The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Dori

 

 

Calling The Tune

Following a breakfast which consisted of coffee and beans which had been reheated from last night’s supper, Murdoch Lancer kicked dirt over the campfire to extinguish it.  He secured his bedroll and mounted the chestnut mare.  Unable to suppress a groan, he settled into the saddle.  With a stubborn set to his jaw, he resolved to ignore the persistent ache in his back, which, he told himself, was only to be expected after a night spent sleeping on the cold ground.

He urged the animal forward, silently cursing the bad luck that had landed him on this mount, a slug with no stamina and a bone-jarring gait.  “Not bad luck,” he corrected himself grimly, “bad judgment.”  If he was to be honest, that hurt almost more than the pain in his spine.  Murdoch took pride in his ability to judge good horseflesh.  Granted, the livery in Stockton, where he had hired the hack, hadn’t provided a lot to choose from.  However, he must have been blind to have missed the unmistakable signs of a worn-out nag.

“Johnny would never have been fooled.”

The words sprang unbidden to his mind.  Even while acknowledging the truth of the statement, he shook his head as if to drive it from his thoughts.  Dwelling on his son’s admitted skill concerning all things horseflesh would only serve to dredge up events he was just as happy to forget.

Unfortunately, this solitary journey through the rather barren countryside provided almost nothing by way of distraction.  So it wasn’t long before he was once again, though totally against his will, reflecting on the memory of that last evening at Lancer.

**********

When he sat down to supper, it was with a feeling of some foreboding.  His upcoming trip, and the reason behind it, had been the subject of some debate in the household for at least a week.  It had also been the source of a fair amount of tension between Murdoch and his younger son.

He watched Johnny; his son’s dark head was bent over his plate.  Far from displaying his usual voracious appetite, the boy seemed merely intent on shredding one of Teresa’s freshly baked corn muffins.  As though aware of his father’s scrutiny, he looked up, blue eyes hardening in sudden determination.

“I got a wire today from Jim Meadows.”  The studied nonchalance in Johnny’s voice fooled no one at the table.  “He said he’s willing ta come down $500 on the price for that breeding stallion.”

“Son, that’s an excellent price for such a fine animal.”  Murdoch made every effort to keep his voice calm and level.  “If he could see his way clear to wait until spring, I’m sure by that time we’d be in a position to…..”

Johnny interrupted, “He can’t wait that long—said the offer’s on the table for a month.  After that he’ll look for another buyer.”

“John,” the older man spoke patiently, “it just won’t be possible.  The bulls at the Stockton auction next week--at least those of the quality we need to improve the herd--will be going for at least $1000.  We’ve gone over the figures more than once.  We just don’t have the funds to do both right now.”

Instead of the heated response Murdoch had expected from his volatile son, there was a quiet reply, “If that’s what ya want ta do, Murdoch, I reckon you’re the one who calls the tune.”

The younger man rose, leaving most of his supper uneaten.  “Got some tack needs mending, and I wanna get to it.”

Following Johnny’s departure, there was silence for several moments.  Murdoch caught the look in his older son’s eye, and couldn’t help launching into a slightly defensive explanation.  “Look, Scott, I know he’s disappointed, but you have to understand.  This is a cattle ranch and that’s what has to take priority.”

“Oh, I understand, Murdoch,” Those slate-blue eyes gave no quarter.  “Everything you’ve said makes perfect sense, and from a financial standpoint, it’s the only option.  That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”  After a curt, “If you’ll excuse me.”, Scott followed his brother out the door.

Thankfully, Teresa had managed to refrain from comment, contenting herself with maintaining a pointed silence as she cleared the supper dishes. 

************

With the benefit of some distance and perspective, Murdoch tried to honestly evaluate the comments both his sons had made.  

“You call the tune.” Yes, he did recall quite vividly the day he first made that aggressive assertion.  Faced with two sons, strangers to him, he had felt compelled to stand his ground, and the statement he made was designed to put them in their place.  After more than two years, however, he considered his sons to be full partners in Lancer.  Indeed, he regarded it as their legacy.  If he still acted as if it was incumbent on him to “call the tune’’, it was because he had the knowledge and experience that could only be attained through twenty-five years of active ranching.

And, contrary to the gist of Scott’s remarks, Murdoch took no pleasure in turning down his younger son’s request.  When he looked at everything the boy had accomplished in just a few years, he was amazed.  Johnny had always been talented when it came to horses, as witnessed by his ability to gentle even the wildest stallion.  He was a quick study when it came to learning the basics of breeding and, with Scott’s help, was also learning to manage the business end of his project. Murdoch couldn’t imagine being any prouder of his son.

“And have you ever told HIM that?”

Murdoch shifted again in the saddle, trying in vain for a more comfortable position, and his attempts to quiet that little voice in his head were even less successful.

“Well, HAVE you ever told Johnny just how proud you are of him?”

He was irritably aware that the little voice in his head seemed to have a Boston accent.

Well, Murdoch Lancer had always been a firm believer in the adage that talk was cheap and actions were what really counted, and it was for that very reason that he had undertaken what he knew would be an arduous and uncomfortable journey.

He’d arrived at Stockton a full week before the auction to ensure that he had time to fully evaluate the available stock before offering any bids.  As he had anticipated, the animals with the bloodlines and characteristics he required were estimated to go for around $1000.

However, an evening of socializing with an old friend had revealed an unexpected opportunity.  Somehow Matt Bryson always seemed to have his ear to the ground and was the first to hear of any particular bargains when it came to breeding stock.  Over drinks, Matt had mentioned a bull of extremely high caliber which could possibly be purchased for much less than the price of a comparable animal.

“You see, it’s like this, Murdoch,” he explained, “Peter Newton has himself a spread north of Stockton.  Problem is, he also has himself a little gambling problem.  Man’s a lousy poker player, but you just can’t convince him of that.  Well, he got into a game with some pretty rough characters.  He lost big time and they want their money.  You know how it is with ranchers; they just don’t always have ready cash available.  If these jokers would wait til after the auction, he could get twice the price, but they aren’t being any too patient.  If you were to ride up there and offer cash on the barrelhead, I think he’d let that bull go for half the normal asking price.”

Murdoch had lain awake for much of that night, weighing his options, and by morning he had made his decision.  If he could buy that bull for the price Matt had suggested, Johnny would be able to use the remaining cash to purchase the breeding stallion before Jim Meadows withdrew his offer.  But, he needed to move quickly.

When he’d hired the hack and other gear he needed, Murdoch had been careful to make no mention of his plans.  There were several rivals in town who would jump at the chance to beat him to a bargain like this. While there might be some risk involved, setting out alone without notifying anyone of his whereabouts, it was his opinion that the need for secrecy outweighed that risk.  It was that same desire for secrecy that influenced his decision not to send a wire to his family regarding this change in plans.  A telegraph office was a likely source of information, and it wasn’t unheard of for a telegraph operator to receive a bribe for delivering an important tip.

As he was all too aware, however, there was little likelihood that his sons would agree with that conclusion.  Murdoch knew they would pretty much have identical views on the subject, although each would voice them in their own individual and totally different manner.

“Dios, Old Man, what the hell were you thinking, making a trek like that on your own, with your back like it’s been?  And not telling nobody where ya went!”

It was not the cold, hard, dispassionate voice of Johnny Madrid he could hear delivering that diatribe.  That was pure Johnny Lancer—hot-headed and fiercely vehement in his disapproval.

Murdoch knew his older son would also condemn his actions.  Scott would phrase his reproach in more respectful terms; it was hard to shake the lifetime of training he’d received from both his grandfather and the U.S. Cavalry, but he still wouldn’t mince words, those steel-blue eyes leaving no doubt as to his strong objections.

“Enough!!”

It was embarrassing to realize he had spoken the words aloud, as if defending himself against flesh and blood accusers rather than dealing with his own slightly guilty conscience.

He told himself it was ridiculous to feel guilty.  He was perfectly capable of taking care of himself and could survive both the danger and the discomforts of this expedition on his own, whatever his offspring might believe.

And the fact of the matter was, his sons never needed to find out about this trip.  If his quest was a failure, he would simply return to the auction at Stockton and buy a bull there.  If he was successful, Johnny would have the funds for his stallion, and the details surrounding the sale didn’t need to be revealed.

Murdoch dug in his heels and slapped the reins on the horse’s flanks, trying to get some speed from the lethargic animal.  “Everything will be just fine,” he told himself.  “Just fine!”

 

Calling the Tune (Part 2)

The opportunity to simply relax and savor a second cup of coffee over breakfast was rare on a working cattle ranch even at the best of times.  Now, with Murdoch away, his two sons had been required to shoulder his responsibilities as well as their own duties.  Although these additional obligations were mostly supervisory in nature, they still added hours to the working day.  So Scott was more than appreciative of this chance for a small respite.

The kitchen at Lancer was quiet and peaceful this morning, maybe too quiet.  Scott found himself studying the young dark-haired woman--the only other person present.  Her movements, as she went about tending to cook pots, serving food and washing dishes, were sure and practiced.  This wasn’t surprising since Teresa, while barely out of her girlhood, had many years of experience when it came to these domestic chores.   What was surprising, however, was the silence.  

This silence was totally out of character for Teresa.   Scott was familiar with his foster sister’s normal morning demeanor.  She faced the day bright-eyed, cheerful, and full of chatter.  Seeing her family at breakfast meant having the chance to ask questions and make comments on everyone’s plans for the day.  There had been more than one occasion when he and Johnny had appeared at the breakfast table obviously the worse for wear after a night in town.  In those cases, Teresa had always made an effort to tone down her usual bouncy conversation, and the twinkle in her eye made it very clear she knew exactly what was going on.

There was no twinkle in her eye now, and Scott was convinced that something was troubling the girl.

“What’s wrong, Teresa?”  He had already decided on the direct approach.

He made no reply to her first flustered denials, simply folding his arms across his chest and directing a calm look at the girl until she settled into a nearby chair.

“Oh, Scott, I guess part of it is that I’m just missing Murdoch…” her voice trailed off.

“And the other part?” Scott pressed just a little.

“I hate that he left feeling like we were all mad at him.”  There was concern in her face.  “He and Johnny disagreed about the decision to buy that bull and I know Johnny was disappointed, but it really wasn’t fair of us to blame Murdoch.  I wish there was a way I could let him know I was sorry for treating him like that.”

“I understand how you feel.”  Scott patted her hand.  “Murdoch does have a tendency to be inflexible and we felt sorry for Johnny.  I was a little hard on Murdoch myself.”  He sighed, “I just wanted my father to realize that as much as Johnny wants to succeed with this horse breeding business, what he needs even more is some sign that “his old man” recognizes his efforts.”

Scott stood up, grabbing his gunbelt which was draped over the back of his chair.  “If you’re worried about making things up to Murdoch, I’d advise having one of your homemade blueberry pies waiting for him when he gets back.  You know he can’t resist them.”

As he walked toward the door and slung his gunbelt around his waist, he asked Teresa, “Have you seen Johnny this morning?  I kind of thought he might stick around for breakfast, since we have a pretty light day today.  For a change, there aren’t any pressing demands sending us off at the break of dawn.”

“When I came down to the kitchen, he was just leaving.”  Teresa shook her head.  “I couldn’t talk him into waiting for breakfast.  He just stuffed a couple of leftover biscuits in his pockets, and said something about clearing the creek bed over on the south range.”

“There’s no urgency about that matter; the winter rains won’t be arriving for at least a month.”  Scott frowned.  “I think my little brother may have some things on his mind, too.  He does have a habit of using hard physical labor to occupy himself when something’s bothering him, and of avoiding me if he thinks I’ll try to get him to talk it out.”  He reached for his hat.  “I think I’ll just take a ride up to the south range, see if he’s ready for a nice brotherly chat.”

“Scott, stop by here before you leave.”  Teresa jumped out of her chair.  “I’ll make some sandwiches for you to take along.  He has to be starving with only a couple of biscuits for breakfast.”

The blonde man nodded his agreement and left to saddle his horse.

****************

The huge pile of brush and driftwood stacked on the bank of the dried-up creek bore witness to the amount of effort the young man had expended on this drudgery already.  As usual, he had seen no need to tether his mount and Barranca was grazing nearby, occasionally turning a bemused eye on Johnny’s strenuous activity.

Having taken no break since arriving shortly after dawn, his body was dripping with sweat.  He knew that removing his shirt and gloves would leave him vulnerable to the vicious thorns adorning the undergrowth, so he resigned himself to the uncomfortable feeling of drenched clothes sticking to his body.

Right now he stood, hands on hips, surveying the most difficult challenge he’d faced since beginning this little project.  Not really a bush--more of a small tree--it was growing sideways out of the bank and at such an angle that it would snag any flotsam in the creek and provide a fine bottleneck.  It also had a very secure root system which had resisted all attempts to dislodge it from the soil.  He knew, even as he began his next assault on the stubborn growth, that he should be trying other options, like using his hand shovel to break up the root system or possibly tossing a rope around it and using Barranca’s superior strength to accomplish the task.  But even as he came up with those ideas, he discarded them.  The whole point of this little exercise was to give him a chance to work out some of the frustrations weighing on his mind, and he wasn’t stopping now.

Planting his feet solidly in the slightly damp creek bottom, he wrapped both gloved hands around the tree limb and pulled with every ounce of muscle and determination he possessed.  For several moments the contest appeared to be a complete stand-off.  Suddenly, however, the previously unyielding base of the tree gave way.

The results were exactly what could have been expected, he realized, if he had actually put any thought into this whole procedure.  He sailed over backwards, still clutching the offending object and landed flat on his back in the only real mud hole left in this stretch of creek bed.  The whole tree, branches and roots included, came to rest squarely on top of him.

Thrashing around he yelled, “SON-OF-A…..”

He closed his mouth on the unfinished expletive and lay there for a moment in silence with his hand hovering just above his pistol.

When he heard Barranca nicker and an answering neigh, he relaxed, saying, “Well, Scott, you just gonna sit up there watching all day, or you gonna come help get this piece of overgrown sagebrush offa me?”

“Why, I’m just overcome with admiration at the way you beat that mighty stand of timber into submission.”

As Scott dismounted and climbed down the steep bank, he heard his brother mutter, “That ain’t all I’m gonna beat.”

The older man grinned.  Taking hold of a couple sturdy limbs, he heaved the tree aside and thrust one hand down toward his brother.  Johnny grasped the offered hand and allowed Scott to haul him to his feet.

Both men scrambled up the bank, and Scott gestured toward the piles of vegetation.  In a tone of disbelief he remarked, “You cleared all this out by yourself, just this morning?”

Johnny shrugged.  “Yeah, well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”  Slapping away some of the mud covering his backside, he gave a rueful grin.  “I guess I coulda thought out some of the details a little better though.”

Ignoring the mud, Scott threw an arm around his brother’s shoulder and urged him over towards a large fallen log.  “Have a seat, brother.  Teresa was worried about you getting hungry, so she sent some sandwiches for you.  They’re in my saddlebag.”

Johnny peeled off his muddy gloves and sat down.  “So you rode all the way out here just to deliver Teresa’s little picnic lunch?” he asked skeptically.

Tossing the small bundle into his brother’s lap, Scott said simply, “Nope!”

The younger man glared at him suspiciously, but decided that any confrontation could wait until he had satisfied the insistent demands of his stomach, which had been growling continuously for several hours.

Finally, having inhaled two of the three sandwiches Teresa had provided, Johnny heaved a sigh, “So I suppose you came on out here ta deliver one of your little sermons, huh, brother?”

“That’s right,” Scott’s expression was totally straight-faced.  “I’ve come to preach to you a little concerning the Eleventh Commandment.”

The curiosity in Johnny’s face was tempered with caution—he knew this was some kind of verbal trap.  “The Eleventh Commandment?”

“That’s right.”  Scott nodded, “The one that goes—Thou SHALT talk to your brother—especially when you’ve got something that’s obviously ripping you up inside.”  This drew a grudging grin from his younger brother, but neither man spoke until Johnny had finished the remnants of his lunch.

“Look, I know you’re trying to help, Scott, but I think this is something I gotta figure out on my own.”

As Johnny met his brother’s gaze, he was conscious of the details of his appearance:  his face and neck were scratched and bleeding, sweat plastered his hair and his clothes were caked with mud.

“Interesting method you’ve got there.  Just might work for you, too, if you don’t kill yourself first.” Scott couldn’t resist teasing him just a little.  “I can see where this would be a lot easier than telling anyone what’s bothering you.”  His expression became more serious.  “And if you’re not willing to tell just anyone, maybe you’d be willing to at least tell me.”

For a moment the issue hung in the balance, and then Johnny, almost in spite of himself, started talking.  “Hell, it’s not like there’s anything to be done about it.  It’s just something that’s sticking in my craw, and I don’t much like the way it makes me feel.”

“I assume this is about the disagreement you and Murdoch had about the breeding stock.”  Scott tried to sound encouraging.  “I know how much you wanted to get that stallion right now, but with some planning maybe…..”

“See, now I figured that was what you were gonna to think,” Johnny interrupted.  “I reckon that’s what everyone thinks, after the way I carried on about it.”  The younger man started to pace.  “It was a business decision and I shoulda been able to sit down and discuss it, you know.  That’s what I shoulda done, but instead I acted like that same hot-headed kid who rode in here two years ago: stubborn as the day is long, locking horns with the old man every time he turned around, willing to walk away from everything for the sake of that damn horse.”

“You mean,” Scott’s expression was thoughtful, “you’re not angry about Murdoch’s decision to postpone buying that stallion; you’re upset about your reaction to his decision?”

“The way I figure it, “Johnny just shrugged,  “there’s a lot of horses out there that would work just fine when it comes to improving my stock, but I only have one old man.”

“Well, little brother, I have to say you’ve surprised me; you really are growing up.”  Scott had to stifle a chuckle at his brother’s indignant reaction to this, admittedly, patronizing remark.  “I do have some advice for you, although I’m not sure you’re going to like it.”

With obvious misgiving, Johnny mumbled, “OK, go on.”

“When Murdoch gets back, you need to talk to him.  Tell him what you told me just now.”  There was genuine sympathy in the older man’s voice as he went on, “I realize you would rather put in a solid week wrestling with that undergrowth, but if you’re serious about making some changes, that’s how I’d start.”

There was a moment of silent understanding between the two men, and then Scott slapped his brother on the back.  “You know, seeing as how we’ve made such a good start on the day, we’ve almost finished this little chore.”

Johnny interrupted with mock belligerence, “What do you mean, “we”?”, but Scott continued without missing a beat.

“I say we finish up here and head into town for a beer, maybe get a jump up on our Friday night.”

Whatever comment the younger man was about to make was cut off as Scott pointed into the distance, where a rider was approaching at a flat-out gallop.  “Isn’t that Frank heading our way?”

“Something’s wrong!”  Johnny spoke the words, but both men were aware of the urgency indicated by the ranch hand’s hell-for-leather arrival.

They listened with growing dread as their fears were confirmed by Frank’s hastily blurted message: “Miss Teresa says to come back right away!  A wire came from Stockton.  It’s about Mr. Lancer……………”

 

Calling the Tune (Part 3)

Johnny recognized that it was worry and frustration causing his temper to be frayed, his nerves at their breaking point; worry and frustration, not the insidious, monotonous beat of the grandfather clock doggedly counting off the passing minutes.  In spite of that recognition, however, he had to fight off an almost overwhelming urge to employ his gun, the resulting barrage of bullets guaranteed to silence the irritating timepiece, permanently. 

He was all too aware of the swift passage of time.  Hours had passed since Frank had delivered his cryptic message from Teresa.  When he and Scott had returned to the hacienda, they’d found Teresa in a near panic.  Jelly’s well-intentioned attempts to reassure her were pretty ineffectual, since the grizzled old man was having difficulty hiding his own fears.

Mr. Downing, the manager of the Statesman Hotel in Stockton, had sent the wire.  Simply stated, the message explained that when Murdoch Lancer had left Stockton, he’d paid the amount necessary to hold his room for five days.  Now that the time was up, and he hadn’t returned, the hotel wished for some indication as to what was to be done with Mr. Lancer’s possessions.

The information contained in the telegram touched off a lengthy and sometimes heated discussion.  Nobody had any logical answers to the questions of where Murdoch might have gone or his reasons for leaving Stockton.

At one point Teresa turned to Johnny and said fiercely, “And don’t you dare try to tell me something stupid about Murdoch having a woman on the side or finding a hot poker game!”

One look at the girl’s troubled face was enough to make him stifle his angry response.  Instead he simply spoke her name, gently, “Teresa.”

“I’m sorry, Johnny.”  She had the grace to look shamefaced.  “I know you’re as worried as the rest of us.”

Finally it was left to Scott to summarize what they all knew and propose a strategy.  “Whatever plans Murdoch may have had, he would never have willingly missed attending that auction.  Something must have happened to prevent him from returning.  First light tomorrow, Johnny and I will leave for Stockton and search out any clues to his whereabouts.”

During the intervening hours, each person carried out the tasks they’d been assigned in preparation for Scott and Johnny’s early morning departure.

Now, as the clock chimed the hour, Johnny turned from the gun cabinet where he had been ransacking the drawers, filling an extra saddlebag with ammunition for both Scott and himself.

His brother was sitting at Murdoch’s desk, blonde head bent as he studied the papers before him.  It had been Scott’s idea to search Murdoch’s personal files for the names of any additional contacts in Stockton, people their father may have known but had never introduced to his sons.  From the defeated slump of his shoulders, Johnny guessed his brother wasn’t having much success.

Slinging the saddlebag over one arm, the younger man crossed the room and leaned one hip against the massive desk.  “So, anything?”

Scott shrugged and pushed the stack of papers to one side.  “There were a few unfamiliar names, which I’ve recorded, but nothing to indicate whether Murdoch still maintained a relationship with any of them.” He gave a wry grin.  “Certainly no mysterious letters confessing to ancient vendettas or plans to reconcile with old enemies.”

“Yeah, well, that one was a pretty close call.”  Johnny’s eyes were dark with memories.  “We just got to keep in mind, though, that Murdoch’s fooled us before.  Remember watching him wipe up the street with that stage robber in Blessing?  The old man’s pretty tough.”

“He is that,” his brother agreed readily, “and whatever trouble he’s found, he has to know he can count on us to find him and back him up.  Lancer takes care of its own.”

Just then, Teresa walked into the room.  “All your provisions are packed up and ready.”  It was apparent that the girl regretted her earlier displays of emotion and was determined to put on a brave front.  “Supper is on the table.  I assumed you’d want to eat early so you could get some sleep before leaving at daybreak.”

Both men got to their feet.  Scott gathered the notes he’d made, and Johnny hefted the loaded saddle bag to his shoulder.  They approached Teresa and each man placed a comforting arm around her as the three of them headed toward the kitchen. 

*********

With gritted teeth he placed his weight once again on the makeshift crutch and swung his good leg forward.  Shifting his body, he was then able to drag along the injured limb, splinted and tightly bound.  This arduous process had been repeated over and over again, yet as Murdoch looked back, he was almost overcome by a sense of hopelessness at the small amount of ground he’d been able to cover.

He told himself this slope was steep, and when he reached the top of the bluff the going would be easier.  He promised himself that he would stop, rest, and eat a piece of jerky as soon as he reached the large boulder twenty yards up the trail. He berated and threatened himself.  Finally, using all these means, plus a hefty dose of Lancer stubbornness, he reached the crest of the hill.

Murdoch recognized the extent of his exhaustion and knew that he needed an extended period of rest before continuing on.  Dropping the unwieldy saddlebags, which contained those items he considered essential to his survival, he lowered himself carefully to the ground.  He still couldn’t believe this hopeful undertaking had turned deadly in such a short span of time.

Only a few days ago he had arrived at Peter Newton’s ranch and found the man more than willing to entertain his offer of cash on the barrelhead for the bull he planned to sell.  Murdoch could well understand his motives when he realized that the gamblers who held Newton’s markers had become uninvited guests in the man’s home.  Newton introduced the men as Carl Evans and Del Monroe, and Murdoch had taken their measure even before offering his hand in greeting—a couple of tinhorns who fancied themselves as gunhands.

Old Matt had been right about the quality of the bull, however.  It was indeed a prime specimen and well worth twice the amount agreed on by the two men.  Upon receipt of a signed bill of sale, five hundred dollars in gold changed hands.  The rancher agreed to hold the bull until Murdoch could make arrangements for it to be transported to Lancer.

Murdoch had wanted to begin his journey back to Stockton immediately, but realized that it was inadvisable to set out on an unfamiliar trail so late in the day.  He had allowed himself to be persuaded to accept Newton’s hospitality for the night.  Seldom had he spent an evening in less agreeable company.  Neither the other guests, nor the host seemed bothered by the poor quality of the meal as long as their wineglasses remained filled.  After supper, when the brandy appeared, it was obvious poker was going to be the preferred entertainment. Both Evans and Monroe had been surly when Murdoch declined their invitation to join the game, but he was firm.  Declaring his intention of checking out the well-being of his new purchase, and then retiring early, Murdoch had made his farewells.

The barn felt far more welcoming than the well-appointed ranch house.  The company was more appealing also, Murdoch had decided, even if it was just his crowbait of a horse and superb new bull.

He’d smelled the tobacco before he heard the words.

“Old Rufus, there, is a real fine animal.”

The man was seated comfortably on a hay bale, puffing a battered-looking old pipe.  “He’s sired more prizewinning cattle than any two bulls in this whole stretch of the San Joaquin.”

“Buck Taylor, isn’t it?”  As Murdoch had extended his hand, he’d recalled Newton introducing this man as his foreman.

“Yep,” the weathered-looking old hand had returned a firm handshake, “I’m pleased to meet ya, Mr. Lancer.  From what I hear tell, you’ve got some pretty prime beef yourself, down Morro Coyo way.”

“Well, we’re hoping this fellow is going to help us keep things that way.”  Murdoch had found a seat on a nearby hay bale, and pulled out his own pipe and pouch of tobacco.

The two men had fallen into an easy conversation, discussing the trials and tribulations of cattle ranching as only two people with over forty years of experience between them could do.  As they talked, Murdoch gained a better understanding of some things that had puzzled him about this ranch and its owner.  Peter Newton was a younger man than he’d expected to find as owner of such a large ranch.  He couldn’t have been much older than Scott.  Also, the ranch, while large, showed definite signs of neglect.  It wasn’t apparent whether this neglect was caused by lack of money or lack of effort, but from Buck Taylor’s commentary, it appeared to be both.

Peter’s father, Ralph, who had spent twenty-five years building this spread, had been killed five years ago in a cattle stampede.  Buck was too loyal to make complaints about young Newton, but having met the man, Murdoch was able to read between the lines.  He had seen no signs of a deeply-felt love of this land, only the desire to spend any profits on whatever pleasures would bring the most enjoyment, gambling obviously among them.

After Taylor said his goodnights, Murdoch had stayed a while longer, enjoying the still evening.  His thoughts turned to his sons, and he was conscious of an overwhelming feeling of gratitude.  No man lived forever, but whatever his future, he had complete confidence in his sons’ love of Lancer and their ability to successfully manage the ranch.

When he’d left at daybreak the next morning, there had been no sign of his host or either of his two fellow guests.  Buck Taylor had seen him off, after recommending a shortcut guaranteed to save him half a day off his trip back to Stockton.

It was only after a half-day’s travel was under his belt that he’d begun to have suspicions about being followed.  The signs were subtle, but long years of experience on the trail had given him something of a sixth sense about these things.  Spotting a suitable outcropping of rocks, he’d pulled his horse behind it and waited quietly.  From his position, Murdoch had been able to hear the riders before he could see them.  Their voices were immediately recognizable as the tinhorn gamblers, Evans and Monroe.  They’d been engaged in a furious argument.  Evans was insisting that a man who’d paid five hundred dollars in gold for a bull had to be carrying a decent amount of cash, while Monroe seemed to be more concerned about the risks of attacking an armed man.  Scoffing, Evans denied being afraid of that “old man”.  It was precisely at this point, when they’d ridden past his hiding place, that Murdoch had urged his mount forward.

Gun leveled, he’d ordered them to stop and put their hands in the air.  While he’d kept them covered, they’d followed his orders, unbuckling their gunbelts and dropping them to the ground.

The situation had been completely under control---until the rattlesnake made its presence known.  Murdoch’s frantic horse had reared, throwing him from the saddle.  Then, in the next instant, the animal had set its foot down in a crevice and come down, landing hard on Murdoch’s leg.

Evans and Monroe may have thought this was their opportunity to overpower him.  Unfortunately for them, Murdoch had retained a firm grip on his pistol, and his first shot had taken out the menacing rattlesnake.  The would-be robbers hadn’t awaited any further gunfire; spurring their horses, they raced back down the trail.

Murdoch managed to crawl out from beneath the wounded animal.  He’d fought to withstand the pain, forcing himself to tend first to the needs of his horse.  An examination revealed a badly shattered foreleg and a single bullet put the animal out of its misery.  Turning next to his own injuries, he’d realize with a grim smile that “old crowbait” might have had the better bargain when all was said and done.

The leg was definitely broken, but at least it didn’t appear to be a compound fracture.  Using his small hand axe, he’d been able to split several branches and fashion a splint, which was bound tightly to his leg using fabric strips torn from a spare shirt.

His next step was to empty his saddle bag and repack it with only those items he deemed necessary for what he knew could be a long ordeal.  Thinking back over Buck Taylor’s description of the surrounding countryside, he’d realized that going forward would be a better plan than trying to return to Newton’s ranch.  He’d passed no signs of civilization since he’d started traveling this morning, but thought he remembered Buck mentioning a ranch somewhere in this vicinity.  Murdoch had decided his only chance was to force himself to make the journey, afoot.  Sitting and waiting for help that might never arrive was not an option.

And so, now, he gathered himself up once again.  From the vantage point of the crest of the hill, he stared into the distance.  There were no signs of human habitation visible, but he wouldn’t allow himself to rest any longer.  One foot in front of the other, over and over again.  One foot in front of the other, each painful step bringing him back to the land and the people he loved.

 

Calling the Tune (Part 4)

The Statesman Hotel was something of a venerable institution in Stockton.  For many of its twenty-five years, it had represented the highest standard of luxury that could be obtained in this California cattle town.  Stockton now boasted several up-to-date hotels with more impressive amenities, but anytime Murdoch traveled here, he stayed at the Statesman.  Scott remembered questioning his father during one of their business trips, curious as to why he preferred this more old-fashioned hostelry.  

“Well, Scott,” his slightly embarrassed father had admitted, “it goes back a lot of years.  When I was first getting the ranch started, any occasional trips to Stockton usually meant bunking out in the stable along with my horse.  If I was lucky, I could afford a flea-bitten room over one of the saloons.”  There was a rueful gleam in his eyes.  “Every time I’d pass this place, I’d promise myself that someday I was going to walk through those doors and ask for their best room.  I guess it was a symbol, somehow, of the success I was determined to find here in this land.”

“So,” Scott probed a bit further, “when you finally made it and walked through those doors, was that room worth it?”

“It sure was, Son!”  With a grin the older man had propelled them both into the lobby.  “It sure was.”

Walking through that lobby today, Scott thought he and Johnny probably resembled the saddle tramp that their father had felt like, back in those early days.  They were covered with equal parts sweat and dust, carrying with them the aroma that can only come from long days on horseback.

If it had been a stranger manning the front desk, they might have wasted precious time convincing him that two such disreputable individuals were suitable as potential guests, so Scott was relieved to spot a familiar face behind the counter.

Mr. Downing, long-time manager of the Statesman, was something of an enigma, in Scott’s opinion.  A polished and cultured man with superior abilities, he could easily have found employment in the most select hotels of San Francisco, Boston, New York or even the capitals of Europe.  Whatever his reasons for remaining in this somewhat backwater community, his presence insured that the excellent service and standards of the Statesman would be upheld.

“Welcome, gentlemen, I have been awaiting your arrival.”  At his barely perceptible signal, a bellman immediately relieved them of their saddle bags and bedrolls.  “While your bags are conveyed to your rooms, let us continue our discussion in my private office.”

Mr. Downing waited until both Lancer brothers were comfortably seated with drinks in hand—another example of his talent, since he’d remembered without asking that Scott drank whiskey, while Johnny preferred tequila—before continuing.

“I was most distressed to learn from Miss O’Brian’s telegram that Mr. Lancer’s whereabouts are still unknown, even to his family.”  Mr. Downing took a seat behind his desk.  “Naturally, I wish to offer any assistance I can to aid you in your search.”

Scott glanced at his brother and took his silence to mean that he wanted Scott to ask the questions for now.  “Mr. Downing, I take it that Murdoch gave you no clue as to his plans when he left Stockton.”

“That’s correct, sir.”  The man nodded.  “He gave instructions for holding his room, but he never mentioned any further details.”

“Well, he needed some means of transportation.” Scott noted, “We could start there.”

“If I may be so bold, Sir, I anticipated that you would need certain information for your investigation, so I took the liberty of making some inquiries.  Mr. Lancer availed himself of the services of Jenkins Livery Stable.  According to Mr. Jenkins, he hired a saddle horse and tack and left early in the morning.  Unfortunately, he gave no clue as to his destination and no one saw which direction he took when he departed.”

“So we know he’s on horseback.  Now, unless he was being deliberately deceptive, Murdoch didn’t make plans to leave until after he reached Stockton, so something that happened here must have changed his mind.”  Scott rubbed his chin.  “Perhaps he spoke to someone, an acquaintance or business associate, and they might have some explanation for his actions.”

“Indeed, Sir, I came to that same logical conclusion.  Naturally, Mr. Lancer didn’t spend all his time in this hotel.  However, he has always been very pleased with the quality of our amenities, and most evenings he entertained friends and associates here, either at the bar or in the dining room.” Mr. Downing handed over a document.  “This is a list of those individuals I can state with certainty had contact with your father during his stay here.”  He shook his head.  “I thought it best to leave any direct interrogation to you gentlemen, since I’m positive Mr. Lancer would want this matter to be handled with complete discretion.”

Johnny, who had been silent until this point, snorted at this statement, “What ya mean is Mr. Lancer would be mightily pissed off if everyone and his brother knew that he’d gone missing and his sons were tracking him down like he was a wet-behind-the-ears kid.”

Mr. Downing inclined his head and answered primly, “Just so, Sir.”

Scott exchanged a glance with his brother and they both rose.  “Mr. Downing, my brother and I both understand about Murdoch’s pride, and we don’t intend to do anything to unduly embarrass him, but we won’t let it stand in the way of what needs to be done.”  He extended his hand.   “Thank you so much for your efforts.  You have saved us a great deal of time.”

Johnny placed his empty glass on the desk.  “Yeah, thanks a lot, Mr. Downing.  And, by the way, that was the best tequila I’ve had this side of the border.”

“I’m most pleased to have been of assistance, gentlemen, “the manager answered, “and, Sir, I’ll be sure to put aside a bottle of tequila that you can take home with you, along with your father, of course.”

************

Later that evening, Johnny and Scott were sitting in Scott’s room studying the list Mr. Downing had compiled.  There were a few names they had already been able to cross off, men who were guests at the hotel.  None of those interviews had produced any results, however.  True to their word, they’d tried to be very circumspect in their little investigation.  As far as Johnny was concerned, they’d succeeded only because Scott pretty much handled all the questioning.  He had to admit, his brother was pretty smooth.

It was only as he was reading the list for the umpteenth time, that Johnny noticed a particular name.  “Hey, Scott, did you see that Jim Meadow’s name is on this list.”

“I guess I didn’t pay it any special attention.  It’s not so surprising.  The man operates a horse breeding business and has an office here in Stockton.”  Scott eyed the paper.  “Why?  You don’t think it had anything to do with your plans for that stallion, do you?”

“I don’t reckon it does.”  Johnny shrugged.  “They could have been talking about anything.  It just caught my attention, is all.”

Scott came to his feet.  “Well, the night is still young.  We could manage to track down a lot of these people, buy them drinks and see if we can find out what they talked to Murdoch about.”

*************

Johnny pushed his glass aside.  This tequila wasn’t anywhere near the quality of what he’d been served in Mr. Downing’s office, and even if it had been…..  With an effort, he sat up a bit straighter in his chair.  Together, he and Scott had seen the inside of almost every saloon in Stockton.  Johnny prided himself on his hard head, but he knew he’d better slow down if he wanted to get through the remainder of this evening on his feet.  Watching his brother out of the corner of his eye, he suspected Scott was also feeling the effects of this night’s drinking.  So far, however, all their efforts had been wasted.  Nothing they’d heard from any of Murdoch’s erstwhile companions had revealed any reason for him to have left town.

Right now, all their attention was focused on the wizened old codger sharing the table with them at the moment.  While Murdoch considered Matt Bryson to be an old and valued friend, neither Scott nor Johnny had ever spent any length of time with him. Their father had considerable respect for the old man’s experience and judgment, but they’d often heard other members of the Cattleman’s Association speak of Matt with derision, calling him an “old windbag” and complaining that he was the worst gossip in the state.

The man did seem to love to talk.  Johnny had to admit that.  Since the Lancer boys sat at his table and offered to buy him a drink, he hadn’t stopped, offering opinions on everything from state politics to which was the best looking barmaid in the place.  Since Scott’s diplomatic attempts to regain control of the conversation weren’t succeeding, Johnny decided a more heavy-handed approach was needed.

“So, Matt,” he spoke right over the top of the man’s words, drowning out whatever point he had been going on and on about, “you heard anything from Murdoch lately?”

The old man appeared not the least put out by Johnny’s lack of manners.  He launched into this new topic of conversation without missing a beat.  “Why, we spent a great evening jawing together a few days before the auction.”

What followed seemed to be a blow-by-blow repetition of their entire dialogue: reminiscing about days gone by, mourning the deaths of old friends, recounting past battles and sharing fond memories of certain “romantic adventures”--this last with a conspiratorial wink.  The two Lancer men had just about decided that this was another dead-end road, when Matt changed the subject abruptly.

“Course, now, we didn’t spend the whole time talking about things dead and gone, like a couple of has-beens with one foot in the grave.”  Matt shook his head.  “Your daddy told me how great things are going back at Lancer.  Why he was like to bust his shirt buttons, he was so proud of you boys and all.  Told me all about Johnny’s horse breeding business; thinks it may be one of the best in the state.  And he said Scott’s taken to ranching like he’d done it all his life.”

Murdoch’s praise, while heart-felt, had always been sparing, so this version of a proud father, bragging about his sons might have seemed exaggerated.  However, no one watching Matt’s earnest expression could have accused him of duplicity.  Scott stole a look at his brother’s face.  Johnny was staring down at the floor, but a little smile was playing around his mouth.  Even second-hand, this evidence of approval from his father was welcome.  Truth be told, it was welcome to both of them.

There was a loud interruption, as patrons at a nearby table exploded with raucous laughter.  It was evident by the snickers and pointed fingers that, whatever the joke, it came at the expense of Matt Bryson.  Noting the obvious hostility the two boys were displaying toward the unmannerly group, the old man waved it off.

“Now, don’t you pay no never mind to that bunch of hyenas.  They just don’t have no respect for seasoning and experience.”  He shook his head.  “Your daddy, now, he understood.  Why, when I told him about that bull of Pete Newton’s and how it would be a good buy even if it meant going a bit out of the way, you could just see him sitting up and taking notice.”

His sons were definitely sitting up and taking notice, right now.  “Matt,” Scott tried to sound casual, “what bull was that?”

Bryson went on to explain just what he had told Murdoch about Peter Newton’s desperate need for money and the high quality of the bull he was willing to sell.  He was forthcoming with all the details about the location of Newton’s ranch and the likelihood of a cash offer being accepted immediately.  It seemed the old man was finally winding down, though, and with thanks for the drinks and the company, he excused himself.  

********

“I don’t know.  It seems like an awful long trip just to make a good buy on a bull.  He could have found stock just as good here, once the auction started.”  Johnny was obviously skeptical.

The two men were sitting alone at the table, discussing what seemed to be their only lead so far.

“I agree Murdoch would have needed a pretty convincing reason for that kind of an undertaking.  He must have realized how difficult it would be for him, being on horseback for such an extended period of time, and he………”  Whatever Scott had been planning to say was cut off when a man called out their names from across the room.

“Hey there, boys,” Jim Meadows boomed out, sliding into an empty chair, “Quite a surprise, seeing you two in Stockton.  Murdoch never mentioned anything about you boys coming here.   I figured your father would be taking care of our transaction, if it happened, since he spoke to me about it.”

Johnny stiffened.  “Wait a minute!  Murdoch talked to you about our deal?”

“Sure, we talked about a week ago.  He asked if my offer was still open.”  Jim looked somewhat offended.  “I told him that when I made the offer, I’d said you could have a month to come up the five hundred dollars and the time wouldn’t be up for several weeks. And I’m a man of my word.”

“And what did he say?”  Scott posed this question.

“He said we might be able to make a deal; that he’d let me know in about a week.”  Jim replied.

Scowling, Johnny pushed back his chair and, without a word, strode out of the bar.  Scott took a moment to smooth things over with the bewildered horse breeder, then hurried after his brother.

***********

“It was a plain damn-fool idea!”

Scott was seated in one of the comfortable armchairs in his room.  There was no way he was going to get a word in edgewise while Johnny still had this head of steam up, so he resigned himself to watching and listening as his brother paced back and forth.

“A trip like that, alone and on horseback.  He could be laid up for a month if his back goes out on him.  Ya know, it’s been acting up lately.  And why didn’t he let someone know he was going?  Making us track him down like this.  And carrying five hundred dollars in cash; that’s just asking to get robbed.” He slammed one gloved fist into the palm of his other hand.  ‘What the hell was he thinking?”

“You know what he was thinking, Johnny.”  Scott’s voice was calm.

“Yeah, I reckon I do.”  The younger man collapsed into a nearby chair.  “And it means a lot, him going through all this because he wanted me to have that horse.”

“But,” he sat up a bit straighter, “I still ain’t letting him get away with it.  If I’ve gotta prove that I’m not that same headstrong kid I was a couple of years ago, well, he’s gonna do some growing up, too.”  He glared at his brother.  “He’s got sons to help take some of his load, and I don’t care how tough the old man is, I don’t want him taking risks like this anymore.”

“Brother, I couldn’t agree with you more.”  Scott reached over and placed a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.  “And when we find him, I’m going to be right there with you, making sure that message gets through.  Fireworks or not, we’ll face him together.”

**********

The cloudless sky and full moon allowed the little scene to be displayed in complete clarity.  The gray-haired man lay unmoving near the small stream.  Dried blood was present on both his head wound and the rock which had caused it.  His crutch, saddlebags and other burdens were scattered at the top of the hill.  It was clear he’d taken a misstep while following the animal tracks to the watering hole, and there was ample evidence of the damaged he’d sustained as he tumbled down the steep incline.  Yes, the scene was indeed displayed with complete clarity, if only someone had been there to see it.

 

Calling the Tune (Part 5)

There it was, hidden in the shadows of the shallow streambed.  Brief, quicksilver flashes revealed just a glimpse of the subtle markings that identified it as the prized, but illusive rainbow trout.  The tall blonde boy needed only the merest flick of his wrist to insure that the tiny lure, a combination of feathers, fur and twisted wire, danced lightly on the water’s surface, and it danced enticingly, inviting the further attention of its underwater prey.  The fish darted, feinted and darted again, each time approaching just a bit closer.  The boy held his breath as he continued his manipulations.  “Any minute now!” he thought.

In the utter silence of the small glen, the explosion of noise seemed as deafening as it was sudden: a loud crack, followed by rustling and creaking.  The startled fish disappeared from sight in less than a heartbeat.

“Damn it!”  The boy glared at the topmost branches of a nearby tree where the foliage was swaying and crackling.  “Billy, you make more noise than a damn bull in a china shop.”

“Uh, oh,” a dark head appeared, hanging upside down beneath the leaves and branches, “Ma catches you talking like that, you’ll be getting a mouthful of shaving soap.”

The head disappeared briefly, and after a moment or two of scrabbling noises, a boy dropped from the tree, landing lightly on his feet.  With dark curly hair, a face that boasted a faintly blackened eye, and a completely mischievous expression, Billy appeared to be just slightly smaller and younger than the blonde with the fishing pole.

“Guess you’d know more about that than I would.”  The older boy observed with a slightly superior smirk.  “I wasn’t the one who said her cabbage soup tasted like shit.”

“Well, how was I to know she was standing right inside the window?” the youngster protested. With a grimace he added, “I sure ain’t likely to make that mistake again soon.”

Billy watched as his older brother patiently reeled in the yards of fishing line, preparing to cast again.  “Aw, come on, Jake,” he objected.  “Let’s call the morning a bust and head back for breakfast.”

Without taking his eyes from the task at hand, Jake replied, “You’re always starving.  I just want to give it a couple more tries.”

“Well, you gotta suit yourself.”  A sly look came into the younger boy’s eyes.  “Seems to me, though, I heard Ma say something about Cindy Martin stopping by today to pick up some apple preserves.  If you got any notions of doing some hand-holding, I wouldn’t be spending a lotta time wrestling with stinking fish guts.  But maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe I ain’t seen you acting like a moon-struck calf every time Cindy smiles at ya!”

Not by the faintest flicker of an eyelid did Jake indicate that he’d even heard his brother’s taunting words, although he couldn’t prevent the beet-red blush from making its way up the back of his neck.  With meticulous care, he disassembled his rod and reel, laying them gently in the crevice of a large rock.

His movements still slow and deliberate, Jake leveled a measured look at his smirking brother, then turned and gazed for a moment at the icy, cold stream.  When he once again met his brother’s eyes, the challenge was unmistakable.

And, with a huge grin, Billy answered it.  “Anytime you’re ready, brother,” he sassed, with his own meaningful glance at the freezing water.  “Anytime!”

The obvious culmination of this little sibling conflict, however, was never to materialize.  It was Jake who initially noticed the faint moaning.  Billy, at first, tended to suspect his brother of some kind of subterfuge, but the younger boy was the one to locate the source of the disquieting sounds.

Growing up on a ranch had given both boys a fair amount of experience when it came to serious injuries, and they recognized immediately that this man was badly hurt.  Dropping to his knees, Jake took note of the splinted leg, nasty assortment of cuts and bruises, and blood-encrusted head wound.  The moaning had stopped and close scrutiny was required to determine that the man was, indeed, breathing.

The older boy completed his brief examination in the space of a few moments, and then spoke decisively, “You’re faster than me, Billy.  Run home and get Ma.  I’ll stay here and tend him, best I can.”  His brother headed for the trees and was out of sight before he’d finished his last sentence.

***********

Laura Preston didn’t consider herself to be a vain woman, with one exception.  She couldn’t deny the touch of pride she felt when engaged in her self-imposed regimen of one hundred brush strokes, morning and night.  In his more amorous moods, her husband insisted that her hair was as glorious now as it had been when he’d first laid eyes on her.  She was too clear-headed a woman to put much reliance on the words of a man in that particular situation, but her mirror didn’t lie or exaggerate.  Her hair was as thick and luxurious as it had been at fifteen, and twenty-five years later, there were still no strands of gray among the gold.  With the ease of long practice, she twisted her hair up and deftly secured it with a few hairpins.

It took only a few minutes to ensure that the bedroom was in apple-pie order, a task made even easier by the absence of one of its occupants.  Laura gave herself a mental shake.  There was no excuse for an old married woman—twenty-one years come November—to be air-dreaming like a love-sick schoolgirl.  Luke had only been gone a little over two weeks, and if everything went well on this business trip, he could return in ten days, maybe less.  Time enough, then, to let her imagination dwell on their personal and private reunion.  As she left the room, closing the door briskly, she determinedly set her thoughts on the busy day ahead and all that needed to be accomplished.

“Good morning, Dorcas.”  She greeted the large black woman with the ease of long familiarity.  Helping herself to a cup of coffee, she asked, “The boys back from their fishing trip yet?”

“I ain’t seen nothing of them yet, Miz Laura, “ Dorcas flashed a quick smile, “but they won’t be late for breakfast, not if Billy has anything to say about it.”

The woman nodded.  The boys had made an agreement.  They’d been allowed this early morning fishing expedition on the condition that they were back in time for breakfast and to begin their chores.  She knew that if Luke was here, there would be a definite penalty involved if they failed to live up to their end of the bargain, and normally Laura would wholeheartedly agree with that decision.  But, just now, she was so pleased to see them spending time together again after this past few weeks; she was willing to cut them just a little slack.

Her little reverie was cut short when the door was flung open and her younger son burst into the room.   The expression on his face, as Laura watched him panting, fighting to catch his breath, froze her blood.  Gripped by fear, fear of the worst nightmare a parent can face, she could only whisper, “Your brother?”

Billy shook his head vigorously, and the cold knot in the pit of her stomach dispersed slightly.

“We found this man—hurt really bad.  Jake stayed with him.”  His shoulders slumped slightly with the relief he felt at delivering himself of this responsibility.

His mother gave him a moment more, before asking for the needed details.  “All right,” her orders were concise and immediate, “Billy, go get two of the hands, and have them to hitch up the buckboard, load it up with extra hay.  Tell them to be ready to go with us.  Dorcus, put together a bundle of extra sheets and towels, while I get the box of medical supplies.”

A short time later, the wagon, accompanied by two men on horseback, rattled down the road.

**************

Jake was trying to recall everything his mother had ever taught him about the proper care of the injured.  He resisted the temptation to try moving the victim to a more comfortable position, but rather sat speaking to him calmly as he’d seen his mother do when tending to badly hurt, if unconscious patients.  “Mister, you try to rest easy there.  My brother’s coming back soon with my ma.  She’s real good at doctoring folks.  She’ll fix you up just fine.”

Finally, he noted with relief the wagon rumbling across the meadow.

Laura was at his side in an instant, and spared him a proud smile, before turning her attention to the fallen man.  Gentle hands probed and explored, and while she assessed his condition, another part of her mind was making note of other details:  an older man, fairly well-dressed, not the saddle bum she might have expected.

No matter, however, the first order of business was to attend to his injuries.  There wasn’t much she could do to improve on the improvised splint right now.  His leg appeared to be the only thing broken.  The head wound looked serious, but there was no way of knowing just how long he’d been unconscious.  Laura decided the best thing to do was get him back to the ranch as quickly and carefully as possible.  She would do what she could for him, while sending one of the hands to Fall Creek for the doctor.

**********

Some time later, she surveyed her efforts; satisfied that she’d done all she could.  The gray-haired gentleman was lying in their guest bedroom.  His clothing had been removed, and his wounds had been cleaned and dressed.  The somewhat battered splint had been replaced with a slightly less primitive arrangement.  Laura hoped that Doc Simmons would arrive sometime before nightfall.  The patient seemed to be resting easier, but she still worried about the effects of that head wound. 

Jake and Billy looked at her questioningly.  They’d been allowed to remain in the room and even help with some of the man’s care.  Laura was rather touched by the protective zeal they displayed.  Having been put in the position of possibly saving a man’s life, they were determined to put forth every effort to see it through to a successful end.

“Why don’t you boys sit with him for a bit?” she suggested, gathering up the leftover bandages.  “I’m going to see about some poultices and salves that might help prevent infection in some of those cuts.  You can let me know if he seems to be waking up.”

 

*****************

The pain seemed to come in waves. It was a great temptation to allow himself to just slip back into oblivion, an oblivion without pain, but that stubborn Lancer nature just wouldn’t let him.  His only reality right now was dealing with the pain; which was just as well, since his brain appeared to have lost the ability to deal with anything on a higher level.  No thinking, no reasoning, just a single-minded determination to endure the agony.

And so, bit by bit, inch by inch, he fought his way back.  But he wasn’t really back; that much was obvious.  A hundred different memories, not one he could latch on to, or make sense of.  It was an act of monumental effort to even open his eyes, and when he did so, he found them useless and unable to focus.  He closed them and then tried again.

This time he was rewarded with an image, both familiar and unrecognizable.  The two faces, one dark and one fair, were what he most wanted to see, and that confused him even more.

“Scott! Johnny!”  The whisper sounded hoarse even to his own ears.

Again his eyes tried to make sense of the memories swirling around.  His boys—but they were so young, too young.  He’d never known them at that age, but he drank in the sight. His voice heavy with longing, he repeated their names over and over, “Scott. Johnny.”

Slowly, reluctantly, he allowed himself to slip away once again, certain that this brief blessing would not last, trying to savor it while he could.

***********

“Ma! Ma! He woke up.”  Billy went to the door and called frantically.

The appearance of their mother had a calming effect on both the boys.

“He did wake up, Ma.”  Jake assured her.  “He opened his eyes, and he looked right at us.”

“But he thought we were someone else.”  Billy broke in, “He called us Scott and Johnny.”

Laura took up a fresh cloth and soaked it in cool water.  “Well,” she said soothingly, “whoever this Scott and Johnny may be, it’s my guess they care about our guest here, and he cares about them.” Gently she bathed his head and face.  “So we’re just going to have to work on getting him well.  You know how it is with a woman and her curiosity.  I just won’t be able to rest until I find out who it is this man loves so much that their memory is enough to bring him back from the edge of nowhere, their names the first thing on his tongue.”  She smiled tenderly, “Yes, we are just going to have to find that out.”

 

Calling the Tune (Part 6)

“Ya know, he’s got you doing it, too.”

Scott stared at his brother.  He realized that spending more than twelve hours in the saddle had taken its toll on them both, but for the life of him he couldn’t figure out what his brother meant.

In a slightly amused tone, Johnny added, “The old man, he’s got you doing it, too.

“OK,” Scott was losing patience now, “he’s got me doing what?”

“Well, it’s like this: we’ve been hours in the saddle, worrying about Murdoch, watching every inch of this trail for any sign that he’s in trouble. But even after all that, I can tell you’ve been doing the same thing as me since we rode onto the Newton spread.”

“And what would that be?”  Scott was showing a bit more curiosity now.

“If I asked, I bet you could give me a list of every thing on this place that wants tending to: fences down, roads washed out, bridges in need of repair…” Johnny cocked his head.

“That herd we saw was on overgrazed range and needed to be moved to higher ground or have extra feed brought in.  Several streambeds needed clearing, and that gully south of here, needs to be fenced.”  The older man easily added more items to the list.  “But, I still don’t get your point, I’m afraid.”

“Don’t ya see?  No one sent us out to check for this stuff.  This isn’t even our land.  It’s just plain force of habit with us now.  We don’t even think about it; just keep that running tally in our head of everything that needs doing, no matter what.”  The younger man’s grin grew broader.  “There’s no question about it.  We’re ranchers now, right down to the bone.”

“I guess I can’t argue with that logic,” Scott replied, “and the rest of your point?”

“Like I said, the old man did it.”  Johnny shrugged.  “He took a “reformed” gun hawk and a”--pausing with a twinkle in his eyes--“a “Boston gentleman” and made ranchers out of’em.”

This drew an answering grin from the blond, “I’d like to think we offered some basic skills for him to build on.”

“Oh, yeah,” the dark head nodded, “we provided the arms and legs and guts.”

For a few moments there was silence, as both men recalled their first meeting and recognized how far they had all come since that day.

The sun was just setting, and for some time now they had been riding along a high ridge.  From their vantage point, the Newton ranch house was easily visible, although it would be well after dark before they would arrive there.  If the two brothers had spoken their thoughts aloud, they would have been amazingly similar:  For a few more hours, they could continue to hope that there would be some kind of good news when they reached their destination.  And right now, it seemed that hope was all they had.

**********

“I’m real sorry, gentlemen, but I can’t tell you much more than that.”  Peter Newton wasn’t drunk, not yet.  His slightly slurred speech, however, gave a very clear indication of where his evening was headed.  “The last time I saw your father was the night before he left.  We invited him to play some cards with us, but he said he wanted to turn in early.”

“The three of us pretty much made a night of it,” with a nod of his head, the ranch owner indicated Monroe and Evans who sat in the midst of their interrupted poker game.  “I’m afraid we were all pretty much sacked out the next morning.  I’d have expected Murdoch Lancer to have been halfway back to Stockton before any of us saw the light of day.”

Johnny’s sidelong glance met his brother’s.  The short time they’d spent in this man’s presence had gone a long way toward explaining the condition of the ranch, the neglect that had been evident in so many ways.  For a rancher, the day’s work began at dawn, and it didn’t look like Newton had risen with the sun for quite some time.

“We appreciate your help, Mr. Newton,” Scott was diplomatic, as always.  “Would there be someone else we could talk to, someone who may have seen our father leave that morning or have knowledge of his plans?”

“Sure, sure, I’ll send for him.”

While Newton walked to the door and began bellowing various names out in the courtyard, Johnny took stock of the other guests in the room.  The two gamblers had been drinking steadily since being introduced earlier.  There was something about them that was causing warning bells to go off in his head.  Even as he watched them, he surprised a look in Del Monroe’s eyes, a look that mixed recognition and fear.  Possibly the man had identified him as Johnny Madrid, but that didn’t explain his reaction of near terror.  Many people might be uneasy in the presence of a known gunfighter, but this man was almost breaking out in a sweat.

Well, instinct told him it might be a good idea to give this man something to sweat about.  Summoning the lazy, relaxed and totally intimidating smile that only Johnny Madrid could produce, he watched with satisfaction as Monroe blanched and took a hasty gulp of his drink.

By this time, Newton’s summons had been answered.  As a rugged-looking older man entered the room, he said, “This is my foreman, Buck Taylor.”  Indicating the Lancer men, he continued, “These gentlemen are Murdoch Lancer’s sons.  Evidently Mr. Lancer hasn’t returned to Stockton and his sons are trying to find him.  See what you can do to help them out.”

Buck Taylor swept the room with a glance, and that one glance revealed all he needed to know.  The room and its occupants were in what had come to be their usual state of debauchery.  His employer had obviously lost interest in the whole affair and was eager to return to his nightly routine of drinking and poker.  Finally, he looked appraisingly at the two worried, travel-worn men standing before him.

“It’s a pleasure to meet both of you.  Your pa and I spent a real nice evening talking cattle and such.” Buck extended his hand and wasn’t surprised to receive a firm handshake from each.  “I’ll be happy to do anything I can to help out, but right now you two look like you could stand a good meal and a cup of coffee.  If you’d like to come out to the kitchen with me, I’ll fix you up.”

Realizing that their host was once again engrossed in his gambling, Scott and Johnny accompanied the foreman without a second thought.  

************

After leading them to the kitchen, Buck was a good as his word, filling several large bowls with steaming hot chili.  His murmured warning—“This is just a mite spicy.”—brought an anticipatory gleam to Johnny’s eyes.  Scott, mindful of a number of previous experiences, was a bit more wary.  Evidently, however, his Boston-bred taste buds had become a bit more tolerant of fare his brother described as muy caliente, because he found himself enjoying the fiery dish very much. 

Both men enthusiastically accepted the offer of seconds, and while they ate, Buck recounted all the details he could remember concerning their father’s stay.  The most pertinent piece of information seemed to be Murdoch’s decision to use the shortcut recommended by the foreman.

“If he took the trail I mentioned, you wouldn’t have seen any sign of him from the main road, “Buck explained.  “Tomorrow, at first light, we can start tracking him.  It’s a rough stretch of country, but I know it like the back of my hand.”

“We’d be grateful for your help.”  But even as Scott accepted Buck’s offer, he was regarding his brother with intense scrutiny.  “Johnny, something’s eating at you.  What is it?”

“Oh, it’s just those two yahoos in there.  I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a snake in the woodpile, maybe two.”  The younger man shrugged.  “They’re scared, especially that Monroe, and I’m not sure why.”

“I noticed that, too.  He’s scared of something—or someone.”

Johnny heard the question in his brother’s voice.  He also knew that Scott wouldn’t press him on this in front of a stranger.  After a moment’s consideration, he reached a decision.  “Yeah, Scott, from the look in Monroe’s eyes, he might’ve seen me before as Madrid.”

Turning to Buck Taylor he added, “I went by Johnny Madrid, back in the days when I was selling my gun, down in the border towns.”  Those blue eyes made no excuses, just waited for the other man’s reaction.

Taylor just nodded matter-of-factly, “Well, I reckon you must of developed some pretty good instincts living that life--hopefully good enough to help you find your pa--so we should probably pay attention to them.”

It was clear that Scott also took his brother’s concerns very seriously.  “Buck, what can you tell us about Evans and Monroe?”

“They’ve been here a couple of weeks now.  The boss got into a poker game in town and lost over $500 to them.  He said they could stay here until he got the cash together to pay them off.”  There was pain in the old cowboy’s face as he admitted, “That’s why old Rufus got sold, even though it’s just another step toward running this place into the ground.”

Scratching his head, Buck went on, “I kinda figured they’d be long gone once they got their money, and they did leave for a while.  The day your pa left, Evans and Monroe saddled up and left, too.  But come suppertime, they rode on back and fast-talked themselves into another invite to stay.  They haven’t done much but drink and play poker since--them and the boss.”

“Well, I have to say that I trust Johnny’s hunches, and their actions the day Murdoch left are certainly suspicious.”  Scott looked around the table at the other two men.  “So what is our next move?”

“We smoke’em out.”  Johnny sounded confident.  “They get spooked enough, and they’re likely to give away the game, whatever it is.”

“I’d say Monroe is pretty well “spooked” right now, “Scott observed.  “After your little performance in there, the man looked like a strong breeze could have knocked him over.”

“Good!  I reckon it’s time to stir the pot just a little more.”

As a smile, predatory and unwelcome, crossed the ex-gunhawk’s face, Buck Taylor found himself thanking God that it wasn’t directed at him.

“What are you going to do?”  Scott’s question was aimed at his brother’s retreating back.

Johnny paused before leaving the kitchen.  “Oh, just sit in on a friendly little poker game.”

***********

The interior of the barn was draped in shadows—pitch-black in its farthest corners.  A cloudless sky and full moon, however, provided just enough light for Del Monroe to locate his saddle and tack.  A clattering noise came from behind him, and he whirled, gun drawn.

“Jesus, Del, it’s just me.”  Carl Evans retrieved the bridle he’d dropped and directed a scornful look at his terrified partner.  “Don’t know why I agreed to this fool plan anyway, taking off in the middle of the night.”

Monroe holstered his pistol and returned to his task.  “I told ya why we gotta get out of here, Carl.  I told ya; he’s Johnny Madrid!”

“Yeah, yeah, so you said,” Evans grabbed a saddle blanket and smoothed it over his horse’s back, grumbling all the while.  “But I still say, why would Madrid be up here, trailing around after some rancher, claiming to be his kid?”

“I don’t know,” even as he talked, Monroe never ceased his feverish activity, “but, once you’ve seen Madrid in action—well it ain’t something you forget.  I watched him take out two pistoleros in Sonora, nailed’em both before they could even clear leather.”

He actually paused for a moment, recollecting this alarming evidence of the gunfighter’s expertise, but was spurred back into motion by the even more disturbing memory of Madrid’s presence earlier at the poker table.

It was nothing he could put his finger on, he realized.  Madrid had sauntered into the room and casually taken a seat at the table.  Welcomed by Newton, he’d joined them for a drink or two, and with a sleepy smile that never quite reached his eyes, he’d made several comments that had frozen the blood in Del’s veins.

“Real good to see fellows like you, know how to relax and enjoy yourselves.  I always say a man’s gotta live each day like it was his last.”  Then, once, the gambler had laid down his cards, including two pair—black aces and black eights—and Madrid had chuckled, “Why, look at that! That’s the hand old Bill Hickok was holding when Jack McCall gunned him down.  They’re calling it the dead man’s hand now.”

Thinking about it now, he couldn’t stop his fingers from shaking.  He realized that Carl was still grousing about their plans to flee.  Monroe’s fear turned to anger.  “What choice do we have,” he snarled.  “That old man was still alive when we left him out there.  What if he’s still alive when they find him?  What if he tells them, tells Johnny Madrid what we tried to do?”

“And just what did you try to do?”

The voice came from one of those pitch-black corners.  As he stepped forward, the moonlight glinted off his blond hair, but it was the gleam of the rifle he was holding that held their gaze.

Before either of the gamblers could speak, the jingle of spurs drew their attention to the dark-haired man walking out of the shadows, and yet a third man stepped into view, blocking the doorway to the stable yard.

“My brother asked you a question.”  The voice cracked like a whip, and indeed, both men flinched as if feeling the sting of a lash.

“Go on, gentlemen,” Scott advanced on them, the rifle never wavering.  “Let’s hear more about the circumstances that led you to leave our father out there somewhere, alive or not.”

“It wasn’t our fault.  We never touched him,” Evans whined.  “We were just following him down the trail and he must of got the wrong idea.  The old man got the drop on us and made us ditch our guns.  That’s when a rattlesnake spooked his horse.  He got thrown and the horse came down on his leg.”

“And you just left him out there?”

In his abject panic, Monroe didn’t know which way to turn, but decided continuing this conversation with the blond brother was the lesser of two evils. “We didn’t have no choice.  He still had his gun, killed that rattler with one shot.  He could of put a bullet in us too, if we’d stayed around.”

“You never told anyone or went back to check on him?”

“No, we….we…” his voice simply trailed off as he realized the impossibility of making a plausible excuse.

In the complete silence that followed, the sound of the gun being cocked had all the impact of a cannon blast.

“JOHNNY!”

He fought not to hear, to just ignore the voice, but he knew it was no use.  “Dammit, Scott,” he thought, “how do you do it?  Even with that Boston accent, you sound just like the Old Man.”

Slowly, deliberately, he released the hammer and holstered the revolver.  “What if we go out there, and we find he’s dead, brother?  What then?”

Scott sought and held his brother’s eyes.  “Then no matter how far they go, no matter where they hide, we’ll find them.  But right now, we need to find Murdoch.”

Buck relieved the prisoners of their guns and locked them in the old smoke house.  Returning to the barn, he found the Lancers in the process of saddling their horses.  “We should be fine on the trail in this bright moonlight,” he told them.  “I recognized the description of the rock formation where they left him, and it’ll probably be dawn by the time we arrive there.”

He paused just once before he left to wrangle his own horse.  “So far your pa has survived everything from those two sidewinders to a real rattlesnake.  Whatever you do, I wouldn’t count him out just yet.  The man has grit.”

And so, once again, the two brothers shared one thought--that once again they could continue to hope and once again, that hope was all they had.

 

Calling the Tune (Part 7)

“Catherine.”

It was a pattern that had been repeated numerous times during the long night:  The gray-haired man, after lying silent and motionless for several hours, would suddenly seem to waken.  This hopeful sign was deceptive, however.  Those ice-blue eyes didn’t contain a spark of awareness, reflecting only pain and confusion.

“Catherine.”

The man had called out this name several times during his periods of wakeful delirium.  Perhaps it was only Laura’s imagination, but she was convinced that on each of those occasions he’d looked directly at her with just a hint of recognition.  Billy and Jake had insisted that the same was true of their brief encounter with the patient.

Doc Simmons had indicated that this was only to be expected.  During his visit the previous day, he’d set the patient’s broken leg and encased it in a cast, remarking that it was best to do so while the man was unconscious and beyond the reach of pain.

After inspecting and approving Laura’s treatment of the extensive cuts and abrasions, he’d admitted that there was little he could do by way of further treatment.  “Head wounds are tricky,” he’d emphasized while packing away his equipment.  “He could wake up tomorrow, as good as new, or remain comatose for the remainder of his life.”  The most likely scenario, in the doctor’s opinion though, was exactly what seemed to be happening: sporadic periods of wakefulness, which would hopefully become more frequent, during which the patient would begin to regain his senses.

The doctor’s only other instructions were to watch for any symptoms which might indicate internal injuries, not unlikely considering the severe beating his body had received.  Aside from that, he’d noted, the man was suffering from exhaustion and the effects of exposure, which could only be remedied through rest and careful nursing, if he lived that long.

With his brief wakeful interval over, the man subsided once again into a state that bore some resemblance to peaceful rest.  Laura could only hope that this was truly the case.

She had been standing by the bedside, holding the stranger’s hand, offering encouragement and reassurances.  Now, the exhausted woman settled back down in the rocking chair and regarded the first glimmer of dawn through the lace curtains.

Gently stroking the burnished wood beneath her arms, she reflected that this wasn’t the first night she had spent sitting, half-asleep, in this worn rocking chair.  The chair had been a gift from Luke.  A tender smile upon her lips, she recalled his unbridled enthusiasm when she’d informed him of her first pregnancy.  Although money was scarce, nothing would do but that he find a way to provide her with the finest possible rocking chair.  He’d stuck a deal with a neighbor who was also a skilled carpenter.  For three back-breaking weeks, Luke toiled, completing all the chores on his own ranch, and then putting in the extra hours he’d agreed to in exchange for this beautiful piece of furniture.

Laura had spent many a sleepless night in this chair when Jake was a baby, but it was her second-born who had required hours of rocking, night after night after night.  As an infant, Billy had suffered from frequent bouts of colic, and his desperate mother had feared she would never again enjoy a full night’s sleep.  With a satisfied smile, Laura noted that the memories of those days had actually proved useful.  Her younger son had a tendency to be more than a bit cocky.  When his mother decided he was getting a little too big for his britches, she’d reminisce loud and long about those endless lights with a squalling infant.  Young Billy seemed to deflate on the spot, and for a few days at least, displayed a much more humble demeanor.

After insuring that the injured man was still resting as comfortably as possible, Laura prepared to leave the room.  The household would be awake now, and with her husband away, there were additional responsibilities to be undertaken.  She would arrange for someone to sit with the patient while she was fulfilling her other duties.

Judging by the familiar sounds of brotherly conflict emanating from the kitchen, Laura knew two things:  Both of her sons were awake and Dorcas was not currently presiding over her domain.

“Hey!  I told you I called that last stack of flapjacks!”

“Well, I guess you should’a been a little quicker.  If you’d drug yourself outta bed earlier, you’d of had a better chance of filling that empty belly of yours.”

“Boy, you keep up that sass and you’re going to be wearing those flapjacks, not eating’em.”

Deciding a quick intervention was her wisest course, Laura entered the room with a cheerful, “Good morning.”  She was rewarded by a pair of guilty expressions, a mumbled, “Morning, Ma.”, and a complete cessation of hostilities.  There was no need to glance around the kitchen to confirm Dorcas’s absence; the boys would never have indulged in such behavior if the housekeeper had been within earshot.

Helping herself to a cup of coffee, Laura simply nodded as Jake explained that Dorcas was helping out at the cookshack.  Old Clem, who did the cooking for the ranch hands, was feeling under the weather.

“Dorcas said she left you some breakfast warming in the oven,” he concluded.

During this conversation, Billy had silently divided his large stack of pancakes in half and slid one portion onto his brother’s plate.

It didn’t take long for both boys to inhale the remainder of their breakfasts, but they sat with their mother as she enjoyed hers in a more leisurely fashion.

Finally she pushed back her plate and Jake asked, “Did you check on the stranger this morning, Ma?  Is he doing any better?”

“He’s no worse, maybe a little better.”  Laura stared into the contents of her coffee cup.  The effects of her sleepless night seemed to weigh on her suddenly, and she felt her shoulders slump.  “He passed a quiet night, woke up several times, but nothing he said made sense.  Still, he didn’t show any signs of internal---“

“You mean you sat up with him all last night?”

Laura looked up, startled at being interrupted by her normally polite older son.  “Yes, the doctor feels it’s important to keep a close eye on his condition.  He needs to be watched carefully.”

“Yeah, but ya should have asked for some help, instead of doing it all yourself.”  Jake was standing over his mother now, arms crossed over his chest, his disapproval evident.

Never one to be ignored, Billy made his views known, too.  “Yeah, Ma, you look worse than old Clem when he crawls home after a night in town.”  Suddenly aware that this wasn’t the most appropriate description, the younger boy once again lapsed into silence.

“Ma, you’ve gotta remember that I’m not---“ Jake paused and glanced at his brother---“we are not little kids anymore.  We can help take care of him, if you tell us what to do.”

Billy didn’t comment, but came to stand next to his brother.  Both of them regarded their mother with grim determination.

Jake continued, “If Pa was here, he’d make sure that you got some help instead of letting you wear yourself out doing all the nursing.”

“Yeah, and since Pa ain’t…” Billy hastily corrected himself, “I mean, since Pa isn’t here, we need to be the ones to take care of ya.”

Laura had remained silent during this impassioned tirade, partly because of the lump in her throat.  She knew they wouldn’t be little boys forever, but in the past week, both had done considerable growing up.  They were young men, caring and responsible, and she was conscious of an overwhelming feeling of pride.

Clearing her throat, she said briskly, “Well, I guess you boys are right.  I’m just not used to having two extra men around the place to depend on.  I’ll tell you what, maybe you can go sit with our guest for a bit.  That way, after I give the work crews their orders, I can have a bit of a rest.”

Her sons agreed eagerly, and she was pleased that they left the room before she had to wipe away the first of the silly, sentimental tears that filled her eyes.

**********

Both of Buck’s predictions had proven accurate.  They’d had no difficulty following the trail by the light of the full moon, and when the sun rose, they had just reached the site of Murdoch’s confrontation with Evans and Monroe.  All the pieces to the puzzle:  the carcass of the horse with a bullet in its head, the discarded gun belts and the splintered shards of wood lying next to a torn-up shirt, gave a clear picture of the events of a few days past.

It was left to Buck to put into words what was plain to them all.  “Must of broke his leg, looks like.”  He stared at the hatchet which had been left where it had fallen.  “He fixed up a splint, made a crutch and put together what supplies he could carry.”

“He can’t have gotten far with a broken leg.”  Scott looked to the other men for confirmation of this obvious fact.

“It’s been four days,” was all Buck said, but both Lancer men knew of the inevitable effects of prolonged exposure and exertion.

Tracking the wounded man was easy.  A blind man could have done it, as Johnny pointed out.  What wasn’t easy, especially for Murdoch’s two sons, was the dawning realization of just what an agonizing ordeal this must have been for the injured man.  No one put the thought into words, but it became increasingly clear to them all as they covered mile after mile of fairly rugged terrain.

Johnny observed the bleak expression on his brother’s face, recognizing that it mirrored his own worry and fear.

“Hey, Scott, at least we’ve got a real clear trail to follow.  I remember when me and Murdoch was tracking you through that desert outside of Tonopah.”  The younger man’s soft drawl was insistent, demanding his brother’s attention.  “Man!  You talk about miles and miles of the meanest terrain God ever gave to a mountain goat!  We figured we had about as much chance of finding you as a snowball in hell.”

“Must have seemed like a pretty impossible situation, all right.”  With his casual answer, Scott acknowledged his brother’s efforts to share a little optimism.  “But, as I recall, you still managed to make a pretty timely arrival.”

“Yep, I reckon dropping that Luke Sickles before he could plug ya with his rifle was pretty timely. “  Johnny managed to summon up a bit of a grin.  “Course, as I recall, Murdoch wasn’t best pleased with you for putting us to all that trouble.”

“You could certainly say that.”  Scott remembered quite vividly the session he’d had with his father after their return to the ranch.  Murdoch had put him forcibly in mind of his former commanding officer, as he delivered a measured reprimand for each of his son’s offenses:  lack of patience—since a wait of only a day or so would have ensured the safety of a stagecoach ride, disregarding well-informed advice—since numerous people had warned him about the dangers of this particular desert, and a lack of foresight—since at the very least, a wire alerting his family of his intentions would have improved his chance of being rescued.

And Scott had accepted this stern dressing-down with the same respectful acquiescence that he’d shown as a green, young lieutenant.  He did so partly because, in hindsight, his father’s assessment of the situation was correct.  Even now, Scott couldn’t regret one result of his actions: a lonely, troubled little boy was now exceeding all expectations in a well-respected boarding school.  But he’d realized that if his father and brother had been less able when it came to “putting a few pieces together”, or Johnny had been slower on the trigger, the outcome would have been much different.

And, partly, his acceptance came from the memory of Murdoch’s face as he led that posse toward the abandoned mine and found his older son, miraculously unharmed.  Their father-son relationship had still been fairly new and fragile, but Scott truly believed his father’s reproof was an indication of how much he cared.

“You’re sure right about that, brother.”  Answering Johnny’s sly grin with his own rueful smile, Scott increased their pace a bit more.  “Our father was more than willing to point out the error of my ways back then.  So, after we find him and see him restored to perfect health, I intend to return the favor.”

“Now, that’s a real good plan, brother, but you’re gonna have ta stand in line, because I aim to----“Johnny broke off, suddenly intent on an area next to the trail where the undergrowth had been disturbed.  “Scott!”

“I see it.”

All three men dismounted and examined the steep incline.  It was Scott who spotted the saddlebags a few feet from the edge.

“You boys head on down there,” Buck gave quick instructions.  “There’s an easier grade up ahead.  I’ll lead the horses and meet you at the bottom.”

In a matter of moments, Scott and Johnny had scrambled to the bottom of the sheer slope.  By the time Buck arrived, they had conducted a quick search of the area, finding the bloodstained rock almost immediately.

“Somebody found him, all right,” Buck noted.  “Wagon’s been through here.  You can see where they loaded him up.”

“But, who loaded him up?”  Scott asked sharply.  “And where did they take him?”

“I think maybe I know.”  Buck looked across the meadow.  “If I’m right, your pa’s in good hands.”

Climbing on his horse, he added, “If I’m right, he’s only a few miles away.  Follow me!”

 

Calling the Tune (Part 8)

The contrast between Newton’s ranch and the Preston spread couldn’t have been more apparent.  It encompassed everything from the healthy stock—both cattle and horse flesh—in the sturdy corral and barn, to the spacious, attractive ranch house surrounded by a well-maintained garden.  Certainly there was no more stark difference than that between the dissolute, unhealthy demeanor of Peter Newton and the pleasant manner and intelligent eyes of the woman who stood waiting on the porch.

“Why, Buck, what a pleasure seeing you in these parts.  It’s been way too long since you’ve stopped by.”  Laura’s smile welcomed her old friend and betrayed only the most well-bred curiosity as it included the two strangers at his side.  The smiled dimmed a bit, however, in the face of Buck’s serious expression.

“I’m afraid this ain’t just a social visit, Laura.”  The foreman removed his hat and swiped at his heated brow.  “We’ve been tracking a wounded man and it looks like maybe he fetched up here.”

“He did indeed; the boys found him down by the stream, hurt pretty badly I’m afraid.”  Concern shaded her voice as she asked, “Is he a friend of yours, Buck?”

“You could say that, I guess.  His name’s Murdoch Lancer and these two, here, are his sons.”  Nodding toward the blond woman, he added, “Boys, this is Mrs. Preston.”

Comprehension dawned, and it was a statement not a question when she said, almost to herself, “You must be Scott and Johnny.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the tall blond, grave yet courteous, stepped forward, “we appreciate the help you’ve given our father.”

The dark-haired man was more impetuous, rushing into speech.  “Just how bad off is Murdoch?  We figured he got a broke leg, and then he drug himself over all those miles, and that fall he took---”

“I’ll take you to him.”  Laura interrupted this litany, which was taking on a tinge of desperation.  The reassurance he needed could only come from seeing his father, alive and breathing, with his own eyes.  There would be time later for explanations.

The men followed her into the house, and without any further conversation, she led them to the guest bedroom.

The silence continued as they all stepped inside.  A woman, red-haired and wearing an apron, was seated in the rocking chair.  In answer to her enquiring look, Laura gave a discreet signal, and she left, closing the door behind her.

As shocked and dismayed as Murdoch’s sons were by the sight of him lying there, broken and bruised, they were heartened by the steady rise and fall of his chest, and, somehow, being in his presence reminded them of the strong, stubborn spirit this man possessed.  Whether fighting for his ranch or fighting for his life, Murdoch Lancer was a force to be reckoned with.

Laura watched the two men approach the bed. Johnny took one of his father’s hands in both of his, while Scott contented himself with a firm grip on his brother’s shoulder.

Now came the explanations, as the woman gave the results of the doctor’s initial examination.  “So, it’s a matter of watching and waiting,” she concluded.  “His periods of wakefulness are coming more frequently now, although he’s still confused and disoriented when he does come around.  It could be helpful having familiar faces to help him make sense out of what he’s seeing.”

Buck had been standing near the door, turning his hat round and round in his hands.  Now he spoke, “Laura, maybe I’d better go see about---“

Just then the door opened and Billy and Jake stepped into the room.

“Ma, we just got back from checking on the work crew at the gully and---“Billy broke off at the sight of the Newton’s foreman.  “Hey, Buck!  I saw your horse outside.  Are you---“

He was silenced by a nudge from his brother who was staring at the bedside.

“Boys,” their mother put an arm around each of them, “it seems our guest has a name.  He’s Murdoch Lancer, and these two gentlemen are his sons.”

 Stepping back, she addressed the two Lancer men, “Billy and Jake, here, found your father during an early morning fishing trip.  They’re responsible for getting him the help he needed.”

Crossing the room, Scott extended his hand to each boy. “We are very grateful to both of you.”

Shyly, but remembering their father’s admonition—“When you’re meeting a man, boys, stand up tall, look him straight in the eye, and give him a nice, firm handshake.—they shook hands in the most dignified manner they could manage.

Johnny came to stand beside his brother.  “Our old man would have died if you hadn’t found him out there.  I don’t reckon “thank you” is enough, but we sure do mean it.”

“Really, Mr. Lancer, we’re just glad we was there to lend a hand,” Jake said earnestly.  “We know how we’d feel if our pa was hurt, and we’d sure want somebody to help him.”

“Still, we’re beholden to ya.”  A quicksilver smile lit his somber countenance as he went on, “But, “Mr. Lancer”, that’s my old man.   I’m Johnny and my brother, here, is Scott.”

Billy’s eyes widened a bit at this and he burst out, “That’s why he called us Scott and Johnny.  He musta thought we was you two.”

For a moment Scott’s face also relaxed a bit as he took in the amazing resemblance between the two sets of brothers.  Placing his hand on the shoulder of his blond counterpart, he grinned, “Poor Murdoch, I guess you can’t blame him for being a bit confused!”

“Oh, Ma, I almost forgot. “ Jake sounded slightly conscious-stricken.  “When we walked in here, what Billy started to tell you was that we passed Doc Simmons out on the trail.  He should be getting here any minute to check on Mr. Lancer again.”

“Well, that’s just fine.”  Laura began handing out instructions, “Jake, you and Billy can go take care of the gentlemen’s horses.  After that, put Scott and Johnny’s belongings in the bedroom next to this one.  Buck, you know your way to the kitchen.  Could you please ask Dorcas to put together a little lunch, while I introduce Doc Simmons to the Lancers?  I know he is going to want a little privacy for his examination, and you all look like you could stand some hot food, so we’ll take care of that while the doctor is with his patient.”

A short time later, all three men had been seated around the kitchen table and supplied with platefuls of Dorcas’s beef stew and fresh-baked biscuits.  After filling their coffee mugs, Laura poured a cup for herself and joined them.  A somewhat strained silence stretched out as both of the Lancers cast anxious looks toward the door, obviously willing the doctor to appear with the newest prognosis on his patient.

Buck observed this for a few minutes, and then seemed to come to some kind of decision.  He threw out an opening conversational gambit with the air of a man offering up the first ante in a poker game.  “So, Laura, what have those two hellions of yours been up to?  You still having the same problem with them that you were a month ago? Back then you said you couldn’t keep’em away from each other’s throats, and I noticed some fresh bruises on both of’em”

Laura glanced around the table and took up the challenge.  With an attitude of—I’ll see that and raise ya—she made her reply.  “Yes, we were having the devil of a time with those two.  However, things have worked out very nicely and those bruises you saw played a big part in helping them solve their problem.  But that’s a long story.”

Metaphorically casting in the last of his chips, Buck said, “Well, I sure want to hear what it was that got those two back on speaking terms.”

Laura grinned as she, also metaphorically, claimed the pot.  “Actually, that was the hard part.  Keeping them from fighting with each other? That was easy; their father took care of that after the knock-down, drag-out brawl they had last month.  They decided that not being able to sit for a week was a steep price to pay for bruised knuckles, split lips and bloody noses, but even he couldn’t force them to go back to liking each other.”

“Funny, I’d gotten the impression that your two boys were pretty close.”  The question came from Scott, but Laura realized that both brothers were listening closely to the conversation, temporarily distracted from their long wait for the doctor’s verdict.

 

“That’s what made it so hard,” she responded.  “They had always been close.  I mean, they were boys, not saints, and certainly they used to squabble.  We even had the occasional fistfight, but not like this.  They went after each other with a vengeance, and came out of it just as angry as when they started.”

“So did you and your husband figure out what the problem was?” This time Johnny asked the question.

“Luke had to leave not long after the whole mess started up.  He hated to dump it in my lap, but this business trip couldn’t be postponed.”  She shook her head.  “So I did a lot of listening and quite a bit of reading between the lines, and I finally started to understand the reason for the rift between them.”

“And that was?”  Scott barely got the words out before he was interrupted by his brother’s sly comment.  “I bet it was over a girl.”

“Well, not this time, “Laura laughed, “but I’m sure we have that to look forward to.  No, it was a little more complicated than that.  You see, even though he might never admit it out loud, Billy has always kind of looked up to his older brother.  And Jake, well, he’s always sort of taken care of Billy, kind of watched after him and tried to keep him out of trouble.”

She sighed, “But then this summer, both of the boys had birthdays.  Billy turned thirteen and Jake, sixteen.  I guess we kind of made a fuss about Jake turning sixteen; he earned some extra privileges and such.  Now, don’t mistake me, he deserved them.  He’s always been a responsible boy and we felt he should be rewarded for that.”

“So, maybe Billy got a little jealous?”  Johnny looked a bit sympathetic.

“I think that was part of it,” Laura agreed.  “I also think he felt that he’d been doing some growing up, too.  He was thirteen now, and his big brother was still treating him like he was some little kid.  And, poor Jake, he figured he wasn’t doing anything different than he had been for all these years.  He couldn’t see that it was his little brother who was changing.”

“And that’s what led up to all that feuding and fighting?”  Buck looked amused.

Laura shrugged.  “I was pretty sure I was right, and the way it was finally resolved, pretty much confirmed it.”

“You mentioned that the boy’s bruises played a part in settling their differences,” Scott noted.  “I take it they didn’t get them from each other.”

“Now this is the part of the story that I had to get second-hand,” Laura admitted.  “Last week they came home from town looking like they went through the worst part of a cattle stampede, and they both refused to tell me what happened.  But,” she said with a smile, “both of them tried to take the blame on themselves and told me it wasn’t their brother’s fault.”

“Singing a different tune, all right,” Buck chuckled.  “So how did you find out what really happened?”

“You just have to know how to bribe the right people.”  Her eyes bright with mischief, she described how all it took was one of her home-made apple pies to convince one of the boys’ friends to spill the beans.  “Jess told me the whole story.  It seems that Billy said something or other to Hoyt Baker, and Hoyt threatened to thrash him but good.”

“Now that don’t surprise me none, that boy having a right smart mouth on him.” The ranch foreman grinned.   “And I don’t suppose he stopped to think about the fact that the Baker kid is a couple years older and fifty pounds heavier than he is.”

“No, I don’t suppose that ever crossed his mind.”  Laura agreed.

“So, did Jake get his bruises defending his brother?” questioned Scott.

“Not exactly,” Laura took up her tale again, “at least not right away.  The way I heard the story, Hoyt issued his challenge and Billy said he’d fight him anywhere, anytime.  Someone set off to find Jake and told him what was going on.  When Jake showed up, Hoyt kind of sneered and asked if he was there because his baby brother couldn’t fight his own battles.”

“So what did he do?” Johnny asked.

“Well, he said his brother didn’t need anybody’s help to take care of a loudmouth like Hoyt, but that he was going to make sure neither of Hoyt’s brothers got in on the act; the fight was between Billy and Hoyt, no one else.”  It was obvious Jake’s mother was proud of her son.  “Then he stood there and watched while Hoyt wiped up the ground with his little brother.”

“You know, it’ll probably be a long while before Billy realizes just what it cost his brother to do that,” was Scott’s comment.

“Don’t know if Jake will ever know how much it meant to his little brother, having him do it.” Johnny added.

“OK, I have to ask, though, how did Jake get his share of this beating?”  Buck wanted to know.

“Seems Billy was a little tougher than Hoyt had counted on,” Laura explained.  “He just kept picking himself up and coming back again and again.  Hoyt finally yelled to one of his brothers for help.  That’s when Jake threw himself into the fray.  It ended up two against three, but young Jess told me that popular opinion had Billy and Jake as the clear winners.”

“By all rights, I probably should have punished them for fighting, no matter what the reason,” she noted ruefully, “but I was so thrilled to have them back to being friends again, I just didn’t have the heart to do it.”

“Probably just as well.”

Everyone turned toward the door as a new voice was heard.

“They may be scamps, your two,” Doc Simmons declared dryly, “but they’ve got more courage and grit than most of the grown men in these parts.”

“And now,” he added as Scott and Johnny rose and faced him with questioning eyes, “why don’t we have a little talk about your father.”

 

Calling the Tune (Part 9)

“----next thing ya know, I’m lying flat on my back in the mud, this full-grown tree on top of me, listening to Scott make some smart-ass remark.  Course, this was Scott now, so it was a polite, refined smart-ass remark.”

The creaking of the rocking chair paused for a moment, then resumed.

“I have ta say, though, he did get down off his horse and help me up outta that swamp-hole.  If it’d been me watching, I’d probably still be sitting up there on that horse, busting a gut, laughing.”

There was no movement, no response from the man lying on the bed.  Johnny swallowed hard, but forced himself to remember the medical advice they’d received from Dr. Simmons.  He’d told them that, overall, he was fairly pleased with Murdoch’s condition.  The fact that the injured man had regained consciousness a number of times in the past twenty-four hours was a good sign.  Confusion was only to be expected, but being greeted by familiar faces, and voices, might help in restoring him to his senses.

The doctor explained that Murdoch was undoubtedly in a great deal of pain, and his body could, indeed, be protecting him by giving him this respite from it.  A respite that could not have been achieved through pain medications, since none could be administered until the full effects of the head injury had been assessed.

Of course, they’d also been cautioned about the hurdles their father still had to overcome:  he’d been weakened by blood loss and exhaustion, there was still the possibility of infection from his many wounds, and while he didn’t seem to display signs of internal bleeding or injury to any of his organs, the doctor was convinced that he had at least one broken rib, a condition which could cause pneumonia.

Scott and Johnny had taken the doctor’s recommendations to heart, deciding that one of them would remain in their father’s presence at all times.  Johnny had taken the first shift, while Scott dealt with some of the details of their enforced stay.

And so he continued, soft drawl accompanied by the rhythmic creaking of the rocking chair, “Well, I reckon a least one of your sons is a gentleman.  But we did decide that both of’em are ranchers now---“

****************

It took only a few minutes for Scott to complete a brief inspection of their horses’ condition.  He realized it probably wasn’t necessary—his brief interaction with the Preston boys had led him to believe they would be diligent in caring for their guests’ livestock—but it was one of the items on his mental to-do list.  Somehow enumerating and completing each of those tasks helped him to deal with the feeling of helplessness engendered by this period of waiting.

First, Doctor Simmons had agreed to send several telegrams when he returned to town.  It took some time for Scott to compose a message to Teresa and Jelly which, while being honest about Murdoch’s state of health, wouldn’t result in both of them immediately descending on the Preston ranch.  Hopefully his efforts would be successful.   After some careful consideration, he composed a second, short telegram, which he’d directed to be sent to Mr. Downing, in care of the Statesmen Hotel.  It didn’t go into much detail, but he felt he owed the man that much for his “over-and-above-the-call” assistance in their search for Murdoch.

He’d also taken some time to speak to Buck, before the foreman returned to the Newton spread.  While brushing off any expressions of gratitude, their new friend had promised to return within a few days to check on Murdoch’s progress.  Together, the two men had decided that the best course of action to be taken concerning Monroe and Evans was to let them sit in jail for a spell.  According to Buck, the sheriff in Fall Creek was a friend, and he was sure that his testimony, plus Doc Simmons report on his patient, would give the lawman enough evidence to hold the two gamblers until Murdoch could give his account of the incident.

At the sound of riders approaching, Scott left the barn and stood by the corral fence watching as Billy and Jake headed his direction.  The two boys had been eager to help in any way, and had obviously completed the errand he’d given them.

Jake dismounted and fumbled with a bag tied to his saddle horn.  “This is everything we could find, Mr.---I mean, Scott.  We didn’t bring back that crutch he was using, cause if he still needs one, Billy and I can make something better for him, no problem.  But we found his saddlebags and his pistol and his canteen.”

“Thank you, boys,” accepting the bundle, Scott added, “and, also, thank you for taking care of our horses.  You did an excellent job of rubbing them down and getting them squared away.”

“They’re real fine animals, Scott.”  Billy’s enthusiasm couldn’t be contained.  “That palomino is one of the best I’ve seen anywhere.  When I saw him I remembered why the name Lancer was familiar.  I heard tell that your ranch has some of the best palominos in the San Joaquin.”

“Seems to me I’ve heard that someplace, too, Billy.”  Dismissing the memory from his mind, Scott added, “Barranca is pretty much Johnny’s pride and joy.  I’m sure he’d be pleased to show him off if you were to ask.”

Looking suddenly shy, the boy mumbled, “That’d be great. Whenever he has time, o’course.”

“How’s your pa doing, Scott?” Jake asked anxiously.

“There hasn’t been much change.”  With a glance towards the house, Scott came to a decision.  “Actually, I was just going to check on him.  Thanks again for going all that way to gather up Murdoch’s belongings.  Hopefully he’ll be able to thank you himself, soon.”

*********

Silently, the door swung open.

“Old Buck’s chili, I swear the devil could use it for brimstone.  But Scott sure ain’t the gringo-mouth he used to be.  He put away two bowls of that stuff without hardly breaking a sweat.  Not like the time Maria made those enchiladas for my birthday.  Do you remember the look on his face?”

There was an abrupt little thump, and Scott leaned against the closed door, arms crossed, a leather-bound book in one hand.

His younger brother acknowledged his presence with a crooked grin.

“I think you’ve worked yourself hard enough.” He cocked an ironic eyebrow.  “It’s time I take a turn, entertaining our father.”

“With that?”  Johnny’s grin widened.  “If he was awake, you’d put him back to sleep with that Greek book.  Besides, I thought Murdoch already finished it.”

“Homer’s Iliad is one of those books that warrants a second look.”  Scott glanced at his father, this time his expression serious.

Johnny answered the unspoken question in his older brother’s eyes with a brief shake of his head.

“It seems Dorcas is famous for her fried chicken, and I can testify that it lives up to its reputation.  Why don’t you go have some supper and get a little rest?”  The younger man’s reluctance was evident, and Scott’s tone became firmer as he remonstrated, “Now, come on, Johnny.  We both heard the doctor say that this is going to be a long process, and we agreed that this was the best way.”

“I know that, Scott.”  The tone of his voice, however, indicated that he wasn’t going willingly.  “Just figured that---“

He was interrupted by a quiet groan.

“Murdoch!”

Both men were at his bedside in an instant.  Their father’s eyes were closed, and he was tossing his head from side to side, muttering softly.

“Murdoch,” Scott took up the flaccid hand, his voice firm but gentle.  “Murdoch, it’s time to wake up.  Open your eyes now.  You know your own son’s voice, don’t you?  And Johnny’s here, too.  We need you to wake up.”

“Come on, Old Man!” Johnny added his slightly more demanding entreaties.  “You’ve slept long enough.  Despertate, por favor! “

Despite their urgings, however, neither man was quite prepared for the impact of their father’s altered state when his eyes eventually fluttered open.  Those eyes, so capable of pinning them to the wall with one angry glare, were anguished and tentative.

Although initially unfocused, his gaze gradually came to encompass both of his sons; recognition fought with disbelief.  “Johnny.  Scott.”  His hoarse, raspy voice was barely more than a whisper.  “No, this isn’t real.  It can’t be you.”  But this time, when he would have retreated once again, seeking solace in oblivion, the voices were insistent, unwavering, demanding obedience.

“Oh,no,Sir!  You need to stay with us.”

“That’s right, Murdoch.  This is important; you’ve gotta fight now.”

Slowly the fog seemed to recede from his mind, and he concentrated—willing himself to endure the pain, struggling to respond to the repeated commands of those determined voices.  It was, finally, the realization that those were actually the voices, the faces, of his sons, that truly made the difference.  He expended every ounce of effort he could muster in an attempt to push himself into a sitting position—a failed attempt which left him gasping.

“Take it easy, Murdoch.”  Scott put his hands on his father’s shoulders, preventing any further exertion.   “You’re in no shape to try getting up on your own.  Relax and let us help.”  Exchanging a glance with his brother, he placed an arm around the injured man, raising him just slightly.   Johnny filled a water glass and brought it to his father’s lips.

The cool water flowing down his parched throat revived him considerably, and after he’d been lowered once more onto his pillows, Murdoch found it just a bit easier to talk.  “Where am I?  How did you find me?”

“Well, it wasn’t easy; you made sure of that.  But we managed; the two of us are nothing, if not resourceful.”  Scott was mindful of the doctor’s instructions.  “Murdoch, what do you remember about what happened to you?”

“I remember leaving a ranch, Newton’s ranch.”  The older man winced, partially as a result of his extreme physical discomfort, and partially because of the memories that came flooding back.  “I’d completed some business there, and I was on my way back to Stockton.”

“So you remember buying Newton’s bull?” Scott prompted.  “What happened on the road?”

With a sigh, Murdoch accepted the fact that there was no longer any possibility of hiding reason for his disastrous little foray.  “I realized I was being followed.  It was a couple of tinhorns from Newton’s place.  I heard them planning to rob me, but when I tried to stop them, a rattler spooked my horse.”  His voice was a bit weaker as he continued, “I ended up alone out on the trail with a broken leg.  The last thing I can recall is walking—walking and walking with that damn crutch—and then I woke up here.  But nothing made sense.  I thought I saw---“

When his voice trailed off, Scott and Johnny repeated the process of lifting him and allowing him to drink.

“You took a real nasty spill, there, Murdoch,” Johnny set the glass back on the table, “and your head managed to find the biggest, hardest rock in the whole valley.  The doc said it wouldn’t be too surprising if you didn’t remember that part.”

“A family of good Samaritans found you, and brought you here, to their ranch.   When you meet them, I think you’ll discover there was an explanation for your confusion.”  Scott pulled the blankets more securely around his father’s shoulders.  He was relieved that they seemed to have overcome at least one hurdle.  “But right now, I think you should get some rest.  Johnny or I will be right here, if you need anything.”

And Murdoch had to admit to himself that he was having difficulty keeping his eyes open.  But as he settled his head more comfortably on his pillows, he was visited by one last nagging thought. “I haven’t heard the last about this,” he acknowledged ruefully,” there’s going to be hell to pay.”

 

Calling the Tune (Part 10)

Laura chose another perfect bloom and placed it in her basket.  This garden had always been a source of solace and encouragement to her.  While mostly practical in nature—the largest portion was taken up with a great variety of herbs and vegetables—it contained one special corner that was fully given over to purely decorative flora, foliage, flowers and shrubbery.  It was to this haven that she fled, when seeking a few moments of peace and serenity amid the unrelenting activity that was everyday ranch life.

And it was undeniable that the activity this past week had been particularly unrelenting.  She in no way regretted the twist of fate that had ordained her home as refuge for Murdoch Lancer and his sons, rather she shuddered to think what could have happened if Billy and Jake had chosen not to go fishing that morning.  Nevertheless, additional guests, not to mention the care of an invalid, resulted in extra work for both her and the women who made up her domestic staff.  The added laundry, additional meals to prepare, broth, tea and salves to administer and dressings to change all fell within their province.     

Murdoch’s sons had done everything in their power to see to his needs, one or the other remaining constantly at his side during those first few days when his condition had been so precarious.  As his daily visits continued, however, the doctor had decreed that the patient no longer required round-the-clock surveillance.  Scott had come to her then, and insisted that he and his brother be allowed to help with chores around the ranch, since she had undertaken much of their father’s nursing.  Laura had agreed, not because she’d felt they owed her anything, but because she believed they would be better off with something to occupy both their minds and their bodies.

As she inspected and rejected yet another blossom, Laura reflected that the really arduous nursing had yet to begin.  Once he’d pulled through his immediate crisis, Murdoch had spent some time at the “too-sick-to-do-anything-but-lie-there” stage.  About as weak and helpless as a newborn kitten, he’d had no choice but to acquiesce as others provided for his every need.  But he was gaining strength every day, and in Laura’s opinion, there was nothing more taxing than a patient who had decided he could dispense with what he considered unnecessary assistance.  She’d had more than enough experience tending to a strong, stubborn man who, sick or not, didn’t react well when his will was thwarted.

Of course, there was a chance she was rushing to premature judgment in attributing the character trait of stubbornness to this particular patient.  She had never met Murdoch Lancer before, so on what, she wondered, did she base her certain knowledge that she was dealing with a headstrong, obstinate man?

Well, there was the matter of the one hundred thousand acre ranch that he’d single-handedly carved out of the wilderness.  No one who’d lived in this country for over twenty years could fail to understand the courage, grit and just plain dogged determination required to prevail over all the obstacles this man had to have faced during that struggle.

But, as she plucked a dead blossom from a marigold plant, scattering its dried seeds on the earth beneath it, she smiled.  The real answer to her question could be found in a favorite old saying of her grandmother’s—“The acorn doesn’t fall far from the oak tree.”  No one who’d spent more than five minutes with Murdoch Lancer’s sons could doubt that they’d received—from somewhere—the legacy of an indomitable will. During long nights of sharing nursing duties with both men, she’d heard enough of their stories to know that they’d only met their father as adults, but she had no doubt he had already passed on to them their birthright—a tenacious and unyielding spirit.

With her basket now filled to overflowing, Laura made her way to that favorite chair in an especially shaded corner of the garden and reached for the cool jug of lemonade she’d prepared.  Drink in hand, she allowed herself the luxury of just letting her mind wander over the experiences of the past week.

That first day, before leaving the ranch, Buck had sought her out.  “Laura, there’s something I need to tell you.”  His eyes were troubled as he went on, “Now, I’ve been watching real close all this time, and I’d stake my life that he’s no risk to you or the boys.  But, with Luke not being here, I figured it was only right that you know what you’re getting into.”

He looked down at the battered old hat he was twisting around in his hands, and the words came out in a rush.  “Lancer’s kid, Johnny—well, he used to be a gunfighter.  His name was Johnny Madrid, and he was pretty well-known down around the border towns.”  Meeting her eyes, he added, “Like I said, I wouldn’t of brung him here if I’d thought there was a chance of danger to any of you, but it just felt wrong not to tell ya.”

At the time, her reply had been some calming words simply designed to reassure her old friend before sending him on his way.  By the end of the first session spent helping Johnny tend to his father, however, she’d had no further doubts.  Watching those hands—gentle and attentive—ministering so carefully, those eyes—worried and intent—giving a glimpse into his soul, she was convinced.  It wouldn’t have mattered if someone had told her he was John Wesley Hardin; this man was no threat to her family.  And, as she’d informed Buck when he made a return visit, nothing had occurred in the past week to budge her from that decision.

The older Lancer brother had won her heart in his own way. During their stints of shared nursing responsibilities, while obviously concerned about his father, he’d taken the time to engage her in conversation.  St. Louis had been her home until she’d married Luke, and it pleased her to no end discussing its charms with someone who’d also enjoyed spending time there.  He’d also gratified her with his fascinating descriptions of Boston, a city she often dreamed of visiting.  Scott had a gift for making people feel important, a gift that derived partly from a lifetime of training, but also from his innate sense of compassion.

Reluctant to put an end to this brief restful interlude, Laura poured herself one last glass of lemonade.  As she gathered a few more errant thoughts, she found herself speculating just a little.  There were some details concerning the chain-of-events leading up to Murdoch’s accident that didn’t seem quite clear.  Whatever those missing facts were, it was becoming apparent to her that the issue was something of a bone of contention between this father and his two sons.  The odd comment or two, an air of unspoken reproach and a bit of reading between the lines led her to predict a definite confrontation not far down the road.

Witnessing that confrontation could provide her with some very revealing insight into what might lie in store for her own family.  It required almost no stretch of the imagination to picture Luke and his two sons butting heads in a very similar fashion in about ten years time.

And if she was getting a brief glimpse of what her future could contain, Laura believed Murdoch Lancer was experiencing the somewhat bittersweet taste of a past that could have been.  It had been visible in his eyes, the first time he was introduced to her sons.  Scott and Johnny had both insisted on being present to introduce the boys and tell the story of their father’s rescue.  Murdoch had conveyed his heartfelt gratitude and even managed a weak chuckle when Johnny made a teasing remark about the obvious reason for his father’s earlier confusion.  But he couldn’t mask that faint tinge of regret when his glance took in all the details that gave her boys the appearance of younger versions of his own sons.

She had caught that look again in the older man’s eyes on a few other occasions.  Billy and Jake were still insistent that they be allowed to lend a hand in the sickroom; as a matter of fact, they sometimes argued about whose turn it was to sit with the patient.  Laura, intervening during one little outbreak between the contentious siblings, noticed that same poignant expression, which Murdoch quickly suppressed.  She couldn’t help but feel a stab of sympathy for the man; certainly she wouldn’t trade the memories of her sons’ boyhoods for—well, anything.

Finally, before returning to more of that unrelenting activity, she fingered the sheet of paper folded inside her apron pocket.  There was no need to take it out and read it; she had it memorized.  Doc Simmons had grumbled just a little bit before giving her the telegram earlier in the day.  “Seems like Western Union ought to be giving me some kind of a percentage of their profit, seeing as how I’m spending half my days running a delivery service for them, “the old curmudgeon had complained.  “Between sending wires for the Lancers and bringing back replies from their folks at home, I could probably give up practicing medicine entirely.  Don’t hesitate to keep me waiting if you happen to need to write some kind of an answer.”  She deduced from this feigned tirade that the wire contained good news, and indeed, Luke had sent word that he would be arriving in Stockton in three days time.  After spending the night at a hotel in town, he would be riding straight back to the ranch.

The time spent gathering the glorious flowers, the refreshing cool drinks, the chance to collect her thoughts, or the knowledge of her husband’s impending return—Laura didn’t know which factor contributed most, but she felt ready to face the rest of the day’s challenges.  She only hoped the same was true of some of the other members of the household.  Earlier she had issued strict orders to both her own sons and the Lancer brothers.  This week had taken a toll on each of them, and she decreed that for the next few hours they were to take some time off.  No work, no chores were to be completed; they were each to find some way to enjoy themselves.

Billy and Jake had obeyed with all the enthusiasm she would have expected.  Scott and Johnny were not as willing to submit to her bidding, however, and it had been necessary to lay down the law rather forcefully.  She’d managed to keep a straight face until they’d left the room, even in the face of Johnny’s somewhat aggrieved comment to his brother, “Boy, Scott, she’s twice as bossy as Maria and Teresa put together!”  Still she’d succeeded in pushing them all out the door.  What ever pastimes had been chosen, she hoped they returned as refreshed as she now felt.

 

Calling the Tune (Part 11)

The horse and rider topped the hill and charged down the gentle incline.  With a light touch on the reins and the subtle pressure of his thighs, Johnny signaled that their extended gallop—welcome and exhilarating—was ended.  By the time they reached the wooded area, Barranca had slowed to a walk.  Johnny couldn’t remember the last time he’d had the chance to ride—no destination, no stated objective—just ride, for the sheer joy of it. That Laura Preston was a bossy woman—no doubt about it—but the lady had been right.  He’d truly needed to escape, just for a bit, from everyone and everything.

The sound of the gunshots had him instantly on the alert, but just as quickly, he’d analyzed the pattern and rhythm of the reports and relaxed slightly.  Nevertheless, he approached the clearing with caution until he was able to confirm his theory.  The solitary figure had returned to his mark and now stood facing a row of tin cans set up along a fallen log.  Johnny waited until the boy had fired all six rounds before making his presence known.

“Not too bad!”

As he’d anticipated, when young Jake whirled to face him, he just naturally brought the barrel of the six-gun—thankfully empty—to bear on the unexpected intruder.  The boy was aware of his actions almost instantly, however, and immediately lowered the pistol.

Johnny dismounted and, noting a pile of bullet-ridden cans, asked, “You come out here often for target practice?”

Looking somewhat self-conscious, Jake replied, “I come out as often as I can, but I ain’t—haven’t—been practicing all that long.”  He studied the pistol in his hand.  “See, Billy and I have been shooting rifles and shotguns almost since we could walk, but Pa, he insisted that we had to be sixteen before he’d let us practice with a handgun.  He said that a pistol is a tool, plain and simple, but too many kids see it as a shortcut to becoming a man.  So we had to wait until he figured we were,” he hesitated, obviously searching for an unfamiliar word, “mature enough to know the difference.”

“Your pa sounds like a pretty smart man to me, Jake.”  Those sapphire eyes, observant as always, took in all aspects of the little glen. “You chose a spot a long ways from the house”  It was obvious from the tone of his voice that this was a question, not a statement.

Jake flushed just a bit.  “Well, it’s just that Pa said straight out that Billy isn’t supposed to be practicing with a pistol either, til he’s sixteen, and if he breaks Pa’s rule, he’ll be doing so many extra chores, he won’t have time for anything but eating and sleeping for the next month.”

“So you’re trying to keep temptation from doing Billy in?”  It took a bit of effort to banish the knowing grin that rose unbidden to his lips.  “Well, it’s real brotherly of you to try to help him that way, but there’s something you should consider.”  His eyes were serious as he continued, “When your pa said he wanted you to be”—he stumbled over the word almost as badly as Jake had—“mature, one of the things that means is standing up on your own, making your own choices about doing right or wrong, and living with them.  The next time you come out here, you might invite Billy along, just to show that you trust him to do the right thing.”

Without waiting for a reply, he pointed toward the row of waiting cans.  “You were doing pretty good there, but I could probably give you a few pointers, help you increase your accuracy and your speed—if you’d like.”

Jake was nodding enthusiastically before he’d finished getting the words out.

It wasn’t until they’d completed a very productive practice session—Jake felt he’d indeed made progress under Johnny’s expert supervision—that the boy brought up a very different topic of conversation.  Demonstrating the foresight that seemed to come naturally to him, the youngster had produced a parcel with several sandwiches and apples.  While the two were sharing this repast, Jake asked tentatively, “Scott went to college in the East, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, he went to a fancy school out there called Harvard.”  Johnny was engaged in slicing off pieces of apple with his pocket knife.

“Well, I just wondered,” the boy was a bit more determined now, forging ahead with his questions.  “You work together on your spread and all—do you think that extra education helps any, you know with running a ranch?”

“Is that something you’re thinking on, maybe going to college someplace?”  Johnny popped another slice of apple in his mouth.

“California has its own university now,” Jake spoke with a certain amount of pride.  “It just started up a couple of years ago over by San Francisco in a place called Berkeley Township.  Our teacher figures I could get in with no problem.

“And what do your folks think of the idea?”  The older man probed just a bit more.

“I think Ma would be pretty pleased about it,” the boy admitted.  “Pa, he just says a man has the right to choose his own future, and that he’ll be proud of me no matter what I decide to do with my life.  But that’s just it; I really don’t know what I want to do with my life.”  There was a touch of confusion in those candid eyes.  “I love the ranch, but it’s all I know.  The university would give me a chance to try other things, but maybe I’ll decide this is really where I want to be.”

“And you’re wondering if that high-toned education would be a waste of time, if you ended up being a rancher after all?”  Johnny wiped the blade of his knife on his jeans and closed it.  “Your pa said that a pistol is just a tool, right?  Well, I think that’s true about education, too.  I’ve met men who’ve spent years studying at the best schools, and all they got to show for it was a string of fancy letters behind their name.  You want to talk about a waste, that’s like feeding some of that fancy caviar stuff to a pig.”

He pointed the folded knife at Jake and waved it for emphasis.  “They got a head full of book-learning, but when it comes to being able to really listen and figure things out, they’re about as much use as that pig I mentioned.”

“Now, with Scott, the difference is—he uses that fine education.  Sure, it comes in handy when you’re running a ranch; he’s a lot better at those paper things than I am, but it’s not just that.  When you’ve learned to think logically, making decisions and laying out plans come a lot easier.”  With a sly grin he added, “Course, it helps if you’re naturally sneaky, too.”

Jake, who had been listening intently to all this plain-spoken advice, caught sight of that grin and returned it.

Coming to his feet in one smooth, fluid movement, Johnny thrust the knife in his pocket.  He turned toward the waiting horses.  “Speaking of sneaky brothers, we should be getting back.  I heard Dorcas talking about baking some apple pies today, and if we don’t get a move on, those pies’ll be history before we even set foot in that kitchen.”

*********

Scott was adamant, uncompromising and unequivocal when it came to the proper technique for this particular pastime.  Jelly’s approach—sitting passively on the riverbank dangling bait in the water—certainly didn’t qualify.  And, while Johnny’s preferred method couldn’t be characterized as passive, it couldn’t come close to providing the same challenge as a contest between a true angler and his elusive quarry.

There was no satisfaction in being able to triumph over those fish greedy and stupid enough to fall for the lure of a drowned worm.  No, Scott’s prey was a much more formidable opponent.  The pursuit of the wily rainbow trout required great skill and adeptness.  The ability to coax this cautious fish from the safety of the hidden shadows, to entice them with the perfect concoction of wire and feathers, to patiently wait for just the right instant when one sharp tug would ensure success—embodied the difference between the sport of fishing and the art of fly fishing.

The proof of his expertise in each of those areas was close at hand: a make-shift stringer with a full half-dozen rainbows—each caught after a memorable encounter and each of record-breaking size.  And now, he was endeavoring to seize the most spectacular prize of all, a trout almost twice the size of anything he’d previously seen in this stream.  After using every ounce of his cunning and experience, Scott’s efforts were just about to be rewarded: just one well-timed snap of the rod, and the hook would be set.

The explosion of sound that erupted from the bushes was as sudden as it was unwelcome.  The fish disappeared from sight instantly as Scott, startled, brought the tip of his rod crashing into the water.

Billy, after taking one look at the incensed fisherman towering over him, was visited with an immediate impulse to turn tail and run.  His pride wouldn’t allow such a display of cowardice, however, and stiffening his spine, he stood his ground.  “Hi, Scott, I didn’t know you were out here.”

A couple of deep, calming breaths had given the disappointed angler a chance to regain his even temper.  “Well, Billy, I didn’t realize you were around either, but you sure do have an unmistakable way of making your presence known.”

Realizing that there would be no further success at this particular fishing hole, Scott began the process of carefully disassembling his equipment.

With a little sigh of relief, the young boy decided the danger was past, and stepped a little closer.  “Isn’t that Jake’s rod and reel?”

“That’s right.”  Scott placed the fishing gear near his knapsack.  “Your brother was kind enough to lend it to me for the afternoon.”  Upon closer inspection, he noticed that his unexpected intruder was burdened with both a rifle and a goodly number of field-dressed rabbits.  “I can certainly see how you’ve spent your afternoon.  Apparently you’re a pretty good hunter.”

Billy leaned his gun against a tree and placed the rabbits next to it.  “I do O.K.” he shrugged, attempting to hide his pleasure at the compliment.

“I brought a little lunch with me.  I don’t suppose you’d care to take a break and share it?”  Scott smiled inwardly.  The boy appeared starved and obviously hadn’t planned ahead by packing any food himself.

In almost no time at all, the sandwiches and fruit had disappeared, with Billy devouring the larger portion.

“You must really have some impressive hunting and tracking skills, to run down that many rabbits in one afternoon.”  Scott spoke with studied nonchalance.  “Stalking game like that is a real talent.”

“Well, it just takes some practice to get good at tracking.”  This time a little bit of pride was allowed to show through.  “And, of course, you gotta learn to follow a trail without making a sound.”

“So you don’t normally come crashing through the bushes like you’re being chased by a grizzly bear?”  And with that one good-natured question, the trap snapped shut.

As Scott eyed him knowingly, the guilt in Billy’s expression was replaced by a spark of mischief.  “OK,” he admitted sheepishly, “I figured if someone was fishing here, it had to be Jake.”  Then, the mischief in his eyes died out and was replaced with a look of resentment.  “I shoulda known better, though.  I reckon I can guess where he took himself off to this afternoon.”

Slowly, with the encouragement of a very good listener, Billy related the signal injustice of his older brother’s newest privilege, and all the reasons why it was a blight on his young life.

“So I suppose Jake must really rub it in, brag about how he gets to wear a pistol and you don’t?”  Scott spoke in what his brother sometimes referred to as his “pesky voice of reason”.

Prodded by his innate honesty, the boy grudgingly admitted that such wasn’t the case.  He went on to concede that the rules had been determined by his father and, if anything, Jake made every attempt to spare his brother’s feelings.  “But if he don’t think I’m some kind of little kid, too, how come he doesn’t ask me ta come along when he does his target practice?”  Judging by the expression on his face, he was more concerned with this issue than the actual restrictions that had been imposed on him.

While Scott was sympathetic to the boy’s feelings, he wasn’t about to let him off the hook.  “You ever talk to Jake about this?  Tell him you’d like to go and ask if he would mind your company?”

“I don’t guess I ever have, but I reckon you’re right.  I oughta talk to him about it.”  He looked much younger than his thirteen years as he added, “Show my Pa that I can be—mature.”

“And you’re getting more mature every day, Billy.  Nobody grows up overnight.”  A shadow appeared in the older man’s eyes and was banished as he went on, “Just remember, don’t be so set on getting to be a man that you miss out on just being a kid.”

Now, I think we should start packing up here.”  Scott indicated the stringer of fish and collection of rabbits.  “They can’t say we didn’t help put food on the table for tonight’s supper.”

Their trip back was interrupted briefly when they passed a buckboard bumping along the dusty track that led toward the Preston ranch.  Billy politely introduced Scott to their neighbor and also managed to exchange at least one sassy remark with the dark-haired girl seated next to her father.

Scott noticed the mischievous sparkle was back in the boy’s eyes they bade goodbye to both father and daughter.  Billy evaded the older man’s quizzical look at first, but finally he couldn’t help blurting out, “I’m just thinking how much fun it’s gonna be, letting Jake know he missed out on a chance to make sheep’s eyes at Cindy Martin.”

“Sounds like you’ve got a couple of favorite pastimes: Spoiling your brother’s luck at fishing, and tormenting him when he shows an interest in a young lady.”

“I suppose you think that’s not a very mature way to act.”  Billy regarded the older man with suspicion.

“Oh, I think most reasonable men would agree that such behavior is extremely juvenile.”  Scott looked solemn, but somehow Billy was moved to delve a little deeper into this question.

“So, your brother, Johnny, he’d never do something like that, huh?”

“Now, I never said that, Billy.”  Johnny Lancer’s older brother couldn’t suppress a rueful grin.  “No, I never said that.”

********

Scott glanced at the door to his father’s room.  Since Billy had volunteered to convey all of their wild game to the kitchen, he decided to take advantage of this opportunity to freshen up before checking on Murdoch.  Before opening his door, however, he was stopped in his tracks by his brother’s voice.  It obviously emanated from Murdoch’s room, but it also reverberated through the entire house.

“WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING, OLD MAN!!!”

 

Calling the Tune (Part 12)

“WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING, OLD MAN!!!”

Scott closed his eyes for just an instant.  Then, with a sigh, he straightened his shoulders and started down the hall.

Jake and Billy had emerged from the kitchen and were standing, wide-eyed, gazing at the closed door to Murdoch’s room.  After that one outraged bellow, there had been total silence.  The impact of that silence, however, was even more dramatic than the angry outburst that had preceded it, and the boys were clearly awed by the very notion of what might be going on behind that door.

When their mother appeared, her countenance betrayed no hint of awareness regarding this little family conflict.  Still, after a brief moment of eye contact, Scott was left with the strong impression that this woman was a seer, witnessing the fulfillment of one of her prophesies.  In his opinion, if Laura Preston had lived in Salem nearly two hundred years ago, she would have been burned as a witch.  Wordlessly, she shepherded her boys back inside the kitchen.

After entering his father’s room, Scott paused and allowed himself to assess the situation.  Murdoch was lying on his bed.  Although he appeared a little short of breath, a few beads of perspiration glistening on his brow; his head was resting on his pillows, and the blankets had been ruthlessly tucked around his shoulders.

The glare he directed at his younger son could only be described as mutinous, and when he caught sight of Scott at the door, he managed to look just a shade defensive.

Johnny was standing—no, it would be more accurate to say he was towering above the bedridden patient, arms crossed over his chest.  His expression would not have been out-of-place on a father, hauling his reluctant off-spring out to the woodshed for some well-deserved discipline.  This resemblance was only strengthened by the first words out of his mouth.  “Would you like ta know just what our father has been up to this afternoon, while we weren’t around ta ride herd on him?”

Murdoch sought to make use of a gambit which had worked well for him in the past—interrupting in the gruff, no-nonsense voice that brooked no opposition.  Unfortunately, that particular voice required more physical and mental stamina than he was capable of in his weakened state.  His son ignored this attempt, and the blistering lecture continued.

“First of all, I got back and found out that Murdoch had refused to take his dose of laudanum.  So I come in here, just to remind him that the Doc says it’s important to control the pain from those broken ribs, on account of if he don’t keep breathing right, he could develop pneumonia.  And what do I find?”  Righteous indignation fairly vibrated in every word.  “He’s not only out of his bed; he’s halfway across the room, and looking like he’d topple over at the promise of a strong breeze.”

“I suppose it slipped your mind that the doctor told you those ribs could puncture a lung if you started moving around too soon.”  Scott speared his father with a sternly reproachful look.  “You are going to stay in that bed and follow the doctor’s instructions to the letter, Sir.  Is that understood?”

If anything, the mutinous glare intensified.  “I will not be treated like an old, enfeebled—“

“An old, enfeebled, invalid?”  There was no mercy in his older son’s voice.  “While you are neither old, nor enfeebled, you are—for the time being—an invalid.  Luckily, it’s a condition which will pass—with some rest and healing.”

This comment was punctuated by a highly skeptical snort from his younger son, who added, “At least it will if ya can manage not to kill yourself by disobeying every one of the Doc’s orders.”

After crossing the room to take up a position near the bed, Scott had—whether consciously or unconsciously—assumed a stance that was very similar to his brother’s.  The immediate result of this maneuver was to present a resolute and united front.  The two brothers exchanged glances.  It was entirely possible that their father, upon regaining his normal forcefulness, would enact retribution for what he considered their present insubordination, but neither son would allow this possible consequence to sway them.

The little stand-off was short-lived, but intense.  Murdoch made a staunch effort to hold fast against the unyielding determination of his sons, but ultimately he simply lacked the energy to maintain this fleeting rebellion. His resentful submission was conveyed with a peevish grunt.

Typically, it was his volatile younger son whose demeanor changed first.  “Come on, Murdoch,” his reproving manner temporarily replaced by a coaxing tone.  “A long time ago you told me that it was a new experience, having sons to worry about you.  Like I told ya then—get used to it—because we ain’t going away any time soon.”

Satisfied that their father would be compliant, at least for the next few minutes, the boys set about administering the doctor’s prescription.  While Johnny carefully assisted the patient in sitting upright, Scott poured a measure of the evil-smelling liquid into a glass of water.

Although he meekly swallowed the detested medicine, Murdoch seemed determined that this capitulation not indicate total surrender.  Eyeing his sons with a scowl that should have had them quaking in their boots, he began, “I don’t need a couple of nursemaids.  What I expect is dutiful sons who will treat their father with some respect.”

But he regretted the words almost as soon as they were uttered.  Even to his own ears, they sounded more like petulant whining than the authoritarian decree he’d intended.

In an effort to appease his father, Scott asked, “Sir, was there something you needed when you made this ill-judged attempt to leave your bed?  Is there anything we can help you with?”  Well-intentioned as it may have been, this attempt to placate the old man was not particularly successful.

Infuriated by what he considered blatant condescension, he snapped out, “I was planning to take care of some Lancer business, since you two are too busy playing doctor to remember that we have a big ranch to run.”  Murdoch realized immediately that he’d allowed himself to be goaded into making a tactical error.

Scott frowned.  “Lancer business?  Thanks to Doctor Simmons, we’ve been communicating almost daily with Jelly and Teresa.  Any problems on the ranch have already been handled.”

“Just what business did you need to take care of anyway?  What was so damn important that you had to risk your life pulling a stunt like this?”  The conciliatory attitude of a few minutes ago had evaporated, and Johnny once again looked more than willing to administer the verbal equivalent of a trip to the woodshed.

Murdoch decided his only option was to try to bluster his way through.  “With all that laudanum, I’ve been so muddled I didn’t even know what day it was.  When my head finally cleared, I realized I needed to send an important wire concerning a business proposition.  I was simply getting up to write out a message for the doctor to take to the telegraph office.”

“And why couldn’t you just ask one of us to write it out for you?”  As suspicion gave way to dawning realization, Johnny‘s exasperated accusation increased in volume.  “You were going ta wire Jim Meadows about that stallion, weren’t you?  I don’t believe it!  You almost broke your neck out there all alone, because of your little plan.  Then you take a chance on a punctured lung ta send that wire.”

“Now wait a minute,” Murdoch made a valiant attempt to defend his actions.  “My decision made perfect sense from a financial standpoint.  I was merely acting in the best interest of the ranch, as a whole.”

“Oh, no!”  His younger son remonstrated, “You’d already made a decision that was in the best interest of the ranch; that we wait six months to invest in a new stallion.”  His recriminations became more vehement.  “You made a sound decision.  Just because I was acting like a pig-headed fool, that didn’t give you any cause to go out and try to pull off some reckless scheme to get me what I wanted.”

The irony of this debate between father and son was not lost on Scott, but he thought it wise to intervene.  “I think what Johnny is trying to say, Sir, is that while he appreciates the fact that you support his horse-breeding venture, your plan to push forward the timetable was foolhardy and ill-conceived.”

“That’s right, Old Man,” Johnny put in.  “No horse—I don’t care if it’s the best breeding stock in the state—is worth you taking that kind of chance.”

Without giving Murdoch a chance to try to justify his endeavor any further, Scott decided it was time to bring this discussion to a close.  He brought out that voice—so effective in dressing down the enlisted men under his command—and addressed his father.  “The facts speak for themselves, Sir.  You undertook an extended journey over difficult and unfamiliar terrain, knowing it would be strenuous and exhausting.  You went alone, adding to the danger.  And, finally, you failed to inform anyone of your whereabouts, causing us a great deal of worry and trouble when we had to come searching for you.  This is unacceptable, and it will not happen again.  Is that clear?”

The justice of what his boys were saying did have its effect on Murdoch, but that stubborn Lancer pride simply wouldn’t let him abandon his position without one further protest concerning the way he’d been treated.  “I suppose I could have handled things a little differently, but I’m not some sort of weakling who needs to be molly-coddled.”

Scott smiled—the first smile of genuine amusement that had crossed his face for quite some time.  “Are you joking?  We tracked you across that trail, saw all those miles you managed to cover with a broken leg and little to eat or drink.  Yes, that certainly struck us as the accomplishment of a “weakling who needs to be molly-coddled.”

“I suspect those two jokers who tried to bushwhack you thought you were easy-pickings, too, until you showed them just how dangerous it was to mess with Murdoch Lancer.”  Johnny’s grin lit up his face as he continued, “All we want, Old Man, is for you to take care of yourself, so you can go back to “calling the tune” again.”

************

A short time later the two Lancer brothers stood side-by-side, contemplating the closed door to their father’s room. After using the last of his energy to convince his sons to send the telegram to Jim Meadows—so all that effort wouldn’t have been in vain—the old man had finally allowed himself to succumb to the combined effects of his natural exhaustion and the laudanum. 

“So what do ya think?”  Johnny asked.

“I think we probably would never have gotten away with it if he hadn’t been flat on his back and drugged in the bargain,” came his older brother’s sardonic reply.

“Yep, and when he gets back on his feet, he’s likely going to hand us our heads on a platter,” the younger man remarked.

“Oh, yes,” Scott agreed, “not much doubt about that.”

And the two men looked at each other, sharing a smile that reflected both relief and contentment.

**********

The combination of a savory rabbit stew, crisp fried trout and Dorcas’s delectable apple pie was pretty much unbeatable.  The activities of the day had guaranteed that all four males gathered around the kitchen table had hearty appetites.  If Billy and Johnny managed to finagle more than their fair share of dessert, no one complained about it.

Laura was just pouring coffee, and fending off Billy’s efforts to snag just one more piece of apple pie, when Buck Taylor ambled into the kitchen.  Tossing his battered hat onto a peg near the door, he joined the group at the table.  Since Billy knew he wouldn’t be allowed to eat that last slice of pie, he magnanimously offered it to the older man.  Buck had experience with Dorcas’s award-winning pastry and accepted with thanks.

While enjoying every bite, he shared the news that had sent him to the Preston ranch so late in the evening.  “I hate to be the one to tell ya this, but them two tinhorns managed to escape from the jail last night.  I was in town today, and the sheriff asked if I could pass the message on to you folks.”  He looked disgusted, “It seems that lunkhead of a deputy let them talk him into playing poker.  They got him all distracted—jackass that he is—and succeeded in stealing his gun.”  With a shrug, he admitted, “Nobody found out until this morning when they found that idiot locked in a cell with a gag in his mouth.  The sheriff sent a posse out looking today, but with the head start they have, the chances of running them down are pretty sorry at this point.”

“So, do we go join up with this posse?”  Johnny cocked an inquiring eye at his brother.

After considering for a few moments, Scott shook his head.  “I don’t think so.  I think our time would be better spent making sure our father knows we were serious when we laid down the law today.”

“Well, I think we’d have a more relaxing time spending hours in the saddle, chasing a cold trail,” the younger man grinned, “but you’re probably right.  Those coyotes are probably so far from here by now; we wouldn’t find nothing but the smell of their cheap cigars.”

 

Calling the Tune (Part 13)

It was with a certain amount of justifiable pride that Johnny surveyed the vast quantity of wood which lay split, stacked, and ready to be loaded in the wagon. A daunting task, even for a full work crew, it was even more impressive when viewed as the result of a single morning’s work by only two men.

He’d peeled off his shirt some time ago, and the fine sheen of perspiration that covered his muscular chest and arms bore testament to hours of labor in the intense heat of this summer day.  After a final pull at his canteen, he upended it, sending the remaining contents cascading through his dark, curly hair.  Droplets flew everywhere as he shook his head, savoring the welcome relief afforded by even this lukewarm water.

Scott—mindful of the effects of the pitiless sun on his fair skin—still wore his sweat-stained shirt, although the topmost buttons had been unfastened and the sleeves were rolled up to his elbows.  He had soaked his bandana with water from his own canteen and was using it to cool his face and neck.

As he roughly combed his wet, unruly locks with careless fingers, Johnny remarked, “Boy!  That was a job alright.  It’s been a month of Sundays since I’ve worked this hard.”

“Yes, I’d have to say that was evident from your rather dismal performance.  It’s obvious you are no longer capable of completing such demanding work the way you once could.”  Not by the flicker of an eye did Scott betray his intention of getting a rise out of his brother with those mock-serious words.

“Oh, yeah?”  The younger man cocked an inquiring eyebrow.

“I’m afraid so.  Clearly it was a brave effort, but when one is simply past one’s prime…”  The voice, with its spurious sympathy, simply trailed off.

“Well, brother,” Johnny drawled, flashing that cocky, lop-sided grin, “how about we make a little bet—see who can be the first to finish this next job and who gets left in the dust?”

He gestured towards the spools of barbed wire and wooden posts lying nearby.  This massive oak, its root system undermined by last season’s heavy rains, had toppled during a recent windstorm, and an extensive stretch of fencing had been destroyed.  Having spent the morning clearing the debris, their next step was replacing the damaged fence posts and stringing the new wire.

“An excellent idea,” Scott nodded his approval.  “Why don’t we discuss the details of our proposed wager over lunch?”  Long familiarity with his sibling’s habits prompted him to ask, “You did pack some food, didn’t you—knowing we would be out here most of the day?”

Somewhat to his surprise, Johnny smugly pulled a napkin wrapped parcel from his saddle bag.  His younger brother’s moment of triumph was short-lived, however.  “Dorcas packed that lunch for you, didn’t she?  It was her idea.”  The only response he received was a sheepish grin, which revealed the truth all too clearly.

As they ate, their conversation focused on the more serious matter of their father’s recovery.  During the past few days, following their explosive confrontation, Murdoch Lancer had proven to be a model patient, and no one had been more surprised by this development than Murdoch Lancer’s sons.

Johnny had put forward his own theory to explain this unexpected change of attitude.  “I tell ya, Scott, he’s just biding his time, waiting to get his strength back so he can flay us alive for raking him over the coals like we did.”

Whatever his motivation, the old man was following the doctor’s orders to the letter.  Luckily, his required medication had been reduced to a small dose before bedtime, which he accepted without protest.  And—as per the doctor’s instructions—he was allowed to leave his bed briefly several times a day, sitting up in a chair and even taking short walks using the crutches Billy and Jake had fashioned.  The one restriction imposed was that he be accompanied by at least one other person during these periods of exertion—a restriction that he was abiding by with no complaint.

Faced with solid evidence of their father’s new found cooperation, Scott and Johnny had volunteered to carry out this repair project with few misgivings.  Both men were conscious of the debt they owed the Prestons and felt that a little ranch work was the least they could do to repay them.

Doctor Simmons, pleased with his patient’s progress, predicted that Murdoch might be able to begin the journey home sooner than expected, so his sons now spent some time discussing the logistics of that undertaking.

“So, a slow trip by wagon—from here to Stockton—and then a stay at the hotel to let him rest up before taking the stage back to Morro Coyo.”  Scott was summing up some of their decisions, when he was interrupted by the sound of gunfire in the distance.

Surprisingly, neither man seemed alarmed or concerned by this ominous disturbance; rather, they exchanged a look of shared gratification.

They had both derived a measure of enjoyment from observing the little byplay between Jake and Billy at the breakfast table that morning.  The boys’ demeanor seemed very much as usual—bickering over whose turn it was to clean the tack, engaging in a spirited dispute over possession of the last cinnamon roll, and generally delighting in every opportunity to bedevil each other.

The closest scrutiny wouldn’t have revealed any change in Jake’s tone of voice when he made his off-hand suggestion.  “Since we’re headed out to clean up the undergrowth at Cedar Creek, I thought I’d bring my pistol along and do some target practice back where it clears out in the little box canyon near there.  I figured you oughta come along—maybe pick up some pointers for when you get a handgun of your own.”  The words held no hint of the gift of trust that was being offered up.

“I reckon I should come.  It oughta give me some pointers about what not to do.”  Billy’s jeering reply might have fooled most listeners, but the Lancers heard the unspoken appreciation in that graceless gibe.

Later that morning Scott and Johnny had driven the supply wagon, while the Preston boys rode ahead, leading them to the damaged fence.  Jake had pointed out the box canyon, and now the gunshots, coming from that direction, reminded both Lancer brothers of the issues that were being resolved in that clearing.  It also reminded them of an unresolved sibling conflict of their own, and each man headed for their chosen proving ground.  

********

Luke Preston was a contented man.  This latest venture had proven to be extremely lucrative, and as tempting as it might be to attribute that success to his abilities as an astute businessman, he was content with the knowledge that dumb luck had played an even larger role.  Ten years ago, when he’d purchased an isolated piece of property in the backcountry, it was with no glimmering that someday the mineral rights would be worth a tidy fortune.  Now, that unexpected windfall would enable him to put some important plans into motion.

It was a long day’s ride from Stockton to the ranch, but the stage to Fall Creek only ran once a week—longer than he was willing to delay his homecoming.  He knew Laura had received his wire, informing her of his travel plans because she’d sent a telegram to his hotel in Stockton.  As he rode, Luke pondered the three lines contained in that message.

“Ranch fine.”  A long time ranch owner, Luke knew better than to assume this meant there had been no problems, since problems were simply a fact of life on a ranch.  Laura’s words were just her way of reassuring him that any difficulties had been dealt with.  And, thanks to his wife, he was certain they had been handled in a capable, competent fashion.

The second line of the wire—“Boys doing fine”—required a bit more speculation on his part.  Luke sincerely hoped that his wife was trying to tell him that the previous animosity between his sons had been resolved.  It had been a difficult decision, leaving Laura to deal with that mess, but the situation with these mineral rights had been imperative.  Indeed, that painful session in the barn had been primarily to insure that his wife didn’t have to contend with any more brawling during his absence.

Luke had never subscribed to the popular notion that the best answer to any childhood mischief was frequent application of the hickory switch.  He’d never hesitated if he felt physical punishment was necessary, but it had been reserved for only select offenses:  direct disobedience, flagrant disrespect, or—especially in the case of his younger son—reckless, dangerous behavior, the memory of which still made this father’s blood run cold.  No, with more time at his disposal Luke would have tried other methods to mediate his son’s dispute, but Laura’s message gave him hope that the boys’ relationship was on the mend.

The third item in the telegram was the most puzzling.  “We have company.”  He spent a few moments wracking his brain for any clue as to the identity of this mysterious “company”, but soon found his mind fully occupied with other, more pleasant thoughts.  These thoughts—of a more private nature—were certainly neither unexpected nor surprising for a man who was deeply in love with his wife and had spent the past three weeks in cold, lonely single beds.  They were thoughts that brought an anticipatory gleam to his eye and caused him to urge his mount into something approaching a gallop.

***********

Together the Preston brothers gathered the battered, bullet-ridden tin cans and restored them to the burlap sack Jake had used to transport his targets to this isolated canyon.  The practice session had turned into a fairly impressive display of marksmanship, thanks—in no small part—to Johnny’s helpful advice.  Jake had been careful to pass on to his younger brother all the tips and pointers he’d received.  Billy had accepted this instruction in the spirit in which it was intended:  one friend sharing useful information with another, rather than an older brother delivering a lecture to a wet-behind-the-ears kid.

“That was some nice shooting.” A bald, straightforward comment, but with none of the usual mocking or scoffing Billy might normally employ.

“Thanks,” Jake struggled to make sure his next comment didn’t come off sounding patronizing or condescending.  “You’re such a good shot with a rifle, I bet when you get a handgun to practice with, you’ll be a natural.”

There was a shy smile in Billy’s eyes, but his only reply was a shrug.

A few moments of awkward silence followed this rare exchange of compliments, and then both Billy and Jake spoke at once:

“We should probably get busy finishing the clean-up on that creek bed.”

“Guess that stream ain’t going to clear itself up.”

With a grin, Billy sprang into the saddle and urged his horse into a gallop, shouting, “Race ya!”  He was closely followed by his brother, who yelled, “Dang it, Billy!”, as he struggled to come up from behind.  The two of them soon disappeared beyond the mouth of the canyon.

********

Del Monroe was fair gut-foundered—an expression he’d picked up as a child from his old, sea-faring grandfather.  It simply meant—very, very hungry—but Del thought it was a good description of his current miserable situation.  Since the jailbreak, he and his partner had been subsisting on nothing but beef jerky, with water to wash it down.  He supposed, surveying the area glumly, there was an abundance of small game in these woods, but neither he nor Evans could lay claim to any skill at hunting.  Furthermore, even if one of them miraculously bagged a rabbit or quail, they were keeping a cold camp for fear of alerting any posse to their whereabouts.  So, no cooking and no coffee, he reminded himself, adding yet another complaint to his growing litany of woe.

 

The only scrap of good luck the two gamblers had experienced in the past few weeks had come in the form of an unbelievably gullible deputy.  Even they had been amazed when he not only allowed himself to be talked into a poker game with his prisoners, but also became so distracted by his unprecedented winning streak that he’d allowed them to get the drop on him.  And, while lucky, it hadn’t been easy.  Monroe reflected that he’d worked harder to lose those games to that lame-brained lawman than he did to win most pots.

Things had gone downhill from there.  While they’d managed to make off with a fair amount of cash—the fool deputy had actually given back their money from the safe to use in the poker game, and they’d taken all of his before locking him in a cell.  However, their plans for high-tailing it out of this neck-of-the-woods had been thwarted when Evan’s nag pulled up lame.  Two men and one horse, they hadn’t been able to get very far, settling for this spot for a lay-by while they plotted their next move.

Whatever that move turned out to be, Monroe was determined that it take them out of this vicinity as soon as possible.  Johnny Madrid alone was bad enough—thinking of those stone-cold eyes still gave him nightmares—but throw in the gunfighter’s family and the odds went way down.  That brother of his with the fancy Eastern accent seemed like a real soft-spoken fellow, but Del was nobody’s fool.  The man wielding that rifle in the barn was at least as dangerous as his gunhawk brother.  Even the old man—no one in his right mind would have expected the rancher to survive on his own in that wilderness with a broken leg.  Del Monroe wanted no part of any of them.

Right now, Evans was out scouting around.  Before letting him leave on their only remaining mount, Monroe had insisted on taking charge of their entire bankroll—just a little insurance to guarantee that both man and horse would return.

The sound of a horse being ridden at a gallop brought the dejected gambler’s attention back to the here and now.

Evans thundered into the camp shouting excitedly, “You gotta come with me now, Del.  I got a plan to get us outta here.”

 

Calling the Tune (Part 14)

“Damn it!”

This hastily muttered expletive was simply the product of acute frustration.  Luke, the most pragmatic of individuals, didn’t normally indulge in profanity, considering it to be a waste of time and energy.  Indeed, before the inadvertent oath had completely passed his lips, he was fully occupied with assessing this unexpected obstacle and devising the best means of surmounting it.

There was a road across the Preston ranch that led towards Stockton.  It was easily accessible and, thanks to various hard-working ranch hands, it was well-maintained.  Anyone traveling to or from town by buggy or buckboard would use that approach, but since Luke was on horseback, he had automatically turned onto this familiar shortcut.  The narrow track was perfectly adequate for his needs, although in places it deteriorated into nothing more than a game trail.  It saved him a great deal of time because it was a more direct route, although it did pass through some rough terrain.  Unfortunately, that terrain had just become a lot rougher.

The difficulty wasn’t with the size of the downed tree.  Although it was certainly no sapling, the impact would have been minimal if it had toppled in a more open area.  But in its current position, it formed an impenetrable barrier.  The narrow pass through this rocky tract was totally blocked, and skirting it would require Luke to go by foot rather than riding.  With a resigned growl, but no further cursing, Luke dismounted.  Reins in hand, he plunged into the tangled underbrush.

After covering a fair amount of rugged ground, he came to a small clearing which he recognized as a landmark.  Taking a moment to get his bearings, he had just decided which direction would allow him to rejoin the trail, when an ominous sound stopped him in his tracks.

Upon hearing the first gun being cocked, Luke’s instinctive reaction was to reach for his own pistol.  But he was a man who recognized futility when it was staring him in the face, so he froze when that second hammer clicked into place.

“Put your hands in the air—now!”

There were two of them; bandanas covered their faces as they kept their revolvers aimed resolutely in his direction.  Obediently raising his hands, Luke studied his assailants.  Judging by their shifty eyes and nervous demeanor, these two bushwhackers were not very experienced at this, and Luke was determined that they wouldn’t be successful, either.

*********

Del Monroe had spent a great deal of time sweating and berating himself for having listened to Evans.  When his partner came tearing into their camp, and Monroe realized the man’s plan consisted of yet another attempt to rob a “supposedly” easy victim, his first reaction had been outright refusal.

Evans was persuasive, however, insisting that this time they would be better prepared to lie in wait for their target.  He’d borrowed Del’s spyglass—an ancient memento of that same seafaring grandfather—and, using it, had spotted their victim.

“I’ve got the perfect place staked out!”  Evans was emphatic.  “We’ll have the drop on this old man before he even knows we’re there.  With two horses, we can ride out of here and head for the big city, maybe San Francisco or Denver.”

And so, Del had allowed himself to be convinced, and as nervous as he’d been earlier, he had to admit things did seem to be going smoothly.   Now that they’d disarmed the man, Evans ordered him to lean back against a nearby tree and put his arms behind him.  Del had the greater knot-tying expertise—again thanks to his grandfather’s skills—and he was assigned the job of restraining him.  Once he determined that there was no possibility of the prisoner escaping, he began to breathe easier.

While their captive stood glaring at them, Evans began rummaging through the man’s saddlebags.  A leather folder with some legal papers was given a cursory examination, and then discarded in favor of a promising velvet jewelry case.  The contents of the latter—a truly breathtaking ruby pendant—inspired a long, low whistle.  “Now that’s going to bring us a pretty penny!”

Evans opened another packet, revealing a pair of high-quality folding pocket knives with pearl inlaid handles.  Tossing one to his partner he grinned, “Don’t say I never gave ya nothing.”

Monroe was getting more and more anxious to leave this place in the dust.  “Let’s get out of here, now.  You can look through all that stuff when we’ve put some miles behind us.”

With a scornful look at his partner, Evans made one more foray into his new treasure trove and chortled with glee as he came up with a wallet.  It didn’t contain a fortune, but even Monroe was temporarily distracted as the two robbers divided up the tidy sum.  

***********

“Jake, what are we going to do?”  

Billy’s eyes were beseeching and for a moment his older brother was conscious only of an overwhelming feeling of resentment.  Why should he be expected to know what to do?  Being a few years older than his brother didn’t give him any special insight into how to handle this situation.

It had been Billy’s idea to ride out in search of their father after completing their cleanup of the streambed.  They both knew he’d be returning on horseback, and that this shortcut was his favored route.

When they’d heard a loud voice demanding that someone put their hands in the air, the boys had left their horses and proceeded quietly on foot.  They had been silent observers of the scene as the two men held their father at gunpoint, only to slip quietly away, at a loss as to how to help.

Truth be told, both boys were shaken to their core by the sight of Luke Preston, vulnerable and in need of their help.  They still viewed their father as the strongest, most invincible of men, and the thought of being his only source of rescue was almost inconceivable.  But when Billy repeated his question, Jake realized there was no one else to look to; their father’s life was in their hands.

“We have to get him some help.  Scott and Johnny are working on that fence line.  They’d be the closest.”

“But that’s too far away,” Billy objected.  “By the time we got them and came back, Pa could be….”  His voice trailed off even as his brother interrupted.

“What else can we do?  There’s two of them and we only have one gun between us,” Jake pointed out grimly.

“Shit!  What a time for me to go and leave my rifle at home.”

“Unless—“Jake was thinking furiously.  “Maybe there’s a way we can split them up.” 

**********

Evans had finally completed his inventory of stolen goods and was willing to concede the advisability of making their getaway.  He advanced on their captive with a dirty rag.  “I reckon we oughta gag him so he can’t yell for help.  We wouldn’t want him to be found before we’ve managed to make ourselves scarce.”

Luke had maintained a stony silence during the whole proceeding, and this threat provoked nothing more than a thunderous scowl.  After tying the gag securely, the outlaw glanced towards the edge of the clearing. Where two horses had been standing quietly, now there was only one.

“Shit!”  Evans snarled.  “You gotta go find that nag.  We won’t get anywhere with just one horse.”  Realizing the truth of that statement, his partner climbed on the remaining animal and set off.

Now the clearing appeared to contain only the two men, but Evans—seething with impotent fury—would have been well advised to pay some attention to his bound-and-gagged captive.  Luke’s expression of shock—a wide-eyed gaze directed at a spot just beyond his shoulder—would have alerted him to the fact that they weren’t really alone.  Instead, Evans was taken completely by surprise when a voice rang out behind him.

“Keep your hands away from your gun and turn around.”

The blond boy looked absurdly young, standing there with that solemn look on his face, but there was nothing absurd about that pistol, leveled with deadly accuracy.

The gambler decided his first move would be a bluff.  “Hey, boy,” he sneered, taking a tentative step forward, “don’t ya know you can get hurt playing with guns?”

A bullet plowed into the earth just inches from his right boot, and he cried out, “Ok!  OK!” as he thrust his hands into the air.

Jake’s solemn expression never wavered as he aimed his gun once more at the Evans’s chest.  “Toss your gun away, using your left hand.”  When this command had been obeyed, he gestured towards the bound man.  With just a touch more steel in his tone, he ordered, “Now, get over there and untie my pa.”

**********

Johnny was enjoying the spoils of his victory.  Hat pulled down low to shade his eyes; he lay sprawled in the shade of an old oak tree.  Occasionally he would glance across the meadow where his brother toiled in the hot sun, loading the remnants of the felled oak into the wagon.  His smug satisfaction was diminished a bit by the persistent ache of his overworked muscles—a clear warning of just how sore he would be tomorrow.  But a little physical discomfort was a small price to pay.  The true prize in this little contest wasn’t just the opportunity to spend an hour relaxing in the shade watching Scott work, but the bragging rights that went to the winner.

These pleasurable thoughts ended abruptly, however, as a horse and rider came hurtling out of the woods.  Johnny recognized Billy immediately.  He was on his feet in an instant, noticing that Scott was already halfway across the meadow.  The young boy threw himself out of the saddle and launched into his story.  Although visibly shaken, he relayed the facts rapidly and coherently.  The two Lancer men had obviously been thinking and planning as they listened, because they wasted no time in carrying out their hastily conceived strategy.

***********

Del peered cautiously out of the woods.  He still wasn’t sure if the nag had been stolen or simply spooked by all the activity in the glen.  While tracking the animal, he’d sometimes caught a glimpse, but had never been close enough to tell if there was a rider or not.  Now he took a good look around the meadow.  Aside from the horse, quietly grazing on the lush grass, the area appeared to be deserted.

Taking his courage in hand—along with his pistol—he entered the clearing.  For a few moments he sat in the saddle and again surveyed his surroundings.  Satisfied that he was alone, he holstered his gun and reached for the dangling reins.

“Lose something?”

The implacable menace in that soft drawl was something that would be forever etched in his memory.  For the second time in his life, he stared into the cold, hard eyes of Johnny Madrid, and found the experience no less heart-stopping than it had been the first time.

He was looking wildly around for some avenue of escape when a second deadly voice ordered, “Unbuckle your gunbelt and throw it down.”  Del shuddered, recognizing that deceptively civilized Boston accent.  With a well-aimed rifle providing extra incentive, he was quick to follow instructions, and to dismount when so ordered.

A young boy suddenly appeared, gathering the reins of both animals, and the glare on his face was almost as intimidating as the unrelenting expressions of the two men.

Madrid approached and gave a swift tug to the bandana that hid the outlaw’s features.  “Hey, I thought you and me had met before.”  That smile held its own threat.  “Look, Scott, it’s one of the bushwhackers that left Murdoch to die.  Seems kind of like he’s up to his old tricks.”

“Well, I suppose we’ll have to see if we can’t put an end to his….trickery.”  Scott remarked.  “Billy, go bring some rope from the wagon.”

In a fairly short time, Del had been securely bound and dumped into the wagon along with the rest of the debris.

Johnny, Scott and Billy were in the midst of a discussion about what actions to take next, when two more riders entered the meadow.

“Pa!”

The dark-haired man hastily dismounted and grasped his son by the shoulders.  “Billy, are you alright?”  It was with a mixture of pride and reprimand that Luke continued, “That was a risky thing to do, using yourself as bait to lead that man into this trap.”  He stepped back and confronted both his sons.  “You could have been shot, both of you!”

Jake leapt to his brother’s defense.  “Pa, you know how good Billy is in the woods.  He could have led that sidewinder in circles if he’d had a mind to.”

While Billy argued earnestly, “Jake’s been practicing for hours with that pistol.  He’s a match for any bushwhacker.”

Luke was of two minds: he was sorely tempted to flay the skin off these two for putting their lives in danger so recklessly, but they had showed such courage and determination.  For a moment he had a sudden vision of the men they would become, and couldn’t deny the surge of pleasure it gave him.

“We’ll discuss your actions at a later time.”  This stern warning was mitigated somewhat by the obvious emotion he displayed, forcing the words out past the lump in his throat.

Partly by way of distraction, Luke turned to the Lancer men.  Jake performed the introductions, and it wasn’t long before the whole group was ready to return to the ranch house.

Evans, bound hand and foot, joined his partner in the bed of the wagon.  It would have been difficult to find two more despondent would-be outlaws.  Two unsuccessful robbery attempts against two supposedly easy targets and no less than four vengeful sons—their brief foray into a life of crime had proven to be a failure they would not soon forget.

 

Calling the Tune (Part 15)

The occasion of Luke’s homecoming had progressed from being merely festive to positively celebratory.  Hours of work had already been spent on the preparation of a lavish evening meal.  The best table linens had been washed and ironed, and freshly polished silver sparkled at each place setting along with delicate fine china.  The finishing touch was provided by the opulent display of fresh flowers and candles that adorned the dining room.

Laura, blonde hair artfully arranged in sophisticated curls, was truly resplendent in her elegant silk gown.  While chosen to complement Luke’s gift—a dazzling ruby pendant—it also showed her enviable figure to its best advantage.  She would have been less than human had she failed to revel just a bit in the sincere expressions of masculine admiration that greeted her entrance.  Admiration that was summed up by her graceless younger son, with his heart-felt, if back-handed, compliment, “Gosh, Ma, you ain’t never looked so pretty before!”

It had been decided that—since their male guests currently had very limited wardrobes—the Preston men would forgo formal attire in favor of clean, pressed, everyday clothes.  Billy thanked his lucky stars for this small mercy; he considered the torture of stiff collars and neckties to be a high price to pay, even if tonight’s meal looked to be a regular, slam-bang, up-to-the-nines feast.

They were a party of eight at the dinner table that evening.  Murdoch had been granted official dispensation by Doc Simmons to attend this special gathering.  Although still on crutches, he’d entered the room under his own power, albeit under the watchful eyes of his two sons.

The eighth guest had arrived somewhat unexpectedly, that afternoon.  Buck Taylor, stopping by to update them on the fruitless search for the escaped prisoners, had been quite dumbfounded to discover the culprits were now kicking their heels in a disused smokehouse, which had been pressed into service as a makeshift jail.

Buck was reluctant to accept the proffered invitation to join them for dinner.  Sweaty, covered with trail dust and carrying the faint aroma of cattle, he insisted that he was in no condition to attend such “fancy doings.” Laura had waved aside all of his excuses, and before he could protest any further, he’d been hustled off to one off the guest rooms.  Thanks to one tub of hot water and some spare clothes from Luke, the crusty old foreman looked fairly civilized when he reported—as ordered—for pre-dinner drinks.

There was no lack of topics for discussion at this dinner party.  Murdoch and Luke, who had met casually over the years through the Cattlemen’s Association, debated issues facing the state’s ranchers and gossiped about mutual acquaintances.  Every male in the room—young or old—had opinions when it came to cattle breeding, horse trading and all other aspects of ranching.  And, inevitably, the conversation turned to the events of the past two weeks.

For Luke’s benefit, Murdoch explained the reason for his visit to the area and—as a fellow rancher—Luke voiced his keen appreciation of the bargain price paid for the Newton’s Rufus, an excellent bull.  If Murdoch’s demeanor was just a shade defensive, as he related the story of his journey and its attendant hazards, no one had the poor manners to comment on it.  Even his sons were tactful enough not to renew their previously stated objections.

Scott and Johnny continued the tale, putting special emphasis on the part paid by Laura, her sons, and Buck in saving their father’s life.  And, finally, the events of that very afternoon were revisited.  Luke had spent some time in conversation with his wife and, as a result, seemed much more inclined to take pride in his sons’ actions, rather than dwelling on his indignation concerning the risks involved. Billy and Jake tried hard to appear nonchalant, but the pleasure they took in their father’s praise was obvious to all.

When it seemed that everyone had finished the main course, an unspoken signal passed between Luke and his wife.  All eyes turned to the head of the table as the rancher got to his feet.  In the silence that followed, Laura busied herself, replenishing the wine for each guest.  Billy and Jake exchanged startled glances as their mother placed a full wine goblet before each of them.  With this task completed, she went to stand next to her husband.

Luke placed an arm around his wife’s shoulders and addressed the assembled company.  “I have an announcement to make tonight, and it gives me great pleasure to be able to share it with you—new friends, as well as old.”  He paused a moment before continuing.  “As you know, I’ve been gone for some time on a business trip.  It seems a very old investment I once made has provided an extremely handsome profit, and I was working on a plan to put those funds to the best use.”  The smile on his face now rivaled that of the cat that’d swallowed the canary.  “I’m pleased to be able to inform you that all the arrangements have now been finalized.  On the advice of his bankers, who hold not only second, but third mortgages on his property, Peter Newton has agreed to sell me his ranch—lock, stock and barrel.”

The reaction of his audience was all he could have wished for: sincere expressions of congratulations, one loud, cowboy whoop and two enthusiastic boys acting like Christmas had come early.

Raising his hand for silence, Luke went on, “I have a couple of things I want to mention before I ask you to join me in a toast to celebrate this happy occasion.”  He turned his attention to Buck, who was grinning ear-to-ear, delighted by the welcome news.  “This is going to come close to doubling the size of our place, and just hiring more hands isn’t going to be enough.  I need a man with the experience and know-how to help me run a spread this size, and you are the only man I know of who’s up to the job.”

The old-timer had a dazed expression on his face, and seemed incapable of speech at the present time; which was just as well, because Luke had more to add.  “Before you answer, I want to explain my terms: besides paying top dollar, I intend to deed over to you a parcel of Newton’s land.  You spent the better part of your life helping old Ralph build that place up from nothing but sagebrush, and it’s only fitting that a part of it be yours forever.”

“Luke, I can’t say when I’ve been so purely tickled by anything.”  There was no mistaking the honesty of Buck’s reply.  “I’d be honored to ramrod this here outfit, and I just hafta say that Ralph would be the first to see how fitt’n it is that the place go to a real cattleman, like yourself.”  The only shadow of sadness to befall their celebration came as he muttered, “I’m just glad he never lived to see his own flesh and blood squander what he’d worked so hard to build.”

For a brief space of time, Luke and Murdoch shared a glance—each father offering the same fervent but silent prayer:  “Thank God for these sons of mine!”

“That kind of puts me in mind of the other matter I wanted to mention.”  Now Luke’s words were less jubilant, more solemn.  “For twenty years I’ve poured my blood, sweat and tears into this place, but any man who puts the love of a piece of land above the love of his family is a fool.”  He lifted his wine goblet and gestured toward Billy and Jake.  “This ranch is a legacy which I share with two of the finest sons a father could ever hope to count as his own.  I ask you now to drink a toast with me in their honor—to Jacob and William Preston!”

Following this salute, a sumptuous variety of desserts was added to the table, and in the ensuing hubbub, Murdoch’s silence went unnoticed.  Oblivious to the chatter of the assembled company, he found himself recalling the expressions on the faces of those two boys as their father made that speech.  Although embarrassed, even squirming a bit over all the unprecedented attention, what shone in their eyes was undisguised joy.  Their father’s words of approbation and respect had been worth more to his sons than any cattle empire.

During his stay at the Preston ranch, Murdoch had come to recognize with a bittersweet clarity the many boyhood milestones he’d missed with his own sons.  Certainly one such occasion would have been an opportunity—like this—to express his pride in the men they were becoming and know how welcome it was.  But those opportunities were in the past; his sons were grown men now, not young boys standing in need of approval from their father.  And, as he’d said so many times, the past was over and done—the here and now was what he had, and that had to be all that counted.

With a mental shake, Murdoch chided himself for being maudlin.  He would never have indulged in this sentimental self-pity if he hadn’t been so tired.  Not just tired, the old man realized.  This was the longest stretch of time he’d spent sitting up since his accident, and it was testing the limits of his endurance.  Just as he was wondering whether his exhaustion was apparent to anyone else, he felt two pairs of blue eyes regarding him intently.  Irritably he drew himself up and—for his trouble—was visited by sharp pain in the ribs.  Unable to suppress a slight wince, he saw his sons exchange a glance and knew without question what was going to happen next.

With stubborn determination, however, he fought against the inevitable.  Murdoch Lancer both loved and respected his sons, but he’d be damned if he’d permit them to order him to bed like an unruly nine-year-old.  Summoning his final reserves of strength, he used his crutches to stand—unaided.  With as much dignity as possible, he thanked his host and hostess and made his excuses for the evening.

Of course, by the time he’d crossed the room, Scott was there offering his support and Johnny was holding the door open.  Still, he’d acquitted himself well enough, and—to tell the truth—was grateful for their assistance.

*******

Inside of a half-hour, the two young Lancer men had done a thorough but efficient job of seeing to their father’s needs and making sure he was comfortable.  A small dose of laudanum had been proffered, but the patient had been steadfast in refusing, and since the doctor had given leeway in this matter, he was allowed to have his way.  After adjusting blankets and pillows one final time, Scott and Johnny bid their father goodnight.  They were halfway out of the room when his voice—uncharacteristically tentative—reached them.

“Boys, could I talk to you for a minute, please?

Scott answered for both of them—“Of course, Murdoch.”—but they each wore slightly apprehensive expressions as they approached the bed.

“Please, sit down.”

Still a bit wary, despite their father’s mild tone, they settled into the nearest chairs and simply waited.

Murdoch took a deep breath, and when he spoke again it was with more forceful resolve.  “I have been doing a lot of thinking while I’ve been laid up here, and I’ve decided there are some things I need to say—just to clear the air.”

Johnny cast his brother a look that all but said aloud—“Now we’re in for it.”

“I once said that I loved Lancer more than anything God ever created.”  The old man winced, but continued in the same breath, “It was a stupid and foolish thing to say.  However much I may have believed it at the time, I’ve come to realize over the past few years that it is simply not true.”

He didn’t falter as he went on.  “Nothing is as important to me as the fact that you have both come home.  I can’t take credit for the fact that you’ve grown into fine, decent men; I can only tell you how proud I am to call you my sons.”

There it was!  Murdoch had been searching their eyes as he made this statement and was genuinely moved by his sons’ reactions—the same fervent, responsiveness he’d recognized in the Preston boys earlier that evening.

“For many years my only dream was to build Lancer into one of the finest ranches in the state, and you have helped to make that dream come true.”  His words carried the strength of his convictions.  “But, more than that, it has truly become our home.  And I find great peace in the knowledge that I can rely on both of you—your skills, your courage and your love of this land—to ensure that Lancer will be home for future generations of our family.”

Murdoch had pulled himself into a sitting position while delivering this impassioned declaration.  He’d pretty much depleted his store of energy, however, and when he slumped down, Johnny was at his side in an instant.

“Hey, old man, that’s more words than I’ve heard you string together since we’ve been here.  You really must be on the mend.”  Gently, he helped lower his father onto his pillows again.  “Muchas gracias, mi padre.”

Scott rose to his feet and lay on hand on Murdoch’s shoulder.  “Sir, your trust and respect mean a great deal to me, also.  Thank you.”

There was silence for a moment, and when Johnny spoke, it was with wicked mischief dancing in his eyes.  “Boy, Scott!  After a pretty speech like that—I guess we’ll have to change our minds about that plan to turn Lancer into a bordello after the old man’s gone.”

It took all the self-control engendered by Scott’s “lifetime of training”, to contain his laughter.  There were ominous rumblings emanating from his father, however. “Now take it easy, Murdoch.”  He pressed down slightly on the old man’s shoulder.  “You need to get some rest.”

Scott struggled to keep his voice stern as he hustled his snickering sibling from the room.  “I’ll make sure my little brother gets the necessary lecture about propriety and decorum.”

Murdoch waited until the door had closed behind his sons before allowing a foolish grin to spread across his face.  His last waking thought—memories of this evening’s rare but welcome little dialogue—kept the smile in place even as he fell deeply asleep.

 

************

When Scott carried the drinks onto the porch, his brother was already sprawled comfortably in the cushioned wicker settee.  After handing him one of the drinks, the older man settled in beside him.  For a time, both men simply sipped their drinks and enjoyed the calm, tranquility of the peaceful night.

“So, what do you think?”  Scott made no attempt to qualify this ambiguous question—the same subject was on both their minds.

“Give him a little time, and he’ll be back to calling the tune again.”  The dark head nodded, “Ain’t no doubt about it.”

“And does that bother you?”

Johnny took another drink before stretching his long legs and placing his feet on the railing in front of him.  There was a look of complete contentment on his face as he answered his brother.  “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

 

Calling the Tune (Part 16)

Alone with his thoughts and an early morning cup of coffee, Scott settled into a comfortable armchair near the fireplace and simply listened.  The pleasant murmur of feminine voices coming from the kitchen—a companionable hodge-podge of Spanish and English—spoke of years spent together caring for the men of Lancer.  The blustering of the horses out in the corral was punctuated by an occasional oath or ribald comment from the hands who were readying them for the day’s work.  Jelly seemed to be mediating a territorial dispute between Dewdrop and a recently acquired, very aggressive rooster.  Although Johnny hadn’t yet put in an appearance, the familiar metallic jingle of his spurs on the polished wooden floors proclaimed that he was up and about.

Determined to enjoy the solitude a bit longer, Scott chose to remain where he was even as he heard his brother greeting the ladies in the kitchen.

Johnny, Scott, and Murdoch had arrived yesterday.  Their journey home had taken more than a week’s time.  Along with sincere good wishes, the Prestons had provided them with a buckboard for the trip to Stockton, and Laura had carefully padded the wagon’s bed so Murdoch would have a comfortable place to sleep while camping out overnight.  While accepting this one concession—made for his comfort—their father had rebuffed every other attempt by his sons to make any accommodation for his injury and weakened state.

Scott anticipated another frustrating confrontation in Stockton, when he and Johnny insisted on stopping for several days to allow Murdoch to rest.  His misgivings in this regard were needless, however, thanks to the talents of Mr. Downing.  When they checked in at the hotel, Scott and Johnny had the good sense to simply stand in silent awe as the genteel, but redoubtable manager proceeded to convince Murdoch that it was all HIS OWN idea to enjoy the amenities of the Statesman for several days.

This state of affairs lasted for the duration of their visit.  For example, Mr. Downing was ‘certain’ that Mr. Lancer would wish to take advantage of the opportunity to partake of breakfast in bed—a privilege offered only to their most valued clientele.  Mr. Lancer’s sons were even more certain that such a suggestion on their part would have resulted in an outraged refusal and accusations of ‘mollycoddling’.  So both boys had wisely left the care and handling of Murdoch Lancer to a proven expert.

Now, Scott smiled over his coffee cup.  Tact and admirable powers of persuasion weren’t Mr. Downing’s only accomplishments.  The small crate setting on a nearby table bore witness to that fact.  He contemplated the case of tequila, and his smile widened into a broad grin, remembering that second evening in Stockton.

********

Johnny had approached him just after supper.  “Hey, Scott, I just talked to Mr. Downing.  He said he’s got ‘a number of select varieties of high-quality tequila’ and he’d be pleased if I could come down tonight and give him the benefit of my expertise in evaluating them.”  A gleam of mischief danced in his eyes.  “I think that means we’re gonna get drunk doing shots.”  With just the hint of a wheedling tone, he continued, “So, do ya think you could manage to ride herd on the old man alone tonight?”

Scott had already made plans to spend the evening sharing a game of chess and a bottle of vintage brandy with their father, but that didn’t prevent him from exercising an older brother’s prerogative and making his younger brother sweat just a bit before agreeing.

It was sometime in the early hours of the morning that Scott awoke to hear someone making his way down the hallway.  Definitely—Johnny.  Whatever his brother’s frame of mind—happy and relaxed, menacing and intent, or just plain bone-tired—his footsteps always conveyed a quiet self-confidence.  And they did so now.  Slow, careful, deliberate—the clang of one booted-spur died away before another step was attempted—but, still altogether confident of his ability to make it down the hall and into his room before collapsing entirely.  From the adjoining room, Scott heard the door open and close, a loud creak of bedsprings, and then total silence.

When he checked the next morning, he found Johnny face down on top of the embroidered quilt, fully clothed and still wearing his boots and spurs.  A polite greeting and gentle tap on the shoulder elicited no response.  Raising the shades and flooding the room with sunlight, however, produced a sound somewhere between a moan and a groan.

Half-a-pot of the hotel’s excellent coffee was required before Johnny was able to speak in complete sentences.  “You wouldn’t have believed it, Scott.  That Mr. Downing—he matched me drink for drink, never slowed down any.”  Those blue eyes sparkled with as much enthusiasm as could be expected from a man whose head felt ready to explode.  “Did ya know that he used ta work for a real duke, being something called a majordomo?  He traveled all over the world—Egypt, China, Tahaiti—running things for this duke. By the end of the night, he’d told me some pretty amazing stories.”  With a rueful grimace, he continued, “Course, by the end of the night, he was doing a better job at talking than I was at listening.  I don’t think his tongue ever tripped once the whole time he was spouting all those fancy words.”  He gave a weak chuckle, “But he sure does know good tequila.”

A short while later the two men visited the hotel lobby, and Scott was able to judge for himself the validity of his brother’s claims.  After a hot bath, a change of clothes and another half-a-pot of coffee, Johnny still bore the unmistakable evidence of his night of debauchery.  Mr. Downing, on the other hand, looked as fresh and polished as a newly-minted penny.

“Sir, may I say again how much I appreciate your assistance in appraising my recent liquor acquisitions?  As a token of my gratitude, I’ve set aside a half-dozen bottles of the tequila that met with your particular approval.  They will be boxed and ready to accompany you when you depart.”

*****

Scott couldn’t help but snicker, recalling his brother’s faint shudder and the slight greenish tinge that crept into his face as he thanked the dapper, little manager for his thoughtfulness. 

“Hey, Scott, you’re up early.  When Maria fixed my huevos rancheros, she said you’d already had your breakfast.”  Johnny entered the room juggling a coffee cup and at least three biscuits. 

Immediately the older man tore his gaze from the crate and assumed a bland expression, but Johnny had already seen the smirk on his face.

Eyes narrowed with dawning comprehension, he inquired icily, “Something funny, brother?”

“No, no,” Scott replied in a placating tone, “I just figured today was going to be a pretty busy day, so I wanted to get an early start.”

The younger man seemed mollified by this answer, and decided against inciting a brawl first thing in the morning.  Instead he flopped down on the nearest chair and consumed all three biscuits in record time.

“Have you seen anything of Murdoch this morning?”  Scott inquired as he refilled his brother’s empty cup.

“Didn’t see him, but I heard him.”  Now it was Johnny’s turn to smirk.  “Teresa took him breakfast in bed, and she was trying to convince him he should spend the day resting—not get up and try doing any work at all.”

This wasn’t a surprising turn of events.  When they’d arrived home yesterday, it was obvious that Teresa—who had been put in the position of worrying from afar during all the weeks of Murdoch’s recovery—was determined to make up for lost time.  As Johnny had put it—she was like a mother hen with one chick.  It was a testament to the old man’s love and regard for her that he’d born it so patiently.

In truth, Murdoch’s physical condition was much improved.  Scott and Johnny had arranged to have Sam Jenkins present when they arrived at Lancer.  He’d given his long-time patient a thorough examination and hadn’t minced words when giving his verdict.  “The man’s a lot luckier than he deserves to be after pulling that stunt.  His ribs seem to have healed well, and I should be able to remove that cast on his leg in a few weeks.  No manual labor for some time to come, but—provided he rests often and doesn’t overdo it—he can go back to work whenever he wants.”

Remembering the doctor’s words, Scott cast a glance at his brother.  “So, did you come to our father’s rescue?”

“Oh, no!”  Johnny shook his head, “If the old man figures he’s ready to start calling the tune again, he can start by fighting his own battles.”

But his older brother wasn’t fooled.  “You mean—you’re scared of Teresa.”

Not even bothering to deny it, Johnny just drawled, “You said it!  I’d sooner get between a mother bear and her cub.”

Further conversation was halted by rhythmic thumping followed by the appearance of their father, who was making efficient use of his crutches.  The old man was looking a bit harassed and cast at least one nervous glance at the door before squaring his shoulders and assuming a look of utter determination.

For the moment he paid no attention to the other occupants of the room, and—wholly intent on the panoramic view of Lancer from his study window—he made his way, unfaltering, to his desk.  After seating himself and placing his crutches within arm’s reach, he regarded the papers and ledgers that were spread before him.

Neither Scott nor Johnny had spoken during this somewhat protracted process.  Each seemed content to simply enjoy the sight—denied them for so long—of their father in his most familiar surroundings.

After rearranging a few of the items on his desk, Murdoch came out of his reverie with a start—as though realizing abruptly that he was not alone.  “Good morning, Scott—Johnny.”

“Good morning, sir.”

“Mornin, Murdoch.”

There was just a moment more of silence, and then Murdoch sat up a bit straighter.  Clearing his throat a bit self-consciously, he began to speak in a brisk tone.  “Well, there’s a lot to be done on our first day back here.”  He hesitated, “Do you have any recommendations as to which jobs should be tackled first?”

After receiving a brief nod of confirmation from his brother, Scott launched into a list of tasks.  “Well, since Rufus will be arriving soon, we thought we better get started rounding up about a hundred head of good breeding stock.  While we are doing that, we’ll have a chance to check out the fence line and see if any repairs need to be made.”

Johnny continued, “I’ve already made up an order for the extra supplies we’ll need to get started on that extra corral.  It should be ready by the time the stallion gets here.”

“That sounds fine, just fine.”  And—to the ears of all three men—there was just a faint note of pride in that rumbling baritone voice.  But before complacency could rear its ugly head, Murdoch was back to a more familiar manner—stern and unyielding.  “So, were you two planning on getting started with that job of work sometime today?”

Both of his sons were on their feet and nearing the door almost before he’d finished speaking.

“Yep, we were just on our way out, Murdoch.”  Johnny retrieved his hat from the table where he’d tossed it.

Before they left the room, however, Scott stopped to direct a serious look at his father.  “Sir, you will remember Sam’s instructions—about getting enough rest.  We wouldn’t be pleased if we returned and found you’d pushed yourself too hard on your first day back.”

Surprisingly, Murdoch was able to suppress the contentious reply that sprang automatically to his lips.  Instead he smiled wryly, “I don’t think they’ll be much chance of that.  I’m sure Teresa will be hovering nearby to make sure I take my nap like a good boy.”

Opening up a large ledger, he fired off his final decree, “I want a full accounting of what was accomplished today and an estimate of our most pressing needs for the next few weeks—tonight!”

*************

Scott glanced at his brother as the two of them strapped on their gun belts.  “Murdoch seems to be on his way back to a full recovery.”

Johnny was quick to agree.  “Oh, I’d say he’s got the reins alright.  He’s probably even strong enough for us to mention our newest plan.”

“Our newest plan ……?”

Eyes alight with unholy amusement, Johnny threw an arm around his brother’s shoulders and kept talking as the two of them walked out the door, “You know, the plan to turn the place into a circus camp—after the old man’s gone.  Why, old P.T. Barnum, he could use a place like this to train his elephants.  We could put the clowns out in the bunkhouse……”

 

The End

 

Epilogue:

The inmates of Bridger State Penitentiary, especially those with experience at other penal institution, agreed that—as prisons went—Bridger was better than most.  Warden Marlow was tough-as-nails, and if you broke his rules, he’d make sure you paid.  But he was also fair, refusing to countenance brutality for no other reason than the enjoyment of sadistic guards.  Cooperation and good behavior were rewarded, usually with free time in the exercise yard or the chance of an easier work assignment.

In his office, Warden Marlow was currently trying to understand the cause of a recent altercation in his facility.  Carl Evans and Del Monroe had served six months on their sentence for armed robbery.  So far both men had appeared to be model prisoners.  There had been no reports of rebellious or violent behavior.  The guards all reported that the two were obedient and submissive.  They seemed to have found their place in the hierarchy of the inmates with very little trouble—until now.

Evans and Monroe, in recognition of their good records, were allowed a certain amount of free time.  This time was usually spent playing poker with a group of other inmates.  These games were usually trouble-free, since the players knew that any problems would result in an immediate loss of the privilege.  But it was during one of these poker games that the two new convicts had pretty much started a riot.

Marlow listened as his head guard recounted the all the information he’d gathered concerning the incident.  “Everything seemed to be going real quiet—no ruckus at all.  Them boys was just chewing the fat and some of ‘um started in talking about different gunhawks they’d seen.  One of’um saw John Wesley Hardin when he was just a kid.  Anyways—Evans started in bragging about how he and Monroe went up against Johnny Madrid.  You could see most of the others didn’t believe him none, but he just kept on—talking about how fast Madrid was, and how he had a brother who was real handy with a gun, too.”

“Monroe, he kept real quiet during all of this.  Didn’t say nothing to back up his partner’s story.  So Evans got ta talking even wilder.  Told everyone that when they got out of the pen, he and Monroe was going after Madrid again.  Said they was gonna take on Madrid and his whole family—make a real haul raiding this fancy spread that Madrid owned now.”  The guard shook his head, “Well, that’s when it happened.  Monroe shot out of his seat and threw himself across the table—knocked over chairs, stepped on anyone who got in his way.  He had his hands wrapped around Evans’ neck and was bashing his head against the ground.  The guards said he was yelling something like ‘not again’ over and over.  Now that Monroe, he’s on the scrawny side, but it took three men to drag him away—with the whole prison yard cheering him on.”

The warden sighed.  “I suppose we may never know the whole story, but we can sure give the two of them some time to consider their future behavior.”  He scrawled his signature on a document and handed it to his assistant.  “Solitary confinement—one week.”

 

~ end ~

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