Sincere thanks to my inspirational beta, Con
Warning – Not for the serious at heart 😉
Word count: 9,010
Smoke from the campfire curled lazily skyward. Johnny watched it briefly before turning his attention back to the job in hand: that of filling two mugs with the coffee he had just made. Setting the battered coffeepot to one side he sat back on his haunches and sighed in contentment.
The noonday sun hovered high above him in a cloudless summer sky, the birds were singing and all was right with his world.
Picking up one of the mugs he sipped tentatively on its steaming contents, his blue eyes drinking in every detail of the glorious vista that sprawled endlessly before him.
A smile parted his lips and his eyes sparkled. Today was his first real day of freedom since being shot and he was going to enjoy every single minute of it.
The back shooter had been caught; Scott had made sure of that. All Johnny had had to do was recover, and he had; it had just taken time. Too long a time and he’d almost gone stir crazy!
Just yesterday, Doc Jenkins had called by. The visit had resulted in the youngest Lancer getting a clean bill of health, along with a very warm and affectionate handshake.
Johnny’s smile grew wider at the memory, he liked Sam. The big man with an even bigger heart was so much more than the town saw bones; he’d proved a good friend to the entire Lancer clan, his sympathetic ear and wise counsel given freely.
But then there were some things you couldn’t put a price on, like saving a life and Doctor Samuel Jenkins had saved his so very recently. If Sam hadn’t been the skilled professional he was…well, Johnny wasn’t going to think about that today. No not today because TODAY he could once again come and go as he pleased. He was also free to tackle whatever work needed doing around the ranch, and he’d decided his first job would be checking and repairing fences. That meant a long time in the saddle and some sweat inducing labour, and boy was he looking forward to it.
The smile faded as Johnny remembered the past month, Murdoch had ridden roughshod on his day to day activities; the Old Man doggedly following Sam’s instructions to the letter.
“Break him in gently Murdoch…” Sam had said and Johnny had seethed silently as the two men had discussed him like he wasn’t there. He cringed when he remembered how later that day, when alone with his father, he’d gone on to lose his temper. Murdoch had simply listened to him rant before stating firmly: “You WILL do as the doctor orders BOY. Do anything to jeopardise your recovery and believe me you’ll regret getting out of bed that morning!”
Johnny had swallowed his angry retort. He’d lost the battle but he’d realised the victor was actually on his side, and that thought had put a smile on his face.
An eagle glided into view, Johnny watched in awe as it swooped silently to the ground, and then soared triumphantly away with its prey. As it disappeared into the distance he let his thoughts drift back to a little earlier that morning.
Murdoch had said, “Take care son.” Scott had plastered a stupid grin on his face before instructing Jelly to “keep my little brother out of trouble…if you can!”
Johnny chuckled to himself; there wasn’t much chance of him finding any out here, especially with Jelly playing nursemaid.
Looking around to see where his friend was. He spied the bearded handyman standing about twenty yards away, staring down at the ground, cap in hand and scratching his head.
A wicked grin crossed Johnny’s face and he called over. “Hey Jelly! Keep scratching ya head like that and ya liable to end up with a splinter in ya finger.”
Jelly turned to look in the younger man’s direction. Ignoring the good natured teasing he said, “Come look at this will ya!”
Johnny eased himself to his feet and sauntered over to Jelly. He gazed fixedly down at the ground his face quickly clouding over in puzzlement.
“What is it?” he finally asked as he crouched down for a closer inspection of the strange animal tracks Jelly had found.
“I don’t rightly know! I ain’t seen nothin’ like it before.”
“I vote we track it down.” Johnny jumped to his feet and ran towards Barranca, a sense of adventure leaping into his heart.
“I vote we don’t. We can’t!” Jelly tried to reason. “We’ve got too much ta do and the boss ain’t gonna be too pleased if we don’t get it done.” He glared after Johnny, sometimes the boy plain forgot how to use the brain the good Lord gave him.
“Barranca votes we do too! And as your horse don’t talk to YOU…” Johnny’s eyes sparked with pure devilment, “YOU are out voted.”
Jelly shook his head the boy had too much sass for his own good.
Ten minutes later after hurriedly packing up camp the two men were trailing the mysterious beast. Jelly was mumbling to himself and Johnny was doing his best to ignore his friend’s remonstrations, quickly finding it impossible.
“Aw Jelly, we ain’t gonna get within a mile of the creature if ya carry on like that, now hush will ya.”
“Your dad ain’t gonna like this, not one little bit, no siree!”
“The Old Man ain’t gonna find out, not unless someone tells him, and Barranca ain’t betrayed a confidence yet.”
“You saying I have…”
“Jelly! Come on. I was just pullin’ your leg.”
Jelly harrumphed. “You thought on what ya gonna do with this critter when ya find it?”
“Let’s find it first, then we can decide what to do with it.”
Both men rode in silence for a few miles, then Johnny turned sheepishly to Jelly admitting. “Guess I didn’t think on this much.”
“Ya didn’t think at all!”
“Murdoch’s gonna be mad as hell.”
Jelly’s heart softened at the deflated look on the younger man’s face. “Only if’n ya go doin’ somethin’ foolish! He worries about ya.”
“I know, but there’s no need.”
“As long as ya his son he’s going to worry about ya.”
A small smile settled on the younger man’s lips but it soon faded “Taking off after a…a…whatever it is, was a fool thing to do. Ya should have talked me out of it. We’d best go back; whatever it is can wait.”
“Talk ya out of it! If I remember rightly I was out voted! Ya can go back if ya want but I got my mind set on findin’ that critter now”
“Jelly, I don’t know, Murdoch expects me to…”
“Murdoch expects ya to stray occasionally, he ain’t perfect ya know and he was young once. Where d’ya think ya get that wild streak? The stories yer dad’s told me, make yer hair curl they would. Maybe ya should ask him about the time he got cornered by that cougar or the time them saloon girls had him locked in the…well maybe not that one…”
“Saloon girls! MY Old Man? Hot damn! ” Johnny’s voice soared in amazement.
“Now don’t ya go blabbin’ about that.” Jelly bristled, wishing he’d never opened his mouth.
“Ya got to tell me and Scott that one, what else he tell ya Jelly?” Johnny pleaded.
“Never you mind…” Jelly began in a warning tone only to be silenced when his horse suddenly reared up, unseating his unsuspecting rider before running off.
Johnny jumped from his mount and rushed to the older man’s side.
“Jelly! Are you hurt?” Johnny quickly scanned his friend for any obvious injury.
“Nah, cept my pride. That horse’s been skittish a while now; should have been a mite more cautious.”
Both men turned quickly towards Barranca who had suddenly started to stomp the ground nervously. Johnny drew his gun and whispered to Jelly, “Get up, could be that animal. It takes a lot to spook Barranca…and he’s spooked!”
Johnny caught hold of his horse’s reins and spoke softly into his ear. Once Barranca settled both men then walked towards a nearby rocky escarpment.
“Can you hear anything?” Johnny asked quietly.
“Only my heart!” Jelly admitted, “Its palpatatin! Ya know I’ve got a bad feelin’ about this Johnny! My elbow’s achin’ somethin’ fierce. I don’t like it….I think we should…” Jelly suddenly grabbed Johnny’s arm and wrenched him backwards. “Come on boy we’re goin back!”
“I ain’t goin’ back.” Johnny swatted Jelly’s arm away indignantly.
“Look Johnny…the length between them prints makes that critter a big un. Your dad will have my hide if anythin’ happens to ya. Now even if I have to hog tie ya boy… we ARE going back.”
The snapping of branches hushed both men, stopping them dead in their tracks.
“That came from around back of those rocks…”
“We ain’t goin’ no further…”
“You ain’t, I am. Now stay here Jelly.” Johnny ordered.
“Leave ya go by yerself! What do ya take me fer?”
“OK, ok we’ll both go…but you stay behind me…”
“Stay behind you! I ain’t hiding behind no kid!”
“I ain’t a kid!” Johnny snapped back but immediately regretted his tone. “Look, this ain’t the time to argue Jelly!”
A strange noise fractured the uneasy silence that followed.
“What was that?” Johnny whispered, “I ain’t ever heard a noise like that before…”
“Somethin’ just snorted!”
“What kind of an animal snorts like that do ya think?” Johnny asked gazing expectantly at Jelly.
Jelly’s eyes widened, “An angry one!” Then grabbing Johnny’s arm firmly he demanded, “I want yer word that ya won’t go doin’ anythin’ foolish.”
“Jelly!” Johnny growled in exasperation.
“Ok ok! You’ve got it!” Rubbing the sweat from his eyes Johnny then motioned towards the rocky tor. “Let’s climb up there and get a better view of what’s on the other side. I’ll go first.”
Mindful of his companion’s capabilities Johnny carefully picked his way up the rocky incline. On reaching the top he turned around and offered Jelly a helping hand, the older man readily accepting it.
Once safely on the summit the two men sank to their knees, Jelly in particular needing to catch his breath before they investigated any further.
Just as his breathing began to even out his face contorted into a mask of pure horror, his mouth opening, his eyes becoming wide and bulging.
“Jelly? What is it? Are you sick? Jelly?”
“D…d…dev…devil…devil.” Jelly stuttered looking past Johnny.
Johnny felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck and an icy shiver run up and down his spine. He swallowed the lump in his throat and summoning up some courage he slowly turned around.
“D…d… devil?” Johnny stammered as he stared at two horns set upon a head that tapered to a point. Two black eyes stared back at him and on either side of those soulless deep pits, sat two pointed ears. The beasts nostrils flared, seemingly sniffing the air. Then suddenly its mouth opened and out curled a long black tongue.
Johnny reeled backwards then froze in horror; but as adrenaline began to flow he grabbed hold of Jelly’s arm and pulled him unceremoniously back down the precipice, falling the last few feet.
Both men sat stunned, gasping for breath, hearts beating wildly, Johnny stared at Jelly concerned at the elder man’s pallor. “You ok?”
Jelly stared back open mouthed.
“Jelly? You ok?”
“D…d…devil…” the older man forced the word out.
“Devil? “As in ‘the’ devil? No! It couldn’t be…could it?” The thought made Johnny’s blood run cold.
“D…d…devil…” Jelly repeated as he lifted his head, eyes growing ever wider as he stared up at something behind Johnny.
Dread rose from the pit of Johnny’s stomach. He had to force himself to turn around and was astounded at the sight that met him.
Whatever the thing was it stood at least fifteen feet high on four long, long, legs, which tapered down to large cloven hooves. Its shoulders sloped to hindquarters and attached to those shoulders was the longest neck Johnny had ever seen. It seemed to go on forever and he recognised its head as the one that belonged to Jelly’s devil. A long tasselled tail swished gracefully at its other end. The black tongue reached out again and removed some leaves from bushes growing high among the rocks. Johnny was staggered as he estimated the tongue to be at least a foot long.
Neither man moved both staring in awe at the never before seen giant, finally Johnny found his voice.
“Strewth! I don’t reckon it’s the devil Jelly…heard tell he’s only got two legs.”
Jelly let out the breath he had been holding and stuttered back, “It…it’s beautiful…what is it?”
Johnny turned to look at Jelly. “Beautiful? Jelly! Barranca’s beautiful that…that thing is… odd!”
“Odd! It’s a work of art…all God’s creatures are a work of art.”
“Five minutes ago it was the devil now it’s one of God’s creatures…make your mind up Jelly!”
Johnny got to his feet, trying not to startle the animal that now stood less than ten feet away. As he hauled Jelly to his feet he suddenly realised Barranca was nowhere to be seen.
“Barranca’s gone…that thing scared him off.” Johnny let out his special whistle and after a few attempts Barranca cantered into view.
Johnny walked over to his treasured mount and taking hold of his reins gently led him over to a tree, this time tying him securely.
Returning to stand beside Jelly, whose eyes had not left the animal standing in front of him he asked, “Now what?”
“We take him home?”
“Take him home! You’re not serious? Murdoch ain’t going to be too happy about us wasting a day as it is and if we turn up with THAT…well my days will be numbered.”
“If we leave him here, his days will be numbered.”
“Him! How do you know it’s a him?” Johnny asked incredulously.
Jelly rolled his eyes and smiled knowingly.
“Oh!” Johnny grinned
“Get your rope.”
“Rope! There ain’t a rope in California long enough for that thing.”
“George, that’s his name.”
“You’ve given him a name! Jelly! He ain’t a dog.”
“Neither is Barranca.”
“What! No I know…ok we’ll call it George.” Johnny conceded wearily.
“Alright ‘him’, HIS name is George and my name’s gonna be mud when Murdoch gets wind of this.”
“Ride back and get some help.” Jelly instructed.
“I ain’t leaving you with that thing! He could be dangerous.”
“George ain’t dangerous! Look at him Johnny, he wouldn’t hurt a soul. You ride back and fetch Scott, maybe he’ll know what he is.”
Eyeing the strange beast suspiciously Johnny stepped towards Barranca, “I’ll be right back.”
An hour or so after leaving Jelly, Johnny skidded into the great room bellowing his brother’s name, “SCOTT? You here?”
“Johnny! What is it?” Scott entered the great room from the kitchen followed quickly by their father.
“Murdoch!” Johnny groaned, he’d not expected to find his father at home.
The Lancer patriarch looked at Johnny and wondered what he’d done to deserve such a reaction. “What’s wrong son?”
Feeling more than a little guilty about all the time he’d wasted that day Johnny stumbled over his explanation, “Well we…I mean me. I…I didn’t get those fences fixed. See somethin’ came up. We uh, we found George, and Jelly wouldn’t leave him…”
“George! Is this man hurt?” Scott interrupted.
“Oh he ain’t a man Scott. No he’s a…a…odd looking thing. He’s got to be more than fifteen feet tall with horns! Jelly thought it was the devil.”
Murdoch looked at his elder son his voice betraying his concern. “He’s been in the sun too long. Let’s get him to bed and then I’ll send one of the men for Sam.”
Scott nodded and moved closer to his brother. “Johnny come and lie down.”
The dark haired Lancer stared first at his brother and then at his father, both men were looking at him with the strangest of expressions on their faces. “I ain’t sick! Listen…it’s got this long, long neck, it must be as long as you Murdoch, and this black tongue, and that must be more than a foot long…”
Scott took hold of Johnny’s left arm while his father held tightly onto his right.
“Come on son, you’ve done too much, too soon…a few hours sleep and you’ll be as good as new…”
“I ain’t sick…now will you let go of me!” Johnny began to struggle as he found himself being hurriedly propelled to his room.
“John please …you’re rambling. I’ve seen it before…you’ve had too much sun, now let’s get you to bed.”
Johnny soon found himself standing in his bedroom: Scott barring his exit and Murdoch standing unnervingly close beside him.
The youngest Lancer began to laugh as he realised how he must have sounded.
“I ain’t sick Murdoch. Look Jelly maybe in danger, he said George wouldn’t hurt a soul but he didn’t look all that friendly to me, not with them horns!”
Scott gave his father a worried look and put his arm around his sibling’s waist. “Johnny… you’re not making any sense, now lie down…”
“SCOTT I AINT SICK!” Johnny shouted growing increasingly desperate to get back to Jelly.
“John, you’ve over done it and in this heat…”
“NO! I’m fine, listen will you Murdoch please. We found this…this animal…never seen anything like it before. It spooked Jelly’s horse and he’s back there with it now. We have to go back.”
Murdoch stared intently at his younger son, still uncertain about his state of mind. “Are you sure about this Johnny? It all sounds a little strange.”
“Damn it Murdoch I was there! I saw it with my own eyes. Are you coming with me or not?”
“Alright.” Murdoch sighed resignedly, “but…just what are you planning to do with this animal…”
Striding towards the door the younger man replied, “By the time we get back Jelly had better have figured that out!”
Despite the Lancers’ concern for Jelly their trek back had been a cheerful one as Johnny recounted the earlier encounter with the strange beast. They had laughed at the thought of Jelly believing it was the devil, and then at his change of heart and calling it George.
Approaching the spot Jelly had last been seen. Johnny was disturbed to find no sign of man or beast.
“The tracks lead south, looks like Jelly’s following him.” Johnny frowned, fearful for his friend, he had no idea of what the creature was capable of.
A few miles along Scott noticed Jelly’s hat discarded on the ground. Johnny snatched it up and held it tightly in his hand, all sorts of thoughts running through his mind, and settling on one. “It ate him…it ate Jelly!”
Murdoch guffawed and placing a firm hand on the younger man’s shoulder he stated calmly. “No animal would want that kind of indigestion son! No, look both sets of tracks continue over there.”
Johnny swung up on Barranca and raced off followed by his bemused father and brother.
“If that boy is playing a prank.” Scott warned.
“If he is…” Murdoch shook his head “…he’s going to be sorry.”
Relief flooded through Johnny when he finally spotted Jelly waving frantically at him from the top of a hill. He urged the palomino in the older man’s direction.
“Why’d ya move? I was worried?” The dark haired Lancer yelled as he neared his friend.
“George moved, and I followed. Did ya want me try and persuade him ta stay?”
“Where is he?”
“Down by the river, he likes it down there.” Turning his attention to the other two men Jelly called over, “Wasn’t expectin’ ta see you Boss.”
“I wasn’t expecting to find myself out here either Jelly, there’d better be a good reason…”
“There is!” The handyman replied smugly “We done found us a… a “
“A George!” Johnny grinned at his father.
“A George! Well where is this creature?” Murdoch demanded his patience beginning to wear a little thin.
Jelly turned and pointed down the other side of the hill. “There…least he was a minute ago!” Seeing no sign of the animal Jelly started to run back down to the river.
Murdoch and Scott scanned the riverbank for any sign of the animal, seeing nothing but greenery Scott turned to his brother. “If I’ve come all this way for nothing I’ll…”
“He can’t have gone far…come on.” Johnny squirmed looking everywhere except into his father’s questioning eyes.
The two men followed on reluctantly
“There he is…just behind those trees.” Jelly nodded in the direction of a small copse.
Murdoch froze in the saddle unable to believe his eyes.
“I don’t believe it.” Scott looked at Johnny and a grin spread across his face.
Johnny saw the twinkle in his brother’s eyes and he grinned back. “You know what it is! Well…what is it?” Johnny begged.
“It’s a giraffe! Sorry Jelly, that is definitely not the devil.”
“A giraffe! George the giraffe.” Johnny laughed and slapped Jelly on the back.
Murdoch’s face broke into a grin and he looked at his elder son.
“He’s a long way from Africa!”
“Africa!” Johnny had heard of that faraway country, “He’s had himself a long walk! But then he’s got the legs for it!” Laughed Johnny highly amused by his observation.
“Well now that you’ve solved the mystery what do you two plan to do with him?” Murdoch asked eyeing his younger son and Jelly.
Johnny looked at Jelly expectantly.
“Take him home of course; he ain’t going ta be safe out here with all them wild critters.” Jelly replied.
Murdoch shook his head at the scene before him and decided it was time to make himself scarce. “Well boys I’m heading home, you three can handle…George!”
“Murdoch! I thought I might ride back with you…” Scott gave his father a pleading look.
“I rather think you’re needed here. Someone has to keep them out of trouble! Do you mind?”
“No sir,” Scott replied as he silently asked himself ‘just how much trouble could one giraffe be?’
As the Lancer patriarch rode away, Johnny began discussing tactics.
“If we tie all our ropes together that should make one long enough to…
“The ropes not the problem…”Scott interrupted, “getting it over its head and around its neck is the problem.”
“Anyone got any ideas?” Johnny stared at Jelly who stared right back, an idea forming in his mind.
Ten minutes later Johnny found himself climbing up one of the trees George was feeding from, “Boy he looks a lot bigger from up here…you sure he don’t bite Scott? I don’t like the look of those teeth!” He was silent for a moment as he pondered the unfairness of the situation, then began protesting loudly, “Why me? Well? Why am I the one climbin’ up this tree?
“You didn’t expect Jelly to climb up there did you?”
“NO! I expected you to! Older brother huh! You’re supposed to stop me doing stupid things…not encourage me! I don’t think Murdoch had this in mind when he asked you to keep me out of trouble.”
“What Murdoch doesn’t know won’t hurt him!” Scott grinned.
“Won’t hurt him…might hurt me!” Johnny grumbled to himself. Breathing a sigh of relief on reaching the desired branch, he called out, “Ok, I’m high enough.”
He eased himself inch by inch out along the tree limb; suddenly finding he could go no farther, he was stuck and so began to wriggle in an effort to release himself.
“What ya doing now!” Jelly shouted, anxious about the delay.
“My pants are caught.” Johnny explained irritably.
“Watch out for splinters!” The older man shot back, grasping the opportunity to do some teasing of his own. He and Scott then erupted into laughter, much to the youngest Lancers annoyance. It just wasn’t funny from where he was precariously perched.
Holding on tightly with his left hand, his right hand tugged determinedly at the snagged piece of cloth. But the force behind his efforts not only loosened the material it also unbalanced Johnny who spun out of control.
Johnny’s world was suddenly upside down and he swung from the branch held solely by his legs which he had somehow managed to entwine around the limb. Johnny’s arms dangled either side of his head; he stared up or was it down at his brother and tried desperately to get his bearings.
“Will you stop ya malarkey boy and get on with it.” The handyman shouted shaking his head at Johnny’s antics.
“Yes stop hanging around up there and get that rope on George.” Scott ordered.
Johnny groaned, he suddenly didn’t feel too good. He pulled himself up and then climbed back onto the limb, edging carefully along its length. George was directly below him now and he very carefully lowered the rope over the head and then down the long neck of the giraffe. He looked at the two older men expecting some acknowledgment of a deed well done and was sorely disappointed.
“Now for the hard bit.” Scott said to Jelly as they both began walking towards their horses.
“HEY, you forgot something.” Johnny shouted.
“What?” Scott asked impatiently.
“ME!” Johnny retorted as he gingerly made his way down the tree, the end of the rope tied securely around his waist. “Did you ever fall out of a tree Scott?” He demanded as he reached terra firma.
“No, but then I’ve got more sense than to climb one!” Scott replied winking at Jelly.
“THAT DOES IT!” The youngest Lancer erupted. You two sent me up that tree, watched me danglin’ all helpless like…then walked off and…” Suddenly Johnny felt himself being pulled backwards, landing hard on his rear, he turned to see what was dragging him and realised too late that the giraffe had started to move off with the rope still tied around his waist.
“Uh Scott…ya remember what the Old Man said about keepin’ me out of trouble…well…”
Scott watched in horror as the giraffe started to move at an ever quickening pace, dragging his helpless brother behind him. The blond Lancer ran frantically after the pair, desperate to release the younger man before any serious injury could occur. Finally he managed to catch up and get hold of his sibling’s right boot, he yanked it off, removed the knife the dark haired Lancer kept there for emergencies and sliced through the rope.
“Are you ok…are you hurt?” Scott demanded of his brother’s still form in between gasping for air. Johnny’s eyes were closed and he looked deathly pale.
Jelly knelt beside the brothers; he slapped Johnny’s face lightly, trying to get a response.
“Hell! What ya hittin’ me for…ain’t I suffered enough?” Johnny groaned. Opening his eyes he glared at Scott. “You’re wrong Scott that ain’t a giraffe…it’s the devil in disguise.”
“You’re ok then?” Scott asked ruffling Johnny’s hair.
“Yeah…I guess so.” Johnny answered sitting up and rubbing a few sore spots.
“Well come on then…George is getting away.” Scott hauled his brother to his feet.
“Good!” Johnny growled, that sounded like a good idea to him.
“Tying the rope around you was a fool thing to do boy!” Jelly snapped staring after the giraffe.
“I needed both hands to climb down that darn tree…climbin’ down is a lot less painful than falling down!”
“OK, ok you two, that’s enough…let’s get after George, a giraffe can move pretty quick when it wants to…”
“I KNOW.” Johnny agreed rubbing his backside.
“Would ya stop ya bellyaching “Jelly scolded, “George could be in trouble.”
“If he ain’t he soon will be.” Johnny pointed meaningfully at his gun earning himself a withering look from the handyman.
“Whose idea was it to track him down?” Jelly demanded.
“I made a mistake…so shoot me…” Johnny stood arms outstretched.
“I don’t believe in shooting dumb critters” Jelly retorted then began laughing at the expression on his young friend’s face; Johnny seemed for once unable to come back with some wise crack.
Twenty minutes later Johnny caught sight of George, he whooped as he approached the grazing animal.
Scott and Jelly were hard on Johnny’s tail, the blond Lancer calling out to his brother not to frighten the giraffe.
“Frighten him! I’d like to do a lot more than that to him.” Johnny mumbled to himself as his jumped down off Barranca and strode with determination towards the giant.
Suddenly a shot rang out and to Johnny’s horror George turned and started to run directly towards him.
“No!” Johnny mouthed the word as the animal galloped ever closer. He could hear his brother and Jelly’s frantic pleas for him to get out of the way, but found himself mesmerized by the giraffe’s loping gait. Just in time he jumped out of the startled animals path, watching wide eyed as George ran passed, barely two feet away.
The rope trailing from the giraffes neck caught his eye and telling himself that ‘Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea but… what the hell’ he made a grab for it and held on for dear life, only letting go when he decided being dragged through the pasture was something he’d done once before that day and was even more painful second time around.
He rolled onto his back and lay panting, silently cursing the ‘four legged demon from hell’.
“Of all the stupid things to do…are you alright?” Scott’s voice held a mixture of disbelief, anger, and concern.
Johnny opened his eyes to find Scott again kneeling beside him “Yep! Just taking a little siesta,” Johnny groaned.
“Layin’ down on the job…I shoulda known.” Jelly teased relief palpable in his voice.
“Layin down and stayin down…till that…” Johnny suddenly sat bolt upright “Where’d that shot come from?”
“That would be me!” A disembodied voice said.
All eyes turned in the direction of the voice, all three men transfixed by what they saw.
Murdoch Lancer was the tallest man each one of them had ever seen…up until now!
The stranger looked to be at least a foot taller than the patriarch, and carried a lot more weight. ‘He was’ Johnny thought to himself ‘a mountain of a man’.
And ‘the mountain’ was standing just a few feet away; his size proving somewhat intimidating from where Johnny was sitting. The youngest Lancer sprang to his feet to stand alongside his brother, his hand resting on his Colt.
The curly haired giant broke the uneasy silence with a cheerful greeting, “Good afternoon. I’m Jacob Lee, but my friends call me Tiny.”
“Tiny!” A chorus of disbelief echoed through the meadow, causing a grin to settle on Jacob’s face. He never failed to be amused by the reaction the endearment caused.
Scott cleared his throat then looking up into what seemed to be a set of friendly green eyes said, “Well Mr Lee it’s a pleasure to meet you.” Gesturing to Jelly he first introduced him, then his brother then finally himself, continuing on with the question uppermost on all their minds, “We would very much like to know why you were shooting at the giraffe?”
The taller man’s face grew grim, “Well, we’ve been trying to catch him for four days now, and the longer he’s out here the more danger we believe him to be in. Last night we decided it was best to put an end to his travels humanely. I had a clear shot and then this young man appeared from nowhere and I had little time to react.”
“So he belongs to you Mr Lee?” Scott asked.
“Tiny please. Yes he does; he’s part of our travelling carnival. We’re called ‘The Long, The Short and The Tall’
Enlightenment now shone on the three faces, things were beginning to make some semblance of sense.
“We too were attempting to catch him.” Scott explained, “As you say he’s in a great deal of danger…”
“Huh!” Johnny snorted scornfully, “George seems more than capable of lookin’ after himself!”
“George?” Tiny asked.
“That’s what Jelly here’s called him! He got another name?”
“Well actually Johnny yes, we call him… Shorty.”
“Shorty!” Johnny proclaimed before laughing along with his friend and brother.
Scott sobered first, “Well Tiny, how about we join forces to recapture George…I mean Shorty, before he does fall foul of something.”
“I’d be much obliged for the help. We have a show in a couple of days and we’ve lost a lot of time already.”
Wondering just how the animal had escaped Johnny asked “How’d Shorty get away from you?”
Tiny shook his head exasperatedly, “It was Lady Godiva, she keeps untying him!”
“Who?” Scott exclaimed, a certain image forming in his mind.
Noting the odd grin on his sibling’s face Johnny turned to Tiny, “Yeah who?”
“A chimpanzee, she’s very young and mischievous.”
“Ah!” Scott replied sounding more than a little disappointed.
George had once again returned to the trees by the river, he grazed contentedly under the watchful eyes of his four hunters.
“I told ya he likes it here” Jelly sniffed
“Well he ain’t stayin’,” growled Johnny as he dismounted. The long necked critter had outstayed his welcome as far as he was concerned and the sooner George was off Lancer land the better.
“I just need to get close enough to secure the rope. You did well getting that on him.” Tiny said appreciatively.
“It was nothin’…any fool could have done it.” Jelly eyed Johnny meaningfully.
“Yes my little brother can rope anything that moves.” Scott grinned as he proudly patted his sibling on the back.”
“Yeah and ya best remember that Jelly!” Johnny glared at the older man.
After a short discussion on how best to capture the giraffe, the four men moved to surround him, edging ever closer to the beast.
George lifted his head and after sniffing the air turned around and ambled in the youngest Lancer’s direction.
“Get the rope Johnny…no sudden moves.” Scott instructed calmly.
“Me! Why me again?” Johnny grumbled, that rope had caused him enough problems already.
“He likes you.” Tiny said earnestly.
Johnny mumbled his feelings for George under his breath and bent to catch hold of the rope, on standing upright he found the animals face directly in front of his own. Startled he stood rooted to the spot staring unblinkingly into its huge black eyes. The animals long black tongue suddenly shot out making unexpected contact with the right side of Johnny’s face. The young man recoiled in horror falling backwards onto his rear.
George responded by dropping his head lower, his tongue curling out again to deliver a wet stinging slap across the dark haired Lancer’s other cheek.
Johnny decided enough was enough, and scooted backwards…George followed.
Hollering “Help me” in his brothers direction Johnny saw that all three men were now laughing helplessly at his predicament!
Certain that help would not be forthcoming and that it would be quicker to run Johnny was just about to stand up when the ground disappeared beneath him.
The ground was soon replaced by cold water, and Johnny found himself treading that water to keep afloat. He looked up at the river bank and saw that all three men and George were staring down at him.
To add insult to injury, all three again erupted into laughter and Johnny was certain that the snort that emanated simultaneously from George was the creature’s way of showing his amusement.
The rope with George attached was now securely tied to a tree; Johnny stood shivering as he dripped what felt like half the river onto the ground beneath him. He watched Scott and Jelly attempt to light a fire; their attempts seemed to be getting them nowhere as both men found themselves dissolving into frequent bouts of laughter.
Johnny’s temper was simmering and almost ready to boil over when the fire finally gained life, he sighed and moved closer to the now increasing heat.
“Johnny…” Scott began.
“Don’t…just don’t okay brother!” Johnny spat, stripping off his shirt and wringing it out, to then throw it over a tree limb to dry in the late afternoon sun. Next came his pants, then he turned his back on George and both men as he slipped out of his drawers, finally wrapping his blanket around him.
Moving still closer to the fire, he shot both Scott and Jelly the dirtiest of looks which only served to make both men laugh again.
Finally managing to swallow his mirth Scott tried to placate the younger man, “Tiny said he’d be back within a couple of hours…”
“Why couldn’t he take that, that thing with him?” Johnny pointed vehemently at George.
“He thought it would be easier and safer for George if he left him here with…”
“He’d be safe! What about me? Well…I…you…” Johnny stuttered in exasperation. “That thing’s almost killed me at least three times today and you’re worried for HIS safety! Now look here Scott, we’re brothers ain’t we…aint we?” Johnny demanded as he glared at his older sibling.
“Yes Johnny.” Scott grinned back “And I promised our father that I would keep you out of trouble. I think I’m doing quite a good job, considering the way you’ve been acting.”
“The way…what…now listen here…”
Scott held up his hand to silence his brother. “No you listen! You played the fool up a tree, secured yourself to a moving giraffe, stood in front of same charging giraffe, let that very same giraffe drag you a few hundred yards, took offence when he tried to make friends with you and then… to top it all you fell into a river…”
Turning his back on a lecture he knew he didn’t deserve Johnny stomped towards his already laid out bedroll and lay down, with one last long and deadly glare at his companions, he turned on his side and waited for sleep to rescue him from what seemed to be a never ending nightmare.
Johnny’s nose twitched as something lightly tickled it, a smell of coffee filtered through his hazy thoughts. Opening his eyes he expected to see Scott or Jelly on the other end of a blade of grass…but no.
This was much less pretty a face, not pretty at all in fact! This was the face of a….monkey! He recognised this creature, he’d seen pictures of them, but he’d never ever expected to meet one…especially not like this.
The creature was staring intently down at him, its brown eyes giving nothing of its intentions away.
“Scott.” Johnny called quietly, certain that this animal couldn’t be trusted either. Suddenly the chimpanzee let out an unearthly screech and bounded off towards the trees, taking with it Johnny’s blanket.
“SCOTT” Johnny bellowed as he sat bolt upright. Realising then that there were covered wagons off to his left, and remembering that he was stark naked he reached for his clothes only to find them missing, except that was for his hat. Hearing women’s voices he snatched it up and placed it strategically on his person.
Scott and Jelly appeared from behind a wagon along with several men; the youngest Lancer felt the colour rise in his cheeks and as they drew closer he looked pleadingly at his brother, “Scott, would ya get me my clothes.”
Despite a thorough search of the camp, Johnny’s clothes couldn’t be found; Tiny apologised profusely, sheepishly explaining that Lady Godiva was in the habit of making things vanish into thin air.
Half an hour later Johnny found himself dressed in some spare clothes that Tiny had found, sitting by a campfire, and tucking into a very tasty stew.
“Thank you Ma’am,” Johnny smiled as he accepted another helping from Tiny’s wife. Chewing on a tidy sized chunk of beef he couldn’t help but ponder on Mrs. Lee’s size. She had to be less than five foot tall!
The carnival folk were a friendly bunch and the conversation was sprinkled with hearty laughter, and was soon centred on the various animals the carnival travelled with.
When the younger man had finished his meal Tiny stood up and offered, “Come on Johnny I’ll introduce you.”
If his earlier experiences were anything to go by then Johnny wasn’t keen to make any more such acquaintances, “Uh no thanks Tiny we’d best be headin’ home…”
“Nonsense!” Scott grinned, grasping Johnny’s arm and forcibly pulling him along with him.
Johnny had no choice but to walk over to where the animals were being kept. He gaped in awe at what Scott informed him was an elephant.
“This is Dainty.” Tiny said proudly patting the elephant’s trunk.
“Sure it is!” Johnny responded, eyes suddenly widening in horror as he caught sight of the longest and fattest snake he had ever seen… coiling itself around Jelly.
“Don’t move Jelly.” Johnny ordered, gun in his hand.
“Ain’t she somethin’ Johnny?”Jelly cooed. This here is Snuggles, she sure is friendly…what ya doin’? Put ya gun away, she won’t bite ya. She might like ta squeeze ya to death fer pointin’ that thing at her.” Jelly rolled his eyes as Johnny reluctantly holstered his gun.
Johnny started when Scott’s arm wrapped around his shoulder.
“This way Brother.” The youngest Lancer found himself being led over to another covered wagon; the canvas on one side was rolled up exposing a row of steel bars. Contained within the metal cage, standing in all its glory was a lion, which on seeing Johnny decided to roar.
“Strewth…” Johnny said, stepping quickly back his eyes wider than ever before. “Scott…I’m going home…”
“Oh no not until you’ve met…”
“No…no I ain’t meetin nothin’ else, not now, not never! They’re gettin’ uglier and ornerier by the minute…”
“Honey…you have to meet Honey.”
“Honey! I can just imagine what Honey looks like thanks very much. All teeth and scales and and…breathin’ bad breath…”
“I can assure you Mr. Lancer I do not have bad breath or scales…and my teeth number the same as yours.”
Johnny turned to find a vision of loveliness. Long golden curls framed a face that boasted the prettiest green eyes he’d ever seen, and a smile that made his heart beat ten to the dozen. He smiled back lost in the beauty that stood before him falling instantly in love. A sharp dig in the ribs brought him painfully back to his senses.
“Johnny, this is Honey Lee.”
“Honey…yes, yes she sure is…” Johnny drawled catching his breath as the young woman’s smile reached her eyes.
“I’m pleased to make your acquaintance Mr. Lancer.”
“The pleasure is all mine, Ma’am.” Johnny said reaching out and taking Honey’s hand. ‘Where they been hidin’ you?’ he asked himself.
“Well if you’ll excuse us brother. Honey and I are about to take a stroll.” Scott failed miserably in preventing a smirk from creeping across his face.
Johnny stood and watched forlornly as the couple walked away from camp. He felt his heart shatter into tiny pieces and let out a deep and melancholic sigh.
“What in tarnation’s eatin’ at ya now?” Jelly’s voice cut through Johnny’s misery.
“Jelly, promise me something will ya?”
“Well…course I will, if’n I can.” Jelly replied concerned now by Johnny’s despondent air.
Johnny turned swiftly on his heels striding out towards Barranca. “The next time I have me a fool notion to go off chasin’ some beast from hell…stop me…please. Shoot me if ya have to!”
“Are you leaving so soon Mr. Lancer?”
Johnny stopped in his tracks, mentally kicking himself for forgetting his manners; he turned to face Mrs Lee.
“Well…no Ma’am,” Johnny gazed down at the petite figure, “I was…I was just checking on my horse.” Johnny blushed at his little white lie, he’d been heading home, home to what he knew…cattle, horses, his old man and Teresa and as far away as possible from this odd band of travellers.
Mrs. Lee smiled warmly and Johnny shuffled uncomfortably under her intense gaze; she seemed to be looking right through him.
The smile suddenly faded and compassion washed over Sally Lee’s face, “You’ve been so very ill!”
“I…I was kinda sick!” Johnny replied, shaken by her knowledge.
“No! You…you so nearly died! Your family they prayed for you.” Tears filled Mrs. Lee’s eyes and Johnny shivered, ‘How did she know that?’
Johnny dropped his gaze from the pain filled green eyes that now seemed to see right into his very soul.
“I’m sorry Johnny. I didn’t mean to…but you’re well now and…sorry I just can’t help myself sometimes.” Mrs. Lee turned away quickly and disappeared behind the wagons.
Johnny’s eyes searched desperately for Jelly but the older man had disappeared along with Tiny! Unable to shrug off the unease that gripped him, he walked slowly in the direction Mrs. Lee had taken. He didn’t like seeing the kindly women so upset and feeling somewhat responsible for her distress, he decided he couldn’t leave without making sure she was alright.
FORTUNES TOLD AND DESTINIES REVEALED
The words were emblazoned on the side of a wagon and the name beneath those words ‘Sally Lee’.
Taking a deep breath he approached the wagon and called to Mrs. Lee, her tear stained face peeked out and Johnny smiled up at her.
“John…please come in.”
Johnny climbed up into the wagon, his eyes darting around its brightly coloured rugs, and an array of equally exotic ornaments. His gaze was drawn to an ornate table and the glass orb that stood in its centre. Johnny had seen one before and knew its owner to be a charlatan…but he couldn’t believe that of Mrs. Lee… not that he actually believed in such things.
“You don’t believe in such things do you John.”
Johnny stared in disbelief at Mrs. Lee…’had she read his mind’.
“You think I’m reading your mind”
Johnny’s mouth fell open… ‘How did she do it’?
“You’re wondering how I do it.”
“I…I.” Johnny started to back out of the wagon but Mrs. Lee took his hand gently in hers.
“Please John, let me explain.”
Johnny sat nervously at the table, his eyes locked on the crystal ball half afraid he’d see something staring back at him.
Mrs. Lee had left him, promising to return shortly with a mug of coffee and some answers. He stared into the opaque gloom and shuddered. He didn’t want reminding of his past and didn’t want to know anything that might cast a shadow on his future. It had only so recently been something he had dared to dream about.
A steaming mug of coffee was set before him and he started. Mrs. Lee moved with such grace that he had not heard her return; she draped a white silk scarf over the crystal ball and sat opposite the youngest Lancer.
Johnny lifted his gaze to meet Mrs. Lee’s, her radiant smile coaxing a warm smile in return. Sally Lee’s smile faded a little as she reached out and held Johnny’s hand.
“I can’t read minds. I’ve just learnt how people think, but I do have a gift. I see things…things that have or will happen. I don’t know how and I don’t know why, I try and use it wisely…that was not the case just now. Forgive me John I didn’t mean to remind you of that time.”
Johnny shook his head “Mrs. Lee…it wasn’t really such a bad time, not for me anyways. I don’t remember much about it. My father and brother though they…well I think you probably already know about that.”
Smiling at the young man’s gentle teasing Sally nodded: the Lancer family had been spared the grief of losing a loved one. Their future looked to be a happy one except there seemed to be a little trouble looming on the horizon, and Sally Lee felt compelled to warn her young friend.
“John, I must warn you. I see a difficult time ahead…a beast of some kind will cause you some…”
”George!” Johnny grinned at Mrs. Lee but his grin soon disappeared when he saw she was being serious. “George? No! See, I’m heading home now and I’m going that way,” Johnny pointed towards Lancer “and he…you are going that way.” He stated before gesturing towards the direction the carnival was heading the following day.
“We… him and me won’t be meeting again.” ‘Never would be too soon’ Johnny thought.
An hour later, Johnny, Scott, and Jelly were on the trail home. Scott was singing the praises of Honey Lee, and Jelly speaking in a similar vein about the carnival animals. Johnny had tried to turn the conversation away from both topics but had lost both battles; he shook his head in defeat when both men announced they were heading over to see the show in two days time.
Johnny had no intention of going; he wanted to keep as much distance as was possible between him and George!
As the miles passed beneath Barranca’s hooves, the dark haired Lancer began to relax and put his experience with the giraffe behind him…or was trying to do that, until…just twenty minutes later when all three men turned to see what was bearing down on them.
“NO!” Johnny groaned “I’m seeing things!”
“George!” Jelly and Scott said in union as the animal hurried past.
Johnny scoured the horizon for Tiny but there was no sign of the carnival owner. He turned around just in time to see first George and then Jelly and his brother disappear over a hill. He sighed then mentally began ticking off the reasons he shouldn’t join the chase: Mrs. Lee’s words being the deciding factor.
A little while later he reached a small creak and stopped to let Barranca drink his fill. He tried unsuccessfully to push away the niggling sense of guilt and just as he had decided to help his brother and Jelly he noticed George heading in his direction.
Mrs. Lee’s words rang in his ears as he realised Scott and Jelly were nowhere to be seen.
To add to his woes Barranca suddenly bolted and no amount of whistling brought him back. Johnny paced, cursing both George and himself. “Darn fool, now what am I going to do, it will be dark in another few hours.”
George loped towards Johnny who nervously stood his ground, muttering an obscenity when George lowered his head and snorted in his face.
“Let’s get it said. You hate me and I… I really hate you. Do that again and…” Right on cue George repeated his previous insult and Johnny wiped furiously at his face with his shirt sleeve. “You…” Johnny spat venomously “are living on borrowed time…” he paused and caught hold of the rope that was tied around George’s neck, pondering on just how the giraffe had escaped yet again. ‘It had to be the chimpanzee’, “…and Lady Godiva’s the next one on my list…”
With that Johnny strode out towards the Lee’s camp, his stomach rumbled loudly and painfully and he wished he’d had that third helping of Mrs. Lee’s stew. The only reason he had declined was because Maria had promised him a special supper tonight. His mouth watered at the thought and he stopped dead. “Home’s a darn site nearer,” he told himself then turned and headed for Lancer tugging on the rope as George continued on in the other direction.
“This way you darn…come on will ya…” George’s strength out matched Johnny’s and he found himself being pulled along by the giraffe.
The youngest Lancer looked around hoping for sight of Scott and Jelly but to no avail. ”Thought they had better tracking skills than this, they should be here by now!” Looking up at the sky he knew night would soon be upon them and that tonight’s moon would cast little light. His stomach growled again and he pictured a giraffe steak on his plate…”Well at least I won’t starve!”
Johnny’s mind wandered back over the day’s events and a thought occurred to him “Nah! He’s fast but I couldn’t…could I?” Weighing up his options Johnny decided it was worth a try. The small outcrop of rocks up ahead would be ideal and he scrambled up them quickly until he was satisfied he was high enough. Hesitating just briefly he gingerly threw one leg over George and grinned as he settled his rear onto his sloping back. The grin soon faded as he found himself slipping, his expression turning to horror as the animal bolted.
Johnny hit the ground with a sickening thud. Winded he lay there for several minutes finally opening his eyes and sitting up as he spat a heartfelt “Good riddance!”
He had barely walked a mile when he spotted his adversary up ahead
“I don’t believe it” Johnny glared at George, the creature had decided to return and was once again moving in his direction. All too soon he was standing in front of the young man, eyeing him almost questioningly.
“What ya looking at me like that for? You’re the one who got me into this mess so you’re gonna help get me out of it!”
The giraffe lowered his head; wise to that move now Johnny managed to duck away from the long black tongue as it shot out towards him.
“Would you stop that?” Johnny growled. “I hate ta think where that tongue might have been!”
Looking around again for sight of his brother he felt his hat lifting off his head, “Hey! Give that back.” He demanded watching helpless as George began to chew the item.
“I liked that hat…” the young man began. As he scowled up at George, the giraffe dropped the badly mangled object and snorted. “…but it’s not to your refined taste obviously.” Bending to retrieve what was left of the hat Johnny plonked it back on his head. Catching hold of the rope he strode purposefully back towards the small escarpment, “We’re gonna try that again!” ‘After all’ Johnny thought, “Breakin’ a giraffe can’t be much different to breakin’ a horse!”
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