Vested Interests by Maureen

Author’s Note: Written singly and first released in “The Lancer Great Room Bookshelf, Vol. III” from Yucca Flower Press (Spring 2007), this serves as a surprising companion piece to my “Little Things” (which should be read first) and “Sharp Edge” (which should be read second), both of which are followed by a third more directly connected story—a decidedly dark piece, (The) Path Well Traveled.

This was initially planned to become my first posted “Lancer” story an incredible amount of years ago. But other tales borrowed from my initial concept, sometimes coming here to steal bits of dialogue (or even whole scenes), while still other stories blazed their own path to the fore. But through them all I just could never forget that I had a certain cowboy in need of particular attention. My muse had her way for a long time. Until now.
Thanks, to Karen F., AJ, and Linda B. — my worldly muses and task mistresses.

Word count: 12,995

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Vested Interest: An interest to which the holder has a strong commitment. Or, a special interest in protecting that which is to one’s own personal advantage.

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‘I’m so cold.’

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Morning broke reluctantly over the California landscape, little of the sun’s warming rays reaching the ground through the dense overcast sky. An unsettling gray shroud replaced the blackness of night. A lack of shadows manifested in a bleak harshness that boded ill for brighter prospects for the day.

Within the Lancer hacienda, Teresa stirred beneath a cozy mound of sheets and blankets. She poked a bare toe out into the air, only to draw it back quickly. ‘Still too cold.’ Her shoulders scrunched up to her ears as she pulled a blanket closer under her chin, curling herself further until she lay in a catlike ball.

Teresa floated down into the half-sleep of one contented as she indulged in another couple minutes of snug comfort. But chiding from years of routine niggled at her senses, until guilt overwhelmed her.

The young woman tossed away the covers as she bounded off the soft mattress, escaping her bed’s refuge before the tempting warm fortress could lure her back. She padded over to the window and pushed aside the thick curtains. A fleeting look was all Teresa needed to confirm what she’d already guessed–after five days it was still raining.

‘What will it be today, drizzles or downpours? As if it matters anymore.’

Turning from the dismal sight, she flipped the curtain closed with angry impatience. A shiver flowed through her that raised goose bumps along her arms, an annoying reminder to keep moving. She flitted about the room, gathering clothing to dress, longing for the blossom of warmth and long days of sunshine that should have marked the season’s change from spring to summer.

Her mood threatened to darken even more as Teresa buttoned her blouse and thought of the harm the unceasing showers had already caused. Inch by inch the edges of her garden had been destroyed by the accumulated rainwater, her carefully nurtured plants slowly covered by the flood.

But she knew her losses paled compared to the damage the unrelenting storm had inflicted all over the ranch. Fences were down everywhere. Landslides had started in the hills. Many riverbeds were near cresting level. Cattle continually needed rescue from mud holes that formed in low-lying areas. Every hand on the ranch was working from before dawn to well after dusk, just to keep up with minimal repairs.

The emergency affected the entire area, from Morro Coro to Green River, even beyond Spanish Wells. The unseasonable weather had caught everyone unprepared. But Teresa’s worry focused most on her own home and the Lancer men who provided her guardianship.

Father and sons were taking the lion’s share of responsibility for holding the ranch together. As co-owners, Teresa understood that it was, of course, their obligation to work hardest to protect the property; but the ranch was large, and the multiplying problems were taking a steep toll. Sleep was a precious commodity, but there was so much to do. She’d barely seen Murdoch or Scott yesterday, and Johnny . . . as she brushed her hair and thought back, Teresa actually couldn’t remember seeing Johnny at all, although she knew he’d been the first one up and out the prior morning.

Somehow the thought of not having seen Johnny the night before bothered Teresa. A lot. She felt disturbingly . . . lonely.

Teresa opened a lower drawer of her dresser and reviewed the assortment of shawls stored there. The third one down peeked out at her beguilingly. She lifted the top two and stared at the regal blue material revealed beneath, dotted with vibrant red rose blooms elegantly patterned over the garment. Meant for formal occasions, it had been a gift. From Johnny. She stroked a hand over the delicate cloth, and found herself smiling for the first time that morning.

The young woman yanked the shawl from the drawer and, with a dramatic flourish, draped it over her shoulders. She closed the dresser drawer, then once more ran a hand over the soft fabric wrapped around her.

Fluffing her long hair out from under the shawl, Teresa took a final look around her room. The closed drapes renewed her irritation. She strode to the window and threw the curtains open in defiance, determined to further brighten her day. For good measure, on the way out of the room she stopped at her dresser and placed a drop of her best perfume, a gift from Scott, at the base of her neck.

As she quietly made her way past the other still closed bedroom doors, Teresa thought she heard movement in Johnny’s room and paused. Directly across the hall a floorboard creaked within Scott’s room. She rued her extra moments of stolen sleep, quickened her pace and hurried downstairs to start breakfast.

It would no doubt be another long day, but Teresa could now maintain a smile. She had a very important job to do, one she relished with a growing passion. The Lancer men needed her, relied on her to nourish them, provide for them, pray for them. Today she would begin their day with a pot of good, strong, hot coffee and a filling meal. She’d do her part to keep them strong enough to protect their valuable assets.

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‘Someone . . . miss me.’

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Scott made his way down the back stairway from the sleeping quarters to the kitchen. Each step reminded him that, one way or another, he was going to get wet again today. His boots had mostly dried during the night. Mostly. Except for the leather right around his toes and heels. The residual dampness there had already begun to leach through two layers of socks.

Almost a year at Lancer, Scott thought he’d made substantial progress adapting from Harvard-educated Boston businessman to life as a rancher. ‘It’s a test,’ he considered. ‘California’s final hazing before initiation into the cowboy fraternity. The newly chartered Alpha Lancer Mu . . .’

Scott stopped mid-step, leaned back against the wall and slapped a hand over his mouth to muffle his laughter. ‘Alpha Lancer,’ he thought, then quietly crooned, “mooooo.” The hand moved up to cover his eyes as his shoulders shook from persistent chuckles. ‘I hope it’s the lack of sleep . . . otherwise, I’ve gone absolutely insane.’

He crossed his arms, took a couple of deep breaths, and tried very hard to stifle his inappropriate humor, Lancer’s current situation much too dire to support bouts of uncontrolled laughter. With a final deep breath, Scott continued down the staircase, his amusement tempered. However, just before he entered the kitchen he had a wildly errant thought. ‘Wait until I tell Johnny that I’m pledging him to Alpha Lancer Mu.’

Scott lost the battle with his sensibilities and was laughing aloud when he turned the corner and stepped into the invitingly warm kitchen.

“What’s so funny?” Teresa spared a brief look over from her task at the busy stove, a bright smile on her heat-flushed face. She turned back quickly to flip a thick piece of bacon that sizzled beside several others in a large cast iron pan.

“Oh, nothing,” Scott managed as he fought off another urge to laugh hysterically. “Just something I need to tell Johnny.”

“Do you know if he’s awake yet?” She flipped another piece of bacon with one hand while the other grabbed at her shawl, stopping an attempted escape from her shoulder.

“I don’t even know if I’m awake yet,” Scott said as he knuckled residual sleep from his right eye. “I imagine he’ll be down soon. I think I heard Murdoch grumbling. Might have been a bear though . . .”

Teresa giggled. “Can you blame him? I can’t wait for this weather to end so we can all get a decent night’s sleep again.”

“You seem to have had a good night. Who’s invited to your party?” Scott grabbed a mug off the table and joined Teresa at the stove. He poured coffee from a bubbling pot.

She glanced at Scott as she again pulled at the wayward shawl. “Oh, this. I just wanted something to brighten my day. Everything’s been so gray and dreary. I’m fighting back.”

“Good for you. You do look very nice, and I’m sure Johnny will approve.”

As Scott turned to go sit down, he caught hint of a scent more common to ballrooms than kitchens. “Is that the perfume I gave you, too?”

Teresa nodded. “Mm, hmm.” She smiled. “More ammunition for my war.”

Scott found himself laughing again. “Excellent. I commend your tactics, Sergeant.”

“Why, thank you, Lieutenant.” She laughed back.

Scott took his seat at the kitchen table and savored the strong taste of his much-needed coffee. Within minutes Teresa set a brimming plate before him. “Thank you,” he said, eying the carefully balanced mound of food. “Do you really think I can eat all this?”

“I know you can.” She crossed her arms and stared down at him with reproach. “You didn’t touch the dinner I left out for you last night. Johnny didn’t eat his, either. You men. At least I got Murdoch to swallow some soup.”

“Sorry.” Scott smiled up at her. “Too tired to chew. It was appreciated.”

“You’re welcome.”

The pair glanced toward the staircase at the alert of heavy footfalls. “The bear’s up,” Scott deadpanned.

Teresa swatted playfully at Scott’s shoulder as she turned to the stove. She returned with the coffee pot, topped off Scott’s mug and filled another just as Murdoch entered the kitchen.

“Is that for me?” Murdoch asked as he limped stiff-legged to the table.

“Mm, hmm,” Teresa said. “I’ll have your breakfast ready right away.”

“Thank you, dear,” Murdoch said as he slowly sat down beside Scott. He took a sip of the hot brew. “You look pretty today.”

“Thank you. I’ve been told that before,” Scott said. He flashed a broad grin at Murdoch as he forked another measure of eggs into his mouth.

Murdoch stared at Scott over the top of his steaming coffee. He’d looked more than tired, but his eyes gained a mischievous glint. “Not you, son.” Murdoch reached over and patted Scott’s arm with dramatic sympathy. “I meant Teresa.”

“Oh. My mistake,” Scott said in mock disappointment. Teresa giggled from the stove behind them. “She’s taken up arms against our dreadfully depressing weather. I, for one, hope she wins a decisive victory.”

“Here, here,” Murdoch said, raising his mug in cheer. His arm stopped short, joviality suspended with an irrepressible grimace. He pulled the mug back to a respectable distance and began massaging a bicep.

Scott knew better than to press his proud father about his physical condition. All the men on the ranch were tired and sore, and there had already been a fair share of sprains, strains, and broken bones among the hands. Thankfully none of the injuries had yet been very serious. But it was clear the older man was uniquely suffering from the week’s additional work. Scott concentrated on devouring his eggs as his father worked out the ache in his arm until finally able to once again sip his morning tonic without further sign of complaint.

Teresa set Murdoch’s breakfast before him, then sat beside her guardian and joined the men for her own meal. They ate in silence, appreciating the relaxed company while listening to the beat of a steady falling rain.

The brief peace shattered as the back door crashed open, rebounding with a loud crack against a bucket set on the floor behind it. Teresa jumped.

“Sorry T’resa,” Jelly said. “Knob plumb slipped outta my hand!” The old handyman stomped mud off his boots onto the stoop, then finally entered and closed the door behind him, only to start his now ritual rant against the elements as he shed his rain splattered coat. “I’m so gol’durn tired of all this wet weather! If it don’t clear soon I’m gonna hafta take swimmin’ lessons from Dewdrop. Don’t think I won’t have a few of the other hands joinin’ me. Never seen such a sorry mess a’ soggy, waterlogged, mud-covered cow punchers in my life. Why, if–”

“Jelly, would you like a cup of coffee and maybe a biscuit or two?” Teresa winked at Scott as she rose.

“Why, I most certainly would. Thank you very much.” Jelly joined the men at the table as Teresa prepared his breakfast. Always a good hostess, there was a rasher of bacon added to the plate when she brought it to the table along with the coffee pot.

“Miss T’resa, you sure do know jest exactly how ta take the chill outta a mornin’ like this.”

“You’re welcome, Jelly,” she said as she poured another round of coffee.

Jelly ate and reported on the condition of the ranch, as relayed by the vaqueros fresh returned from the night watches. Scott asked a few questions, but overall found Jelly’s report pretty thorough. Added together, the information equaled yet another very busy day ahead.

“Murdoch, were you able to get that bridge repaired?” Scott asked.

“Yes. Finally. It’ll hold, too.”

“Good. I found three decent areas of high ground. We should start pushing some of the herd north today. It may take the rest of the week, but I think it’ll be worth it in the long run.”

“I agree,” Murdoch said. “The ranch isn’t going to dry out anytime soon.” He scrubbed his hands over his face. “We’ll wait for Johnny.”

“He ain’t laid up this mornin’ on accounta’ his cold?” Jelly grabbed a third biscuit and took a bite.

Scott looked at Teresa who looked to Murdoch, all of them baffled. Murdoch finally said, “What do you mean? Is Johnny sick?”

“Reckon so.” Jelly appeared confounded. “Don’t know fer myself. There’s a few of the hands that’s ailing. Santos just happened to mention that Johnny’d been cough’n pretty bad yesterday. I also know Johnny ain’t one ta miss a meal, so I jest figured since he weren’t here partakin’ a’ T’resa’s good food that maybe he’d went and let this weather get the best of him.”

“We haven’t seen Johnny yet this morning,” Teresa said. She faced Murdoch and Scott. “Did either of you see him last night?”

“No,” they replied in unison.

Teresa scooted her chair back and stood, her bright shawl wrapping tightly around her arms as she set hands on hips. “Well, I’m going to go check on him. If Johnny’s sick, I’m not going to let him claim he’s not. It would be just like him to run himself into the ground before doing anything about it.

“You men! I don’t know why you feel a need to deny the fact that you’re capable of getting sick!”

Guilty as charged, the three men could only watch after her in awe, until the young woman disappeared up the staircase and her determined footsteps began to fade. Scott finally said, “I wouldn’t want to be Johnny right now. If he is sick, Teresa’s going to make him wish he was dead for not telling her right away.”

“Amen to that,” Jelly concurred. “She’s gonna chew him out fer sure.”

The men shared a hearty laugh. “It is amazing how she can manage to run roughshod over him,” Murdoch said. “I have to admire Johnny’s patience, though. He’ll whine, beg, and try to bargain his way out of her fussing before he finally loses his temper. But she’ll back him down. Johnny can give as good as he gets with most men, but not Teresa.”

Murdoch’s wide smile thinned as he turned to Scott. “We may not be able to count on having Johnny’s help today.”

Jelly developed a wicked little grin. “We got work ta do, that’s fer sure. But you think we got time for one more cup of this here coffee? I know it ain’t a kindly thing to appreciate another man’s misery, but I sure do like watchin’ Miss T’resa take Johnny to task. His reputation don’t mean nothin’ when it comes ta a showdown with her! Sure is a sight ta see.”

Scott bobbed his head as he rose to get Jelly his coffee. “Remember, a couple of months ago, when he cut his arm on that barbed wire? Teresa insisted he’d open the stitches if he didn’t keep it braced.” Scott almost spilled coffee over the table as he refreshed each man’s cup, his shoulders bouncing from uncontrollable laughter. “She chased Johnny all the way to the barn trying to get him to wear a sling, before he finally threatened to poke her with a pitchfork if she took another step toward him.”

Boisterous laughter filled the room as Scott set the coffee pot back on the stove.

“Murdoch! Murdoch!” Teresa’s frantic voice was sobering as her hurried footfalls resonated down the stairs.

Murdoch reached the staircase just as she rounded the corner, the pair almost colliding. “Johnny’s bed wasn’t slept in last night.”

The implications were serious. “Are you sure?” Murdoch asked.

“Yes, very sure. I changed all the bedding yesterday and left him a fresh nightshirt on top of his pillow. It’s still exactly where I left it.”

“Did you see him at all yesterday?” Murdoch asked Scott.

“No,” Scott said. “After I left you at the bridge I was all over the north range, but I never ran into him.”

Murdoch clutched his ward around the shoulders in a hug meant for reassurance, but the look he shot Scott was anything but convincing. “Don’t worry, honey. We’ll go talk to the hands and find out who saw him last. He may have simply stopped at a line shack for the night. You look around inside and see if you notice anything else.”

“I’ll go see if Barranca is in his stall, and meet you at the bunkhouse,” Scott said. “Jelly, gather the men and we’ll join you in a few minutes.”

Teresa clutched at her colorful shawl and headed toward the great room. The men moved off with purpose, the warmth of the morning giving way to a chilly apprehension, and the depressing gloominess of another rainy day.

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‘Please. Not much longer . . . .’

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Never a patient man, Murdoch stomped across the muddy courtyard, his heavy tread emptying puddles along the way. He spied Scott exiting the barn and quickened his step.

“Scott, what did you find?” Murdoch’s call was gruffer than intended, and he told himself to calm down. The lighthearted banter from the morning breakfast already seemed years ago, buried in the past under a ton of anxiety about Johnny’s wellbeing.

“Barranca is in his stall,” Scott answered. He matched his father’s rapid pace without falter as the men met. “Johnny had to have come back to the ranch sometime.”

“Except Teresa didn’t find a sign that he’d been anywhere near the house yesterday.” They continued together toward the main bunkhouse.

A drenched vaquero ran into the building three steps ahead of the Lancers. Scott closed the door behind them. Jelly and Murdoch’s long-time Segundo, Cipriano, stood nearby. The large room was packed from wall to wall with ranch hands. Most stood, but others had crawled up onto the top bunks for a better view. A jumble of conversations dwindled to silence.

“You all know why you’re here,” Murdoch said as he pulled off his hat and whipped it against his dripping slicker, sending a chaotic pattern of rainwater onto the door behind him. “Johnny didn’t come home last night, and I want to know why. Jelly, did anyone see him this morning?”

“No, sir.”

Murdoch faced his Segundo. “Cip. Barranca is in the barn. Was Johnny riding him when he rode out with you yesterday?”

“Sí, Patron,” Cipriano answered. “I come for you before dawn, but Juanito wake before I could knock on your door. I tell him there was much flooding in the south pasture and we must get the herd to higher ground. He say to let you sleep, he will come. I saddle Barranca while he dress.”

“Who else saw Johnny yesterday?” Scott asked.

It sounded like a simple direct question that would lead to a quick answer for where to find Johnny. But Murdoch shared an incredulous look with Scott as a loud chorus of “me” and “I did” burst out from well over half the men in the room.

“Well, Cip saw Johnny first,” Murdoch said. “Who saw him next?”

All hell broke loose as, in rapid-fire succession, each man presented his piece of the puzzle on Johnny’s whereabouts.

“Me, Luke, and Del was with them cows in the south pasture,” young Jake offered.

“Mike an’ me caught up ta him while lookin’ for downed fences,” Will spoke up. “Didn’t have no trouble findin’ any. Johnny said just to fix ‘em enough to keep the stock Cip was movin’ from spreadin’ out too far. He said it was stupid to do much more than patch since them fences was gonna fall down again anyways from the look ‘a the ground.”

“Told us the same thing.” Frank claimed his turn. “Me an’ some others was workin’ the fences, too. Johnny said when we finished to go help Cipriano get that herd pulled out of the mud.”

“He no like to do it, but Señor Johnny made me let go the horses we had corralled in Eagle Canyon,” Jose offered next. “He say there no time to break them, so we catch them again later.”

“Johnny helped me rope some stupid cows out of a stream near there that was swellin’ bad . . . must a’ been ‘bout noon or so,” Leathers said. “He left pretty mad. Them cows was near drownin’ and his slicker kept gettin’ in the way, so he pulled it off so we could get the job done. It ended up floatin’ away downstream.”

“Musta been why he took my poncho when I put Barranca up for him,” Charlie said.

“When was that?” Murdoch asked.

The tall lanky cowboy stared up to the ceiling as he thought hard on his answer. “Was ‘round two or so. I was just ridin’ out to find one of ya’ll,” he pointed at Murdoch, then Scott, “when Johnny rode up. Word come in that the fence over by Dave Murphy’s spread west ‘a here was real bad damaged. Johnny said he’d take care of it. Took my poncho an’ horse . . . my sandwich too!”

A few of the hands laughed, but Charlie turned downright distressed. “Johnny told me to go get me another one for myself, and to thank Teresa for makin’ ‘em for the men. I done forgot to tell her. I’m real sorry, Mr. Lancer.”

If Johnny weren’t missing, Charlie’s memory lapse might be considered a trivial thing. Murdoch should have been angry with the man for his forgetfulness, but he found himself touched by the sincerity of the hand’s apology. “Don’t worry about it, Charlie.”

Murdoch was amazed at Johnny’s activities over just one morning. He’d had such a hard time getting Johnny to understand the needs of running and maintaining a spread as large as Lancer. Murdoch hadn’t thought his impetuous and stubborn younger son would ever catch on to what was important to Lancer’s success. It took him by surprise that all Johnny’s decisions on behalf of the ranch had been sound judgment calls. ‘I need to let Johnny know what a good job he’s done . . . but first we have to find him.’

“Okay, that tracks Johnny’s morning,” Murdoch said. “He left Charlie around two and headed toward the Murphy fence line. Who was working over there?”

“Me, Santos, and some others, Mr. Lancer,” Hank said loudly. “We was tryin’ to sort out Murphy’s cows from ours. Johnny come by . . . must ‘a been ‘round three or so, and told us to just let ‘em mix, we’d sort ‘em out once the weather cleared. He worked with us figurin’ out which fences to fix so’s them cows wouldn’t get themselves into no trouble. Left some of us to watch the cattle in that area . . . sent the rest to check the fence line on the way back to the bunkhouse. Johnny told ‘em to come back and spell us after they got some rest.”

“Santos,” Scott called out. “Jelly said you heard Johnny coughing pretty bad yesterday. Is that right?”

“Sí, Señor Scott.” The vaquero stepped forward a pace. “He say it was nothing, but I didn’t like the sound though. He not feeling well, for sure.” Several men who’d seen Johnny nodded their heads in agreement.

Murdoch’s concerns mounted. “Where did he go when he left you?”

“He talk with Señor Murphy about the fences and cattle,” Santos said with certainty.

“I seen ‘em when he come back from there,” Jim offered. “Johnny said Dave’s wife was sick and he was shorthanded, so it was okay by him to go ahead and let the cattle mix. By the time Johnny got over to us it was well dark, maybe nine or so. He stayed a piece, then went on along.”

“He must’a run into us on his way,” Tom spoke up. “We’d just split up with Cisco and some of the other boys. Was spreadin’ out to pull night watch for them others that was ridin’ herd all day.”

“What time was that?” Murdoch felt himself getting agitated.

“Probably ‘round ten-thirty,” Tom said quickly.

“He come over to us when he left you,” Cisco said. “The cattle we was watchin’ was on good ground, but mighty skittish. It was all we could do to keep ‘em put. Johnny stuck with us for quite awhile before settin’ out.”

“What time?” Murdoch implored.

“Had to have been at least two . . . maybe three.” Cisco’s head dipped, then shook over his uncertainty as he faced Murdoch. “It was real late, and dark as could be. What moonlight we’d had couldn’t be seen no more for the clouds. Johnny didn’t want to leave . . . even lit down under a tree for a bit and tried to sleep. But he was coughin’ a lot, and said he was gonna get the cattle all spooked again if he stayed. So he grabbed a lantern an’ headed home.”

A deafening silence enveloped the bunkhouse. No other hand volunteered any further information about Johnny’s movements over the prior day.

Each and every man in the room – not the least of which were Murdoch and Scott – understood how serious Johnny’s situation might be. There was no line shack in the area where Johnny was last seen. He’d been out in the open in bad weather throughout the day and alone most of the night – and had clearly been falling ill.

“All right men. That leaves Johnny southwest of the hacienda. I want you all mounted and ready to ride in fifteen minutes.”

There was a whirlwind of movement as the men grabbed for gear or headed straight out the door.

Spun emotionally off-balance, Murdoch couldn’t move, suddenly very tired. His mind swirled with grim probabilities and critical decisions.

“We will find him.”

Murdoch faced Scott and saw the strength of conviction he needed. “I know.” He stiffened his back.

“I’ll let Teresa know what we found out,” Scott said. “Maria should be here by now. They’ll pack what we’ll need.” He joined the exodus of men from the bunkhouse.

Murdoch set his hat on his head. A young cowboy, recently hired, approached the doorway. He had his head down and a fist at his mouth, fighting a hacking cough.

“You there,” Murdoch called and pointed. “What’s your name, boy?”

“Clint—” cough “—sir.” The smooth-cheeked cowhand tried to face Murdoch, but his illness won out. He coughed fiercely into his hand.

“You’re not going. Stay in the bunkhouse today.” Murdoch considered his command an end to the conversation, and turned to leave.

“But—” Cough.

“That’s an order!” Murdoch’s bark was so forceful two other cowboys stopped to stare.

Although hired to do a man’s job, the kid was just that, a kid. Clint looked from one cowboy to the other and then ducked his head. He wilted down into himself as his arms crossed over his chest.

The reaction was so akin to Johnny’s manner that Murdoch’s breath caught in his throat. He motioned for the other two men to leave with a tip of his head and took a step closer to the boy. “There’s no shame in it, Clint.”

Clint’s eyebrows rose with doubt as he peered up at Murdoch.

Murdoch placed a hand on the kid’s shoulder. “You’re sick and we have more than enough men. Stay inside. It’ll be fine.” He wasn’t sure who he was trying to convince, himself or the kid, but there was no way he could let the young man go out in that condition to search for his own ill son.

The kid again looked up askance, but nodded as he coughed, sealing the decision.

Murdoch patted Clint on the shoulder one last time, then left the bunkhouse, his thoughts once more on Johnny. ‘We’ll find you, son. Just hang on.’

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‘I ain’t gettin’ out of this on my own. I need . . . my . . . family.’

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Teresa stood beside Maria on the veranda, sheltered from a persistent drizzle. They watched Murdoch, Scott, and the band of ranch hands ride out to begin the search for Johnny. The quiet left behind was a disconcerting contrast to the frenzied activity just passed. Scott had given his report, and the women had spent a concentrated fifteen minutes gathering supplies. There had been no time to dwell on the bad news, the possibility that Johnny might be very sick, or injured, or¾

‘No! Don’t even think it. Please let him be all right,’ Teresa pleaded.

There was movement. Teresa let her gaze shift beyond the depressing empty courtyard. She spotted Jelly as he skated his way along the muddy trail from the bunkhouse to the barn. It only took a moment for her to guess where he was headed.

The old man had a special affinity for Johnny, but Murdoch had denied him permission to go with the younger men to search for his friend. ‘He needs to do something for Johnny. He’ll go check on Barranca.’

Johnny’s horse allowed no one else to ride him, and the man returned that loyalty by rarely allowing anyone else to care for the animal. He might have let Charlie stable him yesterday, but it was a sure bet that Johnny would have made certain that the job had been done right as soon as he’d returned.

Except Johnny hadn’t returned.

Jelly Hoskins was not the only person desperate to feel a lifeline connection to Johnny Lancer. The delicate party shawl was practically useless against the rain-cooled air, but Teresa wouldn’t have traded it for anything. She hugged it close and swaddled herself in the warmth of her memories, as she prayed for Murdoch to find his son.

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‘Oh, Dios . . . can’t let that happen again . . .

‘. . . can’t sleep . . . gonna drown . . .

‘. . . don’t sleep . . . they’ll come . . .

‘. . . you’ll see . . . they’ll come . . .

‘. . . just hang on . . . don’t cough . . . stay awake . . .

‘. . . hang on . . . don’t cough . . . stay awake . . .

‘ . . . hang on . . . .’

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“Okay, we start searching here.” Murdoch sat high on his big chestnut horse, surrounded by Lancer’s best men, Scott on one side and Cipriano on the other. “We need to cover as much area as we can, as fast as we can. Spread out, but not so far that you might miss something. We don’t have time to backtrack.”

The urgency was absolute, and the men primed. The rain had stopped, but ominous clouds billowed across the sky and into the horizon.

“Move out.”

Murdoch rode in the middle of the long search line for miles as every ditch, pile of rocks, patch of scrub, and stand of trees was scoured along their path. The irony wasn’t lost on the Lancer patriarch. For years, the land they crossed was all Murdoch thought mattered in his life. He’d used money and sweat to build Lancer, and shed blood–his and others–to keep the ranch his. It was his pride and joy, and anyone who would listen knew that.

‘Let it rot. Just let me find Johnny alive.’

For the first time Murdoch knew why Lancer should be important to him. It wasn’t for the conceit of possessing the land or power of command over the empire he’d built. He now had people in his life that meant so much more to him. The ranch may have brought them together, but it was having his family whole again that actually made the owning of it worthwhile.

‘My sons . . . Teresa. A family.’ Scott and Johnny working beside him was a dream he had hoped to fulfill for many years, and it had finally been realized. Only now Johnny was lost, somewhere on the vast land the Lancers called theirs.

“Hey! I see a horse up ahead,” a sharp-eyed hand shouted.

Murdoch was pulled from his thoughts by the prospect of hope, and prodded his horse forward.

“That’s the one I gave Johnny!” Charlie shouted as they closed the gap on the riderless mount.

Hank was closest to the horse and maneuvered toward it slowly. Murdoch and Scott kept pace as the rest of the men maintained a distance. As the three neared, the skittish horse limped away a few steps, reins dragging along the ground. Hank dismounted and let his own horse’s reins drop. He walked toward the injured animal slowly, crooning quietly, hand outstretched before him. The horse settled, lowering its head as it stepped forward to meet the cowboy.

Scott jumped down and checked the animal over, from saddle to hooves. “Gear’s all intact. The injury isn’t too bad, but probably painful.” He looked up at Murdoch. “Johnny might be close.”

Murdoch nodded. “Hank, do what you can for that horse.” He pivoted his horse as Scott remounted his own. “We’re in the right area,” he called to the search party. “Keep moving.”

Ten more long minutes passed in frustration. They found plenty of cattle scattered in patches along their trail, but not another sign of Johnny. Murdoch risked quickening the pace.

The frost of winter was a season past, but there was a raw bitterness to the air that made a man want to keep his collar buttoned to the top and his gloves pulled on tight. A capricious wind played a puckish game of tag, alternating bracing gusts with dead calm, or stampeding through the treetops to trample on the fresh spring growth before floating the tender young leaves to the earth on a gentle breeze.

The temperature fell as a soft drizzle wafted into their path and veiled itself over the men. The moist caress was a cruel taunt, the threat of torrential downpours ever in Murdoch’s mind, the continued inclemency of the weather a pitiless danger to Johnny if he hadn’t found shelter.

Gray shadows appeared in the curtain of mist ahead of the search party. The amorphous shapes became horses and riders. The pair galloped forward and reined up before Murdoch and Scott, as the rest of the men continued the search.

“What’s goin’ on, boss?” Gilly asked.

“Did either of you see Johnny today?”

“No, sir,” Ben said, as Gilly shook his head.

Murdoch glanced over to Scott, who mirrored his own disappointment.

“Johnny didn’t make it home last night,” Scott explained. “We know where he was up until two or three. Did you see or hear anyone or anything after that? Anything at all?”

“There was some kind of ruckus,” Gilly said. He turned to his partner. “Remember?”

“Sure do. Sounded strange as hell in the dark.”

“What did you hear?” Murdoch asked.

The two men faced each other again, until Ben volunteered, “A big . . . kinda crash. Cracked and rumbled somethin’ awful. Sounded like one of them big oaks near Parson’s Gulch decided to come down. Didn’t go check ‘cause it was just too durn dark. Forgot all ‘bout it, ‘til now.”

With another glance Murdoch could tell exactly what Scott thought. “Show us,” Murdoch ordered sharply.

Not five minutes later the pair had led the group within sight of a deep gully the vaqueros referred to as Parson’s Gulch. Even from a distance it was impossible to miss the sprawling debris field created by an enormous fallen oak.

Long dead, the tree had stood for years as a stately monument to its former grandeur. The oak had finally surrendered to other forces of nature with a spectacular display of defiance. The roots of the hardwood giant had completely given way and freed themselves from the rain soaked ground. Exposed, they stood taller than a man, a contorted formation of jagged spikes jabbing at the sky.

The embankment that had anchored the massive base of the tree looked like a load of explosives had gone off beneath it. Dirt, rocks, and foliage were blown about the landscape. The displaced tree left a sweeping crescent in the terrain, the missing earth plunged into the gully. The expansive canopy of monstrous branches, turned leafless, dried, and brittle by time,had shattered as they’d hit the bank on the opposite side of the gulch, leaving shards of aged timber and mounds of wood dust scattered over a wide area.

Murdoch’s gut twisted. A vision of Johnny crushed and mangled came to him unbidden and tried to weaken his faith for finding his son alive.

The blurred image of horse and rider flashed before Murdoch, as Scott took off at a swift gallop. Murdoch kicked at his own mount, and the rest of the men followed.

With Scott’s lead, man after man abandoned their mounts at the perimeter of the tree wreckage. They spread out, headed upstream and down, and cautiously moved toward the embankment through the maze of detritus. The ground was soft, uneven, churned up into thousands of little waves by the hooves of hundreds of cows, very recently passed. The men took each step with consideration and care. Boot heels seized tufts of loose grass as they sunk into the soil and pushed through the mire, only to have an inky layer of mud fold in behind to hold each victim in a tight grip.

Del and Jose were first to reach the gully rim. Murdoch watched helplessly as they lurched near the edge. The cowboys grabbed at each other to keep their balance, and together scrambled back as the earth threatened to give way beneath their feet and send them down into the gulch. Clumps of dirt dislodged by their escape splashed noisily into the water below.

The rain drizzled to a stop as Murdoch tracked Scott’s carefully chosen path exactly, until they stood side by side as near the edge they dared.

The old, weatherworn gully was steep sided and ran up to thirty feet wide and twenty feet deep in some places. It rarely held standing water for any length of time, except during the wettest of seasons. Like most of the streams and ponds in the area, the gulch was now flooded with water.

The bulk of the oak’s expansive trunk lay toppled in the streambed and had formed a natural dam. Upstream the water sat deep and dark, pooled behind the obstruction. The stream cascaded over the fallen tree and flowed downstream in gently swirling eddies. More tree debris littered the gully. Oak branches appeared as suggestive shadows below the water’s surface, or reached their twisted fingers high above. Whole shrubs and other trees, big and small, had been yanked from the ground and tossed into the gulch as well. Huge, newly unearthed rocks mixed with others long weathered along the sides of the craggy gully.

There were other shapes in the water . . . cattle. Lancer beef. At least a dozen dead cows were visible amongst the wreckage. Some appeared as mere outlines, crushed and held underwater beneath the heavy oak timbers. One was impaled on the opposite wall, half in, half out of the water, grossly skewered through its neck by a branch. Others floated amongst the debris, fleshy evidence to the force of the destruction.

The men all instinctively silenced, became still, as desperate eyes scanned the chaos.

“Mr. Lancer . . . there!”

Murdoch and Scott both turned their heads sharply. Frank was downstream, beyond the towering roots of the oak. He pointed and then pumped his fist toward a tangle of branches, about fifteen feet from the tree trunk dam.

“Scott, can you see-?”

“No!”

Men cleared from their path, helped pull the Lancers from the mud’s viscous grasp as they struggled to adjust their position, until the angle of their view revealed . . .

“Johnny. Oh, God . . . .”

Toward the far side of the gully, barely visible amidst an embrace of bare tree branches, only one arm and his head still above the deepening water, was Murdoch’s younger son.

.

‘ . . . don’t cough . . . stay awake . . .

‘ . . . hang on . . . don’t cough . . . stay awake . . .

‘. . . hang on . . .

‘ . . . hang . . . .

‘What?’

Something was different. Johnny felt warmth on his face. It wasn’t much, but he’d been cold for so long that the light-

‘. . .touch?’

-almost felt like-

‘ . . . fingers?’

-on his skin. He was feeling-

‘. . . someone’s hands . . . holdin’ my face.’

Someone-

‘. . . ‘s speakin’ to me . . .’

“Johnny.”

‘. . . callin’ my name.’

Johnny shivered. ‘It’s a trick . . . ain’t real! Tired . . . just tired . . . .’

He wanted to sleep.

‘Stay awake!’

He wanted to-

‘. . . get home.’

He wanted-

‘. . . my brother . . . find me . . . .’

“Johnny!”

‘Scott?’

Johnny blinked.

It was a small gesture, but more of a response than Scott had gotten since reaching his brother’s side. “That’s it, Johnny. It’s Scott. Time to get out of here.”

Johnny’s eyes were open, but there was little indication he was aware of his surroundings. His head and the top of his shoulders remained above the water, supported by his left arm, wedged, apparently by Johnny himself, up to his armpit into the crook of a large oak branch. His gloved left hand drooped at the wrist, suspended motionless above the water. Johnny’s hat was missing, his wet hair a tousled mess. His right arm was tucked between buttons into his gray wool jacket. The shoulder of Johnny’s right sleeve was torn at the seam, little bits of bark imbedded in the shredded fabric. Johnny’s face was a pale blue-gray under a day’s growth of beard, and marred with an array of scratches, some with a line of clotted blood still marking their jagged paths. A deep black bruise covered his left cheekbone and stretched back into his hairline.

Scott stood next to his brother, balanced on a submerged log. The rain was absent, but with the sun still cosseted behind endless clouds, the water was left a murky mix of silt and sawdust. Scott couldn’t make out much detail past Johnny’s chest, but he could feel Johnny’s leg next to his own under the water, straddling another limb of the oak. Johnny hadn’t yet moved, except for an occasional irregular shiver that coursed through his body to send ominous ripples adrift across the water.

Scott pressed his bare fingers tighter against his brother’s face. “Johnny, look at me.”

Johnny blinked again.

“That’s it, Johnny. Come on, Boy. Time to go home.”

Another blink. “Scc-ott?” Johnny coughed and his eyes slammed shut, tight. “Th-hat r-real . . . ly . . . y-you?”

It came out quietly, Johnny’s voice badly hoarse, but Scott had never been so pleased to hear his brother speak. He remained close and pulled a twig out of Johnny’s matted hair as he lowered his hands. “Yes, it’s me. Murdoch’s up above, waiting to haul you out of here.”

Johnny kept his eyes closed and shook his head feebly. “Can’t . . . if I mm-move . . . gonna ff-all ag’in . . . drown this time ff-er sh-sure . . . .” Another ripple skimmed across the water as Johnny shivered. Another deep cough produced a telltale groan.

Frank stood on the same log as Scott, in back of Johnny. He grabbed onto a branch dangling above him and waded forward a step. “He’s talkin’ cold crazy, Scott,” Frank whispered.

“I know. Get ready.” Frank nodded, and Scott heard Jose and Charlie behind him as they splashed closer.

“Johnny, it’s going to be okay. I’ll get you out of here. First you need to tell me where you’re hurt.”

Johnny’s eyes reopened. He moved his head slowly, the effort obvious just to turn far enough so he could look Scott straight in his eyes. “I knew you’d come,” he said.

Scarcely a year before Scott had no idea he even had a brother. Now he stared Johnny in the face and witnessed a depth of conviction that left him stunned. He’d had close friends throughout his life, school chums and fellow soldiers he would have died for. But no one had ever looked at him the way Johnny was now, with a serenity born from absolute faith. As tired, sick, and hurt as he was, Johnny had sustained himself with the thought that Scott would find him. It was a humbling moment.

“Came as fast as I could,” Scott said. “Now tell me where you’re hurt so we can get you out of here.”

“Busted . . . .”

Scott waited, but Johnny’s attention wandered. His head started to droop forward.

“Johnny, what’s busted?” Scott’s voice was firm but calm, but inside he was frantic, torn between a desperate need to get his brother out of the water and a desire to protect Johnny from further injury. “Johnny, what’s busted?”

“Sh-shoulder . . . leg.” Johnny closed his eyes again, and leaned his head up against the branch that supported his arm.

“How about your ribs?”

There was no answer.

Scott again placed a hand against Johnny’s cheek. “Johnny. Did – you – hurt – your – ribs?”

“No,” Johnny said, faintly, just as his whole body trembled convulsively. The violent shiver triggered a short bout of coughing that rose from deep in Johnny’s lungs. He moaned as he clutched his right arm against his chest and leaned forward. His chin dipped into the water.

“We move him. Now.” Scott let his military training take over. He needed the reserve, the discipline to do what was needed without emotion. He issued his orders with steadfast command. “Jose, unhook Johnny’s arm from that branch.”

The young cowboy swam to the other side and with a grunt vaulted out of the water and mounted a branch opposite Johnny. He shinnied his way up until he dangled slightly above Johnny’s arm. “I am ready, Señor Scott,” Jose said.

“Go ahead,” Scott said. He wrapped one arm around his brother’s back while the other reached over to grab hold of Johnny’s jacket sleeve.

Jose stretched down and grasped Johnny’s upraised hand. He lifted and passed it slowly through the crook of the tree. As soon as Scott had control, Jose let go and wormed down the branch until he dropped back into the water.

Scott lowered Johnny’s arm into the water and crossed it over his chest, ignoring a low moan as he leaned in closer. “Johnny, you have to trust me now. We’re going to float you out of here. We won’t let you fall, and we won’t let go. Do you understand?”

Johnny gave a tired nod. “Trust you.” His head sagged forward onto Scott’s chest.

“Johnny? Johnny?” Scott couldn’t see his brother’s face, only the top of his head.

There was a splash and then someone leaned over Scott’s shoulder. “He passed out, Scott,” Charlie said.

With his head lying so close to Scott’s ear, Johnny’s breathing sounded labored. Scott’s concern flared, but he tempered it with the thought of his promise. “Probably best,” he said halfheartedly. Scott moved his arm up Johnny’s back. “Grab him, Frank,” he said, cradling Johnny’s head and leaning him backward.

Many had volunteered, but Scott had chosen these men above others for their ability to swim well. The four lifted Johnny off his tree branch perch. A brief moment of panic threatened during Johnny’s first second of freedom, as his body dipped precariously low in the water. But the men were attentive and hands of support appeared just where needed to keep him afloat. Within minutes the rescue party had negotiated downstream through the last of the tree debris.

Now able to swim freely, Scott wished he’d put his gloves back on. He’d taken them off to attend to Johnny, and his fingers were growing numb. Despite the cloud cover the day had started to warm, summer determined to reclaim rightful dominance of the season over the recalcitrant spring. The air on Scott’s face was a pleasant contrast to the cooler water that enveloped his body and washed over his fingers as they supported his brother. Scott remembered the winters of Boston, and could imagine what a nightmare the hours spent in the cold night had been for Johnny. Fully aware of the effects of chill weather on a man, Scott reminded himself that Johnny was still shivering, a good sign despite the seriousness of his brother’s injuries.

Safety ever nearer, Scott realized how focused he’d been on Johnny. The din of activity caught his attention and drew his gaze another twenty-five feet downstream. Murdoch had kept the Lancer men busy. A primitive raft had been assembled and sat tethered against the steep side of the gully. Built from branches of the oak, it was an ungainly sight. Uncut timbers were lashed together and stuck out at various lengths. But several cowhands stood atop the craft, proving it more than sturdy.

“Start heading over, men.” The swimmers angled left with Johnny balanced between.

As they neared the raft more men jumped into the water and surrounded Scott. “Careful when we lift him,” he advised.

The men took up station around Johnny. They floated him beside the raft, where another three cowboys knelt and grabbed onto Johnny’s left arm, jacket and leg.

“On three,” Scott said. “One . . . two . . . three!”

As Johnny’s body disappeared up onto the platform, the raft bobbed low. The counter momentum pushed Scott under the water. He took a single stroke and broke the surface, coughing up water. He wiped a hand across his eyes, then spied a pair of hands reaching down in front of him. He took them in his own. His right foot found a log under the surface and he kicked off as the cowboy grasped him tightly and heaved him up onto the raft. Johnny was already being swaddled in blankets with ropes ready to be tied off around him.

Scott looked up, knowing whom he would see.

“How is he, Scott?” Murdoch called down from the gully edge, ten feet above.

“He said his right shoulder is broken, and one of his legs. I can’t tell which one . . . left I think.”

“He was awake? Able to speak to you?” Murdoch sounded a disconcerted mix of relief and concern.

“Yes, but he’s unconscious now. We need to get him back to the ranch and warm.”

Scott looked down and found Johnny secured in blankets and ropes.

Jim stood up from Johnny’s side. “He’s ready, Scott.”

Scott again faced his father. “Murdoch, you can pull him up now. Slow and easy.”

He couldn’t make out the words, but Scott heard Murdoch’s distinctive voice bark out commands above. As the lines pulled taut, Scott and the other men on the raft crouched around Johnny and helped lift him up, ever higher until they had to stretch to maintain any kind of hold at all. Johnny was suspended briefly, just out of Scott’s reach, and then he was gone, pulled up and over the gully edge.

.

Murdoch leaned forward and watched Johnny rise from the raft. He couldn’t remember ever being more apprehensive. ‘Except maybe when Johnny was born.’ Relieved to finally take charge of his son’s care, Murdoch was at his side the second Johnny cleared the rim. “Get him over to the fire,” he ordered.

They didn’t even bother to remove the ropes, just carried the injured man over the mud until they reached more solid ground, where a bonfire glowed red and a bed of blankets waited. The ropes were untied and pulled away.

Johnny remained unconscious, but his body trembled all over from almost constant shivers. “Build up that fire,” Murdoch commanded to no one in particular.

Cipriano knelt next to Murdoch. Together they unwrapped Johnny from the wet bundle of blankets and removed his gloves. They each took up a knife and began to cut away the soaked jacket.

“I have sent Santos for the doctor,” Cip said.

“Good. Ben!” Murdoch called without looking away from his task.

“Yes, sir?”

“Are those bandages and splints ready?”

“Got ‘em right here.”

“Give me your knife, Tom,” Scott said. Murdoch looked over to see his older son kneeling beside Johnny’s left leg.

Murdoch cut the buttons from Johnny shirt, then split the seam over his right shoulder and peeled the garment away. An ugly telltale bulge was found over Johnny’s collarbone, the area discolored a reddish-purple. “That’s busted for sure,” Murdoch said. He looked up. “Scott, how’s his leg?”

Scott had slit Johnny’s pant leg up the side, and just finished cutting open his boot. Cip set his knife down and helped Scott expose Johnny’s leg, which appeared bruised and swollen badly along the outer side below the knee. “It’s broken, too,” Scott answered.

Johnny trembled violently and moaned as his head tossed to the side. “Let’s get him splinted,” Murdoch said. “We’ll start with his shoulder. Help me sit him up, Cip.”

As soon as Johnny was upright he began a rough, resonant cough that jolted him back to consciousness and doubled him over in pain.

Murdoch knelt behind him and wrapped his arms around Johnny’s, bracing his injured shoulder against the jerking movement. It seemed minutes until the spasm passed, leaving Johnny breathing in uneven gasps and his body slumped from exhaustion.

His arms still tight around his son, Murdoch leaned his head down to whisper into Johnny’s ear. “Rest, son. I’ll get you home soon. Go back to sleep.”

Murdoch looked up to find Scott staring at him, his own anxiety reflected in his older son’s eyes. “He’s all right. Let’s try this again.”

Father, son, and loyal friend worked to get Johnny ready to travel. As they put a sling on Johnny’s arm, Murdoch recalled Scott’s amusing recollection from the morning: Johnny running from Teresa and the sling she’d once wanted him to wear. Johnny’s need was now more than genuine and anything but funny. They ended up binding his entire arm to his chest for additional bracing. His leg was secured with a sturdy splint below the knee. Finally he was cocooned in the last of the dry blankets.

While they worked Murdoch considered his options for getting Johnny back to the warmth of the hacienda as fast as possible. Travel by wagon was unthinkable given the weather conditions. A travois was already rigged, but bumping and yanking his son’s broken body across Lancer felt impossibly cruel. He was pleased that Scott didn’t question his hard-made decision when they set Johnny in the saddle astride Murdoch’s horse.

Murdoch thought it sadly fortunate that Johnny remained unconscious throughout the awkward process of getting him mounted. They wrapped a rope around him and secured him to the saddle horn, and then Murdoch mounted behind and further supported Johnny in a firm grasp.

Cip sat his horse to Murdoch’s right, Tom was on his left, Leathers behind, all prepared to help lead father and son safely home.

Scott’s hand shook as he reached down to grab hold of the reins to Murdoch’s horse. Murdoch noticed, and watched close. Soaked from head to toe, a shiver surged through Scott’s body, his shoulders pulled close to his ears. Murdoch’s paternal instincts took over like never before.

“Mike,” he called to the nearby cowboy.

“Yes, sir?” The hand pulled his mount beside Cipriano.

“Take the reins of my horse and lead me home. Scott, I want you and every other man who was in that water to ride back to the ranch and get dry.”

Scott turned in his saddle, stunned. “But Murdoch-”

“I mean it, Scott!” Murdoch’s voice rose in misplaced anger. “I’ll not have anyone else getting sick, least of all another of my sons! Have bedding ready in the great room near the fireplace, and stoke the fire high. Now go!”

Scott didn’t move. Murdoch remembered how close the brothers were, and tempered his own emotions. “Scott, please. Go on ahead and have things ready for us when we get there.”

Still Scott hesitated.

“We will be here, Señor Scott,” Cipriano offered. “You do not have to worry about Juanito.”

He still didn’t look convinced, but Scott nodded and handed the reins of Murdoch’s horse off to Mike. “Hurry home,” he said, then rode forward a few paces. “Frank. Jose. Charlie. All you men who were in the water . . . we’re heading back.”

A dozen men assembled and followed Scott, who rode off without a look back.

Relieved that Scott had actually obeyed, Murdoch adjusted his grip around Johnny. “Let’s go, Cip.”

“Sí, Patron,” Cip said, and the small group moved off as one.

.

The trip back to the hacienda was nightmarish for Murdoch. He knew Johnny had no business on horseback in his condition and second-guessed his decision to carry him so. He weighed the alternatives over and over, but always came to the same conclusion–there was no way to make the trip any easier, for father or son. Murdoch pressed forward and willed his mount to step carefully as he resisted the urge to pick up the pace. He didn’t think Johnny would survive the ordeal if the two of them were thrown in a fall.

An intermittent rain fell over a landscape already dotted with treacherous patches of mud, loose ground, and deep puddles. Cipriano and the other men remained close to guide Murdoch’s horse. Several times their hands reached out to steady Murdoch and his valuable burden, as the normally reliable mount lost its footing.

As much as Murdoch hated to see his son so helpless, he was glad Johnny remained asleep for most of the journey. Through the many layers of blankets Murdoch could feel Johnny’s body continue to shudder from the severe chill that assailed him. Twice the riders were forced to stop when the conditions were roughest and the stumbling gait of the horse woke the injured man with a flare of pain. Each time Johnny stirred he had a repeat bout of that horrible choking cough. But Murdoch was right there to hold him steady until the spasm ended.

The Lancer Patriarch once again considered the land they crossed, and his thoughts from earlier in the day: ‘Let it rot. Just let me find Johnny alive.’ His prayer, if it could be called that, had been answered, not so much through divine intervention, but from the dogged actions of the men of Lancer.

“Cip,” Murdoch said quietly.

“Sí, Patron?”

“When we get back to the ranch I want you to gather the hands again. I meant what I said earlier. I don’t want anyone else getting ill. The men need a break.

“Rest any man who’s already sick. And don’t let anyone work alone until conditions improve. It’s not safe anymore. Double the men up and rotate them in short shifts. Just care for the stock . . . everything else can wait for this weather to clear.

“We don’t need any more men badly hurt.” Murdoch glanced down at Johnny. “One man is enough.”

“Sí, Patron. One man is enough. I will take care of everything. You and Señor Scott take care of Juanito. We will do the rest.”

“I know you can handle it, Cip,” Murdoch said. “Thank you.”

“It is my honor, mi amigo.”

The men shared a quick smile.

Any other time Murdoch would have been offended by the thought that the ranch could run without him. But all he had to do was hear Johnny’s labored breathing and the decision was clear where to vest his interest. He turned his attention back to the trail and his vow to get his son home.

.

Johnny drifted . . . in and out of a dense fog of consciousness. Familiar voices spoke to him and he tried to obey their commands, but it was hard . . . he was so tired, and every bone in his body ached, some much more than others. He tried to hide in darkness, but the pain continued to find him, turned dreams to nightmares as agonizing tendrils crawled through his leg, or woke him cruelly with a start as it clawed at his shoulder, digging into bruised and battered muscles to clutch at the shattered bone beneath. Each involuntary shudder of his chilled body sent a wave of torment coursing through him. His cough deepened, attacked at its own will, thwarting all hope for comforting stillness. The uncontrollable spasms grabbed and shook him from within, and he was too tired to fight back.

Murdoch’s protective arms no longer encircled him. From a muddled haze Johnny felt his balance suddenly shift . . . his body began to tip. ‘Don’t let me fall, brother!’

“Easy, Johnny! Don’t struggle. We have you.”

Strong hands steadied him. ‘C’n trust Scott.’

“I have him, Murdoch. Go ahead and let go. Grab his feet, Jelly. Watch his leg.”

His body swayed as they carried him and he tensed as the movement dared his injuries to speak louder. ‘Don’t cough . . . .’ He kept his eyes closed, willed sleep to claim him, just for a little while. He felt warmth, smelled wood smoke and dry leather . . . a whisper of lavender. Home.

The pain in his shoulder flared without warning, radiating through his arm and upper back then lancing its way into his chest. He gasped at the intensity and his cough ignited, the jarring movement fueling the blaze that engulfed his shoulder.

“Get him over to the fire, quick.”

“Don’t lay him flat, he’ll choke.”

‘Oh, Dios . . . can’t stop it . . . hurts . . . .’

“Hang on, Johnny. It’ll pass. Take it easy, son. Breathe steady.”

Protective hands again. They held him upright, braced his arm, tried to help.

‘Don’t cough, don’t cough, don’t cough!’

“Murdoch?”

“He’ll be okay, Teresa. Leave the room . . . watch for Sam. Jelly, let’s get him out of those wet clothes.”

“Scott an’ me’ll do it. You go get dry yerself. We got ‘im. Don’t we, Scott? We got ya, Johnny.”

‘Thanks, Jelly. . . tired. . . gonna sleep. . . have to sleep. . . okay to sleep now. . . home . . . .’

.

Warm. He was warm. Blessedly warm. And still. Johnny once again floated out of the darkness to linger in a languid semi-consciousness, buoyed by the realization that he was no longer shivering. He finally felt in control, at peace.

Something prodded his shoulder and wrenched the tranquility away. Johnny drew in a sharp breath before he could stop himself. He felt the cough wake like a startled bull and start to buck. He didn’t bother to try to stop the rampage, knew from too much recent experience that the effort would be useless.

Instead he took comfort in the hands once more ready to support him, to try and calm the beast for him. Johnny actually would have smiled if he hadn’t needed most of his energy just to keep from choking – or passing out. He wasn’t alone anymore, and that thought offered him a different kind of serenity that no amount of pain could overcome.

Johnny had lived only two years at Lancer before his mother stole him away. She became his existence. After she died he had spent a whole lot of years on his own, convinced he’d one day die that way, too. But then Murdoch had found him and called him home, where Johnny had uncovered his mother’s lies that had threatened any previous hope for reconciliation with his father. The truth made Johnny think he could remain at the ranch–finding he had a brother made him believe it. He really wasn’t alone anymore, and he liked the sound of that . . . the feel of that.

The coughing tapered off and finally stopped, although Johnny could feel the congestion still milling about in his chest, ready to rear up and kick him again. He kept his eyes closed and set his concentration on steadying his breathing, willed the pain in his shoulder and leg to disappear, at least lay low; give him one more minute of peace.

He realized he was propped against something. Someone.

‘Nope. I ain’t alone no more.’ This time he did smile. At least he thought he did. A little.

“Johnny?”

Teresa. She sounded worried.

‘Bet I look like hell . . . .’

“Nice to know you can still smile, son.”

Murdoch. He sounded close. Worried too. Johnny’s eyes remained shut as he gathered his strength, but he gave a weak nod. “Tryin’.” Johnny was hard pressed to recognize his own voice, the single word uttered in no more than a gravelly whisper.

“Sorry about that, Johnny. Didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Johnny had to ponder that voice for a moment. “Sam?”

“Yes, it’s me. Open your eyes Johnny. Come on now.”

He didn’t want to . . . way too tired. What energy he’d rallied was fading fast. He craved sleep¾got a shove from his lungs instead as another deep cough welled up fast and burst its way loose. His body jerked, and he couldn’t stifle a moan as another wave of pain enveloped his shoulder. ‘Madre de Dios, make it stop!’

A hand lifted his chin. “Drink this, Johnny.” A glass was set against his lips. He guessed what it was, expected it, actually wanted it–he just hoped he could swallow it down before the next cough came to call. He opened his mouth and prayed, kept on praying as the glass tipped ever more, bid a soundless “amen” when it was empty and pulled away.

“I’ll let that take hold before I examine your shoulder again, Johnny. Rest easy for a bit.”

Sam. ‘Good ol’ Doc Jenkins. He’ll fix me up. Done it before. He-’ The laudanum latched onto Johnny’s fatigue and barely settled before it slowed him up considerably, sent his mind back into a fog. But it took the edge off his pain, so he didn’t much mind.

Johnny relaxed against that someone still behind him, and opened his eyes. He found himself surrounded by fretful faces. “Sorry to worry ya’ll,” he managed in that wisp of a voice he had left.

“Glad to have you home, son,” Murdoch said.

‘Glad to have a home,’ Johnny thought.

Now that they’d given him help to sleep, he didn’t want to. But his body readily surrendered to the effects of the opiate. On the verge of unconsciousness, he regarded those around him. Teresa had that fancy party shawl he’d given her wrapped around her shoulders. He thought he managed another smile.

“Teresa . . . you look mighty pretty,” Johnny said, and then he fell asleep.

.

The night was quiet, the rest of the household asleep. Father sat solitary vigil beside his son’s bed, a lamp set low to merely glimmer in a gentle wash over Johnny’s face. Murdoch took advantage of the peaceful moment and studied his son’s features. For the first time since his rescue, Johnny looked serene – whether from the small doses of laudanum he continued to receive or from sheer exhaustion, Murdoch didn’t care. Johnny was going to live, Sam had assured that afternoon, and that was all that honestly mattered.

Sam’s proclamation was a welcome end to what had been a tension filled week for Lancer. Johnny had avoided a fight with pneumonia, but his cold had given them a battle nonetheless. The hacienda echoed with the sound of Johnny’s incessant coughing. Sam, Jelly and Maria had put their heads together and tried every medicine and folk remedy they could think of to tame it. Johnny preferred the mixture of whiskey, honey and lemon . . . but it was a syrup made by combining wild cherry bark, honey and yellow root that had proved the better therapy. A hot brew made from bee balm leaves came in a close second.

The bedroom was permeated with the smell of vinegar. Once Johnny had gotten past the sharp odor, he actually looked forward to sessions with his head stuck over a steaming pot of the pungent liquid. The therapy had gone a long way to reducing the bronchial spasms that had shaken him so violently. When Johnny had joked about knowing how it felt to be pickled, the family knew he was on his way to recovery.

On his way, but it was going to be a long road. Johnny remained weak, his appetite poor, and his injuries nowhere near mended. He hated his growing beard, but Sam suggested not shaving until the deep scratches on his face healed.

The only good news about Johnny’s worst injuries was that his fibula had broken cleanly and, of all the bones in the shoulder, he’d broken his collarbone. During an unguarded moment, Johnny had admitted that he was most concerned about any lasting damage affecting the use of his gun hand, but Sam was optimistic that full movement to that arm would return. In the meantime the doctor was taking no chances, and Johnny never complained about the decision to keep his arm totally immobile, tightly bound to his chest.

Weakened, unable to use his right arm, and with his left leg in a heavy splint, Johnny couldn’t do much on his own. But so far he hadn’t bucked much, to the relief of the entire household. However, bets were already being placed for how long Johnny would remain quietly compliant.

‘Patience is a virtue,’ Murdoch mused. ‘God, give us all strength.’

Johnny gave a little cough, and his head turned slightly on the mound of pillows that propped him nearly upright–another order from the sage Doctor Jenkins. It wasn’t long until his eyelids fluttered open.

“Hey,” he said drowsily, followed by another small cough.

“Hey yourself,” Murdoch said. He reached over and picked up a glass of water off the bedside table, then helped Johnny lift his head to take a long drink.

“Thanks,” Johnny said. He cleared his throat as Murdoch reset the glass.

Johnny looked over toward the window of his bedroom. The drapes were closed. “What time is it?”

“One . . . maybe one-thirty,” Murdoch said. He smiled. “Why? You got someplace to be?”

Johnny returned a sheepish grin. “Tired of me askin’ that question already?”

“Yep.” Murdoch’s smile widened. “Face it, son, you’re not going anywhere for awhile, and you need all the rest you can get.”

“I know, I know,” Johnny said, followed by another cough. “I’m just sick of losin’ track is all. Feel like I been missin’ whole days.”

“The sun was out all day yesterday. If it looks the same today, I’ll ask Sam if we can open your window for a bit. How would that be?”

“Freshenin’ this room’d be just fine. Might let you do it even if he says no.”

Murdoch laughed and appreciated the fact that he finally could. “Well, let’s at least give the good doctor a chance to offer an opinion, shall we?”

“Ain’t got much choice, do I.”

“No. No you don’t.”

Johnny stared at the ceiling as his left hand played with the edge of a blanket.

Murdoch raised the lamp wick a turn and picked a thick book up from the table. “Do you want me to read another chapter?”

Johnny worried at that blanket a little faster. “We get past that fight in the castle yet?”

“Yes,” Murdoch answered warily. ‘Three times, actually.’ “But I don’t mind reading it again if that’s the last part you remember.”

The hand left the blanket to rub at Johnny’s eyes. “Best not. That laudanum’s got my mind all muddy. No need wastin’ your time.” The hand flopped to the mattress with a telling thud.

Murdoch set the book back onto the table, and leaned closer to his son. “Johnny, don’t get frustrated. You’ve come a long way in a week. You’re doing well, but it’s going to take time for you to heal.”

“It ain’t right you gotta sit with me like this.” Johnny’s voice rose and his cough flared. Murdoch stood and sat his son upright. The spell ended quickly, and Murdoch offered another sip of water before he laid Johnny back. He looked exhausted again, his eyelids heavy, his arm limp at his side.

“Do you need some laudanum, son?” Murdoch asked, watching Johnny closely.

Johnny answered with a slight shake of his head.

“Go back to sleep then. We can talk more in the morning.” Murdoch sat back in his chair. For a moment it appeared that Johnny would comply as his eyes closed.

“I’m sorry, Murdoch,” Johnny said.

“What for?”

Johnny faced Murdoch. He was calmer, but his voice was filled with regret. “Gettin’ laid up like this. Leavin’ you short handed is the last thing you need right now. An’ you and Scott havin’ to sit with me ain’t—”

“Johnny, stop it. Once you’re finally up to it, I’m interested in hearing, what I’m sure will prove to be, a very rousing story. But I doubt that you asked to be tossed into that gully in the middle of the night. I’m actually proud of you, son.” Johnny looked at him, confused. Murdoch leaned forward again. “That’s right. The day before your accident you made a lot of important decisions, good decisions to keep this ranch running. Your getting hurt was partly my fault. I was pushing you and Scott . . . all the men. It took you getting injured to open my eyes to that.

“I’ve already told Scott this, and I’m telling you now–there is nothing on this ranch worth more to me than you, Scott, and Teresa. I never intended the cost of owning Lancer to include the lives of my children. I want you to always remember that.”

There was silence between the men for a moment, as Johnny mulled over Murdoch’s words. “I really appreciate you thinkin’ that, Murdoch,” Johnny said. “There was a time when . . . well . . . that don’t matter much anymore, I guess. But I hope you ain’t sayin’ I can’t ever protect our property. I will, you know.”

Murdoch smiled. “I know you will, Johnny. But protect yourself first, and get yourself home.”

Now Johnny smiled. “I was tryin’ . . . just kept gettin’ sidetracked. You built a big ranch, Murdoch. Don’t know how you done it on your own.”

“Stubbornness. Pure Lancer stubbornness.”

Johnny’s eyes struggled to stay open.

“Go to sleep, Johnny. That’s an order.”

Johnny’s smile widened as he nodded. “Thanks for finding me,” Johnny said, and then his breathing deepened as he fell asleep.

Murdoch sat back and contemplated those few words over and over in his mind: ’Thanks for finding me.’ Had Johnny meant locating him in the gully–or searching for him all those many years after his mother had taken him away? Either way, Johnny’s appreciation meant a lot to Murdoch. He’d called his estranged sons home to Lancer, and both had chosen to stay. They’d had a rocky start, but finally, out of a near tragedy, had come a strengthening of their bond.

‘I have no idea how I managed it, but I finally have my family together.’

Murdoch heaved in a great breath of relief and let it out with a chuckle. ‘Murdoch Lancer, you are one lucky son of a—”

.

.

~end~
MP, January 2007; Revised for posting April 2008

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6 thoughts on “Vested Interests by Maureen

  1. Maureen, I just finished reading Little Things, Sharp Edge, Path Well Traveled, and now, Vested Interests. I have read them all in the past, but never one right after the other. My, how I enjoyed immersing myself in your world of Johnny Madrid Lancer. I love your writing. Thank you!

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