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Southernfrau

 

Lions And Tigers And Bears,
Oh My!

Disclaimer:  Here’s where I claim the Lancers aren’t my property…with my tongue in my cheek, my fingers crossed and an insincere smile on my face.
Warning:  This story will not be all light-hearted and humorous as the preceding stories in the series, just as in real life sometimes a dark cloud descends on us.
Author’s Note:  This story was requested by Teresa, a self-proclaimed Brat Pack junkie, who has drawn me into her addiction by making me her dealer.

 

Chapter One

The day started out much like any other day at Lancer.  The family awoke to the rooster crowing from his perch in the open second floor window, the sound of wind whistling through the upstairs hall, the muffled patter of feet in a flurry of movement as they raced along the passage and the agitated barking of Patty Pat.

Johnny Lancer, three-year old terror was galloping as fast as his short legs would carry him up and down the hall as he tried to fly his kite in the house.  He was getting fairly disgusted that he had yet to get the kite aloft.  He had opened the tall windows at each end of the hall to let the wind in, but that had not worked.  So now he had his kite tied to Patty Pat’s collar and was running behind her throwing it into the air.

The kite would fall as rapidly as it went up, sometimes striking the loyal dog in the back. She would patiently wait as Johnny retrieved his toy and then run on his signal.  On their last pass near Papa’s room, Johnny had thrown the kite with all his might. Patty had circled around just as he did and the kite fluttered up hit the wall and slid behind the light sconce.  The string pulled taunt and threatened to snap, so Johnny hollered.

“Stop Pat Pat, don’t break Squat’s kite.”   

Murdoch Lancer snatched his bedroom door open and began his morning by bellowing  . . . “JOHNNY!”

Papa’s thundering voice startled the collie and she took off, pulling the string on the frame of the kite and snapping the middle support pole in half.  She rushed for the stairs, stick thumping and bumping along the floor as she ran.

“Uh oh!” Johnny muttered as he saw Squat bearing down on him with an incredulous look on his face.

“Look what you did!  Why didn’t you play with your own kite?  This is not fair!”  Scott felt like crying but would not give in to the emotion as his friend Zachariah Culpepper was standing next to him.

The little boy came home from school with him Friday afternoon to spend the weekend.  The friends had made plans to camp out near the house, fly kites, do a little hunting with slingshots and then tell ghost stories after dark.  Now Johnny had ruined part of their plans by destroying Scott’s kite.

Zachariah frowned at the toddler.  He really liked Scott Lancer and got along well with him, even though Scott was two years younger than him.  Scott had been the first boy to befriend him when they moved to the area just before Christmas from Texas.  However from the first time he had met Johnny he had taken an instant dislike to him. Part of the reason was because the younger child got on his nerves with his constant activity, but mostly it was because the Culpeppers had left Texas when they lost their land to a Mexican family.

Scott shook with agitation as Papa pulled his kite from behind the sconce. “Oooohhhh, Johnny why do you always bother my things and tear them up?”

“Johnny not break Squat’s kite, Pat Pat break Squat’s kite.”

“Yeah…right and I suppose Patty Pat tied the string to her collar, all by herself!”  Retorted Scott, as he gave his baby brother a vicious shove that send him crashing to the floor and making him bite his lip. The little boy shrieked from his prone position on the floor and slapped a tiny hand over his stinging lip.

Ha had just exited his room in time to see the aggressive behavior, he bent over and lifted Johnny into the comfort of his arms, and he sharply admonished his grandson. “Scott Garrett Lancer, you apologize to your brother, this instant.”

Had his friend not been standing there, an eyewitness to the proceedings, Scott would have probably immediately apologized.  However he didn’t want to look like a wimp to his friend so he retorted, “ I will not until he says he’s sorry for destroying my kite.  Johnny can get away with murder just because he’s the baby!”

Scott bravely faced his grandfather, staring him down with indignant eyes.  He completely forgot that Papa was standing behind him.  He got a smart reminder when his father gave him a swift attention getting pop to his backside.

“Young man, you know better than to sass your elders.”

Scott was saved from further embarrassment when Johnny realized his lip was bleeding and started crying.  All attention was re-focused on his injury.

“Scott, you and Zach go get dressed, we’ll discuss this behavior at breakfast.”

The two older boys headed to Scott’s room as the adults took Johnny into Papa’s room to tend to his bleeding lip.

“Good grief Scott, your little brother was trying to fly a kite in the house, running in the hall, opened the windows and let in the cold, tied your kite to the dog and ended up breaking it…and you’re the one that gets popped.  I sure am glad I don’t have a baby brother.”

“Sometimes I wish I didn’t either,” grumbled the little blond, as he reveled in the fact Zach was on his side in this matter.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Scott and Zachariah were dressed and sitting at the table discussing their plans for the day, and the best spot to pitch their tent for camping when Papa, Ha and Johnny entered the kitchen.

Johnny made a beeline for Mamacita to show off his lip injury.  Scott fumed as his little brother laid all the blame squarely on his shoulders.  Zach scowled as he watch the display through narrowed eyes.  He wasn’t surprised the woman seemed to be sympathetic to the little boy; she was after all Mexican like him.

“See Mamacita, Squat a bad Carrot he pushed Johnny down and broke Johnny’s lip.”

“Si, I see little one,” Maria gently kissed Johnny and snuggled him to her chest for a hug, and then placed him in his highchair.

Johnny glared down at his brother from his perch in his chair, “Squat not nice.”

Zach leaned in towards his friend and mumbled in Scott’s ear, “What a brat!”

Spurred on by his friend’s presence and silent support, Scott caved in to peer pressure.  “I am not a Carrot, Johnny, and I’m not bad, you are.  I would be nice to you, if you were nice to me.”

Murdoch decided to intervene before the battle of words turned into a war.  “That’s enough, boys.  Johnny you were wrong to run in the house, open the windows, misuse Patty Pat, and take Scott’s kite without permission and destroy it.  Scott you were wrong for pushing your brother. Now then unless some attitudes and behavior change there will be no camping today for you Scott, and Johnny there will be no playing outside.  Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir.”  Scott rapidly agreed.  He knew his Papa carried through on his promises.

“What are you boys planning to do?” inquired Ha.

“First we’re going to set up our campsite, then we were going to fly kites, but now we can’t cause Johnny broke mine, so I guess we’ll play marbles, then we’re going hunting with our slingshots, and when it gets dark we’re going to tell ghost stories.  Finally we’re going to sleep in the tent.”

“My my…you do have a full day planned.  Are you by chance going to schedule in some time to come in for lunch and supper? Questioned Harlan.

“We’re camping, Ha.  We have to eat outside,” Turning to his father Scott’s eyes pleaded for understanding and permission. “Please, Papa, can we pack our food to take with us.”

“Johnny go camping too!”

“No you’re not, Johnny.  You’re too little to sleep outside, and you’re too little to be around a campfire.”

“Now Scott, I don’t recall saying anything about a campfire . . .”

“Please Papa, we can’t camp without one.  We’ll be careful, I promise.  We’ll clear a section all around the fire, we’ll use rocks for a fire ring and we’ll keep a bucket of water right by it . . . PLEASE!”

Murdoch studied the beseeching countenance of his son.  He knew Scott was a very responsible child, and Zach, at ten, should be trustworthy.  “All right, but I will help you set it up and we will not light it until dark.  Johnny will probably be back and forth between the house and your camp during the day.”

“Papa, Johnny will be in everything, I don’t want to take him along.”

“I didn’t say you have to take him along. But seeing as you will be in the field right next to the house, so I can see you, it won’t hurt to let him play some before dark.”

“Johnny play too, Squat.  Papa say so.”

Zachariah watched the interaction between father and son.  He pursed his lips in distaste over the way the little half-breed brat was coddled, pampered and allowed to have his way.  He made up his mind he would find a way to make the little boy pay for horning in on their fun.  An evil smile crept over his face as he began to silently make plans to scare Johnny and make him glad to stay away from their camp.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Scott looked around his campsite and grinned in pleasure.  This was going to be so much fun.  Papa had let them set up in the middle of the field next to the house.  They were far enough away that they felt like they had some privacy, and yet close enough for Papa to keep an eye on them.

It had taken Scott and Zach the better part of an hour but they had managed to pitch the little two-man tent all by themselves, of course to the small boys it was quite spacious. It wouldn’t have taken so long, but Johnny insisted on accompanying them to the campsite to help, and he turned out to be more help than they needed.  Twice the boys got the tent raised and when they would attempt to pull the sides in place to tie it down Johnny would dash in the tent and knock a support pole over.

Scott frowned as he recalled how his friend had lost his temper the second time the tent was felled and had jerked Johnny, by the arm, out from under the canvas and tossed him aside.  Scott figured it was a good thing Zach was the youngest in his family, because he really didn’t think he would make a very good big brother.  He snickered as he remembered the look on the older boy’s face when he found himself laid out flat on the ground with a mad fist flinging three-year old straddling his chest.  Zachariah was currently scavenging around the field and yard for small limbs and twigs to built their fire.

Johnny was sitting a few feet in front of the tent digging the pit for the campfire with a garden spade; the chore had entertained him for the past thirty minutes.  The toddler loved anything that allowed him to get dirty.   Johnny was preoccupied with something he had found in the upturned earth. He had laid down his little shovel and was twisting the item around in his fingers; curious eyes intently studying his find.  When he raised his hand like he was going to place the muddy object in his mouth, Scott rushed forwarded.

“NO! Johnny don’t put that in your mouth, it’s nasty,” Scott shouted as he quickly snatched the thing from Johnny’s hand.

“That’s Johnny’s tato, give it back Squat!”

Scott inspected the dirt-encrusted object and informed his little brother, “This is not a potato, Johnny.  It’s some kind of bulb that plants grow from, you can’t put stuff like this in your mouth it can make you sick.”

“Nuh un…Squat.”

“Yes it can, Johnny.  Remember the time you put Papa’s pipe tobacco in your mouth, and you got sick and threw up all over the rocking chair?”

“Ohhhh…Johnny’s tummy hurted.”

“Do you want your tummy to hurt like that again?”

“No, Johnny not like it. Give Johnny’s tato back,” the toddler’s eyes narrowed and his body stiffened like he was ready to start a tantrum.

“This is not a potato, even if it was a potato you have to wash food before you eat it, especially if it has dirt all over it.  You could get worms.”  Scott dropped down beside his baby brother and danced his fingers across his belly with a light pressure, tickling until a giggle bubbled out, “That’s how it would feel with squishy worms wiggling around in your stomach.”

“Johnny hungry.”

“It’s almost time for lunch. Let’s go to the house and get the basket of food Mamacita was going to pack for us.”

“No, Johnny stay here and dig.”  The toddler stubbornly insisted, with pouting lips protruding, as he picked his spade up and began to shovel out the dirt.

Scott pursed his lips in frustration as he saw his scheme falter.  He wanted his little brother to accompany him back to the house to get the food because he was pretty sure Maria would take one look at the filthy little boy and demand he be bathed. Then of course she would feed him, and Papa had promised to take Johnny with him this afternoon to check the work crews so that would leave him and his friend time to enjoy the activities they had planned.

“It’s time for lunch, Come on, Johnny.” demanded Scott as he grabbed his hand and tried to pull him up.

Johnny dug his heels into the moist ground and tugged back, which unbalanced Scott and sent him sprawling face first into the dirt beside his little brother.  He slapped the mound of earth piled next to the hole Johnny dug.  He considered just picking the toddler up and toting him back to the house but he knew he would fight him like a wild animal every step.  Just as Scott started to sit up Johnny’s stomach growled, and a delighted smirk crawled across Scott’s face as his nimble and creative mind came up with a bright idea.

“Scott put on his best ‘surprised’ face and shot up off the ground. “Did you hear that, Johnny?”

Johnny cocked his head and studied his big brother, “Hear what, Squat?”

“That growl!”  Scott asked, as he nervously turned his head scanning the area with seemingly frightened eyes.  “I heard a growl…it could be a lion…GASP…maybe a tiger…squeak…oh no what if it’s a BEAR?”

“Huh…like at the circus, Squat?”

“No, Johnny, not like at the circus.  Those animals are trained, they’re use to being around people.  If that was a lion, tiger, or bear I just heard, they’re wild and dangerous.”

Johnny’s empty stomach rumbled loudly.  Scott dramatically stared at his little brother’s belly and then dropped down and pressed his hands to it.

“What Squat doing,” Johnny asked as he tried to evade the hands.

“I have to keep your stomach from growling, wild animals could hear it and think you’re growling at them and attack you and eat you in one big bite.”

Scott’s serious expression had the toddler glancing around fretfully looking for signs of wild beasts ready to lunge and attack him.

“Okay, Squat.  Johnny go eat. Johnny not want get eated by lions, tigers and bears.”

The boys started walking towards the house, Johnny trustingly slipped his little hand into his big brother’s.  The simple act of belief in his big brother’s protective abilities caused a momentary pain of guilt to rake Scott’s conscience over the duplicitous ploy he was playing on his brother.

The brothers skirted the side of the house and walked all around the back of the house to the other side so that they could enter by way of the kitchen.  Scott had tried to match his more confident longer stride to Johnny’ s shorter less balanced gait.  Johnny spied Patty Pat chasing a rabbit in Mamacita’s garden and wanted to stop and watch. Scott groaned, they were so close to actually making it in the house, but he decided to humor his brother.

Johnny watched the rabbit dart and dash first in one direction, and then another, until it was able to scoot under the edge of the gardening shed to safety.  Without the rabbit to preoccupy his mind, the toddler realized he needed to peepee.  He began to dance on his toes as he held himself and whined.

“Johnny need to peepee.”

“I’m going on in the house, Johnny.  You come in the kitchen as soon as you’re done.  Do you hear me?” Scott asked for confirmation.

“Johnny will Squat, Johnny ready to eat.”

Scott watched from the kitchen door, until Johnny went into the outhouse, he stayed in his spot, as some of the hands drove up the wagon with supplies to be unloaded for the pantry, and then he stepped on inside.

“Mamacita, do you have our picnic basket ready?”

“Si, I’m packing the last of it now, where is your brother, Scott?”

“He stopped to use the outhouse.  He’s coming right in afterwards, he’s hungry.”

The two hands on supply duty began to carry the food items through the kitchen into the pantry.  Walt stopped to inform Maria that the Patron would not be back for lunch, as he had planned.  Maria nodded to let him know she had heard, as she struggled to fit all the food she had prepared for the boys into the basket.  Seeing that it would not all fit, she bid the two workers to sit down at the table, and eat the extra sandwiches for their lunch, along with the lemonade that remained in the pitcher.

Turning to the little blond waiting patiently she inquired, “Will you be eating in here?”

“No, ma’am. We’re going to eat at our campsite.”

Mamacita handed the basket to Scott and then rushed to the stove when she saw one of her pots about to boil over.  She didn’t see Scott do an about face, and depart the kitchen by way of the dining room, so that he could leave out of the front door, as the hands had the exit door from the kitchen blocked with the wagon.

Scott assumed that Johnny would come in the house as he promised, and Mamacita would clean him up, feed him lunch and lay him down for a nap since Papa was not going to make it back for lunch.  Mamacita assumed Scott would take Johnny back to the campsite with him, because his Papa had told him to let Johnny play with them until he got back.  Johnny assumed he was safe as long as he was at home . . . they were all so very wrong.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Zachariah was by the side of the barn gathering the scraps of woods that Cipriano had pointed out to him would make good firewood.  From his vantage point at the barn he was able to see Scott come out the front door, and begin the laborious trek across the field to the camp with their lunch.  He also saw Johnny, when he stepped from the outhouse.  Zach sneered, as he thought how stupid the little half-breed looked covered in dirt and wearing that dumb apron around his neck like a cape.  It wasn’t fair they had to entertain him all morning.

Turning back to the task of choosing the wood for the fire, Zach bent over and one of the rocks in his pocket pressed into his leg causing him to yelp.  It hurt almost as much as the time his brother shot him, in the chest, with his slingshot and a rock and caused him to lose his breath.  Zachariah smugly grinned, as he evilly thought of a way to make sure that brat stayed in the rest of the day.  He could hide and shoot him, and then when he started hollering and carrying on that fat Mexican cook would take him in with her.

Leaving the outhouse, Johnny noticed something crawling on the ground; he bent over to inspect it closer.  It was a big bug, but he didn’t touch because he didn’t know what kind it was.  The last time he had tried to pick up a strange bug, he had been bit.  He popped his thumb in his mouth and continued his observations.

Looking around to make sure no one was present to see his actions, Zach slipped behind a tree and watched, as Johnny studied something on the ground.  While he kept an eye on the toddler, he felt around his pocket for one of the larger rocks, he had placed in it.  When he had ferreted out the largest one, he carefully placed it in the cradle of his slingshot and stood at the ready, concealed by the tree trunk and shadows.

The large hairy looking bug sensed another presence, it scurried over the ground, and to Johnny’s surprise it somehow lifted a piece of the ground, revealing a hole it disappeared into it.  With no insect to watch, and the growling of his tummy reminding him he was hungry, he stood up with his thumb still in his mouth, intending to go in the house.  He took one step, stopped and crouched to see if he could see where the door to the bug’s hole was.  Just as he was bending over something slammed into his head with a loud pop.  Johnny snapped his head back in stunned surprise and pain, lost his balance and pitched backwards, striking his head on the outhouse, he limply crashed to the ground, never making a sound.

Zach had been preparing himself to hear the toddler scream in pain when the rock hit him in the chest, but just as he pulled back and let the rock loose, the little boy stooped and the stone struck him in the head.  And worse yet, he didn’t make a sound, no one came running to his aid.  If he went for help they might rightly assume he had hurt the little boy.

Carefully looking about to make sure he wasn’t seen, Zach crept over to the injured child.  He sucked in his breath when he saw the blood on the little boy’s face.  He was in trouble…big trouble.  He cautiously knelt beside Johnny and gently shook him.  Johnny showed no signs of waking up or even that he was alive as far as Zach could tell.  He jostled the inert body a little harder.  The little dark head rolled to the side and Zach saw he had blood on the back of his head from hitting the wood siding.

/Oh, NO! /  This was not what he had planned.  Zachariah needed to hide what he had done, but how?  Oh, how he wished this was a bad dream and he would wake up to find himself hiding under his covers.  That thought gave him an idea.  Maria had hung a bunch of blankets on the line to freshen them in the cool air.  He raced to the line snagged a blanket, ran back to Johnny, laid the blanket out and rolled the little boy up in it.

Zach frantically looked for somewhere to hide the bundle.  He wished he had a way to carry him far from the house, but he would need a horse or wagon for that, and then he might get caught red-handed.  He picked up the load and turned slowly as he searched for a place.  He spied the wagon at the kitchen door.  He could slip Johnny into the back of it, and when the men drove out to the work crews with the remaining supplies, Johnny would be gone and he would still be here.  There would be no way, he thought, to connect him to the bad deed then.

Rushing across to the wagon, Zachariah was glad Johnny was so small; he wasn’t too heavy to carry and move quickly.  He was close enough to the kitchen door he could hear the men telling Maria they needed to get the fencing supplies out to the North pasture. Thankfully, the tailgate was down so Zach laid Johnny on it and rolled him into the bed of the wagon.  Hearing the voices grow louder as they moved closer to the door, he ran back towards the barn.  He passed Patty Pat as he ran.

It was the lunch hour and Patty Pat knew if she hung around the kitchen door Maria would eventually throw her some meaty scraps.  She arrived at the house just as Walt and the other hand came outside.  As they were climbing up onto the wagon seat, the collie detected the scent of her favorite little person in the air, along with another smelled she associated with dead things.  She raised her head and sniffed, the smell was coming from the wagon.  The dog jump into the back of the wagon, the workers turned at the sound of the thump and saw her, however they thought nothing of it as she often rode out to the worksites to herd cattle.

Patty was confused, she kept nuzzling and nudging the blanket but her little person did not wake up to play with her.  She laid her head down on the bundle and whined. Due to the sounds of the two men singing the ribald tunes they had heard in the saloon last Saturday night, and the noise of the horses and tack, they didn’t hear the dog whimper.

About three miles from the house they hit a particularly rough patch of road.  It was like riding on a giant washboard, the earlier winter rains had washed out ruts in it, when the water cascaded over the side of the road to the river below.  The wagon jerked and shook, the cargo was tied down, but not so the little boy wrapped up in the blanket.  The wool bundle slowly rolled towards the open tailgate, and the next hard lurched sent it off the end.  It hit the uneven and slightly angled road and slid off the side, careening down towards the river, full of rushing white water from the heavy rains at the beginning of the month.  The men heard and saw Patty Pat when she jumped down and ran off the road barking.  They assumed she had seen a rabbit.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Chapter Two

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The wagon rumbled noisily down the rutted road as it continued towards its destination. The creaking and groaning of the stressed wooden conveyance under the heavy load, and the toneless piercing voices of the hands raised in song, as well as the increasing distance muffled the agitated barking of Patty Pat. The men were completely unaware that they had had a precious cargo, or that they had lost it.

The collie scrambled down the hillside, her fur tangling in the bare vines stripped of their lush summer greenness. Her barking ceased, as she caught up with the runaway bundle. She latched onto a flap of the blanket, effectively slowing its descent down the incline. Patty’s jaws ached, and she drooled excessively on the wool as she dug in her feet on the slippery damp ground, and haphazardly guided the continued travel of the blanket wrapped child down the steep rise.

The roar of the river grew louder as Johnny slipped closer and closer to it’s over flowing banks. Finally the incline flattened out, and the slide halted. The insensate child came to a rest on a wet patch of land that the high waters had not long ago receded from; he did not even feel the moisture wicking from the ground into the wool. He didn’t hear his dog whining and whimpering, nor did he feel her frantic nudges as she tried to rouse her little person. Patty Pat lay down with her head resting on the blanket, her alert eyes watching for danger.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Johnny’s little body twitched, as he tried to shift. It felt like someone was holding him. His head hurt and his mouth felt really dry. He forced his eyes opened, and trembled in fright at the total blackness that surrounded him. He wondered briefly if maybe Papa had accidentally rolled on top of him. He fought against the restraining tightness.

Patty Pat startled as the bundle she rested her head on began to move, twisting and squirming. She jumped up barking, and pushing against the blanket wrapped toddler with her nose.

“Help! Help! Papa! Ha! Squat!”

Johnny’s panicked shouts increased the collie’s frantic efforts to release her little person. Between Johnny’s side to side rocking motion, and her frenzied nudging, the little boy managed to unroll himself from the restricting material.

Panting from the exertion of freeing himself, Johnny sat up and took note of his surroundings. He had to push Patty away; as she was so glad to see him she began to lick repeatedly at his little blood smeared face.

“Stop Pat Pat, Johnny can’t see.”

Ever the faithful companion, the dog sat down beside him as his anxious eyes took in his surroundings. Johnny blinked against the glow of the sun high in the afternoon sky; it seemed twice as bright after having been incased in the darkness of the blanket. When he realized he was outside by the river, by himself, his mouth dropped open in surprise.

“Uh oh, Pat Pat. How Johnny get here? Papa say Johnny can’t go to the water without a …” Johnny’s face puckered into a grimace as he tried to recall the word, “…oh yeah a dolt.”

Patty Pat whined and whimpered in reply. She laid her head in his lap, tongue lolling from the side of her mouth as she enjoyed the little hand scratching behind her ears.

Johnny’s inquisitive mind tried to figure out how he ended up down by the river. He thought perhaps Papa had brought him here, since Papa was coming back at lunch to get him. But where was Papa? He turned his head and saw the blanket he had been wrapped in. Maybe he fell asleep and Papa left him here to nap while he went…where? Then it came to him, Papa probably had to peepee. Johnny decided he would wait right here because if Papa came back and he was gone he would be in big trouble, the kind with ’see us con sea benches.’

The little boy sat quietly on the banks of the river as the water rushed by, it sounded like the wind when it blew through the open windows. But it was accompanied by splashes as its flow was impeded by the large rocks that dotted the riverbed and protruded above the surface. The water would crash into the stones, and spit angry plumes of white water into the air, which dropped noisily back down into the depths or made a boisterous slapping sound when it struck the top surface of the rocks.

Having no true concept of the passing of time, Johnny felt as though as he had waited forever on Papa. His head hurt and his tummy felt funny, but mostly he was thirsty. He thought it sure would be nice if he had his canteen, he wondered where it was; Mamacita always filled it with apple juice for him. He looked about for Papa’s horse; they usually left the canteens hanging from the pommel. He began to get a bad feeling when he realized there was no horse anywhere around.

Johnny was beginning to feel like he was all by himself. His eyes welled up and his lip began to tremble, he was just about to let loose with one of his vociferous patented temper tantrums, one guaranteed to receive attention. The din of snapping twigs, crunching leaves and heavy footfalls diverted his attention to the woods, off to his left. He expectedly watched the shaded area beyond the trees for Papa to return. To his shocked amazement, Papa didn’t appear out of the shadows…it was a bear…a very big bear.

Patty Pat growled low in her throat, Johnny froze. He could not tear his eyes away from the lumbering giant. His mouth dropped open, but he didn’t make a sound. The wind proceeding the bear from the treeline carried its earthy scent right to Johnny and the collie’s noses.

Johnny’s eye’s tracked the bear’s path as it angled away from him and headed straight for the river. It stomped into the water and bellowed out as it made its way to the opposite shore. Two cubs appeared on the bank of the far side, tumbling awkwardly over each other as they wrestled their way down the bank. All that was visible of the mama bear as she swam to them was her head, held majestically above the surface. She stepped from the water, and shook mightily, showers of water droplets flew from her thick fur, glittering like diamonds suspended in midair, under the brilliant afternoon sun. Then she and her cubs paraded off into the woods.

“WOW! Pat Pat that was a bear!

Hopping to his feet, Johnny streaked for the spot on the water’s edge where the bear had entered the river. Patty Pat hurried to get in front of him, effectively stopping his trip to the big body of water.

“Move Pat Pat, Johnny want to see.”

Johnny tried to push the dog aside but she refused to budge. He huffed and stomped his foot and made to go around the dog, determined to make it to the water. Patty Pat woofed loudly and grabbed the tail of his apron cape with her teeth and jerked. Johnny lost his footing on the muddy bank. His feet shot out from under him, his arms flailed about and he landed with a solid thump on his behind. Patty quickly sat on his little legs.

The sudden impact with the ground had not been all that hard, but coupled with the head ache and the funny feeling in his tummy, not to mention he was thirsty and hungry, Johnny had had enough. He didn’t like it here by himself and he wanted his Papa. His eyes welled up, his lip began to tremble, and he threw his head back and let out a loud dissatisfied shriek and then buried his face in Patty’s fur and cried great heaving sobs that shook his small frame.

If it had not been for her preoccupation with the inconsolable child crying and clinging to her Patty Pat might have heard the horse. If he had not had his face pressed into the comfort of his dog, Johnny might have seen him. If he had not been in such a hurry to get home, as he was running late, and the roar of the river had not been so loud, Murdoch might have noticed his baby boy sitting beside the banks of the swiftly running river.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Murdoch Lancer was in a rush to get home. He had promised to return for Johnny at lunch time, and had been unable to fulfill the promise. If he kept at this pace he would get home in enough time to give Scott and Zach some time to play without being bothered by Johnny.

Normally, Murdoch loved to ride, but today it took all his concentration due to the conditions of the roads that had been washed out and rutted by the winter rains. Early winter had been extremely wet, of course that would be a blessing when the heat and dryness of summer started. The roar of the still high river as it rolled and churned across the rocks and boulders in the riverbed gave testament to the fact there should be plenty of water to see them through the summer.

Murdoch slowed his pace as he came to an extremely dilapidated section of the road; he focused on missing the deepest pitted part of the ruts. All of a sudden his stomach rolled, and it felt like his heart skipped a beat and fluttered. He had an awful sensation that something was wrong at home; he veered his big bay off the road, and onto the field padded with soft grass and kneed his horse into a faster gallop.

As he crested the hill and started down the side into the field, where Scott and his friend had set up camp, Murdoch sighed in relief. He could see the boys playing outside of their tent. He didn’t see Johnny, and figured he was in the tent.

Scott looked up from his task of digging a trench in his miniature battlefield when the shadow of his father’s horse fell across him. He and Zach were playing war with his tin soldiers. They had constructed a replica of a combat zone, with twig trees, marbles for cannon balls, and small rocks for boulders; they had made dirt piles for hills. Murdoch smiled at the ingenuity and imagination of the two boys, as he dismounted from his horse.

“Hi, Papa, we’re playing war.”

“I see that,” he replied as he glanced about for signs of his youngest, “Where is your brother?”

“He stayed at the house when we went back to get our lunch. He was really dirty from digging the firepit, so Mamacita probably made him take a bath before he could eat. Johnny didn’t come back out so I guess he had to take a nap.”

“Or knowing your brother, he talked Ha into leaving his paperwork, so he could play with him.”

“Since you’re home now and Johnny won’t be coming back to our campsite, will you light the fire?”

“The campfire can wait until dark. I see you did a very good job of preparing it. However, as long as it’s still daylight, we don’t need to chance lighting it, and having Johnny slip out here and get into it.”

Zach’s stomach started cramping as he tried to nonchalantly go about his business. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself, because he knew when Mr. Lancer went to the house he would find out Johnny was not there.

Now that the fact that the child was missing was about to be exposed, Zach felt funny about what he had done. He might hate Mexicans, but it was plain that Mr. Lancer and Mr. Garrett did not share his views. He thought perhaps Scott did, but he wasn’t real sure, as they ate their lunch Scott had complained to him about how aggravating his little brother could be. And he always said brother, so obviously Scott was not ashamed he was a half-breed Mexican.

/Oh, no!/ Zach was consumed by a really bad feeling that he had done the wrong thing, even if his Father did say Mexicans were lazy, sleeping the best part of the work day away, and taking things that didn’t belong to them. His guilt clawed at his tummy as he watched Mr. Lancer striding off, leading his horse towards the barn. The pain in his belly grew until he moaned aloud and clutched at his stomach. He leaned forward and spewed out his lunch onto the ground, until all he had left to come up was yellow bile, and it was as bitter as his hateful action earlier.

Hearing the sound of retching, Murdoch’s head spun around as Zach emptied his stomach and fell weakly to his knees. He quickly returned to the boys, and handed his reins to Scott, who was staring at Zach with a mixture of disgust and amazement on his face.

“Yuck, Papa. Did you see that? It was coming out his nose, too!”

“Scott!” admonished Murdoch as he dropped down next to the sick child. He took out his handkerchief to clean the residue from his face. As he wiped up the crying child’s face, he felt for fever but could not detect any. He wondered why the boy flinched at his touch.

“Zach, how are you feeling now?”

Zachariah’s body twitched in nervous apprehension. He wasn’t sure how to answer, his mind was filled with as much turmoil, as his stomach had been, but he knew he had to be careful what words he let spill out. He was terrified he was going to give away his terrible secret. He latched on to the first solution that came to mind, too late he realized his request would bring them that much closer to Mr. Lancer discovering Johnny was gone.

“I want to go home. I want my Mama, I don’t feel good.” Zach rasped, his voice weak and whispery from the abuse of crying and vomiting.

“Come along to the house then, we’ll have Maria check you out and if she feels it’s okay for you to be out, I’ll take you home.” Taking the boy’s hand, Murdoch began walking towards the house, adjusting his stride to the children’s as they fell in step beside him.

Scott groaned as he saw his camping plans crumbling right before his eyes. Zach moaned as he realized he was about to be caught in the brouhaha when they arrived at the house and Mr. Lancer realized Johnny was missing. Zach thought furiously for a way to control the situation.

“Can’t you take me home right now? Your horse is already saddled.”

“I think it’s best if we check you out first. Besides, we need to gather your things, and I’m sure if you aren’t feeling well the trip would be easier in the wagon.”

Murdoch glanced at Scott and frowned at the dejected air the little boy projected. He knew Scott was disappointed. He wanted to do something to salvage his son’s plans.

“Scott, I know you were looking forward to camping and being out among the stars, after Johnny goes to bed, you and I will come back out here.”

“Really, Papa? Just the two of us?”

“Yes, really.”

Sleeping on the hard ground when he had a comfortable custom made bed in the house was not Murdoch Lancer’s idea of fun, but it was worth the sacrifice for the glow of happiness it put on Scott’s face.

The threesome arrived at the front of the hacienda and Murdoch handed off his horse to one of the hands. He started towards the door, and turned and looked at Zach, curious as to why the boy seemed to be pulling away from him, and dragging his feet. Zach’s face had gone pale, and his whole body seemed to tremble. / I hope he doesn’t have something contagious, after that bout with chicken pox, I could do without having to contend with sick boys./

“Are you going to be sick, again,” inquired Murdoch.

Zach shook his head no, as he fought the sense of impending doom that washed over him. His head felt light, almost like it wasn’t even there, and his vision seemed to be turning gray. The next thing he knew, Scott’s father had scooped him up, swung open the big oak door, and hurried into the great room and deposited him on the couch. Scott followed and sat down next to his friend.

“It sure is quiet in here, Johnny must still be napping.”

“Johnny must be what . . .?” questioned Ha as he entered the room, his nosed practically buried in a report he was reading. He did a double take when he saw the two little campers sitting on the sofa. “I didn’t expect to see you boys again until morning.”

 

“Zachariah isn’t feeling well, his stomach seems to be upset and he would like to go home,” Murdoch informed his father-in-law.

“You should have seen it, Ha. Zach threw-up and it shot out of his nose, too! It was gross.”

“Oh, my! Well that does seem most unpleasant, young man. I’m sorry you’re not feeling well,” Harlan stated with a distasteful grimace. “However, what does that have to do with whatever you were saying about Johnny?”

“I was saying Johnny must still be asleep because it is quiet in here.”

Harlan dropped his papers onto the end table and looked at his son-in-law with a peculiar expression. “Johnny isn’t in the house,” he informed Murdoch. Neither man was aware of the alarm bells beginning to ring in each others ears.

“Yes, he is Ha. Johnny came back to the house with me at lunch. He was really dirty, and I think Mamacita made him take a bath before he could eat. He never came back out so I think she made him take a nap.”

Ha turned stunned and apprehensive eyes towards Murdoch. “I ate lunch in the kitchen with Maria and Cipriano. Johnny was not there. In fact, Cipriano inquired after the boys and she told him they were all eating a picnic lunch in the field.”

Scott’s mouth dropped open and he stood up, shaking his head no, “But he never came back.”

“MARIA!” Murdoch’s bellow had more strength than his limbs at the moment. He was suffused by an overwhelming feeling of fear that left him feeling weak and in danger of collapsing.

Maria bustled into the room wiping flour from her hands on her apron. “Si, Patron.”

“When was the last time you saw Johnny?”

A puzzled looked crossed her face, and her stomach fluttered nervously. “This morning after breakfast, when the niño left to go play in the field.”

“Oh dear God,” muttered Ha, as he sank dizzily into a chair, the color leeching from his shocked face.

“Johnny didn’t eat lunch with you?”

“No, he came to the house with Scott, but he did not come in, Scott said he stopped to use the outhouse.” Maria turned eyes that were beginning to glaze with a hint of wild dread towards the little blond. “Scott, Johnny never came in the house. I thought he went back with you. Didn’t you see him when you went back out?”

Scott whispered through a throat choked with impending tears, “I left out the front door because the wagon was blocking the back door.” Swiping furiously at the moisture, as it began rolling down his cheeks, he added, “When he didn’t come back I thought maybe you made him take a bath because he was so dirty from digging in the dirt. Then I figured you would make him eat and take a nap like he usually does, since the hands said Papa wasn’t coming back for him.”

Murdoch had to resist the urge to run screaming about the ranch for the child, he took a few deep breaths and swallowed back the terror that was rising from his stomach, along with his breakfast, threatening to spew out upon the floor. With calm he did not truly feel, he clarified, “So the last place we know he was seen is the outhouse?”

Like a snow globe suddenly given a vicious shake, everyone with the exception of Zach, flew into motion and they were all racing through the kitchen, and out the door. Maria despite her plumpness and short legs lead the pack, Murdoch and Harlan, just steps behind her, Scott managed to scoot around the men as he cleared the doorway.

Frantic calls for Johnny, and the near hysterical screaming of his name by Maria drew all attention on the four people. Reaching the outhouse, Maria slung the door open with enough force to bounce it off the wall. She shrieked as though mortally wounded to find the space empty. She stumbled blindly out, face white, hands shaking and wilted down to the ground with a moan.

The ruckus had the workers that had been scattered about the yard all headed to their aid. They arrived just as Murdoch gasped and dropped down near the panic-stricken woman. He ran his fingers over something on the wall, and then turned to the throng of people now gathered at the small building, holding up his fingers, he announced with dread, “Blood.”

Over the inconsolable sobs of Maria, who had grabbed Scott, and hugged him tightly to her ample bosom, Murdoch reached deep within himself and pulled out his steel nerves, and began to bark orders, assigning everybody available to an area to search.

As they ran off to their sections, loudly calling for the missing toddler, Murdoch turned to help Maria up. When the woman was up on her feet, and took her first step, Harlan, who up until now had been frozen in place, spied something on the ground. He bent down and picked the item up, it was a slingshot, and the initials ZC were carved in the handle. He looked about for Zach to give it to him, and realized the child was nowhere to be seen.

“Harlan, would you please help Maria into the house, and send for someone to take Zachariah home, while I join the search. Someone needs to stay at the hacienda for the others to report to. Scott, please go with your Grandfather.”

Scott wailed stridently and begged to go with his Papa to help search for his little brother. The worried father dropped to his knees and gathered his oldest son into his arms, dried his tears and murmured soothing words of comfort.

Little did Murdoch know, his youngest was in need of the same coddling, as he sat by a rain swollen river, crying until his throat ached from dryness. He was thirsty and since he didn’t have his canteen he would have to drink from the river like Patty Pat. He struggled to his feet and toddled towards the rushing water.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Chapter 3

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Murdoch struggled up from his knees, Scott clutched in his arms, pressed firmly to his chest.  He felt as though his heart would beat a hole in his chest, it thumped so forcefully against his breastbone.  Scott whimpered, and wrapped his thin trembling arms around his Papa’s neck, and burrowed his face into the safety of his presence.  Maria reached over and rubbed the child’s back, her eyes haunted, yet vacant looking in her pale face, which was wet with tears.

Ha fought the all consuming terror that threatened to rend his body apart from the inside out, the starting point dead center of his heart.  His head swam with frantic dreadful thoughts; thoughts that made his legs feel as though they would melt out from under him and turn him into a quivering puddle, seeping slowly into the dirt and straight down into hell.  His eyes stung from the warm moisture that pooled in their horror stricken depths.  His greatest fear gripped him, and robbed him of the ability to think, one of his grandsons was missing.

“Harlan, please take Scott and Maria in the house.  Tell Zach we’ll see about getting him home as soon as we find Johnny.  He can’t have gone far in three hours…”  Murdoch’s voice choked off as his throat constricted, “he’s on foot…there’s just no way those little legs carried him out of the immediate area.”  His last statement sounded more like a fervent prayer than a fact.  “If we find him we’ll fire off three shots. Meanwhile it couldn‘t hurt for all of you to search the house over just in case.”

Murdoch pulled Scott from his neck and gave him a quick kiss to the forehead, and placed him next to Ha.  He then abruptly turned and headed for the barn, away from the prying eyes he let the tears slip in silent agony down his face.

 

Zachariah peered around the doorframe at the family, when he saw Mr. Lancer put Scott down, and then turn towards the barn, as the others walked towards the house, he decided to retreat to the great room.  Running through the kitchen and looking back, Zach caught his foot on a chair leg and bashed his face on the chair next to it.  His head snapped back violently when it connected; his chin smacked the seat bottom and caused the teeth of his lower jaw, with the prominent underbite, to impale his top lip.  He scurried up quickly; pressing his hand against his bleeding lip, and with a drunken wobble rushed to the couch and plopped down.  He heard the others as they came in.

“Maria, if you and the other ladies will search the rooms on the lower floor, Scott, his friend, and I will cover upstairs.”

“Ha, Zach wanted to go home. He doesn’t feel good.”

“We’ll see about getting him home after we find Johnny, right now that’s the more important task for the hands.  However, we do need to go check on him.”

Entering the great room, Harlan was shocked to find the little boy sitting on the sofa, his visage so pale his multitude of freckles stood out like paint splotches on his skin; his red hair resembled a glowing ember on top the white as ash face.  When he realized the child had a bloody hand pressed to his mouth he hurried forward.

“Zachariah, is your mouth bleeding?”

“Uh…yes sir,” he sputtered from behind his hand, as his mind whirled for an innocent explanation, he grinned as one came to him.  Removing his hand, revealing the torn and bloody lip he easily lied, “I was trying to follow y’all outside and I tripped and fell.”

“Oh dear, well it would seem that you are not enjoying your time with us.  I’m sorry you have taken ill, and are injured, too.  How are you feeling now?”

“My stomach still hurts.  Will someone take me home?”  Zach’s guilty eyes zeroed in on the slingshot still clutched in Mr. Garrett’s hand.

“As soon as we find Johnny. In the meantime, do you think you could help us check all the rooms upstairs to make sure Johnny is not simply hiding from us?”

“Yes, sir,” Zachariah replied reluctantly, not wanting to draw any undue attention to himself.  He swallowed nervously as Scott’s grandfather dropped the slingshot onto the end table.  He tried to ignore his weapon but it felt to him like its presence was as apparent as a grizzly bear strolling in and sitting in the wingback chair, and smoking a pipe, would be.

Harlan felt an uneasy jingle, a slight warning bell going off in his head.  This child before him was acting rather strangely.  It could be due to the fact the child claimed not to feel well, but some sixth sense told him the child was trying to hide something.  He studied the boy, as he wiped up his mouth with a clean handkerchief.  The extent of the damage to the lip was two puncture wounds from the child’s bottom teeth.

“I think your mouth will be fine.  The bleeding has stopped, but you keep the handkerchief just in case you need it.  Now then boys, let go upstairs and see if Johnny is perhaps hiding from us.  You need to check under the beds, behind the curtains, in closets and wardrobes.  The last time Johnny hid from us he fell asleep, remember, Scott?”  Ha smiled encouragingly at his grandson, as he seemed particularly somber.

The threesome headed up the stairs, when they reached the second floor landing Harlan instructed the boys to check the rooms in the central wing where the family’s bedrooms were located, and he would checked the guest rooms in the secondary wing.  They were to come get him immediately if they found Johnny.

Thirty minutes later, Harlan and Scott were still diligently searching, their hair disheveled from poking their heads under and in beds, drapes, wardrobes and closets.  Zach, however, knowing full well the search was useless sat on the floor in Scott’s room playing with his stereopticon with a large collection of view-plate scenes.  He was so enthralled with the pictures he didn’t realize how much time had passed, or that Scott had just stepped into the room.

As he had fruitlessly hunted for his little brother, Scott’s fear had slowly morphed into anger.  His weekend camping had been ruined, even if Zach had not gotten sick, he would have been pulled from his activity to help find his troublesome little brother.  The more he thought about it, the more put out, mistreated and misused he felt.  Spying his door open when he knew he had closed it earlier to keep Johnny out, Scott stormed across the hall convinced he would find Johnny in his room somewhere.

In a peeved voice, Scott advanced into his room, heading straight for his wardrobe and growled, “All right Johnny, I know you’re in here somewhere.  I’m tired of your stupid game, I’m sick of you getting me in trouble…..arrggghhhh…I wish I didn’t even have a little brother.”

Zach was startled and dropped the viewing plate in his hand when all of a sudden he heard a disgruntled voice in the room.  He peered over the top of the bed, as Scott snarled out his speech, and threw things from his wardrobe in his quest to ferret out Johnny.  He looked pretty mad to Zach.  He thought maybe he had been wrong about Scott actually liking his little brother.  It certainly didn’t seem that way now.

Realizing that Johnny was not in the wardrobe, Scott backed out, sighing, as he brushed his tousled hair out of his eyes.  His hand froze in place at the top of his head when he saw a pair of eyes watching him from the other side of the bed.

“What are you doing, Zach.” Scott questioned, as he walked around to the other side of his bed.  He was somewhat taken back to see his friend sitting amongst all his view plates, with his stereopticon in his hand.

“Why aren’t you helping us look?”

“Oh…I figured he would come out when he was ready.  It looks to me like he gets away with whatever he wants to do, so I figured why should we waste all our time hunting for him.”

Due to the fact his fright had turned to anger, not to mention his feelings of guilt for not having made sure Johnny actually made it into the house, Scott latched on to Zach’s observation that seemed to place more of the blame on Johnny.  He flopped down on the floor next to his friend who seemed to understand just what he had to go through with his little brother.

“Sometimes I wish his Mama had taken him with her when she ran away, then it would be just me, Papa and Ha.”  As soon as the words left his mouth, Scott wished to take them back.  He didn’t really mean them.  He loved Johnny even if he was a holy terror like Papa said.  Before he could open his mouth to retract his words, Zach spoke.  Scott listened in stunned silence, a silence that made the other boy erroneously think Scott agreed with him.

“My Pa says Mexicans ain’t nothing but trouble.  They’re lazy, and they take things that don’t belong to them.  He says we’d be a lot better off if they all went back to Mexico were they belong.  The only thing they’re good for is working in the sun.”

Scott was shocked and disgusted to hear such hate coming from a boy he thought was his friend.  His anger began to roil inside him, threatening to overwhelm him.  He clenched his fists at his sides, his arms and torso rigid with the rage the other boy’s words fueled.

Unaware that Scott was speechless with fury, Zach continued the verbal attack.  “Johnny’s Mama was probably one of them Mexican whores that didn’t care about anything but finding a man with money like your father.  You should be glad Johnny is gone now, too.”

It registered in Scott’s mind that Zach had stated it like a fact that Johnny was gone; he thought back earlier to the way the older boy had snatched Johnny around at the campsite.  With a sickening certainty, he came to the conclusion Zach knew where Johnny was.  He intended to get the information out of the boy even if he had to beat it out of him.

Zachariah’s very next sentence, sealed his fate for the pummeling he was about to receive.  “You know maybe Johnny isn’t really your brother, maybe his Mama just married your Dad cause she was already pregnant.”

Scott’s furious feral scream ripped through the air, bouncing off the walls, as he pounced on Zach, demanding, “Where is my brother?”

Zachariah was pushed to the floor by the weight of Scott jumping on him.  He was unable to answer the other boy’s question as a small fist slammed into his already abused lips, splitting the already tender lips, blood poured from his injured mouth.  Before he could suck in a breath to scream, Scott punched him squarely on the nose, there was a sickening crunch sound, and Zach blinked his eyes against the flashes of light the blow caused in his vision.  He felt the blood oozing down his throat from the nose bleed he now had.  He tried to roll out from under Scott, but was held in place by Scott’s legs.  Bringing his arms up Zachariah tried to block the wildly striking hands. Between the blood filling his mouth and Scott bouncing on his stomach and ribs as he tried to beat him into the floor, Zach gurgled and threw up.  The vomit spewed into the air and then splashed down into his face; the acid in his own digestive juices burned his eyes.  With a strangled wet sounding screech, Zach found his voice and called for help.

“HELP!”

The battering continued as Scott snarled over and over, “I hate you, I hate you.”

Loud thumps echoed in the room as Zach tried to buck Scott off. The irate Lancer refused to turn loose, in the chaotic melee the boys had managed to struggle closer to the night table.  Digging in his heels and pushing up to try and free himself, Zach rammed his shoulder into the leg of the table.  The table rocked back and the oil lamp sitting on it crashed to the floor.  The glass shattered and the pungent scent of coal oil filled the room.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Exiting the last room on the opposite side of the hall of the first room he checked, Harlan heard a scream, thumping and bumping, and then the unmistakable sound of breaking glass.  Running down the hall towards the noise, Garrett crashed into Scott’s room and was momentarily frozen in place over the sight of his grandson attacking his friend.  Shaking off the stunned immobility, he rushed forward and pulled the boys away from the debris littering the floor, separating them at the same time.

“That will be quite enough of this nonsense!  Where are your manners Scott Garrett Lancer?  We do not treat our friends this way!”

“He’s not my friend,” shrilled Scott, as he pointed an accusatory finger at the bloodied and beaten boy standing in front of him, weeping bitterly.  “He said bad things about Johnny’s Mama, and then he said I should be glad Johnny was gone.  He did something to my baby brother, I know he did, he was mean to him at our campsite.”

Harlan Garrett was a shrewd man, able to read the bits of any situation in business and formulate a whole picture.  He had let his emotions cloud his thinking earlier, but with this new development he began to quickly assemble the pieces of what he knew.  His mind traveled back to Zach’s upset stomach, his desire to go home, his seeming indifference over Johnny’s being missing, the fact that he didn’t accompany the rest of them outside and most damning of all the slingshot with his initials carved in it, found in the last place Johnny was seen.

Turning towards their guest with a stone like countenance hardening his features, the worried grandfather demanded, “Young man, what have you to say about this?”

Tears streamed down Zach’s face, mingled with blood and mucus.  He considered lying to the old man, but the piercing eyes now leveled on him scared and confused him.  Before he could stop himself he choked out between sobs and deep gulping breaths, “I didn’t mean to hurt him bad, it was an accident.”

The words hung heavily in the air, sucking the oxygen from the room and replacing it with paralyzing fear, a fear that seeped into every pore of Harlan’s body and liquefied his bones until he felt as though he would collapse upon himself.  Scott’s inconsolable wail brought him to his senses.

“Come along with me young man, you have a lot explain, and explain it you will or you will be one sorry boy.”

Harlan grabbed the boy by the arm and propelled him out the room, through the hall and down the stairs.  Scott was trailing behind them, snubbing and hiccoughing as he tried to calm himself.  Arriving in the great room, Ha was so peeved until he didn’t even stop to think about cleaning the child’s face of the blood, vomit, tears and mucus.  He sat the child on the stone hearth and instructed him not to move.

Striding to the gun cabinet, the old man took a key from his pocket and unlocked the door.  Two curious boys watched as he chose a gun, and then rummaged in the drawer for bullets, and then quickly loaded the Colt. Ha swung around with the gun in his hand.

Scott sniffed, and breathlessly asked, “Are you going to shoot him, Ha?”

Zach stared at the weapon in Mr. Garrett’s hand with horror, he squealed and drew up his legs and clasped his arms around them, hiding his face in his knees, he whimpered as he felt the flow and spread of wet warmth in his pants.

“No, I’m going to signal your father.  I’m quite sure he will be most interested in what young Mr. Culpepper has to say.”

Scott glared menacingly at his former friend, “Then can we shoot him?”

Ha leveled a disapproving glare at his grandson’s recalcitrant attitude, quelling him into a fuming silence.  He marched to the French doors swung them open, and stepped out onto the patio, and fired three shots into the air.  He flinched at each echoing pop and boom.  He truly hated violence, but he had learned to load and shoot the gun in case he ever was in a position of needing to protect his most precious assets, his grandsons.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

In the hayloft of the barn, Murdoch heard the explosive boom of a gun firing nearby.  He held his breath as he waited to see if there would be two additional shots, signaling that his baby boy had been found. The vibration of the third discharge was still ringing in the air as he scrambled wildly down the ladder.

Murdoch’s heart hammered viciously in his chest, and his limbs felt limp and uncoordinated, as he fought his own clumsiness in his attempts to reach the barn floor.  His feet hit solid ground and he surged forward on legs that felt boneless, through sheer determination he plowed onward.  Exiting the barn he saw the others that had been searching were all headed to the patio, obviously that’s where the shots had been fired.   His hope soared like a bird upon the wind, that Johnny had been found hiding in the house.

It felt like he was running in slow motion, he tried to lift his feet higher and pump more energy into his stride. For some strange reason his legs ached with additional weight and seemed to be stuck to the ground, like he was mired down in frozen molasses.  Murdoch was practically hyperventilating by the time his boots pounded heavily across the stone patio.  He pushed his way forcefully through the throng of people, his eyes frantically searching for his baby.  All he saw was a grim faced Harlan; shoulders slumped in dejection, the gun still gripped with white knuckled urgency in his hand.

“Where is he…where is the niño?”  Maria wailed, as she came flying out the doors, and saw Mr. Garrett was the one who had signaled. She clutched desperately at his shirt sleeve.  A tortured whimper trembled from her lips as she saw the distress in the elderly man’s face.

“Harlan?”  Murdoch whispered, afraid if he raised his voice too loudly the fear in it would finish ripping his world in two, and leave the shattered remains of it in a desolate pile of debris at his feet.

“We didn’t find him, son.  However, I have learned that Zachariah knows something about his disappearance.  I thought it best to summons you before questioning him, so that he would only have to tell this once.”

“You men wait right here until I call for you.”  Murdoch instructed through lips that felt curiously numb.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Zach watched with trepidation as the three adults filed into the room.  Swallowing convulsively, he squirmed anxiously and grimaced over the uncomfortable itch his urine soaked pants caused his skin.  He wasn’t bothered by Maria, she looked like she was going to faint, not that he cared about the Mexican woman’s feelings.  Mr. Garrett looked like his face was too tight, and his lips were pursed so tautly, they resembled a thin white line.

Mr. Lancer… he scared him.  The man was taller than tall, a giant of a man.  He was staring at Zach like he was a bug that he wanted to squash under his boot.  To mash his guts out of him until he was a flattened puddle of oozing gore, seeping slowly into the dirt.  Fear for his own well being, loosened Zach’s tongue before he was even asked a question.

“I didn’t mean to hurt him; I just wanted to scare him so he would stay in the house away from me and Scott.”  Tears cascaded down his pale freckled face, though his regrets were for himself and not Johnny.

Murdoch had to fight the desire to snatch the child up and shake him until his freckles fell off.  He had never noticed before how ugly this particular child was, he certainly gave new meaning to the old saying ‘pretty is, as pretty does‘.  Pushing back the rage that wanted to burst forth and lay everything in its path into the wreckage of mass destruction, he schooled his features to stern disapproval.

“Young man, explain to me just what you have done.” Murdoch demanded.

“I saw Johnny come out of the outhouse.  I was going to shoot a rock at him with my slingshot.  I was aiming for his chest, I just wanted to knock the breath out of him, so he would cry and someone would come make him go in the house.”

“But that’s not what happened, is it?”

“No, sir, at the last second he bent over to look at something on the ground.  The rock hit him in the head and then he fell back and hit his head on the outhouse.”

Maria sobbed loudly, crossed herself and mumbled a prayer.  Scott rushed forward and hugged her, as much to comfort himself as her.

“And then what did you do?” asked Murdoch as he turned his attention back to the boy from Scott and Maria.

“I went to check on him, his head was bleeding and he wouldn’t wake up…so I got a blanket off the line and rolled him up in it…then I put him in the back of the wagon that was parked at the kitchen door.”

Murdoch was only aware of a golden flash, and then the room was filled with a feral scream, as Scott sailed into the boy sitting on the hearth.  Both boys tumbled to the floor, a hopeless tangle of arms and legs as they fought.  The conglomeration of limbs rolled into the coffee table and Scott emerged on top, repeatedly striking the other boy with his clenched fists.

Trying to separate them, Murdoch grasped Scott around the waist and tried to lift him, Zach’s body came up also, and he screamed in agony from the death grip Scott had on his hair.  It felt like he would be snatched baldheaded.

‘Scott Garrett Lancer, turn loose, now!”

When his hair was let go, Zachariah scrambled out of the reach of his friend, he rubbed furiously at his stinging scalp, and blinked repeatedly through his rapidly swelling eyes.  The enormity of his actions finally sunk into his head, as he faced the stunned family in the room.  Harlan broke the awkward silence.

“You said he wouldn’t wake up, but he was still breathing.”

“Yes, sir, he was still breathing.”

“Thank God for that!” Ha mumbled as he dropped despairingly into a chair.

Maria gasped sharply and turned to Murdoch, “Patty Pat!”

“What?”

“Patty Pat, she jumped into the back of the wagon, as the men were leaving with the fencing supplies!”

“I was at the worksite when the men arrived, Johnny, nor Patty were in that wagon.”  Turning back to Zach, Murdoch sternly announced, “Young man, you better not be lying to me.”

“I’m not lying, he probably fell out, the tailgate was down.”

“Then why didn’t I see anything when I came…” Murdoch’s words trailed off as realization flooded him, “…I got to that rough section of rutted road, and was overwhelmed by a bad feeling, so I took a shortcut across the field.”

“I bet Patty jumped out when Johnny fell out, she always wants to be with Johnny.  Papa if we find Patty Pat, we’ll find Johnny.”

“At least if Patty is with him, he’s not completely alone.  That collie is as effective at herding that child, as she is a cow.” Harlan’s tremulous voice gave away his anxiety.

The bit of information imbued Murdoch with renewed vigor for his task, while Harlan was the one to keep a calm head dealing directly with the boys, but felt overwhelmed when they were absent, Murdoch was the opposite, and they balanced each other out that way.

“Diego!” shouted Murdoch.

“Si, Patron.” The ranch hand answered from just inside the French doors.

“We believe we know where Johnny is.  Saddle my horse…”

Scott cut his father off, tugging anxiously at his sleeve, “Papa, please let me go too…PLEASE!”

Reading the horror and guilt on Scott’s face, Murdoch caved in to the pressure.  “Diego, please saddle Scott’s horse also.  Johnny can ride back with him.  And send someone over to the Culpepper’s place with a message for Zach’s parents to come here and retrieve their son.  I need to speak with them.”

Everyone seemed to be moving at once, there was more activity than a stick stirred ant mound.  Maria headed to the kitchen to fill a canteen and make a snack for Johnny to eat on the way home.  Harlan escorted Zach to the bathhouse to clean him up.  Scott ran upstairs to get Zach’s clothes, while Murdoch checked the bag they kept packed for Johnny when they went to town, to make sure it had a change of clothes for him, if it was needed.

Running back into the room, winded and out of breath, from taking Ha the change of outfit for Zach, Scott announced, “Let’s go get my baby brother, Papa.”

The two Lancers marched out the door on their mission.  They met the hand with their horses about halfway to the barn, mounting up they took off in the direction the wagon had taken earlier, fully expecting to find the youngest Lancer somewhere along the road.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

After drinking his fill at the edge of the river, with Patty Pat tugging on his apron cape the entire time, Johnny returned to the blanket and sat down.  His tummy rumbled noisily.  He was hungry, but his stomach felt like there were rocks tumbling around in it.  He was getting awful tired of waiting on Papa so he decided to start looking for him.  Johnny knew his father didn’t want him too close to the water so he guessed he’d better climb back up to the road.

“Come on, Pat Pat.  Johnny want to go home.”

The loyal dog got up and followed right on his heels, as he began to scramble up the hillside, just as long as he didn’t go near that water she was happy.  Being agile and limber, helped in his quest to get up the incline and back on the road.  However his short limbs made the ascent take longer.  Johnny dug his boot toes into the moist ground and pulled himself up by clinging to the vegetation and bare vines.  After what seemed like hours, his head crested the rise and he clambered up onto the road.

Johnny lay panting on the side of the road for a few minutes, catching his breath, and trying to decide which way to go.  Patty sat faithfully by him, tongue lolling out her mouth as she panted and stared at him with her warm chocolate brown eyes. Johnny yawned and rubbed his eyes, as he looked up the road and then down the road.  Finally he stood and turned in the direction of home and began to walk.  He kicked at dirt clods and rocks, as he toddled along, Pat Pat trailing along beside him.

If fate were kind, the little boy, his Papa, and brother would meet along the road.  However, fate’s fickle cousin, circumstances, was in no mood to be helpful.  Three hundred yards from where he climbed the hillside, Johnny kicked a dirt encrusted rock that rolled, tumbled and skipped along before coming to a rest at the side of the hill.  Johnny laughed at the funny little hopping dance it did, as it moved away, it reminded him of the acrobats at the circus. He ran to find this special rock so he could try that trick again.

As Johnny searched along the roadside he stepped too close to the moist edge, the ground gave away and he found himself flipping head over heels down the steeper rise along this section of land.  He was too shocked to make any noise other than grunts as his little body repeatedly impacted the ground.  Patty Pat chased after him frantically barking.

A half a mile down the road, a hungry mountain lion heard the barks and yewoled loudly, startling Scott’s horse. It reared, and took off like a canon shot, leaving Scott sitting in the middle of the road watching the hind quarters of his horse as it galloped away in a din of thundering hooves.

Murdoch spurred his horse forward, and was jumping from its back, hitting the ground with a solid sounding thud, just as Johnny’s wild careening tumble ended with a resounding wet splash, followed by another as Patty Pat plunged into the rushing river right behind her little person. Johnny and the dog were sucked into the strong current and were tossed, turned and churned back the way they had just come.

The run away mount raced pell mell up the road, the scent of his fear carried in the breeze and allowed the cougar to detect his trail.  The beast’s second screech caused the frightened mount to rear up again, and that in turn caused the lion to miscalculate its jump from the boulder it was perched on. The big cat landed on the far side of its prey, allowing the horse to make a speedy get away.

The sensitive nose of the predator picked up the smell of blood. It’s eyes narrowed, and it growled low in its throat, as it followed the odor.  The scent lead it right to the blanket Johnny had been wrapped in earlier.  The cougar sniffed and snuffled at the material, pawing and tearing at it with her claws, until finally she clamped down on a mouthful of it and dragged it off into the woods, obliterating the signs that Johnny had ever been beside the torrent waters.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Chapter 4

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The cold water snatched the breath from Johnny’s startled body, as he plunged into the rapids.  His head disappeared below the churning surface, and then popped back up. His hair was plastered to his face, and he swiped the wet strands out of his wide frightened eyes; initially the only sound he managed to make was a strangled gasp.

Normally, Johnny loved water, he liked to swim in Papa’s big tub, in the horse trough and when Papa took them to one of the many ponds and creeks on the ranch.  However, this was not fun; this water was freezing, and was moving fast.  He was being tossed this way and that way, he had no control over where he went next.  It was like when he and Squat jumped on Ha’s bed; as long as Squat jumped all he could do was bounce around, along for the ride.

The rushing river all of a sudden swirled him in a circle, and just before he was sucked under again Johnny spied Patty Pat, he reached desperately for her, and in the next second his view of the world was distorted by the murkiness of the water. He could feel things in the water bumping into him, and brushing against him.  Johnny’s lungs screamed for air, as he clawed at the water, trying to find his way to the top.

Johnny saw something floating in the water, right in front of his face. Whatever it was looked like it was dancing, swaying this way and that way.  Finally it clicked in his brain it was Pat Pat’s legs, and the stuff dancing about was her fur.  He latched onto her with both hands and pulled himself up.

Johnny sucked air in greedily, as soon as his face cleared the water.  He coughed and sputtered, but continued to clutch the two hands full of dog fur.  His apron cape, in all his tumbling and turning underwater had come to rest over the top of his head.  Pat Pat clamped down on the cloth and held fast, as the wild ride continued.

The further away the current carried them, the rockier the riverbed became, and the amount of debris increased.  Johnny’s small body was pelted by all manner of trash caught up in the force of the moving water.  Dipping, diving, swirling, twirling, bobbing and floating, the little boy was powerless against the mighty river.  His thoughts were as jumbled and chaotic as the whirling and spinning liquid.   He whimpered in fear, and tears rolled down his face, undistinguishable from the rivulets of river water.

Johnny cried out loudly for his Papa, as his little body was propelled against a small tree that the winter rains had washed down the sides of the river bank.  The sturdy trunk of the slender oak had become wedged between two boulders and it effectively redirected the tot’s path.  After hitting the tree, he shot in between two large rocks that lead to a branch off that ended in a small creek.

The water in the creek was calm, and Patty Pat was able to swim for the shore, towing a screaming Johnny by his apron cape.  Johnny’s cries for his Papa, Ha and Squat, echoed all around the wooded gulch that surrounded the creek.  Once she had her little person, safely on the muddy banks, the exhausted dog collapsed into a panting heap.

Johnny fell over onto the wet animal, burying his face against her neck, as he wept out his fear.  When his breath robbing sobs slowly morphed to sniffling and hiccoughs, he finally realized he was no longer in the river.  He sat up and brushed furiously at his face, which was covered with bits of debris from the water, as well as clumps of wet dog fur.

Johnny was too young to realize the river had just carried him three miles further from home, but he did know he had never been here before.  He cast his eyes about warily, wiping at his runny nose with the sleeve of his wet jacket.  He shivered, as a breeze wafted across his drenched form, and then the enormity of his situation hit him.  He was wet, cold, hungry, his head hurt and his tummy felt funny, but the thing that bothered him most of all was Papa was obviously lost, and he didn’t know where to find him.

The toddler was seized by a fresh round of tears, great panting sobs racked his body, his shoulders shook, his face was mottled and pied with redness, as he called out desperately, “Papa…Ha…Squat…”  His words echoed back at him, but there was no answering reply from his family.

Tears burned in the back of his throat, as he willed himself to be quiet and listen.  He chewed on his lip, and fought the shudders that shook his frame.  His tummy ached like the time he ate a whole bowl of Mamacita’s chocolate icing before she could spread it on the cake.  Thinking about Mamacita’s cooking made him realize she was lost too.  Johnny’s tears burst out violently, flooding his eyes and cascading down his face, as he called pitifully for the only Mother he knew.

“Mamacita…sob…Mamacita…sniffle….please come get Johnny!”  Climbing to his feet, determined to go look for his lost family, Johnny was unbalanced and landed on his behind when Patty Pat grabbed his cape before he could wander off.

“Stop, Pat Pat, Johnny need to find Papa.”

Johnny twisted to the side, pulling his cape from the collie’s teeth.  His mouth dropped open in surprise when he saw a little cabin off to the side, nestled at the edge of the woods.  Sniffling and scrubbing at his face with little hands covered with the muddy dirt of the riverbank, he stood and headed for the building.  Patty Pat trailed behind him, happy that he was walking away from the water.

Clumping loudly up the wooden treads onto the porch of the cabin, Johnny knocked on the door.  He waited forever (three seconds toddler time) for an answer.  Deciding the people could not hear him, Johnny pulled back his booted foot and kicked the door soundly, the force of his blows jiggled the latch loose, and the door swung open on the fifth strike.

“E.e.e.e.e.e.e.e.e.e.e,” Johnny squealed happily, and clapped his hands. His astonished eyes hardly knew what to look at first.  He stepped inside, walking the parameter of the room, as he studied the walls.

The inside of the little two room cabin looked like a circus. The walls were covered with colorful posters depicting various acts that could be seen at the circus.  The variety of pictures showed scenes of acrobats, a lady riding by standing on the backs of two horses, clowns on elephants, a man with his head in a lion’s mouth, dancing bears in pink skirts, and a group portrait of various sideshow performers, among them a man and woman dressed as a bride and groom, the woman was enormous and her husband barely looked as big around as her arm.  On a table right under the colorful poster was a framed picture of the mismatched couple.

Johnny picked the frame up and inspected the photo closely.  He gasped, as he realized it was the fat lady and skinny man, he had seen in the restaurant the last time they ate lunch in town.  Sitting the picture back on the table, he backed up, his eyes taking in more of the unusual décor.  He was so focused on the posters he didn’t watch where he was stepping, his heels shuffled against something and he fell.

Johnny landed with a thud, bashing his elbow on something hard.  Turning his head to see what had hurt his arm, his eyes widened in fright. Staring at him were two big yellow eyes, set right above an open mouth with big white fangs bared, all belonging to a fearsome looking tiger stretched out on the floor beside him.

“Arrrrggghhhhhhh,” Johnny screamed as he sat up, and tried to scramble away.  Patty Pat barked and rushed at him, so he spun sideways, pushing his heels against the floor, his boot slipped and slid right into the tiger’s toothy jaws.  Johnny’s panicked shrieks, and the dogs frantic barking vibrated off the walls.

“Help…help…let Johnny go!”  The toddler hollered, as he tugged and pulled to free his foot.

Patty Pat lunged at the big cat trying to eat her little person.  She grabbed the tiger by the ear, growling menacingly, and viciously pulled, trying to sling the predator off.  Johnny’s foot popped out of his boot, the abrupt release throwing him backwards.

Once he was free, Johnny realized the tiger never made a sound, nor had it moved.  He could see his boot hanging out of the ferocious beast’s mouth.  He slipped cautiously closer to check things out.  Pat Pat was still tugging on the ear but her growl had turned into an inquisitive whine.

Johnny giggled when he saw that it wasn’t a live tiger, it was just the outsides of one; someone had taken out its insides, and made it all flat. His laugh caused the collie to stop her attack, cocking her head, her soft brown eyes shined with amusement, as she watched; Johnny dropped down on the animal skin and began to pet the big head.

The quiet in the cabin, now that things had settled down, was disrupted by the hungry rumble of a little boy’s empty stomach.

“Johnny hungry, Pat Pat.”

“Woof,” she answered back.

Twisting and jerking on his boot ensnared in the tiger’s mouth, Johnny managed to retrieve it.  He slid his shoe on, and then got up and strode to the table, intending to get a chair to drag over to the counter to look for something to eat.  As he got closer to the table he saw a big tin sitting in the middle of it.  He climbed onto a chair and stood up, reaching across the table, he grabbed the container and pulled it to the edge.

After grunting, groaning, a little foot stomping with a liberal dose of whining, Johnny finally managed to pry the lid off.  His eyes lit with delight, and his mouth watered.  The tin was full of cookies, all kinds of cookies.

Johnny didn’t want to forget his manners, so he asked out loud, even though he wasn’t expecting an answer since Papa was lost, “Can Johnny have some cookies?”

He waited the appropriate amount of time (half a second) for a response, and then dug in.  He shared his bounty with Pat Pat.

After eating his fill of cookies, Johnny struggled with the pump handle at the sink, pumping and pumping the cold metal equipment to prime it, before he was able to fill a cup of water for him and a bowl for the dog.  Then he wandered into the only other room.  It contained two big beds.  One of the beds had a big dip in the middle, and the head and footboards, canted inward, but the mattress was soft and puffy.  The mattress on the other bed was hard and not inviting at all.

Yawning widely, tuckered out from his adventure, Johnny stripped off his still wet clothes and crawled into the big soft bed, and snuggled under the covers.  Patty Pat jumped up too, and she settled into the dip in the mattress. Johnny’s eyes fluttered shut and his breathing even out into the easy, steady respirations of sleep.  Patty closed her eyes, but was fully alert, and on duty to guard her little person’s safety.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The sun was descending, dimming the day into the gray of an early night sky, which was streaked with a blush of pink, and the air turned cooler.  The sound of thunder rumbled over the distant mountains, as dark clouds began to align themselves a top the peaks, waiting for the cold air to push them down the mountain and into the valley.

Murdoch Lancer cantered his horse carefully along the darkening road, Scott pressed tightly against his chest.  His heart felt as heavy as the strikes of the hooves as they beat a path for home.  Fear trembled along every nerve in his body.  He was sure he was going to come apart at the joints, fall into a million pieces and fly off his wildly spinning world.

After making sure Scott had not been hurt when his horse threw him, father and son had doubled up and ridden all the way out to where the work crew had been that day.  They had seen no sign of Johnny, or Patty Pat, and neither had any of the workers they encountered.  After instructing the men to be on the lookout for his youngest, the big man had mounted up prepared to retrace his steps, still praying to come across his baby boy along the road somewhere.

Scott shifted in his sleep, and snubbed and sniffled.  He had been practically inconsolable when they had failed to find Johnny, or any signs of his runaway horse.  He had cried until the point he lost his breath, and went limp in his father’s arms, as Murdoch tried to restrain and comfort him, at the same time.

Passing under the Lancer arch, Murdoch spied a buckboard parked at the house, breaking his own rules he kicked his horse into a gallop, in his haste to reach the hacienda.  He subconsciously tightened his hold on Scott, while chanting in his mind, praying to any and all Gods, Great Spirits, and Saints, ‘please let that be someone bringing Johnny home’.

Reining his horse to an abrupt stop, Murdoch was kicking his right foot free of the stirrup, and dropping down the side of his horse, while the animal’s muscles stilled quivered.  He didn’t even have time to sit Scott down when raised voices, a gunshot, and scream, had him storming through the front door, taking a hard right and barreling into the chaos, disorder and panic in the Great room.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Chapter 5

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Realizing he still had Scott clutched to his chest when the little boy started wiggling to get down, Murdoch sat him in one of the blue high back chairs. He was stunned speechless at the pandemonium that must have occurred before he arrived.  The entire contents of his desk top lay scattered about the floor.  Harlan was standing behind it with Zach, who was sobbing loudly.  Maria stood in front of the gun cabinet, with a shotgun still pointing upward, right at a hole in the ceiling that loose crumbling bits of plaster rained down from, dusting her dark hair with the powdery substance. 

A man who could be no one else other than Zachariah’s father, because they were such mirror images of each other, anyone would have sworn Culpepper had spit the boy straight from his own mouth. Father and son were both pasty white with large splotchy freckles, had prominent underbites, and flaming red hair, the only real difference being the elder Culpepper was taller.  The senior Culpepper was covered with feathers, and unless he missed his guess, Murdoch would say they came from the throw pillow clutched in the hands of the irate woman standing in front of him; apparently she had pummeled him with it until it split open.

Mrs. Culpepper was rather tall for a woman; of course it may have been her height seemed loftier due to her extreme thinness.  She was most likely at one time a pleasant looking lady, but it was quite obvious form the sun kissed face and work roughened hands, that she had known her share of hardships and labor.  At the moment she was fairly breathing fire, as her furious brown eyes bore relentlessly into the hapless form of her husband.  Her body shook with barely contained fury, to the point feathers continued to fall from the damaged pillow like over sized, fringed snowflakes.

“You’re a fool, Rossfield Culpepper, a bigoted, trifling, lazy, blame everybody else for your troubles and failures, because you aren’t man enough to take responsibility yourself, fool. You belittle other people to make yourself seem big.  Well, you’re big all right, you’re a big ass!” proclaimed the wife who was finally at the end of her rope.

“Now you hold on Bertha, you ain’t got no call to be talking to me like that, you best show me some respect.” Ross demanded, leaning right into his wife’s face, their noses almost touching.

“Respect!” she hissed through clenched teeth, spraying spittle in his face.  “Here’s your respect,” she announced, as she dropped the split pillow, and grabbed the slingshot laying on the end table. Her hand struck faster than a lightning bolt, the wooden weapon connected solidly with a thick head.  Mr. Culpepper rocked back on his heels. As the stunned audience watched, a second blow toppled the man with a loud THUD!  His body practically bounced, as it hit the floor. Feathers were launched upward, briefly, from the disturbance of the air, and then fluttered down onto his outraged and stunned face, some landing in his mouth, causing him to spit and sputter.

“I’ll not show you respect until you earn it. Your misplaced hatred and prejudice has poisoned your own son, and he has taken it out on an innocent baby. Mexicans didn’t cause you to lose your land, your gambling and drinking did!”  Bertha’s body twitched and jerked, as she stood by her husband’s prostrate form. It looked as though she was restraining herself from kicking the downed man.

Awkward silence weighed down the occupants of the room, until the metallic clicks of Maria preparing to put away the gun drew their attention.

“Senor,” Maria’s voice trembled, “Did you not find the baby?” Her eyes glittered with tears, as they connected with Murdoch’s.

A suppressed noise, sounding like a swallowed sob escaped Murdoch’s mouth.  He dropped down into the other blue chair.  When he lifted his head, his face seemed drained of life.  The strained lines of his posture screamed how exhausted, desperate and powerless he felt.  “No,” he admitted miserably.

The rifle clattered loudly on the tile floor.  Maria glanced wildly about the room at the others.  Her hands shook with a viciousness that extended up her limbs, but she managed to raise her arms until she pressed her cold fingers, gone white with terror, against her mouth, as she tried to hold in her shrieks. Strangled whimpers wheezed from her breathless body, as she stumbled towards the sofa.

Bertha Culpepper’s heart went out to this little family.  She moved to lend her support to the distraught woman, at the same time as Murdoch.

 While his father went to Maria’s side, and quietly assured her that they would find Johnny, Scott watched his grandfather.  He looked as though he was dancing, moving only the top half of his body, because his feet seemed stuck in place.  Then to Scott’s horror, Ha’s face appeared like it was melting, his eyes rolled back in the sockets, and he was sinking to the floor.  Scott screamed shrilly.  

 Harlan was going to unravel; in fact, he could feel himself coming apart.  He was sure if he looked down he would see long strings of himself bunched around his feet.  That could be why he felt as though he couldn’t move them, which had to be why he could not get his feet to propel him forward.  Harlan wondered briefly if he did disintegrate until he was a flaccid pile of threads on the floor, if anyone or anything would be able to put him back together like Humpty Dumpty.  And thinking of the nursery rhyme only reminded him of Johnny, his youngest grandbaby was lost out in the dark night.  All of a sudden there was not enough air in the room, he huffed and puffed rapidly trying to draw in enough of the life giving oxygen, as he struggled to breathe, he wondered how he could live at all if something happened to his grandbaby, suddenly he was getting no air at all, he gracefully swayed like tall grass in a breeze, as he limply collapsed towards the floor. The truth of it became clear as he was engulfed by blackness, his ears ringing with Scott’s scream…he couldn’t live with it.

In his haste to get to his father-in-law, Murdoch stumbled over the form of Ross Culpepper still lying on the floor loudly complaining.  The toe of his boot connected with the supine man’s groin, drawing a high pitched protracted squeal from Culpepper.  Murdoch ignored the shout of pain; he quickly regained his balance, and stayed the course to Harlan.

Dropping down by the crumpled form, Murdoch let out the breath, he had unconsciously been holding, when he saw Harlan was indeed breathing.  He turned his head to the right when he felt a small trembling hand land on his back, his feeling of inadequacy flooded him when he saw the tears streaming down Scott’s face.  He felt insufficient and incompetent to safe guard his family.

“Is Ha dead?”

“No, Scott, No.  I think Ha was just feeling a bit over whelmed, and he hyperventilated.  See he’s breathing now.  Go get a cushion from the sofa, so we can put his feet up.”

Murdoch unbuttoned Harlan’s vest, and loosened his collar.  He smiled at Scott when he struggled to lift Ha’s feet onto the pillow, he had retrieved.  When he turned back to face Harlan, the older man’s eyes were fluttering open.

“What…what happened?” Harlan stuttered, confusion clouding his mind and tripping his tongue.

“I believe you hyperventilated, and passed out.”

“Ohhhhh…Murdoch…the baby,” Ha mournfully moaned. The disconsolate sound raised goosebumps on the big Scot’s body, and caused Scott to sniffle, as he battled another round of tears.

“We’ll find him Harlan.  Scott and I rode all the way to the worksite the wagon went to; there was no sign of him.  No one saw him, and the men driving the wagon said Patty jumped out before they got there.  I can only assume Johnny jumped, or fell out.  We searched the roadside as we went there, and as we came back.  Scott was thrown from his horse and it ran off, so we came home for a fresh mount.”

A despondent and sorrowful sigh slipped from between Ha’s pale lips, as he turned his face to the dark world outside the window.  “It’s night now; no one can track him without light.  My grandbaby is out there all alone.”

“Light or not, he won’t be out there alone.  As soon as I get another horse tacked, I’ll be riding back out, along with some hands.  We’re going to ride up and down that road, and through every field that wagon went through, until we find him.”

“He has Patty Pat with him, too.  She’s real smart. She won’t let anything happen to him, not like I did.” Scott squalled, as he felt inundated by his feelings of failure, as a big brother.  He jumped up and raced up the stairs, the echo of his sobs ghosting behind him.

Harlan struggled up from the floor, when he saw the torn look of indecisiveness on Murdoch’s face.  Murdoch had one son missing; and another in desperate need of reassurance and comfort. Garrett decided it was time to prove his mettle.  “I’ll see to Scott, you find that baby.”  Turning to face the other people in the room, Harlan took charge. “Maria, will you please see the Culpeppers to the door. Mrs. Culpepper, I am sorry we could not meet under happier circumstances. Mr. Culpepper, you are a reprehensible vermin, and I am sorry to have made your bigoted, uncouth acquaintance. Should you ever get all that you deserve in this life, then I expect to see you someday wallowing in naked squalor.”  Harlan marched resolutely up the stairs after he had his say.

“Get up out that floor, you simpering idiot.  Zachariah gather your things, and go sit your tail down in the wagon, and I suggest you enjoy sitting because when I get through with you, it will be a long time before you will sit comfortably again!  As for this slingshot…” turning the irately displeased woman chunked the wooden weapon into the fireplace, “if I ever see another one in your hands, you’ll be digging irrigation ditches to occupy your idle hands.”

Murdoch and Maria watched the domineering woman lay down the law.  She shoved her husband towards the door, Zachariah had just run through.  She stopped by Maria, and hugged her, announcing, “You let me know if there’s anything at all I can do.”  After embracing the Maria, she took Murdoch by the arm, “I’ll walk you out Mr. Lancer. I know you want to be on your way.”

The great room was quiet and still, in stark contrast to just moments before when it had been the scene of panic, chaos and disorder.  The solemn silence reminded Mamacita of Johnny’s absence, stifling a sob; she wearily climbed the stairs to help see to her other nino.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Murdoch, and every available hand, doggedly rode up and down the stretch of road, and across pastures, calling for Johnny, pausing to listen, praying for an answering shout.  Their hopes were shattered and torn with each unanswered call. One of the hands had ridden into town just to make sure Johnny had not been picked up and taken to town by some passing strangers, and recruited more volunteers to help search.  Stress caused their voices to sound with a frantic raw edge, as the hours of looking wore on man and beast.

The inky darkness of the night, as well as the thicket of trees surrounding it, impaired the vision of the searchers, and kept them from seeing the little cabin, where not only Johnny had found refuge, but also Scott’s horse.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Johnny awoke to something thumping on the cabin, thinking his Papa was finally not lost anymore, he jumped from the bed, and streaked buck naked for the door.  Patty Pat was hot on his heels.

Flinging the door open, Johnny called out, “Papa…..arrrrggghhhhh!” Johnny screeched when a large shape loomed at him from out of the shadows of the night.  He turned to flee back in the house, until he heard the recognizable whicker of a horse. He squealed in delight when his eyes adjusted to the moonlight, and he was able to ascertain the animal on the porch was Squat’s horse, Beanie.

“Look Pat Pat, its Beanie.  It’s Squat’s horse, Beanie.”

Johnny was so thrilled for the familiar face, even though it belonged to a horse, he invited the equine inside. Patty Pat didn’t care if the horse came in, as long as Johnny did, too.  The naked little boy led Beanie into the comfy cabin.

The oversized guest promptly knocked over an end table with his hindquarters. The clatter and crash of the piece of furniture startled the horse; and he spun around, catching two ladder back chairs, and pushing them over.  The horse pranced nervously away from the downed chairs, and managed to step on the head of the tiger rug. Beanie rolled his eyes in terror, the white’s standing out in stark relief against its black face, when it spied the big cat it had just stepped on.  He made his displeasure over this situation quite apparent with the large deposit he left on the animal skin rug.

“Uh oh, Beanie.  Johnny don’t think you like it in here, come in the bedroom with Johnny.”

Little boy Lancer lead his brother’s horse into the bedroom, and then walked right behind the equine’s lethal back legs to go back out into the main room to shut the door.  Johnny came back to the bedroom, followed by Patty Pat and closed the door.

“Johnny too little to take off your saddle, Beanie, but Johnny can brush you.”

Taking a silver hairbrush from the dresser set, Johnny climbed on the bed, stood up and brushed the parts of the horse he could reach.  It was hard to tell what he was doing with nothing but the meager moonlight.  There was a lamp in the room, but Papa told him never to light a lamp by himself.  When his arms grew tired of stretching up to groom the horse, he plopped back down on the bed, next to Patty.

Patty’s fur was matted from the river, so he gave her a good brushing too.  Johnny paused frequently to pull clumps of hair from the brush, and drop them on the floor.  When Patty had had enough, she rolled away from him. Johnny yawned, as he began running the brush through his own hair.  He fell asleep while still stroking it over his head.    

 ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

As their little corner of the world began to ascend from its nocturnal period, the blackness began to lighten to muted grays; soon the sun would blaze onto the horizon, and replace the subdued darkness with azure blue, decorated with bold strokes of blushing pink.

Word spread through the searchers, that the Patron wanted them all to head back to the ranch.  They would be fed breakfast, and acquire fresh mounts so that they could be back on their mission, with the benefit of the light of day.

The weary crew made a somber procession as they straggled in under the Lancer arch. Maria, Scott and Harlan watched from the front of the house.  There was no need to ask if they had found any sign of Johnny, the defeated set of their shoulders, and the sober silence answered the unspoken question.

The hands rode on towards the barn and bunkhouse.  Murdoch and Cipriano dismounted at the hacienda, and handed their reins off to Walt.  Feet as weighted down and burdened, as their breaking hearts shuffled listlessly into the house.

“I have breakfast ready, Patron.”

“I’m not hungry, Maria.  I’m just going to sit at my desk, and rest a while.”

“You really should eat, Son,” a worried Harlan advised.

“I don’t think I can, my stomach is tied in knots. I could no more get anything in, than I could out,” replied Murdoch, as he plopped down in his chair.

Scott followed his father.  In a show of his insecurity and distress the child climbed into his Papa’s lap, something he had claimed lately, he was too old, and big to do.  Father and son wrapped their arms and love around each other, and stared with fraught eyes on the breaking day.  Harlan sat in one of the wooden chairs that faced the desk, and joined them in their sorrowful vigil, watching as the day dared to brightened, while one of the lights of his life was missing.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The increasing light slipped through the trees and into the windows of the cabin.  Johnny stirred restlessly, and then began to squirm.  He heard a neigh, and then felt something soft tickling his face.  He opened his eyes, and was looking right into the nostrils of Beanie.  At first he was confused to awaken in a strange room with Pat Pat and Beanie, until he remembered Papa, Ha, Squat and Mamacita were lost.

“Wake up Pat Pat, Johnny is going to go find Papa.  I can ride Beanie.”

Johnny scooted to the side of the bed, dropped over the side, and gathered up his clothes. They had dried but they were stiff.  He pulled on his drawers, and then his socks. He wiggled into the pants, and then donned his shirt, he miss-buttoned it but he didn’t care, he left the shirt tail hanging out, he grabbed his apron cape and dropped it in place around his neck.  Last he put his boots on…the wrong feet.

He strode cockily from the bedroom, followed by his animal friends, and polished off the tin of cookies for breakfast, sharing with Patty and Beanie.  He found a brown jug half-full of apple juice.  He drank a whole glass, but it was the hottest apple juice he ever tasted, it made his eyes water.

Little boy, horse and dog walked confidently out the front door, leaving the little cabin not quite as comfy, as it was originally found.  Johnny led Beanie into the yard, and then climbed up on the porch rail; and from there into the saddle.  He knew he should have pulled that strap under the horse like Papa and Squat did, but he didn’t know how.

Johnny clucked to the horse, and kicked his feet, calling out giddy up.  He realized too late, he didn’t have the reins, so he grabbed hold of the pommel, as the horse began to move.  Patty Pat spied the trailing reins, and rushed forward to clasp them in her mouth.

Patty Pat knew every inch of this ranch, and she knew the way home, she led the horse around the shoreline of the river fed creek, and then up the embankment onto the road.  She had successfully guided the horse and little boy three miles closer to home, but when they arrived at about the same spot where Johnny had fallen into the water, the day before, things went haywire.

The same cougar was on the prowl again.  The big cat was sniffing around the spot where she had found the blood splattered blanket.  It was a calm day, and as the little entourage passed by, above her, on the road, she lifted her head, and smelled the scent she had smelled yesterday.  She screeched and yowled, and raced for the road.

Beanie startled, and reared at the noise, and when the big cat leaped up onto the edge of the road, the horse, by instinct, took flight.  The reins were ripped from Patty’s mouth, and as the horse dashed off the road, and across the field with a screaming Johnny, the dog rounded on the cougar.  Whether by sheer luck, fate, or determination on the collie’s part, the two animals lunged at each other simultaneously, and Patty sunk her sharp fangs into the lion’s tender nose.  The big cat screamed in pain, turned tail and ran back into the woods.

Patty Pat shot off after the runaway horse.  When she caught up to the terrified beast she used her herding skills to get the horse headed straight for home.  Johnny clutched the saddle horn, screaming partly from glee and partly from terror that he would fall, but mostly because he was high as a kite on the full glass of hard apple cider, he had consumed.  He bounced up and down, his behind and heels sometimes clearing the leather by several inches.  However being a tenacious and stubborn little guy, he managed to cling to the saddle like a sandspur to dog hair.

Johnny flew under the Lancer arch whooping and hollering. He blazed passed the big picture window like an out of control wildfire, Patty Pat in pursuit, barking vociferously.  It took a second for it to sink into to the stunned observers at the window, as to what they had just witnessed. Murdoch jumped from his chair, dumping Scott as he did, yet managed to grab his arm before he hit the floor, “Look at your brother,” he shouted excitedly.

Murdoch, Scott, and Ha, as well as Maria and Cipriano rushed into the yard, where they were met by cheering ranch hands. Patty herded the horse back towards the overjoyed greeters.  Maria fell to the ground, crying and crossing herself, as Cipriano patted her back.

Scott squealed, and jumped up and down, chanting, “My brother, my horse, my brother, my horse.” He had been so distraught about his missing sibling, he had forgotten all about his horse. 

Harlan stood clapping; and grinning so widely, he felt as though his mouth would split.

Murdoch reached out, as the horse was guided towards him, and grabbed the reins, stilling the overwrought animal. He snatched Johnny from the saddle, and squeezed until the little boy protested.  He reluctantly handed him to Harlan, who was so euphoric he looked like he was dancing a jig.

Johnny finally managed to squirm loose. He dropped to the ground, and swayed drunkenly as he glared at his crazy family.  He held up a tiny hand, and growled, “Don’t crowd, Johnny.” He hiccoughed and stumbled, and then stated, “Good thing Johnny found y’all, you were wosted.”

Johnny swerved and swayed, as he tried to walk.  He was quite the sight in his disheveled, dirty clothes, and with the toes of his boots pointing to the sides, as he tried to move forward, making him waddle somewhat like a pigeon-toed duck. 

The youngest Lancer’s serious demeanor, and apparent inebriated condition sent the throng of people into stunned smiles and giddy giggles.

Harlan turned to Murdoch, and managed to gasp out between belly rolling guffaws, “He’s drunk, three sheets to the wind.  Where in the world does a three-year old go to get drunk?”

Murdoch shook his head, roaring with laughter, he stuttered, “I have no idea, of course I never dreamed I would be dealing with this situation before his teens.  My baby stayed out all night, comes home the next morning unkempt, drunk, and sassing.”

Scott looked at the adults in his life like they had three head each.  He was pretty sure Johnny’s latest stunt had finally driven them all insane.  He ran to catch up with his little brother, as he continued in his uncoordinated trek to the house.  Walking beside him he asked, “Johnny, where have you been?”

Johnny lurched to a stop, the adults caught up just in time to hear his slurred reply. “Squat, Johnny went to the fat wady’s hoose.  A bear almost eated Johnny. Johnny and Pat Pat went simming in the river. A tiger pulled Johnny’s boot off with its teeths, but it was all flat like a pancake cause it not have no insides, just outsides. Johnny ate bunches of cookies. Den Johnny and Beanie and  Pat Pat sleeped in the bedroom, Beanie sleeped in his saddle, but Johnny not wear nuthin, and then Johnny eated cookies, and dranked apple juice from the brown jug. A mountfun wion chased Beanie, and Beanie ran so hard he farted real woud. Now Johnny home.”

Scott looked at his father with wide disbelieving eyes, and muttered, “Johnny has all the fun.”

Having told his story, Johnny once again moved shakily towards the house, he leaned to the side, as he tried to keep his feet under him.  Scott inched closer to his little brother, and grabbed his elbow to support him.  Johnny pulled away announcing stubbornly, “Johnny can make it.”

Scott smiled knowingly, as he glanced back at his family. He turned just in time to squat down and let Johnny fall across his shoulder.

The adults laughed at the sight, as they trailed after the brothers.  Just as they were filing into the house, Murdoch turned and whistled for Patty Pat.  “Get in here, girl, you have a boy to keep an eye on, and a nice thick steak owed to you, as a reward for bringing him home.”

“WOOF,” she replied as she entered the hacienda, tail wagging.

 

~end~
June 2007

Waaaahhhhh!

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