Word Count 11,990
Teresa O’Brien carefully picked up the cup and saucer of fragrant, steaming tea and prepared to exit the Lancer kitchen, smiling over her shoulder at Senora Maria and assuring the older woman that she would be returning shortly. The kitchen had been tidied, the breakfast items cleared away, and Murdoch Lancer’s dark-haired young ward was happily anticipating a few quiet moments before starting the day’s household tasks.
The previous day had been devoted to laundry, a fortunate circumstance in view of this morning’s already high humidity. Since today Senora Maria planned to be occupied with ironing, the baking would, of necessity, fall to Teresa. Later, there would be lunch to prepare and a list to write for the upcoming excursion into Green River for supplies. Teresa was also hoping to find time that evening to write a letter to Melissa Harper in San Francisco so it could be posted during the trip to town. The young woman had decided to reread Melissa’s latest lengthy missive over a cup of tea in order to be able to consider her reply while rolling out the biscuits.
Melissa Harper, formerly of Boston and now residing in California with her Aunt Kate, was the daughter of Murdoch’s old friend Jim. So that he might read Melissa’s description of life in San Francisco, Teresa had left the folded pages on her guardian’s desk. She proceeded slowly down the passageway, holding the saucer before her with both hands and hoping that she would be able to locate the letter amongst Murdoch’s collections of paperwork. Teresa suddenly halted when she heard the sound of angry voices emanating from the Lancer Great Room.
“So we ain’t goin’ to talk about this?”
“I’ve told you what needs to happen!”
“Well, maybe I don’t see it that way.”
“I’ve made my decision!”
Teresa closed her eyes in dismay. She easily identified Johnny, who was using his “Madrid voice,” icy cold and deceptively soft. Murdoch Lancer’s tone was decidedly hotter and louder, although the older man was clearly straining to maintain self-control.
“So what I think just ain’t important.”
“When you’ve been at this as long as I have—”
“Like that’s ever goin’ to happen!”
At the sound of quick, angry footsteps moving towards the front door of the hacienda, Teresa drew closer to the wall. The faint jingle of spurs marked the steps as Johnny’s even before the figure of Murdoch’s younger son entered her line of vision. He stopped to snatch his gun belt from the hat stand in the entryway, barely glancing back towards the room at the sound of his name uttered in a remonstrating tone by a familiar, calm voice. “Johnny. . . .”
Teresa practically sighed in relief. < <Scott is with them. Scott will smooth things over, make those two see reason . . .>>
The young woman’s newborn hope was instantly crushed as Johnny, who had been intent upon hastily strapping his weapon about his hips, now took a few quick steps back into the Great Room, harshly interrupting Scott’s mild suggestion that the three of them sit down and finish their discussion.
“The way I see it, we never started a ‘discussion’ so there ain’t nothin’ t’finish!”
“Look, Johnny, perhaps—”
“Look, Boston, why don’t you just stay outta this!? Mebbe you don’t see nothin’ wrong with salutin’ and followin’ orders, but I do!” Grabbing his hat with one hand as he swung the heavy front door open with the other, Johnny Lancer exited without a backwards glance, slamming the door forcefully behind him.
The wooden sound was still reverberating in her ears, when Teresa heard Scott begin again.
“Listen, Murdoch, I think that—”
“Scott, don’t! Johnny needs to stop questioning everything and do as he’s told . . . and you . . . you need to stop trying to cover for him! You just encourage him!”
Murdoch’s heated interjections were followed by the sound of more angry footsteps, this time moving away from Teresa, and she guessed that her guardian was about to exit the glass-paned French doors. This assumption was confirmed by the sound of another door slamming—a lighter sound, different from that of the heavy carved wooden panel through which Johnny had so recently departed, but equally vehement.
Both Johnny and Murdoch had somehow sounded almost angrier with Scott than they had been with each other. <<Poor Scott>> Teresa thought sadly as she stared into her teacup, then squared her shoulders and stepped with a determined air towards the entrance to the Great Room.
Clad in his customary beige-checked work shirt and dark trousers, Scott Lancer was standing motionless and alone in the center of the large space, his attention apparently intent upon the band of his hat, which he held in two strong hands, one gripping the crown while the other grasped the brim. Beyond Scott’s bowed head and pensive profile, Teresa could see that one of the French doors was standing ajar, evidently having bounced open in the wake of his father’s angry exit.
As Teresa stepped through the entryway, still bearing her cup of rapidly cooling tea, the blond head snapped up and the pursed lips and discouraged expression were quickly replaced by a welcoming look, although Teresa couldn’t help but notice that Scott didn’t smile. <<He looks so tired,>> she thought regretfully, << and the day hasn’t even begun.>>
“Good morning, Teresa,” he said, greeting her with his usual pronunciation of her name, “Teh-RAY-sa.”
A wisp of a smile betrayed her delight at the elegant nuance. “Good morning, Scott,” she replied brightly, momentarily disconcerted that both of them were behaving as if they were encountering each other for the first time that day, ignoring the fact that they had engaged in pleasant conversation over breakfast. Of course, even then, they each had been seeking shelter from the storm that was brewing between Johnny and Murdoch. Teresa masked her concern for Scott by busying herself setting her cup and saucer down on the table by the blue chair, then continuing past him to close the glass-paned door with a firm click.
Turning back to face the silent young man, she discovered that he was watching her carefully. “So what are you going to do today?” she asked cheerfully, quickly smoothing her rose-colored skirt with both hands before she walked back across the room.
Gesturing with the hat in one hand, Scott responded that he was heading out to the south pasture to finish stringing wire on the fence posts which had been laid in the previous day.
“You’re doing that alone?” the petite brunette asked skeptically as she settled into the armchair and curled her legs up beneath her. “That sounds like a big job.”
In a characteristic movement, Scott glanced down at the floor before meeting her eyes, addressing the tone of her question as well as the words.
“We ran out of wire yesterday, or it would have been finished,” he explained ruefully, and Teresa instantly guessed that Scott had shouldered the responsibility for that miscalculation. “It will take me most of the day, but it frees up a crew for other things.”
Teresa nodded as she reached for her tea. At supper the previous evening, Murdoch had expressed his growing concerns about the current shortage of able hands. Exacerbating the situation, young Walt had been injured in a fall a few days ago, while two or three other men were sick, laid low by some illness that was going around. And a pair of hardworking brothers, having received bad news about a family member, had simply up and left.
Easing his hat onto his head, Scott murmured that he’d better be going. “I’ll see you this evening.”
Collecting his own gun belt from the hat stand by the front door, Scott turned and departed for the kitchen. Since his parting comment indicated that he did not intend to return to the hacienda for the midday meal, Teresa assumed that Senora Maria, who had a marked fondness for her employer’s elder son, had prepared a generous lunch for him to carry along to the worksite.
Teresa knew first hand that the Lancer cook was not the only woman who found Scott Lancer intriguing. His Eastern manners and calm, serious demeanor set him apart from so many of the men she knew, his father and brother included. Not that Scott didn’t have a temper, of course he did, and she’d seen that first hand. And he wasn’t one to stand by when a situation called for action.
Teresa took a quick sip of her tea. Frowning in disappointment at the now almost lukewarm beverage, she paused for a moment to contemplate the pale liquid in the delicate teacup. With a sigh, she reluctantly returned it to its saucer and then slowly stood and headed towards Murdoch’s desk. There was Melissa Harper’s letter, in plain sight, resting atop a stack of mail. But rather than returning to the blue armchair and her now unappealing tea, Teresa instead took possession of Murdoch’s big leather desk chair.
Absently tapping the edge of the large desk top with the envelope, Teresa couldn’t help thinking about Scott. She was worried about him. It seemed that he was too often caught between his father and his brother, especially when the two of them disagreed.
Teresa knew that when Murdoch’s sons had first arrived, there had been a great deal of concern over whether or not either of them would stay. The three strong-willed men hadn’t gotten along perfectly; there had even been a time when Johnny left. Scott had never openly expressed dissatisfaction to the same extent, or perhaps his nice, polite manner and his habit of addressing Murdoch as “Sir” had the effect of tempering his own objections. Despite the fact that he actually had a home to return to, no one had seemed to worry very much that Scott might leave.
Perhaps they didn’t realize how much they each needed him? She herself had come to count upon Scott—to say the right thing, do the right thing or just to listen with a sympathetic ear and then offer a word of assurance or encouragement. Often times, he’d effectively intervened when Johnny and Murdoch had disagreed—but apparently not this morning.
While there was no question in her mind that both Murdoch and Johnny had genuine respect and affection for Scott, sometimes Teresa feared that they took the Easterner for granted.
Arriving at the previous day’s worksite, Scott Lancer reined in the draft horse that, in light of its lot in life, he’d whimsically christened “Armstrong.” Setting his hat back on the crown of his head, he studied the line of fence posts that stood waiting to be girded in strands of wire. There was more bare wood than he remembered.
The new style of wire they were using here had sharp metal points interspersed along its length, a fairly recent innovation. The older fenced areas on the ranch had but a single strand of smooth wire, which was too often singularly ineffective in keeping wayward cattle out of places where they didn’t belong. The hands were constantly riding the fence line to check for places where the wire had been broken by the weight of some stubborn animal pressing against it. The wire that Scott would be working with was comprised of a twisted double strand that acted as a cable for the flat, double-pointed pieces of metal distributed along its length. An experienced horseman, Scott had yet to develop an appreciation for cattle. Sometimes it seemed as if a thousand head of cattle might have but one brain amongst them. One thing was certain; contact with these man-made “thorns” would be painful enough to teach even the densest bovine to keep its distance.
The remaining section of fence along this gully was less than two hundred yards long, but it would be a tedious, difficult job for a lone man. Scott speculated that he should be able to complete the task by mid afternoon then catch up with one of the other work crews to finish out the long day. After drawing the wagon up to where they’d stopped work the previous day, he methodically set about removing the tools from the rear of the bed—the wire stretchers, the cutters, hammer, nails. Before hefting the two large coils of wire, Scott exchanged his usual work gloves for a much thicker pair that would afford greater protection from the metal points.
Clambering up into the wagon once more, he drove along the line of bare posts, planning to leave the vehicle at the spot where he would eventually finish up. There was a large, shady tree there under which he could stake the horse. With a lot of effort and perhaps a little luck, he might even make back it to that spot by lunchtime.
Once he’d unhitched the animal, Scott gave Armstrong a friendly pat and then set off on foot back down the fence line. He’d managed only a few steps before he decided that he didn’t need to be encumbered with his gun belt. Divesting himself of the weapon, he draped the belt over the brake handle of the wagon before setting off down the line once more.
As he contemplated the task ahead of him, Scott realized that he actually was glad to have the physically challenging job. It would keep his mind off the less than auspicious start of the day. Well, maybe not. Here he was “mending fences,” just as he’d tried to do earlier that morning.
<<Tried?>> He shook his head at that; he’d been singularly ineffective.
As he walked along, he contemplated the array of wooden fence posts. They were solid, rooted, unbending. And rather tall. Who did that seem like? He smiled ruefully to himself at the irreverent thought.
This straight line of wood and wire was so stark, a contrast to the meandering stone walls of his native New England. Not that you saw many of them in Boston, no, there you found stately brick walls and wrought iron gates. Where Murdoch was a wooden post, he mused, perhaps Grandfather would be a stone pillar. Equally unbending.
Teresa, now Teresa would be a hedge, soft and flowering, he thought as he arrived at his starting point.
It was time to put those entertaining thoughts aside. He was still new enough to this task that it would require his full concentration. Scott set to work laying out the first of the three strings of wire that he would attach to the fence posts. This new-style “barbed” wiring was tricky to work with. The coils were heavy and cumbersome. Then there were those sharp metal points. Scott counted at least three scratches he’d acquired the previous day. Picking up the hammer and a handful of nails, he started to attach the wire to the first post.
Well into the job now, Scott dropped the wire stretchers and stopped to assess his progress. Both the bottom and middle wires were attached to this particular post, only one more strand to go. Then another one, two, three . . . eleven more fence posts. Then he’d be finished and, best of all, he’d be back at the big tree. He could see the fortunate Armstrong grazing in the blessed shade.
Not that it was really sunny, but more hazy. And humid. The changing color of the distant sky might even hold the promise of rain later in the day, he surmised. But right now, Scott was hot, dirty and thirsty. Drops of perspiration dripped from the fringe of his hair, dampening his collar. His wrists and hands, slick with sweat within the stiff, heavy gloves, itched from bits of chaff and dirt that had fallen inside the cuffs, but it would be too much effort to stop now to tug them off and then worry them back on again. He was tired and it didn’t help that the air was so heavy.
Drops of sweat rolled down the side of his face, more was edging towards his eyes. Removing his hat, he swiped at his forehead with the rolled fabric of his shirtsleeve, just above the cuff of the gauntlet on his left hand. Promising himself the reward of a drink from his canteen as soon as he’d finished with the post before him, he went back to work, grunting with the effort necessary to pull the wire tight enough.
Once that post was finished, he took a long drink before starting to move his tools and materials down the fence line. As he trudged back and forth between the two posts, Scott’s thoughts turned to his father and brother once more. Was this what it was like sometimes, going back and forth between them? Or was it more often like this morning, being caught in the crosswinds?
As he began tugging at the wire to get the bottom strand in place, he recalled his earlier assessment that Murdoch in some ways resembled this wooden post. And Grandfather . . . and Teresa . . . . But what about Johnny? Perhaps the analogy failed with his brother; Scott couldn’t immediately think of a type of fence or wall that could describe the younger man. Then he looked down at the heavy wire in his gloved hands, and grinned.
Was that it, did Johnny resemble the wire? Johnny was certainly tough, but not as tough as he had appeared to be at first. There were those sharp points. Scott felt that he was getting much better at reading his brother, but still sometimes Johnny would catch him by surprise. As Scott forced the wire into place then strained to reach the hammer, another thought occurred. Maybe Johnny represented the antithesis of the wire, twisting away from restrictions, refusing to be bent to their father’s will, wary of attachment. And therein was the rub. Neither man would budge, enough. What, he wondered, would it take to get them to work together?
Only a few more posts to go. It was near time to stop for lunch, but Scott had already decided that he couldn’t do that, settling for another long drink from the canteen instead. The job had gone more quickly than he’d dared hope, in part because he had been pushing so hard. And he’d been pushing so hard because the sky was looking distinctly more ominous. As much as he didn’t want to be out in the open when the storm hit, neither did Scott want to return to the hacienda without being able to report that the work was, finally, done. Truth be told, he really wouldn’t mind getting a little wet—even a lot wet, if necessary—in order to complete the task before packing up and leaving . . . .
Johnny urged his palomino to a quicker pace as he approached the Lancer arch. Off to his left, he could see the sky had darkened with the approaching storm. He and Cipriano had been heading up a crew, and Johnny had volunteered to ride back and let Jelly know that the crew in the west quarter would be returning to the main compound for the mid-day meal and that there would be no need for anyone to drive all the way out there with the chuck wagon. Clearly, the experienced Lancer segundo believed that there was more than just a bit of rain in store, as Cipriano would never have curtailed the work detail merely out of concern that the men might get a little wet.
It had become progressively more humid. The air seemed to have a weight to it; it felt for all the world as if it were pressing down on him. Casting a glance over his shoulder once more at the threatening sky, Johnny pressed his hat more firmly on his head with one hand while he spurred Barranca on. He wanted to arrive before Jelly started packing things up, in order to avoid being subjected to more of the older man’s bluster than was necessary.
As it turned out, even after he’d relayed his message, Johnny still couldn’t shake Jelly, who trailed horse and rider right on into the stable. Occupied with unsaddling and caring for his animal, Johnny only half listened as his whiskered friend went on and on about the impending storm, which was “goin’ ta be a doozy,” as well as other types of weather he’d seen first hand—hurricanes, twisters, blizzards. That got Johnny’s attention.
“You don’t really think there’s a blizzard comin’ now, do ya, Jelly?” he asked with a grin.
“Well, a course not, it ain’t cold enough. Not yet anyway,” was the emphatic response, then Jelly resumed his narrative of the storms he’d been lucky to survive. He described “wind like ta gouge a man’s eyes out if’n he faced into it” and “rain comin’ down so hard that a fella would drown if he jist opened up his mouth ta say somethin’.” Johnny looked out through the big barn doors. It was hard to imagine that the oppressive stillness would turn into anything like the storms Jelly was describing.
It was only when Jelly had finally run down enough to think about getting back to some chores of his own that Johnny was able to wedge in another question. Nodding towards Scott’s chestnut horse that was moving restlessly about in the next stall, Johnny asked when his brother had returned. “Scott ain’t back yet,” Jelly announced, pleased as always at knowing more than someone else, no matter what the topic. “He took a wagon out this mornin’.”
Although he had no idea how Scott had been planning to spend his day, and wouldn’t have minded knowing, Johnny perversely refused to give Jelly the satisfaction of being able to dispense more information. Abruptly taking his leave of the bewhiskered handyman, he exited the barn and jogged to the front of the hacienda, carrying the buckskin jacket that he hadn’t needed. Depositing his gun belt and hat on the stand just inside the entrance, he ambled into the great room, feeling somewhat relieved to find it was empty. Tossing his tan jacket over the back of one of the sofas, Johnny admitted to himself that he wasn’t especially eager to resume his earlier argument with his father, and particularly not without Scott’s calming presence.
And he did surely regret those shots he’d taken at Scott this morning. It really hadn’t been fair to accuse his brother, the former horse soldier, of “always following orders.” While it seemed as if Scott was more often than not willing to go along with Murdoch’s decisions, the man did ask his share of questions, even offer his share of challenges—he just seemed capable of doing it without turning Murdoch Lancer into some kind of wounded bear. Heaving an audible sigh, Johnny strolled around the room, wondering if maybe after he’d stormed out, Boston had somehow managed to put their father in a milder frame of mind.
It really wasn’t what Murdoch demanded that irritated him, it was how. Johnny didn’t have the least doubt about the extent of the older man’s ability or knowledge. Truth be told, both he and Scott were green enough that they’d willingly go along with Murdoch most of the time, if just given a choice.
Deciding that he needed something and figuring that it was still too early in the day for anything stronger, Johnny headed towards the Lancer kitchen to scrounge up a cup of coffee, though not without first casting a longing glance in the direction of his father’s well-stocked liquor cabinet.
Carrying his own steaming mug of coffee in one large hand, Murdoch Lancer stepped out the back door of the kitchen to scan the skyline off to the west. It had grown ominously dark and the veteran rancher felt a sense of foreboding. No wonder, he thought wearily, assailed as he was by various aches and pains exacerbated by the weather conditions and worries about being short handed and falling behind in the week’s work. Clearly, the various crews wouldn’t be able to put in anything like a full day today, which would put them even further behind. Dipping his head to slurp up some of the hot beverage, he caught a glimpse of Jelly’s distinctive plaid shirt though the open barn door, and Murdoch decided to seek shelter there.
“Good mornin’, Jelly.”
“It’s still mornin’ all right, but I can’t hardly say it’s a good’un.”
Murdoch secretly agreed, although he was reluctant to openly echo the other man’s sentiments. Noting that Barranca was munching contentedly in his stall, he asked a question instead. “Johnny back?”
“Sure is. Cipriano sent ‘im back ta say the crew’s comin’ in early. Should be here afore noon.”
Murdoch heaved a sigh, his mind already working on the problem of revising the schedule for the next day. “Well, I’m sure that when he gets back, Cipriano’ll let me know how much they got done.”
“I ‘magine he will.”
Leaving the stable, Murdoch slowly walked around to the front of the hacienda, past the front entrance to the French doors. The changing weather had been bothering his leg and he hoped that a short walk would stretch out some of the tight muscles. Pausing at the double doors, he looked once more in the direction from which Cipriano’s crew would be returning. He knew that Scott had been planning to join up with them after he finished the fencing in the south pasture. Murdoch had to admit to himself that he was reluctant to go inside and risk resuming his argument with Johnny without Scott’s calming presence.
As he entered the great room and slowly closed the glass-paned door behind him, Murdoch regretfully recalled his hasty exit earlier that morning. Although Scott had defended his brother upon occasion, it really hadn’t been fair to accuse him of “covering” for Johnny simply because he’d tried to mediate the argument. But Murdoch hadn’t been willing to stay and discuss the situation with Scott either. In contrast to Johnny, Scott had a more careful approach. His elder son would usually listen patiently and then, like a skilled marksman squeezing off a single shot, pose a question that would delve directly to the heart of the matter. Often, it would be about the very same point that Johnny had already made. It wasn’t really what Johnny said but how that irritated him; Johnny’s swift, rapid-fire spray of questions. But in either case, Murdoch Lancer ended up feeling like a target, standing in the unwelcome position of having to defend himself, to justify decisions that would have gone unquestioned such a short time ago.
Murdoch sighed. Truth be told, he should be grateful that the boys cared enough, were interested enough, to ask questions. Seeing that the Great Room was unoccupied, Murdoch strode directly to the liquor cabinet and added a healthy dose of brandy to his rapidly cooling coffee.
Surrounded by the aromas of baking biscuits and simmering stew, mingled with the steamy smell of Maria’s ironing, Johnny savored his cup of coffee as he stared out the kitchen window at the storm. It had hit in earnest a few minutes ago, bursting out of anvil-shaped clouds. The rain hammered the window, blown by a fierce wind that made the bushes shudder and the few trees scrape and bow. All this just as Cipriano’s crew pulled up. No luck for the poor ranch hands.
Bracing himself, Johnny eased through the back door of the kitchen to lend a hand with unloading the wagons. He reached the adobe wall before he realized that he was still holding his coffee. The rain was coming down harder now, and he was getting drenched. Rather than carry the cup back inside, he set it on top of the wall and hurried on, ready to joke with the men about how it felt to be putting in a half day. Johnny wondered again where Scott was working that morning, where his brother would be coming from when he finally turned up. Looking around, it was apparent that it no longer mattered; the sky in every direction had the same sullen cast and anyone still out was going to be pretty damp.
Once the tools had been put away and the animals tended to, Johnny stood in the barn talking with the hands until Teresa called him from the kitchen doorway, announcing that it was time for the midday meal. Johnny hurried back inside. Teresa took one look at him and insisted that, before sitting down, he change his wet clothes. With Maria chiming in as well, Johnny knew he was outnumbered, unlikely to be fed unless he complied.
Once he’d reappeared, having changed his trousers and traded his familiar salmon-colored shirt for a soft green one, dinner was finally served. Hearty bowls of the stew that Maria had originally planned to serve for supper, complimented by Teresa’s golden biscuits, proved a most suitable repast, appropriate to the now raging weather.
Their accustomed seats placed both Teresa and Scott between Murdoch and Johnny, though sitting across from her put Scott somewhat out of the direct line of fire. Teresa wished that Scott were here now, but his place opposite her stood empty. Perhaps, she thought, he was in his room, washing up or changing his clothes, which he would need to do if he’d been caught in the storm that was now forcefully assailing the windows. Of course, after his experience that morning, she wouldn’t have blamed Scott one bit if he preferred to avoid his father and brother for a while. The two men had greeted each other civilly enough, but the young woman was not willing to take any chances and quickly steered the conversation towards the next day’s trip into Green River.
It was not until spoons were scraping the bottoms of bowls—a second helping each for both Johnny and Murdoch—that one of them finally commented aloud on Scott’s absence.
“So what d’ya think’s holdin’ up Boston?”
“I don’t know, Johnny,” Murdoch replied with furrowed brow. “He was supposed to meet up with you and Cipriano’s group as soon as he finished that south pasture fence.”
“That what he was doin’? He coulda met up with us if we’d a stayed out there all day, maybe.”
“All day? He only had a four or five fence posts to string.”
Johnny snorted. He’d been working in the south pasture with his brother and a number of hands the day before. “Four or five dozen, maybe.”
Murdoch glowered. He’d been displeased that the work hadn’t been completed, but he would never have allowed Scott to undertake such a big job alone; he should have taken at least one other man with him.
“He’s not back yet,” Teresa informed them in a worried voice. “At least, I didn’t hear him come in,” she added as she rose from her seat as if to head upstairs to investigate.
“He’s not up there,” Johnny informed her, and, with a dismayed look out the windows, Teresa sat back down.
“I wonder if he tried to wait this out,” Murdoch mused aloud.
“Well, usually Scott’s smart enough to come in out of the rain—” Johnny offered.
Murdoch eyed the drops of water racing down the windowpanes. “There could have been a problem—”
Then, simultaneously, “Guess I’ll head out . . . .” Both men stopped and looked at each other.
“I’ll go meet up with ‘im, Murdoch,” Johnny assured his father.
“I think you should both go,” Teresa interjected firmly.
Murdoch nodded. “Get our coats and some raingear, Son.” Then, “Teresa, honey, would you ask Jelly to saddle up some horses?”
The young woman hastened to comply with her guardian’s request. As she was about to exit the kitchen door, Maria addressed her in insistent Spanish, directing her to put on the warm shawl that hung on a peg beside the door. It was much colder now, and Teresa had to fight her way against the wind and rain to reach the stable. She found Jelly in the barn, polishing off his last biscuit. Even though the handyman took his midday meal with the men, knowing how much he liked her fresh-baked biscuits, Teresa had earlier brought him a basket of them, warm from the oven.
“Boss know Scott ain’t back yet?”
“Yes, he does, Jelly. Murdoch and Johnny are going out after him.”
“Bout time!! I’ll git their horses ready,” Jelly replied quickly, calling out for Miguel to assist as he moved hastily towards the stalls. “It sure is bad out, why it’s stormin’ so hard, Scott’ll be . . . .” Realizing that the young woman was already concerned, Jelly thought better of finishing his colorful description. “Scott’ll be . . . wetter ‘n a drowned rat.”
A few minutes later, Teresa watched with Jelly as Murdoch and Johnny headed off. Then, collecting the biscuit basket, she retreated towards the house. Ducking her head against the chill rain, she failed to notice the lone coffee cup sitting on top of the wall, now filled to overflowing.
The cold front had settled in, bringing with it a bone-chilling, soaking rain. Water rolled off of the horses’ rumps; the animals’ ears, pelted by water droplets, twitched intermittently from the impact. Both Murdoch and Johnny shivered a little beneath their shiny oilskins, and they hunched their shoulders against those errant raindrops which tried to insinuate themselves beneath the collars of the jackets they wore under their loose-fitting raingear. It was too noisy to talk, so both men were lost in their own thoughts.
Murdoch, on Toby, his large, white-faced bay, was in the lead. Even though Johnny had actually worked on the fence line the day before, Murdoch had questioned Scott closely—and irritably—the previous evening and thought that he had a pretty good idea of the location of the section that had been left unstrung.
Johnny followed on Barranca, leading the sure-footed Rambler as a mount for Scott. As he stared out at the rain from beneath the brim of his hat, it occurred to Johnny, too late, that they hadn’t thought to bring along raingear for his brother. Not that it was likely to matter much; Boston was sure to be soaked to the skin by now. Well, no damage done; spending some time being cold and damp just made a man truly appreciate a good fire, a hot meal and a glass of imported scotch. Johnny grinned as he wondered whether they would find his big brother sitting forlornly beside a broken-down wagon or a lame draft horse.
They approached the worksite without having seen any sign of Scott and the wagon. The huge old oak tree, which marked the end of the fence line, loomed faintly through the sheets of rain.
As they drew closer, it became clear that something had happened here. One of the main branches of the tree had been sheered off and had crashed to the ground, breaking up and scattering leaves and smaller branches. A few yards further and the wagon materialized through the layers of sheeting rain. It sat forlornly in the mud, minus a wheel, most of its load spilled out the back. Nearby, fence posts staggered drunkenly, the wire ripped away in places, some strands drooping in the rain and others tied into grotesque dangling knots. But still there was no Scott.
“Dios. What the hell happened, Murdoch?”
Not until they reached the wagon and dismounted did they finally see him.
END OF PART ONE
Michael Kelly’s “thorny fence” was patented in 1868, however, he didn’t go into production until 1876. By then other inventors had devised variations, so we are assuming that the wire Scott was working with was similar. For an image of Kelly’s wire, go to: http://inventionatplay.org/inventors_bar2.html
To see an antique wire stretcher, go to: http://www.tonasket.wednet.edu/es/Kidslinkgrant/mjenkins/braxkay.htm
Scott lay motionless on the muddy ground pinned beneath one of the uprooted fence posts. Incredibly, his body seemed to be wrapped round in wire, some of which was still attached to the post. The tools he must have been using were scattered nearby.
Both Johnny and Murdoch were on their knees beside him in an instant. He was breathing, but Scott was so still that it was impossible to know whether he was asleep or unconscious. He was lying on his right side, his hair splayed behind him and sodden with mud. Scott’s clothes, torn in places, were soaked through, and the rain rinsed away little tendrils of blood that seeped from the dozens of scratches and lacerations that had been made by the sharp barbs. The wire was, in fact, coiled around him, which meant that he had to be lying on top of at least some of the metal thorns. A strand of wire was looped around his head. It was fortunate that Scott’s eyes were closed since one of the points was dangerously close to his eyelid; another had scratched a bloody groove just above his left ear.
Johnny wormed his hand beneath the wire in order to shield Scott’s face and then bent close to speak his brother’s name while Murdoch cautiously began to examine the post and wire that imprisoned his son. Scott was well and truly caught.
“Scott? Hey, Scott, c’mon an’ wake up now.”
Somewhere in the distance, in the dark and the cold and the wet, Scott Lancer thought that he could hear his brother’s voice. Then it was right there, near his ear, saying his name. He jerked fully awake then groaned at the intense pain caused by the small movement.
“Easy, easy now. Don’t try to move.”
It really was Johnny. But for some reason Scott couldn’t see him, there was something blocking his view.
“Shhhh. Keep still. It’s okay,” Johnny said softly. Then Scott felt the warmth of his brother’s hand resting gently on the side of his head.
He let his eyelids droop closed and tried to make sense of the various pains afflicting him. His head was throbbing, and the rest of his body seemed to be assailed by both dull aches and more insistent, sharp, piercing sensations. He wasn’t sure if he could move. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to try.
“Hey, Brother,” Johnny drawled softly, lowering his face to be nearly level with Scott’s and spreading his fingers apart to peer through them at him. “What did you do!?”
Still unable to respond, Scott reluctantly opened his eyes and squinted vaguely at Johnny.
“Is this how they string fence back East?”
He didn’t quite understand Johnny’s gentle ribbing, but, along with the reference to “back East,” Scott heard the unmistakable note of concern in his brother’s voice. Fuzzily, he thought maybe he should come up with a smart retort, but it was so very cold and he was just too dazed to make the effort.
Murdoch moved into Scott’s line of sight then, and Scott murmured his name before closing his eyes. He was hardly able to grasp the fact that his father and brother were here to help him. In fact, he could hardly remember what the trouble was, period.
Johnny looked up at his father who knelt on the other side of Scott. “Murdoch, what the hell happened?”
“It looks like a wind burst took down part of the fence. The storm must have hit right on top of him.”
“Guess that’s what split that tree.”
Murdoch nodded. “And Scott must have been right near this post when it came out of the ground. We can’t just bend this wire away. We’re going to have to cut him out, Johnny.” Murdoch looked up at the sky. “And we’ll have to do it quickly before we lose the light. It’s hard enough to see with this infernal rain.”
Johnny nodded his agreement. He looked around. “D’ya see the wire cutters?”
Murdoch rose heavily to his feet. “You stay with your brother and keep him still. They must be here somewhere . . . .” His large, oilskin-clad figure moved off as he scanned the ground between Scott’s still form and the damaged wagon.
Johnny remained crouched beside his brother, his position altering the fit of his own oilskin poncho. He could feel the chill water rolling down the back of his neck and see raindrops dripping from the brim of his hat.
Murdoch returned with the wire cutters in hand and immediately set to work. He carefully snipped away the section that looped loosely around Scott’s head. It was slow going here. Eventually Murdoch had cut enough of the strands so that they could lift the injured man’s head a little and pull the rest of the wire away from Scott’s face and shoulders.
Johnny smoothed back the wet hair that was plastered to Scott’s forehead and, with his other hand, cupped the side of Scott’s face to lift it away from the muddy ground. Freed from the imprisoning wire, Scott turned further into Johnny’s hand, seeking the warmth he sensed there.
Next, Murdoch set to work on the wire that snarled the fence post in place. It seemed to take forever to cut it loose. The wire was not easy to cut and the incessant rain only made things more difficult. Even the smallest tug on the wire elicited from Scott a wince or reluctant gasp.
“Easy, now.” Johnny bent over Scott, murmuring encouragement. He looked up at his father. “He’s gotta be lying on some of them points, Murdoch.”
“I know that, Johnny,” was the older man’s tense reply. “I’m trying not to pull at it.”
Finally, Murdoch had cut through the strands of wire that were attached to or wrapped around the fence post. Carefully, he stood up and lifted the heavy post away. Then, in frustration, he hurled it to the ground as hard as he could, startling both Johnny and Scott.
Scott reacted to the pain caused by his own slight movement, his eyes flying open and his lips parting, but no sound came out. The activity seemed to rouse him a little, which was good. But he was starting to shiver, which was bad.
“Murdoch just got rid of that fence post you liked so much, Brother,” Johnny said reassuringly.
Scott considered that, struggling to recall what his father had said about that post.
“You mean . . . so . . . attached to . . .?”
Surprisingly, the play on words came reflexively to his fogged brain but, though Scott tried hard to force the words out, few were audible even to his own ears. He made the effort to keep his eyes open now, listening to his brother and attempting to follow what was happening as Johnny softly began to narrate their father’s actions.
Murdoch got back to work on the strands wrapped around Scott’s torso. When he cut through one piece, the wire, released from tension, sprang towards Scott’s face and he flinched, jerking his left arm upwards, or trying to, but it was pinned by the rest of the coil that still imprisoned him. He bit back a cry of pain as something gouged the flesh of his forearm. As Scott pulled away from the barb, a trail of blood welled up in the deep, new scratch, the dark red ooze instantly diluted by the rain.
In an effort to stop him from causing more damage, both Johnny and Murdoch reached for Scott’s arm.
“Scott, don’t move!”
Scott froze instantly at the sound of his father’s voice, the harsh and angry tone. Fighting both the pain and the sudden feeling of panic at realizing he was still trapped, Scott closed his eyes and concentrated on trying to slow down his breathing.
Murdoch reached through the wire to touch Scott’s hand. Scott’s right arm was pinned beneath him and he still wore a glove on that hand, but the left glove was missing. Blood from the new scratch trickled down his arm towards the back of his bare hand, his long fingers resting in the mud. His whole body was shaking, shivering more noticeably now.
“Scott . . . Scott . . . try not to . . . Scott, don’t move!” Although he spoke forcefully, Murdoch’s misery was apparent.
“You heard the Old Man. I think that was an order,” Johnny said lightly. “Now you just do as you’re told, Boston.”
Scott knew that it was Johnny’s hand holding his head and face up out of the mud, so the faraway, light grasp of his fingers had to be Murdoch. He’d caught the note of worry in his father’s commanding voice the second time he’d been instructed not to move. Being careful to stay still, trying to stop some of the shivering even, he looked up and forced himself to reply to his brother’s teasing comments.
“Well, Johnny . . . I’d salute . . . but . . . I don’t think I can.”
His brother’s other hand, which had been patting Scott’s shoulder, suddenly stilled. Scott sighed and closed his eyes again, regretting the quip. It probably hadn’t been a good idea to toss the younger man’s words back at him. Was it only this morning that they had argued? Follow orders . . . . Salute . . . . Damn, but his head hurt. And he still didn’t understand exactly what had happened, how he had ended up lying here in the rain.
But as far as not being able to salute, well, that was true. When he’d shifted just a little bit, his pinned right arm had announced itself in the form of a shooting spasm in his forearm, while the shoulder now offered an interesting combination of both throbbing and piercing pains. It was taking all of his willpower to remain still, to fight the tremors threatening to overtake his body, when he just wanted to escape . . . .
Murdoch spoke again. “Scott, I’m going to move your left arm just a little.”
While Johnny watched closely, Murdoch helped Scott lift his arm and shift it back a bit, giving Murdoch the room needed to snip away the wire that pinned it to his side.
“O.K. Scott. The wire is loose now. If you can lift up on your elbow just a little, we’ll pull the wire out from under you.”
Scott lay immobile, his face a picture of concentration as he tried to move the arm that was beneath him. “Scott?” Murdoch tried again. “Can you help us?”
Again, there was no response. Johnny tried next.
“I told you . . . can’t,” Scott hissed painfully through clenched teeth.
Johnny and Murdoch looked at each other.
“Johnny, you lift him up. I’ll try to pull the wire out myself.”
As soon as Johnny managed to shift his brother a little, Murdoch carefully fished out the cruel strands of pointed wire that Scott had been lying on. Rather than put Scott back down on the muddy ground, Johnny scooted forward a little on his knees in the mud, in order to pillow his brother’s head on his leg.
Murdoch gently grasped Scott’s right arm, and instantly his son choked back a cry of pain and reflexively tried to curl up against it. That strained the wire still wrapped around his lower body and the points dug deeper into the wounds that were already there. Murdoch immediately released his son’s arm.
“I’m sorry, Scott—”
“Easy, easy there, Brother.” Johnny tried to quiet Scott and keep him from moving any more as the injured man attempted to catch his breath and recover from the excruciating pain.
“Johnny, that arm might be broken. We’ll have to splint it before we move him very far.”
“Yeah, well, but let’s get him free of the rest of this first, Murdoch, then we can worry ‘bout that.”
Nodding his agreement, Murdoch picked up the wire cutters but still hesitated. “Scott . . . Scott, what else hurts?”
Scott squinted painfully up at the figure of his father looming over him. “Well . . . ah . . . everything.”
Johnny grasped his brother’s shoulder once more. “We’re almost done.”
In fact, it was going more quickly. Scott’s work pants and boots gave him more protection from the sharp metal barbs so Murdoch’s work didn’t have to be so painstaking.
Finally Murdoch stood up and, pressing a hand to his aching back, stretched it out. He stooped down beside Johnny, peered at Scott and ran the back of his finger over Scott’s forehead. “Let’s move him away from this,” he said as he indicated the tangle of wire that he had cut and bent away from his son’s body.
Johnny whispered to let Scott know they were going to move him. He nodded slightly and mumbled, “Okay.” He felt Johnny’s hands hooking under his shoulders, was aware of Murdoch grasping his legs, and then finally felt himself being lifted up and away from that hideous wire web. He pressed his lips together as the movement sent pains coursing through his right arm, which he attempted to cradle in his left hand.
They settled Scott down in a seated position, Johnny behind his brother so that Scott could rest against him. Instead, Scott hunched forward, holding his injured arm and shivering uncontrollably as water dripped from his muddy hair. His wet clothing seemed to wick away what little body heat he had left.
“Gotta get him warmed up,” Johnny told Murdoch urgently, fumbling under his oilskin to remove his own jacket, which was still warm and dry.
“Wait a minute, Son, let’s get this wet shirt off of him first.”
As if from a distance, Scott felt someone tugging at his clothing. The pain in his arm had subsided a bit, but the dull throbbing in his head continued.
It couldn’t be . . . were they really stripping off his shirt? It was so cold out and it was still raining . . .wasn’t it? A little bit . . . . Stripping . . . no, they were cutting it off . . . .
Scott glanced up at Murdoch’s serious face then tried to look over his shoulder, searching for Johnny, to see what he made of all this.
“Don’t worry none, Boston. You know you got plenty of these shirts.”
Removing the sodden remains of the beige tattersall shirt revealed a collection of fresh gouges and scratches on Scott’s arms and chest, the new wounds on his back mingling with the older scars there.
“He has some pretty deep cuts, Johnny. And we need to get them cleaned out. Some will need stitches. I don’t know whether the fence post did any more damage . . . .” Murdoch counted out his worries to himself. “But first, his arm needs a splint . . . .” He set off to look for something to use.
As soon as the shirt was stripped away, Johnny placed his jacket around Scott’s shaking shoulders. He tried to pull the front edges of the jacket together without jostling Scott’s injured arm.
“Johnny!” Murdoch called back over his shoulder. “Take off his belt, we’ll use it for a sling.”
Supporting Scott with his right arm, Johnny edged around; it would be too difficult to unbuckle his brother’s belts with one hand from behind.
“Hey Scott, how come you ain’t wearing your gun belt?”
It took some time for the question to seep in. Through quivering blue lips and chattering teeth, Scott tried to reassure the younger man. “Johnny . . . it wouldn’t have done any good.”
Johnny smiled at the earnestness of Scott’s reply. But then he surveyed the devastation of the downed fence line, the broken wagon, the tree, the fallen limb. . . . “You got that right, Brother,” he said softly. “You sure got that right.”
Scott saw Johnny looking toward the tree and wondered what his brother was staring so hard at but just couldn’t keep his eyes open or his head up to see for himself. Then, just as he was about to fall asleep, someone was feeling his face and touching his hands. “You’re cold as ice, Scott, now you got to keep awake. You hear me? You gotta stay awake.”
“Sure,” Scott mumbled, his eyes still shut tight.
“So . . . tell me . . . how’d you manage this, Boston?”
“Wasn’t . . . easy.”
“Well, it sure ain’t the way we were doin’ it yesterday. So tell me . . . .”
Scott opened his eyes but didn’t look at Johnny. After a moment, he murmured, “I was packing up . . . .” He fought the urge to drift off again, forced himself to remember. “The storm . . . ,” he whispered.
Scott recalled hurrying to try to get the wagon packed before the storm hit, keeping one eye on the roiling black clouds that almost hugged the ground. They had come up so fast and now seemed to be racing directly toward him. He’d never seen anything like it; it reminded him of an enemy cavalry charge. Suddenly, the air around him exploded. He heard a tremendous crash as the tree split and had only a brief glimpse of fence posts and wire flying through the air before he was struck and slammed to the ground. The force of it knocked him senseless.
When he came to, he was soaking wet. The rain pelted down around him and a heavy weight pressed against his ribs and across his thigh. He tried to move his arms but could not. He tried to lift his head and felt the wire brush his face. When he instinctively turned away, one of the barbs gouged a bloody furrow above his ear. Initially confused, he was horrified when he figured out that he was entangled in the wire, recoiling from the very idea. It took all of his self-control to keep from moving.
After he had recovered himself a little, he’d tried wiggling his free hand to see how much room he had to maneuver. None. The pain that had coursed up it to his shoulder when he’d struggled to shift his right arm was so intense that he’d thought he would be sick. The rain pummeled his senses. He couldn’t think. He felt the heat leach out of his body into the wet ground. He shuddered violently at the memory.
“Scott, are you still with me?”
Johnny’s voice caught his attention and he managed to nod. “I was packing up . . . ”
“There was . . . wind. Such wind. And noise. I couldn’t manage every . . . everything.” Scott couldn’t begin to describe it all, and he was simply too tired to explain. Suddenly, he remembered hearing Armstrong’s frightened whinnies. His eyes opened and he craned his head, “The horse! Johnny! Where . . . ”
Johnny wrapped his arms around Scott. “Easy, Brother. The horse probably took off for home. He ain’t here. But here comes Murdoch. We’re gonna splint up that arm of yours and then get you home too.”
Murdoch had finally returned with a few slats of wood that he’d rummaged from the bed of the wagon. His father gently explained what he was about to do, and Scott reluctantly relaxed his grip on his injured arm, steeling himself for the pain he knew would come.
“I’m going to do this fast, Scott. We need to get you home.”
True to his word, Murdoch made quick work of attaching the slats with strips of fabric from Scott’s torn shirt. Then he buckled Scott’s belt, hanging the loop about his son’s neck and placing the injured forearm inside the circle of leather.
“Finished,” he said to Scott’s pale, pained face.
When this sank into Scott’s soggy awareness, he sagged back into his brother’s grasp, exhausted. Johnny pulled his jacket more snuggly around Scott’s shoulders once more.
“Now, Johnny, let’s get him on the horse. We’ve got to get him home and warmed up.”
“Hear that, Boston? We’re going home. Can you stand up?”
Scott’s reaction to the news was either a vigorous nod or an unusually strong shiver. Johnny helped his brother get to his feet, keeping a tight grip on him. Between the debilitating cold and the stiff numbness of keeping still for so long, Scott’s legs buckled and he was only saved from hitting the muddy ground again by Murdoch’s quick grab. He sagged between the two of them. Johnny shifted and took more of Scott’s weight, “He can’t ride Rambler, Murdoch. If you get Barranca—”
“No, John. I’ll take him with me.”
“Murdoch! You won’t be able—”
“I said I’ll take him. He’ll have an easier ride on Toby. He’s been through enough.” Murdoch tightened his grip on his son.
Johnny was equally determined. “Now Murdoch—”
Scott’s head lolled and he whispered softly. “Please . . .”
Johnny cast his eyes to the ground, just missing Murdoch’s rueful glance in his direction.
“Johnny, Toby is bigger—but if you want to ride him with Scott—“
“No, you’re right. I can ride on ahead on Barranca .”
Johnny took Scott’s full weight as Murdoch picked up the wire cutters again and used them to slice an opening down the front of his oilskin. Then he moved the few steps away to snag Toby’s reins. He climbed heavily up into the saddle then scooted back as far as he could and unbuttoned the big coat he wore beneath his now slit oilskin raingear.
“Ready, Murdoch? I’ll lift him up to you.”
Together, and in spite of Scott’s attempts to “help,” they managed to get Scott up and sideways across the saddle. Murdoch folded the now barely conscious man against his chest, being careful of his splinted arm.
Johnny, meanwhile, untied his bedroll and shook out the blanket that had been kept dry by the canvas tarp it was wrapped in. He handed it up to Murdoch and helped tuck it around Scott. Finally, Murdoch wrapped his coat around Scott for warmth and then his oilskin to keep out the rain, which was threatening to start again in earnest.
Through the haze of pain and exhaustion in which he languished, Scott sensed the warmth emanating from Murdoch’s broad chest and turned into it, pressing his face into the soft flannel of his father’s shirt and tucking his good arm close between them. Only the top of his blond head was visible in the bundle, and Murdoch had difficulty understanding Scott’s murmured question.
“What was that, Son?”
“. . . fence . . . s’it . . . okay?”
Murdoch hesitated for a moment, surveying the line of broken and listing posts. “The fence is fine, Son. You did a good job.”
Reassured, Scott renewed his efforts to burrow in to get warm. Although it was surely a reflex rather than a conscious intent on his son’s part, Murdoch couldn’t help but smile. He held Scott as close as he dared without putting pressure on his wounds. As Johnny collected Rambler’s reins and prepared to mount Barranca , Murdoch kneed Toby into motion.
Before riding after his father and Scott, Johnny circled the large tree, stopping to make sure that the unfortunate draft horse lying beneath the huge fallen limb was indeed dead.
Eventually the gentle rocking gait of Murdoch’s broad-backed mount lulled Scott to sleep, and he relaxed further into his father’s arms; even the shivering seemed to abate. It took a very long time to reach the hacienda since Murdoch had to walk Toby in order to keep a secure grip on Scott.
When they finally did arrive, Johnny, who had ridden on ahead, was waiting for them. Miguel had been sent for the doctor and other Lancer hands had already taken care of Barranca and Rambler. Frank helped Johnny lever Scott down from his precarious perch across Murdoch’s saddle. Pried out of his warm spot and exposed to the cold air, the injured man roused enough to stand on his own with one arm wrapped around his brother’s neck and holding on tight.
Frank resettled Johnny’s jacket around Scott’s shoulders, and they all started toward the front door. Suddenly Scott stopped and looked at his brother.
“Yup, I’m right here.” Johnny pressed Scott forward.
Scott looked around in confusion and mumbled, “Murdoch?”
Johnny glanced back over his shoulder at his father then urged Scott forward. “He’s OK, Scott. He’s a little stiff.” He chuckled, “Take him a while to get down off that horse.”
Scott wasn’t through with roll-call yet. Shuffling along, he inquired, “Armstrong?”
“Arm . . . ?” Johnny looked at the head drooping on his brother’s chest, “Who?”
“Armstrong.” Scott shivered.
“. . . Cus . . .ter.” Johnny could barely make out the whispered reply.
“Custer! You ain’t making any sense, Brother.” Johnny hitched Scott a little higher on his shoulder. “We’ll get some of this mud off of you and maybe you’ll be able to think straight. C’mon now . . . that’s it.”
By the time they made their way inside and upstairs, Murdoch had dismounted and joined them. Teresa had already produced a large basin of warm water and clean cloths and had gone back downstairs to warm some blankets.
Working together, Johnny and Murdoch slipped off the jacket and then peeled away the rest of Scott’s wet clothing, managing to wash away the mud and blood while being careful to keep those parts of him that they weren’t working on tucked into the warm blankets. Though exhausted, Scott was aware and tried to help, plucking at the buttons on his trousers, trying to protect his splinted arm which ached so much he wanted to be sick, and moving this way and that as best he could upon request.
By the time they settled a clean and sleepy Scott in his own bed, Dr. Sam Jenkins was there to stitch up the worst lacerations—these were on Scott’s right shoulder and thigh where he had lain with the barbed wire beneath him. Although the patient had been severely bruised by the fencepost, fortunately no ribs had been cracked. The doctor examined Scott’s injured arm, declared it to be fractured, not broken, and resplinted it. Dr. Jenkins departed, leaving instructions for warming Scott up.
That’s why, after seeing the doctor off, Johnny was climbing the stairs with a steaming cup of hot chocolate and one of the several blankets that Teresa was keeping warm in front of the big fireplace downstairs. He opened the door quietly, and the worry on his face melted away into a smile as he saw his brother sleeping soundly, looking relaxed at last. He glanced at Murdoch who sat in a big chair on the opposite side of the bed.
“How’s he doin’?”
Murdoch regarded him and, inching his hand under the covers to feel Scott’s chest, said, “I think he’s warming up a little.” Nodding at Johnny he added, “That fresh blanket will help though.”
Between them they exchanged the now-cooled blanket that was sandwiched between the sheet and a top quilt for the warmer one that Johnny had brought. They tucked it closely around the sleeping man. Scott reacted by burrowing into the warmth a little more and sighing.
Johnny pulled a small wooden chair up to the bed, sat down and reached for the hot chocolate. Slipping an arm under Scott’s shoulders, Murdoch lifted him up to meet the cup of hot, sweet liquid that Johnny held to his brother’s lips, cajoling him to take just a little. Grumpy about being manhandled yet again, Scott resisted, mumbling and turning away, until Murdoch’s commanding voice reached him through his sleepy fog. He managed to down about half of the proffered beverage before Johnny relented and Murdoch settled him back down.
“He didn’t like that too much, did he?” Johnny chuckled.
Murdoch laughed too. “No, not too much. Maybe next time we should give him the drink before we tuck him back under the blankets.”
Johnny turned down the lamp on the bedside table and then sat for a moment, watching his brother, unaware that Murdoch was watching him.
“Johnny, I want you to know that I should have listened to your idea this morning.”
“Yeah. Well, we did agree you would call the tune . . . .”
From this tentative start, the conversation began to flow. The two men sat together in the shadows, talking late into the night, their unnecessary bedside vigil allowing them to take full advantage of this lull in their sometimes stormy relationship. Scott slept on, unaware of their watchful presence, although at times he was vaguely conscious of the murmur of voices moving lightly over him like a gentle breeze.
Teresa O’Brien carefully picked up the mug of aromatic, steaming coffee and started for the Lancer Great Room. The coffee was well laced with sugar, to which she expected Scott would object. He preferred his coffee black, but he was still recovering and therefore subject to Dr. Jenkins’ and her own ministrations. She would prefer that he have tea, but she knew he would draw the line at that.
Well, she just was happy that he was up and about after the horrible accident with the barbed wire three days ago. That night, Johnny had galloped into the yard, soaking wet and without his jacket, calling for one of the hands to go after the doctor even as he dismounted. There had been no time for him to explain much about what had happened, he had just shouted something about a fence and barbed wire. But even that scanty bit of information had been sufficient to send her hurrying back inside to heat water and collect bandages.
She had seen Scott when they brought him in. His bare chest and arms, even his hands, were smeared with blood, and he was shivering so badly that he couldn’t stand up without help. Murdoch followed close behind, and she thought for a moment that he’d been caught by the wire too. His face was haunted and, under his coat, his shirt was bloody and wet. Murdoch immediately joined Johnny in tending to Scott while she set about gathering blankets and warming them in front of the big fire they’d made downstairs when it got so cold.
Apparently it was Scott’s blood that had stained Murdoch’s clothes. Later she learned that he’d held Scott as they rode home, in fact, Johnny said that “the Old Man” had insisted. Johnny had also described her guardian’s determined efforts to free his elder son from the wire, as well as how Murdoch had tossed aside the fence post which had injured Scott.
When she’d gone into Scott’s room to say good night, Murdoch softly observed that they’d “been lucky today.” In response to her question about what had happened, Murdoch had shaken his large head. “I’m really not sure, Darling. I just know that it could have been worse.” And he’d gone on to tell her about Johnny; how his younger son had tended to his brother, known exactly what to say to the injured man.
In addition to the scratches and lacerations that marked him, Scott was also covered with dark, painful-looking bruises. She shuddered to think about what it must have been like to be trapped and unable to move for so long. Once Scott was feeling better, he’d talked about the storm. Scott’s description confirmed for Murdoch his initial speculation that his son had fallen victim to a “downburst” or “wind burst.”
Cipriano concurred with her guardian’s assessment. The Segundo had taken some men out to the site the next day to retrieve the wagon and bury the poor horse. When the crew returned, the Lancer foreman described the scene to Teresa and Maria. He speculated that it might have been a “torbellino descendente” or “descending whirlwind” which had hit. Cipriano had solemnly assured the two women that these storms were very dangerous—“muy peligrosos!”—and that Senor Scott was fortunate to be alive.
And the rest of them were very fortunate as well. Although Teresa had sometimes feared that they took the Easterner for granted, Murdoch and Johnny had demonstrated their affection and concern in the care and attention that they had given Scott. They had worked together to bring him home, and continued to take turns keeping him company as well as consulting with each other about his progress. Most importantly, Teresa had been delighted to note that during the time Scott had been kept in bed, there had not been a single disagreement between the two men.
Scott was up and about now but sore and moving stiffly. Well, he would have to take it easy for a little while; at least for as long as his arm was in that sling. For the moment, he was relegated to the sofa in front of the fire and, perhaps later, he would work on the books for Murdoch.
Continuing on her way with Scott’s coffee, Teresa suddenly halted when she heard the sound of angry voices emanating from the Lancer Great Room.
“We need to talk about this!”
“Why? You tell me what needs to happen. I’ll get it done!”
“You don’t really want to do it that way.”
“Just make a decision!”
Teresa closed her eyes in dismay. She easily identified Johnny, who was using his “Madrid voice,” icy cold and deceptively soft. Murdoch Lancer’s tone was decidedly hotter and louder, although the older man was clearly straining to maintain self-control.
Stepping into the foyer, Teresa could see into the Great Room. Scott’s blond head rested on the back of the sofa; Murdoch and Johnny were standing in front of him, facing each other.
“I want to know what you think—”
“I ain’t been at this as long as you have!”
Scott looked up at his father, then his brother in turn. Clearly exasperated, he started to slowly rise from his seat only to have both men round on him.
“Wher’you goin’, Boston?”
“Scott, sit right there!”
Then both together, “Stay still!”
“Well, finally! Maybe something you can both agree on!” He slowly and painfully pushed himself to the edge of the cushion and muttered under his breath, “Like that will ever happen.”
Looking abashed, Murdoch and Johnny just stared at Scott for a moment then both moved to help him up. Teresa suppressed a giggle as Scott held up his hand to ward them off—the look on his face alone was enough to pin them in place.
Continuing to fix them with a baleful glare that dared them to make a move, he finally reached his feet, rounded the arm of the big piece of furniture, and spied Teresa standing in the entryway. Ignoring a chorus of “Scott!” and “Boston!”, he made his way over to her. Looking down into the cup that she held in her hand then back up at her, he lifted one eyebrow. “Is that for me?” he asked hopefully, managing a small smile when she assured him that it was.
Scott glanced back over his shoulder toward the Great Room. “Those two are just like wood and wire,” he said dejectedly. “What will it take to get them to work together?”
As he shuffled off to the kitchen, Teresa trailed after him, determined that he would have his coffee and smiling at the thought that perhaps *she* could tell him what it had taken.
PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT
Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment. Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here. You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or email Sharon directly.
For an explanation and photographs of Downbursts, please go to: