First Cattle Drive

Part Two

by  Desert Sun

Chapter 12


Without rising, the lonely figure threw another log on the campfire, sending up a shower of sparks.  He stared into the depths of the blaze as though mesmerized by what he saw there.  The conversation with his son earlier in the evening had stirred up memories of the past and various images danced before him in the flickering red, yellow, and orange flames.

At first, it was a beautiful young lady.  Her flaxen hair was barely visible under the stylish hat she wore and she was dressed in the latest fashion of New England society.  Not looking where she was going, she stepped out of a dress shop and into the bright mid-day sun to bump into him.  The boxes that she carried slipped out of her arms and scattered about them.  He quickly stooped down to retrieve the packages for her only to feel his head coming into contact with hers.  His stammered apology was met with laughter, the musical quality of which he had never heard before.  When their gazes met, he found it nearly impossible to look away; he was too transfixed by the warmth that he saw in her blue-gray eyes.

The scene changed and Murdoch Lancer saw a stern-faced man ordering him to leave a stately home in a part of Boston that was reserved for the upper class.  It mattered not to Harlan Garrett that his daughter, Catherine, had been rescued from certain danger when her carriage had broken down while passing through one of the rougher districts of Boston.  He didn’t even thank the young man who had safely escorted the young lady home.  Instead, he told Murdoch in no uncertain terms that he was not to show his face at the Garrett’s door again.

A smile passed over the rancher’s face and he softly chuckled.  Harlan Garrett had not known of the persistence and ingenuity of his own daughter or of Murdoch Lancer.   Garrett would have been shocked had he known of the many times that Catherine had fabricated an excuse to leave the house in order to meet the young emigrant at the park or in the home of one of her closest friends.  When Harlan had finally realized what had been transpiring it had been too late to stop the winds of fate—love was in full bloom.

The soft smile transformed into a frown as unpleasant memories crowded in.  The confrontation with the young lady’s father when Murdoch had asked for Catherine’s hand in marriage had been explosive.  Garrett had flat out refused such an alliance.  He was not about to allow his only daughter to marry a man who had just arrived from Scotland the year before.  He had made it quite clear that Murdoch Lancer was not, nor would he ever be good enough to wed the daughter of Harlan Garrett.

Murdoch laid his empty coffee cup to one side, shifted positions slightly, and went back to watching the fire.  Another picture presented itself to him: a simple white dress made elegant by the beauty of the girl wearing it.  The wedding was a quiet affair, taking place in an elderly minister’s home.  There were few guests, none of them family members of either party.  Just a few of Catherine’s closest confidants and a couple of Murdoch’s friends had been invited to participate in the happy event.

Next came a frantic drive through narrow, cobblestone streets as Lancer whisked his bride away to the harbor where they caught a ship bound for California.  What followed was more of a nightmare than a honeymoon.  Their quarters were cramped and the food nearly inedible.  During the months at sea, he put in long hours of grueling labor as a seaman to pay for their passage to San Francisco.

The rancher’s eyelids drooped and his head nodded.  His mind drifted back to the first time he had set foot on the ranch that he now called Lancer, land that others had believed to be worthless at the time.   Seeing the potential that lay there, he had purchased the main hacienda along with eighty thousand acres from an old, Spanish Don.  The Spaniard, foreseeing that the conflict between Mexico and the United States over the control of California could only get worse, had wished to return to the land of his birth before a full scale war began.

Shadows, cast by the soft light that flickered from the fire, danced around Murdoch.  His chin sagged against his chest and his breathing became deep and steady as he drifted off to sleep.


~~~~~”But I don’t wish to leave.  My place is here . . . with you, Dear.  And what about the baby?  Our son should be born on the land that bears his name; he should be born at Lancer, not in some strange place half-way between here and Boston.”

The pleading eyes of the beautiful woman grasping his arm made Murdoch suck in his breath.   In the bright light of the full moon, her silky, pale golden hair shimmered as it draped her shoulders and framed her oval face.  He steeled himself against the look of disappointment that would soon mar her lovely features.

“Catherine, you must go.  It’s not safe here . . . for you or our child.  You know that.” He pulled his wife into a tight embrace as he begged her to understand that he was asking her to do what was best for all of them.  “With Judd Haney making these raids on us, I will not leave you unprotected while I’m working.  As much as I hate for us to be apart, there is no other choice; I can’t afford to hire more men.  There’s so little law in this land and now that we are at war with Mexico the situation can only get worse.  It is just too risky for you to stay, can’t you see that?”

He held the now sobbing woman close against him as he tried to sooth her.  “I’ll send for you as soon as I can.  I promise . . . we won’t be apart for long, a few years at the most.  The Mexican government doesn’t have a chance of defeating the United States and this trouble with Haney can’t last forever.  As soon as it’s safe for you to come home, I’ll send for you or go to Boston to get you.  I promise.”

A few moments later, Murdoch lifted Catherine up to the seat of the wagon where she sat next to his foreman, Paul O’Brien.  After a brief farewell to his friend, the young rancher kissed his wife one last time.  He then stood back and watched his world travel out of sight.  His heart screamed for him to go after her.  With great effort, he forced himself to stick to his resolve.  Getting her to the safety of her father’s home in Boston was the only wise thing he could see to do under the present circumstances.~~~~~


The moon slowly showed its lop-sided face above the hills to the east of the meadow where the steers were being held for the night.  As the landscape gradually became more visible from its glow, the flames of the campfire died down.  All was quiet except for the occasional snoring of one of the drovers.  The gray-haired man, sitting slumped forward by the fire, was oblivious to it all.


~~~~~“Murdoch!  Murdoch!  The baby!  I’m so sorry, he came too soon.”  The frantic voice came from a shadowy figure in the center of the room.  “Please, Murdoch.  Please hurry.  There isn’t much time.  I feel so weak.  I must see you, touch your face, hold you once more before . . ..”

“Catherine?  Is that you?  How did you get here?  You’re supposed to be on your way to meet your father.”  The bewildered man pushed the heavy quilt to one side, dropped his legs over the edge of the bed, and sat up.  His feet touched the cold floor and he started to rise.

The figured moved closer.  “I’m so sorry, Murdoch.  I didn’t want to go with him, but I was just so sick after the baby was born.  I wanted to stay and wait for you in Cartersville, but father wouldn’t hear of it.  He insisted that we continue on.”

His wife’s tone became more desperate.  “Please Murdoch.  Don’t let him take the baby.  Don’t let my father take our son from you.  Scott belongs here.  This is his home.”  She touched his arm and she pled, “My father will steal him from you if he can.  Please, don’t let him do it.  Promise me, my dear, that you will bring our boy back here.”

When he reached for her, the dim form of his wife retreated to stand by the window where the curtains, blown by a gentle breeze, seemed to float around and through her.  “Catherine, don’t go.  Tell me about our son.  Catherine!”  His deep voice rose in pitch as a feeling of panic gripped him.

“Promise me you’ll bring him home, prom . . ..”

“Catherine!”  The anguished cry was torn from his throat as she faded from his sight.~~~~~


Murdoch’s eyes flew open.  His heart raced when he felt the hand on his shoulder and caught a glimpse of a shadow near him.  “Catherine?”  The name was breathed in little more than a whisper.

“Sir, don’t you think that you would rest better lying down?”

Startled by the quiet, masculine voice, Murdoch blinked his eyes and tried to focus on the tall form at his side.  “What?” he said in confusion, his mind still occupied with the strange dream that he had just awakened from.

“It’s pretty late, Murdoch.  Shouldn’t you be getting some sleep?”

“Scott?”  The man stared blankly at his son for a moment, then sighed.  “Yes, I suppose it is time I turned in.”  He placed his hands on his thighs and straightened his elbows as he drew his shoulders up.  He breathed in deeply, then relaxed his arms and let the air slowly escape from his lungs.  “What are you doing up?”

“I go on night herd duty soon and I thought that I would have some coffee and warm up by the fire for a few minutes first.”  Scott filled a cup with steaming liquid from the pot and took a sip.

Murdoch glanced upward at the moon.  He found it hard to believe he had slept as long as he had.  “I had no idea that it was so late.  Guess I’d better collect my bedroll.”

“There’s no need for you to get up, Sir.  I brought it with me.”  Scott pointed at the bundle by their feet.  “I was getting my jacket out of the wagon and noticed it was still there.  When I saw you over here, it didn’t make sense for you to have to go get it when I was coming over here anyway.”

“Thanks, Son.”  Murdoch was touched by Scott’s thoughtfulness.

“You’re welcome, Sir.”  Scott studied his father for a moment then spoke in a concerned tone.  “Is your leg giving you trouble again, Sir?  I thought that I saw you limping on it earlier.”

“Its nothing.  Just a little stiff is all.  It’ll be fine by morning.”  Murdoch rubbed his sore thigh while he spoke with more assurance than he felt.

“Would you like me to roll your blankets out for you?”

“Scott, I’m not helpless.”  Murdoch almost snapped at his son who was reaching for the bedroll.  He immediately regretted the harshness of his tone when Scott straightened and became rigid.  In an effort to relieve the sudden tension, the rancher deliberately spoke in a softer manner.  “I would like a cup of coffee if you wouldn’t mind pouring some for me.”

The son’s posture became less stiff.  “Not at all, Sir.  Do you have a cup or do I need to get one for you?”

“I have one . . . it’s here somewhere.”  Murdoch glanced around then picked up the cup that had slipped out of his hand while he slept.  “Ah, here it is,” he said and held it out toward his son.

Scott poured the coffee for his father, nodded an acknowledgement of the older man’s brief expression of gratitude, and then after returning the pot to its place near the coals of the fire, he sat down a couple of feet away from Murdoch.  As they drank the hot brew and talked, they kept to the inconsequential subjects of weather, cattle, and various aspects of running a ranch.

Murdoch, still somewhat shaken by the dream, was relieved that Scott didn’t seem inclined to want to talk about anything of a personal nature.  Memory of Catherine’s pleading voice made him feel that he had failed her by not forcefully taking their son from her father.  He wasn’t sure he could have kept from telling the younger man about Harlan Garrett’s deviousness in keeping the two of them apart.  Yet, he didn’t want Scott to stay at Lancer out of pity for the father who had been wronged or as a means of punishing the offending grandfather.

Once again, the rancher determined in his mind to keep the past out of the present relationship with his son.  He wanted Scott to stay in California because he wanted to, not out of some sense of duty or obligation to make up for what they had missed by being separated.

All too soon, the other nightrider arrived at the fire and gulped down a steaming cup of coffee before heading for the remuda.  Scott slowly rose to his feet and stretched.  “I guess it’s time I was going.”

Murdoch nodded.  An unexpected sense of pleasure ran through him at his son’s apparent reluctance to go and he found it difficult to speak.

“I’ll see you in the morning, Sir.”

“Goodnight, Scott,” Murdoch managed to get out huskily as his son started to leave.

Scott took a few steps and stopped.  He looked back at his father who had made no move toward turning in for the night.  “Murdoch, you do need to get some sleep.  It will be dawn in a few hours.”

“Yes, Son.  I’m fully aware of how soon morning will be here.  Now will you just go tend to the herd and let me tend to getting myself to bed.”   Murdoch suppressed the touch of sharpness that wanted to creep into his voice.  He wasn’t used to having anyone fussing over him.  It gave him mixed feelings: he was irritated at the inference that he wasn’t able to care for himself while being pleased at the same time by his son’s concern.

Murdoch noticed the slight shaking of his son’s shoulders when Scott walked away.  He also was sure that he had heard the young man chuckling softly.  While he rolled out his blanket, stretched out on one side of them, and wrapped the other half over him, the rancher’s thoughts centered on his first-born son and he smiled.  It had been a good day, a very good day indeed.




Scott Lancer glanced up at the sky while his horse plodded steadily along as they circled around the sleeping steers.  The moon, full only a few nights before, was now a half circle on one side and only slightly curved on the other.  He couldn’t remember the stars ever appearing so bright, almost close enough to touch.   In Boston, one’s view of the heavens was much more limited with the tall buildings that hid it from sight and the smoky haze that at times settled over the city.

He sucked in a deep breath of the crisp, clean air.  His eyes roamed over the herd and his lips turned upward at the corners.  For the first time in his life, he felt the pride of ownership; one third of those cattle were his. 

A peaceful feeling enveloped Scott as he continued to make his rounds.  He caught himself humming the tune to the songs Red had sung that evening.  They brought back to his mind the conversations he had had with his father.  ‘Maybe, Murdoch and I will get along after all.  Perhaps it was as Red suggested, my father was overwrought the day the cattle stampeded and that is why he was so harsh with me.  He certainly seemed understanding when Red and I were wallowing in the mud.  I believe he even enjoyed our conversation this evening.  I know I did.’

He couldn’t remember being so content in a long time.  Although his grandfather had given him everything that money could buy, he had failed to give his grandson what he needed most: a sense of belonging and that his life amounted to something.  Too often, Scott had felt that he was just another possession for Harlan Garrett to parade before people of high-society back east as proof of his own importance.   “I guess that’s why I came out here,” he confided in his mount.  “To get away from my grandfather . . . and to see for myself why my mother would leave a life of luxury in Boston to follow Murdoch Lancer to the other side of the continent.’

Scott rubbed the horse’s neck, then went on talking.  “I do believe I’ve been misled about my father.  I think that in time, when we get to know each other better, Murdoch and I can be close--father and son, like we were meant to be.  I wonder if that’s why Grandfather tried to discourage me from coming here.  He’s afraid of losing me like he lost my mother twenty-five years ago.”

The young man went back to humming for a while.  He met the other nightrider and they talked a few minutes, then he continued on.  The longer that he rode the lighter his heart became.  Despite the hardships of dealing with the mud and the long, weary hours in the saddle, it had been a good day, one of the best that he could remember.


Chapter 13


The night air was chilly.  Scott Lancer pulled the blanket up a little higher, partially covering his head, then tucked the long edge a little further under him.  He sighed softly, thinking how good the warmth felt after three hours of riding herd.

Before drifting to sleep, Scott glanced toward the far side of the camp.  He could just make out his father’s form lying next to the campfire, which was visible by the few coals that glowed red in the semi-darkness of the moonlit night.  ‘Glad he’s getting some sleep.  Wonder why he was still sitting there when I got up.  Why didn’t he go to bed?  He had to be tired.  He was sound asleep when I touched him.  Wonder what he was dreaming about; I could have sworn, he said my mother’s name.   When he looked up at me, he seemed startled, like he thought I was someone else.’

Scott’s mouth involuntarily opened into a yawn.  ‘Guess I’d better get to sleep myself.  Morning will be here shortly.’  He closed his eyes but found that his mind wasn’t ready to shut down yet.  It jumped from one thing to another: the hardships of the drive, his friendship with Red, the pleasant conversation he had shared with his father the evening before, and Murdoch’s hardiness despite his age.  His thoughts then shifted farther back in time and he remembered his trip from Boston to California, his first sight of his father, and the shock of learning that he was not Murdoch Lancer’s only son.

‘I wonder how Johnny and Teresa are getting along.  I hope he’s following the doctor’s orders.  I suppose Teresa will see that he does, though.  She can be quite commanding when she puts her mind to it.  I doubt my brother will put anything over on her; she’s a very bright young lady.  I do hope she learns to knock on doors though.  I’m not sure how long I can deal with her walking into my room unannounced.  Maybe, I should have Murdoch talk to her about it.  She’s not my sister, and even if she were, it just isn’t proper.  Besides, I like my privacy.’

Scott yawned again.  Slowly his body relaxed.  His breathing became slower and deeper.   His last conscious thought was of his brother.




“Go away, Johnny.  Let me sleep.”  Scott groaned, rolled over, and burrowed a little farther down under the quilt.

“Come on, Boston.  You can do that anytime.  Let’s go for a moonlight ride.”

“Don’t be preposterous.  I’m not hitching up the buggy at this time of night.  Now go back to bed.”  The older brother squirmed as he tried to find a more comfortable position.  For some strange reason, his mattress was hard and full of lumps.

“Who said anything about a buggy?  I brought Barranca.  Now come on, where’s your sense of adventure?”  Johnny’s voice was soft and pleading as he pulled the blanket off his brother’s head.

“You know you’re not supposed to be on a horse yet.”  Scott sleepily opened his eyes and looked around.  There were no walls or furniture, just a wagon with a canvas top that shown white from the light of the moon.  He focused on the form standing over him.  “Johnny, how did you get here?  You’re supposed to be back at the ranch.”

“I told ya, Boston, I rode.”  Johnny nodded in the direction of the golden horse whose lead rope he held in his hand.

“You rode all the way from Lancer?”  Disbelief was evident in Scott’s voice.  “What were you thinking?  That’s more than a two-day ride from here.  You weren’t even supposed to be on a horse until today.  Does Teresa know you’re here?  Are you trying to open that wound up again?  What is Murdoch going to say when he sees you?”  The flood of concerned questions brought nothing more than a grin from Johnny.

The older brother sat up and spoke more seriously.  “That horse is still green-broke.  You shouldn’t be riding him in your condition.  He could hurt you.”  When the horse sidled into his view, Scott’s tone became more demanding.  “Where’s your saddle and bridle?  Surely you didn’t ride him all that way with just a halter on him.  Are you crazy?”

A rakish laugh came from Johnny.  “Lighten up, Boston.  I could ride this horse with nothin’ on him.  Wanna see?”

“Johnny!  Don’t be foolish,” Scott hollered as he rose to his feet.

“Shush!  Ya wanna wake up the old man.  ‘Sides, you’re spookin’ Barranca,” the younger brother admonished as the horse danced around him at the end lead rope.  He turned his attention to the animal and talked softly.

The older man, awe struck, watched Johnny get the horse under control.  Soon the palomino was standing quietly, almost dozing on its feet.  When his brother unbuckled the halter and let it fall to the ground, Scott grabbed his arm.  “I can’t let you do it.  You could be severally injured.  What about Murdoch?  He’s not going to like this in the least.”

“What about him?” Johnny cut in.  “That old man don’t scare me.”

“Well maybe he should.  He’s a lot tougher than he looks.”  A sense of desperation washed over Scott.  He had to find some way to convince his brother to give up this ridiculous idea.

Johnny let out a laugh.  He twisted from his brother’s grip, clasped a handful of flaxen mane, and sprang nimbly onto the horse’s back.  Barranca reared halfway up, then brought his front feet thudding to the ground and scooted sideways a couple of steps.  His rider deftly followed every move.

“Don’t do it, Johnny.”

“Come on Scott, go with me.  Let’s live a little.”

As Johnny booted Barranca into a gallop, Scott grabbed the trailing bridle reins of a bay horse that he found standing at his side.  He tossed the off line under its neck, grasped the reins in his left hand, and swung into the saddle.  With a hard kick to his mount’s ribs, he sent it racing after his brother.

The palomino was easy to see with the light of the moon glistening off his shiny coat.  ‘Looks like Johnny’s been giving him some special care,’ thought the older brother as he pushed to catch up.

As they galloped out of the camp and along the edge of the valley, Scott was amazed at how effortlessly his brother controlled the spirited horse.  Barranca appeared to sense Johnny’s very thoughts and responded accordingly as they wove their way in and out among trees and brush.

The riders broke out into an open meadow filled with cattle that were bedded down for the night.  Johnny slowed his mount to a ground-covering walk and skirted the herd.  Scott, keeping a wary eye out on his brother, followed a short distance behind.  He felt apprehensive despite the younger man’s skillful handling of the untrained horse.

A strange sound like that of a woman crying alerted Scott to a new danger.  He studied the terrain up ahead and spotted something slinking along a ridge to his brother’s right.   A few moments later, a tawny form leaped off a rock and into a tree less than twenty yards from Johnny.

“Look out, Johnny!” Scott tried to yell but the words came out in little more than a whisper.  In desperation, he pulled his mount to a halt and jerked the rifle from the scabbard.  He quickly lifted it to eye level, sighted down the barrel, and pulled the trigger.  A split second before hearing the blast from the rifle firing, he saw the big cat fall to the ground.

Instantaneously, Scott found himself surrounded by a thundering mass of frightened steers.  He dug his heels into the bay’s ribs and the horse lunged forward, then stretched out to join in the race.  He looked up ahead and saw that his brother had urged Barranca into an all-out run as well in order to escape the stampeding cattle.

The mad rush seemed to have gone on for an eternity when the palomino horse stumbled and went down.  “No!”  Scott screamed but couldn’t hear his voice above the din.

As he neared the spot where his brother had gone down, the cattle thinned out leaving him a clear view of the crumpled mound that was Barranca and Johnny.  With his heart in his throat, Scott jerked his mount to a stop, vaulted out of the saddle, and ran to the other man’s side.  He dropped down on his knees and lifted the broken, bleeding body into his arms.  “I’m sorry, Johnny.  It’s my fault.  I shouldn’t have fired my gun.”

He felt hands grasping his shoulders.  “Scott, it’s too late.”

“No.  Do something for him.  You have to try to save him; you can’t give up now.”  Scott’s pleading eyes locked on his father’s face.

“There’s nothing I can do.”

“Johnny!”  The anguished cry was torn from Scott as he was grasped by several pairs of hands and carried away from the mangled form of his brother.  ‘No!’ his tortured mind screamed.  ‘I just found him.  I can’t lose him yet.  It’s too soon.’

He fought the hands that held him down and ignored the voice that called his name.  He had to get to his brother.  Johnny needed him.



His heart was beating wildly as he struggled into a sitting position.  He gazed up at the tall man leaning over him.  “J-Johnny?” Scott queried shakily.  “Where’s Johnny?”

“He’s back at the ranch.”

The matter-of-fact tone, in which his father spoke, angered Scott and his voice filled with agitation.  “No!  He’s here; I saw him.  He’s hurt.  I have to go to him.”  As he started to rise, he felt Murdoch’s hand on his shoulder.  He pushed it away and said in desperation, “Why won’t you help him?”

“It was just dream, Scott.  Johnny’s home with Teresa,” Murdoch said reassuringly.

He suspiciously searched his father’s calm face, then glanced around him.  Except for the cowboys that were milling about, the camp looked the same as when he had gone to bed.  No one seemed to be excited.  He breathed in deeply and tried to think rationally.  Perhaps Murdoch was right.

Scott again looked up at his father.  “I thought . . ..”  He rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes in an attempt to clear his mind, then stammered,  “Johnny was . . . it was so . . ..” His voice trailed off as reality caught up with him.   Overcome with embarrassment by the spectacle he perceived that he was making of himself, he lowered his head and studied the ground.

He felt his father’s light touch on his arm and detected a faint clearing of the man’s throat, then heard the clanging of the cook’s triangle.

Murdoch dropped his hand back to his side and said, “I think I’ll get some breakfast.”  He took a couple of steps and stopped. “Coming, Scott?”

Scott raised his head and nodded. “I’ll be along shortly.”  He sighed heavily as Murdoch walked away and then proceeded to put on his boots.  A shudder ran through him as the memory of the nightmare came and went before his eyes one last time.    He shook off the disturbing feelings that it brought, got to his feet, and headed for the chow line.  His brother was fine; it had only been a dream.


Chapter 14


The driver snapped the long whip, flicking first one rump and then the other as he yelled to the team, “Get up there!”

The big horses, their muscles bulging and necks foaming, strained against their collars.  The supply wagon tipped crazily, then lurched as a wheel rolled over the rock in its path.

From a short distance beyond, Scott Lancer motioned with his hands as he guided the driver’s slow progress down the ridge.  His insides knotted tightly.  At any moment, he expected to see the wagon slip from the narrow path, slide over the edge, and tumble into the ravine.  When the razorback trail finally widened, he began to breathe a little easier.  The last thing they needed right now was more trouble.

The cook’s wagon had already caused one delay when it had become badly mired down while crossing a marshy area.  Without unhitching the team, the tongue from the other wagon had been unhooked and connected to that of the chuckwagon.  When the extra horses still hadn’t been able to move the vehicle more than a few inches, three of the drovers had been pulled away from the herd in order to free it.  Red and two other cowboys had shoveled mud from in front and in back of the buried wheels while Scott, Cooky, and the other driver had cut brush and tree limbs to pack into the trenches.

Scott and the drovers, with their ropes tied to the front of the wagon box and dallied around the horns of their saddles, had helped the teams with the pulling.  Slowly the wheels had taken a grip on the courser material and the wagon had rolled onto firmer ground.  The whole process had taken most of the morning.

Scott winced at the memory of the harsh reprimand he had received for not paying closer attention to the path he had led the wagons over.  He still wasn’t quite sure how he could have been so mistaken about the softness of the ground.  It had seemed firm enough under his horse’s hooves.  ‘Guess I just didn’t make enough allowance for the added weight,’ he thought.

He had been much more cautious after that and his little caravan had reached the far end of the mile long meadow without further incident.  On the other hand, the drovers had not faired so well.  Another boggy area had to be skirted by the herd.  With the shortage of drovers it had been difficult to keep the cattle from getting into the mire.  Twenty or more steers had ended up needing to be pulled out.  The cowboys hadn’t yet finished that task when Scott and the wagons left the valley floor on their way to the ridge he was now on.

Too late he saw the danger: the lead wagon was crowding the edge.  “Hold up!” he yelled.  But the damage was already done.  The rear of the wagon shifted sideways and the left rear wheel slid off the narrow trail.  The wagon jarred to a standstill as its bottom ground into the rocks beneath it.

Scott booted his horse forward as he cursed himself for letting his mind wonder even for a moment.  Getting the wagons through to the bank of the river was his responsibility.  It had seemed a simple enough job when he had suggested the idea to his father.  Since there was no chance of him getting off course and the other men, being more experienced with cattle, would all be needed to drive the herd, it had seemed logical that he be the one to guide drivers.   Now for the second time, he had gotten them into trouble.

He dismounted and tethered his mount to the side of the wagon.  By the time he got around to where he could inspect the damage, the cook was already checking the wheel.  “It’s in a bad fix but ‘least ‘tain’t broke,” Cooky said as he straightened up to look at Scott.

“Just how bad is it?”  Scott carefully stepped over a boulder to look for himself.  A sinking feeling hit him in the pit of his stomach.  It was going to take some doing to jack the wagon up onto the trail.  He drew in a deep breath and exhaled loudly.  With his jaw determinedly set, he asked, “Do we have anything we can use for leverage?”

“Got a pole in my wagon.  Want me to get it?” offered Jake, the driver of the supply wagon.

“If you wouldn’t mind.”

While Jake went to fetch the pole, Scott and Cooky located a rock to use as a fulcrum.  They rolled it into place near the back corner of the wagon bed.

Jake came up behind them and dropped the wooden bar on the ground.  “How you plan to get the end of this under there?” he queried.

“We’ll have to see if we can move a few of these smaller rocks and make a hole under the edge of the wagon bed.”  Scott knelt down and felt to see if any of the stones were loose.  He could hear the cook rattling things around in the back of the wagon.

“Here ya be, Mr. Lancer.  Reckon this might help.”  Cooky handed his young boss a crowbar.

“Thanks, Cooky.  I certainly can use this,” Scott said as his hand closed around the tool.  “While I do this, you and Jake had better lighten the load as best you can.  We don’t want to have to lift any more weight than necessary.”

Scott, keeping close to the left side of wagon’s backend, wedged the curved end of the short iron bar into the crevice along one side of a loose stone and pried it free. He worked steadily at making a hole large enough to accommodate the end of the pole while the other men unloaded the heavier items from the bed of the wagon.

“That should do it,” Scott announced a while later.  He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt.  Seeing the beads of moisture on the faces of the other two men, he said, “Anyone besides me ready for a break and drink of water?”

“Ain’t tired myself,” Cooky asserted.  “But you go right ahead an’ rest a spell.  Reckon ya bein’ from the east an’ all, ya ain’t used to workin’ so hard.  I’ll jest sit here in the shade an wait for ya.”

Scott’s face broke into a smile, which he kept well hidden.  He knew that the cook, who had to be well into his sixties, would never admit to needing a rest even if he were about to drop from exhaustion.  ‘Stubborn pride seems to be typical off these westerners,’ he thought.   A picture of a tall man limping into camp the night before flashed through his mind.

A while later the three men set about the strenuous task of getting the wagon back onto the trail.  Scott and Jake manned the lever while Cookie placed blocks under the bed to hold it up.  “Just a little more, Jake,” Scott grunted as he leaned his full weight along with Jake’s onto the end of the pole.

The wagon bed rose a couple of inches higher and Cooky started to shove another block into place.  Suddenly, there was a sharp snapping sound followed by a yelp as the wooden lever broke.  

“Are you alright?”  Scott looked anxiously at the cook as the wagon settled back to its previous position.

“I’m f-fine,” gritted Cooky.

“I’d better take a look at that.”  Scott grimaced when he saw the blood dripping from the gouge in the palm of the man’s left hand.  “Jake, can you get the medical box and some water for me,” he said as motioned for the cook to sit down.

Scott quickly cleaned and dressed the wound.  It wasn’t deep but there were several slivers of wood that had to be removed and the hand would be sore for a few days.  Once more, guilt assailed him.  “I’m sorry.  It’s my fault.  If I’d been paying closer attention, the wheel would never have gone over the edge in the first place.”

“Now, don’ you go frettin’ yerself.  ‘Twas my fault much as yours.  I shouldn’t a been crowdin’ it so close.”  Cooky stood up waved his bandaged hand. “An’ this ain’t nothin’ but a scratch.  Why, it’ll be good as new in a day or two.  Won’t even slow me down; you’ll see.”

“It was still my responsibility to guide you,” insisted Scott.  He followed the cook to the back of the wagon and studied the situation.  Without a longer lever, they couldn’t possibly get the wheel high enough to get it back onto the rock pat.

“Reckon there ain’t no way getting’ around it,” Cooky said.

“Getting around what?”  Scott turned to look at the cook.

“Wheel’s gotta come off.”

Scott mentally kicked himself.  Why hadn’t he though of that in the first place?  Here they had wasted well over an hour jacking up the wagon, the cook had been injured, and they still weren’t any closer to getting the problem fixed than when they started.

With Jake’s help, Scott removed the wheel.  Next, they drove the team forward far enough to get the back end of the wagon onto solid ground.  The broken pole made it difficult to raise the axle high enough to get the wheel back on but with Scott working the lever and Jake lifting on the corner of the wagon they managed to get it up in the air.

While the cook was struggling to position the hub of the heavy wheel over the end of the axle, they heard the ring of a horse’s shod hooves clattering over the rocks ahead of them.  Shortly thereafter, a tall rider pulled his mount to a halt next to them.

“What’s the trouble?”

Scott detected a note of irritation in his father’s voice but chose to ignore it and the question.  “Sir, would you mind helping Cooky put the wheel on?  Jake and I can’t hold the wagon up much longer.”

Murdoch ran his eyes over the scene before him as he dismounted.  His brow furrowed into a frown while he stepped to the cook’s side and took hold of the wheel.  As he lifted it slightly, Cooky jockeyed it onto the end of the axle.

When the chuckwagon was loaded and ready to roll, Murdoch climbed up next to Cooky on the seat and waved for Scott to finish guiding them over the last stretch of narrow trail.  A few hundred yards beyond them the ridge widened and sloped gently toward the river below.

Scott’s heart was heavy as he led the way.  Even though his father had said nothing about the delays or the injured cook, he was sure Murdoch had to be disappointed in him.




The sun had slipped low in the western sky and the shadows were long when the wagons rolled onto level ground.  Murdoch pulled his team to a halt and climbed down.  “Scott, you can take it from here.  We’ll camp at the crossing; Cooky can tell you how to get there.”

Scott tied his horse to the back of the wagon as his father prepared to mount.  “I’m sorry, Sir.  It’s my fault that it’s too late to cross today.”  Regret was written on his face as he looked at the older man.

Murdoch wearily shook his head, then stiffly pulled himself into the saddle.  He’d been aware for some time that his son was blaming himself for the trouble with the wagons.  “Forget it, Scott.  We wouldn’t have made it today, anyway.  The cattle had a tough time with all the mud we ran into.  They were sinking in to their knees in places.  Made for pretty slow going.  The herd can’t have beaten us to the crossing by more than an hour.  With the river being up, it’ll be better to start fresh in the morning.”

“What about Cooky?”  Scott bit his lip and let his eyes wonder off into the distance.

“We’ll just have to work around that.”  The rancher’s horse fidgeted and impatiently tossed its head but Murdoch held it in place for a few more minutes.  It bothered him to see the guilt clouding his son’s face.  “Accidents happen, Scott.  Cooky told me all about it.  No one’s blaming you, so just put it out of your mind.  And I’ve already told him to get Jake to help him set up camp and get supper ready.”

“There’s no need for Jake to do that.  I can do whatever needs to be done.”

“That’s up to you,” Murdoch said as he let the horse move into walk beside Scott.  He reined to a stop while his son climbed up to the seat of the wagon and took up the long lines.  “I’m going to ride on ahead and see to the herd, and then check out the crossing.  I’ll see you at supper.”

“Fine, Sir.”

Out of the corner of his eye, the rancher watched Scott snap the whip and urge the team forward.  He was pleased that his son was taking his responsibilities seriously yet he hated to see the young man so torn up over something that could have happened to anyone.  ‘I shouldn’t have been so harsh with him this morning.  I’ve led wagons into mud holes myself a time or two.  Some of this ground can be so deceiving.  And he’s not the first to have a wheel go over the edge on that ridge and he won’t be the last.’

Murdoch pushed his horse into a ground-covering lope, which was much more comfortable to sit than its bone-jarring jog.  He would like to have made it to the other side of the river before dark but they still had plenty of time in which to deliver the steers.  He expected the crossing to take an hour or so, then they would make good time travelling down the better-drained land on the other side of the river.  They should still reach their destination by the next evening—one day ahead of the deadline.

Chapter 15

“Crack.”  The lash of the long whip in the hand of Murdoch Lancer snaked through the air then suddenly reversed directions.  He yelled to the team and flicked the reins against their rumps.  The front two horses leaned into their collars and moved forward, taking the rest of the team and the wagon with them down the bank and into the river.

Apprehensively, he urged the horses on.  He would have preferred to wait another day for the river to go down a little more but there wasn’t time.  Not only did he have a deadline to meet but clouds were once again gathering to the west.  If it began to rain before he moved the herd to the other side, the river could rise even higher, making it impassable.

The crossing was wide and relatively shallow, not over four-foot deep for the most part.  He figured the wagons should make it without any trouble as long as they didn’t stray downstream when they hit the short stretch of deeper water at the mid-point.  There were some treacherous holes with large rocks and old waterlogged trees in them on the lower side of the crossing and the far bank was too steep to climb in places.  Some of the cattle would no doubt end up coming out down-river and have to be gathered once the herd was across.

Murdoch kept his eyes moving constantly as he watched ahead of him as well as upstream.  One of the men had ridden across earlier to check out a path for the wagons, so he was relatively sure that there would be no danger from hidden obstacles beneath the surface.  His biggest concern was the prospect of being surprised by a floating tree that may have been uprooted during the recent rainstorm or old deadfall snatched from the banks as the river had risen over the past three days.

The current lapped against the wheels and splashed up on the horses as they plodded along.  Soon the bottom of the wagon bed was skimming through water that was belly high on the team.

“Don’t see nothin’ ta worry ‘bout,” remarked Cooky, who was seated on Murdoch’s left.  The cook leaned a bit to the outside and looked back at the supply wagon that was following a short distance behind.  “Jake’s comin’ ‘long fine, too.”  Facing ahead once more, he continued, “We ain’t a gunna have no trouble ‘tall, yu’ll see.”

“Hope you’re right.  We don’t need any more delays.” Murdoch tugged on the lines in his left hand and slapped them against the rump of the back horse on that side.  He needed to be as close to the upper edge of the crossing as possible.  The team would have to swim while the wagon floated when they reached the center of the river.  They would need as much room as possible to angle toward the far bank in order to keep from ending up too far downstream.  If they missed the mark, they would be in serious danger.

Cooky leaned out to take another glance behind them, then made a wild grab for the front edge of the seat as the wagon bumped over some rough rocks.

“Don’t worry about Jake . . . he’ll have to look out for himself.  You just see to it you don’t end up in the river,” Murdoch cautioned the cook.

“Now, Boss, I ain’t about ta fall in no river,” Cooky, snorted indignantly.

The lead horses, reaching the deeper current, shifted downstream momentarily as they started to swim.  Murdoch hauled on the left reins and urged the horses in the rear to keep up.  The wagon lurched.  As it began to float, it leveled out again.

The strain of keeping the team headed for the lowest part of the bank on the far side of the river began to wear on the big rancher’s arms.  With his focus on maintaining his course, he left it up to the cook to keep an eye upstream for approaching danger.

The front two horses had just touched bottom, when Cooky yelled, “Boss!  Trouble’s comin’!”

A glance up the river revealed a dead tree trunk, with short spikes where limbs once had been, floating toward them.  In desperation, Murdoch cracked the whip over the backs of the horses in the rear in hopes of hurrying them along.  If the good Lord was looking out for them, they just might get out of harm’s way in time.

The other horses reached the shallower water and stopped swimming.  In an attempt to avoid the sting of the whip, they strained harder against the traces.  The wagon, rocking from the restraint of the team, swung farther down the river.   The horses staggered as they fought to retain their footing on the slippery rocks beneath them and pull the heavy wagon, as well.

“Get up ya lazy, mule-headed, bunch of crow-bait,” yelled Cooky.  “Yu’ll find yerself roastin’ o’er the fire if ya don’t get this here wagon ta shore.”

Murdoch again looked at the source of danger.  ‘Too close.’  With great determination, he shoved down the panic that was rising within him, set his sights on the riverbank, and smartly applied the whip to the rumps of the horses nearest him.

Slowly the wagon inched toward the bank as the current drew it farther downstream, the team two tracking to keep from being pulled backward. Could they make it in time?

The log rolled and bobbed. At times it was nearly submerged as the undercurrent tugged at it.  Then it would rise to the surface once more, always closer than before.

Murdoch’s palms were wet inside his gloves and sweat trickled down his back as he continued to lash at the horses.  The necessity for his harsh treatment of the team sickened him, but there was no choice.  Welts from the whip would heal; broken legs could not and pierced hide, even if it could be mended, would be far more painful.

Beads of moisture covered the rancher’s forehead and dripped into his eyes.  The dead tree was less than twenty feet upstream and aimed directly at the tongue of the wagon.  “Hang on!” he yelled to Cooky, then put his full strength into laying on the whip one last time before grabbing hold of the seat.

The team lunged forward.  First one, then the other front wheel touched bottom and the chuckwagon moved ahead while the current carried the log into the water barrel tied just behind the front wheel.  Stubs of limbs scraped against the sideboards and then pushed the back end of the wagon farther down the river as the dead tree slid past.

The canvas cover swayed drunkenly and the two men, knuckles white, clung to their precarious perch.  As the hind wheels, one at a time, came in contact with the river’s floor, the wagon gave a final lurch then leveled out.

Murdoch, having somehow retained his grip on the whip and the reins while holding on for dear life, let loose of the seat.  Danger still lurked unless he could change their present course.  The portion of bank, the team was headed for, was too steep for the wagon to climb.  Not only that, the riverbed dropped off sharply along the downstream edge of the ledge they were on.  Quickly calling upon the skills that he had learned from years of experience, he took charge of the situation by turning the team slightly up river and cracking the whip.

With muscles bulging, the big horses strained to drag the wagon against the current.  Their necks were covered with a white froth and their breath was coming in gasps but they struggled onward at the encouragement of their driver.  One of the lead horses staggered, jerking its teammate off balance.  Crowded from behind by the other two horses, they stumbled forward, then recovered. The wagon continued to angle upstream as the team gradually pulled it to the edge of the river.

The horses emerged from the water and Murdoch urged them up the sloping embankment.  Part way up, a lead horse once again faltered.  Slipping in the mud, it fell to its knees and was dragged forward by the rest of the team before it finally scrambled back to its feet. 

Slowly the team pulled the chuckwagon to the level ground beyond the water’s edge.  When the weary rancher halted the exhausted horses, they stood with drooping heads and heaving sides.

“Whewie!  That was a close one.”  Cooky swiped the back of his hand across his sweaty brow.

“Yeah,” sighed Murdoch, his heart still pounding rapidly.  “Too close.”  He drew in a deep breath, then became all business.  “You all right?  How’s that hand?  Think you can handle the team now?”

“Don’t you go worry’n ‘bout me, Boss.  That little ol’ scratch ain’t nothin’.”  Cooky waved the bandaged hand.  “You jest give me them reins.”

A slight smile played across Murdoch’s lips as he briefly studied the other man.   The cook had never been one to complain or take coddling.  “Here you go.”  He handed over the lines, eased his way to the ground, and glanced quickly toward the river.  The other wagon was nowhere in sight.  “Can you see Jake?”

Cooky leaned a little to the left so he could see around the edge of the wagon top.  “Jest comin’ up the bank,” he said as he faced his boss once more.

“Good.”  Murdoch drew in a deep breath then let his tense shoulders drop a little as he exhaled.  While he walked around the front of the wagon, he looked the team over and inspected the harness.  Assured that all was in order, he made his way to the other side of the wagon and checked the damages.  By then, Jake had drawn up alongside of him.

“Do much damage?” Jake asked.

“Just a broken water barrel and some scratches along this side.  Nothing to be concerned about,” he said pointing to the edge of the wagon box.  “How’d it go for you?”

“All right.   I was back far enough that that snag missed me all together.”  Jake hopped down from the seat of the supply wagon.  “You want us to go on ahead?”

“Yes. The ground’s pretty solid on this side. If you’re careful, you shouldn’t have any problems.  It’ll take a while to get the herd across and bunched back together.  I imagine it’ll be close to noon by the time we catch up to you.”

“Ya want me ta fix somethin’ fer the boys ta eat?” Cooky rasped.

Turning back toward the front of the chuckwagon, Murdoch focused his attention on the cook. “Probably better,” he said.  “Why don’t you stop up there where the river makes that sharp bend to the north.  I’ll want to give the herd a chance to rest anyway.  Once we get started again, I want to push straight through to the Diamond B Ranch.  I’d like to be there before dark if possible.”

Murdoch strode to where his horse was tethered to the back of the cook’s wagon.  His eyes quickly traveled over its wet hide while he talked softly.  Satisfied that there were no injuries, he untied the rope and secured it to the saddle so that it would be out of the way.  With a slight groan, he mounted then rode back to the river’s edge to watch the drovers start the herd across.

The steers out front balked at stepping into murky water and turned to the side.  The riders, swinging their lariats along side their horses, yelled and crowded the cattle back into line.  As the other men pushed the rest of the herd forward, the leaders were forced into the river. 

It was a tiring process for men and horses keeping the cattle bunched together.  Steers were constantly breaking away from the herd to avoid being pushed into the water and then someone would have to race after them and turn them back.

Slowly the cattle began to string out across the wide expanse of the river.  Two drovers at a time positioned themselves part of the way across.  Their job was to discourage the steers from wandering too far up or down stream.   Despite their efforts, some of the animals ended up below them and had to swim down river a ways in order to climb out at the next available low place in the bank.

Murdoch waited slightly above where the majority of the cattle would leave the river.  He kept his eyes moving while searching the current upstream.  His men knew to watch for his signal, raised hands waving above his head, that some sort of hazardous debris was floating their way.

The minutes slowly ticked away.  The first pair of riders urged their mounts on across the river and worked to keep the cattle from straying too far after they came up out of the water.  Two more men rode into the river to act as sentries while the rest of the drovers kept crowding the herd.  When the next riders reached the bank, Murdoch sent them to collect the steers that were drifting down the river.

For the better part of the next hour, the rancher sat his horse and watched the cattle forging their way across the river.  Sharp needles of pain shot through the tight muscles of his shoulders and his temples ached from straining his eyes as he searched the murky water.

When the last of the cattle were across and Jose began helping the wrangler guide the remuda into river, Murdoch started to relax. Other than the near disaster with the wagons, all had gone well.  Scott and Red were driving the last of the horses into the water and soon the herd would be on the last leg of its journey.


Chapter 16


“He-yaw, get up thar.”  Red swung the end of his rope at the nearest rump.  A chunky, bay mare squealed and lashed out with a hind hoof, and then jumped forward, bumping into a tall gray.  The gray staggered off the bank and splashed into the river as the young drover continued crowding from behind.

A short distance up river, Scott Lancer squeezed the calves of his legs against the sides of his mount.  The black gelding squatted--knees locked, tail tucked between its legs, and hind feet far underneath its body.  When Scott tightened his grip, the horse snorted, arched its neck, and backed a couple of steps.  It settled momentarily; then while pivoting off its haunches, spun to the left.

“Pop!” The narrow strip of leather came in contact with the taut neck.

The horse stopped short, then reared as spurs pressed into his tender ribs.  He pawed at the air.  An instant later, he brought his front feet down hard on the ground when Scott leaned against his neck.  The ends of the leather reins were now applied to the gelding’s hip and he leaped forward, into the water.  Slippery rocks rolled under his ironclad hooves and he scrambled to retain his footing.

“Easy there, boy.  Just relax, you’ll be fine.” Scott, in an effort to calm the nervous black, rubbed the gelding’s neck and talked to him in a soothing tone.  Finally the horse settled down and began to splash his way across the river.

The horse wrangler along with a drover, named Jose, stopped mid-stream to keep the remuda headed straight across the river.  When half of the horses were beyond them, they rode into the deeper current and swam their mounts toward the other shore.

As his mount moved willingly into the belly-deep water, Scott began to relax.  He glanced over at Red who was on the lower side of the crossing.  All seemed to be going well.  Soon they would drop off the ledge, have a short swim, and then climb out on the other side.

Scott noticed a chestnut horse starting to drift upstream.  He turned his mount and urged him into a faster pace in hopes of forcing the wayward animal back into line.  Suddenly, the chestnut’s back dropped out of sight then surfaced as the horse began to swim.  With its head held high, it struck off up the river.

Having been warned of the treacherous holes above the crossing, Scott decided to let the chestnut finds its own way out of the river.  He gave a gentle tug on the reins in order turn his own mount back to the prescribed path but the black stiffened his neck and the battle of wills began all over again.

Without warning, the gelding plunged into deeper water.  Scott, grabbing a hold on the saddle horn, let the reins go slack so that the panicking horse could have its head.  When the black quit fighting and began to swim, he was headed into the current.

Scott tried to guide his mount back toward the rest of the remuda but his efforts were again met with resistance.  He happened to look toward the distant shore and thought he saw his father’s arms waving in the air.  However, with the black horse commanding all of his attention, he wasn’t able to look for the source of new trouble.

Finally, the gelding began to wear down from bucking the flow of the river and allowed Scott to guide him.  He was gradually carried back down the river as he swam toward the far bank.

“Look out!” Above the din of bawling cattle and the babbling of the river, Red’s voice was barely audible.

Scott heard the warning and saw Red pointing at something up the river.  He quickly glanced behind him and his heart began to race.  A dead tree loomed less than twenty feet from him.  

Desperately, he tried to guide his horse away from the impending danger.  The black, frightened by having its nose momentarily pulled under water, fought the restraint of the bridle and again turned upstream.  Just when Scott was sure there was no way to avoid a direct collision, the horse twisted to the left and the first branch passed over the top of him.

Leaning forward against the crest of the horse’s neck, Scott also managed to duck under the limb.  He tugged at the left rein in an attempt to move the black away from the floating deadfall.  If he could get his mount a little farther out from the trunk of the tree, they would be in the clear.

The tree bobbed and rolled just as the horse turned away from it.  Scott felt a jab, followed by a searing pain, as the stub end of a heavy branch hit him just below the waist and slid upward along his back.  Before he could grasp what was happening, he felt himself being dragged from the back of the horse.  Just before the water closed over him, he sucked in a lung-full of air.

As Scott spiraled downward, he felt his belt tighten around his waist.  Panic surged through him upon realizing that he was hung up on a limb of the tree.  However, not one to give up, he strove to retain full control of his mental faculties.  If he was to survive, the first order of business was to free himself from the branch that had somehow found its way under his belt.

Like a rag doll in the hands of a child, Scott was tossed and turned under the surface of the river by the rolling of the tree.  It took all of his strength to remove his gloves and hang onto the front of his belt as he struggled to unbuckle it.  Soon his hands, numbed by the chill of the water that flowed out of the mountains to the east, were stiff and refused to cooperate.

Seconds seemed like hours.  Soon, his head was pounding and his lungs were protesting against the pressure building from holding his breath.  His lower legs rapped against something hard.  Fiery needles shot from his shins to his thighs and the air that had been trapped in his lungs bubbled out mouth.  He quickly clamped his lips tightly together to stop from breathing in water.

The relief of having let his breath out was short-lived and soon his body was screaming for oxygen.  His lungs and head felt like they were about to burst wide open.  As consciousness threatened to leave him, a picture flashed through his mind.  It was his birthday.  He had knocked on the door to the parlor to inform his grandfather that it was time to cut the cake.  When the door opened, he saw a man standing just inside the room.  He heard his grandfather say, “Scotty, I want you to meet a friend.  His name is Murdoch.”  While he stared up into the face of the man that towered over him, the scene faded and darkness enveloped him.

For a brief moment, Scott was a ten-year-old boy fighting to breathe while the giant sailor dangled him over the edge of the pier.  His lungs, protesting against the water he had inhaled, sent him into a spasm of coughing and gasping that brought fiery darts of pain to his chest.  The tightness just below his ribcage from his body being doubled in half was almost unbearable as he hung suspended by the back of the waistband to his pants.

Water dribbled from his nose, mouth, and clothes, and ran into his eyes.  He felt as though his aching head was reeling while his stomach rebelled against the pressure around his mid-section.  He was certain that he was being torn in two.

Slowly the excruciating pain in his lungs abated and he was able to take shallow breaths. He opened his eyes to find water rippling just inches in front of his face while sounds unfamiliar to him filled his ears.  Where was he, if not the harbor at Boston?

He turned his head slightly to the left and saw the shoreline moving.  He blinked and tried to clear his mind.  A twist to the right revealed a tree-trunk, floating in rough water.  Suddenly, it all came rushing back to him: the log closing in on him, his fight to turn his mount, his body being pulled out of the saddle and dragged under the water, and the terror as he struggled to free himself from the limb that had snared him.  At last, having caught up with reality, he became aware that the tree, which had nearly been his undoing, had also saved him.  Somehow, it had rolled and raised him out of the water.

A new thought struck him with full force.  As long as the back of his belt suspended him from the limb, it could be only a matter of time before he was once again plunged into the cold depths of the river.  The next time he might not be so lucky.

In desperation, Scott fumbled with the stubborn belt buckle.  It refused to give and it didn’t take him long to realize why.  In his present position, the weight of his body hindered him from unfastening the buckle.

He tried reaching behind him and pulling himself up to the limb.  That idea was quickly abandoned.  He was too weak from lack of oxygen and the exertion of coughing so violently.  Not only that, it was an impossible plan.

The tree rocked sideways a little and just before Scott’s face dipped into the river once more, he took a deep breath.  He relaxed and found that his upper body would float.  When he needed to breathe in, he lifted his face out of the water, inhaled, and then let himself go lax once more.

Although Scott knew that he still was not out of danger, his hopes were revived.  If the tree would just roll a little more, his floating body might push against the limb and allow the slack he needed to free himself.

The bobbing tree drifted farther down the river.  Whenever the pressure on his stomach lightened, Scott gave a tug on the end of his belt.  Each attempt was met with failure; the limb just wasn’t staying down long enough.  Struggling to remain calm, he waited for the opportune moment to arrive.

While biding his time, he let his mind shift back fifteen years to his first trip with his grandfather to the Boston harbor.  He remembered how fascinated he had been with watching the massive vessels with their billowing white sails draw closer to the docks.  Later, when his grandfather had led him out to the end of one of the piers, Scott had been awestruck by the sight of the captain and crew disembarking from the ship that was anchored there.  In his excitement, he had stepped backward and rocked onto heels no longer supported by the wooden planks of the dock.

Plunging into the bay had been the most frightening experience of his young life.  Scott knew that he would never forget how terrified he had been when the water closed over his head.  He recalled rising to the surface, flailing his arms wildly, and going down again.  Screaming for help at each opportunity, he had wondered why his grandfather didn’t come to his aid.  When he had gone under for the third time, someone had grasped the waist of his pants and hauled him out.  It wasn’t until he had quit coughing and gasping for air, and his feet had been set on the pier that he had realized that it was not his grandfather who had rescued him.  Instead, it had been one of the ship’s crewmen.

The image of the big Swede, towering over him, had been etched in Scott’s mind forever.  He could still see the kindness in the eyes of the largest man he had ever seen.  When he had been drawn into Evert Svenson’s comforting embrace, Scott, sobbing and trembling, had clung fiercely to the sailor.

When Scott’s emotions had settled, Svenson had insisted that every boy should learn to swim and had, somehow, convinced Harlan Garrett to allow him to do the honors.  Scott wasn’t sure he could have overcome his fear of the water if it hadn’t been for the big sailor’s firm, yet gentle manner.  The man had stuck determinedly with the lessons, gradually instilling confidence in the terrified child.  For that, Scott would always be grateful.

‘Mister Svenson, I wish I was a child again and it was you, not this limb holding me,’ Scott thought as he took a quick breath and tried to swallow the rising terror that threatened to overcome him.  In desperation, he set his mind on the things Evert had taught him: “don’t panic, relax and let your body float, keep your head, stay calm, and don’t fight the water.”  The list went on.  Just thinking the words helped to relieve some of his fear.

Scott had just taken another breath when the tree rolled.  He jerked at the end of his belt and felt it give as the buckle came loose.  Still held in place, he pulled at the wet leather but it refused to slide through the loops of his pants.  With fingers, stiff from the chill of the water, he made slow progress at loosening his belt.

He had managed to work the end of the belt through the first loop and started on the second.  It wasn’t going fast enough and he knew that unless the limb rose to the surface that he would never be able to hold his breath long enough to free himself.  His head was already hurting and his chest tight and calling out for air.  ‘God, help me, I don’t want to die like this,’ his mind screamed.

Something, sliding down Scott’s spine, sent shivers all the way to his toes.  An unreasonable fear grabbed him but he refused to give in to it.  He told himself it was just a branch from the tree, yet, that hardly seemed a reasonable explanation.  When he felt a pulling at the back of his belt, he reached behind him to ward off this new threat.

Scott’s hand bumped against a firm object.  He tried to get a hold of it but couldn’t.  Whatever it was, it certainly didn’t feel like wood.  It was more like wet leather.  Could it be?  Did he dare hope?

The rough texture of a rope rubbed against Scott’s hand.  He grasped it and gave a tug—solid; that meant it was tied to something.  Just as his belt gave way and his lower body swung downward, he reached up and took hold of the rope with his other hand.  When it held firm, he moved his first hand higher on the rope and pulled himself upward.  He repeated the hand-over-hand action until his head broke through the surface of the river.

Gasping for air, Scott was hardly aware of the pain in his left leg from his shin dragging against a large rock on the bed of the river.  At that moment, catching his breath was all that mattered.

When his chest was no longer heaving, Scott opened his eyes.  Just inches away, he spotted a smooth wooden surface.  He looked upward into a smiling face and a wave of gratitude mixed with relief swept over him.  “Thanks, Red,” he rasped.

“Glad ta be of help,” the cowboy said while reaching out to pull Scott onto the trunk of the tree.

There weren’t adequate words to express his feelings at the welcome sight of the redheaded man so Scott let his eyes say it for him.  After all, it was impossible for a man to truly convey his appreciation for having his life saved and he had a suspicion that Red would be embarrassed by the fuss.  Not only that, there was a more pressing issue at hand, getting out of the river.

“Ya okay, Boss?” queried Red as he searched the young rancher’s face.

“I’m . . . f-fine.”  Scott’s attempt to sound positive fell a bit flat as his teeth chattered together.  He glanced around while trying to hang onto the slippery surface beneath him; a feat made more difficult by the violent shivers that had begun to rack his body.

“If yer thinkin’ a swimmin’ ta shore, best forget it,” remarked the cowboy.  “There ain’t another low spot in the bank ‘til we get around that corner up there.”  He gestured with his hand as he spoke.

The unstable natural raft twisted and both young men gripped tightly to a limb to keep from slipping into the river.  For the next couple of minutes they rode in silence, each lost in his own thoughts.

The roar of the river increased in magnitude as they rounded the bend.  Scott noticed that there were patches of rippling white water just ahead of them.  His unease increased.  The water was shallower in places but was moving faster as well.  Covertly, he studied his companion.  Did Red know what to expect farther down the river?

As if he were a mind reader, the cowboy said, “Boss.  Guess ya know it ain’t gunna be no picnic getting’ outta here, don’t ya?”

“Yes, th-the th-thought had cr-crossed m-my mind-da.”  The after effects of being in the cold water made it difficult for Scott to speak without stuttering.  He took a deep breath and tried again.  “Wh-what do ya-you sug-g-gest we d-do?”

“When we get around this bend, I’ll try ta rope somethin’ on the bank.  With the end tied off ta this here boat we’re on, it’ll pull us right over to the edge.”  Red licked his lips while he hesitated.  “Uh, jest one thing.  If I make my catch, ya best be hangin’ on tight ‘cause we’re gunna be in fer the wildest ride a our lives.”

Scott, having been raised to think logically, felt the need to know if there were other options.  With his jaw trembling continually, he said, “Wh-what’s the al-t-ternat-tive?  T-to anca-choring this t-tree to th-the shore, I m-mean.”  “Ca-couldn’t we j-just leg-go and sa-swim for the b-bank?”

“Ain’t nobody I know can buck that current and get out in time.  Those rapids’ll eat ya an’ spit ya out just as quick.  Nope.  Only way I know ta beat them rapids is ta get out ‘fore we get to ‘em.  That means snaggin’ us somethin’ good an’ sturdy an’ hopin’ this ol’ bronco don’t dump us.”

“Then d-do whate’er ya haf-t-ta.”

“Right, Boss.  Say, if ya don’t get warmed up right soon, ain’t no one gunna know by yer talkin’ that ya was one a them there Boston gentlemen.  Yer soundin’ an awful lot like me as ‘tis.”

Red’s grin brought a smile to Scott’s haggard face.  Once again, the young cowboy reminded him of Johnny, who no doubt would have made light of the dangerous situation as well.

Chapter 17

After Scott was swept from his horse, Murdoch Lancer anxiously watched for him to reappear.  When there was no sign of his son, he considered charging into the river.  Logic stopped him.  Until his son surfaced, there was no way of knowing where to begin the search.

Murdoch hated feeling undecided and helpless; he was a man of action and being patient was not easy for him.  Tackling everything head-on was his way.  ‘Except where Scott is concerned,’ he chided himself, remembering his indecisiveness in making amends with Scott after the stampede and also, how he had backed down to Harlan Garrett’s threats twenty years earlier.

Although the decision to leave Scott in Boston had been made in his son’s best interest at the time, it still chafed--eating away at him like water eroding the bank of a stream.  Many times he had wished that he had stayed longer and watched for a chance to steal his son away after Harlan let his guard down or that he’d gone back when the boy was older.  Reason told him there had been other factors that had entered into the prolonged separation from his son; still, he knew that he would always wonder if he couldn't have tried harder.

The next few minutes moved far too slowly for Murdoch as he scanned the river for a glimpse of his son and tried to dispel the thoughts that had persisted in troubling him ever since Scott had arrived at the ranch.  Unconsciously, he squeezed his legs against his mount’s sides and the horse jigged forward.  He tightened the reins and the animal tucked its chin, then sidled backwards.

Murdoch whacked the horse along side of the neck, spun it around a couple of times, and then pulled it to a stiff-legged standstill.  He let up on the reins and relaxed his legs while he reached back, lifted the flap on his saddlebag, and jerked out a pair of field glasses.  There was the possibility that Scott had been caught in an undertow and was farther down the river.

Noting that his son’s horse was already wading to shore and the dead tree had floated beyond the lower end of the crossing, the rancher quickly raised the glasses to his eyes and scanned the water--no Scott.

Murdoch’s shoulders sagged and a sinking sensation hit the pit of his stomach. His heart raced and his throat tightened as the hand holding the glasses dropped to his thigh.  This couldn’t be happening.  He’d only had his son with him a few weeks.  He couldn’t lose him now.  ‘Not this soon.  Not this way,’ his mind cried.  For the first time since Scott’s arrival, Murdoch regretted having sent for his son.

Murdoch saw the tree twist and roll as it bobbed with the current.  A movement on the far side of it caught his eye.  He focussed the glasses on the spot and sucked his breath in sharply at the sight of Scott floundering just inches above the water.

It took a moment for the rancher to comprehend that a limb of the tree had somehow snared his son.  Overtaken by an overwhelming urgency to reach Scott, he dug his heels into his mount and the horse lunged forward.

At the water’s edge, Murdoch pulled up.  Red was headed downstream in pursuit of Scott.  The rancher stifled his desire to go after his son; the cowboy was far closer and therefore, had a much better chance of succeeding.

Unable to sit by and do nothing, Murdoch whirled his horse and galloped up to the nearest drover.  “Catch up to the wagons; tell Cooky we need blankets,” he barked.  “Meet me just above the rapids.  Now!”

Murdoch threaded his way among the last of the straggling steers and the band of horses that had splashed their way to shore.  Once past, he galloped toward the high bank that overlooked the section of the river below the crossing.  He hauled his horse to a stop and located the floating tree.  Scott was no longer in sight and the fear of losing his son tightened its grip.

When his mount out of sensitivity to its rider’s agitation restlessly shuffled its feet, Murdoch jerked the reins sharply.  “Whoa!” he snapped.  “Stand still, now.”

With the horse standing tense and quivering in place, Murdoch went back to looking for his son.  The tree appeared to have rolled and he wondered if Scott was being held under the surface of the water.  Guilt assaulted him.  ‘It’s my fault.  I should never have brought him with me.  If I’d left him at the ranch, this wouldn’t be happening.  Maybe I was wrong to even ask him to come here.  At least in Boston, he was safe.’

Murdoch noticed the saddled horse swimming toward the far bank.  ‘Now what?’ he thought, huffing out his breath while searching for Red.

He caught sight of a carrot-topped head moving through the water near the butt of the tree that had snagged Scott.  Soon a hand appeared, reached up, and grasped a limb.  The tension mounted in the rancher as he watched the dripping cowhand drag himself onto the trunk of the tree.

For a short while, Murdoch could not tell what was happening in the river.  Red had hooked a booted foot under a limb on the side of the tree facing the rancher and was leaning out over the other side.  From where he sat, Murdoch was unable see what the young man was doing; he could only hope and pray that the cowboy would free Scott before it was too late.

The tree had drifted close to a quarter of a mile down river from the crossing when with the help of the field glasses, Murdoch saw a familiar clump of wet, dark-blond hair appear, followed by an arm wrapping over the tree-trunk.  Then Red was shifting positions and shortly thereafter, Scott’s sodden form draped across the tree.

A deep sigh escaped the rancher's lips.  He swallowed painfully and blinked his eyes to clear the moisture that was forming in them.  With a ragged breath, he swiped the back of his shirtsleeve across his face; then glancing heavenward, he sent up a silent prayer of thanksgiving.

Murdoch’s relief was short-lived, however.  His son was alive and safe for the moment but he was far from being out of danger.  Except, now not only was Scott’s life threatened, Red's was also.  Unless the young men could be gotten out of the water before they reached the rapids, the raging current would batter them to death against the large boulders that were scattered throughout the next mile-long stretch of river.

Knowing there was only one way out, Murdoch jabbed the rowels of his spurs into his horse’s sides and headed for the only low place in the bank before the start of the white-capped water up ahead.

On the way, he had to ride close to the milling herd.  He shouted for a couple of the drovers to follow him, for he knew there was no way he could get both Scott and Red out of the river by himself.  Even with help, it was going to be nip-and-tuck to get it accomplished.

Red had just twirled the lasso and let it slip through his fingers, when Murdoch and his men approached the low sloping bank of the river.  The loop snaked out and neatly dropped over a stump that was conveniently located near the edge of the water.  Caught in the swift current, the tree swept on past.

Murdoch had barely pulled his horse to a stop when the lariat, tied to the smaller part of the trunk, grew taut and the butt end of the tree began to swing out away from the riverbank.  Sitting astride with legs wrapped around the tree's trunk like they were riding a wild pony was his son and the redheaded cowboy. There was little the rancher could do but watch as the bucking and twisting tree swung around like a pendulum until it had swapped ends before angling toward the riverbank.  To get near it would have been suicide.

Limbs beneath the surface of the water bumped into the rock ledge that lay along that side of the river.  The tree caught its riders off balance when it suddenly rolled in the opposite direction.  Scott, who was near the butt of the tree, was tossed head first into the shallower water closer to the bank just before Red slipped into the deeper current on the opposite side of the tree.

Murdoch's heart nearly stopped.  The lax form of his son had surfaced fifty feet or so downstream.  Scott was lying face down in the water, his arms stretched out along each side of his head.

Instantly, the rancher goaded his horse into the river and sent it splashing through the knee-deep water near the bank.  Murdoch's heart pounded wildly in his chest as he urged his mount on to greater speed.  Up ahead, he could see frosty, white water beating against large rocks that parted the current and sent the river rushing to either side.  He knew he had to get to his son before the young man was dashed against the boulders.

Murdoch felt his mount slip several times but he gave no thought to the consequences of the animal falling--he kept going.  In less than a minute, he was angling the horse into the deeper current in an attempt to intercept his son.  When he was finally down-river from Scott, he jerked his mount to a stop. ‘God help me,’ he rasped as he bailed out of the saddle.

The big man hunkered down and slid his left arm under his son's floating body.  When he felt Scott's belt touch his shoulder, he wrapped his arms around his son's legs and straightened up. Slipping and sliding on the rocky riverbed, Murdoch struggled to carry his precious cargo to shore.

The added strength the rush of adrenaline had given him soon failed and the big man began panting for air.  Scott was heavier than he had anticipated.  His back and left shoulder ached, and the leg that had bothered him off and on since Pardee had shot him threatened to give out; yet, he refused to quit.  No river was going to claim his son.  ‘Not as long as I’m alive,” he vowed.

He was almost at the water's edge when the slick soles of his boots slid on a rock and he fell to his knees.  Somehow, he kept his son draped over his left shoulder while he reached out with his other hand at the same time and stopped himself from falling flat on his face.

He drew his right leg forward and planted his foot, then tried to hoist himself along with the dead weight of his unconscious son.  Leaning slightly forward, he staggered ahead and would have gone down again if a hand hadn't grabbed his elbow and steadied him.

"Let me give you a hand," offered the stocky-built cowboy at his side.

"Thanks, Sam," Murdoch grunted.  With the hired man supporting him, he made it the last few steps to the bank of the river where he laid his son down on a patch of grass.  Dropping to his knees beside the limp body, he stared into Scott's ashen face and groaned.  It was too late; he had failed

"This is all your fault," the accusing voice grated in Murdoch's head.  "If you'd left Scott with me, this would never have happened."

"That's not true, accidents can happen anywhere," countered a soft feminine voice.

"He's still alive!" exclaimed Sam moving his ear away from Scott's chest.  Straightening up, he reached out and laid a hand on his distraught boss's arm.  "Mister Lancer.  We have to get him turned over."  Getting no response, he slid his hand up to Murdoch's shoulder and gave it a shake.

Shock and exhaustion had rapidly set in and Murdoch looked up dazedly into the cowboy's eyes.  "What?"

"Your son's still alive.  We have to roll him over and get the water out of his lungs."  Sam reached across Scott's body, grabbed his arm, and pulled it toward him.  "Can you help?" he demanded sharply.

The harsh tone of cowboy broke through the numbness that was enveloping Murdoch and Sam's words began to register in the rancher's mind.  'Scott was alive.  It wasn't too late.'  Spurred to action by having his hopes revived, Murdoch placed his hands under his son's back and pushed upward as his hired man pulled.

Once Scott was on his belly, Murdoch tilted his son's head to one side.  The cowboy straddled Scott and placed both hands just above the young man's waist.  Locking his elbows, Sam leaned forward and pushed, then briefly held the pressure before releasing it.  Every few seconds he repeated the process.

Murdoch watched the water trickle out of Scott's mouth each time his lungs were compressed.  In desperation, he prayed they were not too late to save his son.

A few seconds later, Scott's body jerked slightly and he coughed.  Next came a gasp for air followed by a spasm of coughing.  Quickly, he was pulled into a sitting position where he was held upright with his back against Murdoch's chest while his reflexes took over to expel the last of the fluid.

Gradually, Scott's breathing, although shallow, became more even and the tension in Murdoch began to wane.  The worst of the crisis was over.

A commotion behind him caught the rancher's attention.  He glanced over his shoulder and saw two men ride up.  One stopped a ways from him while the other continued in his direction.  It was Cooky with the blankets.

A flurry of activity filled the next few minutes.  The cook and another man built a fire nearby while Murdoch and Sam removed Scott's dripping clothes and wrapped him in a couple of blankets.  Next, they moved him closer to flames.

Murdoch sat holding Scott's upper body against his broad chest in hopes of transferring some of his own body heat to his son.  He rubbed his big hands over Scott's back while Sam massaged the young man's arms and legs.  Scott's temperature was dangerously low from his being in the cold river so long and they knew they had to get him warmed up soon or there would be the added risk of pneumonia setting in.

As the rancher cradled Scott in his arms, his throat constricted.  This was the first time that he had ever held his older son and emotions long forgotten welled up within him, choking him and bringing tears to his eyes.  He had missed so much over the past twenty-four years of separation; they both had.

Murdoch paid little attention to the awkwardness of sitting next to Scott on the ground, his son's forehead resting against his shoulder and their legs in opposite directions.  Even when his back began to ache from supporting his son's upper body with his own, he ignored it.  Laying Scott down was too risky.  A doctor had once warned him of the importance of keeping an unconscious person upright after being saved from drowning; otherwise, pneumonia or even death could occur.

Supporting his son with his right arm, Murdoch moved his other hand in firm circular or up and down paths on Scott's back.  His muscles began to protest the continual movement but he refused to stop for more than a minute or two.  His own pain was of little consequence to him; for once in his life, he had the opportunity to do something for his son.

When some time had passed, Murdoch gave in to the urge to run his fingers through Scott's damp hair.  'He's so like his mother,' he thought.  For a moment, he envisioned his first wife: smoky-blue eyes, dark-golden hair, and lips that often displayed a reserved smile.  At times, though, she would forget her proper upbringing and her whole face would light up as her smile broadened and her eyes twinkled.  'Like Scott the night Red was singing those silly songs.  Another picture entered his thoughts and he saw the mocking, half-smile on his son's face the day Scott arrived from Boston.  He knew the expression well.  His first wife had used it whenever she was amused and angry at the same time.

Murdoch's musings quickly ended when he felt the lax body in his arms become tense.  Thinking that his son might be embarrassed to wake up in his arms, he considered shifting Scott to a less intimate position.  However, he rejected the idea when he felt his son relax; Scott still needed the extra warmth of their close proximity.

"Coffee, Boss?"

Murdoch glanced up and nodded while reaching out with his left hand to accept the steaming cup from the cook.  "Thanks, Cooky."

"What about yer boy?  Ya wanna try to get some down 'im, too?  Might help warm 'im up a mite."

"I don't know.  Might be better to wait until he comes to," Murdoch stated.  "I suppose if he's still unconscious in a couple of hours, we could try giving him a little then.

"Yer prob'ly right about it bein' better ta wait," Cooky agreed before moving back toward the fire.

A few minutes later, the rancher's thoughts were interrupted again, this time by the voice of his trail boss.  "Mister Lancer . . . I just got word about what happened to your boy.  How is he?"

Murdoch twisted slightly so he could look at the man.  "Still unconscious," he said.  "I think he must've hit his head.  He does seem to be breathing easier, though.  At least, that's a good sign.  The main thing now is to get him warm.  He was pretty cold by the time we got him out of the river."

"I'm sure he'll be just fine," the foreman said.  "He's a strong lad."

"Yeah," Murdoch replied with more assurance than he felt.  Scott appeared healthy but he couldn't help worrying just the same.

"What about the cattle, Mister Lancer?  Looks like it could be a while before Scott's ready to travel.  That delivery deadline is at dusk tonight.  The boys and I could try to make it through on time if you want."

With one side of his lower lip held between his teeth, Murdoch pondered the situation.  He could send the herd on ahead but he'd been warned that Miguel Lopez was a crafty man when it came to matters of business.  If there was going to be trouble with collecting payment for the steers, he wanted to be there.  Also, he didn't like asking one of his men to take responsibility for such a large sum of money; the contract had been set at forty dollars a head for five hundred yearling steers provided that they were delivered on time.  However, the price per animal would drop two dollars for each day he was late.  At a thousand hundred dollars a day, he couldn't afford to delay the drive too long.  'Have to cross that bridge when I come to it," he thought.  'Right now, I have to think of Scott.'

The rancher, having weighed his options, instructed his trail boss to hold the herd in a large meadow that was located in a side-draw about two miles to the west.   The cattle would have plenty of feed and water for a couple of days and by then, he hoped that his son would have recovered enough to be moved.

As the foreman was leaving to tend to the cattle, Cooky showed up carrying a couple of blankets.  "Warmed these by the fire.  Thought it might help ta wrap 'em 'round yer son, then I kin take the ones thet are on 'im and heat 'em up by the fire.  When these cool down, we kin swap 'em fer the hot ones."

"Sounds like a good idea, thanks," said Murdoch, looking gratefully at the cook.

With the help of Sam and Cooky, Murdoch soon had his son snugly wrapped up in the warm blankets.  He was relieved to see that some color had returned to Scott's face and that his skin didn't feel nearly as cold as it had earlier.  Figuring that the cook's help would be sufficient, he sent Sam back to the herd.

Once again, Murdoch sat holding his son, who was now sitting between his slightly bent legs.  The position was far from comfortable but he found that it was better than having Scott facing him.  He settled back against the saddle that Sam had brought him just before leaving to join the other drovers and was thankful for the added support that helped to relieve his aching back.

As time went on and Scott failed to regain consciousness, the rancher began to worry that his son's injuries were more serious that he thought.  Earlier, he had noticed the bits of dried blood on Scott's scraped and slightly discolored forehead, which had already shown signs of swelling.  He was certain that his son's head had collided with the bed of the river.  What he couldn't be sure of was how hard he'd hit.

The groove between Murdoch's eyebrows deepened and questions filled his mind.  How long would Scott remain unconscious?  Had he sustained any permanent damage?  What were the chances that his son would be paralyzed or suffer from amnesia?  He knew these were all possible results of a head injury.

When Scott's body began to tremble, Murdoch became even more concerned about his son.  He laid the back of his fingers against Scott's forehead; it was slightly warm.  Next he felt of his son's cheeks and found that they were cool but not cold like they had been.  'Might have a bit of a fever.  Can't be much of one; he's not that hot.  Maybe, he's still trying to warm up.  Everyone shivers when they get cold.  Doesn't mean anything's wrong,' he told himself in an effort to alleviate his fears.

Hoping that added heat would help to dispel his son's chills, Murdoch called for the cook to bring another warm blanket.  "Tuck in tight around his legs and shoulders," he instructed.

"How's he doin'?"  A frown clouded Cooky's face as he peered down at his boss's son.

"Shivering pretty hard right now.  Hopefully, it's just reaction from being so cold and will stop once he warms up a little more," Murdoch replied.

"I'll toss some more wood on the fire.  Might help some, too," the cook offered.

"Good idea," Murdoch nodded in agreement.

"Ya ready ta try gettin' some hot coffee down 'im, yet?"

Murdoch hesitated before answering, "I guess we could try.  I thought I felt him stir just now.  Maybe, he's coming around."

"I'll bring it soon's I stoke the fire," announced Cooky before turning and walking briskly away.  In no time at all, the campfire was blazing and he was back with the cup of hot liquid.

After slowly easing from behind his son while the cook kept Scott sitting upright, Murdoch picked up the steaming cup and knelt beside his son.  He tested the temperature of the coffee with his finger.  Satisfied that it wouldn't scald the young man's tongue, he proceeded to give Scott little sips.  The last thing he wanted was for some of it to go down the wrong way and complicate matters for his son.

Murdoch laid his left hand gently against his son's throat, then placed the edge of the cup between Scott's lips and carefully tipped it up so that a small amount poured out.  Most of the liquid dribbled out the corners of the unconscious man's mouth and ran down his chin.  However, the rancher knew that a little of the fluid had reached his son's stomach; he'd felt Scott swallow.

It was a slow process and Murdoch almost quit when his son coughed on the second sip.  Not wanting to give up, he gave Scott a moment to recover, and then tried again.  This time he was met with success so, satisfied that he was getting some of the coffee into his son, he continued.

When about a third of the coffee was gone from the cup, Murdoch announced that Scott had enough for the time being.  Although, more of the liquid had run down the outside than the inside of his son, he figured that enough had reached Scott's stomach to help warm his insides a little.  Also, he didn't want to risk making his son sick.  It would be better to give Scott small amounts at regular intervals than to force too much down him at once.

For the next few hours, Murdoch paid little heed to the activities around the campfire.  Concern for his son's welfare as well as regrets from the past filled his mind.  In fact, he was barely cognizant of the arrival of the wagons or Cooky preparing the evening meal.  It wasn't until the first cowboys showed up for supper that his thoughts were drawn away from Scott and he realized that he hadn't even inquired into Red's fate.

Murdoch glanced around at the men squatting or standing near the fire.  The redheaded cowboy was not among them.  His mind believed the worst and his throat constricted.  A barely audible "too bad about Red" reached his ears and confirmed that his thinking was correct: the young cowboy had sacrificed his own life in order to help save Scott's.

A heavy cloud of grief and remorse settled over the rancher as his mind filled with dread.  'How do I tell Old Man Johnson, his grandson is dead?  And what about Scott?  Knowing his friend gave his life for him could tear him up inside.'  Dejectedly, Murdoch let his head drop forward until his chin rested on his son's shoulder.  Once more, he wished that he'd left Scott back at the ranch.

Chapter 18

A vague sense of awareness crept over Scott and he tried to comprehend who was holding him.  'Grandfather?'  He doubted it.  Harlan Garrett had never held him so tightly--possessively.  Also, the hands on his back were too large to belong to his grandfather and the scent was wrong.  His grandfather was a meticulous person who bathed daily and had always used a splash of lilac water until he had discovered Hoyt's Cologne--neither fragrance was detectable. 

The odor of sweat and dirty wet hair assaulted Scott's nose.  They had no place among the elite Boston society that he knew so, barely conscious, he struggled to identify where they did belong.  His heart beat faster as memories flooded his mind.  The south had seceded, there was a war going on, and he was in the cavalry.  He had received a field promotion to the rank of second lieutenant and had proudly stood next to General Sheridan while their picture was taken.  A short time later, they had gone to Vicksburg.  There had been a battle.  'What then?' he wondered.

Scott caught a hint of something else familiar.  'Pipe tobacco.  Good pipe tobacco.  Imported,' his mind insisted but the knowledge told him nothing.  There were other odors, too, but they all seemed strange, out of place, and yet, remotely familiar.  He couldn't fathom why.

Suddenly aware of the throbbing in his head, Scott winced and wondered if the pain had just started or if he simply hadn't realized it was there before.  He tried to open his eyes but his eyelids, feeling as though weights were hanging from them, merely fluttered and stayed closed.  Resignedly, he relaxed.  The hands on his back were soothing and the broad chest that supported him as well as the strong arms that surrounded him felt comforting--natural, like he belonged there.  Why not enjoy the dream while he could?  Too soon, he would awaken; to what, he wasn't sure and at the moment, he didn't really care.

Later--he had no way of knowing how much time had passed--Scott became aware that he was trembling.  He felt cold despite the weight of what he assumed were blankets draped around him.  His position seemed to have shifted but he couldn't be sure and he questioned whether he had imagined being held like a child.  'Perhaps,' he thought, 'those soothing hands on my back were a dream.'

As he shivered uncontrollably, he realized that he was leaning back against something.  'What?' he silently pondered.  Filled with uncertainty, he struggled to find the answer.  What he felt was neither hard nor soft.  He finally settled for firm and his mind quickly assumed that it was his grandfather.  'But why is Grandfather holding me?' his clouded mind insisted on knowing.

Scott's muscles tightened; his head felt like it would explode.  The steady pounding made it hard to think and he wanted to think--to escape the prison of half-consciousness that he found himself in.  He didn't like being unable to distinguish between what was real and what was not.  His eyes refused to work, to open so he could see where he was, and his ears didn't want to function properly, either.  He thought he could hear voices but the words all ran together and he couldn't separate them enough to make sense out of what was being said.

He felt an added weight on his shoulders, chest, and legs, and wondered if it were more blankets.  'It doesn't help much; he thought, still unable to stop shaking.  'I'm so cold.  Why doesn't someone light a fire?'

A few moments later as if in answer to his unspoken request, a flash of heat fanned his cheeks.  It was a pleasant feeling that reminded him of his childhood and sitting in front of the fireplace in his grandfather's parlor after playing outside on a cold winter day.  He had always liked the added burst of warmth when one of the servants added another log and the flames would leap higher.

Scott felt a hand behind his neck and the edge of what his mind perceived to be a tin cup pressed against his lips.  Hot liquid touched his tongue and he swallowed.  The warmth felt good as it traveled down his throat to his stomach.  He inhaled and then coughed as something set his air passages on fire.  When he could breathe again, he felt more of the warm fluid in his mouth.   His mind was still fuzzy but he thought it tasted like strong coffee.  Why he was being forced to drink it, he had no idea but it made him feel warmer so he cooperated as best he could.

As the hot coffee, along with the added warmth from the blankets and the fire, slowly brought relief from the chills that racked Scott's body, he slipped into a deep sleep that lasted for a couple of hours.




Scott abruptly awoke to a pounding head and the feeling of sitting on the hard ground.  Another man's body supported his back and a strong arm lay across his chest.  'Where am I?' he thought.  'Who's holding me?  Grandfather?'

The sound of low voices reached his ears and he tentatively opened his eyes.  Straight ahead, he saw two hazy wagons at slight angles from each other and behind them, the shadowy forms of trees and bushes.  'The cavalry.  We've been in a battle and I must have been wounded.' he surmised from the aching of his body and the excruciating pain in his head.

He glanced to the left and his heart began to race; the men around the nearby campfire were not wearing blue uniforms.  Instantly, his mind told him that the enemy had captured him.  However, upon closer scrutiny, he realized that there were no signs of Confederate soldiers in dreaded gray, either.  'Then who are they,' he wondered.  'I don't know them.  I've never even seen anyone dressed like some of them before.'

Searching for something recognizable, Scott studied his surroundings more closely.  Beyond the fire, he could see a green flat area with a hill or ridge of some kind on the far side of it.  Hearing the roar of fast moving water to his right and not wanting to alert his captors that he was awake, he glanced to that side and noticed that the ground sloped toward a river that was only a short distance away.  Nothing within his sight seemed familiar.

Next, he shifted his eyes downward.  He was wrapped from shoulders to feet in blankets and sitting between long, slightly bent legs that were clad in brown trousers.  An arm with a large hand attached to it lay across his upper body and he could feel a shoulder against the back of his head.  'He certainly is a big man,' he thought.

His heart quickened its pace and the pain in his head became worse.  He was almost certain that Rebel soldiers had captured him.  However, the appearances of the men were not what he would have expected if that were the case.

An instant later, it dawned on him that he had nothing on under the blankets.  His agitation increased.  He had no idea where he was, who he was with, why he was there, or what had happened to his clothes.  When he tried to think, stabs of pain shot through his head and a soft moan slipped from his throat.

"Scott?" a deep voice spoke near his ear.

He stiffened and swallowed; his captor knew him by name.  In the far reaches of his mind, he thought that the man's voice might be familiar but he couldn't put a name to him.

The man behind him shifted slightly forward before moving a hand to Scott's shoulder and gently squeezing it.  "Scott.  Are you awake?"

Scott was tempted not to answer because the fear of the unknown was overwhelming.  However, there was a stronger desire to find out what he was up against and face the situation head on.  "I'm 'wake," he replied in a raspy whisper.  The body behind him relaxed and Scott wondered why the man seemed so relieved.

"Can you sit up?" the voice said.

"I . . . think so."  Scott mumbled, then leaned away from the other man and tried to keep sitting upright.   As his world seemed to tilt around him and his upper body swayed, he felt a hand on his shoulder steady him.

"How do you feel?"

Even though the man at his back sounded genuinely concerned, Scott wasn't about to reveal his true condition until he knew more about his situation.  "Fine," he answered, attempting to sound confident but not quite accomplishing it.

"Can I get you anything?  Coffee's hot.  Something to eat?  Cooky's keeping supper warm for you."

Scott's head reeled a little from the effort of holding himself upright.  He was sure that at the moment eating was out of the question; just the thought of food made his stomach lurch.  The liquid, however, sounded appealing to him; he was thirsty and his throat felt dry.  "Coffee, please," he croaked, his words slurring a little.

An order was issued and in no time, an older man with a bandaged hand stepped away from the fire and moved to Scott's side.  "Good ta see yer awake," the man said as he held out a steaming cup.

Scott managed to free one hand from the confines of the blankets, which slipped off his shoulder.  He pulled it back in place and accepted the hot liquid.  "Thank you," he said in the same tone he would have used on a servant at a party.

"That was some whollop ya got there, Sonny.  Glad ta see ya finally come to; the boss was gettin' a mite worried about ya."  Cooky, pointed his bandaged hand at the man behind Scott.  "Ya get ta feelin' like eatin' or want more coffee, you just give a holler.  I'll be right over yonder tryin' ta keep them yayhoos from eatin' all the food 'fore the rest a the boys get a chance ta eat."

When Cooky walked away without initiating further conversation, Scott was relieved.  He felt as though he was expected to know the other man; except he was sure that they had never met before.  'Southerner.  He must be, from the way he talks.  This has to be a rebel camp.  Maybe, they are guerilla raiders and that's why they aren't in uniform,' he reasoned, the fear inside him growing.  'But, how do they know my name?  Why do they act as though I should know who they are?'

While trying to sort out the confusion in his mind, Scott sipped the hot coffee.  He was thankful for its soothing effect on his sore throat and the way it warmed him up inside; however, it did nothing to relieve the throbbing pain above his eyes and in the back of his neck.  "What happened?" he asked, his voice not so raspy as before.  At the same time, his mind was demanding, 'Who are you?  Where am I?  Who hit me?'

"Can't you remember?" came a worried sounding reply from behind him.

"If I did, would I be askin'?" Scott shot back testily, immediately regretting his rudeness. 

"You . . . you fell off a tree.  Must have hit your head on the bottom of the river." The speaker's voice was somewhat soft and hesitant.

'Fell off a tree into the river?  What was I doing?  Explains why my clothes are gone and I'm wrapped in blankets.  But . . . who are these people?  They seem to know me but I don't remember them.  Why does the man, holding me, sound so worried?  What am I to him?'  Unanswerable questions bombarded Scott's mind and desperation began to set in.  He had to know where he was and why he was there.  "Where'm I?  How'd I get here?" he demanded, unable to keep from running his words together.

"You're on the bank of the river.  I carried you here."

Scott felt the hand on his shoulder tighten its grip and wondered if he was treading on forbidden ground and if that was why his real question was being evaded.  'I don't care what he's trying to hide.  I'm not letting him get away with it,' he thought determinedly as he forced himself to speak more clearly.  "I know  . . . I am by a river.  I have eyes  . . . and there is nothing wrong  . . . with my hearing, either."

"Scott," was drawn out in a soothing, half-questioning tone.

He tried to twist enough to see the man behind him; but he could only catch a glimpse of him from the corner of his eye, and the form was too blurry for him to make out.  Deciding that it didn't matter, anyway, Scott pressed on with his interrogation.  Generally, he would have been appalled at his impertinence; but in his apprehensive and uncertain state of mind, he gave it little more than a passing thought.  He wanted answers and he wanted them now.  "I wanna know where I am.  What river's this and where 'zit located?"

"It's . . . the Tuolumne River," the man said hesitantly.  "We talked about it just last night."

"I don' know what you're tryin' to pull here," Scott slurred in a sharp tone.  "But I've never even heard of the Tul-loom-nee River. "  He shifted his body away from the direction of the fire and sucked in his breath sharply as he turned his head to the right far enough to look into the other man's face.  He wobbled dizzily; feeling like a sledgehammer had been taken to the base of his neck.  Again, the big hand steadied him.

"Scott, calm down.  There's no need to get yourself so worked up."

The fuzz refused to budge from Scott's mind as he looked into the compassionate eyes of a gray-haired man that he had no recollection of having met before.  For a moment, he thought he was going to be sick.  His head felt like it was about to explode and his world had gone crazy.  He was in an unknown place with strangers who somehow knew him by name while he couldn't recall any of theirs.  Nothing made any sense and panic threatened to overcome him.  Despite the lack of uniforms, he was sure that he was in the hands of the enemy.

When the swimming sensation let up a little, Scott decided to use of another tactic--politeness.  "I . . . 'preciate what you've done for me, Sir.  If I could have my clothes back, I'd like to get dressed now."

"Are you sure that's a good idea?  Are you certain you're up to--"

"My clothes, please," Scott broke in a little more persistently.

"Scott, you've--"

"I want my clothes and I want them now," Scott retorted belligerently.  "I don't know who you people are . . . or why you won't tell me where I am  . . . but I have no intention of sitting here any longer without being properly dressed."

The older man's jaw sagged, his face paled, and for a moment, he remained speechless while Scott, perplexed by the reaction his words had wrought in the other man, sat staring at him.

"Amigo, it is good you are awake, no?"

Startled by the new voice, Scott glanced to his left.  There, grinning down on him, was a short, stoutly build man with raven hair and gleaming black eyes.  Before he could say anything, he heard the gray-haired man speak.  "Jose, could you see if Scott's clothes are dry?  I think Cooky took them.  Check with him.  If not, maybe, there's something in the wagon clean enough for him to wear."

"Si, Señor Lancer," the dark-haired man replied as he turned to leave.

'Lancer!'  Scott's heart skipped a beat and then began to race madly.  He swiveled his head back toward the older man and gasped as a shot of pain ran through him.  His eyes widened and he hoarsely asked, "Who are you?"

When the other man chewed at his lip and said nothing, a flash of anger surged through Scott.  Having come to the end of his patience, he reached out with his free hand and grasped the front of the man's jacket.  "I asked you a question and I want an answer.  Who are you?"

"Scott . . . I'm your father . . . Murdoch Lancer."

"No."  Scott shook his head.  "That's not possible."  Suddenly, he had to get away; he didn't care where.  He just wanted the nightmare to end.  He tried to rise and the world around him suddenly spun wildly before his eyes and he tipped forward into blackness.




Several hours later, Murdoch Lancer sat alone by the campfire.  He was bone-tired; yet, worry for his son kept him struggling to keep his drooping eyelids open.  'Need to be awake when Scott wakes up.  May need me; he seemed so confused earlier.  Didn't even know me.  Acted shocked when I told him who I was. Good thing I was close enough to catch him when he passed out.  I wonder why it's taking so long for him to come to again.'  These and other troubling thoughts drifted in and out of his mind.

Slowly, Murdoch lost the battle against sleep.  First, his shoulders slumped and then his head dropped forward.  Finally, his chin came to rest against his collarbone, his breathing deepened, and his head bobbed occasionally as he softly snored.

About an hour after midnight, an owl hooted and Murdoch jerked awake.  He stretched and yawned, then rubbed the back of his neck.  Noticing the fire had died down to a cluster of softly glowing embers; he rose to his feet with a groan.  Wearily, he gathered up an armload of tree limbs from the pile on the far side of the campfire and arranged them on the bed of coals.

When orange and yellow flames stretched upward and licked at the newly added fuel, Murdoch walked quietly over to where his son sat propped against the front wheel of the chuckwagon that had been moved closer to the campfire.  On each side of Scott was a saddle to keep him from slumping too far one way or the other.  Noticing that the blankets had slipped from his son's shoulders, the rancher leaned over and pulled them up.  As he tucked them into place, Scott's eyes fluttered open and their gazes met.

Murdoch, having hoped that his son's memory would return by the time the young man woke up, was due for more disappointment; Scott stiffened under his touch and glared at him in open hostility.  Not wanting to upset his son any more than could be helped, the rancher stood upright and took a step back.  Keeping his voice low, he kindly asked, "How do you feel?"  Getting nothing more than a silent stare in response, he tried again.  "Son, I--"

"Don't call me that."  Scott voice was harsh and filled with bitterness.  "I'm not your son."

Murdoch let his breath out in a soft sigh.  He was sure that Scott had to be suffering from some degree of amnesia, which would mean that gaining his son's trust was not going to be easy.  Of far greater concern to the rancher was how long the loss of memory would last.  He had seen a few cases of amnesia brought on by head injuries.  Most had been temporary lapses that had lasted no more than a few hours--a couple of days at the most.  However, he knew of a man near Sacramento whose son had not recovered after fifteen years.  Murdoch didn't even want to consider the possibility that Scott's condition could be permanent.

Murdoch's heart clutched with fear at Scott's cold wariness.  Having enjoyed the time they'd shared the evening before, he had hoped that the tension between his son and him had ended.  Now, it appeared as though the situation was far worse, and the thought of having to win Scott's trust all over was not a pleasant one.

Knowing he had to do something to break the silence and relieve Scott's anxiety, Murdoch made another attempt to reason with his son.  "You've had an accident.  You hit your head and you've temporarily lost your memory," he explained.  "I know this is very frightening for you, but you must believe me; I mean you no harm.  I just want to make sure you're all right."

"How?  By keeping me a prisoner?"

The distress in Scott's voice cut into Murdoch like a knife and speech failed him.  He wanted, in the worst way, to bring assurance to his son, whose mind was somewhere in the past; but he had no idea of how to go about it.

"Are you going to answer me?" Scott demanded.

"You're not a prisoner."  Murdoch struggled to keep his voice calm.

"Then where am I?  How did I get here?"

Filled with uncertainty, Murdoch paced back and forth in front of Scott.  Needing to tell the young man something, he finally said,  "Scott, you're in California."

"California!  That's impossible; I was in Vicks--.  Scott stopped abruptly and suspiciously eyed Murdoch.  "Never mind where I was the day before yesterday; I just know I couldn't have traveled all the way across the country in two days."

"Scott, you were here last night."  As his son started to interrupt, Murdoch raised his hand.  "Please.  You asked for an explanation, so let me talk."

With a roll of his eyes and a gentle wag of his head, Scott snorted softly but remained silent.

"As I was about to say, I sent for you.  You arrived at my ranch near Morro Coyo a little over four weeks ago.  "Now, just let me finish," Murdoch admonished.  "A band of land pirates was trying to take over my land.  You helped fight them off and I gave you part of my ranch, in return.  For the past week and a half, we've been driving a herd of steers that I had contracted to deliver to a ranch not far from here.  While we were crossing the river over there, you  . . . there was some trouble.  You fell in and hit your head.  I know you don't remember any of this and you think . . .."  Murdoch slowly shook his head and chewed at his lip before continuing.  "I don't know what you think, or where you think you should be.  I wish there were some way to convince you that what I'm telling you is the truth . . . but I can't.  You're just going to have to trust me."

Scott warily studied his father, then glanced around.  He heaved a heavy sigh and sarcastically said, "I suppose I have no choice in the matter.  The way I feel at the moment, I couldn't go ten feet without falling flat on my face."

"Give it some time, S . . . cott.  Let me get you something to eat and a drink of water; then, you get a good night's rest.  By morning, your memory will be back and everything will be fine," Murdoch said with considerably more assurance than he felt.

A few minutes later, Murdoch handed his son a plate of food and a tin cup.  When Scott accepted the meal without a word and ate in sullen silence, the young man's total lack of proper manners had the rancher even more concerned.  Although, his older son had displayed anger on more than one occasion, Scott had always maintained a certain degree of politeness.

Once assured that his son's immediate needs had been taken care of and that the confused young man wouldn't foolishly attempt to leave, Murdoch took a stroll along the riverbank.  His hopes for reconciliation with his older son had crumbled, and the sight of Scott's eyes filled with a mix of distrust and loathing ate at him.  He'd known--expected--upon first meeting his sons that they would harbor ill feelings toward him, even hate him. However, Scott had never looked at him with such outright contempt before.

A while later, Murdoch returned to camp and added more sticks to the fire.  He took a moment to check on the sleeping form next to Cooky.  The young cowboy appeared to be resting peacefully despite the ordeal encountered earlier in the day, so the rancher went to see how Scott was faring.

Murdoch looked down on his son, still leaning against the wheel of wagon, and was relieved to find him sound asleep.  Wearily, the rancher collected his own bedroll and turned in.  'Scott'll be fine, tomorrow.  Just needs a good night's sleep; that's all,' he told himself as he closed his eyes and pulled his blankets tight around him.


Part One
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five


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