Yeh, that's it.  And then, then, I'm going to stake him out in the desert and set fire ants loose on him.  Or scorpions.  Even better. But, maybe not the desert; the desert would be too warm.  Warm weather would be too good for him-not nearly evil enough

As he moved steadily through the sharp air of the afternoon, Johnny pulled his coat closed even tighter in the front and shook accumulating snow from his hat.  To pass the time, he was entertaining himself with visions of violence, violence with his brother in mind.  He so wanted vengeance.  Really though, if he were totally honest, it wasn't Scott's fault.  It was clearly Murdoch's fault for needing this contract signed so quickly. Yep, that's what he would do, he'd blame the old man-devise horrible tortures for him instead.  Or maybe, and the truth of it hurt him, maybe it was his own big-mouthed fault.

How do I let myself get talked into these things? "No, no. I'd like to go; no, really, it'll be like a vacation."  Johnny still could not believe that those words had come tumbling out of his mouth. It was as though they had a life of their own.  And once they were out, he had longed desperately to shove them back in.  Scott was getting better and better all the time at manipulating him.  It was downright suspicious.  He had actually made Johnny think for a minute there that the whole trip was his idea.  Exactly how had he done it?  It had all happened so fast, like a runaway stage-a runaway stage that was draggin' him behind it. By the time he could even catch his breath, he was half way to Nevada.  Who would have thought, only a year ago that someone would be able to bend Johnny Madrid to his will?  And he knows I really, really hate cold weather.

But now, finally, Johnny was on his way home, at last. Stupid contract. Stupid mountains. Stupid Nevada. Stupid snow.  He was weary with traveling, had been on the road now for nearly a week all told.  He shivered down to his bones, a deep soul-searing shiver.  He would never make it down below the snow line tonight. How he dreaded making camp in the snow.  Nothing to be done about it now though.  This was nothing at all like the time it had snowed at Lancer, and he and Scott had spent all day sledding and playing in the snow. That had been fun, a great day; this is hell. That old man at Jackass Pass had told him he "oughter wait 'til tomorry," but Johnny had wanted so badly to get this over with. 

So "Ol' Jack" had shared sips from his flask of gut-warming whiskey with him and had grinned and cackled, "It's your funeral," as he sold Johnny some few provisions.  But even though the man had grumped and complained about young know-it-alls with no respect, he had stuck an extra pack of waterproofed matches into Johnny's coat pocket along with the flask of whiskey as he had packed up to leave.

Damn it's cold, he thought for at least the hundredth time since he had started over this mountain.  It seemed to be getting colder too, even though he was heading toward lower altitudes by now.  He pulled his coat more tightly around himself and pushed his hat down lower on his head. Frío maldito, for sure.  In a voice quivering slightly from the cold, he began to sing softly, an almost forgotten arrullo his mother used to sing to him when he was very small, to distract himself a bit from the cold, to entertain Barranca, he mused.  Big, fat snowflakes were falling slowly and silently around him.  Well, at least it's pretty.  The pine trees towered above him, heavy with snow, and he could see the tracks of mule deer winding away up the narrow ledge to his left.

Everything here was so different from the types of places where he had spent the majority of his life, and not just because it was stunningly cold.  For one thing, everything here was so clean.  What was that word Scott had used? ....Pristine, that was it.  But to Johnny it just felt newly swept and scrubbed.  And the quiet too was almost complete-only small noises-tiny animals moving under the snow, the sound of Barranca's hooves as he walked, rustling pine needles-all quiet, unobtrusive sounds. But what really touched his soul here in this place was the fact that a man could truly be solitary.  He had often been alone in the border towns growing up, but he had never been so solitary, especially not since he had started carrying the weight of dead men around with him.  This white, quiet world made him feel very small and very large at the same time-connected somehow to everything around him.  It helped him to banish, for a little while, the visions of dead and dying faces that followed him like a shadow, everywhere, all the time. It wasn't often that Johnny Lancer felt that Johnny Madrid had drifted away and left him alone.

As man and horse moved ever downward, the snow-packed trail had a muffling effect, creating quiet "thumps" as Barranca stepped carefully around patches of ice. With the coming dusk, the fading light was forming a soft, silvery world filled with lacy, falling snow. Yes, very pretty.  He felt like he was the only person in the world at this moment.  Not much farther and he would stop.  A nice fire, some coffee.  Johnny was feeling better just thinking about it.  If he got an early start in the morning, he could be down to warmer, dryer territory in no time.  He pulled Barranca to a stop and slowly looked around at the terrain.  His path wound between a high granite ledge on one side and a long drop to a roaring snow melt creek on the other.  "C'mon Amigo.  I'll bet you're ready t' stop. I know you don't much like carryin' supplies, bein' treated like a pack horse.  And carryin' me on top of all that too.  Right over there should be fine."  The sure footed horse stepped off to the side of the path near a Bristlecone pine. 

As Johnny began to dismount, the long, lonely howl of a wolf suddenly echoed off of the sheer wall behind them, very close-too close.  Instinctively, the horse jerked nervously at the sound, but it was at just the wrong time and in just the wrong direction, and Johnny stumbled back from Barranca, just a step, no more. And then he slid, silently, without ceremony, over the ledge behind him.

 

Part 2

Scott startled slightly when he heard Murdoch call his name.  He had been staring out of the large window in the great room, watching as the ranch buttoned itself down for the coming evening.  Most of the hands had finished washing up at the pump and were headed to the bunkhouse for a hot meal.  He watched as Jelly chased Dewdrop from Teresa's garden and then headed on out to the barn.  Murdoch and Teresa had followed Scott into the great room after supper and were settling in.  The smell of  Murdoch's pipe tobacco combined with the scent of the flowers blooming outside of the window to create a strong sense memory that meant home for Scott.  He could hear Maria doing the supper dishes in the kitchen and knew, with a feeling of familiarity, that she would be hurrying just a bit to finish this last chore of the day, so she could return to her home and family.  He had been feeling drowsy with the warmth from the fire seeping pleasantly into his bones.  But then as he stood there looking out of the window, something, a strange feeling, had grabbed hold of him and wouldn't let go.  Something had happened. Something had happened to Johnny.  He would bet the estancia on it.  And it was his fault.

"I'm sorry Murdoch.  What did you say?"

I asked if you'd like some brandy, but you must have been a thousand miles away."

"No, more like 50."

"Scott, quit worrying about Johnny.  He'll be fine. He can take care of himself."

"Just feeling guilty I guess." He accepted the brandy snifter from his father and sat heavily on the couch. "Cipriano told me today that he got word it is snowing even in the lower levels of the mountains now too."

"Johnny doesn't have to be in the mountains for very long, and I did get him that warm coat for Christmas. You have to admit, the look on his face, right after you got him to volunteer for the trip, well, it was priceless.  He really didn't know what hit him, Son."

"I think you both should be ashamed of yourselves." Teresa joined the conversation from her chair by the fire.  "You know how much he hates cold weather, but still you tricked him into going."  Her face showed her disapproval.

"We didn't trick him exactly."

"And just what would you call it, Scott Lancer?"

"Well, we, um, persuaded him that it would be a good idea.  That it was his idea."  His voice dropped off at the end.  He was definitely feeling a bit at fault.

Teresa picked up her bag of mending from the floor and huffed at Scott, "Even more reason why I think you should be ashamed."  She pulled a familiar pink shirt from the bag.

"I'm beginning to think you're right Teresa.  I'm getting a bad feeling about this."  Scott got up and began to pace in front of the hearth.  "I think maybe I should ride to Wilsonville tomorrow morning.  I could meet him as he rides into town and treat him to a hot meal and a bottle of tequila.  You know, as a kind of apology."

"I think it's the least you could do," Teresa agreed.

Murdoch settled into his favorite chair with the new book that Scott had given him two weeks ago for Christmas.  "And I think you should quit worrying, Son.  He should be home and warm in another day and a half, two days at the most.  I think you're letting your guilt get the better of you."

Scott sat on the couch again and looked over at Teresa.  He noticed that she was patching a small hole in Johnny's shirt.  He was so hard on clothes.  Teresa always said that she could mend all day, every day and not keep up with him, and his wardrobe wasn't that extensive.  It wasn't that he was clumsy, far from it. Johnny had a natural, athletic grace that few men could claim.  It was his penchant for trouble that played havoc with his clothes.  Rips and tears from barbed wire, wild horses, low-hanging branches, and collapsing buildings, and even, at times, bullets, all contributed to keep Teresa busy.

In part it was that penchant for trouble that had Scott worried about his brother.  But more than that, he just could not shake the bad feeling that had begun as he had stared out of the window at the setting sun. Guilt worked at him.  He felt like the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge's poem-and Johnny was his albatross.  "Instead of the cross, the Albatross/around my neck was hung."  The thought of how Johnny might react to being compared to a bird from a poem brought a small smile to his face.  He watched the lamplight play on the translucent liquor in his glass.  The brandy and the warmth from the fireplace were combining to make him feel drowsy and out of focus.  "It's so cold," he whispered. "Madre de Dios."

Teresa looked up sharply from her mending.  "What did you say?"

"Who me?  I didn't say anything."

"Yes you did, Scott.  You said 'It's so cold.' I heard you, and then you cursed in Spanish."

"Really?  That's odd.  I'm not cold.  Actually, I'm really too warm.  Why would I say something like that? Teresa, why would I say that?"  Scott's agitation was growing rapidly.  "Where the hell did that come from? I'm pretty sure I have never cursed in Spanish before in my life."  He jumped up and paced to the window. "I have to go find Johnny.  I have to go right now. Something has happened to him.  I know it.  He needs me; I can feel it."

Murdoch looked up from his reading, suddenly aware that Scott was in a real lather about his brother. "Don't be ridiculous, Son.  There's no moon tonight. Neither you nor your horse would be able to see well enough to travel safely.  The same is true for Johnny, you know.  Wherever he is, he's not traveling tonight."

"Then, tomorrow morning I'm heading out.  I need to go look for him as soon as possible."

"You really believe something bad has happened don't you?"

"I'm sure of it."

"I think that Johnny will be laughing at us when he finds out we've come looking for him because you felt guilty, but we'll leave at first light."

"I hope he will be laughing at us.  But I don't believe that.  I just hope tomorrow morning isn't too late."

 

Part 3

Johnny felt himself step off into empty air.  His breath caught sharply in his throat as the reality of what was about to happen hit him. Then, the world was tumbling around him.  He threw his arms out wildly and tried desperately to grab on to anything he could, but his hands closed around nothing but frigid air.  His world had been reduced to billowing snow, slick rock and scrub plants that were doing their best to take a firm hold onto the bare slope around him. He smacked solidly, intermittently, into the cliff as he fell, but it felt as though he was watching it all happen to someone else; he wasn't really feeling anything.  It seemed to be taking a very long time to hit the bottom, and the whole awful moment was being played out in surreal quiet.  With mild surprise, he felt his right hand finally grab onto a small tree, and his body was jerked to a sudden, violent stop.  A scream was torn from his throat as he bounced against the cliff.  He hung there for a moment, and then, just as suddenly, the tree's tentative hold on the rock wall failed, and it and Johnny were tumbling together down the incline again.  Finally, he came to a bone-jarring stop in a large snow bank beside Elk Creek.

Well, that wasn't so bad, he thought after a moment as he stared up at the swirling snow.  I just fell over a cliff, and I didn't even knock myself out.  The snow must have cushioned his fall, slowed down his descent. He might just have to develop a deeper appreciation for winter in general and snow in particular.  And also for that poor little tree that had given its life to slow him considerably near the bottom of his fall. His heavy sheepskin coat had obviously kept him fairly well protected from scrapes and cuts as well.  He would have to be sure to thank Murdoch, when he got out of this mess, for getting him this coat for Christmas.  At the time he had thought the coat to be an extravagance, a fairly useless item, because Johnny didn't plan to ever be anywhere near cold enough to wear the durn thing.  And now look at me, he thought as he lay practically buried in snow.

Well, I'll just get up and figure out a way to get to Barranca, and everything will be fine . . . I'll just get up now and climb back up to the path . . . I'll just get . . . okay, I think I'll just lie here for a bit and watch the snow some more.  And he did.  As he lay there, he heard the howl of the wolf once again, and his worry for Barranca increased tenfold.  Johnny knew that an organized pack of wolves could easily take down an unprotected horse.  Barranca was in grave danger.  His friend had a brave heart and might turn to face them, but Johnny was hoping that the horse would be smart and fast and forget all about him.  He would have to if he was to survive.  He was sure that Barranca's instincts would kick in and push the horse to make its way down the mountain.  Johnny could tell that the howling wolf was closer to him now than it had been when he had been up on the path.  He would not whistle for Barranca now, did not want him further involved in this incredible piece of bad luck at all, did not want him closer to the wolf.

He didn't think much time had passed when a bout of violent shivering convinced Johnny that he really needed to move.  It's so cold, he thought.  Madre de Dios.  He very carefully tried to turn on his side and torturous fire branded his arm and chest.  Damn.  What had he done to himself this time?  Slowly, he pushed himself up to a semi-seated position with his left arm.  The right one hung uselessly at his side, but at a very strange angle.  His gun hand.  Great, just great.  He must have dislocated his shoulder when he had grabbed that puny little tree on the way down.  He was pretty willing to bet that he also had a broken collarbone from banging violently into the side of the cliff.  I should have just not tried to stop myself, he thought; I probably would have been better off. But as he looked up and up the side of the cliff, he decided-probably not.

Johnny sighed.  This situation was just another in a long line of hurts and disasters.  He had come to expect them-was convinced that each and every time he stopped a bullet, broke a bone, cracked his head, or cut himself that he was paying a debt.  He was guilty of inflicting so much pain and sorrow, he had to pay the debt somehow, and he had a ways to go before he'd ever be in the black.  Darkness had settled in around him as he had contemplated the snow and his situation from flat on his back.  Johnny could see that it was not going to be possible for him to climb back up to the path.  Well, he'd wanted farther down the mountain and farther down he was.  He watched and waited to see if his horse was still on the path up above; if a wolf pack was prowling, he hoped again that his friend had taken off.

When no golden head appeared to peer down at him, Johnny decided that he couldn't worry about Barranca any longer-he needed to worry about himself.  He would have to find shelter for the night.  A flash of movement near the creek caught his attention, and he shifted his eyes in that direction.  It was a wolf-a wolf with his eyes firmly planted on Johnny, watching him.  He was fairly small for a timber wolf, maybe 70 pounds, and his markings were kind of unusual-He was mostly white with some black markings which stood out sharply against the snow.  With his left hand to steady himself, Johnny struggled slowly first to his knees and then to his feet.  His leg buckled for a moment and then he caught his balance.  "What do you want, Lobo?  Why are you out here alone?  Are you cold, too?"  The wolf looked into his eyes for a moment and then melted away with a flick of his tail.

He was so damn cold.  My gun?  Where's my gun? What else could possibly happen?  He was hurt and miserable, and he just wanted to go home. Yo debería haberme quedado en la cama esta mañana, he muttered as he looked around for his gun. It must have been wrenched from his holster as he had hurtled down the cliff.  It could have landed just about anywhere.  It seemed like such a waste of his precious reserve of energy to search for the lost gun in the growing darkness, but it couldn't be helped.  He might need it, he thought briefly of the wolf and amended that thought, would probably need it, before this night was over.  He would find his gun, and his hat, somehow he had lost that as well, and then he would continue down the mountain on foot.  The moon was new tonight. Dangerous to travel on such a dark night, but he would keep moving as long as he could.  Scott was going to have to go some to make this trip up to him.

 

Part 4

As he stumbled painfully around looking for his gun, Johnny considered his situation.  Most importantly he needed desperately to get his arm straightened out, put back into place.  The thought of it left him weak with dread, but there was little choice.  He knew that a dislocated shoulder should feel pretty normal once it was back in place, if he could get it back where it belonged.  Right now it felt anything but normal.  It felt downright awful.  And that throbbing collarbone-how would that effect putting the shoulder back?  He guessed it was something he would just have to worry about when the time came.  He needed to find a tree with a fork that was about shoulder height to him.  In spite of the cold, when Johnny contemplated that tree and what he would have to do, sweat popped out on his forehead and upper lip.

To distract himself from the painful image he had conjured, he took stock of his resources-pretty pathetic actually.  He had a warm coat and gloves, a pocket knife, a flask of whiskey, his hat and gun, if he could find them, and a precious pack of waterproof matches.  Johnny blessed Ol' Jack for his foresight. Just as he spotted his hat half buried in the snow, he heard the howl of the wolf once again.  It was such a lonely sound, perfectly capturing Johnny's mood.  But that wolf has a damn big mouth.  It's all his fault I'm in this mess.  He reached down to scoop up his wayward hat and figured maybe his luck had turned around a bit when he saw his gun buried in the snow under it.  Pushing the hat down on his head and then awkwardly, left-handed, putting the gun back in his holster, he felt instantly warmer and better equipped.

Traveling in this terrain was treacherous, even at the best of times.  In the snow, at night, without a moon, it seemed impossible.  He would have to follow as closely to the cliff as possible.  The alternative, to keep his bearings, was to follow the creek, and accidentally falling into the water in this weather would be deadly, not an option.  There was nothing to do but move forward, and keep moving forward, until he found a place to shelter.  He rubbed his hand across his face, and it felt as though he had tiny needles piercing his cheeks.  Great.  He would now be worrying about frostbite along with everything else. He thought about the bandana in his pocket, but knew that he would not be able to tie a "robbers" mask around his face until he had the use of both hands.

The persistent night wore on.  Johnny's arm throbbed intensely, and his strength continued to fade. His knees kept buckling, threatening to dump him into the snow at any moment.  For the past half hour, the tips of his fingers had felt numb.  He was moving slowly ever downward, downstream with the creek.  From the corner of his eye, he kept catching glimpses of something moving, but by the time his slowed reflexes could react to the movement, it would be gone.  And that wolf, howling and howling.  Sometimes it seemed as though he was right on top of Johnny.  The howls had actually jerked Johnny from the edge of unconsciousness at one point, and he had caught himself before falling completely.  Would this never end?  A couple of  times he would swear he had seen eyes glowing at him from out of the darkness.  I must be gettin' delirious, he thought. Seein' spooks, fantasmas.

And then, straight ahead he saw the most frightening thing yet.  It was a tree-a tree with the most perfect fork in it you could ever imagine.  No.  No.  Nope.  I don't think I c'n do this.  He shuddered involuntarily and deliberately turned his back on the tree.  With every bit of mental strength he could muster, he attempted to will the perfect little tree away.  When he turned back around, it was, of course, still there, still perfect and still very terrifying.  I need a shot of Ol' Jack's whiskey before I can even get close to this particular tree, he thought.  He pulled the metal flask from his inside jacket pocket, uncorked it and took a powerful slug. You know, now that I think about it, my arm is really okay, just fine. Yeh, I think I'll just let it be.  I'll just be movin' on now.  I just. . . I don't . . . I don't think I can do it.  I'm not normally a cowardly man, but this is beyond me.

But then, very suddenly, he sighed loudly and, without allowing himself to slow down, he walked up to the tree.  He had slipped on his Johnny Madrid mask for this task.  His face was impassive, his eyes cold. Johnny knew this was the only way he was going to get through his ordeal. If Madrid could face down men with hard eyes and ruthless guns, surely he could also face down this stupid forked tree. He had decided to approach the tree as though it were a no good, lowdown, land pirate.  He walked up to his enemy, wedged his forearm into the fork of that tree as hard as he could stand and braced his feet as carefully as he could on the snow-packed ground in front of it.

Johnny sucked in a fortifying breath and jerked back with all of the strength he had left in him.  The popping, sliding sound of his arm slipping back into its socket was something that Johnny would never forget if he lived to be a hundred years old.  And then, the pain was a living thing, crawling down his wedged arm, across his chest and finally throughout his entire being.  He lurched forward, pulled his arm from the fork of the tree and turned to empty the meager contents of his stomach violently onto the snow.  He rubbed at the tears on his cheeks with his left hand, aware enough to be worried that they might freeze

Finally, after an eternity, he staggered away from the scene of his most recent nightmare and fell to his knees, jarring his arm in the process.  A low moan was wrenched from deep within his throat, soul deep.  He needed desperately to find a place to rest, just for a while.  He wanted so badly to just lie down and sleep. Through his misery, Johnny heard the howl of his new friend, el Lobo, again, and he looked in the direction of the sound, searching hard to find the wolf.  And as he did, at the base of the cliff, about 50 yards down, Johnny saw something.  It was hard to be sure, but it looked like it might be a small cave.  If he could just rest, just rest for a while, just sleep.  Johnny kept talking to himself, strengthening his resolve to move forward, to get to the cave.  The wind had picked up, and it shrieked down through this lonely valley which had been cut by the creek.  It was definitely getting colder.  "Almost to shelter, Johnny," he encouraged himself.

Finally, he stumbled to the cliff and discovered that there was, indeed, a shallow cave partially hidden by bushes growing at the base.  The mouth of the cave was about three feet high and four feet across.  He approached it cautiously, aware that some animal may have found this place to be the perfect home.  It didn't matter though.  Johnny was at the end of his stamina and would stop in this cave or collapse in the snow.  To his endless relief, the shallow den was empty.  Johnny sent a silent "thank you" to Lobo for showing him the way. Then, slowly, he dug through the snow to gather some bits of wood and blessed Ol' Jack one more time for his gift of matches.

 

Part 5

Johnny was so tired, and still too cold.  His arm ached, but it was no longer the intense, vivid pain from before.  His small fire hissed and popped at the opening of the cave.  He wasn't able to find much wood, and what he had wasn't very dry, but he had a flame and a bit of warmth. The whiskey in the flask had been reluctantly emptied out onto the cold ground, and Johnny had used the flask to melt snow over the fire so he could drink the warm water.  He toasted his flask toward the sky and silently thanked an old man in Matamoras who had once drunkenly rambled on to him about how he had survived a blizzard in the mountains. From this man, Johnny knew that drinking warm liquid was one of the best ways to warm up his body, and, unfortunately, the liquid used should not be whiskey. As he drank his warmed water, he could see the red eyes of Lobo about 20 yards away, watching and waiting, but Johnny knew that wolves were shy with people, and that this lone wolf would not approach him under normal circumstances, especially not with the fire.  At least he didn't think he would.  Dios, he needed to rest his eyes just for a moment.

Actually, what he needed to do was sleep, but if the truth be known, he hadn't really slept in the last 8 years, not soundly anyway.  He was sure it was just another form of punishment.  He assumed that the innocent slept well.  He knew that the guilty did not. The dead walked through the landscape of his dreams every night.  Every man he had ever killed hung around his neck, dragged him down with guilt.  He didn't know the name of every man he had killed, but their faces were burned into his soul like a brand.  His soul was blackened by them.  He knew that there was no forgiveness for what he had done, what he had been. It is kind of funny though, he thought; I always figured hell would be hot.  Instead, Johnny's personal hell was cold-dark and cold.  Of course, it was pretty much what he deserved-fitting that someone who hated cold weather would end up in an icy hell.  With that thought, his eyes drifted shut, and he did finally, fitfully, sleep.

And then it was warm.  In fact, he was hot.  He sat in a small cantina, drinking tequila straight from the bottle, sweat running down his back and dampening the waistband of his pants.  He could see the sun baking the dirt road through the open door, and shadows were short, so it must be near noon.  The cantina smelled like the inside of a spittoon, but it was dark and quiet, and the tequila was cheap.  He was 15 and cocky beyond belief.  Already he had killed at least half a dozen men with his fast and efficient gun, and the people in this town and many other surrounding ones knew his name, left him alone.  No one dared to call him half-breed to his face.  Filthy half-breed—there were times, when he was very small, when he thought that must be his name, since he seldom heard anyone call him anything other than that.  They would shout it at him as they chased him down to beat him.  But now no one called him names, at least not to his face, and no one dared to lay a hand on him.  In fact, no one really ever spoke to him at all unless they needed his gun.  So, it was something of a surprise when the shabby, old man approached his table and stood patiently waiting for Johnny to notice him.  "What do you want?"  Johnny finally asked; his hostility was meant as a warning.

"I want to talk to you, chico."

"Don't call me that.  I'm not a child, anciano."

"Si, you are not a child, amigo, yet you are not un hombre either."

"Get out of here-leave me alone."

"I am here to tell you a story."

In spite of himself, Johnny was intrigued by this old peasant.  Not many would approach Johnny Madrid.  Even at 15 he was a force to be reckoned with.  After a moment, he looked up at the man and said, "Sure old man, tell me your story."

"My throat is very dry, Senor Madrid."

Johnny laughed, a short sharp sound, and motioned to the bartender.  He told him to "bring a glass para mi amigo."  He poured a healthy shot of tequila into the glass for the old man and sat back in his chair, waiting.

Without preamble, the old man began his tale-"Once there was a young man who carried guilt in his heart."

"I surely do hope you don't think you're talkin' about me?"  Johnny interrupted, giving the man a hard look.

"I would not presume."

"See that you don't."

"Si, si."  The old man continued with his tale.  "An accident, caused by him, had taken the life of his best friend.  The young man did not know if he could live with what he had done.  He went to his grandfather for advice.  His Grandfather said:  'I too have, at times, felt guilty for things I have done, things I cannot change.  But guilt wears you down.  I have struggled with this many times.'  He continued: 'It is like I have two wolves inside of me.  One is good and does no harm.  In fact he heals me-he is forgiveness, he allows me to forgive myself.  He will only fight in the right way, and he saves all of his energy for the right fight.  But, ah, the other wolf, he is guilt.  The smallest thing will set him off.'"

"I've changed my mind," Johnny said suddenly, "I don't wanna hear any more of your story, anciano.  Take your tequila and get."

"This other wolf fights everything for any reason," the old man continued as though Johnny had not spoken. "He even fights against himself.  He feels he must be the alpha wolf.  It is his nature.  The two wolves, guilt and forgiveness, fight inside of me all of the time."

"All right," Johnny sighed.  He knew, like he knew his own name, that he would not get rid of the old man until he asked.  "Which one wins?"

"That is exactly what the Grandson asked.  He said, 'which one wins, Grandfather?' and his grandfather smiled and quietly said, 'The one I feed.'"

"What's your point, old man?  What are you tryin' to say to me?"

The old man drank down his tequila in one long drink. He looked deep into Johnny's eyes before he turned to walk away.  Without even looking back at Johnny, he said, "Feed the wolf of forgiveness, Johnny Madrid. You must not let guilt become the alpha wolf.  It will consume you if you do."  With that he shuffled out of the door and into the street.

Johnny jerked awake suddenly.  A brush of fur against his face and a frantic scrabbling of claws on the rock floor of the cave told him that, amazingly, el Lobo had been lying beside him, sharing warmth with him. The shock of what he believed had happened took Johnny's breath away.  He used his teeth to pull his glove off and put his hand on the cave floor next to him.  He could feel residual heat from the wolf's body.  He hadn't imagined it.  "Why are you helping me, amigo?  Where is your pack?"  Johnny peered into the waning dark, looking for the glowing eyes, but his
new compadre was gone.  The world around him was beginning to stir.  The fire was cold.  He and the wolf had apparently slept side by side for several hours.

 

Part 6

Soon the sun would be coming up, and still they hadn't left Lancer.  Scott stood by his horse, waiting for his father impatiently.  "Murdoch, please.  Can we go now?  Let's get started.  It will take most of the day to get to Wilsonville.  We'll have to push it a bit to get there before dark as it is."

Murdoch was busy giving Jelly last minute instructions.  "I'm coming, Scott.  I still say that this is going a little bit overboard just to ease your guilty conscience.  Johnny may be mad if we come looking for him.  You know how much he hates it when we mother hen him."

Finally, they mounted their horses and were on their way.

After riding for a while, Scott spoke up, continuing Murdoch's conversation from earlier.  "You know, this is not just about guilt, Murdoch.  This is also about me knowing, really knowing, that something is going on with Johnny.  I'm not sure how I know, but I do."

"All right.  I'll admit it.  I've got a bad feeling too.  But I think I might be having this bad feeling as a reaction to you having a bad feeling."

"What?  No, listen, this is not the typical "Johnny's in trouble" feeling; this is something more, something deeper.  After I finally went to sleep last night, I even dreamed about it, about Johnny.

"Do you remember what you dreamed?"

"Bits and pieces.  It was really hot, Mexico, I guess. There was an old man speaking in Spanish; I couldn't understand what he was saying.  How could I dream in Spanish, Murdoch?

"Are you sure you didn't just imagine that it was Spanish?  Or, you do hear it often enough to have picked up a bit of the language without even realizing it."

"Maybe.  Anyway, there was an old man talking to Johnny and he kept saying 'lobo.'"

"'Lobo' is wolf."

"Are there wolves in the mountains, Murdoch?"

"Yes there are, but wolves pretty much avoid all human contact unless they're sick or very hungry."

"Like they might get if there's too much snow to find prey?  There was a wolf in my dream.  It was following Johnny around like a dog.  The wolf was important in some way."

"Doesn't sound too troubling to me, Son."

"No, I guess it doesn't, but I woke in a cold sweat calling Johnny's name.

"Guilt will eat you alive if you let it, Scott.  Well, if we ride hard all day, we should be in Wilsonville well before dark.  Hopefully, Johnny will be there too.  Or, we might meet him along the road on our way there."

"I hope so Murdoch, I really do."

 

With some difficulty, Johnny had built up the fire again and heated more water.  He had slept and rested for the biggest part of the morning.  It must be noon by now.  He was torn.  On the one hand, he had found a pretty good place to shelter, the small cave was reasonably warm.  It was very tempting to just give in and stay here.  On the other hand,  he was hurt and ravenously hungry and, most of all, needed to get down off of this mountain.  Really needed to.  With the light of day, he had discovered numerous new aches as the scream of pain from his shoulder and collarbone had calmed down and was no longer consuming him.  In particular, his hip was decidedly sore and had stiffened overnight.  Johnny figured that it was probably garish with a colorful bruise by now.  The hitch of pain every time he took a deep breath was fairly convincing evidence that he had, at the very least, bruised a rib.   Also, even though he couldn't find a lump or cut, his head ached and swam.  He must have hit it on the cliff at some point.  Or maybe that's what broke my fall at the bottom, he reasoned. In spite of his situation, he laughed softly.  Murdoch would have something to say about that.  I'm sure he would think that my hard head would be the best thing for me to land on.

Well there was nothing to be done about it.  The day was moving on and Johnny, so far, wasn't.  Sadly, he couldn't just stay here; it would be deadly to do so. It was still snowing, and Johnny knew that his only chance of continuing to survive this little adventure was to get himself down off of this mountain.  He had reluctantly put out his small fire and tucked the flask inside of his coat as he had talked himself into continuing his journey.  The snow was actually letting up, but the ground was hard packed with at least a foot of the white stuff. With some work, he got to his knees and crawled slowly out of the cave, hampered by his sore shoulder and bruised hip.

He held onto the rock wall next to him for support as he stood up.  With a huge swooping noise, he hit the snowy ground solidly as he immediately fell back down. The pain took his breath away. Damn.  He hadn't even gone three feet, and already he was wet and covered with snow.  Johnny rolled slowly over and pushed himself to his knees once again.  His hip was shrieking at him.  It hurt to breathe in the frigid air.  And he was so very hungry, he was nearly sick with it.  His resolve to leave was waning, and his tiny cave of salvation was beginning to look more and more like his tomb as he knelt there in the snow.

The howl took him by surprise and he jerked back slightly, painfully, "Lobo?"

 

 

The closer Scott and Murdoch got to the foothills, the colder it got.  "If we were going to meet up with Johnny, we should have by now," Scott observed.

"It doesn't necessarily mean anything bad, Scott." Murdoch was pulling on his sheeplined gloves as he spoke.   "He may have been tired after coming over the mountain and stopped in Wilsonville, or maybe he stayed at Jackass Pass yesterday and didn't start out until this morning.  He wouldn't be down the mountain until near dark if that's the case."  Murdoch was working hard to keep Scott optimistic.

They were coming to the outskirts of Wilsonville, and Scott was anxious to get there and start asking questions.  The god of wayward little brothers must surely have been looking down on them as they rode up to the town; the very first thing they saw, exhausted and riderless, standing alone at the side of the road, was Barranca.  He stood there calmly with his reins trailing on the ground.  "Oh my God."  Scott jumped down and ran up to the horse.  "Everything's here Murdoch, his bedroll, his saddlebags, some provisions."

"Everything but Johnny."  Murdoch, for the first time since Scott had his premonition last evening, was truly worried that something serious had happened to his youngest son.  He couldn't quite believe that he had been so cavalier about the whole thing.  "Scott, I'm sorry I didn't believe you, that I wasn't more concerned."

"We need to get a search party together.  He's surely cold.  There are still several hours of daylight left.  And provisions.  He hates to be cold, Murdoch.  We have to find him and get him warmed up.

"Scott."

"He'll be hungry too; we'll need to buy food to take to him.  Come on, let's get started.  He's probably cold, you know. We can get to the base of the mountain in less than half an hour.  Let's get started.  He hates the cold weather."

"Scott, slow down."  Murdoch dismounted and walked over to Scott.

"He's cold, Murdoch.  He's cold."

"I know, Son.  We'll find him."  He put his arm around Scott's shoulder and led him back to his horse.  "We'll find him."

 

Part 7

It had taken very little debate; the wolf was firmly against it, but he wasn't much good at logical argument.  Johnny had made his decision.  He wasn't going anywhere right now.  He just needed to rest, build up a reserve of strength.  Maybe tomorrow he would feel better, feel strong enough to move on.  Or maybe the day after tomorrow.  For some reason, he just couldn't give a damn anymore.  He was dead weary with all of it.

Lobo had tried persistently to persuade him to leave the cave behind, but Johnny just did not have the energy or the will to do so.  The wolf would trot off, turn to look at Johnny over his shoulder and then would run back to the cave.  He repeated this performance several times, but it was all Johnny could do to gather more sticks of wood and lie down next to his small fire. He just wasn't going anywhere today. His strength was completely gone; maybe if he had had food, maybe then he would have had the energy to move on.  "Sorry Lobo, I just can't.  I'm spent," he breathed.  The wolf continued to get more and more brave, coming closer to Johnny, even brushing against his outstretched leg at one point and then turning and taking Johnny's pants leg between his keen, sharp teeth, trying to urge him from the cave.  Johnny stayed as still as his shivering body would allow, and finally, as he was beginning to relax completely, Lobo walked right past the fire and laid down in the hollow created where Johnny's legs were now pulled up towards his chest.  The soft fur was so warm against his face.  He figured his new friend must be as cold as he was to go against his instincts like this.  Whatever the reason, no matter how unnatural this wolf was, Johnny was supremely grateful, awed by the wolf's gift.

His thoughts drifted as he listened to Lobo's steady breathing.  He wondered languidly what his family was doing at Lancer right at this moment.  He figured it was late afternoon by now, so Teresa and Maria would be fixing supper.  Beef, of course, and roasted potatoes.  He could even smell it.  His stomach complained loudly at the thought of it, of not having it.  Scott was probably still hard at fixing that wooden foot bridge at Parson's Creek.  He had been working on the bridge for a week before Johnny had left and cursed it each and every day.  Murdoch was probably on his way back from town.  It was Friday, wasn't it?  Murdoch generally made a trip to town every Friday.  Jelly would be complaining about something.  That one wasn't hard to figure out.  He wondered if anybody was thinking about him, worrying about him.  Briefly, it occurred to him to wonder if anyone would find him before the spring thaw.  And then, eventually he fell into an uneasy sleep.

Why was it so cold here?  He could see the sun shining brightly through the door of the cantina.  It looked to be about noon.  But still, he was so cold.  He shivered involuntarily.

"I've changed my mind.  I don't want to hear any more of your story, anciano.  Take your tequila and get."

"This other wolf fights everything for any reason.  He even fights against himself.  He feels he must be the alpha wolf.  It is his nature.  The two wolves, guilt and forgiveness, fight inside of me all of the time."

"All right, which one wins?"

"That is exactly what the Grandson asked.  He said, 'which one wins, Grandfather?' and his grandfather smiled and quietly said, 'The one I feed.'"

Johnny twitched slightly in his sleep. "What's your point, old man?  What are you trying to say to me?"

"Feed the wolf of forgiveness, Johnny Madrid.  You must not let guilt become the alpha wolf."

Johnny came awake slowly.  He was lying on his left side facing the opening of the cave. Lobo was gone, but he could hear him howling again, somewhere close by.  He knew instinctively, without opening his eyes that he had slept for several hours.  He could also tell that the fire was out.  Intense cold was again creeping into the cave.  He had not had the energy to get much wood before curling up to sleep.  He was, however, at this point, indifferent.  He just couldn't care anymore.  The thought of getting up, crawling out of the cave, pawing through the snow to find wood, crawling back, and working to make a fire was just too much for him to even contemplate.  Instead, Johnny lay there shivering and wondered vaguely why he had dreamed of the old man and his stupid story twice now when he hadn't thought about the incident in years. The experience itself had been mildly annoying when he was 15.  He had simply thought the old man was crazy, or maybe crazy like a fox; he did get a free drink for his story.  And now, at 23, dreaming of the almost forgotten experience was extremely puzzling to Johnny. It meant something important, he was sure of it, but the answer was just out of his grasp.  It must be the strange wolf, following him, leading him to this cave, sharing warmth with him-the wolf had reminded him of it.

Johnny recalled that not long after that day in the cantina, he had found himself the reluctant but grateful guest of a small band of Kawaiisu Indians. The hunters of the clan had found him in the desert, a bullet in his thigh, and had taken him back to their village, had taken good care of him.  The shaman, Deer with Horns, had sat with him for hours and hours, telling him stories of the People.  He knew from him that the wolf was a powerful animal spirit-a symbol of an individual with strong feelings of family, also a symbol for one who would guide or teach.  The Grandfather's story, his words about the two wolves, about guilt and forgiveness, could the words be true? Johnny knew that he fed that wolf every day.  He couldn't even imagine not feeding the wolf that was guilt.  Was this particular wolf, this strangely fearless white wolf of his, trying to guide him somehow, teach him something?  The thought that he should try to figure out how to feed the wolf of forgiveness took root in his mind.  Could he forgive himself for his past, for the life he had led?

Lobo, at that very moment, yipped and barked near the cave entrance.  "Shut up," Johnny said quietly, but there was no venom in his words.  "Leave me alone. Let me think.  Let me sleep."  And then he heard the wolf snuffling at the cave floor next to his face.  He reluctantly opened one eye, and saw blood on the rock floor next to him.  Was he bleeding?  He didn't remember bleeding.  Maybe the blood belonged to the wolf.  "Lobo, are you hurt?"  In the deep recesses of his mind, Johnny knew vaguely, remembered from a different life, that he should be afraid of a wolf, especially if that wolf was hurt or sick, but he really just didn't have the energy or desire to worry about anything; nothing seemed quite worth it. Besides, if the wolf had wanted to hurt him, he surely would have done so by now.

He mustered his energy and slowly opened his other eye.  The wolf sat near him on his haunches, his tongue lolling from his mouth.  Johnny struggled to sit up.  "What are you smilin' at, Wolf?  Do I look like lunch or somethin'?"  The idea of lunch had his stomach rumbling loudly.  Then he remembered the blood and looked down to see that Lobo had dropped a slightly mangled rabbit on the cave floor next to his leg.  Instantly Johnny's mouth watered.  He looked back at the wolf in amazement.  "What are you?" he whispered.

 

Part 8

Scott sat alone at a round, knife scarred table in the small Wilsonville saloon.  Had he always sat here, always in this chair, forever in this town?  He was ramrod straight in the hardback chair, and he stared into a cup of cold coffee without really seeing it. Behind him he could hear wood hissing in the potbellied stove in the corner.  He was the only person seated in the whole room.  For some reason, his hip and his shoulder had started to both ache like the devil. He was very close to moaning aloud from the pain.  A few feet away, near the large window next to the batwing doors, there was a flurry of activity swirling around his father, who stood at its center. Someone shouted an angry, "No," and Scott was pulled back into the room, away from the phantom pain. Nearly a dozen men all talked at once, all offered their advice and opinions, all did really nothing, in Scott's opinion, but make noise.  It was "sound and fury, signifying nothing."  They had been in this God-forsaken little town for nearly an hour, and that is exactly what they had accomplished—nothing. And, all the while, the mountain loomed behind them, awful, tantalizing.

Why were they not out there on the mountain?  Why were they letting the daylight get away from them?  Why had his father stopped him forcefully from going to look for his brother?  Scott's regret, his belief that he was responsible, at least in part, for his brother's situation was something he could almost reach out to and touch.  His need to do something, anything to fix the situation was eating him alive, and his concern for Johnny, which had begun almost exactly 24 hours ago, was not letting up for a second.  It was getting colder all the time out there, and he could see tiny snowflakes swirling in the air over the top of the door.  "Damn it, Murdoch, let's go.  Why can't we go?"

Instantly, every eye in the place turned to Scott.  "I want to get started just as badly as you do, Son, but we have to be patient.  We have to be organized.  It's going to be counterproductive to just take off up the mountain without a search plan, without the proper gear.  We'll never find him if we don't think this through."

"We'll never find him in the dark either.  It will be dark in less than two hours.  I've had enough of this, Murdoch.  We have to get started with or without help."  Scott needed to take action.  He  needed to right this wrong.  What was it about this situation that required talking it to death?  Didn't they understand that Johnny was cold?

"Scott, I know you're feeling badly about this, but you have to let it go.  Your brother is a grown man, and it's not like he hasn't tricked you a time or two."  Scott looked down at the table again.  He knew his father was right, but it was hard not to feel responsible.  "You can't let yourself become careless because of misplaced guilt.  We have to do everything correctly here to have any chance of success.  Most of all, we have to go into this with our eyes wide open, and we need to all work together, not at cross purposes."

Sheriff Kilcoyne added his authority,  "Living here at the base of this mountain has given us some experience in these things, Son.  I can't tell you how many people we've pulled off of that mountain.  We'll find your brother, but we can't run off half cocked. There's no way I'm going to put everyone here at serious risk-we'll equip ourselves correctly; we'll do this carefully or not at all, not go off under equipped or overconfident.  Do you understand?  I'm in charge here, and I'll not have people dying."

"My brother... "

"I'm sorry, boy, we do this my way.  I don't need to be looking for you along with looking for him."

Scott stood abruptly, knocking his chair over hard enough to crack the wood, and headed for the door.  He could not wait for these people.  He had to go now. Right now.  Out on the street, before he could even get near his horse, he felt a strong hand on his arm. He dropped his chin, deflated, defeated.  "Murdoch," he whispered.

His father didn't say a word.  He turned Scott around, pulled him to his chest and held him for just a moment.  Then he pulled away, holding Scott by the shoulders and looked at his son with understanding. "Scott, I'm sorry.  We have to do this smart.  I can't take the chance.  I can't lose you, too."

"No!  Don't say that.  We haven't lost him.  We'll find him and take him home.  We will."

As Murdoch and Scott stood on the wooden sidewalk, the other men tumbled out of the saloon and onto the street.  The sheriff called to them, "Mr. Lancer, we're ready to pack up the provisions.  We should be ready to head out in about 20 minutes."

"But, it's going to be dark soon.  How can we travel up that mountain in the dark?"  Murdoch asked the roughhewn sheriff.

Scott grabbed his horse's and Barranca's reins.  "I don't care how dark it is; I'm going now."

"We're all going now, young man.  In spite of what you may think, we're not a bunch of bumbling lowlanders. I told you folks that we've done this before.  Plenty of lanterns and sure-footed mules will keep us going for at least 4 hours yet.  And when we can't see to go further, we'll make a camp and start again at first light.  Hopefully we'll have your brother back down the mountain, over to Sadie's boarding house, and into a warm bath before that becomes necessary.  You best come help us load up."

And in even less than 20 minutes, 11 men on mules, along with extra mules to carry provisions, headed up the path to the base of  Sequoia Mountain.   Every man carried a brass hurricane lantern, lighting the way amazingly well.  Sheriff Kilcoyne supervised the group, assigning four men to take the upper path along Shatterleg ledge. To Scott's dismay, he heard the sheriff quietly remind the men to watch for places where a man might have slipped and fallen over the edge.  Four others were sent to wind through the pines north of Shatterleg.  If Johnny had been taking an ill-advised shortcut down the slope through the trees, a low hanging branch may have brushed him from Barranca.  He and the Lancers would travel down the ravine by Elk Creek.  Each group agreed to fire two shots if, 'when,' Scott silently amended, Johnny was found. They would all meet at Finnegan's Pass at midnight to make camp if he hadn't been found by then.

As the group moved out Scott couldn't help but notice how cold it was getting.  Already there was a dusting of snow on the ground.  Johnny was out there in the cold, his shoulder and hip were hurting him, and, no matter what his father said, or even what his own mind was telling him, he couldn't help but feel that it was his fault.

 

Part 9

Johnny looked down again at the pathetically skinny rabbit which had been laid at his feet like an offering.  He knew he couldn't just sit here as he longed to and ignore Lobo's gift.  It didn't matter that he was more tired than he had ever been before in his life.  It didn't matter that he was hurting so badly.  It didn't even matter that he was so very cold.  The wolf had brought him food, and he would not turn his back on it.  During that one autumn, when he was 15, Deer with Horns had also taught him, amongst all of his other life lessons, that to reject a gift was an insult to the giver.  At this point, nothing on God's green earth, well, white earth, could persuade Johnny to insult his friend.  Also, on a more practical level, his stomach was pretty much rubbin' against his backbone.  He was damn hungry, weak with it, but he really didn't think he could bring himself to eat the rabbit raw.  It was hard to say which was going to win-pride and hunger or exhaustion.  He sat there for a long time, an endless time, talking to himself, convincing himself to move, and Lobo sat just outside of the mouth of the cave, twitching his ears, staring at Johnny, waiting for him, patiently urging him on.  He could do this; for the wolf, he could do this.

It took a great deal of internal encouragement, but he finally gathered his strength and slowly crawled from the cave to hunt for wood.  It was getting harder and harder to find deadfall close to his shelter.  He had scavenged thoroughly through the snow all around his tiny cave and would have to range farther away this time.  He did move away from the immediate area, but still avoided the creek, held close to the cliff. There were probably some bits of wood down that way, but he would not risk a drenching to find out.  Johnny noted that the snow had slowed some and that darkness was full on-his second night on the mountain.

As he painfully made his way from his shelter, he noticed the fresh blanket of snow covering his earlier tracks and hanging from the trees, and, amazingly, he thought again about the beauty of the area.  If he had to die out here on this mountain, he had chosen a real pretty spot.  But there was "no time to think about that right now."  He needed all of his concentration just to complete his task.  His hip was pretty stiff, so he found it easier to just crawl, kind of drag that leg some, rather than to attempt to stand.  But his shoulder hurt, and crawling was a chore as well.  And then, carrying the wood back to the cave took everything Johnny had.

Out of habit, he automatically racked up this part of his experience, this struggle, as just one more bit of retribution.  But at the very moment he had that thought of paying for his sins, an image of Lobo came to him, and he found himself with a change of heart that felt like sunshine on his face.  "Don't feed that wolf, Johnny boy,"  he admonished himself.  "It's time to move on, make a difference, change what I can, forgive myself for what I can't."  After so many years of holding tight to his guilt, "feeding" it, he thought it ironic that he would learn this lesson now, when he had probably run out of time to put his newfound insight into practice.  Actually, maybe that was why the wolf had been sent to him at this exact time.  Dios, was that it?  A final chance to understand, to find atonement.

It had been a real struggle, but finally, just as the tiniest sliver of a moon started to appear in the night sky, Johnny was back in the cave with a small fire burning.  He skinned the rabbit, dear God it was taking so long, and used his pocket knife to roast small pieces of it over the fire.  It was all he could do not to stuff the meat bloody and raw into his mouth.  As it was, the first piece he ate was burnt black on the outside, red and very rare on the inside, and he burned his mouth in his haste.  Nothing had ever tasted so good in the history of the world.  Lobo watched quietly with curious eyes.  "You want some, friend?  There isn't much."  He threw a piece of the carcass, some meat, but mostly fur and bones, to the wolf.  Lobo grabbed it up and ate as greedily as Johnny, bloodying his muzzle.  The rabbit was fairly small, really stringy and gone far too soon, but it was the best meal man or wolf had ever eaten. 

Then, thirty minutes later Johnny was groaning with the effort to not lose this meal onto the frozen ground.  He jealously looked over at Lobo, who seemed quite calm, not nauseous in the least.  He would be damned if that rabbit wasn't gonna stay where it belonged.  This food was a gift from the wolf, and Johnny didn't care how much his body rebelled; he would damn well be nourished by it.  He laid carefully back and rolled into a fetal position so that he could carefully pull his knees up and clutch them with his arms.  "Just a minor setback," he whispered to the watching wolf.  "I'll be fine, just fine."  But he couldn't disguise his wretchedness from his perceptive friend.  Lobo carefully stretched out next to him, offering comfort and warmth.

Johnny's thinking was becoming increasingly muddled. "I just need some sleep is all," he whispered to Lobo.  Dreams and reality seemed to be merging a bit.  He thought again about the old Mexican and wondered if he would find himself back in that cantina as soon as he fell asleep.  From the way his stomach rolled, he figured maybe it wasn't so easy to feed that cursed wolf of forgiveness after all.  It would take some work on his part.  Is this what he got in return?  Or maybe feeding him wasn't so hard, but he sure as hell could vouch for the fact that being fed by him was a miserable experience. With a groan he clenched his teeth and swallowed the bile that rose in his throat. It would take some time to get used to ignoring that old guilt wolf.  Johnny hoped he could get the hang of it.   Maybe he already was getting it-at least he didn't immediately attribute this stomach problem to being a form of divine punishment.  With that thought, and his misery fading along with the fire, Johnny turned his face into the wolf's soft fur and was able to sleep.

 

Part 10

Impatience seethed inside of Scott.  He wanted to kick his mule's sure-footed butt and shout obscenities at Sheriff Kilcoyne.  He wanted to devise evil tortures for the sheriff that included red hot irons. He wanted to strangle someone, but couldn't quite figure out who, maybe Murdoch, maybe even Johnny for letting himself be tricked into this cursed trip.  Instead, he clenched his jaw so tightly it ached and put all of his energy into scouring the area as far as he could see in the circle of light that his lantern threw. His actions were jerky, and it was easy to see that anger, irrational but real, was pouring off of him. But he was doing something now, he kept reminding himself. At long last, he was doing something to find Johnny. Being in motion was infinitely better than sitting in that saloon.

Scott, Murdoch and Sheriff Kilcoyne slowly followed Elk Creek up the mountain, searching the area as carefully as they could in the growing darkness and lightly falling snow.  The farther they went, the deeper the snow already on the ground got.  It seemed that for every couple of hundred yards they went, the snow was at least an inch deeper.  On their left, the creek raged, on their right, a cliff face, the long drop from Shatterleg ledge.

"Scott, stay with us.  Don't wander so far… Scott?"

"I heard you, Murdoch.  I heard you.  I'm right here, for God's sake.  You can see my lantern from a hundred yards away.  We're so bunched up, we could walk right past Johnny and not see him."  Scott was so impatient and sick with worry, he was having a hard time concentrating.  His mind wandered to images of Johnny that made his stomach lurch.

"It's close to midnight."  The sheriff spoke for the first time in nearly an hour.  "We need to head for Finnegan's Pass."

Scott turned in his saddle.  His voice was low, almost threatening.  "I'm not stopping."

"Sheriff, I'm not stopping either."  Scott gave his father a startled look, his jaw dropping slightly, but Murdoch could see no more sense in stopping than his son did.  They could see well enough, and the mules were sure-footed, even in the dark.  "We'll keep looking for my son," he said quietly.

Kilcoyne looked at the two men.  "You're a powerful stubborn family, aren't ya?"  He studied the two men. "If your Johnny is anything like the two of you, he's gonna be just fine."

"He's the worst of the bunch, Sheriff."  Murdoch grinned slightly thinking of his son's nature.  He always knew that stubbornness could be an asset.  His da had always said, 'Murdoch isn't stubborn; he's persistent.'  Johnny was nothing if not 'persistent.'

"I'll go meet up with the others and tell them we're going to keep looking for a while yet.  I should be able to get back to you in an hour or so."

After the sheriff rode off, Murdoch encouraged his mule to move alongside of Scott's.  "We'll look all night if that's what it takes," he assured his eldest son.

Together, they moved slowly forward, up the mountain.

As the slow minutes dragged by, Scott noticed that he was starting to get pretty cold, but really it didn't matter.  He knew that whatever he was feeling, it was probably worse for Johnny.  His brother was alone and had no provisions.  Alone.  No provisions.  And the reality of the situation slammed into him suddenly like someone had sucker punched him.  Johnny was alone up here.  It was below freezing.  He could be seriously injured.  It wasn't that Scott hadn't been completely aware of the situation before, it was just so much more real now that they were here, on the mountain, cold like Johnny.  Most troubling, Scott hadn't felt any pain in his hip or shoulder in hours.  He wondered if he was losing the connection he seemed to have had with his brother over the last couple of days.  His brain skittered around a thought and then settled on it-Johnny could be dead.  He could be dead.  He swayed slightly in his saddle.

"Scott, are you all right?  We could stop, make a fire, warm up a bit."

"No, I'm okay.  I just . . . I'm just worried, Murdoch.  I'm just so worried."

It was after three in the morning when the sheriff finally convinced them that they should stop and build a fire, get some hot food into themselves to keep up their strength.  But it was the promise of hot coffee that finally got the men to agree to stop for a while.  Soon they had a large fire blazing.  It would be light in a couple of hours.  Even though he would never have thought he would sleep, after wrapping a warm woolen blanket around himself and over his head to keep out the lazy falling flakes, Scott dozed, hoping to dream of Johnny, as the warmth of the fire made him feel safe and drowsy.

And then, he was sitting in a small cave, his back to the stone wall.  He was more tired than he had ever been before in his life.  He was hurting so badly.  He was so very cold. But through it all, there was a white wolf standing in front of him, Johnny's wolf. The presence of the wolf was calling to him, encouraging him to get up and get moving.  Somehow, the way one does in dreams, Scott found himself suddenly out of the cave, standing in an open area with snow swirling at his feet.  The creek rolled by on his right.  It was early morning and the sky was very blue.  The thought came to him on a breath of wind that it looked to be a crisp, clear, beautiful day.  A whisper in his mind, 'A pretty place to die.' And again, 'A pretty place to die.'  The wolf beckoned to him, running forward, stopping to look over his shoulder, inviting Scott to follow.  Running back.  He started to take a step forward and then, clearly, so very clearly, Scott heard Johnny-"Wait.  I need to rest.  Please Lobo, I have to stop for a minute."

He awoke with a snort.  With sleep blurred eyes, he looked over at his father, asleep next to him, bundled in his own blanket.  It was daylight, very early. Time to move on, time to find his brother.  "Murdoch. We need to go now.  We're close."

"Huh?  Wha?"  Murdoch was finding it hard to come fully awake.

"We're close.  Johnny's very close.  I'm sure of it. We should be looking for caves in this cliff.  We should be looking for wolf tracks."

 

Part 11

A shaft of weak sunlight fell across Johnny's eyes. He could tell that it was early morning, way too early from the quality of the light.  Something, someone, was tugging at him. "Stop it Scott.  Don't wanna get up yet.  Leave me be."  My head.  I must have had a real good time last night.  "Stop pullin' on me.  I'll get up in a minute.  It's too early."  Johnny opened his eyes and then slammed them shut again.  Oh yeah. The mountain.

He felt another stronger tug on the arm of his jacket and opened his eyes to find the wolf with a generous portion of Johnny's sleeve in his mouth.  "Lobo, let it go.  That's my sore shoulder.  Besides, I'm not sure I want to go anywhere, not sure I can.  What more do you want from me?"  He sat mostly upright against the cave wall and looked over at the wolf.  He thought about the things he had decided, while willing his stomach to quiet, the night before.  "It's all right, you know, if I stay here.  I finally get it.  I get what you're tryin' to teach me. You're sayin' I need to forgive myself.  And I can do that.  I think I can do that.  I figure that I did what I did all those years to survive.  I know that I never shot a man who wasn't lookin' do harm to me.  I know that I have helped a few people, done good a couple a times."  The wolf still had a grip on Johnny's coat with his strong jaws clamped shut, and he wasn't letting go.  Johnny dropped his good arm from supporting his sore one and reached out to touch the wolf for the first time with his hand, the first time Johnny had taken the
initiative to touch.  He scratched Lobo between his ears just like he would a dog, or Barranca-his breath hitched just a bit.  God, he hadn't thought about Barranca since shortly after he had stepped into thin air, so long ago, when he had still thought of the wolf as an enemy.  He took a moment to pray that Barranca had managed to find a way to be well fed and that he was sleeping safe and warm somewhere.

The wolf tugged at him again.  "Ouch, stop that." Johnny pulled his arm back from the wolf again.  "You know, Lobo, I slept better last night in this cold cave than I have in years.  After you gave me a rabbit that nearly turned my guts to water, I'm surprised I could sleep at all.  But it was because of you guidin' me, remindin' me of that old man's story."  The wolf responded by pulling even harder on Johnny's jacket. "Well, I guess if you think I need to be leavin' then maybe I do.  Who can I trust more than you, old son?" Once his stomach had adjusted, that rabbit meat really had made him feel a bit stronger, more able to cope with the cold and the pain.  He guessed he had no say in the matter; he was headed down the mountain this morning.  He would be bettin' it all on this.

After drinking his fill of warm water, he put out the tiny fire he had stirred to life earlier and worked his way out into the open with Lobo pulling at him the whole time.  It was before the rooster crows early, maybe 5:00, and it had finally stopped snowing after another dusting overnight.  It looked to be a crisp, clear, beautiful day.  Had it only been two days ago since he had been so mad at Scott, plotting revenge, since he had thought about how pretty the snowfall was in the twilight, since he had joshed with Ol' Jack at Jackass Pass?  Johnny crawled a few feet from the cave and stopped.  Each time he had scavenged for wood, he had passed a tree branch lying near the cave entrance that was about 4 and half feet long and bent at one end.  He had longed desperately to burn it, had come very close several times, but he had forced himself to pass it by every time. This particular branch he was saving.  For today.  It would be his crutch.  His will to live had been challenged in this cave, but he must have known all along that he would eventually fight to stay alive, or he surely would have burned this nice piece of kindling.

Johnny used the cliff wall again and struggled to his feet.  After a bit, he tucked the crutch under his good shoulder.  He stood completely still for a moment, waiting to see if being mostly vertical was going to last this time.  He was upright, but he was such a mess.  He was a mass of dull aches, his head, his shoulder and his hip all throbbed in time with his heart.  Already, before even setting out in the newly fallen snow, his hands, feet and face were all more than a little numb.  And, in spite of being fed, he was still so tired.  "Don't worry, Lobo," he told his friend, who was watching him intently.  "This is it. I'm goin,' now or never."  Lobo walked up beside him, and Johnny rested his right hand on the wolf's back, leaned on him a little for even more support.  He wondered how far he was from getting down this mountain.  He had no idea how far he had wandered that first night.  Nor could he remember how far he had come before the fall.  But really, it made no difference.  He would walk until he couldn't.

They started off and shambled haltingly forward. Johnny's legs felt like they were made of straw.  His chin rested on his chest; his eyes were mostly closed; the early morning sunshine, as weak as it was, still had a snow-blind effect sparkling off of the drifts, and he relied, for the most part, on the wolf to guide him.  The snow was pretty deep, and it was hard for him to pick his feet up each time after they would sink in.  But they moved on, ever downward.  As he struggled from one footstep to the next, Johnny figured they had been out and moving for close to 45 minutes.  Forty-five long, long minutes.  The sky was becoming gradually lighter, but progress was slow and difficult.  "Wait. I need to rest.  Please Lobo, I have to stop for a minute."  But the wolf kept walking, urging him on.  "Stop, damn it."  Johnny pulled his hand away from his friend, his torturer, and swayed on the crutch.  The snow swirled around his feet.  He tried so hard to stay standing, but after only a moment, he sat down hard on his backside in the snow with a yelp of pain.  After a few minutes he looked up at Lobo who was staring back at him, accusing him.  "I just gotta get my breath.  Just for a minute," he panted.  His head was drooping down and his hold on consciousness was becoming tenuous.

As he sat there in the snow, he realized that he wasn't even cold anymore.  Actually, this was a pretty good place to stop.  To just stop and rest.  To take a nap.  He lay back in the snow, noticing for an instant the bluest of blue skies, and then he was still.

 

Part 12

The three man search party, bone tired and bitterly cold, was, irregardless, up and moving.  They had gotten no more than two hours of sleep, but Scott and Murdoch were both anxious to keep searching, despite their fatigue.  Although, in Scott's case, anxious was something of an understatement.  He was bordering on frantic.  His dream had been so real. Johnny had felt so very close. Sheriff Kilcoyne was putting out the fire as they saw to the mules.

"What were you saying about wolf tracks?"

"I dreamt about Johnny again."

"Scott."  Murdoch was still a little skeptical of this strange connection Scott claimed he felt.

"No, Murdoch, I saw him.  He's here, along the creek. He was in a small cave, and that wolf I saw in the other dream was there too.  With him.  You doubted me before Murdoch.  Please believe me this time.  He's close."

"I'm afraid it was only a dream, Son."

"It was more than a dream."  Scott answered immediately with quiet conviction.  He held his father's gaze, willing him to believe.

Murdoch looked at him for a long moment and then called to the sheriff.  "Kilcoyne, are there caves in this cliff?"

"A few.  Not many."

"Are there any near here?

"I'm not sure."  The sheriff concentrated hard for a moment.  "You know, now that you mention it, I think there might be one, a small one, about half a mile back, but I hate to think of backtracking."

"We need to check it.  We need to go right now." Scott jumped on his mule and headed back down the mountain as quickly as possible through the snow, leaving the other two behind.  He felt, however, as though he was barely moving.  This confounded mule had to be the slowest one ever born.  He kicked at the beast's sides.  Scott had a very strong feeling that they were close.  He felt a shiver run down his spine that had nothing what so ever to do with the cold.

Soon the two older men were on their way as well, despite Kilcoyne's reluctance.  After a very short while, Murdoch asked anxiously, "Shouldn't we be there by now, Sheriff?"

"There it is!  I see it!"  Scott was off of his mule and moving towards the tiny cave before the other two men could even register that it was there.

Murdoch hurried to catch up with his son, only to find him kneeling just outside of the mouth of the cave next to the remains of a small fire.  "He was here, Murdoch."  He was so frustrated, he was nearly in tears.  "He was right here."  He took off one glove and sifted the ashes on the stone floor.  "These are even a little bit warm.  He's got to be close.  We went right by him last night.  I can't believe we missed him.  I didn't look far enough out from the path."

His father grabbed him by the arm and abruptly pulled him up.  "Scott, let's go.  He must be trying to walk out.  Didn't you see?  The snow is really disturbed out here, tracks, a man, but not steady, dragging something maybe."

Scott studied the ground intently for a moment and then headed out, on foot, battling the snow, following the tracks.  "We're coming Johnny," he whispered.  He floundered until Murdoch rode up beside him leading his mule.

"Get on Son; he can go faster than you can in this."

And within 15 minutes, Scott could see a dark shape in the snow.  "Johnny!  Murdoch, I see him."   When he was only a few yards away, he bounded from his mule and collapsed to his knees next to the fallen man. "Oh God, Johnny, please be alive.  Please."  He ripped off his glove and frantically felt at Johnny's neck for a pulse.  Scott was aching again-his chest, up high, his collarbone, broken he realized-also, his hip.  His hands and feet were going numb on him.  His head hurt terribly. "Johnny," he whispered.

Murdoch came hurrying up with his arms loaded down with blankets and dropped to the other side of Johnny.  He glanced at Scott who gave him a brief nod to let him know that his son was still alive.  With stunning relief, he whispered a prayer of thanks as he began to help Scott get Johnny bundled in blankets. His youngest son's condition was unnerving, to say the least.  The first thing Murdoch noticed was that his face looked pale and waxy, and both of Johnny's cheeks were patched white—frostbite, he realized.  He knew that the skin there would eventually peel like a sunburn.  Also, they were having some trouble getting the blankets around him because he was so very stiff. Murdoch wondered with horror if Johnny's muscles were frozen.  Most frightening was that the boy wasn't shivering, but lay very, very still instead.  "Why isn't he shivering."  He should definitely be shivering under these circumstances.

"Hypothermia,  when it gets bad, they stop shivering." Sheriff Kilcoyne said softly.  Murdoch hadn't even realized he had spoken aloud.  "We have to work quickly."  Suddenly, Kilcoyne was fully in charge. "Put those blankets up around his head and neck too. And be sure to get his feet raised up a bit, higher than his head.  Mr. Lancer, get some of this snow cleared away.  I'll get a fire going."

Scott was concentrating so intently on his brother, he jumped sharply when the Sheriff fired off the rifle shots to let the others know that Johnny had been found.

With a small shovel, Murdoch cleared an area of snow close by, near where the sheriff was building a fire. After Scott wrapped his brother even more thoroughly in blankets, the two of them moved him carefully to the cleared area, with Scott insisting that they lay him partially on his left side.  They used Murdoch's pack from the mule to raise his feet a little. Johnny's breathing was slow, way too slow, and erratic.  Scott felt like he was going to have to pull the next breath out of him each time.  He checked his pulse again.  It seemed to take an eternity between beats.

"Sheriff?"  Murdoch saw that Kilcoyne had the fire going and was warming up stones and also heating something in a pot.  He was at a loss as to what to do next and was looking to the sheriff for advice.

"As soon as possible, we need to see if we can get him to come around, Mr. Lancer; we need to get some of this sweetened herbal tea into him.  Scott," he called suddenly, "don't rub at his skin."   And Scott jumped at his voice, pulling his hands back from Johnny's face.

"Shouldn't we get him out of here.  Down the mountain."

"No.  Absolutely not.  Not yet.  We need to get his insides warmed up first.  If we move him now, we'll lose him for sure.  I saw a man, a young man, his heart just up and gave out being moved in this same kinda situation.  We've got to keep him real still." He handed Murdoch a heated stone wrapped in a flour sack.  "Here.  Move this around on him, not on his arms and legs, but on his chest and back.  And Scott, get in real close to his face and breathe your warm breath at him, into his mouth and nose.  We want to do this warming up slowly."

After they had done these things for what seemed an unending amount of time, they heard a soft groan and looked down at a beautiful sight-Johnny's half-opened, unfocused eyes.

"Johnny.  Look at me, Son."

Johnny's voice was slurred.  He sounded like he might after a particularly drunken night in town.  "Hey Mur'd'ch.  What'r y'do'n h'r?  S'go'n on?  Scott? Quit breath'n 't me. 'M okay.  Leave me 'lone."  He tried to swat at his brother weakly.

Scott nearly sobbed with relief.

Johnny was becoming agitated, trying harder to move now, trying to get unwrapped from the swaddling blankets.  "Stop paw'n me. Stop it. W'r'sss Lobo?"

"Johnny!  Calm down."  The tone of his father's voice instantly halted his struggles; it was an instinctive response.

"S'wrong?  M'fine, jes' fine."  Irrationally, Johnny began again trying to unwrap the blankets from around himself.  His father grabbed and stilled his hands, then pulled the blankets up around his arms once again.

The Sheriff moved closer to Johnny.  He handed Murdoch a new warming stone and Scott a cup of warm herbal tea.

"Johnny, you need to drink this."  Scott raised Johnny's head a bit and placed the cup against his
lips.

"What 's it?  No laud'nm. 'm fine."

"No Johnny.  Tea.  Warm tea."

"'k."  Johnny did drink a small amount, and then he turned his head away.  "Where's Lobo?"  he asked again, quietly, as he drifted off to sleep.

 

Part 13

Murdoch and Scott sat on either side of Johnny, using their body heat to help keep him warm.  He had been sleeping now, so quietly, for nearly half an hour.

And then suddenly, he threw his head back slightly and began shivering violently, his arms and legs stiffening.  Both men jumped as though they had been shot, startling back sharply.  Then, Scott reached his arms around his brother and held him close, trying to stop him, warm him, really he wasn't sure what he was trying to do except hold his brother.  Seeing Johnny like this made him feel so helpless, so responsible. Murdoch, called out for the sheriff.  "Kilcoyne, what's happening to him?"

"This is excellent."  It was the sheriff coming around from the other side of the fire.

"What the hell are you talking about?"  Scott was stunned.  He had a fleeting thought that Johnny must be having a seizure.  "He's shaking so hard.  How can this be 'excellent'?"

The Sheriff, though, was reassuring.  "The shivering means that his body is starting to warm itself up, working to generate its own heat," he explained. "This is a very good sign."  As he spoke, Johnny's tremors had eased some; he was no longer stiff with them, and he was becoming aware of his surroundings again.  "It's time now; we can move him a bit more safely without worrying about his heart so much.  We need to get him into dryer clothes."

As the sheriff added more wood to the blazing fire, in spite of  weak protests from his youngest, Murdoch pulled off  Johnny's boots and socks.  The ends of his toes were white like the skin across his cheekbones. Quickly he put the dry woolen socks on his feet, two pairs, that the sheriff had added to their pack.  At the same time, Scott was working to remove Johnny's jacket and shirt, ever aware of his sore shoulder.  As Scott struggled with his task, Johnny was becoming more and more alert.  He was starting to fight Scott's efforts.

"What are you doin' Scott?  'm cold.  Quit tryin' to take my coat.  Are ya loco?"  Johnny's teeth were chattering so hard and he was so breathless, it was hard for him to speak clearly.  "Stop.  That hurts."

"We have dry clothes for you, Johnny.  Quit fighting me.  You'll feel a lot better once we get you out of these wet things."  Every small moan that Johnny made stabbed at Scott.  His mind kept whispering, 'this is your fault . . . your fault' as he held and undressed his uncooperative brother.

Murdoch was helping Scott now and pulled on the arm of Johnny's jacket, causing him to moan loudly as his shoulder was moved and jarred.  "Murdoch, be careful," Scott snapped harshly, "his collarbone is broken." Murdoch shot him a questioning look, but tempered his movements, going more slowly.  Scott sat Johnny up carefully, holding him, Johnny's back to his chest, as he motioned for his father to begin at the uninjured arm to remove the clothes.  He held Johnny, holding his arm around his brother's arm and chest, maneuvering him forward as necessary, as Murdoch worked the jacket and shirt carefully from his youngest son.  Then they dressed him in a heavy, warm sweater, just as carefully, a loving chore.  Finally, they worked his pants off, in spite of his ever-increasing protests of 'leave my drawers alone' and mindful of his hip as a brilliantly colorful and very large bruise revealed itself, and dressed him in soft, thick drawstring pants.  Finally, they replaced his gloves and several layers of blankets were wrapped around him once again.

The sheriff had the fire built up nicely and more tea ready for Johnny to drink.  "Come on, John.  Have some more of this nice, warm tea.  I've sweetened it up good for you.  You need to eat too.  I've got bread and cheese when you think you're ready for it.  And a chocolate bar.  I'm told you're fond of chocolate."

Johnny still shivered, but it was more controllable, and the fire felt wonderful. "Thanks . . .  um?"

"My name is Kilcoyne.  I'm the sheriff in Wilsonville and part of the search party out lookin' for you since last evening.   I'll tell you son, I sure am wondering what happened out here.  How did you get yourself into this mess anyway?  How'd that horse of yours get away from you?"

Johnny's eyes drooped, but he made an effort to answer the sheriff.  "The wolf.  The wolf howled, and Barranca was spooked.  I stepped off of the ledge up there."  He waved his hand vaguely at the cliff face. Behind him, Scott shuddered.

"You fell from Shatterleg ledge and you're still around to tell the tale?  Tarnation, boy, you are one lucky son of a....um, ah, a very nice woman, I'm sure."

"Johnny, please eat some of this cheese sandwich.  It will help heat you up."  He could see that Johnny was fading fast, so Murdoch broke off small chunks of the sandwich and fed a few bites to him along with some sips of tea.

Kilcoyne turned and addressed Murdoch. "Well, I guess we should be sending a hunting party up this way to get rid of that wolf once we get you folks taken care of.  We haven't been bothered with wolves around here in nearly two years.  Strange we didn't notice any tracks."

"No."  Johnny's breathless voice wasn't loud or forceful, but every one of the men around the campfire heard and understood.  "No, you can't hurt him. Please, don't hurt him."  Johnny's head lolled back against Scott's shoulder.  He looked up into Scott's concerned blue eyes.  "Boston, please don't let them hurt Lobo. Okay?  Promise me.  He should be right around here somewhere.  Where is he?  He was helping me. . . . He helped me," Johnny finished weakly.

The sheriff looked at Johnny with confusion.  "What kind of nonsense are you talking boy?  Your brains must still be frozen a bit yet."

"Nobody's gonna hurt any wolf."  Scott spoke up and then watched as Murdoch and Sheriff Kilcoyne exchanged a strange look.  "What does that look mean?  What are you thinking?  Maybe there was a wolf.  There was a wolf in my dreams."

"Son, it's just that Johnny is in pretty rough shape. Maybe he's not thinking clearly."

"One of the symptoms of exposure to the cold is confused thinking," the sheriff added.

"Please don't hurt Lobo."  Johnny yawned broadly as he spoke.  "There is a wolf.   He's been guidin' me----teachin' me," Johnny insisted quietly.  He raised his head to look around, as though he expected Lobo to come up and curl next to him.  And then, with the last of his strength,  "Scott, this wolf, he taught me, guided me, he's forgiveness..."  Lying back against his brother, Johnny was finally really warm. He hadn't even remembered what it meant to be truly warm until this moment.  His eyes slipped closed and he slept again, a more natural sleep this time.

 

Part 14

By noon, the rest of the search party had long since found them, and had begun their own return trip back to town.  Murdoch, Scott and Sheriff Kilcoyne were all packed up but were waiting a little while longer so that Johnny could gather more strength for the trip. They had bound Johnny's arm to his chest earlier, and he had slept much of the time since,  but he had awoken long enough to ask about Barranca, to eat a chocolate bar, for which he had needed very little encouragement, and to drink more of Sheriff Kilcoyne's tea.  Scott had sat by him or held onto him the entire time. Finally though, they were about ready to get Johnny to Wilsonville; the sheriff was estimating that with the clear skies, it should only take another 3 or 4 hours to get there, to a warm bath and a soft bed.

At last, they were ready, and Murdoch and the sheriff handed a blanket wrapped Johnny up to Scott.  "When you get tired of holding him let me know.  I'll take over so you can rest."

"I can ride a stupid mule by myself."  Johnny groused. "I'm warm now.  I feel fine."   They all allowed him his pride.  Allowed him to complain.  But there wasn't much punch to it.  In reality, he knew as clearly as they did that he had barely regained the strength to sit up on his own, let alone to ride.

Scott ignored Johnny and answered his father.  "I'll be fine, Sir."  And as he grasped his brother,  "Okay, I've got him."  He settled Johnny in front of himself on the saddle.  When they were reasonably comfortable, he then softly opened his coat and pulled his brother back and encouraged him to lean back against his chest.  Scott could feel Johnny shivering still, so he pulled the blankets even tighter around him.  He gave his mule a little kick and started slowly after the others as they followed the path next to the creek once more.  As they moved out, Johnny studied the ground around them as best he could, searching intently for tracks in the trampled snow.  However,
within minutes, the rolling motion of the mule lulled him.  His eyes were too heavy; leaning heavily on his brother, Johnny's breathing evened out, and he dozed.

A short time later, a sibilant whispering woke him. "I'm sorry.  I'm so sorry.  I'm sorry, so sorry."  It was like a soft chant, a litany, just a breath of sound.  "I'm sorry.  I'm so sorry."  Johnny looked up at Scott and saw that his lips were barely moving, and his eyes stared straight ahead.  "I'm sorry.  I'm so sorry."  His brother seemed to be dazed.

"About what?  What are you sorry about?" Johnny pitched his voice to match Scott's.

"Everything."

"I don't understand."

"It's not hard to figure out.  All of this mess-it's my fault.  I'm sorry."

"Yeah?  How do you figure?------Hey!  Did you push me offa that ledge?"

"Might as well have."

"What the hell are you talkin' about?"

"It's my fault you were out here in the first place. My fault you got hurt, my fault that we almost lost you.  I'm so sorry."

"You must be feelin' mighty self-important there Mr. Scott Lancer.  So you tricked me.  So what?  Although, you know, I was thinkin' it was your fault myself for awhile.  But I got over it and decided to blame Murdoch for a while instead.  Come right down to it though, it was pretty much my own darn fault.  How bout I take credit for goin' over the Pass, when an older and much wiser man told me don't?  Oh, and for gettin' off my horse much too close to the edge of that cliff.  Can I at least take credit for those things Scott?"

"I'm so sorry, Johnny."

"Will you stop sayin' that.  Scott, I did a lot of thinkin' while I was holed up in that cave.  About carryin' guilt around, about forgivin' myself for things I can't change. Seems pretty clear to me that you need to do some thinkin' on that too.   Lobo, he made me remember.  An old man.  A story about wolves."

"In a cantina, in Mexico.  You poured the man a drink from your bottle."

"Huh....yea, that's right.  How'd you know that?"

"Saw it.  Saw the wolf too.  Couldn't understand what anyone was saying, but I saw it, dreamed it.  You know what else?  I could tell that your collarbone and hip were hurt.  I felt your pain.  Seems kind of crazy now doesn't it?"

"No, not crazy.  Kind of right, fitting maybe....You know, that old man told me a story, Scott, like one a those myths you're always talkin' about.  About a young man and his grandfather.  It's about wolves and guilt and forgiveness."

"Go on."

So Johnny did tell him the old grandfather's tale, and this time Scott got to understand the words as well as hear them.

But Scott had slipped so deeply into his guilt, the story did not impress him, just like it had not impressed a 15 year old Johnny Madrid.  "It's just an old con man's story, Johnny.  He entertained you for a drink."

For a long time then, Johnny lapsed into silence.  He thought about the old peasant and about the last two days, the things that had happened to him on the mountain, and about Lobo.  He considered what Scott had said, what had happened to him, what he saw and felt. He believed that something important had happened here in these mountains, with these two brothers.  A feeling was building inside of him. Something bigger than John Lancer had taken place in this lonely setting.  Something strange and beautiful and powerful-

"Powerful magic, Scott.  Powerful,"  he said suddenly into the silence.

"What are you talking about Johnny?"  Scott looked down into Johnny's eyes and had to turn away from the raw emotion in them.

"You saw me.  Felt what I felt."  Scott started to shake his head.  "No, don't deny it.  You said it was so.  It was mighty powerful.  Something happened here. Can't you feel the power of it even now?  You remember me tellin' you about that Indian shaman, Boston, the one who took care of me when Bart Oppermann shot me and left me for dead in the desert? You know, I'll bet money Deer with Horns sent those feelings to you. No, I'd bet my life on it.  In fact, he bet my life on it.  And to me, he sent Lobo, a wolf to guide and teach."

"You don't know some magical Indian, Johnny, you knew an old Indian who talked too much, and I don't even think anymore that there is a wolf here.  The wolf was a figment.  There are no wolf tracks anywhere around, not anywhere.  Can't you see that?  Don't you see? And there weren't any around the cave or near where we found you.  I looked for them, wanted to find them. Sorry Johnny, there's just me; I'm all you've got, the man who tricked you into going on this trip."

Johnny's voice was tired but determined.  "Well, brother, I'm real glad you didn't feel that way when you were gettin' those feelings in the first place, havin' those dreams.  I can tell you from experience though, you gotta let it go; carrying guilt around is a heavy burden, especially when ya got no call to feel guilty.  That's the lesson I was hard-pressed to learn.  You gotta stop feedin' that guilt wolf, Scott. I feel like I learned a real important lesson about forgivin' myself out here these couple a days.  I learned it from my non-existent wolf, a shabby peasant and an old Indian shaman who 'talked too much'.   I wish I could share that lesson with you, give it to you. The feeling is unbelievable."

Johnny's heartfelt speech was met with complete silence from Scott.  He looked away from Johnny, trying to ignore him.

The two had fallen even farther behind Murdoch and the sheriff.  Then, after plodding along in silence  for several minutes, Johnny heard a familiar sound-a yipping bark near the trees along the creek bank. "Scott, stop.  I hear Lobo."

But Scott refused to stop, wouldn't turn, wouldn't even acknowledge Johnny at first.

"Scott..."
 
"No, you didn't hear anything, Johnny.  Quit it.  I know I saw that wolf in my dreams, but that's all it was, dreams. There is no wolf of forgiveness.  It's the absolute stupidest thing I've ever heard. . . Forgiveness wolf," he muttered, shaking his head.

"Scott, stop.  Look!"  Johnny was insistent, agitated, moving around too much, so Scott did finally pull the mule's head around, and they looked over towards the creek.  And then Scott saw something too-a flash of white against the pines.  It could have been like in his dream; it could have been a wolf.   On the other hand, it could have been his imagination working overtime.  It could have been too much exposure to the cold.  It could have been any damn thing.

"It could have been any damn thing, Johnny."

"Could have been.  But it wasn't," Johnny answered him with quiet confidence.

Scott tugged on the reins, and they walked on, in silence, down the mountain.  Soon, the afternoon sun and their shared warmth combined to make both men quiet and drowsy.

And then, as they plodded along with only the mule's hooves making any noise, a long, eerie, lonely howl, much like the one that had originally startled Barranca, echoed down the ravine, causing Scott to jerk a bit in the saddle and Johnny to sit more upright.  Scott looked around at his brother's profile and saw that Johnny had a huge, knowing smile on his face.

"Bye Lobo, " Johnny whispered as he lay back against Scott once again. "Thanks for everything."

Scott looked long and hard at the top of  Johnny's dark head.  Okay, maybe Johnny's wolf was real.  Or, maybe it wasn't.  Maybe it didn't matter.  And finally, a moment later, relaxing and smiling himself, Scott too called a quiet goodbye and expressed his own gratitude.  It might take a bit of work, but with Johnny's help, Scott figured he could find a little bit of that powerful magic and learn how to believe in the wolf too.

 

~end~

Note:  The old man's story in part 5 is a Native American tale, which I have warped almost beyond recognition for my own purposes

 

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