Errand of Mercy
The atmosphere at the Bar T ranch was charged with excitement and energy. The owner’s wife, Maura Talbot, was readying for a trip to the town of Antelope. The tiny little town, situated deep in the heart of mining country, had suffered a two-fold disaster in recent weeks. Firstly a fire had destroyed, or heavily damaged, approximately half of the town including the orphanage, school and general store. Secondly, in the wake of this disaster, influenza had struck many of the survivors. Exposure to the elements and, in some cases, sleeping on the cold damp ground, had wreaked havoc with the citizens – especially the children.
When she got wind of the town’s troubles Maura had immediately set about gathering donations of clothing, medical supplies, lumber, hardware and everything else that was so desperately needed. Then she had looked for volunteers to help her deliver the donations and rebuild what needed rebuilding, dig holes for outhouses away from the town’s water supply in order to prevent diseases caused by poor sanitation. The first ones to volunteer had been Murdoch Lancer’s two sons, Johnny and Scott. The next ones had been Johnny’s closest friends – his amigos of the Prankster Posse. Scott had given them the nickname because of their propensity for getting into mischief like small boys or teenagers. Sometimes Scott wondered if Kevin Millar, Rico Portillo and Willie Mays would ever grow up. As for Johnny, well one minute he was a teenager engaged in boyish pranks and the next minute he could be the hardened gunfighter he had been before returning to his childhood home. As Johnny Madrid he’d made quite a name for himself but after fighting off Day Pardee and his bunch of land pirates, he’d settled in quite well though he had briefly left after a flare up with his father over a wild stallion he’d captured and intended to break.
The communities of Morro Coyo, Spanish Wells and Green River, or at least the sheriffs of said towns and a few of the storekeepers, quite often wished that Johnny and the other three weren’t quite so friendly with each other. It seemed that whatever mischief Johnny didn’t dream up Kevin did and vice versa. And, as Murdoch had put it after their joint effort to raid Jelly Hoskins’ watermelon patch that summer, where Johnny was Kevin would be and more than likely the other two as well. Halloween had been a trying time for the lawmen – especially Sam Jayson of Morro Coyo – a couple of years ago as the prank playing quartet had scared the life out of a couple of drunks with jack o’lanterns lit and placed in the windows of the cells from the outside. Andrew Millar, Kevin’s father, had found his prize bull in his hayloft. That had not gone over very well nor had the pranks at the Mays house or the swapping of Manuel Portillo’s real wood working tools for wooden replicas.
Their antics didn’t faze Maura, though. She’d raised three sons to manhood only to lose them in the war but she still remembered the challenges of keeping up with their antics. Swiping cookies from the cookie jar, chasing girls with frogs or garter snakes, dipping hair ribbons in inkwells (which they’d had to pay for out of their allowances) and other boyish tricks had been a constant in her life for about twenty years. She adored the Prankster Posse, and Scott. She and Jim, her husband of thirty-five years, had been friends with Murdoch since the Scottish immigrant and his first wife, Catherine, had settled on their place. Maura and Catherine had been very close during their brief friendship before Catherine’s death in childbirth a few months later. She had tried to be a good friend to Johnny’s mother as well, the unhappy Maria, and had been there when Johnny came into the world, but she’d been unable to prevent Maria’s desertion of her husband and theft of their child. She’d have given anything to spare Johnny the hard life she was sure he had led after they left.
Maura had nursed the boys through injuries and illness – all four of them, and Jim had hired Willie as his handyman. Though Willie lived at home, and not at the Bar T, he was always on time and finished whatever work Jim assigned him and then some. Even now she was exercising her nursing skills before they left. Scott, the older Lancer son, and usually the calm, level headed and practical one of the pair, had fallen ill with one of his infrequent colds.
He had been determined to go with them until Sam Jenkins and Maura found out about it. Normally his colds weren’t serious but this one had him so congested he could hardly breathe and it was dangerously close to turning into pneumonia. One look at him, and a quick, but thorough, examination and the trip was off for him. Not only that but he was confined to the house with orders to drink plenty of fluids and soak in a hot tub once or twice a day to keep that congestion loose enough to cough up. He was also to do no heavy work of any kind until Sam gave the ok. They did not want to see him as ill as he’d been a couple of years ago.
“Hi, Mr. Talbot!” Kevin Millar greeted his neighbor as he rode into the yard of the Bar T.
“Good morning, Kevin,” Jim replied with a smile and a handshake. “How are you? Ready for the big trip?”
“I’m fine, the folks are fine, my kid sisters and all are fine and I’m definitely ready for this trip!” Kevin answered all the questions that he could think of would be coming.
Jim just chuckled. He’d known Kevin since his family had moved into the San Joaquin from Wyoming when Kevin was just thirteen. It seemed like only yesterday that the tall, skinny, sunburned teenager had wandered onto Bar T ground looking for strays and had found himself in Maura’s kitchen eating cookies and telling them all about himself and his family. It was just like the boy to answer as many questions at once as he could without taking a breath. It was also in his nature to play tricks on people. His blue eyes were always sparkling and full of fun. Putting him together with Johnny Lancer, Rico Portillo and Willie Mays had just given him someone to stimulate his overactive imagination.
Rico followed Kevin. Rico, at twenty-two, was the oldest child in a fair sized Mexican family that lived in Spanish Wells. Rico worked at the livery stable while his father made his living as a carpenter and wood carver. Rico had inherited some of this talent and it would be his job, in the rebuilding, to do the fancywork that would decorate some of the buildings – when the essentials had been done. It was a gift that he liked to share whenever he could but for him, it was a hobby, not a way to make his living. Fortunately his father understood this and Rico hoped to land a job with one of the neighboring ranches as a stable manager or something similar. He treated the horses well and was capable of treating most ailments and injuries. He studied with Doc Hildenbrand at times to learn more.
Already in the yard, overseeing the loading of the supplies was Willie Mays. Willie’s father was a former slave who had made his way west in 1850. Mr. Mays owned a blacksmith shop and did iron work for fences and such as well as the usual number of horseshoes and a goodly number of nails. His nails could be found in the local general stores which helped the store owners save money on shipping and brought in a steady income for the Mays family, which included Willie’s younger brother Jimmy and sister Cecelia – both of whom were quite a bit younger than Willie. Whenever possible Lancer and the Bar T, among others, tried to have him come out to shoe their horses or took a string of cowponies in to be shod at his shop. Willie was tall and slim but had rock hard muscles in his upper arms from helping his father around the shop when he wasn’t working as a handyman for Jim Talbot.
Last, but not least, Jim saw a golden Palomino coming up the road to the house heralding the arrival of Johnny Lancer. Grinning to himself Jim contemplated the younger son of his best friend. Johnny was, in many ways, just an overgrown kid for all his reputation as Johnny Madrid. Children loved him; bullies feared him and Maura, his dear wife, doted on him having helped bring him into the world. His reputation and his temper had absolutely no effect on her whatsoever. She treated him like a child when he acted up and she spoiled him, and his brother, to pieces what with all the cookies and other treats she was always sending home with them or to them.
Jim had never been able to prove it but he was pretty certain that it was Johnny who had taken his, Jim’s, horse – a black and white pinto named Pintauro – a couple of Halloweens back and replaced him with a colt with identical markings. He figured Johnny, even with the noisy spurs he wore, would have been the only one to get that close to Pintauro and replace him the way he had. He believed Johnny had probably seen the colt a month or more before Halloween and had stored that knowledge in the back of his mind for future reference. Their antics had earned them the nickname Prankster Posse from Scott who, unfortunately for him, was oftentimes the victim of one of their pranks simply because he was the older brother of their leader and all too often the voice of reason that interfered with their fun.
All four young men were full of fun but Maura declared that, even as a baby, Johnny had been a boundless bundle of energy. It wore some people out just to watch him at work, or at play. Having seen him grow from infant to chubby cheeked, curly haired toddler, Jim believed it himself. Johnny had been the type of child who was constantly on the move. His poor mother had been hard pressed to keep up with him and his tired father had had difficulty keeping up with him as well. If it hadn’t been for Patty Pat, the collie that Jim and Maura’s sons had given him, there was no telling what kind of trouble Johnny would have gotten into. The faithful canine, whose granddaughter, Lady Sweet Friend, now resided at the Lancer ranch, had been kept very busy keeping Johnny out of fires, watering troughs and out from under the hooves of running horses and cattle.
“Hola, Johnny!” Jim called as the young man rode up.
“Hola! Buenos dias!” Johnny loved the effort Jim put into speaking the language of Johnny’s Mexican ancestors and relatives. He’d grown up speaking as much Spanish as he did English. It was always nice when someone acknowledged his mixed heritage in a positive manner - something that the Talbots always did. Jim Talbot had made a concerted effort to learn Spanish when he realized that many of the good men he could hire were of Mexican origin and not all of them spoke English. Occasionally, as he had this morning, he had a brief chat in Spanish with Johnny – something that delighted the younger man no end.
“You ready to get to work, John?” Jim asked with a grin. “My wife has just been waiting for you to show up so she can crack the whip over you like she has over Willie for the last two hours.”
“I don’t see that it hurt him none,” Johnny grinned cheekily. “He’s got the muscle for loading all those supplies.”
“Better not let Maura hear you say that, Johnny,” Jim poked the younger man in the ribs. “She’ll think you’re getting lazy and deprive you of all your favorite goodies until you show some improvement.”
In truth, Jim knew there was nothing lazy about Johnny Lancer and they both knew that his wife knew it as well but she would get after him if she saw him watching his friends do all the work and Kevin and Rico were already hard at work rearranging the supplies in the back of the wagon. Maura had already overseen the shipping ahead of several other wagonloads of food, clothing, material, seed etc. This was a load of lumber and hardware as well as more food. There was enough lumber to build at least two good-sized houses. All the tools they would need were also being loaded. Barrel after barrel of nails and screws and hinges and crates of canned goods were being loaded. Also enough blankets to keep them warm when they stopped for the night several times along the way up and back.
Maura came out of the house, dressed sensibly as always, this time in a dark brown calico with little pink strawberries and green leaves printed on it. On her head she wore a wide brimmed straw hat, which she tied under her chin with a dark brown ribbon. In her arms she carried a large wooden crate filled with provisions from which she would make breakfast for them along their route. There were several dozen thick roast beef and ham sandwiches to feed herself and the boys for a couple of days and she was sure that one or more of them would be able to bring down a couple of rabbits or game birds to eat when they stopped for the night along the trail. She’d already given Kevin and Rico crates containing cooking utensils and spices as well as flour and lard. Willie had loaded several five-gallon cans of milk and was now seeing to the water barrels that were being carried on the side of the wagon.
“Here, Mrs. Talbot, let me take that from you,” Johnny said as he quickly approached her. “You shouldn’t be carrying such heavy loads.”
“Nonsense, Johnny!” Maura laughed. “I’ve carried heavier loads than that. I’m not an invalid you know!”
“No, ma’am, you’re not,” he agreed with a grin, “but you are a lady and ladies shouldn’t have to carry such heavy stuff. Not while you’ve got me and Kevin and Rico and Willie around.”
For that Johnny received a kiss on the cheek and a smile from his surrogate mother. Jim just stood by smiling indulgently. He knew Maura saw right through Johnny’s charm but it was always fun to see what he’d try to get away with. He’d have relieved his wife of her burden himself if Johnny hadn’t beaten him to it.
Half an hour later the wagon was ready to roll. They would meet up with several other wagonloads of needed items on the road and travel to Antelope together. Maura planned on staying at least a couple of weeks – long enough to distribute the food and clothing and to see that the construction of new houses and such was well under way. She had talked Paul Newsham, a neighbor who had a lot of experience in building houses and a degree in architecture, into overseeing the construction of the houses and stores, as well as the new school, which would double as a church – at least for the time being.
“Now Alex,” Maura lectured as her husband walked with her to the wagon in order to help her up onto the seat, “there’s a kettle of stew and a ham already cooked that you can make sandwiches from. And there are some steaks in the springhouse as well. There’s two dozen eggs – oh don’t forget to gather the eggs every morning! There should be enough butter and cream to last you for a week at least. Becky McIntyre will come by once a week to churn for you. There ought to be enough cream for her to come on Friday which really is the best day for her.” Pausing for a moment to think she started again, “See to it that one of the little boys – or maybe two of them depending on how old they are – weed the garden at least twice a week. I think the Josefina’s eight and ten year-olds, Juanito and Pepé, ought to be able to do that. “
“Oh and Margarita will be by at least once a week to clean house for you and…”
“Maura, dear,” Jim smiled indulgently. “I know all that and I’ve already arranged with Josefina to have Juanito and Pepé come to the main house on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday to do the weeding. She’s lectured them thoroughly on the difference between the vegetables and a weed. I’m sure they’ll do fine. I saw Bill McIntyre in Morro Coyo two days ago and he says that Becky will come by midweek to see if the churning needs to be done. If there’s enough she’ll churn the butter and set the buttermilk aside for me to drink or give to the hands’ children. Pepé is especially fond of buttermilk so if I have too much I’ll be sure to send it along to his mother to give to him. In short, my love, everything is taken care of. Now you just get along on your way before the rest of your little caravan thinks you got lost.”
Leaning down he gave her a kiss and helped her up onto the wagon seat where Willie waited patiently trying not to laugh as he heard her fussing at her husband. Rico, Kevin and Johnny were behind the wagon silently laughing for they didn’t want to embarrass her but they were getting a big kick out of her chatter. She was always like this when she was going somewhere without Jim or vice versa.
“Hey Mr. Talbot,” Johnny said as he reined Barranca around toward the road, “Maria and Teresa said to tell you that if you get tired of your own cooking you’ve got a standing invitation to come over to Lancer. Maybe you can help keep Scott occupied. He’s tired of being sick and he’s tired of being in bed and he’s getting’ pretty grouchy. Even Jelly won’t go near him and you know how Jelly likes to push his ‘coctions’ off on us when we’re sick!”
“I’ll remember that, Johnny,” Jim said with a grin. “Sounds like your brother needs to see somebody besides family and Sam.”
“Yeah, I reckon so,” Johnny said with a grin. “I’m pretty close to wanting to belt him one myself. Seeing a different face might just help at that.”
Maura was settled on the wagon seat by now. Willie clucked to the team and they started off at a steady walk down the road that led to the main road to Green River.
“I’ll see you when you get back,” Jim called to his wife. “You boys take good care of my wife now. Don’t let her overdo!”
“Don’t worry, we won’t,” the group known as the Prankster Posse chorused. “See you in a few weeks.”
“Señor Scott, it’s time for your tea,” Maria said to the patron’s older son.
“Oh, Maria, not more tea! Haven’t I had enough already?”
Scott was lying in bed resting as Sam had ordered. Maria and Teresa had been told to see that he drank plenty of fluids and they had taken Sam seriously. It seemed to Scott that, every hour on the hour, one or the other of the ladies of the house was bringing him boneset tea or willow bark tea or chicken soup or beef broth. He was heartily sick and tired of the invalid’s diet they had him on.
“Sí, more tea. You heard Señor Doctor Sam,” the older Mexican lady said to her patient. “Mucho liquids. Lots of tea, water and broth or soup. Now take this and drink it like a good niño.” She handed him a mug that was twice as large as a normal coffee mug.
“I’m not a little boy, Maria!” Scott protested as his voice cracked from the congestion in his system.
“You act like a little boy, I treat you like a little boy,” the matronly housekeeper/cook said. “Drink. Then take a nap. I will have Señorita Teresa wake you with your supper when it is time.”
“Well, how’s the invalid doing?” Murdoch had just returned from the range to work on the books but had decided to check up on his son first.
“I’m not an invalid!” Scott protested. “I only have a little cold. You all fuss too much. I’ll be fine!”
“He is like a niño – a little boy,” Maria told her employer. “He is more … how you say?”
“Cranky?” Murdoch supplied with a smile.
“Sí! He is more cranky than his hermano when he is sick!”
“Better drink that tea, son, and have it over with or you’re never going to hear the end of it.”
“Señor Doctor Sam said…”
“Yes, I know, Maria,” Murdoch said. “You run along back to the kitchen. I’ll see that Señor Scott finishes his tea.”
Muttering to herself in Spanish about stubborn children, the housekeeper did as her employer bade. Murdoch took a chair from the table in Scott’s room and pulled it up to his son’s bedside.
“How are you feeling, Scott?”
“I’m fine. I’ll be even better when the women in this house stop pushing their awful teas on me every five minutes!”
“Now Scott,” Murdoch chided his son, “you know they’re only obeying Sam’s instructions to keep you warm and hydrated. That, along with the hot baths, are supposed to help that congestion break up so you’ll get better.”
“Well I have a few choice words for the good doctor as well!” Scott was feeling petulant. He was tired of being sick and tired of being in bed.
“Tell you what – if you’re a good boy and drink that tea down, or the broth, that the women bring you, I’ll come up and play a game of chess with you after supper.”
“All right,” Scott said. “But I’m doing it under protest – I still don’t like these teas.”
“Personally I don’t blame you,” his father told him, “but if they help you get over this cold and ward off the pneumonia that’s been threatening then they’re worth it.”
“Good.” Murdoch placed his hand on Scott’s forehead to check for fever. “So far they seem to be at least warding off the high fever you could have,” he told his son. “Just a constant low fever. Frustrating and uncomfortable, I know, but at least it’s low. You finish your tea and take a nap. I’ll see you after supper.”
The tall rancher rose from the chair, put it back in its proper place by the table and quietly left the room. Scott finished his tea, as he’d promised. Then, after placing the cup and saucer on the bedside table, he turned over onto his left side and went to sleep.
“This looks like a good spot to camp for the night,” Maura said to the boys as they approached a spot with a creek and plenty of good grazing for the horses. “Pull over there, Willie and park the wagon.”
The young man did as he was told and soon they were parked off the main road with the other wagons in their little caravan following suit. Willie jumped down off the wagon as the other boys dismounted and immediately began stripping their horses of saddle and bridle. That done Rico put hobbles on Eagle and Kevin did likewise with Cocoa – his bay gelding.
Willie helped Maura down and as she dug around in the back of the wagon to find something to fix for supper, he unhitched their team and led them to water. When they had drunk their fill he hobbled them and turned them loose in the grass to fend for themselves. On his way back he started collecting wood with which to make a fire. He found quite a few dry twigs and small branches that he could use. Carefully scraping and “sweeping” an area in which to build the fire, he laid the fuel down and dug some matches out of his pocket. Carefully he lit the match and touched it to the pine needles, which, in turn, started the small twigs burning. As the twigs caught he was able to add larger sticks until finally, after about five minutes, he had a nice little fire going.
“Johnny? Kevin? Would you get some water please? We’ll want coffee and I’ll need to wash the dishes when we’re through eating.” Maura bustled about putting a meal together with help from Rico. Willie was looking for enough wood to keep their fire going all night. He’d already taken some dried grass and given the draft team a rub down to remove as much of the dried sweat and dirt as he could. In the morning he planned on giving them a proper grooming with the currycomb and brush that Rico had put in the wagon. Working at the Spanish Wells livery stable caused Rico to consider the needs of the horses. While a rubdown with grass was all right for now it wouldn’t be in the morning. The team would need a proper grooming so as to avoid sores from the harness and such.
“Sure, Mrs. T.,” Kevin said.
He was easily the least formal of the group with her. Johnny, Scott and the other two Prankster Posse members were much more formal – in part due to their upbringing. He and Johnny grabbed four buckets and headed for the creek. Fortunately there’d been enough rain the previous winter that it was deep enough to supply their needs.
Kevin took one of his buckets and leaned over to fill it. When he was done he reached for the other one and leaned a little too far. He was able to grab onto a nearby bush but Johnny hooted at him
“Careful there, Kev, or you’re gonna get more than your face and hands wet when you wash up!”
“Very funny,” Kevin glared at his pal.
“I thought it was,” Johnny said with a grin.
When Kevin was through, Johnny took his turn at filling the two buckets he was carrying. On the way back he too slipped and Kevin had his laugh as Johnny’s leather pants and boots got splashed.
“You think that’s funny don’t you?”
“Just as funny as you thought it was when I slipped,” Kevin retorted.
“Just you wait, Kev, I’ll fix you!”
Before they could get any rowdier they heard Maura calling them.
“Boys? Johnny? Kevin? Where are you with that water?”
“Coming!” Johnny glared at Kevin, “I’ll get you later, pal.”
“You can try,” Kevin grinned impudently at his friend as they headed back to the campsite.
“There you are,” Maura said as the two young men approached the campsite. “What took you so long, boys?”
“Oh, we were just having a little ‘talk’,” Kevin said.
“Talk, hmm?” Maura eyed Johnny’s damp pants and Kevin’s muddy boots. “Did this ‘talk’ involve throwing water at each other?”
“No, ma’am!” both young men exclaimed in denial.
“I don’t know whether to believe you two or not,” Maura said. “You’re acting awfully guilty.”
“Bet they were,” Willie said with a grin. “Or maybe it’s more like they got clumsy.”
“Sí,” Rico chimed in. “You know now they are Señora. Always playing around.”
“That’s true, Rico, dear,” Maura smiled with a gleam in her eye, “but you and Willie are just as guilty of it – especially if Johnny and Kevin are around.”
Turning back to the fire she gave the pot of stew she had suspended over it a stir. The smell of it was making the boys hungry. There was nothing quite like a good stew and Maura’s was the best there was as far as they were concerned. Of course she knew that the compliments they were dishing out about it had more to do with the fact that they were very hungry than the fact that her stew was any better than that which Willie or Kevin’s mothers could make. Or the stew that Teresa or Maria made in the kitchen at Lancer. She just smiled indulgently as she ladled stew onto plates for each of the four boys. She had had Willie slice up a loaf of fresh bread and get the crock containing the butter out. It wasn’t long before the aroma of fresh brewed coffee filled the air as well. For dessert she had made peach cobbler and brought it along for it was quite popular with these four young men.
For several minutes there was no sound from the boys except for the sounds of forks scraping against tin plates and cups being set down on the ground. Contented sighs came from each one of them as they finished their supper. Johnny finally broke the silence.
“That was great, Mrs. Talbot,” he said. “You sure do know how to cook!”
“I should hope so, Johnny, dear,” Maura smiled at the younger Lancer son. “I’ve been doing it since I was younger than Teresa and I enjoy it. I happen to know, though, that your father enjoys cooking once in a while, too – and not just over a campfire. He can be real gourmet if he sets his mind to it.”
When all had finished Maura took the tin washtub that she’d brought along from off the side of the wagon and filled it with cold water. Then she added some hot water that she’d had warming near the fire and shaved some soap into it. In short order she had the dishes they’d used washed and the boys had dried them and stacked them neatly inside the wagon to be used in the morning.
When it came time to turn in for the night there was a minor battle between the boys and Maura. Their beloved surrogate mother was determined that she was going to sleep on the ground just like the boys were. They were just as determined that she was not.
“Don’t be silly, boys,” Maura said as she tried, unsuccessfully, to make up a bed for herself on the ground under the wagon. “I’ve slept out under the stars many times and been none the worse for it.”
“That may be, Mrs. Talbot,” Johnny said, “but you ain’t gonna do it while I’m around. You just sit over there while the four of us unload the wagon and fix you a proper bed – well as proper as it can be under the circumstances – in the wagon.”
Kevin took the blankets away from her as Rico and Willie escorted her to a seat on a nearby rock. When they had done so they returned to where Kevin and Johnny were already unloading the wagon. So many of the supplies were in crates and barrels that it wasn’t hard and they had it unloaded in a matter of minutes. Then they took at least half dozen blankets to cushion the wagon bed for Maura.
“Boys! You’re going to have to load all that stuff up again in the morning! I can sleep on the ground just as well as you can!”
“That don’t make no never mind,” Johnny reaffirmed their stand on the issue. “It won’t take hardly any time at all with all four of us doing it. You’re sleeping in the wagon and that’s all there is to it!”
In the face of their determination to spoil her, Maura gave in – albeit reluctantly. She enjoyed sleeping out under the stars and had done so many times when she and Jim had come to Morro Coyo looking for a place to settle and again when their boys were small. However, it was a small price to pay to make these four special young men happy. If sleeping in the wagon was what they wanted her to do then she’d sleep in the wagon. She kissed each one of them on the cheek before allowing Johnny to give her a boost in to the back of the wagon where she proceeded to make herself comfortable – relatively comfortable – in the nest of blankets they’d prepared for her.
The four young men who were accompanying Maura Talbot on her errand of mercy gradually settled down for the night at their campsite. Not without a lot of teasing and wisecracks about what would happen to the first one of them that snored and kept the others awake. Maura smiled to herself as she listened. They were all so lively and mischievous. In some ways, though they were young men, they didn’t seem any older than Kevin had been when he’d first moved into the area. No older than her boys had been in the years just prior to the war. They acted so much like children sometimes but she wouldn’t have it any other way. Johnny, in particular, though he never talked much about it, hadn’t had a chance to grow up like most boys. His mother had kept them on the run, hiding from his father, for years. He’d not had much chance to form friendships that would last. Meeting Rico, Willie and Kevin had been a very good thing for him. They, along with his family, provided him with a sense of belonging that he hadn’t had in many years.
“Good night, boys,” she called as they got just a little too rowdy.
“Good night, Mrs. Talbot,” the four of them chorused.
“We need an early start so you’d best get to sleep now,” she told them.
“Yes, ma’am,” Johnny said.
Not long after that they were all sleeping soundly. They didn’t waken until just before dawn.
Snuggling into his comfortable bed, Jim Talbot pulled his wife’s pillow close to him. Although she and the boys had been gone less than twenty-four hours he already missed her a lot. Thirty-five years of togetherness made for long, lonely nights when one of them was away. With a sigh he rolled over and went to sleep. Morning would come soon enough and with it a multitude of chores to take care of and work assignments to give out.
‘Maybe I’ll ride over to Lancer for supper tomorrow night,’ he thought to himself. ‘Johnny said I had a standing invitation from Maria and Teresa. I could check up on Scott and have dinner. Maybe play a game or two of chess with Murdoch. I haven’t beaten him for a while – maybe it’s time I brought his ego down a peg or two.’
Jim grinned in the darkness. He and Murdoch had had a running battle over the chessboard for thirty years. Murdoch won as many games as he lost but Jim couldn’t resist the urge to verbally spar with him over who was the better chess player.
Yes, it seemed likely that the owner of the Bar-T would be paying Lancer a call tomorrow night right along suppertime. No matter what Maria and Teresa were serving it would be a darn sight better than his cooking.
Murdoch opened the door quietly and looked in on his elder son. Scott appeared to be resting comfortably for the moment. His father certainly hoped so. It wasn’t often that Scott got sick but when he did he was usually miserable in more ways than one. This time was no different from the rest.
Scott’s constant low fever was resisting all of the medicinal teas that Teresa and Maria had been giving him which, in turn, made him grouchy for he hated – no detested – those teas. The more they tried to get him to drink the crankier he got which led to Maria’s earlier comments about Scott acting like a little boy. Some would say he’d been hanging around with his little brother too long for normally Scott was a pretty reasonable person.
Just as quietly as he’d opened the door Murdoch walked over to the bed to get a closer look at Scott. Scott’s face was a little bit flushed but Murdoch didn’t think it looked any worse than it had earlier. Reaching down he pulled the covers up over Scott’s shoulders, brushed the hair back from his son’s face and then turned, and left the room as quietly as he’d entered. Scott never heard him though he may have sensed something as he moaned slightly in his sleep when his father’s hand touched his forehead.
In the hallway he met Teresa who was headed for Scott’s room herself. A word from her guardian that Scott was doing all right and the girl kissed him good night and continued on to her own room to retire for the night.
The smell of bacon frying and coffee brewing woke the four young men the next morning. Hastily getting out of their bedrolls they found Maura Talbot already up, washed and preparing breakfast.
“Sure smells good, Mrs. Talbot,” Willie said.
“Sure does!” Johnny agreed. “What time did you get up? You’ve got breakfast just about ready and we’re just rolling out.”
“I’ve been up for about an hour,” Maura replied. “Read my Bible, did some praying as I worked, and started the fire up again. I haven’t fed the horses nor have I gotten any more water than I needed to make coffee with. Willie and Rico can get the water this time and Johnny, you and Kevin can tend to the horses. Make sure they get water and some oats. They’re going to work hard this trip and we must take proper care of them.”
Yes, ma’am,” the boys chorused as they went off to do her bidding. By the time Willie and Rico had brought enough water to wash dishes with, Johnny and Kevin had fed and watered the horses and all four of them had cleaned up, their breakfast was ready. Maura had bacon, eggs, biscuits and freshly brewed coffee ready and waiting for them. She’d brought out a crock of butter and a jar of honey that she’d packed. It didn’t take the four young men long to eat. As soon as Maura was through washing the dishes, with help from Kevin and Willie, the boys packed the wagon again.
Maura had donned her wide brimmed straw hat again and was assisted up to the seat of the wagon by Willie who would continue to drive – for a while anyway. Maura planned on seeing that all four boys took a turn at the driving so that nobody rode all the time and no one person got stuck with the driving. The boys wouldn’t consider it being stuck, for they loved Maura dearly, but she wanted the labor to be evenly divided among them.
Around noontime they stopped by a little brook to have lunch and rest the team. It was a short break and they quickly got on their way again. It was at suppertime that the boys got into a little mischief. They were, as Maura put it, high-spirited young men and they had to turn off a little energy.
Kevin and Johnny were sent to get water for the horses and to refill the water barrels they were hauling on the side of the wagon. The ground by the pond they were camped at was a bit slippery and more than once the boys nearly fell.
When Johnny leaned over to fill the canteens he was carrying Kevin pounced like a tiger. With Johnny distracted by his chore Kevin decided to take advantage of the fact that his pal was not standing on stable ground. He snuck up behind him and gave him a little shove with his right foot. Johnny went flying face down into the pond getting soaked from his head to his waist. His shirt was clinging to him like a second skin and his hair, that long, black mop that Maura was always threatening to take her scissors to, was hanging down in his face. His eyes were blazing when he regained his feet and he went after Kevin who, prudently, was making his way back to the camp figuring that Maura would protect him. He thought wrong.
“Johnny! What happened to you? How’d you get so wet? Surely you didn’t fall in the pond!” Maura was surprised to see her young friend in the condition he was in.
“No, ma’am,” Johnny replied. “I didn’t ‘fall’ in.”
“Kevin James Millar! Did you push Johnny into the water?” Maura’s brown eyes snapped fire at the young rancher.
“Well, kinda,” Kevin said with a grin ignoring her flashing brown eyes. “He was already halfway there – I just helped him along the rest of the way.”
The other two members of the Prankster Posse echoed his laughter. Maura turned her wrath on them as well.
“Boys! It’s not funny! What if there had been a rock there where Johnny fell? He could have been hurt!”
“Yeah!” Johnny pouted seeing that his surrogate mother was on his side. “I coulda been hurt!”
“Nah!” Kevin retorted. “It’d take more than an itty bitty rock to dent that thick skull of yours!”
“Is that so?”
“Yeah, that’s so,” Kevin grinned impudently.
“Boys!” Maura spoke up quickly before things could get out of hand. “Enough of that now. If you’re through filling the water barrels it would be a good idea to get them loaded back on the wagon. Willie, you go with them and make sure they don’t get into another argument. Rico, you see to the horses and make sure that they’re well rested and ready to go. We leave in fifteen minutes so you’d better hustle.”
A few days later, as darkness fell upon the Bar T, Jim Talbot made his weary way home from chasing a small herd of runaway horses. One of his geldings had figured out how to open a fence gate and had let himself and a dozen or more of his buddies loose from the pasture they were in. Jim was going to have Willie and Rico take a look at that gate when they returned. Willie worked as the Bar T’s handyman and Rico, like Johnny, had a way with the horses. If they couldn’t figure out how to fix the gate, so that old gelding couldn’t get it open and lead a mass runaway again, nobody could.
Jim walked into the dark house and made his way to the kitchen where he warmed up some stew that Maura had made a few days earlier. Finding some bread in the pantry he cut a couple of thick slabs and spread butter on them. He didn’t bother with coffee since he was alone but drank a couple of glasses of cold water instead. He might feel differently about coffee in the morning but he could always wander down to the bunkhouse and get some. He might even indulge in a little penny ante poker while Maura was away. He was by no means an inveterate gambler but, once in a while, just for the fun of it, he would join with the men in their nightly games. Usually when Maura was away because she didn’t approve and would make him give the money to the church or something. He didn’t mind – much. Once in a while he’d like to be able to keep the little bit he won but it wasn’t worth her disapproval and disappointment in him if he did.
Bone weary Jim went to his room, donned his nightshirt and sank into his bed whispering a prayer, before he fell asleep, for the safety of his wife and the young men accompanying her. He was asleep seconds after his head hit the pillow.
The stillness of the night was broken by the sound of a voice mumbling incoherently. As Murdoch went past Scott’s room on his way to bed he heard his son moaning and crying out in panic.
“No! Johnny! No. Watch out!”
Murdoch went quickly to his son’s bedside to find Scott’s head whipping back and forth. He appeared to be in the grip of a nightmare. Wringing the excess cold water out of a cloth that was in the washbasin on Scott’s dresser, he walked over and laid it on his son’s forehead and gently shook him to wake him.
“Scott. Wake up son.”
“Johnny! No, stop!”
“Scott!” Murdoch shook his son a little harder. This time Scott’s eyes opened and he looked at his father in confusion.
“Are you all right, son?” the senior Lancer queried. “You were yelling pretty good for a minute there.” Murdoch walked back to the small, round table near the window and poured his son a glass of water.
“Yes, I think so.” Gratefully Scott took the glass his father handed him. “Did I say anything special?”
“You seemed to have been dreaming about your brother.” Murdoch put the glass on the table by the bed before crossing the room again to sit at his son’s bedside. “I got the distinct impression that you thought he was in trouble.”
“I-I-I think you’re right,” Scott stammered a bit unsure. “I think I dreamed that Johnny was hurt somehow and needed me.”
“I’m sure your brother is fine,” Murdoch soothed his ailing and distraught son. “He’s with Maura Talbot, remember? She won’t let him get into any trouble. She won’t let any of them get into trouble. Maura always keeps a tight rein on them – and you – when you’re with her.”
“The dream was so real, though,” Scott said.
“I’m sure it was,” his father said. “It seems to me that your fever has gone up some instead of coming down. Tomorrow I think we’ll try a warm bath instead of a hot one and see if that helps. Maybe some lavender will calm you. If your fever doesn’t go down in a couple of days we’ll have Sam back out here to take another look at you.”
Scott grimaced. “That means more teas! I’d rather not see Sam if he’s going to prescribe more teas. I could float away on the tea and other liquids that Maria and Teresa have been forcing on me lately.”
His father smiled and patted his shoulder. “Never mind, Scott. We’ll try the bath and maybe I can talk the ladies of the house into feeding you something a little more substantial tomorrow.” Pulling the covers back up over his son’s shoulder he added, “You try to go back to sleep now. If it makes you feel any better I’ll send a telegram to the nearest town to Antelope that has a telegraph office and have it delivered to Maura. She’ll tell us if there’s anything wrong.”
“No, I wouldn’t want to bother her,” Scott said. “I’m sure she’s very busy. Mrs. Talbot doesn’t need to worry about me on top of everything else she’s doing.” With a grin of his own he added, “Keeping my little brother and his pals out of trouble is a full time job. I’m sure she’ll be ready for a vacation when she gets back after a month of managing those four.”
As Murdoch rose to leave, Johnny’s collie (for that was how she thought of herself), Lady Sweet Friend came in from her nightly tour of the house and grounds. Ever since Scott had taken ill and been forced to take to his bed, Lady had made a habit of coming in and staying with him. It was only because he’d been sleeping peacefully for the time being that she had left the room, and then the house, to make a circuit of the area ensuring that all was well with animals and humans alike. She’d had a special treat from Jelly, ignored Dewdrop when he honked at her (Dewdrop was merely tolerated by her), said “good-night” to Ranger and the other horses in the stable and corrals and had her share of pats and sweet talk from the ranch hands in the bunkhouse. Now it was time to take up her post and keep an eye on Scott. She didn’t know what had happened but she could sense that something had gone wrong so she settled down for the night on the floor beside Scott’s bed to keep a vigil until morning.
It took a week of hard traveling before the Maura and her caravan arrived in Antelope. In that time there had been several other dunking incidents, wet clothes thrown in faces when they stopped early one afternoon to allow everyone to do some laundry, wisecracks about snoring and other silliness from the boys. As long as it didn’t go too far she didn’t say anything. However, if she thought they were getting too rowdy, or setting a bad example for the few youngsters that were along, she put her foot down and they listened.
Maura seldom lost her temper, and it was always with good reason, so when the boys’ rowdiness resulted in clean laundry landing in mud she blew her top and the boys had to redo the laundry under her supervision. This was something that only Johnny had any kind of experience with for the other three had had their mothers all their lives to do it for them. Johnny, having been on his own while working as a gunfighter, had learned to do some of the domestic chores his mama had done when he was small. He wasn’t by any means a great cook but he could manage to fry fish and roast rabbits and small birds over a campfire. By sundown that day, all was forgiven when the boys not only folded the laundry and put it away but they picked some wildflowers by way of apology and did the dishes by themselves without being asked. Maura smiled and forgave them as she always did. Her own three would probably have done the same thing.
“I knew it would be bad,” Maura said as they rode into Antelope late one afternoon, “but I didn’t know that half the town had been destroyed!”
All around them, on both sides of the road, there were buildings that had been gutted by the fire. Some were burned out shells of the original structures. Others were nothing more than a few charred beams and boards. Tents were erected for the residents whose homes had been destroyed. Exhausted men with red-rimmed eyes were hauling trash to a nearby field. Other residents, including some of the women were picking through the trash to see what, if anything, could be salvaged.
Finding a good place to stop Willie halted the team, climbed down from the wagon and helped Maura down. A large tent on the east side of town had a red cross painted on the sides of the roof. She rightly assumed that this was the temporary hospital and went inside in search of the doctor in charge.
“Dr. Holmes?” she called as she stepped inside the hospital tent.
“Yes? Over here. What is it you need?”
“Dr. Holmes, I’m Maura Talbot from Morro Coyo. I’ve come with several wagons of food, medical supplies and building materials as well as clothing and material. Where would you like it unloaded?”
“Wagons did you say?” the doctor, of medium height with dark hair and glasses asked. “Wagons?”
“Yes, doctor, ten of them.”
“Woman, you are an angel!” the man exclaimed.
“No, I’m no angel.” Maura smiled indulgently. “Just a woman doing her Christian duty and lending a helping hand where it’s needed.” Taking him by the arm she said, “Come with me. I’ll show you what we’ve got and you can tell the boys where to unload it. Then it’s time for you to take a break and have something to eat.”
When the man tried to argue she said, “I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, doctor. I’ve heard all about the long hours you’ve been keeping and I can tell by looking at you that you’re exhausted. Now come along.”
Johnny and the other boys just grinned as “Mother” Talbot took charge of the man. It wasn’t long before they were unloading the medical supplies in a corner of the hospital tent. When that was done they set up a campsite for Maura and themselves. Willie and Rico unloaded the building supplies while Kevin and Johnny set the foodstuffs to one side and all four of them, under orders from Maura who was busy in the hospital, directed the drivers of the other wagons where to unload their supplies.
It was a busy couple of hours before anyone had time to stop and think about cooking, let alone relaxing with some supper. The sun was going down as the campfires came to life and the air was filled with the smell of coffee and hot food.
The wagon teams were unhitched, groomed and hobbled before being set loose in a nearby field to forage for themselves. They had had oats on the journey but now they wouldn’t be working as hard and wouldn’t need the oats that were being saved for the trip back to Morro Coyo.
The weary travelers were asleep shortly after dark but on their feet early to begin nursing and clean up chores. There would be a lot of clean up before they could start to rebuild. It was at Maura’s insistence that the good doctor, himself, join them for supper and leave the care of his patients in the hands of his apparently capable assistants while he himself, got some much-needed rest.
They were up before the crack of dawn eating a hastily prepared breakfast that Maura fixed for them. As soon as they were finished the dishes were washed and they all got to work.
Maura went to the temporary hospital and made herself acquainted with the other volunteers and got an idea of what they were up against. There were some burn cases and a couple of men with broken bones but mostly it was the dreaded influenza. It was this same disease that Maura had treated Johnny and Scott for a couple of years ago so she was well prepared to treat the worst cases with mustard and onion poultices. Smelly these cures may have been but she knew that the onion poultices she’d prepared, with Maria’s help, had saved Johnny’s life when he was suffocating on the congestion in his chest.
The boys, all four of them, went to work making sure that there were no smoldering fires among the wreckage. They hauled trash away by the wagonload and dug trenches a quarter of a mile away where the medical waste and all human waste from slop jars could be disposed of without contaminating the nearby drinking water supply.
When they weren’t doing this they were, under Maura’s direction, moving patients out of the hospital tent into a surviving structure that had been scrubbed from top to bottom with hot water and lye soap. When it was cleaned to Maura’s satisfaction, and she was fussier even than the doctor was, the boys moved cots in. When the cots were in place then they moved the patients in.
They worked hard all morning not stopping for lunch until it was well past noon. Even then it was a very brief stop and the group from Morro Coyo wolfed down sandwiches and coffee before returning to their respective chores.
With the patients all moved the boys now turned their attention to tearing down buildings that were beyond repair. They took heavy ropes from the wagons and tied them to the beams. If manpower wasn’t enough to pull the destroyed buildings down then they tied the ropes to one of the teams of draft horses and let them do the work. It was a hot, sweaty job that left the four young men with soot stained clothes, hands and faces.
Late in the afternoon the sound of a small child crying got the attention of the Prankster Posse and they went to investigate. What they found was a five-year-old girl who had been stung by a bee. Johnny scooped the child up and took her to the nearest mud puddle. There he took a handful of mud and plastered it on the affected area. After leaving it for a few minutes he washed the mud off and repeated the procedure before taking her to Maura to be looked over.
Maura praised Johnny for his treatment – it was one she had always applied for single bee stings – and sent him to find the child’s parents. When he had done so he brought them to the hospital tent where they took charge of the little one and took her home. They were one of the few families that actually still had a livable home in the town.
No sooner had Johnny relinquished his charge to her parents than Rico came in with a pair of ten-year-old boys who had gotten into a patch of poison ivy while playing tag.
“Rico, have you seen any yerba sarita or manzanita around here?” Maura asked the young Mexican man.
“Sí, Señora Talbot, I have,” he replied.
“Good. Get me some of their leaves or flowers and leaves from a gum tree if you can find one. We’ll make a poultice by boiling the leaves and apply it to the areas that have been contaminated.” Turning to Willie who was right behind Rico with a small group of children who had been playing with them, she said, “Willie, I’ll need a pot with boiling water to make the poultice. Also find a washtub somewhere and some soap. These children will need a cold, soapy bath several times in order to make sure that they don’t get infected again.”
Kevin came along at that moment with yet another group of children who had been exposed to the poison ivy.
“Mrs. T.?” Kevin called as he entered the hospital building. “I’ve got a bunch of kids here that got into some poison ivy. What do you want me to do with them?”
“My goodness!” Maura exclaimed. “We’re going to have an epidemic of poison ivy rashes to go along with the colds and influenza we’ve been treating! Kevin, when Johnny gets back I want you and him to take the boys over to our camp and give them all a good bath, in cold water, three or four times. Maybe we’ll avoid the poison ivy rashes that way. I’ll have Willie set up a tub, here in the kitchen, to give the girls the same treatment. I believe that Mrs. Crowley is in the kitchen now. Please go by and tell her that I’ll need her assistance. I’ll get some towels together.” She turned to go but hesitated briefly to add, “We’ll need to wash the children’s clothes to make sure we get the oil from the plants out of it or they’ll just become infected when they put them back on again.”
The four young men from Morro Coyo hastened to do her bidding. In short order Rico had collected enough manzanita leaves, and flowers and leaves from some nearby gum trees to make enough liquid for poultices for all the children, plus themselves for by helping the children they’d become exposed and contaminated themselves. Fortunately they were old enough to be trusted to take a long cold bath themselves, which they did as soon as they were through setting up for their surrogate mother.
Mrs. Crowley was a middle-aged widow who had raised six children of her own and she was a tremendous help when it came to nursing and first aid, as well as managing to make nourishing meals for all of the patients. She’d had experience with onion poultices too, and together with Maura Talbot, had made enough of them to clear up the congestion in the worst influenza patients. Most of the patients were doing well enough to eat regular foods but there were still some that needed nourishing broths and soups. The two women took turns preparing the liquid diets and feeding them to their weakest patients who were, gradually, becoming stronger. There was no way Maura was leaving until she was sure that Dr. Jack Holmes could manage without her help. She didn’t want him to wear himself out and become ill.
Supper that night was roasted quail that Johnny had caught in snares he’d set out the night before. The four young men were ravenous and fell on the birds like there was no tomorrow. Maura, of course, was more ladylike, but she was very hungry as well for she’d barely taken time to eat a sandwich that Rachel Crowley had made for her at noontime that day. It didn’t take long for the weary group to fall asleep. The boys slept outside while Maura had been provided with a makeshift tent courtesy of Willie. He’d enlisted Rico’s help and they’d used the canvas that had covered their load of food and clothing during the trip to Antelope. Everyone slept soundly all night and woke up before dawn ready to start another day.
It had been a long, lonely three weeks since his wife left with the boys for Antelope and Jim Talbot was heartily sick and tired of his own cooking. He’d joined the men in the cook shack a few times but his cook wasn’t as good as Maura and his desserts were horrible. Jim made a mental note to himself to try and find himself a cook that wouldn’t have all the men threatening to skin him alive for trying to poison them. It was the pay and the fact that Jim was an honest and generous employer that kept them at the Bar T.
It was nearly eight o’clock by Jim’s watch when a large Mexican vaquero was seen riding up toward the house where Jim was just exiting to join one of the crews he had cutting down damaged trees for firewood.
“Buenos Dias, Señor Talbot!” the man called as he approached the tall blond rancher.
“Good morning to you as well, Cipriano,” Jim replied with a smile. “How are things at Lancer?”
“Some good, some not so good,” the Lancer Segundo replied.
“Oh? Murdoch’s all right, isn’t he? Señorita Teresa?”
“Sí, the patron and the chica are fine,” was the reply.
“What about Señor Scott?” Jim knew that Scott had been sick before Maura left but not seriously or she wouldn’t have considered going on this trip – errand of mercy or not.
“He continues to run the fever,” Cipriano said. “Not high but enough to make him not feel well. The patron looks worried but says nothing. Maria and Señorita Teresa – they give him the broths and juice and the medicine Doctor Jenkins ordered – but still he does not get better enough to get out of bed and back to work. I do not like it.”
“I don’t blame you, Cipriano,” Jim said. “My wife would be there in an instant if she were home but she’s not due back yet.”
“This we know, Señor,” Cipriano replied reassuringly. “But that is not why I came here this morning. Maria and Señorita Teresa said to come over and tell you to make sure you come to supper tonight. Six o’clock and don’t be late they said.” Cipriano grinned. “The ladies were most adamant about it. I think they miss Juanito and they believe that you’re going to starve if they don’t feed you every night.”
“I’ve been over there several times,” Jim chuckled. “but you’re right - they’re convinced I’ll starve if they don’t feed me. By the way, where did you learn the word adamant? It’s never been part of your vocabulary in all the years I’ve known you. Have you been taking English lessons from Señor Scott again?”
Cipriano just grinned as Jim assured him that he would be there, at Lancer, for dinner promptly at six o’clock. The big Mexican bade the other man good-bye and headed back toward Lancer while Jim mounted Pintauro and headed off to join his work crew.
“Why Miss Teresa, how lovely you look,” Jim said as he walked in the door to the Great Room that night.
Teresa giggled, “Thank you very much Mr. Talbot.”
It was a running joke between them as Jim had known Teresa all her life and he always complimented her on how nice she looked. This was no exception and Teresa was wearing boys’ pants and a shirt that was a little bit too big for her. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail with a blue ribbon.
“Jim! Good to see you!” Murdoch’s voice boomed as he rose to shake hands with his friend.
“Thanks. It’s good to see you as well. Something sure smells good.”
“Maria’s baking pork chops and potatoes with applesauce and corn to go with them,” Teresa informed their guest.
“Sounds good.” Jim grinned, “Of course anything sounds good after a week of my own cooking. I sure will be glad when my wife gets back.”
“You could learn how to cook for yourself, you know,” Murdoch teased his friend.
“Right. You know how well those lessons went over.” Jim grimaced. “My wife is the most patient woman in the world but I’m afraid I tried that patience to its breaking point when she gave me lessons. Especially when I destroyed her favorite kettle boiling potatoes.”
“How’d you manage that, Mr. Talbot?” Teresa had never heard this story.
“I put too much wood in the stove and didn’t keep an eye on the potatoes. The water boiled off, the potatoes stuck to the pan and I was never able to get it clean enough for her to use for anything even remotely edible again.” Jim blushed, “It was one of the worst days of my entire life. Unlike Murdoch, here, I never really enjoyed cooking anyway. I like it even less now.” With a big smile for the little brunette member of the Lancer family he added, “Why worry about it when I have you and Maria to cook for me when my wife is away.”
“That sounds suspiciously like a hint, Mr. Talbot,” Teresa smiled.
“Well, I did get a message from Johnny, the day they left, that I had an open invitation to visit and have supper with you any time I felt like it. I guess you could say I finally felt like it.”
“You know you’re always welcome,” Murdoch told his friend. “Now come in the living room and have a seat. I’m sure dinner will be ready shortly.”
Teresa parted ways with the men to return to the kitchen and make sure that everything was coming along well. Checking the dining room table, she added wine glasses – though she knew that Jim Talbot would have water, or grape juice, in his and ensured that all the plates and silverware they would need were in place.
The men took seats in the Great Room. Murdoch sat on the far end of the sofa while Jim sat in one of the chairs. It was, by Victorian standards, a comfortable room but not overly lavish. Jim’s own living room, at the Bar T, was much the same – a sofa, a few chairs, a couple of small tables with lamps and one large rock fireplace. The walls were covered with bookshelves and a few paintings. Murdoch’s living room had a few bookshelves near one of the doors but that was it. Jim was a bookworm – something he had in common with Scott.
“How’s Scott doing, Murdoch?” Jim asked. “Cipriano says he’s not so good.”
“He’s no worse but he’s no better either, I’m afraid,” the anxious father said. “Sam was here and he admits defeat. That fever Scott’s had refuses to come down and, in fact, it’s gone higher at night. To top things off he’s started having fever induced nightmares about Johnny. He tries to hide it but he’s got circles under his eyes that show that he’s not sleeping well. Sam believes that that’s one of the reasons the fever won’t go away. Scott’s worried and he won’t relax and let his body heal.” Murdoch sighed and took a sip of his Scotch. “Frankly, I’m worried.”
“Well, I have something here that may help,” Jim said with a smile as he reached into his jacket pocket and took out a folded piece of paper. “A telegram came from Maura. She and the boys will be starting home a week from today. She says that the influenza epidemic has slacked off to next to nothing – just a few isolated cases. The removal of the burned buildings and other trash has been completed and new houses and such are being built.” He added with a grin, “She also says that there have been no major incidents with the boys – they’re all behaving themselves quite well. For them anyway.”
He went on to explain that Maura was sending a detailed letter, complete with their itinerary, by the first person that was coming back their way before she and the boys left. He’d just finished explaining about the wire when Teresa called them to the dinner table.
“Dinner’s ready, you two,” she called. “Maria’s about to serve so you’d better get to the table.”
“Murdoch, after dinner, if it’s all right with you,” Jim said as he put the telegram back in his pocket, “I’d like to go up and see Scott for a few minutes. Maybe my telling him about the telegram will put his mind at ease and he’ll start sleeping better.”
“Of course, you can go up and see him,” Murdoch said. “As for his sleeping better …well let’s just say when he’s convinced he’s right he doesn’t easily let go of his ideas.”
“Well, I can guess where he gets that from,” Jim gibed. “You’re no pushover yourself, my friend. Look how long it took me to convince you to switch to Hereford cattle.”
“You haven’t convinced me completely, Jim,” Murdoch retorted. “You know the majority of my herd is still shorthorns and mavericks.”
“Stubborn thy name is Lancer,” Jim laughed. “You’re impossible. It’s that Scottish thrift,” he said as they sat down at the table. “You just don’t want to spend the money if you can help it. You think you’re saving by having the shorthorns ready to go to market sooner but you’re not and one of these days I’m going to show you how wrong you are!”
“You can try, Jim,” Murdoch laughed as well. “You can surely try.”
Scott was sleeping fitfully when Jim quietly entered the room. His face was flushed and he was turning his head from side to side, mumbling as he did so. It was evident to Jim that what Murdoch had told him was true – Scott wasn’t getting any better in spite of all of Sam’s medicines and the ladies medicinal teas. Right then and there he wished there were a way to get his wife back quicker for Murdoch’s boys always responded well to her treatment – even if that treatment were exactly what Sam prescribed.
Walking over to the nightstand Jim picked up the pitcher of cool water that was sitting there and poured some into the basin. Then he picked up the clean washcloth that one or the other of the ladies had left there and soaked it in the water. Wringing it out, he placed it on Scott’s head and pulled a chair up to the younger man’s bedside.
“Scott? Scott, you’re all right son,” Jim said soothingly as he wiped Scott’s face with another cloth. “Wake up, I’ve got something to tell you that might make you feel better.”
Scott’s eyes fluttered open but he was disoriented for a minute or two. Jim patiently talked to him until awareness came into the other man’s eyes.
“Well, I was beginning to think you were going to sleep through my visit,” Jim teased Scott gently.
“Sorry, Mr. Talbot,” Scott said. “I didn’t know you were coming or I’d have come downstairs.”
“No, you wouldn’t have,” Jim told him severely. “You’re too sick and my wife would have your head if she thought you tried something like that. You wouldn’t like to end up over my knee either would you? You’re not so big that I couldn’t do it if I felt it was necessary.”
Scott grimaced in mock horror. “No, sir, I wouldn’t like to wind up over your knee. You are a little bigger than me and I bet you still pack a wallop when necessary.”
“That’s better. Now what’s this I hear about you worrying about your little brother? He’s in good hands with my wife – you know that.”
“I know, but I keep having these dreams,” Scott said. He was completely comfortable admitting these things to Jim Talbot for the man had known his, Scott’s mother, before Scott was born and had mourned her death almost as hard as Maura had. Maura and Catherine had been great friends in the short amount of time they’d known each other. “Every time I fall asleep, it seems, I dream that Johnny’s been hurt. How he’s hurt changes every time but mostly it’s a fall or a gunshot.”
“Scott, you worry too much,” Jim said. Reaching into his pocket he took out the telegram. “I got a wire from Maura today. She says that they’re wrapping up their end of the work and will be leaving for home shortly. She’s going to send a letter by way of a messenger with the details of when they leave and the route they’re taking. She says everyone is fine. A bit tired, perhaps, from working as hard as they have, but in good health. They should be home in a couple of weeks.”
“That’s good news,” Scott said with a faint smile. “I’ll be glad when they get back. I think I even miss Johnny’s prank playing pals at this point.”
Removing the cloth from Scott’s forehead, Jim said, “ As soon as the letter arrives I’ll be stopping by to let your father know the details. I have to let Andrew, Manuel and John know as well when they’ll be arriving. I’m sure they’re as anxious to see their boys as your father is to see Johnny.” Putting the chair back in place he added, “Now you just go to sleep and try to relax. Everything’s fine. I’ve got to leave now if I want to get home at a decent hour. I don’t want Pintauro to come up lame when we try to follow that shortcut we created between our places. It’s pretty dark and it’s narrow and steep as well. I’ll see you in a few days.”
“Good night, Mr. Talbot, Thank you for coming.” Scott closed his eyes and tried to fall asleep again.
“Good night, Scott,” Jim said as he quietly left and closed the door.
The promised letter from Maura arrived three days later. In it she detailed what had transpired (nicely omitting the practical jokes the boys had played and how they’d had to do laundry to make up for the load that they had accidentally dumped in the mud). It also told how the work was progressing, that the influenza epidemic was over with as well as the route they would be taking home.
In part it read: “So we will be leaving on Monday and take the road through Hunter’s Paradise as it will cut off about twenty miles of our journey. It shouldn’t be too rough at this time of year and we only have the one wagon, which is empty of everything except water barrels and our personal things. We plan to ‘live off the land’ as Johnny puts it. By that he means that he and the other boys plan on being ‘mighty hunters’ and bringing down game birds and catching fish. While things are looking better in Antelope they still don’t have much food to spare and we decided that doing it Johnny’s way would leave the good people of Antelope with enough to tide them over until the next shipment for the general store arrives.
We expect that we will be home Wednesday. At the latest we will be home on Friday. We are all quite anxious to get home to our families. I know Johnny is anxious about Scott. We wouldn’t have left him if we’d thought he was very ill but he seemed to be doing all right. But you know Johnny – he’s as much of a fussbudget when Scott’s sick as Scott is when Johnny is sick. And both of them are ten times worse than Teresa or Maria!
Willie and Rico send their love to their families and want them to know that they miss them. You know we’ve been gone a long time when Kevin admits that he even misses Kelly since he’s always considered his little sister to be a pest. I’m anxious to get back to you, our house and my gardens. I do hope that Pepé and the other boys have been taking good care of them.
Your loving wife,
Jim finished reading the letter to Murdoch with a chuckle as he folded it and put it back in his jacket pocket. Then he grinned at the amused look on Murdoch’s face.
“She never changes does she?” Murdoch asked his friend. “Always fussing about you and the home when she’s gone.”
“Yep,” Jim drawled. “She does that all right.”
“Have you seen Andrew or the others since you got that letter?”
“Yes,” Jim replied. “I saw Andrew in Spanish Wells the day after I got this. And I saw John and Manuel a day later. You’re my last stop. I thought I’d come over and bring you the news so you can let Scott know that they’re safe and on their way home.”
He reached for the glass of lemonade Teresa had given him upon arrival and drained its contents. Wiping his mouth on a napkin he rose to leave. Murdoch walked with him to the hitch rail where Pintauro stood waiting patiently with the cinch to his saddle having been loosened by his considerate owner upon arrival at Lancer. Jim tightened it and mounted easily.
“How’s Scott doing anyway?” Jim asked as he got ready to leave.
“Not great but no worse,” Murdoch answered. “I’m desperate enough to let Jelly try one of his infamous concoctions on the boy. He just doesn’t seem to get any better. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s all physical or if a good deal of it is psychological.”
“Could be a little of both,” Jim said. “Those boys of yours are a lot closer than a lot of siblings that were raised together. Sometimes they remind me of the old saying about twins knowing when something is wrong with the other. They say that, oftentimes, twins can sense when something’s wrong with their sibling. In many ways Johnny and Scott are just like that. And you know as well as I do that they’d risk their own health and safety to be with each other if one were hurt or sick. Maybe this letter will put his mind at ease and let him get the rest he’s been depriving himself of.”
Jim turned Pintauro toward the road that led under the Lancer arch after a handshake and a final wave for his friend. Murdoch turned to go into the house and share the news with Maria, Teresa and, most of all, Scott.
But Scott didn’t get any better and his worried father sent for Dr. Sam Jenkins to come out and look him over again. The doctor’s face was serious when he came down to the Great Room after his examination was complete. It was an anxious father and sister who looked up when they heard his footsteps.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Murdoch,” the old doctor said. “I know Teresa and Maria have been giving him the teas and such that I ordered but that cold just doesn’t want to let go of him. I’ve never seen a common cold grab hold of someone the way it has Scott. He’s dangerously close to influenza or pneumonia.”
“Isn’t there anything we can do, Sam?” Teresa asked. “Another tea we can make for him? Maria’s very good with herbal teas and she’s taught me a lot about them.”
“I don’t know what else to give him,” Sam told her. “You’ve given him peppermint, sassafras, willow bark and heaven knows what else but that fever just won’t break.” Looking at Murdoch he asked, “And what’s with that pale, drawn worried look he’s wearing these last few times I’ve seen him? He looks like he hasn’t been resting.”
“He’s been having nightmares,” Murdoch explained. “He’s convinced that these dreams he’s having about Johnny being in danger are going to come true – or that they’ve really happened. I’ve been awakened by his crying and moaning several times now and Jim Talbot tried talking to him the other night when he was here. He told Scott that he had a telegram from Maura saying everything was fine and they’ll be on their way home shortly. Still Scott doesn’t rest easy at night.”
“If he doesn’t rest his body can’t heal itself,” Sam said. “It looks like I may have to prescribe something to make him sleep.”
“Will it work? I mean if he’s having nightmares like Murdoch said,” Teresa asked, “is it a good idea to give him something that will make him sleep.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Sam said, “but I don’t know what else to do for him. Read to him. Give him hot soothing drinks. Have somebody come in and talk to him at night. Find something other than a sedative to get him to relax or I’ll have to give him something when I come back in a couple of days.”
So saying the doctor finished the drink he’d been handed during this conversation and took his leave of the anxious family members all the while shaking his head over the lack of response by his patient to what should have had him on his feet over a week ago.
It was a damp, chilly day the day that the little group from Morro Coyo got ready to leave Antelope. Maura made a final check on the townspeople she’d been nursing while the boys chopped enough wood and filled enough barrels, buckets and other containers, with water to last the makeshift hospital for a few days. Dr. Holmes anticipated releasing all but a very few of his patients within the next day or two so he wouldn’t be needing as much water as he had in the month that Maura and the boys had been there.
“Mrs. Talbot,” Jack Holmes said, “I could never pay you for what you have done for me these last weeks. I’ve never had a better nurse and those boys have done wonders with the building and the lifting and watching out for the children.”
“It’s payment enough to see all those patients recovering,” Maura said. “It’s a miracle that you only lost two, and them elderly as it was, with the epidemic as widespread as it was. I nursed Johnny and his brother through bad cases of influenza that turned to pneumonia a couple of years ago and it took them quite a while to recover. Miss McKenzie and Mr. Carlyle were already weak from what you told me. I don’t think you could have saved them even if you had gotten word sooner that they were ill. Now you just concentrate on those few patients you have left that need you while the others get back to their homes to finish recovering in familiar surroundings. If you should ever need help again don’t hesitate to send a message to me at the Bar T or through the sheriffs in Green River, Spanish Wells or Morro Coyo – they’ll see to it that I get word that you need me.”
With that she said good-bye and joined the boys who had pulled the wagon up in front of the hospital. Kevin was driving while Willie rode in the back. Johnny was riding Barranca and Rico was on Eagle. Kevin’s horse Coco, though he wasn’t usually used as a packhorse, was carrying some of their foodstuffs and utensils.
Willie jumped down out of the back of the wagon to help Maura up into the seat by Kevin. All four boys waved to Dr. Holmes as they made their way down the main street back in the direction that they had originally come into the town. All along the way people waved and called good-bye. Many of the wives, and mothers, had given them fresh baked bread, cookies or pies to take along. A couple had given them jugs of apple cider while others had given them some of the fruit from their trees – especially peaches and pears. The boys would not go hungry on the way back.
Two days later the little band of travelers arrived at the entrance to Hunter’s Paradise Valley so named because it teemed with game birds, deer and had a stream that was filled with trout and catfish. The boys were looking forward to showing off their hunting and shooting skills for their surrogate mother.
If they did as well as they hoped there would be no worries about what to eat when they camped for the night. Rico tied Coco to the back of the wagon while he and Johnny rode ahead to see what they could find. As luck would have it, by the time they camped for the night that first night, they had both brought down three jackrabbits apiece. Those jackrabbits, along with some canned vegetables that they had been given and some of the bread, cookies and cider, would be their supper that night.
“Andy! What a surprise! What brings you away from the Rocking M at this hour of the day?” Murdoch shook his friend’s hand in greeting.
“I was in Spanish Wells the other day, talking to Manuel Portillo and John Mays about the boys and Maura being due back,” Kevin’s father explained. “We got to thinking it would be nice to have a ‘welcome home’ party for them – they’ve been gone so long. I think this is the longest Kevin has been away from home since he was sixteen and went to visit his grandparents in Cheyenne.”
“Did Manuel and John think it was a good idea?”
“Yes, they did,” Andrew Millar replied. “They’re all for it. We were hoping we could have it here at Lancer – you’re actually the most centrally located and close enough to the Bar T for Maura to get home that night. I’m sure,” he said with a grin, “she’ll be happy to get away from those rapscallion sons of ours after a month of their company.”
Murdoch laughed. “You sound like Jim Talbot! He figures his wife will need a vacation after dealing with those four for so long. Of course we can plan a party to be held here. I’m sure Teresa and Maria will be glad to help out. They both miss Johnny a lot. So does Scott.” With a grin of his own he said, “As sick as Scott’s been he’s so lonely without Johnny he admits that he even misses the other three.”
“Good heavens, man, he must be sick! I didn’t think I’d ever see the day when your older son missed his brother and the Posse!” Andrew threw his head back and laughed looking very much like his son did when Kevin had just revealed, or gotten caught, in the act of what he thought was a good joke.
Murdoch joined in the laughter briefly then sobered. “I wish that missing his brother and the others would help him get better. He can’t shake that cold and Sam’s afraid it’s turning into either the influenza or pneumonia.”
“Well, I seem to recall reading in the Scripture something about a merry heart being good medicine,” Andrew said. “Maybe letting him in on the plans for a welcome home party will help.”
“I’ll tell you what, Andy,” Murdoch said. “You tell Manuel to bring lanterns and for Felicia to make as many sopapillas as she can. Tell John to take Jimmy fishing and catch as many trout and catfish as he can. We’ll have a nice fish fry. Have Rachel make Kevin and Johnny’s favorite cookies. I’ll have Teresa and Maria make a big cake – big enough to feed all four of our families plus Jim and Maura and the men who work for me that Johnny’s especially close to – like Cipriano and Jelly.”
“Just the families, Murdoch?” Andy smiled. “Do you really think you want to leave our illustrious Green River sheriff out of this?”
“Certainly not!” Murdoch chuckled. “Thank you for reminding me. We wouldn’t want to hurt Val’s feelings by not inviting him, would we? Why don’t you swing by and invite him and get a message to Gabe over in Spanish Wells too? We’ll make this a homecoming they’ll never forget!”
Their conversation ended Andrew walked over to where he’d tied his horse after dismounting and joining Murdoch on the patio. Mounting quickly and easily he shook hands with his friend and headed off down the road toward Green River to deliver the invitation.
It was a merry, and silly, band of travelers that set out that second day. Kevin was still driving, Willie was still riding in the back of the wagon and Rico and Johnny were still trailing Coco and following behind. The laughter of the group echoed throughout the valley as one after the other of them told a silly joke or made a statement that the others found funny. Maura had the best, and last laugh, on the boys as they discussed which nationalities and races were the most romantic and/or passionate.
“The Mexicans,” Johnny said with pride. “We got it from the Spaniards only we improved on it.”
“No way,” Willie said. “I’ve read about those Italians. They’re a pretty hot blooded group, too!”
“The Italians? You’ve got to be kidding!”
“What about the French?” Rico ventured to ask. “I’ve heard that they’re pretty romantic. That’s what your brother, Scott, says, Johnny.”
“Scott’s head is in his books that’s why he thinks it’s the French,” Johnny declared. “He keeps reading stuff like that Cyrano whatshisname and all those other silly stories. I still say it’s the Mexicans.”
“What about them?” Kevin asked. “You say you got it from the Spaniards so why aren’t the Spaniards the most romantic?”
“You’re all wrong!” Willie declared.
His sentiment was echoed by the other boys until Maura finally spoke up and put an end to their argument.
“All four of you are wrong,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “The most passionate people in the world are my own – the Irish.”
“How’s that Mrs. T.?” Kevin wanted to know.
“Who else would line up to kiss a rock?” she replied.
“You mean that Blarney Stone you told me about?” Johnny asked.
“Yes, dear,” Maura laughed. “Any people that will line up to kiss a rock just have to be the most passionate, and romantic, people in the world, now don’t they?”
The young men roared with laughter. They had to admit that she had one-upped them with that one. Soon they were trading jokes back and forth.
“What do you get when you cross a snowman with a vampire?” Kevin wanted to know.
“I don’t know,” was the answer he got from his three friends and Maura.
The others all groaned. It was Willie’s turn next.
“What’s the definition of ‘penmanship’?” he asked.
“Handwriting,” Kevin answered promptly.
“No,” Willie replied. “It’s what writers use to cross the ocean.”
Maura laughed while the other boys groaned.
“What swims and has six pockets?” asked Johnny of his friends.
“Got no idea,” Kevin said and the others echoed him.
“A pool shark!” he replied
“What?” That was Rico.
“That’s awful!” Willie declared.
“Where’d you learn that silly joke?” Kevin wanted to know.
“Scott taught it to me,” Johnny said. “He’s got lots of them stored up in that fertile, Harvard educated brain of his.”
“I’ve got a better one than that,” Rico said as his friends hooted at the very idea. “I really do,” he declared. “Did you hear about the bread that never went bad? After they made it they broke the mold.”
In spite of themselves the others all burst into laughter. Their laughter echoed throughout the canyon they had entered almost, but not quite drowning out the low, rumbling noise that was building in volume.
“What’s that noise?” Kevin asked nervously.
“I don’t know,” Willie said from the back of the wagon. “It’s getting louder though. It’s not raining so it can’t be thunder.”
Just then small pebbles began falling on the path in front of the wagon. In their wake was loose dirt. Johnny, who was the most accustomed to such disasters because of his travels as Johnny Madrid, gunfighter, was the first to pick up on the danger they were in.
“Rockslide!” Turning to Kevin he said, “Whip that team up! Get them moving! There’s a rockslide heading this way!”
Kevin took him at his word and started yelling at the team and cracking the whip he’d thus far avoided using. The volume of dirt was increasing, as was the size of the rocks. The startled team rushed forward and both driver and passenger were jolted back in their seats. Only the tight grip they had on the seat kept them from being thrown off. Kevin had his feet braced and his hands were busy with reins and whip.
The rumbling noise continued to get louder and the rocks were beginning to come fast and furious amid all the dirt. Kevin got hit with a couple of small rocks but fortunately, it was only on the arm. Others were beginning to come awfully close to Willie and the team was getting more nervous by the second. Kevin was having a hard time holding them in.
The tension was thick as the group desperately tried to outrun the landslide that was coming their way. Johnny kept an eye out as best he could but the dust was beginning to get thick. As the wagon raced the landslide it was more and more obvious that they weren’t going to be able to beat it. Desperately Johnny barked orders.
“Rico – get Willie off that wagon! I’ll get Miz Talbot!”
Rico dropped the lead rope that was fastened to Coco’s halter and raced forward to help their pal climb aboard Eagle behind him. Spurring Barranca forward frantically, Johnny managed to get Maura safely on the saddle in front of him just as a baseball sized rock hit the near, or left, gelding hard on the rump. The startled gelding panicked and yanked the reins right out of Kevin’s hands just as they were about to round a sharp corner on the road they were traveling. Kevin had no time to prepare himself as the right rear wheel of the wagon went over the side of the road. He and the wagon both, rolled down the steep incline while the team, which had broken loose when the wagon tipped, continued running. With each rollover of the wagon some of the supplies, including blankets and food, flew out of the back and landed anywhere from a few inches to a few yards away.
Rico and Johnny, as well as Maura and Willie, were helpless to do anything to help the young rancher as he headed for disaster. Coco, frightened by the falling rocks, took off as well but didn’t get very far before he, too, fell when he took a wrong step in his blind panic. He was on his feet in a moment but it was obvious that he’d injured his left foreleg for he held it off the ground.
The four people mounted on the saddle horses coughed for what seemed an eternity before the dust finally settled from the slide.
“You ok, Mrs. Talbot?” Johnny asked.
“Yes, dear, I’m fine,” she said when she was able to breathe easily again. “Are you?”
“Yeah, I’m ok.” He looked over at his two pals, Rico and Willie. “Looks like they are too.”
“Where’s Kevin?” Maura asked.
“I don’t know. Last time I saw him he looked to be jumping from the wagon seat.
Frantically they searched the area with their eyes. They could see the wagon, smashed to bits, their foodstuffs and other supplies scattered all long the hillside. There was, however, no sign of Kevin.
The party took place on Wednesday – the day the group was due home. The night was cool but there was plenty of warmth in the good spirits, and of course the fires, that blazed getting ready to fry up the biggest mess of trout and catfish Lancer had seen in many a year. John Mays and his younger son, Jimmy, had caught more than enough to feed the Lancers, themselves, the Millars and the Portillos as well as Jim Talbot, Jelly, Maria, Cipriano and the two sheriffs. Teresa and Maria had enlisted the help of Jelly and Juanita and a few others to hang colorful lanterns from wires strung from the garden wall to the house. These lanterns now brilliantly lit up the patio. A large chocolate cake, with vanilla icing sporting the words Welcome Home, sat on the table along with several salads and bread as well as the special treats such as cookies and sopapillas. All that was needed was for the little band of travelers to return from their rescue mission.
Val Crawford looked a bit disgruntled having been buttonholed by Felicia Portillo that this was a “muy especial” occasion and it was only right that he should dress up a little bit. Just as he had when he’d applied to the Cattlemen’s Association for the job in Green River, Val was wearing nice pants, a neatly pressed shirt – courtesy of Señora Portillo - and a string tie. His boots were well polished thanks to eight-year-old Tomas Portillo. Scott, who was allowed up for the party only because he promised to sit quietly, was glad that it wasn’t his clothes that Val was wearing. Not so long ago some of his best clothes had become rags because Johnny had talked him into lending them to Val to wear for his interview. Unfortunately Val had run into Jelly who was replacing a wagon wheel and there was a mishap, which resulted in Val getting grease not only on himself but also on Scott’s clothes. Scott had been rather put out about it. Johnny either hadn’t noticed or had pretended not to notice.
“Where do you suppose they are?” John Mays asked Jim Talbot. “It’s getting late.”
“I don’t know,” Jim replied. “I’m sure it’s nothing, though. Maura would have sent word if they were going to be delayed.”
“Don’t start panicking, John,” Gabe said. He’d come over to join them just as Mr. Mays was expressing his concern over the late arrival. “It’s not that late yet. It seems to me that we can’t truly start the party until they arrive anyway. We’ll enjoy a good fish fry and tease the heck out of those boys for keeping Maura out so late.”
Teresa and Maria, with help from Juanita, managed to keep everyone supplied with coffee or lemonade while they chatted. It wasn’t often that the families got together without a lot of other people around.
Murdoch and Scott were being entertained by several of Rico’s younger siblings as well as Willie’s brother, Jimmy, and sister, Cecelia. Both of the Mays children were telling Scott how much better their kite was going to be this year and that they were going to have Rico’s brother, Mariano, who had won an art contest at school a year ago, help them decorate it.
Several hours later, a disappointed group broke up and headed for home, feeling that they’d just misjudged the time that the travelers would arrive. Surely they would arrive late that night and be upset if everyone were waiting up for them. It was quite late and the younger children needed to be home in bed.
Murdoch and Jelly helped the Millars, Portillos and Mays’ round up their children and load them in their wagons for the trip back to town. The youngest children were asleep and the older ones were drowsy but managed to say good night as the wagons drove down the road.
A tired, and still somewhat ill, Scott was helped back to bed by his father. The lingering cold continued to sap his energy, as did the nightmares. Even when Murdoch sat up with him until he fell asleep Scott was still prone to waking up in the middle of the night screaming or moaning. Everyone was concerned about him but they were at a loss as to how to help him. It looked more and more like Sam was going to have to medicate him until Johnny and the others returned and Scott was reassured that his brother was fine.
When the dust finally settled Maura and the three young men who had escaped the rockslide started searching for the missing member of their party. For the first fifteen minutes the only success they had was finding Coco who had not gone far after injuring his leg. Rico took charge of the injured horse, tying him to a bush for the time being though it didn’t appear as though Coco was going anywhere on his own for a while.
“Kevin!” Rico yelled.
“Hey, Kev, where are you?” That was Johnny – the only one who called Kevin by the shortened version of his name.
“Kevin? Hey Kevin, where are you?” Willie shouted.
“Kevin James Millar,” Maura called, “you’d best not be playing a trick on us or I’ll tan your hide good!”
There was no response to any of their calls for at least fifteen minutes. Then, as they passed some brush about fifty yards from the bottom of the hill Johnny heard a low moan.
“Kev? Is that you?” Johnny looked around trying to find the exact location of the sound. “Kevin you’d better answer me or Mrs. Talbot won’t have to do a thing to you because I’ll beat you to a pulp for scaring us!”
Another moan was heard and this time Rico spotted their missing friend. He pointed to the brushy area nearby.
There, by some overgrown bushes, lay Kevin. His green and brown plaid shirt had blended in so well with the bushes that they’d passed him by several times. Johnny helped Maura over the rocky ground leading to the spot where Kevin lay.
“Kevin?” Maura brushed the sun-streaked blond hair from the young man’s face.
Kevin lay still moaning slightly. His eyes were tightly closed and there was a large bump on his left temple. Blood trickled from a cut on his left cheek. Maura quickly and gently checked him for other injuries and found four broken ribs and some bad bruising – especially in his back. Kevin’s left shirtsleeve was torn from shoulder to wrist. The arm was scratched but didn’t look too serious.
“As near as I can tell, he’s got four broken ribs, a bump on the head and a few cuts and scratches. We’ve got to move him into a sheltered spot away from this sun,” Maura said with concern. “Have we anything left that we can make a stretcher, or a travois with? What about shelter for all of us? We’re obviously going nowhere for a while.”
“I’ll start hunting up what’s not destroyed,” Willie said. “Rico, come on and let’s see what we can find that was on the wagon.”
The two young men walked away searching from the point where they were pretty sure the wagon had gone off the road and moving out in an ever widening circle to see what, if anything, could be salvaged from the wreck.
About a half an hour later Willie and Rico reported their findings.
"It could have been a lot worse, Señora Talbot,” Rico said. “We found the canvas was still tied to the wagon. It’s got some tears in it but it can still be used to help make a shelter. We found a couple of loaves of bread, some raspberry preserves and some pickles. One crock of honey is all right but that’s about it for the food. There are several canteens with water in them.”
“There’s a fair sized stream over yonder – behind those trees,” Willie said pointing to a shady area about a quarter mile or so down the canyon from them. “The water is good and there seems to be some good sized fish in there. We can probably trap a rabbit or two and maybe some small game birds.”
Maura absorbed all this information and then asked Johnny, “What about ammunition, Johnny? Do we have enough for you to do some hunting and for protection from whatever predators there might be?”
“I’m not sure ma’am,” Johnny said frowning in concentration as he considered the matter. “We don’t know how long we’ll be stuck here. There’s no way we can clear the road up there for us to get by and with Coco lame and the team gone that only leave us Eagle and Barranca to carry five people and the supplies. No, I think we’d better live off the land by trapping until we can get help or get out of here. We’ve got a lot of ammunition but I’d like to be careful with it”
“Well, the first thing,” Maura said, “is to find a place where we can set up shelter for the duration. Kevin needs to get out of the sun and we need to be sure that we have ample protection from whatever comes our way until we’re rescued. Do any of you have any ideas?”
“I’d say we don’t want to set up camp too close to the hillside,” Willie said. “It could be that that mountainside isn’t very stable and there could be more rockslides.”
“Willie’s right about that, Mrs. Talbot,” Johnny agreed with his chum. “Is there a safe place to camp and build a fire over by those trees, Willie?”
“I think so,” the other answered. “Why don’t Rico and I go scout it out and see?”
“No,” Johnny said. “I want you to stay here with Mrs. Talbot and Kevin. I’ll take Rico and we’ll check it out. We’ll take Barranca and Eagle with us. If there’s any kind of hidden danger they’ll make us aware of it.”
“That’s a good idea, Johnny,” Maura told him. “The horses will know if there’s been a mountain lion or a bear or even a snake around. They won’t like that area one little bit if there’s any sign of such things. Willie and I will do our best to keep Kevin comfortable for now starting by binding up those broken ribs of his.”
Johnny and Rico took their leave from the others, and went off to scout their potential campsite. Maura took an old sheet that Willie had found in the wagon and with his help, tore it into strips that she used to bind Kevin’s ribs. Using a little water from one of the canteens, and another piece of old sheet, she cleaned and bandaged the cuts on his head and arm. Then they settled back to wait for the others to come back. Willie did what he could for Coco. While the gelding’s leg was not broken it appeared that he had strained some muscles and a tendon when he mis-stepped in his frantic flight away from the rockslide. They wouldn’t be able to treat it with any kind of a poultice until such time as they got home but Willie applied cold bandages for the time being with the promise of compresses when they got camp set up. One thing that had not been destroyed in the wreck was the metal pots and pans Maura had packed to cook in.
Two hours later Johnny returned from his little scouting expedition and the three uninjured young men fixed up a campsite complete with a small fire burning and a makeshift shelter of branches and canvas to protect Maura and Kevin from the elements. They placed several blankets on the ground to lay Kevin on with several others put aside with which to cover him. He still hadn’t regained consciousness by the time they were done and ready to move him.
It was another almost sleepless night for Murdoch as he sat by his older son’s bedside. The cold Scott had been fighting had turned into a moderate case of pneumonia – in part, Sam said, because of his worries about his brother.
“I’m sure they’re fine, Scott,” Murdoch told his son. “I’m sure they just got delayed somehow and didn’t have a way to send word. The trails through Hunter’s Paradise get blocked, occasionally, by falling rocks or trees and you have to take the time to clear them before you can go on. Or they may have been so blocked that they had to backtrack and go in a different direction to get through.”
“Murdoch, Johnny would have found a way to let us know if something was wrong.” Murdoch’s reassurances had no effect on Scott.
“Scott, even your brother can’t overcome a lack of telegraph wires – he’s not that good!” Murdoch chuckled in spite of his own rising concern. “I’m sure they’re just delayed is all. If they’re not back in another day or two I’ll get a search party together and start looking for them.” Rising from the seat he’d taken on the side of Scott’s bed, he went over to the small table near the window and blew out the lamp he’d lit. “Now you just relax and go back to sleep. I’ve got to get some sleep myself. Sunrise isn’t all that far away and I won’t be any good to the men if I fall asleep in the saddle while we’re chasing strays.”
“I suppose so. Good night, sir,” Scott mumbled sleepily.
“Good night, son,” Murdoch said. “I’ll look in on you before I leave the house in the morning.”
Kevin hadn’t regained consciousness for several hours. During that time his friends had hovered as much as they could but they had had a campsite to put together and the area around it needed to be scouted out a little better than it had been initially. Finally he stirred and opened his eyes.
“Oh, my head!”
“Kevin?” Maura leaned over him anxiously. “Are you finally waking up, love?”
“Yes, dear, it’s me. How do you feel?”
“My head hurts. And my side. What happened?’’
“We were hoping you could tell us, Kev,” Johnny said from his left side. “We ran into a rockslide on the trail. The team spooked and ran. You couldn’t control them so Rico and I got Mrs. Talbot and Willie off the wagon but we couldn’t tell if you jumped or were thrown.”
“Thrown,” Kevin responded. “I didn’t have time to jump.” He tried to sit up but was pushed gently back down by Rico who was at his head.
“What’s wrong with me?” the young man was anxious.
“Nothing that time won’t cure,” Maura told him. “You’ve got several broken ribs and I’ll wager a bit of a concussion complete with headache as well.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Kevin groaned. “My head and ribs hurt somethin’ fierce.”
“They will for a while so you just take it easy and let us take care of you.”
“Hey Kevin,” Willie said. “You do like Mrs. Talbot said. We’re not going anywhere anyhow. The team ran off, Coco’s got a sore leg – now don’t panic it’s nothing serious, so that leaves us with only Barranca and Eagle to manage us and whatever supplies we were able to salvage. We’re pretty much stuck here until our families get worried and start searching for us.”
“We’ll be fine, Kevin,” Maura reassured him. “The boys have set up a nice little camp and we have enough ammunition to do a little hunting and to ward off predators. Johnny and Rico set out some traps for game birds and rabbits. Willie’s done some fishing. We’ll be fine. Right now I want you to have a little of this broth I made from one of the rabbits we caught. Then you go right to sleep. We’ll have to wake you every few hours to make sure that concussion isn’t the start of something more serious so you sleep now and, when I’m sure you’re in no danger, you can sleep as much as you want.”
The sun was just coming up over the San Benitos Saturday morning when Jim Talbot rode into the yard at Lancer . He found the area abuzz with activity. A wagon was being loaded, horses were being led out of the corral saddled and ready to go, Teresa and Maria were bringing baskets of food and medical supplies out of the house to be loaded into the wagon.
Murdoch was briefing Isidro and several of the other hands on work that needed to be done. Obviously the Lancer patriarch shared Jim’s concern over the lateness of his wife, and the four young men with her.
Reining Pintauro to a halt he handed the horse off to Jelly who led the paint away and tied him to the front hitch rail. Having done so, he returned to supervise the loading of the wagon.
“Murdoch, I see you’re getting close to being ready to leave,” Jim said.
“Yes, I am,” the other man replied. “As soon as the wagon is loaded and the others get here.”
“Sheriff Crawford’s comin’ down the road,” Jelly called to his boss from his position by the wagon. “Looks like Mr. Mays and Señor Portillo with him.”
“Señor Millar is coming, Patron,” Cipriano called from the corral near the barn.
“Murdoch? I want to come with you,” Teresa said as she came out the front door bearing a bundle of blankets.
“No, darling,” he turned down her request, “I need you here to look after Scott. That cold of his has turned into a slight case of pneumonia and Sam wants you to keep a close watch on him. You’ll do more good here taking care of him and making sure that there are rooms ready in case anybody’s hurt. Have one of the hands ready at all times to ride into town in case you need Sam. Isidro’s in charge while Cipriano’s with me - he’ll know who to send.”
He leaned down to give the girl a kiss on the forehead and sent her on her way to the wagon with her bundle. Val Crawford, the scruffy looking, but effective sheriff of Green River rode into the yard followed by the fathers of Johnny’s three pals.
“Mr. Lancer,” Val greeted his friend’s father. “Everything about ready?”
“Just about, Val,” Murdoch told him. “Maria’s bringing a couple of baskets full of medical supplies out. As soon as she does we’ll be ready to leave.”
“Who’s coming with us?” Andrew Millar asked.
“Cipriano, Val, Jelly, John and Manuel. Jim, of course, and a half dozen other of my hands including Frank and Walt. I’m leaving Isidro in charge while we’re gone. We’ll need Cipriano – there’s no one else in this area that knows the San Benitos, or Hunter’s Paradise, better than he does.”
Up in his room, Scott could hear the men gathering and the higher pitched voices of Teresa and Maria as they directed the men on how and where to pack certain items in order to protect them during the trip.
He lay in his bed running a moderately high fever with chills and an overall weakness – except in his resolve. He wanted very badly to go with the search party. His nightmares of the past month had him completely convinced that Johnny was in trouble and that he, Scott, needed to go to him. When he’d voiced his plan to go with them his father quickly vetoed it.
“No, Scott,” Murdoch had said to him. “You’re not going. You’re not strong enough. Sam would have both of our heads if he thought I was even considering letting you out of bed let alone going with the search party.” He scowled right back at his scowling son. “You stay in bed like you were told and keep drinking those teas Maria’s been making for you. Sooner or later one of them is going to break that fever of yours and you’ll start to get better.”
So it was that Scott was still in bed when the search party left half an hour later. Not for long, however. There was no way on earth he was going to stay home when he was sure that his brother was in trouble. No way.
Maria was humming to herself as she cleaned up the kitchen. Teresa was in the vegetable and herb gardens gathering whatever she could find that was ripe. Tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, beets – many of their vegetables were ripening quickly. Others were coming along more slowly. The herb garden was in good shape, but the search party had vastly depleted their stores of medicinal herbs. And there had been a minor epidemic of colds and influenza run rampant through the bunkhouse just before Scott had come down with it. These, along with a couple of injuries involving angry cows and barbed wire, had put quite a dent in what was available in the kitchen. Mint, boneset, basil and other herbs were needed to replace what had been used.
Scott could hear Maria and Teresa from his room. Maria seemed to be standing in the kitchen doorway while Teresa was in the part of the garden closest to the kitchen door. That was fine as far as Scott was concerned. That meant they were nowhere near the front stairs, entry or doorway. He was ready to make his escape from their custody and join the search party as he wanted to and needed to.
He threw the covers back and swung his legs over the side of the bed. A wave of dizziness hit him as he sat up but he shook it off determined that he was going to make it across the room, get some real clothes to wear instead of the nightshirt he had on and get out of the house to get a horse and join up with the search party.
When he got to his dresser he had to lean on it momentarily as his legs threatened to give out on him. After a moment he pulled out underwear, socks and pants. Staggering to his closet he pulled out a shirt and a jacket. He carried these things back to his bed where he sat down and after a brief struggle against temptation to lay back down again due to an almost overwhelming sense of weakness, managed to dress himself. The boots were the hardest part and he briefly considered the moccasins Johnny had gotten him a few years back when he’d broken his arm, but he persevered.
The next step was to get himself downstairs, get his gun belt, jacket and hat, and get out the door before Maria or Teresa came around toward the front of the house. He didn’t think he had the strength to argue with them but he wasn’t going to let them force him back to bed. He needed to help look for his brother and the others. After everything the Talbots had done for him and his family the least he could do was help search for Mrs. Talbot – if only to rescue her from having to deal with Johnny and his Prankster Posse any longer than necessary. She might never complain about them but Scott felt that they would try the patience of a saint and Maura Talbot was pretty close to sainthood in Scott’s opinion. Nobody else in the area was as community minded or had taken as many young people under her wing as Maura had. That meant a lot to Scott who had never known his mother since she’d died when he was born. He was determined to do something for her for a change.
Slowly he made his way down the stairs with his hands gripping the railing so hard that his knuckles turned white. Once at the bottom he paused to catch his breath for the exertion had started him coughing again – the reason that Sam had been keeping him in bed was that cough. Scott wasn’t going to let a little thing like a cough stop him. He had a mission and he was going to accomplish it one way or another.
In the front entryway he found his things hanging on the coat tree and donned them. The gun belt gave him some trouble in his somewhat weakened condition but he persevered until he managed to hold it in place long enough to fasten it. Then he stood still and listened for the women. After a minute or so, when he didn’t hear Maria or Teresa anywhere near the part of the house he was in, he managed to open the heavy oak door and exit the house, closing the door quietly behind him. The next step was to get a horse so he made his way slowly, dizzily, across the yard toward the stable where his own horse, Ranger, waited in his stall. Up until the time that Johnny had left with Maura and his buddies he’d been finding the time to keep Ranger exercised for Scott, even if it was only for an hour after supper. Johnny had left one of the youngsters in charge when he left and that boy was busy doing other chores. Scott could hear him at the far end of the stable cleaning stalls. He waited until Ricardo had left with a load of dirty bedding before approaching Ranger’s stall. The gelding nickered when he saw his owner.
On the partition of Ranger’s stall hung his saddle and saddle blanket. His bridle hung from a peg above it. Reaching up, Scott took the bridle from its peg and put it on Ranger, making sure that it was fastened properly. Then he took the saddle blanket and placed it carefully on Ranger’s back. When he went to get the saddle, however, he found that his illness had sapped his strength and he was unable to lift it down let alone put it on Ranger’s back and fasten it.
Frustrated, and breathing heavily from the attempt, Scott sat on a nearby hay bale to contemplate how he was going to manage to catch up with the search party if he couldn’t saddle his own horse. As he sat there he heard one of the hands ride up and dismount. The rider left his horse ground hitched and went into the supply room in the back without ever noticing that Scott was sitting there outside Ranger’s stall. Scott saw his chance and made his way out the side door and around so the man wouldn’t see him. Taking hold of the reins he dragged himself up and into the saddle, turned the horse in the direction that the search party had gone, and took off, clinging tightly to the saddle horn in order to keep himself in the saddle.
Not five minutes later the ranch hand, whose horse Scott had appropriated, came out of the supply room to find his horse gone. A quick search of the stable led to the discovery that somebody had tried to take Scott’s horse. Knowing how sick Scott had been and how worried he was about his brother it didn’t take the man long to put two and two together and run for the house to inform Teresa and Maria of his discovery.
“Señor Scott, I have your boneset tea,” Maria said as she entered the invalid’s room.
When she realized that he was not in his bed she quickly set the mug with the hot tea in it on the table and went to the window. She was just in time to see Scott leaving the yard but was unable to make herself heard by him. It was Teresa who heard her first and came rushing to Scott’s room to find out what was wrong.
“Maria? What’s wrong? Oh!” Teresa saw the empty bed. Maria’s gesturing and excited Spanish told her what she wanted to know. “Oh, dear, he’s not well enough to be out of bed. What will Murdoch say?”
“El Patron will be very upset but very understanding as well, I think,” Maria said. “He knows that Señor Scott has been very worried about Juanito. Either way, he will look out for him. We can only pray that Señor Scott catches up with the others soon. I doubt he can stay on top of a horse for very long.”
“I’m afraid you’re right, Maria,” the girl said. “He’s certainly not going to listen to me even if I was able to catch up with him. He’s as stubborn as his father and brother!”
The two women then left Scott’s room and went downstairs. When the ranch hand, whose horse Scott had taken, came to them with his news they told him that they were aware of the situation. Teresa told him to take Ranger and, if anyone had any questions to tell them that she said it was all right.
The search party had a good head start on Scott but that didn’t deter the elder Lancer son. He was going to catch up with them, sooner or later, and his father was not going to talk him into going back home. His gut was telling him that Johnny was in trouble and he, Scott, needed to get to him.
Steadfastly clinging to the saddle horn, Scott rode in the direction that the search party had gone. He weakly swayed from side to side, barely staying on top of the horse. Only his dogged determination to catch up with them kept him on the horse’s back that afternoon, all night and into the next day. He was within five miles of the search party when he passed out. Going completely limp, eyes rolled up into his head, he fell with a bit of a jolt.
How long he was unconscious he didn’t know. A whining sound penetrated his foggy brain and he felt something pawing at his arm and something cold down the back of his neck. Gradually he came to realize that it was Lady Sweet Friend. Lady, upon returning to Scott’s room and finding him gone, had gone charging out of the house before Teresa or Maria could stop her. It didn’t take her long to decide which way to go for she had sensed Scott’s worry about Johnny and instinct told her that he would have gone after the search party. Her sense of smell found his trail where he had mounted the borrowed horse and where, as he swayed in the saddle, he had brushed against bushes and leaves. The cold, damp sensation he was experiencing on his neck was Lady’s nose. The whining was coming from her and the pawing was exactly that – Lady’s right front paw on his arm.
“Lady. I’m glad to see you, girl.” Scott wheezed. “Lady, where’s the horse? I need to catch up with Murdoch.”
Lady whined and let out a yelp as if to say, “I don’t know! That dumb horse ran away when you fell off.”
“I…I need to catch up with the search party.” Scott lurched unsteadily to his feet and attempted to follow the search party on foot. He went a few hundred yards down the road before he found the horse quietly grazing on the side of the road as if it didn’t have a care in the world. It took some doing but Scott managed to climb back into the saddle. With Lady following right beside him, Scott continued on his way, stubbornly refusing to give in or go back home.
For two days the search party moved at a steady pace, covering about fifteen miles a day. At sunset of the second day they had stopped for the night so that Murdoch and Jim Talbot could have a conference with the other three fathers and Cipriano, who was their lead tracker, when they thought they heard a dog barking.
“That couldn’t be Lady, could it?” Murdoch asked Jim.
“It sure sounds like her,” Jim replied with a frown as he listed to the excited barking. “She sounds so much like her mother and grandmother that I’d swear it was her – but we left her at home with Scott, didn’t we? Wild horses couldn’t have dragged her away.”
Murdoch chuckled briefly. “The only thing that drags that dog away from Johnny’s side is when one of us is sick. Then you can hardly get her to leave the room.” He listened again as the barking drew nearer. “That sure does sound like her, though.”
A moment later, Lady came charging up to them, tail wagging and barking excitedly. She went to Jim and Murdoch and grabbed hold of their sleeve. When they shook her off she ran a few feet down the road, doubled back and stood in front of them barking wildly. This performance was repeated several times before the men decided that they’d better find out what she wanted. Leaving Andrew, Manuel and John with the rest of the party, they followed Lady back to where she’d left Scott.
Scott was sitting up when they found him but he was coughing and perspiring freely from the fever. His blond bangs were plastered to his forehead and even sitting down he appeared to be unsteady. The two older men dismounted quickly and went to kneel at Scott’s side leaving their horses ground hitched.
“Scott! What in the world?” Murdoch was amazed and angry.
“Scott Lancer, my wife will have your head for this little stunt!” Jim Talbot exclaimed in frustration.
“I had…had to come,” Scott wheezed.
“You needed to stay home in bed like you were told by Sam!” his father exclaimed in exasperation. “Look at you! Your fever has obviously climbed and you can’t breathe freely.”
“Not to mention the cough and that being out in the night air isn’t going to help it or the fever,” Jim added.
Looking at each other and exchanging grim smiles the older men helped Scott to his feet and over to Murdoch’s horse. Together they got him into the saddle and Jim held Murdoch’s horse while the older Lancer mounted up behind his son.
“There’s nothing else to do, Murdoch,” Jim said, “and you know it. We haven’t got time to take him back and then catch up with the search party. We might just as well bring him along. He can ride in the wagon.”
“You’re right,” Murdoch conceded. “There really isn’t anything else we can do with him. It’ll serve him right to have to suffer through the ear blistering Jelly will give him. We’ll just have to explain to Sam that this stubborn son of mine doesn’t know, even after those years in the army, what it means to obey orders.”
A half hour or so later they caught up with the search party again. They were right where they’d left them and had decided to set up camp as it was now getting late.
“Murdoch?” Andrew Millar was surprised to see Scott.
“Boss? What in tarnation is Scott doin’ here? Ain’t he supposed to be home in bed?” Jelly was as confused as the rest of them.
“He obviously decided his place was with us instead of in bed,” Murdoch said with a scowl at his miserable son. “It’s too late to take him back so we’ll just have to do the best we can for him here and keep him with us.”
“Blamed fool has as much sense as that brother of his!” Val Crawford exclaimed in disgust when he saw Scott. “Comin’ out here sick like he is, is somethin’ Johnny would pull.”
“It’s a good thing for you, Scott,” Jim Talbot said severely, “that Lady is as determined as her mother and grandmother at keeping young boys and men out of trouble. There’s no telling how long you’d have laid there before somebody found you.”
“I know,” Scott said sheepishly, “but I’ve been worried about Johnny. I keep having these wild dreams that something’s wrong with him. I couldn’t sleep – you can ask Murdoch about that – and I wasn’t hungry half the time. I had to come so I can see for myself that he’s all right.”
He started coughing violently after that little speech, prompting John Mays to grab an empty coffee cup and pour some cold water into it for Scott to drink to help settle the irritation in his throat.
“Here you go, son,” he said as he handed the cup to Scott.
Jelly, fussing the whole while, made a bed for Scott in the back of the wagon. By rearranging the first aid supplies and such he was able to make room for Scott to lie down and for someone to sit with him. The grizzled handyman was very fond of the boys and even fonder of bragging on his “cures” for everything from the common cold to measles and pneumonia. A few years back Scott had been laid up with a cold and laryngitis for a week or better. Jelly had finally been given permission to try one of his infamous concoctions on the invalid. It had consisted of hot water, blackstrap molasses, lemon juice and cayenne pepper. It had caused a brief coughing spell but the pepper had started him sweating which helped break the fever that had plagued him. If Jelly had had those ingredients now he would have mixed a batch of it right then and there. Instead he had to make do with keeping him warm, quiet and hydrated. It was enough to drive the old man crazy.
Scott soon drifted off to sleep. The other men ate a hasty supper, posted a guard against predators – not that they needed one with Lady along – and turned in themselves. They planned on being on the road as soon after daybreak as possible.
The stranded travelers carefully nursed their injured comrade and discussed their options the morning after the landslide. They didn’t have many. Kevin was in no shape to travel right then. Coco had an injured leg. The draft team had run off and not been found. Johnny figured that they must have managed to stay ahead of the rockslide and run until they were too tired to go any farther. That left them with Barranca and Eagle since Willie had left his horse, Mo, at the Bar T.
The consensus was that they would stay where they were for a day or two to see if Kevin was able to travel by travois. If not either Johnny or Rico would ride off and see if there was a way to get past the slide and back up to the road without anyone else getting hurt.
Maura wasn’t exactly fond of the plan but she didn’t forbid them either. She wanted to get Kevin home so Sam could take a look at him and let his mother take over caring for him. The sooner they got him home to Andrew and Rachel the better. Kevin needed to be in his own bed for a few days of rest. His mother, Rachel, would fuss over him as long as he allowed it. Maura allowed herself a secret smile as she thought of how Kevin would “milk it” for all it was worth until Sam told his mother that Kevin was perfectly able to get up and move around some and do some of the lighter work around the place such as harness repair and the gathering of kindling for stoves and fireplaces.
Rico and Willie had had moderate success in their fishing endeavors a few hours earlier. Even now Johnny was frying several large trout and warming some leftover stew for Kevin who was not up for anything heavy until his head injury cleared up.
It was evident in Kevin’s face that the injured young man was hurting. He valiantly kept quiet about it as much as possible but the pallor of his face, and the perspiration beading up on his forehead, told the tale. Maura gently wiped his face with water from the bucket that Willie had filled and placed nearby. The tin pail was somewhat dented but there were no holes in it. It would serve the purpose of providing water to wipe Kevin’s face with and for cooking.
When he suffered spasms in his back Kevin would find his hand being held by one of his pals. It was their hands that could take the punishment when he squeezed. He tried very hard not to moan but the pain in his ribs, and all the bruising in his back, made it impossible to hide the fact that he was hurting.
It was a long night, that first night, for all of them. Kevin had been in a lot of pain, but due to his head injury, Maura hadn’t dared give him any painkillers other than salicylic acid powder. Laudanum and morphine were out of the question even if she’d had any - which she didn’t. The stores of those particular drugs had been left back in Antelope with Dr. Holmes. Because of his concussion Maura and the other three young men had taken turns waking Kevin up to make sure his injury wasn’t more serious. The result was that none of them got much sleep due to worry and looking after Kevin.
The next day Johnny, Rico and Willie did a bit more exploration of the area surrounding their campsite. Johnny, after checking the road before the rockslide, came to the conclusion that the team had gotten out ahead of them. However, the rockslide had so blocked the road that there was no way they were going to get out that way. They’d have to move along down the canyon and see if there was any other way – safe way considering they had an injured party with them – that they could get back up to the road and continue on their way.
Rico and Willie found a few more cans of food and a couple of blankets as well as a canteen. All the glass jars and wooden barrels had been smashed, as had the wagon. They would be completely useless to them. They also found several boxes of ammunition – enough to last them for a week or more if they were careful. Of course, no one wanted to be stuck there for a week.
After a brief discussion the group decided that, although they would like to stay put and wait to be rescued, they had no way of knowing when anyone would show up. Thus they would take their chances on rigging a travois for Kevin to lie on – they weren’t taking any chances of his puncturing a lung with one of his broken ribs – and have Barranca and Eagle take turns pulling it. When Barranca was pulling the travois that Kevin was lying on then Eagle would pull another travois loaded with their foodstuffs and cooking utensils, etc. When Eagle was pulling Kevin then Barranca would pull the other one. That way neither horse was going to be unfairly burdened. They would proceed cautiously but with as much speed as they could. They knew they were due at home soon and that their families would be worried when they didn’t show up on time. Hunter’s Paradise was a large area covering about twenty miles and was another fifty miles from Lancer and the Bar T. It would take days for them to get home or a search party to reach them.
The three uninjured young men quickly set to work forming these travois out of branches and a blanket for Kevin and a series of woven ropes, as if making an old fashioned bed, for the other items. They would be covered with the canvas they had salvaged from the wreckage and the canvas would be used to make a shelter at night for Maura and Kevin.
The second day after the rockslide found the weary travelers slowly making their way across the valley. Fortunately the weather was good. It was warm, without being too hot for the injured man. There was a nice breeze blowing, which helped too. The boys fussed about Maura having to walk in her heeled shoes but she laughed them off telling them to break the heels off. Reluctantly they did so but she told them “better a broken shoe than a broken ankle from trying to walk over the rough ground in them”. All three of the uninjured young men kept a close eye on her lest she become too weary. She would have laughed at them for that, for she had trudged much further in the days when she and her Alex had first come to the San Joaquin and when their boys were small, but she knew they meant well and she didn’t want to hurt their feelings.
They stopped every few miles to give themselves, and the horses, a breather. It was rough going for the ground they were traveling was going uphill at a sharp angle. Johnny and the other two boys took turns leading the horses and making sure that Maura had no trouble keeping up. They would have put her up on one of the horses but for the stubborn look on her face that said she’d walk just the same as they were or they’d answer to her for it. She was not going to unduly burden one of the horses. While Johnny, Rico and Willie were taking turns leading Barranca and Eagle Maura alternated, with whichever one of them was free, in leading Coco. The injured horse was part of the reason they stopped so often. Johnny and Rico, after checking Coco thoroughly for a second time, had concurred that Coco had a strained tendon. They’d wrapped his foreleg with a bandana but they had to move him very slowly and stop to allow him to rest. The slow pace was frustrating but it was necessary.
Early the morning after Scott caught up with the search party that group broke camp. Ensuring that the campfire was out they saddled their horses, made sure Scott was relatively comfortable in the back of the wagon and started out. Jelly drove the wagon while Frank and Walt kept an eye on the boss’ son to make sure he was riding easy. Lady had opted, for the time being, to trot ahead of the party casting about for Johnny’s scent. She was extremely disappointed not to find it anywhere.
Scott, in the back of the wagon, was nagged by a persistent cough. He knew, as did everyone else, that he also had a fever. The lack of sleep and appetite had taken their toll as well. Everyone also knew that there was no way Murdoch was going to convince his stubborn elder son to let somebody – probably Jelly – take him home. He’d fight them tooth and nail - convinced as he was that Johnny was in trouble and needed him.
When they stopped at noon to eat a quick lunch and rest the horses, Murdoch sat in the back of the wagon with Scott and tried to get him to eat something. It was a cold camp and Murdoch wished that he had some of the ladies’ herbal teas or some broth. Scott’s stomach wasn’t up for anything heavy. The best they could do for him was try to keep him hydrated by getting him to drink plenty of water. Scott’s fever-bright eyes were anxious until they resumed traveling.
The group traveled on for a few more hours until it was almost dark. Val, along with Walt and Frank, ventured forth to see what they could bring back for game. They were fortunate enough to bag a couple of rabbits apiece and one wild turkey. The turkey was quickly plucked, cleaned and put into a large pot to boil for broth, which was given to the invalid.
Before he took to his bedroll that night, Murdoch ensured that Scott was well covered. Lady jumped up into the back of the wagon to sleep near the sick man. Back at Lancer she’d been staying by his bedside all the while.
Maura and the young men with her made camp early. Coco was exhausted and sore, Kevin was in a lot of pain and feeling very dizzy from the concussion and everyone else was tired too. Barranca and Eagle had done well but they were not accustomed to pulling a load of any kind behind them – they were used to having one rider on their back. It tired them out to travel this way as it made them nervous.
Hastily Rico made a fire over which they roasted a couple of rabbits that Willie brought down with the sling he’d made. The sling consisted of his bandana and a long piece of leather fringe. It was quite effective on small game. Willie hadn’t owned a gun until about five hears ago. In order to help his father put meat on the table he’d learned how to use a sling in the tradition of King David, and could usually bring down whatever he was after.
They turned in early in order to get an early start in the morning. Kevin was restless half the night due to the pain in his ribs and back. The bruising was beginning to show itself and it was massive and deep. Maura was thankful that he hadn’t broken his back but his restlessness had her worried. He was beginning to run a fever. Either the gash on his arm was infected or he’d gotten something into his lungs and that was causing him to come down with pneumonia. She prayed that neither one was so as she soothed the sick boy that night.
Maura’s fears were realized when she arose in the morning. The gash on Kevin’s arm, that she had tried to clean out when they first found him, had become infected. It wasn’t bad but without some whiskey to clean the injury out with or medical instruments to get out any tiny splinters, or other foreign objects, she wasn’t able to do as good a job as she would have liked.
“Mrs. T, I don’t feel so good,” Kevin said fretfully as the fever gripped him. “My arm hurts and I’m hot.”
“I know, dear,” she said as she smoothed the sun-bleached hair back from his face. “We’ll get you home soon and have Dr. Jenkins look at it.”
Johnny and his other two pals took her aside to have a conference. Johnny had decided, that due to their lack of progress, one of them had to leave the rest and go for help on his own. He knew she wouldn’t be happy about it but he couldn’t see any other way to do it. Coco couldn’t travel fast with his bad leg. Barranca and Eagle couldn’t move fast while pulling the travois. One man on horseback could make much better time.
“Mrs. Talbot, I know you’re going to disagree with me, but I think that we’d better consider sending one of us out on horseback while the rest stay put. We’re not making any progress with one injured man on a travois, one lame horse and the other horse alternating between pulling Kevin and pulling supplies.”
“I know we’re not, Johnny, dear,” Maura said, “but I’d rather we stayed all together. I feel responsible for you boys.”
“No, ma’am,” Willie said. “You’re not responsible for us and you aren’t responsible for the rockslide either. We all decided to come through Hunter’s Paradise on the way home.”
“Willie is right,” Rico agreed. “We all made the decision together. Nobody could have known that there would be a rock slide.”
“Kevin needs help, Mrs. Talbot,” Johnny said. “You did the best you could with what you had to work with but he needs Sam and he needs to be home in his own bed – not out here in the wilds with no decent shelter. I’ll take Barranca and ride as fast as I can back toward home. When I get there I can get a wagon and send somebody for the doc. Maybe somewhere along the way I’ll find the team and bring them home with me.”
“I’d still feel better if we all stayed together,” Maura said doubtfully, knowing how these young men attracted trouble like flowers attract bees.
“Mrs. Talbot,” Johnny said patiently. “I’d feel better about it too but we’re not making any progress toward getting home and Kevin really does need Doc Jenkins as soon as possible. It’ll be much faster if I take Barranca and head for home. I can make it in a couple of days!”
Maura still hesitated, but looking at the other boys she could see that they had no doubts that it would be best if Johnny went for help while they stayed behind, maintained a good campsite, and helped tend to Kevin. Coco could stand the rest as well to allow his injured leg time to begin healing. That wouldn’t happen if they were on the move.
Reluctantly she gave her consent, “All right, but promise me you’ll be careful.”
“I promise,” Johnny said and then turned to free Barranca of the travois.
Maura bustled about getting some of their limited food supplies together. When she went to him with them in her hand he tried to refuse to take their food.
“You’re gonna need it more than me,” he protested. “I can live off the land and I won’t be gone that long!”
“You take it, Johnny,” she said firmly. “Willie and Rico can hunt and fish for us just as easily as you can for yourself. You’ve got to make good time and you can’t do that if you have to hunt for your dinner.” Reaching up she put her hand to his cheek and told him to bend down. “You be careful, Johnny, dear, very careful and come back to us soon. I’ll be praying for your safety and that you’ll find help for us before too long.” Releasing him she said, “Now say good-bye to Kevin and be on your way.”
Johnny, blinking back the tears that threatened to spill because of the way this woman cared for him as a son, did as she told him. , while Rico held Barranca’s reins, knelt down beside Kevin, took Kevin’s hand in his and said to his friend, “Don’t you worry, Kev, I’m going for help and I’ll be back in no time. You just hang in there and watch for me. And do like Mrs. Talbot tells you.”
Kevin mustered up a weak grin and nodded, “I will. You do like she told you, too.”
“I will, don’t you worry none. Just concentrate on getting better while I’m gone, ok?”
After one more pat of Kevin’s shoulder, Johnny rose, took Barranca’s reins from Rico and mounted. With a wave he was on his way at a fast walk, followed shortly by a trot and then a lope as he and Barranca headed off toward Morro Coyo, Lancer and help.
The search party rose early the next morning. After a hasty breakfast they saddled and hitched the horses, made Scott comfortable in the back of the wagon – at Murdoch’s insistence because he was afraid Scott would fall over if he didn’t ride in the back - and started off.
The weather, which had been mild for the first few days, was turning hotter and the men were more miserable than any of them could remember – except Scott, who’d seen many days like this while living back in Boston with his grandfather. New England weather was notorious for changing quickly, and changing from hot to cold or cold to hot was one of the things it was noted for. Though not as humid as the Deep South, it was bad enough. California, Scott had found, tended to be more of a dry heat but even that could be uncomfortable.
The men who were riding mounted up and Jelly took up the reins of the team that was hitched to the wagon. Cipriano took the lead and started them down the road that would lead them to Hunter’s Paradise. Val was close behind him as was Lancer’s ranch hand known only as Frank. Frank was a black man about thirty years of age whose history was virtually unknown. Murdoch considered him an excellent worker and knew that Frank was a good tracker. Between Cipriano and Frank they ought to be able to find any tracks if the missing travelers had gotten lost, or had an accident, coming out of Hunter’s Paradise. So far, though, there were no recent tracks for them to follow. All the tracks they found were quite old.
The search party stopped to rest the horses several times. Murdoch ensured that Scott was not overheated and, between him and Jelly, they forced the younger man to drink quite a bit of water. Jim Talbot tended to Lady for he was as fond of her as Johnny was – especially since her grandmother had been a gift from his boys to Johnny when Johnny was a baby.
After an hour’s rest at lunch the search party started off again. By the time the sun was starting to go down they had just about reached the entrance to Hunter’s Paradise so they stopped to make camp. At first light they would start down the road and see if they could find their missing family members and friends.
By the time the search party had settled down for the night Johnny was settling himself and Barranca down as well. There was some tall, dry grass, which Johnny was able to use to give Barranca a bit of a rubdown. He then turned the Palomino loose to forage for himself, knowing that as soon as he whistled and called his horse would return to him.
Looking around Johnny found enough dried limbs and small branches to be able to fix himself a decent fire for cooking and warmth for the night. It would also discourage most wild animals that were in the area from disturbing him as he slept. He would, however, sleep lightly, knowing that he had to occasionally feed the fire to keep it from going out.
In a nearby stream he caught a couple of trout and roasted them over his fire. These, along with a couple of biscuits and some water, constituted his supper.
It wasn’t long before he turned in for the night with plans for getting on the road quite early the next morning.
Maura fussed over Kevin as she had fussed over her own boys when they were ill. Despite her best efforts she had not been able to clean Kevin’s arm wound as well as she had wanted to. The wound had become infected and the fever, along with the pain of the broken ribs and all the bumps and bruises he’d sustained, were making him quite miserable.
Rico and Willie did their best to help her but it was Maura Talbot, and no other, who could really comfort the injured, and now sick, young man. She had truly become a second mother to all four members of the Prankster Posse as well as to Scott.
Unable to help with Kevin the other young men set about making sure that they had enough firewood and water. They made sure that the canvas shelter was good and taut. If it sagged it was uncomfortable to sit under and they couldn’t stand up straight. It was a restless night for them. They didn’t sleep well because of their worries over Kevin and the need to keep the fire going. When morning came all of them were exhausted and the heat didn’t help.
Just before sunrise the smell of coffee and bacon woke Scott from a fitful sleep. Lady was curled up on the ground next to the wagon while Murdoch and Jim Talbot had staked their bedrolls near the wagon and were in the process of rolling them up when Scott stirred.
“How are you feeling, son?” asked Scott’s concerned father.
“All right, I guess,” Scott said with a bit of a cough.
“You know I ought to have your head for pulling a fool stunt like that!” Murdoch exclaimed. “You’re still sick – you never truly shook that cold and it’s probably turned into pneumonia at this point. You belong at home in your bed!”
“Murdoch, I can’t go home and you know it. It’s too far to send me and you don’t want to lose anybody from the search party. I know it sounds silly,” Scott conceded, “but I’m positive that Johnny’s in some kind of trouble. You know I’ve never believed in dreams before but Johnny’s such a magnet for trouble I’m sure something has happened.”
“Now that’s what I call the pot calling the kettle black,” Jim Talbot chuckled. “You and your brother are both magnets for trouble and disaster. You also both worry too much. I’m sure they’re fine but I’ll agree with you on one thing – something has to have happened to the wagon, or the road, or they’d be home by now. If it happened down there in Hunter’s Paradise they wouldn’t have had a way to send word that they’ve been delayed.”
“We’ll be under way in half an hour at the most, I’m sure,” Murdoch said. “Cipriano’s going to go ahead with Frank and see what he can find.”
The sky was still dark when Johnny awoke. Eager to be on his way, he set about fixing himself a meager breakfast and had eaten, cleaned up his campsite, and saddled Barranca, all within the hour.
It promised to be another hot day and the clouds looming overhead were ominous. He was pretty certain that it would rain before the day was over. He hoped that the shelter he and his friends had fixed up for Maura and Kevin would hold up. The wind was starting to pick up and that had him worried for them. The last thing Kevin needed now was a soaking with nothing dry to put on and no place to go for protection from the weather, unless Willie and Rico found a dry cave or an overhang in which they could all take shelter.
Within thirty minutes he was on his way again. Traveling slowly, for the ground was rather rough where they were, he made his way toward the far entrance to Hunter’s Paradise only to find that there had been more than one rockslide and it was no longer safe for Barranca to travel that way. He was within five miles of that entrance when he had to stop and dismount. He wasn’t going to risk Barranca’s legs on a road that was littered with patches of dirt and rocks and he didn’t have time to remove them all as he went so that he could keep Barranca with him. He’d just have to pick his way over the area on foot and hope that he could find a spot close to the end where he could climb up to the top and get to the road to Morro Coyo.
He unsaddled Barranca and removed his bridle, placing both under a nearby tree. He knew that Barranca would come as soon as he called him upon his return and he didn’t want to make his equine friend suffer by standing around saddled when he, Johnny, didn’t know how long it would take him to get to the top of the road and find help. When he was done he placed his saddle blanket over the saddle and bridle, patted Barranca one last time, and started walking, carefully picking his way over the rocky ground.
In their camp, Willie, Rico and Maura were watching the clouds rolling in from the north. Lightning was flickering in the farthest ones and they were getting nervous. The two uninjured young men decided that they would be wise to see if they could find a more sheltered place to wait for Johnny. None of them liked the looks of the storm clouds and knew it would be dangerous to stay where they were if there was going to be a bad storm. Even a minor storm, if it had lightning with it, would be a problem.
“Mrs. Talbot,” Willie said when he and Rico returned after a thirty minute search for a new campsite, “we found a cave we can hole up in. I don’t know how we missed it before but it’s big enough to hold us, Eagle and Coco if we plan it right. There are actually two caves right next to each other.”
“Sí, Señora,” Rico chimed in. “Willie is right. That storm looks to be a bad one. Kevin needs to be where it’s more sheltered. These caves were not affected by the rockslide. We can put the horses in the bigger one and we can fit into the smaller one. We have already put some dry firewood in there so we can stay warm if it gets chilly – especially with the rain coming.”
“All right, boys,” Maura said. “First get our supplies, such as they are, in the cave. Then move the horses. They’ll be a little balky with that storm coming and it may take you a few minutes to get them over there and settled. It won’t take nearly as long for us to move Kevin.”
The young men disagreed with her plan and quickly convinced her that she and Kevin needed to move to the cave where they intended to wait out the storm first. Then they moved the horses. Coco’s leg was still quite sore and both horses were a bit nervous as they sensed the coming storm. The wind was rising and the thunder and lightning were getting closer. Their shirtsleeves blew tightly against their arms as they led the two now skittish horses toward their new shelter.
Willie and Rico picked up the stretcher on which Kevin was lying and started toward the cave. They had pulled bandanas over their faces at first because of the wind blowing sand around. Now they pulled their hats down low as the rain blew into their faces. Maura’s skirts whipped against her legs, hindering her movements somewhat. She held a blanket up over Kevin’s face as best she could to shield him from the rain but the wind threatened to snatch it away. Her hair, which she had put up upon rising that morning, was being blown loose of its hairpins. She could tell that she was going to have to resort to some other method of keeping it under control as they couldn’t stop to look for them now. Perhaps one of the boys’ bandanas would do.
The boys entered the other cave with the horses just as the storm was beginning to break loose over their heads. The canvas they had used as a shelter was forgotten as they hurriedly switched locations to be with Maura and Kevin. The rain was now heavy and mixed with hail. They didn’t intend to go back out again, until it was over, unless they had to.
“Sure am glad we found this cave when we did,” Willie said. “I don’t know how we could have missed it before.”
“No matter,” Maura said over the sound of the pouring rain and the crashing thunder. “We’re here now and we should be safe enough. Are the horses all right?”
“Sí, they are safe,” Rico said. “As long as they are in the cave they will be fine. My Eagle does not care for storms very much and Coco is not much better but as long as they’re sheltered somewhere they will be fine.
Murdoch, Jim Talbot and Jelly struggled to pull the canvas over the top of the wagon. Their combined efforts weren’t enough as the wind was gusting very strongly so Manuel Portillo and John Mays, both of whom were close by, threw themselves into the job as did Val. Between them they finally got it up and fastened down but not before Scott got soaked. Concerned that Scott’s fever would flare up again due to the chill he thought his son must be feeling, Murdoch insisted that Scott wrap a couple of blankets around himself. The blankets were good, thick wool Indian blankets, purchased from Val who bought them from Lone Crow’s widow, so they were barely damp on the top and plenty dry enough to take care of the invalid.
Scott had battled a cold, and then pneumonia, for the entire time that his brother had been gone. He was still quite susceptible to that fever coming back and was also weak from having been ill for so long. The last thing his father wanted was for him to get even sicker than he already was. Lady Sweet Friend, sensing their worry, jumped up into the wagon and made herself comfortable next to Scott. Nobody scolded her or made her get out of the wagon.
The search party waited where they were for about five minutes before Cipriano returned with his report that the road down to Hunter’s Paradise was blocked by rocks and dirt that had been washed loose from the side of the hill above them. They wouldn’t be able to attempt the descent until the storm was over and they could clear the road.
Johnny slipped for the umpteenth time, so he thought, as he fought his way over the rocky path that led upward out of Hunter’s Paradise, this time banging his left knee on a fair sized boulder as he did so. Cursing to himself, he rubbed the injured knee and then started on his way again. He knew he was getting close, for despite the heavy rain that was falling, he could see that the road was going upward. Just a hundred feet or so away was a place where he would be able to cut his trip to the flat land a little shorter by climbing up over the side of the hill rather than continuing on the rocky road. Doggedly he continued on until he got to a point where he thought he could start climbing up the side of the hill rather than continue climbing over the rocks on the road. He’d had enough of slipping and sliding for one day. It would prove to be a mistake that he would regret for quite a while.
Kevin mumbled in his delirium as Maura wiped his face with cool water again. There was no doubt that the gash on his arm had gotten infected. Without enough water and proper instruments – even a decent knife – Maura hadn’t been able to clean it out as well as she would have liked.
“Mama? I’m hot. Can I go swimming?”
“Kevin, it’s Maura Talbot, dear. Your mother is at home waiting for you. We’ll have you there soon. You’re very ill but we’ll get you home and have Dr. Jenkins fix you up proper.”
“Mrs. Talbot, isn’t there anything we can do?” Willie was worried about his friend.
“Pray, Willie, pray,” she said. “That gash has gotten infected. In spite of everything we did he must have gotten something in it that we didn’t see. Pray for Kevin and pray that Johnny finds help very soon. Kevin needs a doctor and he needs one desperately.”
Willie nodded and bowed his head while Rico crossed himself and then did likewise. As for Maura – well, she hadn’t stopped praying since the accident when they’d first lost sight of Kevin.
Johnny pulled himself up to the first toehold he could find. It wasn’t easy. The rain that was coming down was making the rocks somewhat slippery and the hail bouncing off his shoulders and hands was stinging them. Gripping tightly, he looked up and found his second and then his third handhold and toehold. On the fifth toehold he ran into trouble and slipped a bit, making him gasp in consternation. He recovered and continued on his way. He was making slow but steady, progress when he suddenly found himself in real trouble. When he was no more than five feet from the top he grabbed hold of a tree root that was sticking out from an outcropping of rock, just above his head. His right hand slipped off the rock and he was left with just the grip he had on the tree root. His body swung into the rocky side of the hill, shoulder first, and he felt an incredibly sharp pain in that right shoulder. His arm dangling uselessly at his side, Johnny tried to pull himself up but couldn’t. He didn’t dare let go either, for it was a long drop down to the rock strewn road below him where he would, at the very least, find himself badly hurt. Desperately he clung to the tree, found a foothold and started yelling for help hoping there was someone around who could hear him over the sound of the storm that was raging about him.
The noise of the storm was keeping Scott awake in spite of his fatigue. Lady wasn’t very happy about it but she was fine as long as she was inside the wagon. It was a fierce storm and even the stalwart collie was a little nervous. If Johnny had been there the two of them would have cavorted in the pouring rain and Lady wouldn’t have minded it a bit, but he wasn’t there so she snuggled close to Scott and waited it out.
John Mays was restless and unable to sit still. He started walking back and forth under the trees they were sheltered amid. Fortunately for the search party there had been a grove of trees where they could take shelter, rather than all open space or a single tree which would have been very dangerous in the raging thunderstorm. Even at that they were a bit nervous as the storm was so strong. Hail the size of grapefruit was falling and damaging some of the trees but there were enough of the sturdy pines to protect the men and animals.
Jelly sat, huddled under a canvas tarp, on the wagon seat cussing out the team that flinched every time there was a clap of thunder. He kept his hands on the reins and had the brake set on the wagon.
Murdoch, Jim Talbot and the others dismounted and huddled under the trees in small groups. Manuel Portillo and Andrew Millar were with Murdoch. Cipriano, Frank and Walt were under another small group of trees within the grove. Val and John Mays were together in still another spot closer to the wagon. All were staying relatively dry.
In the wagon Lady’s ears perked up and she wiggled them this way and that as she tried to decide where the familiar voice she was hearing was calling from. Her head came up off Scott’s leg, and she walked to the tailgate.
“Lady? What’s the matter girl? The storm got you spooked?” Scott asked.
Lady just whined and cocked her head in the direction of the voice only she could hear right at that moment. She jumped down out of the wagon and started pacing back and forth, trying to get a bearing from which direction the sound of that familiar voice was coming. John Mays saw her as she bolted toward the road that descended into Hunter’s Paradise. He followed her to the road, and when she turned and ran down the footpath near the cliff’s edge, he followed her.
Coming to a stop just above where Johnny was dangling precariously a few feet below the path, Lady started barking excitedly. John was right behind her and was absolutely stunned to see his son’s best friend dangling by one hand from a tree root several feet below him with the other arm at his side.
“Johnny! Hang on, son,” he called over the sound of the storm. “I’ll get you up!”
“Hurry, Mr. Mays,” Johnny shouted back desperately. “I can’t hold on much longer!”
John knelt down at the side of the cliff and reached down to take Johnny’s hand but found he was just out of reach. He then lay down flat and dangled from the waist up over the side but still couldn’t quite reach him.
“I can’t reach you, Johnny,” he told the younger Lancer son. Taking off his belt he formed a loop and managed to get it down almost as far as Johnny’s wrist. “Put your other hand through the loop, Johnny, and I’ll pull you up.”
“I can’t, Mr. Mays,” Johnny told him, his face white with fear and the strain of retaining his grip on the tree root. “I think I broke my shoulder. I can’t move my right arm.”
John Mays heard this news with dismay but he didn’t lose his head and start panicking. He scooted forward a bit more, which was just enough to get a grip on Johnny’s left wrist and held on for dear life but he was unable to get enough leverage to pull the younger man up as the ground he was on was slippery from the rain and the hail.
“Murdoch!” John bellowed as loudly as he could. “Murdoch! Get over here – fast!”
Lady added her voice to the call, and fortunately for all concerned, the others back in the trees a short distance down the road heard them. In just a couple of minutes Murdoch, Jim Talbot and everyone else except Scott, who was being watched by a self-appointed guardian by the name of Jelly Hoskins, arrived on the scene.
“What’s wrong, John?” Murdoch asked as they ran up.
“It’s Johnny! He’s just below me, hanging onto what appears to be a tree root,” the blacksmith explained. “I can’t get enough leverage to pull him up and I can’t let go of him or he’ll fall a good fifteen feet or more onto the rocks on that road!”
“Johnny?!” Murdoch immediately, bad leg, bad back and all, lowered himself to the ground and leaned out over the side. “Hang on son,” he said when he saw his younger son dangling from John Mays’ iron grip, “we’ll have you up in no time.”
With that Murdoch leaned out far enough to get a grip on the same wrist that John was holding. Jim Talbot and Val got hold of Murdoch’s belt and held onto him while Frank and Walt got hold of them. Cipriano and Manuel Portillo grabbed hold of John’s belt while Andrew Millar and one of the other hands grabbed hold of them. Between them all they managed to keep the two men who were leaning over the cliff from falling and stabilized those who were trying to pull them up. With three men on each side they managed to drag Johnny, and his rescuers, up to the top and back to a safe spot.
Once they reached that safe distance from the edge all the men flopped down on the ground to catch their breath. It was after they had recovered, and sat up, that Murdoch noticed that Johnny’s right arm was dangling limply by his side and that he had a cut on his right temple.
“I’ve been worried about you. What happened son?” he asked putting his hand gently on Johnny’s left arm.
“I think I broke my shoulder,” Johnny said wincing in pain as he tried to move it.
“Let me have a look,” Jim Talbot said. “I’ve broken my shoulder a time or two – I’ll know if you have or not.”
So saying he took a quick look and gently probed the now swollen shoulder. After he was through he took a look at the cut on Johnny’s head.
“No, it’s not broken,” he told the anxious father. “He’s dislocated it. I can set that to rights in no time. Sam taught me how when Tim dislocated his shoulder a few months ago.” He motioned to John Mays, the blacksmith with the iron grip, to hold Johnny’s other shoulder and keep him seated. Without giving Johnny a chance to say anything, or tense up, he quickly grabbed the younger man’s arm, did a couple of quick maneuvers and soon had the shoulder back in place. “We’re going to need something to make a sling with – that arm has to be kept immobile for a while.”
“Here,” Val said handing over a large bandana that he had been wearing. “Good thing for you, Johnny boy, that I carry that extra large bandana.”
“Johnny, why were you climbing up the side of the cliff like that? Why didn’t you stick to the road?” Murdoch was confused. “That was a very dangerous thing to do!”
“I had to, Murdoch,” Johnny told his father. “The road is blocked from a landslide for a good twenty miles. I had to leave Barranca five miles back ‘cause it got too dangerous for him.”
“Where are Maura and the other boys?” Jim Talbot asked as he maneuvered Johnny’s arm into the sling.
“I left them about forty miles back a couple of days ago.” Looking up at Andrew Millar he said, “The wagon got caught in one of the landslides three days ago. Kevin got hurt when it turned over. The team took off and Coco hurt his leg running away. That left us with just Barranca and Eagle to do the work of the team. We took turns walking – except for Kevin. It was taking too long so I rode ahead.”
“How badly is he hurt, Johnny?” Andrew asked, concerned for his son.
“He’s got some busted ribs, a slight concussion and a gash on his arm that’s gotten infected. Mrs. Talbot did the best she could but he needs Sam. He was starting to run a fever when I left.”
“What about Willie and Rico?” John Mays asked for himself and Manuel.
“They’re fine. Mrs. Talbot’s not hurt either – just Kevin and Coco.”
Murdoch stood and helped Johnny to his feet. “Let’s get you out of this rain and over to the wagon. You can ride in back with Scott while the rest of us start clearing that road.” Turning to Walt he added, “Walt, you head back to Lancer and tell the women what’s happened. Send someone into town to alert Doc Jenkins that he’s going to be needed. Ride over to the Rocking M yourself and let Mrs. Millar know what’s happened and see that Mrs. Mays and Señora Portillo are informed as well. We’ll bring all of them back to Lancer and keep Kevin there as long as Sam says he needs to stay put.”
“Yes, sir,” Walt said as he turned to leave.
Murdoch and Jim escorted Johnny back to the wagon with the others following right behind them. Along the way Murdoch explained about Scott’s condition and the nightmares he’d been having.
“You mean he’s been sick all this time and worried about me and not sleeping because of it? Boy am I gonna give him an earful!”
That was exactly what Johnny did when he was assisted into the wagon to sit out the storm with his brother. Johnny was wrapped in warm blankets since he’d gotten chilled by the rain and hailstorm and had no dry clothes to change into. According to Jelly Johnny chewed Scott up one side and down the other and he didn’t care who heard him. He told his brother it was downright ridiculous of him to think that he couldn’t stay out of trouble without Scott riding herd on him.
“And another thing….”
Johnny’s tirade was interrupted by his father clearing his throat. Looking out at his “old man” as Johnny teasingly referred to Murdoch he saw the older man shake his head. Catching Murdoch’s meaning Johnny cut short his tirade and made himself comfortable next to his brother. The two of them drifted off to sleep with Lady at their feet while they waited for the storm to abate. As soon as it did the men would get to work clearing the road so that they could get to their loved ones and friends who were waiting for someone to come to their aid.
It took two days of backbreaking labor, working from sunup to sundown, before they were finally able to clear the road enough to take the wagon down into Hunter’s Paradise. During that time Johnny’s head wound, which Jelly had tended to was well on its way to healing but Johnny chafed at the delay and his inability to assist with the road clearing. His father, and the others, all told him that he needed to relax and let them do the work. His shoulder needed time to stabilize after being put back in place so there was nothing he could do to help them until they got down to the valley and he could guide them to where he’d left his friends.
No one was more relieved than Johnny when the men had finally cleared the road enough to allow them to drive the wagon down into the valley. He sat in the wagon seat with Jelly and told Cipriano what landmarks to look for as they went along. When they finally arrived at the campsite Johnny and the others were dismayed to find it not only deserted but the impromptu shelter was torn to shreds - the tree that was close by had been destroyed by lightning. It stood nearby charred and split in two.
Johnny’s face paled from fright when he saw the deserted, and destroyed campsite. He didn’t know what to tell anyone. He’d left them right there several days ago and he didn’t know where they could have gone.
“This is the place! It was right here. I remember that tree!”
“Well then they packed up and moved elsewhere,” Jim said while Cipriano scouted around to see if he could find any tracks indicating which way the missing group had gone.
“But where?” Andrew Millar was close to being frantic. “If Kevin was hurt, and sick, like Johnny said where could they have gone?”
“Maura?” Jim started calling for his wife in the hope that she was nearby.
John Mays and Manuel Portillo added their voices as they called for their sons. The only response they got was from Barranca who had heard familiar voices and came to see if his beloved amigo, Johnny, was with them.
Val had been poking around and realized that he was somewhat familiar with this part of the valley. Now he paused for a moment frowning and looking eastward toward the cliffs.
“It seems to me,” he said, after a brief conference with Cipriano, “that there’s a few caves over that way. Might even be some big enough for a person to take shelter from a storm in.”
“How far, Val?” Jim asked.
“I reckon about a mile, mile and a half.” Val looked to Cipriano for confirmation. “They’re pretty well camouflaged and you wouldn’t be apt to see them if you didn’t know they were there.”
The search party followed Val in the direction he indicated. They traveled on foot going slowly and looking for signs that their missing loved ones had indeed gone in that direction. Jim was the first one to find a sign that indicated that Val was right when he found one of Maura’s hairpins glittering in the sunlight.
“Maura?” Jim called for his wife.
“Rico? Donde esta hijo?” Manuel called his son’s name.
“Willie? Where are you boy?”
The air was filled with the calls of the search party. After what seemed an eternity their calls were answered.
“Alex? Is that you, dear?”
Maura, Rico and Willie could be heard answering the calls. The search party walked faster, in the direction of the voices, and soon were reunited with their missing friends and loved ones. Rico and Willie were engulfed in hugs by their fathers and Maura was soon lovingly embraced by her worried husband. Andrew looked around anxiously for any sign of Kevin.
Maura saw him and said, “He’s in the cave, Andrew. Alive, but very sick.”
Andrew hurried into the cave and knelt by his son’s side. Kevin was burning up and obviously in need of medical attention. Johnny joined him a moment later, anxious to see his friend.
“He’s a very sick boy, Andrew,” Maura said. “His arm wound got infected and I didn’t have anything to treat it with. We need to get him home and let Sam treat him.”
“We’ve got a wagon full of food and medical supplies,” Murdoch said, “and Jelly does know something about doctoring with poultices. Let’s let him have a look and see what he can do until we get you all home.”
The grizzled old handyman was summoned and he and Maura immediately went into conference over what would be the best herbs to use, internally, and in a poultice, to treat Kevin’s infection. For all their teasing the others knew that Jelly had been doctoring people, and animals, for quite some time. His “coctions” could be rather noxious at times but they did work. He’d helped Scott get over a cold once with blackstrap molasses, hot water, lemon juice and cayenne pepper. It had sweat the cold right out of him – or at least cured his laryngitis.
About an hour after they started, Maura and Jelly had an herbal tea and a poultice brewed up and Kevin was showing some slight improvement. The wound in his arm, which had probably been caused by a tree branch, was not as red and nasty looking. It would take several more treatments and Sam’s medical expertise, but Kevin would be fine. Early the next morning they started the long trek home, but with lighter hearts as everyone was safely reunited with their friends and loved ones.
If Scott had thought the lecture he got from Johnny for treating him like a kid and coming after him was bad, it was nothing compared to the one he got from Maura Talbot.
Upon arrival at Lancer Maura, Maria and Teresa had taken charge and put Kevin and Scott to bed. Johnny’s head wound, where the hailstone had hit him, was cleaned again but left open to the air this time. It wasn’t that serious and was well on its way to healing. The bandage had merely been a precaution on Jelly’s part.
Kevin’s arm was treated with poultices that Sam had agreed to. He did open the wound in one place, where the poultice wasn’t working, and put some stitches in it. Most of the injury responded well to Jelly’s treatment and Sam allowed them to continue. This, of course, made Jelly practically bust his suspenders, as Johnny put it, with pride. Kevin went home a week later with orders to take it easy. His father, however, had a different idea than Kevin did, of what it meant to take it easy. Johnny knew that Kevin would play on his mother’s sympathies and worries but Andrew would see that his son had plenty of harness mending and other light chores to keep him out of mischief while he finished healing.
Coco was left in Jelly’s care until his leg was completely healed, then he was returned to the Rocking M where he got to kick up his heels in a small pasture until Kevin was sufficiently healed to take him out again.
Scott’s cold had not quite turned into pneumonia but it was a very stubborn case that hadn’t had a chance to clear up on it’s own due to his worry about his brother. Maura was the one who got him on the mend and over it.
She had heard that the Native Americans, as well as some Scandanavians, took sweat baths for purification and cleansing. She consulted with Sam who hadn’t thought of going that far. The bowl of boiling water with medicinal herbs and ointments were too mild. She showed Murdoch, in one of his books, what it would take to build a sauna and he, in turn, had some of the hands build a small log building with a fire pit in it, near the bath house.
Maura and Maria went through the herb garden with Teresa and picked an abundance of herbs but none of them were what she was looking for. After thinking about it for a while she realized that what she was looking for was eucalyptus, which she had at home. A rider was dispatched to the Bar T with orders to ask Juana to go to the main house and get some from Maura’s medicine chest in the kitchen. When it arrived Maura gave Johnny instructions to place several rocks in the fire pit and build a fire. He then placed a bucket of water and a dipper next to the fire; the water would be poured over the hot rocks to create the steam they needed. A small pot of hot water was placed on the fire and eucalyptus oil was added to it. The vapors from the eucalyptus oil soon had the congestion loosened and Scott began to feel better once it was out of his system. The steam bath had helped immensely as well – for it forced him to sweat and worked with the eucalyptus vapors to put him well on the path to recovery. For the first time in weeks Scott could breathe easily and slept well without having to practically sit up in bed to do so. It didn’t hurt that he knew his little brother was safely ensconced in his own room across the hall.
The day he was back on his feet altogether was the day he got his lecture from Maura. She and Jim had come over for dinner, though Jim and Murdoch would joke privately that she only came so she could check on, and lecture Scott. They sat back in amusement as she laid into the older Lancer son.
“Scott Garrett Lancer, if I ever hear of you doing something so foolish again as endangering your health the way you did last week I will take you out to the woodshed and give you the whipping you deserve! Whatever possessed you to get out of bed, as sick as you were, to go looking for us? I never want to hear of you doing something so foolish again.”
She scolded him for a good five minutes and he just sat there and took it meekly, knowing that it would do him any good to protest. His brother listened on with a grin that he kept hidden lest he come in for a share of the lecture.
The day before Kevin went home the “Welcome Home” party finally took place. Val, Gabe, Sam and the families all gathered at Lancer. This time Val did not dress up. Rico’s mother let him off the hook due to his help. Besides which Murdoch had told her that it was going to be a very informal time with a barbecue and games for the kids.
As Jim was dancing with his wife, to the music provided by a few of the Lancer ranch hands, he said to her, “No more errands of mercy for you for a while, my dear. You’re going to stay close to home where I can keep an eye on you.”
Maura merely murmured, “yes, dear”, but anyone within hearing distance knew that she would be off and running the next time there was a distress call and he would give in to her just as he always did when she was determined to help someone.