The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Rain, Mud and Other Complications

 

 

 

"Whhooeeee! It's wet out there!" Johnny declared as he stepped into the line shack.

"It came on fast. I hope it lets up just as fast," Murdoch replied as he walked in behind his son.

Johnny removed his slicker and hat then proceeded to light a lamp. Murdoch followed suit and headed for the fireplace.

They worked in silence. Each man taking care of the most basic needs. A fire and some hot coffee. They worked quickly. Their slickers had helped keep them fairly dry but the chill in their bones couldn't be denied.

After a short time, the fire crackled and glowed and the smell of fresh coffee filled the small shack.

Johnny pulled the two chairs from the table close to the fire and handed Murdoch a cup of strong brew. He then poured his own and sat down.

They both stared into the flames for a while, enjoying the coffee and letting it warm them inside.

"It's going to be tough if this rain keeps up. That wagon won't fair too well," Johnny commented.

"I know. The road isn't in very good shape on a dry day. We may have to hold up here a day or two. I'd hate to lose all those supplies after going all the way to Stockton."

Johnny nodded his agreement and stretched his legs out in front of him, slumping into the chair. Thunder boomed overhead and he looked toward the ceiling with raised brows.

"Guess we have plenty of supplies in here. Scott was just up here a few weeks ago," he said.

"Well, I'll see what we have for supper," Murdoch said with a grunt as he rose.

"I can do it."

Murdoch stood to his full height and looked down. "I think I can cook a meal, Johnny."

He shrugged his shoulders and said no more.

*******

Murdoch cooked up a tasty stew and they stayed by the fire as they ate.

"This is good. You been holdin out on us?" Johnny asked, a gleam in his eyes.

"I've cooked many a meal. I figured I'd either get good at it or starve," Murdoch chuckled.

Johnny smiled then shook his head. "I sure hope we don't have to keep going up to Stockton for supplies."

"Bert's rebuilding. That fire really hit him hard. But, he should be back in business before we have to make another trip."

"Hope so. I feel bad for him. He lost everything," Johnny commented softly.

"It could have been worse, I suppose. He could have been trapped in that fire."

"Yeah. Well, think I'll sack in," Johnny stretched his arms and yawned. He stood up and walked over to the door, grabbing the bedroll he'd brought in.

He carried it back to the fire and moved his chair. Then, he rolled it out.

"What are you doing?" Murdoch asked.

"I'm goin to bed," Johnny stated the obvious.

"And who decided that you would sleep on the floor?"

Johnny stopped and stood straight, looking at his father with some exasperation. "Do you want to sleep on the floor?"

"No, but I'm sure you don't either."

"I'm more used to it than you are. Besides, your back might go out again. I don't want to have to haul you all the way to Lancer."

"I've slept on the ground many nights, Johnny."

He sighed heavily and sagged his shoulders. "Could we not argue about every little thing? I'm going to sleep on the floor. You're welcome to join me or use the cot." He finished laying out the bedroll and laid down on his back. Lacing his fingers behind his head, he shifted a little for a better position.

"You know something? You are a stubborn cuss," Murdoch frowned.

Johnny smiled and closed his eyes. "I come by it honest."

******

Murdoch laid on the cot and stared at the ceiling. He was bone tired but couldn't seem to get to sleep. He listened to the rain pouring down and sighed. They were going to have to stay here at least two days, he figured.

It wouldn't bother him so much except it was Johnny. If he were with Scott, it would be fine. He could talk to Scott. All he seemed to do with Johnny was say the wrong thing or get angry.

He turned his head and stared at the sleeping young man by the fire. The glow of the embers danced across Johnny's features. They brought even more life to the handsome face. Murdoch smiled. Yes, he was a handsome young man. They both were. But so different. He shook his head.

He shifted to his side and tried to get comfortable. He wondered if the floor wouldn't have been the better choice. The mattress was old and thin and he could feel the slats underneath. 'Guess I'll have to replace it,' he thought.

His eyes went back to Johnny as he sighed in his sleep and moved a little. Still on his back, Murdoch noticed his right hand was under the cover - always. He didn't have to see that hand to know it was right next to his Colt, either.

'Do you ever relax, son?' he wondered.

Johnny moved a little more and Murdoch thought he might be waking; or dreaming. He hadn't had many opportunities to watch Johnny sleep and he was intrigued. The young man's face was animated and Murdoch stared openly.

He remembered watching his baby boy in sleep. His face was never still then, either. He smiled as he thought there was still a lot of that child in Johnny. He was so boyish at times. So totally not at others.

Murdoch frowned as he remembered watching Johnny face down the Strykers. There was no boy there. Only a man. A very dangerous man, as one Stryker found out quickly. He pushed that memory away for it brought with it his own mistake. Telling Johnny to make up his mind in that split second was foolish and he had almost lost him. Murdoch shook his head to rid it of that line of thought. He closed his eyes and hoped for sleep.

********

Johnny awoke the next morning and stretched like a cat. Murdoch was watching him from the stove and smiled affectionately.

"Good morning," he called out.

"Mornin. Still raining?"

"Cats and dogs."

Johnny sat up and scrubbed a hand over his face. "That'll be messy," he grinned.

"Get yourself together. Breakfast is almost ready."

Johnny jumped up and rolled up his blankets. He went out on the porch and sighed. The rain hadn't let up one bit. He saw a bucket being handed to him and looked over his shoulder.

"The water's hot. Figured you'd want to wash up," Murdoch explained.

"Thanks."

It didn't take long to wash and shave and he walked back inside and settled at the table.

"What it is?"

"Oatmeal and bacon. I tried to make biscuits but ...... well, it wasn't pretty," Murdoch said with chagrin.

Johnny chuckled and dug in with fervor. "Guess we ain't goin nowhere today," he commented.

"No, I guess not."

Johnny heard the disappointment, aggravation and tension in his father's voice and he stiffened a little. He said nothing, though.

"Well, that was good. You can cook for me any time, Murdoch," he smiled as he finished.

"Don't let Teresa know that," he smiled.

"I'm gonna go take care of the horses."

"Thank you, son."

"Fair trade off. If I cooked, you'd shoot me," he laughed.

******

Alone in the cabin, Murdoch went about cleaning up from breakfast. He wished he could kick himself. He knew how he must have sounded to Johnny. He didn't want to convey that message. But, he couldn't help knowing they just didn't get along as well as they should. Well, maybe this time alone is a good thing after all.

Johnny made a mad dash for the barn. Cursing under his breath as he opened the door and jumped inside. The horses balked a little and he glared at them.

"You got nothin to complain about. You're all nice and dry and toasty in here. Got somebody to feed and water ya. Barranca wouldn't act that way," he chastised.

He could swear one of the horses rolled his eyes and Johnny burst out laughing. "Okay, I shouldn't compare you," he said and went about caring for the stock.

Bellies full and nestled in, the horses were quietly content. Johnny pulled his slicker back on and sighed at going back out there. The incentive was the thought of the warm fire awaiting him.

He threw open the door and took a breath, then ran back to the cabin as quickly as he could. Jerking that door open, he nearly fell as the mud on his boots threatened his footing. He slid about a foot before gaining his balance.

He glared as his father laughed at him. "Ya know, I *will* cook."

"No, no. Sorry, son, but it was funny," he chortled.

Johnny relaxed and smiled. "Guess it was," he admitted as he removed the wet slicker and his boots. He set the boots near the fire and sat down where Murdoch had placed the chairs back near the hearth.

"It's really chilly out there," Johnny commented.

"I know. Good thing we made it this far. Now all we have to do is wait," he said a bit glumly.

"Well, I got a deck of cards," Johnny grinned.

They spent the morning playing gin, ending up fairly even in the win/lose columns. Murdoch decided to make lunch and he thoroughly scoured the supply room.

"Johnny, do you know how to make tortillas?"

"Sure do."

"Good, we can have something different."

They worked together, making small talk as they went. Murdoch constructed that small talk around subjects that interested him about his son. If Johnny knew what he was up to, he didn't show it.

They talked about horses, Mexican food and gunsmithing. Johnny picked up the plates and started for the sink. Murdoch smiled a little at the gesture.

"Anything else you want to know about me, Murdoch?" he asked when his back was to his father.

"What?" he feigned ignorance.

Johnny laughed. "Well, we've been talking about things I know about. I figured you were playin me for information."

"Yes, there is one more thing. How'd you get so smart?" the rancher chided.

Johnny laughed again. "Life. Now, what are we going to do for entertainment?"

"I have no idea," Murdoch said flatly.

"You can't stand bein cooped up either, can you?"

"No, son, I can't. It isn't the company," he said, adding the second sentence quickly.

Johnny didn't reply.

Murdoch turned in his chair. "Johnny?"

"Yeah?"

"Are you alright?"

"Sure."

Murdoch got up and walked over, taking a plate and drying it. "I guess I do feel a little awkward when it's just us. I keep thinking I'm going to say the wrong thing."

"I know." All his replies had been clipped and Murdoch sighed.

"We could spend this time talking," he suggested.

"About what?"

"You, me, the ranch, Scott, the rain - anything," Murdoch retorted.

"Okay."

"One and two word replies doesn't lead to much of a conversation, son."

Johnny looked up at him. "Sorry. Guess I just ..... I worry about sayin the wrong thing to you, too."

They finished the dishes and sat by the fire again. The rain could still be heard pounding on the roof.

"The creeks are gonna flood," Johnny commented.

"I know. I've been worried about that."

"Scott and I cleaned them all out. Should hold back some of it. Still ...."

Murdoch smiled a little. "You worry about the ranch."

"Sure. I do care, Murdoch."

"I see that, son. Every day, I see that. And I'm grateful both of you care so deeply."

"Some people take land for granted. I've seen it abused and raped by mining and milling. They just don't get that it won't come back."

Murdoch nodded. "It was a battle to keep the miners off Lancer in the beginning."

Murdoch told Johnny story after story about when he first arrived in California. The young man was fascinated. He'd never seen this side of his father. He loved hearing about it all. He laughed at some of the tales Murdoch told about Catherine's experiences in the wilderness.

By the time evening came, they both felt more at ease with each other than ever before.

****

Murdoch stopped after a story and frowned.

"What?" Johnny asked.

"I'm hungry," he said, rubbing his stomach.

"Yeah, me too. It's later than I thought. I really enjoyed this, Murdoch. Thanks."

"I enjoyed it too, son. It's nice to remember the early days. Well, how about I just heat up that stew."

"Sounds good to me."

They ate by the fire. Johnny was deep in thought. "You should tell Scott some of those stories about his mother. He'd get a kick out of it."

"You think so?"

"Sure. He told me his grandfather talked about her all the time. But he always had her as a perfect angel. Scott said it was a nice image but he found it hard to believe she was *that* perfect," he laughed.

"Maybe not, but she came close," Murdoch smiled in fond remembrance.

Johnny smiled at this. Murdoch's love for his first wife was obvious. He felt a little sadness at her passing. Then again, if she hadn't, he wouldn't be here.

"I guess we should try to get some sleep," Murdoch said.

"Yeah. You know I used to be able to sleep easy. Now, it's hard when I've just been sittin around all day. I'm not even tired."

"Physical labor looks good on you, son. You've filled out well, as has your brother."

"Well, Scott needed some filling out. He sure was skinny when he came here," he laughed.

Murdoch agreed wholeheartedly. But, to look at him now, one would never suspect Scott Lancer led a life of ease in Boston. He took to ranching like a fish takes to water. He was very proud of his son.

Johnny got up and grabbed his bedroll and Murdoch went to the cot and pulled the covers off.

"What are you doing?"

"Well, son, that cot about killed me last night. It needs a new mattress. I'd rather sleep by the fire."

"I'll put that on the list of things we buy when Bert reopens," Johnny smiled.

********

Murdoch laid there and stared at the fire for a long while. He wasn't tired either and sleep was not easily forthcoming. He thought about the day and evening and smiled.

It had been good; very good. He enjoyed telling Johnny about the early days and his son seemed to hang on ever word. He frowned suddenly as he heard a different noise from the usual night sounds.

He raised up on his elbow, head still cocked, straining to listen. It was a familiar sound but one he couldn't place.

Suddenly, it came to him. Johnny sat bolt upright and looked over at him with wide eyes. He knew what it was, too.

Murdoch lunged at Johnny. He landed on top of his son and wrapped his arms tightly around him as the world turned upside down.

Johnny's first reaction was to grab hold of Murdoch. His next was to get himself on top of his father. He struggled against the bigger man as he felt them moving. It was surreal and he felt off balance.

Murdoch was fighting just as hard to stay on top of Johnny; to protect him. He felt panic surge inside him for his son and he would not let go.

They started moving downward and could hear wood splintering and cracking. The sound surrounding them, engulfing their senses. The only thing louder was the roar.

They felt themselves hit the wall and keep right on going as the entire shack started to slide down. Johnny thought briefly of the fireplace but getting burned was not on the top of his list of things to worry about.

Debris fell on and around them. Murdoch took the brunt of the abuse as Johnny tried to roll him over.

Then, he did roll, and roll. Over and over they turned. One on top, then the other as they thought they would never stop falling. Still, they clung tightly to each other.

Johnny felt his hold slipping and he clutched Murdoch's shirt with all his strength. They both continued, head over feet, down the side of the mountain.

******

He heard sound first. A bird singing. It was a pleasant sound and he listened for a while. Soon enough, his attention was drawn away. He felt something heavy on top of him. Crushing his chest. He couldn't get a good breath and his eyes flew open.

He was lying on his back. He could see the sky. Gray clouds scattered amongst the blue. He turned his attention to the cause of his discomfort and saw his father lying on top of him.

Johnny tried to move but his arms were pinned. He took as deep a breath as he could and whispered his father's name. There was no response. Fear flowed through him and he heaved upward with all his might. Turning to the side ever so slightly, he was able to get a little relief.

"Murdoch!" he called more loudly, praying his father was alive.

He heard a groan and tears of relief filled his eyes. He blinked them away quickly and waited for his father to come around, calling to him more softly but insistently.

Murdoch blinked several times, feeling disoriented and heavy. He groaned again then heard Johnny's voice.

"Johnny?"

"Can you move? I can't breathe," Johnny said a bit flippantly.

Murdoch tested his fortitude, raising his body off his son. Nothing screamed at him, so he moved more.

Johnny took a deep breath and sighed. "Whew! You're heavy. Are you hurt?"

"I don't think so," Murdoch frowned. He got to his knees and twisted at his waist. He felt some soreness but nothing seemed broken and he made it to his feet. "Just bruised and scraped. A nice lump on my head. You?"

Johnny closed his eyes for just a second, relieved his father was alright. A little stunned as well. He started to raise up, then stopped half-way as white hot pain seared from his back.

"Damn!" he cursed and his head fell back.

Murdoch knelt down and laid a hand on his chest. "Where?"

"My back," he grunted, his left hand going to the spot.

"I'll have to turn you over," Murdoch said regretfully.

Johnny only nodded and tried to help.

Murdoch could see nothing but mud at first. He found the tail of Johnny's shirt and lifted the clodded mess. "Good Lord!"

"What is it?"

Murdoch bit his lip and wished he hadn't said it. "There's a piece of wood in your back," he said, trying to sound casual.

"Well, pull it out," Johnny said tersely.

"I ..... I can't just now. It's pretty big, son. I need to find someplace to set up a camp."

Johnny moved his left hand around to feel the area. His eyes widened in dismay. "It's a tree trunk!"

"Not quite, but it's a good sized piece. Can you stand it a little while longer?"

"Don't have much choice," Johnny muttered.

Murdoch patted his arm and rose to his feet. He looked around for the first time.

His stomach lurched at the destruction around him. He couldn't help but wonder how they had survived it all. The shack was gone. Chunks and splinters of wood strewn for miles. The only thing left intact was part of the fireplace, the hearth, that was it. Tree limbs the size of his leg were thrown about like matchsticks. Vegetation covered in mire.

He heard laughter and looked down at his son. Wondering if he'd hit his head as well. "What's so funny?"

"You are. You should see yourself. You're covered in mud," Johnny laughed, only to stop when the pain interrupted his fun.

Murdoch smiled. "You don't look too dapper yourself, young man."

He looked back up at the barn and almost cursed aloud. There was only one wall left. He wondered why it had been spared. He trudged up the hill, sinking in the muck, and looked at what was left of the inside.

His stomach churned once more. Both draft horses lay dead. The wagon torn to pieces. The supplies in ruin. He took a deep breath and started rummaging around. Hoping he could find something salvageable to use on Johnny's wound.

Murdoch gathered what he could and carried it down to where Johnny lay.

"There isn't much left. How are you feeling?"

"Hurts some. I'm okay," he whispered.

Murdoch knew that was bull. He shook his head. "I'm going to see if I can find shelter."

"There's an old mine," Johnny suggested.

Murdoch nodded. "I remember. I'll be right back."

"Hey. Be careful," Johnny called.

He turned back and looked in his son's eyes. He smiled and nodded.

******

The mine had survived. The mouth in the direction the mudslide had headed. This kept it from being filled in. He walked inside and nodded in satisfaction. It was dry at least and he could build a fire if he could find some dry wood.

He returned to Johnny and reported his findings. Then he carried the rest of the supplies to the cave and returned for his son. Murdoch stood there and considered the best way to move the injured man.

"I can walk if you help me to my feet," Johnny said, seeing his dilemma.

"Are you sure?"

"Won't know til we try," he smiled a little.

Murdoch reached around him and pulled him to his feet. Johnny staggered into him and Murdoch held tight, giving him time to find his balance.

After a minute, Johnny pulled back a little. Breathing heavily, he whispered, "I can make it."

Murdoch figured not but he would let Johnny find out for himself. There was no point in arguing. That much he knew. He held Johnny around his upper back and they started out.

Johnny limped along, leaning more and more on his father for support. It wasn't far, he knew that. He could make it, he was sure. But the fire was building in his back and he was having a hard time focusing on the task.

Ten feet from the mine, he crumpled. Murdoch grabbed hold tighter and all but dragged him inside. He had a blanket laid out. It was muddy and wet but there was no choice.

Johnny moaned through clenched teeth as he relaxed onto the ground. He laid just off his left side.

"There's a stream just to the west of here. I'm going to go wash out these other blankets and shirts. I'll see if I can find some dry wood for a fire, too. I found two canteens so drinking water won't be a problem." Murdoch rambled on, looking around to see if he'd forgotten anything.

Johnny watched him. He saw the fear and it was oddly comforting. "Murdoch, I'm okay, go on," he said gently.

"Right," he said, but still lingered a second longer before leaving quickly.

'Yep, I'm as right as rain,' he thought sardonically.

*******

Murdoch returned an hour later, arms laden. He dropped the wood and laid the blankets and shirts on rocks to dry. Johnny had his eyes closed and he assumed his son was sleeping. He started building a fire.

Murdoch looked up to see Johnny watching him with great interest. He smiled.

"Where'd you find the wood?"

"I can be resourceful. As soon as those blankets dry, I'll get you on something more comfortable. I found a pail. I'll wash off that wound and tend to it as soon as the water heats."

"I feel like I weigh a ton," Johnny sighed.

Murdoch chuckled. "I don't doubt it. You look like a mud monster."

Johnny laughed a little. He could imagine he did. He sure felt like one. The mud was starting to dry and it pulled at his skin. It was a miserable feeling. His eyes danced as he took in his father.

"I see you found time for a bath."

"I jumped in the stream. It's amazingly calm already," he laughed.

The fire jumped to life and Murdoch got his first good look at Johnny since returning. He nearly gasped aloud.

Johnny was shivering head to toe. He'd wrapped his arms around himself and curled into a ball.

"God, son. Why didn't you say something?"

"Why? Would it have made you get the fire started faster?"

Murdoch shook his head. He set the water on the fire and grabbed a canteen. Lifting Johnny's head, he put the canteen to his lips.

He drank hungrily and Murdoch had to make him stop before he got sick. Johnny's skin was cold, what he could feel of it through the mud.

"Can you feel the heat from the fire?"

"Yeah, I feel it. Kind of like a candle flame though," he laughed a little.

Murdoch stepped over him and laid down. He wrapped his arms around Johnny, careful of the wound. "We'll just stay like this until you warm up some. The water will take a while anyway."

Johnny swallowed hard. The glow he felt had nothing to do with Murdoch's body heat or the fire. He hoped that water would never boil.

But it did boil and Murdoch moved away from him. He felt the chill inside and out. He felt the disappointment, too.

Murdoch washed his face and arms and slid his shirt off. He turned his attention to the wound and grimaced.

"Johnny, I don't know about this."

"It has to come out. Just do it," he said firmly.

"Alright. Bear with me."

Murdoch took a firm hold of the wood and began to pull. He felt resistant immediately. Johnny sucked in a breath and held it, waiting.

"It won't come easily. I'm afraid I'll do more damage," Murdoch voiced.

"Can't leave it in, either. I'll take my chances. Just yank it out of there," Johnny said through gritted teeth.

Murdoch closed his eyes for a quick prayer. Then he took a deep breath and held it. He pulled with all his might and the stake came out. With it came tissue and blood. Murdoch looked at the wood and felt sick. He tossed it aside and focused on the blood pouring from Johnny's back.

He tried to ignore the yell that came from his son when the stake was removed. Johnny was grasping a small rock he'd found. His face was white and sweat covered it. He breathed in short gasps, trying to control his reactions.

Murdoch slapped the piece of cloth over the wound and pressed hard. This sent Johnny reeling again and he closed his eyes tightly. Murdoch could hear him gritting his teeth.

"I'm sorry, son," he whispered.

Johnny could only nod. He couldn't speak at the moment. He was too busy wishing he would pass out.

"I'm going to have to wash it out, Johnny."

"Okay," he breathed out.

Murdoch removed the cloth and the blood flowed. He poured the now warm water into the wound and Johnny went into orbit.

He grabbed at the dirt beneath his hand and groaned loudly.

Murdoch worked as quickly as he could. Unable to imagine the agony his boy was going through. Johnny let out a heavy sigh and went limp. Murdoch froze for a second until he saw Johnny's chest move.

He went back to his task, grateful his son had lost consciousness. He stripped the young man and washed him down while he had the chance. Then, he took his clothes to the stream to wash. Now that the blankets were dry, he bundled Johnny up before leaving him.

********

Johnny awoke slowly, measuring his condition as he became aware. He allowed himself to remember before opening his eyes. The pain in his back let itself be known before that happened.

Slowly, he managed to open his eyes. The first thing he saw was the fire. Sitting across from it was his father, staring into the flames. He looked deep in thought and Johnny didn't want to disturb him. But his throat was dry as the desert and he couldn't see a canteen nearby.

Suddenly, Murdoch looked up at him. Moving quickly, he grabbed the canteen and moved to his son. After Johnny drank his fill, Murdoch eased his head back down and touched his forehead with the back of his hand.

"You're burning up."

"No surprise there," Johnny whispered.

"I've been thinking. There's no way anyone will find us here," he started.

"You'll have to go for help," Johnny nodded.

"I can't leave you here alone."

"No choice," he said shortly.

Murdoch watched him, knew he was hiding the pain and illness he felt. "It'll take a day at least, maybe two."

Johnny looked into his eyes and smiled a little. "I'll be okay. I can hang on that long and longer if I have to. Don't worry about me."

Murdoch shook his head. "Oh, okay. I'll just forget that you're sick as a dog and be on my way," he shot. He stood up and walked around the fire. "I swear sometimes, I don't understand you."

"What are you so mad about?" Johnny asked, surprised by the reaction.

"Don't worry about you? If I wasn't worried about you, I'd stay here and wait it out!"

Johnny sighed softly and dropped his eyes. "It's just an expression, Murdoch. Didn't mean to ruffle you feathers."

Murdoch calmed down and went to sit next to him. "I thought I'd leave at first light. If I'm lucky, I'll run into someone on the road."

"Just be careful. It's still muddy and slippery out there. You could slide right off the mountain."

Murdoch chuckled a little. "I thought we already had."

******

He snared a rabbit and roasted it over the flames. Johnny wasn't the least bit hungry but he ate a little for Murdoch's sake. He watched curiously as his father laid out strips of the meat near the fire.

"Drying it out so you'll have something to eat while I'm gone," he answered the unspoken question. "I'll leave a full canteen and wood for the fire near you. I cleaned your gun, it's right by your head."

"I know."

'Of course you do. Probably the only thing you did notice,' he thought sadly.

"You better get some sleep. It's a long walk to Lancer," Johnny spoke.

"I will. I hope I don't have to go that far."

"Nothin else much around. No people anyway," Johnny shrugged.

"You're shirt and pants are dry. I'll help you dress in a minute," Murdoch continued. He glanced over with a small smile on his face. "I wouldn't want you to be caught unprepared."

Johnny grinned. "Depends on who catches me. Some pretty little senorita - might be a plus."

Murdoch laughed with him. It felt good to relieve a little of the pressure he was feeling. It didn't last long as he noticed the smile on his son's face turn to a grimace of pain.

"I'll change those bandages, too."

"With what?" Johnny gritted out.

"I still have a little of my other shirt left. It'll be enough."

"Don't suppose you saw any aloe plants around?" Johnny asked.

"I didn't notice, why?"

"Might take some of the sting out."

"I'll look around before it gets too dark. Be right back," he said and stood up.

"I'll be here," Johnny smiled.

*******

He didn't find any aloe but he found some willow bark and stripped it. He boiled it and made Johnny drink the bitter brew. He made a large amount and made his son promise to drink it often. It would at least help with the fever and pain, he hoped.

Murdoch changed the bandages and made himself stay quiet when he saw the red and festered wound. He knew he was going to have to make quick time at getting that help. He even considered starting out that night.

But there was no moon and all he was sure he would manage would be to break a leg, or worse. He cursed silently at the helpless feeling he had.

Once the bandages were changed, he dressed Johnny, who felt immensely better with his clothes on.

Johnny had remained quiet and stalwart through it all. Murdoch was astonished by his ability to hide his pain. He had seen it before but it was always a surprise to him.

"You know, son, it's not a weakness to let out the pain," he said softly.

"Yes, it is."

"Not in front of me, it isn't," Murdoch argued gently.

Johnny sighed. "Would you like me to cry?"

"If you feel like it."

"Well, I don't!" he stated adamantly.

"Fine!" he bristled.

Johnny closed his eyes and cursed himself. "I guess you didn't find that whiskey in all that mess up there, huh?"

"I found it, or what was left of it. Shattered in a million pieces."

"Just my luck," he mumbled.

He managed to drift off once the pain sudsided a little. Murdoch watched him closely and wished dawn would get there sooner. He closed his own eyes and rested his head against the wall of the mine.

Murdoch's head jerked forward and he looked about dazedly. Gaining his equilibrium, he focused on Johnny.

His face was covered in sweat and Murdoch prayed the fever had broken. He moved quickly to his son and checked. But he was still on fire and Murdoch hung his head defeatedly.

"Hey," Johnny whispered.

Murdoch looked up into the smoky blue eyes. "Hey, yourself."

"Time is it?"

"Early morning. Almost dawn. I'll get you something to eat then head out."

"Not hungry," he mumbled.

"You promised me, Johnny," Murdoch reminded.

He looked at the old man for a minute, then grinned. "Yeah, I did, didn't I? Okay."

Murdoch smiled back and went about his tasks. Once Johnny had eaten very little and drank some willow bark 'tea', he packed up and got ready to head out.

He filled the canteen and checked Johnny's gun. Then, he laid firewood near the younger man. Last minute instructions and reiterated promises were made but Murdoch hesitated.

"You better get goin," Johnny said.

"I hate this," he replied miserably.

"I know. It'll be okay."

Murdoch laid a hand on the side of his head and smiled. "I'll be back as soon as I can. I won't let you down, son."

"I know you won't," Johnny smiled back.

Murdoch stood and walked to the mine entrance, then stopped and looked back. Johnny looked so frail laying there alone. His throat felt tight as he waved once then disappeared.

*******

He watched his father's back vanish into the early morning light. Sighing, he looked into the flames and felt the warmth. It did nothing to warm him inside. Cold fear was clutching his gut. Fear for his father out there alone. He knew Murdoch could take care of himself but anything could happen. Anything.

As he gingerly made his way down the muddy mountain trail, Murdoch had to fight to stay focused. His thoughts kept going back to the mine and he slipped a few times. Cursing himself for not paying attention, he forced Johnny to the back of his mind.

He felt too hot and needed to throw the blankets off him. He desperately wanted to do that. But Murdoch's words kept haunting his thoughts. Stay covered up, stay warm. Drink. He sighed and lifted the canteen to his lips. The water was cool and refreshing but he made himself take small sips. Can't get sick. Besides, can't get more water either. He figured the easiest thing would be to just go to sleep.

It wasn't as far as he thought to the road and Murdoch was most grateful. He estimated only two hours on foot. He stood there for a minute and caught his breath, looking up and down the road. Mustering his strength, he set off for home. All the while, praying someone friendly would come along.

Johnny's eyes flew open and he started to sit up. Pain cut through him like a knife and he fell back. His dream was more than disturbing. Seeing Murdoch lying in the road, still as death, blood pouring from his chest. He tried to shake it off but the image would not leave him. Was it just a dream? Surely, it was. He wasn't exactly a seer. He smiled to himself for his nonsense. He was just worried, it was just a dream. Sighing, he closed his eyes again.

He trudged along the seemingly endless road. He allowed his thoughts to run free, hoping they would keep him sane until he found help. He laughed aloud as he thought about the ludicrous idea that he'd gone the wrong way. Wouldn't that be something? Walking and walking only to find himself damn near in Mexico!

Johnny awoke again after a nightmare. Soaked with sweat, he wiped his face and grabbed the canteen. He took a sip and realized it wasn't just his face that was wet. He frowned as he tried to get his mind to concentrate on what was wrong. Because something was definitely wrong here.

He reached behind himself slowly. Taking heed of the fire in his back. His hand found the ground and realized it was wet. Johnny sucked in a breath through his clenched teeth and turned slowly to find the source. He cursed aloud when he saw it.

Murdoch's feet felt like they weighed fifty pounds each. His back screamed with each step. He knew where he was and he knew there was a pond close. It will only take a minute and then I can move faster, he thought. He settled at the water's edge and removed his boots. Shaking them about one at a time in the clear blue pond, he got the majority of the mud off. Now, I can get going.

"Water? Where the hell is it coming from?" Johnny asked aloud, knowing he would get no answer. But it was there and it seemed to be rising. He hoped he was just delusional from the fever but he knew better. Laying his hand flat of the ground, he knew it was indeed rising. Already, it was nearly covering his hand.

It didn't take much deducing to know he had to get out of that mine. Pretty soon, it would flood completely. But how? Come on, Madrid, this is nothing. Got a little stick in your back now you're actin like a baby. Been hurt a lot worse than this and rode half way across Mexico. Summoning his strength and resolve, Johnny began the slow process of getting to his feet.

*****

Murdoch concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. His eyes locked onto his feet as they moved. He had given up the quick pace, knowing it would eventually hinder him more than help. But, inside his guts were screaming at him to run. He couldn't stop thinking about how Johnny looked lying there. Alone and sick and damned near defenseless.

What if some saddletramp happened along looking for shelter? What if they decided they didn't want to share the space? What if a bear came into the mine looking for a spot to nap? He shook his head and tried to stop the imaginings.

Johnny figured it took him about a week to make it to his feet. He staggered out of the mine, his feet already sloshing in the rising water, and put his hand to his eyes. The sun was shining brightly and it was painful until he became accustomed. He had his canteen slung over his right shoulder. His gun belt strapped snuggly around his hips. He figured he was as ready for anything as he could be given the circumstances.

He got his bearings and found the trail. He looked down it and sighed. This is gonna be hard, he thought. Taking a deep breath, he headed out slowly. He used the bushes and tree limbs to keep himself from sliding.

He came to an area that was clear of anything he could use for a hand hold and he stopped. He looked at the ground then around himself. He saw a large limb lying off the trail and retrieved it. Bending over to grab it brought a surge of pain to his back and he sucked in a breath. Leaning on the limb, he took a minute to let the fire ease before starting out again.

He took that moment to notice his boots. They were covered in mud. He was only grateful that Murdoch had put them on for him last night. He couldn't imagine having to deal with that chore. Still, the mud weighed him down and raising his feet to walk brought agony to his wound.

"I think I could do that crying now, old man," he said aloud, then laughed at himself. Murdoch was going to kill him for pulling this stunt, anyway. He reckoned having a good cry wouldn't help matters.

He started down the trail again, his crutch in his right hand. He hated that but had no choice. Any use of his left arm left him incapacitated with pain. He took a step and felt himself slide. He leaned into the limb and felt it give. He heard the crack as the limb snapped under his weight. Then, he felt himself going down.

Johnny rolled down the trail, catching small limbs and rocks and mud as he went. He came to a stop and laid there, stunned. Trying to find his breath, remember how to breathe at all. His lungs reminded him of their own accord and he sucked in a hitching breath followed by a coughing fit that sent pinpoints of white light before his eyes.

Once he was finally able to breathe somewhat normally, albeit heavily, he looked up at the blue sky. He started to laugh at the ridiculous situation he found himself in.

"Sure, nice and bright and sunny now. Where were you a couple of days ago?" he asked the heavens.

*******

Murdoch felt like he was in a dream world. Waves of dizziness assaulted him. They caused him to swagger like a drunk but he refused to stop. They would pass for a while before coming on again. He knew his head injury was worse than he let on. The constant headache he'd had since awakening from the mudslide had only gotten worse. Now, out in the hot sun, he felt like someone was working away with a sledgehammer.

He refused to stop, though. He had told Johnny he would get help and that was exactly what he was going to do. Even if it killed him. He thought it just might, too. He had to stop for just a minute to catch his breath and get his bearings. He had done this a few times. He knew it was foolish to just trudge along. It was too easy to get off trail. Especially since he was so damned dizzy.

He looked around and smiled. Should be home in a couple of hours, he thought. As long as I keep this pace, that is. Feeling some surge of renewal at being so close to help, he started out again.

Scott walked outside after supper with his brandy snifter. The evening air promised to be cooler and he looked forward to it after the hot day. He leaned against a support column and breathed in the air. A smile playing at his lips as he appreciated the quiet. Well, as quiet as a ranch ever was, he thought.

As nice as it was, he missed them. They were overdue but not much and he knew it was nothing to worry about. Knew it happened all the time. Delays were to be expected. That storm in the mountains two days ago had him concerned and for good reason. He'd spent all day checking the streams and brooks. There was quite a bit of flooding, but luckily, no real damage.

He chuckled a little at the thought of Murdoch's worry. He was probably driving Johnny crazy right now about all the problems he was sure he'd come home to.

He was just about to go back in when something caught his eye. Movement near the gate. He peered through the gathering dusk, sure he'd seen something. Scott stepped out into the yard and watched the gate.

His eyes widened in surprise that was quickly replaced with fear. He shouted for Jelly at the top of his lungs.

"What in tarnation?" Jelly huffed as he ran around the house.

"There's someone out there. I .... I think it's Murdoch," Scott explained.

Jelly looked and did see someone on foot. He couldn't make out who it was but Scott seemed pretty sure. He hurried to the barn and saddled a horse.

Scott rode out to meet whoever it was. His heart nearly stopped when he saw it was indeed his father. Sliding off the mount, he approached Murdoch, grabbing his arm to keep him from walking right past him.

"Murdoch? What happened?"

He looked up and into the blue depths of his sons eyes. Murdoch nearly crumpled as Scott took the brunt of his weight. He managed to get the big man on the bay and jumped on behind him.

Jelly and Teresa waited anxiously for them to ride the short distance. Scott dismounted and pulled Murdoch down as gently as he could.

"Easy now. Let's get you inside," he spoke gently.

"No! Scott, Johnny's hurt. He ....." he stopped to catch his breath.

"Get a wagon ready, Jelly. And some medical supplies. Johnny's hurt."

Jelly only nodded and took off.

"Men. We need men," Murdoch huffed out.

"Men? Why?"

"Had to leave him in a mine. Muddy, slippery...." he gasped.

Scott understood the broken sentences and tensed. "Alright. We'll take care of everything. Right now, you need to sit down."

Murdoch shook his head and tried to pull away.

"Listen to me, sir! You are not helping Johnny. Let me get you inside and I'll go get him," Scott spoke harshly.

Murdoch acquiesced and allowed his son to help him into the house.

*******

Johnny decided he best be getting off his back now. He rolled to his right side and raised up on his elbow. Well, at least I got down the mountain, he laughed aloud at the thought.

He only had a few hundred more yards to go before he knew he would break out of the foliage and onto the road. Getting to his feet took every ounce of strength he had, though. He leaned against the tree that had stopped his descent and rested. A sheen of sweat covered his face as he bit back the pain.

He was covered in mud and dirt again. He wished he'd stayed put but he knew he couldn't. He would have drowned in that mine. He had figured it was an underground stream or river that broke through the floor at some weakened spot. Just my luck, he thought.

He took one step and nearly went down again. Grabbing the tree, he managed to stay upright. He held out his left leg and moved the ankle, sending shooting pains all the way to his thigh. "Great! What's next?" he wondered aloud.

With a sigh, he tested the ankle again. It hurt like hell, but he was pretty sure it was only a sprain. Knowing he had no choice, he limped onward.

Finding the trail again was the easy part. It was still a downward spiral and he was at even less of an advantage now. Still, he maintained his resolve and his right hand went unthinkingly to his hip. He patted the Colt, a little reassurance, anyway.

Using limbs and bushes for leverage, he picked his way along slowly. It was hard to know what time it was. The floral ceiling above him was thick and blocked out most of the sun. Of course, he was freezing, too.

Shaking his head, he wondered how a person could freeze and sweat at the same time. He knew how sick he was. But he figured if he didn't at least get to the road, they'd never find him.

He never doubted for a second that Murdoch would find help. After all, he'd promised. Johnny smiled a little. Thinking of how worried his father had been was heartbreaking. At the same time, it was comforting.

*******

While he waited on the wagon, Scott laid his father on the sofa. He could get him no further than that. Murdoch was not cooperating. He kept saying Johnny's name over and over. Scott feared for his brother but he needed to take care of his father as well.

They laid him down, half his legs dangling off the end of the couch, and covered him with a quilt. Teresa brought water and whiskey then swept from the room for towels and supplies.

"Where are you hurt?" Scott asked.

Murdoch shook his head back and forth slowly. "Not, just tired. Head hurts. Johnny."

"Jelly's gathering supplies and men. We'll find him, sir. How badly is he hurt?"

Murdoch opened his eyes and looked pitiably at his son. "Bad. We stopped at the line shack. The rain. Mudslide. Went careening down the mountain. Johnny ...... piece of wood in his back," he managed and held up his hand to indicate the width of the offending stake.

Scott swallowed hard, praying his father was exaggerating in his condition. Somehow, he didn't think so, however.

Teresa returned and began bathing his face and speaking softly to him. Scott looked up and saw the wagon through the French doors. He left his father in her capable hands with a reassurrance that he would bring Johnny home.

Outside, Jelly informed him he'd already sent for the doctor. Scott looked at the near black night and sighed. Jelly had attached lanterns to the front of the wagon and it looked like that was going to be their only light.

******

He decided he wasn't going to make it any farther. He may as well just sit himself down and wait. Johnny cursed himself for not bringing a blanket with him. Even his jacket had been a victim of mother nature.

He was so cold. He couldn't remember ever being this cold. He'd walked out of that mine with nothing but water and a gun. It's a wonder I lived past ten, he snorted.

He staggered to the side of the road and sat on a large boulder. A sigh of relief escaped him as he felt the heat still held in the rock. He knew it wouldn't last the night but he would take what he could get.

He looked up at the velvet sky but it didn't bring him the usual comfort. No moon. A gazillion stars but no moon to light their path. They'd have to wait til morning. That is, if Murdoch had even made it home.

Fear cramped his gut at that thought and he quickly shook it away. Of course he made it. Nobody's tougher than my old man.

My old man. He laughed softly. It still stunned him sometimes. He'd be going along, minding his own business and it would just hit him. I have a family. He knew that probably didn't mean a lot to a lot of people but for him, it was everything.

He would have given anything to have had it all his life. But he knew the not having was what made him appreciate it more deeply. He slid down to the ground, resting his back on the warm rock and leaned his head back against it.

Getting all ..... what did Scott call it? He frowned and then relaxed as he found the word. Philosophical. Smiling at the mere thought of his brother, he nodded. Yep, philosophical, that's it. Scott would be proud.

He swallowed at the sudden lump in his throat. Scott. Brother. Friend. Compadre in everything. Okay, mi amigo, how about pulling my sorry hide out of this mess I'm in. He laughed aloud and thought of how he'd tease his brother.

******

Scott's face was set in a grim expression. Lips tight, jaw twitching occasionally. His eyes never left the road. He knew Johnny all too well. It would shock him to his core if they actually found the man in that mine.

He could hear the flippant excuses now. I got lonely. I just went for a stroll. I heard a dog bark and wanted to see if it was alright. Scott's jaw tightened even more. Johnny's laissez faire approach to his own life wore thin sometimes.

How he could stand up for others so diligently yet give no thought to, nor have respect for, his own life, was a mystery.

Well, Mr. John Lancer, I just hope you realize the consequences of your actions. And if you don't, I'll be happy to spell them out for you.

Jelly watched as Scott's face twitched every now and then. He knew that look and it wasn't good. Scott was angry and he was scared. He understood it. He was feelin that fear part hisself. The anger was what he didn't understand. Maybe he's just mad at the situation. He hoped so. He couldn't imagine Scott was mad at Johnny. Weren't his fault they got caught in a mudslide.

He figured he'd best pay attention to the road instead of Scott. He sure didn't want to drive right past Johnny in the dark. Scott wasn't the only one who figured Johnny wouldn't sit still that long.

Jelly's eyes widened at the same time as he jerked back on the reins. Scott looked over, about to chastise him, when he saw the old man's expression. Following his gaze, Scott sucked in a breath.

"Johnny!"

Scott approached the form cautiously. Head down, chin resting on his chest and a Colt .45 dangling from his right hand. He didn't know if his brother was asleep or unconscious. He had learned early on not to alarm Johnny unnecessarily.

He knelt quietly beside the man and reached out, taking the gun easily from Johnny's limp hand. This only served to worry him more. Now he knew, Johnny was unconscious.

Jelly knelt on the other side of him. "Where's he hurt?"

"Murdoch said his back but not where exactly," Scott replied, lifting his brother's head up and back. "Let's lean him forward and get a look."

"Right. Don't wanna start haulin 'im off til we know what's hurtin," Jelly nodded and pulled him forward.

Scott lifted his shirt and saw the crimson colored bandage. He cringed a little as he helped Jelly ease him back down. He didn't think they could do much more harm so Scott ordered the men to carry Johnny to the wagon bed.

The three vaqueros did just that without any need to be cautioned. They handled Johnny like a newborn. Scott instructed them to return ahead and take his horse. He rode in the wagon with his brother.

"Let's go, Jelly," he called and felt Johnny's fiery hot skin. He started putting cool compresses to his brother's head as they lunged and jolted back to the ranch.

******

Sam was waiting, having gotten coherent details from Murdoch once he'd rested a little. He had Teresa prepare all he thought he'd need as he examined Murdoch's head. He reported that it would take more than mother nature's gentle hand to do any real damage.

The riders came in and Murdoch would not lie down again. He agreed to at least sit until Scott and Jelly brought his youngest home. Hearing the wagon, he was on his feet and out the door before Sam could stop him.

Murdoch went to the back and looked in, frowning.

"We found him on the side of the road," Scott reported.

"Jose told me. I don't know how or why he made it down that mountain," he shook his head ruefully.

"You didn't really expect him to stay put, did you?" Scott shot in an aggravated tone.

Murdoch ignored it and watched as they carried Johnny in and up to his room. Teresa was there waiting with the bed ready, medical supplies at hand.

Sam went right to work on his patient, shooing all but Teresa from the room.

Out in the hall, Scott studied his father's beleagured face. "Why don't you rest? It's going to be a while before we know anything."

Murdoch scowled at him. "I'll rest on the sofa," he grumped and walked away.

Jelly rolled his eyes and shrugged his shoulders at the futility of the suggestion.

******

Sam worked long and hard to clean the wound thoroughly. He didn't like what he saw. He debrided a large area that had already necrosed. There was nothing left to stitch together. With luck, the wound would close of its own accord.

He stretched out his aching back and looked at Teresa for the first time. She was as white as the sheet.

"I had no choice. I know it looks awful to you but, to me, it actually looks better. Bigger, but better. We'll have to pack it and let it heal from the inside out. The dressings will have to be changed three times a day and it's going to hurt."

She nodded through the explanation and instructions. She trusted Sam but she'd never seen a wound that large before. She took a deep breath and started cleaning up.

Sam went downstairs and reported pretty much the same to the Lancers.

"How long will it take to heal?" Murdoch wanted to know.

"It's impossible to tell. I cleaned the wound but the infection is in his blood. He'll have to fight that off before any real healing can take place. He still has a high fever. Someone will have to sit with him. That will not be you, Murdoch! Not until you've had some real rest anyway."

Scott smiled and Murdoch scowled but he didn't argue the point.


******

Johnny opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. He recognized it and the familiar feel of his own room.

"It's alright, Johnny."

"Murdoch?" he whispered and turned his head.

He frowned and looked curiously at the young man. "Who did you think it was?"

"I .... I thought you were hurt," he creaked out.

More than anything in the world, Johnny wanted to hug his father. He reached out haltingly and found he couldn't do it. Dammit! Damn me!

Murdoch saw the slight movement, saw his son's face and his heart nearly broke. He reached over and slid his hand under Johnny's shoulders and leaned in.

It was all he needed to know it was okay and Johnny reached out to him. The embrace was short but healing for the young man. When they parted, he dropped his eyes.

"What I want to know, young man, is why you left the mine," Murdoch cocked a brow and gave him a stern look.

Johnny looked sheepishly at his father. "I don't suppose you'd believe I just wanted to stretch my legs?"

Murdoch looked even more stern.

"The mine was filling with water. I figured an underground stream broke through. It was rising pretty fast so I thought I'd better get out before I drowned."

Murdoch closed his eyes briefly. "I'm sorry, son. I didn't know that would happen."

"I know that. Didn't think you'd leave me to drown after savin my sorry hide," Johnny grinned.

Shaking his head, Murdoch smiled. "I don't know how you managed to crawl out of there."

"I walked out, I'll have you know," Johnny responded, chafed at the thought of crawling.

"You walked. Then, how did you get so muddy again?" Murdoch asked sardonically.

Johnny blushed a little. "Well, I rolled part of the way."

A deep rumble came from Murdoch's chest. Followed by a hearty laugh.

Johnny smiled, then laughed with him until the pain came forward again.

"It really isn't funny, you know," Murdoch said once he'd recovered. "You could have been killed. You were sick enough as it was."

"I didn't know there was a gonna be a flood."

"That wasn't the only danger, son. Falling like that. You could have broken a leg, lain out there for days before we found you. There are bears and mountain lions. Anything could have happened."

"Yeah, that's what I was thinkin about you."

Murdoch sighed heavily. "Of all the things you could have inherited from me, stubborness would have been my last choice."

Johnny smiled at this. "Don't be so sure, old man. That stubborness has kept me alive more times than I can count."

"Then I take it back a thousand times over," Murdoch said quietly.

They stared at each other for a long time until the opening of the door broke the contact.

"Scott!"

"Johnny, it's about time you woke up. So I can kill you!" Scott glowered, hands on hips.

The smile left Johnny's face, replaced by a frown and more than a little hurt. "What did I do?"

"What did you do? Taking off on your own like that. How many times have I told you ....." Scott shook his head and a smile lit his face. "How glad I am you're okay."

Johnny's eyes lit up. "Too many times, Boston."

"That's the truth. Now, how do you feel, really?"

For the first time, Johnny took stock. His back still hurt but not nearly like it did. He flexed his ankle and found only a slight amount of soreness. Shrugging his shoulders, he answered, "not bad, actually."

"Well, a week of complete rest will do that," Murdoch said.

"A week!"

"Yes, son. A week. I don't mind telling you, we were worried sick."

Johnny let this soak in for a minute. "Well, what I'd really like is a hot bath."

Scott smiled. "Funny you should say that."

The words were no sooner out of his mouth than Jelly and Pablo carried the tub into his room.

Johnny smiled broadly. "That's my big brother. Always thinkin ahead," he said, tapping the side of his head.

They filled the tub with steaming water and Johnny waited impatiently. Finally, it was full and everyone got out but Scott.

"Well, are you waiting for an engraved invitation, brother?"

"No, I'm waitin for you to leave me to some privacy," Johnny retorted.

"You need help," Scott pointed out.

"No, I don't. I'll be fine, now get," Johnny waved a hand at him.

Scott sighed and shook his head. "Alright, but if you end up on the floor, don't come crying to me."

Johnny watched him leave and a smile came to his lips. What is it about all this talk of crying? he thought.

He sat up slowly, testing himself. Feeling no overly painful spots, he eased to the side of the bed. He worked himself out of the nightshirt and tossed it to the floor.

He sat there a minute longer, getting his bearings. He wasn't dizzy or sick so that was a good sign. The water looked wonderful. He still felt like he was covered in mud. He stood up and his legs started shaking. Weak, he thought.

Leaning over, he grabbed the edge of the tub for support and took the two steps to reach it. He had to rest with just that bit of exertion. So, there he stood, naked as the day he was born and wondering if it wasn't just about time for Teresa to come barging in.

He laughed at this and raised his leg, stepping into the hot water. Then, he raised the other one, holding onto the edge of the tub the whole time. He grabbed both sides and eased his aching body into the water with a sigh.

Johnny sat there and relished the heat as it permeated his muscles. He looked down and noticed quite a few bruises in various stages of healing covering his body. No wonder, he thought wryly.

Sliding down further, he emersed himself to his neck and rested his head on the tub's edge. He closed his eyes and his arms slid into the water as his body relaxed.

He jerked awake when the water started to fill his nose. Damn, bout drowned myself, he thought. He wondered how long he'd been asleep but figured it wasn't long. The water was still quite warm and soothing. He grabbed the soap and cloth and lathered himself head to toe. He slid on under the water and wet his head, then scrubbed it nearly bald. He never wanted to feel that grungy again.

Once he'd rinsed himself off, he relaxed back into the water. He knew it wouldn't last much longer. Knew it was cooling off. But he wanted to enjoy the feeling as long as he could.

A knock on the door made him groan. "I'm fine," he called out.

Scott opened the door and brought in a bath screen. "That's nice," he smirked.

"What's that for?"

"Teresa wants to change your sheets for you. Since you're finally clean," he smiled and positioned the screen.

"It's good to have you back, Johnny," she called.

"Thanks, Teresa. I think I'll live now."

"Bath feel good?" Scott asked.

"You have no idea, Boston," Johnny smiled as he leaned his head back once more.

It didn't take her long to change the sheets, then Teresa was gone.

Johnny sighed. "Guess I'd better get outta here. I'll be a prune pretty soon."

"I suppose you'll be wanting privacy for that, too."

"Well, yeah, Scott. Unless you plan on dryin me off and tuckin me in," Johnny snorted.

"No, I don't believe I care to do that, Johnny." He peeked over the screen and smiled. "Good to have you back, brother," he said sincerely.

"Thanks, brother," Johnny replied in the same tone.

Alone again, he sighed disappointedly. He could spend a week in here, no problem. Well, nothin to do but get to it.

He grunted a little when he stood. Water ran in rivulets down his chest, arms and legs. He grabbed a towel and stepped out, more limber now. He padded over and locked the door, then stood in front of the dresser.

Looking himself over back and front, he could see the now healing wound, the bruises that covered more than half of him. He looked at his ankle but there was no swelling. A bit tender, is all, he thought.

He frowned at the weight he'd lost. He figured it wouldn't take him long to get it back, though. He laughed a little when he saw the bruised cheek. At least it ain't on my face, he grinned and dried himself off.

He pulled open a drawer and grabbed a clean nightshirt and slipped it over his head. Unlocking the door, he scuttled back to the bed and climbed under the blankets. An appreciative smile crossed his face as he felt the clean sheets and smelled the scent of rose water.

Johnny closed his eyes and felt the warmth of home deep in his bones.

 

 

~end~
2004

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