Word Count 15,645
7th in the The Surprise series . If you haven’t read the previous stories there may be some references that are confusing.
Scott and Johnny stood outside of the massive brick building and looked at each other nervously.
“Well, it’s that time again,” Scott said.
“Did we forget anything this time?”
Scott took a step toward the door and then stopped. “Are you sure?”
Scott glared at his brother. “Stop that.”
Johnny looked at him innocently. “Stop what?”
Scott continued to glare. “Has it REALLY been two weeks since our last visit?”
Johnny bit his lip as he thought, then nodded. “Yep.”
Scott shook his head in resignation and then looked at his brother suspiciously. “Are you SURE?”
Johnny shrugged. “Well, actually it’s only been thirteen days.”
Scott brightened and looked at Johnny hopefully. “Maybe we can wait until tomorrow?”
Johnny shrugged. “We gotta go sometime.”
Scott nodded. “I guess.” Scott grabbed the handle and then let go and looked at his brother. “Do you think he’ll still be mad?”
Johnny gaped at his brother. “Mad? MAD? Now why on earth would he POSSIBLY be mad?”
Scott nodded slowly. “I guess.”
Johnny looked at his brother in disbelief. “Scott,” he said slowly, “I was being sarcastic. I mean, we destroyed his house, filled up his cattle ranch with turkeys, destroyed his house again, broke that damn model ship, subjected him to Nick Barkley, destroyed his house AGAIN, and then had him committed to a loony bin. Then, every time we come see him, they drag him out screaming. What do YOU think?”
Scott looked at his brother hopefully. “I was HOPING that he hadn’t noticed that the ship had been damaged.”
“That’s all you’re worried about?”
Scott nodded. “I figure if he thought his ship was all right, he wouldn’t even notice those other things.”
Johnny bit his lip again as he thought for a moment and then he shrugged. “You’re probably right. But it’s pretty obvious. Maybe we can work on it some more before he comes home.”
“I guess. But last time we tried to work on it you got mad and smashed it again.”
“Well, how come they have ta make them darn knots so small? They coulda made ‘em bigger.”
“I THINK, brother, that that’s the point.”
“I can’t believe he cares so much about somethin’ so useless.”
“I STILL can’t believe that he just wanted to have that ship here with him instead of having us visit him.”
Johnny shrugged. “The doctors told him he could have one thing from home. Maybe he couldn’t decide between us.”
Scott snorted. “Uh huh. Maybe he KNEW what would happen when we visited.”
“Maybe,” Johnny admitted. “We sure don’t seem ta cheer him up, but I’m glad we finally talked him into letting us in instead of having that ship. I’m afraid if he looked too closely at that model he’d be REALLY mad.”
“He tried to strangle you last time. How much madder can he get?”
Johnny shrugged. “Well, this time, YOU talk to him.”
“Oh, no. I have no intention of being murdered by my own father.”
Johnny glared at his brother. “You’d rather I got strangled.”
Scott thought for a moment and then nodded.
With a resigned sigh, Johnny grabbed the door handle. “I guess we’d better go on in.”
Johnny glared at his brother once more and then yanked the door open. Johnny was almost through the door when Scott grabbed him back and looked him over. “You didn’t bring your gun with you this time, did you?”
“I ain’t stupid.”
Scott bit his tongue to keep from replying to that observation. “Well, after you snuck it in time before last, Murdoch almost shot you with it.”
Johnny shrugged. “He was upset.” He patted his coat. “Besides, I’ve got it hidden real good this time.”
Scott shook his head in resignation. “Well let’s TRY to keep him calm this time, shall we? Remember what the doctor said; don’t mention the Barkleys, brandy, plumbing, his ship model, giant rabbits,” he ticked the subjects off on his fingers. “Elephants, camels, bathtubs, Christmas presents, and MOST OF ALL, NO TURKEYS!”
Johnny shook his head. “Ya know we still have ta get rid of those birds before he comes home.”
Scott sighed. “We’ve tried, remember? Nobody wants them.”
“There’s gotta be SOMEBODY out there as dumb as us that will take ‘em off our hands.”
“Don’t count on it.”
“Well, we’d better hurry up and think of something. If everything goes all right today, the doctor said he could come home in one month.”
“Maybe you can make him mad and buy us some more time.”
Johnny shook his head. “If anybody’s gonna make him mad, it’s YOUR turn.”
Scott shook his head. “Never mind. Bad idea.”
“Just don’t tell Mrs. Barkley when he’s coming home. I’m afraid she’ll show up and try ta baby sit us. She keeps threatenin’ ta come and take care of us, and if she does, she’ll probably bring that bellowin’ grizzly bear with her.” He shook his head. “And if THAT happens, I’ll be right in here with ole’ Murdoch.”
Scott brightened for a moment, and then shook his head. Putting up with Nick just wouldn’t be worth it. “Don’t worry, I won’t say anything. I have no intention of destroying the ranch again.”
Johnny nodded. “Good. I don’t think it could survive another onslaught by Nick.” He thought for a moment. “I don’t think I could survive another onslaught by Nick.”
Scott snorted. “I KNOW you couldn’t. If that ranch is destroyed again, I guarantee Murdoch will kill both of us.” Scott thought seriously for a moment. “Actually, if Nick DOES come back, I believe being killed would definitely be preferable.”
Johnny nodded. “Agreed, but I aim ta take Nick with me.” He shrugged. “We’d better get goin’. It’s getting’ late.”
“All right, just watch what you say for a change. I don’t want them to have to put Murdoch in a straight jacket again.”
Johnny shrugged. “I’ll do my best.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Scott said glumly.
After taking a deep breath, Scott pulled open the door. “Let’s try it again.”
Scott bolted out of the door, with Johnny right behind him. When they had reached the safety of the street, the two men stopped and looked at each other.
“Well, that went well,” Scott finally managed shakily.
Johnny nodded. “Much better than last time. This time he almost shot you instead of me.”
Scott glared at his brother. “I was BEING sarcastic.”
Johnny shrugged. “It still went better than last time.”
“I TOLD you not to bring that gun in.”
“How did I know he was going to give me a hug?”
“I don’t think that was a hug. I THINK he was trying to squash you.”
Johnny thought for minute. “Yeah, you’re probably right.” He looked at his brother. “Well, the doctor said that as long as we don’t come back, Murdoch could probably get out next month. That gives us four weeks ta get rid of those birds. What are we going ta do?”
Scott looked at his brother speculatively. “How hungry are you?” He asked hopefully.
Johnny shook his head. “Oh, no ya don’t. I ain’t eatin’ a couple of thousand turkeys. Besides, if we don’t somehow make a profit on ‘em, Murdoch will be locked back up, only this time it’ll be for murder.”
Scott sighed. “Well, Thanksgiving and Christmas are both over. What else do you do with a turkey if you don’t eat it?”
Johnny sighed. “I know what I’d LIKE ta do with ‘em. I’d LIKE ta use ‘em for target practice!”
Scott shook his head. “You know how Teresa feels about that.”
“I never could figure that out. She doesn’t think anything of whackin’ a bird’s head off with that hatchet she has, but if I even SUGGEST doin’ those dang birds in by shootin’ ‘em, she gets all teary eyed.”
Scott grinned. “Maybe we should suggest SHE take care of the problem. I guarantee that after cleaning up after those birds for a week, she’ll be begging to borrow the shotgun!”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, but I have the feelin’ she’d come after us first.”
Scott sighed. “You’re probably right. I still don’t know why we get blamed for everything.”
Johnny shrugged. “I can’t figure it out, either. I mean, it’s not like we’re stupid or anything. ”
“Maybe we’re just unlucky,” Scott observed.
“That’s probably it. That, and we’ve got Nick Barkley for a friend.”
“Well, we made it home,” Scott observed as they sat on the hill behind the hacienda.
Johnny took a deep breath. “Yep. And it smells like the turkeys are still here.”
Scott snorted. “I don’t have to smell them; I’ve been hearing them since we left Spanish Wells.”
“I was sorta hopin’ they’d be gone.”
“About the only thing that would get rid of those darn birds is a tidal wave.”
Johnny looked at his brother with interest. “Yeah? How do we get one?”
“Unfortunately, we’re too far from the ocean. Besides, it would wipe out the whole ranch along with the turkeys.”
“So there’s no way we can get one? I mean, losin’ the ranch would be a small price ta pay for getting’ rid of those turkeys. I don’t even think Murdoch would mind too much, as long as we saved his ship.”
Scott looked at his brother and shook his head. “No.” He thought a moment. “Besides, knowing our luck, we’d drop the darn thing.”
Johnny nodded his head resignedly and looked back down into the valley, hearing the sounds of gobbling drifting up the hill. “Scott, there just HAS ta be some way of getting rid of those things.”
Scott shrugged. “We’ll figure something out.”
Johnny grinned. “Maybe we can ship ‘em all off to the Barkleys. Sort of a late Christmas present.”
Scott grinned at the thought of all those birds launching a mass invasion of the Barkley ranch, and then he shook his head regretfully. “As tempting as that sounds, I don’t think it would be a good idea.”
“Think about it, brother. If the turkeys took over their ranch, where do you think the Barkleys would go?”
Johnny thought for a moment and then shuddered. “You’re right. Bad idea. Even havin’ those squawky birds smellin’ up the place isn’t as bad as havin’ Nick Barkley in the same territory as us.”
“Agreed. Besides, the next time Nick comes to this ranch, it will be the end of the world as we know it.”
“Never mind brother. Suffice it to say, I don’t want him here either.”
The brothers rode into the barnyard and dismounted slowly. Johnny stretched and then shot a look at his brother. “At least we have those bathtubs upstairs. I don’t know about you, but I aim ta have a nice long leisurely soak and worry about those birds tomorrow.”
Scott grinned. “And we don’t even have to race each other.”
Johnny grinned at him. “Wanna bet?”
Both men looked at each other for a moment, and then took off running for the house. The darted in through the kitchen door and slammed through the dining room, heading for the stairs. They had almost reached the steps when a voice halted them in their tracks.
Johnny and Scott skidded to a halt and spun around in unison toward the voice. Both boys’ mouths dropped open at the apparition and they stood frozen until Scott finally regained his composure. “Mrs. Barkley!”
Victoria took a step forward. “I heard that Murdoch was getting out in a month, and I decided I’d better come over here and make sure everything was in order.” She raked the two men with her gaze. “Obviously, it’s a good thing I did.”
“You’re staying?” Johnny managed to squeak out as Scott dug him in the ribs.
Scott took a step forward. “Of COURSE Mrs. Barkley is staying, and we should be grateful for her help.”
Johnny watched in amazement as Scott continued to reassure the woman of her welcome. When Scott guided her over to the couch and asked her to sit down, Johnny made a hasty retreat into the kitchen. Several minutes later, Scott joined him, and Johnny looked at his brother in amazement.
“Are you crazy?”
Scott shook his head, a smile on his face. “Johnny, don’t you see, this is perfect.”
“Yes! Mrs. Barkley will take care of the house, leaving US free to figure out what to do with those turkeys. And BEST of all, Nick is nowhere in sight!”
Johnny thought for a moment, and then grinned. “I guess havin’ another good cook here won’t hurt nothin’.”
Scott clapped his brother on the arm. “That’s right. Now let’s go take those baths you were talking about.”
“Good night, Mrs. Barkley,” the boys chorused as they gleefully climbed the stairs. They were halfway down the hall when they heard a noise coming from the nearest bathroom.
Johnny froze. “Is that what I THINK it is?”
Scott shook his head. “No,” he whispered. “It can’t be.”
Johnny looked at his brother. “It is. It’s Nick singing.”
A moment later a chorus erupted from the other bathroom, Heath’s voice clearly identifiable.
Johnny dragged Scott into his room and locked the door. “OK, NOW what?” he asked in a panicked voice.
Scott shrugged. “Brother, you worry too much. We’ll keep Nick and Heath busy with ranch work and we can concentrate on getting rid of those turkeys and fixing Murdoch’s ship! It’s perfect!”
Johnny shook his head. “Nothing can be perfect as long as Nick is on the same PLANET as I am!”
“I told you that you worry too much. What could POSSIBLY go wrong?
Johnny looked at him dubiously. “Well, for starters, if there’s no ranch ta come back to, Murdoch MIGHT be upset, and with Nick here, that’s a distinct possibility!”
Scott shook his head. “Trust me, he won’t even notice the ranch isn’t standing as long as the turkeys are gone, the ship is all right, and he’s got plenty of brandy.”
Johnny thought about it for several seconds and then his eyes narrowed. “Are you SURE?”
“Trust me, brother, I’m sure. As long as we get those things taken care of, nothing else matters.”
Johnny finally dropped his head and nodded reluctantly. “All right. We can start working on that ship. I’ll go downstairs and get it.”
Scott shook his head in disbelief. “Mrs. Barkley’s downstairs.”
“So, little brother, for some strange reason, she’s on Murdoch’s side. In fact, she might even be a spy. If she finds out we’re messing with that model, she’s sure to tell Murdoch, and then we WILL be in trouble. We have to do it without her finding out.”
“Don’t worry, I can be REAL sneaky. She’ll never know I took it. Be back in a minute.” Johnny turned and went to the door. After looking around cautiously, he slipped through the door and was gone. Scott shook his head; his brother was about as subtle as Agnes. He’d wait a few minutes, and if his brother didn’t appear, he’d go down and rescue him.
Johnny went bounding down the stairs and headed toward the Great Room. He was hoping Mrs. Barkley had retired so he could just pick up the ship and leave, but his hopes were dashed when he saw her walking around the room looking at the pictures, a small glass of brandy in her hand. Johnny quietly started toward the ship, which was sitting in its place of honor in the middle of the room. He had almost reached it when the woman turned around.
“Johnny! I thought you were going to retire for the night.”
Johnny looked at her in panic for a moment, then shrugged and smiled disarmingly. “I thought I’d come down here and… talk… for a minute.
Johnny eagerly nodded his head.
“All right, what would you like to talk about?”
Johnny looked perplexed. “I don’t know, I thought you might know.”
Mrs. Barkley shook her head slowly and took a sip of her drink. “Nooo, I don’t believe I do.”
Johnny shrugged. “Well, don’t ya have ANYTHING ya’d like ta talk about?”
“Nooo. What about you?”
Johnny’s brow furrowed, and then he brightened. “Scott and I went and saw Murdoch.”
“He’s comin’ home.”
“Heath and Nick are upstairs.”
Johnny gave up. “Are you gonna stay up much longer?”
“I hadn’t thought about it, why?”
Johnny shrugged in resignation. “No reason, just wonderin’ that’s all.” He bit his lip and tried to think of something else to say.
“I think Barranca has worms.”
Victoria had just taken a drink of brandy, and it went down the wrong way. She sputtered and coughed, and Johnny rushed over and started pounding her on her back.
Nick poked his head out of his bedroom, hoping he wouldn’t run into Scott or Johnny. He heard the sound of Heath singing in the other bathroom and snickered. His brother had a way of making himself look like an idiot, but Nick had to admit, it was hard to look like TOO much of an idiot with Scott and Johnny around.
His mother had literally blackmailed him to make him come here, and told him to behave himself upon pain of death. He was completely convinced that she had meant it. He shook his head; he couldn’t quite understand just WHY both his mother and Heath liked the Lancers so much. Whenever Scott or Johnny were around, disaster befell everyone within a hundred miles, and the problem was, he was always well within that hundred mile perimeter. He thought the distance between the Lancer ranch and the Barkley ranch was the bare minimum required, and if he could have moved the Lancer ranch down to Australia, he would have done it happily.
He tiptoed past Scott and Johnny’s rooms, and then heaved a sigh of relief as he headed down the stairs. He felt very relaxed after enjoying a nice, leisurely soak in Lancer’s massive bathtubs and he decided that maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to come here after all. He walked into the Great Room, anticipating a nice big glass of Murdoch’s imported brandy, when he looked up and saw someone attacking his mother. His eyes widened as he recognized her attacker, and he launched himself at the man’s back.
Scott watched from the safety of the stairs as the two men rolled around the living room. It appeared that Mrs. Barkley was trying to say something, but she couldn’t stop coughing. Scott watched in alarm as the men rolled toward the table holding the model ship. His eyes widened as the table tipped precariously and he dashed forward and grabbed the ship just before it hit the floor. He cradled it in his arms for a moment as the two men rolled past him once more, and then he dashed up the stairs with his prize. He passed Heath and nodded at him as he ran into his room and slammed the door.
Victoria finally caught her breath. “NICK BARKLEY AND JOHNNY LANCER, YOU STOP IT RIGHT NOW!”
Heath heard his mother and spun around and headed back to his room. He threw the bolt at the same time Scott threw his, leaving Johnny and Nick to face Victoria’s wrath by themselves. Once inside his room, Scott carefully put the ship down on his dresser. He had to admit, his brother was a genius. He couldn’t have thought of a better plan to distract the Barkleys himself.
“Well?” Victoria glared at both boys, who were standing contritely before her.
Johnny shrugged and darted a glance at Nick as he scuffed his toe into the carpet. “I didn’t do nothin’. He’s the one that started it.”
Nick glared at the gunfighter. “You were attacking MOTHER!”
“I wasn’t attackin’ her, I was TRYIN” ta keep her from chokin’!”
“By BEATING her?” Nick turned toward Johnny belligerently.
Johnny turned and faced Nick. “I was PATTING her on the back!”
“BOYS! Whoever makes the first move will be sleeping with those turkeys!”
Reluctantly, the two young men turned back toward the older woman, both still trying to glare at the other one from the side. Victoria shook her head. “If you two had broken Murdoch’s ship with your roughhousing, he would have had our heads!”
Nick looked around. “What ship?”
Victoria spun around. “That shi…..” She looked around in confusion. “Where did it go?”
Johnny looked at her innocently. “Where did what go?”
Nick glanced at Johnny before once more asking his mother cautiously. “What ship?”
“THE SHIP THAT WAS ON THAT TABLE!” She spun around and pointed toward the empty piece of furniture.
Nick and Johnny looked at each other and shrugged. Nick watched as his mother continued to look at the table, muttering to herself. Concerned, he went over and took her hand. “Maybe you’d better go lie down.”
She glared up at him. “Don’t you patronize me, Nick Barkley! There was a model ship on that table ten minutes ago!”
Nick let go and stepped back nervously. “Then I think I’ll go lie down.”
Johnny nodded. “Me too. I think I’m done talkin’. Good night, Mrs. Barkley.” He raced for the stairs, Nick in hot pursuit.
Victoria watched them go, then turned back around and looked in confusion at the table. She knew it had been there earlier. Maybe Nick was right, maybe she should go lie down, too.
Johnny waited until he was sure Nick was in his room, and then he slowly opened his door and scurried over to his brother’s room. He tapped softly, and Scott cautiously opened his door. Johnny hurriedly entered and shut the door behind him.
“Didja get it?”
“Of course I got it. I’m not incompetent, you know.” He looked at his brother suspiciously. “What took you so long down there, anyway?”
Johnny shrugged. “Nick was mad ‘cause I was tryin’ ta kill Mrs. Barkley.”
Scott’s eyebrows went up. “You didn’t succeed, did you?”
“Of course not. I wasn’t REALLY tryin’ ta kill her. I was tryin’ ta get her ta breathe.”
“She wasn’t breathing?”
Johnny shook his head. “Nope. I never knew she was that sensitive. She heard poor Barranca was sick and she started gasping for breath.”
Scott shrugged. “I guess you never know about people. But it’s a good thing you didn’t kill her. Murdoch is already mad enough at us.”
“Yeah, not ta mention Nick. He would be REALLY upset.” Johnny picked up the model. “It looks pretty good.”
Scott shook his head. “There are several lines broken, and Murdoch is sure to notice.”
“Speakin’ about noticing, Mrs. Barkley realized it was missing, so when we’re done with it, we’d better put it back.”
Scott nodded. “It shouldn’t take us too long.”
Victoria arose early the next morning. She had slept soundly, and she decided she might have been confused the day before. Maybe she had simply remembered the ship being there from the visit before. As she passed Johnny and Scott’s rooms, she heard the two men snoring softly and wondered why they were sleeping in so late. They had both certainly gone to bed early enough the night before.
She descended the stairs, and then walked across to the kitchen, glancing casually at the small table in the Great Room where the ship normally stood. She stopped and stared at it for a minute, and then calmly proceeded into the kitchen, where Nick and Heath were eating breakfast.
“Good morning, boys. Sleep well?”
“Yes mother,” they answered in unison.
Scott woke up, wondering what was bothering him. He and Johnny had worked on that blasted ship until dawn, and then his brother had snuck downstairs and put it back on the table. Looking out the window, he decided he had only been asleep for an hour or so. He looked around, wondering why he had awakened.
He had a nagging sense of panic, but couldn’t see anything to cause his nervousness. He took another look around, but saw only his furniture and a few scraps of material on the table where he and Johnny had worked on the ship. He lay back down and shut his eyes.
A second later, he sat straight up and stared at the table. His idiotic brother had forgotten to reattach one of the sails. If Mrs. Barkley took a close look at that ship, she would know there was something wrong. Quickly, he grabbed his trousers and pulled them on, then ran to the door. After looking out quickly, he ran downstairs and grabbed the ship, then flew back up the stairs.
Victoria reached over and picked up a piece of toast and then caught Nick’s eye. “I want you to know that I’m NOT crazy. Take a look at the table in the Great Room.”
Nick looked into the Great Room and saw the empty table, then turned around and shrugged.
“What about it?”
“Nick Barkley! Don’t tell me you don’t see that ship!”
Heath turned around and looked at the table. “What ship?”
Victoria bolted to her feet and pointed toward the Great Room “That shi….” She stared at the empty table for a moment, and then shook her head. “I think I’ll go lie down.”
Nick and Heath looked at each other and shrugged as their mother walked toward the stairs, stopping every few seconds to turn and look at the empty table.
Scott ran into his room, panting, and slammed the door. Unfortunately, one of the ship’s lines got caught in the doorknob and went flying into the air.
As she climbed the stairs, Victoria heard the scream that came from Scott’s room, and then a crash. It sounded as if the poor boy had fallen out of bed, and she wondered if she should check on him. She hesitated just outside his door, but finally she decided it was time he got up, anyway.
Scott stared at the crumpled model in disbelief until a knock on his door sent him into a flurry of activity. He bolted over to the closet and tore it open, then tossed the ship onto a shelf. “Just a minute.”
“Come on, Scott. What’s takin’ ya?”
Scott caught the ship as it started to tilt alarmingly, then shoved it back onto the shelf and slammed the door.
“All right, Scott, you got a girl or somethin’ in there? Open up!”
Scott strode to the door and yanked it open, trying to look as innocent as possible. “What’s wrong?”
Johnny walked into the room and looked around suspiciously. Scott darted a quick glance at the closet, and with a grin, Johnny walked over and yanked it open.
“NO!” Scott yelled just as the ship came crashing down onto his brother’s head.
Johnny valiantly fought off the attacking ship and Scott dove to the floor in a vain attempt to catch it before it hit the floor. Both men stared at the wrecked ship in sorrow.
Scott shook his head slowly, secretly delighted that he was off the hook, but he did his best to sound upset. “You broke it.”
“Well what the heck was it doin’ in your closet? I thought it was downstairs!”
Scott looked at his brother indignantly. “I was keeping it up here so it wouldn’t get destroyed before Murdoch came home. After all, you and Nick ARE in the same house together, but I guess my plan didn’t work. You STILL managed to destroy it.” With an exaggerated sigh, Scott reached down and picked it up. “Well, it doesn’t look much worse than it did before we started fixing it. It’s just the masts and rigging. The hull seems to lead a charmed life.”
“I think it’s solid wood, that’s why.” Johnny plopped down on the bed and glared at the model. “NOW what do we do?”
“I guess we fix it again.”
Johnny turned his glare on his brother. “You can fix it. As far as I’m concerned, Murdoch will just have to cope.”
“Murdoch will COPE by killing us.”
“It’s better than goin’ blind tryin’ ta figure out those damn knots,” Johnny replied sullenly.
Scott’s eyes narrowed. “Maybe we can figure out a way to get someone else to fix it for us.”
“How?” Johnny asked eagerly.
Scott grinned. “Brother, I have a plan.”
That evening, the four men sat around the fireplace, drinking and watching each other warily. Victoria had retired earlier, after taking a last glance at the empty table where the ship normally stood.
“Here, Nick, let me get you some more to drink.” Scott poured a large amount into the glass the other man held.
Nick looked at Scott with suspicion, and then took a gulp of his drink.
“How is your mother feeling?” Scott asked.
“I think she’s OK. I don’t know why she kept seeing that ship that wasn’t there. I STILL think there’s somethin’ in this water around here.”
Johnny shrugged. “I haven’t noticed anything.”
Nick rolled his eyes. “You didn’t notice when Agnes walked through the house earlier.”
Nick shut his eyes and took another swallow, wondering how Johnny even managed to stay alive.
Scott spoke up. “I wish I knew where that model ship of Murdoch’s really is.”
Heath looked up in surprise. “You don’t know where it is?”
Scott shook his head. “Johnny and I couldn’t find it. If anything happens to that model, Murdoch will have a heart attack after he kills everyone in sight.”
“What’s so special about that ship, anyway?”
Johnny shrugged. “Who knows? He acts like he’s in love with the damn thing.”
Nick threw back another swallow. He KNEW this family was crazy. Johnny had an elephant for a girlfriend, Scott had a camel, and Murdoch was in love with a model ship. And Jelly….he wouldn’t even think about Jelly. He marched over and poured another glass and glanced at his brother, who seemed to be taking the news calmly. Nick shivered; he was the only sane one of the bunch.
“So are you going to help us look for it?” Scott asked.
“I guess. It’s better than taking care of those turkeys.” Nick shook his head. “How many did you finally wind up with, anyway?”
Scott took a deep breath. “Well, ORIGINALLY, there were a little over two thousand, and then Murdoch sold some to the army. Now we have about twenty five hundred.”
Heath’s head shot up. “Wait a minute. You said you sold some. How come you’ve got more than when you started?”
Johnny grinned. “Well….seems that some of them were hens.”
Nick shook his head on disbelief. “What are you going to do with that many birds?”
Scott shrugged. “Actually, I thought that you might like to go into the turkey business,” he said seriously.
“Nice try, but I haven’t had THAT much to drink yet.”
“Johnny, give Nick some more whisky.”
Nick shook his head. “You can give me the whole bottle; I STILL won’t go for it.” He held out his glass as Johnny filled it once again.
Heath watched nervously. “Nick, don’t you think you’ve had enough to drink?”
Nick tossed back the drink and shook his head. “Not for around here.” He squinted at Johnny. “I can still see him.” He held out his glass. “Fill it up.”
Johnny obliged as Scott chuckled slightly. So far his plan was working perfectly.
Several hours later, Nick stumbled up the stairs, helped by Heath and Johnny. They dumped him in his bed, then went out and shut the door. As soon as Heath’s door shut, Johnny hurried over to Scott’s room. “Where is it?”
Scott pointed to his dresser. Johnny went over and looked at the ship. “It sure is a mess.”
Scott grinned. “Yes, but now it will be Nick’s mess.”
Johnny shook his head. “If he ever finds out…”
Scott looked at his brother. “Who would you rather have mad at you? Nick or Murdoch?”
Johnny thought for a minute, and picked up the ship. “Do you think he’s out yet?”
Scott snorted. “He was out three hours ago, he just didn’t know it.”
Johnny went to the door and peered out cautiously, then snuck down the hall to Nick’s room, followed by Scott.
When they reached Nick’s room, Scott slowly pushed the door open and peered inside. “All clear.”
Johnny tiptoed over to where the dark haired man was snoring, and tucked the ship into Nick’s arms.
Scott smiled. “Isn’t that sweet. It looks like he’s in love with it.”
Johnny shook his head. “He’s gonna kill us.”
“Heath, wake up!”
Heath rolled over and pulled his pillow over his head. “Go away.”
Heath sat up and glared at his brother. “What’s wrong?”
“Everything. I’m in trouble.”
Heath smiled. “I TOLD ya to be careful with those saloon girls.”
“That’s not funny.”
Heath sat up groggily. “Well what’s wrong?”
Nick scrubbed his hand over his face. “Do you remember ANYTHING about last night?”
Heath thought for a minute. “Sure. And I know I remember more than you do.”
Nick sighed in relief. “What happened?”
Heat shrugged. “Well, I won one game and Johnny won one game. Then we sort of tied, and then he won one, and then…”
“I don’t CARE who won a game, what ELSE happened?” Nick yelled.
“Well, we talked about turkeys.”
“I don’t really remember.”
Nick sank down on the bed with a groan. “I can’t remember anything, either.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“The ship,” he croaked.
“What about it?” Heath jumped up. “Did you find it?”
Nick buried his face in his hand. “Oh, yes, I found it.” He grabbed his brother and pulled him to his feet. ‘Come on.”
“I’m not even dressed!”
“Who cares? Teresa isn’t here.”
“NOW!” He grabbed his brother and dragged him out the door and into his own room, with Heath desperately trying to keep his longjohns from falling. Nick pulled him up to the bed. “LOOK! I woke up and there it was! Right in my bed!”
Heath looked around in confusion, and then his eyes lit on the shattered remains of Murdoch’s ship. “Uh oh.”
“Yeah, Uh oh.” Nick ran his hand through his hair. “NOW what are we going to do?”
“Well, I don’t know what YOU’RE going to do, but I’m going downstairs and eat breakfast.”
“How can you eat at a time like this? Murdoch is going to KILL us!”
“ME? Why would he kill ME? I’m not the one who slept with his ship.”
“He’ll kill you by association, and if he doesn’t, I WILL!”
“What did I do?”
“You introduced me to Scott and Johnny!”
Heath thought for a minute and then shrugged. “Yeah, good point. All right, we’ll figure something out.”
“I don’t know, let me think.”
“Last time I let you think, I wound up getting attacked by an elephant.”
Heath grinned. “So after that, nothing could be too bad, right?”
“If Scott and Johnny are involved, don’t count on it,” Nick growled.
“I’ve GOT it!”
“What have you got?” Nick asked cautiously.
“An idea. All we have to do is let someone else think THEY broke it!”
Heath shrugged. “Jelly?”
Nick’s face broke into a wide grin. “I think I like your idea.”
“Now we just have to figure out a way to convince him he’s broken it.”
“That shouldn’t be hard,” Nick smirked. “Just have him shoot the dang thing with that shotgun of his.”
A slow smile spread over Heath’s face. “Brother, I think I have an idea.”
Nick looked at his brother suspiciously. “Does it involve me getting shot?”
Heath shrugged. “Maybe.”
Nick sighed in resignation. “Well, I guess it will be better than getting torn apart by Murdoch.”
Heath slapped his brother on the shoulder. “That’s the spirit. Now can I please go get dressed?”
Jelly mumbled to himself as he went about his work. He couldn’t get much done, because he spent most of his time looking over his shoulder to make sure Nick wasn’t coming after him. He was always jumpy when the Barkleys visited; it sort of felt like the whole ranch was sitting on a keg of dynamite and just might blow sky high any second. Of course, if the truth be told, it HAD blown a couple of times, with a little help from Johnny and Scott. Jelly shook his head, if it weren’t for him, the ranch would go to hell in a handbasket. It seemed like he was the only one with any common sense around here.
He picked up a bucket of grain and headed further into the barn, squinting as the light faded as he went further back. It was late afternoon, and the sun was already on its way down. He dumped the oats in Charlie’s bin, and then went after another bucket for Barranca. As he was scooping up the grain, he heard a sound off to his left. He stopped, wondering what it could be. He stopped and listened, then continued. When he heard it again, he froze. A more superstitious fella would think it was a ghost makin’ that unearthly moaning sound.
He walked over to Barranca’s stall and dumped the oats, then stopped when he heard the moan again. He looked around, and thought he saw some movement in the back of the barn, and the hairs on the back of his neck prickled. He cautiously edged over to where he kept his scatter gun, keeping his eyes on where he’d seen the movement. He slowly reached out and grabbed his gun, and brought it up.
“All right, come on outta there.”
“I mean it. Whatever you are, just come out, nice and easy like, and no one will get hurt.”
“I’m gonna give ya to the count of ten ta get your mangy carcass out where I can see ya, or I’ll let ya have both barrels!”
A strange apparition that looked like a headless figure rose up from behind the stall partition and gave a plaintive moan, and Jelly shut his eyes and squeezed the trigger.
The explosion rocked the barn, and a huge hole magically appeared in the partition, making the apparition vanish. Jelly fired again, sending a bale of hay into oblivion. Jelly waited for the cloud of hay to settle down, then cautiously approached the stall where he’d seen the figure. As he turned the corner, he brought his gun to bear, but the stall was empty. Empty, except for one demolished ship model.
Jelly felt the blood leave his head as he saw just what it was that he had apparently shot. He looked around, and then covered it up with some hay. If he was lucky, he’d have time to give himself a good head start before anyone found out that he’d murdered Murdoch’s model ship.
Jelly started out of the barn, wondering how long it would take to get down to Mexico. He had only gone a short ways when he realized he wouldn’t make very good time on foot, so he turned around and headed back to get a horse. On the way back, he realized that if no one knew he had shot Murdoch’s ship, MAYBE he could stay. He entered the barn and walked cautiously over to where the ship was buried, then scraped away some of the hay and stared at the wreck. Nope, it was still broken. With a sigh, he picked it up gingerly and headed out of the barn. After looking around furtively, he scurried into the house through the back kitchen door. He opened the door leading to the Great Room, and after a quick look, he headed into the room.
He froze when he saw Victoria lying on the sofa, a cloth over her eyes. He studied her for a minute, and then decided she was asleep. He sure didn’t want her catching him. He tip toed over to the table and slid the broken model back where it belonged, then turned to leave.
The handyman turned around cautiously. “Miz Barkley.”
Do you need something?”
Victoria nodded. “I was just lying down a few minutes. I’m not sure I feel well. I keep seeing…” Her words died in her throat as she caught sight of the table.
Jelly looked around in confusion. “What do you keep seeing?”
Victoria’s hand went to her throat. “Do you see a ship on that table?”
Jelly thought quickly. If she knew it hadn’t been there before, she’d know he’d put it there. “What ship?” he asked hesitantly.
“The ship on that table.”
Jelly looked at the table, then back at the lady. “I don’t see nothin’.”
Victoria’s gaze wavered uncertainly back and forth from the man to the table, but she finally nodded and lay back down. “I didn’t think there was a ship there, but I wasn’t sure. If you don’t need anything, I think I’ll lie down again.”
Jelly stood uncertainly, and then tiptoed out. Convincing her there was no ship had been a whole lot easier than he thought it would be. He knew if HE saw something, no one could convince him otherwise. Seems like everyone was going crazy around here. Must be something in the water. He decided he’d make sure his stash of whisky was in good shape.
Nick came down the stairs and glanced at his mother. She obviously was still feeling under the weather. He hoped she’d feel better soon, and if anyone did ANYTHING to make her feel worse, he was going to kill them. He was sure there was something wrong here at Lancer; maybe there really WAS something wrong with the water here. Thank goodness Murdoch had a well stocked liquor cabinet. He’d try to convince his mother to start drinking the brandy.
Nick made sure he walked quietly so he wouldn’t waken Victoria. As he walked by the couch, he froze. He stared at the table and circled around it, studying the apparition intently and forgetting to be quiet.
“What are you looking at?” Victoria sat up and looked back and forth from her son to the model.
He tore his gaze away from the ship. “Oh, nothing,” he said cheerfully. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine, I think.” She looked at her son hopefully and then glanced quickly toward the model. “Are you sure you weren’t looking at anything?”
“No.” He looked around. “Not a thing.”
“You don’t see anything unusual?”
Nick shook his head in confusion. “No, I can’t say that I do. Why? Am I supposed to?”
Victoria shook her head in resignation. “No, not at all. I don’t think I am feeling well after all. I think I’ll lie down some more.”
Nick nodded, “I hope you feel better soon, Mother.” He walked over to the bar and poured a large glass of brandy, then went over and handed it to his mother. She grabbed it and downed it in one long gulp, then handed the glass back to her son as he watched with raised eyebrows. He set the glass down and then headed to the door, stopping every few feet to look back at the ship and his mother. Once he reached the door, he hurried through and headed toward the barn.
“What’s wrong?” Heath poked his head out from behind his horse. “I was just going to ride over and see what Scott and Johnny were doing. Wanna come along?”
“Forget that! It’s back!”
“The SHIP! It’s back on the table! ”
“Is it fixed?”
“No, it’s not fixed! What’re we going to do?”
“Why do we have to do anything? It’s not our problem anymore.”
Nick stopped and thought for a moment, then brightened. “Yeah, you’re right. No one can blame us! We had nothing to do with it!”
Heath grinned. “Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but I won’t tell.” His expression turned thoughtful. “At least I won’t tell if you make it worth my while.”
Nick’s eyes narrowed. “You wouldn’t.”
“Sure I would.”
Nick glared at his brother for a second, and then sighed. “All right, what do you want?”
Heath shrugged. “I don’t know yet, but I’ll let you know when I do.”
Nick shook his head and then stalked over to his horse and grabbed the saddle sitting on the nearby rail. “I’m going into town.”
“For how long?”
“Not long. Just until I drink enough to make you, Johnny, Jelly, Scott, that damn ship, and ALL those miserable turkeys disappear.”
“What did I do?”
“I TOLD YOU! You introduced me to Johnny and Scott. Now IF I can make it to town and back without somehow getting killed by a giant rabbit or squished by an elephant, or attacked by a giant turkey, I MIGHT see you tonight.”
Heath looked thoughtfully at his brother. “I believe that giant turkey belonged to you.”
Nick swung up on his horse and glared at his brother. “Around here, I thought it would be perfectly normal, and I was right; no one even noticed the damn thing.” He spurred his horse out of the yard and disappeared in the direction of town.
Heath shook his head and mounted his horse to go looking for his friends. He couldn’t figure out why Nick was always so upset with them; they didn’t bother him any. He pulled a small bottle out of his coat pocket and took a long swig. Nope, they didn’t bother him at all.
Heath pulled his horse to a halt next to the small stream that Johnny was trying to clear. He watched as the gunfighter wrestled a large branch out of a draw. A few choice cuss words drifted up from the stream, and Heath figured they weren’t coming from the branch. He sat quietly on his horse, hoping Johnny didn’t look up, or he might have to help. Finally, Johnny outmaneuvered the ornery branch and without looking he threw it up on the bank, barely missing Heath’s horse. The animal spooked and Heath, taken unaware, desperately pulled leather before hitting the ground.
Heath lay there for a moment, trying to get some air back into his lungs, and somewhat succeeding. As Heath’s mouth opened and shut, gulping the air into his lungs, Johnny slogged up out of the stream and watched his friend in amusement.
“Havin’ a problem?” Johnny asked innocently.
“Good, then you can help me get the rest of the junk outta this stream.”
“Well, come on, don’t lie there all day.”
Heath rolled to his side, and then stumbled to his feet. After shaking his head several times to try and clear it, he finally gave up and followed Johnny into the stream. They worked quietly for an hour or so, and then decided to take a break. The two men sat under a nearby tree and ate the sandwiches Heath had brought.
“Where’s Nick? Johnny asked.
Heath shrugged. “He went into town.”
Johnny snuck a quick glance at Heath. “He wasn’t tryin’ ta get a certain ship fixed, was he?”
Heath shook his head and then stopped and stared at Johnny. “Now why would you think he would have to fix a ship?”
Johnny immediately realized his mistake and decided to expertly talk his way out of it. “Uh…no reason.”
Heath’s eyebrows went up. “You planted that ship in his room, didn’t you?”
Johnny bit his lip as he considered his answer.
“Did you break it, too?”
Johnny bit his lip again.
Heath smiled. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell him.”
“You’re a true friend.”
Heath nodded. “Yep, I am. But it’s going to cost you. Deal?”
Johnny looked at Heath suspiciously. “What’s it gonna cost me?”
Heath shrugged. “Does it REALLY matter? If I blow the whistle on you, both Murdoch and Nick will take turns killing you.”
Johnny’s shoulders slumped. “Yeah, I guess. OK. It’s a deal.”
“Good. I think I’ll just sit here under this tree for a while and watch you work.”
Johnny gave his friend a last glare, and then went back into the stream. Heath sat there for while, and then stood up and walked over to his horse. “I think I’ll take a ride. It’s exhausting watching you.” A tree limb went flying by his ear as he mounted his horse, and the muffled curses coming from the stream suddenly became much clearer.
Heath decided to head over to where Scott was working. So far, today had been very profitable, and decided he might as well see if his luck was holding. He found Scott fixing a portion of fence line that was down in a nearby pasture. It had been flattened for several hundred feet, and Heath whistled as he saw the damage.
Scott answered without even looking up. “What does it look like? Agnes decided the grass was greener on the other side of the fence.”
“Shouldn’t Johnny be fixing that? After all, it IS his elephant.”
Scott shrugged. “Yeah, well, I figure it’s the least I can do.”
Heath’s ears perked up. “Oh? And why is that?”
Oh, come on, you can tell me.”
Scott shook his head. “No.”
Heath thought for a few minutes and then reached into his saddlebags and withdrew his flask. He stepped off of his horse and held out the brandy. “Would you like some?”
Scott looked at the flask askance, and then shot an equally suspicious look at Heath before giving in and nodding his head.
An hour later, both men were sitting in the field, trading stories. “You REALLY did that?” Scott asked.
Heath nodded. ‘Yep. And I don’t think Nick ever forgave me, but I figure what are brothers for if it’s not to annoy each other?”
Scott nodded seriously. “I agree.” He took another swallow. “I figure it’s my sworn duty to make Johnny’s life miserable.” He handed the flask back to Heath, who pretended to take a swallow and then gave the brandy back to his friend.
“You seem to be doing an excellent job,” Heath observed.
Scott blinked owlishly. “I try.”
“Just this morning I blackmailed Nick.”
“Really?” Scott swayed as he tried to focus his eyes on his friend. “You’re a true brother.”
Heath nodded. “What about you?”
“What have you done to Johnny lately?”
Scott’s eyes closed as he tried to think, but for some reason his thoughts seemed a little confused. Finally, he leaned toward Heath and whispered conspiratorially, “I convinced him he’d broken Murdoch’s ship after I was the one that dropped it.”
“Really? And how did you do that?”
Scott chuckled, ending in a hiccup. “I made it fall on his head. You won’t tell him, will you?” he asked worriedly.
Heath smiled. “Of course not. I wouldn’t DREAM of it.”
Scott nodded and threw his arms around Heath. “You’re a true friend.”
“I try.” He tried to disentangle himself from the inebriated cowboy, but Scott clung to him tenaciously.
“Of course, I might want something in return,” Heath managed to get out.
Scott smiled lopsidedly at his friend. “That’s OK. You can have anything you want. After all, what are friends for?”
Heath tried again to remove Scott’s arms, and finally managed to free himself. He watched as Scott swayed a few times before gently tilting over on his side. Heath tipped his head sideways and looked in Scott’s eyes. “Are you OK?”
Scott nodded. “I’m fine. I just think I’ll stand here and rest for a few minutes.”
“Uh, Scott, you’re not standing.”
“Sure I am,” he slurred. “I’m standing right next to you.”
Heath nodded. “OK. Maybe I’d better stay here for a while.”
“That’d be just fine.” A few seconds later, a deep snoring came from the ground and Heath smiled; it HAD been a profitable day. Now he thought he’d go have a little talk with Jelly about a certain incident with a shotgun.
“What happened to you?” Johnny asked his brother as Scott rode up with his hat pulled over his eyes and swaying dangerously in the saddle.
“Hmrmnh,” Scott responded intelligently.
“HMRMNH!” Scott repeated.
“OK, if you say so,” Johnny responded dubiously. “Teresa’s back, maybe she got lucky.” Johnny swung down off of Barranca and tied him to the hitching rack, then reached for his brother’s horse. Scott had ridden Charlie up to the hitching rack, but continued to try to nudge the horse forward.
“Hey, Scott, you’re home. Poor Charlie can’t go no further.”
Johnny reached up and grabbed his brother around the waist. “Mrs. Barkley’s gonna have your hide. What did ya go and get drunk in the middle of the day for?
Scott looked at his brother and gave him a bleary grin. “Johnny!” he said delightedly. “What’re you doin’ here?”
“I live here.”
“Really? That’s nice,” Scott slurred.
“Uh huh. I think we’d better try ta get you upstairs before Mrs. Barkley sees ya.”
“Hmrmnh,” Scott agreed.
Johnny hauled his brother off of his horse and headed for the kitchen door, hoping to get his brother upstairs without being caught. He dragged Scott into the house, and propped him up against the wall while he peeked into the Great Room to see if the coast was clear. He nodded in satisfaction when the room appeared empty, and he went back and peeled his brother off of the wall.
The two men were halfway to the stairs when Johnny caught sight of the ship on the table, and he froze.
“Hey, Scott, do you see that?”
“Do you see the ship? It’s back!”
Scott busily studied the floor, and then Johnny grabbed his head and aimed it in the right direction. Scott squinted his eyes dramatically. “hip?”
“SHIP! DO you see it?”
Scott’s head wove back and forth as he tried to focus on the moving vessel. Finally, he shook his head. “Nope.”
Johnny shook his head in frustration and hauled his brother toward the stairs. They had almost reached them when Mrs. Barkley woke up and her head appeared over the back of the couch. “Boys?”
Johnny didn’t turn around and dragged his brother a little faster. “Oh, Hi Mrs. Barkley, Scott and I are just goin’ upstairs ta clean up for supper.”
“Is your brother all right?”
“He’s fine. Charlie dumped him, and he got a little shook up, but he’s fine.”
Victoria stood up. “Maybe I’d better check him. He doesn’t look to well.”
Johnny dragged his brother faster. “Scott, pick up your feet!” he whispered urgently.
Scott nodded in understanding and cooperatively picked up both feet, sending the men sprawling.
Victoria hurried over, but as she passed the ship, she stopped and stared at it for a moment. She stood, undecided, then turned to the two men who were trying to make good their escape. “Scott,” she asked, “Do you see a ship?”
Scott shook his head. “Nope, no ship,” he replied. Johnny hoped that Mrs. Barkley hadn’t noticed that his brother’s eyes had been focused on the ceiling when he answered.
“How about you, Johnny? Do you see a ship?”
Johnny’s eyes were glued on his brother. “No, ma’am, no ship.”
Victoria nodded, forgetting all about helping Scott. “I think I’ll lie down some more.”
Johnny hurriedly dragged his brother upstairs and dropped him on his bed. Scott’s snores were immediately heard and Johnny tugged off his brother’s boots, then went out and shut the door. He hurried downstairs and tip toed over to the table, watching the sofa warily. He snatched the ship off of the table and turned and sprinted toward the stairs. Johnny ran to his brother’s room and after looking around frantically, he opened the closet and stuffed it inside, then slammed the door. He glanced over at his brother, and then left the snoring man’s room, quietly shutting the door.
Johnny hurried back downstairs, looking for Teresa. With any luck, SOMETHING had gone right today. He finally found her in the garden, and he hurried over to her. “WELL?”
She turned around innocently. “Well what?”
“TERESA!” he said threateningly.
Teresa shrugged. “Well, Marty said he would take the turkeys…”
“YES!” Johnny said gleefully. Finally!”
“…But only if I married him.”
Johnny nodded seriously. “OK. When’s the wedding?”
Teresa’s hands went to her hips. “Johnny Lancer! I have no intention of marrying Marty Danson just to get rid of those turkeys!” She thought for a moment, and then shook her head. “Besides, if I married him, then I’d STILL have to put up with those stupid birds!”
“Teresa, we ALL have to make sacrifices. Besides, Marty ain’t that bad.”
“Then YOU marry him!”
“Believe me, if it would get rid of those dang birds, I’d consider it. But he didn’t ask ME!”
“How about if you marry him just ‘till we pawn the turkeys off on him?”
“Aw Teresa, come on! I’m TIRED of eatin’ turkey all the time.”
Teresa smiled sweetly. “Will you leave me alone if I promise that you won’t have to eat turkey any more?”
Johnny looked at her suspiciously. “What’s the catch?”
Teresa shook her head innocently. “What could possibly be wrong about not having to eat turkey?”
Johnny studied her another moment. “All right, I guess. But if ya change your mind I’d be happy ta give ya away…”
An hour later, Victoria sat up and cautiously looked toward the table, wondering if she felt better. She sighed in relief when she saw the table was empty, then hopped up and headed for the dining room. She was starving.
Johnny sat down at the table and nodded at the Barkleys. A moment later, Teresa brought the food out and set it on the table. Johnny stared at the plates and then looked back at Teresa. “What’s that?”
“Egg soufflé, egg omelets, hard boiled eggs, and eggs Benedict.”
“I promised no turkey. I NEVER said anything about turkey eggs, and since they’re laying several hundred a day, you can either eat the eggs, or let them hatch and put up with more turkeys!”
Johnny glared first at his sister, then at the table. “Are you SURE you don’t want ta get married?
Johnny sighed in resignation. “Pass me an omelet.”
Victoria looked around, and then her eyes focused on Johnny. “Where’s Scott?”
“Upstairs. He needed ta rest for a while.”
“Maybe I’d better check on him.”
Johnny shook his head emphatically. “No, Ma’am, he’s fine. He just needed ta lie down for a while.” Johnny’s attention was drawn to Heath, who was sniggering quietly. Johnny’s eyes narrowed. Suddenly Scott’s inebriated state made perfect sense. He wondered what Heath had managed to find out from his brother.
Nick examined the pile of eggs in front of him, and shook his head. “I am NOT going to be eating these things for the next month.”
“Well, I’d make roast turkey, but I promised Johnny we wouldn’t have any more turkey to eat,” Teresa explained sweetly.
Nick shook his head in amazement. “What do you people have against beef?”
Johnny scooped another bite of eggs into his mouth and bravely swallowed. “I tell ya what, Nick. We can start eatin’ beef if every time we have beef you take home one turkey.”
Nick glared at Johnny, and then grabbed for another egg. “I guess they’re not THAT bad,” he growled.
Johnny turned toward the sniggering Heath and grabbed his plate, then passed it to Nick. “Your brother would LOVE a big old helping of those eggs.”
Nick grinned wickedly and started piling up the plate. Heath watched nervously, and then shook his head. “Really, I’m not that hungry.”
Johnny’s eyebrows went up. “You mean you don’t LIKE Teresa’s eggs?”
Heath glanced at the young girl, who had stopped and was looking at him in disappointment. Then he glanced at his mother, whose eyes were narrowed.
He sighed. “Sure I like them.” He glanced at his mother again, and seeing her expression he added, “I LOVE them.”
Nick finally passed the dish back to his brother and Heath shuddered at the sight of the heaping plate. He took a small bite, managing to smile reassuringly at Teresa, and then looked back down at his eggs. He glanced over at Johnny, who was trying to convince the ladies that Scott was all right. Heath cautiously lifted up his plate and moved it over to above Johnny’s empty one. He hurriedly scraped the eggs onto the other dish then put his own plate down and sat back in his chair innocently, just as Johnny turned around.
Johnny’s eyes got wide when he saw his full plate, and he looked at Nick suspiciously. “Hey, Nick, did you see Val today? He’s usually hangin’ around the saloon. That IS where you were today, isn’t it?”
Nick gulped down his last bit of eggs, but before he could open his mouth, Victoria drew in a deep breath. “NICK BARKLEY! Do you mean to tell me that you were in the SALOON while the rest of the boys were WORKING?”
Nick glared at Johnny before turning toward his mother, trying to reassure her that he hadn’t been drinking. Johnny hurriedly scraped his eggs onto Nick’s plate and then added a few spoonfuls from the main dish for good measure, then sat back and grinned at Heath.
Nick’s face was turning purple. “I WASN’T drinking! I simply went into town for a few minutes. Don’t worry; I’ll make up for it tomorrow.”
“Yes, you will,” Victoria stated quietly. “I believe that it’s probably time for those turkey pens to be cleaned out.”
“Me! What about the others?” Nick yelled.
“THEY didn’t go into town to drink!”
Nick shook his head. “They might not have gone into town, but SOMEBODY was sure drinking! Do you really think Scott was thrown from his horse?” he asked sarcastically.
Victoria turned her gaze on Johnny. “Well?” She asked icily.
Johnny shook his head emphatically. “No, ma’am, he really DID fall off of Charlie.” He figured it wasn’t a lie; Scott had to have fallen off his horse several times on the way home.
She turned toward Heath. “Weren’t you working with Scott today?”
Heath looked up at his mother, considering her question. He glanced at Nick, who glared at him threateningly. Heath decided that his life would be over if he didn’t back up his brother. He opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Johnny spoke up.
“Yeah, Heath, weren’t you with Scott today?” The gunfighter drawled slowly as he glared at the man.
Heath shut his mouth with a snap and rethought his options. Even if Nick wanted to kill him, their mother would PROBABLY stop him. Of course, if he remained alive, his brother could certainly make his life miserable for the next fifty years or so. On the other hand, Johnny would probably just blow him away and be done with him, a much better option.
Heath opened his mouth and turned toward his mother.
“If you WERE with my brother, I’m SURE you know EXACTLY how he fell off of Charlie. I know I do, and I’m sure your mother would love to hear about it.” Johnny said quietly.
Heath’s mouth snapped shut once more. Unfortunately, Johnny had no intention of killing him. He was planning on telling Heath’s mother EXACTLY how Scott got in his unfortunate condition. And while Nick could make him miserable for the next fifty years, his mother was capable of making Heath’s life much, much worse.
“Yes, Mother, I was with Scott all day. He never went near a bottle.” He sat back and sighed. After all, a flask wasn’t a bottle. At least technically.
Victoria studied her son for a moment, wondering if she had missed something. She looked at Nick, who was glowering at his brother, and Johnny, who was beaming happily. She thought briefly about asking what was going on, and then changed her mind. It really didn’t matter. She didn’t need any more stress in her life.
Heath looked up at his brother, who was smiling at him coldly. Heath met his gaze for several seconds before bolting out of the kitchen, followed quickly by Nick. As soon as he realized he was alone with Mrs. Barkley and Teresa, Johnny also ran for his life.
Victoria glanced at Teresa and shook her head at the boys’ antics. She looked at her plate, and then stopped as she saw the huge pile of eggs on her previously empty plate. She studied them for several moments, and then looked at Teresa cautiously. “Didn’t I eat my eggs already?”
Teresa glanced at Mrs. Barkley’s plate. “NO, evidently not. Don’t you like them?”
Victoria nodded woodenly. “Yes, they’re fine, but I’m really not feeling well again. I think I’ll go lie down now.” Victoria made her way to the Great Room, and saw without surprise that she was hallucinating again and the make believe ship was back on the table. Maybe there really was something in the water, at least she hoped that was it. She went over, poured a double shot of brandy and gulped it down before collapsing on the sofa and pulling the cloth over her eyes.
Johnny ran into the turkey pen and slammed the gate shut. He had seen Heath and Nick disappear toward the barn, and decided that with Teresa and Mrs. Barkley in the house that this was the safest place on the whole ranch. No one in their right mind would willingly spend time with a bunch of gobbling turkeys. He ducked into the small shed that served as the bird’s shelter and chased out the turkeys that were inside, then gingerly made his way over to a ledge. He looked at it in distaste for a moment, and then decided that standing wasn’t that uncomfortable after all.
After standing uncomfortably for quite a while, he drew out a bottle of tequila that he had snagged as he ran out of the house and had stuffed into his shirt. He uncorked it and took a healthy slug. He figured if he worked real hard at it, by the time he passed out, he wouldn’t worry too much that he was lying in turkey poop. Besides, even turkey poop was better than Nick. He took another swallow and closed his eyes.
A moment later, the gate to the pen slammed open, and frantic gobbling could be heard. Johnny cautiously poked his head out of the shed and was instantly mowed down by Nick. Both men went skidding along the floor of the shed and landed in a heap next to the far wall. Johnny tried to lunge to his feet, but the slippery surface sent him skating into Nick, who had just managed to stand. The two men waltzed wildly for a moment, and then landed on their backsides on the floor once more.
Nick made a valiant effort to attack Johnny, but his feet flew out in different directions and he landed on the ground. He battled to his hands and knees, but his hands slipped out from under him and he nosedived into a pile of turkey guano. He came up sputtering, and through sheer rage he hauled himself to his feet, then stood, hanging onto the side of the building.
Johnny looked at Nick, who was plastered head to foot with bird dung, and started to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” Nick growled.
“You. You should see yourself.”
“I don’t have to. I can see what you look like, and if I look half as bad as you do, I’m in big trouble.” He looked pointedly at Johnny’s hand. “Is that a bottle?’
Johnny grinned and took another long drink.
Nick glared at the gunfighter, but made no move. “I won’t kill you if you hand over that bottle.”
Johnny drank until he saw Nick’s face turning purple underneath the poop, then tossed him the bottle.
Nick caught it and tipped it back for several seconds before speaking. “What are you doing in here?”
Johnny shrugged. “I figured it was safer in here than anywhere else.” He scowled at Nick. “I guess I figured wrong. What are YOU doing in here?”
Nick merely scowled and took another drink. “I take the fifth.”
“Actually, it’s more like a quart.”
“The bottle. It’s much bigger than a fifth.”
“I MEANT I wasn’t saying anything.”
“Then why are you talkin?”
Nick looked at Johnny and slowly shook his head. “I have no idea.” Nick looked around the building, and then took another drink. “I don’t know, it’s not so bad in here. I can hardly smell anything anymore.”
“I guess it’s better than eatin’ Teresa’s eggs.”
Nick nodded. “I agree.” He took another look around. “You’ve GOT to get rid of these birds.”
“Don’t I know it. When I first came here, I had nightmares about my gunfightin’ days. Now I have ‘em about turkeys.” Johnny shuddered. “Much scarier.”
Nick took another long swallow and staggered slightly before handing the bottle back to the gunfighter. “Yes, I know. I have nightmares about YOU.”
Johnny brightened. “Do I shoot ya?”
Nick shook his head. “No, actually we’re friends.”
“Friends?” Johnny asked cautiously.
Nick nodded seriously and Johnny shuddered and took another gulp of tequila. “I think that’s worse than turkeys.”
Nick looked blearily at Johnny. “Yep. By the way, why don’t you have chairs in here?”
Johnny looked around in confusion, then smiled lopsidedly. “What’s wrong with sittin’ on the floor?”
Nick considered the question, then slid happily to the ground, followed by Johnny.
“So what are you going to do about these birds?”
Johnny shrugged. “I don’t know. I think we’re gonna try ta sell some more to the army.”
“Good idea. We sell some of our cattle to them.”
“So do we. I figure they could use somethin’ besides beef.”
Nick nodded, then grabbed the bottle away from his new friend. “What about that ship?” he asked cautiously. “Murdoch’s going to be REAL upset about it.”
Johnny nodded glumly. “Your mother seems ta be worried about it, too.”
Nick looked at Johnny and grinned. “I’ll tell you a secret. Jelly didn’t kill that ship, I did. I slept with it!”
Johnny snorted. “Yeah, I know. But it was broken before that.”
Nick tried to focus his eyes on Johnny. “How do you know?”
Johnny leaned over to whisper in Nick’s ear, and toppled over. “Cause I killed it after it attacked me.”
Johnny nodded solemnly from the floor. He sniffed deeply. “Hey, you’re right! I don’t smell nothin’ anymore, either!”
“So what’re ya gonna do about that ship. Last time I saw it, it was pretty messed up.”
“I guess we’re gonna have ta fix it, but we can’t let your Ma know, she might tell Murdoch.”
Nick put his fingers to his lips. “SHHH!” he said, “it’ll be our secret!”
Johnny nodded. “We just gotta make sure nothin’ else bad happens to it.”
The outside gate creaked loudly, and both men turned bleary eyes in the direction of the shed door.
“Uh oh,” Nick said. “I think we’ve been found.”
Johnny nodded and lurched to his knees. “Where’s my gun? I know it’s here somewhere.”
“Here. Use this!” Nick ordered, passing the tequila bottle to Johnny. Johnny nodded, then took another sip. “But there’s still some left!” he protested.
“Can’t be helped!” Nick exclaimed. “It’s better than getting’ caught.”
Johnny nodded and took aim at the doorway.
Scott ducked into the shed and stood up. “Look what I found!” he slurred as he raised the ship model into the air.
Johnny was unable to stop the throw, and the bottle sailed gracefully through the air. Scott immediately dropped the ship and caught the bottle. “Got it!” he slurred happily.
Johnny and Nick squinted their eyes in an effort to focus. Finally, Nick grinned. “He caught it!”
Johnny nodded. “Thank goodness! We almost had a real catstro….catatsro…catastrofo…disaster.”
Scott held up the bottle and glared at it. “There’s not much left.”
Johnny shrugged. “We’ve been discussin’ things.”
Scott slumped down on the floor next to them. “Oh, yeah? What have we been discussing?”
Scott nodded, then leaned over and whispered, “You know what?”
“I hate turkeys.”
Nick and Johnny solemnly nodded. “So do we. Nick and I decided we’d try ta sell the rest to the army.”
“Good idea.” Scott tipped the bottle up and drained the last of the whisky.
Johnny looked at the bottle sadly. “It’s gone.”
Scott brightened and pulled out another bottle from underneath his shirt. “Emergency stash,” he explained.
“Is this an emergency?” Nick slurred.
Scott looked at his surroundings, and then nodded. “I’m sure it is.”
Victoria slowly opened her eyes and looked around. She spied Heath rummaging through the liquor cabinet and she sat up. “What are you doing?”
Heath kept pawing through the cupboard. “Murdoch’s almost out of booze. I sure don’t know what happened to all of it.” He turned and looked at his mother suspiciously.
“Heath Barkley! Don’t look at me! I’ve only taken a little for medicinal purposes!”
“And how are you feeling now, Mother?”
She looked cautiously over at the table, and was relieved to see that it was empty. “I think I feel fine.” She held out her hand. “Just give me that bottle of brandy, and I KNOW I’ll be fine.” She hesitated a moment and then asked Heath. “Is there a ship on that table?”
“No, no ship.” He handed her the bottle and then watched his mother in disbelief as she tilted the bottle back.
Victoria nodded and then looked around. “Then I feel great. Where’s your brother?”
“I have no idea.”
“What about Johnny and Scott?”
Heath shrugged. “Haven’t seen them.”
Victoria looked at Heath in alarm. “I hope Nick didn’t kill them.”
Heath looked at his mother quizzically. “Why?”
She thought for a moment. “Because I don’t want to have to explain it to Murdoch.”
Her son snorted. “Do you REALLY think he’d care?”
Victoria sighed. “No, I suppose not. But they’re the only two that MIGHT know where that model ship is, and we HAVE to make sure it’s back here before Murdoch comes home. He was VERY worried about it last time I saw him. I want to make sure nothing happens to it, and with those two and Agnes, I have the feeling it’s in grave danger. WE HAVE to find it before something happens to it.”
“I think it’s a little late,” Heath muttered.
“Nothing. What’s so special about that ship, anyway?”
“I have no idea, but it obviously has some deep sentimental value. If we don’t find it, it just might put Murdoch right back over the edge.”
“What’s wrong with that?” he muttered again.
“Anyway, I want you to find that wayward brother of yours and the Lancer boys.”
“Why? It’s much quieter without them,” he muttered.
“Heath Barkley, speak up and quit saying ‘nothing.’ What’s the matter with you?”
Heath sighed. “Nothing.” He took one look at his mother’s face and he bolted for the door.
Heath looked around outside, but when he didn’t see any sign of the missing men, he headed for the barn. Jelly was just inside the door, working on some tack.
“Hey, Jelly, have you seen my brother?”
“Where is he?”
“In the turkey house.”
Heath blinked. “WHY would he be in there?”
Jelly shrugged. “Beats me. Probably the same reason Scott and Johnny are in there.”
Heath looked at Jelly in disbelief. “They’re ALL in with the turkeys?”
“Don’t you think that’s a LITTLE strange?”
“Nope. Not for those three.” He looked at Heath appraisingly. “Why ain’t you in there, too?”
Heath shook his head slowly. “I have NO idea. Thanks Jelly.” Heath walked over to the turkey pen and studied the house, wondering if Jelly was putting him on. Then he heard the unmistakable sound of his brother singing. With a sigh, he entered the pen and ducked into the house. He immediately felt a crunch beneath his feet, and he looked down in alarm.
“Now you’ve done it,” Johnny growled. “You broke Murdoch’s ship.”
Heath looked at the three men. “Oh no, you don’t. We all know it was already broken.”
“We do?” slurred Scott.
“Yes, YOU DO!”
Johnny shook his head. “Nope. It was in perfect shape till you squashed it. Your mother is gonna be awful mad.”
Heath smiled. “It’s our word against yours. She’ll believe her own sons, and Nick and I will say YOU broke it.” He looked at his brother triumphantly.
Nick looked back at him and grinned. “Now why on earth would I turn in my drinking buddies?”
“Because I’M your BROTHER!”
Nick shrugged. “I seem to remember a certain brother blackmailing me.”
Heath glared back. “And I still can.” He looked at all three men. “In fact, I can blackmail all three of you.”
Johnny smiled happily. “Nope, we’ve already confessed to each other.”
Nick nodded at the ship. “You’d better figure out how to fix it.”
Heath picked up the model and studied it. “FIX IT? There’s northing left to fix! All that’s left is the hull.”
“Then you’d better learn to tie knots real quick,” Scott offered.
Heath’s panicked gaze darted from man to man. “You wouldn’t.”
Nick shrugged. “All we know is that WE didn’t do it. If you can find some other poor sucker to pin the blame on, that’s your business.”
Heath breathed a sigh of relief. “Piece of cake.” He reached for Scott’s bottle. “Move over,” he said as he slid to the floor.
Victoria woke up very early in the morning and sat up. She had heard a noise and couldn’t quite figure out what it was. She stood up and slipped on her robe, then opened her door and made her way downstairs. Victoria stopped and stared at the shape on the table. Even in the pre dawn light the shape of the phantom ship was obvious. She went over to the liquor cabinet, and then suddenly changed her mind. She would prove to herself that it didn’t exist after all. She walked resolutely over to the table and swept her hand through the apparition.
The crash, when it came, was deafening.
Sam approached the bed of the lady cautiously. From what the young men downstairs had told him, she wasn’t in her right mind.
Victoria turned toward the doctor, a drink still in her hand. The boys hadn’t been able to get it away from her before bringing her upstairs.
“Hi SAM!” Victoria greeted the doctor cheerily.
“Victoria,” Sam said gently. “The boys told me you haven’t been feeling well.”
“No, I haven’t. But I feel better now!” she exclaimed, lifting her glass toward the doctor.
“I can see that. Now what seemed to be the trouble before? ”
Victoria shook her head. “I don’t really know.” She pointed at what was left of the ship, which was sitting on the dresser. “Do you see that?” she asked Sam.
Sam nodded. “You mean the ship?”
“AHA! I see you’ve been drinking the water, too!”
“What water?” Sam asked in confusion.
“Any water. Don’t you know that drinking water is dangerous? You have to drink brandy! Here, give me another glass and you can have some of mine.”
“That’s all right, I’m not thirsty.” He walked over and tried to take the glass from her hands, but she refused to let go.
“NO!” She looked at the doctor suspiciously. “You’re in on it, aren’t you?”
“In on what?”
Mrs. Barkley looked around cautiously. “The conspiracy.”
“And who do you think is conspiring against you?”
Victoria’s brows furrowed. “I don’t really know. All I know is they’re trying to convince me that the ship on the dresser is real.”
“Victoria, it IS real.”
“Oh, no you don’t. I’m not falling for that again. First it’s there, and then it isn’t, and then it is. I’m tired of trying to figure it out, so I’ve decided it’s MUCH easier if it isn’t there.” She took another gulp of her drink. “Are you SURE you don’t want some?”
“No, thank you. So tell me, Victoria, besides the ship, what else has been going on around here?”
Victoria shrugged. “Just the usual. Johnny attacked me because his horse has worms, and then Teresa was thinking she’d marry Marty so we won’t have to eat eggs anymore, but then changed her mind because she’d STILL have to eat eggs, and the boys have been sitting in the turkey house, singing.”
Sam looked at her cautiously. “How would you like a nice, quiet vacation?”
“Do I have to eat eggs?”
“Not if you don’t want to.”
She looked at him cautiously. “Will the boys be there?”
Sam shook his head.
“When can I leave?” She exclaimed, bolting to her feet.
The four of them sat in the Great Room, waiting impatiently for the report. Once in a while Heath or Nick would stand up and walk to the stairs, then turn around and come back to the couch, after making a wide detour around the bar. For some reason, this morning even the sight of alcohol was enough to make them turn green. Teresa had come in a little earlier and offered them all some hard boiled eggs, but they had refused.
Nick glared at his brother. “This is all your fault. If you hadn’t put that ship back where it belonged, Mother would be fine.”
Heath shook his head in protest. “How was I supposed to know she was going to attack the blame thing and then get hysterical?”
“I don’t know,” Nick grumbled, “but it’s still your fault.”
All four of them stood up when they heard Sam coming down the stairs, and the doctor motioned for them to sit back down. “I gave her something to calm her down and she’s resting comfortably.”
Heath sighed. “Will she be all right?”
Sam shrugged. “I’m not sure. Tell me what happened. Her story didn’t make a lot of sense.”
Nick shrugged. “Well, …”
Johnny interrupted him. “Be sure you just tell him the important part,” Johnny said suggestively.
Nick nodded. “Well, there’s not much to tell. She has been saying she hasn’t been feeling well for the last couple of days. She went to bed early last evening, and in the middle of the night we heard a loud crash. We all came running downstairs, well sort of running,” Nick amended as he remembered exactly what state they had all been in the night before. “And Mother was standing in the middle of the floor, kicking at the ship. She kept saying it wasn’t real. When we tried to convince her it was, she accused us of trying to drive her crazy. We held up what was left of the model, but she still refused to believe it was real. She just started ranting about the water, then she went over and poured herself a huge glass of brandy and guzzled it down. She wouldn’t talk to us after that.
Sam sighed. “I believe your mother has had a nervous breakdown.”
“What’s there to be nervous about around here?” Johnny asked.
Sam’s eyebrows went up as he recalled the events of the last several months. “You mean besides the elephant, the camel, the turkeys, the ship and you boys? Absolutely nothing.”
Johnny nodded. “Didn’t think so.”
“I think she’s just pretending to be crazy so she won’t get blamed for wrecking Murdoch’s ship,” Scott grumbled. He looked up at the doctor hopefully. “You won’t tell Murdoch, will you?”
Sam shuddered. “Heaven forbid. I’m certainly not going to break the news to him, but you boys had better get if fixed before he comes home, and you’d also better get rid of those turkeys.”
“We’re trying, Sam, we’re trying,” Scott sighed.
“So what about Mother?” Nick asked.
The doctor shrugged. “I think it would be best if she got away for a while and had some peace and quiet.”
Nick sighed in relief. “We’ll take her home.”
Sam shook his head. “Actually, I was thinking more about the place Murdoch is staying.”
“You think she’s crazy?” Heath asked in concern.
Sam looked at each of them in turn. “Personally, I think you’re ALL crazy.” He marched over to the bar and poured himself a large drink, then turned to Scott. “And don’t forget to order more liquor before your father gets home. I have the feeling he’s going to need it.”
Jelly ran into the room. “SOMEBODY left the turkey pen open last night!”
Scott shook his head slowly. “I STILL think it was pretty cowardly for Nick and Heath to leave just because their mother had a nervous breakdown.”
“I don’t think it had ANYTHING to do with her breakdown. I think it had ta do with all of those turkeys surrounding the hacienda.”
Scott shivered. “That WAS a pretty scary sight.”
Johnny chuckled. “I can still see poor old Sam, trying ta get all of those birds outta his buggy.”
Scott nodded. “I think Mrs. Barkley was catatonic at that point.” He turned toward his brother. “I don’t think she even noticed the one on her lap as they left.”
“Nope, I don’t think she did, either.” Johnny looked thoughtful. “I wonder what put her over the edge?”
Scott shrugged. “I have no idea.”
Johnny took a sip of his drink. “Well, we got it all done without them, anyway, and in only one month.”
“Are you sure we didn’t forget anything? Murdoch will be here any time now.”
“I don’t think so.” Johnny shook his head. “I still don’t know why Sam didn’t want us to go pick him up.”
Scott sighed. “I think he was afraid if we went, Murdoch would NEVER get home.”
“Now that’s not fair; the last two times we visited him they didn’t even have ta use the straightjacket. They just gave him a shot of somethin’.”
Scott walked over to the ship sitting on the table and studied it intently. “Do you think he’ll notice?”
Johnny shrugged. “Who knows? He loves that ship more than he does you or me. We could grow two heads and he wouldn’t notice, but he’s probably counted the specks of dust on that thing.”
Scott sighed. “Well, I think it looks just like the original one.”
“It should,” Johnny grumbled. “A thousand dollars was a LITTLE high, don’t you think, brother?” He shook his head. “I knew I should have taken care of it.”
“That was the BEST I could do. After all, it’s all hand done and imported from Italy. It takes YEARS to build a ship like that.”
“I still don’t know why we couldn’t have just fixed the one we had.”
“Did you take a good look at it?”
Johnny shrugged. “The hull was OK, it was just the riggin’ that was shot.”
“I think ‘shot’ is much too kind a word for what that thing looked like. Besides, you heard Sam; they needed it to help Mrs. Barkley recover. Part of her therapy.”
“Well, all I know is that I didn’t mess up with the turkeys.”
“I can’t believe we don’t have any more of those damn birds to worry about.” Scott shook his head. “I STILL don’t know how you managed to talk the army into taking them.”
Johnny shrugged. “Ya just have ta know how to bargain. I convinced ‘em of how good those birds were, and how much cheaper than beef. Then I only had ta pay ‘em a thousand dollars ta take ‘em all.”
Scott snorted. “Yes, you drove a hard bargain.”
“Hey, at least they’re all gone! That was part of the deal; they had ta catch and remove ALL of ‘em.”
Scott smiled. The men from the army had come that morning, and Johnny had told him that if he saw so much as one feather left on the ranch, the deal was off and that he was going to shoot the turkeys AND the army men. It had taken a hundred men a little more than eight hours to round up all the birds on the ranch. There wasn’t anything with feathers within fifty miles.
Scott walked over to the bar and helped himself to a drink. They were also able to completely restock Murdoch’s liquor supply. Another thousand dollars spent, although he was sure Murdoch wouldn’t gripe too much about THAT expense. Besides, they would get all of their money back as soon as they sold their cattle in a few weeks, and with a little luck, Murdoch wouldn’t know that their emergency stash of money was gone once more.
The boys looked up as they heard the sound of a buggy in the yard. Both men downed their drinks, hurriedly filled up their glasses again, then walked to the door to let their father in.
“Murdoch! Welcome home!”
Murdoch looked at his sons. “Where are the turkeys?”
“We sold ‘em to the army!” Johnny answered.
Murdoch looked back and forth between his sons in disbelief, and then grinned. “I guess I owe you an apology. For some reason, I had visions of mayhem.”
“Well,…” Johnny started before receiving a glare from Sam and a kick from his brother. “…Everything is just fine. No problems at all,” he finished triumphantly.
“We’re hurt that you thought we couldn’t handle things,’ Scott said.
“I’m sorry. I’ll know better next time.”
“Let’s make sure there IS no next time,” Sam said. “Now why don’t you go sit down and the boys can get us a drink.”
Murdoch nodded. “You know, I think this is a very special occasion, and I have the perfect bottle to celebrate with.” He walked toward the bar, then stopped at the table that held his ship. He bent down and studied it carefully, then turned pale and stood up. “Where’s my ship?” he demanded.
Scott and Johnny exchanged glances. “That’s your ship,” Scott said cautiously.
“NO! It’s NOT! I KNOW my ship, and THAT’S not IT!” He whirled around and glared at his boys. “What did you do with it?”
Sam stepped up and grabbed Murdoch’s arm. “Murdoch, calm down.”
“Calm down? CALM DOWN? WHERE’S MY SHIP? What did you do with it?” He lunged at Johnny and tried to grab him around the neck, and Sam and Scott pried him off.
“Murdoch, CALM DOWN!” Sam ordered. “Now WHY don’t you think that’s your ship?”
Murdoch shrugged out of Sam’s and Scott’s grasp and marched over to the model. He picked it up, and then slammed it down on the floor, where it shattered to pieces. “THATS WHY!” he snarled, then strode up the stairs.
The three men looked at each other, and Sam sighed. “I guess he wasn’t quite ready to come home after all.”
Johnny and Scott nodded sadly, and then looked around when they heard the front door slam. Jelly rushed into the room. “Where’s Dewdrop? He’s plumb disappeared.”
Johnny and Scott stared at him for a minute, and then went and refilled their glasses. “Hey, Sam, do you think there’s room in that place for us? This time, MURDOCH can stay here!”
Victoria was tired of everyone asking questions about that stupid ship and she decided to get rid of it once and for all. They had even put it in her room so she couldn’t forget about it. She marched over to the small table where it stood, then picked it up and smashed it against the wall. This time, the hull came apart, and she looked in disbelief at what had been hidden inside. Then, with a grin, she reached down and pulled the cork out of the bottle of hundred year old brandy. Maybe this place wouldn’t be so bad, after all.
Nick had been busily fixing fenceposts since dawn. As he worked, he thought about Johnny and Scott. Actually, once he got to know them, they weren’t so bad after all. Maybe he’d ride over and visit them pretty soon, after all, good drinking buddies were hard to find. Nick looked up as his brother approached. “Hey, Jarrod, what’s up?”
Jarrod shook his head. “I thought you should know that we just received a letter from the army supply, and our beef contract with the army got cancelled.”
“WHAT? We NEED that contract!”
Jarrod nodded sadly. “I know we do, but it seems that somehow they got their hands on enough turkeys to feed them for the next twenty years or so. They don’t need any beef.”
Nick’s face turned purple. He was DEFINITELY going to visit the Lancers.
The next morning, Murdoch had calmed down somewhat. He STILL wanted to known what had happened to that ship; that bottle of brandy had cost him a fortune and he had hidden it in that cheap ship model for safekeeping. Oh, well, it would turn up eventually. Sam had warned him about becoming so upset, so he was going to make sure he didn’t let anything bother him.
He picked up some mail that had just been delivered, and stopped when he saw one from the army supply. Maybe it was their new beef contract. It was about time things started going right.
~ end ~
The Easter Bunny
The Mountain Man – FIRST PLACE Lancer Writers Awards: Best Humorous Story
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