The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Marilyn

 

 

Big Sky

Chapter One

It was late February in the San Joaquin Valley and Mother Nature had graciously blessed the residents, both man and beast, with a fairly decent winter. Spring was just over the horizon, waiting to burst forth and bring new life in all forms to the valley. Down in the low valley the earth tone hues of winter were speckled with varying shades green and showed signs of new growth. The lakes and springs had been filled with water by the winter rains and provided the water needed for the cattle that roamed free about the land.  The higher terrain lie dormant her winter cloak of fallen leaves protecting the tender saplings beneath it. The surrounding mountains loomed cold and gray, their highest peaks covered with caps of snow and ice, part of which would melt and further fill the water sources. Soon the sun’s bright spring rays would kiss the chilled ground and wake up the sleeping trees and vegetation that had always sustained its wildlife with food and shelter.

Things were slow around the hacienda, the winter chores were well in hand; with no foreseeable trouble lurking about to cause worry. Therefore, Murdoch was seriously taking in to consideration an invitation he had received from an old friend asking him to come for a visit. And if he should go, now was the ideal time to do it. This opportunity couldn’t have come at a better time, for something he had in mind; something he knows will make the youngest Lancer very happy. Murdoch was bursting at the seams with anticipation to tell him, if only he would hurry up and get on home.

“Where is your brother?” Murdoch grumbled as he impatiently looked out the window. “He should have been home by now.”

“He’ll be here, don’t worry.” Scott assured his antsy father, “That gully was pretty backed up, and it’s taking him longer to clear it then he first had thought.  Besides you don’t want him to do half a job cleaning it out, or we’ll lose quite a bit of the spring runoff.”

“I guess you’re right.” Murdoch sighed. “Uh, Scott, while we wait for Johnny to show up, I need to know something. Are you sure you can handle things around here while we’re gone? I mean it will be at least a couple of weeks possibly longer before we get back. That’s if your brother wants to go.”

“Sure I can handle things, Murdoch,” Scott eagerly replied. “It’s our slow season right now, and there’s not much to do, until spring birthing and roundup.”

“I know, but…”

“But… what?  It will do you and Johnny a world of good to get away for awhile,” Scott reasoned with his stubborn father. “Why do you think Johnny finds all these little chores to do? It’s because he’s getting restless. And you know he’ll jump at the chance to get away, especially once he hears what you have in mind.”

“Have what in mind?” inquired a soft voice. “What’s going on?”

“Johnny!” Murdoch shouted delightfully. “I didn’t hear you come in, son.”  He looked down at Johnny’s bootless feet and now knew why, he didn‘t hear the jingle of spurs he was accustomed to hearing whenever Johnny would enter a room. “Where’s your boots?”

 

“I left them by the back door, they’re…uh…kind of muddy. And I wouldn’t dare mess up Maria’s clean floors, or she’d have my head, or even worse dust the seat of my pants with her wooden spoon…while I’m still in them,” he snickered.

“Well, I must say the rest, of you, is not exactly clean either,” Scott snidely commented after looking over his brother’s rather dirty attire. Johnny had mud plastered on his blue shirt and pants. His thick unruly hair was matted down with sweat and with little twigs sticking out. “What did you do, fall in the gully, or decide to bring a little of it home with you?” he sarcastically asked.  His haughty air deserted him in a huff and a puff when he felt the back of Johnny’s hand in his midsection.

“No, Scott! I hit a big snag while clearing it. I had trouble with a large log, it wouldn’t budge. But I did get it out, and I just got a little dirty that’s all!” Johnny curtly retorted, and then turned his attention back to his father. “Now what’s going on?”

Murdoch smiled and gave Scott a quick wink. “Johnny, how would like to take a long trip with your old man?”

“A long trip? Where?”

“Montana!” his father blurted out, excitement animating his normally stern face.

“MONTANA?”   Johnny shouted loudly.

“Yes, Montana. You see my old friend Mason Andrews used to have a cattle ranch not too far from here, but when his wife died, he decided he needed a change in his life. So he moved there and started up a horse ranch,” Murdoch anxiously explained. “And from what I hear he’s doing quite well at it too. Anyway, he wrote me and asked if I would like to come for a visit. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him, oh say at least six years.”

“Sounds nice, Murdoch, but why do you need me to come along?” Johnny asked a little confused.

“Because Johnny, I have been thinking more on your idea about raising horses as a side business. And thought this would be a perfect learning experience for you…since you’ll be the one running it, in your spare time that is.” Murdoch explained, and then waited for his son’s reaction.

Johnny stood there flabbergasted, his jaw dropped and he was speechless. Murdoch and Scott couldn’t help but chuckle at the stunned expression on Johnny’s young face. They could have sworn he was going to pass out from the shock when he began to weave back and forth. But Johnny remained standing and shook his head. He rubbed his ears and poked in them with his index finger as if he was trying to clear them, for he couldn’t believe what he had just heard.

“You’re…you’re…not pulling my leg are ya?” Johnny asked a little dazed, and then he looked at the wide grins on both his father and brother’s faces, “You’re…you’re…serious?”

“Yes, son, I’m very serious.” Murdoch replied cheerfully. “So what do you say, do you want to give it a shot?”

“Oh, boy would I!” Johnny proclaimed, without having to think twice about it, “Well when do we leave?”

“As soon as possible, I want to get back before spring chores come around.”

“Sounds good to me, the sooner the better I always say.” Johnny anxiously added, his eager anticipation fairly vibrating off of him in waves.

“Mind you, this is a going to be a long trip there and back, so we’ll be traveling first by stage and then by train. And you’ll need to bring a warmer jacket and clothes along. Montana is not like California, Johnny. It’s more open, and their winters are harsher and colder.” Murdoch warned his son, as to what to expect. “Mason informed me in his letter of some important details I should know before I…we head out there. So are you still game?” he asked knowing that Johnny wasn’t accustomed to the extreme cold weather he might be encountering.

“Oh yes, I‘m game. I’m not going to let a little cold weather get the best of Johnny Madrid,” Johnny confirmed. “I have faced worse and it didn’t stop me.”

Murdoch smiled at his son’s overzealous spunk. “Good, then I’ll get the ball rolling tomorrow and wire Mason we’re coming before we catch the stage.”

“In the meantime, little brother, I suggest you head straight for the bath house, before Maria and Teresa find you looking like that,” Scott warned. “I know you faced worse, but put two angry women together against one dirty cowboy! You might not get the chance to go, if you know what I mean?’

“Yeah I guess I better, huh?  Those two can get pretty mean.” Johnny laughed, and headed off towards the bath house, with a jaunty step and a cheerful spark in his bright blue eyes.

“He’s as excited as little boy in a candy store,” Scott said as he watched his brother practically skipping his way to the bath house. “I bet he never thought you would agree to the horse business.”

“At first I had my doubts, after all this is still a cattle ranch, Scott.  And I never gave much thought to raising horses. But I have watched Johnny with them, and I think he can make it work.”

“I have watched him as well, and I know he can,” Scott said with deep admiration. He was a firm believer in his brother’s abilities when it came to working with and breaking wild horses.

Murdoch smiled and nodded, “Well, son, let’s go over some of the things I want done while I’m gone.”  

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

While Murdoch and Scott discussed the minor details of the ranch business, Johnny eased his sore and tired bones into the hot steaming tub, Maria had prepared for him. Prepared that is, once she got over the initial shock of seeing her niño covered in mud, and after a few choice words in Spanish, and then an affectionate slap to his arm with a wooden spoon. Then old woman’s heart softened when he flashed that dazzling smile of his, a smile she could never resist. However, she did threaten to burn his favorite pink shirt and pants if she ever caught him that dirty again.

As Johnny reclined, basking in the soothing warmth of the water, his mind was racing with wonderment. He still couldn’t believe that after all the head butting he had with Murdoch, over the prospect of breeding and selling horses, that now his old man finally agreed to it. And now he wants to take him on a trip to learn more about them! But what more could he possibly need to know? He knows enough about horses to get started. However, to please his father he’ll go to Montana and meet his friend. Besides he just couldn’t pass up this opportunity to get away from the ranch, to him it had been a long winter so far and he was starting to go stir crazy.

With all these chaotic thoughts running through his head, Johnny highly doubted he would be able to sleep tonight. All of a sudden he was seized by a euphoric burst of energy, excitement rippled through his body, starting with his toes and traveling up to his dark head. All the exhilaration and jubilation he was feeling expanded, filling every pore of his being until he could no longer contain it and it screamed for a joyous release.

“YEEEEEEE HAWWWWW!

Johnny’s carefree and ecstatic cry bounced off the bath house walls and echoed throughout the lower part of the house. Murdoch and Scott looked up each other and smiled delightfully. This was going to be one hell of trip for the youngest Lancer.

 

Chapter Two

The evening seemed to drag slowly by; the waning sun finally vanished from the sky allowing the nocturnal period to begin.  Johnny and Murdoch retired early in preparation of their coming trip.  However, it was just as Johnny had predicted, the sandman was eluding him.  No matter how hard he tired he just couldn’t get to sleep.  He desperately tried not to think about horses or the trip, but it was useless. His mind was too full of wondrous things. At first he just laid there staring up at the ceiling counting the cracks and lines, in an attempt to distract his thoughts.  He boyishly followed the lines with his eyes, connecting them to each other and he’ll be dang if they didn’t form a horse’s head. He blinked rapidly, and rubbed his stunned eyes to make it go away, but when he glared back up at the ceiling, it was still there.

Signing in dismay, he restlessly turned over and puffed up his pillow, wrapping his bare arms around it, and tried to get a little more comfortable. Then his eyes were drawn to the dancing figures on his wall, gray shadows cast by the moon’s luminous glow as it beamed through the trees outside his window. Their branches were still full of leaves and gently swayed in the breeze, projecting a cheerful shadow show for him. Then the wind picked up and the limbs blew wickedly back and forth. Johnny moaned in disgust when the dancing shapes now resembled a herd of racing horses stampeding along his wall.  Finally giving up on any hope of getting get some shut eye, he got out of bed, slipped his pants back on, walked to the window and gazed up at the twinkling stars.

Johnny smiled as he thought back to the last time he felt this excited. He was only nine at the time, and had just gotten his first real job, at a local ranch back in Mexico, cleaning the stables. However, it wasn’t the job that thrilled him, it was what he got to see every time he went to work, the breaking of the horses. He could still recall the sounds of the men cheering on the riders, as they bravely clung to the bronc’s back while it kicked and bucked around the corral. The excitement of it all would stir his blood, and he would find himself cheering along with the men, “OLA! BRAVO!”

He also remembered how he would race home at the end of the day and eagerly share the details of his day with his mama. Then he would take a pad and pencil, retreat to his corner of the small adobe shack they called home, and start to draw. From memory he would sketch the bronco rider on the frenzied and crow hopping steed, or a wild stallion running free, tail and mane flying in the wind. His small body would be tired from his day at work, and he would drift off and dream of one day having a horse ranch of his very own. One that would be known far and wide; and people would come from all over just to buy his stock. Those had been the dreams and wishes of a poor boy. He had pushed those fantasies to the back of his mind as he got older; and never thought about them again, until now.

Johnny’s head snapped up in surprise when the first dim rays of the morning sun, peeked over the mountains, and the old rooster crowed its morning call. He shook his head in disbelief when he realized he must have been standing there longer than he realized, lost in his thoughts. Johnny knew that there was no way he was going back to bed now. So he pushed off from the window, and walked over to the washstand. Looking into the mirror he commenced with his normal morning routine of shaving, combing his thick dark hair, and then dressing. Once he was finished he packed his toiletries in the suitcase Scott had loaned him, and grabbed his heavier jacket that Scott gave him for Christmas out of the closet. He tossed it over his shoulder and headed downstairs.

“Murdoch!” Johnny exclaimed in surprise when he saw his father already sitting at the table as he entered the kitchen. “You’re up early.”

“I couldn’t sleep,” Murdoch replied with a yawn. “I had too much on my mind.”

“Yeah… me too,” Johnny tiredly admitted, as he poured himself a hot cup of coffee, and then refilled his father’s empty cup. “I have to admit you sure did surprise me when you agreed to let me try this, Murdoch.  You were so against it before. Why the sudden change of heart?” he felt compelled to ask, as he sat down next to his father.

Murdoch looked at his son‘s inquisitive blue eyes and smiled, “Well, I’ve been watching you with the horses, John, and I saw how they respond to you. You have a special gift and I think you can make a go of it,” Murdoch proudly confessed. “But, I also have to admit, at first I didn‘t know what to expect out of you when you came home. I…”

Johnny raised his hand to stop his father, “You don’t have to say it. I know at first you didn’t know me well enough. We were like strangers, and with me being who I was…” Johnny tapered off with a slight hitch to his voice. “I understand that now.  And I sure as hell didn’t make it easy for you to get to know me, or trust me.”

“No, you did not. But we worked through that and we’re no longer strangers, are we?”

“No, we’re not,” Johnny brightly agreed. “And I give you my word that I‘ll do my best to make this horse business work,” he promised earnestly.

“That’s all I ask of you, to do your best. Agreed?” Murdoch grinned and held his hand out to his son.

“Agreed!” Johnny smiled back, and then took his father’s hand in his, and shook it vigorously. Then a soft chuckle escaped his lips as he thought back to his boyhood dream.

“What’s on your mind?” his father asked.

“Oh… nothing,” Johnny said. “Just thinking of something I used to dream of when I was a boy.”

“Care to tell your old man about it?” Murdoch hopefully inquired, as he would love to hear more about his son’s childhood, good or bad.  Just to help fill in some of the missing pieces of the years they were separated.

Johnny thought hard for a minute, and then figured this memory was harmless enough to share with his father, so he nodded. “Well… I used to dream of one day having my own horse ranch, and I was a big success at it too.  People from all around would come to buy only my horses,” he confessed as his face flushed with youthful embarrassment.

“You did?” Murdoch pleasantly replied.

“Yeah… kind of silly, huh?”

“No, it’s not silly at all, Johnny! Every boy has those kinds of dreams at one time or another in his life,” Murdoch assured his brooding son. “Why do you say it’s silly?” he asked as he reached over and place a gentle hand on Johnny’s arm.

Johnny squirmed a little in his chair before answering. “It was a poor boy’s foolish dream, Murdoch. Back then in those border towns, kids like me, well we weren’t the most popular kids in town. And so we had to fight and scratch for what we wanted. We could only dream of things that were out of our reach,” Johnny sadly stated. Then when he looked up at his father’s guilt ridden face, he could have kicked himself when he realized he must have made it sound like it was his father’s fault for the way he had to live.

“Johnny, if I had known where to look!’

Johnny quickly hushed his father and earnestly apologized for his stupidity. “Murdoch, I’m…I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. You didn’t know where I was, and you had no control over what goes on in those towns.” Then he smiled and his eyes twinkled when he added, “But I did manage to go on, and now I’m here with you and Scott. And that’s all that counts, right? So let’s forget I even mentioned it, okay? ” 

Murdoch looked into his boy’s smiling eyes, and felt a heavy burden suddenly lifted off his heart. “Yes, son, you’re right. You’re home where you belong and that’s all that matters.”  He gave Johnny’s arm an affectionate squeeze, “And with your ambition and skill, your dream will come true. I just know it will.” Murdoch exclaimed with bold confidence.

The kitchen door swung open letting in a ray of light and fresh air, along with Maria who entered the kitchen humming, as she was getting ready to prepare breakfast. She was caught off guard, “Ah, Senors, you are up early. What would you like me to make for you this morning?” she asked brightly, as she walked by and gave her niño a peck on the cheek.

“Whatever you wish, Maria, but make it hardy. We have a stage to catch and a long trip ahead of us,” Murdoch cheerfully instructed.

“Si Senor.”

Johnny beamed, “Yeah, Mamacita, I’m so hungry I could eat a cow!”

********

After the very filling breakfast Maria prepared for the anxious travelers, Johnny and Murdoch went over some last minute details with the hands and staff before heading out. Johnny made sure that Jelly would be the one to look after Barranca. The old handy man knew what his needs were and how to handle the spirited horse. He instructed Jelly to let Barranca run and graze out in the south pasture at least twice a day. He knew how much his trusted amigo hated to be cooped up in the stuffy barn for long periods of time.

Johnny stood there and sadly stroked Barranca’s golden neck, and then leaned his dark head into it. Jelly knew that was his cue to take his leave, so he quietly left to let Johnny say his goodbye.

“Well, mi amigo, I can’t take you with me this time,” Johnny whispered in Barranca’s ear as he affectionately rubbed it.  “But I’ll miss ya. You know that don’t ya?”  Barranca gently nudged Johnny, and then nestled his head down on his shoulder in response. A sad smile graced the young gun-hawk’s bronze face, “Yeah that’s the good fella.” 

“Uh, Johnny, Murdoch is ready to leave now,” Jelly informed him, after he quietly came back in and stood by the door.

“Yeah, sure Jelly, tell Murdoch I’ll be out in a few minutes,” Johnny hastily replied. “I’m just finishing up.”

Jelly smiled, “I’ll tell him. But don’t take too long. Don’t want to miss that stage, do ya?”

“No, no, I’ll hurry,” Johnny claimed softly.  Jelly nodded and left again. Johnny then looked into his amigo’s big brown eyes and promised, “I have to go now, but I promise when we get back, you and I will have a workout chasing down those wild horses.  We’ll be running fast and free as the wind. How does that sound?”

Barranca’s ears perked up and he began to prance around and whinny, so loud it echoed off the barn walls. He playfully pushed and nudged Johnny towards the barn door as if to say, ‘Well get going and hurry back.’ The horse’s youthful antics reminded Johnny of a mischievous young colt and he couldn’t help but to smile with amusement.

“Okay, okay, I’m going,” Johnny chuckled as he left the barn. He looked back one more time as Barranca peeked out the door. “See ya, fella.”

“What was that all about? I could hear Barranca from way out here,” Murdoch inquired curiously when Johnny climbed aboard the buckboard.

“Oh, just a promise I made.”

“Promise? Now what kind of promise could ya make to a horse?” Jelly snorted.

“Jelly, you wouldn’t understand if I told you.” Johnny teased. “Now let’s get this buggy going. We have a stage to catch.”

“Well, I wouldn’t even try to understand you and that horse!” Jelly griped.

Jelly gave the reins a quick snap and they were off. Father and son heading to what they hoped would be a relaxing and productive adventure.

 

Chapter Three

It felt like the great adventure was off to a terribly leisurely start, at least to an impatient Johnny, who was anxious to be at their destination already.  Yet here they were stuck on the road from Lancer. Johnny couldn’t tell if it was his imagination or not, but the road looked like it had been purposely stretched out with no end in sight. Perhaps it was Jelly playing a cruel joke on him, he could swear they were going in slow motion, because it seemed like it was taking forever to get to town.  Adding to his discomfort, not matter how much he tried, he just couldn’t get comfortable in back of the buckboard. He squirmed and fidgeted about, trying many different positions to sit or to lie, but it was useless. As tired as he was from the lack of sleep, Johnny had hoped he would have dozed off by now, and then wake up and find they were in town, but no. The anticipation of getting on that stage and starting this trip burned at his nerves to the point an itchy sensation had him fighting the urge to scream.  He was as antsy as June bug on a scorching hot rock.

Murdoch was having a hard time keeping down the mirth that wanted to escape, as he listened to his son mumble and scramble about behind him. Johnny’s childish antics reminded him of when he was two. When dinner time came around, he would sit in his highchair and repeatedly pound the table with his little hands, impatiently waiting for his meal. Then he would push on the table and rock back and forth, until one time he pushed too far and went flying backwards. Murdoch could still recall the shocked look on his little face, and the eardrum piercing wail that ensued. He fondly remembered saying, Lord have mercy, as he picked up his niño and cradled him in his arms.

Finally Johnny was able to settle down but it wasn’t long before Murdoch heard that familiar nervous tick of his son’s. From habit, Johnny began tapping his long tanned fingers alongside the wagon, his nails clicking in perfect rhythm.

“Jelly, can ya get this buggy moving any faster?” Johnny grumbled. “If I had my horse, I’d be in town, by now.”

“Well you don’t, and we’re going fast enough. We’ll be in town in no time. So hush up!” the old handy man snapped back at his friend. “If ya didn’t waste time making those promises to your horse, of all things, we’d be there by now.”

“I was only assuring him I would be back,” Johnny protested. “He’ll miss me! Ya know that, don’t ya?”

“Ya can say that again!” Jelly huffed. “He’ll miss all the pampering you give him. That is one of the most spoiled animals on this ranch, and acts like it too! You treat him as if he was kin.”

“Well, in a way he is. He’s my amigo. I look out for him, as he does for me!” Johnny retorted. Then he affectionately patted Jelly’s back and sheepishly added, “You’re my amigo too, ya know. Would you like me to stroke your beard and make it all nice and shiny?” he snickered, mischief lighting his eyes.

“No, I wouldn’t! You smart aleck!” Jelly shot. “Stroke my beard, make it shiny,” he mumbled, and then thought for a minute. “There’s nothing wrong with my whiskers!” he proudly proclaimed, puffing out his chest.

Murdoch chuckled. “No Jelly, there’s nothing wrong with your whiskers,” he said in Jelly’s defense. “Right, John?”

Johnny shrugged his shoulders. “I didn’t say there was anything wrong with them. I was only trying to be nice and see if he wanted some special grooming attention like a valet gives, like Scott told us about.”

“Now see here….!”   Jelly began to protest, when Murdoch intervened.

“Now you two stop this right now!” Murdoch admonished as he glared at Jelly and then Johnny. When he turned back and looked forward his eyes were alerted to a big problem. “Jelly watch out!”

Before Jelly could avoid it, they hit a steep mound in the middle of the road. The wagon lurched, creaking against the stress the jolt caused. The front end was weighted down by Murdoch, Jelly and the luggage. But the lighter end, the backend of the buckboard with just Johnny’s weight was tossed up in the air a few feet and came down hard. The impact shook the right back wheel loose and it went flying off and down into a ditch. Jelly pulled to an abrupt stop, while Johnny hung on for dear life to the side to keep from falling out. He leaped out of the buckboard shouting at Jelly.

“JELLY! I thought you fixed that wheel before we left?” Johnny hollered, as he gathered his wits about him. “Where in the hell did it go, we need to find it and get it back on fast. We can’t miss that stage!” Johnny growled as he glanced around the area.

“I did fix it! And don’t go hollering at me! I think the dern thing went down over there!” Jelly shouted as he jumped off the driver’s seat. “Here, ya see the pin just came out, that’s all!” he pointed out to Johnny when he noticed the pin that held the wheel in place laying a few feet away from the axle.

“Well don’t just stand there, go and find it and get it back on!” Murdoch ordered.

In a panic to find the wheel, Johnny and Jelly scrambled down into the ditch, wading through the thick brush full of cattails and prickly weeds. Hissing and cussing as they both got stuck here and there. They tripped over each other and the vegetation, until they finally located it and were relieved that it was still in one piece. They hurried up to the wagon and fast as they could, worked to get it back on. Murdoch climbed down and lent a helping hand as he and Johnny lifted the axle up, while Jelly maneuvered the wheel and pin back in place. Finally it was fixed and they were off again. Murdoch looked at his watch and sighed in relief that they still had plenty time to make the stage.

Murdoch took over the reins for Jelly as he picked the sticky weeds and burrs out of his beard and hair. Grumbling about how he wished now he had one of those valet fellers. Murdoch looked back at Johnny and was relieved to see he had fared better, he was just a bit dirty. However, he did notice a few tiny red marks and scratches on his son’s hands and neck. But they didn’t look serious enough for a visit to Sam. The rancher had to smile as watched his son hastily dusted off his coat and pants to make his self presentable for travel.

As Johnny finished up patting and wiping down his clothes, a wondrous sight caught his eyes. To the right, in field not too far off, was a small herd of wild horses grazing. Basking in the warm sunshine and enjoying their morning meal of tall green grass and wild oats. Their leader was a beautiful, raven black stallion. He proudly watched over his herd, keeping an eye out for any predators lurking about, ready to run and guide his brood away at the slightest hint of trouble.

Johnny’s eyes lit up like sunbeams, a wide grin graced his young face. “I’ll be back, and when I am, you’re going to be mine,” he whispered.

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

Much to the Lancers delight, the stage was a half hour late, which gave Murdoch time to wire Mason they were coming and to grab a quick beer to wash away the dust they inhaled on the way to town.  Jelly, who was something of a mother hen towards his boy, had taken the liberty of bringing along some of his concoctions, just to be on the safe side. So he took the time and made sure Johnny used it on his hands and neck. He was positive it would help keep the infection away that the young man was so prone to getting from the slightest cut. Johnny smiled and thanked his old friend, and then ruffled his beard.

“Oh, you stop that!” Jelly snorted. “You just use that if ya need it. I don’t want to hear about ya getting sick or something, ya hear!”

“I will Jelly, don’t worry, and thanks again,” Johnny stated with appreciation for the old man’s thoughtfulness. “Sorry I yelled at ya. I guess I’m a little anxious to get going,” Johnny apologized.

“That’s okay. Can’t blame ya none. Ya just have a good trip and stay out of trouble!’ Jelly instructed, “Ya know how that goes, trouble always finds ya.”

“I’ll certainly try,” Johnny assured him as he patted his friend’s shoulders.

After a few more minutes of impatiently waiting, the stage finally arrived and they loaded up and were off after bidding Jelly a heartfelt goodbye. The old handy man waved them off saying a silent prayer that all would go well.  Joining them in the stage was a young woman in her late twenties and her son, who Johnny figured was about eight. They sat next to the young Lancer, with the little boy between him and his mother, while Murdoch occupied the other side.

An hour passed, but it felt more like days to Johnny. Every bump the stage hit was getting worst by the minute and harder on the rear end. Johnny’s saddle had more cushion than these worn down seats. Hell the buckboard had more padding than this. The young gun-hawk cringed, as he squirmed in discomfort from the assault to his butt.  He wanted so much to stretch out and get some sleep but found that was impossible as well.

“Johnny, just sit back and enjoy the ride. We have a long road ahead of us before we get to Sacramento, and then from there we’ll catch the train,” Murdoch informed his antsy son.

“It’s kind of hard to relax when you’re being toss around like a sack of beans, Murdoch,” Johnny said with a half grin. “My as…It feels like I’m sitting on rocks,” he said, after remembering his manners. His almost slip of the tongue remark seemed to amuse the lad and he giggled

Johnny smiled down at the boy, “You think that’s funny huh?”  The boy nodded.  He kept on staring up at Johnny, as if he was mesmerized by him. “Is there something I can do you for you?” he asked in sweet and polite manner. Murdoch watched; he was curious to see where this conversation would go.

“Just wondering,” the little boy quickly answered.

“About what, if I may ask?”

The lad bit his bottom lip as he thought about whether or not he should say, and then boldly came right out and asked.

“Are you a gunfighter?”

“Nathan!” his mother admonished sharply, and then embarrassedly looked at Johnny. “Please forgive my son’s rudeness. Sometime he speaks before he thinks,” she said with a gracious smile. She looked crossed at her son, “Now you apologize, right now young man!”

“No, no, it’s okay,” Johnny assured the stunned mother, and then softly asked the boy, “Now why do you think I’m a gunfighter?”

“Well, well you look like one.”

“How so?”

“Well, I’ve seen books with pictures of gunfighters and sometimes they dress funny, like you,” Nathan bravely explained.

“Nathan, you hush that up right now!” his mother angrily ordered.

Johnny just laughed and held his hand up, “Go on tell me how I dress funny?” He replied and gave his father a sly look.

“Well your pants are full of buttons and they look like leather. You have a fancy gun belt and you wear it low like a gunfighter,” he explained as he went over the details of Johnny’s clothing. “And you have a sissy pink shirt on!”  Murdoch shouted out laughing, while the boy’s mother just covered her face with her hands to hide her shame at her boy’s inquisitive yet bold way of thinking. “So are ya?” he anxiously inquired.

Murdoch sat back and looked on as Johnny thought about how he was going to answer the boy. “Sorry Nathan, but I’m not.” Johnny falsely answered, even though he hated to lie to the boy. But he knew it was the right thing to do.

“Ah gee whiz!” the boy huffed in disappointment, “But you dress like one?”

“I dress like this because I grew up in Mexico,” Johnny hastily replied. “We kind of have different ways of dressing down there. And not all of us are gunfighters.” He placed a gentle hand under the boy’s chin and lifted up his drooping head. “You have seen Mexicans, haven’t ya?”

“Yeah, but you don’t look like a Mexican, not really. So I just thought you were a gunfighter,” he sadly whispered. Sorry I bothered ya.” The boy yawned and scooted closer to his mother. He laid his head down on her lap and within a matter of minutes he was fast asleep.

His mother smiled and quietly said, “Thank you, Mr. Madrid, or should I say Lancer?”

Johnny’s surprise colored his face. “You knew who I was all along? And it don’t bother ya?”

“Yes, I knew who you were. And no it doesn’t bother me,” she sweetly replied. ”I just moved to Green River a few weeks ago, and I’ve seen you around town. Well I was kind of…intrigued as to who you were,” she said a little shyly, “So I asked a few questions. Anyway my late husband was fascinated with those dime store novels and had told Nathan stories from them, and now he’s dying to meet a real gunfighter.  But you know he’s still too young….”

“It was my pleasure ma’am,” Johnny said, and then gave the young woman an understanding smile.

“Where are you headed, ma’am?” Murdoch politely asked.

“I’m going to Stockton to finalize my husband’s business, and then back here.”

“Well, Green River is honored to have two new members in the community,” Murdoch graciously welcomed the young woman and her son.

After the rather interesting conversation between Johnny and Nathan, everyone kept quiet while the boy slept. Murdoch looked over and saw how his own boy was in need of some sleep, and for the life of him, didn’t know why he didn’t think of this before.  He offered to trade places with Johnny, since he was the only one occupying the seat. Johnny was more than happy to change places with his father because he could now lie down. With his legs lifted up on the bench and laying on his back with his hat covering his face, it didn’t take long for Johnny to finally drift off. And not even the most bone jarring bump could wake him now.

 

Chapter Four

“John, wake up son. We’re here,” Murdoch spoke softly after he cautiously leaned over and shook his son’s leg. He was trying to gently rouse Johnny from his deep slumber. He knew better than to startle his son. The former gun-hawk still had catlike reflexes, and he didn’t particularly want to find a gun waving in his face. “Hey, we’ll be in Stockton in a few minutes, so it’s time to wake up.”

“Yeah…I’m awake. I have been for the last few minutes, just too lazy to get up,” Johnny sleepily whispered from underneath his hat. “It’s about time too, I’m as hungry as a bear,” he grumbled and his belly rumbled in disgruntled agreement.

Johnny sluggishly sat up and stretched his limbs as much as he could, since standing up was virtually impossible with the stage still moving. One good jolt and he would have landed on his father’s lap. The youngest Lancer did feel somewhat rested even though he was stiff as a board from lying on the hard seat. He was looking forward to a hardy meal and a hot bath, that’s if Murdoch had planned on staying over for the night before continuing on to Sacramento. From here to there was a much longer trip and he doubted his father could handle it if he didn’t rest up some himself. He had noticed that Murdoch was struggling to get comfortable as well and looked a little ragged.

Finally they pulled into the busy streets of Stockton; just as the afternoon sun was beginning its descent below the horizon, indicating that another day was soon coming to an end.  The Lancer men exited the stage first and graciously help the young widow and her son down. They bid them a polite farewell and Johnny thanked the boy for the interesting conversation, ruffling his towhead and smiling kindly at him. He watched as the mother dragged her son away when he kept stalling and looking back at him and Johnny had to laugh when he heard the boy grumble.

“I still think he’s a gunfighter, Ma. He has to be, I just know it!” Nathan whined.  Johnny smiled and waved to the boy.

“Well, Murdoch, are we staying over for the night or not? I sure could go for a good meal and hot bath. The food Maria packed for us didn’t last very long,” Johnny grinned.

“Not with your appetite it didn’t,” Murdoch teased his son. “Yes we’re staying over…” he paused as he looked around. “I could use a good night’s sleep myself,” he finished and continued to glance around.

“Who are you looking for?”  Johnny asked curiously.

“Ah, here she comes now!” his father brightly replied.

Johnny smiled when he saw a familiar face coming to greet them,

“Victoria, it’s so nice to see you!” Murdoch happily hailed his old friend, “How have you been?” He embraced the petite woman in a gentle hug.

“Murdoch, Johnny! It’s so nice to see you both again,” Mrs. Barkley cheerfully replied. “I was very pleased to receive your wire saying you were coming for a short visit.”

“Wire?” Johnny mumbled.  And then a dreadful thought washed over him and he nervously looked around for Nick, the last person he wanted to see. “You did come alone, right?”  He hastily asked and glanced around some more as his hand dropped to his gun.

“Yes, Johnny, I’m alone. Nick and the others will be out of town for a few days,” she chuckled. “And I would love it if you and your father would come to the house, instead of staying here at the hotel.”

“I would love to, Victoria, but as my wire stated it’s a short visit, very short,” Murdoch said. “We’re catching the earliest stage in the morning for Sacramento and I would rather we stay here. But I would love it if you would join us for dinner, here at the café,” Murdoch politely returned the invite.

“Yes, I would enjoy that very much,” Victoria beamed.

“Good! Just let us get a room and get washed up, and then we’ll join you in about an hour or so,” Murdoch informed her with a smile.

“Perfect, that gives me time to do a few errands.”  She promised to be back at the appointed time, and then bid them goodbye and went on her way.

Johnny and Murdoch grabbed their suitcases off the stage and headed on over to the hotel. They quickly got a room with two soft beds and an adjoining room for bathing. As much as he wanted to go first, Johnny let Murdoch use the tub first, thinking more of his father’s age and how a soak would ease his aches. When they finished cleaning up and had made themselves presentable to dine with such a fine woman such as Victoria Barkley, they headed downstairs to meet the lady.

Dinner went off without a hitch, as they talked about everything possible trying to catch up on each other’s lives in what little time they had to visit. Murdoch was proud to inform Victoria about his plans for Johnny and the lady was more than pleased to hear this. She jokily said she would be happy to have Nick come over and help if needed, since he too was good with horses. Johnny’s eyes widened in fear, and his face went white. Victoria and Murdoch broke out laughing, and then Victoria assured Johnny that she would never do that to him. They hated to end the evening, but realized they needed their rest for the long trip ahead, so they bid her goodbye and retired to their rooms.

“Morning, John,” Murdoch cheerfully greeted his son the next morning when Johnny finally opened his blues eyes. “You must have been extremely tired, you didn’t bother to completely undress for bed,” he commented when Johnny threw the blankets off and was still wearing his pants.

“Morning, Murdoch,” Johnny yawned as he stood up and stretched his lean body and then looked down at his rather untidy pants. “Yeah, I guess, I was,” he sheepishly replied.

“The stage is due in around nine so we have time to get a quick bite to eat,” Murdoch informed him. “So hurry and get dressed, I can smell those eggs and ham right now,” he added after he walked over to the open window took in the fresh morning air.

“Well, I tell ya, I sure hope that those seats are a little more padded than the last stage.” Johnny smirked as he slid his shirt on, “My rear end still smarts from yesterday.”

Murdoch grinned, “I highly doubt it. So you’ll have to just grin and bear it just like the rest of us.”  Murdoch frowned when Johnny grabbed a small pillow and tried to stuff it into his suitcase.  “Johnny put that back!” Murdoch admonished with a chuckle. “A pillow will not help your rear end that much.”

“Well, you can’t blame a fella for trying, now can ya? Besides it wouldn‘t fit.”  Johnny laughed and threw the pillow back on the bed, and then gathered up his things, as did Murdoch. They headed for the café and breakfast.

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

The trip to Sacramento was a little less unconformable. The seats were softer than the previous stage’s, however it was a tight fit for most of the way. Until they reached the half way mark, Johnny was wedged in the corner when a large woman and her husband sat next to him. And to make matters worse, the woman had on a very strong perfume, and its unique scent assaulted Johnny’s nose. It provoked a few sneeze attacks. Murdoch felt for his boy, however, he also had a couple next to him as well, and this time he didn’t have to option to trade places. When they reached the relay station the couple got off the stage and stayed there and much to Johnny’s relief he was able breathe again.

Finally after a few more long bone jarring and sleepless hours they pulled into town. Johnny had traveled this way many times and he was never so happy to get off that stagecoach. This time there was no layover, since Murdoch was on a tight time table, he quickly checked to see when the next train was leaving.  And much to Johnny’s dismay, they only had a half hour to get their tickets and board.

“Ah, come on, Murdoch, no time for even a quick beer?” Johnny grumbled. “I’m dying of thirst here!”

“No, Johnny! I want to get there as soon as possible and the next train isn’t due in until Thursday and that’s in three days. So gather your things and let’s get going,” Murdoch sternly ordered.

“Boy oh boy, here I thought this was going to a pleasure filled trip! But so far I’ve been told I dress funny. I sat until my ass hurts. I get squeezed like a tomato and I thought I was going to sneeze my brains out,” Johnny whined like a little boy. “And now I’m going to die of thirst!”

“I’m sure there’s water and food on the train, Johnny,” Murdoch cajoled trying to keep a straight face; he found his son’s boyish behavior quite amusing. “They do have a dining car.”

“Yeah, I know. Sorry!” he said and was a little embarrassed for acting somewhat bratty. “And I’m sure the train ride will be easier on the rear end,” he smirked and graced his father with that cocky grin of his.

Murdoch just shook his head and smiled, “Come on, let’s get aboard.”

They boarded and found some good seats close to the dining car. It was getting near dinnertime and Johnny’s belly was starting to rumble as he smelled the food being prepared. Murdoch too was getting a little hungry himself and once they got settled they quickly ambled towards the dining car. They sat down and just when Johnny was going to take a drink of water, the train abruptly pulled out with a hard jerk and his arm went flying back, spilling the cold water right down his shirt.

Murdoch burst out laughing as Johnny threw his hands up in defeat. “Well at least I had my bath and a cold one at that!” 

Despite the rather wet departure, the meal was very satisfying and filling. The Lancer men returned to their seats and sat down. They had a long journey ahead of them and in a few days they would not be able to travel by train much longer. They conversed in idle chatter about various things. Murdoch read a book while Johnny fiddled with a braid he was working on made from horse hair.

However, as time went by and the further north they got, Johnny became intrigued by the changes in the surroundings, things he wasn’t accustomed to seeing.  He had always stayed down around the southern area and towns around the border that were open and dry, dusty, much like Mexico.  But as the train traveled along he saw more bodies of water, big and small lakes surrounded with lush green trees and hills. It kind of reminded him of home, except it seemed untamed, more wilderness than anything as if man had never set foot here.

They began to travel through endless miles of mountain terrain, decorated with thick foliage and patches of snow dotting the mountain side. As Johnny watched the scenes change from one to another, it began to lightly snow and his eyes followed the dancing flakes as they hit the window. Something came darting out from behind some trees and quickly caught his eye. Johnny smiled brightly as he spied a group of deer running and leaping along the hillside. Their movement was fast and graceful as if they were floating on air, and then they just disappeared back into the brush.

“Beautiful isn’t it?” Murdoch asked as he laid his book down and glanced out the window.

“Yeah, it sure is,” Johnny softly replied and shivered. “And it sure is getting cold in here,” he added, quickly taking off his thin buckskin jacket and replacing it with his thicker coat. He wrapped his arms around himself to get warmed up.

“It will be dark soon and the nights get colder up here,” Murdoch reminded him. “It kind of reminds me of my trapping days in the Rockies up around in these parts.”  Murdoch thought back to those days of his youth.

“Yeah, I remember you telling me about you and Jay McKillen and that Shoshoni war party,” Johnny said. “You told me how he saved your life when you got hit badly.”

“Yeah, he sure did,” Murdoch sadly smiled, “Too bad things had to turn out like they did for us,” he added, referring to the whole Bone Mountain and Buttermere swindle.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…to bring that up,” Johnny said regretfully.

“No, Johnny, it’s okay. Jay and I had a long friendship and before I got hit, we had one hell of a time,” his father quickly assured. “During the day we would trap until our hearts’ content and get some hunting in. At night we would drink and tell tall tales.”

“Ah, come on, is that all you did?” Johnny joked. “You didn’t go to town and whoop it up?  Do some dancing with those pretty saloon girls?”

“That’s all there was to do up there! And besides like I said the closest town was seventy miles away,” Murdoch reminded his son. “We did go to town once a month for supplies, and then head back up to the mountains. Jay was a born trapper, he knew his way around and we saw wondrous things.”

“But it wasn’t what you really wanted, was it?”

“No, after I got hit, I had time to think and I had another dream I wanted to fulfill.”

“Lancer?”  Johnny softly asked,

“Yes, and it took a lot of hard work but I did it,” Murdoch proudly proclaimed.

“Yeah, you sure did,” Johnny said with great admiration for his father’s strong will and drive.

Murdoch looked up and noticed the train attendant was going around lighting the lanterns. He turned back and watched as Johnny took his buckskin coat and used it for a pillow. He leaned his dark head up against the window and within a few minutes he was asleep, his warm breath gently steaming the cold glass.

“Night, son.

 

Chapter Five

The clack of the metal wheels against the steel provided a hypnotic and soothing noise as the train chugged through the night. Johnny slept, while Murdoch continued to periodically gaze out the window and watch the moonlit scenes before him. As the daylight had faded taking what little warmth the sun had given, the bitter cold began to seep into the railcars. Murdoch relished the peace and tranquility of the nocturnal quiet. He struggled to keep his own eyes open as he was enjoying the chance to observe his son in an unguarded moment. At times like these when sleep erased the hard edge of Madrid and let the innocence of Johnny Lancer through he was able to see glimpses of his beloved toddler. 

Shifting stiffly, Murdoch bit down the groan over the ache in is back caused by the hard seat and cold air. Johnny mumbled in his sleep and shivered causing the concerned father to wonder where the conductor was with the sleep amenities. He waited for the train attendant to come back this way. A few minutes later the attendant did indeed return carrying an armload of blankets and began to pass them out to the passengers still awake, just as Murdoch was hoping he would do. He eagerly took two, and then covered his son up with one, and then himself. He leaned back, propping his head against the window. He closed his eyes and finally drifted off.

The northbound train continued to roll on through the night, weaving in and out between the mountains passages, with only the moon and the light of the lanterns to guide them through the darkness. The journey through this wondrous and beautiful territory was soon coming to an end, as the train slowly began to make its descent out of the mountains. The decline from mountains to level land also heralded a dropped in the temperature as they moved further north.  Without the shelter of its bountiful trees that were natural windbreakers, there was nothing to stand between them and the harsh winter winds once they hit the flatlands.

As the pale light of morning began to wash the black of night to the gray start of a new day the wind picked up. It was as though old Jack Frost was whistling an angry tune when the frigid winds blew unmercifully against the train frosting the windows with intricate ice crystals. His icy breath nipped at the passenger’s faces, pulling them from their sleep with a very cold and rude wake up call.

One by one the sleeping travelers began to stir, yawning and stretching their sore backs and stiff limbs from sleeping in an upright position all night. A few of the luckier ones who were able to lie down were the children, snuggled across their parents warm laps.  As a few passengers stood up just to help get the kinks out, they shivered uncontrollably at the drastic change in the weather and realized they were no longer in the mountains. They also noticed that the train was slowing down some, and then it suddenly came to an abrupt stop tossing them back in their seats and jarring the rest of the passengers awake.

Moments later the ground under them began to rumble and the walls and windows of the train rattled in protest. The whole train shook, from outside a thunderous noise was heard, vibrating through the walls and in the passengers’ ears and it seemed to get louder and louder.

Johnny quickly scraped the window with his warm hand causing the thin ice crystals to melt and clear the window. He peered out and his blue eyes couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “Well will ya look at that. Murdoch take a look,” he implored his father.

 

Murdoch cleared a spot and looked out. “Now that is something you don’t see every day, at least not where we come from!”

Hundreds of wild buffalo were stampeding across the railroad tracks. They moved like a rolling wave of brown fur. Their breath huffed from their panting mouths, hanging in heavy white clouds of condensation above their lumbering bodies. Their large sharp hoofs kicked up the dirt and snow into a massive cloud that swept around the train. You couldn’t tell where it began or ended. And as the men, women and children watched the breathtaking sight before them, one small boy’s eyes grew big and he screamed.

“INDIANS, INDIANS!”  He shouted with his nose pressed against the window.

The child’s anxious exclamation prompted another boy to race to the window. He looked out and confirmed that there were indeed Indians out there and it looked like they were coming this way. A spilt second later panic and mayhem broke out. The mothers screamed in horror as they hurried and grabbed their children, and then ran back to their seats, and squatted down on the floor. They sheltered their children with their own trembling bodies from what they felt was a dangerous situation. The men quickly drew the shades down and desperately pushed and shoved at each as they scrambled for their rifles and guns.

“WE HAVE TO PROTECT OURSELVES AND OUR FAMILIES!” One man shouted as panic raced through his body.

In a flash Johnny had his gun drawn, but Murdoch grabbed his arm, “Johnny no!”

Before anybody could take any action, the train’s attendant came rushing in. “EVERYBODY JUST CALM DOWN!” he shouted. “There is no need to panic. They are more interested in the buffalo and feeding their bellies than us.” he assured the frightened group.

“How can you be so sure?” One of the passengers demanded to know. All eyes turned to the conductor as they anxiously waited for the answer.

“What do you think had those beasts in an uproar? This is Montana territory folks and for those who are new here, those are Black Feet Indians just out on a hunting trip. Buffalo is one of their main meat supplies, and sometimes they have to travel far in order to hunt. Yes even in this cold. So I assure you that they have no intention of doing us any harm.” He went on to say, “Now please open those shades and sit back down and relax while they pass. The next stop is Missoula, where we’ll have two hour stop.”

Seeing the man was right and there were no real signs of an impending attack, they did as they were told and pulled up the shades. They watched as the last of the stampeding herd crossed over the tracks with the braves right on their tails. Out of respect for the iron beast that waited for them to cross, the Indians held off from picking out the ones they would kill and take home until the train was well on its way. The little boy, who had cried Indian, looked out and smiled when a young brave not too much older than he was, stopped and waved his rifle at the train, and then returned to the hunt.

“Boy that was something, huh?” Johnny said in amazement. “Oh I have seen buffalo before but never like that. I don’t see how they do it, traveling so far just to hunt, and in this cold too.” He shook his head in bewilderment. “I guess it’s different out here than it is back at home.”

“Like the man said, they have no choice. You saw the way they were dressed, they’re used to this kind of weather,” Murdoch stated referring to the thick fur coats and heavy clothing they had on. “The winters are harder and colder here, especially so on the Indian.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Johnny sighed. “Well I can hardly wait until we can get off this train, and go someplace warmer. It’s freezing in here.”

“That would be in Missoula. Mason’s ranch is about forty miles from there according to his letter. So we’ll have to rent a couple of horses in town.” His father answered.

“Well the sooner the better!” Johnny retorted and looked out his window at the vast hard land, which seemed to go on forever.

**********

A couple of hours later the train pulled into the town of Missoula, a quaint little town that served as a rest stop for the railroad. It was a nice place where weary travelers and the train staff could get off, stretch and walk about. Besides the depot there were a few other businesses there as well, such as general store, a hotel and a good size café, where a person could get out of the cold or heat and sit a spell. They could enjoy a good meal or drink while waiting for the next train coming or going. There were also a few homes scattered about the edge of town, however there weren’t too many settlers around these parts as of yet. 

Murdoch and Johnny buttoned their coats up to their necks, and covered their faces against the cold wind as they exited the train, and then quickly made a beeline for the café. After a very eventful morning and the fact that they haven’t eaten lunch yet, they were very eager to sit down and just enjoy the warmth and fill themselves with some good hot food. Then they would see about getting some horses and directions to Mason’s ranch.

As they were finishing up with their meal, and savoring the warmth of the café, a young cowboy wandered in, and began to look around the room. He had a heavy fur coat on and supported a handlebar mustache. He looked like one of those fictional characters from some of those dime store novels. He slowly took in everybody there, and then glanced down at a piece of paper he had in his hand. With one more glance about, he finally spotted the person he was looking for, the one described on the paper. He smiled as he anxiously walked up to the Lancers.

“Excuse me sir, but are you Murdoch Lancer?” he politely asked.

“Why, yes I am.”

“Oh, good, my name is Buck,” he introduced himself, and then extended his hand to the tall rancher. “Mr. Andrews has sent me to show you the way to the ranch.”

“That’s Mason for you, always thinking ahead,” Murdoch grinned. “Oh, excuse my manners, and this is my son, Johnny.”

“Howdy, Johnny,” Buck happily greeted, and then extended his hand as well to Johnny.

“Howdy, Buck,” Johnny softly returned the hello as he shook the man’s hand.

“Well, Buck, as soon as we get some horses we’ll join you,” Murdoch replied, as he and Johnny grabbed their hats and got up from the table.

“No need, sir. As you said Mr. Andrews thinks ahead. I have two horses waiting for you outside. Your luggage will be brought out with the supplies the store is delivering to the ranch today,” the young hand informed them, “So whenever you’re ready.”

“Lead the way,” Murdoch said as he pointed to the door.

Again the Lancers buttoned up their coats to prepare themselves for a long cold ride. They quickly secured their belonging to the saddles and donned their riding gloves, and then mounted up. Before they headed out, Buck reached in to his saddle bag and took out a couple of what looked like a smaller version of a woman’s shawl, and then he handed them to Murdoch and Johnny.

“What are these for?” Johnny asked as he looked at it, baffled as to why he would be given a woman’s shawl.

“They’re scarves to wrap around your neck and face. They will protect you from the freezing wind,” Buck clarified. “We’re headed out into open land with very little shelter, so it’s going to get real cold and fast. I reckon you never had to use one, huh?”

 

“Not where I come from,” Johnny retorted. “Did you ever wear one, Murdoch?” he asked his father, who was already putting it on.

“Yes I did, Johnny, when I hunted and trapped in the Rockies with Jay. And they do come in handy. So I suggest you put it on and let’s get going,” he strongly stressed to his son. “We only have a few hours of daylight left, and the nights are even colder down here than in the mountains.”

“Okay, as long as it doesn’t make me looks like a sissy. I was already called that once.”  Buck looked at him funny and started to say something. “Don’t ask!”  Johnny snorted before he could question him. Johnny copied the way his father had wrapped the scarf about him and he had to admit to himself it did feel better than that cold wind on his bare face.

Now that the Lancers were properly winterized, they let Buck lead the way to Mason’s ranch, which lay north of town and close to the mountains. It was just as Buck had warned; there was nothing but wide open range from here to there. A sea of brown grass and snow stretched as far as the eye could see. Along the way they saw the shattered bone fragments of skulls of cattle and others prairie animals that had perished from the harsh winters or perhaps other elements such as droughts. Johnny had and fought severe weather before having experienced days, even months of heat waves, droughts, and raw sickness from polluted water, but he had never witnessed the weather as a brutal cold force like the winters that Montana had, until now.

 

Chapter Six

The Lancers’ journey progressed across the frigid landscape.  The wind whipped viciously around them, the bitter blasts of icy air nearly robbing them of their breath and numbing their half frozen bodies to an uncomfortable stiffness that made movement painful. Other than the shrill whistle of the wind, the only sounds to be heard were the sniffs of noses affected by the cold air and the thud of horse hooves.  

Buck suggested that they stop briefly and untie the bed rolls that he had the foresight to pack and throw them over their legs for added warmth. He highly doubted that either, of the Lancer men, were wearing long johns and not even Johnny’s leather pants were enough to protect his skin from the bitter cold. The blankets would help keep their limbs from totally freezing up, and prevent frostbite from setting in. Sadly, Buck had seen this before in the past. There were people among the local residents with missing appendages and limbs due to frostbite.  It was a common occurrence during the spring thaw to find people who had gone missing during the winter. Their lifeless bodies preserved by the snow and ice in the very spot where they perished.

Murdoch watched with deep concern as Johnny kept adjusting the scarf he was reluctant to wear, in the first place, around his neck and face. He had pulled his hat down as far as it would go over his ears.  The worried father was bothered most by the fact that Johnny hadn’t uttered a single word since they left town. He would only nod his head yes or no if a question was directed at him. A couple of times the youngest Lancer had alarmed his father by slouching over and leaning into the horse’s neck, as if he was about to fall out of the saddle. Murdoch would ride to his son’s side to lend a fatherly hand, only to get a quick nod and a glance of Johnny’s watery blue eyes indicating that he was okay, just trying to hang in there.

With an hour or so left to go before reaching the ranch, the brutal winds continued to churn , once in a while the wind swirled and lifted the snow from the ground, pelting the riders in the face with the bits of ice, causing a stinging sensation. However, as time went by it began to settle down, and then eventually stopped. Mercifully, old Jack Frost decided that he had sung his wicked song long enough and was satisfied with what his icy breath had accomplished. The three men on horseback gratefully welcomed the much needed break, as they had been exposed to the full fury of the wind without a single tree close enough to help shelter them. None of them, not even Buck who was used to the weather, were sure of how much longer they could have taken it. And right about now they wished for a hot bath to sink their chilled tired bones in to and slowly thaw out.

Finally Mason’s ranch was almost within sight. The mountains that surrounded it were coming more into plainer view. Their icy peaks and snow covered hillsides marking the end of a long, tiring, interesting but frigid journey. Soon they could see white columns of smoke floating up in the sky which indicated that there was a nice warn fireplace just waiting for them. As they drew closer, Murdoch could faintly make out a lone figure standing on the porch of a very stylish but rustic looking one story ranch house, waving his hat at them.

“There’s Mason!” Murdoch shouted and waved back at his friend.

Mason grinned in relief that his old friend Murdoch Lancer and his son had finally arrived. He turned and rushed inside as he wanted to make sure that everything was ready for his long awaited guests. He double checked that there was plenty to eat and drink, and that their rooms were nice and toasty.  He was sure that they would be in dire need of a good night’s sleep in a warm bed after the long trip here.  He ran to the window to check for their arrival just as they were pulling up to the house and quickly opened the door for them.

“Hurry up and get on in here!” the stout, gray haired man instructed as he greeted the threesome.  “We’ll have time for the hellos as soon as we get you warmed up.”

“Mason, my old friend, I couldn‘t agree with you more about that,” Murdoch cheerfully replied as he and Johnny stiffly dismounted on shaky numb legs and entered the house, while Buck saw to the horses. “And I’m sure my son is very interested in your fireplace right about now,” Murdoch declared when he looked at Johnny’s rigid form standing by the door. The only thing that wasn’t covered on Johnny was his eyes. His long black eyelashes were weighed down with a heavy, white frost that started to melt the minute he entered the warm house.

“Well, come on let’s get these off of you, and then you sit down right over here young man,” Mason instructed Johnny, as he helped Johnny with his jacket and gloves, and then led the shivering Lancer over to the fireplace. “Sadie, we’re ready for the coffee now!” he then hollered to his cook.

Johnny immediately found a nice cozy spot by the fire and sat there letting its welcomed heat thaw the chill out of his bones. He rubbed his hands rapidly together and began massaging his legs and arms to get the feeling back in them. Never had he been so cold in his life, he feared he would never feel warm again. The cook came in with the coffee and distributed the steaming hot brew to the visitors. Johnny took hold of the cup and held it in both hands relishing the heat that seeped into his fingers from the hot surface, and then held it up to his face and inhaled its savory aroma.

“Thank…you,” Johnny stuttered politely through his cold, slightly blue tinged lips.

“Dinner will be in a couple hours, so if you would like to, you’ll both have time for a hot bath after you get settled,” Mason generously offered.

“Thanks Mason but I think my son needs it more than I do. He’s not quite used to this kind of weather,” Murdoch said with a grin. “This is Maria’s boy, John,” he properly introduced his son. He knew he didn‘t have to explain anymore, as Mason knew all about what had happened and about Johnny being raised in Mexico.

“Well I’ll be, Maria’s boy huh? Well, Johnny, it’s so nice to see you again,” the man said and smiled as he extended his hand to Johnny.

“Again?” Johnny softly inquired.

“Why yes, the last time I saw you was when you were about two. It was around Thanksgiving and I had come to talk to your father about something.” He chuckled, “And I don’t think I have laughed as hard as I did that day. When I walked through that door and laid eyes on your long legged papa chasing your bare butt around the room with a diaper in one hand and a can of talcum powder in the other it was the funniest thing I have ever seen.  Powder was flying everywhere,” he fondly remembered. “But I guess you were too young to remember me now as the man who grabbed you as you tried to run pass me.”

“Yeah I guess I was,” Johnny admitted as a bashful blush colored his cheeks followed by a loud wet sneeze that had him swiftly retrieving his handkerchief.

‘Well enough of those stories for now. Let’s get you in a hot tub before you catch your death, young man," Andrews advised in a fatherly manner. "Sadie will show you the way.”

“Thanks, Mr. Andrews,” Johnny commented as he stiffly stood up and followed the housekeeper as she showed him the way to the bathhouse.

“So that’s the little tyke you used to bounce on your knee, huh?” Mason whispered, and then asked, “How long has he been home, Murdoch?”

“Oh for about eight mouths now. It wasn’t easy for him to adjust at first but he has taken to ranch life just fine now.  He is just wonderful with the horses and that’s why I brought Johnny along. I thought he could learn a few things from you.”

“Are you thinking of starting a horse business?” Andrews asked as he handed Murdoch a glass of brandy.

“It’s Johnny’s idea, and I think he can make it work.  There aren’t many horse ranchers in our area it’s mostly cattle, so I thought you could give him a few pointers.” Murdoch eagerly replied as he sipped on his brandy.  “Ah, that hits the spot!” he said with relaxed grin.

“I will show Johnny all I can, Murdoch,” Mason happily agreed as he refilled Murdoch empty glass. “And I can see having both your boys back home, has agreed with you. Am I’m right? Because you don‘t seem to be the old grump I used to know,” he jokingly commented as Murdoch shot him a confused look. “Oh, I knew your boys had come home.  I just didn’t know how long it had been.  I may live out here in the middle of nowhere, but I do try to keep track of my old friends. And boy it’s sure good to see you again, you old dog,” he added, and then slapped Murdoch shoulder.

“It’s good to see you again, you sly old fox! And to answer your question, yes I am very contented now that I have my boys home.”

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

Johnny emerged from the tub, feeling like his old self. Well, at least he could feel his arms and legs again, but for a few minutes there he had his doubts on whether the cold heavy feeling would ever thaw from his limbs. It had taken a while but as he lay there the hot steaming water did its job. The soothing warmth seeped in to his limbs until they started to loosen up.  As the numbest left, he began to moan in agony and relief as his skin tingled and throbbed with a pins and needle sensation as every nerve cell slowly came back from its frozen state.

Once he was done and had dressed, he had joined his father and their host for dinner. Mason had his staff cook up a feast for his guests. A most delicious meal was served. It had all the trimmings, good wine and lots of talk to go with it. Johnny sat there and listened in awe to tales of when Murdoch and Mason first became friends and started out in the cattle business. He was amazed by some of the things he was hearing.

“Are you saying that Murdoch broke your nose because you wouldn’t stop looking at him?” Johnny asked in confusion.

“Well, I didn’t know what to think of him at first. Here was this tall, skinny greenhorn with a big chip on his shoulder. He came barreling into the bar and has a few drinks, and then starts bragging about how he has just bought a piece of land and was going to make it into the biggest cattle ranch around here,” Mason said with a chuckle.

“It wasn’t bragging, Mason.  I was stating a fact!” Murdoch corrected his friend.

“Well, excuse me!” Mason snorted.  “Anyway, I knew he wasn’t from these parts, just by the looks of him. And he had a slightly different accent back then. Well, it piqued my curiosity, so I kept on staring at him, trying to figure where he came from.”

“So what happened?” Johnny asked anxiously.

“Well, he turned to me and asked what I found so interesting about him. So I told him. Then he hit me!” he said trying to sound serious, yet barely concealing his mirth.

“Ah come on, he just came right out and hit you?  You must have said something to make him mad?” Johnny declared as he sipped on the brandy, beginning to feel a little too relaxed.

“Yeah I did say something he…er…didn’t take too well,” Mason smirked.

Murdoch shook his head, “He asked me where I was from. I said I was originally from Scotland, and I had been trapping up in the Rockies before I decided to come to these parts.”  Murdoch clarified for his curious son, “And I was…well I had a little too much to drink.”

“I’ll say you did,” Andrews grunted, while rubbing his nose. “Anyway, when he said he was from Scotland, an interesting thought came to mind and I just had to tell him….that I bet it was mighty cold and drafty up there in those hills…. with that fancy skirt on. And then he belted me one right the nose!”  Mason crowed, and then busted out laughing. The image of his father in a skirt had Johnny snickering along with Mason.

“It’s a kilt and no I wasn’t wearing one, John.” Murdoch chuckled and shook his head at his friend. “But now that I think about it, it was funny at the time.”

“You know, Murdoch?  He does have point,” Johnny said with devilish glee in his eyes. “If ya did wear it up there in the cold, don’t ya think you would have had a hard time walking?” he paused and looked at his father’s bewildered expression. He battled to hide his mirth and keep a serious expression. “I mean with your privates hanging loose, I would think they would be kind of…frozen,” he snorted and then graced his father with a mischievous grin.

“JOHNNY!” Murdoch hollered as his face turned a flaming shade of red.

“What? Didn’t you say that they…they don’t wear anything… under it? So… it stands to reason….”  Johnny snickered and slurred as he spoke. His blue eyes twinkled with drunken delight.

“That’s enough young man!”  Murdoch stopped his son from saying any more, while Andrews bit down on his fist to keep from laughing out loud. “I think it’s time for us to get some shut eye,” he strongly urged, and then helped his tipsy son off the couch. “It seems that my son might have had one too many. So if you would excuse us?”

“Sure Murdoch,” Mason replied as he watched Murdoch carefully guide his boy to the guest bedroom. “Night, see you in the morning.”

Andrews was very pleased to see his old friend as happy as he was back in their younger days. He saw a more relaxed Murdoch, a contented man. He remembered how heartbroken Murdoch was when Harlan took Scott from him, and then Maria doing the same a few years later. He saw the pain and suffering the agonized father had gone through to try and get his boys back. Heaven forbid it should happen again, that he would lose his sons…he didn’t think his friend would survive it, a second time.

 

Chapter Seven

The adjoining rooms Mason had graciously prepared for his visitors were small because smaller bedrooms were easier to heat. What they lacked in size they made up for in style and comfort. Each room had a good size bed laid out with a beautiful handmade quilt. The homey sight was just beckoning the Lancer men to come and slide their travel weary bones between the warm flannel sheets encased on the soft mattresses. Masterfully painted views of Montana’s landscape, with buffalo and other wild beasts that roam the vast land, hung on the walls. However, what stood out the most were the breathtaking portraits Andrews had displayed of wild horses galloping at full speed across the open prairie. Every detail was so life like that if you stared at them long enough; you would swear you could actually see them moving.

Murdoch had taken the room to the left, but he had to get Johnny settled in his room first. The amused father guided his tipsy son over to the bed and carefully sat him down, and then eased his slumped form against the bed post. He had to chuckle when he looked up at his son because the expression on Johnny’s face was priceless. With glassy eyes and a cocky half-grin, he stared up at the painting of the horses totally entranced by them. This was the first time since coming home Murdoch had seen his boy like this, so relaxed, so unguarded and spellbound with child like wonder.  It was always his Madrid persona that kept him sober, for fear he would lose his edge and end up laying on the cold ground, dying or dead. But for some reason, tonight Madrid was not to be found and Johnny Lancer was center stage.

The exhausted father leaned over and pulled back the heavy covers and puffed up the over sized pillows as he readied the bed for his boy. Murdoch stiffly bent over and took off Johnny’s boots for him, since he was having no luck in doing it himself. Then came the white socks and Johnny giggled like a little boy when Murdoch’s longs fingers unintentionally touched and rubbed the bottom of his foot. Johnny’s infectious giggle took his father by surprise; he had forgotten that his son was ticklish when it came to his feet.

“Thanks, Pa,” Johnny sweetly whispered and gave his father an appreciative smile.

“You’re welcome, my son.” Murdoch beamed back at the boyish response. “Now let’s get this shirt off of you and get you in to bed,” he added unbuttoning his pink shirt and slipping the nightshirt, Johnny was ordered to bring along, over his slim shoulders.

 

Deciding that Johnny’s buttoned pants would be a hassle to get off at this point; Murdoch left them on and helped his son into bed. The youngest Lancer immediately curled up and wrapped his arms around the pillow and whispered a faint night. He sighed as his body relaxed and sank deeper into the soft mattress. And in matters of seconds, his long black eyelashes were feathered across his cheeks as his eyes closed and he drifted off to sleep.

Murdoch pulled the covers up and tucked him in, as he did when Johnny was a baby. He turned down the wick on the lamp and before turning to leave and go to his room, he stared down at his boy, trying to catch a glimpse of that baby he lost so long ago. ‘If only I could turn back the clock,’ he wishfully thought. And then a magical, mystical miracle occurred.  Beams of moonlight, made more luminous by the snow, streaked through the window. The heavenly rays glittered and shimmered on Johnny’s peaceful visage and for just an instant his face was transformed by the translucent ethereal glimmer to that of the beguiling toddler that had always owned his Papa’s heart. Murdoch gasped breathlessly at the appearance, but within a couple of blinks the transformation had ended, though the moment would live forever in a father’s heart. 

*********

The next morning came all too soon for one hung over young man who was relishing the comforts of the warm bed. Days of sleeping upright on the stage and train made him truly appreciate this luxury like it was a piece of heaven. The soft feather down mattress molded to his body, caressing his limbs with warmth and he was afraid to move for fear he would lose this blissful feeling. Johnny continued to embrace the pliable pillow that was soothing and supporting his achy head, muffling the loud drumming sound that echoed in his ears. And when he finally forced his eyes open, he groaned in agony at the brightness of the room as it seemed to pierce right through them, burning like a hot poker. Johnny shaded his eyes with his hands and glanced around for Murdoch.

Through watery eyes he noticed his father’s huge form entering the room, “Dios, what happened to me?” he whispered.

“You, my son, had one too many last night,” Murdoch chuckled. “How’s your head?”

“It feels like I was kicked by a horse!” Johnny grumbled while he forced himself to throw the covers off and managed to sit up without any help. “Oh, my head,” he moaned, placing his hands on his temples and gently rubbing them.  “Why didn’t you stop me?”

 

“I wasn’t keeping count, John.” His father snorted, “Besides I think you’re old enough to handle a few drinks.”

“Oh, ha ha!”  Johnny retorted, and then looked down at his bare feet and the way he was dressed. “Well at least I was able to undress some of me,” he sheepishly commented.

“No son, I had to undress you,” Murdoch informed his son with taunting glee. “You were…uh…having a hard time even with taking your boots off, so I helped you. But I did leave your pants on. I didn‘t want to fuss with those buttons of yours. Plus I know how you feel about your …er…privacy. Even though I don’t think you would have noticed if I had stripped you completely because you were feeling very mellow and docile.”

Johnny’s cheeks turned a faint shade of pink, “Yeah, and thanks.”

“Well, some hot coffee and a light breakfast will get you back to feeling like your old self,” Murdoch cheerfully announced. “I can smell Sadie’s good cooking from in here, so hurry and get dressed. Knowing Mason’s appetite, he’ll have it all gone before we get there.  Uh, do you need any help?” His father couldn’t resist teasing.

“No, no, I think I can manage by myself,” Johnny quickly assured. “You just go finished what you were doing. I’ll be just fine.”

“Okay, I‘ll be in the next room if you need anything,” Murdoch replied with a sly grin.

Johnny slowly got up and groggily walked over to the chair where his suitcase lay and began to unpack some fresh clothes. With no small amount of hissing and cussing through his discomfort, he managed to wash up and changed his attire. Then he and Murdoch followed the mouthwatering aroma of ham and eggs and the tantalizing smell of fresh homemade biscuits and hot coffee brewing.

“Well, it’s about time you two pulled your sorry butts out of bed,” Mason jokingly replied when they finally made it to the table. “I thought you were going to sleep right through a breakfast.”

“Believe me, Mason, old friend it was very tempting, those beds were just what the doctor ordered. However, our appetites were stimulated by the scent of Sadie’s good cooking,” he graciously said. “And we couldn’t pass that up, now could we?”

“Good, then sit right down and dig in. We have plenty,” Andrews happily instructed. “Uh, how’s your head, Johnny?”

“Oh, it’ll be fine, once the pounding of those Indian war drums stops.”  Johnny sarcastically joked.

“Well can’t blame you for tying one on, you did have quite an interesting trip here. “ Mason joshed. “Anyway, have some coffee and something to eat, and then I’ll take you on a tour of the ranch. It’s a beautiful day out.”

Johnny rubbed his eyes and poked at his ears to clear the cobwebs out as he shot Mason a confused look. Then he walked over to the window and peered out to see it was snowing lightly. “A beautiful day?  It’s snowing out, how can that be a beautiful day?” 

“Oh that’s nothing, just flurries.” Mason smiled, “The wind has died down and the temperature has gone up. So it‘s a good day to show you around.”

“Huh?”

Seeing the bewildered look on Johnny’s young face, he explained to him, “The winters are unpredictable here, Johnny. One day it can be freezing and next warmer but yet snowing, especially around this time of year. Spring is just around the corner and right now the weather doesn’t know what it wants to do. And when it does get colder out like yesterday, with no windbreaks such as trees or buildings to block the wind, it seems ten times worse than it really is.”

“You can say that again! I thought I was going to freeze solid before we even got here,” Johnny stuttered and shivered as he imagined he could still feel the numbing sting of cold. “I’ve been in the cold before but never like that!” he exclaimed as he sat down and began to dig into his food. “And its sure is wide open here, how come?”

“Well, right now there aren’t many settlers around these parts, so there’s plenty of open land left to homestead for those who are willing to try.” Andrews explained further, “My ranch was one of the first horse ranches here about. I chose this location because it is close to the mountains, and further away from the more open areas that are mostly occupied by the buffalo.”

“Yeah, we sure saw a lot of them coming here. And I sure would hate to get in their way when they get riled up,” Johnny commented seriously, “Especially when they were being chased by Indians.”

“I guess some folks feel the same as you. Montana is not like California, Johnny, because it’s still quite untamed and too open for their liking. They’re just too afraid to try for fear of Indian attacks and buffalo stampedes. Why most of our settlers are left over from the gold rush. And then there are the fur traders, who right now are at odds with the Black Feet, and other tribes around here. Especially now that they have begun going after the buffalo just for their hides only and then they leave the meat to rot.” Mason shook his head as he added, “Where as an Indian will use every ounce of the buffalo for food to the clothing on their backs.”

Johnny shook his head, “I see your point. Sad isn’t it?”

“Yes, very sad. So right now folks perceive it as unsafe to settle here, the ones that don’t have to the guts and determination that is.”

“Unlike you, old friend?” Murdoch proclaimed.

“Well you know me, old friend! I’m a hard head just like you!” Mason laughed. “To tell you the truth, Murdoch, I never thought you would be coming up so soon, what with it being winter, that is.”

“Well, Mason, you know that it’s our slow season right now. So this was the perfect opportunity to come.” Murdoch clarified, “However, we can’t stay too long, it’s a long trip home and spring roundup is coming up.”

“Oh yes, I remember those days. Yeah, I guess you did come at a good time,” Andrews agreed. “And I’m so sorry about the chilly welcome so to speak,” he chuckled. “Well eat up, we have lots to see.”

Breakfast went on with more talk about the good old days and how it was a struggle for Mason at first to start over in a new land.  He told Johnny that in his case it would be easier for him because he had the land, the means right there at Lancer. The biggest part was the horses themselves and the extreme care they would need to pass as sellers, and bringing in the buyers as well. There were also contracts to fill and sometimes that was not always an easy task to do. Mason made sure Johnny understood that there would be a few disappointments, such as business deals that go bad, but to never give up.

Once their appetites were satisfied, the men geared up and headed outside. They were joined by Buck, as they walked around the ranch and marveled at what Mason had accomplished over the years. He had a small string of beautiful horses for right now, ranging from many colors and breeds. Johnny stood there feasting his eyes on their beauty and grace, as they pranced around the corral. He couldn’t wait to get back home and get his own new venture going.

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

The passing days were very enjoyable and educational for Johnny. While Murdoch and Mason visited, Johnny helped out with the stock. He took on jobs such as the grooming of the horses and chores around the ranch for which he didn’t mind as long as the weather held up. He was learning a lot from Buck too, who had been here for awhile and knew more about horses then he had ever thought. The young hand was only a few years older than Johnny was and they had quickly become friends.

“Hey Johnny, do you do a lot of hunting back home?” Buck asked curiously.

“Sure, when I get a chance. Lancer has a lot of places to hunt,” Johnny softly answered back as they were finishing up for the day. “Why do you ask?”

“Oh, I thought if it was okay with your pa and Mr. Andrews, that I would take you up there,” he said, pointing the mountains, “For a little hunting over a day, maybe two, before you have to head back home.”

“Now that sounds real good, Buck, mi amigo.” Johnny happily agreed.

“Mi amigo?” Buck questioned with a puzzled look on his face.

Johnny smiled, “It means my friend. It’s Spanish,” Johnny clarified, “I guess there’s not many Mexican here, huh?”

“Not that I know off. Er…uh…are you part Mexican?” he was a little hesitant to ask. He didn‘t want to make Johnny feel uncomfortable. “I mean you do look a little darker than your pa.”

“Yeah, my mother was Mexican, and I grew up in Mexico. I just recently came to live with my father,” Johnny didn’t mind telling his new friend. “It’s a long story, but I’m with my family now and that’s all that counts.”

“Yeah, I can see where family matters the most,” Buck nodded in agreement.  “Mr. Andrews is the closest thing I have to a father. After my folks died a few winters back, he hired me on and I’ve been with him ever since.”

“I see. Sorry about your folks,” Johnny said, understanding how Buck probably felt about it. “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

“No, I’m only child.” Buck sadly whispered. “Hey enough of this talk. Let’s go ask about that hunting trip. Huh?”

“I’m right with ya,” Johnny eagerly agreed and pointed the way.

They hurried towards the main house. “Mexico, huh? No wonder you’re not used to this kind of weather. I read that it can get hotter than hell down there?” Buck was curious to know so he asked, “Is it true?”

“Buck, my friend, hell is not the word I would use!” Johnny declared, as they approached the front porch. “And believe me, you wouldn’t want to know,” he added and opened the door for his friend, “After you.”

“Ah boys, there you are,” Mason cheerfully greeted the quiet young men, as they stood there fiddling with their hats, like school boys called before the teacher, as they were a little reluctant to ask about the trip. “You boys have something on your minds, don’t you?”

“Yeah, Mr. Andrews, we do,” Buck spoke up first. “I was wondering if I could take Johnny with me on a hunting trip. I know Mr. Lancer has to get back soon, so it‘ll be just an overnight trip,” he politely stated.

“I don’t see why not.”  Mason then turned to the tall rancher sitting by the fire. “What do you say, Murdoch? Buck knows his way around these parts, so Johnny will be good hands,” he assured Murdoch to help the boys cause.

Murdoch pondered for a few moments as they anxiously looked on. “I guess a day or two longer here will not hurt. But as soon as you get back, John, we have to head on back home. Understand young man?”

“I understand, Pa and thanks,” Johnny grinned cheekily at his father. “Well I better get washed up before dinner, huh?” Johnny added as he headed off for the bathhouse.

“Buck, my boy, you stay and have dinner with us. That way you and Johnny can go over the details and enjoy a good home cook meal before you leave.”  Mason smiled, “Cause you know once you get up there, it’s beans and hard tack, and a cold ground to sleep on.”  Mason walked over to the window and stared up at the snowcapped mountain. “Yep, you had better take more than just a bedroll with you; it just might get mighty cold up there.”

 

Chapter Eight

The Lancers experienced a rather restless night, father, nor son were able to get much sleep, not even the soft, warm beds couldn’t lull them into a state of nocturnal blissfulness as they have had done before. They just had too much on their minds. For Johnny it was the excitement of the hunting trip with his new friend. Not to mention the fact it was also new territory, something he had never experienced before, and was extremely curious as to what about it attracted these men to it. Murdoch’s reasons for his agitation were more of a troubling matter. He was rudely awakened by a horrifying and distorted vision he couldn’t make out clearly and it had him haunted and afraid to close his eyes again. The gut wrenching feeling he had in the bottom of his stomach was telling him it had something to do with his son, and it terrified him.

Morning came and the men sat down to a warm filling breakfast, and then Murdoch and Mason watched from the front porch as the boys finished preparing the horses and the pack mule. The mule would be carrying the extra blankets and supplies they needed for their long trek up the mountain. It looked like a lot of extra gear for such a short trip, but with this different and unstable environment you can never be too safe or prepared. Johnny even packed the scarf he wore on the way to the ranch, it may have looked sissy to him, but it sure felt good around his neck.  He even made sure at his father’s urging he wore long johns just to set his old man’s mind at ease.

“Well, boys, are you all set?”  Mason cheerfully asked. “You have a beautiful day for it.”

“I think so, Boss,” Buck replied, as he made a quick inspection sweep over everything from the rifles to the supplies on the mule.  “Yep everything is here!” he confirmed.

“Johnny! You be careful up there, you hear me?” Murdoch cautioned his eager son, his voice laced deep concern which didn’t get pass his boy.

Johnny walked up to his worried father and place his hand on Murdoch’s arm, “Murdoch, I’ll be just fine,” he then leaned in closer, “Remember who I am, was, and I survived that now didn’t I?” he whispered low enough for only Murdoch to hear. “I think I can handle a hunting trip!” Johnny smiled brightly at his old man.

“Murdoch, he’s in the best of hands with Buck!” Mason intervened. “He knows his way around these parts better than I do. So don’t worry, they’ll be just fine.”

“Okay, Mason, if you say so.” Murdoch was reluctant to agree. “Just call it a father’s right to worry about his son.” He smiled at Johnny, who was already mounted up and ready to go. “So do your old man a favor and come back in one piece!”

“I will,” Johnny softly promised. “Adios,” he called out, and then waved goodbye as he and Buck took off.

Murdoch stood there and watched nervously as the boys traveled further away from the ranch, until he could barely make out their fading forms. Then he glanced up at the mountains they were heading for. Unlike the ones back home with only their high peaks covered with snow and ice, these lower hills were plum full of the white cold substance. He knew from past experiences it can be very hazardous not just to ride in, but to walk in as well. It can and did get pretty deep in some parts. He hoped Johnny took his advice and wore more than one pair of socks to protect his feet from frostbite, along with the long johns. However, it wasn’t the frostbite that had him worried, it was that gut feeling gnawing at him again, and he just couldn’t shake the cold dread that something was not right.

“Be careful my son,” Murdoch whispered as he slowly turned to go back into the house, but not before glancing over his shoulder for a last look at the huge monster they called a mountain.

*********

It was just about sundown when they had reached the spot Buck had wanted to take Johnny to first. He knew it was a good spot for hunting before trekking further in. They quickly set up camp, and tended to the horses. On the way up, Johnny marveled at the beauty of the scenery he had admired from the train window, but to be actually out in it was another story. It was like frozen wonderland, with trees branches heavy laden with snow to the point that they almost touch the ground. The least little shift in the wind and the icy limbs would creak and crack as they shook, dropping large silent dollops of snow to the ground. They could see the tracks of small animals in the patchy blanket of white. They were entertained by a family of playful squirrels who used the snowy limbs as a slide. They would run up the tree and slide right back down, and then went bouncing around from limb to limb, chattering away. Johnny had to laugh at their playful antics, until.

“What the!” Johnny suddenly shouted in surprise as he jumped up in a flash from where he was sitting, after a clump of snow fell off a branch and landed on his head and neck. Johnny hissed and cussed under his breath as he leaped around like a mad man while trying to wipe the snow off his head and neck. He then took off his coat and shook it which made matters worse, when a small amount of snow slid down his shirt and sent a bone chilling shiver right through his body. “Damn, damn!” he muttered as Buck sat there laughing his head off.

“Cold, isn’t it?” Buck chuckled with a wide grin.

“Cold is not the word I would use!” Johnny snorted and looked up a lone squirrel that was staring down at him. “Thanks for the cold bath. You little…..” he growled. And was very tempted to take his gun out and shoot it.

“Come on and sit back down by the fire, you’ll dry up in no time.”

Johnny’s face flushed warm with embarrassment. “I guess I kind of looked funny hopping around like a fool, huh?” he quietly asked as he sat back down by the fire.

“No, not really, I had that happen to me lots of time,” Buck replied. “It’s just funnier when it happens to someone else though,” he grinned.

“Well I’m glad you had your laugh for the day,” Johnny sarcastically retorted, his own smile showing his amusement over the experience.

“Here, I make a mean pot of coffee,” Buck said as he handed Johnny a cup of the hot brew. “Tomorrow we’ll hunt up that way,” he informed Johnny as he pointed to a thicker area of woods. “We can leave the mule here and just go on in with the horses. If we don’t see nothing we’ll come back, break camp and go on further.”

“Sounds good to me,” Johnny tiredly replied around a hard yawn. “Boy, I’m tired and it’s not that late yet. I must be getting old,” he joked with a sly grin.

“It’s this mountain air the higher altitude takes a lot out of a man,” Buck clarified. “I suggest we turn in early, we have a busy day ahead of us.”

“I’ll second that!” Johnny eagerly agreed.

Buck watched in amusement as Johnny took out his boot knife, walked over to a small tree and began to cut a few of the branches off. He shook them hard until the snow was completely gone. Then he found a nice spot not too far from the fire but away from that squirrel infested tree and laid the limbs down in a neat pile. Johnny grabbed his bedroll and arranged it on top of them. Remembering what his father had said about the nights being colder than normal up here, he also grabbed an extra blanket off the mule and spread it over his bedroll. Johnny slid in between the covers, made himself nice and cozy, and then placed his hat over his face.

“Night Buck, see ya in the morning,” he whispered and started to doze off.

“Night, Johnny,” he replied shaking his head. “I hope you’re warm enough,” he smirked.

“Mmm, yep!”

**********

The next morning Buck patiently waited for his friend to wake up, for he had a strong feeling that it would not be a good idea to walk over and nudge him awake. So he waited, hoping it would not be too much longer. Finally Johnny eye’s slowly opened half way, eyes squinting due to the glare of the light on the white coated trees, to see Buck staring at him grinning and holding up a cup of hot coffee.

“Ya know we’re not going to get any hunting done, if you continue to lie there,” Buck teased. “Now get your sorry hide out of that homemade bed of yours and have some coffee so we can get going,” he said sounding all serious, but with a smile.

“Yeah, you’re right. There’s no time like the present I guess.” Johnny snorted as he sat up, and then stretched his stiff limbs and back. He shivered hard when the cold morning air hit him, so he quickly scooted towards the fire and took the cup of coffee from Buck. “Thanks,” he smiled, “Anything to eat?”

“Just the biscuits Sadie packed for us, and jerky,” Buck replied and handed a few to Johnny.

The young Lancer chowed down on the tasty biscuits and had his fill of coffee. After his breakfast as soon as he was ready they headed off to higher ground and thicker woods. They hoped they would see game such as deer and possibly bear. They were having no luck in seeing any as yet so they continued on. As they travel up higher Johnny noticed that the sun felt much warmer, stronger, as if spring was trying to break through the cold grip old man winter had on the earth. He also noticed a few heavy ridges of snow had started to break free from the mountains sides, as there were a couple of spots were the snow looked churned instead of smooth. Buck informed him this was another sign of spring.

Buck pointed to an open area to stop and take a much needed break. Johnny nodded his agreement, and then followed his new friend. The men stopped by a group of trees, Buck quickly dismounted and went off to relieve himself of the four cups of coffee he had had that morning. In his absence, Johnny glanced around in awe at the beautiful yet dangerous peaks with heavy drifts hanging down over the hillside.  Suddenly he was seized by a strange feeling, alerting his keen gunfighter’s instincts for impending danger, but couldn’t put his finger on what was causing the sensation.

Buck finally came out of the wooded area and by the look on Johnny’s face he could tell that something was troubling him. “What’s wrong Johnny?”

“I can’t say for sure, Buck, but something just don’t feel right,” Johnny nervously answered.

The young hand looked around the terrain but didn’t noticed anything unusual, until the horses started to whinny and shake their huge heads, rolling their eyes so the whites showed. This was a sure sign the animals sensed that danger was about. Buck looked up at the hillside, just as a loud rumbling noise echoed off the mountain.

“Ah, Johnny I think we better get the hell out of here!” he hissed in warning.

“Why?” Johnny asked, as his eyes narrowed and out of habit reached for his gun.

Buck didn’t get a chance to answer right away, when it became very clear to him what was about to happen when the ground started to shake under them and the noise grew louder.

“WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?” Johnny shouted over the noise.

“AN AVALANCE! GET THE HORSES AND LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!”

Johnny and Buck frantically hurried over to the frightened horses. Once they had untied the reins they bolted, raising their strong legs up in protest. The boys desperately tried to get them under control, but to no avail. The ground shook harder and the mountain started to unleash its fury. That was all it took and with one last attempt to free themselves the horses jerked the reins out of their hands and ran off, leaving the men stranded.

“WE HAVE TO MAKE A RUN FOR IT, JOHHNY!”  Buck hollered.

“YOU DON’T HAVE TO TELL ME TWICE BUT WHERE?”

“ANYWHERE, NOW GO! LOOK FOR SOME KIND OF COVER!”

The two men frantically ran for any cover they could find, seeing that there was no real way to get out of the path of the fast moving wave of snow coming right at them. Johnny with his keen eyes spotted a drop off the might shield them and pointed to it.  Buck nodded and was right behind Johnny when he missed stepped and his foot wedged tight in between a couple of logs. He felt a burning sensation as his ankle snapped. Johnny turned around to see if his friend was still with him.

“BUCK!” he cried and quickly went to his aid.

“Get the hell out of here, Johnny. My ankle is busted. I’ll only slow you down.”

“I’m not going to leave you,” Johnny anxiously vowed, as he tried to free Buck’s foot. His efforts only made Buck cry out in pure agony. “Buck?”  Johnny sadly said as he looked into his friend’s eyes.

“Go, leave me. You don’t have much time.” Johnny looked up and saw that he was right, “Now go please!" Buck pleaded.

“Adios, mi amigo,” Johnny said with deep remorse and took off and was just about to jump down in the drop off, when he was hit by the first wave of snow. The extreme force of it pushed him over the small cliff and he went tumbling down landing right on a pile of sharp rocks. The next thing he saw was a wall of white flying over the top of him, and within seconds the area was covered with mounds of twigs and loose rock combined with ice and snow, entombing him in a pile of cold darkness.

 

Chapter Nine

The deafening noise ceased when the chaotic rush of churning snow ended, the angry mountain fell silent. The earth stood still and the land lay torn and shattered. What was once a beautiful landscape now looked as if God, in a fit of rage, had reached out with a mammoth hand and stripped the hillside clean, ripping almost every tree and loose rock out of the ground. The vast amount of snow and debris covered the mountainside and ended in a massive heap at the bottom of the incline. Any living thing that was able to escape its path was long gone and those who were not so lucky lay dead or possibly alive but trapped under the cold, crystalline white blanket.  The frozen bodies of the victims would be entombed until the spring thaw melted their icy graves, only to have their persevered forms fall prey to the hungry animals of the wilderness, for such was the way of nature.

The whistle of the wind over the destroyed landscape was the only sound heard in the aftermath, until the eerie quiet was broken by a dull thudding noise, as one of the victims fought to free himself from his freezing prison. Desperate panting breaths echoed with every muffled sound from within, as Johnny fought with all his resolve to free himself from the icy trap with only one arm. He was not ready to give in to the call of the grim reaper. He pounded and dug away at the thick snow walls surrounding him in the drop off that he was violently flung down into.

With one last frantic effort Johnny was able to punch a hole, the size of his fist, in the snow. He was unable to reach his boot knife to cut into it, so he began to tear away at the small opening with his hand. Grabbing and clawing away handfuls of snow until it was big enough for him to climb through. By the time he was done, his hand and fingers were stiff and numb from the cold seeping through his glove. He refused to let the pain stop him. Johnny put his whole arm through the opening and hung on to the edge as he slowly raised himself up until his head was outside the hole. He stayed like that for a few minutes as he gasped and sucked in the fresher air.

The young Lancer began to struggle and kick away at the rocks and snow that encased his legs. Once he felt it give and was movable, he carefully maneuvered his legs into position. Using all the strength he could muster up, Johnny slowly pushed his battered torso through the opening and collapsed in a heap on the ground. He tried to stand but fell and slid down the icy slope leaving a thin trail of blood behind him that stood out in crimson contrast against the stark whiteness of the snow. He tried to tuck his arms and legs in towards his body to protect them from any more damage. When the wild skid stopped, it knocked the wind right out of his already laboring lungs. Johnny lay there in agony, hissing and cussing in Spanish as he reached for his ribcage.

“Dios! Why now? Why here?” he breathlessly whispered. Johnny slowly opened his coat and looked down at his bloodied side. He groaned when the cold air bit at the large gashes he had acquired when he landed on the sharp rocks. Even the thickness of his jacket couldn’t prevent the jagged edges from tearing into his flesh.  He took out his bandana and placed it between his shirt and torn skin and held it there until it stopped bleeding. Then as he sat there breathing deeply as he thought about what he just been through a terrible realization struck him. “BUCK!” Johnny screamed.

Johnny looked up towards the spot he and Buck were last at together and frantically scanned the area. His keen eyes spotted a narrow path littered by debris but he felt he could still navigate it. So he carefully stood up on shaky legs and stumbled over to it, slipping a few times and almost tumbled further down the hill. One unsteady step at a time, and then crawling the rest of the way Johnny forced himself up the hill to get to his friend.

Once he had made it to what he thought was the spot, he laid there for a few minutes with his head on his arms and rested, while catching his breath and gathering his strength.  When he looked around he couldn’t believe the heartbreaking destruction the avalanche had caused. His mind raced back to the horrid day of another earth shattering event, the day the earthquake hit his home and Green River. He remembered the death and havoc visited upon the town and its citizens. Johnny’s heart raced and dread filled his mind.

“I gotta find Buck,” he mumbled, knowing very well the odds of his friend being alive were zero to none, but he couldn’t rest until he knew for sure.

Johnny remained on his knees and began running his hands along the snow in the area he believed Buck was in. He started to dig not knowing how deep he would have to go, until he hit something. Johnny pushed the snow away and his eyes widened in shock at the sight of an elbow sticking up at an unusual angle. Completely disregarding the burning pain that was now shooting through his ribs and back, Johnny started to dig and dig until he partially uncovered Buck’s frozen body.

“Buck… no….I’m so sorry, mi amigo,” Johnny remorselessly whispered, as he stared down at his friend’s icy blue face. “Holy Madre, why did this have to happen? Why?” he asked, rocking back and forth with his head bowed and arms wrapped around his aching sides.  He was desperately trying to keep his emotions under control, as now was not the time to lose it. He could tell from the canted angle of Buck’s neck that it had most likely been broken.  He silently hoped it had been quick and merciful, and that his friend had felt no pain.

Knowing that there was nothing more he could to do for his friend other than mark the spot, Johnny took Buck’s scarf and tied it to a stick and stuck it down in the snow. He slowly pushed himself up off the ground. Then everything suddenly started to spin around as he gasped for air, cringing in agony as fought to keep his balance. Johnny stumbled over to a tree and stood there hanging on while the dizziness past, and he got his breathing under control. “Damn, that’s all I need,” he hissed realizing that not only did he have a few deep cuts on his side, but that he must have also cracked or bruised a couple of ribs. Now that his moving about had warmed up his body the sensations of pain began to roll over him in waves.

“Got to get back to camp,” he muttered to himself, rubbing his eyes. He looked around the terrain again to find that the avalanche had changed the topography. The path they had come up on was now completely covered with rock and snow.  “But which way is it? Everything looks the same,” he snarled at the wind. “Well, I’m not getting anywhere standing here.”

Johnny pushed off the tree and calling upon his survival instincts, he decided to take the left path. He sluggishly started to walk in that direction, hating to leave Buck where he lay. Johnny turned and eyed the bright scarf fluttering in the wind and whispered, “I promise, if I can, I’ll be back for ya. I’m not leaving ya up here, not like this.”

Johnny finished his promise, and then turned his focus to his task, and ventured out in the vast unfamiliar wilderness. He prayed he would be able to find their camp with the food and the mule they had left tied to a tree. Oh how he wished that mule was Barranca, who had carried him many times when he was hurt or sick. But his valiant steed was not here, so he would have to use the stubborn beast of burden to carry him out of here and back to safety.

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

Meanwhile back at the ranch, a worried father stared out the window his mind still filled with the unsettling images from the night before.  “Murdoch, will you please come away from that window?” Mason pleaded to his stubborn friend.  “The boys are just fine!”

“How do you know that for sure, Mason?” Murdoch asked sharply, “My gut is telling me something is not right.”

“Look, Buck is a very capable young man, he’ll watch out for Johnny.”

“You keep saying that, and I know you’re right. But…what if something did happen and Buck was unable to help Johnny? ” Murdoch speculated with increasing dread. “What then? Johnny doesn’t know this area or especially those mountains, not like he does back home.”

Mason walked up to his old friend and softly said, “Listen if they are not back by the deadline you gave John, we’ll go looking for them. Okay?”  He placed a reassuring hand on Murdoch’s trembling arm. “You really do love him, don’t you?”

“I never stopped loving him, Mason! I just never had the chance to really tell him, well… not in the way that I should. I just couldn’t get the words to come out,” Murdoch sadly said. “It took me close to twenty years to get him back. It wasn’t easy, at first, for us to get to know each other. But we are finally at the point where we can talk and enjoy each other’s company.”

“I can see that! And there will be more days like that too.”

“Yes, I know. But sometimes that’s what scares me,” Murdoch stuttered.

“What do you mean? What scares you?” Mason asked, very confused.

“The unknown! His past! Every time he goes off to town, or off to work, I worry about whether or not someone from his past will show up and take him away from me again. It almost happened with a man named Warburton and his hired guns.” Murdoch paused remembering that time, when Johnny’s loyalties were tested.  “Well, Johnny made it through that hell, but… what about the next time? I can’t breathe until I see him at home, and safe under my roof,” Murdoch confessed. “Oh, I know it’s silly for me to worry like that, I know he’s capable of taking care of himself, but as a father…”

“You can’t help but to worry, after all it’s a father’s right?”

“Yeah…” Murdoch sighed heavily with worry weakening his voice as he continued to look up at the mountain. “That up there is a new kind of challenge to him, a cold hard environment he’s not used to. I just hope he can handle it.”

“Well, as I said, if they are not back on time, then we’ll go looking for them. Okay?”  Mason repeated his promise. “Now come and join me in a glass of brandy and a game of chess.”

Murdoch hesitated at first but nodded and pulled himself away from the window, and took a seat next to the fire while Mason set up the chest board. However, his mind was not on the game, it was on his son out there in that vast untamed wilderness, praying to God that all was alright. The fear he should have never brought his boy along knotted his stomach and ate steadily away at his peace of mind.

**********

Johnny felt as though he was getting nowhere fast, as he stumbled through the woods in search of their campsite. If he didn’t know better, he would have sworn he was going around in circles. With each step he took, it was getting harder to breathe, his lungs felt constricted and protested with every breath he inhaled. The cold air was sucking out all the warmth from his chest and lungs and had provoked a few painful coughing spells, causing even more pressure on his sore ribs. He knew he couldn’t stop now, the sun was slowly fading behind the mountains, telling him that night would soon be upon him in a few hours and that he‘ll lose the light. He hoped that he had taken the right way. Right now all he wanted was the warmth of the campfire to ease his sore body and some of Buck’s coffee, that they had left sitting in the pot, to warm his insides.

However, that was not going to happen. When he finally reached the campsite all his hopes were dashed.  Johnny dropped to his knees and moaned in total dismay and utter disbelief at his luck, as he looked at the ransacked area. Everything was destroyed. There was no sign of the mule anywhere, only a trail of blood leading away from where it had been tied up. The bedrolls were shredded to ribbons, and their supplies scattered everywhere. Nothing that was left was salvageable. It looked like a battle field.

“Bears,” Johnny groaned as the explanation came to him.

Sunk down on his knees, bemoaning his luck, Johnny froze and his gun hand slowly eased down next to his holster. His gunfighter’s ears had picked up the low growl of a hungry bear and it sounded like it was headed back this way. Johnny knew he didn’t stand a chance gun or not. He was hurting too badly and was no match, size wise, to fight it off, should it happen to reappear. He had no desire to become its next meal so he forced his cold and tired body off the ground. Just as he was about to leave, headed in the direction he and Buck had come up the mountain, a huge brown head popped through the trees very close to where he was, scaring the living daylights out of him. Johnny had no choice but to head back the way he came from, as his exit was going to be blocked off.

The grizzly’s large nostrils immediately picked up Johnny’s scent and the smell of fresh blood that was still seeping out his wounds as he turned to leave. The bear roared and eagerly started to pursue him. Running on all four massive paws, it was quickly gaining on his two legged prey. Johnny could almost feel the animal’s hot breath on his neck and was bound and determined not to let the beast catch him, this was not the way he wanted to die.  He willed his legs to move faster, to carry him to safety.

With one final attempt to elude the relentless and deadly predator, Johnny blindly headed into a thick clump of trees; his eyes were watery and blurred from the exertion and cold. He didn’t plan to stop until he knew he was out of harm’s way, he kept right on going until he had made a wrong turn. And again he found himself tumbling down a steep slope which seemed to go on forever, until the bottom rose up quickly and violently stopped his downward progress. Johnny’s already battered torso slammed into a huge boulder, knocking the wind right out of him and darkness swiftly swirled him into oblivion.

 

Chapter Ten

On the ridge above the sloping incline that Johnny tumbled down an enraged grizzly lumbered back and forth, his mood none too happy.  The large irritated beast was definitely in a foul mood over his hibernation being disturbed by the avalanche. The animal’s pacing was interrupted at intervals for him to rise on his hind legs, furry body quivering with anticipation as he raised his nose and anxiously tried to catch Johnny’s scent. Fortunately for Johnny the wind’s direction camouflaged the presence of his unconscious body just below the bear’s location.

Frustrated that his meal had gotten away from him, the grizzly took his aggressions out on a small tree. He walked over to it and stood straight up, his height almost reaching a monstrous seven foot. He dug his claws into the bark and ripped and shredded it from the trunk. He wrapped massive paws around it and shook it violently while growling his displeasure. He shook it so hard that a clump of snow fell and hit the top of his head, the cold snow bath caused him to roar and shake his massive head. He had finally had enough, dropping back down to all four feet he stomped off leaving his prey lying at the bottom of the slope.

Later, Johnny’s battered body began to twitch and jerk, as he slowly but surely began to return to consciousness. His long eye lashes, frosted white by the cold, fluttered open and he moaned as the blinding glare off the snow pierced his eyes. Laying flat on his back he stared up into space, waiting for all his senses to come back to him as he felt quite numb. In his dazed state he didn’t know whether it was the cold or injury, but for some reason he just couldn’t get his limbs to obey his command to move. Then he remembered the reason he went head first down the hill. Johnny had no idea that the bear was long gone, so he laid there a little longer, and waited. When he didn’t hear nor see any signs of his stalker, he let out a sigh of relief and figured it was now safe to try and get up, that was if he could.

Johnny struggled to push his half frozen body off the ground and every move he made was excruciating. He felt like every bone in his body was either bruised or broken. If it wasn’t for the cushion of the snow as he fell, he knew that could have very well been the case. His head felt like he was horse kicked a few times and when he tried to lift it everything around him started to spin rapidly. However, despite the pounding in his head he gave it one last try and this time he did managed to push up into a sitting position. He leaned back and rested his back up against the boulder, and sat there with his eyes closed until the dizziness subsided.

“Dios!’ Johnny hissed when the pain in his side escalated to a mind consuming throb and he felt the trickle of warmth telling him that it was bleeding again. “Can’t I ever get a break?” he groaned as his ribs began to pulsate with jagged shards of pain.

Opening his coat, Johnny frowned to see that the green shirt he had chosen to wear because it was a little thicker was now rusty brown in spots where the blood had soaked through his bandana covering his side. There was nothing he could use now except the scarf around his neck to help stop the bleeding. So he took it off and slid it between his shirt and the now reddened abrasions replacing the blood soaked bandana. He took off his glove and ran his long fingers through his dark matted hair pulling out twigs and burrs he had acquired during his fall. He realized he had a few minor cuts and scrapes on his face but they didn’t hurt because his skin was just too cold and numb from the frigid air.

Once he was done checking out the damage, Johnny scanned the area and was even more bewildered because he didn’t have a clue where he was. This time he was really lost. He desperately needed to get back to the ranch. He was losing the light and fast. Johnny sat pondering on which way to go, and up was not an option as he sure as hell knew he wasn’t going to make it back up there. All he knew was he had to find shelter somewhere and quickly.  So he decided to take the path to the left and hope this will take him down off the mountain.

Johnny pushed himself off the boulder and stood up on shaky legs, and then sluggishly started on his trek. He didn’t know for sure where he was going, but he also knew he couldn’t just stay out in the open. Mexico, he knew like the back of his hand. Every hiding place he used to shelter himself from the cold nights as a child to the places he knew he could find food, even if it was begging behind some cafés backdoor.  But this untamed wilderness was a whole different story. Where would he find food and a warm place to sleep up here? And as he had just experienced, one wrong move in these hazard filled hills could very well mean his life. He had never felt so alone and lost, and in this rare moment of weakness he longed for the strong presence of his father, a man he had come to equate with comfort and security.

***********

Mason was getting dizzy from watching Murdoch nervously pace back and forth in front of the fireplace. He wished that his old friend would just relax a little more, and enjoy himself. But since the boys had been gone, Murdoch was as restless as a little boy sitting in church.  When he did sit down, he would only stare into the flames and then in a flash he would get back up and start the marching again. Murdoch did stop long enough to walk over to the window and stare out over the open range and the mountains that lay behind it.

“It’ll be dark soon. Where are the boys?” Murdoch asked, as his mind drifted back to the horrid images that haunted his dreams. “I would think they would have been back by now. They said it would be just an overnight trip.”

“Look, Murdoch, I know I said we’ll go looking for them if they didn’t get back on time. Well I was thinking that maybe they had to go in further to get some good hunting in, so don’t fret,” Mason beseeched. “And if they don’t make it back by tonight, I’m sure they’ll be back by tomorrow sometime. One more day won’t hurt, remember you said that?”

“Yes I did. But I just can’t shake this feeling I have,” the troubled father replied. “I know what those mountains are like, Mason. Anything could happen.”

“Like I said, my friend, John is with a good man. Buck will show him what to do or not to do.  He’s a grown man, Murdoch, not a little boy anymore. I’m sure he can handle a simple hunting trip,” Mason reassured with a grin.

“Yeah I guess you’re right. It’s just that…”

Mason walked over and placed an understanding hand on his friend’s arm. “I know. You don’t have to say it,” he agreed, and then he turned and looked out the window and smiled. “Will ya look at the sunset?”

The two men stared in awe at the glorious sight.  As the sun began to descend to the mountain top, it painted the sky in bold strokes of color from bright glowing orange to a lustrous yellow interspersed with wide streaks of deep shimmering pink. The sky seemed endless as the colors reflected off the ice and snow covered prairie floor giving the impression there were two sunsets. In the middle, the mountains loomed up cold, gray and white coated from the field of color, casting a dark shadow within the radiant glow.

“Yes its sure is beautiful,” Murdoch whispered. “I sure hope Johnny is enjoying it as well.”

“But not for long, I’m afraid to say,” Mason added in dismay, and pointed to the north of the mountains. “Those are snow clouds coming in and the boys might be in for a bit of snow.”

Murdoch frowned and his face grew grim, this was not what he wanted to hear. Because in his nightmare heavy snow was falling and he could barely make out a faint figure as it was struggling along. It was dark and the figured slowly faded in and out, until it vanished completely. And he knew somehow it had something to do with his son.

Mason looked up at Murdoch and saw the fear etched on his friend’s face. “Tomorrow… Murdoch, tomorrow morning we’ll go looking for the boys. That’s if the weather is permitting.  Okay?” he softly asked and received a nod as the tall rancher closed his eyes and appeared to be praying.

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

Johnny trudged on, his mind was racing as fast as his heart was beating, he just couldn’t believe this was happening to him. First that horrifying nightmare with the quake, and then the fiasco in Carson City, which took him over a month to finally recover from, and now this. He had survived the heat of the desert and the prejudice of that town, but it was beginning to look like the freezing cold and animals of this brutal land just might be his undoing. He had to be truthful with himself; he had never encountered a situation like this before and he was afraid his gunfighter skills just might not be enough to keep him alive.

Night was coming on fast and he knew that he had to find a safe place to bed down and somehow start a fire. The fire would serve two purposes, one to warm his freezing bones and two, using it for a signal. Its bright flames would hopefully guide someone to his rescue. “But where, who?” he laughed derisively, “There’s nothing but rocks and trees covered in snow and ice. Who in their right mind would live up here? And bears… can’t let those beasts find me,” he kept telling himself. “Got to keep going… the light is almost gone,” he mumbled.

The sky grew darker as heavy clouds rolled in blocking out the remaining sunlight and to Johnny’s horror it began to snow heavily. The cold wet flakes fell silently upon the earth with a vengeance, making visibility almost nil. The young Lancer pulled his hat down further over his ears and tightened the hold on his jacket, and then started to slowly walk through the endless white curtain of snow as he searched for a place that would protect him from the harsh elements.

After what seemed like hours of walking Johnny legs were beginning to fail him miserably, each step he took was a struggle to stay upward. Even though he was wearing long johns, at Buck’s encouragement, they still felt like icicles, stiff and painful. The accumulation on the ground was getting deeper and deeper by the minute, making it almost impossible to walk in without falling down. Johnny had one arm tightly compressed against his sore ribs while he used the other to feel his way through this white maze.

Johnny had decided to stay close to the safety of the trees using them as an anchor and shield from whatever was out there. The snow relentlessly continued with no signs of letting up. And as time went on it got colder and wetter, not even the woods could shield him from the onslaught of the icy crystals. Johnny began to shiver uncontrollably as chills ravaged his insides, stripping what warmth he had left. His breathing became labored and harsh. He began to wheeze and cough something fierce. He didn’t know how much more of this he could take. He was hungry, hurting and freezing. He had had no food or water since this morning. He was alone and scared. He was that little boy back in Mexico, mentally crying out for his papa to come and find him.

The winds picked up and the fresh fallen snow began whipping around in swirls of white rings, like little snow devils dancing in the wind, taunting their frigid victim. They blew up and then down, and all around him, spraying a fine stinging mist right in his eyes. Johnny fell back against a tree as he lost his balance and his vision became even more blurred than it already was. Suddenly he heard a noise and through watery eyes he noticed something moving in the distance and it was coming towards him.

Johnny froze for fear it might be another bear wandering about looking for food. With a hand on his gun, he stayed as quiet as he could, ready to use it if need be. However, his chest constricted as he felt another coughing spell coming on, he tried to suppress it but it was not to be. He began to cough so hard that he doubled over in agony when his battered ribs protested, and then he fell to the ground consumed by the pain. He lay there with his arms wrapped around himself moaning and unwittingly alerting whatever was out there to his whereabouts.

Johnny had no choice but to watch from where he lay as the lone figure came closer and closer. He had no more strength left to get up off the ground. The mountain had drained everything out of him, and now he was getting sick, as he felt the flames of fever begin to rise in his body.

As the figure got close enough he cringed at the size of it, and thought for sure it was a bear, and that this would be the end of him. But the figure became clearer to him and it was not a bear after all, but a man, a huge burly man. Johnny weakly smiled as he was losing the battle to stay awake, and in his dazed state of mind for a split second that huge form looked like his father’s.

Johnny raised his hand up and reached out towards the man, “Pa?”

As the man came closer and started to lean down and reach for Johnny’s hand, the young Lancer finally succumbed to his body’s demands and peacefully drifted off with a sense of security, knowing that he was not alone anymore.

 

Chapter Eleven

With resolute movements fueled by the urgency that ate at him, Murdoch grabbed his hat and gun belt off the chair and marched out of his bedroom and down the hallway, headed straight for the front door. The big man had a scowl of determination etched on his face. He was a father on a mission to find his son and he was in no mood for anyone to get in his way.

Murdoch had spent a torturous night, what little sleep he had managed had been filled with terrifying visions of losing his youngest son. The nightmare had been so clear and vivid. He had stood by in mute horror as the monstrous mountain claimed the life of his son. And there was not a damn thing he could do about it.  He could see his boy reaching out for him, calling for him as the cold ground split revealing a wide jagged fissure resembling the jaws of a massive beast opening its mouth. A roaring sound filled the air and the crack grew wider as Johnny tried to flee. The solid ground under Johnny’s feet crumbled away, as his son scrabbled to grab the edge, but the earth swallowed him whole and then the crevice disappeared under a blanket of white.

The terrified father shot straight up in bed, screaming his son’s name. Murdoch’s face was covered in a cold sweat and his bed clothes were soaked straight through. The drenched garments stuck to heaving chest. Murdoch gulped back his fear and placed a calloused hand over his wildly thudding heart. It felt like the over-taxed organ would beat a hole in his chest. In an attempt to calm down he inhaled deeply through his nose and then exhaled slowly out his mouth. The trembling weakness finally subsided and then he hastily threw the covers off and ran to the window and frowned at the swiftly falling snow. He prayed it would stop soon for Johnny’s sake and his, for with or without Mason’s help he was going to find his son. He would not be dissuaded any longer.

Murdoch knew the risk of traveling up the mountain in the dark. It would be like committing suicide. The painful reality of knowing he would have to wait until daylight was weighing heavily on his heart and mind. Morning was still a few long hours away so he reluctantly went back to bed, knowing he needed to be rested for the trip up the mountain. Murdoch lit the lamp on his night stand and attempted to read to keep his mind occupied. After a few minutes his eyes lids began to get heavier and he yawned, and then he slowly drifted off to a troubled sleep, until the first rays of the morning sun shined though the lacy frost covering the window. The bright rays revealed the diamond glint in the deep snow that fell over night, but thankfully the snow storm was over.

“Murdoch, will you wait one blasted minute?” Mason pleaded as he followed the tall rancher, trying to keep pace with Murdoch’s quick long strides as he hurried towards the door.

“No, Mason!” Murdoch exclaimed as he turned to face his friend. “I don’t have a minute to spare, my gut feeling is telling me that my son needs me and I’m going!”

“I’m going with you, remember? But let the boys get the horses’ ready will you?  I just now instructed them to pack a mule with the supplies we’ll need.” he breathlessly informed him. “You’re in such an all fired hurry to get going you forgot what it’s like out there. We’re going to need those supplies,” he added as he looked up at friend’s worry ridden face.

“No, I didn’t forget what it’s like out there, that’s why we need to get going and the sooner the better,” Murdoch grimly replied, “With that fresh snow you damn well know it will make it that much harder to find them, as the new snow will have covered any tracks. We don‘t even know which trail they took.”

“Well, I have a pretty good idea which way they might have gone, Murdoch. I’ve been hunting a few times with Buck, so they shouldn’t be that hard to find, even in this snow,” he assured his old friend. “Now please have a cup of coffee while we wait, it shouldn’t be too much longer and then we’ll get going.”  Mason walked over and poured two cups of the hot brew, and handed one to Murdoch. “That must of have been some dream you had last night. I heard you shouting all the way down the hallway.”

“I’m sorry, old friend. I didn’t mean to wake you like that,” Murdoch apologized.

“No, no, it’s okay. I know you’re worried about John. I just let you be though, I figured you were having a bad dream and it had to do with your boy.”

“More like a nightmare! It was so real, Mason.” He shuddered as he thought about it. “I was right there with him, so close yet so far away. My son was calling for me and I couldn’t reach him…then he just disappeared right before my eyes and I lost him again, this time forever.”  Murdoch sat his cup down and walked to the window and pointed to the mountain. “In my dream it was that beast out there that took my son from me and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let that dream become a reality,” he vowed.

Mason shot up from his seat and hurried over to Murdoch’s side. “Take it easy, Murdoch. We’ll find them! I wouldn’t be surprised if we met them on their way down from the mountain,” he chuckled in attempt to ease his friend’s mind. “Won’t we feel mighty foolish if we do?”

“Well, I would rather feel foolish rather than not know for sure whether they are okay or not,” Murdoch whispered brokenly. “All the others times he has been in trouble or hurt I didn’t give up until I found him and made sure he knew I was right by his side should he need me. And I’m not going to give up this time. Grown man or not, he’s my child. I lost him once and I will fight anybody or thing that tries to take him away from me again,” he declared.  “Can you understand that, Mason?”

“Yes, my friend, I can. And fools or not we’ll find them,” Mason replied, and then turned his attention to the hand who came in and announced that everything was ready to go.  “Thanks, Josh. I want you and Harry to watch over things while we’re gone,” Mason instructed the man.

“Sure thing, boss, I sure hope you find Buck and your boy too, Mr. Lancer,” the old hand stated nodding at Mason, and then Murdoch. “Those youngins sure got a dose of snow up there last night, but I’m sure Buck found a place to bed down for the night,” he solemnly replied, and then tipping his hat, went on his way.

“I sure hope he’s right, Mason,” Murdoch muttered morosely.

“We’ll we’re not going to find out standing here, so let’s mount up and get going.”

Murdoch let out a heavy sigh as he placed his hat back on his head and followed Mason outside. The horses were waiting, all geared up and ready to go, along with two other men Andrews wanted to bring along for back up, just in case. The old friends mounted their horses and headed out into the horizon, leaving behind them a trail of deep hoof prints in the freshly fallen snow. They were hoping that this would turn out to be nothing more than just a waste of time and that they would indeed meet up with Johnny and Buck, alive and well.

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

“Pa…Mur...doch?” Johnny weakly called out as his senses were slowly being awakened by the heat that flowed from the fireplace, that he lay in front of. The life giving warmth had thawed his body and melted away his icy complexion as his face warmed up and his natural tan skin tone resurfaced, just a shade paler than usual. Bright red spots dotted his cheeks indicating fever was now starting to invade his body. Johnny hissed as the abrasions on cheek and chin tingled to awareness and burned when the warm air touched them. The pain let him know that he was very much alive.

Thinking about death or dying had never bothered him in the past.  He had to live with it for so long, he grew used to it. It was the unknown that ate at him; it was the questions of who or what that scared him. Johnny’s puffy eyes struggled to open, the blue of them glittering with fever. The corners of his eyes pinched in pain as he stared with confusion into the bright flames. His mind was still in a daze. He didn’t know whether this was real or if this was some cruel joke being played on him by the devil. One minute he felt like he was freezing as though he was still trapped under the snow and the next he was warm and safe, though he had no idea how it could be.

As he was becoming more aware of sights and sounds around him he felt something big and heavy laying over his body. It encased his slender form and cradled him in a blanket of warmth and security. Johnny slowly eased his hand up under the covering, physically checking out his aches and pains. His exploring hand found that he was shirtless and that his ribcage was tightly bound up with bandages. Every breath he took was wheezing and harsh, his chest felt tight as a drum. He found himself having to take short shallow breaths to keep the pain at a tolerable level. He pulled his arm out from beneath the cover and rubbed the topside. It was furry and silky soft, and he realized then that it was a bear skin that had been placed over him. Scott would call it ironic that the hide of the very beast that had wanted to do him in, now gave him the warmth needed to live. 

‘But who saved me? And where am I?’ He pondered to himself. Blinking rapidly and wiping the moisture from his sore eyes he gazed around the room searching for familiar objects, or for a hint as to where he was. From what he could make out, he figured he was in a cabin. ‘Who would want to live way up here? They must be loco?’ he thought. A soft grunt caught his attention and he turned his head and peered over to where the sound came from.

Johnny was still and quiet as he studied the large man bending over a small potbelly stove, stuffing it full of wood. The husky stranger was dressed mostly in animal skins, with heavy boots also made of hides, which made his feet look enormous. Johnny held his breath in awe when the man stood up. He was as tall as Murdoch, but yet rounder around the midsection and burly. His hair was long and almost pure white, with a bushy beard to match, that covered a large portion of his pudgy face. And his demeanor was that of a man gentle in spirit, but yet strong in form.

Johnny continued to surreptitiously watch the man as he moved about the cabin. All of a sudden his chest started to rebel against the infection that was invading his lungs. They constricted so tightly that he began wheezing uncontrollably and gasping for air. Johnny began pounding the floor with his fist due to the burning pain that seared his sore ribs as he was trying to catch his breath. His distress caught the stranger’s attention and he quickly turned around and frowned at the blue tinting around Johnny’s lips. He hastily grabbed a small sack and raced to Johnny’s side.

“Hey now, young fella, take it easy!” he said as he crouched down next to Johnny, and quickly placed the sack up to his mouth. “Here now take a few breaths of this,” he instructed.  Johnny shook his head and feebly pushed the man’s hand away. “Hey it’s not gonna hurt you. It’s just mint leaves and herbs. It will help ya breathe a little better,” he added with a gentle tone of voice.

The man’s reassuring voice and the fact that he was helpless to do anything else at this moment convinced Johnny to concede. He closed his eyes and let the man place the sack over his mouth again. He inhaled the soothing aroma of the mixture and within minutes his breathing became more relaxed. His chest seemed to loosen up some and his wheezing eased off, thus taking pressure off his bruised ribs. The bluish cast faded from around his mouth and his lips returned to their natural color of a soft pink.

The man took his hand away and smiled down at Johnny. “There now, I told ya it would make you feel better. You just keep that by you just in ya get another attack, ya hear?”

Johnny smiled up at the old man. “Thank…you,” he weakly whispered. “Who?”

“They call me, Mad Jack.”

“Mad…Jack?”

“Yeah, people think I’m crazy for wanting to live up here in these mountains,” Jack remarked as he stood up and went back over to the stove and started to prepare some broth for Johnny. “But…I had it with civilized life,” he softly added with his back turned to the young man staring up at him.

“Why?” Johnny felt compelled to ask.

Jack didn’t say anything at first. He just poured the broth into a cup and turned to walk back towards his house guest. “Never mind about that, it’s a long story.  I might tell ya about it later. But first let’s get some hot broth into you young fella.”  Jack eased his large body down and sat next to Johnny. He slid his hand under Johnny’s neck and raised his head up while he sipped the broth.

“My name is Johnny,” he softly introduced himself to his rescuer and host as he laid his throbbing head back down.

“Well, Johnny, it’s nice to meet ya,” Jack humbly replied.  “And what in the hell were you doing out in that blizzard?” Jack asked, out of curiosity. “If I didn’t happen along ya would have froze to death.”

“I know,” Johnny muttered tiredly, with his eyes closed, as he was finding it hard to stay awake. “I…was hunting with a friend….avalanche….bear…,” his words trailed off as he finally fell back to sleep.

The old man sat the cup of broth down and covered Johnny up. “You sleep now, young man. That medicine I gave ya will help you get the rest you need.”  Concerned colored Jack’s face as he brought a large hand down on Johnny’s forehead and frowned. “I fear that fever you have now is going to get worst. But old Jack will help all he can.”

Jack got up off the floor and walked over to the fireplace mantle and sadly looked at an old picture of a beautiful woman and child. A lone tear rolled down his cheek. He wiped it away quickly and shuffled over to a small table in the corner of the room that had a black bag on it covered in thick dust. He looked at the bag and then back again at Johnny.

“I pray this can help you.”

 

Chapter Twelve

Snow shrouded the mountain side, the blanket of white sparkled under the weak winter sun. The world beyond the little cabin was still and silent save for the whisper of the wind through the trees.  Inside the little cabin the hushed quiet magnified the small sounds. Crackles, pops and hisses issued from the fireplace as the flames danced and sang along the glowing logs.  The heated wood released the tangy scent of hickory and pine into the comfortable room.

The crinkle of paper could be heard as Mad Jack turned the pages of the book he read while he sat by the fireplace with his feet propped up towards the firebox. In between pages Jack would occasionally glance down at his young house guest as he slept snug under the bearskin in front of the fireplace. He listened carefully to Johnny’s breathing, which was getting raspier by the hour. He feared that Johnny was coming down with a full blown case of influenza. All he could do was keep the boy quiet, warm and give him plenty of fluids. His concerns grew along with Johnny’s fever as it had spiked up in the last few hours. It wasn’t too high as of yet, but he was fairly certain it would only get worse before it got better.

Jack was as grizzly in attitude as appearance; he hadn’t had any contact with humans over the past few months. He would only go down to town for supplies, and then head back up to his little cabin, hidden deep in the woods. He had no desire to mingle with any of the townsfolk, as he had told Johnny he had had it with civilized life as they called it. He even hated to sell them his furs and pelts, but he needed the money to survive.

As he looked down at Johnny’s flushed face burning with fever, his hard expression softened as he recalled the reason why he came to this God forsaken frozen land in the first place. In the beginning he had helped many people and saved the lives of quite a few.  His face grew dark with anger as he thought back to how his efforts were wasted on the narrow minded, self righteous fools. His compassion, caring and concern had been repaid with an unforgivable act of cruelty, which had him vowing to turn his back on them as they had him. However, that didn’t mean he wouldn’t help a total stranger in dire need, such as was Johnny’s case. He may have given up on civilization in town, but not on humanity.

A soft murmur coming from the spot where Johnny lay, nestled on a pile of thick soft hides, broke his morose train of thought. He smiled sadly when Johnny’s blue eyes slowly fluttered open, bright with fever, and stared at up him with uncertainty in them. Jack put the book down and stretched his tired limbs before walking over to his patient.

“Well young man, I’m glad to see you’re finally awake,” he said softly as he lowered his huge body down next to Johnny. “That’s okay you need all the sleep you can get. You have been through quite an ordeal, and you are one sick young man,” he added as he slowly pulled back the covers and began to reassess Johnny’s injuries.

Johnny continued to stare at the burly man as he carefully unwrapped the bandages around his ribcage to recheck the gashes on his side. Johnny was surprised and confused at the tenderness this big man was using as he tended to his wounds. Jack’s gentle way reminded him of Sam back home. When Jack had the bandages removed, before he even laid one finger on the tender flesh, he quickly dipped his hands in a bucket of water, washed and dried them, and then processed to examine the deep abrasions. His experienced actions brought about the dawning of realization for Johnny as to what this man used to be. It was quite obvious he had medical knowledge. But why was he up here, and not in town where he belonged, so he could care for others? The mysterious situation had Johnny’s curiosity stirring.

As Jack probed a little deeper, Johnny hissed and jerked in protest to the pressure he was putting on his side. “I’m sorry, Johnny, if that hurt you, but I have to be sure the wounds are clean and healing properly. And I’m happy to say that I see no infection occurring so far,” he added with satisfaction. “Your ribs are not broken; they’re just badly bruised. So let’s get these bandages back on and get some hot broth in you. It‘s just about dinner time.” Jack carefully lifted Johnny up with his strong arms, leaned him against his chest and began to rewrap his ribcage. 

The gentle giant eased his patient back down and made him as comfortable as he could. He raised him at an incline with some rolled up pelts that were carefully placed under his shoulders and head so he could drink his broth with ease. All this time Johnny kept quiet as he studied the man’s aged face. Peering deep into the Jack’s sad hazel eyes, he could see the pain deep inside.  Johnny shuddered as he thought something truly horrific must have happened to drive this compassionate man to shun the town and live up here by himself

“There now, how does that feel?”  Jack inquired once he was finished propping Johnny up.

“Fine…..thank you,” Johnny’s raspy voice weakly replied.

"Good!  I have some broth brewing for you. I think you can also stomach some bread to dip in your broth. Maybe tomorrow you can try something a little more solid.”

“Yeah, like what?” Johnny dared to ask.

“Oh, maybe some bear stew!” Jack taunted.

Johnny eyes widened and he moaned pitifully. “Bear stew? Oh… great, just what…I need,” he quipped, and then laid his head back against the furry pillows. “I suppose the broth is made out of bear too?”

“Nope! That would be elk. I ran out of chickens before the first snow flew.” Jack roared with laughter at the look of disgust on Johnny’s face. His good humor and rumbling laugh were contagious, they tickled Johnny’s funny bone and he couldn’t help but laugh too. However, the hilarity provoked another coughing spell that had Johnny wheezing and gasping for air again. Jack quickly placed the bag of leaves and herbs to his mouth and held it there until Johnny’s breathing was under control.

“I guess I better lay off the humor, huh?”

Johnny nodded and slowly pushed the bag away and smiled. “Yeah…I guess so. Sorry.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry about. I should have known better,” Jack replied with a frown.  “Your lungs are very congested and you need to stay quiet.”  He got up and fetched the hot broth and a piece of bread. He carefully handed the cup to Johnny. “Here, you need all the fluids you can get down you. And the bread will give you some solid substance.  I’ll give you some warm water later.”

“No tequila?” Johnny half-heartedly teased.

“No tequila, son, perhaps a little whisky to help with the congestion though,” he said as he lowered his hand down and felt Johnny’s brow. Jack grimaced and shook his head, “I don’t like the way your fever keeps spiking up and then cooling down. We have to be very careful with this infection in your lungs. You need plenty of fluids to combat the mucus. So drink up young man,” he sternly ordered.

Johnny finished the broth and bread, and then handed the cup back to his host. “Well whatever it was, it sure …was good,” Johnny complimented around the yawn that overtook him.

“I told you its elk.” Jack grinned, and then took the cup and walked over to the stove where he began fixing his dinner of elk meat and potatoes.

Johnny snuggled down under the thick covers and embraced the warmth and comfort. He didn’t know if it was the fever or the bone chilling cold weather, but he felt frozen to the core. He shivered uncontrollably as hard chills seized him, making his muscles cramp. And then he would heat up like an inferno, but he didn’t dare throw the hides off, he would rather roast than freeze.

Lying there, Johnny counted his blessings for this man; he had saved him from a sure death. A total stranger took him into his home and gave him care and compassion. In the past, as a child not many would have even given him a second look. They would either shove him away or throw rocks and rotten food at him. Come to think about it, in his early days as Madrid, he was treated almost in the same way, until his gun was well known, and then they feared him.

With his back still turned away from his house guest, Jack felt Johnny’s eyes boring into him and knew there was something on his mind. “What’s on your mind, Johnny?”

“You,” replied the congested voice.

“Me?”

“Yeah, care to talk about it? I’m a good listener,” Johnny stated as he placed bag of herbs and leaves to his mouth to help relieve the tightness in his chest.

“I don’t know if there’s anything to talk about, at least not now,” Jack grimly answered.

“I think there is. It helps to talk about it, ya know.”

“I did all my talking twenty five years ago and it didn’t help a damn thing!” Jack loudly exclaimed. His anger caught Johnny off guard. He turned around and saw the startled yet concerned expression on Johnny’s pale face. “I’m sorry, Johnny. I didn’t mean to sound so harsh,” he humbly apologized. Jack walked over to the mantle and stared at the picture, of the woman and child, again. He tenderly fingered their smiling faces.

“It’s okay,” Johnny soothed, before he dared to ask, “Jack, what happened to you? Who are they?” he whispered and pointed to the picture.

“It’s a long story, Johnny.”

“I have time. I mean I’m not going anywhere right now,” he smiled breathlessly.

Jack nodded and took a deep breath and slowly let it out as he sat down in his chair, leaving his food to simmer on the stove. “They are… were my wife and little girl. She was the daughter of a Blackfoot chief and we fell madly in love. Her name was Running Deer. She was the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on,” Jack declared. “I came to this God forsaken land with a dream of helping the white man and the Indian. I was fresh out of medical school and I came out here to start a practice.”

“Go on.” Johnny urged when Jack paused and fell silent.

“Well, everything was going wonderfully.  I had come to like and respect the townsfolk, as they did me. I thought of many of them as friends. I thought wrong!” Jack sadly recalled. “After a year had gone by and I finally got the courage to try and communicate with the local tribe. I wasn’t sure how my friends and neighbors would take it, so I secretly went up there on a mission of peace and good will. And that’s when I met her, my Running Deer. It took a while for the Indians to trust me, but after they realized that my medicine was actually helping them they welcomed me with open arms every time I visited.”

“Then what happened?”

“We secretly courted for a few months and then we decided to marry. Her father was reluctant at first, but she made him realized that having a medicine man for a son-in-law was not a bad idea, it would be an honor. So he finally agreed.  We were married by the tribe’s holy man. They knew I couldn’t live there; I had my practice to think about. So they let her leave with me and I brought my new wife home.” Jack paused again and anger filled his eyes and heart, as he remembered the hurt and disappointment he experienced afterwards. He stood up, took his food off the stove and then grabbed the picture off the mantel and sat back down, clutching it to his chest.

“Jack, are you okay?” Johnny inquired with a husky voice.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be okay again, Johnny.” Jack replied his voice breaking up as tension tightly coiled in his body. “Well as I said…” he began again, fighting the lump in his throat as it was a hard story to tell. “I brought my wife home and it was as I expected she was not welcomed, especially by the women folk. They treated her like dirt and it broke my heart to see the hurt in her browns eyes, so I kept Running Deer home when I was out doing my doctoring.  I pointed out to them that I was the only doctor within miles and they had no choice but to see me for their medical needs.”

“I bet they didn’t like that one bit,” Johnny commented tiredly.

“No, they did not and I didn’t give a damn whether they did or not. I stuck by my oath and when called upon for help I gave it, regardless of my feelings or theirs. I was proud to show off my beautiful bride, and I did, despite their objections. We came to town together to buy supplies. I couldn‘t keep her cooped all the time you know.” Jack’s face softened and his rigid stance relaxed as a bright gleam lit his eyes, “And then I became the father of a little girl with big brown eyes, my angel… my Naomi. I loved her and her mother more than life its self. I could see the beauty and good in them, but not those narrowed minded fools in town all they saw were half-breeds,” he snarled as his joyous expression grew into a hard scowl. “They couldn’t even be happy for me, instead they turned their noses up and talked bad to others about my baby girl and her mother, calling them all kinds of cruel things. They thought I didn’t know about it because I tried my best to ignore them while giving extra love and attention to my family.”

“I know the feeling,” Johnny whispered angrily, his heart aching for Jack.

“What …did you say something?” Jack asked, trying to shake off painful memories.

“Nothing, please…go… on,” Johnny choked out around the hacking cough as he placed the medicinal bag to his mouth again.

“Two years went by, two hard years. Slowly one by one they stopped coming to me. And I found my practice failing, but I still had my wife and child, and to me that was all that mattered. Until that fateful day,” he grimly stated as he felt his blood pressure rise with a rage that simmered under the overwhelming emotions of horror and devastation at the memory of what happened. He took deeps gulping breaths to regain control, as Johnny watched, deeply troubled by his friend’s actions.

“Jack?”

The old man seemed life shocked and worn as he looked back down at Johnny’s young face. He was amazed that as sick as this boy was, he was more concerned about him. It touched him and he tried to smile. “I’m okay,” Jack said in wavering tone and continued on, “One day I was out of town taking care one of my patients, one of the few faithful ones I had left, when something happened at home. My house caught on fire and my family was trapped inside.”  The sorrow seized the old man and seemed to shrink him, sucking out his life force and leaving him an empty shell except for the anger that raged in his darkened eyes. He sunk into the old despair as he revealed, “Not one of those God damn so called decent people bothered to help get them out. They stood by and let my wife and child burn to death and didn’t lift a finger!” The tears were streaming down his face and he lifted a weak shaky hand to wipe the moisture away from his haunted eyes. “That was twenty five years ago and…and it still hurts like hell. I gave up on them like they gave up on me and headed up here. I vowed to never come to the aid of those murdering bastards again!” he finished, spent and breathing heavily from the exertion of the emotions on his body. He closed his eyes, and sat there in silence for a few minutes.

As tired and sick as he felt, Johnny lay there and his body trembled with anger and empathy at what he had just been told. No matter how many times he heard or witnessed such heartless and senseless acts of this manner it still made him shudder. No man should ever have to suffer like this man did, especially a man of medicine that had helped heal and tend the sick as well as usher new lives into the world. It was wrong…so very wrong but he could absolutely understand why Jack chose to live like this, turning his back on society and he didn’t blame him one bit.

Johnny looked back up at Jack, who had fallen asleep in his chair, still clinging to the picture, and hoped that his curiosity didn’t do any damage that might affect his friend later.  Johnny leaned back and closed his own weary eyes as his body burned hot due to the anger and fever that was raging within him. He slowly dozed off, as memories of his own troubled past tried to surface, but he pushed them down all he could think about was getting home to his father, and somehow helping his new friend.

 

Chapter Thirteen

The majestic scenery of the mountains was absolutely breathtaking; last night’s blizzard had left the open landscape looking like a frozen winter wonderland, glittering like a diamond in the fading light of day. It seemed cruel that Mother Nature could dress the world in such splendor, yet the deceptive beauty hid many dangers. It had snowed at least a good two feet to almost knee level, and with drifts even higher. Maneuvering the horses around the valleys and peaks of the drifts was like working their way through a white maze; this considerably slowed down the small search party’s progress. With evening coming on there were still no sign, hide nor hair of the boys, which only brought on more disappointment and increased the anxieties within each man, especially Murdoch.

Mason was getting a little apprehensive about this whole ordeal himself. Even though he was trying his best to assure Murdoch that the boys would be okay, he was beginning to wonder if allowing Buck and Johnny to go on this hunting trip was a good idea after all. It didn’t take him long to locate the trail, he thought Buck had taken up the mountain, once they reached the base of it. The important things they didn’t know were; how far the boys had gone up, and if they had taken another way down, which could mean that they might have missed them completely. He hoped with all his heart that was the case.

Daylight was waning, Mason had sent the two men he had brought along with them on ahead to scout around the terrain, and then report back if they found anything. While he and Murdoch kept their eyes and ears open on this end as they made their way up the steep incline. They scanned every inch of the narrow path for any signs. The only tracks they saw were those of animals such as squirrels and deer, along with the horses of the two men as they went up the trail.

Mason pulled his horse closer to Murdoch and softly said, “It’s getting late, Murdoch. We’ll have to find a place to camp for the night soon. Once the sun goes down it’s going to be impossible to travel these trails. You know that, don‘t you?” he asked his somber friend.

“Yes, I know very well, Mason,” Murdoch solemnly stated. “But let’s not stop too soon. I want to keep going as long as we can.”

Mason nodded. “Sure old friend,” he said patting Murdoch’s arm.  “I think there’s a good spot further up we can use to camp. And unless I miss my guess, I think it might be the same spot Buck used the last time we went hunting,” he said with a tremor of hope in his voice. “Who knows maybe the boys are there.”

“I sure hope you’re right,” Murdoch murmured and shook his head as he glanced around the heavily snow covered hillsides. “I remember my days with Jay in the Rockies and how hard it was to get around with all that snow. You had to be careful with every step you took, or it might be the end of you,” he shuddered when a cold chill ran down his spine. “A man can freeze to death in a matter of hours up here…. or be buried alive,” he grimly added, his eyes never once stopping the search for his son as he spoke.

“Yes I know,” Mason whispered, remorse over the situation robbing him of full voice.

The two men continued the search in silence, which was abruptly broken when one of the men came rushing back towards them. The look on his face confirmed that it was not good news, even without uttering a word.

“Mr. Andrews!” he called out to his boss waving his hat as he anxiously approached them. “We…we found something ahead. It looks like a camp site, well what’s left of it that is,” he added breathlessly.

“What do you mean what’s left of it?” Murdoch demanded.

“Well, sir, the new snow has covered most of it, but from what we can tell it was…” he paused not knowing how to say this without causing too much alarm.

“Well spit it out man!” Mason eagerly insisted.

“It…it… well, why don’t I just show ya?” he said instead, and then led the anxious father and Mason to the camp site.

Along the way, Murdoch’s mind and heart raced in fear. He imagined all the terrible things that could have befallen his son, his apprehension over the possibilities pushing aside his ability to hope. He didn’t know who or what he would find at the camp, but his gut feeling was telling him that his nightmares just might become a reality. The closer they got to the clearing, the more alarmed he felt.

“For the love of God,” Mason loudly groaned as he and Murdoch laid eyes on the ransacked camp site. “What in the hell happened here?”

Both men quickly dismounted and walked through the small clearing, shaking their heads in utter disbelief as they looked at the destroyed camp. They began pushing and digging at the snow with their hands and feet as they searched for clues in the debris. They found the bed rolls ripped to ribbons and angrily tossed about. The coffee pot and cups were dented or crushed, with what looked like large teeth marks punctured through them.

“Bears,” Mason confirmed with dismay.

“Bears?”  Murdoch questioned as he frantically scanned the area for his son.

“Yes sir, I think it was bears too,” the other hand agreed. “Look over there at that tree. You can clearly see bear claw marks on it.” He pointed out a tree close to where Murdoch was standing. “Something must have wakened them early from their hibernation. I’d bet my whole month’s wages on it.”

Murdoch glanced at the tree and his eyes widened at the size of the claws marks. He shivered because he hadn’t seen anything that big since his early days trapping in the mountains. No man would ever have dared to mess with an animal that size; he surely would have been no match for the beast. Murdoch then brought his eyes down along the trunk of the tree and his heart stopped and leaped up into his throat, when he noticed a patch of snow that was tainted bright pink. With a shaky hand he brushed some of it away to find it much darker underneath. The second he realized for sure what it was, he felt like the blood running through his veins was as frozen as the crimson stains of it in the snow. ‘God no!’ he whispered desperately.

“MASON!”

“What…what is it Murdoch?” Mason called out, startled by Murdoch’s tone of voice. He ran over to where his friend was kneeling down. “What did you find?”

“Look!” Murdoch commanded as he pointed to the red stain frozen in the snow.

Mason looked down at the blood and then back up at the agony pinching the rancher’s face and put a strong but compassionate hand on his arm. “Now, Murdoch, you can’t be sure it’s Johnny’s or even Buck’s blood. This might not even be their camp,” he added grasping at straws.

“It’s their camp alright, Mason.” Murdoch grimaced as he stood up and walked over to where Johnny had slept the night before, and picked up a piece of torn blanket. “I gave this extra blanket to Johnny, in cased he needed it! Now I find no trace of him or Buck. Where are they?”

Andrews removed his hat and ran his fingers through his thin but gray hair, and paced back and forth trying to come up with an answer for him, but he had none. He turned to face his desperate friend. “Look, Murdoch, that still don’t mean they are…dead….this could have happened while they were gone. But I do know that we can’t do anything more today. It’ll be dark soon. We have no choice but to make camp here for the night.”

Every ounce of his being was screaming in defiance but his common sense was winning the battle. Murdoch knew that Mason was right. “Alright, we make camp but at first light we go on without hesitation, understand? There‘s just too much at stake to stop now.”

Mason nodded as he watched Murdoch walk over to the tree to tether his horse, still holding the shredded material in his hand that once covered his boy.  The distraught father started to toss it down, but he just couldn’t bring himself to let go of it, so he placed it inside his coat. He sat down in the spot where Johnny had once laid while the other men made a new camp. He stared up at the fading sun and silently prayed.

*********

The picture Jack had clutched protectively to his heart was slowly slipping out of his lax fingers as he slept. With each rise and fall of his chest it inched lower down until it finally gave away and slid down to his lap, and then on to the floor. The light thud of wooden frame striking the wood floor was enough to wake him from his restless slumber. Jack moaned painfully at the stiffness in his back from sleeping in the chair. He sat straight up and then leaned over to pick up the picture, the bones of his back popping and creaking in protest. He forced his tired body out of the chair and walked over to place the photo back on the mantle. A quick glance out the window told him he must had been sleeping for a few hours, as the sun had fully set. His belly’s rumbling was telling him that he had forgotten to eat. He was hungry as a bear.

Still in a sleepy dazed state he stumbled over to the stove and processed to warm up his food, when he suddenly remembered that he was not alone. Jack quickly turned around and looked over to the corner where Johnny lay and he didn’t like what he saw or heard. Jack hurried to the young Lancer’s side and crouched down next to him. He placed his hand on Johnny’s heated brow and frowned with worry. During the time he had slept his fever had spiked up higher. Johnny’s breathing was a hard raspy wheeze, as if he was getting very little air at all. However, Jack’s senses were telling him that something more was wrong, that in his initial examination he missed something detrimental.

The first order of business was to get the fever down before Johnny went into febrile seizures. Jack grabbed a bucket and ran out into the yard and scooped up some snow then hurried back to Johnny. He uncovered the upper half of him and commenced to patting him down with snow, to cool down his body temperature. He had to prevent the convulsions that might occur from this high of a fever. It took a few runs back and forth but the time he was done Johnny’s fever had cooled down considerably and his breathing was a little more relaxed. The furs he was laying on were wet, but Jack didn’t bother to remove them; the fire from the fireplace would dry them out in no time.

Johnny was slowly coming around and began to shiver uncontrollably as he lay there with his torso covered with the one thing that almost killed him in the first place. The extreme bitter cold that was biting at his insides had him reaching frantically for those thick hides so he could snuggle and embraced their warmth again. His hands were waving wildly as he searched for the covers. When Jack grabbed the flailing limbs Johnny’s eyes flew open in a panic. He tried to fight off Jack and break free from his iron grip.

“Hey, young man, it’s okay. It’s only me, Mad Jack, remember?” 

Johnny looked up at him with watery, fever bright eyes and nodded. “Co…ld,” he complained in a raspy voice.

“I know, but I had no choice, your fever was dangerously high and I had to get you cooled down,” he explained to his confused patient as he let go of his hands and eased them down to his side. “I’ll dry you off in bit and get you warmed up again. I promise. I’m still trying to figure out why you’re so clammy. That is not from the fever,” he added very troubled as he felt Johnny’s skin again.

“I…don’t…know…but thank…you…for…helping me…”  Johnny whispered, and then suddenly moaned in agony. He hissed as he reached down and touched his bruised side.  “Hurts…like…hell,” he said squeezing his eyes shut as he waited for the pain to subside.

“Where? Where does it hurt?” Jack asked in alarm.

“Here,” Johnny groaned and pointed to the side with the large gashes he acquired from his fall down the hillside.

The frantic old doctor reached for a pair of scissors on a nearby table and quickly but carefully cut off the wet bandages binding Johnny’s ribcage. He examined the deep cuts and found them to be healing nicely, with no signs of infection.  He was stumped as to where the pain might be coming from besides his bruised ribs.

“Johnny, I want you to tell me where is hurts the most when I press down. Okay?”

Johnny nodded and closed his eyes again.

“Good. Okay let’s start here,” he softly said as he began to probe a little higher up by the left side of his ribcage. He worked his way down along side of the gashes, pressing a little deeper as he went. Until he reached one spot that had Johnny gasping for air and pounding the floor from the excruciating pain that tore right through him.

“St…op!”  Johnny cried as tears flowed down his flushed cheeks.

Jack stopped immediately and shook his head in dismay. “DAMN!” he cussed. “Why didn’t I noticed that before?” he snorted disgustedly.

“What…what’s wrong…?” Johnny breathlessly inquired. “Jack?”

Jack looked down into Johnny’s trusting blue eyes and swallowed the lump in his throat. “Johnny, I’m going to be above board with you. I was so concerned with your ribs and the congestion in your lungs that I missed something,” he paused to gather his thoughts and courage. “Johnny your spleen is damaged and slowly bleeding into your abdomen and it has to come out,” Jack informed him as he ran an agitated hand through his white hair.

“You…can…do it…you’re…a doc…right?”  Johnny asked weakly, as he wheezed and panted from congestion and pain.

“Yes, I’m a doctor but it’s been so long since I…” he paused and looked over at the dusty medical bag sitting on the corner table and bowed his head in anguish. “I just don’t know if I can do it anymore. Not after…” he sadly murmured.  Johnny let out a hissing groan of pain and Jack looked down into his pale young face. He knew if he didn’t try Johnny would surely die. And that was something he just couldn’t live with; the not trying would weigh heavy on his conscience.  Fighting the turmoil that churned inside, Jack touched Johnny’s hot cheek and forced a reassuring smile for the boy. “Yes, son, I can do it.”

 

Chapter Fourteen

Jack was in turmoil. Johnny needed surgery and he needed it now. Jack paced in great agitation as he fought his doubts and fears over his ability and the conditions he would have to work under. It had been over twenty years since he had taken a knife to anything other than the flesh of the animals he hunted to survive.  He was out of practice and when he added in the fact it was night and all he would have would be lamplight to work by…well that made him very nervous. He longed to be able to wait for daylight when he would have the sunlight, but the boy’s condition was getting dire by the minute; he was slowly bleeding to death. The medical side told him that morning would be too late.

Shaking his gray haired head in distress, Jack continued to berate his self, for the life of him he couldn’t believe he didn’t see this before, but there were no signs indicating any other damage; not at first. When he thought it out carefully he realized that while Johnny was out in that blizzard, exposed to the bitter cold, it slowed down any internal bleeding, by lowering his body temperature. But as he had warmed up his body functions increased, including his blood flow and now Jack was faced with something he thought he would never have to do again, cut someone open to save their life. The old doctor held up his shaky hands and desperately willed them to stop trembling. Johnny needed him and now was not the time to lose his nerve.

Pushing all the remorse and hatred, from the past, in the back of his mind because there was no time to waste; he had to prepare for surgery. He put some water on to boil. Jack nervously walked over to the table where his black bag sat untouched for so many years. He picked it up, dusted it off and opened it. He took out all the surgical tools he was going to need and carefully sat them on a clean towel.  He grabbed a bowl and poured a bottle of whisky into it, and then placed the instruments in the liquid to sterilize them. Next to the table, on the floor, was a covered box filled with bottles of medicines, which he had had the foresight to bring along just in case he needed them for himself. Taking a deep breath to help bolster his resolve Jack opened the box and took out a bottle labeled chloroform.

With step one done, it was on to step two, getting the operating table ready. Jack cleared off his wood dining table, which was long enough to lay Johnny on. He thoroughly washed it with hot water to make sure it was sanitized. He took out a clean white sheet he had stored in a small chest and placed it over the table. Jack then proceeded to boil more water and found some soap to cleanse the area on Johnny’s abdomen where he would make the incision. Once that was done he then gathered all the candles and lamps he had in the cabin and placed them around the table and lit them. He prayed they would give him all the light he would need. All this time his heart was racing like a herd of wild horses.

After checking to see that he didn’t miss anything, he was satisfied that everything was ready for surgery, it was time to prepare Johnny. Jack took a deep breath to calm the anxiety he was fighting and walked over to where the young Lancer lay. He frowned at how gray and clammy he looked. He hoped that what he was about to do would save this boy’s life. His skills were rusty, but to do nothing at all would be a sure death sentence for Johnny.  Jack looked up at the ceiling and desperately called on the grace of God to help him through this.

Jack leaned over and removed the heavy covering off of Johnny and carefully picked him up and carried him over to the table. The portion of his heart that had been a father twisted in sympathy as Johnny’s lean body lay limp in his strong arms. He needed Johnny’s breathing stable before he could proceed, so he slipped a little laudanum in his water, to help relax him and ease the pain. This allowed his congested lungs to relax as well for the time being. The taxed organs were less constricted and his breathing was shallow but steady. He laid his patient on the table, and then propped his feet on a chair to have him laying straight and flat. He looked down at his trusting face.

“Johnny?  I’m about to begin, do you understand me?” Jack asked softly.

Johnny who was half conscious smiled weakly at Jack, “Ye…s,” he sleepily confirmed.

“Good, I’m going to place this cloth doused with chloroform over your mouth, which will put you to sleep. So don’t fight it when you feel yourself drifting off okay?” he gently explained. “I need you to trust me that I’m going to everything I can for you.”

Johnny lightly touched Jack’s hand, “I …know…you…will.”  He slurred his words, feeling the effects from the laudanum. “I…trust you.”

Jack smiled and wiped a stray lock of the dark bangs away from Johnny pale brow. “Okay, young man let’s get started.”  Jack placed the rag over Johnny’s mouth, “Now just breathe as normally as you can.” Johnny nodded and slowly inhaled the intoxicating fumes and his eyes began to flutter shut. “That’s it you’re doing good. Don’t fight it,” Jack gently coaxed, as Johnny’s eyes finally closed and he drifted off into a deep sleep.

Jack took out his stethoscope and checked Johnny’s heart rate, and then his breathing, which was steady but a little raspy from the congestion in his lungs.  Johnny was stable enough Jack felt he could begin. He scrubbed his hands again, and then proceeded to wash the area where he would make the incision.

“Well old man, this boy need you now more than ever, so now’s not the time to get cold feet,” he scolded himself, when he picked up the scalpel and his hand began to shake again. “You can do this, I know you can. This is why you came to this area to begin with, to help others. He took a deep breath and slowly let it out again. He knew he was in this alone, and one wrong move could mean Johnny’s life.

Jack looked over at the picture of his family with their beaming faces smiling lovingly back at him and suddenly he felt a warm sensation flow through him. A tranquil feeling filled the room and his soul; it was as if they were right next to him, giving him the encouragement he needed to do this. The compassionate healer in him sprang to life with renewed vigor after a break of twenty five years. His sense of propose, of what it meant to be a doctor was coming back to him.

Jack closed his eyes for a brief moment of silence, and then lowered the scalpel and with a steady hand began cutting into Johnny’s tender flesh. Slowly and a little deeper he went, while the young Lancer’s blood spilled out the incision and on to his fingers. It trickled down Johnny’s side staining the white sheet beneath him a garish red.  Jack paid no mind to it, he kept his focus and with extreme caution and care the doctor continued until he reached Johnny’s spleen.

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

A short ways down the frigid mountainside, two old friends huddled around the camp fire trying to keep their tired bones warm. Mason was sipping on hot coffee while Murdoch sat there tenderly thumbing the piece of Johnny’s blanket he had found. Neither man had uttered a word after the camp was set up.  Mason had his men take turns keeping watch for signs of bears, fearing they might return. He wasn’t taking any chances because that blood they had found was still haunting them, not knowing whose it was. Did the boys come back to find the bears invading their camp, and fall victim to the beast? Or did this happen while they were asleep or while they were gone, if so then where are they?  Those worrisome questions were pounding in their heads and weighed down their hearts.

“I think we had better get some shut-eye, Murdoch. Let’s just crawl under our bedrolls and rest our weary bones,” Mason quietly suggested, breaking the silence that lingered between them. “I have the boys keeping watch just in case those bears decide to come back.”  He stood up and put a hand on Murdoch‘s slumped shoulder.

“You go on; I’ll just sit here awhile longer,” Murdoch solemnly answered, as he continued to fiddle with the torn material. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I tried.”

“You have to try, Murdoch, or you’re not going be any good to Johnny when we find the boys?” Mason stressed.

“If we find them…” Murdoch murmured despondently.

“Now that’s no way to talk, of course we’ll find them,” Mason exclaimed, very disappointed with Murdoch’s attitude at the moment. “I’m shocked you would even think like that, you of all people!”  Suddenly a lone wolf hollowed up at the full moon that was shining brightly in the night sky. Its haunting cry echoed off the mountainside and down into the camp and sent shivers down their backs.

“That’s why, Mason!” Murdoch grimly replied. “What if they did survive the bear’s attack, what kind of shape will they be in? If they are injured, they could very easily become prey to anything hungry enough out there.”

“Well, let’s try not to think like that,” Mason shuddered at the words. “We have to keep the faith and keep on looking. You, yourself, said you will not stop until Johnny is found. Am I right?”

Murdoch stuffed the piece of blanket back inside his coat and sighed, “Yes, you‘re right and I’m not going to stop either. But how many more lives does my son have? He’s only twenty three, Mason, and has gone through so much hell in his life. How much more can he take, he’s only human, you know?” the distraught father blurted out as he begged for an answer.

Mason was taken aback by Murdoch’s outburst at first, and then through the flames of the campfire he got a good look at the heartbreaking expression on Murdoch’s aged face. He shook his head in dismay. “I don’t know, old friend. I guess from what you told me in your letters Johnny must have had it rough down there in Mexico,” he replied as he thought about some of the details from Murdoch’s letters.

“That’s an understatement,” Murdoch sarcastically huffed. “He’s been through worse since he came home! You don’t know the entire story.”

Andrews sat back down and poured himself another cup of coffee. “Well, tell me, I’m all ears my friend,” he said, as he handed Murdoch a cup of the steaming brew.

“Murdoch sadly smiled and nodded. “Well,” he began to tell Mason what he knew of Johnny’s life in Mexico, from a father’s point of view. He told about how Maria had lied to Johnny about his father not wanting him, by telling him his father was ashamed of having a mestizo for a son. Murdoch’s voiced hitched in anguish when he relayed how he had feared for his son’s life because of the way he was treated just because he was a half-breed little boy with big blue eyes. He revealed that much to his horror his fears were realized by the faded scars on Johnny’s arms and legs. He paused and thought about what his baby had to become to survive in those God forsaken border towns and to this day it still breaks his heart. Tears choked his voice as he told Mason about Madrid.

Mason was quiet for a spell as quietly he took it all in. His own heart was breaking for Murdoch as well as for Johnny and the life he had to lead. He truly realized now how hard it must have been on both of them.  He looked at Murdoch and softly said, “Well, from what I have seen of Johnny Lancer, he’s a survivor. Anybody who can live through that is not a quitter. He lived the life of a gunfighter and has now traded that sordid and dangerous existence to become a respected rancher like his old man. He’s a son worth fighting to keep, and I believe he’ll make it through this,” he smiled and patted Murdoch’s arm. “Come on let’s try and get some sleep, for Johnny’s and Buck’s sake. They’re going to need us to be at our best.”

Murdoch nodded and slowly stood up and walked over to where Johnny had slept. He rolled out his bedroll on the cold, snowy ground, and then lowered his body down and slid between the covers. Laying flat on his back he gazed up at the full moon, the wolf howled again, but this time the eerie call didn’t faze him. His mind wandered back to something Scott had read once about how the moon holds magical powers of healing and faith. He hoped with all his being that those powers will be bestowed on his son and Buck, where ever they are.

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

The light in the cabin had dimmed to a mellow glow. The lanterns burned down low, as did the wicks on the candles as they slowly melted away, but they had served their purpose, as Jack was closing the incision. He was counting his blessings as he went, relieved and grateful that he had remembered everything he needed to know to succeed with this operation. He worked as fast as he dared to control the flow of bleeding, while he concentrated on removing Johnny’s spleen. Without the proper set up you would normally get in a hospital, time was an essence here, but it was finally over.

Jack looked down at Johnny’s pale face and marveled at the inner strength this young man had. It was a touch and go there for a while but Johnny hung right in there with him. His stoic resolve had let Jack know in his own silent way that he had all the confidence in him, it was his way of saying if I won’t give up then you can’t either. This gave the old doc the incentive to keep this boy alive. Without even asking, he could sense that Johnny had gone through a lot in his life and it was his courage and his lust for life that kept him going as it did tonight. Jack did all he could, so now it was up to that will power to pull him through the night.

Once he had the incision cleaned and dressed, Jack placed a fresh sheet over Johnny’s body to keep the draft off of him. He stoked up the fire a little more and prepared his own bed for his patient. He didn’t want to lay him on the floor this time, not after a surgery such as this. He needed the comfort of a bed not a drafty floor and Jack was very willing to give up his for Johnny. When the tasks were completed, he walked back to the table and being as cautious as he could he lifted Johnny up in his strong arms and carried him over to the bed and gently laid him down. Before he covered him up he checked to make sure the stitches held and that there was no fresh blood on the bandages.

Jack made a pot of coffee, and then pulled his chair next to the bed and made his self comfortable. The next few hours were the crucial ones. Johnny had to be watched over like a hawk, his breathing was still raspy from the congestion in his lungs and he was still running a fever. He may have made it through surgery, but these issues just might hamper his recovery.

There was one more issue that concerned Jack. He was trying to wait it out, hoping he wouldn’t have to take drastic measures over it. The loss of blood Johnny suffered before the surgery, during and after, even though he had controlled it as much as he could. He feared the low blood might cause problems, such as the ability to fight off the infection in his lungs due to weakness. Johnny was already in a fragile state and this could weaken him even more…to the point his body functions might begin to shut down. If that happened, with no one else around, it just might be up to Jack to donate his own blood to the young Lancer. A risk he would gladly make if it came down to the only way to save the boy’s life.

Jack grabbed a book off the mantle, and then paused to lovingly finger the picture of his family once again. He stared at their sweet young faces for a few minutes as if they were talking to him. He smiled and nodded, and then slowly turned and walked back to the chair and sat. He opened the book to his favorite page and began to read to Johnny. His voice was soft and full of comfort as he read scriptures of hope and healing like he used to do with his Running Deer and Naomi, and then he prayed.

 

Chapter Fifteen

Sheltered on a little plateau with a heavy stand of trees, Mad Jack’s small cabin had been unaffected by the avalanche that had roared down the steepest incline of the mountain. Jack had had the foresight to build his house in the middle of the woods.  He had cleared the trees from around the house to let the warmth of the sun in, but you had to traverse through the forest to get to the clearing where it sat.  The group of trees effectively camouflaged the little building providing him a nice hidey-hole from civilization.

Morning light was just beginning to wash away the dark of night but it had not yet climbed high enough in the sky to even cast shadows from the tall trees into the clearing around the cabin where the doctor had held a lonely vigil over his patient through the night and until the wee hours of the morning. It had been a long and stressful night filled with worry and hope and sometime before the dawn Jack’s tired body had finally given in and he had unwittingly dozed off. He had tried valiantly but the old doc had been unable to stay awake. He had fought the heavy pull of his eyelids and the slow nodding of his head, jerking his head up in alarm at the slightest sound. Finally he leaned his head back just to rest his weary eyes and fell into a restless slumber. . He was still devotedly sitting in the chair by the bed, where Johnny lay, with his bible in one hand and an empty coffee cup in the other.

The unattended fires in the stove and fireplace burned down to just embers spot coated with ashes. The dying sources of heat dropped the temperature in the cabin until there was a sharp nip in the air. It felt like old Jack Frost had slipped in and touched everything with his icy fingers and then slithered back out after stealing all the warmth. The cold air was biting at Mad Jack’s cheeks and nose, causing him to shiver to awareness. He struggled upright in his chair, stiff and sore from sleeping in a slumped position with only a thin blanket covering his legs. The amount of coffee he drank during the night in an attempt to stay awake was not sitting too well with his bladder, he moaned as an urgent need made its self known. He made a beeline for the chamber pot in the corner of the room. As he stood there he glanced out the side window and noticed the sun starting to climb the mountainside and blew out a breath of relief that this night was finally over with.

Jack quickly got the fire going again, and then turned his full attention back to Johnny, who was still sleeping soundly. During the night his fever had spiked up again but not dangerously high like the last time, he was able to control it by cold compresses. He kept checking his bandages for fresh bleeding and so far so good, he was very pleased to see the stitches were holding up nicely. To insure Johnny would get the proper rest he needed for the first few hours after surgery, the crucial hours, Jack kept him pretty well sedated. The sedation was also necessary to avoid any sudden moves that might reopen the incision and to keep him pain free. Jack was still worried about the congestion in his lungs, Johnny breathing still wasn’t as clear as he wanted it to be.  A harsh coughing spell could very well cause damage to the stitches and his insides, perhaps snapping a few or tearing the tender flesh around them.

Jack took his stethoscope and listened carefully to Johnny’s heart. He didn’t detect any irregularities, the rhythm of Johnny‘s heartbeat was strong and steady, a relief to the old doctor’s ears. There was still that fear over the issue of the blood loss that nagged at him. However, at this time all he could do is monitor him and wait and hope Johnny’s body will take over and mend it’s self without any complications. He knew very well how things can go from good to bad in the blink of an eye. As he finished the examination, Jack smiled when he saw Johnny’s long lashes twitch and start to flutter open.

“Well young man, it’s about time you woke up,” Jack declared. “I guess I haven’t lost my touch after all, otherwise you wouldn’t be lying here listening to me,” he lightheartedly joked.

Johnny smiled weakly. “Yeah …I…guess…you didn‘t,” he breathlessly replied as he licked his dry lips, “Thirsty.”

“Well I can fix that,” Jack informed him with a grin, relieved the boy felt like taking in some liquid. He poured a small amount of water in a cup, and then slid his arm under Johnny’s neck and raised him up just enough to take a few swallows. “Here you go, but only take small sips and not too fast.”  He held the cup to Johnny‘s mouth and encouraged him. “Good, easy does it. Okay that’s enough for right now,” Jack softly instructed, as he eased Johnny’s head back down. “How’s that?” Jack inquired.

“Better…thank…you,” Johnny whispered as he blearily studied Jack’s tired and drawn out expression. “Were…you up…all night…with me?” he asked, grimacing a little as the stitches tugged and bit at his raw flesh.

“Please stay still, Johnny. I can’t have you aggravating those stitches,” Jack warned. “And to answer your question, yes I was. You had to be watched very carefully for the first few hours. I had to monitor your breathing and heart. It’s a difficult procedure, removing a spleen and I had to be sure you were responding well after the surgery,” Jack quietly explained. “And so far everything seems to be progressing smoothly. You are a remarkable young man.”

“How… so?”

“You stayed with me all the way, Johnny. You knew I was out of practice and yet you had all the confidence in me. I could feel it as I operated. I felt your strength embracing my hands and guiding them. I held your life in my hands and you gave me the courage to keep you alive.” Jack smiled down at his young patient and placed a gentle hand on his warm brow. “And I thank you for that.”

“Was…nothing,” Johnny replied in a raspy voice, and then gave Jack a cocky grin. “Beside…I…ain’t ready…to meet… the devil…yet,” he choked out between breaths desperately trying to fight off a coughing spell that threatened to surface, which he knew would hurt like hell.

Jack’s alertness to Johnny’s distress had him reaching for the medicinal sack containing the leaf mixture. He quickly placed it over Johnny’s mouth. “Easy Johnny, just inhale it slowly. Let it do its magic.”

This time, however, the magic wasn’t working. Johnny began hacking and wheezing until he groaned at the excruciating pain. The pressure exerted upon his abdomen and stitches made it feel like his belly was being ripped open by the razor sharp claws of a grizzly. Tears filled his blue eyes as he bit down on his lower lip to keep from screaming at the unrelenting agony. Johnny wanted so much to curl up into a fetal position and wrap his arms around his waist to somehow guard his tender stomach against the continuing torture. He would have done so if it wasn’t for Jack holding him down in an attempt to keep Johnny from causing any more damage to his self. When the coughing fit finally subsided, the young Lancer lay there covered in a cold sweat, breathless and as pale and fragile looking as early morning frost.

Once Johnny had completely settled down, Jack anxiously checked the bandages for any blood seeping through, luckily they were clean.  Relieved for that small blessing, Jack began wiping Johnny’s fevered brow with a damp cool rag, his compassionate fingers brushing the dark bangs away from his eyes. He frowned at how white Johnny looked, concerned that his fears that Johnny might be too weak to fight off the infection in his lungs, let alone heal properly from the surgery and blood loss, were coming to fruition. This outburst already had him spent, he lay there almost lifeless. Jack knew it was important to keep the attacks under control the best he could, and that meant keeping him sedated most of the time.

“Johnny, I’m going to give you something to help you rest a little more comfortably,” Jack informed the sick young man.

“Morphine?” Johnny breathlessly inquired with his eyes closed, still wincing slightly from the throbbing in his abdomen.

“Yes, morphine, until incision starts healing and then I’ll switch to laudanum. I have no choice son. That coughing spell you just had, well look what it did to you. We can’t have you putting that kind of pressure on your stomach so soon after surgery. You were lucky you didn’t rip your stitches this time. You need plenty rest and quiet,” Jack impressed upon Johnny. “I’ll give you just enough morphine to ease the pain, but you’ll still be awake enough to drink the fluids you need for the congestion and to build up your strength and blood supply. Do you understand?”  Johnny nodded weakly.  “Good, and then we’ll switch back to laudanum for when I need you to sleep through the night without your lungs causing any more stress on you. You’re just too weak to handle it for right now.  Don‘t worry, I‘ll be right here for you when you need me.”

“I…know,” Johnny hissed in discomfort and welcomed the drugs when normally he hated the thought of having to rely on them. But he was just too weak and hurting and had to accept the help. “You’re …just…like Sam,” he whispered and sadly smiled at the thoughts of the kindly doctor from back home, followed by thoughts of his father, who he was sure was searching for him by now.

“I don’t know who this Sam is, but I do hope you mean that in a good way?” Jack smirked as he readied the syringe and filled it with small amount of morphine. Then he gently grasped Johnny’s arm, inserted the needle and injected the pain killer. “There give it a few seconds and you’ll feel much better. You just rest and stay still, young man. And in a little while I’ll give you water and maybe some broth if your stomach can handle it.”

“Sure. And yes I do mean it… in a good way, Sam’s a doctor …just….like you,” Johnny murmured with his eyes still closed. He sighed in relief when his body began to relax inch by inch as the burning piercing sensation slowly faded into a dull ache here and there until numbness completely took over.  Johnny’s body was limp in drugged relaxation but he was still awake enough even with his eyes still shut he could hear Jack fussing about the room. He could hear pans clanging and water pouring and Jack softly talking to his self. “Don’t worry…Jack. My pa will be…here soon,” Johnny whispered feebly.

Surprised by those words, Jack quickly turned and smiled at the soft grin that graced Johnny’s flushed face. Yes of course, this boy must have a pa or ma out there somewhere. They must be worried sick over their son since he had failed to come home. But for right now he can’t think about that, his first priority was keeping his young patient alive, so he can go back home to his family.  With that outcome foremost on his mind Jack continued preparing his breakfast and broth for Johnny, for when he is able to handle it. While Johnny lay still as death with thoughts his father and what his disappearance might be doing to him. He had promised to be back by Murdoch’s deadline and since that didn’t happen he knew his old man would be worried. And he knows from past experiences, Murdoch will stop at nothing until he finds him. Johnny prayed his father could handle the cold and the mountain better than he did. 

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

Thanks to Murdoch’s inability to sleep during the night, reveille came too early for the rest of the weary search party, when the determined rancher roused them from their restless slumber like a determined drill sergeant. He was up before the sun had a chance to peak over the horizon and already had coffee brewing and Sadie’s biscuits warming by the fire. He didn’t want to waste anymore time, the quicker they got underway the faster they would find the boys. Murdoch had layed on the cold hard ground and listened to the call of the wilderness and its lonely and hungry sounds of hardship, brought on by old man winter. Somewhere out there, in the vastness of white and cold his son was suffering and he would move heaven and hell to find him if he had too.

It was been an hour or so since they had broken camp and they were well on their way.  They made sure that they left nothing behind to entice the bears out into the open again. That was the last thing they needed, to have those beasts on their trail. Mason sent his men ahead to scout things out and to give warning if they should come across trouble.  Murdoch and he followed behind on the narrow path which seemed to get narrower the further they went. Neither of the men realized the clump of woods they were passing was the area Johnny had fled into, to escape the bear.

The fact that the path was disappearing had them both deeply troubled, even with this new snow it shouldn’t be so hard to follow if you knew where you were going. Something must had happened to cause so much clutter on the path, that fact was becoming very apparent.  Their questions were soon to be answered when one of the hands came rushing back with news they didn’t want to hear.

“Boss, Boss!” the man anxiously shouted as he approached them.

“What is it?” Mason anxiously shouted.

“Well, sir, I’m afraid we can’t go much further on horseback,” he stuttered out with winded, red-faced exertion. .

“What do you mean?” Murdoch demanded.

“Most of the trail is completely covered over with snow and debris, Mister Lancer. It’s too dangerous to try and ride the horses over that. We’ll have to lead them in on foot,” he explained.

“Well, let’s not waste any more time, let’s get going!” Mason sternly instructed, as an uneasy feeling shot though him that had him shivering under his thick, warm winter coat. He had an idea of what might have happened but was leery to voice it as of yet, until he knew for sure.

“This way,” the hand informed the men, and then slowly escorted them up the path. It was just like he had said; it was getting more difficult to travel on horseback because of the debris hidden within the deep snow. He pulled up when they met up with the other man. “See what I mean?” He then pointed out to the thick patches of snow mingled with brush and rock.

“Yeah, I see exactly what you mean!” Mason huffed. “Well, let’s dismount and see what we can find out,” he said turning and giving Murdoch a discouraged glance that had the hair on the back of Murdoch’s neck standing straight up.

The men dismounted and carefully lead the horses through the maze of snow, ice, rocks, and splintered trees. As they trudged along, they stepped on frozen twigs that snapped and crumbled beneath their feet. Each step took them closer to one of the most horrifying sights any of the men had ever laid eyes on and what Mason had feared the most.  When they couldn’t go any further they shuddered in sorrow and disbelief at the harrowing sight before them.

“What in the name of God…?” Murdoch voice broke leaving him suddenly speechless.

“An avalanche a damn blasted AVALANCHE!” Mason growled out the terrifying word, as his heart sunk at the destruction that it had caused.

“Now what?” Murdoch inquired in frustration as he shook his head. This was another delay in finding his son.

“We turn back and find another route to take. It’s all we can do,” Mason replied with determination.

“I guess you’re right,” Murdoch agreed sullenly. The two were about to turn and head back when one of the men hollered at them after he spied something sticking out from the snow.

“LOOK!” 

 

Chapter Sixteen

The anxious shout of the ranch hand shattered Murdoch’s tenuous control, his emotions churned violently in his head and gut as fear warred with hope.  He had prayed for this moment, for some sign and now that it was here the overwhelming dread that he might be plunged into despair by the outcome cut sharply at his heart. However, the father in him refused to give into the terror and decided any sign was better than not knowing. As he turned around he was praying that he would see his son standing with the hand that had called out. Murdoch shielded his eyes against the blinding white glare from the snow as he and Mason tried to focus on what the ranch hand was pointing to in the decimated area. But it was impossible from where they were standing to see clearly, they were too far away and it was too deep to walk on with just boots, especially with this new accumulation of snow on top of the layer of debris.

Fortunately for the men, Mason had the foresight to bring along snowshoes, just in case they needed them, years of living here had taught him to be prepared.  The rescuers quickly unpacked the contraptions made of wood and wire, tied them securely to their boots and proceeded to cautiously but easily walk across the mountainous piles of snow.  The closer they got the bigger the object became.  It appeared to be a dark piece of cloth.  All of a sudden the wind increased and part of the fabric lifted with the air current and waved about as though beckoning the men to come on.  Suddenly a horrifying realization set in, that it could still be attached to a person, as it seemed to be anchored down. The chilly wind and a cold wash of terror constricted the men’s lungs causing them to gasp and pant as they worked their way around the snow drifts and debris, drawn like moths to a flame to the fluttering green material. 

It only took a few more steps until the heart wrenching recognition of the frozen textured clothing revealed it to be Buck’s green knit scarf.  Mason stopped abruptly in his tracks. He started to sway a little and moan miserably; his sudden disturbing actions alarmed Murdoch and he hurried over to his friend’s side.

“Oh dear …God, please… no! It can’t be!”  Mason’s trembling voice begged as Murdoch approached him.

“What is it Mason? What do you see?”  Murdoch asked anxiously as he put a hand on the despondent man’s shoulder, and then shuddered when he saw the green knit material tied to a stick and flapping in the breeze, marking something else that peeked out of the frozen ground

Mason didn’t hear a word Murdoch asked, all he heard was the deafening sound of his heart beating painfully in his ears. He quickly walked over to the staked scarf and saw a partially exposed frozen limb clothed in thick brown jacket he had given Buck for his birthday. He dropped to his knees and began to desperately dig in the mound of white. Little by little he cleared away the icy grave, grabbing and shoving the snow away from his trusted friend.  Mason turned white as a ghost, the color completely drained from his own face when he looked at Buck’s rigid lifeless features.  “BUCK, NO!” he screamed in despair.  Then the desolate man bent over rocking back and forth in grief over the loss of the boy he had taken in and had thought of as a son. “Why… him? What did he do to deserve this?” he cried as tears trickled down his cheeks, leaving icy trails on his pale skin.

Murdoch looked at his friend and his heart ached fiercely for him. There were no words to say that could ease the pain or horror of losing someone you had practically raised. It had to be one of the most traumatic experiences any man could endure. He stood there and watched while as the others finished digging out Buck’s twisted and broken body.  The sounds of Mason’s keening grief increased the fear for his own son. In broad daylight he was assaulted by the nightmarish images that had haunted his dreams over and over. They flashed through his mind and made his worried eyes dart back and forth scanning the shattered hillside.

“JOHNNY!”  Murdoch boomed, not giving a damn if he started another avalanche or not, so over whelming was his desire to find his son. “JOHNNY WHERE ARE YOU? IT’S ME, PA!” His anguished voice echoed, bouncing off the mountainside. He glanced down at Buck again, and his eyes widened in fright, as an unimaginable thought crossed his troubled mind, his boy might also be buried somewhere under the wreckage of snow and debris. “JOHNNY! ANSWER ME!” he desperately pleaded.

The continuing silence threw Murdoch into a panic. He kicked off his snowshoes and dropped to his knees, crawling around like a child looking for a lost marble or a precious treasure. He took off one of the shoes and with its pointed end began jabbing it into snow, while praying that he would not hit something, such as another body. The distraught father frantically kept digging and jabbing, he was relentless in his effort to find his son until he was panting and sweating from the exertion and his face turning a flushed red.

Mason looked up from where he sat and wiped the salty tears from his chilled skin. He gasped in shock at the heartbreaking sight of his friend frenetically clawing at the snow, mumbling Johnny’s name over and over again. Mason put aside his own grief and quickly went to Murdoch’s side. He grabbed a hold of the rancher’s board shoulders and tried to calm him down.

“Murdoch, calm down before you make yourself sick,” he warned compassionately.

“Get away from me, Mason!” Murdoch snapped loudly and shrugged off his friend’s hold on him. “I’ve got to find Johnny!” he breathlessly declared as he kept searching and digging.

“What’s make you think he met the same fate as Buck?”  Mason tried to reason. “For all we know he could have escaped the avalanche and is making his way back to the ranch as we speak. Someone tied Buck’s scarf to that stick and staked it here so he could be found.  I am betting that someone was Johnny,” he added in an attempt to ease Murdoch’s mind.

“Johnny would never leave a friend behind. He’s not like that!” Murdoch growled. “Johnny would do everything in his power to help a person in need. There has to be a reason why Buck was left like this?”

“I can answer that, sir.” one of the hands timidly spoke up and pointed to Buck’s trapped and twisted ankle. “It looks like Buck was running when his leg became trapped; there probably wasn’t time to free him. I know Buck, Mr. Lancer, and he would have told your son to hightail it out of here before it was too late.”

“He’s right, Murdoch. Buck would have told Johnny to get out of here while he had the chance,” Mason eagerly agreed. “There wouldn’t have been time to free his leg, not with a rushing wave of snow barreling down on them.”

Murdoch looked up at Mason and the others, his shoulders slumped in defeat, “If you’re right, then that means that my son is lost somewhere out here alone, possibly hurt with nothing but the clothes on his back. Now tell me how in… the world… can he survive… that?”  His anguish and worry over his son’s fate breaking his voice up.

Mason extended his hand to his solemn friend and sternly answered, “Well get off your butt and let’s go find him!  If he’s anything like his old man, then there’s a strong chance he’ll be waiting for you to come and find him…alive. We lost one good man and I’ll be dang if we are going to lose another.”

Murdoch had to smile at Mason confident words, words he so desperately needed to hear after discovering Buck’s body like this. He marveled at his old friend’s propensity to see the positive side of things when they seemed so bleak and dark.  He put the snowshoes back on, and then took hold of Mason’s hand as helped him up off the cold ground. Murdoch dusted the white powdery snow from his clothes. “Well, where do you suggest we look?” Murdoch asked.

Mason looked around the terrain carefully, and then noticed the drop-off.  He cautiously walked over to it and peered down. He also noticed that the blizzard didn’t completely cover all of it because of the way it was angled on the hillside. It would have made the perfect shelter from the avalanche and he had a feeling Johnny might have fled to it, and then he spied something else.

“Murdoch! Look!”

The anxious father practically tripped over the snowshoes in his clumsy haste to get over to what Mason was pointing at. “What do you see?” he asked dreading the answer.

“Look down there at that small overhang.  Someone could have taken shelter under it during the landside. I’m guessing Johnny might have.”  Mason hesitated after he spotted a hint of red visible, realizing it might be Johnny’s blood.  Mason hoped Murdoch wouldn’t notice it.

However, the rancher did see it and his anxiety grew even more. It was the first real sign that his son was here and that he had escaped death. The sad fact was the blood also meant that Johnny was indeed hurt.  Tracking the thin faded trail of red with his eyes he saw it stopped at a hole in the snow that Johnny had obviously crawled away from.

“Well, that blood tells me that Johnny is hurt, but how bad? And it looks like he’s didn’t go down that way. He must have crawled back up the hill, found Buck and then headed off in another direction.” Murdoch voiced his opinion. “But which way did he go?” he questioned as he rationalized out loud, finding a measure of peace in the hopeful clues he was seeing.

“I suggest we go back the way we came. I’m thinking he headed back for camp and had found it like we did.” Mason replied, trying to figure out Johnny’s train of thought. “If he did, then he might have gone in another direction away from the bears. We did pass a clump of trees he could have hid out in while trying to get back to the ranch.”

“Could be… but how far did he get? He’s hurt, Mason, and alone,” the worried father said. “Johnny doesn’t know these parts and with Buck gone, he’s out there trying to survive in an environment way different than he is used too.”

“Well, we’ll just have to find out, now won’t we? So let’s get moving, the noon sun is already above us and time is a wasting.”

Murdoch nodded sullenly, “Okay, I just hope we find him and fast. My gut feeling is telling me that my son has already suffered enough from this blasted beast you call a mountain.”

“I pray not my friend,” Mason softly replied.

“Sir, what about Buck?” asked Jake, the younger of the two ranch hands.

“You take him back to the ranch, Jake. Use one of the pack mules to carry him home and take enough supplies to get you there.  Keep him covered up in the ice house until we get back, and then we can give him the proper burial he deserves.”

“Sure thing, boss. This is going to be hard on the rest of the guys.”

“I know it will,” Mason admitted. “Just be careful going back, Jake, we don’t want anything happening to you, too.”

“I will sir,” Jake answered respectfully to his boss, a man who treated all of his men like they were family, like they were his boys. The young cowboy quickly hurried to the two pack mules with the others following behind.

Mason and Murdoch gathered the things they would need from the mule, and then transferred them to the other, just enough for three men. Thus lightening the load on the one that would be carrying Buck and the few supplies Jake would need to get back home. Stan, the older of the two hands, helped Jake tie their friend’s lifeless body to the mule and covered him up with a thin blanket. Jake nodded, and then tipped his hat to his boss and Murdoch. Jake walked off slowly on foot, leading his horse and the mule back down the mountain’s narrow and deadly trail.

“Well let’s get going ourselves,” Mason said nudging Murdoch’s arm, “Murdoch, did you hear me?” he asked diverting the man’s attention from the sad sight that was riding away from them.

“Yes, I hear you. Listen, Mason I’m so sorry about Buck,” he expressed sorrowfully. “I was so wrapped up in my worries, I…I…” he stopped as his mind was consumed by thoughts of his son. “I didn’t mean to sound so heartless. It’s just that…”

“It’s okay my friend. Buck is gone and I’ll miss him,” Mason replied, placing a gentle hand on Murdoch tense shoulder. “But Johnny is still out there alive. I just know it. He had to survive the avalanche you saw that for yourself.”

“Yes, I have to believe that. I can’t give up now, I would never forgive myself.  Nor can I let Scott down either, by giving up,” he exclaimed.

“What do you mean?”

“Scott and Johnny were taken from me when they were babies, you know that, ending my dream of seeing my boys grow up together and become the close brothers that they are,” Murdoch explained as he went to take the reins of his own horse. “Now that they are finally together, it’s not fair to either one of them to have that taken away from them again. And I’m going to do my best to see that never happens.”

“Well, old friend, then let’s go find your boy!” Mason advised. The three remaining rescuers, on foot as well, lead their horses back to where they could mount up, and then headed for the clump of trees which Mason felt Johnny had fled into. Their hopes were up some, but still there was that tingle of fear that still gnawed at them. They didn’t know what kind shape they would find Johnny in but they prayed that somehow he had found a safe place to hide out, to stay alive until they could find him. It came down to them putting all their faith in God’s merciful hands.

 

Chapter Seventeen

Weary and heavy of heart and soul after the despairing discovery of Buck’s lifeless body, the three men remaining in the rescue party pushed onward.  It was a cruel twist of fate but the manner in which Buck was found was also evidence that Johnny had survived the avalanche. Hope sprung from their sorrow; grief would have to wait for another day.  Now their minds were consumed with one objective, finding Johnny. Mason took over the lead once they were able to remount and began back tracking their steps back to the clump of woods they had passed on the way up. He prayed he was right in his assumption that Johnny had fled into them. 

While the rescuers continued their search, back at the small cabin hidden away in the woods, Jack sat quietly next to Johnny. His Bible was lying open on his lap, held in place by one hand and in the other he clutched a damp rag with which he compassionately wiped Johnny’s heated brow. Over the past hour his fever had spiked up again and it had the old doctor fretting. He immediately checked the incision to see if it had somehow become infected, but there were no signs of infection brewing. The stitches were dry and clean. The skin around the surgical wound was a slight pinkish color with no pus or blood seeping out.  All the signs indicated it was healing nicely.

Jack sighed heavily as he admitted to himself that it had to be the infection in Johnny’s lungs causing the fever to linger and spike up. It was draining the life giving fluids and energy right out of him, the very things he needed to make a full recovery. An additional worry causing him stress was the use of the morphine.  Keeping Johnny under the influence of morphine had kept his breathing steady and relaxed avoiding those painful and damaging couching spells.  But how much longer could he or should he keep the injections up? The very thing that was helping Johnny could harm him if he took it long enough to become addicted to it.

Jack placed the rag back in the basin, and then tenderly ran his fingers through Johnny’s thick black bangs. He smiled sadly as he thought back, to the last time he felt hair this silky. It was his baby girl’s, Naomi, and like her mother she had long raven black hair, and he would always, well tried to, take the pleasure of braiding her hair away from his wife. The child would giggle whenever her parents would argue over who was going to do the joyous deed.  When her father did win the battle she would jump up on his large lap and quietly sit there as he fiddled with her thick strands. She would giggle and scrunch her head down when his fingers tickled her neck.

A lone tear escaped from Jack’s eye and trickled down his cheek; he quickly wiped it away, and then frowned as he looked down at Johnny’s pale face. His fatherly instincts had him feeling the same pain the boy’s father must be going through right about now; knowing that his boy is lost out in the wilderness. He wished there was some way to let the man know that his son was safe and out of the blasted cold. The first problem was he couldn’t leave Johnny alone, and secondly he didn’t know who Johnny’s father was or where to find him.  All he knows is that this young man is someone’s child and he was going to do everything in his power to see him reunited with his family. He had an uneasy feeling of what he was going to have to do to make sure that happened.

Johnny was fighting a battle Jack feared he was too weak to win. The blood loss he had suffered before Jack found him and during the surgery was now taking its toll on his battered body. Even though he had Johnny’s pain under control which aided his breathing and his abdomen was healing properly, he was still exhibiting some symptoms, which were concerning. The boy’s pulse was racing like a wild horse due to the lack of air flow in his lungs caused by the congestion and fever.  Johnny was able to take in some water and broth to help restore his fluids and build up his resistance but it was nowhere near enough. It was becoming extremely apparent he needed a blood transfusion.

Once Jack arrived at that conclusion, he also decided that it was now or never. He picked up his Bible, drawing strength from the precious words of comfort and promise. He closed his weary eyes, and then asked the Lord for his blessing, guidance and mercy, that what he was about to do would not kill this boy, but save him.

“Dear God, I pray that this will work! I know the dangers of mixing blood if it’s not your own kin, but I have no other choice,” he solemnly stated as he sucked in a deep breath. “I can’t let this boy die without trying everything within my power.  He has a family out there somewhere that needs him. I may have lost my wife and child but I’ll be danged if I’ll see another family ripped apart if I can help it. So if what I’m about to do is wrong then I beg for your forgiveness, but as a doctor it’s my duty to help this young man in any way I can.” Jack finished his prayer and felt a sense of peace tingling through him. He looked down at Johnny’s thin still body and Jack vowed, “Don’t worry Johnny as I said before old Jack will take care of you.”

With no time to waste Jack started to prepare himself and Johnny for yet another life saving procedure he hopes will be the last one. He retrieved a long thin rubber tube and a couple of ripped up pieces of white cloth, as well as two long sharp needles. Last, he grabbed the bottle of whiskey and another clean rag. He walked back over to where Johnny was laying. Jack sat down and laid the items beside Johnny, rolled up his sleeve and tightly tied one of the strips of cloth around his upper arm.  He dabbed the cloth with some whiskey to sterilize the injection site and carefully inserted the needle that was now attached to the tube into his arm, wincing a little from the stinging.

He repeated the process with Johnny, but the boy didn’t move an inch. He was just too weak and sleeping too deeply to take notice of the sharp object invading his person. Jack leaned back as much as he could and then untied the tourniquet and watched as his blood flowed down the tube and into Johnny’s arm. He monitored the flow and time to judge how much of his blood Johnny received.  He needed to make sure it was enough to help his young friend through this time of crisis. After an appropriate amount of time passed the doctor quickly pulled out both needles. He cleaned the injection sites and bandaged them up as fast as he could. Jack leaned back in the chair slightly lightheaded and closed his eyes, saying a silent prayer that this was not done in vain.

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

The search party felt like it had taken them a life time to reach the woods that they were hoping Johnny had fled into while escaping the bear. The journey was slow and tedious as the path had become slick. The afternoon sun had melted most of the top layer of snow, leaving little puddles of icy water in various spots hampering their footing. The slushy ground was almost impossible to walk on. Man and beast had to use caution to avoid hitting an icy patch, which could send them sliding down the hillside to almost certain death.

Once they entered the woods, Stan suggested to his boss that they split up to widen the search but Mason was not going for it, not after finding Buck in the condition he did.  He wanted everybody together to be on the safe side and Murdoch agreed. The thick snow covered foliage around them confirmed their thinking that this was an ideal place to hide out from predators if needed. There was plenty of cover and protection from the brutal winds. This buoyed their hopes of finding Johnny tucked away in here somewhere, huddled between a rock and some trees, waiting for them to find him.

“Boss! Look!” Stan shouted and pointed to a tree. The urgency of his voice had the two older men rushing to where he was standing, after dismounting.

“What is it, Stan?” Mason anxiously asked. “What did you find?”

“Look, sir, that’s bear hide stuck to the bark of this tree!” He pointed out as he peeled off some of the brown fur and laid it in his hand. “He must have been running pretty fast through here to have hit it like that.”

“Yes, it seems so,” Mason haltingly admitted, knowing very well that the beast could have been chasing Johnny.  He looked up at Murdoch’s stunned face. “Now, Murdoch, I know what you’re thinking, but he could have been chasing an animal too,” he said in an attempt ease his friend’s worried mind.

Murdoch’s shoulders slumped in dismay and he shook his head, unable to find his voice as he turned his weary eyes to the dim terrain.  The distraught father dismounted and walked about taking a closer look at the ground for any signs that Johnny had passed this way. He noticed that because of the thickness of these woods that the accumulation of snow was not as deep. Murdoch continued to slowly stroll along with his eyes focused on the ground.  All of a sudden he stopped short and his heart jumped in to his throat and he gasped breathlessly. The big man stumbled forward having to lean against a tree.

“Mason!” he croaked out and nervously pointed to something on the ground. Mason hurried over to his friend and his eyes widened. “Look! That damn bear was after my son, because that’s Johnny’s tracks. I’d know his boot print anywhere! Murdoch exclaimed.

How can you be so sure that’s Johnny’s print?” Mason inquired, fearing the stress was getting to Murdoch.

Murdoch crouched down and reverently ran a finger around the boot print.  He looked up at his friend and a slight smile of remembrance trembled on his lips. Pointing to the print he replied, “You see the heel print?  See the notch that looks like an arrow head?  Scott carved that in the heel of Johnny’s boot one night after he went to sleep.”  A chuckled escaped as Murdoch continued, “He did that so he could track his brother around the ranch anytime he needed to find him. Johnny has the habit of disappearing when we have company.”

“Well it’s a good thing he did, I would say.  Johnny must be a busy whirlwind if y’all had to resort to those kinds of tactics to keep up with him".  Mason studied all the tracks before them. “From what I can tell, Murdoch, I see no signs of a struggle. So that means Johnny escaped the bear.”  Mason eagerly assured, and then looked beyond the first sets of prints, “Look there’s another boot print over there. He went that way!”

“Well, then that’s where we’re going!”  Murdoch declared and quickly mounted back up.

The other two men did the same, and then they carefully headed off weaving and bobbing through the thick maze of the trees in the direction the foot prints lead them. Even with this encouraging sign, it was still painfully nerve racking, as along the way they spotted more evidence that the bear was still in pursuit of Johnny.

**********

Mad Jack awakened shortly after he dozed off in the chair.  The short rest restored some of his strength that he lost after giving some of his blood to his young patient. He stretched his stiff back and limbs, and then gathered up the items he used for the transfusion and placed them in the basin of water. He carried them over to his small kitchen area to be washed up later. Jack quickly returned to Johnny’s side to check if there was any improvement and he smiled widely at his findings. The color in Johnny’s face was slowly coming back and it seemed the fever that had been raging though him; was now receding. It wasn’t as high as before.  He checked Johnny’s pulse and it was almost back to normal. All these positive signs indicated the procedure was working so far, but he still wasn’t out of the woods yet, but at least now he had a fighting chance.

“Johnny? Wake up, Johnny.” Jack gently urged. He needed to get some fluids in the boy. “Come on, son, I need you to eat something and drink some water,” he whispered in his ear, as he gently nudged the slumbering body.  

“Mmmm…I’m…awake…just too…tired to open…my eyes,” Johnny weakly murmured as he lay there under the warm hides Jack used as blankets on his bed.

“I know you are. But it’s important we get some fluids and tonics in you,” Jack replied.  He hoped what he was going to tell Johnny next would not upset him too much. “Besides, I have to tell you something.  I think it is only fair you should know, Johnny,” he added trying not to sound too alarming.

The seriousness of Jack’s voice had the young Lancer’s long lashes fluttering as he struggled to open his fevered eyes. Once they were open he strained to focus on Jack’s bearded face. “What…is it?” Johnny asked in a raspy voice.

“Well, as you know you lost a lot of blood before and during surgery, which had me very worried. A blood loss like that can cause a lot of problems.”

“I…know.  I had that happen to me…before.”  Johnny breathlessly informed the worried doctor.

“And did you ever have to have a blood transfusion?” Jack asked, hoping Johnny would understand what he had to do in order to save his life.

“Yeah, I did, from my father,” Johnny replied, and then turned his head and looked into Jack’s sad eyes. “Is that what happened…here? You had to give me blood. Whose?” he inquired as he anxiously looked around for his father, wincing a little as the morphine was starting to wear off.

“Mine, Johnny.  I’m sorry but there was no other choice. You were just too weak to fight off the infection in your lungs. Your body was beginning to shut down and your heart was beating dangerously fast. Your over taxed heart could have stopped completely,” Jack said in one long breath to get the words out. “I know it was a risk, but so far it’s working. Your body is reacting as I hoped it would,” he soothed as he placed a reassuring hand on Johnny’s warm brow.

“No need to be sorry, Jack,” Johnny smiled. “You’re a doctor and you know…these things. You did what… you had to and I’m grateful.”

Jack blew out a breath of relief, “Well then, let’s get some water and broth in you shall we?”

Jack marched over to the potbelly stove and retrieved the last of the warm broth he had ready for when Johnny woke up. He walked back to the bed, sat the cup down and helped his patient sit up just enough to drink the tasty broth. Much to Jack’s delight Johnny was able to drink it all down. That was another promising sign that he was finally on the mend.

“That’s wonderful my boy!” Jack praised. “You keep that up and you’ll be back on your feet in no time,” he happily added as he eased Johnny head back down.

“Well, I have a good doctor looking after me,” Johnny grinned, while fighting back another coughing spell as his chest tightened and he began to wheeze. He groaned in agony as the pressure pulled at his stitches and sore ribs.

“Easy… Johnny! Just take short breaths, inhale the herbs and let it pass. That’s it,” Jack calmly instructed while patting his back and placing the sack of herbs and leaves to his mouth. “I know you just woke up and I hate having to keep giving you morphine for the pain. It’s addictive.”

“I’ll be…alright…no more please,” Johnny begged, lying there with his eyes closed and breathing a little better as the pain subsided. “I know …what it can do…and I don’t…want that.”

“Maybe next time Johnny. But for right now I’m going to give you just a little to help you rest while I’m gone.” Jack announced. Feeling more relaxed about leaving Johnny now that the crisis was over.

“Where…ya going?”

“Hunting, oh don’t worry it’s just around here. I’ll be gone just a couple of hours, okay?  That’s what I was doing when I first found you. I used up the last of our meat and now that you are stronger I feel safe in leaving you for a while.” Jack informed Johnny as he injected him with a very small dose of morphine. “Now you just rest as I get my gear ready. And don‘t try to move young man, you hear?”

Johnny nodded and watched with blurry vision as Jack slipped on a huge animal skin jacket, next his thick hide boots where pulled on, and then he grabbed his gun. It struck Johnny as funny to see a man of medicine toting a rifle. But he figured even a man such as Jack has to survive somehow up here on this mountain. Jack turned around and smiled at his patient and gave him a wink, and then ventured out into the cold.

“Hurry back?” Johnny whispered.

 

Chapter Eighteen

Jack pulled the front door closed, and then pushed it to test that the latch had caught so the wind wouldn’t blow the door back open. He briefly rested his head against the solid wood. A worried scowl marred his face.  He was feeling very apprehensive.  He knew the crisis was over, Johnny was a little stronger and holding his own, but he was having second thoughts about leaving him like this, alone and defenseless. He knew he was being maudlin, Johnny would be safe in his well hidden cabin, there had never been any strangers lurking about up here bothering him and for good reason. He had always gone down to the settlement for the supplies that he needed, and then he high-tailed it back up here. He always made sure not a soul was following him to assure his privacy. Therefore for the past twenty-five years he had been left alone to wallow in his grief and anger.

After the passing of so much time Jack was stunned to find himself in this quandary of caring for someone besides himself. This young man, really but a boy in his eyes, came along out of the blue and re-awakened the compassionate portion of his heart that had lain dormant for so long. There was something about this boy which cracked the hard protective shell he had built around himself.  Jack found, to his immense surprise, that he enjoyed Johnny’s company, even though he was sick and sleeping most of the time. While Johnny slept he would read to him in a soft hushed voice from his Bible or from one of his old novels, like a father would do for a sick child. And he had to wonder if Johnny could somehow hear him, especially when he noticed a slight grin on the young Lancer’s face whenever he would get to a funny part of a story, as though he was laughing deep down in his subconscious.

Jack let out a heavy sigh and put aside the uneasy feeling that was gnawing at his conscious. He had no choice but to go out hunting if he wanted to make sure Johnny received the proper nourishment such as meats, which provided the iron and minerals he needed. Jack peered in the small window to see that his young patient had dozed in restful slumber and figured he had better get going, before he lost the light. He checked once more to make sure the door was securely shut, and then took off into the woods.

The anxious doctor headed off to the same area he was hunting the afternoon he had found Johnny, which was about a mile up the path from the cabin. It was a favorite hunting spot that had always been lucky for him. He knew the approximate time range when his prey would come out of their hiding places to search for food. He planned to have a quick hunt so he could get back to Johnny. With those thoughts on his mind Jack picked up his pace and pushed on to his designated spot through the snow and thickness of the woods.

********

Anxieties grew and patience was beginning to fade as the rescuers continue to follow the two sets of track, one human and the other beast.  Murdoch held his breath every time they would come across Johnny’s boot prints mixing with the bear’s. The disturbing sight caused horrid images to race through his mind’s eye as to his boy’s fate. His worried eyes would dart back and forth scanning the ground for signs of blood, and then he would huff out that breath in relief when nothing was found but more of his son’s tracks. They kept on until suddenly all signs of Johnny vanished. The only signs left were bear tracks and angry claw marks slashed into the bark of a tree. The one thought which consumed them all was if Johnny did escape the animal’s pursuit, where did he go? And with no signs of blood or a struggle they assumed he had indeed escaped somewhere.

“NOW WHAT?” Murdoch growled. “Johnny’s tracks stop here! It looks like he disappeared into thin air!”  He dismounted and walked over to the tree where the bear sharpened his claws. “He had to go somewhere.”

Mason was right behind his friend, shaking his head at the size of the claws marks. He cautiously took a few steps closer and spied a steep slope. At the bottom of the slope was an area of thick foliage.  It was so dense it blocked out most of the light making it impossible to see much. Mason pointed this out to his troubled friend.

“It’s a long way down there Murdoch. I can’t see clearly enough to see any signs of Johnny,” Mason stated as he squinted his eyes trying to discern any presence below. “His tracks do end here. So I’m guessing he must have climbed down there to escape that bear.”

“Or he went head first!” the terrified father speculated as he took off his hat and ran his trembling fingers through his thinning gray hair. “He was running for his life, Mason, perhaps he took one wrong turn and went sailing down there. If so who knows what shape he‘ll be in, he was already hurt.”

Mason cringed and gave his old friend a fretful dismayed look. “I sure hope you’re wrong. I don’t see how anybody could survive a fall like that. They would have to be pretty lucky to be able to walk away.”

“Well that’s what I’m hoping Johnny did, that he got up and walk away. Maybe the denseness of the foliage helped to break his fall. I know my son well enough to know he’ll go looking for a way off this mountain hurt or not.”

“Well, we can’t go down there from this point; there must be another way down.” Mason replied. “I say we go further ahead and see if we can find another trail that might lead us down there.”

“I guess you’re right. I just hope we find him and soon. I don’t know how much more of this torture I can take,” Murdoch confessed in an angst riddled voice, fighting the urge to give into the fear and rage that warred within him. Life seemed to treat his youngest so cruelly, when would the fates leave him alone and let him live a normal life?

The three determined rescuers trudged on cautiously following the tree lines of the drop off, in hopes of finding a trail that will lead them to Johnny.

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

By the time Jack reached the area he wanted to hunt in he was huffing and puffing, his face beet red from the exertion of his strenuous trek through the deep woods. Deep breathing in an effort to catch his breath, Jack had to admit to himself that as he aged these jaunts were getting harder to make. However, his overpowering desire to get this chore accomplished, so he could get back to Johnny, pushed him on. After catching his second wind, he quietly perched himself behind a huge rock he had used before to hide and wait for his prey to appear.

Jack didn’t move a muscle until it was time to raise his rifle and fire because the slightest sound could scare off the target. He sat and listened carefully to the sounds of the woods. He had trained his ears to listen and identify certain noises around him. He could distinguish the sound of pine needles rustling due to wind or from animals forging the lower branches to find something to eat. He listened for the crunch of snow or for hidden twigs being snapped in two by the weight a deer or elk as they strolled along.

Not more than an hour had passed when he was rewarded for his patience. A doe had popped her grayish brown head out from a behind a bush, and began to nibble. Jack had to wait for the right time to make his move and fire, she was not in the right position for him to get a proper shot off without either scaring her away or shooting her in the guts, that would only ruin the meat and that would be a disgraceful waste of this gentle creature’s life. He believed God provided the beasts as food for man or beast, and it was irreverent and disrespectful to kill for sport or pleasure and leave the animal to rot.

“Come on, just a little closer,” Jack whispered to himself, “I don’t have all day.

It was as if the doe heard him because she moved out from cover exposing her slender yet healthy form. She looked as though the harsh winter hadn‘t effected her too much; there was still plenty of meat on her to provide enough nourishment. Jack held his breath and very calmly raised his rifle and aimed for her heart. Silently thanking the gentle creature for her sacrifice, he fired and his aim was true, the young deer dropped instantly.

Jack dashed out from behind the rock, his ears still ringing from the loud blast of the gun, the echo of the report bouncing around the icy mountain. He approached the kill and pulled out his knife. He set right to work field dressing the animal. He left the remains to the predators lurking about. Then he tied her hind legs together as well as her front. He grunted a bit as he flung his prize over his sturdy shoulders and headed back to the cabin.

Jack hurried as fast as he could to get back to Johnny.  He was unaware that the sound of his rifle going off was like a beacon, a signal of his whereabouts. Three weary rescuers in search of a lost loved one had heard the blast.

********

Not too far from Jack’s hunting spot, about a half mile up the ridge, Murdoch and the others stopped short when the thundering gunshot rumbled through the trees around them. Their hearts shipped a few beats and their eyes flared with hope and fear at the same time. They had finally heard something besides the sound of the cold wind that whipped around them, which made it hard to pin point the true direction the boom came from.

“Did you hear that?” Murdoch blurted out. “I swear it sounded like a gunshot,” he stated, silently hoping his friend would confirm it.

“It sure did, old friend, but which way did it come from?” Mason inquired, “With the wind picking up, I can’t tell.”

“Well, which way do you think it came from?” Murdoch whirled about anxiously looking for clues. “It had to be Johnny firing off his gun to tell us where he is, it has to be him!” he declared as he trembled fitfully.

I don’t know Mr. Lancer that sounded more like a rifle going off than a gun; it had a deeper tone to it.” Stan was a little sorry to say because he didn’t want to dash Murdoch’s hopes. “And it sounded to me like it came from that way,” he added as he pointed to the area where Jack had shot the deer.

“Do you know what’s over there Mason?” Murdoch asked.

“No. I never been up this way, this is all new to me,” Mason said regretfully. “How about you Stan, have you and Buck been hunting up this way before?” 

“No, sir, we haven’t. Buck and I usually went in the other direction,” Stan informed his boss. “I don’t rightly know what’s up this way.”

“Well, we’ll soon know!” Murdoch abruptly announced, as he prepared to take off in that direction.  Mason stopped him by grabbing his arm.

“Hold up, Murdoch! You can just go off half-cocked like that. You don’t know what’s out there.”

“My SON is out there!” the agitated father snapped. “And he’s waiting for me to find him. That gun or rifle shot is a sure sign that someone is around here and they may know where my son is.”

“Yes, I agree, but please let’s take this slowly. We also have to think of our safety as well, or we’ll be no good to Johnny when we do find him. And we will find him!” Mason stressed. “So let’s take it slowly okay?”

“All right! It’s your plan. I just hope we’re not walking into another nightmare,” Murdoch snarled.

The tall rancher conceded and followed Mason and Stan, as they made their way down the ridge by way of a narrow path that Stan had spotted once they had ventured further in. Carefully they led their horses through a thick maze of trees and rocks. They had to duck their heads in a few places because of tree limbs that hung low down due to the heavy snow or root rot from draughts from years past. This went on for a good hour as they slowly crept along, much to Murdoch’s dismay.

“BOSS LOOK!” Stan shouted. He pointed to a spot in the distance where a large crimson stain stood out starkly on the white snow.

Mason glanced dreadfully towards Murdoch, and then at the fresh bright red smears in the snow. The searchers dashed frantically towards the spot. Each man stopped in their tracks and blew out a breath of relief when they saw the deer guts still laying there.

“Thank God it’s only animal blood,” Murdoch whispered and bowed his head in relief.

“I say the same thing my friend,” Mason softly replied. “And look there’s a trail of blood leading that way.” He pointed out the speckled trail indicating the direction Jack had taken. “I say we follow it and see where it takes us. Who knows, whoever this is might know where Johnny is.”

“God, I hope you’re right. And then maybe this nightmare will be over!” Murdoch exclaimed as he and the others remounted their horses.

They followed the garish line of blood drops along the frozen ground.  First it was footprints and now blood; animal’s blood, which meant someone out here was well armed. They didn’t know if it was a friend or foe, one never knows who or what lurks in these mountains. However, these were the only clues they had to follow, so follow them they did.  With the sunlight fading away, the rescuers hoped to find a definite sign of Johnny’s whereabouts before dark descended on them once more.

 

Chapter Nineteen

“Dios, where is he?” Johnny murmured to himself, “What’s taking Jack so long getting back.” he nervously pondered as he lay huddled under the thick warm hides.  While he was physically comfortable nestled as safely as a child against its mother’s breast in the furs, mentally he was beginning to feel anxious and abandoned.

For the past hour Johnny had continuously stared at the front door willing it to open and for Jack to come walking in, with that big smile of his plastered on his bearded face.  He missed the sounds of the big man working about the small cabin while he dozed or rested. There was something reassuring about being able to hear the old Doc fuss about the cabin, banging and clanging pots and dishes as he worked over the stove. Truth be told what he liked about it was it gave him a feeling of security. He could concentrate on getting well knowing that he was not alone anymore and was in capable and compassionate hands. He had been very fortunate that it was a man like Jack who had found him, and not some hungry predator. But since Jack had been gone the quiet and stillness closed in on him and almost made him feel like he was suffocating. It was starting to unnerve Johnny and he longed for the old man’s company.

Johnny slowly brought his left hand up and ran his trembling fingers through his thick dark hair, thinking he would find it a matted mess. He was pleasantly surprised to find it tangle free. Turning his head slightly to the right of the bed, he spied a brush, along with a bar of soap and clean rags, and then he smiled. Not only was this doctor caring for a total stranger tending to his wounds, but he was also keeping his patient clean and groomed. This was something that Doc Sam always stressed to his family whenever he was hurt and needed watching over. He would remind the family that keeping the body clean and germ free was an important part of his recovery. Jack was only doing what any decent man of medicine would do, but the fact he performed these chores while Johnny was asleep to avoid any embarrassment to his patient meant a lot to Johnny.

Acts of kindness and compassion were few and far between during his days as Madrid, so Johnny learned to cherish any that was shown him. He always tried to repay that kindness with loyalty and help if ever it was called for. Considering all Jack had done for him, Johnny decided if and when he got off this blasted mountain and back with his father, he would help this gentle man in any way he could. It pained him deeply to see a gifted doctor, like Jack, waste his life up here away from where he is needed the most. He just had to convince Jack to give the world out there beyond the mountain another try.

Johnny tried to occupy his mind with thoughts of home and the horse trading business he was going to start once he returned to California. A sudden low booming thud outside distracted his pleasant thoughts. His eyes narrowed in suspicious apprehension when the noise ceased and the doorknob rattled as it was slowly being turned. His gunfighter’s instincts kicked in and had him reaching for his gun that wasn’t there. Feeling vulnerable and defenseless, Johnny lay there holding his breath, watching as the door slowly opened. 

“Oh thank God…it’s only you!” Johnny breathlessly croaked, and then relaxed, when he saw who was on the other side of the door.

“Who did you think it could have been, Johnny my boy?” Jack smiled as he entered the cabin and immediately walked over to the wall where his meat saw was hanging.

“Oh I don’t know. I guess I was just a little spooked there for a minute.” Johnny admitted.  “Have any luck?” he asked as his curiosity got the best of him when Jack grabbed the meat saw off the wall and headed back towards the front door.

“Sure did, a nice size doe graciously gave up her life so we can have meat on the table,” Jack softly replied. “And as soon as I skin her and cut us a chunk of fresh meat, I’ll fix us a nice stew. I‘m pretty sure you can handle something a little more solid now.”

“Fine with me…I was getting tired of bear and elk broth,” Johnny weakly joked, and then winced a little in discomfort as the morphine was beginning to wear off.

“Are you okay?” Jack asked in concern as he stalled by the door. “Do you need something?” He hurried over to Johnny’s side and checked his warm brow. “”Hey your fever is down some from the last time I checked it, that’s a very good sign. How’s the pain level, can you tolerate it for little while longer while I take care of the deer? I can‘t let it sit out there too long.”

“Yeah…I’ll be okay; it’s not as bad as before…as long as I’m not coughing my fool head off,” Johnny confessed. “I don’t want any more morphine. I can manage the pain. I’ve done it before,” he added as he placed the sack of herb mixture to his mouth and slowly inhaled its smoothing aroma. “Go on, and hurry with what ya got to do, it’s kind of lonely in here.” Johnny felt compelled to admit as he opened his watery blue eyes and slyly smiled at Jack.

Jack grinned, “I’ll make it as quick as I can and you just rest. I’ll be right outside. Holler if you need me, I’ll hear you.”

Johnny nodded and settled back under the comfort of the hides and watched as Jack hurried outside closing the door behind him but not before a blast of winter air caused the flames in the fireplace to leap up getting ready to consume the cold with their heat. Johnny could hear the loud huffs and puffs as Jack lifted up the doe. He caught a glimpse through the window of Jack tossing the deer over his shoulders and carrying it over to a low tree branch and hoisting it up and tying it off.

Jack set about skinning the deer, and then tossing its hide in a wood box so he could clean and tan it later. He proceeded to cut the deer into small portions, placing the meat in two large pails he had outside. Once he was done with that task he took the remains of the animal to an area away from the cabin and tossed it into the woods. He had no use for the bones where an Indian would use every ounce of the beast.

Jack took the two pails and headed back into the cabin. He quickly cleaned up the meat, and then started to prepare their evening meal of venison stew, using a small portion of it and then storing the rest in the cold box. Johnny watch in hungry anticipation as the doctor fired up the potbelly stove and placed all the ingredients, such as carrots, potatoes and onions in one large cast iron kettle and let it sit there to simmer. It wasn’t long before the mouthwatering aroma of fresh meat and vegetables stewing together filled the room, tantalizing their appetites.

While their dinner cooked, Jack restarted the fire that had dwindled down to a few smoldering logs in the fireplace. The sun was almost down and the evening’s cold chill was beginning to seep through the cracks of the walls. He examined Johnny and was very pleased that he was finally showing more improvement since the transfusion only a few hours ago. The color was coming back to his young face and his heart rate was back to normal. He was healing slowly but surely. It was only a matter of time and Johnny would be leaving him, and the thoughts of it saddened the old doctor.

  ************

The three hungry and half frozen rescuers had to button up their coats tightly and turn their collars up around their necks in order to keep the cold at bay. They were running out of light and time. Murdoch was getting very frustrated with this whole ordeal; he was at his wits ends, sick with worry. The turmoil of the recent events combined with the agonizing and cold trek through these woods had him snapping at Mason. His desperate need to find his son was making him a basket case and it troubled his friend deeply. Mason was concerned for his friend; he worried about how the frantic father would take it if this trail didn’t lead them to Johnny.

Murdoch was consumed with the need to examine all the visual clues and keeping his ears tuned for any more gunshots or sounds that might lead them to Johnny faster. And much to his dismay the thin trail of blood was thinning out even more and with the light almost gone it was getting harder to see it. The one saving grace was the footprints could be felt for if it got too dark to see them. They had no choice but to just keep on heading in that direction until they couldn’t go any further.

“Do you smell that?” Stan halted and asked the two elder men.

Mason took a good whiff and his eyes widened. “It smells like someone is burning wood. But where? ” Mason looked in all directions hoping to spy where it was coming from.  

Murdoch also sniffed the night air and the welcome smell of a warm fire burning out there somewhere had his spirits rising higher.

“Mason, do you know of anybody that might be living up here?” Murdoch anxiously asked his friend.

Mason thought hard for a few seconds. Remembrance lit his eyes up with hope as he recalled the tale of a man who fled up to the mountain after his family was killed.

“Why yes! I heard tell of a man, a doctor, who came up here to live after his family was killed. But that was twenty five years ago, long before I came here. I don’t know if he’s still alive,” Mason recollected. “I don’t recall ever meeting him if he is still in these parts.”

“They call him Mad Jack!” Stan added.

“Mad Jack!” Murdoch huffed.

“Yes, sir, and he’s still alive, Boss. He comes down to the settlement just for supplies and then hightails it right back up here. He doesn’t want anything to do with the town and the folks who live there,” the hand went on to explain. “But I figured he was further away from the town, closer to the other side of the mountain where most of the Indians live, since his wife was one.”

“They all thought he was crazy for wanting to live up here, so they gave him the nickname Mad Jack,” Mason added to the explanation.

“Mad or not, if his cabin is somewhere around here he just might have my son. I pray to God that he does,” Murdoch declared. “At least then he would be out of this blasted cold and snow and in a safe warm place, I hope.”

“I’m with you on that one, Murdoch. But I must stress extreme caution, like Stan said he doesn’t want anything to do with other humans. He just might be one to reckon with. And he is armed!” Mason warned.

“I know that! But if he has my son, no one is going to keep me from him. I mean NO ONE!” Murdoch angrily snarled.

“Easy, my friend, we’ll get your boy back don’t worry,” Mason gently assured as he placed a comforting hand on his friend’s arm. “We just need to be careful for Johnny’s sake, you hear me?”

Murdoch took a deep breath and slowly blew it out in an effort to release the tension that had him wound up tighter than a coiled spring. “Yes for Johnny’s sake I’ll take it slow. But so help me, Mason, if he has hurt my boy anymore than he already is, I will kill him with my own two hands,” Murdoch boldly vowed.

Mason shook his head in distress; he hoped that would not be the case here. Surely, Jack, who was once man of medicine, would never stoop that low and hurt another human being. Mason again took the lead and led the trio onward in the general direction of Jack’s cabin, not knowing what they would find.

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

Jack had Johnny reclining comfortably against a pile of furs, with a flat piece of board resting on his lap to use as a bed tray. He slowly strolled across the room carrying a small bowl of freshly made stew and carefully sat it down on the board. Then he retrieved his much larger bowl of stew and sat next to Johnny. He wanted to make sure the young man could feed himself without any problems such as stirring up a coughing spell. But since he was elevated his chest had settled to a faint wheeze and he was able to breathe a little better. Jack watched with glee in his eyes as Johnny took the first bite of his food. He smiled widely at the boy’s expression.

“This is good, Jack!” Johnny declared as he licked the residue of thick gravy from his lips. “I’ve never tasted deer stew before, we always have beef. I like it; it has a tangy taste to it, kind of like Maria’s tamales.”

“Maria?”

“Yeah, she’s our housekeeper and cook back home, but I think of her as family. Like a mother figure, ya know?” he softly reflected. “And she’s one of the best cook around,” he added taking another bite of his food.

“We never did talk about where you come from, Johnny,” Jack replied, as he wiped a strand of hair away from Johnny’s eyes.

“No, I guess we didn’t. I’m from California and my father and I came out here to visit an old friend of his. Mason Andrews.  I don’t suppose you know him?”

“No, I can’t rightly say I do. As you know I don’t associate with the people down there any more, since…well you know,” he sadly stated, and then fell quiet.

Johnny laid his spoon down next to his empty bowl and looked over at Jack’s sad face. To him twenty five years was long enough to grieve. He felt it was time for Jack to let go of the hurt.

“Jack listen to me,” Johnny started to say, and then trailed off into a jaw cracking yawn before resuming. “Don’t you think it’s about time you get off this mountain and go back to doctoring? You know you can do it. I mean, you’ve grieved long enough for your family, Jack. I’m sure they would want you to move on with life, be happy…not hide up here all alone,” Johnny emphasized to his new friend. He winced a little when he tried to shift his weight on the hide bed as he tried to see his new friend’s face.

“You stay still, young man; those stitches are still fresh enough to rip on you.”  Jack removed the tray and gently lowered Johnny back down. “There that’s better. I want you to stay quiet; you’re still a sick young man,” Jack stressed as he covered his charge back up. “Now get some rest.”

“I’ve been resting all day and you never… did answer my… question,” Johnny slurred as he was about to drift off again.

“We’ll talk about it later, now rest,” the old doctor ordered.

“Jack?”

“I said, we’ll talk later, now listen to me…you…” Jack didn’t get a chance to finish as he was distracted by a loud, though muffled, voice vibrating through the walls.

“HELLO IN THE CABIN!”

 

Chapter Twenty

“HELLO IN THE CABIN!” the now agitated voice called out again with stern impatience.  The authoritative voice was immediately recognized by Johnny. He had often heard it raised in ire, but here lately, more frequently, praising him for a job well done. It was his father…he had found him at last.  

“Murdoch?” Johnny muttered weakly, and then his eyes widened and a big bright smile graced his flushed face. “Jack…that’s my…” Johnny stuttered to a stop when he caught the grim look of determination on Jack’s face and the coiled tension of his wary body. “Jack, it’s okay. That’s my father…he’s not going to hurt you,” the young Lancer called out, his worry rising as he realized Jack was so intent on protecting him, until he wasn’t even cognizant of Johnny’s assurances. “Please…he’s not going to hurt you…he’s just looking for me.”

The feebleness of his voice kept Johnny’s desperate plea from capturing Jack’s attention.  The booming sound of Murdoch’s shout penetrated Jack’s brain and threw him into action, determined to protect and save Johnny from the same fate that took his family.  The mountainous man jumped from the rocker so quickly it scooted backward on the floor and kept rocking. Jack snatched his rifle from the mantle and went on high alert. The idea of strangers outside his door, when he had kept his whereabouts hidden for so long had him shaking in disbelief. ‘How in the world did they find me?’ echoed around in his bewildered mind.  With gun in hand he marched for the door as Johnny futilely tried to stop him.

“Jack… NO…stop…” he breathlessly pleaded to no avail. “He’s… not going to hurt…you.”

Johnny’s words again fell on deaf ears. A fierce scowl of protectiveness was etched on Jack’s bearded face. He was bound and determined to find out how they had found his cabin, and if they were friend or foe for his and Johnny’s sake.  Jack cocked his rifle, and then flung the door open and dashed outside, jerking the heavy wood door closed behind him. Weak and bedridden; Johnny was helpless to do anything to stop him, all he could do was lay there with his eyes closed and pray that Jack would not harm his father and friends. That he would come to his senses and listen to reason.

“Holy Madre, please do not let this become a nightmare. Make Jack see that’s my father out there and he has come for me,” Johnny whispered fervently as he fought the urge to scream out to his father, but knew it would cause him great pain if he did. So he huddled there quietly and concentrated on listening to what was going on outside.

From under the porch roof that hung over the door of his cabin, Jack stood tall with his rifle firmly gripped in his hands. He had it raised and aimed right at the three men who stood at the edge of the clearing. His imposing look and the long gun in his steady hands kept the unwelcome strangers at bay. They would not come any closer or move a muscle until he allowed it.

“DON’T COME ANY CLOSER OR I’LL SHOOT!” he hollered to the stunned trio. “I don’t take kindly to strangers coming around here unless they’re invited!” he exclaimed, and then raised his gun higher in a threatening manner. “Who are you?”

Murdoch, pushed to the ends of his endurance and patience for the situation, was not having any of this nonsense. He didn’t come this far to be held at arm’s length by a grumpy old hermit holding a rifle on him. He was about to move towards the man and speak when Mason stopped him.

“Murdoch let me talk to him. He’s obviously very disturbed by our unexpected arrival. And you’re too emotionally stressed, we don’t need you going off half cocked and getting us all killed!” Mason pointed out to the over wrought father.

Murdoch’s lips thinned into a pressed white line as he gave his old friend a hard look of defiance, and then reluctantly stepped back, but kept his eyes on the big burly man before him. He turned his efforts towards listening for signs from within the cabin, hoping to hear his son’s voice calling out to him if he was in there.

“I asked who you are and what do you want?” Jack snarled.

“We mean you no harm,” Mason cautiously replied as he took a small step forward and benignly held his hands up when Jack flinched a little. “Are you the one they call Mad Jack?”

“What if I am?” Jack huffed. “And how in the blazes did you find this place?”

“Well, we heard a gunshot and walked in the direction it came from until we found evidence of a deer kill. We followed your trail from where you field dressed it and that led us here,” Mason politely explained.

Jack’s eye’s narrowed in continuing mistrust. “That’s good tracking. Now tell me why!”

“Well, we’re hoping you can help us…you see we’re…”

“Help you with what?” Jack snapped rudely cutting Mason off and not giving him a chance to finish what he was saying. “I don’t know you and you’re invading my privacy! Now state your business and then get off my mountain!” he angrily ordered while still holding his rifle on them.

“YOUR MOUNTAIN!” Murdoch growled. “Listen, Mister Mad Jack or whoever you are! I’m looking for my son,” Murdoch advanced, his agitation at the delay causing his body to tremble.

“I said you stay right where you are!” Jack nervously ordered again. “You don’t come any closer until I say so.”

“Now see here! I said I’m looking for my son and we would like to know if you have seen him!” Murdoch shouted. “His name is Johnny. He was hunting with a friend and I have reason to believe that he’s hurt and lost up here somewhere, because he hasn’t come home yet.”

Jack held the gun with one hand, while he lit the lantern that hung on one of the porch posts next to him. He wanted to get a better look at the strangers, especially the tall figure looking like he might pounce like a cougar if he didn’t get an answer.  The light from the lantern and the moon shining down on Murdoch, helped Jack see the rancher’s fair skin and features. In his mind the man bore no resemblance to Johnny at all. Johnny was darker, smaller of stature and slim. He didn’t see how they could be related.  But then again he did get the boy’s name right.  Jack put aside his assumptions, determined to get to the bottom of this for the sake of his young ward’s safety. He had to make sure this was indeed Johnny’s old man.

“Your son, you say, huh?  What does he look like?” Jack asked.

Murdoch swiftly described his son. “He’s five-ten, with dark hair and blue eyes. He’s twenty two but looks younger and he’s darker than me. Have you seen him?” Desperation leeched into his voice causing it to crack.

Jack looked deep into Murdoch’s bleak expression. His face showed the ravages of worry and stress. The old doctor could hear the pain laced with hopefulness in every word that came out of his mouth. This was indeed a father anxious to locate his missing boy and not some man out on a hunt to hurt innocent people. Then he considered the description Murdoch had given of Johnny, and then realized as he did once before that Johnny’s family might be looking for him. The surprise of his hide-away being found out and his privacy threatened had caused his defensive stance. Jack silently bashed himself for being such a fool.

“Well? Have you seen my son?” Murdoch impatiently asked again.

Jack lowered his rife and smiled. “Come with me and see for yourself.”  He motioned for the men to follow him back into the cabin.

Murdoch’s weary eyes lit up with eagerness as did Mason’s.  Murdoch nervously led the way as he followed Jack into the cabin not knowing what he would find. Once he had cleared the doorway, Jack pointed to the area in front of the fireplace.

The flicker of the flames lit a figure reclined on a thick bed of furs. The blue highlights of his raven’s wing black hair glittered in the glow of the firelight.  A strangled whimper escaped from Murdoch’s mouth as relief thickened his throat and burned hotly in his eyes.  He felt the heaviness of heartache over the past few days drop away from his soul like an unchained anchor.  He felt like he could float, so great was the release of the burdensome weight of stress. Without saying a word Murdoch quickly took off his hat tossing it away and flew to his son’s side, pushing aside chairs and others objects that stood in his way of reaching his boy.

The thankful father knelt down by the bed, his heart racing in anticipation. He needed to touch his boy to make sure this was real and not some bad joke. With a shaking hand, he ran his long trembling fingers through his son’s dark hair, “Johnny, thank God I finally found you.  I…I thought I had lost you again, this time for good. But I never gave up hope, my son,” he cooed in his son’s ear, as a lone tear ran down his cheek. He pressed his cool forehead gently against Johnny’s warm brow, reconnecting with his boy.

Johnny weakly smiled at his pa, “Me either. What… kept… ya?”  Tears of gratitude welled in his eyes that Jack had not harmed his father and that Murdoch had not given up on him.

Murdoch quickly wiped the moisture from his eyes and beamed down at his boy. “Well it wasn’t easy keeping up with you, my son.”

“He’s right, Johnny, you sure led us on a wild goose chase,” Mason added as he stood behind Murdoch, with a big smile plastered on his face, relieved to see the young Lancer again.

“I didn’t mean to. I had a hungry, angry bear helping ya know,” Johnny joshed. “I didn’t have a hankering to become…his dinner.”

“Yes, we saw that, and you’re very lucky you got away from him,” Murdoch exclaimed, as he placed the back of his hand on Johnny’s warm cheek. “But not without injury, I see.” He frowned as he looked over the bandages around Johnny abdomen.

Jack stood in the background watching the touching and teary eyed reunion between father and son. He unobtrusively moved closer to the bed, feeling somewhat left out. The poignant scene between father and son made him feel like an outsider, after being the main care giver through the worst of Johnny’s crisis. He was surprised at the jealousy that reared its head in his mind.  He knew he shouldn’t feel this way, but tending to Johnny had sparked a renewed sense humanity in his conscience. Not to mention his own fatherly instincts had him a little over protective where Johnny was concerned. Now that Johnny’s father was here, he had to relinquish his role as protector to him. He could only give his medical advice and treatment.

“Your son is one lucky young man, Mr.?”

“Lancer, Murdoch Lancer.” Murdoch graciously replied. “And just how lucky?” he asked pointing to the bandages.

“Well, Mr. Lancer, as I was saying, I found Johnny wandering near my cabin in the middle of the blizzard and brought him here. He had suffered a few deep gashes and bruised a few ribs. He acquired those from that fall he took down the hill.” Jack went on to explain, “And being exposed to the cold weakened him further and he came down with a nasty case of chest congestion.”

“Yeah, but old Jack fixed me up just fine, Murdoch,” Johnny added and smiled at his new friend.

Murdoch looked up at Jack, and then back down at Johnny and a suspicious thought came to him. “Why do I get the feeling there is something else you’re not telling me?”

“Well, Mr. Lancer, a complication did come up,” Jack hesitated to say, but Murdoch had the right to know. “During the fall he took, Johnny ruptured his spleen. I had no choice but to perform an emergency operation in order to save his life,” he informed in one long breath.

“Up here…under these primitive conditions!” Murdoch growled. “What gave you the right to do that?”

“I did, Murdoch. I said to do it!” Johnny said in Jack’s defense. “He’s a doctor and a damn good one.”

“But he’s out of practice, Johnny! He could have killed you!” Mason protested.

“But he didn’t and I’m alive. So you should be grateful to him, instead of acting like you are. And thank him.” Johnny snapped. He was disgusted at the way they were talking about his new friend. Then he began to wheeze and had to put the bag of herbs to his mouth to control his breathing.

Jack scowled and moved in closer to the bed. He leaned down and placed a gentle hand on Johnny head.  Murdoch noticed the genuine look of concern on the doctor’s face. “He needs to be quiet and get plenty of rest. He can’t afford to be over excited like this,” Jack sternly admonished.

“Yes, yes, we should thank you for all you have done for my son,” Murdoch humbly admitted. “Please accept our apologies for being so rude. It’s just that I’ve, we’ve been out of our minds with worry over finding Johnny, and…”

“I understand, Mr. Lancer,” Jack compassionately replied.  “I was a father once. It’s hard not to be overcome with worry when your child goes missing, when you don’t know if he or she is alive or…”  Jack had to stop and compose himself, now was not the time to dwell on the past.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring back unhappy memories,” Murdoch apologized.  Jack nodded and smiled. “And you’re right, Johnny needs quiet and rest. How soon do you think we can move him?”

“Oh, not for a while yet, he still needs time to heal from the surgery. With that congestion in his lungs, the cold air outside would only hamper his breathing. I‘m trying to avoid those coughing spell that can cause more damage,” Jack was quick to inform. “I’d say at least another week and he should be okay by then to make the trip back down the mountain.”

“ANOTHER WEEK!”  Mason exclaimed loudly.

“Mason, there’s no need for you to stay up here with me,” Murdoch replied. “Yes, I’m staying with my son.  So, you and Stan should go back to the ranch and in a week come back up here with extra men to help with Johnny,” Murdoch suggested. “Besides, I need someone to send word to Scott, telling him of our delay in getting back home.”

“That’s right. You were supposed to be heading back home by now. Well, if you insist Murdoch. I do have few things to take care of,” Mason said, referring to Buck’s burial. “I’ll send word back to Lancer for you. That’s if you’re sure. I hate to leave you like this.”

“Yes, I’m sure my friend and thank you.” 

“Well, neither one of you are going anywhere tonight. And I bet you‘ve haven‘t eaten yet, either,” Jack declared. “How about I serve you up some fresh made venison stew? I have plenty.”

“Yeah and it’s mighty tasty too.” Johnny sleepily boasted about his friend’s cooking.

“Well, if my son says it’s good enough for him, then it’s good enough for me.”  Murdoch covered up his yawning boy a little snugger; making sure he was warm and comfortable. He softly instructed, “You listen to the doctor and rest now and I’ll be here when you wake up, I promise”

“I know…you will…night, pa,” Johnny slurred as he finally gave into his healing body demands and blissfully drifted off.

Jack handed Murdoch a big bowl of stew, and sat down by the bed. “You have a special boy there, Mr. Lancer. I’m very grateful to have met him.”

“Yes, I know, thank you and please call me Murdoch. And you?”

“Jackson Myers, also known as Mad Jack. But you can call me Jack.”

“Then Jack it is,” Murdoch quietly replied.

The two fatherly figures turned their attention to the noises Mason and Stan were making as they hungrily consumed the deer stew. Murdoch nodded in delight at the unique but satisfying taste of it. They were too preoccupied to notice the wide grin a certain young man had on his face. Johnny snuggled under the covers and went back to sleep, feeling very loved and contented.

 

Chapter Twenty One

Jack sat mesmerized by the transformation of his private lair. Once it had been hidden away from the rest of the world, silent and lonely, but now it was filled with the sounds of laughter of the strangers who had been welcomed in. Everyone was in high spirits with the release of the worry and tension of the past days. The rescuers were rejoicing because they had found Johnny alive and Jack because his patient was recovering and reunited with his father. The merriment continued as the men sat around enjoying their host’s company and indulging in the hot coffee and venison stew. Jack had prepared it in such a way that he had the two old rancher’s and a young ranch hand licking their fingers after dipping bread into the bowl to get the last savory morsel out, and then asking for seconds. This pleased the old self-proclaimed hermit.

Once dinner was finished, Jack showed Stan where to bed down the horses. He had a large lean-to with an enclosed shed on the other side of the cabin, where he kept his mule that he used for hauling his goods up and down the mountain, while he walked. Jack always took his time going down to the settlement, he enjoyed taking in the bountifulness of the majestic mountain, breathing in the fresh air during the spring and summer days. Fall was his favorite time of year when the trees dropped their leaves to carpet the land in a patchwork quilt of yellow, orange, tan and brown. In the fall, he would make several trips to stock up for the hard winter months. Winter was a true time of solitude for him in his fully stocked cabin, occasionally going out to hunt for fresh meat. He practically hibernated like the bears.

While Stan tended to the horses, inside the small cabin, Murdoch and Mason helped Jack rearrange the furniture to make room for their sleeping accommodations. It would be a little cramped but none the less comfortable. Jack hauled out and dusted off all the spare hides and pelts he had ready for trade come spring from his store room. He spread them out in a corner to the right of the fireplace. A nice pallet was made for Mason and Stan to use as their beds for the night.  Murdoch had already claimed the chair next to his son and took over the job of watching over him. Jack’s wide chair fit the grateful father’s huge body just right. He stretched his longs legs out and covered them up with the blanket made of soft tanned elk and deer hides.

Jack handed Murdoch a small rolled up pile of rabbit skins to use as a pillow. His gaze dropped down on his young patient. “He’ll sleep soundly during the night, now that you’re here. I haven’t said anything to him, but a few times he called out for you.” Jack solemnly shook his head and added, “He never said your name, he just cried for his pa to come and find him.”

“He did?” Murdoch rasped in a hushed sad voice, and then took his son’s warm hand in his and gently rubbed his thumb over the knuckles. “I wonder how many times over the years he has called for me in his sleep.”

Jack was shocked by the sad remark. “What do you mean?” he questioned, wincing at the pain he saw in Murdoch’s eyes. He was sure there was more to the statement.

Murdoch took a deep breath and slowly blew it out. “Johnny didn’t grow up at Lancer. He was taken from me by his mother when he was only two. She ran off with a gambler and it took me close to twenty years to find him.”  Murdoch stated, his voice hitching with regret.

Jack pulled up a stool made from an old tree stump and sat down in front of Murdoch. “Come on it couldn’t have taken you that long to find him?” he exclaimed in astonishment.

“It did, Jack, it did. Johnny’s mother was Mexican. She knew she could hide from me in Mexico and she did a damn good job evading me and the Pinkerton men I sent to find her and Johnny,” Murdoch hissed. “During that time my son had to grow up under the horrid conditions of poverty, hunger and danger in that God forsaken place.” Murdoch shuddered as he thought back to the long days he had spent looking for his boy. “I feared for his life, not knowing if he was dead or alive. I felt helpless and useless because there wasn’t a damn thing I could do but wait.”

“That must be one of the hardest things to do in this world… wait for news of a lost child,” Jack muttered in sympathy. “But you did find him and I can fully imagine what you were going through out there looking for him. The thought of losing Johnny again must have been gut wrenching.”

“Yes, I found him and yes it was gut wrenching,” Murdoch declared.  He didn’t feel the need to go into how he found Johnny, so he chose to leave the sordid details out. “But thanks to you, Jack, he’s alive and I’m indebted to you for saving my son’s life,” Murdoch vowed thankfully as he gave the old doc a gracious smile.

“Well, Mr. Lancer…uh…Murdoch, let me say again, I’m grateful I found him. I will admit; he has sparked something in me that I thought I lost twenty five years ago. And I want to apologize for the way I acted earlier. I guess being alone up here for all these years had dulled my common sense.”

“That’s quite all right. I understand,” Murdoch replied, and then stretched his tired and sore limbs and yawned with such force his eyes watered.

“Well, gentlemen, I suggest we bed down,” Jack suggested when Stan returned, as he too was feeling the effect of the long stressful day on his aged body.

Mason and Stan agreed as they eagerly kicked off their boots, tossing them in the corner. They made a beeline for the warm soft hides, a far better cry than sleeping on the cold hard ground. Jack was right behind them intent on doing the same thing. They each picked a spot and snuggled down on the hides and within minutes they were out like a light.  Jack’s loud log sawing snores couldn’t disturb Mason and Stan, as they slipped into a deep slumber.

Murdoch shook his head in awe at the peaceful yet amusing sight, and then turned his attention back to his boy. He watched as his son’s chest slowly rose and fell, something he had done so often when Johnny was a baby. His mind flashed back to those nights. He smiled as he recalled how Johnny would sometimes giggle in his sleep. One day out of curiosity he took a chance and asked Johnny if he remembered his dream and the tot had said, “Si papa, I dream papa giving me bath and it tickle.”  Murdoch’s eyes twinkled as he remembered those innocent words and that happy time. Memories of the good times had kept him going through the bad until Johnny came home.

Murdoch leaned back in the rocker as sleep beckoned him, letting the soft fur pillow comfort and cradle his head. He closed his tired eyes while still holding Johnny hand. As he was about to drift off a lone wolf howled at the full moon, it’s sad lonely cry reaching the father’s ears and causing Murdoch to hold tight to his son’s hand. The plaintive wild call reminded him of an old saying, that a wolf’s call meant that there was a lost soul out there somewhere, man or beast, that was weak and defenseless and about to fall victim to the elements and predators. But not this time Murdoch quietly proclaimed.

“Go on; howl all you want to, you’ll not find a lost soul here. Not as long as I’m around,” Murdoch whispered, and then finally dozed off to a peaceful slumber, the first one he had had in days.

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

The rested searchers were awakened by the enticing aroma of fresh coffee brewing and something delicious smelling baking in the small cast iron oven of Jack’s stove. Their hungry stomachs grumbled loudly bringing them and their appetites fully awake. They slowly stood up stretching and yawning from a good night’s sleep. Jack motioned for them to make themselves comfortable at the table while he poured the steaming black brew, and then pulled out a pan of biscuits and sat them down before the hungry bunch. As they bit into them, their eyes lit in delight at the heavenly taste, not only were they light and fluffy but they had a hint of cinnamon and butter mixed in, adding to the mouth watering flavor.

“Jack, where in the world, did you learn how to make biscuits like this?”  Murdoch inquired.

“Would you believe my mother?” Jack replied raising his bushy eyebrows in amusement, as he watched their satiated expressions as they eat.

“Come on, your mama?” Johnny snorted in disbelief, with a mouth full of biscuits, “Um…well its a good thing you still remember how?” he teased, flashing Jack a big grin. “I mean they’re delicious.”

“Now, listen here, young man! I’m not so old that I forget things, otherwise you wouldn’t be sitting there stuffing your face full of my biscuits, now would you?” Jack mock scowled with mirth twinkling in his eyes. “And just like your Maria, my mother was one of the best cooks in the county where I came from.”

“And where’s that Jack, if you don’t mind me asking?” Murdoch politely inquired.

“I was born and raised in Utah. My father was a doctor.  I watched him work wonders on the sick and old. He had such a wonderful way about him.” Jack smiled as he thought back to those happy days of his youth. “And I decided I wanted to be just like my father when I grew up. So when I was ready I went off to school back East. Pa was still practicing medicine when I graduated and instead of going back home to work with him, I came here where I felt I could do more…” Jack’s voice trailed off with a trace of sadness Johnny didn’t like hearing.

“Jack wanted to help the Indians too, Murdoch,” Johnny softly stated, and then looked up at his friend’s bleak expression, knowing very well he was thinking back to that horrid night again. “I’ll tell you about that later, but right now I would like another tasty biscuit if that’s okay with you Jack?” he grinned in a effort to divert the man’s thoughts of the past and bring him back to the present.

Jack cleared his throat and looked back down at the boy’s incorrigible grin, “You bet it‘s all right, young man. I’m happy to see your appetite improving and if you keep improving like this, I just might give my ma’s recipe to your Maria,” Jack announced as he handed Johnny another warm biscuit.

“Deal,” Johnny agreed around his mouth full of biscuit.

“Well, as much as I’m enjoying the company, Stan and I must get on our way,” Mason interrupted. “It’s a long way back down the mountain and I do have things to take care of.” He smiled at Johnny, “You take care, John. And I’ll see you in a week,” he added with a hint of remorse that didn’t go undetected by the young gun-hawk’s ears. He could tell by Mason’s demeanor that they had found Buck’s body.

Johnny closed his eyes and waited for his breathing to settle when his chest rattled from the congestion still breaking up. His heart was pounding in anguish at the thought of his friend before he spoke.

“You found…Buck. Didn’t ya?” he whispered morosely.

“Yes, Johnny we did,” Mason sadly answered.

“I’m sorry.  I…I tried to help him, but…it…was too late.  He…”  Johnny’s words trailed off and guilt etched his young face. He had felt so helpless that day and it was eating at conscience all this time. If only he had tried harder.

Mason walked over to the bed and placed a reassuring hand on Johnny’s slumped shoulders. “It’s okay, John. I know you did your best to help Buck. And I also know him well enough to know he would have told you to hightail it out of there before you met the same fate. It’s just how he was,” Mason stated giving Johnny’s shoulder a gentle squeeze.

“Yeah, he sure was mule headed,” Johnny said and gave Andrew’s a bittersweet smile. “I liked him and I was honored to have met Buck.  I will not forget him.”

“He really liked you too, Johnny.” Mason replied. “We’re going to give him a decent burial and when you get back to the ranch you can tell him that. He‘ll hear you.”

“I know he will. I’m just happy you found my marker. I was going to go back for him, if I hadn’t got so damn banged up. He didn’t deserve to stay there like that.”

“No, son, he didn’t.” Murdoch softly agreed.

The air in the room turned somber and still as they all stood in silent contemplation, thinking of the young life that was lost. They wanted to curse Mother Nature for her cruelty. They couldn’t help pondering why these things happen, even as they realized there was no true answer. 

“Well, Stan, I’ll help you get the horses ready while these gentlemen say their goodbyes,” Jack offered, breaking the unsettling silence that he had once embraced when he first came up here. 

“No, that’s okay, Jack, I’ll help Stan,” Mason declared. “You have a young patient that needs tending to, by the sounds of that rattling in his chest,” he added, concerned about Johnny’s wheezing and hacking.

“Mr. Andrews, I think you’re right! I say its tonic time,” Jack taunted, knowing very well how Johnny hated the taste of that stuff.

Johnny frowned. “Thanks…Mr. Andrews!” he snorted. “That stuff tastes like cow dung,” he grumbled.

“It may taste horrible; John, but you need it. So listen to Jack and take it,” his father strongly urged.

Mason and Stan chuckled as they looked at the young Lancer when the old doctor leaned over and placed the spoon full of tonic to his mouth. He reminded them of a little tot being forced fed by his mother. His face was all scrunched up and his lips were so tightly shut they were turning white. But one look at his father’s stern scowling face, told him he had better take it or else.  He slowly opened his mouth and shivered in disgust as the foul liquid slid down his throat. The two men were snickering as they slipped out of the cabin to ready their horses for the long trek back down the mountain.

After Jack had taken care of his young charge, he generously packed a few supplies for the two departing men. He made sure they had meat, as well as fresh water in their canteens and he even gave them a few extra hides to help with the cold at night and during the day.  He stated that he hoped when they came back up in a week, the weather would be more manageable.

“Well, we’re ready, Murdoch. Are you sure you want me to go?” Mason asked again.

“Yes, my friend. I need you to send word to Lancer. I’ll be just fine here with Jack and Johnny. I’m not leaving him until he’s back at the ranch,” Murdoch affirmed.

“Okay then, I’ll see you in a week. Take care, my old friend,” Mason bid.

“I will, now go time’s a wasting.”

“Now, you go the way I told you and you’ll get down a lot faster. It might take you a bit out of your way, but it’s safer,” Jack instructed.

“We will, Jack, and thanks for all you have done for Johnny and us,” Mason expressed.

Mason and Stan mounted up and headed in the direction Jack instructed them to take. It would lead them to the settlement, and then a short detour back to the ranch. Murdoch and Jack waved the two men off and watched until they were out of their view. They headed back into the cabin to begin the week long wait. They had a lot of nursing to do to get Johnny back in shape for the return journey.

 

Chapter Twenty Two

Opening the cabin door only partially, Murdoch and Jack quickly squeezed in as they tried to prevent the escape of the heat from the cozy abode.  They were preoccupied with the task of removing their coats and hanging them up; as they did they discussed some of the ways they might pass the time to make it bearable for Johnny as he healed. The two men were relaxed and enjoying their conversation, when a low protracted moan had them spinning around, and then they were stunned into a few seconds of inaction. Each man gasped in paralyzed horror. Their minds struggled to comprehend what they were seeing when their frantic eyes gazed over to the empty hide bed, and then to the floor beside it where Johnny was laying. Johnny was curled into a fetal position, his arms hugging his stomach, he was pale and a cold sweat covered his face, which was etched in lines of agony. One second his mouth was clenched shut, the muscles of his jaw bunching at the extreme pressure, and then his mouth dropped open as he panted and groaned.

“JOHNNY!”  Murdoch shouted, as he shook off his inertia and flew into motion, racing to his son’s side.

“OH GOD, WHAT HAPPENED!”  Jack belted out, as he too scrambled to reach his young patient, practically tripping over his own large feet.

They knelt down next to the fallen Lancer who had tangled his legs in the thick hides as he tumbled from the bed. The awkward way he was twisted scared the breath out of Jack. This was the last thing Johnny needed while he was still recovering from major surgery. The slightest movement or jarring could cause a tear in the tender flesh around and inside the incision, not to mention irritating and possibly inviting infection. Carefully he and Murdoch unwrapped Johnny’s legs and cautiously turned him over and tried to straighten out his rigid body, but Johnny resisted, keeping his knees pulled up to his abdomen.

Murdoch scooted closer and laid Johnny’s head on his lap, and gently brushed his dark bands away from his eyes. “Johnny, talk to me son. What happened here?

“Yes, young man, I thought I told you to stay put,” Jack scowled as he tried to assess the damage despite Johnny’s resistance.

Johnny bit his lip, while waiting for the wooziness and pain to pass.  He looked up at his concerned father. “I…I had to go,” he groaned as a rosy tinge flushed his face with color. “I couldn’t wait until you got back in, no telling how long you would be. So…I was reaching…for the bedpan…and I guess… I lost my balance,” he breathlessly explained.

Jack peered off to the side and noticed the chamber pot sitting where he had left it, and could have kicked himself for not placing it closer to the bed.  He should have known better. Johnny was well enough to take care of his body functions without his help and it was only natural he would try.

“John, I’m so sorry for not leaving it closer for you. That was very inconsiderate of me,” Jack humbly apologized as he continued to try to get Johnny to turn on his back and lay flat. Johnny finally complied with the insistent hands, and then Jack realized why he had been reluctant to move, the front of his long johns were wet. He then motioned to Murdoch with his eyes to look down at his son’s legs. Jack knew full well what had happened.  Johnny had been so consumed with dealing with the pain his movement had caused that he lost control of his overfull bladder.  “You have nothing to be ashamed of John.  Your body had all it could handle in dealing with the pain, it’s no wonder you lost control.  I assure you; you aren’t the first patient to have this happen and you won’t be the last.”

Murdoch’s heart went out to his son. He knew how independent Johnny was and that he didn’t like feeling like he wasn’t in control of a situation. He cleared his throat, “Uh… well let’s get you back in bed and out of those wet long johns, so Jack can check out the damage. I swear the predicaments you get yourself into.  You won’t remember this but before you were even two you insisted on pottying by yourself as soon as you realized the bigger kids did.  One time you slipped in the outhouse by yourself and fell in the hole.  I had to put a latch high up on the outside of the door to keep you out,” Murdoch shared, trying to lighten Johnny’s solemn mood.

“Well…you …know me got to try it on my own…and I like to keep you busy,” Johnny confessed, his face was still a little red in embarrassment. His father and Jack’s nonchalant attitude about his mishap helped to ease his shame and restore his rascally demeanor.  “I had to pee and you can blame it on the raunchy tasting tonic too. It’s doing things to my innards! ” he grumbled with a sheepish smile.

“It’s helping your body flush your system out making sure your kidneys are working and also helping to fight the infection in your lungs,” Jack explained. “So naturally you’ll have to go more often and I‘m pleased it’s working,” he declared. “Now let’s get you back in bed.”

Carefully, they lifted Johnny. Jack holding his legs while Murdoch cradled his torso from under his son’s arms, and then they eased him back down on the soft bed. They made sure that they don’t tug and pull at his stitches. Jack examined the bandages for any fresh blood seeping through but they were still dry and clean. He dashed over to his wooden chest and pulled out a huge pair of long johns and hurried back to the bed and handed them to Murdoch to hold for him. Johnny’s eyes widen in awe and confusion.

 

“What…what are those for?”

“You!  I can’t have you laying there in those wet drawers, now can I?  I’ll have to wash them since you, well… so in the meantime you’ll have to wear a pair of mine,” Jack stated.

“No offense, Jack…but you can fit two of me in those.”  Johnny frowned. “How will I keep them up?”

“You don’t have to worry about that, John. Because you, my son, are not to leave this bed until WE say so,” his father ordered. “So you will let us remove those wet long johns and then Jack can check you over better. You hear me?”

“Yeah, I hear you,” Johnny huffed, rolling his eyes like a put upon little kid. “Just do me a favor, will you?”

“What favor is that?” Murdoch asked.

“Promise me that you won’t say a word to Scott or Jelly about me wetting my pants!  I’ll never hear the end of it, especially from Jelly,” Johnny grumbled and flashed an incorrigible smile at them. “And the way he jabbers, the next thing you know the whole valley will know.”

“Deal, my lips are sealed,” Murdoch vowed to his beseeching son.

“Thank you. Well, I guess if you have to… go right ahead. I am starting to smell like an outhouse,” he conceded, crinkling his nose as the odor of his own urine mixed with the nasty smelling tonic was enough to turn his stomach.

“Well…since you put it that way! It has been a while since you were bathed. I think you’re due for a bath, huh?” Jack turned and winked at Murdoch, “Don’t you think, Murdoch?”

“Oh, by all means. He is getting to smell like something a cat would drag in. I think a bath is a good idea,” Murdoch said, trying to keep a straight face, but it was hard when he gazed at the threatening expression Johnny was giving them.

“Well, should I do it, or do you want the honors?” Jack asked.

Murdoch was about to answer when Johnny hastily broke in the conversation. “Now, wait just a cotton picking minute!” the young Lancer growled. “If anybody is going to give me a bath, it’s me! I think I can handle a wash rag and towel. I ain’t that helpless.”

“Well…I guess you can do it yourself.  If you’re that shy about it,” Jack winked at his young patient. “Okay only the parts you can reach, and then either your pa or I will take over the hard to reach areas. Deal?”

“Yeah, deal,” Johnny muttered.

Jack warmed up some water and proceeded to gather up a dry towel, clean wash rag and soap while Murdoch pulled off the wet long johns. The grateful father was relishing this side of his son, the boyish side that still needed his help at times. Johnny’s embarrassment only told him that his son was as normal as the next guy. While he had never been a modest person Johnny had always been independent and the ability to take care of himself was a large part of his self-esteem. He had heard tales of the tough as nails Madrid, who couldn’t care less what others thought of him. Maybe that was true at one time when he had no other choice. But as he looked down at his son at this exact moment that was not what he saw at all. He saw a strong willed young man trying to hold on to his dignity and self-sufficiency while he depended upon others to help care for his personal needs.

After Johnny was stripped with only a towel over his midsection, Murdoch washed his son’s legs and feet. Murdoch chuckled when Johnny giggled as he inadvertently touched a ticklish spot. Jack watched with bittersweet longing at the heartwarming sight of a father bathing his wounded son and marveled at the deep connection they had. He was humbled to have been a part of insuring Johnny lived for this reunion. This was one of the reason he had become a doctor in the first place to saves lives and keep families whole.

When Murdoch was done with his task, he and Jack held up a blanket to give Johnny some privacy as he took over the rest of his bath. Jack reminded him not to get the stitches wet, so Johnny kept the bandages on. Johnny dabbed the cloth lightly in the water and soaped it up. He sighed in pleasure as the warm sudsy cloth glided over his chest and neck, the soothing feel of it was like little fingers massaging his skin, relaxing his tense muscles.  He worked his way to his arms slowly stroking them up and down. When he had finished with that part he carefully rinsed and dried himself, and then finished up by washing himself down below.

“How are you doing?” Jack asked in concern. “Are you reaching okay, you’re not putting too much stress on your stomach, are you?”

“No I’m okay…I’m almost done,” Johnny replied, and then coughed and hacked from the congestion breaking up in his lungs.

“Hurry, John! You need to get dressed and warmed up before you catch another chill,” Murdoch warned his son.

“I’m done for the most part,” Johnny said and covered up with the now damp towel. “You can put the blanket down now.”

“Good! Now let’s get you dressed and settled again,” Jack said, as he and Murdoch worked quickly pulling the long underwear on Johnny. They all chuckled when the long johns reached all the way up to Johnny’s armpits. “There now, doesn’t that feel better?”

 

“Good grief, these are big enough my brother Scott could fit in here with me. We’d look like Siamese twins,” Johnny joked. “Sorry Jack, I didn’t mean that you were as big as two people together.”

“No, it’s okay. I have to admit I have gained a few pounds over the years,” Jack smiled. “They may be big but at least they’re warm, clean and suitable for you to wear while you recover. Now let’s take a look at those stitches.”

Johnny watched in deep concern, as did Murdoch, over Jack’s demeanor while the doctor gently removed the bandages to check for damage to his handy work. They both thought that this man was a good decent man who had become a doctor for all the right reasons. They felt he had too much compassion to share to stay up here any longer. He was needed in places that were desperate for medical assistance, whether the people were red, yellow, black or white.  Jack needed to put aside his grief, he had mourned long enough. It was time for him to get on with life.

“Jack?” Johnny softly said, “We never got to finish our talk about you.”

“What do you mean me?” Jack inquired looking in Johnny’s concerned blue eyes.”

“I mean about you leaving this mountain and going back to doctoring somewhere, where you’re needed,” Johnny stated adamantly.

“No, we didn’t finish our talk but…”

“But what, Jack?” Murdoch eagerly stepped into the conversation. “Johnny is right. You’re too good of a man and doctor to spend the rest of your life up here away from the people who need your help.”

“I…I helped those so called good people mend their bones and tend to the sick and what did I get in return?” Jack muttered, as he fought to keep his emotions intact. “They killed my family and I will never forget that!”

Johnny grabbed Jack’s arm. “Yes, I know it’s hard to forget something as horrible as that, believe me, I know damn well.”  Johnny sympathized with Jack’s anguish. “But you have mourned long enough, Jack. It’s time to get on with your life.”  Johnny stared into the man’s aged eyes and softly said, “I think…no… I know it’s what she would want you to do.”

Jack placed a gentle hand on Johnny’s head and smiled at him. “I’ll think about it. Now you get some rest, young man. I need you to get well so you can go home to the rest of your family.”  He finished replacing the bandages, and then walked over to the picture on the mantle and stared at it, fingering it tenderly.

“Murdoch, we have to get Jack off this mountain. I’m not…going to let him stay up here…I mean it,” Johnny vowed. He yawned and shivered when a cold draft somehow whooshed in, invading the warmth of the cabin. The chilly air made the flames of the fire dance and spit in protest.

Murdoch quickly covered up his boy and tucked him in. He turned his attention towards the quiet man standing at the mantle. “Yes, you’re right son. He does need to get back to a normal life again. We’ll just have to make him see that.”

“If he’ll listen…”

“I have a feeling he just might,” Murdoch replied. “He’s been alone for so long. He has already admitted that finding you helped him to start caring again. You sparked something in him that he thought he had lost,” he whispered to his son. “It might be enough to make him see he’s needed elsewhere.”

“I sure hope…so.” Johnny slurred sleepily.

“You rest now, John, and together we’ll work on Jack,” Murdoch calmly urged. He watched as his boy drifted off to a restful slumber. Murdoch frowned when Jack picked up the picture of his family and went to sit in the corner, caressing the frame to his chest.

“Lord, here’s a good descent man, who needs your guidance. He has suffered long enough and now needs the peace of mind and heart to forgive and continue what he started. Help us reach him, to convince him to leave this lonely existence and rejoin society,” Murdoch humbly prayed.

 

Chapter Twenty Three

The ensuing days after Mason and Sam’s departure were uneventful inside the cozy cabin. Shut off from the world, it was hard to distinguish one day from another due to the sameness of them. The light creeping in the windows with the rising of the sun each day told the men that the days were actually passing.  Outside on the mountain the passing of time was more evident.

Each day, the sun rose and burned away a little more of the gray cloud cover revealing more and more brilliant blue sky.  As the clouds vanished the sun’s rays beat down on the trees and ground, slowly warming them and setting into motion an early attempt for Spring to arrive.  Along the snow covered hillsides, small shiny puddles of water and slush were formed on top of the white drifts, as they began to thaw.  In some areas wet brown earth peeked through the white covering. Dull plopping sounds could be heard as melting snow lost its icy grip on tree branches and fell away exposing bare limbs getting ready to bud.  The water from the melting snow leeched into the ground and made the hard packed earth turn spongy.  One season was preparing to give way to another and as is often true with Mother Nature sometimes that transition doesn’t always go smoothly and a smart person knew to monitor their surroundings for the restless stirrings and changing conditions.

Inside the quiet cabin, the two Lancers were showing signs of boredom and irritability, as cabin fever was slowly setting in. They were not used to this almost solitary existence like Jack. They had just about used up every form of entrainment they could think of to help pass the time. Jack brought out a beautiful chess set that he had carved himself on cold winter’s evenings. They played a few games between the three of them but that soon got old and lost its appeal.  They also occupied their time with reading and long conversations.  Jack began to work on making an Indian travois for the young Lancer, he had no intention of letting his patient ride a horse when it was time to leave.  Murdoch was able to lend a hand when not tending to Johnny’s needs, while Johnny watched in utter bored dismay from his bed.

Johnny was doing as he was told, most of the time, despite his grumbling and moaning which his father was accustomed to dealing with.  He had improved to the point that Jack was allowing him to sit up in bed which was a little more comfortable than lying on his back all the time. The upright position helped him to cough and clear his lungs of the congestion without so much discomfort from putting stress on his abdomen. However, he was getting very antsy and tired of being in bed. Johnny begged his father and Jack to let him at least sit in a chair and was relentless in his efforts to gain that bit of freedom.

“What do you think, Jack? You’re the doctor here?” Murdoch stated, chewing his bottom lip in concern.  “I know for a fact he’s not going to let up until we allow it.”

“Well, I guess it can’t hurt any. He’s over the difficult part and he’s a lot stronger now,” Jack said stroking his gray beard as he assessed the situation. “But only for a while, understand?”

“That’s fine with me.” Johnny agreed cheerfully. “Anything is better than staying in one spot.”  He eagerly threw the covers off and struggled to lower his weak and stiff legs off the bed.

“Hold on there, John!” Murdoch sternly ordered and hurried over to the bed. “Don’t you try to get out of that bed without our help young man! You’re not that strong yet,” the worried father stressed to his determined son.

Jack rushed over and they carefully helped Johnny out of bed, cautiously easing one leg down at a time. They held on tight to his arms as he feebly attempted to walk to the chair by himself. Try as he might he could not get the message from his brain to his legs for them to walk. His limbs felt like rubber and they trembled and wobbled, and then buckled from beneath him. Jack and Murdoch grabbed Johnny as he started to go down and held on as he fought to gain his balance.

“Whoa, son, take it slow,” his father warned in concern. “You have to give your legs time to adjust to your weight again.”

“Listen to your pa, Johnny,” Jack demanded. “Why don’t you let one of us carry you over to the chair just this once?”

“No, no, I can make it. It’s not that far to the chair,” Johnny huffed in stubborn determination. “Just stand beside me and help hold me up. I have to get used to walking again, sooner or later.”

“True, but this might be too soon so you really should take it slow,” Jack stressed again. “So take little steps at first, okay?”

“Yeah, sounds good to me,” Johnny grunted as his body protested his efforts. He stepped forward and began to gingerly take baby steps. Murdoch and Jack held on to his arms to help guide him as he slowly worked his way to the chair.  Breathlessly panting from the exertion he finally reached the chair and they gently eased him down in it. “Whew, you… see …I told you I could do it,” Johnny smirked and swiped at the cold sweat beaded on his brow.

“Yes, but with our help. And until you can do that by yourself, don’t you dare try it if we aren’t standing by to help you! Understand… young man?” Jack ordered.

Johnny nodded sheepishly. “Well, now what can we do?” he asked. “I’m tired of playing chess and I read that book you gave me until my eyes balls felt like they wanted to fall out.”

“Well we can…” Jack’s words were cut short by a loud rumbling noise coming from outside, which was getting louder and closer by the second, and then the floor began a very slight vibration. “Here we go!” Jack announced with an aggravated look on his face.

 

Murdoch and Johnny were startled into confusion by the thunderous disturbance.  They listened to the strident noise which sounded like it was coming from the side of the cabin where Johnny had been lying just minutes ago.  Within the next heartbeat, Murdoch acted on his fatherly instincts, thinking only of the safety of his son. He grabbed the chair Johnny was sitting in and abruptly pulled it further away from the direction of the ruckus while Johnny held on, shaken by his father’s sudden actions. The over protective father towered over his boy in an effort to shield him, putting his huge form in harm’s way instead.

“Jack, what’s going on?” Murdoch asked anxiously.

“It had better not be another avalanche!” Johnny shouted as he shuddered, remembering the excruciating experience he had gone through just a short time ago.  He took hold of his father’s hand subconsciously seeking comfort and security.

Jack held up his hand to silence the Lancers. He listened carefully to the harrowing noise that he had heard many times before. Then as it got louder and even closer Jack walked back to where Murdoch was standing and waited for it. But this time, the results weren’t what he expected; time had taken a toll on his once sturdy abode. The small cabin shook harder than it ever had before when this had occurred. Then suddenly the near deafening noise ceased when a huge piece of dead tree finally stopped as it crashed against and through the cabin wall, nudging the small building on its foundation. It halted because it punched a hole as big as a horse’s head through the weathered old wall right where Johnny had been laying. The men were stunned into silence, all that could be heard after that was the moaning and creaking as it settled against the building.

“Good God!” Murdoch growled. “What in the hell happened?” he said still standing protectively over his boy while trying to get his wits about him.

“A mud slide,” Jack sighed shaking his head. “I get at least one or two this time of year. The ground above me becomes saturated by the melting snow. The ground becomes too soft to bear the weight of the remaining snow cover and gives way, and then the loose dirt that’s weight down with heavy debris slides down and settles around the cabin.” he explained. “It’s not every year I get big amounts but it’s enough to keep me busy cleaning up the mess. This is the first time it affected the cabin.”

“Well, it’s apparent it has done some real damage to the cabin,” Murdoch snorted as he stepped away and Johnny got a good view of the destruction.

“I’ll say…and…and to think, if I was still in bed….” Johnny stated, astounded by what he was seeing, and then looked up at Jack. “How can you be so calm? You have a hole in your wall with a tree sticking through.”

“Yeah, I guess the old cabin is not as sturdy as it used to be. Years ago that tree couldn’t have penetrated that wall like that,” Jack sighed heavily. “And to answer your question, John; I’m used to it as I said. But this is the worst ever; it came closer than I thought it would.”

“Well, what are you going to do, Jack. Just leave it there?” Johnny asked.

“For right now, yes, the tree is plugging the hole.” Jack said, scratching his head. “I’ll have to seal those cracks around it for the time being to keep the drafts out, and then check outside to see how much of the hill came down with it. I might not be able to cut it out without causing more damage. Like I said this old cabin has seen its day.”

“All the more reason you should pack up and get off this mountain before it kills you!” Johnny stressed to his friend seizing this opportunity to talk some sense into Jack about leaving.

“And go where?” Jack frowned as he looked at the two Lancer men staring at him.

“Anywhere but here, Jack. Come on, what do you say?” Johnny pleaded.

“My son is right, Jack. The next mud slide just might bring down that whole hillside on you,” Murdoch added. “And that’s something Johnny and I don‘t want to see happen.”

“Put it this way, Jack,” Johnny started to say when the tree settled a bit more, and then a cold draft leaked through, causing him to shiver. “I’m…I’m not leaving here unless you come with us. If you die up here, we will too! Now do you want that to happen?” he added taking different approach of reasoning.

“You know I don’t,” Jack answered curtly seeing Johnny’s determined expression.

“Well?” Murdoch asked, knowing the doctor was thinking hard on the ultimatum. “He’s means it, Jack, he will not leave you behind.”

“You’re sure making this hard on me,” Jack said broodingly.

“Then let us make it easy on you. We know a few places back home that can use a good doctor like you,” Murdoch declared. “You don’t have to stay in Montana. You can make a new start in California, or even go back to Utah.”

“California, huh? I never thought about that,” Jack pondered stroking his gray beard, “And it’s too late to go back home.  I…I have to think on it some more.”

“Well, don’t think too long, Jack. When Mason gets back; I’m not leaving here without you, like it or not,” Johnny restated his threat.

“I’ll let you know by then, but in the meantime we’ll have to move your bed away from that wall and patch up the holes around that tree,” Jack decided. “Care to lend a hand, Murdoch?” he asked sheepishly.

“You don’t have to ask twice, Jack. I prefer my son to sleep in safety, rather than having a tree hanging over his head,” Murdoch replied.

“Yeah me, too!” Johnny agreed heartily.

The two large men walked over to the heavy homemade log bed. They each grabbed an end, and then grunting and puffing they moved it to the other side of the cabin where Jack and Murdoch had slept. They would have to bed down in the same space for a while. The cold air continued to waft in so Jack decided he better gather his supplies to seal the cracks. Johnny watched as Jack dashed outside, and then shortly hurried back in carrying a pail of mud and straw. He set to work preparing a thick mixture of plaster and began to fill in the open areas.  Murdoch took a hide blanket off the bed and wrapped it around his son’s slender shoulders to keep him warm until the cabin was draft free again.

“There that should do it! It’ll hold for now,” Jack proudly proclaimed as he admired his handy work. “I’m going to check outside now and see what other damage was done. I won’t be long.”

“Want me to go with you?” Murdoch asked.

“No, you just stay here and keep the boy warm and in that chair until I get back,” he urged.  He grabbed his coat and hat and left to inspect around outside for any other damage the mud slide might have caused.

“I don’t know about you Murdoch, but I have an uneasy feeling about this whole thing,” Johnny confessed apprehensively. “Mud slides are not to be taken lightly. You’ve seen what they can do to the land and people. Look what that one did to Jack’s wall?”

“Yes, I know what they can do, son,” Murdoch agreed. He remembered a few friends who had lived up in the hills by Lancer; their homes had been destroyed by mud slides. One incident had killed a good friend. “I just hope Jack can see that he can’t stay here any longer.”

Johnny was about to add to the conversation when Jack came back in looking like it was the end of the world. The bleak expression he had on his face both confused and worried the Lancers. The depressed doctor then took off his hat and threw his coat on the chair. He walked over to the mantle and sadly looked at the picture of his wife and child, letting out a heavy sigh.

“Jack, what’s wrong?” Murdoch asked anxiously.  “Is it that bad?” 

“Well, it looks like I’m going to go with you after all,” Jack admitted with despair. “And I’m afraid it’s going to be before your friend gets back, Murdoch.”

At first, Johnny and Murdoch looked at each other smiling but then Jack’s announcement of an early departure brought frowns to their faces and more confusion. “What do you mean before Mason get’s back?” Johnny is not ready yet. He needs more time,” Murdoch stated urgently.

“I know that, Murdoch, but it’s this way,” Jack huffed out a nervous breath “As much as it bothers me too, it doesn’t matter if he’s ready or not, we have to leave and soon. I just checked where the slide hit and it’s not good. The whole hillside is unstable and by the way it hanging there, it can go at any moment. And like you said it can crush the whole cabin within seconds. We have to finish that travois and pack what we can carry on the mule.”

‘What about Mason? He’ll come up here and find us gone!” Murdoch pointed out.

“Not if he comes up the way he went down, it’s the only safe and easy way to the cabin since the avalanche blocked the other way,” Jack revealed. “If we’re lucky, he’s on his way up here by now and we’ll meet up with him. But it’s a chance we’ll have to take, we just can’t stay here. Now let’s get busy and get ready.”

At Jack’s urging, he and Murdoch went to work on getting the travois finished, and then packed what they could. While Johnny sat there, watching and feeling useless that he couldn’t help his father and friend get ready for their rather sudden departure. He wasn’t looking forward to getting out in that cold again, cabin fever or not. He had relished the comfort and warmth of this little piece of heaven Jack called home, after what he went through. He hoped that the trip down would not be a disaster like the journey up was. He took comfort in the fact he would not be alone, he’d have his pa and Jack with him. Johnny smiled in secret pleasure, he had not been able to persuade his friend to leave the mountain but Mother Nature sure had!

 

Chapter Twenty Four

The urgency of the deteriorating situation spurred Murdoch and Jack’s actions. They worked feverishly on getting the travois finished.  They had to be careful not to let their haste compromise the integrity of the structure. They made sure it was sturdy enough to hold Johnny’s weight and to withstand the rough and possibly unstable ground they would be traversing. Using a sharp Bowie knife, holes were punched through the heavy hides Jack had picked out to use, and then pieces of rope were drawn through and tightly tied around long poles. The supports were fastened Indian style, in the way Jack’s wife had taught him, to insure it would hold. When that chore was accomplished to their satisfaction, they proceeded to pack what they would need for the rushed departure and trip. Items such as food, blankets, medical supplies and the picture that had graced the mantle for twenty-five years, the one valued treasure Jack refused to leave behind.

The next step was to get Johnny ready. Jack, like Murdoch, would have preferred not to have his young patient out in the unpredictable weather.  He would rather have waited a few more days until Johnny was stronger. However, Mother Nature had taken the luxury of choice away from them.  They carefully helped Johnny get dressed in his own pants, but without his belt. They left the top part unbuttoned to avoid any unnecessary rubbing and irritation to his stitches and any extra pressure on his abdomen. He would be experiencing some rough travel and they wanted to make sure he was as comfortable as possible, but most of all warm. Next they helped the young Lancer with his shirt, coat, and then his boots, minus the spurs as they didn’t want to chance the spiked rowels cutting into the hides and ripping them apart.

“Jack, how safe is that pass we’re headed for?”  Murdoch inquired as he gently pulled Johnny’s boot in place, nudging it to insure his foot was seated in it. “You said it was the only safe way down. I wonder how safe and how far it is from here?” his worried voice questioned, his son’s safety foremost in his mind.

“Well, it’s a half mile down from the cabin.  We‘ll have to go through a section of rough ground and thick trees to get to it,” Jack answered as he gathered the blankets he would be using to cover Johnny. “I chose this rugged area to hide my cabin from strangers. I didn’t want people coming around and pestering me,” he said with a sly grin. “Once we get past the craggy spots and trees, it shouldn’t be too hard to get down, barring any unforeseen mishaps.”

“Like landslides?” Johnny grumbled. “I’ve seen enough of those to last me a life time.”

“Well, let’s hope we don’t encounter another of those, son,” Murdoch said, patting his son’s leg. “I just wish we could wait until tomorrow to leave, instead of now.”

“So do I… Murdoch, but like I said I don’t like the looks of that hillside and the unsettling noises rumbling around it. There are indicators that it will be coming down and with a vengeance when it does. We absolutely cannot chance staying here until morning! I know a place that’s well covered, once we hit the pass, where we can camp.  Johnny can get the rest he’ll need there before we head out again,” Jack stated, trying to allay the worried father’s fears.

“I guess if we have to,” Murdoch sighed heavily. “Well come on, I’ll help you fasten the travois to my horse.” Turning to his brooding son, Murdoch instructed, “You don’t move a muscle until we get back, you hear? We shouldn’t be too long.”

The urgency of the situation was stressed once more when the tree, embedded in Jack’s wall, settled making an eerie sound that made Johnny’s spine tingle.  “I sure hope you won’t be long! I don’t like the sound of things around here. Hurry back!” he added, as he glanced with distrust about around the cabin that had been his salvation, but now threatened to be his tomb.

The exigency of Johnny’s warning voice had the men dashing outside and working desperately on hooking up the travois to Murdoch already saddled horse. The foreign contraption made the horse react nervously. “Whoa boy, it’s okay,” Murdoch whispered in the horse’s ear, calming him down when he started to buck and whinny in distress.  “It’s okay, you’ll be just fine. You have an important mission to complete. You have to carry my son off this mountain and back home,” he announced as he rubbed its brown neck.

Once the horse had settled down and the travois was securely fastened, they hurried back into the cabin. Jack grabbed the blankets, while Murdoch cautiously picked up his boy with ease. A frown of concern marred his features as he detected how much lighter Johnny was from this ordeal. However, he didn’t have time to dwell on that now. He wanted his son out of this cabin and carried to safety, if there was a safe place on this mountain. Jack followed close behind him, glancing around to make sure he didn’t forget anything, while Murdoch carried his boy to the waiting mobile bed. After the over-cautious father settled Johnny on the travois, Jack quickly covered the young Lancer up with the animal hide blankets, tucking him in to keep the chill off his weakened body.

“How’s does that feel, Johnny?” Jack asked anxiously. “Are you comfortable and warm enough?”

“Yeah, it’s kind of comfy under here,” Johnny grinned and snuggled under the warm hides. “And so far I’m nice and toasty. I just hope I stay this way.”

“So do we, son, so do we,” Murdoch hardily agreed. “You just lay there and let us do all the work, understand?”

“Yeah, you won‘t get no argument out of me. But can you do me one favor?”  Johnny asked hesitantly.

“What’s that, son?”

“Can you at least let me have my gun?” Johnny softly pleaded. “I’ll feel much safer if I have it. I think I can handle pulling the trigger if need be.”

Murdoch smiled down at the imploring look on his boy’s face. He knew what his son had gone through in the past and how much his weapon meant to him. God knows it had saved his neck many times. He walked over to the pack mule and reached in for Johnny’s gun belt. He took it out and walked back to the waiting young man.

“I guess it can’t hurt to have an extra gun handy,” he said and handed it to Johnny. Johnny caressed the gun before stuffing it under the covers next to his right side. “Don’t use that unless there’s no other choice,” Murdoch instructed.

“Thanks, Murdoch. And don’t worry if it does come to that, you know me, I’ll be ready,” Johnny slyly winked at his father.

“I don’t know what you two are talking about, but I suggest we get moving,” Jack ordered. “We have only a few hours of daylight left and we need to get to that cave I told you about, so we have shelter for the night.”

“Cave? You never mentioned a cave!” Murdoch fairly shouted in surprise.

“Well, I just did and don’t worry it’s not a deep cave the bears are likely to hibernate in, it’s too shallow for them.”  He smiled wickedly at Johnny, knowing very well the boy wanted nothing to do with those beasts, again.

“I’ll take your word on that, Jack!” Johnny nervously snorted. “Let’s get going, something tells me we better get away from here and fast,” Johnny exclaimed as his gunfighter’s instincts were telling him something was about to happen.

“Come on Buster, let’s take our last trip down the mountain,” Jack said, persuading his faithful mule to move.  He led the way to the trail that would lead them to the pass.

Murdoch was right behind him leading his horse at easy pace. He had to settle the animal down again when something startled it. It tried to move too swiftly with the travois, practically bouncing its passenger around like a pebble being thrown and skipping across a pond. The sharp jarring movement had Johnny hissing in pain under his breath, which didn’t get past his father’s ears.

“Are you okay, John?” His father asked anxiously. “I’m sorry about that, son, something must have spooked him.”

“Yeah…I’m all right, keep going,” Johnny softly insisted. He shivered when that same feeling of danger that spooked the horse registered with him as well.

When they reached the end of the clearing, feeling melancholy, Jack halted to take one last look at the small log cabin he had called home for the past twenty-five years. The ensuing event sealed Jack’s fate of having to leave the mountain. The heavily soaked ground of the overhang behind his cabin gave away.  A cascade of snow, mud, rocks and trees tumbled with a roar down onto the little cabin when a portion of the rock ledge broke. The sound of wood cracking and splitting echoed on the mountain as Jack’s home was pulverized by the violent force.  

Murdoch and Johnny were heartbroken for Jack, who stood there with tears in his eyes, looking as if he had just lost a dear friend, in reality he had lost that and his home. His house had been built of sweat and tears and was his escape from the real world, where he knew he couldn’t be hurt again. Jack bowed his head in grief and let out a heavy sign.  Murdoch walked over to him and placed a comforting hand on his slumped shoulders.

“I’m so sorry, Jack. I know how much that cabin meant to you,” Murdoch stated sadly. “But you were right when you said it could go at any time. If it wasn‘t for your insight we would have been crushed to death.”

“Yes, I know, but seeing it destroyed like that just makes it harder to take,” Jack answered sullenly, as he wiped the moisture from his sad eyes. “It was like an old friend to me.”

There was a brief silence between the three of them as they stared at the heartbreaking destruction for a few moments.

“Well, think of the new friends you’ll make, Jack,” Johnny consoled, as he looked up at his friend. “Let’s get out of here.  I’m kind of anxious to see that cave you’re talking about,” he added giving the old doctor’s arm a gentle nudge.

Jack shook his head and smiled, “Like I said before, you don’t have worry about bears, Johnny. It’s as safe as can be.”

“What about mud slides?” Murdoch inquired while staring at the demolished cabin.

“No mud slides, I can assure you of that, it’s sheltered. So let’s gets going, we still have a ways to go and time is a wasting,” Jack answered, after gathering his thoughts and saying goodbye to the past.

Jack resumed leading the Lancers into the thick woods, carefully guiding them through the maze of trees and hidden trenches he was familiar with after twenty-five years of traversing them.  This went on for a least an hour or so, when they came upon an area that deeply troubled Murdoch. It was a large patch of hard rocky ground with various spots of deep holes one could very easily trip in and break a leg. It would be just about impossible to drag the travois through it. The men stood there pondering on how they were going to get Johnny across it.

“Now what, Jack?” Murdoch questioned. “How are we going to get Johnny across that?”

“Well, we can’t carry him. If we get caught in one of those holes and go down, he’ll go with us. And we don’t want that.” Jack studied the situation while stroking his beard. “Tell you what I’ll do; I’ll take the mule to the other side, and then come back to help you. Do you think you can handle carrying one end of the travois?”

“I suppose so. What are you planning?”

“I’ll guide your horse across, while you lift up the back end of the travois, that way Johnny will be off the ground, instead of dragging it across those rocks,” Jack explained. “It’s the only viable way to do this.”

“That sounds good to me!” Murdoch quickly agreed.

“Me too, I’m not too thrilled with the thoughts of being made into mince meat by those sharp rocks!” Johnny snorted. “Between being chased by a bear and then tumbling down hills, I’ve had my fill of being knocked around.”

The older men snickered at Johnny’s determined yet comical expression. “Well, let me get this mule across, and then you young man.”  Jack proceeded to carefully lead his mule across the precarious section as he had many times before.

Murdoch kept a tight hold on the reins of his horse to keep him calm and the travois still. His grip was so tight his knuckles were turning white. The last thing he needed was for something to spook it again and have it take off with Johnny, dragging him to his death. The tall rancher carefully watched every step Jack took and remembered them. He planned to follow in his tracks when he crossed, so he’d know actually where to step.

After a few minutes, Jack made it over with the mule, and then returned with no troubles, to help Murdoch get Johnny across.  Jack took his place up front guiding the horse.  Murdoch positioned himself in back and lifted his son up off the ground. Step by step, following Jack’s instructions they began to travel over the rough ground. The old doc was calling out where to step and when to stop. There were a couple of times the extra weight of the travois caused the huffing and puffing father to almost lose his balance, but with sheer will power, he quickly regained his balance and held on to his precious cargo.

Johnny closed his eyes and laid as still as possible tucked under the hides while he held on to the sides as they carefully made it over the rocky pathway, and then finally they reached the other side. Jack halted the horse, tied it to a tree, and then hurried to help Murdoch lower Johnny back down to the ground. With the weight off his arms, Murdoch groaned a little and began rubbing his strained muscles to loosen them up. His arms felt like stiff boards after carrying his son on the travois, but it was a labor of love to him. And he would gladly do it again if it meant the safety of his boy.

“Are you okay, Murdoch?” Johnny asked in concern for his father. He didn’t like the large sweat beads that covered his father’s face.

“Yes, I’m okay, son, just a little stiff,” Murdoch rasped as he continued to rub his arms. “More importantly, are you okay? You didn’t re-injure anything when I almost dropped you, did you?” he asked, as he crouched down next to Johnny and felt his head. “I tried to be as careful as I could.”

“I know you did and yeah I’m okay, nothing broke loose,” Johnny said with a weary grin. “How close are we to that cave, Jack?” Johnny asked as he snuggled under the thick hides, relishing their warmth.

“Not too far up the path, we should make it before night fall, if we move now.”

“Then I suggest we get moving. I don’t want Johnny out in the night air,” Murdoch said as he stood up, frowning. “He feels a little too warm for my liking and he needs more of that tonic in him and a warm fire to rest by.”

“I couldn’t agree more, Murdoch.” Jack replied. “It’s this way. Just follow me and we’ll get there in no time.”

Jack untied his mule and led the way down the path. It was smoother and easier to walk on, despite the patches of slush that were slowly freezing back into ice as the temperature began to drop. Murdoch hoped that this trip down the mountain would not cause any more harm to his boy and he would do everything in his power to see that it didn’t.

 

Chapter Twenty Five

Murdoch and Jack trudged onward through the waning light and the declining temperature. The only sounds heard during the silent journey were the scrape and scratch of the travois over the ground, the clod of shod hooves and the huffing exhalation of heavy breathing.  Puffy white mists of air issued from the mouths and nostrils of the animals and men as the duration of the exhaustive trek to shelter took its toll on their taxed bodies.

“There it is!” Jack anxiously shouted to the Lancers, pointing to what looked like a very small hole in the side of the mountain surrounded by trees. However, as they got closer to it the shadows receded and the true size and depth of the hole showed it to be very large indeed and Murdoch now could see what Jack had been talking about.

At first glance the cave was just as Jack had promised, it looked well secured. However, Murdoch being somewhat skeptical needed to be certain before even contemplating entering the dark and rocky chasm. Straining his eyes against the dimming daylight for a better view, the first thing Murdoch looked for was any signs of an overhang like the one that had broken loose and destroyed Jack’s cabin and was very relieved to find none. As they drew closer to their destination, he could clearly see that the surrounding area around the opening was rock solid. There were a few trees sheltering it, which would act as a windbreak against the night’s chilly air. This brought even more relief to the worried father, whose greatest concern was getting his son settled by a warm fire.

“We’re almost there, Johnny!” Murdoch happily informed his quiet son. “We’ll soon get you settled in for the night.” Murdoch listened for a response and instantly began to worry when Johnny didn’t answer him. “Johnny?” he called again and swallowed the bile of fear rising in his throat when his son’s silence continued. “HOLD UP, JACK!” he shouted frantically to the doctor.

Murdoch halted his horse and hurried to his son’s side. His heart was racing and dread was filling his mind, as he desperately prayed that this hasty journey hadn’t exacerbated his boy’s injuries. The slight fever Johnny had was still preying heavily on his thoughts. A relapse right now was the last thing any of them wanted to happen. The distraught father glanced down at his still boy and those troubling thought were washed away the second his weary eyes took in the blissful sight of Johnny laying there fast asleep, huddled under a pile of warm hides. He knelt down by his son and felt his forehead, the fever that had worried him, seemed to have vanished for now.

“What…is…it?” Jack asked breathlessly as he approached the travois. “Is Johnny all right…”  Fear caused his question to trail off.

Murdoch held up his hand to quiet the doctor, “No, he’s okay, just sleeping like a baby.”  A bright smiled soften his face as he added, “And the fever seems to be gone for now.”

“Then why did you called for me to stop?”

“Oh, just chalk it up to a father over reacting to nothing. I didn’t get an answer from Johnny when I asked him something and I got worried,” Murdoch truthfully admitted. “Sorry about that, Jack.”

“No harm done. But let’s get our sleeping patient settled in the cave.  I hate to do it but we’ll have to wake him up. He needs to eat and drink, but of greater importance, we need to get some more tonic in him, if we want to keep that fever away.” Jack instructed.

Suddenly Johnny began to stir and his blue eyes slowly fluttered open, “How can…a man…take a…siesta with all your…jabbering,” he teased, with a cocky grin.

“Sorry, son, when you didn’t answer me, I got worried.  I…I over reacted,” Murdoch replied honestly.  “I’m amazed that you could even fall asleep with all that jerking and rocking motion?”

“Well, there was nothing I could do about it, but just lay here so I closed my eyes and I guess I drifted off,” Johnny said, smiling at his father.

“Soothed to sleep like a baby being rocked in a cradle,” Jack whispered.

“What was that, Jack?” Murdoch inquired.

“Oh… nothing.  Well, young man, let’s get you settled in the cave, and then get some hot food in you. I don’t know about you two, but I’m hungry as a bear,” Jack taunted as he winked at Johnny.

The young Lancer shot an aggravated look at the old man. “You sure do like bringing up those damn varmints, don’t ya?” Johnny snarled. “It isn’t funny!”

Jack chuckled wickedly as he stood up and walked back to the mule, and then they proceeded to the cave. Once there he tied the mule and the horse to a low, sturdy tree branch, and then without uttering a word he disappeared into the dark cave. Within a few minutes, the entrance lit up as Jack reappeared carrying a lantern. He hooked it to a another tree limb hanging by the entryway, and then grabbed the extra blankets off the mule and headed back in the passage, moments later he was back.

“I have a nice spot ready for Johnny,” Jack proclaimed. “It’s away from the entrance where he can rest comfortably, just follow me,” he commanded as he also took all but one hide off of Johnny, so Murdoch could lift him up with ease.

Eager to get Johnny out of the night air, Murdoch leaned down and picked his boy up off the travois. He cradled him securely in his strong arms, and then followed Jack into the cave. Inside, Murdoch was amazed at how organized the cave was. There were carved out logs and tree stumps to sit on instead of the dirt floor. There was more than one lantern lit and hanging on the walls, giving it a bright and homey feeling. Near the entrance was a well used fire pit. It was obvious to him that Jack had spent many a night in here while away from home.

“Over here, Murdoch!” Jack called and motioned to the spot where he wanted Johnny to lay.

Murdoch carried his son over to the bed of hides and carefully laid him back down, and then quickly made sure he was well covered, until Jack got the fire going.

“Can’t I sit up?” Johnny whined, “My backside is getting worn out from laying on it for so long.”

“No, John, not until we have a fire going. It‘s way too damp in here yet,” Murdoch informed his brooding son, “You have to stay as warm as possible to avoid getting sicker, if you want to get off this mountain alive.”

“Your pa is right; Johnny, as soon as I get the fire and dinner going, then you can sit up,” Jack agreed with Murdoch as he was gathering up some wood he had stored in the back. “But before I let you sit up, I’m going to have to take a look at your incision, to make sure that this little journey didn‘t cause any irritation to it.”

“My belly is just fine, though it’s rumbling some cause’ I’m getting hungry!” Johnny complained in a somewhat breathless and rattled voice.  He began to hack and wheeze miserably when the loose congestion in his chest fought violently to come up, turning his face a mottled purplish red.

The urgency of Johnny stressful situation had Murdoch and Jack rushing to his aid.  His father immediately rolled him over and began to rub his back, patting it gently.  Jack held a cloth to his mouth, as Johnny coughed up the copious amounts of the vile mucus. When the coughing spell was over Johnny rolled onto his back, his face was covered in sweat beads. He laid there with his eyes closed for a few minutes, willing his stomach to settle, but breathing a little better now that he had cleared his lungs of some of the infection.

Murdoch grabbed the canteen, and then slid his huge hand under his son neck and arched him up slightly so he could take a drink of water with ease. “Here, son, take a few swallows to soothe your throat. I bet it’s burning from all that coughing.”

“Yeah…some,” Johnny confessed softly and took a few swigs of the cooling liquid, “Better thanks.”

“You sure did clear your lungs a lot John and that’s good,” Jack praised as he looked over at Murdoch and added, “The tonic is fighting the infection as I hoped. A few more doses of it will have it licked,” he assured with a big grin. “Now let’s take a look at your belly,” Jack instructed and knelt down beside the young Lancer and began to thoroughly exam the incision.  Johnny hissed a little whenever Jack touched the still tender spots.”

“I… sure hope… so… I don’t know how much longer I can handle that stuff!” Johnny grumbled.

“You’ll take it as long as Jack feels you need it, young man,” Murdoch instructed sternly, knowing very well how his son hated to take medicine. He placed the back of his hand on Johnny’s brow and stated, “Your lingering fever is gone so you know the tonic is helping you, right?’

Johnny puffed his cheeks up and blew out a breath of disgust, “All right! Two against one is not fair! You know that, don’t ya?”  He glared at the two men grinning down at him. “I can’t win with you two.”

Pleased to see some spit and fire attitude returning to his son, Murdoch teased, “Why John Lancer, I’ve heard tell you faced and survived much worse. Why…we’re just two old men, who happen to know what’s best for you.  All you have to do to live through this is…exactly what we say!”

“Very funny, Murdoch, I’m laughing on the inside,” Johnny huffed. “Now, please get the grub going. The loud rumbling you hear now is my empty belly.”

“Well, it all looks okay, no signs of infection.” Jack was pleased to inform the Lancers after finishing his exam and redressing the incision. “Dinner will be served as soon as I cook it.”  He quickly went to work grabbing a few pot and pans he had stored in the cave and rinsed them out in a little stone pool further back in the cave, and then proceeded to fix a meal.

“Jack you must had camped here many times, to have all these little necessities handy like this,” Murdoch observed.

“Well, I do use it when I go down to the settlement as a rest stop. I also lived here while building my cabin,” Jack explained.  “And another time I had to take refuge here when a damn blasted skunk got in the cabin and WHEW! It took me days to get that rank smell out of it and off of me. Why… old Buster wouldn’t even let me get close to him, so I had to pack my belongings here on my own back,” Jack said shaking his gray head. “So yeah, I’ve had to use this cave quite a bit.”

“I can’t blame Buster, one bit! I wouldn’t want to get close to you either, if ya smelled like pole cat,” Johnny smirked.

“Even I couldn’t stand the smell of me!” Jack chuckled. “Well supper will be ready soon, so you just lay there and relax and enjoy my humble hide away.”

“What’s there to enjoy, Jack, it’s just a cave?” Johnny said rolling his eyes.

“I mean, Johnny, that after tonight, there will be no more caves like this to shelter us from the cold nights,” Jack enlightened the young Lancer. “So enjoy the comfort of the warm fire and the security of these walls before we head out in the morning.”

“What exactly is ahead of us Jack?” Murdoch asked.

“Oh, there are a few places along the way to camp, if that’s what you mean?” Jack quickly answered. “Just more wide open space with scattered trees here and there. I’m hoping we can make good time going down the mountain, so we don‘t have to spend too many nights out in the open. The sooner we can get Johnny to your friend’s ranch, the better.”

“We can’t rush it too much. Johnny is still too weak and he can’t afford to bounce around like a sack of potatoes on that travois,” Murdoch stressed.

“I’m very well aware of that, Murdoch. The path I take is well traveled on by me and others before me. It shouldn’t be too rough on the travois or Johnny, I’m hoping,” he replied with confidence, trying to put the worried father’s mind to ease. “If it gets to be too hard on him we’ll stop as often as possible, but not for too long,” Jack added, as he was walking over to where Johnny was laying, carrying a bowl of hot stew for his patient.

“That’s all I ask, Jack,” Murdoch heartily agreed, as he helped his boy sit up, and then took the bowl from Jack and carefully placed it on Johnny’s lap. Murdoch took a sniff of the deer stew and smiled in delight. “Stew? I was expecting a simpler meal. You know since we left in a hurry.”

“Well, for the rest of the trip it will be simpler. However, I had some left over stew I didn’t want to go to waste so I stored it in a few jars. It’s very easy to keep things fresh up here, especially in the winter,” Jack proclaimed as he handed Murdoch a bowl too. “So eat up, after that it’s whatever else I have in those bags. You can only pack so much on that mule.”

Johnny nodded, “Yeah, there used to be many nights when all I had was hard tack and beans, but it kept me alive,” he mumbled while stuffing his mouth full of the tasty stew. “Sometimes I was lucky and caught a rabbit or two, but nothing as good as this.”

 

“Well, I’m glad you’re enjoying it,” Jack replied, “And since I’ve checked you over already and all is satisfactory, when you finish it will be time for another dose of ton….”

Johnny held up his hand in protest, “Please don’t mention that foul tasting stuff, not while I’m eating. It’s not good for my digestion,” he stated with a grimace of distaste. “At least let my stomach settled before you give it to me. I would hate to return this delicious stew. If ya know what I mean?” Johnny graced his father and Jack with his incorrigible smile. “I swear, Jack, I don’t know what’s worse you teasing about bears or pushing that stuff on me.”

“Okay, okay, young man, the tonic can wait. Now eat up, and then we’ll get you settled for the night. This old cave gets nice and comfy with a good fire going. Just what the doctor ordered for his patient to assure a good night rest.”

Johnny smiled as he finished up his meal of deer stew, and then looked around at the cave. Its walls of solid rock were highlighted by dancing shadows from the flickering flames of the lanterns. Further back in the cave where the natural pool of water was, he could hear the echoing drip of water. The temperature was reaching a comfortable level and the crackle of the fire had a soothing quality. He felt safe here in this hollow area of the mountain. This harsh pile of rock was a bit of a conundrum, at first it had very nearly taken his life, but now it sheltered him, his father and Jack. Johnny shook his head, thinking of the irony of it all. Man he could understand, but nature sometimes boggled his mind, especially in unfamiliar territory.

“What’s wrong, son?” Murdoch softly asked, noticing the confused look on his son’s face.

“Oh, nothing… just thinking,” Johnny muttered as he still gazed at the walls of the cave. “Jack is right. It is getting toasty in here, I kind of hate to leave it.”

“Yes, me too, but we can’t stay here forever. If Jack is right, we should make good time getting back to the ranch,” Murdoch said, as he glanced over at the old doctor standing by the cave entrance gazing up at the sky.

Jack stood watching the stars as a line of clouds rolled across the sky, extinguishing their twinkling light as they obscured the heavenly bodies with their thick puffiness. He silently prayed.

“Dear God not now, please wait until we are off this mountain before you unleash your fury again on us. I have a sick young man here who needs to go home. He and his father have shown me that not all men are cruel and manipulative, and I owe it to them to bring them to safety,” Jack pleaded as the last stars disappeared under the overcast blanket of vapors. “Please have mercy.”

 

Chapter Twenty Six

The vastness of the big sky seemed to shrink as the space continued to fill with roiling clouds propelled by the increasing winds.  The thickness of the billows soon vanquished all the stars.  The moon high above the distant mountains backlit the puffy vapors making them appear like gray ghosts in frenzied flight across the darkened sky.  The clouds coalesced until they dropped low on the mountain range and kissed the towering peaks.  The fresh clean scent of ice tickled Jack’s nostrils and the chilled air assaulted his face as he stood in the entrance of the cave. His brow furrowed in concern and his eyes squinted as he peered into glow of lantern light that lit the area right outside their shelter, falling swiftly and silently large white snowflakes glittered in the meager light as they made their way earthbound.      

Jack sighed heavily, accepting that this cave might very well be their home for the next few days. It would have to house them and thankfully, due to its size, the horse and mule as well. The currents of air grew stronger, swirling the snowflakes about, sending some of them into the cave opening.  Some of the crystals were blown against the lantern and their delicate lacy appearance quickly melted with a faint sizzle against the heated lamp. There was no question about it; Jack’s fears had become a reality. Old Man Winter was not done with them yet. Jack shook his head in dismay, letting out another hard sigh that caught Murdoch’s attention.

Murdoch slowly stood up and looked down at his son, who had drifted off to sleep peacefully in a matter of minutes after he snuggled under the thick warm hides. Content that Johnny was resting, Murdoch stiffly walked over to his brooding friend and stood beside him.

“What’s the matter, Jack? By the sound of that heavy sigh and the look on your face something is bothering you?” Murdoch stated in a hushed tone of voice.

“How’s Johnny?” Jack asked back, delaying having to impart the bad news.

“He’s sleeping. You didn’t answer me, Jack. What’s wrong?” Murdoch asked again, this time his voice a little more commanding. His friend’s silence was beginning to alarm him.

“Just what I hoped wouldn’t happen!” Jack grimly answered.

“What’s that?”

“Well, it seems that Old Man Winter is not done with us yet, Murdoch,” Jack bleakly answered.  “Take a close look out there,” he said and pointed to the lantern hanging on the tree limb.

Murdoch peered out into the darkness. With the help of the lantern’s bright glow he could clearly see large white flakes falling and at a rapid pace. “God no!” he whispered and quickly turned and looked back to where his son was sleeping. “This can’t be happening?”

“Oh, but it is!” Jack huffed in exasperation, “And it’s going to get worse by morning.”

“This was the absolute last thing we needed!” Murdoch peevishly grumbled, “So now what do we do?”

“We have no choice but to stay here until it’s safe to travel again. Here we have shelter, there’s not another suitable place between here and town,” Jack informed the worried father. “We have enough water and food and Johnny will be well protected from the storm in here,” he added knowing what Murdoch’s next question would be.

“I agree, I don‘t see any other choice in the matter, but for how long?”  Murdoch bowed his head in defeat, “All I want is to get my son back to the ranch, and then home to Lancer.”

“I wish I could tell you. However, I don’t want you to worry about that, even if it takes my last breath I will get you back home!” Jack vowed. “But first we have to take care of the mule and horse, if we want to get off this mountain. This cave is big enough for them too. We can’t just leave them out there.”

“Yes, you’re right. Well let’s do this before Johnny wakes up and finds us gone,” Murdoch suggested. “We can unhook the travois and lay it to the side to make more room.”

“That’s my thinking as well. We can rearrange things once we get them in here if we need to.  Their body heat will also help keep the cave warm,” Jack stated, and then he and Murdoch buttoned up their coats, put on their gloves, and then ventured out in the blustery night.

The bitter bite of the cold wet flakes stung their faces and eyes. They hastily removed the travois and carried it inside and laid it against the wall of the cave. Then they dashed back out to retrieve the animals. The peaceful ambiance of the cave was shattered when Buster’s loud braying echoed off the rock walls when Jack tried to make the animal move faster.

“Come on you mangy beast… move! Now’s not the time to get picky!” Jack growled as he tugged at Buster’s ropes, when the stubborn mule refused to move past the cave‘s opening. “Murdoch, give him a push, will ya?”

Murdoch quickly tethered his horse to a branch and commenced to push on the mule’s rump, while trying to stand clear of his back hooves incase the mule decided to kick. “You heard the man, Buster, now move it! We don‘t have all night.”  Murdoch became angry when he saw the mule’s loud bellowing was disturbing his son’s slumber and Johnny started to stir. “Why you…see what you did now!” Murdoch snarled, and then gave the beast one last hard shove with his strong broad shoulder.  Buster bolted into the cave practically knocking Jack down.

“Thanks… Murdoch, that… did the trick,” Jack breathlessly huffed, as he led Buster towards the other side of the cave.

“What’s…what’s going on?” Johnny asked sleepily, as he rubbed his eyes. He frowned when he noticed his father coming in leading his horse, which was covered with a light dusting of snow. “Don’t tell me it’s snowing?”

“Yes, son, I’m afraid it is. And it’s coming down pretty damn good,” his disheartened father informed him. “We just might have to wait it out here until it’s safe to travel again.”

“That’s why you brought them in, huh?” Johnny questioned pointing to the horse as Murdoch led it to where Jack had the mule settled.

“Yes, John, we can’t just leave them out there,” Jack added. “Not if we want to get down this mountain in one piece.  I’m sorry old Buster woke you up,” he humbly apologized.

“That’s okay,” Johnny said, around a jaw cracking yawn. “How long do you think we’ll have to stay in here, Jack?”

“As I told your pa, I can’t rightly say,” the old doc replied, as he threw a few more sticks of wood on the fire. “We’ll just have to wait and see what morning brings.”

A sudden chill made his whole body quiver causing the young Lancer to pull up the hide covers and huddle in their warmth. “Well at least it’s better than being out there,” he muttered as images of the blizzard he was caught in flashed before his eyes. “Just keep that fire going.”

“Speaking of fire, do you have enough wood to keep it going?” Murdoch inquired.

“What you see, over in that corner, is all we have,” Jack said pointing to a pile of wood stacked up against a wall. “If that runs out then I’ll just have to go find some more.”

Murdoch huffed in concern, “How in the world would you find wood dry enough to use in all that snow cover?”

“Well, if I could find your son in a blizzard, then I can surely find wood,” Jack said with a wide grin. “But, it hasn’t come to that yet and let’s hope that it doesn’t.”

A disturbing thought came to mind that made Murdoch shudder. “Dear God… Mason! What if he’s on his way up here and is caught out there in this? You said that there was nothing out there really to shelter them, Jack.”

Johnny didn’t like the distressed look on his father’s face, so he pulled his arm out from under the warm hides and took hold of Murdoch’s trembling hand giving it a gentle squeeze. “Now you can’t be sure of that, Murdoch. Maybe he didn’t get that far yet. He could have decided to hold off until the storm was over, if he saw it coming,” Johnny tried to assure his father.

“He may be right, Murdoch. Your friend knows this country.  He more than likely saw the warning signs and held off coming up here. After all it hasn’t been a week since he left. So he probably hasn’t even left the ranch yet, thinking he’ll give Johnny a little more time to heal before attempting to bring him down the mountain,” Jack cajoled.

“I sure hope you’re right, both of you. I would never forgive myself if something happened to him,” Murdoch confessed giving his son’s hand a tender squeeze, and then swiping a strand of hair from his boy’s eyes. “I almost lost you and I would hate to lose a good friend like Mason and that goes for you too Jack.”

Jack smiled appreciatively at the remark.  “Well, I suggest we make ourselves comfortable because we have a long night ahead of us. We’ll have to take turns, meaning you and me, Murdoch, on keeping this fire going.”

Murdoch nodded. “You heard the man, John, you just stay under those hides, and we’ll do all the work.”

“Murdoch, please don’t wear yourself out, okay? I hate to lose you, too,” Johnny pleaded softly with his father.  “You need to get plenty of rest, too.”

“Don’t worry about me, son. I’m a tough old bird, as you once told me. I’ll be just fine,” Murdoch assured his worried son.

“I’ll …hold …you to…. that,” Johnny replied around a yawn and felt himself drifting off. “See…you in the …morning,” he murmured as his long dark lashes slowly fluttered shut.

“Night, son,” his father whispered.

Jack smiled in awe at the deep connection the two Lancers had. Then his attention was distracted by the harrowing sound of the wind kicking up outside and the snow swirling about. He hoped that this would be a quick storm, nothing more than a dusting and the path would still be clear and safe enough to travel. However, his old bones were telling him otherwise, but he didn’t dare reveal that to his companions. Murdoch was worried enough about his boy and friend, there was no need to alarm them, at least not yet.

“I’ll take first watch, Murdoch, you get some rest,” Jack instructed as he placed another log on the fire and watched as the flames grew higher, their bright glow lengthening the shadows cavorting on the stone walls.

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

The night hours seemed to just crawl by. The only thing that was moving with any speed were the trees limbs as they were whipped about and bombarded with what seemed like tons of snow. Small snow drifts formed at the cave entrance and at first they melted into puddles from the heat of the fire pit. But as the hours went by and the temperature dropped and the snow piled up and stayed.

Jack and Murdoch worked in shifts to keep the fire going and watching over Johnny, making sure he stayed well covered. The young Lancer slept deeply, despite the snorting and fussing of the animals as they huddled close to each other. Whenever the unsettling sound of a branch cracking outside floated into the cave, it would unnerve the beasts and they would thrash about in a panic. The two older men would hurry to settle them down again.

Jack had the last watch before daylight. He was eager for the morning so he would be able to see what damage the storm had caused, as well as whether or not it had stopped. The old doctor tried valiantly but he just couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer. His head bobbed up and down and his heavy eyelids slowly closed when he finally dozed off, while sitting by the fire with a hide blanket around his slumped shoulders.

“Jack, Jack, wake up!” Murdoch softly urged. “It’s morning.”

“Huh?…mmmm…I’m awake!” Jack muttered groggily, and then his eyes shot open and he sat straight up. “For Pete sake, I must have dozed off.”  He shuddered when a cold air nipped his face, “And…and I let the fire go out, no wonder it‘s cold in here. I’m sorry, Murdoch,” Jack admitted in disgust. He felt like kicking himself for slacking off.

“It’s okay, Jack, we’ll get the fire going again. But that’s not the only thing making it chilly in here…look!” Murdoch said, pointing to the front of the cave.

Jack’s eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. “For the love of God, it must have really blown out there the last few hours!”  He was astounded by the huge pile of snow that almost completely covered up the entrance.

“From what I can make out through that mess, it’s still snowing!” Murdoch fussed, “That means we’re stuck in here.”

“I was afraid of this. These early Spring storms can be deadly and last as long as a Winter one,” Jack said, hanging his head. “And that’s not all.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning that with the unstable temperatures outside and all this fresh snow, if it warms up too much or too fast the run offs can cause a lot of trouble,” Jack admitted haltingly.

"Yes, go on,” Murdoch urged.

“Well, the path down parallels a large stream, which has in the past overflowed due to the rapid melting and became more of a river.”

“Why didn’t you mention that before?” Murdoch growled.  He was not too happy with this rather unsettling news.

“Because the last time I went down to the settlement it was on the low side,” Jack said rubbing the back of his head.

“And there is no other way down that would allow us to bypass that stream?”

“Nope, not with a travois and Johnny in no condition to walk,” Jack proclaimed. “We just have to hope it’s not that high yet and wait out this storm. In the mean time, I suggest we start digging and clear the entrance before we get completely buried in here.”

Murdoch had no choice but to agree with the Jack, who knew this mountain like the back of his hand. He quickly got the fire going again to warm up the cave and keep the bitter chill from doing any more harm to his son. After that, Murdoch and Jack grabbed tin plates to use as shovels and began to clear away the snow. When they finally had an opening to peer out of they were dismayed to find the snow continued to fall at an alarming rate.

 

Chapter Twenty Seven

The storm system that was inundating the higher elevations of the mountain with copious amounts of snow, effectively ending spring’s attempt to arrive early, was also burying the valley below with a paralyzing blanket of white.  The weather wasn’t just a concern for the three men currently trapped in the cave they had sought shelter in but also for the rescue crew that was to return for them, unaware of the mudslide that had destroyed Jack’s cabin.

The return of winter’s fury had not only halted any attempts to travel up the mountain, it had also seriously impeded the daily activities in town as well. The railroad tracks were completely covered over with ice and heavy wet snow making it impossible for trains to come and go safely without derailing.  Word had reached the town by wire that all transportation had been stopped for the time being. Up and down the rail line customers were stranded due to the weather. People had been caught off guard by its sudden arrival, wherever they were when it hit, was where they were forced to stay to ride out the storm. Unlike the Lancers and Jack, Mason and Stan had been lucky enough to be trapped in town with all the comforts and amenities of civilization, though this did not keep Mason from worrying about his friends on the mountain.

The snow swirled about the town as the wind howled and buffeted the wooden structures. The icy air had frosted the windows obscuring the view to the outside.  A pane of the window in the small café was slowly defrosted, in a circular pattern, as a warm hand rubbed the frozen surface.  When the cleared area was big enough a pair of weary eyes appeared, gazing out at the blizzard conditions that showed no signs of letting up any time soon. Deeply discouraged and feeling helpless that there was nothing he could do right now but wait, Mason pulled his troubled eyes away from the window. The seasoned rancher shuffled dispiritedly back to the table where Stan was sitting, and flopped down in his chair, and then stared bleakly into his coffee cup.

“It’s still coming down hard, huh boss?” Stan quietly asked.  Mason nodded in response. “Well, it’s a good thing we had to stop here and wire your friend’s family before we headed back up there, otherwise we would be caught out in that storm.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s true,” Mason answered bleakly. “I was so preoccupied with taking care of Buck, that I completely forgot to send off the message Murdoch wanted me too. And now we‘re stuck here for another day.”

“Well, at least we were able to bury Buck before we left the ranch,” Stan stated sadly. “I’ll miss that boy, he was a good kid,” Stan confessed, his voice cracking in grief.

“I’ll miss him too. He was like a son to me,” Mason admitted, his eyes glittering with the pain of loss. “Well, at least one son was spared, Murdoch’s. I guess being delay like this might be a good thing. It will give Johnny a little more time to heal before we bring him down off the mountain.”  Shaking off his maudlin thoughts, Mason continued in a positive tone of voice, “Old Jack will take good care of them. They’re probably snug as a bug in a rug in that cabin of his.”

“You mean Mad Jack, the old hermit?” inquired Marcy the waitress, who had overheard their conversation as she approached them and refilled their empty coffee cups.  “You met him?”

“Yes we did, and he’s not like people have made him out to be either,” Mason quickly informed the young women. “He’s a very well educated and compassionate man, who chose to live his life alone,” he explained. “I guess I would feel the same way if my family had been murdered. I certainly can’t blame him for turning his back on the town that refused to help them.”

“Yes, I had heard that he was a doctor a long time ago and that his family was killed in a fire,” Marcy recalled what she had been told by the old timers. “It’s very sad indeed. I have seen him from afar a couple of times, and he looked so lonely and lost,” she added, shaking her head in sympathy. “Well if you say he’s good and kind and not some mad man, then I believe you Mr. Andrews,” she stated with a smile. When she turned to leave, Mason stopped her by placing a gentle hand on her arm.

“It would be nice if folks around here were to treat him with some respect the next time he comes to town for supplies,” Mason suggested sweetly. “Maybe you could tell others what I said, and then if he felt respected and welcomed, maybe he would not be such a hermit.”

“I’ll do that, Mr. Andrews!” she promised happily, as she left to go and finish her chores in the kitchen.

“Thank you, Marcy,” Mason replied with a wide smile. The smile faded when a troubling thought crossed his mind.

“Is something else troubling you, boss?” Stan asked in concern.

“Yes, it’s that blasted stream we crossed on the way down the mountain. I don’t like the way it was rising.  When all this new snowfall melts, the runoff will fill it up fairly quickly. That will make it almost impossible to cross over,” Mason grumbled in dismay.

“What do you think we should do?”

“I don’t know, yet. I wish there was another way up there.”

“But there isn’t. We saw that on the way down. At least not one that is safe enough for Mr. Lancer’s son to travel on,” Stan reminded his brooding boss.

“You don’t have to remind me, Stan. I was just hoping there was another way,” Mason answered grimly.

“Hey, boss, look over there, the boys are starting a friendly game of poker to pass the time. Care to join?” Stan asked cheerfully when one of the other hands, Mason had brought along to help, motioned for him to come and join the guys.  “It will help take your mind off things.”

“No, Stan, you go ahead. I have a lot of thinking to do,” Mason said as he stared into his coffee cup. “Go on, enjoy yourself and get all the rest you can. I have a strong feeling we’re going to need all the strength we can muster up to get back up that mountain.”

“Okay, boss. If you change your mind, we’re right over there,” Stan said as he stood up and walked over to his buddies.

“Yeah sure, Stan,” a worried Mason said as he turned his attention back to the window.  From where he was sitting he could see that it was still snowing. It had slowed down some but the sky was still so heavily gray it blocked out most of the sun’s light.  “Lord, I pray that you will stop this catastrophe long enough for us to bring those men off that mountain in one piece. That’s all I ask,” he silently prayed.

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

Jack sat by the warm fire pit trying to decide if he should go now to look for more firewood, or wait out the storm. However, the dwindling stack of wood was telling him he had better restock their supply before it was too late. It was just past noon and the temperature outside was beginning to slowly drop, as the thick cloud cover kept the sun’s warmth from breaking through. The wind whistled as it whipped the powdery white substance into large drifts. 

Jack nodded adamantly after making his mind up and quickly stood up, walked over and grabbed his axe.  He pulled out the small homemade sled he used to haul the kindling on.

“And where are you going?” Murdoch asked in concern.

“To get more fire wood, I know a spot close by that will provide us with enough to last while waiting out this storm,” Jack answered.

“Jack, you can’t go out in that! It’s madness!” Johnny cautioned his friend.

“Well, they don’t call me Mad Jack for nothing,” he snorted.

“Jack!” the Lancers shouted in unison.

“Listen, both of you, what we have left will not get us through the night, not with that wind out there. It‘s already past noon and it‘s getting colder by the minute.  I have no choice but to fetch more wood. If I go now it will have time to dry out some.  Don‘t worry I‘ve done this many of times,” he assured the worried Lancers.

Father and son looked at each shaking their heads in exasperation. They were not sure this was a good idea. “Alright, Jack, but promise me if it gets to the point you can’t go any further, you forget about it and come right back here!” Murdoch ordered the stunned doctor. “We’ll make do, even if we have to burn those old log seats and sit on the ground!”

Looking at Murdoch’s determined face and Johnny’s pleading blues eyes, he knew he had better take Murdoch’s words to heart and turn back if need be. After all he still had a promise to keep.

“Okay, you two, you win! If it gets too bad out there, I’ll come right back,” Jack replied, shaking his head in defeat.

“Good and we’ll hold you to that, Jack,” Johnny smiled. “Cause’ I’m not leaving this mountain without you, remember?”

“Yes, I remember, young man. Well, I better get going before I lose what little light there is.” Jack announced.  He secured the axe to the sled and picked up his rifle. He walked out into the frigid weather and quickly disappeared from the Lancer’s sight.

“I tell ya, Murdoch. I’ll be one happy fella once we’re off this mountain and back on Lancer land,” Johnny muttered as he snuggled down deeper in the warm hides. “I’m even looking forward to seeing Jelly’s bothersome pet goose, Dewdrop!” he admitted with a chuckle.

“Yes, I agree with you son. I can’t wait to get back home,” Murdoch said as he tossed another log on the fire and stood there staring in the flames. “I’m so sorry, Johnny that this time together didn’t turn out as I had hoped it would,” he added, letting out a heavy sigh.

“Murdoch, you had no control over what happened.  It hasn’t been all that bad.  I did learn a lot from Mr. Andrews and…Buck,” Johnny stopped as the thoughts of his friend distressed him. “He’s the only sad part of this whole ordeal. I know you’re worried about Mason too,” he added in a soft voice. “He’s a smart man, he’ll be alright.”

“Yes, he is. Maybe he can figure out how to get across that stream if it gets too high,” Murdoch speculated about his main worry. “Well, what can we do to pass the time?” he inquired as he quickly changed the depressing subject. “Are you up to a game of cards? I have deck in my saddle bag.”

“Yeah sure, why not!” Johnny cheerfully agreed. “What’s the wager?”

“If I win, you will take the last of that tonic and like it!” Murdoch snorted.

“And if I win?”

“You still have to take it!” his father smiled devilishly. “Doctor’s orders.”

“Boy, oh boy, I don’t call that winning at all,” the young Lancer groaned. “But if you say it’s the last of it, then I’ll be happy to put an end to the raunchy tasting stuff.”

Murdoch grinned happily at his son’s childish behavior as he helped him to sit up.  He made sure he was covered sufficiently to ward off the harsh chill that kept sneaking in whenever the fire dwindled down. He grabbed the deck of cards from his saddle bags and dealt them out. While they played the Lancers took turns glancing out the cave, watching for Jack’s safe return.  Their minds preoccupied with silent prayers for their new friend’s safety.

***********

The wind continued to blow unmercifully, whipping up snow devils which danced and whooshed in and out between the trees in a frenzy of white movement. The ice crystals made clinking and tapping noises when they came in contact with rocks and tree trunks. The flakes dropped to form knee deep drifts, when the velocity of the wind could not carry them any further. The shifting winds caused some areas to be buried and others to just be lightly coated with snow. Jack was hoping to find one of those spots so he could collect the wood, quickly load it on the sled and hurry back to the cave.

The old hermit slowly trudged along against the gusting storm, his legs were beginning to feel like lead as they were stiffening up from the cold seeping straight to his bones, however, he kept on going. There was no time to stop even if he wanted to.  He was losing the light and fast.  Finally, after numerous struggles to keep his footing and fighting the endless battle of wiping large wet flakes off his freezing face, Jack was relieved to see the area was indeed as he had hoped to find.

Jack hurried over to a few large logs already chopped up from the last time and grunted in disgust when he tried to lift one up. The log was frozen to the ground as were the others. He used the axe to chop and chip away at the ice to free them.  He hacked away at it like there was no tomorrow.  His efforts soon paid off and he went to work gathering it and all the smaller pieces he could find to use as kindling.

While he worked on chopping and loading the sled, he was unaware he had attracted an unwelcome visitor. Green eyes watched from behind a large boulder, waiting for the opportunity to seize its meal. The hungry cougar slowly crept along the edge of the trees, staying low and hiding out of view whenever Jack would turn around. But the old mountain man knew the beast was out there somewhere. He could hear the cat’s sharp claws dig into the hard ice, sending a shiver of alarm down his back.

The large cat continued to move closer as Jack cautiously reached for his rifle.  He cocked it and waited. The cougar was within a few feet from its prey and just as he lunged at the burly man from behind, Jack turned and fired his weapon. The shot rang out through the mountainside like a loud thunder clap.

“Did you hear that?” Murdoch shouted in horror.

 

Chapter Twenty Eight

The thunderous boom resulting from the rifle shot was carried on the wind the vibration did not disturb the swirling snowflakes at all, but the sound wave surged into the cave and echoed off the rock walls.  The loud noise shattered the peaceful atmosphere and struck panic into the hearts and minds of the Lancers abruptly ending their card game.  Murdoch scrabbled to his feet, banging his elbow on the stone wall, the impact causing him to lose his grip on the deck of cards he had been in the process of dealing.  The colorful cards flew from his hand and fluttered about the cave, some narrowly missing the fire.    

“Did you hear that?” Murdoch repeated as he grimaced and rubbed his elbow, the nerves tingling from the strike against the rocky surface.

Johnny’s gut reaction was to grab his gun and try to rise as well, but the painful tightening and pulling across his midsection stopped him.  Dropping back into a horizontal position his worried face sought out his father as fear for Jack flooded him. Johnny watched as Murdoch shook off his shock and turned towards the entrance. Johnny grabbed his father’s pant leg, using what little strength he had to hold on to it, to keep the headstrong man from running blindly out into the storm.

“Murdoch…wait!” he breathlessly pleaded, his action forcing his father to stop.

“You heard it, didn’t you Johnny?” Murdoch inquired. “It definitely sounded like a rifle blast. It came from the direction Jack took.”

“Yes it did sound like someone shot a rifle. But you can’t be sure where it came from, Murdoch. Sound carries and echoes off these mountains.” Johnny reasoned with his papa, while at the same time trying to calm his own nerves. He released his grip on his father’s leg and his gun, which he was clutching under the covers. “And I’m not going to let you go out there half cocked looking around blindly for him.”

Murdoch slowly inhaled and then exhaled in an attempt to steady his nerves. He ran his long fingers through his thinning hair and stared at the opening of the cave, “No, I can’t go out there and leave you alone in here. But damn it, Johnny! What if something has happened to Jack?”  He growled shaking his head in frustration, “We can’t just leave him out there, not after all he has done for us.”

“I know, I know. It’s killing me too, the not knowing. But it’s just too dangerous for you to go out there in this storm and get yourself lost while trying to find Jack.”  Johnny confessed, “And I couldn’t live with myself if that happened. What with me like this, knowing there isn’t a damn thing I can do to help you,” he shuddered at the thought of losing his old man, let alone his new friend.

“I guess you’re right,” Murdoch sighed in defeat. “It’s funny; here I am the one who is supposed to be the wise, mature figure. The one who has to keep you from going off half cocked, most of the time,” Murdoch stated.  “Now you’re the one giving good sound advice to your old man.”

“Well, I guess you’re rubbing off on me. So get used to it,” Johnny ordered with a sly grin. “Why, I bet old Jack was chasing off a bear that was getting a little too close for comfort,” Johnny added in attempt to lighten up their dismal moods.

“I pray you’re right son,” Murdoch admitted sullenly. “Well, I guess all we can do is wait and hope Jack gets back here before the light is totally gone. Otherwise it’s going to impossible for him to see his way around out there.”

Johnny nodded in agreement and shivered a little when an icy draft penetrated the cave and coldly kissed his warm cheek. “Put another log on the fire, Murdoch,” he requested and pulled the hide up closer to his face. “What I wouldn’t give for a hot steaming bath right about now,” he muttered from under the covers.

“I know son, so would I,” Murdoch eagerly agreed as he threw yet another log on the fire. He frowned when he counted how many were left, which was not nearly enough. It seemed like they were burning up just as fast as they were tossed on.  “Can you handle a cup of your old man’s coffee?” he asked. He thought a hot cup of the dark brew would help warm up their bones.

“Yeah sure, I think I can handle it. It’s too bad we don’t have any tequila though, now that would really warm me up,” Johnny teased with a wide grin.

“Sorry, no tequila, just coffee, John,” Murdoch stated with a smile. “Now that you mention it, I could go for a nice brandy. Now there‘s a drink that will warm your cold bones up in hurry.”

“Well, if and when we get off this mountain, I’ll buy you a life time supply of your favorite brandy. That is if you promise not to go off looking for Jack when I’m asleep. That would make me very unhappy,” Johnny pointed out. “Deal?”

“Deal,” Murdoch conceded. His heart constricted in joy over his son’s determination to protect him.

“Good, now we have a card game to finish, that I think I was winning.”

“Well remember even if you win…”

“I know…I lose,” Johnny groaned, and then gagged dramatically over the thoughts of the foul tasting tonic he would have to take.

Murdoch chuckled over Johnny’s theatrics as he picked up the cards he dropped when they first heard the rifle blast. He started to shuffle them. Johnny’s eyes kept darting pass his father’s shoulders and towards the cave entrance, praying his friend would walk in with that big grin plastered on his  hairy face. After all Jack had done for him, he couldn’t help but think if anybody should be looking for Jack’s it was him. He owed the old Doc his life. It was tearing him apart that he was too weak to come to Jack’s aid.  

**********

The Lancer men could not keep their minds on the game, not with the wind howling out there and the echo of the rifle shot still fresh in their ears. It had been over an hour since they had heard it and still Jack had not returned. The longer their wait, the more their minds were filled with scenarios of all that could be wrong, which only heightened their fears.  Neither one wanted to admit that after twenty five years of living this rough life Jack might have very well have met his maker and joined his wife and child in the ever after. The thought deeply saddened their hearts, but on the other hand, they thought Jack would truly be at peace, if it were so.

Murdoch gave up trying to concentrate on the cards and out of frustration he threw them down and got up and walked over the wood pile to grab another log for the fire. He hissed in dismay and grumbled at what he found.

“What’s wrong?” Johnny asked in concern.

“This is what’s wrong!” Murdoch said as he held up the last log. “After this one is gone, we have no more and still no sign of Jack.”  He threw it on the fire and buttoned up his coat some more. “That fire will not be able to keep the chill out much longer without more wood to fuel it and you can’t afford a relapse, not now!”

“Well, we’ll just have to burn those chairs and whatever else we can find in here,” Johnny suggested.  “And Jack will be back!  I’m not giving up on him,” Johnny said defiantly.

“I hope you’re right, but we have to be realistic too, John. It’s been a while since we heard that shot and it’s dark out now. So how in the world will he be able to find his way back, if he’s alive?” Murdoch spit out a little too harshly, and then wished he could take the words back when he saw the heartbreaking expression on his son’s face. “Johnny, I’m sorry I didn’t mean to sound so…”

“No, no, you’re right.  Jack could be…”

“Jack… could… be… what?” the old mountain man asked when he entered the cave, huffing and puffing as he dragged the sled, full of firewood with a mountain cat laying on top of it, behind him.  “Could you give me a hand, Murdoch?  This is one heavy load.”

“JACK!” they hollered in glee as their faces lit up with relief at the sight of their friend standing there. “Jack, you old fool, you had us scared out of our minds. We heard a gunshot and thought you were…” Johnny trailed off reluctant to admit the horrid thought. Murdoch hurried over to lend a helping hand with dragging the oversized load into the cave.

“Dead?” Jack huffed. “Nah, but I would have been if I hadn’t heard this mangy cat coming up behind me.  He did get a good swipe at me before I got him, but nothing life threatening,” he added and pointed to the deep scratch on his hand when he pulled his tattered glove off.  “But one good thing came out of the situation, we now have fresh meat for supper tonight!” he proudly exclaimed as he leaned down and picked up the limp cougar and carried it over to the other side of the cave.

Murdoch walked over to Jack and took a hold of the doctor’s bloody hand. “Well, let’s get this bandaged up before it gets infected,” Murdoch urged, and led his friend to where the medical supplies were. “It’s a good thing you were wearing your gloves, otherwise he would have gotten you much worse than this deep scratch.”

“Yeah, and I was lucky to get a shot off too. I didn‘t have time to take my gloves off and it wasn‘t easy pulling the trigger with them on, but I did it.”  Jack hissed when Murdoch poured what was left of the whisky over the wound to sterilize and cleanse it, and then he quickly proceeded to wrap it up with a couple of cleans strips of cloth, while Johnny watched.

“Whiskey! You didn’t tell me we had some left,” Johnny grumbled in a joshing manner. “I sure could have used some too.”

“You didn’t ask and it’s good thing too, because Jack needed it more then you!”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Johnny muttered. “How’s the hand feel, Jack?”

“Okay, now that your pa has it all wrapped up and nicely done too I might add,” Jack said with deep gratitude.

“Thanks, I’ve had a lot of practice.” Murdoch smiled, and then gave his boy a formidable look. Johnny knew he was referring to him and gave his father a sheepish grin.

“Well, Murdoch, do you want to give me a hand chopping up some of this wood into smaller pieces, so we can really get that fire going?” Jack asked cheerfully. “Then I’ll fix us a tasty meal thanks to the good Lord. If it wasn‘t for him gracing me with good hearing, I would have never heard that cat in time and I would have been his dinner instead,” Jack added with a relieved tone of voice.

“Jack, I don’t ever want to hear you talk like that!” Johnny snapped. “Besides you’re too ornery to be any animal’s feast. Why, they would just spit you right out, ‘cause you’re one tough hombre to chew,” Johnny taunted with an incorrigible grin that had the men shaking their heads and chuckling at his antics.

“Why, thank you for the honest compliment, John.  I think,” Jack snickered. “Well, Murdoch let’s get busy with this wood.  I see I was right, we did run out of firewood.”

“Yes, we were about to use those log chairs of yours, if you hadn’t shown up when you did,” Murdoch replied, and then joined the doctor splitting the drier logs for kindling and throwing the wetter ones over in the corner to dry out some more.

“And when you’re done with that, can I ask a favor?” Johnny requested.

“What’s that, son?”

“Can you please clean up the piles over by the horse and mule? Not that I’m complaining but in these close quarters the smell kind of gets to you after awhile,” he said sheepishly. “What in the heck are you feeding them, Jack?”

“Just what horses and mules normally eat, that’s all, Johnny,” Jack replied smirking. “And yes I’ll clean up the mess. Heaven forbid, we can’t upset my star patient now can we, Murdoch?”  He then winked at the grinning rancher.

“No, we sure can’t have that,” Murdoch chuckled.

“Oh, you two are just too much!” Johnny snarled shaking his head, and then snuggled under the thick hides. “Honestly, Jack, you don’t know how happy I am to see your hairy mug. Just don’t do anything like that again. There’s too much at stake here, okay?”

 

“My son has a point, Jack. There is a lot at stake here and we have to stick together,” Murdoch urged.

Jack bowed his head and smiled at the genuine concern these two men had for him. “You’re both right and I’ll not take any more unnecessary chances.  I admit I was happy to see you two again, my new friends.”

Silence reigned as the three men stared at each other nodding. If they were to get off this mountain alive, they were going to have to do it together. Now all they had to do was wait out the storm and get across that stream. They all had a bad feeling that was not going to be easy. The only positive thing they could see in this situation was Mason and the help he would be bringing. Perhaps the seasoned rancher, with the grace of God, would be able to figure out a solution for crossing the stream and getting Johnny safely down the mountain.

 

Chapter Twenty Nine

The storm, that had the mountain and valley in its icy grip, raged outside, obliterating any signs of life under white out conditions.  Inside the warm hotel room, Mason was fighting a losing battle as he stared restlessly up at the ceiling. It didn’t make a bit of difference which way he laid, he just couldn’t get to sleep and reading didn’t help much either. His troubled mind kept drifting between his two greatest worries; his friends up on the mountain and the stream. He wracked his brains trying to think of a solution for how they would get across it. The only sure conclusion he had come to was he was definitely leaving in the morning if the storm had subsided.  He wasn’t going to chance waiting around for another one to hit with any luck they should reach the base of the mountain in a couple of hours or so.

“Come on old man think!” he softly growled at himself. “There has to be away to get across that damn stream. With that current, it will be impossible to get Johnny across it,” he grumbled as he rubbed his tired eyes.

After another hour had gone by and sleep still eluded him, the old rancher threw his blankets off in frustration and sluggishly walked over to the frost covered window. The lacy pattern left by the icy crystals was beautiful to look at but the weather that had caused it could be deadly. He rubbed the window, warming the glass with his body heat causing the fragile ice to melt and run down the pane in rivulets of moisture like tears. Once the window was cleared he gazed out as the first rays of morning peeked over the horizon. And much to his relief the storm had indeed dwindled down to just light flurries, even the wind had subsided. The snow storm had left behind a beautiful, yet dangerous winter wonderland. The open prairie was covered in a vast blanket of glistening white, which sparkled like tiny diamonds spread out across the land with rolling ridges of snow drifts everywhere. Every hint of spring was gone.

The train tracks had completely disappeared under the snow cover, and it would be days before any trains would be able to ride the rails. The snow on the road rose up level with, and in some cases covered, the boardwalks and doorways to the small shops, blocking the way in or out of the buildings.  Mason watched as the shop owners, all bundled up in their winter gear, began to shovel off the walkways and clear the entrances, as they got ready to open their doors for business. Then he noticed a few of the town’s youngsters pulling a big sled, like a bolt of lightning in a clear blue sky the answer to his problem came to him.

“That’s it!” he shouted and excitedly danced around the room, and then he scrambled to get dress, practically tripping over his own two feet. “Why didn’t I think of this in the first place? It is so obvious.”

In his haste and excitement he clumsily dressed, and then he rushed out of his room and headed downstairs. He hoped to find Stan having breakfast so he could inform his faithful hand of his idea.  With luck, Stan had just sat down at a table with a cup and began sipping on his hot coffee.

“Stan!” Mason shouted from across the room, as he quickly approached the startled man.

The urgent sound of his boss’ voice caused Stan to jerk his head around just as he was about to take another sip. He missed his mouth all together, thus spilling a little of the hot brew on his lap. Stan jumped up from his chair and rapidly fanned his pants to cool off the steaming sensation on his skin.

“Dang blasted, boss, you startled me,” he snorted as he quickly wiped the coffee up with a napkin. “What in the blues blazes has you all riled up?”

“Sorry about that, Stan. I didn’t mean to startle you,” Mason apologized. “But I figured out a way to get Johnny across the stream,” he anxiously explained as he sat down at the table.

“Yeah, what’s that?” Stan asked as he too sat back down and tried to drink his coffee.

“Well, as you know there wasn’t a raft, or I should say we didn’t see one, right?” Mason continued as he waved the waitress over.

“Yeah… so?”

“Well, I was thinking we could find one somewhere around here and haul it with us to the stream.”

Stan stared at his boss in confusion. “Come again? How are we going to find a raft, let alone take it with us?”

“Think man. We get a couple of extra horses, hitch it up to them and they drag it like a kid would a sled. With this new snow cover, I don‘t see the horses having a problem pulling it.” He smiled widely and waited for a response from his brooding hand. “Well, what do you think?”

The ranch hand rubbed his chin and nodded. “Good idea, boss, but for one problem… where do we find a raft?”

Marcy, the young waitress, approached the two men with a hot pot of coffee and a clean cup for Mason. She poured one for him and refilled Stan’s empty cup, and then sweetly asked, “What can I get for you, Mr. Andrews? The special today is ham and eggs with fresh butter biscuits.”

“That sounds very tasty, Marcy. I’ll have that and a little information,” Mason said giving the waitress a smile.

“Information?” she questioned.

“Yes, Marcy. Do you know if anyone around here owns a raft?”  Mason then explained, “We need one to get across the stream. There’s a sick man up the mountain that can’t ride, so we need a way to get him safely over it.”

The young woman pondered for a moment, and then her face lit with recollection of an old miser hording one. “Well, I don’t know if it’s still there but old man Jones, who lives just outside of town, might have one. I don’t think he uses it anymore. However, he’s a very selfish man.” She shook her head as she recalled, “He loaded it up on a wagon one day and hauled it back with him, just so no one else could use it. Most people didn’t use the raft because he charged, so they just waded across it when the water was low enough.”

“No wonder we didn’t see one,” Stan huffed. “I guess the old goat didn’t want to get his feet wet.” he added shaking his head.

“Well, we need it and I think we’re going to pay Mr. Jones a visit. There’s a man’s life at stake and by hook or crook, he’s going to let us use that raft,” Mason proclaimed. “You say it’s just outside of town?”

“Yes, north of town, it’s the big white house with a large shed in the back,” Marcy informed them. “I’ll go get your breakfast now. And good luck with that old miser.”

“Thanks, dear. Oh, Marcy, does he have any horses we might be able to rent?” Mason asked as she was about to leave, the young woman nodded in affirmation, and then left to fetch his meal.

“Boss, if Jones is as greedy as she says, how are you going to get him to let us use his raft?”

“Oh, I have my ways,” Mason snorted.  “Now eat up, we have to make tracks and fast.”

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

After they finished their hardy breakfast, Mason and the boys bundled up and ventured out into the biting cold and headed north of town to old man Jones’ house.  Stan was beginning to think his boss was right, the icy white covering was slick and deep enough to haul a heavy raft over it, now getting it was another issue. As they reached the big white house, they were greeted in a threatening manner by a tall elderly man hunched over as he was sweeping off his porch with an old broom.

“WHAT DO YOU WANT?” he growled loudly at Mason and his men.

“Are you Mr. Jones?” Mason asked politely.

“What’s it to you?” Jones rudely snapped and glared at them. “Well don’t just stand there with your jaws hanging open, state your business,” he added more than a little annoyed at the men.

“Well, sir, I understand you have a raft.  I was hoping we could use…well rent it from you,” Mason said. He decided he’d better play this old miser’s game. “And maybe a couple of horses too…that you might be agreeable to renting out.”

“What in the hell do you need a raft for in this kind of weather? And what makes you think I have horses to rent out?” he snarled, as he straightened up and shook his ragged old broom at them.

“We need a raft to cross over that stream by the mountain. It flooded some during that brief spell of spring weather and it’s too dangerous to cross on horseback.  I have a few friends stranded on the other side who need help.” Mason explained to the old geezer. “I’ll make it worth your while, if you can help us.”

Jones sat his broom to the side, and then crossed his arms and a greedy smirk grew on his wrinkled face. “It will cost you plenty.”

“How much?” Mason asked.

“Oh, say a hundred and fifty bucks. That’s a hundred for the raft and fifty for the horses. Take it or leave it,” he said with a sly grin.

“A HUNDRED AND FIFTY DOLLARS! THAT’S OUTRAGEOUS!”  Stan shouted in disgust as the rest of the men shook their heads in agreement. “I can see buying it for that much, but not renting it!”

“Listen, sonny, I have the only raft around here and the only spare draft horses in this town, and if you don’t like my price then get the hell out of here,” he growled at Stan.

“It’s a deal!” Mason reluctantly agreed.

“But Boss, he’s robbing you!”

“I know, Stan.  I don‘t like it either, but we have no choice. We need those horses and that raft,” Mason calmly told his foreman. “I would like to get going as soon as possible, so would you please show my men where the raft and horses are?”

“The money first, and then I’ll show them,” Jones greedily stated.

“Fine!” Mason snapped, and then pulled out his wallet, which was getting a little thin, since he had had to spend a few days in town. He counted out the correct amount and walked up to the eagerly waiting man and slapped the money in his boney hand. “Here, a pleasure doing business with you,” he huffed sarcastically.

“Yes indeed.” Jones smiled wickedly. “Follow me, boys, everything is around back,” he said and led Mason’s men around the house.

They found the raft tucked away alongside the large shed, half buried under the snow. The men quickly dug it out, to find that it was still in good condition and big enough to carry two men. After taking care of the raft, they went and picked out the sturdiest horses the old geezer had, draft ones capable of pulling with ease. Mason checked things over making sure he got his money’s worth. And much to their surprise the miser threw in a few long sturdy ropes.

Once they had everything they needed for their mission, they bid good bye to Jones and headed out into the frozen prairie, leaving behind wide tracks left by the raft as it was being dragged.  Each man was hoping that the stream was not as high as they feared, even though they had the raft, there still was the current to think about. It would take every single man to keep it from becoming a death trap, if things went awry.

Mason suddenly had a strange feeling that something else was not right. A foreboding sensation washed over him and had he looked up at the huge mountain and whispered, “Hang on my friends. Help is on the way.”

***********

“Murdoch, wake up!” Jack softly called to the sleeping rancher. “Hey wake up. It’s morning and it stopped snowing.”

Murdoch’s eyes slowly fluttered open and he let out a jaw cracking yawn as he stretched his stiff limbs and sleepily sat up. “Did you say it stopped snowing?” he asked as he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. “Just how bad is it out there?”

“Well, it’s deep, but I think the horse and old Buster can make it,” Jack said with a slight hesitation in his voice. “Let’s put it this way, it will be a smoother ride on the travois for Johnny, less bumps and rocks to hit along the way. And he’ll stay nice and warm under those hides, if we tuck him in just right.”

“Talking…about me…again?” Johnny muttered as his long eyelashes batted open and then squeezed back shut as he yawned mightily. “Did I hear ya say it stopped snowing?”

“Yes, son, and Jack thinks we can make it down the mountain with no trouble,” Murdoch confirmed as he turned around and checked his boy’s forehead for any indication of fever. He was relieved to find that Johnny was cool and his color was coming back more every day. “How do you feel, son?”

“Hungry! But better, less pain this morning,” Johnny softly muttered as he lay under the warm hides.

“Good! So after breakfast are you ready to get out of this cave and go home?” Jack asked.

“More than ready, Jack! I can feel that hot tub now and taste Sadie’s cooking.” the young Lancer eagerly replied.

“I’m with you son,” Murdoch agreed heartily.

“Then I better get moving, the sooner we get going the better,” Jack said as he proceeded to fix a filling breakfast.

While Jack was busy with that, Murdoch checked his son over a little more thoroughly, making sure he was ready for the trek down the mountain.  He was not completely convinced that it would be as easy as Jack thought. Anything could go wrong and he prayed all went well and they survived this treacherous mountain terrain.

 

Chapter Thirty

Jack and Murdoch exited the cave and were immediately assaulted by the extreme cold.  The icy air bit at their faces with a needles and pins sensation.  Their eyes stung and pooled with warm moisture. Their lungs constricted causing them to pant as their heated breath fought passed the frigid air invading their airways.  Puffs of white steam formed in front of their mouths as well as the mule and the horse, they had led outside to prepare for the journey.  Jack, who had lived in these conditions for twenty-five years, got right to work.

Murdoch gazed in awe at the almost surreal sight the storm had left in its wake.  The snow glistened in the morning light, the reflection from it glittering and blinding. The world looked white as far as the eye could see, until it met the bright blue sky at the horizon. The limbs of the trees were clothed in heavy white coats of crystals that bent them towards the ground.  The lower branches drooped so far they skimmed the earth. The scenery was beautiful but underneath it laid all sorts of dangers which caused an over powering feeling of apprehension. He still had his doubts on whether they should leave just yet.

However, he realized that staying here was not an option now that the storm had finally subsided and the sun was shining with no hints of another winter blast. Murdoch swallowed his fears and helped Jack finish loading old Buster with the supplies. Once that was done they headed back in the cave to get the travois to hitch it up to the horse.

“Well, the travois is ready and old Buster is all packed up, so I think it‘s time we get going.” Jack announced.

“Yes, the sooner the better…though…I,” Murdoch’s words trailed off as he looked around at the enchanting yet threatening terrain again, and then shuddered.  He still couldn’t shake the feeling something was going to happen.

“What’s the matter?” Jack questioned.

“Well, don’t you think we should wait just a little while longer and see if Mason makes it up here?” Murdoch asked with a worried grimace on his face. He wanted to leave, but then again he hated to leave the comfort and safety of the cave, not for his sake but for Johnny’s. “I’m not totally convinced we should leave yet. I would feel much better if we had more help going down, just in case.”

“Murdoch, if your friend is on his way up here, then we’ll meet up with him.” Jack tried to reason with the concerned father. “I highly doubt he started out in the storm. We’ll be okay and we need to get going,” Jack urged.

“Yes, yes, you’re right! I don‘t know what I was thinking,” Murdoch sighed as he rubbed the back of his neck, scratching at that itch of uncertainty he couldn’t get rid of. “Well come on and help me get Johnny ready,” he added and proceeded to head back in the cave to his waiting son.

“With pleasure,” Jack snorted. “And let me do all the worrying, just concentrate on your boy,” Jack firmly instructed as he followed Murdoch into the shelter.

“I intend to!” Murdoch huffed over his shoulder.

“Well, is everything ready?” Johnny asked anxiously as he struggled to push the hides off. The effort robbing him of what little strength he had so that he couldn’t even sit up.  He fell backwards, grunting at his futile attempt. “Dios, that was dumb!” he groaned as he held his side, wishing the pressure of his arms would contain the throbbing ache.

“JOHNNY!” his father hollered in fright as he rushed to his boy’s aid. “Don’t you even think about it young man! Let us help you. You’re still too weak to get around by yourself and you have to stay warm.” he scolded his mule headed son as he helped him lay back down and covered him up.

“Listen to your pa, Johnny. We’ll do all the work. You just lay there and rest.”

“All right!” Johnny snarled. “I was just trying to not be a burden to you.” His head dropped until his chin rested on his chest, as he added in a soft drawl, “I just want to get out of here and go back home.”

“You’re not a burden, John.” Murdoch soothed his son affectionately as he brushed a dark strand of hair from his son’s eyes. “Don’t ever think that again.”

“And we will get off this mountain alive, but you have to do as we say. Understand?” Jack softly added.

“Yeah, I’m sorry. I guess I’m not used to being cooped up in one place like this for so long,” the young Lancer muttered. “You ought to know that by now, huh, Murdoch?” Johnny smiled sheepishly.

“Yes, John, I know it very well,” his father quickly agreed. “And we’ll be on our way as soon as we get you settled on the travois,” Murdoch assured his anxious son. He nodded at Jack, ‘Ready Jack?”

“Yep, so let’s get you loaded up boy,” Jack said as he leaned down and slid his hands under Johnny’s armpits while Murdoch grabbed hold of his legs. They carefully carried him to the waiting travois.

“Gee, Jack, you make me sound like I’m sack of flour or something,” Johnny grumbled as he was being carried out the cave. Once outside his eyes widened in awe and he exclaimed “Whoa, will ya look at that!”  He gazed at the frozen wonderland all around him. “I have to admit it’s a sight to behold. But I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live up here. I don‘t know how you did it all those years, Jack?”

“I didn’t find it to be that difficult, John. But I guess it’s not for everybody.”  Jack replied in a voice tinged with melancholy. “I’ll miss it, but I guess it’s time to go on with my life. Thanks to you two, I think I can move forward now.”

“Well, don’t count your pennies until we’re off this mountain and back at Mason’s ranch,” Murdoch snorted, as he finished tucking his son in under the thick warm hides after they had eased him down on the travois. “There, are you warm enough, Johnny?”

“Snug as a bug in rug,” Johnny softly said. “Just one thing though.”  He grinned up at his father.

“Yes, I know, just a second.”  Murdoch shook his head, and then walked back into the cave to retrieve the rest of their things and returned with a shiny item.  He lifted up one corner of the blankets and slipped his son’s gun in by his right hand. “Better?”

“Yep!”

“Okay you two, are you ready?” Jack asked. “Time is a wasting here.”

“We are now, Jack!” Johnny replied eagerly.

“Okay then, let’s get this show on the road. Come on, Buster, lets lead our friends off this mountain,” he whispered in his faithful mule’s ear. The animal nodded his huge head in agreement.

Jack and Buster slowly led the way down the snowy path with Murdoch right behind, carefully guiding his horse as it pulled the travois with its precious cargo securely tucked between two layers of hides. One layer on the bottom to keep the cold off his back and to help cushion each bump or rock it might hit, as an extra precaution. They were not taking any chances of causing more damage to his already weakened body. The top layer was to ward off the chill and to prevent his fever from returning.

As they moved further away from the cave, Johnny watched with weary eyes as the large hole in the mountain slowly faded to a small dark shadow, and then finally out of view. He sighed in dismay, knowing that as of right now there would be no more caves around to shelter them. While he was glad to be on the way, a part of him knew he would always miss the comfort and security he found in Jack’s little cabin.

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

Despite the deep sea of snow ahead of them, Mason and his men were making good time as they relentlessly kept pushing forward towards the mountain base and the stream. However, they knew not to push the horses they were riding faster than they could handle. All it would take was just one wrong step on the flat but slippery ground, for a horse to go down in a flash, especially with the extra weight on their backs. A mishap they just couldn’t afford, not now.

Even the raft was holding up well, as it was being dragged by the draft horses. The strong animals pulled the large wooden structure as though it was made out of feathers and it just floated across the ground. The ease of the movement took a load off of Mason’s worried mind, the last thing he needed was for the raft to crumble on him before they made it to the stream. Not after he had paid out all that money to that old miser, not to mention then he wouldn’t have a way across it. Mason was still seething over the gall of that cold hearted skinflint. It would serve Jones right if the raft did bust up and it would give him great satisfaction to tell the man that his precious raft has been destroyed.

After another hour had gone by, the cold and tired rescuers were relieved to see their destination was getting closer. The mountain loomed ahead like a huge monster encased in a sheet of white that covered it from top to bottom. They knew the stream was near, but they couldn’t see it for the deep snow.  They drew closer, listening for the sounds of the stream, something puzzled them. Even with the calmness in the air around them, they couldn’t hear the bubbling sounds of rushing water, as they did on their first trip up the mountain. Finally they arrived at the banks of the stream and the reason for eerie silence was revealed.

“Boss, look!” Stan shouted, as he pointed to the stream.

“Well, I’ll be dang! I see it, but don‘t believe it,” Mason exclaimed. “Here I was worried about how high it might have risen, but not in a hundred years would I have dreamed it would be frozen over,” he said shaking his gray head. He gazed at the layer of thick, yet patchy ice, which lay on top on the once flowing body of water. “I guess that storm was more than it could handle,” he chuckled.

“Well, not all of it is frozen over, boss,” another hand informed him. “I see a few thin areas that might not be thick enough to hold us if we try to cross.”

‘Yes, I see your point, Gus,” Mason confirmed as he scanned the area for a better spot to cross and his eyes lit up when he found one. “Over there, that low spot, it looks like it completely frozen over. I think I know what happened now, that avalanche dislodged large rocks and they got washed downstream during the brief thaw. They filled in a dip in the stream bed and formed a natural break for the current.  That also explains why the stream north of that spot rose so fast during the melting period. It was backing up!”

Stan dismounted and rushed over to where his boss was pointing, and carefully stepped on to the ice, testing it to make sure it was indeed solid ice. He even dared to jump on it a few times while the others held their breaths, praying that he wouldn’t go through in a thin spot. Then he stepped back on to the bank and hurried back to his anxious boss.

“Its solid ice alright, boss. I think we can cross it with the horses with no problems,” he said with a grin.

Mason blew out a breath of relief. “I guess our prayers do get answered after all,” he muttered. “Well, what are we waiting for?  Be careful as you cross it; I bet it’s as slippery as greased pig on a rainy day.”

“What about the raft, boss?”

“Leave it here, but we take the horses with us. I’m not leaving them down here, just in case someone happens along and decides to take them,” Mason ordered.

“Serve the old coot right if someone did steal them,” Stan said angrily.

“I’m not concern about him; it’s this fine horse flesh I’m worried about. I would hate to see them fall into the wrong hands,” Mason proclaimed. “Now unhitch the raft and let’s get going.”

The men quickly unhitched the raft and laid it flat by the riverbank, and then they crossed, single file, slowly and cautiously over the bridge of ice that the good Lord had provided them with. When the last two men guiding the draft horses made it over safely, they proceeded to make their way up the mountain.

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

“Jack, wait up!” Murdoch called out to the preoccupied doctor.

Murdoch’s booming voice startled Jack and he quickly halted his mule and ran back to Murdoch. “What’s the matter?” he asked anxiously.

“Nothing, I just wanted to check on Johnny and I can’t do that while we’re moving,” the over cautious father answered.

“Murdoch Lancer, will you stop doing that!” Jack growled as he caught his breath. “Scaring the daylights out of me like that and we were making good time, now you’re holding us up.”

“Sorry, Jack, I just wanted to make sure he’s okay, and then we can move on.”  Murdoch walked around the horse and was stopped in his tracks by the pensive expression on Johnny’s face.  “Johnny, what’s wrong?”  Murdoch asked, and then he tensed up when he heard the faint sound of the hammer of Johnny’s gun being pulled back. “Johnny?”

“Shhhh, we’re being followed,” the young gunfighter whispered as his eyes narrowed. He cocked his head as he trained his ears on the predator as it shuffled about out of sight.

“By who?” Jack whispered back.

“Oh, I think it’s the mate of that cougar you killed, Jack, and he’s looking for revenge,” Johnny declared. “Or he’s very hungry and we look mighty tasty to him.”

“Johnny! Now is not the time to be funny,” his father snapped. “Where is he?”

“I’m not being funny and he’s out there somewhere.  I got a glimpse of him before we stopped,” Johnny retorted. “And I suggest we get moving, before he makes himself known.” 

“I’m not leaving you back here while we’re up there!  You know you’re the first one he’ll go after!” Murdoch stressed as he glanced around the snow covered rocks and trees. “I think one of us had better go and hunt that cat down first, just to be on the safe side.”

“No, Murdoch, we have to keep going!” Johnny insisted. “And don’t worry no cat is going to make me his meal, not while I have this,” he added as he pulled out his gun and laid it on his lap. “I’ll get him before he gets me. Now please get going.”

Seeing there was no use in urging with his stubborn iron willed son, Murdoch and Jack resumed their positions and again started to lead the animals down the hillside.  Johnny calmly, yet cautiously, kept his eyes peeled for signs of the cat. He knew he was very vulnerable, confined to the travois, but at least he had his colt. A trusted metal friend he could rely on when the time came.

It wasn’t but a few minutes later that Johnny’s strength was put to the test, when the cougar decided to follow the trio, after he had made his choice about who he wanted to attack first. The green eyed feline watched as his prey was being dragged off and it was making him mad.  Just as they were about to clear a large boulder the cat jumped and made its move by flinging itself off the rock and into the air with its razor sharp claws fully exposed. All Murdoch and Jack heard was the cat’s loud screeching cry and Johnny’s gun going off.

“JOHNNY!” they both cried out and made a dash for the travois.  They reached it and a wave of relief washed over them when they saw the cougar lying only a few feet away from where it had leaped off the rock.

“I told ya… I would get him… before he got me,” he said and then snuggled back under the warm hides, resting his still smoking gun by his side.

“You sure did, son, you sure did,” his father proudly replied.

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

Not far from where the gun report sounded, a group of weary rescuers heard the cat’s horrifying scream. They also heard Murdoch’s loud booming bellow.

“Boss, did you hear that?” Stan asked. “It sounded like a gunshot and a cat.”

“Yes, and that was Murdoch’s voice. I wonder what in the blue blazes he is doing away from Jack’s cabin?” Mason huffed in concern. “Well, I’m not going to wait to find out.”  He took off up the path with his men right behind him.

 

Chapter Thirty One

Despite the speed with which Mason took off after hearing Murdoch’s voice, his progress up the path was stymied by the depth of the snow.  He strained forward in the saddle urging his mount to plow through the cumbersome icy obstacle.

“BOSS, WAIT UP A MINUTE!” Stan hollered at his overzealous boss, who had disregarded the unstable conditions. “WILL YOU SLOW DOWN?”

The foreman’s frantic voice seemed to have fallen on deaf ears at first, as Mason kept trying to push up the slick hill. Mason’s reaction was based on a rush of adrenaline; his heart was beating rapidly as it pounded against his heaving chest. He became a little lightheaded and he imagined his ears were still ringing with the echo of the gun blast and Murdoch’s booming voice. His actions were like those of a man possessed and he wasn’t going to let anything stop him. Finally the strident calls of his men along with Stan’s shouts got through to him and Mason slowly pulled his horse to a stop.

“What is it, Stan?” Mason snapped in aggravation. “We have to get up that path and find out where that shot came from!” he stressed. “And I didn’t like the sound of Murdoch’s voice.”

“Yes, I know, but not at the rate you’re going, Boss!” Stan boldly pointed out. “You can’t just go barreling up that hill like a mad man. Take a look around ya, just one wrong move and it could kill ya.”

“And there has to be a good reason why you heard your friend’s voice this far down,” Gus pointed out.

“Yes, and that’s what I want to find out and sitting here a jawing is not getting us up that hill!” Mason thundered out in agitation. “I promise I’ll be a lot more careful. So now if you don’t mind, let’s get going, it’s already pass noon and we have a fair ways to go yet.”

The men nodded in agreement, and then followed their headstrong boss up the slippery pathway as the sun rose higher in the sky beaming its warming rays on the white landscape.  Mason noticed the beginnings of a few icy droplets dangling from the heavy laden trees limbs. It would take days for all the snow to melt but it gave him a dreadful feeling.  He wondered and worried about the icy bridge being safe enough to cross back over by the time they traveled back to it after retrieving his friends.  For the sake of his men and the Lancers, he had to keep a positive attitude, now was not the time to lose faith. He kept chanting to himself that the icy bridge was rock solid and it would take more than one day of the sun to melt it, not after a storm like they had.

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

Johnny’s fingers were still caressing the handle of his gun and his eyes were constantly scanning the area. His neck was protesting the strain of him lifting his head and turning it as he tried to peer behind every tree or large rocks they passed by. The young gun-hawk was counting his lucky stars that this bout with influenza and the surgery hadn’t affected his cat like reflexes and that he was strong enough to aim and pull the trigger. Even though he had escaped the cougar’s sharp deadly claws, Johnny had to admit to himself it had shaken him up some.

“Are you okay back there, son?” Murdoch called back to his boy as he too was keeping watch for dangers lurking amongst them.

“Yeah, I’m fine, keep on going,” Johnny answered back. “The sooner we’re off this blasted mountain, the better I’ll feel. It‘s a little too quiet for my liking,” he added a little unnerved by the eerie silence.

“Yes, I know what you mean, this silence is very unsettling,” Murdoch proclaimed loudly unaware that his baritone voice was being carried down the mountain on an icy breeze to the rescuers ears. “Well, just hang in there, John and we’ll have you home in no time.”

“Well, it won’t be none too soon for me,” Johnny snorted while he fought to keep his eyes open. The swaying motion of the travois was slowly rocking him to sleep like a baby and it was the last thing he wanted to happen. After a few jaw cracking yawns, he felt himself drifting off so he reached down beside the travois and grabbed a handful of snow and rubbed his face with it, letting the icy coldness shock the sleep out of him. “WHOA! Dios that’s cold,” he shivered out between chattering teeth.

“What’s wrong?” Murdoch asked when he heard the commotion Johnny made.

“Nothing, just trying to stay awake, that‘s all,” Johnny informed his worried father. “It’s not easy when you’re bundled up like baby in a cradle and you’re constantly being rocked back and forth,” he added jokingly.

Murdoch smiled at that, as he remembered the many nights he sat by his son’s cradle and rocked him asleep, while listening to his soft breathing. While the daydreaming father was lost in his thoughts he was unaware that others were now heading in their direction.

Mason had not only heard Murdoch‘s voice again, but he also recognized Johnny‘s and it both pleased and troubled him, as to why they would have him out in this unstable weather. He decided to make himself known to his friends.

“MURDOCH! JOHNNY!” Mason bellowed, shattering the quiet. His voice traveled up the hillside and had almost faded away by the time it reached Jack’s ears.

Jack halted old Buster and held up his hand. “Did you hear that?” he asked as Murdoch caught up with him. “It sounded like someone was calling out.”

“Where…which way did you hear it coming from?” Murdoch asked anxiously.

“I’m not sure, sound travels all around and echoes up here,” Jack replied shrugging his shoulders. “I think it might have come from that direction,” he said pointing down the pathway.

The tall rancher’s eyes lit up and he smiled widely in joy and relief. “Mason! It has to be him,” he exclaimed excitedly.

“How can you be so sure?” Jack huffed.

“Because who else in their right mind would be up here after a snowstorm and calling out like that,” Murdoch claimed. “It has to be him,” he hollered out, “MASON, WE’RE OVER HERE!”

“Would someone mind telling me what’s going on and why we stopped?”  Johnny curtly asked as he maneuvered himself from under the hides to try and get a better view. “And why are you yelling?” he inquired craning his neck over the edge of the travois.

Murdoch dashed to his son’s side and smiled down at him. “It’s Mason, Johnny, and he’s on his way up here.”

“How can you be so sure it’s him?”

“Will you both just believe me? It has to be him. I know Mason well and he’s not one to give up. It‘s not in him,” Murdoch declared.

“Kind of like you, huh?” Johnny softly added. “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s get going and find him.”

“I’m with you on that one, Johnny!” Jack agreed eagerly.  “The sooner we meet up with him, the better. We sure can use all the help we can get, when it comes time to cross that stream. I‘m curious though, it can‘t be that high if they made it over.”

Murdoch didn’t need to be told twice. He walked back up to the front of the horse and took the reins. “Well come on, Jack, let’s go find Mason!”

Jack hurried back to where he tethered old Buster and commenced to leading the way back down the hillside, keeping a close eye out for Mason and his men. There was lightness to their steps because now all did not seem as bleak as they once thought. With Mason back in the picture, they had a better chance of making it down the mountain in one piece, and then back to the ranch.

***********

A short ways down the hill the rescue party was making their way upward. “There, did you hear that? I swear I heard Murdoch’s voice calling to me, I know it,” Mason exclaimed anxiously.  “He can’t be too far away.”

“I heard him as well, boss. I think you’re right, they aren’t far,” Stan agreed.

“Well, come then, let’s go my find my old buddy and see what the hell is going on. I can’t believe they would drag Johnny out in this without help. Something must have had happen,” Mason worried.

Mason motioned for his men to follow him as he again led the way up the slippery hillside while scanning every inch of the frozen landscape for signs of Murdoch and Johnny.  Both groups were slowly and cautiously edging their way to each other. They unconsciously held their breaths in anticipation. Their bodies rigid and their nerves stretched tighter than a drum skin.  Neither group would or could relax until they could meet up.

“What’s that ahead? “ Mason asked, squinting and shielding his eyes against the bright glare off the mountain.  “I see something moving, don’t you Stan?”

“Sure do, boss, it looks like a mule being led by a big man,” Stan confirmed. “I think its Mad Jack, er…Jack,” he added after they moved up further and he got a better look.

“I think it is,” Mason shouted happily and took off his hat and began to wave it wildly over his head. “JACK!” 

A breeze came up just as Mason yelled and carried his welcomed voice up the hill and to Jack’s ears. “Whoa!” Jack said as he halted his mule and placed his hand over his eyes and peered down the path. A big smile bloomed on his bearded faced, “Hey Murdoch, look yonder!  It’s your friend, Mason, waving up a storm with that hat of his,” he chuckled, and then took off his hat and waved back in the same fashion.

With the reins still tightly in his grasp, Murdoch hurried to Jack side, dragging the travois a little too fast giving Johnny a less than smooth ride. Johnny did say a word to slow his pa down, as he too heard Mason’s voice. He was just as relieved as Murdoch that help was finally here. He had had enough of this freezing white stuff to last him a life time. He vowed to himself that the next time Teresa wanted a big Christmas tree, for the Great room, she would have to go with Scott up into the cold hills and cut it down herself. Johnny Lancer had had his fill of the cold; he would stay home and sit by the fire place.

Murdoch quickly came to a stop and looked down to where Jack was pointing and his own eyes widened with joy.  “I knew it, I knew he wouldn’t give up on us,” he said, and then yelled down to his friend holding up his huge hand and waving it. “MASON, UP HERE!”  Murdoch turned around and faced the travois, “We’re almost home free, son, just hang in there. Help is here now.”

“”I know! And don’t worry about me, Murdoch, I’m just fine.” Johnny instructed. “Just still play it safe, okay? You never know what else can go wrong.”

“Don’t worry about that, John,” Jack answered for Murdoch. “I truly believe it will be okay from now on,” he assured the worried young man.

“I’ll take your… word on it, Jack,” Johnny hissed in discomfort, as he tried to adjust his position a little. “But I still won’t rest… easy until we are...” he grunted.

“What’s wrong, son?” Murdoch nervously asked.

“Oh, nothing really, it’s just that as comfortable as these hides are, my backside is still sore from lying down for so long,” Johnny snorted sheepishly.

“Well, then let’s get going and get you into a soft warm bed,” Murdoch implored.

“I’ll settle for a soft chair by the fireplace and glass of rum,” Johnny replied.

“Then rum it is,” his father eagerly agreed, “Well, Jack, you heard my son, lead the way.”

This time Jack was the one who didn’t have to be told twice, even though he lived up here and was used to this kind of weather, he too was craving the comforts of a warm fireplace and glass of strong whisky. He gladly led the way down the slippery pathway to the group of men who were slowly making their way up to them. It didn’t take long before they all met up and happily greeted each other.

“Mason, you old dog, damn it’s good to see you!” Murdoch bellowed as Mason approached him with a big grin plastered on his weather chapped face. “I knew you were a stubborn old coot and wouldn’t let us down.”

“After all we went through back home, how could I,” Mason declared as the two men reached out and awkwardly hugged. Then Mason slapped Murdoch’s arm, “Now, would you mind telling me, what in the blue blazes, are doing you out in this!  Didn’t I tell you to wait for us?”

“Well, it’s like this old friend, we had no choice,” Murdoch replied. “Jack’s cabin was destroyed by a mudslide and we we’re lucky to get out of there in time.”

“A mudslide!” Stan exclaimed.

“Yes, and we had to hold up in Jack’s cave to wait out the storm,” Murdoch continued to explain. “But enough of that, it’s over and you’re here. And I, for one, can’t wait to get off this monster and go home.”

“Sorry to hear about your cabin, Jack.” Mason expressed to the man.

“It couldn’t be helped, but thanks. I guess it’s time I move on,” Jack replied. “I’m puzzled. Tell me how in the world did you get across that stream?”

Mason cocked his head and smiled. “We walked across it.”

“Come again,” Jack requested with a look of disbelief on his face.

“The lower part of it is frozen over, so we walked across. But I tell you now, with this warm sun, we had better hurry back down before we lose the ice bridge,” he urged. “We don’t have much time left before we lose the light.”

“Then what are we waiting for? Stop the jawing and get going!” Johnny crowed. “I didn’t come this far to be washed away by no damn freezing river. I still got a lot of living to do.”

Murdoch and the others chuckled at the young Lancer’s boldness and they all started down the hill, being as cautious and quick as they could be. Each man keeping an eye out for other surprises or dangers especially after Murdoch informed them about the two mishaps with the cougars. If their luck held out, they would reach the stream in no time.

 

Chapter Thirty Two

The journey down the mountain towards the stream was a happy but cautious endeavor. The rescuers, as well as the rescued, were relieved to have finally met up with each other, as the stress of worrying over each other could now be forgotten.  However, after hearing about the trials and tribulations the Lancers and Jack had already endured, Mason had a few of his men follow the travois with rifles ready and eyes alert. With the extra men on lookout Murdoch’s mind was put to ease and Johnny was able to relax enough he finally lost his battle to stay awake and drifted off to a deep slumber, though he still felt more comfortable with his own weapon by his side as they trudged down the icy hillside. He lay huddled under the heavy hides with his gun still resting loosely in his hand.

An hour later, Murdoch glanced up at the declining sun and wondered how much longer it would be until they would reach the base and the stream. The quiet trek had given him time to think of new troubles, like when they reached this frozen land bridge would it still be strong enough to cross over. The signs for that possibility looked good because with the sun going down, the temperature was dropping and the once slushy ground was starting to freeze up again. However, that didn’t mean that the frozen bridge would be as safe as Mason thought. The slight thawing that occurred could have very well destabilized it, perhaps making patchy and thin spots they would have to watch out for. In reality, one wrong move and pieces of the bridge or all of it could give away. Murdoch prayed that would not be the case.

“How much longer before we reach the stream, Mason,” Murdoch called out to his friend. He peered up at the dimming sky. “We don’t have much light left to see our way.”

“It should be coming up soon, old friend,” Mason replied with confidence. “I can almost see the bottom of the hill, and it’s not too far from it. Wouldn’t you say that’s an accurate estimation, Jack?”

“He’s right, Murdoch, we’re almost down and we’ll soon be on flat land,” Jack informed his friend.

“Well, thank God for that!” Murdoch exclaimed in relief. “Now all we have to worry about is that stream and whether or not it’s safe enough to cross”

“It should be. It was rock solid when we crossed over it and I doubt it could have melted that quickly,” Mason declared.  “We just have to have faith.”

“Well as my son would say, I’ll believe it, when I see it. So much has gone wrong in the past few days, to the point I’m not taking anything for granted,” Murdoch vowed.

“Don’t worry, Murdoch, I promised I would get you off this mountain and on your way home and I meant it,” Jack insisted.

“Yes, Jack, you did and so far you have kept that promise and I’m in your debt,” Murdoch humbly stated to the burly man.

“No, it’s I, who is in your debt,” Jack graciously said. “For many reasons and I don’t know how to begin to pay you back,” he admitted.

“Well, we’ll think of something, Jack,” Murdoch replied with a smirk on his face.

Several minutes later, Mason excitedly called up to the men behind him, “WE’RE ALMOST THERE!”  His loud voice and excited tone startled the sleeping Lancer out of his restful slumber.

Johnny’s eyes flew open in a panic, fearing something had happened.  He reacted on instincts; before his eyes could even focus his fingers were tightening around the handle of his gun. He just about had his arm out from under the hides when one of Mason’s men spoke up.

“Whoa there, boy! Take it easy, it’s only the boss letting us know we’re almost down,” Gus quickly informed the half dazed gun-hawk. “Sorry his yelling woke ya.”

Johnny exhaled and relaxed his tense form, “It‘s okay, I had to wake up sometime. Did I hear you say we’re almost off this blasted mountain?” he asked around a jaw cracking yawn.

“Yep, as a matter of fact, I can almost see the stream from here,” Gus replied.

“Well it’s about time!” Johnny huffed. “Can ya tell from here if it’s still safe to cross?”

“Nope, but we’ll soon find out. I can’t hear water running though, so I guess that’s a good sign.” Gus stated.

Johnny licked his chapped lips and sighed, “For all our sakes I sure hope you’re right.” Then he cuddled back under the warm covers again, as the late afternoon air nipped at his nose and cheeks.

Not long after Gus’ reassurances they finally reached the base of the mountain and the edge of the stream. The second they touched flat ground, Murdoch released the breath of apprehension he had been holding in and said a silent thank you. Mason carefully led the group over to where they had crossed the low part of the stream earlier and was relieved to see it still intact. The warm sun’s slight thawing hadn’t affected it much, just a thin layer of icy water on top, which was already refreezing. There were a few patches they would need to watch out for, but he figured if they took their time, they should have no trouble crossing it.

“Well, it looks safe enough for all of us to make it over,” Mason announced. “I suggest we get Johnny over first, and then the others can follow.”

“Want me to test it, boss?”Stan offered, “Just to be on the safe side?”

“Yes, Stan, why don’t you do that?  Just take your time, okay? Don’t going rushing it,” Mason stressed cautiously to his eager foreman.

“Sure boss. I’ll take it easy.” Stan carefully took a step on the slippery ice bridge and one baby step at a time he slowly walked across, while trying to avoid the dips in the ice that could very well trip a man up. After almost losing his footing a couple of times, he made it over to the other side.  “It’s okay Boss,” he hollered, “It’s a little slick and you have to watch out for a few dips here and there, but it’s solid!”

“Thank goodness!” Mason smiled and nodded. “Well, were losing light so let’s get Johnny across first. But I suggest we go one at a time, just to be cautious.”

“Do you want me to lead the horse across, Murdoch?” Jack kindly offered

“No, I’ll do it. I’ll feel better if I go with him,” Murdoch answered quickly. “No offense, Jack, but I don’t think I can stand by and watch as he’s dragged over that. I want to be with him in case something happens.”

“I understand. No offense taken, you’re his pa and you should go with him,” Jack softly agreed. “But I’ll tell ya, somebody had better follow you, that travois will be sliding all over the place and it might spook the horse.”

“He’s has a point, Mason. Somebody has to keep it steady while I lead the horse, keeping him calm,” Murdoch said.

“I’ll do it, boss,” Gus spoke up eagerly.

“Okay then, but you both go slow and stay towards that way,” Mason agreed as he pointed to the thickest part of the icy bridge.

Murdoch nodded, and then went to ready his son. “Okay, John, you heard him. I’m going to lead the horse over while Gus here keeps you and the travois steady. So just lay still and let us do all the work,” he instructed.

“Do I have a choice?” Johnny snorted, and then he reached out and touched his father’s arm. “You be careful, okay? I don’t want to lose you, either,” he murmured and gave his father one of his heart stopping grins.

“I’ll be careful, son. Just hang on because here we go.” Murdoch smiled nervously, and then took the reins and walked towards the slick bridge of ice.

Gus handed his horse’s reins to one of the other hands and followed the Lancers. Murdoch took a deep breath and held it for a few seconds then slowly blew it out. “Here we go,” he whispered as he looked at the task before him. He stepped forward and cringed when his heavy foot crunched the thin layer of water on top that had begun to refreeze. The sound sent a cold shiver down his spine. “Come on, boy, let’s get my son over this in one piece,” he cooed in the horse’s ear.

Being extremely careful, Murdoch continued to talk softly in the horse’s ear while patting his neck and keeping a tight grip on the reins. At the same time his eyes were focused on Stan who stood on the opposite bank, directing the tall rancher by pointing to the patchy spots he needed to avoid. Heeding Stan’s instructions, Murdoch glanced down towards the icy puddles and steered away from them.

Gus had decided to walk beside the travois and using his strong legs as a guide kept it from veering off to one side. He had to occasionally reach down and pull it back towards him if when it tried to go into the other direction. A short distance from their destination, Murdoch steered the horse away from a puddle and the travois hit an icy smooth spot. The travois and Johnny rapidly slid off to the side, spooking the horse when the weight of it tugged at his backside. The equine almost lost his balance. Gus practically skated over to the travois and quickly steadied it. Murdoch did the same with the horse, after he caught his balance and managed to keep his legs from going down under him.

“Whoa, boy!” Murdoch instructed the distraught animal, as he patted his neck and calmed the horse down. “That’s the good boy, you’re alright.” He turned his attention to Gus. “Is everything alright? Is Johnny alright?” he inquired as he held on to the horse for dear life.

“Yeah, Mr. Lancer, Johnny is alright and no damaged to the travois,” Gus was pleased to informed the worried father.

“Johnny?” Murdoch called out, needing to hear his son’s voice to reassure his mind.

“Yeah, Murdoch, I’m fine, just tired of lying her,” Johnny answered. “Are we almost there?”

“Almost, just hang tight,” his father ordered and again took the reins and led them towards Stan, waiting to help them off the ice. “Here we go again,” Murdoch informed them.

Finally after a few nerve wracking minutes they were back on solid ground. The minute they touched the bank, Murdoch, Johnny and Gus blew out their breaths forming puffy white clouds in front of their mouths. Wide grins of relief grew on their once troubled faces.  Murdoch turned to face the others still across the stream and waved to the anxious spectators.

“Thank God!” Mason exclaimed.

“I’ll second that,” Jack said rubbing his sore eyes.

“Well, Jack, it’s your turn,” Mason informed the mountain man. “Just take it easy and you’ll be just fine.”

“I know I will, but old Buster here is another story, mule headed as he is,” Jack grumbled.  He turned to his faithful companion, “Now listen here you mangy beast, you are going to cross over that bridge!” he demanded while staring the animal in the eye.

And without further ado, he led Buster over the slippery bridge. He was practically knocked off his feet when the stubborn animal suddenly halted not far from the bank and loudly brayed as he refused to move any further. Jack jerked on the reins and yelled at the cantankerous mule.

“Come on, Buster, everything will be okay!” Jack growled. “We don’t have all day, now get going! Or it will be that last thing you do!”  It was as though he understood the seriousness of his master’s voice, Buster conceded and slowly moved forward as Jack cautiously led him over to the other side and was helped off the ice by Murdoch‘s strong hand. “There now, I told you, it would be alright,” he said with a smile and rubbed Buster’s ears.

Next, Mason carefully led his and Stan’s horses over without any trouble at all as he took it very slowly, and then one by one the others followed in the same fashion. Each man watching out for the holes scattered about the frozen surface, filled with slushy water, and avoiding the much smoother spots that would be hazardous to both man and beast. Finally the last man, leading the draft horses, was helped off the icy bridge, his friends greeting him with smiles. For a few moments they all stood there and gazed at the bridge God made, counting their blessings. 

“Well, thank God that’s done with, and none too soon. We only have an hour or so of light left and it’s going to take us longer than that to get back to the ranch,” Mason announced loudly.

“Then I say we get going. Johnny needs a warm bed and decent food in him,” Jack stated. “As his doctor, I say my patient has had enough of this nonsense and I also need to examine him and I can’t do it out here,” he declared.

“I hear you, Jack. So what are we waiting for?” Johnny added anxiously. “A fireplace and a class of rum or whisky sure is sounding real good right about now,” he said. “Maybe it will put some feeling back in my backside, cause’ I sure can’t feel it now.”

 

“Patience, my son, the hard part is over and we’ll soon have you in a chair by the fireplace, with a glass of whatever your heart desires,” Murdoch said with a wide grin.

“I wouldn’t mind some tequila but I don’t rightly think they have any here, Murdoch,” Johnny replied, flashing an incorrigible grin.

“Well, then let’s go home,” Mason said, shaking his head. “And get you, young man, in a hot tub, that’ll put the feeling back in your backside,” he added, and then ruffled Johnny’s unruly dark hair.

“Hey, boss, what about the raft?” Stan questioned.

“What raft?” Murdoch asked as he looked around and didn’t see one.

“That raft I…”Mason words trailed off as he pointed to the spot they had left it and was surprised to see it missing. “Now where in the blue blazes did it go?”

“Maybe someone came by and took it, boss,” Gus speculated, as he walked over to an area further away from the low part of the stream. He stopped abruptly and jumped back after he almost slid down the bank. “Hey boss, come here!”

“What is it Gus?”Mason asked as he hurried over to the hand’s side.

“Look, I know where the raft went. I think we must have left it in a depressed area here that was filled in by snow, it wasn’t actually the bank.  The water is deeper here and it washed the snow away and the raft plunged down into the water.  Look at that, it’s coming apart.  It sure is a good thing we didn’t need it to cross.”

“Well, I’ll be. I guess I owe old man Jones a raft,” Mason huffed.  “But not until I’m ready though and I’m not running back to town to return these horses yet, either. Let the old skinflint wallow in his misery. I have my friends to think of,” Mason declared, and then turned on his heels and walked back to the others.

“Is everything okay, old friend?” Murdoch asked.

“Yep, all is fine. Well, it’s getting late and we have a long trail ahead of us, so let’s get going,” Mason commanded and again took the lead as they slowly made their way back to the ranch, finally putting the nightmare behind them.

 

Chapter Thirty Three

The discovery of the destroyed raft made the two groups of men remember just how quickly danger could rear its beastly head and devouring mouth in this wild country.  Their euphoria over being reunited was replaced with an urgency to complete the journey to Mason’s ranch. The sun was beginning to drop behind the on the far side of the mountain range.  The sky above the majestic peaks glowed with a golden and pink shimmer. The last vestiges of sunlight threw the shadow of the hulking mountain across the snow covered prairie. The dark shrouded shape seemed to crawl across the white blanketed ground reaching for the men with black tendrils, as if it was still trying to claim another victim, as they turned their backs and walked away from the tragic events that none would soon forget.        

The sun finally gave up the last seconds of its daily reign taking its warmth with it. The moon rose to prominence and shone its cold beams upon frozen ground, guiding the journeying men with a luminosity which gave the snow a bright sheen. The temperature dropped as the men trudged along leading their horses, saving the equines the burden of their weight until it was absolutely necessary to use them.

As the cold began to affect their limbs, some of the men mounted up while some merely buttoned up their overcoats as much as they could to ward off the deadly chill. After a while, Stan noticed Murdoch was beginning to stumble as he struggled to push through the deep snow. He knew this had to be hard on the tall rancher; so he untied his spare blanket and urged his horse over to Murdoch’s side and threw the blanket over his slumped shoulders. Stan jumped off his horse and motioned for Murdoch to mount up and ride for the rest of the way and wasn’t going to take no for an answer. Seeing the determination in the young man’s eyes, Murdoch couldn’t refuse the kind offer. He mounted up and smiled down at Stan, who took over leading the horse with the travois.

Gus was concerned about Jack, as he seemed to be on his last legs, so he offered to let him ride his horse and he would take over with Buster. However, old Buster was not having any of it; apparently he was a one man mule. When Jack mounted Gus’s horse and the young hand tried to get the stubborn beast to move, Buster stood his ground and wouldn’t budge an inch. Jack shook his head in exasperation and climbed down and thanked Gus for the kind gesture.  He told him not to worry, he would be just fine. If his situation became worse, then his faithful mule would have to carry him.

As for Johnny, he was buried deep under the hides as per pa’s orders. The only thing visible, of the young man, was a few longs strands of his dark hair sticking out from under his hat. At first Johnny would peek out to see how far they had traveled, sigh in dismay and cover his face back up. The rocking motion of travois started to work its magic once more and he soon drifted off to sleep again. He was tucked in nice and warm, with dreams of home and running free on Lancer land with Barranca as they chased down wild horses.

Mason was thankful for the moon’s radiant light. The one blessing of the snow cover was it acted like a refractor capturing the moonlight and doubling its brilliance, which made it much easier to navigate. Their dogged determination paid off, Mason’s eyes widened in elation and a big smile graced his weary face when he spied the distance lights of his ranch. A longed for beacon telling him that it would soon be over. He stopped abruptly and turned to face the others as they slowly approached him.

“LOOK YONDER, IT’S THE RANCH!” Mason happily exclaimed as he pointed to the lights in the distance.  “I’d say another half hour and we’ll be home free,” he added with an exhausted giggle.

Loud cheers were heard across the valley as they all whooped and raised their arms celebrating the battle they had just waged against Mother Nature because victory was theirs. Heavy hearts were lifted up lighter than a feather and utter relief filled their tired and weary minds, as soon they would be back in friendly territory.

“The sooner the better for me,” Murdoch softly grunted as he adjusted himself on the saddle. “I don’t think I would have lasted this long if it wasn’t for Stan here giving up his horse and taking over for me,” he gratefully stated. “You have a good man here, Mason.”

“Considering what you, your boy and Jack have gone through, it was the least I can do, Mr. Lancer,” Stan humbly replied. “We can’t have you getting sick, now, can we?”

“No, I guess not,” Murdoch admitted as he huffed out a tired breath. “I have a ranch to run myself, once we get back home.”

“Ol’ Gus tried to help me but Buster here was not having it,” Jack snorted as he hopped off his mule’s back. “His hard headedness cost him because for the last few minutes, he has been giving my old legs a rest, whether he liked it or not!” he laughed.  “But I guess I can walk the rest of the way now.”

“Glad to see you’re all in good spirits.” Mason observed smiling at the happy group.

“Why shouldn’t we be?  Soon I’ll be out of this contraption, sitting by a warm fireplace and drinking whiskey. And hopefully we’ll be eating some of Sadie’s good cooking, cause’ I‘m starved!” Johnny announced after he pulled his head out from under the covers after Mason’s holler and the loud cheers woke him up.

“We all are, son, and soon we’ll all be sitting by that warm fireplace,” Murdoch said as he smiled down at his boy. ”

“Johnny, my boy,” Jack chuckled. “You sure do have a one track mind. I have a feeling we’ll have a heck of a time dragging you away from that fireplace,” he added as his eyes twinkled with mirth.

“Oh don’t worry, Jack, he’ll move. Because once he’s up to it we have a train to catch,” Murdoch declared.

“Well then, now that we all had a little rest, I say we get moving and get home!” Mason commanded as he again took the lead.

Step by heavy step, they trudged through the thick snow drawing closer to their destination. When the ranch house came clearly into view, their steps turned into long and fast strives of anticipation.  Mason’s heart warmed when he noticed a figure anxiously peering out the window. She quickly disappeared only to reappear in a matter a seconds when she opened the front door, wrapped up in a heavy shawl and waving.

“SADIE! GET THE FIRE STOKED UP AND THE GRUB ON AND COOKING BECAUSE WE’RE COMING IN!” Mason cheerfully hollered out as loud as he could to the smiling woman prompting her to quickly dash back inside and commence to barking out orders to the other help as she scurried about getting things ready.

Just like an annoying little kid on a long journey, Johnny impatiently asked, “Are we there yet?”

The childish, yet sarcastically delivered, remark caused the others to smirk and his father to shake his head. “I swear, John Lancer, you are one of the most impatience young men around and to answer your question, yes we are here!” Murdoch growled playfully and pointed to the ranch house brightly lit up and just waiting for them.

Johnny smiled sheepishly. “Sorry, Pa, I just had to ask. It’s kind of hard to tell from this angle, ya know,” he added in his defense.

Murdoch was about to open his mouth and make a retort but was interrupted when a few of Mason’s men came barreling around the side of the house and immediately began helping the tired travelers off their horses. Murdoch and Jack were carefully ushered up on to the front porch by two husky hands, who then hurried back to the travois and together they easily picked Johnny up and carried him in the house. Mason was the first to the door; he pushed it open and waited until they had Johnny through before he and the others followed. The men were fighting and stumbling over each other as they hurried to shed their damp coats and boots. They wanted nothing more at that moment but to get their stiff limbs and toes warmed up and the feeling back in them.

“Over here!” Sadie instructed the men carrying Johnny. “Please bring him over here. I have this chair all ready for him,” she said pointing to the big brown chair placed by the fireplace. “Easy with him,” Sadie cautioned as they lowered Johnny down. “Now go help the others in the kitchen, we have to get hot food and drink in these foolish men!” she ordered.

“Sadie, darling, I can see you had things well under control while I was gone!”  Mason commended with a wide grin for faithful housekeeper.

“Well, somebody had too!” Sadie curtly answered back. “Heavens knows when you were going to get back. And what’s the idea of dragging this poor sick boy on that…that whatever it is and in this weather!” she snapped as she wrapped a dry blanket around Johnny’s shoulders and fussed with his damp hair.

“That’s my doing, ma’am,” Jack spoke up, as he approached the fireplace. The sight of the burly man in bear skins coming towards her startled Sadie. She gasped and jumped back away from the chair. “Don’t be afraid, ma’am, my name is Jack. We didn’t have much choice in bringing him out in the weather,” Jack explained as he moved towards Johnny.

“You’re…you’re that mad man, the …old hermit from up in the hills!” she stuttered in shock. “You…you stay away from this boy!” she shouted and darted around the chair and put her stout form between Johnny and Jack.

“Sadie, Sadie, it is okay!” Mason hastily intervened. “Jack is not going to hurt him. Jack is a doctor and he saved Johnny’s life. I told you that, remember?”

“Well, he don’t look like no doctor to me!” she exclaimed and looked over at Murdoch for assurance. “Mr. Lancer?”

“Looks can be deceiving, Sadie. But I assure you that Jack is a doctor, a very good one at that,” Murdoch clarified for the troubled woman as he dropped his weary body down on the couch and stretched his long legs out towards the warming flames.

“Well, then please accept my apologies, Doctor,” Sadie said politely. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll see what’s keeping the coffee,” she added and hurried off to the kitchen shaking her head.

“I guess I do look something of a mess,” Jack stated. “Well, if I’m to start a new life, I guess I better clean myself up, huh?”

“Yeah you… you do look like an old bear, Jack.” Johnny teased while grunting in discomfort. His frozen backside had begun to tingle and burn, a sure signs that it was waking up. “I sure could go for some whiskey!” he moaned, and then flashed his blue eyes.

“Just a small shot of whiskey, and then I check you over, after we get some food in you, young man!” Jack instructed, nodding to Mason, who was in the process of pouring a few glasses for each man.

Mason handed the glass to Johnny, who took the time to inhale the strong aroma, and then slowly took a sip. He moaned in delight when the warm liquid slid down his throat. “Ahhhhh… now that’s more like it,” he muttered appreciatively. “So, when do we eat?”

The rest of the weary travelers were also enjoying the heat of the flames as they slowly thawed out. The warm bite of the whiskey burned the chill from their insides. They grinned and shook their heads at the young Lancer’s childish manner. Johnny reminded them of a little boy who had just came in from a full day of playing out in the snow, all cold, demanding and hungry. Just then his stomach rumbled something fierce, loud enough for all to hear and they all busted out in a harmonious laugh. 

“Well, I see you’re all feeling better. Now if you all would please, dinner is ready,” Sadie announced as she pointed to the table. “I’ll bring a plate out for young Mr. Lancer,” she informed his father.

“Thank you, Sadie,” Murdoch said, smiling sweetly at the woman. “And please plenty of milk,” he added as he took the empty glass out of his son’s hand. “No more whiskey for you, young man. You heard Jack, not until you get some food in you. Besides, I do recall the last time you had a little too much, when we first arrived,” he reminded his son, arching his eyebrow for emphasis.

“Yeah, I kind of remember that too,” Johnny confessed sheepishly. “Okay, you win. I’m more hungry than thirsty anyway,” he admitted, and then turned his head when he got a whiff of something smelling mighty good as Sadie approached them with a tray and placed it on his lap. Johnny looked down at the steaming bowl of stew and groaned, “I hope this is not bear, or elk stew?”

“Why, of course not, it’s beef stew, made fresh this morning and so was the bread. Now eat, you’re nothing but skin and bones!” Sadie insisted in a motherly tone.  “Once you’re done with that, if you wish, I’ll have a tub drawn up for you.”

“Gracias, Sadie. You’re a gracious lady. You kind of remind me of my Mamacita, back home,” Johnny said, flashing a heart stopping smile her way, and then dug into the steaming stew.  “Mmmm… this is really good!” he mumbled with a mouth full.

Sadie cheeks flushed pink from the praise. “Why thank you. You eat up now, there’s more where that came from,” she informed him, and then went about her duties.

As the others sat around the table, jawing and devouring their meal, Johnny finished his stew and sat the bowl down on the table next to the chair. He leaned back against the chair’s soft padding, closed his eyes as he listened to the flames softly cracking and popping. A bittersweet smile grew on his face as he thought of Buck and how he went out of his way to make him feel welcomed when they first arrived here. Now he was dead and Johnny wished he had never agreed to go up that damn mountain. However, one good thing did come of this he had to confess, his new friend, Jack. But still Buck’s death weighed heavy on his heart.

“Mr. Andrews?” he called over his shoulder to the man at the table.

“Yes, Johnny. Are you okay? Is something wrong?” Mason questioned in a concern.

“No, no, I’m fine. I…I was just wondering if you had buried Buck yet?” he asked, grief cracking his voice.

Hearing the sadness in Johnny’s voice, Mason got up from the table and walked back over to the chair and placed a comforting hand on Johnny’s shoulder, giving it a tender squeeze. “Yes we did, John, during the brief warm up. We were able to give him a proper burial.”

“Good, I’m glad. He deserved it, more than the icy grave I left him in,” Johnny sadly whispered as he looked up at the old rancher’s gentle face. “I just wish it didn’t turn out like it did. But ya know, they say when a man loses his life another one is saved.”

“Yes, that’s very true. Look at you; you were spared,” Mason declared. “And for that I’m very grateful.”

“Yeah, but I wasn’t just talking about me. I mean Jack.” Johnny added in a hushed voice. “I mean there he was dying up there in that cabin, living in the past, wasting his life away and that wasn’t right. I learned the hard way that no matter how hard it is; or how much it hurts you have to let the past go.  And Jack’s too good of a man to let that happen to him, so in a way Buck’s dying saved Jack’s life and mine.”

“Johnny, you are so much like your father. He told me the same exact thing when my wife died. I was dying inside trying to keep my ranch going without her. I was hurting others with my bitterness; he suggested I needed a change and so I moved here. It didn’t take me long to realize your father was right.”

“Well, I guess it’s a family trait, huh?” Johnny murmured.

“What’s a family trait?” Murdoch asked as he approached them.

“Oh nothing, I’ll tell ya later,” Johnny smiled up at his father.

“Much later, it’s getting late and Jack wants to check you over before we turn in,” Murdoch informed his son. “So do you think you can walk, with a little help, to the bedroom?”

“One way to find out,” Johnny answered. “I have to get the blood flowing in my legs sometime.”  He anchored his hands on the chair arms and using all his strength pushed himself up off the seat.  Jack and Murdoch stood at his sides, ready to catch him if he started to fall. “So…far so… good,” Johnny breathlessly panted as he took a baby step forward.

Mason watched as the two older men held on to the younger Lancer’s arms as he slowly but surely made his way to the guest room with sheer determination etched on his face, a look that said I will not give up. I will get the job done. Mason knew that in the next couple of days his friends would be leaving for home and it saddened his heart a little. However, he hoped they would agree to come back someday for another visit when the weather was friendlier.

 

Chapter Thirty Four

The ensuing days after the return of the Lancers and their rescuers to the Andrew’s ranch passed in a blur. The commotion as preparations were talked about, and then executed, as well as the normal day to day operations of the ranch made the ranch house a beehive of activity. Not to mention the addition of the hyper personality of one Johnny Lancer, even though his activities were restricted to resting in the house, he still managed to bring a frenzied excitement to the air.

The weather had been very obliging, as spring once again was blooming and with the help of the warming sun the frozen valley slowly thawed out. When the news came that all the tracks were clear and train would soon be back on schedule, the hectic atmosphere increased and Mason was surprised to realize the manic goings on actually revitalized him, making him more energetic than he had been in years.  He felt he understood what it must be like for his good friend Murdoch to have his sons home, because he seemed to take it all in stride.  

The worry over the youngest Lancer’s health was no longer a huge concern. Johnny had improved immensely and he was able to walk better on his own without too much discomfort. There were no signs of the setback they feared venturing out in the cold would cause. Finally, Jack pronounced that Johnny was well enough to head home to Lancer, provided he agreed to some strict guidelines. This tragic experience had taken a lot out of the young gun-hawk, physically and mentally, and he still needed to be careful.

Jack had adjusted well to being around others again.  He realized just how much he really missed social interaction. He found himself laughing and talking about little things that really didn’t matter, he just couldn’t help it. It was good to hear a voice other than his as well as being heard by someone other than his mule. At night when the quiet descended on the ranch house, Jack lay in his bed considering his future plans.  There were so many memories here that he knew would haunt him and so he had to make a hard decision. Did he want to start over here with all those reminders, or would it be best to begin again somewhere new and carry the love that remained of the good times with him? After pondering on it for the past few days when the time came for the Lancers to leave, he had made up his mind.

The morning of their day of departure dawned, the sun was shining brightly through the windows and the house would soon be buzzing with activity. The occupants of the house slowly emerged from their bedrooms, some with fuzzy heads and bleary eyes after one last night merriment enjoying each other’s company.

“Morning, Murdoch, Johnny,” Mason cheerfully greeted, and then had to cover his mouth to hide the smirk on his face as he watched Murdoch hovering over Johnny, like an over protective mother hen with one chick, as he helped his son to the table. “You’re walking much better today, John, despite your father’s help,” he snickered.

“Yeah, well tell him, I don‘t need any help!” Johnny hissed.

“I’m just being cautious, son.  I don’t want you to fall and re-injure yourself, that would delay us leaving and you heard Jack you still have to take it easy,” Murdoch stated sternly, as he wanted nothing more to happen. “Sorry, Mason, it’s just we’ve been gone too long. It’s not that we have anything against your hospitality, you know?”

“I know that my old friend. I sent one of my men to town this morning to wire Scott telling him you’ll be leaving today,” Mason replied. “I hate to see you go. I was really enjoying this time together now that the nightmare is over.”

“I was too, old friend, but I have a ranch to get back to myself,” Murdoch said regretfully as he sat down after helping Johnny to his seat.  “We will be back but next time we come, God willing it will be during the summer.”

“I’ll hold you to that!” Mason smiled as he poured them each a cup of hot coffee. “And where is Jack?” he asked as he looked around for the doctor. “He still hasn’t told us his plans about what he’s going to do.”

“Here I am!” Jack announced as he entered the dining area.

“Well, it’s about…!”  Johnny’s words halted at the shocked looks on his father and Mason’s faces.  He turned around and saw Jack and he sputtered in surprise, “Jack, is that you?”

Jack squirmed bashfully under the intense attention to his appearance. He looked like a totally different man, a much younger man. He had shaved off his full white beard, trimmed his hair to a much shorter length and had shed his rugged mountain man clothes. He was dressed in his last good suit he had neatly packed away and found room for on Buster.  It fit a little snuggly around the midsection but he looked like one of those nicely dressed respectable city doctors.

“Yes, John, it’s me,” Jack chuckled. “I figured if I’m going to be a doctor again I better look like one, or I’ll never get any patients to trust me.”

“Well, I…I must say, Jack, you’re…handsome!” Johnny teased wickedly.

“OH MY!” Sadie gasped in delight when she entered the room carrying a tray of biscuits. She almost dropped them when she set her eyes on the new improved Jack. “Is…is that you, doctor?” she giggled girlishly.

“Yes, Sadie, my dear lady, it is I,” Jack answered, as he graced her with a dashing smile. “I decided it was better to look like a doctor then an old grizzly bear. Don‘t you think?”

“I surely do and I must say a right handsome doctor at that!” Sadie coyly agreed as her cheeks turned a rosy color. “Well, I have to get back to my duties,” she stuttered, and then she floated out the room with a big grin on her flushed face, giggling like school girl.

“Gee, Jack, if you keep that up, you’ll have no trouble getting patients…mostly female patients that is,” Johnny joshed.

“Very funny, young man!” Jack mock frowned, and then shook his head.

“Jack, have you decided where you will be going?” Murdoch asked out of curiosity. “Are you going to go back home, or stay here?”

“No, it’s too late to go back home, too much time has passed. I assume most of my family is gone by now. I never really kept in touch with them as they didn’t approve of my marriage.  I think staying here will be too hard with all the memories, good and bad.”  

“So where are you going then, Jack?” Mason asked.

Jack looked at their enquiring faces and could see how anxious they were to hear his answer. “I’m going back with you to California,” he announced with a nervous grin as he waited for the Lancer’s response.

“You are!” Johnny shouted with glee. “Well, I’ll be dang! I was hoping you would say that.”

“Jack, that’s great! We sure can use another doctor like you around,” Murdoch added, and then got up and gave the old doc a slap on his back.

“Well, I figured that John here could use my medical assistance on this trip back home, that way his pa,” he stopped and gave Murdoch a sly wink, “Could get the rest he needs too. Taking care of a mischievous scoundrel like you, can be a hand full,” Jack taunted sarcastically.

Johnny pierced his father with a look of disgust. “What have you been telling him?” 

“Not a thing, son, not a thing,” Murdoch said laughing as he threw his hands up.

“Okay, you two, that’s enough. Now let’s get breakfast over with, and then get on our way to town. We have to catch that train, or you’ll be stuck here of another two days,” Mason pointed out, “And I’m sure you don’t want that.”

“As much as I would love to stay longer, like I said before we have to get back home,” Murdoch replied somewhat sadly. 

“Well then dig in, Sadie has out done herself and she would be mightily offended if we left one morsel of this feast,” Mason declared as Jack joined them at the table and they all engaged in idle chatter and enjoyed a tasty last meal together before they hit the trail. From now on it would be train food and quick meals along the way and it certainly would not as delicious as Sadie’s cooking.

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

Jack was still refusing to let Johnny ride a horse, so Mason had the hands fix up their best wagon with straw and plenty of blankets to assure Johnny’s comfort for the long trip to town. Knowing that this would be the only time he would be confined to a supine position for a spell, Johnny didn’t put up a fuss about being bundled up at like a caterpillar in a cocoon in the back of the wagon.  He knew how bumpy and uncomfortable the seats of the stagecoach and train could be and he was not looking forward to that part of the trip back home. However, he would grin and bear it, if it meant getting back to California.

“Everything is ready, boss,” Stan announced as he entered the house and found the men donning their coats and hats. “The sky is clear and it’s a lot warmer than yesterday, so it should be an easier trip into town!”

“That’s great, Stan, just what the doctor ordered, right Jack?” Mason retorted.

“Yes sir, we couldn’t ask for a better day,” Jack eagerly agreed. “So young man let’s get you on that wagon, and then we can be off,” he instructed in a fatherly manner, that had Murdoch shaking his head in admiration for the doctor’s stern yet passionate concern over his boy.

“You took the words right out of my mouth, Jack,” Murdoch said as he walked over to his son. “Now easy does it, it’s still a little slippery out there,” he cautioned as they slowly made their way to the door.

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Johnny snorted, and then abruptly stopped and turned to the face the quiet maid. “Sadie, my love, I think I’m going to miss you the most. You were the ray of sunshine around here with that sweet smile of yours,” Johnny added softly, and then flashed the woman one of his dazzling smiles.

“Oh, get on with you!” Sadie giggled, her face turning a warm pink from blushing. “I’ll miss you too. Now get, you have a train to catch,” she said shooing him away with her hands.

“She’s right, Johnny, stop the flirting and let’s get going,” his father urged.

With a little shove to get him going, Murdoch and Jack helped the young Lancer up onto the wagon. They made sure he was comfortable and warm enough and with Mason in the driver seat, they set out. Stan and Gus were following close behind, leading the draft horses that Mason had yet to return to the old skinflint Jones. Mason wanted to have a few choice words with the miser and was going to do so after he saw the Lancers and Jack on their way. Sadie and the others waved the group of men off.

The trip to town went quick and easy which gave them a little more time to visit and enjoy a hot cup of coffee while they waited.  The whistle of the approaching train marked the end of an unforgettable adventure, one they would remember for the rest of their lives.

“Well, old friend, I guess this really is goodbye,” Murdoch declared sadly as the train was pulling in. “Maybe next time it won’t be as eventful,” he added with a weary frown.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Mason vowed as he held out his hand to the tall rancher, and then did the same for Johnny and Jack. “God be with you all and good luck Jack, it sure was a pleasure meeting you. And don‘t worry, we‘ll take good care of Buster for you. If you decide you want him with you when you get settled we’ll send him to you on the train otherwise he’ll always have a home here.”

“Thanks Mason, it was a pleasure,” Jack humbly replied, and then turned his attention to Johnny. “Well, young man, let’s get you boarded, times a wasting.”

“Bye, Mr. Andrews and thank you for everything. For what time we had I sure did enjoy myself, despite…”  Johnny words faded away sadly as he thought of Buck.

“I know, son. You go home and get that horse business of yours going and make it something both you and Buck would be proud of,” Mason stressed.

“I will, you can count on it!” Johnny boldly proclaimed as he was helped up the steps and disappeared into the train car with Murdoch and Jack right behind him.

Mason and his men watched as the train slowly pulled out and began chugging away into the wide open prairie, leaving behind a thick stream of white smoke as its whistle announced its departure. The men stood waving until it was out of view but not out of their hearts as it carried away the Lancers and Jack, who was on his way to a new and better life.

“Well, come on boys. We have an old coot to see about a raft,” Mason huffed.

**********

As the trained traveled further south, eventually passing through the area where they had encountered the wild herd of buffalo and Indians, Johnny couldn’t help but wonder how many had perished during the last deadly blast of winter. As rough as it was on him, it had to be twice as hard on them because they had to live out in those conditions. His thoughts and mood turned sullen as they headed into the stretch of mountains where a fun trip turned tragic.

With misty eyes, Jack pressed his head against the cool glass and watched as the land he once loved went by in a blink of an eye. Unbidden memories surfaced as the train pushed along taking him further away from a place that shattered those dreams. There was one memory that would never leave him, the images of his beloved wife and child. Jack pulled a faded picture out of his coat pocket, the same one he had kept on his mantle at the cabin and sadly stared at it, and then held it close to his chest.

“This is what they would have wanted you to do, Jack, you know that don’t ya?” Johnny whispered as he leaned over and placed a gentle hand on Jack’s arm.

“Yes, I know that now,” Jack softly croaked as he cleared his throat of the tears that he swallowed. “Still, it’s hard to let go of the past but I’m going to give it my best shot,” he added as he put the picture back in his pocket. 

“We’ll do everything in our power to help you make this transition, Jack,” Murdoch proclaimed as he put the book he was reading down. “It’s the least we can do for you after all you have done for us. You’re going to be our guest until you get settled and I‘m not going to take no for an answer,” he commanded with a big grin for the doctor.

Jack nodded in gratitude and no more words were spoken as night was coming on and the train was now traveling upward towards the mountains. The light in the cars grew dim from the setting sun and soon the train attendant appeared. He went around lighting the lanterns and handing out pillows and blankets to the occupants. Jack waved the man over and took three of each. He threw two blankets over Johnny legs and gave Murdoch the other one, and then passed out the pillows. Johnny took that as hint to get some sleep, so he leaned back as much as he could, placed his hat over his eyes and drifted off and Murdoch did the same. Jack sat there like a watch dog guarding his new friends until sleep overtook him and he finally dozed off as the train traveled on, just a speck on the horizon of the big sky country.

***********

Sacramento was nothing but a blur to them as Murdoch insisted they catch the first stage out the minute they stepped off the train. He promised they would stop over in Stockton before heading home. Knowing very well not to argue with the headstrong rancher, Jack and Johnny found themselves eating trail dust kicked up by the fast moving horses.  They tried to get comfortable and somehow enjoy the bumpy stagecoach ride. At least this time there wasn’t a fat lady to squish Johnny, or a little boy asking questions so Johnny had the opportunity to lay down when it got to tiring for him.

As promised, they did indeed stop over that night in Stockton. They enjoyed a hearty meal and had a few drinks to wash down the dust they had inhaled.  They were going to try and get a good night’s sleep before heading out in the morning.  Before turning in, Murdoch sent another wire off telling Scott their time of arrival. Due to the stage getting in later than usual, there wasn’t time to inform Victoria that they were back in Stockton as he had promised they would.  As much as he would have enjoyed the feisty woman’s company Murdoch wanted to get home as soon as possible, they had been gone far too long.

Morning came soon enough and after a quick breakfast they were on their way again, the next stop home. The closer they got to Lancer territory the more Johnny acted like a little kid who couldn’t sit still. He was anxious to get off the stage. He stuck his head out the window of the stage and grinned in joy when he spied the outskirts of Green River. His keen gunfighter’s eyes also spotted his brother’s slender form as he stood waiting patiently for the stage to come in.

“HEY, SCOTT!” Johnny hollered and waved his hand as the stage hit the streets of town.

“JOHNNY!” Scott shouted back and stepped back away from the street as the stage finally pulled to a halt.

The stage door flew open and Murdoch was the first to stiffly step out. He gave his eldest a pat on the back.  Jack followed him and then turned and leaned back in to help the wobbly young Lancer off the stage. Johnny took one look at his brother’s grinning mug and embraced him in a bear hug.

“Damn it’s good to see you again, big brother!’ Johnny squeaked out due to a dry throat. “Boy, do I have a lot to tell you,” Johnny exclaimed.

“Same here, little brother and I can hardly wait to hear what you have been up too,” Scott said as he rolled his eyes and ruffled Johnny’s unruly hair.

“Scott, this is Doctor Jackson Myers, Jack to his friends and he’ll be our house guest until he gets settled,” Murdoch announced.

“Nice to meet you, Jack,” Scott politely greeted and held his hand out.

“Is everything okay at home?” Murdoch questioned.

“Everything is fine, sir,” Scott was pleased to inform his father.

“So, what are we waiting for? Let’s go home!” Johnny demanded anxiously.

They loaded the luggage and climbed aboard the buckboard Scott had waiting for them and headed out of town. In no time at all, they were standing on the Lancers’ special spot by the big oak tree looking down at the luscious green valley and the rolling hills of Lancer. A sight they never tired of seeing. Jack’s eyes widened in awe, he was overwhelmed and speechless by its beauty and size. He delighted in the look on the faces of the Lancers as they stood shoulder to shoulder surveying their home with joy and most all, pride.

“There it is, Jack, as far as the eye can see. One of the most beautiful places on this earth, Lancer,” Johnny proudly proclaimed, and then placed a tender hand on Jack’s shoulder and said with a cracking voice. “Thank you, my amigo, for making sure I got to see it again.”  

“Johnny, my boy, it was my pleasure,” Jack admitted with a grin, and then steered the tired young man towards the buckboard. “Come on, your home awaits you.”

 

~end~

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