Word Count 18,768
(Note: This 7-chapter story was first posted to the Lancer_Writers group on Yahoo in November of 2003. I made some minor revisions before archiving it in my folder of completed stories for the Lancer Fanfiction group on Facebook in 2017.)
Chapter 1 – A Hunt Ending in Disaster
On that day in late November of 1871, naked trees rattled like skeletons as the wind whistled through barren branches in the foothills of the mountains making up the eastern boundary of the Lancer ranch. Murdoch Lancer’s younger son pulled the collar of his short jacket up a little higher and shivered. Why’d I ever let Scott talk me into this? he wondered as he threaded his way deeper into the forest–brush catching at the silver concha buttons on his pants. Had any sense, I’d be home sittin’ in front the fireplace where it’s warm.
The last of the patches of light from the sun peeking through the limbs of the trees disappeared, and the shadows deepened. Johnny Lancer glanced upwards at the solid gray sky. It sure looked like snow was on the way.
More shivers ran up Johnny’s spine. He wished he’d brought his heavier coat, but it was too late to do anything about it now.
Johnny trudged on, silently calling to his prey. Come on, birds. Only need one. I’ll make a clean shot. Promise ya won’t feel a thing. Beats having your head taken off with an ax like Jelly does to those chickens. Just think what an honor it’ll be. The first turkey ever taken out by a bullet from Johnny Madrid’s gun.
The brush up ahead rustled. A small head attached to a long red neck appeared just beyond a rotting log that lay in the path. Then a second bird came into view.
Johnny snatched his pistol from the holster that hung against his right hip–the sound of metal against well-oiled leather no more than a whisper as the revolver slid free. In little more than a blink of the eye, he fired off two shots.
A loud squawk accompanied a flurry of reddish-brown feathers. Wings flapped as Johnny’s quarry flew up into the only evergreen tree within sight.
Johnny kicked a stone and sent it scuttling out of the trail while uttering an oath learned in the language of his mother. He’d missed them both? How? Looking upward, he shook his pistol at the cluster of branches where the birds had disappeared from sight. “I’ll get you, yet.”
The answering deep-throated gobble of defiance only added to Johnny’s determination. He stalked forward and stepped over the decaying log where he had first spotted the turkeys.
Glancing often toward the upper reaches of the tree, Johnny drew closer to where the birds were roosting. He stopped, looked up through the thick boughs of a large fir, and scowled. Those branches sure gave the turkeys an edge. Well, he’d faced tougher odds. There had to be some way to beat this game.
While circling the tree, Johnny shoved his hat to his back and let it dangle from the stampede string so the brim wouldn’t get in his way while he studied the upper branches from every angle. He soon realized there was nothing to be seen other than a faintly darker patch near the top. The birds might have taken refuge there, but a clear shot was out of the question.
The chill in the air sent a different kind of quiver crawling up Johnny’s back. He rubbed his chin with the back of the hand holding the pistol and ran his tongue along the edge of his upper lip. What was a little cold? He wasn’t about to quit, now. Not when he was this close to bagging the main course for Thanksgiving dinner. There had to be a way to get those birds, and he wasn’t giving up till he found it.
Johnny spotted a limb within easy reach above his head and smiled. He could already see the dead turkeys hanging off either side of his saddle-horn by a cord wound snugly around their heels. All he had to do was grab that limb, swing his leg up so he could wrap his ankles over it, and then get a grip on the thick branch that was a little higher up and to one side. From there it would be no chore at all to climb right up to where the birds were perched.
Johnny continued to silently gloat as he holstered his revolver and put his plan into action. Soon he was threading his way upward through a tangle of limbs. Scott, you’re gonna have to hurry to outdo me at this game.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
The elder son of Murdoch Lancer eased his way forward while stepping over dead twigs and skirting the denser patches of shrubbery ahead and on either side of him in hopes of being as quiet as possible. He had heard the gobbling sound of a turkey a short way up ahead and didn’t want to take a chance of scaring it off. With the weather promising snow in the next hour or so, his hope was to finish what he had set out to do and head for home.
Something rust-colored passed behind a leafless clump of brush a little off to Scott Lancer’s right. He squatted and waited. While easing a shell into the chamber of his rifle and lifting the gun into position–the butt resting against his right shoulder and the sights lined up with his right eye, he silently talked to his quarry. Come on. Just a little farther. That’s it. A couple more steps and you’ll be in the open.
Time dragged as his heart raced with excitement. Every nerve in Scott Lancer’s body seemed to be tingling with the same rush of anticipation mixed with apprehension that he had felt while awaiting to engage in his first skirmish with Confederate troops during the War Between the States. Willing his hands to remain steady and taking in air in shallow, evenly spaced breaths, he watched the area between two bushes.
First a small head appeared. Then a long neck took shape followed by the strutting body of a tom turkey.
Scott drew in one more breath and held it. His finger curled around the trigger tensed. One more step and the bird was his.
The sharp crack of gunfire broke the stillness. Feathered wings stretched and fluttered, carrying the turkey into a denser patch of trees and brush.
With a muttered expletive, Scott lowered his unfired rifle. He scowled in the direction the shots had come from. The thought of spending more time tracking down the elusive bird was not pleasant in the least. “Johnny, you would have to shoot just then, wouldn’t you?”
A snowflake tickled Scott’s cheek. He hefted his rifle to his shoulder. There hadn’t been any more gunfire from the direction his brother had been hunting. The wisest thing to do would be to go see if Johnny had had any better luck. They needed to collect their horses and get started for home.
Scott angled off to his right and threaded his way through a maze of bare cottonwood, stately firs, and scrubby underbrush. When he was sure he had to be close to his brother’s location, he stopped to listen.
The only sound was the increased howling of the wind as it swept through the trees.
“Johnny,” Scott softly called. When he didn’t get an answer, he tried again a little louder.
A turkey gobbled somewhere up ahead.
Scott moved toward the sound. It was feasible that Johnny could have missed the bird and was trying to track it down. If that were the case, perhaps between the two of them they would end up with a successful hunt after all.
At the base of a stately fir tree, Scott stopped to again listen for some sign of his brother. He was just about to call the younger man’s name again when he heard two shots fired directly above him.
Scott stared upward. A crashing sound in the branches accompanied a third shot. Something hurtled downward and slammed into him, driving the air from his lungs. The tree seemed to spin wildly before his eyes. As a strangled grunt burst from his throat, everything went black.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
One eye flickered opened. A groan escaped his lips as a hot iron dug into his left shoulder and the weight on his head grew heavier. He sucked in his breath, the air cutting his lungs like a knife. When had it gotten so cold?
As his senses gradually returned, more questions filled his mind. Where was he? What was he lying on? A log of some sort? Why? And why was he sprawled on the ground like some drunk in an ally on Saturday night? His head ached, one shoulder was killing him, and there was a vague awareness in the corner of his mind that his left ankle hurt.
Johnny Lancer willed his mind to give him the answers he needed as he forced his eyes to focus. Suddenly it all came clambering back. The turkeys. They had been out toward the end of a long limb, their bodies half-hidden by the sagging branch above. He had moved down to the one below in hopes of edging out closer. It had worked, too. Having a clear shot, he had blown both of their heads off. One of the birds had remained draped over the branch it had been roosting on. Trying to retrieve it before climbing down to collect the one that had fallen to ground must have been what got him in this fix he was in. If his memory wasn’t playing tricks on him, something had gone wrong just as his fingers had grasped one of the bird’s tiny ankles. Wasn’t that when he’d felt his body hurtling downward–air whistling past his ears and fir boughs and ends of dead twigs tearing at him as he fell. He didn’t remember landing, so he must have been knocked out at that point.
Shifting his eyes from the tree overhead to the lump beneath him, Johnny let out a small gasp. He tried to rise but couldn’t. His left arm was useless and the pain in his shoulder from the effort made his stomach queasy and everything within sight turned black. For a moment, he let his body go limp while waiting for the agonizing pain to let up.
Once the nausea had passed and his vision had cleared, Johnny shifted his upper body forward and rolled to his knees. Leaning heavily on his right hand, he clamped his eyelids shut, clinched his teeth, and moaned. He was certain that if he had to twist one more time that the pull on his injured arm would kill him. Still he had to see to his brother. Why hadn’t Scott moved or made a sound? Was dead?
Johnny hoarsely whispered his brother’s name. His heart beat faster in the silence that answered. He tried again, only louder with a touch of desperation in his tone. “Scott. Are you all right?”
When Scott remained motionless, Johnny nearly panicked. Forgetting the worthless condition of his other arm, he tried to reach out and touch his brother. This brought a scream that had him wondering whose lips it had come from.
Johnny’s forehead broke out in a sweat and he panted for breath. The pain finally let up enough that he could speak again. “Come on, Brother. Wake up and talk to me,” he said. When there still wasn’t any answer, Johnny eased his right hand forward and leaned closer to his brother in order to watch for some sign that he was still alive.
Scott’s crumpled body didn’t move.
Johnny couldn’t hold back the grief driven groan that welled up in his throat. In the year and a half since fate, or God as some might claim, had brought them together, his love for his brother had grown far deeper than he had every dreamed possible. The thought of losing what they had shared was nearly more than he could bear.
Noticing the red blotch that was slowly discoloring the strands of blond hair at the base of Scott’s skull, Johnny was gripped bya new fear. What would he tell Murdoch and Teresa?
Johnny’s head tipped forward. Somehow he’d shot his own brother. That was the only thing that could account for the wound to back of the other man’s head. “Why?” he yelled. “Why’d ya have to have turkey for Thanksgiving? Anything would’ve been fine with me–even one of Teresa’s scrawny chickens. If we’d stayed home, you wouldn’t be lyin’ there.”
Johnny’s head sank lower and finally came to rest on his brother’s shoulder. “Scott . . . I’m . . . I’m so sorry. I don’t know how this happened. I’d . . . I’d give anything to undo it. Don’t die on me. Please don’t die. Scott, I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
The searing pain in Johnny’s shoulder went unheeded. It was of little consequence compared to the terrible agony caused by the knife of guilt cutting into his chest and tearing his heart out. In his despair, nothing registered in his mind other than the horrifying realization that he had killed his brother. Never in his life had he hated anything more than he hated Thanksgiving Day at that moment. If it hadn’t been for their having gone hunting for a turkey, he and Scott would both be safe at home sitting in front of the big fireplace.
Chapter 2 – Doing Whatever It Takes
Angry with Scot, himself, the turkeys, and perhaps even God, Johnny Lancer leaned against his brother’s shoulder and slowly brought his one good arm forward. His fingers slid around the collar of Scott Lancer’s jacket and searched for the other man’s jugular vein. “You can’t be dead,” he said. “I won’t let you get off that easy. You promised me a chance to win back the money I lost in that poker game we had last night . . . and I’m gunna do whatever it takes to make you live up to your promise. Ya hear me?”
The loud words went unheeded, but Scott’s neck felt warm.
Johnny took hope for the first time since awaking to the nightmare of having shot his brother. He probed the other man’s firm throat and, finding the grove he sought, pressed his fingertips against the vein that lay beneath the surface. Then he waited.
Johnny’s heart raced in anticipation. Was that a light throb he could feel? He shifted his hand slightly in hopes of making better contact with the artery and let out a long sigh of relief. There it was, a little weak, but it was a heartbeat. His brother was alive.
How to go about getting the other man home was the next big question to enter Johnny’s mind. With only the use of one arm, how was he going to help Scott make the half-mile trek back to where their horses were tied?
Large, sloppy flakes of snow drifted down through the gaps between the outer edges of the branches above Johnny. He knew he had to get Scott back to the house before the weather got much worse.
After searching Scott’s pocket for a handkerchief to bandage the other man’s wound and finding none, Johnny gritted his teeth in anticipation of the agony to come. He pushed away from his brother and rocked back on his heels. His head spun, leaving him feeling weak. Hesitating only long enough for the worst of the fuzz to clear from his throbbing head, he picked up his revolver, which was lying close to Scott’s face, and slipped the weapon into his holster. He struggled to his feet and wobbled, tears springing to his eyes at the searing pain clawing at his shoulder.
Johnny refused to give up. His brother’s life could be at stake. He took a quick glance around to settle his options. At the base of the tree was the plump, feathered body of one of the turkeys. A short ways beyond was the other. It would be a shame to leave them. They were the reason for the fix he and his brother were in. Even though the birds were small payment for what he was about to endure, they had been won at a high price. If there was any way to take them with him he would.
After once again brushing away the trickle of tears stinging his eyes, Johnny looked down on his brother. Scott still hadn’t moved or shown any sign of regaining consciousness. That meant the other man would have to be carried. How was he to do that with a useless left arm, one ankle that might give out on him, and a head that felt as though it had hammers rattling around inside?
“I ain’t leavin’ them birds, Brother,” Johnny flatly declared. “I’ll drag you if it comes to that. One way or another, you’ll have that turkey dinner that means so much to you.”
Johnny managed to totter his way over to the dead turkeys. He knelt by each one in turn and worked their scaly, bare legs up under the back of his gun belt. With better than an extra fifty pounds dangling from his waist and bumping into the back of his legs at each halting step, Johnny returned to his brother.
Scott was still lying on his side, legs slightly curled. His left arm was flung above his head with his cheek resting in the crook of the elbow and the other was draped across his chest. He looked like he was sleeping peacefully, and Johnny could have easily given in to the illusion if it hadn’t been for the now blood-clotted wound in the edge of his brother’s hair.
Taking a deep breath and slowly letting it part way out, Johnny fortified his nerves for what he was about to endure. He called out to his brother one last time, just to make sure Scott hadn’t come to yet. The other man didn’t respond, which wasn’t any surprise. There never did seem to be any easy roads where Johnny was concerned; although he thought it would have been nice if this could have been his one exception.
With all of the determination of his stubborn Scottish blood, which at times Johnny thought of as being a curse rather than a blessing from his father, he set about pulling Scott up and over his one good shoulder. It was far from easy. In fact, once Scott was dangling–head against his brother’s back and legs enfolded by the younger man’s one good arm—Johnny wondered how he’d managed to get him there without any help. If there was such a thing as a guardian angel, like Teresa claimed to believe, he figured Scott’s must have been lending a helping hand. There just wasn’t any other explanation that made any sense.
Scott’s shotgun, lying at Johnny’s feet, glared up mockingly at the already overburdened young man. He groaned. The gun had been a birthday gift from their father that September, and Scott had hardly had a chance to use it. Knowing that he couldn’t leave it behind, Johnny stooped and grasped the end of the barrel with his good hand. He rested the butt on the ground and pushed himself upward until he was standing once again. Then he began the half-mile hike to the horses.
The struggle to stay upright while stepping over tangled deadfall proved to be the most difficult part of the journey. For the most part, Johnny could just shuffle his feet along the trail and shift a little one way or the other to avoid catching Scott’s legs or arms on the rare briar patch. Downed trees were another matter. The first one nearly spilled him on his face. His toe caught on the rotting bark and his body pitch forward as he scrambled for footing beneath the swaying weight of his brother and the infernal birds that just couldn’t be left behind. If it hadn’t been for a spindly pine tree, barely taller than the big man Johnny still couldn’t bring himself to call, ‘pa’, both he and Scott would have landed in a heap. Not that the pain of plowing his nose into the ground could have been any worse than what he had felt as his injured arm snagged on the sapling. Soft needled boughs had done nothing to cushion his shoulder from being crushed into the scrawny, wobbling trunk of the small tree as it kept him upright. He came frighteningly close to passing out as hot flames burned his flesh from his ear all the way to his fingertips. When he came to the next such obstacle, Johnny hunted a way around the log rather than chance going over it. There wasn’t any nearby tree to catch his balance on even if he could have tolerated a repeat of the excruciating pain.
Time seemed to be passing far too slowly as Johnny carried his precious burden through the forest, and he had the sinking feeling that he had somehow gotten off track. He couldn’t imagine that it should be taking so long to reach the horses. Just when he was about convinced that he needed to change his course, he spotted a gnarled stump with the beginnings of a new tree growing out of one side. It looked vaguely familiar, but he wasn’t quite sure. In fact, his mind was so muddled by the pounding of his head, the throbbing in his arm and shoulder, and the increasing protests of his sprained ankle that he found it hard to be certain of anything other than the knowledge that he was his brother’s only ticket home.
Johnny forged ahead, taking a chance that his memory hadn’t been playing tricks on him. If he didn’t break out of the surrounding trees soon, he’d try something else. In his heart, he desperately hoped it wouldn’t come to that. His breath was coming in gasps and the fog in his brain was thickening about as fast as the cloud of snow that had changed from sloppy splashes of slush against his cold cheeks to a more crystallized form that stung as they slid down his face. Scott was going to need shelter and soon.
Hope dwindled away to nothing as despair slowly took over. Johnny stumbled and felt his brother’s weight shift. Before he could stop the inevitable, his knees buckled and he hit the ground with a jolt that rattled his teeth. By some strange stroke of luck, he was able to roll to the side and keep Scott folded at the waist in such a way that the older man’s head was saved a further bashing. Johnny’s injured shoulder, however, didn’t fair nearly so well, and a cry of agony ripped from his throat as he was enfolded in a blanket of dense darkness.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
With the sun hidden behind a thick blanket of falling snow, Johnny awoke with no concept of how long he had lain unconscious. It had to have been a few minutes at the least. He and his brother were both covered by a thin layer of white powder.
“Gotta get up. Scott’s counting on me to get him home in time for Thanksgiving dinner.” Johnny’s softly spoken words were carried away on the wings of the wind that was much stronger than he remembered.
Struggling to right himself, Johnny went on talking. “Boston gave up a lot comin’ out here. Parties . . . high-society balls in some rich mansion with servants to cater to your every need . . . stylish clothes and gals wearin’ the latest fashion from some country over in Europe they ain’t even ever seen. He’s used to celebrating with them fancy seven course meals, he told me about, where ya get a different utensil for each one. Me . . . I could make do with my pocketknife, and it wouldn’t bother me none as long’s the food was even halfway worth eating. Still . . . if it’ll make Scott happy to get all duded up and use a handful of silverware to do the job of one or two, then I’m gunna see he gets to. He’s put up with refried beans, tortillas, rice, and tamales often enough without complaining. He’d never say it to my face, but I know he’s not exactly fond of my kind of food.”
Talking somehow distracted Johnny’s mind from the agony wracking his own body, and by the time he was finished justifying the necessity of expending every ounce of strength that he possessed in order to get his brother back to the hacienda before nightfall, he was once again on his feet. “I’ll get you there, Scott . . . and them turkeys, too. You ain’t about to miss that turkey dinner with all the trimmings just because of a little ol’ knock on the head. This time tomorrow, you’ll be sitting up to the table Teresa’ll have all decked out with candelabras, them dainty china dishes with the tiny roses painted around the edge, and all the fixings of a proper Thanksgiving right at your fingertips. You’ll swear ya was back in Boston.”
With renewed determination despite his inability to keep from staggering with every step, Johnny bowed his dark head into the driving wind and forged ahead. He ignored the gnawing fatigue and pain that was making the landscape tilt and swirl before his eyes. The fading light and densely falling snow also went unnoticed as he struggled onward in a world that was gradually being filled with an eerie hush. There was only one thing that mattered and that was Scott. Everything else was pushed from his mind.
Sometime later, Johnny had no way of knowing how long, the wind carried a soft nicker to him just as he broke through a thicker stand of trees into a small clearing. On the far side, barely visible through the haze of white, he saw the welcoming sight of his beloved palomino.
“We made it, Scott. I told you we would . . . didn’t I?” The proud proclamation had hardly left his lips when once again the ground rushed up to meet him, only this time it slapped him full in the face and drove him into an even deeper darkness than before.
As Johnny lay, left arm crazily out to one side and his other tucked around the legs of his brother whose body was now stretched out underneath his own, the snow slowly blended the still forms of the brothers with that of their bed of dry grass. Less than a hundred yards away, Barranca stomped his impatience and called to his fallen master–the sounds landing upon deaf ears.
Chapter 3 – Too Stubborn to Quit
Awaking to chattering teeth and a face prickled by thousands of tiny needles that left his tingling skin on the verge of becoming numb, Johnny lifted his head to look around. For a brief moment, he had no recollection of where he was or how he had gotten there. His confusion was short-lived. A shrill whinny brought it all back to him in a rush.
“Scott,” he whispered hoarsely. Aware of the body beneath him, Johnny quickly rolled to one side only to be met with a blast of pain that took his breath away and nearly sent him spiraling back into the dark pit he had just come out of. A curse then burst from his lips as he derided himself for not remembering his injured arm.
Somehow Johnny pulled himself from the yawning precipice and struggled to his knees. The ground around him was already carpeted with nearly an inch of snow, and his breath turning to fog meant the temperature had dropped a few more degrees. He had to get to his horse and find a way to get Scott into the saddle. How he was to manage to do that was a mystery that he refused to give any thought to. His mind would only fill him in on the absurdity of even considering such a thing.
Once on his feet again, Johnny put his efforts into reaching the horses. It would do no good to waste his strength on packing his brother to them and then be too worn out to boost Scott aboard one of their backs. Bringing one of the horses over to the injured man made more sense.
Releasing the slipknot holding the tail ends of the neck-ropes in place around the trunk of the trees to which the horses were tethered proved to be no easy chore for the injured man. The ropes, now wet with snow, seemed to have swollen. Despite the fact that he had virtually no use of his left hand and the fingers of his other were numbing, Johnny refused to give up, and finally after what seemed an eternity, had both animals free.
Johnny decided that since he would have to take the unconscious man with him on Barranca, it would be best to let his brother’s mount run loose. After shoving Scott’s shotgun into the rifle scabbard, he shortened the reins that were tied around the horn, coiled the loose end of the neck-rope, and secured it in place with the short leather strings, which were normally used to hold a lariat on one side of the fork of the saddle. This done, he dug a short length of twine out of his own saddle bag before loosening his belt and letting the turkeys that were still dangling behind him fall to the ground.
Attaching the ankles of the two birds to opposite ends of the heavy string proved to be another difficult task, but somehow Johnny managed to do it one handed with the help of his teeth pulling on the ends of the cord to tighten the knots. Once the birds were secured, he grasped the twine between the two sets of legs, hefted the turkeys, and slid the loop over his saddle horn. He leaned against Barranca’s side while letting a wave of dizziness pass. Then he gathered up the drooping reins and led the horse to where Scott lay half-hidden in the snow on the far side of the clearing.
The temperature had dropped another degree or two and Johnny shivered, his teeth beginning to chatter. His jacket was no match for the chill of the howling wind. Looking down on his sleeping brother, he knew Scott had to be getting cold, too, and wet. This last thought was even more troubling. Cold by itself was bad enough, but the combination of wet and cold could be deadly. Scott had had pneumonia before, back during his time in the Cavalry. According to Doc Jenkins, that put him at an even greater risk.
Kneeling beside Scott, Johnny looked up at Barranca, who for once was standing quietly as though the fiery palomino understood the seriousness of the situation and knew the importance of his cooperation. Still, hopelessness lay heavy on Johnny’s shoulders, weighing him down and encouraging him to give up the foolish idea of getting his brother home. Better just make a fire and set up camp here. Even if you get Scott aboard Barranca, which there’s no way on God’s earth you’re going to do, you can’t hang onto him with one arm for two hours. How’re you going to handle the reins? You thought of that?’
Johnny refused to listen to the voice that had been nagging at him ever since he had first awakened back at the tree he had fallen out of. Although he knew that blizzards were almost unheard of in their part of California, the storm had all of the earmarks of turning into one. He didn’t dare risk being snowed in without proper food or shelter. Besides, he was certain that Scott needed a doctor to remove the bullet that had to still be lodged somewhere at the base of his skull. Not only that, he was sure from the pain he felt in his own arm that it had to be broken. It wasn’t going to get any better either without proper care.
Thinking was getting him no where, so Johnny tried rolling Scott over. It would be easier to drape his brother over his back again if the unconscious man were lying face down. Johnny’s mind, however, refused to shut down, and the more he thought the thing over the more he realized there was just no way possible to get Scott aboard Barranca.
With head tipped forward and chin touching his chest, Johnny slumped down at his brother’s side. “God, I know I ain’t always done right . . . but think ya could forget about that and help me out? He needs a doctor, and I can’t leave him here while I go get one. The nearest line shack’s over three miles away. There’s no way I can carry him that far. If I could just get him on my horse, I know I could get him home. Please . . . I can’t let him die out here. Help me do something to save him.”
The wind calmed just long enough for Johnny to hear a low moan. He wasn’t even sure that he hadn’t imagined it until he saw a flicker of Scott’s eyelashes. “Scott? Scott can you hear me?” Johnny’s voice was filled with urgency.
“Johnny?” Scott’s eyelids fluttered open and blinked at the flakes of snow that were getting in his eyes.
Relief washed over Johnny, carrying his despair away like a summer rain clearing dust from the air. He released his breath in a whoosh. “Scott . . . you don’t know how good it is to see you’re awake. We’re in an awful pickle and I’m gunna need your help.”
“What . . . happened?”
“Long story . . . tell ya later.” Johnny rocked back on his heels and sat up a little straighter–the fire in his shoulder ignored. “Right now we gotta get headed home before this storm gets any worse. Think ya can sit up?”
“I can try.” Scott raised his head and groaned.
“Easy. Give me your hand so I can help ya.” Johnny reached out with his one good hand and clasped his brother’s when Scott lifted an arm in response. He tugged gently as he leaned backward–swallowing a moan of pain as his opposite shoulder burned while Scott pressed one elbow into the ground and sat up.
“Scott? You okay?” His brother’s slight nod was a lie and Johnny knew it. Scott’s face was beaded with drops of moisture that were more than melted flakes of snow. He was holding his head with both hands like he thought he might lose it, and his tightly pressed lips were no doubt holding back a cry of pain. “Hurt bad?” Johnny softly inquired.
“What’d I do?” Scott grated between clenched jaws.
“Got yourself in the way of a big turkey.” The attempt to lighten the situation fell flat, and the puzzled look on Scott’s face brought a pang of guilt tugging at Johnny’s insides. “Sorry, Brother. It was a joke. Guess you didn’t think it was funny.” Forcing a smile that he figured came out looking rather grim, he struggled to his feet–his own battle with pain hidden by the turn of his head. That skirmish won, he again held out his hand toward his brother. “Come on. Let’s see if that head of yours will hold together long enough for us to get you up on Barranca.”
The strain on Johnny’s right shoulder as he helped his brother to his feet fanned the flame in his other. He bit his lip to keep from crying out. It wouldn’t do Scott any good to be worrying about how desperate their situation really was. “Wasn’t so bad . . . huh?” he asked when his wobbling brother was standing at his side.
Scott let out a huff. “Not at all.”
Johnny grasped Barranca’s trailing rein, led the big palomino up closer to Scott, and then moved in behind the other man. “Think you can pull yourself into the saddle while I give you a boost from behind?”
“No problem. I can do it.”
Yeah, right. Easy as eatin’ pie, I’ll bet, thought Johnny. There was no need letting his doubts discourage his brother from trying, so he flashed a smile and lightly back-handed Scott’s arm. “Sure ya can. You’re a Lancer. We don’t know the meaning of the word, can’t. Ain’t that right?”
“That’s right. Nothin’s gunna keep me from gettin’ on that horse.”
Another lie that Johnny wasn’t buying. The lazily-spoken slurred words were out of character for a man who had been raised among the upper crust of Boston society. That and the way one corner of Scott’s lower lip was clamped between white teeth was a good indication that he was putting up a brave front.
Johnny figured he had better take advantage of Scott’s determination before all that false bravado faded into reality. “Well, what’re ya waitin’ for? I don’t know about you, but I’m cold. Just because you’re tough and don’t mind freezing your backside off don’t mean ya gotta make me suffer.” His light, teasing tone hid the turmoil he felt while the words served the purpose of prodding his brother into action.
Getting Scott mounted soon proved to be the least of Johnny’s worries. Although his brother was a little light headed from pain and possibly from loss of blood, Scott had little trouble climbing into the saddle. He hardly needed a push, much to the younger brother’s surprise and relief. Johnny was the one to have difficulty. With only one good arm, he soon discovered it was impossible to climb on behind the other man. Even if he had been willing to ask for help and reveal the extent of his own injuries, he was sure the pain would have been unbearable. The horse was just too tall.
“Think I’ll lead Barranca till he’s settled a bit. Wouldn’t want him gettin’ antsy and dumpin’ us off. Your head might not take to another lump right now.” Johnny moved back to the horse’s head and folded the reins so he could use them to steady himself if necessary. Without waiting for a response from his brother, he took a step forward, praying his horse wouldn’t fuss about the crawling pace.
Barranca walked out at a slow, steady gait–head nodding with the rhythm of his iron-shod hooves as they struck the ground with a thump muffled by snow and clamoring wind. Johnny was glad the drive of the storm was now coming at an angle from behind them and not straight into their faces. The haze of swirling snowflakes had thickened, and he was having enough trouble seeing without the added strain of forcing his watery eyes to stay open.
Johnny hobbled along at the horse’s head. His ankle was hurting worse with each step and more and more often he found himself having to catch his balance by tugging on the reins held inches below the palomino’s bit. Barranca, however, seemed to understand the necessity of the abuse and tolerated it without complaint.
Occasionally Johnny cast a worried glance back at his brother. At first, Scott rode fairly straight up in the saddle; however, the farther they went, the more his shoulders slumped, Before long he was leaning forward with his arms resting on Barranca’s neck. Johnny knew time was running out for finding something to crawl up on and use for a mounting block. If the other man should pass out and slide off the horse, there would be no getting him back on until he woke up.
A small voice whispered something in Johnny’s ear about his brother not waking up again, but the determined young man refused to listen. Instead he peered into the gathering shadows and searched more diligently for a log, rock, or any other kind of hump that would serve his purpose. His own strength was failing fast. If he didn’t get aboard Barranca soon, he was going to drop from pain and exhaustion. All hope for survival would be gone once that happened. Chances were that he and his brother would both freeze to death and their family might not find them for days.
Chapter 4 – The Homeward Trek
The nose-twitching smell of damp horsehair drifted through Scott Lancer’s mind and penetrated the cloud of pain radiating from the base of his skull to the top of his head. He briefly wondered why he was riding with his face in his horse’s mane. A blinking of blond-fringed lashes cleared his vision and his steel-blue eyes took in the golden neck, frosted with white flecks that slowly disappeared as others landed. Obviously, he wasn’t on his own horse.
Scott lifted his head. His stomach revolted, and he gasped as his world briefly spun before his eyes. He took a few panting breaths until the dizziness passed.
Once his vision cleared, Scott looked beyond the horse’s bobbing head and spotted the snow-covered form of a man holding the ends of the bridle reins. Johnny. He put me on his horse and said he’d lead him a little to settle him down.
Scott’s brows puckered. Barranca was perfectly calm so why would Johnny still be walking. The horse was certainly big enough to carry the both of them as long as they kept to an easy pace.
“Johnny?” The gusting snow whipped the word out of Scott’s mouth and carried it past the other man, who didn’t respond with so much as a backward glance. Scott tried again, only louder, his voice cracking as his head seemed to explode with the added effort.
Barranca halted as Johnny looked back. “Something wrong, Scott?”
His brother’s shout into the wind was little more than a whisper in Scott’s ears. “Why don’t you ride?” Scott called in return. Feeling a stab of pain, he rested his forehead on one hand and groaned.
“I will. Right up there.”
Having not seen where his brother was pointing, Scott didn’t even bother to answer. Talking was an effort that only made the throbbing in his head worse.
True to his words, Johnny stopped again a little farther on. Scott wondered why his brother made such a point of maneuvering Barranca up to a ragged stair-stepped boulder before handing up the reins, but he didn’t ask. He just took hold of the flat braids of rope and kept leaning forward as he watched the younger man climb up onto the rock that was as tall as the horse’s rump.
Johnny moved to the edge of the boulder, squatted, and grasped the back of Scott’s belt.
Scott didn’t try to see what his brother did next. It was too painful to twist his head to see behind him. What he felt told him that Johnny slid one knee across the cantle of the saddle and dropped a leg off the far side while slipping into place.
“New way of getting aboard a horse?” Scott didn’t mean the question sarcastically but it came out that way anyhow.
“Didn’t . . . wanna disturb ya.”
“I see.” Scott really didn’t see. The whole thing hadn’t made much sense to him unless his brother’s labored breathing and halting words meant something wasn’t quite right with him.
Scott was in no condition to puzzle things out, and whatever he had detected in his brother’s voice was gone when Johnny lightly drawled in his ear, “Wanna hand me them reins, or are ya plannin’ on doin’ the steerin’?”
Scott retained his grip on the reins despite the little voice that told him he was biting off more than he could chew. “I can do the honors. Besides, it might help keep me awake.”
“Then let’s get goin’. We . . . got a long ride and . . . the day ain’t gettin’ any longer.”
The hitch was back in his brother’s voice. Scott squeezed Barranca into a walk and guided him back onto the trail, which he knew would soon gently wind down off the ridge to follow a creek bed. He wasn’t entirely convinced that his own physical condition was the only reason for the younger man’s hurry to get going. If that was the case, he might have been injured somehow, too. Not that he’d admit it if he were. Johnny would just push himself until he dropped and then claim he had no idea he was in such a bad way.
With this final thought, Scott rode in silence for a while. He was glad his brother didn’t seem to be in the mood for small talk, either. The wind was howling too loud for them to hear without shouting. With the pain in the back of his head getting worse, Scott found it was taking all of his efforts at the moment just to direct the horse.
The trail down to Wolf Creek would have been an easy ride under drier conditions. That wasn’t the case at all with a thin layer of slippery snow covering both the dead limbs, which had weathered smooth over a period of time, and the half buried rocks that littered the path. Barranca was content to go slow, but he still skidded as his shod hooves slid precariously over hidden obstacles. Several times, as Johnny’s weight crowded him from behind, Scott had to grab the saddle horn to keep from being pushed off over the palomino’s head.
Scott could hardly see straight from the painful throbbing of his head by the time they reached the bottom. He was about to ask his brother to take the reins so he could close his eyes when Johnny suggested that very thing. Gladly, Scott handed them over. If he fell asleep, or even worse, passed out, there’d be less chance of falling off the horse as long as his brother’s arm was stretched around him, even though it was only on one side.
This last realization brought more puzzling thoughts to Scott’s mind. Why was Johnny holding the reins with his right hand? Normally he held them in his left so that his other hand was free to use his rope or to get at his pistol, if the need arose. Yet, here he was, putting the entire burden on his gun hand and letting his other arm hang at his side.
Normally, Scott would have spent more time trying to figure things out. Instead, he let it slip from his mind. Retaining his balance so that he wasn’t leaning heavily on his brother’s arm was a difficult enough task.
With the area of the stream being shielded from the main force of the storm, even though there were far fewer trees than on the ridge, the wind was much quieter and the snow came at them at a less severe angle. Scott would have preferred to close his eyes and continue riding in silence. It soon appeared that Johnny had other ideas when he inquired about what they would be having with their turkey dinner on Thanksgiving.
Scott probed his recent memory. “Turkey? What turkey?”
“Those two I got.”
“You shot two? How? When?”
“Yeah, two . . . only forget about how I got ’em. Just tell me what we’re having with ’em.”
Johnny seemed a little too quick in skirting the details of the hunt, but Scott let it pass. He had a faint suspicion that he didn’t want to know about it any more than the other man wanted to tell him. He also didn’t really feel like talking but chose to humor his brother anyway. They had a long ride home, and he thought Johnny might be getting sleepy and in need of something to keep him awake.
Scott cleared his throat and tried tipping his head into a more comfortable position. There wasn’t one so he started reciting the proposed contents of the next day’s dinner. He began with the appetizer and before dinner wine, each item garnering a comment of some sort from his brother. Then he began to tell Johnny about the pumpkin soup.
“Punkin soup?” Johnny interrupted. “I thought we were having pie?”
“Actually, we’re having both.” Scott went on to explain why.
“Punkin soup, huh?”
Johnny sounded dubious, so Scott quickly tried to reassure him. “Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll like it. It’s very good.”
“Okay. What next?”
The cold didn’t seem quite so penetrating and the pressure building at the back of his head seemed less noticeable as Scott continued filling Johnny in on the contents of the anticipated meal.
By the time Johnny quit asking more questions about the food, Wolf Creek had joined a larger stream at the eastern end of the valley that ran through the middle of the Lancer Ranch. Scott, beginning to tire by then, was more than glad for a little silence. It didn’t last for long, though. Johnny found something else to quiz his brother about.
“So, Scott . . . just how’d all this hoop-la get started in the first place?”
Having just begun to relax and feel a bit sleepy, Johnny’s newest question didn’t quite register in Scott’s mind. “Hoop-la? About what?”
“Thanksgiving? T’resa said it had something to do with some of the first white people that sailed over here from England.”
“Yeah. I think that’s what she called ’em.” Johnny hesitated briefly before continuing. “So tell me. What’d they have to do with Thanksgiving?”
With a resigned sigh, Scott began to relate the story of the Pilgrims. Prompted by his brother’s occasional questions, he explained that the Pilgrims were Puritan Separatists, who had broken away from the Church of England during the time of King James I. Believing life to be a pilgrimage to heavenly peace, they had chosen the name “Pilgrims” as a way of identifying themselves. Since they also believed that true worship of God had to originate from the heart of man and that traditional forms of worship prescribed by the government interfered with man establishing a Biblical relationship with God, some of their leaders had decided to form their own religious organization. Since the church and government of England were united, this was the same as treason.
At this point, Johnny cut in. “Ya mean the law told ’em what church they had to go to?”
Scott took a ragged breath and wished for once that his brother wasn’t being so inquisitive. Knowing Johnny wouldn’t give up, he answered with more detail than required in hopes it would satisfy the other man and that then they could ride in silence for a while. “Yes. That’s why our founding fathers strove to keep church and state separate . . . so that one group of people couldn’t dictate everyone else’s religious beliefs.”
Johnny responded with, “So how’d all that lead to us celebrating Thanksgiving?”
Although talking helped to ward off sleep, it also tended to increase the pressure building in the back of Scott’s head so it was with a measure of reluctance that he continued the history lesson. “In 1620, a group of Pilgrims gained permission to come to America and help settle the New World. They arrived at Cape Cod on the Mayflower but weren’t able to reach the land they had contracted for so they anchored at a place called, Provincetown, on the twenty-first of November.”
“Was that anywhere near Boston?”
“Around fifty miles to the southeast by ship. Twice that by land.” This brought up more questions that required Scott to draw a word picture of the Massachusetts’ coastline so that Johnny would have some idea of where and what Cape Cod was and know that Provincetown was at the tip of it. This led to more discussion of the deplorable conditions the Pilgrims had faced their first winter, the extent of the loss of lives, and that the Indians might well have been responsible for the fact that any had survived. This in turn brought the conversation back to the first Thanksgiving, which was a celebration of thanksgiving to God for the Pilgrim’s survival and the bountiful harvest they had at the end of their first year.
“So is that why ya have turkey for dinner?” Johnny asked when Scott told him about Governor Bradford sending four men out hunting and that they had returned with enough birds to feed the entire company for a week.
Johnny’s voice seemed weaker to Scott. He wondered why, but when he asked his brother if he was all right, Johnny insisted that he was fine and then repeated his last question. Scott had no choice but to answer. “Tradition has it that their meal consisted of turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie, but some claim it was venison, goose, duck, and wine.”
“Don’t guess Jelly would go for us having goose, huh?”
Scott envisioned the goose that the hired man, who was treated more like family than an employee, had bought that summer and named, Dewdrop. As protective as Jelly was of that bird, there was no doubt that the man would have their hides just for thinking of eating it, or even one like him, for dinner.”No. I don’t suppose he would,” Scott replied with a light chuckle–a pain shooting through the base of his head–
“So is that all they did?”
“Who?” Scott asked, caught in the middle of his thoughts about Jelly and his pet bird. He had no idea what his brother was referring to. His mind was getting too foggy from Barranca’s rhythmic gait lulling his eyes closed and beckoning him to give into the desire to sleep that he found it hard to stay with the sudden change of subject.
“The Pilgrims. Was that all they did? Eat.”
“Huh?” Scott rubbed a hand across his eyes and tried to pull his thoughts together. “Uh, no. First they had a church service.”
“With singing and preaching?”
“I believe it was just a sermon that lasted about three hours.”
“Three hours?” Surprise filled Johnny’s voice.
Scott couldn’t help smiling. He could still remember the hard time Johnny had had sitting though a sermon that had lasted less than an hour the time the younger man had attended a church service when Pony Alice had stayed at the ranch earlier that year.
Darkness settled in as the brothers talked a little more about how the tradition of celebrating a day of thanksgiving had continued, and why President Grant had to make some sort of proclamation to set a specific Thanksgiving Day each year. By the time there was another lag in the conversation, Scott could hardly keep his eyes open. His hands and feet no longer ached from the cold wind; and although his head still hurt, the cold air had numbed the pain to a more tolerable level. The stinging of his chilled face had ceased and surprisingly he was beginning to feel warmer. Except for the thinning swirl of white flakes, he would have thought it too warm to be snowing.
Scott closed his eyes. He slowly slumped farther forward in the saddle and was vaguely aware of the increased weight against his back and the arm, which wasn’t his own, that had come to rest on his thigh. Sleep, however, overcame him too quickly for his mind to realize that Johnny might no longer be awake to keep them from falling.
Chapter 5 – A Night Filled with Worry
The heavy door was ripped from the small man’s grip by the gusting wind and slammed shut with a bang that rattled the end of the barn. Jelly Hoskins slapped a hand on the top of his cap to anchor it in place. He ducked his chin and blinked at the sloppy flakes of snow flying into his face. “Blasted weather,” he groused. “Could’ve waited another day.”
Swiping a hand across his eyes and down his bearded cheek, Jelly strained to see through the darkness. The Lancer brothers should have been home two hours or more ago, and he was getting worried they had run into trouble. “Don’t know how Murdoch can sit around smoking a pipe and reading a book when his boys are out in all this,” he muttered. “I know they’re big enough to take care o’ themselves . . . but for all he knows, they could’ve had an accident. One or both of ’em could be lying out there right now with a broken leg . . . or worse.” The hired man, who for the most part was treated like a member of his boss’s family, shook his head in disgust. In the little over a year since he’d first met Murdoch Lancer, he’d come to like the man. Still there were times they didn’t even come close to seeing eye to eye. This was one of them.
The wind paused and Jelly could have sworn he heard a horse nicker close by. He wished he had a lantern but knew it would have been worthless. Its flame would have been snuffed out the instant he came through the doorway of the barn. Telling himself that the sound could have come from inside the barn or even out in the horse pasture, he started toward the gate that was on the far side of the corral.
Unable to see more than ten to fifteen feet in front him, Jelly stayed close to the rail fence that separated the main part of the corral from the pen along the front side of the barn. When he reached the rock fence that had been part of the original enclosure before Murdoch had bought the ranch, he turned right and followed it to the gate.
Jelly paused as he lifted the gate latch. Again, he was sure he heard a whicker, only closer this time. He pulled the wooden gate open and peered outside. In front of him loomed a ghostly form that almost looked like a horse with a pack of some kind on its back.
As Jelly stepped forward, his heart beat faster. “Scott? Johnny? That you?”
The shadow sidled away and snorted at Jelly approach.
“Easy boy,” Jelly said, keeping his voice low and soothing. “Ain’t nobody gunna hurt you.” Carefully reaching out, Jelly took a couple more slow steps to the horse’s head. He grasped the near rein up close to the bit, uttered a few softly spoken words to settle the animal, and then glanced upward.
“What the . . ..” The question stuck in Jelly’s throat as fear gripped him at the sight of two riders, both leaning forward and a little to the off side. Realizing they were slowly tipping away from him, Jelly moved past the horse’s shoulder and grabbed the wrist of the man in back. “Johnny?”
An agonized moan startled Jelly into taking a step backward and releasing his hold. Quickly overcoming his surprise, he moved up close and called out loudly enough to be heard over the rising wind. “Johnny? You okay?”
“Jelly. That you?” The man in the rear shifted his weight and sat up straighter, a dusting of snow showering down on Jelly.
“Of course, it’s me.” Jelly huffed while swiping the snow from his eyes. “Who else would be fool enough to be traipsing out to the barn in a storm like this to see if a certain two somebodies had–“
Johnny cut in. “Jelly, can ya lead Barranca up to the house. Scott’s hurt.”
“Hurt? How? Is it bad?” Jelly’s brows puckered as he looked more closely at the slumped form in front of Johnny.
“Can ya hurry? I can’t hold him up here much longer.”
Goaded by the desperation in his young friend’s voice, Jelly wasted no time moving back to the horse’s head. He shortened his hold on the reins once more and eased the palomino into a slow walk. All the way to the front porch of the hacienda, he kept anxiously looking over his shoulder to make sure the brothers weren’t in danger of falling out of the saddle. Upon reaching the house, he offered to help Johnny down, but the young man refused, insisting instead that Murdoch be brought out to carry Scott inside.
“You sure you can hold on ’til I get back?” Jelly demanded.
“I can make it. Just get Murdoch. Now!”
“All right, I’m goin’.” Jelly hustled to the main door of the Lancer house. While pounding loudly on the door and hollering for their father, he cast a scowling glance back at the brothers. Come on Boss, he thought when there was no immediate response. Put that book down and answer the door before I bust my way in.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
An open book lay unheeded in his lap, and the fire in the pipe he held near his lips had gone out long ago without him noticing. His eyes were fixed on the fireplace, but he wasn’t aware of the flame lapping at the logs or the crackle-pop of sparks flying from tiny pockets of pitch. Even the pungent smell of a freshly brewed cup of coffee, which was sitting on the table near his elbow, didn’t register in his mind. The same also could be said for the latest chiming of the grandfather clock that stood between the two sets of glass doors on the far side of the room. Murdoch Lancer’s thoughts were miles away up in the foothills where his sons had gone earlier that day to hunt for turkeys.
The big man with graying hair slid the back of one thumb down his cheek and again went over the argument that he had been having with himself for the past hour. They’ll be fine. They’re big boys. They can take care of themselves. Scott’s been in storms like this and so has Johnny. They probably holed up in the line shack near Pine Hollow and plan to head home at first light. No sense in sending the men out for nothing.
A loud banging on the front door finally pulled Murdoch from his thoughts. “What does he want now?” he muttered. As he rose to his feet, he silently continued his complaint against his hired man. He’s worse than an old mother hen the way he stew about those boys.
The incessant pounding continued, and Murdoch sharply called, “Coming, Jelly.” Hurrying as fast as his long legs would carry him without actually running, he rounded the end of the sofa and crossed the living room to the arched doorway of the foyer. He stepped through and had just started toward the main entry, when the heavy wooden door burst open and Jelly barreled in, almost colliding with him.
Murdoch grabbed the smaller man’s arm to keep him from falling. “Jelly! What’s the big rush?”
Breathing heavily, Jelly righted himself. “Boss, ya gotta come quick. Scott’s hurt an–“
“Scott? Where? How?” broke in Murdoch. When Jelly failed to answer any of the rapidly fired questions, Murdoch became more insistent. “Well, where is he, and where’s Johnny?”
“If you give me a chance to get a word in edgewise, I’ll tell you.”
Jelly’s retort might as well been left unsaid. The light from the entry hall had reached through the open doorway and penetrated the darkness beyond. Having caught sight of his sons slumped over Barranca’s neck, Murdoch was already halfway to them.
“Scott? Johnny? What happened?” Fear and anxiety filled Murdoch’s voice as he stepped off the porch.
“Tell ya later. Get Scott? Can’t hold him much longer,” Johnny said.
His son’s urgent tone snapped Murdoch into action. “Jelly! Get Scott’s other foot out of the stirrup,” he said while slipping his elder son’s closest foot loose. Once the hired man let him know the other one was free, Murdoch grasped Scott under the arms and eased the limp form out of the saddle. With fear gripping his heart, the big man carried his son into the house.
Murdoch had no sooner laid Scott on the carpet in front of the fireplace than he heard Jelly shouting again. This time the big man did run. Arriving outside, he saw the hired man kneeling next to Johnny, who was lying in a heap beside Barranca’s front leg.
In three strides, Murdoch was off the porch and at his fallen son’s side. “Johnny!” he called, dropping to one knee.
“Murdoch! What happened?”
Without a glance at the girl, who had just dashed to his side, Murdoch ordered her to get some blankets and towels and take them in by the fireplace. He then gathered his second unconscious son into his arms and struggled to rise–his elbow cupped by Jelly’s hand. Once Murdoch was on his feet, he sent Jelly to check on Scott.
Murdoch carried Johnny into the house. With each step, the ache in the big man’s chest increased in magnitude while guilt and incriminations clamored in his head. Jelly had been right; his sons had met with some kind of trouble. From the looks of them, it was a wonder that they had made it home at all. The knowledge that he and his men could still be out combing the countryside looking for Johnny and Scott while the boys lay practically on their own doorstep didn’t enter into the equation. Murdoch was too distraught at the moment to consider that possibility.
Easing Johnny down next to his brother, Murdoch glanced over at Jelly. “How’s Scott?”
“Looks to me like he hit his head. His hair’s all matted up with blood right here above his collar.” Jelly pointed at the back of Scott’s head. “Can’t see anything else wrong with him . . . other’n he’s cold as ice. How about Johnny?”
“Cold and wet. His face is scratched, but I can’t see any other injuries.”
Jelly tugged on Scott’s right sleeve and eased it down over the young man’s hand. “Johnny hollered when I took hold of his wrist to keep him from toppling off Barranca down by the corral. Ya might wanna check that left arm.”
Before Murdoch could make a reply, his seventeen-year-old ward, Teresa O’Brien, appeared with a pile of blankets and towels in her arms. “Where do you want these?” she said, stopping next to her guardian and gazing down on his sons with worry filling her eyes.
“On the ottoman will be fine,” Murdoch replied. When Teresa began asking questions about his sons, he ignored them. “Could you bring me a pan of warm water and then the boys each a nightshirt? When you’re done with that, you can heat them up some of that apple cider. I’m sure they’ll appreciate something warm to drink when they wake up.” He refused to entertain the thought that ran through his mind at his last four words.
Teresa, a scowl puckering her brow, hesitated before leaving the room without arguing. Murdoch heaved a sigh and glanced over at Jelly. “Think you can get Scott out of those wet clothes while I take care of Johnny? After we get them dried off, we’ll wrap them in blankets until Teresa gets back with the shirts. We’ll probably have to work together to put those on them.”
“Don’t you worry none. I can take care of Scott. You just see to that other boy of yours.”
By the time Scott had been stripped of his wet clothes and was wrapped in a blanket, Teresa returned with a large pan of water and placed it on the hearth where it would stay warm until needed. Johnny’s clothing had also been removed, but the blanket over him only covered his lower body. Murdoch and Jelly were bent over his left shoulder.
“What happened to him? Was he shot? Shall I send one of the men for a doctor?” Worry etched Teresa’s voice as she moved to stand on the other side of her guardian’s younger son.
Murdoch shook his head. “No need to send anyone out for Sam tonight. With this storm building, it’s doubtful he could come before morning anyway. It looks to me like Johnny dislocated his shoulder. Jelly and I can take care of that.” Murdoch gave the girl a reassuring smile. “Now run along and get their nightshirts. We have to get them warmed up. Oh, better bring a long strip of bandaging material. We’ll need to bind Johnny’s arm to his side.”
Once Teresa left the room, Jelly scrubbed a hand against his chin whiskers and spoke as he brought the hand sweeping downward toward Johnny’s shoulder. “Looks like it’s a good thing he passed out. Least he won’t feel anything when we put that back in.”
“Yeah.” Murdoch’s stomach tightened at the thought of what needed to be done. He drew in a deep breath and grasped his son’s left hand. As he lifted the arm, an agonized moan stopped him.
“Better hurry, Boss, before he wakes up. You ain’t gunna hurt him any less by waiting.”
Clamping hold of his lip with his teeth, Murdoch finished getting into position. He gave the necessary jerk–shuddering at the cry that burst from his son’s throat when the joint popped back into place just before Johnny went limp. The big man closed his eyes and swallowed. In the past year and a half since his sons had come home to him, he had been reminded more than once of the painful side of being a father. The fact that Scott and Johnny were grown men didn’t make it any easier to see them hurting.
A firm hand came to rest on Murdoch’s arm, and he looked up as Jelly spoke in a reassuring tone. “He’ll be fine, Boss. You know the worst is the getting it back in. Once that’s done, there won’t hardly be any pain.”
“I know,” Murdoch said. Wearily, he pulled on the edge of the blanket, which he then tucked up close to his younger son’s chin about the time Teresa returned.
After thoroughly cleaning the wound at the back of Scott’s head, Murdoch and Jelly slipped the shirts over the heads of the two injured men while Teresa was in the kitchen preparing the hot cider. When she returned, cold feet, lower legs, arms, and hands were rubbed in an effort to restore circulation and warmth to the limbs of the two younger Lancers. This was a slow process, and extra care had to be taken with Johnny’s left arm, which couldn’t be moved for fear of the shoulder joint slipping out of the socket again. Special care was also taken with his left ankle that had been found to be swollen and discolored. Murdoch and his helpers were all tired by the time the job was finished and his sons’ temperatures were finally near normal.
Johnny woke up once. He groggily insisted that Scott needed a doctor. Murdoch tried to calm him down, all the while trying to decipher the meaning of his son’s mutterings about the bullet in Scott’s head, falling out of a tree, and not leaving the turkeys behind no matter what. Johnny, however, drifted into a fitful sleep before his father could make sense of anything he was saying. He didn’t even awaken when Murdoch carried him to his room and tucked him into bed a while later.
Scott, on the other hand, slept right through everything. This fact caused Murdoch a great deal of concern. Still, he knew there was nothing to be done until Sam Jenkins, the only doctor within the area, could be summoned in the morning. The snowstorm had gotten much worse, and it was far too risky to send someone to town until it was over.
Once his sons were settled into bed and Jelly had gone to take care of Barranca, Murdoch eased into a chair at Scott’s side. He was still there when the hired man looked in later to report that Scott’s horse had made it home and that both horses had received a thorough rub down, an armload of hay, and a can of grain, and that the boys had bagged a couple of turkeys.
Jelly hesitated at the end of his report and fingered the fringe along the edge of the scarf that covered the top of Scott’s bedside table. “I cleaned the innards out o’ them turkeys an’ hung the birds in the smokehouse till morning. Guess that must o’ been part o’ what Johnny was having such a fuss about. Probably worried the dogs would get ’em if they wasn’t taken care of right away.”
This seemed a reasonable explanation as far as the turkeys were concerned, and Murdoch nodded in agreement.
“Any sign of Scott waking up yet?” Jelly squeezed between Murdoch’s chair and the table where he stood scowling at the unmoving young man on the bed.
“No. Not yet.” Murdoch ran a hand wearily across his chin.
Jelly took a backward step, looked over at his boss, and patted the big man’s shoulder. “Now don’t you go giving up hope. Scott’s a lot tougher’n he looks. He’s gunna be just fine. You just wait an’ see. Come morning he’ll be perky as ever.” The little man dropped his hand back to his side and let out a huff. “Johnny’ll be fine too. You mark my words . . . come dinner time tomorrow . . . the two of ’em will be fussing over who gets the last piece o’ pie.”
This last brought a brief chuckle from Murdoch as he remembered the argument that had occurred the previous Thanksgiving. He sincerely hoped that Jelly was right. Hearing his sons squabble like children was certainly better than seeing them lying still as death like Scott was at the moment. Anything was better than that.
After staying to talk a little longer, Jelly went to take a peek at Johnny. A while later he was back with Teresa following at his heels. They both tried to talk Murdoch into getting some rest, but he refused to give up his vigil as long as there was hope of Scott awakening during the night. In fact, he only budged from his chair long enough to cross the hallway and look in on Johnny from time to time.
When four o’clock in the morning stealthily approached, Murdoch was exhausted and his chin drooped to his chest. His breathing slowly deepened while his shoulders relaxed and his eyelids slid closed. As the tall clock in the living room chimed the hour, the weary father drifted into a sound sleep. The cold, gray light of dawn would be creeping into the room before he would look upon either of his sons again.
Chapter 6 – No Reason to be Thankful
The white frosted form in front of him flopped forward and slowly slid to the left. In desperation, he tried moving his arm on that side so he could grab onto the other man and keep him from falling. The arm refused to budge. Clinching his jaws, he grunted while trying harder–the rippling muscles of his forearm bulging from the effort. Again he met with failure.
A gust of wind enveloped him in a swirl of snowflakes, and for a moment his vision blurred. He quickly opened and closed his eyes against the sting and then stared at the empty seat of the saddle. “Scott!” His heart beat faster when his brother’s name was no more than a whisper in his ear.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Reluctant lashes lifted and blinked–the light of day stinging the eyes beneath. For a moment, Johnny Lancer wondered why a drummer was beating on his chest, and then realized it was the thumping of his heart that he heard and felt. He looked around. Neither the storm nor the horse was in sight. Slowly he relaxed and the rapid pounding against his ribs slowed. It had all been a dream.
As Johnny became more fully awake, he questioned how he had come to be in his bedroom. The last thing he remembered was hanging onto his brother as Barranca carried them toward home. Again his heart began to race. Could his dream have been real, after all?
Thinking of getting up, he started to roll over and found that he couldn’t move his left arm. This brought a new sense of panic, which he quickly squashed as being silly while using his other hand to fold back the heavy blankets so he could see what the problem was. Then I did break it, he thought, his eyes taking in the strips of white cloth that bound his arm tightly to his side. Murdoch ain’t gunna be happy about me bein’ laid up for weeks.
More memories crowded into Johnny’s mind. Some were clear, and some not. He knew that he had fallen from a tree and landed on his brother. Scott had been hurt, hit in the back of the head with something, possibly a stray bullet. What he wasn’t quite sure of was whether or not he had gotten the other man home safely. The last thing he could remember was Scott talking about Thanksgiving. Everything beyond that was pretty foggy.
Johnny puckered his brow and tried to think. Had Jelly come looking for them, or had he just happened to be outside when they had arrived, or had that also been a dream? Who had taken Scott? Murdoch? It did seem like he could remember lying on the floor by the fireplace and seeing his brother next to him. Then again, as hazy as that memory was, he could have dreamt that, too.
The need to know the truth of the matter drove Johnny to get out of bed. He laid the covers aside, swung his legs around to the edge of the mattress, and sat up. His shoulder ached a little, but there was none of the agonizing pain that he remembered of the day before. Anyway he assumed that it had been the previous day.
Daylight, streaming in between half-drawn drapes that hid the position of the sun, filled his room. There was no way of determining the time without the watch his father had given him. It had been in the small inside pocket in the waistband of his pants, which were nowhere in sight. For all Johnny knew it could be early morning or late afternoon. He didn’t care all that much, though. Scott was what mattered at the moment.
After settling his feet on the floor, Johnny curled his toes at the feel of the cold surface. Still, he didn’t bother taking time to put on a pair of socks. He was in too much of a hurry to check on his brother. In fact, he didn’t even think of getting dressed first. His nightshirt hung to his knees. It wasn’t like he had never been seen in it before.
The urgency pushing him made Scott’s room seem farther away than normal as Johnny limped out of his own room and across the hallway. Upon reaching his brother’s open door, he paused when the band of fear tightened its grip around his chest. He shuddered. The thought that the other man might not be there was nearly more than he could bear.
Finally bolstering his nerve, Johnny moved on into the room. He suddenly halted, his heart plummeting. The bed was empty. It didn’t even look as though it had been slept in–blankets neatly smoothed in place. A cry of protest rose in his throat, but he choked it back as he whirled to race from the room.
Two long strides carried Johnny out the doorway before the stabbing pain in his left ankle drew him up short. In his haste to escape, he had forgotten all about that injury. Wincing, he looked down and noticed the swollen, discolored flesh around the joint. He assumed the absence of bandaging meant it was just a sprain. If he had broken it, there would be a splint of some sort to keep it from moving.
Uncertain what to do next, Johnny hobbled toward the stairway where he stopped when voices drifted up from the entry hall below.
“Johnny still sleepin’?”
“Guess he was pretty tuckered out. Hard tellin’ how long he’d been hanging onto Scott. Dead weight always seems heavier’n it is. It’s a wonder he got him home at all. If I hadn’t come out o’ the barn when I did, ya could’ve lost ’em both.”
Jelly’s words sank in about the same time Johnny heard Murdoch’s deep-throated assent. He leaned back against the hallway wall and clinched his eyelids shut. Unable to move, he couldn’t help overhearing more of the conversation between his father and the hired man.
“At least, Johnny got them turkeys. Never seen plumper birds in all my life. Not one bit o’ wasted meat neither.”
“What makes you think Johnny shot them?”
“Heads was shot clean off. Wasn’t a sign o’ buckshot that I could see. Had to be Johnny that got ’em. Scott would o’ used that shotgun ya gave him for his birthday.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
Johnny had the urge to charge down the stairs and demand to know where they’d put his brother’s body and why they were wasting their breath talking about turkeys. He couldn’t believe they were taking Scott’s death as if it were nothing.
Before Johnny could pursue that line of thought, the voices faded. Assuming that the two men had gone into the living room, he considered following but then thought better of it. He wasn’t up to hiding his emotions like his father seemed to be doing. Nor did he want to have to explain his own part in his brother’s death. Best go back to bed for a while, he decided with a shiver that went all the way to his toes.
Back in his room and lying on top of the covers on his bed, Johnny stewed over the accident that appeared to have claimed his brother’s life. He berated himself for moving Scott at all. Why’d I think he could ride with a bullet in his head? I should’ve made us some shelter right there under that tree and sent Barranca home for help.
Even though he knew that the storm would have prevented help from finding them in time to save his brother, Johnny couldn’t stop the heavy load of guilt from persuading him that he should have stayed put. His spirits sank lower the more he convinced himself that he was the cause of Scott’s death. Finally, he dropped off into a fitful sleep.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Sometime later, Johnny awoke to a light tap on his door. Scrubbing the sleep from his eyes, he softly called for his visitor to enter.
The door swung inward and Murdoch Lancer stepped into view.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, as he moved closer to the bed.
Johnny answered with a mumbled, “All right.”
Murdoch nodded. “Good. How’s the shoulder?”
“Aches a little.” Using his good arm, Johnny scooted up in the bed and then looked down at his bound arm. “Guess it’s broken, huh?”
“No. Just dislocated. I was able to get it back in place, but I think you’d better not use it until Sam has a chance to look at it.” Murdoch’s expression turned serious. “You want to tell me what happened?”
There it was, the question he least wanted to answer. Wrapping his good arm across his chest, Johnny shifted his gaze to the lump his feet made in the blankets nearer the foot of the bed and spoke in an almost inaudible tone. “I . . . fell.”
How? Johnny’s stomach knotted. He wished he knew the whole answer to that. Brushing a hand in front of his face as though he were trying to clear away an unpleasant scene, he let out a sigh. Then he slowly looked up at his father again. “Gettin’ those turkeys.”
“How’d you do that? B’ranca spook on ya?” Jelly’s voice said as the small, grey-bearded man strode through the open doorway.
Johnny scowled and shook his head, his eyes seeking Jelly’s as the man stopped beside Murdoch.
“Then how’d ya fall?” Jelly demanded. “Trip over a log or something?”
Johnny’s frown deepened. “Fell out of a tree,” he replied, forcing his voice to remain quiet. When both his father and the hired man questioned how he had come to be in a tree in the first place, Johnny resignedly explained about having climbed up after the turkeys so he could get a better shot. He told them of the limb giving out beneath his feet when he had tried to retrieve one of the birds, and how he had fallen. Purposely he left out the parts about waking up on top of his brother some unknown length of time later and discovering the suspected bullet wound to the back of Scott’s head. There was no way he could have kept his voice steady.
Jelly’s head wagged from side to side. “Lucky you didn’t break your fool neck.”
“Jelly,” Murdoch chided, casting a warning frown at the smaller man.
“Well he is.”
“Jelly, why don’t you go see if Teresa needs some help getting the turkey out of the oven. Tell her Johnny’s awake and we’ll be down shortly,” Murdoch said. He then watched as the much shorter man, grumbling something under his breath, left the room.
Murdoch shifted his attention back to Johnny. “Dinner is about ready. I’m sure you must be starved. You haven’t eaten since yesterday noon.”
Johnny wanted to claim that he wasn’t hungry. The very thought of food turned his stomach. He wondered how his father could eat at a time like this even if it was some special holiday. Murdoch didn’t seem to be affected by Scott’s death at all.
Again Johnny was tempted to confront the other man, but his mind rebelled. There was no way he could hear the awful truth and hold his emotions in check. He feared that his own lack of control would cause Murdoch to finally break down. Having never seen his father weep, Johnny found that idea even more unsettling than the total lack of emotion the man was currently displaying.
“Let me take that bandage loose so we can get you dressed.”
“Sure,” Johnny replied in a tone devoid of feeling as his father reached toward him. He continued to puzzle over Murdoch’s seemingly strange behavior as the other man untied the knotted strip of cloth.
Murdoch attempted to carry on a conversation while helping his son out of the nightshirt and into more appropriate clothes for the occasion. Johnny participated very little, answering all questions with as few words as possible. He didn’t feel like talking and found it very hard to accept his father’s carefree attitude especially when Scott’s name wasn’t even mentioned. By the time he was clothed in his best pair of black pants and a white shirt with embroidered front, he was having trouble biting back the harsh words dancing on the end of his tongue.
Somehow Johnny held his warring feelings in check. When wearing boots proved to be out of the question because of the swelling in his ankle, he was glad for a short reprieve while waiting for his father’s slippers to arrive. Murdoch had insisted that he needed something on his feet and had gone to get them. When Johnny put them on a few minutes later, he wondered how he would ever walk in them. The left one fit snug enough because of the puffiness of his foot, but the other one was way too loose.
“Little big, I know,” Murdoch said while tracking an index finger down one side of his nose.
Johnny failed to given even a hint of a smile at the clownish appearance of his own now oversized feet. “They’ll do,” he said a bit sharply. At the moment, he couldn’t see the humor in anything.
Murdoch suggested they be heading downstairs and started for the door. Johnny reluctantly followed. Scott had been talking about this dinner for weeks. Even though his brother wouldn’t be there to share it, he felt obligated to not spoil it for the rest of the family. I promised him them turkeys. Guess I owe it to him to eat a bite even if it chokes me. If it hadn’t been for them, I wouldn’t have fallen out of that tree. Scott wouldn’t have been . . .. Johnny refused to finish the final thought. It was far too painful.
The farther Johnny went, the slower he moved. At the bottom of the stairs, his father looked back at him, concern etching the big man’s forehead. “Is your ankle hurting? You can lean on my arm if that’ll help.”
His swollen ankle being the least of his worries, Johnny hadn’t even noticed that he had been favoring it all the way down the stairs, nor had he been aware of the flapping sound of the sloppily fitting right slipper. In fact, his mind took a second to comprehend what his father was even referring to. “It’s okay. I can make it,” he stiffly replied, reluctant to touch the other man.
Murdoch lightly squeezed the wrist of his son’s good arm and continued on across the entry hall to the arched door that led into the dining area of the living room. Johnny, head down, hobbled along behind.
Upon reaching the doorway, Johnny once again stopped. He could picture it all in his mind. His father would be seated at the head of the table. Teresa would be to Murdoch’s right in the first place along the side next to the bookcases. Across from his own place next to the girl would be Jelly. The chair across from her would be empty–a stark reminder that Scott would not be joining the family for Thanksgiving dinner this year or any other.
All of a sudden, Johnny knew he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t sit there looking at that empty chair and pretend that it didn’t matter that Scott wasn’t sitting in it. There was nothing to be thankful for, anyway. To say otherwise would be a lie. The rest of his family could fool themselves if they wanted, but they would have to do it without him. He couldn’t swallow one bite let alone eat an entire meal, and he wasn’t about to let them see the grief he felt. Not if they were all going to show no more feelings that he had observed in his father.
Shifting his weight to his right foot, Johnny brought his left around and started for the front door. The pain in his ankle didn’t even register as he hurried to make his escape. All he knew was that he had to get away. Anywhere was better than being trapped at a table filled with all the foods Scott had told him about the day before.
Johnny’s throat constricted and he choked back his rising emotions. Reaching for the doorknob, he had one thought, and that was to get as far away as he could from all that would remind him of Thanksgiving. Without his brother there was no reason to be thankful. The future held nothing but darkness, and there was no room for gladness. With a twist of his wrist, he opened the door and stepped out into the bright sunlight.
Chapter 7 – A Day Worth Celebrating
Rays of mid-afternoon sun, kissing the blanket of snow that had fallen the night before, transformed millions of tiny ice crystals into sparkling rainbow-colored diamonds. Johnny Lancer barely noticed them as he pulled the door closed behind him and shuffled across the porch. Nor did he give much thought to the blueness of the cloudless sky, the puffs of fog in the air as he let out each breath, or that the stone walls of the Lancer hacienda and its courtyard had taken on a dingy gray cast against the pure white landscape. He was too wrapped up in his grief.
As he moved off the porch and started to hobble toward the corral, crusted snow crunched with each step–frozen flakes scurrying over the edges of the slippers and melting as they touched his bare ankles and slid to the bottoms of his feet. Yet the overwhelming heartache of losing his brother crowded out that and all other sensations. Even the cold penetrating his shirt and chilling his skin didn’t register in his mind. His only thought was to get away from the celebration going on inside the house.
In his numbed state, Johnny ignored the twitter of snowbirds as they fluttered from the ground to the trees and back again. He focused his attention on the barn where Barranca would have been stabled the night before. In the past, Johnny had voiced his woes to the palomino on more than one occasion and had buried his face in the long, silky mane when life had seemed unbearable. The horse had always brought some measure of peace.
Limping along with head down, Johnny wasn’t fifty feet from the house when a soft crunching behind him filtered into his dismal thoughts about the same time that a gentle voice sounded in his ear. “Hey. You’re headed in the wrong direction, aren’t you?”
Johnny spun around, grimacing as the long slippers tangled and pitched him off balance. “Scott?” he hoarsely whispered as a steadying fist clinched his right shirtsleeve. His eyes grew large and his jaw sagged.
“None other.” The flippant reply was accompanied by a glint of humor in Scott’s blue-gray eyes, which soon turned questioning.
“I thought . . ..” Johnny stopped to take a deep breath–gaze shifting to the frozen ground beneath his feet and confusion stealing his voice. Suddenly he felt ridiculous. Not only was his brother alive, he also appeared to be in fine shape.
“You thought you would give Barranca an extra helping of oats, right?” Scott’s fingers slipped from his brother’s sleeve. He smiled and lightly squeezed Johnny’s uninjured shoulder. “I hope you know that you are spoiling that horse.”
“Yeah . . . well.” Johnny shrugged and raised his head as wonder crowded out the astonishment of earlier. “Thought after yesterday . . . he deserved it.”
“And a double portion, at that.” Scott let out a soft chuckle. “Only . . . couldn’t it wait until afterdinner? Maria just served the soup and it will be getting cold.”
Johnny wrinkled his nose, and his brother appeared to choke back a laugh.
Scott gave a playful slap to Johnny’s stomach. “Come on. You like pumpkin pie so the soup can’t be that bad . . . right?”
“Guess not,” Johnny mumbled while a skeptical frown battled to push away the disbelief that still clouded his face as he fought to comprehend how he had jumped to such a wrong conclusion about his brother’s condition. He wanted to ask but couldn’t think of a way to bring it up without looking foolish.
“Then let’s go eat.” Scott, now facing his brother, laid his left hand on Johnny’s right shoulder and pointed at the snow-dusted slippers on the younger man’s feet. “You weren’t really planning to walk all the way to the barn in those, were you?”
Looking down, Johnny chewed at his lip. The slippers were already cold and damp. They would be quite wet by the time he made it to the corral and back.
“Murdoch’s, I take it.” Scott’s voice crowded through Johnny’s thoughts.
“Yeah. Couldn’t get a boot on my left foot. The Old Man thought I needed to wear something, so he brought me these. They look kind of . . . funny, huh?” Johnny looked up to meet his brother’s eyes.
“Oh . . . I don’t know.” Scott’s eyes sparkled mischievously. “They do have a certain stylishflare about them; however, they weren’t quite designed for wading through ankle deep snow. You might want to sit by the fire and dry them out before you return them to Murdoch.”
Johnny chuckled. “Think he might complain, huh?”
“No. No more than a holler loud enough to raise the roof,” Scott replied, cocking an eyebrow.
The brothers shared a laugh. Then Johnny, suddenly feeling lighthearted, became aware that he was famished and slapped Scott’s arm. “Speaking of yelling . . . maybe we better get back inside before he comes looking for us. We sure don’t wanna be sent to bed without our supper and miss out on that turkey with all the fixings . . . ‘specially after all the trouble we went through to get it.” This brought on more laughter.
On the way back to the house, the brothers talked a little about their hunting trip and how lucky they were to have made it home. Johnny managed to fit in the question that had been plaguing him the most and learned that his brother’s wound was merely a cut. Scott attempted once to express his gratitude to Johnny for saving his life, which that man denied the right to take total responsibility for. This led to a short discussion about guardian angels. Neither brother was sure that he believed in such beings; however, they both had to agree that circumstances pointed to a power beyond themselves having been involved in the events of the previous day. There just didn’t seem to be any other explanation for Johnny, with only the use of one arm, having been able to pick up Scott and carry him, the shotgun, and two big turkeys half a mile to the horses. Then there was the fact that they had both gone to sleep and had made it home without falling off Barranca to have Jelly come out of the barn just at the right moment.
At the door, Scott removed the slippers from Johnny’s feet one at a time, shook off the snow, and replaced them. He then opened the door and bowed. “After you, Brother.”
Johnny returned the bow. “Thank you, kind Sir,” he mockingly replied, a grin playing with the corners of his mouth as he led the way into the entry hall.
The sweet smell of pumpkin, tickling his nose, enticed Johnny’s appetite even further. With a smile spreading across his face, he led the way through the arched doorway into the dining area of the main living room of the house. His brother was alive and well. The day was worth celebrating after all.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
With pride and an overwhelming sense of happiness, Murdoch Lancer watched his sons slide into their seats–Scott on the left between him and Jelly, and Johnny to the right one chair down from Teresa. When the hired man started to voice a complaint about the soup getting cold, Murdoch quickly cut in and suggested that a prayer of thanksgiving was in order. He bowed his head, closed his eyes, and thanked God for the many blessings that had been bestowed upon him and his family since they had last celebrated this special day.
Mere words couldn’t begin to express all that Murdoch felt in his heart. He didn’t even try. Most of his gratitude was given in the form of thoughts that flashed through his mind while he kept his prayer simple and short. So much had happened in the past year that it would have taken an hour or more to mention everything that he was thankful for. Cattle prices had fallen to a devastating low that summer, and there had been a near disaster when a man named Warburton had brought in hired gunmen to insure that he wouldn’t be prohibited from selling his entire herd. This conflict had led to Murdoch and his younger son, Johnny, being on opposite sides, and had nearly ended in the his own death. Fortunately, Johnny had arrived home in time to prevent the tragedy; and in the end, all had turned out well except for Warburton having been murdered by one of the cattlemen in area. By mid-fall, the cattle market had improved enough so that all of the ranchers could sell their steers before winter set in.
Earlier that same spring, a man and his four sons had kidnapped Teresa. The ordeal could have been much worse for her than it had been if the man’s youngest son hadn’t taken pity on her and been in the process of helping her escape when Murdoch and his men arrived on the scene. ‘I did all I could to get him off easy, and I’ll do what I can to help him once his year in prison is up. I owe him my life, thought Murdoch, remembering how the young man had gone against his own brothers.
Then there had been the incident with Cassidy, which had resulted in a threat to Scott’s life; and the one with the bitter lawman from Texas, who had tracked down Jelly and temporarily blinded Murdoch while attempting revenge. Another trouble had come in early September when the Lancer men had become involved in building a jail in Spanish Wells. Still despite the gravity of all of these situations, God had seen fit to allow the Lancer household to come through them with little or no personal injury.
Murdoch finished his prayer by stating his thankfulness that his sons had returned home safely the evening before, and that both were well enough to join the family gathered around the table. He thanked the Lord for the bounty they were about to partake of and for the turkeys that had so graciously been provided. His family then chorused his “amen”.
For the next hour, the tinkle of utensils against china was intermingled with pleasant conversation and bits of laughter. Maria smiled as she served each new course of the meal and cleared away the dishes that were no longer needed. When it came time for the turkey, Murdoch insisted on bringing it to the table and cutting it himself.
Everyone was thoroughly stuffed by the time they had cleaned the last of the crumbs from their desert plates. In the center of the table, a shallow, round dish still contained one remaining slice of pumpkin pie.
“One of you had better clean that up,” suggested Murdoch, glancing from one son to the other.
Scott looked over at his brother. “Go ahead, Johnny. I couldn’t possibly eat another bite.”
“Me neither.” The younger man leaned back in his chair and let out a satisfied sigh then slyly eyed his father. “You or Jelly better have it. I’m too full.”
“Jelly?” Murdoch shifted his gaze to the hired man.
“Tell ya what, Boss. I’ll split it with ya.”
“I’ll cut it for you,” offered Teresa as she reached for the pie plate.
Johnny eyed the dish and ran a finger across his upper lip. “Uh . . . make sure ya cut it in the middle. We don’t wanna have a war over who gets the biggest piece.”
Remembering the battle that had ensued the previous year over the final piece of pie, Murdoch tipped his head back and laughed. This brought chuckles and laughter from the rest the family.
When the merriment subsided and the pie had been evenly distributed between the two older men’s plates, Johnny winked at Scott. “At least, we won’t have to load supplies while they eat it.”
“It appears that accidents do have their rewards. Shall we retire to the sofa and play a game of checkers?”
“Not this time, Brother. It was my idea to play so I get black.”
“You had black the last time we played.”
Jelly interrupted with a snort. “So, Boss . . . whatcha gunna do to settle that squabble?”
Murdoch merely chuckled and fondly rested his gaze on first one son and then the other. “Not a thing, Jelly. Not a thing. Today their arguing sounds like music to my ears. I’m going to finish this pie, and then I’m going to sit by the fire and enjoy every minute of listening to my boys battle over that silly game.”
“I think I’ll help Maria with the dishes. If those two are going to have free rein in that checker war, I want to be well out of ear shot.” Teresa started to rise, and Johnny jumped up to pull her chair back.
A smile spread across Murdoch’s face as Johnny let out a small yelp, which was no doubt caused by the young man putting too much weight on his sprained ankle. As a courtesy to the young woman, who was like a daughter to him, Murdoch then stood as did Scott and Jelly. Once she had left the table, he and the hired man sat down to finish their pie while the two younger men went to set up the checkerboard.
Between bites, Murdoch looked over at his friend. “Jelly, when you’re finished, I’d like you to treat Barranca to an extra helping of grain and an apple. I’m sure Johnny would agree that he deserves it, and . . ..”
“And ya don’t want Johnny traipsing all the way out to the barn in your slippers and getting ’em full o’ snow,” Jelly said.
“Yeah,” Murdoch said, although wet slippers were the least of his concerns at the moment. He just wanted to express his gratitude to the palomino horse that had brought Johnny and Scott home.
With a heart filled with thanksgiving, Murdoch once again winged a silent prayer toward heaven. Life had been good to him, and he had a multitude of reasons to be thankful. The two that meant the most to him were still fussing over who would get the red checkers and who would get the black ones. He drew in a deep breath and smiled. If good fortune continued to smile on him, the scene would be the same next Thanksgiving and for many years to come.
The sun was tipping toward the west when Sam Jenkins drove away from the Lancer hacienda the day after Thanksgiving. Although he had mildly scolded Murdoch for not having sent for him earlier, he had appreciated the man’s thoughtfulness in allowing him the luxury of being able to spend the holiday at home. Sam would not have been so lenient, however, if the injuries of the two younger Lancers had been more severe. As it was, neither had really needed his services other than to validate the form of treatment already prescribed by their father.
Scott had been doing quite well. There had been no sign of frostbite to ears, fingers, or toes; the shallow cut low down on the back of his head was beginning to heal; and there was very little soreness in the lump beneath it. Also, no evidence of concussion had been present, and the young man had had nothing but a minor headache after he had awakened early Thanksgiving morning. Still Sam had advised that Murdoch’s elder son take it easy for a couple more days. “Just to be safe,” he had insisted.
The younger Lancer son had been another matter. Although he too had escaped the damaging effects of frostbite and the bump a little above and behind one ear had caused Sam little concern, Johnny’s other injuries were of a more serious nature. A dislocated shoulder meant the arm on that side of the body could not be used for ten days. To insure this, it had to be strapped to the young man’s body. Getting dressed and undressed would be rather difficult. This, however, was the least of Johnny’s worries. The sprained ankle was quite swollen and discolored.
Sam shook his head and sighed. Murdoch would have his hands full keeping Johnny off the leg until the ankle had a chance to heal. Hopefully, I made it clear enough to that boy that he needs to stay off his feet altogether or use a crutch to get around. At least he won’t be able to get a boot on that foot for a few days. That should help keep him indoors, and that arm should prevent him from riding for a week or so. By then his ankle should be pretty much back to normal.
Despite the logic of his thoughts, Sam had his doubts concerning Murdoch Lancer’s younger son. Johnny, like his father, was known for pushing the limits of his abilities. Both were stubborn, and neither liked being told what they could or could not do. More than likely, Johnny would be on a horse in less than a week.
With another shake of his head and a slap of the long reins to his buggy horse’s rump, Sam marveled at the story he had been told of Johnny and Scott’s hunting trip. It was a wonder that either had survived. If they hadn’t been in such grave danger, the doctor would have found the whole thing amusing. Johnny falling out of a tree and landing on his brother was a comical picture to imagine. However, one or both of the young men could easily have been killed.
From what Sam had been able to garner of the incident, Johnny had apparently dropped his pistol in the fall. More than likely, the end of the barrel had caused the cut on the back of Scott’s head. A blow of that type to the right spot could have killed him. Not only that, Johnny could have broken an arm, a leg, or both. In fact if his brother hadn’t been there to soften the landing, he could have been injured far worse than that.
With a slight tug of the reins, Sam guided the buggy horse around the corner at the end of the valley and started up the winding road that led to the top of the hill that overlooked the Lancer hacienda. Glancing up at the bright blue sky, he sent a little prayer of thanksgiving heavenward. He was sure that two very big, strong guardian angels had been at work two days ago. It was a miracle that Johnny had been able to carry his brother back to the horses, and another that they hadn’t fallen off Barranca before arriving home. They both had come far too close to succumbing to hypothermia as it was. If they had been out in the storm any longer, neither would still be alive.
“Yes, Sir,” said Sam as though he were speaking to someone riding next to him in the buggy. “It’s a wonder those boys made it home at all, let alone are in as good a shape as they are. The Lancer family certainly had a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.”
A soft voice then whispered in the doctor’s ear. “Everyone has a reason to be thankful if they will only take their eyes of their problems and look for it.”
With a smile, Sam nodded in agreement. The rest of the way home, he examined his own life and gave thanks for the many blessings God had bestowed on him. He had good friends, a warm house, adequate food, and untold opportunities to be of service to his fellow man. What more could he want?
Perhaps, a few less visits to the Lancer ranch? At this thought, the doctor had to laugh. Murdoch and his sons were magnets for trouble. There was little hope of them needing him any less than they had. He would just consider himself lucky if they didn’t need him more and if all injuries were minor ones. Then they would all have a reason to be thankful come next Thanksgiving.
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