The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Once Bitten




Johnny walked out to the corral and looked over the new string of ponies that had arrived. For the life of him, he couldn't understand why Murdoch bought these animals. He could have brought in some wild ones easily. He shook his head at his father's stubbornness.

"Hola, Jelly," he called.

"Mornin'. You ready to work these greenhorns?"

"Ready as I'll ever be. I still say we could have gotten better quality," Johnny griped.

"Ain't arguin that. Least they're all broke already. All ya need ta do is teach 'em to be cow ponies," Jelly said. He was sympathetic to his friendâ€ôs plight but he wasn't getting in the middle of this.

Johnny smiled at him, knowing Jelly was working at diplomacy. "That's the problem, Jelly. How were they broke? Do you know anything about this Martin fella?"

"Nope. All's I know is the Boss was all fired ready ta do business with 'im. Said somethin about the man needin a helpin hand at startin his ranch," Jelly shrugged.

Johnny's forehead creased but he said nothing and stepped between the fence rails into the corral. He looked over the six animals milling about. "Julio, take 'em all to the lower corral except that one," he called, pointing to a pinto.

Julio nodded and obtained the assistance of two other vaqueros to move the horses out of the main corral. Johnny removed his gun belt and jacket and slung them over the top rail.

"How long ya reckon it'll take, Johnny?" Jelly asked as he settled in to watch.

"Depends on the horse, I guess," Johnny laughed.


When he was alone in the corral with the Pinto, he walked slowly toward it. The animal saw him and balked, back stepping.

Johnny spoke in hushed tones, trying to lull the animal into a sense of security. All the while, he moved slowly toward it. It was a pretty horse, he had to admit, but he also got a bad feeling. A feeling he couldn't quite place. The animal's eyes weren't quite right.

Johnny stopped moving and locked eyes with the Pinto. He spoke softly, keeping his tone singsong in fashion. The horse watched him warily, turning sideways, then back to face him as if unsure what to make of this.

He began to get the feeling that whoever had broken this animal had done it unkindly. He was spooked more than he should be. Johnny felt anger rising and he fought it back down quickly. He didn't want the horse to sense his mood.

He was a foot away now and stepped forward twice. He could now reach out and slowly extended his arm, laying his hand on the horse's neck. He stroked him gently, all the while speaking softly.

What happened next stunned even him. The Pinto whipped his head around to Johnny's arm and nipped him. Johnny jerked his hand back and stared at the animal in disbelief. In all the years he had worked with horses, he'd never been bitten.

He stepped back and looked at his left arm. The sleeve of his shirt turned red with blood and he shook his head in wonderment. Back stepping further, he arrived at the fence.

"He bit me," he reported to Jelly and showed him his arm.

"Dadgummit! Come on, I'll wrap that up for ya."

"Okay, then I want you to take him out behind the barn. Put him in that little corral alone. And don't let anybody go near him," Johnny said with frustration.

Jelly nodded and took Johnny to his room. He cleaned up the bite. It wasn't deep and wouldn't require stitches but Johnny just couldn't seem to get over it.

"I can't believe he did that. I've never been bitten before," he stated.

"First time for everythin, Johnny. Ain't bad, just broke the skin a little."

"I know. It's just ....." he sighed. "Well, I know one thing. That horse is in for a real surprise. He's gonna learn who's boss around here pretty quick!"

Jelly laughed a little. "Reckon he will but ya outta let 'im be for a while."

"I will, I will. Tomorrow, though. Tomorrow I'm gonna teach him some manners."

"Oh ya are, are ya? And where'd you come up with manners all the sudden?" Jelly teased.

Johnny shot him a sidelong look and grinned. "Come on, there's still five more out there."

He worked two horses that day but his mind was on the Pinto. Once more, he wondered about the methods used to break the horse. The others weren't as skittish or wary of him. In fact, they learned fast.

That alone was enough to give him pause. But he didn't have a lot of time to dwell on it. His day was full and busy and by dusk, he was plain worn out.

At dinner, he reported his progress to his father, albeit begrudgingly. He was still upset with the buy. He saw it as an unnecessary expense and voiced that opinion.

"I know how you feel about this, Johnny. Abe Martin is just starting out here. He needs a little support and I'm trying to give it to him," Murdoch explained once more.

"I understand that, Murdoch. I just think you could have supported him some other way. We don't know anything about the man or those horses. Where did he get them? Who broke them and how?" Johnny asked.

"What difference does it make?" Scott asked.

"A lot, Scott. A horse broken rough could mean a world of trouble. Sometimes, they can't be taught no matter how hard you try," Johnny explained.

"But you said the two you worked today did well," Scott countered.

"They did but that Pinto is trouble," Johnny shook his head.

"I'm sure you can teach him, Johnny. No one is better with horses than you," Scott smiled.

"Well, thanks, but I ain't no miracle worker. Sometimes you have to throw in the towel. I'm just afraid that's going to happen with that Pinto. It's a shame, too. He's a good lookin animal."

The subject died quietly as Murdoch went on to other topics of ranch business. They retired to the living room but Johnny didn't stay long. He excused himself, stating he was worn out from the long day and knew the next would be just as long. He went to bed and feel into a deep sleep almost immediately.


The next morning, Scott came down to breakfast in his usual energetic mood. "Good morning, sir," he smiled.

"Morning, son. Where's your brother?"

Scott looked at his father and frowned. "He isn't down yet? That's unusual."

"Juanito is in the corral," Maria informed them.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Murdoch asked.

"You did not ask me, Senor," Maria replied indignantly as she set Scott's plate in front of him.

Scott laughed softly then dropped his head from his father's glare. "Well, I think I'd like to get a better look at that string. Johnny sure isn't pleased with them."

"Don't you start, too. I won't explain myself again."

"You don't have to, sir. I understand why you did it but Johnny had some valid concerns. Maybe you should ask Mr. Martin where he got those horses," Scott suggested.

"If it keeps you two from griping at me, I will," Murdoch replied and Scott could see his father was teasing.

They both walked out to the corral together as Johnny worked a bay. Settling in beside Jelly they watched.

Scott frowned after a minute. Johnny didn't seem his usual self. In fact, he was moving awfully slow. "What's wrong with him, Jelly?"

"Don't know. He's been sluggish all mornin. Says he's fine but you know Johnny," Jelly shook his head.

Scott raised his brows and nodded.

"Johnny, come here," Murdoch called.

He turned and saw his family watching. With a sigh, he walked over. "I'm kinda busy, Murdoch," he said impatiently.

"What's wrong with you? And why are you holding your arm like that?" Murdoch questioned, nodding to Johnny's left arm. He was holding it close to his waist in a guarded fashion.

"Nothin's wrong with me. That Pinto nipped me yesterday is all."

"Nipped you? Did he break the skin?" Scott asked.

"It's nothing, Scott. Jelly cleaned it up."

"I did. Weren't nothin but a scratch," Jelly confirmed.

Murdoch scrutinized his son. Johnny had wiped at his brow a dozen times since he'd been standing there. Murdoch could see the perspiration and the weather was quite mild. "Show me this Pinto."


"Now, son," Murdoch said firmly.

Johnny dropped his head in defeat and stepped out of the corral. He walked to the back of the barn where a small corral held his most recent nemesis. He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the horse.

"Good Lord!" Jelly exclaimed.  

The Pinto was lying on its side, struggling for breath. Pink froth blew from its nostrils and it writhed in pain.

Johnny approached the animal slowly, careful not to get too close. "Scott, get me a rifle," he whispered.

Scott could only nod and walked away quickly.

"Murdoch?" Johnny asked.

"It looks like it to me, son. We should get the vet to take a look at him, though."

Johnny nodded his agreement and shook his head sadly at the poor beast. Scott reappeared and handed him the rifle.

Lifting his arms over the top rail, Johnny took aim. He squeezed the trigger and put the Pinto out of its misery. Stepping back, he dropped the rifle to his side and turned away.

"You had to, Johnny," Scott tried to console.

"I know, don't mean I have to like it."

He suddenly found himself being turned around by a large hand on his right arm. He stared into his father's eyes as if he'd gone insane.

Murdoch couldn't say why it hadn't occurred to him immediately, but it hadn't. He couldn't say why because he knew something was wrong with Johnny. Yet, for some reason, his mind would not allow the thought through until now.

"Jelly, go into town and get Sam and find the vet after that," he ordered. Turning to his youngest, his voice gentled. "You're going to bed."

"What are you ....." Johnny trailed off as he too realized the implications. He glanced down at his aching arm and swallowed hard. Looking at first Murdoch, then Scott, he laughed softly. "Anybody believe in coincidences?"

"Would someone like to explain what's going on?" Scott asked brusquely.

"Anthrax, Boston. That Pinto had anthrax," Johnny answered simply.

Scott shook his head. "So?"

"He bit your brother," Murdoch explained.

Realization dawned on the young man. "I .... I didn't know it was contagious," he fairly whispered.

"Well, you can get it from animals but you can't give it to someone else. Don't worry, you're safe," he smiled.

"I wasn't worried about that! I swear, Johnny, sometimes I wonder if anything fazes you," he snapped.

"Come on, I want you in bed now," Murdoch interrupted.

Johnny protested all the way to his bedroom. He swore he was fine but Murdoch knew better. One hand on his son's forehead told him that. Johnny was burning up. He sat the man down on the side of the bed and started to roll his sleeve up.

"I can do it," Johnny clipped.

"Get on with it, then," Murdoch retorted.

Johnny shot him an aggravated look and pulled his shirtsleeve up revealing the bandage from yesterday.

"I suppose it didn't occur to you to change this?" Murdoch asked sarcastically.

"I guess not," Johnny shrugged.

Murdoch shook his head as he unraveled the cloth. His eyes widened at the red and swollen limb. The bite itself was turning black.

"No wonder it hurt," Johnny commented.

"I'm going to kill him before it's over," Scott said.

"May not have to, Boston."

"What does that mean?"

Johnny shrugged. "The anthrax might save you the trouble."

"Johnny! Please stop being so nonchalant. This is serious," Murdoch chastised.

Johnny gave his father a small smile and nodded. A few minutes later, he was nestled in bed with one Lancer on either side of him. He had to laugh.

"If anybody ever knew what mother hens you two are...."

"We wouldn't be if Teresa were here," Scott argued.

"Yeah, right. That's the only reason," Johnny smiled. "I really don't feel that bad, you know."

"You will and you know it, too," Murdoch warned.

"What are the symptoms?" Scott asked.

Murdoch thought about it for a minute. It had been a long time since he'd dealt with anthrax and then it had been in a steer. "I'm not sure in people. Fever and nausea are the two things I remember."

"Well, I don't have any nausea," Johnny replied.

"As I recall, the symptoms can take up to a week to show themselves."

"You know, it could be that the bite is just infected, Murdoch. Just because I got bit doesn't mean I got the disease," Johnny countered.

"You're right, son. And would you like to take a chance on that?"

Johnny sighed and tapped his fingers on the bed. "Well, keep me entertained. You know I get bored," he grinned.

"What would you like us to do, brother? Perhaps a little tap dance?"

"I'd pay to see that, Boston," he laughed.

"So would I," Murdoch chimed in.

"Well, this can't be too serious if you're all in such high spirits," Sam said as he walked in.

"That was fast," Murdoch noted.

"I was on my rounds when Jelly spotted me not five miles away. Now, what's happened here?" he explained.

"Johnny was bitten by a horse yesterday and this morning we had to put the horse down," Murdoch explained.

"What did you do, bite him back?" Sam teased.

Johnny laughed but Murdoch was not amused. "It looks like the horse had anthrax, Sam."

The doctor stopped smiling immediately. "Fever?"


"Any nausea?"


"Can you say more than one word at a time?" Sam asked.

Johnny grinned. "Why is that a symptom?"

"I'm sure it is of something. Scott, I need my microscope. Would you ride into town and get it for me?"

"Sure Sam. Anything else?" Scott answered.

Sam opened his bag and surveyed the contents. "Quinine. I don't have much with me. There's a bottle in the locked cabinet in the back office," he said as he fished the key from his pocket and handed it to Scott.

Scott nodded, shot his brother a smile and was gone.

"I want you to take this quinine, Johnny. It won't hurt to get you started on a treatment. Now, let's get a look at that bite."

As Sam tended his patient, Scott rode to town as if his hair was on fire. He wished he knew more about this disease. He arrived at Sam's office and located the microscope right away. He then scanned the cabinet for the quinine. He grabbed the bottle and put it in his pocket then placed the microscope in its carrying box.

He was about to leave when he spotted one of Sam's medical books. Flipping quickly through the pages, he saw what he wanted and took the book as well. His return trip would be slower as he didn't want to chance damaging the equipment. So with frustration, he headed home.

As he mounted his horse, he heard his name. Jelly rode up to him with a quizzical look. Scott quickly explained his presence.

"I found the vet. He'll be on his way out in a few minutes," Jelly told him.

As they rode along together, Jelly noted the firm line to Scott's mouth and the twitching jaw. "Don't mean he's got it, ya know."

"I know. That's what Johnny said."

"Could be all this fuss is about a little infection in that arm," Jelly went on as if he'd not been acknowledged.


"Then how come ya look like he's on death's door?"

"Jelly, please," Scott sighed.

"All I'm a sayin' is don't look for trouble. Ya can't always think the worst is gonna happen."

"I can where Johnny is concerned."

"What's that supposed ta mean?"

"It means, I .... I can't help it, Jelly. I always feel like he's not going to be here long. I don't mean he's going to leave, I mean .... well, how many chances does one person get? Johnny is a magnet for trouble. He doesn't have to look for it, it finds him. I have to wonder sometimes if my brother is going to live much longer," his voice dropped substantially at the end, a sadness engulfing him.

"Scott Lancer! I can't believe you said that! Course he's gonna live. He's gonna live a good long life right here!" Jelly proclaimed.

Scott sighed. "You're right."

"Uh uh, that was too easy. Ya know, if ya feel that way, ya outta tell 'im."

"I can't tell Johnny a thing like that! Besides, it would only make him feel guilty. There's nothing he can do about it. That's just the way things are."

"Don't mean they'll always be that way, Scott. People will forget about Johnny Madrid. And the rest, well, that's just the life we live. Ranchin ain't a soft job. People get hurt, break bones, get cut up. It's a rough life."

"I know. But, if anybody else had been working that horse, I swear I believe it would have been perfectly healthy," Scott said morosely.

Jelly's laughter surprised him. "Ya think Johnny's got a curse on 'im?"

"Don't be silly."

"If it makes ya feel any better, I can find one of them witchy women to take the curse off," Jelly teased.

"That's enough, Jelly," Scott chastised. After a few seconds, he asked, "do you know anyone like that?"

Jelly nearly split a side at that question and Scott joined him. Jelly smiled widely, he had accomplished his goal. Scott felt a little better.

They arrived back at the house and headed upstairs. They were met in the hall by Murdoch. The look on his face caused Scott's stomach muscles to tighten.

"What is it?" Scott asked in whispers.

"His fever spiked. Sam's working with him now. Scott, do you think we should send for Teresa?"

"No, Murdoch. There's nothing she can do but worry with the rest of us," Scott answered then took the microscope into the room.

"Oh good. Set it on that table next to the window, Scott," Sam instructed.

"How is he?"

"Burning up," Sam shook his head.

"Is it anthrax, Sam?" Scott asked pointedly.

"I won't guess but it seems more than an infected bite. I'll draw a blood sample and take a look. If it is anthrax, I'll know right away."

Scott sat beside his brother and took his hand. Johnny's face was flushed and he was restless in his sleep. He was stunned at how quickly his brother's condition had deteriorated. Scott wondered once more how many more chances Johnny would get.

Sam worked quickly, eliciting only a slight moan from his patient as he inserted the needle in the vein. He slowly withdrew a blood sample. He took the sample to the table where the microscope was set up and began his work.

Once he placed the slide under the glass, he peered into the microscope. Immediately, he saw it. Wanting to be absolutely positive, he watched for a full minute as the spores wriggled about on the medium. He closed his eyes and said a prayer before turning to face the family.

Murdoch had come back in and was standing quietly behind Scott as they waited.

"Alright, this is what we need to do. Quinine every four hours and salicylate every six hours. Both in water. He needs to drink as much as he can. No food, only broth. He won't be able to handle anything solid. Someone needs to stay with him at all times and keep bathing him down to fight the fever...."

"Sam. Is it anthrax?" Murdoch interrupted.

"Yes, Murdoch, I'm afraid it is."

"What are his chances?" Scott asked.

"Well, that's hard to say, Scott. I can give him a fifty percent chance. Get him to drink some red wine, too. He'll need the iron. There is a vaccine but I'll have to send to Stockton for it. Should be here by tomorrow."

Johnny opened his eyes and blinked several times. Finding his brother's face, he smiled. "Hey, brother. What's the verdict?"

Scott returned the smile. "Sam says you're too stubborn to die. Seems you just need to fight this off, that's all."


"Yes, Johnny. I've given instructions for your care and I want you to do everything Murdoch and Scott tells you. Is that clear?" Sam asked.

"Yeah, it's clear."

"Alright. I have to finish my rounds then I'll be back this evening."

"It's okay, Sam. I know what my chances are," Johnny said softly.

The older man raised a brow but only nodded in answer.

Jelly walked into the bedroom a few hours later and watched the scene. Scott was bathing Johnny's face and chest as Murdoch stood by the window.

"This ain't gonna work."

"What's that, Jelly," Murdoch asked distractedly.

"The two of ya sittin in here all the time. This could take a few days. We need ta sit in shifts. Right now, you two need ta go down and eat your supper and I don't want to hear ya ain't hungry, neither!"

Scott laughed softly at the gruff old man. "Alright, Jelly. If you say so, I guess it must be right."

"Darn tootin. Now, go on and git, the both of ya."

Murdoch and Scott left the room a bit hesitantly as Jelly took up residence in the bedside chair.

"I don't know what I'm gonna do with them two. They can't think past their noses when youâ€ôre ailin. Well, we'll figure somethin out, I reckon. Scott's awful worried about ya, Johnny, and it ain't just this latest thing. Reckon he does a lot of worryin, though. Just his nature."

Jelly continued rambling as Johnny slept. He kept trying to cool the young man with wet cloths, bathing his face and chest.

Johnny mumbled and groaned, then opened his eyes.

"Hey there. Bout time ya opened them peepers," Jelly smiled.

Johnny looked at him without recognition. His eyes overly bright.


He frowned at the older man, his mind refusing to register where he was. Johnny felt a sense of panic engulf him at the unfamiliarity. He started to sit up only to be firmly pushed back down.

"Stay still, now. Ya been sick and you're weak," Jelly insisted.

"Where am I?" he asked in a hushed tone.

Jelly leaned back a little, surprised at the question. "You're home in your own bed. Now, just lay quiet while I get yer dad." He patted Johnny's arm and moved quickly from the room.

Johnny looked around the room, trying to focus on the place. He closed his eyes tightly then blinked several times. His entire body ached yet he could find no direct source. He slid his hands down but found no wounds. Suddenly he realized his left arm was bandaged.

He pulled it from under the covers and stared quizzically at it. As if it were a foreign object he'd never seen before. Fascinated, he turned the arm back and forth. His eyes raised to the door as two men entered.

Murdoch walked up and sat in the chair. "Hi."


"How do you feel?" he asked, taking in the bright eyes and flushed cheeks.

"Achy and confused."

"Do you know who I am?" Murdoch asked.

"Yeah," Johnny sighed. "What happened to me?"

"A horse bit you," Scott answered as he sat on the edge of the bed.

"That don't make sense," Johnny frowned.

"The horse had anthrax, son."

"Anthrax?" Johnny raised up and slumped immediately back down as the room spun.

"Take it easy, brother."

"I don't feel so good," he whispered.

Murdoch grabbed a washbasin and Scott turned him on his side.

After several minutes, he finally relaxed. Nothing much had come up since there wasn't much there to begin with. But the dry heaves had taken their toll. He laid back against the pillows saturated and exhausted.

Murdoch gave him a small sip of water and Scott washed his face.

Johnny made a concerted effort to calm his pounding heart and fast breaths. He was finally able to ease his body's systems and he sighed loudly.

"That was fun. Can we do it again?" he asked sarcastically.

"I'd rather not. How's you stomach?" Murdoch quipped.

"Better, I think."

"You need to take the medicine now, son."

Johnny groaned but nodded as he dutifully did his father's bidding. When he got to the wine, Johnny raised his hand.

"I think I'd better wait a few minutes," he grimaced, willing his stomach to accept the medicines and water.

Once convinced his stomach wouldn't revolt, he nodded to Murdoch.

"Well, I never had wine for medicine," he smiled slightly.

"Sam says you need the iron in it," Scott offered.

"How long have I been asleep?"

"Several hours."

He sighed softly and closed his eyes. "Several more sounds good."

"Maybe you could wait a few minutes? I think we should change his sheets," Scott said.

"Good idea. You'll rest better, son."


Sam came that evening and Murdoch updated him on Johnny's condition. He didn't like the fever still raging and worried about the consequences.

"If that fever doesn't come down by morning, we'll have to do something."

"Like what?" Scott asked.

"Put him in a tub if lukewarm water for one. If that doesn't work, we'll have to bathe him in ice. I'll stay the night."

They took shifts through the night, continually bathing him down with cool water.

Scott spent part of his shift reading Sam's medical book. He had to stop several times as his stomach churned. He decided that, if Johnny had to have anthrax, he was glad it was this kind. At least his chances were better.

He thought about the bite, how black it had turned, when he read that part of the text. He had not seen what Sam had done and wondered about it. Right now, all he cared about was getting Johnny through this.


By morning, his fever was better. Sam checked him thoroughly.

"As long as the fever doesn't spike again, just keep doing what you're doing. If it does, put him in a tub of water for half an hour and send for me."

Jelly took his shift as Scott and Murdoch went down for breakfast. They were both quiet, exhausted from the battle.

"I want to know where that horse came from, Murdoch. There could be more out there with the disease," Scott spoke up.

"I've already sent word to Abe Martin that I want to talk to him." Murdoch eyed his son's bowed head for a minute. "Well, go ahead and say it."

Scott looked up with a confused frown. "Say what?"

"That I should have listened to Johnny."

"There's no way you could have known this would happen, sir. No one blames you."

"I hope not," he mumbled.

"You know Johnny won't," Scott insisted.

"I wouldn't care if he did as long as .... as long as he makes it," Murdoch said, dropping his voice at the end.

Scott had no answer for that. He knew how strong his brother was but he had also read Sam's medical text. The words had sent shivers down his spine. He knew all they could do was follow Sam's instructions and pray.

As they finished breakfast, there was a knock on the door. Murdoch opened it to find Abe Martin.

"Good morning, Murdoch."

"Morning, Abe. Come in, please."

The short, balding, middle-aged man walked into the living room and greeted Scott with a warm smile.

Scott tried but smiling was not within his abilities at the moment.

"You two look terrible. Is something wrong?"

"I'm afraid there is, Abe. Sit down, please. I need to know where you got those horses you sold me," Murdoch came right to the point.

"From a horse trader. Why?"

"The Pinto had anthrax."

"Oh no," Abe whispered.

"It bit my brother while he was trying to train it," Scott said tightly.

"Is Johnny alright?"

"No, he isn't. He's very ill. I need to find that horse trader, Abe. He may have more sick animals," Murdoch said.

"I'm so sorry, Murdoch. I had no idea, really. But, I'm afraid I can't help you. He was just passing through and that was three weeks ago."

"Did he mention where he was headed?" Scott asked.

Abe frowned in thought for a moment. "It seems he said something about Modesto."

"I'll have one of the hands send a wire to the sheriff there. Do you recall his name?" Murdoch asked.

"Buck Trehorn."

"Alright, thank you, Abe."

"Murdoch, if there's anything I can do for Johnny, please let me know. I feel just awful about this," Abe said.

"A prayer wouldn't hurt, Abe," Murdoch said stiffly.

The man nodded, and then bowed his head as he left the house.

"Well, at least he feels bad about it."

"He's a good man, son. Just not much of a horseman."

Scott bit his lip and held his tongue. He really didn't blame Murdoch but this could have been avoided if his father had only listened.

"Murdoch! Scott!"

Both men took off running at the sound of Jelly's shout. Taking two steps at a time, they both skidded into the bedroom.

"Help me!" Jelly said, near panicked.

Johnny was thrashing about on the bed uncontrollably.

"He's having a seizure," Scott said, familiar with the sight. "Don't force him down but don't let him hurt himself either," he continued as he took one side of the bed and Murdoch the other.

"Jelly, get that tub ready and send for Sam," Murdoch barked.

They held his arms, allowing them to spasm but not thrash about. Murdoch felt his stomach churn as Johnny's muscles strained. He could feel the cords pulling in his son's arms. Saw them stand out in his neck as the seizure controlled him.

Suddenly, it stopped. Johnny relaxed into the bed without a sound. Murdoch wasn't sure if it was really over or not. He watched closely for any sign of more movement.

"I think it's over," Scott said, breathing heavily.

"God! What more!" Murdoch ground out in frustration.

"He's burning up, sir."

Murdoch laid a hand on his forehead. Long-locked away emotions threatened to burst forth. He felt totally helpless and frustrated with his own uselessness. Memories flashed so vividly in his mind, he felt dizzy.

Memories of two of the longest nights of his life. When his baby son was wrapped in the throes of a fever that would not release him. For two days and nights, he and Maria had sat with the child. They bathed him in cool water. Maria used every herb she had to fight the fever. Finally, it had broke and Johnny had opened his eyes. He'd whimpered and held out his little arms, calling for his mama.


He felt the hand on his arm and blinked. Looking up at his eldest with distant eyes as he tried to focus on the present.

"I'm sorry, son. I was lost in my thoughts."

"Could it wait? Johnny needs us here," he snapped.

Murdoch squashed the anger he felt rising. "Yes, of course. I was just remembering another time when he was so sick. When he was a baby."

Scott's anger melted quickly. "I'm sorry. I'm worried."

"I know. So am I," he was about to say more when Jelly returned with two hands carrying a tub. Two more behind them carried buckets of water.

They filled the tub again and again until Murdoch felt it was enough. Jelly dismissed the hands and brought in a stack of clean towels and fresh linens. He threw a few splashes of rose water in the tub for good measure.

They undressed him and slowly submerged him in the lukewarm water. All three men holding their breath. Waiting for any bad reaction. When there was none, a collective sigh could be heard in the room.

Jelly changed the bed linens as Scott and Murdoch continually poured water over Johnny's exposed parts.

Sam arrived as they were drying him off. When Scott told him about the seizure, the old doctor frowned deeply.

"The bath seems to have helped. His fever is down. Now, all we have to do is keep it down. I have the vaccine, hopefully, it will help."

"What about the seizure, Sam? Will he have any lasting effects from it?" Murdoch asked.

"I won't know until he wakes up. That may be several hours or fifteen minutes. It's difficult to judge. Sometimes, people will wake immediately after a seizure. Sometimes, the post-ictal state lasts for hours."

With that statement barely out of his mouth, they heard a soft moan from the bed.

Scott smiled. "Just like Johnny. He hates to be textbook about anything."

Murdoch knelt beside the bed on one side as Sam sat on the other and waited.

Johnny's eyelashes fluttered against his cheeks as he struggled to regain consciousness. Finally, his eyes opened and he stared into space.

"Johnny?" Sam called, shaking his shoulder gently.

He turned his head and focused on the doctor. "Hey, Sam."

"Hey, yourself. How do you feel?"

Johnny frowned and closed his eyes briefly. "Strange. Guess I'm still sick, huh?"

"I'm afraid so, Johnny. Your fever is down, though," Sam smiled.


He felt a hand under his neck and turned his head to find his father offering water. "Hey, Murdoch."

"Hi, son. Drink slowly, now."

When he'd finished, Johnny laid his head back down and sighed. "I smell roses."

"That would be you, brother. We put you in the tub. Couldn't stand it any longer," Scott grinned, peeking over Murdoch's shoulder.

Johnny smiled a little. "Tired."

"I'm going to give you a shot, just a little one. It's a vaccine. Then I want you to sleep, Johnny. It's the best thing for you," Sam said.

Sleep he did the rest of the day and night. When he awoke the next morning, Johnny's fever was almost gone.

Sam had stayed the night just in case and he pronounced that the worst was probably over. He still wanted Johnny on bed rest as it wasn't uncommon for the effects of the disease to last up to two weeks.


Johnny remained in bed for five more days. He still had bouts of nausea and his wound needed to heal. He'd been struck speechless when he saw it for the first time after Sam cleaned it. He'd used carbolic and had to debride the area. This left a rather large hole in Johnny's arm. Sam assured him it would heal now that the infection had been cut and cleaned out.

On the fifth day after the seizure, Sam tested his blood again. There was no sign of anthrax in his system. The entire family felt a boulder lifted from their chests with this good news.

Three days later, Johnny was doing light work around the house and yard. His illness had left him weak and shaky and he hated it. But, at least he could stay busy enough weeding Teresa's garden and painting the adobe walls. He almost got away with fixing the barn roof until Jelly caught him. That man had eyes everywhere!

He was finishing the last coat of white wash, quite proud of the job, when Sam rode into the yard.

"Johnny, how do you feel?"

"Bored, Sam," he deadpanned as he shook hands with the doctor.

Sam laughed and patted his back. "Well, let's go inside and see what kind of report I get on you."

Johnny groaned, knowing his father would tell the blasted truth.

Murdoch surprised him by saying he was doing well, though he still didn't think he was ready for a full day in the saddle. They compromised with half days for half a week and then play it by ear. Johnny had to swear on a stack of bibles to tell them if it was too much.

That evening, the Lancers discussed the coming day's work. Murdoch wanted Johnny at his brother's side these first three days. He could trust Scott to judge if Johnny was ready for full work duties.

Feeling a bit like a child, he bore it well. Just knowing they were only doing this out of concern helped to thwart his instincts to buck.

The next morning, Scott was up a little early. He went out and saddled Barranca for his brother then returned to join the family for breakfast.

"Where did you get off to?" Johnny asked.

"Oh, I thought I'd get the horses ready."

Johnny eyed him. "Don't you think I can saddle my own horse?"

"I'm sure you can, Johnny. So, tomorrow, you can saddle them both," Scott grinned triumphantly.

Murdoch chuckled and Johnny shook his head.

He walked through the living room, cinching up his gunbelt and grabbed his hat. Scott had to make a run upstairs so he went outside to see Barranca.

Johnny smiled as he approached the palomino. "Hey, fella. Did ya miss me?"

Barranca snorted and tossed his head, then sidestepped.

"Easy, boy. Don't be so skittish. What's wrong, Barranca?" Johnny frowned at the horse, who would not hold still.

Barranca became more nervous and made a quick move away from his master. Johnny felt his heart start racing and sweat beaded on his forehead. He backed away from the palomino and onto the porch.

Scott came out just then and noticed how pale he was. "Johnny, what's wrong?"

He was trying everything he knew, all the tricks in his bag, to calm himself. But nothing was working. He couldn't think straight and he felt the need to break and run. He forced himself to stay there, somehow.

Johnny rubbed his forehead. "Dizzy," he mumbled.

"Let's get you back inside. Maybe it's too soon, brother," Scott took his arm with a concerned frown and led him in the house.

Murdoch stood and rounded his desk.

"He got dizzy and he's pale," Scott explained as he sat Johnny on the sofa.

"I'll send for Sam."

"No! No, I'm okay. I just got lightheaded, that's all," Johnny protested.

"Maybe it's too soon, son. You should stay home and rest," Murdoch sat next to him and felt his forehead.

"Yeah, maybe I should. Just one more day," he answered in a shaky voice.

"Do you want me to stay?" Scott asked.

"We'll be fine, son. You go ahead."

"Alright. I'll have Jelly take care of Barranca."

"Put him in the low pasture, let him run some," Johnny said.

Murdoch made him lie down on the sofa and covered him up. Johnny didn't protest. It took him a good hour to calm his nerves enough to trust himself to even move. What the hell is the matter with me?

He sat up and rubbed his face, grabbing the glass of water left there by his father and downing it. He stood up slowly and felt fine. Johnny decided it was just some quirk and it was over now. He walked outside and headed to the corral where a vaquero was working one of Abe Martin's horses.

He sidled up to the fence and rested his arms on the top rail as he watched Eduardo. The vaquero worked the horse around the corral and came within twenty feet of Johnny.

He backed away from the fence and felt his heart race again. Glancing around to see if anyone had noticed, he was relieved when they didn't seem to. Johnny approached the fence again, cursing himself for his reactions.

Once more Eduardo came near him and his hands gripped the fencing as he forced himself not to move. But an overwhelming need to get away engulfed him and Johnny turned to walk back to the house. He fought the urge to run and kept his pace brisk.

Once inside, he fell onto the sofa. Leaning forward, arms on thighs, he lowered his head nearly between his knees as he fought for control. Taking slow, deep breaths, Johnny felt his heart slow. He buried his face in his hands.

He stood up and paced the great room, grateful his father was not there to see him. He stopped and looked in the mirror, stunned by his own pallor. What's happening to me? Is this from the anthrax? he wondered. He thought about asking Sam but that meant riding into town. He was quite sure he'd never make it.

He felt jumpy and irritable and he could hardly stand his own skin. Johnny tried to reason it out. Tried to make some sense of it. But it made no sense. He had never felt anything like this before and he knew not what to make of it.

Maybe Scott would know. He shook his head, he felt like a baby whining to his brother. The one emotion he had been able to recognize was fear. Cold, gripping fear. A fear he had not felt in a very long time. Since he was a child, in fact. It was a paralyzing kind of fear that left him unable to breathe or think or move.

The kind of fear he had mastered when he became Madrid. A fear he had not known since. Now, it was back and he didn't understand what was causing it. He took a deep breath and swore at himself. He would not allow this. It was that simple.

With resolve, Johnny walked out of the house and headed for the low pasture. He approached Barranca quietly. Speaking softly to the horse who came up to him easily.

"You're gonna have to help me out here, Barranca. I don't know what's wrong but I got a feeling you're the key." He took the lead of the bridle the horse still wore and led him up to the barn.

Inside, Johnny saddled Barranca without thinking. He had done it so many times it was second nature. He led the horse back outside and checked the cinch once more.

He put his foot in the stirrup and froze. A cold sweat broke out across his body so quickly, it stunned him. He couldn't move, couldn't mount, couldn't take his foot down.

He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Barranca won't hurt me. The thought jumped into his mind so quickly, he was startled. His foot slid to the ground and he leaned into the horse.

Barranca stood perfectly still, as if sensing he should not move. He allowed Johnny to put most of his weight against his side and never even shifted.


He jumped and turned quickly, causing the ground to spin about. Wavering slightly, he felt an arm supporting him.

"You alright?"

"I don't think so, Jelly. I feel funny," he whispered.

"Let's get you in the house," Jelly frowned. He caught the eye of a hand and motioned him over to take Barranca. "Joe'll take care of yer horse. Now, let me take care a you."

Once more in the house, Johnny slumped into an easy chair. Jelly got him a glass of water and he accepted it gratefully.

"What was ya doin?"

"I was goin for a ride but I didn't get very far," Johnny said sarcastically.

"No kiddin! Yer pushin too hard, is all."

"Pushin too hard? I haven't done a damned thing!" Johnny closed his eyes for a second. "I'm sorry, Jelly. I don't know what's wrong with me."

"Ya got cabin fever but yer still a might weak."

"No, I'm not. I mean, I'm fine until......"

"Until what?"

Johnny swallowed hard and looked at the older man. "Until I get near a horse," he barely breathed out.

Jelly's eyebrows shot up. "Johnny, you ain't thinkin you're a scared of horses? Why that's just plain crazy! Ain't nobody round here as good with horses as you. Why you could talk a horse into howlin at the moon!"

Johnny laughed at that ridiculous claim but his mood grew somber quickly. "What else could it be, Jelly?"

"Well," he rubbed his whiskers. "I reckon ya could be a little gunshy. What ya need ta do is just get on Barranca and go."

"That's what I was tryin to do. I had my foot in the stirrup but I couldn't do it, Jelly. I just couldn't do it!" he slammed his fist against his thigh.

"Alright, just settle down. Mebbe ya ought ta talk ta Murdoch about this."

"No, I can't. What am I gonna say? Sorry, old man, I can't work anymore cause I'm too scared of my own damned horse?"

"What about Scott?" Jelly offered.

"I thought about that. I don't know. I think if I could just get up there, ya know. If I could just get in the saddle, I'd be okay."

"Well, what're ya waitin for? Come on, I'll help ya," Jelly stood.

"Now? Don't you think poor Barranca's been saddled and unsaddled enough for one day?"

"That was a poor excuse, Johnny. Now, let's go!"

He sighed and nodded and followed Jelly toward the barn. But they didn't make it as Murdoch rode upon them.

"Johnny, shouldn't you be resting?" he asked with concern.

"I feel better now," he answered, head down.

Murdoch glanced at Jelly and caught the disbelief from the wrangler. He frowned and bent his head, trying to see his son's face.

"Look at me," he commanded.

Johnny looked up, a bit surprised by the tone.

"You're still pale," Murdoch assessed as he felt his forehead.

Johnny shot a look all around to see if any of the hands had noticed his father treating him like a baby. He grimaced when he caught Joe grinning ear to ear.

"Murdoch!" he hissed lowly. "I ain't a kid."

"Then stop acting like one and go inside. You should be resting not gallavanting around with Jelly."

"Well, I never! If you'll just excuse me," Jellifer tucked his thumbs in his suspenders and stalked off.

Johnny couldn't help but smile at Jelly's indignation. He looked up at Murdoch and sighed. "I really do feel alright."

"I just don't like your color, son," he frowned.

A gleam appeared in Johnny's eyes. "Well, then, you shouldn't have married a Mexican."

Murdoch gave him a sidelong look. He let it linger and the smile erupted on his face as he laughed and lowered his arm around Johnny's shoulders.

He let himself forget about the day's events as he sat at supper with his family. Scott was filling them in on his day and some articles he'd read in the newspaper. A lively discussion about railroads followed and continued as they made their way into the living room.

Sitting in front of the fire, Johnny felt his eyes grow heavy.

Murdoch watched in some amusement for a minute or so before speaking. "Johnny, why don't you go to bed?"

His head jerked up at the sound of his name and he looked confusedly at his father. Blinking his eyes several times, he yawned. "Guess I am pretty tired."

"Yes, after putting in such a grueling day," Scott smiled.

"Laugh all you want, brother. If I had my choice, I'd pick birthing a hundred heifers; breech," Johnny retorted and slapped his leg.

"There will be plenty for you to do tomorrow, son. Get some rest."

Johnny smiled at the tenderness in his father's voice. "Goodnight, Murdoch. Goodnight, grump."

He moved swiftly to avoid the repercussions and managed to miss Scott's hand by an inch.

Up in his room, he quickly disrobed and slid beneath the covers, snuggling in. With Teresa out of the house, he didn't bother with a nightshirt. He hated them anyway, had never used one. Of course, there had been a time or two when he wished he had. He laughed at the memory of being caught with not only his pants down, but completely off.

But, since he wasn't exactly shy, and too young and brazen to care, it hadn't bothered him then. Now, it would never do to be so relaxed. It was a small price to pay, though. To have such caring people around him.

He smiled at the thought but then his thoughts turned to the day. He was still shaken by what had happened. Could hardly believe it had happened to him. He had heard of people being afraid to ride after being thrown.

But he'd been thrown more times than he could count. That had never bothered him. He simply picked himself up and dusted himself off then got right back on again. But this; this was something altogether different.

He had actually been afraid. Afraid of Barranca! It boggled his mind. That he, Johnny Madrid, would panic at the thought of mounting a horse. Something he'd been around as long as he could remember. Something he'd actually sought out whenever he could. He'd always been good with horses, seemed to understand their feelings. Their fear. But never had he felt fear of being near any horse.

He closed his eyes and tried to blank his mind so he could sleep. But the thought of having to ride tomorrow, and in front of his family, kept him tossing and turning.


The morning sun sliced through the curtains, casting a ribbon of light across his face. He clenched his eyes against it and turned over. Sighing, he rubbed at his face before opening his eyes. He felt like he'd been beaten to a pulp. Every muscle in his body was taut and stiff.

Johnny stretched out like a cat sunning, then relaxed with a grumpy groan. Throwing the covers back, he sat on the edge of the bed and sighed. He rolled his shoulders but it didn't help. Shaking his head, he figured he may as well get moving. The day wasn't getting any younger.

When he stumbled into the kitchen, he was greeted pleasantly. This only served to worsen his mood and he merely grumbled in response. Plopping down at the table, he rested his face in his hands.

"Are you alright?" Scott asked.


"Johnny, what's wrong?"

He looked at his father through parted fingers. "Nothing. Just didn't sleep well."

Murdoch frowned in thought. "I need to go into town today. Why don't you go with me and have Sam look you over? You're not recovering like you should."

"I'll be alright, Murdoch. I just didn't sleep."

"Why not? You were dead on your feet last night," Scott inquired.

Shaking his head, he lowered his hands and cupped them around the mug of coffee Maria had placed in front of him. "I don't know, really. I don't remember dreaming. Just woke up all stiff and sore."

"We'll have Sam check you over. It won't hurt to be on the safe side. I'll have Jelly hitch up the surrey," Murdoch decided.

Johnny thought to argue but changed his mind. A surrey was better than riding, he thought with disgust in himself. Maybe, though.... maybe Sam would know what's wrong. He knew he could trust the physician to keep quiet.

As they walked outside, Murdoch went to give last minute instructions to a hand. Johnny stared at the surrey and refused to look at Zanzibar. The most docile horse on the ranch. He took a deep breath and slid into the seat, clenching the bench with all his might.

Jelly watched him the whole time. He walked over and, speaking softly, said, "ya might wanna let go of the seat 'fore Murdoch sees ya."

Johnny looked at him, then at his hand and released his grip. He looked back at Jelly and tried to smile. "Goin to see Sam."

"Good! Talk to 'im, Johnny," the man nearly pleaded.

"I'm going to, Jelly."

Jelly patted his arm and smiled, then backed away as Murdoch approached. He waved them off with a frown. He worried after that boy. Jelly sometimes wondered how Johnny had survived all alone. He sure didn't think much about taking care of himself.

The trip to town was quiet. Murdoch kept glancing over but Johnny had pulled his hat low over his eyes and crossed his arms. He appeared to be sleeping but Murdoch wasn't convinced. He was beginning to think something more was going on here than Johnny's health. Though, for the life of him, he didn't know what.

He didn't see the huge pothole in time to drive around it. The surrey bounced violently and Johnny grabbed the seat, lurching forward.

"What the hell?"

"Sorry, son. I didn't see it," Murdoch replied calmly.

Johnny was breathing heavily and his eyes were darting about. His face fell white and a cold sweat popped out on his forehead. He suddenly felt a wave of nausea engulf him.

"Pull over," he whispered.


"Pull over!"

Murdoch pulled back on the reins but Johnny was already out of the surrey and managed to make it to a tree. He leaned over and lost his breakfast. He didn't think he was ever going to stop.

Finally, the sickness subsided and he took gulps of air. He felt Murdoch's hand on his back and saw the canteen appear before his face. He grabbed it and nodded, then took a small drink and washed his mouth out.

Wetting his bandana, he wiped his face and leaned his back against the tree. Glancing at his father in embarrassment, he whispered, "sorry."

"You couldn't help it, son. Just take your time." But Murdoch was worried, really worried now, and he watched Johnny closely.

He could feel his father's eyes on him and it only served to make him more nervous. His stomach cramped up and he turned away, obstensibly, for the cooling breeze.

"Think you can make it the rest of the way?" Murdoch asked gently.

"Don't have much choice unless I want to live right here," he laughed nervously. Turning back, he faced the man and sobered. "Yeah, let's get outta here."

They made it to town without further problems and Murdoch headed straight for Sam Jenkins' office. Johnny was grateful there were no other patients.

Murdoch explained what he knew and Sam ushered Johnny into the examination room. He told Murdoch to go do his business and the rancher left a bit disgruntled at having been dismissed.

"Now, tell me everything," Sam said as Johnny jumped on the side of the exam table.

He smiled at the doc, knowing he couldn't get away with a thing. Soon enough, the smile left and a frown replaced it. He told him about the sweats, the nausea, the panic he'd felt. He told him about how he'd felt this morning and the events of the trip into town. When Johnny got through, he figured if he were a doctor, he'd tell this patient to go see the undertaker.

Doc just nodded and listened as he watched Johnny closely. Finally, he smiled and listened to his heart and lungs, felt his skin and palpated his abdomen. When he was finished, he nodded again.

"Most of what you've been experiencing is very likely side effects from the vaccine I gave you. Chills, fever, nausea, muscle aches. They should subside in the next day or two."

"What about the rest?" Johnny asked, feeling some relief. "I mean, feelin so ..... scared," his voice dropped to a whisper.

"I don't know if that's from the vaccine or not. It is possible you're having panic attacks from the experience itself. You said you'd never been bitten before."

"So, how do I get over it?"

Sam's brow creased as he considered the problem. He sat on the stool and tapped his finger against his lips. "Well, the only cure I can think of is to get back on the horse, Johnny. Just like the saying goes."

Johnny nodded but wasn't convinced. "I tried that."

"Keep trying until you can do it. Because if you don't, you'll never be able to ride again. Now, I know that is not an option for you, is it?" Sam smiled.

"No, it sure isn't. Thanks, Sam. Oh, and, Murdoch doesn't need to know about this."

Eyebrows went up immediately. "How to you plan on keeping it from him? Johnny, you have to tell someone."

"I did. I told you and Jelly."

"Jelly? Not Scott?"

"No, I .... I couldn't," he said softly.

"It's nothing to be ashamed of, Johnny."

"Yeah, that's easy to say when you ain't the one it's happening to, Sam," he snorted.

Sam shrugged one shoulder. "Good point. Fine, I'm sure Jelly can help. No matter how insensitively," he grinned.

"I don't care about him bein sensitive. In fact, he's probably exactly what I need. A good swift kick."

Johnny jumped off the table and straightened himself up just as they heard the front door open. "Not a word," he reminded.

Sam smiled and put a hand up in promise.

They walked out to the front room and Murdoch scrutinized Johnny like a prize bull he was buying. "Well?"

"I think a lot of it is side effects from the vaccine I gave him. It should improve in a day or two," Samm reported.

"The vaccine. I never even thought about that," Murdoch said with relief.

Sam snorted. "That's why I'm the doctor and you're the rancher. I don't want him working. Make him rest and no riding for at least two days. Johnny, you know yourself best. If you feel ready to get back in the saddle in two days, go ahead and try. But, if the symptoms don't improve, I want to see you again," he instructed in his most authoritative voice.

"I'll see to it, Sam," Murdoch stated.

Johnny looked back at the doctor once more as he walked out. He gave the man a most appreciative smile.

"Well, it could have been worse," Murdoch commented as they drove home.

"Guess so."

"You alright, son?"

"A little tired. My stomach's still a little queasy."

"Well, a few more days rest and you'll feel much better," Murdoch smiled.

'Sure hope so,' Johnny thought but only returned the smile.


When they pulled into the yard, Scott was waiting for them.

"Why are you here?" Murdoch asked.

"I came home for lunch and wanted to hear what Sam said," he replied.

"Sam said it was side effects from the vaccine. It'll pass in a couple of days."

Scott's face relaxed. "The vaccine. Well, that makes sense. At least we know it will pass."

"Why don't you two go on in while I take care of Zanzibar," Murdoch smiled.


"I'm alright. Quit fussin!" Johnny snapped as he pushed the blanket away. Scott was trying hard to lay him down and cover him up.

"And if you weren't, I don't suppose you'd bother to tell me," Scott quipped.

"I might, but I doubt it. Especially if you're gonna act like this."

"You two done snipin at each other yet? Cause if ya ain't, I'll come back later," Jelly interrupted.

"We aren't sniping, Jelly. My brother is just hard-headed," Scott explained.

"And that's news to ya?"

Scott smiled and shook his head. "I'll get you some water. Unless you want to crawl in there and get it yourself," Scott grinned.

Johnny shot him a scowl that was quickly replaced by a grin. "Thank you, dear brother."

Scott went to the kitchen, mumbling about younger brothers and how they should all just be put out of everyone's misery.

"So, is that it? The vaccine?" Jelly asked, lowering his voice.

"He said that was part of it. He said I should just get back in the saddle but he wants me restin for two more days," Johnny sighed.

"Exactly what I told ya," Jelly stuck his thumbs in his suspenders.

"Yeah, exactly what you told me, Jelly," he smiled.

"Well, reckon ya can rest and still at least spend some time with Barranca," Jelly raised a questioning brow.

Johnny nodded but stayed quiet as Murdoch entered the room. Jelly glanced at him and Johnny shook his head subtly. No, Murdoch didn't know.

Rolling his eyes, he turned to face his boss. "Reckon I'll get some lunch. Ya want anythin, Johnny?"

"No, thanks, Jelly. Don't think it's a good idea right now," he grimaced and his hand went absently to his stomach.

"Why? What don't I know?" Scott asked, having heard the last bit.

"He got sick on the way to town. He was pale and sweaty and threw up," Murdoch answered.

"And Sam said that was from the vaccine?"

"That and bein dizzy and achy muscles and everything else, Boston."

"Sounds worse than the anthrax - almost."

"Almost, brother," Johnny smiled.

Johnny ventured outside the next morning after Scott and Murdoch left. He ambled toward the barn nonchalantly. When he neared the door, Jelly came around the corner.


"I guess so, Jelly," he sighed.

Inside the dim structure, he blinked a few times. His sight settling immediately on Barranca, he smiled. Walking slowly to the stall, he spoke in whispers.

"It's up to you, Barranca. You gotta help me out, here. I need you more than ever now." He reached out and stroked the nose and received a head bob.

Jelly eased the stall door open and Johnny slipped inside. His hand ran down the length of the golden coat and he felt Barranca tremble in pleasure at the familiar touch.

Wrapping his arm beneath the horse's neck, he rested his head just under the ear. Barranca turned his head and nuzzled Johnny.

Jelly cleared his throat. "You two wanna be alone?"

"Funny, Jelly." Johnny raised his head and smiled at the old man. "This ain't the true test. You know that."

"I know it, but it's the best start. Now, how about tryin out Zanzibar next?"

Johnny made the rounds of the few horses in the barn and had no problem. But they were all old friends and he knew them.

He took a deep breath and looked at Jelly. "Wanna walk down to the pasture?"

"You sure?"

"No, but I won't know til I try. And I'd rather try when no one's around."

Jelly eyed him. "How do ya feel?"

"A little tired but not bad. Nothing like I was."

"Well, reckon I can always haul ya back if I hafta."

Johnny shook his head and smiled. Jelly was worse than any mother. They walked around the house and down toward the lower pasture. Chatting idly as they went. To anyone who might notice, they seemed to be taking a leisurely walk. Which is exactly what Johnny wanted them to think.

They sidled up to the railing and watched the horses for a few minutes. Johnny recognized two from the bunch Abe Martin had sold them.

"I never did ask. Did the Vet take care of that Pinto?"

"Yep. I burned the carcass and buried it far away from the house and any water supply."

"You did? I hope you were careful, Jelly."

"Well, I reckon I was. I don't know how I managed to live all these years without Lancers ta make sure I ain't doin somethin stupid!"

"Neither do I," Johnny laughed and went back to watching the horses.

Never one to miss much, Jelly nodded. "Eduardo done a good job with them two. They're almost ready to go ta work. Said that chestnut was a might nervous. Said it'd take a steady hand to the rein. Said you was probably the best choice."

"Eduardo said a lot for someone who hardly ever talks," Johnny grinned.

"Ain't like he said it all in one shot, neither. Had ta pull it outta him!"

Johnny sighed and stepped through the railing.

"Don't push yourself. If ya don't feel it's right, just come on back," Jelly advised.

Johnny nodded to him. He walked slowly to the chestnut, his hand extended but closed.

Jelly stepped onto the lowest rail and held his breath.

Fighting back his own nerves, Johnny began to eye the steed. He made contact and held the horse's gaze as he came within a foot. Extending his arm and opening his hand, he revealed the treat and the horse took a step forward.

Johnny stood perfectly still and waited. It was the hardest wait he'd ever had as he fought to keep from backing away.

The horse bobbed his head and sidestepped, then inched closer to his hand. Finally, after several minutes, he licked the sugar cube up and munched it.

Johnny let out a slow breath and wiped his hand on his pants leg. Then, he reached out slowly and stroked the animal's nose, moving in closer as he did.

Jelly had slid into the the corral with a halter and he eased toward them. Handing the halter to Johnny wordlessly, he backed away until he was once more outside the corral.

Johnny slid the halter into place. The horse reared his head a bit but responded to the gentling hand. Johnny tensed at the action but immediately forced himself to relax. He didn't want the horse to sense his own anxiety. He could feel the perspiration beading on his brow.

Halter in place, he led the horse by the lead rein to the fence and around the perimeter. Walking slowly, taking his time, Johnny moved in close to the animal. He began to relax as they walked. He talked to the chestnut and it seemed to respond to his voice.  

After about ten trips around, he stopped in front of Jelly with a smile on his face.

"That was real good, Johnny. Ya wanna ride 'im?"

He felt his confidence dwindle with the question. Lowering his head, he felt the horse become agitated. He stroked it's neck absently and it quietened.

"Maybe Barranca first, Jelly. But, I can't ride til Sam says it's okay. Murdoch and Scott will want to know why and give me an earful."

Jelly nodded. "True enough. You're gonna be fine, Johnny. I seen how relaxed ya got walkin and talkin to that animal. Ya forgot all about how scared ya was."

"Yeah, I did, didn't I?" he smiled.


His head jerked up as did the horse's. The chestnut balked at the loud sound and Johnny held the rein tighter, forcing his head down and stroking his neck. He soothed the beast while his father advanced on them.

"Are ya tryin ta get 'im hurt? What're ya yellin about?" Jelly flustered.

Murdoch's face was set in a frown of stone as he took in the two of them. "Come out of there, son."

Johnny released the chestnut, who loped back to mingle with the rest of the horses. He stepped through the railing and faced his father.

"What do you think you're doing? You're supposed to be resting," Murdoch demanded.

"I'm not exactly straining myself, Murdoch. I was just taking a walk and lookin at the horses," he answered in a clearly exasperated voice.

"Sam said no riding."

"Am I riding?" he asked, hands on hips.

Murdoch studied his face. "You've been sweating and you look pale," he argued.

Johnny dropped his head and sighed. "Fine, I'll go to the house."

"And you. What do you mean letting him overdo?" Murdoch turned to Jelly.

"Lettin 'im? When's the last time anybody *let* Johnny do anythin? I figured since he was bound ta do it, least I could keep a eye on 'im. But, if you don't want me ta pay no mind ......"

"Alright, alright. Thank you for watching out for him, Jelly," Murdoch surrendered, hands up.

Johnny glanced at Jelly, a smile threatening, but he said not a word. When he looked at Murdoch, he rolled his eyes. "I'm goin!"

"See that you do," Murdoch retorted and watched him walk to the house. "That boy is as stubborn as a mule!"

"Hmmph! And I'm a lookin at the mule!" Jelly stated and followed after Johnny.

Murdoch smiled and chuckled at the sometimes exasperating wrangler. He couldn't even remember life before Jelly now. It seemed he'd always been there.

Jelly caught up with him as he walked into the house. "Ya alright?"

"Yeah, had a minute there when Murdoch yelled but I'm okay."

"I was watchin ya, Johnny. You settled that horse down real easy. Don't think ya got a thing in the world ta worry bout. You just spend time with Barranca until Sam says ya can ride 'im again. He's the answer. Once ya peg him, the rest'll be a piece of cake."

Johnny nodded then looked seriously at the older man. "Thank you, Jelly. I don't know what I would've done without your help."

"Ah, you'da been just fine."

"I don't think so. I don't think I could have told Murdoch or Scott about this. I don't know what would've happened," he rebuked.

Jelly turned three shades of red as he became flustered.

Johnny laughed softly and put an arm around him. "You take compliments about as well as I do."

Jelly cleared his throat and pulled himself up. "Bout time for lunch."


Johnny stayed in or around the house for the rest of that day and the next. He had done a lot of thinking and coming to terms. One of his biggest problems was accepting that he had reacted the way he had. It wasn't easy for him to admit, even to himself, that he was afraid of the horses.

The one constant in his life had always been his love of the animals. Why he'd been drawn to them, he couldn't say. Maybe there was no defining reason. Maybe it just was. So, to have that nearly taken from him was frightening.

More than that, he felt his manhood was threatened. That left him feeling ashamed and embarrassed. He knew that was the reason he could never talk to his father or brother about this. He knew they would be supportive, say they understood, but they couldn't. He wasn't sure why Jelly did. He was only grateful for it.

And for Sam, as well. Between the two of them, they had given him what he needed. Time and advice. He smiled as he thought about those friendships. Both born of circumstance and need. He'd needed Sam to dig Pardee's bullet out of him. Jelly had needed him to help his boys. Chance meetings that resulted in strong bonds.

"What has you so happy?" Murdoch asked as he joined him on the veranda.

"Oh, just thinking. Sam said he'd be out today."

"Johnny, if you aren't ready, don't push yourself."

"I'm ready, Murdoch. More than ready," he smiled reassuringly.

They looked up at the same time to see the doctor driving in. Both men stood to greet him.

"Well, how have you been feeling?" Sam asked immediately after the greetings were over.

"Pretty good, Sam. As good as I can feel until I get some exercise."

The doctor smiled and nodded. "Well, come upstairs and let me get one last good look."

Once alone, Sam asked.

"It's been a lot better. I spent some time in the corral yesterday. No riding, just bein around the horses. There was a minute when I thought I might buck, but I didn't."

"Think you can sit the saddle again?" Sam asked.

"Yeah, I know I can, Sam. Look, I really appreciate your help with this."

"It's my pleasure. You know you can always talk to me, Johnny. Not just about your health. I'm very good at keeping secrets," he smiled.

Johnny laughed. "I'll bet you know some pretty scary stuff about the good people of this valley."

Sam laughed, too. "No comment."

"Well, it can't be bad news. You're both in a good mood," Murdoch commented as he poked his head through the door.

"He can go back to work tomorrow. BUT, don't push yourself, Johnny. Rest when you need to and if you can't put in a full day, then don't."

"I promise, Sam. I'll be careful."

Johnny walked out into the early morning and inhaled deeply. Barranca was waiting for him. Jelly had him saddled and ready to go after a nice long chat with the palomino about taking it easy on Johnny today.

He stood beside the horse with an expectant expression. One mixed with worry.

Johnny smiled as he approached. "Mornin, Jelly. Thanks."

"Welcome. You okay?"

"Sure, I feel good this morning." He smiled and turned to the horse. Patting his neck, he leaned in and spoke softly to Barranca.

With one final glance at Jelly, he took a breath and put his foot in the stirrup. Closing his eyes, Johnny mounted up without thinking about it at all.

Barranca moved a little to settle the weight to his liking and Johnny allowed it. Then, he reined the horse steady. Smiling down at Jelly, he tipped his hat.

"Hasta la vista, Jelly. See ya later." With that, he spurred the horse into a canter.

As Jelly watched him go under the gate, Johnny pushed the palomino into a gallop. The old man shook his head and smiled.

Scott walked out in time to see Johnny gallop off. He stood there and stared in disbelief.

"What's the matter?" Jelly asked.

"It's his first day back. He's supposed to wait for me. Jelly, sometimes, I just don't know what I'm going to do with him," Scott expounded.

"Well, I reckon you'll just keep right on lovin 'im and puttin up with 'im, Scott. Same as the rest of us," Jelly smiled.

Scott smiled back at the grizzled old man. "I suppose I should catch up with him," he sighed and headed for the barn.

Murdoch was not pleased that Johnny took off on his own. He wasn't surprised, either. The more he learned about his son, the harder he found it to stay angry with him for very long.

He had just finished speaking with a hand when he saw a rider approaching. He recognized the sheriff of Morro Coyo and waved.

"Good morning, Gabe."

"Mornin, Murdoch. I got some news on that horse trader."

"Oh, yes. Come on in and have some coffee," Murdoch invited. He'd been so relieved at Johnny's recovery, he'd nearly forgotten about the man.

They settled at the kitchen table and Murdoch waited.

"Well, I sent a wire to Modesto. Sheriff Billings wasn't real happy at the thought of anthrax being around. He jumped right on it and started asking around. Trehorn never made it to town, though. Billings searched the north road for a good thirty miles before he found him."

"Where was he?"

"He'd made camp off the road. Sheriff found him laying in his bedroll, dead. I guess he got the anthrax, too."

Murdoch swallowed hard at this. "What about the animals?"

"Some were sick, some weren't. Billings got the vet out there and they decided the best thing would be to put them all down. They burned the carcasses and buried them real deep. The vet said that was all they could do but he was pretty sure there wasn't any more danger. Billings wired all the towns between Morro Coyo and Modesto. Trehorn hadn't stopped at any other ranches."

"Thank God for that," Murdoch sighed.

Gabe looked up as he suddenly realized something. "I'm sorry, Murdoch. I should have asked first thing. How is Johnny?"

Murdoch smiled at the man. "Much better. He had some side effects from the vaccine. Today is his first day back to work and he took off on his own this morning," he shook his head.

"Sounds like Johnny. Whole town was pretty shook up when they heard. Worried about Johnny and the anthrax. I'm just glad it's over," Gabe said tiredly.

Murdoch frowned. "I hope no one is blaming Abe Martin for this."

"Well, a few weren't too happy with him but things have settled down now. Don't worry bout it, Murdoch."

"Thanks for taking care of it, Gabe."

The sheriff gave a shrug and stood up. "Part of the job. I best be getting back now. Tell Johnny I'm real glad to hear he's better."

"I will and thanks again," Murdoch smiled as he saw the lawman to the door.

"Johnny! You were supposed to wait for me!" Scott chastised as he caught up with his brother.

"Sorry, Boston. I just needed to get movin," he smiled.

Scott shot him a sidelong look. "Well, just don't run off again. At least for today."

"Yes, dad."

Scott reached out and took his arm. Johnny reined in and looked at him, waiting.

"Sometimes, I don't think you realize how much you worry us."

Johnny dropped his eyes. "I'm sure you're right about that."

"It's like ..... like you don't even consider us, Johnny."

He looked back at his brother with utter surprise. "I do."

"Then, it's yourself you don't consider. You really need to stop that."

Johnny nodded, seeming deep in thought. "Okay, Scott. From now on, I'll try to be really selfish."

Scott looked at him for a heartbeat. He then removed his hat and slapped his brother on the arm with it.

Johnny raised that arm in self-defense and laughed. He spurred Barranca on and Scott gave chase.




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