Word count 25,021
(A Tale in Reverse-According to Lynne)
Things weren’t getting any better and, with a resigned sigh, Johnny lay down, across his bed, and accepted that it was likely they never would.
‘It can’t do, not without Scott being here,’ thought the 15-year-old.
It was now just over six months since Johnny’s older, beloved brother, Scott, had left the California ranch, where the two boys lived with their father, and gone all the way to Boston, to attend college out there. Scott was now living in his maternal grandfather’s house, as he had done for the first five years of his life.
Scott and Johnny were half brothers; they shared the same father, Murdoch Lancer, but had different mothers, as Murdoch had been married twice.
His first wife, Catherine, the mother of Scott, died in childbirth, and her father, Harlan Garrett, took Scott to live in Boston, with him. At the time, the ranch was smaller than it was, now, and there was a lot of unrest in the area. Murdoch had little to offer a young baby. Harlan was a very wealthy man and could give Scott the best possible start in life. It did seem more sensible for Harlan to take charge of the boy, but Murdoch was always planning to have Scott with him, at Lancer, one day. That day finally arrived, when Scott was five, and from then, until a few, short months ago, Lancer had been his home.
But it was always understood that when Scott reached college age, he would return to the east and attend his grandfather’s alma mater.
When Johnny, who had been living with his mother since he was two, returned to Lancer, at the age of ten, he and Scott hit it off, immediately. In a very short time, it was as though they had been raised together; they were that close. And whenever the subject of Scott going to college was raised, it seemed so far into the future that Johnny just put it to the back of his mind.
But, the previous summer, Scott left the local school, which both he and Johnny attended. At almost eighteen, there was nothing more that Miss Burgess could teach him. For the past three years, Scott and Johnny had been in the same class, and Johnny had made much more progress, academically, than most people had thought him capable of. When he first arrived at his father’s home, having had little formal education, he struggled, a bit, at school. But, it soon became apparent that once he was given the chance to study, he was a very bright student.
However, since returning to school, after Christmas, without his brother at his side, Johnny had lost all interest in studying and was playing truant more often than he was going.
In fact, this was the reason he was now lying, face down, across his bed. Miss Burgess had eventually run out of patience with his behaviour and had sent a letter home to Murdoch. To say that his father was not pleased to find out he’d been playing truant was an understatement.
As Murdoch read the letter, Johnny was aware that a vein in his father’s neck was throbbing. Johnny was so fascinated by watching the vein that he failed to listen to what Murdoch was saying.
“Miss Burgess says that you are more absent than you are in school, you fail to hand in homework assignments, and when you are there you are rude and insolent, to her, and to the other students. Despite having several chats with you, in order to try and get to the bottom of whatever your problem is, your behaviour has not improved at all. She said that she gave you fair warning of her intention to write to me, and that still didn’t make you change your ways. So, what do you have to say for yourself?”
Johnny didn’t hear any of this, but soon realised that his father had stopped speaking, as the vein was not so prominent.
“Well, John, I asked you a question.”
Without the vein to watch, Johnny heard what his father said, this time.
“Sorry, Pa, what was the question?”
The vein began to throb, once more, and Murdoch paced up and down the room.
“I said, what have you got to say for yourself, regarding your terrible attendance at school and your rude disposition when you are there?”
“I’m missing Scott,” said Johnny, eventually. “School’s awful without him being there. I wanna leave and work, full time, on the ranch.”
Murdoch sighed and took a large swallow of whisky from the tumbler on his desk.
“We’ve already discussed this, son, and it was decided that you would stay on, at least until you were sixteen, and you’re only just fifteen.”
“You decided, not me,” shouted Johnny. “You got some crazy idea that I’m gonna want to go to college, like Scott. I know that Grandpa Harlan has already said he will pay for me to go, if I want to, but I told him, and you, that I don’t want to, and thanked him for the offer. All I wanna do is work here, on the ranch, with you.”
Although Harlan wasn’t Johnny’s grandfather, by blood, the two had become quite close, over the years, and Harlan was happy for Johnny to call him his grandfather. It had surprised both Scott and Murdoch, to see the relationship blossom between the two of them, as before they met, Harlan had always been very scathing about Murdoch’s marriage to Maria and had felt it was a mistake. When Maria left Murdoch for another man, taking Johnny with her, Harlan had been rather relieved. But then, when Johnny was finally tracked down and went back to live at the ranch, Harlan came for a visit and the two of them got on really well.
“You need another year in school before that will happen, John,” said Murdoch. “You have made a lot of progress, since moving here, but you haven’t learnt all that you need to know, to be able to take your place here on the ranch.”
“What I need to know can’t be taught in a classroom, Pa,” said Johnny. “I need to learn about how to pick the best breeding stock and where to go for a good deal on fencing supplies, stuff like that. And you’re the one to teach me that, not Miss Burgess.”
“All in good time, son, but right now you need to finish your education.”
“Don’t you ever listen to me, Pa?” Johnny was getting really angry. “I hate school and I don’t wanna go, no more.”
“Well, I am your father and I say you are going,” said Murdoch, drawing himself up to his full height and looking down on his son. “And before you say anything else that you may regret, we have to deal with your appalling behaviour, regarding school. I think we need to continue this discussion in your room, so let’s go.”
That discussion led to Johnny lying on his stomach, on his bed, as soon as his father left his room.
Before he left, Murdoch said, “You can stay in here, for a while, but you still have chores to do, before supper. And you will be returning to school, tomorrow, even if I have to take you there and sit outside the building all day, to make sure that you stay there.”
Johnny wanted to finish writing his letter to Scott, but didn’t feel able to sit up, just yet, as his backside was too sore.
‘Maybe I can persuade Scott to come back home, instead of going to that darn college,’ thought Johnny, as he lay on his bed. ‘Then, if Scott’s home, Pa might drop the whole idea of me staying at school, cos Scott can support me and use all them fancy words he knows, to convince Pa that me working with Scott, is the better idea.’
Johnny made a point of writing to his brother, every week, and most of the letters contained details of the problems that the boy was having with his father. Although the relationship between Murdoch and Johnny had become stronger, over the years, it had still fallen on Scott to act as peacemaker, whenever there was trouble between the two of them. But once Scott was no longer there, things were not going as well as they had.
The boy’s main complaint was that his father always wanted to know where he was, at every minute of the day.
‘When you and me used to go off together,’ wrote Johnny to Scott, ‘Pa never used to fuss as much, but now he wants to know where I’m going and who I’m with and when I’ll be back. I ain’t a baby, no more; I don’t need checking up on, all the time, but Pa seems to think I do. And he don’t like my friends, says that Wes is a bad influence on me. As if anyone influences me; I’ve always done things my way, haven’t I? Anyway, I don’t much like Pa’s friends, either, ‘cept for Dr. Sam, but I don’t tell him not to see them, do I? ’
Scott had written back, suggesting that Murdoch was only fussing, because he wasn’t used to Johnny going off alone.
‘I was always there to keep an eye on you, and I guess that Pa hasn’t got used to the fact that you are more than capable of looking out for yourself, and that I really didn’t need to watch over you. But because we were such good friends, as well as brothers, we enjoyed each other’s company, and it was rare that we weren’t together. He’ll ease up, once he gets more used to me not being there.’
Another one of Johnny’s complaints was that Murdoch wouldn’t let him have a sidearm.
‘He says I’ve gotta wait until I leave school, then I can have one, but you know, as well as I do, that I can use a gun better than he can, already, and I just wanna be able to wear it, when I’m working around the ranch, you know, for signalling and stuff like that. He says I’m not responsible enough, yet, but how can I learn responsibility, if he won’t give me any?’
Scott knew that Johnny spoke the truth about his skill with a gun. Although Murdoch wouldn’t allow Johnny to wear one, he had started to teach the boy how to shoot with a sidearm, before Scott left for college. What Murdoch didn’t know was that Scott had let Johnny use his gun for extra practising sessions, and Johnny had turned out to be a natural. When he held a gun, it became an extension of his arm and the boy was soon a better shot than anyone Scott knew, and that included their father.
‘I suppose Pa can’t see the need for you to have a gun, just yet, Johnny. When you are working on the ranch, you are usually in the company of some of the men, so they can do any signalling that is necessary, and you do have a rifle for protecting the stock. I mean, I wasn’t allowed a gun until I was sixteen, so I guess he’s thinking it’s only fair that you don’t have one before then, either.’
There were other things that Murdoch and Johnny argued about, such as Johnny going into saloons, and developing a liking for drinking and gambling. It basically came down to the age old problem of a young boy wanting to grow up too soon, and a father desperately trying to prevent it from happening.
‘Pa and I used to have the same kind of arguments,’ wrote Scott. ‘You must remember that we did? I thought I knew it all and was so grown up, and every now and then I’d do something that proved to Pa, and to me, that maybe I wasn’t as grown up as I thought I was. He’s only looking out for your well being, Johnny. Don’t be in such an all fired rush to cast off his care and protection. He loves you very much and he wants to make it up to you, for all those years when you were apart.’
In his reply to this, Johnny said, ‘Making it up to me is one thing, smothering me is something else. I think he’s missing you, a lot, too, and I’m getting all the attention that should be yours, as well as my own share. And I’m now at the age you were when I came to live here, and, if you remember, you didn’t want Pa looking over your shoulder all the time, did you?’
Scott had to admit, in his next letter, that what Johnny was saying was the truth, but he still felt the need to defend their father.
‘Pa’s not so bad, really, Johnny. I mean, there are a lot worse fathers out there, than him. Don’t you remember Mr Pallister, and how badly he treated Luke and Matt?’
‘Of course I remember him, but Pa has gotten worse, since you left, ‘though he reckons it’s me who’s gotten worse. He says I don’t mind him, like I used to, and I’ve got far too much sass for my own good.’
‘All part of growing up,’ was Scott’s answer to this. ‘Again, Pa said the same thing about me, but as we get older we do start thinking more for ourselves and that’s how it should be. We can’t be forever tied to our parents and we do have to take control of our lives, but maybe you are trying to do that, just a little bit too fast for Pa’s liking. So, try slowing down, a bit, and things might improve.’
Johnny really did try and do as Scott suggested, but his resolve never seemed to last that long, and he was soon in trouble again.
‘I can’t seem to get anything right, as far as he’s concerned,’ wrote Johnny, a couple of weeks later. ‘The longer you stay away, the more he puts you up on a pedestal and I ain’t never gonna be able to catch you up. He just tells me I don’t work as hard, or have as much respect, as you used to have. I’m so miserable, I’m about ready to pack up and leave.’
Scott was really worried when he received this letter, especially as mail took a good while to get to him. He feared that Johnny might have already taken off, before getting the reply to his letter.
‘Please don’t do anything stupid, Johnny,’ implored Scott. ‘I’m going to write to Pa, once I’ve finished this letter to you, and tell him how you are feeling. I’m going to suggest that he eases off you, a bit. I know he doesn’t mean half of what he says; it just all comes out wrong. He never has been good at expressing his true feelings, you know that? I’m sure that he doesn’t mean to keep comparing you to me; it’s just that I think he’s missing me, a bit.’
Johnny hadn’t left, when Scott’s letters arrived, but it didn’t really make a lot of difference to the way that Johnny and Murdoch were getting along. Murdoch was angry that Johnny had complained about him, to his brother.
“Don’t you think that Scott has enough to deal with, being at a new school and having to make new friends, without having to listen to you moaning about how hard done by you are? And you are not hard done to, in any way, shape, or form. I just expect you to do your best at school and to work hard on your chores, here at the ranch. And to be respectful to me and any other adults you come into contact with. Those are the same things I expected from Scott, no more than most parents expect from their children.”
“I just wanna get a bit more fun outta life, Pa,” said Johnny. “Go to town to a dance, or for a couple of beers with my friends. Nothing that bad, just hang out with my friends, yet you nearly always say I can’t go.”
“I say you can’t go, because of the so called friends whom you want to ‘hang out’ with. I’ve always said it about Wes, and I don’t think I’ve been wrong about that boy. He’s brought trouble to your door, ever since you two first met. In fact, if I am recalling it, correctly, it was Wes who was at the bottom of you getting your first ever spanking from me.”
“Maybe it was, but he ain’t all bad, really, Pa. And you were happy to help the Pallister boys, who lived with a father who drank too much, and that’s only the same as Wes does.”
“That’s true, but Jed Pallister has turned his life around and so have his boys. Wes and his father are still as bad as they have ever been. You know that I only keep Jake on as a hand, here, for Wes’ sake. I didn’t want to see the boy without a roof over his head, and working for me meant that Jake had a cabin at his disposal. But, lately, Jake is spending more and more of his time drunk, and unable to work, so I don’t know how much longer I can keep him on.”
“If you fire Mr Calhoun, that means Wes will havta leave, too, and he’s my friend,” said Johnny, raising his voice to his father. “I don’t want Wes to go, but you seem determined to get rid of anyone, who is important to me. You made Scott go away to college and now you wanna send Wes away, too. I’m warning you, Pa; if Wes leaves, so do I.”
“Calm down, young man,” demanded Murdoch. “There is no need for you to shout at me, like that. I did not make Scott go away to college; he wanted to go. And I am not talking about your relationship with Wes; I am talking about whether his father is pulling his weight on the ranch. And I don’t happen to think that he is. So, if I decide to fire him, it will be for that reason, not because Wes is your friend. So enough of this talk about you leaving. Where would you go, anyway?”
“There’s plenty of places I could go,” said Johnny, although he wasn’t really sure that was the case. “I had loads of friends along the border towns, when I lived that way, with Mama. Or me and Wes could go off together and become wranglers.”
“You can do that, here, in a year or so,” said Murdoch. “So please stop being in such a rush to grow up.”
“That’s all you ever say, Pa,” retorted Johnny. “But I wanna be a grown up, now, and be able to do what I wanna do, instead of what you want, all the time.”
“That’s not fair, Johnny,” said Murdoch, losing patience with his son. “I don’t force my will on you, I just expect you to act in accordance with your age. Fifteen year old boys are supposed to attend school, do their homework and their chores and stay close to home and their parents. As I’ve already said, in a year or two, that will, most likely, begin to change.”
“And I’ve told you that I don’t wanna wait no longer,” yelled Johnny. “And, anyway, what’s the betting that once that year is up, you don’t still say I ain’t old enough and I’ve gotta wait, some more?”
“That’s enough, John,” said Murdoch, his voice dropping to the level that he used when he was beyond angry. “I think it would be best if you went to your room and took the time to calm down, before one of us says something that we might regret.”
“I ain’t even begun to say all I wanna say, yet,” spat out Johnny. “I’m beginning to see why my mother left you. She probably couldn’t stand your petty rules and regulations anymore than I can.”
“I gave you an order, young man,” said Murdoch. “I told you to go to your room. Now, get,” and Murdoch reinforced his words with one hand on the back of the collar of Johnny’s shirt, as the other hand landed two hard swats onto the boy’s backside.
As soon as Murdoch let go of him, Johnny ran for the stairs and didn’t stop until he was in his room and on his bed. He lay there, thinking up all manner of ways to get even with his father.
‘If I stay here, much longer, one of us is gonna kill the other one,’ thought Johnny. ‘He’s making my life impossible and Scott only left six months ago. What’s it gonna be like in another year?’
Not that the blame for Murdoch and Johnny’s estrangement should have been put entirely at Scott’s door, but it was the truth that things wouldn’t have got so bad had Scott still been living at home. He did act as peacemaker between his father and his brother and they all got on, a lot better, with Scott being there to keep things sweet between them.
Downstairs, Murdoch was pacing the room, unsure of what his next move should be towards his son. His instinct was telling him to go upstairs and give the boy the hiding he so richly deserved, but something held him back. And, although he didn’t want to admit it, he knew what that something was. Murdoch was really scared that Johnny was about to take off, and he felt that if he punished him, then it was even more likely to happen.
‘I shouldn’t have to be fearful of correcting the boy,’ he thought. ‘But, at the moment, Johnny’s feelings are running rather high, and so I think it might be best if I back off, a bit, and say nothing.’
This was the course that Murdoch decided to take, but not punishing Johnny, in some way, for his rudeness, convinced the boy that his father no longer cared about him.
‘I thought he’d at least come up and give me a lecture, and maybe even give me a whupping,’ thought Johnny. ‘But he’s not even come up to talk, so I guess he doesn’t care that much, after all.’
Murdoch called the boy down to supper, determined to start afresh with Johnny. He didn’t mention anything that had happened, earlier.
“Maria’s cooked your favourite for supper, son, so I hope you’ve brought a good appetite to the table,” said Murdoch.
“Sorry, Pa, but I’m not that hungry, to tell you the truth,” said Johnny.
He tried his best to eat some of the lovely meal that Maria had prepared, but soon asked to be excused.
Murdoch granted him permission to leave the table. He’d tried chatting to Johnny, over the meal, but the boy had hardly said more than half a dozen words to him.
Johnny headed outside and Murdoch guessed that he would be going over to the barn, to spend some time with his favourite companion, Scirocco.
Murdoch’s guess was a correct one, as that was where the boy went. He’d taken the horse a couple of carrots and as he fed them to Scirocco, he began to talk to him.
“I think it’s time we left this place, boy,” he said. “I can’t take no more of Pa’s rules and regulations, now that Scott ain’t here to make things fun. Pa’s always finding fault and I guess he always will do, cos I ain’t Scott. I just ain’t, and to tell the truth I don’t wanna be, either. I like being me, well I would, if Pa would only ease up a bit and give me time to learn the things he wants me to know. He gets so impatient, at times, and I know, even when he doesn’t say as much, that he’s comparing me to Scott and finding me wanting. And I so wanna please him, I really do.”
The boy began to cry and he pressed his face into the horse’s flank, in order to stem the flow of his tears. It was such a shame that he and his father had become so estranged, as they had begun to forge a really close bond when Johnny first returned to live at the ranch, when he was ten. But, as he grew older, it seemed that he and his father began to discover that they wanted different things from their relationship, plus Johnny was convinced that his father was disappointed about having him for a son. This wasn’t the case, but unfortunately Murdoch didn’t seem able to convince Johnny of that fact.
Back at the house, Murdoch was discussing his concerns about Johnny, with Paul, his foreman and the father of Teresa, who was now eleven.
“Seems I can’t do right for doing wrong with that boy, at the moment,” said Murdoch. “Everything I say, or do, sends him off in a blue fit with me. All he wants to do is hang around saloons, with those so called friends of his, getting into trouble.”
“It’s the age, Murdoch,” said Paul. “I know it was a good while ago, but surely you can remember what it was like, being fifteen? You feel that you’re too big to be treated as a child, and that you now know everything there is to know, about absolutely everything. Your parents are just too old to be in tune with anything that you like and you regard them as the enemy. The only other people who know how you are feeling are your friends, and so it’s only their opinion that counts with you. Plus, you take all that, and then add in the fact that he’s really missing Scott, and you have one very angry young man.”
“I suppose when you put it like that, it does make a bit more sense,” said Murdoch, after mulling over what Paul had said. “But there isn’t any need for him to fight me at every turn. We’re on the same side, Paul. I love him and I want to do what’s best for him, but he treats me like I’m out to spoil everything for him, and I’m really not. But I do need to get him to toe the line, sometimes, or else he might end up on the wrong path. It is my duty, as his father, to see that it doesn’t happen. Oh, Scott had his moments and we clashed, at times, pretty much over the same kind of things, but Scott always seemed to react a bit more reasonably, whenever I drew his attention to what he was doing wrong.”
“Well, that’s probably because Scott takes after his mother and she was a more reasonable woman than Johnny’s mother ever was,” said Paul. “And Johnny has a lot of Maria in him, as well as his fair share of the Lancer stubbornness.”
Murdoch smiled, despite his concern.
“Reasonable is not a word that ever springs to my mind, when I think of Maria,” said Murdoch. “She was beautiful, young, vital, fiery, yes, but never reasonable. And yes, us Lancers can be stubborn, at times. But I would hope that I am not so stubborn that I can’t see when someone has my interests at heart, but Johnny can’t seem to.”
“Can’t, or won’t see,” said Paul. “I’ve already pretty much spelled it out, Murdoch. Johnny is at that age when you don’t want to see any one else’s point of view, as you are absolutely sure yours is the right one.”
“Well, whether he likes it, or not, I’m afraid that boy is going to have to learn that his father’s opinion still does count for something, and he is going to have to mind it. And if it takes a few more discussions conducted with my belt on his backside, then so be it. I am not going to be dictated to by my fifteen year old son.”
“Best of luck, Murdoch,” said Paul, wryly.
“Thanks, and just remember, you will be going through the same things as me, with Teresa, in a few years time.”
“I know, and I’m dreading it,” said Paul. “Reasoning with an adolescent boy is bad enough, but a girl is much, much worse. They have a habit of bursting into tears, and you know how hard it is to resist giving in, to a weeping female?”
“Yes, I do. I remember it well, with Maria.”
It was Paul’s turn to chuckle.
“She used to wrap you around her little finger.”
“And if she’d only stayed on, I would’ve been happy to have been around that finger, forever.”
This last line was said so quietly that Paul wasn’t sure he’d really heard it. However, he had, and it made him upset to know that Murdoch still felt that way, after all the years that had passed, since Maria left him.
“And if you keep letting that boy of hers get away with his bad behaviour then he’s gonna be as good at it, as she was.”
“Oh, I know that,” he said, rather impatiently. “But it’s so darn hard to know which way to turn. If I come down hard on him, will he just get into more trouble, to rebel, and if I’m too easy with him, will he still get into trouble, because he doesn’t fear the consequences?”
“I agree, it’s a tough one,” said Paul. “And I’m not sure I have the right answer, but I don’t think you should allow him to get away with things, as much as you do. You wouldn’t have done, when Scott was here, and just because Scott isn’t here, doesn’t mean that Johnny should be treated any differently.”
“No, I guess it doesn’t, but after Scott left I did find myself being more lenient with him, as I felt that Johnny was just acting up, to vent his feelings over Scott leaving. However, I did give him a tanning when I found out that he’d been playing truant from school, as I felt I had to back up Miss Burgess, but apart from that, I know I have let him get away with a lot. And it’s become a bit of a habit to do that, even though it’s been more than six months since Scott went. I think it’s time I took up the reins again, don’t you?” and Paul agreed.
The next day, Murdoch needed to go into town, as he had some business to attend to at the bank. He and Johnny rode into town together and as they arrived at the school house, one of Johnny’s friends, Melissa Henderson, came running over to greet him.
“Morning Mr Lancer, Johnny,” she said. “I’ve got great news. Mama and Papa have agreed to me having a party for my birthday, next week, and I am going to invite just about everyone I know. You will come, won’t you, Johnny?”
“I guess so,” replied Johnny. “What do you reckon, Pa? Will I be able to go?”
“As long as you behave yourself, until the party, then I don’t see why not,” replied Murdoch. “I’m off to my appointment, now, John, so I will see you at home, this afternoon.”
“Okay, bye Pa.”
As Melissa and Johnny made their way to the schoolroom, Melissa asked if all was well between him and his father.
“I sensed some tension there, Johnny.”
“Things aren’t too good, no, but I’m working on it,” said Johnny. “But let’s not dwell on such things. I wanna hear some more about this party you’re having.”
“We have to go into class, now, but I’ll tell you all about it at recess.”
True to her word, as soon as the bell was rung, all the children who were in the same grade, and in the one above, flocked round Melissa, as she told them about her party.
“I have decided to have a fancy dress party, so you can all start using your imaginations and come up with some great ideas. The more outrageous, the better, and there will be prizes for the best.”
The girls were all excited about this development; the boys not so.
“Fancy dress?” said Johnny. “Not sure I’m all that keen on that idea. Dressing up is for kids and girls, I reckon.”
“Oh, I dunno,” said Zack. “It might be fun.”
“Will have to give it some thought,” said Johnny.
There was not going to be any specific theme to the party, just as long as you dressed up as someone else. Johnny decided to discuss it with Mamacita and with Teresa, as both were good at making clothes, so were likely to be able to make him a costume.
At lunch time, Johnny sought out Teresa and asked her if she would help him. The two had become closer, since Scott moved to Boston. Teresa was now in the same class as Johnny, in the school.
“I know Melissa won’t be inviting you to her party, as it’s only for people her age and older, but would you help me, with a costume?”
“Of course I will,” said Teresa. “And I understand why I haven’t been invited. Melissa is going to be 16 and I’m only 11. We don’t have that much in common. I mean you and I wouldn’t hang around together if we didn’t practically live in the same house, would we?”
“No, I guess we wouldn’t,” said Johnny.
Although it was the answer she expected, Teresa was rather upset when she actually heard it. The young girl had had a crush on Johnny, ever since the boy had come home to Lancer, five years earlier. She did know that Johnny regarded her as an annoying little sister, most of the time, but hoped that he might change his mind, one day.
The day continued much as usual and Johnny, also as usual, was glad when it was over.
As he rode home from school, Johnny thought some more about the party and the fancy dress costume. He was coming around to thinking that it might be fun, after all, to dress up, particularly if he was able to disguise himself, completely; that is, wear a mask. ‘I could then get up to some mischief, but keep my identity a secret, and so, get away with whatever I did,’ he thought.
That evening, after supper, Johnny went into the kitchen to talk to Mamacita and Teresa, who were doing the dishes.
“I’ve been thinking about this fancy dress party and was wondering if you two would make me a costume that had a mask, so I could keep my face covered? I might get the other guys to do the same and then, at the end of the party, we could all reveal who we were and the girls could see if they guessed who was who, correctly.”
“That’s a great idea, Johnny,” declared Teresa, but then she nearly always thought that Johnny ideas were great.
Teresa had already discussed with Maria the possibility of making a costume for Johnny and she was happy to get involved.
“I am sure we can come up with something for you to wear, nino,” replied Maria, happy to see her boy looking so much more animated than he had, for some time.
“Thanks, Mamacita, you’re the best,” and Johnny planted a kiss on the housekeeper’s cheek.
When Johnny suggested to his friends that they all added a mask to their costumes, it was greeted enthusiastically.
“That’s a great idea, Johnny,” said Wes. “All evening, no one will know who we are.”
“I know and so we can do what we like, without getting the blame,” and he gave Wes a flash of his devilish smile.
Johnny put a lot of thought into what his costume would be and in the end he decided to go as a clown. Maria was quite relieved as she felt it would be relatively easy to transform a pair of plain white pants and shirt into a clown’s outfit. Cipriano had a son who was a similar age to Johnny and so a set of his clothes would fit the boy, without too much adjustment. Teresa happily made several pompoms out of different coloured wool, to sew on the hat and the shirt, one next to each buttonhole. She so much enjoyed making them that she did more than was needed. Miss Burgess offered to place a box in the classroom, into which people could place any items that they might have that could be used for a costume, so Teresa put some of the pompoms in the box. She also made several masks, all in a similar vein, and left it to Johnny to choose his favourite. The others were also consigned to the box in the classroom. The hat proved quite difficult to make, but Maria persisted and eventually managed to fashion the shape required, out of an old cardboard box. She then covered it with more plain white fabric and Teresa stuck some of the pompoms on it; one on the point at the top and then a line of them down to the brim. The mask was a good idea, as Johnny was reluctant to wear make up on his face.
Eventually, after several fittings, Johnny declared that he was happy with the costume. The boy was now getting to the age where his appearance was important to him, and even though this was fancy dress, he still wanted it to fit him properly.
“You two have done a terrific job, muchas gracias,” said Johnny, kissing first Maria and then Teresa, on the cheek.
“De nada,” replied Maria, and Teresa just blushed and smiled.
With the party only a few days away, Johnny made an extra special attempt to stay out of trouble, as he was really looking forward to going. He feared that if he did find himself in strife, his father would immediately refuse to allow him to attend.
Murdoch suspected that this was the reason why Johnny was being so well behaved, but didn’t say anything to his son. He was happy to enjoy a spell of peace and quiet, on the domestic front, and wasn’t about to rock the boat by commenting on it.
Finally, the evening of the party arrived. Johnny spent a long time getting ready, but was pleased with the way he looked. Maria, Teresa and Murdoch all agreed that the costume looked really splendid.
“I bet you win a prize,” said Teresa, smiling up at Johnny.
The boy smiled back.
“Not bothered about prizes. Just want to have a good time,” he said.
By the time Johnny had ridden to the church hall where the party was being held, the place was already jumping. Melissa’s parents had gone all out for their daughter. The hall was decorated with coloured lanterns and lots of bunting, proclaiming that it was Melissa’s 16th birthday. They had employed a band and the music was loud enough to be heard out in the street. Lots of people were dancing, or helping themselves to food from the long buffet tables that had been placed along one wall of the hall. The majority of the younger people there had embraced the fancy dress theme and some of the costumes were truly outrageous. However, Johnny was rather upset to see that there were other people dressed as clowns.
‘Thanks, Teresa,’ he thought. He knew that it was because she had donated the extra pompoms and masks to the box in the classroom that others had copied his costume.
But he decided not to let it bother him and he began to seek out his best friends.
The boys had discussed what they were going to be wearing, so he soon found them.
“Great night, eh, Johnny?” said Zack. “Began to think you weren’t coming.”
“Just wanted to make sure I looked okay, and it’s a fair way from the ranch.”
“Mmm, I guess it is,” replied Zack. “Shall we go and get a drink?”
They met up with Wes, who was by the table, helping himself to the food. He was pretty much dressed as he always was, in a rather tattered and dirty shirt, and pants that were full of holes.
“No fancy dress for you, Wes?” queried Johnny.
“Yeah, I’ve come as my Pa, a drunken bum,” replied Wes, grinning at his friend. “I got here, nice and early, cos I wanted ta be sure of gitting some of these fine victuals. As you know, my Pa don’t even know where the kitchen is.”
Johnny knew that Wes spoke the truth, although the boy was allowed to join the ranch hands for his meals, in the main bunkhouse. However, fancy party food must have been a pleasant change from the more standard fare served up by the Lancer cook.
The drink on offer was just a fruit punch, but Wes had brought along a bottle of his father’s rotgut whisky, and hidden it just outside the back door of the church hall. Those who were in the know could pop out and add a drop to their punch glass. Johnny did so and then returned to the hall, in order to seek out some more of his friends. However, before he could do so, he was grabbed by a girl dressed as Queen Elizabeth the First and dragged onto the dance floor. He just had time to pass his glass to Wes, before the girl began whisking him around the hall. It took him a few moments to realise that he was dancing with his friend, Laura. She and Johnny had been friends ever since Johnny had first returned to Lancer, when he was 10. At the time, Laura, who was the same age as Johnny, was a real tomboy and she soon became part of the gang which Johnny hung around with. In the past year, or so, although she was still fond of hanging out with the boys, Laura had begun to spend more time on her appearance and would often wear a dress, even when she didn’t have to. Her costume was outstanding and Johnny had to admit that she looked stunning in it.
“Wow, Laura. You sure scrub up well,” he said, when he got his breath back, after the dance.
“I guess I’m supposed to take that as a compliment,” replied Laura, sounding grumpy, but with a smile on her face.
“Course it was a compliment,” said Johnny, punching her on the arm and knocking the glass of punch out of her hand. Some of the liquid splashed on Laura’s dress, before it smashed to the floor.
“Watch what you’re doing, Johnny,” said Laura, punching him back. “We’re not in the schoolyard, now. I want to win the prize for the best fancy dress costume and I won’t do that if you cover me in punch, or punches.”
Johnny rummaged around in his pockets and pulled out a clean handkerchief. He began wiping Laura’s dress down with it, paying particular attention to her cleavage, as some of the punch had formed a small pool in that area.
“Stoppit, Johnny,” hissed Laura, grabbing the handkerchief off the boy. “What will people say when they see you touching me down there?”
“Look at that nice kind boy helping his friend get cleaned up, I reckon,” replied Johnny, with a wicked grin on his face.
“You were enjoying doing that, just a little too much,” said Laura, once she had finished mopping up her dress. “Nice boys do not touch young ladies on that part of her anatomy.”
“Who said I was a nice boy?” replied Johnny, still grinning at her.
“You did. You just said you were a nice kind boy, helping a friend.”
“Well, you shouldn’t believe anything I say. Come on, let’s dance some more.”
After several more dances, Laura told Johnny she was going to sit the next one out.
“No need for you to stop dancing, though. I’m sure there are plenty of girls waiting for the chance to take a turn round the dance floor with you.”
“I’m tired, too,” replied Johnny. “I’m just gonna go outside and get a breath of air; it’s real hot in here.”
Johnny left by the back door of the hall. He didn’t go that far away, just walked over to the corral that formed part of the livery stable. It was a beautiful, starry night and Johnny was thinking about trying to persuade Laura to go for a walk in the moonlight with him, when he heard a rather odd sound. It came from the other side of the corral, near the stable. At first, Johnny thought it was an animal in distress, but then he decided it sounded more like a human.
Just as he was pondering about what he should do, he was aware of someone running away from the vicinity of the stable. They were too far away for him to positively identify them, but he could just about make out that they were wearing a similar costume to his.
Johnny was unsure about what to do. He wanted to follow the person who’d run off, but he could still hear some muffled noises coming from near the stable. He decided they sounded rather urgent and needed his immediate attention.
He ran over and soon found a young girl lying on the ground. Her pashmina scarf was tied around her face, effectively gagging her, and that was why the noises she was making had sounded so strange to Johnny. He untied the scarf and when he could see the girl’s face, he realised it was Meg Cottrell, one of the older girls from school.
Instead of being grateful to Johnny for saving her, the girl began hitting him and screaming at the top of her voice.
“Get away from me, you brute,” she yelled. “Help! Save me someone.”
Because she was making so much noise, several people were soon converging on the spot where Meg was lying.
“Are you all right, my dear?” enquired Melissa’s mother, as her father helped the girl to her feet.
“No, I’m not all right. That oaf attacked me and then came back and pretended to be helping me. But I reckon if I hadn’t screamed, he would’ve attacked me again. He’s an animal,” and she burst into tears, falling into Mrs Henderson’s arms.
“Are you referring to this boy, here?” said Mr Henderson, holding onto Johnny’s arm. He still had his mask in place so no one knew who he was.
Meg raised her head and said, “Who else do you think I mean? Of course it was him. There was no one else around.”
“There was somebody else, here,” said Johnny, but no one appeared to be taking any notice of him. Everybody was crowding around Meg and they moved off, en masse, towards the church hall, with Meg in the middle of them.
The only ones left were Mr Henderson and Johnny.
“Well, young man. Have you got anything to say for yourself?”
“I came out the hall, for a breath of air. I heard a noise, went over to see what it was and found Meg, lying on the ground, with her scarf tied round her face. At the same time, I just caught a glimpse of someone running away from the stable, but I was too far away to make out who it was. It looked like he was wearing a clown suit, like mine, though. So, I guess that’s why Meg thought I was the person who’d attacked her. All I did was remove her scarf. Then she started hollering and you guys came running. That’s all I know.”
“Let’s go back into the hall and see if Meg is all right and then we can decide what to do, next,” said Mr Henderson, keeping a firm hold on Johnny and leading him towards the hall.
“What is there to do in the hall? We need to go after whoever it was who was running away, cos he’s probably the guy who attacked her,” said Johnny, but Henderson acted like he hadn’t even heard the boy.
‘He thinks it was me,’ thought Johnny. ‘He’s not gonna look for anyone else, cos he thinks it was me.’
Johnny didn’t really have any choice other than to return to the church hall. As he entered the room, the whole place fell silent and all eyes were upon him. Meg was sitting over the far side of the room, wrapped up in a man’s jacket. She was still crying and kept dabbing at her eyes with a large, white handkerchief.
As soon as she saw that Johnny was in the room, she cried out, “Don’t let that monster get anywhere near me. I want to go home; I want my mother.”
“Hey, Meg, don’t take on, so,” said Johnny. “I know you think it was me, but it was someone else, honest. I saw him running off and he was wearing a costume just like mine. All I did was come over ta help you, when I heard you crying.”
“Just go away,” she said, and Johnny decided that would be for the best. It was obvious that Meg was not ready to listen to his side of the story.
“Okay, I’ll go, but it really wasn’t me who hurt ya, Meg.”
Johnny turned away from the girl and began to head for the exit, but was stopped by Mr Henderson, who removed his mask.
“Hold up there, Johnny,” he said, when he saw who it was. “You’re not going to just walk away from this. A girl has made a serious accusation about you and I think it needs investigating by the sheriff. I’ve sent young Zack to fetch him, so you sit down and wait for him to get here.”
The sheriff soon arrived and Mr Henderson brought him up to date with the events of the evening.
“The girl states it was Johnny who attacked her, but he insists that it wasn’t. He says that there was someone else dressed in a similar costume and this person made his getaway while Johnny was tending to Meg.”
“First of all, I would be obliged, Mrs Henderson, if you could take young Meg over to the doctor’s office. She needs to be examined to determine what kind of injuries she has suffered. Once I’ve dealt with things, here, I will be coming over to question Meg. Could someone please go and fetch her parents, as I am sure she would appreciate their support at such a difficult time?”
Mrs Henderson did as she was asked and led the still tearful girl over to the doctor’s office. Mr Henderson asked another of the guests to go and call on Meg’s parents, on their way home.
“Right then, young Johnny, I now need to hear your side of things. We will go over to my office and I will send my deputy out to collect your father.”
“No call for you to do that, Sheriff,” said Johnny. “After you’ve questioned me, I can just ride home with Wes.”
“You might not be riding home at all, tonight, Johnny,” replied the sheriff. “But to save my deputy the ride, maybe Wes can let your father know what is going on, once he gets back to the ranch?”
“Sure I can,” said Wes. “Although I was gonna wait fer Johnny.”
“No, son, you get off home and tell Mr Lancer to come into town as soon as he can. That is, unless you have something to add about what happened here, tonight?”
“Not really, Sheriff,” replied Wes. “I spent most of the evening round the buffet table and I never even went outside, so don’t know what went on, out there.”
Wes was dismissed by the sheriff and he high-tailed it home, in order to let Murdoch know that Johnny was in jail. The deputy stayed at the hall and questioned all the other guests, before allowing them to go home, and the sheriff took Johnny over to his office.
“Now then, Johnny, this is important. It’s not just another prank you’ve got yourself into. You could find yourself up on a charge of assault, or maybe even rape. So I need you to be real honest with me. In your own words, tell me what happened.”
At the mention of rape, Johnny looked very worried. It hadn’t occurred to him, until then, that Meg might have been sexually assaulted.
“I spent most of the evening dancing with my friend Laura and hanging out with the guys from school,” said Johnny. “I did have one dance with Melissa, cos she’s the birthday girl, but that was all. I never danced with Meg, at all. She’s older than me and ain’t interested in boys of my age, least that’s what she says. Anyway, after a while, Laura wanted to sit down and I said I was going outside, for a breath of air. I walked as far as the corral fence, nearest to the back of the hall, and leaned on it, for a while. It was dark and I couldn’t make out much, at all, but after a while I heard this sound coming from over the other side of the corral, near the stable. It sounded like a wounded animal, a kinda moaning sound, but muffled. I wasn’t sure if I’d really heard it, or not, so didn’t go and check it out, immediately. But then I heard it again and thought I best go and see what it was. As I reached Meg, I saw a figure running off and he looked like he was wearing a costume just like mine. I was pretty mad, as Teresa had taken some masks and pompoms, left over from making my costume, into school. Obviously, someone else had taken them home and made a fancy dress outfit like mine. In fact, I saw more than one person wearing a similar costume, this evening. Anyway, Meg was lying on the ground, with her scarf tied around her mouth. I guess that’s why her voice sounded so odd. I leant down and untied it and she started screaming and calling me a monster. People came running out of the hall and they were soon surrounding her. I didn’t really know what to do, but Mr Henderson came over, grabbed hold of my arm and took me inside. That’s about it, until you came. Oh, and I did try to explain to Meg that it wasn’t me who attacked her, but she didn’t seem to be listening.”
Throughout Johnny’s explanation of the evening, the sheriff said nothing; he just listened. Once the boy finished his statement, and the deputy returned to the jail with the statements of the other guests, the sheriff locked Johnny in a cell.
“I am going over to the doctor’s office to talk to Meg and to find out the extent of her injuries, from Sam. You can stay there until your father arrives to collect you.”
The sheriff left the office, with strict instructions to his deputy not to allow any one in, apart from Murdoch.
As Wes arrived at the ranch, Murdoch came out of the house to greet him. It was getting late and the man was worried, and rather annoyed that Johnny wasn’t home, yet.
“Where’s Johnny?” he enquired of Wes.
The boy briefly explained what had happened at the party and Murdoch was soon in the barn, saddling his horse.
Murdoch must have broken all records in his haste to get to town and he did feel rather guilty about his horse, once they were there. So, instead of just tying him up outside the sheriff’s office, he took him to the livery stable and requested that the horse be rubbed down and given a comfortable stall to rest in.
“Not sure how long I’ll be,” he said to the young man, working there, and he tossed the boy a dollar.
Inside the cell, Johnny waited, nervously, for his father to appear. He knew that the man would come, just as soon as Wes delivered the message about Johnny being at the jail. The boy wanted to be set free, as he was naturally restless and being cooped up in a small cell was not a good place for him to be. However, he also knew that his father would be angry about having to ride to town, at this late hour, in order to collect him. He sat on the cot in the cell, and tapped the fingers of his right hand on the bars, while chewing his lip.
‘He shouldn’t do too much yelling, though, cos this sure ain’t my fault. I go and help the gal and get accused of hurting her; where’s the justice in that?’ thought Johnny.
Murdoch suddenly opened the door to the jail house and the noise pulled Johnny out of his reverie.
‘Uh, oh. Pa slammed that door like he’s in a real lather. I gotta bad feeling about all this.’
“I’ve come to collect my son, John,” announced his father, to the sheriff. “And I demand to know why he is being kept in a cell? The boy is only 15 years old, for pity’s sake.”
“Good evening, Mr Lancer,” said the sheriff, holding his hand out to Murdoch, who reluctantly shook it. “I am well aware of your son’s age, Mr Lancer. I am also only too aware of the seriousness of the crime he is being accused of committing. And the way the townsfolk are acting, tonight, I reckoned jail was the safest place for your boy, even if he is so young.”
“Just what is my boy being accused of?” asked Murdoch, lowering his voice, a little. Wes had told him Johnny was in jail, but had been vague about the reasons why.
“He has been accused of assaulting a young woman at a party, earlier this evening,” said the sheriff. “And when the doctor brings me his report, after examining the young woman, it could well be that he will be facing a charge of rape.”
Murdoch was extremely shocked by this news and sank down into a chair in the sheriff’s office. The door leading to the cells was open, so Johnny could see his father, but Murdoch hadn’t acknowledged his son, yet.
Once Murdoch was able to speak, again, he said, “Ridiculous. My son would never do that to a young woman. He’s just not capable.”
Although Johnny knew that his father was trying to prove him innocent, Johnny was rather angry at hearing his father say this. ‘Incapable, am I? How the hell does Pa know that about me? Heck, I dunno, yet, whether I’m capable, or not, but I’ve got a pretty good idea, and I reckon I am,’ thought Johnny, thinking of all those nights alone in his bed, when just the thought of being with a girl made his body react in predictable ways for a fifteen year old.
Murdoch went on to say, “Oh, I know Johnny likes to play the tough guy. But when it comes to young women, children and animals, he’s putty in their hands. He could never force his will on anyone who was vulnerable; it’s just not his way.”
When Johnny heard his father say that, he breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Phew! He’s just talking ‘bout my soft hearted nature, not my ability to please a lady.’
The sheriff, who was fairly new to the town and to his job, wasn’t sure how to respond.
“I’m sorry, Mr Lancer, but until I hear from the doctor, I am not going to let your son out of that cell. I went over to his office, earlier, but he said that Meg was too upset to be questioned and I needed to wait for his report. Once I know what we are dealing with, the boy will be formally charged and then you can take him home. But only on the condition that you keep him out at the ranch, until the trial.”
“May I go in and visit with my son?”
“Of course you may, Mr Lancer,” replied the sheriff. “But I will need you to surrender your gun, first.”
Murdoch handed over his pistol and then followed the sheriff into the cell block, at the back of the jailhouse. The sheriff unlocked the cell door and allowed Murdoch to enter.
He then locked the door, again, and said, “Just holler when you’re ready to come out,” and returned to his office, in the front part of the building.
“Hi, Pa,” said Johnny, standing up as his father entered the cell. He reckoned that Murdoch would be doing his yelling before he wanted to be let out, as he probably had plenty he wanted to say to his son.
“Hello, son,” replied Murdoch. “You’ve got yourself into a fine fix, this time, haven’t you?”
“Look, Pa, I’m real sorry ‘bout all of this, but it’s a mistake. I jest heard a noise, went to check it out and next minute found myself being accused of all sorts. I never touched Meg; well, only to undo the scarf from round her mouth.”
Murdoch sat down on the edge of the cot, before he spoke.
“First of all, we have to wait and see just what you are being accused of and then we need to see how we are going to deal with it.”
“You do believe me, doncha, Pa? I never hurt that girl; I wouldn’t do that to anyone.”
“You must have heard what I said to the sheriff, John. Of course I believe you, but proving it might be tough. From the little Wes told me, it would appear that the good people of the town have already found you guilty.”
Johnny, who was still standing, wrapped his arms tightly around his body, before he answered his father.
“Yeah, it does seem like I’m public enemy number one, right now.”
Just then, they heard the office door opening and the sound of the doctor’s voice.
“Here is the medical report,” he said to the sheriff. “Meg was assaulted, and whoever it was did try to rape her, but failed, probably because he heard someone approaching.”
“That someone was me,” called out Johnny. “He must’ve heard me when I came out of the dance hall and took off.”
The sheriff had a few more words with the doctor and ended by telling him that he would be coming over to talk to Meg, just as soon as he had dealt with Johnny.
Sam put his head round the door and said a quick ‘hello’ to Murdoch and Johnny.
“I can’t stay, now, as I need to be with Meg and her parents. But I just wanted you to know that I don’t believe that it was Johnny who attacked her, for one minute. Keep the faith,” and the doctor left the office.
The sheriff headed for the cell, containing Johnny and his father, and unlocked the door.
“I am going to hand this one over to you, Mr Lancer. You are to keep Johnny out at the ranch, until the trial, and you are responsible for making sure he attends, okay? If you agree to these conditions, then you can take the boy home. I am charging him with the assault on Meg Cottrell, but I haven’t given up on finding other witnesses, so don’t think I’m just sitting back thinking I have my man. However, in the absence of any other witnesses and as the victim said it was Johnny who attacked her; I would be derelict in my duty if I didn’t charge him. I hope you understand this?”
In reply, Murdoch said, “I do understand, but I want it put on record that I don’t believe my son did this. If I thought he had, I would leave him in your jail. Come on, Johnny, let’s go home.”
The ride home was taken mostly in silence. Johnny certainly didn’t feel like talking and Murdoch couldn’t think of anything to say in order to make his son feel better about the situation that he found himself in. He was praying that someone who saw what happened would come forward, or the real culprit would be caught.
The two Lancers rode into the barn and took care of their horses, before heading for the house. Murdoch draped an arm around his son’s shoulders, hoping that the gesture would let his son know that he had his support.
Johnny was too tired and emotional to do anything else, that night, and headed straight for his bed. Murdoch, after only stopping long enough to have a quick drink of his favourite scotch, did the same. As he reached his son’s bedroom door, he knocked softly and then entered.
Johnny was almost asleep, so Murdoch just smoothed his hair from his forehead and dropped a kiss there.
“Night, son,” he murmured.
At first, Johnny was quite pleased about his restriction to the ranch, as he had no desire to go to school, at the best of times. But now that his name was synonymous with all that was wrong in the world, it was going to be even harder to face his peers. He was sure that his close friends would know that he was innocent, but there were a few pupils who didn’t like him, that much. He knew they would be only too happy to tell tales about the boy, most of them not true, in order to make him out to be even worse than people already thought he was; after what had happened to Meg.
And some of the adult population of the area had often muttered under their breath, not daring to say anything out loud to his father, about Johnny’s mother, and what kind of woman she had been. So, they, too, were going to be quick to believe that the son of a woman who was no better than she should have been would turn out to be a wrong ‘un.
However, after a week had passed, Johnny was beginning to get a little bored and longed for the company of people his own age.
“I know I can’t go into town, or anywhere else, for that matter, Pa, but can’t some of my friends come out here?” Johnny asked of Murdoch, as they sat eating their breakfast.
“I don’t mind you seeing your friends, son, but it’s whether or not their parents will allow them to associate with you. It doesn’t seem as though the sheriff has made much progress in finding out who did attack Meg, so you are still the main suspect. Some of the parents might not want their children associating with someone in that position.”
“Great, guilty without even having a trial,” said Johnny, pushing his plate away and resting his arms on the table.
“I’ll go and visit with the families and see what they say,” replied Murdoch, when he saw how miserable his son was. “And in the meantime, you do have Cip’s sons to hang round with, and Wes.”
“Thought you didn’t like me keeping company with Wes?”
“Well, he’s not my favourite companion for you, but I do understand that he is your link to what is going on at school, at the moment. And, as he lives here, you can hardly avoid him.”
Murdoch had some business to attend to in town, so decided to visit some of Johnny’s friends and their families, at the same time. He also wanted to go and see if the sheriff had made any progress with finding Meg’s attacker.
When the sheriff saw Murdoch heading towards the jailhouse, his heart sank. He knew what the man was coming to ask him and he didn’t have an answer, at least not one that was going to satisfy the imposing rancher.
As Murdoch entered the office, the sheriff began talking.
“I’m real sorry, Mr Lancer, but I haven’t got anything more to tell you than I did the last time you came into town. It’s like the man’s just disappeared into thin air. Nobody saw or heard a thing and Meg’s still insisting it was Johnny who attacked her. A couple of the people attending the party said that just before Johnny went outside, he was touching young Laura Matthews in an inappropriate way. They reckon he couldn’t get anywhere with her, so he went outside and tried it on with Meg.”
“That’s ridiculous,” thundered Murdoch. “Johnny and Laura have been friends ever since Johnny came home and Laura moved here. They’ve grown up together. He wouldn’t dare do anything like that, to her. He’s been raised better than that, and besides, Laura’s a real firecracker. If Johnny tried anything with her, she would floor him. I am going to go and see her and find out what all this is about. Have you spoken to her about this incident?”
“No, I haven’t,” said the sheriff. “She never went outside, so I saw no need to talk to her.”
“But if you have heard that Johnny was touching her, just before he went outside, then surely you should have spoken to her? Firstly, to find out if it was true and secondly, to see if she could give you an insight into Johnny’s mood, when he left her.”
Murdoch came away from the sheriff’s office determined to see the man out of a job, as soon as possible. It was obvious that he was only putting in a minimum of effort in order to try and find out the truth about who attacked Meg.
As soon as he had concluded his business, Murdoch set off to talk to Johnny’s friends. He decided to go and see Laura, first, as the girl lived close to town.
“Hello, Mr Lancer,” said Mrs Matthews, when she answered Murdoch’s knock on the door. “Do come in. You must have known I’ve just brewed some coffee and taken a batch of cookies out of the oven.”
Mrs Matthews led the way into the small sitting room of the house she shared with her sister. Colonel Matthews was in the Army and it was deemed that the place where he was billeted was not safe for families. Therefore, Amelia and her two girls, Mary and Laura, lived with Amelia’s widowed sister and her little girl, Martha.
Murdoch waited until Amelia had fetched the coffee and the cookies and they were sat down, before he explained the reason for his visit.
“I came to see Laura,” he said. “I understand that she and Johnny spent most of the evening together, at Melissa’s party? I just wanted to ascertain from her, what kind of a mood Johnny was in, when he went outside.”
“Laura is in her room, doing her homework,” said Amelia. “I’ll just go and fetch her.”
It didn’t take long for the girl to appear. She was wearing her more usual attire of pants and a shirt.
“Hi, Mr Lancer,” she said. “How’s Johnny? Tell him I miss him at school.”
“Hello, Laura,” replied Murdoch. “It’s nice to see you, again. I rather thought you would be wearing a dress. Johnny told me all about your outfit at the party. I think he was impressed.”
Laura sat down on the couch, next to her mother, and laughed.
“That was just for a special occasion, Mr Lancer. I still don’t like wearing dresses that much, although I guess I do wear ‘em more now, than I used to. Yeah, Johnny’s eyes were on stalks when he saw me, that night. I don’t think he knew it was me, at first.”
Murdoch smiled at this remark.
“I understand the two of you spent quite a lot of time, dancing, at the party?”
“Yes, we did. Johnny’s pretty good on the dance floor. To be honest I was rather surprised. He hardly trod on my feet, at all.”
“Could you just confirm what happened after you stopped dancing? Did you and Johnny have words over anything?”
“No sir, Johnny and me were as we always are, best of friends. Why did you ask that? We stopped a couple of times, just to get a drink. But after a good while, we’d had enough dancing. I joined some of our other friends at the buffet table, but Johnny said he was hot and wanted to go outside for a breath of air. I’m not sure how long he was gone, but it didn’t seem too long before we heard all the racket and people started running out to see what all the fuss was about.”
“It was something the sheriff said about you and Johnny. Another guest said he touched you, in an inappropriate manner.”
Laura began to laugh.
“As if he’d dare,” she said, once she stopped laughing. “I did spill a drop of punch on my dress; it was Johnny’s fault, cos he punched me on the arm, you know, like we do to each other? And Johnny helped to wipe it off, but that’s all that happened.”
That’s pretty much what Johnny said happened,” replied Murdoch. “He said he went outside, was leaning on the corral fence, heard a noise, went to investigate and found Meg, with a gag in her mouth and her hands tied behind her back.”
“Mr Lancer, may I come out to the ranch and visit with Johnny? He’s probably fretting about what’s going on at school and I want to assure him that his true friends are all behind him. None of us think Johnny would ever have attacked a girl, like that.”
“That was going to be my next question, Laura,” said Murdoch. “Johnny is getting bored and he could do with seeing a friendly face. Maybe you could spread the word and see if any of his other friends would like to come out and visit him? You could come after school, or better still, come on Saturday.”
“That would be great, Mr Lancer,” replied Laura, looking at her mother, who gave a nod of approval. “I’ll talk to the other guys at school and we’ll come out on Saturday, okay?”
“Thank you, both of you,” said Murdoch. “I am glad to know that you agree with me when I say Johnny wouldn’t have done this.”
“And before I come out to see him, I’ll go and talk to Meg, again. I am sure that now she’s had time to think about it, she will realise that it wasn’t Johnny, either,” said Laura.
When Murdoch returned to the ranch, he told Johnny about his meetings with the sheriff and with Laura and her mother.
“No more news from the sheriff’s office, I’m afraid,” said Murdoch, trying to mask his anger over the sheriff’s ineptitude to do very much. He didn’t think it was fair to burden Johnny with the thought that nothing much was being done in order to prove the boy’s innocence. Privately, Murdoch was planning to hire some Pinkerton agents to see if they could find out more. ‘No point upsetting Johnny; hopefully the Pinks will turn up the real perpetrator,’ he thought.
“I went and spoke to Laura, and she is going to ask some of your friends to accompany her out here, on Saturday, to pay you a visit. She asked me to tell you that none of your friends think you did this to Meg. And that she is missing you at school.”
Johnny looked up at his father and smiled.
“That’s great, thanks Pa. I miss her, too.”
“She is also planning to go and have a chat with Meg, before she comes out here. She reckons that the girl might have a clearer head, now, and might be able to help with a description of her attacker. So far, all she has described is the costume and as we know, there were several people dressed as a clown, that night.”
“Yeah, there were, no thanks to Teresa,” replied Johnny.
“You can’t blame Teresa, son. All she did was take the bits left over from making your costume and donate them to the school. And Miss Burgess had asked you all to do that, so that those who didn’t have anything at home could have the opportunity to make something, too.”
Johnny hadn’t realised how much he had missed his friends, especially Laura, until he started thinking about their upcoming visit. He was almost counting down the hours until they arrived. It hadn’t escaped Murdoch’s notice that Johnny was looking a lot happier than he had since this sorry affair had begun. He contacted the Pinkerton agency and gave them the little information he had about the man who had attacked Meg. He knew that the longer the investigation went on for, the more withdrawn Johnny was likely to become.
Eventually, Saturday morning arrived and for the first time ever, Johnny was downstairs and at the breakfast table before his father.
When Murdoch came down, Johnny said, “Good morning, Pa, what time do you call this? Best part of the day’s already gone.”
Johnny was being rather cheeky, as this is what his father usually said to him when he arrived at the table well after everyone else.
Murdoch felt that he should reprimand Johnny for his cheekiness, but was pleased that his son was feeling in a good enough mood, to want to tease him.
“Watch it, young man,” was all he said, but he was smiling as he said it.
Zack and Charlie must have been as equally excited about seeing their friend, as Johnny was about seeing them. The Lancers had no sooner finished eating their breakfast, when the two youngsters arrived.
Johnny jumped up from the table and rushed outside to greet them.
“Hi guys,” he said, beaming up at them. “I sure am delighted to see you. I’m beginning to feel like I’ve been sent to prison.”
“Well, if this is prison, it sure beats any my old man has been in,” drawled Wes, coming to join them.
“Where’s Laura? Pa said she was coming, too,” asked Johnny.
“She said she’d meet us here,” replied Zack. “She had something to do, before she came.”
The four friends headed for the house and made their way up to Johnny’s bedroom, laughing all the way.
The boys flopped down on the bed and began filling Johnny in on what he had been missing at school. Of course, they weren’t talking about the work he had missed, just about the pranks that them, and others, had been playing, in his absence.
“We are keeping Miss Burgess on her toes, but we sure miss you, Johnny,” said Zack, after they had all stopped laughing about the most recent prank played on the poor schoolmistress.
“Never thought I’d hear myself saying it, but I am missing bein’ there with you all,” replied Johnny, leaning back on the bed and intertwining his fingers behind his head. “Being off school is much more fun when your pals are off, too. But until this guy is caught, they won’t let me back.”
Downstairs, Maria was clearing the table and Murdoch was just finishing his coffee when another horse arrived in the yard. It was Laura and the girl dismounted, before her horse was at a complete standstill.
“Where’s Johnny, Mr Lancer?” she yelled out.
“Good morning, Laura. Are you all right? Slow down, dear, you’re acting like the devil himself is after you. Johnny is in his room with his friends.”
“Morning, and thanks,” said Laura, remembering her manners, as she flew past Murdoch and Maria, and headed for the stairs.
“Maybe we should not be allowing Senorita Laura to go upstairs into Juanito’s bedroom, any more, Senor? They are getting older and she is beginning to show her feelings for our nino.”
“Oh, I know the girl loves Johnny, Maria, but I think it’s only like a sister would love a brother. Laura is such a tomboy; I don’t think she sees Johnny in a romantic light.”
“I’m not so sure about that, patron,” replied Maria.
“Well, I think it is okay for her to go up there, today. There are three others to chaperone them.”
“Si, I suppose it is all right, today.”
Laura burst into Johnny’s room, without knocking. Her face was flushed from her exertions and Johnny smiled up at her. He was still lying on his bed.
“Hi Laura, was wondering when you were going to get here. Are you okay? You look like you’ve just run a marathon. We’ve been talking about school and I said I wish I was back there. Just shows how bored I am being holed up at home.”
“I have some news that I reckon will get you much closer to returning to school, Johnny,” said Laura, once everyone had settled down.
Johnny sat up, immediately, with an expectant look on his face.
“You’ve got the floor, Laura, so spill,” said Johnny.
“I went to see Meg, this morning. She was more herself, again, and was ready to tell me what happened. However, I think she was expecting me to try and talk her out of saying it was you who did it. But I didn’t say anything; just asked her to explain the events of that evening. She said she had done a lot of dancing and it was very warm in the hall, so she went outside for some air. A person came out of the shadows of the livery stable and grabbed hold of her. Nothing was said, but he kissed her and then started pawing at her clothes. She tried to fight back, but before she could scream he gagged her and then tied her hands behind her back. He then pushed her to the ground and got on top of her. It was hard to stop him, being tied up as she was, but then he suddenly must’ve heard something. He stopped and got off her, looking over towards the corral.”
“That must’ve been when I came outside,” said Johnny.
“Yeah, I reckon so. Anyway, thankfully he was obviously spooked by the interruption and he ran off.”
“Was she able ta give you a description of this person?”
“Not really, but she did tell me something very significant.”
Johnny wasn’t sure what that meant, and looked rather confused, until Laura explained it to him.
“And what was this significant thing she said?” he asked.
“She said that her mouth was smeared with the make up the person was wearing, after he’d kissed her.”
“But I wasn’t wearing any make up,” replied Johnny.
“I know you weren’t and that’s what makes it significant. You didn’t have any make up on your face, so you couldn’t have smeared it across Meg’s mouth.”
Johnny jumped up off the bed, and grabbing hold of Laura’s hand, headed for the door.
“Come on, we’ve gotta tell my Pa.”
The young people tore down the stairs and skidded on the rug, as they turned to go into the main room of the house.
“Pa, listen to this. Laura’s got the proof that it wasn’t me who attacked Meg. Go on, tell him Laura.”
“I went to see Meg, Mr Lancer,” began Laura, but before she could say any more, Johnny started speaking again.
“Meg told Laura that the person, who attacked her, kissed her on the lips. And as he did so, he smeared white make up on her face, cos he had his face made up to look like a clown.”
Murdoch was still trying to steady the items on his desk that had been disturbed by the vibrations, as the youngsters thundered into the room. He looked up at them both, just as the three boys also joined them.
“How does that information clear you, son?” asked Murdoch.
“Because I wasn’t wearing any clown make up, Pa. I didn’t like the idea of putting all that white stuff on my face, so that’s why I suggested we wore masks, instead. However, some people painted their faces and wore the mask, as well. And this guy must have been one of them.”
“Did anybody see that you weren’t wearing any make up?”
“Well, Mamacita and Teresa knew I wasn’t, and then at the dance, Laura also saw my face, so she knew, too. And after Mr Henderson grabbed me, when I was untying the gag from Meg’s mouth, he removed my mask so he could see who I was, so yeah, quite a few people saw me.”
Murdoch came round the desk to join his son and his friends and he couldn’t resist giving Johnny a quick hug. He had never thought that his son was guilty, but he had been very worried as to how they were going to prove Johnny’s innocence.
“That’s marvellous news, Johnny,” he said. “Did you tell Meg that Johnny wasn’t wearing any make up, Laura?”
“Yes, I did, cos as soon as she mentioned the make-up, then I knew we could prove that Johnny was innocent. She was okay about it. To be honest, I don’t think she ever really believed it was him. But when she saw Johnny standing over her, after so recently being attacked by somebody who was dressed the same, she just assumed that this was her attacker, returning, to hurt her, again. And so she screamed and then everyone came running.”
“This is fantastic news and I will go, right now, and let the sheriff know about it,” said Murdoch.
“That’s fine, if you want to, Mr Lancer, but Meg’s parents were going to take her over to see the sheriff, after I left, and so he should know, by now. I reckon that he’ll be on his way out here, very shortly, to let you know that Johnny’s no longer a suspect.”
The young people stood around Murdoch’s desk, all talking at once and slapping Johnny on the back, periodically. Eventually, Maria suggested that they accompanied her to the kitchen, for some milk and cookies. They readily took up the offer and soon Murdoch was alone, again, in the big room. However, he was unable to return to his task of doing the books, as his mind was full of the news he had just received. Like Laura, he fervently hoped that the sheriff would be heading out to tell them that Johnny was in the clear. However, there was still a tiny niggle, at the back of his mind, that this might not be the case.
‘What if the sheriff just thinks that Johnny wiped the make-up off his face, before Mr Henderson unmasked him? Or that Laura is lying about Johnny not having make-up on, because he is her friend? I do hope this is going to end well. The gossips are already saying that Johnny is no better than he should be, being whelped from a Mexican whore, and that this is typical behaviour for someone from that class. Of course, I don’t think like that, but this country is a mass of prejudices and it is hard to get some people to see past the labels that are given to certain races and religions. No matter how hard I try to protect Johnny, he is always likely to come up against that kind of prejudice, wherever he goes,’ thought Murdoch. He sincerely wished that things didn’t have to be so hard for his younger son, but feared that they would be, for some time to come.
Murdoch didn’t have too long to wait to see what the sheriff was going to say, as he could see the man riding towards the hacienda, through the huge window behind his desk.
As soon as the man knocked at the door, it was opened by Murdoch. With just a perfunctory nod of his head, he gave permission for the man to enter the house.
“Good day, sheriff,” he said. “I trust that you are the bearer of good news?”
“Well, yes, I am, Mr Lancer,” the man replied. “Young Meg and her folks have been in to see me and they have now said that it wasn’t your Johnny who attacked her. Appears the fella who did was older; he had whiskers growing on his chin and they scratched her face. She also said that his face was covered with white make-up, and his lips had rouge on them, to make him look like a clown. Some of that rubbed onto Meg’s face when he kissed her. Several people told me your Johnny wasn’t wearing any make up on his face and he hasn’t started shaving, yet, so no whiskers, either; well not scratchy ones, anyway. So, your Johnny’s off the hook.”
“Well, thank Heaven for that,” said Murdoch, and in his relief, he shook hands with the man, even though he was still no fonder of him. “I hope this means that you will now be making every effort to capture the real culprit, instead of sitting in your office, drinking coffee, all day?”
The sheriff bristled at this remark, but had no suitable retort for Murdoch, as it was the truth. Ever since the attack, the sheriff had just accepted that Johnny was responsible and had made no effort to look elsewhere. If there had been a trail left by the real perpetrator, it would have gone cold, by now.
“My deputies and I are doing our best to capture this man, Mr Lancer. I understand you have brought in a couple of Pinkerton agents to assist us?”
“I have brought in the Pinkerton agents to track this person down, as quickly as possible, before another girl is attacked. He’s got away with it, so far, and he’s likely to be feeling he’s invincible, so just might try it, again. You are welcome to assist them, if you want to. I take it that Johnny is now allowed to leave the ranch, and can return to school?”
“If the agents want to come and see me at my office, when they arrive in town, they would be very welcome,” said the sheriff. “And yes, Johnny is now free to come and go, as he pleases. Miss Burgess said she would be happy to have him return to school and see life get back to normal, as soon as possible. All of this has been very unsettling for the pupils.”
“It’s still very likely that it is one of the older boys from school who is responsible for the attack,” said Murdoch. “The party was for Melissa, a pupil at the school, and the attacker was wearing a similar costume to the one Johnny was wearing. Teresa took some masks and pompoms into school. They were left over, from making Johnny’s costume. So the person who did this must have had access to those. Maybe you should be talking to the older boys who attended the party?”
“I’ll bear in mind what you said, Mr Lancer, when I start my new line of questioning. Anyway, at least you now know that Johnny is no longer a suspect.”
Johnny and his friends were listening to the conversation between Murdoch and the sheriff, from the hallway. Johnny thought this was a good time to go in and say what was on his mind.
“And I should never have been a suspect,” he shouted. “I told you, right from the start of this that I had nothing to do with the attack. I was trying to help her, not hurt her. But you just saw a mestizo and that was all you needed to see to convince you I was guilty.”
“You keep a civil tongue in your head, kid, if you know what’s good for you,” said the sheriff.
“I don’t appreciate the way he said it, but my son has a point,” said Murdoch. “You just assumed that Johnny was guilty, without even bothering to check out his story. Now that it has been proved to you that Johnny didn’t attack that girl, the trail has gone cold.”
“Well, I’m heading back to town, now, and will do my darnedest to find that trail and get the man.”
“Thanks for coming and bringing us the news,” said Murdoch, ushering the man to the door, anxious to see the back of the sheriff.
The celebrations went on for the rest of the day, at the Lancer hacienda. Maria was cajoled, although it didn’t take much persuasion, to make Johnny a chocolate cake, as this was his favourite, and he and his friends sat at the lunch table and toasted Johnny in grape juice, or milk.
Not long before supper, Johnny’s friends headed for their homes, as they all had chores to do.
“Thanks ever so much for coming out and cheering me up,” said Johnny, as they mounted up to leave. “And a real huge thanks to you, Laura, for proving it wasn’t me who attacked Meg. I’ve been trying to work out, all afternoon, just who it might have been. What do you guys think about it being Sam Waller’s big brother? He left school last year and now works in the drugstore. He was always a bit of a loner. He’s the same age as Scott, but they never hung around together. Scott said he just wasn’t interested in being friends.”
“It could have been him, I guess, but I’ve got no real reason to think that he would have done something like this,” said Laura. “I agree he was always a bit odd, but that’s not to say he was violent. I’ll mention him to the sheriff, tomorrow, if I see him at church. I’ve gotta go, now, Johnny; see you on Monday, okay?”
“Okay, Laura and thanks, again, for what you did for me; bye,” and Johnny waved off his friends.
Johnny returned to the main room and flopped down on the large, comfortable sofa.
“Phew,” he said. “Never thought I’d be seeing the day when I was a free man, again. I was sure I was going to jail. Everyone in town had me down as a sex attacker. Thank goodness Laura didn’t give up and she went and questioned Meg. I mean, that dumb sheriff sure hadn’t bothered, had he? And come to think of it, neither had you, Pa.”
Johnny suddenly felt angry at his father, as he thought Murdoch hadn’t done enough to try and prove his innocence.
“I didn’t go and see Meg, as I was too involved with the case, seeing as how I am your father, John. If I had started interrogating her, it could have been seen as bullying and then anything she said wouldn’t have had the same validity. I did expect the sheriff to get the truth out of her, but I don’t think he was up to the job, either.”
“What you mean is the man’s a racist and he don’t like Mexicans, or mestizos? Ain’t that what you meant to say, Pa? You don’t havta pussy foot around me, you know. I’ve heard a damn sight worse in some of them border towns I stayed in, with Mama. As soon as something went missing, or someone was hurt, it hadta be something to do with me, or someone like me. But I didn’t expect my own family to think like that.”
“How dare you accuse me of something I haven’t done, John,” shouted Murdoch. “I never thought you were guilty and I have just explained why I was unable to do anything more to prove that you were innocent. I hired two Pinkerton agents to help the sheriff and his men track down the real culprit, but I couldn’t interfere with the witnesses, or with the victim. It would have made it even harder to win your case. And please don’t use profanities; you know I disapprove.”
“Well, everyone was accusing me of something I never done,” replied Johnny, mulishly. He knew that his father hadn’t really been at fault and there wasn’t much else Murdoch could have done. But the boy was just feeling hard done to and needed someone to vent his spleen on.
“I think we all need to take a bit of time to calm down, before we meet up at the dinner table. Perhaps you should go and do your evening chores, now, John, and I’ll see you, later. And I need to finish off this bookwork.”
Johnny knew he was being dismissed and he reluctantly left the room. He knew he should be feeling happy about the fact that he had been cleared of the charge, but he was carrying around a lot of resentment. Most of it was aimed at the townsfolk, who had been quick to pronounce him guilty, but a fair amount was also being aimed at his father. Johnny really did think that Murdoch had let him down and had not been as supportive as the boy thought he should have been.
Johnny returned to school on Monday morning. His close friends were delighted to have him back, but there were still some who didn’t seem that pleased he had returned.
“No one else has been charged, yet,” said one of the older girls, to her friend. “I’m not sure I feel safe round him. He’s always been wild and now that Scott isn’t here, there’s no one to rein him in.”
“My Mama said I was to keep out of his way, and make sure I was never on my own, with him,” replied the other girl.
“We best stick together,” and the two girls headed for the schoolroom.
Johnny heard what the girls’ said, but decided to try and ignore it. Murdoch had warned him that it might take a few days for things to get back to normal.
“Just try and keep a lid on your temper, Johnny,” said Murdoch, before his son left for school.
Johnny was finding it hard to control his temper, before he’d even left home, in light of what his father had said to him. After all, he was the innocent party in all of this, but he still felt that he had to prove himself to everyone, including his father. Not wishing to start the day with an argument, Johnny just acknowledged his father’s words, with a nod.
“See you later,” he said, and rode off.
Once all the children were settled in their seats, Miss Burgess clapped her hands together and called for silence.
“As you all know, these past couple of weeks have been difficult ones. However, Meg is recovering well and, hopefully, will soon be able to return to school. And Johnny has already returned; so welcome back to him. All the charges have been dropped and we now know Johnny is completely innocent, so I don’t want to hear of any incidents where he is being ostracised. The sheriff and his deputies are still looking for the culprit, so we should continue to be on our guard. The girls must always travel home in pairs, or have a member of their family collect them. Now then, let’s get on with our work.”
Despite what the teacher said, the whispering continued, especially amongst the girls. Laura did her best to quash the nasty comments that were being made, but even she was fighting a losing battle. Meg’s friends were still convinced that Johnny was the one who had attacked her, even though she, herself, had accepted that it wasn’t him.
During recess, the gossip mongers continued to spread their lies.
“High and mighty Lancers think they’re above the law. They probably threatened Meg and her family and made them drop the charges.”
At home time, when some of the parents were at the school, collecting their children, Johnny heard some more comments being bandied about.
Becky Smith’s mother, who had never liked Scott associating with her daughter, because he was related to Johnny, was particularly vocal.
“Never understood why Murdoch Lancer went to so much trouble to find that boy of his. If you ask me, his wife did him a favour when she left him and took the child with her. I mean, she must’ve realised he was too good for her, so she left, and he was able to save face. But if she’d left the boy, then there would’ve always been a reminder of Murdoch’s indiscretion, so she took the child as well. And then the poor disillusioned man went and tracked him down.”
Johnny finished saddling Scirocco and then mounted up.
As he rode past the woman, he glared at her, but managed to hold his tongue. He decided to go and visit the sheriff’s office, in order to find out if there was any development in the search for Meg’s attacker.
He tied up Scirocco, outside the sheriff’s office, and went in. The sheriff and one of his deputies were playing checkers.
“Looks like you’re working real hard to find that man who hurt Meg, Sheriff,” Johnny said, as he took in the state of the office. There were several used coffee cups and discarded plates of food scattered around the room and a large pile of wanted posters piled up on the desk that had obviously never been looked through.
“I don’t see that it’s any concern of yours, boy,” said the sheriff. “You’ve been found innocent, so what’s it to you what we are doing?”
“I just think it would make the young ladies of this town feel a lot safer, if they knew that he’d been caught,” replied Johnny. “I go to school with several girls who are still scared to go anywhere by themselves. Yet, all you seem to be doing is sitting in your office, drinking coffee.”
“Well, your Daddy has paid those Pinks to find him, so I don’t see there’s much for us to do,” went on the sheriff, lighting a cigar, as he spoke. “Now, run along home, and leave all this stuff to the big boys,” and he blew out a ring of smoke, in Johnny’s direction.
The young man had a strong urge to ram the cigar down the sheriff’s throat, but just about managed to maintain control.
“I think the upright citizens of this town would be very interested in knowing what their sheriff and deputy did all day, when they are supposed to be protecting them,” ground out Johnny, between clenched teeth. “Maybe it’s time for a shake-up in this office. I do believe there’s gonna be an election, soon.”
The sheriff stood up and walked, threateningly, towards Johnny.
“I reckon you’ve said enough, boy. It’s time you left and if you don’t go, right now, I just might have to help you on your way.”
“Oh, yeah,” replied Johnny, not at all frightened by the sheriff’s manner. “I think you might need a bit of help to do that, and looking at the state of your deputy, I don’t reckon you’re gonna get any.”
The deputy was definitely looking the worse for wear, after having spent more than an hour, enjoying a liquid lunch.
The sheriff could see that Johnny had a point, but he still reckoned he could deal with one fifteen year old boy, on his own. But he reckoned without the tenacity of Johnny Lancer. He tried to grab hold of Johnny’s arm, in order to physically remove him from the office, but the boy was too quick and ducked out of the way. Several times, the sheriff tried again, but on each occasion, Johnny eluded the man.
Finally, Johnny decided that he’d had enough of the cat and mouse game and was ready to leave, but of his own accord.
“This has been fun, Sheriff, but I am going home, now. I will be informing my father of your lack of progress with this case, so expect to hear from him. Good afternoon, gentlemen.”
As Johnny made to leave, the sheriff aimed a kick at the boy’s backside and his foot connected. Johnny whirled round and delivered a kick of his own, but this was to the front side of the sheriff. It caught him in a very delicate place and caused him to crumple up in a heap, on the floor.
The boy was out the door and riding down the street, before the man was able to get up, again.
“You little bastard; I’ll have your hide, next time I see you,” yelled the sheriff, but his voice was rather croaky, so Johnny didn’t hear him.
Before going home, Johnny went for a ride, to try and clear his head. He knew that he had right on his side, with regard to the argument with the sheriff, but feared that his father wouldn’t see it like that.
The ride didn’t really help, but he knew that if he didn’t go home, soon, Murdoch would be sending out a search party, so he turned his horse around and headed for the ranch.
When Johnny arrived home, he was still in a bad mood. He took care of Scirocco, though, as he never made the horse suffer, just because of how he was feeling. But the rest of the household were likely to get the rough edge of his tongue, if they so much as looked at him, in the wrong way.
The first one to do just that was Jelly.
“’Bout time you got home,” said the handyman to the boy. “I’ve gotta bone to pick with you. Your father told you to have all that kindling done before you returned to school and when I went to get some, this morning, it was only half done. Murdoch’s likely to wear you out, young ‘un, as I know I heard you tell him it was all done.”
“Oh, and I bet you couldn’t wait to tell him otherwise, could you, Jelly?” retorted Johnny.
“No, I ain’t told him,” replied Jelly. “In fact, I chopped the kindling for you, so he’s not gonna find out. I’m just saying you should be more careful about telling your father lies. I know it’s something he’s most particular about; having his boys tell him the truth.”
This statement rather took the wind out of Johnny’s sails, as he was ready to take the man to task for getting involved in a family matter. Jelly was, after all, only a hand on the ranch, although a much trusted and revered hand.
“Well, that’s okay, then. Wood’s done and Pa don’t know about it. Let’s keep it that way,” and the boy carried on to the house.
As soon as Johnny entered the house, Murdoch guessed that he wasn’t happy, as he slammed the front door shut, behind him.
“Hello, Johnny,” called out Murdoch. “Do you think you could take a bit more care of the foundations of the house? Slamming the door like that is bound to have caused some damage.”
Johnny muttered something uncomplimentary about his father, under his breath, and headed for the stairs.
“John, please come in here,” said Murdoch.
“Going to get changed,” was the reply, and Johnny continued up the stairs.
“John Murdoch Lancer,” shouted Murdoch. “Get down those stairs and come in here, like you were told to do.”
The boy took as long as was humanly possible to walk from the stairs to his father’s desk. He said nothing, but the anger and insolence were there to be seen, plastered all over his face.
Father and son looked at each other, neither saying anything, for what seemed like an eternity to Johnny.
Eventually, he broke the silence. “Well?”
“Well, what?” replied Murdoch.
“What do ya want me for?”
“I want an explanation as to why you assaulted the sheriff, this afternoon. You are very lucky you are not in jail, again, young man.”
Johnny began to laugh, something his father was not expecting.
“I don’t think this is a laughing matter, John. Assaulting a sheriff is a serious offence.”
“I can’t believe he rode all the way out here, to tell you that,” said Johnny, once he’d stopped laughing. “It’s just too stupid for words.”
“He didn’t ride out here; he sent his deputy,” said Murdoch. “The sheriff was too badly hurt to come himself. He wants you to go to his office, first thing in the morning, and apologise, otherwise he is pressing charges.”
“Did the deputy explain what actually happened, Pa? Did he tell you that the sheriff assaulted me, first, and I only acted in self-defence?”
“No, he didn’t tell me that,” admitted Murdoch. “He said that you burst into the office, demanding to know why they hadn’t caught the man who attacked Meg. And when they were unable to give you a satisfactory answer, you attacked the sheriff.”
“I admit I wanted to know why they had been unable to catch him,” said Johnny. “And I did say that they wouldn’t catch him, if all they did was to stay in the office, all day, drinking coffee and playing checkers, which was what they were doing. He didn’t like what I was saying, so he tried to remove me from the office, by force, and I outfoxed him. I then got bored playing silly games with an idiot like he is, so I said I was leaving. As I turned around to go out the door, he kicked me on the backside. All I did was turn round, again, and kick him, back. Only it wasn’t on his backside, it was on his front side, right in the cojones, actually,” and Johnny laughed, again.
“And that was the extent of the assault?” demanded Murdoch.
“Yeah, it was,” replied Johnny. “I admit I wanted to do a lot more, to him, but I didn’t. And I was going to leave, without touching him at all, until he kicked me. The man’s a fool, a waste of space; you’ve said as much, yourself. I ain’t gonna go in there and apologise for what I did; no way.”
“Johnny, the man might be all those things, and more, but until he’s voted out, he’s the law in Green River and we have to abide by it. So, you will go into his office and apologise, first thing in the morning, understood?”
“I understand, Pa, but I ain’t gonna do it.”
Murdoch could tell, by the look on Johnny’s face, that the boy was not ready to capitulate and do as he was asked to do.
“Go and get cleaned up for supper. We will talk about this, later,” said Murdoch.
Johnny left his father and ran upstairs to his room. He did get cleaned up and he changed his shirt. At the appointed time, he went down to have supper. Murdoch kept the conversation light, as they ate. He asked about school and Johnny told him the barest minimum, failing to mention the whispering and the gossiping that had gone on. He knew that his father’s reaction would be that he was ‘to rise above it’ and not let the gossipers know he was bothered by their remarks. However, Johnny was not that skilled in turning the other cheek. It was more often something you learned with age, and although Johnny was more grown up in his outlook than many of his peers, he was still only a boy.
When supper was over, Johnny was about to leave the house, but Murdoch stopped him.
“We need to talk, Johnny,” said his father.
“No, Pa, you don’t really mean that. You want me to listen and you to talk. And then you want me to do as I am told and apologise to the sheriff. Well, it ain’t gonna happen.”
“Johnny, don’t you think we’ve been through enough, these past weeks, without making more trouble for yourself? I know that the sheriff isn’t the best man for the job and if it had been down to him, you would still be the main suspect for attacking Meg. But he is all we have, at the moment, and we have to at least be seen to be doing things by the rules. And you can’t go around attacking a law officer.”
“But it’s okay if he attacks me, is it?”
“Well, yes, in a way, it is. I mean, he would probably say that you were breaking the law and he only kicked you as a warning to do as you were told. And he has the right to use reasonable force to ensure that you do so. As I said, he has the law on his side. So, you are to apologise to him, before you go to school, in the morning. And that is my last word on the subject.”
Johnny knew that there was no point trying to argue with his father, so he let the subject drop. He headed for the stable, as he decided that spending some time with Scirocco might help him take his mind off the way he was feeling. He gave his horse a good rub down and then fed him several carrots, as he gently stroked his mane, and talked in a soft tone to his best friend on the ranch, now that Scott was no longer living there.
Once Johnny felt he was in control of his emotions, again, he decided to saddle up Scirocco and take a ride into Morro Coyo. He knew that some of his friends, including Wes, were going to be at the saloon.
Murdoch, meanwhile, tried to concentrate on some paperwork that he needed to finish, but he couldn’t keep his mind on it, and soon gave up.
He walked across the room, to the drinks cabinet, and poured himself a measure of malt whisky. He took the drink with him and went over to his favourite chair. He sat down and picked up a book he was reading.
He managed to read a few pages, but kept looking up at the clock, and wondering when Johnny was going to return to the house.
Eventually, when it got past the time that his son normally went to bed, Murdoch headed over to the barn, to see what was keeping the boy. He discovered that Scirocco and Johnny were both missing.
‘Oh great,’ he thought. ‘I bet the little devil’s gone into town.’
Murdoch saddled up his horse and rode off to track down his wayward boy.
Johnny and his friends were happily ensconced in the saloon, enjoying a few beers and a game of poker. The man who ran the saloon was not that bothered that the majority of his patrons were underage. As long as they had money to spend, he would have served chimpanzees. And Morro Coyo did not have a regular sheriff, so there was no one to insist that the boys stayed out of the saloons.
Some of the saloon girls stayed away from the young boys, but others were happy to entice them with their charms. They shared the same view that the saloon owner had; their money was as good as anyone else’s, and as one young lady rather crudely pointed out, ‘The young boys don’t take as long as the older men, so we can entertain more of ‘em in one night and that means more money.’
One young girl was showing an interest in Johnny. She was only a couple of years older than him and had seen him in town, on several occasions. She was very taken with his looks and his manners; good manners weren’t something that many men showed her, yet Johnny always tipped his hat, whenever he saw her in the street. Mind you, up until now, he hadn’t known, for sure, that she did work in a saloon, although he had his suspicions. She walked over to join him, and asked if she might sit in the empty chair next to his.
“Sure thing, ma’am,” said Johnny, standing up as she approached, and holding the chair for her.
“Why, thank you,” she said, smiling at the boy, but the others laughed at his show of manners. “There’s no need to laugh, I think his manners are beautiful,” she snapped at the men.
“Would you like a drink, Miss?” asked Johnny.
“Thanks, and the name is Carrie,” she said. “I’d like a whisky, please.”
Johnny walked over to the bar and ordered two whiskies. He’d only had a couple of sips out of his beer, but wasn’t that keen on the taste, although he wasn’t about to admit that to his friends.
‘Maybe I’ll like whisky, better’ he thought.
When he returned to his seat, she said, “You’re Johnny, aren’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am, I mean, yes, Carrie, I am, but how did you know that?”
“I’ve seen you in town and I asked about you,” she replied, smiling at him. “You’re a very handsome young man.”
Johnny felt his face turning red.
“Erm, thanks, and you’re real nice, too,” he mumbled, taking a big gulp of his drink, to hide his embarrassment.
He coughed, as the fiery liquid hit the back of his throat, but he decided that he did prefer the taste to beer.
Carrie started talking to him, telling him a bit about her life, so far. There were many similarities to his own upbringing, at least from the time he was with his mother.
“I was the oldest and Ma expected me to be out earning money, but when I brought it home, she mostly spent it on booze and the little ones didn’t get fed, a lot of the time. So, I started holding back a bit and using it to buy my brothers and sisters some food and clothes. But my stepfather caught on to what I was doing and just about beat me to death. Then my Ma’s health began to get worse and, eventually she died. Our stepfather walked out on us, saying that we weren’t his responsibility, and I wasn’t able to earn enough to feed all of them, so the kids ended up in an orphanage.”
There were tears in her eyes, as she was telling this tale, and Johnny felt very sorry for her. He bought a couple more rounds of drinks, and held her hand, as she continued with her story.
“I decided that working in a saloon was the only way I was gonna be able to earn enough money to try and get my brothers and sisters back with me. But it’s still taking longer than I thought it would, and I heard from the orphanage that my youngest brother has already been adopted.”
“I wish I could help you, Carrie, but I don’t have much money,” said Johnny.
“You might not have money, but your Pa does, don’t he?”
“Yeah, sure he does, but I don’t see him giving any of it to you.”
“Well, maybe you could help yourself to some of it?” suggested Carrie.
“But that’s stealing,” said Johnny.
“He’s your Pa, so what’s his is yours, ain’t it?”
“Well, I’m not too sure my Pa would see it like that, but I guess so,” said Johnny.
Now that Johnny had drunk several whiskies, he began to have a completely different view on things. He was already feeling rather hard done to, when he’d ridden into town, and as the alcohol took a hold of him, he started to think that things were even worse than he had, before.
“You know something, Carrie, I reckon you’re right. My Pa owes me that money. I do chores around the place and he only gives me a stingy allowance. I’ll see what I can do about getting you some money so you can get your family back together again. And maybe I’ll come with you, when you do.”
Johnny wasn’t quite sure what prompted him to say that, possibly the drink, plus the fact he was convinced that he and his father were just not meant to live together under one roof.
Carrie gently withdrew her hand from Johnny’s, and began to run it up his leg.
“Thank you, Johnny, that’s very kind of you. Maybe there is something I can do for you, in return?”
As she said this, she allowed her hand to travel a bit further up Johnny’s leg, and the boy had to swallow, hard, before he could answer her.
“I’m sure you can think of something, Carrie, though there’s really no need.”
“Oh, I think there is,” said Carrie, almost purring at him. “Perhaps we could go upstairs and continue this in more comfortable surroundings?”
Johnny knew about the rooms above the saloon and what went on in them, but he’d never been up there, yet.
“Oh yes, ma’am, I’d love to go upstairs with you,” he said, but before they even made it to the stairs, Johnny heard the voice of doom calling out his name.
“John Lancer, what on earth are you doing in here?” yelled Murdoch, who was standing in the doorway of the saloon, preventing any one from entering or leaving.
“Uh oh, Johnny, watch out,” yelled Wes. “You’re in fer it, now.”
“Oh, hi Pa,” said Johnny. “Say hello to Carrie. Her and me are just about to go upstairs to get better acquainted.”
“Oh no, you’re not,” said Murdoch. “You and I are going home and the only thing you are going to get acquainted with, tonight, is my belt.”
Johnny was so embarrassed at having his father talk about punishing him, in front of his friends that he ran out of the saloon, without saying goodbye to Carrie.
She hurried over to the door and called after him, “Bye, Johnny, I hope I see you again, real soon.”
But as Murdoch went past her, he said, “My son won’t be coming back in here, young lady, for at least another three years; so don’t hold your breath.”
The ride back to Lancer seemed longer than usual, but that was because it was taken in complete silence. Johnny was too embarrassed to say anything and Murdoch was too angry.
As they rode up to the house, Johnny climbed off Scirocco and offered to take the two horses to the barn.
“I’ll get one of the hands to see to them,” said Murdoch.
“No need, Pa,” said Johnny, desperate to stay out of the house for as long as he could. “Anyway, it’s late and they’ll all be in bed.”
“You have a point, there,” said Murdoch. “Very well, we will both take the horses to the barn. I am not going to let you out of my sight, just in case you decide to go back to that floozy, in town.”
“She ain’t no floozy, Pa; she’s a real nice gal and I like her,” shouted Johnny, angry that Murdoch was maligning Carrie. “She’s only working in the saloon to try and make enough money to get her family back together again.”
“Girls in saloons always have a hard luck story to explain why they are doing the job,” said Murdoch. “They are usually out to win over your sympathy and get money from you. And please don’t raise your voice to me. You are in enough trouble already.”
“Well, you would know all about saloon gals, wouldn’t you, Pa? Seeing as that’s what my mama was. So don’t lecture me about getting involved with a saloon girl, when you did the same thing. I really like Carrie and if I want to see her again, then I will.”
“I was a lot older than you are, when I met your mother,” said Murdoch. “I didn’t have to sneak out to go to a saloon; I had my own ranch and was my own boss. You are still a child and I expressly forbade you to go into town, at night, and to go into saloons.”
“I ain’t a child, Pa, I’m a man, well, almost, and I like being in a saloon and I like Carrie,” said Johnny, who was beginning to feel more than a bit nauseous and wished that the barn would stop spinning around.
“Be that as it may, John,” said Murdoch. “As far as I am concerned, you are still too young to be making such decisions, and while you are living under my roof I will not allow you to frequent saloons, until you are at least eighteen. I hope I have made myself clear on this point, as I don’t want to have to say it all, again.”
Murdoch could tell by the pallor of Johnny’s skin, and the sweat on his forehead, that the boy was about to be sick, so he grabbed his arm and led him over to an empty water pail.
“Use that,” he commanded, and he left the boy to his misery, as he took care of the horses.
By the time the animals were bedded down for the night, Johnny had finished throwing up, and Murdoch went over to him, with a dipper of water.
“Rinse out your mouth with this,” he said, handing the dipper to the boy. “Then I think you should get to bed. We can continue this discussion at another time.”
Johnny jerked up his head, after spitting out the mouthful of water with which he had been trying to erase the sour taste left in his mouth.
“What did you mean by that?”
“I meant exactly what it sounded like,” said Murdoch. “We can continue this when you are better and more able to take in what I am saying to you.”
“In the saloon you said you were gonna use your belt on me,” mumbled Johnny.
“And don’t you think I should?” replied his father. “After the way you’ve behaved tonight, I think I have every right to be very angry with you and to punish you, most severely.”
Johnny shrugged his shoulders and even that slight movement made his head ache.
He rubbed at his forehead, as he said, “Well, I’m hardly gonna say that I do think you should punish me, am I? I ain’t one of them masochists, you know.”
Murdoch had to smile at this, even though he was still very cross with the boy. He knew that by using such a word, Johnny had been looking at the dictionary, which Scott had left him, when he’d gone to college.
“I didn’t think you would say that, but I was hoping that you would at least understand why I was so angry with you.”
“To be honest, Pa, no, I can’t understand,” said Johnny. “I was having a few drinks with some friends and you stopped me. I couldn’t see a problem with doing that, but you could. I think we have to agree to disagree on this one. I only asked you about it, as I wanted to know what I should be prepared for, tomorrow. May I go to bed now? I’m real tired and my head hurts.”
Murdoch, too, was tired, and felt that he was making no headway whatsoever with Johnny. However, he knew that his threat to tan Johnny was no more than just that, a threat, made in the heat of the moment, when seeing his boy in the company of a saloon girl. Not that he was planning to let Johnny get away with his bad behaviour, completely, but he felt that he had to put the boy out of his misery, regarding that particular punishment, at least.
“Sounds like a good idea; I think we both could do with a decent night’s sleep. As to that appointment with my belt, I think we can forget about that, but we do still need to talk things over. Your behaviour of late has not been what I expect from you and I want to see an improvement.”
The two of them left the barn and walked over to the house. Johnny went up to his room and fell into his bed, too tired to even remove his clothes.
Despite being really tired, Johnny wasn’t able to get that much sleep, and he was awake even earlier than normal, the next morning. He groaned, as he realised it was a school day. He was sure that his father would not allow him to stay at home.
He got out of bed and shed all his clothes, as they smelt of stale beer, sweat and vomit.
“Yuck,” he said. “How did I ever manage to go to sleep with that horrid smell under my nose?”
He washed up with the warm water that Maria had thoughtfully brought to him, and was soon dressed in clean clothes.
As he got ready, he was thinking about how he was going to be able to get some money together for Carrie. He knew there was always several hundred dollars in the safe by Murdoch’s desk, but he couldn’t see how he would be able to get the money out, without being caught. Also, he knew that the very next time his father went to the safe for anything; he would notice that the money was gone, and he wanted to give him and Carrie the chance to be well away, before Murdoch discovered that some money was missing. Therefore, he decided that the best way to get at some money was to forge a cheque and get it cashed at the bank.
The boy had, successfully, forged his father’s signature on his last report card and on a couple of notes, when he’d been trying to cover up the fact that he had been playing hooky from school.
He ran down to the main room and was relieved to find it empty. He went over to his father’s desk and opened the drawer, which contained the cheque book. He quickly tore a cheque out of the book and replaced it in the drawer, stuffing the cheque into his pocket. He only just made it to the kitchen, as his father arrived.
“Good morning, son,” said Murdoch.
“Morning,” said Johnny.
“I’m pleased to see that you are up and dressed in time for school. I was expecting to have to come and drag you out of bed.”
“Well, as you can see, there is no need for that,” said Johnny, accepting a glass of milk off Maria.
“You drink all of that,” she said. “Put lining back on stomach after being sick.”
Murdoch had told her about Johnny being ill, and she was torn between scolding him for drinking and fussing over him, as he was feeling poorly.
“Thanks, Mamacita,” said Johnny, smiling at her.
He could feel tears beginning to form in his eyes and he wasn’t sure if it was because he was still a bit hungover, or if he was just sad about leaving the housekeeper behind. She had worked at the house, when he was born, and had looked after him for the first two years of his life, as his mother hadn’t been that interested in taking care of a baby. And since he’d returned to the ranch, when he was ten, Maria had, once more, taken care of him. He knew he was going to miss her, once he and Carrie left the area.
His father’s voice brought him out of his reverie.
“We don’t have a lot of time, now, to discuss this, Johnny, but I am placing you on restriction for the rest of the month, as punishment for your disobedience, last night. So that means you don’t go anywhere else, apart from school and back, and you don’t invite any friends over to the house, either. I will find you plenty of chores to fill up your spare hours, so there will be no time to get bored. And you can take this as your final warning, son. If I catch you hanging around that saloon, or talking to that girl who works there, I won’t hesitate to use my belt on your backside. I know that you feel that there is nothing wrong with you spending time in a saloon, but I do not agree and, as I said last night, whilst you are living in my house, you will abide by my rules.”
Murdoch was rather surprised when Johnny didn’t protest about his punishment.
In a gentler voice, he said, “Honestly, son, I place these restrictions on you for all the best reasons. Saloons are rough places, and are often frequented by tough men, who don’t have any time for youngsters. When there is drinking involved, I know how easy it can be to think you are bigger or stronger than you really are; in fact to think you are invincible. It’s all too easy to get into a situation that you don’t have the experience to get out of, and this is why I say you are too young to be going into saloons. Please try and trust me on this, John; I do know what I’m saying.”
“Si, Juanito, your Papa is right,” added Maria. “You listen to him, niño, and stay safe,” and she crossed herself, as she said this.
Johnny managed to eat a bit of breakfast, enough to satisfy Maria, at least, and then he stood up, collected his lunch from the kitchen counter, and said goodbye.
“Thanks, Maria,” he said, as he gave her a kiss.
“Why you thank me?” she asked.
“Oh, for just being here and taking care of me.”
“You’re welcome,” she said, kissing him back.
Murdoch was in the main room and as Johnny passed through, he shouted out his goodbyes. Now that he was actually leaving, he was feeling so much closer to his father, and for a moment, he was tempted to go and give the man a kiss goodbye. But he resisted, as he very rarely did kiss his father, now, and he knew it would make Murdoch suspicious.
“Don’t forget, Johnny, you’re to come straight home after school. And you are to go and see the sheriff, before school, and apologise to him.”
“I won’t forget,” said the boy, and he left the house, for the last time.
He soon had Scirocco saddled up and as he rode along, Wes joined him.
“Mornin’ Johnny,” said Wes. “I reckon your Pa must’ve lost his touch.”
“What do ya mean?” asked Johnny.
“Well, he said he was gonna give you a tannin’, when he hauled ya outta the saloon, last night, yet you’re sittin’ fine in that saddle.”
“I managed to talk him out of it,” said Johnny.
“Nice one,” said Wes. “So, when are ya seein’ Carrie agin?”
“Later today,” said Johnny. “She wants to go back home and get her family back together again, and I’m going with her.”
“Yup, really. I’ve had enough of the ole man always yelling at me and finding fault. It’s got worse since Scott left and I don’t wanna stick around and put up with it no more, so I’m heading out. ’Sides, I really like Carrie and I know she likes me, too.”
“When are ya goin’?”
“After school, today,” said Johnny.
“Mind if I tag along?”
“Well, I’m going with Carrie, but I guess you can come too. But why do you wanna leave? Your Pa is mostly too drunk to cause you any grief. You do pretty much whatever you want to do.”
“I know I do, but I think it’s only a matter of time before your Pa sends my Pa down the road, as he don’t turn up for work, more times than he does. And when that happens, I don’t fancy takin’ ta the road with him; I’d rather be with my buddy.”
“That’s fine then,” said Johnny. “After today, you and me are gonna be as free as the birds in the sky.”
“Yee, haw,” yelled Wes, and the two boys rode on to school. Johnny didn’t go and apologise to the sheriff, as now he was going to leave, he figured he didn’t have to do what his father told him to, anymore. It certainly wasn’t his idea to offer the man an apology.
Johnny decided it was best not to tell Wes about his plan to get some money for Carrie, and so at lunch time, when he was going to go to the bank, he just told Wes that he was going to see Carrie.
“I need to make sure that she’ll be ready to leave, as soon as we’ve finished school, this afternoon,” said Johnny. “Pa’s put me on restriction, and so when I don’t arrive home when I should, he’s likely to come looking for me. I wanna be well on our way, by the time he does.”
“Okay,” said Wes. “If Miss Burgess asks where you are, I’ll say you’re sick and you’re in the outhouse.”
Johnny made his way over to the bank and presented the cheque to the teller. He’d only made it out for two hundred dollars, as he felt that the bank might query giving him more than that. As it was, the teller looked at the cheque and then at Johnny, a couple of times, before counting out the money.
“You be careful with this money, young Johnny,” said Mr Lovelock. “Make sure you get it home safely, to your father.”
“Sure thing, thanks, Mr Lovelock,” said Johnny.
He put the cash in his back pocket and then rode over to Morro Coyo.
“Where’s Carrie?” he asked the bartender, when he entered the saloon.
“Upstairs, getting some shuteye,” said Frank. “She don’t start work until this evening.”
“I need to talk to her, so what’s her room number?”
“She never said I was ta show no kid up to her room,” said Frank.
“I was here with her, last night,” said Johnny. “She’ll wanna see me.”
The other bartender, Stan, who had been working the night before, vouched for Johnny.
“He’s telling the truth, Frank. He was here last night and he did sit with Carrie. Her room number is 7, son.”
“Thanks,” said Johnny, and he ran up the stairs.
He knocked on the door, and waited for Carrie to let him in, but she didn’t answer his knock. He knocked again, and this time, called out to her.
“It’s Johnny, Carrie; I need to talk to you.”
It still took a while for her to come to the door, but eventually she opened it. She looked totally different from the girl he’d sat with, the night before. She was wearing an old faded wrap, and her face was devoid of make up. Her hair was scraped back off her face and tied at the nape of her neck.
“What do you want? I’ll be downstairs tonight, if you wanna spend time with me, then, but right now I need some sleep.”
Johnny was a bit shocked when he saw how she looked, but he recovered quickly. He pulled the two hundred dollars from out of his back pocket and waved it at her.
“See, I got the money for you. Now we can go and get your brothers and sisters from the orphanage and we can all be together.”
Carrie’s eyes lit up at the sight of the money and she made a grab for it.
“Oh, that’s great, Johnny. I didn’t think you’d really be able to pull it off.”
“Stick with me, baby, and you’ll be amazed at what I can do,” bragged Johnny.
“What’s this about you coming with me? I didn’t think you really meant it; in fact I didn’t think you meant any of it,” said Carrie, who was used to men telling her anything in order to get to spend the night with her.
“After school, today, I’ll come back here, so you can tell the guy who owns the saloon that you’re quitting your job. You and me are leaving for good.”
“Okay, Johnny, if that’s what you wanna do, you’re welcome to come with me,” said Carrie. “I’ll see you later,” and she gave him a kiss, before closing the door.
Johnny rode back to school, feeling on top of the world. By tonight he reckoned that the three of them would be miles away from Morro Coyo and he would be going to sleep in the arms of the girl he loved.
He was late getting back to school for afternoon lessons and Miss Burgess called him to her desk, as he entered the room.
“Where have you been, Johnny?” she asked. “Afternoon lessons are almost over.”
“In the outhouse, ma’am,” said Johnny. “Sorry I’m late, but I had terrible pains in my stomach.”
“John, please don’t add to your crimes by lying to me. I asked one of the boys to check the outhouse and it was empty, so where have you really been?”
“I had an errand to run for my Pa,” he said, deciding that it was not a good idea to tell the truth and say he’d been to visit a young lady in her bedroom.
“In that case, you should have asked my permission to leave the schoolyard, young man. I am responsible for you during school hours and as such I need to know where you are, at all times. You will stay behind after school and clean all the boards and the erasers.”
“But Miss Burgess, my Pa’ll skin me alive if I don’t get home on time,” said Johnny, plaintively.
“Well, if he does, maybe that will serve as a reminder to you that you are supposed to ask permission before you leave the schoolyard. Now, go and sit down, your tardiness has already caused us enough delay.”
Johnny returned to his seat and tried to get a lid on his temper, as he didn’t want to make himself even later meeting up with Carrie. Wes looked over at him and winked and Johnny, now a bit calmer, winked back.
As soon as school was over for the day, Johnny grabbed hold of Wes and asked him to saddle up Scirocco.
“I’ll be as quick as I can with these darn boards and then I’ll join you outside.”
“Okay, Johnny my boy, see you in a while,” said Wes, and he left the room.
He began cleaning the boards as though his life depended upon it, until Miss Burgess stopped him.
“I find it hard to believe that you are really so scared of your father, Johnny, that you are cleaning the boards as fast as you are. Mr Lancer has always seemed to be a very reasonable man to me. I’m sure he won’t be that cross if you are a few minutes later than usual, returning home.”
“Oh, he’s changed, heaps, since Scott went away, ma’am. You wouldn’t recognise him. He’s angry all the time and any little thing sets him off. He said I had to go straight home from school and if I don’t then I’m in real trouble.”
“Very well, Johnny, then you’d better get off home,” said Miss Burgess. “But I think I need to have a word with your father at the earliest possible convenience. Perhaps you could convey that message to him, when you get home?”
“Yes, ma’am, I will, and thank you for letting me go,” said Johnny.
The boy ran outside to join Wes, and the two of them were soon on their way to Morro Coyo, to meet up with Carrie.
Wes stayed with the horses and Johnny went inside the saloon. He didn’t speak to the bartender, just headed up the stairs and knocked on Carrie’s door. As he waited for her to open it, he could hear the sound of laughter coming from the room. There were two voices, one male and one female.
“Open up, Carrie, who you got in there with you?” said Johnny, hammering on the door, again.
“No need to break it down, I’m coming,” and the door was opened by another girl who worked in the saloon.
As she stood in the doorway, Johnny could see that there was a man lying on the bed.
He looked at the number on the door, again, to check that it was number 7; and it was.
“Where’s Carrie? When I came over here at lunch time, this was her room,” he said.
“Maybe it was, at lunch time,” said the girl, who was called Violet. “But she quit her job and gave up the room, and so I took it. And now, if you will excuse me, my friend and I were busy.”
The girl went to close the door, but Johnny placed his foot in the way.
“Can you tell me where she went?”
“No idea,” said Violet. “She just said that she’d made a killing from some sucker of a kid and so was leaving town. Hey, I’m betting that was you, am I right?”
“None of your business if it was,” said Johnny, and he turned on his heel and headed off down the stairs.
He stopped at the bar and spoke to Stan.
“What time did Carrie leave?”
“About thirty minutes after you left,” said Stan. “She just up and quit her job and moved out of her room.”
“Thank you,” said Johnny, his face a picture of misery.
“Hey kid,” said Stan, as Johnny made to leave the bar. “This might be the first time that some dame has taken you for a ride, but I doubt if it will be the last. They’re all the same, out for what they can get. So try and learn from it and, hopefully, it won’t be so bad, the next time.”
Johnny said nothing, just went out into the street, to meet up with Wes.
“Where’s the lovely Carrie?” asked Wes.
“She ain’t coming with us,” said Johnny, as he mounted up. “Let’s get going.”
“Fine by me,” said Wes. “Gals only mess things up, anyway.”
So the two boys rode out of Morro Coyo and it would be five long years before Murdoch saw his son again. And by that time the boy who used to be Johnny Lancer would have turned into the gunfighter, Johnny Madrid.
Epilogue – Johnny did write one letter to Murdoch, explaining about how he took the money from the bank account and gave it to Carrie. When Murdoch went to town looking for Johnny, he discovered that the girl had moved on, and that her reason for leaving was that she’d come into some money, so at least Murdoch knew that Johnny hadn’t lied to him, and just taken the money for himself.
Johnny often regretted his decision to leave home, but it wasn’t long after he left that he killed a man, for the first time. It was totally in self defence; the man thought that a boy as young as Johnny was an easy target, but soon learned that wasn’t the case. Johnny felt he would not be welcome back at Lancer, with blood on his hands. And so his path was well and truly set for him, and the boy called Johnny Lancer died that day, along with the man who had tried to assault him.
Scott also failed to return to Lancer, after attending college. His studies were interrupted by the Civil War and he enlisted. He spent time in a prisoner of war camp, and once the war ended, returned to his grandfather’s house, in order to recuperate. He then went back to college and finished his degree. He felt he owed his grandfather a lot, as the man had supported him during his college years and so agreed to work for Harlan, for a couple of years. During this time, he met Julie and they came close to marriage, but at the last minute Scott changed his mind. He spent several months at a loss as to what to do with his life, and then the call came from his father, via the Pinkerton agent.
And Johnny was proved right when he’d said that Sam Waller’s older brother, Chris, might have been responsible for the attack on Meg. It turned out that Meg had been seeing Chris, against her parents’ wishes, and she had asked him to attend the party that night. So that no one would recognise him and tell her parents that she was still seeing him, Meg had made him a clown’s costume, using some of the oddments that Teresa had taken to school. Meg wanted to spend time with Chris, and so agreed to go outside with him, at the party. But, the young man began to take liberties and Meg got scared. She pushed him away and that was when he tied her up and began forcing himself upon her. Fortunately for Meg, Johnny interrupted the attack and Chris ran off. Meg was scared to say that she knew who her attacker was, as she didn’t want to be in trouble with her parents for arranging to meet Chris. However, eventually she realised that she had to come clean and made a full statement to the sheriff.
Lancer lives on!
June 2008 – revised March 2014
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