The blizzard, when it hit, wasn’t a total surprise to Johnny Lancer as he sat huddled deep in his winter coat atop his palomino, Barranca. They had left the northernmost border of Lancer land at daybreak, though there was nothing but the hint of sun lighting the eastern sky through the thick clouds overhead.
Having been given the task of outfitting the line cabin in the mountains for the upcoming winter, Johnny had gladly taken the opportunity to get away from the hustle and bustle of Teresa getting prepared for the holidays. With a grin and a jaunty wave of his hand over his shoulder as he led two packhorses northward away from the house, Johnny was sure the simple duty would only take a couple days at the most.
Now, four days later, Johnny wasn’t so sure he would ever make it back home as Barranca began to labor through knee-high drifts filled with unseen pitfalls. He towed the packhorses along behind him, though he wasn’t sure exactly why he did so, as he was certain that they would eventually make their way home on their own.
Lowering the brim of his hat over his eyes, he hitched the collar of his coat up around his ears once again as the cold wind shifted and drove stinging ice particles into his face. With his eyes squinted almost shut against the driving snow, Johnny couldn’t see two feet in front of him and trusted in Barranca’s instincts to not walk over the edge of a cliff.
Suddenly, as if just thinking of it, the animal beneath him practically skidded to a stop, nearly unseating his rider. Grabbing for the pommel of the saddle, Johnny jerked forward and snatched at the lead rope attached to the packhorses as they plowed into the palomino’s rump. For a brief, heart-stopping moment Johnny was certain that the four of them would plummet over the steep embankment yawning darkly before them, but he managed to quickly steer his horse to safer ground, the packhorses docilely following behind them.
Breathing just as heavily as his horse at the near disaster, Johnny slumped forward in the saddle and waited for his heart to stop pounding in his chest. Then, with a heartfelt pat to Barranca’s snow-covered neck, Johnny gently urged the steed forward once again. When Barranca balked at moving another inch, Johnny clenched his eyes shut in frustration and steeled himself to get down out of the saddle to see what was keeping the horse from following a direct order.
Knowing that saying anything was useless in the wind that was buffeting them mercilessly, Johnny dismounted with a grunt of pain as his cold-numbed feet sank into a thick drift of snow. His left foot slipped on an ice covered stone and, despite the boots that added stability to his ankle, he felt a shaft of pain shoot up his leg as he stumbled to his knees. Grabbing hold of the nearby stirrup, Johnny hoisted himself to his feet, favoring the left as he leaned into the skirt of the saddle for a moment while he willed the pain to subside. Barranca turned his head to look at his friend, the horse’s long eyelashes caked with ice and snow. He shook his large head and then nickered softly, as if showing concern for his friend.
Snaking out his gloved left hand, Johnny carefully rubbed off as much of the caked-on ice that he could reach and realized, with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, that he would have to head back to the cabin if he was going to survive. Pulling himself laboriously back into the saddle, he winced in pain at having to use his left leg to mount, but other than stay where they were, which wasn’t even an option, he knew that he had to get back on the horse and head north again.
Standing by the study window and staring out at the northern section of Lancer, Murdoch allowed his thoughts to wander to where his youngest son might be. He had become concerned two days earlier when he had noticed an ever increasing amount of white on the mountaintops, but knew that Johnny was to have gone in and gotten back out well ahead of any bad weather. Now, two days later, Murdoch stared in dread at the snowcapped mountain peaks in the distance.
“You think he headed home before the snow hit, Murdoch?” Scott asked quietly from behind his worried father, his voice reflecting his own concern for his brother as his eyes turned to the very mountaintops that Murdoch was studying so anxiously.
“He was supposed to, son,” Murdoch muttered softly as he blinked eyes that had suddenly blurred and realized that he’d been staring at the northern mountains for so long that his eyes had dried out. Dropping his head to look down at his slightly trembling hands, he shoved them into the front pockets of his pants so Scott wouldn’t see and become worried about him. “He’s a smart boy. He’ll know to stay put if it started snowing earlier than we anticipated.”
Scott grunted noncommittally, though he had his doubts. Johnny was impulsive to a fault and if he thought he could outrace a storm cloud, then he would try it just to say he had done so. However, Scott didn’t say anything to Murdoch, as he didn’t want to add to the older man’s worry.
“S-Supper’s ready,” Teresa called quietly from the study doorway, her eyes following the direction the men were looking. They filled with tears at the thought of Johnny being in the midst of a winter storm high in the mountains. She quickly turned about and headed back toward the kitchen when Scott and Murdoch turned to look at her. She didn’t want them to see her tears and fear that Johnny might be in trouble. Teresa could see that Scott and Murdoch were worried about Johnny, too, and didn’t want them to concern themselves with her.
Supper was eaten quietly, Johnny’s empty place so blatantly obvious that each pair of eyes studiously avoided looking there. It was a subdued group that returned to the study to settle in for the evening, Teresa to her darning, and the men to the pretense of playing chess. And if, occasionally, one or the other would lift their eyes toward the large window framing the snowcapped mountains to the north, no one mentioned it.
Johnny didn’t think he’d ever been so cold in his entire life. Having grown up in the arid countryside of the border towns of Mexico, he had never seen snow until he was nearly twenty and had ventured up into the panhandle of Texas and blundered into a freak snowstorm. It had left a bad taste in his mouth as his horse had slipped on an ice-covered rock and had broken his foreleg. Having to trudge through ankle deep snow lugging his saddle and gear hadn’t been Johnny’s idea of fun. From that point on, he’d made it a point to avoid the northern part of any state that boasted snow in the wintertime.
Now, trudging through the swirling snow that blinded him and his mount, Johnny once again made a mental note to insist that the northernmost line cabin be outfitted well before the hint of any winter weather. Plus, he thought dismally as he clapped his ice-caked gloves together in order to dislodge the ice and snow so he could move his fingers, he would damn sure remember not to volunteer to do the job the next time, even if it was in the middle of the summer down below. He wasn’t taking any chances.
As time moved on, Johnny worried that Barranca might be traveling in circles as he was sure they should have reached the little cabin in the pines by now. Just as his muddled brain thought this, Barranca stopped abruptly and dropped his head to nose something near the ground, ripping the reins right out of Johnny’s cold-numbed fingers.
Lifting his weary head, Johnny was just barely able to make out the bulky shape of a cabin through the whiteout conditions of the blizzard. He closed his eyes in thankfulness as he slowly dismounted. With his legs numb from the cold, the minute his feet touched the ground, he sank up to his knees in the snow. Feeling as if the door to the cabin was much too far to walk, Johnny momentarily wondered why he was trying so hard. He was suddenly hit with such a feeling of lethargy that he could have simply slipped off to sleep right where he knelt in the snow. However, a worried nudge from Barranca startled the snow-shrouded man enough that he raised his head and instinctively knew that sleeping in the snow wasn’t an option, not if he were to survive.
With a groan of pain from having to stand on his numb limbs, Johnny pulled himself to his feet, once again using the stirrup hanging just above his head as leverage. Flipping the reins over Barranca’s neck, Johnny knew the animal would find shelter in the shed out back, leading the other horses there in the process.
Stumbling on stiffened legs up onto the porch, Johnny kicked the accumulated snow away from the door before shoving it open and practically falling inside. Getting the door closed against the shrieking wind was another matter entirely, but he finally managed. For the first time in hours he was out of the elements. Though it was freezing cold in the cabin, at least the snow and wind couldn’t reach him.
Using a nearby chair, he pulled himself upright. Favoring his left leg as he made his way to the fireplace, he was suddenly very thankful that he had thought to fill the wood box full of freshly chopped wood. It took no time at all to get a blazing fire started and he sat in a chair in front of its warmth as he shivered in his slowly thawing clothing. Working the thick buttons of heavy coat with tingling fingers, Johnny finally managed to get the soaking wet covering off and draped over the back of a second wooden chair that he’d pulled up to the fire. He then worked at removing the rest of his clothing as the warmth of the fire slowly permeated the small cabin, making the chilly room feel rather cozy in comparison to the storm raging outside.
Grabbing the blanket off the bed, Johnny quickly wrapped himself in its dusty folds and settled in the chair pulled up close to the fire. Stretching his bare feet out toward the fire, he sighed heavily as he began to feel warmth infuse his lower limbs. He knew he would soon have to brave the elements again to make sure the horses were bedded down and warm, but for now, he indulged himself, savoring the warmth of the blazing fire.
With his eyes drooping sleepily, Johnny tried to rouse himself to take care of the horses, or do anything, but then he found that he couldn’t seem to garner the energy to stir. As he drifted off to sleep, sitting upright in the ladder-backed chair, his last thoughts were of his family and wondering if they were worried when he didn’t come home on time.
The day dawned dark and dreary as storm clouds scudded threateningly across the sky. Thick, rain-filled and dark the clouds seemed to hover close enough to touch. Scott moved away from his bedroom window and turned back to his morning routine of shaving, combing his hair and getting ready for another day. However there was nothing routine about this day.
It wasn’t until Scott was done shaving and had his shirt halfway buttoned up did the worried man realize that he had been half expecting Johnny to come popping into his room as he usually did to interrupt his morning. With his fingers trembling on the last two buttons to be done up, Scott stole a quick glance toward the window and the thickening storm clouds there. Grabbing his hat and work gloves, Scott strode determinedly out of his bedroom and down the stairs to the kitchen for breakfast.
Today he was going after his brother, and to hell with what Murdoch thought of his plans.
Sitting at the kitchen table with his second cup of coffee in hand, Murdoch stared blearily down at the dark liquid as he pondered the plans he’d settled on very early that morning. Unable to sleep due to worrying about his missing son, Murdoch made the decision to pack some provisions and head north to search for Johnny. He knew his idea would not go over well with his eldest son, but he just couldn’t leave Johnny up there in the cold without at least trying to find him and bring him home.
Today he was going after his youngest son, and he wouldn’t take any guff from Scott.
Bustling about in the kitchen, Teresa had already confided in Maria what she was planning and the older woman fell quickly in with those plans as the two of them cooked breakfast for Murdoch and Scott. Between waiting for the biscuits to brown and the eggs to cook, Teresa was quietly packing provisions for a long trip into the mountains. Keeping in mind the possible fight she might have on her hands from both Murdoch and Scott, she kept her thoughts to herself, but she was determined that Johnny would come home.
Today she was going to put her foot down and send Murdoch and Scott after Johnny, and she didn’t care what they thought of her plans, they would do as she said or else.
The atmosphere surrounding the breakfast table in the kitchen was such that no one felt at all inclined to eat the warm fare being ladled into their plates by Maria. With each firm plop of her wooden spoon, she served up the hot scrambled eggs and then the fried potatoes. It was when the plate of hot-from-the-oven biscuits was set on the table with a resounding thumb Murdoch finally took notice of the determined set to each face watching him almost in anticipation.
“Murdoch, I…” Scott’s resolute voice filled the air, but he was interrupted by Teresa as she surged to her feet, her small hands fisted and placed on her hips.
“Scott. Murdoch. I am not going to…” She, in turn, was interrupted by Jelly as he hustled into the house, shedding his coat and shaking his grizzled head like a dog in order to displace the rain that had gathered there from his trip in from the barn.
“Murdoch, I got ‘em all ready fer ya,” the wizened old wrangler stated to the room at large as he sat down in his chair and pulled his full plate closer. Lifting his fork from the table as he tucked his napkin in his shirt collar, he finally noticed that every eye was on him and that he had apparently interrupted something of importance, by the look of Teresa’s glower and stance.
Every eye in the room swung suspiciously toward Murdoch as the tall rancher slowly stood and placed his napkin beside his now empty plate. “Thank you, Jelly,” he said courteously as he gazed at each expectant member of his family, blood related or otherwise. “I intend on heading north this morning. Johnny should have been home two days ago, and with those peaks gleaming whiter and whiter every day, I can’t afford to wait any longer.” He turned to look directly at Scott. “Son, I’m leaving you in charge. See that the men take care of that downed fence in the south pasture before nightfall. Cipriano knows what to do with the herd we were going to move down to that pasture, so you’ll have to oversee the fence repair yourself.” Murdoch’s eyes swung to Teresa and then Maria. “Ladies, I will need provisions for at least a week, as well as medical supplies and several changes of warm clothing. I plan to take two packhorses, so make sure I have plenty of rations to see Johnny and me through this storm.”
“Now wait just a minute!” Scott exclaimed as he pushed his nearly full plate aside and shoved his chair back to confront his father. “If you think I’m going to stand by and watch you ride out in this storm without me, you are sadly mistaken!” He rounded the table, disregarding Murdoch’s dark expression at being told what he was or wasn’t going to do. Walking up to his father, Scott stopped mere inches from the man and tilted his head back slightly in order to look into the man’s angry eyes. “Johnny is my brother and I am going to find him and bring him back home. Jelly here can oversee the fence repair. Besides, your back is in no condition to be riding off into that mountainous terrain.”
Bustling around the table in order to get between the two glowering men, Teresa placed a small hand on each man’s heaving chest as she frowned at the tension emanating from them. “Gentlemen! Calm yourselves and listen to reason!” She breathed a small sigh of relief when Scott took a step back as if in retreat. She then turned to look at Murdoch, who continued to glare at his eldest son. “Murdoch, you know what Scott says is true.” At his continued glare, now turned on her, Teresa stood her ground. She placed both hands on his chest, feeling the rapid thrum of his heart beneath her palms and knew that he was just as frightened about Johnny’s whereabouts as were they.
Impulsively, Teresa threw her arms around Murdoch’s neck, hugged him tight and breathed a relieved sigh when his arms slipped around her waist as he held her just as tightly. Then he moved her to his side as he turned his eyes back to Scott.
“Scott, I can’t allow you to go up there. I-I couldn’t bare it if both of you were lost to me,” he admitted softly, his voice breaking at the end as he dropped his eyes from his son’s intense gaze.
“You think I could live with myself if something happened to the both of you up there without me doing anything, Murdoch?” Scott asked incredulously as he picked up his hat hanging from the back of his chair and placed it on his head. “I won’t sit here in the safety of this house waiting for you to bring him home.”
“Why doncha both go?” Jelly said sagely as he studiously sopped up the last of his gravy with the edge of his biscuit. “Scott’s right, Boss, I’m pretty sure I can handle a team of men afixin’ that fence line. Ain’t nothin’ to it, really. It’s not like I ain’t never done it afore.” Jelly pulled the napkin out of his shirt collar and dropped it on the table beside his plate before scooting his chair back, the sound unusually loud in the sudden silence of the room. He looked up to see that every eye was on him and he grinned. “What? Just ‘cause I hang around the barn doin’ fix-up work, don’t mean I cain’t sit a horse and supervise a bunch of boneheaded cowboys in fixin’ a fence!”
Scott grinned wryly at the cantankerous old man and didn’t doubt for a second that Jelly could do that and much more, if he was so inclined. He then looked back up at his father and saw the indecision in those blue-gray eyes. Scott waited a bit impatiently for Murdoch’s decision on the matter, though it wouldn’t make much difference to the blond man either way. He was going, whether Murdoch liked it or not.
“All right. All right. Jelly, go get those men working on that fence so Cipriano can move the herd as soon as possible.” Turning to Scott, Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t like it, son, but get some warm clothes together and meet me in the study so we can determine which trail your brother might have taken.”
“I’m ready, sir. I packed my saddlebags last night,” Scott informed his father as he followed the older man into the study. He stopped abruptly when Murdoch halted and turned to look at him suspiciously.
“Were you planning on heading out on your own this morning, son?” The big man growled.
“Well, I did intend on informing you of my intentions at breakfast,” Scott answered a bit hesitantly and then grinned at his father. “But, it would appear that all of us were thinking along the same lines.”
With a deep throated chuckle, Murdoch nodded his head in agreement. He then threw his arm around Scott’s shoulders and drew him close as they continued their walk to the study. Scott was stunned by the unusual overture, as it was totally out of character for Murdoch Lancer. It wasn’t until his father had come to a stop in front of the huge map of the Lancer property did Scott realize that his father’s arm was still in place. He relished every moment of the contact and couldn’t wait to tell Johnny of the unusual phenomenon.
Johnny jerked awake and nearly fell out of the chair in which he was sitting at the sound of the wind shrieking around the little cabin. Jumping to his feet with the intention of retrieving his clothes, wet or not, and going out to check on the horses, he didn’t count on his left leg folding beneath him. Crumpling to the floor in front of the dwindling fire in the fireplace, he barely avoided smacking his forehead on the hearth by throwing out his left arm to catch himself just in time.
Dragging himself up into a sitting position on the floor, he looked down at his left ankle and frowned in disgust at the deep purple and red bruising there. He was fairly certain that the bone wasn’t broken since he’d been able to walk on it earlier, but he also realized that it could have just been because his feet and legs had become so numb with cold that he just hadn’t felt the pain. Placing tentative fingers on the area around the bruising, Johnny hissed in a sharp breath when pain knifed through his ankle and up his leg. Panting from the excruciating pain, Johnny quickly moved his hand away and sat staring down at the leg almost incomprehensively. If the leg was broken then he was in much deeper trouble than he thought. However, he knew that his first priority was to see to the horses, who had been out in that weather for far too long, especially while still wearing their gear. Without them, he would never get home.
Finding two stout pieces of lumber that appeared to be shelves that had never been built, Johnny carefully gathered together other supplies and his now dried socks and other clothes. The dryness of the garments worried him as he gingerly pulled his sock up over his injured ankle. He figured he must have slept much longer than he had thought. He was angry with himself for having given in to the fatigue that had swept over him when he should have been out taking care of Barranca and the packhorses.
Once he’d managed to wriggle into his water-stiffened leather pants and get the buttons done up, Johnny was nearly exhausted, but he had a responsibility to Barranca and the other horses and nothing was going to keep him from seeing the job done.
Wrapping a ripped up shirt around the makeshift splint, Johnny found a broom to use as a crutch and inched his way slowly across the cabin to the door. He wasn’t sure what he’d do once he got outside and was faced with the knee deep snow, but he was determined to get his animals settled before he did anything else. He snagged an empty bucket sitting beside the door on the way out with the thought of shoveling up a bucket of snow to melt for water for himself, and then cursed beneath his breath as he realized that he would need to melt some snow for the horses, as well.
Scooping up a bucket of snow from the front porch wasn’t as easy as he’d thought it would be, but he did it and returned awkwardly into the cabin to set the bucket near the fire so that it could melt. He then decided to warm up a can of beans while he was outside tending to the horses. He would eat as soon they were cared for, and not any sooner.
By the time the snow melted in the bucket and he had taken care of the horses, bedding them down as comfortably as possible given the circumstances and poor shape of the shed, Johnny wasn’t sure he’d be able to maneuver his weary, aching body back to the cabin. At one point, on his trek back to the small cabin, Johnny actually considered bedding down in the shed with the horses, but the thought of the hot food awaiting him inside gave him enough incentive to make it back across the twenty feet of snow covered ground to the warmth of the cabin. Once there he fell into the hard wooden chair he’d slept in earlier and practically passed out.
He never even felt it when his body slid out of the chair and hit the floor.
“Murdoch, are you sure you…” Scott started to ask, but was cut off mid-sentence.
“Scott, listen to me and listen good. I am going to bring Johnny home. Nothing you can say will dissuade me from riding out.” Overhead a clap of thunder shook the rafters of the barn, spooking Murdoch’s horse while he was trying to tighten the cinch before mounting. Shoving the big animal in the shoulder, Murdoch continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted. “Not even this weather is going to stop me, so you might as well get that settled in your mind.”
“Boss, we’re ridin’ out,” Jelly called out unnecessarily as he pulled the supply wagon up to the entrance to the barn. “Ya’ll be real careful out there and bring that boy home, all right?”
“We’ll do it, Jelly,” Murdoch said as he waved a hand toward the worried old man as Jelly gave the team a gentle slap on the rump with the reins to get them started. He watched the work crew as they headed out and then turned back to adjusting the cinch. He then looked over his horse’s back at Scott. “You ready to ride, son?”
“Yes, sir,” Scott told him as he quickly mounted his horse and took the lead of one of the packhorses. “I’ll take old Jughead if you’ll take Ginny.” He gestured toward second pack animal he held, a dark bay mule with a tendency to balk at the slightest unexpected movement and grinned wryly. “Jelly sure named him correctly.”
Slipping his rain slicker on over his head, Murdoch donned his hat and settled it securely before mounting his horse. “All right, Scott. Let’s ride.”
Riding out of the veritable warmth and safety of the barn, Jughead’s first impulse was to set his front feet against heading out into the cold rain that was starting to lash sideways from the force of the wind, but Murdoch had anticipated the action and with a slap of his hand against the reluctant animal’s rump had the mule moving along behind Scott’s horse without anymore problems.
Flipping the collar of his slicker up in order to protect his neck from the rain, Murdoch settled deeply in the saddle for a long, miserable ride, suddenly very grateful that Scott had insisted on coming along.
Once again Johnny awoke with a jerk at the sound of the wind shrieking like a banshee outside. Finding himself lying on the cold wooden floor in front of the fire that had died down to embers, he painfully sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Propping his elbows on his thighs, he held his head in his hands and tried to remember how he had come to be on the floor.
Unable to remember what he’d been doing prior to falling asleep, Johnny shifted awkwardly onto one knee as he stacked some wood in the fireplace. It quickly caught fire and was soon blazing merrily as he spotted the blackened can that had been his supper sitting at the edge of the ashes. He recalled setting the can of beans there to warm while he tended to the horses the evening before and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that the beans inside weren’t much more than charcoal and smelled much worse in their blackened, burnt state. Shoving the can aside, so that the beans didn’t burn any more, he grabbed his makeshift crutch and hoisted himself to his feet so that he could find something else to eat as his stomach was growling fiercely. He stopped to think about how long it had been since he had eaten anything besides dried beef jerky and old biscuits and realized he hadn’t eaten a decent meal in at least four days.
“Ya danged fool,” Johnny grumbled as he found a can of peaches and quickly opened it with the tip of his knife. Spearing a peach halve he quickly gobbled it down without even tasting the fruit. The second piece went down almost as fast, but by the time he fished the last peach half out of the can he had slowed down enough to enjoy the sweetness of the fruit. He then lifted the can and drank the juice left there.
Digging through his saddlebags, he unearthed the last bit of dried beef, dusted off the dust and grit and carried it with him to the chair in front of the fire. Easing himself down onto the chair he slowly chewed the tough meat while staring into the flames and wishing he were at home with his feet propped up on the coffee table listening to Scott and Murdoch discuss boring numbers from the ranch’s ledger books. Johnny sighed heavily and closed his eyes as a feeling of lonesomeness swept over him.
“Johnny Lancer, you’ve become way too soft,” he chided himself after a few moments of indulgence as he wallowed in self-pity at being stuck in the cabin for the foreseeable future. “Now get up and fix yourself some coffee to go with this fine beef you’re eating!”
He snorted aloud and then started when he realized he was practically carrying on a conversation with himself. Shaking his head, he managed to get to his feet again, despite his fatigue, and retrieved the battered and smoke blackened coffee pot sitting on a shelf across the room. He scooped up some of the melted snow water from a second bucket he’d found in the shed and then carried the pot and a bag of coffee back to his sentry chair in front of the fire. After throwing a handful of the coffee grounds into the pot, he set it as close to the fire as possible and then sat back to chew on a mouthful of dried beef while the coffee brewed.
It wasn’t the ideal situation, but at least he was warm and dry. He’d wait for the high, driving winds to die down, and then he’d make plans to get off this mountain for good.
The further north Murdoch and Scott rode, the colder the rain became. Finally the cold, wet stuff became mostly snow and the going started to become even more treacherous as the horses picked their way over the icy ground slowly, but surely.
“Son, are you all right?” Murdoch asked for at least the fifth time in an hour. Scott was concentrating so hard on the almost non-existent trail that he didn’t hear his father at first, but when the man called out the question a bit louder, Scott actually hauled his horse to a stop and turned to glare at him over his shoulder.
“I’m fine!” He exclaimed with irritation, since his concentration had been disturbed. He was finding it hard to steer his horse in the right direction, without riding them over the edge of the cliff to their immediate left. Having Murdoch continually badgering him about how he was doing was driving him crazy. “Just… I’m sorry for snapping at you, Murdoch, but I need to concentrate, please.”
“Scott, your horse will do much better without you guiding it, you know,” Murdoch informed the aggravated man knowingly as he edged his own horse and packhorse up alongside Scott’s. “They instinctively know if there’s a void in front of them.”
“Sir, I am well aware of a horse’s instincts, but as long as I am aboard this horse and leading on the trail that I can see ahead of me, then I just can’t find myself allowing the animal to carry me willy-nilly up the trail!” Unable to keep the annoyance out of his voice, Scott dropped his head in shame at seeing the hurt in his father’s eyes before the older man turned those eyes forward as if to survey the surrounding countryside.
“Forgive me, Murdoch. I’m just…”
“I know, son. I know.” Flicking a concerned glance toward his eldest son, Murdoch quickly averted his eyes when Scott looked up at him.
“Do you think he’s warm and dry?” Scott asked as he nudged his mount to get it moving on up the trail. He was cold, wet and weary, and that wasn’t a good combination for his current mood. He was more than concerned about Johnny and was trying not to dwell on the fact that his brother may have been thrown or possibly even buried beneath the snow, never to be found. He shivered at the thought and looked up at Murdoch, the naked fear in his eyes telling the older man everything.
“Scott, I pray that if Johnny started out in this mess, he realized how futile it would be and turned back to wait it out in the cabin,” Murdoch stated hopefully as he rode alongside Scott and his horse as long as the trail allowed, but soon he had to fall back to permit Scott’s horse to take the lead again.
“Yes, Johnny isn’t stupid,” Scott agreed with a decided nod of his head, which earned him a chilling splash of icy water down his neck. Ignoring the cold wetness, since there wasn’t much he could do about it anyway, Scott shivered again as he relaxed his hold on the reins and let his horse choose his footing on the trail, as Murdoch had suggested earlier.
“I never said he was,” Murdoch contended sternly as he glared at Scott’s shivering back.
“I didn’t mean…” Scott began, and then stopped when he realized that he really had intended the slight for his sometimes overbearing father. He clamped his lips together and refused to debate the issue in his current mood, instead choosing to continue on up the trail in strained silence once again.
Stumping his way over to the small cot set near the fireplace, Johnny lay down and covered himself with three blankets after making sure there was enough firewood in the fireplace to keep it going for a while. Snuggling beneath the warmth of the blankets, Johnny closed his eyes and suddenly didn’t feel so sleepy anymore. Keeping his eyes closed, his mind decided to torture him some more as he thought of all that he was missing stuck in the mountain cabin. The thought of Teresa’s chocolate cake had Johnny’s mouth watering and his stomach growling, but there was nothing close to being that tasty in the supplies he’d brought to the cabin, so he shoved those thoughts aside and tried to concentrate on other things.
A quiet game of chess with Scott was the second thing to come to his mind and Johnny couldn’t help but smile at the various expressions he could usually wring out of his older brother just by the unorthodox way Johnny played the game. For Scott, chess was a tactical game which required a sort of mental exercise in order to carry out one single move. Johnny, however, looked at the game as one of chance and circumstances, usually winning merely by outwitting his brother and disturbing the older man’s mental exercises. Scott was often overheard muttering in frustration why he had ever taught his younger brother how to play the game.
Turning his thoughts from his brother, whom Johnny loved with a fierceness that even the ex-gunfighter couldn’t explain, because it hurt too much to think about him, Johnny pictured his father sitting behind his big desk going over the books with a fine-toothed comb.
It had always amazed Johnny how Murdoch could be so thorough with the books and everything else pertaining to the ranch, but not so particular in how he regarded his sons. Oh, there was never much of a problem with Scott and even if there was, the older brother usually separated himself from his stubborn father until everything blew over so they could later calmly discuss whatever the issue had been. But, when it came to Johnny, the dark-haired young man was at a loss as to why his father always seemed to ride hard over his youngest son when the least little thing went wrong. Johnny had no doubts that, somehow, Murdoch would fault him for not getting off the mountain before the storm hit.
Rolling onto his right side, Johnny grunted in pain when the heavy splint on his left leg pressed down on his ankle. He shifted back over onto his back with a growl of frustration, whether from the splint or from the mere thought of his father blaming him for the sky being blue.
Pushing thoughts of his father far from his mind, Johnny closed his eyes and went back to dreaming of Teresa’s chocolate cake, deciding that if he was going to torture himself with his thoughts, at least they could be pleasant ones.
Scott was well and truly frightened. His horse had slipped three times since they had started up the steeper, icy trail and it was taking all he had not to keep looking over his shoulder to make sure Murdoch was all right. To add to the treacherous trail, the sun was going down, and though the sunlight couldn’t penetrate the gloom of the clouds overhead, there was still enough light to see the trail, but for how long?
“Murdoch, I think we need to set up camp somewhere up ahead,” Scott informed his father as he came to a slightly level spot in the trail and stopped his horse and the packhorse to wait for Murdoch to catch up.
“I think we need to push on, Scott. We don’t know Johnny’s condition and if we stop for the night…”
“Sir, I don’t think you understand. We don’t have any choice, but to stop for the night.” Scott shot a glance toward the west and the murky clouds hovering there, obscuring their view of the sun setting along the horizon. “Once that sun sets we won’t have a prayer of making it up this trail.”
“We will if you let the horse have his head, son,” Murdoch insisted as he returned Scott’s aggravated scowl. “Don’t look at me like that, Scott. These horses and mules were raised on this land. They are more surefooted than you think.”
“That may be as you say, sir. However, all it would take is one misstep and when you’re tumbling down the side of a cliff it’s too late to wish you’d stopped for a while to rest,” Scott told his father stiffly.
Gazing at his son, Murdoch took in the rigid stance and the firm set to Scott’s jaw and knew that they wouldn’t come to a compromise tonight. He sighed heavily and then touched his heels to his horse’s sides.
“We go on, son,” he said quietly as his horse started picking his way carefully across the rocks and roots that comprised the trail leading up the mountain.
With a resigned sigh that sounded much like his father’s, Scott nudged his horse with the heel of his boots and fell in line behind Ginny, praying that neither he or Murdoch would come to regret his father’s actions.
It was the absence of sound that stirred Johnny out of a deep sleep. Opening his eyes to total darkness, he first realized that the room was frigid because the fire had burned down to a few embers that didn’t have a hope of putting out any heat whatsoever. The next thing he realized was that the wind wasn’t howling like a banshee anymore. Cocking his head to the side, as if to hear better, Johnny could detect the wonderful sound of water dripping and knew that the temperature was warm enough to actually be melting snow from the roof.
Pushing the mound of blankets off his body, Johnny hurried as fast as he could to the door and opened it to a sparkling white vista. Snow clung like cotton batting on the evergreen bows surrounding the cabin as moonlight shimmered off the glistening snow, making it sparkle and shimmer. Johnny thought that he had never seen anything more beautiful.
Using his temporary crutch, Johnny walked out onto the porch and then reversed the broom he was leaning against to quickly sweep away as much of the accumulated snow as he could before stepping cautiously down from the porch to find himself standing in thigh-deep snow. Without anything but the broom handle to balance against, Johnny couldn’t get much farther than the edge of the cabin, so he stopped there to relieve himself and was just barely able to make it back onto the porch without further injury to his ankle.
Returning inside the cabin, he quickly built the fire back up in order to prepare a bracing breakfast of canned green beans, a tin of pears and a cup of thick, black coffee in which he could probably float a horseshoe it was so strong. He then packed his gear and a couple of extra blankets. Making sure the fire was banked and on its way to becoming extinguished he headed out of the cabin again, his intent to reach the shed so he could get out while the getting was good.
The only advance notice Scott had of impending danger was Jughead’s annoying bray as the stubborn mule began to struggle against the lead rope pulling him ever upward. Balking, as was his nature, Jughead set his back feet against the ice-covered, rocky trail. Since Scott had the lead rope tied around the horn of his saddle, he kept one hand on it to keep the pressure off his right thigh as they headed up the trail. While on the flatter plain it hadn’t been much of a problem, just when Jughead would get it into his obstinate brain to stop and graze while they were moving. Then Scott would have to turn his horse slightly and, being the trained cutting horse he was, he would soon have Jughead moving along at a steady pace. However, on the tiny trail they were headed up, there wasn’t room for Scott’s mount to work his magic, and Scott’s leg was being painfully pinched each time Jughead jerked his head back as he was being dragged forward.
“Murdoch!” Scott called out to his father, who had moved on up the trail without knowing that Scott was having difficulties. The older man stopped his horse to look back at his son. The skittish animal began to prance nervously in place since it was on unsure footing and didn’t like standing so close to the edge of the cliff.
“What is it, Scott? We can’t stop for long here!” Murdoch called back as he quickly returned his attention to his horse as it shifted ever closer to the edge of the cliff to their left. He gave the horse its head again and it continued on up the trail until they came to a somewhat level area. There Murdoch stopped and turned in his saddle to look back down at Scott. To Murdoch’s horror, Jughead chose that moment to rear up and fight the lead rope. With gravity pulling him backward, the mule lost his footing and began to fall to his left, toward the precipice below. “CUT HIM LOOSE, SON! CUT HIM LOOSE OR HE’LL TAKE YOU WITH HIM!”
Jumping off his horse, unmindful of the pain to his back and leg as he hit the hard ground, Murdoch scrambled as fast as he dared back down the trail as he watched the inevitable take place right before his horrified eyes.
“JUMP CLEAR, SCOTT!”
To Murdoch’s stunned horror, Scott’s horse tried to brace himself for the heavier weight of the mule, which was sliding on his side toward the drop off, but his hooves couldn’t find any purchase in the slippery rock and sandy loam of the mountainside. Scott hauled uselessly at the rope that had his right leg pinned to the saddle, his breath coming in great, rasping gasps.
“OH, GOD!” Murdoch cried out as he moved closer to the horse. Just as he reached out to grab hold of the loose reins that Scott had dropped in his panic to get out of the saddle, the horse’s back feet went out from underneath him. “SCOTT!”
Freefalling for what seemed like a lifetime, Scott didn’t have time to cry out when he slammed into solid stone and blacked out as his head bounced against the jagged rock of the small ledge that had broken his fall. He never heard the terrified scream of his horse and the mule as they tumbled down the sharp incline to fall amongst the jagged rocks far below.
Walking through thigh-deep snow wasn’t the easiest thing to do, but it was much harder while impeded with a makeshift splint on one leg. However, if Johnny Madrid Lancer inherited anything from his father, it was his stubbornness. So, with the handy broom as his crutch, he carefully worked his way through the powder-soft snow until he reached the lean-to. Sweat beaded his brow and upper lip, despite the chill in the air, but he knew he couldn’t stop to rest. Placing the tack on Barranca was difficult, but he finally managed to secure the saddle, bridle and the supplies. Mounting the patient animal would take some doing as well, since it was his left leg that was injured, but Johnny knew Barranca wouldn’t mind too much if he was mounted from the right, this one time.
Turning the packhorses loose, Johnny hoped they would find their way home eventually, but at the moment he couldn’t think about their safety. He was fairly certain that the mare would follow them as she and Barranca were stable mates, so he figured the gelding might come along just for the companionship. Again, he didn’t give it much thought as he painfully pulled himself into the saddle, his left leg sticking out awkwardly to the side.
“Sorry, compadre,” Johnny said quietly to the palomino as he gently patted his golden neck as the horse sidestepped beneath Johnny’s unusually bulky load. “We’re goin’ home, pal. The sooner we get there, the quicker you get a double measure of oats as a reward for getting us there.”
As if in understanding, Barranca nickered and nodded his golden head enthusiastically, making Johnny chuckle softly.
“Well, let’s get on with it, boy, before the next storm hits and snows us in for a month!” Giving the horse his head, trusting that Barranca would instinctively know where to step, Johnny concentrated all his attention on staying in the saddle since he was unable to hold himself there with both feet in the stirrups.
As Barranca plowed through the thick snow, deftly avoiding the deeper drifts, Johnny kept an eye on the clouds overhead as the earlier warming breeze changed quickly to a biting wind that had him huddled deep in his to avoid the chill. It was going to be a long, cold ride to the ranch house.
Scrambling across the sharp, cold rocks Murdoch landed on his stomach as he looked down over the edge of the cliff. Tears stung his eyes as his mind relived the horror of seeing Scott, his horse and the mule disappear over the edge. Holding his breath as he peered down the sharp incline, Murdoch couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw Scott lying on a small ledge of rock about twenty feet down the side of the cliff.
“SCOTT? SON, ANSWER ME!” He yelled loudly, his voice echoing across the canyons. When Scott didn’t move, Murdoch quickly searched for a way down to his son, but found himself facing a smooth, unbroken surface with no handholds whatsoever. Slapping his hand down on the ground before him, Murdoch watched in shock as the movement caused a small rockslide that tumbled down to pummel Scott full in his unprotected face, with no movement from the unconscious man. “Please, God, please don’t let him be dead. Oh, God, please don’t let my boy be dead!”
Dropping his face into trembling hands, Murdoch didn’t know how long he lay there crying out fervently to God when he realized Scott was moaning in pain. Jerking his head up, the older man quickly moved closer to the edge to look anxiously down at his son.
“Don’t move, Scott!” He called out urgently when the obviously injured young man began to stir, sending bits of rock and sand tumbling past him to drop into the abyss below. “Son! DON’T MOVE, PLEASE!”
Watching his son apprehensively, Murdoch held his breath as Scott slowly, painfully raised his right hand and swiped weakly at the debris that had fallen onto his face. Then his blue eyes opened and Murdoch gasped at their confused expression.
“Scott, it’s your father. Look up at me, son,” Murdoch ordered as he helplessly reached his right hand down toward his son. “Please don’t move around. Are you listening to me, Scott?” He watched anxiously as Scott blinked his eyes a few times, as if to orient himself, but couldn’t quite understand why he was lying on his back and staring up at the darkening sky.
“F-Father?” Scott whispered sluggishly as he suddenly clenched his eyes closed tightly and moaned deep in his chest as pain overwhelmed him. The instinct to move away from danger swept over him and he started to curl up into a sitting position.
“NO!” Murdoch screamed frantically as he shifted dangerously close to the edge, sending more rock cascading down onto his helpless son. “OH, PLEASE DON’T MOVE, SCOTT! BE STILL!” With his heart pounding in his chest, Murdoch’s eyes stayed glued to Scott as the younger man shook his head slightly and then suddenly fell lax again as he lost consciousness.
Slumping against the cold ground, Murdoch took a moment to catch his breath and swallow past the huge mass of fear that had lodged in his throat when Scott had started moving. Feeling tears stinging his eyes, Murdoch angrily dashed them away as he reluctantly backed away from the cliff’s edge and hurried back up the trail to his horse and the rope hanging from the saddle. He prayed that it would be long enough.
Johnny was nodding sleepily in the saddle as Barranca carefully picked his way down the slippery mountainside. They had made it out of the deeper snow in the higher elevations and now it was a matter of making it down the steep trail leading down to the north pasture. The lack of proper nourishment and pain from his now-swollen ankle was taking its toll on Johnny, causing him to lapse into semi-consciousness occasionally. Used to being guided by a sure hand and a steady weight on his back, Barranca wasn’t so sure he liked the situation much, but with an encouraging word from Johnny every now and then, the horse was content to carry his friend back home. The added incentive of a warm barn where there were sweet oats and wonderfully delicious hay gave the big horse reason to carry on.
With Johnny half-conscious on his back, the palomino chose his step carefully as he placed each hoof gingerly. Hearing the sound of a familiar voice further down the trail, Barranca’s ears jerked forward and he nickered lightly as he hastened his step.
“Whoa, boy,” Johnny mumbled as he was jostled in the saddle at Barranca’s faster pace. “Slow it down or we’re gonna end up on the wrong end of that cliff.”
Raising his head to look down the trail, Johnny licked dry lips as he shivered against the chill of the stiff wind rising up the mountain to slap him in the face. Blinking his eyes against their sudden dryness he froze suddenly at the sound of a frantic voice somewhere down below.
“Murdoch?” Johnny whispered as his hands tightened instinctively around the reins. Settling deeper in the saddle, he suddenly urged Barranca faster down the trail. Rounding a copse of fir trees that caused the trail to bend to the right, Johnny gasped in shock at seeing his father leading his horse down the trail. It didn’t take long for Johnny to note the limping gate to his father’s hurried step, or the fact that behind the horse and Murdoch trailed one of the ranch’s packhorses.
The clatter of other hooves against stone didn’t register with Murdoch as he hurried as fast as he could to the area where Scott lay. Stopping his horse nearby, the older man carefully positioned the animal so that it was standing with its back to the edge of the cliff. Working from the right side of the horse, where the coiled rope lay over the saddle horn until he could uncoil it, Murdoch’s full attention was on fashioning the loop with a knot so that it wouldn’t tighten around his waist as he lowered himself down to his son. He was tying the end of the rope securely to the saddle horn when his ears picked up the sound of horse hooves nearby. At a disadvantage despite his height, as he was standing downhill and couldn’t see over the top of the saddle, Murdoch ducked his head beneath his horse’s neck and stared in shock at seeing Johnny riding Barranca much too quickly down the steep trail. Disturbed rocks and sand were being kicked up by the palomino’s speedy descent, as well as the two horses trailing along behind them.
“JOHNNY!” Murdoch called out as he hurried around his horse to face his son. “Slow that horse down, boy! You’re going t-to…” Stammering to a stop, Murdoch couldn’t voice the words that seemed to be echoing over and over in his mind as his thoughts turned back to Scott lying on the ledge below them. As soon as Johnny brought Barranca to a skidding halt before his father, the older man grasped the bridle at the bit and looked gravely up at his son. “Scott’s horse went over the cliff, Johnny. S-Scott is on a ledge…”
“SCOTT!” Johnny cried out as he quickly slid off Barranca’s right side and hit the ground with a pain-filled moan as his left leg crumpled beneath him. “Help me get over there to him!” He flung out his left arm and grabbed hold of his father’s hand, and then hauled himself to his feet without much assistance from the stunned man. Murdoch could see that Johnny was injured, the wooden splints having disintegrated as soon as Johnny fell from the horse.
“Son, your leg?”
“Forget my leg, Murdoch. Help me get to Scott!” Jerking his father’s arm hard, Johnny practically towed the big man toward the cliff’s edge, unmindful of the pain shooting up his injured leg as his full concentration was on his brother and helping him off that cliff.
As soon as they reached the edge, Johnny dropped to his knees and then squirmed around until he was on his stomach and looking down at his unconscious brother. “Scott?” The name was whispered desperately as Johnny took in the lack of footholds to get him to his brother. “We’ve gotta get him outta there, Murdoch,” Johnny said fiercely as he turned his head to look up at his father. “We’ve gotta do it before he tries to move… or he’s gonna fall!”
“I know, son. I was just getting ready to fasten this rope around my waist to go down and get him, but I believe I’ll use Barranca instead of my horse.” Murdoch hurried over to his horse and quickly untied the rope from his saddle horn.
“Yeah, Barranca is a better cowpony and will pull you both up,” Johnny agreed quickly as he turned back to look down at Scott and whispered, “Don’t move, big brother. Please don’t move.”
Using Johnny’s rope to tether himself to Barranca, as well as his own, Murdoch felt more secure as he edged back toward the cliff’s ledge. He and Johnny decided that the older man would descend the cliff well away from where Scott lay, keeping rocks and other debris from falling on the unconscious man.
“You be careful, old man,” Johnny warned gruffly as he helplessly watched his father disappear over the edge of the cliff. Having been helped back into his saddle, Johnny sat waiting expectantly for his father to give the word to be pulled up.
“Johnny!” Murdoch called out from below, his voice almost snatched away by the buffeting wind before it reached Johnny’s waiting ears.
“Yeah?” The anxious one called back as he gathered up the slight slack in the reins in anticipation of easing his father and brother back onto solid ground.
“DON’T PULL YET!” Murdoch shouted worriedly. “We’ve got a problem down here.”
Sliding off the saddle after giving Barranca the order to stand firm, Johnny gingerly landed on his right foot and balanced precariously for a moment before hopping cautiously toward the cliff’s edge. Sitting on his rear, he leaned out over the edge to peer down at Murdoch, who was hanging precariously over thin air as he held the second rope in one hand as the other worked at holding a waking Scott in place.
“He’s waking up and won’t let me get the rope around him!” Murdoch told Johnny as soon as he realized his youngest had managed to get himself off his horse and back to the edge again.
“Scott!” Johnny called down to his brother, his deep blue eyes mirroring the concern in his father’s gray ones. When the blond stilled at the sound of his brother’s voice, Johnny took heart and spoke again. “Hey, Boston, you gotta lie still while Murdoch gets that rope around ya, okay?”
“J-Johnny?” Scott whispered, his confused eyes searching everywhere, but upward, for his brother.
“I’m right up here, Scott, and if you cooperate with Murdoch, you can be up here, too. So, come on, give us a break and listen to the old man, all right?”
“Johnny…hur’s,” Scott muttered as he clenched his eyes closed against a sudden wave of pain coming from his right leg. A whimper of pure agony lifted from his lips to Johnny’s ears and the dark-haired brother felt his heart constrict at the sound.
“I know, buddy. I know. Just…hold still, all right.” Johnny gritted his teeth as he shifted around until he was on his belly again, his arms hanging over the edge as if to help his brother, though he was too far away to reach him. “Murdoch, get that rope around him, quick!”
Without having an actual foothold, Murdoch was at the whim of the blasting wind as it attempted to send him careening into the little ledge on which Scott lay. Grabbing hold of a sharp rock protruding from the ledge, Murdoch was slammed bodily against the cliff wall, but managed to maintain his hold as he inched his way closer to his son. Holding the extra rope in his teeth, he released his death grip on the rope holding him to transfer the loose rope around and beneath Scott’s head and shoulders.
Groaning at the slight movement, Scott tried to fight off Murdoch’s hand and the rope that was biting into his bruised and battered back, but he didn’t have the strength to fend his father off.
Taking advantage of Scott’s momentary weakness, Murdoch finally was able to slide the rope around Scott’s waist, pulling his hands out so that they wouldn’t get ensnared in the rope and cause further damage.
“All right, Johnny,” Murdoch called up to the worried face watching his every movement. “Get that horse moving, but do it slowly!” Hearing a whistle and a soft word issued from his youngest, Murdoch prepared his feet to move onto the ledge as soon as the rope grew taunt. He knew it was imperative that he get his arms around Scott as quickly as possible, to ensure that the injured man didn’t fight the rope that was sure to cause him more pain as it tightened around his back and waist.
As soon as he was able, Murdoch slipped his arms like a band around Scott’s chest and pulled him back into a tight embrace. Luckily Murdoch’s legs were longer than his sons and he was able to keep them from being slammed into the stone wall by sheer strength, but by the time they neared the top, his arms and legs were trembling so badly that he thought he was going to drop Scott.
“Just a little bit further, Murdoch!” Johnny called out in encouragement. “Hold on for a few more minutes, please.”
As Barranca backed up, inch by slow inch, Johnny kept a close eye on the rope as it was dragged along the edge of the cliff. Though the rope was fraying slightly, there was no immediate danger of it being cut through enough to be dangerous.
With one last heaving pull, Johnny stopped Barranca and slid out of the saddle once again. His descent this time wasn’t as easy. The loud pop of something in his ankle and the resulting jolt of agony shooting up his leg left him little doubt that the leg was broken. He lay panting for breath for a long while, until he heard his father’s frantic voice calling out to him. He slowly raised his head, seeking Murdoch out through the haze of pain covering his eyes.
“Johnny, are you okay?” Murdoch repeated for the third time as he watched his youngest son lying on his side holding tightly to his left leg.
“Y-Yeah,” Johnny gasped out as he bit his lip and started dragging himself over to where his father knelt beside Scott. “How is he?” Ignoring his own pain, Johnny reached out a trembling hand to gently brush a lock of dirt-covered blond hair away from a large, bleeding lump on Scott’s temple.
“He’s unconscious again, which is probably a good thing,” Murdoch stated as his own trembling hands were doing a bit of exploration themselves. “His right leg is definitely broken and his back is a mess of cuts and bruises, but he’s breathing.” Murdoch turned his eyes from evaluating Scott’s condition to really look at Johnny for the first time since they had met up. From the gray cast to Johnny’s skin, Murdoch knew that the boy was hurting more than he let on. Closing his eyes tightly, Murdoch prayed for strength and wisdom in getting his two boys to safety and into the care of a doctor as soon as possible.
As if reading his father’s mind, Johnny looked up at Murdoch, concern shining in his deep blue eyes. “We’ve gotta get him to the doctor, Murdoch.”
“You, too, son.” Slipping the rope out from beneath Scott, Murdoch tossed it aside as he got to his feet and hurried to the packhorse and retrieved the first aid kit Teresa had packed there. He then scouted about the area, coming up with four nice-sized lengths of wood from a nearby ponderosa pine. Carrying his armload back to his sons, he set about splinting first Scott’s leg and then Johnny’s.
By the time Scott’s lacerations were cleaned and bandaged, the sun was low in the western sky. Giving the cloud-shrouded sun a critical glance, Murdoch hurried to gather up the horses and packhorses, using the rope to tether the loose horses together so they wouldn’t get in the way. He planned on somehow getting Scott up in the saddle with him, though he knew he would get an argument out of Johnny before it was all over.
“Johnny, are you ready to mount up?” Murdoch asked his dark-haired son quietly as he walked over to crouch down beside him. He watched with interest as Johnny leaned over toward Scott, closing the short distance between them and whispered something in his brother’s ear. Johnny then gave the tangled blond tresses a gentle tousle before looking up at his father.
“He’s ridin’ with me, Murdoch,” Johnny stated matter-of-factly as he hitched himself into a sitting position, holding a hand out for Murdoch to help him to his feet.
“I’m sorry, son, but I’m going to take Scott up in the saddle with me.” Before Johnny could protest further, Murdoch held up a staying hand, and to his shock Johnny closed his mouth and waited for him to continue. “We need to get down off this mountain as quickly as possible. We can’t do that if I’m constantly stopping to make sure neither of you is going to come tumbling out of the saddle. At least with Scott in the saddle with me, you and Barranca will be able to lead us down safely.”
Seeing the wisdom in what his father said, Johnny reluctantly agreed to the plan, up to a point. “As soon as we reach level ground, he’s ridin’ with me.” Giving his father a steady stare, Johnny shook his elevated hand in the air to gain Murdoch’s attention. “Now help me up, old man, my butt is freezing.”
With a grin at Johnny’s attempt to lighten the mood, Murdoch quickly hoisted his son to his feet, giving in to the impulse to gather him close for an impromptu embrace, and to his surprise, Johnny allowed it, even going so far as to wrap his arms around his father’s back and return the hold. Then, as if nothing had ever happened, though in his heart Murdoch would never forget the moment, the pair carefully maneuvered across the rocky terrain to get Johnny settled in the saddle once again.
Watching his father closely as Murdoch gathered Scott into his arms, Johnny held his breath as the older man carried his brother to his horse and carefully set Scott in the saddle. Seeing that the unconscious man was in danger of sliding right back off the horse on the opposite side, Johnny guided Barranca around the other horse and held Scott in place while Murdoch mounted up. Waiting until he was sure Murdoch had a secure hold around Scott, Johnny finally released his brother and guided Barranca on down the trail. And if he looked back over his shoulder often to make sure everything was all right, Murdoch didn’t say a word to dissuade him for he knew how worried Johnny was about his brother.
It was going to be a long, miserable ride back down the mountain as the dark, threatening clouds overhead opened up and a cold, misty rain mixed with sleet began to fall.
Teresa was the first to spot them riding in from the north pasture. Her youthful eyes could make out two mounted horses and several others tagging along behind.
“JELLY!” Teresa screamed as she raced through the rain toward the barn where the old man was nervously pacing in the aisle between the stalls. He whirled around at Teresa’s scream and ran to the door as she pounded across the yard, unmindful of the rain-filled puddles that splashed over her boots.
“What in tarnation is wrong with you, gal?” Jelly demanded as soon as Teresa collapsed into his waiting arms. He held her upright as she fought to catch her breath.
“They’re coming! Murdoch… and Scott!” She gestured wildly toward the north, nearly clipping Jelly in the chin with her elbow as she did so. “And they’re leading three horses!”
The significance of the number of horses in the returning party didn’t go unnoticed by the old man as he quickly set Teresa aside and rushed out into the rain to see for himself. However, with the rain obscuring his vision, or so he told himself, he could only make out a blob of something moving slowly down from the north pasture. Running back into the barn, he quickly saddled a horse and tied it to a stall door.
“I’m gonna get Juan to ride in and bring ol’ Doc Jenkins here, pronto,” Jelly called to Teresa as he ran back out into the rain to the bunkhouse to get the ranch hand. With the rest of the crew alerted to the boss bringing his boys home, Jelly quickly returned to the barn and managed to get the buckboard hitched before anyone could come in to help him. Climbing up into the seat, Jelly’s gnarled and arthritic hands were shaking as he gathered the reins up in preparation to meeting up with the Lancers.
“Teresa, honey, you need to get on inside the house and get lots of water aboilin’ and make sure there’s aplenty of blankets, towels and medical supplies ready for Doc Jenkins,” Jelly ordered as he gave the team a heavy slap on the rump with the reins to get them going.
Sprinting out of the barn, Teresa quickly headed into the house to do as Jelly ordered, though it had been her intent all along. As she entered the house she called out for Maria to come and assist her.
By the time Jelly reached the exhausted and weary threesome, Murdoch’s arms were so weary he was afraid he would drop his precious burden. He had fought a verbal battle with Johnny all the way down from the far northern part of the pasture against transferring Scott onto Johnny’s horse. It was obvious to the older man that Johnny was just barely able to sit his horse, and he knew that, though he may have wanted to help his brother, there was no way Johnny would be able to maintain his seat while trying to hold Scott up as well.
So, when Jelly came careening through the pasture in the buckboard, Murdoch sighed heavily in relief. He guided his weary horse toward the buckboard as Jelly brought it to a sliding halt in the wet grass.
“Boss? You found him?” Jelly asked incredulously, stating the obvious as his eyes roamed anxiously over Johnny’s slumped form. He then took in Scott’s condition and the cautious way Murdoch was sitting in his saddle. “What happened to Scott?” The old man climbed down off the wagon seat and hurried around to the back of the wagon. Once inside the bed of the wagon he held his arms out to accept the unconscious blond.
“Jelly, no offense, but Scott’s much too heavy for you to handle,” Murdoch said regretfully as he carefully dismounted with a groan of pain, holding his limp son in the saddle with some effort. Then, with an arm around Scott’s waist, Murdoch eased Scott out of the saddle, gathering him gently in his arms to carry him to the straw filled wagon bed. Ignoring the burning pain spearing down his left leg from his lower back, Murdoch accepted Jelly’s help in sliding Scott into the straw and covering him with some blankets.
“What about him?” Jelly asked, nodding his head toward Johnny, as he tented an oilcloth covering over Scott’s face as protection from the rain.
“I’m fine,” Johnny muttered stubbornly as he kneed Barranca over to the wagon bed and dropped unceremoniously into the straw beside his brother, unconscious before his head hit the straw.
“Stubborn fool, ain’t got the sense of a turkey buzzard,” Jelly said peevishly, though the worry in his eyes belied the his words. The old man quickly shifted Johnny closer to his brother as he shifted the blankets and oilcloth to cover both of them.
“Ya might as well climb on in the wagon bed and take a load off that achin’ back, boss,” the savvy older man grunted as he slid off the back of the wagon to gather up the horses reins and leads to tie them to the tailgate.
“I need to ride ahead and send someone for the doctor,” Murdoch countered as he started to untie his mount’s reins, only to have his hands slapped away by Jelly as he waved Murdoch toward the back of the wagon.
“It’s already done, boss. Alls you gotta do is get into that wagon before those two boys drown in this here downpour!” Jelly finished tying off the reins that Murdoch had managed to loosen and hurried back to the seat. With a spryness that Murdoch wasn’t aware the old man still possessed, Jelly climbed up into the wagon and soon had the team moving as swiftly as possible across the uneven pasture.
Settling down in the straw beside Johnny, Murdoch huddled deep in his wet coat and nodded off to sleep despite the uncomfortable conditions.
“Well, it never ceases to amaze me at what kind of trouble you manage to get into, Johnny Lancer,” Doc Jenkins muttered with a shake of his head at the protesting young man lying on the bed fighting every move the doctor made. “Now, I’m going to set the bones in your ankle and then I’m going to be using this new casting material that’s supposed to keep the bones in place while they heal.”
“Why can’t ya just put a splint on it and let me outta this bed?” Johnny snapped waspishly as he gritted his teeth hard against the painful manipulation of Doc Jenkins’ expert hands.
“Because if I did that, your father would eventually have to shoot you to put you out of your misery, young man!” Came the exasperated reply as the doctor finally had the foot and leg set where he wanted it to be. He turned to Teresa, who was waiting anxiously beside a basin of water that held some strips of plaster-covered cloth. “Hand me the first piece, please, Teresa.”
One by one the plaster strips were carefully applied to Johnny’s leg, all the way up to his knee. Keeping the anxious young man down for two hours was pushing Johnny’s limit for being stationary for any length of time. It was obvious to everyone in the room that Johnny was ready to lash out in frustration.
“DOC!” Johnny whined in an aggravating voice, and then seemed to change tactics as he ground out lowly to the man who was stoically ignoring his protests, “I gotta go! Now!”
Shaking his head at Johnny’s attempt to disrupt the casting process, Doc Jenkins smoothed the last strip of plaster-laden cloth over the thick cast and stepped back to admire his work.
“Not a bad job if I have to say so,” he murmured as he dunked his plaster-coated hands into the clean basin of water Teresa had waiting for him.
“Doc, I can’t even lift the leg!” Johnny protested vehemently as he strained to do just that, but only managed to shift the heavy cast slightly. “How am I supposed to get around with this thing weighin’ so much? I’ll havta drag my leg behind me!”
“Hmmm, perhaps in the six to eight weeks it takes for those bones to knit, you’ll learn a bit of patience, eh?” Doc Jenkins mused as he scrubbed the last of the plaster out from beneath his fingernails. It was the second time he’d applied the casting material in the hours since he’d arrived at Lancer. Scott was the first, though he hadn’t uttered a word of protest. Of course he was unconscious the entire time, too.
“Doc, how’s Scott?” Johnny asked suddenly, as reading Doc Jenkins’ mind.
“Nice of you to think of someone else besides yourself, young man,” the doctor grumbled as he dried his hands on the clean towel Teresa handed him. He turned to address Johnny, but cut off any further reprimand when he got a look at Johnny’s stricken expression. “Scott’s pretty banged up, but he’s strong and healthy, Johnny. It will take some time for him to heal, but he’ll be just fine, you’ll see.”
“I wanna see him,” Johnny demanded as he placed both hands beneath the heavy cast and shoved the leg toward the edge of the mattress. The doctor was quickly by his side to prevent any further movement of the uncured cast.
“You’re going to have to stay right where you are for the next few hours, son. That cast has to cure, or dry, and if you try to get up and move around before that happens, you’ll just find yourself right back at the beginning.” Looking down at Johnny, Doc Jenkins frowned. “You don’t want to do that, now do you, Johnny?”
Dropping his head back against the pillows, Johnny groaned in frustration as he placed an arm over his eyes to block out the doctor’s disapproving expression. “I need to see him with my own eyes, Doc. To make sure Scott’s all right,” he muttered quietly, all the fight gone out of him.
“You can’t take my word for it, son?” Murdoch’s voice coming from beside the bed startled Johnny as the younger man quickly dropped his arm from over his eyes to look at his father. “He’s sleeping right now and he’s got a cast on his right leg, only it covers the entire leg.” Throwing a defiant glance toward Doc Jenkins, Murdoch settled gingerly on the edge of the mattress and leaned forward slightly to relieve the ache in his back.
“Did ya have Doc look at your back, Murdoch?” Johnny asked quietly, though he knew that Murdoch would not appreciate his bringing the subject up.
“No, I am not the patient here. You and Scott are,” Murdoch growled as he looked into Johnny’s eyes and saw the concern in their blue depths. “But, if it’ll make you feel better…”
“Oh, I’ll be extremely happy to have Doc pesterin’ somebody besides me!” Johnny crowed as he winked saucily at his father before closing his eyes in exhaustion. “Now, if everybody’ll just clear out, I’m gonna try and get some sleep.”
Johnny waited only until the last of the footsteps was out the door before opening his eyes to a darkened room, the drapes having been pulled over the windows to shut out any vestige of sunlight that might have attempted to show through the deluge outside.
Looking around the shadowed interior of his bedroom, Johnny made sure he was all alone. With a stealth like quietness of a feral cat sneaking up on its oblivious prey, Johnny worked the heavily casted leg over the edge of the mattress, just barely managing to catch the limb before his foot crashed to the floor. Breathing heavily, Johnny stood on his good leg and experimented with lifting the leg with the cast. At first he thought his left leg was going to be pulled out of the hip socket, the cast weighed so much, but then he found that if he applied only a slight amount of pressure on the heel of the hated bulky cast he could actually move with a hop and a shuffle.
Making his way across the room, slowly but surely, Johnny wondered why no one had bothered to come back into his room to find out what the odd sliding, thumping noises were, but he didn’t really care at the moment. What he did care about was getting to his brother to make sure Scott was all right.
Once he reached the bedroom door, Johnny stopped and held his breath, as it was coming out in gasping rasps, to listen for any sound coming from the hallway before opening the door and peeking around the corner to make sure the coast was clear. Finding no one in the immediate area between his room and Scott’s across the hall, Johnny continued his hop, shuffle from the room.
“Now, I’m pretty sure I told you to stay off that cast until it cured,” Doc Jenkins sarcastic voice said from behind Johnny as soon as the dark-haired man reached out to open Scott’s door.
Leaning his head against the doorframe, Johnny groaned in frustration at being caught just as he had almost reached his goal. Then, figuring he was almost there anyway, Johnny ignored the doctor’s glare and opened Scott’s door anyway. Making his way a bit noisily into the room, with Doc Jenkins tagging along right behind him, Johnny had worked up a sweat by the time he reached the bed and the pale-faced man lying there.
Dropping heavily into the chair Doc Jenkins shoved behind his knees, Johnny instantly leaned forward and slipped his hand over Scott’s as it lay on the bed beside his hip. The hand was cold to the touch and Johnny quickly lifted it to enclose it in both of his in order to warm it up.
Scott stirred and moaned lowly as he began to rock his head from side to side.
“Shhh, Boston,” Johnny crooned softly as he scooted the chair a bit closer to the bed and shifted one hand from around Scott’s to smooth his fingertips across the furrowed and perspiring brow. “Settle down, now, brother. I’m here and you’re gonna be fine, Doc Jenkins says so, and we both know how much stock I put in his word.” Grinning broadly at the doctor over his shoulder, Johnny quickly turned his attention back to his brother when Scott whispered his name.
“I’m right here, Scott. Are you wakin’ up for me?” Smoothing his fingers back through the tousled hair, Johnny smiled softly when Scott’s eyes opened a slit and turned toward him. “Hey, there.”
“You…hurt?” Scott mumbled, his tongue snaking out as if to moisten dried lips.
“Nah, I’m fine, Boston. Just got a ton of plaster on my leg ‘cause Doc thinks it’s gonna slow me down some.” Johnny chuckled quietly when Scott’s lips lifted slightly in a semblance of a smile. “How’re you feelin’?”
“Been…better,” Scott admitted quietly as he closed his eyes for a moment, and then snapped them back open as if to assure himself that Johnny was still there. “W-Where were…you?”
As if he was able to read between the lines or, more likely, read his brother’s mind, Johnny snorted lightly as he gently tucked Scott’s now-warmed hand beneath the covers. “I got snowed in at the cabin.” Deciding not to go in to great detail on his misadventures, Johnny gently smoothed his fingertips over Scott’s eyelashes, causing the exhausted man to close his eyes. “Get some sleep, brother. I’m gonna park it right here in this chair for a while, to watch over ya. Rest easy.”
“’kay,” Scott whispered breathlessly as he was already drifting off to sleep. Then, before he went under completely he stirred slightly and blinked sleepy eyes open to look at his brother, as if to assure himself once more that he was really, truly there. “Love ya, Johnny.” The words were spoken so softly that if Johnny hadn’t been leaned over smoothing his hand over Scott’s hair, he wouldn’t have heard them. Freezing in place, his hand hovering somewhere above Scott’s right brow, Johnny felt tears sting his eyes at the softly spoken confession.
“Love ya, too, Scott,” Johnny declared quietly as his hand continued its ministrations as if it hadn’t been interrupted.
Doc Jenkins, a learned man of considerable years, had thought that he had grown immune to emotion, especially Johnny’s usual snappish attitude at being confined to bed during and after an illness, but the older man nearly choked on a sob as he slowly, quietly backed out of Scott’s room without another word of reprimand to the obviously exhausted young man sitting by the bed.
Bumping into something solid that wasn’t a wall because it wore clothing, Doc Jenkins whirled around to find Murdoch looking at him oddly.
“What are you doing skulking around Scott’s room?” Murdoch asked in a low voice that sounded like a cross between a grizzly’s growl and the menacing snarl of a lobo wolf.
“Well, I was going to blister your youngest son’s ears for doing exactly what I told him not to do, but I’ve changed my mind and have decided I will allow him to stay with his brother for a while,” Doc Jenkins admitted quietly.
“In other words, Johnny’s going to do what Johnny’s going to do, no matter what you or I have to say about it, right?” Murdoch stated quietly as he opened Scott’s door slightly to see Johnny leaning over from the bedside chair and smoothing his fingers through Scott’s hair. Closing the door once again, Murdoch nodded his head and headed toward his own bedroom down the hall.
“Hey, wait a minute!” Doc Jenkins called quietly after his old friend as he hustled to catch up with him. “I promised Johnny I’d take a look at that back… and you know I never go back on a promise.”
Glaring at the doctor, Murdoch finally gave in to the inevitable and ushered his friend into his bedroom and shut the door. He figured that without witnesses to the examination, no one need know the outcome besides he and the doctor, and Murdoch was well aware of how close-lipped Doc Jenkins could be when it came to his patient’s condition.
As he moved to close the drapes over the window, Murdoch rubbed a fist over the frosted glass to peer out. He could see that the rain had unexpectedly changed to snow and with the wind swirling the flakes around, it was near whiteout conditions. However, with his family safe and secure within the confines of the house, Murdoch simply let the drapes fall closed and headed over to endure the poking and prodding sure to come as he gave himself over to Doc Jenkins’ examination.
Created January 8, 2008
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