Assumptions for all Lancer fanfic written by phoenix:
1) The Lancer Ranch is in the San Joaquin Valley, five to ten miles southwest of Modesto, California, which became an official town in 1870* and incorporated in 1884*,
2) Modesto is located on the Tuolumne River, near the Stanislaus River, and has grown tremendously since the railroads began to connect it to other parts of the country. In fact, Sacramento and Los Angeles were fully connected by good, solid, non-interrupted railroad lines by 1876*,
3) California became a state on September 9, 1850* and, since that time, the area surrounding Modesto has evolved into a thriving community,
4) Modesto became a major railroad stop making it a town able to offer a full range of goods, services, schools, churches and other community functions. With Modesto providing for the needs of those living within a large radius of the city, the smaller towns built before the 1850s, to serve gold rushers and the early ranchers in the area, shuttered up and became ghost towns,
5) During the 1850s, the San Joaquin Valley evolved from being gold rush territory and open range. It became an area known for its agriculture and cattle ranching. With the railroad support available in Modesto, and a few strategically placed dams to stabilize the water supply, the land in this area became, and remains today, some of the most productive farm and ranch land in California, and
6) Murdoch Lancer sent for his two sons in 1871. Scott was 25-years-old when he arrived and Johnny would be turning 21-years-old later that same year.
Additional assumptions for this Lancer fanfic story:
1) It is the spring of 1874, after the end of the TV series, and the railroad’s expansion continues to bring great changes to the Valley, including the decline in goods and services available in Green River. This decline has led to a major decrease in Green River’s population, and an increase in Modesto’s population, and
2) Although they try to give business to the remaining Green River merchants, Modesto is where the Lancers now complete the majority of their personal, social and business transactions.
THE GRIP CAME ALONG
CHAPTER ONE – THE WEEK THAT WAS
“Good morning, Johnny.”
Teresa smiled while continuing to stir the large pot of chicken parts simmering in water he had put on the stove to make stock before going out earlier.
“What are you doing out of bed?”
“I’m feeling much better today.”
He didn’t answer; instead, Johnny left his hat, muddy boots and wet coat by the door before crossing the kitchen to feel her forehead.
“No fever, again, today. But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be in bed. Teresa, you’re still awfully pale and that fever left you all terrible weak.”
“Not too weak to stir a pot of chicken stock.” She smiled and took a seat while Johnny poured himself a cup of coffee, admitting, “I thought my helping you might leave enough time in your day for some baking.”
He looked over and met her smile with one of his own. Since she, Murdoch and Scott had begun to feel better over the past day or two, he’d thrown together basic drop cookies to serve with their meat or chicken broth and hot tea meals. None of them had recovered any sort of an appetite and the broth diet he’d forced down them during the last week had to be boringly unappetizing. So, after topping the cookies with extra sugar, Johnny had given them each a few to try on their evening meal trays the night before. Thankfully, the cookies were a major hit; each of them finished their cookies and all of their tea, which pleased their caregiver.
“Yea, Murdoch was pretty upset this morning when I told him the rest of the batch went over to the bunkhouses last night.”
“That was the first thing he mentioned to me when I checked on him this morning.”
Teresa and Johnny shared a laugh at Murdoch’s expense. He was a known sweet-a-holic and it seemed obvious that his recent bout with a fever hadn’t changed that fact.
“Where on earth did you learn to bake?”
“Orphanage, when I was eight or so; that’s why I remember the recipe, it was easy enough for a kid to make them.”
Teresa got stuck and had to think about how to ask her next question. Johnny might have changed in many ways since arriving at Lancer nearly three years before, but he still consistently guarded any personal information about his life before Murdoch found him.
“It was the Sisters way of doling out educational punishment.”
Johnny saved her with his cryptic explanation while getting up to finish the broth and put more water on to boil. He wanted to offer his charges another pot of tea since the stuff on the breakfast trays he’d left in their rooms before going out earlier had to be cold.
“Oh, Johnny,” Teresa shook her head, “there’s a story in that statement. You’ve got to tell me.”
He laughed at the perplexed look on her face.
“Only if you promise to keep sitting there while I do the dishes and clean this kitchen a bit.”
“After my ma … Well, I ended up in an orphanage when I was seven. Didn’t last there more than a couple of years but, while I was there, those poor nuns surely did try to beat some sense into my hide. They were intent on saving all of our poor pitiful orphan souls; even if they had to use rather unchristian-like tactics to get through to us.”
Johnny finished drying the dishes and moved across the room to get them back in their proper places in the cupboards.
“There was this one nun, Sister Aquinata, and she had a different approach. When she handed out punishment, it was more task oriented than …” He smiled and took out some of the newly boiling water to make Teresa a pot of tea, adding, “She ran the kitchen, so I learned how to do stuff, like make your tea, from her. In addition, kids being punished in her kitchen had to make the cookies that the ‘good’ kids were given as a reward. There wasn’t hardly any money for food but, this recipe was so basic, we usually had the ingredients around.”
“So you made the cookies, but weren’t allowed to eat them?”
“Yes, and over those two years, believe me, I must of made hundreds of cookies!”
“Johnny,” Teresa tried not to laugh, but couldn’t help herself, ‘that’s awful.”
“I know,” he laughed with her, “but I now have that cookie recipe engraved in my head. Can’t bake another darn thing, but the cookies are easy.”
He quit arguing with Teresa about going back to her room. Instead, Johnny left her at the kitchen table with her share of the hot tea and promised they would get cookies in the oven when he returned. Taking a tray with two fresh pots of tea with him, Johnny left to check on Murdoch and Scott.
Scott was cleaned up and had tried to eat a few bites of the hot cereal on his breakfast tray. He had enjoyed the tea on his tray and was glad when Johnny arrived with more, but it was obvious Scott wasn’t moving far from his bed that day. They talked a bit about how the other folks with fever on the ranch were doing while Johnny cleaned up, filled the water pitcher with fresh water and brought a book up from the library Scott thought he might want to read. Finally, noting his brother’s eyelids getting heavy, Johnny left with the dirty breakfast tray and promised to stop back in a few hours. He then put the tray down on the hall end table and went in to see Murdoch.
“Good morning, Johnny.”
Murdoch was up, dressed and resting in the armchair by his window with a book open on his lap.
“Well,” Johnny’s face was instantly covered with a smile, “how nice to find you looking better this morning.”
“Thank you, I do feel better. On the other hand, after dressing, I had to lay on my bed and take a short nap so I’ve still got a way to go.”
“Whatever the heck this fever is, it’s leaving folks that survive it absolutely weak from head to toe. I’ve never seen anything like it, but we’re blessed since you, Scott and Teresa are on the mend. Other folks … Well, this fever is bad.”
Murdoch smiled and nodded his gratitude as Johnny poured him some fresh tea then left the pot where he could easily reach it. He watched as his younger son cleaned around the room, refilled his water pitcher and set his breakfast tray outside the door. In the past few years, Murdoch had learned to pay careful attention to his younger son’s body language. Johnny wasn’t one to share how he felt verbally but, if you watched carefully, you could learn a lot from how he held himself and moved.
“Thank you, Johnny.”
“You’re welcome. I’m glad you’re feeling better. I’ll check back …”
“Wait, don’t go just yet.”
Johnny stepped back toward his father and smiled.
“Need something else?”
“No, I’m fine.”
Murdoch waved toward the ottoman in front of his chair and watched while his son took a seat on it.
“How are you, John?”
“Getting any sleep?”
Murdoch raised an eyebrow and held eye contact with Johnny while he answered.
“You know, Murdoch, I’ve always told you sleep is overrated.”
“Just as I thought.” Murdoch eased back in his chair, gently scolding, “You’ve got to take care, Johnny. Please, don’t …”
“I’m taking care, Murdoch. The last thing you need to worry about is me!”
“I’ll worry about whomever I like, Young Man, and don’t you forget it.”
Johnny laughed at the twinkle in his father’s eyes when he spoke, chuckling out, “Yes, Sir.”
“And, John, I don’t just mean thank you for this, the tea and such.” Murdoch smiled and leaned forward, quietly stating, “I want to thank you for all you’ve done for more than a week while we’ve been down with this fever. Teresa and I were already in bed when Scott got sick, but I wasn’t too fevered to realize your brother was desperately ill.”
“True,” Johnny half-smiled, “Scott got the worst of it. Luckily, he’s better this morning, too.”
“”Yes, this house has been blessedly spared but, as you just admitted, this fever is a killer. How bad …”
“Murdoch,” Johnny got up while shaking his head, “it’s too soon. I promise to share all the details when you are feeling stronger, but not until then.”
Murdoch grabbed his son’s hand before he could move further away. They didn’t need to speak; Johnny understood the depth of his father’s concern for the people who lived on their ranch and in the community surrounding it.
“We have enough of a crew left to do what’s absolutely necessary on the ranch, care for our own very full bunkhouses of fevered men, keep the animals in good condition and rotate assistance to those in need on nearby places. There’s a poster board in front of the church in Green River with what community news is available but last two trips, I’ve had to go on into Modesto for supplies since town is pretty near all closed up. We’re doing okay; that’s all you need to remember while you rest and get better.”
Murdoch held Johnny’s hand tighter and nodded his understanding of what his son wasn’t saying. Feeling tired, he finally let go and watched his son move toward the door.
“When you’re in Modesto, remember to stay away from Lampert’s store. Not worth putting up with his kind of trouble just for a missing item or two that Ethan’s or Campbell’s doesn’t carry.”
Johnny smiled back; even sick, Murdoch’s paternal instincts were intact and Marge Lambert had made her feelings about Johnny known from the first day he arrived at Lancer.
“See you in a bit. I’ve got hot chicken broth ready and more tea is easy. Just clang that spoon on the bottom of the pot I gave you if you need me.”
Murdoch smiled and watched the door close. His eyes went to the pot and spoon on his nightstand. Johnny had been so busy taking care of the three of them that he gave Scott and Murdoch pots to clang on. Teresa had a bell she’d gotten at the county fair so that was her ‘official’ attention getter.
Somehow, their timing and Johnny’s had matched up pretty well since Murdoch had rarely heard anyone ask for attention when his younger son was taking care of business outside of their house. Murdoch suspected Johnny was doing a ton of running around early in the morning and after supper at night. Although, especially when Scott’s fever was raging, and Johnny had been forced to attend to something elsewhere on the ranch, another member of the crew had stayed in the house with them. Of course, it hadn’t been anyone consistent, since Maria, their housekeeper, was one of the fever’s first victims, and there weren’t enough extra well people to have someone permanently assigned to the main house.
Murdoch decided Johnny was right; there would be time to find out all the bad news. For now, he counted his blessings, sipped on his delightfully hot tea and let himself rest.
Johnny rushed into the kitchen with the trays from Teresa, Scott and Murdoch’s room and got them ready to wash. Teresa had been nearly asleep when he entered the room, but she perked right up and began drinking her tea.
“I’ll put these to soak then help you up to bed.”
He turned to find Teresa’s face covered in a smile.
“The oven is hot, let’s put those cookies in for tonight.”
He shrugged his shoulders, knowing Teresa could be as stubborn as he was when she really wanted something. A few minutes later, he had the sheet pans out and the ingredients by a mixing bowl on the table. With a confident cook’s ease, Johnny put flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in the bowl, gave it a stir and then added some buttermilk and two eggs.
“You don’t measure anything?”
“You don’t roll them out?”
Johnny was quickly dropping the first set of cookies on the pans. He patted them down with the back of his stirring spoon and topped them with another sprinkle of sugar. Then into the oven they went and he flew back over to finish the dishes. Teresa stayed amused by the process she was observing as Johnny moved cookies out of the oven and on the sideboard to cool, refilled the trays and then ran around getting other chores done while the next group of cookies baked. When nearly six dozen cookies graced the sideboard, he put the pans and bowl to soak, then made certain the kitchen was looking clean and organized.
He stood by the door with his elbow extended in Teresa’s direction and a smile on his face.
“I don’t remember agreeing, but a nap sounds great.”
Once Johnny had made sure Teresa was safely tucked in her room, he headed out to recheck the situation in the bunkhouses. While he was there, he asked one of the cooks to check on the family and serve their midday trays since his prolonged conversation with Murdoch and baking with Teresa had left Johnny behind on his list of tasks for the day. Once that was finished, he was off to make sure the crew was doing okay with their assignment for the day before heading to the next ranch over with the supplies he’d picked up for them on his last run into Modesto. If he was lucky, and the weather held out, Johnny might be back on Lancer land before the spring showers that had soaked him that morning came back that evening.
CHAPTER TWO – LONG RIDE HOME
He pulled the team under the covered area outside the barn and was grateful to be out of the rain.
“Johnny,” the foreman saw the wagon coming in and came out of the first bunkhouse to help, “we expected you hours ago.”
He jumped down and walked forward to pat the team. They had brought him safely home through a nasty spring storm and never gave him any trouble. Johnny was truly grateful to the two enormous workhorses.
“Say,” Ralph was in the wagon bed checking under the heavily tied down tarp, “I thought you were dropping this stuff off over at the Olsen place?”
“I was there, but they won’t be needing these supplies. Tomorrow, we’ll have to send a few men over to bring their livestock here. It’s too far to send someone to care for them everyday. We’ll simply hold on to their animals until the sheriff can sort out their property matters.”
Ralph nodded his understanding, the Olsens weren’t the first neighbors the Lancer Ranch lost to this fever and probably wouldn’t be the last. He kept working to get the wet tarp off the supplies while Johnny unhitched the team and wearily walked them into their well-deserved stalls in the barn. When he got back outside, Ralph and two other men were finishing with the tarp and securing the wagon.
“Any trouble while I was gone?”
“Rain brought the crew back early, but the men could use the rest.”
“You’re looking a bit dragged out yourself, Johnny.”
“How can you tell, Ralph?”
“What do you mean?”
“I feel like a drowned rat; so, how else could I be looking?”
The men helping with the wagon laughed with Johnny and his foreman. They finished and got ready to head back to their assigned bunkhouses while Johnny readied himself to make a dash across the yard to the kitchen door.
“I’ll send Ernesto right over, Ralph. I sure appreciated knowing he was handling things at the house while I was gone.”
“Ernesto came back more than an hour ago. He said Murdoch relieved him.”
Johnny jogged away as Ralph and the men headed back to the bunkhouses. Once inside the kitchen door, he was relieved to see the room empty. He had feared Murdoch would have tried to wait up for him instead of getting the rest he needed. It took more energy than Johnny expected to get his drenched boots and socks off. Then, as he began to peel the layers of his absolutely soaked clothing off, Johnny couldn’t get over the great shape Ernesto had the kitchen in. He even had most of the things Johnny would need to make breakfast out, along with three preset serving trays. He hated to admit it, but he was tired and thankful not to have these chores to do before heading in to check on his family.
Once his boots and clothing were propped on chairs to dry, Johnny wrapped an afghan from the laundry pile around himself and headed out of the kitchen. As he entered the great room, he came to a dead stop seeing a wonderfully inviting fire glowing in the fireplace. Murdoch was dozing in his preferred armchair and his coloring was much improved since their conversation that morning. Johnny closed his eyes and sent a prayer of gratitude toward the sky. It appeared Teresa, now Murdoch, were truly getting better and, with luck, Scott would feel better soon, too. The Lancer family had been blessed, truly blessed.
He left Murdoch napping by the fire and headed to get dressed in his bedroom. After a quick check on Teresa and Scott, who were both resting comfortably and glad to see him in from the weather outside, Johnny returned to check on Murdoch. Finding the room wonderfully warm and inviting, he took a seat on the coffee table and let the fire’s warmth soak into his bones.
“Glad to see you made it home safe.”
Murdoch’s words came out of the blue and Johnny’s reflexes took over. He was up and had spun to face his father before he’d finished his sentence. Luckily, they had come to an agreement about Johnny wearing his gun in the house or Murdoch might have fallen victim to another of is youngest son’s reflex reactions to being surprised.
“I’m sorry, Johnny,” Murdoch smiled and held up his hand in mock surrender, “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“And I could have used not being startled!”
Johnny turned and sat sideways on the coffee table. When his heart slowed a bit, he offered his father a smile and chuckled at how surprised he had just been.
“It’s late. Did you run into trouble at Iris and Ron’s place?”
“No, Murdoch,” he turned so his father couldn’t see his face, “no trouble. Just the weather, the rain made me late.”
Murdoch noted the change in his son’s body language, but knew not to push too hard.
“Ernesto has everything caught up here. Why don’t you try to get some rest, John? You’ve got to be tired.”
“I am but, right now, I’m grateful to this fire for warming me up. We can call it a night in a bit.”
Murdoch watched as his son further relaxed and did seem to take great comfort in the heat coming his way from the fireplace. He didn’t need to say anything; Johnny’s slumped shoulders and exhausted demeanor spoke volumes to his worried father.
“Iris and Ron were some of the first folks in the Valley that Scott’s mother and I got to know. Being a few years older than us, they offered we poor newlyweds an example of people making it through the stresses placed on a relationship by this untamed country. They were never blessed with any children, but that didn’t stop them from being genuinely excited when we found out Scott was on his way.”
The two men sat quietly watching the fire until exhaustion got the better of them both. They secured the fireplace for the night and headed toward their bedrooms. Walking by Murdoch’s bedroom door first, Johnny was pleasantly surprised when he was pulled into a strong hug.
“Thank you, Johnny. The Olsens were dear friends. I wish … “ Murdoch took a step back and found his son’s eyes, quietly sharing, “If it had to be, I’m glad you found them. I know you treated their remains with great respect.”
“For now, I had to leave them buried in shallow graves in a semi-dry protected spot I found next to the barn. We’ll move them when there’s time for a proper burial and Ralph will see to their stock tomorrow. Until then, their animals are cared for and safe for tonight.”
Murdoch nodded his appreciation and then watched as his son wearily walked down the hall and into his bedroom door. They were both instantly asleep, but when Murdoch woke up, it was obvious Johnny hadn’t stayed in bed long. The ranch was up and working, a breakfast tray was waiting on the table by his armchair and he could hear Johnny laughing with a stronger sounding Scott in the room next door.
CHAPTER THREE – IT LEFT ITS MARK
If Johnny had really been angry with Teresa, as he had teased her before leaving the ranch earlier in the day, he certainly wouldn’t be about to enter Lampert’s General Store. Sadly, the Modesto retailer he preferred, Ethan’s, was closed due to ‘a death in the family’ according to the sign on the front door. Of course, half the businesses in Modesto were closed due to illness or, sadly, deaths in the owner’s families. Campbell’s, his second choice for buying general goods in Modesto, was open, but terribly under stocked with no idea when new supplies might come in.
Campbell’s was directly across the street from the Modesto train station, which was eerily quiet, except for the group of men rearranging a fresh supply of caskets that had recently arrived. It seemed, according to the clerk, Hank, who helped him load the wagon at Campbell’s, that towns up and down the railroad line had been hit hard with this spring’s high fever version of ‘the Grip.’
“It has left its mark, Johnny. Surely it has left its mark on the entire Valley.”
He hadn’t argued; how could you with the growing lists of dead and missing folks posted in front churches everywhere you turned? He had the sad honor of adding a dozen names from their ranch, or nearby places, to the lists posted in Green River and Modesto. The names he had been forced to write included Maria, Jelly, the Olsens and so many others he considered friends from their ranch. No, Johnny simply listened as the man made what appeared to be a legitimate point. In addition, Johnny would swear that Hank must have been a preacher in another life. He had a distinct cadence to how he lectured you, gently, on any subject. Johnny liked Hank and appreciated his never asking personal questions so, he returned the favor and never planned on asking Hank where or what he might have been in another life.
“Thanks, again, Hank. Mind if I leave the wagon here for a bit longer?”
“Not at all.”
Johnny stuffed the receipt from Campbell’s in his front shirt pocket and headed over to the next block where Lambert’s store was located. While he walked, he mulled over where the term, ‘the Grip,’ had come from. It made sense to associate it with those nasty illnesses that turned your guts inside out. Or the terrible ones that made your chest feel like it was going to explode every time you coughed; and, you couldn’t quit coughing for days and nights on end. But, a high fever and swollen painful joints that left you barely able to sit up on your own for days after the fever broke … That seemed like a completely different enemy to him. On the other hand, from what he’d seen of the fever making folks sick in the San Joaquin Valley this spring, once it ‘gripped’ you, it didn’t want to let go. Johnny nodded to himself when he came to this conclusion and felt better for answering his own question by the time he entered Lampert’s.
“May I help you?”
“Do you have any whole cloves?”
“Well, I’m not certain, but I’ll check.”
The clerk disappeared to the backroom and Johnny moved over to check out a box of dime novels. Lampert’s store was obviously doing well during Modesto’s current situation since he’d never seen the place this busy. Johnny smiled when he found a few of the small books that were non-Western stories. Teresa was always complaining she long ago read the entire collection of Western themed ones. He put the books he could find about pirates, traveling the world and so forth in a pile with a few of the typical Westerns that had newer looking covers. All he could do was hope she wouldn’t have already read his choices.
quickly; it had been quite some time since anyone had addressed him by that
name. His eyes came to a dead stop on the furious eyes of Marge Lampert, the
owner’s wife. The confused clerk, who still didn’t know where the cloves
were located, quickly got out of Mrs Lambert’s way. He ran and knocked on Mr
Lampert’s closed office door.
“We might be desperate for customers here in Modesto, but we’re not bad enough off to do business with the likes …”
Matt Lampert rushed past his wife while shoving his hand into Johnny’s and shaking it frantically.
“What can we do for you today?”
Johnny kept eye contact with the miffed woman behind the counter, replying, “Cloves. Teresa asked me to pick up whole cloves while I was in town.”
“Cloves are kept in the back with some of the other spices. I’ll be right out.”
The man quickly disappeared but, regrettably, didn’t take his wife with him. Johnny knew Matt Lampert had been trying to get Murdoch’s business back since long before either of his sons came into the picture. It seemed Mrs Lampert had highly vocal problems with much more about Lancer Ranch than the fact Murdoch married a Mexican woman, after she was pregnant, and made her son an equal heir to his property. No, she didn’t like the fact Murdoch was known to pay all his workers the same, no matter the color of their skin, what church they attended or what language they primarily spoke. Truth was hateful people like Marge Lambert nearly spit nails when provoked by anyone who didn’t think just as they did.
Johnny still wouldn’t admit it if asked, but he was tired. It was going on three weeks since the fever first hit folks on their ranch; his life had been more than stressful since that time. Feeling warn, and not wanting to lose his temper, he only withstood her vicious stare for another minute; then, he threw a dollar on the counter, for the ten novels he’d picked out for Teresa, and left.
Johnny walked down the street taking deep breaths since the woman, and all the folks in town like her, wasn’t worth losing his temper over but she did get under his skin ‘just a bit.’ Murdoch had warned him about Lampert’s, but Teresa looked so pitiful this morning before he left. She had gone and overdone, despite being warned, and was back in bed with no strength at all. When he asked what she wanted added to his shopping list, Teresa only requested the cloves to make tea similar to the brews her father made when she wasn’t well. When Johnny agreed to buy the doggone things, Teresa smiled and seemed to perk up.
He quickly added the stack of dime novels to a box filled with supplies that would end up in the house. Swinging up into the wagon’s seat, Johnny took a few more deep breaths to completely rid himself of the tension Mrs Lampert’s stare had caused in his neck, shoulders and back.
“Wait, Mr Lancer!”
Matt Lampert came running down the street waving a small bottle in his hand.
“Your cloves; you forgot the cloves.”
“I don’t …”
“Please,” Matt’s eyes met Johnny’s, “take them. No charge. It’s the least I can do. My wife’s got these notions …”
He watched as the storekeeper seemed to fade and lose track of what he was going to say.
“Thank you, Matt. These cloves will greatly cheer Teresa and, hopefully, speed her recovery from this fever.”
The older man lifted his eyes to meet Johnny’s and nodded his head while handing over the small bottle of whole cloves.
“Thank you, John. Give my best to Murdoch and everyone else at home.”
Johnny nodded then, after securing the cloves in a safe place, let off the break and started the wagon’s team on their way home. Later that evening, with Teresa happily savoring a pot of the clove tea she had Ernesto brew, the incident at Lampert’s started to fade in importance. It wasn’t that Johnny hadn’t developed a thick skin, after over twenty years of words and attitudes far worse than Mrs Lampert’s, he had. No, it was the fact that the woman could bear such hatred in a time when their entire community was pulling together to help one another. He figured God would have to deal with folks like Mrs Lampert, and sadly there were many people like her, but he no longer cared nor was he willing to waste any more energy thinking about her.
Luckily, the men on the Lancer crew who first fell victim to the fever were beginning to recover. They were still terribly weak, but more able to take care of themselves, which began to free up crewmembers, who had been drafted to be caregivers, to return to doing ranch work. This was an added help to Johnny since it freed Ernesto to spend a major portion of each day taking care of things in the main house.
When he came into the kitchen with Scott’s tray from an evening snack, Johnny closed his eyes and said a prayer of gratitude. Ernesto had left the kitchen spotless after preparing and cleaning up their supper. He and Johnny had talked, and the young man was terribly excited to be offered the full time job as cook and housekeeping assistant in the main house. Tomorrow, instead of running around doing house chores before heading out to tackle various backed up issues across the ranch, Johnny could get up and get out to concentrate on ranch work all day which was really a freeing feeling for him this evening.
He washed up the things from Scott’s tray, then headed into the great room to say good night to Murdoch. His father continued to make a slow recovery from his bout with the fever, but Murdoch insisted he was more comfortable reading by the great room fire than staying in his room. Johnny believed there was truth in that statement, but he also knew Murdoch liked being around to converse with him when he passed through the house doing various errands. He couldn’t blame his father, now that they knew Teresa, Scott and most of the other fever victims on the ranch were going to recover, Murdoch was back to doing what he did best … Worrying about the ranch.
“There you are!” Murdoch laid his book down in his lap as a smile lit up his face, adding, “It’s late, John. I was wondering if you had gone to bed.”
Johnny chuckled and walked over to sit on the coffee table facing his father.
“Murdoch you know I wouldn’t go to bed without stopping in to see you.”
Murdoch nodded his agreement, asking, “What did Ernesto say regarding our offer?”
“He was terribly excited and accepted without any hesitation.”
“Good,” Murdoch rested his head back, “we certainly could use his help now that Maria has passed. When everyone is well, we have a lot of grieving to do. Funny, when you’re in the middle of a crisis, your heart and mind lock everything out and you concentrate only on getting through to the other side.”
“True.” Johnny smiled and got up, adding, “Survival instincts is the ‘proper’ name for what you’re saying. I read it in one of them fancy books Scott is always pushing my way.”
They both shared a chuckle and didn’t need to verbalize their mutual gratitude that Scott was improving after being terribly sick.
“I’m going to call it a night, Murdoch. I probably won’t see you until supper tomorrow. Figure on getting up early, doing a circle around the ranch to inventory where the heck we are after the recent rains and only being able to keep up with absolute minimal maintenance for more than three weeks. Ralph can handle the crew heading out tomorrow and anything else happening around here.”
“Sounds good,” Murdoch’s approval of his son’s plan to do a detailed check on the ranch glowed from his face, “I’ll be eager to hear what kind of shape we’re in tomorrow night at supper.”
Johnnny nodded and headed across the room to the hallway that led to their bedrooms.
“By the way,” Murdoch spoke in a quiet voice, “Teresa mentioned you were able to find her cloves and a bunch of those dime novels she loves while you were in town today. Said you had to stop in at Lampert’s for the darn cloves; she felt bad, but is truly grateful to have her spiced tea. Everything go okay in town today?”
“Yes, everything went fine, Murdoch.” He turned and offered a sincere smile to his father, reassuring, “It was just fine. Nite.”
“Good night, Son.”
CHAPTER FOUR – ALMOST OUT OF THE WOODS
It had been four long days since Johnny finished surveying the ranch. Since that time, Murdoch, Ralph and he had discussed in what order the work to be done would be assigned. They still only had enough well men to put together two three-quarter manned crews, but the top priority items on their list had been taken care of. In the next few weeks, he was certain they would catch up, especially with more and more recovered fever patients returning to work on the ranch’s crews.
He left one of their more senior men in charge of finishing his crew’s work for the day and rode in to pick up a wagon load of supplies for a young family trying to start a dairy business between Lancer and Modesto. Sitting taller in the saddle, Johnny pushed his hat off, letting it hang down his back, and allowed the sunshine on his face. The spring rains had subsided and from the smell of the dry air coupled with the rising heat each afternoon, he wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t get much rain between now and monsoon season late in the summer. As he rode in the gate, Johnny beamed when he noticed Scott sitting on the veranda getting some sun while he read a book.
He waved and rode in faster for a visit with his brother.
“You look great sitting out here. The sunshine is a natural healer; you’ll see, it will make you stronger in no time.”
“Well, I don’t know about that, but it sure feels great to get outside. I’m sick of my room, sick of the couch in the great room, sick of …”
“What’s all this complaining I hear going on out here?”
joined them while delivering Scott a tray of tea and a plateful of sugar
cookies. She was baking double batches of the easy little crisps every day.
Seemed the entire ranch was hooked on Sister Aquinata’s recipe and how
wonderful the cookies tasted with a cup of tea or coffee.
“Not complaining, just bemoaning. That’s different.”
Teresa and Johnny exchanged a glance while shrugging their shoulders.
“Oh, he’s better, Teresa. When Scott starts throwing those Harvard words …” Johnny ignored Scott’s glare and concentrated on the smile Teresa still had on her face, teasing, “Why I best tell Murdoch we need to redo tomorrow’s work assignments. Seems to me Mr Fancy Talk here is ready to get back out on a crew.”
Scott laughed with them, admitting, “Okay, I am better, but I’m afraid it might be a few more days until I’m ready to get back to work.”
The threesome laughed and joked, mostly at Scott’s expense, then Teresa went back inside to get a basket of sugar cookies that needed to go over to the bunkhouses.
“I better go, too. Ralph was going to have a wagon loaded for me to take over to the Gernhardt’s place this afternoon. It’s been nearly a week since I was able to circle out there and check on them. Frieda was doing okay, but Ernst and the two older kids were down bad with the fever. I stayed until the evening milking was done, but I feel guilty that I haven’t had time to get back out to check on them before today.
“That evening, while Frieda gave the older kids a bath to bring down their fevers, I watched Steffi, their youngest. She was really fussy and I tried all my best tricks, but that baby wasn’t going to settle. Steffi didn’t have a fever that night, near as I could tell, but I bet she is down sick by now.”
“I hope not. As sick as I have been, I can’t imagine a child making it through this fever.”
“Some have; some haven’t.”
Scott smiled up at his brother’s worn face. He was certain Johnny would never tell them all he had seen and done during the past few weeks, but the crew was getting out and the gossip from Green River and Modesto was seeping across the ranch. This spring’s fever had affected nearly every family in the Valley in some way. From what he could gather, the mortality rate seemed terribly high. Scott prayed they were at the end of the disease’s reign of terror.
“Hey,” Johnny stood up and gave his brother’s head a gentle bop with his hat, “where’d you go?”
“Sorry,” Scott smiled, “I got lost in a thought there. I guess I’m a bit tired.”
“Take it easy this afternoon.” Johnny smiled and started to leave, calling back, “I’ll see you at supper.”
“See you then; we can play a game of checkers after supper, if you’re up to it.”
“I’m always up to beating you at checkers, Scott.”
Scott stood up having decided a nap was in order, yelling across the yard, “Give the Gernhardt’s my best wishes. I hope you find everything okay over there.”
XXXXXXXXXX LATE THAT NIGHT XXXXXXXXXX
Ernst Gernhardt hadn’t wanted him to leave, but Johnny just had to get out of there. He wasn’t certain why his desire to get back to Lancer was so strong but it was, thus he set off long after the sun had set for home. Luckily, the horse Ernst and Frieda lent him was old, but sure footed so he took his time and knew they’d make it safe in the end. They had been so busy since Johnny’s arrival at the dairy farm, that he left the wagon still loaded in front of the house and secured the team in the Gernhardt’s barn for the night. The Gernhardts could use the team to move the wagon tomorrow after they had taken their time emptying it. He’d promised to return in a few days, to see how they were doing and to exchange their horse for the Lancer wagon and team.
Johnny thought about all that had happened that afternoon and evening as he eased the Gernhardts horse toward Lancer. He was no dairy farmer, but he knew enough about cows to understand the Gernhardt’s dream of starting a dairy business was in severe jeopardy. Ernst was getting better, as were the two older children but, as Johnny had feared, their baby, Steffi, had come down with the fever right after his last visit. Poor little thing only lasted until the following evening. Since that time, Frieda had been inconsolable and Ernst was too weak to get out and keep their cows milked.
Sadly, the cow’s milk was drying up and some of them were suffering terribly with swollen, oozing, tits that dripped foul smelling liquid whenever they moved. So, instead of emptying the supplies from the wagon, Johnny found himself roping sick cows, securing them so they wouldn’t kick him, cleaning them and putting ointment on their utters and tits per Ermst’s instructions.
He told Johnny the sick cows had what is called ‘mastitis’ and that human women could get the same darn thing. Johnny found the entire matter disgusting, but was too proud to admit a cattleman couldn’t handle the duties of a dairyman. So, he forced himself to get on with the matter and got the effected cows taken care of for Ernst.
In the end, Johnny felt sorry for the poor animals; they were truly suffering and, even if they got better, would probably end up slaughtered for their meat. Problem being, according to Ernst, that these cows most likely would never go back to giving milk. Not even if they were bred and had calves, again. At first thought, even that seemed like a problem easily fixed in a Valley full of ranches, but the Gernhardt’s cows were a special breed of high-producing dairy cows. It was going to take a good long time for Frieda and Ernst to save enough money to have more dairy cows shipped in.
Last thing he had done for the Gernhardt’s was to finish digging the grave Frieda had started inside some fencing around the garden at the back of their property. Her grief made it impossible for the poor woman to get very far so Steffi’s body was being kept in the root cellar. Johnny had offered to dig the grave first, which pleased Frieda, but Ernst argued the cows were living beings and should get taken care of before the dead. Johnny had agreed, but wished he hadn’t been so horribly tired when he carried the baby’s body up from the root cellar to her final resting place.
After stopping on the porch so Ernst and the two older children, who were still too weak to walk to the back end of the property, could say a final goodbye, Johnny and Frieda walked back together. It had been nearly a week since the baby’s death and her body was in poor condition despite the chill in the root cellar. He didn’t know if it was the smell, the sound of Steffi’s mother sobbing next to him or just too many long days in a row, but Johnny felt a bit lightheaded as he knelt down next to the grave. When he stood back up, after placing Steffi in her grave, Frieda held on to his arm so tight. Johnny was terribly tired; he wasn’t even certain if he was holding up Frieda or she was holding him up.
Somehow, he managed to mumble a couple of long ago memorized Bible verses and what he could remember of a prayer the Sisters used to say when a child died at the orphanage. Johnny was too exhausted to translate, and he knew the Gernhardt’s spoke German and English not Spanish and English, but he earnestly prayed on while hoping they sensed his intention to honor their little girl. In addition, he personally didn’t believe God favored any particular language, so He understood what Johnny was saying on Steffi and her family’s behalf.
Coming over the last rise, the lights of Lancer had rarely looked so good to him. Johnny sincerely patted the neck of the old horse that had graciously brought him home. He was grateful the animal hadn’t given him a bit of trouble, despite the fact it probably hadn’t left the Gernhardt’s property in a few years. Once he rode into the barn, Johnny quickly got the beast’s saddle off and gladly gave the stead a hearty supper. He’d washed up before leaving the Gernhardt’s, so he headed straight for the back door to the kitchen. His boots were still muddy, plus a hot cup of coffee would be great, if there was any left from supper.
Johnny struggled with his still wet boots, but finally won out. Walking around the kitchen in his socks, he noticed a covered plate sitting on the sideboard. While he washed his hands, Johnny guessed the plate contained his supper. Despite not having eaten since breakfast, he had no desire to eat anything. Instead, he took a seat at the kitchen table and stared around at the kitchen. Ernesto and Teresa certainly had the room in better shape than he had left it many nights when everyone was sick. The chair felt so good and the kitchen was still warm from supper’s preparations; Johnny rested his hands in his lap and fought the desire to simply lay his head on the table and go to sleep.
Turning to look toward the stove, he was surprised to see his friend, Mateo, sitting on the stepstool Teresa kept in the corner. Johnny smiled when his friend waved and offered a smile that ran from ear to ear.
“How are you, Mateo?”
“Good, Juan, very good.”
“I’m surprised to see you here, but I’m awfully glad to see you.”
“You got so big, but your eyes are still crazy blue.”
He smiled with delight at the familiar way his friend laughed and made faces. Mateo always shot those faces in his direction when he was making fun of him. Back then, Mateo was one of the only people on earth allowed to make fun of Johnny’s eyes; he never meant his words as an insult, his teases were just in fun.
“I thought you were dead?”
“Oh, I am, Juan. Remember, Sister Joseph pushed me down those stairs.”
“Yes, I remember. I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
“I know, but it’s okay.”
“I’m not hungry anymore, no one hits me and I don’t have to memorize Bible verses to keep from being punished.”
Johnny laughed with his friend as memories of standing facing walls for hours raced across his mind. It wasn’t that he couldn’t memorize the darn verses, he had and still remembered them all; it was the way some of the nuns picked on the kids who weren’t smart enough to memorize stuff. In what he now understood was a rebellious stand, Johnny simply refused to say the verses when the Sisters called his name.
“Heaven is an okay place then?”
“Oh, yes, especially for children.”
“Johnny?” Murdoch walked across the kitchen toward his son who was sound asleep with his head on the table, quietly adding, “It’s terribly late, Son. We were all worried.”
Johnny sat up and looked around to get his bearings while Murdoch eased into the chair across from him.
“Where’d Mateo go?”
Johnny smiled when his eyes met Murdoch’s, then he turned his gaze toward the stove at the end of the room.
“He was right …”
He stopped himself and sat back to wake himself further.
“You must be famished.” Murdoch started to push back from the table, offering, “Ernesto left you some supper.”
“That’s okay, Murdoch.” He waved his father back down into his seat, admitting, “I’m not hungry; don’t know why, but I’m not.”
“I know why,” Murdoch smiled and moved the lamp to try and see Johnny’s face better, “you’re beyond exhausted. What took so long at the Gernhardt’s place?”
“Oh,” he returned his father’s smile while really wishing Murdoch would leave so he could put his head back down, “the cows. Then I had to go down in the root cellar and … All that digging in the garden. She was so tiny, so tiny. But, I must say, I owe that horse some more oats for getting me home.”
Johnny looked around the entire room, searching for Mateo, but his friend was nowhere in the kitchen. He didn’t even notice when Murdoch leaned forward to touch his face, arms and forehead.
“I sure hope he’s right.”
A very alarmed Murdoch stood up and moved around the table to get closer to his son.
Murdoch took the seat next to Johnny’s and touched his shoulder, but the young man didn’t turn in his direction. He seemed preoccupied with something located near the stove.
“Johnny,” he tried to get him to turn, “what did this Mateo tell you that you hope is right?”
“About kids going to heaven. Mateo was a good friend and I’ve missed him.”
Murdoch reached across his son’s chest and gently turned him so they were face to face.
“Where did you last see your friend, Mateo?”
Johnny chuckled, thinking Murdoch surely was being thickheaded that evening.
“Mateo? He’s right over ...”
Johnny pulled away from Murdoch and looked back toward the stove.
“Com’on, Son, turn this way so I can see you.”
Murdoch smiled and tried to hide his growing fear since Johnny’s eyes weren’t focusing and there was no question he had a fever. If he weren’t still recovering, he’d try to get Johnny to his room by himself. But, he was definitely going to need Johnny’s help, so Murdoch worked to choose his words wisely. He needed to convince the disoriented young man beside him to do what he wanted him to do without upsetting him.
“You need to get into bed. I think …”
Murdoch,” Johnny’s eyes appeared to clear as they met his father’s, “I’m
truly grateful you brought me here. You gave me a second chance that Abo,
Felix, Mateo and all those others never had.”
Murdoch smiled, his mind still working on how to get Johnny into his bed.
“You’ve never mentioned those friends before; of course, you haven’t shared much about any of your friends.”
His father’s words appeared to physically hit him with the force of a good right jab and Johnny looked away while shaking his head. Images of his friends, and the other orphans, danced through his mind and he felt suddenly lonely without them even after fifteen odd years. After a deep breath, Johnny turned and his eyes shone with a deep pain he normally kept locked away with so many other memories from his youth.
“You know, Murdock …”
He stopped and struggled to keep control of his emotions.
Johnny looked directly into his father’s eyes, admitting, “I feel really strange; kind’a like I’m floating away. Maybe Mateo came to take me with him. Perhaps, I wasn’t really supposed to have left there without …”
With that, his eyes rolled back and Johnny fell forward into Murdoch’s arms. Despite his recent illness, Murdoch’s paternal instincts kicked in and he held tight to his unconscious son. Overwhelmed with his own emotions, he knew their fight with Johnny’s fever had only begun, but he also sensed it was a terribly important moment in that fight.
“Don’t you dare, John Duarte Lancer; don’t you dare do this to me. They’ll be no floating away tonight or any time soon.” Murdoch pulled back enough to speak directly in Johnny’s ear, insisting, “You’re going to fight this fever. We’re all going to fight it with you. Do you hear me?”
Murdoch pulled Johnny further into his arms while fighting the rising panic overtaking his own being. He needed to get some help, but waking Johnny up was more important. It wasn’t good for him to be out for this long.
“Scott?” He yelled more than loud enough to be heard in their completely silent house, adding, “Teresa? Scott? Come quick.”
Within seconds, stirrings could be heard from other areas of the house, but Murdoch returned his attention to his youngest son.
“Please, Johnny, stay with me.”
He held on and fought to keep them both balanced on the kitchen chairs until help arrived. Murdoch didn’t notice the tears starting down his cheeks as he continued to encourage Johnny to respond to him.
“Oh, my God. Johnny!” Teresa raced into the kitchen first and didn’t need to be told what was going on, yelling as she left, “I’ll be right back with help.” she raced out the backdoor at the same moment Scott came flying into the kitchen.
“What’s going on?”
“Get on the other side of him, Scott. We’re barely staying in these old kitchen chairs.”
Scott quickly wet down a kitchen towel, then eased into the chair behind Johnny. When Murdoch leaned his brother back into his arms, he couldn’t believe the heat coming off Johnny’s body.
“That’s my guess.”
Murdoch used the kitchen towel to wipe off Johnny’s face and neck. The cool towel must have surprised Johnny because he startled and opened his eyes.
He smiled and looked past Johnny to speak to Scott, “That’s much better; he’s back with us now.”
Johnny twisted a bit to see whom Murdoch was talking to.
“Who’s back? Back from where?”
While he spoke, Johnny tried to pull himself straighter in his chair. Suddenly, the room spun wildly and he realized his movements had been a mistake; but, it was too late and he was lucky his family was there to keep him from tumbling out of the kitchen chair as his world went black.
CHAPTER FIVE – LOST WEEK
What was the matter with everyone around the ranch? Johnny was having a terrible time with his well-meaning family. For some reason, they seemed to be bothering him all the time, even in his own bedroom. He’d be trying to sleep and Teresa would insist he drink water or tea with sugar in it. It was awful; too sweet and who the heck drinks tea in bed? Once, when he woke up, Murdoch was walking him back to bed from using the toilet. What was going on there? And Scott, well instead of letting a man rest when he was bone tired and ached from head to foot, that big brother of his was continually reading out loud. Why didn’t he keep whatever was in the newspaper, mail or one of his books to himself? It was a puzzle Johnny couldn’t seem to solve. He’d try for a while, then figured he was too tired and just hoped they’d be gone when he woke up the next time.
There was Murdoch, again, mumbling something at him. What did he mean speak English? Johnny spoke English just fine, plus he’d mastered a multitude of Spanish dialects from all over Mexico. Learnt a few phases in some other languages, too, but not enough to carry on a conversation. ‘Slow down?’ What the heck? Besides Murdoch spoke Spanish very well himself. Oh, forget it, he was too tired and everything hurt. Johnny gave up trying to hear them and let himself draft away.
It was hot, so hot the old timers swore you could fry an egg on a plank of the sidewalk, but Johnny ignored the heat. He had other things on his mind as he rode back into town that day. He had finished his business here and was going to be moving on this afternoon. He was trying to stay a step ahead of two fellows that had been following him until two days before when Johnny managed to lose them on a mountain trail. Before he lost them, he’d noticed the Gordon brothers trailing him from Chihuahua which didn’t make sense to Johnny. Of course, everyone knew Zeb and C.J. Gordon were crazy, so maybe it did make sense after all.
Johnny’s senses were on high alert as he quietly rode into the dusty old border town located along the Baja border with California. He’d gladly move on once he secured the money hidden in his hotel room. He’d won it playing poker while heading west from some trouble back in Chihuahua. Trouble that had the Gordons parked behind one side of an argument and Johnny sitting behind the other. In the end, as it always did, the land owners who hired them for a show of force settled their differences, with or without violence, and his services were no longer needed.
Back in Chihuahua, Johnny hadn’t actually confronted the Gordons, nor had they confronted him. Problem came down to them not liking the outcome when their friend and well known gunhawk, Sam Everton, called Johnny out. It had all been fair, there were a ton of witnesses to attest to Johnny’s trying to change Sam’s mind, but … Sam was dead and Johnny moved on.
As he rode down the main street of town, nothing seemed out of place or suspicious in any way. Johnny’s plan to grab his things and move on before the Gordons actually made it into town to confront him seemed on track. Yes, he’d be long gone from Baja before …
Suddenly, thrown from his horse, Johnny knew all too well what the searing pain coming from his left wrist meant. Bad rifle shot, lucky for him, and he scrambled around the horse trough to assess the situation. His mind raced through the trajectory needed to have taken the shot that dropped him from his horse. Now, were the Gordons, one or both, smart enough to move after they took a sniper-like shot? He decided ‘no,’ and got ready to move.
First, Johnny took a shot in the opposite direction hoping the Gordons would assume he didn’t know where the shot that hit him in the left wrist came from. He waited a fraction of a second, then jumped up and aimed two shots right in the target area where he thought the first shot must have come from. Johnny heard a moan that meant one or both of his bullets hit a human being, but he knew better than to stop and look. He kept moving until he was safely behind the corner of a building, but when he tried to use his left hand to reload his gun .. Well, the reality of his situation was that he had three bullets left and wasn’t going to be able to reload one handed. Johnny accepted these facts and worked on formulating a plan to get himself out of this mess.
He froze and didn’t fall for looking out when his name was called.
“Watch this, Madrid.”
The sound of a woman screaming filled the air. He barely peeked around the edge of the building and saw one of the saloon girls in C.J. Gordon’s grasp. He was covered in blood that might, or might not, have belonged to C.J. or his brother, Zeb. It was a relief to know exactly where C.J. was located, but where was Zeb? Also, town had emptied out in a hurry; no innocents in the way, except for the one saloon girl with C.J., which made Johnny feel better.
“Ok, Madrid, you asked for it.”
Without further explanation, C.J. Gordon shot the saloon girl and threw her suddenly silent body on the ground. Johnny watched the horror from his hiding place behind the safety of the building’s frame. Folks would laugh if he told them gunfighters actually had an unwritten ‘code of conduct’ that the majority of them abided by. Point-blank shooting of innocent bystanders was not ‘acceptable’ behavior, but then neither were ambushes and he had definitely been ambushed by the Gordon brothers.
There was no longer any reason to doubt the tales about the Gordon brother’s mental sanity, or lack thereof. He’d never seen anything like what just happened all in the name of calling out another gun fighter. C.J. was either emboldened by anger, if Johnny’s earlier bullet did hit Zeb, or he was confident because he knew Zeb was hiding somewhere with a rifle ready to take out Johnny Madrid. He only had seconds to decide which option to believe; which option to act upon with the three bullets left in his gun.
“I’m calling you out, Madrid. Now, or I’ll head into the saloon for another girl. You don’t want any more blood on your hands, do ya?”
“Blood on my hands?”
That was enough talking for Johnny. He stepped out from the safety of the building, fired one shot that took down C,J. before he even aimed his gun, then fired his last two shots back where the original sniper-type shots had been fired. Johnny was known for his lightening speed and, once again, it served him well. But, before Zeb Gordon came crashing down from his hiding place, he did manage to get off a shot that tore into Johnny’s right thigh. Still on the run, he fell forward; his momentum landing Johnny right next to the dead saloon girl, as the entire town returned to an eerie quiet. Laying there, his leg on fire with pain, Johnny was forced to look the dead girl right in the face. She couldn’t have been more than a kid; maybe fifteen or sixteen years old, maybe less.
“I’m sorry,” he fought for consciousness, “I’m so, so, sorry.”
“Johnny,” Murdoch continued to wipe his terribly ill son’s face, neck and chest with cool compresses, “it’s okay. You’re having another nightmare.”
“Oh, why … Why?”
He fought as Johnny pulled at the sheet and tried to find something on his right thigh.
“Lay back and take it easy. You’re home and there isn’t anything wrong with your leg.”
“I didn’t know they would do that; I didn’t know … I’m so sorry.”
Johnny might have been hallucinating, but the nightmare’s effect on him was real. He was terribly distraught and pushed back when Murdoch tried to hold down his arms.
Finally, Murdoch held his fever weakened son’s wrists and waited for this latest bad memory to pass. The fever had been raging out of control for nearly three days and they’d had no luck getting Johnny to rest. Murdoch was beyond worried since he’d witnessed fever victims thrash and fight their caregivers until that last moment when the fever simply burnt the life out of them. He held tight to his son’s wrists and when Teresa came back in the room, she took over using the compresses to try and cool Johnny down.
Well, it had been an interesting life, but Johnny always hoped it wouldn’t end here, in a place like this. He fought not to hang from the metal cuffs holding him up by his wrists. They were placed just high enough on the wall that he had to stay on his tiptoes to keep from cutting the circulation off to his hands. That was tough enough, but Johnny was also trying not to let his freshly whipped back come to rest on the stucco wall. The pain that caused was incredible and tore his back up even more since the moisture from his blood stuck to the stucco. Suddenly, the guard who had whipped Johnny so well earlier came through the cell to drag off another man. As he passed by, the guard used a severe ‘whack’ from the handle of the whip to buckle Johnny’s knees.
Johnny sat straight up in bed and the sudden movement allowed him to jar his wrists from Murdoch’s grasp. Just that fast, he had used the energy his body had left and flopped limply back down into the pillows. He carried on another running conversation, at a rapid fire pace, while Murdoch and Teresa tried hard to understand what he was saying. Finally, Johnny quieted a bit, but remained restless and terribly distraught by wherever his mind was taking him.
“Did you catch any of that?”
“No,” Teresa let out an exasperated sigh, “he’s talking way too fast. Your Spanish is better than mine; did you understand any of it?”
“He made it clear he wanted his wrists untied and I think he was saying something about a guard.” Murdoch was too tired to make his mind interpret more, admitting, “Ernesto said Johnny was using a lot of slang from down around Hermosillo when he stayed with him early this morning. But, Negela, heard slang familiar to her from living around Ensenada when she dropped off laundry yesterday.”
“I guess Johnny picked up slang from all across northern Mexico during his ‘roaming’ days.”
“Too bad he’s too confused to un-jumble this new language he seems to have made up out of all the slang racing through his head.”
“So, it’s the old man’s money?”
Teresa and Murdoch looked down at Johnny in shock to hear English coming from him since the fever took over his world. He’s eyes were glazed, but he seemed to rest back in the pillows to concentrate his stare on Murdoch.
“What money, Johnny?”
“What money!” He weakly laughed, explaining, “That thousand bucks my old man paid you to offer me.”
“What about the money?”
“When do I get it?”
“Like I said; you have to go to see him at Lancer, listen to a proposal he wants to make for an hour and then the money is yours.”
Teresa pulled at Murdoch’s shoulder, her deep concern obvious on her face, but he waved her off. Johnny was as quiet as he’d been for days; he decided to go along with the hallucination-induced conversation to keep him that way.
“Hate to pass up on an easy thousand bucks, but I’m not sure you Pinkerton folks haven’t wasted your time coming to find me. I do thank you for pulling me out of that firing squad line.”
Murdoch waited, but Johnny’s mind had moved on. Soon, he was thrashing about fighting off another nightmare or bad memory. When Scott came in to spell their exhausted father, Murdoch refused to leave. Something deep inside the core of his being told him tonight would be a turning point for Johnny. He’d either beat this damn fever or fall victim to it while spending his remaining energy fighting against demons only he could see. Scott took a seat in one of the extra armchairs they’d moved into Johnny’s room. He decided to stay there in case Murdoch or Johnny needed him.
Johnny walked into a place like no other he had ever seen. It was barely lit in the center with an unusual darkness around the outside. He didn’t seem to be able to move, but it wasn’t a frightening place. He heard them before their foggy silhouettes came into his distant view.
“El hermando! Mama, es mi hermando!”
Johnny’s younger brother, Jorge’s small voice was like music to his heart.
He fought with all his strength to move forward; he had to see her. That voice, he’d know it anywhere!
It just before dawn when Ernesto stopped straightening his friend’s bed. They had given him another cool water bath in an attempt to fight his fever. The entire time, Johnny had thrashed and fought them, but he was too weak to actually stop them from taking care of him. Murdoch had moved across the room to wash his hands while Ernesto finished and gathered the laundry.
“I don’t think Johnny is breathing; all of the sudden, he’s perfectly still.”
Murdoch rushed across the room and sat down hard next to his son. It was true, Johnny was finally still, but he was too still. His panicked father took him by the shoulders and started to vigorously shack him.
“Don’t do this, Johnny. Fight! Do you hear me? Stay at home with me; don’t go!”
Murdoch’s screaming brought Teresa and some of the other people working in the house to Johnny’s room. Scott had moved to the other side of the bed from their father and was distraught to see Johnny had turned an absolutely horrible color.
“Juanito,” she smiled and pointed behind him, “el Padre. Mirar!”
As directed by his mother, Johnny turned to look for his father.
An odd scene met his eyes when he looked behind as instructed. Murdoch and Scott were sitting on his bed with him. Teresa and a half dozen people he knew from the ranch were standing around in his room. They were all yelling … Why were they yelling? Maybe his mother knew what was happening to him; after all, she’s the one that pointed out Murdoch had somehow managed to move in behind him.
When he turned back to the strangely lit pathway, it was empty. Where did their mother go and she had taken Jorge with her? Johnny fought with all his might to run forward, into the … Suddenly, he was aware of hands on his shoulders. They were pulling him backwards, pulling harder than he could fight back.
Johnny took a deep breath and nearly screamed as his body came alive with pain from the joints in his toes to the top of his head. It was as if knives had been placed in his bones and now they were being turned in circles. He wanted to open his eyes; he needed to see what was happening to him, maybe there really were knives in his body?
Hearing his son take a breath, Murdoch stopped shaking Johnny and pulled him up into his arms. The entire room let out a collective sigh as the young man’s breathing, rapid at first, settled into a more regular rhythm. Slowly, they all became aware of the fact Murdoch was quietly weeping. He kept a tight hold on Johnny while rocking him back and forth. Scott wiped his face, then rubbed his father’s back to try and soothe him while Teresa sat down on the bed and let herself cry quietly, too.
“Where did she go?”
Murdoch took in an audible gasp and only then noticed that Johnny was weakly patting his back to comfort him, too. He held Johnny closer and asked him to repeat what he had mumbled barely above a whisper.
“Where did she go? They were here, but I can’t find them.”
He placed a sincere kiss on his youngest son’s cheek as Scott helped him lower Johnny back onto a group of freshly stacked pillows.
“I’m sorry, John,” Murdoch took the cool compress Teresa offered and wiped the sweat from Johnny’s face, “I don’t know what you are talking about. Where did who go?”
“They were there,” his eyes met those of the still concerned people standing at the end of his bed, “or … I’m not sure.”
He rested back and seemed to be attempting to gain his bearings for the first time in many days. Teresa and Scott quietly emptied the room while Murdoch continued to settle Johnny. In a few minutes, the energy he’d expended to get through the past hour of his life seemed to have sapped Johnny of his ability to stay awake. His eyes grew heavy and his grip on Murdoch’s hand was barely there.
“You’d have let them come home, too; right, Murdoch?”
Murdoch smiled, still lost as to what Johnny meant, and nodded his head in agreement with his son’s whispered comments.
“Have I been sick?”
“Yes, Son, but you’re going to get better. You have to rest now, Johnny.”
He returned his father’s smile, which sent Murdoch’s heart flying with gratitude to the heavens above. A few moments later, Johnny was quiet, again. But, this time, it was a good quiet. The fever would spike another time, or two, but its further effect on Johnny would be minimal. He’d made it through the worst of it and was finally able to truly sleep.
CHAPTER SIX – ONE KITTEN WITHOUT PATIENCE
“What the heck are you doing?”
Scott arrived in his brother’s room only to find him half dressed and flopped back across the bed. Over the past week, they’d started a great routine. Scott brought both their breakfasts to Johnny’s room and they ate together each morning. This gave them some time alone together and Scott could catch him up on how his own return to a regular work schedule was going. It cheered Johnny to know Scott was getting better, stronger, and they could talk about things that Murdoch wasn’t interested in hearing when the family had supper together in the evenings.
“Figured I’d get dressed, all by myself, like one of the big kids.”
“Got my shirt and pants on, but when I bent over to put on my socks … Let’s just say my choices were to fall flat on my face or back here into the bed. Bed’s softer!”
They laughed and Scott helped his brother moved up to rest on some pillows.
“Don’t push; remember the setback Teresa had, it put her back in bed for nearly a week.”
“Look who’s talking,” Johnny laughed knowing Scott had been caught trying to walk down to the great room for new books, “I had to practically carry you back to your room…TWICE!!”
“Okay, Little Brother, ok!!”
They ate and caught up on some gossip. Teresa stopped in with fresh coffee, then left to let the brothers enjoy their time together.
“Let me ask you something.”
Johnny smiled at Scott’s choice of words, continuing, “Where did the saying ‘weak as a kitten’ come from?”
“Have you ever seen newborn kittens?”
“What do you mean?”
“Mother Nature is a fascinating lady. Those little creatures might stumble around and appear weak, but they have sharp teeth, nails and a strong desire to survive. Top that off with a mama cat that would even take on a human being to protect her litter … Not such weak stuff. That’s why I’m wondering about the saying?”
Scott laughed and they enjoyed starting another morning with breakfast together.
XXXXXXXXXX One Week Later XXXXXXXXXX
“You know, Johnny,” Murdoch smiled and stood with his hands on his hips, “this is getting old.”
“I know; embarrassing, too.”
He smiled up from where he had let himself slip down on the floor. During the past week, Johnny had become an expert at walking around the house with one hand on a wall. When his body decided to sit, which was often and never at an expected time, he merely turned his back to the wall and let himself slip down to the floor. Normally, someone in the house would come by and help him up. If not, Johnny would wait until he felt stronger, then slowly stood and moved on.
Murdoch bent down and helped his son to his feet, then turned them back toward his bedroom door.
‘Oh, Murdoch, no!”
“You’re pale as a sheet; let’s get you back in that bed.”
“Please,” he sounded desperate because he was, “I’ve come to hate that room. When this is over, and I’m better, I’d like to move into another bedroom. This one will never be the same to me.”
Murdoch chuckled, but kept them moving toward Johnny’s room.
“Murdoch,” Johnny stopped walking, “you can take me back there, but I’m not staying. Kind’of a waste of energy; don’t you agree?”
“You have a better plan, I suppose?”
“The veranda is where I was headed. Everybody keeps accusing me of being pale, but they insist on keeping me inside.”
“You are pale and it isn’t from a lack of sunshine either.”
“But, it could be; partially, at least.”
The familiar sparkle of Johnny’s devilish side coming from his eyes melted his father’s resolve. Despite the fact Johnny had only been allowed to the great room to join them for supper a few times, and that was because Scott and Murdoch helped him, they headed toward the great room. Once Johnny saw the sunshine pouring down on the veranda furniture, his will practically carried himself and Murdoch outside. His father helped him settle on a chair, with another chair in front to keep his feet up, and watched as a smile took over Johnny’s face.
“Oh, yes,” he nodded his gratitude, “much better!”
“Can I trust you to stay here while I go over to talk to Ralph about a few things? I want to make certain the skeleton crew for the weekend has their assignments early since it is payday.”
“I promise to stay put; after all, I’m grateful to your for helping me on my escape from that doggone bedroom. And, for helping me get all situated here in the sunshine.”
Murdoch smiled and left to find the foreman. Realizing he had forgotten the papers from his desk, the ones he went in for when he found Johnny on the floor again, Murdoch turned and headed back toward the veranda.
“Well, I’ll be …”
He smiled and shook his head at seeing Johnny sound asleep already. Murdoch decided his son was probably right; the sunshine would help him get better, the warmth of the sun had helped Murdoch on his recent recovery, too. Quietly going around Johnny to get inside for his paperwork, he sent another prayer of gratitude toward the sky. Somehow, the Lancer family and ranch had made it through that spring’s horrible fever with less damage than most places anywhere in the Modesto area.
Before he finished his prayer, Murdoch added an extra plea for Johnny to have the patience he was going to need in order to make a full recovery. He smiled at the thought of his youngest son’s fierce refusal to accept the standard course of recovery that had helped every other fever victim on their ranch to get well. It then occurred to Murdoch that something deep inside Johnny, a fierceness which came naturally to him but was missing in others, was probably the power behind his ability to stave off death the night it nearly took him from his family.
“That kid is probably right about needing to be in the sunshine.” Murdoch talked quietly to himself as he made mental notes, “I’ll have to make sure he gets outside onto the veranda every afternoon.”
CHAPTER SEVEN – LIFE DOES GO ON
It was nearly two months since Johnny’s bout with the fever that hit the San Joaquin Valley like a firestorm. He was better, much better, but still not feeling himself. He’d put in a day, an easy day such as driving the supply wagon, and then fall asleep at the supper table. Johnny knew he should be grateful to be alive, but found himself frustrated with his recovery. It seemed to be taking so much longer than anyone else’s.
The family, along with everybody else on the ranch, kept trying to convince him that Johnny had been sicker than most others. He found that hard to believe since Scott was as sick as a man can be, a man that lives to tell about it, and Johnny couldn’t have been sicker than his brother. In the end, it wasn’t worth arguing over since Scott was better, back to a full workload, but Johnny still had good, and really bad, days and was only three-quarters back, at best.
As was his habit, Johnny pushed his hat off and let it hang down his back. Even though the early summer’s heat was shimmering all around him, he loved to feel the sun on his face for a few minutes each day. Somehow, the rays seemed to make him feel better; knowing the danger the heat in this part of the world brought with it, he never left his hat off for more than a quarter of an hour, or so.
Pulling the wagon up into the yard, he looked longingly over toward the beautiful horses in the coral and outside the barn, including his own. Johnny would dearly love to be able to ride alone but, until he truly felt better, he’d go along with Murdoch’s dictate that he drive the wagon or not leave the ranch alone at all. He thanked the hand that came and offered to take care of the team and wagon, then went inside to find Scott.
“Hey, Little Brother. Glad you’re back from Modesto early; it’s is a scorcher out there.”
“Train was on time so I didn’t have to wait for our supplies.”
Scott was where Johnny had hoped to find him and offered a sincere smile when he entered the room from the veranda. He was sitting at the big desk in the great room going over the ranch’s ‘end of the month’ books. They were scheduled to have the monthly family discussion about the ranch the following day and Scott always came prepared with tons of numbers, facts and figures to that meeting.
“How’s it looking, Scott?”
“Not bad. We took a second month of larger expenses than I had expected because of the spring weather and spending funds to help the community get back on its feet after the fever swept through the Valley.”
Johnny fumbled with the hat in hands and stood in front of the desk waiting for Scott to finish the thoughts he had been writing down. He wanted his complete attention for a few minutes.
“You need something, Johnny?”
He returned Scott’s smile and suddenly felt nervous.
“I was wondering …” Johnny swallowed hard, asking, “Do I have very much money?”
“Well,” Scott’s eyebrow rose as it did whenever he was being extra careful picking out his words, “we all have lots of money on paper because of the value of Lancer.”
“How about real money? Do I have much real money?”
He smiled; knowing Johnny’s general lack of interest in money was one of the traits he loved about his little brother and it helped keep Scott grounded. Sometimes, Scott fell into old habits and thought about their money, and making more of it, too much. Johnny, who was happy with a five dollar bill in his pocket on payday for the ranch hands, always brought Scott back to remembering the money a man had wasn’t’ really that important. It was the man that was important to Johnny and, more than ever before, Scott, too.
“You mean beside the five dollar allowance you draw on paydays around here?”
“Besides that; yes, other than that, do I have any money?”
“Well,” Scott opened one of the checkbooks he kept in the top drawer of the desk, “our account at the bank in Modesto always has ten thousand or a bit more in it. The rest of the money, the bonds and so forth, is safer in the bank we use in San Francisco. You’re worth a third of the total which is currently …”
Johnny watched Scott start to add up numbers. He chuckled and leaned in to pull the pen from his brother’s hand.
“Are you saying I’ve got three thousand dollars sitting in the bank in Modesto?”
“Yes, your entire share would be more than that actually.”
Scott watched as Johnny dropped his head and seemed relieved about something.
“May I know why you’re asking about our money? Normally, you don’t listen when I’m trying to tell you about our finances.”
“I know,” he shrugged his shoulders, “and I’m sorry about that, Scott. You’re good with all these figures, books and things and I do appreciate your taking care of this stuff. Murdoch likes it, too; don’t think the figuring was ever his favorite part of ranching.”
“I agree. He was thrilled when I offered to take over the bookkeeping.”
“How do I get it?”
Scott was truly getting curious about what was going on, but knew not to push his brother.
“How soon do you need it?”
“Sooner the better.” He smiled as memories of his past flew across his mind, chuckling as he revealed, “I used to win big at poker on a highly regular basis. Rode around with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars in my saddlebags and it never once occurred to me to put the money in a bank. Suppose I knew too many men set upon robbing those things to put any trust in them. Plus, I never planned on the money lasting; gave it away in chunks, lost it, won it back and so forth.”
“I could surely use four hundred dollars and just wondered …”
“Four hundred,” Scott sat back and opened the credenza behind the desk, “we have more than that in our petty cash account.”
He counted out the money and handed it to Johnny. Scott still wasn’t certain why his brother needed the money, but the smile that appeared on Johnny’s face made it clear he was truly happy to see it.
“Thanks, Scott,” he headed back toward the door, “I’ll pay you back.”
“Wait …” He stood up and walked around the desk, explaining, “You don’t have to pay me back, Johnny. It’s your money to use as you want.”
Johnny didn’t hear Scott ask him to wait. He was across the yard and riding off on one of the saddled horses waiting along the rail outside the barn before his brother made it out onto the veranda. Murdoch met Scott on the veranda and they watched together as a rider quickly rode out of Lancer’s front gate.
“That wasn’t Johnny riding off on Teresa’s mare was it?”
“Hate to say it, Murdoch, but it was.”
Scott stood watching as their father took off after Johnny. His brother wasn’t supposed to ride alone; he was still feeling the effects of the fever with an occasional bout of lightheadedness. Johnny had been good about following Murdoch’s various rules, up until today. Scott wished he knew what was going on, but figured he’d find out when his brother and father returned for supper later in the day.
XXXXXXXX EARLY FALL AT MODESTO’S TRAIN STATION XXXXXXXX
Murdoch smiled as Johnny shook hands with their newest business associate and Scott before walking over to stand with him. They watched as the railroad workers off-loaded the rest of the equipment, along with the all-important living beings who would be the first building blocks for their new business partnership.
“Never thought you’d be a dairy man, did you, Murdoch?”
He laughed and shook his head, admitting, “No, Johnny, the thought never crossed my mind.”
“Sure hope these Jersey cows from that farm Ernst’s friends own in Denver don’t disappoint. They’re supposed to hold up better in the San Joaquin’s heat than those Holsteins we read about. He and Frieda have mighty big plans for being the biggest dairy supplier in all of Modesto someday. They even finished digging out another root cellar so Frieda can get busy making cheese. Her cousins, the ones that are cheese making experts from over in Germany, are due to arrive in another week.”
He started to laugh and Murdoch chuckled, too, seeing Johnny so tickled by whatever was on his mind.
“Who ever would have guessed Scott and Ernst would turn out to be like two peas in a pod. They have this dairy business experiment we’re silent partnering written down on charts, graphs, and maps from here until the turn of the century!”
Murdoch laughed and agreed with his younger son’s assessment. Scott was truly excited about this new business venture with the Gernhardts. He and Ernst had been planning and organizing ever since the day Johnny offered Ernst and Frieda the money they needed to reinvest in dairy cows to replace the ones they had lost the spring before.
The two men turned and walked back to their horses. Ernst and Scott would see to it that things were finished here at the station and there was plenty of work waiting to be done back on the ranch. After waving to Frieda and the two Gernhardt children watching the proceedings from their wagon, they headed out of town.
“All kidding aside, Johnny,” Murdoch smiled over at his boy, “I’m proud of you for getting this whole venture going. I wish I had thought of it and I know its still irking Scott that he didn’t think of it first.”
They laughed and rode on for a while in silence. Finally, sensing the moment was right, Murdoch brought up something else.
“Great name you and the Gernhardts decided on.”
“At least, it’s easy to remember and a lot easier to spell than Gernhardt!”
They laughed together, again.
“Mateo would like it, too. Nice way to honor a good friend, “Mateo Dairy Products of Modesto, California.”
Johnny turned in his saddle and couldn’t hide his shock since Murdoch was implying he knew the name of their new business had something to do with a friend of Johnny’s from many, many, years before.
“How did …”
“You were talking to Mateo in the kitchen the night the fever hit last spring.”
“I thought that exchange was just a dream.”
“No,” Murdoch felt certain of his words, “you seemed to really believe Mateo had come to see you, but he left when I entered the room.”
“He did visit me; at least, it still feels like Mateo touched my heart in some way.”
“How did your experience with an angel end up being the name of our new dairy?”
Johnny offered his father an ear-to-ear smile; he liked how Murdoch summarized his seeing Mateo as his ‘experience with an angel.’ In his heart, he truly believed he had seen one.
“When we were working on the second root cellar, Frieda, Ernst and I couldn’t help talking about their Steffi. Naturally, they’re still grieving for that poor little girl of theirs, probably will grieve for the rest of their lives, and for some reason, I decided to tell them about my dream and Mateo. I told them our discussion regarding what happened to him and Mateo’s reassuring me that children absolutely go to heaven. He was so certain of himself and easily convinced me. Now, that’s not a dream for me. I truly believe what Mateo told me; children go to heaven.
“Later, when the company-naming thing came back up, Frieda suggested using Mateo’s name. She said it made her feel better knowing their Steffi wasn’t alone in heaven. Frieda said instead of being sad when she thought of Steffi, she was starting to picture her little girl with Mateo, and the other children, smiling, playing and having fun.
“Once, Frieda told us about her new visions of Steffi with Mateo, what could Ernst and I say, but ‘yes,’ to her idea. Mateo Dairy Products it is and forever more will be!”
Questions, comments and suggestions are welcome.
XXXXXXXXXX Additional Information XXXXXXXXXX
Consumption (Tuberculosis), Cholera, Small Pox and Influenza (IE: The Grip) were among the major infectious diseases people living in the late 19th Century feared most. From the 1800s on, poor hygiene habits, lack of knowledgeable medical care and little understanding of the infectious process coupled with the greatly expanding railroad system to effect mortality patterns across the USA. People were thrilled to be able to travel further, faster, while goods and services came to their communities in record time. Unknowingly, the railroad lines also brought the spread of diseases, such as influenza, as they traveled across the continent through small and large villages, towns and cities. This story is a depiction of how influenza might affect one small community, including the Lancer Ranch.
If you would like more information, try these Internet sites: