The unexpurgated, unedited version of the 1000 word Challenge story.
There was always one, Johnny thought, rather resentfully. There he was, attempting to demonstrate to his father just how efficiently he could deal with a herd of cows, and there was this one cow, refusing to budge for him, standing there, bawling her head off, like she wanted to tell him something.
‘Cummon cow—move it. The Ol’ Man wants you t’other side of that ravine so we gotta git along to the bridge. An’ don’t you forget just who calls the tune around here.’ He encouraged, urging his horse around her to harry her a bit—but surprisingly, she just raised her head and bawled some more, refusing to be intimidated by either the horse or by the waving of the riders hat. Johnny pulled back, puzzled—then an idea occurred to him and he paid her a little more attention. There was only one reason that he could think of that would make a cow behave like this—and he was right. Giving her the once over from all sides he noticed that her udders were full—and realized just WHAT she was telling him. He glanced around—and his heart sank. There ravine that divided the summer from the winter range ran just a few yards away, and as it was the only possible place, out here, where a missing animal could be, he was prepared to bet that her young ‘un (possibly the first of the new season) had fallen over the edge.
Scowling he observed that his carefully collected little herd—some dozen or so animals, had already begun to take mean advantage of his divided attention and were beginning to scatter—but if there was a calf over the cliff he supposed he ought at least to check it out. Cursing all cows in general and this one in particular, he stepped down from his horse and made his way to the edge of the ravine. It was pretty deep—some sixty feet or so, and if a calf had fallen to the bottom, it was more than likely good and dead—but as he drew closer to the drop he thought he heard a feeble bleat.
‘Hush-up will ya!’ He rounded on the bawling cow fiercely—and to his surprise—she did—and there it came again. The anxious bleating of a frightened calf.
Luckily it wasn’t so very far down, caught on a ledge only about four feet from the top. He glanced about, but the rest of the crew, and Murdoch, were at the moment, well out of sight. Damn. He really needed a hand here. He glanced across at his horse. Another ‘damn’. It was not the eminently trusty Barranca, but a young remuda horse that was still ‘learning his trade’. He meant well, but he was too green to know how to steady a rope, without a human alongside him. Johnny sighed. He would have to go over the edge and toss the calf back up. If he left it, it might get agitated and fall from its perilous perch, onto the rocks far beneath.
He could see a way down. There was a good firm rock or two that would hold him, and once on the ledge, the top of the cliff would be just about his chest height. He could lift a day old calf easily enough. He lay down on his belly and edged himself, feet first, over the edge.
Getting down there was the easy bit. Grabbing the calf, a nice little heifer he noted approvingly, well worth the effort of rescuing, wasn’t so difficult either. At this age they hadn’t much fear of anything, and she made no attempt to escape him. Picking her up, he gathered her long spindly legs into his arms and thrust her at the cliff top. At the sight of the familiar brown and white shape appearing into view, the mother bawled lustily again. The heifer wriggled frantically. Johnny braced his legs to give her a good boost, she leapt free of his grip—and, at his moment of triumph-- the ledge lurched, under his boots.
Instinctively he flung his arms to the top of the cliff, getting his elbows over the edge just as the ledge crumbled away to nothingness beneath him.
For a long, terrifying moment, Johnny was convinced he was going to fall. His legs scrabbled wildly, his fingers tried to find a grip in the hard rocky soil and, to his horror, there did not seem to BE a foothold. He was slipping—and there was nothing at all he could do about it. His right hand lost what little hold there was—and then something clasped his left wrist like a warm iron band and he felt himself being lifted, almost effortlessly, it seemed, into the air.
‘Don’t struggle Son.’ Ordered a very familiar voice. A very dear and familiar voice at that he realized, thankfully. ‘I’ve got you.’
‘Murdoch!’ The word broke from him, in relief, as his feet found solid ground beneath them again. Where had HE come from?
He tried to stand—but he needed the strong supportive hold his father was offering him. His heart thudded hard in his breast, preventing him from breathing properly as his legs buckled beneath his weight. ‘Murdoch!’ He said it again, rather wonderingly, as the supportive arms closed around him in a bone-crushing embrace. He allowed it for a long, strangely satisfying moment, hearing and feeling the older man’s heartbeat against his ear. It seemed to be thumping in much the same agitated fashion as was his own.
‘M-Murdoch!’ He repeated for the third time, this time making a feeble attempt to free himself from the enveloping hug. ‘Please!—can’t breathe. ’ The arms slackened a fraction, (but, and he was glad that it was so, did not let him go), and he found a breath. ‘Is the calf alright?’
‘Damn the calf!’ Murdoch said explosively, taking a step backwards so that he could take a good long look at his boy. ‘Are you alright?’ Reluctantly he let go his grasp on Johnny’s arms, as it became apparent that, for the moment at least, the younger man could remain upright on his own.
‘Come and sit down.’ He hitched his arm around his son’s waist and, ignoring the warning pangs of muscle strain in his own back, steered the still rather wobbly Johnny over to a place where he could sit against a nice sturdy rock. ‘What were you thinking of you young fool? You could have been killed’.
‘Had to get the heifer.’ Johnny took in a great gulp of a breath and ran his fingers through his already wild hair. ‘Is she alright?’
Murdoch took in his own revivifying lungful of air. Thank God he had noticed the casual movements of the unattended cows in the near distance as the animals had scattered and had come tearing back to see what the problem might be.
His first thought, he remembered rather guiltily, was that Johnny was slacking off. He had seen that the young man collect his little herd up together quite efficiently, and had then ridden off to the bridge, to supervise the crossing there, leaving his son with the job of herding his little group along.
It seemed he was not even capable of keeping his mind on a simple job like that, he had thought, exasperatedly. Then it had crossed his mind that Johnny was riding a young green horse that day, and might well be having genuine difficulties and had decided to come back to see what was going on.
He had arrived at the heart-stopping scene, guided there by the sight of his son’s rider less horse, at almost the exact moment that the red and white heifer had appeared above the edge of the ravine, closely followed by Johnny’s grasping fingers.
For a ghastly moment he had seemed to be frozen with horror and then the rumble of tumbling stone had been enough to send him into action. He had no idea that he could move so fast—but he got out of the saddle and across the few yards of rock in record time, and just in time to grab at Johnny’s forearm and haul for dear life. His son’s life.
‘She’s just fine, thanks to you.’ Murdoch wondered a little at the thought processes of this son’s mind. How could he have ever thought of him as irresponsible? The boy had been scant inches from death only moments before—and all he was worried about, now, was the calf?
‘But Johnny, please’. He caught his breath rather shakily, on the thought of what might have been. ‘In future--remember this. We can all get by with one less calf, but there is only one Johnny Lancer. And we—I, don’t want to have to get by without him. Savvy?’
‘Really?’ The disheveled dark head tilted back, revealing a slightly flushed face and an uncertain smile.
‘Really’. Murdoch said gently. He resisted the urge to reach out and smooth down that disheveled hair. ‘Now, don’t you dare move, whilst I fetch the horses? He allowed his voice and tone to roughen into sterness. ‘I don’t care if every head of cattle we possess try to dive over this damn cliff. You just let ‘em go. Got it?
‘Every head. Right. Got it.’ Johnny laughed a little at the idea that HE was of more importance than twenty thousand head of top grade beef, and subsided wearily against the rock at his back. He was far too shaken to put his father’s words to the test, that was for sure. His head was spinning and his left arm felt rather as if someone had tried to rip it from his body. His left wrist throbbed as if it was on fire and his shoulders were beginning to ache, but his heart, now behaving as it ought, was singing within him as he cherished his father’s words.
Damn the calf.
It had sounded as if he meant it too.
There is only one Johnny Lancer and I don’t want to have to get by without him.
That had to mean, didn’t it, that his father really DID want him? Cared about him. Accepted him. Even, maybe, loved him?
It was a good thought.
He closed his eyes, prepared to carry out his fathers latest instructions, to the letter. His exhausted, aching body helped him out.
When his father got back to him, Johnny was asleep, and the sweet smile of utter content was still hovering on his face.