The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Ros

 

 

The Greenhorn

CHAPTER ONE

Johnny put the brush aside and stroked Barranca's silken gold neck affectionately. The horse twitched his ears but otherwise paid him little heed. He was head down in the feedbox and all his attention was on his food.

With a chuckle, Johnny left him to it and sauntered slowly around the corner to the next stall where Scott was also finishing up. “We'd better get cleaned up ourselves, Boston,” he told him.

Scott looked up and smiled widely. “Well, you had anyway.” He put aside his brush and playfully patted the horse's flank, then walked out to join his brother.

“You try sittin' down at the table for dinner lookin' like that an' see what happens,” Johnny said. He looked Scott up and down and added disparagingly, “You know, when you first came here, you used to be kinda fastidious about your clothes.”

Scott blinked at Johnny's use of the word, then went on. “I still am, Little Brother. It's this wretched California dirt – it must be magnetic or something. It seems to be attracted to me.” He grinned. “Like the girls.”

“Hell, Brother, any girl who sees you lookin' like that is just gonna put you down for a saddle tramp.”

“Never!”

“Yep, ol' Scott Lancer, fancy Boston dude an' all, lookin' like a common saddle tramp.” He shook his head in mock sorrow. “It's a sad thing – to see a man sink so low…”

He yelped as Scott stretched out one arm and hooked it around his neck, then pulled him down in a headlock. Johnny's hat fell to the barn floor and Scott ruffled his brother's already disordered mop of hair.

“Hey!” Johnny shouted and tried to wriggle free.

“Saddle tramp, am I?” Scott laughed and held him fast.

Johnny struggled against the hold but Scott, laughing quietly, grabbed his own wrist to reinforce the strength of the headlock.

“Scott, I swear, I'll haul off an' shoot you!” Johnny ground out between clenched teeth as he tried to push him off.

But his brother only laughed heartily. “That old threat? You keep saying it but you haven't shot me yet.” He dropped to his knees as Johnny almost broke free, dragging him down with him.

Both Johnny's hands were on Scott's arms, trying to pull him off. Suddenly, one hand snaked out and reached for Scott's nose but Scott was too quick to be caught and pulled his head back just in time.

“There's always a first time,” Johnny grated, trying to twist his body to get a better leverage against Scott's strong hold.

But Scott's answering laughter suggested that his brother did not believe him.

“Uncle?” Scott asked.

Johnny made one last ditch effort to pull himself free and then stopped struggling. He sighed out. “Uncle…”

Scott released him and sat back on his haunches, breathing heavily but grinning in victory.

Johnny rubbed his neck and scowled and coughed. “Damned near choked me. You oughta show a man of my reputation more respect.” He looked around for his hat, picked it up and dusted off the bits of straw.

“Respect is something that younger brothers should show to older brothers,” Scott told him. He got to his feet and turned away to brush straw and dirt off his pants as Johnny did the same. “Saddle tramp indeed.”

A wicked gleam shone in Johnny's eyes. “Yep, saddle tramp.”

Scott spun around and made a grab for him but Johnny saw it coming this time and took off for the doorway. He almost ran smack into Jelly Hoskins coming in out of the yard.

“Tarnation, Johnny! You ain't got the sense of a jackrabbit – runnin' outa doorways like that! You'll give a man heart failure that way, or run right over him.”

“Sorry, Jelly.”

Scott skidded to a halt behind Johnny and Jelly gave him an impatient scowl, cocking his head sideways. “You too, huh? Thought you'da had more sense!”

“Jelly! I… we…”

“Ya don't need ta tell me you two been rough-housin',” Jelly said testily. “The pair o' you look like you been rollin' around the stalls.” He hitched his britches up importantly. “Well, if the two o' you've finished actin' like a pair o' fractious school kids, you might want to go round back an' clean up before ya go inside, seein' as how Murdoch's got a visitor callin'.”

“A visitor? Who?” Johnny asked.

Jelly stuck out his whiskered chin. “Well I don't know, do I? You think I know all your pa's friends?”

They both leaned past him and peered around the corner. Sure enough, a buggy with a fringed black canvas shade stood at the front of the house.

“That's the hire-buggy from Hank's livery in Morro Coyo, isn't it?” Johnny asked his brother.

“It certainly looks like it,” Scott agreed. “Jelly's right. We'd better get cleaned up before we go in.”

The two of them walked out into the late afternoon sunlight and made their way around to the bathhouse out back, leaving Jelly shaking his head and muttering about the foolishness of grown men acting like children.

They hurriedly washed up, then made their way up the backstairs to their rooms and changed out of their dusty work clothes before meeting in the hall and making their way down the big polished staircase and through the archway into the Great Room.

Murdoch was sitting in one of the armchairs holding a glass of scotch while, in the other armchair, sat a man Johnny didn't recognize. He was a big man, but not in the way that Murdoch was. Murdoch was a fit giant of a man while their guest was a portly gent with a round, ruddy face and thinning gray hair. He wore town clothes - a business suit of tan brown and a fob chain draped from a button on his waistcoat to his pocket.

As they stepped down the two stairs into the Great Room, Murdoch stood up and walked over to join his sons. “Ah, here are the boys now! Scott, you remember meeting Ambrose at the cattle sales in Sacramento last month?”

Scott smiled his polite smile. “I do.” He leaned forward and shook hands with him. “It's a pleasure to see you again, Mr. Latham.”

“And you, Lad,” the man replied.

“You're a long way from home, Sir.”

“Aye, and a rough and ready journey it's been. The train was passably comfortable but those stagecoaches are a nasty untenable way to travel.”

“They are indeed, Sir.”

“Ambrose, you haven't met my younger son yet.” Murdoch wrapped an arm around his son's shoulders. “This is Johnny.”

“Mighty pleased to make your acquaintance, Lad.” The man heaved himself out of the chair and thrust out his hand for Johnny to shake. “So you're the big bad gunfighter Murdoch has for a son, are you? Heard a lot about you.” He grinned jovially. “If I may say so young man, you don't look dangerous but then, I suppose looks can be deceiving, right?”

Johnny was taken aback. He wondered just how many drinks Latham and Murdoch had knocked back before they came in and wasn't sure how to answer. So he just shook the proffered hand and agreed.

“You'll be wondering what's brought me all this way, Lads.”

“Yes, Sir,” Scott said.

Murdoch moved back to his armchair. “Why don't we all get comfortable first? We have a few minutes before dinner is ready and I think Ambrose had better tell you what he's looking for.”

Scott looked at Johnny, who merely shrugged, and they both sat on the sofa. Latham stayed on his feet, his back to the fireplace and leaning against its mantle.

“I'll try not to be too long-winded, Lads, but I should tell you a little about myself first.” He swallowed another mouthful of scotch. “Alright, here goes. I came to California back in '50. I had been working as a buying agent for Denning and Bradshaw Meat Packers in Chicago since I was a young boy. Worked my way up from packing to a stock agent and I had a hankering by then to venture out on my own. The cattle business was booming here in California at that time because of the gold rush – so many more mouths to feed. By God it was a time! Right, Murdoch?”

Murdoch nodded and Latham continued. “Well, I made myself a name here as a cattle broker and made my fortune to boot. I married a fine gentle lady who is still the love of my life and we have a son. Laurence is his name and a finer lad no man could ask for – fine manners, good education and a good head on his shoulders. His inclination is to follow me into the business and I couldn't be prouder.”

There was a pause and Latham swirled the amber liquid in his glass for just a moment. Johnny could feel a ‘but' coming.

“Now, Laurence has been raised in Sacramento with me away a lot of the time. I let his ma take care of the raising of him mostly. He's been taught by tutors and at a fine school in San Francisco and, in a few months, he'll be heading east to study at Harvard in Boston which I hear is your old school, Scott.”

“That's correct. It's a very good university – the best to my mind.”

Latham smiled. “Yes and I'm more than pleased that he's going there. It's a great opportunity for him. He'll meet some good people and no doubt make some mark in polite society there. Good contacts are the best thing a business man can have.”

Johnny looked down at his hands. So that was it – he wants Scott to offer up some introductions.

“Now, for all his fine social graces and his good education, there's more to my business than figures and contracts. He needs to understand the men he'll be dealing with, the ranchers I mean.”

“We're not so different from any other man of business,” Scott pointed out.

Latham shook his head. “Scott, I beg to differ. Oh, a good rancher has to be a sound businessman alright; has to know the value of his stock and how to negotiate a good deal like any other, but he's also a man who works hard all day in the sun, sees to the branding and roundups. In rain or shine, he's likely to be out there on the range. And you can bet that most ranchers pride themselves on being able to outride and outshoot their men. Am I right?”

“Well, I admit…” Scott began, but Johnny cut him off.

“Of course he's right, Scott, and you know it.”

“Boys, I'm a common man myself. I take a man at face value. But my boy Laurie, he's never experienced anything but city life and his own kind. His ma has raised him kind of gentle and I've never seen a problem with that, until now.”

Johnny cleared his throat before venturing further. “You er… saying he's a dude, Mr. Latham?”

Latham sighed. “I see you've taken my meaning, Johnny.”

Johnny could see the problem. Cattlemen were often hard men who looked down their noses at city bred ‘dudes'. They considered greenhorns a source of fun and usually had little or no respect for them. To be selling their cattle to one might come hard. There might even be a suspicion that the city man might be taking advantage of them. It could well be a problem for a dude whose business meant dealing with them daily.

Johnny also suspected that there was more behind what Latham was saying. He figured he was trying very hard to avoid calling his son a snob.

“When I met young Scott here in Sacramento a while back, it got me to thinking. Here's a young man who knows both worlds and he's managed to bridge the gap. He's come out here and made himself fit in without losing that town bronze.”

Johnny looked at his brother and had to agree. For all the teasing and the nickname he had given him, Boston, Scott had won the respect of the other ranchers and of the men who worked at Lancer.

“So… I'd like to send my boy here for a few weeks before he heads back east. I'm hoping Scott can take him under his wing and show him that he can respect both worlds.”

There was silence for a while. Scott's jaw had dropped a little, exposing his surprise to all of them. As he slowly closed it again, Johnny knew that he was mulling over the idea carefully.

Finally, Scott spoke up. “I'm sorry, Mr. Latham, but I'm not sure what you expect me to do?”

“Simply what you do every day, Scott – nothing different. Lead by example,” the man replied.

“Mr. Latham, it's a big responsibility…”

“Nonsense. I don't expect you to adopt the boy. He's old enough to be responsible for his own actions. I certainly wouldn't want you to change your routine in any way. That's the whole idea. Show him that an educated gentleman like yourself enjoys working here; that cattlemen are not ruffians.”

Scott sat up rigidly and frowned. “Sir, I don't consider myself any better or worse than my family and colleagues.”

“And THAT, Lad, is my whole point.”

He looked unconvinced.

“Scott,” Murdoch broke in. “Ambrose has already told us that if Laurence comes here, it will be to work as everyone else does. He wouldn't be treated any different.”

“Just so, Murdoch.” Latham was looking towards Murdoch but spoke to Scott. “If he gets to experience some good old fashioned hard work, it will only do him a world of good.”

For the first time, Johnny heard a note of dissatisfaction with his son in Latham's voice. He wondered if Murdoch and Scott had noticed it. He wondered too if this model son was really a frustration to his father. Ambrose Latham sounded like a loving parent and he seemed sincere enough in his plan for his son, even proud of him, but what he was asking amounted to taking the boy and whipping him into shape!

What were they getting themselves into?

“Just how old is your boy?” he asked.

“He'll be nineteen in a few months.”

“And what does he say to your proposal?” Scott asked bluntly.

Latham looked at Murdoch and then back to Scott. “Actually, I haven't put the idea to him yet. I thought it wisest to approach you first.”

“And if he says no?”

The man shifted his feet before answering. “If you mean would I force him to come here, no, I will not. But my Laurie is an amenable boy and will want to please his pa. You can count on his agreeing to it.”

Johnny figured that what he meant was that if the boy wanted to step into his pa's boots one day, he'd best do as he was told. There was more than one way to ‘force' his acceptance of the idea.

He considered carefully how to word his next question, but it had to be asked. “Mr. Latham, what if it just don't work out? What if he gets here and ends up real unhappy… or…well, if…?'

Latham chuckled. “Or if he just can't do the job?” he finished for him. “Pack him off back home to me. All I ask is that you give him a fair chance to learn.”

Johnny looked towards his brother and caught him staring back, his face full of questions. Johnny shrugged. “I don't guess it can hurt, Scott. What do you think?”

“No, I suppose not.” Scott hesitated a moment longer before finally giving Latham his answer. “Alright, Mr. Latham. I'll be happy to help if I can, of course, but I can't make any promises.”

“And that's good enough for me,” Latham told him, thrusting his hand out to Scott once again and shaking on the deal. He walked over to stand near his old friend.

Murdoch beamed. “There, didn't I tell you, Ambrose?” he said heartily. “Scott will turn the boy out for you, you wait and see. I told you he wouldn't mind.”

Johnny saw the distinct discomfort on his brother's face and dropped his chin enough to hide the smile on his own.

It was obvious that Murdoch had not seen the reactions of either of his sons. He got to his feet and put his glass down on the coffee table. “Now, how about we all relax and have dinner. We can make some definite plans after we've eaten.”

“Thank you, Murdoch,” Latham said and placed his empty glass down beside Murdoch's. “I can't tell you how much this means to me. And you, Scott. I appreciate it immensely. I mean for the boy to be no trouble to you. I want only for him to experience something more than the city life he's used to.”

“I'm sure it will work out fine, Mr. Latham,” Scott assured him. “May I ask if Laurence can ride?”

“Oh yes. He's an excellent rider, have no fear. I at least saw to that. He also knows the rudiments of handling a rifle. We've hunted together on occasion. More than that, however, he'll have to learn.”

“Come on, Ambrose. Dinner's waiting,” Murdoch pointed out and led his friend away.

Scott turned to Johnny and asked quietly, “What do you think?”

“Well,” he answered slowly. “You were a greenhorn yourself not so long back. You caught on pretty quick.”

Scott shook his head. “Johnny, I might not have known much about ranching or the west, but I had at least had experience in the army.”

Johnny conceded the point.

“And this boy sounds like… well… he doesn't sound like he's had much experience on his own.”

Johnny laughed. “I think ol' Ambrose was tryin' real hard not to say that his kid's a spoiled mama's boy.”

“Perhaps not as bad as that, but I'm very much afraid you might have the right general impression.”

“Long as he don't turn up in plaid.”

Scott sighed and shook his head. “Will I never live that down? Those clothes were perfectly respectable and you know it.”

His brother's laughter rang out loud. “Respectable maybe, but just not what you wear ‘round here, Boston.”

“Alright, granted.”

Johnny slapped his brother hard on the back and got to his feet. “I'm sure glad it's you'll be bear-leadin' the kid around. For once, I'm real happy to be the example neither of those two want set for Laurence.”





CHAPTER TWO

The stagecoach rattled into Morro Coyo at a heady pace. Dust clouds followed hard on the wheels and there was a dangerous list to it as it rounded the last corner. A small dog of uncertain parentage stuck its tail between its legs and ran out of the street to hide under the boardwalk. A young mother grabbed her small child from the edge of the boardwalk and held him closer to her and Scott Lancer shook his head in disgust.

“One of these days, Mort's going to kill someone – if not in the coach then on the street.”

Johnny was slouched back against the wall of the cantina and barely looked up to answer. “Yep, guess he's runnin' late again.”

“Better late than dead.”

“True.”

“I've a good mind to write a formal letter of complaint to the stage line. Just because this is a small town…”

The stage pulled up right in front of them and jolted to a stop. Dust surrounded them and clouded their vision for a moment, harness jangled noisily and the driver called out ‘Morro Coyo'.

Scott turned his attention to the grizzled, dusty, unkempt man hauling hard on the reins while the panting foam-covered horses jostled and stamped and tossed their heads at the all too sudden stop. “Mort, you idiot. You very nearly turned that coach over coming around that corner!”

The man pushed his hat back and then spat into the street. “Nope, I know jest how far I c'n go with this here coach, Scott Lancer. Been doin' it long enough. Weren't never a chance o' losin' her.”

“And what about the comfort of your passengers? Don't you care about them?”

The man grinned, revealing yellowed teeth, one of them missing. “Ain't never lost one yet.”

“Might as well give it up, Scott,” Johnny said quietly. He pushed back his own hat and looked up at the driver. There was a hard look in his eyes. “Mort ain't gonna change his drivin' style over a couple of complaints.”

Mort shifted uncomfortably under Johnny's gaze.

“Course, he might want to consider what might happen to him if he was to get it wrong one day.” He peeled himself away from the wall and walked over to stand beside Scott but still casting that iron stare up at the driver. “I wouldn't want to hear of anyone gettin' hurt… not even a dog, Mort.”

There was no hint of a threat in his words, or even in his tone, but Mort Ivers definitely got the idea. Under the sun-baked brown of his skin, his face flushed beet red and he mumbled some indiscernible reply.

With that, Johnny turned away, walked to the door of the coach and pulled it open. Scott was beside him grinning and whispered, “Brother, there are times when you frighten even me!”

A sly smirk stole across Johnny's lips. “Can't hurt to put the scare of Johnny Madrid into him. Might be he'll even take that corner slower next time.”

Only one passenger climbed down out of the coach. A parson and a drummer both stayed inside - bound for destinations further down the road. The boy clambering out of the stagecoach was something of a surprise to them.

He was a fresh-faced and good looking young man – tall and thin, dark hair and grey blue eyes. His clothes, though obviously brand new, spelled nothing of the ‘dude' they were expecting. His black trousers were good strong twill cotton. His light tan shirt buttoned at the cuffs and, though obviously of good quality, was plain but for a thin string tie at the collar. He held a sensible black hat in his hand, broad-brimmed in the cowboy style, and wore riding boots with nothing flashy about them.

The only thing that was noticeable was that while he dusted off the travel dust, his clothes were starched and creased to perfection and immaculately neat.

As he brushed away the last of the dirt from his shirt, a large carpet bag sailed through the air and landed on the ground by his side with a loud thud. He scowled and turned around, looking up just in time to see Mort toss the second, smaller bag from the top of the coach to crash into the first on the ground.

“I say, Driver! That is the last straw. I shall be reporting your total disregard for passenger safety and your disgraceful manners to your superiors.”

Mort chewed on his tobacco and grinned widely. “You do that, Sonny. You got me shakin' in my boots.”

“That's enough, Mort,” Scott said sharply. “The young man is right and you know it. You're a disgrace to the line.”

Mort's face was thunderous. “Mr. Lancer…”

“Yes?” Scott's voice held all the authority of the cavalry office he had once been and the man backed down.

“Yessir, Mr. Lancer. Whatever you say.” With that, he called out ‘Board', sat down and picked up the lines. With a deft flick of the reins on the backs of the leaders, the coach trundled off down the street and went out of town at a distinctly more sedate pace.

“Mr. Lancer?” the boy asked from behind him. “Mr. Scott Lancer?”

“Yes, I'm Scott Lancer and this is my brother, Johnny. You must be Laurie Latham.”

“Yes, though I prefer Laurence if you don't mind.” He shook hands, first with Scott and then with Johnny. “It's a pleasure to meet you both. How do you do?”

“Well, thanks,” Scott told him in polite reply. He picked up one of the bags and Johnny took the other. “Let's get these stowed in the wagon and we'll head back to Lancer.”

They walked a few yards up the street to where they had left the buckboard. Young Latham's face showed his obvious distaste for the surroundings. Since Scott knew that he had virtually no experience of towns smaller than Sacramento and San Francisco, it was only to be expected that he would find Morro Coyo inconsequential.

It was the oldest town in this area, established by the Spanish in the days of the old land grants. The architecture was mostly Mexican adobe; a communal fountain graced the little plaza in the middle of town with a Catholic church overlooking it. The church was the largest building in the sleepy little town.

Scott always found it a pleasant change from the bigger communities of Green River and the newer Spanish Wells. It was also closer to Lancer and the small stage line that joined it to Green River and further on to Cross Creek and the rail line made it more convenient to Lancer than the other towns.

They put the bags into the back. Laurence couldn't help but show his surprise at the vehicle when he saw it. Johnny smirked but said nothing while Scott ushered the boy up onto the bench seat.

“Johnny's riding, so it won't be crowded,” Scott told him and climbed up beside him. Scott kicked off the brake and they headed off, with Johnny riding Barranca right behind them.

They drove on in silence for the first few minutes with nothing but the jangling of harness and the sound of hooves striking the ground breaking it. The boy's holding tight to the side of the bench seat did not escape Scott's notice.

Finally, Scott decided to end it. “I'm glad you decided to come to Lancer.”

“Yes,” the boy answered, somewhat noncommittally. He looked over at Scott and studied him. “Did you really study at Harvard?”

“I certainly did.”

“And you don't feel that you're wasting your education working on a cattle ranch?”

“Not at all. In fact, I put it to good…” They hit a rut in the road that jounced the wagon hard enough to rattle Scott's teeth. “Sorry,” he said as the buckboard settled again. “As I was saying, I put my education to good use here – contracts, ledgers and so on. Cattle ranching is a business as much as any other.”

“In a limited way, perhaps.” They hit another deep rut that bounced them hard.

“Heavy rain last week,” Scott explained. “The road was slush for a while, hence the deep ruts.”

“The stagecoach was worse.” He sighed. “How do you stand it here? After seeing how the civilized world lives, I mean?”

Scott quietly considered the question for a minute. “Oh, I won't deny there are things that I miss but, equally, there are things that I don't miss.”

“Really?”

“Give it a chance, Laurence. Don't prejudge.”

They relapsed into silence while the buckboard wound its way along the road. As soon as they crossed the bridge over Wolf Creek, Johnny rode up beside Scott.

“I'm going to go check on that work crew over in the south pasture, Scott. I'll see you at home.”

“Any particular reason?”

“Nope, only that there are three new men in that crew.”

Scott nodded. “Alright. We'll see you at home for lunch.”

Johnny grinned at him. “Wouldn't miss it, Brother.” He turned Barranca and headed him up the slope at the side of the road, man and horse seeming to move to a mutual rhythm and Barranca's long white tail streaming behind him. Johnny loved to stretch the horse out sometimes and the sight of them left an indelible impression.

“That certainly is a beautiful horse,” Laurence said, watching them ride off.

“Yes, just showy enough to suit my brother.” Scott laughed. “No, that's not fair to Johnny. He's trained that horse well. It will do just about anything he asks of it.”

“Did Johnny study at Harvard too? I only ask because, well… he doesn't seem the type.”

“Given the same opportunities that I had, I have no doubt he would have,” Scott told him, a little nettled this time. “Don't make the mistake of underestimating my brother in any way. He might not have had the same education that I have, but Johnny is wise to the world.”

“I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend.”

Scott relented. “No, I'm not offended.” He frowned. “Just how much did your father tell you about us?”

The young man shrugged. “Not a lot. Mostly he told me that you work for your father at the ranch despite having a Harvard education. He wants me to understand cattlemen better and thinks I can learn something from you.”

Scott sighed heavily. “Then I'd better tell you more about us before we get to the hacienda.” He told the tale of his family coming back together after whole lives spent apart, briefly and succinctly.

When he finished, Laurence sat back against the back of the seat. “Interesting… fascinating in fact. So you weren't just educated in Boston – you grew up there?”

“That's right.”

“Then I find it even more confusing that you would choose to live out here, in the middle of nowhere.” He waved his hands around him. “I mean look at it! There's nothing!”

Scott smiled. “If you're looking for gas lights and trolley cars, you're right. But don't let it fool you. This is a good life. Give it a chance.”

“We've been driving for nearly an hour now, and we aren't even at your ranch yet! It's all so… remote… so isolated.”

“Actually, we've been on the ranch since we crossed the bridge back there at Wolf Creek.” They had reached the top of the mesa and Scott stopped. “On our first day here, Teresa stopped at this spot to show us Lancer.” He pulled on the lines and stopped the buckboard. “There it is… as far as you can see from here.”



Scott stopped the horses and kicked on the brake. “Here we are,” he said as he stepped down to the ground.

Jelly appeared in the doorway of the barn with Mal Ferris beside him.

“Jelly, can you and Ferris unhitch the wagon and see to the horses?”

“Sure, Scott.” The older man hustled Ferris over to the horses and made his own way over at a slower pace.

“Where's Murdoch?” Scott asked him.

“In the house. What's come o' Johnny? He stay in town or somethin'?”

“No, he's checking one of the work crews.”

Jelly nodded. “Them new men, huh? Don't surprise me none. Saw his feathers ruffle a mite over one o' them fellas.” He gave Laurence the once over and then continued. “You want them bags taken in?”

“No, there's only the two. I'll take care of them. You just see to the horses and wagon.”

They found Murdoch waiting for them. He had obviously been at his desk but he was standing now, facing them as they entered. With the big arched window at his back, Scott almost had a moment of déjà vu.

Scott took the initiative straight away and introduced them. “Murdoch, this is Laurence Latham – Laurence, my father Murdoch Lancer.”

“How do you do, Sir,” the boy said politely. “My father has told me a lot about you.”

“Likewise, Laurence.” He indicated a seat and Scott ushered the boy to it. “Scott, where is your brother?”

There was a gruff note in his voice that led Scott to suppose that Murdoch had jumped to the inevitable wrong conclusion. He tried to keep his irritation out of his own voice. “He's checking on the work crew in the south pasture.”

“Oh,” Murdoch stumbled out. “Well, yes, that's not a bad idea. That crew is made up mostly of new men. I'll talk to him when he gets back and find out how they're working out.”

“Now, young man,” Murdoch continued, amiably casting his attention back to the boy. “Welcome to Lancer. Your father has written to me saying you like the idea of seeing how a cattle ranch works.”

“Yes, Sir.” The boy could not have sounded less eager.

“Good.” Murdoch either didn't notice his lack of enthusiasm or he ignored it. “We'll let you get settled in today and then Scott will show you over the ranch tomorrow. Then we'll set you some simple assignments and see how you go.”

‘Yes, Sir.”

“I'm pleased to see you've arrived with good sound work clothes.” He face opened up into a wide grin. “That's more than can be said for Scott.”

“Murdoch, if you say it…”

“No, Son. I'll leave that to your brother.” Murdoch chuckled. “Anyway, Scott has fit right in here and I'm sure you will as well, Laurence.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

“Good… good. Scott, why don't you show Laurence to his room? Lunch will be ready soon and you can show him around the barn and the yard this afternoon. Find him a good horse and saddle, too.”

Scott moved forward. “Sure, Murdoch. This way, Laurence.” He looked back over his shoulder as they walked out of the room. “See you at lunch, Murdoch.”

They left him to return to his desk and Scott led the way up the staircase.

“I must say, this house is much bigger and more comfortable than I expected,” Laurence said as he glanced around the guest room.

“To be honest, it's bigger than most ranch houses,” Scott answered with a smile. “It was built in the Spanish style. The thick adobe walls keep out the heat. There are a lot of rooms so I'll show you over the house as well after lunch.” He put the bags down in the middle of the room. “We eat dinner in the dining room, but breakfast and lunch are usually in the kitchen.”

“In the…' The boy almost gasped. “Oh, well…yes, of course.” He walked over to the window and looked out. “This is all so different.”

Scott remembered the feeling. “It is now. It won't be for long. I think you'll enjoy it.”

“I was surprised that your servants are so… er, familiar.”

“You mean Jelly?” Scott grinned. “Jelly is one of a kind anyway, but there's a difference between what you would think of as a servant and employees. Not the same thing at all. We work with these men, beside them and doing the same things. There are times when we rely on them to watch our backs either in day to day work or against the elements, even against bandits on occasion.”



Scott left him to himself until lunch was ready. It was an awkward meal. Laurence looked uncomfortable at the kitchen table and eyed the beef sandwiches suspiciously, but hunger must have gotten the best of him as he soon picked one up and took a cautious bite.

Maria was working in the kitchen, preparing to begin making dinner. She looked up and peered through the window. “Señor Johnny ha vuelto, Patrón.”

Sure enough, within minutes, Johnny walked in through the back door and made straight for the table. Without even stopping to sit, he took one of the sandwiches and began eating.

“If there's one thing in this world I can depend on,” Scott said dryly, “it's my brother's appetite.”

“Sit down, Johnny,” said Murdoch with a note of irritation.

He did as he was told and took a seat. “Sorry.”

Maria was expounding in rapid Spanish. Scott missed a lot of it, but got the general impression that it was for Johnny's benefit.

Johnny conjured up one of his most engaging smiles for her. “Lo siento, Maria,” he said gracefully, but still she shook her wooden spoon at him before going back to her work.

“She's right, Johnny,” Murdoch told him. “A few manners would not go astray.”

“Yeah, I know but I was hungry. I did remember to wash up first through.”

Scott grinned. “Small mercies.”

“Alright, Scott, that's enough. Jonny, how are those new men working out?”

Johnny swallowed another bite before answering. “Pretty good. Frank's got ‘em under control. They should have that creek unblocked by sunset the way they're going.”

“I'm glad to hear it.” Murdoch finished his coffee and put the cup down with a decisive thud. “I want you to have a good look at those new horses this afternoon, Johnny. Work out how long you think it will take to break and train them and how many men you think you'll need to get it done.” He frowned. “And before you say it, you are not doing it on your own.”

Johnny looked conscience-stricken and Scott bit back on a peal of laughter that might have choked him. It seemed that their father was getting better at beating Johnny to the punch.

They finished lunch, Laurence joining in only when someone addressed a question to him and then following Scott out of the house. Scott showed him the outbuildings and explained their various uses, even down to the old jail cell that tended to be a store room these days.

The tour ended at the corrals. The smaller one, near the barn, held the remuda – their stock of horses for the general use of the hands and themselves. The old corrals, a few hundred yards further back from the barn, were kept for breaking and training new horses and presently held a dozen mustangs that Scott and Johnny had brought in from Black Mesa two days ago.

Scott led Laurence to the railing fence of the small corral. “Your father told us that you ride well,” he said tentatively.

“Yes, you may rest assured of that.”

“Good. Any of these look okay to you?”

The boy looked them over. “The bay over there,” he said pointing.

“Good choice. He's a Trojan that one. He'll work all day.” Scott stopped for a moment. “Laurence, how many hours would you say you spend riding every day?”

“Each day?” He had to think about it. “Well, with my studies and such, I keep busy of course, but I always insist on personally exercising my horse every day.”

“For how long?”

“An hour or two usually.”

Scott nodded, not surprised. A young man growing up in the city would not have need of a horse to the same extent as he would out here. His own experience had been much the same. The cavalry had changed all that for him so he had no problems when he came to Lancer.

“Alright, let's go find you a saddle.”





CHAPTER THREE

Dinner had gone well. It was a formal enough meal for Laurence to feel more comfortable and conversation had flowed far more easily. Teresa, back from visiting her friend in Green River, had been introduced and had done her best to make him feel at home.

After dinner they retired to the armchairs in the Great Room and talked about his first day. Then he had listened while Johnny gave Murdoch his sum up of the new horses. Laurence expressed surprise when Scott said that he would take a turn at breaking them.

“Why would you take such a risk?” he asked.

“Why wouldn't I? I do what everyone else does here. I might not always do it as well, but I'm learning.”

“Oh, I wouldn't say that, Boston,” Johnny interjected. “Seems to me you've managed to stick a lot of ‘em lately, better than some of the hands.”

Scott smiled. “Why thank you, Brother!”

The boy still looked confused. “Excuse me,” he said eventually. “I still don't really understand why?”

“Why?” Johnny asked him.

“Why any of you should be doing that kind of work. I mean, you employ men to do it for you, don't you? Why do you demean yourselves by doing menial work?”

Murdoch leaned back to sit on the edge of his desk top. “It's about respect, Son.”

“I don't understand.”

“Every man on this ranch knows that when we ask him to do a job, we know exactly what we are asking him to do and how long it should take him to do it. It's hard work they do out there and when they see us doing the same things, they respect us for it. Actually, it's a mutual respect.” He waited to see what Laurence's reaction would be, but he said nothing, so Murdoch continued. “I worked this ranch for a lot of years with less help than I have now. I've done everything any of them do, and they know it.”

Laurence frowned. “You mean like… working your way up from the bottom?”

Murdoch nodded. “A little. You have to understand that some of that work out there is dangerous. If something goes wrong, it can go badly wrong. I wouldn't ask any man to do what I wouldn't do myself.”

“I think I see.”

“I'm pleased to hear it.” Murdoch turned his attention to Scott. “When you're showing Laurence around the ranch tomorrow, go right up to the north boundary and tell Homer to check the fence up around the trees at the North End. The storm the other night might have brought some branches down on it. It's happened before.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Laurence, we get up at sunrise around here. Can you do that, or do you want one of us to wake you?”

The horrified expression on the boy's face was priceless. “S…sunrise?” he stammered.

Johnny leaned back in his armchair and smiled. “You get used to it, Kid.”



They had almost finished breakfast when Laurence came in. His shirt was neat and pressed to perfection and he had foregone the string tie for a more ‘casual' look.

Teresa appeared from behind him carrying a red bandana which she tied around his neck. “There, that's better,” she said with a broad smile. “Now you look just like you should.”

“Not quite.” It was Johnny and that hard look was back in his eyes. He stood up and sauntered over to the boy. “You know how to use that?” He pointed to the gun in a holster tied very low on the boy's leg. Murdoch and Scott looked at each other uncomfortably but said nothing.

Laurence's eyes widened. “Of course I do. Is something wrong? Everyone seems to wear one around here.”

“Not tied low like that,” Johnny told him. “You wear a gun that way and you'd better know how to use it. It's an invitation to trouble.”

“But you wear it this way. So does Scott.”

“Scott's gotten pretty good with a handgun and he still doesn't wear it that low and me… I know how to answer that kind of trouble. You don't.”

“I don't understand what the problem is. It's comfortable and…”

“Laurence,” Scott said with quiet patience. “Mostly gunfighters wear their gun that low on the hip.”

The boy straightened his shoulders and looked Johnny in the eyes. “I'll have you know that I'm considered a marksman at home. I've won several competitions.”

A smirk crept across Johnny's mouth. “Have you now? Marksmanship, huh? Let's see… you pull your gun, steady your hand and take aim… right?”

“Yes,” he answered defiantly. “And I have a reputation for not missing what I aim at.”

Johnny dropped his head and sighed heavily. “Come out back and show me.”

“Johnny!” Murdoch got quickly to his feet.

“Don't get all het up, Murdoch. I'm not going to call him out or anything. But do you want him walkin' around like that?”

“No, but I don't want the whole ranch running over here to see what's going on either,” Murdoch told him bluntly.

“Then we'll be nice an' quiet.” Johnny took a somewhat flustered Laurence out through the back door into Teresa's garden. On his way past Maria, he picked up an empty can.

He set it up on top of the wall and walked back ten paces to where he had left Laurence. “Show me what you can do.”

The boy pulled his gun from the holster and took his time aiming.

“Oh, hell, Kid… just shoot the damned thing.”

Laurence turned and scowled angrily before looking back and taking careful aim. He squeezed off the shot and, to his credit he hit the can and knocked it clean off the wall.

Johnny waited until he returned the pistol to his holster and then walked over to retrieve the can. He placed it on the wall, walked back to where the boy stood and then spun around and fired. He watched the can leap skyward and fall back to the ground – a hole shot through it, dead centre – and casually slipped the gun back to his holster.

Stunned, the boy could barely speak. “Can… can Scott do that too?”

“Nope, but he's pretty good – better with a rifle.”

“I… I had no idea… Would you teach me…?”

“No.” There was no arguing with his tone of voice. “Kid, listen to me. You're not here to learn that trade. You're here to learn about ranching. The first thing I want you to do is adjust that gun belt. You want to wear it, fine, but not hung low like that.”

Scott watched from the doorway. Johnny walked away from the boy, his point made, and went back inside. He passed by Scott in the doorway. “Yep, that was nice and quiet,” Scott said, grinning.

“Yeah, well he understands now. That's the important thing,” Johnny said quietly, then went back to his breakfast.

Scott nodded and turned to look over to where Laurence was still standing. “Come on in, Laurence. Breakfast is still waiting for you and we've got a lot to see today.”

The boy seemed to shake himself back to his senses. “Yes, of course.”

They rode out as soon as they had saddled their horses and took canteens as well as sandwiches tucked safely in their saddlebags, courtesy of Teresa. Scott showed him as much as he could in one morning, eventually taking him up to the South Mesa line shack so he could point out most of the rest. It was the highest point on the ranch and from there a person could see clear out into the San Joaquin Valley as well as back into their own valley.

“It's certainly bigger than I would have thought, Scott,” Laurence told him.

“Lancer is bigger than most, but there's just as much work on the smaller ranches because they don't have as many hands working for them.” He had shown him work crews doing different jobs from riding boundaries and checking fences to hazing out strays and clearing out a blocked creek.

They stopped in the shade of an oak near the line shack to eat the sandwiches Teresa had provided. The horses were ground tied and nibbling contentedly at the still choice grass there.

“You really do enjoy it here don't you, Scott?” Laurence asked.

“Yes. I don't have to stay if I don't want to. I could go back to Boston any time I chose but I want to be here. I relish the work and I have my family here.”

“I don't know that I could, stay here I mean.”

Scott wasn't surprised. “I don't think anyone expects you to. I think your father only wants you to understand that we aren't all ruffians and barbarians out here.” He chuckled softly. “It's a tough life for some and it makes for tough men. You will need to understand that when you're talking contracts with them.”

He looked at the lost look on the boy's face. “Laurence, did you really come here of your own free will?”

“I agreed to it,” he answered, evading the question. “I think my father has more in mind than my just getting to know the cattle business. I think he wants you to make a man of me.”

“When I spoke to him, he sounded very proud of you. I'm sure you're wrong about that.”

His head was down. “I wish I could believe you.” He looked up then, his eyes looking directly into Scott's. “But I'm not going to let you down. I'm here to learn – and learn I will.”

Scott let it go. He finished off his sandwich and allowed Laurence to do the same, then he got to his feet. “We'd better get going if we're going to get that message to Homer. It's a good hour and a half of riding to get to the North End. We'll head home after that.”

He watched the boy get to his feet rather tentatively, stretching a little and trying valiantly not to wince.

Scott sympathized with him. “You can head back to the house now it you'd rather. I can go to the North End on my own.”

“No! No, that's not necessary.”

“Laurence, you're not used to being in the saddle all day. There's no reason why you should have to come with me.”

“No! I'm fine.”

“Alright, but once we start, we won't have time to turn back.”

“I'm okay.”

They mounted and turned their horses northward. Every now and then, Scott cast a surreptitious glance at Laurence but he seemed to be holding up well enough. He did ride well. There was no doubt of that. It was only a lack of practice that might be a problem and even a tried and tested cowhand could feel it after a long day in the saddle.

Nearly two hours later, Laurence asked, “Just how much further is it?”

“We're nearly there.”

“Just who is this Homer who we have to see?” the boy asked him.

“He's one of the hands. He's riding the north boundary at the moment. It's his job to ride the fence line and fix any breaks in the wire or downed posts, keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary – wolves, mountain lions, even rustlers. Homer's got the North End fence line for a couple weeks and then one of the other men will take over from him.”

“Do you mean that he rides all the way out here and back every day?”

“No, he'll have set up a camp for himself. The men mostly use the same campsite all the time. They use the line shacks when the weather's bad. They're a bit too far from the fence to use every night.”

“Two weeks at a time? It must get lonely.”

Scott shrugged. “Yes. That's why we pay them an extra two dollars if they've taken their turn that month. Actually, some of the men seem even to enjoy it.”

“Have you ever done it?”

“Sure, a couple times. Johnny and I do it less often. I guess there are some benefits to being the boss after all.” He laughed. “But Murdoch made sure we both took a turn when we started and we've done it when we've been short-handed too.”

They reached the North End and, from a rounded knoll, they looked out over the miles of fence. By chance, Homer was in sight, probably about a mile off.

Reaching the rider was soon done and Murdoch's message was passed on. Homer Paxton was an unkempt man – unshaven and unbathed. He was one of those men who was suited to his stint as boundary rider and he made it known that he enjoyed the lonely work and the extra two dollars. A man in his late fifties, Homer was an enigma to most of the Lancer hands – a man who lived and worked mostly alone.

They shared a cup of coffee with him, Laurence looking him over uncertainly, before preparing to leave.

When asked if he had seen anything of note, he replied casually, “There's been sign of a big cat here an' there.”

It caught Scott's attention. “A cougar! Have you found any kills?”

“Yeah, deer mostly, but I've seen his prints. I reckon he's big enough to bring down a steer if he'd a mind to.”

Scott considered it. The main herd was in the south pasture but would be moved up here soon. There were plenty of calves among them to tempt a big cat. “There's only a dozen or so strays here for now, but keep an eye on things. I'll tell Murdoch about the cat and you get word to us if it takes any cattle.”

“Sure thing, Scott.”

They left then and went straight back to the house. The boy dismounted with a pronounced wince that did not go unnoticed by Jelly Hoskins.

Jelly's shoulders shook as he chortled and finally grinned. “That saddle get a mite wearisome, did it, Boy?”

Laurence cast him a dark look. “I am not your boy. I'll thank you to keep a civil tongue.”

“Laurence!” The boy was startled by Scott's tone and spun around to face him.

“Aw, don't worry none, Scott,” Jelly said good-naturedly. “Boy's bound to be techy with blisters on his tail.” He took the horses reins. “I'll get young Rodrigo to rub the horses down for ya. An' you,” he said looking at Laurence,” I've got a liniment that'll fix that tail o' yours real quick. It might not smell like roses, but it'll do the trick.”

“Thank you,” Laurence said meekly.

“You get yourself into a tub,” Jelly continued. “Hot water an' salt, that'll do for a start.”

“Come with me,” Scott said firmly. “I'll have that bath set up for you.” He led the way to the back of the house, the boy following slowly and in obvious discomfort, while Jelly chortled some more and led the horses into the barn.

“You should have come back after lunch when I suggested it,” Scott continued. “You're no good to us here if you can't ride.”

Laurence straightened his shoulders. “I didn't want you to think me incapable of doing what you do.”

Scott left him in Maria's hands after telling her the problem. When he left them, Maria was clucking and sympathizing over the boy and brought out a box of salt for him, then began ordering hot water for his tub. He grinned as he walked inside. It would serve the boy right if she wanted to inspect the damage.

As it was, Jelly was likely to slap that liniment on the boy's butt to make sure it was well-covered. One thing Lancer did not lack for was nursing. At least Murdoch would see to it that Teresa didn't try to mother him as well.

He walked into the Great Room to find Murdoch and Johnny poring over some papers on the desk – Murdoch seated and Johnny leaning over his shoulder. Both looked up when they heard him come in.

“How did it go with Laurence?” asked Murdoch.

“Saddlesore.”

Johnny broke into laughter, but Murdoch turned his head and frowned him down. Johnny broke off and Murdoch turned back to Scott. “Bad?”

“I doubt it. He can walk. Maria's got him in a hot salt bath and Jelly's threatened him with one of his liniments.”

“We'd better find him something to do close to home tomorrow then,” Johnny suggested, still obviously battling to keep from laughing. He looked at Scott. “You still want to help with those horses?”

“Yes. Murdoch?”

He nodded. “Alright. It won't hurt him to see how it's done.” He turned his attention back to the papers on his desk. “We were just discussing the situation in the south pasture. It's getting over-grazed. We have to move the herd sooner than we planned.”

“What was it like up north?” Johnny asked.

“Good. The grass hasn't burned off in the heat yet. We'd get a month or so out of it, I think.”

“And then we can move them up into the foothills for the rest of the summer,” Murdoch added. “Did you talk to Homer?”

Scott walked closer to the desk and set his hat down on it. “Yes, he's checking the fence like you said. He also mentioned seeing signs of a cougar – a big one he says.”

Murdoch scowled. “I don't like the idea of that – not if we have to move the herd up there. The calves make easy targets.”

“So far, he's only seen deer kills.”

“We'll have to keep on top of that.” Murdoch shook his head. “I'm not one for killing off every cougar we see, but we can't afford to lose stock either.” He changed tack. “Now, tomorrow…”

They discussed the horse-breaking that Johnny planned to get started in the morning – how many men he'd need and the good points he'd noticed in one or two of the animals. The conversation was just winding down when Laurence walked into the room, still looking decidedly uncomfortable.

“Good evening, Sir,” he said as he joined them. He nodded slightly to acknowledge Johnny as well.

“Hello, Laurence,” Murdoch said. “Did you have a good day?”

“Yes, Sir. Most illuminating and… big.”

Johnny grinned mischievously. “You wanta sit down?”

Murdoch turned and glared at him. “Johnny!”

The boy blushed scarlet. “I'm sure I'll be fine in the morning, Johnny. It's amazing what a hot bath can do for you… and your man Hoskins has provided me with his liniment. He swears by it.”

“You can rely on Jelly to have just the thing, Laurence,” Murdoch told him. “And you'll be watching Johnny and Scott work the new horses tomorrow so… er… no riding.”

The boy looked relieved. “That sounds interesting. I look forward to it.”

“Oh, and Scott,” Murdoch said, as if just remembering something. “We've had a letter from that rancher near Soledad about buying some horses.”

“The man Johnny was talking to at the Stockton cattle sales?” Scott asked.

“Yes, he's looking to buy about ten work horses off us if we have them to spare. The trouble is that we don't.” Murdoch sighed. “Your brother wants to sell him the horses we've just brought in.”

Scott exchanged a questioning glance with Johnny. “Could you get them broken in time?”

Johnny nodded. “Haskell says next month will do for delivery. That's plenty of time.”

“And what about our own needs?” Murdoch growled.

“There's plenty more where these came from,” Johnny told him.

“Yes and it means you being away from where you're needed for twice as long. We're not in the horse business, Johnny.”

“Maybe not, but a little extra cash wouldn't hurt any, Murdoch,” Johnny countered. “The horses are there, ready for breaking. For a few weeks work, we could make a good profit.”

“He's right you know, Murdoch,” Scott agreed. “It might not be something we would go out of our way to get into, but if the opportunity is there to make a quick profit, why not?”

Murdoch dropped his gaze to the papers in front of him. “Yes, I know. It does make sense.” Behind him, Johnny was smiling at his small victory. “Alright, go ahead. The money will cover most of the outlay for Hercules.”

Laurence looked confused so Scott explained, “The new stud bull.”

“Oh.”

“Just don't get yourself banged up, Johnny,” Murdoch warned him. “I'll still need you when we move the herd.”

“You bet, Murdoch.”





CHAPTER FOUR

Laurence watched with fascination as Johnny and two other men took turns to climb aboard one mustang after another. Each horse bucked and kicked and whirled like a dervish in an effort to unseat the man-creature on its back.

More than once, the riders ended up in the dirt with savagely sharp hooves pounding the earth around them. The other men would distract the maddened horse while the rider got to his feet and would then hold the animal as steady as they could while it was mounted again.

It was hot, dusty and dangerous work, yet everyone seemed to be having a good time. Laurence looked on, not only at the horses and riders, but at the gathering of spectators – yahooing, laughing and even applauding at times.

“I think I should like to try that,” Laurence told Scott.

Johnny grinned, hearing him. “Not with a blistered tail.”

“Which one are you trying next, Brother?” asked Scott, leaning his crossed arms on the top rail.

“That little strawberry roan over there.” He pointed to the animal - a small, insignificant horse compared to most of the others. Its head was lowered but its ears twitched and she skittered away when anyone went close.

Scott frowned. “Why? She doesn't look much like your style. No challenge in her.”

Johnny shook his head. He lifted his hat and wiped the sweat from his brown before resettling it. “Nope. She's got a mean eye that one. She'll be trouble all right.” He clambered up to sit on the rail and called out, “Jesus, that one next.”

“Si, Señor.” The horse fought the rope when the lasso looped over its head but there was none of the desperation that most of the other horses had shown. She sidled nervously away from the saddle but settled into acceptance of her fate soon enough.

“A dollar says you're wrong,” Scott told Johnny.

“I'm never wrong, Boston. You're on.” He smiled mischievously and tilted his head a little to one side. “It you're so sure of her, why don't you try her?”

“You're right, why don't I?” Scott laughed and climbed through the rails. He walked quietly over to the horse.

“You watch her, Scott,” Johnny called out. “Don't let her fool you.”

When they had her ready, Scott slipped one boot into the stirrup and waited a moment, watching and gauging her reaction, and setting himself for the ride to come. There was no reaction, but for her turning her head back towards him. He knew she'd have bitten him if she could, but there was no fire in her.

He pulled himself up into the saddle and waited for the fight. Jesus let go of her head and stepped back, but nothing happened. She lowered her head to the ground as if in defeat and snorted. Nothing…

“Come on, you spitfire,” Scott urged her quietly, still ready for action. Nothing…

Johnny was playing one of his games. Scott was sure of it. There were sniggering laughs around the corral and Scott knew that he was the butt of his brother's joke.

“Yes, Johnny, she's a mean one alright,” he called out sarcastically, glancing to where his brother sat.

“Don't let your guard d…” Johnny's warning came too late. To everyone's surprise, particularly Scott's, the little horse tensed and erupted like Vesuvius. Arching her back and pointing her hooves wickedly, she rose and twisted at once.

Scott's hat fell off with that first vicious leap and it was all he could do to stay in the saddle. She'd fooled him gloriously but he managed to plant his feet firmly in the stirrups and tighten his grip with his knees, holding on desperately to the ropes as the little inferno beneath him tried her best to unseat him.

For ten minutes, she threw everything at him. She bucked and kicked and whirled – all the while with her head low to the ground and screaming wildly.

As suddenly as she had erupted, the fire went out of her. She eased off and trotted around the corral, head high and her tail streaming behind her. She had a prancing step that felt good beneath him.

Jesus ran out to take her head and Scott jumped down. His legs were sore and he suspected that a hot salt bath might be in order for him this time, but he wandered over to Johnny.

“How did you know?” he asked him, picking up his hat and dusting it off, then roughly tidying his hair before setting the hat back on his head. He was breathing and sweating heavily and climbed through the rails to stand beside Johnny and Laurence. “You did know, didn't you?”

“Yep.” There was a gleam of amusement in Johnny's eyes.

“How could you know that horse would do that?” Laurence asked.

Johnny shrugged. “She's got a mean eye, like I said. She's a smart one.” He looked back over his shoulder as the horse was led away. “And don't go thinking she's broke either. She'll do that every time for a while yet. But she'll make one hell of a cutting horse one of these days.”

“Once she stopped, she had a beautiful step,” Scott told hm. “But I think you're right. She's not broken.”

Johnny climbed down and slapped Scott on the back. “Let's get some lunch.” He smiled happily. “You did fine, Boston. I'm proud of you. But you owe me a dollar.”



By late afternoon, Johnny was pleased with the progress of the horse-breaking. Some of them were ready to proceed to training though some, including the strawberry roan, would need more work.

Apart from a few bruises, and some bruised egos, there were no injuries either. Even Murdoch was happy with the results.

After dinner, plans were made for the next few days. Murdoch sat in his big armchair, a glass of brandy in his hand, and laid out the next few days.

“Johnny, you stick with the horses. Get as much done with them as you can over the rest of the week. Scott, I want you to oversee things in the south pasture. When you get there, divide the men between you and Frank and put the herd together. Get them ready to move next week if you can. That grass is not all that's running low. Miguel tells me that some of the waterholes in the south pasture are about done too.”

“Excuse me, Mr. Lancer, but just what is involved in this kind of move? Surely you just ‘move' them?” Laurence asked, leaning forward.

“Cattle don't just stand around in bunches for long, Laurence. The herd is spread out over acres of pasture. They will need to be rounded up and herded together and that will take a while.”

“I see.”

“You can stay here if you like,” Murdoch told him. “I mean, if you er… don't feel up to it.”

The boy smiled. “Thank you, but I'm sure I'll be fine, Sir.”

“It's hot, dusty work, Laurence,” Scott warned him. “You'll be camping out for a few nights.”

The boy straightened his shoulders haughtily. “I believe that's what I'm here for, Scott.”

Murdoch smiled. “That's the spirit, Son. We'll get you a bedroll and some saddle bags and you'll be all set.”

Johnny grinned. “And take that liniment with you.”

They left early next morning – Scott and Laurence as well as a dozen of the hands, one of them leading a packhorse carrying supplies. Scott looked over at the boy once or twice and decided that, if he was still feeling the soreness, he was making sure none of them knew it.

The cool freshness of the early morning did not last long. The dew on the grass had already dried off before they had gone even a few miles. As it rose higher in the sky, the sun's glare became painful to the eyes so, one by one, the men pulled their hats down lower.

It was well over an hour before they reached the south pasture. There were cattle all around, scattered in small groups and others grazing alone. They looked to be in good condition but Scott took note of the grass. Johnny had been right. It was down to the roots in some places. They needed to move the herd soon to the greener, untouched pasture to the north.

Scott pulled the group of men to a halt and dismounted. The rest of them following his lead. “We'll make camp over there in that grove of oaks,” he told them. “The creek's there for water for the horses.”

He turned to Mal Ferris. “Mal, I'll leave it to you to get the camp set up for us. Frank, you take two men and herd the cattle close by together over there in the basin and keep them there. The rest of you split up into pairs and start rounding up the strays and herd them back to Frank and his men.”

“What do you want me to do, Scott?” Laurence asked as the men sifted away to their tasks.

“You stay with me. Just watch for a while. You'll soon get the hang of it.”

He did watch, intrigued by the way the horse Scott rode seemed to need so little direction from him when cornering a steer and hazing it out of the brush. It certainly looked easy enough and he gave it a try, only to find that cattle were possibly the dumbest and most frustrating creatures ever created. If he turned the horse one way to cut off the animal's path, it would shoot back the other – and the younger the animal, the more frustrating its behavior.

But the horse he'd chosen was a good one. It seemed to know, better than him, what the steer was going to do. He let the animal have its head and, by the end of the day, he had managed to be of some help to Scott. Between them they ushered a small bunch of cattle back to the herd.

Dinner was a rough and ready affair with coffee, biscuits and beans – hardly appetizing but filling enough. Scott set two men to ride what he called ‘night herd' and the rest of the men settled down to joke, tell some tall tales and to play cards. He listened with interest and found that, slowly, they began to include him.

He was particularly intrigued watching one of the men knot and unknot his rope. He deftly tied all kinds of knots for the amusement of his friends. The man noticed and showed him the trick to doing a couple of them before asking, “You know how to swing a rope, Kid?”

Laurence shook his head. “I'm afraid not.”

“Well, we'd better teach ya real quick. You'll need to be able to toss a lasso out here,” he said with a grin that showed off tobacco-stained teeth in the firelight. “You see me at first light ‘fore we head out. I'll see what I can learn ya.”

“Thank you. I will.”

The party broke up very early. It would be an early start again and another hard day tomorrow. Laurence spread the bedroll that the Lancers had supplied him with and found that it was only a couple of blankets to sleep on.

He lay down and found that it was just as uncomfortable as he had feared it would be. As soon as he reached under the blanket and located one small annoying stone under his back and disposed of it, another replaced it.

He found it hard to sleep. The moon was bright above them. The horses moved and rustled about. At least three of the men snored in a lusty chorus and, somewhere, an owl hooted. When he closed his eyes, he fancied he heard something moving in the bushes nearby.

“Laurence, just go to sleep, will you?” Scott hissed at him from where he lay a few feet away.

He sighed. “Yes, of course. I'm sorry.”

He lay down again and determined not to toss any more and was surprised when he woke some hours later and realized that he had fallen asleep after all. The aroma of coffee and bacon cooking filled the air and men were already milled around the campfire eating.

He pulled on boots, pants and a fresh shirt from his saddle bag and went off to the creek to freshen up as best he could, then joined the men at breakfast. It was hardly what he was used to but his hungry stomach offered no complaint.

“Over here, Kid,” came the voice of the man who had offered to teach him about roping.

Laurence looked towards the voice and found him; scoffed down the last of the biscuit he'd been eating and swallowed one last mouthful of coffee, then went over to join him.

“Name's Will Harkness, Son. Ain't been formally interduced have we?”

“No. I'm Laurence Latham.” He offered his hand to shake and Harkness, a powerfully built man in his thirties with skin tanned like rawhide from years of working in the sun, all but wrenched it off as he pumped it vigorously up and down.

“Nice ta meet ya, Laurie. Now, let's start with the basics – this here lariat is braided rawhide. See? Has to be real strong to hold a runnin' steer or mustang an' to let the loop set flat.”

Harkness showed him how to hold it, coil it and dally it on a saddle horn, then he showed him how to open out a loop through the honda and to swing it. He made it all look easy and then handed it over to the boy to try, patiently showing him how to aim and throw it.

A few of the other men came over to watch the show and soon began offering their own advice. It seemed that, while the basics were the same, most of them had their own preferences about how to use it.

“There's only two throws ya need to know, Laurie,” Will Harkness told him. Laurence opened his mouth to correct his name but decided it would be impolite considering the man's good nature in teaching him. “First is to catch the critter ‘round the horns. That'll stop a calf most times; otherwise you flick it over his hind hooves.”

He casually, and without appearing to take aim in any way, tossed the loop over a tree stump ten feet away. “One or t'other will bring him to a stop. ‘Course, if you're goin' after a cow or full-growed steer, sometimes it's quicker ‘n easier to work as a team – one ropes the horns ‘n the other ropes the hooves.”

He handed over the rope to the boy. “Here, you have a go.”

Laurence's first attempts, aiming at the tree stump, were less than successful and raised embarrassing snickers from some, but encouragement from most.

“Practice is all it takes now, Kid,” Harkness told him. “When ya can rope that tree stump, next thing is to try it on somethin' that moves.” He grinned at one of the boy's mockers and added, “Like Joe there.”

Joe only growled back a blue suggestion at Harkness and swaggered off to the campfire leaving the others laughing.

“Allus the friendly sort is Joe,” Will said laughing and slapped Laurence on the back. “Now, we better get some work done or we'll be outa a job.”

Laurence joined Scott again and the day was spent in much the same way as yesterday, hazing out strays and bringing them back to the main herd. They went further afield this time and brought back twenty beasts by lunch time, and about the same after.

He was so tired when it came time for dinner that he didn't care that it was beans and biscuits again. Nor did he have any trouble sleeping. He managed to get up early this time and grabbed the rope to practice.

“You're getting good at that,” Scott admitted, having watched him toss the loop over the tree stump three times in a row.

Harkness ambled up beside Scott. “Yep, he's a nat'ral. We oughta cut out a calf for him to try later.”

Scott nodded and then walked over to take a look at the herd they had assembled so far. Laurence followed him and shook his head in wonder.

“That's a lot of cattle, Scott.”

“Yes, I figure close to a thousand. Not bad for two days work. By next week, we should have that number doubled and then pick up a few more strays as we head north to the new pasture.”

The cattle were still bedded down, resting. They would soon be up and grazing though and Laurence wondered whether the few men Scott had assigned to herding them would be enough. Surely, if all those cattle decided to move at once…

“Might need to move them up to the stream, Scott,” Frank said as he walked over to join them.

“I was just thinking the same thing.” Scott considered the herd some more. “There are some young calves among that herd. We'll have to move slowly or risk losing some of them.”

“Yeah, I reckon get started early while their still settled. Take half the day to move them the five miles up to the stream. Should be an easy an enough pace for those young ones.”

“Sounds good. Send Mal and Miguel forward to set up camp and you keep the rest of the men here to move them. I'm going to check out those waterholes near the road. There's likely to be strays over there and I might as well get them now so we don't have to come back this way.”

“Okay, we'll see you tonight then.”

“Come on, Laurence,” Scott said. “We've got work to do.”

The first waterhole proved to be fruitless. It was little more than a shallow basin and had dried out some time ago. There was nothing left but hard baked mud. There were no cattle anywhere near it, but the second waterhole had enough water left in the middle of it to tempt unwary cattle. It was surrounded by thick sticky mud that had been turned to mush by cattle and was deep enough in places to mire anything that tried to get near the water.

They could see a cow was stuck out there long before they got close enough to hear its plaintive bawling.

“Damn!” Scott dismounted at the edge of the mud.

“How do we get it out?” Laurence asked, still sitting in the saddle.

“Hopefully, the easy way.” He took the lasso from his saddle and dismounted, then hurled it at the cow's horns. It dropped its head just as the rope landed and tossed it off but Scott's second attempt looped around the horns neatly.

He pulled the rope tight and went back to his horse to dally the rope and mount up. He tried backing the horse up until the rope tightened but the cow didn't, or couldn't, budge.

“So much for the easy way,” Scott growled.

“What now?”

“The hard way.”

“And that is…”

“You take the rope and I go out there and see if I can move her.”

Laurence's jaw dropped. “Out there?”

“Unless you want to do it.”

“No, I should say not!”

Scott grinned, throwing his hat to the ground. “Then you'd better hope this works because otherwise you will be.”

He handed over the rope and watched Laurence dally it to make sure he did it right before dismounting and walking out toward the stricken cow.

“Walk your horse forward a step and slacken the rope off a bit, Laurence,” he called back at him when he reached the edge of the mud. “I'll tell you when I want you to pull on it – not before. Right?”

“Right.”

Laurence watched him start out into the mud. It was obviously hard work. His boots went deeper with each step and the mud grabbed hard, making it difficult to pull his feet free. He trudged along the line of the rope, occasionally laying his hand on it to maintain his balance, so at least Laurence knew he could pull Scott free if he got mired himself.

“Laurence, tighten the rope, good and firm now,” Scott called out as he got close. “But don't pull on it.”

Laurence backed up enough to draw the cow's head up and keep it there, then he stopped. Scott cautiously went closer and pulled the beast's legs free. It lowed in protest as he pushed and shoved, but he finally got the animal to move.

“Keep the line taut,” Scott yelled as the animal took a couple of tentative and awkward steps.

The boy backed the horse a little more and concentrated on the cow's movements, trying to match its progress with keeping the rope up.

Without warning, the cow leapt forward. Laurence was taken by surprise and jerked back on the reins and the horse answered by backing up. The effect was disastrous.

The rope pulled too tight and yanked the cow, now free of the mire, forward. Scott's hand was on the rope and he was pitched gracelessly into the mud. It was by sheer luck that the panicked beast missed Scott when it plunged forward to the bank of the waterhole.

Laurence found himself with a wild-eyed cow at the end of the rope. It pulled and leapt about angrily but his horse was a trained cowpony and instinctively planted its feet. But Laurence had no experience to fall back on and was near panic himself.

The cow reached the grass and pulled with all its strength against the rope while Laurence knew nothing more than to hold his seat if he could. It twisted and fought until exhaustion finally took over. The battle against the mud had sapped so much of its strength that it surrendered to the rope sooner than Laurence expected.

Quiet now, panting and snorting, the cow came to a standstill. Laurence was unsure of his next move so he waited until he was certain that the cow had settled down before dismounting. He watched it nervously and then turned back to the mud and Scott.

Scott was down in the mud, trying to get his feet back under him. Laurence ran forward and out into it to help him.





CHAPTER FIVE

Scott was on his feet but obviously finding it hard to get out of the mud. Nevertheless, he held up a hand to halt the boy.

“Don't come in any further, Laurence,” he called to him. “There's no point in you getting mired in this muck too.”

Laurence stopped immediately. “But…”

“It's alright, I'm not stuck. It's just hard going and I think I've done something to my ankle.”

Scott dragged himself slowly out of the mud and, when he reached the harder surface and was able to walk without pulling his legs out of the quagmire, Laurence saw that he was walking with a pronounced limp.

He went forward onto the dried mud flat and pulled Scott's arm over his own shoulder to help him as they made their way back to the bank.

“Thank you,” Scott said, grimacing as he sat down. He was breathing hard and sweating and grabbed at his ankle.

Scott was covered in thick sludgy mud from the knees down, and from his chest down as well from the fall. It was on his hands and had splattered his face so that he was a mess.

Laurence screwed his nose and tried to pretend that his ‘mentor' didn't stink to high heaven as well. “That's an awful lot of trouble for one cow,” he told him.

“That one cow is worth forty dollars on its own, Laurence, and it could be the mother of a whole lot of forty dollar cows in the future. We lose enough to the elements without just giving up on one that we can save.” He flicked his hands, trying to rid them of mud but without success so he tried wiping his hands off on each other. That had even less success. Finally, he managed to scrape some of it off on the grass beside him.

“Help me get this boot off, will you?”

“Yes, of course. Scott, I'm so sorry. I saw the cow jump forward and I overreacted. I don't know what to say.”

“You don't need to say anything, Laurence. It was an accident.” He had drawn up his knee and was pulling at the boot. “Just help me get this damned boot off!”

The layer of mud made the boot slippery and hard to manage. By the time Scott's foot was finally free of the boot, he was clearly in pain. Laurence knew little about how to check for injuries and felt less than useless.

“We should get you back to camp,” he said. “Your ankle is badly swollen. It might be broken.”

“Yes, can you help me up?”

Once standing, Scott tried to put weight on it and winced sharply, pulling it off the ground again. “I don't think it's broken but I'm not going to be good for much for a day or two.”

“I'm so sorry.”

Scott was exasperated and showed it. “It was an accident, Laurence. Do you hear me?”

“Yes but…”

“Laurence!”

“Yes?”

“Shut up and get me on my horse.”

The mud had dried and was crusted on their skin and clothes by the time they reached the new campsite. Frank helped Scott to get off his horse and sat him down, and then looked at the ankle and shook his head.

“It's going to be a few days before you can get a boot back on it, Scott. Could be it's busted, too. I reckon you're better off going back to the hacienda and resting up there.”

“You're right, of course. I'll be no use to you here,” Scott admitted reluctantly. “You're in charge then, Frank. Johnny should be nearly finished breaking those horses so I'll send a couple of men out here to replace us.” He glanced over his shoulder. “I'll take Laurence back with me.”

“Okay, we'll be finished up here in a few days. You can tell Mr. Lancer that we'll be ready by Tuesday, I reckon.”

“Thanks, Frank.” He turned his attention to the boy. He was standing behind Frank, wringing his hands nervously. “Can you get the horses ready, Laurence? We're heading home.”

“Yes,” he said dejectedly and walked away to the horses.

Frank followed him. “You lookout for him, Laurence.”

The boy nodded. “I've messed things up terribly, haven't I?”

“I don't know about that, Kid. The way Scott tells it, it was an accident.” He put his hand on the boy's shoulder. “Things like this can happen out here. Bogs, sand pits and quicksand – believe me… they're more dangerous than rattlers, rustlers and women combined.”

A half-hearted smile tickled at the boy's mouth but he ended by shaking his head. “You're well rid of me.”

Frank scowled. “That what you think? That I'm trying to get shod of you? Hell, Kid, don't be a fool. You're going with Scott to see that he gets home safe. Don't want him passing out and falling off his horse out there on his own.” He gave Laurence a friendly shove. “Now git… and you watch out for Scott.”



By sundown, they had not only reached the hacienda but Scott had been cleaned up, his ankle strapped and he had been ushered to bed by everyone from Murdoch on down. Murdoch was pretty certain that his ankle was not broken but he sent for Dr. Jenkins anyway, just to be sure.

“Johnny, you can go out to the south pasture and take over for Scott. He's going to be laid up for a while,” Murdoch told him while they waited for dinner. He was standing by the fireplace, idly swirling a malt scotch in his glass. Johnny sat on the sofa in front of him, stretched back at ease with one heel resting on top of his other foot.

Scott was still in bed. Teresa would take a tray up to him, insisting that he was not to try walking and particularly not downstairs until after Sam had seen him.

“You want me to take the kid with me?” Johnny asked.

Murdoch looked up at him from his chair. “Do you have any objection?”

“Nah. He's green but he'll learn.”

Murdoch nodded. “Good. Take him with you then. In fact, take Jesus out there as well. He's not needed here if you're not going to be working the horses.”

Johnny found nothing in the idea to argue with. He left to go in search of Jesus and gave him his new orders, telling him to be ready to leave early, and then he went off to find Laurence. He found him sitting under a pepper tree in the walled garden, pensively looking out at the sunset.

“Hey, Laurence. How're you doing?”

Laurence looked at him only for a moment before turning back to watch the sunset again. “I'm fine, thank you. How is Scott?”

“Haven't you been up to see him? You can ask him yourself. It ain't like he's dying so he can have visitors.” Johnny grinned but there was no reaction.

“I'm not sure he'd want to see me.”

“Hell, Kid. You oughta know him better than that.”

Johnny walked over to join him. “Anyways, you'd better get washed up for dinner. You're all muddied up, Kid.” He grinned wickedly. “I happen to know Teresa and Maria won't let you sit down at the table looking like that.”

“I'm not all that hungry.”

Johnny strolled over and hoisted himself up to sit on the low wall. He kicked his heels against the adobe. “You know, you really oughta take advantage of that bath. You'll be heading out again at sunup, with me.”

This time the boy did look up. “With you?”

Johnny frowned. “Sure. You got a problem with that?”

“No.” The boy sounded almost panicky. “I didn't mean… I mean… I would never…” he stammered and his eyes widened as he looked into Johnny's eyes. There was real fear there.

“Spit it out, Kid. I know I'm not Scott, but I figure we can work together.”

“Oh yes, I'm sure. It's just…” He stopped again and let his eyes drop to his hands, nervously twisting his fingers.

“We've got nothing much in common?”

“I'm… sure we'll get along just fine,” he finally said. “I'll try not to get in your way. I'm surprised you're not sending me home.”

“In disgrace, huh?” There was mischief in Johnny's voice, if the boy could only hear it.

“I should have been more careful,” he finally said dejectedly.

“Oh, mierda! That's shit, Kid. You made a mistake. You think you're the first one to ever make one?”

“It was a mistake that got Scott hurt.”

“Did you mean to?”

The boy was shocked by the question. “What? No, of course not.”

“Well, it ain't like you shot him or something. Buck up, Kid. There's worse that could've happened.”

He hung his head and Johnny guessed he was still unconvinced. “Laurence, the only one who holds this against you is you. If you can't forget about it, then learn from it. You did learn something, didn't you?”

“Yes.”

“Then put it away and move on.”

“Thank you.”

“Go get in that tub. Like I said – sunup tomorrow.”



Johnny rode out next morning with Jesus on one side of him and Laurence on the other. The day was still crisp and new and the dew still wet on the grass as they headed for the camp to join Frank. Scott had told him where he would find them.

Barranca was frisky, not having had much work in the last few days. The horse pulled at his reins and tossed his head now and then, eager for a run, but Johnny held him in check. He would get more than enough work over the next few days.

Young Latham turned out to be an uncommunicative companion. Johnny tried to start up conversation with him a couple of times, only to be met with monosyllabic answers… so he gave up.

They were more than halfway to the stream where Frank had made camp when a rider came into view. But he wasn't coming from the direction of the herd. He was riding from the north and he was riding hard.

“Johnny!” the man called loudly as he came within shouting distance. He was waving his hat in the air.

Johnny recognized him. “Homer! Qué pasa?”

Reaching them, the man pulled his horse to a hard stop. “Hey, Johnny.” He was breathing hard from the ride. “That cat I told Scott about…” he panted out. “It's taken a steer this time.”

Johnny pulled his hat off and slammed it against his leg. “Damn! That's all we need. We want to move the herd up there next week.”

“I caught him dead to rights, Johnny. Got a bead on him and got a shot off, but I missed him. Lost him when he ran off into the trees.” He swallowed hard, trying to catch his breath. “Thought I oughta get the word back here real quick.”

Johnny sighed. “Yeah, you did right. We sure can't have it taking cattle. It's done it once; it'll find the calves easy prey now.”

Homer nodded. “'Fraid so.”

Johnny took a moment to consider his options. “Alright, Jesus, you ride on to tell Frank what's happened. I'm going to go up to the North End with Homer to try to get that cat.”

“Si, Señor Johnny. Bueno suerte.”

“Gracias, Jesus.” He turned to Laurence. “You go with him, Laurence. You'll be okay with them. Frank will help you with anything you need.”

“No, Johnny, wait. I'd like to go with you and help. I've been hunting with my father lots of times.”

“Hunting what?”

“Well, lots of things… but elk and deer mostly. I'm a good shot with a rifle.”

“This is a cougar, Kid. Whole different thing.” Johnny pulled his hat back on decisively. “They have claws and teeth and brains. This is different, and it's dangerous.”

“But Johnny…”

“No, go with Jesus,” he said decisively. He looked back at the line rider. “You'd better show me the kill, Homer.” He turned Barranca northward and started off towards the North End.

Homer nodded and turned back the way he had come, but first he turned and called back over his shoulder to the boy, “Johnny's right, Kid. This just ain't no work for a greenhorn.”

They rode north together, leaving a chagrinned Laurence with Jesus. Some time later, they crested a grassy hill and Homer pointed to the remains of a full-grown steer below.

Johnny rode down and dismounted to look around. He looked over the carcass. The claw marks made the killer obvious and pieces of the steer had been torn away or chewed… “Looks like it's been dead for a few hours. Some time during the night you think?”

“The cat was here early this morning when I came by,” Homer told him. “I got off one shot at him, then he was gone. Into those trees over yonder.”

He pointed to a grove of trees – oaks and pines mostly – growing at the base of a steep, boulder-strewn hill. The trees thinned out as they grew higher, but there was enough cover there to easily hide the cougar.

The hill itself backed up against the wall of the North Mesa, the area that Murdoch had long ago named the ‘North End' because it formed part of the boundary of the ranch.

Johnny stood up and looked around for tracks, but the ground was parched hard here and the grass that covered it was green and still supple enough to make it impossible to find any sign of a soft-footed cat.

He sighed heavily. “You'd better get back to the fence line, Homer. I'll go after the cat.”

“Alone?”

“Sure, I've done it before, and we have to do something about him sooner than later if we want to bring the herd up here.”

“Yeah, that's for sure,” Homer admitted. He looked unconvinced though. “But Johnny, your pa'd skin me if anything was to happen to you.”

“I'll be fine. I…” He stopped, drawn by the sound of approaching hoof beats. He looked around in that direction and dropped his head in dismay. “Aw hell! Just what I need.”

Laurence pulled his horse to a slow walk and eased up closer to Johnny.

“What are you doing here?” Johnny demanded. His eyes flashed with anger and his hands sat firmly on his hips when he looked up at the boy.

Laurence dropped to the ground and nervously walked over to join Johnny and Homer. “I'm sorry,” he said, “but I'm sure I can be of more use to you here than trying to rope stupid cows.”

“Is that so?”

The boy shifted his shoulders but stood his ground and held his head high. “Yes, I believe it is.”

“Well, you're here now, I guess.”

“Have to admit I'll feel better if you ain't on your lonesome, Johnny,” Homer whispered while the boy went over to look at the carcass.

Johnny's face showed his own thinking though. “Yeah, well if that kid get's hurt, my pa'll skin ME.”

A broad grin broke on Homer's face. “Then I reckon you'll be careful, huh? Even better.”

“Funny.” Johnny turned toward the trees. “Now show me where you last saw that cat.”

“Like I said, over to those trees.”

“Exactly where?”

“Next to that first big ol' boulder. Thought I had him too, right in the cross hairs. But he was too quick. Missed him an' he bolted.”

Johnny went over to look around. The boulder was just big enough and the right color to hide the cougar. On the backside of it, he found a small splash of dark, dried blood.

“Maybe you didn't clean miss him,” he told Homer who was walking over to see what Johnny was looking at. Laurence was tagging right behind him.

Homer stopped beside Johnny and squatted down to look at the blood on the rock. “Damnation! Johnny, if I'd known, or even guessed…”

“I know. But it could also be the steer's blood. It could've rubbed off the cat's face while it stood here.”

“Yeah, maybe, I guess,” Homer agreed doubtfully.

Johnny hoped so too and his reasons were not altogether altruistic. It was true that he hated to think of the animal wounded and suffering, but he also knew that an injured predator, like a big cougar, could be especially dangerous.

“If it's wounded, it'll be easier to track,” Johnny told him optimistically. “That's something. And if we're real lucky, we'll find him already dead.”

“Yeah, could be you will at that.” Homer got to his feet. “I really think I oughta come with ya, Johnny. ‘Specially if he's been hit. He's gonna be real techy now.”

Johnny stood up as well. “No. We'll do fine. Too many of us crashing around will only spook him. We'll never find him that way.”

Together they walked back to the horses. “Mount up, Kid,” he said to Laurence, mounting his own horse. “You got water in that canteen?”

“Yes.”

“Good, what about food?”

“Teresa gave me some jerky and some sandwiches.”

Johnny nodded. “Me too. We'd better save the sandwiches for dinner, in case we have to camp out. If we're out here longer than that, we'll just scare up a rabbit or something.”

They parted from Homer then and headed for the trees.

Laurence looked back over his shoulder. “What about? I mean… are you just leaving the cow there?”

“Steer, Laurence,” Johnny corrected him without thinking. “And yes. Don't worry. The buzzards will soon clean up the mess.”

“Maybe the cougar will come back for the rest,” Laurence suggested.

“Yeah, he might at that,” Johnny admitted. “We'll see if we find any more signs of blood first. If he's been hit bad, he'll more likely hole up somewhere.”

As they entered the grove, the light became more dappled and it took a moment for their eyes to adjust. The air was cooler as well and the ground a bit softer. The grass was a little deeper and Johnny dismounted to look for tracks or blood, or any sign of the cougar passing this way.

He walked forward slowly, leading Barranca, and then stopped to bend down to touch the grass. He rubbed a sticky substance between his fingers and was in no doubt as to what it was. There were a few drops here and then a few more drops a few feet ahead.

Barranca suddenly pulled back on the reins and snorted while Laurence's horse likewise protested.

“Do you think it's close?” Laurence asked, pulling his horse under control.

Johnny shook his head. “This blood is hours old. The horses can probably still smell him though.” He took his time stroking Barranca's long nose and reassured him, crooning softly to him in a mix of Spanish and English, before continuing. “A horse's natural instinct is to turn and run from a cat.”

Laurence actually smiled. “A man's too, I suspect.”

It brought forth a laugh from Johnny. “Yep. Sorry you came?”

“No.”

“Then pull that rifle out of the boot. Keep it handy and keep a lookout while I look for tracks. And don't go shooting at everything that moves,” he said firmly. “One of ‘em might be me.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Johnny closed his eyes and shook his head. “And don't call me ‘Sir'.”

“No S… Johnny.” He had the rifle in his hands and checked the mechanism. Johnny approved and began to hope that the boy really did know something about rifles.

They moved ahead, inching slowly, with Johnny setting the pace as he checked the ground for tracks or more blood spots. He paused now and then, finding evidence of the cougar's presence in the area – a log that had been lacerated by a cat sharpening its claws and a tree where it had scratched deep gouges and left its mark, droppings now and then, though none were less than a day old.

They came to a spot where an overpowering smell stopped them in their tracks. Laurence screwed up in face in disgust. “Phew… what's that smell?”

Johnny grinned. “It's what it smells like – cat pee. Only that's a big cat.” He walked over to look at a nearby tree. It was a pine, with bark clawed off the trunk. “This is his territory alright. He's marked it out, and recently too. That's why the smell is so strong.”

“Then we are in the right place.”

“He's been around here a while,” Johnny said, straightening. “But there's nothing to show that he's been sleeping anywhere around here.”

He moved on, still concentrating on the ground until they came to a narrow game trail. They followed it until it led them to a tiny creek that pooled into a small waterhole. It was only about six feet across at its widest and surrounded by pebble sized stones and mud. There he found the tracks of what had to be every animal within miles, except the ones they were looking for.

Eventually, about an hour later, he called a halt. “No cougar tracks anywhere,” he said in frustration. “This is where we should find some sign but there's nothing. Everywhere else the ground is just too hard for it. And there's no sign of more blood drops either. Guess it can't be too badly hurt if it's stopped bleeding already.”

“What do we do next?”

“Keep on going this way. If we haven't found any trace of him by dusk, we'll head back to the kill and keep an eye out there for the night.”

Laurence frowned, thinking. “Then you do think he might go back for it?”

Johnny nodded. “He was disturbed when he was eating, so he didn't eat his fill. And they're known to go back and drag it off someplace for later,” Johnny explained. “Might get hungry again and since he's hurt, he'll look for an easy meal. Makes sense he might go back.”

He mounted Barranca and waited for Laurence to come up beside him. “If all else fails, we'll go back to Lancer tomorrow and call on Harve Miller to bring his hunting dogs up here.”

Laurence watched, enthralled, as Johnny looked at everything. He checked trees for claw marks, the ground for what he called ‘sign' and bushes for broken twigs, but they found no further trace of the elusive cougar. In the grove, the sunlight was becoming more and more scarce and harder to look for tracks. It would be dark here earlier than out in the open.

“It's as if he's disappeared,” Laurence said at last.

“Nope.” Johnny took off his hat and swiped his forehead. He was hunched forward in the saddle, looking up at a gravel strewn slope that was dotted with rocks that got bigger as the slope went higher towards the sharp wall of the mesa. “More likely he's got a den or a hiding place up there in those rocks. He's a slippery one… damned cunning.”

“Shouldn't we go up there after him then?”

“Not in this fading light,” Johnny said firmly. “That gravel will make it hard work on foot or on a horse – and there'll be plenty of noise to warn him. He'd know we were coming long before we got close. No telling what his reaction might be an' I'm sure as hell not doing that with dark comin' on.”

He went quiet, looking around and obviously thinking hard. Laurence got the feeling that Johnny was planning his next move and waited. Finally, Johnny sat up straight and plumped his hat back on his head.

“We'll go stake out that carcass,” he said at last. He looked back over his shoulder, into the trees. “I've got no mind to camp in these trees tonight – too much cover for the bastard if he decides to get feisty with us.”

Laurence was more than happy to agree with him.





CHAPTER SIX

Johnny led the way back to where they had left the carcass. It was just as well. They had travelled around and around in those trees so much that Laurence had no idea which way was out. He was surprised that Johnny did.

When they found their way back to the dead steer, Laurence discovered that Johnny had been right about the vultures. Half a dozen of the large, ugly birds were there – fighting vigorously over the feast though not appearing to actually get much to eat in between squabbles.

Johnny picked up a few small rocks and hurled them at the birds, sending them fluttering away with a few feathers falling to the ground behind them. They didn't go far though, settling in the closest tree and watching with beady, hungry eyes.

“I hate vultures,” he said lightly. “Anyway, we want some meat left on that steer to lure the cat in.”

They made a simple camp on the other side of the knoll to where the kill lay. It was downwind and there was a good view of the steer if they laid flat on the crest of the little hill. They dared a small fire to make coffee to have with the sandwiches Teresa had supplied them with and picketed their horses a little way off where they were less likely to be heard.

“We'll take turns watching tonight,” Johnny told him. “You think you can stay awake for the first watch?”

“Sure,” Laurence answered confidently.

“I'll take over around midnight. You keep your eyes on that carcass and your rifle ready. You got it?”

“Yes.”

“You'll only get one clear shot at him if he turns up. Make it a good one.”

Laurence nodded. “I will. You can count on me.”

“And if anything goes wrong, call me or fire a shot in the air.”

“Johnny, I can do this.” He spoke with the assurance he felt but Johnny looked worried just the same.

Johnny was worried. He hadn't seen the boy use a rifle and if his style with a handgun was anything to go by, he was overconfident – and overconfidence could lead to some pretty fatal mistakes.

“You know, when your pa came to see us, he said he wouldn't pressure you into coming to us.” The boy looked him in the eyes and there was a wary, skittish look there. “But he did, didn't he?”

Laurence shifted uneasily. “It was my own decision.”

“I know,” Johnny replied. “I know. I believe you. But you weren't real keen, were you?”

The boy looked down at the rifle lying across his lap. “My father felt that I needed more than a formal education. I believe that he thinks this will make a man of me.”

There was disappointment in his voice. Johnny sighed. “Fathers can be tough, I guess. But Kid, we all grow into our boots at our own pace. Don't let anyone rush you. I guess experience is a lot of it, but one man's experience is not the same as everyone else's. You'll be your own man in your own good time.”

“I'm not so very much younger that you,” Laurence said awkwardly.

Johnny nodded. “Yeah, four years maybe.”

“Yet you're so much more a man that I am. Perhaps more than I will ever be. It's there in everything you say and do. Other men respect you. I don't know if I will ever…”

Johnny stretched out on the ground, lying on his side and facing the boy, his elbow on the ground and his head propped up on his hand. He picked doggedly at the grass beside him while he considered his answer.

When he did reply, he didn't look up, but continued plucking tiny pieces of grass. “It's not all about age. Happens that I was on my own kinda young, Laurence. Then I took a path that meant I had to grow up fast – and not really for the good.” He paused. “Men fear me, Laurence. That's not respect. Respect is for Murdoch and Scott, for men like your pa. It's for men who have made good decisions in their lives; who've earned it.”

In the firelight, Johnny saw him frown.

“I wouldn't say that's what I've seen in the men who work for you. What I've seen isn't fear – they like you, and I'd say they respect you as well.”

Johnny looked hard at the boy's face. The kid was certainly serious. Johnny was surprised. In the year that he had been at Lancer, he had come to know that the men liked him. He was more like them than Scott or Murdoch and it made it easy for him to relate to them so it didn't surprise him. He lived on good terms with most of the hands and being their boss did not always sit well with him. But Laurence's words presented him with a new perspective.

It was true, of course, that Scott had told him often enough that he shouldn't sell himself short - but that was Scott, his brother. He didn't see Johnny as others did and he was forever trying to get him to see the world through his eyes.

But the kid had no reason to pretend or lie. It was something of an eye-opener.

“Scott told me that neither of you grew up at Lancer,” the boy continued. “He said that he grew up in Boston with his grandfather and you down south around the Mexican border, with your mother. Is that right?”

Johnny looked at him for a moment. “Kind of. You've got the gist of it. My mama died when I was a kid. After that, like I said, I was on my own.”

“You lived with her family then?”

“Nope. Like I said, I was on my own, though they tried puttin' me in an orphanage.” He grinned. “Didn't like it… so I kinda left.”

“Then how did you get on… with no one to look after you?”

“Scott didn't tell you that part, huh?”

Laurence shook his head. “No.”

“Well, I made the best I could of it and eventually took to gunfighting. I started young, earned some good money… spent most of it.” He grinned. “Built myself a pretty good reputation and nearly got killed doin' it. I wasn't sorry to get outa the business.”

The boy's eyes widened. “I… I had no… idea! I mean… I didn't know.”

Johnny laughed. “You scared?”

“Well… no…” He wasn't convincing. “That… that's why you were so fast with your gun the other day then. Why you said I shouldn't wear the gun belt that way.”

“Yep. I know the trouble it can get you into.”

“I see. I suppose it's also why you look…” He stopped, as if he had bitten his tongue.

“Why I look what?”

“No, I shouldn't have said anything…”

“Spit it out, Kid. No use sitting on it.”

“Well, sometimes… you look sort of… well… dangerous.” He glanced sideways at Johnny as if to gauge his reaction. “You get this look…”

A cunning smile crossed Johnny's lips. “That so?” He picked another leaf of grass and twisted it in his fingers. The silence was heavy between them for a moment. Then he broke it. “That's good. Maybe next time I tell you to do something, you'll do it.”

The boy's face broke into a smile. “Yes, Sir.”

Johnny shook his head. “Laurence, didn't I tell you? Don't call me sir!” He shook his head. “'Laurence', that's a hell of a name to saddle you with!”

Laurence smiled. “It's a sophisticated name, or so Mother says. My mother also says that she named me ‘Laurence' and ‘Laurence' it shall be. Father persists in calling me Laurie and she hates it. My goodness, the number of times she has argued with him over it. She will brook no shortening of my name or nicknames.”

“And you're okay with that?”

The boy shrugged.

“You do everything your mama says?”

“Definitely. I have found that she is invariably right.”

“Invariably, huh?” He grinned. “What did she think of your coming here?”

Laurence shook his head. “Oh, she was against it. She protested volubly with Father, but his mind was made up this time. She can usually talk him out of these things, you know. But his mind was made up. Mama finally said that if I am to take over for him one day, perhaps it would be wise to understand the business better.”

“You want to take over the family business?”

“Oh yes.” This time the boy spoke with real enthusiasm. “I have great plans for the future. Father sees only cattle. He's a cattle broker and that's that. I admit that he made his fortune out of it, but times are changing and the future will be in diversification. I'm sorry to say that California's future won't always ride on the back of the cattle industry, Johnny. There is already a strong trend towards wheat and fruit and vegetables, even wine.”

“That's Scott's favorite argument,” Johnny told him. “Murdoch argues with him day and night when they get started on it.”

“California is still figuring out what she is,” Laurence said sagely. “Spanish, American… gold rush and cattle rush. Father told me about the sky-high prices of cattle when he got started in the gold rush days. But look at the way things are today. More and more farmers are coming in. And with the irrigation plans…”

“Yeah, irrigation has its good points and its bad, from our point of view,” Johnny said. “Access to water is as important to cattlemen as it is to the farmers, but it's bringing in more homesteaders and there are some who don't like that much. It's squeezin' some of the smaller ranchers out already.”

“But there's more than enough land to share, Johnny.”

“Cattle need a lot of land to graze, Kid, sometimes less than one head per acre. If you have a good sized herd, you need a whole lot of acres to feed ‘em. We move them around a lot, like now when the grass is down in one paddock and we take them to another. Homesteaders come in an' see that land, looking like it's not being used, an' they figure it could be better used for farming.”

The boy frowned, thinking about it. “I never thought of it that way.”

Johnny leaned forward and sat up. “And that ‘No Fence Law' they brought in? You got any idea how much it cost us to fence a place like Lancer and keep it up?” Johnny shook his head. “You're right, you know. The days of running just cattle alone are numbered, maybe even over already, but that don't mean the cattlemen have to like it.”

“But you grow crops, I saw the fields.”

“Feed for the cattle,” Johnny explained. “We've got fields of alfalfa too. There's also orchards and vegetables, even a herb garden that Teresa keeps. But it's all for Lancer and to feed either the cattle or us.”

“Would it be hard for you to diversify then?”

Johnny shrugged. “Maybe not, but I don't see myself roping a plough, Kid.”

Laurence nodded. “Yes, I see your point. I never saw it this way before. I can see now why there is so much friction between the cattlemen and the farmers. It's a much more complicated issue than I thought.”

“Well, if it's got you thinking, then…” He stopped. The high-pitched scream of a cougar cut through the night and brought Laurence to his feet, rifle held tight and ready.

Johnny remained where he was but looked back over his shoulder in the direction of the cat's scream. “Well, we know he's still alive,” he said. “Sit down, Laurence. He's a long way off.”

“Should we go after him?”

Johnny laughed lightly. “And how do you plan to see the tracks?”

“Yes, you're right.” The boy relaxed somewhat. “I suppose I should go up there to the hilltop and get myself set for the night.”

“And I oughta get myself some shuteye. You sure you'll be okay up there?”

“Yes, there's enough moonlight to see quite a long way.”

“Don't fall asleep.”

The boy smiled. “I'm sure I can handle this assignment without doing something wrong.”

“Okay, but you call out if you need me.”

Laurence smiled as he turned to walk up the hill. “Certainly, Johnny.”



The night passed without incident – and without any sign of the cougar, with the exception of that one chilling scream.

Johnny had relieved Laurence around midnight, as planned. He'd been pleased to find the boy was still awake and alert. He had intentionally chosen to take the later shift thinking that if the animal was going to show up, it would most likely be in the dead of night or early hours of the morning.

Nothing turned up but the vultures that Johnny had scared off the day before.

At dawn, Johnny went down to check the kill, just to make sure that neither of them had missed anything. There were no tracks. The dew was still wet and undisturbed except by the birds. He turned away from them. He just couldn't abide those damned birds.

He knew all about the natural way of things and that they served a purpose… still, he didn't like them.

Johnny went back to camp and set some coffee on the fire then pulled the last of the jerky from his saddle bag. He was sitting there, thinking, when Laurence woke and eventually wandered over to join him. He'd slept fully dressed, with his rifle close by.

“You didn't see him last night?” the boy asked as he sat down on the grass. He dusted the dirt from hands and reached for the coffee pot.

“Nope. Not a sight or sound of him. Nothing down near the steer either. I checked.” He took another bite of the jerky and chewed. “You want some?”

The boy shook his head. “No, thank you. I still have some of my own.” He reached back and pulled it from the back pocket of his jeans and laughed before taking a bite. “If my friends could see me now.”

“They wouldn't know you, Kid.”

Laurence looked down and took stock of the dusty scuffed boots, jeans he had been wearing for days and the shirt that was stained by grass and dirt. There was a smell of horse about him too. “Mama wouldn't even recognize me – or approve, I'm afraid. She insists on meticulous hygiene and has very high standards of dress.”

Johnny's grin spread over his face. “That so? Maybe she oughta come visit too.”

Laurence's laugh was loud and long. “Oh no, heaven forbid.”

“Well,” Johnny drawled, chewing on another piece of jerky. “A little dirt never hurt anyone yet.”

“So, what do we do next?” the boy asked. He poured himself a mug of coffee and put the pot carefully back on the fire.

Johnny took a sip of his own coffee as he made himself comfortable on the ground. It was hot and strong and he screwed his face at the first biting taste, and then took another.

“There was enough sign around those trees to show that he's spending time there. We'll check out that little waterhole first and see if he's been using that. Wherever he's lying up, he'll want water sooner or later.

He swallowed another mouthful of the coffee. “I'm betting he's hiding out up in those rocks though.”

“Will we go up after him today?”

“Yeah.”

They finished their meager breakfast in comparative silence, Johnny thinking about how to tackle that gravel slope. They'd do best on foot but, even so, they would find it awfully hard to get up there without warning the cougar with their noise. He wasn't sure they'd even get a sight of him today either.

If it was just himself, he would have been content to stay out here indefinitely and live off whatever he could hunt or find. If it took a week to find and finish off that cat, it wouldn't worry him. He'd often lived that way. He had enough coffee with him for a couple more days and there was rabbit or even a quail or grouse to make a meal or two that would keep him satisfied for that long.

But would Laurence be able to stand it? Johnny was pretty certain that any hunting the boy had done with his father had been done with plenty of supplies and at least the basic comforts.

Still, the kid had made no complaints yet. Johnny was pleased about that.

They packed their bedrolls and Johnny poured the dregs of the coffee into the small fire and kicked enough dirt onto the embers to be confident it was out. Then they saddled and mounted their horses and headed back to the grove of trees.

The shade was cool and the aroma of the pine trees hung in the air and gave the grove a fresh, sweet scent. Birds twittered their welcome to the early morning and a squirrel rushed about, first scurrying out of the way of the horses' hooves and then scampering up the trees in agile little leaps and bounds.

“Let's head over to that waterhole,” Johnny said when the boy had mounted. “The horses need water and we can refill our canteens too. I'll look for any fresh sign of the cat being there.”

Laurence unsheathed his rifle and settled it in front of him. “Okay. Do you think it might have been around here last night?”

“Possibly. We've got no way of knowing how badly he's hurt. Could be he's just lying up there in the rocks and can't get around at all.”

“That would explain why we haven't seen any of his tracks,” Laurence ventured.

“Yeah, or maybe he's just plain cunning.”

They followed the game trail toward the pool. Suddenly, Johnny stopped his horse. “Wait up,” he said and dismounted. “Here, look.”

Laurence dropped to the ground and walked quickly over to join Johnny. There was a scattering of blood and tufts of gray fur on the ground.

“He ate last night after all – rabbit,” Johnny told him. “See how the grass is pressed down here?” Laurence nodded. “He's lain down to eat right here.” He looked around more carefully. “I can't see no more blood around. He's not bleeding any more himself.”

They walked on toward the water, leading their horses. A surreptitious glance in Laurence's direction now and then told Johnny that the boy was getting edgy. Laurence had his rifle held tight in both hands and was watching the trees around them cautiously.

Johnny didn't blame him. He just hoped the boy kept his nerve and didn't fire off a shot at some shadow.

They reached the pool and again Johnny held up his hand to halt Laurence. “There,” he said triumphantly. “Now that, Kid, is a cougar's track.”

It was in the soft damp earth near the water. They dismounted and Johnny waved the boy forward to take a closer look. “Look and learn, Kid. There's another over there, not so obvious.” He showed them to Laurence and then looked around for more. “There's one more, over there by that tree, then the ground gets too hard again.”

“These tracks weren't here yesterday, were they?”

“No,” Johnny replied. He stood up and looked around carefully.

“Do you think he's close by?” Laurence sounded worried, unnerved.

“Don't know. You never do know with a cougar. They're quiet as ghosts when they wanta be.”

Laurence seemed fascinated watching Johnny. He squatted down to inspect the tracks, walked over to the one by the tree and then came back. His eyes were alight with curiosity. “Those two near the water are facing toward it,” he said. “The other leads away. So, he's been and gone?”

“Yep and not long ago. Those tracks are fresh.”

“How can you tell?”

“Come here,” he said and waited. “Those prints near the water – see there's still a little moisture in them? The air will dry that out in no time today. And look around – see all the other tracks? Deer and birds, a raccoon track over there; all kinds of animals. They'll all be using this waterhole, but none of those prints are on top of or overlap our cat's tracks.”

Laurence stood up. “Then that means…” he paused and looked over his shoulder expectantly.

“Yeah, it means he could be around here somewhere,” Johnny told him. “Fill the canteens and water the horses. I'll keep a lookout.” He handed his canteen to Laurence and pulled his rifle, all the time keeping an eye on the area around them. He kept his back to Laurence and the horses and looked into the trees and down the trail.

He stood with his rifle ready while Laurence laid his down carefully beside him and began to refill the canteens. When he was done, the boy took the reins of their horses. They were nervous but he led him lead them to the water where they drank their fill.

“Don't take too long there, Laurence,” said Johnny. He was on edge, listening intently and turned slowly to look in every direction. It was too quiet – even the birds had stopped their twittering.

His mind registered the silence only a moment before the force of the huge body hit him from his right side and bowled him over.





CHAPTER SEVEN

Laurence heard the crash of two bodies colliding behind him and Johnny's agonized yelp as they hit the ground together. He dropped the half-filled canteen, grabbed the rifle and whipped around, but he knew what had happened before his eyes confirmed it.

Johnny was on the ground with a huge tawny cat on top of him. He managed to roll onto his back but he had been forced to drop his rifle so that he could try to hold the beast off. In both hands he had as much fur and muscle as he could get hold of on either side of the cat's head, desperately keeping the animal's wicked teeth at bay.

As fast as his appalled brain came to grips with the sheer size and strength of the cougar, Laurence was on his feet and aiming the rifle. But, as one, Johnny and the cougar rolled back and forth on the ground, each fighting for the upper hand.

Laurence saw a chance to fire for only a moment before they rolled away again and Johnny's back replaced the cougar in his sight. They rolled again and he looked for an opportunity, found one and was squeezing the trigger when they moved yet again and he quickly abandoned the shot.

The animal snarled, its lips drawn up in fury and its savage teeth bared. Its ears were flattened back and it had its massive paws wrapped around his torso. Its back feet were drawn up against Johnny's thighs, claws out and digging through the thick leather of his pants. Already Johnny's shirt sleeves were shredded at the shoulders. Red stains spread over his arms and shoulders as blood began to seep from the wounds.

Johnny struggled to pull his right hand free and tried to make a move towards his hip for his gun, but the cat pressed its advantage and pushed perilously closer to his neck. He gave up the attempt and took hold of the cat again, forcing it back just enough to save himself.

On top of his chest, the cat's weight would be working in its favor, crushing the air from Johnny's lungs. Johnny rolled again, the effort forcing a heavy grunt from him and a vicious snarl from the cougar.

Laurence held his Winchester ready and sighted. His finger held on the trigger, he was itching for a chance at a shot. Through the sight he watched man and beast roll from side to side in a bitter battle for supremacy, but they moved so fast that Johnny would be hit if he tried.

Frustrated and realizing that he wasn't going to get that clear shot at the cougar before it was too late, Laurence fired.

The shot split the tension in the air and spat up dust right beside Johnny's body. Startled, the cat screamed out its awful snarl in protest and sprang into the air, twisting with an agility that belied its size and weight, and fled into the trees.

Laurence tried for another shot but he caught only a glimpse of its rump and tail as it bounded out of sight in seconds. Convinced it had gone, he ran to Johnny's side and was horrified when he took stock of the damage the cat had inflicted in a matter of a minute.

Both of Johnny's arms and shoulders were bleeding, his shirt tattered in places and he lay gasping for breath. His pants had fared better. They weren't ripped but blood was beginning to ooze from his thighs where the claws had dug into his flesh.

“Johnny!” he shouted, kneeling beside him.

Johnny raised one trembling hand off the ground and held it up to him. “Give me a minute…” he whispered shakily. He fought to get his breath back and winced as he raised himself awkwardly on one elbow.

But he was alive. Laurence could only close his eyes and release the breath that he hadn't even realized he had been holding. He slipped off a silent prayer of thanks.

Reassured now that Johnny was not dying, Laurence went over to where Johnny's rifle had fallen and brought it back to him. “Will you be okay here for a few minutes? I have to go after the cat while I can.”

Johnny shook his head sharply to clear his brain. “I'm okay.” The grimace on his face when he moved suggested otherwise. “Coulda been worse, Kid. Thanks. That was a good shot.”

Laurence laid Johnny's rifle across his lap for him and stood up. He tightened his grip on his own rifle and straightened. “Alright. I'll be right back then.” Then he turned and dashed off into the trees in the cougar's wake.

“No! Laurence, wait!” Johnny shouted behind him, but the boy ploughed on.

The cat had to be stopped. Laurence understood that now as he never had before. He had recognized that the animal was a threat to the stock and he appreciated the economic necessity of having to remove that threat. He had even realized that a cougar is a dangerous animal in itself. But now he knew the real danger that a wounded, cornered predator like this one constituted and the damage it was capable of doing.

A hundred yards ahead, a pair of birds fluttered out of the brush, startled. Laurence caught a quick glimpse of a white tipped tail and slowed to a fast walk, following in its path.

He levered another bullet into the chamber, ready for any opportunity that presented itself to take a shot. He moved on, slowing when the trees and brush got too thick to see far, and hurrying when he could see his way clearly. He had no desire to fall victim to that brute as well.

A bush shook and he ducked quickly behind a tree, but a bird flew out of it. He breathed a sigh of relief and cautiously took up the chase again. He was not going to run blindly after the cougar. He had to be wary. Johnny was right – it was cunning. Johnny, who had been watching so carefully, bad been caught by it. It was a predator, after all, and he had to remember that.

He'd lost track of it. For a moment, he stopped and wondered if he should just go back to Johnny.

What if the cat went back after him?

His heart pumped and his brain raced with questions and indecision. But he stayed his panicked thoughts.

Laurence drew in a deep breath and went forward slowly.

Then, ahead, the fluttering of panicked wings – quail! Something had frightened them and he hurried forward quickly enough to catch sight, only for a second, of gold fur ahead of him, bounding away with the same lithe grace that its small domestic cousins had.

He had never seen a cougar before today. Of course he had been warned about them by his father when they had gone hunting. He'd always known that they were dangerous predators, but its power and savagery had taken him by surprise. For all its size and weight, it was a cat. It stalked its prey in silence and blended into its surroundings. It could be anywhere in these trees right now – watching him.

But finally the trees thinned and Laurence emerged from the grove to find himself at the bottom of the gravel slope they had seen yesterday. It looked like Johnny had been right about that too.



Johnny dragged himself over to a tree a couple of feet away and pushed himself up to sit against it, trying his hardest to control his trembling body. He had faced death before, more times than he cared to think about, but this… this was different. This had been no opponent standing in the street where they were both more or less equal. This was no man-to-man fight for his life.

The cat had had all the advantage in that battle and he knew it.

He remembered Jelly being attacked once by a cougar and he had a fair idea that his own body was lacerated pretty badly too. His arms, shoulders, chest and legs lanced with pain from the scratches. How deep they were he was yet to find out, but at least he had managed to hold off those teeth.

Closing his eyes, he could see the cat's lips drawn back in a ferocious snarl and right into its mouth and down its throat. He could feel its warm breath on his face and he could still see those deadly teeth, gleaming white and inflicting terror if not pain. He could see those half-closed green eyes, screwed up menacingly and looking right into his…

He had literally looked into the jaws of an appalling death this time. But for Laurence's shot…

Johnny knew that he could not have held the cat off for much longer. His arms ached from the effort it had taken to do it for as long as he had.

His mind shifted. Laurence had done well to place the shot close enough to frighten off the cat without hitting him. A fluke? He didn't know – didn't really care either, except that…

Damn that kid! He had no business running off after the cougar like that.

Johnny leaned hard against the tree and pressed his feet flat to the ground, then reached behind him to use the tree for leverage. He inched his way up onto his feet, trying to avoid what must have been a deep scratch on his left shoulder. He waited for a moment then, dizzy and unsteady and his stomach roiling in protest to the shock and exertion of the last few minutes.

Forcing himself to take back control of his mind and swallowing hard, Johnny pushed away from the tree and waited to see what his body would do. He didn't fall, that was good. His head stayed clear so he took a tentative step forward.

‘I can do this,' he told himself determinedly and put one foot in front of the other until he had reached the rifle again. Leaning over to pick it up, his head spun for a moment and he almost lost his balance. He closed his eyes and straightened, then he turned in the direction that first the cougar, and then Laurence following him, had taken. He couldn't let the boy fact that beast alone.



Laurence stepped warily out of the trees into the open sunlight. He blinked at the sharpness of it and then turned his gaze to the hillside.

There was no sign of the cougar anywhere, but a trickle of dirt and gravel sliding to the bottom of the slope indicated that something had climbed it in a hurry, and not long ago.

He stopped and considered it. The slope rose at a steep incline and the gravel was loose. Behind it was the almost perpendicular wall, a couple of hundred feet high at least, of the mesa. It looked like a piece of the mesa had simply fallen away and crumbled to form this hillside.

It certainly wouldn't be an easy climb. It was littered with rocks and boulders that ranged in size from knee high to some that were as high as a man's shoulder, and just as broad.

He knew what savagery could be lying in wait behind those boulders or in the crevices between them.

Laurence's heart was racing, though he wasn't out of breath. It was not exhaustion that had his heart racing and sweat beading on his forehead. No, it was… fear.

He knew it and wondered if he could go up there. Climbing that slope, out in the open and easy prey for the cougar… could he do it? He could turn around and go back. Johnny lay bleeding and injured – he needed help. Should he get Johnny back to the ranch now and get help going after the cougar. It was sensible, wasn't it?

No one would blame him. No one would even know that he had faced his fear and… ran!

Ran like a scared rabbit! He would know.

He tightened his grip on the rifle and planted his boot on the gravel at the bottom of the slope.

The sound jarred his senses. Small stones rattled as they moved under his foot. Laurence knew that the cougar would hear him coming. It was one more thing that Johnny had been right about.

But he pressed on.

It was a hard climb. Laurence considered himself fit, but this was hard on his legs and, at times, a balancing act as well. Loose dirt and pebbles shifted under his weight and carrying the rifle prevented him from using his hands to stop a fall. It was even precarious in places and he nearly slipped.

That would have meant rolling back to the bottom and even injury. He couldn't afford to break a leg or arm now. He'd be at the mercy of that golden menace up there.

Ten feet up, he paused to wipe sweat from his eyes. Fifteen feet up, he very nearly overbalanced and had to lean forward, rifle and all, to stop from falling and snatch back his footing. With his hands on the ground for a moment, catching his breath as well as his balance, Laurence looked up at the top of the boulder beside him. Up close, it was even bigger, but no cougar was on top of it.

He swallowed hard and stood up, panting and his legs aching, and then moved on again.

The silence was dreadful. There was nothing but the sound of gravel crunching under his weight and the rasp of his own breath.

He wasn't sure what made him look up, whether it was instinct or fear, or the yell from below… but he did.



Johnny had struggled to walk the first few steps. His legs were like rubber and barely supported him. He figured it wasn't because of his injuries though. His pants were not shredded like his shirt. Whatever damage the cat had done to his thighs, it wasn't serious.

No, it was mostly shock, though he knew that his bleeding arms and shoulders were bad. But he wasn't going to let that kid end up the same way… or worse.

He knew that he was in no condition to keep up with either of them, but he did his best. He also knew that he was losing blood, particularly from his arms. Tiny rivulets of blood were drizzling down his arms and dripping from his elbows. He didn't need to look, but he did. It was annoying, like sweat running down your face.

Sooner or later, it would all have its effect on his body, but there was no time to do anything about it now. Instead, he continued on his way down the game trail behind Laurence.

The cat had left no discernable tracks, though once or twice he found flattened tufts of grass that had not yet had time to bounce back to their normal shape. But Laurence was big enough, heavy enough and wearing hard-soled shoes and he had left plenty of tracks.

There was silence all around him and he wondered how far ahead Laurence had gotten. He hoped that the boy had enough sense to not just charge ahead after the cat. It was bad enough that he had been picked off himself without both of them being hurt.

He did not know the boy's temperament well enough to know what he would do yet and it worried him.

Johnny didn't need to track either of them after a while. He knew where they headed – the hillside.

He stumbled, and cursed himself for not paying attention and the pain it brought on, but at least he didn't fall. His legs felt heavy and his head was light. He hugged his left arm, which seemed to have taken the brunt of the damage, close to his side but he kept on going. Laurence had no idea how dangerous going up that slope would be with a cornered, wounded and now angry cougar lurking behind any one of those rocks.

So, he pushed himself on. It was hard at first, harder after that but, oddly, it began to be not so hard eventually. He didn't feel any pain then, or perhaps his mind had simply blocked it out. He didn't know and he didn't care.

It was slow going, of course. He wasn't going to catch up with Laurence at the pace he was managing but he made it out of the trees and into the bright sunlight near the hillside.

Johnny shaded his eyes with one hand and turned to look up. The boy was halfway to the top-most boulders. He looked awkward but he was making a fair pace.

Then Laurence's left foot slipped – just a little. He barely managed to keep his balance but he scrambled enough to stay on his feet.

Johnny saw it then. Its coat gleaming golden in the sun, the cougar leapt on top of a huge boulder above the kid. Its head was dropped low as it moved to the edge with an almost mesmerizing grace and stopped to watch Laurence. The cougar crouched low, its tail coming into sight only when it flicked it nervously sideways. Its lips were curled back in anticipation and its eyes firmly fixed on the boy.

“Laurence! Above you!” Johnny screamed at him. He raised his rifle quickly and drew a bead on the cat just as it sprang. Its mighty hind quarters tensed and pushed it off the boulder.

Front paws outstretched and back legs and tail flying behind it, the massive cougar leapt into the air. A shot rang out and it dropped heavily to the ground, carried to Laurence's feet by its own momentum.

Laurence jumped back and stood stock still, as if frozen, staring down at it. Johnny watched him look at it, his rifle still in his hands and held so that he could still fire at a moment's notice. Time seemed to stand still, as still as the cougar and the boy who had killed it, but slowly the boy lowered his rifle and stepped away from the animal. He watched it intently and took another step back before poking it cautiously with the end of his rifle barrel.

There was no reaction. He sat down on the hillside, the dead cat only a few feet from him, crossed his arms over his knees and dropped his head forward on them.

Johnny lowered his rifle, still unfired, to his side. He walked away to the nearest tree and eased his back tenderly against the trunk. He leaned as much of his weight onto it as he could stand and fought to control his labored breathing.

He closed his eyes in relief. It was over. And of all things, it had been the boy's shot that had taken out the cat. Laurence had been right about that – he certainly could handle a rifle.

Johnny sensed a presence and snapped his eyes open. Had he actually slept for a minute? Right there on his feet? He doubted it and yet there was Laurence, standing in front of him.

“Nice shot, Kid,” said Johnny. Even to his own ears, his voice sounded as tired as he felt.

“Thank you,” the boy replied. “And thank you for the warning shout.”

Johnny smiled wearily. “De nada,” he said and noted the boy's head cocking sideways and the frown on his face. “It's nothing,” he explained.

“Oh.” The boy nodded. “Well, I rather think it was. Do you ranchers do this kind of thing a lot?”

A grin broke on Johnny's face. “Not every day.”

“Thank goodness.” He laughed tensely. “You know, I think I'd rather go back to trying to rope cattle instead.”

“Tomorrow maybe.” Johnny's head began to ache and his eyes were not quite focusing. “For now, there's just one more thing.”

“Yes?”

“Get me the hell home, Kid.”

With that, he unceremoniously slid down the tree trunk to end in a heap on the ground.





CHAPTER EIGHT

Laurence laid Johnny gently on the ground and then ran back into the trees to the waterhole. There he found the two canteens he had left behind. He picked them up and began to hurry back to Johnny but stopped, hearing a horse nickering somewhere off the trail.

Barranca had stopped running and was nearby, only a hundred yards or so from the waterhole. The other horse, his own, he found not far from Barranca. So, he gathered up both sets of reins and led them back to where he had left Johnny, reassuring them along the way.

He found Johnny sitting against the tree and conscious again.

“I've brought you some water,” he said awkwardly. “And I found the horses.”

Johnny was breathing heavily. “Glad to hear it, Kid. I wasn't lookin' forward to the walk home.”

“Well, I should say not!” He offered Johnny the canteen and helped him to drink from it, but wasn't sure what he should do next. He had no experience in dealing with this kind of thing.

Johnny closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the tree trunk. “There should be a rolled bandage in both our saddle bags,” he said. “Teresa likes us to have ‘em.”

Laurence found them and did what he could with some make-shift first aid. Johnny winced only once during the whole unpleasant proceedings, but gave him pointers when he needed them.

Getting him on his horse was easier than he had expected too. Johnny was able to do most of the work himself with help from Laurence. Settled, but sweating and breathing hard from the effort, Johnny asked, “Think you can find your way back to the hacienda?”

“I think so.”

He nodded. “Just make sure I don't fall off,” he said with a weary smile. “Tie me on if you have to. By then I won't care a damn.”

Laurence swallowed hard. “Alright.”

“It's afternoon. Keep the sun over your right shoulder and you'll be heading south. When you get to the road, you'll be alright. You'll be able to follow that the rest of the way.”

“Yes, Sir.” He caught himself and corrected, “Yes, Johnny.”

“That's better, Kid. Now, let's get outa here.”

Laurence would never have a clear memory of that journey back to the Lancer hacienda. It was spent between keeping an eye on Johnny, watching the location of the sun and hoping that he would come across someone who could help him along the way.

The bandages were soon stained red but appeared to be staying reasonably well in place. Johnny, however, soon began to wilt in the saddle. He caught himself a couple of times but Laurence moved his horse closer to Barranca and, when Johnny lost consciousness at last, was able to ease him forward to balance him safely across the horse's neck, one arm dangling on either side. He stayed close beside him, pacing his own horse to accommodate Barranca's stride, to keep Johnny on the horse the rest of the way.

It was an interminable journey and he found no help along the way. It was also frightening. A strange and unwelcome knowledge hung over him. He held a man's life in his hands. He was solely responsible for getting Johnny to help. It was daunting.

He marveled at the stoicism that Johnny had shown. Throughout the whole ordeal, he had never complained or let Laurence see how much pain he must be in. That amount of self-control was hard to imagine.

They reached the arch on the Lancer drive late in the afternoon and Laurence soon saw men running out to meet them. One man walked close to the other side of the horse, one arm reaching up to help balance Johnny. By the time they reached the front door, Murdoch was there with Scott who was leaning heavily on a walking stick. Teresa was there, flitting around and giving instructions.

There were no questions. That surprised him. Instead, Murdoch took his son down from the saddle and said virtually nothing as he carried him inside. But the crease of his brow told Laurence far more about his concern than any words he might have uttered.

“It was the cougar,” Laurence said as he climbed down to stand by, feeling useless.

Jelly Hoskins was there and his face turned white at the words. For a moment, the old man seemed dumbstruck but it soon passed. He shook his head, as if to clear it. “You okay, Boy?”

Laurence nodded. “Yes.”

He turned to Murdoch Lancer. “I'll send one o' the boys for the doc, Boss.”

“Thank you, Jelly,” Murdoch replied. He looked at Laurence. “Help me get him up the stairs to bed.”

Once there, Laurence left them and went down to the Great Room. He knew now what it meant to need a drink… or something to take away the memories. He waited there alone while Scott, Murdoch and Teresa got Johnny to bed. He hadn't woken since losing consciousness.

Finally, Scott hobbled into the room. Laurence jumped out of the armchair and stood there watching him approach, feeling like a schoolboy waiting for the master to demand an explanation.

“Well, what happened?” Scott asked unceremoniously.

“Homer met us on the way to the south pasture. He told us that the cougar had killed a steer and Johnny said we had to do something about it before we move the herd up there.”

Scott scowled. “I can't believe he'd take you with him.”

Laurence blushed. “No.”

Scott sighed. “Tell me the rest, Laurence.”

“We were at a waterhole, in those trees at the North End. I was filling the canteens and watering the horses and Johnny was standing guard. It came out of nowhere, Scott. I grabbed my rifle and tried to get a shot at the cougar but… but they were rolling from side to side and I was afraid I'd hit Johnny and…”

Scott nodded. “I think I see, Laurence. I'm sure you did your best.”

“I swear I did, Scott. I fired into the ground and the cougar ran off, but Johnny was badly clawed by then. It all happened so quickly.”

“Yes, I know. But you got him home. Thank you for that.”

After Murdoch came down, Scott told him the story as Laurence had told him while they waited for the doctor.

“Well, we'll have to send a couple of men up there tomorrow to track it down and finish it off. We can't have a wounded cougar running loose, particularly now that it's attacked a man. Too dangerous… much too dangerous.”

“It is dead, Sir,” Laurence told him.

Murdoch looked at him, surprised. “Is it? Are you sure?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Well, that's something anyway.” He poured brandy into a glass and handed it to Laurence. “This will help settle those nerves, Son. You did well getting Johnny home.”

Laurence took the drink and took a sip. He was unused to it, but thankful for it. Then he returned to the armchair and kept to himself, sure that the Lancers held him responsible for what had happened to Johnny – and not so sure they were wrong.

The doctor came, hours later. Laurence wondered how people survived serious injury with help so far away. But the news was good.

“None of those scratches are deep enough to need stitching,” he announced. “Some of them are deep though and he's lost a good deal of blood. At least he didn't get bitten – that's another good thing. But there is a serious risk of infection, Murdoch. Not to mention the shock of what he's been through. He might not be seriously injured, but we'll have to watch him carefully for fever or infection.”

“That's a relief, Sam. If you could have seen what he looked like when Laurence brought him home.” Murdoch sat down heavily in one of the armchairs. “We'll do whatever you say.”

Dr. Jenkins nodded. “I've left instructions with Teresa and I'll come back tomorrow to see how he passed the night. Right now, he's awake and asking to speak to Laurence.”

“Is that wise?” Scott asked. “Shouldn't he rest?”

“A few minutes won't hurt.” He turned to Laurence. “But don't let him get excited or move around.”

Laurence shook his head emphatically. “No, of course not.”

He had little experience of illness or injury. His mother had always ensured that he was kept away from anyone who so much as sneezed. So, seeing Johnny was a shock. He was pale and swathed in bandages, and he lay so still.

Johnny's eyes were closed when he entered the room and Laurence thought perhaps he was asleep after all. Scott followed behind him but stayed by the door, no doubt ready to cut short the interview if he thought Johnny was too tired or disturbed to continue.

He wasn't asleep. Johnny opened his eyes and beckoned Laurence to come closer with a small wave of his hand.

“You did just fine, Kid,” he said wearily. “I want to thank you.”

“Johnny, if I could only have gotten a shot sooner…”

“I know, don't worry ‘bout it.” He was quiet for a moment, gathering his strength perhaps, and then continued. “That shot… the one that scared off the cat. It wasn't a fluke, was it?”

“No.”

“I wondered… until I saw you take out the cat.”

Scott started forward. “Laurence killed the cat?”

Johnny grinned. “Didn't he tell you?”

“No, he didn't.”

“Hell of a shot. He might not handle a handgun worth a damn, but he's just fine with that rifle. The shot he fired to frighten off the cat when it had me down was as neat a shot as you'll ever see.”

“Really?” Scott turned to Laurence. “Why didn't you tell us?”

“I… I didn't think… If I'd done it sooner instead of trying to get a kill shot…”

“You did just what Scott or I would have done. You saved my life, Laurence, so don't beat yourself up over ‘what if'.”

Laurence felt heat rise to his face.

“Scott, you wanta give us a minute alone?” Johnny asked.

Scott frowned but agreed to it. “Yes, alright, but only for a minute. You should be resting.”

Johnny nodded slightly. “I will. Soon.”

With a meaningful glance at Laurence, he left the room and quietly closed the door.

“Drag over that chair and sit down,” Johnny told Laurence.

He did and waited for Johnny to speak. It was a moment before he did and Laurence even wondered whether he had fallen asleep this time. He hadn't.

“You remember what we talked about?” he asked. “The other night?”

“Yes.” He blushed again and silently cursed himself for the habit.

“Well, today you did a man-sized job, Kid.”

“I've been a good shot for a long time, Johnny.”

“No, I don't mean killing the cat. I mean going after it. You didn't run scared. You faced it. And then getting me home like you did as well.”

Laurence moved uneasily in his seat. “How did you know I was scared?”

He got a grin in response. “Anyone with an ounce of sense would be. You saw what it did to me, but you went up that hill just the same. That took guts.”

Laurence sighed. “Foolhardy perhaps though.”

Johnny smiled. “Yeah, it was, but you faced it.” His smile broadened to a grin. Don't let it get you to thinking you're a man now though. That's a long road but you're headed the right way, Laurence.” He stopped and closed his eyes, before continuing. “And one more thing, before I fall asleep. I'm beat.” He caught his breath. “It's a good thing to want your father to be proud of you, your ma too. But you need to proud of yourself too. Best kinda respect is self-respect. I learned that the hard way and I didn't have it for a while.”

“Do you now?”

Johnny frowned and sighed. “Yeah, I reckon I do.”



Soon after breakfast next morning, Homer Paxton rode into the yard, finished his shift of boundary riding. On his pack horse was tied the dead cougar. Word soon got round that it had been Laurence who had killed it and he found himself a hero for the day.

But it was fleeting. The accolades and back slapping soon subsided when he rejoined the men at the herd. He was ‘the greenhorn' again - butt of jokes, occasionally practical jokes but learning daily.

Will Harkness took him under his wing and showed him more about roping and herding. The weeks passed in a blur, marked by landmark successes that his friends at home would never appreciate – roping his first calf, graduating from riding ‘drag' to riding on the flank as they drove the cattle north to the new pasture, and cutting his first cow from the herd.

By the time they had herded all the cattle together and moved them slowly to the north pasture, Laurence was finding himself too tired to care where he slept when he got back to camp and hoping that he never ate beans again. He learned to accept being cussed out when he made a mistake, and he made more than a few, and to enjoy the irreverent stories told by the hands around the campfire.

By the time the herd had been moved, Scott was back on his feet and working again, but Johnny's recovery was slow. Some infection had set in, but the doctor had been able to control it quickly enough to make it only a small setback. At the end of a week, Johnny was on his feet and supervising the training of the horses, though not actively participating. He walked with a limp and carried his left arm gingerly.

With the herding done, the chores Laurence found himself assigned became more mundane. Clearing a creek of obstructions with Scott was hot, dirty work that he particularly disliked and mending fences, even digging postholes, left him with calluses. He soon recognized the value of the gloves Scott wore when handling the wire.

Scott also showed Laurence the business side of things. He learned about the overheads and costs of running a ranch and how expensive a small mistake could be and even the task that all of them seemed to dread – keeping the ledgers straight.

It happened that Laurence's last week ended with payday at the ranch. He was surprised when Murdoch put twenty-five dollars in his hand.

“But, Sir, I don't need the money. I'm here as a guest.”

“Young man, on this ranch any man who gives me a day's work gets paid for it. My sons included. That is one month's salary for a new hand and you've earned it.”

Laurence looked down at the money in his hand. It was the first money he had ever earned. He closed his hand around it and nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Lancer.”

The men were in a jovial mood and Will slapped him on the back. “Well, Laurie, you got money in your pocket… only one thing to do now.”

“Town!” called out one of the men behind him.

Will grinned and put his arm around the boy's shoulders. He looked over at Scott and Johnny. “You boys gonna come see the elephant too?”

“If you boys are taking Laurence with you, I think we should. If only to protect the kid,” Johnny said. “What do you think, Scott?”

“I'm in.”

Murdoch frowned. “See that you do keep him out of trouble. I don't think that's what Ambrose had in mind when he sent him here.”

After giving him their assurances, and some discussion with the hands, Johnny, Scott and Laurence joined half a dozen of the men and rode into Green River. Scott led their young protégé into the saloon with the rest of the men while Johnny went off to say hello to the sheriff before returning to join them.

Laurence found himself being shepherded to the bar by Will and a couple of other men. Scott was there too, but following in their wake rather than leading. Johnny came through the doors behind them and made his way over to join the others at the bar.

“Buy you a beer, Laurie!” Harkness shouted.

“Buy him a sarsaparilla,” Scott corrected, winking at Johnny.

“Aw… come on, Scott,” Will complained.

Laurence agreed. “Yes, Scott. It hardly seems sociable not to join in with my colleagues.”

“You drink at home, Kid?” Johnny asked him.

Straightening his shoulders, he answered “Yes, of course.”

“With your pa?”

“Well…”

“Thought so. Sorry… sarsaparilla.”

There was laughter all around but the men soon settled into drinking. A game of poker was got up at one table and another rowdy group tried to outdo each other in vying for the attention of one of the saloon's girls. Laurence wandered over to watch the poker game.

Another of the girls draped her arm over Scott's shoulders and smiled enticingly at him.

“Hello there, Scott Lancer.” She hitched her skirt provocatively on one side. “It's always nice to have you in town.”

He answered by putting one arm around her waist. “And it's always nice to see you too, Kate. Will you have a drink with us?”

Laurence watched him and smiled as he caught a wink from Johnny.

She snuggled into Scott's arm. “I don't know about ‘us', but I sure will with you, Honey.”

“Hey you! Lancer!”

The deep, gruff voice reverberated around the room. Both brothers turned as one and faced the intruder. He was a big rough looking man, Laurence thought.

Laurence looked around the room, not surprised by how quiet it had suddenly gone. Everyone was watching the scene to see what the reaction would be from the brothers at the bar.

Scott's arm was still around the girl's waist. “I'm afraid you'll have to be more specific when you say ‘Lancer',” he said jovially.

“Shit, if I wanted the mex I'da said ‘Madrid',” the man growled. “It's you I want, Fancy Pants.”

“Well, that's uncalled for,” Scott quipped. “Are these fancy, Johnny?”

Johnny was leaning back with both elbows on the bar, but there was a look about him that was different. Laurence had never seen anyone stare at a man quite that hard before.

“Wouldn't say so, Scott,” Johnny said, not having looked at the pants at all.

“You stay outa this, Madrid.”

“Now, Hughie, you know it's Lancer now. Right?”

The big man's face was almost snarling. “I ain't talkin' to no greasy mex gunhawk, Madrid. I want that fancy brother o' yours.”

“Why?” Scott asked innocently.

“Cos that's my gal you're pawin!”

Scott glanced towards the girl, still happily wrapped in his left arm. “Is that true, Kate?”

She wriggled in his arm and smiled. “I ain't nobody's girl,” she said and then whispered bewitchingly. She pouted and lifted her face up closer to his. “But I'll be yours if you want.”

“I'm gonna peel you offa my gal with my own hands, Lancer.” He clenched his fists at his side and took a step forward.

Laurence leapt at him from behind. He landed on his back with his arms wrapped around the man's neck and the man erupted like a mad bull. He twisted and grabbed at the boy's arms, trying to pull himself free.

Laurence's mind was closed to everything but helping Scott and Johnny. He clung on for his life as the man moved around. Hughie bumped into first one table and then another, spilling drinks that cowboys had paid their hard-earned cash on.

They didn't like it.

Within seconds the bar had erupted into a brawl that had the bartender burying his head in his hands. Johnny pulled Laurence off Hughie's back and ducked as the man took a swing at him. Scott, with the saloon girl safely hiding behind the bar, tapped the man's shoulder and fired a mighty punch at his midriff that doubled him over.

The two brothers grabbed Laurence and pushed and shoved their way to the doorway, only to come face to face with Val Crawford.

“Thought you might be here,” Val said.

Johnny looked hurt. “Now, Val…”

Val scowled but he said nothing more. Instead, he drew his pistol and fired one shot into the floorboards. The room froze. Combatants stopped with their hands raised and balled into fists, ready to plant another one.

The sheriff looked satisfied. He looked across to the bar as the barkeep rose from his hiding place. “Alright, Clancy… how'd it start?”





CHAPTER NINE – EPILOGUE

The train trip to the East Coast was going to be a long one, but at least he was comfortable. He was looking forward to Harvard.

Laurence had left Lancer two weeks ago and had gone home to pack and prepare himself for the new change in his life. Everything was different now.

He remembered his time at the ranch fondly and always would but in his wildest dreams, he had never expected to spend time in a jail cell when he had taken up his father's suggestion to visit the ranch. It had been a novel experience, and might have been frightening with the big Hughie in the next cell glaring at him, but for Johnny and Scott being beside him and three of the Lancer hands in the next one.

The sheriff had been a surprise as well. The man looked more like a saddle tramp than a man of the law. Scruffy and unkempt, he seemed to talk out of the side of his mouth and with no education at all. But he was obviously on friendly terms with Johnny. Johnny had given him a hard time about locking them up, but Crawford had only smiled as he closed the cell door on them.

Murdoch Lancer's explosion when he arrived to get them out had been impressive. The man certainly knew how to dress his sons down and he rode back to the ranch with them in a dreadful silence.

When asked, later at the ranch and in private with Scott and Johnny, why he had done it, Laurence tried to explain that he had been worried whether Johnny had recovered enough to take the man on and Scott…

Johnny had laughed. “You can take it from me, Kid. Scott can take care of himself very well.”

“Yes, I saw that,” Laurence replied. “Sorry.”

“Well, no harm done,” Scott told him. “And no charges laid either. It appears that Val accepted that Hughie had actually started it all. We've paid the damages and Charlie will be more than happy to have us all back next time.”

“None of this bothers you?”

The brothers shrugged their shoulders. “The men work hard… they play hard,” Johnny explained. “So do we.”

“You know, this has all been more than just educational,” he told them, and they laughed with him.

Next day, the hands had said their goodbyes and wished him well before heading out to work. He noted that some of them looked the worse for their trip into town to ‘see the elephant' but they went off anyway. Jelly had slapped him on the back and bid him farewell as well and he had laughed.

Teresa joined them in going to Morro Coyo to the stage depot and kissed his cheek as he was about to board. Scott and Johnny had shaken his hand in turn and Murdoch Lancer last.

“Well, Son, I hope you feel you can tell your father that you learned a thing or two about ranching while you were here,” he said.

“Mr. Lancer, I certainly can. It's been an experience I will always remember and cherish. Thank you.”

“Good. It's been a pleasure having you. You come back any time you want.”

“Thank you, Sir. I think I'd like that. I might just take you up on it.”

Johnny smiled. “I wonder if your folks'll recognize you, Kid.”

Laurence had noted the differences himself. Four weeks at Lancer had left him tanned and, as he was adolescently pleased to note, stronger and with muscles hardened by physical work.

His clothes were the same as he had left home in, pressed to a perfection he hadn't expected by Maria. She had handed them over to him with a tear in the corner of her eye and he had kissed her cheek to thank her.

“I wonder,” he had answered. “I feel different. In fact…”

“In fact…?” Scott asked.

“Well, it sounds silly, but I think I would prefer to be called ‘Laurie'. Do you think they'll mind?”

Johnny laughed. “I don't think so, Laurie.”





~end~


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