The Storm King by Christine

Word count 54,682

This story was written in response to the Lancermadam’s “plot bunny” request posted on the LancerFanFiction site.  The concept of the story is, “Murdoch and the boys are returning to the ranch after a business trip. As they cross the mountains, they are caught in a blizzard and it falls on Murdoch to find shelter since he has lived there for many years.”


Part 1

Murdoch took a deep breath; it was good to get some fresh air after being cooped up in meetings for what seems like days and hours on end.  He turned at the footsteps behind him, his old friend Ben Cartwright.

“Ben, it’s been a good meeting.   I think we’ve accomplished a lot.”

“Yes, that it has been Murdoch.  It was good that you and the boys could come and represent California.  The more we can get the state’s associations to come together and represent all the western cattlemen’s interests to the buyers in the East, the better off we’ll all be.”

Murdoch had been selected to represent California at this meeting of the Western Cattlemen’s Association.  California, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, even Colorado, Wyoming, all had all sent representatives.  In addition to day long meetings, there’d been a lot of late nights over cigars and brandy as men who’d spent their lives building cattle empires renewed friendships and told tales of cattle drives and drought and storms, of failures and success, of battles lost and won.  

Murdoch was pleased with his sons.  They represented him and California admirably at the meetings.  Scott had an ease in crowds borne of growing up in Boston with his grandfather and learning how to interact with men of business and power.  After a year at Lancer, Scott was still learning the cattle business.  He had a good understanding of the economics of the business even if he still had some trouble roping a calf during branding season.  

Murdoch had debated about bringing Johnny.  Even after a year, there was still so much he didn’t understand about this son.  Johnny, who could charm a smile out of the most dour spinster but in the next instant, suddenly don the cloak of the infamous Johnny Madrid.  Murdoch had thought to leave Johnny at Lancer; the fall roundup and cattle drive had just finished and having a member of the family home overseeing ranch operations while he and Scott were at the meeting seemed reasonable.  But having Scott accompany him and not bringing Johnny, what did it say about trust?  And he’d had enough missed and lost chances to gain Johnny’s trust. 

But how Johnny had grumbled about coming!  Murdoch remembered that discussion.  Johnny had paced the great room; arms held tightly across his chest. 

 “Murdoch, you and Scott, you’re used to meetin’ with all them cattlemen.  You know what to say.  Hell, I’ll say somethin’ wrong and have everyone fuedin’ before the meeting’s hardly started.  And somebody needs to be here.  You can’t just leave Lancer.”  

Murdoch watched him pace.  “Cipriano and Jelly can run the ranch while we’re gone.  I want you and Scott there to represent Lancer so I can introduce you to men you’ll both be working with in the future.   Johnny, I want both of you with me.”  Murdoch had held Johnny’s gaze.  “It means a lot to me, son.”

Johnny had stopped his pacing.  He looked to where Scott sat, looking for some sign of support, seeing Scott smile and nod.  Scott would be there to make sure he didn’t start a range war, Scott would have his back.  He’d looked at Murdoch and let his father’s words sink in, a slight smile playing on his lips. 

“Just remember Old Man, if anything goes wrong, don’t blame it on me, this is your idea.”    

Carson City was about 150 miles from Green River if one took the old trails over the mountains, but the Lancer’s trip wasn’t that simple.  First, the stage from Green River to Sacramento, the train to Reno and then back on another stage to Carson City.  They’d considered riding, but Murdoch’s back still, after over a year, wouldn’t tolerate that many days in the saddle and over the rough mountain terrain.  And the autumn storms could turn to snow in a heartbeat. 

Johnny had been on his best behavior for the entire week.  Murdoch knew he’d skipped out on a few meetings; he’d found a fast horse at the livery and would head out to open space to clear the air and his mind.  Murdoch actually envied that, there were some meetings he wouldn’t have minded missing.  There’d been a few tense moments during the week.  One rancher from Arizona had recognized Johnny; he’d once seen Madrid in action and a few of the ranchers who knew the history of Murdoch’s youngest son had asked him how it was to have his sons home.  Murdoch knew what they were trying to ask was, “How does the gunhawk fit in, any regrets?”    But the week’s meetings had passed trouble free; the cattlemen focused on business.  Murdoch had let comments about his son pass, he’d thought to tell these men how good a man he’d discovered this son was, but he didn’t think anything was to be gained, so he let the questions pass. 

Pulled back to the present, Murdoch turned to his old friend Ben Cartwright.  “I wish we had more time, Ben.  I’d like to get down and see the Ponderosa and I know the boys, especially Johnny, would like to get out into the open after so many hours at meetings.  I’d like them to see your place and meet your sons.”

There were so many similarities between these two men.  They’d both carved ranches out of the wilderness, married and lost wives.  But Ben had raised his sons while Murdoch had lost his for so many years.  They were home now and that was all that really mattered to Murdoch. 

“Tomorrow we head back to Reno to catch the train, time to get back to Lancer.  You know that even after fall roundup, there’s work to be done.”   Murdoch snorted, “And I remember when that trip would have taken the better part of a week over the Sierra ridges.  Now with the stage and train, we’ll be back home in under 4 days.” 

“The country was a lot rougher then.” Ben leaned back against the railing of the hotel’s porch. “You needed pack animals to haul the supplies and heaven help the man who didn’t mind the weather and got caught in the mountains during a winter storm.  Well, we know what happened to some of those parties”.   

Murdoch paused, thinking back to tales of miners and pioneers that had tempted the weather and lost. “Yeah, but with the stage and convenience of the trains that isn’t too much of a worry these days.”

Ben sighed, looking off to the northwest. “That may be Murdoch, but the Storm King still rules in these mountains and this is the time of year he makes himself known.”

“Rise and shine little brother, we’ve got a stage to catch.”  Scott Lancer opened the door to Johnny’s hotel room and stood back slightly, even after a year he knew to be careful when waking Johnny.  Johnny with hair trigger reflexes and a Colt 45 under his pillow.  Last night’s closing dinner had been long with an awards ceremony and speeches, but drinks poured with a liberal hand and many of the men had ended the night at the city’s saloons.  Scott had returned to the hotel after visiting just a few of the saloons; he’d heard Johnny come in only a few hours ago.  Murdoch had already been by to remind him of the time the stage was leaving and putting him in charge of getting Johnny up and ready on time.  These were the times there was no advantage in being the older brother.

Hearing a groan and the bed squeak Scott ventured farther.  “Murdoch’s already checking to be sure you’re up and ready to catch the stage.”     

Johnny rolled over and glared at Scott. “Stage, Dios Scott, I ain’t lookin’ forward to spending’ the day on the stage.  Think we could convince the old man to stay another day?”

Scott shook his head and chuckled, “You go right ahead and try.  Just to let you know Murdoch’s packed and so am I.”

Johnny threw off the blanket and walked to the washstand, leaning over to splash cold water on his head.  “What time is it?  And when does the stage leave?”  

Scott stood out of the way as Johnny shook his wet hair.  “You’ve got about an hour, plenty of time to clean up and get your coffee and say goodbye to any pretty girls you met last night.”

Johnny stretched and reached down to pick up a shirt from the floor. “No, I’ll just leave ‘em pinin’ for more.  I’ll meet you downstairs for that coffee.”

An hour later found the Lancer’s on the stage to Reno, the first leg of the journey back to Lancer.  It was a day’s travel on the stage to Reno.  They’d stay the night and catch the train to Sacramento the next morning.  Johnny had opted to ride up top with the driver leaving Scott and Murdoch to share the coach with two of the cattlemen who’d been at the meeting, a drummer, and a sour looking old lady.  When Scott saw his traveling companions, he knew his brother had the better ride.  The trip to Reno was uneventful.  They’d stopped to change horses, a meal at the way station, and pulled into the depot as much on schedule as stages ever were.  

“Why don’t you two go over the check into the hotel, they should have our reservation.  I’m heading to the train depot to check out the train to Sacramento, make sure the schedule hasn’t changed.  I’ll meet you in the hotel dining room.”  Murdoch walked away as Scott and Johnny collected their bags.  

“Wonder what’s keepin’ Murdoch?”  Johnny leaned back in his chair. “I’m getting’ hungry and that waiter keeps glarin’ at us like we’re just taking’ space from payin’ customers.”  

Scott looked over that the waiter who was watching them fairly closely.  “Maybe he thinks…” Just then he saw Murdoch walk in, he waved towards his father.  “Here’s Murdoch.”  But what was the look in his father’s face?

“Murdoch, what’s wr..?”

Murdoch scowled, “There’s been an earthquake.  The train’s been canceled.  The station master said there’s at least a couple of trestles out, maybe a tunnel blocked.  Right now, they don’t have any estimate of when they’ll have the repairs done.”  

“Earthquake.”  Scott didn’t have too much experience with quakes.  “How widespread?  Could Lancer have been affected?”  

Murdoch frowned, shaking his head. “I don’t know son, along with the train the quake took out the telegraph lines.  The station didn’t have news of how widespread that damage is and with the lines down there no way right now to find out if everything is alright at Lancer or to let them know we’re stranded here in Reno. It could be weeks before we can get home.”

Johnny looked at his father and brother.  “Well, there’s always another way.  We could head over the Sierras, maybe pick up the train on the other side if it’s runnin’ and if it ain’t just head on home.  Better than sittin’ here just waitin’ to get some news.  

Remembering that they’d decided not to ride because of Murdoch’s back, Scott said,  “It’s a long ride, and we don’t even have our gear.”

“We can buy some horses from the livery. It’ll have something worth ridin’, pick up the supplies we need first thing in the morning and head out.”  Johnny looked expectantly at his father, waiting for him to list all the reasons why his suggestion wasn’t reasonable. 

Murdoch looked at his sons, a little smile playing on his lips. “Well, I didn’t think we’d do any camping on this trip boys.  Johnny, that’s a good idea.”  Murdoch saw his son’s incredulous smile.  “If we leave in the morning, even if the trains are out, we could get back to Lancer in a week.  And at the very least, we’ll find a telegraph so we can let Teresa and Jelly know where we are and find out if there’s been any damage at Lancer.”

“Johnny, I know it’s getting late, but you could go over to the livery and check out the stock, pick out three sturdy horses and a pack animal.  Scott, head over to the telegraph office and leave a message for them to send to Lancer when the lines are up, let Jelly know what we’re doing.  I’ll make up the list of supplies we’ll need.  We’ll need to be prepared; this time of year we could run into some bad weather.”

Part 2

Johnny and Scott jumped up from the table to attend to their assigned tasks.  Both men relieved that they’d be on their way to Lancer, not sitting in Reno waiting for someone else to repair the quake ravaged rail trestles.  Scott shouting across the lobby, “Don’t pick out a jug head for me, little brother!”

“Boston, I’ll find a gentle old mare for ya, like takin’ a rockin’ horse over them mountains.”  Johnny threw back at him.

Murdoch remained seated at the table.  His mind was listing the supplies they’d need; bedrolls, tarps, rope, a hatchet, gloves and mufflers, staples, coffee, jerky, some beans, bacon – light on food, he didn’t want to carry a lot of cooking pans. Maybe a few more blankets.  But his heart was telling him “slow down”.  The trail he was planning on taking was a hard trip in good weather.  They could have decent weather, October was still good weather.  Maybe cold in the mountains but if an early storm came in…  He shook his head to clear those thoughts.  He needed to be prepared; he needed them to be ready.  Neither of the boys would have made a trip like this before.  He didn’t think they had…but maybe Johnny… even though he preferred the sun of the border, didn’t mean he hadn’t had reason to be in the winter mountains.  

Murdoch thought back to his first cross country trip.  He’d landed in Boston, met his first love, but the call of California was so strong.  Passage on ships around the Cape was too dear so it was a wagon across the plains and into the mountains.  The journey had been long and hard but they were with a wagon train, he shook his head – that Major Adams the wagon master, dour as a Scotsman, but he’d kept everyone moving.  The scouts knew the route, the obstacles, where to find water.  And it was still summer when they crossed the Sierra into California, not the autumn twilight.  Then the trains came.  You still had to take a stage or wagon part way until the great Central Pacific and Union Pacific joined in ’69.  But then the iron horse had changed the cross country trek. 

Murdoch thought over the trail, remembering what it had been like, the look of the land, the smell of the deep forest.  It’d been more than a few years, but he remembered the places where there was water, forage, some old cabins—maybe cabin was a generous description, but they would provide some shelter.

He looked up at Scott’s arrival.  Scott pulled up a chair, throwing his hat and gloves on the table.  “I left a message with the telegraph operator, Sir.  They don’t know when the lines will be up.  We could be home before the telegram gets through.  But if they get the line repaired Jelly’ll get the message that we’re leaving in the morning and taking the trail from Reno into Sacramento to catch the stage from there.”

Scott observed Murdoch’s weary anxious look.  “You’re worried about taking the trail into Sacramento, aren’t you.”   It was a statement, not a question.

Murdoch took a deep breath, “It’s a rough trip in good weather, Scott.”

“You think we’ll have bad weather?”

Shaking his head, Murdoch sighed, “I don’t know.  I just want to be sure we’re prepared.”

Scott looked off into the distance and smiled.  “I remember getting caught in a storm once.  We were in Maine.  Grandfather and I were on our way to visit Great Aunt Agatha, grandfather’s older sister.  The storm came up, we couldn’t even see the road from the sleigh.  Grandfather said the only way we found our way to her home was the horses knowing the way to the barn.”

Murdoch chuckled, he could see Scott in a sleigh, even with his grandfather. “Must have been quite a trip Scott.  But we’ll have to be a little smarter, these horses won’t know their way.”

“Know their way where?”  Johnny pulled a chair out with his foot, sitting down and leaning back, tipping his hat back.  

“I was just telling Murdoch about a sleigh ride and a blizzard, I thought it was an adventure, but when you’re ten everything is an adventure.”  Scott looked at his brother and quickly thought about Johnny’s life when he was ten.  It hadn’t been an adventure, just the start of a nightmare no ten year old should have to experience. 

“Murdoch, we’re not gonna’ run into some snow, are we?”  Johnny sounded a little surprised.  And anxious?  “You know I don’t like bein’ cold!”

“It’s October Johnny, it may be a little early, but we could.  We’ll be prepared and I’ve had some winter experience.  Snow might slow us down, but it shouldn’t be a real problem.”  Murdoch hoped he sounded more convincing than he felt.

“Speaking of being prepared are the horses arranged?”

“Yeah.”  Johnny nodded.  “The livery don’t have much of a selection, and it got even smaller when I told the hostler I wanted to buy the stock not take ‘em for a day or two.  They ain’t flashy, but they’re all sound.  Even that rockin’ horse I got for you Boston.”

Murdoch knew his son’s skill in selecting horses so he knew that whatever stock Johnny had selected was the best Reno had to offer.  “Good, John, I know they’ll get us home.  Right now, let’s get some dinner, and enjoy it, it’s the last good meal we’ll get for a few days!  Then we’ll turn in.  I want to get the supplies first thing and get an early start.” 

Dawn seemed to come early.  But after having breakfast and getting all the supplies on Murdoch’s list, half the morning was gone before the Lancers set out on the trail home.  

Johnny was taking the lead; he turned back. “This trail have a name Murdoch?”  

Murdoch thought for a moment and shook his head.  “Not that I know of.  This trail wasn’t used as much as others, like the Emigrant Trail to the north.  We’re heading west then south around the shore of Lake Tahoe, then turn west towards Sacramento.  As I remember it, the trail was too narrow in some places and too steep in others for the wagons.  Ended up being used mostly by those coming across on foot or horseback.  It’s a rough trail, but it should take two days off the trip.”

The trail out of Reno and south to Lake Tahoe was smooth and easy traveling.  A few aspens still held their quaking golden leaves.  They saw signs of deer and fox.  Murdoch regaled the boys with tales of pioneers and 49ers.  But as the afternoon wore on and they ventured further up the mountainside, the day became noticeably cooler.  By the time the sun was setting, the riders could see their breath hanging in the air.  

They began to set up their first night’s camp on a bluff overlooking Lake Tahoe.  Murdoch pointed to the far shore.  “You met Ben Cartwright.”  The boys nodded. “That’s his spread over there, as far as the eye can see.  Next time we make this trip we’ll have to take a few more days and visit the Ponderosa.”  Murdoch smiled, “Of course, it doesn’t quite compare to Lancer.”

Scott and Johnny smiled at each other.  Nothing held a candle to Lancer as far as they were concerned.  

Johnny took over the horses.  “Let me get these ponies settled for the night, make sure they’re ready for tomorrow’s ride.”  

Murdoch directed Scott, “Son, I want you to cut some pine boughs, I saw an old pine stump at the edge of the clearing, I’ll get that.”

Scott look puzzled.  “A stump.  Are we going to use that for firewood?”

Murdoch looked over to Scott as he wrestled with the stump, “No, we’ll fire the inside of the stump, it’ll burn slow and long.  We’ll put the boughs down, spread the bedrolls over ‘em, keeps us off the ground.  And we’ll sleep with our feet towards the stump, keeps our feet warm.”

Johnny returned to the clearing with his arms full of wood. “I got the horses settled.”  As he dropped the wood and began to build a fire.  “What’s it gonna be?  Beans or jerky?”

Scott threw a can of beans to his brother. “Since you’re cooking I’ll vote for beans, you can’t ruin them.”

Murdoch stood back as the boys efficiently pulled their night’s camp together, fixing the meager meal of beans and coffee, smiling at their banter.  Maybe they should camp more often, maybe trying to make up for so many lost opportunities when they were boys.  Boys, they were men, but still his boys. 

Murdoch had been right, the meal at the hotel was the last good meal they’d have for a while.  As darkness fell, it was even colder.  The three Lancers turned in, the pine bough staving off the chill of the and providing some cushion to the hard ground.  And Murdoch was right, the stump’s slow burning was keeping them warm.  But even with that it was to be a long cold night.

Teresa looked up as Jelly pulled the buckboard into the yard.  “Jelly, did you find any other damage?”  Teresa was surveying the slight damage to the walls of her little garden.  

“Well now, me and Cipriano checked all them bridges and dams and they all held through that bit a shakin’.  But Miss Teresa…”  Jelly hesitated.

“Jelly, what is it?”  Jelly saw the concern in her eyes.

“Well, most likely nothin’.  When I was in Green River pickin’ up the supplies for them repairs I hear tell the quake was mite worse up north, some rail bridges been takin’ out.”

“Oh Jelly, Murdoch and the boys, could they have been …”  Teresa ran into the great room and found the travel plan on Murdoch’s desk.  She looked it over and figured in her head.  She looked at Jelly with a smile.  “No, they weren’t supposed to leave from Reno until this morning so they wouldn’t have been on a train during the quake.  They’ll just be delayed.”  

Jelly smiled back at the girl.  “That’s mighty good to hear.”  Turning away, talking to himself, “But if they ain’t on that train and just a sittin’ on some hotel porch in Reno, then why’s my elbows achin’ so bad?”

Part 3

The cold night broke to a clear but colder morning.  Scott quickly added wood to the fire and started coffee.  Murdoch took charge of frying bacon.  The aroma finally woke Johnny, blue eyes blinking in the morning’s sun.

“Well,” he drawled, “from the sun we could be down at the border but it’s colder than a tit de la bruja.”

Murdoch chuckled at Scott’s blank expression, <<I’ll have to remember to translate that for Scott later.>>

Johnny rolled out of the bedroll, shivering and pulling a blanket around his shoulders.  “You got that coffee ready yet Scott?”

Scott looked up and smiled as he poured another cup of coffee and handed it to Johnny.  “Why Johnny, this weather is balmy” he noted his brother’s puzzled look and corrected himself “Warm, compared to 

Boston.”  Scott still had to catch himself when he used terms that Johnny would never have heard in his life as a young gunhawk.  Johnny too used a lot of words, mostly in Spanish, that Scott didn’t understand.  They were both still learning about being brothers.

Johnny muttered under his breath, “I do not understand why anyone would want to live there!”  But then he noted Scott’s gloves and the muffler wrapped around his neck.  “If this weather is, what’d ya say, `bomly’, then why ya so bundled up?”

The men made quick work of the coffee, bacon and a few biscuits from the breakfast at the hotel the day before.  While Murdoch and Scott broke camp Johnny readied the horses.  From the shore of Lake Tahoe they turned west and began the trek higher into the mountains. The pines shielded them from the chill wind but blocked the sun.  Soon all the men were pulling their coats more tightly around them and

rewrapping the mufflers at their necks.  Scott marveled at the towering height of the trees but as they blocked the sun’s warmth they began to remind him of the chill grey gothic cathedrals of Europe.

As they rode along at a steady pace Murdoch remarked, “I remember, it’s along here someplace, an old Irishman and his wife tried to make it up here in a wagon.”  Johnny and Scott looked at each other and shook their heads, they’d been riding up the trail for hours, it was barely wide enough for two riders much  less a wagon.  “It was right along in here they realized they couldn’t go any further and couldn’t turn the wagon around so they, I’d guess you’d call it, homesteaded.  They had a cook stove they set up and opened up a sort of restaurant.  They’d serve the men coming over to try their luck in the gold fields.  Charged a pretty penny for a meal from what I heard.”

“Murdoch, you pullin’ my leg or are we gonna’ have some Irish stew for lunch?”

Murdoch chuckled, “No Johnny, no stew for lunch.”  Murdoch thought back to another time, “Once the miners quit coming across they moved on.  I hear they open a place in San Francisco with the money they’d made off the miners.  There!”  Murdoch pointed into the trees, the carcass of an old stove sat rusting, a sapling growing through the fire box.  “Along here there used to be some old wagon boxes off in

the trees, left by folks who tried to make it up with wagons and couldn’t.  They’ve probably rotted away by now.”

The men continued up the trail.  “Murdoch, what kind of damage do you think there could be at home?”

Murdoch had taken the lead.  He looked back, “Scott, I hope there’s none.  We could get home and everything will be fine.  But a quake big enough to take out a couple of bridges – we might find buildings

down, fences or bridges out, cattle scattered.  And even if there isn’t damage at Lancer neighbors could need our help.  I’ll just be glad when we’re home.  When we get to Sacramento I hope we’ll be able to send a telegram and find out if there was any damage.”  

Murdoch pointed up the trail.  “There’s a clearing up ahead.  We can stop for lunch and rest the horses.  There’s a steep section coming up.”

Johnny countered with a grin, “Steep section comin’ up.  Just what do you call what we been ridin’ on?”

The clearing was welcome; the sun was still out and warming the small space.  The horses, their girths loosened, drank from the small creek that ran its way down the mountain. Lunch was only cold bacon from the morning and fresh water from the creek. 

“So how much further on this trail Murdoch?”  Johnny lounged against an upturned stump.

“We should get to the top of the trail about this time tomorrow, then two days to get down.  The ride down isn’t any easier.  The trail is just as narrow and steep on the other side.”

Scott was standing, stretching his back.  He was feeling the hours in the saddle.  Whatever Johnny had said he hadn’t picked out the `rockin’ horse.  He couldn’t imagine how Murdoch felt but so far he hadn’t shown any effects of the bullet still in his back and he hadn’t complained.  Scott looked off to the north.  “Murdoch, look at that sky!”

Murdoch turned to follow his oldest son’s gaze.  What he saw made his heart drop.  The sky to the north and west was a deep steel blue, the afternoon sun lighting the edges with an eerie glow.  “That’s a storm sky son, snow’s coming in,”   Murdoch watched the clouds scudding before the storm, “and coming in fast.”

Scott looked at the sky, “But that isn’t the way the sky looks in Boston before a storm.  When a snow storm is coming in the sky is, it’s a soft gray.  You can almost see the snow in the clouds.  And some of the old timers swear you can smell the snow.  Are you sure it’s a snow storm Murdoch?”

Johnny came up behind his father and brother.  “The horses are watered and set to go.  What are you two debatin’ about?”

Scott turned to Johnny, “The sky.  Murdoch says there’s a storm coming in but I don’t think it looks like snow.”

Johnny looked at both Murdoch and Scott for a moment with a shake of his head.  “I don’t know what a snow storm looks like. There ain’t a lot to say about the border but at least there ain’t no snow. But I know a storm sky when I see one and we’re in for a storm, and a bad one from the looks of it.  So we best get  a few more miles behind us before it breaks.”

Murdoch nodded, a grim look darkening his face, “There a site up ahead called Hanging Springs.  There’s an old cabin, if it’s still standing.”  They mounted up and proceeded up the trail.  True to Murdoch’s prediction, the snow started, soft and gentle at first, then the wind began to pick up moaning through Scott’s cathedral of trees and the temperature began to drop.

All three men were chilled and wet by the time they reached the clearing Murdoch remembered.  Hanging Springs was just that; a spring from the side of the rock that seemed to hang in midair.  The cabin was standing, barely, more a lean to now but it offered some shelter. 

Murdoch took charge. “Scott, get some more pine boughs, just like last night.  I’ll get a fire going.”

Johnny had already started tending the horses.  “Once I’ve got the horses settled, I’ll get some more wood.”  Johnny pulled his jacket around his slender frame. “You think the storm will blow itself out

by morning?”

Murdoch looked at Johnny, Scott standing quietly behind him.  “I don’t know son. There’s an old saying in the Sierra that the Storm King has his season and when it’s his season he rules the mountain.  I think we’d better be ready for a long haul.”

Johnny smiled that irrepressible smile that would light the growing gloom.  “Then I best get that wood `cause I think I’ll be wantin’ a big fire!”

Scott had returned with the pine boughs and began placing them in the shelter of the lean to.  Murdoch had a small fire going, melting snow in the coffee pot when a cry of pure agony broke the silence of the forest beyond.  Scott and Murdoch looked up, eyes locked, both frozen in time, one thought in their minds and one name on their lips.


Part 4

The cry of pain from the darkening forest beyond still echoed, Scott tossed the boughs he’d collected aside as he began to race across the clearing to the trees.

“No!” bellowed Murdoch.

Scott stopped and turned, a look of disbelief on his face.  “Murdoch, that’s Johnny!  He’s h…”

“Scott, we won’t do him any good heading blind, it’s near dark and the storm’s growing.”  Agony was written on Murdoch’s face.  Every nerve screamed to follow his son’s cry but he’d been on the frontier long enough to know that heading blindly into the dark would put all three Lancer men in jeopardy.  

“Scott, we have to be sure we can get back to the camp.  Grab those ropes and get them tied together, then tie them to one of these trees.  We’ll use it to guide us back here.”  Murdoch took one of the pine brands and lit it from the fire, “We’ll use this for a torch.”  

Scott took a deep breath, understanding what his father was doing but still torn to follow the cry from the trees.  

Murdoch led the way, holding the burning torch to light the path Johnny had taken.  His boot prints showing as faint depressions in the deepening show.  Scott and Murdoch held the rope and played it out behind them as they followed the tracks.   

“Johnny!  Johnny!”  Both yelled into the wind hoping against hope for an answer, but only the wind and groaning branches answered them.   

“He couldn’t have gotten too far!”  Scott yelled to be heard above the rising wind.  “He wasn’t gone that long.  Maybe we’ve gone too far.  We should split up!”  Scott’s anxiety was rising with every step they took, sure that they’d missed Johnny.

Johnny’s felt the cold on his face, wet as the snow fell and melted.  He tried to blink the snow from this eyes.  Where was he?  He tried to sit up, but sharp pain in his side sent him crashing back to the ground.  He’d been collecting wood and then…  What had happened?  He tried to move again, more cautiously, pain shot through his right leg.  Lay back, stop and think Madrid.  Scott and Murdoch‘ll miss you and come lookin’.  So good to have family to rely on.  How long have I been layin’ here?  Maybe they’d already been around and couldn’t find me.  Maybe I’m buried in the snow and they didn’t see me.  Johnny tried to stem the rising panic.  Pushing it down to places deep in his soul where so many fears were buried and concentrate on how to get out of the mess he was in.  He was lying on a slope, the path he’d been on was pretty level, so he must have fallen down the mountainside.  He could barely make out anything in the deepening gloom of the dark and the storm, just dark shapes now.  The wind seemed to have picked up even in the shelter of the trees.  Johnny shifted slightly, that eased the pain in his side.  

“Scott, Murdoch.”  His voice barely carried past his own hearing, with a sinking heart, he knew that even if they were looking for him his brother and father wouldn’t hear his call.  He lay back, catch your breath Madrid, you’ve been in worse than this and got out.  So cold, so hard to breathe.  He heard his name, was it the wind?  Listen.  No, someone was calling him.  

“Scott.”  But his call was barely a whisper.  His hand reached to his holster and curled around the smooth handle of the Colt.  His fingers were numb, his hand shaking in the cold.  Did he even pull the trigger as the gun fell from his hand and the cold and darkness claimed him?

“It came from down there!”  Scott yelled back to Murdoch as he crashed through the trees following the sound that could only have been Johnny’s gun.  Both men running now, they’d been so close and so close to missing where his brother lay just off the trail half buried in the snow. 

Scott reached him steps ahead of Murdoch.  Kneeling, “Johnny, we’re here, brother.”  Scott pulled off his gloves and brushed the snow from Johnny’s face.  ”Johnny.”  There was no response. 

Murdoch stooped by his sons.  He heard the anguish in Scott’s voice.  

The torch Murdoch held still burned weakly.  He propped is against a boulder, casting dim shadows across his son’s faces.  “Scott, let me take him.”  Murdoch dropped to his knees and lifted Johnny’s limp body into his arms, cradling him against his chest.  He listened, he heard the wind and his son’s shallow breathing.  

Quietly, “He’s with us Scott.  Let’s get him back to the camp.”  Murdoch began to lift him, Scott reaching down to take Johnny’s legs.  

“Dear God!”  Scott’s voice broke in anguish.  Murdoch raised his head and followed Scott’s eyes.  Even in the dim light of the torch, the trap around Johnny’s right ankle shown dull against the white snow, stained with blood.  

“Let’s get him up on the trail and try to get that trap off before we move him.”  Murdoch’s voice was steady even though his heart was racing.  The two men struggled with their precious burden, being as gentle as possible, unsure of how badly Johnny was hurt.  

At the trail, Murdoch lay Johnny down and moved to his legs. 

“Scott, hold you brother and I’ll try to get this trap off.”   Murdoch took off his gloves, kneeling, looking at the trap.  It was old, a relic of trappers long gone, rusted and stiff.  Murdoch shut his eyes, took a deep breath and gripped the jaws of the trap, his son’s blood beginning to stain his hands.  Murdoch pulled against the trap, feeling the jaws beginning to give but lost his grip on the cold wet metal.  The jaws snapped back against Johnny’s ankle.  He heard the teeth grate against bone.  Johnny lurched in Scott’s arms his back arched crying out as the pain lanced through his body and went limp.  

“We’ll have to get back to the camp, get this dried out and get it off.”   Scott lifted his face, despair written across his features, nodded and lifted Johnny, Murdoch taking his legs.  “Just follow the rope son.  It’ll lead us back.”   

Scott’s brain told him they weren’t that far from the camp, but the journey was agonizing.  It was almost pitch black; the torch left behind where they’d found Johnny.   The path, though not steep, was still snow covered and slippery.  More than once, either Scott or Murdoch slipped and almost lost their hold on Johnny.  After an eternity, they reach the small clearing and the meager shelter of the cabin.   

Scott gently laid Johnny on the pine boughs he’d dropped when he’d heard Johnny’s cry.  He grabbed blankets and quickly wrapped his brother.  “He’s so cold Murdoch.” Scott was rubbing Johnny’s hands in this own, trying to get some warmth back in them.    

“Let’s get this fire going and get him out of those wet clothes.”  Murdoch stood up and stretched his back, the pain in his back cut through him, shooting down his leg. 

Scott looked up and saw his father grimace, he didn’t want to leave Johnny but knew Murdoch was in no shape to gather wood.  “I’ll get more wood,“ and with a grim smile added,  “And I’ll try to stay away from any traps.”  

Murdoch took Scott’s place holding Johnny, his arms wrapped around his chest, whispering in his ear.  “We’re back at the camp, son. You’re safe. We’ll take care of you.  Scott and I’ll take care of you.”  The words became a mantra as he cradled and rocked Johnny in his arms.  He felt Johnny begin to stir, his body tensing as he became aware of pain.  His eyes fluttered open, glassy, but looking.

“Where are…?”  his voice breathless, trembling in pain.  

“Shhh, John, we’re at the cabin.  You’re safe.”  Murdoch hoped he sounded more confident than he felt.  Safe.  They were caught in a storm on a little traveled trail, miles from anywhere, no one knew they were taking this route, and no one would miss them.  Safe, hell, he’d led them into a nightmare. 

The flimsy door opened.  Scott came in with an armload of wood.  “Hey, brother, good to see you awake.”  His voice caught as he saw how dull Johnny’s eyes were, lines of pain replacing the crinkly laugh lines around his eyes. 

“Johnny, we’re gonna’ get this fire going, get you out of those wet clothes and warmed up.”  Murdoch looked up at Scott. He took a deep breath.  “You’re right leg is caught in an old trap John.  We have to get the trap free.”  

Johnny tried to lift his head to see what Murdoch was talking about, but the fire and Scott’s face began to blur and laid his head back.  He’d been headin’ down the faint trail, picking up fallen branches when he’d felt the sharp pain in his leg.  He’d thought he’d slipped on the snow covered rocks.  A trap?  This ain’t good. 

“You do what ya gotta do, Murdoch.”  Johnny’s voice a bare whisper, but no Madrid mask, his eyes filled with pain and trust. 

The fire began to warm the small space.  Scott started to strip Johnny of his cold, wet clothes.  Johnny gritted his teeth and moaned as Scott lifted his left arm.  “Easy, Johnny, easy.”  Scott gently brushed the hair falling in his brother’s eyes, his hand trembling slightly.  “I need to get you undressed and warmed up.  Is it your shoulder?”

Johnny laid his head back and tried to take a deep breath. “Not sure Boston.  You just do what ya need ta do. I’ll be fine.”  

Scott shook his head at Johnny’s ability to ‘be fine’ when he was anything but.  Scott shifted and slipped the sleeve off Johnny’s right arm then moved back to his left side.  As he unbuttoned the shirt, he could see the purple bruises beginning to form on Johnny’s chest.


Murdoch looked up from Johnny’s leg.  He’d been cutting off his son’s boot to get a better look at the ankle held firmly in the old trap.  He’d heard the hitch in Scott’s voice.


“I think he’s got some cracked, maybe broken ribs.  He’s pretty bruised.”

“You’re talkin’ about me like I ain’t here.”  Johnny’s voice was faint, breathless, but a shadow of his wry humor broke through.         

“Son, you managed to get yourself pretty banged up.  Let’s take a look at those ribs.”

Murdoch moved to Johnny’s side and gently probed the bruises.  Johnny gasped in pain.  He reached out. Scott was there to take his hand and hold him against the pain. 

Murdoch looked up and nodded.   “We’re going to have to get those ribs bound, John.”  

“If it ain’t one thing it’s another.”  Johnny tried to smile, but it was a faint imitation of the smile that could light a room.  

They finished stripping Johnny of his clothes and wrapped him in blankets.  Murdoch was relieved that he’d added extra blankets to the supplies they’d brought but at the same time cursing himself for not adding medical supplies.  It was supposed to be an easy trip, just a few days across the mountains to Sacramento.  

Scott had managed to pack a couple of clean shirts for the trip.  He quickly tore them into strips to help wrap Johnny’s ribs. 

“Another of my shirts, Johnny, I’m going to have to send you my tailor’s bill if this keeps up.”  

Scott lifted Johnny as Murdoch wrapped the strips around his chest.  By the time they were finished, Johnny was trembling in pain and his skin was cold and clammy.  Scott wrapped the blankets more tightly around him and leaned him back against his chest.  He looked up at Murdoch, who nodded, a grim look on his face.

“Johnny, I’m gonna get this trap off now.”  The heat had dried the metal of the trap and Murdoch’s hands.  He hoped to get a firm grip and be able to pry the jaws apart.  “Scott, I need you down here.”  Scott moved to Murdoch’s side.  Quietly, so Johnny couldn’t hear, “When I get the jaws apart, I need you to pull Johnny’s leg free.  And it’ll have to be quick. I don’t know how long I can hold the trap open.”   Scott nodded and moved to grip Johnny’s leg. 

“Johnny, you just lay back now.  We’ll have you out of this in just a minute now.”  

“’kay, Murdoch, just let ‘er rip.”  Johnny laid back and took a tight grip on the blanket wrapped around him.

Murdoch gripped the trap jaws, beginning to pull them apart.  The rusted hinges resisting the pull.  Scott watched, he saw the veins on Murdoch’s arms and in his neck bulge with the effort, then with a sudden creak, the jaws gave.  “Now, Scott!  Get his leg out!”   Scott lifted and pulled and Johnny’s leg came free and as suddenly, Murdoch released his grip and the trap snapped shut again.  

Murdoch collapsed back against the flimsy wall of the cabin, gasping. He hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath.  He looked up at Johnny, whose eyes were closed, his breathing too shallow.  Murdoch moved to Johnny’s side, taking one hand in his the other caressing his forehead.  His voice shuddered.  “We’ve got you free, son. Now we just need to figure out how to get you home.”

Part 5

Scott took charge.  Murdoch seemed in a daze, sitting silently by Johnny.  “Murdoch, did you have any carbolic in the supplies?”  Murdoch mutely shook his head.  “Okay then, we should boil some water and clean this up as much as we can and splint it.  I don’t know if his leg’s broken or not, but even if it isn’t, he’ll be better off to keep it from moving as much as possible.  It could slow the bleeding.”  

Scott opened the cabin door slightly and scooped snow into the one cooking pot they had with them.  It was a small thing, but at least they’d have plenty of water.  It was about the only thing they had plenty of.  They hadn’t brought much food, and with the storm, there wasn’t an opportunity to track or hunt any game.  There’d be no graze for the horses.  Scott wasn’t even sure he could provide them with water – he hoped they could get enough moisture out of the snow.  There’d be enough wood to keep the fire going even if gathering it would be a challenge.   

When the melted snow cooled enough, Scott used another part of his discarded shirts and cleaned the blood away from Johnny’s mangled ankle as best he could.  Johnny moaned and tried to pull away but didn’t regain consciousness.  Scott was grateful for that; the pain would claim him soon enough.   

Murdoch looked over. “How’s it look?”

“The bleeding’s slowed, but it’s pretty badly gashed.  I don’t know how dirty that trap was.  I washed it out as much as I can.”  Scott looked up.  “We’re going to have to get him to a doctor.”  At the same time realizing how impossible that sounded right now.  “Do you think this storm will let up soon?”

Murdoch seemed old, drained as he answered, “I don’t know Scott, these early season storms can be real fickle.  They can blow over in a day or last…or last too long.”  Murdoch shook himself, “We’ll have to try to get out of here in the morning, make it across the pass.  It depends on the direction of the storm, but if we’re lucky, the snow will be a lot lighter on the west side of the range and we can get to help.”  

Neither Murdoch or Scott slept much that night, keeping the fire going to keep Johnny warm, wiping him down to try to fight the building fever.  Most of the night, one or the other held Johnny.  Johnny slept, at times restless as the pain in his leg and ribs flared, other times too still.  When he’d wake, they’d tried to get him to drink water but hadn’t been too successful.  

The long night finally gave way to a semblance of dawn.  The wind had died down, but the sky was gray.  The snow continued to fall, blanketing the trail.  Scott brought a cup of coffee to Murdoch; he’d cradled Johnny in his arms for hours.  He looked up. “He’s too hot already.”  

Scott’s heart sank.  He’d hoped that he’d been more successful in cleaning Johnny’s ankle but with the broken ribs too… He’d expected that Johnny would develop a fever but, at the same time, had hoped for better.  “I’ll see to getting the horses saddled, two of them, Johnny will have to ride double with one of us.”  

Scott should have been but wasn’t surprised when Johnny began to stir. “I can ride, just need a little help getting’ on my horse.”

Murdoch shifted, helping Johnny sit up a little straighter. “You’ve been playing ‘possum again, boy?”  

“Yeah, Old Man, just wanted to see what you and Scott had planned.”  Johnny looked around that small cabin. “Guess we got ta be on our way, but I can ride, don’t need you or Scott to baby-sit me.  I’ll be OK.  You know it’s my fault that we’re in this mess. It was my idea to ride out instead of waitin’ for the train and then I find maybe the only trap in the county ta get caught in.”  Johnny stopped to try to catch his breath, “So seems like I should at least try to pull my weight and ride my own horse.”  

Murdoch took his son’s shoulder. “John, if you hadn’t suggested riding, I would have.  I wanted to get home.  It’s no one’s fault for the storm or the trap.  We’re going to make the best of it and get on our way home.  It’s not your fault and no one blames you.”  Murdoch locked on his son’s eyes and waited until Johnny nodded weakly in agreement.  “Now Johnny, humor an old man.  We’ll be able to make better time if you ride with one of us.”  He’d watched Johnny grow paler in the few minutes he’d been awake and knew that as much as he might want to or even think he could, there was no way Johnny could ride.

Scott had the horses ready and their meager supplies packed.  With Scott on one side and Murdoch on the other, they helped Johnny stand and started toward the cabin door. 

Johnny gasped at the pain in his ribs, the small space beginning to spin.  “Wait, Murdoch, just let me get my bearings a minute.”

Scott tightened his grip on Johnny’s arm. “We’ve got ya, little brother, let us do the work.” Scott and Murdoch maneuvered Johnny to the horses.  Murdoch mounted his, Scott supported Johnny and then when Murdoch was settled helped lift him into his father’s arms.  Scott handed a blanket up and Murdoch wrapped it around Johnny, pulling it snug across his chest.  Johnny leaned back, spent by the short journey to the horses.    

The horses struggled through the deep snow.  Scott rode ahead to break a trail.  At times he dismounted and led the horses, all to make it easier for Murdoch, who cradled Johnny against his chest.  The trees that just a day before he’d thought of as a cathedral drooped, their branches bent under the weight of the snow, sometimes seeming to reach out to snag the travelers as they rode past.  

Scott was a few lengths ahead of Murdoch when he rounded a bend in the trail and faced a wall of fallen rock.  “Oh God Murdoch!”  they’d traveled only a few miles and now the trail before them was blocked.    

Murdoch brought his horse even with Scott’s, Johnny held firmly in his arms.  Automatically Scott reached over to pull the blanket tighter around Johnny’s shoulders.

 “How is he?  

“He drifted off right after we headed out.”  Murdoch shook his head Scott and looked at the tumble of rocks in front of them.  “I didn’t know; it might be from the ‘quake, maybe older.  I was in such a rush to head back to Lancer I didn’t even think to ask if this trail was in a passable state.” 

Murdoch sat silent on his horse, Johnny’s head back against his shoulder, he could feel the heat radiating from his son.  He was such a damn fool, why hadn’t he planned better, coming out without proper supplies, no medicines, not asking the locals about the trail or the weather.  What had he led his sons into?  

“Sir.” Murdoch looked over but his eyes were far away.  

“I don’t think we have an option.  We need to turn back to the cabin then head back toward Reno.”  

“You’re right, Scott, let’s get the horses turned around.  At least there’s shelter.”  Grimly Murdoch pulled on the reins of his horse and began the slow trek back down the trail.

“I’ll get the fire restarted and some snow melted.”  Murdoch had dragged a saddle in, Johnny lay propped against it, blankets wrapping him against the cold.  He’d barely stirred as they’d carried him back into the cabin.  His breathing was harsh and too fast, his ankle swollen and hot to the touch.

“Scott, Johnny isn’t going to be able to continue.  He’s weaker than this morning, fever’s higher.  One of us is going to have to go for help.”

Scott had realized that was the only option left when they’d laid Johnny against the upturned saddle.  He knew that he was the one who would have to go.  He didn’t want to.  He didn’t want to leave Johnny; Johnny needed his strength.  But it was a simple fact that Murdoch would never be able to make it down the trail, so if Johnny was to get help, it would be up to Scott. 

“I know I should head out as soon as possible.  I can make some time today before I lose the light.  I should be able to get back to Reno is two, maybe three days, then get help and get back up here.  Scott’s heart sank as he added the days.  It would be almost a week before he’d get back.  Did Johnny have a week?  Looking at Murdoch, he saw the same realization in his father’s eyes. 

“No, Scott, you can’t go alone.”  Both men looked to Johnny, his head back against the saddle, breathless.  “You and Murdoch can head out together.  With this storm…can’t make it on your own.”  

“Johnny, we can’t leave you here alone.”  Scott lifted a cup of water to Johnny’s lips.  

“Hell Scott, it ain’t like I’m goin’ anywhere.”  Johnny tried to smile but failed in the attempt. “I’ll be just’ fine in here while the two …..of you head back.”  his voice almost a whisper.  “You an’ Scott, you could make it together.  It’s my fault that we’re up here, no sense in everyone payin’ for my mistake.”

They both realized that Johnny didn’t remember the earlier discussion, he still blamed himself.  One of Johnny’s traits, to always shoulder the blame for whatever went wrong.  Murdoch move forward to kneel beside Scott.  “John, it’s no one’s fault that the storm came up.  Maybe I should have known but it’s not your fault.  Scott’s going to head out.  I’m staying here with you.”  Murdoch saw Johnny try to sit, “No John, I know you’d be ‘just fine’ but truth is my back is acting up so Scott’s going to have to make the trip for the both of us.”

Johnny leaned back, his small reserve exhausted.  “Old Man, you used to be a better liar.”  

Murdoch help Scott re-saddle his horse.  There’d been a meager lunch of beans and jerky.  Murdoch tucked the remaining supplies in the saddlebag.  

“No, Murdoch.”  Scott reached to take them out.  “You and Johnny will need these.”  

Murdoch stayed his hand.  “Scott, I can snare a rabbit, maybe there’s a deer.  It’s more important that you have the supplies, you’ll make better time.”  The unsaid words <I need you to make better time.  Johnny doesn’t have much left.>

Scott knew the truth of what Murdoch said.  It didn’t make it easier to mount and ride out, but he did.   As he rode away, he still heard Johnny’s feeble protests of Scott leaving alone.

Scott rode the trail they’d come on just yesterday, it seemed a lifetime.  He pushed the horse more than he had a right to, but he needed to get to help, the horse was secondary now.  He didn’t stop until it was near dark.  He made a meager camp, stretching a tarp between branches, getting a small fire going, heating some beans.  He wrapped himself in a blanket and settled in for a night of restless sleep.

“Murdoch, you shouldn’t a let Scott go by himself.”  Murdoch had lost track of the number of times Johnny had repeated that simple statement; every time he woke, every time Murdoch made him drink, every time he thought of Scott.  But the voice was getting weaker, sometimes not able to finish the sentence. Johnny would lay back and look at Murdoch with eyes so sad.  

Right now, he was quiet.  He’d started coughing in the past hours and his fever was rising.  Murdoch felt his forehead again, higher still.  At least there was snow; he could pack Johnny in the snow to try to control the fever.  Satisfied the Johnny was asleep, Murdoch stepped out of the cabin, keeping hold of the rope so he could find his way back.  He filled a tarp with snow and made his way back.  As he entered the cabin, he saw Johnny struggling to stand.

“Murdoch, we gotta go get Scott.” Johnny’s eyes were pleading with Murdoch.  “He shouldn’t be out there by himself, not in a storm like this.  You shouldn’t a let him…..”   Murdoch caught Johnny as he collapsed.  

“I know, son, I know.  I don’t want him out there by himself either, but there was no choice.”  Murdoch gently laid Johnny back against the saddle, his heart breaking for both his boys.  

“Johnny, I’m going to pack some snow around you.  It’ll bring your fever down. You’ll feel better.”  Murdoch gently pulled the blankets away from Johnny and began to pack the snow around his chest and abdomen.  He packed snow in a bandana and laid it on Johnny’s forehead and watched his son’s eyes close.

He took Johnny’s hand and remembered what Sam said about people hearing even if they didn’t show it and so he started talking. 

“You know John, I’ve never told you or your brother too much about when I was a boy.  In a way, I wasn’t too much different than you, always challenging my father.  I remember early on I’d been sent up to my Uncle Ian’s, Ian is Celt for John, you were named after him and my brother Ian – you’d have liked them, they were both – well, they both raised some hell.”  Murdoch smiled to himself remembering his family.  “I was sent to Uncle’s to help him in the summer.  He had a hard little farm in the highlands.  I learned about sheep, but mostly I learned about what I wanted, my own land, my own place.  I wouldn’t have had that if I’d stayed in Scotland, I fought to leave.”  Murdoch took a deep breath looking at his silent son, “And now too often I make you fight to stay.”

Murdoch spent the night holding his son, cooling him with snow, rousing him to force him to drink the cool water.  He talked about his childhood and dreams, of Scottish history, of clans and claymores, of building Lancer and how empty it had been until his boys had come home.  How empty it had been.  Murdoch wiped the sweat from Johnny’s forehead and thought of Scott, where he might be on the trail.  He didn’t think he could stand that emptiness again.  

Dawn came after the restless night.  Scott rose, stiff from the cold.  He saddled the horse, noticed that it had chewed on the branches of the tree he tethered it to.  He’d pushed hard yesterday, with luck and if the horse could hold out, he’d make it back to the shores of Lake Tahoe by nightfall.  He prayed the horse would hold out. He couldn’t bring himself to think of the alternative.  The snow hadn’t slowed during the night, but the wind didn’t seem as fierce here lower on the mountain.   

Scott had been riding for hours when he saw tracks off the trail, a couple of horses.  Other travelers?  Maybe there was help closer than Reno.  Should he follow the tracks?  What decision was the right one?  Two more days to Reno, three back to the cabin, or someone closer.  Scott knee’d his horse and followed the tracks.  They led away from the direction he’d been traveling, down and back into the hollow between the ridges.  The snow was deeper here, no open areas for the wind to sweep clear, but he could see the depression the tracks left on the trail and continued to follow them. 

Scott kept his head down, eyes on the faint tracks, afraid if he looked up he’d lose the trail.  Then the smell of smoke made him look up.  He heard voices in the distance, faint, but voices.  Scott spurred his horse forward.  He’d found help!  He rode into what looked like an old mining camp, a few ramshackle structures all that remained.  He dismounted and followed the voices to the largest of the rundown buildings.  Four men were clustered around a pot bellied stove.  

“What on earth are you doin’ out here boy?”  An older man rushed forward and pulled Scott toward the warmth of the stove. 

“How’d you get ta this place?”  Someone else had pushed a hot cup of coffee into Scott’s hand.   

Scott shivered in the unaccustomed warmth. “I need your help.  My brother and father are trapped in a cabin up near the top of the trail.  My brother’s hurt and needs a doctor.  I need you to help me get back up there and bring them back.”  His words were running together, but he was so desperate to get help.

“Son, why that’s a day’s ride on a good day from here and there ain’t no kinda help here.  And it’ll be dark in a few hours.  There ain’t nothin’ we can do right now.”  

Scott wanted to grab the man, to shake him, didn’t he understand?  Johnny and Murdoch needed help NOW!   

Another man stepped forward. “How long you been ridin’ son?  

“I started about this time yesterday.  We tried to head over the mountain, but there’d been a rockslide and we had to turn back.  My brother caught his leg in a trap. He needs a doctor.  I’ve got to get back there and bring them down.”   Scott knew he was almost babbling now.  “Please help, I’ll pay you anything you ask.”  

The man in front of him was about Murdoch’s age.  He rubbed his chin, nodding to himself, looking at the two younger men in the room.  “Yer pa and brother.  I know how I’d feel if it were one of my boys.  Me and one of the boys, we’ll help ya get back up there and bring yer kin down, ain’t no need for money.”  

For the first time since he’d heard the cry that night from the forest, was it just two nights ago, Scott felt like there was a chance.      

“There ain’t no use in trying to head out this late of the day.  You bed down here and we’ll get a start first light.  M’name’s Franklin, these two youngsters are m’boys, Zeb and Luke.”  He nodded toward the other man in the cabin.  “This here’s Martin, he was m’wife’s kin.  We do a little minin’ around here when the weather favors us.”

Scott held out his hand.  “My name’s Scott Lancer, from the San Joaquin in California.  My father, brother and I were planning on traveling home by train, but an earthquake damaged the railroad bridges, so we decided to try to ride home.  We got caught in the storm.”

“You jes’ get somethin’ to eat, get warmed up and rest, we’ll get up to that cabin and get yer family safe.”  They boy Luke pushed a plate of stew into Scott’s hands.  He hadn’t realized how hungry he was until he started eating.  He hoped Murdoch had been able find something to eat.  He’d make sure they took some food with them when they left in the morning.

The small party set out just after dawn; the sky was overcast and looked heavy with more snow.  Scott looked at the sky, heard the wind still moaning in the trees and thought, <Would it never let up? Just give me a break, hold off and let me get Johnny and Murdoch back here.>    

The small party, Franklin, Zeb, and Scott made their way back up the trail.  They kept good time even as the storm began to roam the mountainside again.  These men were economic in their time and words.  It was just as well, Scott was in no mood for conversation.  The thought that kept him going was by nightfall he’d be back at the cabin with Murdoch and Johnny.  

“I think this is the clearing. The cabin must be nearby.”  But the wind and snow had changed the way the landscape had looked.  Was it really the right clearing?  “MURDOCH!  JOHNNY!”  Scott yelled over and over into the wind, but there was no answer.  

“Franklin, this has to be the right place, the cabin has to be here.  It has to be here.”   Scott grabbed the man’s arm, his voice telling the anguish of the last days.  “They’ve got to be here. This has to be the right place.”  

The old man put his arm around Scott’s shoulder. “Son, these mountains can be tricky.  This snow can make everything look the same.  Could be the place yer lookin’ fer is up ahead or back behind.  If the trail branched some, we could flat out be in the wrong place.”  We’ll camp here tonight and look some in the mornin’.  But son, ya gotta be prepared.  We may not find where your brother and father are hunkered down.”  

“NO!  They’re here and we’ll find them.  MURDOCH!  JOHNNY!”  The wind drowned Scott’s cries.    

Part 6

“Jelly, have they heard anything yet on when the telegraph lines will be up?”  Teresa had been waiting for Jelly’s return from Green River.  She hoped the lines were up, she was sure Murdoch and the boys were in Reno and just fine, but if she had confirmation, she’d be much happier and sleep a little better than she had been.  

“Naw, Henry at the telegraph office still don’t know when them lines’ll fixed.”  Jelly stood in front of Teresa, thumbs in his suspenders, rocking on his heels.  “I sure would be settled if we heard some news.  First a quake and them lines down and in town there was talk about a storm in the mountains where they have ta work on the railroad.  At this rate, we’ll be lucky to see Murdoch an’ them boys by spring.”  

“Oh, Jelly, they’ll be here before we know it.  They’ll probably get home before the telegraph lines are back up, so I won’t even have any chance to fix a proper welcome home dinner or bake a cake for Johnny.  Why don’t you come in now? I’ve got some lunch ready.”  Teresa turned and started toward the house.  Jelly didn’t follow.


“Oh, Miz Teresa, I was jus’ ponderin’.  I jus’ got a feelin’ that Murdoch and them boys are on their way home and …..”  Jelly was staring into the far off mountains.”    

“Jelly, they’ll be alright.”  But now there was a question in her voice.

“Boy, that wind is pickin’ up again, won’t be long ‘til we won’t be able to see the trail.  We’re gonna’ have to head back ‘for we get trapped up here.”  Franklin had to yell to be heard about the rising storm.

Scott shouted back as he turned away.  “My father and brother are out here. I can’t leave now!”

“Lancer, me and my boy wanna’ help, but we ain’t riskin’ our necks out in this weather.”   Franklin turned away, then turned back to Scott.  “And if’n you stay up here, you’ll be missin’ too and ain’t nobody gonna be able to find any of ya before spring thaw comes.”  

Scott knew his chances of finding Murdoch and Johnny, finding them and getting them to safety were almost nonexistent without help and his help was leaving.  The landscape looked so different; the snow was piled in drifts that covered landmarks he’d noted when on his way back to Reno.  Scott walked away from Franklin and Zeb, sinking into the snow.  His spirits were sinking too.  He began to realize how impossible a task he’d set out to accomplish.  Riding through the storm, getting to Reno and bringing help back to Murdoch and Johnny, then the added time to get Johnny back to safety.  He should have argued with Murdoch to rig a travois and get Johnny to a doctor instead of leaving both of them at that cabin in this God forsaken wilderness.  And now he’d have to go it alone.  

Franklin watched as Scott struggled through the snow, yelling at the top of his lungs for his family.  “LANCER.”  He waded through the snow to catch up with Scott.  “I know yur family means the world to ya, but son, you ain’t helpin’ stumblin’ through the snow up here.  We’re headin’ back to the mine camp and when this storm lets up some we’ll start out again.”   And with that, he aimed a fist at Scott’s jaw and then draped the unconscious man over his shoulder.  

“Zeb, you help me get Lancer up on his horse.  We need to head out while we still got some light.  And I got a feelin’ that we’re gonna have a tiger by the tail when this fella wakes up and realizes what I done.” 

The three men were soon on their way back down the trail.  Scott was leaning forward against his horse’s neck, every step taking him farther away from his family. 

“Johnny.”  Murdoch knelt at his side and gripped his shoulder.  He’d been sleeping, restless but sleeping since Murdoch had changed the dressing on his ankle.  His leg didn’t look worse, but it didn’t look any better; it was swollen and red, hot to the touch and draining blood and pus.  And his breathing was raspy and too fast but his cough was getting weaker.  “Johnny.”

Johnny moaned, a grimace of pain crossing his face, trying to open his eyes.  Finally succeeding, he brought Murdoch into focus.  “Murdoch, wha..”  his voice too weak and breathless.

“John, I’m heading out to lay some snares, see if I can get a rabbit or two.  Fix you some broth.”  The last of the jerky had been used up in broth for Johnny.  Murdoch brushed his hair out of his eyes.  His fever didn’t seem any worse, but it was no better.  “I need you to stay right here.  I won’t be gone too long.”  

“I’m fine. You just go an’…. “  Interrupted by a sudden harsh cough, Johnny tried to sit, gripping Murdoch’s arm for support.  Murdoch held Johnny upright, rubbing his back until his coughing eased, then helping him lay back against the upturned saddle, tucking the blankets up around Johnny’s neck.    

How much more can he take?  How much longer before Scott came back?  If Scott came back.  Murdoch was realistic.  He knew he’d let, no sent Scott out into a storm without the right equipment or supplies.  He knew Scott would move heaven and earth to get help and get back to them.  But Murdoch realized he had to start planning on how to get Johnny help without Scott.  And he had to prepare for Johnny’s reaction if Scott didn’t come back.     

Murdoch waited until Johnny was resting easily. “I’m heading out now John, I’ll be back before too long.  You just rest now.”

Murdoch wrapped his coat tighter and pushed open the cabin door.  The snow was deeper than the last time, much more and Murdoch wasn’t sure he’d be able to venture from the cabin.  He tied off the rope and gathered the snares he’d made.  The rope didn’t permit him to go too far, but following it would get him back to the cabin.  Once it was played out, he set the snares in likely places.  He’d come back in a few hours to check them.  

Murdoch followed the rope hand over hand until he got to the cabin, but seeing the door open set his heart racing.  A quick look inside confirmed his fear.  Johnny was gone!  He hadn’t been gone that long and Murdoch didn’t think Johnny could have gotten too far.  But in the cold and in his condition, he didn’t have long.  Murdoch checked the snow around the entry of the cabin, saw where Johnny had stumbled and then dragged himself off and followed the tracks.  

Murdoch saw the mound in the snow and fell to his knees.  Johnny had probably collapsed within minutes of leaving the cabin. Gently turning him over, he brushed the snow from his face, he was so cold.  His face was almost as white as the snow that clung to his hair, his lips were blue.  Murdoch laid a big hand on Johnny’s chest.  He didn’t realize he was holding his breath until he felt Johnny’s chest rise and fall.  He didn’t realize he was crying until a tear fell on his son’s upturned face.

He carried Johnny back to the cabin, wrapping him once again in the blankets.  He added wood to the fire and the crawled back to Johnny’s side.  “Johnny, that was a fool stunt.  What was goin’ through your mind?”  Murdoch’s voice trembled with relief.  “Can you imagine what your brother would say when he gets back here and finds out I’d let you get lost in the snow.  There’d be hell to pay.”  Murdoch gently rubbed Johnny’s hands, trying to get some warmth back.  Johnny lay there, too quiet, too still.

The fire cast shadows against the walls of the cabin.  To Murdoch they were conjured spirits.  Spirits trying to come for Johnny and he wasn’t going to allow that.  Not now, not tonight, not ever if it was within his power.  He slid behind Johnny, supporting him, holding him, warming him with his own body heat.  

He must have dozed off. He awakened to hear Johnny mumbling,  “No… Scott…where…can’t go there…  can’t go alone…”

“Johnny.”  Murdoch gently stroked the side of his face with one hand.  “Johnny, it’s Murdoch, we’re at the cabin.  Scott’s gone for help.”  

Johnny’s eyes snapped open.  He clutched at Murdoch’s jacket.  “No, Murdoch,” his breath came in short gasps,  “I heard him, Scott’s out there, he needs help, you gotta go… go an’ find Scott.”  Johnny was looking and reaching into a distance, into a place where Murdoch couldn’t see.  “Murdoch, you gotta, Scott, no, Scott..”  Johnny’s voice dying in a sob. 

“Johnny, no.”  Murdoch’s voice sterner, trying to penetrate his son’s panic.  “Scott’s gone for help, you were dreaming.”  But Johnny was again still in his arms.  

Murdoch gently shifted his position, laying Johnny down.  He didn’t want to leave the cabin, but he needed to get wood for the fire, check the snares, check on the horses.  He was pretty sure he’d have to put them down soon.  All the forage they had was the bark and needles from the trees, he couldn’t let them starve.  He’d lost track of the days.  Scott, when will you get back?  But at the same time, a chill gripped his heart as he thought, Scott, will you get back?

He opened the cabin door to morning, a bright day, the sky a clear blue.  The storm was over and the Storm King had retreated to his lair for now.  Murdoch stepped out and took a deep breath.  Maybe it was his imagination, but it seemed warmer and for the first time in days, there was hope in the air.    

There were two rabbits in the snares he’d set the day before.  They were quickly dispatched and skinned.  Murdoch headed back to the cabin, his heart lighter than it had been since hearing Johnny’s cry from the forest.  

Johnny hadn’t moved.  Murdoch knelt at his side and felt his forehead.  He was burning up, but there was no strength left to fight.  “John, the storm’s over, Scott will be on his way and we’ll have you out of here in no time.  You just have to hang on a little longer.  You hang on for Scott.”  And for me, Johnny, hang on for me.   Murdoch prayed.     

Murdoch put the rabbits to roasting, there’d be meat and he’d make some broth.  He’d get it into Johnny sip by sip if he had to.  

Suddenly the cabin door was thrown open.  Murdoch’s heart leapt!  “Scott!”  

But a man almost as tall as Murdoch blocked the entry.  He was dressed in a Mackinaw and fur trimmed cap and held what looked like a long pole in his hands.  “Who are ya and what are ya doin’ in my cabin?”

Part 7

Franklin led the way down the trail, the reins of Scott’s horse in his hands.  The snow had not settled in, but the wind made it seem as such, lifting and blowing the snow like the lace curtains that had hung at his mama’s window.  The sky had cleared, a bright moon lighting the trail.  Even with the wind, they’d made good time and were close to the old mining camp. 

He glanced back; the Lancer boy had stirred a few times but so far had not come round.  He regretted hitting the boy, but he hadn’t been thinkin’ straight, runnin’ on emotion and headed straight into trouble the way he’d been a goin’.  If there’d been more time, he might’a been able to talk some sense into him, but the way the weather seemed to be actin’ he couldn’t risk all of them.  He figured they’d regroup as soon as the storm quieted some.  But he didn’t think Lancer would see to his line of reasonin’.    

“Pa, he’s a movin’.”  Zeb, riding behind Scott, was the first to notice Scott was beginning to regain consciousness.

Franklin pulled his horse up and sat while Scott’s mount brought him even with the man.  He reached over and shook Scott’s shoulder.  “Lancer, Lancer, come on, we’re almost back at the camp.  Time to wake up, boy.”  He kept his hand on Scott’s arm, waiting for the coming explosion.

Scott heard the voice from a distance, the rocking gait of the horse had lulled him in the twilight but a voice was calling him now.  “Johnny!”  He bolted upright in the saddle.  But as his vision cleared and his eyes adjusted to the moonlight, he realized it was a cruel trick.  He wasn’t anywhere close to where he’d left his brother and father.  He looked at Franklin and felt the ache in his jaw and remembered what had happened. 

Scott ripped his arm from Franklin’s grasp, pulled his reins loose and jerked his horse around.  “What the hell have you done?  We were close, I know we were close and now I’m back where I started!  Don’t you understand my brother’s up there and he’s dying and I…”  Scott’s voice caught in a broken cry as he realized the truth in his words.  He’d left his father and brother and Johnny was dying, and he knew he was helpless and now he was miles away and heading in the wrong direction, “…and I need to get back to him.”  His words ending in a quiet plea. 

Zeb had maintained his place behind Scott.  He looked across to his father and could make out the shake of his head.  He maneuvered his horse in front of Scott, blocking the trail leading back up the mountainside.  

“Lancer, I cain’t begin to imagine how much ya must be hatin’ me right now, but we wasn’t getting’ anywhere up that mountainside, I ain’t even sure we was lookin’ in the right place.  That storm seemed like it was pickin’ up and we wasn’t gonna’ do yer family any good by getting’ ourselves lost up there.”  

The steel in Scott’s voice was unmistakable.  “You and your boy get out of my way.  I’m heading back to find my family.”  

“Then yer goin’ alone Lancer, ‘cause I ain’t riskin’ me and my boy in a chase up that mountain in the dark.  Hell, you couldn’t find ‘em when we had light.  How you gonna’ find yer way in the dark?  You’ll like to ride off a cliff as find the right spot.”  Franklin pulled away from Scott and nodded to his son to move away.  

The words caught up with Scott as he rode past Zeb.  He heard the words, his mind understood them and they made sense, heading off into the dark wasn’t helping Johnny and Murdoch.  But his heart couldn’t reconcile what he heard and understood and what he felt.  What he felt right now was defeated.  If he tried to find his way up the mountain in the dark, he could end up miles from where he’d left his family or worse get hurt himself and never get to the cabin.  And if he stayed the night, he’d get to the cabin but would it be in time for Johnny?  Scott looked up the trail ahead and behind him to Franklin and Zeb heading down to the mining camp and made a decision he knew he’d have to live with the rest of his life. 

“Sco…”  The name had died on Murdoch’s lips as he saw the man in the cabin door.  He didn’t have his gun belt on and had no way to protect Johnny or himself if the man chose to attack.

“How did you get to my cabin in this storm?”  The man had entered the small space and seemed to fill it with his presence.  His voice had a definite Scandinavian accent. He leaned the pole he’d be carrying against one wall and looked around.  His eyes lit on Johnny’s still figure.  

“Du fikk en syk mann her over.  Han er syk, ja?”  <<You got a sick man here.”  He is sick, yes?>>  He moved toward Johnny.  

Murdoch quickly stood to block the man’s progress towards his son. The man didn’t seem to present any threat, but Murdoch wasn’t going to take any chances.  “My son, he was injured about four days ago.  We found this cabin for shelter.”  Murdoch wasn’t sure how much the man would understand.  Did he speak much English?

“Four days, ach.  He needs help.  You been holed up here all this time?”  There was no hardness in the man’s eyes and no threat in his voice.

He moved closer to Johnny and Murdoch didn’t block his way.  The man knelt near Johnny and reached toward the still gunhawk only to be surprised to be facing Johnny’s gun.  His hand wasn’t steady, but his eyes were the ice cold of Johnny Madrid.

Murdoch had no idea where Johnny had found the strength to draw on the stranger.  It had to be reserves born of the need to protect himself for all the years when no one had been there for him. 

“Murdoch, you OK?”  Johnny’s voice quivered.  I can keep him covered until you can get …”  a sudden coughing spell shook Johnny’s frame. The Colt fell from his hand.   

Murdoch stepped past the stranger to pick up the gun.  “It’s OK, Johnny. He doesn’t mean any harm to us.”   He eased Johnny back against the upturned saddle.  “Shhh, just rest now.”

Johnny reached up and gripped Murdoch’s jacket,  “Murdoch, Scott, he musta’ gotten the drop on Scott.  I heard him.  He’s out there somewhere’s and needs us and this one must know where he is.”

“Johnny, remember, Scott’s gone for help.  He won’t be back for another day, maybe two.”  Murdoch’s quiet voice spoke of the number of times he’d said the same thing to Johnny over the past days and nights. “It’s alright, just rest now.”

As Johnny quieted, Murdoch turned to the stranger. “My name’s Murdoch Lancer.  My son, Johnny, caught his leg in a trap and must have fallen and broken some ribs.  We found this cabin, we needed shelter.  My older son, Scott, went for help two, almost three days ago.”  

“Well, then I’m glad it was here for ya.  I don’t use it much as I use to when I took the mail across the mountain.’  He held out his hand, “My name’s Thompson, John Thompson, but most folks around here they call me ‘Snowshoe.’”

“Snowshoe?  I don’t understand.”  Murdoch leaned over to add a log to the fire.  “I’ve got coffee if you’d like some.”  

The big man took a cup of coffee from Murdoch and smiled.  “Well, before the trains came they needed a way to get the mail and messages and such around the mining camps in the winter.  I grew up in Norway and used skis to get around, so I carved me a pair a’ skis and this here pole to push myself around and I got the contract fer the mail.  I’d pick it up in Placerville and take it across over to Tahoe and Carson City and the camps in between.  They ain’t snowshoes, but that’s what the miners called ‘em, so the name stuck.  ‘Course now with the trains there ain’t much call fer me to take the mail, but I still make some rounds of the camps and them towns without trains and deliver some supplies and packages.”

“Towns.  Are there towns around here?”  The storm had broken and the potential there might be a town nearby was better news than Murdoch could have hoped for.  “Are there any doctors?  

Thompson snorted, “Out here, no, no doctors.  But Desolation ain’t that fer down the other side a this ridge and Miss Lori she’s got a Chinese works fer her that’s real good with herbs and poultices and such.  I don’t know fer sure, but he could likely help yer boy.”  Thompson looked a Johnny, quiet now.  “He looks like he’s in a real bad way.”  

Murdoch looked at Johnny and then to Thompson.  It would be another day or two before Scott got back, then two or three days back to Reno – or go with this man to a remote town without a proper doctor.  But Johnny was getting weaker by the hour, and in his heart, he knew that Johnny didn’t have the time left for Scott to come and then get back to Reno.  

“Do you think there’s a way we could get my son moved to Desolation?  I’ve got a couple of horses here.  And why Desolation?”  

“Ya, fer sure we can do that.  Desolation ain’t so far, but the ridge, she’s pretty steep.”  Murdoch’s heart fell, but Thompson continued, “But there’s that other trail down that connects to the old mining road.  We could rig a travois and I could take you down to where the road is and then ski down into the town and bring back some help.  We got plenty a’day left, we could make the trip before we lose the light”.  Thompson looked up, smiling.  “Ja, that would work.  And the town, she’s called Desolation cause there weren’t no gold, it’s nothin’ but wilderness and barren.  The miner what named the town, he was kinda poetical I’m guessin’.”   

“Then let’s get started.”  Murdoch threw the dregs of coffee into the fire.  “I don’t want to waste any time.”  

The two men cut the poles needed for a travois and as quickly as the still deep snow allowed lashed it together.  Murdoch tied the travois to one of the horses and saddled the other.  He and Thompson gently lifted Johnny from his resting place.  He began to stir.

“Murdoch, wha…, what’s goin’ on, Scott back?”  Johnny’s eyes were glassy and unfocused.  He tried to sit, “Scott, Scott, you here?”  Murdoch was at his side. Johnny was sitting, gripping his arm and reaching past Murdoch.  “Scott, you alright?”  Where…  Murdoch, where’s Scott, he’s here, ain’t he?”  Johnny’s breath came in shorter gasps, his pale face lined with exhaustion.

“John, Scott isn’t back yet but we’re going to get you to some help.  We’re heading down the other side of the ridge here, get you into a proper bed and have someone look after you.”  Johnny, his energy spent, had collapsed into Murdoch’s arms.  Murdoch laid him back on the travois and pulled the blankets closely around.  “Scott’ll catch up with us, just be another day or two.”  He knelt by Johnny until he was certain he was sleeping. 

“I’ll leave a message for Scott.  He’ll find it when he finally gets here.  Thompson, can you draw me a map of where we’re headed so he’ll know how to find us?”  

“Ja, you got paper and pencil?”  

Murdoch felt through his pockets, most of the documents from the cattleman’s meeting had been left with their bags in Reno.  He felt something in his pocket and pulled out a contract he’d carried with him.  It was for the sale of a thousand head of cattle, but right now, it was nothing but a piece of paper.  He quickly wrote a note for Scott, where they were heading and why and handed it to Thompson.  

The big man gripped the pencil and laboriously began to draw a crude map, his tongue curled around his lip and his brow furrowed.  He finished and looked at the map, “Yer son he should be able to follow this if he’s any good with knowin’ his directions.”   

Murdoch pulled a nail from a loose board and using a rock nailed the message to the outside of the cabin door.  Nodding, Scott would see that. He’d be able to find the town they were headed to.   

Thompson had strapped on his skis and was starting through the forest, he looked back.  “You just come along behind me with them horses.  I’ll get you to the road and then you wait there and I’ll come back with help.”

The clearing was quiet now, the cabin closed and empty.  The sun was still shining and beginning to melt the snow piled up by the storm.  The wind still whipped through the forest.  It didn’t pick up and blow the melting snow but instead teased a paper nailed to a cabin door into its grasp and blew it through the trees to a silent resting place. 

Note:  Snowshoe Thompson was a real character of the old West mining country.  See if you’d like to read a bit more about him. 


Part 8

Scott leaned against the window.  The first color of the sun could be seen to the east; he hadn’t slept.  He spent the night second guessing himself.  Should he have continued up the trail to the cabin?  He’d wondered that from the moment he’d turned around to follow after Franklin and Zeb.  I anything happened to Johnny, he knew he’d spend the rest of his life asking that question.  Johnny, a small smile broke his face.  His brother, never knowing he’d had one and to find Johnny; how could a man ask for a better brother, a better friend?  I’m coming, brother, you know I’m coming.

Scott heard noises behind him and turned from the early dawn.  “Franklin, I’m,” Scott sighed, “I’m sorry for the way I behaved yesterday.  You were right.  It would have been foolish to try to go on.  I hope you and your son will come with me this morning. I still need your help.”  

Franklin had started making coffee.  He looked over at Scott.  “Son, I don’t know, but what I’d a’done the same thing if it were any of my kin I was lookin’ fer.  And my boy and me, we’ll go with you as soon as we’s all had somethin’ to eat.”  

Scott was surprised at how hungry he was.  The coffee and biscuits Franklin fixed filled the hollow in his belly.  

Franklin nursed his mug of coffee.  “Let’s try to draw out where ya left yer kin so’s we narrow down where we’re lookin.”  

Scott thought back to the trip up the mountain.  “The first night we stayed by the lake, the next night out we camped at a place Murdoch call Hanging Springs.  Then we headed on up the trail, but the storm was coming in.  We found the cabin, it was deserted, we decided to stay there.  That’s the night Johnny got hurt.  The next morning we started for Sacramento.  We hadn’t been on the trail more than 3 or 4 miles, we came to a rockslide blocking the way.  We had to turn back to the cabin.”  Scott shook his head. “I didn’t see any landmarks, but the storm had come in and it was hard just to see the trail.  That’s not much use, is it?” 

“Luke, you bring that map over here.”  Franklin cleared the mugs from the table while Luke unfolded an old map of mining claims.  Franklin looked over the map.  “Ya, I thought I’d seen Hanging Springs on the map.  So’s this here is trail you was on, course don’t show no cabin.  We don’t go up there much, but this ridge here could’a tumbled from that bit a shakin’ we had a few days back.”   Franklin pointed to an area on the map.  “I figure the cabin where yer pa and brother are holed up must be right about here.”  He looked over the map again.  “We should be able to take this trail and cut some time off’a getting’ up there.  Now that the storm’s stopped it should be a decent ride.”  

“Then what are we waiting for?”  Scott nodded in gratitude.  “I’ll get the horses saddled.”   

“You mind them horses there, the trail she get steep along here.”  Snowshoe maneuvered his way down the trail on his long skis, watching for obstacles to the horses following slowing behind.  He looked back; the old man, Murdoch, rode the first horse but spent much of his time looking back to the trailing animal pulling the travois holding his son.  It’s good that I stopped at the cabin Snowshoe thought to himself for not the first time.  That boy, he needs help now; I sure hope we can get him into town soon.   

The small party had stopped numerous times on the trail.  Even with the snow cover, the travois bumped along the trail, each log or half buried rock brought a gasp of pain.  The routine was the same, changing compresses soaked from the melting snow, the boy’s fever rising despite their efforts. His father talking quietly, sometimes in what Snowshoe thought was Spanish, and the boy would settle and they’d start down the trail again.  

It seemed to Murdoch like the trail down the mountain would never end, in reality, they’d traveled about four hours.  “Hold up now.”  Snowshoe had stopped in a clearing.  “This here’s the road I told you of.  It used to go up to an old mine; the mine she played out and there weren’t no need for the road no more so she’s some overgrowed but still real passable.  Now you head on in that direction.”  Snowshoe pointed off to the west, “I’m headin’ down the trail to Desolation and then I’ll come back on the road with a wagon and I’ll meet ya and take ya into the town.  A few more hours is all it should take me to ski down and get a wagon together and then I’ll come back on the road.  Don’t you worry there Murdoch, we’ll have yer boy in a warm bed tonight.  You jes’ keep to that road.”   

Murdoch watched his guide disappear down the mountain trail.  A few more hours, just a few more hours and I can make sure Johnny is warm and comfortable if nothing else, he thought as he walked back to the horse pulling the travois, his hand rubbing its neck and along its back, checking the makeshift harness as he went.  

Johnny was too quiet now; the last hour on the trail, there’d not been a murmur, a moan.  Murdoch had stopped once; his heart gripped by a cold hand as he knelt by his son, scared that Johnny had left him.  But he saw the slight rise and fall of his chest, eyelids that fluttered when Murdoch called his name.  And once again, he’d changed the compress on his forehead and told him he was safe and they were getting help.  Sometimes he believed that too. 

And now Murdoch again knelt down, pulling the blankets closer around Johnny.  The melting snow soaked the bandanas he used to sponge Johnny’s forehead.  He brushed the sweat soaked hair out of his eyes.  “Johnny, in just a few hours we’ll get you down to this town.  They don’t have a doctor …but.”  Murdoch trailed off, he hoped, he prayed he was doing the right thing.  Maybe he should have stayed and waited for Scott.  But then there was the two to three days back to Reno.  He sighed and shook his head, his voice quiet, “I just hope I’ve done the right thing Johnny,” his hand resting against his son’s pale face.  He shook himself, “Scott should catch up with us in another day, two at the most.  I left a message and a map at the cabin, so he’ll know where we’re headed.”  Murdoch chuckled, “Oh, he’s going to be a little put out with me for not waiting for him.  But I’ll handle that when he gets here.”  

Scott, Franklin and Zeb rode in single file.  Luke had wanted to join them but Franklin had told him that he didn’t need to come along.  Truth was he didn’t know what they’d find at the cabin and he didn’t want his youngest with him.  The ride up seemed shorter when they weren’t battling the weather.  Scott brushed a clump of snow that had fallen off an overhanging branch, glad for the sun while the snow melted down his back.  He looked ahead and thought of the cabin and clearing.  Well little brother, I’m thankful the weather’s better, we’ll get you to Reno faster.  Not too much longer now.

“Lancer, we should be about where that cabin is, anything hereabouts lookin’ familiar?”  Franklin had dismounted and let his horse to a small stream.  

Scott swung off his horse and grabbed his canteen. “Not really, but in a storm one tree looks pretty much like another.”

Zeb laughed, “Well, yer right there Scott. Guess we jes have ta find the right trees to lead ya to yer kin now.”

The mounted up and as the trail widened, they spread out to cover the area better.  

“Yo, the cabin.”  Zeb’s voice broke the silence to Scott’s left.  He pulled on his horse’s reins and pushed through the underbrush.  

“Thank God,” Scott breathed silently as he dismounted.  “Murdoch, Murdoch!  I’m back, I’ve brought…”  he threw the door open and stopped short at the sight of the empty cabin.  “Murdoch, where ..” his voice a bare whisper.  “Johnny.  No, no.”  Scott’s voice turning to a silent sob.

Franklin stepped behind him, his hand gripping Scott’s shoulder. “You sure this is the right place?”

Scott nodded, the pine boughs he’d cut still lay against the far wall, a cup by the remains of the fire.    He turned to Franklin.  “Where would they have gone?  If Johnny was…was dead.”  Scott could barely say the words.  “Murdoch wouldn’t have left.  He’d wait here for me to come.  Why would he leave?  He knew I was coming.”

Zeb came in. “There’s no sign of any horses and with the snow meltin’ there ain’t any tracks.  But there’s some fresh cut braches out back, maybe fer the fire, but they’s mighty small wood fer a fire, more likely they rigged pallet or such.”   

“But why?”  Scott shook his head.  “Murdoch wouldn’t just leave.”  Scott looked around the cabin, but there was no sign of a note or message.  “Dammit Murdoch!  Where are you?”  Scott shouted, but the silent trees gave no answer.

He turned back to Franklin. “Is there anywhere around here he could have taken Johnny?”

Franklin shook his head. “Son, there weren’t nothin’ on the map and I don’t know this part of the mountain real good.  I cain’t say where he’d go.  He wouldn’t have tried to go on to Sacramento knowin’ the trail’s blocked.  Only thing I can think of is he’s takin yer brother back to Reno.  Figures he’d meet you on the trail.  That has to be where he’s gone.  We come up a shorter way and missed ‘em.  Yer Pa woulda headed back down the main trail.”

Scott looked at Franklin. “You’re right, that’s the only thing that makes any sense.  He’ll be traveling slow.  I should be able to catch up with him by nightfall, early tomorrow at the latest.”

“That’s the only way I’d see it.  If ya don’t mind me and Zeb, we’ll ride along with ya til the turn off to our camp.”  Franklin knew it would be a longer ride.  But when they met up with Murdoch and if anything had happened to Johnny from what little he knew of the man beside him, he knew it would tear his soul apart – and if this boy was any measure of his father there’d be two men who’d be in need of a good listener and a strong heart.  “Day’s a wastin’ Lancer, let’s get a move on.”

Murdoch made a steady way down the road, always listening for a wagon in the distance.  He’d stopped once to check on Johnny.  Murdoch wiped his face and neck and held the canteen to his mouth in hopes he’d swallow a little water but Johnny never stirred, the water dribbled down his chin. 

The sun was beginning to descend behind the mountain when Murdoch heard the jingle of harness.  “Snowshoe!” he yelled down the road.

“Ja, Lancer.  We’s comin’ now,” came a distant reply.  

Murdoch kicked his horse and moved forward to meet the wagon.

Snowshoe sat in the box, a woman sitting next to him.  He jumped down from the box and reached up to the woman.  “This here’s Miss Lori.  She come to help and like I said she’s got a Chinese works for her to help yer boy.”

“Ma’am,” Murdoch took her elbow to steady the woman, “I’m Murdoch . . .”

The woman cut him off.  “Yes, I know Mr. Lancer.  I’m pleased to meet you, but we can let the introductions wait.  Right now, let’s get your boy into this wagon and get back to town.  I’ve got a mattress back here.  Snowshoe, help me into the back and then get the horse up close.”  

Murdoch couldn’t tell what this woman, Miss Lori, looked like.  She was bundled in a heavy coat and fur hat.  But her dark eyes flashed with determination.  

Snowshoe and Murdoch lifted Johnny into the back of the wagon.  “Gently, gently now.’’  She cautioned as she took Johnny’s shoulders and guided them to the mattress.  She nestled against the side of the wagon, Johnny’s head resting in her lap.  She pulled out a canteen.  “I’ve got a tea Sammy made up for me and we’re gonna get some into this boy on the way back to town.”

“Now Mr. Lancer, you come and sit here by me and rest a bit, you look just done in.  And Snowshoe, you tie those horses off to the wagon and then get a move on back to town so we can get this boy taken care of.“  


Part 9

It had taken some time to get Johnny settled. As soon as the wagon lurched forward, his eyes opened.  Murdoch was so grateful to see those blue eyes he didn’t care that Johnny struggled weakly in Miss Lori’s arms.

“Murdoch!” Johnny swung his head from side to side, searching for his father, his eyes glassy, reaching out weakly to find an anchor.  “Donde estamos?  Donde está Scott?”

Murdoch took one of Johnny’s hands in his, the other on his son’s forehead to calm him.  “Shhh, resto justo, hijo.  We’re getting you some help.  Scott will be along, just another day, maybe two.  Everything will be alright.”  Murdoch looked at Miss Lori and motioned toward the canteen at her side.  “There’s some tea you need to drink.’’

Miss Lori picked up the canteen and held it to Johnny’s mouth.  “Now you need to drink this.  I don’t know what all Sammy puts in this, but he swears it cures anything.”  

Johnny managed a few sips. It felt so good, and his throat was so dry.  And then the taste hit him, it was bitter and sour, he started coughing, pain lancing through his chest.   “No more.”  His voice came in short gasps broken by a harsh cough.  Johnny tried to push the canteen away, “It’s, it’s  worse than Teresa’s willow bark tea.”  

A soft voice from somewhere above his head commanded, “A few more sips.  Sammy wants you to drink all of this on the way into town.”  

Johnny heard the voice, a woman’s voice, but not Teresa’s.  Who?  But if Sam wanted him to drink whatever this was, he’d try.  “I’ll try.  Murdoch, you tell Sam I’ll try to finish this off.”  He tried to reach for the canteen but felt someone take his hand.  

“You just let me do the work, you rest.”  That voice again.  He tried to move his head to find the source of the soft voice, but the effort seemed to be too much.

Johnny felt the canteen against his lips, he managed a few more swallows, but everything seemed hard, he just wanted to sleep.  “No, no mas, No puedo.”  His voice trailed off as he choked on the bitter liquid, “Murdoch, I’m trying, just can’t right now…”

“It’s alright, John, you rest. We’ll try again after you’ve rested a bit.”  Murdoch looked at the woman who cradled his son.  

She saw tired eyes, full of anguish.  “He needs to rest. He doesn’t have any strength.  Let him rest a few minutes, and we’ll be able to get him to drink more.”  

“It’s alright, Mr. Lancer, we’ll let him sleep for a few minutes.”  She looked at the man sitting opposite her.  His eyes hadn’t left his son’s face.  He looked as exhausted as the boy, his eyes were red-rimmed from lack of sleep, a few days stubble shadowed his face.  “I brought some sandwiches and some fresh water.  From what Snowshoe told me I figured you might need some food.  They’re in that basket by the head of the wagon.”

Murdoch shook his head like a man roused from a dream.  “Wha..?”  Sandwiches, thank you, that sounds good right now.”  Murdoch reached for the basket and pulled one out.  “Would you like..?”

“No, no I don’t need anything right now.  Who’s Sam?”  Miss Lori shifted slightly to rest Johnny’s head against her shoulder

“Sam, why?  Oh, Johnny asked me to tell Sam he’d drink the tea.”  Murdoch took a bite of the sandwich, “That’s good.  Thank you.  Sam’s the family doctor.  He says Johnny’s his best customer.  What he means is most frequent.  Johnny can be quite a handful when he’s sick or hurt and he’s not too good at following doctor’s orders.”

Miss Lori looked at the boy resting in her arms and smiled.  “Well then, we’ll just have to see how he is when he’s got some ladies taking care of him instead of some fussy old doctor.”

“Mr. Lancer.”

Murdoch interrupted her, “Please, my name’s Murdoch and as you’ve probably figured out my son’s Johnny.”    

“We did cut short introductions, didn’t we?  I’m Lori Garrett, but most everyone calls me Miss Lori.”  She looked up, “Who’s Scott?”  

Murdoch sighed and rubbed his eyes, “Scott is my older son.  When Johnny was hurt he left us to head back to Reno to get help.  He’s been gone I think four days now.  He should be on his way back to the cabin with help.  Every since he left, Johnny’s been calling for him, even managed to make his way out of the cabin during the storm.  He thought he’d heard Scott calling.”  

“Your son will be able to find us?”  

“Yes, I left a note and map at the cabin.”  Murdoch rested his head against the wagon side and stretched his shoulders.  “He’ll find his way to your town.”  

“Murdoch, you look done in.  Why don’t you get some sleep.” she looked at the sleeping boy, “I’ll wake you if he needs anything.”  

No, I’m fine; if he needs me I don’t….”  

Miss Lori’s quiet voice cut off Murdoch.  “Murdoch, I caught just a look at your son’s leg when we were getting him into the wagon and I have a feeling we’re going to need you rested when we get into town.  His fever is too high and that cough doesn’t sound good.  And that leg needs some tending.  We’re going to need you to help manage him while we get him taken care of.”  

Murdoch looked at her weary beyond words, he nodded. “I know it looks bad, I haven’t had anything to clean it up but water.  If he wakes up you’ll call me?”

“Of course, you’ll probably know as soon as I do.  You just lay your head back and rest.  It’s a few more hours back to town.”  

Murdoch leaned back against the wagon side, shifting his weight to ease his aching back.  Then he reached over to find his son’s hand.  Once in his grasp, he relaxed and let the swaying of the wagon ease him to sleep. 

Jelly guided the buckboard to the rail near the telegraph office.  Teresa was already jumping down as he tied the harness off.  

“Jelly, do you think there’ll be a message from Murdoch and the boys?”  There was a little anxiety in her voice.  It had been six days since they’d heard the train tracks were damaged and the telegraph down.  Teresa knew they were all fine, but she’d feel so much better if she got a message.

“Don’t rightly know now, won’t know until we go in an’ ask.”  Jelly had a sense something wasn’t right but wouldn’t ever let Teresa know that.  He held the door open for her as they walked into the telegraph office.

The operator looked up, “Miss O’Brien, a pleasure to see you.”  

“Henry.”  Teresa smiled, “Is there any word on when the telegraph lines will be up?  We’ve been waiting for a message from Murdoch.”  He voice ended on a higher, hopeful note.

Henry shook his head, “Lines aren’t up yet, I hear it’s still quite a mess in the canyons where the bridges went down.”  He saw the downcast look on the girl’s face, “But I heard they’re planning on runnin’ some line south and hookin’ up with the lines into San Diego.  Messages ‘ill be routed from there up the San Francisco and then back into Stockton and Sacramento and such, then to here, use the same route to send messages back to the East.  


He held up his hand, “Don’t know yet, but as soon as I hear anything, I can have my boy come out to the ranch to get a message you want to send and if I hear from Murdoch, I’ll have him bring it right out to you.  I know it isn’t much, but it’s the best I can offer.”  

“Henry, thank you, that’s very kind.”  Teresa smiled, her eyes bright with unshed tears, “It’s just so hard not knowing where they are.”   She turned to Jelly, “I have some shopping to do.  Will you meet me at Baldemero’s for the supplies?”

“You jes’ count on that Miss Teresa.”  As she left Jelly turned to Henry.  “Henry, if you get any news about Murdoch and them boys, jes’ make sure that yer boy looks me up first.  I don’t want Miss Teresa getting’ any bad news.”

“I’ll sure do that Jelly.  Do you think there’s anything wrong?”  Henry heard the worried tone in Jelly’s voice

“I ain’t sure Henry,”  Jelly rocked back and forth on his heels “I jes’ know my elbow’s been achin’ somethin’ fierce since that quake.  An’ I’ll rest easier as soon as I know Murdoch and them boys is stayin’ put in Reno waitin’ on the train.”  

Jelly left of office and looked down the boardwalk and then turned his steps toward the sheriff’s office.  

“Val, you in here?”  Jelly looked around the office.

“Right here.”  Val came into the office from the back of the building.  “Jelly, ain’t seen you in a bit.  Everything at Lancer okay?”  

“I’m waitin’ on Murdoch and the boys to get back from that trip they took to Carson City.  They’s been held up on account ‘a the track down from the earthquake.”  Jelly swallowed, “Val, kin you find out anything?  I cain’t shake this feelin’ that there’s somethin’ mighty wrong.”  

Some people discounted Jelly’s feelin’s and aching elbows, but Val knew the old man was right more than he was wrong.  “Jelly, with the telegraph lines down there’s not much I can do, but I’ll send some message to the sheriffs I know between here and the break in the lines.  They may have heard somethin’.”  Val looked at Jelly.  “You don’t think they tried to ride home, do you?”

Jelly shook his head. “Val, I ain’t sure what they might’a tried, I jes ain’t feelin’ right.”  

“Don’t you worry Jelly, the Lancers can take care of themselves.  But I’ll ride out to the ranch myself if I hear anything .”  

“That’s good, Val, now I need to be meetin’ Teresa at Baldemero’s.  

Val shut the door as Jelly left as he sat down to write out messages to send he thought of his friends.  Well, the Lancers can take care of themselves.  But in all his experience he hadn’t met up with anyone who could find more trouble than the Lancers either.  

Franklin and Zeb had quietly followed Scott as they made their way down the trail leading back to Reno.  He’d stopped so many times to check the trail for any sign of tracks or evidence traveler’s, certain travelers hauling a travois, had passed on the trail.  But if there had been tracks the melting snow had washed them away.  They’d stopped for the night at Hanging Springs.

Scott stared through the fire into the distance almost as if he could see where his father and brother had gone.  He couldn’t think of any place they would have gone but back towards Reno, but he thought he would have caught up with them by now.  They had to be moving slow; Johnny’d been in no condition to ride.  But maybe, had Johnny gotten better?  Maybe he was stronger and could sit his horse; they’d make better time that way.  Tomorrow, I’ll catch up with them… tomorrow.

He looked up to see Franklin standing in front of him coffee pot in hand.  “More coffee?”

Scott tossed the dregs on cold coffee on the ground and held out his cup.

“Seems yer pretty far away.”  

Scott took a sip, “I’ve just been trying to figure out why we haven’t caught up with Murdoch yet.  Maybe Johnny’s better and riding.  They’d make good time that way.”  Scott smiled, mostly to himself, “Johnny can get better faster than anyone you’ve ever met or at least he’ll convince you he’s ‘just fine.’  No, there’s no reason Murdoch would get off the trail, it has to be the only reason.  I figure we should catch up with them tomorrow sometime.”

Franklin nursed the coffee he’d poured for himself.  “Makes some sense that it could’a happened that way and there ain’t no place to turn off the trail til you get to the turnoff to our camp.”  Franklin took a deep breath, “I talked with Zeb.  He and I, we’ll be leavin’ you at the turnoff.  Time fer us to get back to work.  Trail’s real clear to Reno.  You won’t have no problems followin’ it back.”

“Franklin, I appreciate everything you and your sons have done for me. Hopefully, we’ll catch up with Murdoch and Johnny before we get to the turnoff.  I’d like you to meet them.”  

“I’ll be lookin’ forward to that.  I figure they’d be right nice folks.”  Franklin left Scott along and tended to the fire before turning to his bed role.

Scott continued to sit, starring into the fire.  If Johnny wasn’t better, where were they?  Murdoch, where have you gone?  Where have you taken my brother?    

Miss Lori looked at the quiet face, brushing the hair from his eyes.  She’d made Snowshoe stop and rewet the cloths she used to try to cool the boy.  When his father hadn’t woken during the stop, she knew how exhausted he’d been caring for this boy.  She’d managed to get him to drink most of the tea, capful by capful.  She’d gently stroke his cheek as she held the canteen cap to his mouth and another swallow of tea would go down, slowly, one after another.  

“Comin’ into town Lori,”  Snowshoe called back to her.  

“Good, you pull up real close to the Mite, so we don’t have to move this boy any more than necessary.”

“Mr. Lancer, Murdoch.”  Miss Lori reached over and shook Murdoch’s arm.  As he lifted his head, “We’re almost into Desolation.”

“How long have I slept?  Johnny, how’s Johnny?”  Murdoch reached over to lay a hand on his son’s forehead, frowned at the heat he felt.    

“You needed the rest.  I suspect you haven’t slept much since this happened, have you?”  

“I’ve managed to get a little sleep.  When Johnny was quiet, we’d both doze off, but then his fever started to climb and I… I needed to stay awake to be sure he wouldn’t do anything to hurt himself even more.”

“He’s been resting, quiet, his fever’s no better, but I got him to take most of the tea, sip by sip.”   She wiped Johnny’s face with one of the damp compresses. 

The wagon slowed to a stop.  “Sammy, Jonas!” Miss Lori called out.  “I need you out here to help move this boy!”

Murdoch stretched and started to reach for Johnny. “I can carry him.”

“Well, that may be, but I think it’ll be easier on your son if we use these blankets like a stretcher and move him that way.”  She’d noticed how Murdoch stretched.  “And if your back is ailing, I don’t need you makin’ it worse.  We’re going to need you to help with your son.”

Miss Lori gently eased herself from behind Johnny and rested his head on the blankets.  “Darlin’, we’re going pick up these blankets and get you moved into my place. You just lay here and let these men do all the work.”  There was no sign that Johnny heard her, but as the men eased Johnny from the wagon, she continued to talk, “Now it might hurt a bit as we move you, but everyone’s bein’ as gentle as can be.  We’ll just have you in a soft bed before you know it.”  

Miss Lori led the way, each man with a corner of the blankets holding Johnny.  “Right in here men.  Molly, you get the bed in the front room turned down.”  Turning back, “Jonas, as soon as we get him into bed, I need you to get water on.”  

“Sammy, his leg looks bad and his breathing is real rough.  I got most of your tea into him.  I hope you’ve got some of your potions mixed up.”  

The Chinese man holding the corner of the blanket opposite Murdoch looked down at Johnny and then at Miss Lori.  “I have medicines ready, but if what you say is so, we must do more.”

They made their way up the stairs; Miss Lori led them into a room.  “Onto the bed, gently, gently.” She commanded as the four men shifted to move Johnny to the bed.  “Don’t bump his leg!  Now, let’s get that bandage and splint off and see how this looks.”  

Sammy began to unwind the clumsy dressing, Scott’s shirt.  Murdoch leaned over his shoulder to get a better look and when he did felt the bile rise in his throat.  Johnny’s leg was swollen twice its size, red streaks shot up from the ugly gashes left by the trap.  That gash was vivid red; pus oozed from the wound.

The Chinese, Sammy, gently felt of the leg, near the gash, up the calf, up to Johnny’s knee.  “There is much warmth, much poison.  Before I can use my medicines, we must try to drain the poison.  I will have to open it,”  he gestured as though using a knife, “and let the poison drain.  We must do this soon.”  

Murdoch nodded.  “I figured it would be infected. I didn’t have any medical supplies with me.”  He looked at the man.  “Can you do this?”  

“Oh yes, I am not a man of medicine, but it is something I have done.”  

“Well, let’s get to it.”

“Yes, I will gather my supplies and be back very soon.”  Sammy left, Miss Lori followed him.

“Sammy, what do you think?”  She kept her voice low so Murdoch wouldn’t hear her.

“Miss Lori, it is not good.  There is much poison.  I have not heard his chest, but if it is as you say, my medicines may not be enough.”  

Laying her hand on his arm. “Sammy, I trust you more than those fancy doctors in San Francisco.  You just do your best.  I have a feeling this boy can do the rest.”

“Johnny,” Murdoch sponged his forehead with water from the basin he’d found in the room.  “Son, your leg’s badly infected.  We’re going to have to open it up to clear out the infection.  But I’ll be right here, and you’re going to be fine.  Just fine.”  

Murdoch looked down at the quiet face, pale but flushed from fever.  Johnny, you have to be alright.  How could I ever explain to Scott what I’ve done if anything happens to you?  I can’t let that happen. Your brother depends on you just like you depend on him.  I can’t let anything happen to either of you.  I need both of you. 

Sammy laid out the supplies he’d brought with him.  For the first time, Murdoch noticed he limped badly; I’ll have to ask about that later, he thought.  

“First I will wash his leg, there are herbs in the water that will fight the poison and then I will cut it.  You must all hold him, so he does not move.”  

Murdoch nodded.  He realized there were other people in the room.  Snowshoe position himself opposite Murdoch, Miss Lori was next to him.   

Sammy took a steaming cloth from a basin at his side and gently began washing Johnny’s leg.  Murdoch felt Johnny move ever so slightly at the heat.  “Easy, son, they’re just washing up the gash in your leg.”  

Setting aside the cloth Sammy picked up a small but wicked-looking knife.  He looked up at the others. “You must hold him now. You must hold him very tight.”  

They all tightened their hold on Johnny and Murdoch watched the shining blade descend towards his son’s leg.  


Part 10

Murdoch sat by the bed, watching Johnny.  There seemed so little left of him, the shallow rise and fall of his chest, a flicker of an eyelid.  But where had the restless boy in constant motion gone?   He could see Scott and Johnny, bent over a chessboard.  Even then, Johnny was like a coiled spring, ready to release a whirlwind in the blink of an eye.  He turned at the steps behind him.  

“I thought you could use this.”  Miss Lori had a cup in her hand.  “I know I needed something after what we had to do.”  

Murdoch took the cup and lifted it to his lips; he could smell the brandy that laced of coffee.  He noticed his hand still shook.  Would he ever forget the screams of agony, the pleading to stop?   

As the knife made first contact with Johnny’s flesh, his eyes had flown open and an otherworldly scream had shattered the room.    

“Dios!  Murdoch, no los permita, no permita que ellos cortar la pierna!  <<Murdoch, don’t let them, don’t let them cut off my leg>>  Por favor, papa, por favor.”   He fought against the hands holding him with a strength he shouldn’t have had.  Until it was no more and he fell limp on the bed, his voice a bare whimper, “No, por favor, parada, no.”   

Sammy had nodded to Murdoch, “Go to your son.  I cannot do this until he is quiet again.”  

“Let me,” he motioned to Miss Lori as he moved to the head to the bed.  She moved aside as Murdoch sat by Johnny, slipping one arm under his shoulders, lifting him, so his head rested on his shoulder, brushing his hair from his eyes with his free hand.  “Johnny, this has to be done, your leg’s . . ., it’s bad, Johnny.”  Murdoch waited, hoping he’d get some response.  When there wasn’t any he took a shuddering breath, “Hijo, Yo no permitiré que nadie tome la pierna.  Yo le prometo eso.  <I won’t let anyone take your leg.  I promise you that.>   “Now, I’m just going to hold you here, and I need you to stay still while this man takes care of your leg.”  

Murdoch looked to the others, quietly, “I’ll hold him, Snowshoe, if you’d take his good leg, Lori, can you manage his,… this leg?”    

Miss Lori took a deep breath, “I think it’d be better if I helped Sammy.  I’ll get Jonas up here to help hold him.”    

The Chinese healer looked at Murdoch. He had a very low soft voice.  “Miss Lori will find Jonas.  I will mix some herbs.  It will help him not feel the pain as much.”  

Murdoch realized he was alone with Johnny.  He reached over a basin on the washstand, squeezed the cloth damp and began to wipe Johnny’s face.  His fever was still too high.  Murdoch looked down at the now quiet face, Johnny’s eyes were sunken and rimmed with dark circles.  “I’ll get you home, Johnny.  When Scott gets here, we’ll let you get some strength back and I promise I’ll get you home.”  

Sammy came back with a small steaming bowl and bowed close to Murdoch.  “Mister Johnny, you drink this now.”  He held the bowl to Johnny’s mouth, “You drink, yes.”  

Johnny felt the edge against his lips and tried to reach up to push it away, but his arms wouldn’t move.  “No, no, I can’t.”

“Johnny, you need to drink this.”  Murdoch wasn’t sure what was in the bowl, but whatever it was he hoped it would help.  He took the bowl from Sammy, “There’s not too much here Johnny.  Just a few sips and it’ll be gone.”

Johnny tried to open his eyes, but it was too much effort.  The liquid was warm and sweet and it felt good; his mouth was so dry.    

Lori came back with Jonas.  “Now Jonas, you need to hold this boy’s leg real still while Sammy works.  You do that?”  

Jonas looked around, “I kin do this Miss Lori.  You jes show me what I got ta do.”  

Lori squeezed his shoulder.  “Just put your hands here and here.  And when I tell you, you hold on real tight and don’t let his leg move.”

Lori moved the basin closer to where Sammy stood at the end of the bed.  “You tell me what you need and I’ll hand it to you.”

“A cloth first, I will clean his leg again.  And then you will hand me the knife.”  Lori nodded to Sammy as she handed him the cloth and tried to keep her hand from shaking.       

Murdoch gripped Johnny’s shoulders. “Johnny, Sammy is going to get started.  I’m going to need you to be as still as possible.  I’m right here and I’m going to hold you, you just hang on to me.”  Murdoch moved his free hand until it lay under Johnny’s and felt a weak grip in response.  He smiled, “That’s it, Johnny, you just hang on.  Everything will be fine.”  He felt Johnny stir.

“I told ya before,”  Murdoch had to lean close to hear Johnny’s voice.  “Ya use ta be a better liar, ain’t changed.  Just let ‘er rip, I ain’t goin’ anyplace.”

At the first stroke of the knife, Johnny had gripped Murdoch’s hand with surprising strength.  Murdoch could hear Johnny’s teeth grate as he clenched his jaw, a moan, a cry escaping as Sammy cut into the infected gashes.  

“The poison is very deep,” Sammy looked at Murdoch.  “I must cut down to the bone.”   

“Do what you need to.”  Murdoch shifted behind Johnny, both arms encircling his chest, making sure he still had his son’s hand.  “I’ve got him.”  

Sammy looked at Snowshoe and Jonas.  “I need both of you to hold him very firm.  I will be as fast as I can in this.”  

Murdoch felt Johnny go limp in his arms and held his breath until he felt the faint beat of his heart.  He sent up a silent prayer, grateful that Johnny wouldn’t feel the pain.   He looked up to Sammy, “He’s out.”  He didn’t care that they saw the tears flowing down his cheeks.

They’d found him a rocking chair and now he sat there next to Johnny, watching him sleep.  His fever was too high, but he wasn’t sure that Johnny had anything left to fight with.  He seemed to be slipping away.  Sammy had packed the incisions with some sort of salve and had left a tea that Murdoch had been trying to get Johnny to take, spoon by spoon.  

Murdoch remembered that Miss Lori was there.  “Thanks for the coffee, it’ll be a long night.”

“The night’s half over and tomorrow will be a long day.  You talked to him in Spanish.”  Murdoch heard the question in her voice.  

“His mother was from Mexico.”  There was no need to go into Johnny’s history here.  “When he was little he learned English and Spanish.  Sometimes when he’s sick or hurt, it seems like Spanish is what he remembers best.”  

“Your wife, she’ll be worried that you’re late getting home.”

“No, Maria, she died a long time ago.  Lori, I wasn’t really thinking when we were coming in.  You said your name’s Garrett.  My first wife’s name was Garrett, Catherine Garrett, from Boston.  I don’t suppose you’d be related?”

Lori laughed, she had a light laugh.  “Well, Garrett was my husband’s name; he was from Ohio.  He never talked about family much, nothing about any in Boston.”

“You were married?”  

“Um, more coffee?”  Lori walked to where she’d left a tray.

“No, no more.”  Murdoch waited.

“He was a miner, a dreamer more than that.”  A little sad smile pulled at her lips.  “Thought he’d make his place out here and his fortune, I suppose.”

“We came out here from our little farm, but we came late.  The real good area was already claimed.  So we moved around for a bit, found some other miners in the same boat we were in and came to this place.  They tried to make a go of that little mine above the town; you were on the road.  There was a little color, but,”   Lori looked up, “There was no ‘eureka’ for us.  He tried to go deeper, but he wasn’t any good with explosives and one day,” she took a breath to control the sobs that threatened to break through, “One day, he just buried himself in that hole.”       

Murdoch laid his hand over hers. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up old memories.”  

“Mercy, here I am just cryin’ like a baby.”  Lori brushed away unshed tears. “He’s been gone a long time now.  I hadn’t even thought about Steven in a long time.  Does that happen to you, do you forget your wives?”

Murdoch remembered before his sons came home. “I did.  But I have sons to remind me; they both have their mother’s looks,”  he smiled, “and their temperaments.”

“Then you’re a lucky man Murdoch Lancer, you’ve got your memories and you’ve got your future, can’t ask for more than that.”  Lori motioned to the hall. “There’s a room across the way.  You should try to get some sleep.  I’ll sit here with Johnny.”

Murdoch leaned forward to wipe Johnny’s forehead. “No, I’ll stay here, if he needs me…”

Lori interrupted, “If he needs you, I’ll be right here and I’ll just yell across the hall.  That couple of hours sleep you had in the wagon was not enough and I don’t have the time to take care of two men; one is enough.”   

Murdoch held up his hands. “I know when I’m licked.  But just for a few hours and you’ll call me if he wakes.”  Murdoch looked over to Johnny, “Or if there’s any change?”  He leaned forward, “Johnny, Miss Lori tells me I have to get some sleep.   She’ll be here with you and I’ll just be across the hall, I’ll be close by son.”

Murdoch was surprised at how comfortable the bed felt.  He stretched his back as he thought about Lori, there was some of Teresa, and a combination of Maura Talbot and Victoria Barkley, and maybe just a little bit of Sam Jenkins thrown in.  As he felt his eyes begin to close, he knew he’d left Johnny in good hands. 

They came to the turnoff in the trail.  “Scott, Zeb and me will be headin’ back ta our camp.”

Franklin pushed his hat back to get a better look at Scott.  The boy looked downright awful.  Franklin didn’t think he’d slept more than a few hours at a time since they’d been together.  “I’m real sorry we haven’t caught up with yer family yet, but we gotta get back now.”

Scott reached over to take Franklin’s hand.  “I know.  It can’t be too much longer now before I find them, I don’t know how they made it this far so fast, but my father’s a determined man.”  Scott’s eyes strayed down the trail.  “Franklin, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate everything you and your son have done.  If you ever get to the San Joaquin, Morro Coyo; just ask for directions to Lancer.  You’ll always be welcome.”  

Scott watched his companions head down the path to their camp, taking a deep breath he turned his horse back towards Reno.  Today, I’ll catch up with them today, I have to.  The hours passed and there was still no sign of Murdoch or Johnny.  Scott traveled further than he should have, pushed his horse and himself to exhaustion.  He finally made camp for the night. He thought he was just a few hours from Reno.  How had they gotten so far ahead of him?  But that niggling thought, what if they hadn’t headed to Reno – but where else could they be?  This was the only thing that made any sense.  

After another restless night, Scott broke camp. He’d be in Reno by mid-morning.  He tied his horse off in front of the hotel and stood looking at the entry.  The clerk looked up as he walked through the lobby.

The man in front of him was dirty and unshaven, this one’s in the wrong place and I’ll just send him on his way.   “May I help you?”  There was a sneer in the clerk’s voice.

Scott didn’t have time to notice the clerk.  “Scott Lancer, my father, brother and I stayed here last week.”

“Mr. Lancer, of course I remember you now.  You look like you’ve had a rough trip.”  The clerk’s demeanor changed; he remembered the Lancers and had recognized wealth when he saw it.  “Do you need a room?  I’ll have a bath prepared for you.”

“Not right now, are they here?  Did my father and brother come back here?  

“No, Mr. Lancer.  I haven’t seen them since you checked out.”  The clerk looked at the guest register.  “No, they aren’t registered.  Did you plan on meeting them here?”

Scott leaned wearily against the registration desk, “No, we were on the trail, my brother was hurt and we separated.  I thought, I hoped, they’d come back here when I couldn’t find them on the trail.”

Scott rubbed his eyes. He was so tired and didn’t know where to look.  “I’ll take that room.  Could you have someone take the horse out front to the livery?” Scott turned to leave, “Which way is the sheriff’s office?”


Scott sat by the sheriff’s desk nursing a cup of coffee, not quite as bad as Val’s, he thought idly.  “I made it back to the cabin, but they were gone.  There wasn’t any message and the snow was melting, so if there’d been tracks, well, there weren’t any.  The only thing that made sense is that my father would have headed back here.”

The sheriff leaned back in his chair. “Nope, I haven’t heard of anyone comin’ in from the mountains.  What with the storm and the quake there haven’t been many travelers from the West.  I think I’d hear, ‘specially if one of ‘em was hurt.”

Scott left the cup on the corner of the desk and stood, “Sheriff, where’s the doctor’s office?  He saw the sheriff shake his head. “I know, but I have to check.”

“Sure son, Doc’s office is the next street over, next to the newspaper.”

Scott stood outside the doctor’s door, staring at the street.  It had been the same.  The doctor hadn’t taken care of Johnny or heard of an injured man.  Where have you gone brother?

The telegraph office, I wonder if the lines are up yet?  It was a few doors past the newspaper.  “Are the lines up yet?” 

The clerk looked up, “Well, they aren’t exactly up, but they’ve run some lines south so we can get messages down to San Diego and then they get sent on.”  

“Is there a message for a Lancer?”  Maybe Murdoch had gone a different direction and would get word to him.

“No, no messages for a Lancer.  Haven’t had too much traffic yet, I’d remember.”

“Thanks, I’ll be at the hotel.  If anything comes for Lancer could you have someone bring it over.”  Scott picked his hat up and turned back.  “I left a message to be sent to Jelly Hoskins as soon as the lines were up.  Has it been sent?”

“Why, of course,” the clerk puffed his chest out, “It was one of the first I sent out this morning.”  

Scott sighed, now I’ll have the rest of the family worried.  “Thank you, let me know if there’s any answer.”   

Scott turned and walked toward the hotel.  Last thing I want is to be here alone.  The music from a saloon he was passing caught his attention.  He stood at the batwing doors and looked inside, a small sigh, something I’ve learned from Johnny.  By reflex, he looked to the corner table; there was no one there.  Johnny wasn’t there.  He found a table and ordered a beer and sat there, rubbing the rim of the mug.  It’d been a long time since he’d felt this alone and this confused.  

The saloon became louder and more crowded as the afternoon turned to night.  Too loud.  Scott returned to the hotel, maybe a good meal and a night’s sleep, maybe in the morning he’d think of something else to do.

The same clerk was still at the desk.  “I’ll take the key to my room now and that bath.”  

“Yes sir, Mr. Lancer.”  The clerk turned to get the key, “It’ll be about half an hour for the bath.”  

“Thanks,” Scott ran his hands through his hair and turned to the stairs

“Scott, is that you?”  

Scott turned to the voice calling him.  “Mr. Cartwright, I didn’t expect to see you here.”

Ben walked across the lobby and held out his hand.  “Is Murdoch with you?  Did you get caught here by the quake?  Then he saw the look in Scott’s eyes.  “Scott, something’s wrong?”  

Three empty brandy snifters sat in front of each man before Scott finished telling Ben about the trip up the mountain and that Johnny and Murdoch had vanished.

“I just don’t know where to look, where to begin.”  Scott pushed one of the snifters in front of him back and forth. “I thought I might be able to find a guide who knows the mountains; they have to be somewhere.”

“Scott, the storm you were caught in was just the first.”  Ben leaned over and gripped Scott’s arm.  “The guides know it.  You wouldn’t find one worth his salt to go up there this time of year.”  

“I don’t know what to do, Ben.  I can’t just leave them.” Scott’s voice was hoarse from telling the same story over and over and from growing despair.

“Scott, my advice is to stay here until they’ve got the tracks repaired and go home.”  Scott looked up sharply at Ben’s words.  “I’ve know Murdoch for a long time.  He’ll find a way to get home.  And he’ll expect you to be there when he gets there.”  

Scott looked at Ben, “Is that what you’d do?  You’d go home if it were your sons missing?”

Lori sat on the edge of the bed and looked at the boy.  His fever wasn’t any higher, but no lower either.  She wiped his forehead again and pushed the blankets aside to sponge his chest.  She saw the scars and wondered at that.  His father seemed to be a prosperous rancher, what had his son done?  She saw the crinkles at the corners of his eyes, those blue eyes, were they from squinting into the sun or laughter?  His face was so thin, from what his father had said it’d been days since he’s eaten anything.

Sammy came in with a cup and a pitcher.  “I have made a tea for his fever.  And I need to clean his leg again.”  

Lori took the tea. “Sammy, what would I do without you?”  She held the small cup to Johnny’s lips and, as she had in the wagon, gently brushed in cheek as she tilted the cup and then waited until Johnny had swallowed the small amount.  “Sammy, is this going to help his fever?”  

Sammy looked at her, his eyes dark and serious.  “They are herbs I have used before and they have helped.  But he is very sick.  I cannot promise you they will help this time.”   

“Well, Sammy, we’ll just have to do the best we can.”  Lori smiled and patted his arm.  “How can I help you with his leg?”

Together they washed the incisions Sammy had made earlier, reapplied the salve and bandaged Johnny’s leg.  He’d moaned softly a few times but never moved.

“Miss Lori, is it time for you to rest.  I will sit here with the boy.”   

She saw the determined look on his face. “You’re right, I can’t lecture his father and not take some of my own advice.  Now I promised his father I’d wake him there was any change so you’ll do that for me?”  

“I will do that Miss Lori and I will wake you also.”  

Lori stood and walked back to the head of the bed. She reached down and brushed aside Johnny’s hair.  “Well, Johnny, I’m leaving you in Sammy’s hands for a few hours.  Your father’s just across the hall gettin’ some sleep but just one little sign from you and he’ll be right here.”

Murdoch woke with a start.  Johnny!  He bolted from the bed and across the hall.  The lamp by the bed was turned down; he could see only Johnny’s face.  He crossed the room in two steps and sat on the bed.  He could see that Johnny was no better, still too hot.  

“Mr. Lancer,”  Sammy’s soft voice broke the quiet.

Murdoch looked up with a start. “Sammy!  I didn’t see you there.”

“I made Miss Lori go to bed.  I have been sitting with your son.”  He saw the question in Murdoch’s eyes.  “He is no better.  I have cleaned his leg again.  It is not as hot as before.”  

“Johnny’s a fighter,” Murdoch said as much to himself as Sammy.  “He’s had worse odds and beaten them.”  

“It is my experience that it is the person’s will as much as my medicines that will decide their fate.  If his spirit is strong, then he has much to fight with.”  

“Yes, my son’s a fighter.  Always has been.”  Murdoch squeezed Johnny’s hand.   Don’t stop now son, he thought. 

“Sammy, how’d you come to be here?”  Murdoch looked across the bed to where Sammy sat. “And Sammy isn’t your name, is it?”

He got a smile from the man.  “Miss Lori has trouble saying my name.  It is Shuai Xeuzhong, but it is easier for everyone if I am Sammy.  

“My family is in San Francisco.  My father was a physician.  I studied with him as he took care of our people.  But he died and I must work to support my mother and sisters.  There was not much work in the city, but I could work on the railroad.”  He stopped and coaxed Johnny to take another sip of tea.  “Miss Lori, she was, “ he stopped and looked at Murdoch, “There are women who will be where men work.  But she was not like them.  There was a sadness that she could not hide.”

There was a look of understanding in Murdoch’s eyes. “That must have been after her husband died.”

Sammy nodded, “Yes, she has told you that.  She did not have a son to take care of her and it is a hard place for women.  I would see her in the camps where the men stayed.  She was kind to everyone, but she was sad.  You could see her eyes.  I worked with the men who set the explosives.  One day the rocks did not fall as they thought they would and many men were caught in the fallen rocks. 

“My leg was badly broken and I could not work.  The camp moved on to where the next section of the railroad would be built and I was left behind.  Miss Lori, she did not go with the camp.  She took care of me and said ‘Sammy, we are all that is left and we will take care of each other.’  And so we came here.  This is where her husband was.  She had saved money and could buy the saloon and the store.  There are not many people in the town, but they come from the mountain and the valley to this place.  So it is good.”

Murdoch smiled to himself, so Miss Lori collects strays too.  Sammy saw a distant look in Murdoch’s face, “I am sorry, Mr. Lancer, I have said too much.” he bowed his head.  

“No, we all have our stories, what we’ve done to make our way.”  Murdoch thought of what Johnny had done to make his way.   

The first rays of sun were beginning to light the mountain tops.  Mr. Lancer, it is still time before dawn, you sleep some more.  I will be here and if there is any change, I will wake you.”

“Thank you, Sammy.  I know he’s in good hands, but I’ll just sit with him for now.”


Part 11

Murdoch watched the lamp flame flicker from the draft blowing through the cracks in the window sash.  The wind had been rising all day, the temperature dropping as another storm came in.  

Johnny shivered even under the pile of quilts that covered him.  Murdoch reached over and pulled the quilts up around his neck; he knew that the chills presaged another rise in his fever.  A pattern they’d battled all day, and the day before, and the day before that, a battle they seemed to be losing.  His breathing had gotten harsher as the day wore on, his cough tight but weaker.  

Yesterday he’d been better, he’d recognized Murdoch, but it seemed every other sentence was, “Where’s Scott?”  Miss Lori had even managed to get him to eat a soft boiled egg and drink a glass of milk.  Murdoch had thought the worst was over, only to have his fever rise again during the night.  His leg was improving, it wasn’t as swollen and the drainage had almost stopped.  But Murdoch knew that cough had turned into pneumonia and that Johnny didn’t have enough strength left to fight it. 

He’d expected Scott to find them by now.  One day had blurred into another, but he knew there should have been enough time for Scott to get to Reno and back and then from the cabin to here.  Snowshoe had volunteered to return to the cabin and see if there was any sign of Scott.  He should be back soon, but Murdoch wasn’t sure if he wanted to hear the news he might bring.

Murdoch turned when he heard the rustle of skirts at the door.  “Sammy made up another kind of tea.  He thinks this might be better for the fever he’s got.  It’s brewed with goldenseal and white oak and some other herb I can’t pronounce and he’s fixing a plaster for his chest.”  Lori sat on the edge of the bed, balancing the mug of tea on small stand at the bedside.  She felt Johnny’s forehead and sighed.  “It’ll break soon, Murdoch. “ 

Murdoch couldn’t tell if it was hope or promise in her voice.  

“It just had a good hold before Sammy could get some of his teas into him.”  Lori picked up a spoon from the table and dipped it in the mug, “Now we’ll have to see how much he likes this one.  Sammy said it doesn’t taste too good.”  

That elicited a chuckle from Murdoch. He’d tasted some of Sammy’s concoctions.  They were every bit as vile as Jelly’s and now he brewed one that he said didn’t taste good. 

“Johnny isn’t one to take any medicine too willingly, no matter how good they might taste or bad.”  He had to admit, Lori had a way of getting Johnny to drink the teas even if it was spoon by spoon.   She’d spend hours with him, wiping his forehead and chest to fight the fever, holding him when his cough left him gasping, singing soft lullabies when he was restless.  Murdoch had lost track of the number of times he thanked God for Snowshoe and Miss Lori finding them.  

Murdoch stood and walked to the window, stretching his back as he moved across the room.  He pulled back the curtain and saw one traveler coming down the street.  “Snowshoe’s back, I’ll go down and see what he found.”  

Murdoch found Snowshoe warming his hands at the wood stove in the bar.  He didn’t even have to ask the question.

“I’m real sorry Murdoch, there weren’t any sign that anyone had been up ta the cabin.  With the snow meltin’ and it startin’ to storm today, I didn’t see signs of any tracks.”

“Was the note still there?”   Murdoch knew as he asked the question that it didn’t really matter.   Either way, Scott should have been here by now and he wasn’t.  If the note was still at the cabin it could mean Scott had never even gotten to Reno to get help and if it was gone that he’d gotten to the cabin and something had happened that he didn’t get to Desolation.   

“No, I didn’t see no sign of that note.”  Snowshoe saw Murdoch’s face fall.  “I’m real sorry Murdoch, it’s stormin’ up there now, but when the weather breaks, I’ll go back and see if there’s any signs down the trail to Reno.”  

“No, it’s been too long.  There wouldn’t be a trail to follow by now.”  Murdoch pulled a chair out and sat down.  Quietly, almost to himself, “Scott would storm the gates of Hell to get back to Johnny.  If he could he’d be here now.”  Lori had come down the stairs and heard the weariness, the defeat in Murdoch’s voice.  “Something, something’s prevented him from getting back.  I just have to trust now that wherever he is he’s safe.”   

Lori brought mugs of steaming coffee to the two men, “Sammy’s with Johnny right now.  Snowshoe, Murdoch’s right, there isn’t much use of going back to the cabin.  Maybe if you could go over to Carson, send a telegram up to Reno.  Someone may have heard something.”      

“Ja, I can leave in the mornin’.  I’ll stop at some of the camps on the trail.  Maybe yer son jes didn’t follow the trail I laid out on the map.  You don’t’ worry Murdoch, we’ll find that boy.”  

Murdoch smiled weakly. “Thank you.  I’ll go back to Johnny.  I want to be there if he wakes up.”  

Lori watched him slowly climb the stairs.  Her heart was breaking for him, one son missing and the other dying and a father who could only watch and wait. 

Jelly looked out to the arch at the rider coming.  As he got closer, he recognized one of the boys from the telegraph office.  

“Mr. Hoskins, Henry sent me out with this, just come in this morning.”  He breathlessly handed over a telegram.  

Jelly took it like it would burn his fingers, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin.  “You tell Henry I appreciate him getting’ this out to me.

Jelly walked back to the hacienda.  “Miss Teresa, we got a message.”  He opened the telegram and held it out so they could both read it.  It was brief, from Scott, that they were coming over an old trail rather than waiting for the trains.  

Teresa looked up, her eyes bright with tears, “Jelly, this is from days ago.  They should have been here by now.”  

Jelly knew the same thing. He put his arm around her shoulder.  “Now Miss Teresa, they might just have gotten held up by a lame horse or rough trail. You don’t worry now, they’ll be back and Johnny’ll be expectin’ some of that good chocolate cake.”  

Teresa sniffed and wiped at her nose.  “I know, Jelly, I just can’t stop worrying.  But you’re right, I’m sure it’s nothing and they’ll be back sooner than we know.”  Teresa turned to go to the kitchen to let Maria know the news.

Jelly watched her leave and thought to himself, ‘You don’t worry honey, I’ll do that for both of us’.

“Mr. Cartwright, you haven’t answered my question.  If it were your sons, would you go home to wait?”  Scott sat across from Ben, eyeing him, waiting for the answer.

Ben watched the man sitting across the table.  He knew what he wanted to say, what would keep his old friend’s son safe, but knew that he couldn’t be less than honest.  With a deep breath, “Scott, if it were any of my boys, I’d move heaven and earth to try to find him.  There are a lot of guides around here, most would take your money and leave you as soon as the trail got rough.  But there’s one, if anyone could take you into the mountains this time of year, its Tucker.”  Ben stood, “If he’s around Reno, he’ll be over at the Glory of the West.”

Scott felt like his heart was beating for the first time in how many days.  It was just a glimmer of hope, but it was more than he’d had and it was something to hang onto.   He pushed back his chair and followed Ben onto the boardwalk.  Ben stopped in front of him, “Scott if he won’t take you, I need you to promise that you won’t head out on your own.  You’ve already found out how dangerous those mountains can be this time of year and the weather is only going to get worse.”

Scott shook his head. “Ben, I can’t make that promise.  I need to find Johnny and Murdoch.  I can’t just go home and hope they’ll show up.”

“Scott, I’ve known your father for years and I wouldn’t be doing what a friend would expect of me if I let you go back into those mountains this time of year.”

Ben held up his hand as he saw Scott start to object.  “I can’t stop you.  I wouldn’t try, but I know you’ve got a good head on your shoulders and I think you know that you’d be going off on a wild goose chase.”  

Scott stared off in the direction of the mountains where his family had disappeared.  “I don’t know what else to do, Ben.  I don’t know where to begin to look for them.  I just know I have to do something to try to find them.”  

“Let’s go find Tucker and see what he has to say, then we’ll take it from there.”

The Glory of the West didn’t quite live up to its name, the colors of the sign were faded, the broken windows testified to rowdy nights.  Ben pushed through the swinging doors and looked around the dim interior.  He crossed the room to the bar; the bartender looked up from the class he was drying., “What can I get ya?”  

“Couple of beers.”  Ben dropped a few coins on the bar.  “Tucker around somewhere?”

The bartender fingered the coins and smiled, a few missing teeth marred the look.  “It was a kinda disorderly night last night. He’s likely still sleepin’ it off over to the boardin’ house, there across the street.”  

“Obliged.”  Ben finished the beer and motioned to Scott to follow.  Scott followed, a little leery now of the man Ben was leading him to.  But if Ben Cartwright vouched for him, Scott knew he was a man he’d trust.  It had taken a while to rouse the man, but now they sat at a table in the parlor.  Tucker wasn’t a big man, he had a face that had seen a lot of sun and wind and more than a little rough living, but it was a good face.  

“Now Ben, it’s been a few years since our paths crossed, what brings you to look me up?”

“Tucker, this is Scott Lancer and he needs your help.”  Scott reached out to take the hand the other man offered.  

Scott related the story of their trip of the mountain again, “They’ve got to be up there somewhere and I’ve got to find them.”  

“Son, did ‘ya see the look ‘a that sky?” 

Scott felt the knot in his stomach as he shook his head.

“That’s a storm sky, weather’s comin’ in a little early this year.  But them storms, you got a taste a ‘one, they’s just gonna get worse.”  Tucker rocked back in his chair, “There ain’t no way I’d try to lead ya up that trail, wouldn’t be safe and we could pass within just a few feet of someone and not see ‘em.”  

He could hear the anguish in Scott’s voice.  “You were my last hope.  I’ve got to find them.”

“Ya said they weren’t at that cabin where ya left em.  Off to the south there’s a whole passel a little towns, some old mining an’ loggin’ camps.  I ain’t been around there much of late so some of ‘ems likely abandoned now, but they might’a found a place to shelter.  You could head south’a the lake and check out them towns.”  Tucker stood and gripped Scott’s shoulder, “You sit tight here.  I’ll get me a map.” 

Tucker spread the map out on the table. “Ya follow this trail around the lake.“ Tucker pointed to a trail that wound around the south end of Lake Tahoe and turned into the mountains, but to the south of the trail he and Murdoch and Johnny had taken.  Tucker pointed out the places he thought Murdoch and Johnny might have taken shelter.  “Hey Ben, ya’ remember old Willard?  His minin’ camp sits right in this little valley.  He never did hit the big lode, but he’s got a real sweet little place tucked away on this little creek.”   As Tucker pointed out other likely spots, he gave a little history of each, the people that had lived there, the boom and bust of the little towns.   

“What about this one?”  Scott pointed to a name on the map, “Desolation, could they have made it there?”  

Tucker looked closer at the map, a slight smile pulling at his lips.  “Ain’t’ the most likely from what you told me about where ya left em, there’s some places closer, but it’s worth checkin’ out.  But Miss Lori, that’s her town and she seems to attract strays.”   Tucker looked again at the map, “Them places is about all I can think that yer pa and brother could’ a gotten to.”  He pointed to the map again, “The trail forks here,  you could head north toward Sacramento or south back to the San Joaquin.” 

“Well Scott, that’s about all the places along here that yer likely to find yer family.”  Tucker didn’t have to say if they weren’t in any of the places he’d pointed out they were likely lost in the storm.  

Scott took the map and folded it carefully, “Thank you, Tucker.  I appreciate your help, you’ve given me some places to look.  That’s more than I’ve had.”

Ben stayed behind as Scott left the parlor.  “Tucker, do you think his father and brother could have made to any of the places you pointed out?”  

‘I don’t know Ben, them storms, if his pa headed out without knowin’ where to go I cain’t hold out much hope.  But he don’t need to know that.  What’s happened is weighin’ heavy enough on that boy right now.”  

Ben nodded his understanding and held out his hand, “Thank you, Tucker, and when you get around the Ponderosa you be sure to stop by.  The boys will be happy to see you.”

Ben caught up with Scott.  “Scott, since you’ll be heading to the South end of the lake come back to the Ponderosa with me.  We’ll get you outfitted with a good horse and supplies.”

“Ben, I appreciate you offer, but I want to get on my way.  There’s a lot of trails to check”.

Ben raised his hand to stop Scott.  “I know you’re anxious to check out those towns but I’ll feel better if you’re well mounted.  It won’t take much more time and I owe that to your father.  I’ll wire the boys, they’ll get everything ready for you.  We can leave on the next stage.” 

Scott started to protest but realized that Ben’s proposal made sense.  He’d travel better and make better time with a good horse and supplies.  “Thank you, Ben, it’s just hard to wait any longer.  I know they’re out there somewhere and that they need help.”  

“You’ll find them, Scott.  It’s one of those things I just know in my heart.”  

Scott checked the cinch once more, settled the saddlebags and bedroll and turned to the Cartwrights.  “Ben, thanks again for everything.”

“Scott, it isn’t too late, one of the boys will go with you, easier traveling with two.”  

Adam spoke up, “Scott, I can be ready in under 30 minutes.”  

“Adam, I appreciate the offer, but like I said last night, I think I’d rather travel alone.”  It had been hard for him to spend the night with the Cartwrights.  It reminded him of home, the family gathered around the fireplace, Ben reading the paper, Joe’s laugh reminded him too much of Johnny.  He needed to find his family and he needed to start now.    

Ben laid a hand on Scott’s shoulder. “Scott, you take care and when you catch up with him, you tell Murdoch I’ll see him at next year’s Cattleman’s meeting.”

Scott swung into the saddle. “I’ll tell him that.  But the next meeting better be during better weather.”  With a wave, he left the Ponderosa.  

Mid morning found him in Carson City, from here he’d head south around the lake and then follow the trail Tucker had laid out, checking out the towns and lumber camps and anyplace else Murdoch might have found for shelter.  They had to be somewhere; it was just a matter of finding the where. 

As Scott rode past the telegraph office, he thought of Teresa and Jelly and pulled up.   He dismounted, looping the reins over the hitching rail.  He wasn’t sure what he’d tell them.  But they’d probably already gotten the telegram he’d sent when they were leaving Reno.  They’d be overdue by now and Teresa and Jelly would have started to worry.  He just didn’t know how he’d put what had happened into words.  How could he put the unthinkable into words?


Part 12

The trail south from Carson City was well traveled and an easy ride.  Scott had sent a telegram on to Lancer.  It hadn’t made him feel any better.  So they wouldn’t worry, well wouldn’t worry any more than necessary, he’d been purposely vague and he hadn’t even mentioned Johnny’s injuries. 


There would be time enough later, when he’d found Johnny and Murdoch and they were on their way home, to send a more detailed message. 

Scott stopped to water his horse and pulled out Tucker’s map.  He traced the route he’d planned.  If he pushed, he could get to the south end of the lake and make camp for the night.  He didn’t know how long it would take to cover all the places Tucker had pointed out.  He just hoped, no prayed, that he’d find Johnny and Murdoch in one of them. 

“Snowshoe, how long will it take you to get to Carson City?”    Snowshoe was packing a backpack with a few supplies.  He stopped and looked at Murdoch.

“Well, since there’s been some snow, I can take the high trail.  I’ll make good time on my skis so maybe two days.  There’s a couple of camps where I’ll stop and see if they’ve heard anything of yer son. But I’ll be sure to make real good time.”

“I got your message right here.”  Snowshoe patted his pocket.  “I’ll send it as soon as I get to the town.” 

Murdoch had decided against sending a telegram to Lancer.  He wasn’t even sure the lines were up and whatever message he could send would only worry them.  Snowshoe carried a message to send to Reno, maybe Scott was in Reno.  He had to be there, where else would he be?   Murdoch walked out with him, “I appreciate you doing this Snowshoe”

“Murdoch, I try to find out if anyone had heard of yer boy and where he is.”  Snowshoe smiled, “Maybe I’ll even find him and bring him here with me. “

Murdoch nodded past the lump in his throat, if only that would happen.  Having Scott here could make the difference for Johnny.  “Travel safe, Snowshoe.”  He called out and waved as Snowshoe made his way to the trail.

“His breathing is not any better.”

Murdoch nodded at Sammy’s words; it wasn’t anything he didn’t know.  They had Johnny supported with pillows, but as the hours wore on, Johnny struggled for every breath.  There’d been times when his fever dropped a little, that Johnny would open his eyes.  Somehow that scared Murdoch even more.  Those blue eyes were glassy and unfocused and looked into a place that Murdoch couldn’t see. 

“Is there anything you can do?”  Murdoch wrung out a cloth and began wiping Johnny’s forehead and chest to try to fight the fever that wasn’t giving up its grip.  The teas and plasters they’d tired would help for a short time and then the fever would begin to rise again.  

“There is a steam tent.  I will boil water and herbs and have him breathe the steam.  It could help loosen the congestion,”  Sammy hesitated.

Murdoch looked up, “What Sammy?”

“He is so weak now, he may not have the strength to cough and try to clear his lungs.”  

“Let’s cross the bridge when we come to it.”  

Sammy nodded in agreement.  “I will prepare the herbs.  We will need to make…” Sammy sketched a frame with his hands, “I will use a blanket to hold over him so he breathes the steam.”


Murdoch helped ease Johnny forward while Lori and Jonas slid the makeshift frame behind him and draped a blanket over that.  

“Murdoch…what…”  Johnny’s voice was so weak Murdoch could barely hear him  

Murdoch shifted so Johnny’s head rested against his shoulder.  “We’re fixing a steam tent.  Sammy’s going to have you breath in some steam with herbs.  It’ll help you breathe easier.” 

“…tired Murdoch, it’s too hard…to breathe…can’t.”

“Shh, John, don’t talk now, you just let us do the work here.  Sammy’ll try this steam.  You’ll have to cough and I know that’ll hurt your ribs but I’ll help you breathe easier.”  Murdoch gently rubbed Johnny’s back as Lori and Jonas finished settling the frame and blanket and then helped him lie back against the pillows.  

Lori looked up, “Sammy, do you need help with that?”  Sammy carried a large kettle and a basin under his arm.  Lori moved across the room, “I’ll take the basin.  Where do you want it?”

Sammy directed her to place the basin next to Johnny and wrap a towel around it.  Sammy poured herbs from a small bag he carried into the basin and pulled the blanket down to form a tent over Johnny, tucking it under the quilt so the steam wouldn’t escape.  He picked up the kettle and carefully poured the boiling water into the basin.  Sammy finished tucking the blanket in but noticed at one corner a father’s hand reached under the covers to keep contact with his son. 

Murdoch kept his grip on Johnny’s hand.  At first, Johnny rested, but as the steam began to work its way into his lungs, he began to struggle to get away.  

“Murdoch!”  Johnny tried to sit up and push against the darkness that surrounded him.  Murdoch felt Johnny begin to struggle and slipped his free arm under the blanket that tented his son, his arm around his shoulders to help him sit up against the pillows.   

Johnny heard the muffled voice telling him to try to rest, to let the steam help him breathe.  <<I’m tryin’, Murdoch.>>  Johnny felt a cough begin to tear against his broken ribs and tightened his grip on Murdoch’s hand.  

Whatever had covered him was pulled away. The air felt cool against his face. 

“Try to cough now.”  That women’s voice, he’d heard it before.  Lori was pushing a pillow against the broken ribs to give some support.  “You need to get your lungs cleared out.”

Johnny wasn’t sure if he’d been able to cough, he knew he tried.  

Four more times during the day, they’d refilled the basin with herbs and steaming water.  Each time the result had been the same, Johnny would begin to cough until he lay exhausted in Murdoch’s arms.

Sammy finished reapplying a fresh mustard plaster to Johnny’s chest.  “His breathing is better now.”  

Murdoch brushed the hair out of Johnny’s eyes.  “I thought so too. He doesn’t seem to have to work so hard to breathe.”  

“He will rest tonight and then we will see what tomorrow’s dawn will bring.”  

Scott rose at dawn.  He’d slept fitfully, images of Johnny filling his thoughts.  <<You hang on Johnny, I’m coming, I’ll find you.>>  He pulled out the map again and looked at the names of the little towns or camps.  The names that didn’t mean anything to him; they only meant Johnny and Murdoch might be there.  Some of the little towns were close together, others out of the way.  And the map couldn’t tell him the state of the trail and if the weather turned it would take even longer.  There were so many of them, he’d decided to just get a start and keep on until he found his family.  Or until he ran out of places to look.  But finally this morning, he was on his way, he just wished he felt like he was a day closer to finding Johnny. 

Scott stared into the fire, nursing the last of the coffee.  He’d been to four of the points on Tucker’s map.  One of the mining camps was deserted and at the other two camps and a tiny town they’d listened to Scott’s story.  “No they hadn’t seen a man and a hurt boy.”  was the response he’d gotten.  Scott had left messages at each place, just in case, in case Murdoch and Johnny crossed this path.  

Snowshoe had been true in his prediction, he arrived in Carson City at the end of the second day’s travel.  He headed straight to the telegraph office to send the message Murdoch had given to him.

“I got a telegram to send,” he said as he pulled the paper from his pocket.

“Where’s it goin’?”  The operator asked impatiently, he wanted to close up for the day.  “Since the quake sending’ messages takes some time.”  

“The message is to go to Reno, to Scott Lancer.”

The clerk looked up, “Lancer, name sounds familiar, let me check some messages.”  He rifled through past messages.

“I thought so.  Scott Lancer was here day before yesterday and sent some messages.”

“He was here!”  Snowshoe felt relief for a man he’d never met.  “His pa’s been lookin’ fer him!  Is he still around do ya know?”  

“I ain’t seen him.  One of the messages says he’s lookin fer somebody called Murdoch and Johnny.”

“That’s his pa and brother.”  Snowshoe leaned across the counter, “Ya got any idea which way he headed?”

The clerk backed away and then looked up. “I did see him get on his horse and head out the south road.  Don’t mean that’s exactly where he went, but that’s where he started out.”

“No, that’s real good ya saw that.  He’d likely headed south around the lake.  I can’t figure how I didn’t run into him while I come down here.”

It was full dark now and too late to start back to Desolation.  Snowshoe turned down the street to the boarding house he stayed at when he was in Carson City.  But he planned to get an early start; he figured with any luck in a day, maybe a day and a half he’d catch up to Scott Lancer.  


Part 13

Snowshoe rose before the morning’s light had begun to color the eastern sky.  He found his way to the boardinghouse kitchen, where Bess was starting breakfast for the rest of the boarders.  

“Why Snowshoe, you about scared the starch right outta these biscuits.”  She scolded as she looked at the lump of dough in her hands and began reforming the dough for cutting.  “What are you plannin’ this time of the morning?”

“I’m needin’ to get an early start Bess.  I’m two days behind the man I need to find.”  Snowshoe looked about for a mug for the coffee already steaming on the cookstove.  “I can’t be stayin’ fer any of yer fine biscuits this day.” 

Bess efficiently finished cutting the biscuits and putting a pan in the oven.  “It’ll be no more than quarter of the hour before these are out of the oven.  I’ll fix you up some sandwiches and such to take.  This man you’re followin’, the one you spoke of last night, you think you’ll be able to catch up with him?”  

“I ain’t sure Bess.“  Snowshoe cradled the mug in his hands.  “I fer sure gotta try.  His brother’s real sick and his pa, well, he’s worryin’ fer both boys.  I figure since he don’t know the country he’s stickin’ to the trail pretty much.”  

Bess met Snowshoe’s eyes as she finished tying the twine on the parcel of sandwiches. “With the winter startin’ to come in any of them trails can get real dangerous, you just take care.  I don’t want to be losin’ yer custom whenever you visit here.”

Snowshoe stood and scooped up the parcel, laughing. “Miss Bess, it’d have ta be a mighty rough trip before I’d stop comin’ back to visit here.  You can count on seein’ me again.” He bent down to kiss her cheek and turned to leave.

“You travel safe,”  Bess called softly as he left.

As he trudged along the road south from Carson City, Snowshoe thought of the two day head start Scott Lancer had on him and he was on horseback.  He began to realize that it might be almost impossible to catch up with him.

  <<But he don’t know where he’s headin.  I gotta think like a man who’s lookin’ fer someone but don’t know the country.  How would I be doin’ this?>> 

 Snowshoe thought of all the little towns and camps he’d stop at when he delivered the mail and packages.  A map formed in his head, <<Ja, that’s what I’d be doin’, stoppin’ along the way askin’ anyone I could find.>> and he knew what area he could bypass to try to catch, maybe even get ahead of Scott Lancer. 

Lori’s head snapped up as she heard the bedsprings creak.  She must a dozed off; she’d sat by Johnny’s bedside most of the night and now watched as Johnny shifted position slightly.  If only he’d wake up.  It had been two days since they’d tried the steam treatments.  Truthfully, he seemed a little better, his breathing was easier, his cough wasn’t as bad.  She leaned forward to feel his forehead, frowning, still feverish even if it wasn’t as high.

Lori turned up the lamp flame and settled back in the chair and picked up the book that had fallen from her lap.  She’d sent, no ordered, Murdoch to the room next door to rest.  He’d barely left his son’s side, catching a brief nap as he sat in this chair next to him.  Lori had seen how pale Murdoch was getting, drawn, his eyes shadowed by dark circles.  She wasn’t sure who looked worse, father or son. 

Last night, after seeing Murdoch sway and almost fall when he stood, she’d put her foot down and had a discussion about what he needed to do to help his son.  Perhaps discussion didn’t really describe the tone of the conversation, but she was a lady.  He’d finally relented but only after extracting her promise to sit with Johnny and to get him if there was any change. 

Lori reached into the basin on the bedside table and wrung out the cloth.  She reached over to wipe away the sweat on Johnny’s face, gasping in surprise when he gripped her wrist.  She looked up to meet the gaze of feverish and glassy blue eyes.  

“Who are you?”  His voice so low and weak she had to strain to hear him.  His eyes tried to penetrate the dark around the bed.  “Where’s…where’s Scott?  Murdoch, where are…”  And his strength was gone as he lost his grip on her wrist.

“Shhh now, I’m Miss Lori and your papa’s right next door.”  She straightened the quilts.  “You just try to stay awake a few minutes and I’ll get him.”  But as she left his side she wasn’t sure he’d heard her.   

“Murdoch, Murdoch, Johnny’s awake!”  Lori shook Murdoch’s shoulder, “Wake up!”  Her voice a little sharper.  

<<Murdoch smiled as he saw his sons on the ridge overlooking Lancer.  He waved, but they didn’t respond.  Johnny turned Barranca away and Scott followed.  He watched them disappear behind the ridge.>>

“NO!”  Murdoch’s eyes snapped open as he focused on Lori.  “Wha…?”

“He’s awake Murdoch, at least he was.  You get in there right now.  Sammy leaves some broth on the stove.  I’ll get a cup of broth and try to get some into him.”    

Murdoch shook his head to clear the sleep and the image of his son’s disappearing.  There was a pool of lamplight around the bed   He crossed the room in two steps and sat on the edge of the bed, taking Johnny’s hand.  

“Johnny.”  He heard the quiver in his voice.  “Johnny.”  He gripped the hand, limp in his own and was rewarded as Johnny’s eyes flickered open and then as he felt the grasp of Johnny’s hand in his.  

Murdoch brushed the hair out of Johnny’s eyes.  “Hijo, it’s good to see you awake.  You’ve been sleeping the days away.”

Murdoch wasn’t sure Johnny really saw him, his eyes didn’t seem focused.  “Murdoch, where are we?”

“We’re in a little town called Desolation.  A man found us up in the cabin and helped me bring you here.”

“There was a woman here, who..?”  

Murdoch smiled, “That’s Miss Lori, we’re at her place.  She and some of the folks who work for her have been taking care of you.”

Murdoch felt Johnny’s grip begin to loosen.  “Johnny, stay with me son.  Miss Lori’s coming with some broth.  We need to get a little more than tea into you.”

“That’s right young man, we keep making the broth, but you just don’t wake up enough to have any.”  Lori handed Murdoch the cup of broth.  “If I didn’t know any better I’d think you didn’t like my cooking.”

She moved to the other side of the bed and helped Murdoch lift Johnny up on the pillows.  She wasn’t sure how much broth Johnny actually drank and how much she wiped from his chin, but at least it was a start.  

Murdoch helped Johnny rest back against the pillows.  “You rest now son, I’ll be here when you wake up.”

Johnny’s eyes started to drift shut then snapped open as he gripped Murdoch’s arm and tried to sit up.  “Murdoch, Scott, where’s Scott?” 

Snowshoe settled into his night camp.  He’d made good time during the day. Once he’d decided where Scott Lancer might be heading and he’d passed the south end of the lake he’d gotten off the trail and started to make his way cross country on his skis.  He’d bypassed some of the towns and camps on the trail.  <<Lancer should have gotten further than that in the time he’d been on the trail.>>  Tomorrow, maybe by mid-day he’d start checking the settlements.  He’d at least know how far behind he was. 


Scott turned on his side, the cot creaking under his weight.  The shopkeeper in the small town had offered Scott his backroom.  “I’m sorry I ain’t seen the men yer describin’.  The least I can do is offer you a place to stay for the night.  The weather’s turnin’ colder.  It’s better if you get a good night’s sleep and start fresh in the morning.”

<<A good night’s sleep.>>  Scott couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a good night’s sleep.  His nights had been filled with images of Johnny.  He’d lost track of how long they’d been separated.  His only consolation and flicker of hope was that Johnny and Murdoch were together and Murdoch was taking care of Johnny. 

Scott smiled to himself, thinking of how Murdoch and Johnny could argue.  When they’d first come to Lancer, the arguments had disturbed him, mostly worried that Johnny would leave or Murdoch would order him off the ranch.  But as they settled in, Scott realized the Murdoch and Johnny had the same stubborn streak, one thing that had helped both of them survive.  He could only pray it was helping them now.  

“Scott’s not here right now Johnny, but he’ll come.  You know he wouldn’t leave us on our own out here.”  Murdoch tried to sound reassuring, trying to hide his fears for his older son’s safety.  “He may have run into some trouble on the trail, but he’ll be here.”  

Johnny’s eyes were fixed on his father’s face trying to read what he saw there and what he saw was fear.  He struggled to sit up. “Murdoch, we gotta go and find Scott.  We gotta help.” 

“Johnny,” Murdoch gently pushed him back against the pillows.  “You’re not going anywhere.  Your brother would have my hide if I let you out of this bed.”     

“How long?”  Johnny closed his eyes, it was getting harder to sort out his thoughts, he wanted to know how long they’d been there, but why was that important?  He leaned back against the pillows.  It was getting just too hard to think.  When he woke up again, he’d figure it out. 

Scott helped himself to a cup of coffee from the shop’s stove and looked at the map.  Two days and nothing.  He figured it would take another three days to check all the places Tucker had pointed out.  Three days and if he didn’t find them, then what?  <<Damn it Murdoch!  Why did you have to leave the cabin and why couldn’t you have left me some message?>>


It had snowed again during the night.  Snowshoe breathed in the fresh crisp air; the air so much like his Norwegian home.  His skis gliding easily over the fresh snow Snowshoe cut through the awning of trees.  He thought a few more hours, about when the sun began its afternoon descent, he’d head back toward the trail he figured Lancer was taking.  Even on the trail he could maybe make better time than Lancer could on a horse.  <<Oh, that little steep section comin’ up.>>  

Snowshoe made to traverse down the short slope when he felt one of the skis catch and heard an ominous crack.   He steadied himself with the pole and slowed his slide down the slope.  At the bottom he unwound the rawhide strap holding his skis on and picked up the ski he thought he heard crack.  There is was, a long split through the heart of the ski.  “Gud fordømme den!”  Snowshoe muttered to himself as he untied the other ski.  Now he’d be on foot.  He was already behind Scott Lancer and now trying to make his way on foot he’d never catch up with him.  And it would take him days to get back to Desolation.


Part 14

“Murdoch, how long we been here?”   Johnny pushed away the mug of tea Murdoch held.

Murdoch sat the mug down on the bedside table.  He’d managed to put off answering this question the other times Johnny had asked.  But looking into Johnny’s fevered eyes, he knew he couldn’t evade it anymore.  “I brought you here a week ago today.”  

“Seven days ago.”  Johnny struggled to sit up and failed.  “How long before that did Scott leave?”

“Scott left two days before that.”  Murdoch watched Johnny concentrate on adding the days together.

“Murdoch, that’s nine days. He shoulda been back by now.”  Johnny reached to grip Murdoch’s arm and pull him a little closer.  “He could be out there tryin’ to find us.  He could’a come back and don’t know where to find us.”  

“Johnny, we checked the cabin.  There wasn’t any sign that Scott had been there.”  Murdoch held his breath, hoping Johnny didn’t ask any more questions.  He didn’t know how he’d answer if he did.

“Murdoch, you gotta go and try to find Scott.”  Murdoch was surprised at the strength in Johnny’s grip then felt it fade as Johnny struggled for each breath.  Murdoch hoped it was his imagination but it seemed like it had gotten harder for him to breath.   

“No son, Scott will find us.  I’m staying right here.”   Murdoch slipped an arm around Johnny’s shoulders to gently ease him back against the pillows.  <<God forgive me Scott but right now it wouldn’t make any difference if I knew where you were.  I can’t leave Johnny.>> 

Val looked up at the shadow came across his desk.  “Jelly, ya look like ya just lost…”  Val choked back the next words. “Jelly, have ya got some news?”

“I got a telegram from Scott.”  Jelly held the message by the corner like it would burst into flames. ”Looks like he sent it ‘bout 3 days ago from Carson City.  He says he got separated from Murdoch and Johnny and now he’s going out to find ‘em.”

“But Jelly, ain’t that good?”  Val was puzzled by Jelly’s reaction to the message.

Jelly drew a shuddering breath, “It’s what he ain’t sayin’ Val.  Like when they’ll be comin’ home, where he’s looking and how they got separated.”

“Jelly, there just so much ya can put in a telegram.  Murdoch and Johnny must be together.  And ya heard from Scott so ya know he’s OK.  It ain’t like you got bad news. More like ya just gotta wait to hear from ‘em again.” 

Jelly stood there slump shouldered, “That may be, it don’t matter much.  I gotta get back to Lancer and tell Teresa.  And Val, I just ain’t sure how I’ll give her this news.”

Val walked to the door with Jelly and watched his retreating form.  None of the sheriffs Val had wired had any news of Murdoch and Johnny and he knew just as Jelly did that Scott’s message left more questions than answers.   

Scott figured he had a few more hours of daylight before making camp for the night.  Another day, another fruitless search of these little towns.  More than once, he’d wondered how people lived like this.  So shut off from everything and everyone.  He remembered those questions from his trip to Lancer, first on the train and then the stage. So many miles of what seemed like barren country dotted with scattered towns and their ramshackle buildings and a few people. 

He was a city boy, accustomed to the bustle, the people, something to do around every corner.  He hadn’t really planned on staying.  But then he’s seen Lancer and knew the space, a sky that opened to the far horizons, filled a hole in his soul.  And he’d found a brother who filled a hole in his heart.  Yes, he could understand how people lived in these remote little towns.  Everyone probably had a different reason.  But all of them, they’d found a missing piece of themselves. 

Scott figured he wasted about half the day.  A bridge shown on the map had washed out, maybe had never even been there.  But now to get back to the trail and continue on he’d been backtracking most of the afternoon.  He pulled out the worn and creased map.  What route could he take to get to, what were the next little towns, Diablo, Crooked Shaft, Big Toms?  

What difference did it really make?  It seemed like Murdoch and Johnny had been swallowed up in the never-ending ridges and valleys in these mountains.  One name on the map caught his eye, Desolation.  That described everyplace he’d stopped, at least one town had the right name.   Tucker had said something about Desolation, what was it?  Scott thought back to that afternoon.  “Ain’t’ the most likely from what you told me about where ya left em, there’s some places closer but it’s worth checkin’ out.”

Tucker had said something else too.  Tucker had said Miss Lori seemed to attract strays.  Strays.  That described Johnny.  Scott looked at the map again.  He hadn’t had any luck with these other towns he’d searched.  Half an hour later, he reached the fork in the trail and kneed his horse in the direction of Desolation.  He’d camp soon.  He should make it to Desolation sometime tomorrow.  

He sat by the fire, nursing his coffee.  Maybe heading in this direction wasn’t the best move.  If he didn’t find Johnny and Murdoch he’d have to backtrack.  And he knew that soon he’d have to decide if it was time to head back to Lancer.  Over the crackling of the fire Scott heard a noise from the forest.  He quietly reached for his rifle sliding it from the scabbard and releasing the safety.  It was hard to imagine anyone else traveling out here.

“Hello the camp!”  From the dark of the trees emerged a giant of a man holding what looked like a long plank over one shoulder.  “I saw yer fire from a ways back.  I’m real surprised to find someone out here.  We don’t get many travelers, ‘specially this time a year.”  

Scott lowered the rifle a bit but had it ready at a moment’s notice.  

“Name’s John Thompson, but most folks hereabouts call me Snowshoe.”

Scott looked at the outstretched hand and the full smile; there was no threat here.  Putting aside the rifle.  “You’re welcome to the fire.  I think I’ve got another cup.  Would you like coffee?”

“That’d be welcome, getting’ mighty cold tonight.” 

Scott reached for the pot, “My name’s Scott.”

“Lancer.” finished Snowshoe.

Scott looked up in surprise.  “How did you know that?”

Snowshoe shook his head and smiled even wider. “I’ve been lookin’ fer ya.  Yer pa and brother are up in Desolation.”

Scott was on his feet instantly. “Johnny and Murdoch. How’s Johnny?”  

“He was real sick when I left, that was,” Snowshoe stopped for a moment, “Was four days back I left to go to Carson City.  Yer pa was gonna have me send a telegram to Reno to see if ya was there.  I can’t believe I finally caught up with ya.  I missed you in Carson City and….” 

Scott impatiently interrupted the tale, “Tell me about Johnny.  You said he was sick.”

“I found yer pa and brother up ta my cabin.  Yer brother’s leg was real bad and he was burnin’ up with fever.  I took ‘em down to Miss Lori’s.”  

<<Miss Lori’ who attracts strays.  Thank God she’d found them or that Murdoch and Johnny had found her.>>

“Miss Lori, she’s got a Chinese workin’ fer her who’s real good with herbs and medicines.  He’s been takin’ care of yer brother.  His leg was some better when I left, but he had a real bad cough and his fever was just getting’ higher all the time.  Yer pa between not knowin’ where you were and sittin’ with yer brother, he’s was real quiet, but ya could tell he was all torn up not knowin.”  

Scott was on his feet, pulling his saddle up.

“What ya doin’?”  Snowshoe watched.

“I’m going to find my brother!”  

“Lancer, it’s dark as a cave out.  You can’t try to ride on to Desolation tonight.”  Snowshoe walked across the camp to stand by Scott’s horse.  “Now that’d I’ve found you I can’t let ya go off.  Ya gotta wait until light.  You wait until morning and you’ll get into Desolation by mid-day.  Yer pa and brother, they’ll be waitin’ there.”

Scott started to argue but looked around and realized that as much as he wanted, he couldn’t try to travel by night.  It would be a fool’s errand.  Snowshoe was right.  Murdoch and Johnny would be in Desolation when he arrived.  

Murdoch listened to the sound of the rain slap against the window.  At least it wasn’t snow; he should be grateful for that.  He looked over to his sleeping son; Johnny had slept most of the afternoon.  <<I should wake him and get him to drink something.>>  There was tea and broth and water.  Murdoch sat by the bed and picked up the ever-present cloth, wrung it out in the cool water and began to wipe Johnny’s face.  The fever just wouldn’t break and Johnny seemed to be getting weaker.  

Murdoch caught the flicker of an eyelid and shifted slightly so Johnny would be able to see him when he woke.  

“You’ve had a good nap.  I’ve got some broth for you to drink.”  

Johnny looked at him with blank eyes until he finally nodded.  “Murdoch, we still here?”  

“We’re still at Miss Lori’s.  I don’t think we’ll be going anywhere too soon.”  

Johnny struggled, “But we gotta find Scott.  You shoulda left me here and gone lookin’ for Scott.”  

Every time Johnny woke, they had the same conversation.  Nothing Murdoch had been able to say had put his son’s mind at ease.  “Johnny.  Scott’s pretty self reliant.  He can make it on his own.”  Murdoch’s measured tone kept his fear for Scott from Johnny; at least he hoped it did.

“But Murdoch, Scott’s new to this country, he don’t know his way around.  He don’t know how to read the land and the skies.”  

“Johnny, give Scott some credit.  He’s been on his own before, he’ll make it back here to us.”  How could Murdoch ever explain to this son who’d always had to make it on his own that he was too scared to leave his side? 

“Let me help you sit up a bit and help you with this broth.’’  Murdoch went through the too familiar routine of helping Johnny sit up.  He was rewarded when Johnny took the mug from him and held it in fairly steady hands.  

“Murdoch.  You remember when we started out on this trip, I told you that if anything went wrong it would be your fault?  I was wrong.”  Johnny’s voice was deadly quiet.  “If anything happens to Scott it’s my fault.”  

Murdoch took the mug.  “Johnny, look at me.”  

Johnny finally turned his head to meet Murdoch’s eyes.

“Johnny, it isn’t your fault that an earthquake took out the railroad or that we ran into a winter storm or even that you caught your leg in a trap.  And it isn’t your fault that Scott went to get help.  That’s what families do son, they help each other.  You’d have done exactly the same thing for Scott.”    

Johnny sigh ended in a dry cough.  “Murdoch, that don’t change anything.  If Scott don’t come back it’s my fault.”  Johnny looked away and Murdoch watched as his son withdrew into himself.  

Scott impatiently waited for dawn to provide enough light to travel by.  It had seemed like the longest night of his life.  Longer even than some spent in Libby prison.  He had a reason for wanting the day to come and it made this night all the longer.  He’d saddled his horse almost by touch as he waited for the light.  Snowshoe had awakened early and started a pot of coffee.  

“You just follow this trail.  There’s a bend to the left maybe two hours ride on, take that and just stay on the trail.  It takes you right into Desolation.”  

So she don’t worry, you tell Miss Lori I’ll be along, maybe another day after you get there.  

“Thank you.”  Scott held out his hand.  “And I’ll see you when you get into town.” 

Snowshoe watched Scott mount and direct his horse on the trail to Desolation.  <<You hurry son, your brother needs you.>>

“Murdoch?”  Lori looked up as Murdoch walked into the saloon’s kitchen.  

“Johnny seems to be sleeping.”  Murdoch sat, shoulder slumping with weariness.  “His fever went up during the night.  He sounds as congested as he was before Sammy tried the steam treatments.  I don’t know how much more he can take.”

Lori heard the quiver in Murdoch’s voice.  She wasn’t sure how much more he had left to give either.  He’d barely left Johnny’s side and when he had it was for only a few hours at a time.  

Lori walked across the room and sat beside Murdoch.  “Jonas is fixing some flapjacks for breakfast.  Why don’t you stay here and get something to eat and then get some rest.  I’ll see what Sammy might be able to fix for that fever and then sit with Johnny for a bit.”  

“No, I’ll be up as soon as I get some coffee.”

“Murdoch, we’ve had this conversation before.  You aren’t doing Johnny any good by wearing yourself out.  You promise me you’ll have some breakfast and then rest for a least a few hours.  I’ll call if Johnny needs you.”

Murdoch nodded wearily, a tired smile there and gone.  “I’ve learned not to argue with you.”  He’d try to rest but the images of his sons disappearing behind a Lancer ridge came to him whenever he tried to sleep.  

Lori found Sammy in the kitchen.  “Sammy, Murdoch doesn’t rest even when I make him leave Johnny.  I don’t suppose you have potion you might be able to give him?”

Sammy stopped stirring the small pan on the cookstove.  “I know of such potions, but I do not know how to make them.  There are herb teas I can make that may ease his mind and let him rest.  I will make one and take it to him in a short time.  I have made another tea for Johnny.  You will take it to him?”  

“Oh, Sammy, I don’t know how I’d manage without you.  I am so blessed that you’re here.”  

Sammy smiled at the notes of fondness in her voice and watched as she placed the pot of tea and a mug on a tray. 

<<No Miss Lori, it is I who am blessed.  If you had not found me and taken me in I do not know what would have happened to me.>>

Johnny heard his father’s footsteps fade as he descended the stairs.  No one was with him.  He couldn’t really remember the last time he’d been alone.  Now was his chance.  He saw his clothes, at least a shirt and pants, hanging on pegs by the door.  All he had to do was get over to them, get dressed and then he could go and try to find Scott.  No one else was.  One thing at a time, he swung his right leg off the bed.  Swung wasn’t the right word, it dropped with a thud to the floor.  Johnny bit back the cry of pain that welled in his chest and stopped, gasping for breath.  OK, now to try and sit up.  He gripped the quilts and tried to pull himself upright but was only half successful when the door opened.

Lori was quietly opening the door to Johnny’s room and nearly dropped the tray she carried as she rushed to the bed.  “Johnny Lancer!  What in heaven’s name do you think you are doing?”  She’d crossed the room in two steps and quickly pushed Johnny back against the pillows and gently lifted his leg back onto the bed.  The dressing was still dry; at least it hadn’t started bleeding again.

“I gotta try and find Scott.”  Johnny gasped.  “Murdoch ain’t lookin’ for him and somebody has to.”  

Lori sat on the edge of the bed and grasped Johnny’s hand in hers, “Johnny, your papa has set by your side just prayin’ over every breath you take and I can see in his eyes how worried he is that your brother hasn’t gotten here yet.  That last thing your papa needs now is you pullin’ any foolishness like trying to get out of this bed.”

Johnny leaned back, what little strength he’d had already spent.  “He should have gone after Scott.”  

Lori reached over and pulled the quilt around Johnny’s shoulders as he started to shiver.  “Darlin’, we sent one of the men out a few days back to find your brother.  He’s checking some camps and then headin’ to Carson City to send a telegram to Reno.  You don’t worry now. He’ll be found.”

“Now I’ve got some of Sammy’s tea here.  I’m going to help you drink all of this and we’ll see about getting this fever back down.”  

“Are you gonna tell Murdoch I was getting’ out of bed?”  Johnny’s voice was barely above a whisper

“If you promise me you’ll stay in this bed, I don’t think there’s any need to tell your papa.”  Johnny could hear a hint of merriment in her voice.  “Promise?”  

Johnny nodded in agreement and rewarded Lori with a faint shadow of a smile.  Lori had seen enough smiles to know that in other circumstances, that smile would have lit the dim corners of the room and warmed an empty heart.  “Good, now that we have an understanding, let’s see if you can drink this tea.”  Lori gently lifted Johnny’s head and held the mug to his lips.   

Murdoch woke with a start.  He’d slept, he wasn’t sure how long.  The tea Sammy had given him; there’d been no dreams to disturb his sleep, but he couldn’t say he felt refreshed.  More like a thirsty man getting a taste of water, he wanted more.   Nothing more than to sleep and when he woke to have this nightmare over; to be at Lancer with his sons.  Murdoch wearily shook his head, crossed the room and splashed cold water on his face.  Maybe a little after mid-day.  Stretching to ease the crick in his back, he crossed the hall to Johnny’s room.  

His hope that Johnny would show some improvement was dashed.  If anything he seems worse.  Even sitting high on pillows Johnny was fighting for every breath.  Sammy and Lori sat at either side of the bed.  Sammy looked up when Murdoch walked into the room; his eyes meeting the questions written on Murdoch’s face.   

Lori rose from her perch at Johnny’s side.  “Murdoch, I was going to wake you.”  

Murdoch crossed to the bed and took the spot she’d just vacated. Johnny’s eyes were partly open but glazed and distant. 

“Johnny.”  Murdoch’s voice was soft; it was for one person only.

It seemed like an eternity before Johnny focused on Murdoch.  “Old Man, can we go home now? Johnny’s words broken by gasping breaths.  ”I remember you promised we’d get home.”   

Murdoch remembered back to the night they’d first come here when he’d held Johnny in his arms while Sammy worked on his leg and the promise he’d made to his son.  A promise Johnny would now hold him to.    

“Murdoch.  Can Sammy and I talk with you?”  Lori motioned to join them in the hall.  

“Mr. Murdoch. There is much fluid collecting in Johnny’s chest.  I do not think there is anything more I can do. I have listened to his chest and I think it is his heart.  It is weak from the fever and the infection in his leg.  I do not have any medicines for this.”

Murdoch felt his world start to slip away.  “Is there anything…?

Lori heard the anguish in his voice.  “Sometimes there’s a doctor in Placerville.  They come and go.  But if there’s one there now, he might be able to help.”

Murdoch nodded.  “That’s on the way to Lancer and I’ve promised Johnny I’ll take him home.  It’s about a day, maybe a day and a half by wagon to Placerville?”

Lori nodded in agreement.  “Yes, about that.  It’s too late to leave today.  We could get the wagon ready so we could leave at first light.”  

Murdoch looked at her.  “We?”

“Murdoch, we couldn’t let you leave alone.  Sammy and I will come along to help take care of Johnny.”

“Thank you.  Thank you for everything you’ve done.  There’s no way I can ever repay your kindness and your care of Johnny.”

“There’s time enough for that later, Murdoch.  Right now, we’ve still got to take care of Johnny and get him to that doctor in Placerville.  Sammy and I will start getting some supplies together so we can leave at first light.  You just go sit with Johnny.”

Murdoch walked the few feet back to Johnny’s bed, sitting at his side.  “Johnny, Miss Lori and Sammy have decided they’ve got you well enough that they’ll trust the doctor in Placerville take care of you now.”  Murdoch tried to keep his voice light, but Johnny’s look told him he hadn’t been able to pull off the bluff.

“We’ll leave for Placerville in the morning.  It’s on the way home and we’ll leave word for Scott so he’ll know where to find us.”  Murdoch continued more for his benefit than Johnny’s.  ”We’ll have to see the doc there and then head on home.   It just a few more days I’ll have you back at Lancer.   Teresa’ll want to bake you a cake and Barranca will be restless for a hard ride.  Sam’ll have something to say about that of course.”

He stopped as Johnny laid his hand on Murdoch’s arm.  “It’ll be good to get home.  I bet Scott’s waiting for us, wondering where we’ve gone.  Now, if you don’t mind, I’m a little tired and maybe takin’ a nap’ll help.”  Murdoch watched as Johnny drifted to sleep, wondering whose bluff he was trying to call.

The sun was just starting to dip in the western sky when Scott road into Desolation.  A few rundown buildings; at least the town’s name was an apt description.  He stopped his horse in front of the saloon and swung to the ground.  Just a few more steps and he’d find Johnny.   He opened the door and saw a woman carrying a tray crossing the room.  It had to be Miss Lori.  

“Ma’am, I’m Scott Lan..”

“Scott!  Thank God you’re here.  Your papa’s upstairs with your brother.  Just up the stairs and to the left.”  

Scott nodded and took the stairs two at a time.  

“Miss Lori.”  Sammy was out of breath he was so excited.  “I have looked through the journals and notes my father left to me.  I may have found a medicine that will help Johnny.  I must tell Mr. Murdoch.”  He started up the stairs.  

Lori held out a hand to stop him.  “Not right now, Sammy, I think the best medicine Johnny could have just went up those stairs.”


Part 15

Murdoch didn’t know how much longer he could sit by Johnny’s side, watching as he slipped away from him.  No, he couldn’t lay that claim.  Johnny had been gone for so long and since he’d come back, come home, Murdoch hadn’t made it easy for him.  He knew sometimes he pushed too hard to try to make Johnny fit into the image he had of him and when he did the great room vibrated with their arguments.  He looked again at Johnny’s quiet form.  Sometimes he’d see the laughing toddler he remembered and other times the gunfighter with the cold and lonely eyes.  And now he wouldn’t get a chance to know which one, which combination, was his son. 

Murdoch leaned forward to take Johnny’s hand in his, so cold now, still, almost frail.  He gently rubbed Johnny’s hand, trying to return some warmth.  To try to hold on a little longer.   He heard the footsteps, heavier than usual.  Maybe it’s Snowshoe with some news of Scott.  <<God, please let Scott be safe.  I don’t think I could go on if I lost both these boys.>>  He turned at the creak of the door. 



The names were mingled as Murdoch rose and Scott crossed the room. “Son, thank God!”  Murdoch’s voice broke as he enclosed Scott in a tight embrace.  

“Murdoch, it took me so long to find you.”  Scott looked over Murdoch’s shoulder to where Johnny lay.

“Johnny.”  Scott untangled himself from his father’s embrace and dropped to Johnny’s side.  “Hey, little brother.  I should have known I’d…”  Scott stopped, realized he was holding his breath until he finally saw the shallow rise of Johnny’s chest.  He turned to Murdoch, who stood gripping the back of a chair as if for support.  

Murdoch saw the anguish in Scott’s face and the questions in his eyes.  “He was a little better until last night, then his fever went up again.  Sammy said his heart’s weak from all he’s been through.”   He stopped and took a shuddering breath, “And there’s nothing more he can do.”  

Murdoch crossed to the other side of the bed and brushed the hair from Johnny’s fevered face.  “The last time he was awake, he asked me to take him home.  He must have known you were coming.  I’d promised him that once you’d gotten here, I’d take him home.”

Scott heard the quiver in Murdoch’s voice, saw his shoulders tremble, but all his attention was focused on Johnny.  No, this couldn’t really be Johnny.  This still pale figure.  He thought of touring Europe, of carved effigies he’d seen of long-dead saints in their cold silent tombs.  No!  This was Johnny and he wasn’t letting him go that easily.  Murdoch may have given up but he wouldn’t.  And he wouldn’t believe that Johnny had either. 

“Murdoch, there has to be something we can do.  I don’t know who Sammy is, but there’s got to be a doctor around.  We can’t just give up.”

“Scott, I haven’t given up, but he’s so weak, he’s fought so hard.  I’m not sure how much more I can ask of him.”

“Murdoch, if you’ve learned anything in the last year, you’ve learned enough about Johnny to know that no matter what you ask, he’ll do his best to get it done.  This isn’t any different.”   Scott sighed and turned back to grip Johnny’s hand and hope for some response. 

Murdoch nodded silently.  He marveled again at how much these two boys, men, had learned about the other in this year.  Things he hadn’t learned.  Learned yet, he hoped.  Please give me the time to get to know Johnny, both of them, better.  His thoughts were interrupted by a light knock on the door.  

Lori and Sammy stood at the threshold.  “Murdoch, we don’t want to disturb you and your son but….”   Lori’s glance took in Scott, but she kept her eyes on Murdoch.  

“Scott, this is Miss Lori, Lori Garrett, and Shuai Xeuzhong, known as Sammy.  They’ve been helping me taking care of Johnny.  Sammy, this is….”  

Lori held up a hand to cut off the introductions.  “Murdoch, Sammy has something you need to know.”  

Sammy looked to Miss Lori for support, she nodded her encouragement.  “Mr. Murdoch, I have read my father’s notes on medicines.  He wrote of a medicine for the heart that would make it stronger.”  

“Sammy, do you have this medicine?”  Murdoch grabbed onto that hope like a man over a cliff would grab a rope.  

“I have the leaves of the plant, the foxglove.  But I have read his directions; this is not an easy medicine to make.  The leave must first be boiled and then rinsed in another solution to make the tincture that is given.”  Sammy nodded and smiled, “But yes, I can make the medicine.”  Sammy held up his hand.  “But what is even more difficult is to know what dose to use.  My father wrote that a small dose could make one person even more ill, but the same amount would not help another person.  He did not know why this happened, if it was the medicine or something about the person.”

Sammy had stopped speaking.  Murdoch looked up.  “There’s more?”

“My father wrote that some of the people who took the medicine and became more ill did not live.  He could not be sure it was not the medicine that caused this and so he did not use it often.”    

“Sammy, thank you.  I’d like to talk with Scott before I decide.”  

“I understand.  I will wait to hear what you would like me to do.”  

“Murdoch, if there’s a doctor in Placerville, we’d be better off getting Johnny there as soon as we can.  I’m sure Sammy means well, but Johnny needs a doctor.”

“Scott.” Murdoch’s voice was quiet and gentle “It’s almost two days to Placerville.  Johnny doesn’t have two days.  Maybe if we can get him to take a few doses of Sammy’s medicine and he, he doesn’t get worse, then we can leave for Placerville.”  

“Then I’ll go to Placerville.  It’s probably less than a day’s ride, I’ll bring the doctor back.”  Scott began to step towards the door.

“NO!”  Murdoch roared his answer.    

Scott stopped, stunned by the vehemence of his father’s voice.

“No.  Every time Johnny’s been awake and coherent, he asked where you were, pleaded with me to go find you.  And when his fever’s been up, he’d call for you.”  Murdoch reached out to pull Scott back to his side.  “He needs you here. He needs to be able to hang on for you.  If anyone should ride to Placerville, it’s me.”

Scott’s voice was as quiet as Murdoch’s last words.  “And you know you can’t go.”

Murdoch nodded.  “So it seems like our only option is to try Sammy’s new medicine.  I’ll go tell him.”  

Scott watched as Murdoch left the room.  Sighing, he returned to sit on the side of Johnny’s bed, brushing the errant hair out of his eyes, “Well, little brother, there’s some new medicine for you to take.  Time to get you well enough to go home.  I think Teresa’s getting a little tired of you coming home all banged up.”  But looking at the still figure, Scott wondered if they’d just signed Johnny’s death sentence. 

Murdoch found Sammy in the saloon’s kitchen; Sammy looked up from the cookstove expectantly.  “Sammy, I’ve trusted you with Johnny’s life.  Nothing that’s happened has changed that.  I, Scott and I, want you to try the new medicine.” 

Sammy smiled softly.  “I did not know what your decision would be, but if you said yes, I would be ready.  I have started to prepare the foxglove leaves.  From my father’s instructions, it will be a few hours more.  And I have read my father’s later notes.  He found that there were fewer bad effects if the medicine is given often in small doses.  I will bring it to you when it is ready.  Sammy turned again to the stove.  Miss Lori and I, we have also made some stew.  She thought you and your son would be hungry.  I can serve it soon if you would like.”  

Murdoch hadn’t realized how hungry he was.  He wasn’t sure how long it had been since he’d taken the time to have a decent meal.   “If you don’t mind, Sammy, I’ll take a couple of plates of stew up to Johnny’s room.  Scott’s been on the trail for days, he’ll be hungry too.”  

The plates had been wiped clean and set aside, coffee poured.  And now Scott and Murdoch sat with Johnny, both weary beyond words but not willing to leave his side.  They talked of their experiences since they’d parted what seemed like so long ago, of Johnny making his way from the cabin to find Scott. 

 “That’s when I realized I had to get some help.  I’d only been gone a few minutes and yet I almost couldn’t find him in the snow.  So when Snowshoe came and told me about Desolation, I didn’t have any choice, I needed to get Johnny to where there was someone to help.”  

Scott told of meeting Franklin and his sons and finding the cabin empty. “I hoped you’d found a way to get Johnny to a doctor.”

Murdoch talked about Miss Lori and Sammy and Snowshoe.  “They’ve taken really good care of him, us.”

“Snowshoe found me and told me you and Johnny were here.  I was on my way here anyhow.  Tucker, Ben Cartwright introduced us, said he didn’t think it was a likely place.  But then he said Miss Lori attracted strays.  I thought of Johnny.”  

Murdoch stood to stretch his back.  He pulled the curtain aside.  The night was black, clouds covered the moon and stars.  He let the curtain fall back in place, at least there was light and warmth in this room tonight.  

“Mr. Murdoch.  The medicine is ready.”  Sammy stood in the door with a small cup.  “We will give him two spoons now and then one every other hour until it is light.  And then we will see if he is better.”  

“Let’s see if we can wake him up enough to get it down without choking on it.”  Murdoch bent to lift Johnny higher on the pillows.  “Johnny.”  Murdoch gently caressed his cheek.  “Johnny, Sammy’s got some medicine for you.”  

He waited and was rewarded when Johnny’s eyes flickered open and finally focused.  “Hey Murdoch, I had a dream.  Dreamt Scott was here.”

“It wasn’t a dream, Johnny.  Scott’s right here.”  Scott exchanged places with his father and took Johnny’s hand in his. 

“Took me a while to find the two of you.  You’ve been resting here, being waited on hand and foot, and I’ve been on the trail.”    

“Trail, you OK Scott?  I told Murdoch that…”  Johnny’s voice trailed off in a dry cough. 

“Shh.  Now that I’m here, I’m just fine.  We just have to get you well now.  There’s some new medicine here.”  

“No, no more tea.  I’ve had enough tea to float a raft.”

Scott reached out with his free hand to take the medicine Sammy had ready. “Then you’re in luck, Johnny.  You only have to take a couple of swallows of this medicine.  Here you go, just a couple of swallows.”  

Johnny grimaced at the taste.  “Tastes like you boiled up some weeds.  Makes a man ‘ppreciate Val’s coffee.”  

That elicited a chuckle from Scott.  “Then I’m sure glad it’s you taking this ‘cause you know I can’t stand Val’s coffee.”

Johnny’s eyes started to slide shut.  “Stay with me a little longer, Johnny.  I’ve got something here for you to drink.  

“No more tea.  I can’t drink any more of that tea.”  There was just a little of Johnny’s obstinance in his voice enough to bring a smile to Scott’s face.  

“Then you’re in for a treat.  Lori’s got some cold buttermilk.”  Scott reached for the glass Lori set on the bedside table.    

Murdoch moved behind Johnny to lift him higher on the pillows.   Johnny felt strong arms lift him and tried to look around to their source.  “Murdoch, that you?”  

“Right here, son.” 

“Murdoch, I had a dream Scott was here.”  Johnny’s simple statement wiped the smile from Scott’s face.  

“Johnny,” Murdoch said with infinite patience, “It isn’t a dream, Scott’s right here; he’s got some buttermilk for you to drink.  And he’s not going anywhere.  He’s going to stay right here with you.”

While Scott patiently helped Johnny drink the buttermilk, sip by sip with minutes to rest in between, Murdoch motioned to Sammy to join him in the hall.

“Sammy, how will you know this medicine is helping?”    

“His heart will be slower but stronger.  And his breathing will ease.”  

Murdoch glanced back into the room to his two sons.  “And how will you know if he’s had too much?”  

“His heart will slow too much and his blood will not,” Sammy stopped trying to find the right words, “move in his veins.”

“When will you know?”  

Sammy shook his head.  “That is what I do not know.  There is not a way to tell how long it takes the medicine to work, so it is possible to give more than is needed.  That is why we will give it in small doses.  It will take longer to work, but it will make smaller the chance of giving too much.”

Murdoch had hoped for more but would settle for what the hope Sammy had given him.  He walked back into Johnny’s room.  With Scott’s patient help, Johnny had almost finished the buttermilk.  Murdoch smiled as he reached down to wipe away some that had dribbled down his chin.  “We should let you get some sleep now.  We’ll wake you when it’s time for more ‘boiled weeds.’” 

“Sir, why don’t you try to get some sleep.  I’ll stay here with Johnny if that’s OK with him.”  Scott reached to adjust the pillows behind Johnny and straighten the quilts.  

“Well,” Scott heard a hint of Johnny’s mischievous drawl, “Miss Lori’s better lookin’ that either of you, but I guess Scott’ll have to do.”

Murdoch had retreated to his room to get some rest.  Listening through the open door to Scott as he sat with Johnny and talked the night away had finally lulled him to sleep.  He woke to the dim morning light and the sound of rain on the roof.  He didn’t feel rested but at least his sleep hadn’t been disturbed by the dream of his sons.  He splashed cold water on his face, felt the stubble and knew he should shave, but that could wait.  He crossed the hall to find Lori standing at the door. 

“Shh, they’re both asleep.”  He looked past her to see Scott stretched out beside Johnny; one hand laid lightly on his arm. 

“It’s like they’re two sides of the same coin.  It must have been a joy watching them grow up.”

Lori stopped at Murdoch’s deep sigh.  “I didn’t get to see them grow into men.  They’ve only been home about a year now.  Scott’s mother died when he was born.  His grandfather took him to Boston to live.  Johnny was born at Lancer.  He was full of mischief from the moment he was born.  He was fearless even then.”  Lori smiled at the fondness she heard in Murdoch’s voice. “Maria, his mother, left when he was two.  She took him away from me.  I tried for so long to find them.  I always knew Scott was safe, cared for – but I never knew where Johnny was until it was almost too late.  

“But they both came when I needed them.”  Murdoch smiled.  “They didn’t know the other existed, but they’ve formed a bond in such a short time.  Like they were always missing a part of themselves.”  He shook his head.  “I don’t know what Scott’ll do if anything happens to Johnny.”  

“Murdoch, you’ve got them now and they’ve got each other.  You can’t change what’s past.  I’ve learned that and I think you have too.  You just make do with what you’ve got.”  Lori stopped to take a breath. “And you’ve got so much with those two boys.  You may not have had them when they were babies, but you do now.  And from the looks of them, they’re as full of mischief as when they were little.”

“Lori, you’re a wise woman.  Sometimes I forget how blessed I am that they came home and that they stayed.  They didn’t have to.  They’re both independent men and I’m used to calling the tune.  We’ve butted heads more than a few times, especially Johnny and me.  But they stayed and I’m learning.  I just hope I have time with them to learn more.”      

“Good morning.”  Sammy came up the stairs carrying a tray.  “I have brought fresh coffee and I have a custard sweetened with honey for Johnny.  Mr. Scott said he has a tooth that is sweet.”  

Murdoch chuckled as he heard the puzzled tone in Sammy’s voice.  “Is it time for Johnny to have the medicine?”

“I do not know.”  Sammy continued as he saw a concerned look darken Murdoch’s face.  “I will listen to his heart and his breathing and then I can answer that question.”

Lori took the tray from Sammy as he went to Johnny’s side.  From where he stood at the foot of Johnny’s bed, Murdoch thought Johnny looked a little better.  He was still so pale but not the gray pallor of yesterday,but his breathing didn’t seem as labored.  

Sammy bent and gently placed his ear to Johnny’s chest as he listened to Johnny’s heartbeat and breathing.  Murdoch watched while Sammy examined his son.  Sammy felt Johnny’s forehead and then sat still at his side before turning to face Murdoch.

“His heart is not beating as fast as it was and it is more strong and he does not work so hard to breath.  I will continue to give the medicine but not so often now. 

Lori squeezed Murdoch’s arm.  “Murdoch, I’m so happy he’s better.” 

Murdoch more forward to take Sammy’s place, but Sammy hadn’t moved.  “Sammy?”

“His fever is still very high.  I had hoped it would go down when his breathing was better.  I think now the fever is from his leg.”

He heard voices around him, but he was so tired.  It had been so long since he’d gotten a good night’s sleep.  He began to realize he’d fallen asleep listening to Johnny breath.  Johnny!  Scott woke with a start to find Murdoch, Lori and Sammy clustered by Johnny’s side. 


“He’s a little better this morning son.  Sammy said his heart’s stronger.  But his fever hasn’t gone down.  Sammy thinks it might be his leg.  We’ve been so worried about his heart we forgot about his leg.” 

Scott slid off the bed and followed Lori’s nod to find the tray of fresh coffee.  Sammy was already pushing the quilts aside to uncover Johnny’s injured leg.  

Lori turned toward the door.  “Sammy, I’ll get hot water and fresh bandages and more of your salve.”

Murdoch moved to Sammy’s side.  “I’ll hold his leg so you can get the old dressings off.”  Scott moved back to where he’d lain to take Johnny’s hand.

Sammy gently removed the old dressings.  The gashes from the trap’s jaws were still red but were beginning to heal.  Sammy leaned forward.  “There is no smell of infection and there is no pus.”  He gently felt along Johnny’s leg.  “Ah, but here…”, his hand was on Johnny’s calf.  “It is too hot and swollen.  I think there is infection here in his leg.”  

“Can you do anything, Sammy?”  Murdoch’s voice was a mixture of fear and hope.

Sammy shrugged, “I cannot.  If there is infection deep in his leg it is a surgeon who will have the skill to open and drain it.  I can do no more.”

Murdoch stood and looked out the window at the rain filled sky.  “Then we’ll have to leave for Placerville.”

Scott joined Murdoch by the window.  “Murdoch, we can’t take Johnny out in this weather.  He’s so weak… the rain and cold.  He’ll …”  Scott looked away helplessly.  

“Scott, you heard Sammy.  He needs a doctor.  We don’t have a choice.”    

Too many days of worry and endless haunted nights erupted.  “And if you’d tried to get him to a doctor sooner.  But no, you stayed here and he’s just gotten worse and worse and now…and now.”  Scott stopped, his breathing ragged.  “Murdoch, if anything…”  Murdoch saw the helpless rage in Scott’s eyes.  “I’ll never…”  

“Scott.  Scott.”  Johnny’s sleepy voice interrupted them.  “You and Murdoch buttin’ heads over somethin’?”

“Hey there, you’ve had a good sleep.”  Scott’s voice sounded shaky even to him.  “How are you feeling this morning?”

“Kinda puny Boston.  If it’s ok with you, I’m gonna get some more sleep and feel better when I wake up.”

Scott heard Murdoch’s strangled cry and saw him rush from the room.  Scott knew how he felt.  It had never made any difference; after the fight with Pardee, a too hard fall, a saloon brawl, Johnny was always “fine”.  But not this time and it broke Scott’s heart.

Murdoch had pushed past Lori as he’d left Johnny’s room.  Even in his absence, she could sense the tension in the room.  She handed Sammy the supplies she’d brought.  “Scott, why don’t you help Sammy with these bandages and I’ll see to your father.” 

Lori found him slumped at a table, his head cradled in his hands, shoulders trembling.  “Murdoch, there’s nothing…”

Murdoch rose abruptly and pushed away from the table.  “We need to leave for Placerville as soon as we can.  I’ll go see to the wagon.”


He stopped and turned back.  Lori’s voice caught at the look of anguish in his face and she knew no words of sympathy would help now.  “There’s a supply of tarps in the tack room.  They’ll help keep Johnny dry.”

Preparations to leave went quickly.  A soft mattress and quilts cushioned the wagon bed.  Sammy packed medicines and Lori packed other supplies.  

Murdoch took a deep breath and walked up the stairs.  “Scott, we’re ready.  It’s time to move Johnny.”

Scott straightened and nodded.  “Hey Johnny, time to get you out of this bed.  We’re taking you to Placerville to see the doc there.  He’s probably not like Sam.  You won’t be able to sweet talk him into letting you up before it’s time.”  But if Johnny’d heard there was no sign.  

Together Murdoch and Scott carried Johnny down the stairs to the waiting wagon and helped Lori settle him in.  Scott saddled his horse then stood by its side, staring down the road.  “I’ll ride for a while.  Lori and Sammy’ll stay with Johnny.”

“Scott.”  Murdoch reached out, but Scott abruptly mounted and pulled away.

The rain let up a few hours after they’d started out.  The travelers settled into a routine of stopping every hour to wake Johnny and try to get him to drink the water and buttermilk Lori had packed and Sammy to give him the medicine.  And to get cold water to help fight his fever.  

As the day wore on Lori noticed Murdoch and Scott had spoken to each other only when necessary; she felt the distance growing between them.  “Sammy, I don’t know what we’re going to do with the two of them.”

“They are both very worried about Johnny.  They will find their way back to each other for him.”

“For Johnny’s sake, I hope you’re right.”

Night was drawing in as they pulled into a clearing by a stream.  Scott dismounted.  “I’ll gather some wood and get a fire going.” 

Murdoch nodded as he began to unhitch the team.  

The fire was beginning to warm the clearing.  Lori had started to heat beans and biscuits and warm broth for Johnny.

“Lori, I’m going to tend my horse.  I’ll be back in a few minutes.”  Scott unsaddled his horse and let it to the stream.  He heard Murdoch come up behind him.  

“You’ve barely said a word all day Scott.”    

He absently ran his hand up and down the horse’s neck. “I’ve just been thinking.  He turned to face his father.  “Murdoch.  If anything happens to Johnny I’ll…” 

Scott stopped as he saw Murdoch stiffen.  Murdoch turned to face his son and as quickly turned away.  “I know.  Never forgive me for not getting him to help sooner.  You don’t have to worry.  I’ll never be able to forgive myself.  

Scott placed his hand on Murdoch’s shoulder.  “No Murdoch, that I’ll always regret leaving the two of you.  I should have stayed.  We could have figured out a way to stay together and get help.”  

Their voices carried to where Johnny lay in the back of the wagon.  “What are Scott and Murdoch talkin’ about?” 

“I do not know.”  Sammy couldn’t meet Johnny’s eyes.

“Sammy, you’re as bad a liar as Murdoch.  I figure they’re arguin’ about what’s gonna happen when they get back to Lancer.

“What would that be?”  Lori climbed into the wagon, a steaming cup of broth in her hand.  She hadn’t missed Johnny’s use of they instead of we.

Johnny sighed, “I figure Scott won’t stay at Lancer.  He’s a city boy and I ain’t sure how Murdoch is gonna handle him leavin.”

“Johnny Lancer, that’s foolishness.  What both of them will be doing when you all get back home is taking care of you.  Now I’ve got some nice broth here and you’re going to drink all of it.  Sammy’s right here to make sure of that.”  Sammy took the cup from her hand and nodded.  “And I’m going to tell your papa and bother that the beans are ready.”  

Lori approached the two men, feeling the tension between the two of them.  “The two of you have got to stop this carrying on right now.  You’re wasting your breath and your time blaming yourselves.  What happened happened and there’s no changing it.  That boy is frightened and needs both of you and he doesn’t need either of you wasting any time on feeling sorry for yourselves.”  Lori stopped, out of breath.

“Johnny’s not frightened.  He always faces everything head on.”  

“On Murdoch, you’re so wrong.  Johnny’s afraid, maybe more for the two of you than himself.  He just has the kind of courage to look that fear in the eye and move past it.  It doesn’t mean he isn’t afraid.  And I hope both of you have some of that same courage ‘cause he needs that from you right now.  What he needs is both of you to be with him.  His fever’s up and I’m afraid it’s going to be a long night.”

Lori was right.  Johnny’s fever built through the night.  The cool water they bathed him with did little to help.  Murdoch and Scott spent the night holding him as he battled the alternating delirium and chills.  Dawn didn’t come soon enough.

Scott harnessed the team.  “Murdoch, why don’t you stay in the back with Johnny and Miss Lori.    I’ll take the team, Sammy can ride up here with me for a while.”  

Murdoch looked at Scott with gratitude, more time with Johnny.  The day went much as the previous night as they tried to battle Johnny’s fever, a battle they seemed to be losing.  In the waning afternoon, Johnny lay in his father’s arms, too exhausted to fight anymore.    

Darkness had fallen before they arrived in Placerville.  As they pulled into town, Scott yelled to a man on the boardwalk, “Is there a doctor in town?”

“Yep, got a new one in town a while back.  His office is the third building past the bell tower, there on the right.”  

Scott guided the wagon and stopped in front of the office.  The sign on the door said Thomas Blair, MD.  Scott jumped from the wagon box and made his way to the doctor’s door; pounding on it in frustration when he found it locked. He knew it was only minutes, but the time seemed like the longest hours until the door opened.  

“I’m Dr. Blair.  Is there…” but he looked beyond Scott.  

Scott turned to see Murdoch behind him, cradling Johnny in his arms.  “My son’s very ill.  He needs a doctor.”


Part 16

“Get him inside now.”  Tom Blair pushed back from the door to give Murdoch room to bring Johnny into the small building, Scott on his heels.  “There’s an examination room this way.” He led the way across the empty waiting room.  

Murdoch gently laid Johnny on the stark table in the center of the room.  Scott instinctively reached to pull the quilt wrapping Johnny, tighter around his chest.  Scott brushed his cheek, to assure himself Johnny was hanging on. 

Blair lit the lamps in the room then turned toward the two men.  They were both unkempt, stubble shadowed their cheeks, dark hollows under their eyes.  Miners?  No, not the way they were dressed.  

He walked past Murdoch and Scott to a cabinet to gather supplies he thought he’d need.  He’d glanced at the boy they were hovering around and was appalled by the condition he appeared to be in.  “What happened and when?” he snapped.

“It’s been almost two weeks.”  Murdoch wearily began to relate the events leading up to their arrival at the doctor’s office.  

Lori and Sammy had followed Murdoch into the office and quietly stood at the door to the exam room as Murdoch answered the doctor’s questions.  Tom looked up, seeing them for the first time.

“You’re Sammy?”

“Yes. I am called Sammy.”

“What have you been using to treat him?”

Sammy described the various herbs he’d used in the salve on Johnny’s leg, the teas, the tincture of foxglove leaves.  Tom listened without comment only nodding occasionally as Sammy recited his treatment for Johnny. 

“Alright, Mr., I’m sorry, I haven’t even asked your name.”

“Lancer, Murdoch and this is my son Scott.“  And as he gently stroked the dark hair, “And this is my son Johnny.”

“Mr. Lancer, I need to examine your son.  If everyone will wait in the waiting room.”  

Almost in one voice Murdoch and Scott responded, “No, I’ll stay with Johnny.”

The doctor looked at them and saw two men who both looked as though they had reached the end of their rope.  He knew if made them leave, they’d lose their grip on the only thing holding them together, this very sick boy lying on his exam table. 

“I don’t usually have family stay, but in this case, I’m going to need some help so I can examine my patient.  If you’ll just follow my directions.”

It was Scott who helped the most.  Murdoch sat cradling Johnny’s limp hand in his.  He watched as the doctor lifted Johnny’s eyelids, listened to his heart and breathing, then removed the dressing and examined his leg.  Both Scott and Murdoch watched the doctor’s face to see if there was any indication of what he thought, but he’d kept his counsel.  

“Why don’t you stay here with your son.  I’d like to review a few references.”  Tom quickly turned and left the room.

There was a soft tap at the door.  “Murdoch, we saw the doctor leave.  Did he..?”

“No Lori, he didn’t say anything.  He wants to check some references.”

There was so little she could do now.  “Sammy and I will take the wagon to the livery and go to a hotel I know and get a couple of rooms.”

Murdoch absently nodded, “Thank you.  Scott and I will be here waiting for the doctor.”

Scott followed Lori and Sammy back to the waiting room. “Lori, would you find out if there’s a telegraph office and when it opens.  I need to send a telegram to Lancer.  It’s been,” Scott stopped and thought back on the travel and days since he’d been in Carson City.  He shook his head, “It’s been a week since I sent the last message.  They must be out of their minds with worry.”       

Lori laid a gentle hand on Scott’s arm.  “Darlin’, he’ll be fine.  Johnny’s made it this far. You’ll take him home.  You just have to trust in that.  Now you go be with your papa.  Sammy and I’ll be back as soon as we can.”

Scott returned to the exam room and found Murdoch with Johnny much as he’s left them.  Murdoch was softly reciting something in a sing-song sort of voice.  Scott listened, it wasn’t Spanish.  He looked at Murdoch with a raised eyebrow.  Murdoch half smiled and continued, finally, “It’s just an old Scottish poem, tales of highland warriors.  I’d forgotten I used to recite to Johnny when he was a toddler.”  

The recitation ended and it was quiet, a clock ticking, the sounds of a horse passing by, sounds of the town as it settled for the night.  Scott heard the office front door open and close and knew Lori and Sammy had come back, but they wouldn’t come in here, not now.    

Finally, Dr. Blair came back.  “Let’s talk.”  He pulled up a chair.  “You know your son is gravely ill, his lungs are still somewhat congested and his heartbeat is still too fast and weak.  Your friend Sammy has been very accurate in his diagnosis.”  He paused, “And in his treatment.”  Murdoch and Scott both breathed a sigh of relief.  “And he was also correct about the infection, an abscess in his leg.  I think it’s between layers of muscle and I’ll have to operate to drain it.  Normally I’d try to wait until the patient was a little stronger, but we don’t have that time.  There’s no sign of blood poisoning yet, but it could happen anytime.   Your son doesn’t have the strength to fight that, so I’d like to operate immediately.”

Murdoch looked over at Scott, who nodded.  “Of course, Dr. Blair, as soon as you can. 

“Mr. Lancer, I have to tell you there are serious risks.”  Tom stopped and drew a deep breath before he began to list the risks to Johnny.  “To adequately access his leg, I’ll have to turn him on his abdomen.  I’m afraid that will constrict his lungs and hamper his breathing.  And even though he’s been unresponsive, I will use a small amount of ether.  I need to be sure he doesn’t move suddenly while I’m operating.  And there’s always a risk the abscess will rupture as I try to drain it or that the infection will spread even if I do operate.  I just can’t give you any guarantees.”  

It was Scott who broke the silence.  “If the abscess ruptures or the infection spreads?”

“As weak as your brother is, I don’t think he’d have the strength to fight the infection.  If it localized, I could amputate his leg.  But if it came to that, I doubt I’d advise it.  He wouldn’t be able to tolerate the surgery.”  

“And if we don’t do anything?”  Murdoch’s voice was strained.

“Your son will be dead in the few days, three at the outside.”

“Could we have a few minutes?”  Murdoch’s gaze held Scott’s eyes.

“Of course.  But please, just a few minutes.”


“Murdoch, we don’t have a choice.  If we don’t let the doctor operate now…”

“I know.  I just wish he’d wake up so we could tell him what’s going to happen.”  Murdoch smiled wistfully, “You know how Johnny always likes to be in control.”  

Scott pulled his chair beside Murdoch’s.  “Sometimes you can’t be in control and that’s what families are for, to take over when you can’t take care of yourself.  Johnny’ll understand.  You know, in the past year he’s gotten a little used to someone watching out for him.”  

Murdoch nodded at this.  “I know, a little used to that.”  Murdoch called out, “Dr. Blair.”  The young doctor appeared at the open doorway.  “When can you start?”

“I’ve already started to prepare the instruments I’ll need.  Is Sammy still here?”

“He’s in the waiting room.”  Scott’s voice held a question. 

“Good.  I think he’ll be able to assist.”  

Sammy was called, preparations went quickly.  Too quickly thought Murdoch as leaned forward from where he sat and took Johnny’s hand between his.  “Johnny, the doctor and Sammy are going to take care of you.  Scott and I will be waiting.  We’ll be right here when you wake up.”  

Scott stood at Murdoch’s shoulder and as he moved aside he took Johnny’s hand.  “Hey little brother, you’ve had a nice holiday with everyone waiting on you hand and foot.  But it’s time for you to get better.  There’s a lot of work waiting for us when we get home and I don’t want to do my share and yours too.”

They both turned to leave, Murdoch suddenly turned back to Johnny side, grasping his hand.  “Te amo, Juanito, te amo.”  It wasn’t much, but he thought he felt the faintest grip in return.  

“Good, now Sammy, I’ll need you to…” the doctor’s words were lost as the closing door blocked them from Johnny.  

Scott heard the same sounds, the clock, a horse passing, voices as people closed their businesses and went home for the night.  The clock ticked so slowly.  Murdoch sat on the other side of the room, his eyes focused on the door separating them from Johnny.  Lori had left with the promise of finding coffee and sandwiches.  

Scott rose from his seat and crossed the room to sit next to his father.  “Murdoch, we’ll get Johnny through this and get him home where he belongs.  Johnny’s a fighter, you know that.  He’ll do whatever it takes to get better.”  Murdoch gave no indication that he’d heard Scott.  

“Murdoch, you’ve done everything you could.  I was wrong.   If you’d tried to bring Johnny here sooner he wouldn’t have…”  Scott stopped at the thought of what might have happened to Johnny.  “You and Miss Lori and Sammy, you’ve all done everything that could be done.”

Murdoch turned away from the door he’d watched.  “Thank you, son.  I only hope, pray it’s been enough.”  

And the clock ticked on.  Finally, the door opened; both men looked up waiting until the doctor spoke.  “He’s holding his own. The abscess hadn’t ruptured.  I’ve cleaned it out and put in some packing to help it drain.  His breathing doesn’t seem any worse from the ether or having to lie on his stomach.”

“He’ll be alright?”  Murdoch dared to hope.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer.  It’s too soon to say that.  His fever is still too high, he’s very weak.  I know it isn’t what you want to hear, but we just have to wait and see.  I’m going to keep him on the medicine Sammy used for his heart.  I have a slightly purer version, but it’s essentially the same.” 

“Can we see him?” 

“Of course, it’ll be best if you stay with him.  It could be awhile before he wakes up but he’ll do a lot better if the voices and faces are familiar.  And I’d like to move him to a room just down the hall.  It has a proper bed, he’ll be more comfortable.”

With the doctor’s help Murdoch and Scott gently carried Johnny to the bedroom and helped settle him in the bed.  Then they took their now familiar places by Johnny’s side.  It didn’t seem possible that he was even paler, propped up on pillows to ease his breathing, his leg wrapped in bandages from the foot to knee and cradled on more pillows.   

Scott realized Sammy had come into the room.  “Sammy, thank you for helping the doctor.  For being with Johnny.”

“It is my honor.  Your brother, he is very special to you.”  Sammy watched Scott gently stroked his brother’s arm.  “I will talk with the doctor, and if he is agreeable, I will make some of the herb tea I have been giving your brother.  And I will bring fresh cold water for the fever.”

Scott heard Sammy quietly leave the room and then all was silent again, broken only by the fading sounds of the town and the clock counting the minutes of the night.  They sat, he and Murdoch, hour by hour talking to Johnny, sponging him to fight the fever, watching anxiously whenever the doctor came to check on him.  His assessment was always the same.  No improvement, but he wasn’t worse.  And the night wore on.

Tom Blair had spent some long nights but this one had seemed longer than most.  Maybe it was his sick young patient or having to meet the questions in the eyes of his father and brother every time he’d checked on Johnny.  He’d finally fallen asleep for a few hours and now light was just beginning to show to the east.  He quietly entered the small bedroom to check on his patient again.  He stopped smiling slightly at the sight of the two men sleeping on either side of the bed, the older snoring softly.  He wondered how many nights they’d spent like this at Johnny’s side.  

Moving carefully not to wake the sleepers, he checked his patient.  His pulse was a little stronger and not quite as fast, he seemed a little cooler, his foot was warm and pink.  All good signs.  He turned to a table opposite the bed to gather supplies to change the dressing, time to check the incision and repack the wound.  Right now, it was a blessing the boy was still unconscious, changing the dressing would be painful.  He turned back to find out he was being watched, blue eyes trying to focus.

Tom smiled and returned to the bedside, “Well, young man..”

“Shh, they’ve been sleeping awhile.”  Johnny’s voice barely audible.  

Murdoch had awakened at the sound of Tom’s voice and then heard Johnny.  “Johnny,” his voice flooded with relief, “It’s good to see you awake.”  His big hand gently brushed through his son’s dark hair.

“Am I?  Awake?”

“At least for now.  We’re in Placerville.  This is Dr. Blair.  He operated on your leg last night.”

“Operated.”  Johnny’s voice was puzzled; then he suddenly struggled to sit up.  “Murdoch, you didn’t let him cut off my leg?”  Panic was evident in his voice.

Scott had awakened and quickly wrapped an arm around Johnny’s shoulders and eased him back to the pillows. 

“Scott!  My leg, it’s still there?”  Johnny was already gasping for breath.   

“It’s right where it belongs, Johnny.”  Murdoch and Scott both helped lift him so he could see his foot peeking out from the blankets. 

Tom Blair moved into Johnny’s line of sight.  “Johnny, I’m Tom Blair, the doctor here in Placerville.  Your leg was badly infected.  I operated last night to drain an abscess.  Now I need to change the dressing and see how it looks this morning.  Mr. Lancer, if you could help me.”      

Murdoch followed Tom’s directions, lifting Johnny’s leg, handing him the supplies he indicated while Scott kept one arm around Johnny’s shoulder and gripped his hand with the other.  As Tom finished tying off the last of the bandages Scott reached for a damp cloth and wiped away the sweat the dripped down the side of his brother’s face.  Whatever color he’d had was replaced by an almost translucent pallor.

“Johnny, your leg looks better this morning.  But I’ll change the dressing three times a day for at least a few days to keep that wound clean.  What you need to do now is try to eat something so you can get your strength back.  You’re nothing but skin and bones.  Murdoch, Scott, that’s your job, making sure he eats.”  

Johnny weakly waved his right hand, Scott still firmly held his left.  “I just ain’t very hungry.”

“That is not an excuse.  My housekeeper Ruth is a fine cook and I’ve heard her in the kitchen.  I’ll have her fix some oatmeal to start, then some custard, a little soup.  Just a few bites every few hours, you’ll soon get your appetite back.”  

“Murdoch, she’s likely got some coffee going.  Why don’t you come with me and get a cup for you and Scott.”  

Murdoch heard the command in Tom’s voice.  “I’ll be back in just a few minutes, son.  You get ready to try a little of whatever the housekeeper is fixing.” He turned and followed the doctor. 

“Murdoch, I’m still worried about his fever.  It’s not as high, but I’d hoped it would have gone down more after I drained the abscess.”

“Does that mean… .?”

“It means we wait and try to get him to eat something and take a lot of fluids.  You and your son might think about taking shifts.  You both look done in.”

Murdoch rubbed his stubbled face, “It’s been a long two weeks.  I was afraid to leave him for fear..”

Tom cut him off, “And he’s going to need you, you and Scott.  He’s not going to bounce back from this.  It’s going to take a long time for him to get his strength back, so I need you and your son to get some rest so you can take care of him.  Now let’s get that coffee, then you and Scott can decide who’s going to the hotel and turn in.”  Tom’s tone of voice left no room for argument and Murdoch was too tired to try.    

“Ruth.”  A petite woman with the look of a grandmother turned as they came into the kitchen.    “This is Murdoch Lancer.  His son Johnny’s down the hall.  I need you to work some magic and fix something that’ll get him to eat, but you’ll need to start with something light.”

“Custards, soup, tea.”

“That’s the ticket Ruth and there’s the makings for some herb tea that he’s been taking.” Tom reached for the coffee pot and poured two cups, handing them to Murdoch.  “I need to make some rounds, Ruth’ll bring up something for Johnny and then. . .”

Murdoch held up a hand, “I’ll let Scott stay with Johnny and I’ll head to the hotel.”  Taking the offered coffee he returned to Johnny’s room.  He handed Scott a steaming mug.  “Tom has ordered us to get some rest.”  Murdoch gazed down at Johnny, sunken eyes, hollow cheeks, days of stubble contrasting with the pallor.  “Johnny, I expect to hear good reports of you finishing off whatever Ruth brings you to eat.”  Murdoch’s voice was gentle, almost pleading.  

That elicited a weak smile from Johnny, “I’ll try, but I ain’t makin’ any promises.”  

Murdoch waited until Ruth brought a tray with oatmeal and warm milk and Scott had started the arduous task of trying to convince Johnny to eat.  As he made to leave, Scott spoke up. 

“Murdoch, you should send a telegram to Teresa and Jelly.  I sent one just before I left Carson City.  I’ve written a message.” Scott handed him a scrap of paper. 

“I’ll stop on my way to the hotel.”  

Murdoch entered the hotel lobby, his errand to the telegraph office complete.  Lori and Sammy were finishing breakfast in the adjacent dining room and saw him come in.   “Murdoch, how’s Johnny?”

Murdoch pulled up a chair, “A little better, but he still has a fever.  Scott’s with him right now.”  Murdoch waived the waitress away.  “Tom ordered us to get some rest, so I’m going to catch a nap, then I’ll stay with Johnny and Scott can turn in.”

“Murdoch, he’ll be fine.  Tom Blair seems like a fine doctor, he’s in good hands.”

“Lori, Sammy, he’s been in good hands, yours.”  Murdoch sighed, “I don’t want to think about what would have happened if Snowshoe hadn’t happened on the cabin and brought us to Desolation.”  

Lori knew Murdoch carried too much blame over what might have happened and cut him off.  “Sammy and I will go over and keep both your boys company while you get some rest.”

Murdoch stretched out on the bed, knowing sleep wouldn’t come.  He knew Tom was right, both he and Scott needed some rest.  But being separated from Johnny for even a short time right now seemed to magnify the years of separation.  The times when he should have been there and wasn’t.  After fruitless tossing and turning and what seemed like a long enough time to satisfy Tom he rose, poured water and shaved quickly, then made his way back to the office.  


Johnny was quiet, eyes closed.  “Tom made him take some laudanum before he changed the dressing.  He’s been out since then.”  Scott wearily reached for a cloth in a basin and wiped Johnny’s forehead.  “If this fever would just break.”  

“Just give him time son.  But now you need to try to get some rest or Tom will have your hide.  I don’t think he’s as bad as Sam, but you don’t want to find out.”  

“You’ll send someone to get me if there’s any change?”  

“Of course, son, any change.”

Lori came into the room, stopping at the door to watch Murdoch as he sat at Johnny’s side, holding his hand, tracing each finger over and over.  His gaze never leaving Johnny’s face.  

Murdoch looked up as she placed the tray on the bedside table.  “I was watching you. It was like you were counting the fingers of a baby, ten fingers, ten toes.”

Murdoch chuckled, ”I think I did that.  It was so amazing to have this little bundle that was my son.  He was so perfect.  I could watch him for hours.”  

“And you still can, can’t you?”  

“Only when he doesn’t know it.  He’s been on his own for, for a long time and doesn’t take kindly to anyone hovering.”  Murdoch continued to gently run his hand along Johnny’s slender fingers.  “But sometimes, when he and Scott are playing chess or he’s working a horse, then I get to watch him just like when he was a baby.”   Murdoch leaned his head down to rest it on Johnny’s hand, his shoulders shaking with quiet sobs.  

And they day wore on, Murdoch and Scott passing each other as they’d go to the hotel and try to sleep and not.  Johnny would wake, moments at a time and they’d ply him with whatever Ruth had fixed, with Sammy’s tea, cool water and then he’d sleep again.  

Murdoch was back at the hotel for, he’d lost track of how many times he’d tried to sleep only to toss and turn.  He was too tired to sleep.  Images kept coming, first of a curly-haired toddler bouncing from one mischief to another and then to the wary eyed gunfighter daring Murdoch to try to love him again.  And it hadn’t been easy.  No, that wasn’t right, there was the quick smile and twinkling eye and Murdoch knew that little boy was still there and he loved him as much as from the moment he’d been born.  It was just coming to grips with the façade he wore and finding the way through it.   Neither he nor Johnny had made it easy, both too wary of old hurts.  But they were getting past that and discovering that the laughing toddler and his adoring papa were both still there.  

“Mr. Murdoch, Mr. Murdoch!”   Murdoch heard the insistent voice and felt a hand shaking his arm.  Sammy’s voice.

He bolted upright. “Johnny?”

“Mr. Murdoch, his fever has broken.”  Sammy was positively beaming.

Murdoch was off the bed and across the room faster than one would think for a man his size.  Looking out the window, he realized he had slept and longer than he’d thought possible.  He hurried across the street to Tom Blair’s office and down the hall.  Scott was sitting where he’d left him hours ago, snoring softly now.  Lori sat at the side of the bed, holding a steaming mug.  And Johnny lay propped up on the mound of pillows, eyes bright for the first time in what seemed an eternity.  


Part 17

“Hey Old Man.”  The voice was too weak but it was music to Murdoch’s ears.  He wasn’t aware that Lori had relinquished her place by Johnny’s side until he was sitting by the bed, taking his son’s hand in his, drinking in the sight of eyes that were for once free of the fever that had held them for so long.  

“Murdoch,” Lori leaned over his shoulder.  “There’s some soup Ruth made.  Try to get him to drink at least half before he falls asleep.”  And with a rustle of her skirts, Miss Lori was gone.

“It’s good to see you awake son.”  It wasn’t what Murdoch had wanted to say, had intended to say, but he wasn’t sure if the words in his heart could be spoken right now.  He found himself hugging Johnny and with no despair but with joy for the first time in so many days. 

Johnny’s first impulse was to resist; it always was.  But he heard the thudding of his father’s heart as he held him and there was comfort in the sound and so he relaxed in the embrace of his father’s arms.

“Hey sleepyhead, you’re finally awake.”  Scott straightened up in the chair he’d fallen asleep in.    

Murdoch gently eased Johnny back onto his mound of pillows, their private moment over.  

“Your snoring’s what woke me up.  Don’t know how a man could sleep through that racket.”  There was the promise of humor in Johnny’s voice.  “But from lookin’ at you, both of you,” as he looked at both his father and brother “You could use some more shut eye.  You both look like you was rode hard and put away wet.”  

“Well, brother, if I were you, I wouldn’t go criticizing how we look.  Wait until you see a mirror.”

Johnny reached up and felt the lengthy stubble on his chin.  “Reckon I need a shave.” 

“And maybe a haircut son, but it’ll wait a little longer.  You’re not going anywhere right now, so no need to get cleaned up.  What you are going to do is eat this soup and then get some more sleep.  Doc Blair said rest and eat, those are your orders right now and I plan on seeing that you follow them for once.”  The sternness in Murdoch’s voice was tempered by relief and gratitude.  

“So what kind of soup have they cooked up?”  Johnny had to admit that he felt just a little bit hungry.

Murdoch stirred the mug of soup, “I think maybe a vegetable soup.”

Johnny sighed, “You think you could convince ‘em I need some chili or maybe some posole?”

Murdoch smiled as he tucked a napkin under Johnny’s chin, “I can try.”  Knowing that he’d move heaven and earth to get Johnny whatever he wanted.

Johnny struggled to stay awake.  Murdoch found the pattern; Johnny would doze off and then wake minutes later.  He and Scott took advantage of every waking minute to get Johnny to take a spoon of soup or a sip of water.  But all too soon, at least for Murdoch and Scott, Johnny’s sleep was undisturbed.  

Tom Blair quietly entered the room and saw Johnny sleeping quietly.  “I understand from Sammy that his fever broke.”  

“Finally.”  Murdoch smiled wearily.  “He was awake on and off for awhile.  He’s been asleep for a few hours.  He’d probably wake now.”  

“No, let him sleep.”  Tom leaned down and felt Johnny’s forehead.  “I’ve got a few patients waiting to see me.  Once I’ve attended to them, I’ll come back and check on him.”  He looked at the two men who’d rarely left Johnny’s side since arriving in Placerville.  “And now I’ve given you this advice before, but I’m giving it again, both of you need to get some rest.”  Tom held up his hand as he saw Scott start to protest.  “I know you’ve been going over to the hotel but I doubt either of you have really rested.  And from looking at this young man,” he nodded toward Johnny, “he’s going to be a bit of a handful as he begins to feel better.”     

Murdoch smiled, “He can try my patience at times.  But you’re right.  Scott, why don’t you go over to the hotel and get a good meal and some sleep.”  

“No, Murdoch, you should…” Scott stopped as he saw the shake of Murdoch’s head.  “Ok, I’ll head over to the hotel.”  Scott made to leave but turned back.  “But you have to promise me that when I come back you’ll do the same.”  Scott’s voice left Murdoch no room for argument.  

Val closed the door to his office as he turned and surveyed the boardwalk extending up the street.  He saw Jimmy running from the telegraph office toward the livery.  A message that needed deliverin’ quick.  “Jimmy!”  

The boy stopped in his tracks and turned a wide-eyed look toward the sheriff.

“You got a message for Lancer?”

Jimmy nodded, “Just come in and Pa told me to get it to Lancer real quick.”

“I can take it.  I can probably make the trip a mite faster than you can.”  The boy wasn’t the worst rider Val had come across, but he wasn’t the best either.

“I don’t know what Pa would say about…”

“Don’t you worry about yer Pa.  If he gives you any trouble you jest tell him I ordered you to hand the message over.”  Val stood with an outstretched hand that was soon filled with the flimsy paper envelope.  

Val pounded over the miles to Lancer, anxious to know what the message said but knowing he couldn’t open it.  That was for Jelly or Teresa.  

He pulled up as he passed under the great arch, glad to see Jelly in the yard fronting the house.  

“Jelly, got a message.”  He shouted in greeting as he dismounted and handed over the telegram.


“Don’t know, I just took it from Jimmy and brung it out here.”

Jelly held the envelope in a shaky hand, finally taking a deep breath and ripping it open to reach the message.  Val held his breath as Jelly read the telegram.

He finally looked up at Val.  “It from Murdoch, they’s in Placerville, all of ‘em.”  Val breathed a sigh of relief.  It had been so long since they’d had any news from any of the Lancers; and to hear they were all together.

“Johnny, he was hurt.  Is he alright?”  

Jelly shook his head, “It don’t say much, jes that Johnny’s hurt but they found a doctor and ‘ill send word when there’s more news.  It ain’t much Val, but least ways we know they’s all together.”

Val smiled, “And together the Lancers are nigh on to invincible.”

“I best get into the house and give Teresa the news.  She’ll have my hide if I keep her waitin’ on news like this.”   

Jelly turned and walked toward the house.  Val watched him, saw him reach into a pocket for a bandanna and wipe at his face then turn back.  “Well, are you comin’?  Miss Teresa wouldn’t take kindly to me not askin’ you in fer coffee.”

“Be my pleasure.”  Val smiled as he followed Jelly.  After all they’d been through, he was looking forward to Teresa getting some good news. 


 “Well, young man, it’s good to see you awake.  I’m Dr. Blair, Tom, I’ve been taking care of you for a little while now.  I understand from your father that you’re feeling a little better this afternoon.”  

Johnny sighed, “If this is feelin’ better it’s maybe just a good that I don’t remember much of the past few days.”   

Murdoch knew he’d have to fill in Johnny’s missing days, more than the past few.  But it could wait.

“Well, let’s check you over and see if I concur with your father’s assessment.”  

Johnny patiently endured the inevitable poking and prodding, he coughed and held his breath.  Tom uncovered his right foot, the toes were warm and pink.  “Johnny, I want you to wiggle your toes.”  

Johnny appeared to ponder the request and concentrated on his foot.  He was finally rewarded when his toes twitched ever so slightly.  “It feels like they’re a long ways off.”  Even with the weakness, Murdoch could hear the anxiety in Johnny’s voice.  

“John, your leg is still swollen and you have long incision up the back of it.  It’s to be expected.  In a day or two, I’ll have you start some exercises to help limber it up.”  

Tom tucked the blankets back around Johnny’s leg.  “Murdoch, could I see you outside?”

Once in the hall and out of Johnny’s hearing, the worry in Murdoch’s voice was evident.  “Tom, how is he?  Really?”

“He really is much improved, his lungs have cleared and his heart’s strong and steady.  But the next few days are critical; you can’t let him overdo.”

“Scott and I will make sure of that.  Tom, I know it’s too soon, but Johnny will ask, when can we take him home?”  

“Where’s home?”  

“Morro Coyo, probably four days by wagon, south.”

Tom shook his head.  “It’ll be a while before he’s strong enough for a trip like that.  At least a week, probably longer.  Is there a doctor there?”

Murdoch nodded, “Sam Jenkins.  He was there when Johnny was born.”

“Jenkins.  I think I met him at a medical conference in San Francisco shortly after I arrived here.  We had dinner.  I remember telling him about a few of my patients that come for advice and then don’t follow any of my instructions.  He told me about a young patient of his that isn’t particularly cooperative but he has family that will keep him in line. I suspect he was talking about Johnny.”

Murdoch nodded in agreement.  “Sam says he’s his worst patient.  And I better get back to him.  If I know Johnny, he’ll be trying to get out of bed any minute now.”

Murdoch was pleased to find Johnny still settled in bed.  

“You and the doc done talkin’ about me?”  Murdoch knew it was probably his imagination but Johnny’s voice seemed stronger now than just a few minutes ago.  

“Johnny, you’re doing much better.  But it’s important that you conserve your strength so you can begin to heal.  You’re going to spend the next few days right where you are.”  Tom stopped at the look on Johnny’s face.  “Then we’ll see about letting you out of bed for a short time.  And I’ll let Ruth know you might be ready for a little more than broth and custard.”  

As Tom left the room Johnny called out, “Doc, when can I go home?”

Tom turned back and smiled as he caught Murdoch’s eye.  “It’ll be awhile yet.  And the old timers tell me their joints are predicting a storm, so we’ll just keep you nice and snug here.”  


Murdoch looked up from the book he’d been reading.  He could hear the rain beating against the window.  The old timers Tom quoted had been correct.  The weather had turned cold and the rain moved in; two days of miserable weather now.  Miss Lori said it was the Storm King moving in for the winter and that there’d be snow in the mountains now until the spring.     

“How long has it been?”  

“How long has what been?”

 “I dunno.”  Johnny’s eyes traced the corners of the room, he sighed deeply. “How long we been here?  How long since I tangled with that trap?  How long since we been home?”

Murdoch could sense the weariness in Johnny voice, a weariness that wasn’t from fatigue.  “It’s been quite a journey John, certainly longer than any of us planned.”

Johnny laughed, “You think we’d plan this?”

Murdoch was so relieved to hear Johnny’s laughter, a sure sign he was improving.  “What do you remember?”   It seems as good a time as any to tell Johnny of the past weeks and fill in the gaps in his memory.  

“I dunno.  I don’t know what I remember and what was maybe a dream.  There was voices, a giant speakin’ some language, I remember Miss Lori, she’s got a real soft touch, and Sammy and some concoctions that’ll make Jelly jealous.  And Scott, that I needed to find Scott.  But they ain’t in any order.  But mostly I remember you, always bein’ there.     

Murdoch set aside the book and pulled his chair closer to Johnny’s side.  “Do you remember it had started to storm and we were going to make camp for the night?  You went to get firewood and then Scott and I heard…..”

Scott came in to relieve Murdoch for the afternoon and found him asleep in the chair next to Johnny.  He gently shook Murdoch’s shoulder to wake his father and then quickly motioned for quiet since Johnny was sound asleep.

Murdoch joined him in the hall.  “He was awake for quite a while.  He wanted to know everything that had happened.  I think he stayed awake through most of the telling.”

Scott looked into the room.  “Everything?”

Murdoch sighed, “There are a few details I left out.  Some things may be best he not remember.  He may ask you about going for help and finally getting to Desolation.  I think he still feels guilty that you went off alone to find help.”

Scott snorted in exasperation.  “When will little brother learn that part of my mission in life is to look after him?”  

“Probably never.  There’s just too many years of looking out for himself.”  Scott could hear the sadness in Murdoch’s voice over that realization.  “I’ll head over to the hotel.  He’ll probably wake soon, be sure he eats.”

Scott took his place at Johnny’s bedside, picked up the book Murdoch had left and began to read.   

Johnny began to wake.  He didn’t hear the rain anymore, maybe the storm had broken.  He listened to determine who was with him.  He’d gotten used to the sounds they made.  The watchers, watching so he wouldn’t try to get out of bed, wouldn’t have to reach for a glass of water, wouldn’t have to pull the quilt up when the night air chilled the room.  The sounds they made were different.  Miss Lori, a rustle of her skirts and the soft click of the knitting needles, the smell of lavender.  Scott, the quiet creak of the chair as he shifted, the pages of the book turning softly, a soft snore when he slept in the chair.  Murdoch, solid, the footsteps, the settling of the chair as he shifted his massive frame.  And Sammy, too quiet, he moved on soft feet that were too hard to hear.  Johnny thought it was a good thing Sammy was a friend, as an enemy he’d be on you before you knew what was coming.  

His watchers, always there, always ready to help him.  Sometimes before he knew he needed the help.  Johnny remembered when he had no one.  When he’d been hurt he’d had to go into hiding to stay safe.  There was no one to watch.    But now there was someone to watch over him.  And there was comfort in having them there.  Johnny knew that soon they would try his patience, but not now.  Now their presence made him safe.  He snuggled back into the pillows and fell asleep.

Scott watched while Tom went through the daily ritual of examining Johnny.  Johnny seemed to be making slow but steady progress.    

Tom finished wrapping a new dressing around Johnny’s leg.  Johnny looked at him hopefully. “So can I get outta this bed now?  You said maybe in a couple of days and it’s been a couple of days.”  

“Well John, your leg is beginning to heal, it isn’t draining anymore.  I think you’re ready for short,” Tom stopped at the bright look on Johnny’s face.  “Short, no more than 15 or 20 minutes, stints of sitting in a chair by the window.  But you can’t put any weight on your right leg.  That incision is just starting to close and any pressure on that leg could do a lot of damage right now.”  Tom turned to Scott, “Scott, you and Murdoch can help Johnny up, but no weight on his leg and no more than 20 minutes sitting up.  Don’t let him try to sweet talk you into anything else.”

“Oh, I’ll keep an eye on him and make sure he behaves.”  Scott fixed Johnny with a stern look. “I’m the big brother, that’s my job.”    

Johnny sighed, knowing he wasn’t going to have the opportunity to test Tom’s limits.  “Do you have to take so much pleasure in it Boston?”  

“Just one of the bonuses of the job.”  Johnny saw the twinkle in Scott’s eyes.  

Scott watched the play of the colors of the setting sun against the building opposite Johnny’s window.  He looked across the room to where Johnny slept.  Earlier in the afternoon he and Murdoch had helped Johnny up, carefully following Tom’s instructions.  Johnny had barely lasted 10 minutes sitting up; they’d ended up carrying him back to bed.  

Murdoch came in with two mugs of coffee, handed one to Scott and walked over to Johnny.  He brushed the dark hair out of Johnny’s eyes.  “He may sleep the rest of the day.  Maybe we won’t have to worry for another day or two on him trying to get up without us around.”  

“Scott, if you want to go over to the hotel and get something to eat, I’ll sit with here Johnny.”  

“I’ll do that.  And I wrote a letter to Teresa letting her know how Johnny’s doing, I’ll get that mailed.”  

“Scott, thank you for doing that.  I hadn’t even thought about letting them know what’s been going on.”  Murdoch settled into the chair by the bed.    

“Do you want me to bring you something?”

Murdoch shook his head, “No, I’m fine.”

Scott took in the tableau, Murdoch sitting at Johnny’s side.  In his mind he could see it replayed day after day.  “Murdoch, how did you manage, all those days sitting with Johnny?”

Murdoch looked up and Scott and back at Johnny and drew a deep breath.  “I didn’t get to sit with either of you when you were children and needed a father.  I’ve been given a chance to make up for lost time.  I won’t ever let that chance go by.”  

Lori came into the room carrying a large tray.  “Johnny, would you like honey and milk in the oatmeal?”  

Johnny sighed, “I ain’t really hungry.”

Lori rolled her eyes in exasperation.  “Johnny Lancer, I did not ask if you were hungry.  I asked what you’d like on your oatmeal.”

Johnny looked up at the sharpness in her voice.  “Lori, I..” he stopped when he saw the look in her eyes. She might have made a good gunfighter with eyes like that.  “I’ll have the milk and honey.”  

Lori mixed the cereal and sat at Johnny’s side.  “Lori, I can manage myself.” as he reached to take the spoon in her hand.

Lori knew that for all Johnny’s bravado, there wasn’t much strength behind it.  She knew arguing would use up what little strength he had and he needed that to try to eat.  “All right then, I’ll be back in a bit and I expect you to finish this entire bowl and the milk.”  

Murdoch looked up from the paper he was reading as Lori came into the hotel lobby.  “Lori, is everything all right?”  He hadn’t expected to see her.  

“Your son is improving.  Right now, he’s trying to feed himself breakfast.  Lori shook her head.  “I have a feeling he’s on the road to being a difficult patient!”

Murdoch laughed. It might have been the first time in weeks he’d really laughed.  “Sam, he’s our family doctor, would agree with you.”   Murdoch folded the paper.  “I’ll go see how he’s doing.  If I know Johnny, he’s overestimated what he can do and is sitting looking at his breakfast getting cold.”

Murdoch wasn’t far from wrong.  Johnny had managed to drink the glass of milk, but the oatmeal was a lost cause.  

“Murdoch.  I want some of Maria’s tamales and a nice steak.  All Ruth’s gonna feed me is mush.”    I’m tired of layin’ in bed and hobblin’ over to a chair for just a few minutes a day ain’t helpin’ me get better.  I just wanta go home.”

As thrilled as he was to hear those words Murdoch knew he needed to curb Johnny’s expectations.

“Johnny, Tom said it’d be at least a week before he’d consider letting us take you home and it hasn’t been that yet.”

“Murdoch, all I’m gonna do is lay in a wagon and ride along, it ain’t like ridin’ a horse.  I can rest in a wagon just a well as layin’ in this bed.”  

Much as he wanted to take his son home, Murdoch knew that a four day ride in a wagon wasn’t anything like lying in a soft bed.  The bouncing and bumps would deplete whatever reserves Johnny might have built up.  “When Tom tells me that he thinks you’re strong enough, we’ll plan the trip back to Lancer.  Until then, he’s calling the tune, not me.  But I’ll talk to Ruth and see if she can fix something that’s got a little more flavor to it.”  Murdoch glanced at the now cold oatmeal.  “Then, you have to promise me that you’ll eat it.”  

Johnny looked hopefully at his father.  “Murdoch, I’d eat an old boot if it had some flavor to it.”  

As he was making his way to the kitchen to find Ruth, Murdoch noticed the door to Tom’s office ajar and looked in.

Tom looked up from the file he was writing in.  “Murdoch, how’s Johnny this morning?”  

“Hungry for something besides oatmeal.  I’m not disturbing you, am I?”

“Not at all.  I’ve been spending some time with Sammy learning about Chinese medicine, herbs they use and so on.  I’m just transcribing my notes.”  

“I was going to ask Ruth if she could fix something with more flavor to see if we can get Johnny to eat more.  I thought I should make sure it’s alright with you.”    

“Good idea, anything to get that boy of yours to eat.  He needs to get some meat on his bones. What does he like to eat?

Murdoch thought of Johnny at the dining table cleaning his plate and waiting for seconds and snatching fresh biscuits and cookies from Maria’s kitchen.  “Anything with some spice, steak and potatoes, fried chicken.  I wouldn’t call Johnny a fussy eater.”

“Just talk to Ruth, tell her what Johnny likes and see what she can fix.  I don’t know that she makes much that’s spicy, though. She’s what I’d call a plain cook.”

“Tom, is he really doing alright?”  Concern was evident in Murdoch’s question.  “Johnny…he can put on a pretty good front when it comes to his health.”

“Murdoch, when you carried Johnny in here, I really wasn’t sure he’d live the day.  He was about as sick as a man can be.  But between you and Scott, and Johnny, he’s going to be alright.  I’ll let Sam Jenkins decide when to discontinue the digitalis for his heart and he may have a little stiffness in his leg but he’s going to be fine.  It’s just going to take time and patience.  And something to eat.” Tom rose from the desk. “Let’s go talk with Ruth.”  

Johnny watched in amusement as the preparations for his bath proceeded.  The way Murdoch and Scott were carrying on you’d think no one had ever taken a bath before.  Was the tub in the right place?  Was there enough water?  Was the water too cool or too hot?  Was the stool to support his right leg close enough to the side of the tub?  Did they have the soap and towels?  Finally, they decided everything was ready—ready except for Johnny.

“Now son, Scott and I will do the work here.  We’ll get you up and lifted over to the tub.”  They both hovered like mama bears protecting a cub.  Johnny was surprised at how weak he felt as his father and brother helped him sit and swing his legs off the side of the bed.  With one on either side, they helped him stand, just barely and supported him the few feet to the waiting tub.  

Even though he was doing better getting up and sitting in a chair, Johnny had had to plead with Tom to let him have a bath.  Now that he was in the tub, it felt like heaven.  The warm water was easing stiff places he hadn’t realized he had.  He laid back and stretched stiff shoulders. 

 “Murdoch, you can go get somethin’ to eat.  Scott’ll stay here a make sure I don’t drown in the tub.”  

“I’ll see what Ruth’s making you for lunch.”  He smiled as Johnny grimaced.  Ruth was making more than soup and oatmeal, but it was still very plain cooking, just as Tom had said. “I’ll be back in about half an hour and help you out of the tub.  We don’t want you to get waterlogged.”  

Johnny laid back, Scott had helped scrub his back and the parts of his legs he couldn’t reach, now he just let the warmth of the water seep into his bones.  “Scott?”  

“What do you need, Johnny?”  Scott quickly scanned the area to see if anything was missing.

“No, don’t need nothin’; everything I want is right here.”  Johnny leveled his gaze at Scott, who held it.  Both brothers knew the truth in what Johnny said.  

Johnny sighed and laid his head back against the edge of the tub.  “Boston, I don’t remember much of the last few weeks.  Murdoch’s filled me in, but they’re still a lot of pieces I’m missin’.  But I remember you leavin’ and I remember I tried to go out and find you.  I wasn’t thinkin’ real clear, but I couldn’t stop thinkin’ about you.  I didn’t know where you were and I figured you might have run into some trouble.  What I wanted was you with me.”    

“No, Johnny, I was never in trouble.”  Despair Scott thought, despair that I wouldn’t find you.  “Once the storm died down, I finally made it back to the cabin, but there was no trace of either of you.”  Scott remembered calling into the wind and being answered by silence.  “I didn’t know where you and Murdoch had gone off to.  I didn’t know how to begin to try to find you.  But I found a lot of folks who helped me along the way.   You’d like Franklin and his boys.  I ran into Ben Cartwright, Tucker, an old mountain man, and of course, Snowshoe.  He must be our guardian angel.  He ended up helping all of us.”  

Johnny laughed, “I don’t remember much about this Snowshoe, but he’s real big for an angel.”

“Oh, I think angels come in all shapes and sizes little brother, all shapes and sizes.”  

Johnny looked up when he heard the rustling skirts.  Sammy was carrying a steaming basin.  Miss Lori followed him; a towel held in her arms.  “After that nice bath you had this morning, I thought it was time I shaved that nasty beard off and find out what Johnny Lancer really looks like.”  She unfolded the towel and pulled out a razor.  

Johnny eyed her warily. “You have a lot of experience in this line of work?”

Lori turned; her glance took in Johnny head to foot.  “I’ve shaved a few men in my time.”  There was a bit of a drawl in her voice he hadn’t noticed before.  “And had no complaints.”

Johnny relaxed as Lori and Sammy began the preparation, towels placed, a steaming towel covered his face, he heard the familiar sound of a brush in a mug.  And then the towel was gone and the sure gentle strokes of the razor stripped away the dark beard.  

“There now.”  Lori wiped away the last of the soap.  She was appalled by how thin and pale Johnny looked now that the thick stubble was gone.  The beard no longer masked how gaunt his cheeks were, the dark circles under his eyes stood out in contrast to his pallor.  But there was a twinkle in his eyes and that smile that lit up his face.  “You’re almost as good lookin’ as your brother.   No.”  She stepped back, a smile playing on her lips, “I think maybe a little better looking than Scott.  But that’ll be our secret Johnny.”  

Lori fussed with the straightening the blankets and rearranging the pitcher and glass at Johnny’s bedside.  She finally looked up, “Sammy and I are planning to leave in the next day or two.  Now that the weather’s cleared from that storm and the road’s drying out, we better head on back to Desolation.  Too much longer and the winter storms could block the road and we’d be stuck here in Placerville.”   

Johnny’s voice was soft and quiet.  “You know you and Sammy don’t have to go back.  You could come to Lancer for awhile.”

“That’s a kind invitation Johnny, but it’s time for us to go home.”

“Miss Lori, I don’t remember much about it, but Desolation don’t seem like the right place for a lady like you.”  

“Johnny, that’s real sweet, but Desolation is home.  It’s where I belong. I knew it when I first got there and when I came back to it.  You know about finding a home, don’t you, Johnny?”   Lori was reminded of the delirious ramblings she been party to during the hours she’d sat with Johnny.  

Johnny stared out the window, almost as if he could see Lancer from there.  “I didn’t know I needed a home, but now that I got one, I don’t know how I’d ever leave it.”  Johnny looked at Lori, who smiled back.  

”Then you understand why I need to go back to Desolation.”  

Johnny nodded in agreement.  “It’s time to go home, time for both of us.”

“Yes, it is.  And when you get home Johnny you mind your papa, he loves you so.”  Lori saw a lingering disbelief in Johnny’s eyes.  “Don’t you ever doubt that Johnny.  I watched while he sat with you, just never taking his eyes off you.  He loves you.”   

“Murdoch and me, we spend a lot of time arguing about how he wants to run things.  I just ain’t used to someone always trying to tell me what to do.”  Johnny leaned back against the pillows and shook his head.  “But there’s times, sometimes when I’m workin’ a horse or me and Scott’s playin’ checkers and I see him lookin’ at me.  There’s something in that look and I know that.  I know your right.”

“Murdoch, Sammy and I are planning on leaving tomorrow morning.”  Lori had found Murdoch in the hotel lobby.  “We’ve loaded up supplies to take back, should last us through most of the winter.  We want to head back before there’s another storm.”  

“Lori, I know you need to get back, but we’ll miss you and Sammy.  I don’t know how we would have managed without you.”   Murdoch didn’t want to consider what would have happened if Lori hadn’t taken them in, but he knew.  “I owe you Johnny’s life.  It’s a debt I’ll owe you the rest of my life.”  

“Murdoch, it’s only a debt if it’s not repaid.  I’ve been repaid many times over.  I’ve been able to see Johnny get better.  I feared for his life when you came to us.  And now, you know he’s going to be just fine.  Don’t you?” 

“I know that now.  In the past few days, he finally seems to have turned the corner.  And it’s time for me to talk to Tom about taking him home.”  Murdoch thought about how Teresa and Jelly and Maria would smother Johnny with home cooking and love.  “There’re some folks back at Lancer who’ll be waiting to spoil him.”    

“Johnny and I talked about that this afternoon when I told him I was getting ready to leave.  I know he’s looking forward to going home.  He found a place to belong and that’s where he wants to be.  So Murdoch, you take him home and you keep him safe.”  

Murdoch chuckled, “Lori, I’ll try, but with Johnny, that’s a challenge and a full time job.”

“Murdoch, I’ve watched you with your boys, both of them.  It’s a job you love.”  

“What’s going on?”  Johnny watched as Scott and Murdoch moved a table into his room.  

“Well, Lori and Sammy are leaving tomorrow morning and they thought you might like to have dinner with them.  And since you’re not up to coming to the hotel dining room yet, we brought the dinner to you.  

A smile split Johnny’s face, then it was gone.  “Did Ruth do the cookin?”  

Scott laughed; it was a sign of how much better Johnny was doing.  “No, actually Sammy and Lori made everything.  I’m not sure what they’ve made, but from the smells coming from the kitchen whatever it is should be pretty good.”  Scott turned to leave.  “Murdoch, I’ll go get some extra chairs.”  

Murdoch pushed the table close to the bed, “Let me help you get situated here.” as he pulled some pillows into place to help support Johnny.

“Murdoch, you know it’s time we get on our way home too.  The weather seems good for travelin’ right now and I can manage the trip.”   

Murdoch finished arranging the pillows and quilts.  He looked into the clear blue of his son’s eyes and nodded in agreement.  “You’re right, Johnny; it’s time we go home.  I’ll talk to Tom.” 

Lori came in with a stack of plates.  “Let’s get this table set; Sammy’s bringing in the chicken.  It’s not Mexican Johnny.  Sammy said it’s some kind of Chinese and that’ll be hot enough for you.  And Johnny, I’ve been told that you have quite the taste for sweets, so I made something I remember my mama making.  But you have to promise to finish dinner before you can have dessert.”


Johnny leaned back, “I’m stuffed.  I haven’t eaten this much since, well, it’s been a long time.”  Johnny’s word belied the half eaten remains of the evening’s meal.  “Sammy, I think Maria’ll have to find out how to fix that chicken.”       

Scott laughed, remembering the look in Johnny’s eyes as he’d bit into the chicken that was spicy and hot and sweet all at once.  “Sammy, I’ll help you clear away here while Lori brings desert in. 

Lori came in with a platter filled with apples baked in flakey pastry and drenched in sweet cream.  She looked at Johnny’s half eaten meal.  “Well, Johnny, I’m not sure if you’re going to get any of this.  I think I said you needed to finish your dinner.”  She turned to Murdoch and Scott.  “What do you think, does he get dessert?”  

Neither Murdoch nor Scott could contain their laughter over the look of disbelief on Johnny’s face.  


Scott raised an eyebrow at the hint of Madrid he heard come through Johnny’s voice.  “Lori, I imagine Johnny was just overwhelmed by how good the food was and it was just too much for him.  I think you should let him have dessert.”

Murdoch and Scott waved to the receding wagon.  They’d said their farewells to Lori and Sammy.  Lori had taken Johnny his breakfast and spent time with him saying her goodbyes.  “Murdoch, we better go in and check on Johnny.  I’m pretty sure that now that Lori and Sammy have headed home, he’ll be more than a little testy about staying here.”

“Johnny asked me last night. He wants to leave for home.  I’m thinking about talking to Tom to see if we can head home, but I’d like to know what you think.”  As much as Murdoch wanted to get back to Lancer, he valued Scott’s opinion because he knew Scott would always put Johnny’s welfare first, regardless of what he or Johnny might want.  

Scott leaned against the porch railing.  “I knew sooner or later he’d start asking about going home, I’m just surprised he’s been able to stay put this long.”  Scott turned to look at Murdoch.  “I don’t know Murdoch.  He seems a lot better, but how much of that is show?  I don’t know if he really has the stamina to manage the trip home.  But I know Johnny well enough now to know that if we try to keep him here much longer, he’ll be trying to get up on his own and then trying to find a horse and ride out.”  What scared Scott the most is that Johnny really would try that.  “So, much as I’d like to keep him here, I agree; it’s time to go home.”  

He felt Murdoch’s hand squeeze his shoulder.  “Thank you, son. I appreciate your support.  I’ll talk to Tom.  If he agrees, we’ll have a lot to do in the next few days to get ready.”  Scott watched Murdoch as he returned to Tom’s office, knowing in his heart they could be in for a grueling trip.   

Murdoch found Tom in his office. “Tom, Johnny’s asked me about going home.”  Murdoch drew a deep breath.  “I have to admit I’m a little concerned about traveling.  The weather’s starting to turn and I’d like to get on our way before we have another storm or it turns too cold.  You said it would be a week or more, I know it’s been just a week but do you think Johnny will be able to travel soon?”  

“Murdoch, I’ve been waiting for you to bring this up, especially since Lori and Sammy have left.    I think Johnny’s strong enough now to travel home, but barely.  I’ve been making some notes about his care for you to give to Dr. Jenkins when you get back.  I’ll need to give you and Scott instructions on taking care of Johnny, his leg, the medicine I’ve been giving him.  But I need to warn you. It won’t be an easy trip for him or either of you.”  

“I know.”  But he’d have his son home where he belonged.  “I’ll tell Scott; we’ve got some plans to make.”


Tom entered Johnny’s room to find him sitting by the window.  “”Did you…?”

“No Doc, Scott came in and helped me up.” Johnny started with a bit of hesitation, “Tom, Doc, when can I go home?  All I’m doin’ here is layin’ in bed and starin’ at the ceiling and sittin’ by the window for a few minutes a day.  I can do that at Lancer.  And I know Ruth’s tryin’, but Maria’s a lot better cook.”   It wasn’t quite pleading, but close.

Tom smiled; he’d been expecting this discussion.  “Johnny, your father and I talked about that just a short time ago.  I think he’s at the livery right now making arrangements for a wagon and team and I saw Scott heading to the store to get supplies for the trip.” 

Johnny’s smile was the brightest thing Tom had seen in a long time.  “When they come back, I’m going to give some instructions for your care during the trip.  And I’ll expect you to follow them to the letter.”  

“Whatever you say, Doc. I just want to get home.”


Murdoch and Scott both listened attentively as Tom instructed them on what they needed to do when changing the dressing on Johnny’s leg, what they should look for.  They’d both helped him when changing the dressing, but now it would be up to them.  

“Assuming the weather is good you can be on your way home tomorrow morning.  I’m going to send some sleeping powders with you.”  Tom threw a stern look Johnny’s way as he heard him begin to protest.  “Johnny, you’ll take one each night so you can rest.  It won’t make any difference how soft a mattress we put in the back of that wagon it’s going to be a rough trip for you.  If you can rest well at night, it’ll be easier, and it’ll save your strength.”   Tom leveled a look at Johnny.  “And remember, young man, you promised to follow my instructions to the letter.”

“And I’m going to hold you to that son.  No arguments when we get on the trail.  But right now I think you need to eat and then get some sleep.  Scott and I’ll do the same.  We need to be fresh to start home.”

Murdoch and Scott had finished dinner and were sitting in the hotel dining room with coffee and brandy.  “Murdoch, I sent a telegram to Lancer to let them know we’re leaving tomorrow and when we should arrive home.  The telegram’ll probably get there before the letter I sent earlier this week.”

“Hmmm, it’s probably better they hear everything that’s happened from us instead of reading about it in a letter.”  Murdoch looked up and smiled.  “Teresa’s likely busy baking and cleaning.  He pushed his chair away from the table.  “I think I’ll check on Johnny before we turn in.  Tom wants to be sure he gets a good night’s sleep but I think he’ll be like a child waiting up for Santa.”  

“Scott’s finishing getting the wagon loaded.”  The back now held a soft mattress cushioned even more with a few extra quilts.  Murdoch was helping Johnny dress in more than a nightshirt for the first time in weeks.  

“Murdoch, where’s my gun?”  

“You won’t need…”.  Murdoch stopped when he realized why Johnny was asking.  For the first time in weeks, he’d be out in the open and as weak as he still was, he needed to be able to protect himself.  “I think Scott has it in a saddlebag. I’ll have him put it under the pillows.  Will that be OK?”

Johnny nodded silently.  

“Johnny, are you sure you’re up to this.  We can wait a few more days.”  

Johnny turned to face Murdoch and smiled.  “No, I’m good.  I just want to get home.”  

Scott brought the wagon around to the back of Tom’s office so they could move Johnny out of sight of the eyes of the town’s people.  He tied the team off and entered the back of the building to Johnny’s room.  Murdoch and Tom were talking quietly in one corner.  Johnny was still in bed, deceptively quiet.  Scott knew from experience that he was wide awake and taking in everything that was going on.  

Scott turned to the corner where Murdoch and Tom were talking.  Tom finished reviewing the instructions he’d given them the day before.  

Murdoch held out his hand.  “Tom, thank you for everything you’ve done for Johnny.  He was in good hands and I thank you for that.”  

“You just take care of him.  Let me know when you get back home and how he’s doing?”

“We’ll do that, Tom.  And if you ever get down to Lancer, you need to stop in for a visit.”  

Murdoch walked to the bed.  “Johnny, are you ready to go?”

He was met by a smile. “Any time Old Man.”  But did he detect a hint of apprehension in those blue eyes?


Part 18

Murdoch sat on the ridge overlooking the road leading through the arch that proclaimed Lancer and the great house in the distance.  His gaze strayed to the south, watching, waiting for the riders to come into view.  It seemed like a lifetime ago that he and his sons had set out for the cattleman’s convention, Johnny’s lifetime.  Watching the trail below, he thought back on their arrival home. 

The trip home, even in the well sprung and padded wagon, had been too hard on Johnny.  The first two days hadn’t been bad, but by the third day, his stamina and strength had been exhausted.  Both Scott and Murdoch had wanted to find a town with a hotel and, hopefully, a doctor and stop for a few days and let Johnny rest.  Johnny had vetoed any suggestions of stopping.  Murdoch realized Johnny’s anxiety over being anywhere public and less than one hundred percent, it left him and his family open to dangers he wouldn’t have been able to face.  So they had kept to the trail and tried to balance getting home to Lancer quickly and making the journey as easy as possible for Johnny.   

They’d arrived at Lancer near dusk.  Scott was sitting in the back of the wagon with Johnny.  His cough had returned and his breathing was easier as he lay with Scott keeping him upright.  Murdoch drew the team to a stop.  “Son, we’re almost home.”  Scott helped Johnny sit up to peer over the edge of the wagon.  

“Never looked better, Murdoch.”  Johnny relaxed back against Scott catching his breath.  “Let’s get a move on.  I think Teresa’s got a cake for me.  I can smell it from here.”  

Murdoch chuckled and slapped the reins.  “More likely, Jelly’s been brewing some sort of concoction for you to drink.”

“Just my luck.”  Johnny’s weak laugh ended in a cough.  They drove under the arch and pulled to the front of the hacienda.  Teresa and Jelly rushed out to meet them.  Teresa managed to hold back the tears as they eased Johnny out of the wagon and carried him to his waiting room.  Murdoch watched from the door as Scott and Teresa settled Johnny into bed.  

Jelly came up beside him.  “We figured you’d be getting’ here late today, so we already asked Sam to come by.  I reckon he’ll be here after he closes up his office.”  Jelly wasn’t sure if Murdoch heard him but went on.  “I’ll get one of the hands to take care of the team.  Maria’s got some dinner ready.

Murdoch nodded, his eyes never leaving Johnny.  “Thanks, Jelly, maybe after Sam gets here.”  

Sam sat at Murdoch’s desk reading the notes Tom Blair had sent. He’d occasionally look at Murdoch and shook his head.  When he finished, he carefully straightened the stack of paper, aligning the edges, buying a few moments to try to keep his anger at bay.

He finally broke the silence.  “Murdoch, I don’t know what was going on in your head, bringing Johnny home in the condition he’s in.  From Tom’s notes, that boy was close to death when you finally got him to Placerville and from what I can tell from the notes, he shouldn’t have been moved for another week, maybe two.” Sam stormed across the room, taking a place in front of Murdoch.  “But no, you had to put him in the back of a drafty wagon and drag him cross country for four days.  Dear God Murdoch, it’s a wonder he survived the trip.”

Murdoch looked up from his chair.  “Sam, Johnny wanted..”

Sam cut him off. “Don’t Sam me and I’m not interested in what Johnny wanted.  You should have been thinking about what was best for him.  I know he’s a grown man and he’s been on his own for a long time.  But you’re his father and that means…”  Sam stopped as Murdoch abruptly rose from the chair and walked to the windows behind the desk, his back to Sam.

Murdoch finally turned around, his voice quiet enough that Sam had to strain to hear.  “Sam, we’ve been friends a long time and you’ve known Johnny as long as I have.”  Murdoch stopped thinking back to Johnny’s birth, “Maybe a minute or two longer.  I know I haven’t had much experience as a father, but I think I was doing what was best for Johnny and that was to bring him home.”  Murdoch stopped, drawing a deep breath.  “He doesn’t ask for much Sam, but he asked me to bring him home and I’d promised him I would.”  Murdoch stopped and held Sam’s gaze.

Sam finally nodded and looked away with a sigh.  “Let me go up and see your son Murdoch.”  He made his way to Johnny’s room; the door was open.  Scott and Teresa were aligned on either side of the bed.   “Why don’t the two of you do down and keep Murdoch company while I see to Johnny.”  He dismissed them with a wave of his hand.  “I’ll call you if I need help.” 

Sam stood by the door and watched Johnny, shook his head sadly, <<If there’s a hard way to do something this boy was going to find it.>>  He saw the flicker of an eyelid. 

“They gone?”  

“For now.”  

Johnny sighed, “I get tired of everyone hoverin’ over me.  I’m fine.”

Sam snorted, “I’ll be the judge of that John, right now, let’s get you checked out.”  Sam spent quiet minutes carefully listening to Johnny’s breathing and heart, shaking his head at how much weight Johnny had lost and how weak he still was.  

Johnny leaned back against the pillows when he’d finished.  “Sam, I heard you yellin’ at Murdoch.”

“John, he’s lucky I only yelled at him.”  

“You gonna’ hit my old man Sam?”  Johnny started to laugh at the thought but ended with a dry cough.  “It wasn’t his fault.  I wanted to come home.  You know if he’d thought for a minute it wasn’t the right thing…” Johnny stopped trying to catch his breath.  “He wouldn’t a let me budge from that bed.  And Tom, the doc in …”

Sam held up his hand, ”Easy Johnny, save your breath. Your chest sounds pretty tight right now.  I know your father would never do anything to harm you.  But Johnny, where you’re concerned, sometimes his heart overrules his head.”

He heard the pacing in the hall and looking at Johnny knew he’d heard it too.  “Should we let him come in?”  

Johnny smiled, just a faint twinkle in his eyes.  “Might as well, that door won’t hold him for long.”

Sam opened the door to admit Murdoch.  “Murdoch, you’re just in time.  I need some help with this dressing on Johnny’s leg.”  Sam made as quick work as he could, carefully repacking the long incision and applying fresh dressings.   

Sam finished washing his hands and turned back to Johnny.  “Well, Johnny, it’s going to take some time but I think you’re going to be just fine.”  Sam’s words were rewarded by the biggest smile Murdoch had seen in the longest time.  “I’m going to keep you on the medicine for your heart awhile longer and then gradually reduce that and I’m going to add a tonic to help the tightness in your chest.”  Sam leveled a stern gaze first at Johnny then at Murdoch.  “And you’re going to stay right in this bed for at least another week. After that, I’ll decide how much longer.”  

Johnny sank back against the pillows, the smile of just a moment ago replaced by what Teresa would call his puppy dog look.  “A week!  Sam, I already spent so much time in bed I can’t remember how to put my boots on.  Tom was lettin’ me out a bed a couple of times a day.”   

Sam was not in the least taken in by Johnny’s look.  “And that was before you spent four days in the back of a wagon.”  Sam continued despite hearing Murdoch’s quiet gasp behind him.  “I just told you you’ll spend the next week in bed.  And when I finally decide you can be out of bed, it’ll be up to a chair with help.  Then you can be up with crutches and finally a cane while your leg heals.”  

“But right now, what you need is rest.”  Even in the flickering lamp light it was easy to see the exhaustion written on Johnny’s face. “Maria has some broth ready for you, we’ll start that tonic to clear up your cough and then young man I’m pretty sure someone will be up to tuck you in for the night.  Now I’m going down to talk to the rest of the family just to make sure they all know to ride herd on you, so you take the time to get well.” 

Johnny slept the better part of the first two days home.  Just like in Placerville every time he’d wake someone was at his side to get him to drink or eat the ever present soup and take his medicine.  

The morning of the fourth day Murdoch made his way to the kitchen for breakfast, Teresa was at the stove.  She reached for the coffee pot, “Eggs will be ready in just a few minutes.  Maria just took a tray up to Johnny’s room.”

Murdoch had barely begun the coffee when his name reverberated through the kitchen.  


He looked up in surprise, putting down the coffee.  “Johnny?”  And headed to the stairs.

He found Johnny, sitting against the stack of pillows, glaring at Scott and Maria, who were cleaning up the remains of a bowl of oatmeal. 

“Murdoch.”  Johnny was sputtering; he was so frustrated.  “I had to put up with Ruth’s cookin’ in Placerville, but can’t Maria fix me somethin’ better?  Some huevos rancheros, even some bacon and eggs.”

Murdoch looked at Scott and Maria.  Scott was having trouble keeping a straight face and Maria was muttering under her breath.  Murdoch couldn’t make out all she was saying but it was something about spoiled child, spanking, ungrateful; but there was only affection in her tone.  

“Johnny, Sam wanted us to keep everything fairly light until you started feeling better.”  Murdoch started to laugh, “I’d say that might be now.  Teresa’s fixing eggs right now, so I think we can provide a little more substantial breakfast.”

Sam had taken to stopping by every other day to see Johnny, timing his visits after office hours.  He could be sure he’d find all the family at home by then and knew he’d be invited to stay for supper.  Even though he wasn’t ready to let Johnny join the family for meals, he marveled at the easy camaraderie and laughter at the Lancer table.   He thought of the contrast to the evenings with Murdoch before his sons had come home.  Murdoch had been all business those evenings, talking about contracts and cattle prices and the daily workings of the ranch, trying to fill the emptiness in his heart.  Sam smiled to himself.  It was a joy to visit the Lancer home now that Scott and Johnny had returned, even if too often it also meant tending to one or the other of those two sons.

Sam was pleased with Johnny’s progress.  He’d spent a week in bed just as ordered, a behavior firmly enforced by his family.  His chest had cleared and the dark circles under his eyes had disappeared.  Sam had begun to decrease the medicine Sammy and then Tom had used when Johnny’s heart had started to fail.  Sam had reluctantly started to let Johnny get up to a chair and then with crutches but only with the firm requirement that someone always be with him when he was up.  Sam knew from past experience with this patient that he’d try to fool all of them with how strong he was.  And he also knew from the same experience that if he gave Johnny an inch he’d take a mile.

They’d settled into a morning routine.  Scott would help Johnny get up and take him his breakfast before he set out for the day’s work.  Murdoch would check on Johnny through the morning, sometimes spending the time in Johnny’s room as he did the endless ranch paperwork, occasionally even getting Johnny to help.  This morning started no differently.  Murdoch pushed open the door, finding Johnny sitting at the table by the window, looking down to the now empty corral.  He crossed the room, noticing the barely touched plate of flapjacks and bacon.  

“Johnny, you can’t get your strength back if you don’t eat.”  

Johnny continued to stare out the window.  “Murdoch, Sam thinks he’s doin’ me a big favor lettin’ me get outta’ bed and hobblin’ over to the chair.”  Johnny nodded to the crutches leaning against the wall.  “But it ain’t enough, I want, I just wanta’…” Johnny sighed in frustration.

Murdoch took in the scene, his son’s uncharacteristic slumped shoulders, a room that wasn’t nearly big enough for his restless personality.  “Johnny, Sam said you could be up in a chair for as long as you’d like.”

“But Murdoch, it…”

“Wait, I don’t remember that he specified where that chair had to be.”  

Johnny looked up, his eyebrows drawn in puzzlement and then his eyes widened in surprise and a smile lit his face.

“I think I can pull a chair out onto the veranda and make you pretty comfortable down there.  And then maybe a nap in the great room after lunch.”

Johnny laughed, his eyes sparkling, “Murdoch, there’s gonna be hell to pay with Sam.”  

“I’ll deal with Sam.”  He was so delighted to see Johnny’s excitement at what seems like such a small thing. “But, you might think about how you’re going to handle your brother and Teresa.”

Winning over Teresa had been easy.  She saw the happiness in Johnny’s eyes and when he’d finished lunch and asked for seconds she’d felt for the first time since getting those telegrams that everything was falling into place.  


Scott drew Charlie to a stop, handing the reins off to one of the hands.  He walked across the yard, brushing dirt from his jacket and pants.  He stopped on the veranda, noticing the chair, footstool, and a table drawn up at its side.  Puzzled, he made his way to the great room.  Murdoch was sitting at his desk.

“Murdoch, the chair and footstool on the veranda.  What….”

“Shhh.”  Scott followed the wave of his hand to find Johnny sleeping on the sofa.

Scott crossed the room to Murdoch’s side.  Keeping his voice low, “Murdoch, what’s Johnny doing out of bed, out of his room?”  

“Sam said he could be up with his crutches and up in a chair.  But I don’t remember him saying exactly where that had to be.”

“Murdoch, Johnny’s not strong enough yet.  You know Sam meant his room.  He would have said more if he thought Johnny was strong enough.”  

“Scott, I was there, I know what Sam said.”  Murdoch looked across the room to where Johnny lay sleeping.  “But Scott, he was, it was like he’d been set free when I suggested the veranda.  I made sure he took it easy.  Jelly helped me get him downstairs.”

Scott rolled his eyes. “Well, it’s a comfort that Jelly was here to help.  I use to think that Johnny got his reckless streak from his mother, now I think it might be from you.  Murdoch, next Johnny’ll be getting up without anyone around, he could fall on the stairs, he could stay out too long and get a chill.”

“Hey, brother.”  Johnny’s sleepy voice interrupted Scott’s tirade.  “I know that Murdoch was lettin’ me do more than Sam’s wantin’ me to do.  But bein’ outside, it’s like I was part of the world again instead of cooped up in my room and lookin’ out the window.   

“Scott, I ain’t stupid.  I know how hard you and Murdoch and Lori and all worked to get me well and I’m tryin’ to pay attention to what Sam wants me to do.”  Johnny started to swing his legs off the sofa to sit up and found Murdoch ready to help him up and Scott moving the ottoman to support his legs, he chuckled and shook his head.  “And I know nobody here’s gonna let me get away with anything.  Scott, it felt so good to be outside.”  

Scott heard the sincerity in Johnny’s words.  “Johnny, I just wouldn’t want to be in your boots when Sam finds out.”

“Sam don’t have to find out.”  Johnny’s quiet voice was optimistic.    

Scott swatted his gloves against Johnny’s knee and laughed.  “Brother, if you’ve learned anything, you should know that Sam finds out everything.”


Sam had arrived for his routine visit and found Johnny dressed and sitting quietly looking out the window of his room, his right leg was propped up on a pillow on the opposite chair; his left foot was booted but at least no spurs.  Sam knew from previous experience how hard it was for Johnny to sit and only watch the activity he should be part of.  He was pleased with Johnny’s progress, his appetite had improved, his color was better, chest clear, and his leg was healing nicely.  

“Well Johnny, I think you’re doing well enough to venture downstairs for a while every day, you’ll need to be careful on the stairs, in fact, it’s best if someone’s with you on the stairs.”   Sam packed up his supplies and turned to Johnny.  “You see what happens when you actually pay attention to me.  It won’t be too much longer before you’re up and around and back outside.”  

Johnny shifted in the chair and swung his legs around to face Sam.  “Just followin’ your orders, Sam.”  

There was something in Johnny’s voice that caught Sam’s attention but he couldn’t place what it was and nothing in Johnny’s face held any clues.  “Hmm, it’s just the first time you’ve followed them.”  There was something else he’d noticed, but what?  “I’ll go downstairs and give an update to Murdoch.”  

As Sam made his way down the stairs, he realized what he’d seen.  

Murdoch rose to greet him and pour drinks.  “How’s Johnny doing?”  

Sam took the drink.  “He’s doing well, Murdoch.  But I think you’d better talk to Teresa and Maria about their housekeeping.” 

“Housekeeping?”  Murdoch was puzzled by Sam’s comment.

“From the dust on Johnny’s boot it seems like they need to mind their sweeping.  As dusty as that boot looked you’d almost think he’d been outside.”  Sam noticed the slow flush color Murdoch’s face and that he’d suddenly become interested in a piece of paper on the desk.  

“Sam,” Murdoch looked up, hesitation in his voice.  “I’ve got a, well, a confession and first, it’s my fault, not Johnny’s.”  

Sam could guess at what Murdoch had allowed, perhaps even instigated, but given Johnny’s progress he could understand what had motivated him.  “Murdoch, I hear confession is good for the soul, but I don’t really have time today.  I need to check on Mrs. Samuels, it’s near her time.    Johnny’s doing well, so you just keep on doing whatever you’ve been doing.  Whatever it is, it’s obviously good for him.”   

Murdoch smiled with gratitude that Sam understood. “I’ll make sure he doesn’t overdo, Sam.  And we’ll see you again in a few days.”  

Murdoch watched, waiting.  Sam had finally given his okay for Johnny to ride.  What had Sam’s words been?  “A quiet, short ride.  No galloping, no jumping, no racing, just a quiet ride in the afternoon sun.”  Scott had saddled Barranca and brought him to the front of the hacienda.  Johnny had limped out to meet him, leaning on the cane Sam still required him to use.  Murdoch had watched them leave, waving as they faded from view. 

He pulled out his watch, checking the time.  Maybe it wasn’t a short ride, he’d hope it was quiet.  Murdoch saw the dark clouds far to the north, there’d be winter storms in the mountains this night.  He thought of Tom and Lori and Sammy in their mountain towns and silently thanked them once again for saving Johnny.  

He heard them before he saw them, the sound of galloping horses and the shouts of brothers riding with the wind.  The late afternoon sun paved the road in gold as they came into view.  Johnny was bent low over Barranca’s neck as he led Scott in the ride back to the ranch.  

Murdoch slapped the reins against Caledonia’s neck and guided him down the ridge.  He wouldn’t try to catch up with his sons.  He found them in the great room, drinks in hand.  Johnny was flushed but this time from the sun and wind against his face.  He walked to the sideboard to pour himself a drink and then turned and looked at his sons; Johnny was settled in the chair by the fireplace, his leg propped up on the ottoman, Scott leaning against the fireplace. 

 “Nice ride boys?  Short and quiet just like Sam ordered?”  

Johnny looked at Murdoch and knew they’d been caught.  His smile answered as he responded, “Just what the doctor ordered Murdoch.”

“Sam will be pleased to hear you’re following his instructions.”  Johnny saw the twinkle in his father’s eyes and knew this secret would be safe from Sam, at least for a while.

Murdoch gazed out the window and saw the storm clouds settle over the mountains.  The Storm King might roam the mountains tonight, but the Lancer great room was warmed with the laughter of his sons.


~ end ~
November 2006



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25 thoughts on “The Storm King by Christine

    1. Patricia, Thank you reading and commenting on The Storm King, I realize I wrote that story almost 14 years ago. I haven’t written much, no long stories, since. You know work, etc. that takes priority. I have thought about giving writing another go and have it on my ‘to do’ list for after the November election.

      I hope you’re enjoying all the other stories on the site.



  1. Enjoyed the story. One sentence “But as they settled in, Scott realized the Murdoch and Johnny had the same stubborn streak, one thing that had helped both of them survive.” is the first time time their stubborn streak had been compared with this conclusion. I just thought how true. Thank for writing it. Margaret


    1. Margaret
      Thank you for reading my story and your comment. I must admit I wrote it a long time ago so remember the plot well but not the actual words. I may have to re-read it.



  2. Love the story. Typical of the Lancer family to be more concerned about the others than themselves. All willing to put themselves at risk for the other.


    1. Blanche
      Thank you for reading my story and your comment. It’s a family, saving each other is what they do – except when they are saving someone else, especially a damsel in distress.



  3. This was a real page turner as the Lancers kept missing each other and poor Johnny got worse. I’m guessing a fair bit of research went into this piece of work. Great story!


    1. Thank you for commenting. I did a bit of research, more on the history of the area. I live near the mountains so know the storms well. There were times I thought I’d put the family through I trial too many, but that’s just the way it seems to go. And the Lancers were up for the challenge.


  4. Christine
    A great story. I love it when writers bring real life characters like Snowshoe into stories. You created some marvelous Father/son and brother/brother moments. I hope you are still writing something somewhere. Thanks for sharing your gift of this story.



    1. Chris, So sorry I’m tardy in replying. I’d love to say I was working on a new story but that wouldn’t be true, I’m working on elections. That you for lovely comments. Snowshoe was a take on a real “postman” of the day. Gives a new meaning to the “neither snow nor rain…” motto. I’m pleased you like the family moments, I just tried to be a fly on the wall to see how they would react then wrote it.


      1. I certainly understand your focus on the election, it’s hard to think of anything else these days… Perhaps afterwards your muse will want to dance?


  5. Good story, really enjoyed it. I liked the side characters, all the people who helped the family. Don’t know if you’d want to go back and make corrections since it’s an older story but you have “stream” and “streaming” when they’re trying to help Johnny’s breathing, instead of steam and steaming. It’s right a couple of times later so probably a typo. Not criticism, just the type of thing I like to know when I write.


    1. Susan
      Thanks for reading the Storm King and replying. I’m pleased you enjoyed the “guest stars”. Snowshoe was based on a real person, an early “postman”. I wrote without a beta so catching the errors were all me. I’m sure there are others but I’m not sure if I can make corrections now.



  6. I do enjoy the longer stories as they seem to allow the characters and their relationship develop. It’s always fun to keep an atlas handy so that I can follow any of the longer off ranch journeys. Loved the story.


    1. Val.
      Thank you for reading and commenting. I also like longer stories (truth, any Lancer story). The Lancers inhabited a world and there can be so much to consider on how they interact with all those other people and their stories. I do with some things I read, mostly the mysteries, print a map so I can keep track of who’s going where, and where the road leads, etc. Assuming of course the setting is real.
      I did use a high level map as I wrote the story, both to keep track of locations and also distances. I also had a schedule of what was Scott and Murdoch/Johnny were doing so I kept the timelines somewhat consistent. I’m happy you loved the story.



  7. Loved your story. I really like the stories that have all three Lancer men involved and a happy ending. Hope that you start writing again.


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