Word Count 108,180
Copyright: 2002, 2003 email@example.com Rating:PG
(The Lancer TV series characters do not belong to me and were used without permission. This story was written for fun, not profit.)
Timing: Takes place less than a month after the beginning episode.
The young man slowly shook his head, then brushed a hand through his sand colored hair. He reached out and grasped the stretched out rope with his right hand and pulled it toward him, forming a loose coil in his left hand. His jaw was set and his stance stiff as he continued the process until he had gathered in the entire length of the lariat.
A dark-haired man with sparkling, blue eyes was perched on the top rail of the corral fence. He laughed when Scott Lancer once again missed snagging the sorrel horse that was racing around the enclosure. “Hey, Boston. Ya need some help? At the rate you’re goin’, Murdoch’s gunna have them steers delivered before you catch that horse.”
“I am quite capable of catching my own horse, thank you.” The would-be-cowboy glared at his brother, then gathered in the rope and built another loop.
“Is Scott ready to go, yet?”
At the sound of the deep, impatient voice, Johnny Lancer turned his head and looked down. “Are you kiddin’?” he smirked at the tall, gray-haired man who had just arrived. “You’ll be lucky if he catches that nag by Christmas. Sure you don’t wanna change your mind and let me go instead?”
“You know good and well, you can’t go. We went through all that last night. The doctor said you’re to take it easy for at least another week.” Murdoch Lancer sternly looked up at his youngest son, who was still recovering from a serious bullet wound received two weeks earlier in a battle with Day Pardee and his gang.
“Doctors!” Johnny let out a disgusted snort. “I’ve ridden when I felt a whole lot worse. Didn’t do me no harm neither.”
“That may be so, but while you’re here, you’ll follow his orders. I don’t want you risking a setback.” Murdoch Lancer abruptly turned and strode toward the corral gate.
‘So much for that idea. Got a feeling once that old man sets his mind to something, he don’t ever budge an inch.’ Johnny’s brow knitted into a scowl. Being part of a family was going to take some getting used to. Separated from his father as a toddler, he had been on his own ever since his mother’s death. He had only been reunited with Murdoch for a few weeks and he wasn’t so sure that he liked the man telling him what he could, or could not do. With a sigh, he turned his attention back to the proceedings inside the corral.
Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny saw his father reach for the gate latch as Scott’s loop again closed over thin air. “He doesn’t want any help. It’s been offered, but . . . he’s bound and determined to do this on his own.” He rubbed his chin with the fingertips of his left hand as he looked over at the older man. “He sure can be bull headed. Any idea where he gets it from?”
Seeing Murdoch bristle at the implication in his remark, Johnny tensed, but didn’t break eye contact. He fully expected his father to respond in anger and was surprised to hear the quiet, “None whatsoever.”
At first, thinking Johnny was deliberately trying to rile him, Murdoch had gritted his teeth to hold back the retort that threatened to burst forth. His relationship with his youngest son was still shaky and he wasn’t sure the young man was convinced that he had not sent his mother and him away. Not wanting to take the chance of driving his son away, with great effort, he had shrugged his shoulders and kept his voice calm.
“Well, one thing’s for sure. Scott didn’t get his stubbornness from his old man: ’cause he’s still got his.” The younger man’s word came out as a challenge, but his mouth twitched and a devilish gleam lit up his blue eyes.
Murdoch caught the mischievous expression on his son’s face and for a brief moment, he saw the little boy that he remembered. A chuckle escaped his throat and a smile softened his face. “You’re probably right.”
When Johnny grinned back at him, Murdoch quickly looked away. Memories of a time long gone brought a flood of emotions he wasn’t prepared to display to his grown son.
Uncertain of his own feelings at the brief exchange, Johnny turned his attention back to his brother. “Scott, you’re gunna make that horse head shy, if you keep that up. You need a bigger loop,” he admonished, when the noose slapped the side of the animal’s face.
Scott coiled the lariat in quick, jerking motions, then shook out a larger circle at the end of rope. As the horse raced by him, he made his throw. A “whoop” burst out of Johnny when the noose settled around the wily cowpony’s neck. It wasn’t the neatest job of roping he had ever seen, but at least it had been successful. Despite the ribbing he gave his city-raised, older brother, he was impressed by the man’s determination to learn the skills necessary to life on a ranch. “Well, what do ya know, Boston. We might make a cowboy outa you yet!”
There was no evidence of Murdoch’s thoughts as he heaved a sigh and said, “Hurry along, Scott. We need to be going.” He turned abruptly and went over to the hitching rail where he had left his horse. While he was preparing to mount, his ward, Teresa O’Brien, arrived to bid him farewell. After they had said their good-byes, he guided his horse over to the fence where Johnny was. He gave his youngest son a stern look. “We should be back in a couple of weeks. Remember: take it easy. There’s nothing here that needs to be done before we return.”
Teresa walked up and flashed Johnny a cheerful smile, then returned her attention to her guardian. “Don’t worry, Murdoch. I’ll see that he doesn’t do too much. If I have to, I can get Pedro and Shorty to hog-tie him.”
Murdoch smiled gratefully at the girl, then called to his older son, “Let’s go, Scott!” He wheeled his horse around toward the road, waved to Teresa and Johnny, and then booted his mount into a trot.
When his brother was ready to mount, Johnny eased down from his perch and opened the gate. “Take care, Boston. I’m grounded, so I can’t come rescue you.” Having noticed the scowl on Scott’s face, Johnny hoped his teasing would lighten the other man’s mood.
“I’m fully capable of taking care of myself, Little Brother,” Scott snapped, then swung into the saddle. With a backward glance at Johnny, he added, “And another thing. I’m getting tired of you calling me, Boston. My name is Scott, and I expect you to address me as such.”
“Sure thing, Bos . . . uh . . . Scott. Whatever you say.” Johnny gritted in return. ‘Wonder what put a bur under his saddle all of a sudden,’ he thought as his brother reined the horse toward the road and kicked it into a jog trot.
“Goodbye!” Teresa called as she waved to the departing rider. When she received no response, her eyebrows puckered into a frown and she glanced at the young man at her side. “What’s the matter with Scott? He didn’t even act like he heard me.”
“Nothin’, I’m sure. Just in a hurry to get goin’s all.” Even to his ears, the excuse sounded lame. Johnny gazed after his brother until Scott had caught up with their father, then he started in the direction of the barn. “Think I’ll go check on Barranca.”
Teresa hurried after him and linked her arm in his. “I’ll go with you. Just in case you get any wild ideas about taking a ride.”
‘She’s worse than an old mother hen.’ Johnny wrinkled his nose at the girl. “What did the old man do? Appoint you my guardian?”
“Yes, he did. And, if you’re a good boy, I’ll give you some cake when we get back to the house.”
“Is it chocolate?” At the girl’s nod, a wide grin appeared on his handsome face. “In that case, I promise to behave. I sure wouldn’t want to miss out on a piece of your chocolate cake.” Johnny’s laughter joined that of the girl as he slid the heavy barn door open and led the way inside.
Murdoch Lancer breathed a sigh of relief when his oldest son caught up and fell in behind him. He held to a stiff trot as he followed the road south through the valley. Since it was difficult to talk from the back of a jogging horse, he rode in silence. About three miles from the hacienda, he broke away from the road and headed southwest in hopes of intersecting the herd. Occasionally, he would slow his mount to a walk so it could pick its way through some rougher terrain.
During the course of the next hour, the rancher was unaware that his son was offended by his impatience back at the ranch and his continued silence. In fact, he was too preoccupied with thoughts of his younger son and of the cattle drive to give much thought at all to the older of his offspring. He had hoped to catch up with the herd by mid-morning, but now it looked like it would be closer to noon and he was anxious to make sure his men had started the cattle moving on time. Meeting contract deadlines had always made him impatient and irritable. He liked to allow plenty of extra time, because inevitably there were delays. Having to gather the herd again, after Pardee and his men had scattered it, had put the drive behind schedule. Not only that, he had delayed his departure because he had not wanted to leave the ranch until Johnny was well on the way to recovery. Although, his younger son’s physical condition was no longer a worry, he was still concerned that the young man would leave during his absence.
Murdoch didn’t realize that something was amiss until he stopped at a small stream crossing. He let the bridle reins play out as his horse lowered its head to drink, then without looking back, he said, “Soon as the horses get a drink, we need to be moving on.” When he was met with silence, he glanced behind him. His brow knitted into a scowl as he studied the landscape and saw no sign of his son anywhere. “Now what?”
He pulled his mount around and started backtracking. About a half a mile from the stream, he topped a rise and spotted his son a mile or so away. He couldn’t believe that Scott could have gotten so far behind him without him knowing it and he wondered how long the younger man had been leading his horse.
Scott Lancer stopped in the shade of an oak tree, pulled the handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his forehead to stop the sweat from dripping into his eyes. He checked the loose shoe on his lame horse to make sure it wasn’t doing any additional damage, then continued to lead it in the direction his father had gone. ‘I can’t believe Murdoch rode off and left me like this. Surely, he would have missed me long before this; it’s been close to thirty minutes since my horse went lame. But, then, why should I be surprised after the way he’s ignored me, not spoken a word since we left. No doubt he’s still upset with me for taking so long to catch my horse. If he has to spend his precious time coming back to look for me, I suppose he’ll be even more irritated with me.’
After a short rest, Scott resumed his trek. As he trudged along, he reflected back over the past few days and hours. Coming to California to meet the father he had never known had been very difficult for him. While he was growing up, he had often wondered why the man had never expressed any interest in him, or even tried to contact him. From the picture his grandfather had painted of Murdoch Lancer, he had reached the conclusion that the man didn’t want him. Sometimes, he wondered if his father blamed him for his mother’s death and possibly even hated him for it. He couldn’t think of any other reason for being abandoned by the man for twenty-four years.
When the Pinkerton man had delivered his father’s message requesting that he come for a visit, he had been shocked and, at first, had thought of refusing the offer of a thousand dollars just for making the trip.He still wasn’t sure why he had decided to comply with the man’s request, unless it was because he had never fully given up the hope of getting to know the man–being loved by him. Even now, after two weeks at the ranch, he wasn’t certain of Murdoch’s reason for sending for him, other than to help save the his ranch from a gang of land-grabbers. The possibility that this was true left him feeling used, as well as unwanted.
Meeting Johnny Madrid on the stagecoach and finding out that the gunman was his half-brother had been another shock. Although they had gotten past their initial difficulties, he couldn’t help but wonder how they would ever be close: they were such opposites.
Thoughts of Johnny made Scott feel guilty about his conduct earlier in the day. He regretted having snapped at his brother, for he really didn’t mind being teased. In all honesty, he welcomed it: it showed that the other man had accepted him. ‘I shouldn’t have taken my frustration with Murdoch out on him. I’ll make it up to him when we get back.’
Scott was reminded of the reason for his ill humor back at the corral. For the better part of the past week, he had worked hard trying to learn how to handle a lariat. Just the evening before, he had managed to catch one of the horses on his second throw. Wanting to impress his father and brother with his newly acquired skill, he had insisted on catching his own mount that morning. However, he had not counted on the sorrel being so crafty about avoiding the noose.
‘Murdoch could have at least acknowledged my accomplishment. I know I have a lot to learn, but at least I’m trying. What does it take to please him? I don’t know what his big hurry is either. I can’t see what difference an hour, or two will make. He said we had a week and a half to make the delivery. According to what Sam told me, we should be able to make the trip in a week, or less. If that’s the case, we have three or four days to spare.’
A movement on the hill in front of him brought an abrupt end to Scott Lancer’s musings. A feeling of foreboding swept over him, as he watched a horse and rider come charging down the slope toward him. His jaw stiffened.
A swirl of dust rose up when Murdoch pulled his horse to a skidding halt in front of his son. “What happened?”
“Shoe came loose. I didn’t have any way to remove it, so I thought I’d better lead him.” Scott stated testily in response his father’s impatient tone.
“Didn’t you check it before we left the ranch? Surely your experience in the cavalry would have taught you that much.” The older man dismounted, tossed the end of his bridle reins to his son, and then leaned over to inspect the lame horse’s hoof. “There’s a pair of nippers in my saddle bag. Get ’em.”
Scott bit back the angry retort that was on the tip of his tongue and did as he was ordered. He didn’t like being treated like a child or one of the hired hands; he was supposed to be an equal partner. Only the strict training he had received living with his grandfather kept him from reminding his father of that fact.
Murdoch snipped the remaining nails that held the shoe in place, pried the shoe off, and gently set the hoof on the ground. As he reached for his own horse, he said, “He split that one heel. He’s going to need a new shoe and that can’t be done until we catch up to the herd. Even then, he’s not going to be of any use this trip.”
“So, what do we do now, Sir?”
Murdoch frowned at his son, then curtly replied, “Guess you’ll have to lead him. I’ll ride on ahead and send back one of the men with some tools and another horse. After that shoe is replaced, might as well just turn him loose. We can get him in after we get back.” He mounted and started to leave, then stopped and pointed to a spot up ahead of them. “Oh, Scott, do you see that rocky point up there? Keep headed that way. I don’t want my rider having to spend time looking for you.”
Scott Lancer’s eyes bored into his father’s retreating back and he muttered. “What does he think I am, a child? And, just what does he mean by ‘his rider’? They’re mine now as much as they are his.”
He again mopped his brow with the now dirty handkerchief, then gave a light tug on the bridle reins, and strode in the direction his father had indicated. Already hot and sweaty, he dreaded the long walk ahead of him. He had no idea how soon the ranch hand would meet him, but he figured it could be a couple of hours.
When he reached the small stream crossing twenty minutes later, he was still nursing his resentment. During the past couple weeks, even though Murdoch never voiced it, Scott had become aware of his continual anxiety over Johnny’s welfare. It hurt him deeply that he had seen little, if any, concern directed his way during that time.
Temporarily shoving his thoughts aside, he stooped down by the creek, cupped his hand, and dipped it into the water. Although the cool liquid felt refreshing to his dry throat and he was tempted to keep drinking, he forced himself to stop after he had taken the edge off of his thirst. He vividly remembered the time he had gorged himself on water when he was in the cavalry. He had been sick for hours afterward; he had no desire to repeat the experience.
Scott dipped his handkerchief into the creek and washed his sweaty, dust-covered face and neck while he allowed his horse a small drink. When he felt refreshed, he set out for the distant rocky knob. To begin with, he actually enjoyed himself as he admired the beauty that surrounded him. Strange, new emotions welled up within him at the realization that a portion of this grand country was his. For a while, he even forgot about the unfair treatment he had received from his father that day.
The temporary reprieve at the stream didn’t last long, however. The higher the sun climbed in the sky, the more uncomfortable Scott felt. His shirt was soon clinging to his wet back and his face became covered with a combination of perspiration and dirt. As if that wasn’t enough, he found that his boots were causing blisters on his sore feet. He wondered why boots couldn’t be made to fit better. By the time he met up with the Lancer cowboy, he was questioning the wisdom of his decision to be a part of the drive in the first place.
The sun was well on its descent to the west when Scott Lancer caught sight of the dust cloud kicked up by five hundred lumbering steers. The prospect of the new adventure he was about to undertake sent a tingle of excitement through him and the weariness he had felt for more than an hour was all but forgotten. Once again he was determined to meet the challenge of learning a whole new way of life. Most of all, he wanted to prove to his father that he was worthy of the Lancer name and that he was every bit as capable of handling ranch work as his Western-raised brother was.
As he and the ranch hand neared the herd, Scott noticed a rider move out of the dark haze and came toward them at a rapid pace. A twinge of apprehension ran through him as he watched his father pull his galloping horse to a halt in front of them.
Without so much as a nod in his son’s direction, Murdoch Lancer addressed the hired man. “You get that horse shod?”
“Yep. Turned him loose like you wanted. He’s going to be sore for a few days, so I don’t think he’ll wander far.” The cowboy jabbed his thumb in the direction Scott and he had just traveled. “Left him in that little box canyon about four miles back. Plenty of food and water there.”
“Fine.” The rancher took a moment to glance toward the moving cattle, then pointed to the left flank of the herd. “Looks like Jose could use some help keeping those steers moving.”
Scott, seeing an opportunity to be of use, started to move his mount forward.
“Not you, Scott. Better let Dave go: he knows what needs to be done. You come with me.” Murdoch whirled his horse around and headed toward the rear of the drive.
His cheeks, already red from the sun, turned a shade darker, but Scott did as he was bidden and followed his father into the gray cloud.
“Push them up with the rest.” Murdoch swept his hand in the direction of a few steers that were lagging behind the others. “Then follow along here and make sure no more get behind. If we let them, they’d be strung out for miles. Your job is to keep the stragglers on this side up with the herd.”
Scott legged his horse into a trot and moved toward the straying steers, which promptly bolted and headed away from the herd. He had no idea how to go about herding the animals, so he simply went straight after them.
“No, Scott! You have to circle around them.”
The young man looked over his shoulder to see what his father was yelling about and then stopped to watch the man skirt around the running beasts and drive them back toward him. ‘Why didn’t he tell me that’s the way to do it? It certainly looks easy enough.’ The sight of Murdoch waving at him interrupted his thoughts. Before he could figure out what the hand motion meant, the older man was yelling, “Get out of the way. You’ll spook ’em.”
With a huff of exasperation, Scott urged his horse to the side and waited for his father to get the steers back with the other cattle. The excitement he had felt earlier was all but gone: squashed by the realization that he was bound to receive more criticism for his inevitable mistakes. It didn’t help his outlook, when the older man used an impatient tone of voice to impart further instructions to him. A few moments later, he was quite glad to see Murdoch ride off and disappear into the haze of dust.
For a little while things went smoothly and all the man from Boston had to do was tag along behind the herd and occasionally crowd a slower animal into catching up with the rest. He’d been at it about an hour when a dozen, or more steers decided to make a break for it. He tried to copy the maneuver he had seen his father make, but it didn’t seem to work as well for him. Instead of staying together, the ornery critters split up. Unsure of how to handle the situation, he pushed one bunch back to the herd and then went for the other group.
By the time the cattle were back where they belonged, Scott was wishing the day were over. He was hot, sweaty, and covered with dust. His lungs and his throat burned from breathing the fine particles of dirt that filled the air; even his teeth were grinding against the grit. His eyes stung so badly that tears ran down his cheeks where they mingled with the dirt to form rivulets of mud on his cheeks. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he was overcome by a fit of coughing that doubled him in half and made him feel as though his insides were being torn out. When it was over he was gasping for air.
Before the young man could get his horse moving again, Murdoch’s deep voice cut through the sound of the plodding cattle. “Scott! Don’t just sit there, go get those steers before you lose them.”
“Yes, Sir.” The younger man immediately headed after the wondering animals. ‘They would have to take off just as he arrives. Can’t anything go right today?’
The added dust of the running steers brought on another racking cough once the animals were back where they belonged.Scott grabbed the saddle horn as he tried to expel the offensive particles from his tortured lungs.
“Where’s your bandanna? You should know better than to ride in all this dust without something to cover your face.”
“Don’t . . . have . . . one,” Scott croaked in response to his father’s chiding.
The rancher released a sharp blast of air through his nose, shook his head, and then spoke sharply. “Get back there to the chuck-wagon and ask Cooky to get you one. I don’t need you getting sick.”
As the younger man turned his horse away from the direction the cattle were going, he doubled over again. Over the sound of his rasping, he heard, “Here, take mine. Tie it just below your eyes so it’ll cover your nose and mouth.”
Blinded by the blur of tears filling his eyes, Scott felt rather than saw Murdoch hand him the triangle shaped piece of cloth. “Thank you, Sir,” Scott whispered hoarsely. He accepted the scarf and quickly tied it around his face. When his vision finally cleared, his father was already on his way toward the cook’s wagon that was a quarter of a mile behind the herd.
By the time the herd was halted for the night, Scott was exhausted. Driving cattle had proved to be much harder than he had anticipated. The long hours on horseback, plus the hike he’d taken on foot, left him so stiff and sore that he nearly fell out of the saddle. When his feet touched the ground, pain shot up his numb legs making it almost impossible to stand and for a moment, he leaned against the horse for support. Gradually the feeling returned to his tortured limbs and he was able to unsaddle his horse and stiffly negotiate the distance to the chuck wagon where he joined the line of hungry cowboys. Every time he took a step forward, he had to suppress a groan. When one of the hired men offered him a full plate of food, he gladly accepted. He wasn’t sure he could have stood there much longer.
With plate in hand, he looked for a comfortable place to sit. A rock at the edge of the camp looked inviting, so he went over to it, sank to the ground, and used it to support his aching back. He took a big bite of the steaming stew and swallowed some of the broth, then dropped the dish and grabbed for his throat. As tears flooded his eyes and he tried to catch his breath, he heard a burst of laughter coming from the cowboys. ‘What’d they put in this? My mouth and throat feel like they’re on fire?’
“Here, drink this,” a deep voice commanded.
Scott grasped the tin cup that was placed in his hand and cautiously took a sip. Finding that it was only water, he took several big gulps. When he finally could breath again, he wiped the moisture from his eyes, looked up to see who had come to his aid, and then barely suppressed a moan at the sight of his father standing there.
“You okay?” There was a mix of amusement and concern in the big man’s eyes.
“I’m fine now . . . Sir.” The hoarseness in Scott’s voice belied his words.
The younger man noticed that the hired hands had stopped laughing and were now watching to see what he would do. The whole incident reminded him of the hazing that he had received from the upperclassmen in his fraternity at college. He knew that complaining stood only to bring him harsher treatment, so he held his tongue. “Nothing, Sir. That first bite. . . must have gone down . . . the wrong way is all.”
“You’re sure?” The look on Murdoch’s face made it clear that he wasn’t fooled in the least.
“Yes, Sir.” Scott leaned forward and retrieved the plate he had dropped. When his father walked away, he stiffly rose to his feet and went to get more food. ‘This time I’ll pay closer attention. And, I’ll fill my own plate from now on.’
After finishing his supper, Scott collected clean shirt and pants from the supply wagon and made his way to the nearby stream. Finding a secluded spot, he undressed and eased his aching body into the cool water. ‘Brrrr . . . a hot bath would have been much more relaxing, but I suppose cold water is better than no water at all.’ He was grateful for the chance to feel clean again. The last time he could remember being this dirty was when he had spent time in a Confederate prison camp during the war.
A snicker, along with a rustling in the bushes, caught his attention. Just as he turned his head to look behind him, his clothes were jerked out of sight. “Hey, bring those back,” he called. When his request was met by more laughter, followed by retreating steps, he cursed himself for being so careless. ‘There’s no way I am walking into that camp like this. Guess I’ll just have to wait here until everyone is asleep. Maybe, then I can manage to sneak in without anyone seeing me. Brrrrr . . . wish this water were a little warmer.’
He was beginning to shiver when he saw his father’s tall form making its way toward him. Not wanting the man to find him in his present predicament, he slipped farther down into the water. Everything he had done that day had gone wrong and the last thing he wanted was more scolding or worse yet, to be laughed at. However, he soon found he was not to be spared the embarrassment of his father’s detection.
“Scott, you been out here all this time? Don’t you think you ought to be getting some sleep? Morning’s going to come mighty early. I want to have the herd on the go by daylight.”
“I’ll . . . b-be. . . a-l-long . . . sh-sh-shortly.” Scott found it impossible to speak without his teeth chattering. ‘Now, please, just go back to camp,’ he pleaded silently.
Murdoch glanced quickly around. “Where’s your clothes?” A light chuckle rumbled in the man’s throat and the corners of his mouth twitched before turning up slightly. “Looks like some of the boys were having a little fun at your expense.”
“Sir, would you mind bringing me some clothes? Or are you just going to stand there laughing at me?” Scott’s mounting frustration made it hard for him to speak in a civil tone. ‘He would have to find me. Wouldn’t surprise me if he had some help. I must look like an utter fool to him.’
“I’ll see what I can do.” Murdoch stifled his mirth just long enough to answer, then headed back toward the camp. A short time later he returned with the missing garments.
Scott was still shivering when he returned to the camp. He walked over to the fire and stood with his back to the blaze. Although the men were rolled up in their blankets and appeared to be asleep, he occasionally caught the sound of a muffled snicker.
After a while, he located a cup and filled it with hot coffee from the pot on the fire, then leisurely sipped the steaming liquid. Feeling much warmer by the time he had finished it, he went to the supply wagon and found a bedroll. After rolling it out near the fire, he crawled between the folds and went right to sleep
The eastern sky was just light enough to reveal the sculptured horizon when Murdoch Lancer rolled out of his blanket on the second morning of the drive. Noticing the lighted lantern at the back of the chuck wagon and that the campfire had been stoked, he went to see if the coffee was ready.
“Put the pot on ’bout a half hour ago. Knew you’d want some soon’s ya got up.” The cook rubbed his flour-dusted hands on his pants, picked up an empty tin can, and shoved the open end into the rolled out dough on the makeshift table before him. “Breakfast’ll be ready shortly.”
“Thanks, Cooky. Nothing better than a hot cup of coffee to start the day.” Murdoch poured himself some of the steaming brown liquid, took a few sips, and let out a satisfied sigh. It was nice to relax for a few moments before starting the day.
After taking the time to enjoy the hot brew, the rancher, leaving his son until last, rousted out the men. As he towered over the sleeping form of his boy, he felt a twinge of regret at having to awaken him. Scott had looked worn out the night before and Murdoch was wondering why he had agreed to take him on this trip. ‘A cattle drive’s no place for a greenhorn, but it’s too late now. We’ll just have to make the best of it.’ Realizing that time was passing, he leaned down and gently shook his son’s shoulder. “Scott. Scott. Time to get up.”
Scott awoke to a light touch and a deep voice calling his name. Slowly he opened his eyes and, in the semi-darkness, he could just make out Murdoch’s face. “What?”
“Time to roll out, son. We need to get the herd moving soon as it’s light.”
“All right.” However, the young man soon found out that getting up was easier said than done. He stifled a groan as every muscle in his body protested even the slightest movement. For a fleeting moment, he thought he saw sympathy in his father’s eyes; however, Murdoch stood and walked away before Scott could be sure.
There was only one other time that Scott could remember being so stiff and sore. Shortly after he had joined the cavalry during the Civil War, he had had to spend twelve grueling hours in the saddle and it had taken several days to recuperate from the ride. Although he had learned horsemanship skills under the best riding master in Boston, he seldom rode for more than an hour or two. Those short periods of time on horseback just didn’t prepare a person for an all day trek.
With great effort, he forced himself to take a few steps in a normal manner. However, when the pain in his legs became unbearable, he gave up and settled for hobbling to the other side of the camp to get his breakfast. After filling his plate, he joined the cowboys who were sitting around the campfire. Occasionally, he joined into the conversation. Since none of them brought up the incidences of the evening before, he kept his mouth closed on the subject as well. He was beginning to feel a little more comfortable with the men by the time he was finished eating.
“Let’s get at it, boys. The boss is ready to go.”
At the foreman’s call, the hired men grumbled a little, gathered up their bedrolls and stashed them in the wagon, then headed for the remuda. It took a little longer for Scott to get his gear stowed away, so by the time he arrived at the picket line, some of the men were already mounted.
The horse wrangler led a tall, gray gelding up to him, then spoke in a strong Southern accent. “Here ya go, Mister Lancer. I got ya a hoss all saddled and ready ta go.”
“Thank you.” Scott smiled warmly as he reached for the offered reins. He had wondered how he was ever going to catch a horse and get it saddled in his condition. He knew he would be lucky if he could get mounted.
Scott searched around for something that would work for a mounting block. Upon finding a suitable rock, he led the horse over to it. He started to put his foot on the stone, then stopped and slipped his fingers under the latigo. Finding that it was too loose, he pulled it up until it was snug. A quick glance in the direction of the watching cowboys gave him the distinct feeling that they had expected him to mount without checking the cinch first.
As he once more prepared to mount, a cowboy with hair the color of carrots stepped up to the offside of the animal. “Ya need some help. I could hold ‘im for ya. Keep ‘im from sidesteppin’.”
The soft glint in the redhead’s eyes spelled mischief to young Lancer, so he tactfully declined the man’s aid. He noticed that the horse fidgeted a little as the cowhand leaned against it, but thought nothing more of it when it quieted down after the man moved away.
Scott carefully stepped up onto the low, flat boulder he had positioned his mount next to. The rock, which was damp from the dew, felt slippery under the smooth soles of his boots. He poked his left foot into the stirrup, grasped the horn of the saddle with his left hand, and placed his right hand on the cantle. Too stiff to do otherwise, he tried to pull himself onto the horses back. As he did so, the saddle twisted toward him; his left foot slipped out of the stirrup and his right foot skidded out from under him. Despite his every effort to recover his balance, he still tumbled to the ground and landed on his back. As he was trying to catch his breath, he heard the howls of laughter coming from the cowboys, and saw the frightened pony bucking and kicking its way in amongst the other horses. The whole bunch was on a dead run for the campsite before he had struggled to his feet.
“What in thunder is going on?” Amid the loud guff-haws of the hired men, Murdoch Lancer’s deep voice boomed, like a cannon fired in battle.
A moan escaped Scott’s lips as he rubbed his hand against his sore hip. “My fault. The saddle slipped.”
The rancher looked directly at his son and slowly wagged his head, then snorted softly through his nose. When he spoke, his voice was filled with sarcasm. “How did that happen? Didn’t you check the cinch first? I thought you knew enough to do that.” Without giving the younger man a chance to answer, he focused his attention on the cowboys that were already mounted. “Jim! Pete! Jose! Get those horses rounded up!” With his eyes back on Scott, he ordered, “Take a couple of the men and see what kind of damage was done to the camp. By the time those horses are caught, I want everything picked up and ready to go.”
Scott felt like saluting, and nearly did so, as he stood at attention and crisply replied, “Yes, Sir.” Then, when his father spun his mount around and galloped after the cowhands in pursuit of the fleeing remuda, his blue-gray eyes bored into Murdoch’s back and a fury he didn’t know he possessed threatened to consume him.
With his fist clinched, Scott Lancer stood locked in place as he fought to control the rage inside of him. He had found at a very young age that his grandfather would not tolerate any displays of anger and he had learned to control his temper quite well. However, the thoughtless humiliation he had just received from his father’s cutting words was almost more than he could endure. If he had ever come close to hating the man, it was now.
When Scott had finally gotten his emotions in hand, he looked over at the redheaded man, who was staring sheepishly at the ground. Beyond him, he could see two more cowboys trying to appear inconspicuous. They reminded him of how he had felt when he was just a small boy and had been caught steeling cookies. There was no doubt in his mind that they were in some way responsible for the fiasco that had just taken place and that they were waiting to be reprimanded. The whole scene suddenly struck him as funny and his mouth twitched as he tried to keep from smiling. Although he managed to keep a straight face, he wasn’t quite able to keep the sound of amusement out of his voice, as he said, “Shall we inspect the damages, men?”
At the look of surprise that registered on the faces of the three culprits, Scott grinned. There seemed to be no point in reprimanding the cowboys for their devilment. They were much like a bunch of schoolboys initiating a newcomer. If he was ever to be accepted by them, he knew he had to take with a smile whatever they dished out. When he chuckled softly and started in the direction of the chuck wagon, the other men relaxed and followed him. Soon they were all laughing at the incident.
By the time the remuda was rounded up and the day’s drive had begun, the sun had been up for better than an hour. The delay in getting the cattle on the trail had Murdoch Lancer in an irritable mood. He berated himself for being foolish enough to bring Scott on the drive; he should have known he was asking for trouble. However, he didn’t blame his city-raised son entirely for the late start; the hired hands were also to blame. I should have known those boys couldn’t pass up a chance to play tricks on a tenderfoot. If only Scott wasn’t so gullible.’
The rancher, hoping to make up for the lost time, kept the herd moving at a brisk pace. Shortly after noon, he allowed the steers to stop and graze in a small meadow, then pushed onward little more than an hour later.
As on the previous day, Scott was assigned the task of riding drag. On the few occasions that Murdoch was near the rear of the herd, he took time to ride along with his son and instruct him in the art of driving cattle. He hoped that by imparting some of his experience, he could make the job easier on the young man. It never occurred to him that Scott would take it as criticism, or that he would appreciate a little praise once in a while.
It was nearly dark when the rancher called a halt to the day’s drive. Later, as he watched his dust-covered son crippling about the camp, he felt a strange mix of pride, compassion, and guilt surge through him. He had a strong urge to do something–anything–to ease his boy’s discomfort, yet he held back. He’s not a child for me to coddle; he’s a grown man. I doubt he feels the need of a father now.’
Murdoch, feeling unsure of his role in his son’s life, decided to treat him as he would any of the other men on the drive. When Scott went off by himself to eat, he allowed him his privacy. He figured the younger man was too tired for conversation and just wanted to be alone.
The day had been long and Scott Lancer was relieved to see it end. His clothes, which clung to his sweat drenched body, were ingrained with a mixture of perspiration and dust. His face was streaked with mud and strands of filthy hair were plastered to his forehead. He was exhausted and pain shot through him at every move. It was as if every bone and muscle was screaming out in protest against the torture that he had put his body through. In all of his twenty-four years, he couldn’t remember ever being so miserable. It took every ounce of determination that he could muster up to care for his mount, hobble to the cook’s wagon, wash his hands and face in the basin provided, fill his plate, and search for a somewhat comfortable place to sit down. When he located a promising spot near the edge of the camp, he slowly made his way to it and sank down.
When he saw his father leave the chow line and look in his direction, Scott hoped the older man would join him. He felt a stab of disappointment when Murdoch sat with the hired men instead. ‘Guess he prefers their company to mine. No doubt, he’s tired of putting up with my mistakes. Well, it is his own fault. He didn’t have to leave me in Boston all those years. He had a good reason for not having Johnny with him: he didn’t know where to find him. But, he knew all the time where I was. If he care anything for me, he would have sent for me long ago.’
As he finished his meal in solitude, the bitterness held in check since before his arrival at his father’s ranch, continued to grow inside him. As soon as he was done eating, he collected his bedroll and found a quiet place away from the other men to retire for the night. His last thought, before drifting off to sleep, was that his father cared for one thing: getting his precious steers delivered on time.
With the silvery beams of the moon to light his way, Murdoch Lancer had no trouble threading his way amongst the sleeping cowboys on his way to the fire to get a cup of coffee. He shivered a bit from the cool night air and was glad for the warmth that the hot liquid provided. When he was finished, he started toward the picket line.
On the way to where the nightrider’s horses were tied, the rancher had to pass by his son’s sleeping form. He stopped to check on him and noticed that the blanket had slipped off the young man’s shoulder. Without thinking, he squatted down and covered him up. As he took a moment to listen to Scott’s steady breathing, he was surprised at the flood of emotions he felt. ‘It’s a good thing I’m taking his turn. He looked so tuckered out when we got into camp. What he needs is a full night’s rest, or he won’t be worth a hoot tomorrow. I shouldn’t have let him talk me into bringing him. This is no place for a greenhorn. What if he gets hurt? If anything happened to him, I’d never forgive myself.’
Later, as Murdoch rode around the sleeping steers, visions of his fair-headed son played through his mind and he found it impossible to concentrate on anything else–cattle delivery deadline forgotten. Not even thoughts of his younger son, Johnny, recuperating back at the ranch, could hold his attention long.
When Scott opened his eyes on the next morning, he felt refreshed. Nearly eight hours of sleep had done wonders in relieving the exhaustion he had felt the evening before. He tried to roll over. “Ooh. Uhm,” he grunted at the pain that shot through him. Resigned to another day of misery, he forced himself to get up.
He limped his way across the campsite to stow his bedding in the wagon, then ate breakfast and headed toward the remuda. He was surprised that he felt much better after a little walking had limbered up his sore muscles. When he reached the makeshift corral that held the horses, he was ready to try his hand at catching his mount for the day. The fact that a few of the cowboys might be watching didn’t deter him; he was determined to prove his worth on the drive.
Scott ducked under the rope barrier and walked toward the center of the enclosure. While holding the coiled lariat in his left hand, he grasped the hondo with his right. Trying to imitate the maneuvers his brother had shown him, he slid the hondo down the lariat as he shook out a large circle. He twirled it above his head as he moved toward his selected target. Just as he was ready to make his throw, his arm flicked the brim of his hat and sent it sliding down his face. The temporary loss of sight spoiled his aim.
“Ya, missed him.”
“Want some help?”
Scott glanced over at the group of cowboys that had assembled to watch him. He smiled and shook his head. No, thank you. I can do it.”
Leaving the hat lying in the dust, he made a second try, only to have the bay gelding elude him by ducking to the side. In exasperation, he ran a gloved hand through his hair. Trying to ignore the laughter coming from his audience, he coiled the rope and rebuilt the loop–bigger this time. He circled the lasso a couple of times overhead as he approached the cagey pony. Just as he was in position to try for another catch, a noose snaked by his head and closed around the horse’s neck.
“Scott, we don’t have all day. Next time let the wrangler catch your horse; it’s his job. “There was a hint of impatience in the speaker’s tone.
A burst of anger surged through young Lancer; he grabbed up his hat and slammed it in place. His pale cheeks burned bright red as he watched Murdoch lead the cowpony up to him. ‘How dare he reprimand me in front of the hired men? Doesn’t he think I’m capable of doing anything for myself?’ Keeping his eyes averted, he slipped the bit into the animal’s mouth and pulled the headstall over its ears. Completely ignoring his father and the hired men, he took the horse out of the enclosure, saddled up, and rode off in the direction of the herd.
For the rest of the day, Scott saw little of his father and was glad of it. When he was called upon to speak to the man, his increasing bitterness made it difficult to keep the sharpness out of his voice. It was only his Boston upbringing that kept him from being impolite. He wondered why Murdoch had sent for him and made him a partner if the last few days were any indication of the man’s feelings for him.
When evening came, the man from Boston was too tired and sore to socialize with the other men, so he sought out a place of solitude in which to eat his supper. On the way to return his empty plate to the cook, he passed by a couple of the cowhands and heard one say, “Must be nice, bein’ the boss’s son. Gets you outa night ridin’.”
After depositing his dirty dish in the wash pan, Scott decided to search out the foreman. He was curious about the night riding duty he had heard the men talking about. As he walked past the end of the chuck wagon, he heard voices coming from the far side. “Who’s riding herd tonight?” The deep voice was unmistakably his father’s.
“Pete and Joe are up first, Dave and Sam are next. Jose is last. The other men all rode last night, so that just leaves . . . your son.” Scott figured this came from the foreman.
“I’ll take his watch.”
“You sure, Mr. Lancer. You haven’t had a full night’s sleep since we started.”
“I said, I’d take it. I’ve survived on lot’s of short nights.” There was a distinct edge to Murdoch’s voice.
Scott stepped around the corner of the wagon and stopped in full view of the two men. Thinking that his father doubted he was capable of doing the job, he spoke with a resounding sharpness, “I’ll take my own watch, if you don’t mind, Sir. Unless, of course, you don’t think I am capable of it.” His stance was rigid and his blue-gray eyes flashed fire.
The elder Lancer’s eyes widened and his mouth dropped open a little. “Scott! Uh . . . it’s not that . . . it’s just . . ..”Finally he drew in a deep breath and finished lamely, “Of course, you can handle it.” He turned back to his foreman. “Put him on the last watch with Jose.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Lancer. Anything else?”
“No. That’s all I can think of.” When the other man left, the rancher returned his attention to his son. “You better get some sleep, it’s going to be a short night. Your watch starts about three hours before daylight.”
“I’ll do that, Sir,” Scott said curtly, then spun on his heels and stalked away. He was too upset to notice the look of confusion on the older man’s face. Thinking that Murdoch doubted his ability to do his share of the work, he let his anger add another brick to the wall he was building. The trip, intended to bring him closer to his father, was in effect driving them apart.
The moon was casting eerie shadows across the countryside, when Scott Lancer tugged on his boots in preparation for the night’s ride. He rubbed his sleepy eyes and had to agree with his father, the night had been short–much too short. A slight tremor ran through him as the chill of the air penetrated his shirt. He pulled on his jacket and shivered again, then raked his fingers through his hair, picked up his hat by the crown, and settled it on his head. With one last stretch of his sore muscles, he rose to his feet and made his way to the picket line where a horse stood, saddled and waiting for him. He checked the cinch, then mounted and followed Jose out to the herd. Uncertain as to what a nightrider did, he asked the Mexican vaquero.
“Señor, you ride one way and I ride the other. You circle the herd and keep an eye out for trouble. Sing a little, or talk softly, so the cattle, they know you are there. When they get up in the morning, make sure they stay together.”
The procedure didn’t sound that difficult to the city-raised young man and he wondered why his father had been reluctant to let him take his turn. When they reached the edge of the herd, he turned to the right. Part way through his first counter-clockwise round, he met Sam, the rider on the previous shift. After a brief word with the departing rider, he continued on.
The moonlight made it easy to see the sleeping cattle and occasionally Scott could hear the soft sound of Jose’s singing. Too self-conscious to sing himself, he talked quietly or quoted poetry; however, even that made him feel a little foolish. Whenever he met up with the other rider, they would talk a few minutes before moving on.
Just as the first signs of impending dawn were visible on the eastern horizon, he heard a mournful howl. The steers stirred and some of them became restless. Another howl sounded, bringing more cattle to their feet and Scott noticed that a sense of unease was starting to take over the heard.
A few moments later, he saw a few head of cattle drift away from the others. As he rode out around them to push them back, he noticed a movement to his right. When he made out a gray form, the size of a large dog, stalking the steers, he pulled his horse to a standstill, grabbed the butt of his rifle, and pulled it free of the scabbard. Taking careful aim, he squeezed the trigger and watched with satisfaction as the wolf dropped to the ground.
Scott soon found that there would be no time for gloating about his marksmanship. At the sharp crack of the Winchester, the steers closest to him broke into a run. Almost immediately, more animals rose to their feet and charged in his direction. As the cattle surrounded him, his horse danced and reared. Realizing that trying to hold back his frightened mount was a losing battle, he gave up and let the horse go.
As the pace increased, he found himself hemmed in on all sides by a mass of brown hide and clashing horns. The charging beasts on either side of him crowded in and jostled his horse. With the knowledge that one misstep could mean the end of him, he clung to the galloping cowpony and searched desperately for a way out: there was none.
Scott felt the throbbing in his ears from his heart beating harder and faster. As the herd continued its headlong rush, the cloud of dust, rising up from the pounding hooves, thickened and enveloped him, making it difficult to breathe. Tears streamed down his cheeks and he had to fight to keep his, stinging, eyes open. He felt the heaving of his horse as it began to tire and a terror, such as he had never known took hold of him. It was like living in a nightmare, only there would be no waking up to find it had all been a dream.
His mount faltered, staggered, and dropped its nose toward the ground as it pitched forward to its knees. His hand was torn lose of its grip on the saddle horn as a steer slammed into the falling horse’s rump. In desperation, Scott grabbed for the animal’s mane, but the strands of hair pulled free as he was thrown forward. Instantly he was catapulting through space. He felt something ripping at his clothes, then a sharp burst of pain as his face ground into the dirt before all went black.
The dreaded cry brought pandemonium in its wake as the camp came alive. Blankets were thrown back and men scrambled to put on boots, hats, and guns. As soon as they could, they dashed to the horses, then caught and saddled the first available mount. Within a few minutes after the alarm was sounded, Murdoch and his riders were racing after the stampeding cattle. The cattle had to be stopped or many of them would be trampled. Those that weren’t maimed or killed out-right would be scattered for miles–taking days to find them all.
The cowboys, despite the danger of being killed or injured in a fall, pushed their horses to the limit of endurance in order to reach the front of the thundering mass and turn it. The choking dust made it almost impossible to see in the dim, early-morning light. At last, the riders on the fastest mounts reached the leaders of the herd. Firing their revolvers in the air, they managed to turn the majority of them and to force them into a circle. As the milling cattle began to settle down, some of the cowboys began to sing softly in hopes of further calming the frightened animals.
When the herd was at last under control, Murdoch left four men with them and sent the rest back to camp to get something to eat. As his hired hands were riding away, it dawned on him that he hadn’t seen Scott among them. A sense of foreboding gripped him as he turned his horse and started back in search of his son. Each time he sighted a mound in the trodden down terrain, he shrank from the thought of finding the young man’s mangled body. The knot in his stomach tightened as he came upon one disfigured carcass after another, trampled to death during the stampede. Occasionally he found a steer with a bullet hole in its head, mercifully shot by one of the cowboys on his way back to camp.
A mile or so from where the herd had been bedded down, the rancher saw a larger hump arising from the trampled surroundings. He felt as though his heart was in his throat when he saw the rotten tree stump, crumpled buckskin cowpony, and several dead or dying steers that made up the mound. After putting the suffering animals out of their misery, he tossed a loop around the head of the one nearest to him and dragged it from the heap. One by one, fearing what he would find beneath, he separated the bodies. Relieved at what he didn’t find, he stripped the saddle and bridle from the dead horse and retrieved the rifle from the scabbard, then proceeded to comb the surrounding area for the missing rider–still nothing.
Riding more slowly, Murdoch continued looking for his son. The farther he went with no sign of the young man, the more he dreaded what he might find. A dull ache started in his temples, spread to the base of his neck, and increased in magnitude. He tried to ease his distress by telling himself that Scott might not have been riding the dead horse, that he would find him safe and sound with the other men.
Despite his efforts to dispel them, a barrage of thoughts concerning his son constantly plagued his mind. ‘What if he got caught in the middle of the stampede? What if he was riding that buckskin and was knocked out of the saddle somehow? He could be anywhere–trampled to death, or badly hurt. What if he needs a doctor and I can’t find him or get him to one in time? Why did I let him come along? It’s far too dangerous; he knows nothing about cattle. I could lose him. I should have insisted he stay at the ranch; at least he’d have been safe there. What’ll I tell Teresa and Johnny? Johnny was against me taking him as it was. He’ll blame me.’Dear God, you’re not going to take my son now, are you? I’ve only had him a few weeks. I nearly lost one son already. I don’t want to go through that again; I can’t.’
By the time the rancher reached the camp he was frantic with worry: there had been no sign of his boy anywhere. His hungry eyes searched the group of men that were gathered near the chuck wagon. His hopes plummeted once more; Scott was not among them. Wearily he swung out of the saddle, removed his hat, and wiped the perspiration from his forehead onto his shirtsleeve. He handed the wrangler his horse’s bridle reins and said dejectedly, “Saddle me up another horse; I’ll be going back out right away.”
Murdcoch’s face was haggard and gray as he set the battered gun down, poured a cup of coffee, and leaned against the chuck wagon. After taking a few sips of the hot liquid in an attempt to calm his jangled nerves, he let his eyes rove over the dusty cowboys. “Any idea what spooked the herd?”
“I thought I heard a shot,” one of the men offered.
The distressed rancher turned and addressed Jose, who had been on night duty with Scott. “Did you hear it? Where were you when the stampede started? ”
“Si, Señor Lancer. I was on this side of the herd when I hear the rifle and then the cattle, she start to run.”
“Anyone know what fool fired that shot?” The rancher’s eyes challenged each of the riders as he shifted his gaze from one to the next.
“I did, Sir.”
At the sound of the familiar voice, Murdoch whirled and stared as if he were seeing a ghost. In his distraught condition, he didn’t even notice the cuts and bruises on the face before him or the torn, dirt-covered clothes. The first thing that registered in his tortured mind was that his son was alive. The fear that had gripped him earlier gave way to a wave of relief. “Thank God,” he silently breathed.
However, as Scott’s words penetrated his mind, relief turned into anger. Standing in front of him was the one responsible for the agony he had just been through for well over an hour. His son’s thoughtless act was the reason for the trampled steers, dead or writhing in agony, he had come across on his way back to camp; and worse yet, the men’s lives had been endangered in stopping the stampeding cattle. “What ever possessed you to do such a foolish thing?” he demanded.
The younger man immediately became defensive. “There was a wolf after some of OUR cattle, Sir. I shot him.”
The extreme tension the older Lancer had been under released itself in an explosive display of bad temper. “You what? You endangered the whole herd, my life and that of the men, to save one steer. Do you have any idea how many dead ones there are out there; how many might still be suffering? One of my best horses was trampled to death; the cattle are scattered from here to who knows where; it could take days to round them up again. Do you know how much money will be lost if I don’t deliver on time?” By the time he finished his unmerciful list of somewhat exaggerated damages, he was red faced and nearly breathless; yet he could not stop until the final burst of his tirade left him gasping for air. “How could you do such a stupid thing. You should know better than to go shooting around a herd of cattle when they’re bedded down.”
Scott stared coldly at his father. Through clenched teeth, he gritted, “SIR, it’s not MY fault I know nothing about cattle. If YOU hadn’t left me with my grandfather in Boston all of this time, I wouldn’t be making so many STUPID mistakes. If the money means that much to you, I’ll pay you for the losses.” His declaration ended, he tossed his half-full plate, slopping its contents, on the plank used for a table and limped away.
Feeling like he’d just been delivered a blow to his middle by a thousand-pound steer, Murdoch gazed after his son. The mixture of pain and loathing in Scott’s eyes cut into him far worse than the accusing words. He started to follow. “Scott.” When the younger man continued on as if he hadn’t heard, the older man called a little louder. “Scott!” He stopped to watch his son, shuffling his way toward the picket line, and then his shoulders slumped as he began to realize the damage he had done.
The rancher slowly turned and walked back to his men. Only by sheer force did he keep his voice calm. “Soon’s you get done eating, get a fresh horse, pair up and start rounding up the strays. A couple of you go relieve those at the herd so they can eat.” He started to move away when he heard the cook’s voice.
“Ain’t ya gonna eat, Mister Lancer?”
Murdoch hesitated at the cook’s question, then sighed heavily. This was not the time to confront his son–to make amends: they were both too upset to speak rationally. He convinced himself that nothing would come of it, except more harsh words and that it would be far better to give things a chance to cool off first. He picked up a plate and filled it; then, attempting to appear unscathed in the sight of the hired men, took a few bites of the food. Finding that they seemed to stick in his throat, he dumped the rest of the contents on his plate into the slop bucket, shoved the dish into the pan of sudsy water, and went to meet the wrangler who had just arrived with a saddled horse in tow.
Scott Lancer winced with each step as he limped his way across the campsite. He wasn’t sure how his right hip had been injured, but had no doubt about having plowed face first into the dirt. The stinging abrasions on his left cheek and forehead, the aching that ran from his shoulders to the base of his skull, and the feel of grit in his mouth, nose, and left ear were a stark reminder of having done so.
Upon reaching the tethered horses, saddled and ready for the men when they were finished eating, he untied a large sorrel mare, then gripped the horse’s mane as his vision blurred and the ground seemed to spin beneath his feet. He waited for the dizziness to subside, then took a deep breath, bit his lip in anticipation of the pain to come, and pulled himself into the saddle. Intent on hiding his discomfort by keeping his head up and his eyes straight ahead as he rode through the camp, he didn’t see the concern mixed with remorse that was displayed on Murdoch’s face.
Scott guided his mount toward the path that the stampeding herd had taken and, ignoring his protesting body, stubbornly set out in search of the scattered cattle. With his jaw-line tense, lips clamped tightly together, and back rigid, he kept to a fast walk. The burning inside him increased the farther he went, until all desire to build a relationship with his father had withered. Over the past few weeks since his arrival at the Lancer Ranch, he had begun to doubt much of what he had been told about Murdoch Lancer; now he wasn’t so sure but what it was true. ‘Why did I think my being here would make a difference? The man is obviously devoid of all feeling for me. Grandfather was right: I mean nothing to my father; I never have and I never will. The only reason he sent for me was to save his ranch. He made that quite clear the day I arrived when he said, “All I want is your arms, your legs, and your guts.” I am nothing more than another employee to him, if I am that. He could not have helped but notice that I was hurt; yet, he never asked how I was. If I had been trampled to death, would he have even cared? I would have been if I hadn’t landed next to that log.’
Once again Scott envisioned the mass of mangled flesh piled next to the dead tree that he had been lying next to when he awoke. The gory sight and the pitiful bellowing of the wounded steers were etched in his mind and would not soon, if ever, be forgotten. He wished he could have put the injured animals out of their misery, but his rifle had been wedged under the dead horse and he hadn’t been able to get it loose. ‘I owe them my life. The rest of the cattle must have went around or jumped over the top of them and me.’
“Hey, Lancer, wait up!” The call of a familiar voice and the sound of a galloping horse broke into his thoughts.
The rider leaned back and hauled on the reins. His mount skidded to nearly a full stop, then flipped its head a couple of times and snorted loudly as it was brought into step with Scott’s horse. “You headed out to round up them strays?” Upon receiving a slight nod, he asked. “Want some company?”
Scott glanced sideways at the man next to him and smiled slightly. “All right, Red. Glad to have you.” Ever since the incident of the loosened cinch, he had found the young redhead, who also rode drag, to be quite sociable. In fact, he had come to rather like the jovial cowhand who appeared to be about nineteen or twenty years old; the boy reminded him a little of his brother, Johnny: self-sufficient and full of life.
The two men engaged in friendly conversation for a while as they rode along. Scott was relieved that the other man never once mentioned his part in starting the stampede. When they reached the path the main herd had taken, they stayed out away from the trampled ground. Red took the lead and searched for tracks that would indicate that some of the cattle had broken away from the rest.
They had traveled about a mile when they came to a side draw that angled into the main valley. “Looks like some went up that arroyo.” The cowboy pointed toward their left.
Scott studied the ground as he tried to make out signs of the cattle’s passing. When he failed to see any, he asked the other man to show him. He was amazed at how easily the youth had spotted the faint indents in the dirt and the slightly crushed grass. He wondered if his brother had acquired the same tracking skills and if they were difficult to learn.
They split up, each taking one side of the draw. When Scott saw a couple of steers up ahead, he did as the cowboy had instructed and cut up higher on the hillside in order to get around them. The plan was to make their way to the upper end of the ravine, then push the steers they found back toward the opening into the valley. When he reunited with the other rider, he asked, “Did you find many?”
“Saw four head ’bout half-way and two more just a ways back. How about you?”
“There were two by a rock ledge about two-thirds of the way here and another one a little farther this way.” Scott rubbed the back of his neck and grimaced.
“You all right?” Red cast a worried glance at his new boss.
“You sure?” The cowboy still looked dubious.
Scott’s smile reflected more assurance than he felt. “I’m fine, really. Just a little sore is all.”
Red shrugged and started his horse back in the direction they had come. “Reckon we’d better get goin’ then.”
Scott’s spirits lifted at his riding partner’s concern. It felt good to know that at least one person cared how he was doing. Although he was aching all over from the tumble he had taken earlier, he resolved to not let it bother him. After the harsh scolding he had received from Murdoch, he was more determined than ever to prove not only to his father and the hired men, but also to himself that he was capable of being a rancher.
Scott and Red took their little group of nine steers back to the larger valley and headed them in the same direction the stampede had taken that morning. For the remainder of the day, they continued to search out stray animals. Occasionally, they saw some of the other men adding to the growing band of cattle. It was nearly dark when the weary cowboys joined up with the main herd.
Murdoch Lancer stepped down from his horse, handed the reins to the wrangler, and joined his foreman by the campfire. “Did Scott get in, yet?”
“Nope.” When his boss cast a worried glance in the direction of the previous night’s camp, the ramrod added, “Now don’t you be frettin’, Mr. Lancer. Your boy’s in good hands. Last time I saw him, he was with the Johnson boy. Red may be young and full of pranks, but he’s a good kid. He’s a top hand, too. Knows more about cattle than most men twice his age.”
The tall rancher touched the handle of the coffeepot. Finding it to be hot, he pulled the cuff of his shirt down over his hand so he could use it as a potholder. He filled a tin cup with the hot liquid, took a sip, and then rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand. “How did he look?”
“Who, Scott?” Upon receiving a nod for an answer, the hired man continued, “I wasn’t all that close to him, but he was keepin’ up with Red so he can’t be hurtin’ too bad. ‘Sides he’s young. You know how these kids bounce back. Not like you and me.”
“Yeah.” Murdoch breathed a soft sigh and continued to sip his coffee as he watched the landscape around him gradually fade into the deep shadows of dusk. He tried to tell himself that the other man was right; he was worrying over nothing. About then the first of the worn-out, dust-covered men straggled into camp. When his son appeared a short time later, he had a strong urge to seek him out and make amends for his thoughtless words. However, when he made a move in the younger man’s direction, Scott turned his back on him.
Murdoch hesitated, unsure of what to do. It was a feeling he seldom had, this uncertainty that gripped him, and he didn’t like it. He was used to being in total control: of his ranch, his men, and himself; yet, somehow that had all changed in the last few weeks.
The rancher refilled his cup, then squatted next to the fire. As he studied Scott’s back and drank the steaming coffee, thoughts of meeting his sons filled his mind. He recalled the day his boys had arrived, both on the same day, and how he’d felt emotions within him that he hadn’t known existed. He’d always loved them, but he hadn’t been prepared for the effect seeing them would have. It had taken a great deal of effort to hide his feelings, but he had managed to do just that. There had been too much hurt from circumstances beyond his control, too many regrets over past decisions, and a fair amount of guilt over wrong choices in his life that he had had no intention of exposing to his grown sons.
A frown creased the man’s brow and he shifted into a sitting position, knees bent, to relieve the cramping in his left leg, still not completely recovered from Pardee’s bullet. The long hours in the saddle were beginning to take their toll. It had only been in the last week that he had been able to dispense with the aid of a cane in getting around. As he massaged the aching muscles, his thoughts returned to his oldest son. ‘I guess he expected an explanation for my leaving him with Garrett all that time. Maybe I owe him one, but I just don’t see how dredging all of that up would do him any good. What’s past is past. There’s nothing to be said that will erase it; it would only expose a lot of painful memories. In the long run, if he believed me, all it would accomplish is making him hate his grandfather. No matter what I think of Harlan, I’ll not be the one to destroy Scott’s feelings for the man. If my son can’t put all of that behind him and accept me for what I am today, then that’s how it’ll have to be.’
Murdoch stretched his stiff leg out in front of him and wiggled his foot from side to side and up and down. He tried to force his mind in another direction as he watched the friendly banter of the cowhands. It was good to see Scott being a part of it–fitting in. He was glad the city-raised young man was willing to try to make friends among the hired men.
It wasn’t long, however, before memories of how that first week after the arrival of his sons had played havoc with his mind. He brushed a hand over his eyes, then rubbed his brow with his thumb and forefinger as thoughts of his younger son joined those of the older. He had expected Scott to be resentful, but Johnny’s anger had come as a surprise. He had to admit he hadn’t handled that any too well. His younger son’s accusations and apparent indifference, even disloyalty, had riled him to no end. Even now, he had a feeling they weren’t through butting heads; the boy was just too hot tempered like his mother and stubborn to boot. Of course, nearly losing the young man to a bullet during the fight with Pardee’s gang had been a major strain on his emotions. He still didn’t know how he’d been able to hide his inner turmoil from the rest of his household, but somehow he had. ‘I don’t suppose I fooled Teresa, though. I suspect she knows a lot more about what goes on inside of me than she lets on.’
“Come and get it ‘fore I throw it out.” The cook’s call brought a scrambling of pushing, shoving bodies, crunching of boots, and jiggling of spurs as the hungry cowboys crowded into the chow line.
The sight of his elder son limping toward the cook’s wagon brought Murdoch out of his reverie. A scratched and bruised face flashed into his mind as he remembered his boy’s sudden appearance earlier that day. As he rubbed his right forefinger over his chin and wondered how he could have missed noticing those signs of a fall, a fresh surge of guilt assailed him. It was all too obvious to him now that Scott had taken a bad fall during the stampede that morning.
At the memory of the dead horse, the rancher cringed. Had his son been involved in that pileup and, if so, how had he possibly survived the mishap? Was he hurt, in need of a doctor? Would he admit it if he were? He had an intense desire to go check on him, ask him, but Scott had just made it quite clear that he wanted nothing to do with him. ‘Better wait. Now isn’t the time. I need to talk to him privately, not in front of the men.’ Again, he wished he had left the younger man at home.
On the morning after the stampede, Scott Lancer pushed his blanket aside, then let out a soft groan when he sat up. He gritted his teeth and grunted when a stab of pain shot through his shoulders and back as he leaned forward to pull on his boots. Getting to his feet took even more effort. His sore leg had stiffened up overnight and it didn’t want to cooperate. With the set of his jaw reflecting his determination, he slowly limped his way to the chuck wagon.
A few moments later, with plate in hand, Scott joined the cowboys that were gathered around the campfire. He greeted each of the men, then was content to listen to them discussing the day’s work and how they would pair up.
“Ya wanna ride with me, Mr. Lancer.” Red’s eyes searched his young boss’s face.
“I would like that very much.” Scott smiled at his red-haired companion of the day before. He, then, allowed the Johnson boy to draw him into the conversation.
When he was almost done eating, he saw Murdoch join the circle. Having no desire to risk another confrontation with his father, Scott shifted uneasily and kept his eyes focused on his food.
From the time he was a small child, Scott had been taught that a gentleman kept his emotions under control at all times. He found it disturbing that he could forget that training so easily. The day after his arrival in California, his temper had gotten the better of him and he had struck his brother. Yesterday, he had nearly done the same to his father. A shiver ran through him. ‘I can’t believe how close, too close, I came to hitting him. I need to get away from here. I just can’t trust myself around him, yet.’
After quickly finishing his meal, Scott turned toward Red. “Are you about ready to go?”
Scott glanced back as he left the campsite. A frown puckered his brow when he saw his father dumping the remainder of his food into the slop bucket. He couldn’t help wondering if it was worry over getting the steers delivered on time, or something else that had ruined the older man’s appetite.
For the next few hours, Scott concentrated on rounding up strays. The guilt of having been responsible for the stampede weighed heavily on his mind and he was determined to do his part in recovering the missing steers. On the previous day, Red had proved to be very knowledgeable about cattle, so Scott began to study the other man’s every move. Whenever he didn’t understand the reasoning behind the cowboy’s actions, he asked questions and was delighted that the explanations were so readily given to him.
By mid-afternoon, Scott was nearly too weary to ride; he hadn’t counted on his injuries from the day before bothering him more as the day wore on. In his mind, he tried to understand why he hadn’t given up hours ago and gone back to camp. He also wondered to whom he was trying to prove his worth: his father, the men, or himself. Although he didn’t have the answers, he pressed onward, for he was not about to quit while there was a job to be done.
When Scott Lancer and Red Johnson were informed a short time later that the search for missing cattle had been called off, they headed in the direction of the camp. By the time they drove their small band of strays into the main herd, it was late afternoon.
Scott dismounted, then glanced westward at the dark clouds moving in to hide the sun. As he started to unsaddle his horse, he looked over at his riding partner. “Do you think it will rain?”
The cowboy studied the ominous sky for a moment; his brow puckered and he shrugged. “Looks like it could.” He threw his tack on the ground, lifted the rope that confined the remuda, and turned his mount loose inside the enclosure. As Scott joined him, he added, “Sure hope it don’t, though. Nothin’s more miserable than drivin’ cattle in the rain: bein’ wet ‘n’ cold day an’ night. This ground’s pretty easy goin’ when it’s dry. Ain’t nothing but a mud bog when it’s wet.’. Takes twice as long to go anywhere an’ your Pa ain’t a gunna like bein’ slowed down.”
The younger Lancer stiffened and his jaw muscles tensed as he spoke in a muffled tone. “Now, why am I not surprised about that.”
“You say somethin’?”
“It was nothing. Nothing at all.” Scott forced a smile, before turning to duck under the makeshift fence. He straightened and waited for the cowboy. “Shall we see if the cook has some coffee in the pot?”
“Sounds like a winner to me.” Red grinned back and followed his new boss toward the campsite.
The pungent aroma of the coffee reminded the rancher of other trail drives. Suddenly, he was overwhelmed by a deep sense of loss. For the first time in over fifteen years, Paul O’Brien wasn’t with him. No matter how hard he tried to put his foreman’s death behind him, bury it, he could not. The man had been far more than an employee; Paul had been his best friend. For years, O’Brien and his daughter, Teresa, had been Murdoch Lancer’s only family. Thanks to Day Pardee, the two men would never again sit by a campfire and discuss the condition of the range grass, where to move the cattle to next, or the ups and downs of market prices. They would never share a drink by the fireplace in the great room, while Teresa sat quietly replacing a missing button on one of their shirts. That part of his life was over and done with, never to be recaptured.
The rancher rubbed the back of his neck and rocked his head from side to side. The long hours in the saddle were beginning to take their toll on him. His left leg, still stiff from the bullet wound he had suffered on the day of O’Brien’s death the previous November, was bothering him more and more. Yet, he refused to acknowledge his discomforts. There would be plenty of time for relaxing after the cattle were delivered.
Murdoch’s thoughts, once again, drifted back in time. He wondered why life had to be so full of disappointments. It seemed that the people he cared for the most were constantly being ripped from him. When he was eleven, he had lost his father due to a mining accident; then, his mother had passed away two and a half years later. His first wife, Catherine, had died in childbirth and her father had taken their son; less than five years later, his second wife, Maria, had run off and taken Johnny with her; and then last fall, his best friend had been gunned down without warning. Sure, his sons had been returned to him in time to save the ranch, but the long years of separation had left them strangers. He feared it would be a long time, if ever, before his boys would accept him as a father.
The rancher continued to stare into the fire. However, it wasn’t the red and yellow flames lapping at chunks of wood that he saw: it was a blue-eyed toddler with black hair reaching out to him, a fair-headed boy celebrating his fifth birthday, a young girl sitting on her daddy’s knee, and a pig-tailed adolescent cooking her first meal. The scenes continued to change: a young lady crying beside a freshly mounded grave, Scott walking toward the house with Johnny slung over his shoulder, a dead horse lying amongst the mangled bodies of several steers, and the accusing, blue-gray eyes of his oldest son.
As Murdoch downed the last of his coffee, he looked up to see the object of his final thought walk around the back of the chuck wagon. His son, the redheaded cowboy at his side, started toward him, but after a few steps, abruptly stopped. Scott’s apparent reluctance to be near him was like having a knife twisted into his guts and he resolved to have a talk with his boy. In hopes of getting the younger men to join him, he called, “There’s hot coffee in the pot. Better get some before the rest of the boys get here.”
Red gave a slight tug on Scott’s sleeve, before grabbing a couple of cups from the table as he strode by it on his way to the campfire. He filled both with the steaming coffeepot, took a sip from one, while he held the other out toward the younger Lancer. “Come on, Scott. It’s strong, but it sure do hit the spot.” He faced back toward the fire and took another sip of the hot liquid as his eyes met Murdoch’s. “Ya think it’s gunna rain, Boss?”
“Looks like it.” Murdoch, his gaze focused just beyond the cowboy, watched Scott walking toward him. “Are the rest of the boys back, yet?”
“Nope.We saw Jose and Sam about an hour ago. They had fifteen head or so with ‘em.Should be getting’ in any time now. Haven’t seen hide nor hair of the rest of ‘em since this mornin’.” The cowboy turned halfway as he handed Scott the other cup.
“Thanks, Red.” Scott spoke softly and avoided meeting his father’s searching eyes.
Murdoch refilled his mug and took a swallow of the strong coffee, then licked his lips as he assessed his son. Gone was the neatly turned out easterner who had ridden away from the ranch headquarters with him a few days earlier; instead, he saw a dust-covered, sweat-streaked, sagging-shouldered cowboy. The scratches on his boy’s face appeared to be healing, but the bruises on his cheek and around his eye had turned a deep purple. He had also noticed that Scott was still limping. “How’re you feeling, Scott?”
“I’m fine, Sir.” The son’s words were somewhat muffled.
Murdoch studied the multi-colored flames a moment, then cleared his throat and eyed Scott. The young man looked pretty beat. “Are you sure you’re okay? You’re down for herd duty tonight, but we can work around it if necessary.”
“I said, I was fine, Sir. I don’t need anyone to do my job for me.” Although his manner was polite, Scott’s tone was sharp and his face remained expressionless .As soon as the words were out, he looked down at the cup in his hands and rubbed his thumbs along its top edge.
“Scott . . . can we . . . talk a minute?” Murdoch felt his insides churn. He was dreading what needed to be done. He knew he had to talk to his son and somehow explain his behavior the morning of the stampede, but the other man’s aloofness was not making it any easier.
Scott’s stance became more rigid and his jaw tensed visibly. He slowly brought his eyes up to give his father a challenging glare and his tone bordered on rudeness. “What is it that I have done wrong, now?”
Murdoch took another drink of coffee in an effort to hold back the retort that had leapt into his mind. When he gained control of himself, his voice was softer than normal, almost pleading. “It’s nothing you’ve done. It’s just . . . we’ve hardly . . . I. . ..”He sucked air into his lungs and swallowed hard. His son’s stony expression made him feel self-conscious—thoughts incoherent. At last, he pronounced lamely, “We need to talk.”
“Can it wait, Sir?” Scott’s frame remained tense and he went back to studying his tin cup. “I am pretty tired. I was hoping to relax for a while before dinner.”
“We need to—.“The sound of scuffling and laughter cut Murdoch’s words short. It was useless to go on; Scott, no longer facing him, was watching a rowdy bunch of cowhands entering the camp.
Once the men had gathered around the campfire, the rancher realized that any chance of a private conversation with his son was gone. He drank the rest of his coffee, then asked for reports on the rounding up of the missing steers. He couldn’t help wondering why Scott let Red do the talking for the two of them. By the time he had listened to the accountings of the day’s activities from the rest of the riders, the cook announced that supper was ready.
A short time after finishing his meal, Scott left the camp to begin his night-herding shift. Murdoch’s heart was heavy with disappointment. Another day had gone by without the differences between his son and him being resolved. A short while later he turned in; however, it was some time before sleep overcame him.
The rhythmic motion of the plodding horse was almost hypnotic to the weary rider. His head nodded, then jerked upright. He groaned softly as he drew his shoulders up and rotated them a few times before letting them relax. Fleetingly, he wished he had accepted his father’s offer of letting one of the other men take his turn at riding herd. The thought was quickly suppressed and a dogged determination took its place. He had chosen to come on the drive and he would do his share of the work no matter how much discomfort he was subjected to.
Scott peered through the darkness as he continued his vigil of circling the cattle. A few of the steers were quietly grazing, conversing occasionally in soft lowings with those next to them. The rest seemed to have already bedded down, much to his relief. He hoped they stayed that way; he had no desire to be subjected to another mad dash over rugged ground while crowded on every side by the frenzied beasts.
As a curtain of clouds was drawn over the night sky, Scott found it more difficult to see. Before his shift was halfway over, the moon and stars, lighting his way when he first arrived at the herd, had vanished from sight. His eyes could barely penetrate the darkness and he found himself relying more and more upon his mount’s superior eyesight.
A prickling sensation run up the young man’s back and spread down his arms. He shuddered and pulled the collar of his jacket up a little higher on his neck. The chill and faint hint of moisture in the air reminded him of Boston.
Scott had made a couple of more turns around the herd when he felt the first drop of rain splatter against his cheek. By the time he had finished his next round, the light sprinkle had turned to drizzle. Soon, he was wishing that he had hunted up a slicker before leaving the camp; yet, he knew he had only himself to blame for the oversight. If he hadn’t been in a hurry to avoid his father, he wouldn’t have forgotten such an important detail.
The steady, light rain appeared to have no effect on the hairy beasts, but in no time, the unprotected rider was miserable. Trickles of water ran down his face and his clothes began to stick to him as they soaked up with the moisture. Leaving the herd to go in search of rain gear was not an option, so Scott set his mind to put up with his plight and hoped that it wouldn’t be long before the next rider came to relieve him.
Memories of another place and time crowded into his mind. It had been nearly six years, yet he could still feel the chill of that night of riding in pouring rain that was just short of turning to snow. Recalling how he had been sick with pneumonia for the better part of three weeks after that, he hoped he wasn’t in for a repeat of that experience. He was sure that his becoming ill would only bring more criticism from his father.
Scott, his misery increasing, as he became more rain-soaked, continued his rounds. He found his thoughts shifting to his reasons for staying in California. It wasn’t the money or even the prospect of owning one-third of the vast holdings of the Lancer Ranch that held him. If wealth was all that had mattered to him, he could have had that in Boston. Hadn’t his grandfather reminded him often enough that he was the heir to the Garrett legacy?
‘No,’ the young man told himself. ‘I stayed because, even that first day, I could see how much the ranch meant to my father. I suppose, I believed that if I helped him preserve it, he would want me; at least, respect me; and, someday, even love me. Then, of course, there is Johnny. I don’t understand him, but I would like to get to know him.”
Scott felt his body trembling as the cold penetrated his wet clothing. As his teeth began to chatter and his hands became numb, he wondered how much longer it would be before he was relieved by the next rider. In an attempt to get his mind off of himself, he focused his thoughts on his brother. He had no doubts as to Johnny’s motivation for remaining at Lancer: the younger man had made it quite plain that first day after their arrival that it was the money.
A touch of sadness crept over the older Lancer son. He hoped that in time his brother would see, as he did, the importance of having a family. In that moment, Scott knew that that was what held him, drove him to prove his worth; for here was the father he had always wanted and the brother he had never dreamed existed. This realization brought about a fresh determination in him to win his father’s approval.
By the time his relief rider showed up, Scott was quite happy to call it a night. Water was dribbling off his hat and down his face; he was soaked to the skin; and his whole body was shaking. There was nothing he wanted more at that moment than to get out of his wet clothes. Even a bed on the hard ground looked good to him, provided it was dry.
Upon arriving back at the camp, the weary young man gathered up his bedroll and a change of clothes, then searched for a vacant spot under one of the wagons. Barely able to see, Scott felt his way about until he located a narrow strip of unoccupied ground near the back of the chuck wagon. He rolled out his bedding and stripped off his wet clothing, then slipped into dry shirt and pants. At last, he crawled onto his blankets and wrapped them snuggly around him. It wasn’t until morning that he became aware that it was his father’s form he had crowded in next to.
“Tap. Tap, tapity-tap-tap. Tap.”
The raindrops, much like a drummer keeping time to a lively tune, beat out a steady rhythm on the bottom of the upside-down wash pan. Murdoch lay awake for a moment with his eyes closed, then groaned inwardly: rain was the last thing he needed. Becoming aware of the presence of one of his men pressing against his side, he turned his head and opened his eyes part way, and then widened them—his son.
Scott lay with his back to the ground. His right arm was on top of the blanket and along his side, while his left arm rested near the side of his head, which was turned slightly in his father’s direction. The young man wrinkled his nose and flinched as water splattered off a nearby rock and into his face. He shifted slightly. Another raindrop hit his eye and he swatted at it with the hand nearest his face.
Fascinated by the sleeping man’s antics, Murdoch couldn’t seem to tear his eyes away. It was the first time he had ever viewed this son in such an unguarded state. He felt a strong urge to reach out and run his fingers down the young man’s cheek, to touch him, and assure himself that he wasn’t dreaming.
Scott shook his head slightly as if he were trying to dodge an annoying fly. He rolled onto his side so that he faced his father. As he came to rest, his right arm flopped out and landed on the older man’s chest.
Murdoch’s throat tightened and he found it difficult to swallow. His mind flashed back to a small, dark-haired boy lying in a similar position and it shook him to be so starkly reminded of all that he had missed by being separated from his sons. He continued to lie there, not wanting to end the contact by awakening the younger man.
His eyelids slowly raised while simultaneously he felt a body, not his own, under his arm. His breathing faltered, but he quickly forced it back to an even rhythm. As he focused on the shirtsleeve only inches from his face, his heartbeat jumped to a faster pace. ‘My father!’ The young man nearly panicked: what if Murdoch should awake and find his son practically embracing him?
Scott Lancer was mortified by the physical proximity that he felt was inappropriate and he struggled to remain calm. He had never been allowed such intimate closeness with his grandfather. Harlan Garrett was a man who believed in the most exacting of proprieties and having a child draped across his sleeping form would have been scandalous to him. In fact to his mother’s father, a hug meant placing his arm around his grandson’s shoulder and giving a light squeeze.
Unsure of whether or not Murdoch was asleep, Scott contemplated upon what to do next. His first inclination was to lift his arm off of the other man. However, he quickly rejected that idea: his father might wake up; or worse yet, if his father were awake, he would know that his son was not sleeping. Scott found that prospect far too disturbing to risk it.
Scott could think of only one way out of the distressing situation. He pretended to slumber and slowly rolled over, dragging the offending arm with him. For a moment, he thought he detected a change in the other man. ‘Is he awake? Does he know I’ve practically been hugging him? How long was I like that? What must he be thinking? How do I face him? What do I say?’ Then, pushing the troublesome thoughts aside, he told himself that he was imagining things.
To the young man from Boston, the next few minutes seemed like an eternity. He considered getting up, but decided against it; he didn’t want Murdoch to know that he was awake. When he thought he could no longer stand the suspense, someone at the other end of the wagon stirred and a short while later, his father rustled around and got up. He sucked in his breath, then slowly let it back out as his body relaxed.
Scott waited until some of the other men were up before he laid his blanket back. The wagon box above him didn’t allow him to sit upright and he soon found that it was no easy chore to get his boots on and wiggle into the slicker he had hunted up before going to bed the night before. However, he figured it was better to put up with the inconvenience than to finishing dressing out in the rain. At least, he would stay a little dryer.
Breakfast that morning was a dismal affair. Although a tarp was strung up over the cook’s work area, the men had no dry place in which to eat unless they crawled under the wagons. A few did just that, but most of them stood hunched over their plates in hopes of keeping some of the rain off of their food while they quickly gulped it down.
Scott chose to join Red and several other cowboys, standing next to the supply wagon. As usual, the Johnson boy’s sense of humor lightened the mood despite the dreary conditions. Once again, young Lancer was reminded of his newly found brother. Johnny seemed to have the same ready smile and light-hearted spirit even though there was a harshness about him that wasn’t present in the redheaded cowhand.
When Murdoch joined the men a short while later, Scott tried to inconspicuously avoid eye contact with the older man. The embarrassment of that morning was still too fresh in his mind for him to feel comfortable in his father’s presence and he was glad when it was time to get the steers moving once again.
With his right forearm tight against the left side of the tailgate and his feet braced as best he could, Scott leaned into the back end of the chuckwagon. Hearing the driver calling to the team and the cracking of the whip, he heaved against the rough wood with all of his might. His straining muscles soon felt like needles were being jabbed into them, but he ignored the pain and kept pushing. He detected a slight give. Sweat poured down his face and into his eyes, his face reddened, his arms screamed in protest, and still he refused to quit. When he was certain that he had reached the end of his endurance, the wagon jolted forward. Suddenly, he felt himself falling sideways and scrambled to catch his balance, only to find that his feet wouldn’t move. In desperation, he threw his arms out in front of him just as he fell face first into the mire.
Scott raised his head and tried to spit the grit from his mouth, then awkwardly rose to his knees. He swiped a hand across his face as he attempted to clean some of the muck from his eyes, but managed to accomplish nothing more than to smear it around.
“Ha, ha, ha-ha, ha.”
The mud-covered man turned his face upward. “Do you suppose you could stop laughing long enough to give me a hand up?”
“Sh-sure . . .B-Boss . . . ha-ha,” Red choked out.
After a few more guffaws from the cowboy, a hand grasped the muddy young man by the wrist and hauled him to his feet. Scott lifted his slicker and fished a handkerchief out of his pants pocket. When he finally had cleared his eyes well enough to see, he glowered at the grinning cowhand. “I take it that you are finding this rather amusing.”
Red wrapped his arms across his stomach and bent over, his whole body shaking. When Scott continued to glare at him, he gasped, “Can’t . . . h-help it . . . La-Lancer.” He hiccuped and held his middle a little more tightly. “Y-ya . . . remind me. . . of . . . Gra . . .Gramma’s p-pigs.”
“I do, do I?” Scott demanded indignantly. When the Johnson boy barely managed a nod between his peels of mirth, he scowled at the red-haired man. Once again, he was reminded of another young man with dark hair and blue eyes. He presumed that Johnny would have found the situation funny as well. ‘I suppose I do look rather ridiculous, at that,’ he thought, grudgingly. He sighed softly and let his mouth relax into a slight smile, and then bowed slightly as he brought his right hand in front of him and then made a sweeping motion out to the side. “Shall we go? If you can manage to walk, that is.”
The cowboy, finally getting himself under control, stood up straight and started to take a step. Scott brought his right foot out to the side and hooked the other man’s ankle, while placing the palm of his right hand on Red’s back. With a backward pull of his foot and a slight push with his hand, he sent his companion sprawling into the muck.
“Ah . . . what’d ya . . . go an’ . . . do that for?” the cowboy spluttered as he rose from the mud.
“Red.Surely you can’t think that I tripped you.” Scott, the perfect picture of innocence, stretched his arm out toward his companion. “Here, let me help you.”
The Johnson boy warily eyed his boss, then said, “Much obliged.” He reached up and clasped the offered hand and then without warning gave a quick tug. Young Lancer staggered forward, slipped, and landed next to Red in the mire. The hoots that burst from the cowboy were infectious and soon Scott joined in the laughter.
“If you BOYS are finished PLAYING in the mud, would you mind getting back to the herd.”
At the booming voice of Murdoch Lancer, both of the young men scrambled to their feet. Scott looked downward for a moment; then he took a deep breath, raised his head up as he straightened to his full height, and met his father’s gaze. He started to make a flippant remark, but something in the other man’s eyes held him back. ‘I do believe he’s amused, but then we must be quite a sight to behold. I’d wager that if he’d let himself go, he’d be laughing as hard as Red.’
Scott’s mouth softened into a slight grin. “We were just about to do that, Sir.” He glanced sideways at the mud-clad figure beside him. “Weren’t we, Red.”
“You better go back to that stream we just crossed and clean up a little. Those steers get a glimpse of the two of you, they’ll high tail it clear to Mexico.” Murdoch shifted his eyes away from his son and seemed to have trouble retaining an even tone of voice.
“We’ll do that, Sir,” Scott’s eye brows puckered as he studied his father a moment before following Red toward their horses that were tied to a tree a short distance away. He glanced back once and thought he saw his father’s shoulders shaking.‘ Maybe, he’s not as stern as he appears to be. Grandfather would never have taken it so lightly.’
Memories of Harlan Garrett crowded into the young man’s thoughts. He saw himself as an eight year old boy, standing in the foyer of grandfather’s stately home in Boston. His shoes were caked with mud and his Sunday suit was covered with brown splatters. “Scott Garrett Lancer! Explain yourself at once!” He could still hear the sharp voice addressing him by his full name, only used in times of extreme displeasure. The ensuing reprimand, long and far from pleasant, had left a deep impression on his young mind. It was the last time he had ever allowed himself to play with pure abandon. From then on, he had tried very hard to be the faultless gentleman that his grandfather expected him to be.
Red’s horse snorted and sidestepped as the man tried to loosen the reins from the tree limb. “Boss, your pa’s right about ya scarin’ them steers plum out a the country; just look what yer doin’ to my horse.”
Scott looked the mud-splattered cowboy up and down, then smiled. “You’re no prize, Red. Perhaps, the horse thinks that you are one of your grandmother’s pigs.”
The two mud-clad figures continued to banter with each other as they freed their mounts and led them to the creek. Upon their arrival, a bright shaft of light streamed through a break in the clouds as for the first time in two days the sun showed its face. Scott stopped and let his eyes feast on the landscape that was covered with raindrops, sparkling like diamonds.
“Shore is pretty, ain’t it.”
Scott glanced at the redheaded cowboy by his side then back out at the shimmering countryside. “Yes.It certainly is that. Perhaps, it will stop raining now.”
“Shore hope so. Your pa’s gotta have them steers delivered in three days an’ the Tuolumne River’s ‘tween here’n there. If it rises too much, we’ll have ta wait’ll it goes down or go miles outta the way to an easier crossin’.”
Scott frowned slightly as he pondered this bit of information.“ How much farther is it to the river?”
“Oh . . . should make it by noon tomorrow. Long’s the wagons don’t get stuck in the mud again or worse. We got a big meadow ‘bout three miles south a here; it can get a little soft in places. Then, we climb out an’ follow a ridge most the way to the river.It’s gets mighty narrow in one spot; real easy for a wagon ta slip off the side if the driver ain’t careful,” Red confided.
The two men tied their horses to a bush, walked down to the creek bank, and proceeded to clean up as best they could, then they retrieved their mounts and headed for the herd. On the way, Scott paid scant attention to his conversation with Red. Instead, his thoughts were on the upcoming river crossing and his father’s unexpected reaction at finding his son wallowing in the mud. Once again, his hopes rose that in time Murdoch and he would develop more than just a business relationship.
From the top of a knoll on the side of the long narrow valley, Murdoch watched the herd of cattle that was spread out for a mile or more. The pace was slow and the steers were allowed to graze as they went. There was no use in pushing to cover more ground; the chuck wagon was two miles behind as it was and he’d be lucky if it traveled five miles before darkness settled in.
The rancher let out a weary sigh as a shaft of sunlight brightened the scene before him. To the west he could see that the patch of blue sky was increasing in size. ‘Just might clear up. Sure could use some dry weather with that river crossing coming up. About time for things to go right for a change,’ he thought as he recalled the past two days of frustration with the slow progress of the wagons and constant straying of the cattle.
The wagons had been the main hindrance to the drive’s progress. The trail leading down from the mesa they crossed the day before had been treacherous. While traversing a rockier stretch, a wheel on one of the wagons had dropped into a crevice. It had taken more than two hours and the help of six men to get it moving again. When they had finally reached the bottom and headed for the far side of a small meadow, the other wagon had become mired down in a stream. That had resulted in another hour of delay. This morning, the chuck wagon had broken a wheel. It had taken an hour to get the spare wheel mounted and the wagon rolling again only to have the wagon get stuck in the mud on two occasions.
The steady drizzle of moisture had made for uncomfortable travel for the cattle as well as the men. The steers had soon tired of being faced into the driving rain and had sought protection wherever it presented itself. Every side draw or clump of trees had to be watched closely to keep the animals from veering off into them in their search for shelter. Wet grass and rocks, as well as areas of mud, made for slippery footing. The drovers were forced to slow down and use caution in going after the strays.
The drag riders had suffered the brunt of the unpleasant conditions. The passage of five hundred steers ahead of them churned the damp ground into mud, which constantly splattered the men and their horses.
A faint smile softened the haggard man’s face as a sense of pride welled up inside of him. Scott had accepted the unpleasant conditions of the drive without complaint. Murdoch was sure that his son had to be missing the comforts that he had become accustomed to in Boston: eating elegant meals that were served on fine china, taking a daily hot bath, wearing clean clothes, and sleeping in a dry, comfortable bed.
The corners of Murdoch’s mouth twitched and his grin widened. A soft chuckle rumbled in his chest at the memory of seeing Scott and the young cowboy wallowing in the mud. His first inclination had been to reprimand the two for wasting time; but when he had ridden up close to them his mind had played tricks on him.Instead of two grown men, he had seen two small boys: one fair and the other dark. Realizing that he was witnessing a side of his son that he had missed because of their years of separation, he had not had the heart to spoil the young man’s fun. The drive had been hard and it had been good to see him laughing. ‘Bet Garrett would have had a fit at seeing his grandson in such an undignified position. Scott’s too serious–his manners faultless. I wonder just how strict Harlan was with him. It’s too bad Johnny and he couldn’t have grown up together.’
Two riders approaching the rear of the herd of cattle caught the rancher’s attention and brought him out of his musings. He held his horse still while he watched Scott and Red once again take over the job of riding drag. For a few minutes, Murdoch let himself dream of the future: riding, working, and sharing life with his sons.
Scott wearily stripped the saddle and the bridle from his mount, and then rubbed the horse down as best he could before turning it loose inside of the rope corral. As he started to follow Red in the direction of the campsite, more riders arrived at the remuda. Noticing that his father was in the group, he hesitated before going on. Something in the manner in which Murdoch had dismounted nagged at him, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was.
“Yer pa looks a mite tired.”
“What?” Scott cast a puzzled look at Red. Then as the other man’s words penetrated, his expression turned more thoughtful. “Uh. Yes. He does at that.”
“Reckon he’s still havin’ some trouble with that leg a his. Way I heard it, yer pa’s lucky ta be alive, back shot like he was. Good thing some of his men got to Morro Coyo when they did. Pardee might a finished him off like he done O’Brien.”
A prickly sensation went up Scott’s spine at the thought of how easily he could have lost his father without ever having met him. “How much do you know about what happened?” he queried.
Red sadly shook his head. “Bad deal, that. Real bad. I heard that a couple a men rode right into Lancer and stole yer pa’s best palomino stallion. . . right outta the barn. They holed up in Morro Coyo an’ ambushed yer pa an’ O’Brien when they come lookin’ fer the horse.”
“That’s what I heard.” Scott frowned slightly. “What I can’t figure out is why my father didn’t take more men with him. I know that most of the vaqueros were working away from the ranch headquarters at the time and that Murdoch had just returned from driving three thousand steers to the stockyards at Sacramento. Cipriano also told me that O’Brien and my father had only been home about an hour when the horse was stolen, but he wouldn’t say why my father only took one man with him.”
“Don’t guess he figured he’d need no help. There was only two men that took the horse. Hadn’t been no trouble ‘round here fer a couple a years. Had no reason ta believe they was bein’ suckered into an ambush. Pardee didn’t start raidin’ the area around the Lancer ranch ‘til this spring.” Red picked up a cup at the chuck wagon and walked toward the campfire. Scott was close behind him.
“Cipriano told me that, too, but it still seems to me that he should have taken more men with him.” Scott poured Red and himself some coffee from the pot on the fire. “Ooh. Whew.” He blinked his eyes as he quickly pulled the cup away from his lips.
“Hot, huh?” Red grinned.
“Very.”Scott cautiously took another sip. “Now, what was I saying?”
“Ya was wonderin’ why yer pa didn’t take more help.” Red took a quick swallow of the hot liquid and continued before Scott could get a word in. “Reckon yer pa figured him an’ O’Brien could handle two horse thieves. Gramps told me that one time six men tried ta rob yer pa of the money he picked up in town fer payin’ his men. Jest him and O’Brien. Two a those men never lived ta tell about it. Couple more was bad wounded an’ one of ‘em died next day. The other two give ‘emselves up. Yep, yer pa ain’t nobody ta go crossin’ . . . that’s sure.”
After taking another drink of his hot liquid and turning his back toward the fire, Scott said, “Your grandfather seems to know a lot about my father. Has he lived in this area long?’
“Yep.Got here ‘bout a year afore yer pa did. My pa told me about visitin’ yer pa’s place right after he bought it. Guess Ma took to Mrs. Lancer right off.”
Scott’s interest instantly perked up. “Your mother knew mine?”
“Yep.They was right friendly with one another. Guess Ma missed yer mama somethin’ awful when she left. Weren’t many white women ‘round back then. Yer pa shore took it hard when she died and yer grandpa took ya back east. Didn’t really get over it, ‘til he married that Mexican gal.” When Scott remained silent, the cowboy added, “Yer pa shore was glad ta hear ya was comin’ out here.”
Scott glanced sideways at the other man. He sucked in a breath and swallowed. The words that Teresa had spoken on the way to Lancer the day he had arrived from Boston came to mind. ‘What he won’t tell you is how much your coming here means to him.’ Although he didn’t believe the girl would lie to him, he hadn’t been all that convinced that what she said was true. She could have been mistaken. Now Red was telling him the same thing. “How would you know that?”
Red drank some more of his coffee and smacked his lips. “Was written all over his face. Gramps an’ me was comin’ out ta see him. Stopped in town ta pick up his mail fer him. The telegraph agent come in lookin’ fer someone ta deliver a wire to him, so Gramps said he would. Should a seen yer pa smile when he read it. Was grinnin’ from ear ta ear. Even laughed a little. Gramps asked ‘im if it was good news. He said, ‘Henry, my boy’s comin’ home. . . all the way from Boston. Be here in about a week.”
Before Scott could quiz the cowhand further, more men arrived and gathered around the campfire. Again he felt a twinge of concern as he watched his father limp toward them and he wondered just how badly Murdoch’s leg was bothering him. After all, the man had been walking with the aid of a cane just a couple of weeks before they had left on the drive.
A new set of feelings plagued him as he observed his father. ‘How is it that I never noticed before how hard this trip has been on him? Yet, he never lets on. He rides all day and still takes his turn at night riding right along with the rest of the men. He’s considerably older than anyone else is here. He shouldn’t have to be doing this. I wonder how old he is. He has to be at least fifty, but I suppose he could be approaching sixty. I think grandfather said that Murdoch was several years older than my mother was.’
“Hey, how about a song, Boys?” Dave’s booming voice momentarily put a halt to Scott’s thoughts. The cowhand pulled a battered harmonica out of his shirt pocket. He blew into it a few times to clear the air passages, then wiped it on his shirtsleeve. He slid it back and forth between his lips as he ran the full scale up and down of the tones that it would produce. Appearing satisfied the instrument was ready, he started to play a lively tune and it wasn’t long before the men were singing along.
When the song ended, the men begged for more. Dave pulled at his mustache, rolled his eyes, and then looked over at the redheaded cowboy. “Hey, Red. How ‘bout doin’ one a them songs you’re always singin’ to the steers when we’re ridin’ night herd.”
Red’s tanned face turned a bit red. He looked down and scuffed the ground with the toe of his boot. “Awe, they ain’t nothin’. Can’t even remember ‘em the next day.”
“Come on, Red. If ya can’t remember one, then make up somethin’,” Dave said.
Soon the rest of the men were also begging the young cowboy to favor them with one of his songs. Red, in exasperation, finally gave in. He let his eyes rove around the camp a minute then took a deep breath and started to sing in a melodious baritone voice.
“Come, all you young cow hands, I’ll sing you a tune
Keep your heads low, cook’s waving that spoon,
He’s heard you observin’ he’s fussy and slow,
While we’re punchin’ cattle, he’s punchin’ dough.”
When Red finished the last line, the men closest to Red slapped him on the back while Scott and the rest of the cowhands voiced their approval. After a little more coaxing, the young singer began a new verse.
“Now I reckon your stomach’d get a might bit upset,
If it wa’n’t for the cook that don’t never forget,
Ta cook up them beans, and biscuits and brew,
You’d best watch your manners, with a hearty thank you.”
The cook briskly stirred the stew simmering in the pot suspended over the fire. Despite the glare the man cast in Red’s direction, Scott noticed that his foot had been keeping time to the cadence of the tune. The singer, undaunted by the threatening look in Cooky’s eyes went right on with his song.
“When we’re cuttin’ the stock, he’s cuttin’ a steak,
When we’re wranglin’ the hosses, he’s wranglin’ a cake.
When we’re hazin’ them dogies and battin’ our eyes,
He’s hazin’ dried apples that aim to be pies.”
Red grinned self-consciously as the cowboys howled and clapped their delight. After watching the cook, who had stomped away in the middle of the stanza, slam a few dishes around; he started a new verse.
“In the old days the drovers took just what they got
It was sow-belly, beans, and the old coffee pot;
But now we come howlin’ for pies and for cakes,
And then cuss at the cook for our good bellyaches.”
Scott glanced at his father who was standing a little apart from the rest of the men. When their eyes met, a strange sensation settled over him and he found himself smiling as he quickly looked away. There was a warmth in Murdoch’s expression that the younger man had observed only once since his arrival at the Lancer ranch.
“When you look at his apron, you’re readin’ his brand
Them stains is proof of that buzzard’s last stand,
In his pot you won’t find nothin’ fancy like duck,
So line up, you drovers, and wrangle your chuck.”
While Red continued singing, Scott’s mind flashed back to a night not long after his brother had been wounded in the battle with Day Pardee. Murdoch had been sitting at Johnny’s bedside and hadn’t been aware that his older son was watching him from the doorway. He remembered how the tenderness he had witnessed in the older man’s face had given him hope that one day his father might care for him as well.
The clapping of hands and stomping of feet as Red continued to sing brought Scott’s mind back to the present. He even found himself joining in by the end of the song.
“No use to your snortin’ and frettin’ no how,
Cook’s got it all handled, now eat up your chow,
Tip your hat to the cook, ‘less you aim to chew crow,
While we’re punchin’ cattle, he’s punchin’ dough.”
After voicing his appreciation for Red’s song, Scott stepped away from the noisy cowhands and edged closer to his father. He watched the men as they bantered the red-haired man, then he shifted to look the older Lancer in the eye. “He’s very good, isn’t he?”
Murdoch, a slight smile playing across his lips, nodded. “Yes, he is. Gets it from his mother. She had a beautiful voice and could turn any situation into a song.” He shifted his gaze to the men around the campfire.
Scott silently stood next to his father for a few minutes before breaking into the other man’s thoughts. “Red told me that his mother knew mine. Did they know each other well?”
The older man turned his attention back to his son. His jaw tensed a little then relaxed as he sighed softly. “As well as could be. We didn’t get a chance to visit with the Johnson’s all that often. It’s a two hour ride to their place by horse; a good half day by buggy, even under the best of conditions.”
When Murdoch became silent again, Scott gathered his nerve to press for more information about his mother. ‘I wonder why he hasn’t told me anything about her . . . other than that I have her eyes. Does he think grandfather’s told me everything, or is there another reason? Perhaps, their stories wouldn’t agree. Grandfather only tells me what he wants me to hear; I do know that. Sometimes I wonder how much of what he has told me is true.’
The drovers became more boisterous as they joined together in singing their favorite trail songs. Scott, noticed that his father seemed to be oblivious to it, stated a bit wistfully, “It’s too bad that Red’s mother isn’t still living. I would have liked to talk to her.”
Murdoch’s expression appeared apprehensive when he glanced at his son. Scott wondered why that should be. What could the woman have told him that his father would not want him to learn? Uncertainty gripped him and he decided that now wasn’t the time to discuss his mother.
However, Scott didn’t want the conversation with his father to end. They had said far too little to each other in the last few days. Deciding that it would be best to find something less personal to talk about, he broached the subject of the next day’s drive.
“Tell me you cowboys, why do we drove,
Through the rain and the muck and the sleet and the snow?
Them cattle smell worse than vermin contend,
But we keep on drovin’ till we reach the trail’s end.”
The two Lancer men paused in their discussion of the cattle and the trail ahead to listen to Red as he began a new song. The cowboy’s rich, compelling voice made it difficult to do otherwise. As they stood side by side, Murdoch sneaked a peek at the relaxed form next to him. He drew in a deep breath as he was overcome with the same sensation he’d felt on several occasions during the last three weeks. ‘My son. After all these years, I finally have my son. And he looks as happy as he did that day twenty years ago in Boston. He’s going to fit in fine here. Just fine.’
For the first time since the drive had begun, the rancher was content. The rain had stopped in the early afternoon and now there wasn’t a cloud in the sky; a good indication that the storm had ended and dry weather would prevail until the drive was over. He was also pleased that Scott had sought him out and shown an interest in what lay in store for the next day’s travel. At last, he had hopes that the tension between them had ended.
The rancher sighed softly. The subject of his son’s mother had made him uneasy and he was relieved that it had not been pursued. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to talk about his first wife; he just wanted to avoid discussing his reasons for leaving Scott in Boston. His explanation was bound to disagree with whatever Harlan Garrett would have said about the matter. Now that the young man was talking to him again, Murdoch didn’t want to risk another conflict by delving into the past with all of its disappointments and hurts.
Lost in his thoughts, Murdoch paid little heed to the words Red was singing.
“We choke down the dirt, an’ it sure is a pain,
But it ain’t nearly as bad as the wind and the rain.
The dirt and the water, into muck they do blend
But we keep on drovin’ until we reach the trail’s end.”
The rowdy drovers brought the rancher’s thoughts back to the present and he couldn’t help but chuckle at their antics. He ventured a quick look at his son and noticed that Scott was enjoying the entertainment as well.
Murdoch Lancer’s insides constricted as for a brief moment a memory from the past surfaced in his mind. He could still see her: young and beautiful with her warm, sensitive eyes lit up with joy as she told him of the impending arrival of their first child. She had teasingly informed him that there would be many more, an even dozen of strong and healthy children to fill their home with laughter and make life easier for them in their old age. Only that dream was never meant to be: it had ended with the birth of their, one and only son. ‘‘Catherine, he’s such a fine young man. You’d have been so proud of him. If only you could have lived . . . even a little while longer. How different everything would have been.’
With great effort, Murdoch forced the disturbing thoughts aside and once again focused on the singing. Red appeared to have gotten over his shyness of earlier and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the effect his song was having on the other men. The cowboy joined in the laughter, then looked around and waved at the younger Lancer. “Hey, Scott. Listen ta this’n.”
“The mornin’ we spend, knee-deep in mud,
Just cussin’ and bemoanin’ the unwanted flood.
The dust ‘twernt that bad, not if’n you bend,
But we keep on drovin’ till we reach the trail’s end.”
When the verse was over, Scott clapped his hands, looked sideways at his father, and smiled. Murdoch felt a catch in his throat when their eyes met. His mind flashed back to a five-year-old boy grinning up at him as they shook hands. Struggling to keep his composure, the rancher quickly shifted his gaze back to the men around the campfire and was thankful that the Johnson boy was singing again.
“The smell of our sweat, ain’t very sweet,
And there’s nuthin’ appealin’ ’bout the tailend of beef
It ain’t that pleasant, no need to pretend,
And we keep on drovin’ ’till we reach the trail’s end.”
Once again, Red called to Murdoch’s son. “Scott, this next one’s just fer you.” He shushed up the other men, then started in.
“A dip in the creek can cost you your shoe,
Scott, check yer cinch good, watch that first bite of stew
A greenhorn’s for hazin’, on that you can depend,
But we keep on drovin’ ’till we reach the trail’s end.”
When the singing cowhand paused, the camp resounded with a loud round of applause. After it finally subsided, Red looked at Murdoch and his face lit up with a wide grin. “Boss. Got one fer you, too. Hope ya don’t take no ‘fense.” He stood a little straighter and slowed the tempo as he drawled out the next verse.
“The Boss he don’t smile much, why I don’t know.
There’s no harm done by the cowboy’s antics and so,
I guess it’s his wallet he’s gotta defend,
But we keep on drovin’ ’till we reach the trail’s end.
The rancher’s deep-throated laugh was drowned out by the whoops of the men around the campfire. He looked over at Scott and noticed that the his face was glowing with pleasure. Murdoch couldn’t remember seeing his son so at ease before. ‘Maybe, it wasn’t such a bad idea to bring him after all. He seems to get along well with the men.’
When silence once more prevailed, Red continued at a slower tempo while his voice gradually grew softer until it faded away.
“The day it’s been long, but it’s all done
Now we sit by the camp fire, all tuckered and worn.”
Then he slowly sped up the beat as he increased the volume to finish the phrase fast and loud.
“Rise in the morn’, in the saddle we’ll spend,
But we keep on drovin’ ’till we reach the trail’s end.”
The clang of the cook’s metal triangle interrupted the whooping and backslapping that was going on around the fire. “Come an’ get it ‘fore I throw it out,” Cooky rasped loudly.
The cowboys rushed forward, pushing and crowding each other as each man attempted to secure the first place in line. Scott chuckled, then turned his head toward his father. “It’s good to see the men in such good humor again, isn’t it, Sir.”
“Yes, it is,” Murdoch said with a pleased expression on his face. “It’s been a long two days. Certainly will be nice to have a hot meal again.”
The two Lancers talked companionably for a while longer. When most of the men had returned to the campfire with their food, Murdoch lightly touched his son’s elbow. “Looks like we’d better get over there before those boys scrape the pot clean.”
“I believe you’re right, Sir. I certainly don’t want to miss out on that stew.” Scott continued to speak as he moved toward the chuckwagon. “Also, I saw Cooky making biscuits when Red and I arrived . . . and you know how quickly they disappear.”
“Yes, they certainly do go fast.” Murdoch, favoring his leg a little as he followed his son, tried to hide his discomfort when Scott looked back. He still wasn’t over the effects of having been shot in the back the previous fall and the long hours in the saddle were beginning to take their toll. However, he didn’t intend to let the younger man know this. Both of his boys had tried to talk him out of going on the drive and he wasn’t about to hear “I told you so.”
The pleasant evening passed far too quickly for Murdoch Lancer and he soon found himself sitting alone by the campfire. Scott had gone to bed right after supper in order to get a few hours of sleep before he had to go on night-herd duty. With the need to get the steers out on the trail by daylight, the rest of the men had also turned in early.