Word Count 9,935
Deathfic so don’t start this series if you don’t want to go there.
I don’t, of course, own the characters or any rights beyond the pleasure of sharing this story with other Lancer fans .
Fourth in the Guardian Series
Murdoch Lancer rode slowly, intent on the trail before him. The going was rough, but cutting through these hills rather than following the road meant he’d be home tonight instead of tomorrow afternoon; less time in the saddle and one less night on the hard ground for his aching back – assuming, of course, that Brianag wasn’t lamed – or worse – by the uncertain footing.
Watching the trace didn’t preclude some daydreaming about the pleasures awaiting him. He could all but see Margaret’s happy face, hear her sweet voice as she ran . . . walked . . . more like waddled to meet him. The rancher’s smile grew wider at the thought of the coming child; Scott’s child . A moment later, he shook his head, eyes growing wistful. Catherine was so beautiful when she was carrying Scott . . . and then . . . You’re being foolish , he told himself sternly. Margaret is young and healthy and she’ll have experienced midwives even if we can’t get Sam in time. She came through Garrett’s birth just fine; she will again. Maria had no trouble when Johnny was born. Teresa is small too and she’s delivered two beautiful daughters. Things were different with Catherine.
The graying head shook more forcefully and a quick swipe with the back of his hand took care of the dust – of course it was dust – that was causing his eyes to tear. There was no choice – you know that. If she had stayed, it might very well have happened anyway; or they could both have been killed in the fighting. You did what you thought best. It just happened. And you’d better stop brooding over the past and concentrate on the trail or you won’t be around to see your new grandchild.
The thought brought back the smile. Grandchildren; another generation of Lancers. Flaxen-haired Garrett was the delight of his grandfather’s life. Sometimes the Scots rancher couldn’t separate the boundless pleasure of sharing Garrett’s childhood from the pain of not having shared Scott’s but that was one of many things he tried to keep securely locked away in the vault of griefs, regrets, and shattered dreams. Young as he was, the little boy loved horses and squealed with delight each time his father or grandfather allowed him to ride with them. Murdoch had carved a toy horse for the boy, attaching a mane and tail made of real horsehair contributed by Brianag. One of Garrett’s favorite places to play was around and under his grandfather’s big desk when Murdoch was working there. More bittersweet memories struggled to escape the vault at such times; in the memories, the toddler had silky black hair and dark blue eyes above his cherubic grin. Don’t go there he sternly admonished himself. Concentrate on the present . . . on home . . . Margaret . . . the new baby . . .
A moment later his concentration on the present produced a chuckle and he said aloud “Brianag, I do hope Margaret delivers before Scott’s fortitude gives way. Not that I don’t remember how it is when your wife’s expecting, but watching Scott go through it is different. He tries so hard, but he’s sort of at a loss sometimes . . . I don’t suppose any man really knows what to do or say when a woman’s in that condition.” The horse flicked her ears back at her rider’s laugh. “I’m not sure women know what they want when they’re in that condition! I have to give that son of mine credit, though. He does have a way about him. He can usually make her feel better.” Brianag snorted.
For several minutes the only sound was the crunch of rock as the sure-footed mare carefully picked her way along a steep slope. “It’s hard to be strong and confident for her when he’s so worried. I remember that too.” Brianag snorted. “Well, I do,” he retorted. “Lying awake at night, worrying about . . . everything; all the things that could go wrong. What if she has trouble with the birth? What if the baby isn’t healthy? What if I can’t take care of them? A man thinks about things like that. But he has to keep it to himself; keep working; keep being there for her – for them.” The ears flicked again at Murdoch’s sigh.
He was jolted from his gloomy thoughts when Brianag slipped on some scree, scrambling to maintain her footing. Enough, Lancer! Everything will be fine. Now concentrate on the trail and by suppertime you’ll be home with your family. Everything will look better after a hot bath, a delicious meal, and a good night’s sleep in your own bed . . . your soft bed.
He was also looking forward to Scot’s pleasure in the deal he’d made. It would be very profitable for Lancer. This would be the first big payoff on the investment in new breeding stock. Brianag stumbled, jibbed sideways and . . .
A rifle shot shattered the afternoon stillness, echoing across the rugged hills. Murdoch was catapulted from the saddle as though backhanded by a giant. His limp form tumbled down the steep slope in an avalanche of loose rocks, bouncing over imbedded boulders until its headlong progress was finally arrested by a low bush near the bottom of the canyon.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
“E-yah! You got him, Nim!” The jubilant yell emanated from one of two scruffy figures that appeared from behind a jumble of massive boulders above the trace.
The other man, still holding his rifle, spat a wad of tobacco into the brush. “Yeah, but his horse got away. Damnation, that was a fine animal; woulda brought a pretty penny. Prob’ly had a pricey saddle too.”
His brother shrugged. “Couldn’t be helped. But you gotta figure a fella with a horse like that is rich so he’s prob’ly got some money on him and maybe a watch or somthin’”
Nim nodded again, hefted the rifle, and started off down the hill. “Best get this done and skedaddle. Always the chance somebody heard that shot.”
The hard-edged pair skittered down the slope, their worn, patched boots setting off more small avalanches of scree as they worked their way precariously to the bottom. Once there, they lost no time. Rifles and tattered packs were set aside and, together, they dragged the body away from the bush and turned it over. Bright red blood stained the brown jacket and the shirt beneath, spreading from a hole above the left pocket. Nim checked for a pulse and was a bit put out when he found one. “Hmph. Still alive. Shoulda been a clean kill shot.”
The younger man shrugged again. “Horse moved, brother Only matters that you got him.” He perused their catch. “Sure is a big son-of-a-gun, ain’t, he?”
“Never mind how big he is, Archie. Get on with it.” He began to search the man’s pockets.
Without further prompting, Archie started through the pockets on the other side. Almost immediately, there was an awed whistle as he pulled out a heavy gold watch. “Nim, will you look at this!” Intricate scrollwork was engraved on the cover. He turned it over. “There’s words on the back. Wonder what they say?”
“Don’t matter. Just stick it in your pack.” As he said it, Nim pulled a beautifully tooled leather wallet from an inner pocket. Flipping it open, he fingered the bills almost reverently. “Whooee. We did hit the mother lode this time! Must be two hunert dollars here.” The thief stashed the wallet in his own pack. Next he pulled the revolver from its holster. “Nice gun. He fingered the ornate L carved into the grip. “Fancy too; should fetch a good price.” The gun joined the wallet in the pack and the man stood, hefting the bag onto his shoulder and retrieving his rifle. “You done?”
“Yep . . . uggh.” Archie grunted as one last tug freed the gunbelt. “You gonna finish him off?” he asked as he buckled the belt and slung it over his shoulder.
Nim considered for a moment. “Might as well. Ain’t likely anybody’s gonna find him anytime soon but no sense takin’ chances.” The rifle was cocked and aimed at the helpless man’s head.
The ripping snarl took both men by surprise. Nim pivoted, swinging the rifle toward the sound. Archie spun around to find himself staring directly into the eyes of the most enormous wolf he had ever seen. To the petrified man the creature appeared to be about the size of a horse and he would swear to his dying day that the all-too-apparent fangs in the gigantic maw were a foot long. A guttural growl vibrated the marrow in the terrified man’s bones sending icy ripples through his body. In that interminable moment Archie knew absolutely that he was going to die. The crack of the rifle almost finished him. He leaped up and stumbled backward, landing hard on his rear, and scuttled rapidly toward his brother. Nim’s rifle cracked again but the monstrous creature was gone. Panting wildly, Archie scanned the surrounding brush in search of the wolf. Not a leaf or branch rustled but another demonic snarl echoed against the rocks of the canyon sending a fresh burst of terror through the stupified Archie and prompting Nim to swing first one way, then another, seeking to bring his rifle to bear on the threat. When he spoke, panic edged his voice.
“Come on, Arch, let’s get out of here. Where’s there’s one wolf, there’s most likely a pack. The shaken man on the ground reached blindly for his brother’s proffered hand and struggled to his feet, not at all certain his wobbly legs would support him. Without a word, he snatched up his own pack and gun and the brothers scrambled up to the trail, slipping and sliding, driven by an icy dread neither would acknowledge.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
His first hint of awareness – if you could call it that – was jagged shards of pain ripping at him from the darkness. He grappled through the pain, seeking something more . . . some feeling . . . how could he feel such pain and not be able to discern his body? He seemed to be floating in darkness . . . no, there was something hard digging into his back. He tried to shift away from the discomfort of the something hard and a new lightning bolt of pain blazed through his chest and down his arm to explode amidst the hammers already ringing in his head. The outcry wrenched from his parched throat faded into groan, then a whisper as the welcome darkness claimed him once more. From the heavy underbrush, a gray shape slipped on silent paws. The creature closed on the man without hesitation and gently sniffed his body before bestowing a quick slurp of the tongue on his bloody cheek. The man did not stir. The wolf whimpered, prodded the slack face with his muzzle. When there was no response, the creature settled down beside the unconscious man.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
Scott Lancer stifled a groan as he swung his leg over the horse’s back and eased himself down. With Murdoch gone, it would have been a tossup as to which part of his body ached more; his backside from the saddle or his head and hand from the paperwork. The tired rancher managed a smile of gratitude for the boy who came running to take his horse. “Thank you, Tomás. Please ask Emilio to give him a little extra feed. We’ve had a long day.”
The boy returned the smile. “Sí, Señor Scott.” The weary horse followed willingly into the barn, knowing he would be groomed and fed.
Scott watched them for a few heartbeats, thinking with pleasure that old Julio knew how to pick them. Tomás was only eleven but already a worthy successor to his cousin, Hernan, who was now a vaquero. Turning toward the house, the Lancer heir reflected – not for the first time – on how different things were from Boston. Oh, ranch hands came and went as happened on any ranch, but the vaqueros and their families were the lifeblood of the estancia just as Murdoch was the sustaining heart. Being regarded as something closer to a hereditary aristocrat than an employer had required some significant adjustments. But Scott had adapted to that as he had to everything else about ranching and California in general. One of his proudest accomplishments had been the establishment of a school on Lancer, taught by the wife of a ranch hand. All the children attended classes most mornings. True, their education was very basic but most of them would have no use for more advanced subjects. For those few who showed interest and ability . . . well, he was working on that.
Scott’s mulling had carried him into the kitchen. Preparations for supper were in full swing, but Maria immediately detached herself from the ordered chaos. “Buenos noches, Señor Scott, she said taking his hat and gunbelt. Señora Margarita is resting but she said she will be down for supper. She had Eliana put clean clothes in the bathing room for you. Delores is with the niño.”
Scott ran a dirty hand through his dusty hair. “Thank you, Maria.” He headed for the stairs as the housekeeper handed the items off to a young maid with instructions to put them in the entry hall and turned back to her work.
Upstairs, Scott moved as quietly as possible, not wanting to wake Margaret if she was sleeping. Unlike her first pregnancy, this one had been difficult from the beginning. She was often nauseous and tired easily. For the past few weeks, she had suffered from various aches and pains as well which forced her to remain in bed or resting in a chair far more often than the active young woman liked. The only thing that allowed her anxious husband to go about his duties rather than driving everyone insane by haunting the house was Maria’s firm assurance – seconded by Dr. Jenkins – that everything would be fine if the Señora rested and drank the herbal tea made for her.
The bathing room was part of a massive remodeling of the hacienda that Murdoch had begun when Scott and Margaret became engaged. The newlyweds had a spacious bedroom with a connecting door to the nursery. That particular feature had Margaret exclaiming in delight and Scott blushing when they first toured the newly completed wing. There was a small, private study for Scott, a bath with hot water supplied by a boiler, and a water closet. Murdoch’s room was at the far end of the main hall, closest to the front stairs. There was also a large, sunlit playroom but there were several partially finished rooms leading the young couple to wonder just how many grandchildren Murdoch was anticipating.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
Pain dragged Murdoch Lancer from the darkness once again. It was cooler now. How much time had passed since . . . since what? Opening his eyes required more effort than he could ever remember expending but he succeeded only to discover that there wasn’t much to see. A clear sky very far away in the fading light; brush. His eyes tracked to the left. A hillside; a very steep hillside. Where am I? How did I get here? The questions intensified his headache so he set them aside. Alright, let’s see . . . He managed to bring his right arm up to his face and discovered that he was bleeding from a gash near his hairline. The hand was followed by a warm muzzle, a soft breath on his bruised cheek, and a tentative lick from a long tongue. What? Forcing his eyes open once again, Murdoch found himself gazing up into the shaggy face of a wolf . . . a very big wolf. He instinctively pulled back, the movement aborted by searing pain that thrust knife-edged spikes of agony through his left shoulder and chest. A stifled scream erupted from his dust-dry throat sparking more pain in his ribs. Don’t do that again . . . the thought slipped away as the darkness engulfed him once again. The wolf licked the man’s face once more and nuzzled his ear with a whimper. Unable to evoke a response, the creature once again settled down to watch.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
Scott stretched out in the big tub, head resting on a folded towed, reveling in the luxury of hot water easing the stiffness from overworked muscles. When the water cooled, he reluctantly climbed out, dried off, and dressed. His lips quirked in a grin. Nice as all the other renovations were, this was a sensual delight, worth every penny it had cost.
Clean and presentable, the young man made his way to the nursery where his son was playing. The boy’s nanny sat nearby, sewing. Born on Lancer and widowed a few years earlier, Delores had been chosen as nurse to John Garrett when Margaret’s difficult pregnancy rendered her unable to cope with the household, let alone a rambunctious not-quite-two-year-old. The young woman possessed a calm, subtle beauty that reminded Scott of paintings he had seen in Europe of the Madonna. Having no children of her own – although she was being courted by one of the vaqueros with considerable determination – the young woman lavished her ‘mothering’ on her young charge and the family already loved her.
She looked up at Scott’s entrance and started to rise. “No, no,” her employer said, waving her back. I just wanted to see how this little hellion is . . .”
“Papa!” the exuberant shout cut off the statement and the little boy lurched to his feet to run into his father’s arms. Scott hoisted him to face level.
“And how are you this evening, Garrett?”
“I good, Papa,” was the enthusiastic reply.
“Have you been good for Mama and Delores today?” Scott asked, trying to assume a more stern countenance.
A solemn sequence of nods accompanied an emphatic “Garrett good.”
The father smiled. “Well, then, how about if we go wash your hands and go downstairs for some dinner?”
More emphatic nods greeted this question.
Scott jounced the child in his arms. “Alright then. Here we go to wash our hands!” Over his shoulder, the rancher told the nanny “Delores, get your dinner and relax for awhile. I have him until bedtime.” Still jouncing the giggling toddler, he headed off down the hall toward the bathing room.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
Scott had just settled back on the sofa with a drink in his hand and Garrett on his lap when a throat cleared from the direction of the kitchen. Glancing around, the rancher saw Cipriano, hat in hand and clearly anxious. “ Perdón, Señor Scott.” The segundo gestured vaguely toward the kitchen. “Your father’s horse has returned without him.”
The young man leaped to his feet, quickly depositing Garrett on the sofa. “What?” He was already moving toward the entry hall as he asked, “Was there any clue to what happened?”
Cipriano shook his head. “No, Señor. There are a few scratches on his legs – he has run through brush – but nothing else.”
Scott heard what wasn’t said. No blood. Halting mid-stride, the father turned back. Garrett was peering over the back of the sofa at his sire, eyes round as he watched Scott strap on his gunbelt and snatch his hat from its peg. “Garrett, you stay right there until Delores comes for you. Do you understand?”
The child nodded. “I stay, Papa.” There was a definite quaver in the voice.
Long legs carried the agitated man down the short hall to the stairs. “Delores!” the shout all but vibrated the heavy oak doors of the hacienda. Soft, swift footfalls on the steps heralded the arrival of the breathless young woman.
“What is it, Señor?”
“Delores, something has happened to Murdoch. I’m riding out with the men. Please take Garrett upstairs and tell Margaret . . .”
“Margaret is here,” came the familiar, dulcet voice. The gravid woman eased down the last few step and into her husband’s arms. “I heard, Love.” The resolute face did not conceal the tear-filled eyes, but the voice was firm as it continued. “Go. Find him. We’ll have everything ready in case he’s hurt. Do you want me to send for Dr. Sam?”
A quick but fervent hug rewarded her courage. “Not yet.” Scott’s smile was a bit strained as he looked down at her. “Most likely we’ll find him walking home, stiff, sore, and mad as hell. He’ll need some coddling.” One last squeeze and a swift kiss and he was gone, Cipriano hard on his heels.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
By the time they reached the barn, Scott had his basic campaign planned. The men were standing in a loose circle in the failing spring light. All eyes turned to the Lancer son. “Alright, the only thing we know is that my father’s horse came home without him. There’s no evidence that anything worse has happened than Murdoch being thrown.
“Jelly, I want you to take six men and follow the main road. That’s the most likely route for him to take. It will be dark soon and you’ll have to go slowly even with lanterns.”
“You got it, Scott.” The jack-of-all-trades confirmed.
Cip, I want you and two men with me. We’ll take the trace over the mountains . . . I know,” he continued seeing the apprehension on the Segundo’s face. “It’s dangerous even with lanterns but I don’t want to wait. We’ll be as careful as we can. Pick men and horses good in that kind of country.”
Cipriano nodded acquiescence if not agreement.
“To be on the safe side, I want five men on guard at all times, spread across the hacienda grounds. Make sure all the families are aware of the situation. We can’t overlook the possibility that this is a ploy to draw us away from Lancer. Frank, you organize that.”
The trusted, long-time hand nodded tightly without speaking.
“I want every man well armed and alert. Until we know what actually happened, I don’t want to take any chances we don’t have to. Does everyone understand that?”
Heads nodded and men turned away to secure weapons and horses. Both Jelly and Cipriano began to bark out names and orders.
Scott accepted reins from Emilio and was checking his tack and weapons when a slight figure darted from the garden gate and a feminine voice made itself heard over the background rumble of men and horses. “Señor Scott!” The same maid who had taken his gear earlier trotted across the barnyard, two leather pouches bouncing in her hands. “Señor Scott, Señora Margarita asked me to bring these medical supplies.” The woman held up the pouches.
Accepting the pouches, Scott thanked her. “And thank my wife. I hope we won’t need these but we’ll have them it we do.”
The young woman quickly backed away as the heir mounted and other riders moved up. Scott handed off one of the pouches to Jelly, fixing the other to his saddle horn. In short order the horses pounded away, quickly disappearing into the gathering darkness beyond the arch.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
He was aware of the cold before the pain . . . so cold . Memory returned just in time to prevent an attempt to move his left arm. Gradually, his mind sorted out that he was not cold on his right side. There was something warm and furry snuggled against him. A dog? I don’t remember a dog being here . . . where’s here? A soft whimper captured the man’s wandering attention and he managed to focus on the looming figure beside him. A wolf! He . . . she . . . it was here earlier. Why hasn’t it attacked?
If only that hammer would stop pounding the inside of his skull, he might be able to concentrate. Alright, Murdoch, you’re hurt and there’s a wolf beside you that hasn’t attacked. That was a far as he got. So tired . . . so cold . . . hurts . . . Some part of his mind knew he should fight the darkness but he was so tired . . . and . . . the darkness won.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
Maria gently gathered her mistress into her arms and steered her back into the house. “It will be alright, Señora. Your husband will return with the Patron. We must make sure everything is ready.”
Margaret sighed but forced a smile as they reached the greatroom and she eased her bulk into a chair by the fire. “Of course he will. And Scott is probably right; something spooked Murdoch’s horse and it threw him. He’ll be exhausted, dirty, and mad as hell .” The last words were accompanied by a giggle.
Her companion chuckled in return. “Sí. The Patron’s temper is formidable. So we will have a hot bath, clean clothes, a good meal, and a warm bed ready for him. He likes us to think he is un tipo duro but he very much likes to be cared for.”
The maligned patriarch’s daughter-in-law giggled again. “Too true. So fuss over him we will.” Maria shot the look at the younger woman and Margaret sighed dramatically. “Fuss over him you will.”
The Lancer housekeeper nodded approval. “You stay here, Señora. Esperanza will bring you some tea and dinner. Which you will eat. Do not worry. We will have everything ready.”
“Thank you, Maria. I don’t know what we’d do without you.” the Lancer chatelaine said softly.
Without responding, the woman bustled out of the room. Margaret leaned back, feeling as if she had done a long, hard day’s work instead of walking down the stairs, outside, and back. She felt utterly drained and completely useless. “Damn!” she hissed to no one. At that moment the baby kicked. Placing her hand on her swollen abdomen, the mother-to-be sternly addressed her offspring. “Your father and grandfather need me, little one. I would truly appreciate you not creating any more havoc than we already have tonight.” Silence and stillness answered her plea. Within moments, she was asleep.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
He was acutely aware of the others skulking through the brush. Their scent carried plainly in the rapidly chilling night air. Their intent was equally plain and he came to his feet, hackles raised and ears back. Lips drawn back to display menacing teeth, he growled in warning. Answering growls and a few tentative barks proclaimed the presence of the pack. One lone figure separated from the surrounding shadows. To human eyes it would have been invisible but to the watcher, the form was almost clear enough. She approached cautiously, ears flattened, testing him. Another growl caused her to pause but not retreat. “Ggrrrrr” The sound resonated through his body, cresting into a warning snarl and the intruder scurried back a few steps. The big male held his ground beside the man. Oddly glowing eyes tracked the alpha female as she paced, assessing the situation. Another growl halted her, hackles raised, ears flat to the side, twitching slightly as though listening. The sounds that followed were not whimpers or barks or yowls but some rare combination. Had a human been observing, he or she would have sworn the male was ‘talking’ to the female. Slowly she responded, moving closer, belly dragging the ground in submission. Presently, she was close enough to extend her muzzle, allowing the other to lick it. More verbalizing followed. When all was said and done, the female edged around to the man’s other side and laid down, snuggling close to the still form. Both animals rested heads on paws, patiently waiting.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
Sitting beside a campfire, cradling a cup of hot coffee, Scott’s mind was working feverishly. Unfortunately, he had very little information with which to work. He did not know exactly when Murdoch started home so there was no way of knowing how close to Lancer he was when whatever it was happened. Backtracking along the main road was the most logical course of action, although there was no actual ‘tracking’ involved. All Jelly’s group could do was spread out and ride slowly along the road and well out to both sides, searching for a man walking, resting, or . . . please no . . . injured or even unconscious.
The trace through the hills was far worse. Even Cipriano could not follow tracks on the stony ground in the dark. Worse, they had been forced to stop when they actually reached the hills. Trying to ride over the rough, narrow trail in the dark was ill-advised at best and entirely too likely to be fatal. Had he been alone, Scott might have continued on despite the danger – and probably killed your horse or yourself or both – his common sense chided, but he had no right to take such chances with the lives of the men who rode with him. The heat of the tin cup penetrated to his gloved hands and that drove his tormented mind down another dismaying path. There was a definite nip in the night air; not cold enough to endanger a healthy man but if Murdoch was injured or unconscious . . . Stop it! Driving yourself crazy imagining things that might not be isn’t going to help Murdoch. Fiercely forcing down the dark thoughts that threatened to overwhelm him, the former cavalry officer took several deep breaths. You have to think rationally; you need a plan. It’s exactly like a military mission. You know what the objective is. How do we most effectively accomplish the objective?
Stating it in those terms made it easier to discipline both mind and emotions. Okay, Lieutenant Lancer, think. Point one – how likely is it that Murdoch would have taken this trail? Not very. Point two – if he came this way and if he was thrown, he might be sitting beside his own campfire, bruised, hungry, but essentially okay, waiting for daylight. Point three – if he came this way and was thrown and seriously injured – possibly ended up off the trail – finding him could be difficult even in daylight. The odds of finding him in the dark are nonexistent even with the half-moon so we’d be risking more injuries instead of rescuing Murdoch.
On the positive side; point one – we know Murdoch’s in trouble and we’re searching for him. Point two – Brianag made it home and she wasn’t in bad shape so the odds are that – whatever happened – it didn’t happen all that far from Lancer. Point three – w e’re three hours closer than we would have been if we’d started from the house at dawn. We can head out at the first hint of light with rested horses. Point four – it’s a lot more likely that Jelly’s group will find him on the main road just like I told Margaret; walking home and mad as hell. That actually made him feel better. We won’t any more than get started in the morning and a messenger will catch up to tell us he’s safe and sound at home.
“Señor Scott, you need to sleep.” Cipriano’s voice surprised his boss. Scott looked up at the loyal segundo and something approaching a smile flickered in the firelight.
“You’re right, Cip. I was just thinking that Murdoch’s probably already home and in bed being coddled by the womenfolk.”
Cipriano’s smile was as tentative as Scott’s and as tinged with urgent hope. “Sí, Señor. All the more reason for you to sleep. There will be much work to do and the Patron will probably need a few days to rest. I have already arranged the night watch. You will be last.”
Nodding, Scott tossed the last of his now-cold coffee aside and rose. “Gracias, Cip. Goodnight.”
“Good night, Señor.”
As the young Lancer turned toward his blanket, a howl broke the night stillness. Both men stiffened. Again, the plaintive sound echoed against the distant moon, splintering across the dark hills. Gray-blue eyes met brown ones in the dancing firelight but neither man spoke; neither dared voice the dark thoughts called forth by the ominous call of the hunter.
Snuggled into his blanket against the chill of the spring night, Scott whispered a fervent prayer that his father was at home being coddled and morning would see them all safely together again.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
The moon was well on across the sky, painting cold, hard shadows over the empty landscape. At the bottom of one of many steep canyons, several shaggy forms now huddled close beside a too-still human, their innate senses telling them that the life they guarded was fading. The big male worked his way closer, extending his muzzle to rest on the man’s shoulder, whimpering softly. The gesture was rewarded with a soft moan but the man did not stir or wake.
Atop the ridge sat the leader of the pack, a stark shadow in the moonlight. He could smell the blood of the dying creature below a well as the intruder now holding the pack enthralled. He should have challenged the interloper but something about the stranger held him at bay. He had made a few tentative forays only to retreat from the bared fangs, warning growls, and . . . something else; something he could sense as unerringly as an approaching summer storm that made him unwilling to close with the other male. Not possessing the gift of language, the pack leader could not define what he felt as preternatural or ethereal but he knew the force emanating from the creature was not to be confronted. His howl was as much from confusion as frustration at the power holding his pack quiescent below.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
The eastern sky was only beginning to shed its black cloak for one of deepest midnight blue when they doused the fire and mounted up. By the time they actually started up the trail, there was enough light to make out the trace but the canyons were still in deep shadow. Scott knew it was too early . . . their effectiveness would be hampered until the sun cleared the hills, but he was too impatient to wait any longer.
Cipriano led the way, assiduously searching the trail for any sign of mishap or even recent passage. Scott followed close behind, calling out on a regular basis, pausing to listen for any sound besides that of hooves on the trail and the creak of leather. Behind Scott trailed the two ranch hands searched to both sides. Scott shouted yet again, reining in his jibbing horse, speaking softly to the animal, only too well aware that the animal was responding to his own tightly wound nerves.
Cipriano recognized the young man’s tightly controlled agitation but there was nothing he could do. The Segundo’s eyes were on the trail, alert for even the slightest hint of a stone scuffed by an iron-shod hoof. For more than twenty years, Cipriano and his family – the entire community that was the estancia – had depended on the Patron; worked for him; supported him; respected him. Murdoch Lancer was a good man and the foreman sent a silent prayer heavenward for the man’s well-being and for his son and heir who – God forbid this day was not fated to end well – would be the new Patron.
The light brightened as they climbed higher but the dense thickets covering the lower slopes and the bottom of canyon could have hidden a herd of horses, never mind an injured man. Injured , Scott told himself over and over. If he’s down there, he’s injured. Maybe Jelly already found him. A rider could catch up to us anytime now . . . we’ll meet him walking home . . .
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
In the chill dimness of the canyon still awaiting the first flare of warming sunlight, the wolves kept their guard. The faintest of sounds carried through the early morning stillness and the male raised his head, ears flicking as he listened intently. There it was again. “Murdoch!”
In one fluid motion, he was on his feet. The others roused, but a rumble of reassurance and command held them still around the man. The male ascended the steep slope with sure-footed grace, emerging onto the trail just as the sun at last crested the hills. Stationary as a stature, he waited, ears cocked, listening to the creaks, jingles, and steady tread of the approaching horses.
They were close now – a horse snorted, catching the barest whiff of the danger ahead. The animal danced a few steps but the rider brought him back under control and urged him forward. The lead rider skirted around an outcropping of brush-covered rock . . .
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
Cipriano’s eyes were fixed on the trail until his horse snorted uneasily, dancing a few steps back before his rider’s hands and legs brought him under control. The experienced vaquero quickly surveyed his surroundings, far too wise to dismiss his mount’s disquiet. Maybe un puma or perhaps un lobo. Both lived in these hills and both were deadly hunters.
The trail curved sharply around an outcrop, dropping away on the left in a steep tumble of boulders and low bushes. And there . . . right in the middle of the trail . . . not more than a hundred feet in front of his jibbing, snorting horse . . . was the most gigantesco lobo he had ever seen or even heard of. Just sitting there, looking at him . . . holding a hat in his mouth. The Segundo was aware of Scott behind him although the younger man was holding his mount back as Cipriano’s own horse continued to dance nervously.
Scott was occupied with his own mount, but not so much he wasn’t keeping an eye on the huge wolf sitting perfectly still, out in the open, in the full light of day . . . with a hat in his mouth that looked very much like Murdoch’s. The deadly predator might have been a ranch dog waiting on the approaching humans and wondering what all the excitement was about. Observing Cip drawing his gun, Scott followed suit. He wasn’t as good with the pistol as he was with a rifle, but there was simply no way he could hope to use the Winchester while holding his panicky horse in check.
“Scott, what’s goin’ on?” came the husky voice of Zeke, a former slave who had been with the Lancers almost as long as Frank.
Trying to avoid being thrown – or worse, his horse slipping off the trail to plunge down the embankment – while drawing his gun, Scott could spare only a terse “Quiet!” over his shoulder.
When the young rancher returned his attention to the drama unfolding before him, not much had changed. The wolf was still sitting there. Cip now had his pistol aimed at the animal but was clearly assessing the situation. Scott waited for the more experienced man to determine the course of action. In the next moment, the wolf simply dropped the hat, got up and headed off down the slope. A few yards down, he turned back and barked twice.
By now thoroughly confused, the two men sat, guns drawn, horses shifting nervously beneath them, watching the creature.
When the bark failed to elicit a response, the wolf climbed back to the edge of the trail. Two guns tracked him. Ears down and flicking, he barked again, startling the already edgy equines. As his mount lifted its forelegs, snorting and blowing, Scott devoutly wished that he had Wellington under him. The two of them were a smoothly functioning team; Wellington trusted Scott and responded to the lightest touch. Scott knew Wellington’s every move and mood. Unlike . . . jolt . . . this horse.
By the time Scott was certain of his seat again, the wolf was once again several yards down the slope – with the hat in his mouth – and looking back at them. When the men remained immobile, he dropped the hat and stared at the humans in apparent irritation before letting out a spate of urgent barks. The two men exchanged puzzled looks. Wolves simply did not behave like this.
“Scott!” The stage whisper came from “Shush!” This time the young man gestured abruptly for silence and distance.
“Cip, that looks like Murdoch’s hat. What do you recommend?”
The Segundo slowly shook his head. “I don’t know Señor. It does look like the Patron’s hat but I’m not sure . . . I have never seen un lobo behave in such a way.”
Fixated on the hat, Scott acted without being conscious of having reached a decision. Slowly . . . so slowly . . . he eased off his horse. Cipriano made to follow, but his boss stopped him with an upraised hand. Slow and easy, Scott, slow and easy. Never taking his eyes from the enormous canine, Scott used hand signals and whispers to direct the Lancer hands. Willis, who was bringing up the rear, promptly dismounted and handed his reins to Zeke, moving carefully forward to stand beside his boss’s fidgety mount. All the horses were trained to ground tie but, under the current circumstances, keeping a firm hand on the reins and a reassuring presence nearby was only practical. Even the best horse might bolt in the immediate proximity of a wolf.
One step at a time, making as little noise as possible, the young man worked his way down the slope toward the wolf, still standing over the dusty gray object that could be . . . had to be . . . Murdoch’s hat. Slow and easy . . . don’t spook him . . . won’t help Murdoch if you get your throat torn out. But, somehow, Scott knew that wasn’t going to happen. Whatever was happening here . . . “Easy, boy. That’s a good boy. I’m not going to hurt you. I’d just like to see what you have there.” Good, Scott, you’re talking to a wild animal like it was a pet dog. And walking right up to it like it wouldn’t just as soon eat you as look at you. You’ve lost your mind . . . you’ve . . .
As the man approached, the animal retreated a few yards, stopping just downhill to watch as Scott slowly . . . slowly . . . picked up the hat and examined it. Up on the trail, Cipriano watched, ready to shoot at the first threatening move by the canine. Scott turned the hat over, examining it. No blood, no indication of anything wrong but it was unmistakably Murdoch’s. Looking up at his foreman, the rancher raised the hat slightly and nodded.
The two Lancer hands watched with eyes approximately the size of silver dollars and – had it been summer – both would have been in serious danger of swallowing a mouthful of insects at the sight of their employer standing nearly face-to-face with a huge wolf, holding what appeared to be Mr. Lancer’s hat. This was going to make some story to tell in the bunkhouse. Assuming anyone would believe a word of it . . . which was assuming a whole hell of a lot.
Scott backed up the precipitous slope, halting directly below where the other men waited. His concise orders were delivered in soft, even tones. “I’m going down there. You wait here.”
“ Señor . . .” Cipriano started to object.
“No, Cip,” Scott cut him off. “No one’s going down there except me until I know what we’re up against.”
The Segundo shook his head with atypical stubbornness, his voice insistent. “Señor Scott, you are the heir. If, Dios me libre, the Patron is . . . does not . . . you are the heir.”
The younger man bit his lip to stifle a hot retort and stared down at the battered object in his hands while his mind squirreled frantically in denial. There it was again; the Patron; the heir. The rock-solid certainty of nearly two hundred people that he – Scott Garrett Lancer – would carry on; would support and protect them. It was a knowledge he had accepted and simultaneously pushed away. Yes, I’m the heir and someday I’ll have to take Murdoch’s place, he always told himself when reminded of that reality. But someday . . . not today . . . my father is a vigorous man and he’ll ‘call the tune’ for many years yet . . . and just like that someday reared up and slapped Scott Lancer right in the face. One more deep breath and he nodded grudgingly.
Exhaling a huge sigh of relief that, for once, the Lancer heir’s adamant insistence on his duty to lead had yielded to common sense, Cipriano swung off his horse, handing the reins to Willis who had sidled up to take them.
As the big man eased down the rocky hillside, Scott made his way up, taking his mount’s lead and hanging the hat on his saddle horn. Retrieving his rifle from its boot while keeping a tight grip on the nervous horse was no easy task, but the young man managed. Positioning himself where he could follow Cip’s progress as much as possible, Scott jacked a round into the chamber, training the weapon on the shaggy gray figure that had not moved. The Winchester elevated as the Segundo slip-slid past the wolf. Not quite as nimble – and a bit more portly – than the younger man, Cip lost his footing and scooted a several yards on his backside before vanishing into the brush at the bottom of the canyon.
“Cip!” Apprehension charged Scott’s shout.
“Soy bien!” the disembodied voice emerged from the thicket.
Scott swung his eyes and the rifle back to the wolf only to find the creature was gone. Panic edged his next words. “Cip, I don’t see the wolf!”
Uncertain silence loomed over the canyon as the three men strained for a glimpse or sound to indicate that their friend was unharmed. A collective sigh of relief segued into a cheer when Cipriano reappeared through the heavy screen of vegetation waving his arms.
“He is alive!” the shout echoed across the canyon. “Bring the medicines and ropes and blankets. Date prisa!” He vanished again.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
In the years that followed, Scott Lancer could never recall exactly what happened or what he did in the indeterminable time between hearing that shout and kneeling beside his father. Cip worked his way down Murdoch’s body, taking inventory of the unconscious man’s injuries while Scott tried in vain to rouse his father. The hands were arranging the ropes that would be shortly needed haul their boss up the hill.
“The bullet is still in him, Señor Scott,” the Segundo said, spreading a blanket over his employer. I would say the chill last night slowed the bleeding and saved his life. He stuck his head; I cannot say about that but he has some ribs that are cracked if not broken and a gash in his right leg. That is not bleeding either.”
Using water from a canteen and his own kerchief to wash the dirt and crusted blood from the slack face, Scott paused, cudgeling his exhausted and overburdened brain to sort out what was not-quite-right in the other man’s voice. He failed. Resuming his task, he asked, “What else?”
The silence stretched out and the younger man paused again to look over at his Segundo. “Cip?”
The big man cleared his throat, his voice threaded with an abundance of disbelief in the words even as he spoke them. “The wolves, Señor. They were here. When I came down, they were all around the Patron.” The awed confusion on the usually imperturbable face sent icy tendrils rippling through Scott. Braced for . . . what? . . . he waited.
When Cipriano continued, his voice was low, the words coming slowly. “Los lobos . . . many of them . . . they were all around the Patron . . . close beside him. The big male – the one who stopped us – he came out of the bushes and growled and they leaped up and went . . . away.” Another long silence while both men glanced around as though realizing for the first time that there was no sign of wolves; not so much as a rustle of wind stirred the vegetation. Brown eyes stared directly into blue. “I think they kept him warm, Señor Scott. He has lost much blood and it was cold last night. I think . . .”
A yip yanked their attention to the edge of the semi-clearing where a hulking gray shape stood gazing at them.
Cipriano’s hand dropped instinctively to his gun. Just as quickly – and for no reason he could ever put into words – Scott’s hand shot out just as abruptly to seize the Segundo’s wrist. “No.” The whispered word hung in the morning air.
The wolf extended his muzzle toward the men and a low whine seemed to . . . what ? Plead? Commiserate? The whine trailed away to a whimper. Locking eyes with Scott, the wolf uttered one single bark, tail wagging, and the stunned Bostonian could have sworn . . . he’s smiling at me . . .
Numb with all that had happened, thoughts – if one could call such tumbling incoherence thoughts – racing, the Harvard-educated, former cavalry officer-turned-rancher found himself staring into the eyes of a feral wolf; a deadly predator that had saved not killed his father . . . and then it struck him like a punch in the gut. A wolf with blue eyes . . .
In that instant of cognition, the creature was gone. There was no perceived movement, no whisper of his passage through the undergrowth; he was just . . . gone . . . between one heartbeat and the next.
“We’re ready, Scott.” The voice preceding Willis through the screen of shrubbery dispelled the magic, plopping the men back into the very real exigency of getting Murdoch patched up, out of the canyon, and safely home. Neither spoke, simply turning back to the tasks at hand. First things first; the rest could be discussed . . . maybe . . . later. Then again, maybe not.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
Murdoch remembered nothing of the grueling trip home and not much of the next several days. His first clear memory was of Scott asleep in the chair beside his bed, an open book across his lap. As if sensing a change, the younger man woke with a start, dumping the book on the floor with a thud. A heartbeat later, a smile lit his face. “Welcome back, Pater.”
Murdoch managed to return the smile but couldn’t manage words until he had several sips from the glass of water his son provided. Sinking back into the pillows, the injured man closed his eyes against the pounding in his head. His voice was a bare whisper. “It’s good to be here, son. What happened?”
The blonde Lancer leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees. “Well, sir, apparently you were shot from the saddle and tumbled down a rocky hillside into a canyon. The men who shot you then robbed you and left you for dead. Then we found you and brought you home. Dr. Sam says you have a concussion, a bullet hole in your shoulder, you lost a lot of blood, you have two cracked ribs, and for the pièce de résistance . . .” he paused dramatically and flourished his hands , “ some truly spectacular cuts and bruises. He also said that it’s fortunate you are blessed with the hardest head in the San Joaquin. With rest and proper care, you should be up and around in a few weeks.” “Weeks?” The attempt at brusqueness was somewhat spoiled by the fact that the older man’s eyes were already closing. “Weeks,” Scott replied firmly. When it was obvious that his father was sleeping peacefully, the young master of Lancer returned to the lively Adventures of Tom Sawyer .
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
The Lancer patriarch lounged on the portico, drinking in the sweetness of warm summer air and blooming roses. On a table beside him rested a glass of cold lemonade. In his lap lay the book he had been reading. Nestled in the crook of one arm, his youngest grandson slept. Gazing down raptly at the miniature features, the rancher gently brushed a work-roughened finger across the soft cheek and stroked the dark, silky hair . . . so like another infant. Joshua Murdoch Lancer scrunched up his tiny face, gave voice to a querulous whimper, and wriggled before settling back into a baby’s deep slumber.
Leaning back in the well-cushioned chair, little Joshua’s grandfather mulled over the events of the months just past. The most important event, of course, had been the baby’s birth. Despite her difficult pregnancy, Margaret had come through the delivery without too much trouble and Joshua was a healthy, vigorous baby. Scott, needless to say, was proud as a peacock and mightily relieved that everything turned out well. Garrett was a bit disappointed that, after all the anticipation, his little brother couldn’t be played with. In fact, he wasn’t very interesting at all; just sort of laid there except when he was crying. Worst of all, the newcomer was spending a lot more time on Mama’s lap than Garrett was. The situation might have resulted in some serious resentment if Papa hadn’t made a special effort to take big brother out with him when he was riding around the ranch. Between them, Jelly, Delores, and Maria had devised a sling that fit over Scott’s shoulders and would hold a sleeping child securely as long as his father didn’t participate in any stampedes or gun battles.
The thieves had been captured when they attempted to sell their loot in Green River. It developed that they had done some celebrating in Spanish Wells where two scruffy drifters with a large amount of cash had gotten the attention of the saloon owner but it was a busy Saturday night and, of course, the next day being Sunday, she hadn’t gotten around to mentioning it to the sheriff until late Monday afternoon when the frazzled lawman stopped by for a much needed drink after finally persuading Mrs. Echols that he really would have to arrest her if she shot her no-account, lying, cheating husband for staggering home dead broke with a monumental hangover after a two-day absence. Even if he did agree with her. The beleaguered sheriff had eventually carried the much-affronted husband off to spend the night in the safe confines of the jail before taking himself off to the saloon. By that time the strangers were long gone.
The brothers arrived in Green River on Wednesday afternoon and – after a most satisfactory transaction at the general store – managed to enjoy the company of a couple of saloon girls for all of ten minutes and finish one round of drinks before being confronted by the business end of Sheriff Crawford’s scattergun. Instead of good food and a few eagerly anticipated nights in proper beds – with some warm, willing company – the pair now shared a cell and their host wasn’t too concerned about the amenities or the menu. A good part of the stolen money was retrieved as well the far more valuable – to Murdoch priceless – gun and watch that had been gifts from his family.
Murdoch smiled grimly remembering Val’s disgust when he reported the arrest to the Lancers. “Damn fools can’t read and it never occurred to ‘em the engravin’ on the watch might be a name or somethin’ somebody’d recognize. Didn’t think anybody’d recognize the mark on the butt of that gun neither.” The sheriff polished off his drink and picked up his hat. “Guess I’d better be getting’ back. Just wanted to let you folks know we got ‘em. Circuit judge should be here in about three weeks. I’ll send word what day the trial is. Not much doubt how that’ll turn out.” He settled the sadly worn hat on his head.
Scott, who had been standing near Murdoch’s chair, crossed the space before the fireplace, hand extended. “Thanks, Val. Lancer owes you a lot. And please thank the Wainwrights. I’ll do it myself the first chance I have to get into town.”
The lawman snorted. “Mr. Wainwright was madder ‘n a hornet that somebody’d sell him stolen goods. ‘Specially since he ordered that watch for you and Johnny in the first place.”
The noticeable silence was broken by Murdoch’s deep voice. “We owe Mr. Wainwright and you, Sheriff. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to have those particular possessions back. Thank you.”
Crawford shifted uncomfortably at the praise, not certain what to say, especially feeling like he’d stuck his foot in his mouth mentioning Johnny in connection with the watch. Scott took pity on the man who had been his brother’s best friend and moved to show him out.
Moving slowly so as not to disturb Joshua, Murdoch reached into is pocket and extracted the watch. It had not been mishandled – after all, the thieves wanted to sell it – and all it had needed was a good polishing. Now he examined it, admiring the scrollwork on the cover. He popped it open, gazing for long minutes at the plain but elegant face; watched the minute hand twitch forward, counting off in precise increments the span of the hours . . . and days . . . and all the years of a man’s life. The ticking gears could measure time . . . but not what filled that time. Only the soul could to do that. Only the ethereal spirit of man could experience the griefs and joys; the anger; the tenderness; the passion; the mortal weariness that sometimes made a man want to lie down and quit.
A smile crept across Murdoch’s face as he once again looked down at the blessing asleep in his arms and, for the first time in so long, the memory of that other child didn’t hurt. Johnny had come back. The promise of his laughing, blue-eyed baby boy had been fulfilled in the laughing, strong, courageous, and loving man.
Clicking the case shut, he turned the timepiece over and his smile became wider as he ran his thumb over the words engraved on the back.
To Our Old Man
Scott and Johnny
~ end ~
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