One August Night by Desert Sun

Word count 6,909

(A personal experience of being awakened by a thunderstorm during the wee hours of the morning on August 5th, 2004 was the inspiration for this story, which was written and posted to the Lancer Groups on Yahoo that same month. I did make some minor edits before archiving in the files at the Lancer FanFiction group on Facebook in November of 2016.)

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Part 1: Too Close for Comfort

Far off rumblings, like the sound of a swollen stream rushing through a bolder-strewn arroyo in the mountains, declared the approach of a storm.  Burrowing deeper into his bed roll, Johnny Lancer was grateful for the protection of the walls and roof of the adobe line shack at the base of Black Mesa.  He had nothing to fear from wind or rain.  Barranca, his palomino horse, was snugly stabled in the attached lean-to, and Nature was welcome to throw a tantrum.  Neither man nor beast would feel the fury, or so Johnny thought.

Lightning flickered through the open window on the far side of the room.  Each flash was eventually followed by thunder.  Like the sound of a boulder rolling off a high bluff and bounding from one rocky outcropping to another while hurtling to the canyon floor below, the tones varied in rhythm, pitch, and intensity–changing from a steady rumble to being broken with spells of silence or sharp cracks.

A brighter streak of jagged light danced across the night sky, and the next clap of thunder was much louder.  Wooden shutters on each side of the window rattled and clattered against the shack’s outer wall as a gust of wind whooshedthrough the small window.

A blast of cool air ruffled Johnny’s hair, and he shivered.  The storm was getting pretty close. 

There was a brief pause, the silence all the more pronounced after a lengthy grumble of the atmosphere.  Johnny knew it wouldn’t last.  It was a trick to lull him into thinking the storm was over.  He wasn’t buying it.  The worst was yet to come.

Another dazzling white shaft of light cut through the darkness.  Johnny counted softly, “One-one hundred, two-one hundred, three–”  His words were cut off by a loud clap, and he figured that the last flash of lightning had been less than three miles away.

The rumblings and flickers of light gained strength.  Two miles . . . a mile and a half . . . one mile.  Soon the full force of the storm would be overhead.

Johnny crooked his elbow under his folded jacket, which he was using for a pillow.  He squeezed his eyes shut but couldn’t keep them closed.  The temptation to watch the sky hurl its rage on the earth was much too strong.

The room suddenly lit up like day.  For an instant, nothing was hidden.  Brilliant rays of white light illuminated the cot where Johnny lay as well as the small table between him and the corner that served as a kitchen.  Even the black iron pot, sitting on the equally dark cook-stove, was plainly visible.

Earth and sky seemed to split apart with the crack of a thousand rifles fired in unison.  Then the boom of a monstrous cannon shook the adobe shack.

Johnny’s breath caught in his throat.  His heart lurched.  Every nerve in his body felt like it was on edge as he awaited his dreaded fate.

Nothing happened, and Johnny let the air out of his tortured lungs.   The world had not come to an end, and he was not crushed by the roof overhead crumbling in on top of him.  He was still alive and his shelter was still in one piece.

Forcing himself to breathe at a somewhat normal pace, Johnny lay listening to the loud pattering of rain on the roof while his body tensely waited for another angry outburst from the storm.  Cattle bawled somewhere–calves and mammas calling for each other.  The sky outside the window lit up a few more times, but the sound of thunder quickly faded.  Soon even the sound of water droplets spattering terra cotta came to an end.

That was too close for comfort.  Way too close, Johnny thought as the raging storm passed on over the top of Black Mesa and continued on to the northeast.  He wondered just how close the bolt of lightning had struck and got up to check on Barranca.  Just in case, he told himself–unable to bear the thought of his golden horse suffering.

A sliver of silver was peeking around the ragged edge of the clouds overhead by the time Johnny had his boots on and had opened the door of the cabin.  He stepped outside.  Then, as the nearly full moon slid farther into view–darkness fleeing from the pale light–Johnny easily made his way to the lean-to.

Barranca snorted softly and stomped a shod hoof when his master stopped to peer inside.  “Easy,” Johnny cooed, running his hand over the golden rump. The horse blew out a long breath and went back to munching hay.

Seeing that no harm had come to the stable, Johnny took a quick tour of the area around the line shack.  All seemed well.  There were no broken or up-rooted trees.  Puddles of water and damp earth were the only visible evidence of the sky’s angry outburst.

Back in the shack, Johnny sat on the bed and removed his boots.  Mud, clinging to the soles, squished between his fingers.  He wasn’t about to complain, though.  It had been hot and dry since the first of May, three months ago.  The range grass needed a good shot of rain.

Once again, Johnny crawled into his bedroll on the cot, which was against the wall opposite the door.  He yawned, his eyelids sliding down to cover his eyes.  The lightning had been a little close for comfort, but not too close.

Johnny smiled into the darkness.  As Murdoch always said, Close only counted in horseshoes. 

With a fleeting thought of how the rest of his family had faired the violence of the storm, Johnny drifted off to sleep.  He was the only one, as far as he knew, who had not been expected home that night.  Everyone else would be safe inside the protective walls of the hacienda.

Part II: Night Vigil

With a vengeance, zigzagging shafts of light attacked the distant skyline to the south.  Murdoch Lancer stood looking out the open French doors of his thick-walled hacienda.  He had no fear that the storm would be a threat to the house or the surrounding buildings.  The soft drum-rolls of thunder could barely be heard, and the dark clouds were moving toward the northeast–away from the ranch headquarters.

Black Mesa, however, was another matter.  The tableland, rimmed with rock, rose up out of a plateau on the far side of that distant ridge, where the lightning was now flashing.  Johnny had been looking for strays over that way and could be camped in the direct path of the tempest.

Surely, he’d hole up at the line shack, Murdoch reasoned, picturing the small adobe house at the foot of Black Mesa.  The shack was solidly built, and the attached lean-to had ample space for two or three horses.  Johnny was well aware of the building’s location and was sure to seek shelter, if for no other reason than the protection of his favorite horse, Barranca.

Murdoch stretched his tall frame and drew in a lungful of sultry air.  He was worrying for nothing.  His son would be fine.

“Did Scott get back, yet?”

Murdoch arched his back and looked down on the young woman, whose hand was now gently resting on his arm.  His ward, Teresa O’Brien, was gazing up at him, her brown eyes hooded by pinched brows.   He shook his head.  “No, Honey, but I really didn’t expect him to.  It would have been well past four when he reached Green River.  That storm would have been brewing by the time he had the supplies loaded.  He knows how treacherous some stretches of the road can be when wet.”

He patted her small hand with his much larger one.  “Stop worrying.  Scott probably checked in at the hotel, had dinner in the dining room, and then went to the saloon for a couple of beers.  I’d be willing to bet that he’s already sound asleep in his room.  Knowing him, he’d want to beat the heat by getting an early start in the morning.”

“I suppose.”  A frown still lined the young woman’s face.  “But what if–“

“He’s a big boy.  He can take care of himself.”  Doubt had his stomach in a knot, but Murdoch forced a smile as he guided Teresa around to face the arched doorway near the dining table.  “Go on to bed.  The boys will be fine,” he softly chided.

Teresa opened her mouth.  Then with shoulders sagging, she brought her lips together in a thoughtful pout and left the room.  Murdoch, too, let out a long sigh.  He should take his own advice and retire, too, which was what he assumed his ward had wanted to say.

In a while . . . when the lightning stops.  Then I’ll go to bed and sleep, Murdoch thought, knowing he was putting off the inevitable.  Even after the storm passed on, he would lie awake, wondering if his sons were all right.  It came with being a parent, he supposed.  Scott and Johnny might be grown men, but they would always be his children.  No matter where they were and even though he denied it, he would never stop being concerned about their safety.  Any confidence on his part would be purely an act for the benefit of others around him.

Murdoch returned to his vigil of looking through the open doorway.  A movement near one of the columns that supported the porch roof caught his eye.  He craned his neck to get a better look and quietly chuckled.  It appeared he wasn’t the only one who wouldn’t be sleeping through the storm.

If confronted, Jelly Hoskins would make some excuse for not being in bed.  Murdoch was certain of that.  The ranch handyman, whom the Lancers valued as a friend and treated more like family, would never admit to being worried about Scott or Johnny.  Jelly was proud.  On more than one occasion he had made it clear that he was his own man and didn’t need anyone.

Murdoch knew Jelly was all bluff and loved those boys almost as much as he did.  If Jelly thought they were in any real danger, he’d be demanding they ride out and find them.

Another chuckle slipped quietly up Murdoch’s throat.  Not more than a month ago, Jelly had done just that.  The grizzle-faced man’s hunch had turned out wrong.  When they had been rewarded with an unmerciful razzing from the younger Lancer son, Jelly had been quite adamant that he and the boss had ridden out to check on the grass.  Running across Johnny had been purely accidental.

Undoubtedly, Johnny hadn’t believed that story for a minute.  He only pretended to buy it so Jelly could save face, of that Murdoch was sure.  He yawned.  According to the latest chiming of the grandfather clock, a few feet from him, it was midnight.  He’d been up since daylight and the long hours were finally catching up to him.

An occasional brightening of the skyline was all that was left of the storm.  The only sounds, now, came from a few night birds and the horned owl that often used the peak of the barn roof to spy on mice that invaded the building during the night to raid the grain bin.

Jelly’s shadowy form passed between two of the arched roof supports along the outer edge of the porch.  He didn’t acknowledge seeing Murdoch, so Murdoch let him go without calling out to him.  Now that the visible danger was past, any further concern for Scott and Johnny would be hidden within the confines of the man’s room off the courtyard.

Murdoch eased the glass doors closed, latched them, and headed for his own room, which was across the entry hall from the combination living room, dining room, and office where he had stood watch for the past hour.  He, too, intended to continue his vigil in privacy.

A comfortable bed had a way of soothing the mind and causing the body to relax despite the clamoring of fear inside one’s breast.  So it was for Murdoch that night.  One minute, he was wondering if his sons had weathered the storm in safety; the next he was snoring.  He didn’t awaken until the horizon was etched in pink.  By then, the terrors of the night were long passed.            

Part III: No Place to Hide

Why he hadn’t spent the night in town was a question Scott Lancer could not answer.  While he was filling the wagon with supplies from the Farm Implement store in Green River, he had seen the billowing clouds grow larger and change from white to murky grey.  He should never have thought he could get home before the impending storm released its fury.

Scott silently scolded himself in the words he had heard Jelly Hoskins use more than once.  It was too late to cry over spilt milk.  The important thing, now, was to get off the top of the open ridge.  Without trees or something higher than himself to draw the flaming darts that the dark and angry sky was hurling in all directions, he was a prime target for the bolts of lightning.

Thunder rumbled and snapped.  The husky horses fidgeted, tugging at the bits in their mouths.

Scott tightened his grip on the reins and held the prancing animals to a walk.  If the team ever broke into a run, he would never get them slowed down enough to negotiate the winding road down into the valley.

The wheels of the wagon rattled over an outcropping of rock in the road and began the long descent.  Scott pulled back on the brake to keep the heavily laden vehicle from pushing the horses to go faster.  Everything seemed to be going well.

A jagged strand of bright light streaked toward a craggy bluff less than a mile to the south.  An accompanying clap of thunder wasn’t long in coming, and the team surged ahead.

One front wheel rolled over a fair-sized rock at the edge of the road, and Scott pitched sideways.  He threw out one hand to catch himself just as the rear of the wagon lurched.  His elbow slammed against something and a painful tingling raced toward his wrist.  Still leaning off-center, he threw his weight against the back brace of the bench-like seat of the wagon while hauling on the long lines in his hands.

As the wagon rounded a tight corner to the right, the team crowed the inside of the narrow road.  Scott’s heart raced.  If one wheel dropped over the edge, they would all go tumbling down the steep hillside. 

The backend of the wagon fishtailed but stayed on solid ground.  Scott didn’t rejoice.  Not far ahead was another bend in the road.  Somehow, he had to slow the horses to a walk.

Quick, sharp tugs on the reins proved useless.  The wagon continued moving too fast.

Scott pulled harder.

The team, still, failed to respond.

Desperation set in.  Scott put his all into one last jerk of the reins.  As his arms screamed against the strain, he felt first one horse and then the other break stride.  He shifted the lines to his right hand, grabbed the brake handle with the other, and pulled with all his might.

The wagon skidded–wind snatching up the dust beneath wheels that “scritched” across hard-packed dirt. Its speed slowed to match that of horses as they started into the corner at a controlled walk.

Scott blew out a long breath as the team continued on at a more reasonable pace.  That had been close.  Too close.

There were still a few more corners to maneuver.  Scott knew better than to count on the rest of the ride going smoothly.  The horses might be moving slower, but they were still fractious.  He could see in the arch of their necks and feel it in the champing mouths continuing to resist the restraint of the reins.

Wind gusted, lifting a cloud of dust into the faces of the team.  One of the horses snorted and sidestepped.  Scott expected them to bolt again.  “Easy, Boys,” he called, hoping to soothe their fears.

Night approached rapidly, arriving earlier than normal because of the dark veil that covered the sky.  Flashes of lightning, however, kept the path ahead illuminated while the rumble of thunder drew nearer.  Scott feared the storm would be directly overhead before he could find some sort of shelter.

To Scott’s surprise, the wagon reached the floor of the valley without further trouble.  He breathed a sigh of relief.  His arms ached from the constant pull on the reins, and he wasn’t sure he could have held the team back much longer.

Now for a safe place to hide out, Scott thought, while searching for anything that would provide protection for him and the horses.

Close to a quarter of a mile away, a grove of willows hid what Scott knew was the mouth of a steep ravine, which ran from the valley floor to the top of the ridge he had just driven off of.  He had holed up there once before in order to escape a hailstorm.  There was a spring with a small level area inside the alcove formed by the patch of trees.  If he could get the wagon in there, he would be safe.

The battle raging in the heavens grew louder, each flash of lightning appearing closer than before.  Scott reined the team off the road and urged them toward the shelter.    

Suddenly the air seemed charged with energy. Scott felt the hair on his neck rise.  He slapped the reins against the horses’ rumps and shouted as loud as he could. “Get up!”

The wagon surged ahead with a jerk.  Scott grabbed the edge of the seat. As he caught his balance, he noticed that the team’s manes and tails looked like the hair on a cat that had been rubbed against a wool blanket.   He wondered why.

A pinpoint of brilliant white caught Scott’s eye.  It rapidly grew in size while hurtling toward him from out of the sky.

Scott snatched the whip and frantically lashed the horses.  Blinding light bathed the whole hillside in front of them just as he spied the opening into the inner sanctuary that the grove of trees would provide.  He screamed at the horses but his words were lost in the deafening explosion that knocked him off the wagon seat.

Sprawled on his back, Scott lay with one arm at his side and the other stretched above his head as though reaching for something in the clump of ryegrass near his fingertips.  Huge droplets of rain fell on him, drenching him from head to toe.  His clothes clung to his body and water from his hair dribbled into his closed eyes.  He was aware of none of it.  Consciousness had fled before he ever hit the ground.

Part IV: Fearful Discoveries

Grim faced, Murdoch Lancer led the search party away from the hacienda.  Dawn had just begun to push away the darkness of night when Jelly, yelling at the top of his lungs, had pounded on the door of the hacienda.  He had just come from the barnyard where he had found the wagon Scott had taken to Green River.  Still in harness and hitched to the wagon, the team had been standing with heads drooping–too exhausted to lift their noses more than a few inches off the ground.  Nothing seemed amiss except for the streak of black charcoal that marred the canvas that covered the supplies.  There had been no sign of the driver in the barn or anywhere else in that vicinity.

Knowing that his son would have to be seriously injured to neglect caring for the weary horses, Murdoch had gone to the young man’s room.  He had found no evidence that Scott had been there, so he had ordered a search of the rest of the house, all of the outbuildings, and the surrounding grounds.   The hunt had proven futile.  Scott was not there.

“We’ll find him,” Jelly said, bouncing in the saddle as his horse kept up with the fast trot of Murdoch’s mount.  “He probably stopped to check the harness.  Team must have gotten spooked by the storm and run off without him.  Bet, when we get around that next bend, we’ll see him hoofin’ it for home.”

Murdoch hoped Jelly was right, but he kept seeing the burned spot on the canvas covering the supplies in the wagon.  He didn’t even want to think about what that meant.  Men had died from lightning striking too close to them.

The road followed the river for a ways as it snaked through the southern side of the long valley, which ran through the center of the Lancer ranch.  Murdoch left nothing to chance. He had Cipriano and Walt Senior ride along the banks of the water to look for any evidence that someone might have fallen in.  Keeping Jelly with him, he stayed near the road while the rest of the men spread out across the fields.

Ten minutes went by, then twenty and thirty.  Murdoch felt like every muscle in his body was strung tighter than a fiddler’s bow string.  His back ached and his stomach churned.  Where was his son?  Why hadn’t any sign of him been seen, yet?  Had the wagon team merely run off, like Jelly had suggested, or had Scott been thrown out somewhere?  If so, then where?  When he was found, would he be uninjured, or–.

Murdoch refused to allow his mind to pursue the negative prospects.  Scott will be fine, he firmly told himself.

Another mile passed.  The road parted from the river, which cut through a narrow gorge where the valley temporarily bottlenecked before opening up again.  Still no one had seen Scott.

“He’s gotta be close by,” Jelly said, wiping his brow with the back of his hand.  “Them horses wouldn’t have run much farther on their own.  You know that.”

Horses were unpredictable creatures as Murdoch well knew from first hand experience.  Combine that with the terror of a thunderstorm, and the team might have run for miles before finally giving into exhaustion and stopping.  A safe stall in the barn would have been a mighty strong incentive for the two horses to travel a long distance without a driver.

Hoping Jelly was right, Murdoch ran a thumb down one cheek and nodded in agreement.  Arguing would be a useless waste of breath.  The man was as stubborn as–.  As a Lancer, Teresa’s voice concluded in Murdoch’s mind.

A quarter of a mile later, the road was back on the floor of the valley.  Murdoch could see the dark shape of Black Mesa off to his left.  In the past, its rocky edges had been marred by numerous lightning strikes.  Something about that particular formation of rock attracted the brunt of most thunderstorms in the area.  He had no idea why.

Jelly’s voice again interrupted Murdoch’s thoughts.  “You don’t suppose Scott would’ve gone to the line shack to get out o’ the rain.  If he got parted from the wagon anywhere around here, it’d be a lot closer than the ranch.”

Murdoch had to agree that Hoskin’s had a point.  There was a good possibility that his elder son had sought shelter at the cabin by Black Mesa.  Scott had known that his brother was rounding up stray cattle in that area.  He might have decided to save himself a long walk by riding home with Johnny on Barranca.

For a moment, Murdoch was torn between two choices.  Should he continue hunting along the road or head toward Black Mesa.  The later pulled him.  He could kill two birds with one stone by making sure his younger son was all right and look for Scott at the same time.  If Johnny got an early start, he may have already found his brother.  We could waste hours in useless searching, Murdoch reasoned.

“Jelly, you go on and follow the road to the top of the ridge.  I think I’ll ride over to the line camp.  I need to talk to Johnny, anyway, if he’s around.  I’ll fire three shots if Scott’s there.  You do the same if you find him.”

The whiskered man grumbled but finally gave in and continued on the way they had been headed.  Murdoch turned to the left and rode toward the opposite side of the valley.

When Murdoch arrived at the adobe cabin, Barranca was tied to the hitching rail out front.  The palomino was stamping and shifting his rump from side to side–a sure indication he hadn’t been ridden far since the day before.

The door was wide open, giving full view of the small room’s interior.  Johnny, facing the cot on the far side of the room, appeared to be spreading a blanket over something.

Murdoch stepped through the open doorway and saw a bare leg hanging over the edge of the bed.  No! he silently cried.

As Johnny turned his head, the blanket slipped from his fingers.  Murdoch’s heart lurched.  The face of the man on the bed was hidden, but the tawny locks of hair at the edge of the cover were undoubtedly Scott’s.  His brown trousers lay in a heap on the floor–toes of a boot poking out from under one leg. 

“Scott,” Murdoch whispered with a groan, closing his eyes and slumping back against the wall.  He felt his knees buckle but was powerless to stop the slow sinking of his body toward the floor.

Part V:  Assuming the Worst  

Johnny Lancer bounded to his feet and rushed to his father’s side.  He grasped the big man by the arms, held him against the wall to keep him from sliding all the way to the floor, and softly called to him.  “Murdoch?  Murdoch?”

In a half crouch and supported by his son, Murdoch blinked as he gazed at Johnny.

“Are you all right?” Johnny’s heart beat wildly as he frowned at his father’s pale face.

The straightening of Murdoch’s legs lightened the pull on Johnny’s arms.  “Yeah.  Yeah . . . I, uh . . ..”  Murdoch’s voice trailed off as he hoisted himself upright, still leaning against the wall.

Noticing that Murdoch’s eyes had shifted to the form on the cot, Johnny took a deep breath.  “It’s Scott.  He . . ..”

“I know,” Murdoch whispered.

Eyebrows drawing together, Johnny looked up at his father.  “You do?”

“The team brought the wagon in without him.  We . . .”  Murdoch’s voice cracked, and he paused to moisten his lips.

“I found him about an hour ago.  He was soaked.”  Johnny glanced up at his father.  Seeing the distress in the man’s eyes, he decided a diversion was needed and waved a hand toward the pile of clothing that was forming a puddle on the floor by the bed.  “I just got him undressed.  Think you could start a fire and hang those up to dry?”  When his inquiry was met with silence, his tone turned more demanding.  “Murdoch?”

“Uh, huh.”  Murdoch nodded, sounding far away.  He still acted distracted as he went to the wood-box next to the fireplace.

Johnny watched his father’s movements for a moment.  Then he hunkered down beside the cot where Scott lay and adjusted the blanket to fit under his brother’s chin.  The pale face looked so peaceful–too peaceful.

Clunking wood and other noises indicated Murdoch was working on the fire.  Johnny reached over and lifted Scott’s dangling leg onto the bed and tucked the cover in place.  “We’ll have your clothes dry in no time,” he softly said, capturing a limp hand and massaging the cool fingers.

Johnny let out a soft sigh.  You sure got yourself in a pickle this time, Brother,   Thought you told me Boston gets bad thunderstorms every year.  What was ya doin’ out last night?

Footsteps passed behind Johnny and paused before returning to his side.  He turned his head and looked upward, meeting his father’s anguished eyes.

“It could have been worse,” Johnny said, his voice not as steady as he would have liked.

“No, it couldn’t,” Murdoch hoarsely replied.  His gaze faltered and landed on the floor with the water that dripped from the pants and blue shirt, which were now slung over his left arm.

Johnny let out a tired sigh.  “Sure it could.  He don’t have any broken bones . . . no cuts . . . not one scratch on him.  Won’t even have any bruises . . . except for that spot on the back of his head.”  A chuckle slid up his throat and a smile tugged at his lips.  Both abruptly died when Murdoch’s eyes lifted, a mix of emotions warring in them.

His father was not convinced.  There was no doubt in Johnny’s mind of that, so he continued on in hopes of easing Murdoch’s concerns that Scott had suffered.  “He was lying on his back in a puddle of water when I first saw him.  Looked like he’d been there a while, and I thought . . ..”  Johnny paused and changed directions.  “If he hadn’t come to, I’m not sure how I would’ve got him on Barranca.”

Murdoch’s brows shot upward.  “He . . . he was awake?  Did he say what happened?”

The intensity of his father’s imploring eyes was unsettling, and Johnny focused on the unmoving form on the bed.  “He didn’t say much.”  He paused, moistened his lip with the tip of his tongue, and shrugged.  “I couldn’t make much sense out of anything he said.  He seemed pretty confused about where he was and how he got there.  I hardly had a chance to get mounted before he passed out.”

“I guess we’ll never know then . . ..”  Murdoch spoke in just above a whisper.

“No.  I guess not,” Johnny quietly said, no longer rubbing his brother’s fingers.

Defeat was written in the sag of Murdoch’s shoulders and the twitch of his jaw muscles as he turned to walk away.  Johnny drew in a ragged breath and watched his father drape Scott’s pants and shirt over the bench by the kitchen table and drag the long wooden seat closer to the fire.

Flickering flames crackled in the fireplace, the shimmering light reminding Johnny of the way the storm had lit up the room the night before.  He let out a long sigh and frowned.  His father, also, seemed lost in thought–gaze locked on the red and yellow dancers in the fire.  

“We’ll need a wagon to get Scott home.  Want me to go after it?” Johnny asked, starting to rise to his feet.

Murdoch turned his head to face Johnny and hastily stammered that there was no need since Jelly was close by.  Then, in a few long strides, he was out the door.

With a shake of his head, Johnny stared at the empty doorway.  He had never seen his father so jittery before.  The man acted like he was afraid to be alone with Scott.

Another thought crept into the corner of Johnny’s mind but was banished by three sharp, equally spaced rifle shots followed shortly by three more.  A shadow fell across the patch of sunlight that reached across the floor toward the cot and disappeared when Murdoch stepped into the room and moved to one side of the doorway.

The big man stopped.  Mouth gapping, he sharply drew in his breath.  Slowly, as Johnny looked on in wonder, the thunderstruck expression faded from Murdoch’s face and a smile lifted the corners of his lips.

A soft moan from the cot turned Johnny’s attention away from Murdoch.  Understanding hit him.  He would have laughed if his father hadn’t been so obviously thrown for a loop by the assumption that Scott was dead.

There was no time for amusement.  Not with Murdoch crowding in.  Johnny got out of the way and stood looking on as his father took charge of the injured man who was trying to sit up while being restrained by a pair of big hands.

When neither of the other men seemed to be aware of Johnny’s presence in the room, he softly said, “Think I’ll go  . . . watch for Jelly.”  Scott still seemed dazed and unable to focus on more than one thing or person at a time, and Murdoch’s slight nod was the only indication that he had heard his younger son.

Johnny quietly retreated to the doorway and went outside.  He sucked in a deep breath and savored the freshly washed smell of the air and smiled as the sun warmed his face.  In a day or two, his brother would be fine and the previous night’s storm would be nothing more than a memory.  That was provided, of course, that Jelly didn’t go on and on about it.

Hoof-beats clattered on the rocky trail and a rider came into view.  There was no mistaking the man, whose cap hugged his head and horse dwarfed his small frame.  Johnny stretched one arm upward and waved.  Then, with a light-hearted spring to his step, he sauntered out to meet Jelly.

Epilogue:

The next morning, Scott lay with his head and shoulders propped up on two thick pillows.  Jelly Hoskins stood at one side of the bed and fussed with the edge of the quilt.

“That was quite a show we had the other night,” the whiskered man said.  When Scott responded with a vacant stare, Jelly’s chest puffed and his chin lifted.  “The storm . . . it was really something to see.”

Scott chuckled softly, his lips stretching into a faint smile at the older man’s indignant tone.  “Yes, Jelly, it was quite spectacular.”  He closed his eyes, drew in a long breath, and opened them again.  “Of course, I would have received considerably more enjoyment out of nature’s awesome display of power had I been watching it from my bedroom window.”    

For a moment, silence filled the room.  Jelly squirmed and cleared his throat.  “Yeah . . . bein’ out in it would sort of spoil things a bit, wouldn’t it?”

“Just a bit,” Scott dryly replied as his bedroom door swung open and his brother sauntered in.

“What spoiled what?” Johnny asked, stopping beside Jelly.

“Nothing important.  I thought you were bringing me some breakfast?  I’m starving.”  Scott spoke in a commanding tone and earned an answering scowl from his brother.

Johnny laid a hand on Jelly’s shoulder.  “Jelly, ya ever noticed how bossy Scott is?  Think getting hit by lightning changed his personality like it did to that man back in Kansas you told me about?”

Scott’s brows drew together and his jaw tensed.  “I was not struck by lightning, so there’s nothing wrong with my personality that a little food wouldn’t remedy. Now . . . are you going to bring me breakfast or not?”

“Okay.  Okay.”  Johnny lifted his hands, palms out in front of his chest.  “No need to get yourself in a pucker.  I’ll go see if Teresa has it ready.”

“You do that.”  The sharpness was still there despite Scott’s urge to laugh at the way Johnny submissively backed out the door.

Jelly looked like he would bust a gut, but didn’t laugh until after Johnny had time to reach the stairs.  Then he wagged his head as he spoke.  “You pulled that off well.”.

“Don’t you think you were a little harsh with your brother?”

This new voice was accompanied by a tall form striding through the doorway.

Scott smiled–shoulders and eyebrows arching and then relaxing.  “Murdoch, Johnny’s been hovering over me like a mother hen.  He’s worse than Jelly and Teresa combined.”

Jelly let out a snort.  “Well, if that’s the way ya feel . . . I got better things to do than keep you company.”

“Jelly.  Scott didn’t–“  Murdoch’s words were cut off by the slamming of the door.

Scott lifted one hand to still the lecture that was about to spill from his father’s mouth.  “Don’t say it.  I haven’t had a moment’s peace all morning.  If you hadn’t sent those three to bed last night, they would have kept me awake with their hovering.”

“They can’t help it.  You gave us quite a scare, yesterday.  Are you sure you’re all right?”  Concern etched the corners of Murdoch’s eyes and uncertainty filled his voice.

“I’m fine, Murdoch.”  Scott shifted his position to make himself more comfortable.  “Just have a twinge of a headache, is all.  You heard Doctor Jenkins.  I have a slight concussion from the blow to the back of my head.  There is no evidence that the lightning touched me.  All I need is a couple days of bed rest, a few more of light duty, and then I’ll be good as new.”

“I’m sure Sam is right.” Murdoch patted Scott’s blanket-covered leg.  He turned toward the door, stopped, and looked back over his shoulder.  “I’ll see that you have some time to yourself.  I’m sure I can find enough chores to keep everyone too busy to bother you.”

“Thanks.”  Scott relaxed as a sense of relief flooded over him.  All he wanted was to have his breakfast and then be able to lay back and rest his eyes.

Scott soon found that being alone was worse than having his family fussing over him.  The trauma of the storm had taken a greater toll than he had cared to admit.  Although his body would recover quickly enough, he feared his mind would not soon let go of the terror he had endured.  Every time he closed his eyes, he saw a ball of fire hurtling toward him and felt the tingle of his skin as his hair rose to meet the oncoming missile.  When Teresa came in at lunch time, he was more than ready for the company.  He even asked her to stay and read to him for a while.

By suppertime, Scott was glad to see both Jelly and Johnny.  He invited them to bring the checker board up and play a few games so he could watch them.  Although, his head still hurt too much to concentrate on playing a game himself, he greatly appreciated the distraction the other two men provided.  Anything was better than being left alone with his thoughts.

Johnny gave Jelly a sly wink near the end of the fourth game. “Hey, Jelly . . . we’ve been here almost an hour. Did ya notice Scott ain’t grouched at us once?  Guess he ain’t changed after all.”

“Uh, huh.  His manners sure are a lot better’n they was this mornin’.”  Jelly’s tone was low and conspiratorial.

“Must be all that solitude went to his head, and—”

“Keep it up, Little Brother, and I’m going to have to teach you some manners,” Scott interrupted with a resounding slap to Johnny’s shoulder.

“Yep.  Just like I said, Brother . . . you ain’t changed a bit.”

Even though laughing tensed his shoulder muscles and jiggled his head, Scott couldn’t keep from joining the other two men.   Life was too uncertain and precious not to take advantage of every opportunity to enjoy it.  Never again would he look at things in quite the same way.  Thanks to a thunderstorm, one August night, his perspective of life and family was no longer the same.

Scott smiled at his brother.  Guess I have changed, after all.  Just not in ways you or anyone would notice, he thought. Then he proceeded to inform Johnny that there was a game in progress.

~The End~

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