Word Count 24,465
Twelve year old Johnny Lancer had been attending the school in Morro Coyo for almost twelve months, and mostly, he enjoyed it. He was never going to be as academically inclined as his older brother Scott was, but he was certainly no dunce, either. Miss Carstairs, his teacher, was really pleased with the progress he had made, particularly as he had hardly been to school, that much, before coming to live at Lancer with his father and brother.
Johnny was well liked by his fellow students, too, and there were very few people that he didn’t get along with. But one family that was a thorn in his side was the Pallister family. Matt and Luke were similar ages to Johnny and Scott. Matt was in Johnny’s class and Luke was in Scott’s, and both boys liked to cause trouble for the Lancer brothers.
On Johnny’s first day at school, Matt had picked a fight with him, and Johnny, because of his quick temper, had retaliated.
The reason for the animosity towards the Lancer boys was basically because the family was jealous of the Lancer’s wealth and good name in the area. Jed Pallister and his wife; a thin, downtrodden woman made old before her time by her husband’s cruelty and selfishness, had a small ranch just outside of town. It had the potential to be a success, but Jed spent most of the money they made, in the saloon, and so they were never able to expand, or improve on their breeding stock. Murdoch felt sorry for Mrs Pallister and the boys, so he tried to help them, by loaning them some money. But instead of using it for the ranch, Jed went off on a drinking spree and didn’t return home until he had spent it all. However, he still had to pay back the loan, and resented the fact that Murdoch insisted that he did so, arguing that someone as rich as Murdoch wouldn’t miss a few hundred dollars.
But one of Jed’s worst faults was that he was a racist and although he’d been happy to take the hand outs that Murdoch bestowed upon his family, he was also fond of criticising the man for having married a Mexican woman. He was passing on this unpleasant trait to his sons and that was why the boys were always trying to cause trouble for Johnny and also for Scott, seeing as how he was related to Johnny.
This particular day, Johnny was taking care of his horse, in the corral, before going into school, when the Pallister boys rode in. Scott had already dealt with his horse and was in the schoolyard with his friends, so Johnny had to face the two boys, alone. Not that Johnny was bothered, as he was more than capable of defending himself.
Since the days when Johnny had first started school and Matt Pallister had waged a bit of a campaign against him, because of his mixed heritage, the Pallister boys had backed off, a bit. The other youngsters in the school, in the main, liked Johnny, and had warned the Pallister boys that if they continued to be nasty to Johnny, they wouldn’t have any friends, at all. But finding Johnny on his own was an opportunity that Luke and Matt were not going to walk away from, so they decided to have some fun, at Johnny’s expense.
“Well, hello there, if it ain’t the Lancer half breed,” said Luke, sneeringly.
Johnny clenched his hands, a bit tighter, as he removed his saddle from the back of his horse, but said nothing.
“Where’s your big brother? You’re usually hiding behind him,” said Matt.
“I don’t need to hide behind anyone, when dealing with people like you,” said Johnny, narrowing his eyes, as he looked over at the brothers.
“Oh, look at him, trying to pretend he’s a real hard case,” scoffed Luke.
“If you wanna know how hard I can be, just you try something,” went on Johnny.
“Yeah, you’d love that, wouldn’t you?” sneered Matt. “Then you could go running to the teacher and tell her that we’d bin picking on you.”
That wasn’t quite the reason that Johnny had said what he had, but if a fight was going to happen, he did want the Pallisters to throw the first punch, so that he wouldn’t be in trouble with his father, for starting a fight.
Matt decided to try a different tack. Although Johnny was pretty good at math and reading, his composition work was not as good, and he struggled a bit in the lessons.
“How did ya go on with the homework, last night, Johnny?”
“Okay, I guess,” said Johnny, not wanting to get into a discussion with Matt about how he was coping.
“Yeah, I bet,” said Luke. “Matt told me that you are hopeless at writing stories, so I bet you’ll be in trouble, today, when you hand in your work.”
“At least I’ve done it,” retorted Johnny. “I bet your stupid brother didn’t even manage to write his name at the top of the page.”
“Yes, I did,” said Matt, who wasn’t that good in class, either, but still reckoned he was better than Johnny was.
“We’ll see,” was all that Johnny said, and he made to walk away.
However, Luke stood in his path.
“Excuse me, but I want to get past,” said Johnny.
“Tough, you’ll havta go round the other way,” said Luke, refusing to move.
“Grow up, will ya?” said Johnny, but Luke still stood fast.
It looked like things were about to escalate into a fight, but just then, Miss Carstairs rang the bell and Scott came over to where Johnny was standing.
He cast a quick look at the Pallisters, realised what they were trying to do, and then grabbed hold of Johnny.
“Come on, little brother, or else you’re going to be late,” he said.
“I was coming, but these two had other ideas,” said Johnny, causing both Matt and Luke to protest.
“How can you say that, Johnny? We ain’t stopping you from doing nothing,” said Luke, moving out of Johnny’s way. “We were just having a friendly chat about homework, weren’t we bro?”
“Sure were,” said Matt, smiling at Scott.
Of course, Scott didn’t believe a word of it, but he just walked away, still holding on to Johnny’s arm.
“What was that all about?” said Scott, once they were a decent distance away from Luke and Matt.
“Oh, they were just trying to rile me into a fight,” said Johnny. “Must’ve hit a boring patch in their usual round of petty thieving and extortion.”
“Probably. Anyway, I’m glad you didn’t take up their challenge.”
“No, I didn’t, but it was really hard not to.”
Johnny managed to stay away from Luke and Matt for the rest of the day, but they were still trying to rile him, even from afar, by shouting insults at him, in the schoolyard, at recess.
“Should call him Dummy, not Johnny,” shouted Matt. “He only got an E for his composition, he can’t write for toffee.”
Matt had only received a D for his homework, but wasn’t about to publicise that fact.
Once again, Scott held onto his brother’s arm, preventing him from going after Matt.
“Johnny, it’s just what he wants you to do. If you hit him, then he holds all the aces. He can go to Miss Carstairs and say that you started a fight with him, and that it’s only to be expected, because of your background.”
Johnny shook Scott’s hand off his arm, and then looked, angrily, at his brother.
“Doncha think I know that, Scott? But it’s so damn hard to ignore him.”
“I know it is, brother, and I want to do him some damage, too, but it’s not a good idea, especially not when we’re at school.”
“Well, maybe we can get back at those two, when we’re outta school, then?” said Johnny, hopefully.
“Maybe, but wherever we were, if Pa heard about it, he’d be mad,” said Scott. “He really expects us to rise above such cheap jibes from ignorant people, like the Pallisters.”
“Sometimes it’s just too darn hard being a decent member of society. When I was with Mama, it was almost expected of me to behave in a way that was considered bad, as I wasn’t s’posed to know no better. But now that I live with Papa and am better educated, I can’t give the likes of the Pallisters the licking they deserve.”
“Pa says such people will get their just desserts, eventually, and it’s not up to us to give it to them, but I know what you mean,” said Scott.
“Oh, I know he does, but it sure would be rewarding to me, if I gave ‘em those desserts,” said Johnny.
His best friends, Zack, Jimmy, Charlie, Laura and Wes, were standing close by, and they agreed with Johnny, but also could see the sense of doing as Scott suggested, and leaving the Pallister brothers alone.
“We don’t want to do anything to cause Pa to be cross with us, not if we want to go on that hunting trip,” said Scott.
“Oh yeah, I’d almost forgot about that,” said Johnny, although Scott doubted that was really the case, as ever since getting a rifle for his twelfth birthday, all that Johnny had wanted to do, was use it on a hunting trip. “I would be real mad if the Pallister boys got me into trouble and Papa changed his mind about the trip.”
It was now over four months since Johnny had received his rifle, but he hadn’t yet been out to hunt with it. Murdoch wanted to be sure that Johnny knew exactly how to use it, before he would agree to the boy going after any decent sized game. And as Johnny had disobeyed him and taken the gun out, with his friends, before Murdoch thought he was ready, Johnny had been made to wait a bit longer than he might have done, until Murdoch felt that he could trust Johnny to be sensible with it. *
The hunting trip was planned for the next break from school. Murdoch was taking both his boys out with him, and Johnny, especially, was really looking forward to the trip.
“Come on Johnny, time to go back into class,” said Zack, and the friends headed for the schoolroom.
For the rest of the afternoon, Johnny had no contact with Matt, and kept his mind on what the teacher was talking about.
“I want to set up a nature table, in the classroom, so that we can discuss the countryside around us, and the kind of things that grow in this part of the world,” said Miss Carstairs. “At this time of the year, springtime, there is a great abundance of things that are growing, and so I want you to bring in different varieties of plants, etc. All you have to do is take a cutting; you don’t have to pull up the whole plant, as I don’t think your parents would want you to do that, especially if the plant is growing in their flower beds.”
Johnny thought about the flower beds that Maria lovingly tended, outside the kitchen door at the hacienda, and knew that Miss Carstairs was speaking the truth.
“I don’t wanna be on the receiving end of Maria’s wooden spoon, so I’ll be real careful when I take some cuttings,” whispered Johnny to Wes, and the boy giggled.
Wes lived on the ranch, too, as his father worked for Murdoch, and so he knew of Maria’s formidable temper, and her deadly accuracy with her wooden spoon, if Johnny did something to anger her. He’d been on the receiving end of it, himself, in the past.
“Be quiet, please, boys,” said Miss Carstairs
“Sorry, ma’am,” said Wes.
“Now remember what I’ve said. No one is to take a cutting or a flower, without asking permission of the owner, first. I don’t want any irate gardeners coming in here, complaining to me that my students have decimated their gardens.”
Unbeknown to the boys, Matt was listening to their conversation, and it gave him an idea of how to get Johnny in trouble.
Once school was over for the day, Matt met up with his brother and as they rode home, he told Luke about his plan. The older boy was impressed with his brother’s ingenuity and agreed to go along with it.
“We’ll do it tonight,” said Luke.
* From my story The Accident
As soon as Johnny and Scott arrived home, Johnny was keen to start collecting some cuttings, to take to school, the next day.
“I think you’d better ask Maria, before you start helping yourself to her flowers, little brother,” warned Scott, when Johnny filled him in on what he proposed to do.
“Aww, she won’t even notice,” said Johnny. “I’m only gonna snip off a couple of leaves.”
“On your head be it, then,” said Scott, and he went out to the barn to start his chores, leaving Johnny to collect his cuttings.
Johnny had decided not to ask Maria, as he feared she might say no. He was so keen to have the best selection of cuttings that he thought it was better to take them, rather than ask, and, possibly, be turned down. The boy was soon at work, having ascertained that Maria was preparing the dinner, and so was unlikely to come outside.
However, luck wasn’t on his side, as Maria opened the kitchen door, to cool the room down, from the heat of the oven, and caught him red handed.
“What you do to Maria’s plants? Bad boy, leave alone, they have taken me a long time to get to this size,” and the cook/housekeeper swatted Johnny, on his backside, with her ever present wooden spoon.
“Ow! Cut that out, Maria,” yelled Johnny. “I ain’t hurting your plants, just taking a few cuttings, that’s all.”
The noise brought Murdoch to see what was going on.
“What have you been doing, this time, young man?” demanded Murdoch. “Stealing cookies, or tracking mud through the kitchen?”
“Little boy steal plants,” said Maria.
“Plants?” queried Murdoch. “Whatever for?”
“I need ‘em for school,” said Johnny.
When Murdoch looked rather puzzled, Johnny went on, “I need cuttings for a project at school.”
“Well, why didn’t you ask Maria before you started attacking her plants?” said Murdoch.
“Cos I thought she might say no,” answered Johnny, in the quiet voice he always used, when in trouble.
“I see, so instead of asking permission to take some cuttings, you preferred to steal them,” said Murdoch, folding his arms and looking sternly at the boy.
“Yeah, I guess I did,” said Johnny. “Sorry.”
“So you should be. You know how much those flower beds mean to Maria. She’s always out here, tending to them.”
“Like I just said, I wasn’t gonna hurt ‘em, just take a few cuttings, honest,” said Johnny, and there was an edge to his voice that Murdoch took exception to.
“Don’t use that tone of voice when talking to me, young man. You are in the wrong, here, so you should be apologising, not getting angry with me, as that could lead to you being in even more trouble than you are, already.”
“I already did apologise, Papa. For goodness sake, it’s only a few lousy cuttings,” and Johnny threw the said plants down on the ground, and prepared to walk away.
“Come back here, this minute, John. You are heading for a trip over my knee, if you continue with this attitude.”
“And I still have my wooden spoon,” added Maria.
Johnny saw the sense of doing as his father said and he turned around to face Murdoch.
In a more placating tone, he said, “I’m real sorry I took the cuttings, without asking first. I haven’t hurt the flowers, really I haven’t.”
“That’s better,” said Murdoch, also calming down. “What do you think, Maria?”
The cook was still angry that Johnny had disturbed her precious flowers, without talking to her about it, first, and so she said, “You can have the ones you have cut, but no more.”
“Thanks,” said Johnny, and he began gathering up the cuttings from where he’d dropped them on the ground.
He didn’t have that many, but knew that it was pointless asking for any more, once Maria’s mind was made up.
For the rest of the evening, Johnny kept out of the way of Maria and her wooden spoon, and was also careful what he said to his father, just in case he angered Murdoch, again.
Scott encouraged his little brother to keep a low profile.
“Honestly, I go out to the barn to do some chores and within five minutes of me leaving you, you’ve got Pa and Maria both angry with you. Sometimes I wonder where you keep your brains.”
“I could answer that, but I might get into more trouble for what I said,” replied Johnny.
By the time Johnny went to bed, his father and Maria had forgiven him, and he was glad about that, as he hated having either of them cross with him.
But, the following morning, he was woken by his father yelling up the stairs.
“John, get down here, right this minute.”
‘Now what have I done?’ he thought, as he scrambled out of bed and headed down the stairs to the kitchen, as that was where his father was calling him from.
The sight that greeted him was a shocking one. The back door was wide open and he could see that most of Maria’s flowers had been pulled up out of their beds and were lying scattered all over the courtyard.
“What are you all looking at me, for?” demanded Johnny, once he was sufficiently over the shock, to speak.
Then it dawned on him.
“You don’t think I did this, do you?” he said.
“Well, didn’t you?” said his father.
“No, I didn’t, and why would you think I had?” said Johnny.
“It seems too much of a coincidence that you were caught taking cuttings from the flower bed, yesterday, and then, today, that same flower bed has been vandalised,” said Murdoch.
“Maybe it does, but that’s what it is, just a coincidence, Papa. I wouldn’t have done this to Maria’s flowers.”
Murdoch was inclined to agree with Johnny, as he really couldn’t believe that his son would do such a thing, or that Johnny could be that vindictive, especially to Maria, whom he cared so much about. However, it was hard to get past the fact that there wasn’t really any other suspect, and it did seem mighty suspicious that the flower beds had been damaged, so recently after Johnny had been chastised for taking cuttings from them.
“There is no time to talk about this, now,” said Murdoch. “You need to get dressed and have your breakfast, or you will be late for school. But rest assured that you haven’t heard the last of this, young man.”
Johnny bristled with anger, as his father’s words convinced him that Murdoch still felt that he was responsible.
‘Might as well be hung for a sheep, as a lamb,’ he thought and so he said, “May I take some more of the flowers for the nature project? After all, I can’t really hurt ‘em when they’re already dug up, can I?”
“No, I suppose you can’t,” said Murdoch. “All right then, you may,” but Maria wasn’t happy about it.
“Boy should not be rewarded by having flowers, after he destroyed them,” she said.
“So you think I am capable of doing such a thing, do you?” demanded Johnny, shouting at Maria. “Well, thanks a lot. At times like this, you find out just who your real friends are, doncha?”
“John, don’t you shout at Maria,” said Murdoch, turning to glare at his son. “She has every right to be angry and upset about the loss of her flower beds.”
“Mebbe she does, but only with the person who did it, and that ain’t me,” and Johnny turned tail, and headed for the house.
Scott stood still, watching his brother’s retreating back.
“For what it’s worth, Pa, I don’t think Johnny ruined that flower bed. He’s not the type to do something that mean.”
Scott uttered these words, so softly, that Murdoch had to strain his ears to catch what the boy was saying.
“I am inclined to agree with you, son,” said Murdoch, and he draped his arm around Scott’s slim shoulders and headed for the house, after assuring Maria that he would arrange for someone to help her clear up the mess.
“We can check out the seed catalogue and get some more ordered, in time for the planting season,” he said. “And I won’t let Johnny take any more of the flowers, if you’d rather he didn’t.”
“Oh, that’s fine, Senor Lancer,” said the cook. “I guess you are right. Now that the flowers have all been pulled up, it doesn’t matter if he takes some more to school.”
As they ate their breakfast, well, Scott and Murdoch did, but Johnny just chased his food around the plate, Murdoch spoke to Maria, some more.
“Please don’t think that I am just going to forget about what happened to the flowers, Maria. This afternoon, when the boys return from school, we will talk some more about it. It’s just that we don’t have time, now, without making them late.”
“Thank you, Senor Lancer, and I understand why we can’t discuss it, now. Johnny, you may take some more of the flowers to school, with you.”
Johnny wasn’t really paying attention to what was being said and needed a prompt from Scott, in the shape of a kick to the boy’s shin, to wake him up.
“Ow! Sorry, what did you say, Maria?”
“I said that you may take some of the flowers to school.”
“Oh, thanks, I’ll go pick some up,” and Johnny prepared to leave the kitchen table.
“Wait a minute, young man,” said Murdoch, grabbing hold of the boy’s arm. “First of all, you ask to be excused and second you stay and finish your breakfast, before you leave.”
Johnny shrugged off Murdoch’s hand, and said, “Please may I be excused and I ain’t hungry, so don’t want no more breakfast.”
Scott winced at Johnny’s poor grammar, but said nothing, and Murdoch agreed to let him go.
“Very well, but don’t blame the rest of us when your tummy starts rumbling in class and Miss Carstairs complains about the noise disturbing her teaching.”
Under happier circumstances, this remark would have made Johnny laugh, but he failed to see the humour, this time, and ran out the back door, to pick up the flowers.
Once he had enough, he went back inside and carefully wrapped them up in some newspaper, in readiness to take to school.
He then went upstairs, washed up and put his clothes on. Scott was in his room, doing the same thing, and the two brothers walked down the stairs, together.
“I don’t think Pa really thinks it was you who pulled up the flowers,” whispered Scott to Johnny.
“I reckon he does,” returned Johnny.
Scott shook his head.
“It didn’t sound like it, from what he said to me,” went on Scott. “And if he had thought it was you, he’d have had you over his knee, so fast, your head would’ve spun.”
Johnny stopped walking down the stairs and turned around, to look at his brother.
“You know, you might have a point there, brother. I reckoned that he was gonna give me a hiding, so maybe he didn’t, cos he ain’t quite sure yet that it was really me.”
“So, all we’ve got to do, is find out who it was,” said Scott.
“Yeah, and I reckon I’ve got a pretty good idea,” said Johnny.
“Okay, well let’s get our horses saddled up and we can talk about it, on the way to school,” said Scott.
As they rode along, after promising Murdoch they would go straight home, when school finished, Johnny told Scott his feelings about the damage to the flower beds.
“I bet it was Matt and Luke,” he said.
Scott thought about that, for a while, and then said, “Well, I can understand why you are saying that, but are you sure?”
“No, Scott, I ain’t sure, how can I be, unless I’d seen ‘em?” replied Johnny. “But it’s just the kinda thing they’d do, and Matt was fairly close by when I was telling Wes that I was gonna take some cuttings from Maria’s garden.”
“So, you think he decided to mess up the garden, to get you in trouble with Pa?” asked Scott.
Johnny shrugged his shoulders.
“I guess so. He likes nothing better than for me to be in trouble, either with Miss Carstairs, or Papa.”
“Can’t understand why the Pallister boys are so bothered about what we’re doing,” said Scott.
“Nope, it’s hard to figure some people,” said Johnny. “But I guess it’s just because I always manage to outfox him, whenever he tries to make me look foolish.”
When the boys arrived at school, Johnny noticed that Matt also had some cuttings and some flowers, which looked suspiciously similar to the ones dug up out of Maria’s garden.
As Matt laid them on the table with the other student’s offerings, Johnny sidled up to him, and said, “Where did you get your flowers from?”
“What’s it to you?” replied Matt.
“Oh, it’s just that they are the same as mine,” remarked Johnny, placing his flowers on the table, as well.
Matt hadn’t got the brains to think that fast and so couldn’t come up with the name of a place where he could have got the flowers from.
“Well, where did you get them from?” repeated Johnny.
“I don’t havta tell you,” blustered Matt.
Miss Carstairs became aware that things were becoming rather heated between the two boys.
“What is the matter, John?” she said.
“Matt’s brought in the same kinda flowers as me, Miss Carstairs, and last night the flower beds where I got mine from were all dug up. I just wanted to know where he got his from, that’s all.”
“A perfectly reasonable question,” said Miss Carstairs. “So, Matthew, where did you get your flowers from?”
“Erm, well, you see, Miss, we don’t have no flowers round our place, so I went over to Lancer and helped myself to a few. Didn’t think no one would mind.”
“You didn’t just help yourself to a few flowers,” yelled Johnny. “You completely ruined the whole bed. Maria spent months tending them and she’s not best pleased and neither was my father.”
“Gee, Lancer,” said Matt, trying hard not to smile. “Did ya get into trouble?”
“No, because my father’s not stupid and he knew I wouldn’t do such a thing,” said Johnny, feeling rather triumphant, especially when he saw that his words wiped the smile off Matt’s face. “What’s the matter? Are you upset, cos your little plan didn’t work, and I didn’t get the blame?”
“I made it perfectly clear, when I told you all about this project that no one was to take cuttings or flowers without the owner’s permission,” said Miss Carstairs, to Matt. “I will be sending a note to Johnny’s father, apologising for what you did, and another one to your father, so that, hopefully, he will impress upon you the need to mind other people’s property, in future. And I will not be accepting your cuttings on the nature table, as they were obtained illegally. Therefore, if you wish to pass this assignment, you will need to bring in some more cuttings.”
“Thanks, Miss Carstairs,” said Johnny. “But I wouldn’t hold your breath for Mr Pallister to take any action. He’s more likely to congratulate his son on vandalising Lancer property than bawl him out.”
Matt knew that Johnny spoke the truth, so wasn’t that bothered about his father finding out.
Just before Johnny left for home, Miss Carstairs handed him a note for Murdoch.
“There you go, Johnny,” she said. “That will explain to your father how it was Matt and Luke who wrecked the flower beds. I do hope that you haven’t already been in trouble about it?”
“Oh no, ma’am, like I said, my Pa never thought it was me,” said Johnny. “He knew I wasn’t capable of such a mean trick.”
“Well, I’m pleased to hear that,” said Miss Carstairs. “I’d hate to think that you had been blamed for something those boys did.”
When Scott saw Johnny walking towards him, holding what was obviously a note from the teacher, he groaned out loud.
“I told you not to start a fight, didn’t I?” he yelled at Johnny. “Now you’re in even more trouble with Pa. Honestly, Johnny, when are you going to learn to rein in that temper of yours?”
“Calm down, brother, I ain’t in any trouble,” said Johnny. “This here note is just to tell Papa that it was Matt and Luke who wrecked the flower beds. Miss Carstairs wrote it as an apology to Maria and Papa.”
“Oh, well that’s a relief,” said Scott.
“Yes, it is, and you shouldn’t be so quick, jumping to conclusions like that,” went on Johnny.
Scott grinned at his little brother.
“Sorry, but you’ve got to admit that it’s understandable why I would jump to such a conclusion. After all, you are so often in trouble.”
“Okay, but this time it’s not me, who is the subject of this note.”
The two boys rode home and Johnny went straight into the house and, rather triumphantly, handed over the note to his father.
“See? Told you it wasn’t me,” he said.
Murdoch read the note and then called Maria in from the kitchen.
“You need to read this, as well,” he said to her, handing her the note.
Once she had read it, Maria said, “I knew it wasn’t you, Juanito. I already said so to your Papa, after you left for school, this morning. But I am pleased it has been proved. I hope that the boys are soundly punished, by their father.”
“Not likely, Maria,” said Johnny, giving the cook a kiss on the cheek. “Ole man Pallister’s likely to give his boys a reward, for damaging Lancer property.”
“That is so very wrong,” said Maria.
“I agree, Maria, and I think I will have to go and pay Mr Pallister a visit,” said Murdoch. “I am sorry that I even thought it might be you, Johnny, although I did have my doubts and that was why I didn’t punish you, as soon as I saw the damage to the flowers.”
“I know you didn’t really think it was me, Papa, but I’m mighty glad you held off on the punishing side of things, until you was sure.”
Murdoch decided to ride over to the Pallister spread and have a word with Jed, concerning his sons’ behaviour. He was fairly certain that it wouldn’t get him anywhere, but still felt the need to try.
‘Maybe someday it’ll get through to him that he’s not being fair to his boys, allowing them to behave as they do,’ he thought.
As he rode into the yard, Murdoch was dismayed to see how rundown the place was looking.
‘How can those boys learn to have any respect for other people’s property, when they have to live in this kind of squalor?’ thought Murdoch.
Mrs Pallister had seen Murdoch ride up, and she rushed to the door of their cabin, to greet him, before he knocked.
“My man’s asleep, Mr Lancer, otherwise I’d ask you in,” she said, by way of greeting.
“How can I help ya?”
“Well, I did want to talk to Jed, ma’am, but if he’s asleep, then I guess I can tell you what’s brought me over here.”
“Thank you, Mr Lancer,” she said, inviting him to join her on the porch.
Murdoch dismounted from his horse and walked across the yard, shaking hands with Mrs Pallister, before lowering his large frame into a rather rickety chair. He guessed that Jed was probably sleeping off his latest visit to the saloon and that his wife was scared to wake him up, for fear of what he might do, to her, or to their visitor.
“Did Luke and Matt tell you about the trouble they were in, at school, today?” asked Murdoch.
Mrs Pallister shifted in her seat, looking rather worried.
“Yes, they did mention something about it,” she said.
“And did your husband speak to the boys about what they did, over at my place, last night?”
“Erm, yeah, he did, I think,” said Mrs Pallister. “Mr Lancer, I am sorry about what the boys did to those flower beds, an’ all, but my husband don’t put much store by stuff like flowers, especially when they’re tended by a Mex……”
“By a Mexican, do you mean?” said Murdoch, crossly. “Vandalism is the same, no matter who it is done to. And, what’s more, they only did it to try and get Johnny into trouble with me.”
“I am sorry about all of this, Mr Lancer,” said Mrs Pallister. “But it’s the way my husband chooses to raise our boys and I have no choice but to go along with it. If I don’t, then ………..”
She left the sentence unfinished, but Murdoch was in no doubt about what she meant. If the poor woman tried to disagree with anything that her husband did, all it got her was a black eye, or worse.
Murdoch stood up, as he was just about to leave, and he couldn’t see any point in continuing the conversation with Mrs Pallister. A thumping noise from inside the shack, announced the fact that Jed Pallister was now awake.
He came stumbling out onto the porch, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight. He was unshaven and his hair was dirty and matted. His clothes looked like he had slept in them, which, of course, he had.
“My, oh my, to what do we owe the pleasure of a visit from the great Murdoch Lancer? Let me guess, now. Does it have something to do with a flower bed?”
“As a matter of fact it does, Jed,” said Murdoch, drawing himself up to his full height, which was considerable. “Your boys not only wrecked the beds, but also tried to frame Johnny for the crime, and I want to know what you are planning to do about it?”
“Absolutely nothing,” replied Jed, swigging from a bottle of rotgut. “I’ve already congratulated them, so not much more I can say.”
“Congratulated them? For a wilful act of vandalism? No wonder your boys are always in trouble, if that is the way you deal with them.”
“Don’t you come round here, preaching to me how to be a father, Lancer,” sneered Jed. “You hardly set a good example to your Scott, taking up with that Mex whore, like you did. And then, once you found out she was expecting, instead of heading fer the hills, you damn well went and married her. And where did it git ya? Two years down the line, she ran out on ya, and the only good thing about that was that she took her half breed with her. I tell you, Lancer,” but he didn’t get to say anything else, as Murdoch punched him full in the mouth, and he fell to the ground.
Pallister made a rather pathetic attempt at getting back on his feet, hanging on to the rocking chair on the porch, as he did so. Once standing, he came at Murdoch, arms flailing wildly. He tried to land a punch, but failed to connect more than a couple of glancing blows, before Murdoch knocked him down, again.
“That’s enough out of you, Pallister,” said Murdoch, looking down on the man, who was now sprawled out on the floor of the porch. “I didn’t really think it was going to get me anywhere, coming over here and talking to you, but I felt I had to give it a try. Your boys need a firm hand, now, or else by the time they are full grown, they are going to be in all kinds of trouble with the law. If that doesn’t bother you, then fine, but if they continue to try and cause trouble for Scott and Johnny, they will have me after their hides. If I can’t count on support from their parents, you leave me no choice but to deal with them, myself.”
“You lay a finger on my boys, Lancer, and I’ll have you up on an assault charge,” shouted out Jed, as Murdoch mounted up.
Murdoch chose to ignore the man’s threat and headed for home. As he rode along, he observed that his knuckles, where they had made contact with Jed’s face, were rather red.
‘I hope the boys don’t notice,’ he thought to himself.
By the time he reached home, Maria was just about to dish up the supper, so Murdoch quickly washed up and took his place at the table.
“How did it go out at the Pallister place?” asked Scott, as soon as the blessing had been said.
“Not well,” said Murdoch. “I pretty much knew, before I went, that I was probably wasting my time, but I felt I had to try.”
“What have you done to your knuckles, Papa?” asked Johnny, grabbing hold of his father’s right hand.
Murdoch smiled at his younger boy.
“I’m afraid they connected with Mr Pallister’s jaw,” said Murdoch, rather sheepishly.
“You mean that you had a fight with him?” said Johnny.
“Well, not exactly a fight, son, just a bit of a disagreement. He was less than complimentary about your mother, you and Maria, and I took exception to what he said.”
“But you told me that fighting wasn’t the way to deal with ignorance, Papa,” said Johnny, innocently.
“I know I did, son, and I do stand by what I said, but that man is enough to try the patience of a saint. He spends most of his time drunk and when he’s not intoxicated, he’s encouraging his boys to behave like mindless idiots. People like that shouldn’t be parents.”
Johnny wasn’t going to let this opportunity to gloat pass him by.
“But, Papa, if you can’t rein in your temper and not hit out, how do you expect me, a mere child, to be able to do so?”
“John, I was very wrong to hit Mr Pallister and the next time I see him, I will apologise. It is never right to use your fists to settle a problem, and I don’t want you to think that just because I did so, then it is all right for you to do the same. Miss Carstairs and Miss Burgess expressly forbid fighting within the school yard and buildings and I will uphold any punishment that they see fit to give you, if you resort to using your fists against Luke and Matt. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, Papa, you do, but I reckon it’s rather unfair of you to say so, when you were so riled up by what their father said, that you hit him, yet you say I shouldn’t do the same if Matt and Luke also insult my mother.”
Murdoch realised that he was sailing through rather difficult waters, if he tried to play the heavy father, when he had been unable to restrain himself from hitting Pallister.
He softened his tone and said, “Johnny, I was wrong to hit the man, and I will tell him so. I am just trying to save your hide. Fighting in school is not allowed, no matter what the provocation, and so that’s why I am telling you not to do it. I do understand how those boys can lead you to want to fight them, but the fact is you must not do so, when in school.”
“Okay, I’ll wait until we are out of school, then,” said Johnny.
“The best thing to do is stay well clear of those boys, for all our sakes. The father is racially prejudiced and he is teaching his sons to be the same. No matter what we try to do to change them, it’s not going to make any difference. Some people are just going to be that way and you have to accept it and move on.”
“Oh, I know that, Papa,” said Johnny. “Living in border towns, with Mama, I met plenty of people like the Pallisters, only they were more likely to be Mexicans than gringos.”
“Unfortunately, racial prejudice works both ways,” said Scott.
“That it does,” said Murdoch, and then the three of them continued to eat their supper, mostly in silence.
When Johnny and Scott arrived at school, the following day, they were expecting trouble from Matt and Luke and they weren’t disappointed.
“Your Pa had no right to come over and beat up on our ole man, when he was drunk,” said Matt, prodding Johnny in the chest.
“Iffen he’d been sober, he would’ve wiped the floor with your ole man,” said Luke.
“If he’d been sober, it would’ve been a miracle,” said Johnny, walking away from Matt, with his fists clenched tightly to his sides.
Luke grabbed hold of one of Johnny’s arms and tried to turn the boy around to face him.
“Let go of my brother,” said Scott, through gritted teeth.
“Are you gonna make me?” replied Luke.
“If necessary,” said Scott.
“Look fellas,” said Matt. “If we get into a fight, now, we’re all be in trouble with the teachers. So, let’s wait until after school and then we can settle this, without anyone stopping us.”
“That’s the first sensible thing you’ve ever said, Matt,” said Johnny. “Okay, we’ll meet you, after school, won’t we, Scott?”
“Fine by me,” said Scott.
For the rest of the day, the two sets of brothers glared at each other, across the schoolroom and also out in the yard.
Word soon spread amongst the students that the Pallister and Lancer brothers were going to have a fight and money changed hands, as bets were placed on the likely outcome.
Wes was holding the stakes and he was very confident that Johnny and Scott would be the victors.
“Stands ta reason that they’re gonna win,” he said. “Johnny learned his skills down in the border towns and we all know how rough they can be. And I taught Scott all he knows, and y’all know how dirty I can fight.”
Scott took Johnny to one side, at afternoon recess.
“You do realise that Pa is going to be mad, if we get into a fight, don’t you, little brother?”
“Yeah, of course I do, but I reckon it’s gonna be worth it, just to wipe the floor with those two and remove the smug look off their faces,” said Johnny.
“I agree, but just wanted to be sure that you knew he would be mad,” said Scott.
After school, a small band of boys, plus a couple of the more tomboyish girls, including Johnny’s friend, Laura, headed off to a quiet spot, on Lancer land, where they could hold the fight.
Frank, one of Scott’s friends, appointed himself spokesperson.
“Right, we will begin the fight, just as soon as I am sure that all the parties know the rules.”
“Rules?” queried Luke. “There ain’t no rules, jest knock down the other fella ‘til he stays down. Ain’t that right, baby brother?”
“Sure is,” he said. “And I can’t wait to git at that Johnny Lancer.”
Some of the boys in the crowd, who were on Matt and Luke’s side, began to cheer and call out encouraging words.
“Yeah, you flatten him good, Matt.”
Frank held up his hand, in order to silence the crowd.
“That’s enough now, gentlemen, and er, ladies,” he said. “The rules are few, but simple. Luke will be fighting Scott and Matt will be fighting Johnny. There won’t be any two against one. If one man is down, then his opponent is to wait for him to be counted out, or to get up and resume fighting. He is not to go and help his brother, is that clear? If that happens, then the fight will be stopped and the other team will be declared the winners. Because of the lack of time; we all have chores to get home to, the two fights will take place simultaneously. So, fighters; please shake hands and then get to your places.”
“Hey, Frank what does that there simul whatever you said, mean?” asked Matt.
“It means that both fights happen at the same time,” explained Scott, in a rather condescending voice.
He hoped that his tone would cause Matt to get angry and it did.
“Hey, Lancer, no need ta talk down ta my baby brother, like that,” said Luke, who was also rather agitated.
“Okay, Luke, just trying to help the less fortunate amongst us,” said Scott, winking at Johnny, who winked back, well aware of what Scott was trying to do.
“How can I be less fortunate than you are, Lancer?” spat out Matt. “My Pa didn’t take up with a no good Mex, and git her pregnant. And my Ma never gave me no half breed fer a brother.”
“I happen to think that my Pa made a very good choice when he chose Maria, and having Johnny as my brother is great, so I don’t know what you are talking about, saying what you said about my father,” said Scott.
“Come on, now, gentlemen,” said Frank, who, as the referee, felt it was his job to keep order. “We need to get these fights underway.”
“You are right,” said Scott. “Johnny, are you ready?”
“Sure am, brother,” said Johnny, squaring up to Matt.
“Very well,” said Frank. “The rules have been explained, so I think we can begin.”
The two older boys also squared up to each other, but neither seemed that keen to throw the first punch. However, the crowd of youngsters, who had accompanied them to the fight site, began shouting out encouragement to their favourite protagonist.
“Come on, Scott, flatten him,” yelled Jimmy.
“Knock him out, Luke,” said Sam.
Johnny and Matt, meanwhile, were knocking seven bells out of each other, and it was hard to tell who was winning. Both were pretty good at bare knuckle fighting and although Johnny was slightly shorter than Matt, it didn’t stop him hitting a pretty mean punch.
Eventually, Scott and Luke began fighting and it was obvious, from the start, that Luke had the upper hand. But Scott was no slouch and what he lacked in punch power, he made up for in cunning. He avoided more serious injury by being able to duck and weave.
Frank did his best to referee the two fights and, after every three minutes, he stopped the boys and made them take a thirty second break.
This happened several times and, after four rounds, Johnny was in the lead against Matt, as the boy was having trouble staying on his feet. Scott, too, was beating Luke, as, by moving around continuously, Luke was getting tired trying to keep up with him.
They went on for another two rounds and then, in the sixth round, Johnny knocked Matt to the ground and the boy didn’t get up within the ten second count. Frank counted Matt out and declared Johnny the winner.
Scott and Luke went on for another round and then Luke conceded the fight. The boy was no where near as fit as Scott was, being that he didn’t have a very good diet, and he was just plain out of breath.
Matt had a few bruises on his face, as did Johnny, but neither boy was that badly hurt, and once the fight was over, Matt was soon back on his feet.
“Okay, Lancers, I guess you won, this time,” said Luke, in a rather condescending tone. “Matt and me ain’t at our best, just now; been a bit under the weather, but next time, well, you’d better watch out.”
“We beat you fair and square today, and there isn’t going to be a next time,” announced Scott, firmly. “This is the end of the feud. There won’t be any more fights between us. It’s just plain silly to carry on like we have been doing. There are bound to be things that you don’t like about our family and things that we don’t like about yours, but there’s no need for it to cause us to be at each other’s throats, all the time.”
“That’s what you think, Lancer,” said Luke, putting his arm round his little brother. “This ain’t the end, by a long way. Come on, Matt, let’s go home.”
Scott said it was time that he and Johnny were heading for home, too.
“Pa’s going to be mad about the fight, no need to make him madder, by being really late home.”
“We’re already really late, Scott,” said Johnny. “But I guess we should go home.”
The youngsters, who had bet on the Lancer boys to win, collected their winnings and they, too, soon left the area.
Scott and Johnny went over to a nearby stream and attempted to clean themselves up, a bit. Johnny was sporting a nasty bruise on his cheek and a small cut under his right eye. Scott’s shirt was badly torn and he had a black eye. Both boys had skinned knuckles and were rather dirty, but neither was hurt, too badly.
“I’m surprised we both won,” said Scott, dipping his neckerchief in the water, before placing it over his swollen eye. “Those two sure know how to fight dirty.”
“Yeah, they do,” said Johnny, bathing his hand, by allowing it to dangle down into the cold water. “But we’re fitter than both of ‘em, so we were able to keep going, longer.”
“True,” said Scott. “But are we fit enough to stand up to Pa?”
“I don’t see how he can start yelling at us, when he did the exact same thing and fought ole man Pallister,” said Johnny, sounding more confident than he felt.
“Well, he did apologise for doing that and he did say that we weren’t to do it, just because he did,” said Scott.
“I know he did, but if he can’t keep his temper, then how can he expect us to? We’re his sons and we have the same temper as him,” said Johnny, feeling that his argument was a perfectly valid one.
“You might do,” said Scott. “But I have more control over my temper.”
“In that case, why did you fight Luke?” asked Johnny, with a look of pure innocence on his face.
“Because I felt he deserved it, nothing to do with me losing my temper,” said Scott, getting up from the stream and walking towards his horse.
Scott mounted up and called over to his brother.
“Come on, Johnny, we’ve got to go, NOW.”
“All right, big brother, now don’t lose that precious temper of yours.”
“Ha, ha, very funny,” said Scott, looking anything but amused.
He began to ride away, but was stopped by Johnny shouting at him.
“Wait for me, I want us to arrive home together, you know, present a united front.”
“You mean, you want to hide behind me, when Pa starts yelling? Well, come on, then,” said Scott, sighing deeply, but waiting for Johnny, all the same.
As they rode into the yard, Murdoch came out of the house, his face like thunder.
“And just where on earth do you think you have been?” he yelled. “School finished three hours ago; it doesn’t take that long to ride home.”
He then caught sight of the bruises on the faces of his sons.
“Have you two been fighting? How many times have I told you that I don’t want you two brawling all the time?”
“Sorry we’re late, Pa,” said Scott, attempting to adopt a nonchalant air. “No time for talking, we have to get our chores done, before supper. Come on, little brother.”
Both boys dismounted and prepared to lead their horses over to the barn, but Murdoch stopped them.
“Hold it, right where you are, boys. No one is going anywhere until I’ve had an explanation for your lateness and for your bruises.”
“But, Papa, we have chores,” said Johnny.
“I know you do, but they can wait until we’ve had a talk. Inside, now,” and Murdoch pointed towards the house, with his large index finger.
Murdoch called a ranch hand over and asked him to take care of the boys’ horses and then turned around and headed back towards the house. He expected the boys to follow him and was unaware that Scott and Johnny were just standing still, trying to communicate, without their father hearing what they were saying.
“Are we gonna tell him the truth, Scott?” whispered Johnny, who had lost the bravado he’d been exhibiting, earlier, now that he was confronted by his angry father.
“Not much point doing otherwise,” whispered back Scott. “The fight was a public one, so he’s bound to find out about it, sooner or later.”
“Boys, I am waiting, and I am not a very patient man when angry, as well you know,” barked Murdoch, from the doorway.
“Come on, Johnny, best not to make him even madder, by keeping him waiting, any longer,” and the boys headed for the house.
Once they got inside, Murdoch was standing by his desk, and he indicated that the boys were to come and join him.
“Right then, where have you been and what have you been doing?” he said.
Johnny looked over at Scott and Scott looked back at Johnny, before taking a deep breath and answering their father.
“We had some more trouble with Luke and Matt today, and they challenged us to a fight. You told us not to fight on school premises, so we waited until after school, and then we took them on. Guess what, Pa? We won, both of us, and then I told them that was an end to it. I said there was no need for us to fight anymore, even if our families didn’t get on very well.”
“Not sure if they’ll stick to that, though,” said Johnny, feeling a bit braver, now that he’d seen that their father had been prepared to listen to Scott’s explanation. “They were awful mad about you hitting their Pa. Kept saying that if he hadn’t been drunk, at the time, he would’ve wiped the floor with you. Not that we believe that, Papa, but that’s what they were saying.”
Murdoch listened to what his boys had to say and took, what seemed to Johnny, at least, to be an inordinately long time to respond. He was trying to think about the best way to react. He was cross that the boys had been involved in a fight, but knew that he could hardly be that angry with them, when he hadn’t been able to hold onto his temper when confronted by Jed.
But he knew that he had to say something, and so, eventually, he spoke.
“It would be totally hypocritical of me to punish you two for fighting with the Pallister boys, when I resorted to the same tactics against their father and, no doubt, for the same reasons as you did. But I am not happy about it, as I did ask you to try and avoid such run-ins with those two. I admitted I was wrong when I resorted to using my fists in order to express my displeasure at the way Mr Pallister referred to your mother, Johnny, and I did explain that I would be apologising to the man, the next time I saw him. So you knew that I didn’t want you fighting, didn’t you?”
“Yes, we did, Pa, and it would be wrong of us to try and pretend otherwise,” said Scott. “But, like you, we can only do so much turning of the other cheek, and those two don’t know any other language than that of the fist.”
“I have to agree with you, son, though it pains me to do so,” said Murdoch. “But I still think it is up to the likes of us to try and teach people like that there are better ways to deal with their frustrations. It would be much nicer if you boys could all get on with each other, and any animosity between you, was laid to rest.”
“I know that, Pa, and that is why I told them that there would be no more fighting between us, but as Johnny said, I doubt if it will make them stop,” said Scott.
“Well,” said Murdoch, eventually, coming out from behind his desk and putting an arm around each of his sons. “It looks like the two of you tried to do all that you could to prevent the fight from happening, so I think we’ll just forget about it, okay? But please try and keep out of the way of those Pallister boys, as much as you can.”
“Will do, Papa,” said Johnny, giving his father a hug, very relieved that Murdoch wasn’t going to take the matter any further.
Maria, who had been hovering in the kitchen, then rushed in, once she was sure that Murdoch had finished what he wanted to say. She insisted that the boys went into the kitchen with her and she then proceeded to clean their cuts and bruises, although Johnny told her that they had already done so.
As she did so, she kept up a constant stream of Spanish, which sounded to Scott, as though she wasn’t very happy with them.
When he asked Johnny, later, what she had said, Johnny reassured Scott that she was, in fact, saying she was angry with the Pallister boys, not with them. Scott did understand Spanish and could speak it, fairly well, but he still had trouble following what Maria was saying when she spoke in anger, as the words came out very fast and seemed to run in to the next one.
Later that evening, as the family was enjoying supper, there came a tremendous banging on the door.
“What the he…?” said Murdoch, standing up and walking across the room. “Whoever it is will have the door off its hinges, attacking it, like that.”
He opened the door, with an angry retort ready on his lips, but he didn’t say it, when he saw who was standing there.
It was Jed Pallister, looking even more dishevelled than usual, and as the door opened, he grabbed hold of the front of Murdoch’s shirt.
“Where is that little half breed brat of yours? I’m gonna pound him inta the ground fer what he did ta my kid.”
It wasn’t hard for Murdoch to get Jed to release his grip on his shirt, being that the man, as usual, was drunk.
Knowing that it was pretty pointless doing so, but nevertheless giving it a try, Murdoch took a deep breath and answered Pallister, in a calm and soothing tone.
“Jed, please calm down and tell me what is bothering you.”
“That kid you spawned outta that Mex whore, that’s who’s bothering me. He beat my boy near ta death.”
Murdoch turned around and looked over at Johnny.
“What’s all this about, son?”
“I dunno, Papa, the man’s making no sense. Me and Matt had a fight, you know that, cos I told you, but he was fine when I left him, wasn’t he, Scott?”
“Of course he was,” said Scott. “Matt and Luke didn’t have any more injuries than we have, and they mounted their horses and rode for home, before we left. They were both fine, apart from their pride, seeing as how we beat them.”
“You’re both lyin’,” spat out Jed. “No more than I’d expect from the Mex, but that older one of yourn is jest tryin’ ta cover his little brother’s back. When my boys got home, Matt was ridin’ with his brother, and I hadta carry him into the house, as he couldn’t walk on his own. Luke said that it was Johnny who did it. Said that once he got Matt on the ground, he started kickin’ him.”
Johnny jumped up from the table and ran towards his father, at the door.
“I never did nothing of the sort, Papa.”
“I know that, son,” said Murdoch, placing a protective arm around his son, as Jed was advancing on them. “I don’t know what happened to your boy, Jed, but I do know that Johnny had nothing to do with it. Is Matt hurt badly enough to need a doctor?”
“The wife’s doctorin’ him, we cain’t afford no doctor,” said Jed.
“Well, if you feel he needs to see one, I will ask Sam to come out to you, and I will foot the bill,” said Murdoch. “I don’t like to think of a child suffering.”
“Now why would ya do that, Lancer, iffen it weren’t that ya knew that brat of yourn was responsible?”
“That isn’t the reason, at all,” said Murdoch. “I am just being neighbourly and want the boy to receive all the help he needs, in order to get well. But if you think I’m only offering, because Johnny is guilty, then forget it. My sons told me what happened and I believe them. The four boys fought, but it was all above board and all of them rode away, under their own steam, when it was over.”
“And there were plenty of witnesses,” said Scott. “Loads of the guys from school came to watch the fights and they will tell you that Matt was fine when he rode off. I don’t know what happened to him, between leaving us and getting home, but it wasn’t anything that Johnny or I did.”
Faced with all this information, Jed seemed to have the wind knocked out of his sails and he slumped against the door frame.
“I’ll take ya up on that doctor, iffen you’ll still offerin’ his services, Lancer,” he said, in a quieter tone. “And I’d be grateful fer a list of names of those boys who watched the fight. Mebbe they can tell me what happened ta ma boy.”
Scott gave him the names and Murdoch sent one of the hands into town, to ask Sam to go out to the Pallister place.
“Go home and help your wife take care of your boy, Jed,” said Murdoch. “And lay off the booze, so that you can go and talk to those boys, tomorrow and, hopefully, get the full story.”
Jed left the house and Murdoch closed the door behind him, breathing a huge sigh of relief as he did so.
“Thank goodness he agreed to leave, quietly,” he said. “I didn’t want to have to start insisting. After all the man was upset about his son.”
“I know he was, but he sure didn’t havta say the things he said about me and Mama,” said Johnny.
Murdoch went over to where Johnny was standing, and, once more, put his arm around his youngest, leading him to the settee. The pair sat down and Scott soon joined them, sitting the other side of Murdoch, to Johnny.
“I know the things he said about you and your mother were not nice, son, but the man was not only drunk, he was also worried about Matt. I’m not making excuses, exactly; what he was saying was wrong, no matter what the circumstances, but I didn’t feel it was the right time to take him to task about it.”
“Wouldn’t make much difference, if you did,” said Johnny, gloomily. “People like that won’t ever change.”
“Maybe not, but you should still try, only tonight wasn’t the right moment,” said Murdoch, pulling Johnny closer to him and giving the boy a hug.
“I’m glad that you didn’t believe him about Johnny beating up Matt,” said Scott. “We told you the truth and if those Pallister boys met any other trouble on the way home, it sure wasn’t anything to do with us.”
“I know that, Scott, and that’s why I told Mr Pallister that it wasn’t Johnny, although I’m not sure if he believed me, or not. Come on, now, let’s go finish our supper.”
Before the boys went to bed, that night, Sam called in to see Murdoch.
“I went out to see young Matt Pallister, and I found him to be in a pretty sorry state,” said Sam. “Nothing life threatening, but he’s got some nasty bruises all over his body.”
“So, did it look like someone had kicked him?” asked Murdoch.
“Hard to say, but very likely,” said Sam.
“Did Jed say that Johnny had inflicted the injuries?”
“No, he didn’t make any accusations. He just said that Matt had been in a fight.”
“Well, that’s something, I suppose,” said Murdoch. “He seemed certain it was Johnny, when he came here, earlier this evening. Hopefully, if he goes and talks to the boys who witnessed the fight, tomorrow, he will know, for sure, that it wasn’t him.”
“Your Johnny wouldn’t have done anything like that,” said Sam, looking over at Johnny and smiling at the boy. “I know he likes to fight, but kicking a boy when he’s down is definitely not something either of your boys would resort to.”
“Thanks Doctor Jenkins,” said Johnny. “I sure hope Mr Pallister soon realises that.”
“I am sure he will, Johnny,” said Sam.
“Well, he would if he stopped drinking,” said Johnny.
“Very true,” said Murdoch. “But I think you’d have a hard time convincing him of that, and I don’t want you trying.”
“Don’t worry, Papa. I’ve got no desire to go anywhere near Mr Pallister, drunk or sober,” said Johnny.
The following morning, Johnny was anxious to get to school, to find out if Mr Pallister had been to visit any of their friends.
As soon as the Lancer boys arrived at the school, Frank came over to greet them.
“Hey, Scott, Johnny, you okay?”
Frank didn’t wait for a reply, but carried on speaking.
“Mr Pallister called round to our place real early this morning, to ask me about the fight. He said that Matt was in a real bad way, when he got home, and he wanted to know if I saw Johnny kick him. I told him that you didn’t, Johnny, and that Matt suffered only a few bruises, during the fight. He asked me if I was sure and said that he knew I was friends with the two of you. I told him that our friendship didn’t enter into it, and that I would never lie if I had seen Johnny kicking Matt, when he was on the ground, as I didn’t agree with that kind of underhand fighting. And my Pa added that I didn’t lie, ever, as I knew, only too well, the consequences if I did, so if I said that Matt was fine when he left the place where the fight happened, then he was fine. George said the same thing, when he was asked, too.”
“Thanks, Frank, it was good of you to stick up for me, like that,” said Johnny.
“No need to thank me,” said Frank. “I just told the truth.”
When the other boys and girls, who had witnessed the fight, arrived at school, they, too, said that Mr Pallister had visited their homes.
“I was ready to knock his head off,” said Laura. “Telling me that you’d kicked Matt when he was lying on the ground. I told him that you was far too honourable a fighter to do that kind of thing. And I’ll tell Luke, to his face, that he ain’t nothing but a downright liar for saying that about you.”
Johnny smiled at his friend.
“Thanks, Laura, but I’m sure glad you didn’t hit Mr Pallister, cos I don’t think that would’ve helped my case.”
Laura laughed and gave Johnny a friendly punch on the arm.
“No, I guess it wouldn’t have done,” she said.
All the children reported telling Mr Pallister the same thing; that Johnny never kicked Matt.
“We told him that Matt rode off, on his own horse, when they left,” said Jimmy. “He didn’t havta ride with Luke, as he was fine.”
“Hopefully, now that he knows the truth, Mr Pallister will back off,” said Scott.
“I sure hope so, but I wouldn’t bet on it,” said Johnny. “He’ll just think up something else to accuse me of.”
“I would have to agree with you,” said Jimmy. “That man is obsessed with trying to make you look bad, not sure why.”
“It’s to justify his own irrational hatred of Johnny,” explained Scott. “If he can make other people think that Johnny is no good, then he can say that he was right to wage this war against him.”
“I reckon that man must be touched in the head,” said Wes.
“An opinion that we all share,” said Scott.
Just then, Luke arrived in the school yard.
He just glared at them all and then headed off to find his friends, with Laura chanting at him, ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire.’
“Hang on, Luke,” said Scott. “How’s Matt this morning?”
“Not that you care, but he’s hurtin’, real bad,” said Luke, turning round to face Scott.
“Well, as a matter of fact, I do care, as I don’t think anyone deserves to be kicked when they are already down on the ground,” said Scott.
“Aw, you’re jest askin’cos you wanna protect your brother’s hide,” sneered Luke.
“If you’d seen your father before you left for school, this morning, you would know that my brother has been cleared of kicking Matt,” said Scott. “Everyone that your father went to see, told the truth, and said that when Matt left for home, he was okay.”
“I don’t think everyone said that,” said Luke. “Jest your friends, who were stickin’ up fer that bratty brother of yourn.”
“That’s not true, Luke,” said Laura. “No one was telling lies, ‘cepting you, about Johnny.”
As they were speaking, Tom and Charlie, two of Luke’s friends, came over to join him.
“Sorry, Luke, but we hadta tell the truth, too, what with our Pas and yours, standing right in front of us,” said Tom. “Matt was fine when he left, with you, to go home. Johnny never kicked him.”
“Well thanks a lot, fellas,” said Luke, looking daggers at the two boys. “So much fer you bein’ ma friends.”
“We are your friends, Luke, but we ain’t about to tell lies to our Pas, even for friends,” said Charlie.
“So,” said Scott, pacing up down in front of the others. “What really happened to Matt, between leaving the fight scene and getting home?”
“Nothin’,” snapped Luke, and he headed for the school house.
“Well, I know it sounds a bit far fetched, but I reckon that Luke beat up on his little brother, just so they could get Johnny into trouble,” declared Scott.
“It sounds a bit weird, but I’m inclined to agree with you,” said Frank.
“If that’s the case, those two are even more twisted in the head than I thought they were,” said Johnny.
The others just nodded, but had no time to make further comments, as Miss Burgess was ringing the bell for the start of lessons.
Luke explained to Miss Carstairs why Matt was absent and then went into his own class.
The teachers kept them all very busy, all morning, and it wasn’t until lunch time that they had the chance to comment, again.
“So Luke, did Scott get it right, when he said that you hurt your own little brother just to get Johnny in trouble?” asked Frank.
“’Course I didn’t,” said Luke. “And I’ll deck the next person who says I did.” And he adopted a belligerent pose, with fists clenched tight.
“Methinks he doth protest too much,” said Scott.
“Oh shut up, Scott,” said Luke. “You think you’re so goddamn high and mighty, bein’ a Lancer an’ all, but I don’t think you’re worth diddley squat, ‘specially as ya have that half breed in your family.”
Johnny, who was sitting under a tree, with his hat pulled over his eyes, leapt up, at this remark.
“Oh, I’m gonna get great pleasure outta making you eat those words,” he said.
“Johnny, we agreed, no more fighting,” said Scott, holding onto the boy. “And especially not here, in the school yard. He’s not worth the trouble, little brother.”
Johnny pulled away from his brother’s grasp and said, “Okay, Scott, I guess you’re right; he sure ain’t worth the trouble.”
As the boys left the school building, when it was time to go home, they noticed that Mr Pallister was waiting outside.
“Wonder what he wants?” said Johnny.
“He’s come to meet Luke, I expect,” said Scott. “Though it’s not something he usually does. I hope it doesn’t mean that Matt has taken a turn for the worse.”
“So do I,” said Johnny. “I mean I don’t like Matt, much, but I don’t like to think of him hurting.”
Luke came out of the school room and as soon as his father saw him, he started yelling at the boy.
“Matt told me what really happened, yesterday. I cain’t believe you would’ve done such a thing ta your little brother, jest ta try and put the blame on Johnny Lancer. Jest you wait ‘til I get ya home, you little son of a bitch.”
The other children stood and stared, open mouthed, in many cases, as Jed Pallister walked up to his son and cuffed him around the head.
“Git your horse saddled and let’s git home,” yelled Jed, hitting Luke again.
Luke put his hands up to try and protect himself from the blows that Jed began to rain down on his son.
“Pa, Pa, please stop,” sobbed Luke.
“Stop? I ain’t even got started, yet,” yelled Jed.
Luke saddled his horse, in record time, mounted up, and rode off, in the opposite direction to his home.
“Don’t think that running off is gonna save your scrawny hide,” shouted Jed, after the boy. “You gotta come home, sooner or later, and when you do you’re gonna wish you’d never bin born.”
Jed then also mounted his horse. He kicked the animal, hard, in its ribs, causing it to gallop off towards the Pallister ranch.
“Poor Luke,” said Scott. “I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes when his father finally catches up with him.”
“Me neither,” said Johnny. “Did you see the way Mr Pallister kept hitting Luke round the head and ears? Papa said it’s dangerous to do that to someone, as you can make ‘em go deaf or cause brain damage.”
“And Pa’s right,” said Scott. “That happens to prize fighters who take a lot of blows to the head.”
When the boys reached home, they told their father what had happened with Luke and Mr Pallister.
“I began to feel rather sorry for Luke and Matt, having that man as their Pa,” said Johnny. “He reminded me of some people I’d rather forget.”
Both Murdoch and Scott realised that Johnny was probably referring to some of the men, whom his mother had taken up with, when they were drifting around the border towns. However, as much as they both would’ve liked to know more about Johnny’s past, they didn’t want to rip open old wounds by asking the boy about it.
“I feel sorry for them, too,” said Murdoch, pulling Johnny towards him, in a hug. “They don’t stand much of a chance of growing up to be decent members of society with a man like Jed in charge of them.”
“You’re right about that, Pa,” said Scott. “I’m surprised that he even lets them attend school, although he is the first one to keep his kids at home whenever there is extra work to do on the ranch.”
“Well, a lot of people have to do that, son,” said Murdoch. “Not everyone is in the position that we are and can afford to pay hands to work on their ranches.”
“No, I suppose they’re not,” said Scott.
“And even we have chores to do,” said Johnny. “And we best get to doing them, before the boss gets mad with us.”
Murdoch smiled at Johnny, as the boy headed towards the door, with Scott following him.
“Oh no, we certainly wouldn’t want that to happen, would we?” said Murdoch. “That boss is a hard taskmaster.”
“He sure is,” said Johnny, grinning, cheekily, at his father, as he made his way out of the door.
“Just you wait until I get my hands on you,” threatened Murdoch, but both Johnny and Murdoch knew it was an idle threat and that Murdoch wasn’t really angry with the boy.
Johnny was laughing as he made his way over to the barn and Maria, who was in the kitchen, preparing supper, heard him. She smiled at the sound and thanked God, once more, for finally bringing the boy back to them. Since Johnny’s return, the whole ranch was so much happier and the difference that it had made to Murdoch was incredible. Despite getting Scott back with him, when Scott was five, Murdoch was still never completely happy, as he had no idea what had become of his younger boy. Each time that Scott celebrated a birthday, or achieved a certain milestone in his life, although Murdoch was pleased for the boy, he couldn’t help but wonder how Johnny was faring and the not knowing was the worst of it. At least when he’d been apart from Scott, he’d known that the boy was being well cared for, in the opulent home of his maternal grandfather. But he knew nothing about his younger son’s life, from when the boy was not quite two, and Maria stole him away, in the middle of the night, until the Pinkerton agent caught up with him, when he was ten.
The report that the agent compiled made very unpleasant reading, and there were some things in it, that Murdoch still hadn’t been able to discuss with Johnny, or with Scott, and he wasn’t sure that he ever would be able to do so. That is, unless Johnny brought the subject up, and needed to talk about it, in order to lay to rest any demons that might still be hanging around in his head.
Every now and then, Johnny would refer to something from his past, and, with some gentle coaxing from his father, he’d been able to talk it through, thus cutting down on the number of nightmares that the youngster had.
But if he did still have a nightmare, he was most likely to turn to Scott, as curled up in his brother’s bed, with Scott gently telling him all would be well, seemed to be the best cure for his disturbed nights. Sometimes, it would be Murdoch he would go to, but mostly it was big brother. The bond between the two boys was so strong and tight that no one would ever know, if you went past the difference in their colouring, that is, that they were only half brothers, and that they had only spent the last eighteen months of their lives together.
Scott joined Johnny in the barn and the two boys began grooming their horses.
“Only another week to go and then we’ll be on our hunting trip,” said Johnny, as they worked.
“That is if Luke and Matt don’t come up with yet another way of getting you into trouble, and succeed, this time,” said the more practical Scott.
“Thanks a lot, brother,” said Johnny, throwing the currying brush at Scott.
“Hey, that hurt,” said Scott, throwing it back, before rubbing at the spot on his head, where the brush had hit him.
The brush fell to the ground, after hitting Johnny on the arm, and, as the boy bent down, to pick it up, Scott kicked him on the rump, knocking the smaller boy into a pile of used straw.
“Yuck, that’s disgusting,” yelled Johnny, picking bits of soiled straw out of his hair, and then attempting to brush down his clothes, although it was a rather thankless task, as the straw was wet with urine and faeces and so was sticking to him.
Scott looked over at Johnny and once he saw the state of his little brother, he began to laugh.
“Oh dear, when Maria sees the mess you’re in, she’s gonna insist you take a bath before she’ll even let you in the house.”
“Aw, Scott, don’t say that,” pleaded Johnny. “It’s too cold to take a bath in the yard. ‘Sides, I don’t like an audience when I’m bathing, and people come and gawk at ya, ‘specially Teresa.”
The six year old daughter of the ranch’s foreman, Paul O’Brien, was very fond of Johnny, but the feeling wasn’t reciprocated. In fact, Johnny was often heard saying that the little girl was a prize pain in the butt, although he didn’t say it if Murdoch was around.
“Well, if you’re determined to get your bath inside the house, you’ll have to shed those clothes before you step over the threshold,” went on Scott. “Maria’s made me do it, on many occasions.”
“Yeah, I know she has, and she’s made me, too,” said Johnny. “But, this time, I’m hoping to get up to my room, before she sees me.”
“Come on then, little brother, let’s get going,” said Scott, about to put an arm around Johnny, but changing his mind when he got nearer and could see just how dirty Johnny’s clothes were.
Scott walked past Johnny, expecting the boy to follow him, but instead of doing that, Johnny took a flying leap onto Scott’s back, and pulled his brother onto the floor, so that, he too, was soon covered in the soiled straw.
“Damn you, Johnny,” yelled Scott. “What did you go and do a fool thing like that for?”
“Well, you did it to me,” said Johnny. “So I thought I’d pay you back.”
“Terrific, now we both need a bath,” said Scott. “And Maria’s going to bust out of her stays when she sees the mess we are in.”
Even though Johnny was still rather cross with Scott, for knocking him over, this remark did make him laugh. And he was feeling a bit more congenial towards Scott now that his older brother was also covered in muck.
“Do you think we’ll be able to sneak into the house without Mamacita or Papa seeing us, Scott? I sure don’t want her yelling at me, just before supper. It puts me off my feed.”
“I know what you mean, little brother,” said Scott. “But I doubt if we’ll be able to get in, without one of them spotting us.”
Johnny sighed, knowing that Scott, most likely, spoke the truth. However, they set off for the house, and decided that entering by the kitchen door was the least likely way to cause the old folks to get angry with them.
Scott opened the kitchen door, as quietly as he could, and was relieved to see that Maria wasn’t in there.
“Come on, Johnny,” he whispered to his little brother, grabbing the younger boy by the arm and almost dragging him through the door. “He, who hesitates, loses the war.”
The two boys were almost at the far door, which led to the stairs, when Maria came through it. She took one look at them and began yelling, in a mixture of Spanish and English.
“Oh mi dios, qué le sucedió? (Oh my God, what happened to you?) How dare you enter the house in that condition? Senor Lancer, viene mirada en sus muchachos. (Senor Lancer, come and see the state of your boys) Baje de sus ropas, ahora. (Get your clothes off, now)”
Maria’s voice was loud enough, to summon Murdoch, from the main room. He came into the kitchen, wondering what he was going to find, and stared, open mouthed, at his two sons, as the boys began to remove their clothing.
“What on earth…?” he began to say
Maria rounded on him.
“Sus hijos como caballos.” (Your sons smell like horses)
“Well, yes, that’s because they are covered in horse sh…., matter,” said Murdoch. “Stay there, boys, I’ll go and fetch you something to wear while we get the water heated for a bath.”
Murdoch ran upstairs, to the boys’ bedrooms, and collected their bath robes. He returned to the kitchen to find both the boys, standing rather self consciously, in the middle of the kitchen, in just their under drawers, with Maria guarding them, and brandishing her wooden spoon.
Trying not to laugh, Murdoch handed over the robes and said, “Here, put these on, and then remove your drawers. Then you can go and sit outside, in the courtyard, until the water is ready.”
“And do not set, even a toe, back into this house, until you are clean,” added Maria.
The boys were, in some respects, glad to leave the house, as they knew that Maria was very close to using that spoon on their backsides, which were very vulnerable, at that moment, being divested of clothes. But, they didn’t like the idea of sitting outside, in only their robes, in case any of the hands saw them, as they knew they would be teased.
Fortunately for them, there weren’t any hands around, and so they slunk over to the nearest bench and sat down.
“I knew this was what would happen,” said Johnny, morosely. “Why did ya havta go and push me down in all that shit?”
“Watch it, walls have ears and Maria will be after you, if she hears you using that word,” said Scott.
“Don’t change the subject, Scott,” said Johnny, a bit louder. “It was a dumb thing to do, plain and simple.”
“Yes, I guess it was, little brother, but you certainly looked funny when you found yourself on the ground.”
“So did you,” said Johnny, and both boys began to laugh.
They were soon laughing so hard that they failed to notice they had been joined, by Teresa.
“What you laughing at?” she asked. “And why are you in your robes in the yard?”
It took a while for the boys to stop laughing and to be able to answer the little girl.
“We both fell in horse shit,” said Johnny, and that started him off laughing again.
“Yucky, that’s not funny,” said Teresa. “It smells, and so do you.”
“Well, in that case, go away,” said Johnny.
“I’m bored and I wanna talk to you,” said Teresa. “Daddy’s gone to talk to Doc and he said I was to wait out here, for him.”
“What’s he gone to talk to Doc about?” said Scott, who, at almost sixteen, was now taking more interest in the running of the ranch.
Teresa just shrugged her shoulders.
“I dunno, but I’s hungry and want my dinner, so I hope he won’t be long. Are you gonna have a barf?”
“Yes, we are, because Maria won’t let us inside until we are clean,” explained Scott, who was a bit more tolerant of the little girl than Johnny was.
“I’ll wait, then, and scrub your back for ya, shall I?”
“No, thanks, I don’t want you anywhere near me when I’m in the bath,” said Johnny, looking horrified at the thought.
“But you can’t scrub your own back,” said Teresa. “So’s iffen I do it, then it’ll be clean.”
“That’s good of you, sweetheart,” said Scott. “But I can do Johnny’s back for him, and he can do mine for me, so we’ll be fine.”
Teresa looked like she was about to start crying, something she did often, especially when she didn’t get her own way. But then she heard her father calling for her.
“Gotta go, Daddy’s calling me, so he must be finished talking to Doc. See ya,” and the little girl skipped off.
“Phew, thank goodness for that,” said Johnny. “I don’t want some dumb ole girl washing my back for me. She might get to see more of me, than just my back, iffen you know what I mean?”
“Oh, I know what you mean, little brother,” said Scott. “And, in a few years time, I might have to remind you of this conversation, as I am sure, by then, you most certainly will want a young lady to scrub your back for you.”
“Huh? You gotta be joshing me, Scott.”
Scott just smiled, as he was thinking about a couple of the girls at school and how he wished they were able to scrub his back for him.
Eventually, Murdoch joined them in the courtyard and told them that the bath was ready.
“I’m going first,” said Scott, when he realised that their father was referring to the tub that was inside the house. “How did you talk Maria into letting us bathe in the house, Pa?”
“May I remind you, son, that this is my house,” said Murdoch. “And I did point out to her that it was a bit cold to bathe outside and that her little niño, here, might catch cold.”
“I ain’t her baby, no more, so wish she wouldn’t treat me like one,” said Johnny, although he was rather glad that, by doing so, Maria had relented, and allowed them inside for their bath.
“Won’t be long,” said Scott, as he stood up.
“Okay,” said Johnny. “Call me when you’re done.”
Murdoch sat down in the place just vacated by Scott.
“So, young man, how come you and your brother were in such a mess?”
“Why didn’t you ask Scott?” said Johnny.
“Now, Johnny, don’t go on the defensive,” said Murdoch. “I was only asking, I’m not angry about it. In fact, I thought it was rather funny, but don’t tell Maria that I said so.”
“Oh, I see. Well, in that case, we were fooling around in the barn and Scott knocked me over, first, then I got him back.”
“So, big brother started it, did he?”
“Aw, Papa, you said it was funny, so don’t go getting mad with Scott. It was, as you would say, six of one and half a dozen of the other.”
“Fair enough,” said Murdoch, smiling down at the boy.
The two continued to sit together, in companionable silence, until Scott came to tell Johnny that the tub was free.
Once both boys were clean, again, the family had their supper, although Murdoch insisted that they apologised to Maria, first, for causing her the extra work, what with the washing of their clothes, plus the dirty marks on the kitchen floor, as well as heating up the water for the baths.
“It should be peaceful at school, for the next couple of days, at least,” remarked Scott, as they ate. “I doubt if either of the Pallister boys are going to be there.”
“No, I don’t expect they will be,” agreed Johnny. “Doctor Sam said that Matt was in a pretty bad way and I expect Luke is the same, if his Pa got hold of him.”
“And if his Pa didn’t get hold of him, then that means he is hiding out, somewhere, so is still not likely to come to school,” added Scott.
“I can understand you boys being happy that the Pallisters won’t be there, possibly causing more trouble for you, but it is sad for them that things have come to this,” said Murdoch. “If ever two boys needed the chance to get a good education, those two do. If only they could start to see that there is more to life than petty hatred and bullying, they still might turn out okay.”
Scott looked over at his father and said, “Sorry, Pa, I guess I wasn’t seeing the bigger picture. I was just thinking about Johnny and me, and how not having Luke and Matt at school, makes our life easier. You are right, of course. Luke and Matt should get the opportunity to see there is a better way to live.”
“Maybe they should, but as long as they live with their father, they’re not getting that chance, are they?” said Johnny.
“No,” said Murdoch, and he sighed. “I think their mother wants things to be better for them, but she is so scared of her husband, she won’t speak up.”
They continued to eat, but all three were rather subdued for the rest of the meal, especially Johnny.
As soon as supper was over, Johnny excused himself and went outside. Scott, who was planning to spend the evening reading a new novel, which had just arrived from his grandfather, in Boston, was, at first, pleased that his little brother had left the room.
“At least with Johnny outside, I can actually get to read some of my book,” he remarked to Murdoch. “Whenever I start to read, he suddenly remembers something real important, that he’s got to share with me. So, I stop reading and give him my full attention, only to find that he wants to tell me about losing his favourite marble, in a match, at recess.”
“Well, to him, that’s important,” said Murdoch. “After all, before he came to live with us, he’d never even owned a set of marbles and now that he does, they are precious to him.”
“Oh, I know that, Pa, but he only wants to tell me about it, right then, because I am reading, and he doesn’t want me losing myself in a book; he wants me to talk to him, instead.”
“You should be flattered that your little brother loves you as much as he does, and wants to be with you,” said Murdoch. “It isn’t always the case with brothers.”
“Oh, Pa, you know that I love him, and he knows that I do, too,” said Scott. “But, just occasionally, I like to do other things than hang around with him. And this is one of those times. Although I am a bit worried about what caused him to go off, like he did.”
Murdoch smiled at his son.
“Well, you read your book, and I’ll go see what’s bothering your brother,” and Murdoch left the room.
Johnny hadn’t gone far; he was in the courtyard, sitting on the bench on which he’d sat, earlier that day.
“Beautiful night, isn’t it, son?” said Murdoch, lowering his large frame onto the seat, next to Johnny.
“Oh, hi Papa,” said Johnny. “I was miles away, then, didn’t even hear you coming.”
“For a big man, I can move quite quietly,” said Murdoch. “And it’s come in handy, a time or two.”
Johnny smiled, but it was one of those smiles that didn’t reach his eyes, and they still looked sad.
“I bet it has, when you’re creeping up on bad guys trying to steal your cattle.”
“Or bad sons, up to no good,” said Murdoch, chuckling, and giving Johnny a little dig in the ribs.
“You surely can’t mean me, Papa?” said Johnny, trying to match his father’s good humour.
He moved up the bench, a bit, to get away from his father’s fingers that were likely to start tickling him.
“No, son, I meant Scott.”
Murdoch also moved along the bench, but not to tickle Johnny, as he could tell that the boy wasn’t in the mood for playing. He draped an arm around the boy’s shoulders and gave him a slight squeeze. Johnny responded by snuggling up next to Murdoch.
“Are you ready to tell me what’s bothering you, son?” said Murdoch, after a while.
“Nothing much, really, Papa,” said Johnny, but he broke away from his father’s loving embrace and sat forward on the bench, as he said this. “It’s just that I don’t understand something.”
“Well, I know I don’t know the answer to everything, but if you tell me what’s on your mind, I might be able to help you,” said Murdoch, also leaning forward and gently rubbing Johnny’s back.
The boy’s voice was so quiet that Murdoch had to strain his ears to hear what he was saying.
“Why do people who are s’posed to love each other, end up hurting each other? I mean, Mr and Mrs Pallister must’ve been in love, when they got married, that’s why you get married, isn’t it? cos you’re in love. So why does he hurt her and make her scared of him? And why did my Mama leave you? She loved you when you got married, didn’t she?”
“Oh, Johnny, those are very difficult questions to answer, but I will try, son. It’s hard to know what goes on between a man and a woman to make their relationship change. As you say, Mr and Mrs Pallister probably started out being in love and planning a wonderful future, together, but something must have gone wrong and it turned Jed into a drunk and a bully. To be honest, the signs that he was going to be like that were probably already there, when Mrs Pallister met him, but she was blinded by her love for him, and thought he would change, once they were married. But if a man is weak, to start with, any mishaps along the way are likely to bring out the worst in him. And so, if they had a bad year with their crops, or lost a lot of stock during a hard winter, Jed was the type of man who, instead of trying to make the best of things, would fold under the pressure, and lose himself in a bottle of whisky. And he’s also a very insecure man, and probably scared that his wife might leave him, so he intimidates her, and makes her believe that no one else would want her, just to make her stay with him. And it works, but it certainly isn’t a recipe for a happy marriage. As for your mother and the reasons why she left me, I assume she never told you why?”
“No, she didn’t; she told me that you threw us out, so made it sound like it was all your fault,” said Johnny. “I know that’s not the truth, now, so I just wondered if you knew the real reason why she left.”
Murdoch took a while to answer, and, as he waited, Johnny stole a glance up at his father’s face. When he saw the pain etched there, he wished he hadn’t asked the question.
“It’s okay, Papa, you don’t havta tell me, if it makes you sad.”
“Oh Johnny, it does make me sad, because I wasn’t able to do enough to make her want to stay, and that makes me feel like a failure at being a good husband to her. I can only guess at why she left, as she went without giving me an explanation. When we first met, she was very young, not much older than Scott is, now. She was so lovely that she took my breath away, and I couldn’t believe that a beautiful young girl like her would want to have anything to do with a much older man, like me. But we really got along, and she told me that she loved me. She said I made her feel safe and loved, things that she hadn’t felt since her father died. I suppose I should have known, then, that she did look on me more as a father figure, than anything else, but, like Mrs Pallister, I, too, was blinded by my love for her. At first, we were very happy, and she seemed content to be a rancher’s wife and a mother to you and Scott, when I got him back. Your birth took a while, and she was very tired, afterwards, but she was delighted with you. Both of us would lie in bed and gaze down on you, sleeping in your crib, next to us, and talk about what you were going to be like, as you got older. We had such plans; we talked about you and Scott growing up together, here on the ranch. But, after a while, things did begin to change. She was always restless, wanting more from life. She said that she found ranch life too stifling and she wanted us to have more parties and to go out more. This wasn’t always possible, as the ranch demanded a lot of my time, and the money wasn’t always there for lavish entertaining. I guess I didn’t realise just how bored she was, as I was very happy, and I forgot that she was so much younger than me, and wanted more from life. Then, one morning, I woke up and found you both gone. I discovered that she had run off with a gambler, who was passing through Morro Coyo, and although I tried, very hard, to track you down, it was like you had disappeared into thin air.”
This time, it was Johnny’s turn to make the first move, and he put his arm around his father, whom he could see was deeply moved by what he had told the boy.
“I wish she had stayed, Papa, or at least left me here, with you. Her life was much worse after she left the ranch; she was a fool to go. I hate her for taking me away from you.”
“Oh, Johnny, please don’t say that about your mother. The only thing wrong with her was that she was young and impatient. She wanted an exciting life and didn’t think she was going to find it, here on the ranch. Don’t blame her for her youth.”
“I don’t know how you can be so forgiving, Papa,” said Johnny. “After all, she really hurt you.”
“Yes, she did hurt me, when she left, especially when she took you away from me, but I still can’t hate her, because I loved her, and from that love came you.”
Father and son sat together, for a good while, both thinking about the woman whom they loved, and then, once the sun went down, they returned to the house.
Johnny had already gone to bed and Scott was about to go, when one of the hands knocked on the front door of the house. Murdoch went to the door and opened it.
“Hi Jake, is there a problem?” he asked.
“Well, we found this boy hanging around by the barn and thought we oughta let ya know.”
“Do you know who he is?” said Murdoch.
“Yeah, boss, it’s Luke Pallister.”
“Where is he, now?”
“He’s in the bunkhouse, having something to eat. Poor kid’s scared to go to home. Something about what happened to his brother.”
“That’s okay, Jake, I know all about it, and I’m glad he’s come out here, as I want to help,” said Murdoch.
“Well, boss, that’s good of you, but you might not feel the same when I tell ya that I think he was planning on stealing a horse, possibly Scott’s.”
Scott was listening to the conversation and got to his feet when he heard his name being mentioned.
“My horse? Is he all right?” asked Scott.
“Yeah, Scott, Jupiter’s fine. Luke was in the barn and your saddle and bridle have been moved, but the horse hasn’t been touched.”
“Thank goodness for that,” said Scott. “If he’d touched my horse I would’ve pounded on him.”
“Now, son, calm down,” said Murdoch. “Jupiter’s fine, so there’s no need for anyone to be doing any pounding.”
“Wonder why he needed to take a horse, anyway,” said Scott. “When he left school, this afternoon, he was riding his own.”
“He said that his own horse had pulled up lame, and he needed to get away, before his father found him and killed him,” said Jake.
“Okay, Jake, thanks for letting me know about this. I’ll come over to the bunkhouse and have a word with him.”
“May I come with you, Pa?”
“Yes, you may, son, but I don’t want you yelling at him,” said Murdoch. “The boy is obviously scared, so let’s be nice, and see what we can do to help him.”
“Okay, Pa, but it wasn’t right that he beat up his own little brother, was it?”
“No, it wasn’t, but let’s talk to him and see if we can find out why he did it.”
“We know why he did it, Pa. He did it to get Johnny in trouble.”
“Maybe, but I think there might be more to it than that.”
Father and son made their way over to the bunkhouse. As they walked in, Luke jumped up from the table, where he was eating, and looked like he was going to run off.
“It’s okay, Luke, sit down and finish your meal,” said Murdoch. “We want to help you, if we can.”
“Why would ya wanna help me?” asked Luke. “All I do is try and git your boys inta trouble.”
“I happen to think that everyone deserves a second chance,” said Murdoch. “And I think that the reason you made your way out here was because you reckoned you might get that chance, with us.”
Luke tried to look as if what Murdoch had said made no sense to him, but he didn’t quite succeed.
“You must be touched in the head, Mister. The only reason I came out here, was because I needed a new mount, and I thought who better to steal one from than my worst enemies?”
“I simply don’t believe that, Luke,” went on Murdoch. “I think you knew, very well, that trying to steal a horse from us would be well nigh impossible, what with all the hands we have working here. But you came and tried, because you wanted to be caught, and you knew that we would help you.”
“And what sorta help do I need, then, Mister Know It all?”
“You need someone to intercede between you and your father, as you are afraid to go home and face him, alone.”
“I ain’t afraid of nothing,” stated Luke, well aware that Scott was in the room, listening to this conversation.
“Son, I am trying to help you, here, but we won’t get anywhere, if you keep denying that there is a problem. Your father came to meet you from school, this afternoon, and told you that he knew it was you, who had beaten up Matt. He then started hitting you, and so you jumped on your horse and rode off, in the opposite direction to your home. That’s correct, so far, isn’t it?”
Luke just nodded, knowing that there was no point in denying it.
“I thought it was best to stay away from the house until Pa had drunk hisself to sleep, but even then I ain’t so sure about going back. But I wanna know that Matt and Ma are okay, so I ain’t sure what to do.”
As Luke finished talking, he lifted his head and looked up at Murdoch, and for the first time since knowing the family, Murdoch could see the real Luke, as the boy had completely dropped his tough guy act, and was stripped bare of his bravado, and his brash talk, too.
“Why did you beat up your brother, Luke? Scott tells me that you are very fond of him,” said Murdoch.
“I am, but,” and then the boy stopped speaking.
“Go on,” encouraged Murdoch. “But what?”
“But I knew Pa would kill both of us, iffen we went home and said that we lost the fight to the Lancer boys. He hates your family so much that just the mention of your name sends him into a real frenzy. So, I reckoned that if I beat Matt up, a bit more, and told Pa that the only reason Scott and Johnny won was because they fought dirty and kicked Matt, when he was on the ground, it would spare him, and me, even worse punishment from Pa. And it worked, at first. He was real mad about what Johnny had done. But after he’d been over here and you’d offered to pay for the doctor to check out Matt, he began to have doubts about what really happened. Then he went round and talked to some of the other kids, who were there, and they all told him that Johnny didn’t kick Matt and he was able to ride his own horse when we left, after the fight. And while I was at school, he kept asking Matt what had really happened and, in the end, Matt told him the truth. So, Pa came to meet me, and as soon as I came out of the building, he started hitting me. I don’t think I’d ever seen him as mad as he was, then, and I just couldn’t face going home, then, so I rode off. My horse pulled up lame and so I reckoned you Lancers owed me another horse, as I was having to run cos of you.”
“I don’t see why we owe you anything, Luke,” said Scott, who, although he felt sorry for Luke, was not as moved by the boy’s story, as his father was. “We didn’t start the fighting between our families; you and your brother did, as soon as Johnny came to the school. In fact, even before that, you never liked me and you were always trying to find ways to get me into trouble.”
“I know I was, Scott, and I’m real sorry about it, but it was our Pa’s doing,” said Luke. “He was always going on about how you Lancers had everything and we had nothing and how your father got what he had, by walking over people like us. I am finally beginning to realise that my Pa was wrong to say those things, but, at the time, I didn’t know any better. I know it doesn’t really excuse me for the things I’ve done, but when I set out to hurt my own little brother, in order to stop Pa beating up on us, then I knew that things were getting way outta control. Ma’s been saying as much, for some time, just to me and Matt, mind. If Pa’s around she’s scared ta say anything, else he gets mad with her, too.”
Murdoch knew that when Luke talked about his father ‘getting mad’ it really meant that he used his fists, on his wife, as well as on his children.
“It’s getting late, so I think that the best thing to do, now, is for us all to go to bed and we will decide, in the morning, what is the best way to proceed.”
“I ain’t too sure what that means, exactly, Mr Lancer, but I do like the idea about going to bed,” said Luke, a small smile creeping on to his face. “Shall I take one of these bunks, here in the bunkhouse?”
“No, Luke, you can come and sleep in the house. A bunkhouse is no place for a boy of your age and we have plenty of spare rooms.”
“Thanks, Mr Lancer,” said the boy.
The following morning, as Johnny made his way downstairs to the kitchen, he was completely unprepared for the shock of finding Luke Pallister sitting at the breakfast table.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he said, the shock causing him to use a word that his father disapproved of.
“John!” admonished Murdoch. “Mind your language, young man. Maria’s just made a batch of lye soap.”
“Sorry, Papa, I was just a bit surprised to see him here. What’s going on?”
“Sit down and have your breakfast, and while you do so, I will explain.” Johnny did as he was told and Murdoch told him the whole story. “So you see,” he concluded. “Luke and his brother have been as much the victims in all of this, as you and Scott have.”
“I guess they have,” said Johnny, after listening, without comment, to all that his father told him
Johnny, having been raised for eight of his twelve years, by his mother and various men friends of hers, knew more about child abuse than most did. He felt sorry for Luke and Matt, but maybe was not as sympathetic as Scott or Murdoch was.
“I know they’ve been through a lot, Papa, but that still didn’t give them the right to make my life as tough as they have been doing. I suffered from being beaten by some pretty brutal men, in the past, but I didn’t beat up on others, because of it.”
“Maybe not, son, but tell me, what did your mother do, when she found out what those men had done to you?”
“She either kicked ‘em out, or we left, iffen it was the man’s house,” said Johnny.
“Well, that’s the difference between what happened to you and what is happening to Luke and Matt,” said Murdoch. “Their mother hasn’t found the strength to leave the man who is hurting them, and so they have to live with the fear of abuse, all the time. Therefore, when Jed has told them to cause trouble for you and Scott, they’ve had to do it, or else face another beating.”
“Some of the time, they deserved it,” said Johnny, still not quite able to forgive Luke and Matt, for all that they had done to him.
“I agree that, sometimes, they might have deserved a tanning from their father, because of the things they did to you, or Scott. But, if you remember us talking about this, when you first came to live here, we discussed the fact that there is a world of difference between loving discipline from a caring parent, and abuse. Luke, Matt and his mother have been suffering abuse, for a long time, and with that fear hanging over you, all the time, you are not that likely to make the right choices about how to behave, are you?” replied Murdoch.
Eventually, Johnny shook his head.
“No, I guess not. When Mama stayed with a bad guy, for a while, and he beat me, a lot, I used to lie awake, at night, thinking of ways to kill him,” admitted Johnny. “Sometimes, I would be too scared to tell her what was going on, because I would know that he was good to her, and she didn’t havta work so hard to have enough money to feed and clothe us, if he stayed around. And if I told her that he was beating me, then she would leave the man, for my sake, but would then be having to work on the street, again, or have me begging for food. So, yes, I guess I can understand why Luke and Matt did the things they did, if they knew their father would hurt them, if they didn’t.”
“I’m glad you can understand, little brother,” said Scott. “It’s easier for me, never having been treated in that way.”
“Now we know why this has been going on, for so long, what are we gonna do about it, Papa?” asked Johnny.
“Well, with Luke’s permission, I intend going over to see Jed and his wife, and seeing if we can’t sort things out, between them,” said Murdoch, looking over at the boy.
“Sounds good to me, Mr Lancer, but I cain’t see ya bein’ able ta change the way my Pa behaves,” said Luke.
“Our Pa can be very persuasive, can’t he, Johnny?” said Scott, smiling at Luke.
“He sure can, ‘specially when he wants a boy to change his attitude,” said Johnny, also smiling. “So, I reckon he can use those persuasive charms on your Pa, too.”
“I hope you are right about that,” said Luke, but he did look a little happier than he had, the night before.
“Right then, you boys go and get ready for school, and I will go over and see Mr and Mrs Pallister, in a while.”
“Do you think I should go to school, Mr Lancer, or come with you?” asked Luke.
“You best come with me, son,” said Murdoch. “I am sure that your mother will be pleased to see that you are safe, and we really need to get the whole family together, if we are going to get anything sorted.”
“Very well, sir,” said Luke, although the boy was rather concerned about seeing his father, as he was still scared about what the man might do to him.
Murdoch realised this, and said, “Don’t worry, Luke. If I think that you and your brother are in any danger, I will bring you straight back here. I won’t leave you, if I cannot convince your father to change his ways.”
Johnny was rather cross that he and Scott were being sent to school, as he wanted to go with Murdoch and see his father deal with Mr Pallister.
“It’s not fair,” he said to Scott, as they saddled their horses, in the barn. “Papa might end up in another fight with Mr P. and I’d love to see that.”
“So would I,” said Scott. “Tell you what, let’s skip school and head out to the Pallister place and catch the action.”
“Good idea,” agreed Johnny. “After all, Papa might need our help.”
So, the two boys mounted up, but instead of going to school, they headed for the Pallister ranch.
Luke didn’t say much, as they rode towards the boy’s home, but Murdoch could tell that the boy was becoming more nervous, the closer they got to the ranch.
“I’m glad you agreed to come to the house with me, Luke, and try to get things thrashed out with your father.”
Luke winced at the word ‘thrashed’ and Murdoch apologised.
“Sorry,” he said. “Bad choice of word, huh? But we do need to get the air cleared and make your father understand that things are going to have to change.”
“I appreciate all that you’re trying ta do, Mr Lancer,” said Luke. “But I doubt you’re gonna succeed. My Pa’s jest too far gone inta a bottle of rotgut, ta see things clear, anymore. Ma’s tried, no end of times, and all it’s got her is a fat lip.”
“Well, Luke, you may well be right, but I think, that this time, things might work out better than that. Let’s just say I’ve got a plan up my sleeve, and I’m hoping it’ll work.”
Nothing more was said and they continued their ride out to the ranch, unaware that Scott and Johnny were tailing them.
As they rode into the yard, the door of the house opened and Matt and his mother came out to greet them.
“Luke, are you okay?” asked Mrs. Pallister. “I’ve been worried sick about you, especially after your horse came back, alone.”
She looked over at Murdoch and then back at Luke, again.
“Have you been getting into some more trouble, son? Your Pa’s about ready to kill you, already. If there’s anything more to come out, well, I just don’t know what he’ll do.”
Before Luke could tell his mother anything about going to Lancer and trying to steal a horse, Murdoch spoke.
“No, Mrs Pallister, Luke isn’t in any trouble. We just gave him a bed for the night and then I thought I would bring him home and see if we couldn’t straighten a few things out.”
“The only thing that needs straightenin’ out, around here, is that little son of a bitch, who is next to you, Lancer,” said a voice from the doorway of the cabin. It was Jed, and, as usual, he was drunk. He almost fell over, as he made his way across the porch, so unsteady was he, on his feet. “I aim ta do jest that, straighten him out, I mean, jest as soon as you get off of my land.”
“Jed, I know that I am getting involved in something that is not really my business, but I’m afraid I am not prepared to stand by and see these boys of yours treated the way they have been, any longer,” said Murdoch.
“You’re right, it ain’t none of your business,” said Jed. “So push off, and get back to sortin’ out your own family.”
“Jed, I’ve come here to help your family, and it has become my business, because the way you treat your boys has a knock on effect on mine. You seem to think that they have to be nasty to anyone who isn’t exactly the same as them. You are raising them to be as bigoted as you are, and it’s wrong to do that. And it’s also wrong to treat your wife like a slave and make her stay with you, only because she is too scared to leave.”
“Who says that my wife wants ta leave me?” demanded Jed, looking over at his wife, who had taken a few steps away from him, as Murdoch was speaking. “What you bin sayin’ about me, woman?”
“Er, nothing, Jed, nothing at all,” she said, stepping back, a bit more, until she was flattening herself against the wall of the cabin.
Jed walked towards his wife, with his arm raised, and said, “And you’d better not be sayin’ nothin’, either, iffen ya know what’s good fer ya.”
“I won’t, Jed, honest,” said Mrs Pallister, raising her own arm, but only to try and protect her face from a possible blow.
Jed then turned his attention to Luke.
“Git down off of that horse and git yourself inside,” he demanded. “We’ve got some unfinished business.”
Luke looked at Murdoch and then at his father, but stayed on the horse.
“No, Pa, not yet. Mr Lancer wants to talk to you, doncha, Mr Lancer?” and the boy looked, imploringly, at Murdoch.
“Yes, Luke, I do,” said Murdoch. “In fact I would like to talk to all of you. May I get down?”
Jed said nothing, but his wife nodded.
“Please do, Mr Lancer,” she said. “Come and join us on the porch.”
Murdoch did so, and Luke followed him. The boy was very careful to keep Murdoch between him and his father.
As they got closer, Luke looked across at his little brother, and said, “How are you feeling, now, Matt?”
“I’m okay, Luke, what about you?”
“Not bad, thanks. Was thinking of taking off, but couldn’t do that to you and Ma.”
“I’m glad you came back, Luke,” said Matt, and the older boy could tell that his brother was being sincere.
“Thanks, little brother, but I wouldn’t blame you iffen you’d wished I’d stayed away, for good, after what I did to you. I am so sorry.”
“I know why you did it, Luke; it’s not like you just started pounding on me, for nothing. After leaving the fight, we talked it over and we both decided it was the best way to save our hides, although now I’m not so sure it’s saved yours.”
“Don’t worry, Matt,” said Luke. “Mr Lancer has promised me that things will be all right. I’m not sure how he’s gonna do that, but I have faith in him to do what he said he’d do.”
Scott and Johnny, who were hiding out around the side of the barn, looked at each other and smiled, when they heard these words.
“Hasn’t taken Luke long to realise that our Pa always does what he says he’s going to do,” whispered Scott.
“No, that’s true,” agreed Johnny.
Both boys then concentrated on watching the scene, which was unfolding on the porch. They, too, were keen to see what their father was planning to do, next.
Mrs Pallister sat down on one of the chairs on the porch, and invited Murdoch to do the same.
“Thank you, ma’am,” said Murdoch.
“It’s Jenny,” she said.
“Sorry, ma’am,” said Murdoch, not understanding, at first, what she meant.
“My name is Jenny, Mr Lancer,” she said, and when she smiled at him, Murdoch caught a glimpse of the pretty young girl that she used to be, before being ground down by poverty and the cruel treatment she received from her husband.
“Oh, right,” said Murdoch. “Well, thank you, Jenny, and please call me Murdoch,” and he sat down.
Jed scowled at Murdoch, but still said nothing, just took the occasional swig out of his ever present bottle of whisky.
“Like you, I am raising two boys, and I know that isn’t an easy task,” began Murdoch. “Boys have a habit of attracting trouble, like flies around a honey jar, and, sometimes, it is necessary to punish them, unpleasant as that may be. I believe in using corporal punishment, as my two boys would testify to, and I will be using it again, when I get them home, later today, as they have both skipped school to follow me out here.”
This last part was said in a louder voice, so that Scott and Johnny heard every word, very clearly.
Johnny broke cover, and said, “Aw Papa, how did you know we was here? I thought we’d been real sneaky.”
“Your father is sneakier,” said Murdoch, smiling at the boy.
Scott joined Johnny, and the two boys walked over to join their father on the porch.
“Sorry, Pa, but we thought you might need some help,” said Scott.
“We’ll talk about it later,” said Murdoch. “As I was saying, sometimes it is necessary to punish your children, but there are limits, and I think that you have exceeded those limits, Pallister. No child should be scared to go home, for fear of the consequences, and no child should have to resort to beating on his brother, in order to save the boy from a worst beating from their father. As I understand it, you have attempted to raise these boys to have the same prejudices and cruel streak that you have, and as they both know, behaving in that way is not acceptable in the world we are living in. They are both decent boys, deep down, probably due to the influence of their mother. She has also been subjected to your brand of cruel treatment, but has still managed to hold on to her own values, even though they have to remain hidden, most of the time. You are a very lucky man to have two fine sons and a wife, who still cares enough for you that she puts up with your awful behaviour. But I don’t think that is going to be the case, for much longer. If you don’t start mending your ways, spend less time in that bottle, and more time caring for your family and this spread of yours, then you are going to lose it all. Up until now, I feel that your wife has put up with your actions, because she simply had no where else to go, but now she does have an alternative to living here. I am offering her and the boys one of the married ranch hand’s cabins, on Lancer. She can move in any time she likes and can stay as long as she likes. It can be a temporary move, in order to give you the time to get sober and start making a go of this ranch, or, if she feels that is never going to happen, it can be a permanent move. What do you say to that, Jenny?”
Jenny Pallister had sat listening to what Murdoch had to say, with fear in her heart. She knew that he was speaking the truth, but she was scared that once he left, her husband would start on her and blame her for Murdoch’s interference.
“Mr Lancer, just saying thank you, doesn’t sound like enough,” she eventually managed to say. “That is so generous of you, especially after all the trouble that my boys have caused yours. It certainly would give us all a bit of a breathing space, but the boys and I wouldn’t expect to stay for nothing. We can all do work around a ranch; me, full time, and the boys before and after school.”
“We could work all that out, once you are settled in,” said Murdoch, who hadn’t planned to charge them anything, but understood that Jenny wouldn’t accept charity.
“So, you’re gonna walk out on me, are ya, woman?” said Jed. “Our marriage vows don’t mean nothin’ to ya, then?”
“They mean a great deal to me, Jed, but the same can’t be said for you,” replied Jenny. “You were supposed to love, honour and cherish me, and you haven’t done any of those things. All you have done is criticise everything I do, tell me I’m worthless, and whenever you get drunk, knock me about. Murdoch is right when he says the only reason I have stayed, for as long as I have, is because I didn’t have anywhere else to go, until now. My parents warned me not to marry you, and when I went against their wishes, they told me that I wasn’t to go back to them, and expect them to take me in, when they were proved right, about you. I’ve never had any real friends, as anyone I’ve ever befriended, has been driven away by you and your awful behaviour towards them. But now I have somewhere I can take the boys to, where we can all live, without being scared, all the time. I can teach them the proper way to behave and raise them to be decent citizens, rather than copies of their father.”
“Fine, you go, but you’ll be beggin’ me ta take ya back, before a week is out,” sneered Jed.
“I don’t think so,” said Luke, speaking up, for the first time. “If Mr Lancer is really serious about offering us a home, then I can’t wait to go. I don’t wanna stay around here, and have you beating on us, all the time, just because we wanna get along with people you don’t happen to like. You don’t like anyone, Pa. According to you, everyone is against us, and all the bad luck we suffer has nothing to do with the fact you spend all our money, and your time, in the saloon; it’s because people like Mr Lancer doesn’t like us. We know that ain’t the truth, but if we try and tell you so, you jest use your fists and beat us. Matt and I quite like Scott and Johnny, but you said we hadta cause trouble for ‘em. When they beat us, fair and square, in the fight we had with ‘em, we was both scared to come home and tell ya, so I ended up hitting my own brother, jest to save him from an even worse beating from you. That ain’t right, and I don’t wanna be put in that kinda situation, ever again. Sober up, Pa, start working this ranch as it should be worked, and maybe, jest maybe, we’ll come back.”
“Well, maybe I won’t want ya back, iffen you decide ta leave me,” retorted Jed, but everyone could tell that he didn’t really mean it.
“If that is the case, then we will have to accept your decision, Jed,” said Jenny. “But I don’t believe you want it to be like that. I think you know, just as well as I do, that the way we have been living is wrong. This is our chance to sort things out.”
“How can we sort things out, if you and the boys leave?” asked Jed.
“Because until your body is free of the booze, we can’t begin to make things right,” went on Jenny. “It’s the whisky that makes you act like you do. When I first met you, the drinking wasn’t so bad. You’d have a few drinks, but knew when to stop. The alcohol would make you act a bit crazy, but you were a funny drunk, and you never used your fists on me. But, over the years, it’s got worse and worse, and each drink has taken away a bit more of the man I married. So, if you stay here and stop drinking, and clean up the yard and the house, then, maybe, we will be at a point where we can start talking.”
“I need the boys here, to help with the chores around the ranch,” said Jed.
“I’ll send over a couple of Lancer hands to help with the stock, Jed,” said Murdoch. “It sounds to me like your wife and children want to come back, eventually, but only if you stop drinking and start showing them that you are prepared to work at getting this place back to how it should be.”
“And I want you to start being a proper father, like Mr Lancer is,” said Matt. “Johnny and Scott are always talking about their Pa and the things they do with him. He’s taking them on a hunting trip, in the next break from school. You’ve never done that, with us, in fact you’ve never done anything with us. The only time you speak to us is when you are yelling ‘bout something.”
Jenny placed her arm around Matt, as she could tell that he was getting upset.
“How soon can we move in to that cabin, Murdoch?” she asked.
“It’s available, right now,” said Murdoch. “I can hitch up your buckboard and take you back with me.”
“Then please do,” said Jenny. “It won’t take me more than a few minutes to pack up what we need to take with us. Come on, boys, let’s get started.”
Murdoch instructed his sons to hitch up the buckboard and they rushed off to do their father’s bidding. They were both anxious to get back into Murdoch’s good books. Matt and Luke had gone inside, with their mother, to pack up what they wanted to take with them; Jed and Murdoch were alone on the porch.
“I’m gonna git you fer this, Lancer,” said Jed. “Comin’ in here, like you own the place, and takin’ ma family away from me. What gives you the right? You ain’t the law.”
“No, I’m not, and I don’t suppose I have any right to tell you how to treat your family. But I know that they have been suffering, at your hands, for a long time, and I couldn’t stand by and let it go on, any longer. And making threats against me isn’t going to help you, one bit, if you do want your family back. What your wife and children need to see is a new you; not more of the old you, resorting to threats and violence, if you don’t get what you want.”
“What do you know about hangin’ on to a family? Your first wife died, and her Pa took your son away from you. And the second one left ya and took your son with her. Ya hadta fight ta git Scott back, so don’t come round here and try and tell me that I’m raisin’ my family, the wrong way.”
“I admit that my family life has been anything but conventional, but that doesn’t mean that I know nothing about love and compassion,” said Murdoch. “Children need both these things, in spades, with a bit of loving discipline, thrown in, to keep them out of major trouble. What they don’t need is to be ruled by a fist and be scared to go home, in case their father is drunk and is going to start beating on them. What they also don’t need is to grow up watching their father beat their mother. Not only is that distressing for them, and her, but may lead to them doing the same thing in their future relationships, and that is only going to bring them unhappiness.”
As Murdoch spoke, the full enormity of what was happening suddenly dawned on Jed, and by the time his family returned to the porch, he was ready to try some pleading.
“Look, I know I ain’t bin the best father, husband or provider, but this has been a real eye opener fer me, and I’m ready to try and get myself sorted out, honest I am.”
“Jed, I don’t know how many times throughout our marriage that you’ve given me that speech and I’ve tried, time and time again, to believe you. But every time I agree to take you back, you just slip straight back into your old ways. And I’m no longer prepared to stay here and get beaten on, anymore, or allow the children to be hurt, either. We’re gonna stay at Mr Lancer’s cabin until you’ve proved to me that you can stay off the booze and work this place, properly. Then, and only then, will I consider returning. Goodbye Jed, take care of yourself.”
As Jenny turned away, to go to the buckboard, there were tears in her eyes. Despite all that Jed had done to her, she had been married to this man for almost twenty years and had two children with him, and so she was sad to be leaving. But she knew she had to go, for her sake, as well as for the boys. She just hoped that Jed would be able to get back from that dark place that he often found himself in, and realise that he had a lot to live for.
The two boys followed her, barely looking at their father. Being younger, they tended to see things more in black and white, whereas Jenny knew there were a lot of grey areas, too. At the moment, their father was the bad guy, but both of them did hope he might change, one day, although they were not as hopeful as their mother was.
Murdoch tied the horse, which Luke had ridden, to the back of the buckboard, and suggested that the boy drove his mother and brother to the Lancer ranch.
“Yes, sir,” said Luke, and he helped his mother up onto the seat.
Matt joined them, and Murdoch, Scott and Johnny all mounted up.
Just before they left the Pallister ranch, Murdoch said, “I will send over a couple of hands to help you out, Jed, but if, at any time, they find you drunk, all they will do is see that the livestock is taken care of, and then they will return to Lancer. If you are not prepared to work, as well, then my men are not going to, either. I’ll come over at the end of the week and see how you are getting on.”
Jed said nothing and the wagon and riders rode away.
As soon as they got to the Lancer ranch, Murdoch directed the Pallisters to the vacant cabin.
“I’ll leave you to get settled in, but if there is anything you need, please go and talk to Paul, my foreman, and he’ll get it for you. There should be plenty of bedding, and other linen, plus pots and pans, and crockery.”
As Murdoch went to leave, Jenny grabbed hold of his arm.
“I can’t begin to ever tell you just how grateful we are to you, for giving us this opportunity to sort ourselves out, Murdoch,” she said. “And I know that once Jed has dried out and sees things in a better light, instead of through the bottom of a bottle, he, too, will thank you.”
“I sincerely hope that will be the case, Jenny, but at least until that time comes, you and the boys will be safe here,” said Murdoch. “I’ll send the boys over with some supplies for you, as there will only be tinned goods in the cupboards.”
“Thanks, again, Murdoch, but I don’t have any money to pay you for them.”
“Now, don’t worry about that, just yet,” said Murdoch. “Once you are settled in, you can start to plan what you want to do next. If you want to, you can do some work, here, on the ranch. Or, if you prefer, you can see if there is anything you could do, in town. But, for now, just give yourself time to get comfortable and then get a good night’s rest. Things always look better after you’ve had a decent sleep.”
Murdoch returned to the main house, to be greeted by two very sheepish looking sons. After all that had been going on, Murdoch had almost forgotten about his boys’ misbehaviour.
“Hi Pa,” said Scott. “You know that was a really decent thing you did for Mrs Pallister and her boys. Johnny and I were really proud of you, weren’t we, Johnny?”
“Yeah, Papa, we were. I know I was a bit surprised seeing Luke here in the house, but once I thought about it, well, the guy does deserve a break. Like you said, he couldn’t get away from the abuse, unless he ran off and deserted his mother and brother, and he didn’t really wanna do that. Now you’ve given all of ‘em a chance to sort out their lives; you’ve done real good, Papa.”
Murdoch smiled and sat down at his desk. He didn’t say anything, at first, and the boys just stood where they were, not sure about what was going to happen next.
Eventually, Murdoch spoke.
“Thank you boys, for those kind words. Mind you, I wonder whether they were genuine, or just said in an effort to save your hides.”
“Oh no, Pa, we didn’t say it for that reason, did we, Johnny?” said Scott.
“’Course not,” said Johnny. “As if we would. I mean, we know you only too well, Papa, and if you promised us a hiding, then that’s what we’re in for.”
Murdoch was now facing a dilemma. He’d only threatened his boys, as a way to show Jed that although he did, sometimes, spank his sons; he was never cruel with his punishments. He was cross with them, for disobeying him, but did understand why they had decided to follow him out to the Pallister ranch.
“Well, then, I guess we’d better get it over with, and then you can go and take some supplies over to Mrs Pallister and her sons. Come here, John, Scott.”
The two boys looked at each other and then at their father. This was not the usual way that Murdoch dealt with them, when they were in trouble. However, they could see the determined look in Murdoch’s eyes and both decided to do as they were told.
“Both of you bend over the desk.”
Again, a look passed between the boys, but neither of them said anything and they did as they were told.
Murdoch picked up a newspaper, off his desk, and rolled it up. He then whacked Scott and Johnny on the backside, a couple of times each, with the paper.
“Okay, you can get up now,” he said, when the boys failed to move.
“Is that it?” said Scott, rather taken aback.
“Yes, but I can add some more, if you’d prefer,” said Murdoch, with a twinkle in his eye.
“No, thanks, Papa, that’s fine,” said Johnny, grabbing hold of Scott’s arm. “Come on brother, let’s go and collect those supplies from Maria.”
“All right, Johnny,” said Scott. “Thanks Pa, for not being too hard on us. We are sorry we disobeyed you, and didn’t go to school, but we were worried about you.”
“Yeah,” said Johnny. “And we didn’t wanna miss another fight ‘tween you and Mr Pallister, either.”
Scott groaned, when he heard these words, but, fortunately, Murdoch just laughed.
“I should turn you over my knee, for a proper spanking, after that confession, Johnny, but you’ve caught me in a good mood,” said Murdoch. “And, just for the record, I didn’t have any plans to fight with Mr Pallister, again. I’ve already told you that fighting isn’t always the best way to go, when trying to sort out your differences.”
“Sorry, sir,” said Johnny, who did have the good grace to really look as though he was sorry.
“All right, it’s over with, now,” said Murdoch. “Go and take those supplies to Mrs Pallister and then come straight back, as I have some school work that you can do, seeing as how you should be in school.”
“Will do, sir,” said Scott, and this time, he was the one grabbing his brother’s hand, in an attempt to get the boy out of the room, before he said anything else that might land them in trouble with their father.
The boys took the food over to the cabin, and only stayed long enough to ask if they were settling in okay. Mrs Pallister said they were, and both Luke and Matt thanked Scott and Johnny for helping them.
“We’re real sorry ‘bout all the trouble we caused ya,” said Luke. “I wouldn’t blame ya, iffen it don’t happen, but I’d like ta think that maybe one day, we might get to be friends.”
“I’m not going to make promises I can’t keep, Luke, but who knows?” said Scott, shaking the boy’s hand.
It did take a while, but Jed Pallister managed to stop drinking and started to take a pride in the ranch. Jenny and the boys lived at Lancer, for several months, but as the time went on, they began to visit Jed, and even helped him with the renovations to the ranch.
Eventually, they all returned to their own home and things were a lot better for all of them.
During their stay at Lancer, Murdoch took Luke and Matt on the hunting trip, with Scott and Johnny, and they had a most eventful time, but that’s another story.
Lancer lives on!
May 20th 2008
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