Secret Valentines by Belinda

Word Count 17,021

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The Lancer boys had come into Green River to make a deposit on the piping supplies Murdoch had ordered for the irrigation system they were installing on the new acreage the ranch had just purchased.  Both Johnny and Scott had eagerly volunteered to take care of  business on their father’s behalf; not so much out of generosity as in the realization it would put them in town much earlier than usual; allowing them to get a head start on their traditional Saturday night hurrahing. 

Now, however, their business already finished — they were in a bit of a lull.  The saloons were still in their sweep-out, swamp-out stage and not yet opened to the public, which meant they didn’t have a prayer in Hell of getting a drink.  Or anything else, for that matter.

Johnny was getting bored.  Not a good thing, Scott knew.  He needed a plan.  Tapping his younger brother on the shoulder, he pointed across the street to the sheriff’s office.

“What!?” Johnny groused.  He had been busy looking up and down the main street hoping for some sign of life.   Anything, like maybe someone actually opening the front door to the saloons; or maybe an upstairs window in the rooms where the girls were lurkin’.  It wasn’t happenin’.

“It seems, little brother, we were just a tad too efficient in our business dealings; tied things up too soon.”  He pointed a long finger towards Val’s office a second time.  “What say we go visit with our esteemed local magistrate, catch up on the local news until the saloons open?”  He turned to face his younger brother, smiling.  “It will make the time go faster.”

Johnny was scratching the skin below his left ear, thinking about it.   A sly smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.  Val would never be expecting to see him in town so early on a Saturday morning.  In fact, he’d be damned surprised to see Johnny; real surprised, if he played his cards right.

Scott didn’t know what his brother was thinking, and decided to offer more encouragement.  “You know, Johnny, if we catch Val early enough, maybe we can convince him to join us for a drink before everyone else gets into town.  A little private time with an old friend?” he coaxed.

The smile was now creasing the corners of Johnny’s eyes.  He was all for suprisin’ Val with an early visit.  And once they picked him up off the floor, he would josh the lawman into tellin’ Scott about the times when they had ridden together — well some of the times.  He and Val always had a good time playin’ with Scott like that.  Tellin’ him just enough of the truth to keep him interested, and then tossin’ in a few whoppers to keep ‘im wondering.

Suddenly, Scott found himself being dragged along behind his younger brother, grinning a bit as it became obvious that Johnny had taken off his spurs and was now pussy-footing it towards the Sheriff’s front door.

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Val Crawford sat at his desk, head bowed, brow wrinkled, his eyes focused on something frilly and pink in front of his nose; deep in thought.  So hard was he concentrating on the bits of paper, he never noticed the quiet creaking of the front door.  

Johnny, his hat off and hanging against his back, carefully eased his head through the open door, craning his neck to peer around the portal.  Scott’s head appeared just above the younger man’s; both boys holding their breaths as they spied on the lawman.  Then, easing across the threshold, Johnny signaled for his brother to follow.  Once Scott was inside the room, Johnny took things in hand.  Placing his flat palms against the heavy door he pushed as hard as he could; slamming the solid slab of oak against the jamb.  It had the same effect as a double-barreled greener being fired; the explosive bang producing the desired results.

Val scrambled backwards and up out of his chair, his right hand immediately going to his hip.  He barely relaxed — in fact almost seemed to be reconsidering pulling his piece and firing.   “Damn you, Johnny!  What’s the matter with you?”  The man’s hand was still on his weapon.  “I know you wasn’t raised in no barn, and you been taught better then to come into a room without makin’ all that damned noise!”

Johnny’s hands were raised above his head; as if he wasn’t sure if Val was going to draw or not.  Val could get cranky, and he was always threatening to blow Johnny’s fool head off.  “Well, either you’re gettin’ hard of hearin’ or you’re just gettin’ careless, you old coot,” Johnny sassed back.  He cocked his head, and gave the older man his best puppy dog grin.  “Can I put my hands down, compadre?  Fingers are gettin’ kinda tingly.”

Val snorted.  “Well, ain’t that just too damned bad.  You gonna remember to knock next time?”  He was still frowning; but his fingertips were no longer tapping against the walnut grip of his Remington.   He glanced at the elder brother, and then turned his eyes back to the brunet.  “Why you two in town so early anyway?” he asked. “Murdoch finally get tired of your sorry butts and kick you out?”

Scott had watched the sparring between his brother and the lawman, welcoming the diversion as he maneuvered around to the side of Val’s desk to get a closer look at the lace-trimmed pink heart the sheriff had been staring at only moments before.  Reaching out, he picked up the fragile bit of paper; only to have it immediately snatched away.

“And what’s the matter with you, college boy?” Val snarled, turning to face Scott. “You bein’ the big brother and all, ain’t you the one that’s ‘sposed to be teachin’ him good manners?”  Val shook the bit of red paper beneath the young man’s nose.   “Like how to knock, and how to keep his fingers off other people’s property!?”

Scott was grinning.  He’d seen the words written on the frilly piece of paper. “Is there something you want to tell us, sheriff, or perhaps show us?”  He moved in closer to the man.  “Is that possibly…” he pointed smugly at the object in Val’s hand, his voice lowering to a conspiratorial whisper,” … from a secret admirer?”

No wanting to be left out of something he knew was going to be great fun, Johnny joined in the teasing.  After all, he owed the lawman some serious payback from when Val had carted the Widow Hargis out to Lancer to see him while he was laid up with a busted leg.   Throwing caution to the wind, Johnny made a grab for the piece of paper.  “Whooee, that sure is a pretty little card you got their, Val. Who’s the lucky gal that’s got you hooked on her line?” He was dancing around the lawman now, trying with everything he had to snatch the bit of frippery from the lawman’s hand. 

Val’s longer arms prevailed, and he spun away from the brunet whirlwind; at the same time avoiding Scott’s attempts to snatch the prize.  In a slick, speedy move that would have impressed a rattler, the wily sheriff tucked the bit of paper and lace beneath a stack of wanted posters, and then planted his butt right on top of them.  Arms crossed, he smirked at the younger Lancer boy.

Scott had been paying more attention to the smaller details than Johnny; who had been concentrating of the bit of paper Val was intent on hoarding.  Several other similar pieces of red paper were peeking out from other stacks of paper on the lawmen’s desk.  Raising a long forefinger, Scott pointed to the other partially buried treasures; actually using the same finger to coax one from its hiding place.   Shoving his hat back on his forehead, he pretended to read, and then said aloud:  “Seems whoever has her cap set for our esteemed constable is quite determined, and very…” he drug the word out, “… prolific.”  To prove his point, he began tugging at the other cards, pulling them from their hiding places.  “Look at all these little missives that are hiding amongst his paper work.”

Johnny grinned up at his brother, who was obviously on a roll.  “Come on, Val. Tell us who she is,” he coaxed.”   His eyes widened.   “I bet it’s the new school teacher!”   He turned his head to face his sibling, knowing that Scott would follow his lead.  “What do you think, Brother?”

The new school teacher was an older woman with the personality of a dried up prune and the looks to go with it.   More than once, she had popped Johnny’s mouth when he failed to speak what she considered proper English or a cuss word slipped out.  The temptation to shoot her was powerful strong sometimes, and he made a conscious effort to avoid her; not the easiest thing because her pew at the church was right in front of Murdoch’s.  It was even worse during the once-a-month visits when it was Lancer’s turn to entertain and board the dried up little shrew.   Pulling himself out his dark reverie, Johnny addressed the lawman.  “Yep.  It’s the schoolmarm, Miss Hortense,” he crowed; rubbing his hands together in unabashed glee.

Val’s head shot up and a look of pure panic crossed his face. “You don’t really think it’s her do ya?” he asked.

Johnny wanted to pursue the fun at Val’s expense, but Scott came to the lawman’s rescue.  Val could only be pushed so far before things could get ugly, and sometimes Johnny’s push turned into shove; and then all Hell would break loose.

Clearing his throat, Scott spoke up.  “I doubt it, Val. She definitely doesn’t seem the type to go after a man, much less a man like you.”

Val’s eyes narrowed.  “And just what’s that supposed to mean, Mr. ‘I been to Harvard’ Lancer?” he asked defensively.

Scott raised one hand in the universal sign of peace; realizing that he had just gone a bit too far.  “I mean, Val, you’re a lawman and perceived as someone who dispenses a sometimes rather direct form of justice.  You wear a gun during your every waking hour,”  he continued ticking off the man’s less genteel attributes, “you also enjoy a night in the saloon, would rather drink a cold beer than a glass of lemonade and can drink tequila glass for glass with Johnny. All of which the proper Miss Hortense is totally against.”  He leaned in a bit.  “She’s just not your type,” he cajoled.

Val gave Scott a long appraising look but finally came to the conclusion that the young man wasn’t insulting him or insinuating he was unfit for female companionship; or even husband material.  He spared the man a crooked grin.  “Heard she can’t cook, either,” he said, patting his belly.  He jerked his head in Johnny’s direction.   “And you know how that’d fly if your brother took a mind to drop in for eats.”

Johnny was no longer listening to the banter between his elder brother and Val Crawford.  Like a kid on an Easter Egg hunt, the youth had managed to ferret out every bit of red paper that had been hidden atop the lawman’s desk.   He was standing in the middle of the room now, holding first one, and then another, up to his nose.  “Whoever it is sure does smell good,” he sighed as he took another big whiff of the little cards. “They all smell the same, so I figure they all come from the same lady.”

Val nodded his head in agreement. “I figured the same thing but I ain’t got no idea who. I find em slipped under the door when I come in now and then. Been gettin’ em now for danged near two weeks.”

Suddenly it occurred to Val he was discussing his personal business with the Lancer boys; something he rarely did when they were together.  It was time to regain control of the situation; before Johnny got out of hand and turned a minor, annoying mystery into a major, Johnny Madrid catastrophe.  Snatching at the cluster of cards Johnny was still holding, the older man changed the subject, his tone becoming more severe. “I asked you why you were in town and I know it ain’t to pry into my personal life. Give them back, boy; before I whomp on you.” Val tried again unsuccessfully to grab the little cards away from Johnny but the boy was too quick.

“We had business to tend to for Murdoch so we rode in a little early.” Scott volunteered.

Val made another grab at the cards and once again Johnny managed to dance away. “Well then why don’t cha go and take care of your daddy’s business and leave me alone.”

“Can’t.” Johnny shot back.  Grinning like a jackass; he did a little jig, still clutching the bits of paper.

“And just why the Hell not?” Val demanded; frustration beginning to get the better of him.

“Cause we already done it.” Johnny grinned mischievously at his old friend.  Just as quickly, he turned away from the older man and shoved the cards beneath his brother’s nose. “Here, Scott.  Take a big whiff of these.”

Scott took a step back when the cards were nearly shoved right up his nostrils.  He batted at his brother’s hands.  “What are you doing; and why do you want me to smell these cards?” he asked.

Johnny sighed.  Sometimes his brother could be so damned dumb. “Cause we can tell who wrote ‘em, if we find the lady who smells like these cards.”

Scott’s eye brows rose into his hairline as it occurred to him that — for once — his little brother actually might have a good idea. Alarms began to sound, but after some careful consideration he pushed the thoughts away.  Johnny was a skilled tracker, and his ability to sniff out something that had gained his attention (especially if it was food or the perfume of a new girl in town) was legendary.  What possible trouble, he mused, could Johnny get into if they just idly went around town and tried to track down the lady who had become enamored with their beloved sheriff?

Val once again made a grab for the cards.  This time he was more successful, and actually snatched the cards out of Johnny’s hand.

Totally caught by surprise, Johnny protested.  “Hey!”  There was a bit of a scuffle as he tried to get the cards back; and he let out a yelp as Val slipped the cards into his desk drawer, not giving a damned when he pinched the boy’s fingers.

Grinning as Johnny stood in the middle of the floor sucking his fingertips, he made a shooing motion with both hands.  “How about you boys just leave me alone and let me get on with my business.”  The smile turned into a stern frown.  “Now you get out of here before I find some charges to slap on the both of you, and toss your sorry asses in my jail!”

Johnny held up his hands and started backing away. “Okay, okay. We were just tryin’ to help. We’re goin’.”  He reached out and tugged at his brother’s sleeve.

Scott’s eyes narrowed as he studied his brother’s face.  It was clear from the sudden surrender the boy had something up his sleeve.  “Of course, sheriff,” he nodded.  “The last thing we want to do is to keep you from your duties.” Backing out the door, he turned and followed his younger brother.

Johnny was walking so fast Scott had to run to catch up with him.  Needing to get Johnny’s attention, he grabbed the boy’s arm and spun him around.  “Hold on, little brother. Just where do you think you’re going?”

Shrugging, the youth attempted to peel his brother’s fingers from his upper arm.  “I’m gonna go and find the gal that’s sending Val them pretty little cards,” he snapped.

“And you intend doing that how?” Scott asked; still holding on to his brother’s sleeve.

Continuing to struggle, Johnny’s next words clearly showed his frustration with his brother’s apparent lack of common sense.  “I’m gonna go smell ‘em. Now will you let go of me?”

Scott took a firmer hold on Johnny’s arm.  The mental vision of his kid brother hot on the scent of the mysterious temptress was not a pleasant thing to behold.  Surely, the boy could not be serious!  One look at Johnny’s face told him otherwise.  He closed his eyes for a brief moment; the next words coming through clenched teeth.  “Let me guess,” he ground out.  “You have a plan.”

Smiling, and very proud of himself, Johnny nodded.   “Yep!”

Scott was shaking his head.  “No!” he declared.   He inhaled, deeply.  “Johnny, you can’t just walk up to a lady and start sniffing at her like you are a dog.”

Johnny was already scoping out the buildings on the opposite side of the street.  “Wanna bet?” he challenged.  He turned to smile up at his brother, loving the look of irritation that had turned his sibling’s eyes a slate grey.  It seemed like a good time to ease up.  “C’mon, Scott,” he cajoled, “I’m gonna do it — what’s that word you use all the time? — oh, yeah, subtle like.”   He jabbed his brother in the ribs.  “Thought maybe you could help me; you bein’ all smart about ladies and all.”

Releasing his brother’s arm, Scott stepped back.  For a moment, Johnny thought his brother was going to refuse, but then, to his amazement Scott actually agreed.

The blond was nodding his head.  “It might work; but we have to be very careful. You can’t just walk up to a lady and bury your nose in her hair.   We’re going to need to be much more than subtle, little brother; we are also going to have to be very clever and just how we proceed.”

Johnny was tickled that his plan to get Scott involved worked. The way things had been going lately, he figured with a little time he might actually get his older brother wrapped around his little finger just like he did the rest of the family. Well, maybe not MurdochSeemed his father was not only immune to the Madrid glare, he also wasn’t prone to buy his puppy dog look or his — as Scott called it — most charming shit-eating grin.

The boy was ready to get with it.  “Okay, big brother, where we goin’ first?”  His curiosity was getting him excited; and the sooner they uncovered Val’s secret admirer, the quicker Johnny could dose out some hefty payback for the lawman poking fun at him for getting caught in nothing but  his birthday suit when he had hauled the Widow Hargis out to Lancer for her surprise visit.

“Let’s start with Mrs. Hargis’ niece,” Scott said, pulling Johnny along with him.

Johnny put on the brakes; pulling his brother up short. “Are you loco? Marabell ain’t the one sending him those cards. She’s just like the widow; wound up tighter than a clock.  Shit.  She wouldn’t know what love was if it bit her in the ass.”

Scott grabbed Johnny by the back of his collar and began hauling him towards the widow’s store. “It’s called process of elimination.  Besides it’s usually always the one you least expect.  Now come on.”

When they reached the front door of the Widow’s store, Scott slowed up just long enough to let Johnny on the plan.   “I’ll get Mrs. Hargis off to the side.  You, Dupin,” he smiled when he saw that his brother recognized the name of Poe’s detective from The Murders in the Rue Morgue, a book he had read to Johnny just recently, “will ask Marabell to help you find some candy.  Once you get her out from behind the counter, you can lean in and take a subtle,” he stressed the word, “whiff.   Do you think you can handle that, little brother?”

Johnny pushed away from his sibling; exasperation lacing every word. “Jesus, Scott. You act like I’m some kid who can’t stay out of trouble.  ‘course I can handle this. Now come on.”

Nonchalantly, the young men entered the store. Scott directly went to Mrs. Hargis and very tactfully steered her towards the coal oil lamps; asking her as they went what her personal preference was for fueling them. Johnny headed over to where Marabell was standing behind the counter and began charming her with a smile that never failed to win over even the most foul tempered lady. Tipping his hat, Johnny greeted the sour faced spinster, “Morning, Miz Marabell. How are you this fine afternoon?”   Propping his elbows against the top of the counter, he leaned forward.

Marabell narrowed her eyes at the young man standing before her but her heart was fluttering at the way he was looking at her.  “I’m fine, Mr. Lancer,” she cooed.  “Can I help you with anything?”

Johnny’s chin was resting atop his clasped hands. “Well, I told Scott — that’s my brother Scott over there — I told Scott I got me a real need for somethin’ sweet,” he voice lowered, “somethin’ I ain’t tasted before…”  The words just hung there for a moment as his gaze lingered on the woman’s face.  He shrugged.  “You know, somethin’ new.”

Marabell swallowed.  “My aunt was just getting ready to put out some of the little chocolates she ordered from San Francisco,” she smiled.  She made a small circle with her thumb and forefinger. 

Johnny’s eyebrows rose; just enough to disappear beneath the fringe of curls that were sweat-damp against his forehead.  “Little chocolates,” he drawled.  He stole a quick glance at his brother; grinning when he saw that his elder brother was still in deep conversation with the Widow Hargiss.  “How little?” he asked.

Marabell moved out from behind the counter to rummage through the raffia filled box she had yet to unpack.  When she withdrew her hand, she was holding a foil wrapped box.  “They’re very expensive,” she breathed, holding the box against her tiny breasts.

Carefully, Johnny leaned in just a bit more.  “That’s okay,” he smiled.  “You can just put ‘em on my Old…” he caught himself just in time, “…my Pa’s account.  And you prob’bly ought to make it two boxes, bein’ as they ain’t all that big.”  This time when he smiled, it was the full toothed grin that was his most innocent.

The woman canted her head.   “I hope you don’t try and eat them all at once, Mr. Lancer.  They are very rich, and I wouldn’t want to spoil your dinner.”

Johnny was shaking his head.  “Oh, I don’t plan on eatin’ ‘em all at once, ma’am,” he fibbed.  “Plan on savin’ some for later,” he nodded his head towards his brother.  “Wouldn’t be right not to share.”

Marabell titled forward slightly as she dug for a second box; and then handed them to the young man.   At the same time, Johnny leaned forward yet again.  Just as he was about to sniff in a lung full of Marabell’s hair, the older woman straightened up; suddenly flustered by Johnny being so close to her head. When she did she smacked her head right into Johnny’s nose. It was all downhill from there.

Sudden pain shot up through the bridge of Johnny’s nose; assaulting his brain as bright stars blazed across his eyeballs.  Holding his nose and quickly backing up, Johnny felt another stabbing ache; this time in his butt as his rear-end collided with the metal-rimmed, wooden barrel at his back.  Before he knew what was happening, the barrel tipped; a domino effect taking place as the container of dry beans scattered across the floor.  The hard, round beans were like marbles beneath his feet, and he instantly lost his footing.  Arms flailing, he clawed at the counter, his fingers closing around a length of muslin that began to unravel like a skein of yarn.  The more he tugged at the cloth to regain his footing, the more the bolt of cloth unwound.  It hung up for a moment on the display of Lady Goldy face cream; two tins tumbling to the floor; the impact bending the containers and popping the lids.

Desperately trying to regain his balance, Johnny found himself skating in place atop the oil-based cream.  Once again, he grabbed at the counter; the fingers of his right hand closing around a pyramid display of barred soap.   The cakes of hard-milled soap cascaded from the counter, bombarding Johnny’s head and shoulders.

Scott and Mrs. Hargis watched in horror as Johnny seemed to turn into a one man demolition team. Just when they didn’t think it could get any worse, Marabell came running to help the poor unfortunate cowboy.  The woman’s slick-soled, high button shoes immediately surrendered to the slick mess now coating the plank flooring; her feet shooting out from under her, toes pointing directly at the ceiling.  White pantaloons and petticoats flying, the woman let loose with an ear-splitting scream.

Ever the gentleman, Johnny closed his eyes and reached out in a genuine attempt to help a lady in distress.  His reward for such gallantry was a sudden boxing of his ears.

Totally embarrassed, Marabell scrambled to get back on her feet.  In her desperation, she clawed at the counter; only to know the added distress of tipping over a full jar of rainbow colored jawbreakers.  More pandemonium ensued as the woman once again lost her balance and fell face forward; landing dead center of Johnny Lancer’s broad chest.  It was enough to knock the boy flat on his back; the wind knocked out of him as lay beneath the woman’s dead weight.  

The room was comparatively silent now; except for the sound of breathing.  There was a strange, contented sigh coming from Marabell, who had not moved one mote; more labored breathing coming from Johnny, who was gasping for air.

The quiet was completely shattered by the shrill cry of Widow Hargiss.  “Don’t either one of you move,” she shrieked.  “Not so much as a finger, until Mr. Lancer…” she turned to glare at Scott, “…can clean up this mess!!”

For the next several minutes, Johnny had to endure the not so little Marabell Hargis sitting on his midsection while Scott shoveled up the mess.  In the background, Widow Hargiss supervised; voicing her opinion with every breath.

It took a lot longer than Scott anticipated; and by the time he had cleaned up to the Widow’s satisfaction, he wished himself deaf.

 Once he was freed from Marabell, Johnny took a long breath and allowed Scott to help him to his feet. The whole time he had been pinned to the floor, Mrs. Hargis — in between her rants at Scott — had chewed on him for being so clumsy and for wrecking her store. When she saw his still-bleeding nose, however; she relented.  Poking about the boy’s abused nose, she examined the damage done by her niece’s very hard head.

The poking and prodding hurt more than the original injury and Johnny tried backing up to escape Mrs. Hargis’ attention.  It didn’t work.  All he succeeded in doing was backing right into his brother’s waiting arms.

Scott grabbed his younger sibling and held on to him while the widow continued her torturous inspection. Once she was satisfied the nose wasn’t broken; she waved both young men away.  It was clear from her tone and mood that she meant every word she said as they departed: that they were never, ever to darken her doorstep again.

Johnny was still holding the handkerchief that Scott had given him against his nose.  The cloth muffled his words and when he told his brother it wasn’t Marabell that had sent the cards, Scott had to ask him to repeat himself. Exasperated by his brother’s inability to understand what he was saying, Johnny flung the soiled handkerchief at Scott.  “I said ‘IT AIN’T MARABELL THAT’S SENDIN’ THEM CARDS TO VAL’!”

Scott caught the handkerchief and folded it so that the soiled side was wrapped inside the folds and promptly looked around to see who they should visit next. He spied the Milliners’ shop and steered his brother towards the front door.

Johnny balked when he saw where they were headed. “I ain’t goin in there.”

Annoyed with Johnny’s reluctance, Scott grabbed his younger brother by the arm.  “Why not? It’s perfect. She’s single and just the type that might be too shy to say anything out right.”

Johnny tried to wrestle his arm away from Scott. “I’m not going in there with all that ladies stuff. It ain’t natural for a man to be seen goin’ in a place like that.  Now let go of me.”

Scott tightened his grip on Johnny’s arm and began pulling him towards the little shop. “We just have to tell Miss Barrett that Teresa asked us to see if her new hat has arrived.  It’s the perfect cover. All you have to do is stand still, and I’ll handle the rest. Now stop fighting me and come on.”

The small bell that hung above the door tinkled softly as the two young men stepped across the threshold.  Scott tipped his head towards his younger brother, and whispered into this ear.  “This time, I’ll do the sniffing,” he announced.  “You,” he thumped his brother’s chest with a rigid forefinger, “will stand…” the finger moved to point at the floor, “…right here and stay out of trouble.”  His eyes narrowed.  “You do understand what I mean when I say stay out of trouble. No touching things and no wandering around the place.   You just simply stand still and wait for me to finish with Miss Barrett.”

Johnny frowned at the insult.  “I ain’t no little kid, Scott! I think I can stay out of trouble long enough for you to get a whiff of Miss Barrett. Now let go of me.” This time when he attempted to pull away from his brother’s grip, he gave an extra tug; only to realize that Scott had already let go.  It was enough to almost make the younger man lose his balance.  Just in time, Scott grabbed his arm; avoiding a collision with the stack of hat boxes that were piled right next to the door.

Once he was sure the boy was steady on his feet, Scott gave him the look; the same one Murdoch Lancer used so well when he was put out or making a point.  The glare became even more intense when Johnny began to pout.  Scott rewarded him with a sudden smack to his ass end. 

His butt and nose smarting, Johnny stood still and tried not to move.  He decided to risk it; shifting his weight from his right let to his left.  Still, he was fidgety and had an over whelming urge to move even more, if nothing more but to scratch his head. He could feel the hair on the back of his neck starting to stand on end a sure sign that something bad was going to happen.

Scott smiled in greeting as the attractive woman came out from the back room.  “Hello, Miss Barrett. How are you today?”   He removed his hat and elbowed his brother to follow suit.

Johnny quickly removed his Stetson, and nodded.  “Ma’am.”

Miss Barrett was a fetching little brunette, with hazel eyes that radiated a great deal of warmth.  She nodded at Johnny and then turned her attention to the elder brother.  “Why Scott Lancer, what a surprise.”  She extended her hand; the smile growing as the young man bowed slightly and kissed her hand.  “I’m doing well, thank you.  Now, what brings you to my little shop?”  This time, her gaze was on the younger man.  It was quite a surprise to see Johnny.  The few times he had brought Teresa to shop, he’d always remained outside, definitely looking uncomfortable and never once venturing across the threshold.

Scott nodded in the direction of the counter, where a half-dozen hats were displayed on China heads; the sculptures elegantly coiffed but in demure poses.  “We’ve come to check on our little sister’s chapeau. She asked that we see if it might be ready yet. I think she’s rather excited about wearing it to church.” Scott moved in closer in order to take in the little woman’s sweet fragrance.

As Scott continued to charm Miss Barrett, Johnny involuntarily stepped back trying to distance himself from the hat that was on display in the store window just to his right. The voluminous feathers were swaying slightly from the breeze that was filtering in from the open transom above the door; tickling his nose and making him want to sneeze.  Unfortunately he didn’t see the second stacks of boxes that were right behind him; and before he could stop what was happening, his spur snagged the bottom carton.  Turning around, he watched in horror as, one by one, the round boxes began to topple in his direction.  Instinct prompted him to reach out; matters made worse as his elbow collided with a second stack of boxes.  It was like watching an avalanche coming at him from all sides; his eyes widening as he backed up yet again.  This time, he stumbled over his own feet; losing his balance and landing on his butt.  The cardboard lids came undone; tons of ribbons and feathers cascading from the containers.  Yards and yards of delicate netting that seemed to have a mind of its own exploded from the boxes, snaking around his body and causing him to wave his arms as if attempting to work his way through a giant spider’s web.  The struggle against the netting only made matters worse when his fingers connected with a low shelf and a basket of silk flowers, feathered birds and loose glass beads fell onto his head.

The commotion caused Scott and Mrs. Barrett to turn around just in time to see box after box of accessories land on the youngest Lancer; who was soon buried beneath a thick layer of frills and frippery. “Johnny!” Scott bellowed.

Miss Barrett’s face drained completely of color as she observed the mayhem.  “Oh, my!” the woman cried.   “All my pretty things!”  She repeated the words as she watched the multi-colored flowers, ribbons, and tulle bury the youngest Lancer boy, until only a brief flash of red shirt poked out from beneath the pile.

In three great strides, Scott crossed the room to tower above his brother.  He started right in.  “Be still,” he ordered.  “I told you not to move.”

Johnny shoved himself up on his elbows; blowing out a long breath to dislodge the damned feathers.  He was in no mood for a lecture.  “You get me outta this, Scott Garret Lancer!” he yelled.  “NOW!”

Scott was shaking his head.  There was no way he was going to put up with the boy’s attitude.  “Just be still, and maybe I can get you free without damaging Miss Barrett’s entire inventory.”  His next words came in a harsh whisper.  “I can’t believe you find it that hard to simply stand still!”

It took several minutes of careful detangling to push aside the flowers and birds, but finally Scott was able to free his little brother from the mess.  None to gently, he hauled his sibling out the door and planted his butt solidly on the steps leading up to the boardwalk.  

Fifteen minutes later, Scott backed out the door, apologizing the whole time for Johnny’s ‘misfortunate accident’. 

Johnny shaded his eyes with his right hand as he stared up at his brother.  Scott was smoothing his hair; patting it into place and then putting on his hat.  It took a while to get the hat just right.  “So,” Johnny ventured, “where we goin’ next?”

Scott’s jaws tensed.  He reached out, grabbing his brother by the scruff of the neck and hauling him to his feet.  “Saloon,” he ground out.  “I’m going to use the last dollar I’ve got,” he speared his brother with a particularly hard glare, “and I’m going to have a beer.  And then, little brother, we are going home.”  Still holding on to this brother, he started marching down the street.

Johnny put on the brakes.  “Nope,” he declared stubbornly.  He elbowed his brother in the gut and pulled free.

Before the young man could take even two steps forward, he found himself hauled up short.  Once again, Scott’s fingers were wrapped firmly around his collar; and this time, he had a handful of hair.  “Beer,” he said.  “And then home.”

The brunette shrugged.  “You go home, brother.  Me, I’m stayin’ in town.”

Scott’s eyes closed momentarily as he counted to ten in three languages. 

Johnny was watching his brother’s face and decided to throw kerosene on the fire.  “You don’t help me, I’ll take care of it myself,” he threatened.

There was an audible whoosh as Scott took in a deep breath.  The idea of Johnny hell-bent on a mission on his own was simply more than the man could bear.  The boy was a walking trouble magnet even when he was marginally supervised, but on his own…  “Follow me,” he breathed; hoping against hope his luck might turn and Johnny could actually manage to do as he was told.   After all, lightning couldn’t strike three times in the same place, could it?  

Reluctantly, Scott headed down the street.  Johnny matched him stride for stride; no small thing considering his brother’s legs were longer.  The younger man was actually whistling.  

Once they reached their destination, Johnny pulled up short.  He leaned around his brother, his eyes narrowing as he stared through the window into the shop’s interior.  “Maybe I should stay out here while you go in, Scott.”  Hopeful, he grinned up at his brother.  “I don’t mind. Really I don’t.” Johnny looked at the door as if it led into a den of lions.

“It’s the dress shop, Johnny; not a nunnery,” Scott said. “All you have to do is stand still.  Don’t move.  Don’t touch anything.  Don’t…”

“… breathe,” Johnny grouched.

Scott opened the door and ushered Johnny across the threshold.  He placed him in the middle of the shop and mouthed the words, “Don’t you move.” Once he was sure Johnny was out of reaching distance to anything he could destroy, he headed towards to the counter where Miss Sarah Bellows was warily on guard.

“Miss Bellows,” Scott greeted.  He had already removed his hat.

Like many of the other single women in Green River, Sarah Bellows had a real appreciation for both Lancer brothers.  Both young men were extremely good looking, each in their own way; and quite charming.  Scott, however, was nearer her own age; something she considered an advantage.  Johnny Lancer was far too young to consider as marriage material.  “What can I do for you, Mr. Lancer?”

Scott was smiling.  “I’m here at Teresa’s suggestion,” he began, honing the lie.  “She’s told me many times that your embroidery work is some of the finest she’s ever seen.”  He turned to smile at his younger brother, who was actually standing stock still.  “Murdoch — our father — has been after Johnny to get some new shirts; something suitable for attending church.  Nothing too flashy, of course,” he watched as the woman appraised Johnny with a practiced eye, “just something tastefully done, with just a bit of color; and, of course, only the best material.” He saw at once from the woman’s expression he needed to sweeten the pot.  “No matter the cost,” he finished.

When Miss Bellows raised an eyebrow at that, Scott leaned in for the kill.  And a whiff.  His voice lowered.  “Murdoch wants only the best for his baby boy,” he murmured.  “Johnny’s not always had the best, you know, and Murdoch wants to make it up to him. I just knew the best place to get these shirts made would be to come to you.”

Just then the little bell over the door rang and Mrs. Claremont came in tugging at her six year old daughter, Trudy. “I’ll be with you in just a minute, Millie,” Miss Bellows called.

Mrs. Claremont waved the woman off.  “Take your time, Sarah. I’m going to look at these new prints you were telling me about. Trudy needs a new dress for the party the Church is having for the children on Valentine’s Day.” 

Sarah Bellows turned her attention back to Scott as she showed him some of the white linen material she thought would be perfect for Johnny’s new shirts.  Beyond them, Mrs. Claremont began perusing the bolts of material for Trudy’s dress.  Johnny stood stock still; afraid to move for fear of what Scott would do to him if he even scratched his nose.  And then Trudy Claremont appeared before him.

Trudy, Johnny knew, was a strange child who never said a word but seemed to be quite content to stand and stare.  The youngster also had another annoying habit.  Trudy was forever sticking her finger up her nose; which made her less appealing towards adults.   It was even more disgusting when she picked her nose and then — Johnny’s stomach clenched at the memory of the first time he’d seen her — ate the boogers.  He closed his eyes hoping to shut the image away.  It didn’t work.

Steeling himself and remembering he had been told to be good; Johnny nodded and gave Trudy a quick hello.   The little girl simply returned the greeting by staring at him and studying him intently with wide, dead fish eyes.  

Johnny risked clearing his throat and glanced over at Scott who was fingering some cloth and talking with Miss Bellows; paying no attention to his little brother’s discomfort. Suddenly looking down at Trudy again he was horrified to see the little girl had pulled her finger out of her nose along with one of the biggest boogers he had ever seen. His eyes began to grow in size as he realized that Trudy was steadily walking towards him pointing her booger laden finger in front of her.

His stomach rolling, Johnny immediately began backing up.  Panic began its slow crawl up his gullet, and he continued his retreat.  

In his haste to escape being smeared with the slimy mucous, Johnny backed into a dress dummy, his feet tangling in the flowing fabric that had been draped, sheet-like, across the mannequin’s nude form.  Gravity prevailed, the legless dummy teetering on its cast iron base.  Johnny turned just in time to see the dress form take a deep dip to the left before crashing into the tier of shelving on the side wall.  Dumbfound, he watched as the middle shelf collapsed, causing the entire unit to list to the side; the contents of the cabinet beginning to shift as the frame was pulled away from the wall.  The next thing he knew, mounds of lace, bolts of fabric, and boxes of threads and buttons cascaded on top of him.

Another box on the next set of shelves tipped precariously on edge; the weight of the collapsed cabinet tearing the dry wood from its own frame work.   The carton began its slow slide towards the floor, and then picked up speed.

Speechless, Johnny watched as an assortment of ladies silk underwear fluttered down from the now open container.  At first, it was sort of a pleasant experience, the feel of smooth silk against his face and hair; and then he was totally overwhelmed.  Johnny suddenly found himself drowning in an embarrassing assortment of ladies unmentionables.

“Pour l’amour de Dieu!” (For the love of God!) the demure Miss Barrett shrieked. 

Scott did an immediate about face; his mouth dropping open as he surveyed his younger brother.  He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.  “Johnny!” he roared. 

Mrs. Claremont decided to add her two cents.  “Well of all the clumsy things. What on earth are you even doing in a ladies dress shop, young man?”

Scott firmly moved Mrs. Claremont out of his way and headed directly for his brother.  Johnny was still on his feet, but he was completely tangled in a mass of fabric.  “Johnny, don’t move. You’ve got your spurs hung up in this lace.” 

Once again feeling like he was trying to untie the fabled Gordian knot, Scott worked hard to free his brother.  It didn’t help that Miss Barrett and Mrs. Claremont were voicing their opinions at full bellow.  Unwinding the last of the cloth from his brother’s lean frame; Scott sucked in a deep breath.  Placing the bundle of cloth on the nearest counter, he moved in for a closer inspection.  “Hold still, brother,” he murmured.  There was a small cut above Johnny’s right eye, and it was bleeding.

Miss Bellows mood suddenly changed, and she went into a maternal mode that would have made Maria proud.  Shaking her head, she gingerly fingered the wound.

Even Mrs. Claremont was moved by the sight of blood.  She was clucking like a hen now, alternating between scolding and coddling; the words tumbling out without even a pause for breath.

Finally, after being cleaned up and suffering through a spit bath by Mrs. Claremont and her not so clean looking hanky, Johnny and Scott found themselves headed outside. Once they had made good their escape both young men took a deep breath and a sigh of relief.

Scott was the first to speak.  “Now can we go to the saloon?

Johnny’s eyes narrowed, and the pout had returned.  “No.  We still don’t know who’s sendin’ them love notes to Val.”

The blond’s jaws tensed.  “At this point, Johnny, I don’t care one whit about Val, the love notes he’s received, or just whom it is that is sending them.”

“That right?” Johnny snorted.  “Givin’ up, are you?  Turnin’ tail; runnin’ out on a friend like…”

Scott was staring straight ahead.  “Three attempts,” he said, holding up three fingers.  “We’ve made three attempts to solve your mystery, and all that we’ve…” he reconsidered, “…you have managed to accomplish is to create complete and total chaos in your wake.”  He shook his head.  “If you had been old enough to serve with Sherman, there wouldn’t be enough of the South left to grow a single chickpea, let along support our father’s penchant for blended pipe tobacco.”

Johnny had learned enough about American history lately to know a dig when he heard one.  Only this dig was more like a dare.  He quickly considered his options, and decided pity was the best route to go.  Reaching up, he touched the cut above his eye.  “Phew.  That smarts.”  Then, “Well, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”  He thrust out his hand.  “It’s okay, Scott.  I can understand you wantin’ to give it up.”  Without another word, he took off down the street.

There was a great shuddering sound as Scott inhaled deeply.  Knowing full well he was being suckered, he decided to soldier on.  There was another thing to consider.  If Johnny could get in all this trouble while he was being watched, there was no telling just how much mayhem he could cause on his own.  Reluctantly, he followed after his brother.  Johnny was heading for Mrs. Tidwell’s bakery.

Johnny had a real passion for Mrs. Tidwell’s baked goods, and he had worked overtime to charm the older woman.  As a result, Mrs. Tidwell was always giving him cookies and other little pastries when they came into town.  He had a special love for her chocolate fudge cookies.

The first time Johnny had come into her bakery, Mrs. Tidwell had been a little nervous. She had heard about his reputation as a gunfighter long before she had met him. The stories had not been very flattering and, like others in the San Joaquin Valley, she was more than a bit frightened of him.

That fear was soon a memory, however.  Johnny, who had come into the store with Teresa, had been charming and very well mannered.  And the woman had seen the boy in him.  He was, she realized, a natural charmer.  So much so, he had turned Murdoch Lancer into a bit of a pussy-cat; something that had impressed the woman no end.  And he certainly knew how to wheedle his way with his older brother.


Scott caught up with Johnny just as the boy was about to open the bakery’s door.  Grabbing the younger man’s shoulders, he turned him around and embarked on the lecture.  “No catastrophes this time, little brother,” he warned.  “We are going inside, you are going to sit down at that little table by the window, and you will not move.”  When Johnny began to fidget, he continued.  “I will buy you some cookies,” he saw the frown, “several cookies; but you will not move from that chair.  If you do move, I’m going to personally throttle you myself.”

Johnny looked at his brother with the puppy dog eyes that gave him the look of a tarnished angel.  Poor, little orphan boy look, Scott always called it; his Oliver Twist face.  “Jeez, Scott; you act like all that other stuff that happened was my fault.”  The baby blues were working big time now.  “Besides, me and Mrs. Tidwell got a good thing goin’. She likes it when I come to see her.”  His tone became solemn.  “I ain’t gonna’ sit there, though, and not check on her wood box.  She might be needin’ some kindlin’.”

Scott hadn’t been suckered in by the abandoned puppy look — he’d become fairly immune to his brother’s little boy charm — but the line about filling the wood box weakened his resolve.  Johnny hated splitting wood at Lancer; and had made a second career of getting out of the job.  He reconsidered.  After all, how much trouble could the boy get into for filling a wood box?  The chore might even keep him out of trouble.  “All right,” he agreed.  “After that you sit. Understood?”

Johnny was studying his brother’s face.  The little vein in Scott’s forehead was protruding again and though Johnny usually enjoyed the rise he could get out of his brother; it was getting a bit old.  And risky.  Scott, he knew, was about at the end of his tether

Besides he had planned on Scott buying the first two rounds at the Bulls Head if they ever got there.

“Sure Boston, I got it,” he shrugged.  Reaching out, he opened the door to the little shop, bowing slightly as he let his brother pass through first.  Johnny followed his brother inside, and immediately headed for Mrs. Tidwell.  His hand disappeared inside his shirt, reappearing with a small envelope.  He grinned widely as the woman opened the little card Teresa had helped him fashion.

“Why, Johnny, how sweet of you! I’ve got something special for you as well. Now you sit down over there while I go and get it.” Mrs. Tidwell quickly exited to the back of her little bakery and left Scott and Johnny alone.

Johnny quickly sat down in anticipation of the special surprise Mrs. Tidwell had in store for him while his brother stood looking at him in total awe.  The last thing he ever expected was for his younger brother — who usually pooh-poohed Holiday fuss — give someone a Valentine. “How do you do it, Brother?” Scott asked.

“Do what?” Johnny asked innocently.

Scott tapped his brother’s shoulder with the back of his hand.  “How do you get every female in this town eating out of your hand?”

Not particularly interested in his brother’s question, Johnny shrugged.  “Don’t know,” he breathed.  “Guess they just like me, is all.”

Mrs. Tidwell had just come back into the room with a small little plate in her hand. Sitting atop the dish was a small chocolate heart-shaped cake with white and red icing decorating it like lace and roses. Johnny’s face lit up in eager anticipation.

The woman was smiling.  “If you would like to take it home, dear, I can put it in a box.  Or, if you would rather eat it here, I can fetch you a glass of fresh cold milk.”

Johnny had already swiped at the frosting with his finger.  “Don’t hardly think I could stand it, Ma’am, if I had to wait ‘til I got home to eat this. I’ll just have a go at it right now. Besides, me and Scott here won’t be goin’ home right off.  It’s Saturday night, and we were plannin’ on stayin’ in town; playin’ some cards and such.”

Scott couldn’t help but chuckle.  …And such, he snickered.  Privately, he wondered what Mrs. Tidwell would think about Johnny’s and such.  

Mrs. Tidwell was rubbing Johnny’s shoulder.  “Well then, you just sit right up and I’ll fetch that milk for you.”

Johnny shook his head.  “No, Ma’am. I’ll get the milk. I know where you keep it. I think my brother here has something he wants to ask you.” Johnny smirked at Scott as he made his way to the curtained off area and disappeared to get his milk.

“What can I do for you, Scott?” Mrs. Tidwell asked.  “Some treats for Teresa; or perhaps some of my chewy molasses cookies your father favors?”

“Yes, well, ummm….I was.” Scott was not prepared for the question and hadn’t even given much thought as to how he would handle getting close enough to Mrs. Tidwell in order to see if she used the same fragrance as the cards in Val’s office.

Mrs. Tidwell misunderstood and quickly solved his problem. “Would you be looking for a special surprise for maybe a special young lady for that special day that is coming up?” She asked.

Relieved at his good fortune, Scott returned the woman’s smile. “Yes, Ma’am. I thought perhaps some of your sugar cookies would be a special treat for her.  A half dozen would be perfect.”

While Mrs. Tidwell helped Scott select some of the specially decorated cookies, Johnny ate his cake and drank his milk. He finished before Scott and Mrs. Tidwell had made their final selection so he picked up his plate and glass and headed for the kitchen to rinse them. He decided to make his usual check on the wood and water and disappeared out the back door to bring in a few arm loads of wood.

Johnny was still in the kitchen, pumping water across the dishes he had carried to the sink, when several of the cowhands from the Lazy J ranch came barreling in to the bakery.  Disgust evident on her face, Mrs. Tidwell looked at their muddy boots; her mood souring even more as the ruffians began scuffling.  One of the men tried to shove his companion, missing completely and ramming into Scott.

Scott’s deep baritone rose above the scuffling.  “Excuse me, gentlemen, but perhaps you could leave the roughhousing outside. I’m sure Mrs. Tidwell would appreciate it if you could find some of those deeply buried manners of yours and bring them forth while visiting her establishment.”

Generally, the hands from the Lazy J were just high spirited and good natured. Seth Hampton, however, had a raw nerve when it came to the Lancer boys. He especially didn’t care for Scott.  A Texan and a Confederate, he resented the Yankee dandy took exception to Scott every time the Bostonian opened his mouth.

Hampton pulled himself erect and purposely put himself directly in front of the blond.  “Ain’t like it’s any of your business, Lancer. I reckon our manners is just as good as yours; and I know our money’s just as good.”  Turning his attention to Mrs. Tidwell, he tipped his hat.  There was no politeness in the gesture; only arrogance.  “And we do have money, Ma’am.”  On purpose, he jostled Scott a second time; using his elbow to knock the box of cookies from the other man’s hands.  Just as quickly, he planted his right foot on the box and ground it under his heel.

Mrs. Tidwell caught her breath.  Scott Lancer, she knew, was an inordinately patient man of a gentle nature; but he was also someone that would not back away from a bully.

Scott inhaled, his shoulders squaring.  The afternoon of disasters had pretty much depleted his usual abundant supply of patience and understanding, and before he even thought of the consequences he grabbed Seth by his collar and shoved him towards the door.  Hampton attempted to retaliate.  He spun around; aiming a ham-sized fist at Scott’s head and rushing forward, head down, like a charging bull.   Light footed, Scott spun away; Hampton’s fist glancing off his left cheek.  Hampton, still on the move, tumbled forward and right through the bakery’s plate glass window.

Mrs. Tidwell cried out in alarm.  “Oh, my window!”

As one, the Lazy J hands started towards Scott.  Seth Hampton had clambered back through the broken window, intent on revenge.  Before the first blow could land, the entire crew came to a dead standstill; the sound of a pistol being cocked coming one with the soft drawl.  “I don’t think I’d do that, boys.”

Seth Hampton had raised his hands; the entire Lazy J crew mirroring his actions.  “Hey, Johnny,” he breathed. 

Johnny smiled.  There was no warmth in his eyes, however.  “Hey, Seth,” he returned.  He nodded towards Mrs. Tidwell.  “You boys about done here?”

Hampton considered the question, but not very long.  “Sure, Johnny.”  He glanced around at his companions and saw them nod in agreement.  Turning, he headed towards the door.

“Don’t you got somethin’ you wanna tell Mrs. Tidwell, Hamp?” Johnny asked. 

Hampton’s hand was already on the doorknob.  He hesitated and then turned back to face the younger man.  “Sorry, Ma’am,” he murmured.  His companions echoed his sentiments.  They waited until Johnny gave them a subtle nod; and then beat it out the door and down the street.

Johnny holstered his pistol.  He stood for a minute before crossing the room to stand before his brother.    

“You okay there, Boston?” Johnny asked as he looked up into Scott’s face.  He reached up, his fingers lingering on the beginnings of a bruise beneath his brother’s left eye. 

“I’m fine, Johnny.” Scott moved to the window and frowned.  “Mrs. Tidwell, I’m very sorry about the window. Of course, we will have it replaced as soon as possible. I’ll make sure that the lettering is done as well. Once again, my apologies”.

Truth be told, Mrs. Tidwell had a great deal of fondness for both Lancer boys.  And, she had to admit, Seth Hampton had been the real instigator.  “It’s not entirely your fault, Scott.  In all fairness, I think it was just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  Her brow furrowed as she reconsidered.  “Although I am happy that you and Johnny were here; those boys from the Lazy J were certainly up to no good, and I’m sure they would have done far more damage if you boys hadn’t been here.”

The rest of the afternoon was spent cleaning up the mess and boarding up the broken window. When the boys were certain Mrs. Tidwell was secure for the night, they bid her goodnight.

Scott looped a long arm around his brother’s shoulder.  He gave his sibling’s arm a quick squeeze.  “Have you finally had enough, Johnny?” he asked. 

Thoroughly frustrated with his day long string of bad luck, the younger man nodded.  Right now, he didn’t give a rat’s ass about finding out who had been cozying up to Val.  “Think the capper came when we were at Mrs. Tidwell’s,” he grimaced.  He was quiet for a long moment.  “So, you think we can square it all up before the Old Man gets wind of what happened?”

Visibly wincing, Scott shook his head.  “We’ve got about as much chance of that happening as…” he hesitated, not really wanting to voice the next, “…Val not finding out.”  He shook the thought away.  “I think, little brother, what we should do, is forget all about what might happen tomorrow, and concentrate on tonight.”

Johnny laughed.  “And you the one that’s always raggin’ on me about consequences,” he teased.  He grinned up at his brother.  “What the hell.  What they gonna do, shoot us?”


Val Crawford was now the one that was on a mission.  He’d been called out to the Henry Parker’s place earlier in the day, after Cal Dodge had ridden into town to report a missing horse.  Four hours later, he’d found not only the missing horse, but Cal Dodge’s wife in what could only be described as a “compromising situation”.  And then the real fun had begun.  Parker and Dodge had decided they were going to duel; right after they had both consumed copious amounts of home brew.  Both men were now sleeping it off in Val’s jail.

It didn’t help Val’s disposition one bit when he had gotten back into town and found Mayor Higgs waiting.  Nope.  The old fart had ranted on for a good hour, demanding to know what the lawman intended to do “those Lancer boys.”

Val intended to do plenty, once he caught them.


Johnny had picked out a table in the back corner.  It wasn’t his usual gunfighter’s caution.  No.  All he wanted was a quiet place at the back of the room; a quiet beer and a little bit of…

…fun.  The female kind of fun.

True to his word, Scott had bought the first two rounds.  Johnny’s first beer went down faster than he intended, and he was lingering over the next one.  It sure had been one Hell of a day.  Thinking about it, he felt lucky to still be in one piece; what with being buried not once, but twice, under a bunch of ladies doodads and under things. He smiled as he thought about the variety of things he had discovered about — what had Scott ‘em — ‘feminine accoutrements’. He made a mental note to not tease T’resa the next time about how long it took her to get dressed in her Sunday best.  Small wonder, what with all the stuff.

He smiled then, catching a glimpse of one of the saloon girls.  Sadie was a perky little blond, and he knew for a fact she didn’t wear any of the stuff he had been buried in.  Nope.  Sadie did well to wear a dress, and she could get outta it in less time that he could drop his pants; and he was pretty damned fast.

Scott had wandered back over to the bar, and this time when he came back to the table he was carrying two glasses and a bottle of tequila.  Sadie and Polly were tagging along beside him, and both girls were looking pretty friendly.

Using his foot, Johnny shoved out a chair for Scott, a second one for Sadie.  He knew Scott would pull out a chair for Polly.

The saloon was beginning to fill up.  More of the girls were coming downstairs from their cribs; and the front batwings were opening with increasing regularity as the townsmen and the hands from the local ranches began piling in.  Over in the corner, Slick Mason began tinkling the ivories on the old piano in the corner. The noise level began to rise; the music first, and then the boisterous sound of dancing.  It was early enough that there was more laughter than bickering, always a good sign.

Scott and Johnny decided that they were quite happy in their corner after the afternoon they had.  They teased a bit with Sadie and Polly, even buying them a second round of drinks; but both young men declined the women’s pleas to dance or take a trip upstairs.  Highly offended, the two soiled doves flounced away from the brothers’ table, in search of more generous companions.

One of the girls who had been with Charlie for quite a while noticed that two of her favorite cowboys were being pretty quiet; her face showing her surprise when Sadie and Polly — both appearing more than a tad upset — had sashayed away from the table.

Deciding to see what was wrong, Mandy decided to see what was up.  She knew both young men had switched from beer to tequila, and they seemed really subdued.  By now, Scott Lancer would usually be dancing or flirting with any one of a dozen ladies; and Johnny…

Johnny would be up to his armpits in a game of stud poker, suckering in the new players and bluffing the professionals out of what he called his “play time money”  Tonight, however, they seemed deep in conversation; serious conversation.  She hoped everything was going well at Lancer; that Jelly wasn’t ill, or Maria.  A terrible thought struck her.  What if it was Murdoch?  What if something had happened to their father, and they were here drowning their sorrows?

A compassionate woman with a tendency towards the dramatic, she made up her mind she was going to find out and — if necessary — provide the poor boys some comfort and solace.  Determined, Mandy began her way across the room. 

On her way over to the boys’ table, Mandy was rudely stopped by Pete Lewis. Pete was a good ole boy but not always long on common sense. He fancied himself to be Mandy’s main man and had gotten in several fights over the last few months after taking offense when anybody seemed to pay her more attention than he felt was proper.

Pete was well liked by most of the bar’s patrons, but Mandy found him way too serious when expressing his feelings and declaring his intentions; no matter how gently she tried to let him down.  Truth was, she had her cap set for someone else and had made up her mind that she was not about to get involved with some cowhand making twenty-five dollars a month with nothing left over after a couple of nights on the town. She wanted a man who was already established in a good paying job and seemed to be more settled. She wasn’t getting any younger and there was no way she was going to be slipping beer to half drunk men who seemed to think she was a grab bag at one of those traveling carnivals that would come through every so often.

When Pete made a grab for her she pushed him gently away saying, “Hold on, sugar. I’ll be back in a minute. I got a little errand to run first.” She smiled down at him and patted him on the back of his hand before she pulled away.

Mandy quickly made her way over to the boys to see why they looked so glum. She also wanted to see if their friend Sheriff Crawford might be coming in to join them later.

“Well, hello boys. Why the long faces?” She asked.

Johnny only raised his hand and sighed dramatically but Scott managed a smile and an explanation. “It’s just been a very trying afternoon with a series of misfortunate events. I think we’re just tired.”

“Oh, I’m sorry boys.” Slipping in the chair next to Johnny she asked. “What can Mandy do to make things better for you?” It was then that she noticed Johnny’s nose was a little redder than usual and he seemed to have a bruise with a little cut over his right eye.

“Oh, Honey, what happened to you?” Mandy tilted Johnny’s head up towards the glow of the mirrored canopied lamps that were lit to better see the damage to his pretty face.

Scott snickered at the look that came across his little brother’s countenance. He could almost hear the comment he knew was about to fly out the boy’s mouth so he decided a quick diversion was needed.  “Johnny had a few misfortunate accidents this afternoon.  Unfortunately, he’s come away with some injuries which, though minor in appearance, are causing him a degree of discomfort.”

Johnny wasn’t sure what his brother had just told Mandy, but the truth was he had been popped in the nose by Marabell Haggis’ big head and then later was attacked by a bunch of ladies unmentionables and doodads. He felt like he had been in a small war and gotten his butt kicked good and proper. He also knew there was still hell to pay when Murdoch got the bills for the damages. He just hoped that it wouldn’t be before tomorrow morning because a trip to church just might mellow his old man a bit and his bark might not be quite so thunderous.

Mandy had noticed the look that had come across Johnny’s face and decided a little mothering was what the young man was in need of at the moment. She reached over and gave his nose a little kiss and began trying to comfort him by rubbing his back and brushing the hair out of his eyes.

Pete Lewis had been eyeballing the whole exchange between them Lancer boys and his Mandy. He wasn’t too thrilled with the attention she seemed to be offering that youngest brat. He was jealous and his mind was already clouded by too much beer and whiskey. Mandy seemed to be settling in and Pete was drinking more and more, working himself into a fit. The more Mandy sat and comforted Johnny the more Pete drank and the angrier he got.

Mandy knew she had spent enough time with the boys and needed to be getting on with her job. “Well fellas, I better be getting back to work. Some of these other cowboys might need a little TLC too. And you, young man,” Mandy turned to Johnny, “Take care of that nose and try to stay out of trouble.” She then reached over and planted a very motherly kiss on Johnny’s cheek, bringing a smile to his lips and some of that twinkle back to his eyes.

From where Pete was sitting and the way his inebriated mind was working it looked to him as if Johnny Lancer was making a move on his girl. It was all the excuse he needed; and before anyone knew what was happening Pete had Johnny by the front of his shirt and had landed a solid punch right between his eyes, knocking the boy to the floor.  Johnny was too stunned to do anything but wonder at the stars that were flashing before his eyes.  These stars were a hell of a lot more intense than the ones Marabell had caused; and the pain was lingering.

Scott was all over Pete before anyone could stop him. The two men wrestled and exchanged licks; destroying three tables and two chairs; one of which shattered when Scott brought it down across Pete’s head.  All the commotion — the dancing from table to table — had caused the loss of a butt load of glass and bottles that shattered when they hit the floor.  And still the fight continued.

Johnny had finally regained enough of his wits to try and get off the floor. He could tell there was a fight going on but the why of it was lost on him. He just knew Scott was involved and he needed to help his brother. Just as he managed to get on his feet behind Scott, the older Lancer ducked away from one of Pete’s wild swings and Johnny caught it right in his nose, knocking him once again to the floor.

Pete and Scott continued to brawl while the crowd cheered them on, some for Pete; but the most of them calling out for Scott.  Johnny knew his brother was in the middle of a fight with a man almost twice his size and though he couldn’t focus well he was determined to even things up a bit. He managed to once again make it to his feet; but just as he was about to take on the huge man, Pete landed another blow to Johnny’s poor face. This time it caught him in his left eye.  Johnny’s legs folded beneath him like rubber and he went down hard like a box of rocks, falling flat on his face.  It was clear he was out for the count. 

A burst of adrenalin surged through Scott’s entire body as he saw his younger brother collapse to the floor.  Drawing back his right arm, the sharply defined muscles in his back a shoulder standing out beneath his shirt, Scott brought one up from the floor.  The wicked blow knocked Pete into a group of older Circle C hands who were engrossed in their weekly poker game; men who didn’t take it too kindly that their cards, chips and drinks were now scattered across the room.

What had been a fight between two men was now a full blown riot as five more men waded into the fray.  It didn’t take long for the minor skirmish to turn into  a full blown war.  Chairs were crashing through the air, the sound of broken wood combining with the shattering of glass; the dull clang of metal adding to the cacophony of noise as the brass spittoons were being picked up and tossed with merry abandon.

The high pitched screams of the saloon girls soon punctuated the other noises as the women ran for cover.  Only Slick Mason seemed undeterred by the raging battle.  The old piano player continued pounding the ivories, the music increasing in volume and tempo as the fighting intensified.  His choice of music was not the best under the circumstances: the tune he was playing now a rousing version of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.  That soon was rectified when an ex-Johnny Reb popped the man up aside the head.  That was enough to bring on a lively rendition of Dixie.

Johnny didn’t give a damned about the music, other than it was making his head ache.  Fighting the pain, he crawled over to an upturned table and grabbed hold of the legs.  Hand climbing up the sturdy piece of wood, he pulled himself to his feet.  The room, which had been pitching and spinning when he had been lying on the floor seemed to be slowing down.  Giving himself some time, he waited a full minute before letting go and straightening up. When he didn’t fall on his face, he smiled, proud that he was still on his feet.

He turned towards the brawl and just as he began to focus enough to spot his brother, a fist landed right across his jaw; sending him flying until he hit the wall and slowly slid to the ground again.  When it happened three more times, he  decided Scott was on his own.  After all, the man had been an officer in the army so he probably didn’t need his help after all.  This time when he slid to the floor, he stayed put.  Man, his head hurt!

Suddenly, a loud report sounded, the distinctive sound of a double-barreled Greener exploding above the pandemonium.   Instantly, the whole place got Sunday Morning Prayer Meetin’ quiet.  Val Crawford stood in the doorway, the Greener resting ominously against his right side, his finger on the left side trigger.  There was no doubt that he had fired only a single load, and that the other barrel was still primed.  Surprisingly, he wasn’t shouting.   “Alright,” he ground out, “just who the hell started this fandango?”

Everyone just stood still, not saying anything but starring at the sheriff; afraid they were all about to become guests in his jail. “I said, who started this fight?” Val’s eyes swept the crowd.  No one said a word, but — one by one — each face turned towards Scott Lancer, who was dragging his younger brother to his feet.

Val’s jaws flexed and he looked like a man who could chew nails and spit out bullets.  “I might a known,” he growled, not one mote of mercy in his face or his eyes.  He pointed at the two youths with the business end of the shotgun, then jabbed it in the direction of the door.  “You two get your sorry asses outta here and across the street.  Your Saturday night fun is over, and you’re goin’ to jail.”

Scott grabbed Johnny by the collar, hanging on when it became obvious the boy was still addle-headed and unsteady on his feet.  Resolutely, putting one foot in front of the other, he pulled his brother along as they headed towards the door.


Val sat behind his desk looking at several little pieces of paper he had neatly stacked in front of him.  Every once in a while, he cut his eyes at Scott and then Johnny; who were sitting in front of his desk in two wooden, straight-back chairs . Johnny was holding a piece of steak to his left eye, and Scott was staring at his boots; thinking how sitting in front of Val’s desk wasn’t all that much different from sitting across from Murdoch at Lancer.  The thought brought a smile and he had to work at keeping it from turning into a full out belly laugh.

Val saw the smile on Scott’s face and was not amused.  “You findin’ somethin’ funny, boy?” he bellowed.  

Scott’s head jerked up, the smile quickly fading.  “No, Val,” he murmured.  “I don’t find anything about this whole unfortunate day funny at all.”

Johnny had sat as long as he could; and was shifting his butt trying to find a comfortable spot. He wanted to go home and crawl into his bed, close his eyes, and wake up to find this entire day had been nothing more than a really bad dream. “Can’t we just go home, Val? My face hurts like hell.”

Val was feeling peevish, and it showed in his voice. “No, you can’t go home! And when your Pa gets here, your face ain’t the only thing that’s gonna hurt. Now sit still and quit whinin’.” He studied the boy for a few seconds wondering if he should send for Sam; and just as immediately dismissed the thought.   The little shit’s head was far too hard for there to be any real damage other than his pride.

The lawman was still fiddling with the paperwork, diligently recording the figures into the journal he kept: listing the damages in one column, the what, the who and how much, a low whistle coming as he totaled up the numbers.  And he hadn’t even begun working on the fines. Before he could start on that side of the ledger, a dark shadow loomed over the book, and he looked up.   Murdoch Lancer had just come through the doorway; looking like a grizzly on the prod.

Scott took one look at his father and slouched down in his chair; fervently wishing a hole would just open up in the floor and swallow him whole.  Johnny was looking as if he were wishing for the same, his cheeks coloring as he leaned forward in his chair to address Val.   “You sent for our Old Man?” he whispered.   It was more of an accusation than a question.

“Your damn right, I sent for your pa,” Val snorted.  “You see these, sprout?”  The stack of papers was clutched in his hand and he was shaking them beneath the boy’s nose.  “These here pieces of paper come for all over town where the two of you left one mess after the other. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why you two were even in the milliners shop or the dress shop. But if you got a good explanation, I sure in Hell would like to hear it!”

Neither of the Lancer brothers felt inclined to discuss their afternoon pursuits or the lame reason for their misadventure; and remained silent. Johnny cut his eyes up at his father, immediately unhappy at what he saw in the man’s expression. He knew from past experience his injured eye and his sore head were going to be the least of his pains when the Old Man got him home.

Clearly annoyed at his sons’ reluctance to speak, Murdoch reached over and collected the pieces of paper from Val. He stood looking at them for a few minutes never saying a word.  After he had studied each piece of paper thoroughly, he folded them neatly and — after a nod from the lawman — placed them in his shirt pocket. “Val, I would appreciate it if you let the ladies know that they will be paid full restitution for the damages.  I’ll take care of the payments myself Monday morning, as soon as the bank opens. Also, please assure Mrs. Tidwell that the window should be replaced no later than the end of next week; and that I will supervise the repairs myself.” Murdoch moved to the front of the desk, placing himself so that he was facing his boys.

“Take off your boots,” he ordered.  “Your right boots.” 

Both young men looked up at their father, surprise evident in their faces.  Johnny turned to look at his sibling; sighed, and then did as he was told.  Scott did the same; but both boys were still feigning ignorance.

Murdoch’s eyes narrowed.  “Those hundred dollar bills you have stashed in the lining,” he growled.  “Your emergency money.”  His frown deepened.  He was well aware that both boys kept a stash of cash on their persons; and that the “emergency” they usually encountered was a bad night at the poker tables or a drunken frolic in some out-of-town establishment of higher quality than the saloons in Green River or Morro Coyo.

Johnny sighed.  He had the sinking feeling it was going to be a long time before he saw another bit of folding money.  Digging into the lining of his boot, he produced the bill.  A matching C-note appeared in his brother’s hand.

Murdoch nodded.  “Give them to Val,” he ordered.  He turned his head to address the lawman.  “You can apply the money towards their fines.”

Val rose up from his chair and plucked the bills from both young men’s fingers.  “You leave those boys with me a week or two, Murdoch, I’m sure I can find away for them to work out the rest.” 

Murdoch looked as if he were actually considering the proposition; taking his time as he enjoyed the looks of pure horror on his sons’ faces.  Val often used his prisoners to work at making town improvements; usually beginning by having them swamp out the jail’s privy or bury the town’s accumulation of non-burnable trash.  When he was content his boys’ had worried enough, he shook his head.  “I’ll be taking them home,” he said.

He stared down at the young men; willing them to raise their heads and look him in the eye.  “You two will now get up and retrieve your horses.  And then, my sons, we will go back to Lancer, where we will continue this discussion.” He waited expectantly for confirmation from his sons.

Scott levered himself up from his chair.  “Yes, Sir.” 

Johnny stood up.  He was still a little unsure on his feet.  “Yes, Sir,” he echoed.

Sighing, Murdoch reached out to steady his younger son.  “Scott, you take care of Barranca.  Your brother will be riding home with me in the buggy.”

A brief flash of rebellion marred the younger man’s face; a look that quickly faded when he saw his father’s right eyebrow arch.  There was, he knew, no point in arguing.

Murdoch was still holding on to his younger son and was ushering him through the door.  Just as they reached the board walk, Old Charlie from the Bulls Head joined them.  Charlie said nothing; just thrust a piece of paper into Murdoch’s hand.  The rancher’s jaws were clenched, and his eyes narrowed as he read the column of numbers.  His fingers tightened on Johnny’s arm.  “I’ll take care of it Monday, Charlie; once I’ve been to the bank.  Is that agreeable?”

The saloon owner nodded.  “That’ll be just fine, Mr. Lancer.”  Seeing the pure misery on Johnny’s face, the old man felt compelled to speak.  “It wasn’t just your boys, Mr. Lancer.  I give Pete Lewis half that there bill cause he was the one who got all pissed off about Mandy giving Johnny that little kiss. She told me after it was all over that Pete just flew off the handle and was spoilin’ to do some damage to your boy.”

Murdoch’s eye had twitched at the ‘little kiss’ remark; one more thing he was going to be discussing with his younger son.  “I see,” he said.  “Well, thank you, Charlie, for telling me.  However, the boys still bear some responsibility for their involvement, and they will pay their fair share.

“You be sure to let me know if you need any help making the repairs.  Jelly, especially, is good at mending tables and chairs.”

The bar owner tipped his bowler in appreciation.  “Thank you, Mr. Lancer, but I ain’t sure there is anything that could be repaired. Might could use some help with cleanin’ up, though.  I’ll let you know Monday.” With that, Charlie took his leave.

Murdoch took hold of his son’s arm again, and led him down the stairs into the street.  It wasn’t long before he and Johnny were in the buggy, and the team was heading out of town.

The trip back to the ranch was made in complete silence.  Johnny hunkered down in the seat, his hat over his eyes; wishing heartily he could just drift off to sleep.  It wasn’t happening.  He debated trying to talk to the Old Man and then decided he shouldn’t push his luck.  He was damned sure there was going to be plenty said when they got home; just as he damned well knew he wasn’t going to be the one that was doing the talking.


Murdoch sat behind his desk, still gathering his thoughts.  He smiled a bit, inwardly, remembering a conversation he’d overheard between his sons shortly after they had first returned home.  The boys had endured their first lecture and were in Maria’s kitchen licking their wounds; in serious discussion at first, and then falling into the light banter that had just seemed to develop on its own.  Before the conversation was over, the boys had debated names for Murdoch’s desk chair; ‘The throne,’ at first; and then — at Scott’s suggestion — ‘the seat of omnipotent judgment’.  That misnomer had produced some questions from Johnny, who took particular delight in Scott’s explanation of the word’s meaning.  The boy had settled on the comparison with God, adding a few sacrilegious epithets of his own that had left both young men reduced to gales of genuine laughter.

Covertly, the older man gazed at his boys, who were now seated in front of the desk.   Scott was sitting militarily erect, his face betraying nothing and remarkably calm.  Johnny’s posture was just the opposite.  The boy was slouched in his chair, his right leg dancing as it was prone to do when he was supposed to be still.

Waiting was the hardest thing for Johnny; especially when he was facing the formable opponent he was inclined to call Pa when the occasion arose. Right now it was plain he wasn’t sure if this was one of those occasions, but he was not beneath trying any kind of tactic to get out of trouble. He had experienced first “hand” literally just how much of a force his father could be.

Finally, after what seemed to both of the boys like an eternity, Murdoch looked each of his sons over carefully.  Scott seemed to be in one piece, no worse for wear other than a slight bruise on his left cheek. Johnny, on the other hand, looked as if he had taken on an army of boxers and was sporting the beginnings of two black eyes, a swollen nose and a laceration above his right eye.  Murdoch was certain there would be some, perhaps even a rational explanation, for what had occurred.  He also knew that Johnny would not be the one to provide it.  The boy’s skewed logic, while often entertaining, rarely made any real sense and sometimes entirely skirted the truth.

With a heavy sigh, Murdoch decided to get the answers he needed from his elder son.  “Scott, I want to know what happened. I need to know in an orderly manner just how the two of you could embark on a simple trip into Green River and, in a single afternoon, wreak total havoc in FOUR,” he held up the appropriate number of digits, “establishments in one single afternoon.”  Considering the circumstances, the tall rancher was doing a commendable job of holding his temper; at least until Scott turned away from him and shared a look with his younger brother.  It was the twin smiles that ignited the tinder.  “Well!” he thundered.

Both boys visibly jumped.  It was Scott who decided to take the lead.  He was, after all, the elder brother.  He also knew, in the end, all of this was going to be his fault.  That’s just how it was.

So he began, hoping he could sell his father a bill of goods; a simple and sympathetic explanation that would save he and his brother from the life-long chore of fencing in two hundred square miles of sometimes unforgiving terrain. “Actually, sir, it’s really quite simple.  After finishing ranch business, we decided to visit Val.”  This was going to get hairy.  He leaned forward slightly, as if sharing a personal confidence.  “Val, sir, has a secret admirer.”  He watched his father’s face carefully.  “In fact, someone,” he stressed the word, “has been sending our Constable unsigned notes; quite intimate in nature.  Naturally, Johnny and I; being Val’s friends, felt a great deal of concern.  After all, it’s not as if we can safely assume that this is a simple, harmless attraction.  Val is a lawman, and he does have his share of enemies.  So, just to make sure this wasn’t some nefarious scheme to draw Val out and put him in a vulnerable position, we…” he nodded at his brother, “…decided to investigate.”  

Johnny was sitting completely still, almost on the edge of his chair as he listened to his sibling’s explanation of what had occurred.  He was genuinely awestruck at the whopper his big brother was spinning, and could hardly wait to see how the story ended.  Surreptitiously, he stole a look at this father, hoping that the Old Man was swallowing the fairy tale.  Unfortunately, Old Murdoch was a pretty damned good poker player, and his face betrayed nothing. 

It took a little time and a lot of very big words before Scott finished his recitation; ending the story with a blow by blow account of how the dastardly Pete Lewis had attached Johnny with absolutely no provocation.  He pointed out how, as Johnny’s elder brother, it was his sacred duty to protect his sibling from being so viciously attacked.  He was doing his very best to keep Johnny from being beaten senseless when Val appeared; and the next thing he knew, he and his brother — unjustly accused by the bar patrons of being the responsible parties — were being hauled off to jail.

Murdoch had sat perfectly still during the entire presentation.  Scott had been in great form; utilizing his Harvard education to its fullest potential.  Johnny had remained completely silent, content, it seemed to have Scott explain everything that had occurred.

Knowing his sons were awaiting his reaction to their tale of woe, Murdoch purposely stalled.  Enjoying their obvious desire for an end to the matter, he took considerable time to take out his pipe.  With his usual slow ceremony, he used his pen knife to scrape out the bowl.  Then, dipping out a portion of the sweet apple scented tobacco, he began to pack the pipe; meticulous in each movement.  Even the lighting of the single match required a seemingly inordinate length of time; more minutes passing as he coaxed the pipe alive, and then more time to inhale.  He leaned back in his chair.  Finally, he spoke.  “And you expect me to buy this blatant bit of mendacity why?”  When he received no response, he used his forefinger to push a small slip of paper across the desk until it was directly in front of both of his sons.

This time, his question was directed at his younger son.  “Would you care to explain, John, just how you managed to destroy fifty dollars worth of ladies undergarments, two bolts of material, a box of thread, seven yards of lace and a dress maker’s dummy?”

Johnny’s head jerked up at the question, his first instinct to look to Scott for rescue.  As good as Scott was with all the big words, it only seemed practical to assume elder brother could do a Hell of a better job of explaining just why he had panicked over a little girl’s threatened booger attack.

Murdoch was at the very end of his limited string of paternal patience.  “I asked you a question, John, and I want an answer.  What happened?”

Johnny quickly ducked his head and mumbled something Murdoch couldn’t quite make out.  He leaned forward, his elbows resting on the desk. “Say again, boy, and this time speak up.”

The words just tumbled out.  “I said Trudy Claremont was coming at me with a booger on her finger, and I was just tryin’ to get outta her way.” There.  He had said it; and now the old man could just have his head. At least he was booger free and he hadn’t lost his lunch.  No easy thing, considerin’.

Murdoch was well acquainted with Trudy Claremont and her propensity for always keeping her finger up her nose. Many were the times he had produced a handkerchief to avoid the crusted mucus from being wiped on his pants. Still, the vision of his tough gunfighter son retreating from a relatively harmless little girl with a nasty habit was quite amusing.

He forced the image from his mind, once more intent on his current job: being a responsible father; a privilege he had been too long denied.  Once he was sure he was capable of maintaining his stern father face he continued to dispense parental retribution to his two boys who, right now, looked every bit the way he had pictured them had they been raised on the ranch.  Although their recent escapade bore a heavy price tag, he relished the moment; and wouldn’t have traded it for all the money in the world.

Rising up from his chair, he moved around to the front of the desk; using his height to his advantage as both boys had no choice but to look up.  “I would suggest you listen closely, boys, because I’m only going to say this one time. For the next three months you will be contributing all of your wages to compensate for the damages that were incurred during your visit to town this afternoon.  That means no trips to get supplies, no Saturday dalliances, and absolutely no more foolish investigations.  In addition, since your wages fall considerably short of the amount required for full compensation, you will be doing extra chores to make up the difference.”  Murdoch waited to be sure there would be no argument or fussing over his decision.

To his surprise, Scott simply nodded his head.  Johnny actually looked relieved; which Murdoch suspected was due to the fact he hadn’t escorted them both to the barn to discuss their actions in a more aggressive manner.  Satisfied he had made his point, he continued.  “Since we seem to all be agreed on the terms of your punishment — and, yes, sons, I did say punishment.  You both, after all, behaved like a pair of adolescent teenagers, and that won’t be happening again.”  He knew better.  His sons were becoming quite adept at making up for the childhood they had been denied.  And the thought made him secretly glad.

Clearing his throat, he made his final pronouncement.  “I expect you both to be cleaned up and sitting in the kitchen in fifteen minutes. I know you both missed dinner, and I’ll make sure Maria has sandwiches and milk waiting for you. Now move.”

There was an instant scrambling of chairs and boots as both boys jumped to their feet and took off for the stairs. 

Murdoch moved back to his chair, easing into the soft leather as he contemplated the day’s happenings.  A memory tugged at him; that first day when he had told his sons that he had a grey hair for every blade of grass, and he smiled.  At the rate his sons were going, his hair was going to be pure white; and it was going to happen a lot faster than it had occurred in the past. 

He sat and thought about how this might have been a recurring scene had the boys been with him while growing up; no doubt in him at all that his sons would have been constantly testing their boundaries.  Fate had denied him the joy of raising his boys, but it was his blood that ran hot in their veins.  Although at times it was costly, and their behavior couldn’t go without some form of censor, he recognized the experience exactly for what it was.  He was a father.  Those boys were his sons.  And he thanked God for every little transgression.


Three months later:

It was there first trip to town since their infamous last visit and the ensuing catastrophes.  Scott stayed close to Johnny, making sure that after a long dry spell, the boy didn’t get into any kind of trouble.   There was no way the blond was going to risk a repeat of the last three months.  No.  He had had his fill of creek beds, cranky steers, disagreeable pigs and endless miles of post holes and wire fences.

Johnny’s less than sunny disposition hadn’t been any great joy, either.  The longer they had been confined to the ranch, the more Johnny bucked against the traces, and it was never pretty.  More than a dozen times, he had physically pulled Johnny from the Great Room to avoid a confrontation with Murdoch, and twice that many times he had kept Johnny from jumping down Jelly’s throat.  There had been a time or two when he had been tempted to let Johnny loose on the old handyman, but then there would have been the problem of disposing of the body.

Scott risked a sideways glance at his brother, smiling when he saw the excitement that was firing the boy’s eyes.  The gleam intensified as Johnny spied something up the street, and Scott instinctively followed his gaze.

He saw immediately what had caught Johnny’s eye.  Val Crawford was strolling in their direction; totally oblivious of everything around him except the woman that was holding on to his arm.  Mandy Tompkins was dressed in a long, gingham dress; her face devoid of any makeup.  She was regarding Val with the same look the man was giving her, and it was obvious she was deeply engrossed in everything the lawman was saying.

Val was carrying a picnic basket in his free hand.  Mandy had a brightly colored blanket folded over her left arm.  The two of them were headed for the buggy that was parked in front of Val’s office. 

Scott felt an urgent tug at his elbow.  Johnny had picked up his pace and was intent on dragging his brother along with him.  They double-timed it up the walkway, arriving just as Val was helping Mandy into the carriage.

“Hey, Val,” Johnny greeted.  The boy was fairly dancing in place, his hat tossed back and resting across his shoulders.  His fingers were busy with the storm strings.

Val gave the youth the once over, not missing the mischief in the boy’s eyes.  “Johnny,” he greeted.  He gave Scott a single nod.  “Nice to see you boys in town,” he drawled.  “Your Daddy finally cut the leash?”

Scott smiled at the lawman.  “Suffice it to say he’s decided to suspend our enforced penance and has allowed us, once again, to visit your fair village.”

Johnny snorted.  “He said could go out and play,” he smirked.  “So, Val.  Whatcha doin’?”  He leaned sideways to peer around the lawman’s shoulder to wink at Mandy.

Val ignored the question, but not the wink.  He smacked Johnny’s flat belly with the back of his hand.  “Well, you’re Daddy might be the boss at Lancer, Johnny, but you best be rememberin’ that I’m,” he thumped his chest, “the boss here.  You get your sorry ass into any trouble today, I’m goin’ to put you under my jail.  Comprende?”  He let the warning sink in.  Then, settling his brand new Stetson atop his head, he hoisted himself up into the buggy.  He leaned down, his mouth close to the boy’s ear.  “And in answer to your question, chamaco, I’m about to go courtin’.”

Johnny’s mouth dropped open.

Val clicked at the team, moving the horses out smartly.  He turned to call over his shoulder.  “And you better close your mouth, boy, before you catch some flies!”

It took a little time for Johnny to regain his composure.  “Hey, Scott?”

The blond was watching the departing buggy.  “Yes?”

Johnny had put his hat back on, the brim shading his eyes.  “You think maybe Mandy…?”

Scott boxed his brother’s ears.  “Yes, Johnny.   Yes I do.”

Happy Valentine’s Day

Belinda

February 2011 

 ~ end ~

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4 thoughts on “Secret Valentines by Belinda

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