The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Awakening

 

 

 

Johnny stood stock still for a minute, his head down, eyes up. Then, he started walking in a wide circle, round and round. With each turn, his head came up a little more until he locked eyes with the palomino. The horse was captured by the gaze, unable to break the hypnotic stare. She turned in her own circle as she followed Johnny's movements.

Johnny began tightening the circle. Slowly, ever closing in on the mare. Eyes locked onto each otherâ€ôs, neither willing to break the gaze. At last, he was within arm's reach of her and his hand rose slowly from his side. Relaxed fingers came closer and closer until they brushed up against the horse's cheek.

She balked slightly, then settled, still circling, still following the man, still curious about this creature before her.

Again, he brushed her lightly, lingering just a few seconds longer. The next turn, he laid his open palm against her face and stroked down to her long neck. She allowed it without so much as a flinch and he stopped circling.

Johnny took one step toward her, his hand now stroking her velvet nose. She lowered her head a little then leaned into the touch. He reached out with his other hand and rubbed behind her ear. She bumped her head against his chest once, then left it there as he began gently scratching her under her white mane.

"See? That wasn't so bad, was it?" he asked softly. "You'll be back to your old self in no time, won't ya, girl?"

From the fence, Murdoch watched the interaction. Ever appreciative of his son gentle ways with horses. He shook his head, confounded as to where this gift came from, yet grateful for it. Especially right now. The mare had had a terrible experience and they hadn't been sure she'd survive the accident.

One of the hands was riding her when a rattler spooked her. She bucked him off but lost her own footing, careening down a thirty-foot embankment. When Johnny first arrived, his heart froze. Terrified she'd broken a leg. But, mercifully, she hadn't. She was bruised, cut and bloody but there were no broken bones.

It had taken a dozen men and several hours to get her out of that gully. All the while her eyes were wide with fear, rolling back in her head as she fought against the ropes that secured her. She didn't understand they were trying to help. She only knew she hurt and they were making it worse.

Once on higher ground, she'd stood, favoring her left hind leg quite a bit. Johnny tried to check her then but she was having none of it. He understood and walked her back to the barn himself. Three miles in four hours. That's how long it had taken. He would not rush her. He let her take the lead, limping her way home.

His heart broke for her when they finally made it back to her stall. She lay down, too exhausted to take another step and he had laid with her all night. Jelly had come with medicines and poultices. Gently doctoring her while Johnny tried to keep her calm.

She healed but it took three months. Now, it was almost like breaking her all over, only worse. She was afraid now, terrified, and it would take a lot of patience to get her back to her former self. A better cow pony there wasn't, except maybe Barranca, and no one wanted to lose her.

Murdoch's attention was snapped back to the present by his son's gentle voice. He looked up perplexed and a bit embarrassed that he hadn't heard Johnny.

"I'm sorry, son. What did you say?"

Johnny grinned at his father but made no comment. "I said she's coming along. She's starting to trust again."

Murdoch nodded. "How much longer?"

Johnny shook his head as he pulled a long drink from the canteen. "Can't say. It's up to her."

*****

Both men looked toward the road at the sound of a wagon approaching.

"Who's that?" Johnny asked.

"I don't know. I don't recognize them," Murdoch said as he headed for the yard.

Johnny stepped through the corral fence and followed, taking in the threesome with curiosity.

A man, woman and child were seated on the wagon bench. He was about Murdoch's age, Johnny reckoned. Graying dark brown hair with brown eyes and a cleft chin. He had a pleasant and friendly face. The woman sat arrow-straight, green dress with a high collar buttoned up to the neck. She had brown hair and eyes as well and struck a resemblance to the man. The girl was about fifteen, maybe. She had mousy brown hair that hung loosely down her back and over her bowed face. Her hands were clasped tightly in her lap. She was wearing a plain brown dress and that was all Johnny could see of her. Her face hidden by her hair.

"Good day, gentlemen," the man called out as he came to a stop.

"Good day," Murdoch replied.

"My name is Ray Hamilton. This is my sister, Agnes and my daughter, Rachel," he introduced.

"I'm Murdoch Lancer and this is my son, Johnny," he reciprocated.

Hamilton climbed down and shook hands with both men before explaining his visit. "I just bought the McIntyre ranch last week. We thought we should meet some of our neighbors and since you're the closest," he shrugged and smiled.

Johnny raised an eyebrow. The McIntyre ranch was very rundown. Barely standing, in fact. He wondered why anyone would buy that place. But he held his opinion to himself. Instead, he walked over to the wagon and greeted the woman and girl.

"Oh, my girl there doesn't talk much. She's, um, very shy," Hamilton said hesitantly.

Johnny smiled and nodded.

"Would you like to come in for a while? We have some fresh lemonade," Murdoch offered.

"That's very kind of you, Mr. Lancer. It is a hot day," he replied and walked over to help his sister and daughter to solid ground. The woman still had not spoken either, simply nodded her greetings with a stiff and forced smile.

Murdoch introduced the Hamilton's to Teresa and she served them lemonade and cookies. Rachel sat in the corner, still with her head down.

"Where are you folks from?' Murdoch asked.

"Connecticut, originally. After my wife died last year, I decided it was time for a change of scenery. The winter snows helped decide which direction," Hamilton replied with a sad but honest smile.

"I'm sorry for your loss," Murdoch frowned. "I think you'll enjoy California. Have you done much ranching?"

Hamilton almost spit out the drink of lemonade in his mouth but he managed to swallow it. "Ranching? Heavens, no. I'm not a rancher."

"Oh, I thought since you bought the McIntyre ranch....." Murdoch shrugged.

"Well, I like the location. The stream running so close to the house and all the trees. Oh, I know it's going to need some major repairs but I think it will be worth it in the end."

"What do you do, Mr. Hamilton?" Johnny asked.

"Actually, nothing," he laughed a little. "I'm retired from banking. I made some very good investments and find myself with financial freedom. I may decide to venture into some other interest in time. Right now, I'm content to live in the quiet, peaceful countryside and raise my daughter."

No one had a response for this and they were saved from thinking of one by the front door opening and closing. Scott walked in removing his work gloves and stopped short.

"I didn't think I recognized that wagon," he smiled as he entered.

*****

Murdoch made the introductions and Scott joined them. He found he and Mr. Hamilton shared a common love for books and they talked for an hour. Agnes Hamilton joined the conversation, her voice matching her stilted pinched expression as she politely argued the morals of one Mark Twain.

Scott and Ray were impressed with her arguments but held their own in defense of the man. Johnny half-listened to the debate, watching the young girl sitting alone in the corner. She held a glass of lemonade between her hands but made no effort to drink it.

As Murdoch joined the conversation with the others, Johnny made his way over to the girl. He pulled a chair closer to her and tried once more to see her face. But she never acknowledged his presence.

"Hi," he tried but she didn't react.

"Do you like California?"

No response.

Johnny chewed his lip and leaned back in his chair. "You know, it's not polite to ignore people. Now, if you just don't want to talk to me, just say so. Just tell me to get lost," he drawled with an easy smile.

Her head moved ever so slightly toward him, still hiding her face. He was encouraged a little.

"Your father seems to think he can fix up that old house of yours. I gotta tell ya, it'd probably be easier to tear it down and start over. You be careful moving around that place. You're liable to run into all sorts of critters."

Her head rose with this. Liquid brown eyes met his for a fraction of a second. Her complexion was pale but flawless. He didn't think she ever got out in the sun. He was smiling at her, letting her know he was teasing but her own expression was flat.

She didn't turn away but she wouldn't meet his gaze either. He frowned and wondered if there wasn't more than just shyness here.

"Do you like horses?" he asked.

A spark, maybe. He wasn't sure it was gone so quickly if it had been there at all. He sighed softly to himself.

"I like horses a lot. I've got a beautiful palomino. Would you like to meet him?"

"I think it's time for us to go," Ray Hamilton spoke more loudly. His eyes bore into Johnny's before moving to his daughter. The protectiveness was easy to see.

"Are you sure you won't stay for supper?' Murdoch was asking.

"Another time, perhaps. Thank you, Murdoch. It's been an enjoyable afternoon," he smiled graciously.

He walked over and took his daughter's arm, gently bringing her to her feet. She followed him like a lamb.

"Well, if you need any help with the house repairs, feel free to ask. I'm sure my boys would be more than happy to lend a hand," Murdoch offered as he walked them out.

"I'll keep that in mind. I have done a bit of carpentry in my youth. Though I'm not sure how much I remember. If things start looking crooked, I'll give a yell," Hamilton laughed.

*****

They stood in the yard and watched as the Hamilton's drove away.

"Nice people," Murdoch commented.

"Yes, the woman is a bit puritanical," Scott smirked.

Murdoch chuckled at this.

"There's something wrong with that girl. More than bein shy," Johnny imparted.

"What do you mean, son?"

Johnny shook his head. "I'm not sure. Just seems to be something wrong with her. Like in her head."

"Maybe she's retarded," Scott allowed.

"Maybe. Why did he say she was just shy?" Johnny asked.

"Well, if she does have an illness, that's not something a parent would blurt out on a first meeting," Murdoch remarked.

Johnny had to agree with that logic. "Well, it's sad, is all."

Murdoch smiled and wrapped an arm around his son's shoulders. "I hope we'll see a lot more of them. It's always good to have friendly neighbors."

*****

"That wasn't very subtle, Raymond," Agnes Hamilton commented as they drove.

"Perhaps not but I worry for her."

"As you should. Telling the Lancers she was simply shy was quite an understatement, though."

"I could hardly tell them the truth right away, Agnes. You know how some people react. I have to be careful where Rachel is concerned," Ray retorted a bit angrily.

"I know," Agnes sighed. "They seem very nice for westerners," she said as if she had a bad taste in her mouth.

Ray laughed boisterously. "Don't tell me you actually like them, Agnes? My goodness, what would the Women's Guild say?"

She swatted her brother's arm but couldn't help a slight smile. "That dark-haired one - I'm not sure about him."

"He seemed nice and he tried to talk to Rachel."

"Exactly. He was very interested in her, it seemed."

"Agnes, I'm sure he was just trying to include her. He couldn't know it was an impossible task. I think it was very hospitable of him to try."

"Perhaps. Well, time will tell, won't it brother," she sighed again.

"Yes, it shall indeed," he replied grimly.

*****

Ray Hamilton had never thought of himself as inept. In fact, he rather prided himself on being an intelligent man capable of catching on quickly. But today, he was convinced he was the most useless individual on the face of the planet. He threw the hammer with fervor across the yard and placed his hands on his hips.

Shaking his head in disgust, he turned to see Rachel sitting on a tree stump usually reserved for chopping wood. She was holding a kitten and watching him closely. He could swear he saw a smile in her eyes, in fact he knew it and he laughed aloud.

"Your father is not being very productive, is he, Rachel? I suppose a smart man would ask for help," he called. She stared blankly at him and he smiled sadly at her.

With a resigned sigh, he decided to swallow his pride and ride over to the Lancers to take Murdoch up on his offer. "Come along, child. Let's take a little ride and you can watch your father gravel," he smiled.

As they pulled into the yard, Ray noticed quite a crowd at the corral, Murdoch among them. He hadn't seemed to notice their arrival so Ray walked over and tapped his shoulder.

*****

"Ray! Good to see you," Murdoch smiled and shook hands.

"It seems something exciting is going on," Ray presumed as he looked into the corral.

Murdoch explained what was happening as Johnny worked with the palomino mare. He was still going very slowly with her. Still using the circling approach to gain her trust.

Ray became absorbed in the scene before him as were the others gathered. He never noticed Rachel move to the end of the fence line and step through the rails where she could see better.

She stood against the paddock fence, arms wrapped around her abdomen and watched the events unfold. As before, the mare eventually approached Johnny. Only this time, she snuggled her neck around his, her head behind him as she enjoyed the scratching she received.

Murdoch was tense as she came so very close. One false move and Johnny would not be able to get away from her in time. But Johnny seemed unshaken, relaxed and enjoying the affection of the mare.

His head was turned as she nuzzled even closer and he laughed as he thought she was going to nuzzle him right to the ground. He saw Rachel then, inside the corral but a good distance away. She was safe, he reckoned so he said nothing but simply smiled at her.

The mare took two steps back, deciding she'd had enough contact. But she didn't move away from him. Instead she dropped her head in front of him. A sign of acceptance to Johnny. He decided it was enough for the day and he took her lead rope, gently encouraging her to go with him to the paddock.

Rachel saw them coming toward her and stepped back through the fence but she went no further. She watched as Johnny released the mare into the paddock and latched the gate. He turned and looked at her, smiling gently.

"Pretty, ain't she?" he asked.

She didn't reply but she didn't look away either. He was encouraged.

"Oh, Rachel, I didn't know you were so close," Ray exclaimed upon seeing his daughter.

"It's okay, Mr. Hamilton. She stepped right out of the corral when we got close. She knew she was safe," Johnny said.

Ray looked doubtfully at the younger man but did not go into it further.

"Johnny, Ray needs some help fixing up his place. I told him you'd be glad to help. Scott, too, when he gets back from Stockton," Murdoch explained.

"Sure thing, Mr. Hamilton. First thing in the mornin?"

"That would be fine, Johnny. Thank you. I'm afraid I overestimated my carpentry talents," he said with some embarrassment.

Johnny rode up to the Hamilton house early the next morning and frowned. He still thought it would be easier to raze the building and start over.

*****

"Good morning, Johnny. When you say first thing, you mean it," Ray laughed.

"Yes sir. Are you sure you want to do this? I mean, this place is pretty run down," Johnny replied.

"I know what you're thinking and I considered it. But, if you take a look inside, you'll see why I want to preserve it. This house has beautiful finishings and I doubt they could be replaced. I think the owner must have had them shipped from somewhere."

"Yep, Scotland. You're right, you can't replace it unless you wanna do the same as old man McIntyre."

"I'm afraid that would take too long. My sister and daughter are not happy sleeping under the open stars," Ray said.

Johnny frowned. "You been sleeping outside?"

"Well, no but most of the roof is missing," he laughed.

Johnny laughed as well then had a thought. "Look, since you're not raising livestock or anything, why don't you all stay with us while we get this house fixed?"

"Oh, we couldn't do that, Johnny."

"Why not?"

"Yes, why not?" Agnes asked, having overheard that part of the conversation. At least the Lancer's roof was intact.

"Agnes! We couldn't impose," Ray stated.

"You aren't. I invited you so that makes it okay. At least, that's what my Harvard educated brother tells me," Johnny grinned devilishly.

Ray smiled but still wasn't convinced.

Johnny stepped closer and lowered his voice. "Mr. Hamilton, I hope you don't think I'm out of line but, well, I know there's more to Rachel than just bein shy. I mean I know she has some kind of problem. But, yesterday she really seemed to respond a little to that mare I was working. And, well, I thought she might enjoy bein around the horses."

Ray reddened a bit. "She is retarded. I didn't want to announce it."

"No reason you should. It ain't none of my business. I just thought if she liked horses, it might make her feel better, or somethin," he said, feeling he wasn't expressing himself adequately.

Obviously he was, however, as Ray Hamilton seemed to spark a bit. "She really responded?"

"She did. That first day you came to the ranch, I talked to her and mentioned horses. She looked at me for a split second and I figured that was a good sign. Then, yesterday, she stepped right into the corral."

"She does seem to like animals. At least, this little kitten she found in the barn. She holds it all the time. And, I'm sure she'd enjoy having a real roof over her head as we all would. All right, thank you, Johnny. I accept," he said and offered his hand.

Agnes looked to the heavens and gave a prayer of thanks. She'd rather stay with strangers than risk being rained on or worse. More than once, she'd heard the scurrying of little feet in her room at night.

*****

While the men worked on the outside of the house, Agnes packed their belongings and told Rachel the plan. She wasn't sure the girl even understood her. But, she'd willingly agreed to live with Ray and help with the girl's care. She certainly had nothing to keep her in Connecticut. A widow for ten years, she'd vowed to stay that way; never wanting to give her heart to anyone again. It was too painful.

It was this commonality that had closed any distance between she and her brother. Not that they weren't on good terms. But, it seemed every day life had kept them from being a close family. When Ray's wife died last year, Agnes was on his doorstep that very day, bags in hand. Since then, their relationship had regained its former strength. She was more than satisfied with the arrangement.

It had been evident that Rachel wasn't right from the time she was about two years old. She didn't cry, didn't coo, didn't laugh or smile. She was a flaccid rag doll for all intents and purposes. The doctors had told the Hamiltons they'd be better off putting the child in an institution. That Rachel would never be a normal child; could never be a functional citizen.

Susan Hamilton had balked at the idea of relinquishing her child to such a horrendous place. Especially after touring two of them in the area. Both she and her husband had made the decision separately and in concert. Rachel would stay at home.

Then Susan died and Ray was hard-pressed as well-intentioned friends and family went at him again to give the girl up. But, in the end, he'd kept his promise to his wife. One they had made to each other. If anything ever happened to one, the other would keep Rachel.

So here they were embarking on a new life. Ray's reasons for moving to California were many, but the main reason had been Rachel. He'd struggled with it, talked with Agnes for hours about it. Until he'd made up his mind to take this chance and hope westerners were more understanding of a special child. So far, he'd been proven right. But he knew people out here were the same as anywhere else. Some good and some bad. They just hadn't met the bad yet.

*****

That evening, Johnny rode into the yard at Lancer followed by the Hamiltons. Murdoch heard the additional sounds and walked curiously out the door.

Johnny quickly explained the situation to his father who nodded and disappeared inside to let Teresa know they had guests.

That was all it took as the girl took over the situation in her usual confident way. Before supper was ready, she had them all situated in rooms and almost unpacked. She also had Agnes feeling relaxed and comfortable. Even though the older woman was all for this, she had been uneasy about staying with strangers. Teresa had put her mind at rest instantly with her smile and exuberance.

With her face unpinched, Murdoch noticed Agnes was actually a handsome woman. If she would only stay this relaxed he was sure she would enjoy life a whole lot more. She looked younger, too. He guessed her to be no more than forty though his first impression had been she was much older than that.

Through it all Rachel stayed silent. Allowing her father and aunt to guide her about from place to place without a peep.

Johnny had confirmed to Murdoch their suspicions about the girl privately and what he'd thought he'd seen in her around the palomino mare. Murdoch agreed it was worth the effort. Even if it didn't work, the was no harm trying.

The two of them quickly formed a plan of action. Johnny would work at the Hamilton's most of the day, then return home in the afternoon to work with the mare. Rachel would conveniently be led outside during these times and they would watch closely for any reaction from her.

Before they could take this action, however, Murdoch reminded Johnny they'd have to get Ray's permission. Rachel was his daughter and he had the final say.

*****

Late the next morning as Johnny and Ray worked away, a rider approached the house. Johnny smiled and waved at his brother.

Scott dismounted, walked up and threw an arm around his brother. "Well, looks like we have a lot of work to do," he grinned.

"Yep and I'm real glad to see you back," Johnny replied.

"Miss me? That's sweet."

"Of course, I missed you, Boston. We need someone to start replacing shingles on the roof. They're right over there in that wagon bed," Johnny grinned and pointed to the supplies.

Scott grimaced and his arm slipped up from Johnny's shoulder to around his neck. "You were saving it for me. You really are a classic little brother."

Johnny made a quick turn and pulled out of the strong hold. "Did you see Murdoch?"

"I did. He told me everything. I think it's a great idea. I just hope it works," Scott replied, becoming serious.

"Me too. Well, best get to it," he grinned.

*****

Teresa had tried all day. She baked a cake and encouraged Rachel to help. She offered the spoon for the girl as a treat. She attempted to show her how to sew. Nothing had worked and Rachel sat quietly in the kitchen all morning.

Feeling defeated, Teresa made a casual comment that she was heading to the garden for some herbs. She left the back door open and went about her business. Soon, she discovered Rachel watching her from near the door and she smiled.

Getting up from her knees, Teresa walked over to the rose bushes and snipped one bringing the velvet petals to her nose and inhaling deeply. She walked over and held the flower out and Rachel took it, mimicking her as she took in the sweet fragrance. An almost smile graced her lips and Teresa felt some encouragement. But she didn't want to push. She thought maybe the girl preferred being outside so she led her to a bench and Rachel sat down.

"You like being outside, I take it. Just like Johnny. You'd think he was born outside as much as he loves it. I imagine he'd sleep out here if Murdoch would let him get away with it. More likely, he'd be in the barn with Barranca. He loves that horse," she chattered on. Glancing up, she noticed the girl was watching her, maybe listening as well.

"Now, Scott is a different story. He does like being outside working. But he much prefers to sit by the fire in the evenings with a good book. He loves to read, and art and music. You see, Scott was raised in Boston and had all the fine things in life. He's used to going to the theater and to parties. Sometimes, I think he misses it some. But, mostly, I know he loves it here as much as the rest of us."

Leaning back, Teresa surveyed her harvest of herbs, satisfied she had enough. Standing, she pushed stray hair from her eyes and looked around her garden.

"This is my favorite place. My garden. It's so peaceful out here. Even during the day when there's so much going on, it's quieter here. A girl can think." She turned to look at Rachel. "We girls need our private time to think, don't we?" she smiled.

She sat the basket down and walked back to the roses. "I think we need a bouquet for the dinner table tonight. What do you think?" she asked, not expecting an answer. When she looked though, Rachel nodded her head once then dropped her eyes.

"Good, we agree. All right, one bouquet of roses. It'll make a lovely centerpiece. Men don't understand that sort of thing, you know. But we women appreciate the pretty things, don't we?' she winked conspiratorially. Inside, her heart was racing with joy. A simple nod from the child had given her hope. Simple things. Teresa wondered at their magic.

*****

She could hardly wait for Mr. Hamilton to return so she could tell him what happened in the garden. Part of her thought she might sound silly, going on about a simple nod. But from what she'd been told, this was a very positive sign.

Ray was dumbstruck for a second, then his face took on a look of understanding as he remembered. "My wife had a rose garden. She and Rachel would spend hours out there together. This is wonderful news, Teresa. More and more, I know I made the right choice coming here." His voice grew husky with emotion and he had to beg his leave of her.

He was sure the girl would never respond to another thing. Susan had had some success with her where all others had failed. Rachel was devoted to her mother and when she died, the girl had shut down completely again. She was even saying a few words before she lost her mother. This was the first time in a year she had shown any reaction to anything. Ray had to believe the change of environment as well as these caring people were at the root of that.

Teresa shared her news with the rest of the family later that evening after Rachel had gone to bed. Agnes was the most surprised but very pleased. Maybe Rachel had a chance after all.

Johnny had not gotten the chance to work with the mare that day. The repairs on the house took precedence and were more daunting than he had first thought. He figured a week before he would feel no guilt at leaving early to work the mare.

But Scott had other ideas and told his brother in no uncertain terms that he and Ray could handle the house repairs. He was adamant that Johnny put his theory to work the next day. Ray could not agree more. He was inspired by the rose garden incident and wanted to see how far they could get with Rachel.

*****

The next afternoon, Agnes walked Rachel out into the yard and near the corral. The girl stared at the empty corral then dropped her head.

Johnny rode in then and she looked up at him. Agnes thought she saw a glimmer of recognition from the girl.

"Afternoon, ladies. Are you taking a stroll?" Johnny smiled.

"Yes, it's a lovely day," Agnes replied. She was trying but she was the protective sort and reserved her judgment of this young man still.

Johnny nodded and headed to the paddock, leaving Barranca tied to the corral fencing.

Rachel stared at the golden horse the entire time until Johnny appeared in the corral with the mare. Her attention was drawn to him as he saddled the horse.

Murdoch walked out to watch as he did every time Johnny worked the mare. "Are you going to ride her, son?"

"Nope. Just want her to get the feel of the saddle again first," he explained. He stopped and looked at the three of them, seemingly mulling something over in his mind.

He dropped the lead rope, knowing the horse wasn't going anywhere and walked over. "Rachel, could you help me for a minute?"

She looked up at him briefly.

"I need someone to hold the reins while I check her out real good. Think you could do that?"

Agnes inhaled sharply but bit her lip. The fear in her eyes was evident but Johnny gave her a reassuring smile. He took Rachel's hand, relaxing when she didn't pull away, and tugged gently. She stepped through the fencing and followed him to the horse.

Johnny picked up the lead rein and handed it to her. She took it, dangling it in her hand.

"Keep a good grip on it, now," he instructed and she tightened her fist.

Johnny went through the motions of checking the horse. Running his hands down her legs slowly then her neck and back, over her flanks. Then, he came back and rubbed down her withers and under her belly, checking the cinch. She stayed completely still the whole time.

When he looked back at them, Rachel was staring directly into the horse's eyes and the mare returned the gaze. Johnny backed off slowly a few steps and just watched.

*****

For nearly ten minutes they stayed that way until the mare dropped her head. Instinctively, or maybe from watching Johnny, Rachel reached out and stroked her forelock. The mare pressed her head against Rachel's small chest and the girl smiled fully. She dipped her own head and laid it against the mare's cheek.

Both pulled away simultaneously and Rachel began scratching behind her ear as she'd seen Johnny do. He thought he'd crack a jaw, he was grinning so hard. Johnny walked over and took Rachel's shoulders, gently urging her to walk. The palomino followed before ever feeling a tug on her rein.

They circled the corral several times. Rachel stayed right beside the mare as they walked. Finally, Johnny took the lead and walked the mare back to the paddock. Rachel's disappointment was obvious as she stepped through the fence rail to where her aunt waited with tears in her eyes.

Johnny came back quickly, hoping the spell wasn't broken. He'd had another idea and he pulled Barranca's reins loose on his way back to them.

"Rachel, this is my horse, Barranca. Remember I told you about him the first day we met? He's a palomino just like that mare. I was gonna go for a ride. Wanna come?" His voice was like silk as he spoke and she looked up at him and nodded.

He looked at Agnes for permission but the woman could not speak. She could only nod herself as she made her decision about this young man. She wanted to hug him but propriety kept her from it.

Johnny spoke quietly to Barranca for a few seconds then turned to Rachel. He lifted her gently into the saddle and put her hands on the saddle horn. Then, he swung up behind her. Barranca moved to resettled the weight and Johnny let him. He felt the girl tense and reassured her softly.

"Barranca is real gentle, Rachel. He'd do anything to protect me. He's the best horse in the world, I'd wager. You never have to be afraid of him," he explained then made a quick clucking sound. Barranca began a slow walk heading toward the road. Johnny looked back and waved.

*****

Scott climbed down the ladder and dropped the hammer. He removed his gloves and swiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. He walked over and grabbed his canteen taking a long refreshing drink. All afternoon he'd been devising plan after plan to get back at his brother for this job. Johnny knew he hated roofs. It wasn't that he was afraid of heights at all, but it was so hot up there. Especially with those shingles just trapping the heat of the day. He felt sticky and miserable and he was determined to have his revenge.

Ray came outside with an equally grim expression. "That wall in the living room is going to be the death of me. Just when I get one spot repaired, I find another one falling apart," he griped, accepting the canteen Scott offered.

Scott had to smile a little. He was about to tell Ray his plans for revenge when they heard a horse approaching.

Both men looked up and their jaws dropped at the sight.

Johnny and Rachel rode into the yard at a gentle gait. Ray walked over and extended his arms to his daughter but she shook her head and refused to dismount.

Johnny laughed. "I don't think she's done riding yet, Mr. Hamilton. We just stopped by to see how things were going," he said and winked at Scott.

All thoughts of vengeance fled Scott's mind as he saw the smile on the young girl's face. One that was mirrored by his brother.

"Things are progressing, albeit slowly. But, we'll get it done. I'm glad to see someone enjoying their afternoon, though," Scott grinned.

"Well, all work and no play...." Johnny shot back.

"Well, I hope you two enjoy your ride," Ray said, his voice cracking a bit.

Johnny could see the emotions threatening the older man. "We will. We'll see you at home," he said and turned Barranca. Looking back over his shoulder, he gave Ray a discerning smile, then clicked Barranca into a little faster gait.

"My God," Ray whispered. "Did you see that? Did you see the smile on my little girl's face?" he asked in awe.

"I saw, sir. She has a beautiful smile," Scott said softly.

Ray turned and walked away quickly and Scott left him to deal with what he was sure was an overwhelming event for the man. He was a bit overwhelmed himself.

Johnny, kids and horses. His brother should become some kind of therapist or something, Scott thought then laughed aloud at that ridiculous notion. Still, his brother had an uncanny knack for breaking through the most formidable defenses. Proof of that was evident with their father. The walls between those two had, at one time, seemed impenetrable. Now, it was hard to imagine there had ever been a problem.

Oh, they still had their disagreements. But those were of the normal nature for father and son. The kind he and Murdoch had had themselves. Scott sighed softly and looked at the sky. He still had an hour or so of daylight left. Smiling to himself and no longer feeling manipulated, he went back to work.

*****

Rachel needed a nap after her active day. The usually docile and practically immobile girl had been quite busy. Agnes put her down as soon as Johnny brought her home then went to find the young man.

He was in the great room talking with Murdoch when she came downstairs. She walked right up to him and he turned to face her. Uncertainty in his eyes as he waited.

She swallowed hard and set her face in a firm scowl. "Young man, I had my doubts about you when we first met and even after. But, I just want to tell you that, whether you realize it or not, you have performed a miracle today. I am most grateful to you," her voice had held until the last. Her eyes brimmed with tears and she did the unthinkable. She embraced the young man before her warmly then kissed his cheek.

Johnny blushed profusely and characteristically dropped his head. "Thank you, ma'am," he whispered.

Murdoch smiled proudly at his son, having a few emotions of his own warring about in his heart. He cleared his throat and thought he should save his son.

"Johnny and I were just headed out to the barn, Agnes."

"Of course," she croaked. "I'll see if Teresa needs any help in the kitchen." She quickly excused herself and fled the room.

"What's in the barn?" Johnny asked, head still down as he tried to recover his decorum.

"Nothing. I just thought you needed a little breathing room. Both of you," Murdoch smiled.

Johnny raised his head to meet his father's eyes and smiled back. "Yeah, she was gettin pretty mushy."

Murdoch nodded and cocked a brow. "Yes, *she* was."

*****

That evening as dinner wound down, Rachel stood and rounded the table, taking Johnny's hand and tugging at him.

He stood and followed, glancing back over his shoulder with a shrug. Curiosity propelled the others and they followed.

Rachel led him to the paddock and climbed up one the fence. She pointed to the palomino mare.

"Name," she said.

Johnny stared at her for a long second before finding his equilibrium. "Uh, her name is Cocoa."

"Co .... cocoa?" she stuttered.

"Yeah, that's right," he answered and looked behind him at her father.

Ray joined them and put an arm around his daughter. "You like Cocoa, don't you, Rachel?"

"Nice, daddy," she said.

Ray Hamilton's face was wet with tears but he didn't seem to notice as he stood beside his daughter and watched the mare.

Johnny backstepped and joined the others a short distance away. Murdoch put an arm around his shoulders and squeezed him in close. On his other side, Scott took hold of his arm and gave it a squeeze as well.

"It's like she woke up or somethin," Johnny said in a low voice, afraid speaking louder would break the spell.

"That's exactly what it's like," Agnes agreed and went to join her family.

The Lancers turned and went back inside, leaving the folks to their privacy; all stunned that the girl had spoken and so clearly.

*****

"Johnny, that was incredible," Teresa said, tears brimming in her own eyes.

He ducked his head and nodded. He saw the boots approach and looked up at his father.

"Every day I find something else remarkable about you. Are you ever going to stop surprising me?" Murdoch smiled.

"Wouldn't be much fun if I did," Johnny teased. "I didn't do anything. Rachel's the one that...."

"Don't," Scott cut him off. "You always do that. I know you have trouble accepting compliments, Johnny. But this time, just do it. You saw the spark of interest in her. You had the plan to bring her out of her shell. You showed her not to be afraid. You, brother. No one else," he stated with complete certainty.

Johnny stared at him for a long beat, stunned at the vehement proclamation. Finally, he found his voice. "Thank you?" he said, unsure.

Scott laughed and grabbed him at the nape of the neck. "You're welcome. Now, was that so hard?"

Ray Hamilton walked back into the great room with red eyes that he didn't even try to hide. He strode over to Johnny and extended his hand. Johnny accepted and Ray took hold of his arm with his other hand.

"I will never be able to thank you enough, Johnny. Never," he said emphatically, his voice quivering.

"I'm glad I could help her some," Johnny mumbled.

"I know it's just the first step but there's hope now. Hope that she'll be more open. Be able to express her feelings better. That's because of all of you. You opened your hearts and your home to us and I will never forget that," Ray promised.

*****

Two months later, the Hamilton home was ready to be occupied. Johnny and Scott helped the family move back in. Agnes showed Rachel her room and the girl smiled at the bright yellow walls and blue lace curtains. She grinned up at her aunt and bounced on the bed.

In those two months, Johnny continued helping her. She had become a proficient horsewoman and she'd been riding Cocoa exclusively. The palomino had seemed to sense she was special and bonded with her that first fateful day.

The Lancers were invited to dinner the next evening and Johnny brought a special guest. He took Rachel into the yard and showed her.

"Cocoa!" she exclaimed and ran to the mare. Cocoa nuzzled her and Rachel laughed as she licked the palm of her hand.

Ray laughed, too. "That was nice, Johnny. I know she was already missing that horse."

Johnny walked over to Rachel and smiled. "She's yours."

Rachel actually gasped and hugged Johnny tightly. Ray was stunned at the display as was the recipient.

"Daddy, mine!" she called.

"Oh, Johnny, no. That's too much," Ray objected.

Johnny shook his head. "She helped with Cocoa's recovery as much as I did. She deserves the horse. I hope it's okay. I should have asked you first," he dropped his eyes as he realized his mistake.

"No, that's alright. As long as you're sure you want to give her up."

"Well, she needs Rachel as much as Rachel needs her. I think it's a good match," Johnny shrugged.

They all turned to see Rachel leading the mare to the barn.

"Guess I'd better give her a hand," Johnny smiled.

*****

"Agnes, that was a delicious meal," Murdoch said as he sat back in his chair, feeling stuffed.

"I'm glad you enjoyed it," she smiled graciously.

They all retired to the living room, which finally had all four walls intact. Scott laughed and looked at Ray knowingly.

"Well, I guess we'll see how good a job Scott did soon. Looks like storm clouds gathering over the mountains," Johnny grinned.

"I'm sure it will be just fine, brother. You're lucky you know," Scott said seriously.

"Why's that?"

"Well, I was planning revenge but I changed my mind."

Johnny cocked his head to the side and regarded his brother. "Now, that doesn't sound like you, brother. Why'd you change your mind?"

Scott smiled warmly. "Because of Rachel. She'd never forgive me if I sought my revenge on you."

Johnny grinned. "Does that mean I'm safe as long as Rachel lives here?"

"No, it does not. Just remember that the next time you hornswaggle me," Scott replied pointedly.

Johnny laughed but was silenced by the roar of thunder.

"Sounds like we had better get going. Ray, there's a section of our fence down at the property line. Johnny will be out to fix it tomorrow. You may see some of our cattle wandering onto your land," Murdoch spoke.

"Alright. We'll try not to steal them," Ray grinned.

*****

The rain held off through the night but there was a spectacular display of lightning and thunder that went on all night long.

Scott came to breakfast looking worse for the wear and scowled at his brother who entered right after him smiling.

"I suppose you slept right through all that noise last night," Scott commented.

"What noise?" Johnny asked as he grabbed a biscuit off the plate.

Murdoch chuckled and Scott shook his head.

"All that wind, thunder and lightning? It went on all night," he explained.

Johnny shrugged and bit into his biscuit with glee. "Lot of wind, you say? Maybe I should check the Hamilton's. See if they still have a roof," he commented with a wicked gleam in his eye.

"Keep it up, brother, and I'll forget all about being so generous," Scott said, wagging a piece of sausage at his brother.

Murdoch listened to it all with humor then decided it was time to get down to business. "This is all very entertaining, boys. But, Johnny, you should check on the Hamilton's since you'll be out that way today." Holding up a hand to ward off his elder son, he added, "I'm only saying there were a lot of high winds last night and they may have some damage. Even the sturdiest roof can only take so much."

Scott relaxed and smiled at his father. "What do you want me to do today?"

"Check our roofs. And the barn and outbuildings for damage."

Johnny ducked his head to hide the smile and dove into his breakfast to keep from laughing outright.

*****

It wasn't a very large section of fence down and Johnny was grateful. He glanced up at the threatening sky warily. It was still quite windy though the lightning had died down. Thunder still rumbled and every once in a while, a streak of lightning darted towards the earth.

Before repairing the fence, Johnny crossed the border to check for strays. Finding less than a dozen, he was satisfied he'd gotten them all. If he hadn't, he reckoned the Hamilton's could keep it. He smiled at that thought.

For two hours he worked and finally finished the last of the fencing. He checked the gate, which was only a few feet from the damaged area and saw it was in good shape. Leaving it open, he called to Barranca and the horse walked through the opening. Johnny closed the gate and swung into the saddle, heading for the Hamilton's.

There was a loud roaring sound behind him. At first, he thought it was a stampede. He wouldn't be surprised with all this weather. But soon enough he decided that wasn't it. It was the wind and he grabbed his hat to keep it from flying away.

Boy, this is gonna be some storm. Reckon I should plan on stayin with the Hamilton's for a while, he thought as he urged Barranca on. He hadn't gotten more than half a mile when he heard the cracking sound and felt the air come alive with electricity. Johnny felt the hair on his arms raise up and he tensed.

It struck less than ten feet from him and Barranca bucked and turned, trying desperately to get away. Johnny tried to hang on but he felt himself slip, losing his balance. He grabbed the saddle horn and tried to right himself but Barranca was jumping about too much, confused and frightened and not knowing which way to go.

Johnny tried to talk to the horse but the wind was too loud to shout over and Barranca wasn't listening anyway. He'd felt the electricity shoot under his hooves and was terrified by the unfamiliar sensation.

Johnny lost his hold as Barranca bucked again and he went flying. Tucking himself into a ball, he hit the ground hard, rolling down the slight embankment until he came to a stop. His head slammed against a decent sized boulder and pain exploded in his head. He clenched his eyes shut as light danced behind his lids, then he went slack.

*****

Scott decided it was not a good idea to be on the roof just now. The wind from last night had picked up again substantially and he went inside to the safety of the house. He walked over to the fireplace and warmed himself. The temperature had dropped dramatically in just a few hours and he wasn't certain it wouldn't start snowing any moment.

Instead of a storm, they could be in for a blizzard. He smiled then, reminding himself this wasn't Boston. He was pretty sure they didn't have blizzards in California. Frowning, he wondered about that.

Murdoch walked in from the kitchen with a cup of coffee just then.

"Do you have blizzards out here?" Scott asked.

Murdoch stopped mid-stride. "Well, in the mountains, yes. Down here we don't but it can get mighty cold."

"The temperature has really dropped and that wind is up again. I thought it prudent not to be on the rooftop just now," he grinned.

"Good idea. I hope Johnny's alright," Murdoch frowned.

"Maybe I'll ride out and see if he needs any help," Scott mused.

Murdoch thought about it, almost said no then changed his mind for some reason. "Maybe you should," he replied.

*****

Ray Hamilton was at his wits end. Rachel had spent the night in the barn with Cocoa as the horse was terrified during the storm. She refused to budge this morning as the palomino was still very nervous with all this wind howling about. He'd brought her breakfast and cajoled for half an hour to no avail.

Well, he sighed, she's warm and protected from the elements. I suppose it's not any better or worse than being in the house. Still, he didn't like her out there alone with an anxious horse. He had to admit, though, her touch soothed the beast almost every time.

He smiled as he thought of the change in her in these few short months. As he put his foot on the first step to the porch, a movement out in the pasture caught his eye. He stepped back down and peered through the darkening air and swirling dust. His eyes widened as he realized what he was looking at.

Ray took off running full speed. He slowed then stopped as he closed in on the frightened animal, scanning the palomino for some sign. Of what he didn't know. It was obvious he was riderless. Ray felt his heart pounding from more than the run. He scanned the area but could see nothing.

Approaching the horse slowly as he'd seen Johnny do with the mare, he was able to grab Barranca's lead rein. He stroked the animal, trying to calm him.

"Where's Johnny, boy?" he asked, knowing the horse couldn't answer. Thoughts whirled through his mind at amazing speed. Should he try and find the man? Should he ride to Lancer for help? What if that took too long? He decided he would hitch up the wagon and try to find Johnny himself. He knew approximately where the young man had been working. Yes, that was the thing to do.

He left Barranca there, figuring he'd waste precious time trying to cajole the frightened animal into going with him. Taking off back to the barn, he burst through the doors.

Agnes was there with Rachel, trying to convince her to come inside.

"What on earth?!" she exclaimed, her hand going to her bosom.

"Barranca's out in the pasture alone. Johnny must be in trouble. I'm going to hitch the wagon and look for him," Ray explained through ragged breaths.

Agnes immediately began helping her brother by running to the house and grabbing blankets, filling a canteen and loading a sack with bandages. All the while she prayed hard for Johnny.

Rachel watched her father hitch the wagon faster than ever before. Agnes had barely returned before he was in the seat and ready to go. She threw the supplied into the footspace and gave him a Godspeed.

"Rachel, I'm going back inside. I suggest you come with me. If your father finds Johnny, he'll bring him here. It's closer than Lancer," Agnes explained and went to the house to prepare for who knew what.

*****

Scott was having some trouble convincing Remmie to come out of the barn. The horse was not happy with the climate and preferred to stay in his warm stall. Scott was mumbling under his breath at the animal as he pulled the lead rein. I'm starting to sound like Johnny, he thought.

"Come on, Remmie. We have to go!" he shouted in the wind.

The horse continued to balk, making only short progress from the barn door. Then Scott saw a sight that made him drop the reins and forget the horse for now.

The palomino flew through the swirling dust and debris as if it didn't exist. Determination was firmly set on the animals' face as well as its rider. She pulled the reins hard to stop the mare and dropped to the ground, almost running before she hit dirt.

Rachel flew into Scott's arms, her mouth working hard to say the words.

"What is it, honey? Is you daddy hurt?" Scott asked.

She shook her head viciously. "Johnny! Barranca!"

Scott knelt down and took hold of her shoulders. "Calm down, Rachel. Tell me slowly," he said, trying to keep the fear from his voice.

"Barranca in the pasture, no Johnny. Daddy went to look," she managed to gasp out.

Scott hung his head briefly before scooping the girl up and carrying her to the house. She was fifteen but she was petite and he had no problem carrying her. He kicked the door open and quickly explained the situation to Murdoch. Then, Scott was gone.

*****

Ray was having a devil of a time with the team. They were frightened and he couldn't blame them but right now, he needed them to settle down. He kept shouting Johnny's name though he knew it would be near impossible to hear over this wind.

He knew he was close to where the damaged fence had been. He was riding as close to the line as he could get the wagon but he saw no downed fencing. Maybe Johnny fixed it, he reasoned.

As he came to the gate, he knew it was no further down. Since the gate was closed and Barranca was at his house, he quickly deduced Johnny was heading that way. He turned the wagon toward home, driving toward the road a mile down the slope.

*****

Scott was no longer in a mood to tolerate Rembrandt's temperament and he grabbed the horse's bridle. "Listen, horse. My brother is in trouble and we have to go find him. Now stop messing around!"

To his utter amazement, Remmie settled down. When Scott mounted up, the horse took off under his lead like a bullet.

Maybe they do understand, Scott thought.

*****

Ray pulled back hard on the reins, bringing the team to a stop. He jumped down and ran to the prone man, his heart thumping wildly. Johnny laid perfectly still, his arms splayed at his sides, blood running in a river from his head. Ray's stomach turned at the sight. He ran back to the wagon and grabbed the sack and canteen.

Kneeling beside Johnny, he pulled out a roll of bandages and began dressing the head wound; careful not to move the man too much. Once that was done, he checked for other injuries, cursing himself for not really knowing what he was doing. He decided he could at least tell if anything major was sticking out where it shouldn't be. Cold comfort.

Ray stopped and took a minute. He needed to calm himself down, he knew. He'd be no use to Johnny in this state of panic he felt taking over. He needed to get the boy in the wagon bed but he was afraid to jostle him about too much. Not knowing what other injuries Johnny might have, he shuddered at the possibilities.

The wind continued to howl around him and he cursed the weather. Something made him look up, what he didn't know. But when he saw Scott Lancer, he nearly cried with relief. Standing, he waved the man over.

*****

Scott ran to his brother, Ray quickly explaining what he'd found and what he'd done. Scott ran his hands over his brother's body, checking for broken bones. Finding none, he and Ray carried Johnny to the wagon bed. Scott tied Remmie to the tailgate and sat in the back with his brother, his back leaning against the front seat.

As soon as they stopped in front of the house, Scott jumped down and pulled his brother gently to the edge. They carried him inside to a waiting and anxious Agnes.

"Ray, Rachel's gone," she said.

"What?!"

"No, she's alright. She's at my house," Scott explained how the girl had come to get him. Ray stared at him in near shock.

Scott didn't notice, he was busy caring for his brother.

"I should go for the doctor," Ray said, finally regaining his senses.

"No need. I'm sure Murdockâ€ôs taken care of it," Scott said shortly.

Not long after, Murdoch arrived in a wagon with Rachel. Ray grabbed his daughter up and hugged her fiercely.

"You shouldn't have done that, Rachel. It was dangerous for you to make that ride," he chastised.

She shook her head. "Johnny hurt."

"Yes, honey, he is. We have to pray for Johnny," Ray said softly.

Sam arrived two hours later. The weather slowing his progress with multiple injuries all over the valley. When he was told of Johnny's injury, though, he stopped what he was doing. No other reports as serious had come to him and he triaged his services. Worst first.

A bad concussion and some stitches were the diagnosis and treatment. That and watching closely. Johnny regained consciousness during the night and Murdoch and Scott sat vigil throughout, waking him every two hours.

By daybreak, the weather had cleared. Not a drop of rain had fallen through the whole ordeal. Johnny felt like his head was coming off and he wished it would. He was banged up and sore but otherwise in fair shape.

*****

They hovered and coddled as always and decided to take him home in the late morning. Before they left, Scott told him of Rachel's deed. Johnny could hardly believe it and he was angry with her at first. Risking her life so foolishly. Then he realized it was the first selfless thing she'd done. Not that the child was selfish at all. But her world had consisted of only her needs and eventually her wants for all her life. She had been unable to grasp the needs of others before.

This understanding took the sting from his anger but not the firmness from his voice when he spoke to her about it.

She had only stared at him, seeming to hear but not reacting and he wondered if she'd gone back into her little world.

But her eyes brightened suddenly and she smiled at him. Placing her hand on his she simply said, "friend."

Johnny's heart melted and he held out his arms, asking for a hug. She rewarded him with a tight embrace, not tensing in the least at the physical contact.

*****

November twenty-eighth was a beautiful sunny day. The air was crisp but not cold and the sun warmed the great room through the French doors.

The Lancers and Hamiltons sat around the dining table, savoring the smells and anticipating the taste of their Thanksgiving meal.

Murdoch said grace then they started the tradition of each person saying what they were grateful for. When it came Rachel's turn, no one was sure she would speak. But she stood up and smiled at them all.

"I'm thankful for friends."

 

 

~end~
2004

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