A Presentiment of Danger
Although this is part of the Reminiscences series there is no need to have read any of the other stories in order to follow this one.
No warning for this, but a huge thank you to Lacy, true friend and trusted beta.
“I’ve gotta go, darlin’. You know how Murdoch gets if he’s kept waitin’ long.”
“I know, I know. I can’t help it. I don’t want you to go, Johnny. There’s something that just doesn’t feel right.” She couldn’t explain the feeling that had engulfed her. All she understood was that she felt decidedly uneasy about the prospect of his leaving. Her head had dropped so low she could no longer see beyond the toes of his boots.
“You know you’ll be fine. Cipriano and a dozen of the other hands will still be around. You’ll have Teresa here all the time and Maria during the day. They won’t leave you and Becky alone. And even Sam and Val have both said they’d drop in. You’ll be fine, querida.”
“Sweetheart, I’m not worried about myself. Or Becky, for that matter. I know we’ll be fine. It’s you I’m worried about. Oh, I know you’ve been away before and there have been no problems. I can’t put my finger on it. I just feel on edge this time. Can’t you stay here and send one of the hands in your place? Please, Johnny?” She knew she shouldn’t be clinging like this but the feeling of imminent danger was overwhelming. The thought of losing him was crushing her powers of reason.
“Phee, I don’t know what’s gotten into you. You’re worrying me, darlin’. I don’t want to leave you like this but I really have to go. I’ve finally got Murdoch to agree to stopping off on the way back to check out that brood mare I’ve been on his back about for weeks now. I can’t waste this opportunity. Now, come on. Cheer up. You know everything will be all right.”
She knew she was making it difficult for him. Just as she knew he had to go. She suddenly felt very guilty and realised if she didn’t change her tune he would succumb to her pleas. She raised he head to face him and attempted a smile. “I’m sorry, my darling. I’m being silly. I know you’ll be fine. Hurry home, okay?”
Johnny held his wife in his arms and kissed her. “No reason to delay.” He took one last appraising look at her, frowning slightly in response to her forced smile, then grabbed his hat as he made for the door. She felt as though the floor was dropping away from beneath her feet as she watched him leave.
= = = = = =
“About time, brother. Thought Murdoch might have to go in and break up the farewell scene.”
“Leave it, Scott.”
“After all, it’s not as though you haven’t left her side before.”
“I said to leave it.”
“Sorry, brother. I didn’t mean to cause offence. Maybe I’m just jealous there’s no-one making it hard for me to ride away.”
“Nah, I’m sorry Scott. I shouldn’ta jumped down your throat. It’s just I’ve never seen Phee like this before.”
“Don’t worry, little brother. You’re leaving the two of them in good hands and we’ll deliver you home, safe and sound, in a week.”
Phoebe came outside at this point, Becky perched on her hip, to wish them all a safe trip. The journey to the railhead would only take three or four days with the herd then Murdoch and his sons would be taking a slight detour as the other men returned directly to the ranch under Jelly’s direction.
As Scott leant from his saddle to offer Phoebe a farewell peck on the top of her head she took the opportunity to pull him closer and whisper.
“Please watch him, Scott. I have an awful feeling something bad is going to happen to him.”
“I won’t take my eyes off him, princess.”
And with that, they were gone.
= = = = = =
On their first day out they were still five miles from their proposed camp when the herd was suddenly spooked. It shouldn’t have been a problem. The experienced hands would soon have regained control, had it not been for the fact that one of their number was unexpectedly trapped in the path of the stampede.
Johnny had dismounted to help untangle a leading cow that had managed to become trapped in a shrub when he suddenly found himself in their midst. Barranca had stayed by his side despite the growing mayhem around them. He just made it into the saddle as they were engulfed by the stampede. They worked their way to the edge of the herd, Scott witnessing all. He hadn’t taken his eyes off Johnny. Not that it had helped. He rode over to Johnny as his brother eased his heaving mount to a halt, leaving the other hands to quell the rush.
“That was close, brother.”
“Nah. Knew where Barranca was all along. Knew he wouldn’t leave me.”
“Just as well. I think trampling would be a rather ignominious demise when you consider what alternatives may have been in store for you. Glad you avoided it.”
“Told you Scott, it wasn’t even a close call. But listen, don’t tell Phoebe, okay? She’d just worry over nothin’.”
“Sure thing, Johnny. My lips are sealed. But I will keep an eye on you, as I promised. A closer eye in future.”
= = = = = = =
The second night saw them settled around the camp fire after dinner when Garcia pulled out his guitar and Forbes extracted his ever-present harmonica from his pocket. A magical pall settled over the men. The gentle lull of the music, the cattle lowing, cicadas chirping and stars shining all conspired to throw a blanket of peace over them. All was calm and quiet.
Cleaning up after dinner, Jelly picked up the heavy frying pan to throw away the oil. He overbalanced as he got up from where he had been crouching over the flames and the pan’s leftover contents sloshed over the rim and caught fire as Jelly stumbled and fell towards Johnny, spilling the now burning fat over Johnny’s sleeve. The young Lancer whipped off his jacket in a flash and Scott was instantly beside him, stamping out the flames engulfing the now abandoned jacket. In seconds it was all over as though nothing had ever happened. The cicadas were still chirping, the cattle still lowing, the stars still shining.
The danger threatening his younger son was not lost on Murdoch. “Jelly, of all the stupid, clumsy…”
“Hang on, Boss. It weren’t like I meant it or nothin’. I’d die before I harmed a single hair on that boy’s head. And you know that’s the God honest truth of the matter.”
“I know, Jelly. I’m sorry. It just scared me to see it happen and be able to do nothing to stop it. I’ve seen how a burn like that can leave a man.”
The other men had leapt up at the commotion and were crowded around to see that no-one had been hurt. Scott interceded on Jelly’s behalf.
“Let’s calm down everyone. No harm done. Well, only a slightly singed jacket to show for it. But, little brother, I’m going to have to stick closer to you. Not that I’m counting or anything but that’s twice you’ve gotten yourself into trouble. And we’ve only been gone two days.”
“It was nothin’, Scott. Coulda happened to anyone.”
“I know, I know. But it wasn’t anyone – it was you. Again. Guess you’ll ask me not to tell Phoebe.”
Johnny beamed his trademark grin in his sibling’s direction. “Thanks, brother. I’d hate to see my woman worried over nothing.”
= = = = = = =
The next morning, their third on the trail, they knew they’d make it to the railhead well before nightfall. They had to pass by a deep ravine and it was hard to keep the cattle from jostling each other as they moved through the defile that led to it. Johnny was positioned where the trail suddenly opened out at the beginning of the drop in an effort to keep the milling cattle from pushing too fast.
As luck would have it, it was not the cattle that caused trouble but one of the men brought along for the drive. Johnny was nearly pushed over the edge by one of the hands losing control of his horse as he passed Johnny. Only Johnny’s quick reflexes and Barranca’s smooth footwork saved the pair of them from tumbling down the impossibly steep incline. The man apologised and his sickly pallor showed the genuineness of his regret. Johnny brushed off the incident as a minor accident. No harm done.
A little later Scott sidled up to Johnny.
“Johnny, I saw what happened with Forbes earlier.”
“No big deal, Scott.”
“It could have been.”
“But it wasn’t so let’s drop it.”
“I said I’d have to stick closer. Guess I wasn’t close enough. That makes three close calls this trip.”
“Stop countin’ will ya Scott? Nothin’ you coulda done, brother. Just drop it, okay. It was an accident. Coulda happened to anyone.”
“Yes, but once again it has happened to you. Do you think I want to be the one to go home to Phoebe and convey to her that we had lost you?”
At this Johnny smiled ruefully. “Don’t reckon I’d want to be the one to break that news. But right now you’re fussin’ as much as she would. I’m fine.”
They rode on for a while in companionable silence.
“I know. Don’t tell her.”
= = = = = =
To get to their destination later that day they had one more obstacle. They needed to cross the river at the ford a few miles from town. Recent rains had swollen the river and washed down some debris from upriver. Murdoch was nervously watching the herd cross, anxious to settle their business before nightfall so they could get an early start the next day. He had been checking up on the stragglers and was now steadily making his way towards the front of the herd. He approached his sons who were both covering a section of the river where an eddy was swirling.
“Move along, Scott. Johnny has this section covered. We’ll need you up ahead when they reach the bank.”
Scott reluctantly moved ahead, leaving Murdoch beside Johnny. Murdoch’s unease at the slow progress of the cattle saw him once again twisting in his saddle to check on the stragglers. As he did so his big gelding barrelled into Barranca causing the horse to stumble in the fast flowing river. In the process, Johnny was knocked into the water, hitting his head on a half-submerged tree trunk. Scott had turned back to Johnny just in time to take it all in. He could see his father was unaware of the accident he had caused as he anxiously urged his horse back towards his brother. He saw Johnny coming up spluttering and dazed and dragged his younger brother up before him onto his own mount, allowing Barranca to make his way unencumbered to the far bank.
Johnny shook his head to clear it, in the process sending a shower of water over his brother. “Thought you weren’t counting.”
= = = = = =
They had left the ranch hands who had accompanied them on the drive to make their way back to the ranch with Jelly. Now the three Lancer men were making good time in their effort to reach the Kingston place in order to inspect the mare while it was still light. Johnny had had his eye on the horse they had put up for sale. Its bloodline spoke of good breeding stock. This being the fourth day, if all went well, they should be able to conclude their business swiftly and make it back home in six days rather than the seven they had originally allowed. They were riding along at a comfortable pace when once again Johnny’s mind turned to his stomach.
“Hey Murdoch, Jelly’s left us some trail rations but what would you say to a nice rabbit for supper?”
“Does sound tempting Johnny. Reckon you boys might like to make a contest out of it? See which of us brings down the first one?”
“Us, Murdoch? Does that mean you’re in on it too?” Scott was enjoying goading his father.
“Why not? You think this ‘old man’ couldn’t mix it with you young bucks?”
“Yeah Scott. I keep tellin’ ya the old man’s not that old. Reckon he might be able to show you a thing or two yet.” Johnny took a playful swipe at his brother with his ever-wayward hat.
“That sounds suspiciously like a challenge, little brother. Right. You’re both on.”
They rode on in silence for several miles, spread out, each surreptitiously keeping an eye out for game, pretending otherwise. Suddenly from out of the bushes darted a rabbit.
Almost as one, three guns were drawn and fired. The first shot sent the creature barrelling back the way it had come. The second shot traced the rabbit’s trajectory, ricocheting off the rock the small animal had finally come to rest by. The third shot destroyed their meal entirely.
“Nice work, Murdoch. We’ll be grinding our teeth on lead tonight with that effort,” offered his elder son mischievously.
“At least my shot hit it. Yours was a bit wayward, son. Hit that rock and who knows where it ended up.”
“If I’d waited for it to come to rest, like a certain ‘old man’ I know, then I’d have hit the rabbit too. Hey Johnny…” He turned around to see his brother reaching down for his hat that was lying on the ground. “How’d you lose your hat?”
Johnny smiled grimly, raising one eyebrow as he raised his hat into the air and poked a finger through a neat round hole in the brim.
“Reckon I know where your ricochet ended up, Scott.”
Scott’s jaw dropped at the revelation and Murdoch reached over to grab Johnny’s chin and turn his face this way and that, having a closer look for any signs of injury.
“I’m fine, Murdoch. But, hey, Scott, you know Phoebe would never forgive you if you shot me.” Johnny smiled wryly.
“She’s not the only one, Johnny,” Scott replied, much abashed. “Just saying I’m sorry doesn’t seem quite enough.”
“Forget it, Scott.”
“Easier said than done.”
“I’m fine Scott. Reckon I ducked just in time.”
“He’s all right Scott. And he’s right as well. It was an accident. No harm done. But I think that’s enough hunting for one day.”
All three men had broken into a sweat despite the dropping temperature. They rode along sombrely for some time. Scott continued to feel guilty about what could have happened but could tell that this was making Johnny edgy too. He decided to attempt to lighten the mood.
“You know what Johnny? I think you are on your way to creating a record.”
“You’ll be renowned for how many close calls you’ve survived in one short cattle drive.”
“Yep, and not one of them from a showdown. Not exactly what I thought they’d be putting on my gravestone.”
= = = = = =
After the previous day’s effort they were much more circumspect about catching something for dinner. This time they decided to take turns. Even if nothing turned up it wouldn’t matter as this would be their last evening on the trail. As luck would have it Murdoch’s watch was the only one to deliver any game – another rabbit. Since he’d shot the creature it was Scott’s job to skin and gut it and to Johnny fell the task of cooking it.
The younger Lancer son was slowly turning the makeshift spit with his left hand, ensuring even cooking throughout. When it looked to be done he started carving slices of meat off the rabbit, his recently sharpened knife cutting through flesh as if through butter. Without warning, Johnny’s blade hit bone and angled sharply up towards his left hand which was holding the spit still. Lightning reflexes once again saved the day as he yanked his hand out of the blade’s path. Trying not to draw attention to his mishap he calmly proceeded to continue carving off slices of meat for his father and brother.
“Saw that, huh? Not a bad effort for five days on the trail. Maybe I’m lucky the trip’s over tomorrow. I think Phoebe’s left me with the jitters.”
“Johnny, Phoebe asked me to keep an eye on you.”
“And you have Scott. There’s not one incident you haven’t seen.”
“Brother, keeping an eye on someone implies a measure of intervention. What she really wanted me to do was keep you safe.”
“You’ve done that too, Scott. Look at me – I’m fine.”
“You realise I can’t lie to her, Johnny. If she asks me directly I have to tell her.”
“Yeah, I know. She does that to me too. Something about her just has it all spilling out before I know what’s happened. But I’ve figured out how to get around it. You just gotta distract her before she has a chance to ask.”
“That sounds suspiciously like a plan, brother. So what sort of distraction works best?”
“Scott, the one I use I’d be mighty disappointed if you tried on her. Guess you’re gonna have to find a distraction of your own.”
= = = = = =
“Johnny, you’re all right.” She flew into his arms.
“Course I’m all right, sweetheart. Told you I’d be fine.”
“But I was so sure something terrible was going to happen. Why, even at the best of times trouble has a way of finding you, my love.” She pulled back and ran her eyes over him, turning him to left and right in order to get a better look.
“Honey, just look at me. Not a new scar anywhere. Not even a nick. But if it makes you feel any better, I did stub my toe on a rock a few days back.”
“And for that I go through utter torment? Hardly seems worth the worry. Now I just feel silly.” She began to question her intuition, taking a backward step, crossing her arms and fixing her husband with a frown.
“Trust me, Phee. I’m fine. But you could do me a favour, honey. Let me know if you ever have that feeling again, will you? I might just decide to humour you next time. Just for your sake, mind. I’d hate to see you worried over nothing.”
“Johnny? What happened?” Her eyes narrowed.
“Nothin’. Nothin’ worth mentioning. Just a stubbed toe. Didn’t even raise a bruise.”
“I’ll go and ask Scott,” she threatened.
“Go right ahead. He’ll tell you I’m all in one piece. Or, if you prefer honey, you could come upstairs right this minute and let me prove it.”
“I think I’d prefer to see for myself. Upstairs, cowboy, now. And get those duds off.”
“Yes, ma’am. It sure is nice to be home.”