Thanks very much to CobaltJan for her beta – I appreciate it. These characters do not belong to me nor are there any financial rewards … only the reward of bringing them back to life.
Corruptio optimi pessima: The corruption of the best is the worst of all.
The lie to
his father bothered him more than the heat, sand and wind. It had been
easy enough to tell, Murdoch believing every word, trusting him; but that
was when Scott thought food and medicine would be enough to send the
fugitives on their way to Canada. The sheriff showing up with Johnny had
changed that option. Gabe couldn’t look the other way and drop it, even if
he was outnumbered, and Scott didn’t expect him to. These men were wanted
for murder; something Scott didn’t know when he promised to help them. He
knew they were running, but didn’t want to know why.
To Scott’s surprise, the men agreed, without much persuasion, to return to Lancer. The run from Colorado Territory had been hard and some of them had died along the way. They were tired. Scott was too. The lie had drained him, regardless how much he tried to justify the reason. But, how could he justify to his father that he’d helped wanted men instead of feeding sick Paiute children?
After making a list of what was needed to transport the families to Lancer, Jelly was dispatched to the ranch for the wagons, men and horses. Within a few hours he returned and the meager belongings of the group were loaded. Spitting out dirt and tearing from the sand that speared his eyes, Scott slapped leather against the wide rumps of his father’s best riding team and started the journey home.
The line of wagons creaked across the wind-grieved ground. Scott looked back at the train as it lumbered away from the sweltering caves. Haggard women grabbed for children spilling out of the wagon beds; their worn hands lingered in comfort over the arms of dour looking men; weary eyes stared into the distance with a stoicism that Scott hadn’t seen since his war-time imprisonment. Family held this shabby, sad group together. Men had made the choice to bring their women and children with them, and the women had agreed to follow.
Scott maneuvered the horses around huge boulders, leading the way along the meager trail. Thorns and dried bramble reached from the edges of the path, scraping against the wagon wheels. Ella, the gentlest of horses, jumped and whinnied. A line of red bubbled below the knee and weaved into the perfect white of her pastern.
Scott whipped his head up. “Damn it, Johnny. Give me some warning you’re around, will you?”
Johnny glanced back at the dozen or so wagons rumbling behind them and quirked an eye at Scott. “It’s not like I’m sneaking up on you in the quiet, Scott. What you so jumpy for?”
“She’s bleeding.” Scott stabbed his finger towards the horse’s leg. “Damn, why did Jelly have to bring Murdoch’s favorite team back with him?”
“It’s a scratch, Scott. She’ll be fine.” Johnny tilted his head, puzzled. “Besides, Jelly said he had no choice.”
“That’s easy to say. But if anything happens to these animals, Murdoch will be …”
“Nothing will happen. Besides, he’ll get over it. Once he knows the reason.”
Scott was ready to snap back, but held off at Johnny’s look. “Well, he loves these horses almost as much as each blade of grass at Lancer.” --- Why the hell did he say that? Geez, he was …
“Murdoch. He’ll understand, Scott.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Are you saying Murdoch’s grumpy?”
Johnny snorted. “Not this time.” He rode up to Ella. “Hold up. Let me check it out.”
“You said it was just a scratch.”
“It is, but don’t hurt to wash it off. Blood shows up real good against white.” Johnny signaled the line of wagons to stop and dropped to the ground.
“What’s goin’ on?” Rufus shouted from behind them.
“Just checking a leg. It won’t take long,” Johnny yelled back. A muscle jumped along his jaw line, a sure sign he was irritated.
“Them ain’t working horses. Ain’t got the mettle. As bad as green horns.”
“Let it go, Johnny,” Scott said, noting Johnny’s clenched fist and step towards the loud mouthed Rufus. Fighting with the man now, in front of the kids, would make the long trip to Lancer even longer.
Johnny spit into the sand and bent to look at the horse’s leg. “The guys an asshole,” Johnny muttered. “We’re gonna have it out before this is over.”
“You may have to wait in line. I wouldn’t mind having a pop at him.”
“Yeah, well, you weren’t the one looking down the barrel of his rifle. If you hadn’t grabbed it, I wouldn’t be here.” He splashed water from his canteen onto a neckerchief, and rubbed it along Ella’s lower leg. A soft whoa followed as the animal shied from Johnny’s hand.
“Rufus didn’t know about the bad food,” Scott said. “He thought I’d brought you and the sheriff to take them in.”
“With two men, Brother? We needed a whole lot more men to do something like that. He was itching to shoot someone.” Johnny stepped back from the horse. “There. Good as new. Can’t tell she’s been scratched at all.”
Scott leaned over to get a better view. “Thanks. Hope nothing else happens.”
“Hey, Lancer. Let’s get going. Got sick kids back here.”
Scott stood and twisted to Rufus. His face reminded Scott of buttermilk that set too long in the heat – sour. “You should have thought of those sick kids before this, Rufus. My father’s hospitality is getting them out of this hell.”
“Gentlemen, please,” the preacher said, rising from his wagon seat. “There’s no need for this. Rufus, Mr. Lancer is right.” He turned to Scott and nodded. “We do appreciate all the help. Your family … your father is a man with a generous heart.”
Scott knew that. He also knew his father was a man of understanding and hoped that extended to his sons.
“Let’s go.” Johnny hitched into his saddle, threw a disgusted glance at the preacher, and nudged Barranca forward.
The wagons inched across the bumpy terrain. Scott stared at the stiff back of his brother and wondered at the look he gave the preacher. Rufus he could understand – he seemed a man ready for violence. But the preacher … After a few minutes, Johnny dropped back and rode beside him.
“You can sure pick ‘em, Boston.”
“They saved my life, Johnny. It wasn’t a matter of my picking them.”
“Humph. I’m betting Rufus there wasn’t in the lead hoping you’d make it.”
“Can’t say I disagree with you on that.” Scott pulled lightly on the right rein to direct the horses through a narrow gulch. The animals responded with a smooth quickness and grace. Scott could understand why his father favored the team.
“Why the preacher?”
Johnny glanced at him. “What?”
“What do you have against Calhoun? I saw the look you gave him.”
Johnny rolled his shoulders, rubbed his leg and squinted into the hot sky. “Guess my dealings with preachers ain’t always been good. Most of ‘em don’t do what they preach about. I think he’s like most.”
“He’s been running from the law a long time, Johnny. Colorado to California is a long ways. He’s lost friends, family. Maybe it’s made him … weary … bitter.”
“He had choices, just like everyone else.” Johnny gripped his reins and skirted his horse around a prickly bush. “I always figured preachers should spout peace, not stir up a war.”
“Really. I would have thought you’d take his side. From what I understand, the conditions were brutal for the miners, and their families. It was a matter of defending themselves against the men who were killed.”