Word Count 1,824
A story written for the March 2021 Lancer Writers Challenge ‘Every Picture Tells A Story.’ The picture that inspired my story was taken from my neighbors back porch after a night of nerve-wracking thunderstorms and tornados in Middle Tennessee on March 25, 2021.
Thanks to Doc for help with the beta and Suzanne for her suggestions.
Light, fluffy clouds drifted across the vivid blue skies of the San Joaquin Valley. It had been an unusually warm March day.
With the feeling of spring in the air, the estancia’s women, under Teresa and Maria’s direction, opened windows and doors, aired closed-up rooms, and started their spring cleaning.
Rugs were removed from rooms and hallways and thrown over clotheslines behind the hacienda. The women took turns pounding a winter’s worth of dust from them with a rhythm like drums beating.
For the first time in months, the French doors were wide open, allowing fresh air to fill the Great Room.
Everyone on the ranch was making the most of the day.
As much as he wanted to be outside, Murdoch spent his morning at his desk working on the books. Scott and Johnny had been eager to get away from the house. Without even the slightest protest they’d accepted the job of joining the vaqueros and ranch hands riding fence and checking water holes.
He smiled to himself remembering how the boys had walked their horses until reaching the arch, then kicked them into a gallop. Whooping and hollering, they’d disappeared over the rise to the west.
It was early afternoon when Teresa entered the Great Room smiling and humming a tune of her own making. Spring fever was contagious; everyone seemed to be in a good mood.
“Murdoch, would you like anything? Maria and I are going to start dinner soon.”
Standing, Murdoch stretched his back. “Coffee would be welcome if you have any made.”
“There’s a fresh pot. I’ll bring it right back.”
Teresa turned on her heels and started to the kitchen only to stop abruptly when Lupe and Consuela hurried through the room carrying rugs Murdoch recognized as those for his room. The two ladies, chattering away in Spanish, disappeared up the main staircase.
“What’s that all about?”
“Maria says it looks like rain. The women are bringing in the rugs, and we’ve started closing up the house.”
Murdoch walked to the French doors and frowned. Puffy white clouds that looked like floating pieces of cotton were forming over the mountains. He’d seen clouds like these many times and knew they were the precursor to rain.
“I believe she’s right.”
“Isn’t she always,” Teresa laughed. “I’ll get your coffee.”
Turning back to his desk, Murdoch started to sit down and then looked back outside. There was nothing to worry about. The clouds were well to the west, and a bright sun was still shining over Lancer.
Scott and Johnny’s day had gone well. Several fences needed mending, but it was nothing they couldn’t handle. It was late afternoon when they saw the first sign of trouble.
“Johnny.” Scott pointed west.
They’d been watching the clouds building for several hours. Once white and fluffy, they had turned silver-lined gray and were now nearly black. Within minutes the temperature started to drop as the sun vanished behind the billowing mass towering high over the mountains.
“I see them.” Johnny tightened Barranca’s cinch and started packing up their work tools. “We’d better head back.”
“Is this normal? I’ve never seen the weather change so fast.”
“I’ve seen it before. It’s too warm for this time of year. We could be in for some thunderstorms.” He hesitated before speaking again, “I just hope that’s all we get.”
“What do you mean ‘all we get’?”
“Nothing.” Johnny dismissed the question with a wave of his hand. “We’d better get back to the house.”
With strong gusts of wind at their back, Scott and Johnny made it home as the first drops of rain began to fall.
Going straight to the barn, they turned their nervous horses over to one of the hands then hurried into the house.
As evening settled, the sky darkened. Soon dense lightning-laced black clouds rolled overhead.
Knowing the main house was the safest structure on the ranch and that they were most probably in for a long night of damaging winds, Murdoch sent Cipriano to gather the men and families living at the ranch.
Less than a half-hour later, Murdoch heard pounding on the front door. He cautiously cracked it open only to have the wind slam it into him. Shielding his eyes from a blinding bolt of lightning, he saw his Segundo.
Cipriano tipped his hat to keep the rain off his face. “They are all here, Patron.”
“Quickly, everyone inside!” Struggling to hold the door, Murdoch ushered everyone inside.
Maria and Teresa brought all the towels and blankets they could find into the Great Room. It didn’t take long to get everyone wrapped up and seated. All they could do now was wait.
For close to an hour, the storm raged outside. Even with the drapes pulled, the Great Room lit up as thunder rumbled and lightning struck in the distance. Heavy rain pounded the roof, turning to hail and back again.
A bolt of lightning hit near the house, making the ground shake and the women scream.
Murdoch scanned the room, letting his eyes settle on his youngest son. He smiled as Johnny’s right hand impatiently tapped a rhythm on his thigh. Sitting in one place for any length of time wasn’t in the boy’s nature.
Suddenly, Johnny’s hand shot to the back of his neck. Before Murdoch could ask what was wrong, another bolt of lightning struck and thunder rolled. Johnny jumped to his feet, ran to the French doors, pulled back the drapes, and looked out.
“Get away from there,” Murdoch yelled. “If the glass…”
He didn’t get to finish his sentence as a roaring sound drowned out his voice.
Johnny strained to see what was happening outside. When lightning flashed in the distance, there was a look of panic on his face. Turning, he screamed over the rising noise, “Get down to the wine cellar.”
Unquestioning, Scott was on his feet, grabbed Teresa’s hand and pulled her toward the cellar door.
“What?” Murdoch asked.
“It looks like a twister!” Johnny answered as he headed for the front door.
“Get downstairs,” Murdoch ordered.
“No. I’ve got to get to the barn. The horses…”
“You’re not going out there!”
Murdoch grabbed Johnny’s arm and pulled him, struggling all the way, towards the cellar door. There was no way he was letting his son go outside. The more Johnny struggled, the tighter his grip was on the boy.
They’d just gotten the heavy oak door closed when the building shook and what sounded like a freight train roared over their heads.
Time seemed to stand still as Murdoch pulled Johnny into his arms and turned his massive frame so that his back was to the wooden door. Placing himself between the raging storm and his son, he laid his head on top of Johnny’s.
Johnny stopped struggling and melted into the arms encircling him.
They could still hear the rumbling of thunder, but after a few minutes, it seemed the wind had let up.
The sounds overhead lessened and Murdoch stepped back, releasing Johnny. They stood looking at each other for a long moment before Murdoch realized how quiet it was. Turning, he saw everyone huddled together, holding onto each other for comfort.
In the far corner, Murdoch spotted Scott with Teresa clinging to him. The young girl raised her pale face and looked at him.
Murdoch held out an arm and she ran to him. He held her until her shoulders stopped trembling. “It’s alright.”
“Do you think it’s safe to go back upstairs?”
“No, sweetheart. Let’s wait to make sure it’s over,” Murdoch answered. Turning, he put an arm around Johnny and led them both further into the cellar. “Everyone try to make yourselves comfortable. We may be here a while.”
The children were the first to be bedded down. Soon everyone was sleeping or trying to.
Murdoch eased down between his sons. Johnny raised his head and smiled, then started to close his eyes again.
“John, upstairs earlier… you knew …. I mean, I saw how you reacted before you jumped up.”
“Yeah, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I could feel it coming.”
“Does that happen often?”
“More times than I can remember. I just sense when trouble’s headed my way.”
Scott peeked around his father. “I, for one, am glad you’ve kept those senses honed, little brother.”
Murdoch nodded his agreement. As much as he wanted to put his arm around his sons, he was content with their shoulders touching his. “I agree. Now, let’s see if we can get some sleep.”
Minutes turned into hours as the wind rose and fell. Several times during the night, he thought it was over, only to hear the wind build again and the house above them shake and groan.
It was close to dawn before Murdoch felt it was safe to venture out of the cellar. The doors to the Great Room stood wide open and the room looked like it had taken a good drenching.
Maria placed her hands on her hips and looked around. “Senorita Teresa and I will take care of straightening the house, Patron. Go see to your ranch.”
Nodding his agreement, Murdoch walked outside and stopped at the edge of the veranda. It wasn’t as bad as he’d expected.
Looking back toward the house, Murdoch watched as people filed out the front door and Scott came to stand beside him. They both smiled when Johnny darted around them all and ran to the barn.
“Well, will you look at that?” Scott pointed toward the corral and pasture beyond.
The scene could have been out of a painting. The sun’s first rays were spilling over the same mountains that storm clouds had massed over the afternoon before. A low, light mist clung close to the ground surrounding a lone dark horse.
The thunder, lightning, and tornados that had plagued them during the long night were gone. Everything had been scrubbed clean, and the only hints that there had been a storm were wooden roofing shingles from the outbuildings littering the ground and puddles of standing water.
“We were lucky.” Murdoch looked around, marveling that there wasn’t more damage. “The funnel clouds must have skipped right over us.”
Scott leaned over and picked up a shingle. “I wonder how others in the valley are doing?”
“I don’t know. We’ll have Cipriano send men to the neighboring ranches. It’s a miracle anything is still standing after last night.”
Johnny came from the barn leading Barranca. “The horses are all right.”
Scott held back a laugh. “Did you check on all of them or just Barranca?”
Johnny dipped his head before turning his horse loose in the corral and then headed back to the barn.
“I guess that answered my question.”
“Yes, I believe it did,” Murdoch laughed.
Lifting his head, Murdoch looked up and took a deep breath. The sun was rising into a cloudless blue sky. It would be a long time before they forgot the storms of the previous night, but for now, all that mattered was that everyone was safe; Lancer was safe.
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