Immense waves of heat stalled over the San Joaquin Valley. The only thing that kept the air from feeling just like a furnace was the abundance of steamy moisture that hung in the air. It made breathing a chore for the best of lungs, somewhat like trying to draw in enough oxygen with a hot wet barber’s towel wrapped around your nose. The heaviness of the atmosphere trapped all the smells that usually dissipated in the night. Instead of starting the new day with that crisp fresh scent of dawn, the valley awoke to low laying blankets of fog that trapped in the staleness of the old day, making the morning feel more like midday. The combination of dew and fog had the occupants thinking they were in one big Indian sweat lodge, with no way out. The old timers wisely advised that by the time the sun burned off the fog, the heat would be practically unbearable. There was an uneasiness lurking in the thick and suffocating air, which loomed over the land, to the elders it was a sure sign of doom to come, they felt it in their old, and weary bones.
The day had started like any other day, all was normal with the exception of the atypical weather. Business must go on whatever the climatic occurrences, however, conditions would soon erode. The consequences would be heart-wrenching and horrifying. It would be an experience likened to being dragged backwards across hell, over broken glass. A day the Lancers and the residents of Green River would never forget, as long as they lived.
The day the world… their world…shook, trembled, and collapsed around them into total chaos and panic.
Some were sure it was the end of time. That God, himself, had raised his mighty, and all powerful hand, clenched it into a fist of fury and vengeance, and then slammed it down, until the valley shook with his retribution. Once the assault started, it felt as though he hammered one pounding blow after another, his wrath was unleashed on land, buildings, man, and beast. The destruction was without mercy. Buildings shook, and tumbled down, as though they had been constructed out of a child’s wooden block set. The sturdier buildings had swayed back and forth, some slightly shifting off their foundations, while the ground loudly rumbled, menacingly beneath their feet. The unearthly sound intensified, like thunder rolling and booming, pushing along a speeding train. The sound was terrifying the longer it went on, and the world crumbled, and crashed adding to the cacophony of noise.
The deafening, ear shattering noise of wood cracking, beams splintering, and glass shattering, could not drown out the horrific mournful screaming of men, women, and children, as they frantically scattered about, searching for safety from the falling world. Their desperate prayers for salvation mingled with the sounds of destruction. Their frightened eyes widened in terror, as their lives were torn apart. As suddenly as it started, it was over, within a matter of a few minutes. When the earth finally stood still again, the riot calmed, and the silence was peppered with wails of disbelief and pain.
Earlier that day.
“It’s going to be a hot one!” Johnny commented, with a frown on his bronzed face, as he and Scott headed for the barn to ready the wagon for the trip into town. “And I’m not looking forward to the ride there and back.”
“I thought you were use to this heat by now, living down in Mexico?” Scott stated; putting his hand over his eyes to shade them from the sun’s beaming rays, as it was rising over the mountains, and streaming through the patchy areas of fog.
“Yeah, but that was a dry heat, Scott. We didn’t have this kind of damp air.” Johnny explained, wiping the moisture off his brow with his sleeve, and then taking off his hat, and fanning his heat flushed face with it. “It took a good day’s work to make my clothes stick to me, but this weather,” Johnny snorted with a crooked grin, “All I have to do is stand in it for few seconds, and they cling to me.” He walked over to the water trough, dipping his dark head into its depths. He pulled his head out, his hair now wet and slick, and let the cool water run down his chest and back when he stood up, molding his now soaked shirt to his frame, outlining his taunt lean torso, in an attempt to keep cool.
“It’s called humidity, and you’re right, the air does seem a little thicker today.” Scott had to agree with his sopping wet brother. He took out his bandana, and dunked it into the same trough, and wet down the back of his own slender neck.
“A little thicker? You can cut it with a knife, and my lungs feel like they are on fire. I can hardly breathe!” Johnny growled, as he ran his long fingers threw his wet mop of black silk.
“Well, we’ll just have to grin and bear it, Brother. We need those supplies today.” Scott reminded his hesitant brother. “The sooner we get there, the sooner we can get back home.”
“Yeah, let’s get this over with,” Johnny conceded irritably. “But I’m taking plenty of water along; I’m not going to die of thirst along the way.” He quickly went to grab a couple of extra canteens out of the tack room, and then filled them up, over at the water pump, tossing a couple to Scott.
“Good idea!” Scott proclaimed, as he caught the canteens. “And then when we get to town we also can drown our thirst with a nice cold beer,” he added with a sly grin.
“Now you’re talking, Brother, don’t just stand there, let’s get this wagon moving.” Johnny eagerly agreed, jumping aboard like an anxious little kid, ready to go to town for some candy.
The long ride into town was as Johnny had predicted, hot…and it was getting hotter by the minute. There wasn’t even the slightest breeze blowing, to help cool down their steaming bodies, the air was still and eerily quiet. The Lancer boys were sitting on the bench, roasting away, and basting in their own sweat in the muggy heat, as the wagon slowly rolled along. They wished they were on their fast horses, racing to town and gulping down that cold beer by now, the boys noticed how different the scenery was today. There wasn’t a single bird fluttering about, the ground animals such as rabbits and squirrels that would normally pop up along the road side, were not to be seen, as if they were in hiding from a predator. This seemed quite odd to the Lancer boys, however, they just thought it was due to the unbearably hot, stagnant weather.
The trip to town seemed to take a couple of long grueling hours of riding in the un-Godly climate. The boys finally made it to town in one miserable piece, with their clothes drenched, sticking to their bodies like glue. Their throats were parched, so before they even attempted to get the supplies their father wanted, they both jumped down off the wagon and made a beeline for the saloon. The thoughts of a nice cold beer had them practically tripping over each other, as they raced through the batwing doors.
“Two beers, and make it fast!” Scott hollered his order, as he entered the room hurrying to the bar.
“And keep them coming,” Johnny added, following right behind his brother.
“You boys sure do look a mess.” Pete, the bartender commented.
“I’ll tell ya, it feels like I’m wearing half the ground,” Johnny chuckled half-heartedly, as he peeled his dirt plastered shirt away from his heaving drenched chest. He took out his bandana, and wiped the sweat off the back of his neck, then continued by wiping down his gleaming dark chest hairs. When he looked up, he caught a saloon girl sinfully watching him, as she licked her lustful lips. Johnny grinned, and thought to himself, it was too damn hot to get heated that way either.
“Yeah it sure is a lot hotter than it’s normally gets, and I have a bad feeling about it too,” Pete scowled out, as he handed the mugs of beer to the thirsty Lancer men.
“About what?” Johnny inquired, downing his beer in big thirsty gulps, which made his Adam’s apple bob convulsively.
“Can’t rightly put my finger on it, Johnny, but my bones are telling me that something is going to happen.”
“You sound just like Jelly, and his aching elbows,” Scott snorted.
"Well, Jelly's elbow, and my bones are usually right, so mark my words something is going to happen." Pete retorted, with an air of conviction.
Scott shook his head in amusement, as he licked the froth from his beer off his upper lip.
Jelly and Pete had become good friends ever since the old handy man had come to work for the Lancer’s. Every time Jelly went to town, they would sit, and chat for hours talking about their prophecies and predictions. The older men were convinced they could tell when something would, or was about to happen, just by how the bones in their old bodies felt. Scott and Johnny had to laugh at the two, whenever they would get together, and forewarn everybody about impending doom.
“Hey, Scott, why don’t we sit for a spell, and wash down the dust with a few more beers? It can’t hurt, huh?” Johnny eagerly suggested.
Scott grinned and nodded, and then with beers in hands, they both took a table at the back of the room, so Johnny could sit with his back to the wall, and see all that entered
An uneventful hour had passed, the calm before the havoc to ensue, as outside all the horses that were tethered to the hitching posts, or to the wagons, started to feel it. Funny how animals can sense danger before man can. Something big was about to happen, and out of sheer panic, the large beasts snorted loudly through their large nostrils, whinnied nervously, and then shook their huge heads. This was followed by franticly stomping their strong hooves on the hard ground, in order to draw attention, to sound the alarm to their human friends. While inside, nothing seemed out of the ordinary…until…
“What was that?” Scott asked, as he shot straight up in his chair, “Did you move the table?” he anxiously asked, when he felt a slight movement of his chair, and the table.
“No, I didn’t. What’s wrong?” Johnny snorted.
“Well, something made it move, it couldn’t move by itself.” Scott declared not liking the sinking feeling consuming him, and then the hair on the back of his neck raised, and his skin tingled.
“You’re imagining things, Scott, must be the heat.”
“Maybe…..” Scott stopped abruptly, when he felt it again, this time Johnny also felt it, and he lurched out of his chair, eyes wide open.
“SCOTT, WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?” Johnny jumped up, and hollered over the rising noises of destruction, coming from inside and out.
“YOU’RE ASKING ME?” Scott yelled back, as he pushed up from his chair. “YOU HAVE LIVED HERE LONGER THAN I HAVE, YOU TELL ME!”
Shaken and dumbfounded, the young gun-hawk was at a loss for words, he didn’t know how to answer his brother, who was just as confused as he was. All he knew was that something harrowing was happening; and truth be told it was scaring the hell out of him. Johnny’s eyes locked with Scott’s, a pleading and disturbed look giving him the appearance of a lost and frightened little boy. He looked to his older sibling for comfort, only to find a matching bleak expression staring back at him, as the floor beneath their feet pitched and rolled. Their anxiety heightened, as the building shook and swayed. The whole room was consumed by a thundering noise, it sounded like they were trapped in a tunnel with a derailing train. The action in the room seemed to be occurring fast and furious, yet both Lancers felt frozen in place. Their attempts to move halted by some invisible force that held them back, making their motions feel slow and heavy.
“DAMN!” Scott blurted out, in a panicked tone of voice.
The scene intensified as inanimate objects and furnishings hauntingly began to move, as though they had come to life. The tables and chairs began to jump and dance, shuffling around the floor, as though Texas two stepping. The beer mugs on the tables began to hop-scotch along the tabletops, until encountering the edge, where upon they would leap, bound for a shattering stop against the hardwood floors. The few glasses that survived the fall bounced and rolled; carried along with the undulating ripple of the floors. The piano shimmed in place, the vibration causing the keys to tinkle out a tune, as though struck by ghostly hands.
The beautiful large mirror that hung on the wall above the bar blew apart, the sharp pieces flying out into the room like a multitude of crystal butterflies. The whiskey bottles on the shelf began to clink and rattle, as they pushed and shoved each other, some fell to the floor with a liquid crash. The other containers smashed into each other, until they cracked and spilled their intoxicating essence with a waterfall effect of a wet splash, which ended as puddles upon the floor. The staircase was caught in the groundswell and surged upward like a wave on the ocean. Dirt, dust and debris filled the air, clogging lungs that tried to breathe through the thickness of it.
The saloon windows screeched in protest at the pressure exerted against them. They exploded into splinters of wood and glass, they shot inward and outward like bullets looking for targets. They struck anyone who hadn’t ducked or sought cover. One man screamed in agony as jagged spears of glass were imbedded in his face, however he somehow blindly managed to escape outside.
The destruction was unrelenting, and showed no mercy, nothing was spared the quaking wrath of violence. The devastation spread like a wildfire, support beams shuddered and creaked, and then moaned as they broke pushing sections of the ceiling into a freefall, as gravity ripped the beams from their lofty perches. The buildings groaned, and pitched as some burst free from their foundations.
Scott and Johnny fought against the massive force tearing the structure apart. They were thrown about like sailors on a storm tossed ship. They would take a step just to be hurled right back to the spot they started from, slammed unmercifully. Their thoughts became as jumbled as the collection of debris littering the room.
It felt as if the world was coming to an end. Johnny thought that all hell had broken loose. He was expecting a deep chasm to open in the floor, and Satan to crawl out and drag him straight down to hell, seeking retribution for all his un-holy deeds, as Madrid.
Scott didn’t know what to think; never, in all his born days, had he experienced something as horrifying as this. He likened it to the total chaos and destruction that occurred on battlefields. However, this was different; this was nature annihilating everything in its path, not man. He had a good idea what was going on now, this was no doubt an earthquake.
The tremulous ground constantly shifting beneath them began to dramatically moan and groan louder and louder. The unholy sound gave the impression the sanctified dead were in the process of clawing the earth from around themselves, and pushing their way up through the weakened floorboards. Crackling and buckling, the floor rose up a few feet, and then dropped back down again, repeating this action a few times, and taking the boys along for a stomach lurching plunge. The Lancers hung on for dear life, as walking was impossible. They managed to clasp arms, and clung to each other, as their world hurled the bits and pieces of its remains at them. The deafening cacophony of noise surrounded them, and they were unable to hear Pete’s frantic cry to take cover, or get out if they could.
They didn’t need to hear Pete’s warning; they could see with their own eyes the dire situation. The saloon’s walls began to crumble like old, dry, brittle paper. Chunks of ceiling fell, as more of the support beams gave out. This told the boys it was now or never, they had to get out of here and fast. Johnny and Scott swallowed back the bitter bile of fear, their hearts and minds were stampeding like wild horses. The brothers fought desperately to keep their balance, but to no avail, they were being bounced around like a child’s rubber ball, impacting the ground with teeth rattling force. However, once they were able to get back up, they had nowhere to run, as wreckage flew around them from all angles, forcing them to duck for cover to avoid being hit. Seeing a table nearby, large enough for the both of them, they flung themselves at it. They crawled over obstacles, pushing some out of the way as they went, Scott’s left hand grasping Johnny’s right wrist, refusing to break their connection. Onward they forged towards the only shelter left, praying it would be sturdy enough to withstand the assault, but just as they reached the table…
“JOHNNY LOOK OUT!” Scott screamed, and then everything faded to black, as darkness over took them.
Just as suddenly as it started, the deafening noise stopped. The earth was still once more. It no longer seemed to be caught up in the distorted vortex of movement, but the twisted devastation left by its destructive action testified to its strength. The only sound to be heard inside the shattered saloon, was the ominous echo of wood creaking, debris settling against each other, fragments of glass falling from the broken window panes and bottles. The whole building groaned eerily, as it sunk back down when the ground ended its morbid movement.
Pete had taken refuge under his bar, and he was the first one to stir, he slowly raised himself up from his fetal position, and peered over the counter top. His eyes widened with morose disbelief, and he thought his heart would stop. The damage was extensive, his livelihood was in a shambles; the sight before him sucked the air right out of his lungs. “God no,” he whispered, as he forced his limbs to move. Carefully, he picked his way around the ruined barroom, watching where he was stepping, cringing at the crunching and breaking each footfall made. He didn’t even want to think about who, or what may be under what used to be his ceiling. Only a couple of walls remained standing, ones that were reinforced with sturdier supports, the rest had crumbled like dry crisp leaves, being crushed by the wrathful march of God.
“Can anybody hear me?” Pete called out, and then he held his breath waiting for an answer.
“Ov…er here,” said the faint voice, coming from the doorway, “Get this off…of me.”
With extreme caution and as fast as he could, Pete pushed his way through the debris, lifting up what he could to clear a path, as made his way over to the down man. He used his bulky legs, and powerful arms to haul up the broken batwing door, that was covered with dirt and glass. He found Val laying there, his legs pinned under the busted door frame. The unkempt sheriff looked like a trapped scruffy old dog, with his brown eyes staring up at Pete, grateful that the barkeep was there to help him.
Val had been trudging along, mumbling and cussing about the hot weather, while making his midmorning rounds when he spotted the wagon with the L on it. He figured, he knew where to find the owner or owners, then the quake hit. His day quickly went to hell, when his whole town started to shake and fall apart before his eyes. He made a mad dash for the bar, just as the doorway gave out.
“Val! Are you ok?” Pete asked when he looked down at the stunned lawman, while removing part of the door frame off his legs.
“Yeah, just shook up some. What the hell hit us, Pete?” Val tried to stand, weaving a little, and then grabbing a hold of Pete’s husky arm.
“An earthquake, Val, a damn blasted quake, look at my place, a total shambles.”
“Yeah I figured as much,” Val snorted, getting his second wind, “Who all was in there?”
“Not very many, just Jeff, Zeke, who hightailed out of here it the minute the hit, Tom, Johnny and Scott.” Pete said grimly. “I don’t know if they got out or not. I had to take cover myself.”
“I know Pete, Well let’s get to searching. You look over there, and be careful,” Val warned the trembling bartender.
Val carefully walked through the rubble, saying a silent prayer that his buddy and brother had gotten out. However, he highly doubted it, his senses were telling him that they were still in here, trapped. Trying to keep his wits about him, Val began picking up pieces he could manage to lift, looking for signs of the Lancers. Anything such as boots, hats, maybe Johnny spurs shinning through all this mess, any clue to tell him where they were. Suddenly he heard a faint moan, and his heart lodged in his throat, swallowing around the lump, he called out.
“JOHNNY, SCOTT, WHERE ARE YOU?” Val anxiously hollered, hoping to get an answer, and soon. “COME ON BOYS, ANSWER ME!”
Val stood there and listened, and then was rewarded with a signal. Someone was knocking on something, tapping out a call for help, coming from under a big pile of rubble in the corner of the saloon. Val waded through the carnage, over to the spot the sound emanated from, and the closer he got, the louder it was. He practically sank down in relief, when he heard a familiar voice, even as faint as it was; he knew it was his buddy’s.
“Help us,” the muffled voice cried out.
Tap, tap …thud….. tap, tap…thud, the faint rapping sound had a repetitive rhythm that identified it as man-made, it would finish the sequence, and then start again. It was definitely an attempt to send out a SOS to anybody who might hear it, through the thickness of the debris. It sounded like something solid was hitting wood, like maybe the butt of a gun, thumping against a floor, only muffled. The signal for help slowed down and paused, a sign that the sender was getting weak. It was hard to breathe in the room for all the dust and fine particles floating in the atmosphere, and buried under all the wreckage, the victims were probably suffering from a lack of air, and possibly hurt, as well. Each time the signal stopped, the silence oppressed the rescuers, until the steady beat would resume from under the pile of debris that had the Lancer boys trapped.
Val held his breath, as he carefully listened, his ears trained on the spot where he had first heard Johnny’s voice. The gruff old lawman had to be sure that it was indeed Johnny and Scott under there, that it wasn’t his imagination playing tricks on him. What Val needed, was to hear Johnny’s voice again. He was mentally willing his buddy to call out to him, as he said a silent prayer. It was instantly answered when the barely audible cry for help was back, this time with a hint of desperation in the choked voice.
“I’m coming, buddy, just hang on!” Val urgently hollered, into the cracks of the rubble. “Pete, get over here, and help me!”
“What is it, Val?” Pete anxiously asked, recognizing the urgency in the tone of Val’s voice. Pete hurried, stumbling over the clutter, to where Val was frantically digging; his was face red from exertion and coughing. He kneeled down next to the hyperventilating sheriff. “Slow down, Val, take a deep breath, and tell me what is wrong.”
“It’s Johnny, I heard his voice. He’s under here, most likely Scott too.” Val quickly informed the man, after stopping to catch his breath, and using his ragged bandana to wipe the sweat and dirt from his irritated eyes. “Help me get them out,” he pleaded, and then had asked, “Did you find Tom?”
Pete couldn’t answer Val right away; he had to swallow the lump in his throat. “Yeah, Val, I found him. It’s too late for him, but not for these boys, I hope.” Pete replied sadly, his sorrowful eyes glancing over to where he had found his friend’s broken and lifeless body.
The two men worked feverishly, as they carefully removed the debris that had the Lancer boys buried alive, that is they were hoping they were both still alive. Val hadn’t heard another word from Johnny since his last fragile call for help, and the tapping had stopped. Johnny’s voice had sounded weak and labored, and the two rescuers feared it meant they weren’t getting enough air, possibly due to the weight of the wreckage constricting their lung capacity. The worried sheriff hoped they could get them out in time. They had no idea just how far down they were buried under the rubble. Piece by piece they removed the debris, tossing it aside, as they cleared a path. They came to something hard and round right about where Val had determined the signal had originated from; it was a table, still in one piece, except for one wobbly leg.
Val felt sure Pete could hear the drumming of his distressed heart, as it beat out a tormented rhythm, feeling as though it was expanding painfully big in his tight chest. Large beads of sweat formed on both angst-ridden faces, as Val and Pete, used extreme caution, when they pushed the table to the side. The wood protested with screeching creaks, as it was inched slowly and carefully aside, until it revealed the two bodies under it. The lawman and the barkeep stood there in utter amazement at the welcome sight before their dust and grit filled, red rimmed eyes.
Johnny and Scott were huddled together, arms tightly wrapped around each other, like twins cradled in a mother’s womb. Both boys were panting for air, they stared up at Val, blinking rapidly at the influx of light with over sensitive eyes just coming out of the dark. Their dirty faces held grateful expressions. By the grace of God, the table had saved their young lives, giving them the protection they needed when the ceiling came crashing down on them. It had formed a cocoon around them that was tight, claustrophobic, and running short of fresh air.
Val let out a heavy sigh of relief, at the sight of his friends…alive. “You two sure know how to make a man turn gray fast, now don’t ya?” he said jokily, as he swiped at his watering eyes with his faded handkerchief.
“I thought….I would never…see your ugly mug…again,” Johnny choked out, as he fought to catch his breath, “I wasn’t sure you could hear me signaling you by thumping my boot heel on the floor.” Johnny was trying to be lighthearted about this whole thing, but deep down inside he had to admit to himself he had never been so scared in his life.
“Come on, let’s get you both out of there,” Val snorted with relief and a crooked grin. He extended his hand to his buddy, helping him out from under the pile. Val supported the shaky younger man, as he tried to stand on trembling legs, while Pete did the same for Scott, who was a little sturdier than his brother.
Once they had the brothers out, Val and Pete lead them both over to the bar, carefully traversing the debris strewn area. They sat them down at the bar, and then checked them over carefully. Scott and Johnny were breathing heavily; sweat ran in rivulets down their grimy faces. Both boys seemed a little addled and disoriented, but they were shaking off the shock, and trying to gather their wits about them. Besides being dirtier then when they first came to town, they now sported a few cuts and scrapes. Johnny had a nice size gash, on his forehead, which might require stitches. Scott had a long superficial cut on his arm, but nothing that couldn’t wait. Both Lancers looked like they had been dragged backwards through a prickly bush, but would be fine. Val and Pete used the boys’ bandanas, as bandages for their wounds.
“Any chance we could get a beer, Pete?” Johnny asked lightheartedly.
“Sorry, Johnny, every single bottle is broken, and the beer kegs cracked, and leaked, as well.” Pete intoned, in a voice tinged with anger and sadness, as he morosely glanced about his demolished saloon.
“Damn!” Johnny snorted, “I could use one right now.”
“We all could, but for right now, I suggest we get the hell out of here, before this place decides to come down on us again.” Scott strongly urged.
“Yeah, I second that, I don’t like the sounds or looks of this,” Val hastily agreed, as he eyed the shifting walls, when what was left the building started to moan, like disgruntled spirits, sending shivers down the lawman’s spine.
The four men trudged their way through the debris, stopping briefly to stare solemnly at Tom’s mangle body. They briefly closed their eyes in grief, for the loss of their friend. Tom was a loner, with no family, who had settled in Green River a few years back, and was one of the best black smiths around these parts.
“I’ll miss the old coot.” Val softly mumbled.
They cautiously continued through the partially collapsed doorway, and out onto the street. Once outside, the true horror of what happened struck home like a hot burning knife through their hearts, twisting and shredding, causing their breath to hitch, as they gasped at the annihilation before them. There was so much destruction it was almost indescribable. There weren’t sufficient words to explain what their mournful eyes were witnessing. The four men froze in shock, too paralyzed to move anything but their heads, as they turned their eyes from one unbelievable sight to another.
Nearly half the town was demolished, some of the oldest buildings had been reduced to nothing but heaps of splintered wood and crushed glass. While many of the newer ones still stood, but had sustained quite a bit of damage. There were structures that looked lop-sided, and listed to one side or the other, a good gust of wind, or another tremor would probably sending them crashing down.
From the north end of town to the south, large and small cracks split the dry packed earth of the streets in various spots. The fissures in the once solid ground lent an eerie and evil aura to the scene. Johnny stared at the open sections of earth, and wondered briefly if the devil’s evil minion had clawed their way up from hell, exited the fractures, and unleashed this havoc. Because it looked like some powerful hand had taken hold of horseless wagons, and tossed them about, ripping the wheels right off the axles with their long scrawny fingers, and then tried to pull them down to hell through the larger cracks.
The destruction of property was costly and unfortunate, but material things can be replaced. The bitterest reality, what hit the hardest was the sight of bodies lying about the streets, on the boardwalk… people they had called friends and neighbors. Their bruised, battered and lifeless bodies now lay in silence, their ears deaf to the heartbreaking cries of children searching for their parents, or of a mother’s mournful chanting over the limp body of her child. Sorrow and grief hung in the air with a heaviness that bowed the stoutest of hearts. The survivors were hollering into the downed buildings, such as the café, and the general store, places that had been crowded due to the time of day, as they searched for anybody that still might be alive. Desperation and panic overwhelmed the normally calm citizenry.
As the four men gazed at the horrific scene, a disturbing thought occurred to the boys, at the same time, as if they were reading each other minds. Johnny and Scott’s heads snapped towards each other, and their mouths dropped open simultaneously, as they blurted out, “Lancer!”
“Scott, how bad do you think it hit home?” Johnny anxiously asked.
“I don’t know, Johnny, I don’t know.” His brother replied grimly.
“Well, one of us has to go back, and find out.”
“How?” Scott snorted, “There isn’t a horse anywhere; they all ran off, even our wagon is gone.”
“DAMN! We have to find out, Scott! Murdoch, Teresa, or Jelly could be seriously hurt.” Johnny worried, his jaw clenching, and his right hand rapidly flexing, his slender fingers wiggling nervously at situation.
“I know, but how do you propose we get home…walk?”
“If ya both just calm down, you can use my horse, if ya can find him.” Val offered, and then out of the blue, his horse trotted back into town, “Well’ I’ll be danged.”
“You go, Scott. I’ll stay here, and help Val out with the town,” Johnny suggested with trepidation to his hesitant brother.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, now go will ya, go check on our family.”
Time felt like it was standing still, and the distance to Lancer seemed to have doubled in miles. Scott raced for home, his heart thudding as loudly in his ears, as the thundering horse hooves pounding on the ground. Scott could hear his internal mantra screaming above his vociferous heart and the boisterous hooves, telling himself that the ranch house was built solid, it was a strong hold, it had held up. Murdoch himself had made sure it was a sturdy structure; that it could survive anything that Mother Nature or God could throw at it.
Over and over the words repeated in his fretful mind, they kept drumming in his head the reassurance Scott needed so desperately to believe. He reasoned with himself that if Lancer had survived the likes of Pardee, the attack on the ranch when those thieving land pirates had threatened to take it over, endless physical elements such as droughts and floods, surely it could have survived a quake such as this. The faster the words ran through his mind, the harder Scott pushed Val’s horse. When he realized the poor beast was winded from him practically running it into the ground, he had no choice but to slow the stressed animal down to an easy trot.
As the frantic pace tapered off, Scott was able to calm his distressed nerves, but then his tormented thoughts traveled back to just a few short hours ago. His body shuddered, and his hands felt curiously heavy, as he held the reins, and relived how the walls came crashing down on himself and Johnny, burying them both alive. His breath hitched, as he recalled how closed in it had felt, as he laid there under all that rubble with his arms firmly wrapped around his little brother. They were wedged in the tight spot chest to chest, their hearts beating in the same frantic staccato rhythm, their warm labored breaths gently blowing in each other’s faces, the only true signs they had that they were each alive. Even if Scott could have, he didn’t want to let go of Johnny, his big brother instincts had kicked in to high gear, and no matter what he was going to protect his younger sibling. His fear of losing him, just when he had found him, caused his arms to tense about his little brother like steel bands.
Scott closed his eyes for a brief moment, as he felt an over whelming need to thank the Almighty for sparing them both. He figured while he was praying he should put in a request for safety for the rest of his family. When his eyes fluttered back open he realized the Lancer boundaries were only a couple of miles away.
As the weary horse carried him closer to the ranch, the sporadic signs of damage caused the feeling of dread and anguish to consume Scott once again. His worried eyes scanned the territory as he rode, making note of thing he would need to report to his father. A few trees were uprooted, some laying flat, or leaning to the side, as if strong hands had easily push them over, like Samson had the pillars. He noticed that a small bridge was torn away from the creeks banks, and lay floating in the mucky water, that was once clear, but was now littered with fallen debris of rock and broken branches. Of course there were no buildings on this part of the ranch, and he hoped that this minor looking damage was, in fact, only minor, that nothing more sinister lay beneath the destruction.
Scott eyes widened in delight, and he let out a heavy sigh of relief, as he approached the last land mark before reaching home, the Lancer arch. The majestic stone archway was still standing strong, a rock solid presence. He marveled at how it could withstand all that shaking the quake had done, of course maybe the trembling had not been as violent here. This gave him a feeling of hope, that all was not as bad as his agitated mind was telling him. Scott carefully rode under the gateway, and proceeded on to the ranch, his eyes still alert to the surroundings.
Scott groaned when he saw the cattle scattered because sections of the fences were torn down. He would be willing to bet the frightened cows plowed right through them out of sheer panic, when the ground beneath them trembled. Obviously the horses had taken flight in terror as well, but they were slowly coming back. Scott had to smile when he saw Barranca trotting regally along, leading the others that had broken loose back to the barn. ‘Johnny sure has him trained,’ he thought, with a slight chuckle, and then turned his attention to the house.
Scott eyes brightened, as he gazed at his home, for there it stood, as solid as ever, like a wondrous monument, the Lancer Hacienda. From what he could tell, there was only minor damage to the outside, but what of the inside? Scott could see some of the windows around the house were blown out like the ones at the bar, the fragile glass not able to within stand the subtle shifts in the frames. Small trees that decorated the garden were also uprooted. A few small walls that surrounded the house and patio, had crumbled or split in spots, nothing that couldn’t be fix. There had been just as much damage when the bandit Drago had stood Scott against the low walls and shot at him with a Gatling gun, and they had repaired it easily enough.
As Scott continued towards the front of the house, he encountered the worst damage he had seen since crossing over onto Lancer land. He pulled his mount to a dead stop, and gasped, as his heart lurched, and his face grew mournful, at the sight of the destroyed bunk house. The building was lying on its side; the north wall had collapsed under the pressure of the ground twisting and turning it, with the fall of the support wall the rest of the building came down, as well. Scott closed his eyes in sorrow, and silently prayed that no one inside at the time.
Finally reaching the front of the house, Scott quickly dismounted, and ran to the door, desperately shouting as he entered.
“Murdoch, Teresa, Jelly! Are you alright? Where is everyone?”
Finding no one in the great room, he scanned the area, the framing and exterior walls of the house may have held, but the inside was another story. Things were not where they were supposed to be. The furniture had slid from one spot to another, an end table was wedged length wise in the fireplace. The book case was empty, as books where laying everywhere. All the glasses and good china that normally rested on the table also lay broken on the floor. The long dinner table itself was tipped over on its side. And then Scott noticed a thin crack leading from the top of the fireplace, down to the base of it, splitting the Lancer L in two, in a diagonal line. He could only imagine what the upstairs rooms looked like.
“MURDOCH, TERESA, ANYBODY, WHERE ARE YOU?” Scott hollered again, as the uncommon silence heightened his fears that something had happened to the rest of his family.
“IN THE KITCHEN!” shouted the gruff voice of Murdoch, causing Scott to jump at the sound of his father’s loud voice.
Scott crunched his way across the broken dishes, and pushed aside books with his feet. It was a real obstacle course. He shoved chairs out of his way, stumbling a few times, until he finally made it to the kitchen. Once there he found his father, Teresa and Jelly treating the injured, as well as themselves. He stopped to lean his slender form up against the doorframe, while trying to catch his breath, and rein in the racing of his heart, beating painfully in his heaving chest. A wide smile grew on his dirty sweaty face at the welcome sight of his family… alive.
Jelly had a bandage wrapped around his head, there was blood seeping through in places, the red standing out starkly against the whiteness of the cloth. However, the old handy man looked healthy enough to help out. Jelly was grumbling to himself, like he always did, but underneath the old coot was still shaking. Teresa just looked a little roughed up, with a couple of cuts and bruises on her arms and face. Her long dark hair was tangled and disheveled with small pieces of plaster caught up in the strands. And Johnny’s favorite housekeeper, Maria, was doing all she could to keep from crying, as she was cleaning up a wounded man, pausing to perform a few Hail Mary’s.
Murdoch seemed un-touched, standing strong while he worked on one of the hands who looked worse for the wear. Scott marveled at his father masterful presence, his courage in the face of adversity. Here he was acting like the rock of Gibraltar, taking control when his world was tossed and torn. Scott felt safer, more secure just seeing the big man; and he couldn’t help but wonder where the man drew his strength from, he was the support that held them all up.
“Thank God, you all are ok!” Scott said, taking a few steps forwards. “I was scared out of my wits,” he added wiping his brow with his bandana.
“It was scary, but Lancer held up, son, just like I knew it would.” Murdoch said proudly, with a slight quiver in his voice, as his eyes inspected Scott for injuries.
“Still I have never been so scared in my life,” Teresa added, still shuddering over the ordeal.
“How many men did we lose?” Scott grimly asked, still thinking about the collapsed bunk house. “I noticed the bunk house when I rode up.”
“Only two, Jess and Stan, the new hands I hired just the other day,” Murdoch sadly replied. “The others were just banged up a little.”
“Well, it shouldn’t take that long to clean up, from what I saw.”
“No, it won’t. I’ll have to replace almost all the windows for sure.” Murdoch commented. The big rancher was pretty sure his youngest was still alive, he felt sure if he were severely injured, or dead, Scott would have informed him right away. He looked beseechingly at his oldest, and his trembling voice betrayed his stoic reserve, as he questioned, “Where’s your brother?”
Scott didn’t answer right away, he didn’t want to just blurt it out, Green River was their town too, and they had friends there also. “Johnny’s still in town, he’s ok, just shaken up some, but…”
“But what, Scott?” Murdoch inquired quietly.
“Green River was hit hard, Murdoch, real hard, half the town in gone!” Scott divulged. He sat down heavily, as the reality of it sunk in, and then Maria offered him a glass of water. “I can only imagine what Morro Coyo and Spanish Wells looks like. Johnny sent me to see how Lancer was, while he stayed to help Val out.”
The room went eerily quiet after Scott relayed the devastating news; hearts sank at the thoughts of friends, neighbors, and a whole town being torn apart. They all looked at each others, and commiserated silently in sorrow.
“As soon as we can, Lancer will be there to help.” Murdoch sternly announced.
The town that lay before them was like a macabre vision from a terrifying nightmare. The destruction was random, but extensive. The good citizens were still reeling from the ruthless attack, but were trying to shake off the numbing fear to begin the grueling task of locating victims, dead or alive, as well as cleaning up their devastated town. It would require them to reach deep down within themselves, and call on the fortitude necessary to right their world again. It was a chore that would require strength of mind and body, and the courage to brave whatever may be found amongst the rubble.
Val Crawford had seen some rough times in his life, giving him a gruff and crotchety demeanor, which made him seem, at times, uncaring and callous. However, even he was affected by the annihilation his disturbed eyes were taking in. Moisture pooled in his eyes, though if asked he would claim it was because of the dirt and grime he got in them, while digging out Scott and Johnny. His insides felt like they were twisted up around his heart, squeezing it so tightly, he couldn’t tell if it was still beating, anyway who needs a heart when you’re in a living hell. He had serious doubts Green River could ever recover. He shook off the shock, and morbid thoughts, as town sheriff he knew the citizens would be looking to him for direction.
Val turned to look at the young man standing beside him, putting his shaking hand on his amigo’s shoulder. A frown marred his normally scruffy appearance, as he studied the youngest Lancer. He knew that his buddy was frightened for his family, he could feel Johnny’s body tremble with fear. The young gun-hawk bleakly stared at the unbelievable destruction. His heart was torn between Lancer and here. A part of him wanted to run home, and the other part knew Val needed all the help he could get. Johnny made up his mind, as hard as it was, he would stay in town to help out. He would do the dutiful thing, no matter how painful it was to him, not knowing whether if he had a home or family left.
“Why don’t you go on home, Johnny?” Val suggested when he noticed a horse straying back into town. “Look there’s a horse, use it, I know you’re worried about your family.”
“No, Val, I’m okay,” Johnny said, shaking his head to clear his thoughts. “Besides, you need all the help you can get to clean up and look for….” he paused, swallowing back the hitch in his voice caused by the regret and sorrow that tried to destroy his courage, just as the earthquake had the town.
“Bodies?” Val finished for him, giving his shoulder a gentle squeeze of commiseration.
“Yeah, where do we start?” Johnny asked softly. “Look at it, Val, look at them,” he pointed out, as they watched the town folks wandering about. The faces of the people displayed stunned confusion to outright terror as they moved about looking in downed buildings, under piles of debris, searching, hoping to find someone that might still be alive. Some were softly crying; others were murmuring words of comfort, as they tried to encourage their fellow citizens not to give up.
“Just anywhere I guess, just anywhere…” Val grimly stated.
“Well, let’s start over there.” Johnny suggested letting out a heavy sigh, pointing in the direction of the hotel.
Just as the two men were about to cross the street, a sharp scream rent the air. The desperate call for help grew louder, as frantic feet ran towards them from behind. Val and Johnny turned quickly, their eyes widening in distress when they saw who it was. Miss Johnson, the school teacher was running as fast she could to them, her dress was bloody and torn, her face horror stricken under a layer of dirt and grime. Her appearance gripped their hearts in constricting bands of terror.
“Val…the school house! Madre de Dios…the kids!” Johnny blurted out, as realization struck.
Neither spoke another word, as they dashed towards the distraught school teacher. Just as they reached her, Miss Johnson threw herself into Johnny’s strong arms, weeping uncontrollably into his chest. Johnny wrapped his arms around the woman trying to comfort her, and calm her down so she could tell them what they already dreaded.
“Shush, Shush, calm down ma’am, and tell us what’s wrong.” Johnny soothed her, as he held her trembling body, rubbing her back gently with his hand.
The petite school teacher, slowly pushed away from the shelter of Johnny’s arms, and looked up into his concerned face, her big brown eyes pleading for help.
“It’s…it’s…the children….the …school house,” she told them, her voice wavering weakly in fear. “We…have to…get them out!”
“What do you mean get them out?” Johnny demanded.
“They are trapped… inside,” she said, burying her face into Johnny’s chest, once again.
“I heard,” the stunned sheriff, dourly replied.
Johnny gently pushed the sobbing schoolmarm away, glancing at Val, as a myriad of emotions flashed across his pale face. He took off like a shot towards the other end of town. His heart racing at the thought of children trapped in that old school house. It was one of the older buildings in town. In fact it had once been a church, until population growth dictated they build a bigger one, now it was used as the school.
“WAIT A MINUTE, JOHNNY!” Val hollered, as he chased after him.
“WE DON’T HAVE A MINUTE TO WAIT, VAL!” Johnny called back, stopping long enough for the winded lawman to catch up, so he wouldn’t have to shout. “Those kids are trapped, and we have to get them out, you get some men, and meet me there!” Johnny instructed his friend. He took off again, this time with the teacher following behind him, in the cloud of dust his booted feet kicked up in his frenzied race to the rescue.
“OK, BUT DON’T DO NOTHING TO MAKE MATTERS WORSE! YOU HEAR ME?”
Val could barely hear the young man’s, “Yeah, now hurry!” as his frantic pace carried him further away from his friend, and closer to the school.
Val scrambled about town, looking for every man possible to help, all the while worrying about his mule-headed amigo, and what he might do. He knew Johnny well enough to know he would jeopardize his own safety for the sake of the children. He hoped that Johnny would have the good sense to wait until he got there with the proper help, and not go off half cocked and do something stupid, or more importantly dangerous.
The closer Johnny got to the school house, the faster his heart pounded painfully against his heaving chest. His lungs felt constricted, like someone was squeezing the air out of him, and preventing him from inhaling enough to fill them up again. It wasn’t the running that had him breathless and sweating. It was the fear and anxiety licking at him like hot flames, until his nerves and emotions felt raw, tingling across his skin like blisters from heat. His mind whirled, as he tried to wrap his mind around the tragedy, it was almost incomprehensible. These were the sons and daughters of his friends and neighbors, and he couldn’t imagine the heartache and turmoil it would cause if they should lose a child.
Johnny eyes screamed his horror louder than he could have voiced it, when the school came within his view. “Holy Mother of God,” he softly whispered, as he looked at the sight before him. He dropped like a broken marionette to the dry dusty ground, his head bowed in sorrow, as he fought to catch his breath. He knew he had to keep his wits about him for this was not going to be easy.
The old school house was dangerously leaning to one side. Johnny could hear he eerie sound of wood creaking and moaning from the pressure of the other end of the building pushing inwards against it. All it would take would be one good gust of a strong wind, or a strong tremor, and it would collapse. The front of it was caved in, debris blocking the doorway. The stain glass windows were shattered, lying about like colorful shards of a broken rainbow, making it impossible to enter the building without getting cut, or splintered wood toppling down on you. The small bell, which called the children to class, was dangling from the leaning bell tower, faintly bonging from the subtle shifting of the unsteady building.
Johnny closed his weary eyes, and shook his head in anguish. He took a deep breath, and steeled his resolve. He took the trembling school teacher’s hand in his strong one, and looked up into her teary brown eyes.
“How many got out?” he asked, his voice was nothing but a whisper.
“Only a couple…there’s…still about six that didn’t make….” She fell to her knees next to Johnny, put her head on his shoulder and wept, “We…have to…get…them…out.”
Johnny stared despondently at the leaning building; his mind was whirling in chaotic distress. His heart felt as though it had dropped to his feet, and it was trying to beat under the painful constriction of his weight. The teacher’s frantic words kept repeating over and over in his pounding head, ‘only a couple got out, six are trapped.’ The despairing words echoed maliciously, consuming his thoughts, and rubbing a raw edge to his emotions.
He didn’t know how, or where to begin to search for the children. Johnny did know he feared the condition he might find them in, internally acknowledging that fear left him with a sick feeling. An overwhelming alarming picture of a child’s mangled body flashed through his imagination, robbing him of breath, and he quickly closed his eyes, praying the disturbing image would not come to fruition. He wasn’t certain how he would be able to handle it if it proved to be true.
Johnny realized he could not sit wallowing in despair, that wasn’t going to get the task done. He forced himself off the ground, and stood on shaky legs, as he fought to get his wits about him. He took a deep mind clearing breath, and then slowly walked towards the collapsing building, and what could only be described as hell on earth.
With every step he took, the sound of glass crunching, and small pieces of debris crumbling beneath his feet, sent a cold, uneasy feeling shooting through him, like ice water rushing through his veins. It was too quiet, an eerie calm had descended. He was afraid that any sudden noise would unsettle the precarious balance of things, and would bring it all raining down like hellfire, before he had a chance to find a way in. Suddenly the tower bell dinged, that one small sound seemed deafening in the disconcerting quiet now wrapped about the town. Johnny’s heart leaped up into his throat, and he froze in place, afraid any undue movement would complete the destruction started by the quake. He warily glanced at the school, eyes peeled for any slight shifting, while he held his breath. When nothing happened, he cautiously continued his journey around the building, noting the depth of the damage, and looking for a path into it.
Finally Johnny was able to find a small window that wasn’t too badly damaged. It was big enough for a man of his size, to crawl through with ease. He had to fight the urge to immediately climb through the access point. His desire to get inside to help the children almost overrode his common sense. He had to make sure that it was secured and stable enough to get the children out, without causing any more harm to them or the school. It needed to be supported somehow, to hold it up as long as possible, as he searched for them. All, he could do was wait until help arrived, no matter how fervently he longed to be amongst the rubble searching for the kids.
“Can anyone hear me?” Johnny softly called into the semi-darkness of the debris filled room. He was afraid to raise his voice any louder for fear of causing it all to tumble down. His eyes squinted against the haze of the dust that was still floating about, as he tried to get a glimpse of some kind of movement. “Kids, I’m here to help you, just stay still, and we’ll get you out,” he assured them, in case anyone could actually hear his words of comfort.
Miss Johnson watched forlornly, waiting to hear a response to Johnny’s question. The oppressive silence filled the air when no youthful voice called out in answer. The shackle of guilt over her perceived failure as a teacher, for not getting her students to safety burdened her heart, and threatened to shatter it into a million pieces. It was her responsibility as an adult to keep them out of harm’s way, their parents entrusted her with their care, but this had happened so fast.
All hell had broken loose as the shaking began, and the children had panicked, they were screaming, running around, and knocking over their desks. Their cries for help joined the cacophony of sounds from the quake, ringing in her ears to the point she couldn’t think straight, and then it was too late. She managed to get a couple out, sending them to stand in the open field behind the school, and then she ran for help. Tears freely flowed down her dirt smudged cheeks, as she sat on the ground, hands crossed, praying, for the children and forgiveness.
The eerie silence, punctuated with the occasional sound of falling and settling debris, coming from the school house was over shadowed by the sound of men running and shouting, as they got closer to the building. Carrying whatever they could find to help, not knowing what was in stored for them once they got there. They had taken up their tools when Val had called for volunteers to join in on a rescue, and then followed him to the school.
“Johnny, where’s……Holy Mother of God!” Val blurted out, stopping in his tracks once he got close enough to see clearly what was going on. A shadow of fear darkened his stunned eyes when he saw what they were up against, “Are there children…still in there?” he softly asked, pointing to the heartbreaking sight.
“Yeah, Val, there are kids still in there, only a few got out.” Johnny grimly reported. “And I can’t see or hear a damn thing. We have to get them out, Val, and quick.”
“But… how? Look at it, one wrong move, and it could collapse at any time!” Val pointed out to his pacing buddy.
“Don’t you think I know that?” Johnny growled. “But we can’t just leave them in there, Val, we don’t even know if they are dead or alive” he stated, lowering his eyes at the morbid thoughts. “We just have to proceed carefully, what if we shore up the side with beams or something for support?”
“Well, that might work temporarily,” Val confirmed, hesitating as he scratched the back of his head, “Why?”
“That way it will give me time to go in and search for the kids.” Johnny replied, frowning, as he got a discouraging look from Val.
“Now wait a darn blasted minute, don’t going playing hero on me,” Val shouted. “That’s my job, I’m the law here.” The scowl on his scruffy face announced his displeasure with what his buddy had in mind.
“That’s right, you are the law, and you’re needed out here to keep the peace, to make sure they stay out of my way!” Johnny retorted. “Now, hurry up and get things moving, please, Val, those kids’ lives depend on us.”
Val shook his disheveled head in disgust; he knew there was no arguing with Johnny Madrid Lancer, the youngest Lancer was just as mule headed as he was. So without further hesitation, Val shouted orders out to the men, commanding them to find anything they could to help support the side of the school house. With every precious minute that ticked by, time was running out for the rescuers and the trapped children. The light of day was starting to fade, as the sun was going down, disappearing behind the shattered, desolate town.
After working feverishly to secure the old school house on the leaning side by bracing it with beams, it was ready for the rescue to begin. Val and Johnny stared at the death trap, and knew deep in their guts, that this was not going to be easy. They were seized more by the fear of failure to find the children alive, than they were of the building collapsing, but they swallowed down the bitter thoughts, refusing to give in to them.
“Are you sure you want to go in there?”
“Val, how can you say that? Yeah, I’m sure, besides we have no choice,” Johnny glumly replied. “And you know me. I can’t just sit back and watch.”
“Yeah, I know you, and that’s what worries me, you had better be careful in there, you hear me?” Val ordered, grabbing his amigo’s strong shoulders shaking him, as though trying to shake some sense into Johnny. “Well?”
“Yeah, I hear you, and don’t worry,” Johnny assured the worried lawman, as he wiggled loose from Val’s sturdy grip. “Here, I’ll tie this rope around me, so you’ll know where I am, and if need be, you can pull me out in a hurry.” Johnny suggested, trying to ease Val’s mind, which really wasn’t working.
“Well, let’s hope that it will not come to that, you be careful, understand?” Val reiterated, his bushy eyebrows furrowing, as he frowned at Johnny. “Let’s get this over with, we’re losing sunlight, and those kids can’t wait,” he added grabbing the other end of the rope, and following Johnny to the opening.
Johnny closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then slowly climbed through the small window, one careful step at a time. The others stood by the support beams, keeping an eye on them, and their fingers crossed. Just as Johnny’s slender form slithered all the way through the window, the whole building started to moan. Everyone outside gasped, and then held their breaths. Hearts beat painfully rapidly in the worried rescuers’ chests, waiting for the eerie sound to stop. They huffed out a collective sigh of relief when the mournful noise ended, and the beams still held steady.
“Johnny, you had better hurry, I don’t like the sound of this.” Val yelled through the window. “You hear me?”
“YEAH! Now be quiet, I can’t hear if they call out to me.” Johnny replied, as he went further in, feeling his way about, listening and looking for any signs of a child. “Can anyone hear me? Please don’t be afraid, I’m here to help you.” Johnny stopped to listen for an answer, and then the walls started to rumble all around him.
“Mr….Lancer…?” groaned a weak muffled voice.
“Hello?” Johnny called in restrained anxiousness to the child. “Where are you? Don’t be afraid, I’m here to help you,” his reassuring voice floated out in the dimness, drifting as softly as the dust particles in the air. He dared not raise his voice for fear of causing the precariously balanced debris to finish caving in upon itself.
Johnny froze in place, the only movement detectable on him the frantic rise and fall of his chest over his wildly beating heart. His ears were trained to every sound in the room, trying to identify what was what, as he desperately listened for her to answer him. His eyes strained against the darkness, which robbed them of the twinkle that normally gave the youthful animation to his face. At this moment they were filled with dread and dilated in fear for the children. He craned his head to the right, and then to the left, but no matter where he looked, he couldn’t make heads or tails out of the jumbled mess the building had become.
With the sun now slowly setting, the meager light that was shining through the cracks in the walls, and broken stained glass windows was fading, leaving haunting shadows that danced on the debris, liked shaded spirits. The illusion sent chills down his spine, as the gloomy apparitions seemed to taunt and beckon Johnny to come and join them. He felt mesmerized; his thoughts confused and captured by the false impression they cast. He shook off the figments of his imagination, knowing he had to concentrate on the task at hand or risk doing more damage. Johnny still unwittingly tripping a few times over broken desks and other rubble, his heart skipping a beat here and there, as he held his breath at the sounds, praying that it didn’t mean it would all rain down in a complete collapse.
“Please talk to me!”
“Over….here.” came the muffled weak voice again.
Johnny stilled his steps. His chest heaved with the effort to calm his frenzied heart, as he rode the wave of desperation and anxiety that filled his entire being, as the girl’s innocent voice reached his waiting ears. ‘Where is she?’ his weary mind wondered. He focused his burning eyes in the direction of the call for help, hoping for any signs. But it was still as death, the only thing moving was his trembling thin form. “Mother Mary, where is she?” he prayed. Johnny used his strong, but shaky, hands to carefully push away debris, at the same time leery, as to where he was stepping, for fear he might trip over a child’s body.
“Keep calling to me…so I can find you…okay?” Johnny pleadingly called out; his voice was breaking up from dust that he had already inhaled, which was starting to constrict his lungs. Taking his bandana out, he tied it around his mouth and continued on. “Hey, don’t give up on me now, talk to me, PLEASE!” He stopped and listened for her to answer him, but she was quiet again. The silence mocked him, causing the adrenalin to rush with a roar through his veins to the point Johnny trembled, and feared he might explode from the tension. “Come on,” he whispered with a raw edge of desperation.
“Mr. …Mr. …Lancer…we’re over …here.” The little girl called out, and this time she was able to give him a signal, by knocking on a piece of wood.
The startled gun-hawk jerked around. “Keep knocking, honey, I’ll find you,” he told her in a reassuring voice, trying to keep her calm, and himself.
The frightened child did as she was told, and kept on knocking with her small fist against the wood. Johnny followed the welcomed sound, but had to stop again, when the walls started to moan and creak, drowning out the girl’s signal. Frustrated by the delays, Johnny waited for the mournful noise to stop, and when it did, he was able to hear her again. Finally, after carefully fumbling around in the dim room, the child’s faint tapping led him to a smaller room, which was blocked off. Judging by the frame of it, he figured it was a large closet or the cloak room. It was caved in, somewhat like the shape of a teepee. Johnny put his ear to the structure, and then let out a sigh of relief when he heard more than one voice.
“Hello, I’m here kids, and we’ll get you out, okay? Just hang in there, and I’ll be right back, Okay?” he promised them.
“OKAY!” they all said at once, their little voices trembling in distress. Johnny could hear soft crying, and hoped that none of them were hurt badly.
Johnny quickly yanked on the rope tied around his waist, and felt it tighten, as it started to pull and guide him back towards the window he came through. “VAL!” he hollered, as he got closer to the opening.
“YEAH, JOHNNY?” Val called into the window, as he and another man were pulling on the rope. Val was sweating bullets, while waiting to hear any news, no matter what it was. He jumped a few feet off the ground when Johnny’s head popped through the window, with wide grin plastered on it.
“I found them!” he said, huffing to catch his breath. “They’re trapped in a closet, and it sounds like they’re all there. I’m not sure how badly hurt they are, though,” he informed them all, as the anxious school teacher ran up to them.
“You have to get them out!” Miss Johnson cried, “Those poor children, it’s all, my fault.” The distraught woman buried her face in her pale shaking hands as the emotions overwhelmed her.
“We will, now please go over there, out of the way, and stay calm.” Val told her, and pointed to a nearby bench. The sheriff turned his attention back to his anxious buddy. “So, now what?”
“I go back in, and get them out, that’s what.” Johnny snorted.
“Now wait a minute buddy boy, you’re gonna need help getting them out. I’ll come in there, just give me a minute.” Val retorted, as he groused at the mule-headed Lancer.
“Val, we don’t have a minute, just keep those beams steady, will ya? I still have the rope tied around me, so don’t worry,” Johnny instructed, as he headed back in. Val nervously wiped his face, knowing it was no use to argue with him.
“You heard him! Keep those beams steady,” Val shouted to the men. The men grunted and pushed with all their might, putting all they could into the support beams, giving Johnny the time he needed to get the kids out. “God let them hold,” Val whispered fervently.
Inside, Johnny stumbled cautiously back to the closet, and carefully started to remove the smaller pieces of wood first. He talked softly to the kids, keeping them calm, as he worked on getting them out. Having easily cleared the minor debris from the base of the closet, it was time to get the bigger pieces out of the way. Feeling along the edges for any gap he can use to slide his hands into, Johnny felt a little hand grab his fingers. The action swelled his heart to an almost painful constriction, the little hand told him, that no matter what they were putting their trust in him to get them out.
“Hi there,” he said, with a cool composure he didn’t really feel, through the thick wood that separated him from the children. “I’m here, and you have to listen to what I tell you,” he warned them. “Now you all have to move back, as I push this out of the way, okay?”
“Okay, Mr. Lancer,” the little voice said.
Once he could hear them moving back away from the doorway, Johnny took a deep breath, and then let it out. He was about to ease the broken door out of the way just enough for the small ones to slip through, without disturbing the unsteady building. Fate conspired against them, and cruelly, it happened, the one thing they all silently dreaded….an aftershock.
The whole town started to shake and rumble again. Partially damaged buildings, that were left standing, crumbled more, some totally collapsing. It was like a domino effect with a line of a child’s toy blocks that were pushed over, causing a chain reaction of destruction. Val and the others desperately worked through the trembling of the ground to keep the beams in place. The screams of the trapped and terrified children echoed through the air, assaulting the ears of the rescuers outside. One of the beams snapped under the extra pressure of the leaning building, causing one side of the school house to cave in more, leaving less space for Johnny to work in.
Then as fast as it hit, it was over, and Val scrambled madly to the window, bellowing, “JOHNNY, GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE! AND FAST BEFORE THIS WHOLE THING GOES!”
Johnny didn’t answer back, all Val heard was the crying of the children.
True to its sturdy foundation and solid walls, Lancer Ranch stood firm against the attack by Mother Nature. The extent of the structural damage could be classified as minor things like fixing the fences and clearing debris, with the exception of the collapsed bunk house and the unfortunate death of two hands. They would also have to round-up the scattered cattle, which had fled in terror through the destroyed fences.
The clean-up of the ranch was left in the capable hands of Frank and Cipriano, as Murdoch had decided to take Scott, and a few of the men and head for Green River. The big rancher just couldn’t stand it any longer; he had to see what they could do for the town, and its occupants, most of them friends and neighbors. Not to mention he had an urgent need to confirm his youngest son was fine. Scott had warned his father that the stricken town was a horrendous sight. However, even after being told of the grim details, Murdoch was still bound and determined to make the trip. Green River had been good to the Lancers, and they reciprocated the kindnesses when they could.
Teresa wanted desperately to go, but she and Maria had their hands full with the clean-up of the ranch house. The larger pieces of furniture had been put back in place, or thrown out, if it was not worth saving. They were lucky and thankful that there was only minor damage to the décor of the house, nothing a little plaster and paint wouldn’t fix, like the big crack over the fire place. Windows that were shattered were being boarded up, even the huge picture window by the desk was now covered with a sheet, blocking the nice view they had always enjoyed.
They had one sad detail to take care of before they took off. They had to say good bye to the ones who didn’t survive the quake, Jess and Stan, the two new hands that just started to work for the Lancers. They were in the bunk house when the quake hit, and unfortunately on the side where the building had collapsed, neither one had a chance to get out. A solemn gathering of the people of Lancer congregated around the blanket wrapped bodies of the fallen men, as silent prayers were offered up over their souls. Murdoch, Scott and the few hands they were taking with them rode off on their task, afterwards.
The Lancer contingent had only been on the road for an hour, suffering the effects of the oppressive heat and humidity. They had to stop and steady the horses, and their own rattled nerves, when an aftershock moved the ground beneath them. Murdoch thoughts quickly went back to the ranch, and he hoped that Teresa and Maria were okay, and that there wasn’t any more damaging occurring to the ranch from the last tremor. He felt torn between going back and going on to town. Scott assured him that the ranch was still going to be there, aftershocks would barely register in the strong stone house. Scott was adamant in his conviction that right now they had to think of Johnny and the town.
When the ground finally stopped rumbling and undulating the horses calmed down, and then they continued on. All the while the group’s thoughts were with the neighboring towns, and their friends. Even though they realized many of the buildings in town were not as structurally sound as Lancer, they still hoped and prayed that they had somehow been spared the massive destruction they were afraid they would find. The closer they drew towards town, the more their fears grew and their hopes were dashed. The cracks in the earth, and the felled trees they passed by, gave testament to some of the strongest tremors having occurred in town. The contingent pushed onward, their worries rendered them voiceless, their silent prayers for mercy heard only by God.
Scott’s warning, before they left, in no way prepared the men for the sight before them as they reached the outskirts of town. Loud audible gasps issued from stricken faces, eyes glittered with watery sorrow, as they slowly entered the torn, battered main street of Green River. The apocalyptic scene of rubble was as disturbing and mixed, as their emotions upon seeing it. It was a sensation like having a whirling vortex in your brain; twisting and tossing your feelings from one extreme to another… anguish, sorrow, anger, grief, and horror. The further in they went in, they began to see bodies, covered up with blankets, lining the streets. ‘God no.’ they all whispered to themselves
“Lord, have mercy.” Jelly croaked sadly, his voice breaking up. He almost wished he hadn’t insisted of coming along, this was just too painful for his old heart to endure.
“Mercy had nothing to do with this, Jelly.” Murdoch softly replied, his voice wavering. He took his hat off and held it against his heart out of respect, and the others did the same. The tall rancher was at a loss for words, there weren’t any that could describe how he felt at this moment. All they could do now was help rescue, or find those still missing, and then salvage what was left of the town.
“I told you it wasn’t going to be pretty.” Scott dismally reminded them.
“Yeah, but I never thought it would be this bad.” Jelly commented bleakly.
Murdoch raised his huge hand up, and halted the conversation, when he noticed a big commotion going on, down at the other end of town. He could hear men shouting, the faint sound of hammering, and see wagons hurrying towards the action. Murdoch’s heart started to beat faster, his adrenaline rushed in his blood almost making him light-headed. Some inner sense, a paternal intuition gripped his being. He noticed Pete was hustling about, carrying rope and blankets, and he felt compelled to stop him to ask for information.
“Hey, Pete, what’s going on?” Murdoch anxiously hollered to the busy man. “Where’s Val? Have you seen Johnny?”
The stocky barkeeper froze in his tracks, at the sound of the loud voice calling to him, and then turned to see the group staring at him. “Oh, Mr. Lancer, thank God you are here.” Pete anxiously replied.
“What do you mean?” Murdoch asked apprehensively, not liking the sound of Pete’s distressed voice. “What’s going on?” Murdoch demanded to know.
“It’s the school house, there are children still trapped in there…,” he paused for a few seconds not knowing how to say this, wishing he didn’t have to be the one to tell them, “And Johnny went in to get them out!” he blurted out.
“ALONE?” Scott snarled loudly.
“Yeah, Val tried to stop him, but you know Johnny?” Pete replied nervously. “Then that aftershock hit, and now the school is ready to go at any time, we need all the men we can get to help steady it, so Johnny and the kids can get out!” Pete finished in one agitated breath.
The news that Johnny was trapped had the men taking off at a fast gallop leaving Pete in their dust. They headed towards the school, their hearts racing just as fast as their mounts. They slid to a billowing, dust cloud raising halt, swallowing the lumps in their throats, as they looked on at the horrifying sight before them. Men were franticly working against time and gravity, placing timbers of all kind around the vulnerable spots of the building, trying to give it more support. They were even using wagons to help reinforce the structure, by pushing them against the walls, which were ready to crumble.
“VAL!” Murdoch boomed, when he noticed the distraught sheriff running around yelling orders to the frenzied men.
“MURDOCH!” Val hollered back forgetting the formality of addressing the rancher, as he normally did. He hurried over to the dismounting men, panting and sweating, “Boy, I am glad you are here, we sure can use all the help we can get,” he added, wiping his brow with his sleeve.
“Yeah, Pete told us that kids were in there, and that Johnny went in after them.” Murdoch stated, looking expectantly at the Sheriff for confirmation, wanting to get the story straight.
“Yeah, and I tried to stop him and now….” he hesitated.
“Now… what?” Scott asked, dreading the answer.
“Since the last tremor, the one after he found the kids, we haven’t heard a word from him,” Val informed them, head bowed. He couldn’t bear to look at their stunned faces. “I have a man standing by the window with a lantern, so they can see the way out.” Val paused, and then added, “Johnny had a rope tied around him, but when we pulled on it…well he must have untied it,” he glumly finished. The next thing he knew, he felt the sudden draft of a very anxious Scott racing by him.
Leaning into the small window, Scott beseechingly called, “Johnny can you hear me? JOHHNY!”
Time seemed to stand still. All attention was riveted on the damaged school building. The men stood motionless, holding their breath, waiting for an answer, and then Scott practically jumped out of his skin, when the head of a small girl popped through the window.
“BECKY!” the school teacher cried.
“BECKY, BECKY!” Miss Johnson called in ecstatic relief, as she leaped to her feet from her seated position. In her euphoria at seeing one of the missing children alive she started to run towards the crumbling school house, arms stretched out before her, anxious to embrace the child. The joyous dash was abruptly ended by Val, as he grabbed her arm and stopped her flight.
“Hold on, missy, you have to stay away from there, it’s too dangerous for you to go near it.” Val cautioned the overexcited teacher.
“But she needs me!” Miss Johnson beseechingly wailed, tears running down her weary guilt ridden face. “Please let me go to her.”
“We’ll take care of her, now please go sit down.” Val assured her, and then guided her back to the bench. Reluctantly she sat back down, staring straight ahead towards the schoolhouse, oblivious to everything but the action around the building where her students were cruelly trapped.
The school yard was cluttered with onlookers, men and women who had come to help in any way they could. They stood about like mourners at a funeral, their stricken faces battling between disbelief and a multitude mixed emotions, whispering questions that at the present time could not be answered. Where are the other children? Are they alive? The scene that had captured everyone’s attention was the sight of the little girl who was being helped out of the window. The dirt smudged hands of the rescuers carefully took hold of her, and eased her small trembling form through the opening, and then gently placed her on the ground.
Scott shook off the gripping effect of his initial shock, and then took the little girl in his strong arms. He pulled out his bandana and gently wiped the dirt off her tear and grime streaked face “Hello, I assume you are Becky?” he softly inquired, giving her a reassuring smile.
“Yes…Yes…I’m Becky.” She stuttered in a hiccupping voice, and then buried her face in his chest, and started to cry.
“Shhh… you’re safe now, there is no need to cry,” Scott said comfortingly, as he cradled her shaking body. “Were there others behind you, honey?” Scott tenderly asked, as he stroked her head, trying to keep her calm.
“I don’t know,” she whimpered, and then looked up into his caring eyes. “It was too dark, I was scared, and then I saw the light and ran to it,” she added wiping her tired eyes, and then started yawning.
Scott tightened his grip on the little girl, and then rushed over to Miss Johnson, who took the child into her loving arms. She instantly began to rock her back and forth, whispering words of comfort and thanks. Scott turned to make his way back to the building, only to find that Murdoch and Val had beaten him there. Murdoch groaned as he stiffly went to his knees by the opening, and in the voice of a terrified parent, he called into the dark room, pleading for his son to answer him.
“JOHNNY?” Murdoch desperately hollered, his voice ringing out over the town, but echoing ominously in the dilapidated schoolroom. “Answer me, let us know you are okay!” he implored, waiting anxiously for a reply before he called again, “You have to get out of there and now!”
Scott and Val stood by the tall rancher, apprehensively waiting for a response. They were willing that soft voice of Johnny’s to break this maddening silence, to shout at them that he was fine, that all was okay. The two men looked fairly calm outwardly, but truth to be told both men felt as though every emotion possible was running wild through and over them, like the rushing water of a fast moving river, washing away their patience and sanity.
“This is insane! I’m going in after them!” Scott blurted out frantically as he decided he could wait no longer, and then began to push his way to the window. He was stopped cold by his father’s huge strong hand grabbing a hold of his arm, yanking him back away from the window.
“NO YOU’RE NOT!” Murdoch loudly ordered his son.
“But Johnny… those kids, they need help!” Scott argued in vain, yanking his arm from his father’s iron grip. “I have to go in, there’s no other way… please, sir…that’s my little brother,” Scott added like a whispered prayer.
“It is too damn dangerous to send more men in there, let alone you too. I feel like I have already contributed one son to this hazardous situation!” Murdoch tried to reason with his agitated son.
Just as Scott was about to argue his point further, they were startled by the appearance of another child, this time a boy, sticking his head out of the window. “Help me, please!” he cried, putting his hands out for someone to grab.
“I’ve got you son,” Murdoch soothed in a reassuring fatherly manner, as he picked up the small boy, pulling him through the window with his strong hands, and then sat him on his large lap. “How many more are there, son?” he asked, while carefully checking the boy over for injuries, and then wiped his bangs out of his sad eyes. Murdoch’s breath caught painfully in his throat, forming a lump he was sure was either his heart or at least the size of it, when bright blue eyes were revealed as the coal black hair was pushed to the side.
“Four more….and Billy…is hurt. Mr. Lancer…is helping him,” he said sobbing uncontrollably, his head leaning against Murdoch’s shoulder.
The child’s words lifted a weight off of their hearts, as it registered in their minds the meaning of what he said. The three men let out a heavy sigh of thanks, “Johnny is alive” they whispered. They didn’t know if they should be relieved or mad, that the mule-headed gun-hawk had taken on this rescue alone, and worrying them to death like this. And why in the hell didn’t he answer them?
Before they had time to dwell on this new concern another child appeared, erasing those thoughts, and then another, as they slowly followed the light of the lantern to the opening. They were mostly frightened, a little banged up, but otherwise they seemed ok. Val motioned for a few of the onlookers to come and help with the children. One at a time each child was escorted to a safe part of town, to later be reunited with their families.
Sam had been out of town at the time the quake hit. When he returned, his heart was sickened by the destruction around him, and his office was in shambles. However, he was brave enough to venture into the small building to retrieve medical supplies that had survived the harsh shaking. He quickly set up a make shift tent for the injured.
After taking a head count of the number of children who had managed to crawl through the window the rescuers realized there was still one child left and Johnny. They had no idea how bad Billy’s injuries were, or why Johnny had made no attempt to answer them, for all they knew Johnny might be hurt too. This was getting traumatically frustrating for all involved; time was starting to run out on them. Nobody knew when another aftershock might hit, one that could very well bring down the whole building in one good shake.
“JOHNNY!” his anxious worried father called, “WHERE ARE YOU?”
The silence that answered his desperate call was so heavy he felt smothered by it. Murdoch closed his eyes and concentrated, inclining his head towards the window, listening intently but there was nothing, only the sound of the wind coming up, and the loud creaks and moans of the destroyed schoolhouse.
Time seemed suspended around the schoolhouse that was collapsing in small increments, each creak, groan and moan as the debris settled in on its self caused the rescuers to cringe in anxiety. Were it not for the random sounds emanating from the structure it might have been possible to hear the painfully pounding hearts of the people gathered to help. The anguish over the deteriorating situation was painted in shadowed lines of worry over dirt smudged pale faces.
The haunting absence of Johnny’s voice answering the desperate pleas for confirmation that he was alright increased the despair that ate at the resolve and morale of the rescuers. The silence eroded their patience, and increased their concerns that time was running out on them. In the next heartbeat, the dire situation became fraught with danger, for without a single warning, the whole structure of the leaning building started to slightly shift more to one side. This applied extra pressure on the already weakened beams that supported the walls from within, as well as the ones outside.
The loud cracking noise of wood splitting, told the rescue workers that time was definitely not on their side, this building was a death trap. Panic set in, terror gripped the minds of the people and controlled sanity gave way to loud gasps, choked sobs and harrowing screams. Women ran as far away as possible, afraid to look back, while the men scrabbled about trying to keep their wits about them, at the same time trying to keep the building steady.
Val was desperately trying to keep everyone calm, to keep order, he couldn’t let this hamper their efforts to get Johnny and Billy out safely.
“Hold those supports steady men!” Val demanded. “Put all you have into it!”
“We’re trying Val, but they’re not going to hold for much longer.” One of the men reported.
“We have to keep that side wall from falling over! Johnny, and that kid’s lives depends on us. Find more wood, anything to push up against it. If you can find some more beams you can brace them against the stone foundation of the other building, which should give us more strength. We have to give them more time!” Val bellowed, taking his bandana out wiping his sweating brow. “God give them more time,” he murmured.
Murdoch’s anxious eyes watched the men run here and there to gather whatever else they could find to shore up the walls, just to give Johnny a little more time. The mental torture of the situation manifested it’s self into painful physical symptoms. His stomach knotted in apprehension, his digestive acids gurgled and bubbled, rising in his throat, threatening to spew upon the ground. The sick feeling caused him to tremble, as his nerves screamed, and his blood pressure rose and he felt light-headed, but he refused to give into it, he swallowed back his fear and turned his concentration back to his youngest.
“JOHNNY, GET OUT OF THERE, NOW!” boomed the terrified father, as Scott stood by feeling just as helpless as his father.
“Come on brother, get out of there!” Scott pleaded.
Time and fate conspired against them yet again, as the horrifying sound of another beam cracking rent the air. The damaged wood gave way under pressure, and the piercing noise sent bone chilling shivers down each man’s spine. They froze in their tracks too petrified to move, or breathe for fear it would start a chain reaction of destruction. And then there would be nothing they could do to stop it, their only option would be to watch it come crashing down, entombing Johnny and Billy.
“God no,” Scott whispered disconsolately, his head bowed under the heavy weight of fear, as he listen to the building settle. An almost imperceptible sound caused Scott’s head to lift up. He touched his father’s shoulder with a shaky hand, “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Murdoch inquired, as he wondered if his oldest son could have heard the sound of his heart breaking.
“That! That’s what I heard.” Scott anxiously stated when the voice got louder and the words floated out the window on an air of hope.
“HELP… ME!” pleaded the struggling voice coming from within the crumbling room, “Help….me get…Billy out.”
Johnny’s strained voice and labored breath were like sweet music to Murdoch and Scott’s ears. The beast of fear released his strangle hold on them, allowing them to draw a decent breath, now that they knew Johnny was indeed alive. Now if they could just get him out.
“Johnny over here, follow the light, and hurry we can’t hold it steady much longer,” Murdoch urged his son.
“I’m trying…too...much in the…way,” Johnny fought to get the words out. “I have Billy…in my…arms…can’t see clear…”
Murdoch could hear Johnny thrashing about the debris, trying to push it out of his way. This unsettled the rubble causing some to fall against the walls and floors. And as unsteady as the building was, Murdoch worried what the vibrations of the noise would cause.
“Johnny, try not move too much of the debris, it could cause a cave in.” Murdoch warned him.
“I can’t help it!” Johnny irritably answered.
“I’m going in!” Scott announced, having had enough of the madness of just standing by.
“And I said no!” Murdoch growled grabbing a hold of his stubborn son's arm.
“Listen to me! He’s not going to make it out in time without assistance.” Scott exclaimed, breaking free from his father’s tight grip. “Johnny is asking for help, and I intend to give it to him, he‘s my brother!”
“But it’s too damn dangerous to send you in there, Scott!” Val intervened. “What if ya both wind up trapped?”
“Well it’s a chance I’ll have to take, but I’m not going to stand by and watch my brother die, without at least trying!” Scott retorted with passionate conviction. “Johnny sounded close enough, so it shouldn’t be that hard to find him; and then get out before this structure goes,” he added trying to ease their tormented minds.
“Can you hear me?” Johnny called out again.
After giving his father a determined look, Scott vowed, “I’M COMING IN, JOHNNY.” Scott grabbed a lantern, and then proceeded to climb through the small window. The others looked on, hoping and praying that the fates would be with them, and the impending disaster would hold off until they were safely out.
Once inside, Scott’s eyes had to adjust to the darkness of the room, while stepping over rubble and glass, ducking under low beams, with only the dim light of the lantern to guide him. “Johnny, where are you?” he softly called out, trying not to make too much noise.
“Over… here, Scott,” Johnny answered, huffing like he was out of breath.
Lifting the lantern a little higher, Scott’s eyes squinted, and then he smiled, when he saw his little brother standing over by the side of the room. He was wedged between a couple of downed beams, and some tipped over desks. Johnny was holding a husky boy in his arms. Scott recognized why he was having a hard time with the child, the boy was several sizes bigger than the other children and much heavier too. It appeared Johnny was afraid to move for fear of knocking one of the beams down, which could send the whole room crashing down around them.
“Help me, will ya? Billy has a broken arm; and a nasty bump on his head,” Johnny informed his brother.
“And you?” Scott asked, as he carefully eased the boy out of his brother’s tired arms. He slowly stepped back through the debris, grunting from the weight of the boy resting in his arms.
“I twisted my dang blasted ankle.” Johnny snorted in frustration at himself.
“Well, we better hurry and get out of here. This structure is not stable, and it could go at any time.” Scott cautioned.
“You go on ahead with Billy. I’ll be right behind ya.” Johnny took a step forward and hissed as he put weight on his sore ankle, “Go on, get out Scott,” he growled seeing that his brother was hesitating.
“You had better be right behind me, little brother.”
“I will, now get!”
Scott reluctantly turned to leave, with Billy clinging to his neck. He cringed when he heard the wind picking up outside, he knew that was not a good sign. Scott stopped and turned back to see his brother slowly hobbling behind him.
Scott struggled to carry the heavy child through the rubble of the destroyed room. Every little sound was setting his raw nerves on edge. He felt trapped within the lair of a beast, desperately fighting against time and space to avoid being ensnared by the unseen predator. The intermittent sounds of the debris settling in the darkened school building sounded ominous, like the growling discontented hungry beast was nipping at his heels.
Scott repeatedly called over his shoulder, frantically urging his limping brother to keep up with him. Time was working against them. To slow down or stop were not options. With Billy safely ensconced in Scott’s strong arms, it was up to Johnny to carry the lantern. Johnny’s limping gait caused the light to sway wildly about, which caused the shadows cast by the debris to appear to be moving. And judging by the way the light was wavering behind him and fading away, Scott knew Johnny was slowly falling behind.
“Johnny, are you ok?” Scott anxiously asked, as he fought to keep the large boy from slipping out of his arms. His muscles ached from the weight of boy as he carried him, and he silently cursed the boy’s parents for over feeding him. He continued to labor with the burden, breathing in grunts and gasps. He didn’t recall Johnny feeling this heavy the time he toted him into the house after the battle with Pardee, and Johnny was grown!
"Yeah, I reckon…it’s my damn ankle, it’s… slowing me down,” Johnny finally called back, his voice raspy from the dust in the air. “Keep going… we’re almost there,” he added as he hobbled along, tripping a few times, but managing to keep his feet under him. Then all at once he lost his balance and went down with a hard thud, knocking the wind out of him. Yet miraculously he was able to hold the lantern upright, saving it from shattering on the hard floor.
“Johnny?” Scott’s heart skipped a few beats at the sound of his brother’s body hitting the floor, and the light almost vanishing behind him.
“I’m alright!” Johnny huffed out in annoyance, cursing his ankle for giving out. He slowly pushed himself off the floor. As he raised the lantern up again, Johnny scowled when he saw that his brother had stopped. “Scott, keep going will ya. I’ll be okay!”
With his little brother’s forceful urging ringing in his ears, Scott trudged along as fast as he could, panting and gasping for air, as Billy hung on tight to his neck with his good arm. Billy began to whimper and tremble in pain because of his injuries. Scott grimaced in sympathy, he knew the fast pace was jarring the boy’s injuries, but at this point it was more important they move quickly from the building.
“It’s okay, Billy. We’ll be out of here soon, and Doc Sam will take care of you.” Scott softly reassured the lad. The boy nodded and smiled, with tears streaming down his dirty face. Scott’s sore, dusty eyes lit up at the sight of the opening only a few feet away. Freedom from this death trap was now just steps away. He could vaguely make out his father’s huge shadow lingering outside the window. “See, Billy, there’s the way out now.”
However, just as he was about to call back to Johnny that the end to their ordeal was within sight, fate decided she wasn’t through with them yet. For a span of a few seconds all noise ceased…and then the sounds returned violently. “No!” Scott whispered when the blood curdling, frightening racket of beams cracking, wood splintering, walls crumbling and glass shattering surrounded his head and assaulted his ears. Scott quickly turned around, and gasped in horror as he realized the lean of the building was shifting more towards total collapse.
Outside he could hear the desperate screams and shouts of the workers, as they frantically tried to hold the building upright and steady, giving them as much time as possible to get out. Time was of the essence, it was definitely running out on them.
“JOHNNY HURRY! WE DON‘T HAVE MUCH TIME!” Scott hollered, as he took the last few steps to reach the window.
“I’M TRYING!” Johnny yelled back. “JUST… Keep… going….” Johnny’s voice was drowned out by the sound of the school house caving in.
The scene outside was chaotic. The horror of the impending collapse fueled the men trying to shore up the building. Their faces were paralyzed with painful grimaces as their straining over taxed muscles struggled against the weight of the shifting building. The spectators nervously backed further away.
“It’s not going to hold much longer, Val. GET THEM OUT NOW!” bellowed one of the men to the slightly dazed Sheriff.
The urgent shout helped Val quickly regain his senses, and he took charge again, barking orders to keep the building from coming down. “I don’t care what it takes, just hold that building steady!” Val demanded.
“Where are they?” Murdoch anxiously asked Val. The two men were kneeling by the opening, and straining their eyes as they peered in through the window, with hopes of seeing any sign of the boys. “They should be out by now.” Murdoch’s heart was aching at thought he just might lose both his sons at the same time. ”BOYS WHERE ARE YOU?” The shouted desperate plea rang out over the noise of the death throes of the building.
“They’ll get out. I can feel it in my bones,” Val said, hoping his words wouldn’t betray him.
“GET READY TO GRAB THE BOY!” Scott’s dust husky voice blared from the window.
Murdoch practically jumped out of his skin, when he heard his son’s frantic voice. The rancher quickly handed the lantern he was holding over to Val, and got ready to grab the boy. Scott finally reached the window, and then with a good shove, he proceeded to push the big boy through the window head first. Murdoch hastily took hold of the boy’s shoulder, and even though it was a tight fit, he was able to pull the lad through without causing any more damage to the opening.
“I’ve got you son,” Murdoch tenderly told the frightened boy. He carefully handed Billy over to one of the spectators, and then proceeded to help his own son out of the window.
With his father’s help, Scott cautiously squeezed through the opening and was just about out when the walls begun to buckled more, slowly snapping the supports one by one causing the men to jump back momentarily.
“HOLD HER STEADY MEN, JOHNNY IS STILL IN THERE!” Val bellowed.
Just as Scott was about to pull his left leg through the window, he felt the strong hands of his little brother grabbing a hold of his heel. Scott froze in place afraid to move, fearing Johnny would lose his grip, and then he would perish along with the school house.
“What’s wrong? Where’s your brother?” Murdoch said frowning.
“He’s right behind me, you have to grab him and fast, before this whole place goes,” Scott demanded urgently.
Scott gripped the window frame and pulled his leg out with all his might, with Johnny’s hands still tightly attached to his ankle. Scott dropped out the window, and then Johnny’s dusted covered head popped into view. Val and Murdoch reached in the opening, grabbed hold of his arms, and pulled him through with one big yank, just as the last support gave out.
“GET OUT OF THE WAY, SHE GOING!” shouted one of the men.
The rescuers forced numb sore arms to drop off the beams they had held in place for so long. Everybody there scattered like flies being shooed away from a sweet pie, getting as far away from the danger, as they could.
The paternal instinct to protect his child forced a rush of adrenaline that gave Murdoch the sudden strength of ten men. He snatched his youngest son up in his strong arms, and ran with him as fast his longs legs would allow him. Scott and Val were following close behind.
The school house collapsed with one big howling, haunting sound as it came crashing to the ground. A huge cloud of dirt and glass rose menacingly above the rubble from the impact. The once lively schoolyard was covered in a gray suffocating coating of dust. The particles that didn’t have time to settle on anything were swiftly blown away, riding high on the wind.
They had all made it safely over to by a clump of trees. The exhausted men were panting and bending over, trying to suck in enough air. The alarming situation finally caught up with them, and their formerly steady limbs turned to jelly, and left them shaking. Murdoch was still holding on to his son for dear life, crushing Johnny to his chest until Johnny complained.
“Murdoch, I can’t breathe like this,” Johnny’s muffled voice panted.
Murdoch carried Johnny over to a nearby bench, and carefully sat him down, and then with a shaky hand wiped his dark bangs away from his eyes.
“Are you ok, son?” Murdoch tremulously asked.
“Yeah, that was close!” Johnny slyly smiled up at his father.
“Don’t you ever scare me like that again, young man,” Murdoch commanded, as he sank weakly down onto the seat beside his son.
The sporadic noises of shifting debris, as the schoolhouse protested its demise, were the only sounds to be heard in the shocked silence following the total collapse. The victims, rescuers and spectators were gripped by a smothering sense of disorientation, as their disbelieving eyes tried to make their bewildered mind accept what they had just witnessed, and that some of them had miraculously survived.
The once proud building had originally been a house of worship and then a vestibule of learning. Now however, the building lay in total shambles. Its’ beautiful stain-glass windows were nothing but colorful fragments of razor sharp, deadly shards spread about the yard, reduced to implements of danger. The only part of the schoolhouse left was the bell, which had cheerfully called the children to school. It now lay on the ground. It was dinged but still in one piece, having survived the crash of the bell tower.
The regret of the loss weighed heavy on the people, but at this point regret was a useless emotion, it had to be swallowed or pushed aside as their attention needed to be turned to more important matters. It was time to move on, and salvage what they could of their homes and businesses. They were disheartened to find not one building left standing was safe enough to house the injured and homeless. The risk was just too high of another dangerous aftershock looming over them, which could bring further destruction, possibly killing more.
Evening had fallen during the laborious schoolhouse rescue, and the moon was now sailing high in the sky. Under the light of the full moon, and with no time to waste, Sam took action. The doctor had some of the men set up a couple of large tents on the south part of town, which had been used on much happier occasions, such as picnics and celebrations. When the make shift hospital was ready, Sam went to work starting with the seriously injured first. He feverishly worked through the night, and to this old town doctor it was as if he was treating an army after a tremendously bloody battle.
The last time Doc Jenkins had so many patients at once, was during an anthrax outbreak when he first came to this town. While the outbreak had been devastating, it was not as horrifying as this. The broken, mangled bodies that lay before him, gasping and moaning in pain, and begging for mercy was almost too much for his tender old heart to bear, as he had become close to these people he considered his friends. He was very grateful that he didn’t have to shoulder this on his own, he had good men like Jelly to help with the children, and still others who wandered into town to aid in any way they could.
The purpose of the last tent was a much sadder story, and it pained Sam’s heart every time he had to walk by it. This tent was placed further away from the hospital, away from the living. It was where the lifeless bodies of once vibrant people lay after they were unearthed from their premature graves of wood and glass. As family members passed through the tent, burdened with the task of identifying their loved ones, mournful cries echoed through the town. The canvas walls prevented other eyes from witnessing the grief painted on their faces, but could in no way contain the disconsolate sounds of their heartbreak.
Green River had had its share of troubles in the past, from land grabbers to droughts, murderous bands of outlaws stampeding through town, robbing, raping, and destroying property before there was any law. But never something that felt as disastrous and deadly as this, because it seemed like Mother Nature had turned violently against them.
The next morning a certain father was experiencing his own troubles with his petulant child, though that child was actually grown. After the scare of almost losing him, Murdoch was feeling somewhat over protective, and was finding it impossible to reason with his mule-headed son. He had ordered Johnny to stay put and do as he was told, but Johnny was to having nothing to do with being told what to do.
“Johnny, Sam told you to stay off that foot and rest it!” Murdoch scolded his youngest.
“No, Murdoch, I’ll be just fine.” Johnny grunted, as he limped around testing his ankle after Sam had wrapped it up. “Sam did a good job of wrapping it, and it hardly hurts,” he added, slightly glossing over the truth for his father’s benefit. The truth was it still hurt like the dickens, but he didn’t want to let on. “I can’t just sit here! You know that I’ll go crazy. Beside Val needs all the help he can get.” Johnny explained, as he sat down and struggled to put his boot on.
“Haven’t you done enough, risking your own neck fer those kids?” Jelly grumbled, as he lent a helping hand with the boot. “You got them out, and dang near got yerself killed doing it!” the old handy man loudly huffed as he pushed on the boot. “Why don’t ya just listen to your pa fer once in your life? Maybe he ought to take a switch to your hide, and beat some sense into ya!” Jelly groused, as he let fear take hold of his tongue.
“Jelly, I couldn’t just stand there and let those kids die, now could I? You ought to know that by now.” Johnny protested, as he stood up putting weight on his foot again, this time it didn’t hurt as bad with the extra support. “And I’m not going to sit here and wait either!” he added, frowning at his old friend. However, that frown quickly faded to a soft smile, his eyes twinkled with delight, as he watched the children being reunited with their families. The tears of relief in their parent’s faces as they held their children safely in their arms, told Johnny it was worth the risk.
“You’re a mule-headed cuss, is what you are, Johnny Lancer,” Jelly scowled. “Scott, talk some sense into yer brother.”
“Forget it Jelly, you know Johnny. It’s like talking to brick wall.” Scott replied, shaking his head while dusting off his clothes.
“That’s right,” Johnny smirked. “Now go and help Sam like you have been doing… go on.” Johnny smiled as his friend huffed off, grumbling loudly about smart aleck pups who thought they knew it all. Johnny turned to face his father, “Murdoch, how’s the ranch?” he asked softly.
“We’ll be okay, son, we weren’t hit as bad as town. We did lose a few small buildings, plus the bunk house, and…” Murdoch paused briefly, hating to reveal all.
Murdoch put a gentle hand on his son’s shoulder, giving it a slight squeeze. “We lost…Jess and Stan, the two new hands we just hired,” he answered sadly.
“You mean that I just hired,” Johnny whispered. “How?” he asked, his head bowed in regret. He had offered those jobs to his new friends, who were looking for work at the time. He knew it was irrational, but he couldn’t help feeling guilty about it.
“They were in the bunk house when the quake hit. The building just disintegrated. They had no chance of getting out before it collapsed,” Murdoch grimly recalled the horrifying event.
Johnny nodded. “How are Teresa and Maria? Are they okay?”
“Yes they’re fine, and you know Teresa, she wanted to come and help.” Scott answered for his father.
Johnny’s head shot up. “You didn’t let her come, did you?”
“NO! Heaven forbid. We made sure she stayed home to take care of thing there.” Scott quickly assured his worried brother. “She would be basket case if she knew what you were up to.”
“Well, thank God for that, huh?’” Johnny snickered in relief, the last thing he needed was his coddling foster sister here. “Well let’s get going and help Val,” Johnny suggested, and then frowned when he looked up at his family’s concerned faces. “Hey, I’ll be ok, now let’s go!” Johnny demanded.
Seeing they we’re not going to get anywhere with the head-strong youngest Lancer, they followed him out of the tent as he hobbled along in his quest to find Val. As they exited the tent, they were met with the first rays of the morning sun. In the bright light of the new dawn they were disheartened to see that things looked as annihilated, if not more so than they had yesterday.
Slowly they walked down the street, taking a closer look around at the destruction wrought when the earth turned against its self. The aftermath looked as bad as a war torn battlefield. It would take months, possibly years to rebuild Green River. As the Lancer men surveyed the damage, their sorrowful eyes connected, and as if they could read each other’s mind they all nodded in agreement. With the grace of God, Lancer would assist in all ways possible to help with the rebirth of their town.
Val Crawford had been turned to as the man in charge of the rescue of citizens still trapped or missing. The town’s folks were seeing what an effective community leader they had for sheriff. Crawford had been up and at it since right before the sun. He had been from one end of the town to the other coordinating, gathering and passing along information, as well as helping to search debris for survivors. The busy Sheriff was so hard for some of the men to keep up with one of them had jokingly likened his hyperactive state to spit jumping on a hot griddle. In truth Val was as exhausted as the other men, however he continued to push past his endurance because he was scared to death he was going to let his town down, when they needed him the most. It seemed the only way to deal with the death and destruction, as well as his fear, was to stay too busy to think about it.
Val finally had to stop and take a much needed break. He leaned wearily against a porch post, concerned that if he sat down he wouldn’t be able to get up again. He scrubbed at his dust and sweat smudged face with hands that were dirty and covered in minor abrasions from digging through rubble. He was so tired he would be hard pressed to draw in a decent breath right now. He didn’t even have the energy to request someone bring him a glass of water, he wasn’t even sure his voice would work at the moment, it was dry and scratchy from barking out orders to the volunteers, and breathing in dust particles.
Crawford’s thoughts turned back to early morning when new volunteers slowly ventured into town to lend a helping hand. Many had come from the direction of Morro Coyo, and had informed him that even though the quake had caused damage to the small town, it wasn’t as nearly as bad as Green River. Only a few windows and a couple of older buildings had succumbed to the shaking and fallen, but most importantly no lives were lost, this bit of good news had thrilled the lawman. Val quietly slouched against the post, unaware of the Lancers approaching him from behind.
“Val!” Johnny hollered, after spotting his amigo, and slowly limped on over to him.
The preoccupied sheriff was startled by the sound of Johnny’s voice, and quickly spun around, almost losing his balance in the process. He had to grab the post to keep from falling. “Johnny, what in the blue blazes are you doing up on your foot?” Val snarled. He was not too happy to see his buddy up and about after his near brush with death. “Haven’t ya done enough?” he asked, unable to hide the hint of censure and annoyance in his voice over the youngest Lancer’s disregard for his health.
“I’m fine, Val. What can we do to help?” Johnny asked stopping a few feet away from Val’s scowling mug. “Don’t go giving me that look, I said I’m fine!”
“Yeah, I’ll bet you are.” Val sarcastically remarked, then glanced over Johnny’s shoulder, noticing the defeated and exasperated expressions on Murdoch and Scott’s faces. “Well, if you insist buddy. I could use a hand with the hotel, what’s left of it,” he grimly added, shaking his head. “I don’t know who or how many people were in there before the quake, or who got out, if any.”
Murdoch and his boys turned to take a look at the hotel, and frowned in dismay. It was one of the biggest buildings in Green River, and besides the café was one of the busiest establishments in town. They knew Val had every right to worry about how many might be in there.
The large porch of the hotel was frequently used by the visitors while they sat about enjoying the night’s cool air after a long hot day, was totally demolished. The upper part of it was laying flat, completely blocking the doorway preventing an accessible entrance or exit. However, the main structure was still standing, and they hoped that was a good sign, that if there was anybody in there, they might still be alive.
Murdoch blew out a ragged breath. “Well come on boys. We have our work cut out for us,” he ordered as he marched resolutely onward, followed by his sons.
“All but you buddy! You can just sit right over there and watch.” Val demanded, as he grabbed Johnny’s arm. “You’ve already done your share of helping, remember?” Val’s voice softened with a concerned tone, and his face was etched with worry.
“Aw… come on, Val. I said I was okay!” Johnny argued. “Will ya let me help? I promise I’ll be careful, okay!” his eyes pleaded with wholehearted sincerity.
The beaten sheriff gave up, and rubbed his tired eyes. “Alright! But you had better not do anything that will give me another heart attack like your hair brained rescue attempt,” Val growled.
“Alright, alright, I’ll be a good boy. Now let’s go.” Johnny implored, as he slowly limped away from the glaring sheriff.
“Yeah, I’ll believe that when I see it.” Val mumbled, knowing very well that it was useless to argue with the mule-headed gun-fighter. He walked over to join the others, and they stood there in front of the hotel, wondering where to begin.
Sheriff Crawford motioned for a few of the others to come and help with the clearing of the rubble in front of the door. Starting with the larger pieces first, and being as cautious as possible they began the rigorous chore. As they lifted a couple of the bigger parts up, they all held their breaths, dreading what they might find beneath the debris. Whispers of relief and sighs of thanks were offered up by the workers when they found no victims under the piles.
Finally after a couple of painstaking, backbreaking hours of hauling the heavy rubble away, they had cleared the pathway. Murdoch, Val, Scott and Johnny went into the building while the others stayed outside.
Once inside, they were pleased to find that the damage was not as bad as they had feared it would be, due mostly to the fact it was a newer hotel. The old hotel had burnt down a few years back during one of Pardee’s raids, before he went after Lancer, during the time Green River had no law. Unlike the old structure it was built a little sturdier.
The lobby looked like a mad bull had charged through it. The expensive fabric on the chairs and sofas was shredded as if the bull had plunged its sharp horns into them. Ripping and tearing into the obstacles in his path of destruction, tossing the furniture about with its powerful head. When in reality the huge chandelier that once hung above was the true culprit. It had shattered into a thousand fragments when it tore loose from the ceiling, and went crashing down, showering the area with deadly jagged bits of glass.
“Murdoch… look.” Scott whispered, as he sadly pointed to a man, who wasn’t lucky enough to escape outside. He lay bloodied and broken under the destroyed frame of the chandelier, which trapped and killed him instantly.
They all stood in silence, staring solemnly at the man. Heads and eyes were lowered out of respect for the lost life. Regret clawed at their conscience, as they had to accept there was nothing they could do for him now. As their thoughts turned from the tragedy in front of them, Val had notice something that was a big problem…the staircase.
“Well that’s just great! How the hell are we going to get up there?” Val grumbled, as he gestured with agitation at the spectacle before them.
The long elegant staircase that led to the rooms upstairs had been viciously torn away from its foundation, and the entrance to the hallway. The rolling and undulating of the ground during the quake had caused it to twist, and then buckle. The stress on the wood had finally broken it apart in sections; the different pieces were now lying at the base. It was now nothing but a pile of crumbled, splintered wood. Above the rubble yawned a gaping hole, which lead to the second floor, stranding whoever might still be up there, possibly hurt or dead.
“HELLO IS ANYONE UP THERE?” Murdoch powerful voice boomed, echoing off the walls. They all anxiously waited for any kind of an answer.
“HELP US! OH, PLEASE HELP US!” a desperate voice responded. A small woman appeared at the entrance of the second floor, staring down at her rescuers with begging eyes. “My husband is hurt, and I can’t get down.”
“How bad is he hurt, ma’am?” Val asked.
“I can’t tell, he’s pinned under a part of a wall, oh please help us!”
“Okay, ma’am, you go back to him, and stay put! We’ll get to you as soon as we can!” Val instructed the distraught woman. She nodded and went back to the room, grateful that someone had finally heard her cry for help.
“Now what? How are we going to get up there?” Johnny questioned, rubbing at his sore ankle.
“Well you’re not, that for sure.” Scott replied sternly, giving his stubborn brother a hard glare. “And don’t say you’re okay. I see the way you are rubbing your ankle.”
“Well, it does smart a little, but…”
“No buts, John, you’re staying down here.” Murdoch agreed with his eldest son’s dictate. Studying the situation, Murdoch echoed Johnny’s question, “He does have a good point! How in the world are we going to get up there? Any ideas?”
The three of them pondered on how they were going to do this. It was a long ways up there, and from what they could see part of the hallway did not look too stable. They figured that when the staircase fell, it also loosened a few of the railings and floor boards. The rescuers were lost in contemplation over how to overcome this obstacle, and didn’t notice the youngest Lancer smiling and shaking his head at the obvious.
“I have an idea!” Johnny eagerly blurted out with a smirk on his face.
“You do little brother? Well wonders never cease,” Scott teased with a sly grin. “I hope it doesn’t require you going into a collapsing building?”
“No, Scott, it doesn’t, and yes I have an idea!” Johnny growled, and then turned to face Val. “Do you know where we can get a long ladder? One that will reach up there?” he asked, and then scanned the room quickly. “Maybe a rope too,” he added.
“Right a ladder!’ Scott agreed, as he smacked himself on the forehead. “Now why didn’t I think of that?” He gave his brother a heartfelt smile. “There has to be one around here somewhere. I’ll go look outside.” Scott took off, plowing his way through the debris.
“Well don’t’ just stand there gawking, let’s get to looking for a rope,” Val barked out. “Not you buddy boy, you stay put. I don’t need to worry about you wandering off to play hero again!” Val said, glaring at Johnny anxious expression.
Johnny was just about to protest, but was stopped short by a shout from his father. “JOHNNY!” Murdoch loudly ordered, as he pointed to a safe place for his son to sit and rest, “GO!”
“Yes, sir” Johnny snorted and grumbled, as he limped over to a pile of rubble further away from the staircase. “Who does he think he is, talking to me like I’m a child?” Johnny muttered under his breath.
“What was that?” demanded his father, with a ‘don’t press your luck’ with me look plastered on his face.
“Nothing,” Johnny scowled petulantly, as he plopped down out of the way.
Sitting in the spot his father had ordered him to like some recalcitrant child, Johnny twitched and squirmed, as he fought the urge to get up and help. It took all the patience he could muster to stay seated, as he watched Val and Scott climb the ladder they had found by the stable. Johnny despised the idea of sitting idly by just because his father and brother tended to be over protective of him, it made him feel as useful as a water bucket with a big hole in the bottom. A nagging gut feeling was telling him that something was not right, he didn’t know what or why, he just knew and it was eating at his insides. And there was not a blasted thing he could do, but sit and wait for whatever it was to happen.
In a futile attempt to take his mind off the situation, and occupy his time, Johnny’s restless fingers nervously played with a loose concho on his pant leg. As he fiddled with the silver button between his long brown fingers, his mind concentrated on the rescue attempt going on…without his help. His agitation at being left out of the effort manifested itself in an unthinking act; he aggressively picked and tugged harder at the button until it completely came off.
“Oh great!” he groused, as he studied the shiny button he now held in his hand. Anger at himself seized him, and he drew back his hand to throw the concho. However, thoughts of the fuss Teresa would kick up if she had to find a matching replacement button, convinced him to slide the rounded piece of silver into his pocket for safe keeping. Without the concho to keep his hands busy, he leaned forward and picked up a wooden stick from the rubble, and started to twirl it around.
Murdoch kept a concerned eye on his fidgety son while he held the ladder steady; he knew this inactivity was killing Johnny. He had learned the hard way that his youngest son just couldn’t sit still, sometimes not even if his life depended on it. Johnny was always on the go. He was regularly up at the crack of dawn, and was out the door before most of them were even up. Johnny was always ready to help if he felt it was the right thing to do, just as he did with those trapped kids. Murdoch had to smile at that, his heart beating with pride. He was proud of his boy, so courageous to do such a thing like risking his own life for the sake of a child. However, at the same time he had never been so scared in his life, as he was at the thought of losing Johnny again, especially so soon after getting him back.
“Johnny, I know this hard for you, but you need to rest that ankle,” Murdoch said with fatherly concern. “You’ll have a chance to help again, but not up there.”
“I feel useless sitting here, Murdoch,” Johnny complained bitterly. “Besides somethin’ don’t feel right, and it’s gnawing at me like an army of devil ants.”
“I know, John. But there was no way you could climb up there, and you know it.”
“No buts, just sit, and that’s an order!” Murdoch sternly commanded, sensing that the gentle approach wasn‘t working.
Johnny nodded and bowed his head in defeat, but not without muttering a few choice words under his breath in Spanish.
“I heard that young man!” his father sharply rebuked him.
Johnny’s head jerked up. “Sorry!” he said with a surprised look on his face. “You sure do have good ears.”
“Yeah, well I have to, with a son like you.” Murdoch grumbled, the sly grin on his face taking out any sting the words might have held.
“I guess you do at that, don’t ya?” Johnny snorted with a mischievous smirk of his own.
Murdoch smiled as he picked up on Johnny’s playful retort. He was relieved to see that his son was a little more relaxed. He feared that wouldn’t last too much longer, something would probably come up, and Johnny would have to be right in on it. And heaven knows what kind of tangle he’d get himself into this time.
Murdoch’s attention was diverted from Johnny when Scott called down to them.
“We’re up, Murdoch,” Scott informed his father. “It doesn’t look too bad up here so far, keep your fingers crossed that it stays that way,” Scott added a little nervously.
“You two be careful, Scott!’ Johnny hollered up to his brother. “And hurry, I have a bad feeling about this. I can feel it in my bones,” Johnny warned Scott and Val.
“Oh great, now you have a bad feeling. You’re beginning to sound like Jelly,” Scott sarcastically retorted. “Well let’s hope that’s all it is,” Scott mumbled, as he and Val turned to begin to search the area.
“You listen to your brother, and be careful, Scott!” Murdoch yelled at his son’s retreating back, hoping his son heard him. Murdoch was all too aware that Johnny’s instincts were proven right most of the time. “SCOTT DID YOU HEAR ME?” he hollered, desperate to hear a reassuring reply.
“YES AND… I… will!” Scott called back, his words tapering off the further away he walk.
There were at least ten to fifteen rooms on the second floor, some small, some big. Val and Scott had to check every single one, just to make sure that there was no one else trapped upstairs. They had to ascertain there were no other victims that couldn’t get free to call for help, or might have been killed. The long hallway spanned to the right and the left. And after a short debate the two men decided to split up to save time in locating the woman and her trapped husband.
Beautiful paintings of a variety of landscapes had once enhanced the walls. At one time fancy lanterns hung to the sides of each framed piece, lighting the works of art and providing an alluring glow along the hallways. Now it all lay in shattered pieces that crunched beneath their boots. In various spots, the floor buckled upward in swollen mounds, which one could easily trip over, if they didn’t watch their step. Some of the doors were ripped from their hinges, which made it easier for the men to peer into the rooms. With each step they took, the upstairs floor moaned and creaked, sending out an eerie message that the building was not as stable as they had first thought.
Val was checking the last of the rooms on his end of the hall, when he had finally found the couple. They happened to be in the end room, facing the street. Val frowned and shook his head, and then scratched at his bread, he could see why the wall had fallen in on the man. This was the corner room of the hotel, and it was just above the porch. When the support beams for the porch collapsed, it weakened the wall and it fell inward. This poor man happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and was therefore trapped.
“There you are,” Val said in breathless relief, as he entered the room that looked war torn. He stuck his head back out the door and called out to Scott. “Hey Scott, I found them!”
“Oh, thank God, you’re here.” The frightened woman whispered in a shaky voice. “My husband is under there, and now I can’t get him to answer me,” she added, as tears started to fall freely. She sat next to the debris that had her spouse entombed.
“Take it easy ma’am, we’ll get him out,” Val calmly assured her. The sheriff crouched down next to her, and then gently put his arm around her. Val helped her trembling form up off the floor. “Come on let’s get you over to that chair. You need to stay calm for your husband. Are you sure you’re not hurt anywhere?” he asked taking a closer look at the woman. Her clothes were torn and dirty, and except for a few cuts and bruises, she looked okay.
She nodded, as she stared at the rubble that had her beloved husband buried beneath it.
“VAL!” Scott called, as he got closer to Val’s search area, “Where are you?”
Val quickly got up from investigating the situation, and hurried over to the door, and then stepped out. “Over here, Scott,” he called waving his hand. Val looked back at the worried woman, and then sadly whispered as Scott arrived next to him. “It’s a big mess, and I think we might be too late. It looks like we better get your father or someone to help up here,” Val grimly suggested. “It’s gonna take more than just the two of us to get him out.”
Scott nodded in understanding, and then turned to carefully make his way backs towards the lobby.
“What’s taking them so long?” Johnny snarled impatiently. He gingerly stood up, and then limped over to the ladder where his father stood. He peered upward and shook his head. “I’m telling you right now that something bad is gonna happen,” Johnny warned in a worried tone.
“These things take time, Johnny. And try not to think that way, it only makes matters worst.”
Johnny was about to retort to his father’s comment, when Scott’s sudden appearance broke their somber moods. Father and son’s jerked to attention, and looked up at the troubled blond.
“Murdoch, we need you up here, it’s going to take more than two men to free the victim!”
“I’ll go!” Johnny anxiously offered.
“No, you’re not!” Murdoch growled. “I’ll go, and you stay put. You hear me, young man?”
“Murdoch, you can’t climb the ladder with your back, it’s too steep.” Johnny tried to reason with his father, but the stern look on his father’s face told him he was one on the losing end of the debate.
“No! Now come and hold the ladder steady. That you can do without too much strain,” Murdoch instructed his stubborn son. Johnny reluctantly did what he was asked, and hobbled over to the ladder. He held it as steady as he could while his father’s huge form climbed up.
As soon Murdoch was out of sight, Johnny slowly walked back to the where he had been sitting. He had just sat down and gotten comfortable, when he heard a faint cry. It seemed to be coming from behind the stairs. Johnny turned to the direction the sound came from. He scanned the area with his keen gunfighter’s eyes. He spotted a door that must lead to the back of the hotel. The cry continued nonstop, and Johnny knew he had to do something. Without hesitation, he defied his father’s orders, and slowly walked towards the door. The closer he got, the clearer the sound became.
“Oh God, no! A baby?”
The despairing wails of the child effectively spurred Johnny into action. All thoughts of obeying his father’s orders to stay put were quickly pushed aside, as Johnny slowly picked his way across the debris strewn room.
“Well, that’s just great!” Johnny snorted in disgust after he reached the side of the collapsed staircase, and found himself facing an almost insurmountable problem. A large pile of rubble stood between him and the back entrance. It was blocking the door way over half-way up the opening, and he knew to get to the other side he would have to climb over it. Johnny sighed to himself; he imagined he could hear his father’s bellows about his disobedience ringing in his ears already. He was having a hard enough time just walking on a flat surface, and knew the scaling the mound of splintered wood would only cause more trauma on his swollen ankle. And it didn’t help matters that the child’s crying was beginning to waver, stop and then start up again, it only enhanced the pain and frustration he was battling.
“Come little one, keep calling to me.” Johnny called out to the child.
The youngest Lancer took off his hat, and ran his long brown fingers through his thick mop, as he studied the situation. He sucked in a deep breath, slowly letting it out as he pondered on his task, and then took an unsteady step forward. Johnny leaned into the structure and using the strength of his arms and good leg as an anchor, he pulled himself up and along the jagged edges of the rubble. He had no choice but to drag his bad leg as he went, and hissed in sheer agony as it was poked and prodded as he climbed. His progress was hampered by the fact he had to keep stopping to pull jagged bits of wood out of his path. Finally he reached the top, and he laid there for a few seconds to catch his breath before continuing on. He eased himself over, and carefully started his descent. Suddenly the pile shifted, and Johnny found himself riding a wave of broken wood, that ended with a rolling tumble which had him landing hard on his butt.
“Dios!” Johnny groaned loudly, as he drunkenly stood up and dusted off his smarting backside.
Turning around, Johnny found himself looking into a darken hallway, its plain lanterns lay busted along the sides, obviously shaken from the walls during the quake. He was fairly sure that this was the servants’ passage that led to the kitchen, and possibly the laundry room as well. Johnny leaned against the wall using it for support, and to feel his way as he slowly crept along following the muffled cries, which were becoming less frequent.
“Come on, don’t stop, please tell me where you are,” Johnny pleaded to the infant hoping he or she could hear him. He was well aware that the child was slowly crying it’s self to sleep, or perhaps succumbing to injuries.
Almost as if the child heard him, it wailed out again. This time it sounded a little closer and clearer. Johnny hated the child was distressed, but he needed the cries to help him find the baby, so it was like music to his worrisome ears. Johnny quickened his pace, he knew from experience that anything could happen, like another aftershock that could very well entomb him between these narrow walls. As he pushed along, the dimness of the hallway was brightened by a light from ahead, but instead of being relieved a sudden over powering feeling of dread hit him. The closer he got, the agonizing sensation only intensified…and then the reason for the anxiety came into view.
Johnny was stopped cold in his tracks by the horrid sight before him.
“God, no! Sally, sweet Sally,” Johnny gasped painfully, as the horror squeezed the air from his lungs.
He stood there, disoriented, unable to think straight, his mind was clouded with sorrow and utter disbelief. There before him was the young woman he had befriended when she first came to Green River a few months back, widowed and very pregnant. He had helped her find this job. Her broken body was only a few feet away from the door of the kitchen, half buried by the heavy over-turned oak china cabinet. The imported dinnerware lay shattered all around her, speckled with drops of bright red blood that stood out in stark contrast against the white china.
Johnny puffed out his cheeks, bowed his head, and then closed his eyes for a brief moment out of respect for the fallen woman. He whispered a heartfelt prayer, and then limped over and crouched down to touch her bloodied hand. He was hoping there might be some life left in her, but she was gone. Then he noticed the position of her index finger, it seemed to be pointing at something, like she was telling him to look in that direction. Johnny’s keen eyes traced the path to a small area by the pantry, and then on hands and knees he moved towards it. He pushed away a table, and smiled.
“Hi there, Millie, I sure am glad to see you,” Johnny softly cooed to the now sleeping baby girl. “For a little niña, you sure do have strong lungs. You brought me right to you.” He smiled widely, as he gently checked her over and was relieved that she was somehow miraculously unharmed. Johnny picked up the basket the infant was resting in, and slowly turned towards her mother. “Don’t worry, Sally, I’ll make sure she’s taken care of. You have my word, I promise.” He carefully made his way out of the destroyed kitchen with the sleeping bundle, and looked for another way back to the lobby.
Upstairs, the other rescue task was not as easy as Johnny’s was. They had tried many times to lift the corner of the wall off the unconscious man, but failed. Each time they managed to raise it, it would shift to one side hampering their attempts. It was just too heavy for the three of them with those large outside beams resting against it. The position of it was just too awkward. All this made it harder to pull him out without causing any more harm to his body, or endangering themselves as well. Murdoch’s back was giving out, and Scott and Val had pushed themselves to the limit.
Finally, they reluctantly admitted that it was useless, and that they needed extra help to free the man. Murdoch bent down and checked the man’s pulse, bowed his head for a brief moment, and then looked up at his son and Val. They regretfully knew now that there was no hurry; the rescue was now just a body recovery. Murdoch stiffly stood up, and then walked over to the young widow. He sat down next to her, and put a comforting arm around her thin drooping shoulders without saying a word, he didn’t have too. She knew.
She leaned against his broad chest, and rested her head on his shoulder, taking in the comfort of the big man's strength. “We were on our way to San Francisco,” she whispered brokenly. “Danny was taking me there to help me.” She started to tremble and her voice became very shaky, “You see we had…had just lost …our child and he thought…a trip would help…us …me. And…and…now he’s gone too!” She cried out and looked up at Murdoch’s kind, sorrow filled eyes, “Now…I have no…one…no one.”
‘There, there, ma’am, I know exactly how you feel,” Murdoch sympathetically whispered in her ear, remembering the pain and anguish he had suffered, when he thought he had lost everything but his home. “Come on let’s get you downstairs, so Sam can take a look at you.”
The distraught woman pushed away from him and snapped, “But Danny, you just can’t leave him there like that!”
“We’ll get him out, ma’am, don’t worry,” Val assured the upset woman. “And we’ll make sure he gets a decent burial, I promise.”
“Please ma’am, do as my father says. We have to get you down, and then to Sam,” Scott politely urged the woman.
“Yes ma’am, he’s the doctor here, and right now you need to see him.”
“But I’m alright…and I just can’t leave Danny…he needs me,” she cried, and then looked back at her husband’s lifeless body.
Without saying another word, Murdoch gently helped the reluctant woman up, and they all carefully guided her over the rough parts of the corridor, as they made their way back to the entrance. All the while she kept looking back at the room, they had just rented it while waiting for the next stage out of town. She could still feel her husband loving touch as they spent that last night together before the quake hit. And now it was nothing but a memory.
As they reached the entrance, Murdoch was about the call down to his youngest when he stopped short, completely flabbergasted by what he was seeing.
“Johnny! What in the hell do you have there? And where did you find it?” Murdoch hollered down.
“It’s a baby, not an it, Murdoch, and will ya keep your voice down,” Johnny grumbled.
The rancher’s deep baritone voice had already done its damage, the infant started to cry. Johnny carefully picked up the baby, cradling her in his strong arms, and then began to rock her back and forth.
“Hush now, Millie, I have ya. And don’t let that big grump scare ya. His bark is worst than his bite, I think,” he cooed.
Johnny continued to gently rock the baby in his comforting arms. He softly spoke to her in Spanish, and like most females he encountered, young to old, the honey rich sound of his soothing voice had the infant completely mesmerized. Millie’s bright eyes focused on Johnny’s face, and her tiny chubby hand playfully touched his chin. For the moment the child was pacified with the attention, forgetting her hunger and her wet and soiled diaper. However, it didn’t last long, Millie’s tummy rumbled loudly and the hunger pains could no longer be ignored for any distraction, and she started to cry again.
“Hush now Millie, I know you’re hungry, and we’ll get ya fed soon. I promise,” Johnny whispered in her ear as he cradled her closer to his chest. He hoped his heartbeat would comfort and calm the baby. Bundled up in such close proximity, Johnny got a good whiff of the nasty diaper and wrinkled his nose in displeasure as the aroma assaulted him.
Johnny looked up with weary eyes and watched as they slowly helped a young woman down the ladder. Murdoch was at the bottom guiding her, and Val and Scott were still at the top. Step by step she carefully but nervously made her way down the wooden rungs, listening to Murdoch’s assuring voice, as he patiently talked her down. Once she was on flat ground she let out a heavy sigh of relief, and then quickly turned around giving the tall rancher a big hug. Her heart was still upstairs with her fallen husband, but she was full of gratitude towards them for coming to her rescue.
“I’m glad you’re okay, ma’am,” Johnny politely spoke. He glanced over her shoulder, and shot a questioning look at his father. Murdoch darted his eyes towards the upstairs and somberly shook his head. Johnny understood its meaning and his heart went out to the young widow.
Millie started to fuss in ear piercing shrieks, her wailing sounding desperate and urgent. Johnny just didn’t know what to do for her anymore. She needed to be fed and changed. Johnny noticed that the rescued woman was trying to wrestle her shawl into place across the front of her dress, which appeared to have wet spots right at the apex of her breasts. She grimaced as her hands clutched the shawl in place, and seemed to be applying pressure to her chest. Johnny recalled similar situations down in Mexico. He remembered that when a woman lost a child, while she was still nursing, she had to tightly wrap cloth around her chest to keep from leaking breast milk. It was a very uncomfortable, but necessary procedure.
Johnny smiled sweetly at the young widow. “Ma’am, would you?” He shyly asked, as his face colored with a hint of red. He sadly looked down at crying infant, and then back up, “She needs you, ma’am, her mama is dead, and she has no one.”
“Sally?” Murdoch asked with hesitation.
Johnny puffed out his cheeks and nodded. “I found her in the kitchen under a china cabinet…and …she had no chance, Murdoch. Then I found Millie safely tucked away in a corner.” He gave a sorrowful look to his father, and then turned to the quiet woman, and asked her again, “Ma’am, please?”
The woman was hesitant at first, and didn’t move to help. The baby girl’s crying renewed the pain of the agony of her loss, first her child and now her husband. The wails grew more strident, and struck at the mother’s heart that still beat within her. As a mother, her heart was also breaking for Millie, knowing she had lost someone too, and at a young age. She felt her bosom ache and swell more, and she knew what Johnny was asking of her was the right thing to do. She turned to look at the eager young man who held the infant out for her to take, and slowly walked over to them.
“Give me the child,” she whispered kindly.
Johnny gingerly stood up, and placed Millie in her waiting arms. “Her name is Millie. And yours is, ma‘am?”
“Tara. Tara Masters.”
“Well then, Mille, I would like you to meet Tara, your new mama.” Johnny happily informed the little one, and then leaned in and gave her a kiss on her baby soft cheek.
Tara’s face brightened, “Millie, I’m so happy you meet you, and I’m going take very good care of you,” she said as she gratefully looked up at Johnny. “But right now I think you need to be fed, huh?” She cradled her new found baby to her chest, and glanced about for a private spot.
Tara strode with halting progress towards the reception counter, and sat down in a chair behind it that shielded them from view. She opened the front of her dress and quickly snipped the bindings away with a pair of scissors that happened to be lying next to the inkwell and register. The baby mewed and grunted with impatience, until she was able to latch on, and nurse. Tara sighed in relief as the pressure in her chest eased, the baby cooed in pleasure as her belly began to fill. Their eyes met and locked, and from the tragedy a bond was formed between the mother and child. Tara smiled as tears of happiness trickled down her face. She had a purpose in life again, she was needed.
Johnny had his back to the others when he heard his father’s heavy footfalls coming towards him. He was not one to show his emotions too easily, so he quickly wiped a lone tear that escape his joyful eyes. His heart felt uplifted when Millie cooed as she nursed, her sweet little voice softly floating about the room, this time it was a happy sound.
“It looks like a happy ending, in a sad round-about way, doesn’t it son?” Murdoch inquired, as he placed a tender hand on his son’s shoulder.
“I guess you could say that, because there was no way in hell I was going to send Millie to an orphanage,” Johnny said with passionate conviction. “I think Sally would be pleased, with my choice for Millie. Don’t you?”
“Yes, she would, John. She would be very pleased,” Murdoch happily agreed, giving his son’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
“We’ll retrieve Sally’s body and make sure she gets a descent burial.” Val quietly informed them as he approached. And then grimly stated, “I wonder how many more graves we’ll have to dig, when this damn mess is finally cleaned up!”
No one said a word, for they just didn’t know how to answer that. They all wondered if Green River could ever recover from all the death and destruction Mother Nature had dealt them.
At that moment, Mother Nature decided to make her presence known once more. The nightmare they had thought had ended; began again, as an aftershock rumbled loudly. It wasn’t as strong as the last one, it felt more like the ground beneath them was finally settling, but it was enough to scare the life out of them.
“GOD, NO! NOT AGAIN!” They heard Tara scream in horror from behind the reception counter.
“TARA, GET OUT OF HERE NOW!” Johnny hollered to the terrified woman as she quickly shot up, the baby clutched in one arm, as her other hand frantically worked to straighten her clothes. “VAL, HELP HER!” he ordered his friend. Johnny wasn’t going to take any chances. He wanted them out of the building.
He didn’t have to be asked twice; Val thrashed his way through the debris, and helped the panic stricken woman and her precious bundle out the door. Once outside he kept right on going, guiding her away from the hotel and safely down the road to Sam.
When the rumbling started, Scott had been making his way down the tall ladder. He froze half way down as he tried to wait out the tremor, but to no avail. The ladder was slowly slipping to one side, while Scott desperately leaned the other way in an attempt to balance it out. However, his weight and the shaking made counter balancing impossible, and gravity won out. The ladder went crashing down taking the blond on a short and wild ride. Scott landed on the busted staircase with a loud thud as his thin body hit, and he yelled out in shock and pain, when he heard and felt his left arm break on impact.
“SCOTT!” Murdoch boomed out, as he went flying to his eldest son’s side, with Johnny limping along behind him.
“Scott, are ya okay?” Johnny asked anxiously, as he crawled his way up to his brother. “Come on, Boston, talk to us.”
Scott moaned and groaned in agony as he lay there, holding on tightly to his arm. “No, I’m not. It’s… my arm, it’s…busted,” he said breathlessly.
“Johnny, you stay here with your brother. I’m going to get Sam!” Murdoch hastily ordered.
“I…I can make it there.”
“No, son! That was a hard fall you took. I want Sam to check you over before we move you. Just lay there and rest. I’ll be back soon. Keep him here, John. No more heroics from you, young man!” Murdoch grumbled as he left, ‘I swear those two will give me a heart attack yet!’
“You heard our old man, you’re not going anywhere.” Johnny teased light heartily.
“Guess not,” Scott painfully agreed.
“I guess we’re both a sight to behold, huh? You are laying there with a busted arm; and me with this blasted twisted ankle. And now my ass hurts from climbing over that pile of trash to get to Millie,” Johnny commented with a smirk, as he tried to help take his brother’s mind off his pain.
“Now…how in the world did you hurt your ass?” Scott asked with a bemused frown.
“Well, like you, I went flying over the other side.” Johnny pointed to the rubble by the servants’ entrance. “I was lucky to land on something soft though.”
“My ass… of course, but it sure did smart some,” Johnny added with a chuckle, and then his face softened and his eyes twinkled. “But it was worth it, ya know? Mille is safe and has a new mama to take care of her. It’s funny how things like this can destroy a life, and yet bring people together. Like Millie and Tara.”
Scott sighed and closed his eyes. “Yeah, I know what you mean, little brother. It’s called nature, or God’s way of balancing things out.”
“Yeah well, he sure does have a funny way of doing it.” Johnny snorted, and then took out his bandana and wiped his brother sweating brow. “How’s the arm?”
“Hurts… like… hell,” Scott said, cringing when he shifted slightly. “How’s the ankle?”
“Oh it’s there, because it sure hurts like hell.” Johnny was quiet for a few seconds, and then sighed, “I guess we’re not going to be much use to Val now, I mean us being laid up like this.”
“No, I guess not. So now what, we go home, and suffer through Teresa’s nursing?” Scott grimaced distastefully at the thought.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “Do we have to? She’ll never let us get a moment of rest with her hovering over us like a mother hen. I say we hide out until we’re able to take care of ourselves.”
“Nope, she’ll find us no matter where we hide.” Scott slyly grinned, “So we’ll just have to grin and bear it.”
“Then move over, will ya? I better get a nap in now, because I feel a headache coming on,” Johnny moaned.
Johnny had been joking when he had instructed his brother to move over so he could take a nap, but now it didn’t seem like a bad idea at all. The stress and physical exertion were taking their toll. He felt like his body was trying to betray him, the harder he tried to stay cognizant the heavier his eyes became. Now his voice was beginning to crack from all the talking he was doing, in an effort to help take his brother’s mind off of his busted arm. He thought of everything he could to make idle conversation while they waited for Murdoch to get back with Sam. Johnny was getting impatient and wondered where the hell his father was. It shouldn’t take him this long to fetch Sam.
Johnny could tell Scott was in agony. Scott’s lips were pressed into a firm straight line, whitish in appearance, and he was breathing in short panted gasps. Johnny’s ankle had been throbbing since his tumble down the debris pile as he fought to rescue the baby. The fact that both Lancer boys were worn out physically from the continuing ordeal didn’t help either. However, the thought of their overbearing foster sister hovering over them like a mother hen once they got home, just aggravated the pain more. Johnny laid his weary head down and closed his eyes, and wished he had a bottle of tequila to help him drink his pain and worry away.
A few minutes later, Sam came rushing into hotel. Murdoch had found him on the other side of town helping Val with Tara and the baby. However, in his urgency to get medical assistance for his son, Murdoch had neglected to give Sam any of the details as to what had happened. All he managed to gasp out between winded pants was that Scott had been injured over at the hotel. Without bothering to ask any questions, Doc Jenkins grabbed his bag and barreled out of the makeshift hospital. He rushed down the street, Murdoch struggling to keep up as he was still quite breathless from the panicked dash to find the doctor.
The old doc abruptly stopped in the doorway to the hotel, bending at the waist he braced his hands on his knees as he gasped for air, he wasn’t used to the running as he just did. He definitely wasn’t in the shape he had been when he was a younger man. Straightening up, breathing deeply he surveyed the scene before him. When he looked over by the staircase, he shook his head in bemused disbelief when he saw the two Lancer boys, laying there fast asleep on the pile of rubble. They were huddled side by side, Scott was flat on his back still holding onto his arm, and Johnny was pressed against him with his bad ankle resting on his brother’s leg. Their faces were smudged with dirt, yet relaxed in sleep, their pain forgotten for the moment.
“Well I’ll be.” Sam whispered, as he smiled at the heartwarming sight before him.
“What is it Sam?’ Murdoch asked anxiously as he had entered the building. “What’s wrong?”
“Look at your boys, Murdoch.” Sam crowed in delight, and pointed to the collapsed staircase where the boys lay.
The worried father’s eyes anxiously sought out his sons. His face beamed, and his heart felt full of awe and peace, at the sight of his slumbering sons. They had stuck it out as long as they could. However, he also basked in the overwhelming sense of pride that despite all the death and destruction Mother Nature had put the town and his family through, his boys sure had shown everybody what the Lancers were made of. The big man smiled widely as he watched them sleep, blissfully unaware of their audience.
“I guess it has been a long hard day for them, Sam, and they just needed to rest.” Murdoch chuckled light-heartedly.
“Yes, it certainly has, for one and all, Murdoch,” Sam solemnly intoned. “But I still have to check Scott out. So I guess we better wake them both up.”
“Okay you’re the doctor,” Murdoch agreed, with just a degree of hesitation, as he hated to disturb their rest. “But they’re not going to like it. Believe me I ought to know.”
Murdoch followed Sam over to the boys. He stretched and leaned into the staircase, and then gently shook Scott’s leg, the one that Johnny’s foot was resting on. When neither of the boys responded, he shook it again, this time a little harder, a little too hard. The sudden movement jarred Johnny’s sore ankle. The pain startled Johnny, and his blue eyes shot open. Out of pure habit, he defensively reached for his gun, he quickly turned over, and in a half dazed state of mind he pointed it at his father.
Murdoch’s eyes flared in fright. “Easy Johnny, it’s only me!” Murdoch said as he cautiously approached his confused son. He swallowed back the lump of fear in his throat, “It’s okay, nothing is wrong.”
Johnny rubbed his eyes and focused on his father’s face, and then he let out a heavy sigh, as he relaxed his ridged posture. “Murdoch, I…I almost shot you,” he breathlessly said. “I’m sorry. You startled me, and…” he softly apologized to his father, and holstered his gun.
“It’s okay, Johnny. I’ll be a little more careful how I wake you up next time.” Murdoch said with a nervous grin, “You must have been extremely tired, son.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Johnny groaned and hissed in agony as he tried to move his throbbing ankle.
“Just lay still, John. Sam is here now. And after he is done with your brother, he’ll take a look at your ankle again.”
“I ain’t going anywhere,” Johnny snorted.
“Well, it’s about time you stay put and do as your told for once,” Murdoch sarcastically replied, as turned his attention back to Sam.
“Easy Sam, let me help you,” Murdoch cautioned when Sam tried to climb up the wreckage to get to Scott, and almost fell backwards. The rancher carefully took a hold of Sam’s arm and guided him up the rubble, and then helped him sit down next to Scott.
“Scott, it’s Sam. Wake up young man, and let me take a look at you,” Sam beckoned.
“I’m awake, Sam,” Scott whispered, as he lay there with his eyes still closed.
“Playing possum, are you?” Sam quipped.
“No, not really, just trying to keep my mind off the pain in my arm,” Scott winced. “I guess it’s not working, because it hurts like hell, Sam.” He looked up at the old doc, “I know it’s broken.”
“Well, let me take a look at it.”
Sam gently took a hold of Scott’s arm, and with his skilled fingers, he pressed them along the limb, and felt for any type of deformity. When he reached a spot that was bulged up, Scott tensed and jerked. He tried to pull his arm away, but Sam was not letting go until he was finished. Scott bit his bottom lip, and held his breath, while he waited for Sam to finish.
“You’re right, Scott, you do have a bad break, and I have to set it as soon as possible,” Sam informed him regretfully.
“Great!” Scott snorted.
“What’s wrong, brother? Are you afraid of a little pain?” Johnny teased, but Scott didn‘t find it one bit funny, and frowned at him. “Here take my hand and don’t be afraid to bear down when you have to, I’m here for ya.” Johnny placed his left hand into his brother’s. He knew Scott was going to need it. “Just don’t break it. Ya hear?” he added to lighten the mood.
“Thanks, brother. I‘ll try not to.”
“Are you ready, Scott?” Sam questioned, and received a nod of affirmation. “Okay. This is going to hurt like the dickens, and I’m sorry, but it has to be done.” Sam apologized because he always hated it when he had to set bones, especially when the patient was fully aware of what’s going to happen. It always disturbed him to have to inflict more pain on a patient to help them. “Murdoch you hold his legs steady. Okay here we go!”
Scott slowly turned his head towards his brother, and focused on Johnny’s sympathetic blue eyes. He held on tightly to his brother’s hand, as he waited for excruciating pain that was to come. Sam took a firm grip of the injured limb, with one hand on the upper part and the other on the lower. On a silent count of three, Sam took a deep breath and yanked with all his might, until he heard a hard pop. Sam examined the break again and was satisfied that it was set just right. He glanced down at his quiet patient, a little too quiet.
“He can’t hear ya, Sam. He passed out right as you yanked on his arm. Oh he tried to fight it, but it was just too much for him,” Johnny informed the concerned doctor. He took out his bandana and wiped his brother’s sweat coated face. “But I tell ya, he sure does have a strong grip. I can barely feel my hand.” He flexed his fingers, after pulling them from Scott’s grip.
“Now what, Sam?” Murdoch asked, as he let go of his son’s legs.
“Gather me some small pieces of wood I can use for splints,” Sam quickly instructed. Once he had the pieces of wood, Doc Jenkins tied on the splints with sturdy strips of cloth, and then checked Scott out for any others injuries, and was pleased he found none. “Well Murdoch you can safely move Scott from here. Other than his arm, he’s fine.”
That’s all Murdoch had to hear, he dashed outside and hailed a few of his men to help with his sons. The sooner they got out of this shambles of a hotel the better. Then he borrowed an old hay wagon that had survived the quake undamaged. He had the men carefully carry the boys out of the building, and then put them into the wagon. Jelly had placed a few blankets on the hay that was left in it to make it an easier ride for them.
“Careful with them men, they had a hard day,” Murdoch warned the men, as they place the boys into the wagon. “Jelly I want you to take the boys back to the ranch, and tell Teresa I’ll be along later. Help her get them settled, okay.”
“Sure, boss, whatever you say,” Jelly replied, and had to tauntingly add, “Oh Teresa is gonna have a hay day with these two.” Jelly chuckled, “I can see her now fussing and mothering, and then getting mad if they don’t do as she says.”
“Shut up, Jelly,” Scott growled, as he started to come around. “We know all that.”
“Do we have at go home, Murdoch?” Johnny whined. “Can’t we go to Morro Coyo, and stay there until we can manage to get around better, huh? Anything is better than Teresa’s bossy pampering.”
Murdoch smiled devilishly, “You’re going home, and that’s final!” She loves you boys as brothers, so naturally she wants to mother you.” He sternly defended Teresa. “You better get going Jelly, while you still have light.”
“You heard the boss, boys. You’re going home,” Jelly said happily, and then snapped the reins. He was off with two very miserable young Lancers lying in the back dreading going home.
“What now, Murdoch?” Sam asked.
“We start rebuilding our town, Sam.” It’s the only thing we can do. Though I doubt Green River will ever be the same again,” Murdoch sadly speculated, as he looked around at the battered streets and crumbled buildings.
Time heals all wounds, but it is how you choose to spend that time that tests the strength, courage and faith of all involved in a tragedy. Mother Nature struck a brutal blow to the land, town and people of Green River. The first few days after the devastation all minds and hands were preoccupied with the rescuing of the trapped, the treatment of the injured, the recovery and listing of the dead, as well as their burial. Now that those initial numbing and frenzied days were over, the citizens had time to look about and ask themselves if they could rebuild, should they even attempt. There were those who had their doubts on whether it could be done. Many had seen towns wiped out by the violent actions of man, or forces of nature beyond their control, and they quickly became ghost towns. The citizens just gave up and moved on, without even trying to salvage, or repair. However, the majority of this particular town was bound and determined not to let that happen here.
Murdoch Lancer was one of those men who would do everything in his power to see that fate didn’t befall Green River. The stubborn Scot had already dug in his heels and decided he would give all the support he could to his friends and peers through this trying time. Over the years as he was building his empire, he watched as Green River grew. He along with the town’s citizens became a community, as they all fought to carve out their niche in the world, to make a go of their dreams. As they constructed the physical aspects of their town, they also built trust and respect for each other. They were all good decent people, who put their wholes lives into their community and within a single day it was practically wiped away. Mother Nature might have destroyed the wood, glass, mortar and bricks of the town, and she might have mangled their hearts and tenacity for a few days, but she had not destroyed their backbones, or their determination to reclaim their town and lives.
Murdoch had deployed as many of his men as he could spare all over town. They labored with the clean up and tearing down of the buildings that were unsalvageable. What lumber he had left after repairing the damage the quake had caused at Lancer, Murdoch had hauled to town and dispensed it to the much needed areas. And as word got out of about the horrifying destruction that Green River had suffered, and the dire need for help, more of the neighboring towns and ranches followed Murdoch’s example and came to the their aid. Donations were taken up and men were sent to distance towns to buy more lumber and supplies, as it was going to take a lot more than what they had on hand.
However, all construction was stopped when it came time to pay their respects to those who had perished. A total of thirty innocent lives were lost that terrifying day. Some of the family members had taken the bodies of their loved ones home for a private burial, while the others were laid to rest at the local cemetery, like Tara’s husband and Millie’s mother, Sally. Murdoch put a comforting arm around Tara’s slim shoulders, as she wept and said a final goodbye to her Danny. After a moment, Tara pulled away, straightened her back, and lifted her head high as she wiped at her red-rimmed eyes with a lace hanky. She left Murdoch’s side and slowly walked over to Sally’s grave, and then knelt down next to it and promised Sally that she would take good care of their baby girl.
“Are you planning to stay in Green River, Mrs. Masters?” Murdoch asked softly.
“Please, it’s Tara. And yes… I was thinking about staying,” she was a little hesitant to answer at first. “I really don’t have anything waiting for me back home. And besides I can’t leave Danny. I know he’s gone, but knowing he’s close by, I can still talk to him.” She replied as tears streamed down her cheeks, “I know that sounds silly.”
Murdoch took out his bandana and tenderly wiped her sad face. “No, it’s not silly at all, and Green River will be happy to have you,” he told her in an uplifting voice. “Where are you staying?”
“I’m staying with a nice couple who knew Sally. They are taking care of Millie as we speak. So if you’ll please excuse me, I must get back to her.” Tara looked up into Murdoch’s kind eyes. “Thank you, for all you tried to do for Danny, and for giving me the chance to be a mother to Millie, as well as speaking to the circuit judge about adoption papers.” She gave Murdoch an appreciative smile and quickly left to get back to her new daughter.
“Well at least something good came out of this whole damn mess.” Val said as he approached Murdoch from behind. “I mean that sweet gal and Sally’s baby.”
“Yes indeed,” Murdoch heavily sighed. And then he sadly looked around as the crowd started to thin out around the latest grave site. “Today is a day to mourn, Val, but tomorrow we resume putting together the pieces.”
Val scratched the back of his neck and said wearily, “Yeah, but it’s going to be a slow hard process. I just hope they’ll have the courage and strength to keep it up, and not let this become another ghost town.”
“Oh, they won’t, Val! Not as long as we Lancers have a say in it. But I can tell you right now, I don’t think they’ll give up,” Murdoch said with strong conviction. “I know these people and they put too much into this town to let it die off. No, Green River will live on.”
Val smiled at that remark and nodded in agreement. For if a man like Murdoch Lancer believes it will happen then it will, because he had the grit to get behind a situation and change it. “How are the boys and the ranch doing?
“The ranch is going on as normal as it could be. Our major damage was the collapse of the bunkhouse, the rest was just superficial.” Murdoch stopped to gather his thoughts, “As for the boys, they’re doing okay, if they can just survive Teresa’s mothering.”
“She’s that bad?”
“Oh, she means well, but she does tend to overdo it at times.” Murdoch affectionately snorted. “If one of them sneezes she right there with a hanky, and some of her special tea.” Then Murdoch busted in a chest rumbling laugh, “The other night she caught Johnny and Scott trying to sneak out of the house, and talk about putting the fear of God into a person. You haven’t witness the wrath of one Miss Teresa O’Brien yet.”
“Oh, I would have loved to have seen that!” Val laughed.
“Believe me, Val, It was not a pretty sight,” Murdoch shuddered as he put his hat on. “Well, I better get home, it’s getting late. I’ve been playing the go-between to give the boys a break from their sister,” he said as he mounted his horse. “See you tomorrow, and don’t worry we’ll get this town back in shape!”
“Yeah, I believe you’re right. As long as I’m the sheriff here, and with Lancer behind us, we can’t lose,” Val replied with hopefulness in his voice.
“That’s the spirit, Val. And you tell the others that too. Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Murdoch stated with confidence, and then tipped his hat to the sheriff, and headed on out of town, towards home.
Val turned and faced the battered streets and tumbled down buildings of wood and glass, and shook his head in dismay. He still has his doubts about recovering from this much destruction. He hopes that the people of his town will be able to withstand the hard and slow road ahead of them.
Back at the ranch things were not as they should be, at least not for the Lancer boys.
“JELLY! JELLY!” hollered Teresa, as she came storming out the front door.
“Teresa, what’s wrong honey? Why are you so fired up?” Jelly asked anxiously.
“Where are they?” She snarled in the old handy man’s face.
“JOHNNY AND SCOTT, THAT’S WHO!” She loudly snapped. “I went upstairs to check on them and they’re not in their rooms. They must have snuck out while I was in the kitchen. And I have funny feeling you know where they are.” Teresa stomped her foot like an irate heifer, in her agitation.
“Honestly, Teresa, I don’t know where they are,” Jelly replied as he stepped back a ways from her, for fear she’ll bite his head off. “They probably went fer a walk to get some fresh air. You’ve had them so cooped in their rooms, they felt like they were suffocating,” he bravely explained, and then cringed at the dirty look she gave him.
“I don’t care, Johnny still can’t walk very well, and Scott’s arm is still healing. Someone has to watch out for them, because they don’t know how!” She huffed and snorted, “They’re pig-headed little boys. They won’t take their medicine, or do as I say half the time.”
“Medicine… Teresa? Johnny has a sprained ankle and Scott a broken arm, they don’t need any dern medicine fer that.” Jelly snorted. “They just need plain ol’ rest, and with you hovering over them like a mother hen, well…” He was stopped cold by the hard cold look skewering him.
“Don’t argue with me, Jelly, just go and find them!” Teresa boldly ordered. “I’ll be in the kitchen fixing some tea. They just might need it after wandering off, it’s getting chilly out.” She huffed as she stormed going into the house.
Jelly shook his head as he looked towards the barn, and then he rubbed his gray beard and smiled. “Get all the rest you can boys, because you’re gonna need it.” Then he turned and walked off in the other direction.
“Oh boy, you sure can hear Teresa, even from in here, can’t ya?” Johnny smirked, “She sure is mad.”
“She certainly is! But who cares, as long as we get some peace and quiet for once,” Scott calmly replied. “Even with Murdoch intervening for us, it’s still not enough.”
“Yeah, that’s for sure. Every time I think I can get a nap in, she right there fussing over me like I was a baby,” Johnny growled, as he made himself a little more comfortable in the hay pile he was hiding in. “Do you think Jelly will rat us out?”
“Indeed not! Not if he knows what’s good for him. Besides he knows what Teresa is like, and he knows we need a long break from her,” Scott stated around the contagious yawn stretching his mouth.
Johnny stretched out and yawned himself, “Well since we have the time, I say we grab a nap.
“Good idea, brother,” Scott heartily agreed and turned onto his good side, and then rested his head on his arm and started to dose off.
“It’s been one hell of a ride, hasn’t it? I mean this whole earthquake and all,” Johnny softly asked as he stared up at the ceiling.
“Yes it has, little brother, a terrifying one at that. And I, for one, never want to go through that again.”
“I’ll second that! But you know, it’s out of our control, it happens when it happens. So we make the best of it, and go on,” Johnny lazily stated, as his eyelids started to slowly shut.
“You’re learning, little brother.”
“No Scott, I learned that lesson a long time ago, the hard way,” he whispered.
“I guess you did at that,” Scott agreed with a sad smile. “Now go to sleep, while you can,” he urged, but sensed there was something else on Johnny’s mind when he didn’t answer back right away.
“Scott, what scared you the most?” Johnny muttered.
It was Scott’s turn to be quiet, as he thought back to that first day when he and Johnny were trapped under that table, and he felt his little brother’s body trembling. Scott had wrapped his arms around Johnny to comfort him, and out of fear that he was going to lose him, if he should let go. He recalled the warm brotherly feeling he got, when Johnny stopped trembling in his arms. A feeling he’ll treasure for the rest of his life.
“What scared me the most was possibly losing you,” Scott answered, not in the least embarrassed to admit his feelings.
“Yeah… me too. I’ve kind of gotten used to you,” Johnny sleepily teased. “And I would hate to have to break in a new brother. So I’m happy you stayed… around.” Johnny words tapered off as he finally dosed off.
Scott smiled, “Me too, little brother, me too.”