This story is dedicated to Geraldine, KC, Cathy and Laraine. They know why. <VBG>
Inspired by our
trip to the Lancer Convention July 2004 in L.A.
Murdoch Lancer pushed his chair back from the table in the hotel dining room where he’d just finished having lunch with his two sons. As he rose, he told them, “I should be home a day after you. If you leave now, you should be back by tomorrow afternoon. I want you to check out the grass on your way in. We may need to move that herd next week.”
“Yes sir, we’ll take care of it. Tell the Johnson’s hello and we’ll see you in a couple of days,” Scott answered.
Murdoch turned and led his son’s out to the boardwalk outside the hotel. “You boys stay out of trouble, mind?” He added the last part as he untied his horse’s reins, and threw them a slight smile.
“Sure Murdoch. We’re not gonna start any trouble.” Johnny assured him with a grin.
Murdoch smiled back and rolled his eyes while Scott chuckled and threw his arm over Johnny’s shoulders.
“Don’t worry, Murdoch, I’ll keep Johnny out of trouble.”
“Hey!” Johnny said as he ducked out under Scott’s arm.
“Just get home in one piece and don’t be late.” Murdoch reminded them as he turned his horse and headed down the street.
Johnny and Scott watched him ride off as Johnny rubbed his hands together, “Okay. What’ll we do first? Saloon?”
“You heard the man. We’re supposed to head right home.” Scott reminded his younger brother.
“Oh come on Scott! Are you telling me we’re not gonna have some fun now that the old man is gone? We been under his thumb for days. Come on!” Johnny started pulling his unresisting brother toward the saloon.
“Alright Johnny, just one
beer than we need to get going.”
Johnny and Scott stepped out of the saloon into the bright afternoon sun. “I’ll tell you Scott, I just had a feelin’ about that last hand. When I tossed away those queens, somethin’ just told me to do it. A hand like that don’t come along all that often.”
Scott smiled at Johnny’s enthusiasm. He’d won twenty dollars from that last pot by drawing two cards and getting a straight flush. Johnny bought another round of beers for everyone and he suspected his little brother was feeling the effects.
Scott looked at the position of the sun and knew they’d have to really ride to get home on time tomorrow, but as it was summer, there’d be plenty of light until nine o’clock at least and they’d get several hours under their belt before dark.
As they stepped off the boardwalk onto the hot dusty street, Scott’s foot bobbled under him and he had to take a step to the side to catch his balance, bumping into Johnny slightly.
“Watch it. You okay there brother? Had a little too much to drink?” Johnny teased.
Not wanting to give Johnny anything to use against him, he reminded him, “I’m fine Johnny. I’m not the one that was drinking beer like it was water in there.” He said as he always believed the best defense was a strong offence.
“Whatever you say brother. Whatever you say.” Johnny chuckled and led the way to the livery stable.
Johnny went directly to Barranca’s stall and started brushing the dust off his golden coat. He heard a horse snort, and he looked over Barranca’s back. Barely able to contain his glee, he walked over to where his brother was saddling a horse and stood with his hands on his hips. He waited until Scott had finished tightening the cinch and had just lowered the stirrup.
“All set to go?” Johnny asked.
Scott untied the reins and started to back the horse out of the stall when Johnny’s voice stopped him.
“Only problem Scott. That ain’t your horse.” Johnny couldn’t keep the amusement out of his voice at the startled look Scott gave the horse he was leading.
Before Scott could react, they were both startled when a man’s deep voice asked, “May I help you?”
They turned to see a large man all in black standing in the doorway looking quite stern. “I believe that’s my horse.” The man stated.
Johnny’s eyes traveled up the dark clad figure and he was amazed to see a man, damn near as tall as Murdoch, blocking their path. He couldn’t think of anything to say as the many beers he’d had seemed to have his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth, so it was a good thing his brother spoke up.
“Ah, just a little mistake … you see… My brother an I had a few beers in the saloon and we mistook your horse for mine.” Scott slurred slightly and Johnny had to suppress a highly unusual giggle.
“Well, I guess there’s no harm done.” The man said taking the offered reins. He checked the cinch and seeing all was in order, gave the two drunken cowboys a bit of advice. “You boys better just sleep it off before you head out, or you’re going to find yourselves in real trouble.”
Scott smiled and raised his hat, “I never get into trouble. My brother here is another story…..”
Before Scott could say any more, Johnny hustled him toward his own horse and said over his shoulder, “We’ll mind it. Thanks for being so accommodating.”
Johnny leaned Scott against the wall of the barn. “Stay here. I’ll saddle the horses.”
With efficiency born of practice and often necessity, he had the horses ready to go in no time. He’d kept one eye on Scott to make sure he was really alright, but Scott stayed where he’d put him and he seemed to be more in control of himself.
He handed his brother the reins and waited while he mounted and had control of his horse before mounting Barranca and the two brothers rode out of Stockton heading home.
The Lancer brothers had been riding for the last three hours and the sun was still hot in the sky. They breathed a sigh of relief as the trail turned into a thick grove of oak trees. The dappled shade was a welcome relief from the hot summer sun.
Johnny halted Barranca and reached for his canteen. He took a mouthful of the warm water and spit it out. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his brother had the same idea. He took off his hat and took a long drink of the tepid water before pouring half of the canteen over his head. He savored the temporary coolness as the water soaked his dark hair and shirt. Then he wiped his face and the back of his neck with a blue handkerchief before sighing, “Ah, better.”
Scott had just finished wiping the excess water off his face and shook out his handkerchief, before retying it around his neck.
“How ya feelin’ Scott?”
Johnny watched his brother carefully and was satisfied when he got a sharp reply, “I’m just fine little brother. How are you?”
“Fine as frog’s hair, as Jelly’d say.” Johnny replied as he kneed Barranca into a walk once more.
Both brothers were feeling more than weary as they watered their horses a few miles down the trail. Scott was refilling the canteens upstream as Johnny held the horses. Neither were looking forward to the long hot ride up the valley.
“Hey Scott, ya know if we turned east a bit, we could head through the foothills and come down to the ranch from the east.”
Scott looked at his brother and then toward the east to where he could just see the lower Sierra Nevada range. He then looked west to where the summer sun was just starting to go down behind the coastal mountains. “It’s longer that way, Johnny.”
“Maybe. But it’s a sure sight cooler up there than in the valley. Do you really want to ride all day tomorrow in this blazing heat?”
“No.” Scott said thoughtfully. “I don’t want to be late either.”
“Well….I know a shortcut we could take, that’ll cut out several hours so we should arrive on time.”
An hour later, it was almost too dark to see. Johnny had promised to stop at the next suitable camp sight. Scott was starting to lose faith in this so called short cut of his brother’s as the two horses plowed through the manzanita covered hillside.
Scott shifted his weight once again to help his horse balance as he tripped over a thick root that snarled between the scrub brush. He wouldn’t be surprised if one of the horses didn’t lose a shoe in all this mess, then they’d be in a real fix, Scott thought to himself as he watched his brother push his way through some taller shrubs.
Johnny was holding one of the branches for him to catch as he went through the thicket, but as Scott got close enough to hold the branch, Johnny let go and Scott was soon yelling, “Johnny! Watch it!” as he wiped at the stinging cuts across his face.
“Sorry brother. That one got away from me.” Johnny sounded contrite, but that didn’t help the sting as Scott wiped at the dots of blood forming in the narrow welts.
With a sigh of relief, they came to a clearing with a dry creek at the bottom. ‘Oh great. A dry camp.’ Scott thought. Better than nothing, but a soft bed in a roadhouse would have been their other choice if they’d just stayed on the main trail.
“Well will ya look at that.” Johnny exclaimed pointing to the creek. “We’re in luck Scott. There’s still a pool of water down there. At least it’s enough to give the horses a good drink and there’s still some green grass for their supper.”
“Thank goodness for small mercies.” Scott mumbled sarcastically.
Johnny did his best to ignore his brother’s mood and quickly the two brothers set up their camp and without much talk, rolled into their bedrolls for the night.
The next morning came way too early as the sun was soon once again blazing down. The Lancer brother’s were in the saddle early intending to be home that afternoon or early evening. This trail was proving to be more rugged than they thought and the going had been slow at times.
About the only consolation was that the temperature was much cooler than if they’d kept to the valley. Johnny was fairly sure he was leading them in the right direction as he could see the tall ridge off to his right and the tree line to his left. He was looking forward to the look of surprise on his brother’s face when he led them to that pass that would bring them into Lancer from the east.
“How much further Johnny?”
Johnny turned in his saddle to look back at Scott and he scratched his jaw line where his stubble was itchy. “Oh, I’d say another hour to the pass, then it’s just six hours or so to the ranch.”
“To the ranch or to our property line?” Scott clarified as he noticed a tightening in Johnny’s shoulders from behind.
“Ranch; Property line. Same thing.”
“It is not the same thing and you know it. We could be another three hours to the ranch. Are you saying we have ten more hours to go!?”
“Well when you put it like that, it does sound pretty far. See when I travel, I don’t think that far ahead. I just go from one place to the next and however long it takes me is how long it takes.”
“I think that’s fairly obvious Johnny.” Scott said dryly. “One thing you’ve forgotten brother.”
“What’s that Scott?”
“If we don’t get home tomorrow, Murdoch will beat us home.”
Scott waited in silence for him to respond. Johnny didn’t say anything right away, but he pulled Barranca to a halt. Johnny looked at Scott with a frown. “Think he’s gonna be mad?”
“He’s going to be sore. In fact little brother, he may have our heads on a platter.” With that Scott nudged his horse past Johnny and chuckled silently at the worried look on his brother’s face.
Scott sat in stunned amazement as he and Johnny looked at the gully in front of them. “So what happened to it?” Scott asked.
“Rock slide.” Johnny said getting off Barranca.
“Be careful.” Scott warned as Johnny led his horse close to the edge.
Johnny whistled. “Well one things for sure, we aint goin’ down there. Nothing but loose shale straight down.”
By then Scott had joined his brother and was looking down into the canyon with disgust. “So I guess we back track, unless you have another brilliant idea?”
“I’ve always got brilliant ideas Scott.” Johnny gave his brother a cheeky grin as he turned to swing back up onto Barranca. “Come on. Just do what I do.”
Scott felt that familiar flutter of nervousness when Johnny had that cocky self assured attitude. It had gotten them into trouble before and all the warning signs were screaming at him that this was another one of those times.
“Johnny wait up.” He said to Johnny’s departing back as he rode Barranca back the way they had just come.
Johnny stopped about 100 yards from the slide and waited for his brother to catch up. “Where are we going?” Scott asked.
“Over that slide!” Johnny said as he dug his heels into Barranca’s side and took off toward the gully at a gallop.
“Johnny no! Stop!” Scott yelled in anger as his brother ignored him. Scott started his own horse after the galloping pair, but he knew there was no way he could stop them. He almost didn’t want to watch as his brother’s palomino gathered his strong hind quarters and launched them into thin air.
Time stood still for Scott as they seemed to hang between the two sides of solid ground and he thought his heart would stop as he watched Barranca land and stumble on the other side. There was a moment there when it looked like the horse was going to lose his purchase and fall back into the gully.
Scott heard Johnny’s whoop of delight as his brother literally hauled his horse up from his knees to a very rough bouncing stop. “Hey Scott, Take off a little to your right. The landing looks firmer over there. Just get up plenty of speed and you’ll just fly over it.”
Scott muttered under his breath cursing all little brothers and wondering just how he got into this mess in the first place. He set his horse into a strong gallop and guided him a bit to the right. He gave his horse a quick tap with the end of his reins and way too soon he was jumping the crevice.
The landing seemed to come up too fast and before he knew what was happening his horse was scrambling to keep his feet. His horse stumbled and Scott’s face connected with the top of his horses head and for a moment he saw stars.
As he shakily slid off his exhausted mount, he heard Johnny exclaim. “See brother, I told ya you could do it!”
Scott gingerly rubbed his backside before hauling himself back into the saddle. “Well that went well,” he groused. “Next time we do it my way.”
“How was I ta know the trail was washed out?”
Scott climbed into the saddle and looked back at the gully. “It looks like it’s been like that for a long time. Exactly how long ago did you take this shortcut?”
Johnny looked around, suddenly interested in a Blue Jay carrying a twig twice his size to a nearby nest. “Would ya look at that? That bird’s making himself a fine hacienda.”
“How long, Johnny?”
“Well…” Johnny pursed his lips, thinking of a good answer then settling for the truth. “I never rode it myself. But I’d heard about it enough times.”
“You’ve got us on a shortcut that you’re not even sure exists?” Scott blared.
“No one knows for sure if a road or a trail exists until they take it themselves.” Johnny said defensively. “‘Sides, we still don’t have that sun beating down on our heads.”
Scott shook his head. “Why do I let you talk me into disasters like this? Well we better keep going. We’ll be late as it is. Which way?”
Johnny looked at the path that split into two paths twenty yards ahead.
“Don’t tell me…” Scott snorted. “You don’t know which road to take.”
Johnny shrugged, reaching into his jacket pocket for a coin. “Heads left, tails right.”
“Unbelievable,’ Scott muttered. “Unbelievable…Here.” Scott leaned back and dug a crinkled map from his saddlebag. “I bought this from on old prospector who needed money in Stockton. Maybe this will get us home.”
Johnny looked at it skeptically. “Hope you didn’t pay too much for it.”
“If it gets us home it will be worth it.”
Johnny reached over and grabbed the map from Scott’s hand. After studying it for a time he eyed the two paths ahead. “Says here if we take the right one we head north for a spell until we cross Cradle Bridge, then head east. Should reach home sometime tomorrow afternoon.”
“And if we take the left path?” Scott wasn’t trying to be contrary, but Johnny had gotten them in this fix in the first place.
“Looks like it dead ends ‘bout thirty miles from here.”
“Well, let’s hope right is right, little brother.”
Johnny scoffed at the attempt at humor and nudged Barranca toward the right path.
Two hours later they were staring at the path as it narrowed to less than three feet wide. To their right the gently sloping mountain had turned vertical and to their left the path had collapsed to another gully one hundred feet below.
“Well…?” Scott asked. He had to keep a tight rein on Charlemagne, his horse had picked up his rider’s unease.
Johnny studied the map, having his own problems with Barranca. “According to your map we should of crossed Cradle Bridge by now.”
“Let me see that.” Scott snatched the map and started to study it himself, turning it several times until he was satisfied that he had the directions right. “You think we came far enough?”
“Unless that map was written by some Yahoo, we should of crossed it an hour ago.”
“You wanna backtrack?”
Scott looked at the narrow path and had a sickening feeling. If they couldn’t find that bridge they would have no choice but to cross the path. Re-crossing the gully behind them was out of the question. From this side the land was too unstable to jump.
Scott nodded. “Maybe we missed a side trail.”
Johnny resettled his hat on his head. “I sure hope so, Boston.”
They backtracked and still saw no sign of Cradle Bridge.
“This map says the bridge should be right here,” Scott lamented. It was becoming increasingly obvious that the only course open to them was the narrow path. “All the stories you heard of this shortcut…did anyone mention a bridge?”
Johnny shook his head. “Nope. But they didn’t mention that washed out trail neither.” He began to study the narrow path apprehensively. “It don’t matter now. We’re here and we have ta be there.” Johnny pointed to the other side to the path where the trail widened again.
“Do you think we can make it?” Scott looked down to the gully below. If the fall didn’t kill them, the rocks and trees would.
“We don’t have a choice. We’ll walk the horses across. I’ll go first.”
“Cause it was my idea to go this way in the first place.”
Scott shrugged. “Can’t deny that. Be my guest.”
Johnny scowled at Scott. “The least you could do is argue. I mean…”
“What’s to argue? We both have to cross, you said you would go first, so go on, go first. I’ll wait here until you get to the other side.”
“And if I don’t make it?”
Scott looked at the bottom of the gully and grimaced. “I guess I’ll have to find another way.”
Johnny nodded and began to dismount, but didn’t miss the worried look in Scott’s eyes.
He patted Barranca’s nose and whispered something in Spanish Scott couldn’t understand and began to slowly walk along the narrow path.
He felt Barranca hitch back, but kept a steady hand on the rein. He could feel the ground shift beneath his feet, saw dirt and shale slip over the edge and rain down on the gully below.
Johnny walked slow but steady, his heart in his throat. Somehow the sun beating down on his head seemed a lot better than this nightmare.
One foot in front of the other. Step, balance, step. It was only twenty yards or so…but it felt like twenty miles to Johnny. Step, balance…
Suddenly the dirt shifted beneath his feet and his left foot slid off the edge. He tried to dig in with his right foot but he hit a clump of grass and his ankle turned painfully and he landed on his right hip before he began to slide over the edge.
He heard Scott’s terrified yell and Barranca’s startled snort, then he was falling until his right hand smacked a tree root and he grabbed on, jerking himself to a jarring halt. He swung helplessly over the gully trying to draw his left arm up.
He heard Scott slapping Barranca’s rump getting the palomino to move forward and then his brother’s strong arm was dangling next to him waiting for him to grab on.
And grab on he did.
He heard Scott coaxing Charlemagne and knew he was using the horse’s stirrup to help haul his sorry backside up.
“You all right, Johnny?” Scott huffed. He swatted Charlemagne and the horse went to join Barranca and wait for the two humans.
“Thanks, brother…” Johnny croaked. He had no spit left in his mouth. He peeked over the edge and shook his head. “That was too close.”
Scott snorted. “I’d say so.” But there was real concern in his eyes. It had been too close. “You hurt, boy?”
Johnny shook his head and began to climb to his feet when his right ankle gave way. Scott caught him before he fell, not wanting a repeat performance.
“I guess I turned my ankle,” Johnny said sheepishly.
“I guess you did. Well, we better not take that boot off here, if it swells too badly we’ll never get it back on. We’ll take a look at it when we stop for the night.”
Johnny nodded and somehow hobbled his way along the rest of the narrow path until there was enough room for Scott to wrap Johnny’s arm over his shoulder and help him to the waiting horses.
“Well…” Scott said as he helped Johnny mount. “I hope this shortcut doesn’t throw us anymore surprises.”
Johnny resettled his hat and
kicked Barranca lightly. “Why did Scott have to listen to me in the first
place?” he groused silently.
That night two very tired horses and two very sore young men tried to settle in for the night. A cool breeze blew through the camp making the flames from the fire dance merrily in its wake.
They had ridden as hard as they could to make up lost time and at one point ended up back tracking a few miles before they finally found their way to within an hour of the Lancer border. With nightfall fast approaching, they decided to call it quits and set up camp. If they got an early start, they should be home by noon and if they were lucky, they might beat Murdoch home.
Johnny was sitting holding his sore ankle and giving it a good massage while Scott drank the last of his coffee. “Ya know Scott. If we put some kinda sign on that mountain up there we coulda seen it from a long way off. We wouldn’t have lost so much time this afternoon cause we coulda headed right for it.”
“What kind of sign do you think should go up there?” Scott asked in mild amusement.
“Maybe something’ made out of wood. Hey! It could say LANCER, so everybody would know how to get there.”
Scott chuckled at the absurdity of the idea that anyone would want a big wooden sign on a mountain, but knowing his brother, there was a good chance the two of them would be up there trying to get it done.
“Come on brother, let’s get to sleep. We’ve got to get an early start in the morning. Your *short cut* put us a few hours behind.” He grinned at Johnny’s frown and rolled into his bedroll.
“Boy’s you’re back. What kept you? We expected you yesterday.”
Scott shuffled under his father’s intense gaze and saw his brother do the same. He took a deep breath and began to explain, “We’ll sir, we ran into a few obstacles.” He held up one still gloved hand, “Nothing we couldn’t handle, but we were delayed.”
Johnny chanced a look at Murdoch’s expression, “That’s right Murdoch.”
Murdoch bit the inside of his cheek to suppress a smile as he noted that Johnny seemed to be favoring one leg, and Scott had some scratches on one cheek and the beginning of a black eye. He knew there was a good story there somewhere. He resisted the temptation to inquire, but instead asked. “How did the grass look on the way in?”
Murdoch watched as what could only be described as guilt flashed across their faces when they quickly glanced at each other. As expected it was Scott who took the lead, “Well sir, you see… we took a shortcut…..”