There was a definite chill in the late January air as Johnny and Scott Lancer made their way from the barn to the house. Chasing strays was hard work regardless of the weather and Scott was not long out of a cast. In chasing a runaway goat, a pet belonging to one of the orphans at the local orphanage, he’d taken a bad fall that had left him with a broken leg and a slight concussion.
All through the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays he’d been pretty much confined to the house. When in early January Doctor Sam Jenkins had released him from his cast he’d lost no time in graduating from crutches to cane, and finally, to no assistance. He’d finally been cleared to go back to his regular work last week and he was finding out just how tiring it was to recover from even that relatively minor injury.
Their father, Murdoch Lancer, was sitting at his desk in the Great Room. With him was their neighbor, Jim Talbot, owner of the Bar T just a few miles away from Lancer’s one hundred thousand acres.
“Hello boys,” Jim greeted his friend’s sons warmly. “A bit chilly for California today isn’t it?”
“Hello, Mr. Talbot,” Scott said with a smile as he extended his right hand in greeting. “It certainly is. I could almost believe I was back in Boston. I’ve been listening to Johnny here, complain about the cold for the last week.”
“Hey! That’s not fair – I wasn’t complainin’! Just making what you call a ‘statement of fact’ big brother! It’s cold out there!” Johnny wasn’t going to let his brother get away with that comment without protesting and “setting the record straight” – another expression he learned from Scott.
“That’s ok, Johnny,” Jim smiled at the dark haired young man whom he’d known as an infant and a toddler, “I know you like it a little warmer than this. You got used to living in all those hot desert border towns. I remember your mother wasn’t real thrilled with the cold weather either.”
Murdoch laughed, “That’s right! Maria was unhappy with the weather from November until April when it finally warmed up. More often than not, even if the temperature was a bit more moderate than it is today, I’d come home and find her huddled by the fire wrapped in one of her warmest shawls.”
Johnny was pleased to hear this. He and his father had gotten off to a rough start when he had first returned to his home at Lancer. Murdoch had been very reluctant to say much about either of his wives but when he came close to losing his boys to influenza and pneumonia that had all changed. Jim’s wife, Maura, had nursed the boys – and Teresa – and had told him that her only bill was for him to talk to the boys about their mothers. He had and things had been much better between them since then.
“What brings you here, Mr. Talbot?” Johnny asked in an effort to deflect the attention away from himself.
“I need to hire some temporary help,” the tall blond explained. “Three of my men are ill, one’s got a broken arm and two more, the Farrelly brothers, had a family emergency and have gone to Sacramento for a few weeks.” With a twinkle in his blue eyes he added, “I was just discussing with your father the possibility of ‘borrowing’ you two.”
“Really? What kind of job did you have in mind?” Scott wanted to know.
“I have a small bunch that is hiding somewhere up in the San Benitos. They wandered away during that last windstorm we had. Tim found their trail and figures that there are about twenty of them up there. I’ve already hired Kevin Millar, Rico Portillo and Willie Mays to help out. With you two I’ll have replacements for my five men. I want to chase that bunch back down to the valley where they belong.” Turning to Murdoch with a grin he added, “And your father and I are going along too.”
Scott nearly choked on the sip of brandy he had just taken. “What?”
“Something wrong Scott?” his father asked with raised eyebrows.
“Murdoch, Mr. Talbot, you can’t be serious!” Johnny spoke up now. “That’s rough country…I mean…why don’t you leave it up to us?”
“Why?” Jim asked knowing full well what the answer really was though the boys would try not to say it.
“Well…let’s just say …” Johnny looked at his brother for help. Not too long ago they’d had this discussion with their father before he went on a buying trip – alone and been on the stage that was robbed. “Well…”
“That’s not an answer Johnny but I can guess what’s on your mind. You think we’re too old.” Jim grinned at his friend’s embarrassed younger son. “I would have thought you learned your lesson after that incident at Blessing.”
“Oh, it’s not that, sir,” Scott said in an attempt to bail his brother out.
“What is it then?”
“Well, if you two go with us who’s going to run the ranches while we’re all gone?” Scott asked thinking he had triumphed.
“Cipriano and Jelly will manage things here and Tim will manage things at the Bar T,” Murdoch told him.
“Tim O’Connor? He’s just a kid!” Johnny exclaimed.
“He’s got a good head on his shoulders,” Jim said seriously, “and the experience will do him good. Your father and I have already talked to Cipriano and he’s agreed to advise Tim if he needs it.”
Tim O’Connor was a young man in his early twenties, who had been working for Jim since he was sixteen, in one capacity or another. He occasionally escorted Teresa to area events but they were, for now anyway, nothing more than good friends. Jim trusted the young man implicitly and intended to make him foreman when he had gained enough experience in handling the men. The other Bar T hands all liked the boy and never gave him any trouble – except in fun.
“Now that that’s settled,” Jim said, “I’ll expect you at the Bar T first thing Tuesday morning. Oh, and I’ve invited Frank Key to come along. He wants to learn first hand about ranch life and do some ice fishing while we’re up there. I know a good spot for it too.”
Scott’s eyes lit up at this. “Ice fishing? I haven’t been ice fishing since I left Boston! I didn’t know there were any places around here that you could do it!”
“I’ll let you in on my secret spot while we’re up there, Scott,” Jim told him, “as long as you don’t go spreading the word around to the whole valley.”
“No, sir!” the older Lancer son said. “We don’t want everyone and his brother coming up and taking over our spot.”
Teresa and Maria at Lancer, and Maura Talbot at the Bar T, spent all day Monday getting food together for their men. At the Millar ranch, and the Mays and Portillo households, the scene was the same. The mothers of Johnny’s three best friends fried half a dozen chickens between them, baked dozens of biscuits and packed at least ten pairs of thick wool socks. When the time came for the young men to leave on Tuesday morning, they also had to endure having extremely long woolen mufflers and extra pairs of gloves, as well as first aid supplies, pressed upon them. The young men despaired of ever departing in time to be at the Bar T when they were expected.
Teresa and Maria weren’t quite so bad. They had finished all the packing for their men the night before and there was no argument involved, for the boys didn’t want to insult their little sister or find themselves on the bad side of their mamacita.
An hour after sunrise the three Lancers met up with Kevin, Rico and Willie at the Bar T. Jim and Maura both were waiting for them in the yard. A few minutes later Frank Key, thirty-five with dark curly hair and brown eyes, arrived. Frank was a lawyer who had recently started a practice in Green River. Scott had been one of his first clients when he was falsely accused of murdering the cousin of a local businessman. The man had been a vicious guard at the Confederate prison camp where Scott had been incarcerated for the last year of the war. Frank’s tenacity and Johnny’s curiosity had led them to the real culprit – a former prisoner who had blamed Scott for the accident, which had left him crippled. Scott’s former commanding officer, General Phil Sheridan had come to Green River to testify as a character witness.
“Good morning, Murdoch, boys,” Maura said with a smile. “How nice of you to help Alex out like this.”
“Morning Murdoch,” Jim greeted his friend. “I see you’re all ready to go. How much did Teresa and Maria pack for you?” He grinned even as his wife scowled at him.
“Not as much as Maura probably packed for you,” Murdoch retorted. “Good morning Frank,” he greeted the other man.
“Good morning, Mr. Lancer,” Frank responded. “Hello, Scott. Hello, Johnny.”
“Mornin’,” Johnny said before turning his attention to his three pals.
“Good morning, Frank,” Scott said with a smile and a handshake. “I hear you’re anxious to learn about the ranching business.”
“Well, if I’m going to live in cattle country and keep a law practice I think it would be a good idea, don’t you?”
Frank and Scott had become quite good friends since Scott’s acquittal. The young lawyer had been out to Lancer several times to go fishing or hunting with Scott and they had shared experiences of growing up on the east coast. Frank’s family, relatives of Francis Scott Key – the composer of The Star Spangled Banner – was from Maryland. Frank had been named for his famous cousin. His full name was Francis Scott Key III.
“You’re going to learn a lot this weekend, I’m sure,” Maura told the young lawyer. “Murdoch and Alex have been in the business for over twenty years. What they don’t know isn’t worth telling.”
“Now, Maura Catherine, don’t you go bragging on us like that,” Jim admonished his doting wife.
“Don’t pay her any mind, Frank,” Murdoch said with a wink. “As far as she’s concerned the two of us are perfect and can do no wrong.”
“Why Murdoch Lancer…..” Maura sputtered as the men all started laughing.
“Come on men and boys,” Jim said, “Let’s get going before my wife finds her voice again and gives Murdoch the tongue lashing I know she’s got in store for him.” So saying he gave his wife a quick kiss and mounted his black and white paint, Pintauro, and led the way out of the yard.
The snow clouds hung heavy and gray over the high peaks of the San Benitos as the group arrived at their campsite. There was already two feet of snow on the mid-level with the promise of more to come.
“We’d better make camp while it’s still daylight,” Jim said to Murdoch. “Those clouds look like they’re going to dump snow on us at any minute now. If they do it’ll be too hard to see to set up tents or find other shelter.” Pointing up the trail he added, “There’s a good sized cave up there that we can sleep in tonight. It won’t hurt the horses to stay out as long as we blanket them. They’re too accustomed to being inside a nice warm barn to leave them unprotected in this cold and snow.”
“I think you’re right,” Murdoch agreed. Turning in his saddle he said to the younger men, “Boys, Frank, we’re going to camp here for the night. Jim says there’s a decent sized cave we can sleep in. Johnny, you and your friends can start searching for firewood while the rest of us tend to the horses and set up for supper.”
“Ok, Murdoch,” Johnny said. He turned to his pals, “Come on fellas, let’s see what we can find for wood. I’d sure like a nice hot supper and some coffee. I can’t get used to this snow.”
“You’re too soft, Johnny,” Kevin jibed. “It’s not that bad. Before we moved here a few years ago we lived in Montana. It gets really cold and snowy there.”
The four youngest members of the group carried on a short discussion, somewhat heated at times as each defended their point of view, about the levels of cold they had experienced in their brief lifetimes. It was during this discussion that Scott came along to help them look for firewood having done all he could to make four of the horses comfortable. Frank had volunteered to take care of the other four while Murdoch and Jim laid out bedrolls and set out food for supper. They would melt some snow to boil water for coffee.
“You four don’t know what cold is,” Scott teased them. “You’ve never experienced really cold weather until you’ve seen Boston Harbor frozen over like I have.”
“Or experienced a winter in the Scottish Highlands,” his father added as he joined the discussion. “It gets so cold there that even the Loch Ness monster goes into hibernation.”
The younger men looked askance at that remark. They’d heard about “Nessie” but they didn’t know if they believed in the monster or not. They all tended to think that Murdoch was making up a story when he first told them about Nessie. Johnny’s friends had heard it since they were children. More than once, when they had misbehaved as children while visiting Lancer, Murdoch had threatened to ship them to Scotland and have them fed to the monster. The threat had worked like a charm back then but they were too smart, in their opinion anyway, to believe in such nonsense any more. Scott had read about Nessie in a book he’d gotten his hands on some years ago but Johnny had never heard about it until recently.
“That’s something I’ll live without, Mr. Lancer,” Rico said. “This is enough cold for me. I think I’ll let the rest of you deal with the snow and ice all you want.”
Scott was wandering underneath some snow laden pine trees picking up pine cones and such to start a fire with when one of them dropped it’s load right on top of the blond Lancer’s head.
“Yipes! That’s cold!”
“What’s the matter, brother?” Johnny laughed. “I thought you were tough enough that this stuff didn’t bother you.”
“It’s one thing to endure it when you’re walking in it, little brother,” Scott glared. “It’s quite another to have the trees dump it down the back of your neck. It can be pretty miserable.”
“Oh? Is it just when it’s down the back of your neck?” Johnny asked while scooping up some snow in his right hand.
“No, it’s miserable if it goes down the front of your neck too,” Scott said as he concentrated on scooping the snow out of the collars of his jacket and shirt. He should have paid more attention to what Johnny was doing for the next thing he knew Johnny had thrown the snow at him and hit him square in the face with it.
Before they could get into a full-scale war and frighten the horses off Murdoch had a proposal.
“Boys! If you want to have a snowball fight do it in the morning when you can see. It’s snowing pretty good now and we could have another foot by then.” With a grin on his rugged face he said, “We can have a regular battle – Johnny and his friends, Scott, against you, me, Jim and Frank.”
“With snow forts and all?” Scott asked with a gleam in his eye.
“Why not?” Jim Talbot asked with an answering gleam. “Us ‘old men’ against the ‘boys’.”
“What do we get if we beat you?” Johnny wanted to know.
“Bragging rights about how you beat the experts,” his father said. “Don’t forget that all of us grew up having snow ball fights and building snow forts and such. You’ll have quite a victory if you beat us.”
Johnny and his pals had a quick conference among themselves before agreeing to the terms. The others would have the same rights – but only for a week as they were already considered expert in the battle they were going to have in the morning. Of course, that didn’t mean that Scott might not let it slip once in a while about how his superior training had won the day for his team.
After a brief discussion among all parties they decided that the older men would be called the “Grizzlies” while the younger men would be the “Cougars”. That was Scott’s idea. Frank would have been happy to have the “Americans” vs the “British” and called their fort Fort McHenry but the others thought that was a bit too much. Frank just grinned and said it had been worth a try. It was what his distant cousin was known for – being a witness to the Battle of Fort McHenry and writing the words to the Star Spangled Banner. Even he had to agree, though, that it wouldn’t make much sense since nobody was attacking anybody from the ocean – Fort McHenry was on Baltimore Harbor and they were in the mountains.
After a hot supper and a last check on the horses they all turned in – each man taking a turn ensuring that their fire did not go out and that the horses stayed put. Around four in the morning Scott took the last look at the horses and found that, indeed, another foot and a half of snow had fallen. If it cleared up after daylight they would have a perfect day for the snowball fight. The snow that had fallen was light and fluffy and stuck together as opposed to the powdery stuff that wasn’t any good for snowballs, snowmen or anything but sledding, skiing and snowshoeing.
The group slept in some that morning. The smell of coffee and bacon woke Johnny and his friends. They were quick to roll out of their bedrolls and see to their horses before eating. Each was given a small measure of oats and a bucket of water to drink. They would get a workout later in the day when they went after the strays.
“Where shall we have our snowball fight?” Scott wanted to know as he looked around.
“I’d say in that high meadow about a hundred feet farther up the trail,” Jim said. “There’s a lot of open space where we can build our snow forts, stockpile our ammunition and have our battle without spooking the horses or hitting anything other than each other. And no ice balls,” he added with a warning look at Kevin.
“Mr. Talbot!” that young man exclaimed with a grin. “I’m crushed! You don’t trust me!”
“Should he?” Murdoch asked. “I’ve known you most of your life Kevin. You’re always ready to play tricks on someone. I know you wouldn’t hurt anyone deliberately but let’s not take the chance. If I catch you putting even the least little bit of ice in one of your snowballs – strictly to make it fly straighter and hit harder – I’ll warm your britches the way your father would.”
Johnny, Rico and Willie snickered but a warning look from Murdoch and Jim stifled them in a hurry. They knew that that look meant they would be next if they tried anything sneaky and underhanded like that themselves.
Fifteen minutes later the group trudged through four feet of snow to the meadow that Jim had told them about. Johnny and his friends built their snow fort, with a lot of suggestions from Kevin, at the south end of the meadow while the older men built theirs at the north end.
“In exactly five minutes,” Murdoch said, “we start throwing and we don’t quit until every man on one team has called it quits. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” the others all said.
The two groups, now known as the Grizzlies and the Cougars, made their way from the center of the field back to their forts. Scott plotted a strategy in his head while his brother made sure that his team had plenty of ammunition. Five minutes later the snowballs were flying as fast and furious as snowflakes in a blizzard.
Scott scored “first blood” when he knocked Kevin’s hat off his head with one well-aimed throw. Kevin’s attempt at retaliation fell short of the mark, which left Scott laughing at him while dodging snowballs thrown by his brother.
Jim grazed Rico who managed to hit the older man in the shoulder with a snowball that promptly fell apart. Willie tried to hit Frank, but the older man foresaw every move the young Negro made and avoided every snowball that came his way.
For the time being Murdoch was squared off against Johnny but that soon changed as the Cougars decided to square off against those closest to their size. Normally this would have put Kevin up against Scott but Johnny wanted to take on his brother so Kevin got Jim Talbot instead. Rico and Frank were paired against each other as were Murdoch and Willie. The meadow rang with laughter and shouts as the two teams scored hits and lamented near misses.
The horses, hobbled near the camp, heard all the noise and gave each other looks as if to say “our masters are crazy – imagine deliberately throwing snow at each other like they are”. Barranca snorted and shook his head - as did Ranger and Pintauro. The other horses just wandered about looking for something to eat under the snow.
In the meadow the battle raged on for another ten minutes. Suddenly Kevin was hit in the face with a well-thrown snowball. Unable to see and defend himself Kevin became the first Cougar to be knocked out of the game. He surrendered and joined Jim on the sidelines to watch the rest of their teammates go at it.
The next to fall was Rico. Frank had grown up in Maryland, in an area where they didn’t get much snow but he had taken to the game like a duck takes to water and had a good throwing arm. Rico was hit so many times that he fell down laughing too hard to continue. He and Frank joined the other two on the sidelines.
Willie made a good try of it against Murdoch. He managed to hit the tall rancher a few times but the Scotsman was quite used to it even after years away from his homeland. Willie soon found himself on the receiving end of twice as many snowball hits as his now-retired teammates and gave up willingly.
Johnny was another matter. The former gunfighter was not inclined to concede that his team had lost. He fought long and hard and very valiantly against his older brother. One good hit was followed by another as first Scott was hit in the shoulder and then Johnny was. Johnny was hit in the leg and Scott hit in the arm. Then the reverse was true as Johnny was hit in the arm and Scott in the leg. Neither brother was going to give up. The battle between them raged for another ten minutes – a very long ten minutes.
Finally Murdoch and Jim tried to call a halt to it. They’d been at it for half an hour and it was time to quit so they could attend to more important things – the ice fishing and moving the herd. The brothers might have been deaf for all the good it did. Johnny and Scott were not about to give up and call it a draw. It was a fight to the finish, which ended when Kevin inadvertently distracted Johnny long enough for Scott to take Johnny out with a pair of very well aimed snowballs and tackle him.
“Hey! No fair! You’re supposed to throw the snowballs – not tackle me!” Johnny complained.
“Haven’t you ever heard, Little Brother, that ‘all’s fair in love and war’?” Scott asked as his brother struggled to dislodge him.
“This ain’t love!”
“No, but it is a war – a war you wanted and you just lost.”
“How do you figure I lost?”
“You’re the last man on your team to go down, brother dear, that’s how. Kevin, Rico and Willie are already out.”
“Scott’s right, Johnny,” his father said laughing. “You lost and we won. Maybe that’ll teach you youngsters a thing or two about getting smart with your elders.”
Grinning broadly as he washed his brother’s face with some snow he’d scooped up Scott declared the “Grizzlies” the winners of the snowball fight. Once he was on his feet again Johnny tried to tackle his brother but Scott, more accustomed to moving around in the snow than his brother, easily evaded him and threatened him with another face washing.
Ten minutes later they all moved on up to the frozen lake with fishing poles in hand. Jim carried a small saw with which he cut a trio of holes in the ice, spaced about ten feet apart. He, Murdoch, Frank and Scott spent about an hour fishing in which time they managed to hook enough trout to feed the eight of them before mounting up and going after the stray cattle.
The bunch that Jim had tracked a few days ago was not very far away. The men rounded them up and moved them down to the meadow they’d just departed a short time ago. In the morning they would move them down to the lower valley and put them in with the main herd.
It was a tired but exuberant group that drove the bunch into the pasture with Jim’s main herd late the next morning. Johnny spent a good part of the morning plotting to get even with his brother but Scott was on his guard. Everyone knew that the younger Lancer son was up to something but nobody knew just what he would do. He wouldn’t harm his brother, naturally, but losing was something Johnny hated to do and he intended to get back at his brother for the face washing he’d been given.
At the Bar T ranch house Maura Talbot was waiting for them with a hot meal of roast pork, baked potatoes, squash, corn, fresh bread, coffee and blackberry pie for dessert. The eight men crowded around the kitchen table and made short work of the delicious meal provided for them.
Once they were through the Lancers, Kevin, Rico and Willie got ready to depart for their own homes. Maura and Jim followed them out to the yard. Only Maura noticed that Johnny was reaching for something in his saddlebags and she watched him curiously.
“What have you got in your hand, Johnny dear,” she asked.
“Just a little something to show my brother how much I appreciate him,” was the response she received, accompanied by dancing eyes and a grin he couldn’t hide for more than a few seconds.
“And what might that be?” Scott asked suspiciously.
“This!” Johnny exclaimed and shoved a snowball he’d kept well insulated in his saddlebags in his brother’s face.
The yard rang with laughter as Scott tried to wipe the snow and water from his face and Johnny was heard to say, “There’s another saying you like to use Brother – ‘he who laughs last laughs best’!”