“Johnny, we’re going to have to move the herd up into the foothills in Cedar Canyon in a couple of weeks. I need you to go up there and take a look around, make sure there’s enough graze for the rest of the summer.” Murdoch got to his feet and walked over to his younger son. He was sitting in an armchair, half asleep with his legs stretched out in front of the cold fireplace.
Johnny had been working hard this past week so Murdoch was not surprised that he was exhausted. He hated asking more of him but the worst was far from over. This was a busy time of year and there was no one else he could spare. With some regret, but a sneaking – and some might think uncharacteristic - sense of mischief, he nudged Johnny’s crossed feet with the toe of his boot.
Johnny’s head fell back onto the chair behind him and he opened his eyes, blinked and yawned. “Yeah, okay… I heard, Murdoch, I heard,” he said, smothering another yawn. “I’ll head up there first thing in the morning and look it over.”
“I’m sorry to have to ask it of you, Son. I know you’re tired, but it has to be done before we can take the herd up there and that can’t wait much longer.”
“I know, I know. We’ve mostly got the herd together in the north pasture. There’s just a few strays to bring out of the scrub an’ then they’ll be ready to move.”
“Is there enough grass in the north pasture to keep them fed until we’re ready to move them?”
“Enough for a week or so, I’d say. We need to get them up to the high pasture soon or we’ll be usin’ up the hay for feed before we need to.”
“Exactly; and that is why we need to check out the grass up there in the canyon right now.”
Johnny sighed tiredly. “Well, if you want me to go all the way up Valley de Los Robles and into the canyon, it’ll be an overnight trip. What about the herd?”
“If it’s only a matter of hazing the last of the strays and then keeping them together, Frank can oversee what’s left to be done.”
“Yeah, I guess so. Hate to just dump it on him though.”
“Frank can handle it fine. This has to be done and it can’t wait any longer. But you don’t have to go alone. Of course, Scott’s still in no shape to go with you. The rib he cracked in that fall last week isn’t healed enough for a long ride, but you can take one of the men with you.”
Johnny ran both of his hands through his hair. “No, I’ll go on my own, Murdoch. Might be kind of good to spend some time with just myself for company for a while.”
Murdoch frowned. He wasn’t sure that he liked that thought. “Why?”
“No real reason.”
“Anything wrong, Son?”
It had been two years and a half years since Scott and Johnny had come to Lancer and both of them had had to change their lives to fit in and work the ranch. Murdoch knew it and he knew that he had been hard on them, pushed them. Maybe too hard sometimes, particularly Johnny. He had his regrets about those early days and how he had treated them, but neither of the boys had openly complained. But he’d seen it in their eyes, known it was there in the arguments.
Johnny had left once and then changed his mind and came back. Murdoch had thought that his sons had settled in pretty well by now. Lancer didn’t mean Murdoch Lancer anymore; it was run by ‘the Lancers’, just as he had hoped it would.
Still, he sometimes feared that it would end one day; that one or both of them would want to go back to what they had known before – Scott to the social whirl of Boston; or Johnny to gunfighting.
“Murdoch, take it easy. Relax. I’m not planning on running off.” Johnny told him, a smile pulling at one side of his mouth. “Far as I know, there’s nothing wrong with a man wanting a little time on his own… is there? Does it have to mean somethin’s up?”
It surprised Murdoch that his son had read his thoughts so easily. When had that started happening? He put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. “No, there isn’t… it doesn’t.” He stopped and drew a deep breath. “You’ve put in a lot of extra hours lately. You’ve done a good job so, if that’s the way you want it, go ahead. In fact, why don’t you take a few days if you like?”
“Thanks, Murdoch.” Johnny got to his feet. “But I’ll just take a look around and come on home. I ain’t lookin’ for a holiday.”
Murdoch found himself smiling as well. “Okay, stay the night at the cabin up there. It’ll be a damned sight more comfortable than sleeping out. Besides, you should check it out and see what repairs need doing before the men need it.”
A grin lit Johnny’s face. “Now THAT is a good idea.” He sighed. “Guess I should head for bed then. It’s a long ride.” Murdoch nodded and Johnny turned away, only to stop at the steps and turn around to face him. “You know it’s just me, right? I mean… it’s nothing to do with you or Scott or how I feel… about either of you or Lancer. I just think a little time on my own…”
“Johnny, I do know. Forget it and get to bed.”
Johnny’s smile was enough to reassure him of any misgivings, had he had any.
“And you let him go alone?”
Scott was angry. Murdoch had not expected to face an argument at the breakfast table and his own temper flared for a moment. He held his tongue though, then quieted. “He’s perfectly capable of doing it on his own, Scott. It’s not like I’m sending him off on a dangerous mission.”
“I know that, Murdoch. I just don’t like that he wanted to be on his own.”
“It was what he said he wanted and I saw no reason why not. He’s been working hard and it isn’t like I can’t spare him.”
“I know, but why did he insist on doing it on his own?”
“He didn’t say.”
“There must be a reason, Murdoch.”
“Scott, haven’t you ever wanted to just get away for a couple of days?” Murdoch asked. “You and Teresa are the ones who keep reminding me that he wasn’t used to being tied down to one place.”
Scott backed down and turned thoughtful. “Yes, I know but…”
“Scott, he just wanted to take advantage of the chance to be by himself; to quote him, ‘to spend a little time with just himself for company’.”
“You don’t think anything is wrong?”
“No, I don’t. And he assured me that there isn’t.”
Scott smiled suddenly. “So you did ask?”
Murdoch nodded. “Yes, I asked,” he admitted. “And I was satisfied with his answer. Don’t worry about it. I know what’s on your mind and he’s not going anywhere, just wants some time to himself.” He put down his coffee cup and stood up. “And, if that’s all it takes to have him happy to stay here, it’s fine with me.”
True to his word, Johnny left early the next morning, well before anyone else was stirring. The sun was still rising when he rode out and there had been no chance to say goodbye to Scott or Murdoch. Still, he was only going to be gone two days. They wouldn’t mind.
He passed some of the crew as he rode towards the end of the small valley where the hacienda was nestled. Valle de los Robles was named for the oaks that dotted the foothills and the ridges that overlooked it. It tended to stay green for longer than the rest of the ranch out in the San Joaquin Valley proper. From his first glimpse of the great white hacienda, its green pastures and hills, he had been captivated by the ranch.
This end of the valley, and its neighbor Cedar Canyon, was the summer grazing for the herds. Higher and better watered than the flat, open valley of the San Joaquin, there was good grass even well into the summer. But there was seldom a need to come up here during the rest of the year. Until this time of year, only the wild horses and deer grazed this part of the ranch.
He rode at an easy pace, waving to the few hands he passed but mostly just enjoying the quiet around him. He wasn’t sure why he felt that he needed to get away on his own, only that he did. It wasn’t that he felt cornered or hemmed in by Lancer or by his father and brother, though he suspected that they still feared that he did. It wasn’t that he wanted to escape the work. He enjoyed it as much as most men liked their work, maybe more than some because he had seen the other side of life.
He didn’t feel the urge to run out on them and return to gunfighting any more. Those days were long gone. In fact, until Murdoch had brought up the need to come up here and check it out, he hadn’t even given it any thought. All he knew was that, every now and then, something crawling around inside him ached to get out and run free – free as an alley cat, just like he had been for so much of his life. He just knew that he felt like having some time alone and he had always been one to follow his instincts.
All he had thought about lately was work. Scott had taken a bad fall last week. A stray dog had bounded out of the bushes and ran in front of him on the road to Morro Coyo. It had spooked his horse and Scott, a better rider than a lot of men Johnny knew, had lost his seat. Funny, sometimes it was the most insignificant things that did the damage. Scott had been knocked out when he hit the ground hard. He had ended up with a cracked rib and a nasty concussion and he had been laid up for a few days.
He was up and around a little more now but not up to a full work day.
Murdoch wasn’t up to a full day in the saddle either, not with his bad back playing up like it had lately. So that had left it up to Johnny to supervise the preparations to move the herd on his own. The work was the easy part. Playing the role of patrôn, however, still felt alien to him. He still found it hard to be the boss.
He had soon passed the last of the vaqueros and ranch hands and rode easily along the track through the upper end of the valley. He didn’t push himself or his horse and, within a couple of hours, was well beyond where any of the Lancer crew was working. He was on his own... or almost.
Leaning forward, he patted Barranca’s neck cheerfully. He looked around him and saw nothing, or at least no one and he felt a weight lift from his shoulders.
“Barranca, we’re on our own for a couple of days… just you an’ me, Amigo,” Johnny said lightly. The horse lifted his head and shook his mane, and Johnny laughed. “Yeah, sometimes I think I wouldn’t be surprised if you just opened up an’ spoke to me, Pal.”
The day was hot long before the sun was high overhead. Johnny stripped off his coat and laid it across the saddle in front of him then took a swallow of tepid water from his canteen. Summer was likely to be very long and very hot this year.
By noon, they had reached the top end of the valley and Johnny stopped by a creek where a grove of oaks offered some shade for him and Barranca. He lifted his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead, then dismounted and pulled the wrapped lunch that Maria had put together for him from his saddlebag. Before turning away, he grabbed his canteen and left his horse to graze.
He picked out a good shady tree. “Nice an’ peaceful here, Barranca,” he said as he sat down. He laid his hat down beside him, stretched out his legs and leaned back against the trunk. “Almost too good to be true.”
This time there was no answering nod of the head from the horse. Johnny glanced back and smiled when he saw that the animal was far too engrossed in his own meal to pay him any mind.
The beef sandwich didn’t last long once he started. He finished and looked around him. The creek was small but the water was still running. The grass had been getting thicker and greener as they came further up the valley. If what he had seen so far was anything to go by, there would be good grazing in the foothills and the smaller valley, enough to last the herd most of the season.
Johnny put his hands behind his neck and leaned his head against the trunk of the tree. As he watched the water splash vibrantly over the smooth rocks in the creek, he felt a wave of freedom wash over him. It was a good feeling.
“Well, there’s pretty good grazing up here. If Cedar Canyon is as good, we’ll have us some fine fat cattle,” Johnny said, voicing his thoughts.
“We’ll be in the foothills soon. Guess we’ll have to keep a better look out up there, Amigo. It’s been a while since anyone was up this way an’ I’m betting the wildlife around here has made itself right at home.” He straightened his back against the tree and tested a few spots until he was comfortable. “I didn’t come out here to be dinner for no cat or bear.”
He watched a hawk hover on the other side of the creek, certain that it had spotted a prospective meal. Sure enough, it swooped and rose again with a half-grown rabbit squirming in its talons.
“Gotta admit, Barranca,” he said quietly. “Sometimes I miss this. Miss bein’ able to just sit down an’ relax.” He closed his eyes and sighed out. “I sure don’t miss the gunfights or hiring out, but goin’ where I please an’ when I please… well, that wasn’t always so bad.”
He might as well have been talking to himself. Hell, he knew that he was anyway but he’d ridden for years with no one for company but his horse and he’d always found they were good listeners. You could say whatever you liked to them. They didn’t give you an opinion and they made no judgments.
Barranca ambled over to the creek and drank, ignoring Johnny.
“I reckon Scott didn’t ever have much of that sort of freedom. Ol’ Harlan wouldn’t have let him cut much slack an’ there was all that schooling he had. I bet it was all ‘yes sir, no sir’ at that college he went to,” he mused aloud. “And the cavalry sure wouldn’t have been any better. Wonder if he ever misses his fancy Boston life?”
He plucked a blade of grass and bit on it lazily. “He probably misses those fancy Boston ladies, now an’ then,” he added with a wicked glint in his eyes. “I just bet Ol’ Boston had the girls fallin’ all over him… and their mamas hoping their daughters would catch his eye… and their daddies keepin’ a real close eye on him.”
He chuckled. “Now me, I had both the mamas and the daddies watching me. None of ‘em wanted me around their daughters. You know, Barranca, I guess I’ve been run outa town by as many papas as lawmen.”
“Well,” he drawled. “I can’t sit here all day, Amigo.” He stood up and picked up his hat; went to the creek and filled the canteen then turned back to his horse. “Come on over here,” he said idly, knowing well that he wouldn’t have to go after him. Barranca had been an easy animal to train, despite his spirited nature. Johnny hadn’t felt this kind of an affinity with every horse he’d ever owned, but there was no doubt that there was a bond with this one.
Sure enough, Barranca’s head lifted and his ears pricked forward, listening. “Come on,” Johnny repeated, beckoning him with his hand. He shoved the hat on his head as the horse strolled idly towards him.
“Anyone’d think we had all day, Compadre. A man could get old waiting for you.”
He mounted and turned the horse away from the creek. Back on his way, Johnny headed into the pass that separated the two small valleys. Steep rocky hillsides rose on either side of him, dotted here and there with bushes and even small oaks that grew gnarled and misshapen among the rocks and leaned out over the pass.
It was higher here and sheltered from the sun. Already it was starting to feel cooler and the silence around him was deep and profound. Now and then he heard a bird twitter or the scuttling sounds of a small animal moving through the underbrush but, mostly, there was only the sound of Barranca’s hooves striking the ground and the rustle of the grass underfoot.
Then he was in the open again and the landscape was changing as he rode. Broad meadows lay open in front of him and even now, in high summer, there was still a lush green color to the grass. The foothills on either side were dotted with oaks with wide spreading branches, some growing alone and others in groves.
hillsides got steeper as they rose up to the ridges above; ridges that were
covered in pines and sycamores that sheltered bracken and the last of the
season’s wildflowers – redbuds and wild roses.
He figured that, despite the annual summer stock grazing here, this landscape was probably close to what the land had looked like in the days before the Spaniards had started settling it.
Johnny smiled secretly. How surprised would Murdoch and Scott be if they knew that his mind ran to such ideas as that now and then? Well, maybe they wouldn’t be these days. They already knew him better than anyone he had ever let near him before and they seemed to understand him better every day.
“Looks real pretty, don’t it, Barranca?” he mused aloud. “Real pretty and good grazing too. Yep, I reckon if I turned you loose up here for a couple of weeks, you’d end up fat as a toad.”
He rode through grass that grew as high as Barranca’s knees and swayed gently in a light breeze. Their presence startled a few deer and plenty of rabbits and a small herd of mustangs in the distance. The herd took off as soon as they got wind of him. Another time, he might have gone after them… but not today.
Today he was keeping an eye out for ragweed and fiddleneck growing in the pasture. Either of them could poison cattle and horses. But he hadn’t come across enough to worry about yet.
Johnny came to another creek, trickling merrily over moss-covered rocks into a deep pool and then eventually spilling over more rocks and down into the meadow. Beside it the bushes, ferns and bracken thrived. This was Elk Creek, named for the elk that ran in its upper reaches and that made for good hunting on those rare occasions when the Lancers could get away for a couple of days. It twisted and curved higher up into the hills with the undergrowth growing deeper and thicker along the way.
Johnny knew that this was one of the main sources of water in this part of the valley. He looked it over and could see that there seemed to be plenty of water running, but he decided to follow it to check higher up and wheeled Barranca around.
“Come on, Amigo. Let’s go make sure there’s nothing choking it up further.”
Johnny pushed Barranca through the undergrowth, brushing aside low branches and twigs that tried to reach out to grab him at every turn, and announcing his frustration to the trees with irritable curses. Then he stopped. He heard something - a sound that was out of place in this wilderness. He listened and heard it again.
It was the mournful whine of an animal in distress.
The whine certainly wasn’t that of a cougar, and it didn’t sound like a coyote, or even like the howl of a wolf.
Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt and listened closely. The animal whined again, loud and long and, this time, Johnny was sure that he knew what it was. That was a dog, but what was it doing out here in the middle of nowhere?
Barranca stomped uneasily under him, twitching his ears and pulling at the reins, but Johnny held him and leaned forward to pat his neck reassuringly.
“Easy, Boy. I hear it too.” Johnny reached for his rifle and pulled it slowly, quietly, from the scabbard. He dismounted and stood beside his horse, listening. He heard it again, coming from somewhere in the bushes up ahead of him. “Yeah, that’s a dog alright. Sounds like it’s hurt, too.”
He tied the reins off on a low branch, not confident that Barranca would stay close by while he was so skittish. “Guess I’ll have to go look for it. There’s enough up here to worry about with cats, bears and wolves without havin’ an injured wild dog too. Could do a lot of damage once we move the herd here.” He gently ran his hand over Barranca’s neck and then patted him soundly. “You wait here, Amigo. I won’t be gone long.”
He had to find the dog. If it was injured, he’d have to put it down. A wild dog, particularly one that was carrying an injury and had any size to it, might easily bring down a calf if it got hungry and desperate enough. At the very least, it could spook the cattle. It could get to be a real menace to the herd.
Johnny checked the rifle and left his horse, following a narrow game trail through the undergrowth. It was darker here with the trees cutting out the sunlight. The trail was still damp from dew that didn’t ever quite dry off in the shaded woods, slippery here and there. All around him, the bushes were thick. He couldn’t see through them so there were plenty of places the animal could be hiding.
He kept a wary eye around him and watched where he stepped, trying to go as quietly as he could. A wounded or injured animal could be more dangerous than a healthy one that was able to get away, even to a full-grown man. In his experience, most wild animals instinctively tended to avoid a man rather than confront or attack one but, injured or cornered, those survival instincts changed and they could be treacherous.
He’d gone only a few yards when he realized that the whining had ceased. Johnny stopped and listened, but no sound came, not even a bird chirping. It was an eerie pervasive silence - unnerving.
He wasn’t sure where the animal was and he had no intention of walking blindly ahead, so he waited. His fingers idly rubbed the stock of the rifle and his eyes scanned the bushes for any sign of it.
Then, leaves rustled ahead of him. A twig snapped.
Levering a bullet into the chamber, Johnny stood and waited, watching in the direction of the sounds… ready. A pair of dark eyes suddenly appeared low to the ground through the leaves of the bushes in front of him. Johnny tensed.
A bark, sharp and unexpected, shattered the quiet. Johnny raised the rifle to sight it as the dog came out of the bushes. It barked again as first its head appeared, followed by a shaggy mop of an animal. It stopped a few feet in front of him and, to his surprise, its tail wagged. It made no threatening moves but Johnny stayed ready. Another bark and Johnny lowered the rifle just a little so that he could take a good look at it.
It wasn’t big. Johnny figured that it was probably no taller than his knees. It had ears that stood up but fell over at their tips. Its long coat was a tangled mass of fur, burrs and dirt and it was impossible to tell what color lay underneath all that filth. Nor could he pick what breed it was. Johnny suspected that it had more breeds in the mix than just its two parents.
Johnny lowered the rifle slowly, caution keeping him tensed and ready in case the dog attacked but there was nothing threatening about either its appearance or its behavior.
“Alright, so you’re not a killer. You don’t look like you’re gonna eat me,” Johnny said ironically, to himself rather than to the animal. The dog cocked its head to one side and studied him. Then its tail wagged vigorously back and forth.
It gave a sharp answering bark, but it didn’t sound vicious. In fact, it could almost be said to have looked pleased to see him. He couldn’t see any wounds or injuries and it certainly didn’t look hurt. “You lost, dog?” he asked it. “What the hell are you doing way out here on your own?”
Again it barked; this time stomping its front paws excitedly before it gave a quick yap at him once more. It turned around and took a couple of steps back the way it had come, then stopped and turned back to sound off at him again.
Johnny didn’t really know much about dogs. He had nothing against them but he also had little experience with them. Yet something about this animal’s behavior said something to him.
“Could be I’m going crazy, but you look like you got something on your mind, dog,” he said aloud. As if in answer, the animal barked again. Johnny sighed and shook his head. He lowered the rifle. “Okay then, what is it?”
It wasn’t as if he expected to get an answer but the dog turned in a quick excited little circle and yapped eagerly.
“Okay, I think I get the idea,” he said resignedly. “You want me to follow you, right?” He scratched the back of his head thoughtfully. “Alright, go ahead. Show me.”
The dog ran into the bushes the same way it had come out. Johnny shook his head and wondered where his brains had gone, thinking of following a stray into the woods like this. Still, he was less concerned now. That dog didn’t look dangerous enough to worry even a newborn calf.
Johnny sighed out and then went forward, following in its path through the bushes. He lost sight of it but the noise it was making crashing through the low bracken and undergrowth left him in no doubt of what direction it was going.
Brushing aside branches and carefully stepping around some poison oak that blocked his path, Johnny made his way slowly in its wake. He stopped and pulled away a cobweb that caught his arm and cursed; then waited a moment to fix his bearings. It was quiet. Which way the dog had gone? Then the tell-tale noise of thrashing bracken and long grass pointed it out and he started off after it again.
Only five minutes later, he found himself at the edge of a small clearing. He stopped and looked around him cautiously. It was no more than thirty feet across and the trees seemed to reach out the tips of their highest branches to caress overhead, sheltering a carpet of soft lush grass and keeping out the heat of the day. Crystal clear water cascaded over a small ledge of rock and coursed down over smooth rocks and stones, wending its way past the clearing and on down the hill into the valley.
The far side of the clearing was bounded by a sheer rock wall; covered in moss and lichen and creating the appearance of a very pleasant room. A bird trilled overhead and a lone butterfly flew from one bush to another, enhancing the idyllic feeling.
It was a pretty place… peaceful. There were spots like this all over the mountains - places where, if a man had the time and the inclination, he could just sit back and let the rest of the world go on without him.
Johnny shook away the thoughts and looked for the dog. He found it easily enough, lying down with its front paws on a mound of leaves on the other side of the clearing. Its head resting on its paws, it whined briefly, not looking up at him. It was as if Johnny no longer mattered.
“Guess I was wrong,” Johnny said. “You were just playing, weren’t you, ya dumb dog?”
Without lifting its head off its paws, the dog whimpered. It was not the melancholy whine that had first caught Johnny’s attention, but a sorrowful little sound that clenched his heart.
A thought occurred to Johnny then. He stepped out of the bushes and into the cool, dappled light of the clearing to walk over to the dog. As he slowly neared it, its eyes lifted enough to give them a hooded, suspicious look. It watched him moving closer and finally lifted its head to openly keep a wary eye on him.
If an animal could be said to look distraught, then surely this one did.
Stopping a few feet away from the dog, Johnny’s suspicions were confirmed and he understood. The pile of leaves partially covered a soiled and tattered blanket. He would have to get closer to see what lay beneath it, but he was sure that he knew.
With his eyes on the dog, Johnny took a couple of steps closer. The blanket covered most of the body, or what was left of it. Only the head and shoulders were exposed and little remained but the skull, with some dried out remnants of skin clinging to it. Strands of collar-length gray hair, still attached to meager pieces of scalp, lay next to it.
A tattered, filthy shirt covered the shoulders and the blanket mercifully concealed the rest of the remains.
Johnny lowered his head and sighed heavily. “So this is what you wanted me to see?” he asked the dog sadly. “Sorry, dog. I wish I could help you, but there’s nothing I can do for him.” He sighed. “’Cept maybe bury him for you.”
Johnny squatted on his heels next to the body and took off his hat. He looked at the bones – all that was left of a man… a human being.
They lay as if the man had simply gone peacefully to sleep one night and had not woken up. “Well, old timer, at least you picked yourself a real pretty place to die.”
But time and decay had taken their toll of him. There was little left of the body. By Johnny’s reckoning, he’d been there for some time, three months at least.
The dog whimpered again and dropped its head back onto its paws, still resting on the leaf-covered blanket that lay over its master. Its eyelids lowered over big sad eyes.
By all the laws of nature, those bones should have been scattered far and wide by scavengers. Coyotes, rats and vultures should have taken their share long ago and there should have been little or no trace of the man’s passing here.
Yet the bones were virtually undisturbed. “And you, dog… I guess you’ve been here with him all this time, huh? I’ll be damned.”
The dog must have been here, protecting his master from the scavengers. Unfortunately, there had been nothing he could do about the ants and the insects that sought out dead things in the wild, nor from the elements and the natural way of things.
Looking more closely at the dog, Johnny realized that, under all that unkempt fur, the animal was thin to the bone. It didn’t look much like a hunting dog, but it must be surviving on what little it could find… probably field mice and such. Water had obviously been no problem but he suspected the animal had not gone far afield to look for food, staying close to its master instead, protecting him from the wild things that might disturb his rest.
Johnny had seen his share of well-trained dogs. He had heard men bragging in saloons about how good their dogs were – hunting dogs, bloodhounds, and guard dogs. But no man had trained this small mongrel dog to do what it had done. Training had not made it stay here by its master’s side for months on end, risking starvation and attack from wild animals, fighting its own survival instincts to stay by his side.
The only thing that could have kept it here, when all its natural instincts must have been to leave and take care of itself, was something that Johnny found it difficult to attribute to an animal – loyalty… some might even say love.
He stood up and looked around and there, behind some bushes nearby, Johnny saw a pack for a mule or a horse. Even from here, he could see a pick and shovel tied to the pack. He walked over and looked at it more closely. It was a prospector’s kit.
There was no sign of a mule, alive or dead. Unlike the dog, it had probably broken loose and made off to freedom.
Suddenly, Johnny was certain that he knew who the old man was.
“Ol’ Charlie,” he said out loud, looking back at the dog and the pile of bones that had been its master. The dog’s ears pricked and he lifted his head and turned to look at Johnny for a moment, then returned to his vigil.
Johnny had only seen the old prospector once, but he and Scott had come across the name often enough. The old man had been something of a figure around these parts - a favorite with some and an embarrassment to some of the newer residents of town with their ‘civilized’ way of looking at things.
Murdoch had told them that he had been looking for gold in these mountains since the early days of the gold rush but with little to show for it. Apparently he had usually turned up with enough ‘color’ to keep him in supplies but no more. More often, he had lived on handouts.
In the last couple of years, the old man and his mule had always been seen with a small cream-colored dog trailing around after him. Looking at the shaggy, filthy little animal, Johnny realized that this was that dog.
“Well, at least I know who it is I’m burying now, dog,” Johnny said. “Better get to it.”
It took both pick and shovel and it was damned hard work digging that hole. The ground was hard and woven with a thick mat of tree roots just beneath the surface but, an hour later, Johnny had the grave dug. He dropped the shovel and stood up, arched his back to work out some of the kinks and then walked over to Charlie’s side.
“You’re gonna have to move, dog.”
It only looked at him over its paws. “It’s time to lay ol’ Charlie to rest, dog,” Johnny added quietly, but it stayed put.
“Stubborn little mule, ain’t ya?” Johnny shook his head and reached down to grab the animal by the scruff of the neck but a deep growl rumbled in the dog’s throat. Its hackles rose and it curled back its lips and snarled, then snapped at him.
Johnny pulled his hand back just in time. “Come on, dog. We can’t leave him here like this. Time to give him up.”
The dog had no such intention though. The forlorn look in its eyes had changed to a gleam of anger. It was plain that any attempt to move it physically would only get Johnny a bitten hand.
He sighed and frowned, pushing his hat back from his forehead. He thought about walking away. He could always leave the two of them just the way he had found them. The old man wouldn’t care and the dog could look after itself. They had been there like that for months already.
But an old fear reared up and tugged at him. Johnny tensed and sucked in a breath. No, he knew that he couldn’t do it. He knew it and discarded the idea almost as quickly as it had come to him.
“Dog, you’re gonna have to move aside,” Johnny said quietly, hoping to soothe the animal. But all he got for an answer was a growl. Its head was up now, watching him warily. It had guarded its master this long and wasn’t about to stop now.
Johnny’s hands went to his hips in frustration. “I could always shoot you an’ bury you with him.” Again the dog snarled. “Alright, calm down, dog. I ain’t about to do that. But we’ve gotta come to some kind of an understanding here.”
The dog didn’t move and he tried one more time to get close to it, bending over and slowly reaching out to touch it. He murmured reassurances to it but it bared its teeth and went for him. He whipped his hand back just in time to avoid blood being spilt.
“Well, this is getting us nowhere.” He stepped back and the dog went back to its vigil. It laid its chin on its paws again but this time kept a distrusting eye on Johnny. Its ludicrously tipped over ears moved with every sound, listening intently.
Johnny stopped to consider the situation. He had spent years facing gunmen and here he was, stymied by a small mongrel dog. Johnny Lancer was not about to back down, any more than the dog was.
Coming to a decision, Johnny turned and walked back the way he had come, through the bushes and ferns to the place where he had left Barranca to graze. He squinted as he emerged into the sunlight. Nearly two hours had passed since he had followed the dog and the afternoon had nearly gone but it was still hot and bright once he got out of the trees.
He strolled over to Barranca, the reins taut as he quietly nibbled at the lush grass around the tree to which he was tethered. Johnny untied him and took hold of the reins.
“Come on, Boy. You might as well come with me this time.”
He led the horse through the undergrowth along the path that the dog had led him on earlier, easily discernable now that he had trodden it there and back. The grass was flattened and the twigs broken enough to snag him less often.
When he reached the clearing, he hitched the reins around a low branch and took his rope from the saddle.
Opening out the loop a little, Johnny walked slowly and cautiously over to the dog. It lifted its head, ready to take a piece out of him and he slipped the rope around its neck and pulled it taut, but not tight. Immediately, the animal twisted and pulled against it like a small, snarling whirlwind.
It growled and snapped at him every time it got within reach of him. Johnny was surprised by the strength the little dog was able to muster.
Johnny fought to control the dog’s writhing and dragged it over to a tree. There he tied it up and stood back away from it. Snapping ferociously, the animal pulled against the rope.
“Sorry, dog, but this has got to be done,” he said, panting from the strain of fighting the little ball of fury. “I can’t just leave the old man like that.”
He walked away to the hole and tossed his hat to the ground, grabbed up the shovel and set to work.
By the time he was done, Johnny was covered in dirt and sweat. It had been hard work and Johnny’s arms and his back ached from the effort. He swiped his sleeve across his brow and wiped the perspiration away from his eyes, and then looked down at his morbid handiwork.
Despite the arduous manual labor involved in digging the grave, it was the grisly task of moving the old prospector’s bones into it that had been the hardest part. It had ended up being a matter of collecting the bones and wrapping them in the tattered blanket before placing them into the hole. With that done, he had shoveled the soil back into the grave and then, walking back and forth in the unforgiving heat of the day; Johnny had carried rocks from the stream until he had enough to cover the grave.
All the while the dog had barked, growled and snapped like a savage beast. It had pulled against the rope that restrained it with all the might and savagery of an animal three times its size. If Johnny had gotten near it while it was in that frenzy, he knew that he’d have been attacked.
At first, Johnny had found the noise aggravating, even to the point of shouting at the dog. It didn’t work. But the longer he worked, the less he even heard it, let alone paid the animal any attention.
Only when Johnny had finished did the dog stop struggling. With its master out of sight, the dog had started up a mournful howl that degenerated into a pitiful constant whine.
Johnny then cut down a sapling and set about fashioning a rough cross that he pushed into the ground at the head of the grave and stabilized with some rocks around it. He had no idea whether poor old Charlie would have wanted such a marker there or not, but Johnny figured it was the right thing to do anyway.
With that done, he tossed the pick and the shovel to one side and looked down at the rough cross and the pile of stones. It wasn’t much, but it was all he could offer the man.
Well, maybe not all, but he wasn’t comfortable with doing more.
He took a deep, quieting breath. “I guess there’s not much further you could get from a padre than me, Charlie and I sure don’t claim to know much about what I should say, but I figure if I was in your place I’d be hopin’ someone might say some words over me.”
“Fact is, there was a time when it might’ve been me lying dead under a tree somewhere all alone. Nearly happened once that I can remember, near Tucson, and it wasn’t so long ago. Took a bullet in the chest in a gunfight. The fella I killed had three brothers and I had to high tail it outa there. Damned near bled to death and I remember…”
He stopped and tensed up, memories of that day and his awful fear flooding his mind and almost taking his breath away. How easily might it have been his bleaching bones that someone had stumbled across under a tree in the middle of nowhere? Or would there have been anything left to find?
There’d been vultures. He remembered fending them off with gunshots, fighting them off as well as the fever that gripped him. There had been no one else, certainly no brave little dog, to keep them at bay.
No, the chances were that there would have been nothing left of him to find. Johnny Madrid would have left no trace. What was it that Scott had said in the saloon that day? ‘Not even a ripple…”
He sighed heavily, then caught his breath and continued awkwardly. “Well, things are different for me now. I bet if I don’t show up at home tomorrow night, Murdoch or Scott’ll be out looking for me in no time flat. Kind of a good thing to know. Then again, it kinda changes things for me. Don’t want them worrying over me so I have to be there on time. Means being ‘responsible’ I guess. Never been that…”
“But here it is, me, finding and burying you. I don’t even know you as anything but Old Charlie. Guess you had a last name but I never heard it. Don’t know much about you or what kind of a man you were – good or bad. But then, I’m not the one to judge either. Any judging to be done woulda been done some months back anyway when you died. But I’m thinking that any man who can bring an animal to give him the kind of loyalty yours did can’t have been all bad.”
“That’s about it, I guess. Don’t know much else I can say.” He stopped then, listening to the silence around him and considered the grave. Then he quietly added the only words he could think of.
“Pater noster, qui es in caelis…”
Finished, Johnny felt strangely drained. He picked up his hat and walked over to the dog, now subdued and lying down, watching him. He turned it loose. It ran straight to the mound of stones and laid its head and paws down as it had on the blanket and bones before, returning to its vigil with a quiet whine. It was as if nothing had changed.
“Looks like you’re planning on staying,” Johnny said, shaking his head. “Well, I can tell you right now, I’m not hog-tyin’ you and fighting you all the way back home. You can make up your own mind if you want to stay or not.”
Johnny turned away and walked across the clearing to where Barranca stood waiting. The dappled shade was gone and the air had turned cooler. Looking up through the branches, he could see clouds starting to form overhead. They didn’t look threatening, but darkness would be sooner in coming than he’d planned on.
It was still a few hours ride to the cabin at the end of Cedar Canyon. He didn’t get up here often enough to know the country well and the trail was overgrown at the moment. It wouldn’t be smart to try riding in the dark without a moon to light the way.
“Barranca, Amigo, I think we’re gonna be missing out on that comfortable night up at the cabin.” He stroked the horse’s nose fondly and looked around him. Apart from the grave, this was probably the best spot he’d find for the night. As for the grave, it didn’t bother him. “Might as well stay right here as anywhere else. Good water, plenty of shelter and some good grazing for you.”
He set about unsaddling Barranca and wiped him down, and then he walked him over to the creek to water him. He ground tied him for the duration of the night and took his bedroll to go find himself a good spot to sleep.
An hour later, he had a fire burning and water boiling for coffee. His bedroll was laid out with his saddle for a pillow and his gunbelt and pistol hanging from the pommel. He had always made a habit of keeping it handy and it was still one of those old habits that died hard. His saddlebags were at arm’s reach as well.
Since he had planned on staying at the cabin, he hadn’t packed anything much in the way of provisions, only jerky and some coffee. But he’d rummaged through the prospector’s pack and had come up with a coffee pot that had come in useful.
Johnny strolled over to the creek and washed his face and hands. For a moment he considered whether to wash the dirt and sweat off all of him, but the creek was too shallow right here to provide a decent bath. Better to wait until he got home anyway. He could have himself a good hot bath there.
He and the dog had successfully managed to ignore each other while he worked at setting up his camp. It seemed satisfied to just lie there and occasionally move its eyes enough to watch him. Sitting by the fire, about ten feet away from the dog and his master’s grave, Johnny poured some coffee into his mug and leaned back against the trunk of a big pine. He worked his back around until he found just that good spot and then relaxed.
Taking a sip of the hot coffee, Johnny savored the taste for a moment and then glanced across at his unsociable companion. He found himself meeting the dog eye to eye. It raised its brows but did little else.
“You’re not gonna be much company, are ya?” He didn’t expect a reaction and he didn’t get one. He shook his head in incredulity. “Hell, that old man sure must have been good to you, dog.”
He thought for a moment. “Don’t know much about dogs myself. Never had one. Horses now, them I know. A horse can be as good a friend as any when you’re on your own.” He looked over to where Barranca quietly grazed. “You take Barranca over there. Never knew a finer horse. He’s got brains, too. Yeah, I guess we’re amigos.”
He sipped the coffee again. “Is that why the old timer kept you around? I guess you an’ ol’ Charlie were amigos, huh dog? Don’t see much else you’d be good for. You sure don’t look like no huntin’ dog or bloodhound.”
Its ears pricked up, listening to the sound of his voice.
“I knew a boy once, down in Nogales, he had a dog, a little black and white spotty thing. He was an orphan Mexican kid, ‘bout twelve years old like me. That dog did all kinds of tricks – sat up and begged, somersaulted, even hopped around kinda dancing. Yep, a clever dog, that one. Now what did Ricardo call it?” He frowned, thinking back. “Pepe? No, that wasn’t it. Poquito, that’s it. That was the mutt’s name. Folks liked to stop and watch Poquito put on his little show. He was always good for a coin or two from strangers.”
Johnny pulled a paper packet from one of his saddlebags. He opened it and pulled out a strip of jerky. He knew he could have gotten himself a rabbit easily enough. He had seen plenty of them during the day. It might have been more of a meal but he’d be at the cabin in the morning and he could pick one off on his way if he was hungry and cook it up there.
Jerky would do him for tonight. Tearing a mouthful off with his teeth, he happened to glance over at the dog again. This time its head was up, watching him with more interest than it had shown for some time.
“Hungry, huh?” he asked. “Yeah, I’ll just bet you are.” He tossed what was left of the strip at the dog. It landed right at its feet and the animal scoffed it down ravenously. “I guess there’s enough to share,” he said, pulling out another strip and throwing it to the dog. It barely chewed it once before swallowing it whole.
Between them, they made quick work of the rest of the jerky. The packet was empty in short order. The dog had moved a little closer with each piece of jerky to tempt it but now it stopped, a few feet from him, looking at him with its head cocked quizzically.
“That’s it, dog. All gone.” He held up his hands to show they were empty. “You want something more, you’re gonna have to go catch it yourself.” He finished off the coffee. “I figure you’ve had to do that for yourself a lot over the last few months. Doesn’t look like you’ve been doing much of a job of it either. You’re skin an’ bone.”
He took the coffee pot off the fire and tossed the dregs away.
“It’s kinda hard to picture you fighting off vultures an’ coyotes an’ all the other wild critters that must’ve come after poor Ol’ Charlie. But I guess that’s just what you did. And now that I’ve seen you in action, I have to admit you’re a feisty little devil. I’ll give you that.”
It sat down where it had stopped, eyeing him cautiously. But it seemed to understand that there were no more handouts coming its way, so it stood up and went back to the grave and lay down as usual.
For a long thought-filled moment, Johnny stared at the dog and the grave. He thought about the old man laying down to sleep and never waking up. It was probably a peaceful end to his life… not something that comes to many men. He turned back to the fire then. He watched the flames crackle and dance in their dazzling hypnotic way and tried not to think back over the years.
He turned his thoughts back to the present. “Can’t keep calling you ‘dog’, can I? You must have a name. Ol’ Charlie must’ve called you by something. Maybe Murdoch or someone in town knows.” He probably wouldn’t have to worry about it for much longer anyway. The dog was going to be hard to shift and he had no intention of roping it again and dragging it all the way home. That meant that he’d have to leave it here.
“So, what do I do about you, dog?” he said aloud. “Do I leave you here with Charlie? You’ve survived this long so I guess I could. Still, it don’t seem right. The old man’s dead. You’re gonna have to understand that… move on.”
Johnny chuckled and shook his head. “Hell, listen to me… talking to a dog like it can understand. I must be going loco.” He picked himself up and moved over to the bedroll. “I’m going to bed, dog. You do what you want. Come morning, I’m outa here.”
Johnny woke and sat bolt upright. He looked around him, confused and disorientated. He was shaking. His heart was racing, pounding in his chest, and he was panting for breath. He looked down and found his shirt was saturated in sweat.
Slowly, he took stock of his surroundings and realized where he was and why. He worked at taking control of himself. He shut out the images that his dreams had left imprinted on his mind – vultures and fever; fear-filled impressions of days long past and thought forgotten.
His heart slowed to its normal pace and his rasping breaths gave way to a long and cleansing sigh.
Something moved beside him, touched his thigh. Without thinking, he reached behind him and grabbed his gun from its holster, cocked it and leveled it at the shadow, all in the space of a heartbeat. But in the instant that it took for his eyes to adjust and his thoughts to coalesce into sense, the threads of moonlight that filtered down through the branches overhead revealed the dog lying beside him.
Johnny lowered the gun. He let the hammer down slowly and harmlessly. “Dammit, dog! You’ll get yourself killed doin’ that?” He put the gun back in the holster and the dog nudged his leg again. It whined and then moved back and sat down to stare at him.
He pulled his knees up to his chest and folded his arms across them. Then he lowered his head and rested his brow on his forearms. The shaking had stopped but he felt shattered. The images and impressions played before him again and he squeezed his eyes hard as if that might put a stop to them.
It was just as well Scott wasn’t there. The thought came immediately to his mind. He’d be all over him by now, probably wanting to know what had happened.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” He said it aloud. He ground it out with a vehemence that shocked him. Looking up, he saw the dog back away quickly and then take up its vigil by the grave, only looking at him over its paws.
The clouds must have gone, for moonbeams shone on the smooth rocks that Johnny had placed over the grave and created an eerie atmosphere. But it wasn’t Charlie’s ghost that haunted Johnny. It was ghosts from his own past. Memories that had not assaulted his sleep like this in a long time.
“Sorry, dog. It’s not your fault. It’s me…” Except for the moonlight, it was dark – still the middle of the night. Johnny sighed out a long breath. “It’s me… Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised what with Charlie lying over there, but it’s been a long time since this happened.”
“See dog, like I told Charlie, that could have been me, dyin’ all alone like that. I rode alone a lot over the years. When I was just a kid, ‘bout seventeen, I got myself into a gunfight in Tucson and drew down on a man twice my age. He had a big reputation but I took him.” Johnny slicked his hand over his brow, wiping away droplets of sweat, and slid his hand through his hair. He was surprised to find it damp and sighed heavily again. “Thing was, he managed to put a bullet in my chest on his way down. Jack Corrigan… that was his name.”
Johnny smiled but with no hint of mirth in it. The smile lifted the corner of his mouth almost to a sneer. “Yeah dog, I was young an’ cocky, and making a big name for myself as a gunhawk. That surprise you?”
Johnny rubbed his hands over his arms and barked a short ironic laugh. “But Jack had brothers… three of ‘em, and they came after me. Hell, I even remember the bastards’ names. Earl, Errol and Winchell.” He shook his head. “What the hell kind of a name is Winchell?”
“They followed me for two days before I lost them. By then I’d bled about half to death and I was so sick with fever that I didn’t know which way was what. Ended up sitting down under a tree to die. Just kinda waiting…”
A chill ran through him. He remembered the despair, the loneliness… the grip of the fever. “Then the vultures came. Damn, I hate those birds. Evil, foul-smelling things they are up close.” He looked over at the dog. “Bet you fought a few rounds with some of ‘em too, didn’t you?”
It didn’t react to him except to prick up its ears in apparent interest. “Yeah, I bet you did.” He could feel their feathers brushing against his fevered skin even now. But he’d beaten them. He’d fended them off with gunshots and found the will to live. He’d cheated them and he’d cheated death.
But the memories had stayed with him, along with the secret fear he had carried with him for years. He didn’t fear dying alone, even out here in the middle of nowhere. Everyone faced death alone when their time came.
But leaving this world with only the scavengers to find him, his bones scattered to the wind - that was what he had always feared. Scott had nailed it more than he knew that day in the saloon… ‘not even a ripple’.
Johnny woke to the tranquil sound of water trickling over the little rock ledge in the creek. It was a crisp clear morning, still in shadow with shafts of light piercing the branches overhead, glistening on dewdrop tipped leaves of grass. It had a calming effect after last night.
He had eventually managed to toss and turn his way back to sleep but he felt far from refreshed this morning. Johnny got up and, with his canteen in hand, he headed for the creek. He splashed startlingly cold water on his face and washed away the remnants of last night’s nightmare. Now he was just eager to be on his way out of here.
After refilling the canteen and freshening up, he rekindled the fire and made himself some coffee then packed up his gear and saddled Barranca. He turned back to the grave and to the dog that had returned to lying on the rocks that covered its master.
“Time’s come, dog. You’ve gotta decide what you’re gonna do. You can come with me if you want, but I’m not goin’ to rope you and drag you away.”
The animal lifted its head and looked at him. It cocked its head to one side, apparently curious, and then it lay down again. It made no further show of moving. Rather, it only whined in that quiet, soulful way that Johnny had come to know. “No? Okay, suit yourself,” he said and turned away.
It didn’t feel right to ride away and leave it here alone but he meant what he said. He had work to do and he had no intention of being slowed down by fighting a dog that didn’t want to be with him anyway. Still, maybe he’d stop by on his way back and see how the dog was doing.
Johnny led Barranca through the bushes and ferns and out into the bright morning sunshine of the foothills. It was still very early but the sun was already harsh on his eyes. He tilted his hat over his face and his eyes adjusted quickly to the light. Looking out over the hillside, the valley was spread out before him.
There were deer grazing in the meadow below him, unaware of his presence. It sure was a pretty place. There’d be grass enough for the herd to graze here for the rest of the summer and into the fall. Elk Creek had good water and he would soon find out if the smaller creeks did as well. As in other years, it would be just the place to fatten up the herd.
He mounted Barranca, adjusted his hat again and turned towards the end of the valley, to Cedar Canyon where the cabin sat. Barranca frisked a little, bringing a grin to Johnny’s face. He leaned forward and patted the horse’s neck affectionately.
“Feeling good, are you, Amigo?” he said cheerfully. “Great, let’s get this done and get home in time for dinner.”
He nudged the horse forward at an easy walk down the slope, picking their way through grass that was up to Barranca’s knees. There were a few other creeks he would have to check before heading for the cabin and then they would make their way home.
It was another beautiful day. Last night’s cloud cover was gone, leaving a perfect blue summer sky. Overhead, a hawk piped her shrill call as she rode the warm air currents in search of her prey. Yep, it was pleasant now, but the day would soon heat up. The more he could get done early, the better off he would be.
Barranca stopped suddenly and tossed his head. The horse’s creamy white mane almost hit Johnny in the face as he was unexpectedly jolted forward. “¡Mierda, Barranca! What? What is it?” he demanded, annoyed.
He looked around but there was nothing he could see that should have disturbed the horse enough to halt him like this. Then he looked behind him and he shook his head resignedly. The dog was standing about ten feet in back of him. Its tongue lolled out the side of its mouth as it panted and its ears were up straight and alert.
Johnny tipped his hat back thoughtfully with the tip of his finger. “So, you decided to come after all, huh?” Its tail wagged. “Alright, but you’ll have to keep up. I’m going to be home before dark and I’m not going to let you hold me up any.”
Johnny rode on, with an occasional glance back over his shoulder to see if his new companion was still there. He was keeping an easy pace and the dog seemed to be able to keep up without too much trouble.
He wondered what Murdoch and Scott would think when he got home with that scruffy little mongrel in tow. He had a feeling that Scott wouldn’t soon let him forget about it. But there were kids at Lancer, the children of vacqueros who lived in workers’ houses on the ranch. There was bound to be at least one of them who would be happy to take the dog in and give it a good home. Johnny was sure, too, that Murdoch wouldn’t raise any objections to its presence as long as it didn’t make a nuisance of itself with the stock.
He went back to concentrating on the work he had to do. He made his way down the valley, stopping at two more creeks to assure himself that they were flowing well and free of snags. Neither creek was as big as Elk Creek but there was enough water running in them to supplement the larger stream and water the herd.
There were no major obstructions in either of them, though it would pay to clear them out properly before the next good rain came. For now though, the water seemed to be running fine.
Johnny stopped at the last creek and let Barranca drink. The dog walked over beside him and drank as well. Then Johnny mounted again and turned in the direction of the cabin.
He noticed that the little dog was trailing further and further behind. Damn! He was never going to get everything done this way.
Then he remembered that it probably hadn’t done much traveling over the last few months. It had lain by its master’s side all that time. He remembered too how thin and scrawny it was.
“¡Dios, dog!” Johnny groused as he slowed Barranca. Then the humor of the situation grew on him. He grinned. “Outa shape are you?”
Barranca came, unbidden, to a stop and the dog sat down to look at him quizzically. It was panting heavily, its tongue lolling to one side but it looked alert.
Johnny rolled his eyes and sighed in resignation. “Ah hell! Alright.” He dropped to the ground and walked the few steps back to where the animal sat. “You’re a nuisance. You know that, don’t you?”
The dog stomped its front paws and yapped excitedly and Johnny laughed. He picked it up easily, screwing his face with distaste at the grimy knots of fur and burrs in its coat, but he walked back to his horse and laid the animal unceremoniously over Barranca’s back.
It wriggled and kicked and nearly fell off. Barranca shied away from Johnny and the unfamiliar creature on his back. “Quit that, dog, or you’re back to walking,” he told it firmly, and then he crooned a few placating words to Barranca and pulled himself back into the saddle.
He pulled the dog across his lap and it squirmed and wriggled again, looking for a comfortable position. Johnny waited impatiently for it to quiet down. “Dog, don’t push this friendship too far. Stay still,” he growled at last.
Annoyed, Johnny urged his horse forward. The palomino snorted in obvious disgust before moving but the three of them soon settled into a companionable, if unlikely, trio.
Finally, they could see the cabin. It was a sturdy shack with a stone chimney and a small porch. It had been a hunting cabin once and still was occasionally and, according to Murdoch, a homestead before that – long since abandoned. It had been renovated, not so long ago, to accommodate Murdoch’s experiment in prison rehabilitation. Now it was used every season as a line shack. Murdoch was sure that it shouldn’t need much in the way of repairs, but it had stood unused since last fall and, even from a distance, Johnny could see some loose shingles on the roof.
Dismounting, he put the dog on the ground. It stayed for a moment and then started sniffing around with that ludicrous tail fanning the air.
Johnny went on without it. He picked up a bucket that was lying on its side next to the well and set it upright, and then he turned to look around him. There was a feeling of neglect about it. There were a couple of outbuildings that had been improved to house the prisoners at one time and were now mostly used for storage. The well that had always supplied cool water looked like it was still in good condition. He walked over and dropped a pebble down the well. The splash was a good way down but at least it proved that there was still water in there.
Weeds grew in patches around the yard and around the step up to the small porch. Cobwebs hung from corners of the building and around the front door, all adding to the general look of disrepair. But Johnny suspected that it was mostly only superficial. He would need to have a good look around to find what really had to be done.
Johnny took paper and a pencil from his saddlebag and set to work inspecting the shack. He noted the loose shingles and then walked around the building, looking it over. All he found was a broken hinge on one of the shutters, so he wrote it down and then made his way inside.
Skipping the stair, he stepped straight up onto the porch and looked around. He kicked aside the dried leaves that had piled up against the wall and the door and lay scattered across the porch. Then he opened the door. Apart from a slight groan from the hinges, it opened easily to a stiflingly hot room. It was stagnant too… musty and badly in need of an airing.
He opened the nearest window and then another. Then he glanced around the room. Months of dust had settled over everything, leaving it with it an abandoned look. He was almost glad that he’d spent last night outside.
Johnny ran his finger over the windowsill and wiped off the dust on the side of his pants. The pot-bellied stove could stand a cleaning but it looked to be in good shape. Then he strolled to the bed and lifted the thin patchwork quilt that covered it. Dust fell off it to the floor and he dropped it back onto the bed with a grimace.
“Guess it just needs a little housecleaning,” he mused aloud. He hoped that he wasn’t the one who would have to do it though. Johnny wasn’t much good at swinging a broom or a duster and he had even less liking for it.
In the few minutes since he had opened the windows, the air circulating in the room had lessened the oppressive heat. He walked around the room, checking it out. The chimney would need clearing, not a big job. A floorboard creaked beneath his foot and he tested it a couple of times. It would need replacing, so he added that to the list as well. In all, it didn’t add up to much. Murdoch was right. It wouldn’t take long to get the place ready. A small work crew could have all this fixed up in one day.
He decided that there wasn’t much more to see, so he shut the two windows and went to the door. There he found the dog, sitting patiently on the small porch outside and waiting for him.
Johnny smiled. “So, you know your place, huh? Glad to see it.”
He pulled the door closed behind him and walked past the dog to the step. “Come on, dog. Time we went home.”
There was only one step and the moment he put his foot on it he felt it begin to give. He heard the board creak only a split second before it snapped and broke under his weight.
There was nothing he could do, no railing to grab to stop the fall that he knew was inevitable. He overbalanced and fell awkwardly forward towards the dirt.
“¡Mierda!” he cursed as he went down. He landed face down, annoyed with himself for not having paid more attention but glad that there was no one there to witness his embarrassment except for Barranca and the dog.
Lifting his head, he spat dirt out of his mouth and took stock of himself. Tentatively, he decided that nothing was broken and he prepared to get up and dust himself off. Then he froze.
Johnny listened, hoping that he was hadn’t really heard what he thought he had but agonizingly sure that he wasn’t mistaken. Then it came again – the sharp, clear rattle of an agitated rattler… and it was frighteningly close. It had probably been under the step and that meant it was going to be one very upset snake.
He held his breath and tried to locate it by the sound. He had had to do it before against unseen human enemies yet, somehow, those times were nothing compared to this moment. He wondered if the heavy pounding of his heart would be enough to startle the creature into striking and tried to calm it.
The rattle shook again. It sounded as though it was somewhere near his left hip but he knew that he’d have to look to be sure. Fighting back his overwhelming fear, he slowly, cautiously, and with sweat already beading on his brow, moved his head around to check beside him.
It was there, right where he thought it would be… only a couple of feet from him. If he hadn’t heard the rattles, he still would have recognized it for a rattlesnake. The broad triangular head; the patterned brown color and, finally, the telltale rattle on the end of its tail, made it impossible to mistake it for any other.
It was hard to judge its size, coiled as it was, but he judged about three to four feet long – plenty big enough to reach him with one strike. It lifted its head and arched its neck, never taking its cat-like reptilian eyes off him for an instant. A glacial chill ran down Johnny’s spine. Those eyes, repulsive and at the same time mesmerizing, held him transfixed. It was ready to strike at any moment.
Snakes… God, he hated them. He could face a man in the street and look death in the eye, knowing that he had a better than even chance of beating him to the draw. He could face most dangers and know that he could figure a way out of them.
But a rattler, and one that was this close… well, that was another thing entirely. The moment he moved it was likely to lash out at him and sink those lethal fangs into his flesh, assuring him of a horrible death.
Looking at it from where he was right now, Johnny knew that his chances were a whole lot less than even this time. He held his breath and told himself to stay calm. Thoughts ran swiftly through his head. If he got bitten, there was no help for miles – all the way back to the ranch. Maybe one of the vacqueros would be far enough out to help him sooner. But his chances of surviving that long weren’t good.
He had to think and he had to do it quickly. Any sudden movement would get him bitten for sure, but he had to get to his gun somehow. A bullet might stop it in its tracks, but there was no way he’d be able to outrun it, even if he could get to his feet safely.
But getting his hand to his gun meant moving, and any movement…
Seconds had ticked by while he lay there and he couldn’t afford to wait any longer. He knew that his only chance was to try to roll and go for his gun. It might be futile, but he couldn’t just lay here and wait for if to strike, and it seemed inevitable that it would. The rattles continued to shake their dreadful warning and its tongue flicked frenziedly.
No, he had to roll away from the snake, draw and fire… and take his chance that he was quicker than the rattler.
The rattle shook again and, this time, Johnny could see those eyes pinning him down as it lifted its head higher… more aggressive. There was no more time to weigh up his options.
‘It’s now or never,’ he thought. He tensed, ready to move. He watched it carefully and silently counted back – three… two…
A blur of movement… an unfamiliar sound… The dog leapt from out of nowhere to face the snake. It crouched, just out of the rattler’s reach and barked.
The snake turned its attention to the dog. It hissed and rattled, and the dog barked again.
Stunned, Johnny watched in awe. The dog leapt back as the rattler struck out at it, and then he barked again, taunting it. The snake uncoiled and slithered quickly towards the little dog and the dog jumped further back out of the way, still barking and baring its teeth.
His heart beating wildly, Johnny took his chance while the snake was distracted. He rolled away and scrambled to his feet. In a heartbeat, he turned back, gun in hand.
There he stopped, astonished. The dog had its jaws clamped like a vice around the neck of the rattler, just behind the head. He was shaking it ferociously, growling a deep throaty growl. Johnny held back from firing. In the flurry of movement he was watching, he could very easily hit the dog instead of the snake.
In a couple of frenzied minutes, the battle was over. The dog had shaken the life out of the creature and it hung limp in his jaws, its neck obviously broken. Finally, the dog seemed to be satisfied that the rattler was dead and it dropped it to the ground and backed away.
“Back up, dog,” Johnny said sharply.
The animal did as he told it, backing further away but eyeing the snake all the while. Once it had moved far enough for safety, Johnny fired one shot into the head of the rattler. The impact threw the snake’s body into the air and flipped it before it landed in a limp heap in the dirt. The dog yelped and leapt further back in surprise then stood looking at him quizzically.
“No point in taking any chances,” Johnny said, breathing out a long relieved sigh. “Come over here.”
The dog trotted over to stand in front of him, wagging its ludicrous feathered tail. Johnny knelt down and rubbed its head. “I owe you one,” he said. “Thanks.”
He stood up and dusted himself off, allowing himself one more quick glance at the rattler just to reassure himself that it was dead. Then he shook away the shiver that ran down his spine and looked back at the dog. “You make a habit of that, dog?” he asked, grinning. “I guess Charlie kept you around for more than just company then.”
Kneeling beside the dog again, Johnny took it gently by the scruff of the neck and pulled it over to him. “Now, let me look you over. Better make sure you didn’t get yourself bit.”
Johnny rode under the Lancer arch late in the afternoon, more than happy to be back. The dog rode contentedly in his lap while Barranca trotted eagerly, unconcerned now by Johnny’s unusual companion.
“This is home, boy,” he said to the dog, giving it a friendly rub of the ears. “You like kids? We’ll find one who’ll take you in. All you have to do is behave yourself and you’ll have yourself a good home.”
Shouts of welcome went up from the men as Johnny rode in. It had felt good to leave yesterday, but it felt damned good to be home too.
Scott was in the yard as Johnny pulled up Barranca. His hands went to his hips and a broad grin brightened his face. “So, you’re home, Brother. Did you enjoy your time alone?”
“Oh yeah, real nice an’ peaceful.” Johnny looked him up and down. “You’re looking better.”
“Just fine. Doc Jenkins says I’m fit for light work.” Scott frowned as he walked over to join him. “What’s that you’ve got?”
“A dog? Haven’t you ever seen a dog before?”
“Well, yes, I have.” He laughed. “Are you sure that’s what that is?”
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Johnny answered ironically.
“Where did it come from?”
“Long story,” Johnny told him and looked away as he spotted one of the children watching him from over near the barn. The boy was the son of one of the vacqueros and had lived at Lancer all of his twelve years.
“Norberto,” Johnny called, beckoning him over with a wave of his hand. “Ven aquí. Come over here.”
The boy ran over to his side and stood beside Barranca. His eyes were wide and bright with eagerness. “Si, Señor Johnny?”
“You like dogs, Muchacho?”
“Oh yes, Señor. I like dogs very much,” Norberto told him enthusiastically.
“Good, take him.” He handed the dog down to the boy and dismounted. “You reckon your mama and papa will mind you keeping him?”
“Oh no, Señor Johnny. Not if you gave him to me.”
“Okay, ‘cos he’s a real good dog. You look after him or you’ll have me to answer to. Mind, you’ll have to clean him up some, comb out those burrs. And you’ll have to fatten him up a little. He hasn’t had a good feed for a while.”
Norberto wrapped his arms around the dog and smiled happily while it wriggled about, trying to get loose. “Oh yes, Señor! I will. What is his name?”
“Dunno. He’s probably got one, but I don’t know what it is. You’ll have to think one up.”
“I will give him a good name,” he answered. He put the dog down on its feet and patted its head affectionately. Then he stood up. “I will take Barranca for you, Señor. I will look after him.”
“Gracias, Norberto. You rub him down good, now.” He handed over the reins to the boy.
“Oh, yes. I will take special care of Barranca.”
Johnny gave the boy a pat on the shoulder and then walked over to join Scott.
“Alright, where did you find the dog?” Scott asked.
“Up at Elk Creek. You remember Old Charlie? That old prospector?”
Scott nodded. “Yeah, I remember seeing him in town once or twice. What’s he got to do with it?”
“Well, I think I found him, or what was left of him.”
“Yeah, at least three months I’d say. The dog was there with him… just sitting beside him.”
Scott’s eyes opened wide. “Sitting beside him? For three months?”
“Yeah, that’s what I reckon. I buried the old man and the dog ended up following me home. Saved my bacon, too. At the cabin… killed a rattler that would’ve nailed me good.”
Johnny watched as Scott looked towards the dog, still sitting beside Norberto while the boy patted its head. “Yeah, he doesn’t look like much, does he?” Johnny said with a grin. “But he’s got some sand, that dog.”
“Well, come on inside,” Scott said, laying his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Dinner should be just about ready.”
They turned away but stopped when they heard the dog barking. Johnny turned back and the dog ran over towards him. It stopped in front of him, looking up at him uncertainly.
“No, dog. Stay with the boy.”
It barked again and Johnny turned away. It would go to the boy if he ignored it. He was sure of it. He started towards the house, only to be stopped again after a few steps by the dog barking.
Norberto walked over to join them, leading Barranca. “Señor Johnny, es muy bien that you give me this dog. But I think he wants to stay with you.”
Johnny shook his head. “No. No, I don’t need a dog.”
It walked over and sat in front of him, whining quietly with big pleading eyes while its wagging tail brushed up clouds of dust.
Scott laughed. “I think you have one anyway, Johnny.”
Norberto laughed and walked to the barn with Barranca, leaving Johnny with Scott… and the dog.
“You said it stayed beside the old man for three months?” Scott asked. “That’s a long time to stay with a dead body.”
“Yeah.” Johnny scuffed the toe of his boot in the dirt, thinking. “Looked like the old man had just gone to sleep, Scott. The bones hadn’t been disturbed at all, like the dog had been guarding him. Even after I buried the old guy the dog just laid on the grave all night.”
“I don’t know how the little guy survived.”
Scott sighed. “How nourish’d here through such long time
He knows, who gave that love sublime
And gave that strength of feeling, great
Above all human estimate.”
Scott smiled. “It means that only he knows. It’s from a poem, by an Englishman named Wordsworth. ‘Fidelity’ - you should read it.”
With that, Scott turned and went back into the house.
“Fidelity, huh?” Johnny looked down at the dog at his heel. Its ridiculously tufted ears were held up straight and its shaggy tail wagged in the dirt, brushing dust like a feather duster. “Damn, dog… you need a bath, and a curry comb. Maria’s not gonna let you into the house looking like that.”
He looked down at himself and laughed. He was still covered in dirt from his own brush with the ground… and the rattler. “Maybe me either. Alright, come on, Fielito, let’s get cleaned up. Dinner’s waiting!”
Based loosely on the poem ‘Fidelity’ by William Wordsworth. The story of Charles Gough’s dog is also told in ‘Helvellyn’ by Sir Walter Scott.
The poen is the romanticized version of the death of a young man named Charles Gough, a tourist in the Lake District who, in April 1805, set out to walk over the forbidding mountain Helvellyn, a peak (just over 3100 ft) in the rural and rugged Lake District of northwest England, about 5 miles from Wordsworth’s home at the time. Gough had no specialist clothing or equipment and that day there was no man available to be his guide so he set out alone except for his dog, probably a terrier.
He was not seen again. Three months later, a shepherd by the mountain lake, Red Tarn, came across a little dog barking. Beside her were clothing and a few bones. It was concluded that Gough had fallen from the precarious ridge called Striding Edge and died from head injuries. The dog had not only survived, but had a pup, which didn't make it.
A few months after hearing of this event, Wordsworth – accompanied by Sir Walter Scott and the noted chemist Humphry Davy – climbed Helvellyn to view the scene where this incident transpired.
The Gough Memorial is at the summit plateau, erected in 1890.
By William Wordsworth
A barking sound the Shepherd hears,
A cry as of a Dog or Fox;
He halts, and searches with his eyes
Among the scatter'd rocks:
And now at distance can discern
A stirring in a brake of fern;
From which immediately leaps out
A Dog, and yelping runs about.
The Dog is not of mountain breed;
It's motions, too, are wild and shy;
With something, as the Shepherd thinks,
Unusual in its' cry:
Nor is there any one in sight
All round, in Hollow or on Height;
Nor shout, nor whistle strikes his ear;
What is the Creature doing here?
It was a Cove, a huge Recess,
That keeps till June December's snow;
A lofty Precipice in front,
A silent Tarn below!
Far in the bosom of Helvellyn,
Remote from public Road or Dwelling,
Pathway, or cultivated land;
From trace of human foot or hand.
There, sometimes does a leaping Fish
Send through the Tarn a lonely chear;
The Crags repeat the Raven's croak,
In symphony austere;
Thither the Rainbow comes, the Cloud;
And Mists that spread the flying shroud;
And Sun-beams; and the sounding blast,
That, if it could, would hurry past,
But that enormous Barrier binds it fast.
Not knowing what to think, a while
The Shepherd stood: then makes his way
Towards the Dog, o'er rocks and stones,
As quickly as he may;
Nor far had gone before he found
A human skeleton on the ground,
Sad sight! the Shepherd with a sigh
Looks round, to learn the history.
From those abrupt and perilous rocks,
The Man had fallen, that place of fear!
At length upon the Shepherd's mind
It breaks, and all is clear:
He instantly recall'd the Name,
And who he was, and whence he came;
Remember'd, too, the very day
On which the Traveller pass'd this way.
But hear a wonder now, for sake
Of which this mournful Tale I tell!
A lasting monument of words
This wonder merits well.
The Dog, which still was hovering nigh,
Repeating the same timid cry,
This Dog had been through three months' space
A Dweller in that savage place.
Yes, proof was plain that since the day
On which the Traveller thus had died
The Dog had watch'd about the spot,
Or by his Master's side:
How nourish'd here through such long time
He knows, who gave that love sublime,
And gave that strength of feeling, great
Above all human estimate.