The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Depths

 

 

 

Scott Lancer skillfully maneuvered his horse around the errant steer and herded it back into the fold. Johnny watched him and smiled, impressed that his brother had caught on so quickly. Well, some might not think of it as quickly. But, considering Scott's old lifestyle, it was definitely quick.

Johnny reckoned it took Scott about six months to really nail this herding thing. And that was partly due to the many other tasks the man had to master. Yes, Scott was a full-fledged, all-around cowboy now. Two years of hard work and determination, spattered with dangers, injuries and trouble, saw the former easterner for what he had been born to be.

A sly grin came upon the younger man's face. Could this possibly be the same man he'd encountered on that stage so long ago? Hell, two years ain't all that long, he thought. Then again, for him, it really was a long time - a lifetime.

Hearing his name called broke him away from his thoughts. Johnny turned Barranca toward the sound to find his father riding up to him.

"Where were you?" Murdoch asked.

"Right here," Johnny replied with confusion.

Murdoch adopted a taciturn expression. "Really? You seemed miles away."

Johnny dipped his eyes then met the rancher's again. "Thinkin about how good Scott is at this cowboy business."

Murdoch smiled and nodded, his eyes seeking out his elder son. "Yes, he's come a long way in a short period of time. You both have." He added the last meaningfully, casting his look back to his younger son with it.

Johnny grinned. "Reckon so but we ain't gonna get much farther if I don't get back to work." With that, he turned his horse back to the task at hand.

*

It wasn't often anymore that Murdoch joined his sons to move the herd to greener pastures. But, this time, he'd decided to come along. Feeling spry, he thought with a chuckle. Plus, he wanted to see them in action. It had been many months since he'd worked alongside them. Too many.

To say he was impressed with Scott would have been an understatement. Impressed but not surprised. It seemed his son could adapt to almost any situation with relative ease. Johnny was another story. He bucked more times than Murdoch could count. But he knew, deep down, it was that indomitable spirit that pulled so hard against the reins of responsibility. It had taken him a long time to understand that. To accept it, even. Now, he recognized that this was, quite simply, his son's personality. Johnny had many more positive attributes than quirks so it was becoming almost easy to allow those times when he fought against the norm.

They didn't argue much anymore. That was a blessing. Scott didn't have to set that jaw and intervene hardly at all now. Murdoch was grateful for that as well. He didn't like that his elder son had assumed that role, seemingly without any conscious thought. He wanted them both to enjoy life as much as possible. Having fun was as important as the work. Something else he'd had a hard time coming to terms with. Something that he now realized was a huge part of life itself. What point was there to all this hard work if a body couldn't enjoy himself from time to time?

Johnny had taught him that. Scott, too, for that matter.

Murdoch shook himself out of his reverie, smiling as he thought he'd never daydreamed so much before. He caught sight of his sons, Scott off to the right, Johnny pulling drag and pride burst up from deep within. He reined in his emotions and set his sights on the task at hand, moving off to the left as he saw a calf straying away.

Before he could reach her, she'd managed to get herself caught up in some brambles. Murdoch dismounted and stepped into the brush, struggling against the calf that was bent on making things as hard as possible. After another minute or so, he finally got her free and she bawled at him then scooted off to find her mama.

Murdoch laughed and shook his head. Well, he could have been a sheep man but sheep weren't any brighter.

He took off his hat and wiped his brow, noting that the herd was almost over the rise.

*

Johnny saw his father go after the straying calf then turned his attention back to the rest. He had just topped the rise, the last one to go over. He glanced back and saw the calf moving toward him. He didn't trust her, though. Couldn't trust any of them to do anything other than taste good. So he went to her. Barranca moved her in the right direction almost without any command. Johnny wondered why he bothered. He could just send the horse out to do this and settle himself in the shade of a tree.

He laughed and patted Barranca's neck, giving him a 'good boy' as they headed back to the rise. He looked back again then but saw no sign of his father. Johnny pulled up and waited. For three or four minutes, he waited. It shouldn't take this long. Murdoch should be right along only he wasn't anywhere to be seen.

Johnny frowned, looked at the herd then back toward the place his father should be. His gut knotted up then and that's all he needed. He turned and started toward the last place he'd seen the old man.

Passing a copse of trees, he spotted the big bay standing there loose and munching away on the grass. The land flattened here and green grass and brush was all there was to see. Some was still brown but just barely now that spring had arrived.

He called out but got no response. He whistled shrilly and called again with the same result. Panic tried to overtake him but he pushed it back with great effort. Could be nothing. Could be, but that's not what his gut was saying.

He walked Barranca closer to the bay, scanning the tall grass for tracks. The only ones he saw were from the horse as Murdoch had rode up to the bushes now directly in front of him. Johnny called out again and thought he caught a sound. Low and far away. How could that be? Even if Murdoch walked away, he couldn't have gotten that far. Not as far as it seemed to Johnny's ears.

He heard it again, a little louder this time. Johnny dismounted and walked slowly toward the bushes, his head cocked to one side, waiting.

Barranca moved closer to the bay and Johnny raised a hand back toward him and shushed the movement, the sound. He called out to his father again and waited.

There! It was clearer now but it still sounded far away. He looked down and saw footprints. Following, placing his own feet into the prints there, he slowly made his way around the stand of brush, the ground feeling spongy beneath his boots.

Suddenly the tracks stopped and Johnny looked down, his eyes widening in disbelief and then, in fear.

*

He took one more step closer and felt the ground begin to sink in even more. Quickly backing off, he went to his knees then his stomach and edged closer to the rim, peering into the depths of the sinkhole.

"Murdoch!"

"Here," came the answer now accompanied with a hollow echo. It was the echo that sent the shiver up Johnny's spine.

He took a breath and forced himself to stay calm, stay deliberate. "Are you hurt?"

Nothing for one long, treacherous moment. Then, "I .... I'm not sure."

The voice trembled. It also held something almost unrecognizable coming from his father - fear.

Johnny closed his eyes for just a second. "Hang on! I'm going for help!"

He waited until he heard the acknowledgement. A simple 'okay' but it was something at least. He backed off then stood up, hesitant to leave his father but knowing he had to.

Johnny returned quickly to his mount and flung himself into the saddle. Rearing back and turning sharply, he galloped off at top speed.

*

Scott looked up at the sound of a galloping horse. Not a good sign in these circumstances. There was no need to ride hard while pushing herd and his heart froze when he saw his brother, then locked up completely when he caught sight of the young man's face.

Johnny came to an abrupt halt, one Barranca did not appreciate, as he found his brother.

"Murdoch fell in a sinkhole or somethin," he breathed out heavily.

Scott bit back the 'what?' that first jumped in his mind. He had heard his brother clearly. "Is he hurt?"

"I don't know. He wasn't real clear on that," he answered, still panting from the ride.

Scott nodded sharply then called out to Frank. Still unable to quell the racing of his own heart, Johnny listened with appreciation as his brother quickly explained the situation then barked out orders.

Once a rescue party was organized, men were dispersed back to the ranch for equipment and someone was sent for the doctor in anticipation of injuries, the brothers returned to the scene.

"Slow, Scott. The ground is unstable near the opening. It's dark as night in there. I couldn't see him at all," Johnny explained as he led his brother to the hole.

Scott dropped to his knees and then to his stomach as he scuttled to the edge, careful not to allow any debris to fall on their father.

"Murdoch?"

"I'm here," he answered.

Johnny grabbed Scott's shirt sleeve, bunching it up tightly. "He sounds a lot weaker."

Scott looked at him and tried very hard not to show any reaction. He only nodded in response and turned back to the hole.

"We'll get you out, Sir. I've sent for equipment and more men are coming. Are you hurt?"

"I think my leg. I.. it may be broken," he stuttered.

Johnny felt very cold in the hot sun. He sighed loudly and shook his head.

*

Scott felt his stomach turn. He already knew this would be hard and a broken bone only complicated matters. He drew on his discipline and tried to reassure his father, his tone firm and authoritative.

"Anything else?" he called down.

A long moment of unbearable silence followed as both brothers held their breath. Johnny was just about to call to him again when he replied.

"Hit my head but it doesn't seem ...."

Johnny lurched forward slightly and Scott's hand clamped down on his arm.

"Not too bad," came a second later.

"Dammit, old man. Don't do that!" Johnny hissed quietly.

"Easy, brother," Scott assuaged. Turning back to the hole, he said, "we'll be right back, Murdoch. We need to figure the best way to get to you. We'll be very nearby."

The brothers scooted back a few feet and sat on the ground quietly.

"How do you want to do this?" Johnny asked.

"We need to know how far down he is. I'll get my rope and lower it down," Scott answered and went to do just that.

Johnny sat where he was and went down deep inside himself. Deeper than he'd ever had to reach before. With more effort than he would have thought needed, he pulled his alter ego out. He needed him now and knew he couldn't do this without him - wouldn't be able to deal with the scenarios his fertile imagination was allowing to run wild.

Scott was so calm, so self-assured. Johnny knew his brother had seen his panic and he was ashamed of it. He needed Madrid and he had no qualms about that.

Scott returned with the rope and looked into his brother's eyes. He saw what was there and said nothing. Inside, he was grateful. Johnny had been too much on the edge and Scott needed his brother's strength and forbearance more than he could ever admit.

*

Scott lowered the rope, explaining to their father to reach up for it. He dealt out the entire length but Murdoch had not called a halt. Had not indicated he felt or saw the rope. Twenty feet and nothing.

Scott looked sidelong at his brother. Johnny jumped to his feet and ran to his horse, retrieving his own rope. He returned and they tied one to the other, snaking it down even further.

With less than ten feet of rope left, Scott felt a tug and breathed. Still, thirty plus feet was a long way down and if Murdoch was stretching to reach it, that would make it even further to get to him. Scott looked over at his brother but Johnny's face was granite.

"Long way," Scott noted.

"Yep," Johnny clipped then sat back a little. He looked up at the sky and reckoned it to be about four o'clock. "Still a few hours of daylight left. The men will be here any time now."

Scott nodded. "Right," he said stiffly.

Johnny looked at him, his eyes betraying him momentarily as a quick flash of fear won out. He stood up and walked back to Barranca, returning with his bedroll.

"I imagine it's pretty chilly down there," he said by way of explanation. He called down to Murdoch then tossed the bedroll, waiting for an acknowledgement.

"How far?" the rancher asked.

The brothers shared another look and Scott grimaced. "About thirty feet, give or take."

"Take, more like it," Johnny mumbled.

They heard a wagon and several horses approaching then. "The men are here, Sir. It won't be long now," Scott informed him.

Johnny bit his lip and stood back up, taking a deep breath when he saw Jelly at the reins of the wagon. Here we go, he thought.

*

Murdoch cursed as he fumbled with the string on the bedroll. He hadn't wanted to tell them he was freezing but evidently, they figured it out. He would have shaken his head at his own stubborn pride but his head was about to fall off as it was. No sense in hurrying things along.

Finally, he got the blanket free and wrapped it around his shoulders. It helped a little but the dank chill that had at first surprised him had now thoroughly seeped into his aching bones.

He was so tired. His leg was killing him, caught at an odd angle and he was unable to move it. He was unable to move much except his arms and he had the feeling he shouldn't try. He couldn't see a thing. He had managed to stretch out and grab the rope, though he'd felt it in his back. At least it was something.

He leaned his head back against the wet muddy side of his prison and closed his eyes. He wanted so badly to go to sleep but he knew that was a bad idea. The bleeding had slowed down measurably now. He gingerly touched the gouge on his right temple again, rubbing his fingers together and feeling the stickiness.

And he knew he had to feel that left leg. Had put it off long enough now. Slowly, he reached out, fingering his way down his thigh, stretching his aching back muscles to their very limits and only just touching the injury. He hissed at just that light touch and he knew, just knew it was an open break.

Great! Has to be bleeding, too. Now I know why I'm so blasted dizzy. Not just my head but blood loss, too. Well, his sons didn't need to know that right now. No sense in worrying them further.

He had heard the fear in Johnny's voice, that husky tremble he got when he was hurt or scared.

Scott's voice was full of command. Too full and Murdoch knew that was a facade. Scott's mask. He smiled a little.

It turned to a grimace soon enough as the pain in his leg awakened, throbbing unmercifully for some strange reason. He'd thought the cold had caused it to go numb. Must not be cold enough. Sighing heavily, he tried once more to crane his neck and look up but there was nothing to look at. A long, dark tunnel above with only the faintest lighting and it seemed so far away. Ungodly far away.

How would they ever get him out of here?

*

There was a rumble of activity at first as they all dismounted and unloaded all the equipment they'd brought along. Then it fell quiet as each hand looked to the Lancer sons for direction.

Scott stood watching them as they worked. Johnny stared at the hole.

"How do you want to do this?" Johnny asked.

Scott turned to face him, finding scorching blue eyes trained on him. Searching for an answer.

"We could try just hauling him out. Have him secure a rope around his chest." It was almost a question.

"What about roots and the like? We don't know what's along the walls that could rip him apart. That ground ain't stable either. Plus, we don't know how bad he's really hurt," Johnny countered, his voice now flat and serious. Gone was the fearful look. In its place was the iron mask.

Scott set his jaw and considered the very real possibility of Johnny's concerns.

"You could lower me down and I could check things out," Johnny offered.

Scott gave him a very wary look. "I don't know, Johnny. We may end up rescuing two men instead of one."

Johnny breathed out heavily through his nose. "You got a better idea?" It was almost a challenge, just a flirt of hope there that, indeed, his brother did have a better idea.

Scott dropped his eyes for a second. "No, I don't."

Johnny nodded and walked over to Frank. "Need at least forty feet of rope with a lasso on the end."

That was all he said and all he needed to say as the older man set about securing the item. Johnny walked back over to his brother.

"Tie it off to the wagon wheel for good measure, then a couple of you can lower me real slow."

Before Scott could answer, they heard a faint call. Both went to the edge of the abyss and peered in, knowing they would see nothing.

"What's happening?" Murdoch called. His voice was strained and tired.

"We're working on it, Sir. Just give us a few more minutes," Scott called down, unwilling to give too much information. Murdoch didn't need to know what they were about to do. He wouldn't like it one bit.

"He sounds worse," Johnny remarked.

*


"Doc's on his way." Jelly stood just behind them, looking between their heads at the situation. "How deep?"

"Thirty feet or so, Jelly," Scott said.

Frank appeared with the rope and a question on his face. Johnny explained his idea to two very unconvinced ranch hands.

"Gonna get yourself in all sorts of trouble," Jelly mumbled.

Johnny didn't answer. He didn't feel like getting into an argument with Jelly right now. He just wanted this done with.

Scott secured the rope to the wagon wheel himself then returned and double checked the loop securing his brother to the other end.

"New rope," Scott managed a smile.

"Yeah, that's good," Johnny replied quietly then walked over to the edge.

Frank and Scott grabbed hold of the rope and Scott nodded. Johnny leaned back and tugged hard then slowly stepped one foot into the abyss. It was wide enough but the sides became wetter and more slippery as he went.

At about ten feet, he lost his grip and his feet slid away from the wall. Scott yelled at Frank to pull when he felt the sudden jolt on the rope and they hauled a cussing Johnny out.

"What the hell did ya do that for?" he asked once back on solid ground.

"You fell," Scott pointed out angrily.

"I slipped. I was almost back on good footin," he grumbled.

"What did you find?" Scott asked, unwilling to go round in circles.

"Nothing. It's pretty slick but there weren't a lot of roots. Although, I didn't get very far," he retorted.

"Maybe ya outta lower a lantern down. Boss might be able to see somethin hisself," Jelly offered.

The brothers looked over at him, standing there with his hands shoved in his pockets, and smiled.

"Jelly, maybe you should be leading this operation," Scott said.

"Couldn't do no worse!" he rejoined and regretted it immediately. "Aw, you boys are doin jest fine. Cain't think of everthin," he tried.

But they both knew they would have to rein themselves in here and start thinking more clearly. There wasn't a great deal of daylight left and wasting it was not an option.

*

Murdoch reached out once more as he heard the clink of the lantern rattling its way down. He finally felt it, grabbed onto it and pulled it down. Fingers now almost completely numb, he searched for the packet of matches.

He struck one but it wouldn't light. Tried it again and threw it aside in frustration. Murdoch drew in a long breath and let it out slowly, calming himself. Once composed, he struck a second match to life then struggled to pull up the chimney.

He squinted against the brightness after being in the dark for ..... how long now? He hadn't a clue. He raised the lantern and looked around, surprised by what he saw. He was actually on a ledge. Logic told him not to look down. Logic did not win.

As he peered over the edge, he swallowed hard. He could see nothing more. Just blackness. Neverending blackness. Raising his eyes back up, he saw the ledge ran almost a full circle around the walls which he now checked over carefully.

"Murdoch! How's it look?"

That was Johnny. Impatient as ever. He smiled. He kept studying the walls of his prison and grimaced.

"Lots of roots sticking out down here," he called back hoarsely.

"Food and water on the way!" Scott now.

He saw it coming this time and sighed heavily. He was thirsty but had no appetite. Well, it was here if he wanted it, he thought. May as well set up house at this rate, his next grumpy thought came.

He forced himself to drink slowly, knowing he didn't want to get sick. Especially down here.

"Do you need anything else, Sir?"

Murdoch swallowed and took a few breaths. "Another blanket would help."

It was there before he could take another drink and he laughed aloud at their suddenness. His mirth quickly died as he thought how they must be worrying up there. He could see them both so clearly.

By now, Johnny was in Madrid mode. Mask tightly in place. No, not tightly. Not anymore. For no matter how hard he tried these days, it kept slipping a little. At least, in front of his family. The thought was monumental; knowing Johnny trusted them enough, needed them enough to allow that was huge.

Scott would be in military mode. Shoulders back and rigid. Jaw set firmly as he gave clipped orders. His mask not slipping until his brother's did. Only then would Scott show any emotion. Support for his brother in his own way.

If he'd learned one thing over these precious months, it was that Johnny needed him more than he'd ever admit. Scott was harder. He hadn't gotten to that point. At least, not to the point of showing it. Murdoch knew it was true but he waited for his elder son, knowing Scott would need to make the first subtle move.

And he would be there like he had been for Johnny these short few months since his younger son had let him know. Oh, it was no grand announcement. Not even a request. It just was. It had happened and Johnny had allowed it and now - Dear God, now they were so much better together.

Murdoch blinked away the stinging in his eyes. So grateful for all he had and selfish enough to want so much more of it. He sighed tiredly and leaned his head back, closing his eyes for a minute. Just for a minute.

*

"I can do it, Scott."

"I know you can, Johnny. I just want to explore all the possibilities before we try it again. I don't want you hurt, too," Scott remained adamant.

"Fine. Think of something but make it fast," Johnny shot at him, his patience running as low as the sunlight at this point.

He paced, arms crossed over his chest, head down. Waiting was not his strong suit. There was a time he would have plunged headlong into that hole and dragged his old man out - somehow. Yeah, sure. You would've plungedd right in. The dragging Murdoch out part, I ain't so sure about.

He surprised himself sometimes. How much he'd changed. How much he now relied on these people. His family. All of them. Jelly and the hands; Maria, too. They were all his family now. Big crowd, he thought and suppressed a grin.

He turned and watched his brother deep in thought. Scott the thinker. Always analyzing everything to death. Then again, he usually came up with something good.

The problem was that Murdoch was in that wet, cold hole, hurt and alone. Every minute that ticked away drained that much more life from the old man. Johnny flung his arms to his side and clenched his fists hard against his thighs. And he waited. Waited for Scott.

Finally, thankfully, Scott's head came up and he found his brother's eyes. "I can't think of anything else," he admitted.

Johnny only nodded once and strode determinedly to the tailgate, grabbing up the rope once more.

"How do ya think we're gonna haul ya both outta there at once?" Jelly asked as he followed the young man.

"You're not. You're gonna haul Murdoch out first. Soon as I get to him and get him fixed up," Johnny answered, never breaking stride.

"What if there ain't enough room for ya both down there?"

Johnny stopped and turned around, his face implacable. "Jelly, I'm going down there. Either help or move."

*

Murdoch felt a little nausea from the water. As careful as he was, it was still coming back to bite him. He concentrated on keeping his stomach still but it was becoming increasingly hard. Everything was getting harder. Staying awake, feeling his limbs, focusing his eyes.

He heard something and languidly pulled his head back. Clearing his throat, he called out as loudly as he could but it sounded like a whisper to him.

"I'm comin down!"

"No!" he tried but it was only a croak. What were they thinking? Johnny shouldn't be down here. He could get hurt!

Murdoch struggled to move, igniting the fire in his leg and couldn't stop the loud groan from escaping. He settled back with a jolt and that didn't help either.

He felt something falling on his head and tried to look up, protecting his eyes with his hand. Dirt. He's coming. They never listen to me.

Murdoch managed to guide Johnny's legs as he descended. There was barely enough room for him and it wasn't going to be comfortable. The first thing he saw was a wide grin.

"Mind if I drop in?"

"Yes, I do! I said no," Murdoch groused.

Johnny cocked a brow. "Sorry, didn't hear that. Let's get a look at you."

He picked up the lantern and raised it to eye level then whistled softly. He gingerly touched the gash in Murdoch's temple. It had   stopped bleeding. He then swung the lantern toward his father's lower body and he felt sick.

The leg was twisted backward at a sickening angle. Johnny kept his face impassive though it was a feat. Giving himself just a second, he looked back in his father's eyes.

"This is gonna hurt like hell, old man."

"It already does," came the short reply.

"Yeah, well....." Johnny didn't say anymore. He hoped his father would be able to stay conscious long enough to get all the way out. He wouldn't be surprised if that didn't happen though.

*

"What's the plan?"

Johnny looked up from his thoughts. He wrangled out of the looped rope and grinned. "Gonna haul you outta here."

"I don't know, son," Murdoch's response was doubtful.

"Scott couldn't think of anything else," Johnny gave him a look he couldn't quite read.

"Is that your way of saying this was your idea?"

With a short laugh, he answered. "Reckon so." His face fell then. "I can't even try to set that leg down here. I can tie it to the other one. Give it some support. But that's about it. How's your head feel?"

"Like a sledgehammer is at work," Murdoch grumbled.

"Well, you still have your sunny disposition."

Murdoch sighed and Johnny swallowed hard, dropping his eyes and frowning. "Sorry," was all he said as he worked the loop over his father's head and down under his arms.

He obtained a smaller length of rope from above then looked seriously at his father. "I can't tie this one until you're swinging. I'm sorry."

Murdoch's throat hitched at the sincerity in his son's voice and he managed a small smile. "It can't be helped, son. We'll manage."

Johnny smiled back and nodded then took a deep breath. "Scott! We're ready. Pull him up until I say stop!" he yelled.

Murdoch winced at the loudness but tried to hide it. This was it then. He was about to show his son his true mettle. He clamped his jaw tight and swore to himself he'd prove worthy.

The rope tightened around his chest and he grabbed hold with both hands just above his head. He was dragged up seven or so feet before Johnny called a halt. Sweat broke out on the older man's face as he fought to hold back the sounds of the sheer agony he felt. He had to let go of the rope with one hand to push himself away from the walls, trying to keep himself centered.

When Johnny bound his legs together, he couldn't stop a low grumble in his throat.

Johnny grimaced, sweating a bit himself as he caused his father such pain. He tied the rope off loosely and quickly as he could then called out for Scott to start pulling again.

They pulled with all their strength but the grass was wet and slippery. Scott, in the lead, felt his feet sliding and he tried to dig his heels in. Frank and Jelly were doing the same.

They were dangerously close to the opening when it happened. Scott's feet began to sink deeper into the ground and he realized the unstable earth was giving way. Before he could find the words, he began to fall.

Frank and Jelly grabbed him, releasing the rope in their haste, and pulled Scott back. All three tumbled over each other from the momentum.

*

Johnny was trying to watch his father's ascent past the debris falling in his face. With one hand over his eyes, he craned his neck back. He kept the lantern held above his head but it offered little light.

Then, he heard shouting from above and what sounded like panic. Murdoch yelled out too as he fell back.

Johnny had about two seconds to register what was happening before his father slammed his full weight down on top of him. All he managed to do was let out an "Ooomph!" as his lungs squished closed.

There was a long silence as the world seemed to stop. Murdoch lay stunned breathless and a bit senseless until the pain exploded in his leg. He ground his teeth together to stop the moan and managed some success. He blinked several times into the total black that surrounded him, unable to reorient. Then he heard another moan and knew it was not his own.

"Johnny?" he breathed out softly. He got no response and his heartbeat quickened substantially.

Murdoch closed his eyes for a brief second before making himself stay calm. He tried calling out again.

"Get off me," came the barely audible breath.

"I'm not sure I can," Murdoch grunted and tried to move. The pain in his leg had other ideas and he slumped back nearly passing out as he felt, rather than saw, the world spin.

*

"Murdoch, I can't breathe," Johnny managed to heave out.

Hearing this propelled the older man into action and, despite the excruciating pain in his leg, he leaned forward and rolled off to the left as he reached out to feel for the edge of their perch.

Johnny wriggled away from his father's body as much as he could but Murdoch was still sitting on his legs. That was good enough, he figured. He didn't need legs to breathe. He sucked in air for a full minute.

"Dammit! What happened?" he asked.

"I don't know. They dropped me," Murdoch answered through gritted teeth.

Johnny leaned forward, reaching out blindly to grab his father's shoulder with one hand while balancing himself with the other. "How bad?"

Murdoch shook his head though Johnny couldn't see it. The lantern was history as it was knocked from his hand and who knew where it had landed.

"Murdoch," he breathed the name shakily.

"Give me a minute, son," he answered in much the same manner.

*

Scott disentangled himself from the limbs entwining him and finally, slowly made his way to the edge. He had to go around the other side to gain access.

He wasn't sure his voice was going to work and he didn't want to call out , didn't want to not get an answer. His fear had multiplied one hundred times and he felt himself losing control. At that moment, he didn't care. He had a greater need.

"Murdoch! Johnny!"

Johnny looked up though he could barely see any difference in the lighting. Must be dusk by now, he thought. Another thought came to him. One he verbalized softly. "I'm gonna kill him."

"Easy, son. I'm sure he didn't do it on purpose," Murdoch tried to placate him.

"Here!" Johnny managed to shout and held back anything else he might have wanted to say. He knew as well as anyone it was an accident, but damn it all anyway!

"Are you alright?" Scott asked.

Johnny rolled his eyes and inhaled deeply. "Peachy, brother," he mumbled. Louder, he answered, "I'm okay. Murdoch, I'm not so sure about."

"I'm fine," came the disgruntled bellow.

Scott pulled back a little at the loudness, mostly in surprise that his father could be that loud right now.

"We need light!" Johnny called.

Jelly grabbed another lantern and lit it first this time. They lowered it down attached with two more blankets.

Johnny grabbed it up and held the metal ringed handle between his teeth as he manipulated the blankets. Shaking one out he wrapped it around his father's shoulders. Then he held the lantern out so he could get a look at the old man.

*

Johnny was grateful his father couldn't see his face. He winced at the sight of that leg. It was bleeding heavily again and he could see the swelling starting to tighten the pant leg.

"Can you hold the lantern?" he asked.

Murdoch nodded and took the light. His head was bowed and getting heavier by the minute.

Johnny contorted his body, trying to get within reach of the leg. He scooted to the left and felt himself going over the side. He leaned heavily to the right to balance himself as his heart skipped a few times.

"Johnny?"

"What?" he yelled back to his brother.

"What's going on?" Scott called back, anger in his voice now.

That's good, brother. You go right ahead and get mad. Might as well have some company about it, Johnny grumbled to himself.

"Give me a minute," he said instead. He pulled his legs from beneath Murdoch and straddled him from behind. He had better purchase now and he stretched far to reach the wound.

Murdoch hissed at the touch but otherwise, made no movement. Johnny knew the old man was fading fast but there wasn't a thing he could do about it now. He reached into his own boot and pulled out his knife. With one quick slice he had the pant leg opened. One more cut through the rope binding the legs together.

He pushed at his father, leaning him against the cold, dank wall of their prison so he could lean even further. Johnny thought his ribs might just pull apart, he was stretching so far. He bit his lip and ignored it.

Murdoch's hand was slipping off his lap and Johnny pushed it back, keeping the lantern balanced. "Come on, old man, stay with me," he whispered in his father's ear.

He pulled back and used his knife to cut the second blanket into some strips. Taking a deep breath, he leaned forward again, allowing only small wisps of air out at a time so he could stay in position longer. He only had one hand to work with as there was no way the other would reach. It was starting to look impossible.

"Murdoch, I need your help."

"Hmmmm?" was the response.

"Murdoch!" Johnny shouted in his ear.

The rancher's head jerked up and he growled. "What?"

"Hold this for me. The bandage. See? There at your leg," he explained. He was losing all that air he'd been holding onto. He knew he'd have to lean back for a second to get more. He felt like a pretzel, bent nearly in two at the waist.

Murdoch took hold of the strip of cloth and Johnny moved his hand like quicksilver, wrapping it under the other piece, tightening it. With a yank, he tightened more and Murdoch hissed.

"Hold onto it. Don't let go," Johnny urged.

And he did, somehow. Johnny finally got it as tight as he thought he could and he leaned back, sucking in air heavily.

*

Scott stayed exactly where he lay, flat of his stomach and looking over the edge. Knowing he couldn't see a thing did not dissuade him.

Jelly and Sam hovered nearby, neither knowing what to say. All they could do was wait for Johnny to call out to them again.

Even Jelly managed to hold his tongue for once.

Underground, Johnny shook out the rest of the second blanket and threw it over his father's legs. Murdoch's skin was like ice. He leaned back then, his right shoulder against the wall and rested his head there, too, for a minute.

He knew they were up there waiting for him but he needed just one more minute. He thanked God Murdoch had stayed put.

"How are we gonna get you out of here, old man?" he whispered but got no response. Not that he expected any. He was pretty sure Murdoch was nearly out now.

Johnny reached out again and pulled his father back against him so the older man could be more comfortable. He laid a hand on Murdoch's forehead and felt the difference in the temperature there. Even in the dank, cold cavern, the old man was toasty warm.

He slid his hand down and took the lantern from the lax fingers that had somehow managed to hold on this long.

"Scott!" he shouted and got little more than a jerk from his father.

"We need a travois to haul him up," Johnny said, wondering where that idea had come from.

Above ground, Scott looked over his shoulder at Jelly who nodded tersely and hurried to the wagon and the waiting men.

"We'll rig one up. How is he?" Scott asked.

"Pretty much out," came the flat response.

Scott bowed his head and closed his eyes.  

"Scott?"

He looked up and over his shoulder.

"It's not your fault, son," Sam said.

"Oh? And whose fault would it be?" Scott shot.

Sam gave him an understanding and calm look. "The earth?"

Scott gave him a perturbed look then scooted away from his spot before standing. "We can debate that later. Right now, I need to get my family out of that earth." He turned and walked over to the men.

*

Johnny sat there with his arms wrapped around his father and stared into nothingness. He'd turned the lantern down as there was nothing much to see. Just enough light was left so he could watch Murdoch's face for any sign of change.

He shivered as the cold finally registered in his mind and in his bones. He closed his eyes and felt himself nodding off. With a jerk, he came up slightly, eliciting a moan from his patient.

"Sssshhhh, it's okay. Scott's gonna get us out of here. Just rest, old man. Just rest," he spoke softly as he absently stroked his father's cheek with his thumb.

Out of the deafening silence came a whisper of a voice. "Johnny?"

"Right here."

"Whas happenin," Murdoch slurred.

Johnny bent his head forward but he could only see the side of Murdoch's face. "Scott's building a travois so we can get you out of here."

"Oh. Good idea," he mumbled.

Johnny smiled a little. "Just rest, Murdoch. It'll be alright."

*

Scott's mind raced as he helped rig the travois. How could they pull them out with the ground so unstable? He looked up and around and frowned. The answer had been there all along. Why hadn't he used the horses in the first place?

They could pull from further away. All they needed was longer rope. He sighed heavily and went back to it.

It was past dusk and the moon was only half full. Lanterns had been lit around the work area and the hole. Scott felt the cool evening air through his own jacket. They must be freezing down there. One blanket apiece wouldn't help much.

Finally, the men finished rigging the travois. Scott resumed his earlier position at the mouth of the pit.

"We're ready!" Scott called.

*

Johnny's head jerked up and he blinked several times. Confusion assaulted him for a time until he heard his brother's voice again and felt the weight on him. He looked at his father, as much as he could see, and knew the old man was still unconscious.

Johnny swallowed hard, his throat dry now. "Okay," he was able to respond.

They lowered the travois somewhat clumsily and Johnny hoped it didn't snag. He turned up the wick on the lantern and watched its descent. Pushing forward, he leaned Murdoch against the wall again and reached out.

"Got it. A little more slack," he yelled. "Stop!"

Johnny positioned the travois on the edge opposite him and sighed. How the hell am I gonna get you in there? He hadn't thought of that. Hadn't thought of much past getting the thing down here to begin with. Now, he had another problem to deal with and he would just rather not.

He was tired and his entire body felt stiff. Every move he made hurt and he couldn't make that many to begin with. He realized he was going to have to stand up. Stand and skirt the edge of this abyss and somehow maneuver Murdoch into this giant sling.

Okay, Johnny, think, he demanded of himself. "Scott, water!" he shouted.

Less than a minute later, a canteen was lowered and Johnny took a long pull from it. He cupped his hand and poured a small amount then patted Murdoch's face.

"Come on, old man, wake up," he called softly.

Murdoch moaned and moved his head away from the water.

"Murdoch, wake up!"

No response.

Johnny sighed and hung his head for a minute. Then, he tried again. "Murdoch, I need your help here. I can't do this alone. Come on, wake up."

Another moan, louder this time, and Murdoch's eyes fluttered open.

Johnny grinned and tried again. "That's it, come on and help me out now."

"What is it?"

"Well, it's a hole and, I don't know about you but, I'm tired of bein in it. Come on now, wake up."

Murdoch heard the cynicism in the voice and sighed tiredly. "What do you need?"

"I need you to help me get you in this contraption so Scott can haul you out of here," Johnny explained, a fraction exasperated but mostly just exhausted.

*

Murdoch opened his eyes fully and took in the contraption Johnny referred to. He frowned deeply. "I don't think so, son."

"It beats setting up house down here. They can't pull you up like they tried before. Your leg is worse. Come on, now. We can do this. I just need you to roll over on your side some so I can push this under you," Johnny cajoled.

Murdoch let out a deep breath and sucked in another one before pulling himself over. He groaned softly as he tried to find something to hold onto. Feeling a root, he grabbed it tightly with his hand.

Johnny pushed and maneuvered the travois until he knew it would go no further. "Okay, now, slowly lean this way," he said.

This was the part that scared him senseless. There was no more ledge to hang onto. Johnny's feet were precariously perched as it was. One false move and he'd be gone, he knew. All he could do was pray his legs held out. They were already trembling from the strain and cold.

Murdoch struggled to get his large frame in the apparatus. He grabbed the side and pulled over.

"No!" Johnny yelled. His feet slid and he threw himself across the black depth between himself and the other side of the ledge. His hands slapped the wall and he grunted as he slipped and slid until his feet found purchase once more.

He stayed there, head hung, looking into his father's wide eyes. He took several breaths and smiled at the man. "Don't do that again, okay?"

Murdoch could only nod. He'd had no clue what Johnny had been doing or from where he was doing it. His head was full of cotton and he'd simply done as he was instructed. Now, he was wide awake, fully alert and scared to death for his son.

After another minute, Johnny pushed back from the wall and balanced himself in his former position. Now, Murdoch could see his son was standing on about three or four inches of ledge with nothing between him and black space.

"Are you crazy? What are you doing?" Murdoch barked.

Johnny looked at him as if he'd lost his mind. His own anger snapped. "I'm trying to get your sorry hide out of this mess!"

He took a deep breath but the anger didn't fade. He surveyed where they were with this craziness. "Okay, slowly scoot to the right a little," he said as he reached one foot across and braced the travois.

Murdoch did so - slowly. He lifted his middle and felt the travois scoot over a little. Johnny nodded and he settled into it.

"Looks good," Johnny mumbled and repositioned himself so he could put Murdoch's legs in as gently as possible. The hiss caused him to tense but he couldn't stop now. He adjusted the ropes, strapping his father in tightly.

*

Johnny craned his neck toward the world outside knowing he wouldn't see anything. "Scott!"

"Here!"

"How are you going to do this?" he asked, hoping for a better solution this time.

"The horses will pull him out. We'll stand by and guide the travois as it comes," Scott answered.

Johnny heard something in his brother's voice. Guilt. He sighed. Not now, Scott. Please, not now.

"Okay, start pulling," he called. "Hope they're usin Barranca," he mumbled to himself. He grabbed a tethering rope to help keep the travois from flipping over as it rose.

Outside, Frank and Mario pulled at Barranca and Remmie's reins as Scott and Jelly took hold of the rope, guiding it out. They looked like one end of a tug-of-war. It took long, excruciating moments but, at long last, they saw the travois emerge.

Scott tried to focus only on his chore but he found himself watching his father for any sign of life. They pulled him far enough out that he was well away from the soft ground before Scott called a stop.

Sam was ready for his patient. When the team of men carried Murdoch to him, he hid his own distress at his friend's condition by sorting out the tools of his trade.

Scott stood over him for a minute before asking.

"Give me some time, Scott. You could get your brother out of there instead of hovering over me!"

Scott took a step back at the man's tone then realized he was right. Johnny was still down there, probably cussing a blue streak. But as he approached the hole, the men had already thrown the rope to Johnny.

"Ready, brother?" Scott called down.

"No, Scott. I kinda like it down here," came the snide response. "Get on with it!"

Scott grimaced at the tone but held the rope as the horses pulled once more. Then the rope grew taut too quickly and the horses, alarmed, backstepped.

"Grab it! Grab it!" Scott shouted to everyone and anyone.

All four of them took hold and finally got a solid lock. There was no slack.

Scott stumbled to the opening and peered over. "Johnny!"

He heard an answer. At least he thought it was an answer. It sounded like his brother was calling from the other side of a mountain.

"What happened?" Scott shouted.

"Pull me out!"

That he heard distinctly.

*

Johnny dangled from the rope. Looking past his feet, he could see the lantern's light disappearing as it fell and fell, never hitting bottom. How could there not be a bottom? he thought.

Dios! Get me outta here, brother.

And he felt himself being lifted and pulled. Johnny sighed with relief then shivered as a deep coldness engulfed him once more. Just the thought of the ground giving way while Murdoch was still down here alone with no anchor - he shook his head, trying to clear the images from his mind.

He craned his neck and concentrated on trying to see light above him. Any light at all would do.

Then it was there. Faint as a stilled summer breeze, but it was there. And he focused his entire being on that light. So it shocked him when he felt the sharp sting on his right leg. He grunted and hissed but otherwise ignored the pain.

*

Scott pulled until he thought his arms would simply come out of the sockets. He didn't care if they did. He'd just pull some more.

A dark head appeared followed by a dark face. A very unhappy, dirt-smeared face. But Scott thought it the most wondrous thing he'd ever witnessed and he yanked with all his might until Johnny was free.

Scott ran to his brother and helped him to his feet, then freed him of the rope.

"What the devil happened?" he asked.

"The ground gave way. Just gave way," Johnny gasped air. His eyes took in the many lanterns lighting the area around the sinkhole and wagons then they fell on Sam and he staggered over.

"You okay, Johnny?" Sam asked, sparing him a glance.

"Fine, Doc. How is he?" Johnny answered breathlessly, swiping at the sweat on his brow.

Sam shook his head. "I want to get him somewhat stable before we move him. He has a concussion and that leg is broken but the wound isn't from the bone sticking out. It's fractured but not completely broken in two. That's good news, at least."

"At least?" asked Scott.

Sam looked at him, now hunkered beside his brother. "He's lost quite a bit of blood, boys. He's pretty weak." Shaking his head again, Sam spoke firmly. "That's all I'm going to know until we can get him in a proper bed with good lighting."

Neither young man spoke again, knowing the tone of the doctor's voice and what he was saying. He would tell them nothing else until he was completely sure of his diagnosis.

*

In short order, Sam was ready to move his patient. It took four men to settle Murdoch in the wagon bed. Jelly took up the reins and headed out as easily as he could. Murdoch still had not regained consciousness and though no one spoke of it, all were worried about that fact.

Two men stayed behind to camp out until dawn when they could rope off the entire area to keep this from happening again.

Scott and Johnny took a side each as they made their way slowly to the estancia, both keeping a closer eye on Murdoch than on the trail, both deep in their own misery.

Scott glanced once at his brother and saw Johnny was well-settled behind the facade. He was grateful for it and hoped his brother would keep it up. He simply wasn't up to consoling anyone.

He knew it was a horrible thought and a selfish one as well but he couldn't help it. He was tired, sore and very afraid. He had never seen Murdoch really hurt. So vulnerable and relying on others completely for his well-being. This mountain of a man had never asked for anything from either of them.

Scott nearly smiled. Well, almost never.

When had it happened, he wondered? At what moment had he started truly caring for this man? It certainly wasn't when he'd first arrived. He'd promised himself he would hear Murdoch out before he ever got there. He would withhold judgment until he heard what the man had to say for himself.

But Murdoch had little to say in way of explanation and that had infuriated Scott. He never showed it, but he was pretty steamed. He shook his head subtly.

At some point, Murdoch had grown on him. He had started caring for the man and holding him in high regard. He supposed it wasn't something that happened overnight. There was no defining moment. It had crept up on him slowly, unobtrusively until one day, he had just realized it. He loved Murdoch.

That had been quite a shock to be sure. Still, there it was and he didn't know what to do with it. Nothing, he had decided. What was there to do? Simply show his respect and his affection whenever the occasion arose. He only hoped his father knew how he felt. He wasn't sure he could ever speak the words.

Johnny had been so easy. Scott almost choked on that thought. Maybe easy wasn't the word. Just .... less difficult. He figured that was because of the tie that bound them. Not blood, but the past. And no, they had no commonality per se. It was that they'd both grown up without a father but knowing he existed. Both hating him at some time or the other. Neither really knowing the truth of it.

It gave them an opening to each other after a most tenuous beginning. Now, they were solid together. Brothers and friends. But, what of this man? This father he'd never wanted to see when he was younger or so he'd convinced himself for so many years.

*

Scott's ruminations kept him occupied and before he knew it, they were home. After much struggle, short tempers and clipped orders all around, Murdoch was settled in his bed with Teresa hovering obsessively.

Sam knew that, this time, he would have to do without her help. She had lost her own father and Murdoch had filled that void. He couldn't have her tending to the man now - not again. Not until he was on the road to recovery. A prayer Sam fervently sent upward.

Scott didn't need Sam to tell him this and he insisted the girl stand down. Maria took over assisting Sam who shot Scott a grateful look. The elder Lancer son herded his siblings out of the room and down to the kitchen.

They all needed to eat. To replenish themselves for the work still ahead. Murdoch's recovery would be long and hard.

As they sat at the table looking like a litter of lost pups, Scott scrutinized the others. Johnny needed a bath but he wasn't about to mention it.

"Well, Teresa, what have we to look forward to?"

She looked up at him uncomprehendingly.

"What sort of patient is Murdoch?" Scott clarified.

Her shoulders slumped and she managed a small smile. "Johnny a hundred times over."

"Great!" Scott grinned.

Johnny glanced up at them both then lowered his eyes again, not saying a word.

"I suppose we should salvage that rope then," Scott tried again.

Johnny stood up abruptly and rounded the table. "Excuse me," he whispered and stepped outside.

Teresa's eyes brimmed with unshed tears and Scott sighed, patted her hand and went after his brother.

*

Johnny picked the petals off a rose and shredded them one by one. He heard Scott come up behind him.

"I can't do this, Johnny."

He turned and cocked his head to the side. "Do what?"

"I can't take care of you and him, too," Scott said softly.

Johnny's head straightened as did his shoulders. "Did I ask you to take care of me, Scott? I don't need takin care of. Murdoch does!"

"Yes, he does. And I need you to help."

Johnny threw what was left of his latest demolished petal to the ground and took two steps forward. Hands on hips, he glared at his brother. "I have every intention of helping, Scott. Nothing I can do right now but wait, though. So, if you don't mind, I'd rather wait out here - alone! What's the matter with you?"

Scott sighed and dropped his head, turning his profile to his brother. "I'm sorry. I just ..... I just hate this!"

He felt a hand, gentle on his shoulder, and it squeezed lightly.

"I know. We all hate it. He's the one always getting us out of fixes. We're not used to having to help him. But, we'll do it, Scott. Together, okay?"

Scott nodded. "I am sorry. I didn't mean what I said. I know you'll be right there for him. Sometimes ...." he shook his head and trailed off.

"What?" Johnny urged, giving him a soft shake on the shoulder.

Scott turned to look at him. "Well, don't get mad but, sometimes, I forget you're not a kid."

Johnny raised his brows at this as his hand slid easily off Scott's shoulder.

"Well, you act like a kid sometimes, brother. I have to remind myself that you've gotten along on your own for years," Scott shrugged.

Johnny smiled softly. "That's because you keep reading the big brother book. I told you to burn that thing."

Before Scott could reply, Teresa called out that Sam was downstairs.

*

They hurried through the back door and sat quickly as the doctor took a long sip of coffee. Impatiently, they awaited the news.

"Well, as I said, the leg is fractured, not broken clean through. There is a very deep gash in that leg, though. With all the dirt and debris, it's infected. He's started a fever already."

"Is he awake?" Teresa asked.

Sam shook his head and frowned deeper. "No, not yet but, he has to be exhausted. With the pain and fever, it's good for him to sleep. However, I do expect and want him to wake up before morning if only for a minute. That concussion was fairly serious." He turned his attention to Johnny. "How was he when you were down there?"

Johnny shrugged. "He was himself. Mad that I came down. He growled a little but not much. After the second fall he was pretty out of it but he answered me okay when he did come around if that's what you mean."

"It is what I mean and that's good news. All we can do now is wait. Stay with him around the clock. Feed him fluids but no food other than broth at first. And keep a close eye on that fever. Cool him down. I'll stay the night."

All three nodded their heads.

"Oughtta work in shifts. You two are wore out," Jelly said from the doorway.

"I'm alright," came the unified answer.

Three smiles and shaking heads greeted that chorused response. The brothers shared a smile between them as well.

"I'll stay with him. You two get some rest," Teresa stated.

"And no arguments. You will all get your turn," Sam stated as well.

"Guess that's the smart thing to do but I want to look in on him first," Johnny spoke.

"As do I. Then," Scott raised a hand to hold off the impending arguments, "we'll get some sleep," he finished.

*

They took up a position side by side at the foot of the bed and stared at the still figure. Neither spoke for long moments.

"Scott?" Johnny whispered.

"What?"

"Does he look .... older, to you?" he asked, his voice barely audible.

Scott drew in a shaky breath. "Yes, he does but don't let him hear that. Come on, brother, we really do need that rest."

Johnny nodded but made no move. Neither did Scott.

Small hands pressed one in each back as Teresa leaned toward them from behind. "Go to bed," she said softly but emphatically.

Scott smiled at her and Johnny nodded, turned and kissed the top of her head. "You call us if you need anything at all."

"I promise."

Scott lifted her chin with two fingers. "Promise, promise?"

Teresa smiled affectionately at him. "Cross my heart," she said and did so.

They finally left her to her patient and she sat in the chair beside the bed. Wringing out a wet cloth, she soothed the fevered brow.

"They love you so much."

*

The sledgehammer was back and with a fury. He pulled his brows together in a frown and moaned. At least, he thought he moaned. He certainly had intended to; couldn't have kept from it.

He felt a cool cloth on his face and sighed for the relief. Slowly, his eyes opened to a fuzzy world.

He saw a shadow leaning over him but couldn't make it out. It wasn't Teresa. Who could it be? Paul? No, Paul was dead, he thought and a deep sadness overtook him. So deep, he closed his eyes against it.

Someone called his name feathery soft. He couldn't quite latch onto the voice though. But he forced his eyes open again, needing to know who was caring for him.

He blinked several times and each one helped clear the veil that seemed to cover his sight. Then the figure moved and the light fell more brightly. He squinted against it and it was suddenly dimmer. Someone must have seen him flinch and turned down the wick. Thoughtful. He smiled.

He heard his name again and once more labored to focus.

"Take your time."

Thanks, I will, Murdoch thought. Can't do anything but. His head throbbed unmercifully then he felt a cool hand behind his neck, a touch of a glass to his lips and he drank thirstily.

But it was taken away too soon and he tried to show his displeasure. He must have succeeded as he heard a soft laugh.

"Not too much. You'll get sick."

"Johnny," he sighed out.

"Sure ain't the Easter bunny," the young man grinned. It didn't last long as Murdoch closed his eyes again.

But he felt the hand on his forehead, feeling for fever he imagined, but lingering for long seconds. The hand slipped away then found its way to his own hand, squeezing lightly and speaking so softly, he couldn't hear the words. It didn't matter, it was the cadence that soothed his weary mind. Soft, melodic, reassuring. He slipped into blessed sleep.

Johnny sat there talking to him. Not saying a thing of importance and not trying to. He watched as Murdoch sighed out once then his breathing leveled out and Johnny knew he was asleep again.

He sighed heavily and rubbed at his face. Seeing Murdoch like this, so vulnerable, so sick, tore at his heart. Scared the living hell out of him, too.

Dios! I can't stand this. Give me a good ole fashioned gunfight or barroom brawl. A cattle drive or ten miles of fence to lay. Anything but this. His eyes went upward and he closed them briefly. Please, God, make him better, he prayed.

*

He felt a hand on his shoulder and jerked from his trance. Craning his neck, he looked up into his brother's eyes.

"I called out. You must have been a million miles away," Scott smiled.

Johnny dropped his head then stood. "Guess so."

"Get some rest, brother. My turn to sit with him."

Johnny nodded. "That fever is bein as stubborn as he is but at least it's no worse," he reported then stretched, a grimace appearing on his face.

"Sore?" Scott asked, half-concerned, half-amused.

"A little. I scratched my leg comin out of that pit. It's nothing," Johnny shrugged.

But Scott did not dismiss it so easily. "Have you even looked at it?"

"No, I said it's nothing," Johnny retorted with irritation.

Scott pulled a face and surveyed his brother. His hand snaked out and felt Johnny's head before the younger man knew what was happening. He jerked away and swatted at Scott.

"Cut it out."

"You feel a little warm," Scott reported.

Johnny rolled his eyes. "Just take care of the old man and stop lookin for trouble, will ya? I'm going downstairs to eat then I'm gonna soak for a couple of days."

"That will help your leg. Make sure you put something on it if it's deep."

Johnny just shook his head and walked out of the room. Scott was starting to take this family stuff too far. A simple scratch and he was acting like Teresa!

*

Murdoch felt the cool cloth again and sighed once more at the comforting feeling. He opened his eyes to less pain in his head and was grateful. His vision was clearer as well and he could easily make out his son.

"Good day."

"Scott," he mumbled.

"How are you feeling, Sir?" the young man asked, deep concern etched in his eyes.

"My leg," Murdoch groaned out.

Scott moved quickly as he reached for the glass, laying it to Murdoch's lips and holding his neck for him.

"There's laudanum in there. Please don't tell me you don't want it," he half-joked.

"I don't but I'll take it," Murdoch replied and sipped at the liquid, grimacing at its bitterness.

It was a small amount and Scott followed it with plain water to wash away the taste.

"Thank you, son."

"You're very welcome."

"What time is it?"

Scott smiled a little. "Nearly ten. A little late in the day for you."

Murdoch smiled back a little. "Tell me."

Scott's smile faded only slightly. "Well, you have a concussion but Sam says your head is too hard to be concerned about it. You did fracture your leg and there's a nasty gash there, as well."

Murdoch looked at him a bit surprised. "The bone didn't go through?"

"No, Sir. I'm sure it felt that way. Sam said it wasn't a bad break but the wound is infected. You've been running a rather stubborn fever."

"How long?"

Scott dipped his eyes then faced his father. "A day and a half."

Murdoch tried to sit up with this information only to find himself firmly pushed back down.

"Take it easy, Murdoch!"

"I've been out for almost two days?" he almost managed to shout.

"Not exactly. You've been awake for short periods. Enough to get some fluids in you. I wouldn't expect you to remember much."

Murdoch closed his eyes for a minute and settled his mind. "I remember Johnny was here once. I don't remember waking up other than that."

"Well, it's alright. We've all taken shifts with you. You've had the best nursing care in the land. In fact, Johnny, Jelly and I have decided on new careers," he smiled widely.

Murdoch chuckled briefly then thought better of the idea. "A fine profession," he sighed out.

Scott studied him for half a second. "Get some rest, Murdoch. You need as much as you can get."

*

He sat back, somewhat soothed by his father's soft snores. Scott rubbed a hand over his tired face and let out a heavy sigh. Murdoch was getting better, he knew. It was an agonizingly slow process however.

Not like Johnny who seemed to bounce back from the worst possible injuries. Youth, Scott supposed. He shivered slightly.

Murdoch wasn't a young man but he was strong as a bear. Not for the first time, Scott wondered how old his father really was. It was not a question he was ever likely to ask, however. No, that wouldn't do. A smile caressed his lips.

But it faded as quickly as it had come, replaced by a frowning thoughtfulness as he thought again about his brother. Johnny had come close to losing it a time or two over the past few days. He knew how hard this was for his brother because it was equally hard for him. Scott was able to keep his emotions firmly in check for the most part, though. Unlike his impetuous brother who seemed to wear his heart on his sleeve at times.

Other times, Scott could see no sign of that heart. When he had to, Johnny could be the hardest man he had ever met. When he had to. The phrase lingered. He'd 'had to' many times in the early months of coming home. Protect himself from their father; him, too, if the truth be told.

Johnny was so unsure then but things were much better now. Johnny was much better now. More trusting, more comfortable with them. Very comfortable, Scott thought wryly.

Why he was rehashing this history, he couldn't say but it gave him something to think about. Something other than his own feelings to deal with. Yes, he thought, you are proficient in subterfuge of the heart - your heart.

Was it so terrible that he was afraid for his father? For himself and his whole family? What would they do, how would they manage without Murdoch?

Oh, he knew life went on. It could do nothing else. Still, the very thought of his father not being here was quite disturbing. He suddenly felt the need to stand and pace and so he did. Hands clasped behind his back, he paced off ten then turned back and repeated the moves.

*

Teresa sat herself down at the kitchen table as she watched Johnny play with his lunch. She cupped her chin in one hand and tapped her fingers on the wooden surface with the other.

"How long are you going to keep this up?" she asked.

Johnny looked up slowly and shrugged. "What?"

"Pouting or whatever you're doing. You've been impossible, Johnny. I know you've been worried about Murdoch but he really is doing better every day."

Johnny snorted at this. "Yeah? Is that why he can't stay awake for more than a minute?"

"You heard what Sam said. It takes time. You are the most impatient man I have ever met!" she stated with exasperation as she folded her arms on the table top. "Then again, if you were to admit what was really bothering you, it might help," she added almost surreptitiously.

Johnny leaned back in the chair and stared at her. "And what would that be?"

She shrugged one shoulder. "Simple. You're scared."

His eyes narrowed and his forehead creased in a frown. "I ain't scared of nothin!"

Teresa was not affected by the look or the dangerous voice. It did not send shivers down her spine as it did most men. "Yes, you are. You are afraid of losing your father. Why is that so hard to admit?"

His glare wavered and he dropped his eyes. "So what if I am? Ain't no crime," he muttered.

She smiled. "No, it isn't. It's also not so hard to say. The only thing is, you don't have to take it out on everyone and everything that crosses your path. We're all worried about him, Johnny. If we help each other, things will be a lot easier for us all."

Johnny chewed his lip as he considered what she'd said. He looked back up at her with a sly grin. "You're too young to be so smart."

Teresa raised one brow. "I'm not that young, Johnny Lancer. I've mended more hurts on this ranch than you've ever seen. And *that* is saying something!" she declared.

*

"Well, he woke up and talked to me for a few minutes," Scott announced as he interrupted their talk.

Johnny's attention shifted to his brother. "How'd he seem?"

"He was in a lot of pain from that leg. I gave him some medicine. He was also not happy that it's been two days. He tried to get up," Scott answered as he poured himself a glass of tea and sat at the table with them.

"That sounds just like him," Teresa remarked.

"Yes, and an awful lot like someone else I know," Scott smiled.

Johnny pulled a face. "What's he doing now?"

Scott stopped the glass he was lifting to his mouth and looked over the rim. "He's dancing," he replied sarcastically. After taking a drink and trying not to laugh aloud at the look on his brother's face, he amended his reply. "He's sleeping. Do you think I'd be down here if he were awake?"

Johnny's hand found the edge of the table and he gripped it fiercely. "That's all you had to say, Scott. I thought maybe Jelly spelled you or something," he fairly spat through clenched teeth.

Scott gaped at him for a second then relaxed his face and sighed. "Sorry. I suppose I'm a little tired."

"We're all tired and on edge. I was just telling Johnny this would be a lot easier if we could lean on each other," Teresa said wisely.

"Excellent point, Teresa," Scott conceded. As he set the glass down and leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table, he regarded them both. "We need to start thinking about the ranch, too. Murdoch will rest much easier if he knows things are running smoothly. Cipriano has done a fine job handling things but it's time we took up the reins again."

Johnny nodded his agreement. "I was just thinking the same thing. Was gonna go find tio and see how things are. Get caught up."

"Why don't we do that together?" Scott offered.

Johnny smiled and accepted the offering with a nod.

*

Murdoch moaned softly as he eyes worked to open. He sighed out and looked around, feeling the small hand on his forehead as he turned his stare toward it.

"How do you feel?" Teresa asked.

"My leg hurts some."

She turned to the bedside table and started fiddling with something and he knew.

"Just half, darling. I'd like to stay awake more than five minutes," he said.

She leaned back so he could see her and smiled. "Are you sure about that?" she asked teasingly.

"Maybe not," he responded in kind.

Once the laudanum was in him and he was comfortable again, he stared at the ceiling for long seconds.

"How are things?"

"Fine. Scott and Johnny are getting caught up on the ranch right now. Cipriano had been holding down the fort while we cared for you."

"Good," he said and she could hear the weariness and the worry.

"On the other hand, your sons are a monumental mess."

Murdoch opened his eyes fully and stared at her. "Why? Are they alright?"

"Oh, they aren't hurt or anything. Just very worried about you and taking it out on everyone else." She put a quick hand on his arm before continuing. "Don't worry. I set them straight. They'll be okay now. This really threw them, though," she frowned thoughtfully.

"What do you mean?" he asked, confused by her words.

"Well, they've never seen you like this. Hurt and .... .vulnerable. You've always been so strong and such a force. It really has them spinning, Murdoch. I think for the first time, they've had to face doing this without you."

Murdoch waved a hand at her. "They can run this place blindfolded by now."

Teresa rolled her eyes heavenward and sighed at the idiocy of men in general. "I'm not talking about the ranch! I'm talking about being without you. They've had to face the possibility now and the reality that it will happen some day. It really has shaken them both to the core. Scott hides it better, but not by much. Johnny has just been a grizzly. Honestly, won't any of you admit how much you care?"

Murdoch looked away, a flush coming to his face. She didn't bother testing for fever, she knew what was causing it and her exasperation multiplied ten fold.

"Men!" she cried out, her fists clenching in frustration.

Murdoch chuckled and looked back at her. "You sound like Catherine. She would get so out of sorts with me sometimes."

Her face softened immediately. "And I'm sure she would just as quickly forgive whatever you had done."

Murdoch smiled tenderly at the memory of his first wife. "Yes, she would. Just like you, sweetheart."

*

A ruckus in the hall ended any further trips down memory lane and Murdoch frowned. Teresa quickly went to the door and poked her head out.

"Tell them to come in here, Teresa," Murdoch called.

She started to say no. Started to wallop both of them for making so much noise. But, she changed her mind and saw it as a way to stop the argument, whatever it was.

Johnny and Scott walked into the room quietly though both still looked put out.

"What are you two going on about?" Murdoch asked.

"Nothing, Sir. Just a minor difference of opinion," Scott replied quickly.

"Yeah, that's all," Johnny agreed, albeit begrudgingly.

"At least you can agree on something, it seems. But, not whatever you were arguing about. So, tell me."

They looked cautiously at him, unsure whether to bother him with such a small thing.

"Out with it," Murdoch demanded.

"It really is nothing, Murdoch. We just don't agree on what should be done first," Scott shrugged.

Murdoch nodded and repositioned himself slightly, trying not to show a grimace as his left leg inadvertently moved. "What are the choices?"

Scott looked down and twisted his hat and Johnny looked at the ceiling.

"Boys, just tell me. Otherwise, I'm going to worry over what you claim is nothing." It was a low blow but he was tiring and he didn't want them fighting over something unsubstantial; or anything else for that matter.

"One of the bridges collapsed and there's fencing repairs to be done. I want to do the fence first," Johnny blurted out.

"Why?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny straightened himself, intrigued that his father actually asked. "Well, we need to move the rest of the herd soon. Next week, in fact, and that fence needs to be ready. The bridge can wait."

"No, it can't. The line shacks need to be resupplied and that bridge is the only way to get to two of them," Scott spoke out, locking onto Johnny's glare with one of his own.

Murdoch watched with some amusement while he considered the dilemma.

"Johnny's right. It's more important that the stock have good graze and we really should have already moved them. The shacks can wait another couple of weeks."

"If the shacks aren't supplied, the men who will be riding over that herd when they are moved will have no provisions," Scott argued calmly.

"That's true, son, but they can use trail provisions until the shacks are ready. It won't take that long to stock them but the grass in the east pasture is depleted. The water level in that pond is also very low. We can't afford to take any more time than necessary moving the herd," Murdoch reasoned patiently.

"I'll get the crew to work, then," Johnny said softly and walked out.

*

"It's a matter of priorities, Scott. The cattle are our livelihood. Their needs come first," Murdoch explained to his obviously irate son.

"I thought the men came first," Scott spoke indignantly.

Murdoch repressed a smile. "If the men were in dire straights, I would agree. However, they are very used to living on trail provisions. It won't be a terrible hardship on them for a few days."

Scott relented, seeing the wisdom of the choice. He gave a curt nod.

"On the other hand, had I not waited so long to move the herd, I would have agreed with you on this matter," Murdoch added, trying to soothe his son's ego.

Scott relaxed and smiled. "Very diplomatic, Murdoch. I see your point. I didn't consider the grass and water situation." Bowing his head in embarrassment, he confessed. "I also didn't let Johnny finish his reasoning before jumping all over him."

Murdoch frowned at this and patted the edge of the mattress. "Sit down, son."

Scott did so, warily.

"Teresa tells me you have both been untenable lately. I want that to stop. You can't be effective when you're angry and you have no reason to be angry with each other, do you?"

"No, Sir," he sighed.

"I'm going to be fine, Scott. I feel better already. If it weren't for this leg, I'd already be up and about, I'm sure."

Scott squared his shoulders and jutted out his chin. "I know that. What does that have to do with anything?"

Murdoch cocked a brow. "Oh, I thought you might be worried about me and that might make you a little .... ill-tempered?"

Scott blushed ever so slightly. "Of course we've been worried about you. Very worried," he chanced a quick glance. "I will make sure I hold my temper in check but I can't speak for Johnny."

"No one can," Murdoch mumbled then smiled.

*

Johnny sent the crew on their way, promising to be out there with them the next day. He had too much else on his plate for this day. Not the least of which was giving his brother a piece of his mind plus the fact that he didn't feel too good right now. It wasn't Scott's argument that had upset him, it was his refusal to listen. That and his high and mighty attitude that had come very near earning him a punch in the face.

He paced the yard in front of the porch but the more he thought of it the angrier he got. He felt the heat rise in his face. He couldn't even see himself gloating that Murdoch agreed with him. That was simply because he knew, if Scott had given him a chance to explain, his brother would have agreed as well. There was no need to bother their father with this.

The front door opened and he stopped his pacing as he waited for his brother to appear.

"I want to talk to you," he said instantly.

"Johnny, I know ..."

"No, Scott, you don't. You don't *know* every damned thing. That's the problem."

Scott held up a hand to stop his brother but Johnny was not to be stopped.

"If you had just listened to me for two minutes, I could have told you why we needed to fix the fence first. But, no! You had to put on that smug, stuck up face and talk to me like I'm a kid! A really stupid kid! I'm sick of it. Do you hear me?" he shouted.

Scott stood perfectly still. "Yes."

Johnny stopped his rant and his pacing and looked at him. "What?"

"I said, yes. I hear you and you are absolutely right. I didn't give you a chance to explain your position and I'm really sorry, brother."

Johnny eyed him suspiciously. He sounded sincere. He looked sincere. Johnny found his anger waning and that almost made him mad all over again.

"When Murdoch explained it, it made perfect sense. Well, after I calmed down a little. I admitted to not letting you explain. I know I should have listened to you, Johnny. I don't know what else to say."

The younger brother sighed heavily and relaxed his shoulders. "Well, just don't let it happen again."

Scott smiled. "I won't. He knows, by the way."

Johnny shook his head. "He knows what?"

"That we've been behaving badly and it's because we've been so worried about him. Teresa gave us up."

Johnny put his hands on his hips. "Oh, she did, did she? Well, we're gonna have to make her pay for that." A sly grin spread across his face as he grabbed his brother around the neck and pulled him in. Glad they were okay with each other now.

*

Scott took three or four steps then pulled up causing Johnny to stop and look at him curiously. That curious look deepened with the frown on Scott's face and the sidelong look he got.

"What?" he asked with trepidation.

"You feel hot," Scott stated.

Johnny grinned. "Must be that Latin blood. Come on, let's get to work."

He started to walk away but Scott reached out and snagged his arm. His other hand went to Johnny's forehead and the younger man ducked away, scanning the area to make sure no one saw.

"Stop it, Scott. I ain't a baby!"

Scott raised a brow but decided to let that one slide. "You have a fever. What's wrong?" he asked, leaving no room for diversion in the straight question.

"I feel fine," Johnny said. "I swear, Scott!" he protested with the disbelieving look he received.

"Well, something is wrong, Johnny. You don't run a fever for no reason." He started to say more but turned at the sound of an approaching surrey. Scott smiled the smile of a man about to get his way.

"Sam can take a quick look."

Johnny narrowed his eyes and glared at his brother but it did him no good. "I said I was fine. I ain't sick."

Sam pulled to a stop just in time to hear the last remarks by Johnny. He shook his head and studied the younger Lancer brother closely as he stepped down, grabbed his bag and walked up to them.

"He has a fever," Scott stated immediately.

Johnny moved quickly and backstepped several paces as Sam attempted to feel his forehead. "I'm gettin real tired of bein felt up every five minutes."

"Too bad. Come inside and let me see," Sam responded flatly.

Johnny sighed and dropped his head. Sam was in a bad mood, that was obvious. So there really was no point in trying to get out of it. He didn't think there was a thing wrong. He didn't feel sick - not really. How many times did he have to say it?

*

Sam listened to his lungs and poked at his belly. Johnny endured it all silently but with a fierce expression for his brother.

"I can't find anything there," Sam mumbled.

"That's because there's nothin to find. I ain't gonna say it again," Johnny declared.

Sam twisted his mouth side to side as he thought. "Did you get hurt in that sinkhole," he asked.

Johnny shook his head. "Just a scratch on my leg."

"Does it hurt?"

Johnny shrugged. "It's sore, is all."

"Unbutton your pant leg and let me see."

Johnny fought down the urge to rebel. Sam wasn't in a mood to be messed with. He did as he was told and unbuttoned the pant leg with one hand.

"Handy," Scott grinned.

Johnny only scowled at him as Sam lifted his leg and rested his boot on the coffee table.

"Teresa'll be mad at you for that," Johnny teased the doctor.

"Not as mad as she'll be about that!" Sam jabbed a finger at Johnny's leg.

*

He leaned over and took a look, sucking in air when he saw it. "How'd it get like that?"

Scott craned to see and ground his jaw. "Johnny, I swear ..... do you ever pay attention to anything? Look at that!" he exclaimed as, he too, pointed at the lesion.

It was swollen and red, the skin atop the once open gash now shiny in appearance.

"I didn't know! It doesn't even hurt that much," Johnny defended.

"How could it not ...."

"Scott!" Sam cut him off. "He isn't lying to you. It's an abscess and it's full of infection. He probably didn't feel much more than a very sore spot. However," he went on as he turned to Johnny, "you could have actually *looked* at it once in a while."

Johnny pulled a face and dropped his eyes back to the atrocious looking thing. "What do you have to do?" he asked with resignation.

"I'll have to lance it and let it drain. You'll have to stay off of it a day or two depending on how much infection is there. I'm surprised you aren't sicker than this," Sam answered.

"Scott, don't tell Murdoch about this. No need to worry him over nothing," Johnny turned to his brother.

"It's not nothing, Johnny. I'll need boiling water and you need to get in the bed so I can do this properly. Tell Teresa I'll need her help," Sam said.

Scott left them to it and Johnny stood up. He started limping to the stairs. He stopped and turned, Sam right behind him, and grinned at the doctor.

"How come I'm limping now and I wasn't five minutes ago?"

"Because you know you're hurt now and you can't ignore it any longer. Come on, son, upstairs," Sam replied. His voice was flat and he sounded tired. Johnny frowned and decided to wait until they got to his room to ask.

Once settled in the bed, Johnny observed Sam for a minute. "What's wrong with you? You look like you lost your best friend."

Sam smiled weakly. "I'm just tired, Johnny. I was up most of the night with a patient. She passed early this morning."

Johnny dropped his eyes. "I'm sorry," he mumbled.

Teresa walked in looking like she could bite the head off a rattler at that moment. Hands on hips, she stared at Johnny.

"Don't," he warned.

She fought an internal war and decided an external one could not be won here so she stayed quiet and went about helping Sam.

*

Scott walked past his father's open door, holding a pot of steaming hot water. He'd seen it open and tried to get by as quickly as he could but Murdoch called out to him. He sighed and backed up, leaning back and sticking his head in.

"What's that you've got? And why are you still here?" Murdoch grouched.

"I just needed to get a few things. Well, bye," Scott hurried.

"Wait a minute! Come in here, Scott."

He dropped his shoulders and knew the jig was up. Nothing else for it, he thought, then turned and walked into his father's room.

"What's that for?" Murdoch asked.

"It's nothing. I mean it, now," Scott said firmly. "Johnny's got a little infection in his leg from a scratch he got in that sinkhole. Sam's going to lance it and let it drain. He's going to be fine," he rushed out the explanation.

But Murdoch was already making for the edge of the bed. Scott set the pot down quickly and headed him off.

"What do you think you are doing? Get back in that bed, Murdoch. Johnny isn't dying. It's just a sore leg. Now lie down, Sir."

"Is he running a fever?" Murdoch demanded.


"A slight one."

Murdoch tried to get up again but Scott's hands pushed his shoulders back down. "You, on the other hand, have a broken leg! You can't walk, Sir. Now, don't be foolish!"

Time seemed to stand still as Scott's mouth fell open. Shocked at his own words. His face flushed as he waited for the berating he was sure he would receive.

Murdoch stared at him, stunned speechless for a moment. Teresa's words from earlier came back to him. He knew his son would never speak to him this way if not for his worry. It was wonderful to know the reason for this behavior. It did not excuse it, however.

"What did you say to me?" Murdoch finally managed.

Scott took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, but you can't stand on that leg, Murdoch. Please, lie back down. Please," he softened the last word substantially.

Murdoch didn't move for a long beat then he scooted back and positioned himself comfortably in the bed. Wagging his finger at his son, he demanded, "I want a full report as soon as Sam's done - BY Sam. Clear?"

"Crystal," Scott said with relief. He smiled then turned and grabbed his pot, hurrying out before his father changed his mind.

*

Johnny gritted his teeth as Sam sliced into the abscess. It was surprisingly less painful than he would have thought. The pain came when Sam began expressing the pus. This sent him reeling and he didn't think the doctor was ever going to stop.

Johnny managed to open his eyes for a few seconds and he could swear Sam was smiling a little. He seemed to be enjoying the torture. But, he knew that was only his imagination. Sam would not enjoy causing him pain even if he was put out at the moment.

Mercifully, Sam finished - or Johnny hoped he had. He stopped squeezing and Johnny let out a breath and fell back on the pillow. He released his white-knuckled grip of the sheet slowly.

"How's that feel?" the doctor asked.

Johnny opened his eyes and glared at the man. "Dandy, Doc," he sneered.

Sam frowned back and shook his head. "That's what happens when you ignore even a small gash."

Sometime during his torture, Scott had entered the room. He was standing back, having set the water near Sam, with a distinct look of displeasure on his face.

"What's the matter with you?" Johnny asked, irritated.

"Murdoch saw me pass by with the water and insisted I tell him what was happening. He tried to get out of bed," Scott responded tightly.

Johnny raised up and Sam turned to fully face Scott who lifted a hand immediately.

"I kept him down but he wants to see you as soon as you're done here, Sam."

Sam Jenkins puffed out his cheeks and dropped his shoulders. "I really can't blame you, Johnny. It's obvious you get it directly from your father. Damned mule!"

He continued to mutter as he applied a salve and bandage to Johnny's leg. All the while the young man fought back the laughter but couldn't keep a smile off his face to save his life. Sam could get out of sorts with him but he'd never seen the doctor this put out. At least he's blaming someone else, Johnny thought with relief.

*

Sam strode determinedly into the bedroom as he eyed Murdoch sitting up in bed, his back resting on several pillows.

"Perhaps I didn't make myself clear. You have a broken leg. What is this I hear about you trying to get up?" he scolded.

"Is Johnny alright?" Murdoch asked, undeterred by the angry physician.

"He will be. I got a lot of infection out. It was an abscess. He's sore and has a slight fever but I imagine he'll live. Now, are you going to answer me? What were you thinking?" Sam retorted, unwilling to let his old friend off the hook.

Murdoch looked down at his clasped hands resting in his lap and made them relax. He hadn't even been aware he was clenching them and had no idea how long he had been.

"Is it alright if I'm concerned about my son?" he asked.

Sam relented a little, knowing this man would do anything, sacrifice anything for his boys. "Certainly. But, I'm sure Scott told you it wasn't life or death. None of you ever listen! Johnny will most likely be up and about by morning and I'm sure he'll be in to see you then. In the meanwhile, I expect a mature man such as yourself to heed the advice of his doctor and stay off that leg."

Murdoch's head came up with a snap. "What do you mean 'most likely'?"

Sam had been wrong. He had thought Murdoch would tear into him over the 'mature man' comment but evidently, he hadn't heard that. He shook his head and smiled a little, although a little disappointed at not getting the expected rise from his friend. He sat on the edge of the bed near the foot.

"I mean, I don't expect any complications but this is Johnny we're talking about. If there's a problem to be found, he'll find it. And if he doesn't, it will find him. He's fine, Murdoch," he ended with deep sincerity.

Murdoch's face creased in a frown of concern, unconvinced until he saw his son for himself. "Is he resting?"

"He is or should be. Teresa and Scott are with him now. Really, Murdoch, Johnny is okay," he once more pacified the man and had to wonder why Murdoch was being such a dog with a bone about this.

"Why won't you believe me?" Sam asked after a silent minute.

"I do believe you," Murdoch replied, a bit surprised. "Sam, you know I can't stand being idle and especially if one of my sons is ill. Johnny might need me."

"He does - always. But not right now," Sam replied thoughtfully. He frowned then. "This whole thing seems to have raised some emotions in this family. Scott and Johnny have been snapping at each other and everyone else and now you're being stubborn. What's going on?"

Murdoch sighed and shook his head. A slight smile lit his face. "I guess we've all been shaken up, Sam. It's been a while since anyone's been seriously hurt. Maybe we've gotten complacent with each other."

Sam nodded. "That sounds reasonable. Though, I hope this teaches you all a lesson to not take each other for granted. I certainly wouldn't want it to come to something like this again to make you realize you love each other."

Murdoch turned toward the window, suddenly fascinated by the curtains gently swaying in the breeze. He turned back when he heard the laughter.

"Don't worry, I wouldn't dare use that word with the boys," Sam chuckled.

Murdoch gave him a grimace and threw him out of his room.

*

A week later, Scott on one side and Johnny on the other, Murdoch eased down the stairs hopping a little. The unevenness of his sons' height was a bit problematic for him so he tried to bear as much weight on his right leg as possible. By the time they put him on the sofa, he was exhausted.

"Ain't much fun, is it?" Johnny grinned.

Murdoch sighed and shook his head. "No, it sure ain't."

"Can we get you anything, Sir? Some tea or lemonade? Something to eat?" Scott offered.

"Lemonade would be nice, son. Thank you."

Scott headed off to the kitchen and Johnny plopped down in a chair, another wicked grin playing across his face.

"What?" Murdoch asked and didn't know why he bothered.

"Nothin. Just enjoy the royal treatment while you can," he laughed softly.

Murdoch smiled at him. "You never do."

"Nope. It really ain't worth the trouble."

"I have to agree with you on that." Murdoch grimaced a little.

Johnny was on his feet in a split second, then sitting beside his father. "You need something for the pain. Here, let's put that leg up. Lean back and rest it on the sofa," he chattered as he grabbed a throw pillow and started lifting Murdoch's leg.

The older man really didn't have much choice as the younger coddled and hovered. When Johnny was done, Murdoch was lying back, head and leg elevated.  

"That okay?" Johnny asked.

Murdoch gave him a sidelong look. "It's fine, son. I'm going to remind you of this next time you're laid up and growling because someone dared be concerned for your comfort."

Johnny had the grace to blush a little then he smiled widely. "Just kind of kicks in, don't it?"

Scott returned with the refreshments and they spent a comfortable hour together before the brothers begged off to do some work. Teresa was nearby in the kitchen and had promised to look in often so they left their father in good hands.

*

Murdoch leaned his head back against the cushions and thought about all that had transpired over the past two weeks.

Luckily, Johnny's leg did heal nicely. The fever left almost immediately as the infection drained out. Sam had said it had formed a pocket. That was good, it meant it hadn't gotten into his system. He smiled as he remembered Scott's words to him as he tried to get up and see to his other son. Scott had been mortified with himself and Murdoch chuckled at the memory of his expression.

Not for the first time, he thought about the day he'd fallen into that infernal hole. Worse than that, his second fall. He could have done Johnny a lot of damage landing on him full force like that. Somehow, the boy had come out almost unscathed, his injury not due to Murdoch's crushing weight.

Still, Murdoch blamed himself. Had he been paying attention in the first place it never would have happened at all. Johnny wouldn't have come down in that hellhole. He shook his head and let out a soft sigh.

And then all the quick tempers flaring between the two brothers. He couldn't believe they had behaved like that. Teresa had nailed it but, somehow, Murdoch had had trouble believing it. He knew how much they meant to each other. He had always wondered how they felt about him.

It wasn't something they were likely to ever come out and say. Nor he, truth be told. But the feelings were there. And Scott had finally shown it. Shown he needed his old man. Murdoch was grateful for it, too.

His sons. So very different yet so much alike. Both caring and true. Both willing to help anyone in need. Both willing to sacrifice for the other or for him. Yes, for him. He smiled.

Murdoch closed his eyes and began to drift off, totally amazed at the depths his sons had gone to in order to save him.

 

 

~end~
2005

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