Word count: 40,840
Murdoch Lancer was taking a leisurely ride home after a very successful business meeting. He had been trying to close a deal on a piece land for some time and, after several months of dickering with the owner, they had finally come to an agreement. He was in a good mood and there was nothing that could change it.
Pulling up to the corral, he spotted his nephews sitting on the fence, looking into the barn. Both were giggling and looked like they had been fighting. Their clothes were dirty and they had smudged up faces with straw sticking out of their hair.
Murdoch’s youngest sister, Hanna, had followed her brother’s footsteps, and came out here a few years back.
Seeking a new way of life herself, she had settled in Chicago, then met and married a businessman. Murdoch was thrilled to hear that his sister had come out, and kept in touch with her off and on. Just before Johnny and Scott had come home, her husband was killed in freak accident, leaving her with the business and two small boys to deal with.
Curious as to what had the boys so interested, he got down from the buggy and walked on over to them. Calling to them as he approached the corral, “Josh! Travis! What‘s going on, and why are you so dirty?”
“Oh, hi, Uncle Murdoch! We were playing and wrestling in the dirt,” Josh said, ever so innocently.
“Yeah, Uncle Murdoch, we’re sorry,” Travis said, giggling.
“Well, as long as you are okay. Why don’t go on inside and get cleaned up?” he said to the boys. They both nodded and giggled as they jumped off the fence. Then he suddenly realized that Scott and Johnny were supposed to be watching the boys. “Where are those sons of mine?” he asked.
Both boys pointed to the barn and giggled some more. This was really getting his curiosity up and Murdoch casually walked to the barn door and peered in. His eyes widened at the sight. He couldn’t believe his eyes or his ears.
His sons were rolling around in the hay – punching each other, pushing and calling each names that were not suitable for young ears to hear. After shushing the boys off to the house, Murdoch stood there for a few minutes.
Watching his sons roll around like that, he to had to laugh a little at the sight. But then he quickly regained his composure and decided to put an end to this.
“BOYS!” boomed their father. “What the hell is going on?”
Both of them stopped and looked up at their father, jumping to their feet and a little off balance at first. Murdoch shook his head at the sight of them. They each had bloody lips, hay in their hair, and their clothes were ripped. Both stood there, unable to talk; too scared to move even if they could. The _expression on their father’s face told them that they were in big trouble.
“Well, are you going to explain what this is about?” he demanded to know.
They both just pointed to each other and said, “He started it!”
“I did not!” Scott shot at his brother.
“Yes, you did, Brother!” Johnny shot back and gave him a push.
Scott went to push back but his father grabbed his arm and pulled him away from Johnny. He couldn’t believe his two grown sons were acting like children.
“I don’t care who started it!” he said sternly. “It stops here and now. Both of you march right into the house and get cleaned up,” he said adding, “Then we will talk.” He stood there until he got an answer.
“Yes, Sir,” they both said and walked out of the barn and up to the house, giving each other a shove back and forth as they went.
Their father looked on, shaking his head again but he couldn’t resist the urge to laugh once more. Just then, Jelly had come out of his room and his face lit up with amusement when he took a look at the pair of them. He too couldn’t resist the urge to laugh.
“What happened to you two?” Jelly asked with a chuckle.
“Don’t ask,” Scott said and entered the house in a huff.
“Johnny?” He looked at his friend with straight face, knowing better then to laugh at him to his face.
“Just don’t start, Jelly,” Johnny told him and hurried on by him to find his brother. “I get the bathtub first!” he yelled across the room as he entered the house.
Scott, stopped and turned to say, “We’ll see about that.”
They both took off in the direction of the bathhouse, pushing and grabbing each other out of the way as the went while Travis and Josh looked on.
“Gee, Uncle Murdoch, they sure do look a mess,” Josh said giggling.
“Yes, they do boys.” He looked at his nephews. They were cleaned up and sitting there like little angels on the couch. “Well I see you two are ready for dinner.”
“Yeah, we’re real hungry, too! We sure worked up an appetite playing with the pony you gave us,” Travis said.
“He’s the greatest, Uncle Murdoch!”
“’I’m glad you boys like him. Now, let’s see how dinner’s coming, huh?” he asked, and escorted his nephews to the kitchen.
Meanwhile,…”Scott! Will ya hurry up!” Johnny yelled, standing outside of the bathhouse. “I would like to take a bath sometime today.”
“You can’t hurry perfection, Brother,” Scott yelled back from the other side of the door.
“Who said you’re prefect?” Johnny snorted at him.
“I did,” Scott said as he opened the door. “The bathtub is all yours, oh brother of mine,” he said as he waved his hand towards the room.
“Well, I’m not too sure I want to now,” Johnny said with a smirk on his face.
“And why not?”
“Oh,” he said, scratching his chin. “I don’t want to dirty up the tub with my imperfect self. Not right after your holiness has blessed it.” He laughed.
“Very funny, Brother, very funny,” Scott snarled back at his little brother. Johnny made a beeline for the room, closing the door just as Scott went to give him a slap on the back. “Ouch!” Scott yelled as the door hit his hand.
“Ahh, did the big bad door hurt your soft hand?” Johnny teased, as he opened the door again. This time Scott did get to smack his brother, right on the head. “Ouch!”
“Ahh, did I hurt your hard head?” Scott snorted back.
Dinner was not on the normal side that night. The younger boys were like little gentlemen, while the two older ones were acting like kids – throwing food at each other when their father wasn’t looking, giving each other dirty looks and slumping at the table.
Johnny had thrown a piece of meat at Scott and, just when he went to throw it back at his brother, Murdoch turned his head to say something. Startled by the sound of his father’s voice, Scott’s aim was thrown off. It went sailing across the table and hit Murdoch right in the face.
The room went deathly quiet. They all waited for the explosion to happen. They sat there, with their hearts beating fast, too scared to move, but also trying not to laugh. Finally, Murdoch stood up, and stared at his sons.
“The living room! Now!”
In the Great room, Murdoch Lancer stood by the fireplace with his arms crossed, staring at the kitchen door. He could still feel the sting of the hot piece of meat that had hit his face. His patience was running out while he waited for his sons to appear. Scott and Johnny were taking their sweet old time coming, knowing what was in stored for them.
“You go first.” Scott whispered to Johnny, both hiding behind the kitchen door.
“No, you go first. You’re the oldest.” Johnny whispered back. “Besides, you’re the one who hit him, not me.”
“NOW, BOYS!” Murdoch ordered rather loudly.
Listening to their father’s demand, they both took a deep breath and entered the room with their heads down. Scott first, as he was being pushed through the door by his little brother.
Standing there in front of their father, they felt little boys who were going to get a thrashing for being caught with their hands in the cookie jar, or worse. Johnny was biting his lip and scuffing the floor with his foot, while Scott had his hands in front of him, twirling his thumbs. Both were trying to avoid their father’s glare.
“Well?” Murdoch asked calmly, trying to keep a cool head. But the boys just kept quiet. Neither one wanted to speak up. “Is either one of you going to tell me what the hell is wrong with you two?” he demanded loudly as his patience finally ran out. “Look at me!”
Johnny spoke up first. “It’s let this, Murdoch. Scott started it with a dumb question.”
“That was not a dumb question, Brother!” Scott retaliated ‘It was a sound one, but your answer was dumb,” he said pointing his finger at Johnny.
“My answer was not dumb. You just took it the wrong way, that’s all,” Johnny said with a him a sassy smirk.
“Listen, Brother, I did not take it wrong and I did not like it that the idea of us growing up together scared you,” Scott said, adding, “I happen to think I would have enjoyed growing up with you.”
“HOLD IT!” bellowed Murdoch. He demanded to know. “Is that what’s this is all about? Whether you both had grown up together or not? Boys, that’s all in the past. You can’t change it now.”
“That’s why it was a dumb question,” Johnny agreed with a mischievous grin. “Can we go now?” he asked looking all-innocent.
Scott just gave him a dirty look.
“NO! You will BOTH agree to drop this whole thing and act like adults. Is that understood?” They were both quiet for a moment, before nodding. “Good, now let’s discuss tomorrow’s work schedule.”
Travis and Josh stood in the doorway, looking at their older cousins while their uncle was scolding them. They were trying not to laugh at them, but Josh let a giggle escape his lips. It caught their uncle’s attention.
“You boys go on up to your room and get ready for bed. I’ll be up soon,” Murdoch told them.
“Okay, Uncle Murdoch,” Travis said. “Come on, Josh let’s go.”
“Yeah, ‘cause Cousin Scott and Johnny are sure are in trouble,” he said giggling.
The older boys stared at the two as they walked slowly up the first few stairs; then ran the rest of the way up, giggling as they went. Johnny turned and stared at his brother, blue eyes narrowed.
“This is all your fault!” Johnny said, giving Scott a shot to the arm.
“JOHNNY!” his father bellowed.
“Sorry, Murdoch,” he said quietly, and lowered his eyes.
Scott was just about to say something when Murdoch spoke up.
“It seems that this will not be settled until I do something about it,” he remarked “So, you think you could not have lived together as boys, huh?”
“Not according to my brother,” Scott said. “But I think we could have.”
There was no reply from their father. He paced the floor rubbing his chin, thinking hard on how to settle this matter. The boys looked on, worried as to what their father had in mind for them.
He stopped and looked at his sons. “Why not give it a try,” he suggested to them.
They both looked at him, puzzled. They looked at each other, then back at their father.
“What do you mean?” wondered Scott. “We live together now; here in this house.”
“Yeah. So what do you mean, Murdoch?” Johnny asked shrugging his shoulders.
“What I mean, Boys, is that you share a bedroom – like Travis and Josh do,” he explained, and continued, “You’ll share everything – dresser, closet, and so on.” Their father added. “Togetherness. You’ll do your chores, like cleaning your room, together. And you’ll go to bed at the same time. Do I make myself clear?”
Their eyes widened with amusement and shock at the same time. ‘Sharing a bedroom? At our age? He has to be out of his mind!’ They both thought to themselves.’ Then they realized that he was very serious.
“No! I’m not gonna share a room with…with him! He’ll drive me nuts with his…his perfectness,” Johnny yelled.
“Perfectness? Oh Brother, you do need a lesson in grammar, it’s *perfection,* ” Scott commented.
“You see! That’s just what I mean,” Johnny said, shaking his head and crossing his arms in front of him. “No way ,Murdoch.”
“Come on, Johnny. It just might be fun.” Scott chuckled. “We can tell ghost stories and stay up late, have pillow fights,” he said, with a smirk on his face.
“ You’re both nuts!” Johnny shot at them.
“You will do it and that’s final,“ their father ordered. “And it starts tonight.”
“For how long?”
When all the grumbling and whining was done with, they finally agreed to use Scott’s room for the experiment their father wanted them to do. His room was the biggest, It had a bigger closet, although Scott’s cloths did take up most of the space. Johnny really didn’t need much room.
At Johnny’s very loud request, they had moved his bed into Scott’s room. There was no way in hell that he was going to share a bed with his brother, nor sleep on a cot. Scott agreed he would rather have his own bed. He didn’t feel like getting punched out during the night, if Johnny had one of his nightmares.
So, after getting settled in, it was time to hit the sack. Tomorrow they would have a very long and busy day ahead of them. Scott was the first to undress for bed. He first took off his shirt and then slipped his nightshirt over him while still wearing his pants. Then he slipped them off and neatly laid them on the chair. Then he heard a loud sigh and looked over at his brother who was smiling at him.
“Are you too shy to undress in front of me?” Johnny asked with a chuckle. “Come on, We’re both men, if you haven’t noticed,” he added with a sly look.
“No, I’m not shy. It’s just proper this way and yes, we ARE both men,” he said sharply, trying to hide the fact that he really was a little uncomfortable.
Johnny grinned at him and it was his turn to get ready for bed. With ease, he slipped out of all his clothes and threw them on the chair. And, like a cat, he slid between the sheets– butt naked. Laying his head down on the pillow, with both hands resting behind his neck, he looked up at his brother. Scott was giving him a disturbing glare.
“Do you always sleep in the nude?”
“Yep!” he answered with a wide grin.
“So, I have to look at your…your…every night?”
“Terrific! Remind me to leave the room next time,” he said and climbed into bed. He grabbed his book. And sat back to do some reading.
Trying to concentrate on his book, Scott wound up reading the same page over and over. His brother’s low humming and singing was annoying him, but he was trying to be polite and not say anything. But after a few more minutes of listening to the same song, and in Spanish, he had had enough.
“Do you mind? I‘m trying to read,” Scott asked politely.
“What’s wrong? You don’t like my singing?”
“Oh, is that what you call it?” Scott asked, rather rudely. “Well excuse me, I thought you had a frog in your throat and you were trying to get it out!”
“There is no reason to be rude, Brother. I’ll stop so you can read your stupid book,” Johnny replied, just as rudely. He leaned over to take a closer look at the book Scott was reading. “Who wants to read a book about some big fish?”
“’Moby Dick’ is not just a book about some big fish! It’s a classic–something you wouldn’t appreciate,” he explained to his bored-looking brother. “Unlike those dime store novels you’ve been reading!”
“Now, those are interesting. They have action and adventure,” Johnny said cheerfully.
“And this doesn’t? Have you ever read Moby Dick?” he asked his brother, who was getting out of bed. “Where are you going?”
“Can’t sleep when I’m hungry. I’m going downstairs to get a sandwich,” he said, putting his pants back on. “You want something from the kitchen?”
“No, and you just had three helpings of Teresa’s beef stew, plus two slices of cake – and you’re still hungry?” Scott asked.
“What can I say? I’m growing boy,” Johnny answered with a childish grin and headed downstairs.
It was getting late and Scott decided to go to sleep. He was tired of waiting for his brother to come back. ‘He probably ate the rest of the cake and drank a cow dry,’ he thought to himself and blew out the lamp. After a few minutes, he was awakened by a loud crash, followed by a lot of rapid cussing in Spanish.
“What the…?” he shouted and quickly lit the lamp again, only, to find his brother lying on the floor by a small table. Johnny was rocking back and forth, holding his knee and still cussing in Spanish.
“Johnny! What happened?” he asked innocently.
“What happened? I’ll tell ya what happened! What happened is me walking into a dark room and tripping over this damn table!” Johnny said angrily. “That’s what happened! What the hell are you trying to do, kill me?” he shouted.
“What makes you think that?”
“You blew out the light, that’s why,” he shouted louder. “You knew I was coming back!”
“In what century? You were taking your sweet time and I wanted to go to sleep!” Scott shouted back, just as loud.
They never did hear the loud and rapid footsteps coming down the hallway.
“BOYS!” boomed Murdoch. “What the hell is going on in here?”
“You are waking up the whole household,” Murdoch said as he looked down at his son, still lying on the floor and rubbing his knee. “Johnny?”
Johnny looked up at his father and said with innocent eyes. “Scott is trying to kill me.
“Rise and Shine!” Johnny hollered. He walked over to his brother’s bed and started to bounce on it. Then, pulling the covers back, he added “Come on, Scott. We have a busy day. That ditch isn’t gonna clear itself.”
“What… what time is it?” Scott asked, groggy and rubbing his eyes. He squinted as he looked up at his wide awake brother.
“It’s nearly six am and I’m starved,” Johnny said as he got off the bed and walked over to the dresser to rub a comb through his thick black hair. “I can smell Teresa’s hot biscuits from up here. So hurry and get dressed.”
Scott looked over and saw the comb Johnny was using. He frowned. “That’s my comb you are using. I don’t you need you breaking it with that mop you call hair. Use your own,” he suggested firmly. “Why don’t get a haircut?
“Yeah, so it is, sorry,” Johnny said and snorted. “I don’t need a haircut and I won’t break your precious comb.” He sat it back on the dresser, hard. “Now, will ya get dressed?”
“You go down. I’ll be right behind you,” Scott said, waving his hand and gesturing for his brother to leave his room… their room.
“Oh no. You heard what Murdoch said. We do everything together and that means going downstairs to breakfast, *together*,” Johnny added,” And I don’t want to hear no more lectures like last night. So hurry up.”
“Don’t remind me.” Scott said, remembering last night.
And then to top it all off, once they had finally got to bed, Johnny had started talking in his sleep, tossing and turning. He had even yelled a few times, speaking in Spanish. It had irritated Scott even more, since he couldn’t make out what Johnny was saying. Every time Scott had gotten back to sleep, he had been woken up again by his brother’s rantings. ‘It’s a wonder how he got any sleep himself?’ Scott thought.
“Come on, Scott! Hurry up, and get dressed!” Johnny demanded standing by the bed.
“Do you mind?”
“Huh, oh, that’s right. You’re too shy to dress in front of your own brother,” Johnny said with a chuckle. “I’ll wait outside.”
“I’m not shy! And…oh, just forget it!” he said and got up to get dressed as his little brother went to wait outside in the hallway, grinning.
They finally made it downstairs to the kitchen where the rest of the family was waiting for them. All eyes were on the twosome as they entered the room. Travis and Josh sat there like little angels, like they had not a care in the world. Johnny and Scott sat down at their normal places at the table, Johnny ready to eat and Scott dying for a cup of hot coffee.
“Morning Cousin Johnny and Cousin Scott” said Travis, as he stuffed a fork full of eggs into his mouth.
“Morning, boys,” Scott said and was grateful for the coffee Teresa had just poured for him. “Thanks, Teresa. Just what I needed,” he said taking a gulp.
“You’re welcome,” she said and poured Johnny a cup.
“Gracias,” Johnny said to Teresa.
“De nada” Teresa replied.
Seeing that his sons were on good terms with each other, Murdoch decided that maybe last night’s lecture did any good. He thought it was time to discuss the day’s schedule.
“After you boys are done with the ditch, I need you to ride up to the north line shack and take inventory,” he told the both of them.
“The both of us?” Johnny asked. “It only takes one person to do that.” He tried to reason with his father but Murdoch had his mind made up.
“Yes but, with the two of you to do it, it will go a lot quicker,” Murdoch reasoned back.
“Makes sense to me,” Teresa commented as she served them their breakfast. “Look at it this way, things do go faster and better… as a couple.” She tried to hold back a giggle and quickly moved away from the table.
The boys gave her a look of contempt and wanted to say something to their little sister, but thought they had better not when they saw the look they both got from their father.
“I guess we’d better get started, Johnny,” Scott suggested to his brother, who was still stuffing his face full of eggs and ham.
“I guess you’re right,” Johnny agreed. He grabbed a biscuit off the plate and stuffed in his shirt.
“Now, don’t forget, ‘Togetherness’, boys,” Teresa said as they got up to leave. They both glared at her as Josh and Travis stared at them, trying not to laugh at Teresa’s remark.
“Teresa’s right, Boys,” Murdoch agreed, trying not look to at them as he took a sip of his coffee with a grin on his face. He, too, was trying not to laugh.
As they both headed out the door, and just as Scott was about to close it, Scott heard his brother say softly, “The next thing he’ll have us do is take a bath together.”
Scott stopped in his tracks and shot Johnny a look of total shock and disgust. “Bite your tongue!” he said and walked away from Johnny… very quickly.
Johnny couldn’t help but laugh and ran after Scott. “Just joking,’” he yelled. “He wouldn’t go that far… would he?” His brother just gave him another dirty look. “Hey, don’t look at me like that. Remember, you started all of this.”
“Don’t remind me,” Scott said grimly. “Come on let’s get to work.”
As the boys rode off, two pairs of brown eyes were watching from the French doors. Josh was leaning against the small table that a figurine was resting on. He leaned into the table too far and it tipped over, causing it and Josh to go crashing to the floor. The figurine broke into three pieces and the boys were mortified.
“Josh, you stupid jerk! That was Teresa’s favorite statue!” Travis hollered at his brother, who was sitting on the floor with the broken item in his hands. “Now we’re going to be in big trouble.”
Josh got off the floor and they both picked up the table and put everything back the way it was; all but the figurine. “Okay, now what?” asked Josh.
“I don’t know. We better think of something and fast, before Uncle Murdoch finds out,” he said with fear in his eyes. “You’ve seen how mad he gets.”
“Yeah, like at Cousin Scott and Cousin Johnny,” Josh replied. “We don’t want him mad at us like that!”
Then suddenly an idea had come to their little heads and they both smiled.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
She watched with narrowed eyes through the French doors as her foster brothers rode up, then they dismounted by the barn and walked in. Teresa waited patiently by the small table that once had held her beloved figurine, waiting for Johnny and Scott to come into the house. The expression on her face was that of hurt, disbelief and revenge.
When the boys finally came out of the barn and were making their way to the house, Teresa‘s eyes were fixed on her dark haired brother. She was mentally throwing daggers at him, aiming straight for his heart. She could see him smiling and talking to Scott as they got closer to the house. ‘You won’t be smiling when I’m done with you, Johnny Lancer,’ Teresa thought.
As the boys walked through the front door, they cheerfully greeted their sister. She was still standing by the table with a fake smile on. They were both too hot and tired to notice that she was staring at them with dark cold eyes. Together, they walked over to the liquor cabinet to pour themselves a drink to wash down the dust they had inhaled throughout the day.
“How did your day go?” she asked in a pleasant voice, choking on her words.
“Oh, it was okay, I guess,” Johnny replied. “Just hot and dusty.”
“We got the ditch cleaned out and the inventory done for Murdoch,” Scott added. “And we’re ready for a nice hot bath and a good meal.” Johnny nodded to that.
“So, Teresa, Honey, how was your day?” Johnny asked sweetly.
The sound of his sweet and innocent voice made her blood boil, but she held her composure. “I had a very interesting day,” she said, gritting her teeth.
“Oh, really, how?” Johnny asked, taking a sip of his drink.
“Oh, it started out as my normal day of cooking, cleaning, doing the wash,” she stated.
“So what was so interesting then?” questioned Scott.
“Well, I went to gather up the dirty clothes from your room and bent down to pick up your shirt by your bed, Johnny …” She paused for minute to calm herself, then continued to say, “And I found something I thought you might want to tell me about, Johnny?”
Johnny just looked at her, puzzled. “I have no idea what you are talking about, Teresa, Honey?” he said innocently.
“You don’t, do you?” she demanded sharply, her temper starting to flare. “I kind of find that hard to believe. And don’t call me ‘honey’!”
“Well, tell us! What did you find?” Scott asked, curious as to what his little brother had done this time.
Johnny stood there, not knowing what he had done or when he had done it. He shrugged his shoulders at Scott, who was staring at him, then at Teresa, and waited for her to answer before she exploded.
But her temper was getting the best of her. “THIS!” she screamed and threw the broken figurine right at Johnny. “You broke it and didn’t have the guts to tell me!” She shouted, on the verge of crying. “What kind of brother are you?”
Johnny was shocked by her outburst. He rubbed his arm where the broken item had hit him, then picked it up off the floor. He soon recognized what it was, or had been. He was really confused now. “Teresa, I didn’t do this. You have to believe me,” he pleaded.
“Don’t lie to me, Johnny Lancer! It was under YOUR bed, so you had to have broken it,” She said and did start to cry. “You…you knew how much I loved it. Is that your way of getting even with me for that remark I said at breakfast? WELL?”
“Teresa…I…” Johnny was at a loss for words.
“Well, fine then. You can just get you own dinner!” Teresa yelled, and stormed to her room in tears.
“Well, that’s just great!” Scott snapped at him. ” You really did it this time. You made her mad and now we have to fend for ourselves!” He threw his arms up in disgust and Johnny shot him a dirty look.
“Now, wait a minute. I did not do this, Scott!” Johnny said in his defense.” I would never break this…” A thought came to him. “Hey, maybe you did it and you’re blaming me for it, HUH?”
“That’s ridiculous! Why would I do that?”
“Oh, maybe for keeping you awake last night with talking in my sleep. You kept complaining about it all day,” Johnny said, raising his eyebrows at his brother. “Using it as an excuse to frame me for this, for your clumsiness,” he shot at his brother, holding up the figurine to Scott’s face.
“I never complained! And no, I did not break it. And I certainly haven’t framed you.” He argued.
“Never complained? Dios! Then what was that remark you said?” Johnny shouted back. “Oh, yeah, you said, ’I wouldn’t be so tired if it wasn’t for your damned talking in your sleep.’ So I wouldn’t put this past you, Brother!”
“Now see here, brother! I…”
“BOYS!” bellowed Murdoch as he entered the Great Room in a huff. “Will you keep your voices down and tell me why Teresa is crying her eyes out?”
They both looked and pointed at each other and said, “He did it!”
The great room was quiet, like a volcano on the verge of erupting, as Murdoch stood there for a few moments. Scott had explained what had happened and then stood back waiting for the eruption. Then the room shook with the sound of Murdoch’s voice.
“YOU DID WHAT?” he boomed at his youngest son. “John, how could you? And then to hide it and not tell your sister!” he fumed.
“I didn’t do it, Murdoch! I never touched it, let alone break it,” He tried to defend himself, pacing back and forth. Then he stopped and pointed at Scott. ”Scott’s the one who broke it,” he claimed. “And tried to frame me.”
“I most certainly did not!” Scott said frankly and frowned at his brother.
“Well, neither did I,” Johnny growled back at Scott.
“Stop it! Right now,” their father intervened. “One of you did and you had BOTH better make this up to Teresa,” he ordered. “Her father gave that to her and it was one of a kind.”
“We know that,” Johnny said. “She should have kept it in her room instead of leaving it out in the open where it could be broken.”
Both his father and Scott looked at him as of it was admission of guilt. He caught those glares and said, “Whoa now! I was just stating a fact. I did not break it!”
“One of US will make it up to her, Sir,” Scott said while looking straight at his brother. Johnny returned the stare through narrowed eyes. Then they both turned away from each other, only to be turned back by their father’s orders.
“Good! Now since Teresa is in no mood to make dinner, I think you two better get at it,” Murdoch suggested, very sternly.
“Wait a minute, you want us to cook dinner?” Johnny questioned and looked around, “Where’s Maria?”
“I sent her home. She wasn’t feeling well,” Murdoch said. “And that means you will have clean-up duty too- dishes, whatever needs to be done.” He paused and waited for a reaction and, when he didn’t get one, he continued. “And it would be nice if you took a tray to your sister’s room.”
They stood there with shocked looks on their faces. They couldn’t believe this was happening, having just gotten in from a hard day of work. But they realized that they didn’t stand a chance of getting out of all of the extra chores Murdoch had put on them. They had no choice but to obey.
“Yes, Sir,” they both said at once and slowly walked out the room to wash up and set about making dinner.
“Hurry up boys. I’m getting hungry,” Murdoch called to them with a smirk on his face.
Murdoch shook his head with amazement at the way his sons had been acting lately. It was like they were in their early teens. He wondered if this was what it would have been like if they both had grown up together.
With those thoughts in his head yet, he walked over to the bar and poured himself a stiff drink. When Travis and Josh quietly walked into the room, acting all innocent and showing off their best manners.
“Hi, Uncle Murdoch. How was your day?” asked Travis
“Hello, boys. Just fine; and what have you two been doing today?” he asked them in return.
“Oh, nothing much. We just stayed around the house. Isn’t that right, Josh?” Travis asked his brother and, unnoticed by their uncle, gave him a wink.
“Yup!’ he answered. “Hey, Uncle Murdoch, what’s wrong with Johnny and Scott? Did they do something wrong?” he asked and received a slap on his arm from Travis. His brother shook his head at him while their uncle had his back turned to them. ”I mean, why are they are so crabby?”
“It’s none of your concern.” he said as he turned to look at them. “I’m sorry, Boys. I haven’t been around too much or had time to do anything with you boys.”
“That’s okay. We know you’re busy,” Josh told his uncle.
“No, it’s not okay and, starting tomorrow, we are going to do things together,” he explained to them, remembering the reason why the boys were there in the first place. “So what would you two like to do?”
“Swimming! Josh blurted out after thinking for a few moments. “We haven’t been swimming for a while.”
“Swimming, huh? Well, we’ll see about that, okay?” Murdoch said, smiling at his nephews and adding, “Now let’s see about dinner. Your cousins are cooking tonight.”
“Why? Where’s Teresa?” Travis asked, with a fake concerned look. He knew very well what had happened.
“She’s not feeling too well tonight, so they offered to cook dinner for us,” Murdoch told them with a sly grin.
“Gee, I wonder what they are making?” Josh wondered.
“Knowing your cousin Johnny, I hope you boys like Mexican food?” he answered with a chuckle.
Dinner went as well as could be expected. The older boys did manage to make a meal suitable for all to eat. Well to some at least. The meal consisted of both Mexican and *normal food* as Scott called it. He still couldn’t understand how anyone could eat that spicy food. The younger cousin tried some and had to drink more then one glass of water to cool his mouth down.
“Oh, come on, it’s not that spicy,” Johnny said and took a bite of the chili. it slid down his throat with ease. “See, it’s not that hot,” he assured them and grinned slyly at Scott.
“That’s because you’re used to it, Brother,” Scott reminded him. “You boys had better stick to real food that won’t burn your insides out.” He grinned back at his little brother.
“Oh, ha ha, Scott. You just have to get used to it and you’ll be fine, boys,” Johnny told them.
Breaking up the conversation, Murdoch looked at his sons and asked, “Did you get a tray ready for your sister?” then informed them, “And you’d better be polite about it. Make it right with her or you will both be doing her chores and yours until she forgives you.”
“I have it ready. I’ll take it to her.” Johnny said glumly. “But I didn’t break it.“ He got up from the table to take the tray to Teresa.
Teresa was sitting by the window, looking at the sun setting, when a light knock on her door broke her thoughts.
“Teresa, honey, it’s Johnny. Can we talk?”
“GO AWAY!” Teresa yelled through the door. “I never want to talk to you again.” Then she threw a bookend at the door, causing Johnny to jump back at the sound of hit it hitting.
“Teresa, honey, I brought you a something to eat,” Johnny told her, and he wasn’t going away until she opened the door. “You have to eat. Now, come on and open this door.”
“Did you make it?” She asked standing closer to the door.
“Yes, both Scott and I did,” he answered with a soft voice. “Now will ya please open the door?” He waited for an answer.
The door opened slowly, and a buffy-eyed miserable girl stared at him. Her eyes were red and swollen; and her face was that of a little girl who had had just lost her favorite doll. “Well, if Scott helped make it, then I’ll eat it,” she said out of spite to her brother, sniffling and wiping her eyes. She rudely took the tray out of his hands and glared at him as she sat it down on the nightstand.
Then she turned quickly and walked back to the door where Johnny was still standing.
Just as he was about to ask if he could come in, she slammed the door in his face, almost hitting him in the nose. Johnny had to jump back to avoid getting a broken nose and then he pounded on the door. “Come on, Teresa, your acting like a little kid,” he yelled. “I told you I didn’t break your damn statue!” he said and pleaded, “Come on, I want to talk to you.”
“Alright, then be that way. But I’m not guilty of anything,” he said and started to walk away. But then he stopped and turned around and yelled back at the closed door, “You know what you are? You’re…you’re a spoiled brat. That’s what you are!” Then he walked away in a huff, cussing softly in Spanish.
Johnny walked back into the kitchen, still cussing to himself, and sat back down at the table. He stared into his cup of coffee, then he heard a slight cough and looked up to meet the stare of his brother. Johnny was in no mood to hear what Scott had to say.
“Well?” Scott asked.
“Well, what?” Johnny snipped at him.
“Did she take it?”
“Yes, only because you helped make it. Okay?” he said in a spiteful voice. “And then she slammed the door in my face. Are you happy now?” he growled at Scott. Then Johnny got back up, kicked his chair from under him and walked into the great room.
“What did I do?” Scott asked as he followed his brother.
He pointed his finger at Scott and was going to say something, but then he thought that it wasn’t worth it and said, “Oh, never mind. I’m going to bed.” He walked away and headed upstairs. He was still cussing in Spanish, this time a little louder, as he passed by his father coming downstairs.
“Thanks for the warning,” Scott yelled after him.
“Warning? What warning?” asked Murdoch.
“Oh, my brother likes to sleep with nothing on and I have no desire to see him in his birthday suit,” he explained to his father. “So, I’ll just wait to go upstairs to make sure he’s in bed… covered up.”
Murdoch smiled in amusement and then frowned. “I gather his meeting with Teresa didn’t go well?”
“Oh, she took the food okay, but then slammed the door on him,” Scott told him.
“Well, you both will just have to think of a way to make it up to her,” Murdoch said and looked straight at his son. “Until one of you comes clean with who broke the figurine, you’re both guilty.”
“No ‘buts’ about it, Scott. Now I suggest you better get a good night’s sleep. I have a few things for you boys to do tomorrow.”
“Like what?” Scott asked sharply.
“I’ll tell you in the morning. Now goodnight, Son,” Mudoch said and walked to his desk.
“Easier said than done,” Scott said to himself as he walked away.
“What did you say?”
Oh, nothing, night Sir.” He went upstairs with hopes that his brother was already in bed, and that he wouldn’t get a repeat performance of Johnny talking in his sleep.
When he had cautiously entered the room, it was just as he had hoped. Johnny was already in bed, but, awake and waiting for him. Scott noticed that a dressing screen had been brought into his room. He looked over at his brother, who was smiling at him with a devilish grin.
“What’s this for?” he asked, curious to know what his brother’s intentions were.
“Well, Brother, since you’re so shy about dressing or undressing in front of me, I thought this might help you,” Johnny told him, rather proud of himself for thinking of it.
“I told you. I’m not shy. But since you were so thoughtful to think of me like that,” he said with relief in his voice. “I just might use it. As long as you do, too,” Scott suggested.
“Me?’ I’m not shy, but if it will make you happy…” he agreed
“Yes, it will,” Scott said. He had to wonder about the change in his brother’s mood? One minute he was as mad as wet hen, the next minute he’s ‘nice’. His brother was a mystery to him at times, but for tonight, he’d let it slide and try not to think about what was on Johnny’s mind. He’d concentrate on the chore of getting some sleep, if that was possible.
He looked over and Johnny was already fast asleep, lying there like angel. But he still had that slightly devilish grin on his face, and that worried Scott. ‘What does he have up his sleeve? Do I dare go to sleep?’ Scott asked himself and blew out the light.
Murdoch Lancer was a very stubborn man and when he gave a order, he expected it to be carried out. Especially when that order was directed at his sons. And when they protested, they were only met with their father’s stern glare. They had no choice but to admit defeat and follow through with what they were told to do.
So, while Murdoch was spending the day with his nephews, Johnny and Scott had the pleasure of escorting their foster sister to Green River and, if they had time, to Moro Coyo. This was her weekly round; one when she had normally joined her sewing circle and did some shopping. Today, she had a church bazaar to help with, so it was going to be a busy day for her and the boys.
What made matters worse, Teresa was still quite mad at Johnny and still was not speaking to him. He had apologized over and over again; he even flashed her one of his dazzling smiles. But she still hadn’t given an inch. So, with Scott up front with Teresa, Johnny just sat quietly in the back of the wagon as they rode to town.
“I still can’t see why we both had to come?” asked Scott as he yawned.
“What’s the matter? Didn’t sleep well?” Teresa asked coldly.
“No, I did not,” he said rather harshly and glanced back at his brother.
Johnny just grinned. He knew what had kept Scott up. The one thing that bothered his ‘oh so perfect brother’ was that he hated it when he didn’t get a good night’s sleep. He had been so worried that Johnny would try something during the night that he was up half the night keeping an eye on him. ‘That’ll teach ya for blaming me for your goof up, brother,’ Johnny thought to himself.
After an hour or so of riding in silence, Teresa let out a sigh of relief when the town came into view. She couldn’t wait to get away from her brothers… especially Johnny.
First stop was Green River and shopping, then the church bazaar. The boys knew they would have a long wait, so they had to think of something to do. Scott thought about getting a hair cut, while Johnny thought he’d see what Val was up to. After helping Teresa with her things, they both went their separate ways.
Crossing the dusty street to the sheriff’s office, Johnny stopped by the window and peered in. He noticed his amigo sitting there with his head resting on his hand, leaning into the table. Johnny grinned and shook his head.
“Hiya, Va,” Johnny said cheerfully and loudly as he barged into the office. He startled the sheriff enough for him to almost fall out of his chair.
“Doggone it, Johnny!” Val yelled at his friend, “How many times have I told ya not to come charging in my office like that?” he said, trying to get his wits about him.
“What’s wrong? Did I wake you from your beauty sleep?” Johnny asked, chuckling at his friend.
“No, I was in deep in thought. You just caught me off guard, that‘s all,” Val replied.
“That’s good, because I don’t think a beauty nap would help ya,” Johnny said with a sly grin.
“Oh, ha ha… very funny,” Val snorted at him. “What are you doing in town?” he asked and got up to pour himself a cup of coffee, handing one to Johnny.
“Scott and I had to escort Teresa to town,” Johnny said grimly. He took a sip of the coffee and frowned at the taste. “Val, how long has this been brewing? It tastes and smells like tar,” Johnny asked. He quickly put the cup down and grabbed a drink of water instead.
“It does not. It’s strong, just the way I like it,” Val said. He took a sip too and grinned, then added, “And it takes two of you to bring Teresa to town?”
“Oh, Murdoch is on this togetherness thing and, well, it’s a long story.”
“Well, tell me. This should be interesting,” Val said, cheerfully with a devilish grin. He went to sit back down with his cup of strong coffee. “Well, tell me.” And stared at Johnny, who just looked at Val and let out a heavy sigh.
Meanwhile, as Johnny was filling Val in on the sordid details, Scott was sitting back and relaxing in the barber’s chair. Half listening to Pete blabbering on, it was only a few minutes before he was fast asleep and snoring, forgetting the time and forgetting everything that had happened so far.
“Scott, wake up!” she said, shaking him. “Scott Lancer, wake up now!” Teresa demanded, yelling into his ear and shaking him harder.
His eyes flew open and, in a daze, he looked around to see where he was. He almost fell out of the chair. “What? Where…?” he asked, rubbing his eyes.
“You fell asleep in the chair, Scott,” replied Pete with a chuckle.
“And I came looking for you and that brother of yours,” Teresa growled at him. “I was waiting by the church to be picked up and when nobody showed up, I had to walk!”
“Where’s Johnny?” he asked, still rubbing his eyes and now his ear as well. He frowned at the thought that Johnny might have left without telling him.
“I don’t know,” Teresa shot at Scott. “You’d better go and find him now, Scott. I have to get to Moro Coyo, yet,” She stamped her foot.
“Okay, calm down, girl,” Scott shot back, and then got up and grabbed his hat. “I’ll go find him. You go wait by the wagon,” he ordered Teresa
“Hurry up, then,” she ordered back, and mumbled to herself as they both exited to barber shop. “Honestly, falling asleep in a barber’s chair,” she said shaking her head.
Scott’s mind was clearer now and he had a very good idea as to where his little brother might still be. Crossing the street, he walked to sheriff’s office. He stepped up to the window and glanced in. Sure enough, there he was. Johnny and Val were going at each other in an arm wrestling contest.
“I might have known,” Scott said as he walked in. “Is this how our good sheriff spends his time?” he asked rather boldly. “May I ask who’s winning?”
“It’s… a… draw, so far,” Johnny said as he cringed with pain. He was trying his hardest to win this one. His face was beet red and sweating and his arm was getting sore. Val was putting up a good battle.
“Well, can you hurry up? Our sister is waiting for us,” he informed his brother.
“I’m… trying,” he said through his teeth, panting.
“Give it up…Buddy Boy,” Val told Johnny. “You’re… not gonna… win this round.”
“You… give… up,” Johnny snorted back. “’Cause you… aren’t gonna win.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake! Will one of you give in? It’s getting late!” Scott snapped at both of them. Suddenly, with one final grunt, Johnny pushed with all his might and put Val’s arm down.
He sat there panting and wiping his forehead with his shirt sleeve. “See I told ya… Val. I win.”
“Yeah, yeah… but next time, Buddy Boy. I’ll get the best of ya,” Val said, panting himself. He put his arm down on the desk to rest it. “Now go. I need a nap,” he said and pointed to the door with his head still on the desk. Both Johnny and Scott looked at him and shook there heads.
“Now that’s done, can we get going? Teresa is waiting and she’s still madder then a wet hen… at you,” Scott said, pointing his finger at Johnny.
“Still? Now what did I do?”
“You left her waiting at the church and she had to walk,” Scott explained
“You’d better get going, Buddy, or she just might have your hide for lunch,” Val said lifting his head and grinning at his amigo. “I wouldn’t want to you right now.”
“Gee, thanks for the nice words, Val,” Johnny said and threw a cup at him. He walked to the door, saying as he opened it, “All this over a damn blasted dumb statue…” and the last word trailed off as he was greeted at the door by Teresa’s hard cold glare.
“Oh…hi…Honey,” Johnny said, shaken to see his sister standing there. The look she gave him sent a chill through him.
“Are you ready, Scott?” She asked very coldly looking past Johnny. She turned and walked away with her nose up in the air.
“Brother, you sure did put your foot in your mouth this time,” Scott said and gave Johnny a pat on the back as he left. Johnny gave him a hard slap on the arm back as he followed, leaving behind a chuckling Val.
Meanwhile back at Lancer, Murdoch and the younger cousins were having a good day at the swimming hole. He was sitting under a shade tree, enjoying the view of the boys while they were running and jumping into the water.
Both boys stopped what they were doing and went to dry off a little in the sun, away from their uncle and talking softly so that he couldn’t hear them.
“Travis, do you think he will notice when we get back?”
“Shh, keep your voice down,” Travis said. “I made sure he would never find out!”
The silence was driving him insane. ’How many times do I have to say I’m sorry for something I didn’t do?’ Johnny thought. Neither Teresa nor Scott had said a word to him since they had left Morro Coyo and it was beginning to play on his nerves. And there was something else now.
When they had picked up Teresa from the friend’s house where they had held the sewing circle, he had been coldly greeted by the ladies. They all gave him such dirty looks that they sent a chill through him, and that made him mad. After all, he was an gun-hawk and had faced many forms of death, but those glares he’d gotten…well they just plan scared him.
Having had enough of the cold shoulder treatment, he decided to break the silence. “Teresa, Honey, what did you say to those girls?” he asked in a calm soft voice. “I mean why did they look at me that way?” Johnny had always gotten smiles and kind words from her friends, so he was concerned about the change in their attitudes towards him.
“The truth,” Teresa said harshly. ” And stop calling me ‘honey’!” she snapped at him.
“What truth? I didn’t break it, Scott did!” Johnny snapped right back at her, turning around in the wagon and facing them both.
“Now, wait a minute!” Scott finally spoke up and pulled the team to a stop. “Do not make me out to be the villain here. I know for a fact that I did not break it,” he said in his defense and added, “It’s not in me to do such a thing. So…”
“So what? You think I would?” Johnny said, shocked that his own brother would suggest a thing. “Oh boy, you two are a pair. Well, I will tell you BOTH for the last time I didn’t do it!” He growled at them with narrowed hurt eyes.
“Shut up!” Teresa yelled. “Just get me home, now!” she demanded and Scott snapped the reins and took off with a jerk, bouncing Johnny around in the back.
Neither one of them said a thing after that. Johnny shook his head at the whole mess. He couldn’t believe his family at the moment. ‘What does it take to prove your innocence around here?’ he wondered and pulled his coat up tighter as the late afternoon’s cool air was setting in. He let a sigh of relief when he saw the Lancer arch ahead of them.
Jelly saw the trio pulling into the yard and went to greet them with a smile as Scott pulled the team to a stop. But that smile quickly faded when he saw their sullen faces.
Not bothering to be helped down, Teresa climbed down herself and just about knocked Jelly over when she passed him by. She hurried to get into the house and away from her brothers.
Entering the house in a huff, she stormed to her room and slammed the door behind her, unaware that Murdoch was watching from his desk.
“What in the blue blazes is wrong with her?” Jelly asked as he came over to the wagon to help unload Teresa packages. “What happened in town to get her all fired up like that?”
“Never mind, Jelly,” Johnny said grimly. He walked into the house and went straight for the bar. His father looked at him for a few seconds then stared back down at his desk as Johnny poured himself a stiff drink.
“Kinda early for a drink isn’t it Johnny?” Murdoch asked quietly.
“Yeah, but I need it!” Johnny said frankly.
“I gather your trip to town with your sister didn’t go well?”
“No, it didn’t and I’m done trying to make it up to her,” he told his father. He gulped down his drink and poured one more. “She’s impossible. I don’t understand her one bit, Murdoch,” he said and turned to face the fireplace.
Murdoch didn’t say a word. He had too many other things on his mind, at the moment, to deal with Teresa’s problem. He look up as Scott came into the room and stared at his oldest.
Scott was still upset himself and didn’t notice the glare he got from his father, but did manage to ask politely, “How was your day, Sir?”
“Fine, but my legs are sure sore after the day I had with your cousins,” Murdoch answered rather slyly and added, “It’s hard to move around right now.”
The boys looked at their father puzzled. It wasn’t not like Murdoch to complain about his health like that.
“Are you going to be okay?” Johnny asked, concerned.
“Yeah, I’m just stiff. Don’t worry,” Murdoch replied and looked at Scott. “Scott, would you be so kind as to get my favorite pipe for me? It’s over there where the others ones are.” He pointed to the shelf by the cabinet.
“Sure,” Scott said and walked over to the cabinet. He looked around for the pipe. “Sir, it’s not here,” Scott informed his father as he turned back to face him, shrugging his shoulders.
“Are you sure?” Murdoch asked, acting surprised.
“Yes, I’m sure. Where could it be?” Scott replied and then looked over at his brother.
“Hey, don’t go looking at me like that, I don’t smoke!” Johnny snorted.
“Then where is it?” Scott asked again. This time he had a bad feeling that something was wrong… and he was right.
“Right here!” Murdoch said harshly and took the broken pipe out of his desk. He laid it on top and stared right at Scott.
“Murdoch, what happened to it?” Johnny asked as he walked over to take a closer look at it.
“That’s what I would like to know,” he replied. “Can you shed some light on this, Scott?”
“Me?” Scott said surprised at that question. “I don’t know anything about what happened to it.”
Murdoch got up and surprised his sons when he walked around the desk with ease.
“Well, Maria was hanging up some of your shirts, Scott, when the pipe happened to fall out- already broken,” he informed them. “Well?”
“Listen, I don’t know how it got in my closet or how it was broken.” He snorted at his father. “I may have admired the craftsmanship of it, but I surely did not break it,” he went on to say. Johnny went to open his mouth when Scott stopped him. “Not a word, Brother!”
Murdoch was quiet for a few moments, so Johnny did speak up.
“Well, since this has nothing to do with me, I’ll just go see what’s cooking in the kitchen.” He turned to leave.
“John, you stay right here,” Murdoch ordered loudly.
The bedroom door was slammed so hard that it had knocked a picture off the wall, when a fuming Scott stormed into the room. The Lancer boys had been sent to their room, and told not to come out unless they were called for. Neither one could believe their ears when Murdoch had given them that order, as if they were little kids. They stood there in shock. The hard glare they had received from their father had sent chills racing down their spines.
Scott paced back and forth, shaking his head, still steaming at the thought that his own father didn’t believe his innocence. No matter how hard he tried to defend himself, Murdoch wouldn’t budge.
“I don’t see why I have to be stuck here with you?” Johnny whined as he flopped on his bed. “I had nothing to do with you breaking his pipe!”
“I did not break it!” Scott snarled at him, “And how do I know you didn’t do it?” He questioned his brother.
“Well, I didn’t!” Johnny snarled right back at him. Then he got up and started to pace the floor too. As his agitated feet marched back and forth his spurs jingled in protest. The ring and ting of the metal produced a sound that was starting to annoy Scott, who had had enough.
“Do you mind taking those off?” he said rudely and pointed to the boots.
“What?” Johnny asked, as if he didn’t hear the question. His thoughts were somewhere else.
“Your spurs, take them off.” Scott demanded, “They are driving me nuts!”
Johnny looked down at his boots and grinned, “Sorry, I forgot I had them on.” Instead of removing his spurs, Johnny took his boots off and threw them down by his dresser, hitting the bottom of it. The impact caused a shiny object to appear from behind it.
The brothers looked at the object and then at each other . . . puzzled. They both walked over to the dresser and pulled it out slightly to take a closer looked. The object that fell out of its hiding place caused their eyes widened in disbelief.
It was Jelly’s grandfather’s flintlock rifle, broken into two pieces. The brother’s eyes narrowed as they finally realized what was going on. They looked at each other and then at the rifle, slowly Johnny reached down to pick it up. His heart ached realizing how Jelly would feel when he saw this. Then he felt anger.
“Why those little….” Johnny growled through his teeth.
Scott’s own anger was building as he relayed to his fuming brother, “Well, brother it looks like we have been bamboozled by our own cousins.”
“We were set up alright!” Johnny agreed, shaking his head in disbelief. “You wait until I get my hands on them!” He replied, grabbing his boots and putting them on in a hurry. “I’ll show ya how to handle those two,” he added.
“Now wait a minute, we have to plan our revenge very carefully.” Scott expressed, trying to keep a cool head himself.
“What revenge? They need a damn good whupping. That’s what they need.” Johnny snorted back, as he headed for the door.
“Johnny, wait.” Scott stopped him. “If we step one foot out that door, our father will have our hides,” he warned him.
“Yeah, but Scott, we didn’t do those things.” Johnny reasoned, “All we have to do is tell Murdoch what we found out.” Johnny gave his brother a discouraged look. “They can’t get away with this. Think about Jelly, how he’ll feel, that was his grandfathers rifle, Scott.”
“I know, but who do you think Murdoch would believe first, them or us?” He asked his confused roommate. “No, we have to get even and prove our innocence.” Scott said sternly, “Well?”
Johnny nodded and then had to grin at his brother’s idea. “Ok, brother put that Harvard mind to good use and think of something real good.” He said in a devilish voice.
They sat there and thought of ways to catch their little cousins in the act. That was the only way they could prove that they were the victims to their stubborn father. And then let Murdoch punish them, however he saw fit. Johnny hoped it would be a nice whupping, the same as he had received when he messed up. Scott had different ideas, but also thought a butt tanning would be effective.
After a few hours had gone by, Teresa was sent upstairs to informed them that it was all clear to come downstairs. “Your father said for you two to come down to dinner” she said coldly, “And hurry, he is no mood to be kept waiting,” she told them both not looking at either one of them.
As the brothers were leaving the room, Johnny stopped by Teresa and gave her a kiss on the forehead. He smiled sweetly at her, which made her frown, and she pulled away from him.
“Why are you so happy?” She asked with a puzzled look on her face.
“Oh, you’ll see.” Johnny said, as he walked out the room, whistling.
That night the older Lancer cousins put their plan into action. Now they just had to wait and see how it would all come about, as they prayed and hoped it worked.
The next morning, as he was coming out of his room, Murdoch was alarmed by a loud scream that came from the younger boys room. The big rancher hurried over to see what the trouble was.
“OUCH!” yelled Travis.
Opening the door, their Uncle peered in, startling the boys. They quickly shoved the object under the bed with their feet.
“Is something wrong? I heard yelling in here.” He asked with concern.
“Not really Uncle, Travis just stubbed his big toe on the bed post.” Josh explained holding his breath. “He’s ok now. Aren’t ya, Travis?”
Travis just nodded, and rubbed his toe as he sat down on the bed.
“Ok, then. You better hurry up and get dressed, you don’t want to be late for breakfast.” Murdoch ordered. They both nodded, as he closed the door. The boys let out a breath of relief, that their Uncle didn’t see the broken rifle lying by their feet.
“Where did that come from?” Travis said quietly. “I thought we hid it?”
“We did!” Josh replied confused.
“Then why is it back in here?” Travis asked his brother, and then he added, ” I told ya we shouldn’t had played with Jelly’s old gun!”
“And if you didn’t go and drop it, it wouldn’t be broken.” Josh snarled back at his brother.
“Now what are we going to do?”
“We have to hide it…again.”
From the corner of the stairway door, two pairs of brown eyes peered out looking for any sign of their Uncle and cousins lurking about. Seeing that the coast was clear, both Travis and Josh slowly exited their hiding spot and tiptoed around the great room. They were like little foxes sneaking into a hen house. The boys were unaware they were being watched as they quickly grabbed their jackets and hats.
Johnny and Scott were outside laying low and hiding in the shadows of the large pillars, looking in through the French doors, watching every step the little rascals took. The Lancer brother’s curiosity peaked waiting to see what their sneaky little cousins were up to next and what they had in mind to do with the rifle. The Lancer’s had very carefully and quietly returned it to them last night while they were sleeping. And then stood at the landing downstairs with big grins on their faces as they heard the yelling coming from the cousin’s room this morning. They made a mad dash for the kitchen.
“Look at them, Scott.” Johnny said very annoyed, “Sneaking around like that. You sure I can’t give them a whupping?” He was itching to give them a lesson they would never forget.
“No, but when we’re done with them, they’ll wish they had never messed with us!” Scott expressed.
“Gee, brother, you sound like me!” Johnny smirked. “Let’s hope your plan works.”
“Oh, it will, brother, it will.” Scott assured him. “Now let’s get out of sight, they’re coming out.”
The brothers slunk back to hide in the shadows being as still and quiet as they could, as the younger ones were coming out the doors. Both were whispering, as they exited the house and carrying a small garden spade, and the rifle wrapped up in a blanket.
“Okay, the only thing we can do is bury it, right?” Travis asked his brother, in a hushed voice, looking around to make sure that no one was close enough to overhear them.
“Are you sure?” Josh asked.
“Don’t worry, Josh. No one will find out!” He answered his worried sibling. “You don’t want to get Uncle Murdoch mad at us do you? Come on let’s find a place to bury it.”
Josh just nodded and followed his brother, as they looked around for a spot to bury the rifle. Ducking around corners and hiding behind trees, they made their way around the house.
“That’s what you think, you little….” Johnny thought out loud, his eyes narrowed as he watched the little sneaks slipping off slyly to hide the evidence of their bad deed.
“Sshh!” Scott hushed him and said. “Lets’ go and see where they lead us, and then we can put our…my plan in to action.” They followed them as covertly as possible, they tried to be as quiet as they could, but Johnny’s spurs were jingling, putting them in danger of their presence being revealed. “Will you take those blasted things off, we don’t want to spook them!” Scott ordered, and frowned at his brother. “I can’t understand why you like to wear those anyway?”
“I like them, and the sound they make, so there!” Johnny snorted at Scott, while taking them off. Irritated with his older brother, he snatched the spurs off and threw them on a bench causing them to ring out loudly as they hit.
Scott just shook his head in disgust, pausing for a second to glare at his little brother before continuing to follow their cousins. After a few minutes the younger cousins stopped by a big oak tree quite a ways from the house. Looking around they both agreed this would be a good spot to get rid of the incriminating evidence.
The wayward boys took turns digging with the little spade in a great rush to cover-up the rifle before it was missed or they were found. It would take the delinquents longer to dig with a spade, but they didn’t want to be caught carrying around a shovel, that would be too dangerous for them.
Peering around the corner of the house, the older boys now saw their opportunity to get their revenge on their conniving little cousins.
“Ok, Johnny, go get him, and be quick about it.” Scott ordered.
Johnny nodded and went off to find the one man they needed to pull off this plan, while Scott kept a close eye on the two budding criminals. He couldn’t believe that they had been hoodwinked by these two….two brats . . . reprobates . . . nay reform school candidates!
Now he understood why their mother had sent them here, she had no control over them. The poor woman was a widow, plus she had to work all the time. She had thought it would be a good idea to send them to their Uncle, probably praying under his care they would learn a few things.
Well so far they had not learned a damn thing, except how to break things and blame others for it. ‘Well that’s going to stop!’ Scott thought to himself. He just had to wait until Johnny put his plan into action. ‘Come on, brother, hurry up.’
Standing unnoticed in the doorway of the barn, as he watched him doing his daily chores, Johnny had to smile at the old handy man. He called softly, “Hi Ya, Jelly.”
Jelly’s head popped up in fright, he twisted his body around, dropping his pitchfork from the jerky startled movement.
“Dang blasted, Johnny!” Jelly shouted at him, “Why do ya have ta always sneak up on me like that? Scaring the life out of me like that.” He scolded him as he took out his bandana and wiped the sweat of his brow. “I’d ought ta have the mind to whup ya, boy.”
“Sorry, Jelly, I’ll keep that in mind the next time.” Johnny apologized and added. “ Ah, Jelly, I need you to do something for me.” he requested softly and with a grin.
“Sure, Johnny, but can’t it wait until I’m done here?” The old handy man asked after listening to what Johnny wanted him to do.
“No, fraid not, Jelly. But I’ll make it up to you later, okay?” Johnny said with a big grin. “Like I said before I would do it, but I have to meet Scott and this can’t wait.”
“Well, ok, if ya say so. Where are they?” Jelly asked after agreeing to what he was asked to do.
“By the side of the house, near the garden.” Johnny replied cheerfully. “You can’t miss them,” he added patting his friend on the back.
“Oh, alright, I’ll get to them right away.” He said grumbling to himself as he walked out of the barn. “Dang blasted younguns can’t even take care of their own things, now I have to fix….” His voice trailed off as left the barn.
“Thanks, Jelly!” Johnny yelled out to him. Peering out the door to see if Jelly had gone in the right direction, Johnny then quickly dashed out of the barn and headed in the other direction. Without saying a word Johnny snuck up behind Scott, tapping him on the shoulder, scaring him half to death.
Scott turned so fast he almost gave himself a whiplash. “Johnny! Will you stop that?” Scott scolded him softly, as he caught his breath.
“Stop what?” Johnny asked innocently.
“Being so quiet when…. Oh never mind. Is he coming?”
“Yep, he should be coming around the house just about now.” Johnny said, “Just watch”
In the very next second, Jelly rounded the house, still grumbling to himself. Looking for whatever Johnny had said was there that needed fixing. Jelly searched here and there and still couldn’t see anything close to what Johnny had describe to him.
“Well, where are those blasted…” He wondered aloud, scratching his beard. He glanced up pass the garden, and notice Travis and Josh standing by the oak tree. They were leaning over doing something. Curious as to what they were doing, the handy man completely forgot the task Johnny wanted him to do. Jelly ventured cheerfully on over to the boys
“Hi ya, boys” Jelly yelled to them. The sound of the handy man’s voice startled them so badly they almost jumped out of their skins. They both quickly shot up and stared at Jelly as he was walking up to them. When they stood up, Josh was still holding the blanket with the rifle wrapped loosely in it. The butt of the rifle had moved in the folds of the blanket when the boys jerked around and chose that moment to fall out landing at the culprit’s feet.
“What are ya, doing?” Jelly asked with a smile, that rapidly changed into a confused frown when he noticed what had fallen at their feet.
“Here we go!” Johnny said, waiting for the explosion that was to come. He couldn’t help but feel sorry for his friend as he saw the hurt on his face.
“My…My….BOYS! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?” Jelly hollered at the top of his voice. As he glared at the sight of his grandfather’s rifle lying there busted up.
“Je…ly, Jelly….we…. we’re…. sorry.” Josh cried out in pure fear of the old handy man.
“Shut up, Josh.” Travis yelled at his brother.
“No, don’t shut up, Josh!’ Jelly ordered. “I want to know what happened to my rifle. Who did this?” he demanded an answer. Jelly’s face was turning red and he was stomping his foot, while waiting to hear their excuse. “Well?”
Close by a couple of very amused young men were trying not to laugh at the expression on the faces of their younger cousins. The small boys were in pure shock, horror was written all over their not so innocent faces. To Scott and Johnny, their expressions were priceless.
“Should we help?” Johnny asked with a slight chuckled.
“Who? Jelly or the boys?” Scott wondered.
“Jelly, of course” He answered.
“No, I think Jelly can handle this all by himself.” Scott replied, trying to hold back a snicker. “Let’s stand back and watch the show.”
The guilty boys made a grievous error, they decided they were going to make a run for it. But Jelly was faster than they had counted on and the wily old guy grabbed them both by the ears.
“Oh, no you don’t, you’re coming with me,” He said as he was leading them away, still holding on to their ears.
“OUCH! Where…where are we going?” asked a frightened Travis.
“To see your Uncle, that’s where.” Jelly replied, “You got a lot to answer for. Why I bet you had something to with the rest of the broken stuff too. Am I right?” Jelly asked dragging the two little brats towards the house to face their Uncle.
“Oh, this is going to be good.” Johnny smirked. He was dying to be there when his father heard about this. The Lancer brothers were following Jelly and the boys, as quietly as possible. Scott stopped just as Jelly took the boys inside. “What did ya stop for? Come on lets go, I want to be in there when Murdoch hears this.” Johnny said confused.
“Now wait a minute, we have to time this just right.” Scott warned. “We don’t want to give ourselves away, now do we? No, we have to wait a few minutes and then go in.” Scott explained to his antsy brother.
“Yeah, yeah, alright, shut your trap and listen then.” Johnny snorted; then they both put an ear close to the door, listening as Jelly called out for their father.
“BOSS!” Jelly hollered as he looked around for Murdoch.
“Jelly! What in the world are you yelling for?” Murdoch asked as he came out of his den. Puzzled by the look he was getting from Jelly and the boys. “What’s going on here? Boys?” He asked sternly.
“Well, are you gonna tell your Uncle or not?” Jelly asked the quiet boys. When he got no answer, his patience ran out so he decided to tell Murdoch instead. “I found these two digging by the old tree back yonder and they were trying to bury this.” He explained in a hurt voice and seemed close to tears when he showed Murdoch the broken rifle.
Johnny and Scott were outside the door waiting to make their entrance; they braced themselves for the roof to be blown off when their father exploded. “Here we go.” Scott said and closed his eyes.
Murdoch looked at the rifle and studied it for a few seconds, and the expected reaction occurred. “BOYS!” The tall rancher boomed, “DID YOU DO THIS?” he hollered so loud that Johnny and Scott thought the walls would crumble. The two younger cousins stood there shaking in their boots, eyes wide with fear.
“I’m waiting for an answer.” Murdoch demanded this a time a little calmer.
“Y…es…we’re sorry.” Josh said with barely a whisper.
“Shut up Josh.” Travis said, “Any way it was your fault.”
“BOY”S! Stop that right now!” Murdoch bellowed at the two fighting boys, as they rolled around the ground going at each other throats. At that moment, Johnny and Scott made their planned entrance, and stood there in amusement as they watched their cousins. They wanted to burst out laughing, but the look on their father’s face told them they had better not. Then looking at Jelly’s expression, helped muffled that laughter. The old handy man eyes were watering, and they knew it wasn’t from dust.
“You take that back, you liar. It was your idea.” A livid red-faced Josh screamed at his brother while punching and trying to bite him.
“No, it was yours, you dummy!” an equally enraged Travis screamed back, trying to push off his feisty brother, in an attempt to avoid Josh’s teeth.
After a few minutes of letting the younger boys duke it out, the fight was broken up by Johnny and Scott. Each grabbing an irate boy, holding on to them by their arms, so they wouldn’t bolt out the door.
“Come on you two,“ Johnny yelled as he pulled Travis away from Josh. “It doesn’t matter who’s fault it is.” he added staring the boy down with cold anger in his eyes.
“You both did it and now you have to own up to it.” Scott said as he held Josh, who was still trying to hit his brother, “Hold still!” Scott ordered rather harshly.
“He’s right, boys.” Murdoch intervened. “ Now what gave you the right to think you could just take someone’s things, and play with them, Huh?” He demanded to know. The boys fell quiet, and bowed their heads, not wanting to look at anybody. But Johnny wouldn’t stand for that.
“Look at me boys, both of you!” Johnny angrily ordered, then the boys heads shot up at the icy tone of his voice, “Now look at that man over there,” He said pointing to Jelly, “Take a look at his face. What do you see? I see a very heartbroken man, don’t you?” The contrite boys quickly glanced at Jelly, and bowed their heads again. “I asked you a question! And you owe us all an answer!” Johnny commanded.
“Yes,” Travis sadly whispered, “Sorry Jelly, sorry about your rifle,” he said a little louder, his head still bowed. But Jelly didn’t say a word; he just looked at the boys, shaking his head.
“We…were just looking at them things that broke. And Teresa’s statue just fell off the table when I leaned on it.” Josh confessed, “That was a real accident, we weren’t playing with it,” he added in their defense, hoping it would help with their punishment, they both knew they had coming.
“We didn’t mean to break your pipe or Jelly’s gun. Honest, Uncle Murdoch.” Travis added to Josh’s confession, “We just wanted to play with them, ya know with grown-up stuff.” Travis explained, trying to remind them that they were only boys. But it didn’t matter.
“Well, Murdoch, should I give them a whupping or should you?” Johnny asked his father with a smirk in his voice, and shot the boys an evil look, hoping to put a little more fear in them. And it worked
The boy’s eyes widened in horror at those words, the look they got from Johnny sent them into shivers. They knew their cousin Johnny meant business. They swiftly huddled next to each other, afraid to move like little frighten rabbits hiding in their hole, waiting for the fox to leave. Here they had four big foxes standing there, waiting and ready to pounce on them.
“Well, Murdoch?” Johnny waited for an answer.
“I want to think on this.” Murdoch said with a frown, “You boys go straight to your room, you are NOT to leave it until I send for you, understand?” He said very harshly. “Then I’ll let you know about your punishment,” he added glaring at them.
“Yes sir.” They both said and slowly backed towards the staircase, hands protecting their behinds. They turned around at the bottom step and rapidly ascended to the safety of their room.
Once they were out of hearing distance, Johnny, Scott and Jelly started to talk at once. Raising their voices out of anger and disgust for what the boys had done to the family. Their lies and mishaps had affected them all, so the three were giving their views of how they should be dealt with. As the shouting continued, Murdoch had had enough.
“HOLD IT!” He bellowed, “One at a time, and keep your voices down.” He ordered. Stopping the furious men in their tracks.
“Murdoch, you heard them. They broke Teresa’s statue, even if it was a accident, they still blamed it on me!” Johnny fumed. “They need a damn good whupping, that’s what they need.” He claimed strongly. Johnny walked away in a huff to the bar, pouring himself a stiff drink.
“He’s right, sir!” Scott agreed. “They also did the same thing with your pipe.” He snorted at his father. “You surly can’t let them get away with that?” He asked.
“Well, what are you going to do?” Johnny asked again, gulping down his drink, then pouring another.
“NO! They are not going to get away with anything.” Their father answered sternly. “But I call the tune, and I’ll decide what to do with them.” He explained to them.
“A whupping is what they need!” Johnny still insisted, “But you call the tune.” He agreed with his father, and Scott nodded.
“Well, whatever you decide, Boss. I hope it’s a good punishment for those two little…” Jelly spoke up, as he looked at them sadly. “I’m going to my room.” He started to walk away with a dejected slump to his old shoulders.
“Jelly, tomorrow I’ll take the rifle to the gunsmith and see if he can fix it, Okay?” Murdoch said to his disappointed friend.
“I hope he kin, but I’d won’t hold my breath. But thanks, boss.” he said and turned to go to his room. Lowly mumbling about his displeasure.
“He sure loved that gun.” Scott commented as he watch his old friend walk away.
“Yes, he does.” Murdoch said sullenly.
“Well, I’m going to find Teresa, and tell her what we found out.” Johnny said, hoping she would listen to him this time. He had to get her to understand he was not to blame for her broken statue. If she chose not to believe him, the way he was feeling right now, he just might recommend she get a butt paddling too. That thought kinda pleased him, after the way she had been treating him lately.
“Good idea, son. She needs to know what happened too.” Murdoch said and went to sit down in his big chair, to think of what to do with his nephews.
Meanwhile up in their room, the two boys sat on their beds, with knees crossed in front of them. Their faces were tear stained, and they were scared half to death. Not knowing what their Uncle was planning to do to them. They had seen his temper, how inflamed he could get, that alone put a big fear into them. Just thinking about the possible punishment made them shudder. Their Uncle was a big man, a strong man, and any physical punishment by him would be horrendous.
“What are we going to do, Travis?” Asked a shaking Josh, as he wiped his nose on his sleeve. He looked at his older brother for an answer. Travis thought for a few minutes before replying.
“We have only one thing to do, Josh.” He said also wiping his nose. “We have to run away!” He confessed to his shocked brother.
“Run away? Why?” Josh asked wide-eyed, as he struggled to sit up straight. “Is that a good idea?” he asked confusion and fear warring on his face.
“Either that or face Uncle Murdoch, and whatever he is going to do to us. You know how mad he gets, and he scares me, him being so big.” He answered with conviction in his decision, “Well, am I right?”
Josh just nodded as he laid down, curling up with his pillow letting out a sad sigh. “Where will we go?”
Morning came with hopes of a brighter new day; especially after the one they had yesterday, leading to the insightful confrontation last night. The aroma of fresh brewed coffee coming from the kitchen filled the house, it rose and wafted down the hallway leading to the Lancer’s bedrooms. Filling their nostrils with its inviting aroma, awakening them from their slumber, and arousing their appetites. The house came to life as they all climbed out of their beds, and proceeded with their normal morning routine. All that is except for the two youngest boys.
As the Lancer brothers made their way to the kitchen, their faces were on the grim side, for they were not too happy with themselves. Johnny was feeling a little unsure that they had done the right thing. Tricking Jelly into catching the boys in the act, the look on the old handy man’s face kept creeping into his dreams. His heart went out to his friend. But at the same time he was feeling relieved, that it was all out in the open.
Scott also was feeling the same as his brother, but they had to do it. Before coming downstairs they had a talk in *their* room that they both still had to share. Realizing that their father can be a hard man, no scratch that; is a hard man to reason with at times, made them even more concerned for their actions. They both agreed to ask their father not to be too hard on their cousins. Their cousins were very small in size compared to the giant stature of their father. Both cringed at the thought of what it would be like if they were that small and had to face a whupping. At least they could help lessen the punishment.
The smell of ham, eggs, were among the other delights that Maria and Teresa, had prepared for them greeted them as they strolled into the kitchen. The enticing scents took the morbid thoughts of punishment away. Their stomachs started to growl, Johnny was hungry enough to eat a horse. Teresa came over, giving Johnny a kiss on the forehead. It took an argument, but she finally listened to him last night. He had flashed his blues eyes at her as he explained; when he was done she threw her arms around him, and cried. She was so ashamed of herself for not believing him in the first place. But now she would love to get her hands on those two little brats.
“Morning Men.” She greeted them cheerfully. She smiled sweetly at Johnny, and then frowned at Scott. “Here you go Johnny, eat up.” She said, kissing him again. “I’m so sorry that I didn’t believe you.” She apologized again.
“That‘s okay, Honey.” Johnny said, stuffing his mouth full of eggs.
“Hey what about me? Are you still mad at me?” Scott wondered.
“Don’t push it, Scott!” Teresa snipped at him, “You also had me believing Johnny had broken my statue.” She said, as she walked away with her nose in the air. Johnny just sat there with a sly grin on his face. Scott saw it and slapped his brother’s arm. Johnny just chuckled. Both look up when they heard the heavy footsteps of their father as he entered the room, looking puzzled.
“Where are your cousins?” Murdoch asked his sons.
“I thought they were up already.” Scott replied, “There was no answer when I knocked on their bedroom door.
“They’re probably afraid to come down.” Johnny commented. “After all you haven’t said what you wanted their punishment to be yet.” He added, “Which I think… we both think maybe you should go easy on them. Ya know make it so they won’t forget what they did, just don’t over do it?” he suggested softly.
“I thought about it, Johnny, and I made up my mind as to what their punishment should be,” Murdoch answered. “Teresa, would you please go upstairs and get the boys to come down?”
“With pleasure!” She snorted, “And I demand an apology from them, right after I give them a piece of my mind.” She said as she hurried out of the kitchen to fetch the boys.
“I bet she will too.” Scott laughed, but knew this was no joking matter, as they all soon would find out.
“Believe me, I ought to know how mad she can get.” Johnny said, with a chuckle, “I pity them poor boys, to have to listen to her ramblings.”
After a few minutes went by, Teresa came running back into kitchen hollering. “Murdoch, Johnny, Scott!” She called to them, her voice panicky, “The boys are not in their room, and I checked their closet, some of their clothes are missing.” Teresa exclaimed out of breath.
“They ran away!” Johnny said frankly. “I bet my life on it.”
And with that comment they all shot up out of their chairs and searched the house high and low. They looked in every room possible, nothing. Then they searched the grounds, Murdoch called for some of the men to help, sending them in every direction. In the barn, they looked up in the hayloft, and in anything that would hide two small boys. Having no luck in finding them, panic was starting to take over their thoughts and hearts.
“Where do you think they could be?” Scott asked, wiping his brow with his sleeve.
“They could be anywhere on the ranch.” Johnny enlightened them. “ Where they’re at depends on how much of a head start they had. I’m guessing they lit out last night.” he added looking around the huge area surrounding Lancer. “God knows they could be anywhere,” he worriedly said.
“Well we better start looking in all directions,” Murdoch said. “Scott, get Jelly in on this, Johnny and I will get the men together.” His voice was expressing his fear and anger for his nephews. “Why does it have to be like this? Why the need to run away? I just don’t understand,” he stated, rubbing his distressed face.
“We’ll find them, Murdoch, don’t worry.” Johnny assured his father. Johnny was now feeling a little guiltier about this whole mess then before. He knew he shouldn’t, it wasn’t him who caused the trouble, but somehow it was bothering him. Now the boys had run off, he understood very well what could happen out there.
“I know we will, son.” Murdoch said, putting his hand on Johnny shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze.
Johnny smiled at his father; “I’ll be right back” Then went off to find his brother. “Hey Scott, he called to him, stopping Scott before he reached Jelly’s room, saying quietly, “Maybe your plan was not such a good idea after all.” He implied, his face sullen.
“No. Johnny, it had to be done, they had the right to know the truth.” Scott said sternly. ”They’re scared of what Murdoch will do to them, that’s all, we’ll find them. Don’t worry.” he assured his anxious brother.
“Scott, that’s a lot of territory out there,” he paused for moment, “ There’s a lot of danger too. We better find them, or I’ll never forgive myself for going along with your plan,” he confided.
Scott stared at his little brother a few seconds after he said that, he didn’t like the idea that Johnny was taking the boys running away like this, blaming himself. “Lets go and get ready.” Scott said, grimly. After getting Jelly, they headed for the barn to join Murdoch. When Jelly went into the barn to check on a few things, he came running out in a hurry.
“Boss, they took their pony, and some blankets too.” Jelly informed them.
With that troubling bit of information, they all looked at each other, and then stared out at the horizon. The boys had a means of transportation, which meant they could be further away then they thought.
“Where are you boys?” Murdoch asked softly.
Somewhere in the vastness of Lancer, two small, apprehensive boys, eight and ten years of age hid from their family. They had just run away to avoid a punishment they were convinced would the horrific. The towering form, and booming voice of their Uncle was enough to scare the devil. Just thinking about him tanning their hides, with his huge hand, shot pure terror through them. Leaving in the middle of the night, under the cloak of darkness, was the only option they thought they had. Now their small trembling forms sat under a big oak tree alone, scared, hungry and having no idea where they were.
“Maybe we should have stayed home, Travis, and taken our punishment.” Josh said to his brother, thinking about it again.
“Are you kidding? No, Josh. We are better off getting away from them. Both Uncle Murdoch and Johnny wanted to whup us.” He reminded Josh. “That’s twice the tanning and twice the hurt, do you want that?”
“No, but can you blame them? After all we did blame what we did on Johnny and Scott.” He reminded his brother, “ Maybe they will not be so mad at us now?” He tried to reason with his older, stubborn sibling, who did not want to hear a word of it.
“I said, NO!” Travis shouted, “We are going to find our way to town, and go home to Mama.” Travis glared Josh down, his determination to be on with the quest glittering in his eyes.
“Okay.” Josh agreed in defeat, “I would like to see mama again.” He said with a smile thinking of his Mama, then that smiled faded. “Travis what about Mama, what will she think when we just show up?” The boy dreaded the trouble that would get them in to with their Mama.
Travis thought for a few moments, “We’ll worry about Mama later, if we have to lie then we have to, but right now we better get a moving.” He pointed to a wooded area, to his left, “Lets try that way.” Josh nodded and followed his brother’s lead.
Both mounted their pony and headed towards the woods, not knowing what might be ahead of them. They only thought about what was behind them, their Uncle and cousins looking for them by now. They just had to get as far away as possible. Reaching the edge woods they noted how dark and forbidding it looked. The little boys swallowed back their fear of the unknown, gathered their courage, and went in.
Back at the ranch, Murdoch was barking out his instructions to the men, as they were all mounted up and ready to start the search for the missing boys.
“Well, they couldn’t have gone too far on that pony, not with the two of them riding it.” Murdoch said to his sons. “ Frank, I want you to take a few men with you and check the north range.”
“Okay, boss,” Frank said, and motioned for a few of the men to follow him, and headed out towards the north.
“Scott and I will take the south range.” Johnny informed his father, and went to mount up, Scott following right behind. The look of anxiety on his youngest son’s face didn’t get past him, causing him to wonder who he should worry more about, his nephews or Johnny? However, he had to find those boys first, but he was going to keep a close eye on his son too.
“Jelly, you and the rest take the east side. I’ll check the west side; we’re bound to find them somewhere out there. We have too.” He said, barking out his last order, and then went to mount up himself.
With the others taking off in their assigned directions, the Lancer boys headed due south. It had been at least a good hour of looking, and so far they had found no signs of the boys. During that time they were quiet, lost in their thoughts, worrying about what the two boys might get into. Johnny knew very well what a boy could get into out on their own…trouble, and in this case double trouble. Glancing around the area, he tried to think of a few places they could be.
“Scott, I’m gonna check out a few spots over there.” Johnny said, pointing off to the left of them. Scott squinted his eyes, to see what his brother was pointing at, and then nodded.
“Want me to come with you?”
‘No, you search where we planned on looking.” He answered and then added, “I have a hunch, and I’m gonna see if I’m right.” He said grimly.
“Okay, but if you do find them, signal us, three shots with your gun.” Scott told him.
“Yeah, see ya.” Johnny replied quickly, and then took off in the other direction. Scott watched his brother ride off with a bad feeling settling into his gut, and he didn’t like it one bit. For some reason, he felt like he had one more *boy* to worry about. Shrugging off the thought, he continued in the direction they intended to search.
After an hour or so Johnny reached a thick wooded area, he entered with caution. He knew these woods pretty well; they had many places a small boy could hide in. There were many danger spots as well. The further in he went the thicker the trees got. The thickness of the foliage blocked the sunlight from shining through in some areas, dimming his vision as he went. The canopy of verdant leaves also kept the heat of the sun at bay making it feel much cooler. He wished now he had brought his jacket with him, as a shiver shot through him.
Scanning the trees, high and low, he began to call out to the boys.
“Travis, Josh, it’s me Johnny. I’m not going to hurt ya.” He assured them. Listening closely, but getting no answer, he called again. “Come on out, boys, and lets go home.” He said, pleading to them.
Johnny waited for a reply that did not come. His unease grew stronger, and a feeling of dread washed over him. He became alert to every nuance of his surroundings, his gunfighter’s instinct kicked into high gear. Johnny called out in a panic. “BOYS! WHERE ARE YOU?”
A rustling noise came from a thick patch of brush in front of him; in less than a span of a second Johnny’s hand was on his gun. He held still waiting, when suddenly the boy’s pony had darted out of the brush….riderless. Johnny swallowed the lump in his throat; it felt like it was his heart. He grabbed the reins and checked the pony over carefully. With a heavy sigh, he closed his eyes, “Dios,” Johnny said softly, when he noticed the spot of dried blood on the saddle.
Taking a deep breath, he slowly urged Barranca further on into the trees. That morbid feeling was getting worse by the minute, he was drowning in it. ‘Something is not right here,’ he thought to himself.
“JOSH, TRAVIS, WHERE ARE YOU?” He kept calling, and still not getting an answer. His thoughts were running wild, as all kinds of images clouded his mind, images that scared the hell out of him. His heart was beating fast in his chest, as extreme alarm consumed his thoughts. Johnny stopped for a few moments to regain his composure, and then realized he couldn’t go any further on horseback.
The trees were now getting too thick to travel by horse, so he dismounted, leaving Barranca tethered to a tree, and then continued on foot. He took out his boot knife to cut away the small, hanging limbs to clear his way as he went. Then he spotted a piece of a torn shirt on a branch, with dried blood on it. Johnny’s face grew even more distressed. He stuck the piece of cloth into his shirt pocket, and continued on.
Carefully taking one step at time, he paused and looked around with troubled eyes. His next step sent him tripping over a piece of wood, and landing face first on the cold hard ground. He lay there for a few moments. Then his eyes scanned the ground he was sprawled on. Johnny found himself looking at a hole in the ground. It was an old well. He had heard a faint cry, again. Crawling closer to the hole, he peered down into the blackness.
“BOYS, ARE YOU DOWN THERE?” He hollered down to them, to make sure he wasn’t hearing things. But he didn’t get an answer to his call. He couldn’t see a thing, it was pitch black, he didn’t know how far down they were or if it was even them. “BOYS?” He called again. “PLEASE ANSWER ME!” His voice was strained as he called down a few more times.
After a few seconds of waiting for an answer, the painful silence was broken, when he was rewarded with another faint cry.
“TRAVIS, JOSH, I’M GOING FOR HELP. I’LL BE RIGHT BACK, OKAY?” He shouted down to them. Johnny jumped up quickly, and headed back out to summons help. He paused to take another quick glance at the hole in the ground that held his little cousins prisoners.
He raced through the thick maze of trees, the branches tearing at his clothes, and scratching at his exposed skin as he went. He didn’t care about that, he needed to get back to Barranca, back out to the clearing. Once he made it out, huffing from distress and exertion, he took out his gun, and shot off three rounds in the air.
“Come on, where are you Scott, anybody?” Johnny pleaded, nervously pacing back and forth. It had been close to an hour since he had shot off his gun. He was getting very impatient and needed to get back to the boys. Pulling his gun out, he fired off three more rounds, this time he was rewarded with three answering blasts. Looking to see where the shots came from, he smiled, letting out a sigh of relief, as he saw his brother coming into view. ‘Thank God’ he said silently.
“Johnny!” Scott hollered as he brought his horse to a stop. “Did you find them?” He asked, dismounting and hurrying over to where Johnny was standing.
“Yeah, Scott, but it’s not good.” He said grimly. “They both fell into an old well and I can’t tell how far down they are.” He paused for few seconds to gather his thoughts as he stared at his brother. Scott’s eyes mirrored his anxiety over the shocking news.
“What I can tell is they are alive, at least…one of them is,” he said softly, with head bowed.
‘What do you mean, only one?” Scott asked dreading the answer.
“All I could hear was a faint…cry. And I think it was Travis.” He answered rubbing his eyes, before looking up at his brother. His blue orbs displayed the anguished and mixed feelings he had. Scott didn’t like what he saw in his little brother’s tortured eyes, and it had him worried.
“Well, come on, we have to get them out.” He urged Johnny to get moving as he started to head into the woods. Only to be stopped by Johnny’s hand grabbing his arm. “Johnny, come on.” He said shrugging his brother’s hand off.
“Scott, wait a minute, will ya? Like I said, I don’t know how far down they are.” He stressed, shaking his head. “Besides the ground around the hole is unstable, it might cave in on them at any time.” He warned.
“Terrific, now what? Could things get any worse?”
“You stay here, and wait for the others. Then send someone back to the ranch to get what we need to get them out.” Johnny explained; he mounted up, to go back into the woods.
“Where are you going?”
“I told the boys I would be right back. Someone has to stay with them, I have ta keep talking to them.” He sadly added, “I know how it feels to be alone and scared, Scott.” His voice began breaking up slightly, “Wait here, okay. I’ll mark the way for ya, so you can find us easier.” Then he headed back into the trees.
Scott nodded, watching Johnny disappear into the trees, thinking to himself, ‘I bet you do, brother. I bet you do.’ Taking his own gun out he shot off three rounds, all the while hoping that someone else was close enough by to hear them.
Scott paced back and forth waiting, looking to the woods and then back to the range. He was torn and antsy feeling, he seriously entertained the thought of going to find Johnny instead of waiting. It had been over an hour, and he was getting impatient himself. That’s when he finally heard the thundering of hooves at a gallop and then saw the horses approaching.
Seeing his father’s huge form in the lead. Scott yelled, waving his hat, as they approached. “Murdoch, Johnny found them!”
“Where are they? Are they okay?” The tall rancher hastily questioned his eldest. Then stiffly dismounted his horse, “Where are they, Scott?” he asked again, as he slowly approached him.
Scott quickly explained all Johnny had told him. At first the troubling news was met by dead silence as they all considered the boy’s fate. That would be the calm before the storm. Murdoch went into action. He bellowed out orders right and left to the men, and then turned to his foreman.
The trusted employee and friend didn’t have to be told twice, he quickly took a few men with him and went racing back to the ranch. There they would get the wagons ready by filling them up with supplies for the rescue, lanterns, blankets, water, rope everything that would help to bring the boy’s home.
Seeing that Frank was well on his way back to the ranch, Murdoch, Scott and the rest of the men carefully entered the dark woods. They went on horseback, then on foot when the branches and foliage became too thick to ride through in the saddle. They watched carefully for the signs Johnny said he was going to leave for them to follow. Murdoch could feel that the further in they traveled the cooler the air, bereft of the sunlight, felt. This had him worried. ‘How cold was it in the damp, dark well?’ he asked himself.
“Johnny, where are you?” Murdoch called to his son, his voice muffled by the shaggy greenery of the trees; he pushed branches out of his way. “Johnny?” He called again, with Scott right behind him, also calling his name.
“Johnny, we’re here now, let us know where you are, Brother!” he said pleadingly.
“Over here, Murdoch, Scott.” Johnny answered in a hoarse voice. “Watch your step,” he warned them, “The ground is unstable.”
“Following the sound of his son’s raspy voice, they found Johnny sitting on the ground next to the hole. Both men gasped at the sight of him. He was dirty from lying on the damp soft ground, and shivering uncontrollably.
“Johnny, are you okay? You don’t sound too good.” Scott asked with concern. Taking the bedroll blanket he had brought along, for some reason he knew he would need it, he placed it around his brother’s shoulders. “How’s that?” Johnny just smiled. Grateful for the warmth of it, seeing that he had forgotten his own.
“I’m okay.” He finally replied after clearing his throat. “Just been talking up a storm. Someone has to keep them alert.”
“Well, we’re here now, you can take a rest son.” Murdoch spoke softly as he helped his son up off the cold ground. “Are they saying anything?” He asked hopefully.
“No, fraid not,” Johnny said grimly. “But if you listen carefully, you can here a faint cry, or moan.” He informed them both. Then he started to cough a dry cough. Johnny was in such a hurry to get back to the boys he had forgotten to take his canteen. Another necessity he forgot, out of his worry for the boys.
“Come on, brother, drink this.” Scott said, and handed him a canteen. Johnny guzzled the cool water down; he was parched. “At least you could hear something coming from them.” Scott commented.
“Yeah, Scott, but just how bad they are hurt is what we have to be worried about,” he said with frustration and worry.
“I sent Frank back to get what we need to get them out, Johnny,” Murdoch told him, and then added, “All we can do is wait.”
“Yeah, wait. Easier said than done.” He whispered; turning to looked back at the dark hole.
Jelly had arrived back at the hacienda after coming up empty handed in his search. He had decided to check with Teresa, to see if she had heard anything. He was ready to leave again, when Frank the others came stampeding into the yard.
“Jelly! Teresa!” Frank hollered up to the house as he brought his mount to a dust and dirt-flying stop.
“What is it, Frank?” Teresa asked quickly, “Did they find them?”
‘Yes, and it’s not good, the Boss sent us back for supplies.” He told them. “And we need them …Now!”
“Now hold on one durn rooting tooting minute here. ” Jelly blurted out, “Where did they find them?” He demanded to know.
Frank told them both what he knew, and urged them both to stop asking questions. “There is no time for questions, we better get moving.” Taking the rather rude hint, they both got to work; loading the wagon with the raw materials needed for shoring up a well. While Teresa and Maria went to gather up the food and medical supplies, they were going to need as well.
With the wagons all loaded up and ready to go, they took off, leaving Teresa standing there in a tiff, because she wanted to go and help. But Jelly and Frank explained to her that she was needed here, she had to wait for Sam. Against her better judgment she finally agreed to stay home. Teresa, along with Maria, stood waving goodbye and wishing the men good luck as they disappeared from sight.
“They will get them out, Senorita, I know they will, I can feel it here,” Maria said putting her hand over her heart. “Now come, we have work to do.” She grabbed Teresa’s arm and lead her back into the house.
“I sure hope so, Maria, I sure hope so.” She said, as she looked back at the road.
With every precious second that ticked by, the torment of waiting for Frank and the others to get back; preyed heavy on the hearts and patience of the Lancer men. Time was running out, the boys had already been down in the dark abyss way too long. The agony of not knowing how badly they were hurt, ate at their very souls. Then to make the ordeal worse, their distressed minds had begun playing tricks on them. They were taunted by phantom sounds, that they could have sworn were voices coming from deep within the well that imprisoned the boys. When it fact it was just the wind howling through the trees, like haunting, ghostly moans.
Johnny was the cause of more concern. His determination to get them out was wreaking havoc on his own health. He kept calling to the boys, pleading with them to answer him. Lying on the damp cold ground, hunched over the hole, straining his voice to the point that it was barely a whisper. He was displaying obvious signs that he was getting sicker than he already was. He was shivering and coughing a little more each time his weakened voice called out to his cousins. His stubbornness kept him going, as he waited and listened to hear something, anything from the boys. It was way too quiet, and the weight of that silence was about to crush him.
Clearing his dry and scratchy throat, Johnny was just about to call down to the boys again, when they all heard a familiar voice in the distance, calling into the woods. At first they all thought it was the wind playing cruel tricks on them again. Then the voice became clearer as it got closer. Everybody closed their eyes as they let out a thankful sigh to a higher power.
“Boss, where are ya?” Jelly hollered as he made his was through the maze of the prolific greenery.
“Over here, Jelly, just follow those marks.” Murdoch bellowed out to the old handy man, grateful to hear the man’s gruff voice.
There was no way to get the wagon through the abundance of trees. Frank and the ranch hands began to unload the supplies. They would have to carry the materials, they needed to shore up the walls of the well, on foot, as they followed Jelly in. It would take a few trips, but they were all more than willing to traipse back and forth through the woods, if it meant getting those boys out.
“There ya are,” said Jelly. He came into view with his arms full of blankets, small supplies, such as coffee, and items for a variety of medical needs. He looked around and frowned at the sight before him, he especially didn’t like the way Johnny was looking, as he sat up, staring at his old friend. “I’ll get that fire stoked up and going real good,” he said pointing the clearing, where a small campfire was already burning. “Then I’ll get the coffee going, and warm ya up,” he added, getting busy with his chore.
“Not too big, Jelly, we don’t want to start a forest fire.” Murdoch warned.
“Don’t worry, Boss, just get them youngins out.” The old handy man huffed, and went on with his duties.
Johnny quickly got up, swaying dizzily as he tried to stand, only to flop back down weakly. After a couple tries, he got his balance under control, and then headed towards the area where the men were carrying in the supplies. He wanted to help, the faster they could get the needed items brought in, the sooner they could get to work shoring up the well. He made a sorry sight, as he stumbled clumsily on shaky legs, in his dirty and damp clothes, which were almost soaking wet from the moisture that had seeped up from the ground. He almost made it to the edge of the clearing.
“Oh, no you don’t, brother.” Scott stopped him. “When Jelly gets that fire roaring hot, we’re going to get you warmed up.” he said, as he put the blanket that Johnny had shrugged off, back around his brother’s shoulders.
“I’ll be fine, Scott.” Johnny said, trying to knock the blanket off again, but his brother refused to let him go. “Don’t worry about me, just help get those boys out.” He pleaded.
“We will get them out. Right now, I’m worried about you, too. So you just get yourself over to that fire and get warmed up, before I carry you over there, myself,” he demanded. “Jelly, you got some hot coffee ready?” Scott asked, leading his stubborn brother to the campfire.
“In just about a minute, Scott.” Jelly replied, getting up, and then walking over to Johnny. “Come on, boy, let’s get you warmed up, and where is your jacket?” he asked his shivering friend, as he sat him down by the fire. Jelly looked at the young man, he thought of as a son, he didn’t like the color of Johnny’s face; he was getting paler by the minute. Jelly handed a cup of hot coffee to his friend.
Johnny held the tin cup in both hands, relishing the warmth it radiated into his icy fingers, as he drank it. The steamy liquid warmed his chilled body and he finally found the voice to answer Jelly’s question.
“I left it at home, didn’t think I would need it,” he answered sipping on his coffee.
“Well that sure was a smart thing to do.” Jelly snorted. “The last thing we need is fer ya to get sick,” he commented with a frown. “Which I fear it’s too late to worry about that anyway, you’re looking mighty pale there, boy.” The old handy man added with a scowl, puckering his brow.
“Yeah, yeah, so I’ve been told.” Johnny snapped at the old man. Realizing he had acted disrespectfully, he apologized. “I’m sorry Jelly…I…didn’t mean to sound… it’s been a long day,” he said, still sipping on his coffee, eyes down; anxiety written over his face. Jelly’s heart sunk with sadness; he didn’t like the way Johnny was taking this.
“I know, Johnny, we’ll get them out.” Jelly assured him. They both looked over and saw Murdoch sitting by the well, calling down to the boys. Both listened as the tall rancher’s loud and demanding voice echoed down the deep hole.
“Boys, can you hear me? It’s your Uncle, I’m here for you, boys, talk to me,” he pleaded. It was like magic, as if on command, the wind settled down, enough to make it easier to hear. They all waited and listened carefully for any answer.
A faint voice, called up to them, causing the men’s hearts to almost stop. “Uncle Murdoch…Josh…won’t wake up.” Travis cried, his strained voice could barely be heard, and then he went quiet.
Johnny bounded up from the warmth of the fire, his heart racing as he flew to the hole. Jelly was right behind him, trying to hold the anxious young man back. He reached deep within his reserves, and with new found energy he broke Jelly’s grip. He fell hastily to the ground calling to Travis.
“Travis, listen to me, okay? Can you hear him breathing?” Johnny asked as calmly as he could. He didn’t want to scare the boy, even more than he already was.
“Yes, but it does not sound right, Johnny,” Travis answered as loud as he could, “I’m scared!”
“I know, but you have to be brave, for you and Josh. Do you understand?” Johnny advised him. He waited anxiously for an answer that didn’t come right away, so he called out again. “Travis?”
“I’m tired, and I just want to go to sleep…” came the answer as his voice trailed feebly off.
“TRAVIS? TRAVIS?” Johnny screamed urgently down to the boy. The action made him cough, even harder this time, until he was wheezing and panting, as he tried to catch his breath. Johnny felt a pair of strong hands grabbing him by the shoulders.
“That’s enough, you will go and get some more rest, son.” ordered Murdoch. “He probably went to sleep, which is what he needs right now,” he assured his stubborn son.
“NO! Murdoch, I’ll be fine, I’m needed here. You heard him, Josh is hurt bad.” Johnny argued with his father.
“Yes I heard him, we all did, but we have to get those walls shored up first,” he explained. “But, letting yourself get sicker, will not make matters any better. Go and rest!” he demanded.
“I’ll rest later, I’ll go and help the men get the beams ready,” he said defying his father’s orders. “There isn’t much time left,” he pointed out, looking up through the trees. “It will be dark before long.” Johnny added and walked away.
“He’s as stubborn as another Lancer, I know.” Jelly commented.
“Yes, Jelly, I know, you don’t have to tell me twice,” Murdoch replied, as he looked up through the trees, and sighed heavily. “He’s right about that, there isn’t much time left before we can’t do much more.”
“Well, we better hurry, those boys can’t wait fer ever.” The old handy man exclaimed.
The men worked feverishly to secure the walls of the well, and the ground around it. Their hearts and minds consumed with anguish for the two trapped young boys. They knew one was hurt bad, and the other they just did not know about. The only thing they knew for certain; was that they had to get them out of there alive.
Scott kept a close eye on his little brother, as well helping with the work. He couldn’t help but wonder if his plan, to reveal his young cousins’ misdeeds, had really been the best answer. His mind whirled in apprehension for his trapped cousins, and for his own brother, worrying himself sick. At the time he thought it was a good plan to get to the truth. He had no idea that this was going to happen or he would never have suggested it.
He prayed he would be able to make it up to everybody, once this was all over.
Night was falling fast; the encroaching dark vanquished not only the light, but in some ways hope too. Everyone involved was working feverishly to save the boys from being buried alive in the deep hole that trapped them. Every time they thought they had the walls shored up and secured enough, raising their hopes, just one false move would send the damp dirt inside the well crumbling, giving away, to fall down on the helpless boys.
The last thing they wanted was to entomb them alive. The well was too deep, even with the lanterns that they had lowered, they still couldn’t see the boys clearly enough. They had to go by the faint moans and cries to let them know that they were still alive. Frustration was setting in and fear tore at their hopes, shredding their hearts and minds. The fading light left them with a sense of dread that they just might have to wait until morning to continue the rescue. This weighed heavy on their souls, because each man felt, though they were too apprehensive to voice it, that the children might not make it until morning.
Johnny was laboring hard alongside the men, not giving a second thought to his own health, which steadily deteriorated. He was getting paler by the minute, and coughing until his breath wheezed painfully from his constricted lungs. Guilt and sheer determination kept him going. Guilt, that hung on his conscience, like an anvil because he and Scott tried to teach the boys a lesson. If only they had told their father about the boys in the beginning, when they had learned the truth. They would all be home instead of here, enjoying the warmth of the fireplace in the great room, and sipping on brandy.
“This is useless,” Johnny said and threw down his shovel out of exasperation. “The damn ground is too soft. By the time we get the walls secured, we will have dropped a ton of dirt on them.” He wiped at his brow with shaky disturbed hands and tried not to cough.
“Johnny, take a rest, before you fall over.” Scott suggested to his stubborn and obviously ill brother.
“No, Scott, the light is going fast,” He said pointing to the sky. “We have to do something and now.”
“What do you suppose we do then?”
“The only thing we can do, what we should have done to begin with,” Johnny quickly replied. He stumbled on unsteady limbs, over to the men, “Frank, Cip, get a few long sturdy ropes ready, will ya please? Jelly, I need a canteen and some bandages.” he instructed his friends.
“Sure, Johnny.” Frank said, and then he and Cip left to gather up what Johnny wanted. Jelly got the bandages and canteen ready for him, as he worked; he shot a concerned glare at the young man. Jelly shook his head in vehement, silent objection, he knew what was on the boy’s mind, and he didn’t like it one bit. However, he knew it was as useless as trying to light a match in a hurricane to say anything, or to try to change his mind.
“Johnny, what are you going to do?” Murdoch asked anxiously, not liking where this seemed to be headed.
“I’m going down after them.” Johnny said with solid conviction, without giving it a second thought, and gave his father a look of pure determination.
“That’s crazy, the walls are still unstable.“ Murdoch growled in anger and apprehension at his son. “You’ll bury yourself and the boys alive.” He tried to reason with Johnny but was getting nowhere. He’d probably have better success in talking one of the trees into pulling up its roots and walking out of the woods.
“Listen to us, Johnny, it’s suicide, you won’t make it.” Scott interjected, fighting the mad desire to knock some sense into his stubborn brother. “Look at yourself, you’re about to fall over.” Scott reminded him, grabbing a hold of his arm. In the split second it took for Johnny to raise his head, Scott found himself staring into the determined eyes of Madrid. His hand fell in resignation next to his side, there would be no stopping Johnny now, the die was cast, his mind made up.
“It’s a chance, I just have to take, all right?” He replied, as he tied one end of the rope that Cip handed him around his waist. “Thanks, Cip.”
“Juantio, must you?”
“Si, I must. Now you and the men hold on tight and lower me down.” Johnny said to the man. “Don’t worry, amigo, I’ll be fine.” He assured him, with a crooked grin.
“Johnny!” Murdoch called to his son, silently praying to stop this madness, but realized when he saw the set jaw on his son; it was useless to argue. So Murdoch did the only thing he could, he and Scott joined in. They held on to the rope with all their might, determined not to let Johnny fall.
With canteen, bandages and lantern secured in place, Johnny took a few steps back, he sucked in several deep breaths; he smiled and gave the word to lower him down. As they did so, Johnny took one careful step at a time, stopping whenever he hit a soft spot. When he felt the dirt give, he would slowly move his foot away from it. In this cautious and nerve wracking manner, he continued on his descend, trying to avoid more spots that could be a hazard.
As he looked up, the view was getting narrower by the second; the light from above was slowly fading. ‘How far down are they?’ he wondered.
“I’m coming for ya, boys.” Johnny called to them.
After a few more minutes, which seem like a lifetime, Johnny’s feet finally touched ground. With a huge sigh of relief, Johnny gave a yank on the rope, as a signal that he had reached them. He quickly untied the lantern, struck a match and lit it. He squatted down next to the boys. They were lying next to each other, not moving.
Johnny leaned down as far as he could next to the still forms of the boys. The space was narrow, and he barely had enough room to maneuver himself around. The moist dark walls seemed to be closing in; he fought back the bitter tang of nauseous at the claustrophobic feeling. Johnny lowered the lantern; he cringed at the sight of Josh’s head. With a shaky hand, he gently wiped the dirt from the inert little face. His stomach once again threatened to rebel at the sight of the big gash on the side of the child’ head. It was all the more gruesome looking due to the dried blood congealed with dirt and matted with crushed leaves, smeared and stuck to his skin. Josh felt as cold as ice, and from what Johnny could see in the sparse glow of the light, the skin that wasn’t soiled was very pale.
What worried Johnny the most; was the fact that Josh was still unconscious. He had been that way for far too long. Johnny knew very well what a head injury could do, how it could effect you later, especially a child Josh’s age and size. He had seen it happen many times back in Mexico. Children were sometimes beaten so badly, just the outward signs of the abuse, on their faces was enough to predict a horrific outcome. Knowing this Johnny gently nudged the boy, being careful not to move him too much. He needed to wake him up.
“Josh,” Johnny said softly, and prodded him some more, “Come on, you have to wake up.”
The child just lay there limp as a rag doll. Johnny closed his eyes while saying a silent prayer; he leaned down and listened to Josh’s heart and breathing. He sighed gratefully when he heard Josh’s heart beating, even if it was beating a little too fast, and his breathing was as Travis had said, shallow and uneven. The important thing was he was still alive.
A soft moan behind him had Johnny turning and carefully maneuvering around to where was Travis was lying. Noticing that his arm was bent at an odd angle, he gently examined it. Johnny shook his head in dismay, Travis’s arm was badly broken in two places and it needed to be set right away. The good news was the bones had not pierced the skin. Other than the broken arm from what he could see Travis had fared better than his brother.
“Travis, can you hear me?” he whispered in the boy’s ear, he received a faint moan as an answer. “Hey, wake up, sleepy head,” he said jokingly, trying to sound light hearted for the injured boy.
“Johnny…Johnny, you’re here.” Travis whispered and smiled weakly at Johnny, as his brown eyes slowly focused on him.
“Yeah, it’s me, and I’m gonna get you both out of here,” he said clearing his throat. He handed the boy his canteen, “Here take a drink, slowly now,” he cautioned as Travis was gulping down the water. “You’ll make yourself sick.” When the little boy handed it back Johnny took a hardy shallow himself, his mouth felt drier than desert sand, yet his stomach wanted to protest the cool liquid.
“My arm hurts something bad, Johnny.” Travis said, as he hissed in pain when he tried to touch it. Johnny stopped him by gently grabbing the boy’s good arm.
“That’s because it’s broken, and I have to set it,” he warned the boy. “It will hurt like the dickens, but I have to do this, okay?” Johnny added. It sickened his heart to have to cause the young boy any more agony. Travis was already suffering enough, but he had no choice in the matter. Johnny looked around for something hard for the boy to bite down on. He found two small, broken tree limbs. He snapped one into two equal lengths. The other one was already short.
“Okay, if you have to,” Travis agreed a little unsure of what’s going to happen.
“Here, bite down on this,” Johnny said and put the shortest stick in his mouth, “Ready?”
Travis nodded, and closed his eyes as Johnny gently held his arm, with the swiftness of a gun fighters hands, he gave it a hard yank, feeling the bones pop and grind back into place. Johnny carefully placed the other two pieces of limb, he had found, on either side of the arm, and then wrapped it. Tears streamed down the boy’s dirty face as he bit down hard on the stick leaving indents in the soft wood from his teeth. He gasped sharply, sucking in air, and then finally passed out. Johnny just smiled at Travis, tenderly wiping the tears with his long fingers. The moment of compassion helped him get his own rushed heartbeat under control, and then he finished setting Travis’s arm, securing it tightly to his waist by slipping it under the child’s loosened belt.
Johnny then turned his attention to Josh. He wet his bandana, and carefully cleaned up his wound. As gently as he could he wiped the dried blood, dismayed at what he found beneath the dark congealed substance. The wound was deeper than he had expected. He tried to get as clean as he could, working with the meager light he had. It was getting darker by the minute, colder too, if his shivers were any indication. Johnny knew he had to get them out, and now. He quickly wrapped up Josh’s forehead with the bandages, and checked him over some more. When he was satisfied Josh had no broken bones, just bad cut and scrapes, he drooped in relief.
“Murdoch!” Johnny yelled up as loud as he could, without straining his already hoarse voice.
“I hear you, Johnny!’ his father yelled down to him.
“I’m getting them ready to bring up. Travis first.” He told them, “He has a broken arm, so be careful.” He warned his father. Murdoch was grateful to hear his son’s voice, and that the boys, at least Travis, were still alive. He waited anxiously for news of Josh’s condition.
“Ok, Johnny, let us know when you are ready, just yank on the rope.” Murdoch relayed to his son.
Taking one end of the rope, Johnny carefully made two loops and slipped them up the boy’s legs. He secured his arm by tying it to his side one more time with ripped up cloth. Now that he was ready to move him, he woke the boy up.
“Travis, come on, you have to wake now.” He urged, “It’ time to go.”
“Yeah, now listen to me carefully, okay?”
“I want you to hold on to the rope, nice and tight with all your might, and use your feet to help you up the wall, understand?” he explained to the worried boy.
“Yeah, but the dirt, Johnny.”
“No buts; now do as I say,” he chastised the boy. Taking a deep breath, he hollered out, “Okay, Murdoch.” He gave the rope a hard yank. “Now let them pull you up, and don’t fight it. It be will ok.” Johnny assured him, then gave him wink, smiling.
Travis nodded and felt the rope tightened around him, as he started moving upward. He did as Johnny had instructed and used his feet like he was walking along the wall. Loose dirt dropped down on Johnny and his brother, with every step he took.
Looking down at Johnny, he smiled sadly, “See you soon?”
Johnny smiled back, “Yeah,” was all he said and turned to get Josh ready, while waiting for the rope to return.
“Easy does it men.” Murdoch stressed the importance of the special task to his men, as they were pulling young Travis up to safety, being as careful as they possibly could. The light was almost gone; the gloom of evening upon them, and it was getting harder to see. The full moon sailed high in the sky but could barely shine through the thick canopy of foliage that covered the treetops. The men were bathed in moonshadows from what little lunar radiance that was able to find a path through the greenery. The lanterns they were using only gave out a meager light. It was as if they all were working with blinders on, feeling their way through a dark, cold and narrow tunnel. At the same time trying not to drop any more dirt, than had already fallen, down on Johnny and Josh. The last thing they needed was a cave in, burying both Johnny and Josh alive.
One nerve wracking pull after another, using great caution they eased the boy on up. After a few more pain staking minutes, counting their blessings that nothing had gone wrong so far, a relieved shout rent the air, “I see him!” yelled Frank who was at the head of the line. “He’s almost up, keep pulling, careful now,” he admonished, reaching down to grab a hold of the boy.
Murdoch looked on as his nephew was being lifted to safety. The men carefully raised the child away from the hole, and then gently laid him down, away from the pit that had imprisoned him. The big rancher let out a heavy sigh of relief; one large hand shakily came up to scrub at his worried face. Whispering a silent prayer of thank you, he and Scott went quickly to the boy’s side, kneeling down beside him. Murdoch tenderly brushed the boy’s bangs out of his eyes, and smiled saying “You gave us a quite a good scare there, but you’re safe now.”
“Sorry…so..rry.” Travis said weakly, as he looked up at his Uncle.
“Shhh…it’s okay, we’ll talk about it later.”
“Jelly,” Scott hollered anxiously for the old handy man, “Is everything ready for him?” After he took a closer look at Travis’s arm, Scott beamed proudly; he had to admire his brother’s handy work at setting the boy’s arm, even with the crude means he had to work with.
“Yeah, Scott, just bring him on over here.” Jelly replied shouting back, and then pointed to a bunch of small, bushy pine branches he had made into a bed. Jelly had cushioned them further with blankets and had it positioned near the fire. “It’s fer Josh too, when ya get him out,” he added somberly.
“Good work, I’ll leave them in your care until we get back to the ranch,” Murdoch instructed his old friend, with a grim smile, knowing that Jelly had plenty experience handling boys. Murdoch thoughts were back with Johnny and Josh still trapped below the surface, he needed to get them out, and soon. He shivered as horrific feeling suddenly over took his soul, sending a cold sharp pain straight through him, from his head to his toes. His fear for his son threatened to consume his sanity, as he was sure he could not survive losing him again.
“Sure, Boss, anything fer those boys.” Jelly agreed, guiding the men as they carried Travis along. “Careful with him boys, Johnny done told ya, he has a broken arm,” he huffed out in his blunt way. “Now let’s get a look at ya.” Jelly quickly went to work on Travis, cleaning him up, and then checking his arm out. “We’ll get ya all fixed up in no time.” As upset as he had been earlier with the boys over his rifle, he pushed those feelings aside, letting his paternal ways take over his heart and mind.
“How is he, Jelly?” asked Murdoch looking over the old man’s shoulder.
“Well from what I kin see, just a few cuts and bruises,” Jelly replied as he continued to fuss over him, “Other than this broken arm, he should be just fine, won’t ya boy?”
Travis nodded, and frowned a little at the thought of his brother and Johnny still down there, as his tear stained face gazed over towards the hole. His brown eyes showed nothing but pain and regret, for even suggesting that they make a run for it, instead of taking their punishment. The weight of blame pressed heavily on his conscience, which produced another spat of silent tears; his body shook with the effort to control his feelings of remorse.
“We’ll get them out,” Murdoch assured his nephew. “You just rest now,” he said as his big hand tenderly patted and rubbed on his small shoulder. He gave the upset child a confident smile and received a sad one in return.
While Jelly was tending to the boy, the men were getting ready for Johnny to send up Josh. Since the boy was still unconscious, this part of the rescue would be trickier. Josh would be like dead weight, not like Travis who had helped himself along. This would have to be done with extreme caution, and slower, too. The dirt walls had been loosened by Travis as he scaled them, and were crumbling. One good hard bump could very well cause what they dreaded…a cave in. Throwing the rope down to Johnny, they waited for him give the sign to start pulling.
“Josh, Josh?” Johnny urged the boy to wake up, but got no response, so he had no choice but to tie the rope around the small boy and send him up. He gently lifted Josh up and quickly slipped the rope between his legs and around his waist, securing it tightly in place. Johnny then called up, as loud as he could, “Get ready for Josh, he is not conscious, so be careful with him!” Johnny gave the rope a yank, as he held the boy in his arms. .
“Ok, Johnny,” Frank yelled down to him, and they commenced to pulling his unconscious cousin up, Johnny felt the rope tighten and let go once he was knew they had a good hold of Josh. He wanted the child out of this earthen prison, yet he was strangely reluctant to let go of him. He watched the small boy disappear from his view, the higher he ascended the more abandoned and alone Johnny felt. He fought back the sickness in the pit of his stomach, as he waited for the rope to return, this time for him. He sat back down on the cold damp floor, rubbing his throat, as it was hurting even more now, and his chest felt like it was on fire, burning with every breath he took. Johnny was getting sicker by the minute, and wanted nothing more than to be home in his own soft warm bed.
Working feverishly against the now almost non-existent light, and with the cooler night air settling in, they just about had Josh out of the death trap. But it was not without doing some more damage to the already unstable walls by bouncing him off of them a few times. The sudden impact of Josh’s limp body going from one side to the other, like a pendulum, had caused them to disintegrate in spots, dropping more dirt down on Johnny. He stepped out of the way as much as he could, but still was hit with the falling debris. Shaking his head, dusting his damp clothes off, he looked back up.
“HEY, I SAID WATCH IT WITH HIM!” Johnny screamed up to them, straining his voice as he did. The shouting brought on a harsh coughing spell. Wheezing and gasping for air, Johnny quickly grab his canteen and gulped down a few hardy swigs to ease the rawness. The act of swallowing felt like razors cutting into his tender and abused throat.
“Come on, you men be a little more careful.” Scott sternly ordered the hands to watch what they were doing. “That’s Johnny down there, and Josh,” he growled through his teeth, panicking at the thought of something going terribly wrong.
“Sorry, Scott, it can’t be helped.” Frank told him, “He’s swinging back and forth, and it’s hard to keep him steady.”
“Scott, they are trying their hardest, but it’s not easy right now with the light almost entirely gone.” Murdoch explained to his son. “Josh being unconscious is not helping matters.” Murdoch added, trying to calm his own fears, as well as Scott’s.
“I know, but it’s Johnny I’m worried about now.” Scott stressed to his father. “How much more damage can those walls can take, without completely collapsing on Johnny?” Scott asked, his voice cracking, the very thoughts of a tragedy like that threatening to sour his stomach.
Murdoch didn’t say a word, he just bowed his head, he knew Scott was right; the walls could very easily collapse and bury Johnny alive. “I know what you mean, son. God forbid that should happen.”
Both were very quiet for a few seconds, as they morosely considered the unthinkable. They practically jumped out of their skins when the men yelled that they had gotten Josh out. Father and son dashed over in a frenzy to check the boy out. Jelly was the first to reach the boy’s side, and quickly directed the men where to carry the boy. Josh was still out cold, and this worried them something fierce.
“Jelly?” Murdoch asked softly. Jelly was taking a look at the boy’s head, unwrapping the bandage. The gruff old handy man cringed at the sight of the now redden cut, it was deep and oozing.
“He has a real bad cut there, boss. I reckon he has himself a concussion for sure, taking a lick hard enough to split the skin like that. He needs Sam and now.” Jelly commented.
“Well it’s too dark to risk venturing back tonight with both the boys like this, we just have to wait until first light.” Murdoch said, grimly, “Will he be ok until then?”
“Well I guess so, I’ll just have to keep a close eye on him.” Jelly said, and went to work on his young patient.
Suddenly distressed shouting rose from over by the well, the woods ringing with distraught voices. The concerned air that had pervaded the night was replaced by oppressive and cruel fear that snaked chills of dread up and down the spines of the gathered rescuers. Everybody seemed to be in motion, and chaos, panic and disorder ensued as they madly scrambled about. Frank broke free from the throng of people, and raced towards the older Lancers, his face contorted with the horror of what they knew might happen.
“BOSS, BOSS!” he yelled to them, “Half the wall just caved in!”
“JOHNNY, CAN YOU HEAR ME? ANSWER ME, DAMNIT! JOHNNY?” Scott screamed down at his brother. Terror caused Scott’s body to tremble and his limbs to feel strangely loose like he had no strength or control in them. He would have probably collapsed to the ground had he not already frantically thrown himself down at the opening of the once small hole, now much larger after the cave in. Scott was consumed by sheer horrifying panic. He could feel his heart being rip right out of him by the dreadful sharp-clawed hand of the beast known as fear. He kept calling down to Johnny with hopes of hearing his little brother’s voice claiming loudly that he was all right. Instead his hopes were dashed against the stone cold silence. “JOHNNY!”
“Scott! Scott!” Murdoch shouted as he grabbed his eldest away from the hole. “Come away from there, and calm down,” Murdoch growled, pulling Scott up from his prone position and lightly shaking him, as he tried to settle down his distraught son. “Getting upset like that is not doing your brother any good, understand?” He tried to reason with him, but Scott was not listening.
“NO! Murdoch, I don’t understand, that’s my brother, your son, down there.” He snarled at his father as he pulled angrily away from him. “He could be dead for all we know, and you ask me to calm down.” Scott glared at Murdoch, as he put his shaky hands to his worried tense face squeezing his own cheeks, as he tried to compose himself.
“Don’t say that, Scott Lancer!” Jelly admonished him. “Johnny ain’t dead, no sirree, he’s a strong one, and we will get him out,” he declared in a huff, fighting back the tears and dread that threatened to overwhelm him. Jelly puffed out his chest as he looked at Scott, “You’ll see, we’ll get him out, and alive too. Johnny ain‘t no quitter!” Jelly slowly walked back over to the boys, he had too make sure that they were comfortable, even though his heart ached for the young man trapped down below.
“Jelly’s right, Scott. Frank said only half the wall caved in, so there’s still a chance that he’s still alive, there has to be.” Murdoch intoned with sad, yet stern conviction. While privately he was hoping with all his heart the old man was indeed right, that they would get his youngest out alive.
“Well don’t just stand there, lets get him out!” Scott demanded. “He risked his neck for those boys, and he’s not going to die because of it,” Scott vowed vehemently. “So I suggest we get started and now!” He took off in a heated rush shouting orders to the men, paying no heed to his father’s call.
“Scott!” Murdoch just shook his head, at his rapidly departing son’s form.
The dark of evening was upon them and they only had lanterns to guide them. They were wracking their brains trying to figure out how in the world they were going to rescue Johnny. They hurried about with great purpose gathering all they needed to shore up the wider hole. They had to do something and fast, or Johnny might not see the light of day again.
Down in the dark pit, caught and trapped like a hunted animal dragged into the predator’s lair, a hand stuck out of the pile of dirt, twitching slightly. Johnny laid there, covered head to toe by a blanket of dirt, broken boards and twigs, and it was sucking the air right out of him. Thankfully the remnants of wood had fallen in such a way they formed a protective shelter and small air pocket around his face, but he had no light. It was like the lid to his coffin was slowly being shut, burying him alive. He could feel his lungs constrict when he took short breaths as he tried to stay awake, to keep his focus while the comforting, peaceful darkness was beckoning him, but he couldn’t give into it, he had to free himself from this premature tomb.
Johnny had heard and seen the walls starting to collapse above him, and had tried to get out of the way, but it was useless. There was no room to move far enough back, so he had no choice but to brace himself for the unmerciful impact that was to come. He closed his eyes, and winced as he felt the onslaught of heavy dirt, rock, and whatever else God was sending his way, hitting his body with thunderous fury. The debris crashed to the ground, pulling Johnny down along with it.
Johnny could feel that his hand was the only part of his body that was free. With sheer determination and a bit of blind panic, he used it to try and claw his way out. He thought if he could only dig and move enough accumulation, then he could use the rest of his body to push himself free. So grabbing a hand full of dirt at a time, he began the laborious process and freeing his face first, then he could try to shove the rest off of his battered body.
Back on the surface, the older Lancer men and the hands were beside themselves, as they tried to work out a safe way to rescue Johnny, without collapsing the other side of the wall on him. Their concern and frustrations were building from the tension, along with their tempers that were now starting to flare. Time was getting shorter by the minute, as the youngest Lancer’s life was hanging on by a thread, a frayed one at that.
“What the hell are we going to do, Murdoch?” Scott snapped nervously, his voice shaking, as he paced back and forth. “The other side could go at any time,” he reminded his pensive and silent father.
Murdoch was at a loss for words, he didn’t know how to answer his son. The ground was too unstable and the well was far too dangerous to send anyone else down there. Murdoch looked at Scott, and his heart skipped a beat, as he could tell from his eldest son’s expression that was exactly what he was intending on doing.
“If you are thinking of going down there, forget it!” Murdoch blurted out, “I don’t need another son, in danger or dead,” he proclaimed.
“Johnny is not dead!” Scott growled at his father through his clenched teeth, “And that is just what I’m going to do.”
“NO! I FORBID IT!” he boomed at his son. “We will figure out a way to do this safely.” Murdoch grabbed Scott by the arms, as he turned to get ready. “Listen to me, you can’t go down there, you might bury your brother alive, and yourself, right along with him.”
“Then what the hell are we going to do? Stand around waiting for a miracle to happen?” Scott asked sharply and pushed himself away from his father’s strong arms. “Well?”
Scott’s last questions were met with a disquieted air. If only it would be that easy to just calmly wait for a miracle, for Johnny to suddenly call out that he was fine. It seemed about as likely, as being able to turn back time so that this tragedy had never happened.
Johnny was making a little progress after he had finally freed his head. He was able to take short shallow breaths of the stale air, which was better than no air at all. He could feel some of the weight of the dirt diminish on him, and was able to move his arm a little easier. The activity caused his breathing to get harsher and harder, forcing him to stop for a spell to compose himself before continuing. He was not going to give up, not yet, no matter how inviting that temping darkness calling to him seemed.
After a few more minutes, of slowly moving his arm down and then to the side, grabbing and pushing the debris off of him, he felt his left leg beginning to break free. With sheer will power, he pushed mightily at the remaining dirt on his leg and was finally able to lift it out. Now that it was moveable, he used both his arm and leg to excavate himself. He kicked away at the rock and bit and pieces of broken rotted beams, with the heel of his boot.
With no light to guide him, he continued to push and break away clumps of the debris until his whole left side was almost exposed. It felt like it was taking forever, Johnny let out a heavy sigh, as he rested for few moments to replenish his strength before he continued. After a brief rest, Johnny shoved off more of the dirt, and was able to pull himself up into a sitting position. He quickly checked his limbs and was very relieved that he didn’t feet any broken bones. But he was chilled to the bone, and very weak.
A deadly coldness gripped the outside of Johnny’s body and he wished now for the warmth the cover of debris had provided, as he trembled and shivered at the frigid sensation. The only heat he felt was inside his chest, it was on fire, the flames of it burning right through him with every breath he took, robbing his throat and mouth of moisture. He struggled to muster up enough air in his lungs to call out, and let them know he was alive.
“Murdoch, Scott!” Johnny called weakly, and then went ominously quiet.
The sound of voices raised in desperation rang out loudly above him, the agitated words echoed down the dark hole, swirling about the ears of the semi-unconscious young man leaning against the cold damp wall. The continuous shouting roused Johnny from his dazed peaceful state, letting him know that he was not alone, that help was still up there. The heavy musty air, of the well, constricted his already congested lungs with every breath he tried to inhale. The pain seared through his chest as he tried to suck in air, which caused him to pant frantically as he exhaled. Johnny struggled to call out again, “Murdoch… Scott,” stopping to succumb to a hard coughing spell, his lungs were wheezing and rattling, beads of sweat forming on his brow as he gasped for air. Breathlessly, he gave into his weakened body. Johnny closed his eyes, as he prayed that they had heard him.
The anxious buzz of the noisy voices ceased suddenly when Frank, who was lying down by the well trying to listen for any signs that Johnny was still alive, abruptly commanded every one nearby to be quiet. He leaned in closer and carefully listened, his eyes widened with joyous relief. He shot up from the ground, taking off in a mad dash while the men looked on puzzled by his actions.
“Boss! Boss!” Yelled Frank, as he ran over to where Murdoch and Scott were sitting. The two Lancers were talking over an idea Scott had to get Johnny out of the hellhole, and were getting ready to act on it, when Frank charged up to them, smiling.
“What is it Frank?” Asked Scott, noticing Frank’s wide grin, and his mind went racing. “Johnny?” he asked anxiously, his heart beating in fierce anticipation against his chest.
“Yep, I heard him, it was a faint call, but he’s alive.” Frank was happy to tell his employers.
Scott and Murdoch shot up from their seats, their spirits lifted with new hope as they practically tripped over each other as they raced back over to the well. Leaning over the dark pit, Murdoch called down to his son.
“Johnny, can you hear me son?” asked the desperate father. “Johnny?”
Everyone stood around the well, hearts in their throats, ears tuned to the hole that held their comrade and loved one prisoner. They waited in hushed trepidation for the voice to call out again, while saying a silent prayer that they could get him out in one piece.
“Yeah….I’m.. here.” Johnny strained to answer his father’s call.
Murdoch closed his eyes, as relief washed over him in waves at the sound of his son’s weak voice. “Johnny, we have an idea on how to get you out, please hang in there, son. Do you hear me?” Murdoch asked again wanting to make sure that Johnny understood.
“Ye..ah” Johnny faintly answered. ‘I’m not going anywhere,’ he said to himself, eyes still closed. The air around him was getting thicker and colder. He snuggled up against the wall, arms wrapped around his torso, trying to keep warm, which was impossible.
“Scott, are you sure this will work?” Murdoch asked with hope shining in his eyes, as they decided now was the best time to put Scott’s idea into action.
“If I have it figured right, it should, we have no choice but to try it anyway.” Scott could sense his father still had doubts, so he explained. “We have to get Johnny out, no matter what, you heard him, he will not survive much longer down there” Scott anxiously stated.
“You’re right, son. Lets get busy and get your brother out.” Murdoch strongly agreed.
Scott’s idea was to crisscross a couple of sturdy thick beams over the hole. They needed to be long enough, and wide enough for extra support. The length would distribute the weight evenly and away from the hole while avoiding putting too much pressure on the still intact wall, so it would not collapse as well. According to Scott’s plan, they would drop a rope down to Johnny, he could tie it around himself, and then they would be able to pull Johnny up with caution. The beams would help them pull him up the center and prevent him from knocking against the walls, causing more damage and another cave in.
Scott felt like kicking himself for not thinking of this in the beginning, when they were bringing the boys up. It was really a simple engineering problem, but his horrified Harvard educated brain had shut down on him when presented with a crisis involving his baby brother. He felt guilty and ashamed of it. It wasn’t like him to let his heart over rule his common sense. This was weighing heavy on his heart and mind; that his own brother had to suffer because of his lack of focus.
Working in the cooler air and darkness, the beams were put in place, ready to go. “Johnny, listen to me son,” Murdoch called down, “We’re throwing a rope down to you. You need to tie it around you. Can you do that?” he inquired of his youngest.
“Yeah…I…can,” Johnny responded weakly.
Straining to hear his son’s reply, Murdoch nodded as the faint words registered, “Good, here it comes.” Murdoch motioned for Frank to throw the rope down to Johnny. “Give the rope a yank when you are ready.”
Johnny situated himself up on his knees, as the rope was lowered. He reached out for it and tried to stand, only to fall backwards hitting the wall. The strike caused a patch of earth to fall down on him, covering his face with dirt, which brought on another coughing spell. He gasped for air; his lungs felt like they were full of sawdust, and his throat was on fire. Mustering up all the strength he had left, Johnny tried to stand again and this time he was able to stay upright. He was able to grab the rope again, and he tied it around himself, as tightly as he could. When he was ready, he gave the rope a hard yank.
“Ok boys, nice and easy,” Scott instructed the men, as he felt Johnny’s tug on the rope. “Hang on, brother, we’re bringing you up,” he called to Johnny, “Ok lets do this.”
As the men started to pull Johnny up, Jelly and Travis watched from the sidelines, near the fire. Their eyes were wide open with expectation, and their hearts yearning, as they waited for the youngest Lancer to appear safely at the top. Jelly just couldn’t sit there any longer. He had to do something to settle his nerves; so he went to work getting another spot ready for Johnny. He also fixed the tonic and hot broth he knew Johnny was going to need.
“Careful, easy, that’s good,” Jelly heard Scott say, as they continued to pull Johnny up.
“He’s almost up, keep those beams steady now,” he instructed the men.
Slowly and carefully they worked together, as they pulled with extreme caution. Hearts constricted every time they heard a sound they couldn’t identify. They listened intently for the sound of crumbling walls as Johnny slowly ascended. With the light now gone, and only the lanterns to guide them, this was a tricky task, but so far so good.
“HERE HE COMES!” Scott yelled with an anxious voice, as Johnny was now coming into his view.
Johnny could only see shadows, as he got closer to the opening, but heard his brother voice loud and clear, and smiled with relief. He was finally getting out of the hellhole. He wanted nothing more than to be in his own soft warm bed.
“Ok, get ready to grab him,” Scott commanded the men, his raw emotions running wild with excitement, as his little brother inched closer to freedom. Then within seconds, Johnny was within range to grasp, “OK NOW!”
Frank and a couple of hands had a strong grip on Johnny, as they pulled him away from center of the hole, and held on tightly as Johnny let go of the rope. Quickly they laid him down away from the pit of hell that had trapped him. They hovered over him like a protective wolf pack, as Johnny just lay there, coughing and shivering. Scott and Murdoch pushed through the men and knelt down by the youngest Lancer.
“Johnny, brother?” Scott said, as he felt his head, and shot a distraught look at his father, “He’s burning up, Murdoch.”
“Get him over to the fire, now!”
Tempers flared that night, as angry words ignited tongues and burned ears. The incendiary voices soared higher and hotter than the flames of the campfire, when Scott and Murdoch bump heads over whether they should chance it and head back to Lancer. Scott wanted to take that risk. He felt helpless as he watched Johnny twitch with uncontrollable shivering, and his fever rise to alarming heights. If they went ahead and left he would be that much closer to medical help. Scott feared that his little brother just might not make it through the night; he needed Sam and fast.
Murdoch was calling the tune and strongly advised against his elder son’s unwise suggestion. Murdoch pointed out that it was too dangerous to travel with sick and injured boys, in the dead of night, let alone to try to carry them out through the thick maze of trees that stood between them and open range. Lastly, Murdoch played his trump card, Johnny was his child, and as such, decisions about his health concerns legally and morally lay with him, as the father. After seeing that he was getting nowhere with his mule headed father, Scott conceded and helped with Johnny, trying to keep him as warm as possible.
Jelly had his hands full, as he kept a nervous vigil over them all, letting the others get some much needed sleep. The cold and gloom taxed the elderly handy man’s strength. A couple of times, he too had to fight to keep his eyes open, as he would drift off, his head bobbing up and down, jerking it up at the slightest sound. In an effort to stay awake, Jelly busied himself by making Travis as comfortable as possible by checking his arm occasionally, when he was satisfied that the boy was doing ok, he turned his attention to Josh. Josh had muttered, moaned and tossed about fitfully, several times his eyes fluttered as he struggled to wake up, that lasted for only a few seconds, and then he would fall back into a peaceful unconscious state. Jelly was worried about how bad the concussion might be. He felt inadequate and longed for the presence and skilled help of Doc Sam.
It was Johnny that had the old man worried the most, his fever keep spiking up to the point you could actually feel the heat radiate off his body, if you got close enough. At first they had a hard time keeping him warm, as Johnny trembled with chills that shook limbs and torso. The agitated thrashing was hard to watch, but they all realized it was the body’s natural way of generating warmth. Just as the fever was the body’s way of fighting sickness, even though it caused his teeth to chatter even in his semi- conscious state.
They threw all the spare blankets they had on top of him, and laid Johnny next to the fire. Scott went as far as to lay down next to his brother, using his own body heat to help warm Johnny, until he finally settled down and drifted off into deep sleep. Johnny’s breathing was harsh, and his cough had reduced his breath sounds to nothing more than a wheeze, like he was getting very little air into his lungs. Johnny burrowed into Scott’s side and his head came to rest on his shoulder, his hot arid breath captured in the crook of Scott’s neck every time he exhaled. With his arms wrapped securely around his little brother, Scott gave in to his own exhaustion, he floated off to sleep, his eyes and heart made heavy with the pain of his guilt in this travesty.
For those still awake, it felt like the cold and heart-wrenching night would never end, that they would be in this darkness for an eternity, held prisoner by a lack of light. By the time the sun decided to make an appearance over the woods, calmer dispositions had at last prevailed. The warmth and light of the rays penetrating the canopy of foliage exposed the shadows of concern and relief on the faces of the exhausted group of men. It had been a long and emotional haul for everyone involved.
“How is he, Jelly?” Scott asked softly, as woke he from his slumber and pulled his arm out of the blankets and felt his brother’s head. “He seems a little cooler now.”
“Maybe fer now, but he’s still real sick, Scott. I don’t like this one durn bit,” Jelly replied. “He needs the doc, and soon,” he added as his voice started to break up, he looked down at the sleeping young man, as he rubbed his tried and sore eyes.
“We’ll get him home, as soon as possible, Jelly.” Murdoch said as he walked behind them. He lowered himself on stiff legs, down next to his son, to see how Johnny was doing. “The boys are getting the wagons ready, as we speak,” he told the old handy man.
“Well, the sooner the better, I ain’t no doc, and that’s what these boys need,” he snorted at the Lancers. “We should have chanced it, and took them home last night, light or no light.”
“Jelly, you did a fine job with them, and Sam will tell you the same thing,” Murdoch assured him. “We couldn’t chance it, you know that.”
“Boss, the wagons are ready,” Frank informed Murdoch, as he came up from behind them. “How are Johnny and the boys?”
“About the same, Frank,” Scott answered in a sullen voice. “Tell the men to get ready we’re moving out soon.” Looking down at his brother he thought to himself, ‘this should have never happened.’ Scott let out a heavy sigh, as remorse overwhelmed him; he would forever regret that his plan had backfired on them. Not only were the younger boys hurt, but also his brother, who was now very sick because of it. Scott promised himself, that once things were back to normal, he would clear the air with his father, mainly to clear his own conscience.
Back at the house, Teresa and Sam were waiting patiently for the rescue team to get home. Sam had arrived a few hours after getting the word of trouble at Lancer. He had come as soon as he could, but first he had his hands full with a mother about ready to give birth to twins. When he realized what a long wait he would have, he wisely decided to spend the night.
“This waiting is driving me nuts, Sam,” Teresa said, as she kept looking out the French doors. “Where are they?”
“These things takes time, Teresa, they will get them out, and bring them home, soon.” He assured the girl, while sipping his coffee. ‘But what shape will they be in,’ he asked himself.
“I sure hope so, Sam,” she replied sadly. “Travis and Josh sure did cause a lot trouble and hard feelings, they had me so mad at Johnny.” Teresa paused gathering her thoughts and continued, “But they didn’t deserved this.”
“No, they did not, but they should have never run away, either,” The old doctor commented.
“I guess you are right.” Teresa agreed, as she turned her attention back to the window, then her eyes widened with relief, and she smiled at the sight of the rescue party. “Sam. They’re back!” Sam darted out of his chair, and they both ran outside to greet the group.
“Murdoch, Scott.” Teresa called to them, and then frowned when she noticed Barranca, but no Johnny. “Where’s Johnny?”
“He’s in the back, honey,” Murdoch answered. “Sam, we have two hurt boys, and one sick young man, for you,” he added in a morose voice, as he slowly climbed down, and walked around to the back of the wagon.
Both Teresa and Sam hurried to the wagon’s side, looking in at the trio. “I can see that, Murdoch, just don’t sit there, get these boys on up to their rooms,” Sam sternly ordered. ‘I guess I’ll be here a few days, again.’ he muttered to himself, as he followed behind them, shaking his head.
It was about midnight when Sam finally settled into the guest room… *his* room, as he laughingly referred to it. It had been a long and grueling night of caring for his patients. He lethargically stretched his sore lower back, grimacing when it snapped and popped in protest. “I’m getting too old for this,” he mumbled to himself. His legs felt heavy and solid like petrified wood, as he forced them to move him across the room towards the window. Since he was here more times then he’d like to think about, Lancer had become a second home to the old doctor.
It seemed like he was called to the ranch at least once a week, either for a hurt or sick ranch hand, or for his star patient, Johnny. He snickered, as he thought star patient indeed. Johnny got more riled up than a mound of stick stirred devil ants, if you tried to keep him in bed. Sam had to chuckle though, thinking back to those times, that there was never a dull moment at Lancer, since Johnny had come home. They will be the death of me yet, he thought, smirking to himself, as he dropped wearily into the chair next to the window. He peered up at the full moon, which shined over the Lancer range, bathing the thriving ranch in ethereal light, as his mind reviewed the events of the night.
Just after the rescue crew arrived with his patients and they were carried into the house, Sam quickly assessed, and then began treating them. He was not too happy with the actions of the younger boys, as their behavior had caused this tragedy, but taking their age in consideration, Sam had looked after the younger boys first.
When he first found out of what had happened here, he wanted nothing more than to take a switch to their little bottoms, blistering them until they were as red as sun ripened tomatoes. He had seen too many kids their age get away with stunts like this. It really made him sad, because either they wound up getting themselves killed, or someone else out of stupidity. If they did manage to reach adulthood, the uncalled for acts of thoughtlessness, malice and hurting of others usually escalated into more serious crimes. It’s one thing to ruin your own life, without ruining someone else’s in the process. These boys are very lucky to have an Uncle like Murdoch; because he knew as soon as they were better they would learn some hard lessons under his firm hand.
Upon examining the oldest boy, of the two adolescents, Travis was fairing up pretty well, which Sam was pleased to see. Despite a few bad cuts here and there, his arm was going to heal just fine, thanks to Johnny setting it when he did. He was very grateful that he didn’t have to re-break it, like in some cases, when the bones weren’t aligned as they should be, that was something he hated to do to any man or woman, much less a child. There were no signs of infection setting in and no fever. The boy just needed to rest, and to drink plenty of fluids.
Josh, on the other hand was not as lucky as his brother, the deep, nasty gash on his head did require a few stitches, and he did a have a large lump down by his ear. The small boy had finally awakened; from time to time he would rouse up, and drink, but then would drift off again. Sam told Murdoch that was to be expected of a head injury; after all he did have a serious concussion. When he examined the boy he was satisfied by the reaction of his pupils and reflexes that he would make a full recovery, barring any complications. Murdoch let a heavy sigh of relief at that news.
Sam shifted stiffly in the chair, rubbing the small of his back as his ruminations turned to Johnny. Johnny worried him the most. His fever had spiked dangerously, throwing the young man into convulsions. It had scared the hell out of the old doc and his family. They had to hold him down as he thrashed and twisted about the bed, his arms and legs trembling in a macabre dance, his back arching up from the mattress, as large sweat beads covered his pale face. The choked grunts as he desperately gasp for air, horrified them all.
Tears moistened Sam’s eyes as he recalled how the febrile fit had ended as quickly as it had begun. All of a sudden Johnny went limp and silent, except for the labored sounds of his breathing. As long as he lived the old Doc would never forget the sight of his long time friend Murdoch dropping down on to the bed, and clutching his youngest son to his chest. Scott, his face as pale as his brother’s, moved closer, and laid one hand on his father’s broad shoulder, and then other onto the crown of his brother’s head. They had remained like that a few minutes, drawing comfort from each other as they listened to Johnny congested lungs rattle and wheeze, yet thanking God he was breathing at all. Sam instructed Murdoch to keep the windows open no matter what, and to pile the blankets on to keep Johnny warm. Johnny needed fresh air in the room at all times.
What had started out as a simple cough, had turned into a full-blown case of double influenza, which had settled in his respiratory system. The uncontrollable shivering continued off and on, one minute they were trying to keep him as warm as possible, then the very next trying to cool him down. This kept up for the most of the night. Right now all they can do was give him medicinal tonics and make sure he drank plenty of fluids when he was awake. They gave him cool sponge baths to help bring down the fever that ravaged his body.
Yawning and rubbing his tired old eyes, Sam decided he had better go and check on the boys one last time before turning in for the night. He groaned as his tired arms pushed against the chair, lifting his weight up. He shuffled across the floor to the door, and headed for the room of the younger boys first.
Travis was sleeping soundly, and look as comfortable as he could be. Smiling at that, Sam went to check on Josh. He appeared to be fairing fine, and still showed no signs of the abnormal behavior that could come from a head injury. Satisfied that the boys were doing well, he went to check on Johnny.
Knocking softly on Scott’s door, he heard, “Come in.”
“Scott, I had a feeling you were still up.” Sam said as he looked over at Johnny’s still form.
“I couldn’t sleep, Sam.” Scott replied, as his worried eyes connected with Sam’s, from his place in the chair, that he had pulled over to the side of Johnny’s bed, as he kept a vigil over his brother. “His fever is still too high, Sam” Scott reported to the Doctor.
“It will be for a while, until the medicine I gave him takes hold, Scott.” He explained, as he reached out to feel Johnny’s head. “Just keep putting cold compresses on him to keep it from going any higher.” Sam tiredly added. “And keep pushing the water, that will help replace his fluids and flush the congestion from his body, that is all we can do.”
“Sure, Sam.” Scott chewed his bottom lip, and his nervous hands fussed with the blanket, pulling it in place and smoothing it down.
Noticing Scott was troubled, the kindly old doc asked, “Scott, what’s on your mind, you can tell me?”
Scott had to talk to someone, keeping this to himself, was like having a hot coal in his stomach, burning a hole it. The longer he held it in, the hotter the pain of it felt, so taking a deep breath, he said, “A lot, Sam, all of this.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it all started with a question…” Scott haltingly explained the whole sordid story, from the beginning up until now. Sam just shook his head; he had known some of the details. However, what he heard coming out of Scott’s mouth simply amazed him, if not amused him, especially about the Lancer brothers sharing a room. His amusement turned to concern, and he frowned deeply over Scott’s perceived guilt over his plan of getting the younger boys to confess to their misdeeds, causing this tragedy.
“Scott, you and Johnny had no idea the boys would run away.”
“Yes, but they did, and now look at them; look at him,” Scott remarked, looking down at his brother’s frail form. Scott cringed every time Johnny made a sharp hard gasp for air.
“Johnny will be ok, he’s holding his own right now, and the boys are doing fine, too.” Sam tried to assure him. “Johnny is young and strong, we’ll get him through this.”
Johnny started to moan and fuss, then broke into a coughing fit, panting, fighting to get air in his lungs. Scott was right there, “Easy. Johnny,” he said softly, trying to calm him down. The feeling of suffocating was causing Johnny to panic, and he tossed fitfully, clutching and pulling the covers from his chest.
“Johnny, listen to me.” Sam soothed him, as he moved to the other side of the bed, “Johnny, take short, deep breaths, this will calm your cough down.” He instructed the scared young man.
Fevered blue eyes, glazed and glittering, stared up at the kindly old Doctor, as he listened to his words, and did as he was told. Within minutes Johnny’s breathing was easier, though raspy and shallow. Johnny closed his eyes, they fluttered open again at the gentle touch of a cool hand on his hot forehead, turning his head; Johnny looked up at his brother’s upset face.
“Sc…ott?” he barely got the word out. “I’m…home?” He asked, as he looked around the room in a daze.
“Yeah, brother, you’re home,” Scott answered him, and smiled.
“They’re going to be just fine, Johnny.” Sam answered for Scott. “Now, you need to go back to sleep. But first, I want you to take this,” and Sam put a teaspoon of tonic up to his mouth. Johnny being too weak to fight the man; took it, but not without crinkling his nose in disgust at the horrid taste. “That’s good, now go back to sleep, young man.”
“No… problem.” Johnny whispered and drifted off to sleep, within seconds.
Looking down at the sleeping young man, Sam smiled. “He’ll sleep for the rest of the night. I suggest you get some sleep too, Scott.” The doc, ordered seeing that Scott was about to fall over himself.
“I’ll try, Sam. You sure he’ll be ok?” Scott asked anxiously.
“I know it looks bad right now, Scott, but with time he should recover nicely, we just have to keep an eye on him.” Sam reminded the worried young man, “Now get to bed, Teresa will be in soon, it’s her turn to watch over Johnny.” Sam added and slowly walked over to the door.
“Night, Sam, and thanks.”
“Night, Scott” said the old Doc, as he left the room and headed back to *his* room. Sam thought to himself, ‘ I wonder what it would have been like if those two did actually grow up together?’
If it were not for the dire circumstances, Sam would have truly enjoyed the stay in *his* room, he was fond of the Lancers, and always took pleasure in spending time with them. He was still keeping a careful eye on the younger boys, and was pleased to see that both Travis and Josh were making great progress. Neither one, thus far, had shown any complications, or signs of side effects from the accident, in either a physical or mental sense.
Sam made Travis promise to mind his manners, and do as he was told, before he would let him out of bed, and much to the child’s chagrin he was only to be allowed to walk about the house. Travis cringed at the sternness he saw written all over the old doc’s face, and in his eyes, he knew the man meant business, so he swore he would obey, this time. He figured he had pushed his luck enough. He chanced another glance at the doctor and squirmed restlessly under the all knowing gaze boring into him. Sam chuckled, the young boy reminded so much him of his older cousin, antsy, thrashing about the bed, wanting to get up and go, fighting him all the way. ‘Heaven forbid, another Johnny’ he said to himself, as he smiled.
Josh had not fared as well, even though he was more alert than he had been when he was rescued, he was ordered to stay in bed a few more days. Sam had explained you couldn’t be too careful when dealing with a head injury. Children are naturally more active and run a greater risk of reinjuring themselves, so to be on the safe side he was stuck in bed.
Travis would come to visit his little brother, and play checkers with him to keep Josh from getting too bored. Their sense of solidarity since the accident had them getting along better. They would talk hushed like, sharing their childish fantasies, planning adventures; all the normal things brothers conspired about. Sam watched their interaction in sullen melancholy. Murdoch had been robbed of seeing his own sons like this, due to the selfishness of Harlan and Maria. The bitter truth that caused a knife like pain to his heart was the fact that Scott and Johnny had been the ones to suffer the most because of it. They missed the chance to grow up together.
Sam also knew that both boys were very worried about Johnny. Johnny was not improving as rapidly as they had hoped. His cough worsened at night due to lying there all day. The thick mucus rattled in his chest and when he did manage to cough some up, it would lodge in his throat, to the point they had to pound on his back to help break up the congestion just so he could breathe. Johnny was still too weak to sit up, so Sam would have them roll him from one side to the other, to keep it from settling in one spot. Then the fever had them all scared out of their wits, as it lingered on, dangerously spiking up at times, then cooling down, his body was pulled from one extreme to the other. The effects of it taking its toll by making him too weak to fight. They all took turns with the nightly vigils, as Sam help with the boys, to help take the tension off the stressed out family.
While in Sam’s care, he let the younger boys observe the Lancers as they cared for Johnny. He hoped it would show and teach them some family values of respect, and consideration towards others. They also needed to see the consequences of their actions. Sam looked on, as the boys carefully watched the love and compassion the Lancers showed for their seriously ill family member. The time and effort that went into Johnny’s care got them to thinking about their part in the whole matter, and now they were feeling real guilty, even more so then before. They realized they had started the change of events that lead to this whole mess. They were wrong to frame their cousins, and then to run away instead of taking their punishment. Adding to their guilt was the fact that so far no one had said anything to them, about it.
“I wonder why Uncle Murdoch hasn’t yelled at us yet, Travis?” Josh asked.
“I guess he’s too worried about Johnny, right now.” Travis replied sitting on Josh’s bed.
“Yeah, he don’t look so good.” Josh remarked, and paused, “And it’s all our fault.” he added with his head bowed, as he pulled the covers up to his chest. He wished he could crawl under the blankets and hide from his remorse. “We got what we deserved by falling down that hole, but Johnny didn’t deserved to get that sick.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Travis said sadly, “I wonder how he’s doing now?”
“Well, I would like to see him again, before I go to sleep, but old doc Sam would have my hide if I got out of bed.” Josh hastily said.
“Do you feel like getting out of bed, now?”
“I guess so, why?
“Cause I want to see him, too. Wanna come? I won’t tell Sam if you don’t”
Josh happily nodded, and was helped out of bed by his brother. Travis peered out the door, to see if the coast was clear, checking to see if Sam’s door was closed, and that there was no light shining from the crevice between it and the floor. Seeing that it was clear, they both quickly and quietly went down the hall to Scott’s and Johnny’s room. Opening it slowly, they looked in seeing that he was alone.
“Come on, he’s by himself.” Travis told Josh, so they came in and closed the door softly. They tip-toed over to Johnny’s bed. “We have to hurry, because someone will be back soon, they don’t leave Johnny alone for too long.” Travis cautioned.
This was the first time the little boys had a close-up view of Johnny. They trembled, and warm tears welled in their eyes, their hearts twisted with regret at the sight of their cousin. It was actually scaring them; his condition was much worse than they had even imagined, they were afraid to come any closer. Johnny was pale as a ghost, and his breathing was harsh, raspy, every time Johnny gasped for air, they jumped, wanting to run and hide. Travis bravely touched Johnny’s forehead, he sadly frowned and grimaced, over the heat that radiated off his sick cousin’s brow. Both boys sat down gently on the bed, one on each side of it. Josh took Johnny’s warm hand into his cool one, and tenderly stroked it, while Travis put a cool cloth to his forehead, brushing a loose strand of hair away from his eyes.
“I told ya, he don’t look so good.” Josh said, as he wiped frantically at the tears falling down his little cheeks.
“Johnny,” Travis quietly called. “Can you hear me?” He asked leaning over his sick cousin, waiting. . . praying for a reply. Johnny laid deathly still, the only signs of life was his hot breath wheezing from his dry and fever chapped lips. Travis fought the sick feeling…the knot in his stomach over the knowledge he helped put Johnny in this shape, he wouldn’t blame Johnny if he never wanted to see them again.
“I don’t think he can hear ya, Travis. I think he’s in a deep sleep.”
“But he has to hear me, Josh, I have to let him know how sorry we are.” he told his brother, as tears of regret poured down his cheeks. “Look at him, he risked his neck to help us, and now he’s real sick because of it.” Travis confessed.
The boys were quiet for a while, as tears streamed down their faces, listening, and waiting for any kind of sign from Johnny. They silently wondered how they could make this up to their cousins, and the rest of the family. They were so wrapped up in their guilt they were completely unaware of the lone figured quietly standing in the corner of the room, hidden by the dark shadows, listening to the boys’ conversation.
“We have to make Johnny understand, and the rest of the family too, that we are truly sorry for what we have done.” Travis said wiping at his moistened face, as he shakily stood up. “Johnny if you can hear me, we will do whatever it takes to make things right, we promise. Right, Josh?”
“Yeah, he’s right, Johnny. We love you, and Scott, and Uncle Murdoch so very much, and we are so sorry.” Josh admitted in a whisper soft breath, filled with shame. “Teresa too,” he added, and then bent over and kissed his cousin’s warm face.
“We better get back, Josh.” Travis reminded him.
“Okay, see you later, Johnny,” Josh said as they both quietly left the room.
After Travis and Josh went back to their room, Scott came out of the shadows and went over to his brother. He smiled down at him, when Johnny moaned and shivered he covered him up to ward off the chill in the night air. Scott wished the warmth of the feelings displayed earlier by his two little cousins could warm Johnny, and heal him as well. Scott shook his head sadly; he had heard everything that the boys said. It was too bad it took Johnny getting deathly sick, to scare some sense into them.
“Well, brother, I guess we, especially you, taught them a lesson they will never forget.” Scott quietly informed Johnny, who was still sleeping soundly, undisturbed by his visitors. Scott bent over to feel his head; he delicately trailed his hand from his brow to cup his cheek, and then gently slid his hand under his chin and lightly grasped it. “Now get better, okay? We are all here for you, so don’t keep us waiting.” He softly urged.
Making sure that his little brother was resting peacefully, Scott left the room; he had too much on his mind to sleep. He had to tell his father something that couldn’t wait a minute longer. A couple of minutes later, Scott found Murdoch, in his study going over the books, before he turned in for the night. He secretly studied his father for a few seconds, and then taking a deep breath, he walked up to his father and said.
“Sir, there is something I need to tell you.”
Murdoch studied his fidgeting and seemingly restless son with a puzzled, yet concerned expression on his weary face. He felt like he had aged ten years from the strain and stress of the ordeal they had just been through. The heart wrenching events might have driven a lesser man to the edge of insanity, but Murdoch Lancer was built of stern and stubborn Scottish fortitude, and he was a man determined not to lose his youngest again. Therefore when push came to shove, he had dug in his heels and proved his mettle.
Never in his wildest dreams, did Murdoch imagine that agreeing to have his nephews come visit for a while would turn into such a trial and tribulation. They were supposed to have fun, to learn family values, and how to respect others. It was going to be a chance to teach them to obey what they were told and when they were told. Instead it had morphed into a nightmare, and those lessons had been experienced in a harsh and frightening manner, and at a high cost to others. The boys needed to be punished for their deceptive behavior, even though they had suffered greatly already, he needed to know they would remember there are always consequences for their actions.
Scott nervously paced back and forth in front of his father, the cadence of his footfalls coinciding with the loud ticks of the grandfather clock, which echoed melodiously in the quiet room. Murdoch wondered what he could possibly have to tell him, that had him so agitated, and that he didn’t already know about… unless! With a sinking feeling, Murdoch realized guilt was gnawing at Scott, transforming his normally calm son into the worried figure before him. He could see that Scott was having a hard time ordering his thoughts so that he could get the words out. This disturbed him, and made him more apprehensive about what might be revealed to him. Murdoch waited for Scott to speak first, but his patience was wearing thin, and he finally gave into the urge to be informed.
“Well, out with it!” Murdoch nervously demanded, “What’s on your mind? Is Johnny worse? The boys?” his face hardened with the dread that assailed his being.
“No, sir, Johnny is not worse, he’s about the same.” Scott finally answered, then taking a deep breath he continued, “But it has to do with Johnny and the boys.” Scott chewed on his lip, and stopped his march across the room to finally face his father.
The big man sighed heavily, relieved at that assurance, he felt the bands of tension loosen that had been constricting his heart. His body relaxed a little and he sank deeper into the cushioned comfort of his seat. Murdoch stared at his son, and sternly asked, “Well, what is it then?”
Scott’s cheeks puffed up and then slowly deflated as he huffed out the breath he had sucked in to clear his head. “It has to do with this whole mess, the boys, the broken items, the well,” he paused and lifted his eyes skyward as though seeking forgiveness from a higher being, before finally admitting, “And my idea of getting revenge on Travis and Josh.” Scott cautiously dropped his remorseful eyes back to his father’s face.
“Get even…how?” Murdoch asked, a frown creasing his face, as he was assaulted by a bad feeling about what Scott was going to tell him. “Scott?”
“Well, Sir, when Johnny and I found out that it was the boys, who had broken those things,” he paused, trying to find the right words.
“Go on!” Murdoch commanded, as his trepidation swelled.
“Johnny wanted to come and tell you, but I stopped him from doing so.” Scott confessed, as his rigid stance seemed to wilt now that he had unburdened his conscience.
“Because I didn’t think at the time you would believe us over them.” he said frankly, “So I devised a plan to catch them in the act of burying the rifle.”
“Using Jelly, I suppose.” Murdoch stated, giving his eldest a disappointed glare.
“Yes, sir, using Jelly,” he said with his head bowing in shame, he then brought it up to meet his father’s disbelieving eyes. “Believe me, Murdoch, we had no idea that they would run away like that.”
Silence hung in the room, as black and heavy as mourning cloth, while Murdoch contemplated this bit of un-settling news. He had to think, he was having a hard time accepting that his own sons would go that far in their attempts to reveal their cousins’ guilt, but on the other hand the Travis and Josh were just as much at fault. Getting up slowly, the weary rancher walked over to the fire place, and stared into the brightly burning flames. His profile showed the indecision that battled in his mind, as he concentrated on the shocking facts, just now coming to light. When he turned to face his son, Scott flinched at the troubled eyes that bore into him.
“Scott, no one could have predicted what they would or wouldn’t do, we aren’t mind readers,” Murdoch admitted. “Their actions beforehand were uncalled for, and so were yours and Johnny’s.” he told Scott with conviction, pointing a stern finger. “In all likelihood they were scared of me and what I had in mind for their punishment.” Murdoch stated with remorse.
“You do tend to…” Scott trailed off unable to finish what he was going to say, not after the scathing look his father shot him.
The gray head shook viciously at the whole situation. “You should have come to me in the first place, Scott, and this never would have happened!” Murdoch intoned with an angry growl, as he glared in frustration and displeasure at his son, “At least your brother had the sense to try to do so, before you stopped him.”
“I agree, and now I wished I had used better judgment.” Scott replied repentantly, as he glanced up at the stairs. “I better get back to Johnny.”
“You do that, and I’ll deal with you two later, when you brother is better.” Murdoch promised softly, as he strode behind his desk, and lowered himself stiffly in the chair.
Scott nodded, and turned to go upstairs, but stopped to say, “Please go easy on them, Murdoch. I think Travis and Josh have learned a hard lesson out of this, too.” Scott pleaded for the sake of the boys, and their butts, after all he figured there had been enough hurt.
“I’ll think about it, now get to bed.”
Murdoch morosely watched his eldest slowly climb the stairs. Leaning back in his chair, he let his mind review the facts; he could hardly believe the turn of events, and now Scott’s confession. Even though he was proud that his son had confessed, he was perturbed things had gotten so out of hand. He had a sneaky suspicion; all along that there was more to this than meets the eye, just by the way Johnny was carrying on about the boys’ disappearance. However, there was still no excuse for his sons to take matter into their own hands, and fail to keep him informed. As head of the house, he called the tune, and he was quite upset with this, the not knowing. It was getting late, and he had a lot to think about, and he might as well do it from the comfort of his bed. He rose laboriously from his seat and trudged wearily up the stairs.
Passing by his sons’ room, the door was ajar, and he could hear Scott softly talking to his brother, about his confession. Murdoch couldn’t help but stop and listen.
“Hey, little brother, well I told our father the whole truth, and boy do I feel better. You were right, we should have told him in the first place,” Scott admitted, as he wrung out a cool rag to place on Johnny’s heated forehead. He gently ghosted his fingertips over the fringe of wet dark bangs, brushing the hair out of Johnny’s eyes, before laying the cold compress on his head. “I guess we’re in for it when you get better,” Scott added with a crooked grin. “Night, Johnny.” The tall blond got up, and retreated to his side of the room to get ready for bed.
This time, he didn’t bother to use the dressing curtain; he just undressed the way he always did, knowing that his brother wouldn’t object, as Johnny didn’t have a modest bone in his body. As he turned to climb into bed, Scott was surprised to see a sly grin gracing his brother’s face. “Johnny?”
“Yeah,” Johnny weakly responded.
“Hey, how do you feel?” Scott asked, as he quickly went to his brother’s side.
“Tired and hot,” Johnny sputtered through his chest rattling cough.
“Here take some of this, it’s the medicinal tonic, Sam wants you to keep taking.” Scott held his brother’s head up with one hand, as he gave Johnny a teaspoon of it. Johnny reluctantly took it after taking a sniff of the foul tasting concoction. He grimaced and shuddered violently as it slid bitterly down his raw throat.
Smiling, Scott had to chuckle at the face his little brother made after swallowing it, “Tastes bad, huh?’
“Yeah!” Johnny replied in disgust. He studied his brother for a moment, then took a hold of Scott’s arm, “Scott, I’m glad you told Murdoch, I feel better, too,” he told the stunned young man. Scott’s eyes gleamed with relief, that Johnny had actually heard every word he said. Then Johnny gave his brother a feeble smile, and just before he drifted off to sleep again, he whispered, “Night.”
“Night, little brother,” Scott replied, as he gazed at Johnny’s pale face, and wondered what he would do if he should ever lose his kid brother. He had come to respect, and love this young man of contradictions, in the short months since they came home. That terrifying thought had occurred many times before, considering Johnny’s ex-profession. Scott had learned to take the bad with the good, and make the most of these days, nay, hopefully, years to get to know his brother better. He pulled the covers up over Johnny, made sure he was warm enough, and then felt his forehead, he was a shade cooler than before, and breathing a little better. With that, Scott blew out the light and went to bed.
Murdoch stood there a little while longer, and couldn’t help but smile; it warmed his heart deeply to hear his sons talk like that, even though it was a brief conversation. He was proud they realized their error in judgment, but he knew that he couldn’t let them off that easy.
‘Yep, I got a lot of thinking to do,’ he said to himself, as he headed off to bed.
Josh sat quietly, actually holding his breath, as Doctor Jenkins inspected the healing gash on the side of his head. He stared straight ahead at his Uncle across the room. The old Doc prodded and poked at the wound, grunting and mumbling to himself, as he made sure there were no signs of infection. When he was satisfied with his findings, he progressed to the part of check up that would tell him if there were any complications from the head trauma.
“Ok, young man, follow my finger with your eyes, do not turn your head,” Sam instructed Josh, as he began his final examination of the boy’s eyes.
It had been over a week, and so far the boy was responding to sight and sound without any problems. Sam continued on with the exam, slowly moving his finger from one point to the other, and then back again. He carefully watched Josh’s eyes for reaction to the movement, such as his ability to track, and the dilation of his pupils. Doc did this a couple of times, and was very pleased with the results.
“Everything looks good, real good, son” Sam happily commented, “Well, I don’t see any reason why you can’t get out of bed.”
“Really?” Josh beamed, his small body vibrating with excitement, as he bounced up and down like a jack rabbit on the bed, ready to hop out of his nightshirt and into his clothes.
The over anxious boy’s reaction exemplified his boredom with being bedridden. The child had been ordered to bed, and only allowed to get up to use the outhouse, with the help from a family member, which was embarrassing to the young boy, or to be carried downstairs to take his meals. The poor boy didn’t know which was worse, having to sit still at all times, or being carried everywhere, until Sam said it was alright to move about the house. Up until now Josh had been protesting the restrictions, claiming he was all right, but was held at bay by his brother, who warned him to behave himself, as Uncle Murdoch still haven’t said a word of what their punishment was to be. Neither child wanted to chance making the tall rancher madder by disobeying, as it would hamper their plans.
Sam chuckled to himself over the boy’s incorrigible behavior. It reminded him of the antics of another young man, and that had Sam thinking, without a shadow of a doubt, that it had to be that stubborn Scottish blood that ran through the Lancer men veins that made them so damn unruly and mule-headed. They were all afflicted with this family trait that couldn’t be changed, nor stopped, he feared. In fact, it was barely controllable, heaven help the family when they ever had kids of their own. If they managed to live long enough to get even married and start a family, Sam shook his head, and had to chuckle over his wild ruminations and imaginings.
“Yes, really, but that doesn’t mean you can go gallivanting around the grounds, or ride your pony just yet.” He cautioned, “You still have take it easy, do you understand me young man?”
“Yes sir!” Josh agreed with a wide grin, and then looked over at his brother, who was standing to the side with a troubled look on his face.
“Doctor, how is Johnny?” Travis asked in a hesitant voice, as though afraid of what he would be told. His eyes were begging for the good news, he had prayed for.
“Well, Travis, I’m happy to report that Johnny is a little better today,” Sam answered. “His fever is down some, and his breathing is easier, but he is still very sick, mind you.” Sam gave Scott, who was standing quietly behind the lad, a quick wink, and added, “It’s a funny thing, it seems that someone made Johnny a promise, and that promise has given him the incentive to get better, and fast too, so that he can see that pledge fulfilled.” Sam concluded his speech, trying to hold back a grin, but it escaped anyway, as soon as he caught the smile blooming on Scott’s face.
Scott had told Sam, earlier, what he had overheard that night, when the boys paid a covert visit to his room, and had their talk with Johnny. Sam was not happy to hear about Josh wandering about the house, or that and Travis had been helping him, but the old man’s heart softened, once he heard what they had said. Sam just couldn’t resist bringing it up, in a coy way, to help brighten the boys’ day, by making them think it was their promise to Johnny that was helping their cousin along. There might not be anything scientific about it, but in his years of doctoring he had seen words of kindness spoken from the heart, heal just as well as any medicine. Looking at the boys’ big wide grins that were plastered on their little faces, he knew this was also good therapy for Travis and Josh as well.
“Really? You’re telling us the truth?’ Josh said, glowing with joy.
“I’m telling you true.” Sam confirmed, and then got up from the bed, and gathered up his instruments, placing them back in his bag. “Well since my work is done here, I better get back to town. You be sure to mind your elders, and do as I told you. I don’t want to be called back out here again,” Sam admonished, as he snapped his bag shut.
“Thanks, Sam, we’ll walk you out,” Murdoch gratefully stated, as he and Scott followed the man out of the boys’ room. The men were barely three steps down when they heard the squeals of delight and the unmistakable sound of bed springs squeaking as two thrilled little boys bounced on the bed.
“Did you hear that, Travis? Johnny heard us, and now he is really getting better.”
“I sure did, and now we better get to moving, and start our plan.” Travis exclaimed, as he grabbed hold of his brother, “Now settle down, and get dressed.”
“Ok,” Josh quickly agreed, he stopped his imitation of a bucking bronco, and hastily peeled off his night shirt.
After Josh finished getting dressed, they both crept silently down the hallway, and stopped by Johnny’s door, shushing each other. Travis still had his arm in a splint, and Josh grew concerned, as he considered something they had not thought of before.
“What can you do with only one arm?” Josh questioned, his eyes widening in distress.
“I guess not much,” Travis replied, while trying to scratch the itchy spots. “But, I guess, I can help take care of Johnny, while you go and help the others. If nothing else I can keep him company. You go on, and do like that doc said, don’t overdo it, and behave!”
“All right, see you later.” Josh called out, before going downstairs to find Teresa.
Their plan was to help with the daily chores, as much as possible, more than they had been doing since they arrived. It was a small gesture on their part to try and make amends for all the trouble they had caused. They hoped it will please everyone, even though it wouldn’t replace the beloved broken items. The boys hoped this would help the family realize just how very sorry they were, especially their Uncle, who they really wanted to prove themselves to.
Waving bye to his brother, Travis waited for a few seconds until his brother was out of sight, and then opened the door to the room. He peered in to find Johnny alone, and still asleep. Seeing his chance, he softly closed the door behind him, then he noiselessly tip-toed over to the bed. Leaning his small frame over his cousin’s, holding his breath, as he tried to be quiet; he placed his good hand palm down on Johnny’s forehead, the boy sadly smiled down at the young man that lay there. Johnny’s fever was still on the high side, and by the light of the afternoon sun beaming through the window, highlighting Johnny’s pale features, Travis could see that the doc was right, Johnny did look a lot better than before. His color was coming back, and his breathing was not as raspy, as it had been. With deep compassion in his big brown eyes, Travis gently sat down on the bed, and with one hand squeezed out a cloth, and placed it on Johnny’s brow.
“Don’t worry, Johnny, I’m here to take care of you now,” he said softly in his ear, and leaned over to kiss Johnny’s cheek. “Like I said before, we’re so very sorry about everything,” Travis guiltily confessed. Dropping his head in shame, he turned his head away to look out the window, listening to the birds chirp as they flew by.
While the boy was looking the other way, watery blue eyes opened slightly, keeping them at a squint, Johnny shifted his head to take a quick glance at Travis, then he quickly closed them, when the lad turned back to face him. He had not been asleep but playing possum, when he had heard the door creak open and notice the small form entering his room. Johnny had decided to stay still, with his eyes shut, to make like he was asleep. He was curious, as to what his little cousin was up to, so he waited and kept quiet. The tender kiss on his cheek, and the loving words of the boy, warmed his heart deeply, and he just couldn’t keep up the pretense any longer.
“Hi,” Johnny said, in a whispery weak voice.
“Hi, Johnny, how are you feeling?” Travis cheerfully asked, his surprise and delight at being spoken to beaming from his face.
“I’ve felt better,” Johnny choked out around a strangled cough, causing Travis to become alarmed.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I‘m just dry,” Johnny assured the worried boy. “Can I have some water?”
“Sure, Johnny, anything you want,” Travis happily replied, as he helped Johnny take a drink. Sitting the glass down, he turned, and pulled the covers up more around Johnny’s chest. “How’s that?”
“Just fine,” Johnny softly spoke, and then he looked at the boy’s eager expression. “You said anything I want?”
“Yep, anything, anything you want!” Travis stated emphatically.
“Then how about a hug,” Johnny said with a big smile, opening his arms wide, ready to embraced his cousin.
Travis’ eyes shot open in utter disbelief, he was amazed that Johnny wanted to even to touch him, especially after what he had put him through. He was expecting an old fashion scolding, possibly a thrashing, not this much needed gesture of love. Travis smiled brightly, his eyes glittered with unshed tears, and his heart began beating frantically with an overwhelming sense of relief.
“Well, where’s my hug?” Johnny repeated.
Travis fairly melted into Johnny’s embrace; he threw his small arms around Johnny, and basked in the sense of love and security the hug gave him. A lone tear escape and trickled down his beaming face, and a satisfied sigh emanated from them both. They embraced each other for a few minutes, as they both said a silent thank you for this opportunity for being able to do so.
Meanwhile, down in the kitchen, Josh was helping with setting the table. His small arms carrying whatever he could manage. When that task was finished he helped with other minor chores, like stacking dirty dishes in the sink, and taking out the trash. When those simple jobs were done, he kept on asking what else he could do. Teresa and Maria were trying to get dinner ready, they knew Josh wasn’t trying to be a little pain, but he was now getting on their nerves, and being underfoot.
“Josh, honey, I know you mean well, but you have done all you can for us right now.” Teresa sweetly told him, sitting the boy down at the table, and handing a cold glass of milk.
“I know, but isn’t there anything else I can do around here, Teresa?” the small lad asked, while wiping the milk mustache off his mouth.
“Well, why don’t you go, and find Jelly, and see what he has for you to do. I’m sure he could use some help. That is, as long as you don’t overdo it, okay?” Teresa advised.
“Yeah, I can help Jelly, thanks, Teresa. I’ll take it easy, I promise,” he said, as he jumped up from the table, and ran out of the door.
Teresa shook her head, and started to call after him, and warn him to slow down, but she knew he wouldn’t hear her, so she went about fixing dinner.
Jelly did have a few minor things a young boy could do, such as help with cleaning up the tack room, and sweeping out the bunk house. Jelly made sure that Josh didn’t overdo it, and had him take little rest periods. The gruff old handy man knew that the boy was trying his hardest to make it up to him, for breaking his rifle. However, he decided to be strict, a little grumpy with Josh at first, putting the fear of Jellifer B. Hoskins into the lad. He lightened up towards the end of the day, as the boy started to win the old man’s heart, all over again.
This went on for about a week, the boys doing all they could to help. They went out of their way not to cause trouble, they acted like little gentlemen. They did what they were told, when they were told. When the day arrived for the boys to go home, they were sitting on the fence, watching their pony running about the corral. They were quiet, as they sat there thinking, trying to come up with a way to stay with their family longer.
“Do you want to go home, Travis?”
Two melancholy and confused boys sat dejectedly on the floor in front of the fireplace. Their legs were crossed, small heads resting on their hands as they morosely watched the fire embers burn brightly. The cheerful chorus of the pop and crackle, from the glowing cinders, was interspersed by the loud and heavy sighs of dismay from the children. Tomorrow would most likely be the big day, Murdoch had received a telegram a few days ago saying that their mother would be arriving soon. The news had both pleased and saddened the boys.
Josh and Travis had spent the last few weeks being little gentlemen. They had adhered to all the rules, and made a concerted effort to be helpful, which didn’t leave them much time to ride, or play as much as they wanted. However, they treasured the sense of pride, responsibility, and love they had gained from being part of a family. The big Grandfather clock chimed the hour, and the boys frowned at the big time piece, wishing time would stop, and this day would never end.
Today had been an especially good day; Johnny was allowed to come downstairs but only for short periods of time, according to Sam’s orders. Of course the younger Lancer had grumbled and fussed about the restrictions, but heeded the advice when he got a hard glare from his father, and a stern warning and threat of being tied to his bed.
Johnny sat on the sofa wrapped up blanket, on Teresa orders, Travis and Josh cuddled up next to their cousin and then pleaded with him to tell them stories of his wild days. Johnny had to smile at the request and agreed, but knew before he started he would leave out the disturbing facts of his life. He also omitted his more dangerous adventures, which he regaled his friends with on poker nights in the saloon. He mostly spoke of his escapades in helping people. He didn’t want to glorify gunfighting, so he deliberately excluded the exploits that ended with another kill to his credit. Things a child should never have to hear.
The family sat in rapt attention as Johnny masterfully wove his tales of daring, and of the friends he had made on his many journeys. One story in particular, about a burro that thought he was a big dog, had the family roaring in laughter. Johnny started to tire, yawning, rubbing his watery blue eyes, a sure sign it was time for Scott to take over the boys’ attention with a few short stories of his own.
Murdoch enjoyed the tales his boys told; they gave him more insight into their character and personalities. When he saw that Johnny had slipped limply down, his head resting at an odd angle on the back of the couch, he put an end to the stories. He sent his nephews off to play in the slowly fading light of day, until supper. Travis and Josh, softly patted a sleeping Johnny’s leg, and then gave Scott and their Uncle a big hug, and decided to go tend to their pony.
Scott watched in amusement as his father’s hands of steel, gently, with a velvet touch, lowered Johnny’s torso to the seat, placing a pillow under his head, and swinging his white socked feet up. Murdoch grabbed one of the colorful Indian blankets and covered his youngest. The blond Lancer’s mouth dropped open in stunned surprise, when he realized his father was softly humming. When Murdoch tenderly brushed the hair from Johnny’s forehead, and deftly checked for fever, he had to swallow the burn of emotion in the back of his throat.
“He doesn’t have fever, does he?” inquired Scott.
“He’s a little warm. We’ll let him rest here until supper, that way I can keep an eye on him, while I do the bookwork.”
The day had passed quietly. As the gray of twilight gave way to the dark of evening the cousins came in for supper recounting, and discussing their favorite details from Scott and Johnny’s stories. They could envision themselves doing those things one day.
After the meal, Uncle Murdoch helped Johnny upstairs. Josh and Travis returned to their spot in front of the fireplace, deep in thought as they watched the flames leap and dance, while they merrily burned the log placed in the grate for the evening. They were so consumed by their ruminations; they didn’t hear their Uncle’s heavy footfalls, as he came back into the room.
“What has you boys in such low spirits?” Murdoch asked softly, as he sat down next to them in the big chair. He could see that they were unhappy; the frowns on their faces were exposed by the flickering light of the fireplace.
“We don’t want to go home, Uncle Murdoch.” Travis confided in a brooding voice.
“Yeah, Chicago is not as much fun, as it is here!” Josh added, with dour discontent.
“I know boys, but your mother is on her way, and she misses you.” Murdoch reminded them.
“We miss her too, but we are going to miss you, Johnny, Scott, and everybody else.” Josh replied, his little voice breaking up with repressed emotion. “It’s not fair, why do we have to leave so soon?”
“Well, boys, your mother allowed you to stay long enough to learn some new things, and now it’s time to go home,” Murdoch explained. “I gather you learned quite a bit, huh?”
“Oh boy! Did we ever!” Josh replied, with exaggerated facial expression, his eyes twinkling with delight. Travis just nodded his agreement, and smiled at his little brother.
“Hey, Josh, maybe Mama will want to move out here, huh?” Travis said brightly, lifting his head up from its slumped position, just the thoughts of it giving him hope, silently praying it might come true.
“Nah, Mama’s job is there, in Chicago, she would never like it here,” Josh groused gloomily, as he shrugged his shoulders.
“Why do you say that?” their Uncle inquired.
“She’s a city girl! And all her friends are there,” Josh explained. “She wouldn’t fit in out here, Uncle. She would be like a fish out of water.” Murdoch had to chuckle at that last remark.
“I’m afraid you’re right, my baby sister was always a city girl,” he agreed with the boy. “But you can always come back for a visit…granted that you behave yourselves when you do,” Murdoch added, firmly.
“Really, you mean that?” Travis asked with a big smile that beamed, as brightly as the glowing light of the fire. “Even after what we did?”
“I think you have both learned a lesson, and I know you will never act that way again. Right?” he asked sternly. He never did tell them what their punishment would be. He had let them stew in their own juices, sweating it out, forcing them to think of their misdeeds daily. And it seemed to have paid off, so he figured they had suffered enough.
The boys could hardly contain their excitement, as they looked first at each other, and then back at their uncle to make sure he wasn’t teasing, “All right,” they exclaimed with relief.
“Good, now go and get ready for bed, I’ll be up in a bit.” Murdoch hustled them off to bed, smiling, as he watched them clamber noisily up the stairs. His smile slowly flattened out, and he closed eyes against the sting of emotions caused by the sight of the two happy boys. His heart ached from a terrible heaviness that he had no such pleasurable recollections of his sons at that age. His frown deepened as he thought how Harlan and Maria had robbed not only him, but also Scott and Johnny of shared memories.
“Damn you, Maria, Damn you, Garrett,” Murdoch angrily mumbled to himself, as he sat there staring into the dying flames.
Upstairs, Josh and Travis stopped by Scott’s room, which their two older cousins still had to share. After knocking softly, they entered at the cheerful call of, “Come in.” They opened the door to find Johnny and Scott in the middle of a game of chess.
“Hi, boys.” Johnny greeted them with an affectionate smile, and waved them on over. “So you’re headin’ off to bed, huh?”
“Yeah, who’s winning?” Travis asked.
“I am, of course.” Scott replied smugly, and then grinned at his brother.
“I’m letting him win, is more like it,” Johnny smirked back. “But wait until I’m really back on my feet, then he’ll never stand a chance,” he added, and winked conspiratorially at the boys.
“Don’t believe a word he says, boys,” Scott declared, defending himself. “He can’t beat me, no matter what he thinks.”
“Is that so? Well, you’ll just have to wait and see, brother!” Johnny exclaimed in a raspy voice, and was then over taken by a coughing fit. Scott quickly poured a glass of water, and handed it to him.
“Thanks.” Johnny croaked, as he cleared his throat of the mucus that was still lingering on. The continued cough and congestion was driving him nuts, but at least the fever was gone.
“I know of one thing you can do better than me.” Scott teasingly taunted his little brother.
“Yeah, what’s that?”
“You have the best lung rattling cough, I have ever heard,” he said, grinning. “I can’t beat it, nor do I want to try!” Scott had the boys giggling with that last remark.
“Well, we better get to bed. Night, Scott, night, Johnny,” Travis said, and then motioned for Josh to follow. “Josh, come on.” He had to coach his brother to move, as he was still staring at Johnny. Josh was still concerned about Johnny, and the way his cough sounded.
“Okay, I’m coming! Night, and I hope your cough is better tomorrow, Johnny.” Josh said softly, as he turned to leave.
“Me too, now off to bed, you two,” Johnny answered, with a reassuring smile for the boys. Once the lads left, he turned his attention back to the game, his brow furrowed in concentration. He made his next move, and then inquired, “So you like my cough, huh?”
“Now what do you think?” Scott retorted, as he played his last move. “Check mate!” he crowed proudly, “Two out three?”
“Nope, you don’t like my cough, and I’m tired.” Johnny snorted, and then slid between the covers, snuggling down and curling up, as he hugged his pillow. His eyes slowly losing focus, as sleep took him over.
Scott shook his head in amusement at how quickly Johnny dropped off to sleep, softly snoring through his clogged nasal passages. Scott sat on his bed for a few minutes, observing his little brother sleep, mourning their loss of a shared childhood. He secretly envied Josh and Travis for having the opportunity they didn’t for the sharing, laughing, fighting, and growing up together, things that all siblings got to experience.
With a heavy sigh, Scott blew out the lamp, pulled back his covers and climbed in bed. In the darkness of the room, he called out, quietly, “Night, little brother.”
“Night, big brother.”
Despite their growing reluctance to leave, Josh and Travis were thrilled to see their Mother the next morning. Neither child had realized just how much they had missed her, until she was standing before them; arms open wide for a hug. They had flung themselves into her embrace, their tears of joy mingling with hers, as she kissed and smooched all over their faces, cooing happy words of reunion. Once the initial greeting was over the boys insisted their Uncle go ahead and make his report about their behavior to their Mother.
Murdoch explained all about the unpleasantness and deceit, which had occurred over the past few weeks, to his horrified sister, Hanna. She was highly perturbed with her sons, and strongly scolded the children. The boys had cried, but no due to fear of their Mother, unlike her giant of a brother, she was a person of average height and weight, so she was not an imposing presence. No they had wept true tears of remorse and gratitude that everyone had survived the ghastly ordeal caused by their negligence and trickery. The boys sat at her feet, clutching the hem of her fancy dress, and begged her forgiveness, after the tongue lashing she gave them. She of course forgave them. Hanna turned her attention to her youngest nephew, showering him with hugs and kisses, a relieved mother’s way to show her appreciation for his sacrifices. Scott and Murdoch laughed heartily when Johnny blushed at the attention, but noted he didn’t seem eager to end it.
Hanna apologized, over and over, with deep regret to Scott, Teresa and Jelly for what her boys had put them through. She was thankful that they held no ill will, or hard feelings towards the children, they understood they were only boys; boys who, she readily admitted needed to be taught a lesson. They had assured her that all was forgiven, for Travis and Josh had indeed learned a hard, painful lesson about life, and respect, and there was no need for her to worry, they were always welcome to come back. With all of that settled, they were all able to enjoy the remainder of the visit.
For Scott and Johnny, having their Aunt visit was a special treat. They had only met one other Lancer relative, a cousin, Chad, and that had been a disaster. Johnny had almost been killed that time due to a long standing family feud. Both Lancer boys were glad Chad had given up being a rancher, and had left to seek his true destiny. Chad had been a trouble magnet, and they could just imagine the destruction Chad and the two younger boys would have attracted. Oh, boy! There would be nothing left of Lancer if they had been here together. They cringed, just thinking of what those three could do in one day. It would be like having three massive tornados destroying everything in their path, and doing it over and over again, until there was nothing left but barren ground.
However, getting to know their Aunt, even for this short period time, they found her to be a very sensible and caring woman, with a heart of gold. It would have been a dream to have been able to meet her as boys. It deeply saddened them both, knowing that they were deprived of not only getting to know their father, when they were children, but his family as well. Scott had only his grandfather, and Johnny his mother, but that was short lived. Neither, Lancer son had any history with their father, so listening to Hanna tell stories about Murdoch as a boy, was very enlightening, and entertaining to them. Her stories were helping them to connect in new ways. A chagrined Murdoch tried to stop her from telling tales, he didn’t think they needed to know. However, Johnny and Scott strongly insisted on hearing more, and had to chuckle at their father’s dismay, as his sister revealed more, and more.
“So you were a scoundrel, huh? A real hell raiser,” Johnny smirked, trying to hold in a laugh, but it escaped anyway. Johnny looked so young with the goofy grin plastered on his face, his eyes gleaming with humor, until Murdoch was glad to bear the discomfort over the revelations, just to see Johnny’s delight.
“Really, Sir! I am surprised at you giving your teacher a hotfoot, all because she kept you after school.” Scott commented, as he chuckled under his breath. “Somehow, I can’t picture you doing that,” Scott added, smiling widely, at his father’s frowning expression.
“I could!” Johnny slyly teased. “I can see Murdoch doing all those things, and getting away with it too, and then daring anyone to try and stop him from doing it again.” Johnny’s mirth rumbled in his chest before breaking out in a hard contagious laugh, that had the others laughing along with him, except Murdoch.
“Now see here, that’s enough!” Murdoch protested loudly. He huffed, as he got up from his slumped position in the chair. He strode to the liquor cabinet, and poured himself a drink, trying to hide his embarrassment. “So I was a hellion, but I grew out of that,” he said in his defense, but had to laugh, too.
“Yeah, sure you did,” Johnny sing-songed softly. Johnny decided, in the best interest of his hide, he would keep anything else he was going to say, to himself, after the deadly glare he received from Murdoch.
“Well, I’m turning in,” he said yawning. “Night Aunt Hanna, see you in the morning,” Johnny stated, getting up, and then giving his Aunt a tender kiss on the cheek.
“Night, Johnny, you get some rest,” She cooed, smiling sweetly at her nephew.
“I suggest we all get some sleep. We have a busy day tomorrow.” Murdoch informed everyone that was still up, as the younger boys had already been tucked in.
“I second that, see you in the morning,” Scott agreed, yawning himself, and then leaned over and also gave his Aunt a kiss on the cheek. “Night, Aunt Hanna.” Scott’s agile frame quickly caught up with Johnny on the stairs, as they both headed up to their room.
After everybody had said their goodnights, and were settled into their beds, before falling to sleep their thoughts turned to what a wonderful day they had spent together, and like the little boys, the adults were wishing it would never end. They dreaded tomorrow, as it would be time to say goodbye.
The next morning did indeed come too fast, especially for Travis and Josh, who were up bright and early, trying to make most the day before they had to leave Lancer. They had finished their packing last night, and were out in the barn, saying goodbye to their pony. There were tears streaming down their sad little faces, because they didn’t want to leave their pony. However, they knew that there was no way they could take her with them. They had nowhere to keep her, as they lived in town, and couldn’t afford to pay to have her stabled. They also realized the pony would be better off here, where she was born. She would have companions to run with when she was big enough. They both gave her one last hug around her shiny black neck, not wanting to let go.
With the wagon hitched up and ready to go, the Lancers mounted up, even Johnny, who insisted he needed to come along. Finally, they were ready to escort Hanna and her boys into town. Teresa and Jelly had said their tearful goodbyes at the house, and waved to the group as they slowly disappeared out of view. The boys sadly waved bye, from back of the wagon, taking in all the surroundings, burning them into their memories, until they came back again. Good memories and bad ones, as they had learned and grown from them all.
At the stage depot, Murdoch, Johnny and Scott, gave Hanna a big hug and kiss goodbye. They made her promise to come and visit more often, and to tell more stories of the homeland. Then the older cousins took the younger ones aside, and told them to behave themselves for their mother, and that they would they love to see them again. This made the boys smile with joy and relief, that they had their cousins’ full forgiveness, and love. Each Lancer brother gave the boys bear hugs, and tender kisses on the forehead, causing them to blush from the gesture. Travis and Josh wrapped their small arms around Johnny and Scott, and didn’t want to let go. They clung as if their lives depended on it, even though they heard the sound of the oncoming stage, getting louder by the minute.
“Now, now… you have to go, but you can come back, remember? This is not goodbye forever,” Johnny softly spoke in Josh’s ear, until the boy finally let go of his tight grip on Johnny. Travis also needed extra love, and persuasion to turn loose of Scott.
The Lancer brothers looked on as Murdoch helped his sister up the stage steps. “Come on boys,” Hanna beckoned softly to her sons. The boys quickly snuck another kiss from Johnny and Scott; smiling sadly they hurried over to the stage, climbing in like little monkeys.
“Take care of our pony, will ya?” Travis hollered, waving from the window of the departing stagecoach, “We’ll be back!”
“WE WILL!” Scott shouted back.
“Well boys, let’s get back to the ranch. We still have work to do,” Murdoch informed his sons, as he watched the stage vanish into the horizon. “Not you, young man! If Sam finds out I let you come to town, he’ll have my hide.” Murdoch exclaimed, pointing to Johnny’s chest. “You’re still not completely well, you’re staying put in the house.”
“I’ll never say a word to Sam, if we can get a beer first, I‘m thirsty,” he slyly pleaded, with a smirk on his face. “Just one, okay?”
“Well, just one won’t hurt.” Murdoch agreed. The Lancer men headed on over to the saloon, trying to avoid Sam’s office, which was on the way.
“It will sure be nice to have my own room back, now that the boys are gone.” Scott pointed out, and Johnny happily nodded.
“Who said you are?” Murdoch replied. His remark abruptly stopped the boys in front of the batwings doors.
“You mean we still have to share a room, how come?” Johnny asked stunned, and disappointed at this revelation.
“Well, I feel you two could use a little more togetherness time, that’s all. Besides, you did cause your own problems by NOT telling me what was going on,” Murdoch said, with a sly grin. “So as YOUR punishment, you’ll have to share a room for another month.” He pinned his sons with a stern look, as they were staring at him in shock, with their mouths open. Murdoch devilishly chuckled, and then turned, and quickly walked into the saloon.
Johnny and Scott glared at each other, and then looked back at the fast swinging batwing doors.
“MURDOCH!” They bellowed together, “IT WAS NOT MY FAULT!”
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