Word Count 2,231
Posted to Lancer Yahoo groups in 2004, Revised and posted to Facebook January 2014
Sequel to: The Eve of a New Year
The Lancer brothers sat across from each other at the kitchen table. Johnny Lancer had his left elbow resting beside his plate. His fingers were curled and pressed against his cheek, and his chin rested on the heel of his hand. With his other hand, he used his fork to shuffle the scrambled eggs around on his plate.
“Okay, Brother. Out with it,” Scott Lancer said.
With brow puckering slightly, Johnny looked over at Scott. “Out with what?”
“Whatever it is that’s bothering you . . . and don’t say it’s nothing. You’ve been pushing those eggs around for the last five minutes and haven’t taken a single bite.”
Johnny scratched behind his ear and chewed at his lip. With a soft sigh, he let his left hand fall to the table. “What do ya think made him do it?”
Scott’s brows arched. “Made who do what?”
“Murdoch. Why do you think he gave us those papers last night? The one’s saying we get a vote in what goes on around here.”
Scott shrugged. “Maybe it’s because he thinks we’re capable of handling the responsibility.”
Johnny studied his brother for a moment. “You sure you didn’t apply a little bit of that art of persuasion you was talkin’ about yesterday? I can’t figure the old man coming up with that idea on his own.”
“I did no such thing,” Scott replied, sounding grouchy. “You saw the date on those documents. They were written nearly three weeks ago. You and I have never even discussed the issue until yesterday just before he walked in on us.”
“That don’t mean ya didn’t do some hinting.”
Scott set his fork on the edge of his plate and leaned forward. “Honestly, Johnny, I hadn’t even thought of approaching him with a proposition like that until you mentioned it yesterday morning. In case you have forgotten, I told you it was a risky idea. I really didn’t think he would agree to let us have a voice in the decision making this soon.” Sitting back in his chair, he added, “After we had been here a year or two, perhaps, but not yet.”
“Then you think he thought it up all on his own.” Johnny took a bite of his eggs and chewed slowly as he considered this possibility.
“It looks that way to me, unless . . ..” Scott’s voice faded away and a frown clouded his face.
Scott shook his head. “No. That just isn’t possible.”
Johnny propped both elbows on the table, slumped forward to rest his chin on his clasped hands, and gazed intently at his brother. “What ain’t possible?”
“Nothing,” Scott said with a wave of one hand. “Just forget it.”
“No. You’re thinking somethin’, and I wanna know what it is.”
“I’m telling you, it was nothing.”
Johnny leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. “No it wasn’t, or you wouldn’t o’ said somethin’ in the first place. Now tell me what you was thinking.”
“All right!” Scott paused and then continued in a quieter tone. “It just occurred to me that Murdoch might have overheard more of our conversation yesterday than we thought.”
“But the papers were dated weeks ago.”
“I know. That’s why I said it wasn’t possible.”
The furrows in Johnny’s eyebrows deepened. He dropped his arms to his sides and drummed his fingers against the bottom of his chair. “You think he might’ve made them papers out while we were dealin’ with Mr. Johnson and then dated them for three weeks ago?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Johnny. Why would he do that?”
Johnny’s hands ceased their nervous motion and his drawling voice softened. “To throw us off the trail. Make us think it was his own idea.”
Scott chuckled softly, the corners of his mouth stretching wider as they curled upward. “Little Brother, has anyone ever told you that you have a suspicious mind?”
“Hey, you thought of it first. And don’t say ya didn’t. Guess that makes two of us with suspicious minds.”
Scott chuckled again. “I suppose you have a point there.” Sobering, he continued. “Honestly, Johnny, I can’t see Murdoch giving us a vote just because he heard us talking about it. Before making an important decision like that, he would have given it considerably more thought first. I’ll wager that he sent us over to Ike Johnson’s as a test. If we had failed to get an acceptable price for the heifers, more than likely, Murdoch wouldn’t have given us the voting rights.”
“Yeah, you’re prob’ly right,” Johnny said softly. After a moment of silence, he grinned. “One thing’s for sure, though . . ..”
“And what would that be?” Scott asked.
“We never asked him to give us the vote . . . so he can’t accuse us of trickin’ him into doin’ it.”
“You’ve got that right.” Scott flashed a quick smile and sobered. “Just the same, we had better take it slow in making any changes around here.”
Johnny grinned. “Ya mean we can’t buy that saloon?”
Scott let out a soft chuckle. “Not for a little while, anyway.”
“We sure did have him goin’ there for a minute, didn’t we, Boston. Did you see the way his face got red? I bet if he hadn’t caught on when he did, he’d o’ jerked them votin’ papers right out of our hands.”
“I do believe you’re right, Brother.”
Johnny grinned again. “And whewie, was Teresa ever mad at us. I half expected we’d be fixin’ our own breakfast this morning, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did. Maybe, we’d better confine our investments to ranching and leave the gambling halls to people with less respectable names.”
Johnny laughed. When his brother joined in, he was sure that Scott was also remembering the expression on Teresa’s face the night before.
When their laughter subsided, the brothers talked companionable while they finished their breakfast. Eventually, the conversation shifted to the bulls that their father wanted to have shipped in from the east.
Johnny washed down a bite of bacon with a swallow of milk. “Hey, Scott. Ya don’t suppose Murdoch planned all along for us to invest in them bulls, do ya?”
Scott’s brows puckered. “What makes you think that?”
“Well,” Johnny drawled out slowly. “He’s hardly talked about anything else for the last week.”
“Now that you mention it, it does make a person wonder. Thinking back on it, he never said they were a risk until we offered to pay for some of them out of our profits from the ranch.”
“So he could’ve told us that so we wouldn’t think he was too eager to take our money, right?”
“Certainly is a possibility.” Scott drank the last of his coffee, placed the empty cup on his dirty plate, and shoved them to one side. “Of course, he’d never admit to trying to influence our thinking in any way.”
Johnny chuckled. “Maybe, that was another test like the heifer sale.”
“Brother, you don’t trust anyone’s motivations, do you?” Despite the hint of criticism in Scott’s tone, a slight smile curved the corners of his mouth.
“I just think our old man is a lot better poker player than we give him credit for, is all.”
“Oh, is it?” Scott smirked, tipping his chair back on two legs. “It sure sounded to me like you were saying he was being devious.”
“Who was being devious?” a deep voice said as a footstep sounded behind the brothers.
Scott jerked forward–chair legs dropping to the floor with a thump. At the same time, Johnny choked on his last bite of food.
“Are you okay?” Murdoch Lancer asked when Johnny finally stopped coughing.
“Uh, huh,” Johnny mumbled still trying to catch his breath.
Murdoch moved to the stove and poured a cup of coffee. After taking a sip, he came around to lean against the other side of the island while he regarded Scott. “Who is this devious poker player? Some new gambler you boys ran into in town?”
Scott kept his head down and fiddled with his cup. “Uh . . . yes.”
Murdoch took another gulp of coffee and shifted his gaze to Johnny. “Must be why you were concerned about losing your money in a card game, huh?”
“Well, Murdoch, one can never be too cautious, I always say. ‘Course them bulls are a gamble, too, right? Maybe, I oughta take that money back and stick to what I know best. Poker.” Johnny gave his father a sly grin.
“Too late for that.” Murdoch cleared his throat and smiled back before continuing. “I, uh, already had Manuel go into town to send a telegram saying I would take all six of those bulls. You wouldn’t want me to go back on my word, would you?”
Johnny rolled his eyes and drew in a deep breath. After letting most of the air flow noisily out through his nose, he said, “Nah. Can’t have yuh givin’ us a bad name.”
Murdoch chuckled softly, shifted forward, and stood erect. “If you boys are going to cut out those heifers for Ike, you’d better be on your way. Teresa has a special dinner planned since it’s the first day of the year. She won’t be happy if you’re late getting home.”
The brothers quickly agreed, picked up their plates, and put them in the sink. After a brief farewell to their father, they left by way of the doorway leading into the main room of the house.
Murdoch Lancer took a few more swallows of his coffee, refilled his cup, and then moved into the living room. He walked over to his desk and looked out the window. So his sons thought he was devious, did they?
He laughed softly. His sons had fallen into his trap beautifully. Bragging up the new bulls before giving his boys their share of the profits had worked just as he had planned. He could have brought the investment in new breeding stock to a vote, but to use Scott’s advice to Johnny of the day before, it was much better to let his sons believe it had been their own idea. Besides, he had set that plan in motion before he had written up the papers that he had given his sons just before midnight.
The chair behind the desk squeaked as Murdoch settled his big frame onto the seat and leaned back. A little twinge of guilt pricked his conscience. He had been devious the day before when he had made out the documents that would allow his sons to vote on future decisions concerning the ranch. The thought of giving them that much responsibility hadn’t entered his mind until, on the previous morning, he had heard them discussing how to approach him about having an equal say in the running of the ranch.
Murdoch promptly justified his actions. He couldn’t let them think they had influenced him. Scott would be using that art of persuasion on him more often, and he certainly didn’t need Johnny learning any of those tricks. No, it was best all around if his sons thought it was his idea just like it was best that they believed that investing in the bulls was theirs. It would keep things a bit more peaceful that way.
With a smile on his lips, Murdoch shifted forward, picked up a pen, and wrote on the tablet in front of him. When he was finished, he tore off the sheet of paper, carefully folded it in half twice, and went to find Manuel.
“I told ya he was puttin’ us on about sendin’ that wire,” Johnny said from the back of his fidgeting palomino horse as he and his brother watched Manuel ride away from the ranch headquarters.
“I have to hand it to you, Brother. That suspicious mind of yours was right.” Scott reached into his pocket, pulled out a coin, and tossed it up to Johnny.
Johnny caught the coin and cheerfully smiled down on his brother. “Thanks, Scott. Didn’t I tell ya it pays not to be too trusting?”
“So you did,” Scott replied. He swung into the saddle and turned his sorrel to face Johnny. “Only doesn’t it bother you that Murdoch was less than truthful with us.”
“Nope.” Johnny shook his head and smiled. “The way I see it . . . he’s the one that set the rules of the game so he’ll have no call to complain if I play by ’em.”
Johnny headed Barranca away from the corral and Scott called out from behind him. “And just what devious ideas do you have floating around inside that head of yours?”
“That, Boston, is for me to know and you to find out. I ain’t about to tell ya all my secrets,” Johnny said, looking back over his shoulder. Then he dug his heels into Barranca’s sides, let out a whoop, and urged the horse into a dead run. With Scott in hot pursuit, he raced across the valley on his way to the pasture that held the heifers that Ike Johnson had contracted to buy.
And so began the year of 1871 at Lancer.
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