Another Stray for Lancer by Lynne

Word Count 18,381

Written in tribute to Adopt a Dog Month

A Lancer AU Story #12

Chapter One

Johnny was riding his horse far too fast, as usual, because he was late, as usual. As he rounded the bend in the road, Sirocco suddenly pulled up and because they were travelling so fast, it took all of Johnny’s strength and skill to remain in the saddle. He was about to shout at his horse, but then he saw the reason for Sirocco’s behaviour and the words died on his lips. Lying in the road was a black mound of fur.

“Okay, Rocco, I understand why you stopped like that. You didn’t expect it, but it’s only a dead critter and I’m gonna join it iffen I don’t get home in time to finish my chores before supper.”

Young Johnny was already in trouble with his father for dawdling with his friends, after school, instead of going straight home, as he was supposed to do.

Johnny was just about to steer his horse around the body, when he thought he saw it make a slight movement. ‘Probably just the wind ruffling its fur,’ he thought and prepared to move on, but then he heard a tiny moan.

“That wasn’t the wind,” said Johnny, to his horse. “That critter ain’t dead, after all.”

The boy dismounted and, taking his canteen with him, knelt down next to the pathetic creature. Once he got closer, he could see it was a small dog. The poor thing moaned again and Johnny tentatively reached out his hand and gently stroked the dog’s right flank.

“Sssh, it’s all right,” he said, in not much more than a whisper. The dog seemed to be comforted by the boy’s touch and gentle voice, and he tried to lift his head and lick at Johnny’s other hand.

“Here ya go, boy, have a drink,” went on Johnny, and he held the canteen up to the dog’s mouth and allowed a trickle of water to make its way down the animal’s throat. As it drank, Johnny took in the state of the little dog. There was dried blood around its mouth and one of its eyes was swollen shut. As he ran his hand over the dog, he noticed that its coat was very matted with mud and, possibly, more blood. His front paws were also bleeding; evidence that it had probably injured them while trying to escape from somewhere.

Johnny sat in the road for a while, talking all the time, in order to gain the animal’s trust.

“I guess I’d better take you home with me, though I know Papa’s gonna have a hissy fit, iffen I do. He says I’m always bringing home strays and that I reckon he’s got money ta burn on looking after them. But then I remind him I’m kinda like a stray and he took me in. And I reckon I’ve cost him a helluva lot more than all of the critters I’ve brought home, put together. And he does admit I’m worth it. And I think you’re worth it, too, but I still don’t think Papa is gonna see it like that.”

Murdoch knew only too well that his young son had a caring heart, but the number of stray animals Johnny was bringing home had been getting out of hand and Murdoch had finally drawn a halt to it, mainly because of the incident with the skunk. Johnny had found an injured baby skunk by the side of the road and brought it home. Because the animal was quite badly hurt, he decided to tend for it in his room, so that he could give it round the clock attention. However, the young creature recovered quicker than Johnny anticipated it would and managed to escape from its temporary home. Unfortunately, instead of heading for the great outdoors, it took refuge in Murdoch’s room. And it wasn’t discovered until Murdoch was feeling about in the bottom of his armoire for his dress boots in order to attend a celebration dinner. The small animal was curled up in one of the boots and as Murdoch removed them from the closet, the animal woke up, panicked and did what skunks do best, he sprayed. To say that Murdoch was not best pleased would be an understatement and the upshot was that Johnny was warned, very sternly, what the consequences would be if he brought home any more strays.

Johnny stood up and went to collect Scirocco, who was tethered to an overhanging branch at the side of the road.

“Not sure how I’m gonna do this, but somehow I’ve gotta pick you up, Blackie, and then get on board my horse.”

Just as Johnny lifted the dog up into his arms, a voice boomed out, behind him.

“What do ya think you’re doing with my dog, kid? Put him down, right now, else you’re gonna get some of what’s coming ta him.”

Johnny was shaken by the venom in the man’s tone, but was determined not to show it. He felt the tension in the little dog’s body, and took it to mean that the man really did own the dog, but he decided not to obey him.

He turned around, with the dog still in his arms, and said, in a voice which sounded much braver than he was feeling, “The dog is in pain and I’m taking him home to care for him.”

The man, who was about 6 feet tall and dressed in dirty, torn clothes, moved closer to Johnny. He was brandishing a gun and as he got nearer to the boy, Johnny was nearly sick from the foul stench which emanated from him. It was a mixture of dead animal, sweat, blood and stale alcohol.

“Are you deaf, or what, boy? I just done told ya. The mutt’s mine and I’m taking him back to my house.”

The dog began to tremble at the close proximity of the horrid man and Johnny held on more tightly to him; maybe to reassure the dog, or to gain some comfort for himself.

“He’s obviously scared of you and has ended up hurting his paws just to get away. So, no, he’s not going with you.”

“If he hurt his paws, it’s his own stupid fault,” replied the man, raising his voice. “He dug a hole in the floor of my cabin and I’m taking that outta his hide. Now, put him down and clear off, while you still can.”

The man moved even closer to Johnny and cocked his gun. Johnny so wanted to run off with the now whimpering animal, but knew he would never make it to his horse, while carrying the dog. He very gently placed the dog on the ground and tried a slightly different tactic.

“Look mister, the dog’s given you a hard time and doesn’t look good for much. So why don’t you let me take him? I’ll give him a nice home and feed him regularly.”

The man seemed to be considering Johnny’s proposal. He called the dog over to him and the pathetic creature went towards his master, with his belly almost dragging on the ground.

“You could be right, kid. He ain’t good fer much, but he does help out when I’m hunting up game. Well, he does sometimes, when he’s not trying ta run away. Tell ya what. Iffen you want the dog that bad, you come and give me a hand with getting my cabin ready fer winter and I’ll let ya keep him.”

“How long would I have to work for you?” asked Johnny, trying not to appear too keen to have the dog, for fear the man would make the time that much longer.

“Mmm, say fer about a week, or so.”

“I can only work at weekends and after school,” said Johnny.

“In that case, more like four weeks,” said the man.

Johnny knew that his father was going to be away from home for at least the next week, and he suddenly had an idea.

“Look, I might be able to skip school and come and work for you, full time, next week. If I can, will that be enough for you to let me have the dog?”

The man said nothing for a while and Johnny found he was holding his breath, waiting for an answer.

“Okay, iffen ya give me a full week, then the dog’s yours. The name’s Billings and ma cabin is just over that there ridge. I’ll expect ya first thing in the morning.”

The man made to leave, but Johnny stopped him, by grabbing his arm.

“Please look after him properly, tonight. Wash the cuts on his paws and give him something to eat; he’s starving. I’ll bring some supplies with me tomorrow to take proper care of him. And my name’s Johnny.”

“Okay, Johnny,” replied Billings. “And don’t let me down, else this’un will suffer.”

The man walked off, but the dog stayed where he was. The man whistled, but still the dog continued to look over at Johnny and it almost broke the boy’s heart to see the expression on the poor animal’s face. He bent down, patted the dog and whispered, “I’ll be back tomorrow, boy and I promise I’ll get you away from him, real soon.”

Billings returned to the dog and picked him up.

“Come on, looks like I’ve got some tending to do to you,” he said, and he walked off through the woods. Johnny doubted if he would really care for the dog, but consoled himself in that he was going to see it again, first thing in the morning.

.

Chapter Two

Reluctantly, Johnny mounted up and rode home, as fast as Scirocco could run. He did slow down, a bit, as he rode under the Lancer arch, as he knew his father would be looking out for him and would be even angrier if he saw him riding so recklessly. The almost eleven year old did try to abide by his father’s rules, most of the time, but he was an excellent horseman and felt at one with his mount. Therefore, he couldn’t see the possible danger that Murdoch was able to see whenever the boy rode so fast.

As he arrived in the yard, both his father and his older brother, Scott, came out of the house to greet him.

“And just what time do you call this, young man? Your brother has been home for over an hour and he was late arriving home, even then.”

Johnny could tell that his father was very angry with him, mainly by the vein which was throbbing in Murdoch’s temple. But it was also the controlled tone of his father’s voice which gave away the level of his anger. Johnny had only been living at Lancer for just over a year, but he had already become adept at gauging his father’s moods.

“Sorry, Papa, but me and the guys got caught up in a game of marbles and I guess I forgot the time. And then I got some real important news to deliver. Doctor Sam called me over to his office, just before I left town, and told me to spread the word, so I had to go and do that for him, didn’t I?”

It was true that Doctor Jenkins had spoken to Johnny before he left town, but the only people Johnny gave the news to, were the three other boys who had been playing marbles with him. However, he hoped his father might think he had visited some of the nearby ranches and that was what had made him late.

Murdoch did seem to calm down, a bit, at this news.

“So what was the important message you had to deliver?”

“Both our teachers have got chickenpox and so won’t be able to teach us for a couple of weeks. Doctor Sam says they are hoping to get a temporary teacher. We’re not to go to school tomorrow, but should have someone else there by Monday.”

“I thought there was something wrong with Miss Burgess,” said Scott. “She looked rather flushed, like someone had used a bad word in front of her and she kept scratching at her arm, through her dress.”

“Quite a few of the kids have been off sick,” chipped in Johnny. “I already had the ‘pox, so no time off for me, worse luck.”

“So have I, and I wouldn’t want to have it again, even if it did mean time off school,” said Scott, shuddering at the thought.

“Well, we’ve got tomorrow off, whether you want it, or not,” said Johnny. “So we can see Papa off on the stage.”

“Did Sam say they could definitely find a substitute teacher?” asked Murdoch. “Because if you two are not going to be able to be in school, then I might have to cancel my trip. I can’t expect Paul and Maria to keep an eye on you 24 hours of each and every day.”

“He sure seemed certain, Papa, so no need to worry ‘bout that,” said Johnny, slipping his hand into his father’s, as they made their way into the house.

“And it’s important that you go, Pa,” said Scott, once they were indoors. “You’re the president of the cattle growers association and this is a big conference.”

At almost fifteen years of age, Scott was growing ever taller and was the epitimony of a responsible young man. But looks could be deceptive and there was still quite a lot of a little boy in Scott. However, when it came to looking out for his younger brother, Scott was most diligent.

All the talk about substitute teachers seemed to have diverted Murdoch’s attention away from the fact that Johnny was late home. The boy heaved a sigh of relief and then realised that it was very close to supper time. ‘And I still have chores waiting to be done,’ he thought.

As if reading his mind, Scott motioned his brother over to join him on the couch.

“I took care of most of your chores, but there are still a couple of things to do, so as soon as you can, come out and join me.” Johnny nodded and then Scott stood up and announced that he was going out to the barn to check on his horse.

“His right foreleg felt a bit warm when I rubbed him down, after I got home, so I want to just check it again, now he’s had time to cool down.”

“All right, son, and if you are not happy with it, get Cip to take a look at him for you,” said Murdoch, settling down to read the newspaper.

“I’m going with Scott, Papa,” said Johnny, heading for the door.

“That’s fine, Johnny, but stay close to the house, as it will soon be time for supper and you are already carrying a fair amount of California dust on your clothes and body. It will take a while to get you clean enough to sit down to a meal served by Maria.”

“Won’t be long, Papa, I promise,” said Johnny and the boy took off, at a run, in order to catch up with his long legged, fast walking brother.

“Thanks for covering for me, Scott,” he said, as the two boys made their way to the barn.

Scott stopped walking and turned to face Johnny.

“That’s okay, it’s what brothers do, but I would like to know what kept you in town for such a long time.”

“It’s like I told Papa. I was playing marbles with the boys and then Doc Sam stopped by and gave us the news about Miss Burgess and Miss Carstairs.”

“I might not have grown up with you since you were born, Johnny, but I already know when you are holding something back. What else happened?”

Johnny didn’t answer until they were in the barn, as he was afraid of being overheard.

He flopped down on a bale of hay and said, “Yeah, something else did happen, but not ‘til I was on my way home.”

He then proceeded to tell Scott all about the young dog and the man who owned him.

“He was real mean looking, Scott. He drew a gun on me and made me give the dog back to him. The poor thing could hardly stand up and he was terrified of Billings. He’d been kicked and beaten and starved by the looks of him. I wanted to bring him home, I really did, but the man wouldn’t let me and I wasn’t about to argue no more, with a gun pointed at my head.”

After speaking, Johnny turned away from Scott and stood facing the wall; obviously trying hard to keep control of his emotions.

Scott decided to give his little brother a bit of breathing space, so he checked on his horse and then proceeded to change the water in the buckets in each horse’s stall and fill up the hay-racks. After a few minutes, Johnny began helping him and the job was soon completed.

“If this man is as mean as you say he is, Johnny, and he threatened you with a gun, then I think we should tell Pa.”

“It’s okay, Scott, cos I’ve already made a deal with the man. I’m gonna help him out with some chores and then he’s gonna let me have the dog.”

“That would be fine if you were dealing with a nicer sort of man. But this one sounds like a real nasty piece of work, Johnny. I don’t think he’s likely to give you the dog, no matter how long you work for him. And how are you going to manage to do extra chores, when you can’t even manage to do the ones you are supposed to do, round here, most of the time?”

Johnny sighed before he spoke again. He felt that Scott was making this whole arrangement more difficult than it had to be.

“Papa’s gonna be away for the next week. Miss Burgess and Miss Carstairs won’t be at the school, and the new teacher won’t miss us if we just don’t go, cos she don’t even know us. And if she should start asking any awkward questions, we can get one of our friends to say we’ve had to stay home and work on the ranch, cos our Pa is away and we are short-handed. It’s perfect.”

“And since when did I volunteer to come and work for a man I don’t even know, in order to get a dog for my little brother? A dog, I might add, that our father won’t let you keep, once he finds out about it.”

“By the time Papa does find out, it will be a done deal and Blackie will be safe. If Papa won’t let him stay with me, then I will find him another home, with someone who will take proper care of him. But I reckon Papa will be so proud of my wanting to save Blackie that he will let him stay.”

“You have a lot more faith in our father than I do, then,” said Scott. “He’s bawled you out, on more than one occasion, about turning this place into a zoo. And it’s mainly because you bring the animal here, then after a couple of weeks you lose interest, leaving others to take over the task of feeding and cleaning up after whatever it is you stick us with. And you still haven’t addressed the question about me having to work for this man.”

“Well, I reckoned you would want to come along, just to make sure I was safe. So you might as well help with the chores while you are protecting me.”

Scott couldn’t come up with a decent enough argument against his little brother’s logic, so he said nothing. It was true; there was no way Scott was going to allow Johnny to go and work for this man, on his own. Therefore, he might as well help the boy with whatever chores Billings gave him to do. That way they would get the job done much quicker.

“Okay, I will come with you and help out with the chores. But if I think things are likely to get nasty, then we are going to stop the visits. I hate to think of any animal being badly treated, but no animal is more important to me than you are. And I’m not prepared to put you in the firing line.”

In response to these words, Johnny flung his arms round his brother and gave him a quick hug, before Scott rather unceremoniously pushed him away.

“No more spontaneous displays of affection until you have gotten cleaned up, little brother. Pa’s right; I heard him say you need to wash up before Maria will allow you to sit down at the table and eat. You are filthy,” and Scott playfully smacked Johnny on the stomach, with the flat of his hand, causing a large cloud of dust to fly into the air.

.

Chapter Three

By the time the boys joined their father at the dinner table, Johnny was a lot cleaner and so there was nothing for Maria to grumble about. She did try to instil some manners into the boys and one thing she was particularly hot on was coming to the table clean and tidy.

“How was your horse, Scott?” asked Murdoch, as he passed down a bowl of creamy mashed potato to his younger son.

“Oh, he’s much better; thanks for asking, Pa,” replied the boy.

“So you should be able to ride him into town in the morning, then?” went on Murdoch.

“Well, I could do, but I thought we would be taking the buggy, sir, since you’ve got luggage to take with you, on your trip.”

“Oh, yes. Of course, the buggy would be a much better option. Now, why didn’t I think of that?”

“Probably because you’re trying to think of too many things, all at once,” piped up Johnny. “You’re always the same whenever you’re going somewhere. Your mind is on the trip, but it’s also on all the things you think you need to tell us before you go.”

Murdoch smiled at his boy, who, once again had come straight to the point.

“You are absolutely right, Johnny. That is exactly what I am trying to do and yet all I succeed in doing is to forget half of what I needed to remind you of.”

“With respect, sir,” said Scott, in his most reasonable tone, the one which infuriated his baby brother. “It’s not like you are leaving Johnny and me completely on our own. Maria is here to see that we are fed regularly and that we go to bed and get up on time and Paul and Cip will see that the chores on the ranch all get completed, just as well as when you are here. And even if we were alone, I am more than capable of taking care of my little brother.”

“Less of the little, brother,” retorted Johnny. “I ain’t that much younger than you. I can take care of myself, thank you very much.”

“All right, boys, no need to start a fight about it. You are right, Scott. I don’t have any reason to fret just because I am going to be away for a few days. But let’s call it a father’s prerogative to worry. One day, when you are a father, you will understand. And please behave for Maria, won’t you? When I come home I want to hear that you have both been on your best behaviour while I have been gone.”

“Yes, sir,” said Scott, and Johnny followed suit. He then got up from his place at the table and went over to stand at his father’s side. He put his arms around Murdoch’s neck and whispered in his ear, “I’m gonna miss you, Papa,” and then he returned to his seat.

“Me, too,” mouthed Murdoch back to his boy.

After supper, the boys played a couple of games of checkers, but Scott could tell that Johnny’s mind wasn’t on the game. And he was right; all Johnny could think about was that little, scared dog he’d found in the road.

After losing the second game of checkers, with hardly any kind of a fight, Johnny declared he was going to bed. This remark caused all of Murdoch’s ‘Papa Bear’ instincts to go on full alert. Johnny never volunteered to go to bed early; in fact it usually took a growled warning from Murdoch to even get him near the stairs.

Murdoch sprang up from his chair and placed a large hand on Johnny’s forehead.

“Mmm, no sign of fever, but are you sure you’ve already had chickenpox?”

“Mama told me I had them when I was real tiny, when we were still living here,” said Johnny, trying to get away from his father’s ministrations.

Murdoch removed his hand from his son and a wistful look came over his face.

“Oh yes, I remember now. You did have it when you were living here. Some of the ranch hand’s children had it and, of course, you used to play with them, so you got it, too. It was a real tough job trying to stop you from scratching the spots.”

“Well, you didn’t succeed that well, cos I’ve still got a couple of scars from back then,” said Johnny. “I noticed ‘em, one day, and asked Mama where they were from, and that’s when she told me I’d had chickenpox just before we left the ranch. I’m feeling fine, Papa; just a bit tired. And maybe I’m finally getting to understand that going to bed early ain’t a punishment if you’re tired. It just makes good sense.”

Murdoch smiled at his little boy sounding so mature.

“All right, son. You go up and I’ll be along in a few minutes to tuck you in.”

It wasn’t long after Johnny had gone up to bed that Scott decided to go as well.

“I think little brother has the right idea, Pa. I’m rather tired, too. Think I’ll head for my bed. Goodnight, sir.”

“Oh, okay, son. Goodnight. I’ll look in on you when I come up to check on Johnny.”

Scott knew there was no point in trying to dissuade his father from his nightly visit to his room. Even Johnny sometimes said he was too old to be tucked in, but both boys knew that having been apart from his sons for such a long time had had a profound effect on Murdoch. Their father had missed out on far too much of their childhoods and he wanted to hang on to some traditions for a bit longer than maybe other fathers would have done.

Murdoch stayed in the living room and finished his after dinner whisky before going upstairs to tuck in his boys.

“You really were tired, weren’t you, son?” he whispered, as he saw that Johnny was already asleep. He brushed a kiss onto the boy’s forehead and left the room, as quietly as a man as large as he was, could.

He then knocked gently on Scott’s door and waited for the boy to answer.

“Come in, Pa.”

Murdoch sat down on the end of Scott’s bed and told him that his brother was sound asleep.

“Must’ve worn himself out playing marbles,” said Scott, smiling up at his father.

“More like plotting some mischief to get into while I am not here to keep an eye on him.”

“I’ll watch out for him, Pa, so don’t you worry about Johnny while you are away.”

“And whose going to be watching out for you, young man?”

Scott bristled at the idea that he needed a babysitter.

“I can look out for myself, sir.”

“Well, Maria, Paul and Cip will be here if you do need any help. Goodnight, son.”

“’Night, Pa.”

.

Chapter Four

The following morning both Scott and Johnny were up before anyone had to call them. Scott was keen to show his father that he was a responsible and mature person and Johnny was up because he was anxious to get over to the Billings place and see how Blackie was faring. He had begun to think of the dog as Blackie, but had no idea if he already had another name. ‘Doubt that Billings would’ve named him,’ he thought.

Johnny knew that he would have to wait until they dropped his father off in town before they could go to the Billings farm, and the waiting was making him tense. All the early morning chores were done and breakfast wasn’t quite ready, but Johnny was already sitting at the kitchen table, tapping out an unrecognisable tune on the wooden surface. Maria was busy cooking, but the noise Johnny was making was beginning to annoy her.

“Por favour, Niño; menos del tapping.”

“Lo siento, Mamacita,” and Johnny stopped tapping, but only for a few minutes, and then he started up again.

Fortunately for Johnny, seeing as how Maria was about to pick up her wooden spoon, Scott came into the kitchen and took his little brother outside with him.

“Where are we going, Scott?”

Scott did not reply, but led Johnny into the tack room.

“We need to put together some tools and maybe medical supplies and food to help Blackie. And we will also require some lunch, as Billings doesn’t sound the type who is going to feed us. So, I will get some gear sorted out and slip it in the buggy before Pa sees what I’m doing. And you ask Maria for some lunch for us. Tell her we’re going to meet up with some friends from school after we’ve dropped Pa off in town.”

Johnny was happy to have something to do and returned to the kitchen feeling much happier. He knew he’d been right to include Scott in his plan, as he had to admit he wouldn’t have thought of taking lunch and tools with him. However, he had planned to take some food and medicine for the dog.

Maria was happy to make up the boys some lunch. She did so every day when they went to school and even though they weren’t actually going, it was, officially, a school day.

“Please be home in time for evening chores, Juanito. Just because your Papa is not here, chores still need to be done.”

For an answer, Johnny kissed Maria on the cheek and said, “We might do some fishing, today, so I’ll try and catch some decent ones for supper.”

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than he realised it had been the wrong thing to say. He knew there would be no time to go fishing; not with Billings calling the tune.

.

As soon as breakfast was over the boys were anxious to leave, so much so that Murdoch commented on it.

“Anyone would think you were keen to see the back of your father.”

Ever the diplomat, Scott prevented Johnny from responding by a slight shake of his head, and he said, “Not at all, sir. We just don’t want you missing your stagecoach.”

“You have a point there, son. The coaches don’t always run to time, so we best get going.”

On the way to town, the boys had to endure yet another little talk from their father during which he stressed, once again that they had better behave well for Maria, Paul and Cip.

“You both know what damage Maria can do with her wooden spoon and I am sure Cip’s sons have discussed with you just how handy he can be with his belt when his boys get out of line. And they have my permission to correct you two if you misbehave, so my advice is to stay out of trouble.”

Scott was rather angry that his father was giving a ranch hand the right to punish him and Johnny, if the need arose, but he was wise enough not to say as much.

“I can assure you, sir, there will be no need for such action.”

Johnny looked rather worried, as in all of the time he had lived at Lancer Murdoch had never used a belt on him.

“He’s not gonna hit me with a belt, is he Papa?”

“No son, he’s not,” replied Murdoch, pulling the boy closer to him and giving him a reassuring hug.

Johnny was no stranger to having a belt used on him, as several of his mother’s boyfriends had tanned him, but it was not what he was now used to. When he was first found by the Pinkerton agent, Johnny bore the marks of previous beatings on his body, but these had begun to fade. Murdoch had often said he was too young for such a punishment and Johnny was not about to disagree with that sentiment.

.

Chapter Five

As soon as they arrived in town, Scott unloaded his father’s bag and insisted on carrying it to the stage depot for Murdoch.

“Thank you, son,” said Murdoch, smiling at his older boy, who returned the smile with a shy one of his own.

“If you boys want to get off, you don’t have to wait for the stage, you know,” said Murdoch, taking in the rather bored expression on Johnny’s face, after only a few minutes of waiting.

“Oh no, Pa,” said Scott. “We want to see you off, properly, don’t we, Johnny?”

“Erm, yeah, I guess we do,” replied Johnny, after receiving a non-too gentle shove in the back from older brother.

The stage was on time and so the boys didn’t have to wait very long, before their father was climbing onboard.

“Be good, boys,” said Murdoch, poking his head out of the stage window. “Take care of each other and I will see you soon.”

Seeing as how they were in town, Johnny had only given his father a perfunctory hug, as he felt he was too old to be showing his feelings in public. But, as the stage moved away, he looked over at Scott, with a face full of abject misery.

“I’m gonna miss him, Scott,” he said, in a voice that was finding it very hard to speak.

“I’ll miss him, too,” replied Scott, giving Johnny a quick hug. “But we now have a dog to save, so let’s get going.”

Heading off to the Billings farm helped to take Johnny’s mind off his father’s departure. Considering he had arrived at the Lancer spread a little less than a year ago, firmly convinced he had no use for a father, he and Murdoch were now very close. Once it had been explained to him that Murdoch had not thrown him and his mother off the ranch, like Maria had told him, he soon began to warm to the man. He could see how much Scott admired their father and soon realised that although he had a rather stern, imposing exterior (and boy, was he tall) inside he was a pussycat when it came to how he felt about his boys.

As soon as they could, the boys were on their way to the Billings farm.

“Hope he’s not gonna be mad with me,” said Johnny.

“Why would he be?” replied Scott.

“Well, I said I would be out at his place, first thing, cos I forgot about seeing Papa off, in town.”

“Oh, he’ll be okay once he sees there are two of us,” said Scott, confidently.

The older boy was right, as Billings was pleased to have two new hands working on his place.

“You’re still gonna work for the week,” he said. “That was the deal.”

“We might have to finish a bit early on Friday,” said Scott. “But by then, I am sure all the chores will be completed.”

Billings was anxious to give them a list of what he wanted doing, but Johnny’s main concern was Blackie.

“I want to see the dog before we start working,” he said. “I’m only doing this for him, so I wanna know if he’s okay.”

Johnny was still rather worried that Billings might have hurt the little dog, overnight, so was very relieved when Billings led them to the barn, opened the door, and Blackie ran out to greet them.

“He’s fine, so now you git to work,” growled Billings, aiming a kick at the dog, as he walked past it.

Scott could see the look of fear which came over the face of the dog, when the man spoke. Even his voice scared the poor creature. Not that Scott had doubted Johnny’s word, but now having seen the animal for himself, he was very glad to be helping his little brother save the pup.

Billings took Scott into the barn and showed him where the tools were kept. While they were doing so, Johnny found a bowl and put some of the food he had brought with him, into it. He placed it on the ground, by Blackie, expecting the dog to gobble it all up. But the little dog stayed where he was and just looked longingly at the food.

“It’s okay, Blackie,” said Johnny, softly. “It’s for you; go ahead and eat it, there’s a good boy.”

The dog continued to stare, fearfully, first at the bowl and then at Johnny. It took the boy quite a while to convince Blackie that the food really was for him. But, eventually, he got the message and began to eat. Scott joined Johnny and the two brothers watched the little animal enjoy his first decent meal, probably in his entire life.

Out of the corner of his eye, Scott could see that Billings was hovering fairly close by, and so he whispered to Johnny, “Come on, best make a start on the chores.”

Johnny followed Scott’s gaze and glared back at the man.

“You hurt this dog and there won’t be anywhere you can hide that my Pa and the law won’t find you. Just as soon as this week is up, Blackie’s coming home with us and he’d better not be harmed.”

Billings, who had been a bully all his life, was secretly quite impressed with Johnny, for standing up to him.

“Doncha worry ’bout the mutt, kid. You do what we agreed and he’s yours. And I won’t lay a finger on him, jest as long as he keeps outta my way.”

With that the man turned away and mounted his horse.

“Got stuff ta do in town. I’ll be back later and the chores better be done, else I will take it outta that dog’s hide and mebbe yourn as well.”

He then rode out of the yard. Johnny scowled after the man and then turned to Scott and said, “I’ve gotta a real mean hate growing inside of me for him.”

“That’s as maybe, Johnny,” replied Scott, placing a warning arm around his little brother’s shoulders. “I can’t say I like him, either, but we need to remain civil until we have finished the chores and secured Blackie’s safety.”

Johnny shrugged off his brother and said, “Doncha think I know that? I’m not gonna do anything that might put Blackie at risk. Come on, let’s get these chores done.”

Both boys worked really hard; in fact their father would have been extremely proud of them, had he known what they were doing. They stopped, briefly, to eat their lunch and to give Blackie a bit more of the scraps they had brought him from home. At first the little dog stayed well out of their way and just watched the boys from a distance. But as the day went by, he gradually moved closer to them and by the end of the day was even allowing the boys to pet him, a little.

However, just before Scott was about to call it a day, Billings  returned from town and Blackie took off like he’d been fired from a cannon. It was obvious that the poor little thing was terrified of his owner.

“Good afternoon, Mr Billings,” said Scott, using his most polite voice. “My brother and I have finished the list of chores you set us to do today, so we are now heading for home.”

It was obvious that Billings had been drinking. He swayed from side to side, almost falling off his horse, as he looked around the farmyard.

“Looks like ya done okay,” he said, grudgingly, when he couldn’t find anything to complain about. “Yeah, you git on home, cos I sure as hell ain’t feeding y’all. Be back here in the morning and make it earlier than today, or else,” and he looked in the direction of Blackie, who was now cowering by the door of the barn.

Once more, Johnny stepped forward and without a thought for his own safety, launched a verbal attack on Billings.

“You hurt that dog and I will make you wish you’d never been born. We have a deal and if you break your side of the bargain, then I will see that you get broken, too.”

Billings was about to laugh at the absurdity of a ten year old boy threatening him, but the look on Johnny’s face caused him to swallow the laugh.

Instead he said, “I done told ya, boy. I’ll keep my part of the bargain iffen you keep yours. Now git off home, afore your Daddy comes looking fer ya. Don’t want no high and mighty Lancer poking his nose in where it ain’t wanted.”

Scott could well understand why Billings held back on laughing at Johnny’s threats. Even though he was Johnny’s brother, he had felt a chill run through his body when he’d taken in the expression on his little brother’s face.

.

Chapter Six

The boys didn’t hang around once Billings said they could leave. They didn’t even mention that Murdoch was not at home.

As they drove away, Scott said, “Best that Mr Billings doesn’t know Pa is away. If he thinks it’s likely Pa might come snooping around, then he will behave himself.”

“I thought that too,” said Johnny. “I just want him to leave Blackie alone and if he thinks Papa might check up on him, then he’s more likely to be nice to the dog.”

Privately, Scott didn’t think that Billings would ever be nice to anyone, but he decided not to share that thought with Johnny. He didn’t want his brother putting himself in the firing line again.

As soon as they reached the hacienda, Scott led the horse into the barn in order to rub it down and feed it. Johnny ran into the house, as he was anxious for some food, too. The lunch Maria had fixed for them had been plentiful, but it was now late in the afternoon and Johnny was used to having a snack when he got home from school.

Maria smiled at the boy as he entered the kitchen and pointed towards the table. Cookies and milk were waiting for them.

“Where are the fish?” she asked Johnny.

At first the boy looked rather confused, but then he recalled that they had told Maria they were going fishing after dropping off Murdoch in town.

“We had no luck,” he said, smiling at the woman whom he considered to be more of a mother to him than his own had ever been.

“Oh well, it doesn’t matter, as I have plenty of the stew left over from yesterday and so you can have that for supper. Where is Scott?”

“He is seeing to the horse, but he’ll be in shortly.”

“Well, don’t dawdle for too long, as you still have chores to do. Just because your Papa is not here, they still must be done.”

Johnny was about to roll his eyes, but he knew that Maria didn’t like that any more than Murdoch did, so he stopped.

“We’ll do ’em, never fear,” although after working all day for Billings, Johnny was feeling rather tired.

Scott soon joined him for his snack and Johnny told him he had squared it with Maria about the lack of fish.

“Just told her they weren’t biting,” he whispered to his brother. “Come on, don’t take all day; we have chores waiting.”

Much as Johnny had done, Scott groaned at the thought of more chores waiting for them. Both boys were quite tough for their ages and were used to doing their share around the ranch, but they were only school boys and so were not used to working full days. However, they knew that if they made an excuse not to do their chores at home, it would make Maria suspicious and the last thing they needed was her wondering what they were getting up to.

By the time the boys ate their supper, they were both having trouble keeping their eyes open. Almost with one voice, they both announced they were heading for bed.

Paul was a little concerned and asked if they were feeling all right.

“Fine, thank you, sir,” replied Scott.

“Yeah, just tired is all,” added Johnny.

“What have you been doing all day to make you both so weary?”

Johnny just shrugged his shoulders, leaving Scott to come up with a plausible reason.

“Er, not really sure. We’ve just been doing stuff that one does when one gets an unexpected day off school.”

Johnny, despite his tiredness, grinned at the thought that they would have chosen to work at ranch chores when they had a day off.

Paul didn’t press the boys and the two of them headed up to bed, grateful that they hadn’t had to make up any lies.

Neither of the boys said anything else to each other. They just went to their respective rooms and were soon fast asleep.

.

Chapter Seven

It was easy for the boys to go over to the Billings farm on Saturday, as once their morning chores were done, they were free to do what they wanted until it was time for evening chores and supper. Once again, they asked Maria to make them up some lunch and she was happy to do so. Johnny also managed to put together some leftovers for Blackie, without arousing suspicion from the housekeeper.

The boys rode over to the farm and were there much earlier than the day before.

Billings was obviously still asleep, as it took several shouts from both of the boys to bring him out onto the rickety front porch.

The man squinted up at them, through bloodshot, bleary eyes and said, “Feed the stock, then ya can start on mending this here porch. One of these days, it’s gonna fall down, taking me with it.”

Johnny privately thought that would be a good thing, but he obviously didn’t voice his thoughts. The two boys rode over to the barn and Johnny dismounted in order to open the door. As he did so, Blackie came running out and he allowed Johnny to make a fuss of him.

“Look at him, Scott,” said Johnny, smiling up at his brother. “He’s pleased to see me.”

Scott couldn’t help but smile, too, as he watched the little dog jumping around his brother’s feet.

“I’ll see to our horses and to Billings and you feed Blackie and the chickens,” said Scott, as he,too,dismounted.

Johnny put some more scraps into Blackie’s bowl and as he did so, he looked over at the porch. He was relieved to see that Billings had gone back indoors, as he knew the dog would relax more and eat, if the man wasn’t in sight.

The two boys were rather dismayed when they began work on the porch as they quickly realised it was going to be a big job.

“This is more of a complete rebuild than a repair,” said Scott,after he had made a thorough check of the whole structure. “I just hope I’ve got the know how to do it.”

“We’ve gotta do it, Scott,” implored Johnny. “Iffen we don’t, then he won’t let me have Blackie.”

Scott could tell that his little bother was getting rather upset, so he quickly tried to calm him.

“Don’t fret, little brother. We’ll do it, but it might take a while.”

When Billings finally emerged from the hovel he called home, Scott went over and had a word with him.

“Most of the wood on this porch is rotten and is going to need replacing, sir,” he said. “Johnny and I are not able to cut the size of timbers it will need. Are you going to get them for us?”

Billings stood for a while, saying nothing and chewing on some tobacco. He then spat out a stream of the baccy juice, which splashed on Scott’s boots and said, “Where in hell d’ya think I’m gonna get the money ta buy timber from? You two go fetch some from that fancy ranch of yourn.”

Scott knew that they did have some stacks of prepared timber in one of the outbuildings, but he didn’t think he would be allowed to take any of them.

“Erm, I’m not sure,” began Scott, but Billings interrupted him.

“Jest git the timber and fetch it out here come Monday morning. I don’t wanna hear no excuses. I jest want ma porch fixed, else the deals off. For the rest of today ya can make a start on some of the other chores. I done wrote you a note of what needs doing. It’s on the work bench in the tack room.”

With that, Billings headed for the barn, intent on saddling up his horse and heading, once more, for town.

Once Billings had left, the two boys stopped for a break. Johnny sat down on the porch steps and Blackie came over and sat next to him.

“That’s gonna be tough, trying to get lots of wood over here without no one seeing us.”

Scott removed his hat and used his bandanna to wipe the sweat from his brow, before he answered Johnny.

“It’s going to be well nigh impossible. Pa and Paul are planning to use that timber to build another storeroom. And when they start they will notice, right off that they are missing some of the planks. And that’s assuming we can get it off the ranch without being spotted. It’s been easy up to now, as we’ve only borrowed a few tools and taken the odd scrap of wood, but we can hardly hide large planks of wood under our vests.”

“We don’t even wear vests, Scott,” replied Johnny, bringing a smile to his older brother’s face.

“We’ll have to move it at night,” decided Scott. “And then, once we’ve got the dog safely at our place and Pa asks about the missing wood, we will have to ‘fess up.”

“You can ‘fess up,” said Johnny. “Me and Blackie will be heading for the hills.”

“We are in this together, little brother,” said Scott, firmly. “And remember, you got me into this, not the other way around.”

“Aww, it might be all right,Scott,” said Johnny. “Once Pa gets to meet Blackie, he will love him as much as I do, and he’ll reckon he was worth a few cords of wood.”

Scott decided not to say any more, but he did have grave doubts that his father would ever feel like that about the rather scruffy little dog.

The boys finished their snack and then got on with the painting of the outside of the shack in which Billings lived. They found some paint in the barn, but there was only a small amount in each tin, so they mixed them all together and finished up with quite a lot of a rather sludgy brown shade.

“Suits the place,” said Johnny. “The paint looks like shit and the place already looks and smells like an outhouse.”

Scott knew he should have reprimanded his little brother for his language, but he had to admit that Johnny spoke the truth, so said nothing.

By the end of the day, the brothers had finished painting the house and even though it was a rather awful colour, it did look better than it had.

“There, all done, and so am I,” said Johnny, throwing his brush on the ground and flopping down beside it.

“Well, don’t lie there for too long, brother. We have to get cleaned up and then be home in time for evening chores.”

The only reply that Johnny was able to give Scott was a rather loud groan. The boy would have fallen asleep where he lay, if it hadn’t been for Blackie, licking at his face.

“Gerroff, dog. I know Scott said I needed to wash, but I think he meant in the stream or the water trough.”

“Make it the stream, Johnny. The water in the trough looks a bit stagnant.”

So,the two boys and the dog ran down to the stream and with a bar of soap that Scott produced from his saddlebags, proceeded to wash the paint off their hands and faces.

“Darn it. I got some on my shirt,” said Johnny. “When Mamacita sees it, she’s gonna wanna know what I’ve bin up to.”

“Take it off, Johnny and I’ll see if I can get it off with this soap.”

Johnny removed his shirt and handed it over to Scott, who laid it on a rock and began scrubbing at it with the bar of soap.

“Good, it’s coming off. You might have to put it back on, wet, but at least it won’t have paint on it,” said Scott.

“Thanks, brother,” replied Johnny. “How come you had that bar of soap with you?”

“Well, after yesterday when I saw how filthy it was over here, I figured we might need some.”

“Thank goodness you did.”

“It’s what big brothers are for. It’s called forward thinking.”

“Well I’m thinking it’s about time we ate, so I’m gonna feed Blackie; then I’m heading for home.”

“And I’ll be right behind you, brother.”

There was no sign of Billings, so the boys left a note saying that they would be back on Monday with the wood to fix the porch. Johnny had already told the man they would not be able to come over on Sunday.

“We havta go to church and we eat our main meal in the middle of the day, so there’s no way we can come over here.”

Billings had accepted that, but Johnny just wanted to be sure that the man knew they were not breaking their agreement by not being there on Sunday.

Once again, by the time the boys reached home, they really did not feel up to doing more chores, but they both dragged themselves out to the barn and did what was expected of them.

“Maybe with Papa being away, we won’t havta go to church, tomorrow and we can have a lie in,” said Johnny, hopefully, as they took care of their horses.

“I doubt it. Paul, Teresa, Maria and Cip will be going and I’m sure they will expect us to accompany them.”

“Shit!” said Johnny. “I’m a growing boy. I need my rest.”

“John Murdoch Lancer. That’s the second time today you’ve cussed. Don’t do it again, else I will find another use for my bar of soap.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” replied Johnny, flinging a forkful of soiled straw at his brother. “You ain’t the boss of me.”

“I am while Pa’s away,” and Scott gave chase to his little brother, with the bar of soap held in his hand.

The two boys ran into the kitchen, almost colliding with Maria, who was taking the meat out of the oven.

“Sin luchando en la casa, los niños,” (No fighting in the house, boys) shouted Maria, as she just about managed to deposit the dish onto the table, without dropping it.

“Lo siento, Mamacita,” chorused the boys, as they carried on running and headed for their rooms, in order to wash up.

For the second night running, as soon as supper was over, both boys excused themselves and went to bed.

Maria was rather concerned. She followed them up the stairs and insisted on feeling their foreheads and asking a lot of embarrassing questions about what they had eaten during the day, and if they were regular, before letting them retire for the night.

.

Chapter Eight

Sunday saw the boys getting a break in their new routine and it gave them a chance to recharge their batteries. Even though they were expected to attendchurch,they were still able to have a bit of a lie in and they took full advantage of it. In fact, Paul had to come up to their rooms and give them both a non too gentle shake before they finally made it down to the dining room.

“Sorry, Paul,” said Scott, as he sat down in his chair and reached for the coffee pot. “Couldn’t seem to open my eyes this morning.”

Johnny said nothing; just slipped into his sseat and began gulping down his glass of milk.

“That’s okay, Scott. We still have time to ride to church without being late. But I must say that you and Johnny’s tiredness is causing all of us some concern. Maria is convinced you are both coming down with some terrible disease, and I am beginning to agree with her. And you are only to have one cup of that coffee. You know your father doesn’t like you youngsters drinking it at all, really.”

Because Scott was still not entirely awake, his reply was a bit sharper than it would have normally been.

“I think I am old enough to know how much coffee I might drink. I need something to wake me up. As to what is the matter with us, please don’t concern yourselves. My brother and I are fine and would be even better if some people would stop sticking their noses into our affairs.”

Paul stood up and glared at the young man.

“Your father entrusted you boys to mine and Maria’s care and so that is what we are both doing; caring about you. And I don’t think he would approve of you speaking to me in that tone. So please moderate it.”

“I apologise, Paul. Maybe it was a bit rude of me, but I just don’t see why you are all fussing so much. Johnny and I are fine, aren’t we, little brother?”

While this exchange was going on, Johnny was almost asleep, slouched down in his chair. When he dimly heard a reference to himself, he suddenly jumped up in his seat, spilling the remains of his milk all over the brilliant white linen tablecloth.

Maria was just entering the room with some more biscuits and she ran over, with her ever present cloth in her hand, and began mopping it up.

“Lo siento, Mamacita,” mumbled Johnny, looking up at the housekeeper, his blue eyes sparkling at her, through his raven black eyelashes, although his eyes were not quite as clear as they usually were.

Paul decided to say no more about it and left the boys to finish their breakfast in peace. He had to check on Teresa, who had been sent to fetch her bonnet and gloves in readiness for the trip to town.

“We must try and make more of an effort to act normally,” said Scott, as soon as the boys were alone. “If Maria or Paul catch on to what we are doing, they will probably stop us and then Lord alone knows what will happen to Blackie.”

“They sure as hell will stop us iffen they know we’re skipping school to go and do Billings bidding,” replied Johnny, sitting up a bit straighter in his chair and helping himself to some still warm biscuits.

The boys managed to get through Sunday without any further confrontations with Paul or Maria. After they returned from church, they enjoyed the delicious Sunday lunch prepared by Maria. And then they both went to their rooms to change out of their suits. They had met up with some of their school friends after the church service and arranged to meet them at a nearby cave, which the boys all used as a meeting place.

It was a warm afternoon and all the boys seemed reluctant to do much, other than chat and brag about what they had been doing since they last met up at school, the previous Thursday.

“Thought we might have seen you two around town on Friday, seein’ as how we had an unexpected day off,” said Jimmy Williams, a friend of Scott’s.

“No, we had things to do,” replied Scott.

“I did see ya,briefly,” piped up Zack, Jimmy’s younger brother. “You come into town ta see your Pa off on the stage, didn’t ya?”

“Yeah, we did, but then we had ‘portant plans, didn’t we, Scott?” said Johnny, enigmatically.

“Aww, come on, guys. We’re your pals. Suely you can tell us what you were up to? After all, you know we ain’t gonna snitch,” said Frank Carter, another of Scott’s friends.

“Best we don’t say nothing,” said Johnny, stretching out on a flat topped rock and placing his hat over his face,in order to shield his eyes from the sun. “Iffen you know nothing, you can’t say nothing, even by accident.”

Despite their friends continuing to ask, the boys refused to say what they were up to and eventually their pals gave up asking.

The conversation turned to what the temporary teachers were going to be like.

“You can usually get away with not doing that much when the teacher don’t know you,” commented Wes, who was hanging upside down in a tree as he spoke. “You know, don’t tell ’em where we’ve got up to in the work books, so we end up doing stuff we aleady know. Or just acting dumb,” at which point Johnny interrupted and said that it would be easy for Wes to do that, making the others laugh.

“As I was saying,” went on Wes, climbing down from the tree. “You act dumb and then the teacher spends all the lesson trying to make you understand the problem and everyone else can just sit back and do nothing. And I ain’t dumb,” he finished up with, shoving Johnny off the rock, as he spoke.

Once Johnny picked himself up off the floor, he launched himself at his friend and the two boys began rolling around on the ground, trading punches.

At first, the others left them to it, but when it looked like it was getting a bit ugly, Scott waded in and pulled the two boys apart.

“That’s enough guys. Johnny was only having a bit of fun with you, Wes.”

The two younger boys were good friends and they were happy to shake hands and forget about the fight.

“Sorry, Wes, you ain’t dumb, you’re just plain stupid,” said Johnny, but he was laughing as he said it.

“Sorry, Johnny. Shouldn’t have knocked you off that rock. Next time it will be over a cliff,” but Wes was laughing, too.

All too soon, it was time to head for home. The boys said their goodbyes and joked about being ready for whatever the new teachers would expect of them, the next day.

Scott pulled aside his best friend, Frank, and asked to have a private word. The two boys headed off into the bushes, a little way away from the cave.

“I really think it’s best we don’t tell you what we are really doing, Frank, but I would like you to do us a favour. Johnny and I won’t be coming to school this week, as we have something real important to do. Now, the new teachers might not even miss us, but if our names are mentioned, could you just say we’re having to work on the ranch, because our Pa is away and we are short of help?”

Frank said nothing for what seemed like forever to Scott.Finally, he spoke.

“You and me have been good friends for some time, Scott and you’re not the sort to go off half cocked; you leave that to your little brother. So, if you say this is real important and you can’t tell me why, I’ll accept that and I’ll do what you ask. But, if you get into any trouble and you need some help, well, you know where I am,doncha?”

Scott shook hands with his friend and smiled at him.

“Thanks, Frank. I knew you would understand and would help us. I can’t see things going wrong, but I’ll remember what you said, if they do. And don’t get yourself in trouble trying to cover for us. If the teacher doesn’t accept what you say, then just repeat that’s all you know. If she decides to come out to the ranch to find out what’s going on, then we will have to deal with it.”

.

Chapter Nine

The boys were determined they were not going to give Paul and Maria anything else to worry about that would make them suspicious of what they might be up to. So, they went to bed at the normal time on Sunday, after having a bath.

And when Monday morning rolled around, Scott and Johnny were at the breakfast table on time, having done all their early morning chores.

Maria handed them their lunches and advised them to behave for the new teacher. This caused Scott to roll his eyes and earned him a swift pop on his butt from Mamacita’s wooden spoon. She reminded him that she, too, did not appreciate that gesture.

“Lo siento,” said Scott, looking very contrite.

Both boys kissed Maria on her cheek and headed off for school, well, that is where Maria and Paul thought they were going.

Just out of sight of the house, the boys transferred from their horses to the buckboard they had concealed there, the night before. It was loaded with the timber they would need for reconstructing the porch for Billings. They tied their horses to the back of the wagon and headed off to the farm.

As they drove along, Johnny said, “Do you know how to build a porch, brother?”

Scott took a while to answer, as though weighing up his reply.

“Well, I’ve never actually built one, but I guess we just remove the parts of the old one that are rotten and then put in new bits of timber where we took out the old stuff.”

Put like that, it sounded fairly easy, but Johnny was still not convinced that it would be. There was something else that might hold up their work, too, something Johnny hadn’t shared with his brother. After the fight with Wes, the night before, Johnny was left with some nasty bruising to his left side. He reckoned it had happened when Wes pushed him off the rock, as he had fallen onto some pretty uneven ground. After his bath, as he was drying off, Johnny noticed the bruising. And each time he took a deep breath, he was experiencing a sharp pain in his side. Naturally, being Johnny, he said nothing to no one, as the boy never liked to admit he was injured. And because he also didn’t want to let Blackie down, he felt even less able to say anything.

‘Iffen it’s still bad once we’re done, I’ll go see Doc Sam,’ he thought to himself.

They adopted what was becoming their regular routine, once they got to the Billings farm. They took care of their horses and of Billings’ horse, then fed Blackie. The little dog didn’t come to them as soon as they arrived and Johnny decided he was sulking, as they hadn’t been there the day before.

“Sorry, fella, we can’t come on a Sunday. But it won’t be long afore you’ll be coming home with us for good. Here you go; this is some of Mamacita’s stew. Betcha never tasted nothing as good as this before.”

Scott was rather angry when he realised Johnny had brought stew for the dog.

“I think Maria was going to heat that up for Paul and Cip’s lunch today. She’s going to wonder where it went.”

“If she asks, I’ll say I was hungry in the night and had a midnight snack,” replied Johnny, grinning at his brother.

The two boys began work on the porch, pulling up the boards that were rotten. They were so engrossed in what they were doing that they were unaware Billings had come out of the house and staggered onto the porch. The man was still half asleep and he failed to notice that some of the boards were missing. As he walked towards the steps, his right foot slipped down one of the gaps and he ended up on the ground, flat on his face. Johnny couldn’t help himself and began laughing and even though Scott tried desperately to get him to stop, the boy wasn’t able to. He was laughing so much he failed to notice that Billings had freed his leg and was now heading straight for him.

As the man reached out to grab him by his shirtfront, Johnny tried to get away. But the pain in his side stopped him from being able to run and Billings caught hold of him. He hauled the boy up so that their faces were level and growled at Johnny, “Thought that was funny, did ya? Well, just see how funny ya find this,” and the man tossed Johnny through the air, like the boy weighed nothing.

Once again, Johnny fell on his side and this time he couldn’t help but let out a cry.

Scott ran to his brother’s aid and dared the man to touch him again.

“Leave my little brother alone, or else I will kill you,” he yelled.

“Oh yeah, you and whose army?”

“Won’t take an army to defeat you. A man who beats up little boys is a coward and couldn’t stand up to any real competition. I reckon I could take you on.”

“Come on then, let’s see ya try,” replied Billings.

“Okay, but if I win, we leave here with Blackie and we don’t come back. Deal?”

“Okay, you’ve got yourself a deal, boy. But if I win, then once you are both well again, you come back and work for me, for another week.”

“Deal,” said Scott and although the man repulsed him, he shook his hand to seal the arrangement.

Scott was now fourteen and rather tall for his age. But he was also very slim and so didn’t have much weight behind him to add force to his punches. Billings was not that much taller than Scott, but he was a much stockier man and was used to fighting dirty, as he often ended up in a brawl when he got drunk in town.

However, Scott had brains on his side. Billings way of fighting was just to lash out, wildly, and hope that his punches found their target. Scott was younger and definitely quicker on his feet and so was able to avoid most of the punches Billings threw. All the while he kept dancing around the older man, forcing Billings to keep moving. The man spent most of his waking hours in the pursuit of alcohol and then drinking it, so although he hadn’t had a drink since the night before, he was still drunk. This caused his reflexes to be much slower than Scott’s.

Johnny was still lying on the floor where he’d landed, but was now feeling a bit better. He watched the way his brother was gradually wearing the bigger man down and, at first, decided to stay out of it. But then, Billings landed a couple of really hard punches, which floored Scott, and Johnny felt that his brother did need his assistance, after all. However, he didn’t want it to actually look like he was getting involved, in case Billings called off the deal. And so he gradually rose from the ground and as he got to a standing position, he ‘stumbled’ and fell against Billings. As the man turned his attention to Johnny, Scott was also able to stand up and clear his head. Billings, once again, pushed Johnny aside, and Scott landed a really ferocious blow to the man’s solar plexus. Billings fell to the ground like a tree struck by lightning and he stayed down.

Johnny was the first to react.

“Come on, Scott, let’s go. He’s down, but might not stay there for long.”

Scott took a long look at Billings and then said, “Oh, I think he’ll be out for a while. Thanks for the help, little brother. I’ll go get our horses and you can hitch up the buckboard.”

Because of the adrenaline still coursing through their veins, the boys were able to ignore their injuries and make ready to leave. Johnny hitched up the team and Scott put the tools and their saddles in the buckboard. Fortunately, they hadn’t unloaded much of the timber, so they still had most of it on board. Once all their gear was stowed away, Johnny picked up Blackie and climbed aboard.

Billings was just coming round, as Scott joined his brother and the dog on the buckboard seat.

“We’re leaving, Mr Billings, and we won’t be back. Blackie now belongs to my little brother, as per our deal. I think we have done more than enough work for you and so don’t even think about trying to get us to come back. If we told the authorities about the way you have treated Blackie and about you attacking my brother, then you would be in deep trouble, so just cut your losses and keep your mouth shut. Anyway, I doubt you would want it spread around how a fourteen year old boy beat you up.”

Although the man was now conscious, he was still unable to speak, owing to the fact that all the air had been sucked out of him by the force of Scott’s punch. However, the look on his face told the boys that if he could speak, the air would probably be turning blue.

.

Chapter Ten

It was still too early for the boys to go home, without causing Maria and Paul to ask a lot of questions, so Scott drove the buckboard back onto Lancer land and then stopped once they came to a stream. The horses were tethered under a tree, by the water, and the boys sat down, close by, and began to assess their injuries.

“What made you cry out like that, when Billings threw you to the ground?” asked Scott.

Now that he knew Blackie was safe, Johnny didn’t mind telling Scott about the injury to his side.

“I hurt it when Wes pushed me off that rock, yesterday,” said Johnny, as he lifted his shirt to reveal the cluster of ugly bruises around his left rib cage.

“I reckon you’ve broken a rib or two, little brother. I think we’re going to have to tell Paul what happened as you are going to need some doctoring. That’s a pity, cos we might have been able to keep at least some of what we’ve been up to a secret, if you didn’t need to see a doctor.”

“I think it will only take Paul and Mamacita a minute to realise we’ve been fighting, once they see your face, big brother. Can’t you feel it? You have the beginnings of a black eye and a nasty cut on your cheek.”

Scott prodded his cheek with his fingers and they came away streaked with blood. And he could already feel his eye starting to close.

“Mm, I see what you mean,” he said. “Before we go home, I think we should try and clean ourselves up, as best as we can, and I will bind up your ribs. But we are going to have to ‘fess up, if only to explain our injuries.”

“And to explain why we have Blackie and where he came from.”

For about an hour, the boys just lay on the grass, recovering from their ordeal. Scott unpacked their lunches and they shared them with Blackie.

“I just hope, after all we’ve been through, that Papa lets us keep Blackie,” said Johnny, stroking the dog, as he spoke.

“So do I,” said Scott, looking over at his brother, who had tears in his eyes. “Are your ribs hurting, again?”

Johnny sniffed and then said, “No, but I can’t bear the thought of Blackie having to go back to Billings.”

“That is not going to happen, I promise you,” said Scott, in a determined voice, and Johnny had enough faith in his brother to feel comforted by his words.

Eventually, the boys knew they would have to go home and face the music. Scott instructed Johnny to lie down in the back of the buckboard, as he had used some strips of material torn off his shirt to bind up the younger boy’s ribs.

“If you lie down, you will keep things in place, better. I’ll hitch up the team and then we’ll head for home.”

Johnny was happy to do as Scott suggested, as his side was rather painful. He managed to find a spot in the wagon, away from the lengths of timber and he got as comfortable as he could. Once he was settled, Blackie jumped into the wagon and cuddled up next to him.

The boys rode home in silence, until they were driving under the archway.

“Just leave it all to me to explain what happened,” said Scott. “You can use the excuse that you’re in pain, for not saying much.”

“Why ain’t I allowed to speak? It was me who first saw Blackie and me who agreed to go and work for Billings. You just decided to tag along.”

“I know I did, but as the older brother it is my responsibility to look out for you. If I go in and admit it was all my fault, both Paul and Maria might just go easier on us. I know all about diplomacy, little brother. Remember, I lived a lot of years in Boston and there it is all about what you say and how you say it. It makes a huge difference to how you are received.”

Johnny was, in fact, hurting more than he would even let on to Scott and so didn’t feel like arguing. And if adopting Scott’s plan was going to help them keep Blackie, he was happy to go along with it.

“Okay, I’ll just lie here and moan, now and again.”

As Scott brought the buckboard to a halt outside the hacienda, the front door opened and Paul and Maria came hurrying out to greet them. They had seen the wagon coming in and were concerned when they couldn’t see any sign of Johnny sitting alongside his brother, nor riding on Scirocco.

“Scott, where is Johnny?” demanded Paul, of the boy.

“Johnny? Oh, he’s in the back of the wagon. Got a bit banged up, so I thought it better that he laid down on the trip home.”

As soon as Maria realised her precious Juanito was hurt, she went into Mama Tiger mode and almost pushed Paul out of the way so she could tend to the boy.

“It’ll probably be easier for you, Maria, if I get Johnny into the house first,” said Paul. He followed his words with actions and lifted Johnny out of the back of the wagon, after a brief chat with Scott about the extent of the boy’s injuries.

Johnny was very tempted to speak up and say that as he was the one with the injuries, he ought to be the one expaining what was wrong with him. But he had promised Scott he would stay quiet and so he did.

“I think he may have damaged a couple of ribs,” said Scott. “I bound them up, but maybe the doctor ought to be called out?”

Paul went inside with Johnny, but soon came back to speak more to Scott.

As the boy disembarked from the wagon, Paul noticed the state of his face.

“Looks like you got a bit banged up, too.”

“Oh yeah, but mine’s not as bad as Johnny’s. I’ll just take care of the horses and then I’ll come in and explain everything.”

“One of the hands can take care of the horses,” said Paul. “We need to talk and I also want to know about him.”

Paul was referring to Blackie, who was now sitting by the hacienda door,having failed to get through it when Paul took Johnny inside.

One ranch hand took the horses to the barn and another one was sent into town to fetch Dr. Jenkins.

Scott headed for the door and as he opened it, he ushered in the dog, who ran ahead and sought out Johnny, who was lying on the couch in the main room.

“Shoo. Desaparece. Debe estar lleno de gérmenes,” (Shoo. Go away. Must be full of germs) said Maria, when she saw the dog trying to climb onto the couch next to Johnny.

Scott came into the room and explained.

“He might be a bit dirty, Mamacita, but he’s Johnny’s dog and I think you want him with you, don’t you, little brother?”

Johnny gave Maria his most pathetic look and said, “Por favor, Mamacita,” and Maria gave in, as she could not deny her nino most of the time, least of all when he was ill or injured.

Maria could also now see Scott’s injuries, so she handed Johnny the glass of water she had fetched him from the kitchen and turned her attention to his brother.

“Stand en la luz, por favor,” (stand in the light, please) she said to Scott and the boy obeyed. After checking over the damage to his face, Maria left the room, in order to collect her first aid box.

Scott sat down on the end of the couch and looked at his brother.

“Paul’s sent for the doctor. He’s probably giving Maria time to patch us up and then he will be wanting to talk to us. Remember, let me tell him what happened.”

“Fine by me, Scott,” replied Johnny, absently stroking the little dog, as he lay there, both of them looking the picture of misery. Johnny hated to be still and even when hurt he still wanted to be moving around, when possible. But he knew that until Maria had tended to his wounds he would not be allowed to put a toe off the couch. And poor Blackie was just scared and confused. He had never been in a house as grand as this one and all the strange smells and new people terrified him. So he just snuggled down as close to Johnny as he could get and tried to make himself invisible.

Maria returned and dealt with the cut on Scott’s face, first. She also cleaned up his eye and gave him a raw steak to hold on it. She then turned her attention to Johnny. She had brought him a nightshirt and helped the boy remove his shirt before checking his ribs.

“Usted ha hecho un buen trabajo, Scott,” (you did a good job) was her pronouncement after seeing the way Scott had bound up his little brother.

She decided to leave the bandage on until Sam arrived and so just helped Johnny put his nightshirt on. She wanted him to go up to his room, but he pleaded to be allowed to stay on the couch.

“Bien, pero quedarse,” (Okay, but stay put)

Maria then left the boys and returned to the kitchen in order to prepare the supper.

The boys didn’t have to wait long, before Paul joined them and it was obvious that he was angry and wanted some answers.

“Earlier this afternoon we were visited by the temporary teacher who is standing in for Miss Burgess and Miss Carstairs. She said she understood that you boys were unable to attend school, because we were short of help, what with your father being away. So she brought out some work for you to do in the evenings, so that you didn’t fall behind. Now, as far as I am aware, there was nothing said about you two not attending school, this week. So that, coupled with the fact there was a buckboard missing, along with quite a large load of timber makes me very curious as to what exactly you have been up to. This was obviously not just a case of an impulsive decision to take a day off, as you had primed a friend to make excuses for you, and you had hidden the buckboard, presumably last night? So, who is going to tell me just what you have been doing and why you have come back, hurt, and with a dog in tow?”

Once Paul finished speaking, Scott stood up. He was just about to launch into his explanation, when the doctor arrived.

“It can wait, but I am not going to forget about it,” whispered Paul to Scott, as he moved across the room to welcome the doctor.

“Hi Sam. Thanks for coming out so promptly. We have two wounded soldiers for you, today, although I think Johnny’s injuries are worse than Scott’s,” he said, as he shook the man’s hand.

“Hi, Paul,” said Sam. “Right then, young’uns, what have you been up to?”

For the next fifteen minutes, or so, the talk was all medical, with Sam prodding and poking at both of the boys and asking lots of questions. Scott could tell that Johnny was hurting, quite a bit, and that he was also tired. This was a sure fire combination for the boy to soon explode and so Scott, ever the diplomat, tried to keep things calm.

Scott deflected most of the questioning onto himself, thus leaving Johnny having to say very little.

“Johnny fell off a rock, the other day, when we were with our friends and I think he hurt his ribs, then. But you know Johnny; he didn’t say anything. So, when he fell again, today, it made things a lot worse and this time I did notice. So, I brought him back home.”

“And what exactly happened to your face?” asked Sam, while he was gently feeling around Johnny’s ribs.

“Erm, got into a bit of a scuffle; you know how it is?”

Scott didn’t want anyone to know about their fight with Billings. Both boys thought that if the adults became involved, they would confront the man and then that would make Billings more likely to demand Blackie back.

Sam seemed happy with Scott’s answers and didn’t ask any more questions as to how the injuries had occured. But he did ask the more usual medical questions about whether or not either of the boys had been unconscious for any length of time.

“No,sir,I don’t think so,” said Scott and Johnny just shook his head.

Finally, Sam finished his examination of the boys and then he gave his pronouncement on their condition.

“Johnny appears to have got off fairly lightly. His ribs don’t appear to be broken, so at least we don’t have the worry of one of them puncturing a lung. But a couple of them are cracked. Therefore, he needs to remain in bed, or at least resting, for a few days and to have the ribs tightly bound. Scott, too, is not that badly hurt, but I still think he needs to rest up.I am not totally convinced that he didn’t lose consciousness, if only for a couple of minutes, so might have a concussion. The cut below his eye is superficial and shouldn’t even leave a scar and the black eye will just heal of its own accord, after it has turned every colour of the rainbow. I strongly suspect, knowing these two as I do, that there is a lot more to what happened than they have been sharing, but I will leave that in your capable hands, Paul.”

“Do you think I should let Murdoch know what has happened? What I mean is do you think I should get him to come home?”

“I don’t see that it is necessary, as far as the injuries go. Nothing is life threatening; it’s just if the boys would prefer their father to be with them, or not.”

“I don’t think there is any need to bring Pa home early,” chipped in Scott. “We are both okay and there’s nothing that Pa could do that Maria and Paul can’t. Unless, of course, Johnny wants Pa to come home?”

Johnny did want his father home, but knew that Scott prefered to wait a while, before having to explain to Murdoch about the dog. So, he just looked up at his brother and shook his head, again.

“Papa needs to stay in San Francisco; it’s important he’s there. By the time he got back we’d both be better anyway, so no need to worry him.”

Johnny could see that Scott was breathing a sigh of relief as he said these words, and he smiled up at him.

“We’ll be fine with Mamacita and Paul, won’t we, Scott?”

“We sure will,” agreed Scott, although when he looked over at Paul and saw the expression on the segundo’s face, he wasn’t so sure.

Paul walked over to the door with Sam, thanking him, once again, for coming out to the ranch, so promptly. Over his shoulder, he said, “You boys stay put. We still have some things to discuss. And then I shall carry Johnny up to bed.”

.

Chapter Eleven

As soon as Paul returned, the interrogation began again.

“So, we have pretty much dealt with the injuries, but now I want to know why you stole a buckboard full of timber and where that dog came from?”

“We didn’t, technically, steal it, Paul, as it is a Lancer buckboard and was filled with Lancer timber and we are Lancers. So, it belongs to us and you can’t steal something which you own,” said Scott, sounding just a bit too cocky, as he said it.

“I think I am right in saying that the buckboard actually belongs to your father, as does the timber, young man, and so you did steal it from him. And as I am standing in for him while he is away, I want to know why you took it.”

Scott could see that he couldn’t continue trying to fob Paul off with clever remarks and he would have to come clean. And so  he explained about Johnny’s first encounter with Blackie and how they had agreed to work for the man in exchange for the dog.

“We have now done all we had to do and so were able to bring Blackie home with us,” finished Scott.

“And this is where he is staying,” declared Johnny, holding on to Blackie, as if he feared Paul was going to snatch him away.

“I’m not so sure your father will allow that to happen, Johnny. I seem to recall hearing him say, only last week, that you were not to bring any more stray animals home with you.”

“Well, yeah, he did say something like that, but I reckon he’ll change his mind once he sees Blackie. And so he’s staying with me at least until Papa gets home.”

Paul could tell that Johnny was in too much pain and was too tired to reason with. And to be honest, the man didn’t feel he could take the pup away from the boy; after all they had been through to get it. Paul didn’t know Billings that well, but what he did know wasn’t good, and he was sure the boys were speaking the truth when they had said Billings was cruel to the dog.

“Very well, the dog can stay until Murdoch returns and then it will be up to him to decide what is going to happen to it. Right now, I am going to carry you up to bed, Johnny and I want you to go and get into yours, too, Scott. I will make a bed for the dog in the barn and I am sure Maria will find some scraps for him.”

“No,” yelled Johnny, with tears in his eyes. “Billings kept Blackie in the barn and he don’t like sleeping there, all alone. He’s coming up to my room, with me.”

“El perro tendrá un baño y entonces él puede venir a tu habitación, Juanito,” (the dog must have a bath and then he can come to your room, Johnny) said Maria, who had just returned to the main room.

Johnny couldn’t object to this and so he allowed Paul to carry him to his room and left Blackie to be cleaned up.

Scott went into his room and put his nightshirt on, but did not go to bed. Instead, he went into Johnny’s room to check on his little brother.

Paul was still there and he said, “There is still the matter of you two skipping school today and getting your friend to lie for you. And you really shouldn’t have taken the wagon and the timber without getting permission from me or Cip to do so. I don’t think Murdoch would approve of such behaviour, do you?” 

“No, I don’t think he would, but you’re not gonna let Cip use his belt on us, are ya, Paul?” said Johnny, who was still on the verge of tears. “Papa wouldn’t do that, so he shouldn’t.”

“Wherever did you get the idea that I was going to let that happen?” said Paul.

“Oh, it’s just one of my brother’s crazy notions,” said Scott. “Pa already told you that Cip wouldn’t do that, Johnny, so stop worrying about it.”

“No one is using a belt on anyone, but there will be consequences for your behaviour,” said Paul. “But I think that can wait until tomorrow. Maria will bring you up something to eat, in a while, and then I think you both could do with a good night’s rest.”

“Erm, Paul, is it okay if I stay in here with Johnny until we’ve eaten and Blackie comes up?”

“Of course it is, Scott. And now I must go and see that Teresa has washed up for supper. I will come up later to say goodnight.”

Once Paul left the room, Scott lay down on the bed, next to Johnny, and smiled at him.

“Phew, I am real glad that’s all over with, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, sure am,” said Johnny. “Wish Papa was here, though.”

“I know you do, brother, but we can’t expect him to come back and miss all those meetings he’s got to go to.”

“Doncha think I know that?” replied Johnny, rather grumpily. “But it don’t stop me from missing him. What do you reckon those consequences are gonna be that Paul talked about?”

“Oh, extra chores I guess, or restriction to the ranch. Although, at the moment, you can’t go anywhere, anyway. Don’t worry about it. Paul’s used to raising a girl, so he’s not going to be that tough on us.”

“I guess not. I don’t really care what he does just as long as Blackie stays here.”

The boys were soon enjoying some of Maria’s delicious stew and biscuits, followed by peach cobbler and cream. Johnny didn’t eat as much as he normally did, because his ribs were still causing him some pain, but he ate enough to satisfy Maria. And once the remnants of the meal were removed from the bedroom, Maria brought up Blackie.

At first, Johnny could not believe that it was the same dog, as he was so clean. His fur had also been brushed until it shone; almost as much as Johnny’s hair did, straight after a bath.

“Muchas gracias, Mamacita,” said Johnny, cuddling the dog. “Has he had some food?”

“Usted debe agradecer a Cipriano. Él se bañaba el perro para usted,” (You should thank Cipriano. He bathed the dog for you) replied Maria.”Y sí, él ha comido. Para un pequeño perro, come un montón.” (And yes, he has eaten. For a little dog, he eats a lot)

“That’s because he has been starving for such a long time. Doncha remember what I was like when I first came home? I was always hungry.”

“Si, I remember, nino,” said Maria, and she kissed the boy, tenderly, on his cheek.

“Buenas noches, Dios te bendiga mi dulce niño,” (Good night God bless you, my sweet boy.) And as she walked out of the room, Maria wiped away the tears from her eyes, with the corner of her apron. She was recalling when she had first laid eyes on Johnny, again, after he had been away from home for almost eight years.

“Well, brother, it looks like you are settled in for the night, so I am going to my bed, as well. I expect we will be left to lie in tomorrow, so I will see you whenever you are ready to wake up. Night.”

“Night, Scott, and thanks for all you did today.”

“Denada, it’s what big brothers are for.”

Chapter Twelve

For the next two days the boys did as they were told and rested up. Paul did insist that they worked through the homework that the temporary teacher had brought to the ranch for them, though. And so the two boys could often be seen, sat at the dining table, heads together, one dark, one fair, working out a particularly difficult problem. Johnny’s best subject was Math and Scott’s was English, so they were often able to help each other out, despite the age difference between them.

While they worked, Blackie was always close by, usually under the table resting against Johnny’s leg. Mind you, the boy was never still and his legs were always moving, even when sitting down. So the dog would often stand up, stretch, turn round and then flop down again. But no matter how many times he had to do this, he wouldn’t move away from Johnny’s side.

By the third day, cabin fever was beginning to set in with Johnny and he was anxious to be up and outside. Maria tried to keep him penned in as much as she could, but somehow he always managed to evade her and could be found out in the yard playing with Blackie, or in the barn, talking to Scirocco. Scott had already returned to a normal life, and had started working through the extra chores set by Paul.

It was almost lunch time and Paul and Scott were making their way across the yard from the barn to go to the house. Johnny was in the yard in front of the hacienda, throwing a ball for Blackie, when Billings rode up.

“There ya are, ya little thief,” yelled out Billings, as he dismounted. “I’ve come fer ma property and I want it now.”

Blackie heard the man’s voice and immediately ran for cover in the bushes which surrounded the house and yard.

Johnny stopped in his tracks and faced the man.

“If you mean Blackie then he ain’t your property no more. Me and Scott paid for him by working for you. You’ve probably forgotten cos you’re always drunk. I think you need to leave. We don’t want your kind round here.”

“I ain’t forgotten nothin’, young’un, and I know I owe you a lesson in manners. You’re nothin’ but a rich man’s mistake, so don’t come over all the great I am with me. You’re no better than I am, ya little shit.”

“Well it takes one to know one,” retorted Johnny, sounding a lot braver than he was feeling, but knowing this was the best way to deal with the man.

Suddenly, Billings was aware of some rustling in the bushes and he drew his gun. He then realised that it was Blackie.

“Ah, there ya are, ya little devil. Come on, we’re goin’ home.”

Instead of obeying the man, Blackie ran over to Johnny.

“Didn’t ya hear me, ya worthless bit of shit? Git over here.”

Billings was still holding his gun and was advancing on the dog, who began growling at him. Even though he had only been away from Billings for a few days, Blackie was already gaining in confidence.

It was obvious to Johnny that the man was still very hungover and was even more dangerous than had he been sober, as the gun could go off, accidentally.

“Iffen ya don’t come with me, now, dog, then I’m gonna kill ya. And I might jest havta kill the little thief who took you away from me, too.”

As he spoke, Billings was waving the gun about wildly and Johnny feared for Blackie’s life. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Paul and Scott were aware of the situation and they were now running across the corral. But he knew they were too far away to save Blackie and so Johnny threw himself over the dog, effectively shielding him from Billings.

Just as he did so, the man’s gun went off. Johnny felt an intense pain in his head and then the world went black. Therefore, he missed what happened next. Paul arrived on the scene, his gun drawn, and Billings whirled around and took a shot at him, too. Billings shot missed, but the one which Paul fired back, found its mark and Billings lay dead in the yard.

Scott rushed up and ran over to Johnny. He knelt down next to the prone boy and, seeing the blood coming from Johnny’s head assumed the worst.

The scream that came out of Scott’s mouth was intense to the point of being primaeval.

“He’s killed my brother; Johnny’s dead,” and the boy lay across his little brother’s body and began sobbing.

Suddenly, Scott became aware of movement beneath him. He thought it must be the dog, who was still trapped under Johnny’s inert body. He moved off Johnny, expecting to see Blackie emerging, but instead he found himself looking into a pair of rather startled blue eyes.

“What’re you trying to do, Scott? Suffocate me?”

Johnny found himself, once again, being engulfed by his brother, but this time Scott wasn’t crying over him, he was kissing him.

“Gerroff,” spluttered Johnny, when he was able to speak.

Scott did as Johnny asked and moved. This time, Blackie did squeeze out from under Johnny and he, too, began kissing the boy.

By this time, Paul was also kneeling down beside Johnny and Maria had joined them from the kitchen.

After a quick check of the wound on Johnny’s right temple, Paul announced, “You must’ve been born with nine lives, boy. The bullet only grazed you, thank the Lord.”

As he said this, Maria crossed herself and said a quick prayer. Then she swiftly went into action and ordered Paul to pick up Johnny and bring him into the house.

Paul stayed in the yard just long enough to instruct Cipriano to load the body onto the buckboard and to cover it with a tarpaulin.

“Maybe you could take it in to town and fetch Sam?” he suggested, and Cip readily agreed.

Johnny was once more deposited on the large couch in the main room and subjected to the ministrations of a very agitated Mamacita, who couldn’t resist chastising him while cleaning him up.

“Le dije a la estancia en la casa. Usted casi muerto. Lo que he dicho a su papá si estaban muertos? (I told you to stay in the house.  You nearly died. What would I have said to your Papa if you were dead?)

Despite the headache he was suffering from, Johnny found himself smiling at these words. Just thinking that someone would have missed him, made the boy feel good inside. It was a feeling he hadn’t known much in his short life.

“Lo siento, Mamacita, but I had to save Blackie.”

He then realised that he didn’t know where the little dog was and he panicked. He tried to sit up, until a wave of nausea forced him to lie down again.

“Where’s Blackie? Did Billings get him?”

“He’s here, little brother,” said Scott, standing by the couch with Blackie in his arms. “And no, Billings didn’t get Blackie, but Paul got Billings.”

“Oh, is he dead?”

“Yes, he is and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer fellow,” went on Scott, earning a look of disapproval from Paul. “Well, he was going to kill Blackie and Johnny, so I don’t think he deserved to live.”

“Maybe not, son, but it’s not nice to be happy when someone loses their life,” said Paul, who was still rather shaken up by the recent events.

“I know it isn’t, sir,” said Scott, putting his arm around Paul. “But I am still very glad that you were there and able to stop him doing any more harm to Johnny and Blackie.”

.

Chapter Thirteen

When Cipriano returned from town, he had two passengers with him. Murdoch had managed to catch an earlier stage and was heading for the livery stable, about to hire a buggy, when Cip got there. Murdoch recognised the team and the buckboard parked outside the doctor’s office and went over to see who was in need of medical assistance. Once Cip told him about the events at the ranch, he had driven the team as fast as was possible, without injuring the animals, in order to get to his boys.

Sam practically had to peel Murdoch off Johnny so that he could examine him.

“Please give me some room, Murdoch. I need to be able to see what I am treating.”

Murdoch very reluctanly moved to one side, but he didn’t go far. He stood with Scott and noticed the marks on his older boy’s face, but didn’t mention them until Sam had finshed examining Johnny and had given him news of the boy’s condition.

“This is one lucky boy, Murdoch. A fraction of an inch either way and we could have been burying him. The bullet glanced off his temple and failed to connect with his brain.”

“Probably couldn’t find his brain,” remarked Scott, happy to tease Johnny now that he knew the boy was going to be fine.

Scott received a light cuff round the ear, from his father, for his rather callous remark, but both of them grinned at each other, proving to Scott that Murdoch wasn’t really cross with him.

“Okay, well now we know that Johnny is going to be all right, perhaps someone would like to fill me in with what exactly has been going on here, in my absence? I expected to find the boys in school, when I got back, and I was going to wait for them to finish and ride home with them. Thought it would be a nice surprise, seeing as how I wasn’t expected until tomorrow, but it was me who got the surprise and it certainly wasn’t a nice one.”

“It’s a pretty long story, Murdoch, so I think we should all sit down and have some coffee while we fill you in.”

Maria soon brought in a tray containing three cups, a coffee pot, two glasses of milk and a large plate full of cookies. Between Paul, Scott, occasionally Johnny and sometimes Maria, who came rushing in from the kitchen, in between preparing supper, the whole story was told to Murdoch. There were times when the man went pale and others when it was on the tip of his tongue to say something, but he held his peace until everyone had finished.

“Well, boys, you certainly have had one heck of an adventure while I’ve been away, haven’t you? One thing puzzles me, though. And that is why you didn’t just bring the dog back here, as soon as you found him?”

“Cos you said I wasn’t to bring home any more strays and besides, Billings had a gun and he wasn’t about to just let me pick up the dog and fetch him home.”

“I understand that it would have been difficult that first time, but what about when the two of you were on his place working and he wasn’t there? You said he went to town and left you to get on with the chores, so you could have just ridden off with Blackie, then.”

“But that would’ve been stealing, Papa, and we’d have been in trouble. And when we got here with Blackie, Paul would’ve probably made us take him back, seeing as how you said no more strays.”

Murdoch could tell that his words, spoken in haste when Johnny was in danger of having the ranch overrun with all kinds of animals, had hit home. It made him feel very guilty, as by saying those words he had, unwittingly, put both of his boys in danger.

Suddenly, Johnny had a thought and it was one he needed to address immediately.

“Papa, we can keep Blackie, can’t we? I mean, he has no owner now and so if we don’t keep him, he’ll be out on his own. And that’s no fun, believe me.”

For an answer, Murdoch leaned over the couch and gave Johnny a hug.

“After all the two of you went through, in order to save this dog, it would take a bigger man than me to refuse him a home,” said Murdoch, when he stood back up.

“Phew, that’s a relief then, cos I don’t think there’s a bigger man than you, Papa, in the whole world,” and the entire room erupted into laughter.

THE END

To: From Lancer to Madrid

Lancer lives on!
Lynne Coulson
October 18th 2016

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