"Hey, Boston, you okay?"
Scott Lancer stared over at his brother, who like himself, was wrapped in waterproof slicker. The rained pelted down on the two men even as thunder and lightning seemed to herald the end of the world around them.
"Sure, Johnny, just wet, cold and tired."
"Know whatya mean, Brother. I'll betcha it musta looked like this just before that Noah fellow built his ark."
"Well, it hasn't been forty days yet, but it certainly seems like it."
A short distance ahead, Murdoch Lancer called to his two sons to catch up with him. He wanted to take no chances with someone being lost in the fog and near blinding downpour.
No one in the immediate vicinity of Lancer could remember such a dismal period of rain. But each morning for nearly the last week, the ranch had awakened to her mountains shrouded in the low-hanging clouds which signaled another day of rain. At first, everyone had welcomed the deluge since the creeks and pools would be filled to the brim for the summer to come. But now, flash flooding and water breaking out of its banks had become the main concern. It was for that reason that the three Lancers were now making their way up into the nearby hills where one of Lancer's main reservoirs was dangerously near collapse from the excess water.
The small earthen dam which had been built to contain the water had eroded under the onslaught of nearly seven days of rain. As a result, Murdoch had sent some of his ranch hands to the other side of the small lake while he and his sons were planning to shore up the dam side. Behind them were the mules which were reluctantly carrying material to help solidify the dam. Unfortunately, the mules had been behaving much as they were reputed to, so the going had been slow, especially since the ascending terrain had become slippery with mud and debris.
Within a quarter-mile of the reservoir, the going became so treacherous that Murdoch insisted that they dismount and continue on foot. Naturally, the mules objected, but they had met their match in the three equally stubborn Lancers who through some strategic cussing and expert handling convinced the four-legged beasts that it was in their best interests to continue on.
Johnny led the way forward, mentally blessing the surefooted strength of Barranca. Turning to see his brother behind him, he called back, "Say Scott, you ever seen anything worse than these mules?"
Blond hair plastered to his face even under the protection of his hat, Scott called back. "These aren't so bad. Knew some in the army which held up a whole wagon train for hours."
"They stink too."
The older Lancer moved closer to the man in front. "Frankly, Brother, I don't think any of us smell too good right now."
Johnny chuckled. "You said a mouth full, Boston. When I get back to Lancer, I'm gonna have to cut these clothes off. Then I'm gonna soak in a tub of hot water for about three days!"
"Not if I get there first!"
"Johnny, Scott! Pay attention up there. We're almost to the lake and...."
Before the tall man could finish his sentence, a great roar broke over them, followed by a swell of water in the ravine to their left which quickly ate away at the once-solid ground beneath their feet.
In horror, Scott and Murdoch watched as the dark-haired gunfighter lost his balance in the shifting mud and started to slide down the hill towards the swirling waters below.
Flinging himself after his younger brother, Scott hit the mud hard, praying that he could catch up before the deluge of water and mud flooded over the young man's head, burying him.
From the short distance above, the patriarch watched as both men seemed to slide towards their doom. Luckily, in their path was a boulder left there in one of the cataclysmic upheavals that had formed the mountains near Lancer. Its massive size prevented the dark-haired son from continuing the drop towards oblivion. Striking against its unyielding flanks, Johnny lay there exposed to the rivers of mud which descended in their wake.
In a determined effort, Scott managed to propel himself in a similar line so that he too rammed into the rock. Hanging onto Johnny and the monolith, the blond watched as a cascade of smelly, liquid earth stampeded directly towards their position. To his relief the mud river parted as it tackled the boulder, only to feel an ominous movement beneath him.
Above, Murdoch Lancer could see the precarious position of the two young men. Reacting quickly, he anchored a rope to a twin of the boulder below. Easing himself backwards down through the mud, he sank into the stream to his ankles, but he would not stop. Peering over his shoulder to see how much farther he had to go, he realized that there was only one muddy body lying on top the rock.
The few actual minutes that it took to reach the side of his son seemed to take hours, however, finally, he was able to see that the other son was still there but had slipped off with his back to the rock. Breathing a sigh of relief, Murdoch pulled the one young man onto his back for the dangerous ascension to the top.
Since the other boy seemed to be in a fairly stable position behind the rock, the patriarch decided to get one to safety before returning. He didn't even want to consider what he would do when both sons were back on the trail with no shelter, but at least the horses had not run off so perhaps they could make it back to Lancer--as long as neither man was badly hurt.
Exhausted by the time he had pulled himself up the hill with his burden, Murdoch lifted his boy to the ground. Taking a deep breath and trembling with fatigue, the tall rancher prepared to grasp the rope so that he could descend again. Fortuately, the gloves he wore prevented burns and cuts from the rope, but his muscles ached and cried out for relief. Still, he continued on until he again turned to see how much there was to go, only to realize the rock was no longer there. It had been swept along in the mud tide and was even then splashing into the torrent cascading down the hillside.
The cerulean blue eyes struggled to open, but the invading dirt and grit rasped against his eyelids, causing an intense pain. Tensing against the agony, the slender man once again fought against the viscosity of the slime which enveloped his whole body.
The stench of the mud and debris assailed his senses even as the pull of the muck threatened to carry him into the darkness of oblivion. His lungs ached for fresh air, but the omnipresent liquid earth filled his mouth when he tried to scream for help.
He knew that help was nearby so that he only needed to hold on to the rock so that he and his brother might be saved. But exhaustion and the pain of cracked ribs weakened his arms, his fingers, his body.
The rain continued to drench the waterlogged figure, but it did seem to slightly wash away the pervading coating of mud. Tentatively, he reached out to search for the young man who had been with him, but could not feel anything except the all-encompassing cold which permeated his being now that his slicker and hat had been lost in the wake of the mud's onslaught.
Raising his once-blond head, he could feel the stream of dirt which ran down his face from his plastered-down hair and out of his ears. A muffled river current seemed to be the only sound around him until suddenly there was a distant voice, a familiar voice, which promised safety and shelter.
Sinking back, he allowed himself to hope, even as gentle hands pulled him up out of the mud.
Murdoch Lancer could not remember a time when he had felt so miserable. What had started out as a mission to prevent the loss of a reservoir had turned deadly in nature's effort to destroy one of Lancer's lifelines.
Watching his two sons being carried down the hillside had almost made his heart stop with trepidation. However, Murdoch Lancer had not conquered this land by being indecisive or a coward. As soon as he realized that there was an opportunity to save the two young men, he had made his way down to the ledge formed by the boulder so that he could return Johnny and Scott to safety. He had managed to save one, only to lose the other. Now, he was on his way back to Lancer.
As much as he had wanted to stay to search, he knew that speed was of the essence if he wanted to save the son, who was resting against his chest on the slowly moving horse. His steed moved through the rain with a surefooted effort for which he was grateful. His own body ached with the effort to bring the lean figure of his son up the hillside. The patriarch did not let himself consider what might happen when he reached Lancer. Surely a hot bath and a warm bed would help both men. The horse continued to plod on, step by step, bringing the patriarch and his heir closer to home.
Murdoch Lancer sat by his son's bedside. The pallor on the young face reflected the upheaval displayed in the retching up of the glutinous mud which had settled in his stomach. The tall man had held the lean body, wincing as he saw the cuts and bruises along the tender rib area which had borne the brunt of the boulder's solidity.
The ride back to Lancer had been a nightmare of precipitation and bleakness. The patriarch's fingers had been so cold that once or twice when he had slipped them inside the injured man's shirt, he had stopped because he had felt no reassuring heartbeat. It had taken a minute or two for the warmth to transmit the message that his son still lived.
After reaching Lancer, willing hands relieved Murdoch of the burden he had carried so long. He knew that the boy would be looked after and a doctor summoned so he decided to head to the bath house for the reviving soak he had promised himself.
Moving awkwardly, the rancher allowed himself to settle into the steaming tub. Exhaustion overwhelmed his aching body as the abrasions of his rescue attempt prickled and stung. Every part of his body spoke of his ordeal, and still, that was nothing compared to what his sons had suffered.
For a moment the proud head sank to his chest. What more could he have done? Finally, his stalwart Scottish pragmatism took hold. Drying himself off, he dressed and returned to the hacienda's kitchen where, as always, he found a pot of hot coffee. Drinking a cup in two gulps completed his thawing out. Now, he needed to see what the doctor had said about his boy's condition.
Walking into the bedroom, he found Teresa O'Brien watching the silent man. "What did the doctor say, Teresa?"
Turning to see who had entered, Teresa commented, "Oh Murdoch, I didn't hear you. The doctor can't come because there's an emergency up at the mine."
"Then we'll have to take care of him ourselves."
The brown-haired girl nodded. "I'll go make some soup for when he wakes."
"Could you also bring me some hot water? I want to clean off some of the dirt."
"I'll be right back."
Stiffly, Murdoch sank into the chair. His son was almost unrecognizable under the layer of muck. The patriarch knew he couldn't get all of it off, but maybe he would rest easier when the battered face was clean.
It was then that the blue eyes had opened and with a cry of misery, the vile sludge had erupted from the heaving body.
Teresa, entering with towels and hot water, joined Murdoch in his efforts to help the afflicted man endure the covulsive spewing that wracked his slender frame.
When at last, the abused body sank back onto the bed, giving into the abyss of exhaustion once more, Murdoch and Teresa could only be grateful for the respite. "Murdoch, he can't stay in here. The bed's soaked."
"I know. He can have my bed. I'll carry him in there."
"But what about you? You're out on your feet."
"I'll take the bed in...in the other bedroom."
Teresa grimaced, but agreed. "All right. Just let me go add a hot brick to warm the sheets. He's still like ice."
"Good idea. Would you...would you stay with him for awhile? I need to go clean up again."
"Of course. Take your time."
Murdoch smiled wanly. He permitted himself only a short wash up to get off the stink and vileness. As he did so, weariness flooded the rancher's body. He had suffered loss before when he had had nothing except Lancer for solace. He knew he needed to stay strong for everyone on the ranch. The coming days would not be easy. He had to be sure that life at Lancer remained as stable as humanly possible.
Making his way into the great room, the rancher sat down at the desk from which he controlled his vast empire. Taking out the metal box which held his most important papers, the tired man riffled through contracts for cattle sales and other business dealings. Digging still deeper, he found the contract with the names Scott and Johnny Lancer affixed. He remembered back to the day when the two young men had decided to stay and share in his dream. Now, that dream was shattered.
Going down to the bottom of the box, he found two faded marriage certifcates. The joys of those time had been lost in the realities of life.
Leaning back in the chair, the older man reflected on what was to be done about the future. Then, while rubbing his hand over his tired eyes, a niggling thought pierced his memory. There was something missing. Thumbing through the papers once again, Murdoch realized the envelope from Boston was gone. He knew it had been there less than a month before since he had removed some of the papers before going to Modesto on a cattle-selling expedition.
Perplexed by the missive's absence, the big man started as Teresa hurried into the room. "Murdoch, he's awake!"
Crossing the room with a maximum of speed, Murdoch entered to find blue eyes staring at him. "How are you feeling, Son?"
For a moment there was no answer until the dry lips parted and a raw voice emerged, "Scott...all right?"
His father reached out to take his younger son's hand. "Johnny, I tried to save both of you, but...I couldn't. Scott's gone."
A shuddering rasp of heartache filled the room.