The Eve of a New Year by Desert Sun

Word Count 4,623

Posted to Lancer Yahoo groups December 31, 2003Revised and posted to Facebook group January 2014

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Flames crackled in the fireplace a few feet away from where Johnny Lancer stood leaning against the wall.  “Think the old man’ll go for it?” he asked.

Scott Lancer, who was sitting at one end of the sofa, tipped his head back and arched his brows.  “It’s hard to say, Johnny.  What you have in mind is risky, to say the least.”

“Maybe,” Johnny replied.  He crossed his arms and looked more intently at his brother.  “But it could work . . . right, Scott?”

“Yes, there is a remote possibility.  However, you do need to consider what we stand to lose.”  Scott paused and his brow puckered.  “The question is . . . are you willing to face the consequences if your plan fails?”

Johnny chewed at his lip and shrugged.  “Well, you know what they say . . . if you wanna win the big pot, ya gotta throw in all your chips.”  He chuckled softly and grinned.  “Besides . . . didn’t ya tell me not too long ago, ‘nothin’ ventured, nothin’ gained?’  Wasn’t that your exact words?”

Scott rolled his eyes.  “There is hardly any comparison.  We were discussing something entirely different.  Just because that was true of one situation scarcely justifies applying the same logic to what you’re proposing.”

“Then you don’t think our old man’ll go for it, and we’d just be wastin’ our breath to ask him?”  Johnny looked down and studied the pattern the toe of his boot was tracing on the floor.

“Now wait a minute, Brother,” Scott said.  “You’re putting words in my mouth.  I didn’t say Murdoch wouldn’t listen to you . . . or that he wouldn’t give your proposition some serious consideration.  It’s just that . . . he’s always called the tune, as he puts it.  You can’t expect–“

“Hold it, Boston,” Johnny said.  He fixed his eyes with his brother.  “Who says I’m gunna do the talkin’?  You’re the one with the college degree.  Most of the kids around Spanish Wells’ve got more education than I do.”

Scott straightened his back and crossed his arms.  “This was your idea.  It’s only right that you be the one to present it to Murdoch.”

“But he’s more apt to see it our way if you do the talkin’,” Johnny said.  He shoved away from the wall and paced back and forth in front of fireplace before stopping in front of his brother.  His hands moved restlessly as he looked down at the floor again.  “You know how he is, Scott.  He’ll listen to you.  He always has.  With me it’s different.  We’ll just end up bumpin’ heads.  You know that.”

“If you’d use little more tact, that wouldn’t happen.  There’s an art to presenting a convincing argument.  You can’t go at it like a bull in a china shop.  As you said, Murdoch likes to think he’s in charge.”  Scott stood, moved to Johnny’s side, and slipped an arm over his shoulder.  “What you have to do, Little Brother, is make him think it was his idea.”

Johnny let out a sigh.  “And just how am I supposed to do that?”

“I’d like to hear that, myself,” a deep voice said from the direction of the hallway leading to the kitchen.

The brothers spun around to face their father, Scott’s arm slipping from Johnny’s shoulder.

Murdoch Lancer strode toward them.  “Well, Scott.  Just how do you plan to make me think your idea is mine?”

Johnny glanced at his brother and saw a tinge of red brighten Scott’s cheeks.

Scott stammered.  “Uh . . . Sir . . . you see, uh . . . well, it was Johnny’s idea.  Really he should be the one to, um . . . tell you.”

While his usually self-assured, older brother groped for words, Johnny stood looking at the floor and fiddled with the silver buttons on the outer seams of his pants.  The urge to bolt out of the room was almost more than he could resist.

“First, Scott, I’d like to know how you would convince me that your scheme was my idea,” Murdoch said.

Seeing a chance to escape, Johnny took a step backward and started to turn.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

Johnny teetered, caught his balance, and twisted back to face his father.  “Uh . . . nowhere,” he muttered.

Murdoch once again shifted his gaze to Scott.  “I’m waiting,” he said.

Scott shifted from one foot to the other and looked at his brother.

Johnny let out an exasperated huff.  “So much for your plan, Boston.  We might as well forget the whole thing now,” he said.

Murdoch raised a hand to his mouth, looked down, and cleared his throat.  When he looked up again, he stepped closer to Johnny and laid a hand on his shoulder.  “Since Scott seems to have lost his ability to speak, why don’t you tell me what you’re wanting me to agree to?”

“Me?”  Johnny gulped.

“Yes, you.”

“Um . . . it was nothin’.”  Johnny shrugged from under his father’s hand and moving just out of reach.

“Coward,” Murdoch said.

Johnny bristled.

“We were just discussing the fact that it was time we were allowed to take on a little more of the responsibility of running the ranch,” Scott said, stepping between the other two men.

Murdoch returned his gaze to his older son.  “You don’t think I give you enough to do, is that it?  Well, I can rectify that easily enough.  In fact, I have a job right now that the two of you can take care of.”

Johnny glared at his brother.  “Thanks a lot, Mister Tactful.”

“That’s not quite what I meant, Sir,” Scott said without looking at his brother.

Murdoch cradled his left arm in his right hand.  “I tell you what, boys.  You take care of this little job for me, and I’ll consider what you have in mind.  Deal?”

Scott gave a quick nod.  “Deal.”

Murdoch’s eyes shifted toward Johnny.  “What about you?”

Johnny scowled at his brother and muttered.  He knew from experience that his father’s and his definitions of little weren’t always the same.

“Good,” Murdoch said.  “If you two get going right away, you should be back tonight.”

Johnny rolled his eyes.  “I thought you said this was a little job.”

“It shouldn’t take long . . . once you get to the Johnson place.”

“Johnson’s?”  Johnny blew a puff of air out his mouth.  “That’s a good four-hour ride from here.  What d’we hafta go all the way over there for?”

Murdoch dropped his arms to his side and put his hands behind his back.  “A while back, Ike asked me if I’d sell him some breeding stock after the first of year.  I told him I’d get back to him.  It looks like we have about a hundred head of prime heifers we won’t need, so I want the two of you to ride over and make a deal with him.”

“Are you saying that you want us to negotiate the terms of the sale?” Scott asked.

“Yes.  You need to set the price, method of payment, date and location the exchange will take place, as well as who will cover the cost of delivery.”

“You mean me an’ Scott get to decide how much Old Man Johnson’s gunna pay us?”  Johnny crossed his arms and eyed his father.  “How come you’re havin’ us do it?”

“You said you wanted to take on some of the responsibility of running the ranch.  I thought I’d give you a chance to prove you’re capable of it.  Of course, if you think I’m asking too much of you, I could . . ..”  Murdoch’s voice faded out as he looked from one son to the other. 

“I’m sure we can handle it,” Scott said.  He lightly flicked the back of his fingers against his brother’s arm.  “Come on Johnny.  If we’re going to make it back tonight, we need to be on our way.”

Johnny let out a breath and followed his brother.  A short while later, he straddled his palomino and headed for Ike Johnson’s ranch, that was eighteen miles to the southwest.  As he settled Barranca into a steady pace that matched the long stride of Scott’s sorrel, he wondered if having a voice in the running of the ranch was really worth it.  Somehow, he had a feeling he was just setting himself up for more work.

~~~~~

The grandfather clock near the French doors ticked away the time behind the chair where Murdoch Lancer sat gazing into the fireplace.  He felt an urge to look behind him, but resisted it.  Watching the clock wouldn’t get his sons home any sooner.

Murdoch heard a soft sigh and looked over at his ward, Teresa O’Brian, as she laid her needlework to one side.  She went to the fireplace, knelt down on one knee, and jabbed the poker stick at the glowing chunks of wood until flames rose once more to lick hungrily at their edges.  Glancing over her shoulder, she said, “The boys should have been back by now.”  Her brow wrinkled slightly.  “You don’t suppose they ran into trouble, do you?”

“Stop worrying, Teresa.  They’re big boys.  They can take care of themselves.”  Murdoch spoke with a tone of indifference, picked up the book in his lap, and opened it.  He too was a little concerned about his sons being late in returning from their ride to the Johnson Ranch, but he wasn’t about to let her know it. 

“But it’s almost midnight.  What could be keeping them?” Teresa said as she returned to the sofa.

Murdoch peered over the top of the book he was pretending to read.  “They’ll be along anytime now.  Why don’t you heat up some of the leftovers from supper and have it ready for them.  If I don’t miss my guess, those two will be hungry when they get in.”

“If I know Johnny, he’ll claim he’s starving.”  Teresa chuckled softly, rose, and headed for the kitchen.

Murdoch leaned his head back and sighed.  The weather was clear and the moon was nearly full.  His sons shouldn’t have had any trouble making the ride to and from the Johnson place.  There shouldn’t have been any reason for the negotiations for the sale of the heifers to have taken any great length of time, either.  Ike Johnson was known for his honesty and fairness, and had always been easy to deal with.  That was one of the reasons for having sent Scott and Johnny to make the sale after having overheard them talking earlier in the day.

A breath of cold air brushed past Murdoch’s ear, and the sound of footsteps and the familiar voices of his sons came from the foyer.

Murdoch pretended to be reading his book while he listened to the conversation taking place in the next room.

“Whewie!  Sure hope Teresa kept some supper hot.  I’m starvin’,” Johnny Lancer said.

“Little Brother, you’re always close to expiring from lack of adequate nutrition,” Scott replied in a sarcastic tone.

There was a slapping sound and a huff of indignation.  Then Johnny spoke in a soft drawl. “Would ya stop tryin’ to impress me with them fancy words.  I’ve heard enough of ’em for one day.”

“If you swat me one more time with that hat, I’m going to make you eat it.”

Scott’s raised voice and threatening tone brought a smile to Murdoch’s lips.  He barely restrained a laugh when Johnny’s barely audible “Shhhh . . . yuh wanna wake up the old man,” reached his ears.

Soft footfalls crossed the main living room and suddenly halted when Murdoch’s sons came into view halfway between the chair where he was sitting and the doorway that led to the kitchen.  Strangled gasps broke the silence.

Murdoch let the book drop into his lap and coughed against the edge of his hand.  He spoke with a touch of disapproval to his tone.  “I see you two finally made it home.  Run into any trouble along the way?”

“No, no trouble,” Scott replied.

“What took so long?  You did come to an agreement with Ike, didn’t you?”  Murdoch locked eyes with first one son and then the other.

Scott arched his back as though it ached.  “We made a deal, all right.  It just took some time is all.”

Johnny Lancer elbowed his brother.  “It wouldn’t o’ taken nearly so long if this Boston raised son of yours would’ve talked in plain English.”

“I enticed him to pay eleven dollars more per head than he offered to begin with,” Scott said with smug lift of his chin.

“How much did you get?” Murdoch asked.

Scott’s chin rose a bit higher.  “Forty-five dollars per head, and he picks them up here.”

Murdoch shrugged his shoulders.  “Not too bad for your first sale.”

“Didn’t I tell you we should’ve held out for more?” Johnny said.

Murdoch choked back a chuckle at the disgust he heard in his younger son’s voice.

Scott glared at Johnny.  “If we had tried to get even one more dollar per head out of Mister Johnson, we would still be there.  And you know it.”

Murdoch raised one hand to his mouth to hide the smile lurking there.  “Scott’s right, Johnny.  You have to use some finesse when selling cattle.  You have to know just when to accept the other party’s bid.  As long as the buyer believes the final price was his idea, he’ll be happy even if he ends up paying double what he set out to pay.”

Johnny rolled his eyes and let out a sigh.  “Guess I’ll go see if there’s anything to eat and head to bed.  We gotta start roundin’ up them heifers tomorrow.  Mister Johnson wants to come by in a couple of days and look ’em over.”

“Think I’ll do the same, if you don’t mind, Sir,” Scott said.

Murdoch spoke as he rose to his feet and walked over to his sons.  “Teresa just went to heat up some leftovers from supper.  It’ll take her a few minutes to get it ready.  In the meantime, I have something for you.”

He motioned for Johnny and Scott to follow him and went to the desk in front of the large arched window on the other side of the room.  After unlocking the bottom drawer, he reached in and pulled out two envelopes.  “One for each of you,” he said as he held them out to his sons.

Johnny opened his and stared at the contents a moment before looking up at his father.  “What’s this for?”

“Your share of the profits from the ranch proceeds.”

Scott ruffled through the green bills in his hand.  “There’s nearly a thousand dollars here.  Are you sure you can spare this much?  What about operating money?”

“I’ve kept back enough to pay wages and buy supplies until next fall,” Murdoch said.

Johnny fiddled with the edge of the desk.  “What about those new bulls you said you wanted to get?  How do you plan to pay for them?”

“They’ll come out of my pocket,” Murdoch replied.  “They’re an experiment.  May even be a total waste of money.  I don’t expect the two of you to share in the risk.”     

“Why not, Sir?” Scott asked.  “We are partners, are we not?  If there are risks to be made, shouldn’t we all share in them equally?”

“How much was it you said those bulls were gunna run?  Three hundred or so a piece by the time you have ’em shipped out here, wasn’t it?” Johnny said before Murdoch had a chance to answer.  He separated several bills from his bundle and tossed them onto the desk.  “Might as well get a couple for me.  I don’t need all of this.  I’d just end up in some poker game and lose it.”

Scott laid some of his money down, also.  “Make that two more.  I still have nearly half of the thousand you gave me when I first arrived here.”  He tapped the envelope against the palm of his other hand and stuffed the packet of money into his shirt pocket.  “With this, I’ll do just fine.”

Murdoch chewed at his lower lip and slowly shook his head.  He stroked his jaw with the thumb of one hand as he regarded his sons.  “Are you sure you want to do this?  Those bulls may not pan out at all like I hope they will.”

“If you’re willing to take a chance on them, then so am I,” Scott replied.

“Goes for me, too,” Johnny said as he pocketed the rest of his money.

Murdoch drew in a deep breath and swallowed to hide how pleased he was with his sons’ decision.  “I don’t know what to say.”

“No need to say anything, Sir,” Scott said, appearing a bit uncomfortable.

“Well, now we got that settled, I’m for seein’ what Teresa’s fixed up for us,” Johnny drawled as he turned to leave.

“Just a minute, Johnny.  I have something else for you.”

Johnny halted mid-stride and faced his father once more.  When a folded sheet of paper was held out to him, he accepted it hesitantly.  “What’s this?”

“Read it,” Murdoch said as he handed an identical item to his older son.

The brothers took a moment to study the documents in their hands and then stood there in silence–eyes wide with unbelief.

Scott, the first to recover enough to speak, looked with pleased surprise at his father.  “Thank you, Sir,” he breathed.

“Hey, does this say what I think it says?”  Johnny’s eyes sparkled with amazement.  “You’re really gunna let us have a vote in what goes on around here?”

“You’ve earned it,” Murdoch proudly said.  “Of course, this only applies to major decisions.  For now, I think it’s best if I call the shots on the day to day running of the ranch.  After all, I do have considerably more experience than either one of you do.”

“So just what would we be voting on, Sir?” Scot asked.

“Investments mostly.”

Johnny grinned.  “Ya mean like them bulls?”

Murdoch nodded.  “Yes, like the bulls.”

Johnny fidgeted with the paper in his hands for a moment, his expression thoughtful.  “What if Scott an’ me had somethin’ we wanted to invest in?  You’re sayin’ we could put it up for a vote.  And even if ya didn’t agree, you’d let us do it anyway?”

Murdoch hesitated.  He had a feeling Johnny’s questions were loaded.  Finally, deciding that he had no choice but to allow his son the benefit of the doubt, he said, “That’s right.  Of course, I would hope that you’d give any business venture a considerable amount of thought before jumping into anything too risky.”

Johnny grinned over at Scott.  “Ya hear that?  Now there’s nothin’ stoppin’ us from makin’ that deal with Reynolds.”

Despite the fleeting thought that his son was setting him up, Murdoch couldn’t stop from demanding, “What deal?  Who is this Reynolds?  I don’t know any rancher around this area by that name?”

“Reynolds owns a gambling establishment over at Cutter’s Crossing.  He wants to sell out and go back east.  When Johnny and I were there last week, we told him we’d like to buy it from him if we could come up with the necessary funds,” Scott said with the straight face of a poker player.

“You want to buy a saloon?”  Murdoch looked from one son to the other, anger creeping into his tone.  “And just who’s going to run it?”

“Scott and me.”  With eyes sparkling, Johnny spoke with the excitement of a boy planning his first fishing trip.  “We thought we could take turns.  You know.  He’d take care of it one week, and I’d go the next.  That way, we wouldn’t both be gone at the same time.” 

“And are you also planning to do each other’s work here?”

“No,” Scott said.  “We thought we could hire a couple of more men for that.”

Murdoch was getting more exasperated by the minute.  “Oh, you did, did you?  I suppose that means you think you do the work of two men.”

“Actually, Sir, one will be doing Johnny’s work.”

“And just what will Johnny be doing?”

“Doin’ a lot a thinkin’ on them new ventures me an’ Scott’ll be wantin’ to get into.  Wouldn’t wanna get took on any of ’em.”  Johnny’s grin broadened, and a gleam lit up his eyes.

A strangled snort came from Scott’s direction, and the anger building in Murdoch suddenly died.  He rubbed a hand across his mouth and chuckled.  Soon all three were laughing.

“I don’t see anything funny in the least about Scott and Johnny running one of those . . . those . . . those houses of ill repute,” Teresa said, practically sputtering as she strode toward the men.  “I heard what goes on in that place at Cutter’s Crossing.”

“Oh?”  Johnny smiled at the angry girl.  “Just what did you hear?”

“Never you mind,” she snapped, her face turning a deep shade of pink.  “I just know it’s no fit place for the two of you.  I can’t believe you’d want to have the Lancer name linked with . . . with . . ..”

“You’re quite right, Teresa,” Scott said.  “Perhaps, Johnny and I were a little hasty.  We’ll take some time to reconsider our decision.”

“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll give the idea up entirely,” Teresa retorted.

The stern look on the girl’s face brought a burst of laughter from all three men.  When she glared at them, Murdoch sobered enough to say, “They were joking, Teresa.  They have no intention of buying a saloon.”

“Well I don’t think it’s anything to be joking about.”  Her voice still reflected that she was piqued.

The first gong of the grandfather clock announced the approach of mid-night and Murdoch turned to watch the tall timepiece tick away the final seconds of the year.  By the time the twelfth chime sounded, he noticed that Teresa had joined the family in cheering in the new year.

~~~~~

Murdoch Lancer turned out the lamp and crawled into bed.  Staring into the semi-darkness, he allowed his thoughts to drift back to the same time a year ago.  He had just begun to recover from being wounded in the ambush that had left his friend and foreman, Paul O’Brien, lying dead in the street of Morro Coyo.

Many times in the past twelve months, Murdoch had regretted not taking more men with him to catch the two thieves who had stolen his prized palomino stallion.  Even though he had made Paul’s daughter, Teresa, his legal ward and treated her as though she were his own, he still felt that he owed a debt to O’Brien that he would never be able to pay.

With a soft sigh, Murdoch reined his thoughts in the direction.  After Paul’s death, he had sent a letter to an old friend and offered him a share in the ranch.  He had needed someone he could trust to run things while he was laid up.  Scott, supposedly, had died during the war with the southern states and all hope of finding Johnny had long been lost.

The letter had gone unanswered.  Then the unexpected had happened about the time Pardee’s gang began raiding the ranch in earnest–running off his cattle and terrorizing his vaqueros into leaving.  News had arrived that Scott was alive.

In desperation, Murdoch had decided to contact his elder son.  Not trusting that a letter sent to the home of his son’s grandfather would end up in Scott’s hands, he had hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to deliver the message.  A little over a month later, a telegram had been delivered stating that Scott was on his way.

The news that his elder son had accepted his invitation had brought with it both a feeling of elation and a sense of dread.  Murdoch shook his head in wonder.  He still marveled that Scott had so willingly come all the way from Boston, helped fight to save the ranch, and then had stayed on and given them a chance to get to know each other.

Murdoch’s thoughts shifted from his older to his younger son.  A few weeks before Scott’s telegram had arrived, the Pinkerton Agency had sent word that they might have located Johnny in a Mexican prison.  The news that his son was using the name of Johnny Madrid had come as a shock.  More than a year before that, Murdoch had heard stories about the young gunfighter who was gaining fame along the Mexican border.  At the time, he and Paul had even discussed some of the boy’s exploits.

Uncertain of what to expect, Murdoch had informed the agency to pay whatever was necessary to free his son and to offer him a thousand dollars to come to Lancer.  He had never dreamed that Johnny and Scott would end up arriving on the same day.

Despite a very rocky beginning filled with doubts, hatred fueled by lies that Johnny apparently had been told while growing up, and mistrust on both of their parts, Murdoch was pleased that his younger son was at last taking an active interest in the operations of the ranch.  When the boy had first agreed to stay after helping to fight the gang of land pirates, Murdoch had wondered if Johnny would ever be content with the day-to-day grind of ranch work.

The situation had come to a head when Johnny had taken off to catch some wild horses instead of completing a section of fence that would have prevented the loss of several head of cattle and two days of rescuing fifty more from a sand trap.  Murdoch had to admit that he had been extra hard on his younger son.  At the time, he had felt a necessity to force Johnny into choosing between two ways of life: ranching and all of the responsibilities that went with it or drifting from town to town, doing what he wanted when he wanted, and making a living by hiring out his gun.  That decision had nearly driven Johnny away for good.  Murdoch was just thankful that he had been wrong about what mattered to his son, and that Johnny had returned, willing to give his new a life another chance.

Murdoch smiled into the darkness.  Taking the time to chase a small band of wild horses with his son had been one of the most worthwhile things he had done all year.  It had been the turning point in his relationship with Johnny.  From then on, he and his younger son had steadily put the past farther behind them and had come to share a mutual respect for one another.

With a soft grunt, Murdoch rolled over.  In a few hours, the dawn of a new year would arrive.  He had no doubts about there being trials to overcome.  Ranch life had never been easy.  He didn’t expect that to change, but he felt more content than he ever had in his life.  His sons were home.  God willing, together they would face whatever challenges the days and months ahead brought their way.  In the end, they would still be together, closer and stronger than ever–a family.  His family.

Thus ended the year of 1870…

Note:  To find out how the year of 1871 began, please, read “Whose Ideas”.

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