Word Count 21,535
4th in The Surprise Series. If you haven’t read the previous story, there may be some references that are confusing.
Johnny and Scott walked into the house, tired and filthy. They had been chasing uncooperative cows all day, and had come out second best most of the time. As they headed for the stairs, Murdoch stopped them in their tracks. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Both men turned and looked at him in resignation. They had been praying that he hadn’t noticed. “We’re gonna get cleaned up and relax before dinner,” Johnny said challengingly.
Scott merely nodded. If his brother was going to get his head chewed off, at least he hadn’t verbally agreed with him. And if for some strange reason Murdoch gave in, Scott would be saved, too.
“What about the pen? Have you cleaned it out and fed the birds yet?”
Johnny froze and looked at his father. For one second, Murdoch felt a twinge of fear, until Johnny Lancer managed to overcome Johnny Madrid, and his son sighed and dropped his eyes. “No, we haven’t.” He brought his head back up and looked pleadingly at his father.
Murdoch smiled slightly. His sons were playing right into his hands. “All right. I take it you two don’t particularly like that chore?”
Both of his sons shook their heads in unison.
Murdoch leaned back in his overstuffed chair and studied the two. “I have a proposition for you.”
Both Scott and Johnny turned and headed for the door.
“Don’t you even want to know what it is?” he called after them.
“NO!” came the chorus, just as the door slammed. Murdoch sighed. He guessed he might have to give them a few more days before they were ready to fall into his trap.
That evening, Murdoch approached the table with trepidation. So far, so good. He spied some tamales on the table near Johnny, and what appeared to be beef Wellington closer to Scott. He sighed with relief; finally a normal meal. After he had said grace, he asked Scott to pass the beef. Scott looked at him enquiringly. “What beef, sir?”
Murdoch pointed to the crusted roast. “The Wellington .”
Scott sighed. “Actually sir, it’s turkey Wellington .”
This time, it was Scott that feared for his life. Murdoch’s expression was decidedly unfriendly. The rancher turned his glare on his younger son. “I thought I warned you about losing your temper and killing any more of those birds. I told you that if I had to eat the results of your temper ONE MORE TIME, that you would regret it!”
Johnny looked back at his father innocently. “Yeah, well ya shoulda told your calm son there,” he said, pointing at Scott.
Murdoch turned his baleful stare at Scott. “WELL?” he stormed.
Scott gave his snitch of a brother a glare before answering. “Well, the turkey sort of committed suicide.”
Teresa snickered and Johnny dropped his head, trying to hide a smile.
“And just HOW does a turkey commit suicide?”
Scott glanced at his brother for help, and then realized he was on his own. “Well, he sort of flew into the side of the barn.”
“He just up and flew into the barn wall, all by himself,” Murdoch repeated.
Scott shifted uncomfortably. “Well, he had a little help, I guess.”
Murdoch raised his eyebrows and waited for the rest.
Scott saw that his father wasn’t going to let this go, and finally decided to explain. “I was minding my own business when he landed on my head and . .and…he…”
Johnny gave up the struggle to keep from laughing, and broke out into loud guffaws. Murdoch looked puzzled for a moment, and then realized what his older son was so delicately trying to avoid saying.
“And when he . .he… you helped him fly into the wall,” Murdoch said through chuckles.
Scott glanced at Teresa, and then nodded.
Murdoch tried to get his laughter under control; something Johnny was having no success at all doing. “Well, I guess I can sympathize. But this is the LAST turkey dinner I want to see on this table for a good long while, is that clear, boys?”
Both Scott and Johnny nodded grudgingly, and then Johnny opened his mouth. “If we can’t eat ‘em, what good are they?”
Murdoch put down his fork. “We’re going to sell them next Thanksgiving, remember? And if they ALL ‘commit suicide’ before then, we won’t have any profit. And for some reason, I think profit’s important on a working ranch, or am I mistaken?”
“Well, I just don’t understand why ya had ta choose TURKEYS ta make a profit on. Couldn’t ya have picked somethin’ a little bit easier? Like maybe Grizzly bears?”
“Are you being sarcastic with me, boy?”
Johnny shook his head innocently. “No. I think a bunch of bears would be a lot easier ta take care of, and cuter, too.”
Murdoch glowered at this son, while Teresa and Scott tried to ignore the two. Finally, Murdoch nodded. “I already told you, I have a deal for you, IF you’re interested.”
Johnny looked up and caught Scott’s eyes. Scott said slowly, “Well, I guess it won’t hurt to listen.”
Murdoch smiled. The fish had been hooked. Now all he had to do was land them.
“I have one small job that needs doing in a few weeks. No dirt, no bodily injury, and no turkeys. It’ll only take a few hours. You promise to do that one teensy little job, and I’ll have someone else take care of the turkeys.”
“What kind of a job?” Johnny asked suspiciously.
“An easy one,” replied his father. “In fact, it will really only need one of you to complete, so one of you will get off absolutely free.”
Johnny and Scott shot glances at each other, while Murdoch looked on in pleasure. He knew his boys, and he knew that if they thought they could get out of a distasteful job while at the same time sticking the other one with it, they would both jump at the chance. He had just landed his catch, and they didn’t even know it yet.
“So what’s the job?” Johnny asked.
Murdoch smiled. “That, boys, you’ll find out when you make the deal.”
Scott spoke up. “And nobody gets hurt, dirty, or killed.”
“And it’s not hard work,” Johnny put in.
Murdoch crossed his heart. “Promise.”
Johnny and Scott looked at each other for a moment, until they both shrugged. Whatever it was couldn’t be as bad as babysitting those darn turkeys. “Deal.”
Johnny and Scott exchanged glances, and then looked at their father. He looked like the proverbial cat that ate the canary, and both wondered just which one of them would wind up in the cats’ mouth. Murdoch was smiling broadly, a very good indication that they were in for a horrible time.
After exchanging another glance, both of the young man decided to get the bad news over with. “Well?” Scott asked his father resignedly. “What do we have to do?”
Murdoch glanced at Teresa, who giggled. Murdoch shot her a warning look, and Teresa immediately dropped her head, but faint chuckles could still be heard.
Not a good sign, Scott thought. He looked at his brother, who was trying to glare at both Teresa and Murdoch at the same time. Scott thought he was doing an admirable job at it, too. Not that it would do him any good.
Finally his father, trying desperately to keep a straight face, told him. “Every year, one of the ranches has the honor of supplying the Easter Bunny for the town’s annual children’s Easter egg hunt. This year, it’s Lancer’s turn, and I thought that one of you would do the honors.”
As realization dawned, Scott looked in horror at his father. “Oh, no. No way. The deal’s off. I don’t care HOW many turkeys poop on my head.”
Murdoch glowered at his older son. “A deal’s a deal. I’m not letting you out of it. Besides, think about all of those disappointed kids.”
“Those poor kids will just have to learn to live with disappointment, because there’s NO WAY I’m going to do agree to that.”
Murdoch continued to glare at his elder son. “We had a deal, and I thought you were a man of your word.”
“I WAS a man of my word, until now. But this….this… . ”
“Scott, I have no intention of letting you off the hook.”
Scott glared back at his father. “There is NO WAY I’m going to agree to that, and you knew it all along. That’s why you had us agree BEFORE you told us. That was underhanded and sneaky, Sir.”
Murdoch shrugged nonchalantly. “I didn’t force you to make the agreement, you leaped at the chance. Now you have to live with that decision.”
Scott shook his head. “NO! I don’t care if I’m stuck cleaning up after those mangy, ill tempered, glorified chickens till the day I die, I REFUSE to do it!”
Johnny had been watching his father and brother argue for the last few minutes, until finally he shrugged. “I’ll do it; I don’t know what the big deal is.” He looked at Scott in bewilderment.
“YOU’LL DO IT?” three voices said at the same time.
Johnny nodded uncertainly at the three disbelieving faces. “Sure, why not?”
“You don’t mind?” Murdoch asked cautiously.
Johnny shrugged again. “No, it’s no big deal, I mean, how hard can it be? Besides, anything’s better than fightin’ them turkeys.”
Murdoch and Scott exchanged worried glances. Maybe Johnny was suffering from some sort of breakdown. Scott looked over at Teresa and saw that she was thinking the same thing.
“Johnny, are you feeling all right?” Teresa finally asked worriedly.
Johnny looked around the room in disgust. “I don’t know why you’re makin’ such a big deal about it; I said I’d do it.”
“And you aren’t going to change your mind?” Scott asked suspiciously. He was less worried about Johnny’s health than the possibility that his brother would change his mind and Scott would get stuck doing it.
“NO! I ain’t gonna change my mind! What’s wrong with you people anyway?” He snorted. “It’s not even gonna be that hard.” He looked over at his brother. “I can’t understand why you’re makin’ such a big fuss over it.” Then he looked at his father. “Are you SURE that’s all there is to it? I don’t know what you’re up to, getting off turkey detail CAN’T be this easy.”
Murdoch shook his head on wonderment. “Son, I’m proud of you. Not many men would think it was easy or for that matter volunteer to do it. In fact, if I remember correctly, Victoria almost had a war on her hands when she even suggested to her sons that it would be a nice thing to do.”
Johnny looked at him in disbelief. “What, has everybody gone loco? What’s the big deal? I’ll go out Easter Morning and get ya a bunny. In fact, I’ll get ya a couple. It ain’t like you’re askin me ta come up with anything that hard. I mean, how hard can it be ta shoot a rabbit?”
All conversation at the table stopped as Johnny got up. “I think I’ll head into town and get a steak. I’m really tired of turkey. See ya later.” He turned and looked at his brother. “Wanna come?”
Scott shook his head, not wanting to be anywhere near Johnny when he found out exactly what he’d volunteered for.
After the door closed behind his son, Murdoch turned to Scott and whispered, “Did you just hear what I just heard?”
Scott nodded dumbly. “He doesn’t know about the Easter Bunny. He thinks it’s something like a thanksgiving turkey. He THINKS he’s supposed to shoot a rabbit,” he said in wonder.
Teresa looked worriedly at the two men. “So who’s going to tell him?”
Murdoch and Scott immediately glanced at each other, shaking their heads.
“You and your brother are close; I think you should be the one,” Murdoch stated emphatically.
Scott snorted. “I believe, Sir, that telling your son about the Easter Bunny definitely falls under the classification of ‘fatherly duties.’”
Both men looked back at Teresa hopefully.
Teresa shook her head. “Oh no. You got yourselves into this mess, and you can get yourselves out. If you get killed doing it, that’s your problem.”
Finally Scott looked down. “She’s right. Besides, we may not have to worry about it. If he tells anyone in town what he volunteered for, none of us will be alive by tomorrow.”
Johnny got back to the ranch late, and both Murdoch and Scott were listening for any clues to indicate just how long they had to live. But Johnny was relatively quiet, so they assumed he still didn’t know the facts about the Easter Bunny. Besides, both of them had taken great pains to lock their doors and slide a heavy piece of furniture in front of them. Of course, they both knew that if Johnny were determined, that wouldn’t stop him, but it might give them time to escape out of a window. When they finally heard his door quietly shut, they both relaxed, and with an identical sigh of relief, they drifted off into a blissful sleep.
Murdoch and Scott were up early the next morning, as both of them were determined to leave the house before the other one got up. They caught each other in the kitchen before sunrise.
“What are you doing in here?” Scott asked his father suspiciously.
“I planned on riding into town, and I thought I’d get an early start,” Murdoch said a little too glibly. “Where do you think YOU’RE going? Murdoch said, pointing to Scott’s bedroll.
“I thought I’d check out those line shacks you’ve been after us to fix up. I should be back in a few days.”
The two men stared at each other for a few moments before Scott finally spoke. “It IS your responsibility, SIR.”
Murdoch glared a few more moments before dropping his head and mumbling something that Scott couldn’t quite catch, not that he wanted to. Finally, Murdoch raised his head and glared at his son once more. “All right, you win. I guess it IS my responsibility. But you stay here. I don’t want you running off to the line shack.”
“Because SOMEBODY’S going to have to run the ranch when I’m dead, that’s why,” he grumbled.
Scott nodded his head. “I’d be glad to.”
Murdoch gave his elder son one last glare before sitting down at the table and calmly waiting for his demise.
Johnny came downstairs in a good mood, and plopped down at the kitchen table with his family. Teresa put a plate full of scrambled eggs and bacon in front of him, and he immediately started shoveling food into his mouth. He was busy eating for the next several minutes, and didn’t notice the silence. As soon as he was finished, both Scott and Teresa made a quick exit, leaving Murdoch to his fate. When Johnny started to get up to leave also, his father stopped him. “Wait just a minute, son.”
Johnny looked expectantly at his father, and after taking a look at the man’s face he quietly sat back down.
Murdoch stared at Johnny for a few moments before starting. “Well, son, I need to talk to you.”
“About what?” Johnny asked suspiciously. He was extremely nervous. Judging from his father’s demeanor, whatever it was he was going to say was bad news. He had seen Teresa and Scott abandon them, and wondered what could be so bad that neither wanted to stay.
“Well, you see, it’s about… Well, it’s about certain things that I need to talk to you about, and… . ” Murdoch stopped, completely confused as to just how to bring it up.
“Talk to me about what?” Johnny asked slowly, more confused than his father.
“It’s about… things you need to know about,” Murdoch said vaguely.
“Things I need to know about,” Johnny repeated.
“Yes,” Murdoch said, looking relieved.
When Johnny didn’t say anything, but continued to stare at him, Murdoch tried again. “Well, it’s about certain things that a father usually tells his son…Certain facts that are a father’s responsibility to talk to his son about, but I haven’t had the chance. But I thought that maybe I’d better. You see, I think it’s time I talk to you about… Certain things,” Murdoch said triumphantly.
Johnny watched his father with a blank look on his face, until realization dawned. “Murdoch,” Johnny started. “If you’re tryin’ ta talk to me about what I THINK you’re tryin’ ta talk to me about, it’s a little late.”
“It is?” Murdoch asked, surprised.
Johnny watched his father carefully, wondering if this was some kind of joke. But the sweat on his father’s brow certainly wasn’t faked.
Johnny nodded slowly. “Yeah, it is,” he said, watching his father carefully. Then a thought occurred to him. Johnny’s brows creased. “Did you try to talk to Scott about this, too?”
Murdoch shook his head. “Oh no, he’s known about it since he was a little boy. I’m sure Harlan taught him all about it.”
Johnny choked, but managed to keep a straight face. “But you think that you needed to talk to me?”
“Well, someone did. I was hoping I wouldn’t be the one that had to, but both Scott and Teresa refused.”
Johnny’s mouth dropped open. “Teresa?” he squeaked.
Murdoch nodded his head. “Yes, I thought she’d do a good job, since she knows all about it, but she said it was up to me and Scott.”
Johnny thought he just might be going into shock. He shook his head. There HAD to be some mistake. “How about if we start over?” he said more calmly than he felt.
Murdoch nodded. “Good idea. What do you want to know?”
“I want to know what we’re talkin’ about.”
“Oh.” Murdoch said. “I thought I’d already made that clear.”
Johnny shook his head. “What I THOUGHT we were talkin about isn’t somethin’ you’d have Teresa try ta explain to me.”
Murdoch looked confused as he played the conversation back in his mind. All of a sudden, he blushed. “You thought that I was talking about…. that I wanted to explain to you about… . that I wanted Teresa to explain to you about……” He stopped and stared at Johnny.
Johnny nodded. “So if that’s not it, what DO you want to explain to me?”
“I think,” Murdoch said slowly,” that someone else would do a better job. I think it would be better if you went and talked to Jelly. He’ll be able to explain it better than I could.”
“Explain WHAT?” Johnny shouted.
“Explain about the Easter Bunny,” Murdoch finally managed to croak.
Johnny looked at his father in disbelief. “Explain WHAT about the Easter Bunny?”
Murdoch shook his head. “I’m sorry son. I didn’t realize that you didn’t know anything about it, I should have guessed. I don’t think you should get stuck doing it when you didn’t know what you were volunteering for. Maybe I should talk to Scott again. Maybe I can get him to handle it,” he said resignedly.
Johnny shook his head. “No, I said I’d take care of it, and I will. I still don’t know what the big deal is.”
Murdoch watched him dubiously. “You may feel differently after you talk to Jelly.”
Johnny shrugged. “Why? It can’t be that complicated.”
Murdoch looked at his son. “No… . no… it’s not complicated. I’m just not sure you know what you’re letting yourself in for. I thought that somebody would have told you about it.” He sighed. “I guess not.” He looked at Johnny hopefully. “I tell you what. Why don’t you go talk to Jelly, I’m sure he’ll explain all about it. In the meantime, I’m going to ride into town.” Murdoch turned and started to leave the room, then turned back toward his son. “If you change your mind, you’ll find your cowardly brother at the north line shack.” He turned and quickly left the room, leaving Johnny to wonder if his father was having some sort of mental breakdown, and what it was about the Easter Bunny that made people so nervous.
With a sigh, Johnny walked out to the barn where Jelly was fixing a broken wagon wheel. The rest of the hands had long since left, so they were alone. Johnny hopped up on a bale of hay and watched the old man work for a few minutes, until Jelly finally yelled at him. “Well don’t just sit there. Lend a hand, why dontcha?”
Johnny smiled as he jumped down and grabbed the wheel. Jelly spun it to try to get it balanced. “Well, what do ya want? Can’t wait around all day till ya make up your mind ta start jabberin.”
Johnny smiled. “Murdoch said I should talk to you.”
Jelly looked at the young man in surprise. “Talk to me? About what?”
Johnny grinned. “About the Easter Bunny. He said you’d know all about it and would explain it to me.”
Jelly looked at the young man suspiciously. “What do ya want to know?”
Johnny shrugged. “Everything, I guess. Don’t know what the big deal is, it’s just a stupid rabbit. The way Murdoch and Scott acted you’d think it was some big bad monster.”
Jelly looked at him in understanding. “No one ever told ya about him, did they?”
Johnny shrugged and shook his head as he absent- mindedly turned the wheel.
Jelly nodded, wondering if Johnny was getting ready to pull some practical joke on him. It sure wouldn’t be the first time. And he couldn’t quite believe that Murdoch would tell Johnny to come and have him explain it. Somethin’ just didn’t seem right, and he’d be darned if he was gonna fall for another one of those boys’ jokes again. Well, two could play at that game.
Jelly turned and walked over to the bale of hay and sat down. “Well, it ain’t that complicated. Once a year, at Easter, the Easter Bunny comes and brings kids candy and eggs.”
Johnny’s brows furrowed. “How can a rabbit do that?”
Jelly shook his head. “Oh, not just ANY rabbit. This one’s special.”
“Ya mean the Easter Bunny’s a special rabbit?” Johnny asked worriedly. Maybe this wasn’t gonna be as easy as it first sounded.
Jelly nodded. “Real special. He only comes around at Easter time; ya can’t find him the rest of the year. And he’s great big, bigger’n you. Sometimes he even wears clothes. And he brings the kids eggs ‘n stuff.”
Johnny looked at Jelly skeptically. “Jelly, you really don’t expect me to believe that, do ya? I think you’re pullin’ my leg, there ain’t no rabbit like that.”
Jelly nodded emphatically and stuck his chin out. “Oh yes there is. Murdoch and Scott obviously know about him.”
After thinking a moment, Johnny asked, “What kind of clothes?”
“I don’t know, just clothes.”
When Johnny looked at him skeptically, Jelly continued. “I even saw him once. You callin’ me a liar?”
Johnny shook his head dubiously. “No, I ain’t callin’ you a liar. But I’ve seen a lot of things, and I ain’t never seen nothin’ like that.”
Jelly nodded his head knowingly. “Well maybe you ain’t tried real hard. “Cause he’s real, all right. Ya just have ta know where ta look.”
Johnny looked hopefully at Jelly. “You know where I can find him?”
“Now why in tarnation do you want ta find the Easter Bunny?”
Johnny shrugged. “Murdoch said I had ta get him for the annual Easter egg hunt for the kids in town.”
“Murdoch told you that?”
Johnny nodded. “He said it was Lancer’s turn to supply the Easter Bunny for the Easter egg hunt. Scott refused, and I told him I’d do it. I thought I’d just have ta go out and shoot him.”
Jelly’s eyes got as big as saucers. “Shoot the Easter Bunny? You can’t do that! Why it’d be like shootin’ Santa Claus.”
Johnny sighed. “Yeah, I figured that out. I shoulda known it wouldn’t be that easy. So how do I go about catchin’ him?”
Jelly shook his head cautiously. He still wasn’t sure what the boy was up to, but he guessed he’d find out. “Now how in tarnation do I know that? As far as I know, nobody’s ever tried ta catch him. You and that smarty pants brother of yours will just have ta figure somethin’ out.”
Johnny sighed. “Thanks Jelly, but I think I’m on my own with this one.” He turned to go, and then turned around. “If ya happen ta see him, be sure and let me know.”
Jelly nodded, then watched Johnny thoughtfully as he left the barn.
Johnny wandered out into the yard, wondering how he was going to go about trying to catch something that he didn’t even think existed. A rabbit that wore clothes and brought kids eggs? He shook his head. And he’d NEVER seen a rabbit as big as him. If he didn’t know better, he’d think Jelly was pulling his leg. But Murdoch sure had seemed serious. And for that matter, so did Scott. Johnny sighed. He guessed he had his work cut out for him, all right. He should have kept his big mouth shut, but he would make sure he got even with both his big brother and his father for this one.
That evening when Murdoch came home, he saw a light on in the barn. He figured he’d better find out how Jelly’s conversation with Johnny had gone before he went into the house. If he was likely to get gunned down, he at least wanted to know about it ahead of time.
He found Jelly cleaning a harness. “How did it go?” he asked the old man.
Jelly shrugged, “How did what go?”
Murdoch looked surprised. It must not have been that bad if Jelly was still speaking to him. “The talk with Johnny.”
Jelly snorted. “Oh, that. Fine, I guess.”
Jelly looked at him like he was crazy. “Now why wouldja think there was problems?”
Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t know. I guess I just assumed he wouldn’t take the news too well.” He looked at Jelly questioningly. “You DID tell him about the Easter Bunny, didn’t you?”
Jelly snorted again. “Of course I did. I told him that the Bunny got ta give candy and eggs to all the kids.”
Murdoch looked thoughtful. “And he didn’t get upset?”
“I TOLD ya he didn’t.”
“Did he say anything?”
Jelly shrugged. “He just wanted ta know all about him, and how he was dressed.”
Murdoch shook his head. It sure SOUNDED like Johnny was going along with it. The problem was, he couldn’t quite imagine Johnny Madrid dressing up like an Easter Bunny.
“All right jelly, thanks,” Murdoch said absently as he left. If Johnny was planning on doing this, he sure had to give him credit.
Several days later, Johnny was no closer to solving his problem. He sure wasn’t going to ask Murdoch or Scott for help, and so far, Jelly hadn’t come up with any plans. Both Murdoch and Scott were tip- toeing around him like he was going to take their heads off at any time, and he couldn’t quite figure that out, either. Whatever the reason, it was sort of nice. They were both being downright pleasant. Even Teresa was treating him like something special. She had not only made his favorite Mexican dishes for supper, but she had made a triple layer chocolate cake for dessert. If it meant getting treated like this, he’d go out and catch an Easter Bunny every month.
But by the following week, Johnny was starting to get a little panicky. He had no idea what to do if he couldn’t come up with the missing rabbit. He was thinking seriously of riding into town and asking Val for help. He decided to go out one more time and see if he could find any signs. If he couldn’t come up with something by tomorrow, he’d ask Val to lend a hand.
He kept his eyes open all day as he was riding the fenceline, but by late afternoon, he still hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary. He finally admitted defeat and turned Barranca toward home. He had only gone several hundred yards when his horse suddenly came to an abrupt stop.
Barranca stood with his nose quivering as he stared into a jumble of bushes. Johnny couldn’t see anything, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t something there. Barranca was usually pretty calm. Cautiously, he urged his mount a step or two closer and undid the safety on his gun.
He knew that there had been quite a few calves lost to lions this year, and it was entirely possible he had surprised one away from its shelter. He tried to urge Barranca forward once again, but the horse refused, another indication that something dangerous was lurking in the brush.
Slowly, Johnny dismounted and ground tied his horse. He didn’t want Barranca to get caught if whatever it was got past him. He pulled his gun and cautiously walked toward the brush. As he approached, he glanced down at the ground, looking for tracks to tell him just what it was he was after.
He saw some prints, but they were all jumbled up, and he couldn’t quite make them out. Suddenly, recognition dawned, and his eyes got big as he looked once more toward the brush, hoping for a glimpse of the animal. He stood there for a moment, trying to figure out the best way to proceed, when suddenly the creature came bounding out towards him.
He brought his gun up, but the animal ran right into him, hitting him in the chest and knocking him down. He fell heavily, but instead of running off, the beast turned and lunged at him, knocking him down again. Johnny finally brought his gun in a position to shoot, but the animal hit him one more time and then fled, leaving the unconscious man lying next to the bush.
An hour later, Scott noticed Barranca wandering aimlessly and rode over to investigate. A few feet away from the horse, he saw his brother trying to sit up. He rushed over and gave him a hand, then leaned him back against the tree.
“Johnny, are you OK?”
Johnny nodded slightly. ‘Yeah, Scott, I think so.”
Johnny shook his head, trying to remember. “I’m not sure. I think somethin’ attacked me.”
Scott saw some blood on his brother’s shirt, and tore it open. “Whatever it was gave you some pretty good scratches.”
Johnny nodded slowly. “I remember it knockin’ me down, and I must have hit my head at the same time.”
Scott nodded. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you home and have Sam take a look at you, but I think you’ll be all right.”
Johnny nodded. “I’ll be OK. Just let me up.”
Scott grabbed him. “Oh no you don’t. I’m going to help you. You took a pretty bad knock to the head, and you have to be careful. Now come on and get on Charlie. We’ll ride double.”
Over Johnny’s protests, Scott finally got his brother on Charlie’s back and climbed on behind him. By then, Johnny was only partially conscious, and Scott urged his horse toward home.
By the time they approached the estancia, Murdoch had been alerted and was waiting for them in front of the house. He grabbed Johnny off of the horse and carried him up to his room. While they were waiting for Sam, Murdoch questioned his elder son. “Did he say what did it?”
Scott hesitated. “Murdoch, he hit his head. He must have been delirious.”
“Why? What did he say?”
Scott hesitated, and then blurted out, “He said the Easter Bunny attacked him.”
Murdoch shook his head in disbelief. “He said that The Easter Bunny attacked him?” he repeated cautiously.
Murdoch looked like he was in shock. “He must have been delirious.”
“Scott, did you see ANYTHING when you got there? Anything at all?
Scott shook his head.
“And when you got there, he said that the ….the EASTER BUNNY had attacked him?”
Scott nodded again.
“Are you SURE that’s what he said?”
Murdoch went to the cupboard and drew out a bottle of tequila and took a healthy swig, apparently not noticing it wasn’t brandy. “We’ll wait and see what Sam says.”
Scott nodded once more as he took the bottle out of Murdoch’s hand and took a huge gulp.
An hour later, Sam stepped out of Johnny’s room and shut the door. As he turned around, he nearly ran into Scott and Murdoch. “Well?” They both said in unison.
Sam shook his head in bewilderment. “He’ll be fine. It wasn’t even that bad of an injury. I don’t know why you’re so concerned.”
Murdoch looked around to see if anyone was listening. “Because, Sam, he wasn’t in his right mind,” he whispered, blowing his tequila breath at the doctor.
Sam glanced back and forth between Scott and Murdoch. “What do you mean?” he whispered back.
Murdoch glanced around once again and grabbed the doctor’s arm. “Let’s go downstairs,” he said conspiratorially.
Sam followed the two men downstairs, and then turned and looked at his friend. “All right, Murdoch. What’s this all about? What do you mean he wasn’t in his right mind?”
“SSHHH!” Murdoch said, looking around again. He bit his lip, unsure just how to say it. Finally he leaned over to the doctor and whispered, “He thought that he was attacked by the Easter Bunny. What do you think?” he asked worriedly.
Sam looked dubiously at the two men before going over and taking a drink of his own. “I think,” he said solemnly, “that you had better lay off the booze, at least until after dinner.” He downed his own shot.
Murdoch looked at him in confusion. “I’M NOT DRUNK!” he bellowed.
“What about Johnny?” Sam asked mildly.
Scott shook his head.
Sam looked back and forth between the two men. “He really said that?” He finally asked Scott.
Sam looked at Scott in disgust. “Can’t you talk?”
Scott’s eyebrows went up. “I’m not sure what to say. I have no idea why my brother is under the delusion that he has been attacked by a giant hare.”
Sam nodded. “There. That’s better. At least you’re normal.” Sam turned to Murdoch and sighed. “I don’t know, Murdoch. Has he mentioned this…Easter Bunny… before?”
Murdoch sighed. “He hasn’t SAID anything about him before, but Scott and I talked him into playing the Easter Bunny for the kids at the upcoming Easter egg hunt.”
Sam slowly sank into the chair as his legs gave out. “He agreed to that? JOHNNY agreed? OUR JOHNNY??”
Scott nodded, and received a glare from Sam.
Sam shook his head slowly. “I have no idea what to think. Maybe there’s something else going on. It sure sounds like it, because he certainly can’t be thinking clearly. I’ll study my books tonight and see if I can find anything, and I’ll come back day after tomorrow and talk to him. In the meantime, keep him quiet, and no matter what, go along with whatever he says.”
Scott started to nod, and then thought better of it. “All right. By the way, could you tell what caused those scratches?”
Sam shook his head. “No, not off hand. But whatever it was must have hit him pretty hard.” He hesitated for a moment. “It was MUCH too big to have been a rabbit.” He turned to Murdoch. “Remember; just humor him for now, until we can figure out what’s going on. I’ll see you day after tomorrow.”
After Sam left, the two men each had another drink. “Do you think he’ll be OK?” Murdoch finally asked.
Scott shrugged. “I don’t know. I thought something was wrong when he volunteered to dress up like the Easter Bunny. And when we were still alive after he had talked to Jelly, I knew something was DRASTICALLY wrong.” Scott shook his head. “We should have had Sam check him out then.”
Murdoch nodded and shook his head sorrowfully. “Whatever you do, don’t say anything to anyone.” He put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “We’ll get through this somehow.”
Scott nodded. “I’ll think I’ll go up and sit with him for a while.” Murdoch nodded and headed back to the liquor cabinet.
Scott approached his brother’s bed and sat down quietly next to him. Immediately the blue eyes opened and looked at him. “Hey, Scott.”
“Hey. How’re you feeling?”
Johnny scooted up in bed. “Fine. A little sore maybe.”
Scott nodded sympathetically. “Whatever hit you sure left some nasty scratches.”
Johnny looked at his brother. “I TOLD ya what hit me.”
Scott closed his eyes and nodded his head cautiously. “The Easter Bunny.”
Johnny nodded. “Didn’t know it was that mean. I sorta thought he’d be friendly, ya know?”
Scott bit his lip, remembering Sam’s words. “Yeah, you would think that, wouldn’t you?”
“Are ya gonna help me track him down?” Johnny asked.
Scott opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He just stared at his brother. “Maybe Jelly should be the one to help you. He’s pretty much the resident expert on Easter Bunnies.”
Johnny shrugged. “Maybe. I think I can track him if I can just get back out there pretty soon.”
Scott looked at his brother in surprise. “He left tracks?”
Johnny nodded. “Didn’t ya see ‘em? They were huge. I thought Jelly was exaggeratin’ when he said that the Bunny was as big as I was, but this one was at least that big.”
Scott sighed. “Why don’t you try to rest, and we’ll talk about it more in the morning.”
Johnny nodded. “All right, I am a little tired.”
Scott got up and closed the door behind him, shaking his head. He sure hoped Sam could figure out what was wrong with his brother.
The next morning, although a little stiff, Johnny felt fine. He was just starting to get up when his father came into his room with a breakfast tray. “How’re you feeling?” his father asked worriedly.
Johnny gave Murdoch a cautious glance before answering. “I’m fine.” He pointed to the tray. “What’s this for?”
Murdoch set the tray down on Johnny’s bed. “It’s your breakfast; I thought you might be hungry.”
Johnny shook his head. “I can come downstairs ta eat. I was just gettin’ up.”
Murdoch shook his head. “Oh, no. Sam gave strict orders that you were to stay in bed today.”
Johnny looked at his father in exasperation. “I TOLD you, I’m fine.”
Murdoch nodded placatingly as he placed the tray on Johnny’s lap and fussily unfolded the napkin. “I know, son. But why don’t you just rest today. I’d feel better if you didn’t strain yourself.”
Johnny watched his father suspiciously. Murdoch was either up to something or he was very ill. He’d have to talk to Sam about it next time he saw him.
Jelly thought that the whole durn family just might be going insane. First there were turkeys whizzing through the air at the hands of the usually level headed Scott, and then Johnny came in and wanted to be told a bedtime story about make -believe rabbits. After that, Murdoch wandered in and wanted to know if he had told Johnny about the Easter Bunny and wondered if Johnny was upset about the story. What did he expect, that the boy would have nightmares about it?’ Jelly snorted. Johnny Madrid bein’ afraid of the Easter Bunny. He chortled to himself. Maybe that would be good to threaten Johnny with when the boy got a little too big for his britches.
He looked up as Scott entered the barn. ‘Now what?’ he thought.
Scott walked slowly up to Jelly and sat down on the bale of hay opposite him. He looked thoughtful for a moment before opening his mouth. “Jelly, what EXACTLY did you tell Johnny about the Easter Bunny?”
Jelly rolled his eyes; “I TOLD ya what I said ta him. I told him that the Easter Bunny was a great big rabbit that wore clothes and brought eggs ta all of the kids. Why?”
Scott sighed, and then looked around cautiously. “Is there anyone else in the barn?”
Jelly shook his head. He was right, the whole family was loco.
Scott sighed again. “Because, Jelly, Johnny thinks he was attacked yesterday by the Easter Bunny.”
Jelly stared at his friend. Like he thought yesterday, this must be some elaborate practical joke they were playing on him. Well, he wasn’t going to bite, no sir. “Uh huh,” he said.
Scott stared at him. “Well doesn’t that seem just a LITTLE strange to you?”
Jelly looked at Scott out of the corner of his eye while he went about his chores. “Uh huh.”
“Well what do you think happened?” Scott asked in exasperation.
Jelly shrugged. “Don’t know and I really don’t care, as long as that Easter Bunny don’t come after me. And you tell that ‘Easter Bunny’ of yours that if it does, I JUST might take a shotgun to it.” He looked at Scott defiantly.
“Jelly what ARE you talking about? Of COURSE it’s not going to attack you; there IS no such thing.”
Jelly nodded as he continued to sweep up some hay. “Yep, I know that, and YOU know that, you just make sure that the Easter Bunny knows that.”
Scott shook his head, wondering what on earth Jelly was talking about. It seemed as if the older man wasn’t thinking correctly, either. Scott wondered if HE were the only one around here that wasn’t completely crazy.
Scott turned around as he was leaving the barn. “Jelly, have you seen anything that might be bothering the chickens?’
“No, ‘ceptin’ those big old turkeys, why?”
Scott shook his head. “I’d appreciate it if you’d keep your eyes open. Teresa says that she hasn’t found any eggs in there for a couple of days, and I thought something must be scaring them or bothering them.”
Jelly nodded. “I’ll keep my eyes and ears open, but then I always do.” As Scott left, Jelly shook his head. He just didn’t know how this ranch would run without him.
That night, Jelly was just getting ready to turn in when he remembered Scott’s request to check the chickens. He debated for a few minutes, and then with a sigh and grumbling about certain slave driving employers, he pulled his pants back on and headed toward the chicken yard.
As he approached, he could hear the chickens cackling and moving around like something was bothering them, but they didn’t sound panicked. He debated with himself about going back and getting his shotgun, decided he probably wouldn’t need it, and then turned around and went back to get it, just in case.
As he approached the chicken yard once more, he could hear the hens definitely starting to raise a ruckus. They still didn’t sound panicked, just indignant. Just like they did when someone was trying to get their eggs away from them. Jelly wondered who in tarnation could be stealing eggs from them.
He walked quietly to the corner of the barn hoping he could catch a glimpse of whatever it was that was bothering the chickens. He cautiously peeked around the side, taking in the chicken yard and hen house. The moon was fairly full, and he caught a glimpse of a figure in the pen. He relaxed slightly, thinking that maybe someone else had decided to check out the hens. He was just getting ready to holler at whoever it was, when the figure turned toward him.
Jelly and the apparition stared at each other for a long moment, and then Jelly started yelling as he pulled the gun off of his shoulder. He hurriedly tried to aim, but he pulled the trigger before it was quite level, and an upstairs window shattered loudly. The figure calmly vaulted over the wire fence enclosing the yard and took off up the hill.
“Jelly, CALM DOWN!” Murdoch ordered.
Jelly stuck his chin out belligerently. “Are you goin’ after him, or not?”
Murdoch ran his hand through what was left of his hair. “Not tonight. Whatever it was is long gone by now, anyway, I’m not going to have men stumbling around in the dark, shooting each other. It’ll wait until tomorrow.”
Jelly got in front of his boss. “What do ya mean ‘whatever it was’? I TOLD ya what it was.”
Murdoch sighed tiredly. “Yes, Jelly, you did.” He looked at Jelly hopefully. “Is this some elaborate practical joke you and Johnny have cooked up? If it is, I want to know it RIGHT NOW, because I have just about HAD ENOUGH!”
Jelly blew his chest out until Murdoch thought that he just might explode. “Well, Mister Smarty-pants Murdoch Lancer, if’n it IS a practical joke, you JUST might be out a son or two, because the NEXT time I see that thing, I’m gonna blow it into the next state!” he said, shaking his shotgun.
Murdoch nodded his head wearily. “I’ll go talk to the boys.” He turned and headed for the house, wondering if maybe Scott or, more likely Johnny, had somehow rigged the whole thing. He looked at the house and his eyes narrowed. Why hadn’t Scott and Johnny come downstairs when the shotgun blast had shattered his window? He nodded his head. Those boys were going to be in a world of hurt if he found out this was a joke. Somebody could have been severely injured.
He strode into the house and marched up the stairs. He rapped once on Johnny’s door, and then threw it open. As expected, his son’s bed was empty. With angry strides, he crossed the hall to Scott’s room and slammed open his door. He stared a moment at the empty bed, and then went downstairs to wait. He went to the sideboard to get a drink, and then thought better of it. A drink just might calm him down, and he certainly didn’t want anything to interfere with him tearing his sons’ heads off.
About an hour later, Murdoch heard the sound of someone trying to sneak toward the back stairs. He waited until the culprit had reached the bottom of the steps before saying quietly. “Well, if it isn’t the Easter Bunny.”
Johnny swung around and stared at his father, and then took a cautious step toward him. “What’re you talkin’ about?”
Murdoch smiled. “I was waiting up to see if I could catch the Easter Bunny, and I did.” Just then the patio door creaked open, and Scott came tiptoeing into the darkened room. “And his faithful sidekick,” Murdoch said sarcastically.
Murdoch lit a lamp and sat down, contemplating the two men. “Sit down, BOYS!”
Johnny and Scott sat nervously down on the sofa across from their father. As he kept glaring at them, they became decidedly nervous, and glanced at each other. Finally, Scott spoke. “What’s this all about, Sir?”
Murdoch glared at him some more. “Maybe you’d like to tell ME!”
Johnny and Scott shot each other one last look before Johnny shrugged. “I got bored, so I went into town for a while. Didn’t think you’d be upset.”
Murdoch turned his glare on Johnny. “Uh huh.” He said before turning to Scott. “What about you?”
Scott shrugged nervously. “I saw Johnny ride out and I followed him. Sam said he was supposed to take it easy, so I wanted to make sure he was OK.”
Murdoch looked long and hard at each of them. “Uh huh. And you’re sticking to that story?” he asked calmly.
They both nodded uncertainly. “It’s the truth.”
Murdoch nodded. “So you know nothing about the Easter Bunny getting into the chicken yard and stealing eggs for Easter and scaring Jelly half out of his wits. Neither of you know anything about a supposed man sized bunny wearing a lavender vest who jumped over the fence and hopped off into the night.”
Scott shook his head. “No. Should we?” he asked cautiously, as Johnny said in exasperation. “I TOLD ya about him already.”
Scott and Murdoch both turned toward Johnny. “You never said anything about him wearing a purple vest,” they said in unison.
Johnny shrugged. “I didn’t think you’d believe me,” he mumbled.
Murdoch shook his head. “But you didn’t think we’d have any trouble believing the rest,” he said matter of factly.
Johnny shook his head in bewilderment. “No, why would you?”
Murdoch buried his head in his hands and rubbed his temples. “All right. I’ve had enough. Which one of you is it?”
Johnny and Scott looked at each other again. “Which one of us is WHAT?” Johnny asked as Scott nodded.
“Which one of you is the Easter Bunny?”
Johnny’s mouth dropped open. “Do we look like Easter Bunnies?”
Murdoch shook his head wearily. “I have no idea, since I’m one of the few people around here that hasn’t seen one.”
Scott drew himself up straight. “I can assure, you Sir, that I am NOT, have never been, and never WILL BE an Easter Bunny. Besides,” he said, glancing at his brother, “I believe a purple vest is more Johnny’s style.”
Murdoch looked at Johnny.
Johnny shook his head as he looked at his traitorous brother. “Don’t look at me! I ain’t no Easter Bunny. Besides, he attacked me, remember? It COULDN’T have been me!!”
Murdoch shook his head wearily. He knew he should have had that drink. “All right, but I want this to end right now, tonight, before someone gets hurt. Jelly could have very easily shot one of you.”
“Ya mean he tried ta shoot the Easter Bunny? Johnny asked indignantly. “After he yelled at ME for suggestin’ such a thing?”
Murdoch ignored his younger son and continued with his lecture. “And if either one of you or both of you pull anything at all, you’re BOTH going to wish that Jelly HAD shot you, understand? I don’t want to hear any more about it. I am going up to bed, and I want you to fix my window tomorrow before you leave in the morning.”
Johnny glanced at Scott. “Maybe Scott can fix it,” he told Murdoch.
“Why?” Murdoch asked.
“Cause I wan ta get an early start tomorrow,” Johnny said.
“I gotta track that Easter Bunny.”
Sam arrived at the hacienda at around noon . He always liked to time his visits to coincide with a mealtime if at all possible, because both Maria and Teresa were excellent cooks. As he was climbing down, Jelly approached the buggy. “Doc, I gotta talk to ya. It’s real important.”
Sam turned and looked at the old man. “What’s wrong?”
Jelly glanced around. “It’s Murdoch. I think he’s gone plumb loco.”
“Murdoch?” Sam asked.
Jelly nodded his head vigorously.
Sam sat down on the low wall next to the garden. “All right, Jelly. Tell me why you think he’s gone loco.’”
“Well, first off, Murdoch sends Johnny ta me ta tell him about the Easter Bunny. He was AFRAID ta do it hisself. And afterwards, Murdoch comes in and asks if the story upset him. I mean I ask ya, Doc, do YOU think a story about an Easter Bunny would upset Johnny Madrid?”
Sam looked thoughtful. “No, I can’t say as I see that happening.”
Jelly nodded vigorously. “Well Murdoch was REAL worried about that. Kept askin’ me if he was upset. And then I heard that Murdoch hit Johnny yesterday in the house, for no reason.”
“He hit him?” Sam asked in disbelief.
Jelly nodded his head. “Just upped and punched him for no reason and started rantin’ about Bunnies. Now does THAT sound like somebody that ain’t loco?”
Sam shook his head. “I’ll check it out, Jelly. I promise.”
Jelly nodded. “See that ya do. I’m getting’ back ta work. I gotta figure out how ta get a trap I’ve been workin’ on ta work.”
Sam smiled. “What are you trying ta catch?”
Jelly looked at the doctor like HE’D gone crazy. “Well what do ya think? The Easter Bunny. He keeps swiping our eggs.”
Sam was staring at Jelly’s retreating back when Scott came out onto the patio.
“Sam, I need to talk to you privately.”
The doctor sighed. “And who do YOU think is crazy?”
Scott looked at Sam in surprise. “How did you know?”
Sam shook his head. “Lucky guess. Now tell me what’s been going on.”
“Well, you already know about Johnny, he still keeps insisting it was the Easter Bunny that attacked him. And when I talked to him, he was worried because the Bunny wasn’t as friendly as he thought it would be. Then Jelly told me that he was worried that it is going to attack HIM, and tells ME to give the Easter Bunny a message for him. Like I’m his personal friend or something. Now Jelly is insisting he saw the Bunny, too. Jelly and Johnny even agree as to what clothes the creature had on.”
Scott started pacing around the courtyard. “But that’s not all. Murdoch’s been acting strangely, too. He accused Johnny and me yesterday of being Easter Bunnies, and expected us to know all about the Giant bunny with a lavender vest that Jelly had supposedly seen. Murdoch thought that was what was stealing our eggs! And then he punched Johnny.”
Sam pinched the bridge of his nose. “Um hmm. Is that all?”
“Isn’t that enough?” Scott asked.
Sam nodded. “Maybe I’d better go see my patient. Where is he?”
“He’s in his room. Murdoch wouldn’t let him out of bed. He said he didn’t want him to push himself.”
“And this was AFTER he punched him, right?”
Sam got up and headed for the great room. It was only ten A.M., but he desperately needed a drink. As he went through the doors, he spotted Murdoch sitting in his chair with a drink in his hand. Sam immediately turned and tried to sneak back out, but Murdoch looked up. Sam cringed when Murdoch greeted him.
“Sam, you’re just who I need to talk to. I think my whole family’s gone insane.”
Sam looked longingly at the cabinet where the scotch was kept, but with a sigh he went over and sat down in a chair across from Murdoch. “All right, Murdoch, what’s YOUR story?”
“Well, as you know, Johnny STILL thinks he was attacked by a Giant Easter Bunny, and is insisting on trying to track him down for some reason. At first I thought that he had staged the whole thing with Jelly, but now I don’t think so. And Jelly insists HE saw a Giant Bunny raiding the chicken coop. He said it was as tall as he was, and dressed in a purple vest. He says THAT’S what’s been stealing our eggs. He’s out there right now, trying to figure out how to trap it. And Scott INSISTS that he and Johnny had nothing to do with it.” Murdoch gulped down a large swallow of scotch.
Sam felt a definite headache coming on. “And when did you punch Johnny?”
Murdoch shook his head. “That was last night, after I accused him of being the Easter Bunny.”
“And I take it he wasn’t happy about that.”
Murdoch shook his head again. “He asked me how HE could be the Easter Bunny, when I knew that the bunny had attacked him the day before. And he was VERY upset that Jelly had actually tried to shoot whatever it was that he had seen.” Murdoch took another gulp.
“So why did you hit Johnny?”
Murdoch dropped his head and mumbled. “I don’t know. It seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, I don’t want him chasing that darned giant rabbit all over the county.” Murdoch drained his glass.
Sam stared at him. “I think,” he said. “That I’ll go up and talk to my patient.” The doctor turned and marched resolutely toward the liquor cabinet, where he reached down and poured himself a huge glass of scotch.
“Sam,” Murdoch said worriedly. “It’s only ten in the morning.”
Sam took a large swallow then turned around and looked at the glass Murdoch was holding. “And your point is…?”
Murdoch shook his head, and Sam turned around and headed for the stairs. He stopped to take another drink before knocking on Johnny’s door and walking in.
Johnny saw the Doctor and his face lit up. “Hey, Sam, you’re just the person I wanted to see.”
“Don’t tell me, you think you’re family is insane.”
Johnny looked at the Doctor in surprise. “You think so too?” He looked closer at Sam’s hand. “I didn’t know you drank.”
Sam glared at the young man as he took another drink. “I just started.”
The Doctor glared at his patient another second, and then with a sigh, he plopped his bag down on Johnny’s bed. “How do you feel?”
“Fine. I told Murdoch that. In fact, I’ve been tellin’ EVERYBODY that. Why won’t they listen to me? Murdoch usually has me out workin as long as I’m conscious.” He lowered his voice. “That’s what I’m worried about, Sam. He’s bein’ WAY too nice to me.” He bit his bottom lip, “for that matter, so have Scott and Teresa.”
Johnny fiddled with the blanket for a minute before lookin at the Doctor. “Am I gonna die?”
Sam snorted. “Only if you make me mad and don’t do what I say.”
Johnny shrugged. “Then how come everybody’s bein’ so nice?”
Sam looked at Johnny and shook his head. “I have no idea.” He looked in Johnny’s eyes, tested his reflexes, and took his pulse. Finally, he sat on the edge of the bed. “All right, Johnny. You were a little confused the other day when I talked to you. How about if you tell me what happened the day you got knocked out.”
Johnny sighed. “I was out lookin’ for the Easter Bunny. I was getting’ kinda worried that I wouldn’t be able ta find him. But then Barranca started actin’ spooky, and I saw some tracks leadin’ into a bunch of bushes. I knew right away that I’d found him, but I wasn’t really sure how ta go about catchin’ him.” He looked at Sam hopefully. “Do you know how to catch an Easter Bunny?”
Sam shook his head. “I have no idea, how?”
Johnny looked at the Doctor in exasperation. “If I knew, I wouldn’t a asked you.” He shook his head. “Anyway, I got off my horse and was approachin’ the bushes, when all of a sudden this big old bunny in a lavender vest came bounding out and ran right into me. He knocked me down, and I thought he was goin’ ta take off, but instead, he turned and kicked me with those great big feet of his. After that, things got kinda blurry. I think he musta hit me again, and then the next thing I know, Scott’s helpin’ me up.”
“Um hmm,” Sam said thoughtfully. “Johnny, have you been having any dizziness or fainting spells since this happened? Or before, for that matter.”
Johnny shook his head. “I TOLD ya, Sam, I’m fine.”
“Um hmmm.” Sam looked at Johnny piercingly. “Johnny, are you just trying to get out of your role in the upcoming Easter egg hunt?”
Johnny shook his head. “No, Sam, honest. Why would I try ta get out of it? I WANT ta do it. I don’t know why everybody’s makin’ such a big deal about it.”
“Umm hmmm.” Sam shook his head, suddenly decided, and very worried about his patient. “I want you to stay in bed another day at least, and I want you to just relax for at least a week, understand? I think it would be better if you didn’t participate in this weekend’s festivities.”
Johnny’s mouth dropped open. “Come on, Sam, that’s not fair. I told ya I’m fine. And besides, that Bunny made me mad. I’m gonna track it down and catch it if it’s the last thing I do.”
Sam shook his head. “If you want to try to find it, I won’t forbid it. But you take it slow, and make sure you take somebody with you. Deal?”
Johnny sighed. “Deal. As long as it’s not Scott.”
Sam looked at Johnny questioningly. “Why not Scott?”
“I TOLD ya Sam, I think he’s loco. He keeps followin’ me, and askin’ me questions about the Easter Bunny. He won’t leave me alone.”
“All right, I’ll see what I can do about getting Scott off of your tail, and I’m going to talk to Murdoch about this weekend.”
“Thanks, Sam. And be sure and keep an eye on Murdoch and Scott; I think there’s somethin’ wrong with them.”
Sam came downstairs and sat back down across from Murdoch, who hadn’t moved. Sam decided he looked slightly drunk. Murdoch looked up at the Doctor. “Well?”
Sam sighed. “I really don’t know what’s going on with the rest of you, but Johnny STILL thinks he was attacked by the Easter Bunny. I’m hoping that the bump on his head has something to do with it, and he will gradually improve. In the meantime, I want him to take it easy, and I DON”T want you arguing about it or challenging him on it. In fact, I don’t want any of you to bring up the subject at all. If he brings it up, fine, just go along with what he says; humor him. And if he wants to go out for a little while to try and track it down, let him. Maybe if he finds whatever it was that attacked him, he’ll realize that it wasn’t the Easter Bunny that he saw, and it will resolve itself.”
Murdoch looked at Sam worriedly, one thought uppermost in his mind. “What about the Easter egg hunt this week? Will he still be able to be the Easter Bunny?”
“NO!’ I don’t want you to even bring it up. You’ll have to get someone else to do it. If he should suddenly go back to normal, he might be pretty upset about it. I want him to remain calm, and shooting you and Scott DEFINITELY won’t make him calm.”
Murdoch dropped his head and sighed. “All right Sam, and thanks.”
Sam nodded his head. “You’re welcome. And personally, I think ALL of you are crazy.” He turned and headed for the door, and then whirled around and marched back to the sideboard and grabbed a bottle of scotch. Without a word, he turned around and strode resolutely to his buggy.
Murdoch watched the doctor drive off, and then slowly turned and made his way back to his desk. He sat there for a few minutes, thinking about his options, but he realized there was really only one. He went to the liquor cabinet and grabbed two glasses of scotch, and then he went to find Scott. He just hoped he’d be as reasonable about volunteering as his brother had been.
Murdoch walked out to the barn, still carrying the two glasses of scotch. He finally found Scott getting ready to saddle Charlie, and Murdoch looked carefully to make sure his son wasn’t wearing his gun. Scott certainly wasn’t as liable to shoot him as Johnny would be, but it paid to be careful. Murdoch set a glass down on the post next to his son. “Here, Scott, have a drink.”
Scott looked at his father wonderingly. “Why?”
“Because I think you’re going to need one.” Murdoch took a sip of his own scotch. “For that matter, so am I.”
“What’s wrong? Is Johnny OK?”
Murdoch shook his head. “Sam says he’ll probably get better, but for now, your brother still thinks that the Easter Bunny attacked him. Sam says we’re to humor him, and to not bring the subject up unless he does.”
Scott nodded. “I’m sure that he will eventually be back to his old self.”
Murdoch nodded. “So am I….eventually. But for now, Sam says he is to take it easy and not get excited or stressed, at least for a week or so.”
Scott nodded once more, a little more slowly. “I can take over his chores for a while.”
Murdoch brightened appreciably. “You’re willing to take over his responsibilities?”
Scott shrugged again, feeling for some reason that he was about to regret this, and wondering why his father changed the wording of his offer. “Yes, certainly. At least for a couple of weeks,” he said slowly.
Murdoch clapped him on the back. “I’m SO proud of you. I KNEW you wouldn’t let me down.”
Scott stepped back and looked at his father. “It’s not that big of a deal.” He watched his father, whose smile would have lit up the whole ranch. “Is it?” Scott continued doubtfully.
Murdoch picked up Scott’s glass and turned to go back to the house. “Like I said, son, I’m proud of you. And here I was afraid that you’d be upset. By the way, Teresa just got back from the Anderson ‘s and I told her you would be back around three. Is that all right with you?”
Scott nodded. “If it’s important, I can stop work a little early. What does she want?”
Murdoch shrugged vaguely. “Oh, just wants to discuss something she’s making, I believe.”
Scott nodded once again. “I’ll be there.” He threw the saddle on Charlie and led the horse out of the stall. He mounted and looked back at his father as he rode out of the yard. Murdoch was actually humming. Scott felt a niggling sense of doom, but for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
The rest of the day, Scott was too busy to worry about the deal that he’d made with his father, and when two o’clock rolled around, Scott put Cipriano in charge of the project and headed back toward the house. As he rode along, he let his mind wander to the incidents of the last couple of days. He had really been worried about his brother, and was afraid that whatever had attacked him might have caused brain damage.
He had seen the marks that had been left by the creature, and knew his brother had also suffered a pretty hard blow to the head. Sam had said he didn’t think it had been that severe; just a mild concussion, but Scott wasn’t so sure. Johnny just wasn’t acting like himself. However, Scott had to admit that Johnny hadn’t really been acting like himself even before that. He had volunteered to be the Easter Bunny, and that in itself was enough for Scott to have serious doubts about his brother’s mental health.
Of course, Johnny hadn’t really understood at the time just what he was volunteering for. Scott smiled as he recalled his brother’s idea of just what was expected of him. Leave it to Johnny to think that it entailed shooting something.
Scott smiled; he couldn’t believe his brother had been stupid enough to volunteer for something without knowing what it was he had to do. He himself had learned that lesson a long time ago in the army; never volunteer. He had learned that particular lesson the hard way, and he had never been caught like that again. He chuckled. Evidently Johnny hadn’t learned that lesson.
Scott chuckled again; he couldn’t WAIT to see his gunfighter brother dressed up in an Easter Bunny suit with long ears and a tail. He wondered how the costume would look if his brother insisted on wearing his gunbelt, and smiled. Teresa said she would be making the outfit for Johnny to wear this upcoming weekend, and Scott was sure it would be elaborate. He would have to be sure and be there when he tried it on. Watching Johnny stand still for alterations would be almost as much fun as actually seeing him wearing the costume.
Scott chuckled once more. It had been a stroke of genius on his part to contact Heath and Nick Barkley and ask them to attend. He figured he owed his little brother that much for the mess he had gotten Scott into at Christmas time. He couldn’t WAIT to be able to hold the threat of letting Nick know exactly who was in that bunny suit over Johnny’s head. He figured it would be worth at least a couple of month’s worth of chores.
As he got closer to the ranch, he wondered again what Teresa might want. Murdoch said she might want help with something she was making, and the only thing he knew she was working on was the bunny suit. He wondered why Johnny couldn’t help her; after all, HE was the one who would be wearing it this weekend.
Scott froze. This weekend. This very weekend. The weekend that Johnny was supposed to be taking it easy. The weekend that Scott had agreed to take over his brother’s chores. No, the weekend he had stupidly agreed to take over his brother’s RESPONSIBILITIES. Scott shook his head. No, Murdoch wouldn’t. He COULDN’T. That isn’t what Scott meant and Murdoch knew it. He thought back to the drink Murdoch had brought out to the barn and closed his eyes. Murdoch had.
Scott came storming into the hacienda and threw his hat in the general direction of the hat rack. It spun crazily on one of the hooks before finally falling off and rolling along the floor. Scott kicked at it as he walked by and sent it spinning into the corner. He took his gloves out of his belt and slapped them against his leg before turning once more to the hat rack. He thought about hanging his gunbelt up, but after a second’s hesitation, he simply tightened it a notch and walked resolutely into the great room. He figured if he found his father, he was going to need it.
“MURDOCH!!!!” he bellowed.
Teresa had been watching him from the dining room table, and when he yelled she stood up, a piece of fluffy material in her hands, and hurriedly approached him. “Scott, what’s wrong?”
“I’m not sure, but I think there just might be a murder!” Scott went to the stairs and looked up them before returning to the great room and looking under Murdoch’s desk. He turned and walked to the dining room table and looked under that, and then swung the door to the kitchen open. He walked over to the pantry and yanked that open and peered inside. He glowered at Teresa before turning and walking back into the great room to check out the fireplace.
Teresa looked at him with a frightened look. “Who was murdered? And when?”
Scott shot her an angry glare. “Murdoch, that’s who, and as soon as I can get my hands on him, that’s when. Now where is he? I know he’s around here somewhere.”
“MURDOCH!” he bellowed once more.
Teresa shook her head in confusion. “What are you talking about? What’s wrong?”
Scott stopped pacing and glared at Teresa once more. “I intend to commit patricide,” he explained calmly. “And if you’re not sure what that means, it means I am going to murder my father. And just for your information, if YOU had anything to do with this, I just might murder you, too. In fact,” he said evenly, “I just might murder my entire family.”
Teresa looked at him warily. “If I had anything to do with what?”
Scott blew out a breath. “If you had anything to do with the most underhanded, conniving, sneaky, devious, and deceitful trick that I have ever seen.” His voice began to rise. “He KNEW that I didn’t know what he was talking about, and he let me walk blindly into the ambush, and then took off, and now he expects ME to act like a gentleman and just go along with it. He TRICKED me into volunteering. He took advantage of my good nature and MADE me agree to do it. Well I have news for him. As I told him before, I HAVE not ever been nor will I EVER BE an Easter Bunny!”
Teresa stood listening to Scott with her mouth hanging open, and his gaze shifted to the material she was carrying in her hand.
He pointed at the fluffy stuff. “What is THAT?” he ground out through clenched teeth.
Teresa backed up a step and put the material behind her back. “Just some material.”
“And what are you making with it? A dress?” Scott asked innocently.
Teresa watched Scott warily, getting ready to run. “No, I’m making a…. a costume.”
“What KIND of a costume?”
Teresa looked to see where her nearest means of escape was, and then answered sweetly, “An Easter Bunny costume.”
Scott took a step forward. “For whom?” he asked just as sweetly.
Teresa looked up at him nervously and bit her lip. “Well…. Murdoch said that since Johnny was indisposed…and since it was Lancer’s turn …and since…” she hesitated and then looked around for help.
“Go on,” Scott urged. “Tell me what my loving father said. My soon to be deceased loving father.”
“Scott, it wasn’t MY idea, I’m just the one making the costume!!!” she wailed before she turned and ran behind the desk.
“So we’re back to my original question. WHERE IS HE?!!! I can’t kill him if I don’t know where he is!!!!”
Teresa shook his head, deciding at this point it was every man, or woman, for themselves. Murdoch was on his own. “He headed for town, and said he probably wouldn’t be back for dinner.” She hesitated, biting her lip. “In fact, he said he might not make it for breakfast, either.”
Scott blew out a breath. “Of all the…” he looked at Teresa and decided not to finish the thought. At least out loud.
He ran his hand furiously through his hair, and then finally he sighed. “Figures he’d disappear,” he mumbled. “Well, if I can’t kill HIM, where’s my INDISPOSED little brother?”
“Scott, he’s upstairs. And he had nothing to do with it. He kept insisting he WANTED to do it, honest. He doesn’t even know about Murdoch changing the plan. And you know Sam said not to get him upset. He said it might push him over the edge.”
“Yeah, well I might just PUSH him over the edge myself before this is over, that is if I can find one high enough.” Scott rolled his eyes and then shook his head in defeat before sitting down and looking at Teresa. He stared at her for several moments before his eyes narrowed and he looked closer at the material. “It’s PINK,” he said accusingly.
Teresa nodded. “I thought that it wouldn’t get as dirty as white, and it was so Easterish. Besides, I thought it would be cute.”
Scott glared at her another minute before he looked at the dining room table where the rest of the material was laid out. He pointed toward a large mound of fluff. “And what is that, or should I even ask.”
Teresa swallowed hard and said something quietly.
“I can’t hear you. WHAT is it?”
Teresa sighed and stepped back behind the desk. “It’s for your tail.”
Scott looked at her for a second before burying his face in his hands. He knew he should never have left Boston . Grandfather had warned him that something horrible would happen, and now it had. His life was over.
When Johnny came downstairs for dinner that evening, he noticed how quiet it was. Neither Scott nor Teresa were doing much talking. “Where’s Murdoch?” he asked.
Scott glared at his brother. “He went into town,” he ground out. Johnny glanced at Teresa, who nodded.
Johnny shrugged and sat down at the table, noticing all of Scott’s favorite food on the table. It looked like he had somehow lost favor and Teresa was now trying to placate his brother for something.
Johnny dished up his food, and then snuck a glance at Teresa. “What’s wrong?”
Teresa glanced over at Scott, who immediately glared at her and shook his head. “Nothing,” she said.
Johnny looked at his brother. “All right, Scott, what’s goin’ on?”
Scott returned the look. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Are you feeling well today, BROTHER?”
Johnny looked at his brother in confusion. “I’m fine, why?”
“I don’t know, I just wouldn’t want you to strain yourself.”
Johnny shook his head warily. “No, I’m fine. I just decided ta take a nap, that’s all.”
At Scott’s inquiring look, Johnny explained. “Jelly and I thought we’d try ta catch the Easter Bunny tonight. We’re runnin’ outta time.” He looked at Scott hopefully. “Ya want ta join us?”
Johnny looked at Scott worriedly. “Did I do somethin?”
Scott shook his head. “No Johnny, you didn’t do anything. Nothing at all. And you’re not going to do anything. I’M going to have to do it. After all, we wouldn’t want you to get upset, now would we?” Scott pushed away from the table and headed for his room, leaving a very confused Johnny trying to figure out their conversation.
Murdoch snuck quietly into the hacienda several hours later. He crept in through the French doors that led into the great room, and quietly hung his gunbelt on the coat rack. He glanced up the stairs, but decided it was too risky. He’d just have to sleep down here tonight. He couldn’t risk waking Scott up. He walked over to the couch, and then froze as he saw his older son sitting on the sofa staring at him.
“I’m glad you’re home, sir.”
Murdoch tried to smile, but it came out as more of a lopsided leer. “Scott, how are you?”
Scott kept his eyes on his father as Murdoch tried to edge back toward the coat rack and his gunbelt. “I don’t know, how SHOULD I be?”
Murdoch glanced over at the dining room table, and saw bits of pink material in various stages of completion. “I take it everything went well?”
Scott glared at his father, and rued his own earlier decision, made in a moment of regrettable calm, to hang his gunbelt up.
“If you mean the fitting, it went exceedingly well.”
Murdoch looked at his son dubiously, wondering if he was serious. He didn’t have long to wonder as Scott continued. “ I mean, what ELSE would I enjoy doing more than standing on a table and letting Teresa stick pins in me while wrapping me up in pink fluff.” His voice raised in volume. “Of course, the high point of the evening was when she was trying to get the tail attached correctly. I don’t believe, SIR, that I will be doing any riding anytime soon.”
Murdoch tried to suppress a smile. “I’m sorry.”
“Sure you are.” Scott glanced at a paper Murdoch held in his hands. “What’s that?”
Murdoch bit his lip as he studied his son. “It’s a ….telegram.” He looked at the stairway in longing.
Scott’s eyes narrowed. “From whom?”
Murdoch shrugged and cast a last yearning glance at the stairs. “From Nick Barkley… Scott, I don’t know WHO invited them, it wasn’t me, honest.” He stepped behind the desk in a movement reminiscent of Teresa.
Scot shut his eyes and shook his head. He had forgotten about asking them. “I assume they’re coming?” he asked in resignation.
Murdoch nodded his head.
Scott sighed. “If you tell ANYONE, let alone those two, what I am doing, I will go back to Boston on the first stage, is that clear?”
Murdoch nodded quickly. “Don’t worry no one will find out.” He looked worried for a moment. “Did you warn Teresa and your brother?”
Scott pulled himself up straighter. “Oh yes, I warned Teresa. Believe me, she WON’T say anything.”
“What about your brother?”
Scott glared again at his father. “Johnny doesn’t know, nor will he, if you know what’s good for you.”
Murdoch shrugged. “Do you think you can keep it a secret from him? Didn’t he see the fitting?”
Scott shook his head. “No, he was upstairs taking a nap.”
Murdoch looked perplexed. “A nap? Johnny?”
Scott nodded. “Yes, after all, he has to be wide awake for tonight. He and Jelly are going to try to catch the Easter Bunny. Now if you’ll excuse me, Sir, I think I will retire.” Scott turned and stalked up the stairs, leaving Murdoch once more heading for the liquor cabinet.
That night, Johnny waited until everyone else in the house was asleep, and then cautiously made his way downstairs. He snuck out of the house and crept to the barn. He saw a glimmer of light coming from Jelly’s room, and walked over to where the older man stayed. He peeked in, and saw Jelly oiling his shotgun. “Are ya ready?” Johnny asked.
Jelly nodded. “Yep.” He reached down and picked up his gun.
“Jelly, come on. Ya know we can’t shoot it. We need him alive.”
Jelly stuck his chin out stubbornly. “I saw them marks on ya, boy. If’n that thing tries anything like that again, I don’t care if he IS the Easter Bunny, he’s gonna get a load a buckshot.”
Johnny smiled. “OK. Just don’t shoot unless ya have to. We don’t want ta make him mad.”
Jelly nodded. “I been watchin’ the henhouse, but I ain’t seen nothin’. I set those traps around, but nothin’s bothered them, either.”
Johnny sighed. “I didn’t figure it’d be easy, but we gotta come up with somethin, we only got one more day.”
Johnny followed Jelly out of the barn, and went over to a blind made of hay bales. The two men sank down inside the small area and got ready to wait.
Sometime in the middle of the night, Murdoch bolted out of bed as his window shattered once again and the sound of a shotgun reverberated through the night. He walked cautiously to the window and peered out, catching snatches of excited conversation floating up from the two men below. “Easter and Bunny” were two of the words he caught the most. He shook his head and was turning back toward the bed when a movement on the slope behind the house caught his eye. He watched in disbelief for a moment, and then the bottle of scotch he had on the table went flying out the window and he crawled resolutely back into bed.
“Did ya see it?” Jelly asked Johnny excitedly.
“Yeah, Jelly, I saw it. But I TOLD ya not ta shoot unless ya had to. Now I gotta fix Murdoch’s window all over again.”
“Well, if ya hadn’t a yelled like that, I might not a gotten excited,” the old man said, as he hopped around.
“Well, I TRIED nudging’ you, but you was sound asleep.” Johnny shook his head. “Come on, we gotta try ta track it.”
The two men went to the barn to collect their horses, which were saddled and waiting. Then they slowly made their way up the hillside where they had last seen the elusive bunny. Johnny shone his lantern on the ground and caught sight of some huge prints and trampled vegetation marking the passing of the creature. He looked over at Jelly and grinned.
They followed the tracks up the hill and down the other side, thankful for the bright moonlight. It was difficult going, because the animal seemed to have an affinity for thorn bushes. After mounting and dismounting a dozen times in order to check out the bushes, Johnny and Jelly finally gave up trying to ride. They dismounted and followed the tracks on foot. The tracks wound around the hill, meandering back and forth as the animal tried to decide which way to go.
Finally, the tracks led into a gigantic blackberry thicket. Johnny reached up and grabbed a piece of fur that had caught on a bramble and showed it to Jelly.
“That’s Easter bunny fur for sure!” The old man declared.
Johnny walked around the thicket to see if the bunny had gone out the other side. He looked around carefully, but he couldn’t find any tracks. He circled and came back to where Jelly was waiting. “He’s still in there,” he declared. He peered into the tangle to see if he could see anything, but it was too dense to see more than a foot or so inside.
Jelly blew out his cheeks. “All right, how’re we gonna get him out?”
Johnny shrugged. “I guess you’ll have ta go in and chase him out, and then I’ll lasso him.”
“ME? Why don’t YOU go in there and chase him out?”
“Because, Jelly, YOU can’t use a rope, and you know it.”
Jelly patted his shotgun and said stubbornly. “I don’t need no rope.”
Johnny shook his head. “Come on Jelly. You KNOW I have ta get him alive. You want me ta bring a dead Easter bunny into town for all the kids? It’s just a poor little Easter bunny. Now how would that look? Besides, you’re shorter than I am. You can get through that tangle better than I can.”
Jelly glared at Johnny for a moment, and then grudgingly put down his gun. “All right, but you’re gonna owe me. And if that overgrown bucktoothed piece a stew meat gets me, I’m gonna come back and haunt you, MISTER Lancer.”
Johnny grinned. “Deal. Besides, you don’t want the whole town ta know you’re afraid of a little old Easter bunny now do ya?” When Jelly glared at him, Johnny continued. “Now all ya gotta do is go in there and make enough noise ta chase him out the other side.” He grinned again. “Shouldn’t be hard for you.”
Johnny swung up on Barranca as Jelly gave him one more glare and then the old man started moving cautiously through the brush.
Johnny waited impatiently on the other side, following Jelly’s progress through the thorn thicket by the man’s curses and yips of pain. Johnny smiled. Jelly was makin’ enough noise for three men; he’d spook that old bunny for sure. Johnny smiled to himself; at least he wasn’t going to get all torn up by them thorns. He sure was glad he was smart enough to have convinced Jelly to go in there.
All of a sudden, Barranca swung toward a loud crashing in the bushes. Johnny got his rope ready, and then suddenly the creature came jumping out, heading right toward him. Johnny threw his loop and it settled easily over the animal’s head. Johnny had a moment to smile, and then the Easter bunny took off down the hill, and Johnny turned Barranca in the direction of the fleeing rabbit. The bunny took a couple more hops, but then it hit the end of the rope and jumped up in the air and flipped around.
Barranca snorted as the creature bounded straight for him once again. The horse tried to take off, but Johnny had a firm hold on the reins as he desperately tried to loop the rope around the saddle horn.
He had almost succeeded in his attempt when the bunny launched itself at Barranca and landed nearly on top of Johnny. Barranca had had enough; he started bucking furiously, desperate to get rid of the monster. Johnny managed to hold on to the rope for a moment, but then the bunny jumped down and took off back into the tangle of thorns. Johnny lost his grip on the rope and it went sliding through his fingers as he tried frantically to keep his seat on the furiously bucking horse.
Jelly finally pushed his way through the last of the brush just in time to see the rope go sliding past him. He reached out and looped it around his arms, and then watched in open- mouthed amazement at the bucking horse and crazily bouncing rider. He watched for another second and laughed, thinking Johnny didn’t look so uppity now, and glad he wasn’t the one on the horse. The next moment, the rope suddenly tightened, and Jelly went skidding back into the brush.
As Jelly disappeared back into the blackberry bushes, Barranca gave one final buck, sending Johnny soaring gracefully through the air to land right in the middle of the blackberry patch. Luckily, his fall was broken by the tangle of thorns.
Johnny lay dazed for a moment, and then looked up into the scratched and stunned face of his friend. Jelly didn’t bother sitting up as he reached over and plucked a blackberry out of Johnny’s ear. “Well so much for not hurtin’ the poor little creature. What’s your next plan?”
Murdoch heard Johnny come back to his room just before dawn and thought about checking on him, but he figured if his son had been successful in his quest, he would have known. In fact, he was sure the whole valley would have known.
At the breakfast table that morning, Johnny and Jelly were both conspicuously absent. While Teresa cleared the table and got ready to put the final touches on Scott’s Easter Bunny’s costume, Murdoch went to check on Johnny. He figured he’d have a better chance of finding out what had happened during the night from his son rather than the grumpy old man.
Murdoch walked up the stairs and knocked on Johnny’s door. When he didn’t receive an answer, he opened the door and peered in. Johnny was sprawled on top of his bed, with one boot on and one off. His shirt was untucked and partially unbuttoned, and he looked for all the world like a worn out toddler. Murdoch stepped closer and noticed some deep scratches and numerous cuts on his arms and chest. He bent over and moved Johnny’s face toward him and saw that he had scratches there, too.
Johnny came awake as his father moved his head, and he sat up blinking. “What’s wrong?”
Murdoch looked sternly at his son. “You tell me. Where did you get all those cuts?”
Johnny lowered his eyes and shrugged. “I’m OK. Barranca tossed me into a blackberry tangle.”
Murdoch’s eyebrows went up. “And why did he do that?”
Johnny sighed. “Cause he was tryin’ ta get away from the Easter bunny.”
Murdoch closed his eyes and shook his head.
“It wasn’t his fault. He was fine till the bunny attacked him.”
“And WHY did the bunny attack him? Murdoch asked quietly.
Johnny shrugged. “I guess ‘cause I roped it.” He looked up at Murdoch. “Didn’t know he was gonna be so fast.”
Murdoch reached down and pulled the blanket up around Johnny’s shoulders. “I want you to go back to sleep, and I want you to stay in bed all day today.”
Johnny bolted up. ‘I can’t. I’ve got ta catch that bunny! Besides, it shouldn’t be too hard now; with any luck it’s still wearin’ my rope.”
Murdoch couldn’t resist. “Along with a purple vest?’
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, and the hat. I think the hat’s probably off by now, though. It was lookin’ pretty shabby this last time I saw him.”
Murdoch looked at him skeptically. “A hat?”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, it was pink and purple, and it had a flower stickin’ out of it.”
Murdoch stood up. “Just rest, Johnny. That’s an order! I don’t want you up at all today. Hopefully you’ll feel better soon.” He patted Johnny’s hand.
Murdoch walked downstairs, worried that his younger son might have some rare disease, or possibly brain damage, but when he looked up and saw Scott standing on the table with the Easter bunny suit on, he couldn’t help but laugh. Teresa turned toward her guardian. “How do you think it looks?”
“Just beautiful, honey,” he smirked through his chuckles. Murdoch pointed to some more material on the table. “What’s that?”
“THAT is material I need to make a mask with. Scott REFUSED to do this unless I made sure no one would recognize him.” She shook her head in exasperation.
Murdoch laughed. “Good thinking, son.”
Scott ignored his father’s compliment. “When are Nick and Heath coming?”
“They said in their telegram that they’d meet us there tomorrow morning.”
Scott glared at his father. “All right, it’s up to you and Teresa to get this costume into town without anyone seeing it, including Heath, Nick, Jelly, and ESPECIALLY Johnny. Once we’re in town, I’ll slip away and find a nice, private place to change. And I’m warning you, if EITHER one of you let it slip just WHO the Easter Bunny is, I WILL kill you. Is that understood?”
Teresa and Murdoch nodded before bursting into laughter.
“What’s so funny?” Scott asked suspiciously.
“We’ll do our best, son.” Murdoch finally replied. “Although you really don’t look very intimidating right now.”
Scott glared at Teresa. “Would you PLEASE get this tail off of me?”
Later that evening, Johnny snuck out to the barn. Tomorrow was Easter Morning, and he HAD to get the bunny tonight. It was his last chance. As he passed Jelly’s room, he heard loud snoring. He thought about waking the old man up to help him, but he really did feel guilty about Jelly’s numerous scratches and bruises. He’d just have to handle it on his own. He went over to Barranca’s stall and quietly saddled the Palomino and then led him into the yard. He grabbed a lantern off a post, and then mounted Barranca and rode out toward the blackberry patch.
The next morning, Easter Morning, Murdoch, Scott, and Teresa got ready to leave. Much to Murdoch’s frustration, Johnny had obviously gone back out to hunt his elusive quarry. Murdoch thought about going after him, but there wasn’t time if they were to get to town on time. He’d talk to Sam today, and see what he suggested. He just hoped whatever was wrong with his son could be fixed.
An hour later they were on their way. Murdoch had gone to Jelly’s room and knocked, but the irascible old man had begged off, saying he wanted to sleep in, and that he’d be along later. As they got closer to town, Murdoch saw signs advertising a circus that was going to join the festivities and give a performance later that day. There were signs every few feet, advertising various acts. Murdoch studied them with interest; it had been at least ten years since he had seen a circus, and he thought that the whole family just might enjoy it.
Suddenly, he pulled back hard on the reins. Scott and Teresa looked at him in confusion. “What’s wrong? Scott asked.
Murdoch shook his head. “No,” he whispered.
“No, what?” Scott asked.
Murdoch pointed at one of the signs. “Look!”
Scott studied it for a moment. “You don’t suppose…” He looked at his father.
Murdoch nodded. “I think,” he said, “that we just found Johnny’s Easter bunny.”
The sign read:
For return of valuable boxing
Wearing vest and hat
Contact: Bill Meyers,
Meyers Brothers Circus
Scott looked at the picture of the animal under the sign and turned to his father. “Does this mean that since Johnny is no longer insane, he gets to play the Easter bunny now?”
Teresa turned on him furiously. “Scott Lancer, is THAT all you’re worried about?”
Scott nodded. “Yes,” he said simply.
Murdoch shook his head. “Son, I don’t even know where Johnny is, and we certainly don’t have time to go looking for him,” he told his glaring son.
Finally Scott sighed. “All right, but I’m warning you, if ANYONE finds out…” he let the sentence hang. He looked around as they rode into town, looking for a nice quiet place to change his clothes. Just as they turned a corner on to the main street, a familiar voice called out, “Hey Mister Lancer! Hold up!”
Murdoch noticed that his son didn’t even turn around or acknowledge the greeting, but simply closed his eyes and muttered something unintelligible. After glancing at his irritable son, Murdoch spoke up. “Nick! Heath! It’s good to see you. How’s your mother?”
“She’s just fine!” Nick boomed. He glared at Scott for a second before finally managing a small smile. “Hey, Scott, you stayin’ out of trouble?” He smirked, and then glanced around. “Where’s Johnny? Gone, I hope!”
Scott looked up at his friend resignedly. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know WHERE my brother is, but he’s probably out chasing the Easter bunny.”
Nick nodded. “As long as he’s not around me, we’ll get along just fine. That goes for you, too.” He stopped and thought a moment. “You said he’s out chasing an Easter Bunny?” Nick asked dubiously.
Heath laughed. “He probably is. Especially if she’s cute!”
Scott glared at him. “And WHAT makes you think that the Easter bunny is a GIRL? I happen to KNOW that the Easter bunny is a BOY!”
Heath held up both hands. “OK, OK, whatever you say.” He turned toward Murdoch. “What’s wrong with him?”
Murdoch shrugged innocently. “I have no idea.” He took another look at his disgruntled son. “Well, if you’ll excuse us, we have a few errands to run. We’ll see you boys later.” Murdoch slapped the reins down on the back of the team and drove down the street. When they reached Sam’s office, he pulled the team to a halt. “All right, Scott. I figure this would be a nice safe place to change. We’ll meet you over by the school in a few minutes.”
Scott sat there for another minute before resigning himself to his fate. He reached back and got the bag holding the costume from Teresa, and threw it onto the sidewalk in front of the doctor’s office, then slowly climbed down.
“Do you need any help getting the costume on?” Teresa asked.
Scott turned around and glared at her. “No,” he said icily. “I think I can manage it all…. by.. my…self. Now if you’ll excuse me…” he stomped into Sam’s office.
Sam looked up in surprise at his unexpected visitor. “Scott! What are you doing here? No one’s hurt, are they?”
“Not yet,” Scott ground out. “Do you have a place where I can change?”
The doctor chuckled. “I guess Murdoch talked you into being the Easter Bunny after all.”
Scott turned toward the doctor and glared. “Sam, I feel like you’re one of the family, so I’m going to tell you the same thing I told them. If you breathe ONE word of this to ANYONE, including my mentally defective brother, I will kill you. SLOWLY!”
Sam held up his hand. “Your secret’s safe with me. I think it must fall somewhere under the Hippocratic Oath.”
Scott nodded. “Good. Because I’d really hate to have to kill you. Now don’t just stand there, help me get this stupid suit on.”
Johnny finally tracked the elusive creature back to the blackberry tangle. He rode all the way around the jumble of bushes, and made sure that there were no new tracks leading out. Then he sat on Barranca, trying to figure out how to get the bunny out without tearing himself up further. He rode around again, trying to come up with a plan, when he noticed something tangled in the bushes. He got down off of Barranca for a closer look.
He approached the bushes cautiously, remembering how the animal had attacked him the first time. Slowly he got closer, and then he reached down and grabbed the end of the rope that was intertwined among some bushes. He started to pull on it, and then stopped and considered. After thinking for a moment, he walked over to Barranca and led him back to the rope, and then tied the end of the rope to the saddle horn.
He reached up and undid a second rope he had brought with him and stepped back a few feet away from the bushes. Taking a deep breath, he clucked to his horse, urging him forward. Barranca took a tentative step away from the tangle of thorns, and then another. The rope caught for a moment, but the horse kept moving, and finally it came loose with a pop.
Johnny got the loop ready, and stood waiting to cast his rope when the bunny finally appeared. He urged his horse forward another step, and suddenly the creature exploded out of the bushes and launched himself at Barranca. Before he could reach the nervous horse, however, Johnny cast his loop expertly over the bunny’s shoulders.
As Johnny’s rope tightened, the animal swung around toward his captor, but by then the well-trained cow pony had turned to face the animal and was backing slowly away, keeping the rope tight. Johnny tightened his rope, effectively keeping the animal immobilized. Johnny stood staring at the creature, who was still wearing the lavender vest, although the hat had finally disappeared. Johnny noticed the animal’s tail wasn’t anything like any rabbit’s he had ever seen, but what the heck; he’d never seen a bunny this big before, either.
The kangaroo struggled for several moments, kicking out with his hind feet in Johnny’s direction each time the man moved. Finally he stood regarding his human captor with contempt and grinding his teeth in anger. Johnny stared back, wondering just how the heck he was going to get this homicidal Easter Bunny into town without getting himself killed.
Sam helped Scott into the costume and gingerly applied the tail as Scott tried not to say anything he’d regret. Sam gave the tail one last pat and then stepped back to admire the effect. “Teresa sure outdid herself this time.”
“The kids sure are going to be tickled to death to see a real, live Easter Bunny.”
“You should be proud of yourself, doing something so noble for the kids.”
Scott turned and glared at the Doctor. “Sam?”
Sam nodded in understanding. “All right, have fun.” The doctor turned and started to disappear into his inner office and then poked his head around the corner once more. “By the way, how’s Johnny?”
Scott glared at the doctor for a second before opening his mouth. He was just getting ready to reply when he decided that there WAS a slight chance that someday he just might need Sam’s services, and with a superhuman effort, his mouth shut with a snap. He gave the doctor one last glare before marching out of the door.
Scott made his way over to the schoolhouse, resisting ducking into the shadows. He figured nobody would know who he was anyway. He got several appreciative smiles from the ladies, and some awed looks and giggles from the kids. He tried very hard not to notice the disbelieving looks from the men, and told himself that he would never have to do this again, and at LEAST no one could possibly recognize him.
After what seemed like hours, Scott finally arrived at the schoolhouse. Murdoch and Teresa were inside, where they had piled a bunch of colored eggs and candies in a big pink basket. He glared at Teresa one more time. “What IS IT with you and pink, anyway?” Teresa just shrugged, and with a sigh of resignation, Scott picked up the basket and hooked it over his arm.
“All right, Scott. Are you sure you know what to do?” Teresa asked worriedly.
“It’s not that hard,” came the muffled reply. “I just walk out there and mingle with the kids as a few games are played, and then when the games are over, you’ll give me a signal, and I’ll start passing out the goodies. Then after everything’s out of my basket, I go to the saloon and get drunk.”
Teresa nodded dubiously. “Just remember to take off your costume; we wouldn’t want the children to think the Easter Bunny’s a lush.”
“Oh don’t worry. This costume’s coming off so fast it will make your head spin. And when I’m done, you will be able to find it in Sam’s trash bin.” He took a deep breath, then turned and marched out of the door.
“Jelly, Jelly, wake up. I got him!” Johnny shook the old man one more time. “Come on, Jelly, I need your help.”
Jelly batted Johnny’s hand away. “Go away, I’m takin’ a nap.”
“JELLY! I caught the Easter Bunny! Now COME ON!”
The old man sat up straight as the words finally registered. “Ya CAUGHT him?”
Johnny nodded, and Jelly grabbed his clothes and started pulling them on.
“I’m gonna hitch up the wagon,” Johnny called over his shoulder as he ran out of Jelly’s room.
A half of an hour later, Johnny pulled the wagon to a halt several feet away from a small oak tree. Trussed securely to the tree was the elusive Easter Bunny. When the men approached, the kangaroo tried desperately to kick at them, but he soon realized he was trapped and settled for viciously grinding his teeth. The two men watched him for a minute or two, and then climbed down off the wagon and cautiously approached.
“How in tarnation didja catch him?” Jelly asked in admiration.
Johnny smiled. “He was still wearin’ the rope. I tied the end of that one to Barranca, and then when he came out, I lassoed him again.”
Jelly gave a long low whistle. “He sure looks awful mad.”
Johnny nodded worriedly. “I know. I’ve been thinkin’ about that. I sure hope he likes kids better than he likes us.”
Jelly shrugged. “Maybe he just doesn’t like you ‘cause you’re the one that captured him.”
Johnny shook his head. “I sure hope that’s it.” He watched the angry creature another minute, and then finally took a deep breath. “Well, come on. Help me get him into the wagon.”
Jelly looked at Johnny in wonder. “And just how do ya figure we’re gonna do that?
Johnny looked hopefully at the old man. “You don’t have any ideas? After all, I’M the one that caught him.”
Jelly shook his head, “Nope, and I ain’t goin’ near those big clodhoppers of his.”
Johnny stared at the animal for a few moments. “It sure woulda been a lot easier if I coulda just shot it.”
Jelly nodded his head in agreement.
Nick and Heath decided to get a couple of cold beers at the saloon while they waited for the adult festivities to begin.
“I wonder where Johnny is,” Heath mused.
“Why would you possibly care?” Nick growled. “I don’t care WHERE he is, as long as he’s not around me.”
“What about Scott?” Heath asked.
Nick shook his head. “I don’t want HIM around me, either. I don’t care WHAT you say, those two boys are loco.”
Heath laughed. “They probably say that about us.”
Nick glared at his brother. “I have NEVER killed a friend’s saddle. Or their Christmas tree, for that matter. I have NEVER gotten arrested for murder just for trying to buy a book or some perfume, and I have NEVER totally destroyed my own house.
Heath reluctantly nodded. “Yeah, I guess.”
Nick looked out the window and shook his head. “And I have NEVER EVER dressed up like the Easter Bunny.”
Heath squinted out the window. “You think that’s Johnny?” he asked in disbelief.
Nick shook his head as he took another sip. “Nope, Scott.”
Heath looked out the window one more time and finally laughed as Scott marched down the street, his military bearing announcing to the whole town exactly WHO the Easter Bunny really was.
Johnny kept looking behind him in disbelief, not able to trust that he had really captured the creature. Jelly had been jabbering non-stop since they left the ranch about how they would be heroes and how he expected Johnny to buy him a beer for his part in the capture. Johnny had thought about asking the old man what part he meant, but wisely decided to keep his mouth shut.
He supposed Jelly HAD helped him to get the obstinate animal into the wagon. Johnny had been kicked repeatedly while trying to subdue it, and Jelly had hollered encouragement from the safety of the wagon seat, but when Johnny finally got it close, Jelly had at least kept the terrified team from bolting.
Johnny still wasn’t sure bringing this temperamental creature into town was such a good idea. For some reason, he just couldn’t quite picture the cantankerous animal as being very good with kids.
As they neared town, Johnny suddenly pulled the wagon to a halt. Jelly was still talking, and never noticed that they had stopped. “I’m tellin’ ya Johnny, We’re gonna be the talk of the town when we come in with the Easter bunny! People are gonna come for miles around ta get a look at this thing. Why they just may decide ta give us a medal!”
Johnny turned and looked at the old man. “Jelly, what’s a kangaroo?” he asked quietly.
Jelly looked at Johnny with a perplexed look. “A kanga what?”
Johnny pointed at a sign tacked up on a tree next to the road. “A kangaroo.”
Jelly squinted sat the sign for a moment, and then looked in the back of the wagon at the thoroughly trussed bunny. He looked at Johnny, and then back at the poster before taking one more thoroughly confused look at the back of the wagon. “A kangaroo?” he asked doubtfully. Maybe that’s some foreign word for Easter Bunny.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t think so.” He set the brake and then turned and looked at the old man accusingly. “I THOUGHT you said you’d seen an Easter bunny before.”
Jelly nodded nervously. “Shore I did.” At Johnny’s continued silence, Jelly said nervously, “at least I think so.”
“What do you mean, you THINK so?”
Jelly looked around trying to figure out where he could seek shelter from the explosion that he was sure would come any minute. “Well, I THINK it was the Easter Bunny that I saw. I was pretty young at the time.”
Johnny glared at his friend. “Just HOW young?”
“About four,” Jelly mumbled.
“Four,” Johnny repeated.
“Uh huh,” Jelly said sincerely. “But I was a real bright kid.”
“Uh huh.” Johnny kept his eyes locked on the man. “All right, Jelly. Out with it.”
“Out with what?” Jelly asked innocently.
Johnny fingered his holster. “Just WHAT were you supposed ta tell me about the Easter Bunny that had Murdoch so scared ?”
Jelly looked around nervously. “I don’t know. He just said for me ta explain to ya about the Easter Bunny. He didn’t go into specifics.”
“And just WHY was he such a chicken, and WHAT were you supposed ta explain to me?”
“Honest Johnny, I don’t know.”
Johnny took a deep breath as he fingered his holster once more. “OK. Why don’t we start at the beginning,” he said softly.
Jelly nodded nervously.
“Tell me what you know about the Easter Bunny.”
“Well, it’s somethin’ like Santa Claus; only it brings kids eggs and candy on Easter mornin’ instead of toys at Christmas.”
Johnny froze. “Like Santa Claus? As in not real?”
Jelly shrugged his shoulders and stuck his chin out belligerently. “Well, I guess that just kinda depends on what you believe,” he hedged.
“Jelly!” Johnny threatened.
With a sigh, Jelly shrugged again. “I guess I sorta left that part out, huh?”
“If you KNEW this wasn’t the Easter Bunny, WHY did you go along with it?”
Jelly looked embarrassed. “I thought that maybe I’d been wrong. That maybe he WAS real.” Jelly turned and looked at the hogtied kangaroo. “I mean, it REALLY looks like an Easter Bunny. It’s even wearin’ a purple vest.”
Johnny dropped his head and sighed. “And here I was tellin’ everybody I was gonna catch the Easter Bunny.” He shuddered as he thought how close he’d come to going into town and trying to get Val to help him. “Is that why everybody was so nice ta me? Cause they thought I was crazy?”
Jelly cautiously nodded. “Probably. But don’t worry, the rest of ‘em REALLY ARE crazy. Just ask Sam.”
Johnny put his face in his hands for a moment before looking at the poster again. “Well at least this thing’s worth a hundred bucks.” Johnny turned his head suddenly and looked at Jelly. “If Murdoch knows there’s no such thing, why did he ask me ta catch it?” he asked suspiciously.
Jelly looked at Johnny sympathetically. “I don’t think he wanted you ta CATCH an Easter Bunny. I kinda think he wanted you to BE one.”
“Be one?” Johnny asked in disbelief.
Jelly nodded. “Lotsa times somebody dresses up like an Easter Bunny ta give out candy and stuff to the kids.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “And Murdoch wanted me ta do that?”
Jelly nodded cautiously.
“My own father?” Johnny asked incredulously. “What did I ever do to him?”
“I don’t know, but you better thank your lucky stars that Sam thought you were crazy.”
Johnny finally laughed. “Murdoch musta been really upset when Sam told him ta make me rest and not let me participate. I think I owe Sam a drink – or two, since he’s taken up the habit. By the way, who DID Murdoch get ta be a bunny?”
Jelly shrugged. “I don’t have the faintest idea. But you can bet it wasn’t him.”
“No,” Johnny said thoughtfully. I don’t think Murdoch would like bein’ an Easter Bunny very much at all. Why I bet he’d be downright cranky if he had ta do it when he thought he’d gotten me ta volunteer.”
He looked at the poster once more. “Come on, Jelly. Let’s go collect the reward and go into town. Maybe we can figure out just who the Easter Bunny is.”
Johnny found Mr. Meyers at the circus lot on the outskirts of town. The man was thrilled to death to get his valuable animal back, and gave Johnny the one hundred dollar reward with no hesitation. He looked dubiously at the animal in the back of the wagon. “You caught him all by yourself?” he asked incredulously.
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, and it sure wasn’t easy. That thing’s a menace.”
Mr. Meyers nodded in agreement. “That’s what makes him so valuable. He’ll take on anybody and come out ahead.”
Johnny grinned. “Not this time.”
Mr. Meyers nodded. “This is one time I’m glad he lost. We’ll be glad to get him back. He makes us a lot of money.”
“Ya mean that varmint really knows how ta box?” Jelly chimed in.
The circus man nodded. “Yes, and he’s undefeated.” He looked at Johnny. “At least he was,” he said smiling.
Johnny pointed at the animal. “Just go ahead and get him outta the wagon and we’ll be on our way. Oh, and we’ll need those ropes back before we go. He has my good lariat around him.”
“All right, hang on and I’ll get some help.” Mr. Meyers called for a couple of roustabouts to come get the kangaroo out of the back of the wagon. The men lifted him out gingerly and walked him over to a nearby wagon that had a large cage on it. They carried him inside and started to untangle the ropes from around the animal.
When he was completely free, the kangaroo still lay quietly on the floor of the cage. The circus man turned and glared at Johnny. “What did you do to him?”
Johnny shrugged. “Nothin”. Just roped him and put him in the wagon.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “You didn’t hurt him?”
“Hurt HIM? More like the other way around. I have bruises where I didn’t even know I could HAVE bruises. That thing kicks like a mule, and he’s darn lucky I don’t have a temper, or he woulda gotten himself shot.”
Mr. Meyers was just opening his mouth to answer when one of the roustabouts nudged the prone animal with his foot. The kangaroo shot to his feet and knocked the man over before leaping madly over the head of the other man who stood on the ground next to the cage door. Mr. Meyers made a frantic leap at the escaping animal, and received a swift kick in the stomach for his efforts.
Both Johnny’s and Jelly’s mouths dropped open as the animal bounded off in the direction of town. It took Mr. Meyers a full minute of gasping to pump enough air into his lungs to be able to speak, but finally he managed to utter an extremely descriptive oath. He then threw his hat on the ground and stomped on it. “I’ll give you another hundred dollars to CATCH THAT *&%$#* KANGAROO!!” he wheezed.
Jelly immediately grabbed his shotgun from the seat of the wagon and dashed off in mad pursuit.
“NO!” Mr. Meyers yelled. “I want him ALIVE!”
“He will be!” Jelly called over his shoulder as he ran down the street after the bounding kangaroo.
The circus man looked at Johnny. “Aren’t you going to help catch him?”
“Nope. Once is enough. I ain’t getting’ near that overgrown demented rabbit again.”
“But your friend is going to kill him!”
Johnny grinned. “Nah, Old Jelly’d have ta be right on top of him for that ta happen. And believe me, Jelly ain’t gonna get that close. He’s got that old scatter- gun loaded with birdshot. It’ll smart real good, but it won’t do any permanent damage.
Mr. Meyers watched dubiously as the kangaroo hopped toward the center of town and then turned back toward Johnny. “If you say so.”
Johnny smiled. “Believe me, your kangaroo is safe.” He turned and watched as Jelly disappeared around the corner of a building, and then Johnny sauntered in the direction of the saloon. He definitely needed a drink.
As he got closer, Johnny noticed that a bunch of females and kids had apparently taken over the town, and he hurriedly made his way to the sanctuary of the bar.
He walked into the bar and saw that most of the male population was crowded into the saloon, apparently with the same intent as Johnny. He looked around as he entered, and was surprised to see Nick and Heath sitting at a corner table, but was even more surprised to see Sam sitting in the opposite corner. He hesitated for a second and watched the doctor, but Sam apparently hadn’t noticed him. He made sure the safety was off of his gun, and then cautiously approached the two cowboys. “Hey Heath, Nick. How’re you doin’?”
Nick looked up with a scowl. “Just fine until now.”
Heath jumped up and grabbed Johnny’s arm. “Come on, don’t listen to him; he’s just a grouch. Sit down and have a drink.”
Johnny sat down cautiously, keeping an eye on Nick the whole time. “What’re you two doin’ in town?”
Heath shrugged. “Scott invited us to come join the festivities.”
“Yeah,” Nick growled. And that’s just what I think I’ll do.” He jumped up and headed for the door.
Heath shrugged at Johnny and offered him a beer. Johnny looked around expectantly. “Where is Scott, anyway?”
Heath smirked. “He’s right out there, with all the kiddies.”
“Where? I don’t see him,” Johnny replied as he looked out the window at the dozens of kids playing a game.
Heath smiled. “He’d the one wearing the tail.”
Johnny’s mouth dropped open, and he glanced at Heath before looking closer at the pink bunny. “THAT’S my brother?”
“I don’t think I’d admit that if I were you,” Heath said.
Johnny shook his head. “Believe me, I won’t.” Johnny looked around the crowded saloon; most of the men had come in to get away from all of the women and children milling around outside. “And keep your voice down, I don’t want anyone else ta know I’m related to the Easter Bunny.”
Heath chuckled. “It’s too late for that, the whole town knows.”
Johnny looked closer at the figure outside and knew it was true; there wasn’t a person in town that couldn’t know that was Scott. He closed his eyes. His life was ruined; his reputation shattered. Johnny Madrid’s brother was the Easter Bunny.
Jelly skidded to a halt just outside the livery stable. He had seen the creature’s tail disappear inside just as he rounded the corner, and now he approached the door cautiously. He had seen what the animal had done to Johnny, and he was taking no chances. If that thing even came near him, he was going to shoot first and ask questions later. He poked his head around the corner and saw the kangaroo in one corner, calmly munching on some grain. Jelly realized that was probably what the animal had been after when they’d caught it in the chicken pen.
Jelly eased back, and thought about what to do. The livery appeared deserted; everyone was probably in the center of town enjoying the festivities, but HE was going to get one hundred dollars. He peeked back around, and saw the animal hop toward the stalls. Fingering the trigger, he cautiously made his way into the darkened barn.
Suddenly, the animal came bounding right toward him, and Jelly brought the gun around and pulled the trigger. The roar of the blast was as loud as Nick’s roar of pain a split second later. Jelly’s aim was, if anything, consistent. Nick immediately grabbed his backside and turned toward his attacker. Jelly took one look at Nick’s face, and decided that staying in town was really not an option. For that matter, staying in the country wasn’t an option, either. He dropped his scattergun and ran, yelling bloody murder.
“YOU COME BACK HERE, RIGHT NOW!!!!!!” Nick bellowed, and then he took out after the rapidly disappearing Jelly.
After several drinks, Johnny was gradually coming to terms with his humiliation of having the Easter Bunny for a brother. He had just called for another drink when a commotion started outside. He heard kids screaming and a few women shouting, and the men in the saloon crowded toward the window. He and Heath managed to push their way to where they could see, and watched as total chaos erupted outside. Women and children were running in every direction, screaming and yelling; panicked horses were bolting, and a few brave dogs were nipping at the angry kangaroo in a lavender vest who was hopping erratically about, undecided as to just who it should chase first.
The animal suddenly spotted Scott and bounded toward him. The two Easter Bunnies appraised each other for a moment, and then the animal took offense and lunged at the man, knocking him over. The pink basket that Scott had been carrying went flying into the air, sending Easter eggs and candy in all directions and the children ran to collect it.
The Easter basket itself came down and landed upside down on the kangaroo’s head, blinding him, and he started lashing out in all directions in a panic. The crowd once more gave way, and the persistent children who had tried to sneak in close to grab a few pieces of candy that had fallen once more retreated at their mother’s shouted orders.
The kangaroo turned and managed to focus on Scott once more, then came toward him with the intention of inflicting bodily harm, the basket hanging rakishly from one ear. The kangaroo drew himself up in order to launch itself at the Easter Bunny when the crowd parted, and Jelly came screaming past, yelling at the top of his lungs about murder. The kangaroo hesitated for a second, and then turned his attention once more to Scott, knocking him over yet again. A second later, Nick came bellowing through the crowd and ran into the kangaroo, sending both of them flying.
The kangaroo and Nick lay on the ground, stunned, and then both scrambled to their feet. Nick looked around and saw Jelly’s disappearing form. “COME BACK RIGHT NOW SO I CAN KILL YOU!” he bellowed, and then took off after Jelly, managing to run and hold his own derriere at the same time. The kangaroo watched the man who had knocked him down, and then took off after him in hot pursuit, grinding his teeth in anger.
Scott was seated on the ground, watching the entire drama, when suddenly he realized to his horror that the Easter Bunny mask had fallen off sometime during the attack. He tried desperately to pull it back on, although it was a little late; several concerned ladies, all of whom were trying to make sure that he wasn’t seriously hurt, suddenly surrounded him. He tried valiantly to get up and run for cover, but they were very concerned about his well- being, and wouldn’t allow him to get up.
Johnny turned and looked at Heath in amazement at all of the chaos, and then with a small grin he turned and walked back to the table, where he sat down to finish his drink.
Over in the corner, Sam asked the barmaid for another drink.
Suddenly Murdoch came bolting into the saloon. “Johnny, you’d better get out here NOW! Your Easter Bunny is wreaking havoc on the whole town!
All conversation stopped as everyone in the saloon looked up at Murdoch’s words and then glanced at Johnny for his reaction. Johnny sat calmly and sipped his drink. “Ain’t my Easter Bunny! Besides, Murdoch, I’m surprised at you. Don’t tell me you still believe in the Easter Bunny? Didn’t anybody ever tell you there ain’t no such thing? That thing’s a kangaroo, everybody knows that.” He took another sip of his drink, and watched calmly as his father’s mouth dropped open.
“But YOU said it was the EASTER BUNNY!” Murdoch blurted.
Johnny shrugged. “Actually, it appears Scott’s the Easter Bunny.” He looked at his father and shook his head. “I think maybe you’re confused. Maybe you should go lie down and take it easy for a while.”
Murdoch started to sputter, and then he turned bright red. He opened his mouth, but no words came, and he started to sputter once more. “I’m not confused, I KNOW Scott is the Easter Bunny, but I’m talking about the other Easter Bunny!!”
“You think there’s more than one?” Johnny turned to Sam. “I TOLD you he was crazy,” he said calmly.
Murdoch looked at his son in disbelief, and then looked at the crowd of men, who were looking at him with expressions ranging from disbelief to pity. Most of them decided that the most important rancher in the Valley had finally cracked up, and they went back to their drinks. Murdoch lunged at his son, with murder clearly in mind.
Over in the corner, Sam changed his order to a double.
As several of the men restrained Murdoch, Johnny turned and looked out the window at this brother, who was being fussed over by the entire female population, and then turned to his father once more. “Since Nick seems to have disappeared and you and Scott are indisposed, I think that Heath and I will ride over to the lake for a few days and do some fishin’, after all, I’m supposed ta be taking it easy, Doctor’s orders.”
Murdoch opened his mouth to protest. “But THAT was because YOU WERE INSANE!” He turned to the Doctor. “Tell him Sam.”
Sam looked at Murdoch. “If you ask me, your whole FAMILY is insane.” Sam turned to the overworked barmaid. “Forget the glass. Bring me the bottle.”
And where are they now?
Johnny Madrid Lancer: Got in several gunfights because the gunhawks figured no one with an Easter Bunny in the family could be that tough. Luckily, he managed to convince them otherwise. His word was never again doubted by his family.
Scott Lancer: Couldn’t decide if the smirks from the men were worth the attention from the ladies, but finally the ladies won out, and he became Green River ‘s permanent, and much loved, Easter Bunny.
Murdoch Lancer: Was never able to convince the neighboring ranchers that he wasn’t insane, and after submitting to a comprehensive psychiatric test and barely passing, he studiously avoided volunteering his sons for ANYTHING ever again.
The Kangaroo: Went on to play the Palace and Madison Square Gardens and even appeared at the White House, where he promptly demolished the Oval Office and knocked out the first lady. The most famous kangaroo of his time.
Dr. Sam Jenkins: Still in the saloon.
Nick Barkley: Whereabouts unknown.
Jellifer B. Hoskins: Whereabouts also unknown, but still running.
And you think this is the end?
~ end ~
The Easter Bunny
The Mountain Man – FIRST PLACE Lancer Writers Awards: Best Humorous Story
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