Red Sky at Night
by  Sprite


Rating: G

Summary: The Sequel to “The Saint Anne”.  The Lancer men return home.

For Cat – who made me. And Di- who made me do it again!  Thank you ladies.


Red Sky at Night



Jelly had received a telegram three days before; he was to expect the Lancer men on the morning stage. He’d only told one or two people, well, one or two in town, and everyone on the ranch, so he was more than a little surprised by the crowd that had formed to welcome the family home. The news of the wreck made the paper, but when it was learned that two of their own had been on the St. Anne, those two had become local celebrities. When Scott, followed by Johnny, stepped off the stage they were met with a round of applause.

Teresa waited at the front of the crowd, her long brown hair pulled back with a simple blue bow that matched the navy dress she was wearing. She wanted to rush and hug each of them, but it wasn’t considered proper. It was a struggle for her to contain her excitement at having her family home, but Jelly kept her back with a gentle hand on her arm. When Murdoch finally climbed down from the stage, Jelly removed his hand and she rushed to stand next to her guardian, gripping his forearm tightly.

Jelly moved up quickly, pumping their hands and slapping their backs while at the same time giving each of them a critical appraisal.

Scott looked more than a little rough around the edges. His clothes, recently purchased in San Francisco, were neat and well kept, but didn’t seem to fit him right.  His skin, while tanned from his sea voyage, still seemed a little taut and at the back of his eyes there was a look of horror at being the center of attention.

Johnny seemed to be holding up better.  His hair seemed both darker and lighter with the sun picking up multi-color tints. He was definitely thinner, and there was a patch on each cheek where his skin had sunburnt so badly it had blistered. He was wearing black trousers and a dark green shirt. His brand new boots still had a high gloss shine.

The boss looked the worst, as if he’d aged more than a few years in the last few weeks.  There were dark circles under his eyes and he held himself stiffly as if pained by the journey and the crush of the crowd.

“Now folks, we is all glad to have our boys back, but we need to get them home. So move back. Move back.”  Jelly cleared a path to the waiting buggy.  He had brought the big spring surrey that would sit all five of them in a pinch as long as they squeezed Teresa up front between himself and Scott. The black leather seats and the glossy paint gleamed from the good clean and polish he’d given it the day before.

“So, tell me everything.” Teresa tried to look into the back seat, but there wasn’t much room to move around. Scott got a lap blanket from under the seat and settled it over Teresa’s knees.

“When we get home, darling,” Murdoch said with a sigh as he took in a huge lungful of the clean air of home.

“And I get to tell it,” Johnny said from the back. “These two have been telling it to everybody that would listen for the last five days.”

“Only because you didn’t seem to be able to form a sentence whenever we got around somebody you didn’t know.” Scott shot back in a teasing tone. “You’d think you were testifying in court.”

“It felt like it with some of the questions they were firing at me,” Johnny rejoined.

“Gentlemen.” Murdoch’s tone was low but firm.  “Can we please wait until we get home?”

“Sure,” Johnny said softly, squirming on the seat, unused to sitting in the back, and fumbling for a moment for the most comfortable place to rest his arm.

“It is certainly good to be home.” Scott looked at the familiar scenery of oak trees and scrub brush. The lane stretched out before them smooth and wide and the matched pair of chestnut geldings had a good fast pace even with the full load.

Teresa began to chatter on about the goings on of the ranch.  The big news was that while they’d been gone Walt Defrane’s wife had had her baby.  A pretty little boy with fiery red hair and a batch of freckles.  And there was other news about the Summer Social and how Missy Johnson had come with Beau Williams but gone home with Jeff Davenport.  How Mr. Franklin was having a barn raising at the end of the month and Marcus Hall had asked to escort Teresa.

Squirming to look into the back seat to see how her guardian was taking the news, she noticed that Murdoch was leaning back in the seat, his head nodding toward his chest.  Johnny was staring out at the landscape, a faraway look in his eyes, chewing on his bottom lip.

Scott nudged her before she had a chance to speak and gave her a wistful smile. “Let them be,” he said softly. “It’s been a long few days.”


Every time they returned to Lancer, whether it was from buying supplies or going to church or just picking up the mail, they had to stop at the crest of the hill. Today it was no different. Before them lay the entire compound.  They all stopped and looked down on the ranch house, the barns, corrals and out buildings. Small moving dots showed the hands at work.

“It doesn’t look as if anything went missing while we were gone.” Scott grinned in Jelly’s direction.

“Only thing gone missing in the last two weeks was you,” Jelly shot back.

The view was on Johnny’s side, but Murdoch craned around to get a good look.  “Seems like we’ve been gone both days and years.”

“Walt’s baby’s gonna be walking by the time we get home, if we don’t get moving,” Johnny drawled.

Jelly clicked to the horses, and moved down the hill, the team as anxious to get home as the occupants of the buggy.


They clambered out of the buggy with stiff-legged movements, all of them in their own way savoring the sights and smells of home.  The house cast the front drive into shade and a gentle breeze lifted the scents of lavender and sage off the garden and into the yard.

Jelly waved to a couple of hands who were near the barn and they began to off load the scant luggage strapped to the back of the buggy.

Teresa went inside first. A feast had been prepared, with foods loaded on the kitchen table until it was groaning under the weight. A steer had been slaughtered and was already slowly cooking over the pit and would be ready in just a few hours.  Teresa and Jelly had decided to throw a welcome home party and all the hands had quit work early to attend.

Johnny and Scott stood shoulder to shoulder on the front porch, looking out at the meadow and the land beyond.

“For a little while I didn’t think you’d be here to see this,” Scott said softly.

“Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Johnny quoted.

Scott shook his head. “Isn’t that passage about Matthew on the seas?”

Johnny smiled. “I think so.”

“Sometimes, you amaze me.”

“I spent half a year in an orphanage in Santa Fe and every morning they made you learn a Bible passage before you could have breakfast.”

Scott waited to see if Johnny would tell more.  Murdoch and Jelly stood together pretending not to listen. When nothing else seemed to be forthcoming, Scott prompted him.

“How old were you?”

“Twelve or so. I stayed for a while, but I’d been on my own for too long before that. I took off just after Easter.” A sly grin spread across his features.

“What?” Scott asked watching the light play in his brother’s eyes.

“Now that I think about it, it’s a good time for a new beginning, isn’t it?”

Understanding the inference, Scott clapped his brother on the shoulder. “I guess it is.”


They all moved into the house, in a group, as if afraid to let one another out of their sight for too long. Behind the thick adobe walls, the large rooms were kept at a comfortable temperature. Murdoch moved to his desk, idly flipping through the mail that had accumulated in his absence.  A copy of the San Francisco Chronicle was folded neatly in half, showing the headline about the sinking of the St. Anne and beneath the bold print, a drawing of the doomed ship.  He put his mail on top of it to obscure the picture. He’d read the article, more than once, and cringed each time he read Scott’s name as a survivor and Johnny’s as missing, presumed lost.

“I’m going up to change my clothes.” Scott ran a hand over the stiff new shirt.

“I’m going to be working oil into my trousers for the rest of my life to get the sea water out of ‘em.” Johnny followed his brother up the stairs.

Murdoch sat heavily in his chair and contemplated the silence.  A comforting, welcome silence now that he was home and his family was around him. He turned the big leather chair until he could look out the window at the meadow beyond.  There seemed to be a fist tightly gripping his heart and the ache had gotten steadily worse on the journey home. He’d been so close to losing not one but both of his sons and the knowledge of that was never very far away.


The festivities started about four o’clock.  After everyone had eaten and was relaxing it was Johnny’s turn to tell his tale.  He was hesitant at first, never comfortable being the center of attention, but he covered his clumsy first words by pouring a mug of cider for himself and then Scott.

“I just want to start off by saying I didn’t want to go on that boat in the first place.”  Johnny began with a glare at this brother.

“He’s right,” Scott jumped in. “He said he didn’t want to go.”

“It was raining so hard you couldn’t see the other side of the street.” Johnny was now ready to spin his tale.  “The stageline had stopped running, everything was so mired in mud if you stood still too long you were apt to take root. Anybody with any sense was staying out of the weather.”

Scott interjected again. “He did ask me if I knew where to get plans for an ark.”

“I never knew you were so resourceful,” Johnny grumbled before turning his focus back on the assembled group. “So Scott gets us tickets on this boat.”

“The Saint Anne,” Jelly added for the benefit of anyone that might not have heard, but everyone had heard the news already.

Johnny nodded and continued. “The St. Anne. You could tell by looking at her she’d been working for years.  She was part steam ship and part paddle wheeler and part I don’t know what else, and she looked kinda squat and funny as she sat there at the dock. But Scott says she’s a good ship, so we decide to go ahead.”

“I decide to go ahead. Him I drag on like he’s cargo,” Scott added to the amusement of the crowd.

Johnny grinned his agreement. “Ol’ Scott he decides to go down and get settled in some state room. Me – no – I’m not going under deck…”

“Below deck,” Scott nudged his younger brother with his shoulder.

“Below deck. I’m not going below deck for all the fish in the sea,” Johnny continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted.  “Now, I made me a couple of friends, some deck hands and some soldiers that wasn’t afraid to come out in the storm.  You see, it stormed most of the way from Los Angeles to San Francisco.  You shoulda seen the seas.  There were times when the bow of the ship was pointed straight up at heaven, and other times it was going straight down and you had to hang on or go sliding right over the edge.”

Scott had fallen silent now.  For the last few days he had told his side of the story, but he’d been below decks, not out in the storm as Johnny had been. He’d seen the rain lashing at the windows, but he hadn’t been out in it, except those few times he’d ventured out to check on this brother.

“Sometimes it would get real quiet and still. Like the air before a big storm. And at first you’d think that there was no sound, like greenhorns think it’s quiet outside, only it’s really not if you listen.”

Many a cowhand nodded at this.  The outdoors was full of little noises of bugs and squirrels and other creatures that made their home outside and even the wind in the trees could be heard if you took the time to listen.

“The fog would settle around the ship and you could barely see from one end to the other, and you began to think maybe this little ship was the only thing left on earth. And one night,” Johnny continued, a slight reverence in his voice, “I start to hear this low, deep whistle.  I can’t explain it; it’s a sound I never heard before.  It was the animals of the sea calling to each other the way a herd of horses will across a meadow.  One of the hands, Placido Pariz, he was a Portuguese, told me it was whales singing.  And just as the sun came up, I looked over the side of the ship, which was much closer to the water than I’d like, but there were these great, huge critters swimming right along side us.  One even rolled on its side and looked up at me with this big dark eye the size of my fist.  Never seen the like of it.”

Johnny had his audience in the palm of his hand. Everyone had stopped eating and was listening intently to his slow drawl. 

“Well, just when were about to go into the port the weather really clears up and everybody comes out on deck. We were close enough to see the shore.  Now, looking out from a boat is like looking across the desert in the morning, everything seems much closer than it really is.”

Murdoch was fascinated how Johnny was putting his story into terms that was easily understood by everyone present, even those who had never seen the sea.

“Now, I’d made me a few friends and I don’t want you to think I was lonely up on that deck all by myself.  I played some cards and drank some Greek wine called Uzo and learned a few words in Portuguese and the sailors taught me the names of the stars and about the tides and such. I even won twenty-three dollars off a couple of soldier boys. They were on their way to Portland to do some treaty work with the Indians up there.  The ship was heavy with mining and timber machines, and that was probably part of the problem – it was heavy in the water and didn’t move as well as it should and Placido told me that because of the storm the currents were moving faster than they usually did.”

Johnny stopped to take a long drink from the glass of cider that sat on the table beside him. His audience leaned forward, anxiously awaiting the next part.

“Well, the boat, she came up on a swell and BANG!”  Johnny clapped his hands together and everyone jumped.  “She came down on a big ol’ rock that no one had seen. Next thing you know everybody’s scrambling around for purchase.  The lifeboats are going over the side, only the ship, she’s heaving and rolling in her death throes and before I can say ‘howdy do’ I’m in the water.

It’s a strange thing, we use it every day, wash in it, play in it, fish in it, but I never thought of water as hard.” Johnny shook his head and paused, reeling in his audience like an expert fisherman.  “I hit that water and it was like getting bucked off a bronc.  Knocked the wind right out of me and I felt myself getting tugged and pulled, this way and that. I don’t think the ocean could decide if it wanted me or not.

Here it was, the sun shining and the sky clear and under the water it’s dark and murky and cold.  So I fight my way back up to the surface and I get there just as that boat starts to roll over on to her side.  People are yelling and hollering and the boat is breaking up and making a terrible racket and there’s bubbles and foam from the rocks and the water below decks and people jumping from the railings into the water. Then,” he paused and they all watched him breathlessly. “Then, it all goes quiet. Not a sound. I don’t think for a second or two even the water made any noise. It was so still I could hear my heart beat.” He had leaned forward and so had the group.  Even Jelly stopped with a drink half way to his mouth.

“But not for long. People start shouting and someone keeps blowing a whistle, but with the swells you can’t see and it’s hard to tell which way to go.  A big plank comes floating by me and I grab a hold and start to kick, but I’m not getting anywhere.  And pretty soon I realize I’m not only not going forward, the tide is taking me backward.  And my boots are filling up with water. So I let go of my precious plank and hold my breath and go back into that dark, cold water and pull off my boots and they just disappear.” He shook his head again. “That was a good pair of boots.”

He looked out at the group and smiled.  “Anyway, when I get back to the surface, my plank has floated quite a distance.  I still don’t know which way is land and there isn’t a lifeboat to be seen anywhere. So I figure that sooner or later the tide has to go in, so I swim after my plank.”

He narrowed his eyes and scratched the back of one arm.  “Ever try to swim in wet clothes?”  The change of pace broke the mood for a moment, releasing some tension.  “It’s not a good idea. I never did catch up with that plank of wood, and I was treading water and I thought maybe if I stayed near the wreck somebody would find me. Only the swells are getting worse and the wind is coming up.  A big door came over on the next wave and darn near took my head off, but I latched on to it and hung on.  After a bit a few more things pop up from below that seem useful.  I find a couple of barrels that float pretty good, and one of ‘em has a good length of rope still hooked to it. So I bind ‘em all up together and crawl up on top.

Now before I was cold and wet, now I’m just wet. And the wind’s blowing over me and I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be a good idea to get back in the water, but pretty soon I start to dry out and then I start to get hot.

I’m starting to think about things, like here I am in this big ol’ ocean and I’ve got nothing to drink. And what about food and how long am I gonna be here and I’ve got more questions than I’ve got answers. I tried to stand up on my little raft and nearly go back into the deep so I figure that’s not a very good idea.”

Heads in the crowd nodded their agreement.

“So I wait, hanging onto my little raft and get tossed around like a greenhorn riding his first wild horse, figuring it’ll only be a little while and I’ll get out of there.” His voice took on a sober tone.  “It wasn’t a little while though, it was a long while. And the daytime with its burning hot sun wasn’t near as bad as the nighttime. Nighttime is when your mind starts to play tricks on you and you get to thinking about those whales and wondering what they eat and if John Lancer sounds like something they might want to try.”

A few light chuckles again broke the tension, but it was right back when Johnny’s low tones filled the air.  “My little boat got tangled up in something and I looked over the side and there’s this stuff. Big long muddy green strands of stuff like creeping vines. So I grab a handful and haul it up onto my raft. Now I’ve eaten some pretty strange things in my day, from wild roots to Teresa’s yam pudding.” That drew a big laugh, as the pudding was a dish never again to be seen on the Lancer Ranch.  Even Teresa smiled at the thought of the culinary disaster. “But I had heard that folk in Chinatown eat sea weeds and I figured it might be better than nothing.” He paused again as if thinking about it. “I didn’t eat it right away. I left it there on the edge of my boat, and let it dry a bit in the sun. But when my belly started to ache I thought I’d give it a try.”

He bit his lip for a second before continuing. “I learned long ago, whenever you’re about to eat something you’ve never had before you take a small bite and wait to see what happens. So I ate a little bit and then I waited and then I had some more.” He shrugged as if the matter was of little consequence. “It was all right, kind of like uncooked collards, but before I realize it I noticed it was very salty. And now I’m back to thinking about fresh water.”

Small murmurs of nervousness begin to wander through the crowd. They all knew the dangers of being without water.

Johnny held up one palm as if trying to stop a question he knew was coming. “I know what you’re thinking. What is in those two barrels you found, Johnny-boy?” No one was thinking any such thing, but they went along with the story. “I was thinking just that same thing. So I haul one over the side and what do you think was in there?”

He waited for an answer but his spellbound crowd waited patiently.  So did he – until ten-year-old Danny Harper ventured a guess.  “Water?”  His father, a full-time wrangler, shushed him but Johnny only laughed. “You don’t think I’ve got that kind of luck, do you? No – that barrel was full of,” he waited, drawing out the suspense. “Bacon. Salt bacon. I don’t much like to eat bacon raw, but I wasn’t complaining at this point. It was packed in bran and I even ate a bit of that, but it sticks in your teeth and it’s hard to eat with out something to drink.  So, I laid the bacon out on the deck of my little ship and let the sun dry it into jerky, while I fished out the other barrel and what do you think was in that one? And don’t guess water.” He admonished Danny Harper, who grinned at being included in the story.

“Champagne?” Scott attempted to join in.

“Beer?” Jelly added, going along.

Each time Johnny shook his head.  “No, but something just as good that I don’t nearly get enough of.”

Murdoch cocked his head, interested in the final outcome.

“Oranges.” Johnny had a wistful tone.  “Nothing better in this world than a fresh orange. I rolled it on the door, squashing the insides without breaking the rind and then bit out the core and I got me a whole barrel full of fresh juice.

Now I wasn’t worried about starving or dying of thirst, but if you thought I was worried about how close I was to the water before, being in it is a whole lot worse.  But late at night, with the moon over head, big and full and bright I knew God was looking down on me.” He grinned slowly. “I was just hoping he wasn’t mad at me. For the first time in this whole trip, I didn’t think I was gonna die. Of all the times you’d think this would be the worst, but it wasn’t – it was the best. That big sky and that big moon and all that water has a way of making a man think about his place on this world.

The next day, early on, the waves were mostly calm and I heard a baby crying. ‘Course at first I thought it was a trick of my hearing or it was a sea bird or something, but then I heard it again so I tied the raft to me and I struck out in that direction.  I found a lady with two little kids with her.  She was near drowned herself and the kids were just barely hanging on to a piece of the ship. She’d wrapped ‘em in her shawl and kinda tied ‘em to it so they wouldn’t slip under the water.  I got to her and lifted her up on to my raft.  Let me tell you – I thought my trousers, full of water, was heavy- but all them underthings you woman wear sure weigh a body down. She must’ve dripped for half the day. I untied those kids and put them up onto the raft with her.  I tied her shawl to the two barrels and made a little bit of shade.  A little later we used a bit of her petticoat, but I wasn’t going to do that without first asking her.  I’d managed to survive this long, I didn’t want to get killed by an irate female.

The juice from the oranges does a good job getting all the salt off your skin, but it makes you sticky. So if you wash in the seawater, you’re covered in salt again. But we had a bit of food and some juice and for a while we were out of the water.  It was hard to get all of us up on that door. It wasn’t all that big, so I would jump off in to the water and just kind of swim along side until I got tired and then rest against it. By afternoon she started to feel better and I learned she wasn’t the mama to those kids, she just pulled ‘em outta the water.”

His eyes took on a faraway look and the group got silent again, waiting for him to continue.  At that moment Murdoch could see just how tired his son was. 

“That night was the worst.  The fog was back and it was cold and damp and those little kids weren’t happy with not being able to get up and move around and we were all tired and sick of the rocking motion of that door on the water. I was starting to think about what was living under me again. Especially when something brushed up against me in the water. Bumping my leg or brushing against my feet. Made me real nervous, I can tell you. 

Next morning me and Elizabeth decide we needed to do something, afraid we weren’t ever going to be found.  So, we decide the sun’s coming up in the east and that’s as good a direction as any, so I make sure I’m tied good and tight to that door and she takes the lid of the barrel and we start paddling toward the rising sun.  I’m not sure if it did any good, or if we got any closer to land, but we gave it a good try.  By late afternoon I was so tired I couldn’t a got back up onto that door if I tried.

It’s all different sounds on the water that you don’t have on the land. And the sound of the water stays in your ears long after you’re on land. So none of us heard the boat that came up to rescue us. It was a fishing boat and the Captain spotted us and came up right along side, pretty as you please, and he took us on his boat and gave us dry clothes and fresh water.

Ever notice how good water tastes? Just plain water can taste better than any thing you’ve ever had.” He took another sip of the cider from the mug at his elbow. “The Captain he headed for port as fast as he could and we got to shore before dark. There was a crowd of folks waiting at the dock.  I learned later how many of those passengers were lost to the waves, so I felt mighty lucky not to be one of them.”

He smiled at his father and brother. “And there those two were. Just waiting for me like the stage was late.”

Scott chuckled.

“Now,” Johnny leaned forward. “I don’t want you to feel sorry for this poor boy.” He was grinning as he continued his story. “After I get to shore, the shipping lines, they put us up in a little hotel for a day and then we took the stage to San Francisco.  They paid the bill there, too.  So we stayed in a fancy hotel and ate good food while we waited for the connection to Cross Creek.  And don’t think these two are ones to sit idle.”  He shook his head to emphasize his words.  “Oh, no.  First we gotta shop for new clothes.  Since everything Scott and I had was now at the bottom of the ocean. And we can’t just go to a mercantile and buy everything we need. You see, there’s a separate store for shirts and trousers and a different one for the things that go under and a whole other one for gear.” Johnny nudged Scott gently with his elbow. “Scott bought himself a pearl handled razor.”

Scott took the jab with good humor and elbowed Johnny back. “And how long did we spend looking at hairbrushes, hmm?”

Johnny refused to take the bait and turned back to his audience. “It’s not that I was particular, it was just that I’d never seen that many in one place before. There must have been twenty different kinds. Plain ones, fancy ones, engraved ones and all different kinds of bristles. I just never knew there was that kind of choice before.  By the time we were done looking I’d have been happy with a curry comb.” He ran a hand through his wild hair and then continued his story. “Then, they decided that since we were in a big city we needed to see the sights some. And let me tell you, old Murdoch Lancer sure knows how to have a good time on somebody else’s dime.” Johnny looked up to see his father scowling, but the scowl was too overdone to be taken seriously. “So, Murdoch hires a cab and decides to show us around.  I’ve never seen so much art in my life. And I got to hear how Boston was just opening its art museum. Must heard that at least twenty times, about how Scott was sorry he wouldn’t be there for the opening, but he was sure glad there were these dusty old pictures, of people nobody has ever heard of, hanging right there in San Francisco.”

“I said no such thing,” Scott exclaimed, while Murdoch frowned dramatically, crossing his arms over his chest.

“And every chance they got we stopped some place to eat. Seems both of them have no end of friends in that city and they had to tell the story, over and over. It was raining, we hit a rock, the boat sank.” Johnny rolled his eyes as he parroted the condensed story. There was a roar of relived laughter as his listeners relaxed. The worst of the story over.  “But it didn’t end there,” he cautioned. “Now, I got dragged…”

“Kicking and yelling.” Scott added, finally feeling comfortable interrupting his brother’s story telling.

“Kicking and yelling,” Johnny agreed. “To the theater.  They made me buy a suit for that, I might add.  It’s packed in my bag. The itchiest hunk a black wool you’ve ever seen.”

“But you look very nice in that suit, son.” Murdoch tried to console him, only to be shot a dark look that made everyone else laugh.

“And they dragged me to a play. I don’t remember what it was about except there was a lot of shouting.”

“It was Henry the Fifth,” Scott said with a sigh.

“A play about war.  That’s all I remember. Yelling and shouting.  I like my entertainment a little more –festive,” Johnny said to the crowd.

“No dance hall girls, huh, Johnny?” one of the cowhands offered in mock sympathy.

“Not a one to be found – however,” he paused dramatically for effect. “I did meet the Emperor of the United States.”

The whole group broke out in laughter. “I didn’t know there was an Emperor of the United States, Mama.” Vicki Johnson, Frank and Harriet’s oldest daughter, was confused.

Murdoch felt it was time for him to join in the conversation.  “He’s a very nice man who is just a little confused, honey,” Murdoch explained.  “The people of San Francisco just humor him.”

“He is a nice man,” Johnny laughed.  “And I like him.”

“You would.” Scott tipped his chair back and shook his head, letting out a resigned sigh. 

“Scott’s just upset because Emperor Norton abolished the congress and the Democratic and Republican parties.  Although both he and Murdoch liked his idea on a League of Nations, to which I have been appointed an Ambassador of Good Will.”

“I’m not upset about his decree,” Scott attempted to defend himself.

“Oh, was it the $25.00 fine you had to pay for arguing with him?” Johnny teased and Scott surrendered. 

“Who am I to argue with The Right Honorable Ambassador Lancer?” Scott stood and made a flourishing bow before Johnny.

The laughter and the setting sun seemed to break up the party. Johnny’s story was over and people began to get up and move around. Ranch hands were laughing and joking. Someone tossed a few bones to the dog. Some of women were bundling up children against the cooling evening. The sky was filled with streaks of red. Red sky at night, a sailor’s delight.


Murdoch moved away from the table and went inside to get his pipe.  He came back out to stand in the doorway, watching his family and extended family. Teresa was holding Walt’s baby and he could hear her clear laugh across the yard. Johnny and Scott were standing together talking to Antonio, Cypriano’s oldest boy, and from the young man’s enthusiastic gestures, Murdoch could tell he was talking about the milk cow in the garden.

“Boss?” Jelly’s voice was uncharacteristically rough. “It’s good to have them home, boss.”

“Yes, it is, Jelly. It certainly is.”

“That Scott don’t let Johnny very far from his side, does he?”

Murdoch watched his sons standing together and thought back over the trip from San Francisco the last three days. Jelly was right, Scott hadn’t been very far from Johnny’s side.  Scott had made jokes about being afraid that Johnny would get lost in the big city, but there was truth in the those words.  Scott was very worried that Johnny would be lost again.  It was a fear Murdoch still carried as well. He’d come so close to losing both of them.

“Last night they sat out on the balcony of the hotel and talked until the small hours of the morning. I wasn’t eavesdropping, I just couldn’t help but overhear.” He didn’t look at Jelly, but he could feel the man move closer. “I’d already gone to bed when I heard Johnny go out on the balcony.  For a minute I thought maybe he was going to go out…”

“And catch some night life?”

Murdoch’s smile was rueful. “I guess Scott heard him, too.  A few minutes later they were both out on the balcony.  I thought of getting up, but then…” He took a couple of puffs on his pipe and the gray smoke circled around his head.  “Scott felt it was all his fault.”

“That’s nonsense.” Jelly ran his hands up and down his suspenders.

“Funny, those were the very same words that Johnny used.” Murdoch watched as Johnny moved down to the corral fence, Scott and Antonio following close behind, still in animated conversation. “Scott brought up that Johnny didn’t want to go on the boat and that Scott had pretty much forced Johnny to go.” Murdoch chuckled. “Johnny said that nobody forces him to do anything.”

“That sounds like Johnny.”

“Scott said it – the worst part was the not knowing. Those days when I was trying to get there and then while Johnny was missing. Jelly, I can’t tell you that feeling. The dread… the panic.”

Jelly nodded and moved to get a taper and light the lamps beside the door.  With his back turned he spoke into the shadows.  “That feeling like your heart’s in your throat and your hands are clammy and you feel like you’re gonna die and you’re afraid you won’t.”

“That’s about it.”

Jelly moved down the walkway, lighting the lamps that cast a cheery glow into the twilight.  The party had pretty much broken up. The ladies had taken the last of the food into the kitchen and the children were being bustled off to bed. Some of the hands were moving the tables back where they belonged and putting the chairs away.

Antonio gave a wave and then headed over to help his father check the stock for the night as Scott and Johnny strolled back to the house. Something Scott said made Johnny grin; that rakish grin that lit his face and made those around him smile, too. Johnny must have made some kind of impertinent response because in seconds Scott was grinning and threw a mock punch. The evening air carried Johnny’s laughter across the patio, joined by Scott’s mellow chuckle.

That sound was the cure.  The weight, the fear he’d been carrying for days suddenly fell away from him at the sound.  His sons’ laughter. 


Jelly finished with the lamps and came to stand next to the rancher, noticing the stiffness had finally left his employer’s face. “How are you doing, boss?”

Murdoch watched his sons and then turned to his friend, grinning.  “I’m fine now, Jelly. Thanks.”

Jelly nodded.  Murdoch was home and had brought his sons with him. 


Post Script

There was a man called the Emperor of the United States.  Joshua Norton was born in England in 1819 and came to the US by way of Africa.  He declared himself the Emperor of the US in 1859. He lived in San Francisco and made decrees that were published in the local newspapers.  He tried to set up a League of Nations so that countries could amicably settle disputes. He lived an interesting life and died in San Francisco in 1880.

This story is a sequel to the “The Saint Anne” and I hope that you have enjoyed it.

Red Sky at Night

Tory (Sprite) Fischer

September 2003




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