Word Count 2,892
“I really don’t know where to begin.”
“I suggest you begin at the beginning,” Murdoch Lancer said, in a tone that clearly implied it was more than just a suggestion.
“Well . . . uh . . . well, we . . . “ Scott’s beseeching eyes snuck over to his brother Johnny. Murdoch’s murderous eyes followed.
Johnny’s eyes flashed back at his brother. “We. Meaning us?”
“Well, sure, Johnny. I mean, it was . . . well, we both . . .”
“Scott, this was entirely your idea.”
“Come on, Johnny, you said you believed me!”
“I said maybe! And I sure didn’t think it would end like this!”
“Of course not, brother, but we couldn’t take a chance. Anyhow, you thought . . . ”
“Scott, why don’t you just . . . “
Murdoch’s eyes had been playing visual ping-pong with his sons, but observations, both visual and aural, were revealing nothing. “Stop that!” he boomed in Johnny’s general direction.
Johnny flinched. “Stop what? Brushing your hat?”
“Yes! Stop brushing my hat, stop straightening my jacket, stop talking, stop everything!”
“Oh! I just . . . “
Murdoch turned to Scott. “And you! – my eldest, my Harvard-educated son who suddenly seems to have forgotten how to speak English – start talking! From the beginning! Tell me every piece of pertinent information that drove the two of you to act like total idiots!”
“Murdoch, it wasn’t . . . “ Johnny launched an impish grin that was instantly squelched by his father’s stern look.
“Scott! Start talking!”
Scott snuck a quick look at his brother, who merely shrugged. It seemed to Scott that he was on his own here. And, if he was being honest with himself, the whole thing had actually been initiated by him. But he had done it for Johnny! And he’d do it again, if the circumstances were . . .
Scott cleared his throat. It was time to face the music. He figured he might as well get comfortable, so he leaned against one of the stalls in the livery.
“You’re sure you want to hear . . .?”
A deep scowl.
“Murdoch . . . You do understand it wasn’t intentional, right?”
A Very Deep Scowl.
“Um . . . well, it started this morning. When I rode in to this town . . . You know, I’ve been gone for almost a week now and I’m anxious to get home. Although with the two of you here, it’s almost like home right here.” He managed a weak smile but when Scowl #3 was returned and Johnny just rolled his eyes, Scott continued.
“When I rode in to this stable and gave my name to the man, he said someone else by the name of Lancer had ridden in an hour earlier. I knew Johnny was on his way home, too, but wouldn’t be passing this way, and I knew you were at home. The stableman showed me the man’s horse, but it wasn’t either of your horses and it didn’t have our brand. No saddle bags or rifle scabbard. Who could the guy be? It didn’t make sense to me. Would it have made sense to you?”
Scowl #4. Johnny gingerly handed Murdoch’s semi-clean hat back to him but it was grabbed ferociously enough to cause Johnny to backstep.
Scott continued cautiously. “I figured I had better find this guy who was calling himself by our name so I asked the stableman where he went from here and the answer I got was, and I quote: ‘I got no idea in hell which way he went.’ He wasn’t very accommodating.”
“No, not nice at all,” tsked Johnny, shaking his head in fake sympathy. He truly appreciated the hilarity of the situation — Murdoch’s anger and Scott’s anxiety. He hoped Scott would follow suit soon. Murdoch would probably take longer. Lots longer. The look Murdoch gave him at that point confirmed his suspicion.
“Scott . . . “ Murdoch growled, “not every little detail . . .”
“All right. Yes, all right. Well, I just figured no one had the right to call himself a Lancer if he wasn’t one, right?” No answer. “So I went looking for this guy. I figured when I found him I’d – you know – confront him. Figure out why he’s calling himself something he’s not. Make him stop.” Scott hesitated.
“Well, go on, Scott,” Johnny urged. “You’re skipping the best part!”
“No, Johnny. It just sounds silly now!”
“Tell him! If you don’t tell him, I will!”
“Will somebody tell me something relevant? And I don’t mean about the attitude of stablemen!” Murdoch, who had started out livid, somehow seemed to be getting angrier as the story progressed. This of course caused Johnny (who was standing safely behind him) to smile more and more broadly.
Scott cleared his throat again. “Well . . . I was . . . concerned. About Johnny. I thought it might be a gunfighter who had found out that Johnny Madrid was now Johnny Lancer, and this guy was going around telling everyone his name was Lancer, hopefully to get Johnny out in the open. To force a gunfight!”
Johnny laughed. “Isn’t that sweet, Murdoch? What a great brother I have! Always looking out for me!”
Scott turned a lovely shade of red. “Like I said, it sounds silly now! But that’s what I was thinking. Um . . . well . . . I went looking for him. The first place I tried was the saloon across the street. McQuay’s. That one.” He pointed. Scowl #5. Scott cleared his throat. “Well, I talked to the bartender and he said yes, a stranger had been there about an hour earlier to quench his thirst, but he didn’t stay long. And of course the bartender didn’t watch to see which way the man went when he left. I tried a couple more places, to the north. No luck. So I turned down the street and headed south and got a couple more negative . . . “
“Scott!” yelled Murdoch. “Is there any point to all this?”
“Yeah, Scott,” Johnny piped in, laughing. “Is there a point to this?” Without looking, Murdoch reached back and non-lovingly placed his large hand on Johnny’s chest. Johnny instantly stopped talking. Although the smile remained.
“Shut up, Johnny!” Scott directed. “You weren’t exactly a big help. So just keep your comments to yourself.”
“The point?” Murdoch demanded again.
“Well, anyhow, I found a couple places he’d gone to; the shopkeepers remembered him. Seems this guy really had been asking everyone if they’d seen a man named Lancer lately! So I was right! Or at least I thought so.”
Johnny snickered. “Ever think it might be me?”
His brother gave him a Look. “Like I said, Barranca wasn’t in the livery!” he said icily. “And as we know now – it wasn’t you!”
“I warn you,” said Murdoch, “if I don’t see some relevance to the events at hand in the next few sentences, I plan on getting very angry!”
Johnny raised his eyebrows. Murdoch angrier than he already was? Scott raised his eyebrows too, but only in his mind, since Murdoch was watching him.
So Scott continued. “I was beginning to get worried for Little Brother here! And that’s when I saw Johnny ride into town! On Barranca. It was a shock, for I’d thought he was probably already home. But I was worried about this guy who was looking to kill him, so that was my state of mind when I saw Johnny . . .”
“The first thing I saw when I rode in was my brother, standing in an alley and frantically waving to me to come over by him!” Johnny laughed.
“I was trying to save your life, Johnny!” Scott said irritably. “I wanted to get you out of sight before this nut saw you.”
“This nut,” said Murdoch under his breath.
“The second thing I saw,” Johnny playfully continued, “was a lovely young lady coming out of a shop and giving me the eye.”
“Johnny . . . “ warned Scott.
“Well, she had on my favorite . . . color,” Johnny said, laughing.
Murdoch turned around. “Johnny!” he warned his youngest.
Johnny shrugged and stepped over by Scott. “What could I do?” he asked flippantly. “I mean – there’s my brother over there, telling me to duck into an alley with him. And there’s sweet Anna over there, smiling at me. I mean, come on, Murdoch! Which one would you rather duck into an alley with?!”
Scowl #Infinity. “You’ll get your turn to talk, Johnny! And when it is your turn, you will explain yourself! Right now I want your brother to offer some – hopefully rational – reason for the insane behavior the two of you exhibited!” He turned back to Scott. “Get to the point, Scott. Now!”
“Well, you heard it. He made his choice!” Scott threw up his hands in frustration. “Johnny just waved to me and rode over to Anna. Dismounted, started talking to her. Out in the middle of the street, no protection of any kind!”
“I liked her smile better than yours,” Johnny chuckled. “She had a better build, too.” He outlined a female form with his hands.
Scott reviewed that memory for a moment and smiled a little. “Yeah, she did . . . Um . . . Well, I was forced to rush over to them to explain to Johnny, right there in front of Anna, that he was in grave danger by this unknown man who was maybe looking to kill him. And foolish Little Brother here didn’t take me seriously!”
“Oh, come on, Scott! It’s not like I’ve never run into that before! With my past, there’s probably always going to be someone who wants to call me out. I can take care of myself – you know that!” He chuckled. “But, Murdoch, you should have seen the look on Anna’s face. There’s Big Brother mother-henning all around and telling me to hide and saying stuff like ‘you never know when someone could bring down the great Johnny Madrid.’ And she was so impressed her eyes got real big!”
“She wasn’t impressed, Johnny, she was scared! And she ran off like a sensible person. Like you should have done!”
“Scott, she . . .”
Since his sons were now standing next to each other, Murdoch took advantage of the moment. He grabbed the left side of Johnny’s head with one hand and the right side of Scott’s head with his other hand and pushed their heads together. “I no longer care who does the talking. But SOMEONE . . . HAD BETTER EXPLAIN TO ME . . . NOW! . . . “
“OK, OK,” said Johnny.
“All right, Murdoch,” said Scott. “What happened was it took me a minute to convince Johnny that maybe the threat was real, but he finally decided to humor me, I guess. And then we looked down the street and we saw this guy walking toward the livery and he was carrying two guns and he looked threatening, and Johnny thought he looked familiar . . .”
“But turns out I was wrong,” Johnny shrugged.
“And Johnny ran after him! To force a confrontation, which was exactly what I was trying to avoid! So I ran after Johnny! And then the guy turned into the gun shop next to the livery. Turns out he was just a guy from town taking his guns to be fixed.”
“And . . . and . . “ Johnny encouraged playfully.
“Well . . .” Scott cleared his throat. “ . . . then I glanced in the livery and I finally saw the man I was looking for and he was by his horse. It was him! So I whispered to Johnny to just be quiet until he rode out of town, but you know Johnny! Oh no! He still wanted to confront him! Well, . . . I couldn’t let him do that alone! I just . . . couldn’t let him do that . . . alone.” Scott shrugged and stopped talking. He nervously looked at his brother, who just grinned widely.
Silence. Murdoch waited to hear more but neither of his sons apparently had anything else to say. Scott looked sincere, penitent and nervous, and Johnny was beaming.
“That’s it?” Murdoch ventured. “You don’t have anything else to say to me?”
Both sons shook their heads no.
“So your entire explanation, which could, I might add, have been shortened to one or two sentences, boils down to you, Scott, suspecting an old enemy of Johnny’s looking to kill him, and Johnny deciding that it would be most prudent to strike first?”
They both nodded yes. The faint beginnings of a smile appeared on Scott’s face as he believed his father was starting to understand the reason for his behavior.
“And it is the normal course of action for the two of you to work noiselessly together to subdue Johnny’s imaginary enemies . . .”
Oh oh. Johnny and Scott glanced quickly at each other, both suddenly realizing the tempest that was about to hit and knowing they were powerless to prevent it.
“ . . . BY ATTACKING HIM FROM BEHIND, KNOCKING HIM TO THE GROUND, AND RUBBING HIS FACE IN THE DIRT OF THIS LIVERY FLOOR!”
Supremely uncomfortable and feeling incredibly guilty, Scott cringed and looked down. Johnny, on the other hand, chuckled. “How’d we know it was you, Murdoch? Really! How could we possibly see it was you? You see how dark it is in here! And we only saw you from behind! Anybody could make a simple mistake like that!”
“A SIMPLE MISTAKE!?! My two sons plot together to attack me from behind, knock me to the ground and rub my face in the dirt!” Murdoch brought his hand up to his face, felt something wet and looked at his hand, which had blood on it. His mood did not improve.
“Oh yeah,” said Johnny pointlessly, ”you’ve got a little cut on your face.”
Murdoch made a sound that, if heard emanating from a dog, would resemble a warning growl.
Scott had far less experience enraging his father than his brother did, and he shrank back a little. But Johnny, being Johnny, surged ahead. “What are you doing here anyhow, Murdoch? You’re supposed to be back at Lancer.”
“I was . . . wondering that as well . . . Sir.” A small voice from Scott’s vicinity.
Murdoch took a deep breath. He looked from one to the other of his sons. He was well aware that Johnny was merely trying to parry his wrath; he also knew that Scott was genuinely interested but was still just following Johnny’s lead. He loved his sons and was secretly proud of the way they worked together to solve (real or imagined) problems . . .
And . . . after all, they were his sons . . . and Scott did think he was only protecting his brother . . .
Murdoch also recognized that he was tired of being angry.
He took another deep breath. “I decided I needed a little vacation so I rode here to hopefully meet up with Scott. A nice hotel dinner, share a cognac, get a good night’s sleep and an unhurried ride home tomorrow.”
Scott ventured a small smile. “Well, that sounds . . . “
“But on the way here, I was robbed! Took my horse, gun, rifle . . . I was lucky I had a little money in my boot so I could rent a horse to get here!”
Both sons looked properly appalled but then Johnny’s face broke into a grin and he started laughing. He put his arm around his father’s shoulders and said, “Just not your day, is it? Let’s . . . “
“Why are you here, Johnny?” Murdoch asked sternly. “I was counting on you getting home today to run the ranch in my absence.”
Johnny laughed. “Well, you saw the reason!” When both his brother and father gave him blank looks, he explained. “Anna! Met her last time I rode through here. Thought I might take a little side trip to spend some time with her!”
Scott understood but Murdoch’s mood was still sour. “I might have known!”
Johnny pointed the threesome to the door. “Let’s get outside into the light, Murdoch. See just how shook up you are!” His fight spent, Murdoch offered no resistance. Each son grabbed an arm and they guided him outside. Once in the light, it was obvious that, although dusty, no one was actually hurt. Except for the cut on Murdoch’s face, which was continuing to bleed.
Murdoch’s handkerchief was too dusty to apply to the wound, and Scott’s was as well. When Johnny offered his neckerchief, which he had been wearing for some time already, Murdoch declined. The cut stubbornly kept on bleeding.
And then, something good finally happened to salvage Murdoch’s day. Lovely Anna, apparently realizing her safety was not actually in jeopardy, appeared. She had been headed for Johnny, but when she saw how disheveled Murdoch was and how his face was bleeding, she said, “Oh, you poor man! What happened to you?”
“My sons knocked me down.”
“Oh! Shame on you, Johnny!” she said, apparently ignoring Scott’s part in the fiasco. Pulling a scented lacy hankie from her cloth purse, it was clear she intended to apply it to Murdoch’s wound.
“Oh, no, ma’am,” he said. “I don’t want to get your handkerchief all dirty!”
“Now, don’t you give that another thought! Not one little thought!” She applied the hankie to his face and placed his hand over it. “Now you just hold that there while you come with me. I’m going to take you home and get you all cleaned up!”
And then Anna placed her arm through Murdoch’s and led him away. She looked back at his sons and scowled.
Murdoch looked back at his sons and smiled.
Johnny and Scott helplessly watched them walk away.
“Now why can’t we make him smile like that?” Johnny wondered.
Scott just stared at his brother.
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