I do not own these characters nor do I make any profit, other than fun. I want to thank Con for her great beta. Comments are welcome and I do hope you enjoy the story. Thank you. Ronnie
Just a few
hours from home and he was tired, bone tired, but satisfied with his trip.
Stockton had been profitable for Lancer. Scott was pleased that Murdoch not
only trusted him to act on behalf of the ranch but also had confidence in
his ability. He patted the envelope in his jacket, and smiled once more at
the profitable bulge. Scott found it amusingly ironic that his experience
with banking and business, thanks to his grandfather’s one-on-one tutoring
after he’d come home from the war, could now be used to help his father.
His grandfather certainly would not find humor in the situation. Helping
Murdoch Lancer in any way was as far from his grandfather’s intent as Boston
was from California.
The feelings of his grandfather were not shared by Scott and he looked forward to seeing his tall, powerful father. He smiled to himself, remembering how just a few short months ago his opinion of the man had been anything but pleasant. Anger and disdain had covered over Scott’s feelings of pain and rejection – he thought his father had abandoned him. Learning that was not the case helped to ease some of the hurt, but twenty-four years and no contact left scars. However, Scott didn’t like dwelling on that fact; he was with Murdoch now and wanted to go forward. Still…
faltered and almost fell, shaking Scott from his reverie. Squeezing his
thighs tightly against the saddle, pushing into the stirrups and catching
the horn, he managed to maintain his seat. Puzzled at the stumble, he
noticed the wide trail was littered with branches, slick stones, and
slippery leaves. Obviously a hard rain had recently swept debris from the
hills to his left, across the pathway and down the sloping ravine. The
autumn leaves dripped moisture, even though the day was cloudless and crisp.
Gently patting the gelding on its neck, he reassured the animal and lightly heeled it forward. The passage was widest here, but he knew that up ahead it narrowed before dropping to the broad meadows and pastures of Lancer. Anxious for home, he would pay more attention to the trail and his normally sure footed mount.
where’s that rig you were oiling?”
“I’ve been oilin’ lots of rigs, and you don’t need ta shout. I’m right here.”
“Oh,” Johnny replied, lowering his voice and turning to look at the old man coming up behind him. “Sorry. Thought you were in the tack room.”
“I was,” Jelly said, draping a taut lariat on the nearest stall. “That new rope your pa bought is stiff. I’ll get ‘em soakin’ but be sure the boys start usin’ ‘em or they’ll never be any good.”
“Get some saddle soap on ‘em.”
“I know that,” Jelly huffed. “I’ve been softenin’ rope since before you were born.” He hitched up his pants and looked at Johnny. “Now, what rig are you lookin’ for?”
“That one I was making for Scott, as if you didn’t know. You’ve had that breastplate for days. I want to give it to Scott when he gets home tonight.” Johnny reluctantly had given the piece to Jelly when he offered to oil it only because no one could shine and soften a new piece of leather like Jelly.
“I got it, Johnny. You think I’d keep it from ya?” The little man pulled on his suspenders and started towards the large tack room. “Ya comin’?” he asked, swiveling his head towards Johnny.
Blowing out an irritation, Johnny followed the strutting little man. His annoyance vanished quickly when Jelly unfolded a blanket, took what was lying on it tenderly into his hands, then turned and presented it proudly. The glossy breastplate was beautiful; the leather warm brown, braids perfect in size, the metal rings burnished, the piece as beautiful as the animal who would wear it. Johnny grinned and took the faultless tack into his hands. He looked at Jelly, smiled and said softly, “It’s beautiful, Jelly. Thank you.”
“You done it, Johnny. That’s your work; the work of your hands. Ya should be proud.”
Johnny felt himself blush and lowered his eyes, not trusting himself to look at Jelly.
“Scott’s gonna like it real well,” Jelly murmured.
“Ya think so, huh?”
This time Johnny did raise his eyes to Jelly, grinned shyly and shrugged. “Horse soldier needs something flashy.”
“Gonna give it to him when he gets home tonight?”
“Why’d you do it, Johnny? Not his birthday or anythin’. What’s the special occasion?”
“Why does there have to be a special occasion?” Johnny barked. “I just want to, is all. Can’t a man give his brother a gift for no reason?” Johnny was embarrassed at the question. He missed Scott and was glad that he was coming home, although he’d never admit it.
As if sensing Johnny’s feelings, Jelly blinked rapidly and cleared his throat. “Well, he’ll be mighty pleased.”
Awkwardly, Johnny fidgeted with the breastplate, flexing his finger tips along the smooth edge. He breathed in the leather smell of hot Mexico, long maned horses, and dried brome. Hoping his brother would indeed be ‘mighty pleased’, he said, “Thanks again, Jelly,” and walked out of the barn.
He looked towards the mountain, golden with autumn colors, and envisioned Scott on the unseen trail, even now making his way home. In a few hours he would be at the northern meadows, then on to Widow’s Creek. Johnny frowned, remembering the heavy rains that had fallen swelling the creek. He knew the path Scott would be taking through the foothills and hoped the downpours hadn’t undercut any part of the well timbered pathway. Well, his brother was a good horseman. No need to worry about something that wouldn’t happen.
Johnny laughed quietly and fingered the breastplate; who’d have thought he’d be worried about anyone other than himself a few months ago. His father had changed all that. Johnny lowered his head in contemplation, and smiled again. Yeah, the old man had certainly done a lot of things for someone who’d come to expect nothing. Although he had to admit most of them were good, the frettin’ part…well, he’d just as soon that wouldn’t nettle him so.
“Johnny, you have a minute? I want to ask you about those new horses we got from Will Tiedy.” He turned and saw his father standing in the open French doors.
“Coming, Murdoch.” He took a last look at the colorful hills, breathed in the crisp autumn air, and went into the house.
The horse was
jumpy and Scott couldn’t understand why. It wasn’t his usual mount, but
still a sound animal that wasn’t prone to spook. He speculated that perhaps
the stumble a mile or so back plus the fact that the wind had picked up, and
was whipping the trees and leaves had something to do with it. What had
been a blue sky was turning dismal grey, promising more rain. The day was
definitely cooling, and Scott huddled into his jacket.
Scott was inexplicably edgy himself. For the third time in as many minutes he peered over his shoulder and scanned the back path, thinking he heard something. Brown-leaved branches slapping one another and an empty trail were the only things seen. Something cracked and he pulled his gun, bringing the horse up sharply. A scampering squirrel ran through the soggy leaves, darted up a tree, and chattered at him snappishly from an overhanging limb. The horse danced nervously and Scott holstered his gun, trying to calm the animal.
“This is ridiculous,” he said disgustedly and pulled up on the reins. He kicked the horse harder than he intended, and the animal reared. Scott toppled from the saddle and landed with a solid thud, knocking the air momentarily from his lungs. Squirming on the ground as he tried to catch his breath, he bleakly watched the bolting horse run down the trail, kicking up dirt and debris in its wake.
“Damn it,” he cursed, when he was finally able to breathe. He picked himself up, and gingerly touched his side. The rib was definitely protesting, but it wasn’t broken. He kicked at the culprit he had fallen on---a smooth faced stone---and observed it tumble down the brush filled ravine, gaining speed as the grade increased. It quickly fell out of sight and Scott heard a splash several seconds later – it had landed in an unseen creek well below the path.
He looked around at the sodden landscape. He was still several miles from home. Scott sighed heavily and started trudging in the direction of the hacienda. He twirled quickly at a rustle behind him, wrapping an arm around his side as his ribs pulled. Nothing; the trail was empty. He looked up the hill to the dark trees crackling in the wind. He jumped at a noise to his right and saw a small striped rodent scurry beneath the fallen vegetation.
Scott settled his hat tightly, cursed for being so---not like himself, and put one foot in front of the other. That attitude had gotten him, broken and sick, out of a Confederate prison camp some odd years ago, and it would get him home today.
Get Senor Lancer. Mr. Scott’s horse came home without him.”
The cowboy’s tone of voice was urgent and the small vaquero cast an alarmed glance at his compadre, waived, and hurried to the hacienda. The large, oak door boomed as he pounded, and opened to Johnny.
“Johnny,” he said, breathless. “Senor Scott’s horse…it is here.”
Johnny frowned and stepped towards Angel. “What do you mean, his horse is here? Where’s Scott?”
“I don’t know! Marin said to tell you that the horse came home without him.”
Johnny bit at his lip, apprehension squeezing his chest. “Where is Marin?”
“The east paddock, Senor.”
“Murdoch,” Johnny yelled, turning back into the foyer. “Murdoch!”
“What is it, Johnny? You don’t need to shout. I’m right here.”
His father was scowling as he moved across the floor.
“Scott’s horse just came home – without Scott.”
Murdoch’s expression changed to puzzlement. “Well, where’s Scott?”
“We don’t know, Patron,” Angel replied, respectfully removing his hat.
“Murdoch, Marin is in the east paddock. He’s got the horse.”
Murdoch grabbed his hat from the rack, his face concerned. “Let’s go talk to Marin.”
The three men hurriedly walked to the barn, and entered the large paddock beside it. Marin held the reins of a tall chestnut, and appeared to be looking the animal over. He stepped away from the horse when Murdoch moved beside him and took the reins.
“I saw the saddled horse in the pasture with the others and knew something was wrong. I didn’t know at first it was the one Mr. Scott took until I saw the papers in the saddlebags. They are still there, Patron.”
Johnny pulled some papers out of the leather bag and handed them to Murdoch.
“They’re the papers for the land up north Scott was to sell.” Murdoch ruffled through the items and stopped to read one. He looked up at Johnny. “It’s a deed transfer. It looks like he sold it for the price we wanted.”
Murdoch cast a glance to the hills. “The horse was close enough to make it home. Scott must be between here and those foothills.” He turned to the large, young cowboy. “Marin, get our horses saddled up. I want you to come with us. Angel, tell Jelly and Teresa where we’ve gone. Let them know Scott may be hurt.”
Murdoch was walking quickly towards the tack room barking orders. He reached for an empty saddlebag hanging over a wooden sawhorse, opened a well stocked cupboard in the corner and started stuffing bandages, ointment, carbolic acid, and a paper wrapped packet of needles and catgut into the bag. “Johnny, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring some ….”
Johnny was scared and knew it showed on his face by his father’s stare and abrupt stop in conversation.
“Son, we need to be prepared for anything,” Murdoch stated softly, eyes solidly on Johnny.
Scrubbing a hand across his face, Johnny nodded. He started listing things that came to mind; anything to keep his thoughts off the consequences of a horse coming home without its rider. “There’s no blood on the saddle and the horse isn’t blowin’ or sweaty. He doesn’t look hurt.” Johnny chewed on his lip, wondering why the hell it felt like his stomach had moved up into his throat.
Murdoch draped the saddlebag over his arm and put the other arm around Johnny’s shoulder. “We’ll find him, Johnny.”
Just hearing those words from his father greatly reassured him. Between Murdoch’s determination and his own ability to track just about anything, Johnny knew they’d find his brother. He just wanted to believe they’d find him in one piece. Scott would be carrying a lot of money and those hills were lonely; lots of places for an ambush.
“Senors, the horses are ready.” Marin was leading four horses; Johnny’s solid Palomino, the tall sturdy Toby, and two sorrels. “I saddled a horse for Mr. Scott as well.”
“Good thinking,” Murdoch said as he slapped Marin on the shoulder. “Johnny, grab a couple extra blankets and let’s get going. We’ve got a few hours before sundown.”
Johnny wrapped the blankets in canvas and tied them on the extra horse. He looked skyward and ran back into the barn, coming back with several slickers. “It’s getting cloudy, Murdoch; cooler too,” he said, tying the slickers over the blankets. Glancing at his father as he settled into the saddle, Johnny could see his thoughts were the same. If Scott was hurt, a cold rain wouldn’t help.
“I would bet that horse just threw him, Son. Normally Madison’s not too skittish, but it wouldn’t be the first time an animal balked at a few flying leaves.” Murdoch turned Toby north and with a quick, “Let’s go,” the three men rode towards the mountain.
were sore. The higher heels of boots designed for roping and stabilizing
the rider with the quick movements of a cowpony were not meant for walking,
and his scrunched toes protested the pinching leather. He should have worn
his shorter heeled riding boots, but then he hadn’t planned on walking.
Well, nothing to do about it now, except limp and try not to think of his
painful digits. On the more positive side, his rib didn’t hurt as much---or
maybe his toes just hurt more.
Just as irritating was the uneasy feeling that he was being watched. Childhood images of witches and goblins haunting October nights came to mind when he and his friends would try to tell the scariest ghost story. Unlike many of the hot-blooded vaqueros Lancer employed, though, Scott was not superstitious, did not believe in the undead, and tried to reason that the sounds he heard were forest creatures and his own imagination. At one point on the road, however, he saw the shadow of something much larger than a squirrel or raccoon slipping through the trees several hundred feet up the hill. He stopped, peered through the mantel of brush, and could have sworn he saw the flip of a horse’s tail. But there was nothing; not a swish or movement.
“Coyote,” he muttered, and checked his gun to make sure the chamber was fully loaded. He rationalized he would certainly hear a horse trying to make its way through the trees and slippery undergrowth, but not a soft footed coyote. Besides, there was probably nothing there to begin with.
Scott trudged on; shivering slightly, holding his side, and trying to forget his probably now permanently mangled toes. He scanned the bleak landscape ahead, and it reminded him of the story of Ichabod Crane and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. He and his friends had delighted in the tale of how the lanky schoolteacher was attacked by the headless horseman. It could even have been a day like this one: cloudy, chilled, grey. Scott looked around with a bit of disquiet, and then deliberately forced himself to think of something else.
The enigma that was Johnny came to mind. An undoubtedly dangerous man, Scott at first was surprised at how fiercely loyal and protective his brother could be. Johnny had no problems dealing harshly with men like the Strykers, but was patiently tender in the small hands of children like Pony Alice. Scott smiled just thinking that his fretting brother was no doubt now on his way to find him, with their father, of course. At least he hoped his run-away horse had made it to the hacienda. He almost welcomed the teasing he would receive from Johnny about a horse soldier so easily thrown from a well broke mount.
What the hell? Scott stopped abruptly and looked in shock at the trail before him. A broad chasm, at least six feet across, testified to where the path had once been. The hill had started to wash away about hundred feet up, and what began as probably a fissure just a few inches wide, had been ravaged by the recent rains to the expanse it was now. Fortunately, it wasn’t impassable and Scott could see hoof prints his horse had made in the mud as it went down the embankment. It appeared the animal had trouble climbing out as there were deep gouges in the opposite bank, but then hoof prints reappeared on the mucky path and ambled out of sight.
Scott studied how he could get across without getting wet and muddy. Several inches of water pooled at the bottom of the rift, damned behind leaves and branches that blocked passage to the dropping gulch. He was cold enough without wading through the chilly, dirty water, so decided the driest way to go was to the right. There was just enough of a crag he might be able to cross before the ravine dropped away; undoubtedly to the creek below. Scott just hoped it was strong enough to hold his weight.
Gingerly, he stepped off; testing each stride, he felt along the soggy wall with his aching feet. They seemed numb, and perhaps that’s the reason that halfway across he didn’t feel the wall begin to falter. As the mud damn began to crumble, he reached up to an overhanging tree branch. He thought it would hold, but suddenly, the branch broke and the wall collapsed spewing water, twigs and Scott down the abyss. He fell, slapping against brush, bushes, and rocks on what seemed a never-ending descent; his mind barely registering a painful thump to his leg. With a sharp woof, he collided with a large boulder, his bruised side slamming into the ungiving rock.
He lay sprawled over the huge stone for several moments before he was able to groggily lift his head, gaze unsteadily into the creek, and see a form shadowing above the water. ‘That is no coyote’ went through his mind before he passed out.
looks like Scott’s horse came up here.” Johnny walked back and forth the
few feet along the washed out trail. He bent down, touched the imprints of
his brother’s horse, and looked to the other side of the break. He stood up
and studied the trail across the muddy gulf. “There’s more than one horse
leaving tracks on the other side,” he said tightly.
Marin crossed himself absently, and looked nervously up the hill. “It could be the Black Ghost, Johnny.”
“Marin,” Murdoch snapped, “There is no such thing. Maybe another rider just turned around when he saw the road was washed out.”
“You can still get across, Murdoch. It’s muddy but Scott’s horse made it.” He thought that perhaps someone may have stopped to help Scott, but he didn’t think so. Where was his horse if that was the case? More than likely they robbed Scott and left him where he fell. Johnny hoped that was all they did.
“But Patron,” Marin insisted, “There have been many stories of this evil spirit that sucks the life of men.” He bleakly stared down the ravine. “He haunts this valley during the weeks before the Feast of the Dead.”
“Yeah, well, ghosts don’t leave tracks.” Johnny slowly walked to the edge of the gully and peered through the bramble. “Something rolled down the hill. Brush is crushed, branches broken. You can see where water and mud splattered along the way.” He stepped off the path and planted his foot beside a larger boot imprint. “Someone walked down here.” Johnny grabbed a nearby bush to steady himself on the steep incline. “The prints start sliding, but they follow whatever or whoever fell.”
“Well, we’d better see what’s down at the bottom of this ravine, Son.” Murdoch stiffly dismounted and started towards the gully.
“Murdoch, let me and Marin go. It’s pretty steep.”
“I can still climb, Johnny. If Scott’s down there, I need to know.”
“I’m not sayin’ you can’t climb, Murdoch. I’m just saying it’s a hard go for a young man, let alone you with your back. You know that. Let me just check it out first. Whoever may have followed Scott didn’t take his horse down there. He came back up, that’s for sure.” Johnny waited for his father’s agreement. He wanted to rush down there now and see if Scott lay at the bottom of the ravine, but he also respected his father enough to wait.
A grim faced Murdoch nodded his permission.
“Marin, let’s go.” Johnny started down several yards east of the collapsed trail, and soon was grabbing limbs and grasses when he started to slip on the steep incline. He could feel Marin stumbling behind him, sending pepples and twigs cascading ahead of them. Through the brush, Johnny looked towards the bottom of the hill, hoping to see where it ended and perhaps see Scott. Even though some of the heavy growth had been broken by something rolling over it, he was unable to see anything until he was almost into the creek.
Looking downstream, Johnny eyed the expected brush and rock that lined both sides of the gulley. He was surprised that the creek was as wide as it was, and the gulch it ran through fairly flat bottomed. Johnny took a step forward then heard the hiss of Marin’s breath and a soft ‘dios’. Johnny pivoted and shuddered as his eyes took in a large rock upstream. Reacting quickly, he reached for his gun and aimed, vaguely registering his father’s yell as he squeezed the trigger.
followed his son’s descent as long as he was visible, and then marked his
progress through the occasional movement of the brush and scrubs he
disturbed. He did not want to remain behind, but knew Johnny made sense.
Not only would he slow them down, but he needed to make sure the horses were
secure. For some reason, ever since they entered the foothills, the horses
were nervous. Even Murdoch’s most placid Toby had been on edge and added to
the feeling of foreboding. The last thing they needed was to have the jumpy
creatures run off, leaving them afoot.
He led the horses to a sturdy branch close to the hill and made sure they were tied securely. As he finished tying off the last animal, he caught a slight movement out of the corner of his eye. He scanned the hillside, peering closely through the wet-black timber and trembling leaves. He knew his eyes were not playing tricks on him. Something was moving above him.
Taking a few steps along the path, his gaze never left the spot where he’d seen something shift. He took a few cautious steps up the hillside; then froze and stumbled back when a glittering yellow eye looked back at him. Murdoch reached for his gun and drew, prepared to shoot whatever creature was spying on him through the trees. But it snorted, and he saw the shadowy form of a black horse tethered in the trees halfway up the hill. He chillingly realized its rider was probably waiting at the bottom of the ravine.
Murdoch scrambled across the road and shouted, “Johnny”, but the warning was drowned out by the boom of a firing gun. Not caring or thinking about his back or his age, he swept into the brush and down the incline faster than he thought possible. Bursting through the bramble, he frantically sought his son and saw him running towards a huge rock, Marin following closely.
pulled that trigger, he knew the bullet needed to count or his brother would
be dead. A large man, all in black, was gripping Scott by the hair with his
head twisted back as far as it could go. There was a huge knife at Scott’s
throat, the tip already causing a trickle of blood to flow down his neck.
The man smiled cruelly at Johnny, and tightened his fingers on the handle as
he started to move the knife across Scott’s flesh.
The would-be slayer registered a split second of surprise as the bullet tore through his left eye, killing him instantly. The knife dropped from his hand and Scott fell forward as the man’s body flipped heavily back into the stream.
Johnny ran towards the rock and his brother, hearing Marin’s boots splashing in the stream behind him. His mind distractedly registered Murdoch crashing through the brush.
“Here, Murdoch,” Johnny called, not stopping. “It’s Scott!”
Johnny reached the rock and bent over his brother, pushing his fingers into Scott’s neck to check for a pulse. “He’s alive,” he whispered, and bowed his head.
“Johnny, we need to get him off the rock and out of the water.”
Johnny hadn’t felt his father come up beside him; he was so intent on making sure Scott was still breathing. It was then Johnny noticed that Scott’s legs were in the chilly water.
“Marin, go up
and bring my saddlebags down. Johnny, you get his legs, I’ll take him under
the arms and let’s lift him off.”
Scott’s head lolled when they settled him onto the ground, exposing the slice from the knife. It was bleeding but didn’t appear too deep; just a reminder of what could have happened. Johnny watched as his father’s large hands moved competently down his brother’s sides, stopping at one point and pressing harder.
“A couple of his ribs may be broken,” Murdoch stated matter-of-factly.
“The man, he is dead,” Marin reported coming from where the body lay.
Johnny hadn’t given him anymore thought after he pulled the trigger and only glanced at Marin. He noticed Murdoch look briefly at the body, then turn back to Scott.
Marin went to get the saddle bags and was soon back. They proceeded to bind up Scott’s ribs and attend to the various cuts and scrapes. His boots and socks were removed and he was wrapped tightly in a blanket in preparation for the trek up the ravine.
Johnny’s fingers tracked lightly over a bump and bruise forming on Scott’s temple. “This may be why he’s not coming to.”
“I noticed that, Son.” Murdoch stood and stretched his back, grimacing at the movement.
“Yes, Johnny. Come on. Let’s get him up the hill and home.”
“What do you want to do with him, Patron?” Marin asked, pointing to the dead man.
“We’ll bring him up as well. Throw him over his horse. Maybe Val or Gabe or someone will know who he is.” Murdoch walked over to the body and looked at it for the first time. “You get a good look at him, Johnny?”
“I did when he had Scott by the throat,” Johnny said disdainfully. “I’ve never seen him before.”
“He must have been after the money,” Murdoch stated, putting his hands on his hips and studying the dead man.
“Why didn’t he take it then? Scott still had it.”
“I don’t know, Son. Maybe he didn’t get a chance.”
“Or, the money was not important, Senor.”
Both Johnny and Murdoch turned and stared at Marin.
“Why wouldn’t it be, Marin? What other motive would he have for wanting to cut my son’s throat?” Murdoch’s tone was brusque and he peered hatefully at the dead man.
“There are some who kill just for the joy, Mr. Lancer.”
Johnny knew what Marin was talking about. He’d known enough men like that in his life. “Come on, we need to get going,” he stated, not wanting to think that Scott could have been a victim to such a man. “It’ll be dark before we get home.”
They managed to carefully get Scott up the gully without too many bumps. They threw a rope around the dead man’s legs, tied the other end of the rope to a pommel, and hauled him up the hill. Marin brought the large black mount down the hill and they wrapped the body in a blanket and threw it over the saddle.