Word count 2,300
“The columns don’t add up boy. Did you pay any attention to what you were doing or were you too busy sulking?” Murdoch growled and drew himself up to his full height.
A flicker of annoyance passed over Johnny’s handsome features as he laid his head back on the pillar he was leaning against. Scott guessed that his brother was more riled by the reference to his sulking this morning rather than the books not adding up.
“They looked like they added up to me.” Johnny’s tone was belligerent as he glared back at Murdoch but the slight waiver to his voice at the end of the sentence betrayed to Scott that he wasn’t as sure as he sounded.
“Well they don’t now.”
Scott sighed and studied his feet briefly. His father was using his characteristic bellow, a sure sign that this conversation would end in a shouting match between him and Johnny. His younger brother did not take too well to being bellowed at. In fact, if Scott had judged the situation correctly, and he was getting to be a bit of an expert at judging both Murdoch’s and Johnny’s reactions, this would end up with Johnny storming out of the house if he didn’t intervene.
“Well I added ’em up three times Old Man and got to the same answer each time.”
“The wrong one. Maybe you need to work on your arithmetic Johnny before we let you near the books again.”
<<Low blow Old Man>> thought Scott.
Ordinarily Johnny would jump at any excuse not to have to work on the books but Scott could tell from the way that his brother’s face tightened and the set to his jaw that he was unlikely to accept Murdoch’s decree with equanimity. The brief flash of pain in Johnny’s eyes at that comment had also not gone unnoticed by Scott.
“No way Old Man, I’m a partner in this ranch and I’ve got just as much right as you and Scott to do the books. Maybe you should check your own arithmetic or maybe it’s your eyesight that ain’t working.”
<<Ooh, below the belt again. Like father like son.>>
Both the brothers knew that Murdoch’s eyesight had deteriorated recently and that this sign of impending old age was bothering him more than he let on; however, Scott had to admit to himself that Johnny’s taunt was probably a fair payback for Murdoch’s jibe about the arithmetic.
Murdoch and Johnny glared at each other.
“Do you know what I think John. I think it’s neither your arithmetic nor my eyesight that is the problem here, it’s your attitude.”
Johnny snorted in disbelief. “My attitude.”
“Yes, your attitude. You were too busy having a tantrum about being asked to work on the books to pay attention to adding the numbers up correctly. Maybe you were trying to get back at me by making a deliberate mistake with the books.”
Johnny appeared to grow defensive at this second accusation of sulking and dropped his head. “I wasn’t sulking.”
The lie hung in the air. Scott sucked in his breath, how Johnny had the temerity to suggest that he hadn’t been sulking this morning! His brother’s notorious temper had erupted quite a few times since he had come home but this morning’s exhibition had been spectacular. Johnny had greeted Murdoch’s suggestion that he work on bringing the books up to date as if he had been asked to stick needles in his eyeballs all day long.
“Well, if that wasn’t sulking I’m not sure what to call it.”
“I call it being mad as hell with you.” Johnny muttered.
“Yes I could see that boy but I didn’t, and still don’t, understand why.”
Johnny’s head shot back up. “You know why. You were trying to make me miserable as payback for what happened with the horse.”
“You made me stay in and do the books today to punish me for what happened with the horse yesterday. I know you did ‘cos the books didn’t even need doing that badly. You know I hate doing ’em”.
Murdoch sat down on the desk suddenly with a weary sigh. “Look Johnny, I’m tired, I don’t want to be rowing with you all evening. Just take the books, correct the error and bring them to me to check when you’re done.”
“I’ve already told you. I’ve checked the numbers and I think they add up fine.”
“Okay, we’ll have an independent party settle this. Scott would you please go through the books and check the numbers this evening.”
Scott decided it was his turn to sigh. “I was thinking of reading my new book this evening.”
“Well it won’t take you very long. You don’t need to correct them, once you agree that the numbers in the column don’t add up give them to Johnny to put right.”
“Why can’t you just look through them together?”
“I ain’t looking at them again. As I said I’ve added them up already and they were fine.”
Johnny looked like he was on the verge of storming out so Scott decided to give in.
“Okay, as you two are incapable of working together, I will check the books after dinner on one condition.”
If his father and his brother were somewhat surprised by his words and the slight edge to his voice it was not apparent as they both turned to look at him.
“During dinner the two of you try to act civilly to one another and nobody mentions the books.”
“Wait for it Johnny, there’s more. Once I’ve found out who has made the mistake, there will be no gloating and no further animosity.” He eyeballed the two other men who both nodded meekly.
Surprisingly dinner passed without upset. Johnny and Murdoch were both a little quiet and conversation remained strictly on ranch business; still, given the start to the evening, this was better than Scott had hoped for. His father and his brother were always a little subdued after a shouting match with each other. Scott believed that, in Johnny’s case, this was because he usually felt remorseful for speaking so harshly to his father. Murdoch was more difficult to puzzle out. Still, whether they regretted their behaviour towards one another or not, neither one of them seemed to apologise afterwards, at least not as far as Scott had ever heard.
After dinner Scott looked at the books and it didn’t take him long to spot the error that Murdoch had seen.
“Johnny, I’m sorry but Murdoch is right this column doesn’t add up.”
Johnny walked over to the desk where Scott was sitting.
“What that can’t be right. I checked those figures over and over.” The woeful look on his brother’s face stilled any teasing comment that Scott was going to make.
“You just made a mistake boy, it’s easily done.”
Johnny sank down in the chair in front of the desk and rested his head in his hands.
“No, you don’t understand. I worked really hard on those columns today. I checked them really carefully. You know what he’s like about those blasted books and after the row this morning I didn’t want to get into it again about the books.”
Suddenly, Scott did understand. He knew how hard Johnny worked on the ranch to please his father; of course it wouldn’t be any different when he was working on the books. The problem was Johnny’s words didn’t always mesh with his actions. Scott found it difficult to reconcile the angry youth that had blown up this morning and stomped off to do the hated chore with the man that had sat at the desk in the great room for hours trying to make sure the job was done properly. Scott knew that if he found Johnny difficult to understand his father certainly did.
“Guess the Old Man’s right I do need to sort my arithmetic out. Must be pretty dumb if I can’t even add a column of numbers.”
“Anyone can make a mistake brother.”
“Sure, just seems like I make more than my fair share eh?” Johnny tossed a half smile at his brother and got up to pour a whisky to take to his father. “Guess I better go and eat crow huh?”
Johnny walked out onto the verandah and was surprised to see his father sitting on the bench with his elbows resting on his knees and his head in his hands. He hesitated to approach. There was something about his father’s posture that was different. He looked older, more vulnerable and, yes, slightly miserable. To his astonishment, the sight of Murdoch like this raised protective feelings in him.
Johnny swallowed and walked around the bench in order to kneel down at his father’s side. Murdoch looked up at him and the glass of whiskey he was proffering and smiled.
Before taking the glass, Murdoch’s large hand reached out and with the lightest and briefest of touches rested on the back of the young man’s head.
The two men remained in silence for a few minutes. Murdoch sat back and sipped his drink whilst Johnny stayed kneeling by the side of the bench. It wasn’t the most comfortable position but for a reason he couldn’t understand he didn’t want to move. The emotions that had coursed through his body when his father’s hand had brushed his hair had left him feeling dizzy. His father rarely touched him and that short gentle caress had been most unexpected. Johnny wondered how a person could have the power to produce so many sensations with just one small movement. He wasn’t sure if Murdoch ever touched Scott like that and, if he did, whether it affected his brother as deeply as it did him. He shook his head; now was not the time to be thinking about this.
Murdoch smiled again at him and suddenly he couldn’t help but smile back.
“Why are you shaking your head?”
“I was just wondering when you were going to ask me about the books.”
“John,” Murdoch’s expression turned serious. “About the books, you’ve done a good job on them this afternoon. Anyone can make a little error in the addition, I make them all the time.”
“S’alright Murdoch, guess I’m the one who needs to apologise, you were right there was a mistake.”
Murdoch acknowledged this statement with a brief nod. He examined his bitten fingernails for a few moments before looking back up at his son.
“You know I didn’t ask you to do the books as a punishment.”
Johnny shifted uncomfortably on his knees. “Well, why did you ask me to do the books, you’ve never asked me before unless I’ve been sick.”
Murdoch leaned back on the bench and finished the rest of the whisky in his glass and for a while Johnny thought he was not going to answer the question.
“Because I don’t want you on that horse while you are still stiff from the fall yesterday and unless I chain you up or give you a job to do where I can keep an eye on you, you don’t seem to take no for an answer.”
Johnny rocked slightly on his heels while he contemplated this revelation. After a couple of minutes his handsome face broke out into a smile that almost lit up the dark night.
“I’m not asking for your forgiveness boy.”
Johnny just continued to smile sunnily.
“Nah, but you’re forgiven anyway.” Johnny glanced warily at his father. “Provided of course you don’t make me do the books again tomorrow.”
Murdoch looked down at the whisky glass he was twisting in his hands.
“Ok, provided you don’t get back on that horse tomorrow.” Johnny opened his mouth to argue. “I mean it John, that horse is crazy and when you are moving as stiffly as you are you aren’t going to roll so well when you get thrown off.”
“And if I don’t agree?”
Murdoch stared his son directly in the eye. “You’ll find out just how much bookwork there is to do on this ranch.”
Johnny chuckled. “Guess I haven’t got much of a choice.”
“Guess not, give in son, it’s only for a few days.”
“Hold on, you said tomorrow.”
“Well, we’ll see.” Again Murdoch’s hand snaked out and gently touched the back of Johnny’s dark hair before he stood up and walked back into the house. Johnny sat down on the bench his father had vacated and wondered at the gesture.
“Well I guess we’d better get to it brother.” Scott said as he walked out the door.
Johnny just nodded, grabbed another biscuit from the breakfast table and stuffed it into his mouth.
“Johnny, remember not on that horse today.”
Johnny nodded again as he left the kitchen and mumbled through a mouthful of soggy bread “Sure Murdoch, I’m just gonna put those books right before I go.”
Murdoch felt his shoulders tighten in annoyance, he had expected Johnny to correct the mistake last night. He thought about calling his son into the kitchen and talking to him about the importance of finishing a job once he had started it but decided against it. Those books had caused enough trouble for one week.
Sitting at the desk in the great room, Johnny opened the books and tried to add up the lists of numbers. As he looked down the column he saw the mistake. He had written a seven and his father, trying with his bad eyesight to correct his son’s admittedly untidy printing, had changed the seven to a four. He thought about letting Murdoch know about his mistake but decided against it. Those books had caused enough trouble for one week.
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