Word Count 14,743
The day had finally arrived; Johnny was starting school. The boy lay in his bed, wishing he could turn back the clock, for just a few days. He certainly didn’t want to go back to the time before he came to live at Lancer; even the thought of school didn’t make him wish for that. But, he just wished he could enjoy a few more days at home, with his father, without school getting in the way.
As he lay there, he let his mind drift back to that day, when he was in that awful border town, the name of which would be forever burned in his brain, Santa Christo. The day had begun, like all the others, since he’d arrived there. He woke up, anxious to leave the meagre shelter of the shop doorway, before the town woke up, too much, and someone discovered him. He’d already felt the boot of the store owner, on his backside, just for spending the night, there, but he hadn’t been able to find anywhere better, so had risked going back, for another night. He was cold and extremely hungry, and knew that he couldn’t survive another winter, without food and shelter, and so needed to find somewhere to stay, within a town, but Santa Christo was not looking very favourable, so he was thinking of moving on. However, he wasn’t sure where else to go, as there weren’t many towns, in that part of the world.
He left the main street and ducked down the first alleyway he came to, beginning his daily search of the trash cans, for something to eat. He was lucky; he found some scraps and ate them, eagerly, having not eaten since the morning of the previous day.
Unknown to the boy, his future was being discussed by two people, at that very moment. One was the sheriff, who had already told him to move on, and the other was a Pinkerton agent, hired by his father, Murdoch Lancer, to find him.
“Yeah, a boy fitting that description was hanging around here, a day or so, ago, but I told him to move on, and I ain’t seen him since,” said the sheriff.
“Well, I reckon he’s still around here,” said Mr Dodds, the Pinkerton man. “Last time I heard anything about him, he was looking real thin and was wearing nothing but rags. The cold weather’s coming on, he needs to stay in a town, if he’s gonna survive, and there ain’t many towns around these parts.”
“He could still be in town, but if he is, he’s doing a mighty good job of staying invisible, as none of the storeowners have reported seeing him, either, and they usually do let me know, if they are being bothered by vagrants.”
“I’ve bin trailing this boy, for nigh on four months, so I well know how good he is at keeping outta sight,” said Dodds. “You don’t mind if I snoop around a bit, then?”
“Nope, be my guest, but just what has he done? He looked a mite small to have been able to cause much trouble.”
“Oh, he ain’t in any trouble, Sheriff. In fact I’m about to change his life, for the better, I’ve got news for him, from his father.”
“Well, best of luck, Mr Dodds, and if I hear anything about the boy, I’ll come over to the hotel and let you know.”
“Thank you, Sheriff,” said Dodds, shaking the sheriff’s hand.
Before checking in at the hotel, Dodds took a walk round the town and was sure that he saw Johnny, but, like the sheriff, he found that the boy didn’t stay in one place, too long, and the boy slipped away, again, before he could get close enough to speak to him.
‘I best try and find him, sooner, rather than later,’ thought Dodds. ‘Just in case he does take flight, I’ll search for him before I go and eat.’
He registered at the hotel and dropped off his saddlebags, in his room, and then hit the streets again, ignoring the fact that he was really hungry.
After about two hours, he still hadn’t seen the boy, again, and so he decided to pop into a café, for a coffee and a bite to eat.
As he waited at the table, for his meal, he caught a glimpse of someone moving about, in the backyard, through a crack in the door, which led to the kitchens. He was sure it was the boy, and so he ran through the kitchen, ignoring the owner’s protests, and went out the back door.
The boy jerked up his head, looking for all the world, like a startled rabbit, and then headed for the gate, but Dodds got there first, cutting off Johnny’s escape route.
“Calm down, boy, I’m not out to hurt you, in fact I’ve got some good news for you,” said Dodds.
“I saw you in that last town I passed through,” said Johnny. “You tried ta snare me, then. Just what is your game, mister? Do you like little boys, or something?”
Dodds could only guess at what experiences this young boy may have gone through, to think like that, but he shook his head, emphatically.
“No, nothing like that. I’m a Pinkerton agent, and your father sent me to find you and take you to his ranch.”
“My father? Do you mean Murdoch Lancer?”
“Yes, that is, indeed, who I mean,” said Dodds. “He heard about your mother’s death and now that you are alone, he wants you to go and live with him, on his ranch.”
“This is a joke, right?” said Johnny. “My father kicked out my mother and me, when I was only two. He decided that he didn’t need the embarrassment of having a half Mex kid around and so he showed us the road.”
“Well, that maybe how you thought it was, but your father told me a different tale. He very much does want you around. In fact, he’s been trying to find you for years, and I know, as it is the agency I work for, which has been looking for you. So, come with me, into the café, and I’ll get you a decent meal, rather than those scraps you just stole. Then, we’ll go over to the hotel, where you can take a bath, and I’ll get you some new clothes and, tomorrow, after a good night’s rest, we’ll head for your father’s ranch.”
Johnny didn’t think, for one minute, that this man was really going to take him to his father, but the thought of a good meal and some new clothes overrode his suspicions and he agreed to go with Dodds.
“Okay, if you’re offering a meal and some clothes, then I’m your man,” he said.
The proprietor of the café was not so happy about Dodds bringing the scruffy little boy, inside, but as he was a paying customer, he allowed the man to order a meal for Johnny.
The boy began eating, like there was no tomorrow, and, eventually Dodds suggested that he slowed down.
“If you continue to eat that fast, after a long period of going without food, you’re likely to be sick. Don’t worry, you won’t be going without, ever again, so there’s no need to eat that much, in one sitting.”
“I thank you for the food, mister, but I’d prefer it if you left me to eat it, as I see fit,” said Johnny. “If you’d ever been as hungry as I’ve been, then you’d understand why I wanna eat every bit in front of me.”
“Okay, please yourself,” said Dodds, and he carried on drinking his coffee, as Johnny shovelled in more food.
Inevitably, just as Dodds said he would be, Johnny began to feel sick, and Dodds only just managed to get him outside before he threw up at least half of what he’d eaten.
Dodds said nothing, just helped support the boy’s head, as he threw up, and, as he did so, Johnny began to change his opinion of the man, as he seemed to be really caring.
Once Johnny felt a bit better, they headed over to the hotel and Dodds booked the boy into a room. He asked the desk clerk to heat up some water, so that Johnny could take a bath and then left Johnny to do so.
“I’m going to go and buy you some new clothes,” he said. “So, once you’ve had your bath, just wrap yourself up in a towel, until I get back.”
Johnny locked the door, after Dodds left the room. He quickly shrugged himself out of his rags and stepped in to the bath of warm, scented water. It felt like he’d died and gone to Heaven, it was so long since he’d had the luxury of a bath, or enjoyed the sensation of having a full stomach.
He was very tired and just as he was about to fall asleep, there was a knock at the door. Johnny stood up and wrapped himself in a large towel, and then, with some trepidation, he opened the door. It was Dodds, with the new clothes.
“Here you go,” he said, thrusting the clothes at Johnny. “Get yourself dressed and then come along to my room, next door. Then I can tell you some more about your father.”
Johnny did as Dodds told him, and was soon sitting in the man’s room, listening to the whole story.
“Ever since your mother took you away from your father, he’s been trying to find you. He has employed the services of several agencies, mine being the latest, and they have been on your trail, for a long time. But, you always managed to stay just one step ahead of them. Then, when your mother died, your father was really anxious to get you back, knowing that you were all alone, and he told the agency to employ an extra man, and I was taken on. Luckily, I’m the one who has found you, and I can’t wait to reunite you with your father, as I am a father, myself and so can understand how he must feel.”
Johnny was still not sure that this man was telling the whole truth, but was prepared to accept that he was telling the truth, as he knew it.
“My Mama always told me that my Old Man kicked us out, and I ain’t heard nothing yet that’s convinced me she was lying. But I am willing to go and see my Old Man and talk to him about it. After all, I ain’t got nothing to lose, cos I don’t own nothing to start with.”
Johnny was happy to turn in, when Dodds suggested it, and he marvelled at the comfort of the bed.
“I’ll sleep like a log, in here,” he said, as Dodds prepared to turn out the lamp, and go to his room.
“Goodnight, Johnny,” said Dodds, and the kind hearted man was close to tears when he thought about what this young boy had been through.
The next morning, it took Dodds a while to wake up the boy.
“Come on, Johnny, we need to get on the road and go to your father. I wired him, yesterday, when I went out to get you those clothes, and I bet the poor man is beside himself with excitement, so we need to get there as soon as possible.”
“Okay, but I don’t wanna leave this lovely bed,” said Johnny, stretching beneath the covers.
“I am sure your father has one just as nice at his ranch, for you,” said Dodds. “Now, get yourself dressed and we’ll have some breakfast, before we go.”
It took Dodds and Johnny almost a week to get to Lancer and in that time, Johnny came to like the man, very much. Johnny wasn’t one to give much away, and so Dodds did most of the talking. He told Johnny all about his family.
“I have two boys, Peter is eight and Carl is ten, and they are the love of my life and of my wife’s, so I have been well blessed, and have never known the kind of grief that your father has known. He never wanted you or your mother to leave him, and he has lived with the pain of his loss every day, since you went.”
Johnny was still not sure that he should believe Dodds’ version of why his mother left his father, but the more he came to like the man, the more he was inclined to believe him.
The night before they were going to arrive at Lancer, saw Johnny acting very strangely. After he and Dodds had eaten, Johnny was usually ready to curl up in his bedroll, and go to sleep, but this night he couldn’t settle.
Dodds watched the boy pace up and down, for several minutes, before he spoke.
“What’s the matter, boy? Are you scared about meeting your Daddy?”
Johnny stopped his pacing and looked Dodds squarely in the eye.
“Scared? Me? I ain’t never scared of nothing, least of all my Old Man. I’m just a bit restless, is all.”
“Okay, have it your own way. You’re not scared, just restless. Well, I’m just plain tired, so I will bid you goodnight, Johnny me lad,” and Dodds was soon fast asleep.
Johnny lay down in his bedroll, with his hands behind his head, and looked up at the stars.
“If you’re up there, Mama, I sure wish you could let me know what really happened between you and the Old Man. Dodds here keeps telling me that he’s a fine man, but all my life you led me to think otherwise. I don’t wanna go there and find I like him, if it ain’t gonna sit well with you, Mama. I just wish you’d give me some sign.”
Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, Johnny saw a falling star flash across the sky.
“That was pretty, Mama, and I’m gonna take that as meaning you don’t mind me seeing the Old Man. I can’t say iffen I’m gonna like him, or not, but it’s gotta be better than the life I’ve bin leading, up to now, so I hope you’ll understand why I’ve decided to at least meet him.”
Eventually, the boy managed to get some sleep, but he was still feeling rather tired, as they rode under the Lancer arch, the following day.
His first impressions were that the place was huge, and that his father must be a very wealthy man, but then he’d already had an idea he was, by the fact that Murdoch had hired agents to track down his son.
Then, he discovered that not only did he have a father waiting to meet him, but also a brother and a little girl, who, although not related, was treated as a member of the family.
It was a lot for the boy to take in, and once he’d been shown to his room, he lay down on the bed, and was soon asleep.
Dodds filled Murdoch in on all he knew about Johnny’s life, from leaving Lancer, when he was two, up to the present day. It wasn’t much, but at least it gave Murdoch some idea of what the boy had been through, in his short life. Murdoch also had the reports from the other agents, and it made for pretty grim reading.
“Please don’t think that I’m trying to tell you how to treat your son, Mr Lancer, but Johnny and I have become quite close, this past week, and I think you’ll find out a lot more about him, if you just wait and let him tell you, rather than you try and question him. He has a good heart, despite what he’s been through, and he really needs a loving family to care for him and give him the chance to grow, mentally as well as physically. I have two boys, one the same age as Johnny, and one a couple of years younger, so I do know a little about what makes boys, this age, tick.”
“I am happy to take your advice, Mr Dodds, as, at the moment, you know my son better than anyone does, including me,” said Murdoch. “And I want to thank you for the way you have treated him. It’s obvious that you have come to mean a lot to Johnny, and I think he means a lot to you, too.”
“Yes, he does mean a lot to me, Mr Lancer, and I think that once you both get through the initial bonding process, he’s going to think a lot of you, too, just as you, already, think a lot of him.”
That was how it all started and Dodds was soon proved to be right. After a shaky start, the bonds had grown strong between father and son, and, especially, between brother and brother. Now, just about the only thing they didn’t agree on was Johnny going to school. Murdoch and Scott were keen for Johnny to go, but Johnny was dreading it.
Scott’s entrance, into his room, brought Johnny back to the present.
“Morning, little brother, time to rise and shine,” said Scott, rather over cheerfully, thought Johnny.
“Morning,” said Johnny. “There’s no need to be quite so darn happy about it.”
“Sorry,” said Scott. “Wasn’t aware that I was. Anyway, you’ve got to get up, or else we will be late for school. Pa says he’s going to ride in with us, seeing as how it’s your first day.”
This bit of news prompted Johnny to get out of bed, smartish.
“I ain’t no baby; I don’t want my father taking me to school. How embarrassing would that be?”
“Well, you’d better go and talk to him, then, as he’s bound and determined to come with us,” said Scott, who, privately, agreed with Johnny, but hadn’t said as much to their father.
Now he knew how Johnny felt about it, though, he offered his support.
“I’ll back you up, as I think it’s a bad move, too, but I wasn’t sure what your reaction was going to be to the idea.”
“Thanks, brother,” said Johnny, as he finished washing, and began to get dressed in his new clothes.
“You look really smart,” said Scott.
“Thanks,” said Johnny, giving his brother the briefest of smiles, before heading for the kitchen.
Scott followed Johnny and arrived, just as Johnny was confronting Murdoch about going to school with him.
“I don’t want you to come, Papa. It’s not like I’m having to go alone, Scott’ll be with me, and it would start me off on the wrong foot, having my Pa go with me. The kids will call me a baby, so please don’t come.”
Murdoch listened to what Johnny had to say, then had to agree with the boy that it was a bad idea.
“You’re right, son, I won’t come with you,” said Murdoch, and Johnny breathed a huge sigh of relief.
“For what it’s worth, Pa, I didn’t think it was a good idea, either,” said Scott. “But I didn’t want to say so, until I was sure how Johnny felt about it.”
The other reason why Johnny didn’t want Murdoch to go with them, was one he wasn’t about to share, but he was worried that he might not be able to stop himself shedding some tears, if he had to say goodbye to Murdoch at the school. And that certainly would be embarrassing in front of children, whom he was hoping to be friends with.
Johnny was really surprised about the depth of feeling that he had built up for his father, but he knew that being apart from Murdoch was going to be tough for him.
Johnny sat down and managed to eat some breakfast, but his appetite was no where near as good as it usually was, and all the family noticed this.
‘I hope I’m not doing the wrong thing, making the boy attend school,’ thought Murdoch.
For all his big talk, and the way he liked to pretend that nothing bothered him, Murdoch knew that underneath the shell that the boy had built around himself, lived one very vulnerable little boy. Since coming to live at Lancer, Johnny had allowed that shell to be chipped away, a bit, but he still liked to pretend, especially when faced with something that was worrying him, that he was one tough kid.
Once breakfast was over and morning chores had been done, it was time for the boys to leave. Murdoch could sense that the parting was going to be difficult for Johnny, so contrived to minimise it, by just saying goodbye, very matter of factly, and leaving the boys to go and saddle their horses, alone.
Teresa wanted to go and wave them off, but Maria insisted that the little girl go and help her in the kitchen, as she, too, understood that Johnny didn’t want a lot of fuss being made of him.
As the two boys saw to their horses, Scott chattered on about anything other than school, and he made Johnny laugh when they recalled Murdoch’s face, the day they had all gone swimming in the cold water of the river.*
“Poor man went blue,” said Scott. “But I reckon he was a good sport for coming in with us.”
“Yeah, he was,” said Johnny, laughing. “When I first met him, I reckoned he didn’t know how to smile, but he does enjoy a laugh and a joke.”
“When we first met you, Pa was wound up tighter than a spring,” recalled Scott. “From receiving the wire from Mr Dodds, to you arriving, almost a week later, I don’t think he slept more than an odd hour at a time. He wanted everything to be just right, when you got here, and was so worried that you wouldn’t like your room, or the house, or him.”
“All I remember was that the bed was every bit as comfortable as the one in Santa Christo that Dodds got for me, and that was the only thing I was bothered about, well, at first,” said Johnny, mounting up on Scirocco. “I think I must’ve slept for about twenty hours outta the first twenty-four, I was here.”
Scott chuckled and agreed with Johnny.
“Yes, I think you did.”
The two boys began their ride to school, and Scott tried to make the journey as pleasant as he could, for his brother, by talking about things that Johnny really liked, such as favourite food and horses.
“I never thought I’d be lucky enough to find that my father employed a Mexican cook,” said Johnny, almost drooling at the thought of some of Maria’s meals.
“Yes, she certainly is a mighty fine cook,” said Scott. “When I first came to live here, my palate wasn’t used to such spicy food, but I soon started to enjoy it.”
“Although she cooks gringo food, too,” said Johnny. “Or at least tames down her recipes, a bit, cos Papa don’t like very hot dishes, does he?”
“No, he doesn’t, and he’s even taught her how to make some of the dishes he remembers from his youth, in Scotland,” said Scott.
“Wonder what Papa is doing, now?” said Johnny.
“I think he said that he and Paul were going to check out that new herd they bought, this morning,” said Scott.
“If it wasn’t for school, I could’ve bin going with ‘em,” said Johnny.
“Me, too,” said Scott. “But the law says we have to go to school.”
As they got closer to the school, they met some more children, on the road. Wes joined them and so did Jimmy and Zack. None of these boys had been to the school, before, either, so Johnny was pleased to be arriving at the school with them.
“Hi,” said Jimmy. “Tried to talk my Pa outta this idea, ‘bout school an’ all, but he wasn’t having any, says we gotta go.”
“So did my Pa,” said Johnny, and Wes said that his father was the same.
“Not sure why, cos he ain’t had much learning, but he wants me to,” said Wes.
“Well, that’s probably why,” said Scott. “Most fathers want a better life for their children, than they had.”
Wes had met Scott, quite a few times, and so was used to Scott’s ‘fancy ways’ as he called them, but Jimmy and Zack didn’t know any of them, that well.
“Considering you’re brothers, you sure sound different ta the way Johnny talks,” said Zack, to Scott.
“That’s because we had different mothers and I spent the first five years of my life in Boston,” explained Scott.
“Oh, I see, I wondered what it was,” said Zack.
The boys arrived at the school and their first task was to unsaddle their horses and turn them out into the corral, adjacent to the schoolyard.
Once this was done, Scott went off to say hello to some of his friends that he hadn’t seen, since they were last at school.
Johnny and the other boys, who had never been to the school, before, just stood around, in a little group, feeling rather lost.
However, it wasn’t that long before a lady appeared on the steps, leading up to the school house, and she began to ring a large bell, which was hanging by the door.
Scott had, by now, returned to Johnny’s side.
“When the bell first rings, we all have to stand still,” he said.
The teacher began to speak to them, and as she did so, she was joined by another lady.
“Good morning, children,” she said. “I am pleased to see that so many of you have made it here, for the first day of our summer term. Allow me to introduce our new teacher, Miss Carstairs. She has just arrived from Denver and doesn’t know anyone in the area, so I hope that you are all going to make her feel at home. Miss Carstairs will be teaching you children between the ages of 7 and 11, and I will be in charge of the older pupils. For any new children amongst you, my name is Miss Burgess. Now then, please divide yourself into two lines, the younger children stand to the left of me, in front of Miss Carstairs, and you older ones, here, in front of me.”
This was the first blow for Johnny, as he realised that he was not going to be in the same class as his older brother. It was the same for Jimmy and Zack, too. Jimmy, being fourteen, was in Miss Burgess’ class, with Scott, and Zack, being eleven, was going to be in Miss Carstairs class, with Johnny, as was Wes, and Charlie Carter, who was ten.
As the two brothers stepped away from each other, Scott could see the look of sheer misery on Johnny’s face and he smiled, hoping to get a smile, in response, but Johnny still looked worried.
The children were told to follow their teacher into the building. At the top of the steps were double doors and once inside them Scott could see that the building had been extended since the last time he was at school. Instead of there just being one classroom, there were now two, and each classroom had a cloakroom, where the children could leave their coats and their lunch pails.
Miss Burgess’ class was at the left-hand side of the building and Miss Carstairs was at the right.
As the children filed into their respective classes, Scott winked at Johnny and mouthed ‘You’ll be fine, see you at recess’
Once in the classroom, the children stood around, in little groups, waiting for Miss Carstairs to tell them where to sit.
She clapped her hands, to gain their attention, and then began to speak.
“Please don’t look so worried. I know that some of you are new to the school, but then so am I, so I hope we shall be able to help each other out, over the next few days. I do have some records of the children who were at the school, last term, but with you new ones, I will have to come round and speak to you individually, to find out just how much schooling you have had, so for the first week, or so, we will be spending most of the time, finding out about each other. For now, you may sit anywhere, but once I have discovered how much you know, I will move you into a group with other children who are at the same grade as you are. This may mean that you will be sitting with children who are younger or older than you, but you will all be at the same academic level.”
Johnny, Zack, Wes and Charlie all went and sat together, as did some of the other children, who knew each other.
Miss Carstairs went around the class, asking each child to stand up and give their name and their age, for the register.
As she knew that it was going to take some time to go round all the class and discover how much schooling each child had received, Miss Carstairs suggested that the children each chose a book from the bookcase, at the back of the room, and read quietly to themselves, until it was their time to talk to her.
Johnny didn’t rush to go and get a book, and by the time he got to the bookshelf there was only books for younger children left. However, he didn’t want to get in trouble with the teacher, on the first day, so he picked up one of them, and returned to his seat. When he opened the book, he found that it only had one sentence on each page. Although he wasn’t that good at reading, he could read more advanced books than that one, but there wasn’t anything else, so he started reading it.
Suddenly, he felt someone, or something digging into his back, and when he turned around, the boy sitting behind him, whispered, “If that’s all you can read, then she’s gonna put you in the first grade, with the babies.”
“I can read better than this, but this was all that was left on the shelf,” whispered Johnny, back to the boy. “And quit poking at me with your pencil, will ya?”
“Please turn around, young man, and face the front of the class,” said Miss Carstairs, when she saw what Johnny was doing.
“I will, iffen he stops poking me with his pencil,” replied Johnny.
The boy sitting behind him, who was called Matt, stood up to address the teacher.
“I was doing nothing of the sort, ma’am,” he said.
“Yes, you were, you dirty, rotten liar,” said Johnny, and he stood up, too, and grabbed hold of Matt, by the front of his shirt.
Miss Carstairs ran over to Johnny and demanded that he let go of Matt.
“I will not have fighting in my class,” she said. “Now, both of you, sit down, and carry on with your reading, until I get to you.”
Johnny felt his face redden, as all the other children looked over at him, but Miss Carstairs clapped her hands and demanded that the children continued with their reading.
Miss Carstairs didn’t manage to talk to all the children, by recess, and Johnny was one of the ones that she hadn’t spoken to, so when he met up with Scott, in the yard, he didn’t have much to tell him.
“I’ve bin reading some dumb baby book, all morning, cos there was nothing else left, when I went to choose one, and am just waiting for the teacher to quiz me about my schooling. That won’t take long, cos I’ve hardly had any, and so I guess she’ll be sitting me in with the seven year olds.”
“I don’t think so, brother,” said Scott. “You haven’t had a lot of schooling, that’s true, but you know more than the average seven year old does. I mean, you know more than Teresa, don’t you? You can read and write and she can’t, and you’re pretty good at arithmetic, too.”
Johnny looked down, and dug into the ground with the toe of his boot, before answering Scott.
“Well, yeah, I guess I do know some things, but not much. I sure wish I was in your class. I’m trying to behave, but it’s real hard, especially with that darn kid, Matt, baiting me, all the time.”
“I know who you mean, his brother’s in my class, and he’s just as bad. However, the reason they cause trouble is because they know they are not very clever, and they want to cover up their inadequacies, by being bullies.”
“Well, if he pokes me, just one more time, with his darned pencil, I’m gonna flatten him.”
“I know it’s hard, but try and ignore him, as if you start a fight, you’ll be the one in trouble, not Matt.”
“Yeah, I know you’re right, but you also know my temper,” said Johnny.
“Yes, I do, and I know Pa’s, and it will be considerable, if you get into trouble on the first day.”
Miss Carstairs rang the bell and the children returned to their classrooms.
During recess, Matt had stayed away from Johnny, as he saw that the boy was in the company of his older brother. So, he talked to his own brother, about Johnny, instead.
“Yeah, I know who he is, he’s high and mighty Scott Lancer’s little brother,” said Luke. “Sounds like he’s as bad as his big brother.”
“Well, he sure ain’t high and mighty, Luke, in fact he talks more like you and me,” said Matt.
“Seems I recall hearing that his mother was Old Man Lancer’s second wife, and she was nothing but a Mex whore, so that explains the way he talks, but he still has the same father as Scott, and lives at that fancy ranch of theirs.”
Matt and Luke’s parents had a small spread, just out of town, and only just scratched a living, mainly because their father preferred spending his money in the saloon, rather than on seed and other things needed for the land.
Murdoch had tried to help them, in the past, as he felt sorry for Mrs Pallister and the boys, but all help had been spurned, except for the time that Murdoch had offered them a loan. Pallister took the money, but spent it on booze and gambling, and so the children and Mrs Pallister didn’t benefit, at all.
Murdoch had insisted that the man pay him back, and he was doing so, but it was taking him a long time to do so.
Armed with a bit more information, about Johnny’s past, Matt decided to carry on annoying the boy, as he was finding school rather boring.
As soon as the teacher was occupied with another pupil, Matt poked Johnny in the back, with his pencil, again.
Johnny whipped his head round, and said, in a deadly whisper, “Do that, again, and I’m gonna rip your head off.”
Matt just laughed, softly, and leaned back in his chair.
“Is that a trick you learned when you was living in one of those border towns, with your mother, the Mex whore?”
The dig with the pencil had already angered Johnny, but the remark about his mother, took the boy over the edge. Johnny stood up and leapt on Matt, as he sat in his chair. He knocked the boy to the ground and began raining punches on his head and chest. Matt, although a pretty good scrapper, had been taken unawares, and with Johnny sitting on top of him, couldn’t fight back, that well, and so Johnny was winning.
Suddenly, Miss Carstairs was at their side and she grabbed hold of Johnny’s belt and pulled the boy off his antagonist.
“I told you, this morning, that I will not tolerate fighting in my class,” she said, sternly, still holding onto Johnny, by his belt.
“Go and stand in the cloakroom. I will be out to deal with you, in a few minutes.”
Johnny did as he was told, but as he waited, he was very tempted to go outside, saddle up Scirocco, and leave. But the thought of what Scott and Murdoch would say, if he quit, made him stay.
Meanwhile, in the classroom, Miss Carstairs asked Matt what the fight had been about.
“I dunno, ma’am, he just come at me, like a wild thing.”
Fortunately for Johnny, young Charlie had heard what Matt had said, and he told the teacher the truth.
“Matt kept poking at Johnny, with his pencil, and then he made a nasty remark about Johnny’s mother, and that’s why Johnny clobbered him.”
“Thank you, Charlie,” said Miss Carstairs. “In that case, you will come with me, to the cloakroom, Matthew. The rest of you children please return to your seats and carry on with your reading, I won’t be long.”
Once out in the cloakroom, Miss Carstairs made Matt apologise for what he’d said to Johnny, but she also told Johnny that fighting was not the way to settle his differences.
“If someone annoys you, again, Johnny, please let me know, and I will deal with them.”
“Where I come from, a fella who needs a woman to git him outta trouble, ain’t no kind of fella,” said Johnny.
“Young man, this is a classroom and it is no place for brawling,” said Miss Carstairs. “Even if you are provoked, fighting is not an option, in school, so you must let me deal with it. If you don’t, then you are as guilty as the one who provoked you, and you will be punished, too. Take this as your last warning, Johnny. Now, please clean up your faces and then return to your seats. And Matt, you will stay indoors, at lunch time and write on the board, ‘I must not provoke arguments in the schoolroom’ fifty times.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Matt.
As Johnny washed up, he looked in the mirror, above the wash basin, and saw that he was sporting a black eye.
‘Matt must’ve got in a punch, after all,’ he thought. ‘Great, when Papa sees this, he’ll wanna know the whole story, and he’ll be mad about me fighting.’
Shortly after returning to his seat, Miss Carstairs came over to talk to Johnny about how much education he’d received.
“Not that much, ma’am, my Mama and me moved around a fair bit, so going to school wasn’t always possible, but I can read and write and I’m pretty good at adding up, in my head.”
Miss Carstairs looked down at the book on Johnny’s desk.
“I assume that when you say you can read, you do mean at a more advanced level than that book?”
“Oh sure, ma’am, that was the only kind of book left on the bookcase, when I went to get one,” said Johnny.
Miss Carstairs borrowed a book off one of the other students that was at the right reading level, for a boy of Johnny’s age. She handed it to the boy and asked him to read a couple of paragraphs.
Johnny looked down at the words on the page and knew that there were several of them that he didn’t recognise.
Rather haltingly, he began to read.
Miss Carstairs told him to stop, after one paragraph.
“That’s not bad, Johnny,” she said. “I would say that you are a little bit behind where you should be, at eleven, but you are only just eleven, and I would say you have a reading age of a nine year old, so that’s pretty good, considering how little formal education you have had. Now then, I would like you to do some writing for me. I want you to write about a page, on what you did in the vacation, please.”
“My brother, Scott, has been helping me with my reading and my writing, since I came to live at the ranch,” said Johnny. “And my Pa’s had me reading to him, quite a lot, so all that has helped me.”
“That’s good, and you should continue doing that, as it’s obviously helped you,” said the teacher. “Now, please sit down and do the essay for me.”
Johnny struggled, a bit, with the writing, as it was not something he did, that often. It wasn’t just the spelling, but the way to put the sentences together that he struggled with, too. However, he consoled himself with the thought that these things could be learned, as time went on.
When he’d finished the essay, he handed it in to the teacher, and she told him that she would check it and then they would discuss it, later in the day.
It was now lunch time, and as the weather was good, the children ate outside in the yard.
When Johnny joined Scott, at the long table set up under the tree, the older boy was shocked to see that his little brother had a black eye.
“Don’t tell me, you ignored what I said and had a fight with Matt,” said Scott. “Why do you always have to take the hard road? Pa’s going to be fit to bust, when he hears about this. What did Miss Carstairs say? Is she going to send a note home to Pa?”
“I don’t think so,” said Johnny, not really understanding the implication of Scott’s words. “She knew Matt had provoked me, but said I mustn’t fight in the schoolroom. He’s had to stay in and write lines.”
“Well, even if she doesn’t send home a note, Pa’s not going to miss that eye, is he?”
“No, he ain’t, and I don’t expect he’ll be that happy about it, either. But I had to do it, Scott, I just had to.”
“Why?” demanded Scott.
“Cos he made some nasty remarks about my Mama, and no one does that and gets away with it.”
And Johnny told Scott precisely what Matt had said about his mother.
“Oh, I see. Well, I guess I can understand why you did it, then, but I’m still not sure that Pa will. How did you get on with the school work?”
“Not too bad, she reckons I have a reading age of nine, so I told her that was down to you and Papa, making me read out loud, like you have.”
“No, that isn’t too bad, at all, as you’re only just eleven, so you’re not too far behind the level you should be at, for your age.”
“I had to do some writing, too, and that was a bit harder, but she ain’t given it back to me, yet, so I don’t know how I did with that.”
After lunch, Miss Carstairs brought over the essay that Johnny had written, and showed him where he had gone wrong.
“Your spelling is not that good, but the content is well thought out. I am quite impressed with what you have done, Johnny. We can work on the spelling, so that shouldn’t be a problem, well done.”
Although he’d been very negative about going to school, for some reason the praise from the teacher meant a lot to him, and she was treated to one of his heart-warming smiles.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said.
“We will also work on that temper, too,” she said, but her words were tempered by the fact that she was smiling at him, as she said it.
As they were riding home, Scott spoke to Johnny about the fight.
“I know you don’t have much experience of school and Pa’s attitude towards it, but you do know that he always expects us to behave in a way that doesn’t let the family name down, don’t you?”
Johnny nodded, and Scott continued.
“Now, according to Pa, getting in trouble at school is not a good thing to do, but I am sure you’d already worked that one out for yourself. If the teacher deals with whatever you did, herself, he won’t punish you further, but he might give you a lecture on what he expects of you, in the future. But, if things go as far as the teacher sending a note, home, then you are usually in for it, if you know what I mean? Miss Carstairs didn’t send a note home, about the fight, but Pa’s going to know about it, because of the state of your eye, and so he’s bound to ask what happened. If you handle it, the right way, I am sure he’ll understand, so try and keep your temper and just tell him what he wants to know, okay?”
“Okay, I’ll try,” said Johnny, but just thinking about the fight made him angry, as it reminded him of what Matt had said about his mother.
When they arrived back at the ranch, Scott took their horses over to the barn, as he still had to take care of Johnny’s horse, being that he lost the fishing competition they’d held. *
Johnny entered the house, tossing his hat, lunch pail and books, on the table.
“Well, hello son,” said Murdoch, walking across the room to welcome the boy. “So, how was your first day at school?”
“Not too bad. Teacher put me in a grade lower than I should be, cos my reading’s not quite up ta my age, iffen you know what I mean?”
Johnny kept his head down, as he spoke, hoping that his father wouldn’t see the bruise around his eye.
“But I did better than some of the other new ones. Jimmy, whose fourteen, had to come and join our class, and it’s only really for kids up to, and including, eleven, but he can hardly read at all.”
“That’s great news,” said Murdoch. “All that reading out loud must’ve helped, then. Son, what’s the matter? Look at me when you’re talking to me, please.”
Johnny lifted up his face and Murdoch caught sight of the black eye.
“No wonder you didn’t want to look at me. And just how did you come by that?” demanded Murdoch, feeling his anger building up.
“In a fight,” admitted Johnny.
“You got into a fight, on your first day? Did the teacher send home a note?”
“No sir, she dealt with it,” said Johnny.
“Well, that’s all right, then, but I still want to know what happened.”
Johnny had a tendency to mumble when he was reluctant to speak, and so Murdoch had to strain his ears to catch all of Johnny’s reply.
“This boy kept riling me, and wouldn’t stop, so I flattened him, but he managed to land one good punch, before Miss Carstairs stopped it.”
“So, it was you who threw the first punch, was it?”
“Yeah, it was, but he was asking for it,” said Johnny, angrily.
“There is no need for you to get angry, son, but I think there is every need for me to,” said Murdoch. “You know how I feel about you fighting, at any time, and I did point out that it was definitely frowned upon, at school, didn’t I? I can’t imagine that this boy could’ve said anything bad enough to warrant you flattening him. What did he say?”
“Oh, he said I was a baby, cos I was reading a baby’s book, but I had no choice, as it was the only kind of book, left on the shelf, when I went to pick one, and Miss Carstairs said we all had to read something, until she came round to talk to us.”
Johnny didn’t want to tell Murdoch about what the boy had said about his mother, for two reasons. One was because he couldn’t bring himself to repeat what Matt had called her, but the other reason was because he thought that his father wouldn’t see it as a good enough reason to fight, as it was the truth, what the boy had said. He knew that Murdoch had been deeply hurt when Maria had left him, and he rather suspected that, over the years, his father may have decided he was better off without her, considering the way she had treated him, running off with another man, as she had. He now knew that his father loved him, very much, and didn’t have any of the prejudices against him that Maria had told him his father had, about him being half Mexican, but he still wasn’t sure how Murdoch felt about his mother.
“Well that kind of remark is just the sort of thing that you have to learn to rise above, John,” said his father, sternly. “I am very disappointed that you blotted your copybook, this early, in your school career. Now, go and do your chores and then you are to spend the time, until supper, in your room. If you have any homework, you can do it, then, and I will check it, after supper.”
“But, Papa, me and Scott were gonna work on the tree house, after doing our chores.”
When Scott had first arrived at Lancer, aged five, Murdoch had built the boy a tree house and he’d used it, a lot. However, now that he was older, he hardly ever went into it and it had fallen into disrepair. Scott had offered to help Johnny restore it, so that the younger boy could now use it. Johnny was really excited about having a place of his own, especially as Teresa wasn’t allowed to go in it. Paul had forbidden her to, as it involved quite a difficult climb, to reach it, and he didn’t feel she was old enough to manage it. Also, he’d told her that playing in tree houses wasn’t something young ladies did, and so Johnny hoped to always be able to exclude her from his special den.
“Well, not today, you’re not, young man. Go in the kitchen and let Maria check that eye, before you start your chores,” said Murdoch, dismissing his son.
“That’s not fair, Papa, Matt was being real mean, he deserved a pounding,” yelled Johnny.
“That is enough, John,” said Murdoch. “Do not raise your voice to me, young man, unless you want a trip over my knee. Now, go and do as you have been told, right now.”
Johnny knew better than to try and argue any more with his father, when Murdoch used that tone with him, and so he left the room and went to the kitchen.
Maria checked his eye, all the while remonstrating with him, in Spanish, for fighting. But once she was happy that he was okay, she kissed him on the top of the head and sent him out, to do his chores, with a cookie, fresh from the oven, plus one for Scott.
Johnny was still feeling angry towards his father, when he met up with Scott, in the barn. He handed over the cookie, with hardly a word, and so Scott asked him how it went with Murdoch.
“Oh, he said it was all my fault, and that he was disappointed in me,” said Johnny, kicking at the dividing wall, between his horse’s stall and Scott’s. “Once I’ve done my chores, I’ve gotta go and stay in my room, until supper, so I can think about what I’ve done, I guess. The only thing that I can think about, though, is how I wish I’d been able to hurt that Matt, even more, for what he said, and I doubt if the Old Man wants me thinking that.”
Scott was a bit surprised about Murdoch punishing Johnny and he suddenly had a thought.
“Did you tell Pa everything that Matt said, little brother?”
“Nope, I just told him that Matt was teasing me about the book I was reading.”
“Well, why didn’t you tell him about Matt being rude about your mother?”
Johnny shrugged his shoulders.
“I didn’t think that the Old Man would care about what Matt said about her, and, besides, if I’m being honest, he wasn’t lying, was he?”
“Johnny, whatever your mother was, or wasn’t, she was still your mother, and our father’s wife, so, of course, he’d be interested in what Matt said about her. I’m going to have a word with our Pa.”
“There’s no need, Scott. Papa must hate her, for what she did to him, so he won’t care, and it just might make him madder.”
“No, it won’t, you’ll see,” said Scott, and he gave his little brother’s arm, an affectionate squeeze, before heading back to the house.
By the time that Johnny made it back to the main room, Scott had told Murdoch the full story.
As Johnny arrived, he heard his father say, “Well, that makes a big difference. Of course the boy would want to defend his mother. Why didn’t he tell me this, himself?”
“Because I didn’t think you would understand, Papa,” said Johnny. “My Mama hurt you, a lot, and she was the kinda woman that Matt said she was, but I still couldn’t stand by and do nothing, when he was saying them things about her.”
Murdoch crossed the room and engulfed Johnny in a hug.
“Of course you couldn’t, son, and I’m proud of you for defending your mother. I know that she ended up hurting me, but I did love her, very much, and I wouldn’t allow any one to talk about her, in that way, either. I’m sorry for saying I would punish you, but I didn’t know the full story, at first.”
“And I didn’t wanna tell ya, cos I didn’t think you’d care,” said Johnny. “I guess I should have known better, huh?”
“Yes, you should have done,” said Murdoch, giving the boy’s backside, a love pat. “Now, you and Scott go finish your chores and then I’ll come and help you with the tree house, that is, if you would like my help?”
Johnny looked up at his father, his eyes, even the bruised one, sparkling again.
“We’d love ya ta help, wouldn’t we, Scott?” and the older boy nodded his assent.
Murdoch and the boys spent a happy hour working on the tree house. All too soon, as far as Johnny was concerned, Maria was calling them in for supper. However, Murdoch was quite relieved, although he didn’t let the boys know that. He loved helping them, but being so tall meant that it was rather uncomfortable for him, having to bend down as much as he had to, in order to fit into the house.
Johnny ran into the kitchen, ahead of his father and brother, bursting to tell Maria how much they had done to the tree house.
“It’s just about ready, Mamacita,” he said, as he washed his hands and face.
He started to dry his hands on his pants, but Maria handed him a towel, and he smiled at her, as he took it.
“Thanks,” he said.
“That is good news, little one,” she said. “I have a surprise for you. I have made some curtains to hang at the windows, of your house. That way, you can make it really cosy if you and your friends decide to sleep out there, like Scott and his friends used to.”
Johnny thanked her by giving her a hug. Although he had few memories of living at the ranch, when he was a baby, he did remember how much Maria had loved him, and the way she had taken care of him, and he had found it very easy to fall back into the close relationship that he used to have with her.
Supper was an enjoyable meal, so much better than breakfast had been, when Johnny had been tense about going to school. Paul and Teresa joined them at the table, and Teresa asked lots of questions about school, mindful that she would be starting, the following year.
“Well, the teacher’s very nice,” said Johnny. “Her name’s Miss Carstairs and she’s quite pretty, I guess, for a teacher.”
Scott agreed, as his teacher, Miss Burgess, was getting on in years, whereas Miss Carstairs was obviously only young, this being her first teaching post.
“Most of the other kids are okay, too,” went on Johnny. “I especially liked Zack and Jimmy, and Wes was there, as well.”
“Were there any little girls in the class, Johnny?” asked Teresa.
“Erm, yeah, a couple, but I didn’t really pay them no mind,” said Johnny.
Teresa was a bit disappointed that Johnny knew nothing about the girls in his class.
“Sorry, squirt, but I ain’t interested in little ‘uns like you.”
“Doc, Johnny’s calling me squirt, again, and I don’t like it,” said Teresa.
“That’s enough, John,” said Murdoch, but he couldn’t find it in his heart to be too cross with the boy, as he was so pleased that Johnny had actually gone to school, and managed to even enjoy some of it.
After supper, Scott expected to hear his father utter the dreaded word, ‘homework’ and Murdoch did just that.
“Have you got any, Johnny?” said his father.
“Yeah, I got some spellings to learn, cos Miss Carstairs said I ain’t too hot with how ta spell things.”
“Well, you sit, quietly, and learn them, and then I will test you, before you go to bed. When do you have to know them by?”
“She’s given me two days, Papa.”
“What about you, Scott?”
“I got math ta do, Pa. It won’t take me long and I’ll bring it to you, to check, when I’m done.”
“Okay, then, you both get on with it,” said Murdoch, sitting in his favourite chair, and lighting his pipe.
Murdoch tried not to smile, as he looked over at Johnny. The boy was desperately trying to learn how to spell the list of words Miss Carstairs had given him. Johnny was looking at the list, then closing his eyes and mouthing the letters to himself. Every now and again, he would open one eye, peep at the list, and then close it again.
Scott, too, was watching his little brother, as well as doing his own homework, and he caught Murdoch’s eye and winked at his father.
Murdoch crossed the room and went to join Scott at the dining table, where the boy had spread out his books.
“How’s it going, son?”
“I’ve almost finished, Pa,” said Scott. “Here, you can check these ones. Johnny’s working real hard, over there, to learn those spellings, isn’t he?”
“Yes, Scott, he is,” said Murdoch. “I can’t fault his dedication, but it will remain to be seen if he’s actually managing to learn them.”
“Oh, I’m sure he will have, Pa. Johnny’s pretty bright, really, he’s just not had the chance to learn, up until now.”
When Murdoch tested Johnny on the spellings, the boy did quite well and got eight out of ten right.
“That was really good, Johnny, for the first time. Let’s hope you can get all of them right when I test you, again, tomorrow.”
“I’ll try, Papa,” said Johnny, stifling a yawn.
“And I think it’s time that you were heading for bed, young man,” said Murdoch. “It’s been a long day for you, and you look in need of a good night’s rest.”
For once, Johnny didn’t argue with his father, about going to bed, as he was tired. He had been through a lot, and he had to do it all, again, the next day.
“Okay, Papa, ‘night.”
“Goodnight, God bless, son,” said Murdoch.
The next morning, as the two boys rode to school, Johnny was very quiet and Scott asked him what the matter was, with him.
“I guess I’m a bit worried about Matt, in case he starts something, again. I know that iffen I get in another fight; neither Papa nor Miss Carstairs will be as forgiving as they were, the last time.”
“No, they won’t be, and so it’s up to you to keep your temper, no matter what he says or does. His brother is just as bad and I’ve learnt to ignore him, as that way you don’t give them any ammunition to come back at you, with.”
“We might be brothers, Scott, but I ain’t like you, I can’t just ignore it, when someone’s baiting me.”
“Well, in that case, you’re very likely to end up in trouble,” said Scott.
When they arrived in the schoolyard, Wes, Zack, Jimmy and Charlie were waiting for Johnny.
“Hi, Johnny, what happened when your Pa saw the state of your eye, yesterday?” asked Charlie.
“At first, he was real mad with me, but once I explained what happened, he calmed down.”
“You mean, once I explained,” said Scott.
“Okay, once you explained,” said Johnny.
“Well, I don’t think Matt’s in any mood to forgive you,” said Wes. “He’s been moaning, to anyone who’s willing to listen, that you got him in trouble with the teacher, and he’s not gonna forget it.”
“Just remember what I said, Johnny, steer clear of him,” said Scott, before heading off to his classroom.
Nothing untoward happened in the classroom between Matt and Johnny, probably because Miss Carstairs was keeping a close eye on both of them, and also because the teacher had rearranged where the children were to sit. This meant that Matt was no longer sitting behind Johnny.
“Now that I have assessed you all, and found out which grades you should be in, I have sorted out where you are all to sit. Each desk has a name on it, find yours, and sit down, please.”
Johnny was pleased to find that he and Wes were sitting next to each other, but Jimmy and Zack were with the younger children, and Charlie, because he was quite bright, and had been going to school for a while, was in the top grade in Miss Carstairs’ class.
When the children went outside for morning recess, Matt began teasing Charlie, because the boy was so clever.
“I reckon he wants ta be teacher’s pet, telling on me, yesterday, when she wanted ta know what started the fight ‘tween Johnny and me, and now showing up the rest of us, by being so smart,” sneered Matt.
“He sounds like he’s jest about as annoying as his big brother, Frank,” said Luke, Matt’s brother. “He does the same, in our class, always putting his hand up, afore the rest of us git the chance ta answer.”
“I reckon he needs bringing down a peg, or two,” said Matt, shoving Charlie in the mid section and causing the boy to fall down, heavily, on his backside.
“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” demanded Johnny, of Matt. “Charlie’s much smaller than you, so leave him alone.”
“This ain’t nothing ta do with you, Johnny,” said Matt, shoving Johnny, too, but not managing to knock him over. “So jest keep your nose outta other people’s business.”
Johnny helped Charlie to his feet, before answering.
“Charlie’s my friend, and it is my business, if you hurt a friend of mine,” said Johnny. “And don’t you try shoving me again.”
“Why not? If I wanna shove you, I will,” said Matt, and he went to do it, again, but Johnny stopped him.
Matt was angry about what Johnny did, and he ran at the boy, with his head down, intent on butting Johnny in the stomach, but Johnny neatly sidestepped and Matt ended up losing his balance and landing on the ground.
Johnny and Charlie burst out laughing and walked away from Matt, who took a while to get his breath back, before he could stand up.
Scott saw what was going on, from the other side of the schoolyard, and ran over to be by his brother’s side.
“No more fighting, brother, remember what Pa said.”
“I know what he said and that’s why I am walking away from him, but I wasn’t gonna let him get away with picking on Charlie, here. Matt’s twice Charlie’s size and he’s only picking on him, cos he’s clever, as if Charlie can do anything about that?”
“All right, Johnny, but please try and stay out of his way,” said Scott.
Matt didn’t try anything else, but once they got home, his older brother kept teasing the boy, about Johnny getting the better of him.
“Well, jest what do ya think I should do about it, then?”
“You wanna set Johnny Lancer up fer some trouble, but make sure you are well away from the scene, when he gits found out, so that no one can put the blame on you.”
Luke gave his brother some ideas and the boy went to sleep, with a smile on his face, happy that he was going to see Johnny pay for humiliating him.
Very early the following morning, Matt arrived at school, on foot. Miss Carstairs and Miss Burgess were in Miss Burgess’ room, having a chat about their pupils, and so Matt was able to slip into his classroom, without any one seeing him. He removed a small sack of marbles, from Todd Johnson’s desk, and placed them in Johnny’s.
Making sure he wasn’t seen, he slipped out of the classroom and back up the road to where Luke was waiting, with his horse.
“All done,” said Matt, to Luke. “Now all I have to do is ask Todd iffen I can borrow his marbles and once he finds them gone, Miss Carstairs will ask us all to search our desks, and she will discover that Johnny is a thief. Then he’ll be for it.”
Johnny had spent the night before, asking anyone who would, to test him on his spellings, and so the whole of the Lancer household now knew how to spell the ten words, perfectly, even Teresa, who couldn’t even pronounce all of them.
Therefore, as they rode to school, that morning, Johnny was feeling rather confident of getting them all right, in the test.
“See?” said Scott. “I knew you’d take to school, once you got there.”
“Well, it’s okay, I guess, but I’d still rather be at home with Papa.”
“So would I, but school’s not that bad, and you get to see your friends.”
“Yeah, you do, but you also get to see your enemies,” said Johnny.
“You just keep ignoring Matt, and he’ll let up, eventually,” said Scott.
“I hope you’re right, Scott, cos I sure ain’t that good at turning the other cheek.”
The boys were soon at school and after they had taken care of their horses, there was still time for them to play with their friends, before school started.
Matt called over to Todd, “Hey, Todd, have you got your marbles? Mebbe we can play a game, or two?”
Todd searched in his pockets and then said, “I left ‘em in my desk, last night. I’ll just go and get ‘em.”
The boy ran into the schoolroom, but was soon back outside again.
“They’re not there; someone must’ve snitched ‘em.”
“Maybe you just left ‘em at home,” said another boy.
Todd shook his head.
“Nope, I didn’t have ‘em at home. I know I left ‘em in my desk.”
Miss Carstairs was aware that something was amiss and she came outside to find out what the problem was.
“Todd, have you lost something?”
“Yes, ma’am, I have. I left my marbles in my desk, last night, and now they’re not there.”
“Are you absolutely sure you left them there?” asked Miss Carstairs, and Todd nodded his head, most emphatically.
“Yes, ma’am, I am very sure,” he said.
Miss Carstairs clapped her hands to gain the attention of the children.
“I know it is a bit early, children, but I would like you all to go inside and I will check your desks for Todd’s marbles. But before I do, I would like to give the culprit the chance to own up. If you are the one who took the marbles, please raise your hand, now, and we can go and get them and give them back to Todd.”
Nobody put their hand up, so Miss Carstairs had them all line up and go into their classrooms. Miss Burgess had joined her, outside, and so knew what it was all about. She took her class into their room, and had each child, in turn, open up their desk.
Miss Carstairs did the same, with her children, and soon it was Johnny’s turn. As he lifted the lid, he could see the bag of marbles nestling in the corner.
“Are those yours?” asked Miss Carstairs.
“No, ma’am, I don’t have any marbles,” said Johnny.
“Well, can you explain how they got to be in your desk, then?”
“No, ma’am, I can’t. I guess someone must’ve put them there,” and Johnny looked across the room, directly at Matt.
“And why would someone do that?” said Miss Carstairs.
“To get me inta trouble, cos they don’t like me,” said Johnny.
“Well, it’s possible, I suppose, but I don’t think it’s likely,” said Miss Carstairs. “You haven’t been here, long enough, to make any real enemies, have you? Are you sure you didn’t just borrow them from Todd, but forget to ask him?”
“No, ma’am, I didn’t,” said Johnny. “I had nothing to do with putting those marbles in my desk.”
Miss Carstairs was trying her best to give the boy a chance to explain how the missing articles were in his possession, but the resolute look on Johnny’s face told her that it wasn’t going to happen.
“In that case, I have no choice, but to accuse you of stealing them, Johnny. And stealing is something that we take very seriously, here in school. I am afraid I am going to have to send you home, for the rest of the day, with a note to your father. You will be allowed to return to school in the morning, but if anything like this happens, again, the punishment will be a lot more severe. Now, give those marbles back to Todd and apologise to him, for stealing them.”
Johnny picked up the bag and took it over to Todd.
“Here you go, Todd. But I ain’t gonna apologise, cos I didn’t take ‘em.”
“Johnny, if you refuse to apologise, then it will go harder on you, as I will have to inform your father that you refused.”
“Ma’am, you’ll havta do what you havta do, but I can only do the same,” said Johnny. “I ain’t about ta apologise when I ain’t done nothing wrong, and I think my father will understand that.”
“He probably will understand,” said Matt. “He can’t have the same kinda morals as the rest of us, seeing as how he married a Mex.”
“That’s enough of remarks like that,” said Miss Carstairs. “Miss Burgess knows Mr Lancer, quite well, seeing as how Scott has been in her class, for some time, and she has told me that he is a very upright, respected member of the community, so I am sure that he has taught Johnny to be the same.”
“But he ain’t bin bringing Johnny up, Miss Carstairs, that’s the point,” said Matt. “He’s bin living with that mother of his, and my Pa told me that she weren’t no better than she should’ve bin.”
This was like a red rag to a bull, to Johnny, and he flew across the classroom and landed a punch right on Matt’s nose.
“That is enough, Johnny,” shouted Miss Carstairs. “I have already told you that I will not have fighting in the school.”
“Okay, I’ll take him outside and finish him off, there, then,” said Johnny, grabbing hold of Matt’s arm.
“Johnny, I said that was enough, and I meant it,” said Miss Carstairs. “Now, go into Miss Burgess’ class and ask her to let Scott come in here, as I need to talk to him. While you do that, I will be writing a letter to your father. The rest of you children sit down, please.”
The children did as they were told, reluctantly, and things quietened down in the classroom.
Johnny went next door, and gave Miss Burgess the message.
Scott looked at Johnny, with an enquiring eye, but said nothing. He just followed his brother out of the classroom.
But once they were in the cloakroom, Scott grabbed hold of Johnny’s arm, preventing him from going into his own classroom, and asked him what was going on.
“That boy Matt has planted a bag of marbles in my desk, belonging to Todd, and now everyone thinks I stole ‘em. Miss Carstairs is gonna send me home, with a note. I’m not sure why she wants to see you.”
“Are you sure it was Matt, who set you up?” said Scott.
“Well, he ain’t likely to admit it, is he? But the way he’s been riling me, and saying that you can’t expect anything better from someone who’s been raised by a Mex, makes me think it’s him. ‘Sides, I don’t know anyone else, in the class, who hates me enough to do such a thing.”
“I am sure you are right, but proving it is going to be difficult,” said Scott. “Come on, we best go see why Miss Carstairs wants to see me.”
The two boys entered the classroom and Miss Carstairs looked up from the note she was writing.
“Ah, Scott, I am sorry to take you away from your lessons, but I am afraid you are going to have to accompany your little brother back to your house. I have suspended him, after his behaviour, today, but I don’t feel I can send him home, alone, so I want you to go with him.”
“Yes, ma’am, of course I will,” said Scott, who wasn’t that upset about missing a day at school.
“I can go home, by myself, I ain’t no baby,” said Johnny.
“Oh I am sure you can, Johnny, but I am more concerned that if I let you go on your own, you won’t go home, at all, and your father won’t get to hear about what you did, and it is up to him to discipline you, for this infraction. I have written it all down in this note. Here, Scott, please give this to your father.”
“I will, ma’am, come on Johnny,” said Scott.
Johnny almost ran out of the classroom, in disgust, and he found himself feeling angry, mainly because he wasn’t going to be able to take the spelling test.
“It ain’t fair,” he said, to Scott, as he saddled his horse. “I really worked hard to learn those damn spellings, last night, and now I’m not gonna be taking the test.”
Scott couldn’t help laughing at Johnny’s remark.
“I never thought I’d see the day when you would be bothered about a test, brother. But I do see your point, as you did work hard. Like you, I strongly suspect that it was Matt who planted the marbles. I was watching him, as Miss Carstairs was talking to you, and he was loving every minute of you being in trouble. However, I’m not sure how we are going to be able to prove it was him.”
“We waylay him, on his way home from school, and beat it out of him,” said Johnny. “That’s what I was hoping to do, earlier, but Miss Carstairs stopped me.”
“Oh, no, Johnny, you didn’t start another fight, did you?” and Scott groaned, when Johnny nodded his head.
“And I bet that Miss Carstairs also put that in the note, to Pa. Oh boy, little brother, Pa’s going to kill you.”
“Thanks for cheering me up, Scott. I really needed to be told that.”
“I’ll try and think of something we can do to get Matt to ‘fess up,” said Scott, and the two brothers made their way home.
When the boys arrived at the house, the only people there were Maria and Teresa.
“Madre dios! What has happened? Why are you home in the middle of the morning?” asked Maria.
“A kid in school framed me for a robbery I didn’t commit and I got suspended,” explained Johnny. “Scott was sent with me to make sure I came home. Where’s Papa?”
“Your father has gone out to check that new herd in the West Pasture,” said Maria. “But he said he would be home for lunch, so he won’t be long.”
“Thanks, Mamacita. Any chance of a bite to eat? I’m starving.”
“Have you eaten your lunch, already?” asked Maria.
“Oh no, ‘course I ain’t,” said Johnny. “I’ll have some of that,” and he went to retrieve his lunch from where he had tied it on to his saddle.
“He does not seem to be that worried about being in trouble, Scott,” said Maria.
“Well, he’s hoping that Pa will believe him, when he says he didn’t do it,” said Scott.
“And do you think your father will believe him?”
“I hope so, as I don’t think Johnny did it, either, but he did start another fight, in school, so Pa’s likely to be mad about that.”
“Oh dear, that boy, he will be the death of your father, always in so much trouble.”
“Don’t worry, Maria, Pa can handle it, and Johnny’s not that bad, just has trouble with that temper of his, although I don’t really blame him, when someone was trying to set him up.”
Scott went to join Johnny, in the barn.
“Pa won’t be back, for a while. Any idea what we can do, until then?” said Scott.
“I guess I oughta do my chores,” said Johnny. “Cos, once Papa’s finished with me, I ain’t gonna feel much like doing ‘em.”
“I’m not going to lie to you, Johnny. Pa’s likely to be angry about you fighting in the class, but I’m sure he won’t believe that you stole the marbles.”
“Well, I sure hope he doesn’t. It’s bad enough to be in trouble for something you did do, let alone for something you didn’t do.”
Johnny decided that doing his chores was the best plan, and so he set to, and Scott decided to do the same.
“This way, we can go and do something good, later,” said Scott.
“If I’m still in one piece, that is,” said Johnny.
Back at the school, when Miss Carstairs sent the children out, at recess, Matt was surprised to find that not many of his friends were happy about what he’d done. He admitted to them that he had been the one to steal the marbles and put them in Johnny’s desk, and he expected them to congratulate him, but none of them did.
“Johnny ain’t a bad kid, Matt, so I don’t think there was any need for you to do what you did,” said one of them.
“He made me fall over, in the yard, he humiliated me, and he beat me up,” said Matt.
“Well, yeah, he did, but you kinda asked for it, saying what you did about his Mama, and picking on Charlie, like you did,” said another friend.
Another of the boys, who was a bit bolder than the rest, said, “In fact, we think it was a pretty mean thing to do, and we reckon you oughta go ‘fess up to Miss Carstairs. Johnny’s okay, he’s like the rest of us, likes to have some fun, gets into a few scrapes; he ain’t no goody two shoes, so I don’t know why you’ve taken such a dislike to him.”
Of course, the main thing that Matt didn’t like about Johnny was the fact that he was a Lancer, and that was only because of what his father had said about the family. However, he did have to admit that Johnny certainly didn’t try and lord it over the rest of them, and, under different circumstances, he would have probably wanted Johnny to join his gang of friends.
“So, do you all feel the same, then? Do you all think I should tell Miss Carstairs that it was me, and that I only did it to get Johnny into trouble?”
“Yeah, we do, and it won’t be so bad if you do tell her, cos she’ll only send a note home to your Pa and when you explain to him that you did it to get a Lancer in trouble, he’ll probably reward you, not punish you.”
Matt chuckled at this remark.
“Yeah, he probably will. Okay, if you think I should tell her, then I will.”
So, when they returned to the schoolhouse, Matt asked to speak to Miss Carstairs and told her the truth. She was very annoyed with him, but, as his friend had said, she did the same to Matt, as she had to Johnny, and sent him home, with a note for his father.
She did feel bad about accusing Johnny, even though all the evidence had pointed to it being him, and decided to ride out to Lancer, after school, and tell Murdoch what had really happened.
When Murdoch returned to the ranch, for his lunch, he was very surprised to find his two boys at home.
“What’s this all about? Shouldn’t you two be in school?”
“Well, yes sir, we should, but Johnny got sent home and Miss Carstairs told me that I had to bring him,” said Scott.
“You got sent home?” roared Murdoch, turning his attention to Johnny. “What on earth did you do?”
Johnny handed over the note, saying, “But I didn’t do what it says, honest, Papa.”
Murdoch walked over to his desk and sat down, before he read it.
“Come here, Johnny,” he said, but at least his voice was a little lower, this time. “I’ve told you before, son, when two people love each other, they don’t tell each other lies, and so I hope that you are not lying to me, now.”
“No, sir, I’m not,” said Johnny, and as the boy was looking straight into his father’s eyes, as he said this, Murdoch was sure that his son was telling the truth.
Johnny stayed by his father’s side, as Murdoch read the note.
Once he’d finished, he looked up at Johnny and said, “Okay, now tell me your version.”
Johnny took a deep breath and said, “Well, I didn’t have anything to do with stealing the marbles, Papa, but I did hit Matt, in the classroom, cos I was mad about him telling lies about me. I guess I shouldn’t have done that, but he started going on about my Mama, again, and saying that it wasn’t surprising I was a thief, having a mother like I did, raising me.”
Murdoch said nothing, for such a long time that Johnny began to get worried.
Eventually, though, he still didn’t say anything, but he grabbed hold of Johnny and pulled the boy into a hug.
Johnny hugged his father back, and when they moved away from each other, Johnny was really surprised to see that there were tears in his father’s eyes.
“What’s the matter, Papa?”
Murdoch sniffed and wiped his eyes, before he spoke.
“I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am that I sent you to that school and you have been subjected to such awful treatment. I always knew that Matt and Luke’s father didn’t like me, but I never expected his hatred to spill over into his children, in this way. Has Luke given you a hard time, too, Scott?”
“Occasionally, Pa, but it’s only been name calling, nothing like what Matt’s done to Johnny. Mind you, I think that Matt’s favourite target is Johnny’s mother, and as his mother wasn’t mine, they can’t say anything to me about her, can they?”
“No, I suppose they can’t, but I am going to be having a very strong word with Miss Carstairs, and insisting that she keeps a tight rein on that boy, when he is in school, and that she makes sure that Matt doesn’t make any more of these insulting remarks, nor does he try and get Johnny into trouble, by planting stolen goods on him, again.”
“I don’t think he’d get away with it, a second time, Pa,” said Scott.
“But I don’t think he’s gonna stop saying the stuff he does, just because you tell the teacher to keep an eye on him, Papa. I think it might be best if I leave the school,” said Johnny.
“Oh no, that’s not going to happen,” said Murdoch. “You need a decent education and, as your father, it is down to me to see that you get it. If anyone is going to leave the school, it will be Matt, but I hope it won’t come to that, as he needs a break, too, having the man he has, for a father. I’ll go and have a word with Miss Carstairs, in the morning, and we’ll get it sorted out.”
Murdoch didn’t have to take a trip into town, to see Miss Carstairs, as she came out to the ranch, later that afternoon. She apologised to Johnny, and explained how Matt had confessed to putting the marbles in Johnny’s desk, hoping to get him into trouble.
“I have had a good talk to the boy, and have warned him that any more of this kind of behaviour is going to end with him being in serious trouble with me. Whatever differences there may be, between you, Mr Lancer, and Mr Pallister, are to remain outside of the classroom. I sent Matt home, with a note, too, although I doubt if Mr Pallister will punish Matt for what he did, bearing in mind how he feels about your family. I also hope that I have got here, soon enough, to prevent you from punishing Johnny, for something he didn’t do.”
“I agree with you, Miss Carstairs, when you say that Mr Pallister is unlikely to punish his son for what he did, but at least you now know that it wasn’t Johnny. And don’t worry about Johnny’s hide, it’s safe. I asked him outright, if he did it, and when he said he didn’t, I knew he was telling me the truth, and so I was going to come and see you, in the morning, to let you know that you had sent home the wrong boy, but now I don’t have to. I would be grateful if you could keep a closer eye on Matt, and make sure he keeps his rather crude remarks to himself, as I really can’t blame Johnny for wanting to hit the boy, when he says the things he does, about Johnny’s mother.”
“Well, neither can I, Mr Lancer, but I still have to enforce the rule of there being no fighting on school premises, so I do have to insist that, no matter what Matt says, Johnny does not hit him. He must come and tell me, and then….”
“You can hit him,” finished Johnny.
Miss Carstairs laughed.
“Yes, I can be the one to punish him.”
Before Miss Carstairs left, Johnny asked her about the spelling test.
“I spent ages, last night, learning those spellings and now I’ve missed the test.”
“I was thinking about that, as I was coming out here,” said Miss Carstairs. “First thing in the morning, I will allow you to sit the test, if you want to, as it wasn’t your fault that you missed it.”
“Thanks, Miss Carstairs,” said Johnny, and that is what he did, and he got full marks, by spelling every word, correctly.
Johnny and Matt never became close friends, but Matt developed a grudging admiration for Johnny, who, during his time at school, proved to be quite a handful for Miss Carstairs and then, Miss Burgess, to deal with.
Lancer lives on!
February 25th 2007
* From my story Adjusting to Life At Lancer
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