The Legend of Mission Creek

MacNair

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Prologue

~ ~ ~ ~ Journal Entry ~ ~ ~ ~

These years have been hard. This life is hard. Every life is hard. The places and faces change, but everything is the same. I’m tired. I left looking for some peace, but doubt I will find any. There isn’t any respite except for Holyground and I’m sick of Holyground. I think I need to stand still for a while and live quietly, disappear into the dust and grime of simple work and just get by in my own little world. I’m tired of all the battles.

The stage is bumpy and dusty, the towns poor and rude. The farther west you go, the rougher it is. Less and less conversation suits me fine. I’m disappearing from my world, from my friends, from myself. When there’s nothing left, will I still be here?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter One

He could smell the dust even through the faded bandanna around his face. The long ride into Mission Creek was partially a respite from the normally hard work as a ranch hand and part thankless duty. The sun broiled down on him despite the wide brim of his cowboy hat as he followed behind the empty supply wagon.

At least Duncan was riding freely instead of sitting atop the jouncing flatbed. The smooth sway of a horse was always preferred to the unforgiving seat on the wagon. Cap, the foreman, was driving today and it was a thankless task. He whistled and chirped to the sturdy team, urging them along. Duncan grinned behind his bandanna … now and then he could see daylight between the wood and the man sitting on it. Hurrying on this journey was the only way to get off that bouncing buckboard.

Duncan sighed and blinked against the dust, swerving his horse off at an angle as soon as the rough trail widened enough to give his mount room. He had been here for two years, working as a cattle hand for the SC brand: riding and roping and an assortment of other duties. He spent hours standing sentry in the night for marauders just as he had hundreds of years ago in the Highlands. Being a cowboy was a far cry from being part of a Clan. At least here a man with a strong back and a love for open space could be had for hire and never questioned about where he had been nor what he had done. There was too much work to do running a cattle ranch for anything more than the cursory greeting and the Foreman planning out the day.

The tasks were never ending. Three thousand head of cattle to check and move and help calve throughout the year. In the spring there was the round up and branding and herding several thousand of them 200 miles to sell. Cattle thieves were plenty and had to be dealt with. At night, there were coyotes and the occasional larger marauder to protect the herd against. There were sixty horses to care for and three stallions that always tried to fight with each other. Two more wild ones lingered nearby trying to steal mares. There were a score of chickens scratching in the dirt outside the main house, two goats that ate anything within reach and not one sheep.

Cattlemen and sheepherders rarely got along and it was a good thing not many questions were asked Duncan. He knew too much about sheep.

Today they needed to buy supplies and hire a new man to replace the one who unwisely picked a fight with Cap and lost. Cap was short for Captain, Captain Dan Harnell, who served ten years in the army and the shortened version of his rank had stayed with him long after his stint was up. He was calm and deliberate and never seemed to care how the work was done as long as it got done. Rare was the man who let him down still working the next day. The offender was usually told to report to the main house to draw his wages and found his bedroll on the ground outside the bunkhouse door when he got back.

No room here for slackers, Duncan mused. He had made friends easily enough and earned respect by his penchant for hard thankless tasks and long hours, but ranch hands were not given to much familiarity except when they had been paid and were all carousing in town. As an immortal, he had to be careful that he never gave away his long history and that made him cautious with careless conversation under the influence of drink. He had to slip away at night, far out amongst the canyons and cliffs on the sprawling ranch to practice with his sword. There was no one to talk freely with and no one to practice with.

“Gee up, MacLeod!” came Cap’s hoarse call. “You’re daydreaming again, man!”

Duncan put his boots into the flank of the mare and caught up with the creaking and groaning wagon. They wound down through the canyons casting shadows, avoiding dislodged boulders and short scrub sage. The sun vanished behind the strata of rock carved out by the elements and the wind whipped across the dry ground and stirred the dust. The normally thick grass was thin for lack of sunshine down here and Duncan’s roan didn’t even attempt to snatch a mouthful in passing.

They climbed out onto the bluff overlooking the town of Mission Creek in another hour and wiped the worst of the grime off with their wetted kerchiefs. Duncan often went to town with a list of supplies to purchase since he was the only man able to read besides the Foreman. Cap was along today to search through the throng of idle men looking for work down at the stagecoach platform.

Duncan looped the reins around the hitching rail and strode down the wooden walk to the general store. His spurs jingled quietly with each step and his reflection bounced and stretched from window to window along the storefronts. He wore an off-white shirt beneath his vest and a dark bandanna around his throat. The tan duster was a habitual accouterment, as were the unadorned chaps that brushed together as he walked. The Colt .45 worn low on his hip went without question. This was the West and wearing a firearm was as natural as carrying a sword back in the Highlands. He turned heads as he passed, but Duncan was on a specific errand and had no time for a casual drink or to flirt with the girls who eyed him.

It took an hour to purchase supplies and fill the wagon. Duncan was careful to bury the sacks of flour in the center to keep the worst of the dust off. Dry goods, ammo, a replacement branding iron, new tongs for the resident blacksmith, leather straps for a few bridles that needed mending … all dutifully checked off the list as they were loaded. Syrup. Must not forget the syrup or the cook would have a fit. Not to mention cuss him thoroughly in what seemed to be a dialect by itself.

Duncan didn’t feel the ache of immortal presence until he rounded the last building and drew near the platform where a group of men idled about. Cap stood sipping hot coffee, thinking. A good Foreman always deliberated before hiring someone. Without any ability to distinguish a good man from one on the run, Cap would always study the body language and determine who was too fidgety to be law-abiding.

Duncan was glad he was in a crowd; there would be no challenge in these circumstances as he scanned through the faces to determine who was the immortal.

“Cap?” he said conversationally and low, catching the Foreman’s attention. “Have you picked a man yet?”

“Nope. Two got squirrelly and faded out already,” the bristle-mustached man replied just as quietly. “I’m watching to see who else bolts.”

“Take the one leaning on the wall with the beat up hat.”

“Him? He’s a tenderfoot. S’got no experience with running cattle at all. He said he’s raised a few, but that’s not ranching, MacLeod.” The Foreman looked him square in the eye. “You know him?”

“I do. He’ll work hard.”

“You planning to take him in tow and teach him the ropes? I’ve got no time to handle a greenhorn with the branding coming up.”

Duncan grinned. “I’ll teach him.”

Cap sipped his coffee and visually surveyed all the hopeful men waiting his decision. For a moment, he deliberated Duncan’s words. “All right, MacLeod, but you’d better be right. That boy doesn’t even own a horse or saddle.” He raised his voice to be heard. “Kinsley, you’re in. We’re heading out in five minutes.”

Duncan nodded very slightly to the newly hired man in question and back against the wall, eyes bright beneath a crumpled rim of hat, Connor MacLeod nodded back.

Cap had to buy another saddle and horse to ride back to the sprawling ranch. “Kinsley, you take the wagon. You can handle a team, can’t you?” the Foreman asked.

He eyed the young man up and down, taking in the battered cowboy hat, the long brown coat and the faded jeans. The shirt was the ‘never mind what color it used to be’ variety and a pistol was tied down on his right thigh. Altogether, his new rider was shabbily dressed either from poverty or from trying to escape notice. He’ll need some chaps for the brush, Cap thought to himself, but he does have a good rifle. Wonder if he knows how to use that hog-leg he’s packing?

“I can handle the team,” returned the strangely accented voice.

“You and he kinfolk, MacLeod? You’ve got a bit of a cant to your speech too,” Cap asked sidelong once they were on the bluff and starting down through the winding canyons. “You told me you were a Scot, but he doesn’t sound like any Scot I’ve heard.”

Duncan ignored the family question. He didn’t look anything like the other man and explaining the dynamics of Scottish clans was not worth the effort. He knew it wouldn’t be pried at. Men could keep deep silences in the West. “He’s moved around a bit and picked up some accents but, yeah, he is a Scot.”

“With a name like Kinsley?” Cap shot Duncan a direct look. “Is he on the run and we just took him in?”

“Maybe, but not from the law I wouldn’t think,” Duncan replied placidly, watching the light framework of his kinsman jounce on the bumpy ride. “You’ve known me for two years, Cap. Just trust me on this one.”

The first chance Duncan had when they were alone, he clasped forearms with his clansman in a old greeting and pounded him on one shoulder. Connor was as slender as ever and his hair was an unruly heap escaping the edges of the misshapen hat. Duncan thought he looked careworn and tired and was trying not to show it. “Kinsley, is it now? What kind of a name is that?!”

“Duncan MacLeod, what kind of a name is that?” the older Scot retorted. “You haven’t tried to hide who you are since I’ve known you.”

“I’m not ashamed of my name, Connor,” quipped Duncan right back. This was a fondly remembered argument.

“You think I am?” he returned. “I don’t want immortals tracking me all over creation and you must want them to!”

“Can’t you just say ‘hello, glad to see you again, Duncan’ without all this complaining about my name?” demanded the younger man.

“Quit pounding on my aching shoulder and I’ll quit complaining.”

Duncan grinned into his friend’s familiar face. “Bumpy riding the wagon isn’t it.”

“That team pulls like a pair of mules on the reins,” the older man replied dourly. “I ache clear down to my ass.”

“You’ll heal just in time to start the real work and I get to teach you.”

“Wonderful.”

Duncan laughed aloud at the serious tone and would have pursued the bedevilment, but the clang of the iron bell at the main house was calling them away to supper. He missed completely the sad look that coasted across Connor’s face at the sound.

Chapter Two

There was much for Duncan to teach his clansman. He called him Connor in private, but there was little private time in the constant work. Before the week was out, the elder Scot had segued into his chosen name so thoroughly that sometimes Duncan fumbled momentarily for which one he needed in the given situation. He called him Kinsley in the presence of others just as all the other ranch hands did. And he said it with a sigh when his friend did something wrong, which was often at first in the brisk pace of a cattle ranch.

Learning to rope was quite the art. Kinsley had a good arm, but failed to get the swing correct to keep the loop open. Calf after calf escaped him — to the merriment of the seasoned ropers. When his circle landed on target the first time, he was thrown off the front of his horse when the experienced animal jerked to a halt to down the animal. The branding stopped entirely while the watching cowhands laughed. Kinsley slapped the dust off with his hat, looking sheepish, and climbed back on his horse.

The next time he set the lariat correctly, Kinsley wasn’t thrown off, but he did acquire an odd expression from the ride up onto the saddle horn when his mare skidded to a stop.

“Set your fanny deep when the rope settles and lean back!” yelled Duncan to his student. He grinned through the dust knowingly at several other cowboys. “No seeing the ladies for him today, eh?”

Duncan lost track of similar incidents in the confusion and bedlam of the spring roundup. Between the bawling cows, the dust and smoke of the branding fires, the melee of horses chasing after fleeing calves and the swearing of men, a tenderfoot was simply one more event to work around in the mix.

Kinsley was on foot in the wrong place, between a terrified bawling calf and its irate mother, when Cap swooped in from the side and roped the charging animal. He swore savagely and yelled “MacLeod!” at the top of his lungs, missing completely that his newly hired hand turned at that call at the same time Duncan MacLeod turned. “Get him up before he’s airborne by one of these slab-sided perversities!” shouted the Foreman. Kinsley was not afoot in the wrong place again.

They worked sunup to sundown for the week and branded 800 calves. Their newly acquired hand learned quickly and Duncan pushed him dawn to dusk with tasks. Kinsley roped, he sorted animals, he held calves for the branding iron, he split ears, he castrated, he branded. Only once did he let the hot iron slip in his gloves and it burnt his leg where he pinned the beast down. The ranch hands heard the yelp of pain and every man chuckled. There wasn’t a greenhorn alive who didn’t brand himself at least once. Kinsley never made that mistake again either.

At dusk there were horses to brush and tack to mend. Oil had to be rubbed into saddles to keep the leather soft. Bridles had to be inspected and bits cleaned. The horseshoes had to be pried at to see if any were loose and would cause the pony to pull up limping the next day. The branding irons were checked and the knives sharpened. A fresh pile of dry timber had to be gathered to the central area where the fires heated the irons. Every rope was scrutinized for wear so it wouldn’t break at a point of weakness the next day. A snapping rope could take out a man’s eyes with the force of impact or, at the very least, leave a welt that oozed for a full day.

The labor was unforgiving. Kinsley fell into bed night after night with little to say.

Any greenhorn was fair game for hilarity amongst the men. Duncan could fend off some of it by shepherding him closely, but ultimately his old friend had to run the same gamut of trickery that Duncan had run when he first started.

They put Kinsley in a bottom bunk, traditionally the lowest level in the pecking order and every time the man above him moved, the fine silt would eddy down into his eyes. Rocks found their way into his boots, his blanket went missing, and his shirttails were dipped in water in the morning before he donned them. It was uncomfortable riding with his hind end all wet. They worked a burr into his saddle blanket so deeply that he didn’t notice it. Hours later, when it ferreted out and pricked his hitherto sedate mount, the animal lunged sidelong, crow-hopping, dumping Kinsley straight off on his back. It took several minutes for him to catch his breath and get up.

Duncan, realizing what had happened, laughed only enough to keep up appearances with his fellow cowboys and then ceased. That evening, with the annual roundup over at last, he drew his friend aside to see how he faired in all the hazing.

“I’ve been made fun of before, Duncan,” he replied tiredly. “It’s just words and I can take it.”

“That spill today was more than words, Connor.”

“It just took the wind out of me. I’m immortal, remember?”

There was something unsaid below the words, something brooding that the younger man had caught glimpses of now and then, but Duncan didn’t pursue it. His clansman was notorious for hiding his true thoughts. When the time was right, the younger Scot would get the truth.

The Foreman put Kinsley to watching the herd at night that week and Duncan was relieved. His clansman was perfectly content to be alone by moonlight and at last the merry heckling slacked off. Night watch was a thankless task and every man let him sleep during the day without harm. By the time three months was up, Laramie Kinsley no longer represented a greenhorn and fit right into the group as if he had always been there…

Until that Friday night in town after payday when Kinsley won at cards and his opponent from the RJ ranch complained that he had cheated. To the shock of the SC brand cowboys, their latest comrade made no effort to fight his accuser and backed out of the challenge to brawl.

“What happened back there?” Duncan demanded of his old friend. He had ridden for several hours to find Connor on the watch, profiled against the sky with his Sharps rifle in hand. “He flat called you a cheat and a chicken and you just walked away from it?

“Why would I fight with him? He was drunk and sore about losing.”

“We’re not in a land that overlooks such things, Connor. No more than the Clan could let me go when Robert challenged me in the Highlands that day.”

“I’m not a clan leader’s son,” replied the older immortal softly, face hidden in the shadow cast by his hat. His horse nosed Duncan’s. “And I don’t care what people say of me.”

“Well I care, damnit! They think you’re a coward!” Duncan jerked his horse’s head away from Connor’s, communicating his irritation through the reins and making the mare bob her head and swivel her ears.

“Do you think I’m a coward, Duncan?”

The handsome immortal was only a moment answering. “No. I know you’re no coward. It just surprises me that you’d let this go. It’s not like you to let someone bully-rag you and walk from it.”

“I wasn’t going to haul him out in the street for a gunfight that I would survive regardless of who won — I’m fast with a pistol, but not such a good aim. He’d shoot me dead. And drunken words over cards aren’t worth dying for, even if I do come back.” Connor sidled his gelding closer to Duncan again, reducing the gap and tilting his face into the moonlight. “He was a bigger man than I. A fist fight in the bar would just pound me unless I fought for real … and if I fight for real, then I would break some bones or kill him outright. He’s just a cowboy blowing his wages and I’m immortal. I have to pick my battles better than that.”

Duncan sighed, hearing the logic and yet thinking of the disbelief and dismay that he had just come from back at the bunkhouse. The rest of the men did not take too lightly to someone in their midst who was afraid to fight. They had no knowledge of what it was like to kill for hundreds of years and how abhorrent it became. “Damnit,” he swore softly and patted his horse’s neck. “I’ll go back and try to make them see some reason.”

“They’ll make their choice on their own, not on your words,” the elder Scot said quietly.

“Words always help, Connor,” Duncan called over his shoulder as he turned the roan towards home. “You may not believe that, but I do.”

~ ~ ~ ~ Journal Entry, Kinsley’s saddlebag ~ ~ ~ ~

Dhonnchaidh looks good as always. Very tan and in fighting trim out here riding and working instead of in those palaces overseas. I was worried he’d get soft in the courts. Glad to see that he’s not. Even under that brushy mustache, he’s still a handsome man. The girls in town all turn their heads to watch him stride down the boardwalk in those long chaps and boots. We’ll both look back on these days and laugh, I expect.

I had an encounter in town tonight and got out of it before it escalated into bloodshed. Dhonnchaidh thinks I should have fought. Maybe I should have. I’m just tired of blood on my hands.

The herd is quiet tonight and most of them down. They like my whistling and I haven’t whistled for so long, I’ve mostly forgotten the tunes. Spotted a pair of coyotes yesterday and they hi-tailed out as soon as the moonlight flashed down the barrel of my rifle. Cap warned me to watch for mountain lions, but I haven’t seen any tracks yet. Certainly my horse would sniff one out before I’d see its eyes anyway.

Dhonnchaidh’s disappointed in my choice today, but there’s not much I can do about the choice now or how he feels about it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Three

“I found cat sign out on the ridge,” Kinsley announced over a stack of pancakes in the morning. “Big prints — the size of my hands. It was waiting over the trail to the river.”

“Any carcasses?” asked Cap of the table of men in general.

“Nope, none in the north end,” returned another tired rider from down the table.

“All the calves are on the ground now and they will start getting picked off if we don’t watch the cliffs and tree lines. Keep the herd away from the canyons where those cats like to hide. Make sure you haul every carcass out if one is found,” the Foreman warned as he rose to go. “If one of those cougars get to thinking that beef is easy prey then there’s hell and we have to hunt it down.”

“You’ve had trouble with the cats before?” inquired Kinsley … but no one answered him.

Duncan scowled at his plate. The men were ignoring Connor deliberately, indicating with their coolness their regard of him. Kinsley was a coward in their eyes. These men thought words were worth brawling, killing, perhaps dying for.

For the remainder of the week, the ranch hands snubbed their new member. They vied over who would team with Duncan for the regular duties of the day and found excuses why they couldn’t work the brush to bring out the strays with Kinsley. Cap discovered that his greenhorn was out alone brush popping when his dusty horse came in without him one evening. The Foreman’s words were harsh and scathing.

“There isn’t one man of that RJ brand worth dying over and you know it. Kinsley’s afoot in open range with night coming on and the varmints starting to prowl. I don’t even know if he’s got his rifle or it fell off the saddle when the cayuse came in.”

Duncan was the one who located him, following a tingle of immortal presence that steadily grew stronger as he rounded the curve of the arroyo. Connor was walking the dry gully, dusty and footsore, the leather chaps flopping around his ankles. He had removed his spurs and wrapped them with a bandanna to keep the telltale jingle from drawing any night animals to his vulnerable position.

“Here,” Duncan said quietly, sitting down on the rocks beside his weary friend. He handed him the canteen and let him drink thirstily. “I see you kept a-hold of your rifle in the mix-up.”

“Damn straight,” the older man replied. “I think I ran across one of those mountain lions. My horse shied so suddenly and spun … I was off plowing with my nose before I could grab the saddle horn.”

“Good thing you always have that rifle near your fingers.”

“Reminds me of my sword, but a bit heavier. Would be hard to explain carrying my katana around in hand all the time. ”

Duncan chuckled. They both had cavalry swords tucked in the lining of the rifle holster. Connor had been without his for hours, another cause of tension. He looked exhausted.

“Why’d you skip out of that fight the other day?” Duncan asked very quietly. They were hours from the main house and there was finally time to probe for the impressions that Duncan had picked up in his clansman. “I know you told me, but I’m beginning to wonder if there’s not more that you’re not telling me. We’ve both been too busy and too pressed for time to talk … but something has driven you all the way out here from civilization.”

“Duncan…” Connor scrubbed his face with a residue of water, effectively smearing the dirt into muddy streaks. “I’m just tired.”

“Tired of walking? Tired of fighting? Tired of living?” Duncan pressured verbally, eyeing the older immortal.

“One or two. All three. Does it matter? I’m alive. I’m working.”

Silence except for the sound of Duncan’s horse pulling grass and the faint cries of coyotes from far away.

“What’s happened, Connor? You’re thin, your hair has a life of its own practically … you haven’t a care about how you look these days. You spend most of your time out alone patrolling the range borders and even I hardly see you.”

“The job has to be done and the cows don’t give a rat’s ass how I look.”

“You’re brooding over something. You’ve been brooding since you got here. I’ve been waiting for you to just tell me, but seeing how stubborn you are … now here I am having to ask you.” Duncan leaned forward, elbows on his knees so he could see his comrade’s face in the silvery moonlight.

“It’s old news, Duncan, it doesn’t —” evaded the other man.

“Conchobhar,” the younger Scot interrupted, driving straight for the one point of leverage he had, “we’re the only two left from the clan of that time. If you can’t talk to me … who else? Talk to me. I’m asking.”

“There was a woman,” Connor said softly, hesitantly, beneath his breath. “She had a couple of kids, young ones. I liked her, she was kind and I’ve always wanted children. She used to call them in from play by ringing an iron triangle just like the cook does. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I loved her, but…” he hesitated, “I could have.

“There was an accident and one of her children died. It was just a stupid accident.” Connor chucked a rock at a tussock of grass nearby and it bounced twice with the force of the throw. “But two months went by and then there was another ‘accident’ and suddenly the little boy was dead, too. This time, I began to suspect someone was picking them off.”

“Damnit!” Duncan swore furiously beneath his breath. The one facet of immortality that angered him the worst … that purely on the basis of immortality, your loved ones could be stalked and slain to wreck your nerves in preparation for a fight. And while it had not happened to Duncan, he had heard of it happening to others — now to his old friend.

“I watched her close and looked around for the bastard in question, but he never showed himself…” the elder man’s voice trailed off to silence and they listened to the night noises and the soft whuffle of the gelding nibbling for grass.

“What happened then, Connor?”

“I was in town after supplies and I went for a quick round of cards, just to idle some time and my stress. It was broad daylight and Sunday. I had some words with a man hell bent to have a fight and the sheriff locked us up until he sorted it through.” Connor’s voice hardened. “I didn’t realize it was a set up until the bastard laughed at me and said he’d been never been paid so much to call someone a cheat. By the time the witnesses had their story straight and I was out … she was dying. That immortal had beaten hell out of her in the house, poisoned her and run. He left me a nice little note on the kitchen table telling me who he was. That he’d be back again someday to make me suffer, to destroy everything I loved in the world.” The elder Scot laughed, a harsh rasp of disbelieving anger, “and he had me by the wrong name! He didn’t even know me! He picked off that whole family just to make me wish I was dead by mistake!

Connor looked away at the high walls of the dry gully. “Truth be told, Duncan, if I’d lit out right then, I may have caught the son-of-a-bitch. But she wasn’t dead and I wouldn’t leave her. As it was, it took a long time for the poison to work and at the last, when the suffering was real bad, I hid her face along my neck and knifed her.” He closed his eyes. “I never caught up with that immortal because I waited. But now that little Tennessee town blames me for her death — blames me for the death of the kids, too, for lack of a better reason. In the struggle to escape, another man got killed in the crossfire of bullets.”

Duncan squeezed the shoulder near him in sympathy. This had been a hard last year for his old friend.

“I just need a break from the game for awhile.” Connor spoke in the same flat tone.

“Then you did well to come out here. I’ve been here two years without a single immortal coming through.”

Connor chuckled very lightly at this last. “The West is not known for its bustling population. I was surprised to see you.”

“I’m glad you’re here.”

“Are you? By not brawling in town, the cowpunchers have turned against me and you’re right in the middle.” He eyed the younger man gravely. “You need to side with them so when I move on, Duncan, you will still have a place here.”

“You’re planning to move on? You’ve only been here four months!” Duncan returned sharply, startled.

“I’m always on the move,” Connor sighed.

“That old haunt? Hasn’t he given it up yet?”

“The Kurgan will never give up the chase until I’m dead.”

Duncan muttered, “You need to face him and settle it.” And on the heels of his statement, he wondered for the first time if his mentor truly was a coward, fleeing before an immortal who had sworn to slay him hundreds of years ago. It made his gut ache to think such a thing about his kinsman and it angered him that the thought had been planted by a group of ignorant cowboys that he had known only two years.

Connor, watching, saw the unguarded wondering. His features did not change, but Duncan saw the sorrow cross his eyes an instant before he turned his head.

“No!” the young immortal protested, against both his own unthinkable musing and Connor’s comprehension of it. “You’re just not ready for him yet and you’ll know when you are. He’s older by thousands of years — you’re young. You need more time.” He said the words as confirmation both to himself and the man beside him. “You just got through telling me that we must pick our battles wisely. There will be time.”

The older Scot sat a moment more, staring up at the stars. “Time. Something we have too much of and the mortals have such a short supply.”

Chapter Four

The first killing was a week later. A newborn calf up near Peterson’s Bluff was found with its neck broken and the carcass half devoured. Mountain lion tracks a full six inches across ringed the brutalized body and one print had part of the pad missing — as if the foot was partially torn off. The cowboy who found the dead animal hauled the bloody message back to the main house and the war between man and beast began.

The rocky rims and parapets blended with the tawny color of the cougars and made them hard to spot. A rifleman on the bluff from 150 yards away could pick them off with a rifle if he had a steady aim and managed to see one. A circling of black birds in the air told the story of a cow and calf that had wandered up one of the canyons away from the main herd only to fall victim to one of the cats. The color of the cattle against the green grass was easier to observe and the ranch hands worked to keep the herd in the open for protection. Every man was on a horse keeping the animals ‘popped’ out of the brush and from straying.

Duncan, from the lip of an arroyo, spotted the next carcass of a downed animal — this time a larger yearling calf. The mountain lion was still at its quarry and Duncan slipped the rifle out of the holster and up to his shoulder in one fluid motion. Sunlight flashed along the barrel and the wary feline jerked its head up and stared across the distance. The Scot lined the sights up, holding his breath, for a moment frozen as if stone against the backdrop of sky. The roar of the rifle made him flinch, catching him by surprise as always.

“What’d you find, Duncan?” called Connor, sliding down the dirt bank.

“This one’s starving. Look at the ribs.” The younger man turned the beast over and inspected the heavy paws, looking for the odd footpad. “Not the same one as the first. This one is fairly young — so why is it out hunting on its own? Where’s its momma?”

“I s’pect she wouldn’t greet you so civil if she was around. How’d it pull this calf down if it’s just a youngster?”

The two immortals stalked through the area, rifles in hand, scrutinizing the ground.

“Here, right here,” said Duncan, pointing. The scuffle of hooves and prints near the ravine told the tale. “The calf was grazing and the cat came right up the rocks and took it. The wind is right. The calf never scented it before the kill and the varmint drug it over the edge.”

“A starving young cougar? How many kits are born in a litter?” asked the elder Scot.

“Two or three, maybe four. Why?”

“If she birthed a litter and can’t feed them, then we may have a handful of young mountain lions we’re looking for.” He gazed around at the scenery. The dark birds, drawn to gunfire and blood, were already circling above them.

“Starving beasts are pretty desperate. They’ll kill anything they can,” Duncan announced. He looked directly at Connor. “They better get enough food to stop that tendency to stalk anything that moves … or we will have to hunt every last one of them down to break the cycle.

The guard was doubled around the herd at night and the two clansmen took the watch, riding a wide circle around the flat basin in opposite directions. The sweeping ring of immortal presence crept over Duncan before Connor’s slightly off key whistling reached his ears. They nodded to one another in passing and kept riding.

Cap shot the next feline, a female five feet from nose to the tip of her tail. She was gaunt and her fur unkempt, barely weighing fifty pounds. Word came by a cowpuncher riding a fast horse from a nearby ranch that several dogs had been slain at the end of their ropes and eaten, collars and all.

~ ~ ~ ~ Journal Entry, Kinsley’s saddlebag ~ ~ ~ ~

How much killing are we expected to go through in our immortal life? Is there a distinction between man and the simple beasts just trying to survive? I came away to a lonely place to get away from the bloodshed … and find myself in it again. I fight to live. The cougars fight to live. I wonder if they prey on each other the way intelligent men do?

What separates the brave and daring from the weak-hearted — the heroes from the cowards? I expected to spend my life slaying immortals who came for me and to defend the Prize … I never expected immortals of the kind of trickery I’ve seen in the last five years. I never expected mortals getting in the way and dying for it. From simple mortals believing me a devil — yes, they are capable of evil to their own kind from sheer terror of the unknown. But I’ve never encountered an immortal who picks off innocent mortals just to rattle his intended target before. From just being near me, they were killed. Where is the honor and justice?

I never questioned whether or not I was good or evil before. Saint or sinner. Hero or devil spawn. The mortals who have died simply because they were too close to my immortality would not call me a hero. I’ve seen so many die because of me that I find myself questioning my own status in this world.

A bitter thing is this immortality. To run to escape the constant strife or to hunt for anything that moves? I feel much like these cats feel — struggling to survive in a land that is theirs and yet has been taken from them.

Even Duncan questions internally whether I am a coward or a hero. Today, I wonder myself.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It was a simple accident, a simple twist of fate and one common to the rough terrain and the type of work — but it had staggering repercussions.

One cowpony, facing off with a willful steer in the dense brush, was circling the scrub and scrambling over rocky shale to head the stray back to the herd. The lasso fell true and snapped taut around the base of the heavy horns and the animal set his heels against the pull. He would have to be drug out of cover it seemed … except the sullen beast opted to lunge after the horse and rider.

Experienced horses were worth any amount of money on a working ranch. The mare was no slouch — she felt the slack of rope and shifted her weight, spinning to dodge the charging animal. Her rider stayed aboard, also no stranger to the peculiarities of irritated cattle. The longhorn barreled past and reached the limit of the lariat in a cloud of dust. Nine hundred pounds of weight transmitted the strain to the saddle horn and the horse sat back on her haunches to counterbalance the shock.

SNAP! The weakest point of the rope gave out and the abrupt change sent the mare over backwards amidst rocks and sage. She rolled and lunged to her feet, shuddering her shoulders against the weight that hung uncharacteristically off one side. The drag of an unconscious rider, the loose flop of his long arms, the sudden scent of blood spooked the dazed horse even more and she stumbled away through the heavy cover and bolted out into the clear — leaving the unwelcome burden behind. Riderless, reins flapping, the plucky bay cantered for home.

It took a full day to locate the downed cowboy, but the mountain lion found him within an hour. The torn up dirt depicted the struggle to the grave eyes of the fellow cowhands. Their comrade had broken his leg in the fall. He had managed to drag himself to the shade, but couldn’t go any farther. Too far for anyone to hear his screaming and without weapons, he was easy prey for the cougar.

“Once they get a taste, they’ll come back for more,” was all that Cap had to say to the serious faces in the bunkhouse. “Send riders to spread the warning and no man works the brush alone. Keep your rifles close. This is a fairly big cat — the prints are wider and heavier — and he has a lame front foot.”

Chapter Five

Protecting a semi-undomesticated herd of cattle wasn’t an easy task. The grass was plentiful along the scrub line where rainfall washed down the cliff edges, tempting the herd to stray. Every man riding for the SC brand felt the weariness of the constant surveillance. Conversation was sparse between the men and they grew weary watching the cliffs and trees for a predator and the ground for telltale tracks.

Duncan worried for Connor, having found him twice nodding off in his saddle in broad daylight. He was tired himself, but his clansman had been on night patrol even before this contest between man and beast had begun. Lack of sleep and the long hours on the watch were taking their toll on the eighteen-year-old Scot. And there wasn’t any way to get him out of the workload that a grown man was expected to be able to manage. Talk of Kinsley being weak would just add to the general discontent of the ranch hands who already considered him spineless.

The next attack came at dusk and nearly tore off one rider’s right arm. It was a harrowing ride into town for the old doctor that saved what was left of the mangled limb. Even after being plied with strong whiskey, it took five men to hold him down to be stitched up. Cap swore savagely and paced the bunkhouse floor during the ordeal.

“Same one,” Connor said quietly where he leaned against the railing outside.

“Same one,” confirmed Duncan. “Same tracks. The pad across the right front foot is broken like he got it caught in a trap and chewed his way out.”

“Sloppy trapper. He should have watched his lines close if he was setting rings of traps.”

“You’ve trapped these cats before?”

“No. They’re too canny to trap, but they’ll try to take prey that a trapper leaves too long in something. A second trap must have snared this one. Cougars you have to chase with hounds and hope the dogs are smart enough to stay together.”

Duncan listened to the man moaning inside the bunkhouse a moment. “We need to track this cat down and kill it, Connor.”

“Are you crazy? They have every advantage with the cover and visibility. And there’s not enough dogs here to tree a cat like this.”

“Don’t make their words true that you’re a coward, kinsman,” Duncan said grimly into the face near him. “We’re immortal!

“You think we’re suppose to take on every risk just because we’re immortal? Are we just a sacrifice for everything that —” Connor clipped his hissed words off as the door behind them swung open.

“Kinsley, MacLeod – what are you two doing out here jawing?” announced Cap. “You’re supposed to be on the watch.”

~ ~ ~ ~ Journal Entry, Kinsley’s saddlebag ~ ~ ~ ~

Donnchaidh wants us to saddle up and hunt down this big cat. By ourselves. Without dogs. It must be crippled and is likely the mother of this brood of starving youngsters we’re dealing with.

I think we’d be better off waiting for it to come out rather than trying to take it in its own lair, but Duncan won’t listen to me, won’t talk to me, won’t hardly look at me. I never cared what other men think of me, but I care about what Duncan thinks of me and this hurts worse than anything else.

Are heroes ever simply afraid? Why was I chosen to be immortal if my character is flawed? Try as you might, Ramirez and Nakano, you never replaced that boy in my soul who remembers what it was like to fear. And now the last of the old Clan is wondering if I am craven-hearted … and I have no answers to give him. I don’t know who I really am anymore.

What divides the courageous from the cowards? Where is the distinction between champions and mere pawns? Is it a lack of fear: valiant and intrepid against any obstacle or is it simply knowing when it is time to cross the line of fear into action?

What do you do when you cannot see your own line?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Two days later, a rider from the main house arrived at the herd with grim news. The cattleman’s wife, Amy, and her daughter had gone for a walk together in broad daylight. They found Amy dazed and in shock down by the river. Of the little girl, there was nothing but blood and a bunch of cougar tracks … and one print was that of a broken paw.

Duncan felt him before Connor entered the tack house and didn’t spare more than a glance up. His saddle gleamed with oil and the saddlebags were full of ammo, jerky and a few changes of clothing. He rechecked his rifle, running his eyes along the barrel and inspecting the open sights. He slipped a whetstone into the nearest bag for the long handled knife he had strapped around his ankle.

“I’ll go with you,” the elder Scot said quietly.

“Are you sure, Connor?” commented Duncan. He didn’t slow his preparations to look at the other man. Anger fueled his thoughts.

“You’re determined that this has to be done —”

“It HAS to be done, damnit!” retorted the younger man. “We can’t sit and wait for the next time! This animal has figured out that men are easy targets!”

“— and I know it can’t wait either,” Connor finished without a change in tone. “I can’t let you go alone.”

Duncan paused and looked at his kinsman’s face. For days he had churned over his confusion about his old friend, alarmed by the dawning conclusion that his old teacher was, at heart, a coward instead of the hero he had always imagined. Two and a half centuries of respect was corroding. It grieved him and he knew Connor saw it in his eyes.

“What made you change your mind?” he asked.

“In the Highlands, it was always best to draw the battle to your own field, where you knew the land and the way to defend it.” Connor’s eyes were faraway. “But sometimes, Dhonnchaidh, you have to take the fight to uncertain territory and take whatever outcome you can win. It’s not particularly brave or daring, it just is.”

Duncan didn’t want to talk about it anymore, intent solely on the pursuit ahead of them.

Their horses were steady and rugged and did not shy at the scent of mountain lion that permeated the area where the child had been killed. Duncan thought he would be ill at the sight of the stained earth. Connor was quiet. The trail was dotted with blood where the three-year-old had been carried away. The droplets were black against the dirt and brush and easy to follow at first.

Within two miles, the trail of crimson ceased. The last remains of the child were lodged in a cleft of rock. They dismounted long enough to stack heavy rocks over the site so the coyotes wouldn’t scavenge the rest and began to follow the prints in the silt. Duncan had the quicker eye for tracking and he led. Connor brought up the rear, rifle across his thighs and his eyes watching the terrain.

They wound through mesquite and straggling pines, crossed dry watercourses and on into fresh grass. Duncan focused himself on the task with a single-mindedness that he usually reserved for hunting immortals. He determined direction by the lay of the land and the knowledge that a cougar with a lame foot would probably travel by the straightest, easiest course. They found one telltale paw print by a spring and Duncan’s smile was savagely exultant.

Night fell. They slept close together, without a fire, and their horses hobbled nearby. The alert steeds would sense any approaching cougar long before the immortals could hear them. When Duncan turned on the hard ground in the middle of the night, he found Connor staring at the stars, rifle across his chest.

“Connor, do you want to talk?”

“No.” His voice sounded empty.

“We have to do this,” the younger man said softly, willing his comrade to understand.

“I know.” Connor turned his head enough that the moonlight shown silver in them. He quirked a smile that vanished quickly. “Get some sleep. There’s another long day with your eyes on the ground ahead of you tomorrow.”

At dawn they were in the saddle again, tracking a cold trail. They munched dry biscuits and jerked beef, washing it down with canteen water. Duncan had to dismount and walk for hours searching the grass for a turned rock, a pressed print in a gopher mound to find his prey. It took all day to cross the next three miles through canyons and streams, picking their path and retracing when there wasn’t enough sign of the cougar to continue. It was getting toward evening when they crested a boulder-strewn path and sighted down into a canyon steeped already in twilight shadows. A chill ran down Duncan’s back when he saw it.

Massive rock formations, scraggly pines, a whisper of moisture indicating a stream somewhere … this was a perfect oasis for a cougar to hide and call home. And it was eerily quiet. Even Connor drew up short and regarded the steep canyon walls in silence. His gelding bobbled his head and pawed at the soft dirt once, then twice.

They had spent two days and many miles to get this far. Duncan dismounted and searched the soft silt at the lead into the canyon. It took five minutes to find what he was after — one broken paw print the size of his open hand.

“He’s here.” Duncan swung on his comrade and eyed him. Connor’s hair was loose from the thong he’d tied it with and it curled around his ears and clung to his sweaty neck. “Can you find this cat?”

“Find him?” The older man looked confused and Duncan waited out his thinking. “You mean use my quickening to find him?”

Silence for a charged moment.

“Yes. We’ve come all this way. Can you find him?”

“Duncan, I —” The immortal floundered for a moment. “This is a wild cat you’re talking about — one that hunts and kills humans. I don’t know that it would be a good idea for me to get inside one of them. That ability of mine … it’s not a weapon like that.”

“Gods, Connor,” Duncan said, instantly taken aback. “I never even thought about what I was asking.” He reached to grip his clansman’s shoulder a moment, thinking. “If we camp here at the top, the wind eddying down into the canyon will drift our scent. We either have to retreat and come back in daylight or get down into the canyon right now. But if we retreat now, that cat won’t be in that canyon by morning and the chase will be too far gone to continue.” He eyed his slighter companion. “I, for one, don’t plan on letting this go on.”

Connor replied quietly, “So we go down by moonlight and probably get jumped.”

“We’re immortal, kinsman, we’ll heal. And there’s two of us, we’ll watch each other’s back,” Duncan countered with a sigh.

The older Scot did not answer. He checked the sights of his rifle and tied his gelding to a tree with enough slack that he could graze. Duncan watched him yank loose the saddle cinch and dump the heavy leather off the animal so it could rest. Duncan did the same for his horse and without a word they descended into the shadows and rocks of the canyon.

Chapter Six

Cowboy boots were not designed for walking. Duncan wished for the twentieth time that he had moccasins as he skidded on rocks and loose shale. There was a soft wind murmuring through some hole in the rocks — adding a peculiar voice to the night. The nearby babble of a brook hid most of their sound as they worked their way into the harsh canyon. It took hours to negotiate the steep slope and massive rock formations just to get to the semi-level section where the water ran. The luminous moon rose over the canyon rim and the two immortals halted to regard their surroundings.

“Up there,” Duncan spoke quietly. “See that ledge? We can see the whole canyon and the trail back out from it, I’ll bet.”

“Hell of a climb.” Connor did not turn his head to meet Duncan’s steady gaze. “Let’s go.”

“I’ll lead. I can pull you up in the hard spots, but you can’t lift me.” Connor did not answer. When Duncan glanced back, the older immortal was right on his heels and keeping a running scan of the terrain by moonlight, rifle clenched in his right hand.

The slope was punishing, full of sharp rocks and scrubby brush that scratched their faces as they struggled upwards. A tumble of stones sounded behind him and Connor swore harshly beneath his breath. The tone brought Duncan to a halt. “What?” he said softly, knowing a whisper carried farther than a soft voice. It wouldn’t do for their quarry to hear them.

“Cut my arm on the shale.” Connor’s eyes were two black holes in his face by the dim light overhead.

“It’ll heal.” Duncan couldn’t place his clansman’s concern.

“The blood’s on my shirt and pants,” and his voice was calm as he spoke, “I’ve just become bait.”

“No,” Duncan returned, suddenly apprehensive, “I’ll watch you.”

They went on climbing the tumble of stones, pacing their steps to blend in with the night and working along the cliff face to their destination. Duncan checked every outcropping of rock for stability before leaning his full weight on it and reaching for the next. He bit his lips around his grunts of effort and helped the slighter man up a particularly nasty leg of the journey.

“Watch it,” Connor said softly.

Duncan looked up and spotted a balanced stone, fully the width of a steer, directly above him. He had been pulling at the rocks around the base, searching for purchase to haul them up to the next level. He couldn’t tell if it was just moonlight playing tricks on his eyes or if the rock was really that precariously balanced. And he didn’t intend to find out, either. They went past it, one right behind the other, searching for the last level of the strata to climb up.

A haunting feminine scream rose to a quivering soprano and sobbed away into the silence. Duncan froze on the rock face and felt his bones reverberate to the sound. Connor’s hand around his ankle clenched like the ring of a manacle. The air around them, split by that single scream of wildness, seemed thicker — as if suddenly weighted in its silence.

“Go, Duncan,” softly whispered Connor, his voice lending solidity to the chaos of the younger man’s thoughts.

Duncan went on, climbing with focus and strength, turning to grip the heavy cotton shirt of his friend and hauling him upwards through sheer determination. They made it to the ledge, a simple narrow oblong of rock jutting out over pines thirty feet below, and leaned with their backs to the rock face in relief.

For a moment, they caught their breath and wits … then the surcharged air was split again by the same trembling scream, as if a woman was being dismembered. It left a quivering ring hanging midair when it ceased. Duncan felt tears on his face and wondered that he would feel them from simple fear. Now that he was here he wondered if he should be here.

Silence for a time. Connor moved to the edge of the rock and looked over the terrain and Duncan joined him at the lip, acutely aware of the wash of fresh blood on his clansman’s shirt and thigh. The moon crept higher in the sky and made the shadows shift below their position. Nothing moved. Nothing seemed to stir. The air was charged with electricity as if a storm was near, but there was not a cloud in the sky.

“We’re on a ledge,” the older Highlander said very quietly. Duncan could tell by the timbre of his voice that Connor was thinking aloud. The ledge. What about the ledge? the younger man quested, trying to follow the unspoken thoughts behind the words.

The cry of a cougar, unlike any other creature alive, rose full of suspense and death from above and slightly to their left. It was savage and exultant, a ghastly note of life and death captured in a thin splitting shriek. To our left? We’re on a ledge and Connor’s been bleeding! Duncan recoiled reflexively from that potent scream and jostled into something soft — and the instant he did so, realized his error.

Connor MacLeod, off balance on one knee, had time for only one sharp cry of horror before he dropped into the trees below, spinning wildly, rifle clutched in one hand and useless against the whip of branches and bone crunching halt of the rocks below. He died before he hit the ground.

“CONNOR!” Duncan called unhesitatingly, stricken when Connor’s immortal presence winked out. He peered over the ledge to see the path his old friend had taken in the descent. “Wait! I’m coming!” Then he tightened his grip around his rifle barrel and went over the edge. The fall was dire and he gasped aloud at the punishment as he went down. He was almost to the ground when he encountered the back-breaking limb of a pine and in the daze of his mind before he died, Duncan MacLeod shrieked the final command to find Connor!

The thud of his heart, the staggering agony of limbs twisted out of place and blood now ordered to move again, welcomed Duncan back into the living world. The first nasty gasp for fresh air was brutal. He moved his arms and legs, drawing them up close and moaning through the pain of unset bones, reflexively assuming the fetal posture that he had taught himself when severely injured in order to get everything back into alignment at once.

Find Connor!

The last mental command.

It forced Duncan to his feet, stumbling, still partially unhealed, staggering, rapidly gaining equilibrium and pulling together all of his focus. The hum of Connor’s presence was there. Duncan felt him, searched for him, crawling across boulders and sliding with the loose rocks beneath his feet. There was something amiss in the signal … it winced. Guttered. Like a flame being pulled by a fickle wind. The young Scot, strength gathering across his back, lurched into a run after the twisting song of Connor’s immortality.

…And found him.

Prostrate. Gutted. Pinned helplessly beneath a snarling beast that worried at him. The older man’s hands were clenched desperately in the ruff of his attacker as the cougar, eight feet from nose to tail tip, leaned all of its weight into the kill — its jaws grinding inexorably though Connor’s throat.

Duncan spared not a thought for his life. He drew the long blade of the ankle knife and fell on the cat, sinking the blade deeply along the flank and ripping upwards toward the vitals, bowling it completely off the downed immortal with his lunge. Claws and fangs met his charge and Duncan stabbed repeatedly, enraged beyond terror, beyond pain, beyond fear, beyond anything but the rain of death he came to deliver. It took minutes before the heavy body went limp — even more before the mechanical action of his striking arm ceased. The Scot rolled the feline off of him and lay on the blood soaked rocks. The blue fire of healing swam across him.

Connor wasn’t dead yet. Duncan could feel the faint sliver of his presence as it weakened. He crawled part of the way and staggered the rest to lean over his fallen brother. It was a terrible sight. Connor MacLeod had been effectively disemboweled by the sweeping hind claws of the mountain lion and the silver gray of intestines spilled off to the side. The odor was horrible. His eyes were open, unseeing … and he had looped his wide leather belt around and around his neck! The score of fangs went half way through the leather — but his neck was whole! Duncan stared.

Then, abruptly, the dilated eyes of the dying immortal focused. Duncan felt the prickle of something pass by him, a brush of presence that was somehow familiar — then a terrible and savage weight descended across his shoulders and the harrowing prick of teeth sank into the back of his neck.

Another one! Mother of God —!

The weight was incredible and Duncan staggered beneath it, and went to his knees, expecting at any moment for the hind talons to rip him open. His rifle and pistol had been lost in the fall and the long knife was still buried in the first cougar! If he had any voice, he would scream in shock and terror — but there was only the desperate imperative to survive and he hunched his shoulders against the attacker across his back.

In an almost surreal vision, Duncan saw Connor reach beside him for his Sharps rifle. In slow motion, he watched the gun swing — as if the nine pounds of steel was an extension of the Scot’s arm — and come to the level. Duncan hoped that his kinsman’s aim was true. If it wasn’t, this would be his last glimpse of the real world. The fire from the muzzle bloomed red to white in his sight and clipped him into twilight.

Timelessness.

Being dead was the only time there was any timelessness.

Duncan woke back into life and remained where he was. He was dead, wasn’t he? A cougar had ripped his back open and gnawed through his neck.

A bird chirped. A bird?

The smell of water reminded him how thirsty he was. It was a common reflex of immortals that had suffered blood loss prior to healing. Duncan rolled over and struggled to his feet. The pale night was giving way before the dawn. He had been dead for over an hour. Two cougars lay nearby and the buzzards were already circling. He staggered weakly to the prostrate body of Connor MacLeod and went down on his hands and knees.

His clansman had died hard and alone during the night. Uncomprehending in his pain, the elder Scot had thrashed about on the rocks and finished the rending of his insides that was begun by the cougar’s claws. The gray eyes stared at a sky they did not see and Duncan could not close them.

The younger man summoned his energy and dragged the lifeless body down to the meandering stream, heedless of the ‘thunk’ of his kinsman’s head across the rocks — Connor was immortal; he would heal from those minor bruises easily. What was important was washing his body clean and piecing his torn insides back together before the reviving began. Duncan worked a long time in the streambed and the water turned crimson around him.

The mending took nearly all day and Connor revived before it was finished. Duncan had to hold him tight through his painful thrashing and listen to him beg for water over and over. He soothed his shattered and desperate friend as best he could and dipped a torn piece of his shirt in water to let Connor suck the moisture from it — but did not give him any to drink. The elder man wasn’t healed enough to drink anything yet and vomiting would create even more distress. It was nightfall before Duncan finally brought Connor handfuls of water and let him greedily slurp them down.

Daybreak found the elder Highlander sitting with his arms wrapped around himself, shivering. His eyes were odd in the light and he looked pale and ill. Duncan rose and sat close, concerned.

“Connor, why is this taking so long for you to get put to rights again? Because you were hurt so badly?” questioned the younger Scot.

“Did that cat claw you open?” he returned, his words clipped and tight.

Duncan thought for a moment. “No … he didn’t. At least, I don’t think he did. I didn’t feel anything. My shirt was practically torn off between the fall and the first mountain lion.” He pondered some more. “He had me by the back of the neck, but he never clawed me with his hind legs — strange, I thought that was something that all cats do.”

“I couldn’t stop him from jumping for you — I only hoped I could keep him from flaying you open.”

Duncan felt everything pause around him while his mind grasped what his kinsman had done. “You stopped him — you were in him and stopped him from ripping me open?” Then the enormity of what had happened dawned, “Jesus, Connor! Were you still with him when you shot —.” Duncan stopped speaking and reached out to take Connor’s nearest hand in his. The elder man’s fingers were icy and stiff. Duncan could feel the fine tremors in the tendons, as if inside Connor writhed and outside, he held still. “This is all mental healing now,” Duncan announced quietly. “Take your time, kinsman, I’ll sit with you until you’re better.”

Chapter Seven

“What happened then, Duncan? Come on, you can’t stop now!” prompted the lanky young man sprawled in the nearby chair. He flipped the hair out of his eyes for the thousandth time, careful to make sure that the one streak of red amidst his ebony locks fell to the right of his part and not the left. The twisting motion made the dangle of the earring in his left ear dance. He leaned forward over his knees and gazed sharply at the handsome immortal sitting on the floor near the couch.

Duncan grinned at the glass tabletop in front of him. Even at this angle, he could see the intensity of the youth’s face reflected in the glass. He would get pounced on and wrestled to a standstill if he didn’t finish the rest of this story.

“It took Connor another two days to feel good enough to travel. I thought he should ride double, in front, so he could lean back against me when he got tired. He informed me in no uncertain terms that he was not going to ride double with me anywhere — I hadn’t been seeing any girl enough to be safe to ride that way with!”

The dark-haired teenager doubled over laughing, nearly spilling the Coke perched on the arm of the chair. He howled and pounded his knees, then pounded on Duncan’s shoulder for good measure until his eyes ran.

“O my GOD! That’s exactly what he’d say! Exactly!” he gasped. It took a moment or two before he regained his cool composure. “So what happened? What did they say when you got back?”

“I skinned the two mountain lions and took the heads and paws back, too. The saloon tacked the hides up on the wall — one was cut up with a knife, the other had a rifle blast from less than five feet away through it. And amongst all the ranch hands that frequented Mission Creek, no one ever accused Mr. Kinsley of being a coward again.”

“Ahh, but they called him a cheat now and then, didn’t they, Duncan?!” chortled the young man.

“Yes, but it was always in fun. They never actually caught him cheating — hell, I can’t even catch him at it!” Duncan returned just as merrily. “The cowboys of the SC saw me ride in with those fangs and claws dangling over the pommel of the saddle, saw what was left of his belt, and they never again allowed some drifter to try to twist Kinsley into a fight to prove anything! They would, to a man, sit back in their chairs and you’d hear the click of twelve pistols being cocked in the room. Cap would say very quietly: ‘He tangled with those two cats nailed to the wall. He’s got no need to waste his time on your sorry hide.’ Worked every time.” Duncan grinned at the mental picture and shook his head.

The two of them sat in silence after the round of laughing, one teenage boy and one old immortal. Duncan waited for the bevy of questions to begin. He turned the shot of whisky around in his hands, suddenly aware that he had only taken one sip the whole time.

“He really is brave, isn’t he?” came the solemn voice from the chair.

“Yes, John, your dad really is brave.” Duncan replied. “He always was when it really mattered, but I think he just didn’t realize it. That night on the hill changed him — he changed some more when he killed the Kurgan and Kane. The man today doesn’t doubt who he is or what he represents.” Duncan looked into the wide eyes of his listener. “I think that Connor had hit a time in his life when he was searching out himself, trying to find who he really was and what he was for besides just the Game.”

“Finding his place in the world, just like me.”

Duncan did not answer. John MacLeod, Connor’s adopted son, was 16 years old and he didn’t need anyone giving him any answers. He had to find them himself and so Duncan held his tongue.

He also did not want to relive all the comprehension of what might have happened that night in the canyon. If he had not been close enough, the older Highlander might have been ruthlessly slain and his quickening disbursed into the sky. How could he explain to this youth what it meant to be simply lost when you had endured for centuries? To be truly and irrevocably homeless — Clanless — for eternity? Words failed to explain what it would have meant for Duncan to have Connor die near him and his immortal essence lost for all time.

And if the older immortal had not come with him, he may have never survived the attack. Duncan never wondered again if the elder Highlander was a coward. He had his proof. There was a catamount in the heart of Connor MacLeod and of that, Duncan had no doubts at all. He quoted to himself: now he can outstare the lightning. To be furious is to be frightened out of fear, and in that mood the dove will peck the estridge…

John changed direction and tone. “He’s so hard to live with. Hates everything I wear, where I go, the friends I have. He’s so … so … restrictive!”

“He worries for you, you’re not immortal.”

“Yeah, well he’s a real pain in the ass,” retorted the teen. “He’s gonna outlive me anyway.”

“Yes,” and Duncan’s tone took a note of sharpness. “He knows that, too.”

“Fuck,” John said morosely.

Duncan wrinkled his brow at the vile expletive and stifled his chuckle. He knew full well that Connor said that same word to him just because he knew Duncan found it so offensive! John probably did the same thing to his dad with the same effect.

“I scare him, don’t I, Duncan.” John spoke with a tone that was not asking a question. “I take risks and drive fast and party with my buddies … I make him afraid for me.”

Duncan adjusted his thinking to the emotional ping-pong typical of a teenager. How did they ever survive these wild swings of thoughts and feelings? Was he this way as a teenager? There wasn’t even anyone he could ask — and he knew exactly what Connor would say to him. Probably using that vulgar word too!

“He will probably outlive me, but he just wants more time with me before I’m gone,” John continued quietly. “I gotta quit freaking my dad. I want to live my life, too, but I gotta quit making him afraid for me.” John looked directly into Duncan’s face. “You ever raised any kids, Uncle Duncan?”

“No. I had a few opportunities to, but I don’t think I would do very well raising a child.”

“Why not?” John demanded with characteristic juvenile attitude.

“Haven’t got the strength it takes,” and he met the young eyes fully. “I don’t think I could bear losing them eventually.” He waited a beat before adding: “it takes courage to raise a child knowing that they will pass on without you and you must let them go. By accident or by old age; if they are mortal, they will eventually die.”

Silence.

“He really is a hero.”

Duncan chuckled. “Yes. He really is. In his own way and when it matters.”

“He always tells me stories about you,” John inspired abruptly, “about where you’ve been and what you’ve done. He says ‘that Duncan was born a hero!’ when he talks about you.”

“You forgot the swear word in there, John,” dryly remarked the Scot.

“Yeah, well. It’s usually ‘that Duncan was born a damn hero’ when he says it. I was just being polite.” And he grinned widely at the man on the floor.

“You know what the difference is between a born hero and one that is gradually made into one, John?” asked Duncan. He went on when a shrug was the teenager’s reply. “In the end — not much.”

“Yeah, well, I wish he dressed and acted more the hero — like you. At least you always look like someone who’s a hero! My dad dresses more … well, like, my dad.” John groaned. “Wait until you see how he went tonight to this ‘black tie’ event.”

“He’s not back yet, so they must not have tossed him out because of inappropriate attire,” commented Duncan.

“How could they when it’s his millions that support their foundation? He’s nameless, but they all know where the big bucks came from. He didn’t even wear a tux … said the suit was black and that was enough ‘black tie’ to satisfy him.”

John paused only a second and changed directions again. “Hey, but I can see you two back then! Bam bam, ride ‘em cowboy! The immortal MacLeods ride again! Yeee—hawww!”

Duncan leaned over sideways in a paroxysm of laughter, hanging onto the table to keep from collapsing. John went on behind him, whooping and reciting old western lines, bouncing in his seat in a parody of riding a horse. Duncan was a long time breathless when the fit of hysterics was over.

“Hah. That explains the zoo,” John inspired, snapping his fingers. “Dad hates going because I love to sit and watch the big cats! They really get lively when dad shows up — they like to stare at him and he stares right back. There isn’t anyone who can stare like my dad! By the time we leave, they’re all wound up!”

Duncan was barely recovered from the round of laughter that followed that revelation to say: “Speaking of lions and tigers, here comes your dad.”

“I wish I had that radar. Would have been handy knowing when he was coming,” soberly announced John, slouching back in his seat in typical teen fashion.

He was sitting that way when I arrived hours ago, thought Duncan humorously. Aloud he said: “I’m just as certain he was glad you couldn’t tell when he was coming!”

The door opened and Connor MacLeod strode in wearing a black suit with a shirt that was open to his breastbone and no a tie. He was clean-shaven, the flower was still crisp on his lapel — and his hair stood up in a wild array. Duncan groaned dutifully at the unruly hair.

“What’s the matter, Duncan?” lilted the familiar voice of the older Scot. He laughed at the younger immortal. “Why are you complaining? I’m not in tennis shoes.”

“Way to go, Dad!” cheered John from the recliner. “No sneakers!”

Connor turned, startled, and eyed his son for a moment. “I thought you were determined to go ‘hang’ with your friends tonight? You were planning to ‘find Cain and raise him’, I believe.”

“Yeah, well, sometimes they’re boring. Uncle Duncan’s more entertaining,” John replied.

“Entertaining?” Connor swung his head from the boy to the man and back again. Duncan kept his face straight and John hid behind an exaggerated yawn.

“It’s late and I’m tired. See you tomorrow, Uncle Dunc — Dad.”

Connor watched his son stride down the hall to his room and shut the door. “What did you two do the whole time I was at this event?” he asked.

“Hung out.” Duncan grinned at the dour look he received. Connor waited for more of an answer and Duncan let him eat the silence.

“He’s a good boy, Duncan, really. I know he’s a sight, but he just needs some time to find himself, that’s all — ” Connor said roughly, looking down the hallway where his son had vanished.

“Of course he’s a good boy,” the younger Scot interrupted. He got stiffly on his feet and faced his friend, letting the truth into his eyes where Connor could see it. “You’ve done well with him. He is his father’s son.”

“Meaning what?” demanded the older man.

“For starters, how about appearances, hmmm? What’s with your hair?” Duncan jostled the slighter man with his shoulder in the beginning phase of a wrestle. “I got here ten minutes late and you’d already gone — I could have fixed this mess up here!”

“Why are you always focused on my hair!? I like this ‘ppftt’ look! It’s not two colors and I haven’t got anything pierced!” Connor pushed back and then, warningly, “hey, quit! You’ll smash the flower!”

“The flower!” hooted Duncan. “The flower?”

“No — now stop, Duncan! I’m tired and overdressed and tense.”

“You can’t be all three at the same time,” Duncan announced, hands on his hips. “Why tense anyway?”

“I couldn’t take my sword into the governor’s mansion. I had to leave it in the car.”

“Well … that would make you tense. Worried about us here at home?” Duncan pressed for answers. He backed up his determination with a hand poised over the flower that Connor, for some strange reason, valued.

“Ahh, ahh,” fending him away, “ — yes, damnit! Don’t mess with the orchid, it will last a week and I was going to pass it to Rachel to enjoy too!”

Duncan chuckled and dropped his hand. “Connor, I can certainly handle one 16-year-old boy don’t you think? In fact, we had a great time. Any day you want me to come and ‘hang’ with John — I think you’ll find that he would like that too.” He prodded the silent immortal in the chest with one finger. “I think that you will discover that he’d like to ‘hang’ with his old man if you’d quit acting so old!

“I AM old!”

“You’re eighteen.” Connor glared at the speaker and Duncan capitulated. “Okay, nearly 500 and still going on eighteen! Lighten up on him a bit. He’s sixteen years old now; he’ll be off to college in another year or so!”

“I get that from him all the time and I’m not going to get it from you too — I’m his dad, remember?”

“You can’t help him find his way, Conchobhar, he has to find it himself.” And then he added more gently, “We all get to find our own way. My path didn’t work for you and yours won’t work for him. Let your hand loose on the reins a little. You said yourself, he’s a good boy searching for himself.”

“Fuck.”

The younger Scot flinched. Connor grumbled and then grinned and reached to grip a hand around Duncan’s shoulder in familiarity and friendship. Duncan gave him a few moments of pinching his neck in mock wrath before he smiled and delivered the capstone: “I know just what we should all do tomorrow — I hear this town has a superb exhibit that I’ve been dying to see!”

“See what, Duncan?” Connor quested, steering him down the hallway to the guest room.

“The zoo! Tomorrow, take me to the zoo!” *********

MacNair

3/6/01

The spectacular montages created specifically for this story are by the talented USTADAWN and more montages are found at http://www.hometown.aol.com/ustadawn/highlanderfanfic.html

Some of the photo captures used in the montages are by Celedon. Her site is located at http://members.tripod.com/~Celedon/index.html

A resounding “Ye-haw!” to Sharz and lynnann for the Beta reading and giggles. Duncan in a pair of chaps was a never-to-be-forgotten sight! If anyone wants more of these Highlanders as cowboys in a story, you must tell me because I had a blast writing them in the old West!

Cowboy terminology and research:

Tenderfoot, greenhorn — slang for a man who has little knowledge of cattle ranching.

Hog-leg — slang for a pistol. Pistols were strapped around the waist by a gun belt (separate from a belt worn through belt loops) and hung off the right hip. A ‘southpaw’ wears his gun on the left thigh as opposed to the right. The end of the holster was also tied around the lower thigh with a leather string to keep the holster from jerking upwards with the gun when it was drawn.

Duncan MacLeod wears an 1873 Colt .45 ‘Peacemaker’ single action revolver with a 4 3/4th inch (10.16 cm) barrel.

Connor MacLeod carries a .44-70 caliber Sharps model 1874 Sporting rifle with a single trigger. Wt: 9lbs 2 oz (9 lbs = 4.08233 kg), barrel: 32 in (81.28 cm), overall length: 49 in. (1.2446 meters)

Chaps — fancy ones with ornamentation or plain leather, chaps were designed to protect the men’s legs from the thorns in the brush as they rode through.

Cayuse — slang for a horse.

Brush popping — slang for herding stray cattle out of the brush and canyons back to the main herd.

Mountain lions — Found from SW Canada down through the Western states of North America and on into the Western regions of South America. Habitat includes mountain forests, up to around 1600 feet of elevation, as well as lowland swamps and grasslands. Males usually cover an erratic range of approximately 100 miles (160.934 kilometers) and the females a smaller range. The cougar is large enough to bring down cattle and horses as well as deer, sheep, beaver, rodents and rabbits. They will hunt during the day or night. The mountain lion uses its powerful hind legs to lunge after its prey and can cover in excess of 40 feet (12.192 meters) with single running jumps as well as execute a 30 ft. (9.144 meters) standing broad jump or an 18 ft. (5.4864 meters) jump straight up the face of a cliff. Cougars rarely attack humans unless injured, ill or defending their young.

Weight: 100-200 pounds (100 pounds = 45.3592 kg)

Length (nose to tip of tail): males 8ft (2.4384 meters), females 7ft. (2.1336 meters)

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