The Road Not Taken------8

Steve Caldwell rode into the front yard of The Lazy L just before midnight and dismounted near the stable. He quickly pulled the saddle from his horse's back and dropped it near the door. Rotating his shoulders and stretching the kinks from his back before he completed the task of caring for the animal. Once he put the dark bay inside the stall, Steve stepped outside and looked around. There were a couple of lights on in the house, and he heard the door open. He watched Walter Scott embrace 'Cookie' before striding purposefully toward the bunkhouse.

"Hey, Walt, did Mannix get back okay?" Caldwell asked innocently when the older man was within ten feet of his location.

"Steve, is that you?"

"Yeah, I just got in. There were a couple of things I needed to check on after you guys left and so I told Joe to ride ahead and let you know I'd be late getting back. I didn't see King in his stall."

"King's not here and neither is Joe. You were supposed to stay together, Steve," Scott told him.

"I know, but he said he could find his way back and he seemed to know his way around so I figured it was okay," Caldwell said, shrugging his shoulders. "Maybe he just got turned around and decided to camp out for the night."

"Maybe," the foreman said and glanced toward the bunkhouse. He briefly toyed with the idea of waking several of the hands and riding out to check on the missing man, but knew it would be foolhardy to attempt a search of the gorge even with the bright moon to light their way. "There's nothing we can do about it tonight, but you'd best be ready to ride out at first light."

"I'll be there," Caldwell said and walked beside the older man. "You don't suppose anything happened to him?"

"I don't know, but with all the accidents of late he could be in trouble. Look, it's late…get some sleep and we'll search for him in the morning." Scott walked away from the other man and made his way toward the stable. Since coming to work for Cal Longladd he'd made it a habit of taking a walk around the property to make sure everything was okay, and it ticked him off that the 'accidents' happened in spite of that.

Maria had accompanied him on the most recent ones, but she was inside taking care of the Longladd children while their parents were in town. He glanced up at the window where little Joseph was sleeping and smiled when he saw the pretty face staring down at him. He knew she scoffed at the idea when he told her she was pretty, but right now he thought she was the most beautiful woman God had seen fit to set on this earth. He saw her smile and felt the warmth spread throughout him before moving toward the back of the house. It took half an hour to make the circuit and once satisfied that everything was as it should be Scott made his way to the bunkhouse and opened the door quietly. He made his way to his bunk and lay down on top of the blankets, hoping and praying the 'accidents' would stop before anyone else got hurt. He drifted toward sleep, unaware he was being watched by the man in the next bunk.

MANNIX-MANNIX-MANNIX

Julie Longladd sat in the cab of the truck for several long minutes before wiping the tears from her eyes and exiting through the open door. She closed it gently behind her and walked toward the house, wishing she could change her actions over the last few years. She made her way inside and stopped to check on the children before making her way toward the bedroom she shared with her husband.

"Julie, are you okay?"

The redhead turned to find the older woman stepping out of her bedroom and sighed heavily. Maria had always been good to her and she wondered what the woman would say if she knew of her betrayal, not only of her husband, but of her family as well. "I'm just tired, Maria…did Lily and Joseph give you any trouble?"

"No, Lily was upset about her brother, but I told her you and Cal would be bringing him home tomorrow…today," Delaney corrected.

"Dr. Wallace said he's going to be fine," Julie assured her. "Cal's staying with him and he'll call when it's time to pick them up."

"I'm so glad Bryan is okay…would you like me to fix you something to eat?"

"No thanks, I grabbed something in town before I left. Why don't you get some rest and I'll see you in the morning," Julie said and opened her bedroom door. She hurried inside, closing the door behind her and leaning against it as the tears flowed from her eyes. Sleep would not come easy for her as her conscience reminded her that she was as much at fault as Darryl Boyd. Her husband and children loved her, but what would they think if they new the truth about her actions?

Julie moved to the bed and sat down, nausea churning in her stomach as she tried to ride out the emotions warring inside her. Somehow she had to make things right, but at the moment she could see no way out unless she came clean to Cal and begged his forgiveness.

MANNIX-MANNIX-MANNIX

Joe had no idea how long he was out, but he woke with a start and sat up too quickly. He listened to the silence and realized the night sounds were missing, a sign that a predator was in the area. He tried to sit forward, but his body had stiffened up while he slept and the pain had reawakened with the return of consciousness. He turned as a sound reached his ears and knew he needed to stay alert and build the fire back up. Most animals had a fear of fire and he prayed whatever was stalking him would find something else to interest it.

Joe reached for several pieces of wood and ignored the pain the movement caused, but it was hard to ignore a fire that burned from within. As carefully as his trembling hands allowed, Joe placed the thick chunks of wood into the flames and watched through hooded eyes until they caught fire. He shifted closer to the flames and listened for the predator, but the sound was not repeated and his ears detected the return of the night sounds. The crickets were the first and then night birds joined in and he breathed a sigh of relief as he closed his eyes.

Joe let his mind drift, but did not quite give in to the sleep that beckoned to him. He opened his eyes and stared up at the sky, amazed at how many stars were visible surrounding a moon that seemed to blot out the darkness. It took a minute to realize he must have dozed off for some time because the moon had nearly completed its journey across the sky. He stared at the fire and wondered why the heat of the flames didn't relieve the chill that resided deep in his bones. Pain seemed to reside in every part of his body, but he could not give into it, not until he made it back to the ranch and told Cal Longladd that Steve Caldwell was behind the attacks.

Joe knew Caldwell was not the brains behind the accidents, but there was no doubt that the man was in cohorts with whoever it was. It would be several hours before the sun came up and that meant there was nothing else for him to do except try to stay awake and keep the fire burning. Sighing heavily, Joe added a couple of chunks of wood and tried to rest, but the rising fever continued to make him shiver in spite of the warmth of the flames.

MANNIX-MANNIX-MANNIX

Cal Longladd had spent a restless night in the uncomfortable chair next to his son's bed, but as the sun peeked through the curtains he sat forward and watched his son slowly awaken. The boy had slept soundly even when the nurse had come in to check on him. The young woman had offered to bring him a coffee, but he'd refused. She'd returned with a blanket and pillow before leaving him to watch over his son.

Bryan was a good boy and he loved working with horses, but there were times when he had to be reminded that there was school work to be done and other chores assigned to him. Cal was proud of the boy and knew he had every right to be. His own father had commented on how much Bryan reminded him of a young Cal, and those words had sent a thrill through him. Bryan had a good head on his shoulders and someday, along with his brother and sister, he would be running The Lazy L. Hopefully the ranch would be up and running again and guests would enjoy being involved in roundups and cattle drives like those that took place in previous summers.

"Dad, are you okay?"

"Shouldn't I be the one asking that question…how's the head?"

"It's okay…just hurts a bit," Bryan answered and looked around. "Where's mom?"

"I sent her home last night, but she'll be here to pick us up when Dr. Wallace discharges you," Cal explained and lightly brushed the hair away from the child's forehead. "I…we were worried about you."

"I'm okay, Dad…but Cisco…is he…is he okay?" the boy asked, his voice filled with fear.

"Cisco's fine, Son, or he will be when you get home and give him a good rubdown," Longladd explained, turning when a soft knock sounded on the door. He turned to see Daniel Wallace and motioned him inside.

"Good morning, Bryan, how are you feeling?"

"I'm okay," the boy answered.

"Well, let's take a look at you and just maybe you'll be home in time for lunch," Wallace suggested and checked the child's eyes. He carefully examined the boy, pleased with what he saw and finally sat on the edge of the bed. "How's the head feel?"

"Hurts a little," Bryan answered honestly.

"You're as bad as your father, Bryan…he always says the same thing. The nurse said your tummy was a little upset last night…is it any better this morning?"

"It's a lot better," the child answered.

"That's good to hear. Now I'm going to sign the discharge papers, but you're to go home and rest. That means no riding, roping, or chasing horses for a week."

"A week?" Bryan pouted.

"At least a week." Wallace told him and turned his attention to the child's father. "Cal, I want to see him in my office next Wednesday at ten."

"He'll be there," Longladd agreed. "Is there anything we should watch for?"

"Dizziness…blurred vision…vomiting. The nurse will give you a pamphlet with a list of things to watch for. If he has any of these signs longer than a couple of hours I want you to bring him right back here," Wallace warned and made several notations on the child's chart.

"Thank you, Danny," Longladd said and shook the other man's hands.

"You're welcome," Wallace said and looked at his young patient. "You make sure you tell your mom or dad if you get dizzy or sick, Bryan."

"Yes, Sir," Bryan told him.

"In that case I see no reason you can't go home. Just remember what I said and get plenty of rest," Wallace warned. "Cal, he's fine…take him home."

"Thanks, Danny," Longladd said and walked to the closet to retrieve his son's clothing. "Are you ready to get out of here, Bryan?"

"Yes, Dad," the boy said with a slight smile and was glad when is father helped him sit up. The room spun slightly but the nausea was no longer there. "What about mom...are you going to call her?"

"Yes, I am," Cal said and reached for the phone. He lifted the receiver and spoke to the operator and waited for the call to go through. Maria answered after the second ring and passed it to Julie once she knew who was calling.

"Cal, how is Bryan?"

"He's ready to go home, Julie. Can you pick us up?"

"I'm on my way…I love you."

"I love you too," Longladd said and hung up the phone. He knew it would take over an hour for her to get there and decided to take his son to the deli across the street and get them both a light breakfast. He hoped Joe and the others had not run into trouble in the mountains, because one way or the other they had to find out who was trying to ruin their lives.

MANNIX-MANNIX-MANNIX

Walt Scott woke before the others and stood up, blinking against the bright rays of the sun that stabbed at his eyes. He grabbed his clothes and dressed quickly before silently exiting the bunkhouse. He stood on the porch and watched as Julie Longladd drove the truck out of the yard and made his way toward the house. He knew Maria would have coffee brewing, blueberry muffins in the oven, and sausages cooking. He was hungry, but he was also worried about the missing man.

He entered the house and made his way toward the kitchen, smiling when Maria handed him a cup of coffee before returning her attention to feeding the baby. A basket of muffins sat on the table and he reached for one, not surprised to find it still warm. He ate the first and reached fro a second before asking about Julie Longladd. "Where is Julie off to so early?"

"Cal called to tell her Dr. Wallace was discharging Bryan and they needed a ride home," Maria answered, wiping the baby's mouth. "I'm worried about her. She got in late last night and I swear she was crying."

"Maybe she was just worried about Bryan."

"There's more to it than that, Walt. Since when does Julie wear long sleeved sweaters when it's already 80 degrees outside?"

"Well, it is calling for rain today."

"Rain yes, but wouldn't it be better to take an umbrella?"

"Probably, but you're asking the wrong one…I've never been able to understand women," Scott told her.

"What's to understand? We're flesh and blood just like you," Maria scolded lightly.

"No, there's a lot more to women…and don't get me wrong…I love everything about you…"

"Me or women in particular?"

"You…I'm a one man woman," Scott assured her. He watched her move to the stove and remove three more pans of muffins and place them on the counter to cool.

"So, does Mannix have any idea who's behind the attacks?"

"I don't know…he's got suspicions, but until he returns…"

"Returns? Where did he go?"

"He was supposed to stay with Steve Caldwell, but they were separated and Steve rode in around ten last night. Joe never showed up and King's not back either."

"You don't suppose King threw him? Didn't you say that horse is temperamental?"

"I don't know…could be, but I'm going to take a couple of men and see if we can track him," Scott answered.

"Do you have any idea where to start?"

"I figure we'd head back to the plateau and have Steve show us exactly where he left Mannix."

"I hope you'll be able to find him," Maria said and turned toward the window as a clap of thunder echoed around the landscape. "You may have to wait until the storm subsides."

"Damn…why the hell does it feel like there's a conspiracy going on around here," Scott snapped and walked to the window. He opened the curtains and watched as the rain fell heavily and lightning lit up the sky. He felt Maria touch against his arm and turned to look into the worried face of the woman who'd stolen his heart. They stood watching the storm wreak havoc on the landscape and silently prayed the missing man had found shelter.

MANNIX-MANNIX-MANNIX

His mouth had never been so dry, his tongue felt as if it didn't quite fit as he tried to moisten his lips. His body was a mass of agony and yet he had to find the strength to move. Forcing his eyes open, Joe stared at the sky above him and blinked as a fat droplet of rain landed on his forehead. He tried to move, but was again reminded of the injuries occurred during his fall from the horse and subsequent slide down into the gorge.

Joe closed his eyes and wanted to just stay where he was and sleep, but he'd never been a quitter and was not about to start now. Taking several shallow breaths, the detective opened his eyes and realized the rain was only going to make things worse. He needed to get back to The Lazy L, but walking was already going to be a lesson in futility, add the rain and slippery terrain and it was just about the worst possible hell a man could think of. The fire was nearly out and he could hear the raindrops sizzling as they hit the glowing embers.

Joe knew it would take every ounce of strength he had just to get on his feet and stay there, and he dug deep as he turned onto his stomach and used his hands to lever himself to his knees. He stayed put for several long minutes until the world around him solidified, and his vision cleared. The next part would be the hardest, yet Joe knew he had to get on his feet if he wanted to take that first gigantic, miserable step. Forcing himself to ignore the pain, he managed to get his feet under him, but could not stop the cry of pain that escaped when he finally stood on two feet.

The world seemed to fade in and out as the wind picked up and the rain fell harder. Joe blinked several times in an effort to clear his eyes, but it seemed impossible to keep everything in focus. He had no idea how long he stayed where he was, but he finally managed to move his right leg several inches. The next seemingly insurmountable step took everything he had to make his left leg obey his command. Right now he understood what the old saying about the mind being willing but the body not obeying actually meant. Pain was something he could live with, but blood loss and chills combined to make it impossible to ignore the injuries he'd accumulated.

Joe glanced around the clearing and started to move, hoping and praying that he wouldn't get turned around and wind up climbing higher into the mountain. Closing his eyes, he waited until the nausea eased and tried to moved, relieved when his body and mind seemed to be working together in a haphazard way. He stumbled toward the trail that would lead him down the mountain and hoped someone would be out searching for him. Miserable, wet, and in pain, Joe Mannix wondered what odds Vegas would give on his survival.

TBC