Word Count 12,033
Scott and Johnny Lancer, aged 15 and 11, respectively, had been on summer break from school, for less than two weeks and were already in trouble with their father. Murdoch had put both boys on a house and yard restriction, for four days, in order to ensure that they caught up with all their chores that they had been skipping.
Even though they were on holiday from school, Murdoch insisted that they still did their regular chores, before they went off to do whatever boys liked to do, when on holiday. But, each day, he was finding that the boys were doing less around the ranch and were disappearing for most of the day, often not getting back until supper time, and so too late to do their evening chores, as well.
This meant more work for the ranch hands, and Murdoch was not prepared to let the boys continue to get away with it. So, when they got home, on the Monday evening, he told them that, for the rest of the week, they were not allowed to go any further than the yard, and that the next four days would be taken up completing unfinished chores.
“Hey, Papa, that’s not fair, and, what’s more, it’s child slavery,” shouted Johnny, on hearing his father’s pronouncement.
Scott softly chuckled to himself, at his brother’s burst of indignation, but he privately agreed with Johnny.
However, he and Johnny had fallen out, earlier that day, and so, now, Scott saw a chance to add to the fire that Johnny was already building up, inside of himself.
“We wouldn’t be on restriction, little brother, if you hadn’t dragged your heels about coming home,” said Scott. “I said it was time to go, as evening chores were waiting, but, oh no, you wouldn’t mind me, would you?”
“Well, he’s going to mind me,” said Murdoch. “Neither of you are to leave the confines of the yard, until Saturday, and if either of you think you can try and sneak away, when I’m not around, the hands have all been told to let me know, on pain of losing their job, if they don’t.”
Neither Scott nor Johnny really thought that Murdoch would fire one of his trusted ranch hands, for such a petty reason, but both boys liked and admired the men, who worked for their father and didn’t want to put Murdoch to the test.
Now Johnny turned his anger on his brother.
“What do you mean, it was my fault we were late? What about you and Frank? Going on about those stupid girls from school and what you were gonna do with ‘em, when you got the chance. As if either of you are man enough; you ain’t got the bottle, or the balls, yet.”
“John, that is ENOUGH,” yelled Murdoch. “We are in mixed company, and, anyway, I wouldn’t allow you to speak like that, even if we weren’t.”
The mixed company that Murdoch referred to, was Teresa, the 6 year old daughter of Paul, Murdoch’s foreman. It was unlikely that she had understood what Johnny had said, but Murdoch still wasn’t happy with Johnny saying such things.
The boy had been raised, from the age of two, through to ten, by his mother, Murdoch’s second wife, and she had often lived in less than ideal surroundings, in which to raise a child. Johnny had learned far too much about relationships and heard much more about sex, than your average ten year old, should know. However, since coming to live with his father and brother, about a year ago, Murdoch had tried to instil in the boy the correct way to behave, and he was succeeding, in the main. But, when he was angry, Johnny sometimes forgot the niceties that Murdoch wanted him to adhere to.
“I don’t know what he’s talking about,” said Scott, anxious to dispel the idea that might be growing in his father’s mind, that he and Frank had been talking about doing anything improper with the young ladies, in question. “Frank and I just said that we’d enjoyed dancing with the girls, that’s all; we weren’t saying anything more than that.”
“Huh,” said Johnny, conveying much more, by the way he said it, than that one word implied.
“Never mind what was said, by either of you, for now,” said Murdoch. “The fact remains, that, once again, you were late home and your chores didn’t get completed. And so, to ensure they do, neither of you will be going any further than the yard, until the end of the week.”
“Okay, but I sure as heck hope I don’t havta work with ole bossy boots, there,” said Johnny, referring to his brother.
“I am the one who decides who works where, and with whom,” said Murdoch. “Not you, little boy. And it’s most likely that you will have to work with Scott, as you and he have similar chores to do, on the ranch, and they bring you into contact with each other. And if you can’t manage to get along, without my involvement, I can soon administer a lesson, to your bottom, that might help you to remember to keep your brother onside. And, before you start crowing, Scott, the same messages applies to you. If I find you’ve been baiting Johnny, so as to make him angry, and get him into my bad books, then your bottom will be suffering the same fate, as his, understood?”
Scott, being older than Johnny, was most put out to be reprimanded, in front of Paul and Teresa, and the little girl could see that.
“It’s okay, Scott, I won’t let Doc spank ya,” said Teresa, giving Scott a hug, while, at the same time, glaring at Murdoch.
“You stay out of it, little one,” said Paul. “It’s got nothing to do with you, and it’s up to Murdoch how he deals with the boys. As it’s up to me, how I deal with you, and any more sass will see you with a sore bottom, too.”
“If you all behave yourselves, no one’s bottom need be sore,” said Mamacita, coming in the room to announce that supper was ready. “But if no one comes to eat, right now, then all of you will need a cushion to sit on, including the adults.”
They all laughed at the thought of Maria spanking Murdoch and Paul, and made their way to the table.
For the next two days, the boys both worked well, and stayed on top of their chores. Their earlier disagreement was soon forgotten, and they were back to their usual, comfortable relationship, with each other. As they were both on restriction, they reserved any anger that they might have felt, for their father.
“Johnny, I’m going to need some help, little brother,” said Scott, as they worked, together, in the barn.
Johnny thought that Scott meant he needed some help with what he was doing, so he stopped grooming Scirocco, and went to join his brother.
“What do ya need help with?” asked Johnny.
“Huh?” said Scott. “Oh, not with anything in here. It’s just that before Pa put us on restriction, Frank and I arranged to meet up with Rebecca and Marie, and take them on a picnic. Their fathers said we could go, if we all stayed together, and kept an eye out for each other, and we promised we would. The picnic is set for tomorrow, but we’ll still be on restriction, so I was wondering if you could cover for me?”
“How, exactly?” said Johnny, not sure that he liked the sound of this.
“Well, it probably won’t happen, but, say if Pa was to come by and ask where I was, you could say I was in the outhouse, or I’d just popped indoors for a drink, or was working somewhere else, you know, cover for me. I’ll do the same for you, if you want to go off and do something, on another day.”
“Oh boy, those gals sure addled your brain, didn’t they?” said Johnny. “I can’t believe that my straight laced, older, always do what Papa says, Johnny, don’t ever try and deceive him, Johnny, brother, wants me to lie to our father, and is then suggesting that I break my restriction, too. Shame on you.”
“Okay, okay, back off,” said Scott. “If you’d rather not do it, then fine, I won’t expect you to. I’ll just go, and if Pa finds out, well, I’ll have to face the consequences.”
“Can’t you tell, yet, when I’m teasing you, Scott? Of course I’ll cover for you, but I still don’t understand why you wanna put your hide on the line for a picnic and a gal. And please don’t say I’ll understand when I’m older; that line is getting so tired.”
“I won’t say a word, except thanks,” said Scott, patting his little brother on the back.
The boys carried on with their chores and didn’t stop working until Maria called them in for a cold drink and some cookies, hot from the oven.
“Your Papa won’t mind if you take a short break,” she said. “And if he says something, he will have me to deal with.”
“And Papa sure won’t wanna tangle with you, Mamacita,” said Johnny.
“No, he won’t,” said the cook, who loved the boys as much as if they were her own children. “You have both been working very hard, too hard for little boys, I think.”
Johnny hated to be called a little boy, but as Maria was defending him, over all the work he was having to do, he was happy to have her call him one.
“Yeah, tell Papa he’s making me do too much,” he said.
“I think I will,” said Maria.
“Come on,” said Scott, to Johnny. “Back to work, as Pa will be home soon, and I want us to have all the chores finished, before he gets here.”
“Why’s that? So you’ll have him on side, in case things go wrong, tomorrow?”
“Yes, something like that,” said Scott.
By the time Murdoch arrived home, for supper, the boys had completed the whole list of chores, left for them, by him. He was very pleased with what they’d achieved.
“I didn’t expect you to get them all done, today,” he said.
“Well, as we have, does that mean we’re off restriction, now?” said Scott.
“Nice try, son, but, no, it doesn’t. I said the restriction would last until Friday and I meant it. I can always find some more things for you to do, for the next two days.”
“Great,” said Johnny. “We work real hard to get everything done, and then, instead of rewarding us, you give us more stuff to do.”
“I never said that once the list was completed, the restriction would be over,” said Murdoch. “So there’s no need to sound so aggrieved.”
“I ain’t aggrieved, I’m just plain mad,” said Johnny.
“It means the same thing, Johnny,” explained Scott.
“Well, why can’t you just say what you mean, Papa, plain and simple?”
“I thought I did, John, and please don’t take that tone with me. For the next two days, you can do your usual chores, and then you can build up the wood pile, we can never have too much wood.”
Scott was pleased to hear that Murdoch wasn’t expecting them to do too much more, than they normally did, each day. If he was going to slip away, to attend the picnic, with Frank and the girls, it would mean asking Johnny to do all the extra work, alone.
The next morning Scott was rather concerned when he realised that his father was staying in the house, to bring the bookwork up to date.
“Great, how I am going to get away if Pa doesn’t leave the house, all day?” he said to Johnny.
“Don’t worry, the picnic isn’t until this afternoon, and Papa’s not likely to stay at his desk, all day,” said Johnny. “He might be there, all morning, but he’s sure to go and do something, outdoors, this afternoon. You know how he hates to spend a long time stuck at his desk.”
“Yes, he does, and you’re right, I don’t have to leave until after lunch.”
Later that afternoon, Johnny was working hard, reducing the logs that Scott had chopped, earlier, into kindling, when he was aware that his father was approaching him. Scott had been gone, for about an hour.
“Hi, Papa,” said Johnny, looking up, and smiling at Murdoch.
“Hi, son, good to see that you are working so hard. Where’s Scott? I hope he’s not leaving all this to you?”
“Oh no, Papa, he chopped the wood into logs, as I can’t use the bigger axe.”
“Where is he, now?”
“Erm, maybe in the outhouse, or gone to the kitchen, for a drink. You know, either fluid in, or fluid out,” and Johnny laughed, hoping it didn’t sound too forced.
Murdoch laughed, too.
“That’s rather amusing, son. Okay, I’m off to check on that new herd. I’ll see you at supper.”
“Yeah, see ya, Papa,” said Johnny, breathing a sigh of relief, as his father disappeared from view.
Frank, Rebecca, Marie and Scott had a lovely time, at their picnic. As this was their first proper date, the boys had decided not to try and be too forward. And so they did not suggest to the girls that they split up, into couples, and went off, alone, even though they would have preferred to. The girls’ fathers had only allowed them to go, on the understanding that the four of them stayed together, and so that is what they did.
“Did your father raise any objections to you coming on the picnic, Scott?” asked Rebecca.
“No, why should he?” said Scott, not wishing to let the girls know that he was on restriction, and that his father knew nothing about the picnic.
“Oh, you know, giving you lots of advice, on how you should behave,” said Marie.
“No, he’s already given me the birds and bees talk, and he trusts me to behave myself.”
“I bet he gave you that talk, after the party at the Winslett’s,” said Frank. “Isobel * was coming on a bit strong.”
Scott glared at Frank, for mentioning that incident, in front of the girls.
“Well, he didn’t, because he didn’t know anything about it. By the time he noticed who was with whom, Isobel was all over Jake.”
“Did she make advances to you, Scott?” asked Rebecca.
“When Frank and I went out to the Winslett place, with Johnny and Charlie, she did appear to be rather keen on me,” said Scott. “But when she met Jake, she wasn’t interested in me, anymore.”
“Can’t think why,” said Rebecca. “You’re much better looking than Jake is.”
“Well, thank you for the compliment,” said Scott, blushing. “But I think she preferred Jake because he was the same age, as her, and working, whereas I am still at school.”
“You’re probably right,” said Marie, who, like most of the girls, was not that impressed with Isobel. “I thought she saw herself as being better than the rest of us, just because she’d been to a fancy school, back east.”
“Yes, I think she did,” said Rebecca. “But let’s not talk about her. It’s a beautiful day and we are in a lovely part of the world. Have you any plans for the summer break? My mother wants us to go and visit my grandmother in San Francisco, for a week, or so.”
“Does she? I would miss you, if you went,” said Scott. “Maybe I could persuade my father to make a trip to San Francisco, at the same time as you go, and then we could explore the city, together?”
“That would be fun,” said Rebecca, who was more than a little taken with Scott.
“Yes, it would be,” agreed Scott.
All too soon, it was time for them to head back home. The boys dropped off the girls and then, just before they got to Frank’s house, Scott left the buggy, and collected his horse from where he had hidden him, when the boys had set off for the picnic. He couldn’t leave Jupiter in the Carter’s barn, as Mr or Mrs Carter might have told Murdoch that they had seen Scott, and he wasn’t supposed to be off the ranch.
“Only a couple more days and our restriction will be over, so how about I meet up with you, at the cave, on Monday, say, around ten o’clock?” said Scott, as he was about to leave.
“Sounds good to me, I’ll spread the word that the Lancer boys will be free on Monday,” said Frank, waving off his friend. “See ya.”
Scott timed things just right and was home about ten minutes before Murdoch and some of the hands returned from checking on the new herd.
“Phew, that was close,” said Scott, to Johnny.
“It sure was, brother, I was beginning to sweat, thinking that you might not get back before Papa did.”
“Did Pa ask you where I was?” asked Scott.
“Once, he did, and I just said I wasn’t sure. I said you were possibly in the outhouse, or maybe in the house, and he didn’t go and check.”
“Good. Well, I’ll do the same for you, tomorrow.”
“Thanks. Did you have a good time at the picnic?”
“Yes, thanks, I did,” said Scott, applying himself to some more wood chopping.
At supper, Murdoch again congratulated the boys on how well they had worked.
“Maybe I should have you on restriction, for the whole holiday,” said Murdoch.
“Aw, Papa, that ain’t fair,” said Johnny. “I wanna have some fun while on summer break.”
“I didn’t say I was going to keep you on restriction, just that it’s been quite beneficial.”
“To the ranch and to you, maybe, Pa, but not to me and Johnny,” said Scott.
“No, I suppose not,” said Murdoch. “Well, you only have one more day and then you’re free, again.”
“Hooray,” said Johnny.
“And I hope that once you are free, you will stay out of trouble, so that you can enjoy the rest of your break from school.”
“Oh, I plan to,” said Scott, and Johnny agreed.
The next day, Scott asked Johnny if he was going to go and play with his friends.
“Of course I am,” said Johnny. “I covered for you, yesterday, and did extra work, too, so that Papa thought both of us had been working, all day, so now it’s your turn to do the same for me. As soon as I’ve done my share of morning chores, I’m off to the cave. I told the other guys that they could still play there, even though I was on restriction, as it’s such a great place for us kids to go, well away from prying eyes, so I reckon that’s where they will be.”
“Okay, Johnny, but just be sure to be back by about four o’clock, cos by then a lot of the men start arriving in the yard and your absence might be noticed,” said Scott.
“Oh, I will be,” said the younger boy.
Once he’d made sure that his father was away from the house, Johnny headed off for the cave.
Sure enough, his friends were there and they were delighted to see him.
“Hey, Johnny, great to see you, but how come you’re here? The message we got was that you were grounded until tomorrow,” said Jimmy. “Has your Pa started going soft in his old age, and let you off?”
“Nope, but Scott had a date to meet Rebecca, yesterday, so I covered for him, on the understanding that he’d do the same for me, today,” said Johnny. “So, what have you guys been doing, without me?”
“Not a lot, it’s been pretty boring,” said Charlie.
“Well, Papa says I can have some friends to sleep over, in the tree house, so maybe we can arrange that for next week, sometime?” said Johnny.
“Sounds good to me,” said Zack. “How about on Monday?”
“Monday’s fine,” said Johnny. “What about you, Jimmy? Are you coming too?”
Zack and Jimmy were brothers. Zack was eleven, the same as Johnny, and Jimmy was fourteen, but because they hadn’t had hardly any schooling, Jimmy was still in the younger children’s class and so he tended to play with the boys in that class, too.
“I’d like to, Johnny, iffen it’s okay with you?”
“Course it is, just wasn’t sure if you’d want to.”
“I’m sure that my Pa will let me come, too,” said Charlie. “Will Scott be joining us?”
“No, he says we can have a night to ourselves,” said Johnny.
For the next few hours, the boys played some tag and kicked a ball about. They also held some wrestling matches, with Jimmy as referee, as he was quite a bit bigger than the others, and so couldn’t fight them.
Zack came out as the eventual winner and took a fair bit of teasing from the others.
“You only won cos your brother was the referee,” said Charlie, but it was all good hearted and no one took offence.
Eventually, it was time for Johnny to head for home. As he rode into the yard, Maria came out of the house.
“Where you been, little boy? You not here when I call you boys in for lunch. Papa tell you to stay in yard.”
“Sorry, Mamacita,” said Johnny, dismounting and giving the cook a hug and a kiss, hoping that he could win her round. “I was getting cabin fever, staying in the yard, I just hadta go out and ride on Scirocco.”
“I should tell your Papa,” said Maria, but Johnny knew that she was unlikely to.
“I must go and see to Scirocco,” said Johnny. “If Papa gets back and sees him saddled, then he’ll know I’ve been out.”
“Go on, then, and hurry up,” said Maria. “He said he wasn’t going to be that late, getting back, tonight.”
Johnny soon had his horse back in his stall, and by the time Murdoch came riding into the yard, Johnny was helping Scott, with the last of the wood.
“Hi, Papa, woods all cut and stacked, just like you asked us to do.”
“Good boys,” said Murdoch. “I am very proud of the way you two have accepted your punishment and just got on with it, without complaining, this week.”
Scott winked at Johnny and he winked back.
“Thanks, Pa,” said Scott. “I may not have complained, but I am certainly glad it’s now over.”
The boys put the axes away and went in the house, to get washed up, for supper.
Teresa was inside, with Paul. She hated the fact that the boys had been on restriction, as although it meant they were around the ranch, more, the extra work that Murdoch had given them to do, meant that they were not available to play with her. That was one part of the restriction that neither of the boys minded, as playing with a rather spoilt six year old girl did not appeal to either of them, that much.
“Goodie,” said Teresa. “You can play wiv me, now, cos you’ve not got to do extra chores, no more.”
“Sorry, Teresa, but that also means we ain’t on restriction, either, so we can go off and play with our own friends and they don’t want a dumb ole girl hanging around,” said Johnny.
Scott had been going to say practically the same thing, but he would have been slightly more diplomatic about it.
However, Teresa started to cry, at Johnny’s words, and so Scott didn’t say anything.
“There was no need to be quite as rude as that, Johnny,” said Murdoch, lifting the little girl up onto his lap. “No one expects you to play with Teresa, all the time, but it wouldn’t hurt you to, occasionally.”
“Aw, Papa, Scott’s a lot better at that, than me. He makes up let’s pretend games for her. All I do is try and get her to play scary monsters, then she has nightmares and Paul bawls me out, for frightening her.”
“That only happened, one time, Johnny,” said Paul. “And now you know not to do it, things should be okay between you.”
“But I don’t wanna play with a little girl,” repeated Johnny, and Teresa cried, even more.
“That’s enough, John, now sit down and let’s eat. Come on, sweetheart, no more tears, look what Mamacita has made us for supper.”
Murdoch managed to get Teresa to stop crying and they all sat down at the table.
As Johnny was eating, he suddenly remembered the conversation he’d had, with his friends, about spending a night in the tree house, but he’d completely forgotten that his father didn’t know he’d seen his friends, that day.
“Anyway, I can’t play with Teresa on Monday, cos my friends are coming over and we’re gonna sleep in the tree house. You did say it was all right, didn’t you, Papa?”
“Yes, I did, but when did you see your friends, to make this arrangement?” said Murdoch.
When his father said that, Johnny realised that he’d made a huge mistake, by mentioning his friends.
“It must’ve been before we were put on restriction, Papa, I’m not sure,” said Johnny.
“Why didn’t you tell me about it, before now, then?” said Murdoch. “That means you must have known about it, for almost a week. It’s not like you to keep quiet about such a thing.”
“Dunno, must’ve forgot, I guess,” said Johnny, knowing that he didn’t sound very convincing, as he never did, when he tried to lie.
“John, look at me, son. Are you telling me the truth?”
Johnny looked up at his father and knew, as he did so, that he was going to have to confess about breaking his restriction.
“No, sir, I’m not,” said Johnny, and Scott felt as though his supper had turned to lead, in his stomach.
“So, when did you see your friends?” continued Murdoch, placing one of his large hands under Johnny’s chin, so that the boy couldn’t lower his head, again.
“This afternoon,” said Johnny.
“Yes, they stopped by to say hello, didn’t they, Johnny?” said Scott, making a last ditch attempt to save their hides.
“Did they, indeed?” said Murdoch. “You know, I can soon check that with Maria, so I hope you are telling me the truth, Scott.”
Before his father could call in Maria, Scott spoke again.
“Okay, they didn’t stop by,” he said. “Johnny went off to play with them, but it was my idea, not his.”
“Please explain, Scott,” said Murdoch.
“Well, I’d made plans to go and spend the afternoon with Frank, Rebecca and Marie, yesterday, before we were put on restriction, and I really wanted to go, so I persuaded Johnny to cover for me, if you or anyone else came by and wanted to know where I was. No one did, though, and I got back, without you knowing I’d left the yard. And I said, that in return for him doing that for me, I would do it for him, today. So I did, and he went and met up with his friends, and while he was with them, he made plans for them to come over on Monday, and spend the night in the tree house. And then, he had to go and blurt it out, letting you know that he’d seen his friends, when he was supposed to be on restriction,” and Scott looked over at Johnny, with an expression on his face that said, ‘Brother, you’re an idiot.’
“So, am I to understand, Scott, that you hold yourself totally responsible for not only disobeying me, yourself, but for Johnny doing so, as well?”
“Yes, sir, I do,” said Scott.
“Very well, then son, you are to go up to your room, right now, and get ready for bed. I will be up, very shortly, to deal with you.”
“Yes, sir,” said Scott, and he excused himself from the table, and left the room.
Johnny wasn’t sure what to do. If he tried pleading for Scott, then Murdoch might decide to punish him, as well as Scott, but to say nothing seemed a bit mean, when Scott was willing to take all the blame.
“Papa, you know I didn’t havta go along with Scott’s plan, so it’s not entirely all his fault.”
“No, I suppose you didn’t,” said Murdoch. “But, he is your older brother, and so you are expected to do what he tells you to do, especially when I am not around. And, if he gives you the opportunity to swap an afternoon of chores, for one of fun, you’d be hard pressed to turn it down, even I can understand that. But, don’t think you are getting away with it, totally. You both still owe me a day of chores, and, before the summer break is over, you will pay me back.”
“Yes, sir,” said Johnny. “Erm, Papa, is it still okay for Zack, Jimmy, Wes and Charlie to come and stay in the tree house, Monday night?”
“Yes, it is,” said Murdoch. “Now, if you will excuse me, I need to go and talk to Scott.”
Johnny suspected that Murdoch’s talking would be with his hand, rather than his voice, but wisely, he didn’t say so.
When Murdoch returned to the main room, after dealing with Scott, it was still quite early, but Johnny didn’t feel like staying up, without Scott being there, to play checkers, or cards, with him, so the boy got up and announced he was going to bed.
“All right, son, I’ll be up, soon, to tuck you in,” said Murdoch.
“Erm, Papa, is it okay if I go and say goodnight to Scott?”
“Of course it is,” said Murdoch.
Johnny ran up the stairs and was soon outside his brother’s bedroom, which was situated next door to his own. He knocked on the door and waited for Scott to say he could go in. It was a while before his brother spoke.
“Who is it?” said Scott.
“It’s me, Johnny,” said the boy.
“Oh, well, come in, then,” said Scott, and Johnny pushed open the door.
Scott was in bed, lying on his stomach, reading a book. When he looked up at his brother, Johnny could see that his eyes were red, indicating that he had been crying. Johnny decided not to draw attention to this, as he felt rather uncomfortable about it. He couldn’t recall the last time he had seen his big brother reduced to tears and the thought made him feel very angry with his father, for being the cause of the tears.
“Scott, I’m real sorry that I blabbed at the supper table and told Papa about meeting up with my friends. Iffen I’d only learn to keep my mouth shut, Papa would never have known about us sneaking off, like we did.”
“Well, I’m not going to deny that I would’ve preferred it, if you’d kept quiet, and my backside wouldn’t be on fire, right now, if you had, but it’s okay. I guess we shouldn’t have sneaked off, like we did.”
“No, I guess not,” said Johnny. “Papa says we still both owe him a full day of chores, too, and we’ve got to do ‘em, before we go back to school.”
“I thought he might say that,” and Scott rolled onto his side, and hoisted himself up onto his pillows, being careful to avoid having his backside make contact with the bed.
“Yeah, he don’t miss a trick, does he?” said Johnny, sitting on the bed next to Scott.
“Nope, he doesn’t,” said Scott.
“Erm, Scott, you ain’t mad that Papa spanked you and not me, are you?”
“No, why should I be? That was Pa’s decision, not yours. He reckoned that I led you into disobeying him, and if it hadn’t been for me putting the idea in your head, you wouldn’t have gone off, with your friends, like you did, yesterday. And he’s probably right, isn’t he?”
“Yeah, I think he is,” said Johnny. “Oh, I don’t consider myself to be an angel, and I do disobey Papa, but I don’t think I would’ve done, this time, if you hadn’t suggested it, that is. I wasn’t happy about the restriction, but it wasn’t for long, so I would’ve put up with it.”
“Exactly, whereas I wanted to go and see Rebecca, on that particular day, and if I hadn’t, then it’s likely that she would’ve gone off with someone else and decided not to go out with me, after all.”
“Well, not that I know that much about women, but if she’s that fickle, then maybe she ain’t worth going out with. I mean, I bet there’s been times when she ain’t been able to go somewhere or do something, because she’s been restricted by her folks. It happens, it’s part of being a kid.”
“Yes, I guess it is,” he said. “But women make you do silly things and act in a way that if you’re being sensible, you know is the wrong way to behave, but you end up doing it, anyway. I am sure that if I’d got a message to Rebecca and told her I was on restriction, she would’ve understood, but I wasn’t prepared to take that risk.”
“So, you weighed it all up and reckoned that a picnic with her was worth a possible licking from Papa?”
“Yes, I guess I did.”
“And you would’ve got away with it, if you didn’t have me for a little brother,” said Johnny, mournfully.
“I said it was okay, Johnny, and it is. I was the one in the wrong and you just followed me. Now, you’d better go to bed, as Pa will be up, very shortly, to say goodnight to you.”
“Okay, just as long as things are all right between us?”
“Yes, they are, now off you go. Goodnight, little brother.”
“Night, Scott,” and Johnny left his big brother’s room.
Downstairs, in the main room, Murdoch was commenting to Paul, about Johnny’s reaction to Scott being in trouble.
“I reckon I took the right approach, there,” he said. “Johnny feels really bad about getting a day off his restriction, and Scott being the only one to get punished for it. So I don’t think he will be that quick to agree to pulling a stunt like this, again. I think he’s more upset about Scott getting a spanking, than he would’ve been, had it been him, instead.”
“I think you are right, Murdoch,” said Paul. “Scott’s the same, more upset if Johnny is in trouble, than he is if it’s his hide on the line.”
“It’s nice to see, though, isn’t it?” said Murdoch. “As it means that they both think the world of the other one, and so, even when I’m no longer around, they will always be there, for each other.”
“Yes, it is and I wish I’d been blessed in the same way. It would be nice for Teresa to have a brother or a sister.”
“Well, it took two marriages for me to get my two, so there’s nothing to stop you doing the same as me, and marrying again.”
“I don’t think I’ve got the stomach for it, Murdoch. Let’s face it, neither of us have done that well, in the marriage stakes.”
“No, maybe not, but I don’t regret doing it, as I got my boys, and the time I spent with Catherine was lovely, and even with Maria I had some good times.”
“Well, I did, too, with Teresa’s mother,” said Paul. “In fact, that was how we got Teresa, but the bad times outweighed the good, and you know, only too well, what a wreck I was, after she left.”
“Yes, I do, about as bad as I was, after Maria left.”
“No, you were worse than me, because Maria took Johnny. At least Angel left me Teresa.”
“Yes, that’s true,” said Murdoch, with a break in his voice, as it still affected him, when he thought back to the day that Maria left, and took his little boy with her. “I didn’t think I would ever get over that feeling of complete devastation that swept over me, once I realised that not only had Maria gone, but she’d taken Johnny with her.”
“And I still believe that the only reason she took him, was to hurt you,” said Paul. “I don’t think she ever loved him as much as you did.”
“Maybe not,” said Murdoch. “But I think she loved him more than even she realised, as Johnny has told us about how she treated him, and, most of the time, she took care of him, pretty well.”
“Yeah, if it didn’t interfere with what she wanted to do, too much,” said Paul, who had a very low opinion of Maria.
“You’re probably right,” said Murdoch. “But for Johnny’s sake, I would never say so, in front of him. She didn’t leave him much, so I don’t want to tarnish his memories of her, too.”
“I think Johnny knows what his mother was really like,” said Paul. “But he doesn’t want to admit to anyone, least of all himself, that she was anything less than the perfect mother.”
“No, I don’t expect he does,” said Murdoch.
The next morning, as soon as breakfast and morning chores were over, Johnny was all set to ride off and meet up with his friends, but Scott hung back, wanting to talk to their father.
“Pa, you know you told Johnny that we had to do an extra day on restriction, to make up for the one we skipped? Well, is it okay if I do mine today?”
“Yes, that’s fine by me, son,” said Murdoch. “Do you just want it out of the way, so that the rest of the holiday is yours?”
“Well, that’s partly it, but it’s also because my backside doesn’t feel ready to sit in a saddle, at the moment, so if I’m going to be restricted as to where I can go, anyway, I may just as well do the extra chores, today.”
“That makes sense, son,” said Murdoch, smiling at Scott, and making sure that the boy knew that all was now well, between them.
“If Scott’s staying here to do his extra chores, then I may as well, too,” said Johnny.
“Sounds like a good plan,” said Murdoch, and he presented the boys with a list of things he wanted them to do.
They both groaned, when they saw how long it was.
“That’s between you,” he said. “So, it’s not as bad as it looks.”
“Okay, we’ll take your word for it, Papa,” said Johnny.
So the boys spent another day working at a list of chores, and by the end of it, both of them were determined that this was going to be the last day of their holiday that they were going to lose, because Murdoch was punishing them.
“From now on, I aim to stay out of trouble,” said Scott.
“Well, in that case, steer clear of that girl,” said Johnny. “She’s bound ta lead you into trouble.”
“That’s a bit drastic,” said Scott. “I don’t want to stay away from women. I’m sure there are ways of seeing girls that doesn’t lead me into trouble.”
“Let me know when you find it, then when it’s my turn, I might be able to handle ‘em,” said Johnny.
“Oh, so you are prepared to admit that there might be a time, in the future, when you do want to get involved with a girl, then?” said Scott.
“No, not really, but you keep telling me that it will happen,” said Johnny. “So I guess I need to be ready, in case you turn out to be right.”
“Okay, if I pick up any tips, I will let you share them.”
“Thank you, and that’s what big brothers are for,” said Johnny. “To pass on the things they learn, being that they tend to be the first one to do something, as they are older.”
“I reckon there are quite a few things that you have done, well before me,” said Scott, thinking of the childhood that Johnny had led.
“I expect so, but they’re probably things that you would never wanna do, anyway,” said Johnny.
“I expect you are right,” replied Scott, thinking about some of the sights that he knew his little brother had witnessed, during the time he’d lived with his mother.
Murdoch was pleased with the way that the boys had worked, all day.
“Well done,” he said. “You two work really well, together, when you put your minds to it.”
“Thanks, Papa,” said Johnny, going to his father for a hug. “For the rest of the holiday, though, we aim to stay outta trouble, don’t we, Scott?”
“We certainly do, little brother,” said Scott, smiling at Johnny.
“That sounds like a good plan to me, boys,” said Murdoch.
“Oh, I thought you might kinda like us messing up, cos then you get us doing all those extra chores for you,” said Johnny, earning himself a swat on the bottom, from Murdoch, as he was still in his arms.
“Of course I don’t like you messing up,” he said. “I’d much rather have well behaved sons than naughty ones.”
“Ouch,” said Johnny, rubbing his behind. “That hurt.”
“Are you still having your friends over to sleep in the tree house on Monday?” asked Murdoch, ignoring the fact that Johnny was complaining about the swat.
“Yeah, if it’s still okay with you?” said Johnny, forgetting about his sore rear end, which wasn’t really that sore, anyway.
“Of course it is,” said Murdoch. “You can remind your friends when you see them at church, tomorrow.”
“I will,” said Johnny.
“Off you go and wash up for supper, boys,” said Murdoch.
At the supper table, Johnny asked Maria if she would be prepared to make some food for his friends, when they came over on Monday evening.
“Something that we can eat out in the tree house, if possible,” said Johnny.
“Oh, I am sure that will be all right,” said Maria, pleased that the boy had made friends, since going to school. “Is it okay with you, Senor Lancer?”
“Yes, that will be fine, Maria,” said Murdoch. “But, Johnny, don’t go expecting Maria to be running back and forth, all evening, with snacks for your friends.”
“Oh, I won’t Papa,” said Johnny.
After church, on Sunday, Johnny made sure that he spoke to Zack, Jimmy, Wes and Charlie, and invited them all to stay over in the tree house, on Monday night.
“Oh good,” said Jimmy. “I wasn’t sure if your Pa was gonna let us, after you being on restriction an’ all.”
“That’s over with, now, so he said I could go ahead and ask you,” said Johnny. “Come over in the afternoon, as Maria said she will give us all supper.”
“Oh, good, I love her cooking,” said Wes. “My Pa can burn water.”
“Yeah, he is pretty bad, ain’t he? But at least you can go and eat in the bunkhouse and enjoy the cook’s food, now and again, so you don’t havta eat your Pa’s cooking, all the time.”
“You’re real lucky, though, Johnny, as even if Maria isn’t cooking for you, your Pa’s a pretty good cook, too,” went on Wes.
“True, he’s not too bad, but he only knows how to cook a few things,” said Johnny. “Maria does the hot, spicy dishes that I really like. Papa doesn’t like ‘em, so won’t cook ‘em.”
“Fair enough, I suppose,” said Jimmy. “I mean, why cook stuff you don’t even like?”
“Yeah, I suppose, when you put it like that, why should he?”
Just then, Zack and Jimmy’s mother called them, to say it was time for them to go home.
“We’ll see you tomorrow, Johnny,” they said.
“Yeah, okay, bye,” said Johnny.
“Hey, Johnny,” said Wes. “How about you and me going fishing?”
“Yeah, love to, but it’ll havta be after lunch, now. I’ll come and get you, once we’ve eaten.”
“Couldn’t I come ta your place and eat with you?” asked Wes.
“Where’s your Pa?” said Johnny.
“Soon as church was over, he headed for the saloon,” said Wes. “He’ll be there ‘til it closes.”
Johnny knew that Wes spoke the truth. His father was a fairly good worker, most of the time, but he was also a heavy drinker and often spent most of the week end in a saloon, leaving Wes to fend for himself.
“Okay, you’re invited,” said Johnny. “Don’t worry; I’ll square it with Papa.”
Johnny knew that Murdoch wouldn’t mind Wes joining them for lunch, as he often suggested it, himself, if he thought the boy wasn’t getting a decent meal at home.
“That’s fine,” said Murdoch, when Johnny asked him if Wes could have lunch with them.
He often wondered about firing Wes’ father, as the man wasn’t always that reliable, but then he worried about what might become of Wes, if they didn’t have a place to stay and his father couldn’t get another job. After all, it wasn’t the boy’s fault, and as he was only the same age as Johnny, Murdoch didn’t want to consign him to the same fate, which had befallen his own son, after Maria had died.
So, the three boys headed off for the ranch, riding a bit faster than Murdoch would have liked, if he had seen them, but he was following, more slowly, in the buggy, with Paul and Teresa.
The boys enjoyed their lunch and then set off on their fishing trip. Scott was asked to go, too, but he was planning on making a visit to see Rebecca, so he declined the invitation.
“Okay, see ya later, Scotty,” said Johnny, waving off his brother, who was leaving with plenty of advice on how to behave, with a young lady, ringing in his ears, courtesy of their father.
Johnny and Wes got themselves comfortable, on the banks of the river, and both cast their lines into the water. Neither boy was that bothered about catching anything; it was just nice to sit there, enjoying the view and the company.
“It’s gonna be great, tomorrow, sleeping in the tree house,” said Johnny.
“Sure is,” replied Wes. “Teresa ain’t gonna join us, is she?”
“No way,” said Johnny. “Paul says she ain’t allowed, anyway, but I wasn’t about to ask her.”
“Good, she’s a pain,” said Wes.
“She is, and if she tries to muscle in, I’ve gotta plan to scare her away, but I doubt if she will.”
“What about Scott? Has he changed his mind about being there?”
“Nope, he said he used ta sleep out there, when he was younger, but he’s not bothered now. He’s having Frank over, I think, but they’re gonna sleep in the house.”
By the time they had to leave, in order to get home for supper, neither boy had caught more than a couple of fish, and they let them go, seeing as how they were too small to cook.
“Never mind, I didn’t promise Mamacita any for supper, so it doesn’t matter that we didn’t catch any,” said Johnny.
The boys rode home and were back just as Murdoch was about to come looking for Johnny.
“About time you were back, son,” he said.
“Sorry, Papa, we were talking and forgot the time.”
“I best git on home, Johnny,” said Wes. “See ya tomorrow.”
“Okay, bye,” said Johnny.
“Please make a start on your chores, Johnny, and seeing as how your brother isn’t back yet, you best do his, as well, otherwise they won’t all be done by supper time.”
“Aw, that ain’t fair, Papa,” said Johnny, but Murdoch held up his large hand to silence the boy’s protests.
“He’s helped you out, on occasions, so no complaining, please.”
“Yes, sir, sorry,” said Johnny. “I guess he has, but I still don’t havta like doing his work, too.”
“I don’t expect you do, and believe me, son, I will have something to say to him, concerning his tardiness, once he gets home.”
Scott came home, about 15 minutes after Johnny and Murdoch had talked and so he was able to do the majority of his chores.
“Sorry for being late, Johnny, but I couldn’t tear myself away from the lovely Rebecca,” he said, when he joined his brother in the barn.
Johnny said nothing, but Scott was aware that Johnny was looking at his ears.
“What are you looking at me, like that for?” asked Scott.
“I thought Papa would’ve chewed your ears off,” said Johnny, grinning at his brother. “He was hopping mad when you weren’t home on time.”
“Hell, I’m not that late,” said Scott.
“Tut, tut, don’t use words like that in front of a young, impressionable boy,” said Johnny.
“When I meet a young, impressionable boy, I’ll watch what I say, in front of him.”
“You’re in front of one, now,” said Johnny. “Me.”
“Young, you may be, but I doubt there’s anything that I could say that you haven’t already heard,” said Scott.
“Maybe not, but Papa said you shouldn’t say bad words in front of me.”
“And Papa says a lot of things to you that you don’t take any notice of, either,” said Scott.
Johnny shrugged his shoulders and smiled at Scott.
“I guess he does, but it’s not me we’re talking about.”
Scott decided that he wasn’t going to win this one, and so he set to, and did his chores, taking care of his horse, first.
“Is Frank gonna come and sleep over, tomorrow night, Scott?”
“Yes, he is, but don’t worry, we’ll keep well away from you and your friends.”
“I wasn’t worried,” said Johnny. “Jimmy’s coming with Zack, Wes and Charlie. I thought he might prefer to be with you and Frank, seeing as how he’s fourteen, but he said not, as he’s in our class, so we’re more his friends, than you and Frank are.”
“Well, that makes sense,” said Scott. “Not that we’d mind if he stayed with us, as we like him, too, but he spends more time with you, seeing as how he’s not had as much schooling as the rest of us have.”
“Okay,” said Johnny. “That’s fine with me, too.”
“Have you got anything planned for tomorrow night, Johnny?” said Scott.
“No, not really, we’ll probably just play a few hands of poker, and chew the fat.”
“Well, don’t let Pa catch you playing poker, not if it’s for money, anyway,” said Scott. “He’s not that keen on you doing that.”
“That’s why the tree house is such a good idea,” said Johnny. “Papa won’t know about it, unless you snitch.”
“I’m not going to snitch, Johnny, but I’m just warning you to be careful.”
“I’ve been warned,” said Johnny.
It seemed to be the longest few hours of his life, but eventually it was time for Johnny’s friends to arrive for the sleep over, in the tree house.
Originally, it had belonged to Scott, but, by the time Johnny first came to live at Lancer, he hadn’t used it, for a couple of years. So, the older brother offered to help his younger sibling renovate it, and then said that Johnny could now use it. Murdoch had also helped the boys with the work and Maria made some new curtains to hang at the windows.
Frank and Charlie were the first to arrive.
“Now remember what Pa said, Charlie, and behave yourself,” said Frank, before he went inside the house, to join Scott. “Just because you’re out here and I’m in the house, doesn’t mean you have to forget how to behave, okay?”
“Okay, Frank, and stop trying to sound like Pa, cos it’s not working,” said Charlie. “Have fun with your friend, and I’ll have fun with mine. See you in the morning.”
Frank went into the house, with Scott, and Charlie, once he’d seen to his horse, climbed up into the tree house, with his bedroll.
“Wow, this is real neat,” he said. “It was good of your folks to do this place up for you to use.”
“I worked on it, too,” said Johnny. “But Papa, Scott and Mamacita did help.”
Wes was the next one to arrive. When he spread out his bed roll to lay it on the floor, it revealed that he’d brought in a bottle of whisky.
“Where did you get that from?” asked Johnny.
“From my Pa, where else?” said Wes. “He came home with a couple of bottles and fell into bed, as he often does, so I just helped myself to one of ‘em. He’ll just think he drunk it, so he won’t miss it.”
“Are you planning on drinking it, then?” asked Charlie.
“Well, I didn’t take it to just sit and look at it,” said Wes. “But I don’t mean to keep it all to myself, either. We can all share it. It’ll keep us warm when it starts getting colder, later on in the night.”
“Good idea,” said Johnny, although he wasn’t really that keen on Wes’ plan. He knew that his father most definitely wouldn’t approve of a bunch of eleven year olds sharing a bottle of rotgut, but he couldn’t say that to Wes, as it would mean that his friend would think he was being a baby.
“I’m not sure I want to drink any,” said Charlie.
“That’s up to you, but you’re gonna look a mite foolish iffen you’re the only one who don’t,” said Wes. “And some people might say you’re being chicken.”
“Well, I might give it a try,” said Charlie, wavering, a bit, in the face of Wes’ argument.
“Don’t worry, you don’t have to,” whispered Johnny.
Zack and Jimmy finally arrived and the boys all made themselves comfortable.
“Hide that bottle, Wes, cos Mamacita will be coming out with our supper, soon,” said Johnny, and Wes did so, just in time.
“Here you are, boys,” came a voice from the ground, and when Johnny looked out, Maria was there, with a tray of food.
“Okay, I’ll come and get it,” said Johnny, and he began climbing down the rope ladder, which he’d left, lowered, for this purpose.
Between them, they managed to get the stew and the peach cobbler up to the tree house, along with a large jug of milk.
“Thanks, ma’am,” said Zack. “This looks real nice.”
“It sure does,” said Wes. “Thanks, Maria.”
All was quiet as the boys enjoyed the food.
“Wow, Johnny, iffen you eat as well as this, all the time, you’ll soon be too big to sit on your horse,” said Jimmy.
“I do eat this well, but I don’t eat as much as you’ve put away, tonight, in a week,” said Johnny, laughing at Jimmy.
“Don’t tell her I said this, but my Ma sure don’t cook this good,” continued Jimmy.
“I’m not about to say a word,” said Zack. “Iffen I insulted our Ma’s cooking, then she wouldn’t cook at all, and what she does give us, is better than nothing.”
“It’s definitely better than what Pa can do,” went on Jimmy. “Do you remember what it was like when Ma went to help out her sister, who was having a baby, and we hadta eat Pa’s cooking?”
“Yeah, I do, we were nothing more than skin and bone, by the time Ma got back,” recalled Zack, shuddering at the thought.
Wes was saying nothing, but it was obvious that he was enjoying the food, too. If left to his father, the boy hardly ever got a decent meal, but he often joined the hands in the bunkhouse and had a meal there. Murdoch had provided Jake with a cabin, so that Wes had somewhere to live that was away from the bunkhouse and the somewhat rough behaviour and language of the other hands. But as Jake spent most of his wages on alcohol, there was very rarely any food in the larder, so Wes was forced to go to the bunkhouse, in order to eat.
Once the meal was over, Johnny and Wes returned the dishes to the kitchen, as Johnny had promised his father that he wouldn’t make any extra work for Maria. Then Johnny found a pack of cards and Wes opened the bottle of whisky and began passing it round.
Johnny had taught the others to play poker and Jimmy and Charlie were good players, but even though Zack and Wes were not so good, they all enjoyed playing. Therefore, the boys spent a couple of hours, absorbed in the game. They were playing for money, although Murdoch had told Johnny they were not allowed to gamble, but as none of them had much money, they were only playing for nickels and dimes.
Eventually, only Johnny had any money left, and so the game was over.
“Looks like it’ll be me treating you guys to some candy, in town, next time we go there,” said Johnny.
“Well, iffen you don’t, me and Zack won’t have any until we get our allowance, next month, as I already asked for an advance on next week’s, so’s I’d have enough money to play, tonight,” said Jimmy.
It was getting rather cool and so the boys got into their bedrolls and started telling each other ghost stories.
In the house, after they’d eaten supper, Scott and Frank went up to Scott’s room.
“I’ve got a plan,” said Scott, to his friend.
“A plan for what?” asked Frank.
“A plan to give our little brothers a fright,” said Scott. “What’s the betting they are telling each other ghost stories, at the moment?”
“Probably,” said Frank.
“Well, how about if we go out there and make some noise, so that they really think there is a ghost come to haunt them?”
Frank began to laugh.
“Knowing my little brother, like I do, he’ll probably be only pretending to listen to the stories, as he’s a real scaredy cat, when it comes to spooky tales. So, if he hears anything that sounds remotely ghostly, he’ll just about jump out of his own skin.”
“Well, Johnny’s fairly tough, but he’s also rather superstitious, so I reckon he’ll be pretty spooked, too,” said Scott, also laughing.
The older boys made their way down the stairs, avoiding the main room, and collected a couple of sheets from the laundry cupboard. They then visited the tack room and found some lengths of chain. They headed out to where the tree house was situated and then placed the sheets over their heads and began rattling the chains and making groaning noises.
“What was that?” said Charlie, the first one to hear the sounds coming from outside.
“What’s what?” said Johnny.
“I heard an odd sound,” said Charlie.
“Odd? What did it sound like?” said Jimmy.
“Like someone groaning,” said Charlie.
“How can you hear anything?” said Johnny. “You’ve had your head buried in your bedroll ever since we started telling stories.”
“No, I haven’t,” said Charlie, indignantly, ashamed that Johnny knew he wasn’t listening to the stories. “I heard what you were all saying, and now I’m hearing groaning noises. Listen, that sounded like a chain rattling, too.”
“I bet it’s Teresa,” said Johnny. “She wanted to join us in the tree house, but Paul said she couldn’t.”
“It couldn’t be her, Johnny,” said Wes. “She’s only a little gal, she wouldn’t be able to make noises like that, and, besides, it’s real dark out there. She’ll be in bed and fast asleep, by now.”
“Yeah, I guess she would be,” said Johnny, when he realised how late it was. “Wonder what it is, then?”
Just then, Frank gave out a mournful cry, and Charlie nearly ended up in Johnny’s bedroll.
“Ow, Charlie, you’re a bit big to sit on my lap,” said Johnny.
“S- s- s- orry, Johnny, but I – I – I didn’t like the sound of that,” he said.
The whisky that the boys had consumed meant that they were not thinking that clearly, and they all began to be convinced that there were ghosts, just outside the tree house.
“I best go take a look,” said Johnny, although he was rather hoping that someone might try and persuade him to stay where he was.
Nobody did, and so the boy headed for the door of the house, opened it, gingerly, and looked down. Scott and Frank were close by, but not close enough for Johnny to be able to make out anything more than two rather indistinct, white shapes.
When Scott could see that Johnny had opened the door, he rattled the chains, some more, and Frank let out another woeful cry.
That was enough for Johnny.
“Madre dios, it’s those monsters Mama told me about,” he yelled.
That was Scott and Frank’s cue to leave. They removed their sheets, ran over to the tack room, to deposit the chains, and slipped in through the back door, just as Murdoch came out the front one.
“What’s the matter, son?” called out Murdoch.
“Papa, there’s something out there, trying to get us,” yelled Johnny.
“Whatever do you mean, Johnny?” said Murdoch, as he walked towards the tree house.
“We heard all this moaning and groaning, and when I looked out, there were some strange shapes, over there, by those trees,” went on Johnny. “When I was living with Mama, she used to tell me stories about spirits who roamed the streets, at night, looking for little boys, who disobeyed their parents and didn’t stay in bed.”
“Well, there’s nothing there, now,” said Murdoch, who had reached the bottom of the ladder.
Murdoch strongly suspected that the reason Maria had told Johnny such things, was to make sure he stayed in bed, while she was entertaining her men friends, in the other room, but he didn’t say so.
“What your Mama told you was just superstitious nonsense, nothing more. It was said to make you stay in bed,” said Murdoch.
“Well, it worked,” said Johnny. “I was even too scared to get up for a pee, and I often wet the bed, then she’d be really mad.”
Johnny climbed down the ladder, emboldened by the fact that his father was now there, to protect him.
“Are you sure, Papa? There was something there, really there was.”
As the boy came towards him, Murdoch could smell the whisky on his breath.
“Have you been drinking?” said Murdoch.
Too late, Johnny realised that he hadn’t covered up the fact, by sucking on one of the ** Sen Sen Breath Freshener Mints that he’d stowed away in the tree house.
“Erm, yes sir, I have,” said Johnny, as he knew it was pointless to deny it.
“Well, maybe that explains why you think you saw something in the trees. Alcohol can play funny tricks on your mind.”
“It wasn’t the whisky, Papa, I really did see something, and the others heard the moaning, too.”
“And did they join you in drinking the whisky?” demanded Murdoch.
“I’m not sure who did and who didn’t,” said Johnny.
“I am very angry about this, Johnny, as you have betrayed my faith in you. I thought I could trust you and your friends to sleep out here, and behave yourselves, but drinking alcohol is not acceptable in one as young as you, and you know that, don’t you?”
“Yes sir, I guess I do,” said Johnny, lowering his head, as he could not look at his father.
“What else have you been doing out here, that you know you are not allowed to do?”
“Nothing much, Papa.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Well, we played a few hands of poker, but that’s all we did.”
“And that’s another thing I don’t like you doing. Did you win?”
“You won, because you have an advantage over the other boys, being that you learnt to play a long time ago. Therefore, if you played for money, I want you to give back all your winnings. And, Johnny, where did you get the whisky from? Was it from my cabinet?”
“Aw, Papa, do I havta give back my winnings? The others can play pretty well, and I wasn’t cheating ‘em. And the whisky wasn’t yours, but I’d rather not say where it came from, as I don’t wanna snitch on a friend.”
“Yes, you do have to give back the money, as I have told you before, I don’t want you playing poker. As for the whisky, I won’t press you to tell me where it came from, but just make sure you tell whoever brought it, not to bring any more, the next time they come over to see you, okay?”
“Okay, Papa, I’ll tell ‘em. Er, Papa, may I go back to my friends, now?”
“If it wasn’t so late, I would be sending those friends of yours, home, young man,” said Murdoch. “But I know that Zack and Jimmy’s parents have gone out, for the evening, and Bill was talking about going into town, for a couple of drinks, seeing as how both his boys were going to be staying here, so I can’t really send them home. But rest assured that after they have gone home, in the morning, you and I will be having a discussion about your behaviour, in your room.”
“Yes sir, I kinda guessed that we might be,” said Johnny. “Night, Papa.”
“Goodnight, son,” said Murdoch, and he waited until Johnny was back in the tree house, before returning to the house.
Johnny told the other boys what Murdoch had said.
“So, he knows about the drinking and the gambling. Says I’ve gotta give you all back your money, too.”
“You don’t havta, Johnny,” said Jimmy. “You won that money fair and square,” and the others agreed.
“Thanks for that, but if I don’t give it back to you, and Papa finds out, then I’ll be in even more trouble.”
Johnny emptied his pockets and returned the money.
“Is he real mad about the whisky?” asked Charlie.
“Yeah, he is,” said Johnny. “He ain’t said what he’s gonna do, but he might tell your folks about the drinking and the gambling. I told him I didn’t steal the whisky from his drinks cabinet, but I didn’t tell him which of you brought it here.”
“My Pa won’t miss it, he’ll just think he drunk it,” said Wes.
The boys all returned to their bedrolls and tried to get some sleep, but they were all rather worried about the reception they were likely to get from their parents, in the morning, apart from Wes, that is.
Before going back indoors, Murdoch did look around, by the stand of trees, but found no sign of Johnny’s ghosts.
However, the following morning, when Maria was going to change the beds, she discovered that two of the sheets in the linen cupboard were dusty and they had several boot prints on them.
“What happened to sheets?” she asked the boys, as they all sat around the breakfast table.
It didn’t take a genius to work out that Scott and Frank were the ones responsible for the ghostly noises.
Murdoch was cross about the state of the sheets, and insisted that Scott washed them, but he wasn’t that angry about the prank.
“It was just a bit of harmless fun, by one pair of brothers to another,” he said. “So, once the sheets are clean, we’ll say no more about it, Scott.”
Johnny was angry with Scott, though, and told him so, as he watched his brother washing the sheets.
“If you hadn’t scared me and my friends, I wouldn’t have yelled and he wouldn’t have found out about us drinking.”
“And if you hadn’t been disobeying Pa, by gambling and drinking, there wouldn’t have been anything for him to find out about, would there?” replied Scott.
Once all the boys had headed for their homes, with warnings that they had better confess to their parents about what they had been doing, Murdoch sent Johnny up to his room.
Scott tried to plead for his little brother’s hide, despite what he’d said, earlier.
“It was partly my fault, Pa,” he said. “If I hadn’t scared Johnny, he wouldn’t have called out, and you wouldn’t have known about him drinking. You didn’t get mad with me, for scaring Johnny and his friends, so couldn’t you let Johnny off, too?”
“The two things are not the same, Scott,” said Murdoch. “What you did was nowhere near as bad as what Johnny did. He’s eleven years old, and he shouldn’t be gambling and drinking. All you did was play a prank, and a harmless one, at that.” In a kinder tone of voice, Murdoch then said, “It’s good the way that you like to stick up for your brother, Scott, and I admire you for your loyalty. But that little boy has got to learn how to behave properly, and letting him off, when he misbehaves, is not going to teach him anything, now is it?”
“No, I guess not,” said Scott. He knew that his father was right, but he still felt bad about it.
Johnny scrambled to his feet, as Murdoch entered his room, and he tried, very hard, to talk his father out of punishing him.
“I really am sorry, Papa, and I won’t drink or gamble any more, until you say I can, okay?”
“This isn’t the first time I’ve had to talk to you about playing poker and gambling, is it? And I also told you that drinking alcohol, other than maybe a watered down glass of wine, with dinner, is not acceptable, at your tender age, so you can’t plead ignorance, as your defence. For the rest of the summer break, you will not be allowed to have any of your friends staying over, in the tree house, as I don’t feel that I can trust you to behave out there.”
“Aw, Papa, that ain’t fair,” said Johnny. “We worked real hard to get the tree house back into good shape, and I’ve only been able to sleep in it, once.”
“I’m sorry, Johnny, but I am not going to change my mind. I haven’t said that you can’t ever sleep out there, just not during this summer break. And now we have to deal with the other part of your punishment; come over here, son.”
Johnny knew where he was heading, for a trip over his father’s knee, so he crossed the room, rather slowly. Murdoch’s large hand made quite an impression on Johnny’s bottom and the boy took heed of this warning and stayed away from alcohol and gambling, for quite some time, afterwards.
When the boy went to his father, after finishing his morning chores, Murdoch was more than ready to forgive him, and Johnny was happy to receive the hug that Murdoch was keen to bestow. Although his bottom was still rather sore, his heart was light, as he felt his father’s strong arms around him, and he knew that no matter what happened, he would always have his father’s love to help him through, and his wise words, coupled with that work worn hand, to guide him on the road to manhood.
Lancer lives on!
April 26th 2007
* Isobel appeared in my story Love Is Blind
** A 19th century breath freshener
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