Love Comes To Lancer by Lynne

Word Count 37,662

A Lancer AU Story #7

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Chapter 1

Scott and Johnny, the sons of Murdoch Lancer, who owned the vast Lancer spread in the San Joaquin Valley, California, rode home from school, at the end of the first week of the fall term.

Their holiday in San Francisco seemed like a million years away, even though it had been less than three weeks ago.

Scott, in particular, felt that the time had dragged, between them returning home and starting school, again. This was mainly because he had been restricted to the ranch and yard, and each day had been filled up with chores, chores and more chores, his punishment for the way he’d behaved whilst they’d been on holiday.

After making all kinds of promises to keep an eye on his little brother, Scott failed to do so, and Johnny ended up being kidnapped.  However, Scott did manage to get him away from the kidnappers, without Johnny suffering anything worse than a bang on the head.

Murdoch realised that Scott was genuinely sorry for what had happened, and so let him off with no more than restriction to the ranch and extra chores, until it was time to return to school.

Johnny also added to Scott’s feelings of guilt, by holding onto his head and complaining of pain, anytime he wanted Scott to do something for him, and Scott was reluctant to help. This worked for about a week, or so, after the kidnapping. However, after that, Scott suggested that Johnny paid a visit to the doctor, if his head was hurting that much, and as Johnny hated having to see a doctor, he soon dropped the pretence.

“Phew, I’m sure glad this week is over,” said Johnny, as he dismounted from his horse.

“Why? It hasn’t been that bad,” replied Scott, who was already interested in the new girl in his class, called Mary Matthews.

“Oh, it’s just that Miss Carstairs has sure bin working us hard. She said our brains had gone to sleep, over the holidays, and she was gonna shake ‘em up, a bit.”

Scott laughed at this.

“So you reckon your brain needs a rest, already, do you, little brother? What about homework? Haven’t you got some?”

In response, Johnny groaned.

“Don’t spoil things, Scott. It’s Friday night, homework don’t havta be thought about ‘til Sunday evening.”

“I don’t think that Pa will see it that way,” said Scott. “He likes us to get our homework out of the way, at the start of the week end.”

“Well, yeah, I know he does, but he don’t havta know if I haven’t done it, does he? Unless you snitch on me.”

“I’m not about to snitch on you, little brother,” said Scott. “I’m not in the habit of doing things like that, as well you know.”

“No, maybe not, but you have done it, sometimes,” said Johnny.

“Only when I’ve been worried that what you’re doing could be dangerous,” said Scott.

Johnny had to concede that was the case.

“Yeah, I guess so,” he said, as he pushed open the main door, calling out for his father, as he did so.

“Hi, Papa, we’re home,” he yelled, but there was no answer from Murdoch.

Johnny ran into the kitchen and spoke to Maria.

“Hi Maria, we’re home,” he said, rather unnecessarily. “Where’s Papa?”

“Your father had some business in Green River, but said he would be home to have supper with his hijos,” said Maria. “Now, have your milk and cookies, then go do your chores, like a good boy.”

“Okay, Mamacita,” and he ran back into the main room of the house, to relay to Scott, what Maria had said.

“Well, we best get on with our chores, then, and that way Pa won’t have anything to complain about, when he does get back,” said Scott. “I sure don’t want to be stuck on the ranch, doing loads of extra chores, again, any time soon, especially now that Mary has moved to the area.”

Johnny rolled his eyes and returned to the kitchen. He couldn’t believe how easily his so called sensible big brother fell in love. When they’d been in San Francisco, only a few weeks earlier, Scott had been declaring that Becky was the only girl he cared for; yet, here he was, talking about Mary, in the same glowing terms.

The boys ate their snack and then completed their chores. Afterwards, Scott persuaded Johnny to make a start on his homework.

“You may as well, and then when Pa comes home, and you want to ask him about going wherever it is that you want to go, on Sunday, and he asks if you’ve done your homework, you can say yes.”

“I always say yes, whether I’ve done it, or not,” said Johnny.

Scott laughed and continued.

“Where do you want to go? I saw you talking to Wes and Charlie, just before we left school, and you said you’d see them after church, on Sunday.”

“Oh, nowhere, really,” said Johnny, in what Scott could only describe as a very suspicious manner.

“Are you plotting something, little brother?”

“Now why would you think that, of me?” said Johnny, grinning disarmingly at Scott.

“I don’t know, exactly,” said Scott. “But you look kinda sheepish, like you’re up to something, that’s all.”

“A cattleman’s son, looking sheepish? Don’t say that in front of Papa, he just might expel me from the family,” said Johnny.

Despite his earlier remarks, Johnny decided he would start his homework, but he soon drew a blank, and stopped to ask Scott for some help.

“Not now, Johnny, I’m busy doing my homework,” said Scott, rather impatiently.

“But I don’t know much at all about our relatives and we’ve gotta draw a family tree,” said Johnny.

“Best person to ask is Pa,” said Scott.

“He ain’t here, Scott, so I can’t,” replied Johnny.

“Well, do the best you can and then you can finish it when Pa’s here to fill in the gaps,” said Scott, who was struggling with a rather complicated math problem and was also in need of Murdoch’s help.

“Where is Papa, anyway?” said Johnny. “Maria said he’d be back for supper and it’s about that time, now, and he ain’t here.”

“Maybe he got caught up in some business meeting,” said Scott. “It does happen, you know.”

“Yeah, I know it does, but I ain’t seen much of him, this week, and I was hoping he was gonna be here, when we got back from school.”

Scott looked over at his little brother and gave him a sympathetic smile. He knew that Johnny wouldn’t come out and say as much, but he didn’t really like being away from Murdoch, for too long, and so by the time he returned from school, he liked his father to be at the house. This was rather strange, considering how the two of them had been apart from each other, for eight years, but it was like Johnny was wanting to make up for all that time he’d missed out on being with his father.

“I’m sure he will be back, soon,” said Scott, but, when Maria called them to the table, for supper, Murdoch still wasn’t home.

“We have to eat, now, or food spoil,” she said to the boys. “I put your father’s in oven to keep warm, okay?”

“Yes, that’s fine, Maria, thank you,” said Scott.

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Chapter 2

In Green River, Murdoch was also just about to sit down for supper, and his dining companion was a very attractive woman.

Not that his intention had been to stay and eat there; he’d told Maria to let the boys know that he would be home in time to have supper with them, and he always liked to keep his word, especially to his sons. But, once his business meeting was over, he’d met up, again, with the woman, who was now sitting opposite him, and on hearing her plight, had offered to help her out.

On arriving in Green River, earlier that day, Murdoch was making his way along the sidewalk, to the offices of the man he was hoping to do some business with, Mr Horace Gantry, when the stage pulled in. Murdoch wasn’t expecting there to be anyone on the stage that he knew, but he paused, long enough, to watch the passengers disembark. There were a couple of businessmen, a young couple and, the last one off was a woman of indeterminate years. She stood on the sidewalk, obviously looking for someone, and Murdoch could soon tell that the person she sought, was not there. The driver placed her luggage next to her, and then he entered the stage depot, after she’d told him that she was being met.

As Murdoch passed by, he tipped his hat and smiled at her, noticing that she was probably somewhere between thirty and forty, and most likely at the younger end of that decade.

He was almost past her, when she addressed him.

“Excuse me, but you wouldn’t happen to know Ezra Perkins, would you?”

Her voice was a lot deeper than he’d expected it to be, but in a pleasing way; in fact it was very sensual.

“Ezra Perkins?” repeated Murdoch, looking into her beautiful green eyes. “I don’t really know him, but I know of him, and I think he has a place just south of town.”

“He was supposed to be meeting me, but isn’t here, and I was wondering if he might have been delayed, in some way, and how I could find out?”

“The only way, ma’am, would be to ride out to his place and check,” said Murdoch. “But the stage has only just got here, so it’s likely he’s on his way.”

“I hope so, as I know no one else, here in town, so wouldn’t like to be stranded.”

“I hate to leave a damsel in distress, I’m Murdoch Lancer, by the way, but I’m on my way to a business meeting and so have to run. However, if you’d like to go and have a cup of coffee, across the street there, I will come and meet up with you, as soon as my meeting is over. If Mr Perkins hasn’t arrived, by then, I will happily drive you out to his ranch.”

“That’s very kind of you, Mr Lancer,” said Molly, as that was her name. “Are you part of the official welcoming committee of Green River?”

“Well, actually I live on a ranch, which is closer to Morro Coyo, but I am more than happy to help you out, Miss er?”

“Sorry, my name is Mrs Molly Michaels,” she said, smiling up at Murdoch, who was surprised to note that Molly was even more beautiful, when she smiled, something he didn’t think was possible, as he was already smitten.

“I’ll just stow your luggage away in the stage depot and they will keep an eye on it, for you,” said Murdoch, rather upset, but not surprised, to hear that this beautiful woman was married.

“Thank you, Mr Lancer,” said Molly. “I’ll go over to that café, as you suggested, and if I’m not there, once your meeting is finished, it will be because Ezra has collected me.”

“Very well, ma’am,” said Murdoch, and he hefted her luggage into the depot and told the clerk that if Mr Perkins arrived, Mrs Michaels was in the café across the street.

When he returned to the sidewalk, Molly had already crossed the street and was entering the café. She waved at him, and he waved back.

‘I do hope she is still in there, once my meeting is over, but I suppose it would be better if she’s not, as I cannot pursue a married woman,’ he thought, as he made his way to Mr Gantry’s office. ‘But she sure was pleasing to the eye.’

Murdoch tried to keep his mind on the meeting, but it kept straying across the street to that café and to Molly. For a woman, she was quite tall. Murdoch was six foot five and most people looked small next to him, but he reckoned that she was at least five foot nine. She had light brown hair and the most striking green eyes, and a perfect nose, which turned up, slightly, at the end. Her smile was most engaging and her figure was delightful, neither too thin nor too fat. She was wearing a fairly plain travelling dress, the colour of which matched her eyes, perfectly.

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As soon as the meeting was over, Murdoch almost ran across the street and through the café doors. He was so relieved to find that Molly was still there, although she didn’t look that pleased about it.

She did cheer up, a bit, though, when she saw Murdoch approaching her.

“Oh hello, Mr Lancer. Yes, I’m still here and no, Ezra hasn’t shown up, yet. So, if your offer still holds, I would be most grateful if you would drive me out to Ezra’s house.”

“Hello, ma’am. Sorry to hear that Ezra didn’t arrive. Of course I will take you out to his place. I’ll go over to the livery stable and hire a buggy. Do you want something to eat, before we go?”

“Thank you, and no, not really, it’s a bit early for supper. But once we get to Ezra’s, I will prepare something for the three of us. It’s the least I can do for putting you out, this way.”

“That will be lovely, ma’am, and you are not putting me out, at all.”

“What about your family? I am sure they are expecting you.”

“Oh, they’ll manage without me, for one evening,” said Murdoch, although he did feel a bit guilty about letting the boys down. “Come on, I’ll take you over to the depot and you can wait there with your luggage while I go and get the buggy.”

“Very well, Mr Lancer, that sounds like a good plan,” and she paid her bill in the café, and then left with Murdoch.

It didn’t take long for Murdoch to collect his horse and rent a buggy. He tied his mount to the rear of the buggy, and then drove it over to the depot, to collect Molly and her luggage.

They were soon on their way out to Ezra’s ranch.

“Did Mr Perkins know that you were arriving today?” asked Murdoch.

“Well, I wrote and told him,” said Molly. “But knowing my brother, as I do, he probably forgot, or never even opened the letter.”

“Oh, so Ezra is your brother, is he?”

“Yes, he is,” said Molly. “He’s younger than me and could never be anywhere on time, even when we were little. The number of times that we were late for school, because of him, and it was me who got into trouble, because I was older and was supposed to be responsible for him.”

“I think my older son would sympathise with that,” said Murdoch. “Scott is always the first to be ready, and Johnny is always the last.”

“So, you have two boys, any others?” asked Molly.

“No, just my two boys,” said Murdoch. “What about you? Do you and your husband have any children?”

“No, no children, unfortunately,” said Molly, and she looked very sad, when she said it.

“Oh well, you’re still young, so it could happen.”

“I’m afraid it couldn’t,” said Molly. “You see, I am a widow.”

“I do apologise, my dear,” said Murdoch. “I had no idea.”

“And there’s no reason why you should have done, so please don’t feel bad about it. When I introduced myself, I said I was Mrs Michaels. There was nothing to tell you that I was widowed.”

“I suppose not,” said Murdoch. “I am widowed, too, so can sympathise.”

Unknown to Murdoch, this news caused Molly’s heart to race. She was very taken with the tall, handsome, well mannered rancher, but had assumed that he was married.

And, of course, she couldn’t know that Murdoch was also pleased to hear that she was on her own.

“So, is this just a short visit to your brother, or are you planning to stay for a while?”

“I’m not really sure, yet. Ezra wants me to stay for good, as now I am on my own, there’s nothing to keep me in Sacramento, but I’m not sure that I am cut out to live on a ranch. Ezra moved out west, as soon as he was old enough, he always wanted to be a cowboy, so I’m glad he’s living his dream.”

“Well, if you are here, for a while, I’d love to show you Lancer and have you meet my boys.”

“Thank you, Mr Lancer, I’d really enjoy that.”

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Chapter 3

As soon as they drove into the yard of the ranch house, Ezra came out onto the porch, to greet them.

“Molly, is that you? But I thought you said you were arriving on the 7th?”

“I did, and this is the 7th, Ezra,” said Molly, alighting from the buggy, before either Ezra or Murdoch could help her down, and running into Ezra’s arms. “Oh brother, it’s so good to see you, again, and you haven’t changed a bit, just as forgetful as ever.”

As he hugged his sister, Ezra looked over at Murdoch and a frown came to his brow.

“Do I know you, mister?” he said. “You sure don’t look like a livery stable driver.”

Molly laughed and the sound was like music to Murdoch’s ears.

“This is Mr Murdoch Lancer, Ezra, and he owns a huge spread near Morro Coyo. He’s heard of you, so I’m sure you must’ve heard of him.”

“Yes, of course I’ve heard of him,” said Ezra. “Sorry, Mr Lancer, to tell you the truth I was taking a little snooze in the armchair, just before you arrived, and I ain’t quite myself, yet. It’s a real pleasure to meet you, sir, and I am surprised that you’ve heard of me.”

“How do you do, Mr Perkins?” said Murdoch, extending his hand to the man. “The reason I’ve heard of you is because I used to know old man Kelso, who had this place, before you, and I recall his daughter telling me that a Mr Perkins had bought it, after her father’s death.”

Ezra shook Murdoch’s hand and smiled at the big man. He was no midget himself, being just over six feet tall, but he felt quite small, next to Murdoch.

“Mr Lancer met me in town and took pity on me,” explained Molly. “He offered to drive me out here, and, in exchange, I promised to cook him supper.”

“Well, I’m not that sure what we’ve got in the store cupboard, sis,” said Ezra.

“Don’t worry; I picked up some supplies in town. If you would take my luggage inside, then I can get on with the cooking.”

Murdoch helped Ezra with the luggage, and they were soon inside the little cabin. Surprisingly, considering a man lived there, alone, the place was quite tidy and reasonably clean, although Molly’s expert eyes soon spotted some areas that needed attention.

The door led into a fairly large room, which served as a living area, to the front, and a kitchen, to the back. On either side of this room, there was a door, and these led into the two bedrooms. Ezra occupied the one to the left of the front door, so he took his sister’s things into the one on the right.

Then he returned to the main room and offered Murdoch a drink.

“I have a pretty good drop of whisky put away, just for special occasions, such as these. And you look like a man who would appreciate it.”

“What’s the special occasion?” asked Molly, from the kitchen.

“You finally coming to visit me,” said Ezra. “I never thought I would get you out here. It’s been a good while since you lost Robert, and I’ve been asking you to come and stay with me, ever since then.”

“There was too much to do, at first,” said Molly, as she peeled potatoes. “So many letters to write and things to clear out. I wanted to get all that done, first. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to come; I am sure you know that,” and she looked over at her brother, and smiled at him.

Murdoch could tell that the two of them were close and he was glad, as in the short time he’d known Molly, he’d come to like her, a lot, and he hated the thought of her being alone in the world. She’s already told him that her parents were dead and that Ezra was her only close relative.

Ezra smiled back and then said to Murdoch, “She always could twist me round her little finger. When we were kids, I often took the rap for her, from our folks, as she would talk me into it. I never could figure out how she managed it.”

“Mrs Michaels told me that she was the one who would get into trouble, especially when you were late for school, even though it was you who always took your time getting ready, and so made you late,” said Murdoch. “She said it was the price she paid for being the oldest.”

“Well, that might have been the case at school, but with our folks, it was a different story. I think they just looked at the two of us and couldn’t believe that someone as angelic looking as Molly could possibly have thought up whatever mischief we were involved in, at the time. Whereas I looked only too likely to have been up to my neck in trouble.”

“It’s probably a case of the other man’s grass always seeming to be greener,” said Murdoch. “I know that I was often jealous of what I perceived to be the easy life that my younger brother enjoyed and it wasn’t until years later that I found out that he had been envious of me.”

The two men spent the next half hour, or so, chatting, quite happily, and were both surprised when Molly announced that the supper was ready.

“And you men always try and maintain that it’s us women who do the most talking,” said Molly, as she placed the dishes on the table. “Please come and sit down and eat it while it’s hot.”

“Thank you, very much,” said Murdoch, as he held the chair out, for Molly to sit down. “This looks wonderful and you prepared it all so quickly.”

“Oh, I am a wizard in the kitchen,” she replied. “But wait to offer praise, until you have tasted it.”

“I am sure it will be delicious,” said Murdoch, and he was proved to be right.

Back at Lancer, Johnny was trying to pretend that he wasn’t bothered that Murdoch wasn’t there, but neither Scott nor Maria was fooled by the act.

After supper, Scott suggested that they played checkers and Johnny agreed, but every couple of minutes he would jump up, as he thought he heard his father returning.

“Where is he? Do you think he’s all right?” he said, eventually.

“I am sure he is,” said Scott, although, he, too, was getting just a little bit anxious about where their father could be.

“You said he might’ve been held up in his meeting, but not for this long, surely,” said Johnny, once again, looking out of the window. Not that he could see much, as it was now dark, but he still kept looking.

Maria brought in some cocoa and cookies.

“It is time you were in bed, Johnny,” she said, as she placed the tray on the small table near the fireplace.

“I wanna wait up for Papa,” said Johnny. “There’s no school in the morning, so I don’t havta be up early, tomorrow.”

“But your Papa still like you to go to bed at proper time,” said Maria, looking over at Scott for support.

“Yes, he does, Johnny,” said Scott. “Tell you what, we’ll have this drink and then we’ll both go up to bed. I’ll read to you, for a while, if you want me to?”

“Yeah, that would be good,” said Johnny, and Maria smiled her thanks to Scott, for diffusing what could have become a nasty situation.

Back at Ezra’s place, they finished eating the meal and Murdoch rose to leave.

“Do you have to rush off, so soon?” asked Ezra. “It’s not often I get someone to chat to.”

“I’ve enjoyed my evening here, very much, but yes, I do need to get home to my boys. And it’s not as though you don’t have anyone to talk to, if I go, as your sister is here, for a while, anyway.”

“That’s true,” conceded Ezra. “And just how long are you gonna stay here with me, sis?”

“I haven’t decided, yet, but for a few weeks, at least,” she said. “We’ve got a lot to catch up on, and this place needs a woman’s touch; it’s not that clean.”

“What do you mean, it’s not that clean? I spent a lot of time getting this place decent for your visit. This is the cleanest it’s been, since I moved in.”

“Well, what might be clean to you, is not that clean to me,” said Molly.

Ezra just rolled his eyes and then winked at Murdoch, looking for all the world like a naughty schoolboy, in fact looking very much like Johnny did when Maria complained about the state of his room.

“Women,” was all he said.

Murdoch smiled at them both and said, “Thank you both, so much, for a lovely evening. If you are going to be staying here, for several weeks, ma’am, perhaps you will allow me to repay you for the meal, by coming over to Lancer one evening and joining me and my sons for supper. The invitation is for the both of you, of course.”

“That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it, Ezra?” said Molly. “And please call me Molly, Mr Lancer.”

“Only if you call me Murdoch,” said Murdoch.

“Yes, it would be great,” said Ezra. “Thanks for the invite, Murdoch. Which night shall we come?”

“I’ll have to check my diary, before I suggest a date,” said Murdoch. “If it’s all right with you, Molly, I’ll call by over the week end, and let you know when I am free.”

“Yes, that will be fine,” said Molly. “I am not planning on going anywhere over this week end, as I want to tackle the cabin.”

“In that case, I’ll see you again, soon,” said Murdoch. “I must be going, now. As it is, the boys will probably be in bed, by the time I get home.”

Molly walked to the door with Murdoch and opened it for him.

“Thanks, again, for coming to my rescue in town, today,” she said.

“You are very welcome,” said Murdoch. “Goodnight, Ezra, nice to meet you.”

“’Night, Murdoch, and the feeling’s mutual.”

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Chapter 4

Murdoch rode back to Lancer, as fast as he could, but as he expected, both the boys were already in bed, by the time he got home.

He went into the kitchen and spoke to Maria.

“Are the boys all right? I am really sorry I didn’t make it home in time for supper. Was Johnny okay about it?”

Before Maria could answer him, Johnny appeared in the kitchen. It was obvious that the boy had been crying, but now he was angry, more than upset.

“No, Johnny wasn’t okay about it. You told Mamacita you’d be back in time to have supper with us and so when you didn’t show up, of course I wasn’t okay, I was worried about you. Where the hell have you been?”

“I can understand why you are angry with me, Johnny, but I won’t have you using such language, no matter what the provocation,” said Murdoch. “I met a lady and she asked me to have supper with her, and it would’ve been rude of me to refuse.”

“Well, it was rude of you not to come home, when you told Mamacita you were gonna be here for supper,” retorted Johnny.

“I know you are upset, son, and you have good cause to be, but sometimes, even though you don’t want to, circumstances lead you to having to let someone, even someone you care very much about, down. I am sorry that I didn’t get back for supper, but I met this lady in Green River and she was stuck, without transport, so I offered to escort her to her brother’s house. By the time we got there, it was supper time and she asked me to stay. I have already apologised to Maria and to you, and I will also do so to Scott, when I see him in the morning. Now, come on, I’ll take you up to bed and I’ll read you another chapter of your book, if you like?”

“It’s okay, Scott read it to me,” said Johnny, not ready, just yet, to accept his father’s apology. “What is it with you and Scott (and my mother, he thought to himself) that you prefer other people’s company to mine?”

“That’s not the case, Johnny, and you know it, son,” said Murdoch, closing the gap, between him and his son, with a couple of his large strides. “I love being with you, and so does Scott, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t spend time with other people, occasionally, too.”

Murdoch was gently rubbing Johnny’s back, as he spoke to him, and Johnny began to relax, and he leaned against his father.

“I was worried about you,” said Johnny, in a much quieter voice. “I thought you might’ve had an accident, or something.”

Murdoch squatted down, so that he could look directly into Johnny’s eyes.

“I am truly sorry for worrying you, son. But I am not going to promise never to do it again, as no one knows what they are going to encounter, when they are away from home, and I can’t guarantee that I won’t get into a similar situation, again. All I will say is that I will make every effort to get back home, for the time that I’ve said I would, okay?”

Johnny nodded his head, and said, “Okay.”

Then he smiled up at Murdoch and said, “So if I’m late coming home, one day, you won’t get mad at me, then?”

Murdoch smiled back, and replied, “Well, that would depend on what your excuse was, for being late, and how valid it was.”

Johnny frowned.

“So you might not accept my excuse, but I havta accept yours.”

“All I can say is that I will listen to what you have to say and carefully consider it, before I get cross with you. Now, come along upstairs, it’s well past your bedtime.”

“Night, Mamacita,” said Johnny, and he went up the stairs with his father.

“Goodnight, little one,” said Maria, pleased to see the boy happy now that his father was home, safe and sound.

Johnny allowed his father to guide him into his bedroom, pull back the covers on his bed, and then tuck him in. As Murdoch leant over, to kiss Johnny ‘goodnight’, the boy grabbed his father round the neck, and whispered “Sorry” into Murdoch’s ear.

“It’s okay, son,” whispered back Murdoch. “I know how me being late, worries you, and I really am sorry for upsetting you.”

“Night, Papa, I love you.”

“Love you too, son, goodnight and God bless.”

Before Murdoch returned to the main room of the house, to partake of the coffee and cookies Maria had set out for him, he checked in on Scott.

His older boy was asleep, but not deeply, and as soon as Murdoch entered his room, he woke up, turned over and smiled at his father.

“Hi Pa, good to see you back.”

“Hi, Scott, I understand that Johnny was a bit upset that I was late. I’m sorry if I caused you to have a rough evening with him.”

“Oh that’s okay, Pa,” said Scott. “You know Johnny, he always over reacts. He had you dead in a ditch, at least.”

“At least? My goodness, what was the worst?”

Scott laughed.

“Well, you know what I mean? He just spent all evening thinking that something bad had happened, but it was okay, as I understood why he was so jumpy, and I managed to calm him down, eventually, and get him to bed.”

“He came down and tore me off a strip, when I got back, so he wasn’t that calm,” said Murdoch, sitting on the edge of Scott’s bed.

“Did he? Oh, I wish I’d seen that.”

“Told me that it was very rude of me not to get back for supper when I’d said to Maria that I would be here.”

“Well, Pa, he does have a point. If one of us had been that late for supper, you would have had a lot to say to us.”

“Yes, I would, and I did apologise, to everyone, but sometimes these things happen and there was no way for me to let you know.”

“It’s okay, Pa, you don’t have to explain to me. I understand these things, but Johnny is a bit, well, shall we say, more emotional than me.”

“There were things that happened to Johnny, before he came back to live with us, that we may never know about, son. And I can only imagine that there were times when, maybe, his mother left him on his own, for longer than she should have done, and this has caused him to feel rather vulnerable, at certain times. Of course, this is only speculation on my part and I wouldn’t presume to raise the subject with Johnny, unless he wanted to talk about it. Has he ever said anything to you?”

“Nothing specific, but he has said that he got locked in a cupboard* by some guy his mother was dating, and I guess, then, he might have felt he would never see his mother again. You know, that she might have gone off without him, by the time he got out of there.”

“Yes, I remember him telling me about that. I will have to try and bear that in mind, the next time I have to go off on business. Well, time you were asleep, Scott, in fact, it’s almost time I was asleep.”

“Erm, Pa, just why were you late, this evening?”

“I met a young lady, who needed some assistance, and I felt obliged to offer it to her,” said Murdoch.

“Oh,” said Scott. “Okay, night, Pa.”

“Goodnight, God bless, son,” said Murdoch, getting up to leave.

“Oh, and Pa, was she pretty?”

“What do you think?” answered Murdoch, with a slight chuckle in his voice.

.

Chapter 5

The next morning, Johnny ran into Scott’s room, at an indecently early hour, for a Saturday morning,

according to Scott. He grabbed hold of Scott’s arm and began to shake it.

“Come on, brother, it’s a lovely day and if we get through our chores, real fast, we can go fishing. Might even still be warm enough for a swim.”

Although it was now September, the days were still very mild and so the idea of a swim was not that odd.

“It’s still the middle of the night, Johnny, we’ve got plenty of time to go fishing,” said Scott, from under the covers.

“It’s not the middle of the night, Scott; it’s 5.30 in the morning,” said Johnny, giving up on trying to drag his older brother out of bed, and now sitting next to him, and tickling him, instead.

“Johnny, stoppit, or else I’m gonna pound on you, good,” warned Scott, who hated being tickled.

“Well, get up, then I won’t be able to tickle you,” replied Johnny, doing it, again.

“Johnny, that’s enough,” yelled Scott, and he lashed out at his little brother, wildly, hitting him in the face.

“Ow!” yelled Johnny. “That hurt,” and he began pounding Scott on his back, the only part of his brother he could reach, as Scott had rolled up into a ball, to protect himself.

Just then, Murdoch came into the room, and he lifted Johnny off his brother, by the boy’s belt.

“What’s all this about?” demanded Murdoch, as he lowered Johnny to the floor, but kept a tight hold of him, by the belt.

“He hit me in the face,” said Johnny, pointing at his reddened cheek.

Murdoch took in the mark on Johnny’s face and then looked over at Scott.

“Well?” he said.

“Well what?” replied Scott.

“What happened? Why did you hit Johnny in the face?”

“He came bursting in my room, without even knocking, and tried to yank me out of bed. When that didn’t work, he started tickling me. Now, I told him to stop, cos you know what I’m like when I get tickled? My arms and legs go flying everywhere, but he still didn’t stop and so I ended up hitting him on the cheek. It was an accident, I didn’t mean to, but he wouldn’t stop tickling me and I lost it.”

Murdoch turned his gaze from Scott to Johnny.

“Well, young man, that’s not quite how you said it happened, is it? You just said that Scott hit you in the face and you never mentioned that you had provoked him.”

“I was tickling him, that’s all, and he was being lazy and not getting up,” and Johnny adopted a rather mulish pout.

“But you know that your brother tends to lose control and hit out, when he is tickled, and it is a bit early to be disturbing him, on a Saturday morning, now, isn’t it?” said Murdoch.

Johnny shrugged his shoulders.

“I guess so, but I wanted us to go fishing after chores and the fish bite best early in the morning. Scott taught me that when I first came to live here, didn’t ya, Scott?”

“Yes, I did, little brother,” said Scott, getting out of bed and checking the mark on Johnny’s face, at closer quarters. “Gee, I’m sorry, Johnny, I really didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“It’s okay,” said Johnny. “It don’t hurt, that much. Now that you’re up, can we go fishing?”

“It’s may we go fishing, Johnny, and yes, I guess we may as well, if it’s all right with Pa?”

Both boys looked up at their father and he smiled and nodded. This was typical of the little spats that the boys sometimes had with each other, quick to flare up and just as quick to die down.

When Johnny first came to live at Lancer, he’d never been fishing with anyone before and he didn’t have much idea how to do it. But, he soon learned and now it was one of the things he loved to do the most.

“Come on, Johnny, let’s leave your brother to get dressed and Maria can put some arnica on that bruise.”

“No need, Papa, it’s fine, now,” said Johnny, hating to have a fuss made, if he was sick or hurt.

“See ya downstairs, Scott,” and Johnny and Murdoch left the room.

Scott soon joined his father and brother at the breakfast table, in the cosy kitchen, and as they ate, they talked about their plans for the day.

“Can you spare the time to come fishing with us, Papa?” asked Johnny.

“I might be able to, but I do have an errand to run, first. I need to go over to Green River again, to see the lady whom I dined with last night. I wanted to ask her and her brother over for supper, one evening, but I wasn’t sure which dates we had free, so had to wait until I checked my diary. Tell you what, why don’t you come over to Green River with me; I can go and see Molly and then we can find a place to fish between there and here? What do you say?”

“Sounds okay to me,” said Scott, but Johnny wasn’t so sure.

“What if you start talking to her and decide you don’t want to come fishing, after all? What do we do, then?”

“I wouldn’t do that, son. I’ll just issue the invitation for next Tuesday and then we’ll leave and find a nice spot in which to fish.”

“Okay, then, s’pose it might be nice to meet this lady who’s coming to supper,” said Johnny.

“And you’d better mind your manners, young man,” said Murdoch, waggling his finger at the boy.

“Yes, sir,” said Johnny. “But why don’t you tell Scott to do the same?”

“Because I already know to mind my manners, I don’t need to be told,” said Scott.

“I was going to tell him, but you stopped me, by asking why I hadn’t told him,” said Murdoch, and he waggled his finger at Scott, too. “Behave.”

As soon as breakfast was over, the boys ran outside to do their chores.

“Hope that is all right, Maria, me asking Molly and her brother over for supper, on Tuesday?”

“Of course it is, patron, this is your house, after all.”

“Well, yes, I know it is, but it is you who has to do the cooking.”

“That is fine; I will make sure I do something special for them.”

“Thank you, but whatever you do will be lovely, as your cooking is always superb.”

“Gracias, Senor Lancer.”

.

Before leaving to visit Molly and Ezra, Murdoch had some paperwork to attend to, so he did that, as he enjoyed another cup of coffee. The French windows out to the yard were open and he could hear his boys good naturedly arguing with each other. He smiled to himself, thinking of how far they’d come, since Johnny’s arrival at the ranch less than eighteen months earlier. Then, the boy had been wary of them all, having been fed lies about how his father had felt about him and the reasons for him and his mother living apart from Murdoch.

However, the two brothers had quickly bonded together and Murdoch was heartened to see how easily Scott had fallen into his new role as older brother and just how well he protected Johnny, especially from those ignorant people, who made comments about the fact that Johnny was of mixed blood. His allegiance to his brother had waned, a little, when Scott had fallen for a young girl, whose mother was one such ignorant person.  Scott had wavered between how he felt for Becky and his feelings for Johnny, but, eventually, he had come down on the right side and had defended his brother. *

Just then, Johnny came running in the house, yelling for his father.

“Chores are all done, Papa, so we can go now.”

“Okay, son, no need to shout, I’m right here,” said Murdoch. “Go and get your horse saddled and I’ll be right out.”

Johnny ran back outside and Murdoch could hear him telling Scott that they were to get their horses saddled.

He called to Maria.

“The boys and I are leaving, now, and, with a bit of luck, we should have a fine string of fish with us, when we get back, tonight. We’ll be home in time for supper.”

“Very well, Senor, I will see you tonight, and please make sure you keep a close eye on the little one, he is, how you say, full of beans, today.”

Murdoch smiled at the kindly housekeeper. She had worked for him back in the days when Johnny was born and so had helped care for the boy, until he was two, and his mother had spirited him away, in the middle of the night. So, she had been particularly happy when Johnny had finally returned to the ranch.

.

Chapter 6

As the three Lancer men rode along, Johnny kept up a constant stream of chatter, about anything and nothing, but it pleased Murdoch to hear it, seeing as how he had been denied the company of his son, for so many years.

However, as they got closer to Green River, Johnny stopped chattering, and began looking rather apprehensive.

“What’s the matter, son?” asked Murdoch, aware of Johnny’s change of mood.

“Nothing, Papa,” replied Johnny.

“Are you sure? You’ve gone awfully quiet. Are you feeling okay?”

“I’m fine, it’s just that…..” and Johnny said no more.

Murdoch reined in his horse and looked over at his son.

“It’s just what?”

“What if this lady don’t like me?”

“Why on earth wouldn’t she like you? What’s not to like?” said Murdoch.

“You know, me being a half breed, an’ all.”

Murdoch dismounted and went over to Johnny. He understood why the boy was feeling like he was, as he’d suffered plenty of prejudice, in his short life.

“I have no reason to think that Mrs Michaels would feel that way, but I promise you, son, that if anything is said that indicates that she does feel like that, we will leave, immediately, and I won’t ever see her again. You have my word on that.”

Johnny managed a small smile.

“Okay, Papa, and thanks.”

“Why are you thanking me, son?”

“For understanding my fears, and not laughing at me,” said Johnny.

It made Murdoch’s blood boil when he thought about the fact that the boy had grown up thinking that his own father didn’t want him, because he was of mixed blood, and of the insults that had been hurled at him, by people of both races.

They rode on, in silence, for a bit longer, and then Murdoch pointed to a fork in the road, just ahead of them.

“It’s just down there,” he said, urging his horse to move a little faster.

Scott looked over at Johnny.

“Do you think our father is anxious to see this lady?” he said.

“Sure looks like it,” replied Johnny, and the two boys followed along behind their father.

As they rode into the yard, Molly came out to greet them.

“Why, hello Murdoch, and who might these handsome pair be?”

“Good morning, Molly,” said Murdoch, tipping his hat. “These are my sons, Scott and Johnny.”

The two boys did as their father had, and tipped their hats, as Murdoch said their names.

“How do you do, Mrs Michaels?” said Scott.

“I’m fine, thank you, Scott, and trust you are the same? Your father didn’t say that he was going to bring you over with him, so this is a very pleasant surprise. Please get down from your horses and come onto the porch. I have just made some lemonade and I’m sure you must be thirsty after your long ride.”

“Ain’t so long, ma’am, not if you’re used to riding, like we are,” said Johnny. “And we came along, cos Papa’s gonna come fishing with us, afterwards, and we knew if we’d sent him on his own, he would’ve bin here, all day, jawing.”

Murdoch looked horrified at the boy’s remark, but Molly burst out laughing.

“Out of the mouths of babes, eh, Murdoch?” she said.

“I ain’t no baby,” said Johnny, rather huffily. “I’m eleven, soon to be twelve.”

This comment just made Molly laugh even more and Murdoch joined in. However, he could see that Johnny wasn’t happy being laughed at, and so he soon stopped.

“Sorry, son, we weren’t laughing at you, but at what you said. That was funny, but you’re probably right. I would’ve spent ages talking, and I know you want to go fishing. Come on, have a glass of lemonade, while I issue the invitation.”

Scott and Johnny dismounted and accepted the glasses of lemonade, plus the cookies Molly brought out for them.

“Thanks, ma’am, these are really nice,” said Scott.

“You’re welcome,” said Molly. “Now then, Mr Lancer, what was that about an invitation?”

“Oh yes, that’s what I came over for,” said Murdoch. “I wanted to ask you and Ezra to come to our place for dinner on Tuesday evening.”

“That is very kind of you, Murdoch, and I am sure that Ezra will be just as delighted as I am, to accept your invitation,” said Molly.

“Right, you’ve asked, she said yes, may we go fishing, now?” said Johnny.

“John!” exclaimed Murdoch.

“What’s the matter? I said may we go, not can we go, didn’t I?”

Murdoch took a couple of minutes to calm down, before he spoke.

“That isn’t why I said anything, John, it’s because of your rudeness. We will go when I am ready to go, and not before, young man.”

Scott hoped that Johnny would take heed of what his father had said. Not only had he called him John, but he’d added, ‘young man’, two indications that Murdoch was angry. However, Johnny appeared to have left his brains at home, as he didn’t stop there.

“Papa, you said that you was gonna ask the lady to supper and then we were gonna go fishing, so all I said was that now you’d asked her, could we go. What’s wrong with that?”

Molly was laughing, but trying to hide it.

“Murdoch, take these boys on their fishing trip, right now. If that’s what you told them, then that’s what you should do. I may not be a parent, but I’ve had enough dealings with children to know that they work in the here and now. You’ve done what you told Johnny you would do, you’ve asked me to supper, so now you should leave. What time should we be there, on Tuesday?”

“Thanks for being so understanding, Molly. This reprobate of mine doesn’t deserve having you on his side. Can you be at our place for around six? We don’t eat that late, what with having the boys and, of course, being that we are ranchers and we have to get up really early.”

“Six is fine, we’ll see you then,” said Molly. “Bye, boys, hope you bag a good catch.”

“Thanks, ma’am,” said Scott, mounting his horse.

“Yeah, thanks,” said Johnny, doing the same.

Murdoch mounted up and the three of them rode off, in silence for a while, until Johnny’s irrepressible nature caused him to speak up.

“Shall we stop and collect some worms for bait?”

“We can do that at the fishing hole,” said Scott. “Can’t we, Pa?”

“Yes, I doubt if the worms around here will be any better than those by the water, Johnny.”

“Okay, just didn’t wanna get there and find we had none,” said Johnny.

“You’re lucky to be going at all, after the way you behaved when we were with Mrs Michaels,” said Murdoch.

“Aw, she was okay about it, Pa, so best forgotten, eh?” said Scott, ever the peacemaker.

“It’s because she was so nice about it that your brother can still sit comfortably in the saddle,” growled Murdoch.

“That’s right, Papa Bear,” said Johnny. “Let’s forget about it and enjoy the rest of the day.”

Scott began to laugh and soon, Murdoch joined in.

They rode on, for about another thirty minutes, and then Murdoch led them off the road, to the banks of a stream.

“Looks a good spot, Pa,” said Scott. “I’ll tether the horses under that tree.”

Both Murdoch and Johnny dismounted and removed their fishing poles and their saddle bags from their horses, and Scott then led their mounts over to a tree, which would afford the animals some shade, as it was a warm day.

Scott soon joined his father, who was watching Johnny digging up worms.

“Come and help me, Scott,” said Johnny. “That way we can start fishing that much sooner.”

“Okay, I’ll help,” said Scott, who was not as keen as Johnny was, on pulling the worms out of the damp earth.

When Johnny was satisfied that they had enough bait, the three of them cast their lines in the water and began the wait for the fish to start biting.

.

Chapter 7

Johnny loved fishing, but only when he was actually catching something. As the fish were being rather slow to bite, he became very bored, and started to fidget.

“What’s the matter, little brother? Did you sit down on an ant hill, or something?” asked Scott, wondering why Johnny couldn’t keep still.

“Nope, I did not,” said Johnny. “What a silly question, as if I would.”

“Well, you keep fidgeting, so I thought you’d got ants in your pants,” said Scott.

“Ha, ha,” said Johnny. “Do you know something, big brother? That wasn’t funny, just one little bit.”

“Then why did you laugh, then?”

“I didn’t, really, I was being sarcastic.”

“Oh, I didn’t realise that.”

“Will you two pipe down, or else the fish will never bite,” said Murdoch.

“Sorry, Pa,” said Scott.

“Yeah, sorry Papa, but I don’t think we’ve picked a very good spot here, at all,” said Johnny.

“Well, where do you suggest we go, son?”

“I think we oughta have a swim, then move along the bank, a bit, and try again.”

“What do you think, Scott?”

“Sounds okay to me,” said Scott. “And maybe a swim will get rid of Johnny’s ants.”

“I ain’t got ants and I can prove it,” said Johnny, as he began shucking his clothes.

“See,” he said, when he was completely naked. “No ants. And now I’m going for a swim,” and with that, he took off, at a run, and leapt into the water.

Murdoch and Scott both burst out laughing, then quickly shed their clothes and followed Johnny’s example. The water was cold initially, but as they began swimming around, they soon warmed up.

“This is nice, isn’t it, boys?” said Murdoch, lying on his back and gently floating across the water.

“Sure is, Pa,” said Scott.

Unknown to Murdoch, the boys were plotting to surprise their father, by dunking him under the water. Scott carried on talking to Murdoch, distracting him, while Johnny swam underneath his father, and suddenly grabbed him by the legs and pulled him under the water. Poor Murdoch was taken unawares, and swallowed quite a bit of the river, before managing to right himself.

“Why you young whippersnapper,” yelled Murdoch, once he was able to speak. “Wait until I get my hands on you,” but Johnny was already half way across the river and well out of reach of his father’s big hands.

“Gotta catch me first,” he yelled, secure in the knowledge that he was far enough away from his father, to be able to keep ahead of him.

Scott, too, quickly swam away from his father, just in case Murdoch guessed that he had been part of the prank.

Murdoch decided to ignore the boys and he began swimming in the opposite direction to where they were.

“Do you think he has a plan?” asked Johnny, of Scott, once his big brother was alongside of him. “You know, some kind of awful revenge?”

“He might have,” said Scott. “He can be rather sneaky, at times.”

Johnny laughed.

“Maybe that’s where we get it from?”

“Maybe it is,” said Scott.

The boys swam around, for a while longer, but it was beginning to get a lot cooler and they were keen to go and get dressed and eat some of the food that Maria had packed for them. However, Murdoch was now on the bank, dressed, and with a small fire burning. He appeared to be totally ignoring them and they were not sure if this was a good, or bad, thing.

“It’s no good,” said Johnny, eventually. “I’m freezing to death. I’m gonna havta go and face him.”

“Okay, I’ll stay here and then, when he’s finished with you, I might feel like risking it and joining you,” said Scott.

Johnny looked over at Scott, disbelief written all over his face.

“You mean you’re gonna let me go over there and face our old man, all by myself, and all you’re gonna do is stay here and watch?”

Scott shrugged his shoulders.

“Well, yes, I thought that was a pretty good idea,” said Scott, but he couldn’t keep up the pretence, too long, as he was finding it hard not to laugh at the stricken look on his little brother’s face. “Of course I’m going to come with you, Johnny, don’t look so worried. Come on, before you turn into a block of ice.”

Johnny breathed a sigh of relief when he heard that Scott wasn’t expecting him to face their father alone.

“Yeah, let’s go,” he said, and the two boys struck out for the river bank.

Murdoch watched the boys, surreptitiously, as they  made their way towards him.

‘I think I’ve stirred them up, enough,’ he thought to himself. ‘That’ll teach ‘em to dunk their father.’

As the two boys got closer to Murdoch, he could see that Johnny, particularly, was looking really cold.

He reached over and picked up the large towel he’d brought along, and held it out in front of him.

“Come here, son, you’re turning blue.”

Johnny was surprised to hear his father speak so kindly to him and he allowed his father to wrap the towel around him and pull him onto his lap.

“We’ll soon have you warmed up, son. There’s another towel over there by the saddle bags, Scott. Get yourself dry and get your clothes on, then we can eat.”

Scott did as he was told, also surprised that Murdoch wasn’t angry with them.

Johnny was soon warm, again, and he quickly pulled his clothes on, under the towel, as he sat with his father.

“Why didn’t you come out of the water, sooner, Johnny?” said  Murdoch. “It was foolish to stay in there when you were getting this cold.”

“We stayed in, cos we thought you were gonna be mad with us, for dunking you, like we did,” said Johnny, looking up at his father, from under his long, dark eyelashes.

“So, you think it was wrong to do what you did, then?”

“Well, no, not exactly, Papa. We were only having a game with you, but we kinda thought you might’ve been mad about it.”

Murdoch couldn’t keep up the pretence any longer.

“I’m not mad with you, son. I was just having a game with you, too.”

“Ahh, so that was your revenge, was it? To have us freezing our butts off in the river,” said Scott. “You might think that was a good idea, Pa, but if Johnny comes down with a cold, then you’ll be getting it in the neck from Mamacita.”

Johnny giggled.

“Scott’s right you know, Papa. Mamacita’ ll be real mad with you if I get sick.”

“Well, we best make sure that doesn’t happen, hadn’t we?” replied Murdoch, feeling, somewhat, as though his plan had backfired on him. “Let’s eat and then, maybe, we can get back to the business of fishing.”

Murdoch made some coffee and let both the boys have a cup, as he wanted to warm them up. Johnny wasn’t that keen, preferring to drink milk, but he had to admit that it did help to make him feel a lot warmer. They enjoyed the sandwiches that Maria had made for them, and then they returned to the task of catching their supper.

This time, they all had more luck, and when Murdoch said it was time to go home, they had plenty of fish for Maria to cook.

“It’s been a great day, Papa. Thanks for taking the time to come along with us,” said Johnny, who did appreciate it whenever Murdoch spent time with him and Scott.

“You’re welcome, son, and, you know, I get a lot out of it, too,” said Murdoch. “There were a lot of years when you and I were apart, and so now that I can be with you, I want to be.”

.

Chapter 8

Johnny rushed into the house, as he wanted to show Maria the fish they had caught. Although all the fish were together, on one string, he reckoned he was able to pick out the ones that he’d caught. Not surprisingly, he picked out the largest fish and claimed them as his own.

“Very good, little one,” said Maria, pleased to see the boy looking so happy. “But how can you be sure that those are the ones you caught? Maybe Scott caught some of them, too?”

Johnny squirmed, a little, under the kindly housekeeper’s gaze.

“Well, I guess that some of ‘em might have been Scott’s, or Papa’s, but I did catch the biggest fish of the day, didn’t I, Papa?” said Johnny, as Murdoch joined them in the kitchen.

“Yes, you did, son,” said his father. “Oh, and Maria, we went to see Molly and her brother and they have said they will come to dinner on Tuesday.”

“Very well, Senor,” said Maria. “I will make sure that everything is just right for their visit.”

“Thank you,” said Murdoch. “I really want the house looking its best, when Molly sees it for the first time.”

“First time?” said Johnny. “How many times is she planning to come and visit?”

“I don’t know, but she’s likely to come more than once,” said Murdoch.

“If she’s only here, visiting her brother, I reckoned she’d be going home in a couple of weeks, so wouldn’t have time for more than one visit.”

Johnny was obviously bothered as to what the implications might be, of a woman visiting their house, on a regular basis.

“She hasn’t decided, yet, how long she is going to stay with Ezra,” said Murdoch. “Now that she is on her own, she might go and live with him, permanently.”

“Permanently? That means forever, don’t it?”

“Yes, it does, son, but I don’t see why it would bother you how long Mrs Michaels is staying with her brother.”

“Because the longer she stays with him, the more you’re likely to see her,” explained Johnny, talking to his father as though he was a simpleton.

“And why is that such a problem?” asked Murdoch. “You liked her, didn’t you?”

“She’s okay, but I don’t want her around here all the time.”

“Why ever not?” said Murdoch.

“Cos women just mess things up,” said Johnny. “Look at all the trouble we had when Scott liked Becky, and before that, Isobel.” *

“But I am a grown up, son, not a boy, and when I get involved with a lady, it’s different than it is for someone the age of your brother.”

“In what way is it different?” asked Scott, who had just entered the room.

“Well, because I am older and have more experience and I don’t go jumping in, with both feet, thinking that I am madly in love, with the first girl who comes into view,” said Murdoch.

“Oh, I see, that’s what you think of me, is it?” said Scott, folding his arms and glaring at his father. “That I am just a silly kid who doesn’t know what I want, and who falls in love with just anyone? Well, thanks a lot.”

“Aw, come on, Scott, you have to admit that you have declared undying love, fairly frequently, over these past couple of months,” said Murdoch. “And it’s been for a different girl, every time. Whereas I haven’t been involved with anyone since Johnny came to live with us.”

“And that’s how I want it to stay,” said Johnny.

“Son,  Mrs Michaels and I are just friends, nothing more, so there is no need to feel threatened by her.”

This remark caused Johnny to go on the defensive.

“I don’t feel threatened by any ole silly woman. I just don’t want her around here.”

“Well, last time I looked, I was the owner of this ranch and if I want to invite Mrs Michaels and Mr Perkins over for supper, then I will, and you will be nice to them, do you hear?” said Murdoch, raising his voice, as he was rather annoyed that Johnny was trying to dictate to him whom he could, or could not, see.

“I couldn’t help but hear, seeing as how you’re yelling at me,” said Johnny.

“Well, good, and don’t you forget what I said, when they get here,” replied Murdoch. “And that goes for you, too, Scott.”

“As I’m such a little kid, maybe you’d prefer it if I went to bed before they got here?” said Scott.

“I want both of you, dressed in your suits and on your best behaviour, when they get here, that’s what I want,” said Murdoch. “And if you cannot behave yourselves, then I will send you to bed, of that you can be assured.”

Neither Scott nor Johnny took that news well. Scott, because he felt he was far too grown up to be sent to bed, especially in front of  guests, and Johnny, because he really didn’t want Mrs Michaels to be in their house, at all.

But they both knew that Murdoch wouldn’t be sympathetic to their complaints and so they said nothing.

When Maria called them to the supper table, Murdoch was hoping to get back the camaraderie that had been with the three of them, when they had been fishing.

“Well done, Maria, you have certainly surpassed yourself with the way you have served up our fish. Doesn’t it look wonderful, boys?”

“It certainly does, Mamacita, muchos gracias,” said Johnny.

“Yes, thank you, Maria, it looks lovely, and I’m sure it’ll taste even better,” said Scott.

The boys didn’t acknowledge what their father had said, just directed their comments to Maria.

“Come on boys, let’s not spoil what has been a lovely day, just because I have invited a couple of people to the house for supper,” said Murdoch.

“Okay, but I still think you were a bit unkind saying what you did about my love life,” said Scott.

“Well, I’m sorry about that, son, but I don’t think I said anything that wasn’t true. A man does have a different approach to women than a boy does.”

“Let’s just agree to disagree, Pa,” said Scott, and they dropped the subject.

“Papa, after church tomorrow, can I go off with my friends?” asked Johnny.

“Well, I’d rather you came home and got changed and had some lunch, first, but then you may,” said Murdoch.

“But if I do all that, first, half the day will be gone,” said Johnny. “What if I take some clothes in the surrey and change in town, and ask Maria to pack me up some lunch, can I then?”

“I suppose so, but where are you planning to go, that you need so much time?” said Murdoch. “Out to your cave?”

“Yeah, we’ll be going there,” said Johnny, referring to the cave that he and his friends used as a meeting place. “But we’ll be doing other things too, I guess.”

“I hope you’ve not got any mischief in mind, young man?” said Murdoch.

“Who me, Papa? Of course not,” replied Johnny, but neither Scott nor Murdoch were totally convinced.

.

Chapter 9

The next morning, Johnny was not so keen to get up, as he had been when the destination was fishing. Going to church was not his favourite place to spend a rather warm Sunday morning, when there were so many more interesting things to do. However, as he wanted to go off with his friends, later that day, he didn’t make too much fuss when his father called up the stairs for him.

“Johnny, breakfast is in five minutes, so please be down here, by then, or else you won’t have time to eat, before we have to leave for church.”

“Okay, Papa,” he replied and he made it downstairs, by the required time.

“Morning, brother Scott,” he said, as he sat down at the large table in the kitchen.

“Morning, little brother,” replied Scott, who was already tucking into a plate full of eggs and bacon. “This is really good, you’ll enjoy it.”

“Yeah, it sure looks good,” said Johnny, thanking Maria, when she placed a glass of orange juice in front of him. “What are you gonna be doing after church, Scott?”

“Oh, I don’t know, yet, might go and hang out with Frank,” said Scott.

Frank was the old brother of Johnny’s friend, Charlie.

“So, I’m not going to have the company of either of my sons when I ride home, then?”

“No, sorry Pa,” said Scott.

Johnny suddenly felt rather mean, after making such a fuss about missing Murdoch’s company for dinner. He sidled over to his father’s chair and looked up at Murdoch.

“Erm, I won’t go and meet up with my friends, if you’re gonna be lonely, Papa.”

Murdoch put his arm around the boy’s shoulders and gave him a squeeze.

“That’s all right, son, I’ll be fine. I’ve got plenty of paperwork to do and that will keep busy, for most of the afternoon. But I don’t want either of you being that late, home, as it’s school in the morning, and I need to check your homework, before you go to bed. I trust that it is all finished and ready for me to check?”

The mention of homework reminded Johnny that he hadn’t finished his, but he didn’t tell Murdoch, as he knew that his father wouldn’t allow him to go out, unless his homework was completed. Scott had managed to work through his math problems, without his father’s help, so was ready for Murdoch to check it.

The family rode off for church, Paul and Teresa accompanying Murdoch in the wagon, and Scott and Johnny on their horses. Both boys stowed away a change of clothes and a lunch, made up by Maria, in the wagon, before they left the ranch.

They arrived in town, just in time for the start of the service, so neither of the boys had a chance to speak to their friends.

Murdoch ushered them into the building and placed the boys, one on each side of him, along the pew. Paul sat next to Johnny and Teresa sat next to her father. The little girl had brought along her new dolly, to show her what church was like, and as the service wore on, Teresa whispered to her dolly, explaining what was happening.

Johnny soon became bored, the only part of the church service that he enjoyed was the singing, and so he starting watching Teresa with her doll.

‘Silly girl, talking to a bit of rag and wool,’ thought Johnny. ‘Bout as stupid as if I sat here, talking to my handkerchief.’

To prove his point, he pulled the white square of cloth, out of his pocket, draped it over his left hand, and started talking to it.

Murdoch looked down at his younger son, and tapped the boy on his knee.

Johnny lifted up his face and smiled at his father.

“What are you doing?” whispered Murdoch.

“Talking to a bit of cloth, like she is,” said Johnny, pointing over to Teresa.

“Don’t be silly, son,” hissed Murdoch. “She’s a baby, you’re not, and besides she’s talking to a doll, not a rather grubby handkerchief.”

“But it’s made outta cloth, like a hanky,” protested Johnny, but Murdoch put his fingers on Johnny’s lips, effectively silencing the boy.

“No more of this nonsense,” he warned.

Johnny said no more, during the service, but he couldn’t resist teasing Teresa, once they were outside the church, after the service was over.

He still had the handkerchief draped over his left hand and he began talking to it, in a crooning voice.

“Did you enjoy church, little one?”

He said it so that Teresa could hear him and she came running over and knocked the hanky off his hand.

“You’re just being silly, Johnny Lancer,” she shouted at him.

He knocked her dolly out of her hand and said, “So are you, dumb girl.”

At this, Teresa began to cry and both Paul, and Murdoch, once he saw that Johnny was involved, came to investigate.

“What’s going on, John?” demanded Murdoch, in the tone that Johnny recognised as his father’s no nonsense voice.

“Oh, I was just teasing the squirt. Sitting in church, talking to a bit of cloth and wool, how dumb is that?”

Murdoch grabbed hold of Johnny, by the arm, and then spoke to Paul, who was comforting Teresa.

“If you will excuse us, for a moment, Paul, I think John and I need to have a little chat and when we return I am sure he will be ready to apologise to Teresa. Come on, son,” and Murdoch led Johnny, none too gently, around to the back of the church, out of sight of the other parishioners, who were still filing out of the building.

“I already told you to stop teasing Teresa, when we were inside the church, so why did you continue, once the service was over.”

Johnny was a little scared, as his father towered over him, but stuck to his guns.

“I just thought you didn’t want me saying it in church, is all, Papa. I mean, talking to a bit of cloth, it’s plain stupid.”

“You used to do it, and you still won’t go anywhere, overnight, without taking Whatbit, with you.”

“But I don’t talk to him, and I don’t think I ever did,” said Johnny, bristling a bit, at the thought.

“Well, you did when you were still living with me,” said Murdoch.

“Mebbe,” conceded Johnny. “But I wasn’t even two then, Teresa’s six.”

“And you might have done the same, at six, had you had Whatbit with you,” and the thought that Johnny had left his beloved rabbit at Lancer, when his mother took him away, made Murdoch sad. “Anyway,” he continued. “The fact remains that Teresa loves her dolly and at six, she’s perfectly entitled to treat it like it was a real baby, if that’s what she wants to do. And you shouldn’t have teased her, nor knocked it to the ground. So, I want you to go back and apologise.”

“And if I won’t?” said Johnny, regaining his bravado.

“Then you will be accompanying me back to the ranch, instead of going off to play with your friends. It’s your choice, son.”

“Okay, I’ll apologise,” said Johnny.

“And make it a sincere one, please,” said Murdoch, letting go of Johnny’s arm, and landing a solid swat on the boy’s bottom, to emphasise his words.

“Yes, sir,” said Johnny, rubbing his behind, as he walked back to where Paul was holding Teresa.

“Sorry, Teresa,” he said, trying to look contrite, but not doing that good a job of it. “Your dolly’s real nice and I’m sorry I knocked her on the ground.”

Teresa had stopped crying and she smiled down on Johnny, from the safety of her father’s arms.

“Fank you, Johnny, and you can carry Tildy back to the wagon, so she’ll know you’re really sorry,” and she handed the doll to the boy.

Johnny ran over to the wagon, and threw the doll down on the seat, hoping that none of his friends had seen him carrying it. He picked up his change of clothes and headed for the outhouse, at the back of the church, so that he could remove his suit and put them on.

When he returned to the wagon, Wes was waiting for him.

“Didn’t know you played with dolls, Johnny,” said Wes, grinning at him. “I saw you taking it back to the wagon. You can bring it along with you, if you like.”

“Very funny, Wes,” said Johnny, through gritted teeth. “It’s Teresa’s, as well you know, and if you mention this to the other guys I’m gonna nail your hide to the nearest barn door. My Pa made me apologise to Teresa for teasing her about the damn doll, and she made me put in the wagon, and that’s all there was to it, so end of story, okay?”

“Okay, Johnny, whatever you say,” but Johnny got the decided feeling that Wes wasn’t going to let the matter drop, that easily.

Johnny placed his lunch in his saddle bags and was soon mounted on Scirocco.

“See ya later, Papa,” he yelled to Murdoch. “See ya, Scott.”

“All right, son, and please be home in time to do your evening chores, before supper,” said Murdoch.

Johnny nodded and rode off with Wes, Charlie, Jimmy and Zack.

.

Chapter 10

 As the boys rode along, Johnny was aware that Wes was whispering to the others.

‘Don’t need a crystal ball to guess what he’s saying,’ he thought, and, sure enough, a little while later, the boys started teasing Johnny about the doll.

“Wes was telling us about your doll,” said Zack. “Mebbe we could help ya make some new clothes for her, this afternoon?”

“Aw, knock it off, will ya?” replied Johnny, urging Scirocco to move a bit faster. “Thought you had more sense than to believe anything that Wes tells ya.”

“I ain’t making nothing up,” said Wes, reining in alongside Johnny. “I saw ya with ma own eyes, carrying that doll down to the wagon, after the service. Did ya think she was in need of some salvation, taking her to church, like that?”

“Will you shut up, Wes? It wasn’t funny, the first time you said it, and it sure ain’t getting any funnier, the more times you tell it. The doll belongs to Teresa. I was teasing her about it, in church, and Papa caught me. He made me apologise and she said I hadta carry the dadblamed thing to the wagon for her. That’s the whole story, so no more talk of new clothes, or bringing her along, fellas, okay?”

“Do you get the feeling the boy’s mad about something?” said Zack. “I think I know what it is; he’s missing his dolly. Is that what it is, Johnny boy?”

In answer to Zack’s question, Johnny leapt off the back of Scirocco and flung himself at the boy. The two were soon on the floor, a squirming mass of legs, arms and fists.

Jimmy, being the biggest of the group, jumped down from his mount, and waded into the middle of the fight, trying to separate the two boys, and having great difficulty deciding which foot went with which hand.

“That’s enough, you two,” yelled Jimmy. “We’re all supposed to be friends, here, and this ain’t no way to behave. Sides which, Zack, Pa’ll whale the tar off of you, iffen he finds out you’ve bin fighting, agin.”

Jimmy was speaking the truth. Fred Williams was a nice man, a gentle giant was a term that best described him, and he wasn’t keen on his boys getting into fights, as he believed that there was better ways to settle your differences. Having been of larger than average size since childhood, he had learned how to avoid fights, rather than to start them, and wanted his boys to be the same, especially Jimmy, who took after him, in stature. Zack found it harder to heed the lesson than Jimmy did, and was often in trouble for fighting.

Eventually, Jimmy managed to get the boys to stop, but not before Zack was sporting a black eye and Johnny had a bloody nose.

“Come on, you two, shake hands and make up,” said Jimmy, keeping a tight hold on to both of the boys, by their left wrists.

Zack was the first to calm down and he grinned at Johnny and proffered his right hand.

“Sorry, Johnny, I was only having a bit of fun with ya.”

Johnny was not so keen to forgive his friend, but, after a few minutes of standing there, wearing a scowl, he decided it was a bit silly to get so het up over such a trivial thing, and he, too, held out his hand.

“Okay, you’re forgiven, but don’t you dare say that I own a dolly, ever again, all right?”

“All right,” said Zack, as they shook hands.

“Right, thank goodness that’s over,” said Jimmy, and the boys all mounted up, and carried on their ride to the cave.

Although Johnny was prepared to forgive Zack, he was still rather angry at the insinuation that he owned a doll. It made him feel that his friends didn’t think he was a manly enough, and so as they rode along, he began forming an idea in his head of a way to prove to them that he was more of a man than any of them were.

By the time they had all dismounted and taken care of their horses, Johnny was pretty sure that he’d got the perfect plan sorted out.

“I’ve got an idea,” he said, as they waited for their ancient coffee pot to heat up, so that they could all have a cup of the bitter brew. None of them really liked the taste of coffee, that much, but they would never admit that to each other, and continued to drink it, as it was forbidden to them all, at home, being considered as a drink only suited to the adult palate.

“An idea about what, Johnny?” asked Charlie, pleased to see his friend looking a bit happier.

“I’m gonna prove to you all that I ain’t no sissy,” Johnny said. “I’m gonna go and spend some time in the Devil’s Hole.”

At these words, all of the boys looked at Johnny, with pure horror on their faces.

“There’s no need fer ya ta do that, Johnny,” said Jimmy, putting his arm round his friend. “We were only funning ya, about that doll. We know you’re not a sissy; after all you survived fer nearly a year, all alone, in those border towns. A sissy sure wouldn’t have bin able ta do that.”

“Maybe not, but if I go down the Devil’s Hole and stay there, in the dark, for, say, an hour, then you’ll know for sure that I ain’t the kinda fella who plays with a doll, won’t you?”

“We already know that,” said Charlie, but Wes interrupted him.

“Well, maybe we do know that, but staying in Devil’s Hole, all alone, in the dark, would certainly prove it, buddy.”

“Okay then, that’s what I’m gonna do,” said Johnny.

Ever since one of his mother’s many men friends had locked a six year old Johnny in a cupboard for several hours, for misbehaving, the boy had developed a fear of the dark. Therefore, agreeing to spend even an hour in a disused mine that had the reputation of being haunted was about the worst thing that Johnny could inflict on himself. But, being full of that stubborn pride, which he had inherited from his father, made Johnny determined to succeed.

None of his friends knew that he didn’t like the dark, but they still thought it was an incredibly brave thing to do. The mine was supposed to be haunted by the former owners. The two men had gone out west, together, to seek their fortune and had won the mine in a poker game. They had always been good friends, but then they both fell in love with the same saloon girl, and their bitter rivalry ended up killing them both.

The one who was called Bill Davis asked the girl, Sherri, to marry him. She was a rather shallow kind of a woman, and was only prepared to marry a man who was extremely wealthy, so she agreed to the wedding on the condition that Bill got rid of his partner, leaving her and Bill to own all of the mine. By this time, Bill and Dan were no longer the friends they had been, as each of them had tried to pull some pretty outrageous stunts on the other one, in order to win the hand of the beautiful, but treacherous, Sherri, so Bill agreed to kill his former best friend.

The two men were down the mine, working, when Bill made the excuse of going to look for a larger hammer. When he returned, he did so, stealthily, and crept up behind his former friend, splitting open his skull, using the large hammer as his weapon. However, before he could leave, there was a cave in, and he found himself trapped by the legs under several large rocks. The two men always worked the claim by themselves, so there were no other workers around to discover his plight and, eventually, Bill starved to death.

It was said at the inquest that Sherri probably knew of Bill’s intention to kill Dan, but she never spoke up when people became suspicious about where the men were. In fact, she said that she thought they had gone out of town to buy more mining equipment, and so it was several weeks before anyone started to look for the men and by then, they were both dead.

Sherri expected to inherit the mine, but as her and Bill weren’t married, she had no claim on it, so ended up penniless. A distant cousin of Bill’s, back east, was the beneficiary, being the only relative that the lawyer could find. He sold the mine, without ever visiting it, but the man who bought it, only stayed there a few days, before being scared off by ghostly noises. After he left, it was sold again, but the same thing happened to the next owner, and soon it had the reputation of being haunted and no one wanted to work it, again. So, the entrance was boarded up and it was left to fall into disrepair. And although they were all told to stay away from it, the boys would often go there and speculate about what happened, and dare each other to go down into the tunnel where Bill and Dan died, but up until now, no one had tried it.

“Come on then, let’s go,” said Johnny, heading over to where he had tethered his horse.

.

Chapter 11

As soon as they arrived at the entrance to Devil’s Hole, Johnny dismounted and handed over the reins of his horse to Charlie.

“Take care of Scirocco, please, Charlie,” he said, and began walking towards the mine.

Jimmy ran over to join him.

“You really don’t have to do this, Johnny, you know,” said Jimmy. “None of us thought, for one minute, that the doll was yours.”

“I want to do it,” said Johnny, and he began pulling away the boards that were blocking the entrance to the mine.

By now, Jimmy knew Johnny, well enough, to know that his friend was not going to change his mind, so he began to help the younger boy clear the entrance.

“Thanks, Jimmy,” said Johnny.

Once there was a big enough hole for Johnny to crawl through, he looked over at Wes, Zack and Charlie and said, “Okay, fellas, I’m going in, now. Will someone please time me? I’m planning to stay down there for at least an hour.”

None of them had a watch, but Wes reckoned he could tell the time by the position of the sun in the sky.

“I’ll come looking for you, when an hour is up,” he said to Johnny.

“Okay,” said Johnny, hoping that his voice didn’t convey how scared he was feeling.

Johnny took a deep breath and entered the mine. At first, the tunnel was so small that he could hardly stand up properly, but as he walked further into the bowels of the earth, the tunnel became bigger.

Suddenly there was a fairly sharp bend in the tunnel and Johnny found himself unable to see the entrance, anymore. He was in total darkness and he didn’t like it, not one little bit.

He could feel his heart hammering inside his shirt and, at one point, thought it sounded as though it was banging so loud it would soon jump right out of his chest.

‘Calm down,’ he told himself. ‘Or else you ain’t gonna last the whole hour down here. Wes will come looking and find you dead on the ground.’

It was so dark that he couldn’t even see his hand in front of his face and he wandered around for a while, trying to make out where he was going. He kept close to one side of the tunnel, one arm stretched out in front of him, so that he could feel for any obstacles that might be in his way, and the other arm close to the wall. As he did so, he began to think about Bill and Dan and how they died, and he suddenly recoiled from touching the wall, in case his hand encountered the remains of a body.

‘Pull yourself together,’ he reprimanded himself. ‘Of course I won’t find a body. When the sheriff found them down here, he had the bodies removed and they were buried.’

He resumed his contact with the wall and walked on a bit further, then decided that he had no need to go any further, as all he had said he would do was to remain in the mine for an hour. There had been no mention of how far he had to walk, so he slid down the wall and sat on the ground.

Being that he was inside, he could not see the sun, and so had no idea how long he’d been in there, but just as he was praying that he wouldn’t have to stay much longer, he heard a faint rumbling from the way he’d come in.

‘What’s that noise?’ he thought. ‘Sure ain’t the noise a ghost would make, thank goodness.’

He sat, listening, for a few minutes more, and just as he realised what it was, there was a much louder noise, followed by clouds of dust and he knew that the entrance was blocked off.

“Oh, no,” he yelled. “Get me out of here,” and he rolled into a fetal position, as he was showered with dust, stones and rocks.

It seemed like this shower went on for a long time, but it was probably no more than a couple of minutes. When it stopped, Johnny began unrolling himself, and gently tested each part of his body to ensure that it still worked. He was lucky, as he was far enough away from the entrance not to be hit by any of the larger rocks, but he knew he must look a mess, as he could feel that he was covered in a fine layer of dust.

He didn’t allow himself much time to recover from the shock, and was soon back on his feet, determined to find a way out. He could feel himself beginning to panic at the thought of being trapped in the mine, but tried to push his fears to the back of his mind.

He judged that he was closer to the back end of the mine than the front and so decided to check that out, first. When he got to the end of the tunnel he discovered that the exit was very firmly blocked with some of the biggest boulders he had ever seen and he knew that he had no chance of getting out that way.

‘Best go check out the way I came in, then,’ he thought, and started walking, again, back the way he came.

When he got to the front entrance he found that it was also buried, but he took solace in the fact that the rocks blocking his way were not as large as the ones at the back end.

‘I bet the boys could dig me out of this,’ he thought, and he took off one of his boots and began hammering on the rocks, with it.

The other boys had run for cover when they saw that the mouth of the tunnel was about to collapse, but once the rumbling stopped, they returned to survey the extent of the damage.

“Oh boy, how are we gonna get Johnny outta there, Jimmy?” asked Zack, of his brother.

“I dunno,” said Jimmy, wishing he could turn back the clock and be able to talk Johnny out of this crazy stunt. “I guess we start digging.”

“But we don’t even know if Johnny is alive, or not,” said Charlie, trying desperately to hold back his tears. He was a sensitive boy and the youngest of the group.

“Course he’s alive,” said Jimmy, putting his arm around the younger boy and sounding a lot more optimistic than he felt. “Johnny’s like a cat; he’s got nine lives.”

Just then, they heard tapping coming from the mine.

“See? I told you he’d be all right,” said Jimmy, smiling down on Charlie.

“What if it ain’t Johnny?” said Charlie, fearfully. “What if it’s one of those ghosts, trying to get out?”

“That’s just a silly story that our folks told us about, to stop us from exploring the mine,” said Jimmy. “There’s no such thing as ghosts. Come on, if we all work together, I am sure we can get Johnny out of there.”

The boys started to remove some of the smaller rocks from the entrance to the mine, and every few minutes they were rewarded by a tapping noise from within, and this let them know that Johnny was still okay.

Johnny was aware that the boys were trying to get him out, but it wasn’t happening fast enough for him, and he began removing rocks from his side of the wall, too. He kept trying to reassure himself by saying, over and over again, ‘They will get me out,’ but the longer it took, the more panicky he became. He started breathing faster and he felt like he was going to faint. Not that he had fainted, before, but he guessed that’s what was going to happen, as he felt light headed and as if he was losing touch with reality. Mind you, right at that moment, he was quite happy to leave reality behind, as he wasn’t enjoying it, one bit. However, there was one thing that was keeping him from giving in to his panic and allowing himself to pass out, and that was his pride. He hated the thought of his friends finding him in that state. ‘That would really make them think of me as a sissy,’ and so he gave himself a mental shake, and carried on trying to tear down the wall of rock, stones and dust that separated him from the outside world.

Jimmy, Zack and Wes carried on with their efforts to free their friend, but it seemed as fast as they moved some of the debris, more took its place.

Charlie, being smaller and younger than the others, was not able to do as much, and was feeling that his attempts to remove the rocks were pretty useless, so he decided to go and get help.

As he mounted his horse, he called out to the others, “I’m going for help.”

The other three hardly paused in what they were doing, but just acknowledged Charlie, with a quick wave of their hands.

.

Chapter 12

Charlie spurred his horse on and rode faster than he ever had in his short life, towards the Lancer ranch.

However, before he got there, he ran into his brother, Frank, and Scott, who were out riding together.

“Frank, Scott, Johnny’s in trouble, you’ve gotta come and help him,” yelled out Charlie, as he rode towards the two older boys.

“Oh, great,” said Scott. “What’s he done, now?”

Charlie was so worried about Johnny that his words came out in a torrent, and Scott and Frank took a while to understand what he was saying.

“Let me get this straight,” said Scott, finally. “Johnny went down the Devil’s Hole to prove that he wasn’t a sissy, because Wes was teasing him about Teresa’s doll. There was a cave in and now he can’t get out.”

“That’s right,” said Charlie, still breathing hard, after his exertions. “Jimmy, Zack and Wes are trying to get him out, but they’re not doing too well. Will Johnny be all right, Frank?” asked the boy, looking up at his big brother, with tears in his eyes.

“Calm down now, Charlie,” said Frank, putting his arm around his little brother. “I’m sure Johnny will be fine, he’s a tough little cuss, ain’t he, Scott?”

“Yes, he is,” said Scott, trying to put on a brave face in front of Charlie. “We’ll get him out, don’t worry. Look, we’ll head out for Devil’s Hole, now. Once you’ve got your breath back, you ride to the ranch and tell my father what’s happened. Ask him to bring a wagon, just in case Johnny is injured, okay?”

“Okay, Scott, I will,” said Charlie. “Just get Johnny out of there.”

Scott and Frank rode as fast as they could, and soon arrived at the mine entrance.

The younger boys had made a bit more of an impact on the pile of rubble blocking Johnny’s path to freedom, but they were very pleased to see Frank and Scott.

“We’re getting closer, and Johnny keeps tapping the wall, so we know he’s okay, Scott,” said Jimmy, who, as the eldest, elected himself spokesperson of the group. “I’m real sorry about all this. I guess I should’ve tried to talk Johnny out of going in there, but you know how stubborn he can be? And it was so silly, as we were only having a bit of fun over the doll. Of course we knew that it was Teresa’s, really.”

“That’s okay, Jimmy,” said Scott, patting the boy on the back. “No one knows, better than me, how difficult it is to talk my little brother out of doing anything, once his mind’s set on it. Come on; let’s see if we can’t get him out of this mess.”

With the added help of Frank and Scott, who both applied a bit more logic to the task than the younger boys had, they soon made a hole that was big enough for Johnny to crawl through. However, the boy did not appear and so Scott, rather hesitantly, approached the opening and called to his brother.

“Hey, little brother. Are you so comfortable in there that you’d rather stay put?”

“Scott? How come you’re here?”

Johnny had been unaware that his brother was assisting with his rescue, but was extremely glad to hear his voice. Since coming to live at Lancer, he and Scott had soon become very close, and Johnny often turned to Scott whenever he was worried or unsure about something.

“Heard you were in trouble, so what else could I do, but come and bail you out, again,” said Scott, with more than a touch of sarcasm, in his voice.

He was well aware of his brother’s fear of the dark, and the reasons for it, and so was trying to play down the whole episode, in order to keep Johnny calm.

“Good to hear your voice, big brother,” said Johnny, who, now that he could actually see daylight, was aware that his breathing was becoming a lot less rapid, and that he was feeling much happier, or at least as happy as you could feel, stuck in a mine shaft. “Of course I don’t intend to stay here, Scott, but I twisted my ankle when all the rubble fell down, so could use a hand getting out.”

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than Scott was through the opening. Johnny said nothing; he just flung his arms around his big brother, very close to tears.

Scott, too, now that he knew that Johnny was all right, was almost on the point of crying.

“Thank goodness you’re okay,” said Scott, once he managed to get the words out. “I didn’t fancy having to tell Pa that we’d lost you, again, little brother.”

“And I’m very glad that you didn’t have to, too,” said Johnny, wiping his nose on the back of his hand.

“Whatever possessed you to come in here, in the first place?” said Scott, breaking away from Johnny, and looking at their surroundings. “I wouldn’t call this a fun place to spend your Sunday afternoon.”

“It ain’t,” said Johnny, and he proceeded to explain why he’d entered the mine.

“What a dumb reason to put yourself at risk,” exclaimed Scott. “Just because your pals teased you about that doll.”

“Well, I guess it was a bit dumb, but at the time I felt I had to show ‘em that I wasn’t no sissy,” retorted Johnny, regaining some of his usual bravado.

“And I bet that none of them, out there, know that you’re afraid of the dark, do they?” asked Scott.

“Ssh, Scott,” said Johnny, lowering his voice. “Course they don’t. They admire me, they think I’m fearless, after living on my own, the way I did, after my mama died.”

“You know, little brother,” said Scott, adopting a softer tone. “You don’t always have to be the tough guy. Everyone has something that they’re afraid of, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I guess I’m beginning to learn that, now, but, from where I came from, you never let anyone know iffen you were scared, cos then they knew your weak spot and so could get the better of you.”

“I know it was like that, when you were on your own, Johnny, but now you live with Pa, Mamacita and me, and those boys out there are your friends. Oh, I know they sometimes do silly things, but they never mean to hurt you.”

“I know they don’t, but I just get mad, sometimes, and I feel I havta show ‘em that I’m still as tough as they think I am.”

“I understand that, Johnny, but I’m not sure if Pa will. It’s been a long time since he was in the schoolyard situation, and he might have forgotten how important it is to show the other boys that you are tougher than they are.”

Just then, Jimmy stuck his head through the hole and said, “Are you two ever coming out? I can see your Pa coming along in a wagon.”

“Papa!” exclaimed Johnny. “How did he know I was here?”

“Charlie went to fetch help,” explained Scott. “He found Frank and I, first, and then I asked him to carry on to the house and fetch Pa. I also told him to tell Pa to bring a wagon, in case you were hurt.”

“Great,” groaned Johnny. “Papa’s gonna tear a strip off me, right in front of my friends. How embarrassing is that gonna be?”

“I don’t think he will,” said Scott. “I’m sure he’ll have plenty to say when he gets you home, but, initially, I think he’s going to be more worried than angry with you.”

“Maybe I should put on the limp, a bit, when I see him,” said Johnny, gingerly testing his ankle by trying to put his foot directly onto the ground. “I took my boot off in order to bang on the wall with it, and now I can’t get it back on, as my ankle has swollen up, a bit.”

Watching the way that Johnny was very reluctant to bear any weight on his foot, made Scott realise that the ankle was pretty bad, anyway.

“I don’t think you’ll have to pretend that much, brother,” he said, and was rewarded with a wry grin.

“No, I guess not.”

With Scott supporting most of his weight, Johnny managed to get through the hole and he and Scott were soon engulfed in a circle of their friends, who were all talking at once, and wanting to know if Johnny was all right.

“I’m fine, could’ve stayed in there all day, if necessary,” he lied.

.

Chapter 13

As Murdoch arrived, Scott remembered that he’d left Johnny’s boot in the mine, so he popped inside the tunnel, once more, to collect it.

“Won’t be a minute, Johnny,” he said, and before the younger boy could ask Scott to stay with him, he was gone.

‘Oh help,’ thought Johnny. ‘Now I’ve gotta face Papa, alone.’

Murdoch, having only received a rather garbled message from Charlie, didn’t know what he was going to find, once he reached Devil’s Hole. Therefore, he was very relieved to see his younger son standing in the middle of his friends, looking none the worse for wear, apart from a fine covering of dust, that is.

“Johnny!” yelled Murdoch. “Are you all right son?”

“Hi, Papa,” replied Johnny. “I’m fine, well, apart from my ankle, that is.”

Murdoch got off the wagon, and with his long legs, it only took him a couple of strides to be by Johnny’s side.

He was just about to scoop the boy up in his arms, when he heard Johnny whisper to him.

“Don’t pick me up in front of my friends, Papa.”

“Sorry, son, I just wanted to take the pressure off your ankle. Let me help you into the wagon, then, and you can sit down.”

“Thanks, Papa,” and that’s what Murdoch did.

They were soon joined by Scott, who offered Johnny his boot.

“I don’t think I can get it on, Scott, but thanks, anyway.”

“Well, you might not need it now, but you will once your ankle is better, so I didn’t think it was a good idea to leave it in the mine.”

“How long have you been here, Scott?” asked Murdoch. “Were you here when Johnny went into the mine?”

“No, of course not, sir,” said Scott, rather indignantly. “As if I would’ve let him do such a fool thing.”

“Ah, hear that, John? Your brother thinks it was a fool thing you did, and I happen to agree with him. I hope you’ll have an explanation sorted out, by the time we get home.”

“Sorry, Papa, but I can’t think straight at the moment. My ankle is hurting too much,” said Johnny, putting on his most pathetic look.

Scott fought the urge to giggle out loud. ‘That brother of mine could make a living on the stage,’ he thought, as he waited for his father’s next words.

“Well, let’s get you home and have Sam come and look at it,” said Murdoch, placing a protective arm around Johnny’s shoulders. “Go fetch Scirocco and Jupiter, please, Scott. Then we can be on our way.”

As Scott did as he was told, Murdoch thanked the other boys for helping to rescue Johnny.

“I doubt if Johnny will be in school, tomorrow, as he will probably need to rest his ankle,” said Murdoch. “But Scott will be able to tell you more, when he sees you in the morning.”

“Okay, Mr Lancer,” said Jimmy. “You take care of yourself, Johnny.”

“Will do, and thanks,” said Johnny.

Murdoch drove them home at a brisk pace, with Scott following behind, riding Jupiter and leading Scirocco.

When they pulled up in the yard of the house, Murdoch got down from the wagon and then leaned in and picked up Johnny.

Before the boy could protest, again, Murdoch said, “Best stay off it, as much as possible, son, and anyway, there’s no one to see you, here.”

Johnny decided it was best not to say anymore, as he was still unsure as to what Murdoch’s reaction was going to be to him being in the mine; a place he’d been told to stay away from.

Murdoch laid the boy down on the couch and then headed for the kitchen to ask Maria to heat up some water for a bath. As soon as the water was ready, Murdoch carried Johnny to the bath house and helped the boy undress and get clean. Johnny was covered in dust, from head to foot.

Maria brought Johnny a nightshirt and the boy was soon back in the main room, lying on the couch, with a warm blanket covering him.

Murdoch went off to get a bowl of iced water and some bandages, for the ankle, leaving Scott and Johnny on their own.

Scott sat on the arm of the couch, looking down on Johnny, who looked so much younger, with his damp hair combed back off his face.

“You know something, little brother, I don’t think you should be a rancher, when you grow up,” said Scott.

“Why not?” said Johnny.

“Because after that performance that you turned in for Pa, I think you should go on  the stage. You’d make a fortune.”

“What do you mean by that?” asked Johnny.

“I mean the way you laid it on about your injury, so that Pa would feel sorry for you and not get angry about you going into that mine,” said Scott.

“I didn’t make it up, my ankle was really hurting,” said Johnny.

“Maybe it was, a bit, but you never make a fuss if you’ve hurt yourself, usually, as you hate it when Pa says he’s going to get the doctor to come and see you, or if you have to stay in bed. So I reckon you only made a fuss to prevent Pa asking any awkward questions.”

Johnny smiled up at Scott.

“Well, maybe I did, a little bit.”

Just then, Murdoch returned to the main room and he said, “There will be plenty of time to discuss what led to you being in that mine, once we know that we are not dealing with anything more serious than a sprained ankle.”

It was obvious that he’d heard what Scott and Johnny were saying, and so the boys, wisely, said nothing more on the subject.

Once Johnny had soaked the ankle and Maria bandaged it for him, it felt a lot better.

“Maybe we won’t need to bother Sam, after all,” said Murdoch. “We can see how it is in the morning and then call him, if it’s any worse. You can keep off your feet until then. In fact, I think it might be a good idea if you spend tomorrow in bed.”

“Yes, sir,” said Johnny, relieved that he wasn’t going to have to endure having the ankle prodded and poked by the doctor, but not happy about being confined to bed. He guessed, and rightly so, that Murdoch was making him spend Monday in bed, as a punishment for entering Devil’s Hole. Having a sprained ankle meant that the boy couldn’t be expected to make the long ride to school, but Murdoch was determined that Johnny was not going to enjoy his day off, as he’d only received the injury because he disobeyed his father and went somewhere he wasn’t supposed to go.

It was soon time for supper and Murdoch helped Johnny get settled at the table. The ankle wasn’t really bothering him that much, but his conscience was. He knew that he wouldn’t feel right until he had talked things through with his father.

Murdoch knew this, too, and was waiting until after supper to have a chat with Johnny.

The meal was rather a subdued one, as Johnny decided to keep his mouth shut, and it was usually his bright chatter that made the meal a lively occasion.

After they had eaten, Scott decided to make himself scarce and made the excuse that he had to go and get his books ready for school the next day.

Murdoch returned Johnny to the couch and sat down on the end of it. Johnny knew that the tine had come for the two of them to discuss the events of the afternoon.

“Okay, I want to hear the whole story, please,” said Murdoch. “Were you planning to go and explore Devil’s Hole, when you left me after church today?”

“No, Papa, I wasn’t,” said Johnny, shifting around on the couch, as he tried to find a comfortable way to sit, without having Murdoch’s eyes fixed on him.

He soon realised that there wasn’t another way to sit, so settled down and started his story.

“The boys and I headed off to the cave and none of us thought about going to Devil’s Hole. I mean, you know that I don’t like being in the dark, so I wouldn’t have suggested it, except something happened and before I knew it that’s where we were going.”

“What happened?”

“Wes saw me putting Teresa’s doll into the wagon, outside of church, and he started riling me something fierce about playing with dolls. He kept asking me why I hadn’t brought her along and the others soon joined in, and suggested they helped me make the doll some new clothes. I kept saying it was Teresa’s doll, but they still kept teasing me and I got real mad and started a fight with Zack. Jimmy pulled us apart, and we soon made up, as you know Zack and me are real good friends, but I couldn’t let it go, and all the way to the cave I kept thinking about doing something that would make them see that I wasn’t a sissy, who played with dolls. Suddenly, I hit on the idea of me going into Devil’s Hole and staying there, by myself, for an hour. The others said it wasn’t necessary, but Wes thought it was a great idea, so we rode out there.”

“So,” said Murdoch. “Charlie, Zack and Jimmy said you didn’t have to do it, but Wes said you should, and so you decided to go ahead. Am I right so far?”

“Yes, Papa, but it weren’t ole Wes’ fault. You know me, Papa, I can never turn down a challenge, and I guess a lot of that is down to the life I used to lead. When you’re out on your own, or even when you’ve only got a mother to be on your side, you are always having to prove that you are tougher or better at things, and then other people leave you alone. So, as we rode out there, I was fighting the urge to turn around and go back to the cave, but I knew I had to do it.”

“Okay, so what happened next?”

“We got to Devil’s Hole and we found that the entrance was boarded over, so we removed the boards.”

“And didn’t finding the mine boarded over remind you that you weren’t supposed to go in there, at all?”

“Heck, I knew I wasn’t s’posed to, but that’s what made it a better way to prove I wasn’t no sissy.”

Murdoch wasn’t going to say as much, but he could see the logic in his son’s thinking. There was no point doing something that everyone could already do, if you were trying to prove yourself to be better than all the others, and Murdoch knew that was what Johnny was trying to do.

“Anyway, we soon got the boards off and there was a hole just big enough for me to get through. No one had a watch, so Wes said he’d know by where the sun was, in the sky, when an hour was up, and then he’d come and get me out. So, I got inside and started walking. As soon as I went around a bend in the tunnel, I couldn’t see a thing, cos the entrance was out of my sight. It was horrid and I kept thinking I was gonna put my hand on the remains of the two miners who died there, even though I knew that wasn’t possible, as the sheriff had the bodies removed and buried. It was so dark I couldn’t even see my hand right in front of my face. I walked about a bit more, and then decided to just sit and wait out the hour. Not long after I did that, I suddenly heard a rumbling noise. I didn’t realise what it was, at first, and then I could hear all these rocks falling down and there was a huge cloud of dust coming along the tunnel. I waited until the noise stopped and then I headed for the back end of the tunnel, hoping that there might be a way out, there, but there wasn’t. So, then I started off back to where I’d started, and when I got there, all I could see was a wall of rock. I took my boot off and banged it on the wall, a few times, hoping that the guys would hear and at least know I was alive.  After I did that, I went and fell over some debris and landed funny, twisting my ankle. I could just make out some sounds through the wall and I guessed that the boys were trying to dig me out, so I started to move some rocks on my side, too. It seemed to take forever and we weren’t getting very far, but then, something happened, and they began working faster. I guess that was when Scott and Frank arrived. Anyway, it wasn’t too long before a small hole appeared and the first voice I heard was Scotty’s. Boy, was I pleased to hear him. I couldn’t climb out by myself, so he came in and helped me. After that, you know the rest, cos that’s when you got there.”

.

Chapter 14

“So, John, when was it that you decided to play on your injury to get me feeling sorry for you and to stop me being angry?”

“Uh, oh, I kinda guessed you heard me and Scott talking about that. We were just joshing, Papa. My ankle was really hurting, but when you started asking me questions about what happened, when we were still with my friends, I did want to change the subject. I was embarrassed that you might start bawling me out, in front of the guys. But I wasn’t trying to avoid having you talk to me, all together, just at that time.”

“Okay, I can understand that, especially as you were trying to maintain this tough guy image. Just as long as you weren’t lying about your injury, as that is a dangerous game to play.”

“I know that, Papa, and it could mean that you wouldn’t come and help me, when I was really hurt, iffen I’d pretended I was, before, and then you’d found out that I lied.”

“Exactly, and I’m pleased to hear that some of the things I have said to you have made an impression. I just wish that you had taken heed of me telling you not to go into that mine, or any other that you might come across. They are dangerous, unstable places, as you have found out, today.”

“I know they are and I am sorry, Papa, really I am, but it was just something I had to do.”

Murdoch leaned over and took hold of Johnny’s hand.

“But that’s just it, son, you didn’t have to do it, and the only person who thought you did, was you. You were the one who set the challenge, not the other boys, and Wes, who hasn’t been raised to know any better, was the only one encouraging you to do it. It’s not necessary for you to always be trying to prove yourself, not anymore it isn’t. You are loved, unconditionally, by me, your brother and by Maria, as well as by Teresa and Paul. Most of the ranch hands would do anything for you and you’ve got loads of friends, so there is just no need for you to have to keep trying to prove that you are the toughest or the best,  as we all love you, no matter what. And, anyway, as far as I am concerned, you and your brother are the best, already.”

Johnny took in this information, and then he looked up at his father, through his impossibly long eyelashes, and said, with a definite tongue in his cheek, “So, in that case, there’s no need for me to work hard at school, cos you already think I’m the best, ain’t that right, Papa?”

Murdoch looked back at his boy, for what seemed to Johnny, like a very long time, and then burst out laughing, making Johnny laugh, as well.

“You know, as well as I do, that I didn’t mean that, you reprobate, and speaking of school work, have you got your homework ready for me to check?”

Johnny stopped laughing, when he remembered that he hadn’t finished his homework on Friday evening, as he’d needed some help from his father, and Murdoch was late getting home.

“Erm, well, no, not exactly, Papa. You see, we hadta do a family tree and I don’t know much about your family, so I needed some help. I was gonna ask you on Friday, but then you went and had dinner with that lady and so I didn’t see you. And after that, I just plain forgot about it.”

Murdoch was rather cross that Johnny had neglected to finish his homework, especially as he’d asked the boy about it, only that morning, before they’d left for church.

“I seem to recall asking you if your homework was ready for me to check, only this morning, and you didn’t mention, then, that it wasn’t finished. So, if it isn’t done, why didn’t you stay at home this afternoon and do it?”

“Cos I wanted to go and play with my friends and I thought I could finish it, tonight,” said Johnny.

“And how did you propose to do that, without me knowing, if you needed my help to complete it?”

“I’m not too sure, Papa,” said Johnny, who was now not able to meet his father’s gaze.

Murdoch sighed.

“Right then, you and I are going to sit down and complete your homework assignment, young man. And you can think yourself very lucky that you have a sprained ankle, because if you didn’t, you’d now be nursing a sore backside. I don’t like being deceived and that’s what you did; you deceived me into thinking that you had already finished your homework, so that I wouldn’t stop you going out, this afternoon.”

Johnny knew that he was in the wrong, but couldn’t stop himself from having a dig at his father and his budding relationship with Mrs Michaels.

“Well, if you’d come home on time, on Friday, instead of going to supper with that lady, then I could’ve finished my homework, when I should’ve done.”

Murdoch pointed his index finger at the boy.

“If I were you, John, I wouldn’t say another word, or else I might just forget that you got hurt, today, and do some damage of my own. You’ve had plenty of time, since Friday night, to ask for my help, so don’t try and get out of this, by blaming me.”

“I’m not blaming you, I’m blaming her,” said Johnny, but even he knew that was a pretty lame thing to say.

“Well, if you want my opinion, that is a very silly thing to say, son,” said Murdoch. “And it just makes it so obvious that you are clutching at straws to try and put the blame on anyone, other than yourself, for not completing your homework on time. But the truth of the matter is, it is your fault, so it would be best if you just accepted that and let us move on, rather than trying to worm your way out of trouble.”

When Scott returned to the main room, he wasn’t sure what had gone on between his father and brother, but he guessed that Johnny had been chastised, in some way, by the boy’s demeanour. Not that he didn’t deserve it, thought Scott, but he still hated to see his little brother looking so dejected.

Scott was hoping to speak to Johnny, alone, but Murdoch picked Johnny up and sat him in the chair, opposite his own, at his desk.

“Do you want to play checkers, Johnny?” asked Scott, but before the boy could answer, Murdoch spoke for him.

“No time for checkers, tonight, Scott. Johnny failed to finish his homework on Friday, so he and I need to work on it, now. I trust that yours is all done?”

Johnny looked up, expecting to hear Scott say that his wasn’t finished, either, as he remembered his brother saying that he needed his father’s help, too, but all Scott did was to nod and smile.

“Yes sir, it is,” said Scott.

“How come?” said Johnny. “You got stuck on a math problem, as I recall.”

“Yes, I did, but I had another look at it, before I went to bed on Friday, and I managed to sort it out,” said Scott.

Johnny was rather upset, as he was hoping to share his father’s anger with his brother, but that was not going to be the case, as Scott had completed his homework, after all.

“I’ll go and fetch it, Pa,” said Scott, shooting a sympathetic look in Johnny’s direction.

‘Lucky devil,’ mumbled Johnny. ‘Why does it always work out okay for him, but never for me?’

“Maybe because Scott does as he is told and you don’t,” snapped Murdoch. “So stop sitting there sounding so sorry for yourself. Your life is what you make it; do as you are told to do and everything is fine, disobey and pay the price. Now, let’s get this family tree written up.”

Johnny did as Murdoch directed him to, and soon the homework was completed.

“Scott, could you please take this into Miss Carstairs, in the morning, and then bring home any homework that Johnny’s class might have for tomorrow evening?”

“Yes, sir, I will, and I’ll tell her about Johnny’s accident,” said Scott.

“I doubt if you’ll have to,” replied Murdoch. “I expect she will be told by the other boys who were at the mine, with him.”

“Probably,” said Scott.

“Right, Johnny, let me help you upstairs to your room and then you can get settled down for the night,” said Murdoch.

“But it’s not my bedtime, yet,” protested Johnny.

“You need to rest that ankle and the best place to do so is in bed,” insisted Murdoch, and before Johnny could protest any further, Murdoch lifted him up, off the chair, and carried him upstairs.

.

Chapter 15

Murdoch returned to the living room, after depositing Johnny on his bed. His goodnight to the boy hadn’t been unkind, just rather more perfunctory than usual, but Johnny knew that he couldn’t really expect any more, after all the trouble he’d been in.

As soon as Murdoch was settled in his armchair, by the fire, Scott announced his intention to go to bed.

“All right, son, I think that’s a good idea, as it’s been a long and tiring day, for us all. I shall be going, too, very shortly. Goodnight.”

“May I go in and say goodnight to Johnny?”

“Of course you may,” said Murdoch. “I know you think I am being hard on him, Scott, but that boy has got to learn there are limits to what he can do, and he must not cross them. Not only is it giving me grey hairs, but it is wrong for him to get into the habit of constantly disobeying me, and it could end up with him suffering a lot worse than just a sprained ankle.”

“Oh, I know he has to learn, Pa, and I know he does test you to the limit, but it’s just that I love him a heck of a lot. However, he does makes me mad, too, but he’s still so cute, especially when he’s all snuggled up on the couch, in his nightshirt, and covered with a blanket, like he was this evening.”

Murdoch smiled at Scott.

“He did look cute, didn’t he?”

“Yes, he did, but I wouldn’t dare tell him so. Well, goodnight Pa,” and Scott ran up the stairs.

Johnny heard Scott coming up the stairs, and he went to his door, to peep out and ask Scott to come in and see him.

“Pa will be after your hide if he catches you up on that leg, Johnny,” said Scott, as he entered Johnny’s room.

“I just wanted to make sure you were gonna come in and see me,” said Johnny, sinking back on the bed, relieved to rest his foot, again.

“I always do come and say goodnight to you,” said Scott, sitting beside his little brother. “You know something, little brother? I reckon that you must be the luckiest fella on this earth. After all the things you got up to, today, and then having to confess to Pa that you hadn’t finished your homework, you still never got your pants warmed. I would never have got away with so much.”

“Papa only let me off, cos I hurt my ankle, and he’s making me stay in bed all day, tomorrow, and you know how much I hate doing that? So, I ain’t exactly getting away with it, am I?”

“Well, I know I’d prefer to spend a day in bed than have to go to school,” said Scott.

“I wouldn’t,” moaned Johnny. “Even school’s gotta be better than lying here, looking at the four walls all day.”

“Read a book, then,” suggested Scott.

“Yeah, I could, I guess,” replied Johnny, and that remark proved to Scott how much Johnny was hating the thought of a day in bed, as the boy was not that keen on reading, either.

“Well, I best get off to bed, as Pa said he’s having an early night, too, so he’ll be up in a bit to say goodnight to me,” said Scott.

“He’s already said goodnight to me,” said Johnny. “But he was a bit abrupt about it.”

“What did you expect? You worried the life out of him, today. You can hardly expect him to be happy about what you did, now can you?

“No, I guess not,” said Johnny.

“Don’t worry; all will be well in the morning. Pa doesn’t hold a grudge.”

“No, I guess he doesn’t, but I just wish,” and then Johnny stopped.

“Wished what, little brother?” asked Scott.

“Wish I hadn’t made him mad with me,” continued Johnny.

“Oh, we all do it, sometimes. Hurt the ones we love, that is, but we also have the capacity for forgiveness and Pa’s got it in spades, so don’t fret about it.”

“Okay, I’ll try not to, goodnight Scott,” and Johnny settled down and tried to sleep.

The boy did manage to sleep, for a while, but did not have that good a night, as his ankle was hurting and he was still feeling rather guilty about worrying his father the way he had.

The next morning, Johnny was very relieved that he didn’t have to go to school, as he felt he’d only just closed his eyes, a few minutes earlier, and yet now it was time to get up, again.

Murdoch came into the room and brought Johnny his breakfast.

“Come on Johnny, even though you don’t have to get up, you still need to eat your meals at the same time as the rest of us, otherwise it makes more work for Maria.”

“Thanks, Papa, and I’m sorry if it took you a while to wake me up, but I didn’t sleep that well, last night.”

“Was the ankle bothering you, son?”

Murdoch was immediately the concerned parent and he placed the tray on the nightstand, before sitting on the bed and reaching out for Johnny’s hand.

“I’ll get Scott to ask Sam to come and take a look at it, shall I?”

“Oh no, it ain’t that bad, Papa, just a bit sore, is all. I best eat that breakfast, before it spoils, and Maria gets mad with me for wasting food.”

The boy hadn’t eaten much at the supper table, the night before, and was feeling more hungry than usual.

“Okay, if you’re sure you’ll be all right, then,” said Murdoch, patting Johnny’s hand, and then waiting for the boy to sit up so that he could give Johnny the breakfast tray. “Here you go; I’ll be back in after half an hour.”

“Thanks, Papa, and thank Mamacita for me, too.”

Scott quickly popped his head around the door, to say goodbye to Johnny.

“I’ll see you this afternoon, Johnny. Now do as Pa told you, and stay in that bed, okay?”

“Okay,” said Johnny, smiling at Scott, but the older boy was not convinced that Johnny would do so.

After Scott left, Murdoch came up to collect the tray and see if Johnny needed any help with using the chamber pot.

“Don’t see why I can’t go and use the outhouse, it’s not that far away,” said the boy.

“Because I want you to keep your weight off that ankle, that’s why,” said Murdoch.

“Okay, but I can use the chamber pot by myself.”

“I’ll only be downstairs, so if you want something, just call me,” said Murdoch. “If you stay put and rest, this morning, then I might let you come downstairs and lay on the couch, this afternoon.”

“Can’t I come down now, Papa? I hate being up here, all on my own, it’s boring.”

“No, John, you can’t. I want you to use this time to not only let your ankle heal, but also to think about what you did that led you to being in this mess, and to make you understand that it is not a good idea to disobey your father.”

“Yes, sir, I will try and do that,” said Johnny, resigning himself to the fact that he didn’t have much choice in the matter.

So Johnny spent the morning in bed and tried to do as his father had instructed him to do, think about his misdemeanours and all the trouble they had landed him in.

.

Chapter 16

The morning dragged by, very slowly for Johnny, but, eventually, he heard Maria telling Murdoch that lunch was ready and so he knew that his spell of solitary confinement would soon be over.

True to his word, Murdoch came upstairs to collect Johnny, and he carried him downstairs and placed him on a chair at the dining table.

“Are you comfortable, son?” asked Murdoch, solicitously.

“Yes, thanks, Papa,” replied Johnny.

After a morning of inactivity, Johnny wasn’t all that hungry, but he made a good attempt at eating his lunch, as he didn’t want his father to think he wasn’t feeling too well, in case Murdoch insisted he returned to his room.

“I did as you said, Papa. I thought about what I did and I do realise it was wrong of me to go into that mine, just to prove I wasn’t a sissy. Even Jimmy told me not to go, but you know me? Once I get an idea in my head, I just havta go with it.”

“Well, I’m glad that you did as I told you, this time, at least, and I hope you will stop and think, before doing anything as foolish as this, again. You are very lucky to have come out of it with no more than a few scrapes and a twisted ankle.”

“I guess I am,” said Johnny, being careful to say what he knew his father wanted to hear, as he was anxious to keep on the right side of Murdoch.

They ate their lunch and then Murdoch suggested moving Johnny to the couch.

“I’ll take you back up to bed, if you prefer, son?”

“No, I’ll be fine down here,” said Johnny. “Is there anything I can do to help you?”

“Not really, son, but thanks for the offer.”

Johnny knew that his father was doing the book keeping and so tried to remain quiet, but his normal exuberance kept bouncing to the surface and soon he was asking Murdoch lots of questions about the ranch.

Eventually, Murdoch said, “I am very pleased that you are so interested in the ranch, son, but I really need to get these books up to date, by the morning, as I have a meeting with the bank manager, so could you please be quiet, for a while?”

“Oh sorry, Papa,” said Johnny. “I thought you liked it when I showed an interest in the ranch.”

“I do, son, but not now, okay?”

“Okay,” said Johnny.

He remained quiet, for a short while, but then began to get bored.

“Papa.”

When Murdoch didn’t answer, Johnny tried again.

“Papa.”

After the third time, Murdoch replied.

“Sorry, son, did you want something?”

“Yes, will you get me a book to read, please?”

Murdoch almost chuckled when he heard this request. Johnny must be really bored, as he very rarely picked up a book, unless he was forced to, for school.

“Of course I will, son,” and Murdoch gave the boy a copy of Moby Dick. “I think you will enjoy this.”

It was a book that Scott had been trying to get Johnny to read, for some time, but, so far the younger boy had resisted.

“Okay, I’ll give it a go,” said Johnny, and he opened the book and began to read.

By the time Scott came home from school, Johnny was well ensconced in the book.

“Hi, Johnny, how’s the ankle?” said Scott, but it took Johnny a while to realise that his brother was there.

“Sorry, Scott, but this book is real good. Oh, the ankle’s a lot better, thanks. How was school? Did the fellas ask about me?”

“School was fine, thanks and yes, they all asked about you and I told them you were

doing okay. Miss Carstairs sent you some math to do, and a few spellings to learn.”

“Oh, darn it. I wanted to carry on reading this book and now I’ll havta do homework, instead,” said Johnny.

“Not necessarily, as I doubt if you’ll be going to school tomorrow, so you can do the homework, then,” said Scott.

“I am going to school, tomorrow. My ankle’s a lot better and I don’t wanna spend another day in bed,” replied Johnny.

“We’ll see if the swelling has gone down, before we make a decision on that, Johnny,” said Murdoch.

“It has gone down, look,” said Johnny, raising his leg, so that Murdoch could get a better look at it.

Murdoch decided to remove the bandage and check out the ankle and Johnny was telling the truth, the swelling had gone down, a fair bit.

“Looks like you will be able to return to school, after all, Johnny, as long as it doesn’t look any worse than this, in the morning. I am rather surprised that you are so anxious to return to school, though.”

“It’s because I hate lying around, doing nothing, all day. Even school’s better than that. Best get that homework done, then. Did Miss Carstairs say we’d got a spelling test tomorrow?”

“No, she said it was on Wednesday, but then she didn’t expect to see you back tomorrow,” said Scott.

“Oh well, in that case I’ll just do the math and save the spellings for tomorrow evening,” said Johnny.

He applied himself to the sums and soon had them done, although when Murdoch checked them he had made a couple of mistakes.

“If you take your time, son, you are more likely to get them all right, as those were just silly mistakes, most likely caused, because you rushed them.”

“Sorry,” said Johnny, and when he looked at them, again, he could see what Murdoch meant.

Scott offered to do Johnny’s evening chores for him, as Murdoch was still a bit reluctant to allow the boy to put all his weight on the ankle.

Afterwards, they ate supper and then the boys played checkers.

Before the boys headed off to bed, Murdoch reminded them that Mrs Michaels and her brother were coming to supper, the next day.

“So, I want you both to come home, straight after school, get your chores and homework out of the way, have a bath, and then change into your suits, okay?”

“Another bath? I only had one yesterday and I’ve done nothing but lie in bed all day, today,” said Johnny.

“But by tomorrow afternoon you will have spent a day at school and are likely to have got grubby, again,” said Murdoch. “So I want you to have a bath.”

“What do you think she’s gonna do, Papa? Inspect our ears and necks before she’ll sit down and eat with us?” asked Johnny, obviously beginning to get very angry.

“No, I don’t, John, and I’ll thank you not to take that tone with me,” said Murdoch, rising from his chair and approaching his younger son. “I just want you to create a good impression and be clean and tidy when Mrs Michaels and her brother get here.”

Scott could see that Johnny wasn’t ready to let this lie, so he grabbed hold of his little brother’s hand and almost dragged him towards the stairs.

“Come on Johnny, I’ll read you some more of Moby Dick, if you like?”

Johnny was aware of what Scott was doing and, fortunately, he took note, and allowed himself to be led away.

“Okay, Scott, that would be nice. Goodnight, Papa.”

“Goodnight, son, I’ll be up, shortly, to tuck you in,” said Murdoch, pleased, too, that Scott had intervened and prevented a major argument from developing between father and son.

.

Chapter 17 

As soon as they got upstairs, Scott pushed Johnny into his room and then shut the door behind them.

“Why have you always got to get Pa mad? So, we take a bath. What’s so terrible about that?”

“It’s cos we gotta do it for her, that’s why I don’t want to,” said Johnny, mulishly.

“Sometimes, Johnny, I think you just have to be ornery for being ornery’s sake. Pa’s just having a couple of friends over for a meal, to pay back their hospitality. That could be all that there is to it. And yet, you’re turning it into such a big deal.”

“I may be younger than you, but I bet I know a lot more about how things are between men and women. When Papa looked at Mrs Michaels you could tell that he liked her, and I don’t want no woman coming in and messing up this family.”

“Pa knows how you feel, Johnny, and I really don’t think he has any plans to make Mrs Michaels a permanent member of this family.”

“He’d better not,” muttered Johnny, darkly.

Scott changed the subject by suggesting that Johnny got into bed and then he could start reading.

By the time Murdoch came up to tuck him in, Johnny was almost asleep.

“I’ll get off to my bed, now,” said Scott. “Night, Pa, night little brother.”

“Night, Scott,” said Johnny, sleepily.

Murdoch bent down and kissed the boy on the forehead.

“Night, son.”

“Night, Papa.”

When Johnny woke up, the next morning, he very gingerly placed his foot over the side of the bed and stood down on it.

‘Mmm, not bad,’ he thought. He got out of bed and was soon dressed and ready to go down to breakfast.

As he headed down the stairs, he called out to his father, “Papa, the ankle’s fine, this morning.”

“Good to hear it, son,” said Murdoch, who was already sat at the table.

Scott soon joined them and both boys enjoyed a hearty breakfast before setting off for school.

“Just take it easy, today, Johnny,” said Murdoch, before they left. “Rest up at recess, best not to go outside and run around.”

Johnny didn’t like the sound of that, as he was an active boy, who enjoyed playing games at recess time, but he just nodded at his father.

“And don’t forget boys, straight home tonight, please.”

“As if we ever do anything else?” said Johnny, once they were out of earshot of their father. “We always go straight home after school.”

“Pa just wants everything to go off well tonight,” said Scott, trying to be the peacemaker, as usual.

“I know he does, and that makes me real worried, as it’s obvious that it means a lot to him to have this woman think well of him, and of us,” said Johnny, looking like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.

“Oh, I don’t know if it’s that, or if it’s just that when anyone comes to the house, Pa wants them to have a good time,” said Scott.

“No, he likes her, a lot,” said Johnny.

The boys were soon at school and so didn’t have the chance to talk about it, again, until lunch time.

Once they’d eaten, Johnny’s friends were asking him what Murdoch’s reaction had been to him being trapped down the mine.

“Well, he wasn’t all that pleased about it,” said Johnny. “But having hurt my ankle worked in my favour, as he was more worried than angry.”

“And I’m sure you played it up to the hilt, didn’t you?” said Jimmy, patting Johnny on the back.

Johnny grinned.

“Well, I wasn’t about to say I was fine, if it meant he was gonna whack me, was I? But it was pretty painful, for a few hours, so I wasn’t putting it on, completely.”

“Yeah, I bet you weren’t,” sneered Wes.

“You can back off, Wes,” said Johnny. “It was you egging me on to go in that mine that made me do it. If you hadn’t done that, I reckon I would’ve come to my senses and not gone in there.”

“Hey, don’t blame me for you being an idiot,” replied Wes. “Going in the mine was your idea.”

“Never mind whose idea it was, it was a dumb one,” said Scott. “But Johnny’s okay, so let’s not talk about it, anymore.”

“What do you want to talk about, big brother? Our wonderful dinner guest?”

“What dinner guest?” asked Jimmy.

“It’s tonight that Mrs Michaels and her brother are coming to supper,” said Johnny. “And Papa’s warned us to be on our best behaviour.”

“I hate it when our folks have guests over,” said Charlie. “We havta get all gussied up and eat the meal wearing a tie, and it makes me feel as though I am choking.”

“Yeah, that’s what we’ve gotta do,” said Johnny. “And Papa says we must go straight home, after school, do our chores and have a bath.”

“Jeepers, who is this woman? The Queen of England?” said Zack.

“You’d think so, the way he’s carrying on,” said Johnny. “I’ve a good mind not to go home at all, this evening.”

“You are going home,” said Scott. “I’m not going to arrive home, without you. Pa will have a fit, if I do.”

It was time for the children to return to the schoolroom, so no more was said, but the idea of not turning up for the meal began to sound like a really good one, to Johnny.

‘If I don’t go home, Papa will go looking for me and then she won’t be able to come to dinner,’ he thought. ‘Now, how do I get away from Scott?’

As he sat in his chair, Johnny hit on a way to leave school, without his big brother.

With only about ten minutes to go, until the end of the afternoon, Johnny put up his hand and asked to be excused from the schoolroom.

“It’s nearly the end of the afternoon, Johnny,” said Miss Carstairs. “Can’t you just wait a few more minutes?”

Johnny began to wriggle about on the seat.

“No ma’am, I havta go now, else I might have an accident.”

“Oh, very well, then, off you go,” said Miss Carstairs. “But please hurry up, as I have the homework to hand out.”

“It’s the spellings, isn’t it?” said Johnny. “You sent them home with Scott, yesterday.”

“Yes, it is, and I’d forgotten that you already had them. In that case I can write them on the board for the rest of the class, while you go and use the outhouse.”

Johnny went outside, but he didn’t go to the outhouse, he went to the school corral and collected Scirocco, instead. He saddled up the horse and rode off, as fast as he could, praying that no one would see him go. Luckily for him, they didn’t.

When Johnny failed to return to the school room by the time Miss Carstairs was dismissing the other students, she wasn’t too worried, as she knew he had the homework. She assumed he was waiting outside for Scott. So, she was rather shocked when, about ten minutes later, Scott ran into the room, asking where Johnny was.

“Have you kept him behind, ma’am?”

“No, Scott, your brother asked to go and use the outhouse, about ten minutes before the end of lessons, and he never returned to the classroom. Was he not waiting outside for you?”

“No, he wasn’t. Thanks, ma’am, I best go and see if I can find him.”

Scott went back outside and headed over to the corral to collect Jupiter and that’s when he noticed that Scirocco was missing.

‘I’m going to kill him,’ thought Scott. ‘He’s deliberately gone off, somewhere, just to avoid this dinner.’

Before leaving the school, Scott checked with Johnny’s friends, to see if they knew where he’d gone, but none of them did.

“He didn’t wanna havta eat with that lady friend of your Pa’s, tonight,” said Jimmy. “He’s probably gone to the cave, and is planning to stay there until she’s gone home.”

Scott decided to go and see if that was where his brother was, and Wes rode along with him.

.

Chapter 18

Johnny had, indeed, gone out to the cave and was already brewing up some coffee, when Scott and Wes arrived.

“What the devil are you playing at, little brother?” yelled Scott, as he dismounted his horse and ran over to where Johnny was sitting. “Pa is going to totally burst a blood vessel when we are not home on time.”

“So, go home, Scott,” said Johnny. “Do you want some coffee before you leave?”

“No, I do not want some coffee, and I don’t want you having any, either. If you get up on your horse, right now, and we ride like the wind, we might just get home before Pa starts sending out the search parties.”

“I’m not going home, Scott,” said Johnny. “I’m gonna stay here until that woman has left our home.”

“Johnny, please don’t do this. Pa can be just as stubborn as you, and if you keep trying to avoid Mrs Michaels, then he might just start seeing her more often. But if you just turn up for this meal, and behave yourself, then you could find that Pa’s only invited her, this once, to repay her hospitality, and he won’t be seeing her again.”

“Do you really think so?” said Johnny, looking fairly hopeful.

“Well, I can’t guarantee it, but it might be the case.”

Johnny thought about this and then smiled up at Scott.

“Okay, I’ll come home, but you’d better be right.”

The two boys, and Wes, rode as fast as they dared, but they were still home nearly forty five minutes later than they usually were, and Murdoch was waiting for them.

“Where have you been? What did I say to you two, only this morning? I said I wanted you to be home on time, and here you are, almost an hour late. I don’t have time to listen to your lame excuses, so go and take care of your horses, do your chores, and then go and have a bath. And if you are not ready by the time Molly and Ezra arrive, then you and I are going to be falling out, big time. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Pa, you do, crystal clear,” said Scott, and he headed over to the barn, with his horse.

Johnny took in the look on Murdoch’s face and scurried off after his brother.

“Oh boy, he ain’t happy, is he?” said Johnny, happily.

“Well, what did you expect?” said Scott. “And why do you sound so happy that you’ve made him mad? You know, we’re likely to hear a lot more about this, after the guests have gone home, and I get the feeling we are going to be going to bed feeling very sorry for ourselves.”

“I’m glad, because if Papa’s angry then he won’t be as charming as he usually is, to the lady, and so she might decide she doesn’t like him, after all,” said Johnny. “But I won’t be so glad if he starts yelling, some more, after the guests have gone.”

“Neither will I, and I might just have to tell him the reason why we were late.”

Johnny wasn’t happy about that, but tried to pretend that it didn’t bother him.

“Well, if you do, you do,” he said, and carried on grooming his horse.

Before long, Murdoch came to find them

“Hurry up, boys, you’ve still got lots to do.”

“Okay, Papa, we’ll get it all done, don’t fret,” said Johnny.

“I’d have no need to fret, if you had come home on time, like I told you to.”

“Sorry, Pa,” said Scott, and then he led Johnny over to the wood pile, before the boy could say anything that might further anger their father.

The boys worked really hard and just as the guests arrived at the front of the house; they both ran into the main room, bathed and resplendent in their suits and shirts, with string ties, although Johnny’s wasn’t fastened.

“I’ll do it, Pa,” said Scott, hastily turning Johnny around and sorting out his tie, just as their father opened the door.

“Welcome to you both,” said Murdoch. “We are so pleased that you were able to come.”

“Thank you, Murdoch, and we were happy to accept your very kind invitation,” said Molly, offering her hand to Murdoch, who lifted it to his lips and delicately kissed it.

Johnny began making gagging gestures, behind his father’s back, but Molly could see them. However, she made no comment about what he was doing, much to Scott’s relief, as he could see what Johnny was doing, as well, and was trying, desperately, to get his little brother to stop.

Murdoch shook hands with Ezra and then showed them into the main room, where he offered them drinks. Scott was given their coats to hang up and Johnny was instructed to bring through the appetisers.

He ran into the kitchen and grabbed the platter, which Maria had left on the kitchen table.

“Here ya go,” he said, pushing the plate right under Mrs Michael’s nose. “Hope ya like hot things, cos I got Maria to make ‘em real spicy.”

Scott grabbed the plate off Johnny, almost spilling the contents into Molly’s lap, and then he offered them to her, in a more acceptable manner.

“They’re not that hot, ma’am,” said Scott. “Maria doesn’t make hot things for our guests, unless she knows their tastes. Johnny was just teasing you.”

Murdoch came across the room, carrying a tray on which he had three glasses and a decanter of sherry. Just as he came alongside Molly, Johnny pretended to trip and he bumped into his father. The decanter toppled over and Molly was sprayed with a liberal amount of sherry.

“Oh dear, my dress,” she said, making a half hearted attempt to clean it, by dabbing at it with her handkerchief.

“John, go and get a cloth,” commanded Murdoch, and Johnny ran into the kitchen and returned with a piece of rag, which Maria used to mop up spillages off the floor. He began wiping down Molly with the rag, leaving dirty marks on the dress, rather than soaking up the sherry.

Murdoch could see what was happening and ordered Johnny to stop.

“That will do, John. You are making it worse, not better.”

Johnny stopped what he was doing and looked extremely aggrieved.

“Sorry, Papa, I was just trying to help.”

Molly stood up and said, “If you will excuse me, I will go out to the kitchen and see if I can do a better job on it.”

While she was gone, Murdoch tried to make small talk with Ezra, and in between times, he glared over at Johnny, who smiled, sweetly, back at his father.

It wasn’t long before Molly returned. With Maria’s help, she had managed to do a pretty good job of cleaning her dress, but there was still a dark stain where the sherry had been.

Johnny giggled.

“Looks like you peed yourself,” he said. “Do you remember when Teresa did, Scott, and her dress looked like that?”

Scott nodded and then put his finger over his lips, warning Johnny to be quiet.

“John, that is enough out of you,” said Murdoch, sharply.

Molly sat on another chair, as the first one was damp from the spillage, and Murdoch offered her a glass of sherry.

As she sipped it, she remarked, “This is a particularly good blend, Murdoch.”

“You must drink a lot to know that Papa’s sherry is a good one, Mrs Michaels,” said Johnny. “What’s your favourite drink? Papa has lots, but whisky’s his favourite.”

“I don’t drink that much, Johnny, but I do like a glass of sherry before my evening meal and yes, I would call myself a bit of an aficionado of sherry.”

“What does that mean?” said Johnny.

“It means I know quite a lot about it, as it is something I am interested in,” replied Molly.

“You know something, it’s rather unbecoming in a woman to drink, and most men don’t like to see a lady getting smashed,” said Johnny. “Papa doesn’t, do you, Papa?”

“A glass of sherry before a meal is hardly excessive drinking, Johnny,” said Murdoch.

They were saved from anymore pearls of wisdom from Johnny, by Maria announcing that dinner was ready.

During the meal, Johnny continued to behave very badly, talking with his mouth full, placing his elbows on the table and leaning across the guests, in order to reach the dishes of vegetables, instead of asking for them to be passed to him. Murdoch was getting increasingly angrier with the boy, but Molly seemed to find his behaviour rather amusing.

“This reminds me of going to the zoological gardens in San Francisco and watching the chimp’s tea party,” she said, at one point. “But then I suppose young children and chimpanzees have a lot in common.”

“John, please will you sit back in your seat and ask for the potatoes to be passed to you, or else you are likely to knock over the water jug,” said Murdoch, as Johnny, once again, kneeled up on his chair and reached across the table.

“Pass the potatoes,” said Johnny, to Molly.

“Johnny, where are your manners?” demanded Murdoch.

“Dunno, maybe they went down the drain with the bath water,” replied Johnny.

“Ask Mrs Michaels, properly, to pass the potatoes,” said Murdoch, choosing to ignore the boy’s rather flippant remark.

“Pass the potatoes, please ma’am,” said Johnny.

Molly did so, and Johnny took a huge spoonful and let it drop off the spoon, well above his plate, causing the gravy on his dinner to splash onto the beautiful white tablecloth.

Murdoch slammed his fist down on the table, making them all look up, in alarm.

“That is enough, John. I have taken just about all the bad behaviour I am prepared to take from you, this evening. Please say goodbye to our guests and then go up to your room. Once there, you are to get undressed and go to bed. I will be up, later, to talk to you about your disgraceful behaviour.”

Johnny stood up and began walking towards the stairs, but was stopped by his father’s voice.

“I said you were to say goodbye to our guests, young man. And, unless you want me to punish you, right here and now, I would suggest that you do so, and in the proper way.”

“Good bye, Mrs Michaels and Mr Perkins,” said Johnny, and he ran up the stairs, slamming his bedroom door, as he went through it.

“I am really very sorry about that,” said Murdoch. “Sometimes, I just don’t know what gets into that boy. He isn’t always like this, I can assure you. Most of the time he is a real joy to be with.”

“Oh don’t worry about it, Murdoch,” said Molly. “Children often play up when there are new people in the house. I never liked it when my parents entertained, as we used to have to wear our Sunday best and be made to sit in the parlour, like two stuffed dolls, do you remember, Ezra?”

Ezra smiled.

“Yes, I do, and we were not allowed to join in the conversation, unless we were asked a question. Molly was the biggest chatterbox, ever, and was always in trouble for talking too much.”

“It’s very good of you both to be so understanding, but it was still very wrong of Johnny to behave as he did, and I will be telling him so, later.”

“Oh please don’t be too hard on him, Murdoch,” said Molly. “You explained that Johnny hadn’t been living with you, that long, and so he’s bound to be rather anxious about wanting to keep you all to himself, just yet. Don’t worry about it and please don’t let it spoil this wonderful dinner.”

Murdoch smiled at Molly, and she smiled back.

“The boy doesn’t deserve such a pretty supporter, as you, my dear,” he said, and Scott breathed a sigh of relief. He felt that Murdoch’s anger was leaving him, as his father drunk in that smile, and it all boded well for Johnny’s hide, if Murdoch had calmed down by the time he went to talk to the boy.

Not that Scott felt that Johnny deserved to be let off for his behaviour, exactly, but he still hated to think of his little brother being in trouble.

The rest of the evening went off very well, and when it was time for Ezra and Molly to leave, Murdoch asked if he might see her again.

“That would be very nice,” she said. “What have you got in mind?”

“An evening at the theatre, maybe? I understand a travelling Shakespearian Company will be performing on Friday, in town.”

“Sounds great,” said Molly.

“I’ll pick you up at seven thirty, if that’s all right?” said Murdoch.

“That will be fine,” said Molly.

As he helped her into the buggy, Murdoch gave Molly a discreet kiss on the cheek.

She smiled at him and said, “Friday can’t come soon enough.”

Scott said goodbye to their guests and then returned to the main room of the house. He knew that his father would expect him to go to bed, but he wanted to talk to Murdoch before he went.

Murdoch came into the room and poured himself out a small glass of whisky.

“If Johnny could see me having this, he’d probably call me a drunkard.”

“Oh, he wouldn’t say it if we were here on our own, only if Mrs Michaels was here, then he could act as if you were an alcoholic, or she was,” said Scott. “He just doesn’t want to share you, Pa.”

“I know he doesn’t, son, but he’s got to learn to be polite to people, no matter what. Anyway, time you were in bed, Scott, and I need to go and check on your brother.”

Murdoch finished his drink and followed Scott up the stairs.

“On second thoughts, you’d best come in Johnny’s room with me, as we need to talk about why you were both late home, today.”

.

Chapter 19

Johnny was in bed when Murdoch and Scott entered his room, but he wasn’t asleep, as he found it impossible to relax until his father had been to talk to him.

“Hi, Papa, Scott. Have the guests gone home, now?”

“Yes, John, they have, and, luckily for you, they didn’t let your behaviour spoil their evening.”

“Didn’t they?” said Johnny, and it was obvious that he was upset by his father’s words.

“No, they didn’t, so your plan didn’t work. In fact, Mrs Michaels is doing me the honour of accompanying me to the theatre, on Friday evening.”

“What’re you going to see?”

“A play by William Shakespeare,” said Murdoch. “I’m not sure which one it will be, yet, as they are a travelling company and they do a variety of performances, but I am sure it will be very good.”

“Glad I’m not going, I don’t like Shakespeare,” said Johnny.

“You’d be the last person I would take along, after the way you behaved this evening,” said Murdoch. “I don’t know when I was more embarrassed. And, while we are on the subject of this evening, I’d like to know why the two of you were so late, after I reminded you, several times, that I wanted you to come straight home after school.”

“Well, you see Pa,” began Scott, although he wasn’t sure what to say next.

“It’s okay, Scott, you don’t havta cover for me. I was late, Papa, cos I didn’t wanna come home when Mrs Michaels and Mr Perkins were here. And Scott was late, cos he came looking for me and persuaded me to come home. So, it was my fault, not his.”

Knowing how the boys often tried to cover for each other, Murdoch then spoke to Scott.

“Is Johnny telling the truth, Scott? Were you late, because you went to find him?”

“Yes sir,” said Scott. “Johnny asked Miss Carstairs if he could go and use the outhouse, about ten minutes before the end of school, and once he was outside, he saddled up Scirocco and rode off. When I came out of my class and found he was missing, I went to look for him, and I found him at the cave. It took us a while to ride home, so that’s why we were late.”

“Very well, Scott,” said Murdoch. “In that case, you are free to go to bed, as I am not cross with you, any more. In fact I want to thank you for taking such good care of your brother and going to find him.”

“That’s okay, Pa, but please don’t be too angry with Johnny. He’s not had the chance to learn how to behave around visitors, yet. I’m sure he didn’t mean to be so bad at dinner.”

“Scott, I’ve just complimented you on the way you took care of your brother, so don’t spoil things by lying to me, now. You know as well as I do that Johnny knows, well enough, how to behave when we have guests. And that what he did this evening was a deliberate attempt to put Molly off seeing me, again; it wasn’t because he didn’t know how to behave, was it?”

“No, I guess not, Pa,” said Scott. “Sorry, Johnny, I did my best to save your hide, but I guess you went too far, this evening.”

“That’s okay, Scott, and thanks for trying,” said Johnny. “Goodnight, brother.”

“Night, Johnny,” and Scott left his little brother’s room.

Murdoch paced up and down Johnny’s room and the boy watched him, nervously, from his bed.

“I guess you’re pretty mad with me, huh?”

“You guessed right,” said Murdoch. “I really don’t know where to start, John. Your behaviour, from the time they arrived, until I sent you up to your room, was just totally unacceptable. I know you deliberately bumped into me and made me spill the sherry, so please don’t try and deny it, and then that remark you made about the stain on Molly’s dress, plus your appalling manners at the table, the list just goes on and on. But, as I’ve already said, it didn’t work, as she still wants to see me. And, I want to repeat what I’ve already told you. Molly is a friend and I enjoy her company, but nothing has been said about me getting married, so there is no need for you to wage war against her. For the rest of this week you are restricted to the ranch, so that means you come straight home from school and you stay here until the following morning, when you leave to go to school, again. You are not allowed to go off and play with your friends, understood?”

“Yes, Papa, understood,” said Johnny.

“And there will be some extra chores for you to do, each day, to remind you that there are always consequences to bad behaviour.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Right then, I think it’s time you settled down, and went to sleep, now, young man, so I’ll say goodnight,” and Murdoch leaned over and gave Johnny a kiss.

“Sorry, Papa,” said Johnny.

“You’re forgiven, this time, but you’d better not embarrass me in front of Mrs Michaels, again, as I won’t be so lenient, next time.”

“Night, Papa.”

Johnny decided that it would be beneficial for his hide, if he did as his father had told him to do. And so, for the rest of the week, he came home from school, on time, did his extra chores and didn’t complain about it, too much. He missed playing with his friends, but he saw them at school and he knew that his restriction would be over by the week end.

When Murdoch left to pick Molly up for the theatre, on Friday evening, Johnny didn’t complain about him going, and so Murdoch went out, hoping that the boy was now accepting the situation, a bit better.

.

Chapter 20

Johnny still wasn’t happy about his father seeing Mrs Michaels, but Murdoch either saw her during the day, when the boys were at school, or in the evening, away from the house, so she didn’t really see that much of the boys over the next couple of weeks.

The two of them got on very well, and Murdoch did begin to wonder if he might end up welshing on what he’d said to Johnny, when he’d told the boy that he and Molly were not thinking about getting married.

However, he hadn’t brought the subject up with Molly, mainly because he knew that before he could take that step, he had to have Scott and Johnny’s approval, and that was likely to prove a very difficult thing to achieve.

At school, Mary Matthews had certainly made an impression on Scott, although he was taking things slowly, after his disastrous attempts at relationships with Isobel and Becky.* However,  the same could not be said for her younger sister, Laura, on Johnny. But then, Johnny wasn’t interested in girls, at all, just yet.

Laura was ten and so had been placed in the same class as Johnny, but he’d hardly given her a second glance, until the day that he watched her take on one of the class bullies, and win.

“Can’t stand kids like that who pick on the little ones,” she said, as she headed for the water pump, so that she could get cleaned up, before the start of the afternoon lessons.

“Won’t you get it in the neck from your folks, when they hear you’ve been fighting?” asked Johnny.

“No need for Ma to know, unless you’re thinking of snitching on me,” she said, putting up her fists, again.

“Of course I’m not, I ain’t no snitch,” said Johnny. “But the Pallister brothers might tell on you.”

“I doubt it,” said Laura, with a toss of her head. “No boy likes to admit that he got whupped by a girl, so I can’t see ‘em telling on me.”

Johnny had to agree with her.

“Well, I know I wouldn’t wanna let any one know, if it happened to me,” said Johnny. “Not that it ever would,” he added.

“Just don’t try and bully any one, and it won’t,” said Laura, punching Johnny, gently, on the arm, and laughing.

“How did you learn to fight as good as you do?” asked Johnny, at afternoon recess, when he was next able to talk to Laura.

“Being raised an Army brat, helped,” said Laura. “My sister Mary and me, well, we thought we’d better learn, seeing as how we were always around men, and needed to be able to defend ourselves. And our Pa really wanted sons, to follow him into the Army, so he was happy to see us learn the kinda skills that most women don’t know anything about. But Ma hated it and said we were turning into little heathens, so she moved us in with her sister, in Morro Coyo, and now we havta go to school and act like proper young ladies, least that’s what she hopes will happen.”

“And will it?” asked Johnny.

“Well, it might for Mary, but it’d better not for me. I still have hopes that, one day, the Army might change its mind and let me enlist, and when it does, I wanna be ready.”

Johnny didn’t think that was very likely, but decided not to say so, as he liked Laura, and, besides, he’d seen how well she could handle herself in a fight!

The two of them spent the rest of recess talking to one another, but as they walked back to the schoolroom, later, she ran ahead to walk alongside her sister, and he fell in with his friends.

“Why did ya spend all recess talking to a dadblamed gal?” asked Wes. “We was playing marbles and needed ya. I lost my lucky marble.”

“Sorry, but she’s okay, more like a guy than a girl. Didn’t you see her sock old Pallister in the jaw, cos he was picking on that new little kid?”

“No, I didn’t,” said Wes. “Miss Carstairs kept me in for the first five minutes of the lunch break, cos I hadn’t finished the math off the board, doncha remember?”

“Oh, yeah, she did, didn’t she? Well, Laura floored ole Matt, with one great smack to the jaw. After that, I reckoned she deserved a bit of my attention.”

“That was real decent of you, Johnny,” said Charlie, laughing at him.

“Yeah, it was, wasn’t it?” agreed Johnny, ignoring Charlie’s mocking tone, as they were almost at the schoolroom door and Miss Carstairs could see them. “I think I might ask her over to the ranch, sometime, might even let her go in the tree house.”

“Wow, she must’ve impressed you,” said Zack.

“She did, cos not only can she fight, she also loves fishing and don’t mind baiting her own hook, or collecting the worms, and she’s ace at climbing trees, and when she grows up she wants to join the Army, and serve with her father.”

“Ah, she won’t be able to do that,” said Jimmy. “I might be the dumb one, around here, but even I know that ladies ain’t allowed to join up.”

Jimmy was fourteen and was Zack’s older brother. He should have been in Miss Burgess’ class with Scott, but as he’d never been to school, before coming to Morro Coyo, and was unable to read and write, he was put in the younger children’s class, so had befriended Johnny, along with Zack, Charlie and Wes.

“If I know Laura, like I think I do, I reckon she’ll do her darnedest to get the law changed,” said Johnny.

The children then entered the schoolroom, and continued trying to get their heads around some more problems, which Miss Carstairs had put on the board, during recess.

.

Chapter 21

A chance came for Johnny to invite Laura over to Lancer, for the following week end. Scott was really keen to ask Mary to visit the ranch, but knew it wouldn’t be possible, unless she had a chaperone, so he was going to ask Johnny if he’d mind Laura coming too, so that they could make it like a ‘welcome to the area’ lunch party kind of an invitation.

Scott was expecting to have a fight on his hands, but Johnny was fine about it.

“Sounds good, brother,” he said. “For a girl, she’s not half bad.”

Scott was quite taken aback, and for a few minutes, said nothing.

“Oh, good, I’m glad you don’t mind. You see, if they are both invited, then their mother might be okay about it.”

“I expect she will be, but she won’t be wanting you and Mary slipping off on your own, and I bet that’s what’s on your mind.”

“Well, kinda, but then I don’t reckon Pa’ll let us, either, not after all that trouble with Isobel  and Becky**. We’ll ask Pa, tonight, if we can invite them on Sunday.”

“Okay,” said Johnny.

When the boys broached the subject with Murdoch, he was happy to let the sisters come, but wondered whether he should also invite their mother along.

“Heck no, Papa, this is just a lunch for us kids, we don’t want grown ups along,” said Johnny.

“Well, you have to be chaperoned, Johnny, so someone else has to be there.”

“You will be in the house, Pa, and Maria will be there, so that’s okay,” said Scott.

“All right, they can come over for lunch and, provided you promise to stay together, at all times, Scott, you can hitch up the buggy and take them on a short ride around the ranch, too.”

“Thanks, Pa,” said Scott, beaming at his father.

The following day, Scott and Johnny issued the invitation to Mary and Laura and the two girls accepted.

“That’ll be great, Scott,” said Mary. “Mama wanted to go with Aunt Katherine to a sewing circle meeting on Sunday, so now she can go and won’t have to be fretting about what Laura is getting up to, if your father is going to be keeping an eye on us. She’s a bit of a handful, since being away from Daddy. She always behaved herself, a bit better, for him, but that’s because Mama says he spoils her. He doesn’t mind her acting like a boy; in fact I think he encourages it. Daddy wanted a boy when Laura was on the way, but it wasn’t to be, and Mama couldn’t have any more children after Laura, so he was stuck with two daughters.”

“I’m sure he doesn’t think of it as being stuck, exactly,” said Scott.

“No, I don’t suppose he does, as he’s fond of both of us, but I think Mama sometimes feels that she’s let him down, not giving him a son to follow in his Army footsteps.”

“If Laura had been a boy, he might not have wanted to go in the Army,” said Scott. “Not all boys do.”

“That’s true,” said Mary. “One of my father’s best friends did have a son, and he became a priest. He said he’d seen enough killing and didn’t want to be a part of it.”

“Well, there you are, then,” said Scott. “Don’t forget to check with your mother, and then you can let me know tomorrow, if it’s all right for you to come over.”

“We will, and thanks, again, Scott,” said Mary, as the school bell called them into lessons.

Mrs Matthews said it was all right for the girls to go over to the Lancer spread. Her sister, who ran a small dressmaking business, from her home, in Morro Coyo, knew of Murdoch and assured her that the family was one of the most respectable in the area.

“He is doing a really good job, raising those boys of his, and they are both fine boys, always well turned out and good mannered,” said Martha, to Henrietta, mother of Laura and Mary.

“I assume that Mr Lancer will pick you up, after church, on Sunday, and take you out to the ranch?” said Henrietta Matthews to Mary.

“Oh yes, Mama, that’s what Scott said he would do, so you can meet him at the same time.”

“Very well, you may go, but please keep a close eye on Laura, as you know what a scamp she can be?”

“I will, Mama, and don’t worry. Mr Lancer is used to dealing with two boys, so I am sure he will be able to deal with Laura.”

“Maybe, but I would prefer it if she didn’t give him any reason to have to deal with her.”

Johnny surprised the rest of the family by being at the breakfast table, before anyone else, on the morning that Laura was coming home to play with him, after church.

He was smartly dressed, in a clean white shirt and his suit trousers; his jacket was hanging up by the front door, in readiness for leaving.

“My, oh my, what happened to my Johnny, and who is this look alike, who is in his place?” said Murdoch, when he came into the kitchen.

“Don’t be silly, Papa, it is me,” said Johnny, giggling.

“I don’t think so, he’s too clean and tidy to be my Johnny,” went on Murdoch. “And my Johnny is never at the table, as early as this, on a Sunday morning.”

“Well, it is me, and if you don’t stop teasing me and get on with your breakfast, you’re gonna make us late for church.”

“Now I know it’s not my Johnny, as he would never speak to his father in that way, as he would know the consequences,” growled Murdoch, pretending to be cross.

“And your Johnny also knows that all he has to do is hide behind Mamacita, and then Papa wouldn’t dare come after him,” said Johnny, doing just that.

Maria laughed, steered the boy back to his seat, and tapped him on the bottom, with the wooden spoon, which she happened to have in her hand.

“Now eat your breakfast,” she said.

“All right, Mamacita, I will,” said Johnny, doing so.

.

Chapter 22

Mary took her time getting dressed, that morning, as she wanted to look pretty for Scott. Then she went in search of her sister and had to spend more time tidying Laura up, as the girl hadn’t taken any care about her appearance.

“Johnny don’t care what I look like, Mary, so stop tugging and primping at me,” said Laura, trying to break away from her sister. “Ouch, that hurt, you pig, go to hell, I look fine.”

“Don’t use words like that. If Mama hears you she’ll wash your mouth out with soap. If I don’t make you look any better than you do, Mama won’t let us go to Lancer. You know how important the way you look is to Mama?”

“I guess so,” said Laura, and she, reluctantly, stood still and let her sister comb her hair and straighten her dress.

“And please make sure you keep that foul part of your mouth closed,” said Mary. “I know that when we were living at the fort we heard a lot of unsavoury phrases, but that doesn’t mean we have to use them.”

Laura laughed.

“Oh, some of them were so funny. Do you remember when that new recruit ran the wheel of the cannon over Sergeant O’Rourke’s foot and he yelled out,” but she never got to say what the man yelled, as Mary stopped her.

“Don’t you dare say anymore,” warned Mary.

By the time the girls were settling themselves into the Lancer surrey, Laura wasn’t looking quite as clean and tidy as she had been, at home, but Mary was reasonably happy with how she looked.

As Laura had predicted, Johnny wasn’t at all bothered about how she looked, he was just glad that he was going to be able to show her the ranch, as he was very proud of his home.

“Have a lovely time, girls, and I will see you at home, in time for supper,” said Mrs Matthews.

“I will see to it that they are home in plenty of time,” said Murdoch, tipping his hat at her. “We will see you later, and you can rest assured that I will look after these lovely young ladies, as if they were my own.”

“Thank you, Mr Lancer. My sister told me you were a man I could trust, so I know that you will take care of my girls. Goodbye, my darlings.”

“Bye, Mama,” said Mary and Laura.

The ride home was fun, as the four young people sang songs and the girls were impressed with all that they saw.

“I can’t believe that one man can own all this land, Mr Lancer,” said Mary, when being told that they were already on Lancer land, although still quite a way from the house.

“It’s taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears to hang on to it,” said Murdoch.

“Have you ever been shot, Mr Lancer?” piped up Laura. “Was there lots of blood? Did you havta shoot people? My daddy does, because he’s a soldier and he hasta stop people doing things they shouldn’t.”

“Yes, I have been shot and I have had to shoot people, for the same reasons that your daddy has,” said Murdoch. “But we don’t want to dwell on things like that on such a lovely day.”

“I’ve seen loads of people who have been shot,” went on Laura, ignoring Murdoch’s words. “There’s always lots of blood and some people faint, but I don’t.”

“So have I,” said Johnny, and Murdoch could tell, by the tone of his voice, that it wasn’t something Johnny wanted to dwell on, as one of those shot people was probably his mother.

“How about I teach you a song that I used to sing, back in Scotland, with my brothers and sisters?” he said, and all four children were happy to give it a go.

They hadn’t been back at the ranch for all that long, when Molly arrived.

“Hello, Murdoch,” she said, kissing him on the cheek. “I hope you don’t mind me turning up, uninvited like this, but Ezra has gone on a hunting trip and I was at a loose end, so I whipped up a picnic and hoped that you might join me, to eat it?”

“I’d love to, but we have a couple of young ladies over here, today. They are having lunch with Scott and Johnny and then I have to take them home, later on, this evening.”

“Couldn’t Maria cope with that, and then you and I can go and spend some time alone, for a while? I’ll bring you back in time to take the girls home.”

Murdoch was very keen to go with Molly, but had to square it with Maria, first.

“I’ll go and see if Maria is happy to keep an eye on them, won’t be long,” and Murdoch left Molly in the main room of the house, and headed for the kitchen.

While he was gone, Johnny arrived, from the barn.

“Oh, it’s you,” he said, and the way he said it made Molly know that he wasn’t happy she was there.

“Yes, it is,” replied Molly, trying to inject a lightness, which she didn’t really feel, into her voice. “Your father tells me you have a friend from school, over to play.”

“Yes, I do, although it’s none of your business. Where is Papa?”

“He’s gone to talk to Maria, in the kitchen.”

“Oh, right, I’ll go and see him, then,” and the boy left the room.

It was obvious to Molly that no matter how well things appeared when Murdoch was present, neither Johnny, nor Scott, really liked her, and so the news that she was going to share with Murdoch was a blessing in disguise. Now that she was widowed, the School Board had approved her request to go back to teaching in the little school near the Indian settlement, where she’d worked before marrying her husband. She loved it there, and was so pleased to be going back. Her husband had left her comfortably off, and she was going to be able to donate some money to the school, to improve the building, and buy more books. Her time on her brother’s ranch had convinced her that she wasn’t cut out for the life of a rancher’s wife, not that Murdoch had asked her, yet, but she had a feeling that he was thinking about it.

As Johnny entered the kitchen, he heard his father saying that he wanted to go on a picnic with Molly.

“So, will you be all right with the children, until I get back?” asked Murdoch.

“Of course, Senor, I raised six babies, as well you know. I can easily take care of four. You go and have a good time with the Senora.”

“Are you sure you don’t mind me going?” said Murdoch.

“Mamacita might not mind, but I do,” said Johnny.

“Why, Johnny? You and Scott have your friends here; why is it so wrong if I want to spend some time with my friend?”

Johnny didn’t really have an answer to his father’s question, at least not one that didn’t make him sound mean and childish.

“I guess it’s not wrong, Papa. Sorry, you go and have a nice time and we’ll see you later.”

Murdoch was really pleased to hear Johnny’s reply and he gave the boy a quick hug, before he left. He failed to notice the dejected look on Johnny’s face, but Maria saw it.

“I’ll be back in time to take the girls home. Now, you mind Maria, and don’t give her a hard time, okay?”

“Okay, Papa,” said Johnny, hugging his father back.

Murdoch went to find Scott and quickly explained what he was doing. Scott, too, wasn’t that keen on Molly, but he was happy that his father was going out with her, on this occasion, as it meant Murdoch couldn’t be watching his and Mary’s every move. Not that Scott was about to put himself into a compromising position with the girl; after his encounters with Becky and Isobel, he was a bit more wary of young women.

“We’ll see you later, Pa, and I’ll make sure that Johnny behaves himself. Have a nice time.”

“Thanks, son, and goodbye, Mary,” said Murdoch.

.

Chapter 23

After Johnny had said goodbye to his father, he took Laura out to the tree house.

“Do you wanna go inside?”

“Yeah, I’d love to,” said Laura, and before Johnny could offer to help her, she shimmied up the tree and was soon inside the house. “Hey, this is great,” she said, looking down on him. “Are you coming up?”

“Of course I am,” said Johnny, and he soon joined her.

The two friends, as this is what they had rapidly become, made themselves comfortable and began swapping stories about their lives, so far.

Laura had some pretty gory stories to tell about some of the things she had witnessed, when they had been living at the fort, with her father.

“You’d get friendly with the soldiers, especially the new ones, coming fresh from the training camps, or, if they were officers, from West Point, and you’d get to like them. Then they’d go out on a patrol and come back really badly wounded, and, in some cases, dying, and they’d be crying out for their mothers, and you’d feel so sorry for them, as some of them were not much older than Scott. My Mama and the other wives would try and help them as much as they could, but it was really upsetting, especially when they ended up as cold as a wagon tire. But then we’d have a really good laugh, as well, sometimes. One of the soldiers got chased all over the fort, by this huge farmer. He said his daughter was knocked up and it was the soldier who’d taken advantage of her. He said she was roaring drunk and was anybody’s, and as he was horny at the time, he had her, but he wasn’t the only one. The colonel said there was no way to prove that the soldier was the father, but he did put the man on a charge, and he wasn’t allowed in town for a good while after that.”

As Johnny listened to her stories, he had to admit that he didn’t really understand everything she was saying, as she used expressions he hadn’t heard of, before.

In the border towns where he lived, with his mother, slang and swear words were used, a lot, but it was mostly by Mexicans and so they spoke Spanish. He knew how to curse up a storm in Spanish, but not in English, as since living at Lancer, he hadn’t been exposed to that much swearing.

“Your language is very colourful, Laura, but I don’t really understand everything you said.”

“Oh, sorry, I sometimes forget that not everyone has lived like me, in a fort full of soldiers. Cold as a wagon tire means dead, knocked up means that she was expecting a baby, and horny means that he wanted to have relations with a woman.”

“Thanks, but I knew the last one. I bet your Ma doesn’t like you using such words, and I’m sure my Pa wouldn’t like me using them.”

“No, she sure as hell doesn’t, but I got kinda used to cussing, and I sometimes forget I’ve said something I shouldn’t, until I find myself eating a bar of soap, then I know I got it wrong, again,” and she giggled.

“Maria often threatens to wash my mouth out with soap, if I swear in Spanish, but she hasn’t done so, yet. And Papa has said he’d warm my seat, but he ain’t caught me, yet.”

“I like your Pa, he reminds me of mine,” said Laura. “I miss him lots, but I suppose it was time for us to get some better education, and stay in one place, for a while. Papa gets moved around, a lot, and so it’s a bit of an unsettled life.”

“I never got much education, when I was living with my mother; it wasn’t something she saw the point of. I was more useful if I could run errands and make money for her. But Papa said I had to go to school and although I wasn’t that keen, at first, I don’t mind it, as much as I thought I might. But anytime Papa was to say I could give it up, I’d do so, straight away, and work full time on the ranch.”

“You’re lucky, being a boy, as you can do what you want to do. I wanna be a soldier with my Papa, but I can’t, cos I’m a girl.”

Johnny didn’t know what to say, to make Laura feel better, as she was speaking the truth, so he said nothing.

Just then, they heard Maria calling them in for lunch.

“Do you think we could eat it up here?” asked Laura.

“Don’t see why not. Let’s go ask Maria,” said Johnny.

They climbed down the tree and ran to the kitchen, bursting through the door, together.

“Hey, Mamacita, may we have our lunch in the tree house?” said Johnny.

“I don’t see why not, little one,” she replied. “I will put the food on a tray and then you will be able to carry it.”

“Thanks,” said Laura, and she took the tray from Maria, once it was ready.

As she made her way towards the kitchen door, Laura tripped over her feet and dropped the tray. Before she thought about where she was, she let rip with a string of expletives, cursing her own foolishness.

Johnny was upset about the loss of the superb lunch, which now lay in a messy heap on the floor.

“What the hell did you think you were doing, Laura? How could you be so clumsy as to drop the tray? Damn silly girl.”

Maria was more angry about the language the two of them used, than about the loss of the dishes and the food, although that was annoying, too.

“That is no way for a young girl to talk, and neither is it the way a boy should speak to a girl, or anyone else, for that matter,” said Maria, advancing on the two of them, with her wooden spoon at the ready.

“Oh, I’m really sorry, ma’am,” said Laura, when she realised what she’d said.

“Me, too, Mamacita, and I’m sorry I was rude to you, Laura,” said Johnny, backing out of reach of that wooden spoon. “I was just upset about the meal being ruined, when you’d worked so hard to make it for us, Maria,” and Johnny tried out a smile on the housekeeper.

“I do not find any of this funny, Johnny,” said Maria, as she began to clean up the mess. “And as your father is not here, then I think it is up to me to see that you are punished for what you said.”

“Aw, there’s no need for that, Mamacita,” said Johnny, helping her clean up. “I am really sorry, and so is Laura.”

“Yes, I sure am, ma’am,” said Laura, in what she hoped was an apologetic tone.

“That is not enough,” said Maria, and she swatted Johnny, a couple of times, on his backside, as he bent over to pick up the broken pieces of crockery.

“Ouch, that hurt,” he yelped.

“It was meant to,” said Maria, forcing herself to stay angry at Johnny, as she knew that Murdoch would expect her to, although she did find it hard to do so. “And when I get up off this floor, I will be washing your mouth out with soap.”

“Oh please, ma’am, don’t do that to Johnny. It was all my fault,” pleaded Laura.

“Don’t worry, young miss, I will be doing the same to you.”

Laura was quite shocked to hear this.

“The hell you will,” she said.

“Madre dios, that is enough,”  shouted Maria, and she stood up, took both of the children by the arm and marched them over to the sink. “Open your mouths and stick out your tongues,” she ordered.

Johnny did as he was told, as he’d already had a taste of the wooden spoon, on his bottom, and didn’t want any more, but Laura just stood there, with her mouth firmly closed.

Maria placed the bar of soap in Johnny’s mouth, then picked up her spoon, and smacked Laura on the bottom with it. As the girl opened her mouth to protest, Maria picked up another bar of soap and put it in Laura’s mouth.

She only left it there, for less than a minute, but when she removed it, they both began to gag and complain about the taste.

“Ugh, that was the most disgusting thing that’s ever happened to me,” said Laura. “Just you wait until I tell my mother about what you did. You are only a servant in this house, you had no right to do that.”

“Senor Lancer gave me permission to punish boys when in my care, and it would not have been right to punish Johnny and not you, especially as what you said was worse than what Johnny said,” explained Maria. “And you can tell your mother, but when I tell her just what it was that you said, I think she might punish you, some more.”

Laura knew this to be true, so changed tactic.

“Okay, I won’t tell my mother about what you did, just as long as you don’t tell her what I said.”

“No need to tell mother, I have dealt with it,” said Maria. “Now, go back out to tree house and I will make you more lunch and bring it out to you. Go, shoo, you make too much mess in my kitchen.”

The two youngsters ran outside, stopping at the water trough, to rinse out their mouths.

“What was in that soap? It tasted awful,” said Laura.

“It sure did,” said Johnny. “Look, I’m real sorry about all of this. I mean, I shouldn’t have called you those names, but I guess I got carried away, when I saw all that good food on the floor, and we’d just been talking about cussing, so it was fresh in my mind.”

“Mine, too, and I started it, by dropping the tray and saying what I did, because of it, so there’s no need for you to apologise.”

“Best get back to the tree house and wait for our meal, like Maria told us to,” said Johnny.

“Good idea, she’s sure a force to reckon with, that Maria, isn’t she?”

“Yeah, but I still like her. She worked here when I was living here with my Mama, so she’s known me a long time.”

Laura giggled.

“I bet she used to change your diapers. Maybe I could ask her if you’ve got a cute tush?”

“Laura, I don’t think that mouth wash of soap has improved your language, one little bit,” said Johnny, feeling his face beginning to go red, because Laura was discussing his backside.

“Aw, no need to blush, Johnny. All the girls in school think that for a young ‘un, you have a real cute butt, and they think Scott does, too, according to my sister, that is.”

Johnny looked back at the seat of his pants and grinned.

“Maybe it’s cos Mamacita hits it with her wooden spoon that it’s such a good shape.”

Laura nodded and giggled.

“Yeah, maybe.”

They returned to the tree house and waited for Maria to bring them some more lunch and when she did, they both apologised, again, and took the tray off her, thanking her for going to all the trouble of preparing some more for them.

“Couldn’t have you little ones going hungry,” she said.

Before she went back to the house, Johnny asked her a question, as he wanted to be sure about what Maria was going to do, when Murdoch got back.

“Erm, Mamacita, are you gonna tell Papa about what I said?”

Maria shook her head.

“I dealt with that bad mouth, did I not?” and Johnny nodded. “And you will not say such words again, will you?”  This time Johnny shook his head. “Bueno, I am satisfied, so I do not tell Papa. And nor do I tell your Mama,” she added, looking over at Laura.

Both children thanked her and reiterated that they would not use such bad language again.

.

Chapter 24

Maria returned to the kitchen and peace reigned at Lancer, for a while. Laura and Johnny stayed up in the tree house, playing poker, as Laura had learned how to play from the soldiers at the fort.

Scott and Mary were at the corrals, watching some horses being broken, although Scott was pretty sure that Mary wasn’t that interested.

“What would you like to do, now?” asked Scott.

“Well, I’d like us to take a ride out in the buggy, but I know we wouldn’t be allowed to do that, unless we took the brats with us, so there’s no point.”

“Very true. Pa said that he only agreed to you coming over, because Laura was coming, too, and there was safety in numbers,” said Scott.

“It’s good that Laura and Johnny get on, so well, as it does mean we will be able to see more of each other, just as long as they are with us, and that’s better than not seeing each other at all, isn’t it?” said Mary.

“Yes, it is,” said Scott, and he was so emboldened by her words that he risked giving her a quick kiss, on the cheek.

Mary blushed.

“That was nice, Scott,” she said.

“I’m glad that you liked it,” said Scott.

Just then, Murdoch and Molly arrived back in the yard.

Molly had asked Murdoch to accompany her on the picnic, so that she could tell him about her decision to return to her home town and to resume teaching.

“I had such a wonderful time, Murdoch; it’s a shame it has to end.”

“Yes, it is a shame, but I had to get home, so that I could escort Mary and Laura back  to their mother,” said Murdoch.

“Oh, I know you did, but still, we were getting very cosy, up there, by the lake, weren’t we?”

“Mmm, we were,” said Murdoch, preparing to give her a kiss. “And I was thinking that, maybe, I had managed to change your mind about leaving?”

Just as he moved in for the clinch, however, Johnny’s voice rang down from the tree house. He was leaning out of the window, waving at his father.

“Hi, Papa, good to see you back. Me and Laura ate our lunch up here in the tree house.”

“Very nice, son, but please don’t hang over the edge like that, you might fall,” said Murdoch. “In fact, please come down, as it will soon be time for me to take the girls home.”

“May I go with you, Papa?” asked Johnny, climbing down from the tree house.

“I don’t see why not, as long as you behave yourself, between now and when we are about to go,” said Murdoch.

“I’ll try,” said Johnny, giving Murdoch a quick hug, before attempting to run off, with Laura.

“Hold on, young man,” said Murdoch, grabbing hold of Johnny’s arm. “How about a hello for Mrs Michaels?”

“Sorry, Papa. Howdy, Mrs Michaels,” said Johnny, but it wasn’t said very sincerely.

“Hello, Johnny, nice to see you again,” said Molly.

“Not from where I’m standing, it ain’t,” muttered Johnny, under his breath, but Molly and Murdoch still heard it.

“Come back here, right now, young man,” demanded Murdoch, as Johnny tried, once again, to leave. “What did you just say?”

“Nothing, Papa,” said Johnny, a little bit too hastily to be believable.

“I think you did, John,” said Murdoch. “And I am getting a little bit tired of your rudeness when I have guests here. Now, I think you owe Mrs Michaels an apology.”

“Well, I damn well don’t think I do,” said Johnny. “I don’t like her and I don’t want her hanging around our place, so I wish she would get the hell out of here. She wasn’t even s’posed to be here, today. Doncha see enough of her, on all those evenings you’ve bin out with her?”

“John, that is enough. Go to your room and I will deal with you, after I have taken Mary and Laura home. Laura, would you please go and find Scott and your sister and tell them that it is time to go.”

“Yes, sir,” said Laura, and she scurried off to do Murdoch’s bidding. “Bye, Johnny, see you at school tomorrow.”

Johnny was still standing in the yard, but he did not acknowledge that Laura had spoken to him, as he was too angry, with himself and his father.

Murdoch then turned to Molly.

“Allow me to apologise on behalf of my son, and rest assured that when you next see him, he will apologise, personally, as well. John, go to your room, right now, or else I will be forced to punish you here, in front of everyone.”

One thing that Johnny knew for certain, about his father, was that Murdoch never made an idle threat, so he thought it might be best if he left. He turned around and headed for the house.

Murdoch accompanied Molly to her buggy.

“I am so sorry that our day has ended like this, Molly, particularly as it might be one of the last times we get to see each other. I wish I could get you to change your mind about going, but I know how much the school means to you and how keen you are to return to teaching.”

“These past few weeks, staying with Ezra, have convinced me that the ranching life is not for me, Murdoch, and although I am very fond of you, your lifestyle, not to mention your boys’ feelings about me, would make it impossible for us to have a life together. And, as I said to you, earlier, I’m not over my husband’s death, yet, so it’s far too soon for me to be thinking of entering into another relationship. However, if I was, you would have been on my list as a possible partner, as long as we could’ve overcome the way your boys felt about me.”

“Oh, it’s not you they dislike, as such; it’s the idea of sharing me with anybody else, at least that’s why Johnny has been so obnoxious, and I think that Scott has just gone along with it, to support his little brother. And I do understand why Johnny feels that way, but I am still not going to let him get away with being so rude to you.”

“He’s still only a little boy, Murdoch, and a very vulnerable one,” said Molly. “I’ve been around enough children to be able to recognise the signs. The tougher they act, the more they are hurting. Yes, you should be angry with his bad manners, but not with his reasons for them. Take care, and I will see you before I leave,” and Molly leant down from her seat on the buggy, and gently kissed Murdoch, on the lips.

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Chapter 25

Laura hadn’t arrived back with Scott and Mary, as she was still at the corrals, with them, explaining what had happened when Murdoch returned home.

“Oh no, so my crazy little brother is in trouble, yet again,” said Scott. “Neither of us is that keen on Pa seeing Mrs Michaels, but he shouldn’t have said what he did, in front of her.”

“Your Pa dang near had steam coming outta his ears,” said Laura.

She was not happy that her friend, Johnny, was in trouble, but she had been amused by the look on Murdoch’s face.

“Well, we best go back to the house, then, as I don’t want any of that anger coming in my direction,” said Scott.

Murdoch entered the house, to be met by Maria.

“What happen? Little boy run upstairs like house on fire,” said Maria.

“Oh, hello Maria,” said Murdoch, still thinking about Molly. “Johnny was very rude to Mrs Michaels, in fact he swore at her, so I sent him to his room.”

“Oh, no, not again,” said Maria.

“What do you mean by that?” asked Murdoch. “Has there been another time that he has been rude to the lady? If so, I want to know about it.”

“I don’t know if he has been rude to her, but he swore, here, earlier today, and so did Laura.”

“What on earth happened?”

“It was just an accident, Senor. Laura dropped the tray, which had their lunch on it, and she called herself some very colourful names and Johnny also said she was foolish to drop it, but he used slightly different words, too. I did deal with them, sir. Both of them had their mouths washed out with soap and I used my wooden spoon on their bottoms.”

“I’m glad to hear it, but then that makes it even worse that he should use bad language, again, such a short time later,” said Murdoch. “He and I are going to have to have a good talk, but first I need to take the girls home.”

“Please do not punish Johnny, again, for what he did, when you weren’t here, Senor Lancer, as I told him that I would not tell you, because I dealt with him.”

“Don’t worry, Maria,” said Murdoch, patting her arm. “You were right to tell me, but of course I won’t punish him, again. Now, I must take the girls home. Scott is coming with me, I think, and Johnny is to stay in his room, until I return.”

“Si, Senor Lancer,” said Maria.

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Chapter 26

Murdoch went back outside, to find Mary, Laura and Scott waiting by the wagon for him.

“Come on girls, let’s get you home,” said Murdoch, lifting Laura onto a seat, and then turning to give Mary a hand, but Scott got there first.

“Laura told us that Johnny was rude to Mrs Michaels,” said Scott, to his father.

“Yes, he was, extremely rude,” said Murdoch, climbing aboard. “Are you coming with me, Scott?”

“Well, I’d like to, but I think I should go and talk to Johnny, if that’s okay with you?”

“Yes, you may do that, son, but he’s to stay in his room. I’ll be as quick as I can and then I will be up to deal with him.”

“I’ll tell him,” said Scott. “Goodbye, Mary, Laura, see you at school tomorrow.”

“Bye, Scott, and thanks for a lovely time,” said Mary.

“Yeah, thanks, and please tell Johnny I’ll see him tomorrow,” said Laura.

“I will,” said Scott, and Murdoch drove out of the yard.

Scott ran up the stairs and knocked, lightly, on Johnny’s door.

“Come in, brother,” said Johnny, recognising the knock. “Where’s Papa?”

“He’s taken Mary and Laura home,” said Scott.

“Oh, I thought you would’ve gone with him, so as to spend as much time as you could, with the lovely Mary,” said Johnny.

“Knock it off, Johnny; I’m not going to be fooled like that, again, by a pretty face. I like Mary, very much, but we are just going to be friends. However, I would’ve liked to have driven home with them, but I felt my time could be better spent, talking to you. What were you thinking of? Swearing like that, in front of Pa, and at a woman.”

Johnny, who was lying on his bed, shifted his position, and sat up.

“Oh, I dunno, brother, I guess I was just mad, is all. She’d shown up, when she wasn’t even expected, and she took Papa away, again. Then we’d got into trouble with Maria, and so I was annoyed about that, too. So, when I saw her, slobbering all over Papa, I guess I just flipped, and I told her we didn’t want her around here, no more, only I said it a bit more forcefully than that,” and he smiled at his brother.

“I didn’t know you’d been in trouble with Maria. What was that about?” said Scott, indicating that he wanted to sit on the bed.

Johnny nodded, acquiescing to Scott’s unspoken request, and then proceeded to tell his brother what had happened, with him, Laura and Maria.

“So, you see, I’ve already been in trouble for swearing, so I reckon Papa’s gonna kill me.”

Scott nodded his head.

“Probably,” he said.

“Thanks a lot,” said Johnny. “I thought you came up here to cheer me up.”

“Now, whatever gave you that idea, little brother? I just came up to gloat over your misfortune.”

Johnny knew that Scott was only teasing him, so he didn’t retaliate.

Scott changed the subject.

“Apart from getting into trouble with Maria, what else did you and Laura get up to?”

“Well, we certainly didn’t do any of that sucking face that you and Papa seem to like so much,” said Johnny. “I wouldn’t wanna kiss a girl, anyway, but I reckon Laura would punch me one, if I tried to. We talked about the places we lived in, when we were little, and she told me lots about her father, who sounds like a fun loving guy. Then we played poker in the tree house and I won. What did you and Mary do?”

“Much like you, we talked and then went for a walk and she told me about her life living at an Army fort. I was interested, as I’ve often thought about joining the Army.”

“Does Papa know about that idea?”

“Nope, I haven’t discussed it with him,” said Scott.

“What do you reckon he would say?”

“I really don’t know, Johnny, but if I were you, I’d be thinking about what I was going to say to Pa, when he gets back and wants to talk to you about what happened with Mrs Michaels.”

“Don’t reckon I’ll get much chance to talk, brother,” said Johnny. “You know what Papa said about us cussing? If he caught us, he’d warm our tails.”

“Yes, I guess he did say that, didn’t he?” said Scott. “But if you tell him what you told me, about not wanting him to get married, because you’ve not had a father, for very long, and you’re not ready to share him, yet, I’m sure he’ll understand your reason for saying what you did to Mrs Michaels. I’ve always known him to a reasonable man.”

“Yeah, he’s reasonable, but he’s also a man of his word, and if he says he’s gonna whack me, if he catches me doing something I shouldn’t, then whack me is what he does.”

“Well, no point speculating about it, brother,” said Scott, patting Johnny on the leg. “Pa’ll be back, pretty soon, and then you’ll find out just what he’s got in store for you.”

“I sure wish you wouldn’t use such big words, Scott; what’s speckerlating mean?”

“Speculating means that there’s no point trying to second guess Pa,” said Scott.

“No, I guess not,” said Johnny, with a sigh. “Hey brother, could you take care of Scirocco for me, cos I don’t know when I’m gonna be allowed out of my room?”

“Of course I will,” said Scott, preparing to leave. “I’ll see you later, and good luck.”

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Chapter 27

Scott was in the barn, seeing to the horses, when Murdoch returned from taking the girls home.

“Hi son,” he said, as he brought the team into the barn.

“Hi Pa,” said Scott. “Everything all right, when you took Mary and Laura home?”

“Yes, son, everything was fine. Did you speak to John?”

“Yes, sir, I did, and he’s really sorry about what he said to Mrs Michaels. He didn’t mean to cuss, but you know that he’s not happy about you seeing her, and I think he was rather hoping you were going to stay with us, today. I mean, you have gone out with her, rather a lot, recently, haven’t you?”

“Yes, I have, but I have also contrived to arrange most of our meetings for the evening, after Johnny is in bed, or during the day, when he is at school. But today, she turned up, without prior warning, and wanted to talk to me, so I felt obliged to go. It’s not like I left him alone, is it? He had Laura over to play with, and I’m pretty sure that he wouldn’t have wanted me sat out in the tree house, with them, now would he?”

Scott began to laugh at the thought of his father sitting in the tree house, as he could only just about stand up in it, now, and Murdoch was at least 6 inches taller than Scott was.

“No, I guess he wouldn’t have done, but you know Johnny, always going off, half cocked, without thinking things through, first.”

“Yes, I know, son, and don’t worry, I’m not going to be too hard on him,” and he patted Scott on the back, as he passed by.

Murdoch left the horses for Scott to take care of, and headed for the house.

Maria, too, wanted to plead for Johnny and Murdoch told her the same thing that he’d told Scott.

“The boy knows better than to swear, Maria, but obviously needs a reminder.”

As he walked up the stairs, Murdoch was smiling to himself, about the way that his younger boy managed to work his charm on most people he came into contact with.

But he changed his countenance, as he reached Johnny’s door, as he didn’t want the boy to think that what he’d done was amusing.

Murdoch knocked on the door and walked in.

“Hi, Papa,” said Johnny. “Did you get the girls home, safe and sound?”

“Yes, son, I did, but I am not here to discuss Mary and Laura, as well you know. I am very disappointed about what you said to Mrs Michaels. I know that you and Scott are not that keen on her, but that shouldn’t make any difference to the way that you address her, when she visits the ranch. She is my guest and you should treat her accordingly. And when I found out that you and Laura had already been in trouble for cursing, only an hour or so before this incident, then that made me even angrier, as you obviously learned nothing from the punishment handed out by Maria.”

“She said she wouldn’t tell you about that, cos she dealt with it,” said Johnny, crossly.

“I rather forced her into telling me, John, as I wanted to know if she had heard you use such words, before. However, she did make me promise that I wouldn’t punish you, again, for what you said to Laura, and I don’t break my promises. But that doesn’t cover what you said to Mrs Michaels. Now then, I think I made another promise, didn’t I?”

“What was that, Papa?” asked Johnny, feigning innocence, although he knew what his father was referring to.

“I made you and Scott a promise that if I caught you using bad words, I would warm your seat for you, and I think you do remember me saying that, don’t you? Johnny, look at me when I talk to you.”

Johnny was looking down at his feet, but brought his head up, when Murdoch asked him to.

“Yes, sir, I do remember, but I was upset. I didn’t want you going on a picnic with her, I wanted you to stay here,” said Johnny.

Murdoch sat down on the bed and drew Johnny close to him.

“I know you did, son, but I was put on the spot, with her turning up, like she did, and she needed to talk to me, so I had to go. And if I’d stayed, I wouldn’t have seen much of you, because you had Laura over to play with, and I would’ve got in your way, now wouldn’t I?”

“I guess you would’ve, but I just wish you weren’t seeing her as much as you do.”

“Well, your wish is soon to be granted, as Mrs Michaels is heading home, very soon. That’s what she came to tell me. Despite the way that you have treated her, Mrs Michaels still likes children, and she is returning to the teaching job that she had, before she was married. She’s decided that the ranching life is not for her, so you can breathe easy. I would like to add, though, that I never had any plans to ask her to marry me, we were just friends, like you and Laura are. And I would also like to say that if I had befriended Ezra, and not Molly, I don’t expect you and Scott would have minded me going out for a drink with him of an evening, would you? But because you saw me with a woman, you immediately thought of her as a threat and were determined not to like her, even though I think you both did, really. You should really have more faith in your father, son. I know how you feel about not wanting me to do anything to change what we have here, at least not at the moment, and I have told you, on more than one occasion, that I understand and respect that. I don’t want to change things, either, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t go out with a woman, occasionally. But, all that aside, you were very wrong to swear at Mrs Michaels, and I’m afraid that I have to keep my promise and punish you for that. It is never necessary to use such words, especially in front of a lady, no matter what the provocation.”

With that, Murdoch pulled Johnny across his lap and landed four solid swats on the boy’s backside.

He then righted Johnny and said, “You can count yourself very lucky, having a brother like Scott, and a friend like Maria, as they have both pleaded for me to be lenient with you. As I told them, I do understand why you didn’t want me seeing Mrs Michaels, but I still won’t tolerate you being disrespectful to a guest in this house, understood?”

Johnny nodded.

“Understood, Papa, and I’m sorry for swearing at her. I can’t say I’m sad to hear that Mrs Michaels is leaving, although I guess she wasn’t that bad. I know I’m being unreasonable, but I just wanna enjoy having a father and a brother, without anyone else being involved, right now, anyway.”

“And that’s how it is going to be, at the moment, but maybe, someday, a woman will come into my life, and I hope you and Scott will like her, too.”

“Okay, but not yet, all right? Maybe when Scott’s about twenty five and I’m twenty one.”

Murdoch said no more, he just gave Johnny a hug, which Johnny was happy to receive, as he hated being at odds with his father.

Johnny continued to be friends with Laura and the two children had a lot of fun together. However, Johnny impressed upon the girl that neither he nor she should swear in front of Maria, again, as the housekeeper never lost her accuracy with a wooden spoon!

THE END

To: Getting Ready For Christmas

Lancer lives on!
Lynne
October 2007

* Isobel (from my story Love is Blind) Becky (from my story San Francisco Holiday)

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Want to Comment: Email Lynne

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