Word Count 14,565
8th in the The Surprise series . If you haven’t read the previous stories there may be some references that are confusing.
Johnny walked into the house, his mouth watering for a good supper. It had been a hard day, and he had forgotten his lunch. There had been times today that he thought that he just might starve to death. He threw his hat onto the nearby table and headed for the dinning room. After taking three more steps, he stopped dead. The table was totally bare, and Teresa was sitting in one of the chairs, concentrating on something in her lap.
A strangled cry erupted from the gunfighter’s throat when he realized he would have to wait for his food. At the noise, Teresa looked up and smiled.
“Johnny! Come over here and look what I have!”
Hope surged anew in Johnny’s heart. Maybe she was holding a cake on her lap. He approached, then stopped dead. Nope, it wasn’t a cake. Whatever it was, it was moving. Maybe it was a chicken.
“Do ya want me ta kill it for you, so you can cook it?” he asked hopefully.
Teresa’s eyes widened. “COOK IT?”
Johnny shifted uncomfortably. Evidently not. “What is it? he finally asked, resigned to starving.
“It’s a baby squirrel,” Teresa beamed.
“A squirrel?” Johnny asked in disbelief.
Teresa nodded. “I found it outside. It probably fell out of its nest, but I couldn’t find where it belonged.”
Johnny bit his lip to avoid telling Teresa where HE thought it belonged. “What are you going to do with it?”
“Why, raise it, of course! What else do you think I should do with it?”
Johnny bit his lip again. No sense getting on the cook’s bad side. “What’s for supper?” he asked cautiously.
Teresa shook her head. “I’m MUCH too busy with Arnold to make supper. I’m afraid you’re on your own for tonight.”
Johnny thought he just might be going into shock. “Arnold?”
“Yes, isn’t that a cute name?”
Johnny’s gaze went back and forth between Teresa and the baby squirrel, then headed toward the kitchen. There must be SOMETHING edible in there.
After settling for some leftover bacon and biscuits from breakfast, he took his plate and wandered morosely into the great room, glaring at Arnold on the way in. His father and brother were already there, eating their own makeshift supper. He plopped down next to his brother, and glanced at Scott’s plate. His eyes widened. “How come you have roast beef?”
Scott shrugged. “I arrived home first,” he explained, as he shoved the last bite into his mouth before his brother could snatch it.
Johnny turned toward his father, who hurriedly gulped down the last of his own meal, and Johnny turned and looked mournfully at his own plate.
“A squirrel,” he muttered.
The next morning, Johnny jumped out of bed and hurriedly dressed. The damn squirrel HAD to be full by now. He bounded down the stairs and burst into the kitchen, then stopped dead when he saw his father with an apron on, grumpily flipping some evil- looking pancakes.
“Where’s Teresa?” Johnny demanded in a panicked voice.
“She’s sleeping in. Evidently, she was up all night with Arnold,” Scott explained.
Johnny looked again at the pancakes, then grabbed the last of the day old biscuits and headed for the door.
Johnny was in a foul mood by the time he stopped work that evening. In his haste to get away from Murdoch’s pancakes, he had bolted out the door without taking any extra food. Another day without lunch, and he was totally convinced he was wasting away to nothing. ‘Bet that damn squirrel’s belly is full,’ he groused to himself as he pulled Barranca to a halt outside the barn. He waited for a moment, expecting Jelly to come and get his horse like he normally did, but the handyman didn’t appear.
Finally, Johnny dismounted and led his horse into the barn. He saw the handyman busily at work at the workbench, and Johnny walked over to see what was the man was working on.
Jelly looked up and shook his head before concentrating once more on the task in front of him. “I’m busy, Johnny. You’ll have ta take care of Barranca yourself tonight.”
Johnny sighed. Another task to keep him from the supper table. He looked down at the workbench, wondering what could be so important. “Whatcha doin?”
Jelly proudly picked up an object and held it up to the gunfighter. “What do ya think?”
Johnny’s brows furrowed as he studied the pieces of wood Jelly had nailed together and painted. “What is it?”
Jelly’s chin jutted out belligerently. “Well, what does it LOOK like, Mister Smarty pants?”
Johnny studied the object for several seconds before giving up and shaking his head. “I have no idea,’ he admitted.
“It’s a house for Arnold! Any fool can see that!”
Johnny looked again at the house, and saw that Jelly had painstakingly painted the squirrel’s name on the front. “Why does he need a house? Squirrels live in trees,” he said hopefully.
“Not this one. Teresa is real attached to the little thing, and plans on keepin’ it as a pet. It’s gonna be around for a long time.”
Johnny shut his mouth and resignedly turned back toward his horse and pulled off the saddle and bridle before picking up a brush and leading Barranca into his stall. When he was done, he forked some hay into the manger and gave his horse one last pat. “At least you get supper,” he said mournfully.
By the time he entered the house, his optimism had returned somewhat. Surely Murdoch wouldn’t put up with being outranked by a squirrel, no matter how attached Teresa was to it. Johnny walked into the kitchen and was heartened to see a pot on the stove. He lifted the lid and stuck his finger in, and then licked his finger just as Teresa walked in. He looked up and shook his head.
“Whatever this is, it’s awfully bland. Ya need ta add some salt or somethin’.”
Teresa’s eyes widened. “Johnny Lancer, you get out of that! That’s food for Arnold!” She ran over and looked at him suspiciously. “I hope you washed your hands. I don’t want Arnold to get sick.”
Johnny looked down at his finger and hurriedly wiped it on his pants before stalking into the great room. He had a very important question to ask his educated brother, and he had the feeling his whole future would depend on Scott’s answer. He marched up to where Scott was sitting on the couch reading a book and nudged him with his boot. “Scott, how long do squirrels live?”
Johnny looked at his brother hopefully as Scott thought about his answer. “I’m not really sure, but it seems to me that I heard somewhere that squirrels live for between five and twelve years.”
Johnny’s face fell. “That long?” he whispered.
Scott nodded slowly. “It looks, little brother, like it might be wise if we learned how to cook.”
Johnny shook his head. “I KNOW how ta cook, but I get sick of eatin’ beans.”
“Is that ALL you know how to cook?” Scott asked incredulously.
Johnny glared at him. “At least I know how ta cook SOMETHIN”. Last time we were on the trail, I just about starved tryin’ ta eat your cookin’. He turned toward his father. “Just how long are ya plannin’ on lettin’ Teresa goof off?”
Murdoch’s eyebrows went up. “I think she’s entitled to some time off, don’t you?
“No!” Both men answered in unison.
Murdoch shook his head. “I’m afraid you boys will just have to cope without her for a little while.”
“A LITTLE while?” Johnny asked incredulously. “You heard Scott. That damn squirrel is gonna outlive all of us, ESPECIALLY if we have ta eat our own cookin’.”
“Look, boys. I know it will be hard, but Teresa needs a little diversion, and I don’t think we can complain after everything she’s done for us. I figure things will be back to normal soon.”
“I doubt it,” Johnny mumbled. “Mark my words. Pretty soon we’ll be over run with those damn things. We might as well move out right now.”
“Aren’t you overreacting just a little bit?” Murdoch asked. “I mean, it’s only one squirrel.”
“Have you ever seen just ONE squirrel?” Johnny asked gloomily.
Murdoch thought about his answer, then shook his head. “I still think you’re over reacting.”
“Nope,” Johnny insisted.
“What have you got against squirrels?” Scott asked quizzically.
“Aside from starvin, nothin,” Johnny replied. He looked at his father pointedly. “It’s nuts that I have trouble with.
When his father glared at him, Johnny sighed and looked at his brother. “Wanna go into town with me? I hear that new café isn’t too bad.”
Scott nodded and headed for the door. Murdoch looked down at his cold supper, and after a moment’s hesitation, he joined his sons.
The next morning, Murdoch woke up and slowly made his way downstairs. He had meant what he had said to his sons about Teresa needing some time off, but he wasn’t any happier about having to scrounge for his own meals than his sons were. He just hoped Arnold would grow up quickly and decide to leave home soon.
He stumbled into the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee, then plopped down in one of the chairs. The small house that Jelly had made was sitting on the table right next to the stove. Teresa had wanted to take Arnold up to her room, but had finally listened to reason and left him downstairs. As Murdoch watched, the small animal poked his nose out of his house and looked around hesitantly, then he scampered out and ran over to the giant of a man and chattered angrily. The squirrel stood his ground for several seconds, then with a flick of his tail he disappeared once more into his house. Murdoch chuckled at the antics, then stood up and started scrounging in the cupboards for something to eat.
Johnny shuffled downstairs and plopped into a chair. Murdoch shoved a cup of coffee under his nose, and Johnny nodded.
“Thanks. I don’t suppose you have any food ta go with that,” he asked mournfully
“Sorry. Just some leftovers.” Murdoch pointed at a covered dish he had found and put on the table.
Johnny raised his head and stared at his father. “Leftover what? Teresa hasn’t cooked a meal in days.”
Murdoch shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. I’m a little afraid to look.”
Johnny shivered dramatically. “That’s Ok. I think I’ll pass. It’s probably some more squirrel food.”
Murdoch nodded. “I think I’ll pass, too.” He smiled. “Maybe we can interest Scott in them.”
“Interest me in what?” Scott asked as he entered the room.
Johnny grinned at his brother as he pointed at the dish. “We decided to leave you the good leftovers Murdoch found.”
Scott slid into his seat and grabbed the dish. “Thanks. I was afraid these would be gone by the time I got up.” He flipped the lid off and dumped the leftovers on his plate.
Johnny sniffed appreciatively and leaned in closer to Scott’s plate. “What IS that?” Johnny asked.
Scott put a protective arm around his dish as he took a quick bite. “It’s the leftover pot roast and potatoes Mabel served us last night.”
Murdoch looked at the plate in interest. “’If I remember correctly, all THREE of us ordered that dish.”
Scott shoveled another bite into his mouth. “Yes, but you and Johnny finished yours last night.”
“So did you,” Murdoch observed.
“Ah, yes I did, but I had the foresight to ask for the leftovers.”
“Thanks, brother,” Johnny said gratefully as he reached for a piece of meat.
Scott placed both arms around his dish and pulled it closer. “Sorry, there’s just enough for me.”
Johnny inched closer. “Come on, Scott. I’m starvin’. How about sharin’?”
Scott scooped another bite of roast into his mouth and then moved the plate away from his brother, but that put it within striking distance of his father. Murdoch pressed his advantage and stabbed at a potato with his fork. The force of his blow sent the potato skittering across the table, and Johnny grabbed at it as it rolled by. Scott took advantage of Murdoch’s and Johnny’s skirmish over the potato to gulp down the rest of the roast. He sat back, watching in amusement as the two other men fought over the slippery piece of food.
Murdoch finally jumped up and body slammed Johnny away from the morsel, but before he could grab it, Arnold ran out and picked it up, then scurried back into his house. Murdoch and Johnny watched with open mouths, then Johnny grabbed for his gun. “That squirrel’s goin’ down,” he growled.
“Johnny Lancer! What do you think you’re doing!”
Teresa’s shriek was loud enough to wake the dead, and if she had walked into the kitchen a second later, it would have been needed. Johnny had his gun drawn and was aiming it unerringly at Arnold’s head. The gunfighter continued to stare a hole in the squirrel for another moment, then reluctantly holstered his gun.
Teresa ran up and picked up the trembling Arnold and cuddled him. “I can’t believe you’re terrorizing this poor baby.”
“He was terrorizing ME!” Johnny said in protest.
“Now how could a tiny baby squirrel possibly terrorize YOU?” Teresa asked in disbelief.
“He ate what was left of my breakfast!”
“He was hungry!”
“SO AM I!” He glared at the squirrel. “If I don’t get somethin’ ta eat pretty soon, I’m gonna have ta start fixin’ my own meals, and I think I’ll start with roast SQUIRREL!”
Teresa’s eyes widened, and she clutched Arnold closer. “You’re nothing but a big bully,” she told her brother.
“All right CHILDREN! That’s enough!!” Murdoch roared. He stood up and threw his napkin down on the table. “Johnny, stop threatening the squirrel, and Teresa, start COOKING before I cook him myself!” He stomped off, grumbling.
Johnny jumped up and took off outside, leaving Scott and Teresa alone in the kitchen. Teresa turned toward Scott, her eyes wide. “Did you hear what they said?”
Scott nodded. “If I were you, I’d be sure and make something special for supper tonight before they make good on their threats.” He grinned. “Prime rib just might placate them.”
Teresa looked down at Arnold. “All right….Scott, could you do me a favor?”
“What?” he asked cautiously.
“Well, if I’m going to make some prime rib and an apple pie for dessert, I REALLY need someone to watch Arnold for me. I won’t have time to watch him. Please?”
“I have to work!” he exploded.
“He won’t be a bother, I promise. If you put him in your saddlebag, he’ll probably sleep until you get home.”
“Teresa, I can’t spend all day babysitting a squirrel!”
“Scott, please?” When her brother continued to shake his head, her tone changed. “I guess I’ll just have to forget about making the pie,” she sighed. “If I have to watch Arnold, I’ll just be too busy.”
Scott’s resolve not to be a squirrel sitter wavered. “Apple, right?”
Teresa nodded triumphantly and handed Arnold to her brother.
Scott took the squirrel gingerly by the back of the neck and plopped him into the waiting saddlebag, where he had just stowed his lunch. “All right, but he’d better behave himself.”
Scott walked over and grabbed his hat, then scooped up the saddlebags and carried them carefully out the door. He caught up with Johnny out in the barn, where his brother had saddled both horses and was waiting for him, somewhat impatiently. “Hurry up, Boston. We got a lot a work to do today.”
The two men had been working hard all morning clearing brush when Johnny finally looked up at the sun. “Lunchtime,” he announced to his brother.
Scott nodded in agreement and pointed over to an oak tree several yards away. The horses were already ground tied next to the tree, and Johnny approached his brother’s horse eagerly. “I hope you have something good in here, brother. I’m starving.”
Scott nodded as he cleaned off his hands as best he could with the water from a canteen. “I packed the last bit of ham and all of the cookies that were left. Murdoch is on his own.”
Johnny reached into the saddlebag and rummaged around in the saddlebag for a moment, and then froze. “Scott, your lunch is movin’.”
Scott looked up from his ablutions, perplexed. Then he remembered. Arnold. He had forgotten all about him. He watched as his brother gingerly withdrew his hand, the squirrel dangling from Johnny’s thumb and forefinger. The squirrel and the gunfighter looked at each other in disbelief.
“YOU!” Johnny yelled. Arnold whipped around and sunk his teeth into Johnny’s thumb. The squirrel went flying through the air and landed on Barranca’s head. The horse immediately flipped his head up with a snort, sending the squirrel tumbling into the saddle. The palomino then took off down the road, the squirrel hanging on for dear life.
Johnny and Scott watched in disbelief as the palomino disappeared toward home, the squirrel balancing on the saddle like a miniature cowboy. Johnny turned slowly toward his brother. “And WHAT was that damn squirrel doin’ in your saddlebags?”
Scott shrugged. “Teresa bribed me with a promise of apple pie if I’d baby sit.”
“You idiot,” Johnny grumbled. “You could of at least held out for chocolate cake.” He sat down and looked at his sore thumb ruefully. “Maybe he’s rabid,” he worried. “Oh, that’d look great on my headstone. Johnny Madrid done in by a squirrel.” He looked up at his brother, “Scott, ya gotta promise me, if I die from this, you gotta shoot me.”
“Would you knock it off! It’s not even bleeding much,” Scott scolded. “Let’s eat. Maybe that will lighten your mood.”
“I doubt it.” Johnny looked at his brother with hope. “How many cookies did you bring?”
Scott smiled, then reached into the saddlebags and drew out the sack that contained their lunch and flipped it over to his brother. “Plenty.”
Johnny smiled joyfully, his wound forgotten, then he dug into the sack. He felt around for a moment, then drew out his hand, covered in crumbs. He looked at it in confusion for a moment, then took a deep breath and glared at his brother.
“That damn squirrel ate our lunch!”
Scott turned pale. “No, he couldn’t have eaten it. At least not all of it. There was too much!” Scott grabbed the sack away from his brother and peered inside. “The cookies…” he whispered. “They’re all gone!”
Johnny looked down at his lacerated thumb. “I suppose that meat eating squirrel ate the ham, too.”
Scott peeked back into the bag. “No, it’s still there.”
“Good. Because if I would have had to starve again today, I really WOULD have had roast squirrel for supper. Lucky for him my thumb was enough ta satisfy his blood lust.”
Scott continued to peer down into the bag, the he carefully folded it over and sat back with a sigh.
Johnny looked at him, puzzled. “Come on, Scott. I’m starvin’. Hand it over.”
Scott closed his eyes and shook his head. “Johnny, believe me, you don’t want it.”
“What do ya mean I don’t want it!” Johnny’s voice rose appreciably.
“I mean, little brother, that Arnold ate all of those cookies…”
“Yeah, I already know that, and I’m willin;’ ta settle for ham. ANYTHING! Just let me eat!”
“As I was saying, he ate all of those cookies, and, well, what goes in must come out.”
Johnny stared at his brother in confusion, and then he realized what Scott was saying. He leaned back and closed his eyes. “That squirrel’s a dead man.” He glared at his brother. “And you and Teresa just might be, too.”
A ravenous Scott and Johnny rode toward the house, riding double on a disgruntled Charlie. As soon as they passed under the arch, Johnny caught sight of Barranca grazing contentedly off to the side under some oak trees. Johnny jumped off and ran over to his horse and grabbed the reins, bringing the palomino’s head up until the horse was looking in Johnny’s eyes.
“You cowardly nag! Shame on you for lettin’ a little old squirrel scare you like that! I have half a mind to geld you!”
Barranca rubbed his cheek against his owner, and Johnny stepped back and glared at the horse. “Stop it! I ain’t forgettin’ bout this! You’d better watch your step!”
Scott came up during the reunion and walked all the way around the horse. “Where’s Arnold?” he asked in a panicked voice.
Johnny turned toward his brother. “How the heck should I know? Besides, who cares? As long as he ain’t around me, I’ll be happy.”
Scott shook his head at his brother’s naiveté. “Johnny, I have a sneaking suspicion that Teresa MIGHT notice if he’s missing. And I DON’T think she’ll be happy about it.”
Johnny thought about what his brother said. Suddenly he realized what Scott was trying to say. “And if she’s upset, we won’t get any food.”
Johnny grabbed his brother by the shirt. “What are we gonna do?” he asked hysterically. “I’m too young ta die!”
Scott looked around. “I THINK we’d better find our wayward squirrel.”
Johnny gave his horse another glare for good measure, then led him over to the nearest tree and tied him securely. “Just in case another vicious squirrel shows up,” he grumbled at his horse.
Scott stood and stared up at the trees and whistled. “There must be a hundred squirrels up there.”
“And those trees must be a hundred feet tall.”
The two men looked at each other until Johnny shook his head. “You’re the one who volunteered ta babysit him.”
“And if I remember correctly, it was YOUR horse that lost him.”
They glared at each other until Scott finally sighed and drew out a coin. “Call it,” he ordered.
Scott grabbed the coin and cautiously looked at it, shielding it from Johnny’s sight. “Tails,” he grinned.
“Let me see,” Johnny demanded
Scott slipped the coin back into his pocket. “You’re wasting time. It’ll be dark in an hour or so. You’d better get busy.”
“How do I know which one is him?”
“Well, he didn’t like you much. Find one that won’t let you near him.”
Johnny stared at his brother. “That shouldn’t be hard,” he said sarcastically. “Any other intelligent hints?”
“Thanks.” Johnny looked up at the tree, then climbed up onto Barranca’s back and reached for a branch. He swung himself up into the tree and began to climb.
Scott stood back and watched, being careful not to stand under his brother. If Johnny happened to fall, which Scott thought was a distinct possibility, he didn’t want to get squished.
“Try a little to your left,” Scott suggested.
“There aren’t any big branches over there!”
“Look, do you want to catch Arnold or not?”
“Not really,” Johnny mumbled.
Johnny scooted over to his left and balanced precariously. The squirrels chattered angrily and then scampered higher.
“Go after them!” Scott directed. “They can’t go much further!”
Johnny climbed carefully, following the squirrels to the higher branches.
“Hurry up!” It’s getting dark and I’m hungry!” Scott complained.
“I AM hurryin’. I just don’t feel like breakin’ my neck.”
“I thought you were athletic,” Scott observed.
Johnny looked down at his brother. “Hey, Scott. Move over this way a little.”
“Cause if I fall, I want somethin’ ta land on.”
“Do you see where those damn squirrels went?”
Scott nodded. “They moved to the right. You should have stayed where you were.”
Johnny worked his way to the right, and went higher into the tree. “I think I’ve got one! There’s no place for him ta go!”
“Is it Arnold?”
Johnny glared once more at his brother. “I don’t know. They aren’t wearin’ name tags, and right now, I REALLY don’t care!”
“Well, maybe if you can’t tell the difference, Teresa won’t either.”
“Quit being such a pessimist and get that squirrel!”
Johnny inched closer to the elusive creature, who ran to the very end of the branch. Johnny scooted closer. “Come on, squirrel. You don’t know what you’re missin’. Teresa will spoil you rotten.”
He snaked his arm out and grabbed the animal by the tail, and it immediately sank its teeth into Johnny’s sore thumb.
“Yep, it’s Arnold all right,” Johnny verified.
He pried the squirrel’s teeth out of his thumb and grabbed him by the back of the neck. He crawled back toward the trunk, inching his away along the slender branch. He had almost reached the center of the tree when another squirrel launched an attack from above and landed on Johnny’s head. Johnny shrieked and let go of the branch to flip the animal off of his head, losing his balance in the process.
“Don’t drop Arnold!” Scott yelled as his brother crashed through the branches, finally coming to a halt about ten feet up.
“Is Arnold ok?” Scott asked worriedly.
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Johnny ground out, plucking a branch from out of his shirt.
“Why did you yell?” Scott asked.
“A SQUIRREL landed on my HEAD!”
Scott chuckled. “Scared you, huh?”
“Startled me, that’s all.”
“Not according to your scream.” Scott chuckled again. “I guess you’d better forget about what you threatened Barranca with,” he said innocently. “If that’s what happens when you’re afraid of squirrels.”
Johnny glared down. “Scott?”
“Catch!” Johnny tossed the squirrel toward his brother, who scrambled to catch it before it landed. He dove into a mud puddle, but caught the squirrel by the tail and held it up. “Got him!”
Johnny swung down from the tree and looked at his brother. “How come he’s not bitin’ you?”
Scott shrugged. “I have a way with animals,” he confessed.
“Hey Scott, was Arnold a male or a female?”
“How do I know?”
“Thought you might have noticed. Anyway, THIS Arnold’s a girl.”
“Are you sure?”
“Scott, I might be dumb about a lot of things, but I definitely know how ta tell a boy from a girl.”
Scott looked thoughtful. “Do you think Teresa knows?”
Johnny shrugged. “Probably not. For some reason I can’t picture Murdoch givin’ her that talk.”
“We can only hope,” Scott grinned.
Teresa was busily making Scott’s apple pie when Johnny and Scott walked into the kitchen, and she turned and looked at them. “What happened to the two of you?” she asked, her eyes widening.
Johnny glanced at his brother, who was covered head to foot with mud, and grinned. “My athletic brother here fell headfirst into a mud puddle.”
Teresa looked at Scott dubiously, then walked over and plucked some leaves and twigs out of Johnny’s hair. “And what did you fall into? A tree?”
Scott chuckled. “Several,” he clarified as Johnny glared at him. Scott cleared his throat as he brought the squirrel from behind his back.
“Anyway, here you go. Safe and sound.”
Teresa’s eyes widened. “Oh Scott, thank you! I didn’t think you liked Arnold, and now you’ve brought a friend for him to play with!”
“A friend?” Johnny asked icily.
Teresa nodded happily. “I’m sure he’ll be so happy.”
Johnny frowned. “How do you know this isn’t Arnold?”
“Because Arnold’s asleep in his house, silly.”
Scott shook his head in confusion. “Arnold’s in his house? Are you sure?”
Teresa shrugged. “I think so.”
The girl walked over to the small house sitting on the table then reached in and drew out a sleepy squirrel.
“You must have kept him pretty busy, he’s been exhausted since he came home,” she observed.
“How did he get in there?” Johnny said flatly.
Teresa shrugged. “Didn’t you put him there? I came in from washing clothes a few hours ago, and he was curled up inside.” She looked at them suspiciously. “You DID put him there, didn’t you?”
Johnny opened his mouth and Scott accidentally stomped on his brother’s foot, hard.
Johnny shut his mouth as Scott answered. “Of course. We just didn’t expect him to still be in there. We figured you’d take him out.”
Teresa nodded, still suspicious. “Why did you bring him back if you weren’t done working?”
“We just didn’t want to take any chance on Arnold getting hurt. We knew it was going to get pretty rough out there.”
She studied the men. “I guess you were right. You two are a mess. You’d better look more presentable by suppertime.”
“Don’t worry, we will,” Johnny answered. “By the way, when do I get a chocolate cake?”
Teresa smiled sweetly at Scott. “Well, I WAS going to make you one tomorrow, but since Scott here was kind enough to bring me a friend for Arnold, I think I’ll just make another apple pie.”
Scott grinned at his brother. “Sounds great. It’ll make up for me falling into that mud puddle.”
“What about ME!” Johnny exploded. “I nearly got killed gettin’ that dam…darn squirrel!”
Teresa’s face fell. “Well, I’ll see if I have time to make one next week. But with TWO babies to take care of, I’m going to be awfully busy.”
Johnny turned and lunged at Scott, who ran toward the door.
They had only gone a few feet when Teresa gave a shrill cry. “ARNOLD! Come back!”
Both Johnny and Scott whirled around as the squirrel disappeared out the back door and into the night.
“ARNOLD!” Teresa cried once more, before turning a tearful face toward the two brothers. “Please! Find him!”
“Teresa, it’s pitch black out there. WE’LL never find him tonight, but I promise we’ll look for him in the morning,” Scott assured her as Johnny accidentally stomped his foot, hard.
“Do you promise?” she sniffed.
Scott moved away from his brother. “I promise.”
Johnny turned slowly toward Scott, who wisely beat a hasty retreat.
“I think I’ll go clean up,” Scott yelled over his shoulder.
Johnny came bouncing down the stairs, the thought of a decent meal making him forget about killing his brother, at least for the time being. He rushed into the dining room and slid into his chair, the smells coming from the kitchen making his mouth water. A minute later, Murdoch and Scott joined him.
Teresa came into the dining room, carrying a large platter and still sniffling, and Johnny jumped up to help her. He had a sudden urge to take it and run upstairs with it, but common sense prevailed. Scott would probably catch him before he made it to his room. He set the platter down in front of his chair and grabbed the serving fork. He stabbed a huge slice and had it halfway to his plate when Murdoch cleared his throat meaningfully. Johnny hesitated, but at Murdoch’s pointed nod, he placed the meat on Teresa’s plate. He quickly stabbed another piece, then Murdoch cleared his throat again.
“Thank you, son, for serving the rest of us. I’ll take three pieces.”
Johnny scowled and plunked the meat down on his father’s plate, then Scott held out his own dish and grinned at his little brother. Johnny snuck a glance at Murdoch to see if he was watching, then with a resigned sigh, he heaped up Scott’s plate. He once more made a stab at the remaining meat, but before he could get it to his plate, the door slammed open, and Jelly came running in.
“Johnny, you’d better get out to the stable and talk to that horse of yours! He’s tearin’ his stall down!”
Johnny gave the prime rib a last mournful glance before jumping up and running out of the house. He headed quickly for the barn, where he could hear his horse’s shrill screams. When he got there, Cipriano was trying to calm the nervous horse.
“What’s wrong?” Johnny asked the segundo as he ran up to the stall.
Cip shrugged. “He just started going crazy!”
Johnny slipped into the stall and started talking calmly to the palomino.
“Easy, Barranca, easy boy. What’s the problem?”
He finally was able to reach out and grab the horse’s halter, and he pulled Barranca’s head down to him.
“What’s the matter with you?”
The horse rolled his eyes, trying to see into the corner of the stall. Johnny’s eyes narrowed, and he let go of his horse and walked over to the pile of hay in the corner and kicked it with his foot. A squirrel shot out of the hay and launched itself at the cowboy. Johnny fell backwards into Barranca, causing the horse to shy away. The squirrel then jumped from Johnny to the horse’s back, and disappeared over the stall partition. The horse then swerved away from where he’d last seen the squirrel, flattening Johnny against the wall.
“OOOPH!” Johnny grunted as the air left his lungs, and he watched as Barranca broke down the stall door and took off out of the barn, sending Cipriano diving for cover.
Johnny brushed the hay off and stomped into the house, grumbling to himself. He stepped into the dining room and glared at the people sitting around the table.
“Johnny?” Murdoch asked cautiously. What took you so long? Is Barranca all right?”
“I don’t know,” Johnny ground out. “Last time I saw him, he was headin’ south, and he didn’t look like he had any intention of stoppin’ this side of the Mexican border. And it took me this long ta get my wind back after he flattened me.”
“What was wrong with him?” both Teresa and Jelly asked. He glared first at his sister, then at Jelly. “That no good, whisker faced RAT!” Johnny fumed.
Jelly’s eyes got wide, and he started to cautiously get up. Murdoch glared at his son. “Don’t be talking to Jelly like that!”
“JELLY? Who was talkin’ about Jelly? I was TALKIN” about that…” he looked over at Teresa and decided to say it anyway. “DAMN squirrel!”
Jelly looked relieved and hurriedly continued eating, while Murdoch glowered at his son. “Watch your language!”
Johnny looked at him in frustration. “It’s impossible for me to watch my language with that monster in the house! I’d rather face a dozen gunmen than that, that…” he hesitated again. “DARN squirrel! He’s a menace!”
“Poor Arnold is just an innocent baby!” Teresa protested. “And you’ve been mean to him ever since he arrived. No wonder he doesn’t like you. Maybe if you tried to be nice to him, he’d be nice to you. After all, no one else seems to have a problem with him.”
“Well, no one else IS gonna have a problem with him if I see him first. I have a bullet with that squirrel’s name on it.”
Teresa’s eyes got wide, and Murdoch shook his head. “Johnny, I told you before, quit threatening the squirrel. Have a seat and calm down.”
Johnny took a deep breath and glanced around. “That no good, whisker faced RAT!”
“I think you already said that,” Murdoch observed quietly. “We all know how you feel about Arnold, now sit down!”
“ARNOLD? Who’s talkin’ about Arnold! I’m talkin’ about JELLY! WHERE’S MY SUPPER?”
Everyone’s eyes swung over to where Jelly was sitting at Johnny’s place. All that was left on the plate were a few bones and some vegetables.
Jelly slid out of the chair, being careful to keep it between himself and Johnny. “There’s some broccoli left,” he offered hopefully. “Well, I gotta go. Bye.” The handyman dashed toward the door, while Johnny approached the table in shock. “There’s nothin’ left,” he whispered as he looked at each of the remaining people accusingly. “You ate it all!”
The three other people at the table looked around uncomfortably, until finally Teresa spoke up. “Well, as Jelly pointed out, there is some broccoli left,” she said helpfully.
Johnny turned and stared at her. “Broccoli IS NOT food!” he stated emphatically.
Murdoch cleared his throat nervously. “Well, Teresa, didn’t you say something about a pie?”
Teresa jumped up. “Yes, I almost forgot. Johnny, I’m sure no one will mind if you have two pieces.”
Johnny fingered his gun and looked at his family threateningly. “I’m sure no one will mind if I eat the whole thing,” he said softly.
Murdoch quickly shook his head, and when Scott hesitated, his father accidentally kicked him. Hard. Scott dolefully shook his head.
Teresa came back from the kitchen, holding the pie. “It seems one of you already had a piece. There’s a hole in it,” she said, glaring at each of the men in turn.
Each of them shook their heads in denial, and she placed the pie down on the table in front of Johnny. He looked at it, and a slight smile came to his lips. “Well, whoever did it, that’s ALL he’s gettin’. NO ONE is gonna get this away from me.”
He picked up a fork, then his smile disappeared, and his eyes widened. “It’s movin’,” he said.
They all stared at the pie, and suddenly a brown, furry head popped out of the pie, his cheeks bulging and holding a piece of apple.
Johnny sat staring for a moment, then he leaped to his feet and went for his gun. Everyone dove for cover as the first bullet smashed into the pie, sending pieces of apple and crust flying all over the room. Arnold jumped out of the pie and scurried across the table. Murdoch poked his head up just in time to see the squirrel heading toward him, and the rancher ducked just as a bullet whizzed by his ear, shattering the mirror behind him.
Arnold leaped to the drapes and an instant later the window blew out. The squirrel changed directions and made a mad dash back toward the table and darted underneath. The three people bolted out from under the table and scattered for cover as another blast came from Johnny’s gun, digging a furrow in the carpet behind the retreating squirrel.
This time the animal leaped onto Murdoch’s bar, and the rancher reached up and grabbed his expensive imported scotch before diving behind the couch once more. Scott’s brandy disappeared in an explosion of glass and liquor, and the drenched squirrel flew toward a nearby end table. Murdoch’s howl of protest was drowned out by another report, and this time his model ship disintegrated into a million pieces.
Finally, the squirrel stopped in the middle of the room and watched, trembling, as the gunfighter approached. Johnny grinned as he took aim and pulled the trigger. The sound of a loud click reverberated through the room, and Teresa jumped up and ran toward her pet, who jumped into her arms. Scott and Murdoch crawled out from behind furniture and surveyed the disaster scene.
Johnny stood in the center of the room, looking at his gun like it had betrayed him. He woodenly reached down toward his gunbelt for some more shells, and Murdoch quickly grabbed him.
“Teresa, why don’t you get Arnold out of here while you have the chance?” Murdoch pleaded.
With a last glare at her trigger happy brother, she headed for the kitchen, the exhausted squirrel sleeping happily in her hands.
Johnny took a deep breath and looked at his father. “Either that squirrel goes, or I do!”
Murdoch surveyed the wreckage surrounding him, his glance lighting on the shattered ship and ruined bar. “I’ll let you know,” his father ground out.
“What do you mean, I have ta leave? What about that damn squirrel? It was HIS fault!” Johnny looked at his father in disbelief. “I can’t believe I’m bein’ replaced by a squirrel!”
“You’re NOT being replaced. I just want you to ride up to the north line shack and check it out,” explained Murdoch patiently.
“But the squirrel gets ta stay here,” Johnny pointed out petulantly.
Murdoch shook his head. “I think it’s asking a little much of Arnold to expect him to check out a line shack, don’t you?”
“Well, he should have ta do SOMETHING ta earn his keep,” Johnny mumbled. “Damn thing eats more than all of us put together.”
Murdoch’s eyebrows went up. “I think Lancer can afford to feed a squirrel. Besides, he keeps Teresa company.”
“Ain’t we enough company for her?”
Murdoch thought back to the previous evening and the ruined great room. “Maybe sometimes too much,” Murdoch sighed.
“I still don’t know how you can blame me for what happened last night,” Johnny complained. “It was all that squirrel’s fault.”
Murdoch turned a disbelieving look on his son. “I may be wrong, but it didn’t appear to me that Arnold was shooting back.”
“Well, it was MOSTLY his fault,” Johnny grumbled. “If he woulda cooperated and let me shoot him, I wouldn’t a made such a mess.”
Murdoch shook his head. “I still don’t know how you managed to miss him. You sure hit everything else.”
“Well, he’s smaller than most of my targets. Faster too,” Johnny admitted grumpily.
“Obviously,” Murdoch agreed dryly. “Look, Johnny, I just think it would be a good idea if you made yourself scarce for a few days. Teresa’s awfully upset, and your chance of getting a good meal around here went down considerably after last night.”
“It went down considerably as soon as that mangy squirrel set foot in this house. I haven’t had a decent meal in DAYS!”
“Well why don’t you stop in at Mabel’s and get something to eat before you go out to the line shack.”
Johnny brightened. “Yeah?”
Murdoch nodded and chuckled. “Yes. I don’t want you wasting away to nothing.”
“Neither do I,” Johnny agreed fervently. “Ok, Murdoch. I’ll go. Just be careful. That squirrel has mayhem on his mind. I don’t want ta come home and find the hacienda gone and that damn furry rat holdin’ you all hostage.”
“I don’t think that will happen,” Murdoch laughed. “I’m sure the three of us can handle Arnold while you’re gone.”
Johnny shook his head. “Don’t be too sure.” He frowned. “Maybe I should stay home to protect ya.”
Murdoch thought about his great room and shuddered. “No, that’s ok. I’m sure we’ll manage. Go and relax for a few days and get your mind off of squirrels.”
Johnny nodded and grinned. “Since you put it that way, all right. But I just might spend my time shootin’ squirrels instead of not thinkin’ about them.”
“Shoot all you want, as long as it’s not Arnold. And Johnny, if you have any spare time, make sure you fix up that shack.”
Murdoch shook his head and grinned. “Go on. We’ll see you in a few days.” He watched as his son headed into the barn to saddle Barranca, then he turned and went back into the house. He stopped in the threshold and stared at the shambles of his favorite room. He walked over and picked up a piece of his ship, then sighed and threw it down on the floor. It was obviously well beyond repair. He went over to the gun rack, which had been knocked over during one if their mad dashes, and he picked up a shotgun that had fallen on the floor.
He looked up as Scott cautiously entered the room. Scott watched his father carefully, gauging his mood. He stayed close to the door, in case a hurried exit was necessary.
“Sir? Where’s Johnny?’
Murdoch aimed the shotgun out the window and pulled the trigger of the empty gun. “Oh,” he said distractedly. “He’s gone.”
“Gone?” Scott asked in alarm.
Murdoch shrugged as he aimed the gun once more. “I thought it would be a good idea to get rid of him. After all, Teresa was pretty upset.” Murdoch grinned. “For that matter, so was Arnold.”
“You got rid of Johnny because a SQUIRREL was upset?”
Murdoch shrugged. “Well, I figured if Arnold’s upset, then Teresa’s upset, and that means no food. I did what I had to do.”
Scott thought about it for a moment, then shrugged. “Yes, I definitely see your point. But wasn’t your solution a bit drastic?”
Murdoch shrugged again and pointed to the wrecked room. “What do YOU think? I mean, poor Arnold obviously couldn’t shoot back. SOMEBODY had to protect him.” He pulled the trigger once more.
Scott nodded slowly as he looked around. “Again, I see your point. All right, I guess I can accept that, but what do we do about Arnold? Are you going to get rid of him, too?”
“I think we can handle one little squirrel. Especially since Johnny won’t be around to antagonize him. Besides, he means so much to Teresa.”
Scott nodded. “I guess that’s all that matters, isn’t it?”
Murdoch grinned. “That, and us getting some decent food. Now help me clean up this mess before Teresa has a heart attack and we lose the cook permanently.”
Johnny pulled Barranca up to the small shack and frowned at the dilapidated building. He glanced up at the sky and frowned once more. He could guarantee the roof leaked, and it would take at least a day to fix it. From the looks of the sky, he didn’t have that much time. He pulled the saddle off and threw it on the front porch, then led the palomino into the dubious shelter of the nearby lean to. It looked like he’d be fixing that, too. Not much time to be shooting squirrels. He brushed his horse and made sure there was grain in the bin, then walked toward the house, studying it critically for needed repairs.
He grabbed his saddle as he cautiously pushed the door open, looking for any sign of life. It wasn’t unusual for wildlife to make themselves at home in seldom used shacks.
The cabin was apparently empty, and Johnny breathed a sigh of relief. If he never saw another wild animal again it would be too soon. He walked over and threw the saddle next to the wall, then undid his saddlebag and tossed it onto the bed. After Johnny turned his back, a brown furry head popped out of the bag and Arnold ran under the bed.
Johnny lay back on the cot and closed his eyes. He had worked as long as he could in the diminishing light, trying to patch the numerous holes in the roof, and he had finally fixed the last one before the light gave out. Then he had hurriedly started a fire in the pot bellied stove and eaten some of the leftovers from Mabel’s before turning in. He had left the rest on the stove for breakfast. He planned on rising early the next morning and getting to work fixing up the lean to, that is if the rain stopped by then. Just being away from that blamed squirrel and getting a full belly had done wonders for his disposition. Johnny snuggled under the covers and listened to the steady beat of the rain on the newly fixed roof, then went over in his mind all of the repairs that were needed. As he was thinking, he drifted off to sleep.
Johnny woke up to something covering his face. He sat up and pawed at whatever it was, and felt fur. He grabbed at it and threw it across the room, then reached for the lantern. He hurriedly lit the wick and turned the light up, holding it so it shone in the corner. He didn’t see anything at first, and then his eyes widened.
“YOU!” he exclaimed. He started to reach for his colt, but then changed his mind as he remembered the fiasco in the great room. Instead, he cautiously reached over and grabbed the shotgun that was propped up next to the bed. He slowly brought it to bear on the squirrel and pulled the trigger. His breakfast disintegrated and a huge hole opened up in the side of the cabin. A frightened Arnold jumped to the stove, and then up to the rafters. Johnny sighted down the barrel as the animal scampered along the beams, then he pulled the trigger once more as Arnold ran above him. A gaping hole opened up in the roof, and the rain immediately poured into the gap, drenching the cursing cowboy.
Johnny watched in disbelief as the squirrel jumped back into the cabin and disappeared under the stove. Johnny grabbed for his saddlebags and pawed through them for more shotgun shells, sending the rest of the contents flying. He was going to get that damn squirrel if it was the last thing he did.
Murdoch walked into the ruined great room and looked around. Hopefully, they would be able to get it fixed up by the time Johnny came home. That is IF he came home. Maybe Arnold would win after all, but Murdoch’s money was on his younger son. Eventually, Arnold would make a mistake, and then Johnny Madrid would pounce. Arnold was as good as dead.
Murdoch had been awfully angry with his younger son for the mess, but he could also sympathize. That squirrel HAD made a terrible pest of himself, and most of his antagonism seemed to be aimed directly at Johnny for some reason. . In spite of himself, Murdoch chuckled as he remembered his son shooting at the elusive squirrel. Of course, the demolition of his beloved ship hadn’t been the least bit funny, and couldn’t be ignored. SOMEONE had to pay for that. He chuckled again. SOMEONE would.
With a final shake of his head, he headed into the kitchen to get breakfast, and then stopped dead in his tracks at the scene in front of him. The usually immaculate room was in shambles. Canisters of cornmeal and sugar had been dumped over, and their contents spilled over the counter and floor. A large jug of molasses lay on its side, and the sticky substance had been tracked all over by tiny feet.
Utensils were strewn around in the gooey mess, and a flour sack was lying on the counter, the flour dumped out and the edges of the bag had been chewed and shredded. As Murdoch looked, the bag moved, and a furry head poked out, chattered at him, then disappeared back into the bag.
Murdoch’s jaw dropped in disbelief. He thought he’d gotten rid of that squirrel once and for all when he’d slipped him into Johnny’s saddlebags. Apparently, somehow the dang squirrel had escaped and made his way back to Lancer just to annoy him. And now there was ANOTHER mess to clean up.
“TERESA!” he bellowed.
He looked back in disbelief at the kitchen and bellowed again.
“What happened in here!” Teresa exclaimed from behind him a moment later.
The rancher pointed at the moving sack. “I believe,” he said icily, “that Arnold was hungry.”
Teresa cautiously made her way over the treacherous floor and peered into the bag. “OHHH!” she breathed. “That’s not Arnold. It’s Angie.” She turned and glared at her guardian. “It looks she had a good reason to get into things!”
“She did?” Murdoch asked in disbelief.
“Uh huh.” She turned and beamed at her guardian. “She had babies! So you’d better not bother her!”
Murdoch looked slightly ill. “Babies?” he asked weakly.
Teresa nodded happily. “Isn’t that sweet?”
The rancher ignored her question. “Where did ANGIE come from?” he asked dazedly.
“Scott brought her to me to keep Arnold company. Wasn’t that sweet of him?” She looked around worriedly. “I haven’t seen Arnold since last night. I wonder where he is.”
“I’m sure he’ll show up somewhere,” Murdoch mumbled.
“I hope so. He needs to see the babies! Won’t it be fun to have a whole bunch of squirrels running around?”
Murdoch’s eyebrows went up and he went in search of his soon to be departed son. All of his carefully laid plans in solving Lancer’s squirrel problem, and Scott had started it all over again, apparently with a vengeance. He figured Arnold would never be seen again, at least if Johnny saw him first, but he hadn’t counted on Scott’s betrayal. He had gambled that it would be Johnny coming back and not Arnold, but either way he figured his great room would be safe. Now he had to figure out how to get rid of Angie and her brood. Or Scott, he just wasn’t sure which.
Johnny sat in the lean to and scowled up at his horse. “Would you move your big fat carcass over? I’m gettin’ drenched in here.”
Barranca leaned over and nuzzled Johnny, knocking his hat askew. The gunfighter grabbed his hat and readjusted it on his head. “Knock it off. I need that ta TRY ta keep the water off my head.” He glared at the horse again. “And quit tryin’ ta make me forget what I was sayin’.” He shoved the horse, who merely shifted his weight to the other side.
Barranca shut his eyes while Johnny debated whether to get up and shoot his own horse. Finally he decided that at least the horse was somewhat of a shield against the wind. He scooped the meager amount of straw on the floor into a pile and tried to plump it up to use as a pillow. After several seconds, he gave up and lay down, pulling a blanket over him.
He couldn’t believe he hadn’t hit that damn squirrel. The shack had more holes in it than a rusty sieve, and now kept the rain and wind out about as well. He’d have to spend the rest of his stay repairing the cabin instead of goofing off, and all because of that dang furry rat. He wondered briefly if he should just go home, but he didn’t want to admit that he’d been bested by a squirrel. All anyone had to do was take one look at the shack and his secret would be out. He hated staying here without any ammunition, but he figured nothing much could happen here. Even counting the extra ammunition he had found in his saddlebags, he only had four bullets left in his colt; the rest he had used to blow ventilation holes in the cabin.
A steady drip on his nose made his eyes pop open and he glared at the roof. He should have spent the time fixing the lean to, but who would have thought he would be invaded and forced to destroy the cabin in order to protect himself from such a fearsome opponent?
With a sigh, he pulled the blanket up over his head and shut his eyes once more. Some how, some way, he was going to get that squirrel. He thought back to Murdoch’s obvious glee at his leaving, and his face darkened. He had the feeling his Old Man had something to do with Arnold being his bunk buddy. Finally, he shook his head. No, even Murdoch wouldn’t be that cruel. Or stupid. The dang rodent had probably hidden in his saddlebags trying to find some more food. After all, he had hit the jackpot the last time he had stowed away.
He wondered how the rest of them were coping with Angie, and he smiled. With any luck, they were fairing about as well as he was. It would serve his beloved family right after they had tried to starve him to death. He thought about it for a minute, then decided he’d better do a good job at fixing that shack. If Angie was anything like Arnold, the line shack might be all they had left. After all, Scott and Murdoch weren’t nearly as good with a gun as he was. They wouldn’t stand a chance in hell at plugging Angie.
Murdoch walked into the great room and glared at the table that used to hold his ship, then he turned and walked toward the door. He feared he had made a grave error in judgment the other day. He SHOULD have sent Teresa off to the line shack instead of Johnny. Since Murdoch had successfully gotten rid of Arnold, more squirrels had made their debut as his ward’s pets, and now it seemed that Lancer was in danger of being overrun. First there had been Angie, then her pups, then the pups apparent father, then assorted nieces and nephews, and finally, for all he knew, their drinking buddies. They were running around the ranch like they owned it, and he hadn’t eaten a decent meal in days. Maybe when Johnny came home, he could help them get rid of their obnoxious guests. He glanced around the destroyed great room one last time before going out the door. Then again, maybe not.
Of course, there was always the chance that Johnny wouldn’t be coming home. The day after his son had left, one of the hands had ridden frantically into the yard and reported that it sounded as if there was a huge gun battle coming from the line shack where Johnny was staying. The hand asked if they should round up some men and go rescue Johnny from what was obviously a massive attack. Murdoch had thought about it, then had glanced over at his ruined ship and shook his head. “No, I’m sure Johnny can take care of himself.”
The hand had looked at him in disbelief, and then hesitantly returned to his chores. Murdoch had chuckled at the man’s reaction, but he didn’t want anyone interrupting his son’s efforts to get rid of Arnold, and he was fairly certain that was what Johnny was trying to do. Of course, if Johnny really WAS in trouble, Murdoch was glad he had slipped a couple extra boxes of ammunition in the saddlebags, along with the squirrel.
Now he thought he’d just ride into town and get something to eat at Mabel’s. He thought briefly about asking Scott to go with him, but then he remembered that his older son was the one responsible for bringing Angie into their lives. He couldn’t understand WHAT his son had been thinking. At least Johnny had the right idea. Murdoch stalked out to the barn, and found Scott saddling his own horse.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Murdoch demanded.
“OUT,” Scott replied tersely.
“I don’t think so,” Murdoch said quietly. “I don’t want both of us gone at the same time, and I’M leaving. YOU on the other hand, are staying.”
Scott looked at his father for several seconds, then swung aboard Charlie. “Sorry, but I got the idea first.” He spurred his horse past his father, who took off his hat and threw it on the ground. Murdoch stood there for a few seconds, then walked over and saddled his horse anyway. Moments later, he was on his way. Teresa and the ranch were on their own. Besides, no attacker could get past those damn squirrels.
Johnny threw the hammer down and looked up at the shack. He had worked all day, and the building was finally back to where it was before he and Arnold had engaged in the shootout. Naturally, the rain come down in buckets all day, and then had stopped as soon as he had patched the last hole in the roof. After that, he had then gone on and repaired the walls and floor and cleaned up the mess. He had kept his Colt handy in case Arnold had shown up, but the squirrel had wisely remained out of sight the whole day. Johnny was beginning to think that maybe one of his shots had gotten the varmint after all, and that thought put him in a good mood, despite having to work in the cold and damp.
He looked down at his clothes and grimaced in disgust. He was filthy, and he certainly wasn’t looking forward to bathing in the cold creek, but he didn’t want to sleep covered in mud, either. He hadn’t been able to keep his coat or gloves on while he worked, and he was frozen down to his bones. With a sigh, he decided to go out and feed Barranca before cleaning up, and that way he wouldn’t have to leave the cabin again.
He took a few steps, and then decided to light the stove and start his supper heating before he took care of Barranca. For once, he was going to think things through and do it right. By the time he was done washing up, both the cabin and the food would be hot enough to make him forget about having to skinny dip in the icy creek, and he could relax in the snug cabin for the rest of the night.
He quickly brought in some firewood and started the stove, then placed his supper on top. He took an appreciative sniff of the leftovers Mabel had given him, and his mouth started watering. He couldn’t wait to taste the stew, and the pie sitting on the table didn’t hurt, either. He picked up a bag of grain, then took one last look around, and nodded in satisfaction. He would at least be able to sleep comfortably tonight. He walked out and carefully shut the door. He wasn’t going to take any chances that Arnold would beat him to his meal. He headed for the lean to, whistling. Nothing could ruin his good mood today.
He walked into the lean to and looked at his horse. Barranca was lying down in the warm straw Johnny had thrown in there this morning, and the gunfighter felt a moment’s jealousy. While he had been working like a fool all day and freezing his tail off, his horse had been relaxing in his nice warm stall. He took another step, and then froze. There was a brown furry shape snuggled up next to Barranca and sleeping peacefully.
Johnny’s eyes widened, and he slowly pulled his Colt out of its holster. He had a fleeting moment of sanity as his little voice told him that maybe shooting at his own horse wouldn’t be a good idea, but he quickly shrugged it off. After all, Barranca was guilty of treason. Somewhere he had heard a saying that all was fair in love and war, and this was DEFINITELY war. Barranca was on his own.
Johnny aimed his Colt carefully, but just as he was ready to squeeze the trigger, Barranca apparently smelled the grain Johnny was carrying and threw his head up. In order to avoid shooting his own horse between the eyes, Johnny jerked his gun down, and the bullet plowed a path in the straw between Barranca’s front legs. The horse bolted to his feet, knocking into Johnny and sending him flying just as he was taking a second shot. This time the bullet tore through the roof as the squirrel hightailed it to the back of the stall. The gunfighter scrambled to his feet and pulled the trigger again, and was rewarded when a piece of fluff from the end of Arnold’s tail came floating down toward the ground. The squirrel jumped to Barranca’s back and chattered angrily at the man. Johnny smiled as he took a step toward his victim, but Barranca had been patient long enough, and butted his master with his head, hoping for his grain, sending the last bullet into the straw.
Johnny stalked down to the creek, cursing with every step. As far as he was concerned, that blamed horse deserved to have that psychopathic rodent in his stall. Maybe when Arnold had eaten all of Barranca’s food for a while, the horse would come to his senses and stomp on the dang thing. Of course, Barranca would probably break his leg trying. That stupid squirrel seemed to leave a charmed life. Right now, all Johnny wanted was to wash up and get back to the cabin before he froze to death.
He stood glaring at the frozen creek for several seconds, then quickly undressed and jumped in. The cold nearly took his breath away, and he hurriedly scrubbed up, then bolted out of the water and grabbed his clothes as he ran back toward the cabin. He figured he’d dry off and get dressed in front of the stove. As he approached the shack, he slowed and stared at the building. The door was open, and he could hear the dish that held his supper scraping along the floor as Arnold apparently ate his supper.
He automatically reached for his gun, but there was nothing there. He looked around, and spied a length of wood lying in the yard, left over from his repairs. He grabbed it and then quietly approached the cabin. He realized he should have used this approach before. At least if he missed, the cabin would probably remain unscathed.
Johnny cautiously approached the doorway, hefting the plank to get a better grip. He took a deep breath, then rushed through the door and swung the board at the brown furry shape that was eating his supper. Johnny’s eyes widened as the wood connected with a satisfying ‘thunk’, and the bear whirled around to face his attacker.
“Murdoch, either you get rid of those blasted squirrels, or I’m leaving!” Scott fumed. “Everywhere I turn, there’s another one of those mangy creatures just waiting to annoy me!”
“Now, Scott,” Murdoch said placatingly. “You know how upset Teresa gets whenever we suggest that she get rid of them. They’re her pets.”
“Well, maybe I’ll go out and find some nice, snuggly rattlesnakes and bring them home!”
“Squirrels may be annoying, but they’re hardly dangerous,” Murdoch argued.
“Says WHO!” Scott exploded. “I nearly killed myself when I tripped over one coming down the stairs!”
“Well, then, you should watch where you’re going.”
Scott drew himself up to full height. “Make your decision! Them or me!”
Murdoch sighed resignedly. “Well, I guess I’ll have to talk to her.”
Just then, Teresa walked into the dining room. “Supper’s ready,” she said sweetly. “And Murdoch, I fixed your favorite. Pot roast and potatoes, and I made you an apple pie for dessert.”
Murdoch nodded. “I’ll be right there.” He turned back toward Scott. “Be sure and keep in touch.”
That had been three days ago, and Murdoch had to admit, he MIGHT have made another slight error in judgment. He had been positive the squirrel crisis had reached its peak, but apparently, there was no such thing. They just kept multiplying. The squirrel population seemed to double every day, and they apparently liked the hacienda much better than they liked the cold and dangerous outdoors.
Murdoch absent mindedly brushed a squirrel off of his desk and looked up at the clock. A determined rodent was trying to pry the wooden acorns off of the top of the clock, and as Murdoch watched, he changed tactics and began gnawing them off instead. Three squirrels were playing tag on his bar, and another was sliding down the banister.
With a sigh, the rancher decided to take a walk outside. At least out there it was safe. After all, every squirrel for miles around was in the house. He wandered over to the barn, and saw Jelly pounding away at some boards.
“Fixing a fence?” Murdoch asked hopefully.
The handyman straightened up and glared at him. “I wish! Ever since them squirrels moved in, I’ve been workin’ my fingers to the bone, makin’ ‘em accommodations. “I’m tellin’ ya, Murdoch, you gotta DO somethin’,” he said in a panicky voice. “Now Miz Teresa wants me ta make a ramp between that old oak tree next to the house, in through one of the windows, so the poor little creatures won’t have ta use the front door.”
“They use the front door?” Murdoch asked numbly.
Jelly nodded. “Didn’t ya see the cute little flap I made ‘em at the bottom? They don’t even have ta knock. They can just go right in. Thought it’d save everybody a lot of time.”
Murdoch nodded his head, stunned into speechlessness that the magnificent door had had a hole sawed into it for the convenience of squirrels.
He looked around. “Well, at least they aren’t out here, yet.”
Jelly snorted. “No, they’re all busy eatin’ at the buf- fay.”
“The grain silo. Teresa was a little concerned that some of them looked skinny. So she had Frank saw a hole in the silo so they can go in and help themselves. Ya ought ta know, Cipriano says we’ve already gone through most of the grain we have stored up for the cattle for the upcoming winter.”
Murdoch nodded numbly. “Anything else I should know?”
Jelly shrugged. “Nothin’ that I can think of, ‘ceptin maybe that she has the men buildin’ a new water trough. Seems like the one the horses use is a little deep for the poor little dears.” He jutted his chin out belligerently. “And the hands are gettin’ tired of everybody in town makin fun of them and callin’ them squirrel wranglers. Some of ‘em have already quit.”
Murdoch sighed. Yes, he had definitely made a mistake. He’d have to talk to Teresa tonight. Right after supper. And after the dishes were done. And after she had ironed his shirts. Murdoch sighed. Maybe those squirrels weren’t that bad, after all. He could always buy a new front door.
He walked back into the hacienda, skillfully avoiding the tumbling rodents, and he managed to make it to his desk without falling. He figured he might as well work on some contracts while he waited for supper. He yanked open a drawer, and was met with a furry face, chattering at him angrily. He picked up the creature by the back of the neck and tossed it onto the floor, and that’s when he noticed the contracts. He had spent almost three weeks writing them up and proofing them so they were just perfect. All that had been required were the signatures. Now they were being used to line a squirrel nest, and the largest piece of paper he could see was about one inch square. He stared at the pile for several seconds. On second thought, both cooks and housekeepers were cheap and plentiful.
“TERESA!” he bellowed.
Scott looked out the window of the saloon, and was surprised to see his father riding slowly up to the hitching post. Murdoch wearily dismounted, and then untied his saddlebags from behind the cantle and pulled them off. Scott noticed his father never even seemed to notice when a squirrel jumped out of the bag, jumped on his shoulder, and went scurrying off.
Murdoch pushed open the batwing doors, and when he spotted Scott, he walked over and sat down wearily. He grabbed his son’s drink and drained it in a single gulp, then closed his eyes and leaned back in the chair.
“Something wrong, Sir?” Scott asked politely.
Murdoch took a deep breath. “Do you mind if I bunk with you tonight?”
Scott shook his head. “No, but you’ll have to sleep on the floor. There’s only one single bed.”
“That’s OK,’ Murdoch said quickly. He slanted a look at his son. “As long as there aren’t any critters in the room.”
Scott shook his head. “Not a one.” He looked at his father critically. “What happened?”
Murdoch sighed deeply. “I gave Teresa an ultimatum. Either the squirrels went, or I did.”
Teresa sat in her chair in the great room, enjoying the fire. The house was finally back to normal after some hard work and redecorating, and Murdoch had even replaced his beloved ship before he had left. She watched the squirrels playing on the great room rug as she finished knitting a bedspread, and she smiled. For once, she was making something for herself instead of for one of the men. It had been two days since Murdoch had left, and she hadn’t had to cook one meal or mend one shirt. She should have gotten rid of the men a long time ago. She had decided that squirrels were much more fun than the Lancers, twice as cute, and they weren’t nearly as much trouble.
She watched as the darling little creatures romped around the room, running back and forth from the oak tree into the room, using the ramp that Jelly had made. He had brought it in the day before, and then disappeared back to the barn after attaching it to the window. The whole time he hadn’t said one word, but for some reason he had kept shooting sideways glances at her as if she was crazy. She’d have to keep an eye on him. There was obviously something wrong with him.
After an hour or so, Teresa stood up and stretched. She decided she’d have a salad for supper. She was sick of the constant menu of meat and potatoes the Lancers insisted on, with an occasional plate of tamales for good measure. Now she could eat what SHE wanted. She put her finished blanket down on the table and headed outside to her vegetable garden, and then she stopped short. The entire thing was gone. All that was left to mark the place where all of her prize vegetables had been was some turned up dirt. Her eyes widened, and when she caught sight of Jelly out by the barn she stalked over to him, hands on hips.
“Well?” she asked frostily.
“Just WHERE are my vegetables?”
Jelly pointed toward the oak tree. “Last I saw ‘em, they were climbin’ that tree.”
“My vegetables were climbing a tree?” She looked at the handyman, in disbelief. The poor man was obviously crazy.
“Uh huh! You callin’ me a liar?”
“All right, Miss Smarty Pants, I’ll show ya!” He marched over to the tree, followed by a very suspicious Teresa. He stopped underneath the spreading branches and pointed upward. The girl looked up, and saw the fruits of her labor hanging all over the tree.
“How on earth did they get up there!”
“I told ya,” Jelly huffed. “They climbed!”
Just then, a troop of squirrels ran by, holding some lettuce leaves in their mouths. They scurried past the two people and rapidly climbed up to the top branches.
“SEE?” Jelly said triumphantly. “I told ya so!”
Teresa watched them for a moment in disbelief, and then turned back toward the house. She guessed she could eat something else for supper, after all. She walked into the kitchen and opened the door to the cold cellar, and immediately a mass of brown furry rodents hurried out, each of them carrying a hard earned morsel of food. Teresa looked past the flood of bodies and saw that her root cellar was empty. One last squirrel ambled past, holding a biscuit, and Teresa made a mad grab. The animal dodged sideways and ran out the door, his prize still in his jaws. Teresa ran after him, yelling at the animal to come back. Jelly watched her from the barn door for a moment, and then wisely disappeared.
A half of an hour later, an exhausted Teresa came dragging back into the house, a half of a biscuit held triumphantly in her hand. She went directly into the dining room to put the finishing touches on her bedspread, but it was no longer on the table. She looked around, perplexed, and then she saw a spider web of green yarn draped all through the great room, festooning the furniture like Christmas tinsel. All that was left of her precious blanket was a patch of yarn the size of an oven mitt, and as she watched, the patch started to unravel the rest of the way.
Teresa dove after the yarn, and the squirrels scattered. She doggedly gave chase, and as the squirrels dodged and turned, the green yarn became more and more entwined around her. Finally, she managed to get her fingers on the small patch of yarn that was left, but as she watched, it unraveled completely and she gave an agonized scream.
Scott and Murdoch heard the commotion outside before the batwing doors of the saloon slammed open and Jelly ran wildly up to them.
“Murdoch, you gotta come! They’re attacking!”
Murdoch stood up. “Who?”
“THE SQUIRRELS! They’re attacking Miss Teresa! She’s tied up in the living room! You better hurry! They’ve taken her hostage!”
Murdoch’s eyebrows went up and he took another sip of his beer just as Val and a few of his deputies ran in, brandishing rifles.
“I heard Jelly yellin’ that Teresa was being held hostage!” Val looked at the handyman. “How many of them are there?” he yelled.
Jelly’s eyes bugged out. “I didn’t stop ta count ‘em! There were too many of ‘em! They were swarmin’ all over the ranch!”
Val nodded and turned to Murdoch. “We’d better go with ya.”
Murdoch shook his head calmly as he finished his beer. “It’s not necessary, really. Scott and I can handle it.”
“But if there are that many of them…”
Scott shrugged. “It might take a while, but we’ll get them all eventually,” he said as he motioned the bartender for another round.
Val looked at the ranchers in amazement. “Aren’t you going to go?”
Murdoch sighed. “I suppose we’ll have to eventually, but I’m going to finish my drink first.”
Scott nodded in agreement. “Besides,” he smirked. “It doesn’t sound like Teresa’s going anywhere.”
“Aren’t you going to go rescue her?” Val demanded.
Murdoch’s eyebrows went up. “Nope. She got herself into this mess; she can get herself out of it. Maybe if they rough her up a little bit, she won’t be so quick to let them in next time. It’ll teach her a lesson.”
Val’s eyes bugged out. “Maybe I should go get Johnny.”
Murdoch waved his hand at the lawman. “No, don’t bother him. He’s out at the line shack, trying to kill Arnold.” The rancher’s brow furrowed. “Of course, he WAS supposed to be back before now. Maybe Arnold won, after all.” He nodded at Scott. “Do you think we should go check on your brother before going home?”
Scott shook his head. “No, I’m SURE we’ll find out who won eventually.” He handed his father a glass. “Here, have another one.” He looked at Val quizzically. “Care to join us?”
Scott glanced over at his father. “Why do you think Val was so upset?”
Murdoch shrugged. “How do I know? I never could figure that man out.”
“Neither could I.”
The two men rode underneath the arch at a leisurely pace. “It’s still standing,” Scott observed.
A grin came over Murdoch’s face. “I wonder if we should take time to bed down the horses before we go in.”
Scott grinned back. “Why not?”
The men guided their horses over to the barn and dismounted. They looked cautiously around, and then Murdoch led his horse into the building, with Scott following closely behind.
“I don’t see any squirrels,” Murdoch observed.
“That doesn’t mean they’re not here. We’d better keep our eyes open.” The two men led their horses into their stalls and bedded them down, then closed the stall doors behind them. Scott looked over at the doorway to the barn, and his eyes widened. “Incoming!” he yelled.
Murdoch whirled around as the mass of squirrels surged toward them. He fired one round into their midst, and then gave up and bolted up into the loft with Scott right behind him, firing down at the tiny soldiers.
“Well, now what?” Scott panted, once they had reached safety.
A look of grim determination took over Murdoch’s face, and he handed his gun to his son. “Cover me.”
“No,” Scott argued. “I’ll go.”
Murdoch once more looked down at the mob milling around the ladder and he nodded. “You go.”
Scott stood up and offered Murdoch his gun. But his father just scowled. “No, I’ll have to go.”
“Because you can cover me and I can’t cover you.” He hesitated. “You know I’m right, don’t you?”
Scott nodded. “You go.”
Murdoch shook his head as he stood up. “Why do I have to be right all of the time,” he mumbled. He cautiously stepped onto the ladder, and then looked at his son, who took a deep breath.
After several agonizing minutes, the two men safely dove for cover up by the hacienda and lay there, panting.
Murdoch scowled at his son. “Is that what you call giving cover?
“Is that what you call running? If I knew you were going to stroll…”
You never could shoot, not from the beginning?”
“And you are all mouth.”
“Next time I say to get rid of those squirrels, get rid of them!” Scott grumbled.
Murdoch nodded. “Next time.”
Murdoch reached over and grabbed his son by the shirt. “Whatever happens, just make sure that you don’t shoot my ship.”
Scott’s eyebrows went up. “What about Teresa?”
Murdoch bit his lip as he thought about the question. Finally, he shrugged. “Do the best you can, but DON’T hurt my ship!”
Scott nodded in understanding. “All right.” He cautiously leaned around the corner and peered in through the great room window. He stared into the house for several seconds, and then crouched down by his father. “They still have Teresa tied up.” He took a deep breath and cocked his rifle. “Ready?”
Murdoch lurched to his feet, and then froze. “Wait. You didn’t see Arnold in there, did you?”
Scott looked perplexed. “Arnold? No, why?”
Murdoch sighed. “Good. For a minute there, I thought we were in trouble.”
The two men hit the door at the same time, and it crashed open as they opened fire at the advancing horde.
Johnny headed for home, humming to himself. He couldn’t wait to get a decent meal. He looked down at his tattered clothes and smiled. Oh well, clothes could be replaced, and he was sure Teresa would be happy enough with him to mend his clothes AND bake him a chocolate cake. He turned and glanced behind the saddle, where Arnold was happily riding, and he grinned at the squirrel. “We’re almost home, buddy.”
Arnold chattered cheerfully back at him and Johnny laughed. Arnold had turned out to be a pretty good friend, just like Barranca. The gunfighter frowned. Maybe better. “You shouldn’t have run off and left me when that bear attacked,” Johnny scolded his horse. “Arnold didn’t.”
Johnny smiled once more as he remembered how the brave little squirrel had launched himself at the attacking bear, landing on the grizzly’s muzzle just as the bear was getting ready to attack Johnny. Arnold had bitten the grizzly’s nose, and the bear had howled with pain before bolting out of the cabin with Arnold hanging on for dear life. The gunfighter had quickly pulled on his clothes and went after the bear, afraid of what he’d find, but the smug squirrel had met him before he’d gone a dozen feet. Johnny had picked him up and promised him that he’d always have a home at Lancer, and Arnold had chattered happily back. Now they were only a couple of hours from the hacienda, and Johnny couldn’t wait to see his family’s face when he walked in with Arnold, safe and sound.
Murdoch stood up and surveyed his wrecked great room as Scott numbly walked over and cut his sister loose. She just stood there, and Scott watched her for a moment. “I think she’s in shock,” he observed to his father.
“So am I,” Murdoch growled. “Look at this mess.”
Scott shrugged. “Well, look on the bright side. There are no more squirrels, and your ship is still standing.”
Murdoch walked over to his bar, the broken glass crunching under foot. “That’s the ONLY thing that’s still standing.” He glanced over at his ward’s vacant expression and shook his head. “I think you’d better go get Sam. I think poor Teresa’s a little squirrelly.”
Murdoch looked around the room again. “If ANYONE brings another squirrel anywhere NEAR this house, they re going to die!”
Johnny rode into the yard and jumped off of Barranca. He carefully lifted Arnold down and placed him in his saddlebags for the trip into the house. As he approached the house, he noticed Sam helping Teresa into the buggy.
“Hey, Teresa,” he yelled. “Look what I’ve got!” He reached in and brought the squirrel out triumphantly. Teresa’s eyes widened and she immediately began to jabber senselessly and drool.
“Johnny, get that thing away from her!” Sam ordered.
“What’s wrong with her?” the gunfighter asked in confusion.
“She’s going on a nice, long vacation,” Sam explained. “Away from the three of you, and DEFINITELY away from squirrels.”
“You mean she won’t be cookin…or mendin… or nothin?” Johnny asked in a panicked voice.
Sam shook his head. “Not for a long, long time.” He clucked to the team, and they started off, leaving a woebegone Johnny staring after the buggy. Finally, with a sigh, he put Arnold on his shoulder and walked into the house. He stopped in shock as he took in the great room.
“What happened in here?”
Murdoch and Scott spun around, and immediately brought their rifles up and aimed them at the squirrel on Johnny’s shoulder.
Johnny’s eyes widened, and he dove for cover behind a table as two shots roared past his head and slammed into the ship model, sending splinters of wood flying throughout the room.
“Here, Johnny, have some more pot roast,” Victoria insisted.
“Thank you, ma’am. I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve had a good meal.
Victoria shook her head. “You poor dear. I can’t believe Scott and Murdoch tried to kill you.”
“Neither could Val,” Johnny agreed. “For some reason he thought the ranch was being attacked and he showed up just in time ta hear all the gunfire. He nearly got his tailfeathers shot off when he tried ta pry ‘em off of me.”
“How long will they be in jail?”
Johnny shrugged. “Don’t know. Val said he was gonna wait til they calmed down, and there was sure no sign of that happenin’ when I left.” He shrugged thoughtfully. “I think it might be a while.”
“And Teresa had to be committed, too?” Audra asked.
Johnny nodded. “Yeah. I don’t know WHAT happened to her. Somethin’ sure got to her.”
“Well, you’re welcome to stay here for a while,” Victoria offered as Nick growled a warning.
“I guess Johnny can stay,” Nick mumbled, “But I refuse to share my house with those squirrels!” he said as he glared at the rodents perched on the table.
Audra glared at her brother. “Nick, don’t be such a stick in the mud! Arnold and Angie are absolutely adorable, and Johnny says Angie’s going to have babies! Won’t it be fun to see them playing?”
“Of course, “Victoria agreed. She glared at her son. “Audra’s right. You’re being unreasonable. What POSSIBLE harm could those cute little creatures do?”
~ end ~
The Easter Bunny
The Mountain Man – FIRST PLACE Lancer Writers Awards: Best Humorous Story
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