Much thanks to Tory Fischer (Sprite) for the beta.
Word count: 4,550
The two Lancer brothers walked around the edges of the burned out homestead. The fire print told the story of a well thought out ranch layout. In front of them had been the house. To the left, by the tree line, had once stood a barn with an attached corral. A few charred posts were still smoking. Smoldering square and rectangle ash piles were all that remained of what must have been other, smaller buildings. Only a small adobe, located away from any shrubbery, trees or other buildings had survived; singed, but intact.
Scott walked over and looked inside. “It’s the bath house,” he called out to Johnny. “No sign of anyone.”
“Didn’t reckon there would be, Scott.” Johnny waved his arm to include the whole scene in front of him. “No sign of an ash pile with the metal bits of a wagon left.”
“I sure hope they made it out,” Scott replied as he mounted his horse.
As Johnny put his foot in the stirrup, Scott put out a hand. “Shhh,” he said. “Hear that?”
Putting his foot back on the ground, Johnny scanned the area with his eyes. Hearing a faint noise, he walked to back toward the adobe. Walking past the well, he stopped. Taking a few steps back, he leaned over the stone wall.
“Well, I’ll be,” he muttered. Throwing his hat on the ground and unbuckling his belt, he called to his brother, “Hey, Scott, you aren’t going to believe this. Throw me a rope and stay on your horse.”
Scott grabbed his rope and quickly threw it. Johnny caught the rope end and began tying it around his waist. Scott tied his end of the rope to his saddle horn. Johnny climbed onto the edge of the well and began to lower himself down.
“Are you going to tell me what’s down there now or will I find out when I have to fish you out?”
Johnny grinned. “Now Scott, if that horse of yours does his job, you won’t have to fish me out. If he doesn’t, remember, it’s his fault you have to fish me out, not mine.”
Scott watched the rope as it followed after his brother into the well. His eyebrows raised when the rope stopped after only a few feet. He saw the rope move a second before he felt the jerk on his saddle horn. Giving Charlie a kick, he pulled on the reins to back up. It didn’t take long before he saw his brother’s arm grab the edge of the well and pull himself out.
Jumping lightly down, Johnny untied the rope and tossed it back toward Scott. Without saying a word, he picked up his rig, buckled it back on and grabbed his hat. As Scott recoiled his lariat, Johnny walked to Barranca and hopped into the saddle.
“Well?” Scott asked.
As if waiting until Scott gave in first, Johnny grinned and reached into his shirt. By the look on Scott’s face, a tiny kitten wasn’t what he had expected his brother to find.
“How in the world?”
“She was on a tiny ledge just big enough for her. Her ears and whiskers are singed, but I think she’ll be all right.” Johnny passed her over for Scott to see.
“She must have been pretty desperate to escape the flames,” Scott announced. He lightly touched the kitten’s ears and looked into her green eyes. “What are we going to call her?”
Johnny reached for the tabby kitten and put her back in his shirt.
“Isabelle?” Scott didn’t sound too sure of that name.
“Isabelle,” Johnny stated firmly. With that, he let Barranca take the lead and they headed out.
“You know Johnny,” Scott poked at the campfire with a stick, “I’ve never seen damage from fire like today.” He shook his head. “Utter devastation.”
Johnny settled Isabelle under his chin. “You must have seen fires during the war or even in those big cities of yours.”
“No, nothing like today.” Scott leaned back against his saddle. “There’s always been something left; part of a wall, a half burned door,” he gulped, “a body.” He shuddered as he remembered the scene his brother and him had come across later in the day. The question as to whether those ranchers had outrun the fire had sadly been answered. “Johnny, there was nothing left of anything except ash and glowing embers!”
Scott pointed at the kitten. “That cat is the only living thing we’ve seen or heard all day except for us and our horses.”
Johnny handed the kitten to Scott for him to hold.
Scott continued, “I hated not being able to bury those people. What kind of fire burns even bone? How hot did that thing even get?”
Johnny rubbed his chin. “Scott, we talked about this earlier today. There hasn’t been any rain for 7 months. The ground is too hard to dig a grave without a pick and shovel. The best we could do was scoop whatever ashes and bone we found and make a cairn over it. You made a nice cross and said a nice prayer. It was the best we could do.”
Scott sighed, “I suppose so but it still just doesn’t seem enough.”
Johnny stood up to pour himself more coffee. He lifted the coffeepot toward Scott. Setting the sleeping kitten into his hat, Scott leaned forward with his cup.
“I’ll tell you what else doesn’t seem enough,” Johnny’s voice held a hard edge to it.
“What?” Scott asked.
“Our defenses back at Lancer.” Johnny put the coffee pot down and settled by his bedroll. “Think about it Scott. That fire was fast. Those people had no chance to outrun that thing. Their ranch layout was pretty close to ours on a smaller scale. We got prepared for land pirates, a fire like this could wipe us out just as bad. We’ve been trailing that fire all day while we head home. If the wind changes, that thing could turn around and start trailing us!”
Scott sat up straight and looked at Johnny, eyes wide. “You’re right!”
What can we do? You know we’ve got to convince Murdoch.”
“Well, I think we should take the offense, Scott. Let’s put our heads
together and think about what we’ve seen that worked and didn’t work today.
You’ve seen stuff back east, I’ve been in a fire kinda like this before, between the two of us, we should be able to come up with a plan.”
“You were in a fire like this before?”
“A wildfire, yes, but it was out in the open and in scrub brush and rocky terrain.”
“And?” Scott asked.
“Let’s just say that it ran just as fast as what we’ve seen here and that even a stagecoach with four sound horses couldn’t outrun it.” Johnny swallowed hard. “Had to shoot them, Scott. There was a cave I could climb to but I couldn’t just let them burn.”
Scott slowly nodded. “Always a hard thing to do.”
Johnny cleared his throat. “ Grab you a stick and scoot over here, Scott. I think the Lancer brothers need to come up with a plan.”
Johnny came down the stairs and walked to the kitchen. Murdoch, Scott and Teresa were already there eating breakfast.
“I wondered if you were going to eat this morning,” Murdoch commented.
Johnny settled himself at the table and reached for the plate of eggs. A small pink nose wiggled its way between the buttons on his shirt.
“John, put that cat up.” From the tone of his voice, Murdoch was not making a suggestion.
“Aww, Murdoch, I’ll put her up after she eats.” Johnny replied as he slipped a piece of egg to the cat under his shirt.
“I don’t like animals in the house, John, much less at the table.” Murdoch picked up his coffee cup. “I can’t believe you brought that cat back with you all those miles.”
“Sir,” Scott spoke up, “ if you had been there, you wouldn’t have left it either.”
Scott looked at Johnny and nodded. He then returned his gaze toward Murdoch. “Okay, you wouldn’t have left her there. Besides being inhumane, it just didn’t seem right. She was the only living thing for miles around, the only life out of all that destruction.”
“Well,” Murdoch murmured, “from now on, let her eat outside.”
Murdoch stood up, folded his napkin then placed it beside his plate. “Everyone hurry up. If we’re going to get this ranch ready for a possible fire, we have a lot to do. Scott, while your brother is putting up his cat, go get Cipriano and call the men together.”
The family had talked long into the night after the boys had gotten home. After hearing the brothers’ descriptions of what they had seen and remembering past stories himself, Murdoch had agreed that the Lancer Ranch was ill-prepared for a wildfire and that precautions must be taken. The next hour or so would be used to explain to the men just what the Lancers’ wanted done.
As Murdoch walked outside and stood before the ranch workers, Scott stood beside him. He heard the door behind him slam shut. He glanced at Scott and saw Johnny step up beside him. Murdoch briefly smiled before returning his gaze to the ranch hands who stood before him.
“Men, as you know, the rains are late this year. It is hot, dry and there is no moisture in any of the vegetation. Fires are breaking out all over this state. Right now there is one several days away from the ranch. It is moving away from us but that could change depending on the wind. We,” Murdoch nodded toward Scott and Johnny, “have come up with some ideas to be prepared if a wildfire does head our way. We know that sometimes they move too fast for a horse and wagon to outrun. A train might be able to, but we live too far to get to Cross Creek if a fire is heading our way. Being prepared to stand our ground and fight here is our only chance.”
The Lancer men watched as the men began to murmur among themselves. Several looked over their shoulders at the hills that surrounded the ranch.
Murdoch cleared his throat and continued his speech. “Now, you men will be put into crews for the different tasks we have to do. Scott, Johnny, Cipriano and Frank will head the crews. Pedro, I need you to carry some messa
ges for me first thing this morning. We’ll be having an emergency meeting this evening with the Cattlemen Association to apprise them of what is happening and what precautions we’re taking.”
Scott took a step forward. “Men, many of you were here when we were under attack from Pardee. There is never a guarantee in battle, but there is one if you don’t prepare. The next few days are going to be grueling, doing what needs to be done to increase our chances. Just like with Pardee, we will be working as if our lives depend upon it. “
Johnny moved beside Scott and settled his hat on his head. “Trust us, it will.”
Murdoch opened the front door and looked around. His youngest was standing by the portico, an axe in his hand. “Johnny,” he called out. When Johnny didn’t acknowledge his father, Murdoch shut the door and walked toward his son. “John, you are not going to cut down the oak tree by the house. We’ve already trimmed it way back so that it isn’t touching the house itself. That will have to do.”
Murdoch continued admonishing his son as he reached Johnny’s side. “And another thing, leave Teresa’s garden and flower bushes alone. We’ve plowed a four foot wide perimeter around this whole compound and burned all the grass from the dirt barrier to the grass right up to the house. A fire isn’t going to jump a firebreak that wide, never mind the fact that I’m tired of listening to Teresa coming to me to tattle on you. John! Did you hear a word I said?”
Johnny sniffed and looked toward the hills. “Smell it?”
Murdoch inhaled deeply. “Smoke.”
“Yep. I thought I smelled it earlier but couldn’t be sure. Now I am.”
Scott walked out of the barn and saw his brother and father staring at the ridge of mountains in front of the house.
“What’s going on?” Scott asked as he walked over.
“I smell smoke, Scott”, Johnny answered.
“The wind’s shifted,” Scott solemnly announced.
“Appears so.” Johnny hefted the ax over his shoulder. “I’ll put this up and get the men to put out the water barrels.”
“It’s almost time for lunch, boys. Finish up what you were doing and then come in to eat. I want to go over that checklist again,” said Murdoch.
As the Scott and Johnny went their separate ways to finish their chores, Murdoch went inside and told Maria the boys would be in soon for lunch. He then walked in to the living room to his desk and grabbed the list. Carrying it back into the kitchen, he sat down at the table and read over it while waiting for Scott and Johnny. He didn’t have long to wait.
“Plowed four feet around the perimeter of the compound.
Trimmed trees touching any buildings.
Moved any fence or posts that were attached to a building.
Burned the grass from the firebreak to the house.
Put barrels of water on the roofs of buildings with flat roofs. Have at least one barrel of water outside the door of every building.
Emptied all the hay out of the barns and stacked the bales in the new pole barn.
Moved all wood stacks away from buildings.
Drove as many cows with young calves as possible into burned grass area in front of house.
Moved our prize bull into a corral away from any buildings.
Drove as many of the herd to the lake as the area would support.
Closed all vents to the buildings with sheet metal to prevent embers flying in.”
Murdoch stopped reading the list and looked up at Scott and Johnny. “Is there anything else left to do?” he asked.
Johnny shook his head. “The smoke is going to get worse so we need to make sure the windows are sealed tight and maybe get some towels to stuff against the bottom of the doors.”
“I’ll go tell Cipriano to pass the word along to the men in the bunkhouse.” Scott pushed his chair back, grabbed a sandwich and left the kitchen.
Johnny rubbed his forehead his fingers.
“Headache?” Murdoch asked.
“Yeah, it’s making my head hurt just trying to think of everything we can possibly do to be prepared. Been through a wildfire before and I just had one other person besides myself to worry about.” Johnny waved his hand in a sweeping motion. “Makes my head hurt to realize how many people we’re responsible for on this ranch.”
Murdoch scooted back his chair and stood by Johnny’s chair. He put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and squeezed. “You’ve got good instincts, John. You’re doing fine.”
The Lancer men were just coming down the stairs for breakfast when they heard Teresa’s shouts. They rushed down the remaining few steps and before they could reach the kitchen, Teresa ran around the corner toward them, her egg basket still in her grasp. She grabbed Murdoch’s hand and pulled him toward the front door.
“You’ve got to see this! What are we going to do?” There was panic in her voice.
Scott, then Johnny followed the two out the front door. Johnny’s cat had followed him out the door and he was too busy trying to shoo Isabelle back inside to notice that Scott, Teresa and Murdoch had pretty much stopped just a few feet from the door. Johnny reached down to grab the feline, missed and turned so quickly around that he ran into the back of Scott. Instead of saying anything to his little brother, Scott simply pointed toward the mountains ahead.
Before the family was a huge billowing, mushroom-shaped gray and black column of smoke rising up thousands of feet above the mountains. A third of the way up the column was a flat circle of smoke that seemed to be stretching out toward the ranch.
“La mano del diablo,” murmured Johnny.
“The devil’s hand,” Murdoch translated.
A hot gust of air blew, stirring up dust devils in the plowed firebreak before them. The faint smell of smoke they had smelled yesterday was faint no more.
“Guess the battle’s about to begin,” Scott announced.
Tearing himself away from the mesmerizing site, Murdoch called to his family. “Come on now, this isn’t the time to stop. Everyone knows what to do. If this wind keeps up and the rain doesn’t come, we’ll find out soon enough if our precautions were enough.”
“Should we warn the other ranches?” Teresa asked in a shaky voice.
“That,” Johnny pointed at the churning column of smoke,“ will be hard to miss.”
“Will you two just stop arguing?” Murdoch shouted from his desk. “I can’t think. Work together!”
Scott and Johnny turned to look at their father. They then looked back at each other with sheepish eyes. Each one had their own ideas of what needed to be done next. The two had been snapping at each other for over thirty minutes.
“I’m sorry, Sir.” Scott walked to the window behind his father’s desk. “It’s just that this,” he swept his hand in an outward motion, “ this, is getting to me.”
“Me, too,” Johnny
“I know, boys. But now isn’t the time to lose our heads.”
Johnny joined the other two men by the window. Although it was only 10:30 in the morning, it was dark as night. Earlier in the day, the smoke hadn’t been so thick and the sun shown as a small orange-red circle in the sky. As the day lengthened, the sky grew darker, the smell of smoke crept through every door and window and ash fell like snow from hell.
“I hope George and Clyde made it out. Easy to lose your way out there.” Scott spoke of the two hands who had panicked a couple of hours ago and left.
“We might not ever know what becomes of them.” Murdoch didn’t sound too
Johnny spoke softly, “Wish I could find Isabelle.”
Murdoch put his hand on his son shoulder. “Have faith, John. She’ll turn up. You’ll see.”
“I’ll go put another man on the roof to watch for embers. I’ve seen some mixed among the falling ash. While I’m at it, I’ll remind everyone to dampen their bandanas and keep their nose and mouths covered. This thick smoke could kill someone.” Scott talked as he walked to the door. Grabbing his hat, he pulled his bandana up to cover his nose. Prepared as he could be, he walked out the door.
“I’ll get some men to put some barrels of water in a couple of wagons and have them ride the compound perimeter. If they see any fires started by the embers, we’d have a better chance of putting it out quickly.” Johnny grabbed his hat from the table and walked toward the foyer.
As he started out the door, he heard his father call out, “Throw some shovels in the wagons, too.” Nodding his head to indicate he’d heard, Johnny opened the door and left.
Murdoch turned back to face the window. Although it was too dark to see much past the plowed area along the fence, he strained his eyes trying. In the distance, on the other side of the ridge, a glow of red, yellow and orange danced the devil’s dance.
Murdoch gave a start. So bewitched was he by the apocalypse that was
unfolding right outside his window, he hadn’t even noticed that Teresa was now standing beside him.
“I’m scared, Murdoch.”
Murdoch put his arm around her shoulders and drew her to him.
“It’ll be okay, Teresa. We’ve made all these preparations, everyone is keeping a watch on the fire and Scott and Johnny are making everything as safe as possible.”
“Have we done all we can?” Teresa moved from Murdoch’s arms and began to pace. Wringing her hands, she stopped in front of the window. “I look around our home and try to memorize each item in case those things are lost. One minute I want to get on a horse and ride away from all this but then I want to grab everything, throw it in my room and stand guard to protect it. I keep going over and over in my mind what has been done to get ready.” The young girl grabbed Murdoch’s hands. “Will it be enough?”
“I pray that it is,” Murdoch whispered under his breath.
Murdoch folded up the worn list and put it in his shirt’s pocket. He vaguely heard Teresa and Johnny say something to one another and turned his head toward them. Teresa was standing by the table, holding the meat platter. She set the platter down with such force, the water goblets shook. Turning her back to the three men, she ran out of the room crying.
“What in the world was that all about?” asked Murdoch.
“It really wasn’t anything,” replied Scott. “She said something, Johnny snipped back, then she ran out of the room.”
“John?” Murdoch looked at his youngest.
“I just questioned her choice of having barbecue tonight, considering everything,” John mumbled.
“Well, everyone’s nerves are taut right now, John. Go fix it.” Murdoch pulled the platter toward him and began to carve the meat.
Letting out a big sigh, Johnny pushed back his chair and walked toward Teresa’s room. Murdoch and Scott took it as a good sign when they didn’t hear hollering and slammed doors. Their hunch proved correct when first Teresa and then Johnny walked back to the table. A small grin peeked out from Murdoch’s lips as he watched Johnny hold out Teresa’s chair and once seated, pushed her closer to the table. The bow he gave her was as nicely done as any Mexican don.
After filling up everyone’s plates and taking a few bites, Murdoch cleared his throat. Scott, Johnny and Teresa paused in their eating to see what he wanted.
“I know this waiting is hard on everyone. We’re hoping the worst doesn’t happen but have to be vigilant to fight if it does. I keep going over and over in my head what we’ve done to prepare and I’m second guessing myself on whether it’s enough. I’ve racked my brain to think of anything else I can do. I keep visualizing all the different scenarios that could happen and how I would need to react. I look around the house and think about what things I could grab if need be and throw into the well for safety. I know the well wouldn’t hold much so each time I walk in a room, I mentally add and subtract which items I should save. Morning, noon and night, all these thoughts play over and over in my mind.” Murdoch sighed and rubbed his forehead then continued his speech. “I know we are all stressed, waiting on something we can’t control. But we’ve all been in situations before that were beyond our control and we got through them together. No matter what happens, if we look out for one another, we’ll be okay. It doesn’t matter if we keep our property but lose ourselves.”
Johnny nodded, as did Scott and Teresa.
“You’re right, Murdoch.”
“I’m sorry, Teresa.”
“You’ll find Isabelle, Johnny.”
Murdoch looked at his family. “Good,” he replied before resuming dinner.
After dinner everyone helped Teresa carry the plates into the kitchen. The men, then retired to the living room. All three nursed a drink and sat quietly in the room, Murdoch reading a book, Scott and Johnny playing a game of chess. After a while, Teresa came in and picked up a basket of mending by the blue chair.
“I give up, Scott.” Johnny laid the queen down, conceding the game. He stood and stretched. “I’m going on up to bed. Maybe I can get some sleep.”
“I guess I’ll turn in too. My mind isn’t on the game, either,” Scott replied.
Murdoch closed his book with a snap. “I’ve read this page twice already and still couldn’t tell you what it says. Let’s all turn in and try to get some rest.”
Saying their goodnights, all four headed off to bed.
Johnny laid in bed, then got up and opened his window a crack. It didn’t take long for the smell of smoke to permeate the room. Sighing, he got back up to shut the window. Back in bed, he tossed and turned. He wasn’t able to turn off his thoughts tonight.
It was too dark to check his watch, but he knew some time had passed. He turned back over on his side and closed his eyes. His eyes opened and he sat up. There was a sound at the window like someone was throwing pebbles against the glass.
Jumping out of bed, he quickly put on his pants, threw on a shirt and grabbed his boots. Hopping on first one foot then another, he drew on his boots. “Scott!” he yelled and slapped his brother’s door.
Almost immediately, Scott opened the door. He hadn’t even bothered to undress for the night.
“What is it?” he asked his brother.
“Come on!” was all the answer he got.
Scott followed Johnny down the hall. Murdoch opened his door and peered down the hall.
“Come on, everyone!” The Lancer pied piper led everyone down the stairs and out the front door.
Throwing open the front door, Johnny stepped outside, the other three close behind. The expressions on their faces showed a wide range of emotions; awe, surprise, happiness, excitement. Throwing his arms out wide and tilting his head to the sky, Johnny shouted, “Rain!”
Stepping further out into the courtyard, Teresa squealed, grabbed Scott and danced in the rain.
Murdoch ran over to the dinner bell and rang it as hard as he could. Ranch hands came out of the bunkhouse, Cipriano and his family hurried out of their house, all curious to see what the boss wanted. Once outside, they all joined in the laughter and wonderment of the rain that finally came.
Johnny walked back to the portico and looked toward the hills. If this rain kept up, it would only be a week or so before the fire was out. Even so, the rain would wet things down enough so that the fire wouldn’t spread. This time, Lancer was safe.
Startled, Johnny looked down at his feet. Isabelle was weaving her way around his boots.
“Murdoch, everyone!” Johnny shouted as he picked up the tiny tabby. “Isabelle found me!”
This is a response to a challenge about “Good News”. I live in CA and good news to us is rain. We get rain from November through April. The rest of the year is the dry season with no moisture at all. This is wildfire season. This story is what we do every year to get ready for wildfires and our thoughts. I was in the Paradise Campfire in Nov. 2018. I lost pretty much everything including 2 cats who ran off while trying to capture them. In Oct. 2019, I get a phone call that my cat, Isabelle had been found. She had showed up in a town north of Paradise, several miles away. She had been on a registry of lost pets and they contacted me after matching pictures.
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