The Gifts by Terri

Word Count 28,850

2nd in The Surprise Series. If you haven’t read the previous story, there may be some references that are confusing.

Chapter One

Scott and Johnny trudged into the house, tired and dirty after working all day cleaning out a wash in the north pasture. They had started before dawn, and the last glow of light was just disappearing behind the barn.

“I tell ya Scott, if the Old Man don’t lighten up soon, I’m gonna do what I shoulda done a month ago, head down ta Mexico.”

Scott nodded his head in agreement. “And I, little brother will go with you.”

Johnny looked at him incredulously. “Oh no ya don’t. You go with me down there, I’ll probably get kicked outta Mexico, too. Then I won’t have anyplace ta go. You can go back ta Boston,” he said firmly. “I figure that’s far enough away from Mexico ta keep ya from wreckin’ it.”

Scott looked at his brother with annoyance. “I didn’t do it all by myself, I had some VERY inept help.”

“Scott if I weren’t so danged tired, you’d be eatin’ them words.”

“Well, that’s about all I’d be eating, since you destroyed Teresa’s stove AGAIN.”

“The first time wasn’t my fault, and you know it.” Johnny grumbled.

“You should have known better than to fill up the tub that far.”

“And you shoulda known better than to not check the supports of the floor before putting a tub the size of a wagon bed upstairs. Oh I forgot. I guess I put the tub up there while you watched!”

Scott stood up straighter. “I was directing you, not watching, and besides, what about the second time? That certainly wasn’t my fault, I TOLD you to…”

Murdoch’s voice came from behind his desk. “BOYS! That’s enough. I don’t want to hear one more word about whose fault that whole mess was, do you understand!”

Johnny and Scott looked at their father in resignation. “Yes sir” came out of their mouths almost simultaneously. Murdoch grinned to himself, although outwardly his face remained stern.

“Did you two get that gully cleared out?”

Another chorus of “Yes sir.”

“Good. Teresa left some dinner waiting for you. Some COLD dinner, since for some reason we seem to be without a stove. You’d better hurry up and eat so you can start in on the books. I’m going to go take a nice hot, relaxing bath and go to bed. I’ll look over the books in the morning. Good night, boys.”

As Murdoch walked off, he could feel the gaze of his two sons on his back. He could just about bet that their look was not especially pleasant. He chuckled softly. It served them right.

Scott and Johnny forced their cold dinner down and then walked silently over to Murdoch’s new desk. They stood staring at the mountain of papers on top for a moment, and then with a sigh, Scott sat down at the desk and picked up a pile of bills. He handed them to Johnny and then he picked up the ledger and a pen.

“You ready? Just read off the bills and the amounts, and I’ll write them in the book.”

With a sigh, Johnny turned his thoughts from pleasant things like murdering his father and brother to the boring receipts in front of him. “All right. First one. Three hundred dollars to Bill Jackson to install plumbing. Second, two hundred fifty dollars to Jess for plumbing supplies. Third, four hundred dollars to Bill Jackson to repair walls, floors and stairway. Fourth, one hundred fifty dollars to Jess for new stove. Fifth, one hundred dollars to Mike Folger for a new desk. Sixth, one hundred fifty dollars to The Stockton Emporium for an order of imported brandy.” Johnny threw down the receipts. “I can’t believe I let you talk me into tryin’ ta do the plumbing again. I TOLD you we shoulda just cut our losses and taken off then.”

“How was I supposed to know that all of the water that had leaked before had weakened the structure that much?”

“But how did you manage to make everything fall in just the right way ta wipe out Murdoch’s desk AND Teresa’s new stove?”

“The stove was YOUR fault, not mine, BOTH TIMES! And maybe if you had HELPED me, instead of goofing off so much, it wouldn’t have happened.”

“I couldn’t HELP ya because I was in a cast, remember? Seems like SOMEBODY dropped a tubful of plaster on the board I was standin’ on and sent me flyin’ through the air like some big old bird. Problem is, I don’t have wings!”

“If you hadn’t have made the hole so big to begin with, you wouldn’t have had to …..”

“BOYS!!!” The disembodied voice from upstairs got the message through loud and clear. Johnny and Scott settled for one last glare at each other before turning their attention back to the mountain of receipts.

Two hours later, with the books in hopefully perfect order, Johnny plopped on the sofa while Scott poured them each a drink, studiously avoiding Murdoch’s scotch, which he had been drinking until the imported brandy arrived. Murdoch had been a pretty foul mood when he’d been told that it would probably be six months before he would receive the new shipment, due to import problems.

Scott walked over and handed his brother a glass before sitting down next to him. “I wonder what he’ll have us do next.”

Johnny shuddered. “I don’t even want ta think about it. We’ll be payin’ the Old Man back for the rest of our lives; maybe longer.”

Scott nodded. “And you know what the most irritating thing is?” At Johnny’s questioning look, Scott continued. “I think he’s enjoying it.”

Johnny nodded glumly. “He has us right where he wants us, brother.”

“Then we’ve got to do something to change his mind.”

Johnny’s interest was immediately piqued. “Yeah, like what?”

“Well, Christmas is coming up in a few weeks.” Scott stated.

Johnny looked puzzled. “Yeah, so?”

“Well, brother, I have a plan.” He said conspiratorially.





Chapter Two

Johnny froze. “What kind of a plan?” He asked cautiously.

“Well, the way I figure it, Murdoch is awfully mad at us for all of the money he had to spend to fix up the house, but what seems to be bothering him most is the loss of his precious brandy. If we can figure out a way to get that brandy for him and maybe get some nice Christmas gifts for Teresa and Jelly and Sam at the same time, he’s going to have to relent a little. Besides, it will be Christmas. He won’t be able to stay in a bad mood.”

“Especially with that brandy to make him feel good.”

Scott beamed at his brother. “Exactly.”

Johnny slowly shook his head. “There’s only one problem with your plan.”

At Scott’s raised eyebrows, Johnny explained. “We don’t have a dime between us, and last time I suggested robbin’ the bank, you weren’t exactly enthusiastic about that idea. Change your mind?”

Scott grinned. “Ah, but we don’t have to rob a bank, brother.” He waited a moment for effect. “Do you remember those horses you broke and left with Bill to sell?”

“Yeah, but I told you, he hasn’t been able ta sell ‘em.”

Scott nodded. “For once, something went right. Nick Barkley wired Murdoch yesterday asking if we had any horses available. It seems that the Barkley’s have an order for several hundred head that they need to fill, and they are short of horses. He said they would buy anything that we had, and they needed both broke and unbroken horses. They would give us top dollar, too. We’d get ten dollars a head for unbroken stock, and fourteen dollars a head for green broke. That means for the fifty head you broke, we’d get seven hundred dollars. Not too shabby.”

Johnny shook his head. “And just how are we supposed ta get ‘em ta Nick without Murdoch finding out? You know if he knew we sold those horses he’d take the money ta help pay for the damages.”

Scott grinned once again, “that’s just it, he’d have to find out.”

Johnny shook his head again. “I ain’t followin’ you. We can’t just leave for a couple of weeks. Murdoch would have our heads.”

“Not if we can convince him to send a herd of his own to the Barkley’s, then we can pick up our herd on the way; Murdoch will never know.”

Johnny snorted. “And how, big brother, are ya goin ta talk him in ta doin’ that?”

Scott laughed. “Easy. We just convince him that we don’t want to do it. In the mood he’s in, I guarantee we’ll be on the road in a few days.”



Three days later, Johnny and Scott rode out to the east pasture where Cipriano and some other men were holding a herd of about one hundred unbroken horses. Even though the boys knew it would be hard, they had convinced Murdoch that they could handle the herd by themselves. Their plan depended on secrecy, and they didn’t want anyone else along. Cipriano and two other men helped them move the herd until they were off Lancer land, and by then the herd was traveling well, and they had no trouble with it as they drifted it towards Bill’s place. It was late afternoon before they arrived at Bill’s and got the herd penned in a corral, and both brothers heaved a sigh of relief. So far, so good.

Bill wandered over and looked at the horses. “Nice bunch, but I hope ya don’t want me ta sell these, too.”

Johnny grinned at the man. “Nope, we’ve got a buyer for ‘em. We can take that other bunch off your hands, too.”

Bill looked at Johnny cautiously. “Can’t. They’re gone.”

Scott’s eyes narrowed, “Gone? Where?”

Bill looked down and fiddled with a splinter on the corral. “Guy came by yesterday and offered me seven dollars a head.” He looked at Johnny. “Ya told me ta get whatever I could for ‘em.” He said nervously.

Johnny nodded his head in resignation. “Ya, I did. Don’t worry, it’s not your fault.” He glanced at his brother. “We can still get Murdoch’s Brandy and some nice gifts for three hundred and fifty dollars.”

Scott sighed and nodded his head. “I guess. I was hoping for more, but I guess we’ll have to take what we can get.”

Bill looked relieved; he didn’t want the Lancers mad at him; they threw a lot of sales his way. “Why don’t ya come in and relax for awhile. I got some stew simmerin’ on the stove.”

Johnny nodded. “I’ll just feed the stock then I’ll be in. Is it OK with you if we bed down here for the night?”

At Bill’s nod, Johnny smiled. He sure was glad they wouldn’t have to take turns watching the herd at least for tonight. He was still upset about losing that three hundred and fifty dollars, though. Maybe he could find out who bought them, buy them back and still make a profit. “Hey Bill. You know the name of the fella that bought ‘em?”

Bill nodded. “Sure, he’s a friend of yours I think. Heath Barkley.”

Scott closed his eyes as Johnny kicked the corral post. It just wasn’t fair.

Finally with a sigh, Scott opened his eyes. At least they’d have some money.

After bedding down the horses, they followed Bill into his shack and sat down at the rickety table. They ate a helping of watery stew and then turned in, dreaming of horses and brandy and bathtubs.

The next morning they got up early to get on the road. Johnny turned to Bill before they left. “I hope ya have cash. I don’t want ta have ta go to the bank in Stockton ta get our money.”

At Bill’s blank look, Scott started to worry. “You DO have the money, don’t you?”

Bill bit his bottom lip as he glanced back and forth from Johnny to Scott. “I wasn’t expectin’ ya,” he said.

Johnny’s voice was resigned. “AND?”

Bill shrugged. “I wired the money to Green River.” He looked uncomfortably from man to man. “Don’t worry, it’s safe. I stayed to make sure it was received before I left the office.”

It was Johnny’s turn to close his eyes. “And who picked up the money?”

Bill grinned proudly. “Your father. It was received by Murdoch Lancer himself.”





Chapter Three

Johnny turned and stared at his brother. He wondered just how many years he’d have to serve if he shot him. Of course, any jury in their right minds would let him off if they knew the whole story.

Scott looked at his brother and noticed him fingering his holster while contemplating him. Scott hurriedly went over and grabbed Johnny’s arm before he could put whatever plan he’d been considering into action. “Look, it’s not the end of the world. We’ll come up with the money some how. Besides, even if we don’t we’re not out anything; Murdoch doesn’t know about our plan. The worst that can happen is that we just go home and serve out our sentence.” Scott was babbling, and at this point, he didn’t care. He was doing his best to keep from getting shot.

Bill watched the two brothers in confusion. “I hope I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Johnny pulled away from Scott so he could look at Bill. He started fingering the holster once more. Maybe it would be better to kill him, too. In fact, the more he thought about it, they could only hang him once, so if he killed Scott and Bill AND Murdoch, it might just be worth it.

Bill look apprehensively at Johnny. “I think I have some work ta do,” he squeaked, before scurrying into the house and throwing the bar on the door.

Scott watched in longing as Bill disappeared, but he kept talking to his brother, until Johnny finally sighed and looked at him.

“Now what?” Johnny said.

Scott shrugged. “We deliver the horses to the Barkleys.” Scott’s brows furrowed for a moment, and he suddenly stood stock-still. “Johnny….”

Johnny whirled around and faced Scott. “NO! Whatever it is, NO! I don’t even want to hear it, understand?”

“But….’

“NO!”

Scott shook his head. “Don’t you even want to hear about it?”

Johnny pursed his lips and started fingering his holster again. “Go ahead, BROTHER, tell me your plan. But if I don’t like it, I get ta shoot ya.”

Scott swallowed hard. “It’s foolproof” he started. At Johnny’s narrowed eyes, he hurriedly explained. “Nick said he’d pay us fourteen dollars for each green broke horse, right?”

Johnny nodded slowly.

“Well, we’ve got one hundred head in that corral over there.” He said brightly.

Johnny continued to stare at his brother. “But they ain’t green broke; they ain’t broke at all.”

Scott smiled. “But they could be!” He hurried on. “If you broke fifty head, at four dollars a head over what Murdoch’s expecting, we’d have two hundred dollars. More than enough to get Murdoch his brandy and decent presents for the rest of them.”

Johnny stared at his brother. “Don’t you mean if WE broke them?” He asked softly.

Scott nodded. “Of course. If WE broke fifty head, we’d have enough money.”

Johnny studied his boots for a moment. “How’re we gonna explain ta Murdoch about the extra time we spend here?”

Scott shrugged. “We can tell him we spent a few days breaking horses for Bill. The money he received will back our story up. We’ll say Bill wired it in advance.” Scott could see his brother was weakening. “What do you say?”

Johnny continued to watch Scott. “I say that if ANYTHING goes wrong with this plan, you won’t be safe even in Boston.”

Scott nodded confidently. “Believe me, brother, NOTHING can go wrong. Now let’s get busy.”

Johnny and Scott drove the horses into a smaller corral, and then pushed a few of the more promising horses into a long chute to wait their turn under saddle.

Bill cautiously approached the corral a few minutes later, and was informed of the Lancer’s plan. He graciously agreed to let them stay for a few more days, now that Johnny looked like he might not murder everybody in sight. He ran the individual horses one at a time into the bucking chute and got bridles on them and got them saddled.

Both Johnny and Scott agreed that they didn’t have time for the gentler methods that Johnny usually employed. These horses just needed some of the fight taken out of them, and the old fashioned way was quicker, although tougher on both the men and the horses.

By late afternoon, they had ten head that had most of the rough edges taken off of them, and Johnny had assorted bumps, bruises, sprains and cuts.

Johnny lowered himself onto the eleventh horse; a dark bay mare, and he took a deep breath before nodding to Bill to open the chute. The bay lunged into the corral, sunfishing viciously before settling down to a neck -wrenching buck. For the next few moments, Johnny was awfully busy trying to stay on the horse’s back. The saddle seemed no bigger than a fifty-cent piece, and the horse kept switching ends faster than a jackrabbit. Johnny scanned the ground, looking desperately for a soft place to land, but he had first hand experience of just how hard the ground in the corral was, so he dug in out of desperation. He lost his hat, the reins, his stirrups, and most of his fingernails before he decided it would be less painful to hit the dirt. He was just getting ready to let go when the mare finally stopped and threw up her head. Johnny gingerly reached down and grabbed the reins, trying to find a spot on his hand that wasn’t too raw.

Cautiously nudging the horse with his knees, he sat through a couple more half-hearted crow hops before the mare finally gave up and started responding to the reins. He rode the horse over to where Scott was sitting on the rail, and dismounted stiffly, leaving a good portion of his skin behind. Now that most of the rough edges were taken off, Scott started doing the little bit of finish work that time allowed.

Johnny went over to the horse trough and ducked his whole head under water. He didn’t know how he had let Scott talk him into this again. He’d never make it through another what? Thirty-nine horses? No way. He watched Scott lope the bay horse around the inside of the corral. And he still couldn’t figure out how his brother had flattered him into doing the breaking, leaving the easy finish work to Scott.

Scott dismounted from the mare a few moments later. “Hey Johnny! What are you doing? We can’t stop now. We need to finish at least four more horses tonight, so quit goofing off.”

Johnny turned and once more contemplated his brother. Yep, if he could manage to shoot both Scott and Murdoch before they hanged him, it would definitely be worth it.




Chapter Four

Johnny eased himself down by the fire and took a small sip of the steaming hot coffee. Shifting around, he finally found a position that was uncomfortable rather than sheer agony. He glanced over at his brother, who was pensively looking towards the horses. Scott felt his brother’s stare and looked up. “Johnny, Bill says that there’s as awful lot of rough country between here and the Barkley’s Ranch. I’m not sure if the two of us can hold all of these horses by ourselves.”

Johnny smiled. It was the first time that Scott had expressed doubts about one of his ‘plans’. “I tell ya what, Boston, why don’t ya leave that worry ta me.” He looked at his brother. “How much money ya got?”

Scott looked up in surprise. “I don’t know,” he said cautiously. “Maybe five dollars.” Scott wondered quickly if his brother had decided to go to Mexico after all.

Johnny looked back down at the fire. “Tomorrow mornin’ while I’m breakin’ the rest of them broncs, I want you to go into town and get me about a hundred feet of three strand rope. Make sure it’s three strand, understand?”

“Johnny. If you’re planning on using that to tie the horses, you’re going to need more than that.”

“Who says I’m goin ta use it ta tie the horses?” At Scott’s concerned look, Johnny continued. “Don’t worry. If I was goin ta hang you with it, I wouldn’t need that much” he chuckled.

The next afternoon, Scott came back with the rope, a little concerned because his entire fortune was down to fifty cents. Whatever it was that Johnny had in mind, he hoped it worked.

After the last horse finished dumping Johnny on his ear, he came over and looked at the rope. “Good enough. Now I want you ta split it into individual strands, so we have three hundred feet, and then cut each strand into lengths of about five feet each. After that, you’ll need ta tie square knots in the ends of each rope, understand?”

Scott looked at his brother. “And what will YOU be doing while I’m tying all those knots?”

Johnny grinned. “Relaxin’ under that tree over there and watchin’ ya.” At Scott’s narrowed eyes, Johnny continued. “It’s up to you whether ya tie those knots or not, but I’m tellin ya right now, I ain’t goin’ ta be chasin’ those horses on the trail. You’re goin ta be herdin’ em all by yourself, I’m too dang sore ta be any good.” He smiled. “That’s MY plan, so ya better trust me on this.”

Scott reluctantly agreed and sat down to work. He didn’t know what his brother had in mind; the rope was WAY to thin to stop a horse, and his brother was crazy if he thought that one man could herd one hundred head of horses. He had absolutely no confidence in Johnny’s plan.

That evening, he was finally done with the rope and brought it over to where Johnny was sitting. “All right, it’s all done. Now what?”

Johnny smiled. “Now ya get ta tie a length of that rope around the throatlatch of each horse. Tie it right up behind the ears, and tight enough that you can’t get your fingers between the rope and the horse’s skin. And make sure it can’t slip.”

Scott looked perplexed. “Johnny, they’ll barely be able to breathe.”

Johnny grinned. “That’s the idea, Boston.”

Scott shook his head. “And I don’t suppose you’re going to help me at all, are you?” When Johnny shook his head, Scott grumbled. “It’ll take me all night to catch those horses and tie all those knots!”

Johnny lay back under the tree and covered his face with his hat. “Then ya better get goin, hadn’t ya.”

Scott tied the last knot just as the sun was peeking over the hills. He stomped out of the corral and headed towards his brother’s camp. When his loud grumbling had no effect, he managed to accidentally trip over his brother’s feet. Johnny came awake with a start. “Oh, sorry brother,” Scott said. “Rise and shine.”

Scott watched in gleeful satisfaction as Johnny tried to get up. After spending the better portion of four days getting bucked off, trampled, bit, kicked and stomped on, his brother was decidedly worse for wear. Scott didn’t feel quite as tired as he watched Johnny hobble over to the fire and try to pick up a coffee cup without bending. After a moment, he gave up and after giving Scott a lethal stare, went over to the raised horse trough instead.



An hour later, Johnny awkwardly pulled himself into the saddle for the trip to the Barkleys. He was sure that if Barranca even moved, he’d fall on his face. He tried to keep most of the weight off of his twisted left ankle, but that just threw more weight on his swollen right knee. Easing himself down into the seat, he grimaced as the raw places on his legs came in contact with the saddle. Finally, he breathed a sigh of relief. He was sitting somewhat normally on Barranca. Now if he could just figure out how to get there without having his horse move, he just might live through the day.

While he was trying to get up enough nerve to urge Barranca forward, Scott solved the problem by coming up and swatting Barranca on the rump, causing the horse to lurch forward. Johnny grabbed the horn in a vain attempt to keep from moving, then let go and settled deeper in the saddle, dreams of murder once more consuming his thoughts.

When he was finally ready, Johnny signaled Bill to open the gates. The horses immediately streamed out, and headed down the road. They had just gotten past the buildings when the lead horses decided to make a break for it. Scott watched in amazement when the horses took off at a run, and then immediately started choking and gasping. Scott was concerned when a few horses went to their knees, but he realized that as soon as a horse slowed down, the windpipe was no longer expanded, and the pressure came off. Once the pressure was off, the horse would once more be able to move. It was ingenious. He looked over at his brother and grinned. Maybe this would work after all.





Chapter Five

The ride was sheer agony, and Johnny let Scott chase after most of the strays, much to both his brother’s and Barranca’s disgust. But he was past caring what those two thought. Right now, he was simply trying to keep the three square inches of skin that he had left in contact with the saddle, and the rest of his body as far away as possible. If he never broke another horse as long as he lived it would be too soon.

Johnny’s plan for keeping the horses from taking off worked beautifully. Within a day or so the horses had given up on trying to escape and the two men had been able to loosen the knots. Scott was easily able to handle the herd, with Johnny riding drag to hurry any stragglers along. And having a hundred head of horses between he and his brother seemed entirely prudent in Scott’s way of thinking.

They rode into the Barkley’s yard at about noon several days later. Heath and Nick came out to greet them, and Heath smirked at Johnny. “Ya tryin’ ta start a new style of ridin?” At the dark look his brother received, Nick wisely prodded Heath before he could say anything else.

Johnny pointed at the herd scattered behind him. “You can show my brother where ya want these horses. I’m done with em.” Johnny said stiffly.

Nick yelled to some men by the barn. “Open up the lower corral, and help Scott here guide them in.” A few minutes later, the horses were safely enclosed in the paddock, and both Scott and Johnny relaxed. The hard part was over. All that was left was to collect the money and go shopping.

“You’re just in time for lunch,” Heath said. “Come on in.” He shot a look at Johnny. “That is, if you can get down” he smirked.

Johnny mentally added Heath to his hit list before clumsily dismounting.

Nick’s eyebrows shot up as he watched the usually graceful gunfighter struggle to keep from falling off his horse. “What happened to him?” He asked Scott.

Scott glanced at his brother. “We just spent a couple of days breaking some horses.” He chuckled. “I guess my brother is getting soft.”

Nick and Heath grinned as they noticed that Scott seemed no worse for wear. “It looks like it” they replied.

Scott waited until Johnny caught up before joining the two Barkleys in the dining room.

“Mother and Audra are visiting some friends and won’t be back for several days,” Nick explained. “And Jarrod got tied up in town; he’ll be back tomorrow.”

While he was talking, Nick watched in amazement as Johnny approached the chair as if it might bite. After cautiously grabbing the back, he eased himself down into the seat. That accomplished, he took a deep breath and sat up straight. When he finally looked up, he realized everyone was watching him, and he dropped his head and mumbled something in Spanish. No one asked for a translation.

After a wonderful meal that was more than welcome after eating trail food for several days, the men retired to the parlor. Nick grabbed a bottle of brandy and poured four generous glasses, handing one to each of the men. Nick and Heath plopped down on the sofa, and although Scott joined them, Johnny elected to stand. He glared at each of the men in turn, daring them to make a comment and looking for any sign of a smile. The three men were mostly successful.

“So I assume those are the horses Murdoch wired us about?” Nick said.

Scott nodded. “One hundred head, fifty of them green broke.”

Nick and Heath darted looks towards each other. “Are those the horses you’ve been killin’ yourselves breakin’?” Heath asked.

Johnny nodded. “Yeah, we need the extra money for em.”

Nick and Heath once more exchanged looks and Nick shifted uncomfortably. “We told Murdoch in the wire we only needed fifty head of broke stock.”

Scott nodded as he took a sip of brandy. “Yeah, so?

Heath shrugged. “We already got our fifty head. We bought ‘em off of Bill Gibbons a few days ago.”

Johnny looked up at Heath. “For seven dollars a head.” He said flatly.

Nick nodded. “That’s right. He must have told you. Some sucker told him ta just dump ‘em for whatever Bill could get for ‘em. Pretty nice horses, too. And well broke. They were just what the buyer needed. We got sixteen dollars a head for them.” Nick shook his head. “We can still buy the hundred head of yours, but we can’t give you more than the ten dollars a head we quoted. That’s what the buyer will give us for them.”

Scott looked in alarm at his brother, but so far, Johnny wasn’t reacting. He figured it was just a matter of time, however, before the shock wore off and his brother blew up. He didn’t know whether he should just make a run for it, or take time to try to warn Nick and Heath of the impending explosion. Finally he decided it was every man for himself. He figured with the shape his brother was in, he might have time to make it to the door before Johnny caught him. He would have to be careful to keep Nick and Heath between them; they would block Johnny’s aim if he decided to use his gun. While Scott’s mind was quickly trying to figure out a way to get back to Boston with no money, Johnny got up and stiffly walked towards the front door.

“Hey, Johnny, where ya goin?” Heath called.

“Out.” Was the growled answer.

Heath looked at Scott in confusion before trying again. “Hey, it’s cold out there.”

“Not in Mexico,” came the grumbled response.





Chapter Six

Nick and Heath looked at Scott for a moment before Heath finally spoke. “Aren’t you goin’ after him?”

Scott shook his head resolutely. “No.”

The Barkley’s looked at each other in confusion. “Why not?” Nick asked.

Scott looked at them grimly. “Because I plan on living past today, if you don’t mind.”

Nick finally had had enough mystery. “All right, Scott, what’s goin’ on. You and Johnny always get along OK. What happened?”

For one fleeting moment, Scott thought about coming clean with the whole story. But the remote possibility that Johnny might still be in the country changed his mind in a hurry. He didn’t want to see his brother hanged for murder, and it would only take one smart comment from Nick to bring about that very end. Of course, if he were completely honest with himself, he knew that if it came to that, he probably wouldn’t be around to worry about it, either.

Scott shrugged his shoulders. “We just had a bad week, that’s all. Nothing serious.” He looked at Heath speculatively. “Why don’t you go find him? Maybe he’ll listen to you.” Scott felt just a twinge of guilt at sending poor Heath to his death, but at this point, it was a matter of self- preservation.

Heath reluctantly stood up and walked over to the hall where he grabbed his coat. He looked back at Scott. “Are ya sure there’s nothin I need ta know about?”

Scott took a gulp of Brandy before answering. “Of course not.”

Heath nodded and slipped out the door, leaving Nick and Scott staring at the fire.



Scott spent a fitful night wondering what had happened to Heath, and for that matter what had happened to his brother. Scott didn’t think that Johnny was serious about going to Mexico, but with Johnny, you never knew. And he didn’t think Johnny was mad enough to gun down Heath, but again, in the mood his brother was in, he didn’t know. He didn’t think he’d ever seen Johnny so mad. He shuddered. Maybe it would be for the best if Johnny did go to Mexico for a while.

He and Nick had stayed up until almost two o’clock, drinking and waiting for their brothers. Finally, they had given up and gone to bed. Scott could hear Nick snoring even with both doors shut, but sleep had evaded Scott so far. With a sigh, he rolled over and once more tried to beat his pillow into submission.

The next morning, Scott shuffled blearily down to the breakfast table. He had spent most of the night wondering how he was going to explain to his father why his son had gone back to Mexico. He had come up with several explanations, but so far none of them sounded really convincing. Maybe Murdoch wouldn’t notice he was gone, he thought wryly.

He was wondering whether he should try to get back to Boston or take a chance and join his brother in Mexico; either plan was better than listening to Murdoch yell. He was halfway thinking that maybe he should just give up and head back to Boston. At least there he could understand the language. He plopped down in the chair and accepted his breakfast with a mumbled ‘thanks.’

After mindlessly eating his breakfast, he stood up and wandered out the back door, wondering where Nick was. He was headed for the barn when he heard a well-known voice. Entering the darkened building, he made out the familiar shape of his brother brushing Barranca’s golden coat. He stood there in surprise for a moment before cautiously approaching the two of them.

“Good to see you, brother.” Scott said lightly.

At the grunted response, Scott tried again. “I’m glad you’re still here.”

This time, Johnny stopped brushing the horse long enough to give his brother an appraising look before going back to his chore.

Finally, Scott took a step closer. “Look, I’m sorry that my plan didn’t exactly work out, and I’m sorry that you got all banged up for nothing.”

Johnny threw the brush down and looked at his brother. “Are ya ready ta go?”

Scott nodded. “Did you eat breakfast already?”

“Yeah, I ate with Heath and Nick. They had ta leave a little while ago to deliver that herd.” He looked sideways at his brother. “Couldn’t wait for you ta get up.”

Scott shook his head. “Sorry, I didn’t sleep very well last night.”

Johnny smiled. “Ya shoulda come out to the barn. Me and Heath had a regular party out here with a bottle of tequila as the guest of honor.”

At Scott’s raised eyebrows, Johnny’s grin got wider. “Ya weren’t worried about me were ya?”

Scott thought about all the sleep he’d missed last night. “Oh, no, not in the least. In fact, I was thinking about how nice it would be to not have you to worry about all the time.”

Johnny’s eyebrows lifted. “Now when have I ever given you reason ta worry?”

Scott snorted. “Never, and believe me, I never will again.”

Johnny grinned once more. “Good. Now let’s get going before it gets any later.”

The two men rode out of the Barkley’s yard a few minutes later. When they came to the main road, Scott turned south, towards Lancer.

Johnny pulled up Barranca. “Where are ya goin?”

Scott stopped Charlie. “Where do you think? Home.”

“I thought we was goin ta go in to Stockton ta get some presents and Murdoch’s brandy.”

Scott looked suspiciously at his brother. “We have no money, remember?”

Johnny grinned. “Well, since YOUR plan didn’t work out so well, I decided ta make up my own plan. And, needless ta say, it worked. I got over two hundred dollars from Heath.”

Scott’s mouth dropped open. “How?”

“Well, I figured he owed me at least half of that profit he got for them horses he got from Bill. Half was two hundred twenty five dollars.”

“And how did you convince Heath of that?”

Johnny’s grin got wider. “Easy. I told him I’d shoot him if he didn’t agree.”

Scott remembered Johnny’s mood of the night before, and he nodded slowly. “That would do it all right.”

Johnny nodded. “Sometimes Madrid can come in real handy” he said with a chuckle.





Chapter Seven

The two men rode into town a day later. Although Johnny was slightly less sore, the trip had still been miserable for both men. Scott had tried to have a normal conversation with him, but Johnny’s only topic of interest was how miserable he was and how all of Scott’s plans had been disasters. It was almost enough to make Scott doubt his skills as a master planner, and by the time they approached Stockton, Scott was wishing his normally quiet brother would lose his voice. Johnny was also grousing the whole way about never wanting to see a horse again. He even told Barranca he was going to trade him in for one of those new fangled bicycles, but Scott noticed that Barranca didn’t seem overly worried, and Scott had a feeling that Johnny Madrid wouldn’t be caught dead on one of those things.

The only other topic that Johnny was willing to discuss was the wonderfully comfortable beds at The Crystal Hotel where they were planning on staying. Johnny told Scott that he had been dreaming about the outrageously thick feather mattresses and even thicker pillows. Johnny warned his brother that when they got to Stockton, he was going to get a hot meal, a hotter bath, and then go to sleep, even if it was noon. He made Scott promise that he would let him sleep. Scott figured he’d better go along with his brother’s plan after the fiasco with the horses, so he had promised, even though Scott was anxious to get the shopping done. Besides, he thought with a grin, he never promised how LONG he’d let him sleep.

On the way in to town they noticed numerous signs advertising a gunsmith’s convention, hosted by the Crystal Hotel. The signs promised all types of entertainment for the visiting gunsmiths, including demonstrations and contests. Johnny and Scott were worried, however. If the convention was being held there, they might have problems getting a room.

When they arrived in the city, they immediately made their way to the hotel. As soon as they walked in, they noticed how busy the normally quiet hotel was, and they became even more concerned. When they asked at the desk, the harried clerk informed them that there were no rooms because of the convention that was in town at the time. Johnny desperately asked where else they could get a room. The clerk gave him a quick glance, and then shook his head. “There ARE no more rooms. All of the hotels and even the smaller establishments have been booked for months.”

With an oath, Johnny turned to leave, but Scott grabbed his arm. “Wait a minute, brother. I have an idea.”

Johnny looked at Scott like he had gone mad. “Do you really think I’m gonna listen ta any more of your ideas?”

Scott managed to look hurt and insulted at the same time. “You do want a hot bath tonight, don’t you? And a soft bed?”

At Johnny’s careful nod, Scott smiled and turned back towards the desk. “Trust me.” He called over his shoulder.

As he walked off, Johnny called out after him “If it has ANYTHING ta do with horses you can forget it.”

Scott smiled and went back up to the clerk. “I don’t understand. Johnny here has come all the way here at the convention’s request, and now there’s no room for him?

The clerk looked up in confusion. “At our request?

Scott nodded. “Of course. He grabbed Johnny’s arm as his brother approached the counter. “This is your quick draw artist,” Scott beamed.

Johnny turned towards his brother. “SCOTT! What the devil are you doin’. I ain’t no…….”

Johnny was interrupted by the rapid approach of a fat little man with a handlebar moustache. “Thank goodness. When you wired that you couldn’t make it, we tried to get a replacement, but it was too late. Come on, the show is getting ready to begin.”

“Now wait just a minute,” Johnny started.

“Oh yes.” The man bobbed his head rapidly. “Don’t worry; your room is taken care of, just like we agreed.

“We didn’t agree on nothin…..”

“What about meals?’ Scott interrupted

The man nodded. “Of course those are included.”

“I don’t care about the meals, and I don’t…” Johnny started.

“I’m sure the room comes with a hot bath?” Scott continued.

The man looked flustered for a moment and then nodded, “Certainly.”

Johnny gave up trying to talk and slipped away.

Scott excused himself to the man and went after his brother. “Johnny wait. At least think about it. What about those feather mattresses you like so well?”

Johnny turned back towards his brother. “I ain’t no “quick draw artist”; I’m a gunfighter. There’s a huge difference. I don’t know all them fancy moves ya see in shows. And besides, what if somebody recognizes me?”

Scott shook his head. “You can do this and you know it. And the chances of anyone recognizing you are almost non- existent. We’re too far north. Come on Johnny, do you really want to spend the night in a stable, that is if we can find one?” Scott smiled and went in for the kill. “You know, little brother, stables have HORSES in them.”

Johnny closed his eyes. This was going to be a disaster, he just knew it. But Scott was right. If he had to spend one more second around a horse, any horse, he’d shoot it dead. With a sigh, he turned back around and walked towards the clerk. Johnny smiled inwardly. He had seen a picture in one of Scott’s book’s that looked just like the man. “What do I have ta do?” He asked the walrus man.

“Just demonstrate your fast draw. We’re offering a prize if anyone can outdraw you, so you’ll have to do that also. We’re also having a shooting contest.” The man hesitated. “Any chance you can actually hit anything with that gun after you draw?”

Scott chuckled and Johnny’s eyes came up to meet his brother’s.

“Maybe,” Johnny said, still looking at Scott. “Can I use a live target?”





Chapter Eight

As the three men walked out towards the stage that had been set up at the back of the hotel, Johnny walked slower and slower. When he finally caught sight of the spectators crowded around the platform, he turned white, and if Scott hadn’t had a firm grip on his arm, he probably would have bolted. When they finally reached the stage, the walrus man turned towards Johnny. “I’m sorry, my memory is terrible. What name do you want me to introduce you as?”

As Johnny opened his mouth, Scott stepped in. “Garrett, John Garrett.”

When Johnny swung around and glared at him, Scott dropped his voice. “Do you really want to be introduced as Johnny Madrid? Or worse, Johnny Lancer? What if Murdoch hears about it?”

That effectively stopped Johnny’s protest and he shut his mouth with a snap. The thought of Murdoch knowing about this made him shudder. But using the same name as Scott’s grandfather? He hissed at Scott “Didja HAVE ta use the name ‘Garrett’? I’m gonna have nightmares.” A moment later, Johnny was introduced, and Scott shoved him on stage.



The walrus man was immensely pleased with his hiring of this particular quick draw artist. The man was unbelievably fast, and amazingly he hit everything he tried to hit. He had never worked with anyone as good; the challengers never had a chance. He wished he could take him on tour back east, they would make a fortune, but Garrett had refused somewhat rudely. The walrus man shook his head; he just didn’t understand some people. As good as this guy was, he could probably make his living as a real gunfighter. He had never seen a real gunfighter, but he had heard about them plenty. And with a lot of help and coaching from him, Garrett could probably hold his own among any of them. Of course, he’d never be as famous as Doc Holiday or Johnny Madrid, but he would be good. He shook his head again. Garret just wasn’t interested, and to be famous you had to want it. He sighed. He guessed some people just didn’t have what it took to be famous. Pity.

After the show was over, he went over and handed Garrett an envelope. “Inside is the voucher for your room. Thank you very much, and I hope we work together again sometime.”

Johnny shook hands somewhat hesitantly, and stuffed the envelope in his shirt pocket as Walrus walked off. “I sure am glad that’s over,” he muttered as Scott came up. “I feel like that Lady Godiva character ya told me about.”

“See, I told you there’d be nothing to it. You all done?” Scott asked. At Johnny’s nod, Scott continued. “Let’s go. I want to get that brandy for Murdoch before something happens to our money. The Stockton Emporium is just around the corner.”



The Stockton Emporium was an impressive two story building in the heart of downtown Stockton. In the window was a sign that read, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.” Scott took a look around after entering, and agreed with the sign. There were all types of goods in the huge building, from the practical to the ridiculous. Scott felt a surge of hope. They would have Murdoch’s brandy or no one would. He walked through the store to the massive counter in the back of the building. Several overworked clerks were scurrying around trying to keep various customers happy, and apparently succeeding. After a lengthy wait, a young clerk finally approached Scott and Johnny. “May I help you?” He said in a respectful voice.

Scott nodded. “As a matter of fact, you can. We need a case of your finest imported Brandy.”

The clerk hesitated. “I’ll go check, sir.”

Johnny picked up a wooded top and spun it on top of a box. Scott reached out and stopped it, then set it back, shaking his head at Johnny. A moment later the clerk returned. “I’m sorry, sirs, but there are no cases available at the moment, and we’re not expecting more in for quite a while.”

Scott’s head dropped, but Johnny had picked up the phrasing the clerk had used. “What do you mean ‘No cases available’?”

The clerk shrugged his shoulders. “We have a case in the back, but it is ready to be shipped out. It was ordered some time ago by a very good customer.”

Johnny darted a look at his brother, who suddenly had a smile on his face. Scott stepped forward. “Did you promise this customer a specific delivery time?”

The clerk hesitated, confused. “No,” he said slowly.

Scott grinned. “Well there you are. “You can sell us this case of Brandy, and in a few days, or when you receive another shipment, you can send him his.”

The clerk shook his head. “I couldn’t do that, sir. It wouldn’t be honest.”

Johnny looked at the clerk. “Could you lose the order for another, say twenty five dollars?”

The clerk slowly shook his head, “I couldn’t sir, really.”

Scott turned towards his brother. “Don’t insult the man. The clerks at this establishment wouldn’t lose an order for twenty five dollars.” At Johnny’s raised eyebrows, Scott continued. “However, they might be able to delay that order for say, fifty dollars.” He looked inquiringly at the man.

The clerk swallowed hard, and finally nodded his head convulsively. “That would be one hundred fifty dollars for the case and fifty dollars for, uh, wrapping it.” Scott nodded in agreement. The clerk thought for a moment, his conscience obviously warring with his greed. “I could tell the other customer that your order arrived first.” He said hopefully.

This time it was Johnny who nodded. “That would be all right.”

The clerk nervously bit his lip. “Could I at least give the man your names so he could possibly contact you to buy a couple of bottles? Maybe then he might not be quite as upset at not getting it in time for Christmas.”

Johnny started to shake his head, but Scott nodded. “Of course. My name is Scott Garrett, and this is my brother John.”

Johnny smiled. “And we’re from San Francisco.”

After thinking for a moment or two, the clerk finally nodded. “All right.”

Scott nodded seriously. “Pay the man, Johnny.”

Johnny peeled off four fifty-dollar bills and handed them to the clerk. As he watched the clerk scurry off, he turned to his brother. “I sure hope you know what you’re doin. That only leaves us twenty five dollars for the rest of the presents.”

Scott nodded. “It should be enough, especially since our room and meals are taken care of.”

Johnny sighed. “I hope so.”

The clerk returned a few moments later, with a gaily-wrapped package. “Here you go, and a very Merry Christmas to both of you.”

Scott nodded back, “And same to you, and thanks for ‘wrapping’ this.”

The clerk smiled. “My pleasure, sir. And don’t worry, Murdoch Lancer will just have to wait to get his brandy.”





Chapter Nine

As soon as they were outside, Johnny turned to Scott in a panic. “Didja hear that? We just stole Murdoch’s brandy!”

Scott shook his head. “We did not steal it. Besides, he’ll still get it, and he’ll have us to thank instead of the Emporium.”

“But he woulda got it a lot quicker from the Emporium; the clerk said they were getting’ ready ta ship it.”

Scott shrugged. “He won’t know that, besides he won’t know that it was us that got it anyway.”

Johnny stared at his brother. “Scott, I hate ta tell ya, but if you don’t think that he’d figure out that Scott and John GARRET are us, you have a problem.”

Scott shrugged again. “By the time he finds out, we’ll be home safely and he’ll be drinking the brandy and thanking us.”

“I hope so,” Johnny said glumly, then whispered under his breath “but somehow I doubt it.”

Scott reached over and punched Johnny in the arm. “Let’s go. I can’t wait to get back to the room and take a nice, hot, relaxing bath.”

As the two men approached the desk in the hotel, Johnny reached in and drew out the envelope. After a quick peek inside, he pulled out the voucher that Walrus had given him, and handed it to the clerk. After a moment, the clerk handed him a key. “Last door at the end of the hall, third floor.” He looked at Johnny. “The presidential suite.”

Scott grinned. This was looking better and better. Then he thought of something. “Can we have two keys, please?” He asked the clerk.

The clerk looked confused for a moment, and looked at Johnny. “Are you John Garrett?” He asked. At Johnny’s nod, he turned back towards Scott. I’m sorry sir, and who are you?”

Scott shrugged “I’m Scott Garrett.”

The clerk studied the voucher once more. “I’m sorry sir, but there is only John Garrett’s name on the ticket. The credit is for only one person.”

Johnny shot a glance at Scott before answering the clerk. “But the room is big enough, there should be no problem.”

The clerk nodded. “Yessir, the room has three bedrooms. But it is the policy of the hotel to charge per person. If you want Mr. Scott Garrett to stay with you, the additional charge will be twenty- five dollars. And of course, that wouldn’t include meals.”

Scott looked at his brother. “Twenty five dollars?” He shook his head. “We don’t have twenty five dollars to spend on a room.” He turned back to the clerk. “What if John here trades the room for a regular room? The difference in cost should make up for the extra person.”

The clerk shook his head. “Yessir, it would, but all the rooms are taken. There isn’t one available.”

Johnny looked at Scott. His brother was definitely starting to look panicky at the thought of losing his hot bath and bed. He leaned over and nudged his brother. “Don’t worry, Scott, I’ve got a plan.” He said quietly, with a slight smile on his face.

Johnny turned back to the clerk and took the key. “I’d like a hot bath sent up as soon as possible, and a steak dinner later. Oh, and can you have someone take this box up to my room?” He pointed to the ornately wrapped case of brandy. “Be sure to tell them to be careful, it’s very fragile.” The clerk nodded his head, and Johnny turned and walked towards the door, with his brother following cautiously behind him. Johnny left the hotel and walked over to where the horses were stabled. Johnny went over to Barranca’s stall and reached down and picked up his bedroll he had left there earlier. “I got about fifty feet of rope in here.” He told his brother.

Scott shrugged his shoulders. “So?”

Johnny grinned. “I figure it’s only about thirty feet or so to the third floor.” Johnny said brightly.

Scott shook his head. “Oh no, you don’t. I’m not going to be hauled up to your room on that rope!”

Johnny laughed. “Who said anything about haulin’ ya up? You’re gonna hafta climb.”

Scott shook his head harder. “No!”

Johnny shrugged his shoulders. “Ya want ta spend the night in the stable, that is if ya can find one? After all, stables have HORSES in em. Me, I’m gonna go relax in a nice hot tub, then dig into a big, juicy steak, and then fall asleep in that horribly soft bed.”

Scott glared at his brother. “You’d just leave me out here to starve, wouldn’t you.”

“Nah. I’d probably manage to throw a bone or two out. Just be sure ta catch em before they hit the dirt.”

Scott gave his brother his best glare, but Johnny didn’t seem too intimidated. With an oath, Scott threw up his hands. “All right, fine. I’ll go wait in the alley at the back of the hotel.”

Johnny looked out of the stable. “Ya better wait a little while, it’s still pretty light out. I’m gonna go relax in my nice hot bath. When it gets dark, I’ll throw the rope down. Just don’t get caught, I have no intentions of getting’ thrown outta that hotel.”

Scott stomped over to where Charlie was stabled and plopped down in the straw. “Fine, go relax and enjoy yourself. Don’t worry about me. And whatever you do, don’t worry about me standing around in the dark in this freezing weather. I’m SURE I won’t catch pneumonia.”

Johnny grinned as he left the barn. “I’m sure ya won’t either. Just be sure ta be waitin’ down in that alley. I don’t want ta stand around all day while you get caught up on your beauty sleep.”



When Johnny entered his room, he gave a low whistle. Even though they had stayed at this hotel numerous times, they had never stayed in a suite. He thought he just might have to do some fast talking next trip and get Murdoch to cough up the extra money for one. It sure was some room. He walked over to the window and glanced out towards the barn and smiled. It would be dark in a few minutes; he’d have to hurry with his bath, especially if Scott was going to have any hot water. He turned and walked over to the bathtub. Sticking his hand in, he felt the water and closed his eyes with pleasure. Almost too hot to stand, just the way he liked it.

A few moments later, he sank into the steaming water, feeling the stress of the last few weeks slowly dissolve. Within five minutes, he was sound asleep.





Chapter Ten

Johnny came flying up out of the water, grabbing for his gun. Desperately, he looked around, trying to figure out what had startled him. After a wild look around the room, his eyes settled on a fairly large rock lying on the rug. Still half asleep, he tried to figure out where it had come from. He splashed water on his face in an effort to wake up, then realizing that the water was now cold, he grabbed a towel and dried himself off. He was just reaching for his pants when a thought hit him.

Scott.

He hurriedly jammed his legs into the pants and then hopped over to the window while trying to get them completely on. A trailing pant leg caught on the end of the bed and sent him flying. By the time he had un- hogtied himself, another rock had come crashing into the room. Finally he reached the shattered window with his pants decently in place, and he cautiously peered out.

He withdrew his head quickly as another rock just missed his ear. Poking his head outside once more, some rather colorful and varied curse words floated up to his ears. Johnny was impressed when he detected a few Spanish words intermingled with the rest. He didn’t know his brother knew any Spanish, but he doubted Scott would ever be able to show off his new vocabulary to anyone other than a few irascible steers. Finally the cursing slacked off somewhat, and the figure stood there with his hands on his hips, waiting. With a quick “I’ll be right back,” Johnny turned and grabbed the rope out of his bedroll. After hurriedly tying it to the heavy bedpost, he threw the remainder of the rope out the window.

Scott immediately grabbed the rope and started up. Johnny watched his progress for a moment, until a loud pounding interrupted his thoughts. Spinning around, he started for the closed door of his bedroom, intending to go to the front door where the pounding seemed to be coming from. Just as he opened the bedroom door, the front door flew open with a crash, and the manager entered with two clerks right behind him. Johnny quickly shut the door, hoping they hadn’t seen him, and then he heard the door of the first bedroom open. Panicked, he went over to the window and looked down. Scott was about twenty feet up.

“Jump!” Johnny hissed. When Scott looked up in disbelief, Johnny took the rope and tried to swing it towards some bushes he saw. A second later he heard the second door slam, and in desperation, Johnny took his knife from the loop in his pants. With one last swing towards the bushes to try to get his brother over something a little softer than the dirt, he cut the rope. Frantically, he worked at the knot that attached the rope to the bed, and with a final effort, it came loose in his hands. He kicked it under the bed just as the door to the bedroom flew open.

“Mr. Garrett, are you all right?”

Johnny managed to remain calm, although his knees felt weak as he sat on the bed. “I’m fine. You always come bargin’ into a man’s room?”

“No sir, we don’t. But someone reported hearing some large crashing sounds, and we thought you might be injured. Then when you didn’t answer your door, we feared the worst.”

Johnny took a deep breath, one ear tuned to some muffled curses wafting up from the ground, and he raised his voice. “I’m fine! I just fell getting’ outta the bathtub, that’s all.”

The manager looked around doubtfully, and his eyes settled on the several rather large rocks littering the floor. He glanced back at Johnny. “And did you trip over those?” He asked pointedly.

Johnny’s mind was working quickly. He could either be a good brother and protect Scott, then join him in the stable for the night, or he could stay in this room and feel horribly guilty. This nice, comfortable room. With a feather mattress on the bed. And feather pillows. And a steak dinner on its way up. Johnny sighed. He didn’t think he could stand the guilt if he ratted out his brother. Johnny looked up as the door opened again and a uniformed waiter came in bearing a tray. The tantalizing smell of prime steak and garlic reached his nostrils. Then again, he’d felt guilty before and lived.

Johnny pointed at the rocks. “I didn’t see those, evidently that’s what woke me up. I fell asleep in the tub, and something startled me and I fell trying to get out in a hurry.” Johnny said, happily feeling only a small twinge of guilt.

One of the clerks went over to the broken window and peered out. “It’s too dark to see anything. Wait a minute, someone’s down there! HEY YOU!” The clerk turned around. ‘He’s running down the alley. Should we try to catch him?”

The manager nodded. “Hurry up. And take Spike with you.”

Johnny turned apprehensively towards the manager. “Spike?” He asked.

The manager nodded. “Spike is the biggest, meanest dog alive, and he’s a good tracker, too. If anyone can catch that guy, Spike can. Don’t worry, Mr. Garrett, we’ll take care of this. In the meantime, we’ll move you to the sixth floor.”

Johnny shook his head. “This room is fine, I prefer to stay here.”

The manager also shook his head. “No, sir. We can’t have you staying in a room with a broken window and some madman throwing rocks at you. You’ll stay in a suite on the top floor. And I’ll have another bath sent up, since yours was so rudely interrupted.” He looked at Johnny. “I insist.”

Johnny sighed. He figured ‘madman’ wouldn’t even come close to describing what his brother would be like in the morning. “All right, let me pack my things.” He said resignedly.

The manager nodded. “Very good, sir. I’ll have Michaels here help you with your bags.” The manager went over to the window and looked down. “It’s a good thing we have all of those rosebushes down there, or he might have tried to climb up.”

Johnny froze. “Rosebushes?”

The manager nodded vigorously. “Rosebushes. They discourage unwelcome visitors.”

Johnny swallowed hard. He was pretty sure that last swing had been successful. He closed his eyes and heard Spike baying in the distance. He wondered if Murdoch would notice if one of his bottles was missing. He had the feeling he’d be needing it more than the Old Man.





Chapter Eleven

Johnny slept fitfully that night. He knew that they hadn’t caught his brother, because he had gone downstairs and asked about an hour later. He was informed that Spike had slipped his lead and disappeared, and the men had given up the chase. He had then gone out to the barn, but there was no trace of his brother, and Johnny had finally gone back to his room. He figured Scott would show up sooner or later, and in the mood he was likely to be in, Johnny voted for later.

The next morning, bright and early, Johnny once more went out to the barn, taking a pretty hefty bag of food with him. The hotel had sent up a huge breakfast, and Johnny was only able to eat part of it. He figured Scott would be hungry, and if he could distract Scott with food, his brother just might forget about the rosebushes. And the cut rope. And the dog.

Looking around, he didn’t see anyone, and he turned to leave. Suddenly, a pile of hay started talking to him. “Good morning, BROTHER.”

Johnny swallowed hard and shoved the food at the hay. “Are ya hungry? I brought ya somethin’ ta eat.”

The hay seemed to consider that for a moment, until finally it snaked an arm out and grabbed the bag.

As Johnny watched the food disappearing into the middle of the pile, he tried to make conversation. “I’m glad you’re OK.”

Silence.

“I was really worried about ya. Scott, I didn’t know they were rosebushes.”

Silence.

“And that dog. There wasn’t nothin I could do about that.”

Silence.

“And I’m sorry I fell asleep.”

Silence.

Finally Johnny gave up and just sat and waited for the hay to cough up his brother. After about fifteen minutes, the hay started to erupt and Scott appeared in the center. Johnny winced when he saw the scratches on his arms and face. “I really am sorry, Scott. I didn’t do it on purpose.”

Scott merely glared at his brother. “I hope you were comfortable last night.”

Johnny shifted uncomfortably. “Well, yeah, I was.”

Scott took a deep breath and stared at his brother as if contemplating his murder, before he finally relaxed a little. “Do you still have the twenty five dollars?” He said stiffly.

Johnny nodded his head.

“Good. I think we should split up to get the remaining gifts. I have no intentions of spending another night in this city, understood?”

“What’re we goin ta get everybody? Do ya have any ideas?” Johnny asked.

Scott nodded. “I thought about it last night,” he glared at his brother. “When I had to sit in a tree for four hours with that Hound from Hell slavering beneath me. Did you know that it rained last night?”

Johnny shook his head. He figured that it would be a lot safer right now not to talk.

Scott thought for a moment. “I think we should get a suitcase for Jelly. He always uses that old box whenever he goes to visit his sister, and he could really use a nice big suitcase.”

Johnny nodded in agreement. “That’s a great idea. What about Sam?”

“My grandfather said there’s a new book out that is supposed to be very good. It’s gotten all sorts of awards and has sold an unprecedented number of copies back east. It’s a murder mystery, but it has doctors as the main characters. I think Sam would enjoy it. I tried to get a copy in Green River, but no one there had even heard of it. I’m hoping that Stockton is a little more advanced and has already received copies of the book.”

Johnny nodded once again. “Sam told me once that he loves to read murder mysteries. I gave him a pretty hard time about it, him bein’ a doctor and all. He’ll like it all right. What’s the title?

“A Killer for Hire.”

Johnny smiled. “Are ya sure it’s about doctors? He asked with a grin.

Scott swatted him with his hat, sending hay flying in every direction. Johnny ducked his head, the asked, “What about Teresa? I’m tired of getting her hats. Besides, the last hat I got her wound up on Zanzibar’s head. I don’t think she liked it very much.”

Scott smiled, remembering the hat in question. “Well, the purple ostrich feathers were a bit much.”

Johnny looked at him thoughtfully. “Ya really think that was it? I sorta liked ‘em myself.”

Scott grinned as he studied Johnny’s silver studded pants and red embroidered shirt. “I rest my case.”

“What does that mean?” Johnny asked suspiciously.

“It means, little brother, that the purple feathers were WAY too much. Now let’s figure out what to get her.”

“What about a fancy dress?” Johnny asked.

Scott shuddered, imagining the kind of dress Johnny would pick out. Murdoch would take one look at it and banish both of them. “No, I don’t think so,” he said slowly.

“How about some stuff for her kitchen? She outta like that!” Johnny said happily.

Scott studied his brother and wondered how he had avoided getting himself killed by an irate female before now. “You DON’T give a woman anything useful for a gift.” He told his brother.

“Never?” Johnny asked doubtfully.

“Never.”

Johnny thought for a minute. “How about some perfume? That’s about the most useless present I can think of.”

Scott brightened immediately. “That’s brilliant! We’ll get her some expensive perfume.”

“Well, not too expensive, we don’t have much money left.” Johnny qualified.

“Expensive enough. Besides, she’ll never know the difference.”

“OK, what kind do we get?”

Scott thought for a moment. “I’m trying to remember the name of the perfume that Heath said he’d gotten for his girlfriend. Do you remember?”

Johnny scowled at his brother. “No, I wasn’t inside during that particular conversation, remember?”

Scott hurriedly changed the subject. “I’ll remember it shortly. In the meantime, let’s go get Jelly’s suitcase, then you can go get the perfume and I’ll go get the book, and we can meet back here. Agreed?”

“How come I get to get the perfume?”

“Well….” Scott said, “I thought you’d like that better than going to a book store.”

Johnny looked at him suspiciously. “All right, I guess. I’ll get the perfume.”

The two men walked along towards the leather goods shop that sold suitcases. Suddenly, Scott stopped and snapped his fingers. “Ladies of the Night.”

Johnny cocked a brow at his brother. “What about ‘em?”

“That’s what we have to buy.”

Johnny shook his head. “We don’t have money for that, Scott. Besides, I thought you were in a hurry.”

Scott shook his head in exasperation. “No, that’s the name of the perfume. ‘Ladies of the Night’.”

Johnny looked dubious. “And you think Murdoch is gonna be happy with us given Teresa somethin’ named like that?”

“It’s just a name.”

“I think we’d be a whole lot safer given her somethin’ named “Chaste lady.”

Scott snorted. “Come on, Johnny. Murdoch isn’t going to get mad at us over the name of a perfume.”

Johnny stared at his brother uncertainly. “Are you sure?”

“Very.” Scott said. “Now let’s go get the presents and get out of this town before anything else happens.”





Chapter Twelve

They finally reached the leather shop and decided on a suitcase for Jelly. After arguing about style, color, size, and material, they compromised on one that neither one hated too much. They made their way out of the store and stood on the sidewalk for a moment. “Well, that’s one down, two to go.” Scott said.

Johnny nodded. “That was relatively painless. Now what?”

“I’m going to go find a book shop. I think they’d be more likely to have the book than the Emporium, but the Emporium might have the perfume. Why don’t you go see. If they don’t, I’m sure you can find a perfume shop somewhere.”

“OK. You want to meet back at the hotel?”

“No, I don’t want to go anywhere near that place”. Scott shuddered. “How about meeting at that café we passed on the way here?’ At Johnny’s nod, Scott held out his hand.

Johnny looked at it like it just might bite. “What do you want?”

“If you expect me to get the book, I’m going to need some money.” Scott said patiently. “The suitcase was eight dollars, and the book should be no more than three. That’ll leave you with twelve dollars for the perfume.”

Johnny looked perplexed. “I ain’t no math professor, but that’ll leave me with fourteen dollars for the perfume.”

Scott grinned slightly. “Not if we eat lunch in that café.”

Johnny smiled as he handed Scott three dollars. “I might go back and eat in the hotel.”

Scott smiled right back. “And I might shoot you if you even think about it. Now go on, and I’ll see you in a little while.”

Scott walked along, looking in the shop windows and enjoying seeing establishments that were a little closer to the quality he was used to in Boston. After wandering for a while, he finally asked directions and was directed to a small bookstore in a decidedly more run down part of town. After a fairly long walk, he found the small bookstore and went inside. The smell of old books immediately invaded his nostrils, and he drank in the odor delightedly. He crossed over to where the clerk was sitting.

“Good day, sir.” Scott said.

The clerk nodded pleasantly. “Good day. Can I help you?”

Scott nodded. “I was wondering if you had ‘A Killer for Hire.’

The clerk’s expression rapidly changed. “And what makes you think I would?” The man said cautiously.

Scott looked perplexed. “Well,” he said, looking around the old shop. “I thought if anyone would, it might be you.”

The clerk shook his head, never taking his eyes off of the man in front of him. “I think,” the man said slowly, “that you are in the wrong place.”

Scott shrugged, the hope of finding the book quickly disappearing from his head. With a sigh, Scott asked the clerk. “I was really hoping to get this taken care of before going home. Do you know where I might be able to find what I’m looking for?”

The clerk shook his head nervously. “No, sir, I don’t.”

Scott sighed. “I really hate to disappoint my brother. He’s counting on me to get this done. He wants to get Sam taken care of.” Scott shook his head and smiled. “Actually, my brother should be doing this, since Sam has used his knife on Johnny much more than on me. My brother’s the one that people keep trying to kill, but in his line of work, I guess that’s to be expected.”

“His line of work?” squeaked the clerk.

“Yes,” Scott mused. “Of course he doesn’t kill people any more, at least not too often.” He looked at the clerk. “And of course only if they deserve it.”

“Of course,” the clerk said weakly.

Scott shrugged. “Oh well, I’ll keep looking, but I have the feeling I won’t find what I’m looking for. I was hoping a bigger city might have what I needed. It’s too bad, really. Sam really deserved it.”

“He did?” The clerk asked.

Scott nodded. “Yes. Of course they all deserve what they’re getting. And we managed to take care of everyone else while we were here, including my father, and of course, Jelly. He was the hardest. I couldn’t quite figure out what to do with him. Then I had the brilliant idea of a suitcase. Of course it had to be a big one to make sure everything fit, but we finally found one that was just perfect, and ‘voila’, no more Jelly problem.”

“And you said you took care of your father too?” The clerk asked in disbelief.

Scott chuckled. “Oh yes. We wanted to make sure NOTHING went wrong this time. We always seem to mess up when it comes to him. First we tried to blow him up in the bathhouse, and then we tried to drown him in his own house. After that he was pretty irate, so we figured we’d better do something drastic if we didn’t want him to kill us. We took care of him yesterday. That ‘special’ brandy cost us two hundred dollars, but it was well worth it to get the Old Man off of our backs once and for all.”

“Are those the only people that you’ve ‘taken care of?’ The clerk asked cautiously.

Scott shrugged. “Those are the only ones we’ve had time for so far. But my brother is trying to come up with something for Teresa right now.” He glanced at the clerk. “Teresa’s our sister.” Scott shook his head. “We had to do something about her, that’s for sure. Of course, Johnny dropping the bathtub almost on her head as she was standing at the stove didn’t help matters. It made her awful suspicious of us, though. She didn’t want us to come anywhere near her after that. She said she’d prefer to die a natural death instead of falling victim to one of our plans.” Scott sighed. “I hope what Johnny comes up with works. I’m almost afraid to eat what she serves us for fear it might be poisoned.”

“That seems wise,” The clerk said.

“Yes, it does. You know the saying, “Hell hath no fury…..”

The clerk nodded.

After a last glance around, Scott started towards the door. “Well, thanks anyway, you’ve been very helpful.” Scott left the clerk staring after him in disbelief. Oblivious to the clerk’s suspicions, Scott started whistling as soon as he left the store. Even though he hadn’t found the book he felt that things were definitely looking up, and he started whistling. It was going to be a wonderful day.





Chapter Thirteen

Scott went to two more small stores, with no better luck than at the first. Finally, he decided he wasn’t going to find the book he wanted and settled for another murder mystery entitled ‘101 Ways to Commit Murder’. Scott just hoped Sam liked it. Scott made his way to the cafe, and looked around for his brother. Evidently, Johnny was having a hard time finding the perfume too, because he hadn’t arrived yet. He thought about waiting for Johnny, but then decided to go ahead and order. He felt a twinge of apprehension as he told the waitress what he wanted, knowing he had no money, but he was sure his brother would show up any time. Scott enjoyed a leisurely lunch but became more and more worried about his missing brother.

Scott knew that Johnny SHOULDN’T have come to any grief while making a simple purchase, but this was JOHNNY he was talking about. With him, anything was possible, and the more Scott thought about it, probable. He had no idea how his brother managed to get himself into such messes, but Johnny had honed the art of coming to grief into a fine science. Scott shook his head. Imagine getting into trouble just going to the store. The waitress came by once more and Scott ordered a cup of coffee. He mentally did the math; he now owed this establishment one dollar and twenty- five cents. If Johnny didn’t get here soon, there wouldn’t be enough money left for him to get much to eat. Scott thought for a moment, then smiled and ordered a piece of pie.

After an hour and a half, the waitress was becoming decidedly less friendly, and the coffee fill ups were accompanied by obviously disgruntled looks. Scott was starting to become really worried. If something had happened to Johnny, he’d never be able to pay for his food. He’d probably be stuck here washing dishes for the rest of the night.

After two hours, Scott was close to panic. He thought seriously about making a run for it, and darted several glances towards the door, but as if the manager had read his mind, he stationed himself by the door and kept staring at Scott. OK, scratch that plan. He turned and tried to peer in through the kitchen to see if there was a back door, but his waitress immediately blocked his view.

With a deep sigh, Scott sat back in his chair. Maybe honesty would be the best policy. If he promised to come back, maybe they would let him go long enough to find his brother. He stood up and approached the manager just as the door opened, admitting two policemen and the clerk from the first bookstore. With a cry of triumph, the clerk pointed at Scott. “There he is!”

The policemen immediately came up and grabbed the stunned young man. After they had handcuffed him and they started to read him his rights, Scott found his tongue. “And what, may I ask am I being arrested for?”

The policeman looked back at him calmly. “Murder.”

Scott’s mouth dropped open. “And whom am I supposed to have murdered?”

The second policeman answered him. “At this point, the better question would be who HAVEN’T you murdered.”

Scott looked away in confusion and caught the eye of the café manager. Immediately the man approached the policemen. “I knew there was something wrong with that guy. He kept lookin’ around real sneaky -like. And he hasn’t paid for his food, either.”

The first policeman turned towards Scott. “Do you have enough money to pay for your meal?”

Scot drew himself fully upright. “Of course I do.”

“All right, where’s your money?” He was asked.

Scott sighed. “My brother has it, and as soon as he shows up we’ll get this whole mess cleared up.”

The policeman raised a brow at his prisoner. “Is this the brother who’s off trying to figure out how to kill your sister?”

“He’s not off killing ANYONE!” If you’ll just let me explain……” The second officer grabbed Sam’s book off of the table. “Uh huh. You’re innocent all right. Not very bright, though, carrying around evidence like this. He looked at Scott. Let’s go. You can explain everything to our sergeant.”

A half an hour later, Scott was sitting at a table, facing a decidedly unfriendly looking officer. The officer had conversed at length with the two arresting officers and the bookstore clerk, and he was now convinced he had a mass murderer on his hands.

He faced his prisoner and started asking questions. “Your name?”

“Scott Lancer.”

“Uh huh. Any relationship to Murdoch Lancer?”

“He’s my father.”

“Uh huh. The one that you killed?

“No!”

“You have a different father?”

“No, I did not kill him!”

“Are you going to stick to the story that you’re Murdoch Lancer’s son?”

“ I AM HIS SON!!” Scott exploded.

“Did you or did you not previously try to blow him up?”

“Yes, but…..”

“And then almost drown him?”

“Yes, but…..”

And did you not try to drop a stove on your sister?”

“That was my brother that did that! And…….”

“Did you not go into Mr. Carson’s shop and ask if he had a killer for hire?”

“Well, of course I did. I needed to get one for Sam!”

“And who is Sam?”

“Sam is our doctor!”

The Sergeant had heard enough. “I think you’ll have to explain this to the judge. And if you don’t have a good attorney, I would strongly recommend hiring one.”

Scott shook his head. “You’re making a big mistake. Do you know Jarrod Barkley?” At the Sergeant’s nod, Scott continued. “Would you please have someone contact him? He’ll get me out.”

“Somehow I doubt that,” the sergeant said, before turning to one of the officers. “Would you please take mister LANCER to a cell?”

As Scott was taken to the back, he was wondering how on earth he could contact Johnny. He knew his brother would never dream of looking for him in jail and he wondered how long it would be before he’d find him. He sighed. This trip was getting worse and worse. But at least Jarrod and Johnny would be able to clear up this mess.

As the officer shoved him into a cell, he heard a familiar voice. “What’re you doin’ in here, brother?”

Scott looked up in shock to see his brother sitting on the cot in the cell. “What Are YOU doing in here?”

Johnny shrugged. “I got arrested for shoplifting. You?”

“Murder.”

Johnny started to laugh. “And who did you murder?”

“You, if you say one more thing.” He looked closer at his brother. “Where did you get the black eye?”

Johnny shook his head. “An irate female who took offense at your perfume choice.”

Scott got closer and sniffed the air a few times. The decidedly feminine odor was definitely coming from his brother. Scott opened his mouth to make a comment when Johnny interrupted him “Don’t even go there, Scott, or you won’t have ta worry about getting’ out.”

Scott backed off and looked out towards the office. “We have to get a hold of Jarrod to get us out of here. It’s our only chance.”

“Scott…..” Johnny started.

“Don’t say anything, Johnny. I don’t want to hear it.”

“Scott!”

“I TOLD you not to say anything.”

“But Scott…….”

Scott glared at his brother. “I mean it Johnny, I DON’T want to hear it.”

A familiar voice drifted over from the adjoining cell. “I think what your brother is trying to tell you is I won’t be able to help you very much right now.”





Chapter Fourteen

Scott swung around and saw Jarrod Barkley leaning on the bars that separated the two cells. “And what are YOU in for?” Scott asked in disbelief. “Arson?”

Jarrod chuckled. “No, contempt of court. I should be out by tomorrow. I refused to identify an informant.”

Scott ran his fingers through his hair. “Now what are we going to do?”

Johnny shrugged. “It ain’t the end of the world. We’ll just wait till Jarrod here gets out, and then he can get us out.”

Scott turned an exasperated look towards his brother. “That’s easy for you to say. YOU’RE just a small time thief. I’m in for murder!” He hesitated a moment. “By the way, do you care to explain that?”

“Why ya murdered somebody?”

“NO! Why you got arrested for shoplifting.” Scott growled.

Johnny shrugged. “Not much to it, really. I went to the Emporium and asked for some ‘Ladies of the Evening,’ just like you told me to, and some old biddy whapped me upside the head with her purse. I nearly got killed before I could explain it was the name of a perfume.” He glared at Jarrod. “Be sure to thank your brother for me.”

“Anyway, I finally got someone that knew what I was talkin’ about, and she said she’d go get me some. She told me that with tax the large bottle was twenty dollars and the small one was twelve. But that store was packed with impatient females, and they kept grabbin’ that clerk to help them. It was almost an hour before she came back with a little tiny bottle of the stuff. She said it was the only one they had left and to pay the cashier. Well, I got in the line to pay, only the store was so crowded that there wasn’t room to stand single file, and women kept cuttin’ in front of me. If I said somethin’ to ‘em they’d just glare back at me like I’d tried ta grab em or somethin. I kept watchin’ the time, and I knew you’d be waitin, so I went up to the cashier and put the money down on the register and walked out of the store.

“So what was the problem?” Scott asked.

“The problem was, that little tiny bottle was their version of the large size, and I owed twenty dollars instead of twelve, and the store detective didn’t think it was a bit funny, and he had obviously never had ta spend two hours in a store full of cantankerous females.” Johnny groused.

“Well, didn’t you explain what had happened to him?”

Johnny snorted. “Of course I did. But the problem was, by the time we went back into the store, the twelve dollars had disappeared and nobody seemed to remember seein’ it.”

Scott sighed. “And how did you wind up wearing your ‘purchase’, or do I even want to know?”

Johnny looked at his brother for a long time as he considered the request. Finally he answered. “No,” he said, “you don’t.”

Johnny watched Scott for another moment. “Well?” He said.

“Well, what?”

“Don’t I get an explanation of why you’re in here for murder?”

With a sigh, Scott plopped down on the bed and started to tell Jarrod and his brother what happened. The problem was, he kept having to stop and wait while those two clowns got their laughing under control. Scott didn’t know what they thought was so funny.

By the time he was done, it was almost dark. “So, Jarrod, ya think ya can get us out all right?” Johnny asked.

Jarrod hesitated. “I’m pretty sure I can get you out, but I’m not sure about Scott. Most judges won’t set bail for a murder suspect.”

“Oh, that’s just GREAT!” Scott shouted.

Jarrod felt bad for his friend. “Scott I’ll do all I can, I promise.”

The next morning, one of the officers came and let Jarrod out of his cell, and he promised to do what he could for the Lancer boys as soon as he could.

The two brothers spent the next several hours studiously avoiding each other. Finally, they heard Jarrod’s familiar voice in the hall, and rushed over to the door, where they waited eagerly for news.

Jarrod walked up and grabbed the bars. “Well,” he started “I have good news and bad news.”

“Just TELL US!!!” Scott threatened.

“Well, it seems like they have quite a bit of evidence against both of you.” He looked at Scott suspiciously. “Are you SURE you didn’t kill Murdoch?”

“Jarrod, if I could reach you right now, you’d be a dead man.” Scott said quietly.

Jarrod shook his head. “When you go before the judge, I’d watch what I was saying if I were you. That kind of talk could get you into trouble.”

Scott shut his mouth and glared at the lawyer as Jarrod continued. “Anyway, they have several witnesses that heard you say you killed Murdoch and Jelly.” He looked at Johnny. “And several people said that Scott here told them that you were going to try to kill Teresa, and that you were in on the whole thing. I hate to tell you, Johnny, but you’re now accused of murder, too. Plus, there seems to be some mix-up as to your true names; it seems like you have been using aliases to avoid the local law enforcement.”

Both Johnny and Scott shut their eyes. “What else?”

Jarrod looked at Scott. “The clerk in the first bookstore heard that the two of you killed your father by poisoning him with a bottle of ‘special’ brandy. The police found out that Johnny stayed at the Crystal Hotel last night, using an alias. The management of the hotel also stated that another man, presumably you, Scott, tried to break in the hotel with the help of Johnny.” The lawyer looked at Johnny. “They found the rope under the bed.”

“And?” Johnny asked glumly.

“Well, they found the case of brandy in your room, and confiscated it to have it tested for poison.”

“AH HA!!” Scott yelled. “That should PROVE we didn’t kill him by poisoning him with the brandy!”

Jarrod looked at Scott in confusion. “Why would that help?”

“I couldn’t have used that brandy to poison ANYBODY because ALL of the bottles are there!”

Jarrod shook his head. “I understood that there was one bottle missing.”

Scott shook his head. “No there wasn’t, there was a full caaaaase….” He looked at Johnny, who was trying his best to disappear. “You didn’t.” Scott said quietly.

As Johnny squirmed uncomfortably, Scott advanced on him. “You did! You not only had a delicious meal, a hot bath and a soft bed…” He took a deep breath. “You DRANK one of Murdoch’s bottles!” He took another step forward. “I ought to…”

“Scott!!” Jarrod said. “Remember, killing Johnny, although justified, will NOT help your current murder case.”

“Then I’ll wait until I’m acquitted and THEN kill him!” Scott shouted.

“Good plan,” Jarrod said. “That is IF you’re acquitted.”

“So what is the GOOD news, Jarrod?” Johnny asked, ignoring his brother’s temper tantrum.

“Well, I told the Judge I could prove conclusively that no murder was committed.”

“And how are you going to do that? “ Johnny said suspiciously.

Jarrod beamed. “I contacted your father. Murdoch, Jelly and Teresa are all on their way to Stockton.”





Chapter Fifteen

Johnny and Scott sat glumly in their cell. Scott had finally convinced Jarrod that Johnny didn’t REALLY mean it when he said he was going to kill him; it was just a figure of speech. Jarrod had cautiously returned and told them that the judge was going to give him two days to produce the live “victims”. If they didn’t arrive by then, the Judge would talk to the witnesses and Scott and Johnny to try to figure out if a trial was warranted. He had denied bail for both brothers until he had talked to them and examined the evidence.

What Jarrod neglected to tell the brothers was the rest of the conversation. When Jarrod had requested bail, the Judge had told Jarrod that he wasn’t going to be responsible for a couple of homicidal maniacs running around loose. He had also confided in Jarrod that he was an old friend of Murdoch Lancer’s, and despite Jarrod’s reassurance that the two men were really Murdoch’s sons, the Judge was highly skeptical of that fact. He said the Murdoch HE knew would have shot them long before now if they were his sons; Jarrod had kept his opinion of that to himself.

With nothing else to do, Johnny and Scott had debated at length about whether it would be better to just plead guilty and hope for a quick execution of sentence before Murdoch got there, or to try to get off and take their chances with their father. Scott was definitely for pleading guilty, but Johnny was much more optimistic, probably because he had lived through Murdoch’s wrath more times than his brother.

Johnny figured that they could get the charges dropped, and then once they were out, they could flee to a safe haven somewhere until things (and Murdoch) calmed down. Scott had pointed out that Murdoch probably wouldn’t calm down until he was at least ninety, and he had no intention of living in some cave until then, especially with his brother.

“You don’t have to live in a cave. There are a lot of places we could just disappear to, ya know.”

Scott had looked suspiciously at his brother. “Like where?”

Johnny shrugged. “I hear South America is pretty nice. And it’s about the right distance away from California. I don’t think the Old Man would leave Lancer that long ta come hunt us down.”

Scott shook his head. “How come we have to go somewhere where they speak Spanish? You know how much trouble I have with that language. What about Canada?”

Johnny shook his head. “Nope. Too cold.” Johnny thought for a moment. “Hey, don’t you speak French?”

Scott nodded. “But I don’t want to go to France. I hear there’s a war brewing.”

Johnny started to get excited. “Who said anything about goin’ ta France? We can join the Foreign Legion! They’re always lookin for good fighters!”

Scott shook his head and glared at Johnny. “Right now, the only one I’m interested in fighting is you!”

By the end of the day, they had pretty much decided to leave the country, but they hadn’t decided on a destination, and they hadn’t even decided if they wanted to go together. Scott was still angry with Johnny, not only for drinking Murdoch’s brandy, but also for ‘spilling’ Teresa’s perfume. And Johnny was angry that Scott had managed to implicate him in Teresa’s murder. He had told Scott that if he were going to murder anyone, it would have been him, and that alone should be proof enough to get him off.

Johnny told his brother that he couldn’t understand how Scott had managed to put his foot in his mouth as expertly and completely as he did. “Ya couldn’t have done a more thorough job if you were TRYIN” ta get us hanged. I STILL can’t understand how you could get us accused of murder just by tryin’ ta buy a book.”

Scott stared at his brother. “Well, if you hadn’t decided you were thirsty, we could have at least had the brandy to give Murdoch as a peace offering. Now we don’t have anything.”

“We still have the suitcase,” Johnny said brightly.

“And I have the feeling we’re going to need it, that is unless Murdoch simply decides to let us hang.” Scott said.

“He wouldn’t do that.” Johnny bit his lip. “Would he?”

Scott shrugged. “You’re the one who tried to drown him.”

“Well, you’re the one who decided to blow him up!” Johnny shot back.

After that exchange, the two brothers decided that it would be better if they didn’t talk to each other, and they spent the rest of the time glaring at each other instead. On the third morning, Jarrod showed up and informed them that Murdoch and the rest of the family hadn’t made it yet, and that the Judge wanted to interview both of them that afternoon. Johnny and Scott couldn’t decide if that was good news or bad news. It was simply a matter of deciding whether they’d rather hang by the Judge’s order or get shot by their own father. And at this point, the boys figured they stood a slightly better chance with the Judge.

Jarrod looked seriously at his two friends. “The Judge is willing to talk to both of you today and see if a trial is warranted. He has already interviewed the witnesses and listened to the other evidence, and I’ll tell you right now that unless Murdoch and the rest of them get here, it doesn’t look like you’ll be getting out any time soon.” He shook his head in bewilderment. “I really don’t know how you managed to get yourselves into such a fix. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were guilty.”

He looked at Scott. “Knowing how you got into this mess in the first place, I will advise you to keep your mouth shut as much as possible”. He turned to look at Johnny. “And whatever YOU do, TRY not to threaten your brother, the Judge, or anyone else while the Judge is talking to you! Do you think you can manage that?’ He asked, looking back and forth between the two of them. The brothers looked at each other and finally nodded.

“Good,” Jarrod replied. “And be sure to remember to THINK before you talk.”

Johnny pointed at Scott. “Tell him. HE’S the one with the big mouth!”

At a threatening glance from Jarrod, Scott managed to keep his mouth shut and settled for glaring at his brother.

Jarrod looked at Johnny. “I arranged for the Judge to interview you first. Maybe you’ll have enough sense to know what to say and what not to.”

Johnny smiled and shot a look at Jarrod. “The best one should always go first.” After sneaking a glance at Scott’s face, he looked at Jarrod. “Any way you can be there with us? I have a feeling my brother will do his best to see me hang.”

Jarrod nodded. “I’ll be there, although I’m not really allowed to say anything.”



Two hours later, Scott and Johnny were brought before Judge Thomas P. Dixon. Jarrod shuddered. He had done his best to prepare Johnny and Scott, but Judge Dixon was a no – nonsense judge and reputedly had no sense of humor. This was going to be just great. All he could do was to stand by and try pick up the pieces – that is if there were any left.





Chapter Sixteen

Jarrod walked into the courtroom where the judge was going to interview his two friends and sat down near the front. Normally, there would be no spectators, but word had spread that two mass murderers had been arrested, and the public was eager to get a glimpse of them. Jarrod scanned the crowded room to see if Murdoch had shown up yet, but he was still conspicuously absent. Jarrod sighed. He just hoped neither Scott nor Johnny would say anything stupid, although after listening to the whole story, he knew that was too much to ask for. He held his breath as the bailiff swore Johnny in.

The judge studied Johnny for a moment before starting. “What is your name, young man?”

“Johnny Lancer.”

The judge looked at his notes. “I was told you were going by the name of Garrett, and that several people have identified you under that name.”

“Yes sir.”

“Why is that?’ The judge asked.

Johnny sighed. “Because Scott here told the hotel I was their quick draw artist so we could get into the hotel for free, and he told them my name was John Garrett.”

“Why didn’t he tell them your real name?”

“He thought it would be better not to use my real name. Murdoch would have been mighty upset if he knew what we were up to, and we didn’t want it getting’ back to him. Besides, I was afraid someone would recognize me.”

Jarrod winced.

The judge stared at the young man. “And why didn’t you want anyone recognizing you?”

Johnny shrugged. “I figured it was better if the audience didn’t know about Madrid, ‘cause if somebody found out, I probably would have wound up havin’ ta shoot ‘em.”

Jarrod winced again.

“Madrid?” The judge asked.

“Well, yeah. That’s the name I used to go by.”

“Madrid, huh.” The judge stared at Johnny. “Shoot them, just because they knew your name was Madrid?”

Johnny nodded glumly. “That’s what usually happens.”

The judge stared at Johnny once more. “I see. You certainly have a lot of names for such a young man.”

Johnny glared at Scott. “I got nothin’ ta do with Garrett, that’s his name,” he said, pointing at Scott.

The judge looked confused. “I thought you said you were both Murdoch Lancer’s sons.”

“Yeah, well, right now I ain’t so sure about that.”

“And why is that, young man?” The judge asked.

Johnny pointed at his brother. “Because he’s been tryin’ ta kill me for the last three months.”

Jarrod shut his eyes.

The judge’s eyebrows shot up and he looked over to where Scott was sitting. “Really, and how did he do that?”

Johnny hesitated. “Well, first tried to squash me with a bathtub, then he collapsed the floor on me and dropped me into the root cellar when I was takin’ a bath, then he threw me off a scaffold into a tree……” Johnny looked thoughtful for a minute. “Oh, yeah, then he tried ta get those wild horses ta stomp me ta death.” He looked at the judge. “I think that’s about it, except for tryin’ ta get me hanged for murder.”

The judge looked at Johnny “Lets talk about him trying to get you hanged. Can you explain those murder charges against you?”

Johnny shrugged, and then said slowly. “Well, it started when we blew up the bathhouse with Murdoch in it. We hoped he would think it was an accident, but Maria spilled the beans and told him we’d been out there right before. Then afterwards, we was hopin’ that he’d at least have brain damage or somethin’ so he wouldn’t know who did it, but it was just our luck that the Old Man came through without a scratch. Murdoch knew that it was us that did it all right, and was makin’ our lives pretty miserable after that. So Scott came up with a plan. Well, more than one, actually.” He hung his head for a moment. “I guess it was my idea ta try and get rid of everybody so we could do what we wanted and we wouldn’t have anybody messin’ things up. With them out of the way, we had plenty of time to do things. We almost got away with it, too.” Johnny looked glumly at the judge. “Then everything started ta go wrong.

“Evidently,” said the judge, wondering to himself just what it was with this young man and bathtubs. “So why did you come to Stockton?”

Johnny sighed. “Well, we had been tryin’ ta get the Old Man off our backs for quite a while, but nothin’ was workin’. So Scott comes up with the idea ta get him some special bottles of brandy. We figured he wouldn’t be able ta resist ‘em, and we’d be home free.”

“Uh huh” the judge nodded. “And what about the others? Jelly, I think his name was, and Teresa?”

Johnny grinned. “Oh, we took care of Jelly real quick. He was easy. We just got a big suitcase for him.

The judge looked a little queasy. “And Miss Teresa?”

Johnny frowned. “She was harder. I got this black eye tryin’ ta take care of her.” He hesitated as he thought about the lady in the store. “That lady sure put up a heck of a fight when I told her what I wanted– whapped me with her purse about ten times – guess she didn’t like the idea very much.”

“I can’t imagine why.” The judge said as he wondered why on earth the young man had told his victim he wanted to kill her, and then be surprised when she had objected.

Jarrod thought the judge looked like he just might be going into shock. He decided to try to explain. “Your honor, may I say something?”

Judge Dixon glared at the young attorney. “Not now. I want to get this story straight first.”

Jarrod tried again “But your honor that’s what I’m trying to…”

The judge banged his gavel. “I will not have any further interruptions, do you understand? Not unless you want to spend another night in jail, Mr. Barkley.”

Jarrod shut his mouth. The Lancer boys were on their own.





Chapter Seventeen


“All right,” Judge Dixon breathed. “Let me get this straight. First, you tried to blow up your father and when that didn’t work you used some “special” brandy to take care of him. Then, you took care of the rest of your family, including Jelly and Teresa.” He looked at Johnny. “And just who was left to get a killer for hire for?”

Johnny shrugged. “Sam. He’s our doctor.” Johnny looked at the Judge. “We couldn’t leave him out, could we?”

The Judge shook his head. “No, certainly not.” He shook his head and said in disbelief, “and you’re still planning on pleading innocent?”

Johnny looked confused. “Sure. I didn’t do nothin’ wrong. Besides, Scott there is the one that came up with all the plans.” He said, pointing at his brother. “It was his idea to blow up Murdoch.”

Scott could stand it no longer and jumped to his feet. “I object!” He yelled, and started towards where his brother was sitting. The bailiff grabbed him as the Judge pounded his gavel.

“Sit down young man!” Judge Dixon ordered. “You’ll get your chance to talk, but it’s your brother’s turn now.”

In the commotion, no one saw Murdoch slip into the back of the courtroom. He started towards the front when Scott’s next words froze him in place, and he slowly sank onto a nearby bench to listen.

“Not if I had a gun it wouldn’t be,” Scott said. “Besides, I didn’t try to kill Murdoch on my own!”

Judge Dixon banged his gavel several more times before order was finally restored.

The Judge turned back to Johnny. “Maybe you’d better tell the court EXACTLY what happened, starting when you attempted to blow your father up in the bathhouse.”

So starting at the beginning, Johnny hesitantly told him about the Great Bathhouse Disaster.

The judge looked at him a little skeptically. “So you weren’t really trying to kill him?”

Johnny looked at him in disbelief. “Of course not. He’s our father.”

“And can you explain the rest of the attempts on both his and Miss Teresa’s lives that were mentioned? I believe you tried to drown your father and you nearly dropped a bathtub on your sister’s head.”

Johnny did, and at the end of the story about the total disaster that befell the Hacienda, and all of the accidents that were incurred, Jarrod could have sworn he saw a slight smile on the judge’s lips that was gone before he could be sure.

“And what about the ‘special brandy’ that you purchased for your father. Can you explain that?’

So Johnny told the Judge about trying to come up with the money, the disaster at the army remount station, breaking the other fifty head, and all that befell them up to the time they arrived in Stockton.

By this time, there were more than a few laughs breaking out among the spectators, and Jarrod was more convinced than ever that there was a smile lurking somewhere behind the Judge’s countenance.

At the Judge’s insistence, Johnny continued his story about being hired as the quick draw artist, trying to sneak Scott into the room, Scott’s misadventures with Spike, and his own misadventures in the perfume store, including getting arrested for shoplifting.

Judge Dixon shook his head in amazement. “And you’re telling me that all of those things actually happened to you?”

Johnny nodded his head. “Yes, sir.”

The Judge smiled. You are either one of the unluckiest people I’ve ever met, or you are an exceptional storyteller. Now please sit down while I ask your brother a few questions.”

Johnny gratefully sat down, and watched as Scott was sworn in. He looked around at the audience, and saw a few smiles and more than a few chuckles. He looked back towards the front of the room. He didn’t know which was worse, having the people in the crowd think he was a mass murderer, or them thinking he was a total idiot.

The Judge began by asking Scott his name and a few other standard questions, and then the real interrogation began. “Do you agree with everything your brother said?”

Scott nodded his head. “Pretty much, Your Honor.”

“And can you explain why you told people that you had killed not only your father, but your sister Teresa and ‘Jelly’, a family friend?”

Scott sighed and recounted his conversation with the bookstore clerk. This time, the laughter among the spectators was loud enough that Judge Dixon had to call for order.

“Do you mean to tell me that this whole thing was a misunderstanding?” The Judge asked incredulously. At Scott’s reluctant nod, the Judge’s voice rose higher. “And all that talk of “taking care’ of people was about buying them gifts?” Scott once again nodded reluctantly, amid bursts of laughter from the audience. “And why did you ask the clerk if he knew where you could hire a killer to murder your doctor?” The Judge continued.

With another sigh, Scott told him.

Finally, Judge Dixon leaned back in his seat. “Like I told your brother, you are the most unlucky people I have ever met, if you’re telling the truth. And since I find it impossible to believe someone would make up a story that far-fetched, I am inclined to believe you.” He hesitated. “But unfortunately, I don’t know for sure, and until you can prove that the people in question are alive, you’ll have to stay locked up.” He turned towards Jarrod. “Are the Lancers in town yet?”

“No, Sir, not that I know of.” Jarrod Answered.

The judge nodded. “If they get in town tonight, notify me immediately. Tomorrow’s Christmas, and I won’t be available then. If they don’t arrive today, the accused will have to spend the holiday in jail.”

Jarrod nodded in understanding as the judge stood up and left the room, leaving Scott and Johnny sitting looking at each other with decidedly forlorn expressions. It looked like they certainly weren’t going to have a very Merry Christmas.

As the spectators filed out, Murdoch sat for a moment, watching his sons. He shook his head in disbelief at the deceptions and other things they had confessed to. Finally he took advantage of the crowd and slipped out with the rest of the people. He was going to talk to Judge Dixon and then make sure his sons got the Christmas that they deserved.





Chapter Eighteen


Jarrod came up and smiled at the two brothers. “At least the judge believed you,” he said, trying to cheer them up.

“Yeah,” Johnny replied. “Now we gotta sit in jail until Murdoch decides ta show up.” Johnny snorted. “If he knows what we’ve been up to, he’ll probably wait till around spring sometime ta get us out.”

Scott nodded in agreement. “There’s not that much work to do around the ranch right now. He’ll wait until spring all right. He’ll get us out just in time for round up.”

Johnny groaned. Jarrod cocked an eyebrow at him. “He is your father, after all. Aren’t you being just a little hard on him?”

Johnny shook his head. “Nope.” Scott shook his head in agreement and echoed Johnny. “Nope.”

Jarrod looked at the two of them. “I don’t know what’s keeping him. I’ll see what I can do about getting you some Christmas dinner if he’s not here by tomorrow.”

The brothers nodded their thanks as Jarrod turned and left. With a sigh, Johnny scooted back on the cot and rested his head on the wall as Scott perched on the end. For a long time neither man said anything, and then Johnny finally broke the silence. “I’m sorry I drank that bottle of brandy. I was just worried about ya and didn’t know where you were. If I hadn’t taken it, the police wouldn’t have confiscated the rest and we would at least have had something to give Murdoch for Christmas.” He hesitated a few moments while his fingers restlessly played with the beads on his bracelet. “And I’m sorry about Teresa’s perfume, too.”

Scott sighed and looked at his brother. “It’s not your fault. This whole mess has been my fault from the beginning. The plumbing, the horses, the presents, getting arrested.” He sighed again. “I’m sorry I got you into this mess.”

Johnny smiled. “I thought that’s what brothers were for.”

Scott smiled back. “Now all we have to do is convince Murdoch that’s what sons are for, to get into trouble.”

Johnny snorted. “Good luck on that, brother. I have the feeling that he’s goin’ ta keep us so busy with chores that we won’t have TIME to get into any trouble for the rest of our lives. That is if he doesn’t just decide to shoot us.”

Scott shook his head. “Oh, no. He won’t shoot us. That would be too quick. And Murdoch has a very well developed sense of exactly how to exact the perfect retribution from his offspring.”

“Ya mean he knows how ta make us miserable.” Johnny stated.

“Exactly.”

Johnny looked around the cell. “Oh well. I’ve been in worse cells on Christmas, and at least this time I’m not alone.” He smiled wickedly at his brother. “This time I have somebody to annoy.”

Scott smiled briefly, and then hung his head. “I guess I’ve ruined everybody’s Christmas. Yours, Murdoch’s, Teresa’s, Jelly’s ….. I’m sorry.”

Johnny shook his head. “We both got us into this, and I told ya, this is better than most of my Christmases have been. And Murdoch’s won’t be ruined – he’ll have the time of his life chewin’ our tails all the way home.” Johnny chuckled. “Maybe if we handle it right we can convince him we did all this on purpose as a present to him, to give him somethin’ ta gripe at us for since he enjoys it so much.”

Scott smiled. “And what about Teresa and Jelly?”

Johnny thought for a moment. “We still have the suitcase we got Jelly, we just have ta go pick it up. And we can figure somethin’ out for Teresa. Maybe we can promise ta take our boots off in the house for the next year or so. That should make her happy.”

Scott laughed. “I knew I could count on you to come up with a plan.”

The next several hours passed swiftly, with the boys recounting stories of Christmases past, both good and bad. Finally, they heard a familiar voice in the corridor leading to the office. They both stood in anticipation as Jarrod made his appearance in front of the cell door.

‘WELL??” They chorused in unison.

Jarrod smiled. “Everything’s taken care of. Your father talked to Judge Dixon and got you released.” As he was talking, one of the officers unlocked the door and handed the boys their possessions.

Jarrod’s smiled faltered as Scott and Johnny just stood there. “Well,” he asked impatiently. “Aren’t you coming?”

“Depends on where we’re goin’” Johnny said without moving.

Jarrod shook his head impatiently. “Everyone’s waiting for you at the ranch. My Mother and Audra have waited supper until we get back.”

“Murdoch’s there?” Scott asked slowly.

“Yes, of course,” Jarrod answered. “And Teresa and Jelly. Now come on. I, for one am starving.”

Scott caught his brother’s eye and shrugged. Johnny shrugged back. “I guess it’s fairly safe. Murdoch’s smart enough not ta kill us in front of witnesses,” Johnny guessed.

Jarrod sighed in exasperation. “Did anyone ever tell you that you’re both paranoid? No one is going to kill you, in fact your father didn’t even seem mad. He seemed like he was in an excellent mood.”

Both Johnny and Scott shuddered. If their father was in a good mood, it meant he had already come up with some sort of legal torture device.

Jarrod looked at the brothers. “Would you two stop stalling? I TOLD you, everything is just fine. He and Judge Dixon both seemed to be in high spirits.” He shook his head. “I think you’ve been exaggerating your father’s temper.”

Scott and Johnny looked at each other in alarm before Scott spoke. “Judge Dixon is at the ranch too?”

Jarrod nodded his head. “Yes, apparently he and your father are old friends. They’ve been talking all afternoon.”

Johnny and Scott both closed their eyes. Their father had been talking to the Judge and he was still in an excellent mood. That could only mean one thing: They were dead men.





Chapter Nineteen

As they approached the Barkley home, Johnny’s hand went automatically to his gun, where it stayed poised. Johnny hadn’t really thought about using it, and he wasn’t sure if it came down to it, who he should shoot: Murdoch, Scott, or maybe the best solution, himself. He noticed Scott was decidedly jittery also, and although he hadn’t made any move towards his gun, he had a fine bead of sweat on his forehead. Jarrod kept turning around and looking at the two of them like they’d lost their minds, and Johnny was beginning to wonder if they had. After all, why were they THAT worried about facing one old man?

As they dismounted, the front door swung open and Teresa and Jelly came running out towards them. Johnny relaxed slightly, he figured that no matter how mad Murdoch was, he wouldn’t get someone else to do his dirty work for him. He still snuck a quick look at them. Nope, they didn’t seem to be wearing guns. Teresa ran into Scott’s arms, while he was left to greet Jelly.

Finally, with a last glance towards each other, they walked into the house. The house had been decorated extensively. Johnny didn’t think there was one square inch of that mansion that didn’t have some sort of garland or candle or some other decoration gracing it. After looking around in awe for a moment, he finally spotted Murdoch sitting with Judge Dixon by the roaring fire. Murdoch looked up at his sons and grinned, motioning them over.

Johnny shot his brother another look, and motioned for him to go first. Scott grinned back, and swept his hat off in an expansive go-ahead gesture. With another glance around to check all possible exits, Johnny moved forward, with Scott close behind. Johnny slowed, and Scott almost bumped him, prompting Johnny to turn to his brother. “Back off, Scott,” he whispered. “If I have ta make a run for it, you’re gonna trip me.”

Scott whispered back, “If WE have to make a run for it, brother, believe me, I will already be out the door by the time you turn around.”

The two men reluctantly approached their father and the stern visage they had faced that morning. Murdoch immediately stood up and grabbed Johnny’s arm. “Tom, I’d like you to meet my two sons, Johnny and Scott.”

Johnny struggled for just a moment against Murdoch’s iron grip, and then resigned himself to his fate.

Judge Dixon chuckled and then held out his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Johnny.” After shaking the hand of the youngest Lancer, he turned to Scott. “Scott.”

The Judge sat down and made himself comfortable in his chair. “Murdoch has been telling me all about the two of you.” He chuckled. “It seems as if the two of you are pretty good at keeping Murdoch here on his toes.”

A few hours and numerous glasses of whisky later, the boys were feeling decidedly more at ease. For some reason, Murdoch was completely understanding and sympathetic, which although alarming, didn’t make them feel like running. In fact, they decided that if he stayed like that permanently it would be all right with them.

As soon as they could do it gracefully, they excused themselves and went over to where Teresa was sitting and talking to Heath. “All right, what’s with Murdoch?” Scott asked.

“What do you mean?” Teresa asked innocently.

“Teresa!” Johnny growled.

Teresa giggled. “Nothing, really. He was in court this morning, and when he came back, he said that the two of you had been punished enough. He said we should make this the best Christmas ever for the two of you.”

“Murdoch said that?” Scott asked suspiciously.

“Our father?” Johnny asked

Teresa nodded and smiled, then jumped up to join Audra who was going into the kitchen to get some more snacks.

After she left, Johnny shook his head. “I don’t know, Boston. I still don’t trust him.”

Scott nodded his agreement, and looked over to where his father was sitting with the Judge. As his eyes wandered back, he spotted a large package under the elaborately trimmed Christmas tree. “Hey, Johnny. Does that package look familiar?”

Johnny squinted his eyes at it. “It sure does.” He turned to Heath. “Where did that big red package come from?”

Heath shrugged. “Judge Dixon brought it with him when he came. He said it belonged to you, but it was addressed to Murdoch, so we assumed it was a present you had gotten him.”

Scott smiled. Maybe Christmas wouldn’t be a total loss after all. “Hey Johnny, maybe we should ride into town and pick up Jelly’s suitcase.”

Johnny nodded his agreement. “What about Teresa?” He asked.

Scott shook his head glumly. “I don’t know, maybe we can figure something out.” He sighed. “I sure wish we could have gotten her that perfume.”

Heath poked Johnny in the ribs. “I have ta go into town for a little while ta pick up a present for somebody. How about you and me goin in and leavin’ Boston here ta baby-sit everybody?”

Johnny nodded enthusiastically, while Scott shook his head. “Oh, no BROTHER.” The words were hardly out of his mouth when Murdoch called to Scott. “Come on over here, son. Judge Dixon has a boy that just entered Harvard this year. He wants to hear all about your experiences there.”

Scott shot a dark glance at his brother, who merely laughed and went to grab his hat. “Tell the Old Man we’ll be back in a while, will ya?” As he walked by the tree, Johnny noticed several packages that looked familiar, and silently blessed Maria once again.

Johnny and Heath headed for the corral, with Johnny humming Christmas carols. Heath raised an eyebrow. “You seem to be in an awful good mood.”

Johnny grinned. “Yep. I’ve got a plan to get Teresa a gift.”





Chapter Twenty

After dinner, everyone retired to the living room once more, and continued to visit. Scott luxuriated in the wonderful surroundings, surrounded by festive decorations and wonderful company. He felt just a twinge of guilt that Johnny was missing this, but after all, he was the one who wanted to go.

Scott had talked with the Judge at length, and found him to be a very likeable man. He was obviously very intelligent, which was no surprise but he also had a wonderful sense of humor and was not snobby in the least. He and the Judge had been talking quite a while, with Murdoch occasionally contributing something to the conversation, when Victoria Barkley walked up.

“Do you mind if I join you gentlemen?” She asked.

After she was seated, she turned to Scott. “Murdoch tells us you had quite a time in Stockton.”

Scott blushed; what had transpired in Stockton certainly wasn’t his first choice in conversation topics.

Murdoch noticed Scott’s discomfiture and grinned. “Why don’t you tell Victoria all about it?” He said. Any guilt Scott felt about Johnny not being here was instantly changed to regret that Scott WAS here. He was going to get even with his little brother for leaving him in this fix.

With a sigh, Scott once more told the story of his and Johnny’s misadventures. Victoria laughed throughout, and at the end, she decided to tell a tale of her own boys’ Christmas catastrophes.

“Nick’s disaster with the turkey was bad enough” she continued, “but Heath nearly got killed last year by an irate father.” Victoria recounted.

Scott grinned. Anything that he could hold over one of the Barkley boys ought to come in real handy.

“Well,” she started. “Heath wanted to get his girlfriend something really special. He looked all over for just the right gift, and even asked Audra and I for suggestions. But nothing that we recommended suited him, so he went shopping on his own. It seems he purchased some very expensive perfume with a very cheap name. When the lady in question showed it to her father, he rode over here and told Heath that if he ever saw him again, he’d kill him. Nick and Jarrod thought it was funny, but poor Heath didn’t dare to go into town for quite a while.”

“What was the name of the perfume?” Murdoch asked.

“Ladies of the Night.” Victoria answered. “And if any young man gave that perfume to Audra, I WOULD kill him.” She finished.

Murdoch snorted and looked at Scott. “I feel the same way. I don’t care WHO it was, anyone who gave Teresa something named like that would be as good as dead.”

Scott gulped his drink and nodded in agreement. As far as he knew, the name of the perfume Johnny had tried to get had never been mentioned, thank goodness. He sighed in relief. For the first time in months, SOMETHING had gone right. He shuddered to think of what would have happened if they had been successful in purchasing that gift. He definitely owed Johnny for spilling it.

Later that evening, Johnny and Heath came back in the house, both of them looking like the cat that swallowed the canary. Scott looked questioningly at his brother, but Johnny just grinned and nodded his head. Scott relaxed. Evidently their luck had changed; he had expected Johnny to come back and say that he couldn’t find the suitcase or something had gone wrong. Things were definitely looking up.

The rest of the evening the Lancers and the Barkleys celebrated the holiday together, and both Scott and Johnny thought that it was one of the best Christmases ever. They couldn’t believe how great Murdoch was being, and felt pretty guilty for thinking the worst of him. It seemed like they owed him an apology.

As it neared midnight, no one wanted to retire, but everyone planned on getting up early to open the gifts under the tree, so eventually they all found their way to bed. Johnny had retired a little earlier, and Scott poked his head in his brother’s bedroom, hoping to find him awake. When he saw that his brother was asleep, he continued on to his own room.

When he was sure that everyone was asleep, Johnny cautiously made his way down the stairs and slipped out to the barn, where he picked up the brightly wrapped suitcase they had gotten for Jelly. He lugged it in, and placed it under the tree, alongside the rest of the presents. He reached down and picked up another package, which was addressed to Teresa from him. Back in July he had ordered a very special hand made scarf from Italy for her, but he had been afraid it wouldn’t arrive in time for Christmas. Evidently it had come, and Maria had wrapped it with care and sent it along.

Smiling, he reached into his pocket and took out another gift addressed to Teresa. He didn’t want to make his brother look bad, so when he spotted the scarf earlier, he knew that he had to get a gift for Teresa from Scott. He had borrowed twenty dollars from Heath, and had gone back to that crazy store, this time with Heath along for protection. He had hoped that they would have more in by now, and his luck was holding. He had purchased a large bottle, and paid to have it wrapped with the card reading ‘To Teresa, from Scott.’

He placed the bottle carefully under the tree and smiled. He couldn’t wait to see everyone’s expressions when Teresa opened her gift the next morning.

~ end ~

Surprise Series
The Surprise
The Gifts
The Dates
The Easter Bunny
The Chase
The Exchange
The Homecoming
The Squirrels
The Duchess
The Deal
The Mountain Man – FIRST PLACE Lancer Writers Awards: Best Humorous Story

To The Dates 

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