Knife Edge by Cat

Word Count 6,400

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It had been a long, slow climb, and the young horse and his rider were both tired at the end of it.  The rider jumped down, unhooked his canteen and took a long drink while his horse breathed heavily.  Should keep him walking.  Not good to make him stand like that.  He’d done well, for a green horse, and he’d earned a pat and a pull on his ears.

The rider took a moment to look out over the land, to where he would be going, but a chilly wind encouraged him to think about pushing on.  A few hundred yards of knife- edge ridge and then back down in the trees for a comfortable campsite and a night’s sleep.

A sharp rain-shower, which scudded away as quickly as it had begun, forced him to slip his poncho over his head.  He was grateful when the sun came out and the rocks shone.  He’d exchange the poncho for his jacket as soon as he was off the ridge.  The slow tick of water, dripping over the stones and darkening the landscape, reminded him of the clock in his house.

The rider studied the route.  The mountain dropped away steeply on either side of the ridge.  Now the rocks were wet, the horse might slip.  Not good for horse or rider.  Leading him would be safer.  There was no hurry.  He had said, “I’ll be gone ten days.  Don’t worry.  I’ll be back in time for Teresa’s birthday.  I’ll bring you a dress, honey, or a dress length.  How ‘bout that?”  And then it had only been eight days, after all, and coming this way chopped out another whole afternoon’s riding.  Maybe Murdoch would let him have a day off.  Murdoch’s younger son smiled.

So, taking his horse’s reins, Johnny started out along the ridge, picking his way with care among the boulders, some as big as houses.  Every now and then the distant views would make him pause.  Browns, violets and blues.  Colors of far away.  Somewhere, maybe just there, the hacienda.  He had been alone for eight days and it was long enough.  A comfortable bed, a room that was his, food and companionship.  And work.  He smiled again.  A few more hours’ travel, one more camp, then one morning’s ride and he’d be home.  Teresa’s present was tucked safely in his saddlebag.  He pictured her reaction.  He had bought something he knew she would love, picked it out himself and stored it safely in his saddlebag.  Should he have wrapped it?

The wind was getting up, spooking his horse as it swirled round the rocks.  Another hundred yards and he could begin the descent.

Then, up ahead, a group of three people struggled to the top of the ridge, just where he would have gone.  They paused, looked at him and then came straggling toward him, stopping again barely six feet from him.  A man, a woman and a youngster, fifteen or sixteen.  The woman was carrying a sack.  The man had an ancient gun, slung over his shoulder.  The boy had a dog at heel, a mangy animal which growled unconvincingly at Johnny.  What the hell were they doing all the way up this mountain?

“Howdy,” he ventured, automatically checking his revolver was to hand.

“Howdy.”  The man looked at him.  Johnny felt his value was being added up, dollar by dollar.  He had a good horse, a good saddle –  he even was dressed more expensively than they would ever be able to afford.

“Long way up,” Johnny said, for lack of anything else.  He held tighter to the reins and fingered the smooth handle of his revolver under his poncho.

“Yep.”

“You and your missus know where you’re going?”

“Sure do.”

“Well, I’ll be on my way then.”

“Sure thing.”  The man elbowed his wife off the narrow track.  “Nice meetin ya.”

“Yeah.  Good luck.”  Now why did he wish them that?  He pulled the horse forward then turned, trying to make it seem that he wanted to continue the conversation.  “You’ll need to take the right fork.  Left one ain’t so good.  Tried it – had to backtrack a ways.”

“Thanks, mister.  We’ll do that.”

Johnny waited for them to make a move.  Then the horse, unsteadied by the wind and the strangers, tossed his head back hard, and stepped back and sideways, forcing Johnny to turn and reach up to steady him.

The sudden thump of pain in his back was enough to knock him to his knees.  He began to slip sideways, unable to do more than watch the man walk casually up to him and take his horse’s reins from his hand.  He tried feebly to resist as someone pulled his boots off and took his hat from his head.  Then all sense slipped away.
 
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He awoke with a sigh.  He lay on his side, wondering whether it was really time to get up, when the sun appeared to be setting.  He shifted, and the hard stone beneath his hip reminded him where he was.  Rolling forward, he managed to get to his knees and then sat back on his heels.  He put his hand through his hair to pull it out of his eyes and looked around.  Of all the damnedest –  that miserable family, they’d rolled him and taken his hat and his boots.  Him.  He snorted, amused with himself for making such a stupid mistake.  He deserved everything he got.

Well, it was no use just sitting there.  Getting to his feet proved a little more difficult than sitting but he did it, and waited till his vision cleared.  Surely they’d left him something, his canteen, his gun – anything.  They must understand as well as anyone the risks of being out here.  After a fruitless search he knew it for sure. They had taken everything.

Anger hit him.  Teresa’s present had gone with the saddlebags, his horse, his canteen, his rifle.  Even his sidearm and gunbelt.  He had the clothes he stood up in.  His poncho, well he had that, though it was damp and heavy.  Nothing else.  Not even his jacket or his hat.  Who had been waiting for him up here?  There was no proper track, even, just a way he knew over the mountain.  Why him?  Why then?  He paced over the rocks, his feet slipping, aware that it was getting dark and the first few hundred yards of the descent would need every ounce of his attention.

As his anger cooled and his instinct to survive began to assert itself, getting off the ridge became the first priority.  He settled onto a rock to pull off his socks.  Bare feet were better.  He had spent the first years of his life in bare feet.  But as he pulled he was aware of a sharp pain, which made him stop and draw breath.  Where was he hurt?  Below his left shoulder, somewhere he could barely reach. He pulled the poncho aside and slipped his right hand down as far as he could. The tips of his fingers felt the dampness.    He didn’t need to look and wiped his hand on his pants.

“Shit.”  The word expressed a world of annoyance.

The injury, whatever it was, would have to wait.  With more care, he pulled off his socks and tucked them into the top of his pants.  It would be cold, later. He had checked his matches and he had two left. Best to think as far ahead as possible.  He would need water but food was not important, not yet.  He could live off his body’s reserves for a week at least and that would be far longer than he needed to reach Lancer.  He had perhaps trebled his journey time but he would still be in time for Teresa’s birthday.

The light was slipping away.  He followed the path single-mindedly, moving not quickly but surely, as he checked each step.  A few hundreds of yards and he would be down in the trees, with a much increased chance of finding water and a place to rest.  He tested the way, stepping from rock to rock to avoid the small, sharp stones in-between, aware that he was relying more and more on night vision to judge the route.  He paused for a moment to catch his breath, focusing all his attention on the way he had to go.  Not far now.

When the boulder slipped away, he cursed, falling forward then rolling, pulled in tight against the hard-edged rocks.  He slammed against one of the larger boulders and lay there, gasping and shaking as the adrenaline rushed through his system.  He had not fallen far.  Just far enough.
 
 
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He had broken his wrist.  Seemed that way, anyway, as he sat nursing his forearm.  It sure felt broken.  But he was lucky.  Nothing else was broken, though, which was fortunate.  Bruises, cuts, grazes.  Nothing serious except the wrist and that was hardly going to slow him down.  He unbuttoned the top two buttons of his shirt and eased his hand inside.  It felt better, a bit better.  And he was nearly into the trees.  He pushed himself up and stood, a little more shakily but his head cleared after a moment and he began again, slowly and carefully making his way down the slope until he was aware of the breeze stirring branches, of leaves and tree trunks.  He bent down to put his socks back on, but one-handed it cost him a few minutes of struggle and irritation, and more pain than he was willing to think about.

He shrugged off his poncho.  He needed to dry his shirt, which still felt damp.  Then he moved on, listening for water and searching for kindling.  He found that by experience.  Something dry, that would catch easily.  He slipped some lichen into the crook of his left arm, to dry it out thoroughly.  Then he began to gather the driest wood he could find, although having only one hand for carrying limited his collection.

He found a seepage of clear water and he dammed it and waited for the pool to grow a little, enough for him to take a drink.  Fire.  He knew he needed it for heat and light, but it was going to be a challenge.  He had been carefully guarding his emotions, keeping his mind clear so that he could solve increasingly difficult problems.  Now his problem was that he had just two matches, and no idea how long he would be out in the open.  He did not have the strength to make himself a shelter, and without that he had few options about starting the fire.  He had been taught well, knew how to fire-start even without matches but with one hand, none of the ways he would normally use was an easy option.  He could not even cup the match with his hand.  It might simply blow out in the swirling air currents.

So he tried another way.  He held the kindling, which he had wrapped in a curl of bark in his left hand, because he had seen an old man do it that way when bending down to the fire had become too difficult.  He struck the first match.  It sputtered, came to brilliant life and despite it going out too quickly for comfort, the tinder caught.  He fed the tiny fire, nursing it, moving the lichen round and into the fire, as long as he could bear to.  He blew on it very gently, keeping the flame going until he could shift, awkwardly, and place the tinder onto the ground.  He had already set a dozen parallel sticks on the ground and formed a little tent of small sticks, ready to receive the first flames.   He leaned over, gritting his teeth against the pain in his back and carefully married fire makings and lit tinder.  The sticks caught easily and his heart lifted. It could so easily have been a foolhardy way to try to light the fire but it had worked, first time, and he was soon watching the flames intently, letting the fire burn strongly without disturbing it. Then he placed a couple of larger pieces of wood.
 

The effort he had expended on his fire was repaid tenfold in the brightening of his mood, which had begun to darken when he realized he could not put up a shelter even in the middle of the woods.  He knew it was important to keep warm but dragging long branches to make the structure of a lean-to was beyond what he could do without a rest.

 He placed more wood close to the fire to dry and suddenly wished for coffee.  Yes, coffee and maybe a biscuit or two.  And some company.  And a clean, dry shirt.  He carefully felt his back, just reaching the wound he knew was there.  A knife, thrown by the angry kid, and it had cut into him deeply.  He had an idea the wound was still bleeding but there was nothing he could do.  In the firelight the blood on his fingertips looked black.

He fed another chunk of wood onto his fire then washed his hand in the pool, letting the water spill over his dam before drinking again.  One hand made drinking slow work.

He waited for sleep.
 
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Noises of the night woke him.  He had been drifting, sitting cross-legged when he could find no comfortable way to lie.  He couldn’t sleep on his right side.  He had always kept his right hand free.  Even his girls knew that, when he slept with them, he lay on his back or his left side.  Now he couldn’t.  It seemed easier to stay awake, ready to move on at first light.  He could make up for sleep when he got home.  So he laid his poncho on the wet ground and sat, feeding his fire and dreaming of the fire in the Great Room.  Teresa often looked after it in the evening, piling the sweet-smelling logs into the hearth until they told her it was warm enough, and she could quit trying to boil them alive.  If she were there, he could joke with her.  If Scott were here, he could try that new chess opening he’d been thinking about.  He knew just how Scott would react, with the pawn move he always seemed to think was so sneaky.  Then with the bishop.  He was getting so predictable.

Murdoch.  Murdoch would be sitting right there, doing nothing, watching maybe, and smiling at whichever son won the game.  They were real and he would be back with them, not the next day but the day after.  He would walk all day and then rest again, with another small fire, and then he would be back with them.

The trees shifted in a light breeze, disturbing the quiet.  Johnny was sore and cold  but he held his family close and drifted back to sleep.  But when he woke, startled by an animal rooting nearby, his family had gone and he was alone, in a huge, dark world which didn’t give a damn what happened to him.  He didn’t sleep again.
 

Tending to himself next morning left him shaky and chilled.  He couldn’t master the shivering even after he’d managed to coax the fire into flame.  Fog drifted through the wood, condensing in his breath and hair and dripping into his eyes.  He didn’t want to move.  He had water, and fire.  He would wait.  Someone would come along, sooner or later.  He drifted through the quiet minutes, head down, then wiped the drips from his face.  He had to move on.  He had places to be.  No one would come that way.  Even Murdoch had forgotten the existence of the little-used route he had taken.

He tried to stand.  For a moment, it did not seem possible and he grimaced with the effort.  Then he stood, not quite steady, not quite certain which way to go.  Down the hillside or across?  Somewhere in his mind he knew moving on was important and it would be quicker to go straight down into the valley.

He almost left his poncho behind.  He had gone a dozen yards before he remembered it.  Laboring back up the hill made him draw deeper breaths and made some small part of him worry, that he had forgotten the one thing he had been left which could help him.  He could rely on years of experience to survive in this landscape.  That was being eroded by the steady, slow loss of blood.  He knew that because his shirt was stiff.  He was pretty sure the wound had at last dried, but any jarring movement would open it again.  Losing one balancing arm was a hindrance, too, and as he slithered down the steep hillside, he slipped his hand out of his shirt and tried to keep himself upright.  He managed it, too, although emerging from the trees was a little more undignified than he had planned, and he had to smile as a startled steer pulled away from him, setting others moving.  He eased himself down onto the ground for a breather.
 
While he tried to plan what to do next, he rubbed his feet absent-mindedly.  They were soft from wearing boots and already sore.  It was a good eighteen to twenty miles in to the hacienda, but the cattle gave him hope there would be hands around.   He would take it easy, walk a way, then rest, and he would be back at the house tomorrow or at worst, the next day.  A little hungry, a little tired – nothing he hadn’t been a thousand times before.  He knew where he could find water and that was the only essential.

His wrist ached.  He had had to undo his cuff, and couldn’t stop himself staring at the dark mass of bruise and swelling.  Well, there was nothing to be done.  He eased his hand back into the makeshift sling and, once above his heart, the pain eased somewhat.  It wasn’t going to kill him but it was a constant irritation, dragging his mind away from planning his journey.  The knife cut in his back, though stiff and sore around the wound, seemed to him to have stopped bleeding.

Easy stages.  Drink when he could.  Keep a watch for ranch hands.  Day after tomorrow, at the latest.  It was as clear in his mind as he could make it.  Focus on the next morning’s work, that would be enough.

He rolled to his side and managed to push himself to his feet.  The view blurred slightly and he breathed carefully for a moment or two, recognizing the signs of losing blood.  He shivered.  The cows had come closer, inquisitive and warm.  He put his hand out to them and they skipped back, suddenly nervous.

“Mebbe if I could catch one of you, I could ride ya home,” he said to the nearest one.  “Never live that one down.  Ain’t gonna live this down, anyway.  Johnny Lancer, robbed of all his gear, has to walk home in his socks.  Scott won’t let me forget it.”

With a wry smile, he looked across the floor of the dry valley to a small stand of trees, about a half mile off.

“I’m gonna have me a nice cup of coffee in them trees.  On a tray.  With a cookie.  Only take me a few minutes to get there.”

So he started out, with the pretend reward keeping his mind occupied as he walked slowly through the wet grass.  The fog began to lift but it was still chilly.  He was carrying his poncho over his right shoulder and it gave him some warmth. He had tried wearing it but hadn’t been able to bear it rubbing his back, but neither could he  afford to leave it behind.

Then it started to rain, a fine, soaking drizzle, just as he reached half way.  He was right out in the open and his shirt immediately dampened and clung to him.  Moving faster was not an option.  He could just manage the steady pace he had set himself.  He tried a few quicker steps but was soon grimacing against the pain and feeling faint enough to slow down again.  There were worse things than being wet.  Soon, the sun would be out, it would be burning hot and he’d be praying for a shower of rain to cool off.
 
 
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It took him thirty minutes to cross the half mile to the trees.  He had almost missed them.  When it had rained heavily for a few minutes he had put his head down and immediately lost his sense of direction.  Only the rain easing had saved him.  He had glanced up, and the island of trees had swung away to his right.  He had frowned, wiped his sleeve over his face and re-directed himself.  He could not afford to lose his way.
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As he sat under one of the trees, he did some rough calculations in his head.  He knew the second quarter mile had taken longer than the first, and that he had had to rest three times en route.  But it was absurdly slow going.  At this rate, he’d be wandering into the house sometime in the next week, and well after Teresa’s birthday.  There had to be some way of moving on faster.  He drifted to sleep puzzling on the problem.
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When he woke, the sun was high.  The fog had burnt off and the cattle were further up the valley, eating the lush grass.  Something to eat.  A biscuit, maybe, or some jerky.  Just something.  He wasn’t even so hungry.  Just some small comfort.  The landscape had never seemed so empty.

It took him longer to stand this time.  His muscles had tightened and stretching them was uncomfortable.  He had a plan.  No long stops.  No looking down.  He would look out for markers and walk to them.  Within three hours, he should reach the next water and then he could rest properly, and plan the next step.  Maybe by then, he’d have seen someone.  Riding home, to coffee and sympathy.  Better than walking in on bare feet.
 
 
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He kept to his plan, though in the third hour he was walking ten steps and resting for a moment, then another ten steps, a soothing rhythm which allowed him to conserve energy.   Yet moving was still draining him fast.  He could not understand why.  His wrist hurt, but didn’t seem any worse.  He was sure his shirt was only damp with sweat.  So he wasn’t losing blood any more. It was hotter and he hadn’t had any water but that didn’t account for his lack of strength.

Even so, on his own schedule he made the tiny water hole in good time.  It was a relief to throw his poncho onto the rocks.  He settled himself by the water and began to drink, one handful at a time, until his thirst was slaked.  He would rest and then he would move on.

There was one job he had been planning to do here, besides drink.  His shirt was rigid with sweat and blood and there was no way he could get comfortable.  There were several pools, one feeding the next, the last trailing off into the grassland.  The lowest rock pool was quite deep and would be ideal for soaking his shirt.  He could still drink and wash in the higher pools.

He settled back, one leg drawn up so that he could rest his left arm there.   It was a tricky task, removing his shirt, pulling on the toggles and then easing the shirt first off one shoulder and then the other.  Finally, he pulled the sleeve gently over his wrist.  He threw it across into the pool without really looking at it, and shifted closer to the pool he intended to use to wash.  There, in the mirrored stillness of the water, he caught a glimpse of himself.  Only a day and a night since he had been attacked and he realised at last that he was in more trouble than he had guessed.

Well, he would stay where he was for a while, then, and give his body a good chance to rest, during the heat of late afternoon.  The momentary fear he had experienced when he had seen himself settled at the thought of moving on later, to get closer to home.  Tomorrow he would make better time, because he was rested.  He had, he guessed, covered six or seven miles.  One more day like that and he’d be on the doorstep in no time.

He took up a handful of water and washed his back, as well as he could, handful after handful, the water soaking his pants and splashing over the rocks.  He knew, from the reddening water, that he was washing off a fair amount of blood.  The water cleared and he dirtied it over and over, until his hand came away clean.  There were parts he could not reach but he felt better.  Perhaps if he lay back in the pool he could wash off his back completely.  He didn’t think through what he was doing, only that he wanted to be clean.  He shuffled round then lay back, until he could feel the cool, running water.  It was awkward, propping himself with his right elbow, but it was worth it.  He felt more comfortable than he had done for hours.

Then he saw the water.  It flowed over the edge of the rock and it was bright red.  He pushed up and watched in bemused disbelief as it spilled over to color the pool below, where his shirt lay.  That too was red, staining the water, and it had been stiff because it was bloodied right across his back.  As the sun began to dry his skin he felt clearly the steady, slowly itching run of blood.  He had been bleeding, just a little off and on, since the day before.  He would be lucky to make it through the night.

It took him a good hour to shake off the lethargy that descended with this judgment of the situation.  He had sat, cross-legged, ignoring the nagging pains and looking out over the sea of grass.  The high pass, its knife-edge ridge bright against the afternoon sky, and the hills behind him locked him in.  A few birds began to circle, drawn by the blood which was slowly clearing from the pools.

Finally he began to wake from a dream of home, the light of hope rekindled.  He focused on the practical matters to hand, pushing away plans for the future.  It was still hot, hot enough to dry his shirt on the rocks before he started to walk again.  He crawled down the rock and began to rub the shirt against the rock, until gradually some of the stain of blood lightened.  Teresa would know what to do with when he got home.   She would soak it and soak it, because it was his favourite shirt.  The slit in the back, well, he was sure he could mend that.  He’d done enough sewing along the way, had to learn.  Had to learn so much.  Keep thinking about making it.  That was the most important thing.  He had seen good men die because they’d given in to the idea that they would die.  He would not, after all.  He nodded.  He would not die.  It was just a matter of taking it easy, walking slowly and with a purpose.

He took the sopping shirt and laid it out on the rocks, trying to press out the water with his right hand.  Maybe it hadn’t been such a good idea to wash it.  He would have to wait now, till it dried.  The longer he waited, the more difficult it would be.

“Man, you’re goin’ to argue yourself into dyin’, here.  One day’s peaceful, easy walkin’ and you’ll be back home.  You tellin’ me you can’t do that?”

No, he was not listening to talk of dying.  He patted the shirt, forcing more water out of it and noticed that it was already drying across the back.  The material was already stiffening, too, despite his efforts.  He took a deep breath, ignored the voice inside him which insisted on looking badly at every setback and set himself to thinking of the good sides.

“Sympathy, that’s what you’ll get.  That and some stitches, stop the blood leakin’ out.  Then a few days bed rest, mebbe.  Just till you get strong again.  Then we can go after them three, get my horse back, and Teresa’s present, and my gun.  Been together awhile, me and that gun. I ain’t goin’ to part with it.”

The shirt paled as the sun and the rock drove away the dampness.  When he could wait no longer, he went to all the trouble of putting it on.  It took a while but it was worth it.  One more piece of gear not to be neglected, if he were to survive.  It would be cold again tonight.  So he staggered to his feet, reeled, steadied himself and climbed slowly back to the top pool to take one last drink of clear water.  He looked at the mess he had made of the place.  The pools were almost clear but the rocks were stained.  It would take a while to clear off.  It was not the kind of mark he wanted to leave on the land but there was nothing he could do about it.

It was time to start walking again and this time, he had an idea he would keep walking until he reached the hacienda.  He saw in his mind a rope stretched between that point on the earth and his front door.  All he had to do was follow the rope.
 

So he set out, on the next leg of his journey.  He looked back at his tracks once, with interest.  They wandered slightly, and there was that place where he had fallen to one knee, paused for a while to get his breath, then got both his legs back under him and started moving again.  His sense of direction had deserted him a little and he was beginning to be aware that he had wandered closer to the hills than he had meant to but it was all generally in the right direction.

Night was coming on fast but he wasn’t going to get lost.  Reading the stars was enough and if he could just keep going, maybe he could make it.
 

He kept on his feet for three more hours.  The rope had kept him going for two of those hours and the stars for the last one.  When he fell for the second time, he knew it was the moment for a short rest.  Just a few minutes.

He was sitting on top of a slight rise in the land, with the grass all around him, some of the feathered stems up to his shoulders, and the slight movement in a cool breeze was soothing.  He looked up once more at the stars, the billions of diamonds he had seen at so many different moments in his life.  Then he looked out across the land, at the great darkness of the mountains and the rolling shadows of the land.  He had felt a great loneliness during the day, when he had had the energy to feel anything.  At that moment, he felt at peace with the place.  He was happy there, within a few miles of the hacienda, having done the best he could to reach home.  Nothing hurt much any more.  He would be on home ground, at least.  As he fell asleep, his head nodding forward, he slipped back into a dream of watching his brother knock over his queen and admit defeat.
 
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He woke from a dark place, barely able to think or feel. It was just dawn.  Three or four hundred yards away, a light flickered.  He knew immediately what it was.  A campfire – a campfire!  He struggled to stand but failed time and again, until he was thumping his right fist into the earth as if it were to blame for his weakness.  His language was none too pretty, either, but none of it helped.  He quickly ran to the end of his strength.  They were too far away to call, and he had no means of lighting a fire.  He sat with his feet drawn up and his head in his hand, and tried to consider what he could do.

He needed some way to get himself on his feet.  Once there, he knew he could still walk even if his head sang with the effort of even thinking about it.  He began to look around.  There was a drop in the land, a steep, five-foot cut not ten feet from where he had sat out the night.  Crawling there, he looked carefully over the edge.  The cut was just a slope a little further down.  By crawling there and crawling back, he could use the steepest part of the slope to get himself onto his feet.  It was not dignified and it hurt some, but he made it.  With a groan and a good deal of effort, he pushed against the slope and gradually worked his way back onto his feet.  All he needed now was to stay that way.

He began to shuffle towards the camp, beginning to make out the figures which were milling round the fire.  He wanted to call out but had to concentrate hard on keeping on his feet.  Then a godsend.  A branch, just the right length and with a piece which stuck up far enough for him to reach.  He picked it up, held it between his knees and snapped off the side branches.  Hardly daring to risk it, he knelt down for a moment to clear his head and then used the branch to get himself back up again.  It worked.  He could move now and rest.  Passing out now was not an option.

He knew the routines of camp.  He knew they were packing away as he watched, and that it was a simple and swift operation.  The fire was kicked out, the horses were being mounted and he was still too far from them.

He tried to shout.  He tried to wave the branch but all that did was dump him back on the ground, among the tall grasses.  He lost sight of the camp, and worse, he became invisible to the riders.  Despair hit him, a force he had been keeping away for so long.  He would never make it home now.  To be so close was beyond what he could bear.
 
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The rattle of horses’ hooves brought him to himself.  They were right there, a few feet from him, riding nearly through him before he could move.  He grabbed the branch and spiked the end into the ground, pushing himself up in panicked awareness that this was his last chance.

“Whoa!  Hold up there!  Hold up!”  He found himself looking at a horse which was sliding to a halt right by him, and a man who was hauling back on the reins as if his life depended on it.

“Johnny!”

“Scott!”  Never had his brother’s voice been so welcome.   Johnny swayed but kept on his feet, joy coursing through him.  So close – it had been so close.

He watched as his brother stood in the stirrups and threw himself out of the saddle, his face and panicky movements betraying his utter amazement at finding him there, out in the grasslands.   His voice was unsteady but his words were light, as if he were afraid the apparition before him might disappear.   “What have you being doing this time, boy?  Where’s your horse?  And your boots?  Are you all right?” Surprise was quickly becoming concern.

“Broke my wrist.”  Johnny longed to sit down again but couldn’t think how he could do it and retain his dignity.  “Knifed.  Walked here.”

 Scott’s eyes widened.  “You were knifed?”

“Yeah.  I think maybe it’s not so good,” Johnny said.  He was becoming more and more unsteady on his feet.  He felt a steadying hand on his shoulder.

“Okay, Johnny.  Let me help you.  Sit down.  Get my saddlebags, Joe.  The medical kit.”

“Just lead me to the coffee and I’ll be fine.  I got – no, I had a present for Teresa somewhere.   Get it for me, Scott, will ya?”

“Johnny – sit down, I said.  Pedro, get a fire going.   Thanks, Joe.”

Johnny’s sight was dimming.  He allowed his brother to help him to sit and then they began the painful process of taking off his shirt.  He felt the urge to tell Scott everything, in case he couldn’t later.  So he talked on and on, his brother occasionally joining in with a question but mostly listening quietly.  He had to lean forward when Scott put a piece of cloth more than firmly against the wound and held it there, with quite a bit of his weight, until Johnny had to ask him to hold off.  He caught his breath, while Scott bound him up and then came back to kneel in front of him.

“I guess that’ll hold for a while.  Now, your wrist.  Johnny …”

“Yeah?”

“How long did you walk like this?”

“Rested up a lot.  Had plenty of water.  I’ve been fine.  Played you at chess a couple of times.”

“Did I win?  Yes – I can see you’ve been fine.  Just fine.  And a boy did this to you?”

“Yeah.  A boy.  An angry boy.  When we go get my stuff back, we’d better watch out for him.  He got my gun.  Stop fussin’ over me.”

Scott sat back on his heels.  “Right – here you are.  A couple of sticks and some bandaging.  You wrap up your own wrist.”

“Sure, sure.  Just give me…”  Suddenly, the world began to slip away.  He had done enough and now he could rest.  He felt his brother ease him to the ground, mumbled his thanks and fell asleep.

THE END 
 
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