Stranded in Dos Dedos by Desert Sun

Word count 14,756

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Note from Author:

The following story was written in response to the Bingo Challenge of 2012 as part of the Amnesty Challenge of January 2013 at the Lancer_Writers group on Yahoo.  The line I chose contained the following words: Cantina, stranded, decision, lies, and scar.

Other than Dos Dedos (which is Spanish for two fingers), the places in this story are real places and all (excepting possibly Penvir) were in existence in 1872.  The location I chose for Dos Dedos is real.  There is a real river named Arroyo Seco.  A satellite view of it shows it as a dry river bed on the edge of the Salinas Valley,  and it does appear to separate into two “fingers” where it meets the bank of the Salinas River across from the town of Soledad, which was named for the mission listed in this story.

The Estrella Ranch near Paso Robles is a horse ranch that is in existence today.  However, there may or may not have been one by that name in 1872.  All other ranches named were real places at that time in the areas stated, although the implied locations of their headquarters or boundaries are purely fictional.

The information given about the Butterfield and Overland Stage Company are all based on facts.  However, I could find nothing about who ran the stage lines through the Salinas Valley after they left so that part is of my making.  Also all information about the Southern Pacific Railroad is based on fact.  Passenger trains did indeed begin running between Salinas and San Francisco on November 1, 1872.  Tracks were laid to Gonzales (north of Soledad) by the end of 1872 and were used mainly for freight train use for a few years after that.

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Chapter 1

One week to make the round trip from Salinas, California to the Estrella Ranch hadn’t seemed out of the question at the time.  Although it was late October, the weather had been dry for months.  The last stage had easily travelled the ninety some miles to Paso Robles in a day and a half.  That would allow half a day to get to the ranch and a couple of days to look over their prized colts, which would put the Lancer brothers on the Tuesday stage headed north.   There was no reason for them to believe that they couldn’t get back before the Southern Pacific train left on its maiden run from the Salinas depot to San Francisco at noon on Friday.

All went as expected for the first three days.  The brothers arrived at the Estralla Ranch late in the afternoon on Saturday, the twenty-sixth of October in 1872.  By noon on Monday, they had picked out a couple of promising weanling colts that would be delivered to the Lancer Ranch the following June.  They arrived at the hotel in Paso Robles by supper, and the only hint of change they noticed was the clouds gathering on the western horizon just before dark.

During the night, Johnny Lancer awoke to the sound of rain drumming on the roof of the hotel.  It was still raining the next morning.   The northbound stage was late getting in and left the depot at two in the afternoon, an hour behind schedule.  It arrived at the Rancho San Bernardo way station after dark and set out from there shortly after daylight on Wednesday.

The rain kept up a steady drizzle, yet the stagecoach slogged on, swaying as the wheels followed the mucky ruts in the road.  Johnny sat sideways in the rear seat of the coach.  His back rested against one sidewall while his legs stretched out so the soles of his boots were braced against the other wall.  His brother sat across from him, feet on the floor, head bobbing with the motion of the coach.  They were the only passengers.

Late that afternoon, Johnny looked at his pocket watch.  Four o’clock.  They were supposed to have been almost to Salinas.  Instead they hadn’t even reached the relay station at Dos Dedos, which was a couple of miles south of the Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad on the west side of the Salinas River.  According to Ike Jennings, their driver, the Butterfield Overland Stage Line Company had built the station several years before the beginnings of the town of Soledad had sprung up across the river.  Butterfield had gotten into financial troubles and had sold the line to a smaller company based out of San Luis Abispo in 1868.  That stop was supposed to be for a change of horses, only.  At the pace they were traveling and with another thirty miles to go, those plans were bound to be changed.

Drowsiness tugged at Johnny’s eyelids.  He struggled to keep them open, but the rocking of the coach lulled him, begging him to let go and drift off to sleep.  Finally, he tipped his hat down over his eyes and gave up the fight.

In Johnny’s dream, the coach tipped sideways and lurched forward, tossing him against the back of the seat.  He heard an “umph” as something fell against him, startling him awake to a gouging in his side and a strong grip on his arm.

Johnny’s eyes flew open.  All he could see was a tan wall.  He thought it was his hat until it moved farther away as the pressure on his arm increased.  When he could see more clearly, he realized it was his brother’s jacket.

“Sorry,” Scott Lancer said, letting loose of Johnny’s arm and falling backward onto the seat behind him.  He had barely righted himself when the coach lurched again.

Something cracked loudly.  The front of the coach tipped crazily to the left and the back end bucked, throwing Johnny toward the opposite corner.  He slammed into his brother who had tipped headfirst into the same corner.

The coach teetered and came to a grinding halt.

Johnny, knees on the floor, lay draped over Scott.  He pushed himself away and sat on his heels.  “You okay?”

Scott squirmed into a sitting position in the low corner of the coach.  “I think so.”  He pulled his squashed hat out of the corner and popped it back into shape.

Footsteps sucked through mud.  The slicker-hooded head of the coach driver appeared in the window beside Scott.   “You all right in there?”

“We’re all right,” Scott replied, settling his hat squarely on his head.  “What happened?”  He straightened the sleeves on his jacket while continuing to watch Jennings’ face.

 “Slid into a rock and broke the axle.  Looks like we’ll be ridin’ the team the rest the way, unless you want to wait here, which you prob’bly won’t wanna do seein’ how the next coach ain’t due through for three days.  ‘Sides there ain’t nothin’ here to eat, and the only place to fill your canteen is the Salinas River which, if it’s runnin’ by now’ll be muddy as all get out.”

As Jennings rambled on with barely time to take a breath now and then, Johnny wondered if the man would ever shut up long enough for them to get a word in.

Finally Jennings quit talking, and Scott jumped in with a hastily said, “We’ll take that ride, if you’ll open the door and let us out.”

“Have it open in a jiffy,” Jennings said.  Even after his head moved out of sight, his voice chattered on like a gabby magpie.

A moment later, the door swung open and Jennings stepped into view again.   “Best grab a slicker from under the seat,” he said, pointing toward the bottom of the rear seat.  He immediately started into a detailed explanation of how to get into the compartment.

While Jennings rattled on, Johnny retrieved his hat off the floor behind him, fished the slickers from beneath the seat, and handed one to Scott.  Quickly they slipped them over their heads, picked up their canteens, and climbed out. 

The brothers sloshed through the mud to help unhitch the team.  They left the harnesses on the horses so they could be taken care of at the relay station.  The long sections of the reins were unbuckled and wrapped around the hames on each of the horses.  This left each rider with the short front sections to use for bridle reins.

 “Want your bags,” Jim Hill, the shotgun rider asked when they were about ready to mount up.

“Long as the horses won’t object,” Johnny replied.  He was also wondering how willing they were going to be about packing a rider.

 “No need to worry about that.  Company likes its horses broke to ride and pack a load,” Jennings said.  He kept right on gabbing while Hill retrieved the mail pouch and the pieces of luggage from beneath the canvas on the top of the coach.

“Here you be,” Hill said, handing down their bags.

Johnny and Scott loosened one end of their long reins and tied the handles of their bags so that they were secured snuggly against their horses’ collars.  Since there were two more horses than there were riders, Jennings and Hill each led one of the extra horses.

A steady rain pelted them as they rode north.  The horses plodded along, their big feet slipping and sliding and splattering mud onto the riders.   Johnny was glad the slicker was large enough to drape over his horse’s shoulders and rump.  Otherwise he was sure his seat would have been wet by the time they finally reached the relay station as darkness was setting in.

Dos Dedos overlooked the fork in the road a short ways from where the Arroyo Seco River split into two short fingers at the edge of the Salinas River.  When the Lancer brothers had come through five days earlier on their way to Paso Robles, the Arroyo Seco had been nothing more than a ribbon of gravel.  The Salinas had also been dry.  Now both had a flow of muddy water from the steady rain of the past two days.

The relay station was on the upper side of the road.  It consisted of a large corral and an adobe stable with an attached room on one side that served as sleeping quarters for the two men who took care of the horses for the stage line.  An outhouse stood a short distance away.  Across the road sat the only other building in Dos Dedos, a cantina where the workers or weary travelers of the stage line could get food and drink without having to go to the small settlement of Soledad that was nearly two miles away on the far side of the Salinas River.

As they approached the barn, the side door opened and a man stepped into the doorway.   “Where’s the coach?” he asked, when Jennings and Hill halted their horses in front of him.

“Back about three miles,” Jennings replied.  “We ran into a rock and broke the front axle.  Don’t s’pose there’s a spare one here, by any chance.  If not, we’ll be stuck here a few days ‘till the next stage comes through so I can send for one.  Ain’t a smithy between here an’ there that I know of.”

Johnny glanced over at his brother and rolled his eyes.  Here they were sitting in the rain and long-winded Jennings had to take forever answering a simple question.

The man in the doorway turned and hollered into the barn.  “Hey, Dan.  Ike’s coach busted a front axle.  We still got a spare one?”

A moment later, a muffled voice from inside the stable said, “Nope.  Jigs needed that a couple weeks ago.  Another ain’t arrove from Salinas, yet.”

“Just my luck,” Jennings said.  He mumbled to himself as he slid off his horse and led the way into the corral.

The men inside the barn met them at the sliding doors and helped them get the team tethered inside the tie stalls.  “We’ll get the harnesses off and tend the hosses,” said the man who Johnny assumed was named Dan.  “Ya’ll could prob’ly do with a drink.  Jose’ll be more’n glad to oblige.  Me an’ Zach here bein’ the onlyest  folks he’s seen the last couple o’ days.”

“Jose?” Scott asked.

“Over to the cantiner ‘cross the way.  Might be he can fix yuh up with a room, too, if’n yuh don’t mind sharin’.”

 “All of us?”  Johnny waved a hand around at his brother and the two men from the coach. 

“No, just the two of you,” Hill said.  “There’s an extra set of bunks over here for me an’ Ike.”

Johnny let his breath out long and slow.  “Well, Brother,” he said, turning toward Scott, “shall we see if we can wrangle ourselves a bed and a meal along with those drinks?”

Scott bent an elbow, swept his arm in toward his belt buckle, and bowed.  Straightening he said, “That we shall, Little Brother, and I for one plan to have a hot bath, as well.”

“Even if you have to heat the water yourself?”  Johnny flashed his teeth at his brother.

Scott smiled back and nodded.  “Even if I have to heat the water myself.”

Johnny chuckled as he reached down and picked up his plain leather valise.   “Lead the way, Brother,” he said with a wave of his bag.

Scott picked up his more colorful carpet bag and went to the side entrance.  After opening the door, he stopped, pulled the hood of his slicker up and onto his head, and stepped outside.  Johnny followed closely behind, also pulling up his hood to ward off the steady assault of raindrops that were sure to have him drenched by the time they reached the other side of the road.

They hurried as fast as the slippery mud under foot would allow and stopped under the overhanging roof of the cantina.  There they shed the slickers and shook them free of what water they could before going inside.

Johnny tagged along behind Scott as they entered the dimly lit room.  He closed the door and looked around.  Blankets, woven in colorful patterns that had long since faded, hung over the windows on either side of the door and in the middle of the wall to the right.   Similar blankets, only longer, filled what looked to be doorways, one in the left-hand corner of the wall behind the bar and another in the wall on the far side of the room.  Four round tables, arranged in a half circle in front of the bar, filled the rest of the room.

“Buenos dios, me amigos,” the short, paunchy man behind the bar said.  “A drink for you, no?”

“A drink for us, yes,” Scott said as he walked toward the far wall.  He pulled out a chair at the table that was closest to the bar, slipped the strap of his canteen off over his head and placed it with his carpet bag on the seat.  On top of these, he laid his slicker.  “I’ll have a beer, please.  We would also like a room, a hot bath, and a meal.  It appears we are stranded and shall be spending the night.”

“Si, Senor.”  The bartender picked up a glass mug and filled it to the brim, froth running over the side.  He set it on the bar and looked at Johnny who by now had joined Scott at the table.  “And for you, Senor?”

“Make mine a beer, too,” Johnny said.   He dropped his bag and slicker on the floor, removed his canteen and laid it on the table, and then settled into the chair closest to the wall. 

The bartender brought the drinks and set the glasses in front of them. 

 “To you, Brother,” Johnny said, lifting his glass and holding it out toward Scott.

Scott raised his glass and nodded.  “Likewise, Brother.”

Johnny took a big swig of his beer.  He tipped his head back, closed his eyes, and licked the foam from his lips.

“Tired?” Scott asked.

“Yeah.”  Johnny tipped his head forward and propped his elbows on the table.  He rested his jaw line on the heels of his hands and rubbed both sides of the back of his neck with his fingers.  When he looked up, his brother was watching him.

Scott’s forehead and brows puckered.  “You do realize, don’t you, that we can’t wait here for the next stage?  We made a promise and Murdoch won’t be happy if we miss the train, especially since his senator friend went to all of the trouble to get tickets for the entire family on the Southern Pacific’s first run out of Salinas.”

Johnny blew out through a crack between his lips.  “I know.”  He looked over at the bartender.  “Hey, Jose, that is your name, si?  You know anywhere we can get a couple of horses?”

“Si.  I am Jose.  Jose Santo Reyes.”  Jose rubbed his chin with his finger.  “Caballos es for riding?”

Johnny lowered his hands onto the table and nodded.  “Si.”

Jose shrugged.  “In Soledad?  Es possible, I don’t know.”

“Meanin’ it  ain’t likely, or what?” Johnny asked.

“For plow the farm?  Si, you find.  For pull the wagons?  Si, you find.  To wear the saddle?  Who knows.  Es no mucho caballo.”  Jose said as much through the moving of his hands as he did with his words.

 Johnny frowned.  What would they do if they couldn’t get any horses?

“No use worrying about it now,” Scott said.  “We can’t go anywhere until morning.”

“I s’pose.”  Johnny let out a sigh and took another sip of his beer. 

They finished their beers and asked about the room and the bath.  Jose took them through the blanketed doorway closest to Johnny, down to the far end of the short hallway, and showed them a room with two beds and a small table.   There wasn’t a tub for bathing so they would have to make do with the wash basin and water pitcher that was on the table.

An hour later, the brothers returned to the main room of the cantina to have supper.  Hill and Jennings and the two men from the stage relay station were sitting at the table in the back corner.  Each had a plate of food in front of him.

Johnny nodded to them and joined his brother at the table they had used earlier.

Jose left through the blanketed doorway in the far corner behind the bar.  A few minutes later, he returned with two plates of enchiladas, rice, and refried beans.  He set one in front of each of the Lancer brothers.

“Thank you,” Scott said, receiving a soft “de nada” in return.

Johnny breathed in the pleasing aroma and smiled.  “Gracias.”  He hoped the food tasted as good as it looked and smelled.

“De nada,” Jose again replied. 

After finishing their meal, Scott and Johnny went over to the other table and asked about where they might buy a couple of horses.  They received pretty much the same answer as they had gotten from Jose.  There weren’t many saddle horses around Soledad.  Most of the people in the area were farmers and didn’t have any need for a riding horse.  They had draft animals or mules and any traveling was done by wagon.

“Then there aren’t any ranches around here.” Scott said.

“Not close,” Dan replied.  “There’s a couple on up the Arroyo Seco, but the nearest one’s ten miles away.”

Scott brought his hands together behind his back.  “What about farther up the Salinas River?”

Dan shook his head.  “Not ‘til you reach the main headquarters of Rancho Rincon de la Puente del Monte, three miles this side of Chualar.  That’d be nigh onto fifteen miles from here.  They own all that around Gonzales, but there’s nothing there but the depot for the freight trains that’ll be running now they’re about finished layin’ tracks up that way.  Ain’t nothin’ but the relay station at Prenvir Corner, either.

Johnny’s hopes sank.  He wasn’t looking forward to walking halfway to Salinas even if it was the only way to get there on time.  His boots were great for riding, but they were murder on his feet if he had to walk far in them.

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Chapter 2

Shortly after daylight on the Thursday morning, Johnny and Scott were up, dressed, and eating breakfast at what had now become their usual table.  They still had close to 30 hours to get to the depot in Salinas on time to catch their train.

Scott picked up his coffee cup and wrapped the fingers of his other hand around its rim.   “We can do it if we have to,” he said from his place to the right of his brother.  “It’s not much over thirty miles.  Even if we did have to walk all the way, we should make it there before dark.  That’s figuring a pace of no more than three miles in an hour.   Chances are, though, that we won’t have to walk the entire distance.  Surely we can buy horses someplace along the way.”

Johnny ran his left thumb over the nicks and scratches along the edge of the table.  As he spoke, he followed the length of each one before moving on to the next.  “I know we can do it, Scott.  I’m just sayin’, I hope we don’t have to.”  He lifted his hand and brought his thumb up to his jaw, propped his elbow beside his plate, and looked over at his brother.  “You got any idea how much mud we’ll be packin’ by the time we go ten miles . . . or how wet we’ll be if we can’t buy those slickers off the stage line?”

Scott took a drink of coffee, set his cup on the far side of his plate and arched his brows.  “I never said it would be easy.  I just said we could make it.”

The corners of Johnny’s mouth twitched upward.  “Guess we don’t have a choice, do we?” 

“Oh, we have choice, all right.”  Scott smiled and then sobered.  “However, I think the consequences of that choice would be far worse than anything we’ll encounter if we do have to walk all the way to Salinas.”

Johnny slid his elbow off the table to where his wrist touched the edge and chuckled.  “You got that right.  Murdoch would be fit to be tied.  I’m not sure my ears could take the bawlin’ out we’d get.”

“Not to mention the fist pounding on the table, or on us.”  Scott smiled again.

“You think he’d go that far?”  Johnny’s brows drew together.  “I mean, as to actually hit us?”

Scott scooped up a forkful of scrambled eggs and appeared to study it for a moment.  “No . . . but I think it would be best not to tempt him unnecessarily.”

Johnny silently agreed.  Their father had big hands and plenty of power to go with them.  The thought of one slamming into him made him shudder.  He tapped his fork against his plate.   “So, our decision is to walk if we can’t ride.  Right?”  His eyes searched his brother’s eyes.

Scott tipped his head in a single nod and lifted his forkful of eggs to his mouth.  “Right, which means we had best finish eating and get started.”

A short while later, the brothers left the cantina and went to the stage station.  Although it wasn’t raining at the time, they asked Jennings about the slickers.  He agreed to let them borrow them as long as they left them at one of the relay stations up the line.  He could pick them up once he got his coach running again.

The brothers put on the slickers, leaving the hoods down, looped the straps of their canteens over their left arms and up over their heads, and picked up their bags with their left hands.  They walked along the side of the road where the ground was smoother and headed toward the Salinas River.

Johnny listened to the roar of the river getting louder and louder.  At the edge of the crossing, he stopped and stared.  He hadn’t expected the river to be dry like it had been a few days ago, but he hadn’t expected it to be nearly so deep, either.  “Any ideas on how we’re s’posed to get across that?” he asked, waving a hand at the muddy water rushing by a few inches from the toes of his boots.

 “I suppose we could wade it.”  Scott spoke as though he were reading words as he drew each one out of a hat.

“Wade it!”  Johnny let out a snort and looked over at his brother, who was standing to his left.  “Scott, it could be close to chest high.  Even if we didn’t get knocked off our feet and get our bags wet, we’d be soaked.”

Scott kept looking at the river.  After a few moments, he turned toward Johnny and sighed.  “You’re right.  It was a crazy idea, but we have to get across somehow.”

Johnny chewed at his lower lip.  He leaned forward so he could see beyond his brother, and glanced down their side of the river.  “Maybe we could go up this side.”

“What about the slickers?  In case you’ve forgotten, the relay stations are all on the other side of the river between here and Salinas.”

Johnny shrugged and looked up at Scott.  “Then we leave ‘em at the station in Salinas.”

 Scott turned his head northward.  “We don’t know what we’ll find on this side.  There might not be anyplace to get a meal.”

“There’s supposed to be a ranch up there fifteen miles or so.”

Scott rubbed his cheek with his free hand.  “Maybe we could ride one of the stage horses to the other side.  Surely there’s someplace to leave it in Soledad.”

Johnny shook his head.  “We’d still be wet.  That water could be deeper than it looks.  It might be up to the top of their backs out in the middle.  I’m thinkin’ this crossing bellied out about there.”

Scott swept his right hand across in front of his body.  “Then we go up this side.” 

Johnny didn’t argue.  He simply tagged along behind his brother as Scott followed the road back to Dos Dedos until they came to where it forked.  There they made the slight turn to the right and continued on to the Arroyo Seco River that came out of the western hills south of the relay station and angled northeastward to meet up with the Salinas River across from Soledad.

Scott stopped at the river’s edge.

Johnny came up beside his brother and scowled at the goodly flow of dirty water.  “What do you figure it to be, three foot?  Maybe more?” he asked.

 “At the least.”

 “I wonder if there’d be any place we could change clothes at the mission,” Johnny said, trying to sound hopeful.  Another thought struck him and he frowned.  “Won’t help our feet none, unless we take our boots off and carry ‘em across.”

Scott silently faced the river.

“You got any better idea?” Johnny asked.  If they were going, he wanted to get at it so they would have a chance of getting to Salinas without having to spend the night along the way.

“I could get on your shoulders and you could carry me.”  Scott looked over at Johnny with a hint of a grin and a twinkle in his eyes.  “That way, only one of us would get wet.”

Johnny nodded thoughtfully.  “Not a bad idea, Scott.  Not a bad idea, at all, except you got it all backwards.  You’re the big brother, here.  If anyone gets a ride, it should be me,” he said, adding emphasis to his words with his hands. 

Scott put his hands behind his back and turned more toward Johnny.  “You think so, do you?”

“Yes, I do.”  Johnny brought his bag in front of him, held his wrist with his free hand and gave his brother a big grin.

Scott brought his carpet bag around and held it toward Johnny.  “Here, hold this.”

Johnny unclasped his wrist, took the bag, and watched as Scott leaned over and rolled his pant legs up to just above his knees.  “So, you’re really gunna carry me?” he asked.

“Not on your life,” Scott replied, lifting one foot.  He continued speaking as he took of his boot.  “If I have to wade, so do you.  I’ll not have you blaming me if you get wet.”

“I won’t be the one getting wet,” Johnny said.  He shifted Scott’s bag into the hand that held his own bag and proceeded to unbutton the lower buttons on the right leg of his pants.

Once Scott was barefooted, he took their travel bags.

Johnny finished getting his own pant legs rolled up over his knees and removed his boots and socks.  He reached out and took his bag from Scott.  “I hope that train ride’s worth all this,” he said as he moved one foot forward and eased it onto a tuft of wet grass that tickled the bottom of his foot.

“That goes for me, too,” Scott replied.  “Ouch!”

Johnny looked back at his brother and chuckled.  “Step on something?”

Scott glared at Johnny.  “Now whatever gave you that idea?”

Johnny grinned and faced forward again.  Slowly he worked his way to the edge of the river and waded in.

The murky water stung and sent shivers all the way up to Johnny’s back.  He looked back at Scott and said, “Careful, these rocks could be slippery.”  His left heel slid off the edge of a rock and his last word wobbled as he tipped back and forth trying to keep his balance.

Scott’s hand cupped Johnny’s elbow.  “I can see that.”

Together, they forged ahead.  When they were about a third of the way across, Johnny glanced down.  The water was washing against the lower edge of his knees.  “I hope this don’t get much deeper,” he said turning his head to where he could see his brother.

“Shall we try to roll our pant legs higher?” Scott asked, teetering a little and gripping Johnny’s elbow more firmly.

“Might be a good idea.  Can you hold my bag?”  Johnny held his valise in front of Scott.

Scott took hold of the handle of the offered bag with the same hand he was using to hold his own.  His other hand remained on Johnny’s left elbow.

Johnny untied the leather string at the bottom of his holster, unbuttoned a few more buttons on the sides of his pants , and rolled his pants nearly to the top of his thighs.  When finished, he unbuckled his gun belt, removed it from his waist, and fastened the buckle again.  He slipped it over his shoulder, reached over with his right hand, and took both of their bags from Scott.  “Let loose o’ my arm and I’ll steady you,” he said.

Scott did as told.  Once his hands were free, he leaned forward and grasped one pant leg, one hand on each side, and tugged while twisting his hands.

“Won’t they go up any higher,” Johnny asked with a slight chatter of his teeth.  He wanted to get going before he got any colder.

Scott grunted.  “Not very easily.”  He managed to get a couple of rolls and went to work on the other leg.

Johnny had his eyes fixed on what his brother was doing.  Something in his mind told him to look up stream.  When he did, he saw a dead tree bobbing straight at them.   “Look out!”

Scott’s head came up.

“Don’t just stand there,” Johnny said, giving his brother’s arm a tug.

Scott lurched into Johnny and grabbed him by the side of his slicker.

Johnny teetered and caught his balance.  Still holding onto his brother, he took a step. The bottom wasn’t there.  He bent one knee and stretched the other leg downward.  Finally his foot landed on something solid so he shifted his weight forward and started to take another step.  He felt his foot slide sideways and he tightened his grip on Scott’s arm.

“Johnny!”  Scott’s voice sounded frantic.

Johnny turned his head.  As he opened his mouth, Scott rammed into his side and he sprawled face down into the water.  He hit bottom and came up sputtering, watering running down his face and into his blinking eyes.  He tried to wipe his eyes, but the wet slicker only smeared the water around.

The water raged against the back of his legs.  Wobbling to keep upright, Johnny looked through the mist in his eyes to try to find his brother.  A ways below him, he saw the tree that had overtaken them, its bare limbs rocking as it fled toward the Salinas River.  Scott was nowhere in sight.

“Scott!”  Johnny felt panic rising.

Scott rose out of the water a few feet downstream.   He coughed several times and looked toward Johnny.  “You all right?”

Johnny shivered and nodded.   “I’m okay.”  He felt the weight pulling on his right hand and lifted his arm.  “Still got my bag, too.”

Scott lifted his.  “Likewise.  Shall we continue on?”

Johnny noticed a streak of red that started above his brother’s left eye and ran all the way to his jaw.  Another wave of panic hit him.  How bad was it?   “Sure,” he said, trying to sound calm.  “But let me get to you and we’ll go together.”

The water, now high on Johnny’s thighs, pushed him along.  All the way to his brother’s side, he slipped and teetered like a man on a tight rope.

When Johnny was within reach, Scott grabbed his hand.

Johnny, teeth chattering, stood next to his brother and studied his face.

Scott gave him a questioning look.  “What?” 

“You’re cut.”

“Where?”

Johnny blinked another drop of water out of his eye.  “Your forehead.”

“Does it look bad?”  The words came out in a stutter.  Scott frowned and blinked at the trickle of blood that spilled into his eye.

“Can’t tell without a better look at it.”  The sun peaked from behind a cloud and Johnny squinted.  He looked from one bank of the river to the other.  They weren’t quite halfway across.  All of their clothes were bound to be wet.  “Look, maybe we should go back,” he said, shivering and trying to keep from stuttering.  “Jennings said that mission’s been closed for quite a few years.  We don’t know how far we’ll have to go to find someplace to dry out.”

Scott wobbled a little, his slicker visibly shaking.  “We c-could b-build a fire.” 

“Pfft!  With what?  Wet wood and wet matches?  Use your head, Scott.  You’re pale as a ghost.  You’re bleeding.   I’ll be lucky if you don’t pass out on me before we get out of the river.” Johnny’s jaw trembled as he spoke.

“That bad, huh?”  A smile played at the corners of Scott’s trembling lips.

Johnny gave a weak smile and nodded.  “Yeah, that bad.”

Scott drew in a deep breath and let it out.  With an unsteady voice, he said, “Lead the way, but this shoots any chance of being in Salinas tomorrow.  You do know that, right?”

“Yeah.  I know.  Murdoch’s gunna have our hides for sure.”  Johnny straightened his back and looked Scott in the eye.  With no more control of his jaw than his brother had had, he said, “That’s the game of life, Brother.  Sometimes you win.  Sometimes you lose.  It’s not as if we didn’t try.  Maybe the old man’ll take that into account and decide to show us a little mercy.”

Scott smiled weakly.  “I hope so.  I truly hope so.”  

With a few near mishaps, Johnny helped Scott out of the river and back onto drier ground.  Side by side, in shivering silence, they walked back to the cantina.

After they slipped out of the slickers and gave them a shake, Johnny pushed the door of the cantina open and let Scott go in first.  He followed closely behind.  Water dripped on the floor as they approached the bar. 

Jose looked up and his mouth dropped open.  “Ay!  Ay!” he said, clapping his hands to his cheeks.

“We’ll need that room again,” Johnny said.  He grinned as he followed Scott up to the bar.  “We had a little argument with the river and it won.”

“Si, Senor.  This way, pronto.”  Jose hurried around the end of the bar and pulled back the blanket so the brothers could get through the doorway into the hallway.

At the doorway to their room, Johnny stopped.  “I need water and clean rags to wash that cut on Scott’s face.  And we’ll need to dry our clothes.”

Jose hurried away.  A couple of minutes later, he came back and set a pitcher and washbasin on the small bedside table.  Scott and Johnny were standing in front of one of the beds, and he looked from one to the other.  “You will need dry shirts, no?  I bring you pants, too, but they be plenty big.”  He patted his well padded hips.

“Bring us both.  We can cinch up the pants with a belt,” Johnny said.  He figured the size around wouldn’t be their only problem.  Jose’s legs were also a lot shorter.

Johnny followed Jose out into the hall and then went into the main room of the cantina.  He picked up a couple of the chairs and carried them back to the room.  “Here, have a seat,” he said as he set one of the chairs beside Scott.

Once Scott was seated, Johnny picked up the pieces of cloth that were in the wash basin and set the larger ones aside to use as towels.  He poured some of the water into the basin and went to work washing his brother’s face with one of the smaller cloths.

“How bad is it?”  Scott asked.

“Oh, not too bad.”  Johnny washed the cut above Scott’s left eye.   “You got a gash here the width of your eyebrow, but I think the rest of this is just blood.”  Johnny continued to shiver a little as he rinsed the rag out and washed his brother’s cheek.

Jose brought the clothes and put them on the bed nearest the door.

“Gracias,” Johnny said.

Jose tipped his head, said a quiet “de nada” and left.

Johnny finished cleaning Scott’s face.  After drying it with the towel, he stepped back and frowned.  The cut was still oozing blood.

“Am I going to have a scar?” Scott asked.

Johnny shrugged.  “Hard to say.  I don’t think it’ll be all that noticeable if you do.  It’s not deep and it kind of follows the edge of your eyebrow.”  He looked at the purple area above the cut.  “How’s your head.  From the looks of that bruise on your forehead, you must have gotten a pretty good whack.”

“It hurts some.”

Johnny laid the towel on Scott’s bed.  “Look, why don’t you get out of those wet duds and lay down for a while.   You need to hold something on that cut ‘til it quits bleedin’.  I’ll get our things dried out.”

“You’ll get no arguments from me,” Scott said as he started to unbutton his shirt. 

While Scott changed into one set of Jose’s clothes and got settled under a blanket on the bed, Johnny changed into the other dry shirt and pair of pants.  He threaded his belt through the loops on the pants and cinched it snug.  “How do I look?” he asked, looking over at his brother.

“You wouldn’t win any prize in Boston society,” Scott said.  The corner of his mouth twitched.  “But I suppose you could get by with it at the ranch without spooking the cows.  That is provided your horse didn’t take exception to being ridden by a clown.”

 Johnny looked down at the baggy pants that hit him a good hand-breadth above his ankles.  They did look pretty ridiculous even from his angle, but he wasn’t about to admit it.  “Oh, I don’t know.”  He raised his arms out to the sides, twirled once a round, and stopped so that he was facing Scott.  “Maybe, I’ll start a new style.  One size fits all.  Just think.  You’d never have to worry about findin’ a pair o’ pants that fit.”

“Wouldn’t your legs get a little cold?”  Scott pointed toward Johnny’s feet.

“Well, that’s easy to fix.  You make ‘em long enough to fit Murdoch and everyone else just cuts ‘em off or rolls ‘em up where they want ‘em.  Shoot, they could even whack ‘em off at the knee for wadin’ creeks an’ such. ” Johnny grinned smugly at his brother.

Scott turned his head gently side to side.  “I still say it would never go over in Boston.  And what man would carry around a pair of cut-off pants just on the odd chance he would have to wade through a river?”

“Wouldn’t have to be just for wadin’.  They sure would be cool in the summer.”

“You’re loony.  You know that.”  Scott scowled at Johnny.  “Are you sure you didn’t take a knock on the head, too?  That has to be the craziest notion you’ve ever had.  Short pants for men.  Ha!”  He rubbed his temple on the uninjured side of his head.  “The very thought is enough to give me a headache.”

Johnny chuckled.  “You already had a headache, so don’t blame that on me.”  He gathered up all of their wet belongings and turned toward the door.  “See yuh later, Brother.  I can take a hint when I’m not wanted.”

Scott muttered something as his brother left the room, but Johnny couldn’t tell what.  He didn’t stop to find out, either.  It probably wasn’t anything he wanted or needed to hear.  At the moment, it was more important to find a place to hang up their clothes and dry out their boots and bags.  After that, while he cleaned their guns, he could give some thought to how they might get out of this predicament, if there was one.  He hated to give up on catching their train.

 .

Chapter 3

Johnny occasionally pulled back a window blanket and looked outside, but he stayed inside the cantina while he waited for his clothes to dry.  Despite his joking with his brother earlier, he wasn’t about to have anyone other than Jose see him in his present outfit.  He was glad he had been in with Scott when the men from the stage line had come in for lunch and that none of them had been back since they had left around one o’clock.

No matter how hard Johnny tried, he couldn’t think of an answer to the problem of getting to Salinas.  He finally gave up.  They couldn’t go anywhere until their clothes were dry and Scott was feeling better.  Even then, they would have to wait for the river to go down.  He wasn’t about to take any more chances of crossing on foot.  As much as Murdoch might want them on that train, Johnny was sure their father would not want either of them hurt or killed.  The things they had said the day before had just been talk.  None of it had been serious.  It had become sort of a joke between them whenever they knew Murdoch wouldn’t be happy about something they did or didn’t do.

Johnny halfway smiled.  Even though the thought of Murdoch’s big hands hitting him always made him shudder, he knew he had little to fear as long as he didn’t do something really dumb.  Getting drunk and missing their stage.  Now that might have earned them their father’s wrath and they would have deserved the consequences.  The things that had happened so far hadn’t been their fault.   They hadn’t done anything to cause the broken axle, and they had made an honest try at getting across the river.  That was all Murdoch would ever expect from them.

Not knowing what else to do, Johnny wandered over to the pot-bellied stove in the far back corner of the main room of the cantina.  He checked their clothes that were hung over the chairs surrounding the stove and smiled.  They were finally dry, but the boots, gun belts and bags would take longer.

Johnny gathered up the clothes and went to the bedroom.  Quietly, he laid everything onto the empty bed and went to work folding each item and putting his and Scott’s things into separate piles.  When that chore was done, he changed into his blue print shirt and brown pants and glanced over at his brother.

Scott appeared to be sleeping so Johnny decided to rest a while, too.

About three in the afternoon, Johnny got up and went back into the outer room.  He checked their boots and bags.  Good.  They were finally dry.

Johnny sat in one of the chairs and reached for his boots.  He tugged them into place on each foot, stood, strapped on his gun belt, and wandered around the room—not sure what to do.  Jose was nowhere in sight, possibly having gone into the kitchen that was in the room behind the bar and Scott had seemed to still be sleeping the last time Johnny had looked in on him.

Finally, Johnny decided to go outside and went back over by the stove.  He put on his coat that was still draped over a chair, straightened the front, leaving it unbuttoned, crossed to the door, and went out onto the porch.

The sun was shining as it had been since early morning.  Noticing that the road looked like it had started to dry out some, Johnny wondered if the river had gone down any.  As if in answer to his question, he heard a light rumbling and a team of horses pulling a large wagon came into sight near the fork in the road a short ways beyond the cantina.  They had to have come from the Salinas River crossing.  There was nothing else in that direction.

The driver of the wagon stopped in front of the stable, climbed down and went inside.  In a few minutes, he came out with Jennings, Hill, and the other two men who worked for the stage line.

Johnny walked over to see what was going on.  If the river could be crossed, he wanted to know about it.  Maybe he and his brother would still have a chance to get to Salinas on time.

The five men were looking in the back of the tall, freight wagon when Johnny walked up beside Jennings.  “Never saw anything so purdy in all my life,” the stagecoach driver said.  “Let’s go see if we can get her on the coach.  I’m already a day late getting’ to Salinas.  The superintendent’s gunna be climbin’ the walls, as ‘tis.  He don’t like us bein’ late on our runs.  Don’t matter, it can’t be helped an’ wasn’t my doin’ that kept me from gettin’ there in time to start back tomorrow.”  Jennings paused to take a big breath.

Johnny didn’t give the man a chance to start in again.  “Did you just come across the river?” he asked, looking at the driver of the freight wagon.  He guessed the man to be around Scott’s age.

“Surely did,” the man replied.  “Rivers a might high, but it looks to’ve been a good foot higher.  Must o’ done a heap a rainin’ down south.”

“Yeah.”  Johnny moved closer to the man.  “You plannin’ on going back across after that axle’s unloaded?”

“Most likely.”  The man tugged one tail of his handlebar mustache and grinned.  “Got me a gal over there.  Her pappy runs the store.”

“If you don’t mind, my brother and me might wanna hitch a ride with you.”  Johnny turned his head and looked at Jennings.  “Unless you plan on taking the stage on tonight.”

Jennings laid his arms on the edge of the wagon’s sidewall—hands touching in front of his chest.  “Depends on how quick we get that axle on,” he replied.  “There won’t be no moon tonight, and I ain’t about to get caught between stations after dark.  Besides, we might have passengers to pick up on the other side. ”

Johnny offered to help before Jennings could get too long winded.

Within a few minutes they were headed for the crippled stagecoach.  Johnny sat in the back of the wagon with Hill, while Jennings sat up front with Samuel Edwards, the driver of the freight wagon.   The other two men from the stage line were to bring the team once they had the horses caught and harnessed.

It was half past four by the time the coach was repaired and the team was led into place to be hitched up.  Jennings said it would be too late to start out that night, so Johnny talked Edwards into giving him and Scott a ride to Soledad.

Johnny entered the cantina and started toward the stove.  Seeing that their belongings weren’t there, he went to the bedroom.  As he walked in, he smiled.  Scott was sitting on the edge of the bed.  He was dressed in the tan shirt and pants that Johnny had set to one side for him and had one boot on.  The other was in his hand.

 “Good,” Johnny said, glad to see that Scott had already put their belongings into their bags.  “Looks like you’re about ready to go.”

Scott’s brows pinched together.  “Go where?”

“Salinas.  Where else?”  Johnny grinned again.

Scott’s eyes opened wider.  “Salinas?  How?”

“Well, not exactly all the way to Salinas,” Johnny replied.  “But we can get across the river and get a good start if we can get us a couple horses.  You can ride a little while, can’t you?  The stage will be heading out in the morning, but I hate to chance that it won’t get started early enough.”

The frown returned to Scott’s face.  “I can ride . . . but the stage?  It’s fixed?  When did that come about?  How did they get an axle?  I thought they had to send to Salinas for one.”

Johnny waved his hands back and forth like he was flagging down a run-away horse.  “Scott, will you slow down.  You’re sounding like Jennings.  If you hold on, I’ll tell you.”

Hurriedly Johnny explained about the river having gone down about a foot, which had allowed Edwards, the freight wagon driver, to bring the axle across once he had arrived at the river crossing that afternoon.  He also explained that they needed to hurry so their ride wouldn’t leave without them.

Scott quickly tugged his boot into place, buckled on his gun belt and slipped into his jacket.  He put on his hat and then he and Johnny picked up their bags, canteens, and the borrowed slickers, and left the cantina.  Johnny had already settled with Jose so they only needed to say a brief goodbye to him as they passed in front of the bar.

Edwards was waiting out front.  He looked anxious so the brothers wasted no time in stowing their belongings in the back of the wagon and climbing aboard.  Within thirty minutes they were across the river and standing on the main street of Soledad.

Finding even one horse proved impossible.  Johnny and Scott tried everywhere.  Finally they gave up and decided to have supper in the dining hall of the boarding house.  No one else was in the dining area, so the brothers had their pick of the tables.  Once they were seated, Johnny slumped forward and crossed his arms on the table.  “Well, so much for that,” he said.

Scott set his hat on the table.  “The stage might still get us there in time.  The road will be dryer tomorrow.  If it can make decent time, it is possible for it to get there by noon even if it didn’t leave before eight.”

Johnny let out a sigh.  “And if it don’t?”

“Murdoch will understand.  If not, we face the consequences . . . whatever they may be.”

Further discussion was interrupted by a rather plain, middle-aged woman, who came to take their order.  She brought them coffee and they quietly sipped at it while waiting for their meals of roast beef with potatoes and carrots.  They didn’t even talk as they ate, which was fine by Johnny.  He didn’t feel like talking anyway.  Their only choices were to set out on foot or wait for the stage.  Neither one appealed to him.  He knew how important it was to their father that he and Scott be on that train, and he hated to disappoint him.

They had just finished eating when a medium sized, forty to fifty year-old man in overalls entered the dining room.  He looked around at the empty tables and then came over to their table.  “You the fellas lookin’ for a way tuh get tuh S’linas?”

“Yes, we are,” Scott replied.  “Do you know where we can buy two horses with saddles and bridles?”

The man poked out his lips like the bill on a goose and shook his head a couple of times.  “Nope . . . but I got a mule I’d sell yuh.  Ain’t broke tuh ride, but he’ll drag a cart anywhere yuh wanna go.”

Johnny tipped his head back and rolled his eyes.  “A mule, huh?”  He looked at the man.  “You wouldn’t happen to have a cart to go with him, would yuh?”

“Yep.”  The man nodded several times.  “Both of ‘em right out there.”  He stabbed his thumb toward the door.

Scott wiped his mouth on his napkin and laid it beside his empty plate.  “If you’ll give us a moment to settle our bill, we’ll be right out.”

“Take all the time yuh wanna,” the man replied.  “I ain’t in no hurry.”

The brothers stood and put on their jackets.  Johnny followed the man with the mule and left it to Scott to pay for their meal.  The woman who had served them wasn’t in sight.

A mule hitched to a two-wheeled cart stood in front the diner.  Its owner walked over and rubbed it between the ears.  “He’s a mighta fine mule.   Yuh can see he ain’t skittish.  Ain’t spooked at nothin’, neither.”

Johnny walked around the back of the white-washed cart and came up on the other side of the mule.  It did seem quiet.  The cart was small, barely wide enough for two people on the seat, but the back had plenty of room to stow their bags.  Even though they couldn’t sleep in it, he supposed they could make do.

“How much you want?” Johnny asked.

“He’s a mighty fine mule.”  The man slapped the animal on the neck, turned and moved back beside the cart.  He patted the seat.  “Cart’s nice an’ sturdy.  Painted her a couple o’ months back, an’ jus’ put a new wheel on her las’ week.  Tongues in good shape.  Harness ain’t more’n a couple months old.”

Johnny could see that the cart and harness looked fine.  “How much?”

The man continued his bragging.

When Scott came out of the diner toting their belongings, Johnny took hold of his arm above the elbow.  “How much money you got?  I think I have a twenty and a couple of ones,” he said in a hushed tone.

Scott replied in a similar tone.  “I might have a little more than thirty left.  Why?  Is that what he expects to sell us?”  He nodded at the mule and cart.

“It’s better than walkin’,” Johnny replied.

“How much does he want?”

Johnny shrugged.  “You ask him.  I can’t get him to say. ”

Scott didn’t have any better luck in nailing down a price than Johnny had had.  Finally he said, “We’ll give you thirty-five dollars.”

“For the finest mule this side S’linas and this fine cart, too?”  The owner shook his head.  “I couldn’t take less than a hundred.”

“Forty,” Johnny said.

The man scratched his head and spoke haltingly.  “Maybe I could take eighty.”

“Come down to fifty and we’ll take them,” Scott replied.

“Ah, yuh gotta be jokin’,” the mule’s owner said.  “I’d be givin’ ‘em to yuh at seventy.”

Johnny pulled his money out of his boot.  He had twenty three dollars in bills.  That left him with two-bits in the little pocket inside the waistband of his pants.  “What do you got to add to that?” he asked, holding the wad toward his brother.

Scott set their belongings on the porch, pulled out his billfold and thumbed through what was in it.  He took the money from Johnny and looked directly at the owner of the mule.  “All we have is fifty-five dollars.  You can take it or leave it.”

“Fifty-five, yuh say?”  The man scratched his chin some more.  “I shouldn’t . . . but I heard yuh was in a fix, what with needin’ tuh get tuh S’linas by tomorry noon.  Guess I can be a good S’maritan an’ take a loss this one time.”  He held his hand out toward Scott.

Scott handed the man the money and asked for a bill of sale.  The man didn’t have any paper so Johnny went back inside the diner to get a pencil and something to write on.  He didn’t tell the woman why he needed it.

The man couldn’t write so Scott wrote the necessary information on the piece of paper and had him sign it with an X.  In the meantime, Johnny loaded their belongings into the back of the cart.  During the whole time they were dealing for the mule, he didn’t see anyone along either side of the short street.

After the mule’s past owner left, Johnny went inside the diner to see if there was any food they could get to take along.  One two-bit piece bought them a handful of biscuits, a tin of beans, and a couple of apples.  He kept the other coin in case they needed it at one of the way stations.  When he came back out, Scott was already seated in the wagon and holding the reins.

Johnny put the bag of food in the back and climbed aboard, squeezing in next to his brother on the seat.  He reached for the reins.  “I’ll drive, if your head still hurts.”

Scott handed him the lines.  “Thanks.  It does ache some.”

They were already facing the way they needed to go.  Johnny clucked to the mule, whose name was Casey, and gave the lines a light snap against his rump.

Casey struck out at a steady, ground-eating walk.  Johnny was sure the animal would have trotted if asked to.  That wasn’t an option without making things more painful for Scott so he settled for the slower pace.  They weren’t cutting it that close for time.  They still had better than an hour of daylight left.  If they got on their way at first light in the morning, they would have another five hours.  In that length of time, they could walk to Salinas on foot.  Casey was moving a lot faster than they could.

The shadows cast by the coastal mountains on the west side of the Salinas valley stretched across the river and closer to their path.  Johnny glanced behind them.  Soledad had shrunken out of sight.  He figured they had travelled a couple of miles.

 “You doin’ okay?” Johnny asked, glancing over at his brother.

“I’ll make it,” Scott replied.  His eyes looked tired and his brows were pinched together.

Johnny flashed his brother a cheerful smile and said, “I know we ain’t ridin’ in the best of style and this contraption is a bit bouncy, but this ol’ mule is sure everything the man said he was.  Even Jelly’d have to admit he’s a good mule.”

“Yes, he would.”

They rode in silence for a while.  The sun slipped behind the western skyline and the shadows overtook all but the tops of the hills to the east.  Soon they were shaded as well.

“I figure we should get another two, maybe three miles before dark,” Johnny said.

“How far do you think we’ve come?” Scott asked.

Johnny thought a moment.  “Maybe four miles.”

Scott leaned forward a little.  He crossed his arms and rubbed his shoulders for a moment and then squirmed into place against the back of the wooden bench seat.  “We haven’t been on the road more than three-quarters of an hour, have we?  That would figure out to close to six miles to an hour.   I would say that was pretty good time at a walk.”

Johnny arched his back and rolled his shoulders.  “Yeah,” he said, relaxing again.  “Ol’ Casey, here, moves right along.  I’d say we got ourselves a bargain at fifty-five dollars.  A mule like him is hard to find.  We should be able to more than get our money back out of him.  Whatever we get out of the cart would be extra.”  Neither brother mentioned the roughness of the ride due to the lack of springs on the cart.

Up ahead, Johnny could see a lone tree beside the road.  Although trees were covered much of the hillsides and lined most of the bank of the river, those on the valley floor were few and far between.

Casey kept his steady pace.  His head was bobbing gently as they came even with the tree.

Suddenly the mule’s nose dove toward the ground.  His front legs came together and stiffened, his haunches sank, and the cart jolted to a stop.

“Hey, get up there,” Johnny said, flicking the reins in an attempt to slap Casey’s rump.

The mule didn’t budge.

“Now what?” Scott asked.

Johnny shrugged.  “I don’t know.  He was doin’ fine.  Maybe, he stepped on somethin’.”  He climbed out of the cart to check.

Casey refused to cooperate.

 No matter what Johnny tried, he couldn’t get even one foot off the ground.  “Come on, Casey,” he begged.  “Let me have a look.  I’ll get whatever’s botherin’ yuh and we can find a nice place to camp for the night.  You can have a drink of water and fill your belly with grass while Scott and me sleep.  Whatcha say to that?”

Casey’s haunches sank all the way to the ground.

“I don’t think you’re speaking his language,” Scott said.

“Yeah.  Well maybe he’ll understand this.”  Johnny slapped the mule’s rump with the end of the reins.

Casey grunted but made no effort to rise.

Light was fading.  Still Johnny couldn’t coax the mule to get up.  “Maybe he just needs a rest,” he said.  “We can’t go much farther anyway.  Might as well unhitch him and make camp.”

Scott climbed out of the cart.  Working together, one on each side of the mule, the brothers unbuckled the breaching straps.  They moved up beside Casey’s neck and unfastened the tug straps.  After setting the curved end of the shafts of the cart on the ground, they unbuckled the trace straps from the collar and dropped them beside the shafts.

Johnny coiled the reins and tucked them under the collar out of the way and looked over at Scott.  “Let’s see if we can push the cart back a little.  Maybe he’ll get up if he doesn’t have these shafts hemmin’ him in.”

Scott nodded.   They faced the cart, lifted the shafts and started pushing.

Casey let out a loud grunt, lunged to his feet, and broke into a run.

Johnny turned and grabbed for the reins.  Too late.  They were already out of reach.

With shoulders slumped, Johnny stared after the mule.   In no time at all, Casey was a quarter of a mile away.

 “Well, there goes the best mule south of Salinas,” Scott said.  “And I suspect he’s a very profitable one, too.”

“What do you mean?” Johnny asked, turning to face his brother.  “You think he did that on purpose.”

Scott nodded.  “More than likely.  Why else would his owner have been willing to sell him to us so cheaply?  I recall Jelly was telling me just last month about a man who had a horse that he would sell and it would go back to him so he could sell to another unsuspecting buyer.”

“But all we’d have to do is go back to Soledad and get our money.”

“If he’s still in Soledad . . . and if we had time . . . which we don’t, and the man knew that.  We told everyone we needed to be in Salinas by noon tomorrow.”  Scott turned toward the cart.  “At least he waited until we had him unhitched.”

“Lot of good that does us,” Johnny said, feeling a fire raging upward from his gut.  They had been fed a pack of lies.  Oh, how he wished he could get his hands on the neck of the past owner of a certain mule.

Scott walked over to the cart and lifted out his carpet bag.  “At least we have these.”

Johnny let out a disgusted grunt.  “As if we’ll need that change of clothes, now.”

“We’re not going to make the odds any better by standing here,” Scott said.  “We can still see to travel.  We might as well walk a ways before we stop for the night.”

Walking wasn’t at all what Johnny wanted to do, but he couldn’t see that he had a choice.  If they missed that train, they would be in a pickle and Murdoch would be the least of their worries.  They didn’t have any money to buy another ticket, and theirs was with their father.

“Okay, lead the way,” Johnny said, sounding as gloomy as he felt.

Scott got his canteen and slicker.  Facing north, he moved out in a long stride. 

Johnny grabbed his belongings out of the back of the cart and caught up with his brother.   He hoped this was all going to be worth the sore feet he was sure to have by the time they reached Salinas. 

.

Chapter 4

Dawn came.  Johnny groaned and sat up.  He ached all over.  Why hadn’t they been content to take their chances with the stage instead of trusting their luck on a mule?

Scott sat up, too.  “Ready to get started?”

“No.  But do I have a choice?”

“We could sit here and wait for the stage.”

Johnny gave it a thought and shook his head.  “We’ve got a shot at makin’ it if we get going now.  If we wait, we might not.”

“Maybe we can borrow horses at the ranch that’s supposed to be up here?”

“Maybe,” Johnny said, but he didn’t feel very hopeful.  What rancher in his right mind would let a couple of strangers ride off on two of their horses with nothing but their word that the horses would be returned?

There was little to do to get ready to leave.  Other than what they were wearing, most of their belongings were already in their bags.  All they had to eat were four biscuits and two apples that were left from the food Johnny had gotten from the boarding house.  They had eaten the beans and part of the biscuits when they had stopped to make camp the night before.   The rest could be eaten along the way.

Johnny took a few swallows of water from his canteen, closed the cap and slipped the cord over his head.  He would have to go easy on what little was left so it would last until they reached the next stage station.  Getting water from the river was out of the question, even if it would have been clean, which it wouldn’t be.  It was too far from the road.

According to what Jennings had told them, the valley was four or more miles wide between Soledad and Salinas.  The Salinas River was as crooked as a dog’s hind legs and generally was closer to the western hills.  Most of the way, the stage road ran midway between the river and the hills to the east.  That put it more than a mile from the river.  From where they had camped, Johnny thought it looked to be closer to two miles to where he could see the dark strip that would be trees along the river’s bank. 

It was a little before seven when the brothers set out, each munching on a biscuit as they walked along the road.  The going wasn’t smooth by any means, with the ruts and scattered potholes, but it was better than the rougher ground along each side.

Time passed.  There weren’t any houses in sight that Johnny could see.   When they reached the future freight train depot at Gonzales, it was closed up tight.  They stopped briefly to fill their canteens from the well and to sit on the platform while they ate another biscuit and rested their feet before trudging on. 

An hour after they had left their night camp, they approached the Penvir relay station where the road made a quarter turn to the right.  Johnny was more than glad for a chance to sit down and take his boots off.  His feet hurt from the constant rubbing against his heels, and there was a spot on the inside of each foot just below the ankle bone that was beginning to feel sore, too.  He wished he had his old pair of boots that were well broken in instead of the new ones his brother had talked him into buying for the trip to the cattlemen’s convention in San Francisco.

After getting a quick bite of bacon and eggs, due to the generosity of the station master feeling sorry for them and giving them the meal for free, the brothers continued on.  Johnny had hoped they could borrow a couple of horses from the stage line, but the extras were all turned out on pasture down near the river. It would have taken an hour just to catch one.  The six at the station would be needed when Jennings showed up with the stage.

The road turned at Penvir and went crosswise of the valley for a mile before turning northward again.  To save steps, the brothers chose to head north and gradually angle eastward until they met up with it again farther up the valley.  They would still be close enough to catch the stage if it happened to show up before they reached the road.  Johnny didn’t think that was likely.  It was barely eight o’clock.

They had been walking a couple of miles or more when Johnny noticed that, like himself, his brother was moving slower, his steps with one foot shorter and quicker than those with the other foot.  The road was still somewhere to their right, not that it really mattered.  They hadn’t seen any sign of the stage, and he didn’t expect they would any time soon.

“Need to stop a minute?” Johnny asked.

Scott shook his head.  “No.  I can keep going, unless you need to rest.”

“I’m okay,” Johnny replied.  He wasn’t about to slow them up.

Another thirty minutes passed.  Johnny looked behind them.  He doubted they had gone more than a mile and a half.  Unless they could move faster, they would never make it.

Johnny stretched his stride.  A fire burned his heels and the insides of his feet with every step.  He tried to ignore the pain but the flame got hotter.  The torture finally became too much and he went back to limping.  Soon he was lagging behind his brother whose legs were longer.

“How far do you suppose we’ve come?” Scott asked, glancing back over his shoulder.

“Seven or eight miles.”

Scott slowed to a stop and stood looking at the ground.  His normally erect posture had sagged since leaving the relay station. “That’s about what I figured.  What time is it?”

Johnny pulled the watch from his pocket as he had been doing every so often and stopped beside his brother.  “Not quite nine.”

Scott kept looking at the ground.  “That means we have three hours to go fourteen miles, or possibly more.”  He lifted his head, looked over at Johnny, and blew out a long breath.  “That’s more than four miles an hour.”

“Wanna quit?”  Johnny hoped the answer would be yes.  They couldn’t make it on time anyway.  At the speed they were going, they would be lucky to be in Salinas by one o’clock if they could walk that far.  Their only hope was if the stage caught up to them within the next hour.  Even then, it was doubtful they would catch their train.

“I don’t know.”  Scott looked behind them.  “We at least need to get to the road.  I don’t plan on having the stage pass us by.”

“Then what say we cut toward the hills.  We can’t be much over a quarter of a mile from the road.”

Scott agreed and they continued on.  In ten minutes, they reached the road.  Johnny suggested they keep going until they reached a small group of trees that looked to be a half mile or so up ahead.

The trees turned out to be a couple hundred yards east of the road.  The brothers went to them anyway.  There was no sign of the stagecoach.

Johnny sat down on a dead limb at the base of one of the oak trees and removed one of his boots.  He pulled his sock down to his toes.  “Ooh,” he said, cringing at the sight of the blister on the inside of his foot just below the ankle bone.  The one on his heel didn’t look any better.

“Bad?” Scott asked and sat down beside his brother.

“Blisters are broke and bleedin’ some.”  Johnny looked over at Scott.  He knew his brother was wearing new boots, too.  “How about you?”

Scott removed one of his boots and pulled down his sock.  He grimaced.  “About the same.”  He met Johnny’s gaze.  “I don’t see how we can keep walking.”

 “I know.”  Johnny frowned.  “We must o’ missed that ranch, not that it would have done us any good.  We don’t have any money to buy horses, anyway.”   He slipped off his other boot and checked that foot.  It was as bad as the first one.

They put their socks and boots on and looked for a dry place where they could relax while waiting for the stage.

Although the sun had been out all morning, the ground was still damp in the shade of the trees.  Johnny laid his slicker at the base of one of the oaks and sat with his back reclined against the broad trunk of the tree.  He tipped his hat down but not completely over his eyes.  He wanted to be able to see the stage in plenty of time to get back to the road before it could go past them.

Scott spread his slicker on the ground and relaxed a short ways away from Johnny.  Neither had much to say and they soon did their waiting in silence.

Slowly, Johnny’s eyes closed.  His head nodded and time slipped by unnoticed.  A slight rumble came from somewhere, gradually getting louder and louder.

“Johnny!  Get up!”

Johnny’s head came up, banging back against the tree.  “What?” he said blinking the sleep from his eyes and rubbing the back of his head.

“The stage.”  Scott pointed toward the road.  “If we don’t hurry, they’ll never see us.”

They snatched up their slickers and bags with one hand and their canteens with the other and hobbled toward the road.  The stage was nearly in front of them and the team traveling at a fast trot.

Johnny waved his hand and yelled.

The coach rolled on by.

“Wait up!” Johnny and Scott yelled in unison, shoulders slumping and elbows touching when the coach kept going.

“No!”  Johnny jerked out his gun and fired until it clicked on the empty chamber.  Realizing what he had done, he leaned over and groaned.  How could he be so dumb?  There was no way that coach was stopping now.

Scott’s hand touched Johnny’s arm.   “Johnny, look!”

Johnny remained bent over but turned his head to look up at his brother.  “What?”

Scott pointed down the road and Johnny straightened to see why.  The stage had stopped and someone was waving to them.

Johnny stared in disbelief.  No driver with any brains would stop at the sound of gunfire and chance being robbed.  This was crazy.  He had to be dreaming.

Scott tugged on Johnny’s arm.  “Come on,” he said.  “Let’s not keep the man waiting.  We don’t want him to change his mind and leave without us.”

They limped toward the stagecoach as quickly as their sore feet would let them.  When they got to the door, Johnny looked up at Jennings.  “Why did you stop?” he asked.

“We’ve been keepin’ an eye out for yuh, so when I didn’t see any horses, we figured it had to be you,” Hill said.

“But how did you know to be watching for us?” Scott asked.

 “Heard you was seen drivin’ Casey’s mule out o’ Soledad an’ that he came through without yuh about dark.  We saw the cart ‘long side the road so we figured you’d be walkin’, ‘pecially after we found out you’d stopped at the Penvir station.”  Jennings’ mouth twitched at the corners as he spoke. 

“Casey?  I thought that was the mule’s name,” Johnny said.

“It is,” Hill answered.

“So Casey sold us Casey and used an assumed name, to boot.  How convenient,” Scott said.  “By the way, does he sell that mule often?”

Jennings outright laughed.  “Whenever he runs out o’ money an’ can find a suck . . . uh, a buyer.”

“You were right the first time,” Johnny said.  “Suckers.  That’s what we were.”  He frowned up at Jennings.  “Only, what does he do about the cart?”

“Oh, he’ll come get it when he figures it’s safe.”

A man’s head poked out of the window of the coach.  “How long you plan on jawin’ before you get this coach movin’ again?”

“Better climb in, boys,” Jennings said.  “Clem Donaldson don’t never like to be kept waitin’.  Thinks he’s important ‘cause his boy went back east an’ got educated enough to set up a lawyerin’ office in Salinas.”

“I’ll stow your bags if you’ll toss ‘em up,” Hill said.   He stood and leaned over the back of the driver’s box.

Johnny tossed his bag to Hill and opened the door of the coach.  He looked inside.  Donaldson was in the rear seat.  On the far side of him was a woman, who looked to be about the same age.  He guessed her to be the man’s wife.

The front seat, which faced backwards, was empty so Johnny climbed in and sat on the far side.  Scott soon got in and sat beside him.  He was barely seated when there was a “whoop” and the coach lurched forward.

Donaldson scowled at the Lancer brothers but didn’t say anything.  His wife, if that was who she was, clutched her handbag and kept her head down.  The silence was fine by Johnny.  He just wanted to relax and forget about the burning in his feet.  He was sure his brother felt the same.

When they first started out, Johnny looked at his watch.  Not quite ten o’clock.  They had a little more than two hours.  He smiled, leaned against the side of the jiggling coach, and closed his eyes.  With any luck, maybe, they would catch that train after all.

They arrived at the next relay station at twenty to eleven, and the brothers took the opportunity to change into their cleanest clothes.  Jennings told them he owed them for Johnny’s help with the axle and that he would do his best to see they didn’t miss their train.   Ten minutes later, they were on their way again with a fresh team.

Johnny settled into his corner, his head bobbing as he watched the passing scenery.  Every few minutes, he would look at his watch.  How far had they come?  How much farther did they have to go?  He hadn’t been south of Salinas before so he couldn’t rely on any landmarks to give him the answers.

Half-past eleven came and went.  Johnny scooted closer to the window and looked out in hopes of seeing what was up ahead.

“It’s not going to get here any faster,” Scott said.

Johnny sighed and pulled his head back inside the coach.  “I know.”

“Relax.  We’ll make it.”  Scott didn’t look nearly as sure as he sounded.

Johnny slumped into the corner and pulled his hat down over his eyes for a little while.  The urge to look at his watch refused to be ignored and finally he gave in.  Twenty minutes to twelve.

The ride was rough.  Johnny glanced over at Donaldson and the woman.  Surprisingly neither had complained about the driver going too fast.  He figured they must be in a hurry, too.

More time passed.  Johnny looked out the window again and saw a few houses scattered across the valley floor.  He looked at his watch.  Ten minutes to go.

Johnny played with one of the metal conchos that buttoned the sides of his pant legs, the end of his fingernail catching the thin edge and snapping free over and over again.  How much farther did they have to go?  A mile?  Two miles?  Maybe more?

The coach turned a little to the right.  Johnny saw the first house of town pass by.  Others followed.  Jennings still hadn’t slowed the team.

A taller building came into view.  Johnny looked around the edge of the window.  There was the stage depot not far ahead.  He looked at his watch.  Five minutes till.  They still had to get stopped and get out of the coach, grab their bags, and walk to the train depot.

Johnny’s gut clinched.  They’d never make it.  Not with the shape their feet were in.  A man would have to run, and run hard to get there in time.

The coach rumbled on past the stage depot and Donaldson hollered out the window.  “Hey, why aren’t yuh stoppin’?”

 Johnny watched building after building go by.  He wanted to yell at Jennings, too.

The coach swayed around a corner and down another street.  Johnny grabbed the window frame and held on.  What was Jennings doing?  Where was he going?  A glance at Donaldson’s red face told him the man wasn’t happy, either.  

A train whistle blew, sounding very close.  Johnny craned his neck to see where they were headed.  He saw a train caboose peeking out from behind a building that was almost straight ahead of them.

“Whoa,” he heard someone holler.

The seat rocked back and then pitched Johnny forward.  His hand slipped and he was sure he was going to land in the woman’s lap.

Another backward rock sucked Johnny into the seat.  Then the coach gently shuddered and stopped. 

“Hurry,” Scot said, reaching out the window of the door on his side.  His hat was tipped off to one side of his head.

Johnny’s hat hung in front of him by its cord.  He didn’t stop to put it on or wait to follow Scott.  He hardly even noticed the Donaldson’s clinging to the windows and looking a bit disheveled.  There was no time for any of that.

With the strap of his canteen draped over his shoulder, Johnny reached out, opened the door on his own side, and jumped out.  Pain shot up through his feet.  He stumbled, took a staggering step, caught his balance and looked up.

Hill tossed him his bag.  Johnny caught it.  “Thanks!  I owe you one.”  He waved to Jennings and Hill and hurried after his brother who was already hobbling toward the train at a surprisingly fast pace.

Johnny ignored the pain in his own feet.

They passed between two buildings and reached the edge of the platform next to the train.  Another blast of the whistle came.  There was a chugging sound.  Johnny thought he saw the car start to move.

“There’s Murdoch,” Scott shouted with a wave of his hand.

Johnny saw their father standing on the back of the next car up from them.  He quickened his pace.

The wheels of the car spun.  Scott reached for the railing at the back of the car and stepped aboard.  Johnny started to follow but the car rolled out of his reach.

Ignoring the pain, Johnny lengthened his stride.  He caught up, grabbed the railing with his free hand, and jumped.  His feet hit the decking, pain raced up his legs and his body swayed away from the car.  For a split second, he was sure he was falling.

Two strong hands gripped Johnny’s arms and pulled him onto the small deck on the back of the car.  For a moment, he stood there in the safety of the arms that had wrapped around him.

The arms loosened their grip.  “Cutting it a little close, weren’t you?”   Murdoch Lancer’s deep voice carried a hint of scolding.

Johnny stepped back from his father.  “No, Murdoch, we just always wanted to hop a train on the run.”  He looked over at his brother.  “Ain’t that right, Scott?” 

Scott shot him a fleeting scowl.  “That’s right, Murdoch.  We weren’t the least bit worried about missing the train.”

Murdoch nodded and looked from one son to the other.  “Is that a fact?”

“As true as I’m standing here,” Johnny replied, lifting his hat into place on his head.  His knees quivered and he wished he could sit and relieve the fire in his feet.

Scott’s brows pinched together.  “Shall we go inside and find our seats?”

“I would think you boys would be tired of sitting and wouldn’t mind standing for a while,” Murdoch replied.

Johnny shook his head.  “No, Murdoch, we’ve been on our feet quite enough for one day.”

Murdoch’s face said he had questions running through his head.  “I’m sure there’s a story behind that statement, but I suppose now isn’t the time to hear it.”

“Oh, there’s a story, all right,” Johnny said over the rumble on the track beneath them.  “Only, it’s gunna have to wait if you don’t wanna carry me, ‘cause my feet have had about all they can take.”

Murdoch chuckled but concern filled his eyes when he spoke.  “That bad, huh?”

“No . . . worse,” Scott replied.  “You’ll have to carry me, too.”

“Then in that case, let’s get seated.”  Murdoch opened the door into the car, stepped through, and looked back at his sons.  “It sounds like I’d better have a doctor take a look at your feet when we get to San Francisco.  And Scott, your head looks like it could use some tending to, too.  You know you boys have a lot of work waiting for you back at the ranch.”

“No need for that,” Scott hastily replied.  “We’ll be fine.”

“Yeah.  We’ll be fine,” Johnny said.  “We got a few days.  The convention won’t be over ‘til Tuesday night.

Murdoch laughed and headed down the aisle.

Johnny looked over at his brother.  “Think he bought it?”

“Not on your life,” Scott replied, each word accompanied with a shake of his head.

Johnny sighed.   “I didn’t think so.”  He paused and added, “There’s just one other thing.”

Scott’s brow arched.  “And what would that be, Brother?”

“I hope those colts end up being as good as they looked.”  Johnny rubbed the back of his neck.  “Otherwise, we went through all this pain for nothin’.”

The brothers laughed.  Then with Scott in the lead, they limped toward the far end of the car where their father was waiting.

Johnny swore he would never again make the trip between Salinas and Paso Robles without his own horse beneath him.  Being stranded in Dos Dedos once in his lifetime was more than enough.  No matter how good those colts turned out, they wouldn’t be worth repeating what he had gone through on this trip.  In fact, all of the gold in California wouldn’t be enough.  He was sure his feet would never be the same.

The end.
January, 2013

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