Word Count 23,150
10th in the The Surprise series . If you haven’t read the previous stories there may be some references that are confusing.
“BOYS!!” The shout rattled the rafters and carried easily up to the bedrooms, where the two young men had been lurking all day.
Scott and Johnny froze and looked at each other. “What could possibly be wrong now? We haven’t even been near him,” Johnny asked suspiciously.
“I have no idea,” Scott replied. “Maybe he wants to thank us for taking care of the ranch while he was gone.”
“Ya think?” Johnny asked hopefully.
“Why don’t you go and find out?’ Scott suggested.
Johnny shook his head. “I ain’t stupid.”
“Maybe he’s mad because we didn’t go to work today.”
“No, that can’t be it. Besides, without those dang birds this place practically runs itself.”
Scott nodded. “I’m sure he’d be angrier if we went outside and got shot.”
“Jelly sure is persistent, isn’t he?”
“Yes, he is. Just thank goodness he’s also a lousy shot.”
Johnny nodded solemnly and looked at the blown out windows in his room. “He seems to be able to hit windows ok.”
“And Nick,” Scott smirked.
Johnny grinned back. “I think that was the best shot old Jelly ever made.”
“BOYS! NOW!” Murdoch bellowed from downstairs.
“We replaced all of the booze, so it CAN’T be that,” Johnny mused.
“Well he CAN’T be mad about the turkeys; they’re all gone.”
“Yeah,” Johnny replied glumly. “Along with Dewdrop. I still don’t know how those army idiots mistook him for a turkey.”
“Maybe it had something to do with the fact you told them to take everything on this ranch with feathers or you’d shoot them,” Scott said sarcastically.
Johnny looked ruefully at his brother. “Think Teresa is still cryin over all those chickens they took?”
“Well, they were almost like her pets; she had named every one of them.” Scott hesitated. “Of course, I think she was more upset about her hat.”
“That thing looked stupid, anyway. Whoever thought of puttin’ feathers on a hat musta been an idiot.”
Johnny brightened. “Maybe he found Dewdrop!”
Scott looked hopeful for moment, then went to the window and looked out. “No, Jelly is still waiting down there with his shotgun.”
Johnny sighed. “I still don’t know why Jelly’s blamin’ us. I mean WE’RE not the one that goosenapped Dewdrop.”
“I don’t know. It seems that we get blamed for EVERYTHING lately.”
“It just ain’t fair,” Johnny grumbled.
“BOYS!! NOW!! Or I’m coming up!”
Scott and Johnny looked at each other for a moment, then made their way to the door. There was a brief scuffle as they each tried to get the other one to go first before Johnny finally gave up and headed down the stairs, with his brother following close behind.
Johnny hesitated at the foot of the stairs and cautiously looked round the corner into the great room. Murdoch was pacing agitatedly back and forth in front of the fireplace, a full glass of scotch in his hand. Johnny ducked back and shook his head. “He ain’t armed,” he informed Scott.
Scott shrugged. “I guess it’s better than facing Jelly.”
The two men cautiously made their way into the great room, with both of them jockeying for the best position for a rapid escape. Murdoch turned around and waved a piece of paper at them. “Do you have any idea what this is?” he asked calmly.
The boys shook their heads in unison.
“THIS is a letter from the army quartermaster.”
Johnny brightened. “Are they thankin’ us for sellin’ them those turkeys?”
“Not exactly,” Murdoch growled. “It’s a letter canceling Lancer’s beef contract with them.”
“Why would they do that?” Johnny asked perplexedly.
“Because,” Murdoch explained, “It seems that they have enough turkeys to feed them for the next HUNDRED YEARS!”
Johnny shrugged. “So?”
“SO, without that contract, we’ll go broke, lose the ranch, and STARVE TO DEATH!”
Johnny shot a cautious glance at his brother before answering Murdoch. “That’s a small price ta pay for getting’ rid of those dang birds.”
Scott nodded earnestly. “I have to agree.”
“Well, I don’t,” Murdoch said icily.
Scott looked at his father innocently. “Well, there’s nothing we can do about it now.”
“Isn’t there?” Murdoch’s tone was calm. Too calm. Murdoch smiled at them, then turned toward the bar. “Actually, you boys are probably right. Maybe we don’t need the cattle contract after all.”
Scott and Johnny looked at each other in bewilderment. Maybe their father really was sick. They nervously edged closer to the door.
Murdoch poured another drink, then turned and smiled at his sons once more. “No, I think we can make do without it just fine. It’s your choice. Of course, if we don’t have a market for the cattle, then we don’t have any reason to keep them.”
“You mean we’re goin’ into horses?” Johnny asked happily.
Murdoch swirled his drink around the glass and studied it carefully. “No, no. Actually, I was thinking more of turkeys. Since they were so easy to sell to the army, I thought maybe we should shift out focus. I hear there’s a huge poultry auction a few miles north of here, and I think we should go up there and buy all that we can get…” He looked up as he heard the loud steps on the stairs and his sons disappeared from view. He chuckled quietly. There was more than one way to skin a cat. Or a son.
Ten minutes later the two men raced down the stairs, their saddlebags slung over their shoulders. Murdoch looked up innocently. “Where are you two going?”
“We’re going to go talk to the army and see if we can convince them to buy those cattle,” Scott said as he headed for the door.
Murdoch nodded. “All right, but remember, either come back with the cattle contract or more turkeys, your choice.”
Johnny just waved his hand at his father as he walked by, before the door slammed shut behind them.
A moment later, a shotgun blast tore through Murdoch’s bay window and he dove for cover. Cautiously, he poked his head out from under the desk just as another blast sounded, and he ducked once more. He stayed under the desk until he heard the sounds of two horses tearing out of the yard, and he knew his sons had made it to safety. He chuckled as he realized that Jelly had just added another requirement to the boys coming home. He sure hoped his sons could find Dewdrop, or it might get awfully lonely around here. He stood up at the shattered bay window and he shook his head. On the other hand, a little peace and quiet never hurt anyone.
Johnny and Scott rode toward Fort Humboldt, occasionally glancing behind them to make sure Jelly wasn’t following.
“I sure hope we can get the army to change their mind and buy our beef,” Scott stated. “I sure don’t want to have to go into the turkey business permanently.”
Johnny shuddered. “WE ain’t. If it comes down ta that, Murdoch is on his own. I’m headin’ down ta Mexico. I figure Agnes and I can survive down there just fine. She’s real fond of chilies.”
“I wonder what Grandfather would have to say about having a camel for a houseguest,” Scott mused.
Johnny chuckled. “It might be worth it just ta see the old man’s expression.”
“Maybe,” Scott sighed. “But I’d rather avoid finding out. Besides, Helen has been real cranky lately. I have the feeling she wouldn’t make a great impression on him.”
“LATELY? She’s ALWAYS cranky! That damn camel spits at me about as much as Dewdrop bites me.”
“You just don’t know how to talk to her. She’s very sensitive.”
“Yeah,” Johnny snorted. “About as sensitive as a brick wall.”
“At least SHE doesn’t get drunk and wipe out the whole ranch.”
“That’s not fair. Agnes has only done that, what? Three times?”
“Five, but who’s counting?”
“Murdoch,” Johnny said glumly.
“Well, if we get that contract, he’ll forget about Agnes…and the ship…and the Barkleys.”
Johnny shrugged. “Well, as temptin’ as that sounds, I think the first thing we gotta do is find Dewdrop.”
“Dewdrop? I don’t know that finding that damn goose is a top priority. After all, how many times has she chased us into the house? Besides, Murdoch will be pretty upset if we don’t hurry and tie down that beef contract. In fact, he just might shoot us.”
Johnny snorted. “JELLY will shoot us if we don’t bring Dewdrop back in one piece, and the longer we wait, the more likely it is she’ll bite the wrong person and wind up as somebody’s Sunday supper.”
“So either way we get shot,” Scott said glumly.
“So if we’re going to be shot anyway, what difference does it make who does the shooting? Besides, Jelly can’t hit the broad side of a barn. I think it would be much wiser to have HIM mad at us.”
Johnny reined Barranca to a halt. “Scott, think about it. If Jelly shot us, he’d probably miss just enough ta make it REALLY painful.”
Scott bit his lip worriedly. “I see your point. All right, we find Dewdrop first, then worry about the contract.”
Johnny nodded. “Smart man.”
Johnny looked around. “If I remember right, there’s a nice spot to camp a little ways from here. How about it?”
Scott nodded. “One more day won’t make any difference. Let’s go.”
Johnny led the way through some trees toward the sound of a running stream. “It’s right about in ….”
The sound of a pistol being cocked made the boys freeze, and a voice commanded, “Hold it right there, or I’ll blow your heads off. In fact, I might do it anyway.”
Johnny locked eyes with the gunman, and his hand inched toward his gun. “Wanna try me?” Johnny growled.
“Oh for goodness sakes, would you two children stop it!’ Heath ordered. “You know you’re not really going to shoot each other.”
“We do?” Johnny and Nick said in unison as they glared at each other.
“Yes, you do,” Scott confirmed as he dismounted. “What are you two doing here?”
Heath shrugged. “We’re on our way to see…”
“MOTHER!” Nick cut in, as Heath looked at him in amazement.
Scott studied the two of them and his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “This is a little out of the way, isn’t it?”
“Not really; thought we’d take the scenic route. So where are the two of you headed?” Nick said innocently.
“We’re goin’ ta see…” Johnny started.
Scott hurriedly finished his brother’s sentence. “A friend of Murdoch’s about some cattle.”
Johnny looked at his brother in confusion, then finally nodded. “Yeah, that’s right.”
Nick grinned. “Uh huh.”
“Well,” Johnny said slowly. “Since you already staked out this spot, I guess we’ll just mosey along and camp down the road a bit.”
“All right,” Heath replied.
“Now come on, Heath, we can’t let Scott and Johnny just ride out,” Nick protested.
Nick stared intently at his brother. “NO, we can’t.”
After a moment, Heath nodded and turned toward his friends. “Sure, why don’t you boys just camp here with us tonight,” he said dubiously, then looked back at his brother, who was nodding in approval.
“No, that’s ok,” Johnny answered. “We’ll just ride on.”
“Now, Johnny, we don’t want to be rude,” Scott said hurriedly.
“No,” Scott said slowly as he stared at his brother. “We DON’T.”
Finally, Johnny nodded hesitantly. “Then I guess we’ll join you tonight. We’ll just go down to the stream and water our horses. We’ll be right back.”
Johnny headed Barranca toward the water, and after they had reached the stream, he turned toward his brother. “What in tarnation are you doin’? I don’t want to spend the night in the same campsite as Nick. Hell, it’s bad enough we have ta live in the same state!”
“Don’t you think it’s odd that they didn’t want to tell us where they’re really going?”
Johnny snorted. “I think EVERYTHING those two do is odd.”
“Did it ever occur to you that they just MIGHT be headed the same place we are, and for the same reason?”
Johnny chewed his lip. “Do ya think?”
Scott nodded. “Yes, I do. After all, the army probably cancelled their contract, too.”
Johnny shrugged. “So?”
“So, little brother, we can’t let them talk to the quartermaster first. We have to convince the army to buy OUR beef.”
“We still don’t have ta spend the night in the same camp.”
“Oh yes, we do.” Scott grinned. “Little brother, I have a plan.”
As soon as Scott and Johnny disappeared toward the stream, Heath turned towards his brother in confusion. “Just what the heck are you doing?” Heath studied Nick suspiciously. “You’re not planning on murdering them… are you?”
Nick shook his head impatiently. “Only as a last resort. Did you see how they reacted when you asked them where they were going?”
Heath shrugged and Nick continued. “I bet they’re going to Fort Humboldt the same as us.”
“So, we can’t let them get there first.”
“Because, WE have to talk to the quartermaster first.
“So what are we going to do?”
Nick smiled. “Trust me. I have a plan.”
The next morning, Scott nudged Johnny well before first light. “You ready?” he whispered.
Johnny reluctantly opened his eyes and sighed. He’d much rather sleep another hour or two, but he knew his brother would have none of it. He reluctantly crawled out of his bedroll and yawned.
“Shhh,” Scott warned. “Hurry up. Let’s go.”
Johnny grabbed his boots and stood up, then followed Scott out of camp and over to where the horses were tethered. They quietly saddled up their horses and led them out of camp, then mounted quickly and nudged their horses away from the Barkleys.
Nick raised his head and looked up as the two Lancers left, then grinned and snuggled deeper into his sleeping bags. He and Heath had plenty of time.
Scott and Johnny rode at a leisurely pace, knowing they had plenty of time to get to the fort before the Barkleys would arrive. Scott chuckled. He couldn’t wait to see the look on Nick’s face, and he chuckled again. The beauty of his plan was that without a doubt, the Barkley’s would blame Johnny. They would never suspect him of such a devious and underhanded trick. He laughed out loud.
“What are you laughin’ at?” Johnny asked.
“Just the trick we played on the Barkleys.”
“Ya mean gettin’ up and leavin’ early?”
Scott chuckled again. “No, I mean making sure they weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.”
Johnny’s eyebrows went up, and a smile played around his lips. “Yeah? What did we do?”
“Well, little brother, last night when you were sleeping, I was busy!” Scott turned in his saddle and beamed at his brother. “I went over and…”
His words were cut off when his saddle began to slip alarmingly. Scott grabbed frantically at the saddle horn to keep from falling, but unfortunately, since the horn was attached to the saddle, it didn’t do him a lot of good. With a strangled shriek, he and the saddle hit the dirt. He came up sputtering as Charlie took off.
“What the heck?” Scott muttered, as Johnny watched in amusement.
Scott’s eyes narrowed, and he grabbed the saddle and inspected the cinch. “Why those two no good, double crossing IDIOTS!” Scott shouted. “They CUT my cinch!”
Johnny started to laugh. “I guess they weren’t so dumb, after all. And THEY got ta sleep IN!”
Scott shook his head. “When I get my hands on those two…..” he left the thought unfinished as he glared at his chuckling brother. “Well, DON’T just STAND there, go catch my horse!”
“Come on, Scott, it was just a little joke. Ya don’t have ta be so cranky about it.”
“GO…GET…MY…HORSE!” Scott commanded.
Johnny nodded and quickly swung Barranca around. A moment later, he was sitting on the ground as his horse joined Charlie. Johnny leaped to his feet. “I’m gonna KILL Nick Barkley if it’s the last thing I DO!” He glared at his brother. Well, don’t just sit there, come on! We’ve gotta catch those horses!”
Heath woke up to the smell of bacon frying and his brother humming joyfully. He watched his older brother for several seconds, and noticed that Nick was having an awful time trying to keep from laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Heath questioned.
“I can’t WAIT to see the looks on Johnny’s and Scott’s faces.”
Heath looked around cautiously. “Where are they, anyway?”
“They left this morning before the sun was even up. They figured they’d get the jump on us. Boy, are they going to be surprised.”
“Why?” Heath grinned.
“Because, I made sure they’re not going to go far. I did a little work on their cinches last night.”
Heath whistled. “Boy howdy, you’d better make sure you don’t get anywhere near Johnny for a while.”
“You either,” Nick grinned.
“I didn’t do anything!” Heath protested.
Nick shook his head. “JOHNNY doesn’t know that. Come on, let’s eat and hit the trail. I think we’d better go another way; I sure don’t want to run into those two on the road.”
“Good idea,” Heath said glumly. He wasn’t exactly in the mood to have Johnny Madrid gunning for him, and he was pretty sure that was what was going to happen, not that he could blame him.
After breakfast, the Barkleys packed up their gear and went to saddle their horses. Nick threw the saddle on his horse, then walked to the other side. He looked around on the ground, then pushed his hat back as he rubbed his head. “Heath, is my bridle over there?”
“Nope, in fact, mine isn’t, either.”
Nick looked frantically through his saddlebags and around the now abandoned campsite. Heath watched in amazement as rocks, firewood, and curses flew. “I’m going to KILL Johnny Lancer if it’s the last thing I DO!”
“How do you know it wasn’t Scott?”
“Oh, no, this HAD to be Johnny.”
“Well, if we’re going to try to make it to the fort, we’d better figure something out. After all, we can’t kill him if we can’t catch him, but I GUARANTEE Mother will kill US if we don’t come back with that contract.”
Nick looked glumly at his brother. Do we have ANYTHING we can use as bridles?”
Heath started chuckling. “Well, I can come up with one thing, but you aren’t going to like it.”
“I’ll like ANYTHING that gets me to that fort so I can kill Johnny!”
Heath shrugged dubiously. “Ok.”
Johnny and Scott sat at the bar near the fort. They had been told the quartermaster wouldn’t be in for another hour or so, and they had decided to have a drink. They still couldn’t believe that Nick and Heath had pulled such a dirty trick on them. They had been forced to combine the pieces and make one good cinch, and then ride double the rest of the way to the fort.
Scott figured the only good thing was that at least the Barkleys wouldn’t be in town anytime soon; that would give him time to calm Johnny down enough so that he wouldn’t gun them down on sight.
Scott looked carelessly out the window, then froze. He watched the two riders walking their horses down the street, but his eyes were drawn to the horses’ outlandish headgear. He watched for several moments, then nudged his brother. “Hey, look at that.”
Johnny looked out the window, a frown forming when he recognized the riders. Slowly, his expression turned to disbelief, and then he actually smiled. “Scott, I changed my mind about killin’ them. If I killed ‘em, I couldn’t keep remindin’ them of this.”
Scott nodded. It was a sight, that’s for sure, but he had to admire their cleverness. He would have sworn they couldn’t get anywhere without those bridles. He watched as the townsfolk stopped and gaped at the two cowboys, who rode with their eyes straight ahead, glued to the dubious safety of the fort. Scott could hear the laughter from the townspeople, and he really couldn’t blame them. After all, it wasn’t every day men rode into town using their longjohns as bridles.
“I think we’d better head over to the fort,” Scott told his brother. “I have the feeling the Barkleys just might try to see the quartermaster before we do.”
Johnny shrugged. “We have an appointment to see him first.”
“I know,” Scott explained patiently. “But Nick can be pretty convincing. Do you really want to take a chance?”
Johnny snorted. “What I DON’T want ta do is take a chance on meetin’ up with him anytime soon. I have the feelin’ that for some reason he’s gonna be crankier than normal.”
“Well, we can go out of town the back way and if we hurry, we can beat them there.”
Johnny jumped to his feet and followed his brother out of the saloon.
“Now remember,” Scott said. “If Heath and Nick are already there, you have to come up with some way of keeping them away from the office until I can go talk to the quartermaster. We HAVE to talk to him first.”
Johnny brightened. “Ya mean I get ta…”
“NO! Absolutely no firearms allowed!”
“Didja tell him that?” Johnny grumbled. “You ain’t the one that has ta distract him.”
Several minutes later, they arrived in front of the quartermaster’s office. Johnny stepped off of Barranca and tied the horse’s reins to the hitching post, then turned to go into the office.
“YOU!” Johnny heard Nick bellow right before Johnny was sent flying backwards into the street.
Scott watched as his brother and Nick rolled around in the dirt, trying to tear each other’s heads off, then he turned and walked into the quartermaster’s office. He had to hand it to Johnny. His brother sure knew how to keep Nick occupied.
“May I help you?”
Scott was relieved that the quartermaster was in, and he had managed to get to him before the Barkleys. He just hoped Johnny could keep Nick occupied a few more minutes. He nodded. “Yes, Sir. My name is Scott Lancer and I need to talk to you about our beef contract.”
The soldier shook his head. “I’m sorry. We don’t need any beef. SOMEONE sold us enough meat to feed the army for the next hundred years or so.”
Scott sighed. “The turkeys?”
“Yes, the turkeys! We have more turkeys than we know what to do with. Every time we eat one, three more hatch. We have enough meat to last until the end of time, maybe longer!”
Scott thought frantically. “Aren’t the men getting a LITTLE tired of eating turkey? Maybe you could buy some beef and give the men an occasional steak.”
“I’M getting a little tired of turkeys! Those dab blame birds never shut up and they smell worse than pigs!” He glared at the rancher. “I think the only reason you sold ‘em to us is ‘cause they were drivin’ you batty! I have half a notion ta try you for treason!”
Scott looked shocked. “I had no idea anyone would think they were a problem! Actually, my brother and I hated to see them go. They were almost like family.”
“I can see that. I’ve met your family.” The man glared at Scott several more seconds before finally shaking his head. “But I can’t believe ANYBODY would miss those birds. NO ONE could get along with those dang critters. I even left the pens open, hopin’ they’d just disappear, and instead they moved into the barracks and took over all the bunks. There were eggs and feathers everywhere, and it took us a week ta get all the bird poop off of everything. IT STILL smells like turkeys in there.”
“See, cattle are perfect angels compared to those birds,” Scott pointed out desperately. “Wouldn’t you rather deal with them? You can forget about those turkeys and Lancer can sell you all the cattle you need.”
The quartermaster glared at Scott. “I would LOVE to buy some steers and get this fort back to normal, but unfortunately, we have a million turkeys to get rid of first, and they aren’t cooperative enough ta run away.”
“Can’t you sell them?”
Scott tried again. “Well, somebody must want them. Maybe you can give them away.”
“Could you? Besides, unless you’re willing to GIVE us those cattle, we’d need the money from sellin’ the turkeys ta buy your beef. We don’t have any extra money right now.” He glared at Scott. “It seems that there was a goose in that shipment of turkeys, and it had the distinction of being the first fowl to single handedly destroy an American fort!” He patted his holster suggestively. “Was that your bird?”
“No SIR! He belonged to our handyman, and sort of got accidentally mixed up with the shipment. I was wondering if we could get him back.”
“He’s no longer with us.”
Scott froze. “He’s dead?”
“Hopefully he died a long and painful death, but we didn’t do him in. We sold him to a poultry farmer just south of here.”
Scott breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m sorry if he caused any trouble.”
“Trouble? TROUBLE? He attacked all of our officers and then caused a herd of stock to stampede right through the fence. They took off for destinations unknown and they’ve been impossible to catch. We’re supposed to deliver them to Fort Meyers over in Arizona, and we haven’t had any luck rounding them up. I’m afraid we’re going to have to pay for some one to catch them.”
Scott brightened. “What if WE catch the stock for you for free? Then you’d have the money to buy our beef!”
The quartermaster’s eyes narrowed. “We’d still have those dang feathered pigs!”
Scott swallowed hard. “Well, I guess we could take them off your hands for you.”
“And you’d catch ALL the stock and deliver it to Fort Meyers?”
Scott nodded hesitantly.
The soldier appraised him and finally nodded his head. “All right, you make those turkeys disappear and catch and deliver all of the stock and we’ll renew your contract.”
Scott nodded in relief, then had a thought. He and Johnny just might need some help on this trail drive. “And the Barkley’s contract?”
The quartermaster hesitated. “And there won’t be any more geese or turkeys near the fort?”
Scott shook his head. “No.”
Scott grinned and stuck out his hand to seal the deal. This was going to be a piece of cake. Wait until Johnny and the Barkleys found out how he skillfully managed to get their contracts renewed. They wouldn’t believe their luck.
Scott turned to leave the quartermaster’s office, then he had a thought and turned around. “If we’re going to round up your stock, we’ll need some help delivering those birds.”
“That wasn’t part of the deal.”
Scott shrugged. “Well, all right. But we’ll have to leave them here until we get all of the stock rounded up and driven down to Fort Meyers. Then we’ll have to ride all the way back up here. It might be a while before we can get them off your hands, but I guess you don’t care. Taking care of them will give your soldiers something to do.”
The quartermaster glared at Scott, and then finally sighed. “All right. Where do you want them delivered?”
Scott thought for several moments, then answered. As the soldier wrote down the information, Scott thought of another question. “Just how many cattle are we looking for?”
The quartermaster brought his head up and stared at Scott blankly. “Cattle?”
Scott walked out of the office and looked around cautiously. To his surprise, Johnny and the Barkleys were nowhere in sight. He stood indecisively for several moments and then headed for the saloon. He walked up to the batwing doors and peered over the top and his eyes widened in surprise when he saw his brother sitting sharing a drink with the Barkleys. He stepped back and thought about it for a moment, then peeked over the door again. Yep, they certainly seemed pretty cozy. Not a good sign. Johnny had probably ratted him out. Of course, what was he worried about? As soon as they heard about the deal he’d made he wouldn’t have to worry about it.
Scott stepped back and thought about how he was going to do this. He figured he could probably talk his brother into going along with his plan; he knew Johnny would be much more worried about what Murdoch would do if they came back without a contract than any possible flaws in Scott’s deal. The Barkleys were a different story. Of course, from the little bit he’d seen of Victoria Barkley, Nick and Heath just might jump at any chance to get their contract back, too.
Finally, he pushed open the doors and sauntered over to the table. Nick looked up and a big smile came over his face. “Scott! Sit down!”
Scott looked at him warily and glanced at his brother. Johnny was studiously staring at his glass, a slight smile on his face, and Scott hesitated. Something was definitely up. He sat down cautiously. “Nick, Heath. How’re you doing?”
“Just fine!” Nick boomed as he poured another drink and slid it over toward Scott.
Scott grabbed the drink and tossed it down. He had the distinct impression he’d need it very soon. He looked at Johnny. “I see the two of you settled your differences.”
Johnny shrugged, and Nick’s smile became wider. “Yes, we did. Of course, the way I understand it, you and I might have a few differences to settle.”
Scott shot his brother a dark look. “Traitor,” he muttered.
Johnny shrugged once more as he took a drink, not particularly worried about his brother’s discomfort. “Self preservation,” he said quietly.
Scott suddenly smiled. “Well, brother, you might be a little bit nicer to me when I tell you that I managed to win back the beef contract for Lancer.”
Nick sat bolt upright. “WHAT? That stupid quartermaster wouldn’t even give us the time of day!”
Scott shrugged nonchalantly. “Well, I guess I just have a knack for getting things done.”
Heath choked on his beer, and Johnny pounded him on the back as he glared at his brother suspiciously. “And just how did ya manage that?”
Scott took another nonchalant sip, then shrugged. “Oh, I made a deal with him.”
“What kind of a deal?” Nick asked suspiciously.
“Yeah, what kind of a deal?” Johnny growled.
“Just that we’d deliver some stock down to Fort Meyers in Arizona.” He turned toward Nick. “Of course, I figured you wouldn’t be interested, but just in case, I made sure you’d get your contract back if you helped.” Scott shook his head. “But the more I think about it, the more I think Johnny and I can handle it all on our own.” He stood up and slapped his brother on the shoulder. “We’d better get going. I figure we can be back at Lancer in a couple of weeks if we hurry. Murdoch sure will be happy about that contract. He might even give us some time off.”
“Now wait just a minute,” Nick blustered. “I’m sure you could use some help with all that stock. Heath and I would be glad to ride along and help.”
Heath looked at his brother incredulously. “You’re going to fall for that?”
“Fall for what?” Nick asked. “What could be so hard about delivering some stock to Arizona?”
Heath shook his head slowly. “I’m not sure, but if ANYONE can make it difficult, I’m sure Scott here can.”
“Oh, come on, Heath. Quit being such a worrywart. With the four of us, we can get those animals delivered and be back at the ranch before Mother is released and gets home from her stay in San Francisco. She’ll be delighted that we managed to get the beef contract back. We might even get some time off!”
“Somehow, I doubt that,” Heath muttered.
“What do you doubt?” Nick asked.
“All of it!”
Nick frowned slightly and turned toward Scott. “How many head do we have to deliver?”
“Only fifty,” Scott said innocently.
“FIFTY? That’s it?”
Scott nodded. “That’s it.”
“What’s the catch?” Nick asked slowly.
Scott shrugged. “Well, I guess I should have told you. We DO have to round them up first. It seems that they somehow managed to escape.”
Nick’s eyes narrowed. “That doesn’t seem too hard.”
Heath shook his head. “Nick, there HAS to be more to it. They’re probably in the middle of four hundred miles of quicksand, or inside of a hostile Indian village. It can’t be that easy.”
Nick swung back to Scott who shook his head. “No quicksand and no Indians. But that’s OK. Johnny and I will take care of it, won’t we brother?”
Johnny was looking back and forth between Scott and Heath. “I don’t know…”
Scott kicked his brother in the shins, hard. Johnny yelped and nodded his head. “Yeah, I guess we can handle it.”
Scott stood up and dragged his brother to his feet. “Come on, let’s get going.” He looked at Nick. “Tell your mother ‘hi’ for us.”
At the mention of his mother, Nick turned pale and he grabbed Heath and hauled him to his feet. “Count us in.”
Scott looked at Nick thoughtfully. “I don’t know. Maybe Johnny and I had better handle it.”
“Why?” Nick asked in panic. The thought of going home without that contract wasn’t pleasant. Mother might be crazy but he was sure her aim was as good as ever.
Scott shook his head regretfully. “I don’t know. I don’t want you to say you were forced into anything.”
“We won’t,” Nick said quickly as he shot a warning look at his brother.
“Well, if you’re REALLY sure, maybe we could let you in on it. What do you think, Johnny?”
“I THINK that maybe you and Nick should go round up those steers and me and Heath should…” Scott elbowed his brother in the side and Johnny finished unwillingly, “go with you?”
Scott nodded in agreement, then sighed reluctantly as he looked at Nick. “If you REALLY insist on it, I guess you and Heath can come along.”
Nick brightened considerably, and he beamed at his brother, but Heath was shaking his head slowly. “I have a bad feeling about this,” Heath muttered.
Nick slapped his brother on the arm. “You worry too much. What could POSSIBLY go wrong?”
Johnny opened his mouth to reply, and once more received an elbow to the ribs. He clamped his mouth shut once more.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” Nick boomed. “Let’s get going!”
Scott nodded. “All right. The quartermaster said we should stop by the supply building and find out just where they’ve been seen last and pick up some supplies. He said we were welcome to use anything we needed.” He looked at his brother. “By the way, I skillfully found out where Dewdrop is. She’s at a poultry farm just south of here and we can stop and make sure she gets back to Lancer.”
“Good, it looks like we just might survive, after all,” Johnny exclaimed.
Heath looked at Scott in bewilderment. “Isn’t Dewdrop that blamed goose of Jelly’s? The one that keeps attacking everybody?”
“Then WHY in tarnation do you want her back? I’d think you’d be jumping for joy that you finally got rid of the darn thing!”
“We would be,” Johnny said glumly. “But unfortunately, Jelly’s vowed to shoot us if we don’t bring her back.”
Heath shook his head. “What are you worried about? Jelly can’t hit the broad side of a barn! He’d never kill you!”
“That’s what we’re afraid of,” Johnny sniggered as he looked at Nick.
Heath chuckled. “I see your point. That would be a pretty hard decision.”
Scott grinned at Nick as he nodded his head. “Not really.”
“Are we going to go after that stock or not!” Nick exploded.
“All right, since you’re that anxious, maybe we’d better go,” Scott said.
Nick nodded. “Darn right I’m anxious. The quicker we get those animals delivered, the quicker we can leave the two of you and never see you again.”
Scott shook his head. “Now, Nick, you’re going to make us feel left out if you keep talking like that.”
“Better left out than dead, with ants crawling across your eyeballs, and that’s just where you’ll both wind up if ANYTHING goes wrong with this roundup,” he glowered.
Scott shrugged and looked at his brother. “Maybe we’d better just do this ourselves. Nick and Heath can figure out some other way to get their contract back. What do you say, Johnny? I don’t want Nick here to get upset.”
“You don’t seem ta be worried about me bein’ upset,” Johnny mumbled as Nick grabbed Scott’s arm. “No,” Nick pleaded. “It was just a figure of speech. Let’s go. No more complaints, I promise.”
“And you won’t back out?” Scott said innocently.
“NO!” Nick bellowed as Heath was trying to stop him from talking. Nick glared at his little brother. “WE won’t back out.”
“You give me your word on that? I don’t want to be suddenly left shorthanded,” Scott pressed.
“Nick, DON’T!” Heath blurted. “I have a REALLY bad feeling about this.”
Nick brushed his brother off. “You have my word, neither one of us will quit.” He turned to his brother. “Stop being such a worrywart. Nothing can go wrong with the two of us along, no matter HOW inept Scott and Johnny are.”
Heath sighed and shot a glance at Johnny, who was shaking his head sadly.
“Well, let’s go,” Scott suggested. “We’ll pick up some food at supply.”
The four men rode over to the fort and walked into the supply store. “We need to pick up some food and supplies. Your quartermaster said to give you this,” Scott explained as he handed the sergeant a piece of paper. The soldier perused it for a long time and then nodded. “Ok. What do you need?”
Scott shrugged. “Food and supplies to last about three weeks and plenty of rope.”
“Rope?” Nick questioned. “For what?”
“Well, I figure we can tie the animals at night during the drive, or make a pen with the rope.”
Nick chuckled. “You really are a greenhorn, aren’t you? We don’t need rope. One of us will just have to ride herd at night to keep them bunched.”
“I think we should bring the rope along, just in case,” Scott said innocently. It might come in handy for something.”
Johnny leaned over and whispered in his brother’s ear. “Scott, I don’t know what you’re pullin’ but I DO know you’re up to something, and whatever it is, I don’t think anybody’s gonna be happy about it, especially Nick. And I DON’T think it’s a good idea to bring along the materials for a noose…or two.”
Scott looked at his brother thoughtfully. “You may be right,” he whispered. Aloud, he said. “Forget the rope. And no ammunition, either.”
The soldier’s eyebrows went up but he nodded and busied himself getting the supplies. “Looks like you boys are goin’ on a trip.”
“Yes,” Heath said flatly. “I think we’re going on a wild goose chase.”
The sergeant looked at him quizzically and Heath shook his head. “We’re going to round up some stock.”
The soldiers face lit up and he laughed. “You boys goin’ after them?” He shook his head. “Good luck. The whole fort’s been tryin’ ta get them for two weeks, and so far they only caught one. Hope they’re payin’ ya good.”
“I KNEW it!” Heath shouted as he threw his hat on the floor. “Just where are those dad blamed animals, anyway? On top of a mountain or in the middle of a lake? Maybe on the MOON?”
The soldier shook his head. “They’re in the trees just south of here, mostly. Not hard ta find.”
Heath calmed down slightly. “Then why have you had so much trouble rounding them up?”
“Because they’re not cowboys, they’re soldiers,” Scott offered quickly. “Isn’t that right,” he asked the sergeant.
The soldier nodded slowly. “Yep, that’s a fact. Maybe you boys will have better luck. I know they sure led our men on a merry chase.”
Nick grinned. “I’m sure we’ll have better luck. We’re experts.”
The sergeant nodded. “Glad ta hear that. The quartermaster was about ready ta tear his hair out over those blamed camels.”
Scott cringed as the word ‘camel’ came out of the supply sergeant’s mouth, and he turned quickly and headed toward the door. He made his getaway cleanly, because it was several seconds before the rest of them got over their shock. Finally, Nick grabbed Johnny by the shirt. “Did you know about this?” he roared.
“What do think I am, stupid? I’D NEVER agree ta round up a bunch of those spittin’ monsters!”
Nick glared at Johnny several more seconds before releasing him and turning back toward the counter. “Give us that rope,” he growled.
Johnny stepped up to the counter. “And LOTS of ammunition,” he added.
Nick nodded in agreement and then glanced at his brother. “Anything you’d like to add?”
Heath thought a minutes, and then smiled. “All the booze you got,” he told the sergeant.
Both Johnny and Nick nodded in approval. “I have the feeling we’re going to need it,” Nick observed.
The three of them finally caught up with Scott over by the corrals. Since there were plenty of witnesses, they unanimously decided to forego killing Scott until later. He was sitting on Charlie and holding the lead rope of the largest camel any of them had ever seen.
“Just what are you doing with THAT?” Johnny asked suspiciously.
“This is Clyde. I was assured that he would be a big help in catching the other camels. Besides, we have to deliver him, too. The deal was that we delivered all fifty head. Any missing and we can kiss our contracts goodbye.”
“Yeah, well I want to talk to you about kissing something else goodbye,” Nick growled as he desperately tried to keep his horse from bolting. It wanted nothing to do with the strange creature Scott was holding.
“So do I,” added Johnny.
“We’ll have plenty of time to talk about it on the way to that poultry ranch,” Scott said impatiently. “I figured we could stop and make sure Dewdrop was all right, then go on from there to catch those camels.”
Heath and Johnny just stared at Scott without moving. Nick was trying to glare, but his horse kept spinning away. Finally Scott shrugged his shoulders. “Of course if you’re going to bail on me, I guess I can do it myself. Lancer will get its contract, and I’ll tell Murdoch and Mrs. Barkley that the three of you just weren’t interested.” He nudged Charlie forward and rode past the men without a backward glance.
With a sigh, Johnny turned Barranca and followed his brother. Heath sat for several seconds, muttering to himself, then finally turned his horse and followed Johnny. He glanced at Nick as he rode past. Nick was spinning his horse in circles, trying to prevent it from bolting. Heath shook his head. “Would you quit playing around and come on? Since you got us into this, you darn well better not leave me to do this by myself.” He spurred his horse and caught up to Johnny, leaving Nick swearing colorfully.
Johnny shot a look at his brother as they rode along. “I don’t know about this, Scott. I think it’s a bad idea.”
Heath joined in. “If it was all that easy, the army wouldn’t be willing to hire us to do it. They have all the manpower they need. Somethin’s just not right.”
Scott shrugged. “They just don’t have time.” He looked at the other two men. “Wrangling camels CAN’T be much worse than wrangling beef. And there’s only fifty of them. It shouldn’t take us more than a few days to get them all rounded up, and then we’ll be on our way with nice fat army contacts. A month from now you’ll be thanking me.”
“Somehow, I doubt that,” Johnny muttered.
“Oh yea of little faith,” Scott retorted. “When have I ever led you astray?”
Johnny thought a minute, then replied. “You want me ta list the times by date or alphabetically?”
Scott glared at his brother while Heath smiled. “Even I can list a few times,” Heath chuckled.
Scott made a shooing motion with his hand. “That’s all in the past. This plan is foolproof. What could POSSIBLY go wrong this time?”
Both Heath and Johnny opened their mouths to reply and Scott glared at them. “It was a figure of speech,” he ground out. He looked around. “By the way, where’s Nick?”
Heath shrugged. “Anytime he gets within a hundred feet of that…thing,” he said, pointing at Clyde, “his horse decided it wants to be in the next county.”
Scott shook his head. “Well, he’d better get that animal under control. It’ll take all four of us to round up those camels and I’m not going to let him get away with goofing off just because his horse won’t cooperate.”
Heath smiled. “You can tell him that tonight when we make camp. Personally, I don’t think he’ll be in a great mood.”
Scott nodded. “Johnny can tell him.”
“Me? Why me?”
“He’s YOUR friend,” Scott answered as he spurred Charlie away from the two men.
Johnny glared at his brother’s back as Heath grinned. “If I were you, I’d make sure I keep my gun handy,” Heath suggested.
Johnny nodded. “I plan to. I just don’t know who ta shoot first; Scott for getting’ us in this mess, Nick in self defense, that damn camel,” Johnny turned and looked at Heath. “Or YOU for introducing me to your brother.”
An hour later, Scott and Johnny rode into the yard of the poultry farm. Heath had decided he was slightly safer riding with his brother, and had gone back to find him. Scott knocked at the door of the house and an old man answered.
“We came here for a goose,” Scott explained. “He was mistakenly taken from us by the army and they delivered him here. “Do you still have him?”
Both Johnny and Scott let out a sigh of relief when the man nodded. “Shore do. Haven’t sold anything lately. Some idiot went and sold the army a bunch of turkeys so they don’t buy nothin’ from me anymore.” He eyed the two men thoughtfully.
“I’m sorry for your misfortune,” Scott replied quickly, “but we’re in a little bit of a hurry. Can we see Dewdrop?”
“Dewdrop?” the man chortled before leading them around some buildings. “Help yourself. He’s in there,” the man explained as he pointed.
Johnny and Scott froze at the sight of several thousand geese in a couple of huge pens. At once the birds caught sight of the men and they all started honking at the same time.
Scott stared at the sight of thousands of geese milling around the pen. After several seconds, he looked at his brother. A look of shock was on Johnny’s face.
“How in the hell are we gonna find Dewdrop in this bunch?” Johnny whispered.
“I don’t know,” Scott whispered back. He looked at his brother hopefully. “Do you think Jelly would know if it wasn’t Dewdrop?”
Johnny snorted. “Would YOU know if that wasn’t Charlie you were ridin?”
Scott sighed. “Well, YOU’RE the animal expert, you figure it out.”
“Oh no. Just ‘cause I’m good with horses and elephants DON’T mean I’m good with these things.” He shot a look at his brother. “Camels, either. That’s YOUR department.”
“YOU’RE the one that told the soldiers to, and I quote, “Take everything on this ranch with feathers or I’m going to shoot you.’”
Scott and Johnny both sighed at the same time and looked back at the geese.
“Maybe he’d come when we called,” Scott suggested.
Johnny looked at his brother in disbelief. “Has he ever before?”
“No, but maybe he misses us.”
Johnny snorted. “He’s with about a million other geese. I DON”T think he’s missin’ us.”
They both sighed again.
“Well, we have to figure something out. We’re wasting time,” Scott observed.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he tried to think of something. “Didn’t Dewdrop have that one black feather under his tail?”
Scott nodded slowly. “Yessss. But if you think we’re gonna look at the underside of all these geese, you’re crazy.”
Johnny shrugged uncertainly. “You’d rather go back and let Jelly use us as target practice?”
Scott sighed again and looked down the road leading to the farm. “We’ll need some help. I wonder where Nick and Heath are?”
“If they have any sense at all, they’re headin’ in the opposite direction from us.”
Scott suddenly brightened. “There they are!”
Johnny shook his head. “Well that answers that question.”
Scott glared at his brother before beaming at the Barkleys as they rode up to the pen. “You’re just in time!”
“For what?” Heath asked suspiciously.
“We have to find Dewdrop,” Scott said casually. “He’s somewhere in this pen.”
Nick gaped at him, then turned and looked at the thousands of geese. “You’ve got to be kidding!”
“No!” Scott said brightly. “It shouldn’t take that long with all of us looking. After all, we have to do this before we go after the camels.”
Nick glared at him for a moment, then looked back at his brother. “The NEXT time I say I’m going to go along with one of his plans, just shoot me!”
Heath nodded enthusiastically. “Don’t worry, I will.”
“How in the world are we going to tell them apart?”
Scott smiled smugly. “Johnny happened to remember something special about Dewdrop.”
“I can think of a lot of descriptions of that damn goose, but ‘special’ isn’t exactly the word that comes to mind,” Nick grumped. “I STILL can’t figure out why you want to find him.”
Scott chose to ignore Nick’s comments. “Dewdrop has a special mark.”
“What are we looking for?” Nick asked resignedly
“A black feather.”
“That shouldn’t be so hard,” Nick observed.
“And just where is this feather?” Heath asked suspiciously.
Scott shrugged. “On his rump.”
“His rump?” Nick repeated.
“Yep,” Johnny added. “Right under his tail.”
Nick glared at Scott and Johnny, then dismounted and tied his horse to the pen. He slammed the gate open and began to grab geese.
Three hours later, the owner came out and leaned his arms against the rail. He watched the four men as they chased the birds around the pen, slipping and sliding in the muck. Occasionally, one of the men would fall, and muffled curses drifted up. Several times the hunters became the hunted as an especially ornery goose would chase one or the other of the men out of the pen. When one of the men was finally successful, they would grab the goose and then turn it upside down and study its bottom before turning it loose once more. The owner watched in amazement for about twenty minutes before his curiosity got the better of him.
“What are you boys doin’?”
“We’re trying to find our goose.”
The owner’s eyebrows went up. “So why are you lookin’ at their rumps?”
“Because that’s the only way we can recognize him,” Scott answered without stopping his search.
The owner shook his head. “I ain’t even gonna ask.”
Nick stood up and glared at the man. “For your information, we’re LOOKING for a black feather!”
“A black feather, huh?”
“Yes. Our bird had a black feather under his tail,” Scott explained.
The owner nodded and held up his hand. “Like this one here?”
All four men froze, then Johnny walked over and grabbed the feather out of the man’s hand. “Where did you get that?”
The man shrugged. “It was just layin’ here in the pen this morning. I thought it was sorta pretty, so I picked it up.”
Johnny glared at the man for several seconds before slowly turning toward his brother. “You…you…” he took a deep breath, unable to finish.
Nick, however, was far from speechless. “You had us looking at goose butts for the last three hours, for NOTHING?”
Scott backed away from the three men. “Now come on, how was I supposed to know that Dewdrop had lost that particular feather? I mean, he’s had it since we’ve had him.”
“NOW how are we gonna find him?” Johnny snarled. “It’s gonna take forever! That is IF we can find him at all!”
Nick shook his head. “I refuse to examine any more fowl bottoms. This time, I have an idea, and you can either go along with it, or you boys are on your own!”
Scott glanced at Johnny, who shrugged. Scott nodded at Nick. “All right, what’s your idea?”
Nick smiled. “Simple. We simply buy ALL of them and send them back to the ranch. Let Jelly find his own damn goose. In fact, I’ll even buy them for you.”
Scott and Johnny looked at each other uneasily. “What do you think?” Johnny finally asked. “It’d sure be easier than us tryin’ ta figure out just which one of these stupid birds is Dewdrop.”
Scott shook his head. “I THINK that Murdoch just might kill us if we bring home any more fowl, and I just might help him. Besides, if all those geese are there, I for one am NOT going home. These things are even louder and messier than those darn turkeys. No, we’ll just have to figure something else out or wait until Jelly runs out of ammunition.”
Johnny chewed the inside of his lip. “I don’t know, that old man is pretty persistent.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, so is Murdoch, and he has a LOT more money to spend on ammunition.”
Johnny shrugged. “Well, we don’t have ta BE there if we have ‘em delivered, and if we DO take ‘em, as soon as Jelly finds Dewdrop, we can have ‘em bring the rest of the geese back. We’ll make sure that’s part of the deal. We don’t need ta keep ‘em, and we won’t be home ‘til long after they’re gone.”
Scott glared at his brother. “Somehow, I doubt if that’s the way it will turn out.”
Johnny shrugged. “Come on, Scott. What could possibly go wrong? We won’t have ta examine any more goose rumps, Jelly will get Dewdrop back, and we can start roundin’ up those camels and get home. By the time we get home, Murdoch will have forgotten all about the temporary invasion of geese. Besides, I’m worried about leavin’ Agnes for so long. No tellin’ what kind of trouble she’ll get into if she gets lonely.”
Scott glared at Johnny with narrowed eyes for another moment, then sighed and turned toward Nick. “And you’ll pay for them?”
Nick nodded. “Sure,” he grinned. “Wouldn’t want you boys to get into any trouble.”
“No, of course not,” Scott said dryly. “All right, I guess that’s the only way we can make sure Jelly gets Dewdrop back.” He held out his hand and looked at Nick expectantly. With a grumble, Nick dug into his pocket and drew out his wallet, then slapped it into Scott’s hand. Scott nodded and walked over to the owner, then came back triumphantly several minutes later.
“He wanted two thousand dollars for the birds.”
“WHAT!” Nick squealed.
Scott held up his hand. “Calm down. I managed to talk him into letting us just rent them for a few weeks. I made arrangements for him to deliver the birds to Lancer and then go back and pick them all up in about a month. Jelly should be able to figure out which one is Dewdrop by then, and it only cost us five hundred dollars.”
“Don’t you mean it cost ME five hundred dollars?” Nick ground out.
Scott shrugged. “Whatever.”
“I can’t believe you spent five hundred dollars just to get ONE goose!” Nick said in disbelief.
Johnny looked at his brother worriedly. “Scott, did you promise he’d be getting’ ‘em all back?”
Scott nodded. “Of course. That’s the only way he’d agree to it.”
Johnny shook his head. “But he AIN’T gonna be gettin’ them all back. What about Dewdrop?’
Scott shook his head. “Johnny, he certainly isn’t going to count them all! As long as we have most of them, I’m sure it will be all right.”
“And what if it’s not?” Johnny persisted. “What if we don’t have ‘em all for some reason, or what if he DOES count them?”
Scott shrugged and avoided Nick’s glare. “Then, I’m afraid Nick will have to come up with another fifteen hundred dollars.”
“I’LL have to come up with it? Don’t you mean YOU’LL have to come up with it?” Nick threatened.
Scott shrugged. “Well, one of us will have to come up with it, anyway, but there’s no sense worrying about it because there won’t be any problems.”
Heath snorted and rolled his eyes. “Maybe you should just write them a check now and get it over with.”
Scott shook his head. “Boy, when did you become such a pessimist?”
“When I started hanging around you,” Heath retorted.
Scott shook his head. “What IS it with everybody, anyway?” He brightened. “Well, anyway, Dewdrop’s taken care of, so now we can concentrate on finding those camels. I figure it’ll take us a few days to find them and catch them, and then another week to drive them to the fort. We should be home in three weeks, tops.”
“Uh huh,” Heath said miserably.
“Do you have any idea of where those camels are?” Nick asked as he tried to coax his horse a little closer to the others, but the horse still refused to get any closer to the camel, and danced nervously away.
Scott nodded. “The supply sergeant said they were in the trees just a little ways from here.”
“Still doesn’t sound too hard. Why do you think they’re giving everybody such a hard time?” Heath asked.
Johnny shrugged. “Those army boys probably don’t know a thing about roundin’ up camels.”
“And we do?” Heath asked in disbelief.
Scott shrugged. “Helen isn’t too hard to manage, and besides, they can’t be THAT much different than cattle.”
“Wanna bet?” Heath muttered. “This has disaster written all over it.”
“I don’t know, it’s gone pretty well so far,” Nick smirked as he once more coaxed his horse closer.
An hour later, Clyde began getting excited and started looking toward the nearby trees with interest.
Scott pulled Charlie to a halt. “I believe, gentlemen, that we have reached our destination. If Clyde here is right, our quarry should be very close. I think we should stop before we frighten them and make camp.” He turned off of the path and headed for a nearby stream, with the others following faithfully behind.
They followed the stream, looking for a good place to camp. As they came around a bend, Scott’s horse jolted to a stop, his ears quivering. The other horses also came to abrupt halts, and the men looked at each other in bewilderment. All was silent for a moment, then Nick caught sight of something coming through the bushes. “What the…”
The camels came crashing through the bushes from all directions. Nick’s horse bolted back the way he had come, and Johnny and Scott laughed as Nick went was scraped off on a low hanging branch. A second later, they both joined him on the ground as the horses bolted in all directions.
Scott pulled his horse to a halt and dismounted, then limped into camp, leading a reluctant Charlie. He had walked several miles over the rough terrain before he had spotted his sorrel grazing innocently in a small meadow. Scott swore Charlie had laughed at him when he had finally limped up to the animal, but at least the horse hadn’t run off when he had approached. The man had wearily mounted and headed back to join the others after giving Charlie a severe lecture for giving in to mass hysteria and running off with the rest.
Scott glanced over at Heath, who was sitting on a log and massaging his feet while shooting murderous glances in his direction. Scott decided it would be prudent to ignore the disgruntled cowboy. After all, it wasn’t HIS fault the horses stampeded, and he couldn’t help it if Heath was in a crummy mood. After unsaddling Charlie and tying him securely to a nearby tree, Scott plopped down on his own log, studiously ignoring the youngest Barkley brother.
Almost twenty minutes later, Johnny and Barranca made an appearance, and the palomino actually was managing to look somewhat contrite. The horse nudged Johnny when the man dismounted, hoping to be forgiven, but the gunfighter was obviously in no mood to make up yet and shoved the horse’s nose away. In response, Barranca pinned his ears and gave Johnny a nip.
“Barranca, if you’re not careful, I’m gonna trade you in on a camel,” Johnny threatened. “Or maybe an elephant.” The palomino didn’t look concerned in the least, and butted his master’s arm once more. Johnny Madrid glared at the animal for several seconds but Barranca wasn’t intimidated, and kept his gaze on his master’s face. Finally Johnny gave in and gave the palomino’s forelock a tug. “All right, I guess you’re forgiven, just don’t let it happen again. After all, you have a lot more class than Charlie and the Barkleys’ horses.”
Barranca nodded his head up and down, then started examining the man’s pockets, sure there would be a treat for him hidden somewhere.
Johnny looked around at Heath and Scott. “Where’s Nick?”
Heath shrugged. “I have no idea. If you two are lucky, he’s long gone.”
“What did we do?” Johnny asked in amazement.
Heath looked at his friend in disbelief, then opened his mouth before promptly snapping it shut. “Never mind, we don’t have that much time.” He shook his head. “I TOLD him not to go along with the two of you. Next time maybe he’ll listen to me.”
“Hey, this is just a minor setback. It wasn’t our fault the horses took off,” Scott protested.
“Uh huh.” Heath pulled his boots back on. “I think I’ll go look for my brother. Maybe I can talk him out of killing the two of you when he gets back here, but somehow I doubt it.” He hauled himself to his feet, then walked over and mounted his horse. Scott and Johnny watched as the cowboy rode out of camp, then started a fire and got a meal going.
It was dark before they heard Nick and Heath approaching. Johnny listened as Nick spewed out a particularly colorful string of curses, and he smiled. “Sounds like Old Nick isn’t in the best of moods.”
Scott shook his head and smiled back. “Can’t imagine why.”
They watched cautiously as the two Barkleys rode into camp riding double on Heath’s horse.
“Lose something?” Johnny smirked, and was rewarded with a growl from Nick.
“Apparently, my horse has more sense than I do,” Nick ground out. “He’s probably safely back at the ranch by now.”
Johnny shrugged. “I always figured you wasn’t the smart one of the two.”
Nick settled for glaring at his enemy as he slid to the ground. He was just too darn tired to do much else.
Heath spoke up as he dismounted. “That horse is long gone. We’ll have to go back and buy another one from the fort.”
“Oh, no!” Scott protested. “That will put us WAY behind! We don’t have time for that. We’ll have to figure something else out.”
Nick turned his glare on Scott. “What do you suggest? That I ride DOUBLE with Heath the whole way? Or maybe you think I should walk?”
Scott looked at the cowboy thoughtfully, then turned and looked at the camel standing calmly by the horses. A slow smile erupted on his face. “No, But I think I have a solution.”
Nick followed Scott’s gaze, and he immediately started shaking his head. “Oh no. There’s NO WAY I’m gonna ride that! I refuse!”
Johnny shrugged. “It’s either that or walk,” Johnny pointed out helpfully.
Nick glared at him, then turned toward his brother. “Tell them,” he ordered.
“Tell him what?” Heath asked.
“Tell him WHY I can’t ride that…that…thing!”
Heath looked at his brother uncertainly. “Well, it would probably be better than walking,” he said cautiously.
“I doubt it,” Nick snapped. “Besides, if you think it’s so great, why don’t YOU try it?”
Heath shrugged. “I’m not the one who lost my horse.”
“Whose side are you on?” Nick exploded.
“I’m just trying to stay alive. Don’t get mad at me, you’re the one who insisted on going along with them.”
“Well you won’t stay alive for long if you don’t BACK ME UP!”
“Ok,” Heath agreed. “But I’m still not riding that camel.”
“Little brother, let me explain something to you. You have a choice. You can either give me your horse and ride that camel tomorrow, or you can die. Simple. What’s it going to be?”
Heath looked at his brother for a moment, then turned and looked at Clyde, who was calmly chewing his cud. Heath stared at the camel for a long time before finally looking back at his brother. “Can Johnny shoot me? I trust his aim more than I do yours.”
Nick woke up to the glare of sunlight in his eyes, and blinking several times, he tried to figure out just where he was. The crick in his back verified he’d been sleeping on the ground, and reaching under his bedroll he grumpily drew out several small rocks, then threw them into the nearby trees. Rolling up onto his elbow, he glanced over to where his brother had been sleeping last night. He blinked several times at the empty campsite before the reality of the situation dawned on him, and he bolted to his feet, cursing his brother roundly for his desertion. There wasn’t any point in cursing the Lancers; he expected it of those traitorous fiends.
Nick stalked around the campsite, kicking at anything in his way. He finally calmed down enough to pick up the small tin cup full of coffee that someone had left behind for him, along with a few sorry strips of jerky. Taking a few tentative sips of the brew, he quickly spat it out; he hated cold coffee. Besides, even the coffee smelled like camel. He plopped back down on the log and glowered at the jerky before finally deciding that any breakfast was better than none and morosely popped the jerky into his mouth. Contemplating various ways to kill the Lancer brothers lightened his mood considerably as he ate, and he cheerfully thought he just might kill Heath, too. After all, it was his brother’s fault he was in this mess in the first place.
First, though, he had to catch those three idiots. Looking down at the soles of his worn boots, he cursed again. Chasing that dad blamed horse yesterday had worn off a bunch of leather, not to mention skin. As mad as he was, though, he couldn’t really blame his horse. He wouldn’t get near one of those smelly, obnoxious creatures, either. He glanced down at his boots and cursed his brother once more. The holes in his boots confirmed that there was just no way to be able to walk far enough and fast enough to catch up with those three.
Finally he stood up and grabbed the tin cup before starting to limp out of camp. A few feet away, however, a horrible noise erupted from the nearby bushes. He froze, then cautiously peered through the shrubbery before screaming and falling backward. Seconds later, a large and smelly nose snuffled noisily at him. He glared up at Clyde, who leered at him, then reached down and swiped at the man with his tongue. Nick scrambled backwards and drew his gun.
“You stay right where you’re at, or I’ll shoot!”
Clyde studied the man for a moment, then took a cautious step forward. Nick pulled the hammer. “I’m warning you!”
Nick’s eyes grew wide as Clyde’s mouth opened and the camel’s eyes scrunched shut. The cowboy watched quizzically, wondering if the animal was sick. Clyde’s head went back further, then further still. Suddenly the head came forward with a rush as the camel sneezed.
Nick froze as the snot shrouded him. The camel looked at him with interest, then took another step forward and licked Nick’s face. The cowboy backpedaled frantically, then tripped over a rock and fell on his rear, a glob of green snot dripped from his head onto his nose.
“You…you…you THING you!” Nick spluttered. Clyde stopped and regarded the human who was sitting in front of him, then with a loud belch, he ambled off. Nick lurched to his feet and headed for the stream.
A half of an hour later, shivering and miserable, but at least no longer slimy, Nick took stock of his situation. Walking home was one option, as was walking back to the fort. But after taking a good long look at the bottom of his boots, he shook his head. Neither option sounded particularly appetizing. Glancing in defeat at an object he had been doing his best to ignore for the last hour, he realized it just might be his only way out. With a sigh, he walked over to it.
He studied the object intently, and wondered how on earth it fit on the camel. Because of his horse’s aversion to Clyde, this was the first time Nick was really able to study the strange looking saddle. It looked like a pile of cloth and leather with sticks poking out of it. He glared over at the camel who was grazing innocently next to the camp. Nick looked back at the saddle, then glanced down at his boots once more. With a growl, he stalked over to the animal and led him back to where the saddle was.
An hour later, Nick was on his way, praying that no one saw him. It had taken him forever to figure out how the strange saddle fit, and then more time to figure out how to get on. There were no stirrups on the saddle, and the camel was a lot taller than a horse. He had taken several headers until he had finally managed to clamber aboard, and was sure the Lancers would have laughed their heads off if they had been watching. He would get even with those clowns if it was the last thing he did. And, he thought ruefully, if he had to ride this stupid camel much longer, it just MIGHT be the last thing he did.
The sun was just coming up over the hills when he saw some horses tethered up ahead, and a mirthless grin appeared on his lips. So far, luck had been with him and he hadn’t come across anyone on the road, but he was decidedly seasick from the strange motion of the animal. One thing was for sure, he’d NEVER get on a camel again. Nick started to urge the animal forward, but suddenly he changed his mind and pulled him to a halt. Several seconds went by before his eyes narrowed and he pulled Clyde to the side of the road. He just might get his revenge after all. All he needed was a good plan.
Nick slowly urged Clyde forward towards the camp. So far, luck was with him, and it didn’t appear that anyone was stirring yet. He had just reached the outskirts of the camp when a sudden noise caused Clyde to jerk his head up and spin around. Nick desperately grabbed for the camel’s neck in an effort to stay on, and an instant later, the campground was filled with rampaging camels. Nick hung on for dear life as the camels swarmed through the clearing. He had time to smile when he saw one of the animals stumble over a form on the ground, and a strangled curse rose from the bedroll.
Nick laughed outright when he saw his beloved brother stumble to his feet and go sprawling as his ankles got tangled up in the blankets. Nick was still laughing when the camels decided to end their raid and bolted away from the scene of the crime, with Clyde in hot pursuit.
“WHOA!” Nick shouted as he sawed frantically on the rein leading to the animal’s halter.
Clyde blissfully ignored the command and faithfully followed the rest of the herd.
Johnny cautiously sat up and watched as the camels disappeared from view, Nick’s voice still bellowing from the trees. The command to stop rapidly changed to pleas, and then to curses as it finally faded away in the distance.
“Well, I guess we’d better go after them,” Scott said resignedly.
Johnny turned and gave his brother a disbelieving look. “Why?”
“Well, for one reason, we need to catch those camels if we want to save our contract.”
Johnny nodded slowly. “Yeah, I guess.” He looked hopefully at his brother. “Maybe we could let at least one of them stay lost?”
Scott shook his head. “No, the deal was for all of them. We’ll have to lose Nick another time.”
Johnny sighed loudly. “I guess.” He reached down and picked up his hat and tried to re-shape the trampled material. He fought the hat for several minutes, and then slapped it angrily against his leg before slamming the misshapen lump of cloth angrily onto his head. “Damn camels,” he muttered.
The three men reluctantly saddled their horses and rode out, following the obvious tracks of the herd of camels. After half of an hour, the signs disappeared in a jumble of rocks, and the men pulled their mounts to a halt.
“Looks like we lost ‘em,” Johnny said hopefully.
Heath shook his head. “No, we didn’t. Listen.”
After a moment, Johnny was able to hear the unmistakable sound of cursing reverberating over the rocks, and he nodded. “Sounds like those damn camels are still runnin’. We’d better hurry up or we’ll have ta chase ‘em clear into the next county.” He nudged Barranca forward and he smiled at Scott. “Least we don’t have ta take time to look for tracks. Nick’s bellowing is a lot easier to follow.”
The three men rode along, occasionally stopping to listen to the yells, which had taken on a decidedly panicked tone.
“Wonder how far they’re gonna run,” Johnny said conversationally.
Heath shrugged. “Until they get tired, I guess.”
Scot nodded. “I’ve read that a camel can go for days without rest.”
Johnny brightened. “Yeah? Old Nick’ll be might sore by then.”
Heath snorted. “So will we, if we get within range of his gun.”
“What did we do?” Johnny asked.
Heath looked at his friend and shook his head “Nothing,” he finally managed to choke out. “But he’s STILL gonna kill us, just on general principles.” He nodded off to his left. “Sounds like the herd turned.”
Johnny pulled Barranca around, and then stopped, a puzzled expression on his face. “Nick sounds closer.”
Scott nodded. “He sure does.”
The three men darted looks back and forth, then finally enlightenment hit.
“They’re coming back this way,” Heath announced as he spurred his horse off of the path. Scott and Johnny followed, and took cover among the trees. The hoarse bellowing came rapidly closer, and soon the herd of camels came into sight. Clyde was in the middle of the pack, and Nick was nearly standing in the saddle, sawing on the rein for all he was worth.
Johnny grinned at the sight, until Nick looked up and caught his eyes. “Stop this DAMN thing, or I’ll KILL you!” he yelled.
Johnny shrugged and drew his gun.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Scott yelled. “We need ALL of them!”
“What about Nick?” Johnny asked.
“What about him? He knew the risks when he signed up for this job! I’m sure he wouldn’t expect us to do anything that would lose our contracts,” Scott said emphatically.
“I’m SURE he wouldn’t,” Heath agreed.
Johnny nodded and holstered his gun and watched as the bellowing cowboy came closer.
“I’m WARNING YOU!” Nick shouted. “DO SOMETHING!”
Johnny bit his lip as he thought, then he pulled his lasso from the saddle and began coiling it.
“What are you going to do?” Heath asked.
“I’m going to lasso Clyde!”
Heath shot a look at the rapidly approaching mob. “Good luck,” he muttered as he spurred his horse deeper into the trees. Scott looked back and forth between his brother and the camels, and then decided to join Heath.
Johnny finished coiling his rope and watched the animals as they approached. He chanced a glance at Nick, and saw the cowboy’s eyes widen as he realized what Johnny was about to do.
Johnny concentrated on the camels, and nudged Barranca into a better position to intercept Clyde. The palomino stood his ground as the herd thundered toward him, but just as Clyde ran past, the horse’s nerve broke, and he whirled to run just as Johnny threw his loop.
“OOOPS!” Johnny yelled as the rope descended. “Missed!”
Heath winced as he watched the lasso settle around his brother’s shoulders and he saw Nick’s eyes widen even more. Nick had time to shoot one last hopeless glare at Johnny before the rope tightened and Nick shot off the top of the running camel, to land on his backside in the dirt.
Johnny smiled happily. “I guess I didn’t miss too badly, after all. You owe me, Nick.”
Nick sat on the ground, desperately trying to pull some oxygen into his lungs. He looked up at Johnny’s beaming face and tried to yell, but all that came out was a strangled croak.
“That’s ok, Nick, you don’t have ta thank me. I know you’d do the same for me,” Johnny told him as he stepped down off of Barranca to retrieve his rope.
Another squawk, louder this time.
Johnny held up his hand. “I know, I know, you’re sorry for all of those times you said nasty things about me, but I forgive ya.”
Clyde chose that moment to return and the camel shuffled up to Nick, then reached down and gave him a sloppy kiss. Nick’s face turned beet red, and with a superhuman effort, Nick lurched to his feet and grabbed Johnny by the throat. The two men crashed to the ground and rolled over and over.
Heath jumped down from his horse and grabbed Nick, leaving Scott to handle Johnny. Scott peeled his brother off of Barkley and shook him.
“Would you two quit playing around! We have to catch those camels!” Scott fumed.
“He’s the one who attacked ME!” Johnny shouted. “I didn’t do nothin’!”
“You nearly killed me!” Nick shouted back. “And I think you did it on purpose!”
“If I wanted to kill you, I sure as hell wouldn’t do it by ropin’ ya!” Johnny argued.
“He has a point,” Heath pointed out. “If he was serious, I’m pretty sure he’d just shoot you.”
Nick whirled toward his brother. “Just whose side are you on?”
Heath shrugged resignedly. “I really haven’t decided, yet.”
Scott shot a last warning glare at Johnny, then turned his attention to Nick. “Johnny DID get you off of that camel.”
“And nearly broke my back in the process!”
“Don’t you mean backside, brother,” Heath smirked.
Nick turned and glared at Heath, who quickly took a step back.
“I figured you’d be grateful. After all, you DID look pretty panicked,” Johnny groused.
“He’s got you there,” Heath agreed, earning another glare from his brother.
“Don’t make me kill you TOO, brother,” Nick growled.
“Look Nick,” Scott interceded. “We don’t have time to let you to kill everyone right now. Besides, Johnny DID get you off of that camel. Now quit sulking and let’s get going.”
Nick walked resolutely over to Barranca and grabbed the reins.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Johnny demanded.
“I’m taking your horse! I figure it’s YOUR turn to ride Clyde!”
“I wouldn’t,” Johnny said quietly.
“Don’t tell ME not to! Like I said, it’s your turn!” Nick put his foot up into the stirrup.
“Nick, I’m warning you!”
Nick settled into the saddle. “Like you’re really going to shoot me!” he said sarcastically.
“Who said anything about shootin’ you?” Johnny asked seriously.
Nick leaned over and rested his arm on the pommel of the saddle. “Then WHY, might I ask, should I be worried?”
Johnny shrugged. “Barranca don’t like anyone messin’ with him.”
“I don’t plan on ‘messing’ with him, I PLAN on RIDING him!” Nick sat up and pulled the reins to the right. He went about three feet then pulled the palomino to a halt and turned and grinned at Johnny. “You’d better start sweet talkin’ that camel.” Nick chuckled happily and nudged Barranca forward. The palomino went about five feet, then came to a halt. Nick spurred him again, and Barranca’s ears went back.
“Come on you mangy mule! Get going!” He applied the spurs again, and the horse’s back humped up. “What the…” he managed to get out before Barranca came unglued. The horse put his head down and sunfished viciously, then came down in a series of bone jarring bucks. Nick went sailing over Barranca’s head and landed on his backside once more. His mouth opened and shut several times and watched helplessly as Johnny walked over to the palomino and after putting a calming hand on him, swung effortlessly aboard. Johnny looked down at Nick. “I TOLD ya,” he said regretfully.
Heath cautiously walked over to his brother. “You ok?”
“Do I LOOK ok?” Nick snapped..
Heath shrugged. “I don’t see any bruises.”
“Would you like me to SHOW them to you?” Nick ground out.
Heath quickly shook his head. “No, I’ll take your word for it.” He offered his brother his hand, and after glaring at it a few moments, Nick clambered to his feet. He glared once more at his brother, then marched over and grabbed the reins of Heath’s horse.
“What are you doing?” Heath protested
Nick spun around and stared at his brother. “I’m going to take your horse. Do you have any objections?”
Heath took one look at Nick’s expression and quickly shook his head. “Nope. Um, when do I get him back?”
“When I get OFF of hum!” Nick snapped. “All right?”
“Ok by me,” Heath answered quickly.
“GOOD!” Nick swung aboard and gingerly lowered himself into the saddle. He shifted his weight around a few times, glaring alternately at Johnny and Heath.
“Saddle a little bit hard?” Johnny asked innocently.
Nick gritted his teeth. “No, it’s just fine.”
“Are you sure?” Heath asked solicitously.
“POSITIVE! Now let’s go!” Nick nudged his horse forward, wincing at every step. Clyde came alongside and tried to crowd next to Nick. The cowboy took his hat off and waved it at the camel. “Go away! SHOO!” Clyde batted his eyes at Nick happily and pressed closer. Nick’s horse took exception to the invasion and reached over and nipped the camel on the neck.
Clyde swung his head around and bit the horse on the rump, and the horse immediately bolted forward, kicking out with his hind feet. Nick turned and waved his hat furiously at the camel. “GO AWAY! GET LOST!”
Before he could turn back around, Nick’s horse kicked out at the intruder once more, then put his head down and bucked. Nick floated gracefully through the air and landed with a thud at Heath’s feet. Heath stepped over his brother and went after his horse, which had stopped a few feet away. Heath stepped on and looked down at his brother. “I really thought you’d want him for a little longer.”
Nick finally made it to his feet in time to watch the other three men ride out of the clearing and disappear into the brush. He slapped his hat against his leg in frustration, then looked over to where Clyde was standing patiently. He stared at the animal for several seconds, then looked wistfully back to where Heath and the others had disappeared before sighing deeply.
He slapped his hat harder, then sullenly made his way over to where Clyde was waiting for him. Nick looked into the big brown eyes and received a slurpy kiss when he got closer.
“Double hell!” he ranted as he gingerly climbed aboard.
“Come on, you mangy, flea infested pile of manure, let’s go!”
He shook the rein, and Clyde ambled out of the clearing. He had only gone a few feet, however, when Nick realized the camel was going in the wrong direction. The cowboy yanked on the rope, but although Clyde’s head swiveled around, his feet remained firmly aimed away from where the other three men were headed. Nick sawed franticly on the rein, but Clyde refused to be dissuaded. Nick began cursing, but the animal had heard it all before, and wasn’t impressed. He increased his speed and remained on a steady course, faithfully following his nose. After ten minutes of cursing, Nick reached down and wrapped a rope that was dangling from the saddle around his waist, then pulled his hat over his eyes and leaned back against the high back of the saddle. He figured the damn animal would have to stop sometime, and in the meantime, he’d get some sleep.
“So how are we going to catch that bunch?” Heath asked his friends.
Johnny shrugged and looked at his brother. “Scott’s the one with the plans, ask him.”
Scott looked at his brother sourly. “And YOU’RE the one who has a way with dumb creatures.”
Johnny shrugged. “Well not ALL dumb creatures. Nick doesn’t like me very much.”
“We’re not trying to catch Nick. We’re TRYING to catch those camels!”
Johnny sighed and looked around. They were standing on a bluff overlooking a small lake. “The problem is getting those monsters lassoed without gettin’ our heads kicked off.”
Heath nodded in agreement. “I’m sure not looking forward to getting close enough to drop a rope around one of them.”
Johnny looked round again, hoping something would give him an idea. He studied the shoreline of the lake, and he suddenly smiled. “I think I have an idea!”
“What?” Scott asked dubiously.
Johnny pointed at a beach down below them and off to their right. Except for the water, the only apparent way off the beach was through a small opening between two outcroppings of rock.
“We can build a corral on the other side of those rocks and haze the camels through that opening. Once they’re through, we’ll have ‘em. It should be easy – they don’t have anywhere else ta go.”
Heath nodded slowly, but Scott shook his head. “And HOW, brother, are we supposed to get them onto that beach?”
“Well, once they’re in the water, we’ll just sort of guide them onto it.”
“And how are we going to get them into the water?” Heath asked.
Johnny shrugged. “I guess we’ll have to run ‘em off this cliff.”
Scott nudged Charlie a step closer to the drop off and stared down for several seconds. “I DON’T think they’ll just jump off because we want them to. Even camels aren’t THAT stupid. It must be a sixty foot drop.”
“Then we’ll have ta convince them, won’t we?” Johnny smiled.
Scott’s eyebrows shot up. “WE?”
Johnny nodded. “I figure two of us will have ta do the chasin’ and one will have to be waitin’ down below in the water to guide ‘em onto that beach.”
Heath shook his head. “Why do I have a bad feeling about this?”
“Come on, Heath, what could possibly go wrong?” Johnny asked. “Besides, do you have a better plan?”
Heath exhaled slowly. “No, I guess not. But something’s bothering me about it.” He looked over at Johnny and shook his head. “Anyway, I get dibbs on doing the chasing. There’s no way I’m going to be down below with about a million pounds of ticked off camel raining down all around me.”
“Chicken,” Johnny accused.
“I’ll be up here with Heath,” Scott hurriedly said. “It’s your plan, brother, so you can be down there with the raining camels.”
Johnny looked over the edge once more, then nodded. “I guess that’s fair.” He looked back at the two men. “Well, we’d better get down there and start on the corral.”
Heath grinned. “Oh, no. That’s YOUR job. Scott and I will be looking for those mangy beasts.”
Scott hurriedly nodded his head. “That’s right. It might take us a while, so I hope you dress warmly while you’re waiting in that water.”
“Now wait a minute!” Johnny protested. “I ain’t stayin’ in that water all night! Barranca ain’t a fish! You’ll have ta give me a signal when you’re gettin’ close!”
Scott nodded. “I’ll fire my rifle twice. How’s that?”
Johnny nodded slowly. “I guess so. Just make sure you don’t shoot at nothin’ before you get those camels in position. I don’t want to freeze my tail off because you decide ta go rabbit hunting.”
“Just worry about getting those camels corralled!” Scott ordered. “I only plan on doing this once!”
Johnny touched the brim of his hat and spurred Barranca toward a path leading to the beach.
Scott watched him go, then turned toward Heath. “I think my brother’s slipping. He never would have let us get away with this a year ago.”
Heath shrugged uneasily. “Like I said, something’s bothering me about this. Maybe he knows something we don’t.”
Scott snorted. “Not likely. Now let’s go find those camels!”
An hour later, Heath and Scott were slowly working their way around the herd of camels, trying to get them turned in the right direction before the animals started running. The men could only catch a glimpse of them occasionally through the trees, and they hoped that the whole herd was there, but they weren’t sure. Suddenly, one of the camels threw his head up and snorted loudly. A second later, the herd bolted away from the two men. As the animals thundered toward the cliff, Heath yelled over to Scott. “I just realized what’s bothering me!”
Scott pulled his horse to a halt. “What?”
Heath looked at him worriedly. “Are you sure camels can swim?”
Scott looked at the rapidly retreating herd and cursed softly. He had to admit, he’d never even thought of that. He figured every animal would know how to swim, but camels lived in deserts – why should they know how? He should have known better than to trust one of Johnny’s plans – they always landed him in hot water. He didn’t know how his brother always managed to mess things up so thoroughly. From now on, Scott decided, he’d stick with his own plans. Johnny was on his own. That decided, Scott spurred Charlie after the animals.
“STOP THEM!” he yelled to Heath. “They’ll drown!”
Heath took off after Scott, who was trying desperately to turn the miserable beasts before they went off of the ledge. What they DIDN’T need was a pile of drowned camels to bring back to the army base. Heath figured they could just forget about receiving any army contacts if that happened. In fact, he figured they’d be lucky to not wind up in prison. What was the penalty for purposely drowning army property? He shuddered. He didn’t know, but he was afraid he was going to find out. He couldn’t believe he had been stupid enough to go along with ANY plan of Scott’s or Johnny’s. Next time, he’d just let Nick shoot him; it would be a lot safer. He should have known that if Johnny or Scott thought up the plan, it HAD to be bad. With an oath, he spurred his horse harder, determined to head the camels off. He glanced over and saw Scott slightly ahead of him, gamely working his way up to the front of the herd and trying desperately to overtake the leaders.
The kicked up dust made it hard to see, but Heath suddenly heard a familiar bellow, and it seemed to be coming from the middle of the herd. He squinted his eyes, but all he could see was camels. He had just decided he was mistaken when he heard it again. This time, there was no mistake. Nick’s words came through loud and clear.
“HEATH! I’m WARNING YOU! Get me OUT of HERE!”
Heath swallowed hard. He chanced a look at the cliff that was rushing up to meet them, and figured the chance of turning the camels before they dove off the cliff was rapidly diminishing. He spurred his horse one last time, but when he couldn’t reach the front, he quickly gave up. No sense watching the catastrophe and no sense being within rifle range of his brother, either. Of course, Nick would probably have to wait until the gun dried off before he could use it, and by them Heath planned on being long gone.
Heath watched as Scott finally fought his way to the front of the herd. Scott bravely waved his hat in the leader’s face, trying to get the stubborn creatures to turn to the left, away from the drop, but the camels determinedly kept going. Scott waved his hat once more, before realizing it was futile. He pulled back on the reins, but Charlie had no intention of stopping and getting run over by the herd of camels, and he refused to slow down.
Heath sighed in relief as the herd spied the drop off and started to turn on their own, and he eased his horse to an even slower gait. He watched as Scott fought valiantly to slow his own horse, but Charlie had had enough of the camels, and refused to follow them. Instead, he veered toward the right, away from the smelly animals. Heath winced as he saw Scott’s eyes get big. Scott sawed on the reins frantically, but Charlie was determined to get away from the camels at any cost, and he leaped gracefully out into space.
Heath pulled his horse to a halt several feet from the cliff. Scott’s colorful cursing faded and then was abruptly cut off by a huge splash. Heath coaxed his mount forward until he was able to peer over the edge. A widening ring of circles indicated where Scott and Charlie had landed, and a few moments later, the horse popped up and began to swim. Heath was just beginning to get worried when he saw a blond head shoot to the surface and rapidly follow his horse. Heath was impressed with the way Scott resumed his cursing without missing a beat.
Heath sat back with a sigh, relived he wasn’t the one who had gone over the edge. Of course, he wasn’t that dumb. Camels or no, he had no intention of going over that cliff. He cautiously backed his horse a few steps, just to make sure.
A large bellow sounded in his ear, and he jerked forward in alarm. He whirled around to see Nick glowering at him.
“WHAT the HELL were you trying to do? KILL me?” Nick roared. “You KNOW I can’t swim!”
Heath chuckled. “You were worried about the water? Are you crazy? The fall would have probably killed you!”
Nick nodded slowly. “Yes, it probably would have,” he ground out. “And that would have been too bad, because if I’d gone over, I wouldn’t be able to do this.” He urged Clyde closer to his brother, and Heath’s eyes widened as Clyde reached over and nipped his horse on the rump. The horse jerked sideways and the cowboy felt himself being launched through the air as his horse dove over the cliff.
Nick watched them go, a satisfied expression on his face. He reached over and patted Clyde on the neck. “Good boy!”
Nick chuckled as Heath hit the water, and he pulled on the rein to turn Clyde around. As usual, the camel took offense and fought the guidance, and then Nick felt the ground start to crumble. A moment later, the camel and its rider were hurtling toward the water.
Johnny stood on shore, his mouth agape as he watched each of the men come hurling down. Scott made it to dry land just as Nick and Clyde hit the water, and Johnny watched as Heath struggled gamely toward them. Finally Johnny turned toward his drenched brother, who was slogging onto shore.
“I think maybe I didn’t explain my plan well enough,” Johnny said resignedly.
Scott glared at his brother, then gingerly made his way over to a large rock, where he plopped down and tugged at his soaked boots. He pried them off, then turned them upside down, emptying a large amount of water out of each one.
John watched for a moment, then walked over and offered his brother a handkerchief.
Scott glowered at the small piece of material. “And just WHAT am I supposed to do with that?”
“Dry off?” Johnny suggested hopefully.
“Dry WHAT off? My big toe?”
Johnny shrugged. “Well, you don’t have to get snotty. I was just tryin’ ta help.”
Johnny shrugged again and walked over to the shore where Heath was just making his way out of the water. Johnny offered the cowboy his hand, but Heath pointedly ignored it and went and plopped down next to Scott. Johnny followed along and watched the two men.
“So much for your so called plan!” Heath groused as he glared at Johnny.
“My plan? That was DEFINITELY not MY plan,” Johnny protested. “My plan was that the camels went over the cliff. I guess I didn’t make that part clear enough.”
“Oh, you made it PERFECTLY clear, brother,” Scott snarled. “But as usual, you didn’t think things through.”
“What do you mean?”
Scott stood up, hands on hips and glared at his brother. “Did it ever occur to you that camels MIGHT not be able to swim?”
Johnny shook his head. “No.”
“Well, it should have!”
“Because if we had followed YOUR plan, we would have had a lot of drowned camels and no contract! CAMELS CAN’T SWIM!”
Johnny looked at his brother doubtfully, then his gaze was drawn to where Nick had landed. Clyde’s head could clearly be seen, but the rest of the camel’s body was underwater.
“Clyde don’t seem ta be havin’ any trouble.”
Heath and Scott swung around and stared out at the water.
Scott’s eyes widened and his face turned red. “He CAN’T be!”
Johnny shrugged. “Looks like it ta me. Of course, I guess he could be tiptoeing along the bottom, but somehow I doubt that.” He squinted his eyes. “Maybe you’re right, though. Maybe he ain’t swimmin’ at all. Nick’s probably carryin’ him, ‘cause I sure don’t see Nick.”
Heath stood up and scanned the water. “He has to be out there somewhere.”
“Maybe he drowned,” Johnny said hopefully.
“I wouldn’t be that lucky,” Heath argued glumly.
“Why do you want him to drown?” Scott asked Heath in confusion.
“Because he’s going to KILL me!”
“Because I introduced him to both of you! I just don’t know who he’s going to shoot first, the two of you, or me.”
“Me? What did I do?” Scott asked. “It was Johnny’s plan!”
Johnny looked at his brother in exasperation. “My plan was the camels ended up in the water. You’re the one who decided to change that one small detail.”
Scott opened his mouth, then shut it with a snap. “Oh, never mind,” he said grumpily as he plopped back down on the rock.
Heath looked worriedly out at the water once more. “Maybe he really DID drown.”
Just then, Clyde hit solid ground and lurched up out of the water. Nick was still on the camel’s back, and he was opening and closing his mouth like a fish. As Clyde came to a halt, Nick looked over at his brother.
“I MIGHT not kill you if you GET ME OFF OF THIS THING!”
Johnny looked at Nick speculatively. “I’m not sure, but I think if ya throw one leg over his back, you can slide right off.” He shrugged. “At least that’s the way it’s usually done.”
Nick allowed his gaze to slowly turn toward Johnny, then back to his brother. “I take it back. I’m definitely going to kill you.”
“But Johnny IS right, it shouldn’t be too hard to get off.”
“It is if you’re TIED ON!” Nick ground out.
Heath shook his head in confusion. “Now why did you go and tie yourself on for?”
Nick opened his mouth, then shut it abruptly. “Never mind,” he said resignedly. “Just get me off of this thing.”
Heath went over and cut the rope, then cautiously helped his brother down before quickly stepping back.
Nick stood still for a moment, then looked over at Johnny. “How come you’re dry?” he snarled.
Johnny shrugged. “I guess ‘cause I’m not stupid enough ta jump off a cliff.”
“You were SUPPOSED to be in the water waiting for the camels!” Nick bellowed.
“I didn’t hear any shots,” Johnny explained calmly.
Nick drew his gun and aimed it at the gunfighter. “My mistake,” he snarled as he pulled the trigger. Johnny’s eyebrows went up as a clicking noise came from Nick’s gun.
“Hate ta break the news to ya, Nick, but guns don’t fire when they’re wet.”
Nick took several deep breaths. “I don’t need any gun!” he growled as he launched himself at Johnny.
With a sigh, Scott walked over and hauled Nick off of Johnny. “I TOLD you before, we don’t have time for that! Now the two of you need to quit clowning around and come up with a plan to catch those camels!”
“This time, I get to come up with the plan!” Nick roared.
“Fine with me,” Scott said agreeably.
Nick stood there, glowering at the three men.
“Well?” Heath asked.
“I’m thinking!” Nick snapped.
“We could rope ‘em.” Johnny suggested.
“How?” Scott asked. “None of the horses will get near them.”
“Clyde can get close enough,” Johnny said.
Nick stared at the gunfighter. “In case you haven’t noticed, there isn’t a horn on that so called camel saddle. Just what do you suggest we tie the rope off to once we lasso one?”
“WE ain’t gonna be doin’ the ropin. You’re the only one that Clyde likes well enough ta let ride him.”
“Even if I agree to another one of your crazy plans, there STILL isn’t a horn on that saddle. There’s nothing to tie off to.”
Johnny bit his lip as he thought. “How about your waist?” he asked brightly.
Nick glared at Johnny. “How about tying the lasso around your neck?” he ground out.
“I don’t think that would work,” Johnny said cautiously.
“Why don’t we try it and see?” Nick insisted hopefully.
“Why don’t we try to come up with a decent plan instead?” Scott said in frustration.
“I HAD a good plan!” Johnny argued. “I can’t help it if you guys messed it up!”
Heath marched over to his horse and drew out a bottle. He was just tipping it back when Nick yelled.
“Don’t touch that bottle!”
Heath looked at him in confusion. “Why?”
“Because that’s how we’re going to catch those camels!”
Heath looked at the bottle in his hands. “What are we going to do, throw it at them?”
Nick marched over and grabbed the whisky out of his brother’s hand. “No, stupid! We’re going to get those camels drunk!”
“And just how are we gonna do that?” Johnny asked.
Nick glared at the gunfighter. “I haven’t figured that part out, yet. I can’t think of everything.”
Scott shook his head. “I don’t know. I think I’d rather get drunk than waste good booze on a bunch of camels.”
Johnny nodded vigorously. “I agree.”
“Well, I don’t!” Nick bellowed. “We have to catch those dab blamed camels somehow! Can you think of anything better?”
Scott and Johnny shook their heads and Nick nodded triumphantly. “I didn’t think so. Now hand over the booze!”
“What makes you think those camels will even DRINK this stuff” Johnny asked.
“They’re guys, aren’t they?” Nick asked contemptuously.
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Well, then they HAVE to like whisky.”
Scott took a bottle out of his saddlebag and looked at it sorrowfully. With a sigh, he held it out toward Nick. Just as Nick reached for it, Scott snatched it back. “WAIT!”
Nick’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”
Scott grinned. “That’s IT! All of the camels are males!”
“So what?” Nick asked on confusion.
“SO, besides booze, what are all guys interested in?’ Scott asked patiently.
“A poker table?” Heath guessed as Scott rolled his eyes.
“Guns,” Johnny said authoritatively.
Scott shook his head in frustration. “NO!”
“Fishing!” Nick guessed.
Scott shook his head in disbelief. “No wonder none of you are married. What ELSE are men interested in?”
Johnny opened his mouth and Scott glared at him. “NO, not horses!” Scott threatened. Johnny snapped his mouth shut.
“WOMEN!” Scott exploded.
Nick scowled at Scott. “Somehow, I don’t think those camels are going to be interested in women.”
Scott rolled his eyes again. “Not women, female camels!”
Heath shook his head. “And just where are we supposed to get a female camel?”
“Helen!” Scott said triumphantly. “I just have to go get her, and all of our troubles will be over!”
“Somehow, I doubt that,” Nick muttered.
“Go wherever you like,” Heath said agreeably. “Just leave us the booze,” he said as he sank to the ground, the bottle firmly in his hand.
Jarrod helped his mother into the buggy in front of the asylum. “I’m certainly glad you’re feeling better, Mother.”
“I feel fine.”
Jarrod nodded and climbed into the buggy. He picked up the reins and slapped them on the back of the horse.
“Is everything all right at the ranch?” Victoria asked anxiously.
Jarrod hesitated, wondering whether to inform her of the cancellation of their army contract. After a moment, he decided she didn’t need to know. After all, he had sent Nick and Heath to fix the problem, and he had the utmost faith in them. He had threatened to kill them if they weren’t successful.
“Where are Nick and Heath?”
Jarrod hesitated once more. “Oh, just taking care of business.”
Victoria nodded. “Good. I’d hate to think you boys would let the ranch turn into an insane asylum like the one Murdoch Lancer runs.”
Jarrod shook his head emphatically. “Don’t worry. THAT will NEVER happen!”
“I wonder if Murdoch is home yet.”
“I believe he is.”
Victoria shivered. “I hope things were back to normal when he got home, or he’ll be right back in that hospital.”
Jarrod’s eyebrows rose. “Well, that depends on what you mean by normal. I’m afraid the Lancers’ idea of normal isn’t like most people’s.” He patted his mother’s hand. “But don’t worry about Mr. Lancer. Just worry about yourself. The doctor said you should just relax for a while.”
“Don’t patronize me, Jarrod Barkley! As long as I don’t have to make any trips to Lancer, I’ll be just fine. That place is a disaster area.” She looked at her oldest son. “If our ranch EVER becomes like Lancer, just shoot me and be done with it!” Victoria shook her head. “Elephants, camels, turkeys, disappearing ships…I’m surprised Murdoch lasted as long as he did before he went crazy.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry. That will NEVER happen at home.”
“It better not!” she said threateningly.
Jarrod slapped the reins down harder on the horse’s back. Apparently his mother was just fine, and she was obviously back in charge. He should have gone and talked to the army and left his brothers to deal with their mother. He just hoped Nick and Heath were home soon, because he didn’t want to have to explain why they were gone. She just might shoot him before he got the chance to shoot his brothers.
They were about a mile away from the ranch when a strange odor reached Jarrod’s nostrils. He sniffed questioningly. A quick glance at his mother told him that she had smelled it, too. He sniffed deeper. There was something about that smell that was familiar somehow, but he couldn’t quite place it. Suddenly, Victoria grabbed his arm and a gasp escaped her lips.
Jarrod looked at his mother in alarm. “What’s wrong?”
Her free hand clutched at her throat. “It can’t be!”
“Mother, what is it?”
Victoria shook her head in disbelief. “I’d know that smell anywhere.” She glared at her son. “Just WHAT are you playing at? Are you TRYING to drive me crazy?”
“Mother, I assure you, I don’t know what you’re taking about!”
She glared at him for several seconds, then set her mouth and stared straight ahead. “Drive.”
As they pulled into the drive leading to the house, a wave of noise engulfed them. Jarrod pulled back on the reins and stared in disbelief at the thousands of turkeys that were running amok all over the ranch.
Jarrod stared at the scene in front of him for several minutes before finally remembering his mother was sitting in the buggy next to him. He tore his eyes off of the turkeys and cautiously looked at her. The doctor had been very specific that she shouldn’t have any shocks, and if this wasn’t a shock, he didn’t know what was. She was sitting as straight as a board, and her eyes were as big as saucers.
“Mother,” Jarrod said cautiously, hoping for an answer.
“Mother, I really don’t know where they came from,” he tried to explain when he still got no response.
“They weren’t here when I left,” he protested weakly.
She turned and stared at him for several seconds before once more slowly turning her head back to the unlikely scene in front of her. Gradually her eyes narrowed. “Those are Murdoch’s turkeys. Just HOW did they get here?”
Jarrod shook his head in confusion. “How do you know these birds came from Lancer? I don’t see any brands.”
Victoria looked at him in disbelief. “Brands? I don’t need to see a brand to know where they came from. DO you know ANYONE else that has that many turkeys?”
Jarrod eyebrows went up. “Actually, if I remember correctly, the army does. Nick told me that the Lancers had sold their birds to the army.”
She shook her head impatiently. “Can you think of any reason why the ARMY hates us?”
“No,” he replied slowly, confused about her change of topic.
“Then it’s obvious that SOMEHOW the Lancers are responsible for those birds!”
“I didn’t know the Lancers hated us,” Jarrod said cautiously.
“They don’t,” Victoria agreed. “That’s the problem. It would be a lot safer if they DID hate us. Being friends with them has just about done us all in.”
“I guess I have to agree with you, there,” Jarrod chuckled. “So what are you going to do about those turkeys?”
“Nothing,” Victoria announced emphatically.
“Nothing! We are going to leave those birds right where they’re at.”
“We are. And you are going to turn this buggy right around and drive me straight to Lancer.”
Jarrod shook his head in confusion. “LANCER! I thought you said that you didn’t want to go to Lancer! I know I don’t. I’d like to keep my sanity, thank you very much.” He clamped his mouth shut. “Sorry, Mother.”
Mrs. Barkley rolled her eyes. “And I thought you were smart! Think about it. Do you think MURDOCH went to the army and told them to send those birds to us?”
Jarrod shook his head slowly. “No, I can’t see him doing that.”
“Well, I can’t either, so that means it had to be Scott and Johnny. And if they’re off somewhere destroying the army, then I can spend a nice, stress free few days at Lancer. No turkeys, no Scott and Johnny, and no Heath and Nick.” She looked at him appraisingly. “I guess you can stay.”
“What about all those other things you mentioned; Elephants, squirrels, camels, disappearing ships…”
She waved her hand in dismissal. “The ship has been taken care of, and the turkeys and squirrels are here. As for the elephant and the camel, I’m SURE Murdoch has shot both of them by now.”
Jarrod snorted. “Don’t be too sure about that. He hasn’t shot Scott or Johnny yet, and they’re a WHOLE lot more trouble than a rampaging elephant or camel.”
Victoria stopped and thought for a moment. Finally she nodded decisively. “You’re right. Run down there and get my rifle before we go.”
“You’re going to shoot an elephant?” Jarrod asked in disbelief.
“Don’t be silly. Of course not; Murdoch might get upset.”
“Then why do you need your rifle?”
“In case Scott and Johnny come home,” she explained impatiently. Then she shrugged. “Or in case Nick and Heath show up.”
“What did Nick and Heath do?”
She shook her head. “I have no idea, but I can guarantee they’ve done something. Ever since they started hanging around the Lancer boys, I’ve had the almost uncontrollable urge to shoot them.”
“Did you tell your doctor that?” Jarrod asked worriedly
“Of course I did.”
“And he wasn’t worried?”
“Why would he be? I explained everything that had happened in the last few months, and he told me that if I didn’t shoot them, he would.” Her eyes narrowed. “And speaking of shooting, just where did you say your brothers were?”
Jarrod hesitated. It was awfully tempting. If he told his mother that Nick and Heath were at an army post, he was sure she’d shoot them just on general principles. She would think that they had something to do with those turkeys, and she just might be right. After she shot them he could always insist that his mother plead insanity at the trial, and when she was locked up he’d have the ranch all to himself.
He opened his mouth to tell her the truth, but then he looked once more at the turkeys that were covering every square inch of the surrounding land. His eyes widened slightly as he saw that the birds had apparently taken over the roofs of all of the buildings, and he almost choked when he saw that apparently someone had left the front door to the house open. Several turkeys were lounging casually just inside the door. He couldn’t imagine what the rest of the house looked like. Then again, his imagination was pretty good. As he watched, a bird flew out of an upper window, and Jarrod sighed. Maybe owning this place wouldn’t be so great, after all. He could at least wait until someone managed to dispose of the birds and clean up the house before he got rid of his family.
“Nick and Heath are taking care of a contract,” he finally said.
Victoria’s eyebrows went up. “Uh huh.” She stared at him until Jarrod finally jumped out of the buggy. “I’ll get your rifle,” he said as he began to run the gauntlet toward the house.
“Don’t forget plenty of ammunition,” she shouted after him.
Jarrod drove the buggy under the arch, and Victoria reached over and grabbed the reins, pulling the horse to a halt.
“What’s wrong?” he asked anxiously.
Victoria scanned the surrounding area, paying particular interest to the house. “Do you see anything suspicious?” she asked quietly.
Jarrod looked around in confusion. “No, it seems pretty quiet.”
“Hmmm,” she responded. “That is DEFINITELY suspicious. Something MUST be wrong.”
Jarrod’s eyebrows went up, wondering whether his mother should have been released yet from the asylum. “Why don’t we go find out?” he asked calmly.
After a long pause, Victoria nodded, but she took the precaution of pulling the bolt back on the rifle and laying it across her lap. She patted it, then smiled at her son. “Let’s go.”
Jarrod stared at her for another moment, then urged the horse forward. He pulled the horse to a halt in front of the house, and a moment later Murdoch Lancer stepped out.
“Victoria! Jarrod! What a surprise!”
“Not nearly as much of a surprise as finding my ranch had been overrun with turkeys!” Victoria snapped.
“Turkeys?” Murdoch asked in surprise. “How did THAT happen?”
“I have NO idea,” she ground out, then she smiled sweetly. “By the way, where are Scott and Johnny?”
“Oh, they’re…away,” he hedged.
“Any turkeys or squirrels around?”
“No, we seem to have gotten rid of all of them.”
“Yes, it seems you have,” she ground out. “And I don’t suppose you’ve seen Nick or Heath lately?”
“No…no, I haven’t. Should I have?” he asked in confusion.
“No. Just making sure.” She looked at him expectantly. “Well, are you going to help me down or not?”
Murdoch stepped up to the buggy and offered the lady his arm, and she stepped down, then looked around cautiously once more. “Are you SURE there’s nothing strange going on around here?” She quickly amended, “I mean more strange than normal?”
Murdoch shrugged. “The only thing strange is that Helen disappeared about a week ago. I’m sure Scott will be upset, but no one else will. That damn camel was a menace. I just wish I could figure out how to get rid of Agnes.”
Victoria shook her head. “I don’t know why you allowed them in the first place. A camel and an elephant? Sometimes, Murdoch, I just don’t know about you.”
“Just trying to keep the boys happy,” he explained.
“Why?” she asked incredulously.
“So they don’t leave?” he said hesitantly.
“WHY?” With a last exasperated look, the lady led the way into the house and headed right for the bar.
“Well, at least I don’t have any more turkeys or squirrels running around,” Murdoch said happily.
Victoria shot a glare in his direction before sinking into the sofa. “No, they’re all over at OUR ranch!”
“Now Victoria, how could they wind up there? It must be a simple coincidence.”
As Victoria glared at him, Murdoch hurriedly continued. “How long are you planning on staying here?”
“How long are your boys going to be away?” she countered.
“I have no idea.”
“Then I have no idea how long I’ll be staying,” she said triumphantly as she took another sip of her drink.
Jarrod, bored with the conversation, moved toward the window and looked out. Suddenly his eyes widened.
“Uh, Mr. Lancer…”
“What is it, Jarrod?”
“I think you’d better come look at this.”
Murdoch strode over to the window and looked out, then ran for the door, followed by Jarrod. Murdoch flung open the door and was immediately mowed down by several geese. Jarrod stepped aside as a dozen more flew into the house, and he then looked in disbelief as a huge wave of white birds surged towards the hacienda and flew through the open door and the open windows.
Jarrod heard a strangled scream and several shotgun blasts from where his mother had been, and then the geese retreated outside once more. This time Jarrod was flattened, and by the time he finally fought his way to his feet, the geese were retreating into the barn and the surrounding pastures. He looked down, but Murdoch had disappeared, and when he looked inside, all he could see was a huge cloud of feathers lazily floating in the air where his mother had been.
Jarrod helped his mother down from the buggy in front of the asylum, then turned and helped Murdoch down after plucking a few feathers from the man’s hair. Neither of the older ranchers had said one word the whole trip. With a sigh, Jarrod guided the two of them into the building, where he was met by several men in white coats and the director of the facility.
“Mr. Barkley, we’ve been expecting you.”
“Thank you for agreeing to take them on such short notice.”
The man nodded. “It is a shame. They were both making real progress. I wonder what caused their setback,” he mused.
Jarrod’s eyebrows went up. “Maybe it was being kidnapped by millions of geese.”
The director looked at him in disbelief. “Kidnapped? By geese?”
Jarrod nodded. “Of course, they had already been held hostage by the turkeys, so they should have been used to it by now.”
Jarrod nodded. “Of course, I think the squirrels did the most damage.” He thought for a moment. “Except for Agnes, I suppose.” He chuckled. “Watching a drunken elephant trying to climb stairs is really something.”
“Are you sure YOU weren’t drunk?” the man asked cautiously.
Jarrod looked at him indignantly. “Of course not! The only one with a drinking problem is Agnes!” He shrugged. “Of course, Mother had a pretty good time drinking the contents of that ship.”
“She drank the contents of an entire ship?”
“Well, it was pretty good brandy! Why wouldn’t she?” Jarrod asked indignantly.
“What else has been going on?” the man asked with interest.
Jarrod shrugged. “Well, it all started with Johnny and Scott trying to murder everyone. Of course, they weren’t really trying; they were just trying to buy a book. Then they shot Nick’s saddle to death.” He thought for a moment. “Then the Easter bunny shot my brother, and of course he had to chase Jelly across country. In the meantime, Scott and Johnny joined the circus. That’s where they met Agnes.”
“The drunk elephant,” the man interrupted.
“Yes. And they met Helen there, too.”
“No, of course not. Scott has better taste than that, he wouldn’t have an elephant for a girlfriend. Helen is a camel. Anyway, after that is when the Lancers launched a mass attack on our ranch…”
“Did they use the camel and elephant, or the turkeys?”
“They USED SQUIRRELS!” Jarrod explained in exasperation. “Anyway, a little later…”
“That’s all right, Mr. Barkley, I believe I’ve heard enough. Now just relax. You’ll be feeling better very soon,” the man said calmly as Jarrod was quickly slipped into a straight jacket.
The four cowboys sat on the hill above the house and stared in disbelief at the horde of geese that had apparently taken over the ranch. There were birds splashing in the water troughs and spilling out of the house and barn.
Johnny tore his eyes away from the sight and looked at his brother. “Well, I guess that old man delivered the geese,” he said hesitantly.
“Yes, apparently he did,” Scott said frostily. “And also apparently, he forgot the little part about picking them up again.”
Johnny shrugged. “Well, anyone can make a mistake.”
The men turned and looked down the hill once more. “Well, at least the turkeys are gone,” Johnny said hopefully. “And the squirrels.”
Scott nodded his head thoughtfully. “I wonder why Murdoch hasn’t shot them all yet,” he mused.
“Maybe he’s saving his ammunition for something MUCH more important,” Nick chortled. “Like the two of you.”
Johnny scowled at his nemesis. “Now why would he shoot US? We got back those army contracts!”
“Don’t you think he MIGHT figure out where all these birds came from?”
“Nah,” Johnny argued. “How could he POSSIBLY figure that out?”
Heath snorted. “I have no idea. Anyway, it was nice knowing you.” He sighed. “At least I know Mother will be happy we got the contract renewed. I intend to go home and relax for a month. Those were the worst three weeks of my entire life!”
Johnny shivered. “I hope I NEVER see another camel again as long as I live.”
“I HOPE you don’t mean that,” Nick threatened.
Johnny glanced at Clyde, who was happily snuggled up next to Nick.
“Well, present company excluded, of course,” Johnny said seriously.
“That’s better,” Nick growled.
“I STILL don’t know why I had to leave Helen there,” Scott complained.
“We’ve already discussed that,” Johnny said patiently. “If we had brought her back that whole damn bunch would have followed her back here, and we would be right back to where we started.”
“Nick got to keep Clyde,” Scott groused.
“CLYDE isn’t a female,” Nick said patiently.
“Yeah, I was kinda wonderin’ about that,” Johnny said thoughtfully. “How come he’s so attracted to you?”
“And this comes from a man with an ELEPHANT for a girlfriend?” Nick snapped.
“At least Helen and Agnes are girls,” Johnny grinned. “I don’t know, Nick, you’ve got me a little worried!”
Nick’s eyes bulged and his neck started turning red as he glared at Johnny, but before he could carry out mayhem, Heath intervened. “What do you say we go home?”
Nick tore his eyes off of Johnny and looked down once more at the horde that had taken over the Lancer ranch. Finally he nodded. “I think that might be a good idea. At least OUR ranch isn’t overrun with a bunch of geese!”
Scott smiled softly. “No, no, I don’t think it is.”
Nick’s eyes narrowed. “Those damn squirrels are enough!”
“I agree,” Scott said quickly.
“Damn right!” Nick turned to his brother. “Come on, let’s go home. Jarrod’s probably already picked up Mother from that asylum. I can’t wait to get home to a nice PEACEFUL house!”
“Have a good trip!” Scott said innocently.
Nick nodded curtly, then took off, Clyde following him faithfully. Heath gave a long speculative look at the two Lancers, then turned his horse and followed his brother. When they had disappeared, Johnny turned to his brother.
“All right, what are you so happy about?”
Scott shrugged. “Oh I don’t know. I was just wondering what Nick will say when he finds out just WHERE I had the army deliver all of those turkeys. I’d sure like to see his face.”
A smile slowly appeared on Johnny’s face. “So would I. Only I have no intention of bein’ that close to him ever again.” He looked down the hill and sighed. “Well, I guess we’d better go face the Old Man. That is IF we can get past all those geese.” He spurred his horse down the hill, with Scott reluctantly following.
The two men fought their way through the mass of birds, then pulled their horses to a halt in front of the barn. Immediately Jelly came out to greet them.
“What’s goin’ on, Jelly?” Johnny asked nonchalantly. “Anything new?”
Jelly looked at Johnny, then glanced around at all the geese. “Oh nothin’ much.” He looked back at the two men. “You didn’t happen to notice the geese, did you?”
“Now that you mention it, I did notice there seemed to be quite a few,” Scott answered.
“I don’t suppose you boys have any idea how all these geese got here?”
“No, not a clue,” Scott reassured him. “Has anyone come to pick them up?” he asked hopefully.
Jelly nodded. “Yep, some guy came just the other day. I chased him off with a shotgun.”
“You WHAT? WHY did you do THAT?” Scott demanded in a panicked voice.
Jelly shrugged. “Well, I figured with Murdoch and you boys gone, I’d need some company around here.”
“Where is Murdoch?” Johnny asked in surprise.
“You chased away the man who was going to take away the geese?” Scott asked in disbelief.
Jelly looked back and forth and decided to answer Johnny. “Jarrod came and took him and Miz Barkley back to that asylum.”
“Why?” Scott moaned.
“Why?” Johnny demanded.
Jelly shrugged and once more answered Johnny. “Blamed if I know.” He looked around. “I don’t see nothin that would set ‘em back none.”
“You’re keeping the geese,” Scott whispered.
“Well, anyway, I guess you’re not mad at us anymore, now that you have Dewdrop back!” Johnny said brightly.
Jelly hung his head. “Yeah, I guess I owe you an apology for that.”
“You do?” Johnny said innocently.
“Yep, I do.” The handyman scuffed his shoe in the dirt. “I didn’t know he was hidin’ in the barn the whole time.”
Johnny’s mouth dropped open. “In the…But the army said they had picked up a gander from here!”
“That musta been the bird that Teresa bought for Sunday supper!” Jelly surmised. “Dewdrop was safe here all along! Anyway, that’s the most important thing, and now he has a whole lot of little friends to play with!”
“Play with!” Scott looked around in disbelief. “What are we supposed to do with all these birds?” he whispered. “They’re worse than the turkeys! THESE things BITE!”
Johnny shrugged. “Don’t worry, Scott. I gotta plan. We’ll sell ‘em to the army!” he said triumphantly.
Chapter Twenty One
“Come on, Nick. We don’t have time to go back and kill Scott and Johnny,” Heath pleaded.
“Wanna bet?” Nick growled.
“We need to at least get Mother and Jarrod out of that asylum first, THEN you can go after the Lancers! After all, SOMEBODY needs to be at the ranch to run it!”
Nick stopped and looked at his brother. “All right, but don’t you dare try to talk me out of it once we spring Mother and Jarrod.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Heath reassured him.
“Johnny and Scott are dead men!” Nick insisted.
Heath nodded. “I believe you.”
Nick shook his head. “I can’t believe those two clowns actually told the army to send the birds to our ranch!” He looked at his brother in indignation. “Weren’t those damn squirrels enough?”
Heath nodded. “More than enough.”
“Damn right!” Nick growled. “When I get my hands on Johnny and Scott…” He glanced at his brother. “Well, come on, hurry up. The sooner we get to that asylum the sooner I can go kill those two!”
Heath pulled his horse to a halt in front of the asylum. As he stepped down, he noticed a wagon pulled up to the front, and he went over to examine it. He ran his hand over the brand burned into the side and looked up at his brother. “Looks like somebody from Lancer is here,” he informed his brother.
Nick patted Clyde on the neck. “Don’t you wander off, now. We’ll be right back!” He walked over and stared at the wagon, then an evil grin took over his face. “Oh, I DO hope its Johnny and Scott!!” He grabbed his brother’s arm and pulled him toward the door.
As they entered, they saw an agitated Scott being led away by some orderlies.
“Let me GO! I’m going to KILL HIM!” Scott screamed. He twisted free and lunged toward Johnny, who was standing just inside the door. The orderlies grabbed Scott once more and wrestled him into a straight jacket before leading him away.
“Bye, Scott! Hope you feel better soon!” Johnny said forlornly. He watched as his brother disappeared, the turned to leave. His eyes widened in shock when he saw the two Barkleys.
“Heath! Nick! What are YOU doin’ here?”
“WE’VE COME to get our mother and brother out!”
“They’re in there, too? So is Murdoch. Teresa, too for that matter.”
Heath looked toward the door where Scott had just disappeared. “What happened to Scott?”
Johnny shrugged. “I have no idea. One second I’m tellin’ him my plan on how to get rid of those geese, and the next thing I know he’s attacking me! Couldn’t calm him down, neither. Had to hog tie him just to get him here!”
“Just attacked you for no reason, huh?” Nick said. “Why does THAT make him crazy? I would THINK that would be proof he WASN’T crazy!”
Johnny shrugged. “The director of this place sure seemed to think something was wrong with him.”
“I never said there was nothing wrong with him,” Nick explained. “I just don’t think attacking YOU proves he’s crazy!” He took a step forward. “And speaking of attacking you, I don’t suppose you have ANY idea of what all those damn turkeys are doing on OUR ranch?”
Johnny grinned. “Turkeys? What turkeys?”
Nick launched himself at the gunfighter, sending them both sprawling, and they began rolling around on the floor as Heath tried desperately to break them up.
Just then the door where Scott had disappeared opened, and the director stepped through with several orderlies.
“What’s going on here!” he shouted as the men in white coats leaped into the fray. A few moments later the fight had ended, and the director was looking at the combatants sternly. “What happened?” he demanded.
Johnny shook his head. “I have no idea! Nick here just decided to attack me for no reason!”
“Seems like there’s a lot of that going on around here,” the director muttered.
“I didn’t do nothin’,” Johnny said sulkily.
The director turned toward Nick. “Well?”
“Well WHAT?” Nick exploded. “He’s a MENACE!”
“Now calm down! Just why are you so upset?”
“WHY? I’ll tell you WHY! He hid pancakes in my hat and had me stalked by a psychopathic pig. He got me shot by the Easter Bunny and he sent me over a cliff on a camel. He had me harassed by squirrels, attacked by turkeys, bitten by dogs, squished by an elephant…should I go on?”
The director’s eyebrows went up. “You do seem to have an unusual preoccupation with animals, I must say.”
“ME? ME? What about HIM?” he said, pointing at Johnny. “He’s the one who has an elephant for a girlfriend!”
“Now, now, Mr. Barkley, it isn’t nice to call people names just because they’re a little heavy.”
“A LITTLE heavy?”
“Yeah, well at least I ain’t keepin’ company with a camel!” Johnny muttered quietly.
“Now come on, Johnny, you know Clyde is the one who won’t leave Nick alone!” Heath argued. “It’s not Nick’s fault!”
“Did you actually SEE this camel that your brother’s talking about?” the director asked Heath with interest.
“Of course I did. Haven’t been able to pry Nick away from him for a month. You’d think he’s in love.”
“Is that a fact? And have you seen all of the other animals he just mentioned?”
Heath nodded, then looked at the director suspiciously. “Oh, no, I’m not crazy!” He led the way to the door and threw it open. “See?” he asked triumphantly.
The director poked his head out the door and looked around for several seconds at the empty street, the nodded to the orderlies. “You’d better restrain both of them,” he said sadly.
Nick and Heath fought valiantly, but they were finally subdued, and Johnny watched as they were led off, screaming threats at him the whole time. The director turned toward him and smiled sadly. “I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer. It seems they’re all crazy except you. I can’t imagine why they’re all trying to attack you, but we’ll fix them up.”
Johnny nodded. “Well, be sure and tell the Barkleys they won’t have to worry about their ranch. I’ll take care of everything. Make sure you tell Murdoch that, too.”
The director nodded. “I’ll be sure and tell them. I’m sure that will be a comfort to them, knowing there’s a person such as yourself overseeing their interests and taking care of things. I’m sure it will help them calm down and speed up their recovery.”
“Ok, Doc,” Johnny said as he walked toward the door. “Just keep me posted on when they can come home.”
The director nodded. “I’m afraid it might be a while.”
Johnny shrugged. “I guess it can’t be helped.” He turned and walked outside, and slowly a big smile broke out on his face. He was still smiling when he caught up with Clyde just outside of town.
“Come on, Clyde, let’s go home. We’re gonna have two whole ranches all to ourselves, with nobody yellin’ at us or tryin’ ta shoot us. Just peace and quiet.” He chuckled. “I shoulda thought of this a long time ago.”
The door to the asylum slammed open, startling the director and the aides that were standing next to him. All of their mouths flew open at the apparition standing breathlessly in the doorway.
The director took a tentative step. “Mister…LANCER?” he asked in disbelief.
Johnny’s blank eyes focused on the director for a moment and he lurched forward, leaving a trail of goose and turkey feathers in his wake. “Please,” he croaked, “lock me up.”
“Why, Mister Lancer, what happened?” the director asked in shock.
“Turkeys…geese.., squirrels…camels…Jelly…” Johnny gasped.
The director’s eyes flew to Johnny’s shoulder. “Do you know that you have a squirrel on your shoulder?” he asked uncertainly.
“Only one?” Johnny asked hopefully.
“Well, yes, only one. But there IS a camel standing behind you.”
Johnny nodded numbly. “The elephant’s waiting outside. She couldn’t fit through the door.”
The director stared at him for a moment, then shook his head. “Now, now, Mister Lancer. It won’t work. I know it’s been a long couple of months, and that you miss your family and friends, but trying to get yourself committed isn’t going to work.”
“NO! I need some peace and quiet! Turn THEM loose and let THEM handle things for a while!”
The director sighed. “Calm down, Mister Lancer. I’m afraid that’s impossible,” the director said quietly.
“WHY?” Johnny asked in desperation as he grabbed the director by the lapels.
The director shrugged away from the distraught man before the squirrel could switch shoulders. “Well, they made such wonderful progress, and they were all getting along so well that I released them!”
“Released them! But…but…they didn’t come home!”
The director shook his head. “No. I believe they said they were going to stay with a friend of your father’s near Carson City for a while, at least until you get the ranches back in shape. Anyway, they’re staying with a man named Cartwright, I believe.”
~ end ~
The Easter Bunny
The Mountain Man – FIRST PLACE Lancer Writers Awards: Best Humorous Story
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