The Misdemeanor by Ronnie

Word Count – 26,159

Episode Tag – Last Train for Charlie Poe

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Part One

“Where is your brother?”

“Scott?”

“Well, what other brother do you have?”

“Hell, I don’t know.  I didn’t know I had this one.  Are there others?”

“NO!”  Murdoch toned down his shout.  “No.  Of course not.”

“Hmm.  How about sisters?”  Johnny cocked a grin, relishing the irritation of his old man.   Dang, it was better than hitting ten out of ten targets.

“No.”  Murdoch huffed, tightened his lips and glared.  “Can we get back to the original question?”

“Oh.  Which was about unknown brothers and sisters?”

“It was not!”  Murdoch took another deep breath.  “Johnny.  I am not in the mood.”

Johnny should have known better, actually did, but found it hard not to goad.  It was a beautiful day, warm, fresh, not a cloud in the sky, and just a touch of a breeze floated in through the French doors.  Considering where they were going this morning, he should have been far more serious.  But he’d been through so much crap in the past that a mere misdemeanor wasn’t going to intimidate.  In fact, he found it almost laughable, but thought Murdoch would get physical if pushed too much further.

“When I went by his room he was getting pretty for the judge.  He should be making his entrance …”  Johnny turned toward the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs.  “Now.”

Scott didn’t seem in any hurry to join them as he ambled down the steps taking his own sweet time.  Well, another notch added to Murdoch’s sour mood and Johnny figured Scott was doing it on purpose.

“Well, ain’t you just pretty.  Gotta hand it to you Boston, you know how to dress for all occasions.”  Johnny had to admire his spic-and-span brother.  The camel colored coat was just respectable enough but, as Scott would say, not overdone.

“Thank you, Johnny.  I try my best.  It’s grandfather’s proper upbringing and all that.”  Scott smiled and settled his string tie to the perfect spot.

Wow, another zing straight at Murdoch.  Scott was playing with fire this morning.  Not that Johnny could blame him the way Murdoch had been grousing around for the past few days.  Johnny didn’t know if Murdoch was angrier at him for leading his law-abiding brother down a path of crime or at Scott because he had been so quick to agree to join and not discourage the whole fiasco.  That’s what it turned out to be but their motives were honorable.  With a gruff reminder that the end did not justify the means, Murdoch had ceased all conversation regarding the train robbery.  Well, except for his parting shot that they were damn lucky some idiot had overlooked the fact that stopping the 730 to Sacramento was just a misdemeanor.

“I’m glad you could join us,” Murdoch snapped.  “As it is now we’ll probably be late and the judge does not like tardiness.”

“Must be a trait of the older generation.”  As if their father did not understand, Scott added, “tardiness, that is.”

“All right!  I’ve had enough of your flippancy and dismissive attitude towards breaking the law.”  Murdoch glared at Johnny as if to make sure he realized he was included.  “I expect you to be respectful of me and the judge.”

“Murdoch, when haven’t we been…”

A large finger stabbed at Scott.  Johnny figured if it were armed, Scott would be dead.  “I said enough.  I don’t want to hear another word from either of you.  Now.  Let’s go.  And I expect a quiet ride to town.  Is that understood?”

Johnny nodded, then glanced at Scott for his reaction.  Wisely, his brother said nothing although Johnny thought a retort hovered just behind tight lips.  For some reason all he could see was his brother getting his ears boxed if he opened his mouth and Johnny snorted back a chuckle at the vision.  A sharp look from Murdoch stopped any laughter.  It was going to be a long trip to town.

The four-seater buggy with Murdoch’s matching pair of Cleveland Bays waited at the front patio.  Although not to Johnny’s taste, he had to admit they were good looking animals.  His father had paid a good price for them; said they reminded him of the old country and his boyhood.   However, Johnny had hoped they’d be each riding their own horses.  Being stuck in the carriage this close to his father all the way to town was a tad too uncomfortable.

Murdoch hauled himself into the front seat and picked up the reins.  Scott hesitated just enough to give Johnny time to scramble into the back.  Scott threw him a dirty look for all the good it did him.  Johnny gave him a smirk and relaxed deeper into the leather seat.  At least the ride would be comfortable.

“Scott.  You can ride in the back with your brother if you prefer.”

Johnny had to hand it the old man; he could throw out a challenge like it wasn’t even there.  His father’s tone was amused, as if he thought Scott was afraid to settle beside him.  No doubt Scott would have preferred riding in the back but he hauled himself up beside Murdoch without a word.

Murdoch’s lips quirked to a barely-there smile, clicked to the horses and with a light slap of the reins, they were off.

A usual trip to town would have been pleasant.  They would have talked about how the crops were doing, commented on the condition of the cattle they came across, admired the meadows and grasslands of Lancer.  But today was enough to make Johnny want to pull his hat down over his eyes and forget about their reasons for the trip.  So, when a snooze wasn’t coming, he amused himself by watching his stiff-backed brother try not to touch their father as they drove over the bumps and swells of the dirt road.  Most of the time Scott managed, but enough startched sorry’s and excuse me’s made it to the back seat.  Johnny almost felt sorry for him, but not enough to change places.

On the other hand, his father’s large frame seemed to relax the closer they got to town.  For the first time since the hearing had been set for their part in heisting the forged land documents from the train, Johnny wondered if his father was up to something.  Both he and Scott had been relieved when Murdoch took his grouse and bad mood with him to Green River for a few hours a couple of days ago, but now Johnny worried what he had been up to.  They certainly weren’t going to ask the old man and Teresa was no help at all.  She just shrugged her shoulders when asked and said it was none of her business.  Hell, that should have been the first clue.  Teresa knew everything Murdoch did and why.

A bad feeling wiggled into Johnny’s belly.  Nah, he decided.  He was just feeling guilty, although he didn’t know why he should.  He’d done a hell of a lot worse in the past without a ding to his conscience.  Crossing his arms across his chest and with a silent ‘hell no’, he wasn’t going to let Murdoch brow beat him into feeling bad for helping out good friends.  Charlie and Molly Poe were fine people who were tossed out of their home by a crooked land agent.  Johnny had done the right thing regardless that Murdoch had told them to let the law handle it.  Hell, you couldn’t trust the law.  And how was he to know his father had already taken care of it?

He settled back feeling much better about the whole situation.  He’d tell the judge exactly why he was in the right, and see the Poe’s at the same time.  The judge was in town for one day only so Charlie’s case would come up as well.  Let Murdoch be grumpy; he’d faced a lot worse than his angry father.  Glaring at his father’s back, he almost said out loud ‘so there’.  But then remembered that Murdoch was paying for the attorney they hired to also represent Charlie.  His righteous anger bellied up faster than a dead fish. Crap, this family stuff could sure make a man wishy washy.

With a huge sigh, he glanced once more at the two backs.  No question his father was big.  Scott was tall with broad shoulders but he was dwarfed beside Murdoch.

“You all right back there, Johnny?”  Murdoch half turned his face to see him.

“I’m fine.”

“Just thought I heard a noise.”

For an old man, Murdoch’s ears weren’t failing him.

“Nope, just bored.”

“Well, we’ll take care of that real soon.”

Was there a smile in that remark?  Even Scott dared to take a quick look at their father.  Murdoch swung his gaze Scott’s way and actually smirked.  No doubt about it, Murdoch was up to something.  He wondered if Scott thought the same thing.

“Hey, Murdoch.  I gotta take a piss.  Pull over, will you?”

“We’re almost to town.  Can’t you hold it?”

Hell no almost came out.  He wasn’t some kid.  When a man needed to piss, he shouldn’t have to ask the world for permission.

“Well, I suppose I could pee out the side of the buggy.  Can’t say the buggy wouldn’t get a few sprays though the way this road jostles.”

Murdoch pulled back on the reins.  “Whoa there.”

“Thanks.”  Johnny jumped out of the wagon and motioned to Scott.  “How about you?”

“I’m fine.”

For a smart man his brother could be so dense.  He needed to talk to Scott.  “Well, you can watch for rattlesnakes while I go.”

“What?”

“Come on.  One could be burrowed in the bushes.   I might be distracted and not notice him.”

Finally Scott seemed to catch on and jumped from his seat.  However, Murdoch was no dummy.

 “Why can’t you go behind the buggy?”

“A man needs some privacy.”

Murdoch eyed the countryside around him.  Johnny knew what he was doing –  hell, there wasn’t even a bird in the sky to take a peak.  Johnny wasn’t fooling his old man.

“You won’t be getting any privacy with your brother holding his pistol in case you water a snake,” Murdoch argued.

“Well, ah, actually, sir, I could relieve myself as well.”

Good old Scott.  Sometimes he was slow but when he figured out what was needed, he’d come through for you.

Murdoch’s eyebrow went up just like Scott’s did at times when he doubted what you were saying.  “I thought you said you were fine.”

“I was until Johnny mentioned it.  You know, power of suggestion and all.”  Scott waved his fingers as if dismissing Murdoch’s statement.

Grumbling something about sons under his breath, Murdoch settled back in his seat.  Johnny thumped Scott in the arm and tilted his head to a stand of bushes a few hundred feet off the road.

“Be sure you don’t shoot your brother,” Murdoch called after them.   Sometimes his father could be funny as hell; this wasn’t one of those times.

They were halfway down the road before Scott asked the question.  “What’s going on Johnny?”

“The old man is up to something.  He’s entirely too pleased with himself.  You remember when he took off for Green River a few days ago?”

“Yes, I remember.  We wondered what he was doing.”

“And we were too afraid to ask.”

Scott stopped and Johnny walked a few steps before turning to find out what the problem was.  There was a dark scowl on Scott’s face.  “I was not afraid to ask.”

“Then why didn’t you?”

“Because.”  Scott’s forehead wrinkled into a frown, obviously trying to come up with a good answer.  “I respect his right to privacy.”  He nodded, seeming to be quite pleased with his reply.

“Hell, you were chicken.”

“I was not!”

“Whatever.  Come on.”  Johnny tugged on his arm to get him going.  “Murdoch’s watching.”

The bushes were leafed out enough that Murdoch couldn’t see what they were doing.  “Okay.  We have to be quick.  What do you think?”

“Well, I really don’t have to go but I suppose I can pretend.”

“Dang, Scott.  I’m not talking about that!  I’m wondering why the closer we get to town the happier Murdoch seems.”

“He’s probably relishing in the pleasure he’ll have watching us sweat before the judge.  But you’re right.  If he thought we even had a chance of going to prison he’d be a lot more somber than he is now.”

“He’s crafty, that’s for sure.”

“Yes, he can be quite shrewd.  He wouldn’t be above manipulating the system to his favor.”

“Yeah.  Sly old dog.”

“Ah, Johnny.  That is our father you’re talking about.”

“Damn straight.”

Scott was giving him a look of disapproval.  “A bit more respect may be in order.”

Well, maybe.  But what someone was respected for depended on who was doing the respecting.   Johnny respected a fast gun, which was a million miles from what Scott respected.  Still, Scott had a point.  “Listen, brother.  I respect the old man.  I haven’t told him to get over it, have I?”

“No, Johnny.  To your credit you haven’t and I’m proud of you.”

Johnny eyed Scott wondering if he was being a smart ass, but there wasn’t a smack of smart ass on his mug.  Johnny was just being punchy.  Hell, if you couldn’t trust your own brother who could you trust?  Still, Boston had pulled crap on him before, although pretty harmless stuff.

“I think, boy, we just need to be prepared for anything the judge may hand out.  I don’t think it will be prison or jail, but we may prefer it at the end of the day.”

“Don’t call me boy.”

“Huh?”

“I’m not a boy.  Haven’t been for years.”

“Uhm.  Sorry.  I didn’t mean to infer anything derogatory.”

Scott stepped back and stared down his perfect straight nose.   Johnny wondered how anything could be so … just right.  Sometimes he thought it should be tilted a degree to the right or left.

“I’m not the enemy, Johnny.  And neither, for that matter, is our father.”

Johnny exhaled.  Scott was right, as usual.  What the hell was the matter with him?  “Sorry.  I don’t know why I’m so jumpy.”

“I think I do.”

A few seconds went by.  “You gonna share that with me?”

“If you want to hear it.”

“I’m waiting.”

“All right.”  Long fingers splayed across his hips – Scott seemed to be getting ready to deliver words of wisdom.

“Because you care about that big man over there and what he thinks.  So do I.  We thought we were justified in what we did.  The thing is, I don’t know if I would do anything different and there is nothing we can say to Murdoch that will make him feel better about it.  He is worried for our welfare.    That, my little brother, is why.  You don’t want to disappoint him.  And neither do I.”

Well, maybe Scott’s nose didn’t need straightening.  He was a smart fella, and a good friend to have around.  In fact, the best he’d ever had.

“Now, I think, Johnny, you’d better take care of business.”

“What business?”

“Why we’re out here.  You had to, you know, relieve yourself.”

Scott’s gesture to his fly had Johnny laughing out loud.  “Hell, Scott.  That was just a trick to get away from Murdoch and talk to you.”

“You’re pretty sly yourself.”  Scott threw his arm around Johnny and motioned towards the road.  “Well, then, we’d best get back before Murdoch thinks we have bladder problems.”

*****

Murdoch heard the scuffle of boots on the road as his sons made their way back to the wagon.  Smiling, he knew he had them worried.  Johnny didn’t need to pee and neither did Scott.  They were probably trying to figure out what he was up to.  That was all right.  A little fret never hurt anyone, and these two with their self righteous attitude that they were justified in holding up a train needed taken down a peg or two.

That attitude was why he’d been so angry with them.  They could not take the law into their own hands regardless the reason.  Not only could they have been hurt, or killed, they could have faced a prison term.  In addition, Lancer professed to be law-abiding and obedient to the proper authorities.  How would it appear to the surrounding communities if they seemed above the law because of their wealth and status?  But there were circumstances in this situation that allowed for wiggle room and Murdoch had taken advantage of them.  He felt all would be satisfied with the outcome – well, maybe not his sons but they’d just have to deal with it.

There was a bounce as someone settled into the back seat.  It appeared Scott was once more delegated to the front as he slipped in next to Murdoch.  Murdoch almost felt sorry for him as he knew the ride had been damned awkward.  Scott edged as close as he could to the end of the seat and gripped the frame.

“Relax, Scott,” he said taking pity on his first born.  “I promise I won’t bite if you happen to bump into me.”

A flush immediately rose on his cheeks and Scott glanced wide-eyed at him, then looked away.  “Well, no, that’s not why … I mean, I wasn’t …”

His usually eloquent son was stumbling.  After days of superior aloofness it was good to see.  Regardless of the reason and how Scott tried to justify their actions, he knew they’d gone too far.  And Scott knew Murdoch was right – just didn’t want to admit it.

“Well, just don’t fall off.”  Murdoch clicked to the team and in a short time, the silhouette of Green River came into view.

It was a pleasant community, growing with newcomers from all walks of life coming into the area.  Plans were in the making for an actual city hall to hold court instead of in one of the saloons.

Hearings could be held on a more regular basis than once every few weeks eliminating the need to hold prisoners between sessions who couldn’t make bail and hadn’t been found guilty of anything – yet. Taxes would be paid in Green River with additional steps made to insure the money reached the county seat.  Murdoch heard a new church was being planned and a larger school house.  It was a progressive town and a good place to live.  A lot had changed since the land pirates had been routed with a good lesson for any dishonest crook or con man.  There was law in Green River and the people would fight to keep it that way.

“The town looks busier than usual,” Scott said.

“Always is when court is held.  Proceedings are open to the public so I’m sure we’ll have an audience.”

Scott sighed.  “I suppose so.”

“You ever been in front of a judge, brother?”

“Not a civil judge.  I was before a military hearing, once, but it was a rather closed door affair.”

“Really?  How come?”

Murdoch perked his ears up anxious to hear about something in Scott’s past.  Both sons were rather reticent in revealing anything of their former lives.  However, his father-in-law at least had the decency to write him when Scott was captured in battle so Murdoch was aware of Scott’s horrible internment.  He also knew from Pinkerton reports that Johnny had been imprisoned more than once.  Murdoch would do just about anything to insure his sons didn’t have to go through that again.

“It’s a long story.  Not that interesting.”

“Yeah.  Right.”  Johnny snorted.  “Well, I’ve faced a few.  Some could be bought for a chicken or two in the pot.  I expect this one may have his own though.”

“He does.”  Murdoch drew up to a hitching rail a few doors down from the saloon where the hearing would be held.  “Now,” he turned in the seat and looked at both of them.  “You take your cue from Steve Adler.  He’s one of the best attorneys in the county.  You let him do the talking and only address the judge when he addresses you.  Understand?”

“I thought we could explain why we did what we did.  Don’t we get our day in court?”

“Yes, Johnny.  This is your day in court.  And you’ll do what you’re told or you may find yourself behind bars.  Just because it’s a misdemeanor doesn’t mean it couldn’t carry prison time.”  Murdoch pushed himself out of the seat and tied the horses to the rail.  Johnny and Scott jumped out of the carriage and joined him on the board walk.

As they passed him he wrapped a large hand around the back of each of their necks.  “Now, boys.  Whatever happens I’m here for you but,” and he tightened his grip, “you need to keep your mouths shut and do what you’re told.  Do I make myself clear?”

“Dang, Murdoch.  Lighten up.  You wanna break my neck?”

“Sometimes I do, just to get through your stubborn.”  He jostled Johnny’s neck to make his point.

“All right, all right.”

He turned to Scott.  “How about you?”

“I think you could have made your point without becoming physical.  We are, after all, grown men.”

“Well, one can’t be too thorough in a situation like this, especially when grown men don’t act their age.  But you haven’t given me your answer.”  He stroked his thumb across Scott’s neck just to remind him it was there.

“Yes.  I understand,” a tight-lipped Scott answered.  “Now, can we get on with it?”

In this case Murdoch had really stepped in and called the tune with his sons’ lives.  A usually mature and dignified Scott was obviously not only embarrassed but insulted.  He was surprised that Johnny wasn’t more rebellious, but grateful.  Relieved and feeling he had gotten his point across, he dropped his hands.  He had to admit he enjoyed the physical contact with his sons, regardless the reason, even if they didn’t.

“Good.  There’s Steve now.”  Murdoch spied the attorney hurrying down the board walk and wanted to talk to him for a few minutes.  Confident his sons would follow, he stretched his legs and caught the attorney just before the saloon door.

“Steve, can I talk to you for a few moments?”

“That’s about all the time we have Murdoch.  I expected you earlier.”

“We were … delayed,” and he eyed his two sons.  “Have you talked to Charlie?”

“Yes.  I told him given his previous record and prison time, the judge may not be as lenient.  The fact that he was the victim of corrupt land agents is a big positive.”

“Yes, well, can we talk about this in private?”  He didn’t want his sons to know what he and the lawyer had discussed a few days ago.  Murdoch held the door open and motioned for Scott and Johnny to go inside.  “You boys go on ahead.  We’ll join you soon.”

“Seeing as how it’s our future, why can’t we join you?  Besides, you said you wanted us to follow Mr. Adler’s advice.”

“Johnny, please, just do what I ask.  Or don’t you trust me?”

Johnny tucked his hands into his belt and seemed to consider the question.

“Why does it take you that long to answer?  I’m your father.  Do you think I don’t want the best for you?”

“Well, ah, Murdoch,” Johnny fidgeted.  “Depends on if we agree what’s the best for me.”

“What’s best for the both of you right now is to keep you out of jail.  Now, we don’t have time to argue.”  How could he stress that it wasn’t a given they wouldn’t end up behind bars?  So far he’d done his damndest that wouldn’t happen and hoped it was enough.

Johnny let out a huge breath, lowered his head and nodded.  With a soft ‘okay’ he nudged his brother and motioned to the door.

Great.  Now Murdoch could make use of whatever time remained before the judge stepped into that court room.  He wasn’t asking the judge to do anything unlawful or even unethical.  But the judge needed to understand that not only Charlie Poe and his sons had been involved, but a lot of other innocent people had been affected by corrupt agents of the law.

“Steve, were you able to get our request to the judge?”

“I was, Murdoch.”

“What was his reaction?”

“I can say he was receptive, but only to a degree.  If the sentence we are asking for is approved, he wants us to understand if it’s not carried out to the letter, he’ll not be so understanding.”

Murdoch blew out a breath of relief.  “Thank you Steve.”  He grabbed his hand and shook it hard.  “Thank you so much.  I’ll see that it’s carried out.”

“As far as Mr. Poe, the judge is a fair man.  He knows what Marks and his crew were trying to do.  He also is aware that Judge Homer Ord was bought and paid for.  Due to his appointed position by the state legislature, Judge Ord will face charges at the capitol.  Oh, and it doesn’t hurt even a little bit that the sheriff let Johnny and Charlie go knowing exactly what they were up to.”

“What about Gabe?  Any consequences?”

“No one to bring charges.  He’s elected by the community, a grateful community at that.  There is no proof that Gabe knew the train was going to be stopped other than testimony from Mr. Poe or your boys and I doubt that will happen.  I think his honor is looking the other way as far as Gabe is concerned.”

“But I thought because the law-enforcement authority released Johnny and Charlie, the judge was taking that into consideration.”

“He did take that into consideration but I wouldn’t dig too deep as to reasoning Murdoch.”

“In other words, if a man gifts you with an ounce of gold, don’t reach for a scale.”

Steve smiled.  “Exactly.  Now, we’d best get to the saloon.  Court will be in session soon.”

*****

Johnny’s fidget was making him nervous.  Why couldn’t the man sit still?  No wonder he always seemed to be hungry.  All that energy burned needed fuel.

The chairs were like stone and his butt was feeling it.  Funny, he could sit in a saddle most of the day, relaxed and enjoying the work.  But sitting on a hard wooden chair in a roomful of people where he would soon be the center of attention made every joint in his body ping.  Of course, the rigid ride to town may have contributed to his discomfort.  His shoulders ached just thinking about trying not to bump against his father.

And where was his father?  Everyone was seated waiting for the judge to appear.  They had taken their life in hand by saving a seat for Murdoch.  It was still being eyed by old Glu Bayer with murder in his eyes to rest his ass on anything.

“Where is he?  What kind of deal is he making without even asking us?”

“Hell, Scott.  I don’t know.  You think like the old man.  You tell me.”

“I do not think like Murdoch.”  Scott sat back and twisted his gaze to his brother.  “Why would you say that?”

“Cuz you two are a lot alike.”

“Pfft.  You’re crazy.  We are both tall, blond, or maybe a former blond turned grey – or green depending on how you see it.  But that’s as far as it goes.”

“What do you mean green?”

“A grey hair for every blade of grass.  Remember the introduction to our esteemed father?   Immediately I envisioned green grass growing on Murdoch’s head.  If the whole situation hadn’t been so strange, I might have laughed out loud.”

Johnny chuckled.  “Yeah?”  He shook his head.  “Damn. Now that picture is gonna stick with me.  Thanks for that.”

“You’re welcome.”  Johnny’s laughter relaxed his shoulders a bit, but his butt still felt like it had morphed into the chair.

Scott took a look around at who all was there.  There were a few old men, regulars of the saloon, grumbling and waiting for the bar to open.  Scott thought they probably had beer for breakfast, lunch and dinner and peed whatever was on tap.

Gabe was leaning by the door and nodded when Scott looked his way.  The sheriff looked relaxed, not worried at all that his part in allowing prisoners to escape –  hell, in opening the door and providing the horses – was weighing on his mind at all.  Well, good for Gabe.  He was a decent man forced into a corner by a crooked judge and land agent.

Ladies who worked in the saloon were in chairs lined up in a row on the upper staircase.  In modest clothes and little make up they could have been any respectable woman a man would tip his hat to.  They were really quite lovely and occupied the best seats in the house.

“I haven’t seen Charlie or Molly.  Have you?”

Scott took a quick scan of the room.  Most of the town seemed to be crowding into the large room, plus those from the nearby farms and ranches.  They were all dressed in their finest like it was some kind of holiday.  But no Charlie or Molly Poe.  “No, I don’t see them.  The judge is here all day so maybe they’re scheduled later.”

“Damn.  I wanted to talk to him, see how they were doing?”

“Murdoch has been quite generous to them, hiring Adler to represent Charlie.  He also paid the expenses for Mick’s funeral.”

Johnny got real quiet at the mention of the gentle hired hand.  “Yeah.  Marks and his crew should hang for that.”

“I understand the man who pulled the trigger is on trial next week facing that charge.  I don’t know what charges are being made against Marks on that.”

“He ordered it.”

“Hard to prove unless his men give him up.”

Johnny snorted.  “Hell.  If they’re looking at a neck stretching they won’t hang alone.  They’ll give him up.”

The kind hearted Mick wouldn’t hurt anything or anyone.  He was a simple man, but intelligence didn’t quantify the type of person you were.  His death would linger with the Poe’s for a long time.  A few moments passed before Johnny said anything.

“The old man also sent a couple men out to their place to help with any repairs.  I didn’t know about it till the fellas came back.  Murdoch kept that a big secret.”

“Probably because he didn’t want us to volunteer.”

Johnny swirled his spurs absently.  “I wonder why?”

“I’m not sure.  Maybe he thought we ought to stay away from the Poe’s for a while.  Not like Murdoch though, unless he cooked something up with lawyer.”

The spurs quit rolling.  “What would our seeing the Poe’s have to do with anything?”

For as tough as Johnny was, and Scott had no doubt his brother was one of the toughest, he could be naïve.  “Come on, Johnny.  Murdoch’s a player, whether he’s bidding on horses or buying breeding stock.  Keeping us away from the Poe’s may be in the mix of whatever Murdoch has worked out with Adler and the judge.”

“You think he’s gotten to the judge?”

Scott shrugged.  “I think our father will do whatever it takes to get what he wants – within ethical and legal parameters, that is.”

“Hell, Scott, you talk like we committed a felony.  Murdoch said it was only a misdemeanor and he thought it could be taken …”  Johnny stopped, realization dawning on his face.

“Taken care of, John.  And I think he’s taken care of it.”

“What do you think that means for us?”

“I think it means our father has something up his sleeve that will surely be to his benefit.”

“That old fox.”

Scott couldn’t help but chuckle at Johnny’s expression.  Even though he wasn’t sure how whatever Murdoch worked out would affect them, he was growing to admire his father more and more every day.  He could almost put his grandfather to shame.

“Listen, Johnny.  We need to consider something else.  We lucked out on the misdemeanor charge.  I doubt if that will happen again, to anyone.  I’m betting it’s already been sorted out with railroad executives and state lawmakers.  We could have been looking at years as guests of the prison system.”

Johnny leaned back in his chair and smiled.  “So you’re saying we should be grateful?  See there, you can twist things just as good as the old man, and you say you don’t think like him.”

“Well, maybe a little.”

Johnny tipped forward and batted his hand across Scott’s head, mussing his hair in the process.

“Hey.  You want me to be pretty don’t you?”  Scott said, trying to straighten his hair.

“Hell, you’re always pretty.  A few golden locks out of place won’t change that.”

Scott had to admit Johnny’s reflexes were fast, very fast.  Unfortunately, when Johnny ducked, the uneaten peanut Scott threw at him that he found on the floor landed right in the middle of the rose that adorned the hat of the Widow Hargis.  He was lucky.  She didn’t notice the peanut but gave Johnny a look that could stop lightning when he started laughing.  Scott tried to act innocent and kicked Johnny.

“She doesn’t know,” Scott hissed.  “Turn around.”

Johnny had the sense to do just that.  “Boy, Boston,” he whispered.  “Thanks for that.  She thinks I’m some devil as it is.  Now she probably thinks I’m an idiot.”

“That’s because you are.  Now shush.”  Scott thought he’d choke on his own laughter but managed just a muffled hiccup that hurt all the way to his belly.

A whiff of good pipe tobacco signaled that Murdoch was close.  Scott turned and watched as his father settled in the chair next to him.

“Everything all right with you two?” Murdoch asked as the chair groaned under his weight.

“Oh, my father, we are just peachy,” Scott said as he rubbed his stinging chest.  He scanned Murdoch’s face looking for any sign of how the meeting with the attorney went.  “Has everything been arranged to your liking?”

Murdoch chuckled.  “That, my son, depends on the judge.  Haven’t you heard the saying that nothing is sure except death?”

“I learned that fact during the war.”  Scott winced as he moved his bottom hoping to get blood flowing once again to his posterior.

“Hard chair?”

“Very.”  He shifted once more and settled his back against the chair back.

“Hell, Boston, you just don’t have enough padding.”

“Thank you, but my padding is my business.  And keep your voice down.  Everyone will know enough of our business in the near future.  My physical characteristics do not need to be a part of that discussion.”

Another chuckle from the right was followed by Murdoch’s long arm wrapping across the back of Scott’s chair.  “Take it easy, Scott.  It will all be over soon.”

A loud ‘all rise’ stilled any further conversation followed by the sound of scraping chairs and a few last minute whispers as the judge entered from a door just off the bar.

Well, Scott thought, here we go.  He turned to Johnny to give him an encouraging smile and Johnny winked.   He was nervous as expected but surprised that his knees were weak as he rose.  He hoped that wasn’t a premonition of what was to come.  Visions of a squalid prisoner of war camp filled with sick and starving men came to mind.  He shivered, knowing he couldn’t go through that again.  A large arm encircled him and a hand came to rest on his shoulder.  Warmth and comfort emanated from the gesture and the cold chill that had shaken him earlier disappeared.

*****

It was almost noon and their case still hadn’t been heard.  Johnny was feeling just as stiff as Scott looked.  Murdoch had gotten up a couple of times to give his back a rest although it seemed by the way his long legs crossed and uncrossed those short walks hadn’t been much help.

He had to admit watching the proceedings of the court was interesting.  Most of the cases were small matters – a drunk had smashed the general store’s window.  He claimed it was the fault of the saloon keeper for selling him too much whiskey.  That got a laugh from the court room and a stern talking down from the judge.  It also earned him a hefty fine and working for the store’s owner until the window was paid off.

Young Franz Tinker had been charged with stealing a horse, a hanging offense in the eyes of many.  The judge didn’t seem to care what the penalty for such a crime stipulated.  With a stern warning not to do such a dang stupid thing again, he sentenced him to work for the man who owned the horse for the next six months, then handed him over to his parents.

The more serious cases of attempted robbery, assault and fraud were referred to the county seat for trial before the district court.  It seemed the judge pretty much determined who was punished from the get-go and who got sent up for a trial by their peers.  Johnny was beginning to worry that maybe, just maybe they’d be heading for another round of hard chairs at the county seat and more than a fine, please and thank you.  His father didn’t seem to fret about anything, though, so his stomach settled down a bit.  Maybe he was just hungry.

The gavel sounded again as two boys accused of stealing apples were lead out of the courtroom by their ears by an irate father.  Johnny thought it was pretty sad their old man insisted they go before the judge for pinching the fruit to ‘teach them a lesson.’  Didn’t every kid sneak a treat once in their lifetime?  The only thing Johnny could see that was really wrong is they took apples instead of licorice.

“What they get?” he whispered to Scott.

“A lecture.  I’d conjecture they’ve had punishment delivered by their father already on the seat of their pants.”

“Dang.  Pretty bad for filching an apple.”

“I agree.  Mr. Thomas is pretty strict though.  I’ll bet those boys won’t be stealing anything soon.”

A loud ‘all rise’ made Johnny jump.  “This court is being recessed until 1:30 p.m. for lunch,” the judge’s assistant proclaimed.

“Dang it,” he said a bit too loud, hoping to get this over with before lunch.  Murdoch frowned and held a finger to his mouth indicating to be quiet.  A string of cuss words popped into his mind but he held his tongue.  This whole affair was getting ridiculous.  He wondered what some of his old compadres would think if they could see Johnny Madrid being shushed like a ten year old.  Not only that, he was being tried in the same court as little kids stealing apples.  Dios, how had he sunk so low?

Steve Adler was whispering something in Murdoch’s ear as the spectators and rest of the defendants went their way for lunch.  Scott nudged him in the arm and motioned as the old geezers stampeded to the bar for their liquid meal.  Johnny envied them.  He could sure use a large glass of tequila about now.

“Boys, Steve says the judge wants to see us.”

“Now?  I’m hungry.”

“You’re always hungry,” his know-it-all brother said.

 Johnny was not in the mood.  “Said the skinniest man in the world.”

“I’ve been skinnier.  Come on, we can’t say no to his honor.”

Not able to envision a Scott thinner than what he was, he wondered how that could be.  Murdoch’s soft touch on his arm and nod towards the room off the saloon pushed the thought aside.

The judge was a lot smaller without his black robe.  In fact, he looked like one of the geezers lined up at the bar slurping warm, stale beer.

“Gentlemen, I’ve got a full caseload today and fifteen minutes to get you out of here.  Due to the circumstances involved in your case, I am not prepared to make a public spectacle of a decent sheriff or compromise in any way testimony regarding the conviction of a corrupt judge or land agent.  Let me make it understood that I have not asked you here to cover up or overlook the seriousness of your actions.  Is that understood?”

Well, Johnny didn’t think he looked so small now.  His voice was about as big as Murdoch’s when he had a hair up his butt.

“I do expect an acknowledgement from you two young men.”

Did the judge have a growth in his throat?  Johnny had never seen such a big waggling bump on a scrawney neck before.

“Yes, sir, I understand.”  Scott’s mellow voice jostled him to reply.

“Yes, judge.”  Johnny hoped there wasn’t any swagger in his tone, but doubted it.  It was damned hard to be serious when the judge’s Adams Apple bobbed like a round fruit in a tub of water.

The judge threw a doubtful glance Johnny’s way, but continued.  “Your attorney has presented a … for want of a better word … deal to me that not only saves the legislators in the State of California from embarrassment but also allows those landowners who were the victims of unscrupulous land agents the ability to move on.”

“What embarrassment would that be, sir, if I may ask?”  Scott could sure sound respectful even when he wanted to make a point.  Johnny didn’t dare look Murdoch’s way, though, knowing his father was probably seething at the question.

“The point, Mr. Lancer, is the fact that you and your brother committed a crime that should have been a felony.  Unfortunately for whatever reason, the good people responsible for making the laws of this state overlooked one very important detail regarding the 730 to Sacramento.  I can assure you it has been corrected.  Does that answer your question?”

“It does.  Thank you, your honor.”

Murdoch cleared his throat and stepped in front of Scott.  “Ah, your honor, I, we want to thank you very much for considering what Mr. Adler has proposed.  I can assure you if you decide in favor of the conditions presented, I will personally make sure all points will be carried out to the letter.”

Whoa, Scott and he had been right.  Murdoch had everything already planned out, probably presented in a neat, tidy package days ago through Adler.

“I will hold you to that, Mr. Lancer, and hope your sons appreciate the ramifications if the specifications of this agreement are in anyway violated.”

The judge cleared his bobbing throat and got an all serious face on his mug.  Johnny held his breath.

“The decree of this court is that Scott Lancer and John Lancer are sentenced to three months in the state prison, suspended with the following conditions.  Any damages incurred by the railroad company will be repaid, there will be a fine including court costs in the amount of $100 each, and you are forbidden any contact with Mr. Charles Poe for the duration of your probation.  This probationary period is to take effect immediately and will be the time sentenced, three months.  During this time you will be remanded to the custody of your father, one Mr. Murdoch Lancer.  If for any reason these conditions are violated your prison term will commence in its entirety from the date of that violation.  Are there any questions?”

Johnny couldn’t find his voice.  Three months in his father’s custody.   What did that even mean?  He looked at Scott.  For first time since he’d met his brother, he was speechless.   Scott looked like one of those stone angels in front of the local Catholic Church, pale, cold and almost pleading in a sad kind of way.

“No judge, there are no questions.”  Murdoch answered for all of them.

Of course, the old man would.  But look on the bright side, Johnny boy, he wouldn’t be sitting in a prison cell for three months.  Better yet, neither would Scott.  For some reason, even though Scott was one of the strongest men he’d ever met, he didn’t want his brother to go through the experience of prison life.

“Good.  I’ll hold you to that Murdoch.  Now, excuse me, I have another case waiting and then a few minutes for my lunch.  Get the hell out of here and behave yourselves.  I don’t want to see you two in here again.”

The judge signed the paperwork in front of them and pushed it into a large envelope.  “I’ll make sure you get a copy of the particulars.”

Murdoch thanked the judge again and touched Johnny’s arm.  He’d already headed Scott towards the door.  Johnny had one more thing he needed to ask.

“What about Charlie Poe?  Does he stay out of prison?”

The judge pushed spectacles up on his forehead and eyed Johnny like he was an idiot for not appreciating the favor he had just done him.  “That, young man, is only between this court and Mr. Poe.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t agree.  Ya, see, Charlie’s a friend of mine.”

“Johnny.”

“No Murdoch,” he hissed as he glared at his father.  “You’ve got this all nice and tied up but what about Charlie?  He’s the one whose best friend was murdered.  He’s the one who got clobbered by a greedy judge and man with a badge.  We did what we did cuz of Charlie and you’re saying it was all wrong.  I can’t buy it.  And won’t.”

Swiveling back to look at the judge, he grabbed the back of a chair.  “No one is going to move me out of this room until I hear what’s happening to Charlie.”

“Johnny.”  Murdoch’s tone sounded like he was ready to throw Johnny over his shoulder and carry him out of the room.

“It’s all right, Murdoch.”  The judge leaned back and sighed.  “Mr. Poe will not go to prison at this time.  Your father has pledged to this court that any financial penalty that Mr. Poe will entail because of this incident will be covered by your father.  What arrangements your father has with Mr.  Poe as far as repayment is concerned is between them.”

The judge threw his glasses on the desktop and pinched the sides of his nose as if trying to hold back a huge ache that only a good night’s rest would take away.  He raised his eyes and his gaze lingered on both Johnny and Scott.

“There is no doubt in my mind that your intentions were good.  With that said I have devoted my life to the law and respecting what it stands for.  That law is the only thing that keeps us safe from crime and good intentions.  If you think a law is wrong, then change it through the proper avenues.  Until that happens what you did was inexcusable.  Now, get out of here before I void this agreement and break your father’s heart.  Jackson, please see them to the door.”

The judge’s assistant opened the door and stood by, waiting for all to exit.  Murdoch’s strong grip almost hurt but it got Johnny moving through the saloon and onto the boardwalk.

He sensed, no knew, his father was furious.  The last thing he needed was a lecture and he shrugged out of his father’s strong grip.  “Leave it, Murdoch.  I’ll do whatever you agreed to but no one, no one is going to tell me what I did was wrong.  Marks killed Mick, drove Charlie and Molly plus a dozen more decent people off their spread because of greed.”

“You were wrong, son.”  Murdoch was mild and sympathetic with his words.  “Things would have worked out.”

“But I didn’t know that!”  Johnny shouted not caring if everyone was looking at them.

“No.  No you didn’t.  That doesn’t change the fact that more people could have been hurt because of your actions.  More than you and your brother.  Charlie could have been facing years in prison.  What would have happened to Molly?  And Scott?  He would do anything for you, John.  Anything.  Maybe you don’t understand everything fully now, but I can tell you that the past can be horrible company in the middle of the night.”

“Yeah,” Johnny murmured and bowed his head.  “I know about night time company.”

“Don’t let your passion, your heart get ahead of you son.  The Poe’s will be all right.  Charlie won’t make another mistake.  He knows the consequences if he does.”

A few seconds passed, like Murdoch was trying to make sure it all sunk in.  “Now, how about some lunch?  Your brother could use some and so could I.”

Johnny directed his gaze to where Scott leaned against a wooden support beam of the saloon.  His lips turned up in a small smile when Johnny met his eyes.  Grey or blue?  Sometimes it was hard to tell the color of his brother’s eyes, his brother who would do anything for him.

“Hell, come on, Boston.”  Johnny pushed away from Murdoch and dropped an arm across Scott’s shoulders.  “You’re gonna blow away if you don’t get some meat on those bones.”

They started down the street to find a place to have lunch.  Johnny stopped and turned to look at his father, giving him a lazy grin.  “You coming, Murdoch?  Since we’re in your custody, whatever the hell that means, you’re buying lunch at the most expensive restaurant in town.”

Murdoch smiled back, nodded and joined his sons as they walked down the boardwalk.

Part 2

It had been four weeks since the judge’s sentence and four weeks since they’d been this far from the eyes of their father and working together.  Murdoch always made sure one brother was in his sight while the other worked another part of the ranch.  Scott wasn’t sure what Murdoch thought they would do to if together, but obviously he wasn’t taking any chances.  He’d promised the judge compliance and, by god, he was going to make sure they complied.

Johnny was chafing under his father’s hold, but he’d agreed to the terms.  He’d follow through even if he exploded.  Scott seethed beneath the surface, but held it in.  Johnny tried, but didn’t always manage.  Last night he’d found his brother pounding hell out of an innocent bale of hay, enough so the pulverized feed could only be used as bedding in the chicken nesting boxes.  Murdoch didn’t thank him for that, not that Johnny expected him to.

Their father must have sensed their frustration so he appeased them with an assignment of checking the southern boundary of the estancia.  Of course, he’d set a time when he expected them home, no more than six hours from the time they left until they returned.  Just enough to get there and back.  Scott didn’t think his father would send out a posse and haul them to jail if they were late, but he wasn’t going to take any chances.

It was good to be riding with his brother as he inhaled the musky sweetness of the recent rain.  Johnny bent and snagged a long grass from the meadow, putting it between his teeth.  He tilted his head and grinned, a grin that spelled trouble.

“So, what do you think?  Should we or shouldn’t we?”

In a few hundred feet they would be off Lancer land.  To the west the road lead to Aggie Conway’s spread.  To the southwest was Charlie Poe’s.

“Don’t even think about it Johnny.  Murdoch would have your hide, my hide, and yours again.”

“Come on, Scott.  Who would know and what could it hurt?”

“Charlie Poe for one.  He’s looking at more time in prison than we are and I wouldn’t want to jeopardize his freedom.”  Scott leaned forward in the saddle and crossed his hands.  “Would you?”

“Hell.  You can be as bad as the old man sometimes, you know that?”  Johnny blew out a breath and stared longingly at the road leading to the Poe’s.  “But you’re right.  No sense to hurt Charlie, and Molly for that matter.  I’d sure like to see him though.”

“You will.  Be patient.  We’ll celebrate together in just a few weeks.”

“How about Aggie?”

“Well, nothing said about Aggie.  Except we’re not supposed to leave Lancer property.”

“I don’t recall Murdoch saying that.”

Scott chuckled.  Johnny had a point.  Murdoch said the south boundary but didn’t say they couldn’t cross over.  It would be nice to see someone other than Lancer hands.  The last time they’d been to town was the day of the hearing.  Murdoch’s short leash was beginning to wear.

“Aggie’s only a couple miles down the road.  It would be good to see her.”

“Yes, it would.”  Scott pushed back his hat and thought about it.  “Do you think she’d mention it to Murdoch?”

“We could ask her not to.”

“She wouldn’t lie.”

“Nope, but she wouldn’t volunteer the information either.”

Scott’s face stretched into a big grin.  Hell with it.  A nice cup of coffee, a piece of whatever she’d been baking and Aggie.  A lot prettier face than Murdoch’s disapproving frown, that was for sure.  Although, in all honesty, their father had been more than fair.  Still.

“Hell.  Let’s go.”  Scott kicked his horse down the road to Aggie’s, leaving Johnny hollering in his wake.

“Hey!  You cheat!”

Laughing, Scott gave his horse his head and they flew over the wet grass and up the next rise – and stopped.  Johnny caught up and pulled hard next to him.

“What you stop for?”

Scott nodded toward a wagon at the bottom of the ridge with a wheel almost off.  It was fully loaded and not only crippled, but wedged deep in the mud.

“What fool would take a full wagon down that road.  Everyone knows it’s nothing but sludge after a rain.”

“It appears that fool is Charlie Poe.”  Scott pointed to a mud caked man slithering from in under the wagon.

“Well, damn.  It is.”  Johnny hesitated only a moment then kneed his horse.  “Come on, Scott.  Let’s see if we can give him a hand.”

Avoiding the muck of the main road, they stuck to the grassy edge.  The horses still kicked up clods of black earth behind them.

“Well, hell, Charlie.  What happened to you?”  Johnny asked, dismounting and walking around the disabled wagon.

“Boy, am I glad to see you two.  I figured I’d have to unhitch old Ranger and head back to Aggie’s to get help.”

“You may have to do that anyway, Charlie.  That wheel looks like a few spindles buckled.  Do you have a spare?”

“Well yes and no.”  He shielded his eyes from the sun with his hand when he looked up at Scott.  “I’ve got one that can take the wagon unloaded, but it ain’t good enough to carry this weight.  I, uh, haven’t had the money to get a new one so I nurse them along.”

Scott sucked in a breath and studied the bales of hay in the wagon bed.  There were several large round bales tied down with ropes.  He speculated by the time they were done unloading the wagon and changing out the wheel, they’d be as dirty as Charlie, not to mention the hay still needed to get to the Poe’s.

“I’m betting Aggie has a couple of hands and an extra wagon to get this load to your place.”

“Yes, Scott, but I sure hate to bother Ms. Aggie.  She was kind enough to sell me this hay pretty cheap.  With all that’s been happening I haven’t had much time to get mine cut.  I don’t want to put her out any more.”

“You know she wouldn’t mind, Charlie.  In fact, she’d be insulted if we were this close to her place and we didn’t ask for assistance.”

“Yeah, well.”  Charlie rubbed a muddy hand across his forehead leaving a dark smudge from temple to temple.

“Charlie, Aggie didn’t think it was a good idea to do this today, did she?” Johnny asked.

When Charlie bit at his lip and hesitated to answer, Scott believed Johnny knew the answer before Charlie opened his mouth.

“Well, now, to be honest, no she didn’t, Johnny.  And she didn’t spare any words letting me know.  Not that she wasn’t real nice and all, but direct she is.  I’d be pretty embarrassed asking for help now.”

“Thing is, Charlie, you may have no other choice.  Lancer is too far.  By the time we got home, hooked up another wagon and came back here, it would be close to dark.  You may have to swallow your pride.”  Scott understood Charlie’s reluctance.  What man wanted to face an ‘I told you so’, regardless of who said it?

“I’ll go ask her if that would help, Charlie.”

Charlie sighed, ran muddy fingers through his hair turning some of his grey a dingy brown.  “No.  I got myself into this fix, Johnny.  I expect I need to do the asking.  I’ll unhitch Ranger and get on my way.”

“Tell you what, Charlie, Johnny and I will start unloading before this wagon gets so far down in this muck only a team of oxen could pull it out.”  And it was good and stuck.  Scott didn’t know if oxen wouldn’t be needed in the long run anyway.

“Thank you, boys.  I really appreciate it.”

As Charlie unhitched the big horse, Scott and Johnny studied the best way to get the hay out of the wagon.

“I’ll be back real soon.  Now, you take it easy.  A pulley and team of horses put them on the bed so they’re real heavy.”

Scott watched as the lumbering draft horse ignored the thumps in its side as Charlie tried to make him go faster.  Old Ranger was going about as fast as he was going to go.  There were pluses and minuses to every situation, Scott thought.  The plus was that no other horse could have pulled that wagon load of hay by itself.  The minus, it would take a while for Charlie to get to Aggie’s and back again.

“I have a feeling we’ll be past our six hours, cell mate.  What do you think?”

“I think you’re right Johnny.  But nothing to be done.  We can’t just look the other way, let Charlie fend for himself.  I think Murdoch will understand.”

“You got a lot of faith in that fact?”

“I think he’ll be reasonable about the situation, yes.”

“Yeah, well, Boston.  I hope you’re right.  He’s been about as twitchy as a mouse with a cat on his butt.  You see how you feel when the old man is standing next to you asking why we’re three hours late.”

Johnny grunted as he pulled on the bale.  “Damn these things are heavy.”  Scott got beside him and they both tried to man-handle it off the wagon.

“Let’s use one of the horses.  They can pull better than we can.”  Scott knotted a rope around his saddle horn and tied the other end around one of the bales.   Johnny worked from the ground and handled the horse.

The work was heavy and slow – and dirty.  Even though they used the horses as much as they could, it was still a slippery, muddy mess.  It was proving difficult to keep the soil-caked gloves on their hands.  At one point Scott lost his footing and slid beneath the wagon.  When Johnny pulled him out, the muck almost claimed his boot.

The wagon eased with each bale removed from the side where the wheels were intact.  They agreed that taking from that side first would prevent those bales from tumbling against the weak side of the wagon and spill all of the hay into the watery goo, ruining the hay for feed, or anything else for that matter.  It seemed to be working.  The broken wheel hadn’t sunk any further into the mud and more than three-quarters of the load had been salvaged.

“Well, brother, we’re almost there.  Charlie should be coming around the bend anytime now.”  Scott looked at Johnny and saw nothing but a huge grin.  “What?”

Johnny flecked a large clump of earth off Scott’s shoulder.  “I’ve never seen you quite so – earthy, Boston.  You’ll ruin your reputation.”

Scott smiled and contemplated he was probably just as dirty as Johnny.  “And what reputation would that be?”

“Oh, even when grubby you look clean.  Nothing spotless about you now.  You look to be carrying about 20 pounds of dirt.”

“And you have 30.”  Scott laughed and thumped Johnny in the belly.  “Come on, let’s finish this up.”

The removal of the first bale on the tilted side of the wagon was smooth.  Johnny’s mount slid a bit but the rope held and so did the horse.  The hay fell exactly where they wanted it.   Scott hitched the rope around the next one and tightened the knot.

“Ready, Johnny.”

Making sure the lead was secure on the saddle horn, Johnny stepped behind the horse and slapped the rope against the animal’s rump.  Directing the horse from the ground as it struggled against the huge load, everything was going as planned.  It wasn’t until the horse slipped that Scott noticed the bale begin to topple.

“Johnny!  Look out!”

Hoping to deflect the crush of the bale on his brother, Scott dove at the side of the falling bundle and shoved as hard as he could.  It smacked into his shoulder and he went down, but it was just enough of a push that the bale didn’t hit his brother in the chest.  It could have crushed him.  Scott was grateful for that until he heard Johnny’s scream.

Trying not to think of the pain in his shoulder, Scott rushed to where Johnny lie, his foot trapped in under the hay bale.

“Johnny.”  Sliding next to his brother, he ignored the cold wet of the earth that seeped into his trousers.  His brother’s leg was trapped under the load from the knee down.  “Jesus, Johnny.”    His hands fluttered around his brother’s leg, feeling powerless and unable to help.  Johnny’s face was pale, his breath coming in hard, shallow gulps of air.

“Damn, that hurts like hell,” Johnny swore.

“Where do you hurt?”

“I think I broke my ankle.  It’s all twisted.  Get this damn thing off of me!”  He slumped back into a mire of mud.

“I’ll try.  Hold on.”  Even though his shoulder was throbbing with pain and his ribs were on fire, he pushed the bale as hard as he could.  Something in his shoulder popped but he ignored it.  He started clawing at the hay, tearing away and scattering clumps far as he could.  His left arm was useless but he kept at.

“Scott,” Johnny hissed.

“I’m trying, Johnny, but I can’t move the damn thing alone.  And where the hell is Charlie!”  Frustrated with his inability to help his brother, he couldn’t focus on anything else and kept ripping at the bale, driving sharp spikes of dried brome beneath his fingernails and splintering the flesh of his hand.

“The horse.”  He should have thought of that before.  The rope around the bale still seemed good and tight but it had slipped off the saddle horn.  When he tried to tighten the knot, it was useless.  There was no way he was going to get it snug enough with only one good arm.  He went back and started once more wrenching out hay.  If the bale wasn’t so heavy, he could push it off his brother.

“Scott.  Listen.  You’ve got to get help.”

He dared one look at his brother and swore again.  Gathering up some of the hay that he’d ripped from the bale he pulled Johnny up and crammed as much as he could behind his shoulders and head.  It was a clumsy effort with his useless left arm, but he managed to at least get his brother off the cold ground.

“I’m sorry, Johnny.  I should have noticed the puddle … that you’d be cold.  I’ll get my blanket.”  He bolted to his horse and cussed at trying to get the blanket untied with one hand.  He hadn’t sworn this much since he’d been in battle.  Hurrying back to Johnny he tucked it around his chest.

“What’s wrong with your arm?”

“I pulled a muscle.”

“Yeah, well, that must be some muscle.  Thanks for the blanket.”  Johnny stared at him and smiled through the pain.  “That was a colorful string of cuss words.  Pretty impressive.”

“My vocabulary has grown with life’s experiences.”  He smiled when Johnny chuckled at his words.

Then Johnny grew serious.  “Listen.  You can’t get this yourself.  Ride to Aggie’s and see what the hold up is.”

“I won’t leave you.”

“Hell, Scott.  I’m not gonna die from a broken ankle, or whatever the shit I did to my leg.  It’s numb from the cold anyway.”

He was right.  Aggie’s was barely two miles down the road.  “Okay.  I won’t be gone long.”

“I’ll be fine.  Now go before I die of pneumonia.”

Scott nodded, pulled Johnny’s gun from his holster and put it in his hand.  “Just in case of snakes or … something.”

“No snake in his right mind would slither through this crap.  But thank you.  It’ll hold off the man-eating jackrabbits.”

Scott couldn’t help but laugh at his brother’s ability to find humor in the damndest situations.  He patted Johnny’s shoulder and stumbled to his horse managing to mount only using his right arm.  The left side of his body burned and he figured the heavy bale had scrapped some of the skin off his rib cage.  He hoped that was all anyway but was sure nothing was broken.

He’d barely gotten down the road when he saw two men driving a wagon with a team of horses and two men riding beside Charlie.  Finally.  He tried to wave to urge them along but his arm wouldn’t cooperate.  He kicked his mount and hurried to meet them.

“Boy, Scott.  You are muddier than Mrs. Taylor’s pigs.  Sorry I caused this.”

Scott didn’t have time to ease Charlie of his guilt but was pleased to see Aggie’s foreman, Gene Rogers.  He was a no-nonsense man, very capable and they’d have Johnny pulled out in no time.

“You okay, Scott?  You look a might crooked?” Charlie asked.

“Charlie, one of the bales fell on Johnny and he’s trapped.  I think his ankle might be broken.  At least I hope that’s all.  Come on.  We have to get him out of there.”

Rogers didn’t wait to hear anything more.  He kicked his horse and Scott followed with the others bringing up the rear.  The foreman dismounted and walked around Johnny, seeming to take in the whole situation.

“Johnny.”  He tipped his head in acknowledgement.

“Gene.  Good to see you.  Think you fellas can get me out of here.”

“Yup.”  Gene was a man of few words.  “Jackson, Cheyenne.  Throw ropes around those bales and get the horses to pull them off the other side of the wagon.  Don’t worry if any of them rip apart.  Ms. Aggie’s got plenty more.  Sam and Lewis, rig your mounts up to this bale.  I’ll push from this side and tilt it away from his body.”

Gene eyed Scott.  “You do look a might crooked there, Scott.  You hurt?”

“Just my shoulder.  But I can help.”

The foreman didn’t look convinced.  “Can you pull your brother out when I give the word?”

Scott wanted to say yes, almost did, but there wasn’t anything he would do to jeopardize getting Johnny out of this mess without further injury.  “I don’t think so, Gene.  I’d probably do more harm than good.  But I can push.”

Scratching at his face, Gene took a good long stare at Scott’s arm.  Scott had to admit it probably looked like a useless appendage hanging at the end of his shoulder.  It hurt like hell and he wouldn’t be much help but he would give it all he could.

 “Tell you what, Scott,” Rogers said.  “There’s a big oilcloth in the back of our wagon.  I’m gonna have Charlie pull Johnny out and you have that cloth ready for us to lay him on.  How’s that sound?”

Scott knew he was trying to appease, make him feel like he was doing something to help his brother.  But, he nodded in agreement and went to get the tarp.

“Charlie, when I say pull, you pull him out.”

“I’m ready Gene.”

“Okay boys.  Let’s give her a push.”  It took all they had to tilt the huge bale just enough to allow clearance for Johnny’s leg.

“Pull Charlie, now,” Gene shouted.                                                                              

Scott held the oilcloth ready, focused on when they dragged his brother from in under the load.  Johnny’s face contorted with pain when Charlie wrenched his body free, but his only sound was a clenched whimper and a muffled ‘Dios’.  When the foreman and his hand stepped away from the heavy load, it crashed into the mud and across the road, littering the oilcloth with split and broken brome.  Rogers was already down by Johnny’s leg.

“Ain’t gonna splint this Johnny.  Your boot’s good enough for now and I don’t want to do anymore damage.  We’ll just carry you to the wagon with this oilcloth.  Okay?”

“Yup,” Johnny said through clenched teeth.  “It feels better without a hundred pounds of grass sitting on it.”

“Charlie, Lewis, pad the wagon bed with some of this hay.  Might as well make it as easy as we can on him.”  He turned to Scott.  “How you doing, Scott?”

“I’m fine.  Let’s just get him moved to Aggie’s.”

A man took each corner of the oilcloth and in no time Johnny was settled in the wagon bed.  Rogers dug into the box in under the seat and pulled out a long strip of muslin.  Scott wasn’t sure what he was going to use the muslin for until he walked over to him.

“Here, use this as a sling until you get that arm looked at.  It’s hanging lower than a dead tree limb.”  Rogers knotted the material, put it over Scott’s neck and settled the useless arm into the muslin.  “You need help getting into the wagon?”

“What?”  Scott said, trying to focus on Rogers instead of the pain. Rogers was giving instructions to his men before he had time to answer.  “I thought I’d ride …”

“Lewis,” Rogers interrupted, apparently not even listening to Scott.  “Head over to the Benson’s place.  I think Doc Jensen’s new partner is over there with their new baby.  Cheyenne, you get to the Lancer’s.  Let Murdoch know what’s happening.  Charlie, help Scott in the wagon.  Jackson and Sam, get Mr. Poe’s wagon out of this muck.  We’ll send another wagon out and get the bales.  Let’s get moving.”

Roger’s could put a general to shame the way he barked out orders.  Charlie was at Scott’s side and helping him into the wagon before he realized it.  “What about our …”

“Charlie, tie up the Lancer horses to the back of the wagon.  Now.”  And they did exactly as they were told.

Johnny looked at Scott and Scott looked at Johnny.

“He’s pretty damn good, isn’t he?” Even through the pain of his broken bone, Johnny could admire the man’s ability to take charge.

“He’s got me wanting to stand and salute.”  Scott stared at his brother.  His face was pale and he was in obvious discomfort but he looked a lot better than just a few minutes ago.  “How’s the ankle?”

“Hurts.”  He returned Scott’s gaze.  “How’s the arm?”

“Hurts.”  Scott chuckled and settled next to Johnny.  At least the hay made the ride tolerable.

“You think it’s broken?”

“Sure the hell feels like it.”

Scott scrutinized Johnny’s foot.  Even with the boot on it he could see there was a twist to the ankle that shouldn’t be there.  Johnny wouldn’t be doing much of anything for the next several weeks, of that Scott was sure.

The yard of the Conway ranch was busy.  It was a successful operation, even with a woman at the head.  Aggie Conway was smart, knew the business of running a ranch as good as anyone, and demanded respect from her men.  At the same time she was fair, paid well, and generous with her praise.  She was a feminine Murdoch and admired by everyone in the community.  Standing on the front porch, she shielded her eyes from the afternoon sun.

“Gene, what’s going on?  Problems getting that wagon fixed for Charlie?”

“An accident with the hay, Ms. Aggie.  One bale came down on Johnny and he may have a broken leg.  I expect Scott’s shoulder is dislocated.  Lewis went for the new doc at the Benson’s, Cheyenne went to let Murdoch know, Sam and Jackson are working on getting Mr. Poe’s wagon out of the mud.”

Aggie was immediately at the wagon with a worried look on her face.  “You boys get into more trouble than anyone in this valley.”  Her concern was evident even as she shook her head with bewilderment.  “Well, I guess we’d best get you two into the house and cleaned up.  Any of that Lancer dirt you’re carrying?”

“No ma’am,” Johnny said.  “It’s all yours.”

“Well, then we don’t have to worry about Murdoch wanting it back.”  She smiled and turned to Gene.  “Take Johnny to the downstairs bedroom off the parlor.”

“If you’ve a broom, Aggie, I’d like to brush some of this mud off before I come in.”  Scott figured at least a half acre was on his brother – he didn’t want to add to it.

“Charlotte,” she hollered and a middle aged woman stepped off the porch.  “Help Scott here get rid of some of this dried mud, will you?  Watch his shoulder.”  She turned to Johnny.  “Son, I hope you’re not bashful.  I’ve washed plenty a man in my life and there’s nothing you’ve got I haven’t seen.”

Scott didn’t wait around to hear Johnny protest.  He was bustled into the house carried on the oilcloth and was gone.  Charlotte came out of the house with a stiff, short handled brush and started sweeping the clumps of dirt off Scott’s clothing.  There was a good pile of dried earth on the stoop by the time she was done.  Although she tried not to disturb his arm, it was inevitable that the brush nicked it a couple of times.  She was so apologetic Scott dismissed her worry that she had hurt him.  In truth, he had barely managed to keep from crying out when the brush hit his arm.

“I think I’ll just sit here a while, ma’am.  Before I go check on my brother.”

She nodded.  “I’ll get you a cool glass of lemonade.  You look like you could use something to drink.”

“Thank you.”

Within a couple of minutes she was back with the sweet drink.  “You need anything else, Scott?”

“No.  I’m fine.  Thank you.”

Charlotte hesitated like she wasn’t sure he was as fine as he said he was.  If it weren’t for his shoulder, what he told her would have been the truth.

“Really,” he urged.  “I’m all right.  I’ll check on my brother in a few minutes.”

“All right.  I’ll just be in the kitchen if you need anything.  Give me a holler.”

Scott leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes. It was a rocking chair with a cushion on the seat for comfort.   He should really see how Johnny was doing but figured he was in good hands with Aggie Conway.  He smiled, wondering how Johnny was taking to her ‘cleaning him up.’  Probably put a bit of humble into his swaggering brother.

“How you doing, Scott?”

Scott opened his eyes to see the foreman standing in front of him.  “Better than Johnny, I expect, Gene.  Thank you for helping us.”

Gene chuckled as he rolled a cigarette.

“How is my brother?”

“Well,” he lit the cigarette between words.  “Me and Charlie got his clothes off and that ankle is busted.  I expect the Doc will fix that up.  When I left him he was hollering a bit, polite now mind you, at Ms. Conway when she came in with a bucket of water to clean him up.  Didn’t faze her though.  She got some laudanum down him, told him to hush and started to work.”

He felt rather sorry for his brother, then thought back a few weeks when he’d been forced to ride alongside Murdoch to their hearing.  Johnny’s smug grin as he settled into the back seat came to mind.  Well, someone had to wash him up and what better person than the motherly Aggie Conway.  Yes, payback was well deserved.

“Where is Charlie?”

“Hovering –  till I told him Sam and Jackson were probably near done getting his wagon pulled.  He’d best help get that wheel changed and Ranger hitched up to get it home.”

“If he needs help transporting that hay, Lancer can help.”

“No need.  The boys will load it on one of our wagons and follow Charlie home.”  He blew out a puff of smoke and glanced at Scott.  “Even his spare ain’t what you’d call in good repair.  He may be riding Ranger home after all is said and done.”

Scott felt bad for Charlie.  That whole incident of being thrown off his land had set him back months.  “Well, I think Lancer might have a wheel to spare.  Marks harmed a lot of folks, Charlie just being one of them.”

Gene nodded and puffed on his cigarette.

“You ever put a shoulder back into place, Gene?”  With everyday occurrences of broken bones and injured ranch hands Scott was pretty certain Gene may have pushed a shoulder back into place.  His was damned uncomfortable and the sooner it was relocated, the better.

“I have.”  He threw what was left of the smoke on the ground and stomped it into the dry earth.  “If you don’t mind, the doc will be along soon to tend to your brother.  I’d druther have him do it.  Your father would prefer that, I’m sure.”

“It’s not my father’s arm.”

“No, but it’s my ass if I do something wrong.  I admire your father and wouldn’t want to get on his bad side.”

Smiling, Scott was sometimes amazed how much influence the great Murdoch Lancer had, even with a man as respected and formidable as Aggie Conway’s foreman.

“Okay, Gene.  I wouldn’t want to … well.  I understand.  Thanks for all you did today.  Even with two good arms I’d still be out there trying to move that load off my brother’s leg.”

“You’d have gotten it, Scott.  I saw that rope on the horn.  You had the right idea.”

“Maybe.  But the right idea isn’t worth much if you’re unable to carry it through.”

Rogers’ grin barely lifted the corner of his mouth.  The west sure had a stoic punch of folks, but they were good people.  Scott grew to love it here more with each passing day.

“Here comes the doc now, Scott.  He’ll get that shoulder done in no time.”

“I think I’ll just sit here for a while until he’s done with my brother.  I don’t relish watching him set Johnny’s ankle.”  Scott was tired, his shoulder throbbed with each breath he took and his fingers and hand hurt from still imbedded brome.  He contemplated how he was going to pry the dry grass out, but that was the least of his worries.

 The chair had a nice sway, back and forth, and the boards of the porch creaked with each gentle rock.  The ache in his shoulder was almost bearable.  Just a few minutes rest and he’d check on Johnny.  Just a few more minutes.

“Scott?”

He opened his eyes to the sight of a young man peering down at him.  Had he slept?  Where was he?  His left arm protested when he tried to move it and he remembered.  Johnny, the mired wagon and a lovely afternoon.  Lovely afternoons shouldn’t be ruined by broken bones.

“Scott, we haven’t met yet but I’m Dr. John Harper.  I’m Sam’s new assistant.”

Wake up, he thought to himself through the muddle of a half sleep.  “Dr. Harper,” he murmured.  “Yes.  I’m Scott Lancer.  Sorry.  You’ve caught me napping.”

“No need to get up.  Well, not until I take a look at that shoulder.  I understand it may have wonked out of place.”

Was that a medical term, wonked?  Could be he surmised.  The medical profession was progressing very fast so who knew what new language was out there.  Oh yes, Johnny. 

“How’s my brother?  I meant to go to him but I must have dozed.  What time is it?”

“I’ve been here a couple of hours.  Your brother has a broken ankle but nothing to be concerned about.  He’ll heal fine in a few weeks.  Right now I’m guessing he’s real close to sleep.  I gave him a pretty strong pain killer.  Mind if we go inside?  Let’s get that shoulder popped back.”

Might as well.  Scott wondered if it would hurt.  Considering it hurt going out it would probably hurt going in.  At least his head was clearing.  Pushing from the chair with his right arm, the doctor caught hold of him and led him into the house.

“Dr. Harper, there’s a settee in the parlor.  Will that do?”  Aggie Conway met them as they stepped into the kitchen.

“Yes, Mrs. Conway, that will be fine.  I could use some warm water, soap and towels.  It looks like his hand could use some work as well.”

“I can do that Dr. Harper.  How are you feeling Scott?”  She brushed a hand across Scott’s forehead, oddly insubstantial but warm at the same time.

“I’m all right, thank you, Ms. Aggie.  How’s Johnny?”

“I think he’s trying to stay awake until he sees you so let’s get you fixed up so he can go to sleep.”  She was a fast mover, brisk and Scott had to concentrate to keep up with her.  The settee was a welcome site and he slumped into it.

“I’ll get that water for you, doctor,” Aggie said.  “Oh, by the way it’s nice to meet you.  Sorry it was under these circumstances but, well, accidents are a part of ranch life.”

“And that’s why I’m here.”

She bustled out of the room and closed the door.

“Okay, Scott,” Dr. Harper said as he took hold of Scott’s arm.   His long fingers ran over the shoulder as he prodded and poked.  Scott had just managed to deal with the pain but it flared with the examination.  “Just relax.  This may be a bit uncomfortable but it’ll pass once the arm is relocated.  Just take a deep breath and …”

Scott heard the light pop before he felt it.  It wasn’t until several moments later, after he had started breathing again, that he realized how quick the doctor had wedged his shoulder back into place.

“You need to wear this sling for at least two weeks, three would be better.  Don’t do anything strenuous such as lifting, twisting or pulling.”  He settled a just right knot gently behind his neck and, with expert ease, guided Scott’s arm into a large, black sling.

“ In other words,” Scott said, “don’t do anything.”

The doctor smiled.  “I’m glad you understand.”  The door inched open.  “Ah, Aggie.  Do you have that water for me?”

“Yes.   Is everything all right?”

“It is, thank you.  I just need to clean up his hand.  Once that’s done, he can go home.”  He looked at Scott, then Aggie.  “Is someone able to see he makes it home all right?  He’d probably be fine but you never know what could spook a horse.  I’d prefer he didn’t go alone.”

“I’ll be …” Scott started to say before Aggie jumped in.

“His father should be here soon, doctor.  My hand just came in who went to Lancer to let Murdoch know about the accident.  He said Murdoch wanted to hitch up a team, make it easier to get Johnny home, so told him not to wait for him.”

“I don’t think Johnny should be moved for a few days.  Let that bone start to heal.  It’ll be pretty painful and swollen as well.  Is that a problem if he stays here, Mrs. Conway?”

“Oh.  No problem at all.  Murdoch is one of my best friends so I’d be pleased to help in any way I can.  Will you be able to meet him?”

“I’m not sure.  Depends on when he gets here.  As soon as I clean out the splinters and such in Scott’s hand, I’ll be on my way.  I’ve got one more call to make before I head for home.”

“Well.  Whatever you say and I’ll let Murdoch know Johnny needs to stay.”

Scott was sure he was in the room, so why did it seem they were talking as if he were invisible?  He could ride home on his own horse, thank you very much and he was certainly capable of telling his father Johnny shouldn’t be moved.  At least that was a positive.  No Murdoch for the next few days for Johnny.  Scott had the unenviable position of riding home with his father.   Alone.  Hugging the edge of the seat.  Then he felt guilty for thinking of himself when Johnny was suffering with a banged up foot.

Another disturbing realization wedged into his mind.  Who was going to tell Murdoch he shouldn’t use him arm for two weeks, maybe longer?  Someone would have to fill in and do their chores.  Who?

A crystal beaker with bright red contents smiled to him from across the room.  Ms. Aggie’s best sherry would taste good about now.  An angry heat enhanced the desire as his hand was plunged into a beautiful ceramic bowl filled with steaming water.  He choked back the desire to yell and pull his hand away but soldiered through the doctor’s ministrations.  War and prison had given him that ability.

For a young man, the doctor seemed to have years of experience.  Miniscule pieces of hay and dirt were scrubbed from the deep grooves of Scott’s palm and nails with swift efficiency.  To Scott it felt like he was rubbing to the bone.  Stinging antiseptic that Scott judged was mostly alcohol was the final step.  That did elicit a grunt or two.

“Sorry, Scott.  I should have warned you that antiseptic might smart.  But that should do it.  I’d instruct you to wear gloves for the next few days while working ranch chores, but you shouldn’t be doing anything like that for a while anyway with that shoulder.  Any questions?”

“No.  No questions.  Thank you.”  He smiled when he looked into the young, handsome face.  He hardly looked old enough to be out of medical school but he had to be older than Scott.

“You’re welcome. You hurt anywhere else?”

Scott shook his head not mentioning the burning skin on his ribcage.  It felt like the time he was ten years old and fell down a rocky incline.  By the time he came to a stop, much of the skin had been scrapped off his right calf.  A warm bath and soothing salve would take care of whatever he’d done to his ribs. 

“Just in case, let me give you something for the pain.”  The doctor rustled through his bag and pulled out a small tin.  “Take two in the morning and two at night.  They’ll probably make you sleepy.”  He handed them to Scott and stood up.  “Take care of yourself … and your brother.  I hope the next time we meet it will be under better circumstances.”

“Me too.”  Scott rose and offered the doctor his hand.

“Ah.  Maybe next time, Scott.  I don’t want to mess up something I just fixed.”  Gathering up his medical bag, he was headed for the door when a buckboard pulled up into the yard.

Murdoch.  Before he saw his father, he needed to check on Johnny.  He didn’t know how long it would be until he saw him again.  From what the doctor said, at least a week.

“That’s my father.  Do you have time to talk to him before you go?”

“Of course, Scott.  I’ll let your father know I’ll stop by to check on Johnny in a couple of weeks.  You too.  If you need me or Sam before that, send for us.  Until then, take care of yourself and don’t be in a hurry to use that arm.  Until it heals, it’s apt to slip out of place again.  Allright?”

Nodding his understanding, Scott waited until the doctor left the room, then hurried to Johnny’s room.  He hoped the pain killer hadn’t kicked in to the point where he was sleeping.   The hinges squeaked as the door opened and a pair of sleepy blue eyes stared back at him.

“Scott.  Hey.  Come join the party.”

“Hey yourself.  How are you doing?”  Scott stepped to the bed thankful that his brother was at least half-way aware of what was going on.

“I’m floating, Boston.  Don’t feel a thing, hardly.”  Johnny’s right hand fluttered in the air.

“Nice night shirt.”  Johnny hated night shirts.

A lazy grin barely lifted the corner of his mouth.  “That’s fine with me.  Can’t be lying here in just my birthday suit with all the fussing from Aggie.”

“Heard you had a bath.”  Scott couldn’t help but rub that in.

“Shit.  She paid me no mind, Scott.”  His eyes closed and Scott thought he’d gone to sleep.  “Dang,” he sighed, “she paid me no mind at all.”

Scott could see the front porch from Johnny’s window.  Dr. Harper and Murdoch were talking.  Murdoch’s back was to him so he couldn’t see his reaction.

“Murdoch’s here.  He’s out front talking to the doctor.”

Johnny chuckled.  “You as sure of him being reasonable now that he’s just outside the door as you were when we were at the wagon?”

“I’ll admit, it’s not the same when he’s within reach.”  He turned back to Johnny.  “You’ll be here for at least a week.  Doctor’s orders.  Doesn’t think bouncing around in a wagon for a couple of hours will assist in the healing.”

“Think Murdoch will agree?”

“What do you think?”

“Yeah.  He’ll agree.”

“He wants what’s best for you.  You know,” Scott said, his eyes still on his father’s back.  “He’s not so bad, when you think about it.”

“You trying to convince me or you about that?”

He smiled at the remark.  “I’m not sure.  Maybe both of us.”

“Yeah, well, you’re the one who gets to explain this mess.  Glad it’s you and not me.”

Murdoch turned and glanced at the window where Scott stood.  Worry covered his face, not anger.  He caught Scott’s gaze, held it for a few seconds and then went back to talking to the doctor.

Scott watched his brother as he fought off sleep.  Johnny’s eyes dipped closed, then he blinked hard to keep them open.  “Go to sleep, Johnny.  We’ll be back soon to bring you home.”

“Yeah,” he whispered.  “Think I’ll do just that.”  His head slumped to the side as he closed his eyes just as the door hinges squeaked again.  Scott wondered if Aggie knew how much noise that door made.  Without looking, Scott knew who had entered the room.

His father stepped to the bed and stared at Johnny.   His large hand settled momentarily on Johnny’s forehead.

“Did you talk to him?” he asked as he pulled his hand away.

“Just for a few minutes.  The doctor gave him some medication for the pain.  When I asked how he was feeling he said he was floating.  I didn’t ask how high.”

Murdoch chuckled, which was a good sign.  “He’s here for a week, at least.  Aggie won’t mind.”

“She’s a kind woman.”

“Yes.  She is.”  He looked at Scott for the first time.  “You ready to go home?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Doctor give you anything for pain?”

“I’m fine.”

“That’s not what I asked.  I’ve had a thrown shoulder a time or two.  I know how it feels.”

“Yes.  He gave me some pills.”

“You take any?”

“No.  I don’t need them.  Maybe when I get home.”

Murdoch scrutinized him like he was trying to find some sort of truth.  By the way he was staring Scott thought maybe he’d developed a third eye.  Why was his father looking so intently at him?

“I thought I might be bringing Johnny home, but that’s not happening,” he finally said as he looked towards the bed.  “I’ve instructed one of the men to tie your horses to the back of the buckboard.  You can ride in the wagon with me.”

Always in control – his father was always in control.  Scott thought he probably didn’t know how not to be.

With one final glance at Johnny, Murdoch motioned Scott to go ahead of him and they left the room.  Aggie was waiting for them at the front door.

“If there’s a change with Johnny, I’ll send a man to your place, Murdoch.  But we’ll take good care of him.”

“I appreciate that, Aggie.  I know he couldn’t be in better hands.”

Scott tried to hide his surprise when Murdoch bent and kissed Aggie on the cheek.  He didn’t know why he was uncomfortable.  It was just a little peck on the cheek between good friends, but he’d never seen Murdoch so openly affectionate with anyone except Teresa.

“You behave yourself, Scott.  Don’t go doing anything to make that shoulder worse, you hear?”

“Yes, ma’am.  And thank you for your help.”

Aggie smiled after them as they made their way to the wagon.  Scott hoped he could get into the wagon without falling on his face but didn’t have to worry.  As he grabbed hold of the steel bar he felt his father’s hands on his back guiding him onto the seat.  Scott managed to mumble a thank you, embarrassed that he couldn’t do it on his own.

“You’re welcome.”  Murdoch walked around the wagon, patting the horses tied to the back as he passed them.  He hoisted himself onto the seat and picked up the reins.  He had been so quiet Scott wondered if he was going to be silent all the way home, give him a lecture, or?  Well, there really wasn’t another or – it was either the silent treatment or a talking to.  Scott really wasn’t in the mood.  His shoulder throbbed, his ribs were irritating and he hoped he could hold his tongue if his father started a sermon about wayward sons.

Murdoch gave the horses a slight slap on the rump with the reins and they started down the road on their long trip home.

“I’m not angry, son.”

Finally, a spoken word, but Scott didn’t know how to reply.  His father wasn’t angry – that was good but really, they had not given him a reason to be.  Well, other than the fact they’d been in contact with Charlie Poe against the judge’s orders but they couldn’t have done anything else.

“Did you think I would be?” Murdoch asked.

“I guess I hadn’t thought about it.”

Murdoch gave him a skeptical eye.  “Of course you have.  I’m not entirely stupid you know.”

“I know that, Murdoch.”  Scott realized he needed to be honest with his father regarding this whole incident.  No more ‘I guess I hadn’t thought about it’ or anything else to get around answering unpleasant questions.

“I’m concerned and grateful that you and your brother will be okay.  We’ll talk about how the accident happened tomorrow after you’ve had dinner and a good night’s sleep.  In the meantime, we can talk about the weather, the crops, the cattle or not say anything at all.  Whatever you’d prefer.”

Murdoch maneuvered around the spot where Charlie’s wagon had bogged down.  The amount of hay mounded in the middle of the track attested to how heavy it had been.  It had filled the hole left by Charlie’s wagon and lay scattered across the road several yards in both directions.  It was already a dark brown as it soaked up the mud from the saturated road.  Scott thought of Johnny trapped under that load and was thankful that he’d only suffered a broken ankle.

“Do you think we’ll get a good price for that bull calf out of Matilda?”  Scott asked, grateful that nothing would be said about the accident, at least for now.  His father, for all his occasional gruffness and strict expectations, was really a very kind man.

“He’s a nice looking animal.  I think we’ll get a good price, especially considering the sire.  He’s a fine, big fella.  Always throws meaty offspring.”

So, they talked about the weather, the crops, the cattle and sometimes they didn’t say anything at all.  They didn’t need to as Scott relished the company of his father.  Even as each bump jostled his shoulder and sent sharp spikes down his arm, it seemed no time at all before the hacienda lay in the valley before them.  The first thing he would do was take a bath and then join his father for dinner.  He’d be forced to take a pain pill if he wanted a pleasant meal, but he would do that to enjoy his father’s company.  After all, he’d been without Murdoch for twenty-four years and one quiet evening would not be taken away from him.

*****

When Murdoch saw Aggie’s hand ride in he knew there was trouble.  Men didn’t come in for just a visit; there was too much work to do and not enough hours in the day.  Cheyenne got to the point.  There had been an accident helping Charlie Poe but he didn’t think Johnny was injured too badly.  At least that was good to hear.  Still, his fingers fumbled with the tracings until Frank stepped in and finished harnessing the horses to the buckboard.  He suggested Murdoch get some bedding into the back of the wagon to comfort the ride home.  Murdoch recognized the ruse but was still grateful.  Men like Frank were hard to come by.

He tried not to run the team too fast but it was hard not to lash them to a gallop.  It wouldn’t do anyone any good if he overturned the wagon and ended up hurt himself, so he kept to a reasonable pace.  When he topped the rise and looked down at the bottom of the hill, he stopped short.  The low spot in the road was torn up by wagon wheels and horse tracks.  A huge pile of dried brome lay wet and mud soaked in the middle of the road with piles of it scattered in all directions.  It looked like a herd of stampeding cattle had gone through the area.

Murdoch’s first reaction when he heard accident and Johnny was fear.  How bad was he hurt?  His second was anger.  What the hell were they doing with Charlie Poe?  Had they ignored him again?  Didn’t they know how serious just one infraction of the agreement could be, not only for them, but Charlie?  But when he saw the churned up earth and fierce struggle that had taken place, his anger faded.  Everything would be sorted out later.  His first priority was making sure Johnny was all right.

Relief was quick when he talked to Dr. Harper.  It wasn’t anything that wouldn’t heal with rest and time.  ‘Give him six to eight weeks,’ the young doctor had said.  Johnny would probably have a slight limp for a while but the leg would grow strong and he would make a complete recovery.

Assured that Johnny would be okay he was barely listening when the doctor started talking about Scott.  What about Scott?  The doctor apologized assuming Murdoch was aware that his other son had been injured as well.  Another injury to add to the others, Murdoch thought, biting at his lip.  Damn, these sons were going to send him to an early grave.

He’d momentarily turned towards the house and caught Scott watching him through the window.  A large black sling encompassed his left arm from wrist to above the elbow.  He held his gaze for several moments, the stark lines of his son’s face attesting to the strain he’d been through.  Dirt shadowed the hollows of his cheeks, something strange to see on his usually polished son.  Tired eyes stared back at him, probably more concerned with Johnny than himself, or worried about the reaction of his father.  Murdoch’s belly tumbled with a strange, deep compassion, a compassion he’d never felt so profoundly as he eyed his weary son.  He wouldn’t press Scott for details, not today.  Home, he just wanted him home.

The doctor’s voice buzzed in the background and Murdoch directed his attention back to him.  ‘Just make sure he doesn’t use that arm,’ he had said.   He thought the doctor had given him those same instructions more than once.  With a ‘they’ll be fine sir and I’ll be by in a couple of weeks,’ the young man had squeezed his arm in sympathy.

Somehow he had managed a thank you.  At least he hoped so as he watched Sam’s extra buggy go down the road.  Aggie Conway stood in the open doorway and stepped aside when he entered the house.  She brushed his arm and with a gentle smile pointed to the room where Johnny was.

The door whined as he opened it.  Scott’s back was to him but his focus was on Johnny who was obviously deep in sleep.  At least he was able to touch him before he left him behind; one of the hardest things he had done in a long, long time.

Avoiding bumps on the way home was impossible.  He wished Scott had taken something for the pain but nothing to be done about that.  His son was as stubborn as … any Lancer.

The first couple of miles were silent as they made their way back to Lancer.  Murdoch’s thoughts were a jumble and he dearly wanted the details but now wasn’t the time.  When he told Scott he wasn’t going to press as to what happened, at least not today, Murdoch could see the tension drain out of his face.  At least Scott had seemed relaxed, enjoying the small talk – and the quiet.  Murdoch had to admit it calmed him as well and was almost sorry to see the hacienda lights in the valley below.

Maria had kept dinner warm for them knowing they’d be late coming home.  Murdoch was tempted to nibble a sample and quiet his growling stomach, but wanted to wait for Scott.  Scott was as dirty as Murdoch had ever seen him and understandably needed to clean up.  He promised after a quick bath he’d be down in a short time.  That was forty-five minutes ago.

Murdoch sighed, leaned back into the leather chair and sipped on his after-dinner brandy.  No law said he couldn’t have it before dinner and he needed it.  It had been a long day.  He closed his eyes listening to the sound of Maria putting dinner on the table.

“It is ready patron.”

“Thank you Maria.  You go on home.  I’ll clean up.”

“Oh, but no …”

“Maria, it won’t be the first time I’ve done a few dishes.  Go on home.  Your family is waiting.”

“Si.”  She smiled as she passed the table, patting a napkin into place.  “Gracias.”

And where was Scott anyway?  Taking one more sip of his brandy, Murdoch pushed himself out of the chair and headed for the stairs.  He waited at the bottom for a few moments deciding if he should go up and check on his son or wait.  Scott said it wouldn’t be long.  Usually he did what he said he was going to do.  Oh hell and he grabbed the banister and started up the stairs.

The bedroom door was ajar a few inches.

“Scott?” Murdoch tapped on the door.  “Dinner’s ready, son.”  He tried to peek through the opening, then pushed the door and stepped into the room.

Scott was lying on the bed sound asleep.  He was in clean trousers, barefoot with his shirt partially on.  He had managed to get his right arm into the sleeve while his left was bare and draped across his chest.  The black sling was clutched in his right hand like he hadn’t known whether to put his shirt on first or the sling.  An open tin lay on the small table next to his bed, with neat printing on the side with the name of a pain killer.

Sighing, Murdoch stared down at his son.  The edges of his hair were still wet from the bath, his face smooth and free of stress.  He eyed the bruised and swollen shoulder and wondered how he had managed to clean up using only one arm.  When Murdoch had offered assistance, he wasn’t surprised that Scott had quickly dismissed him.

Was there a rash on his ribcage?  Murdoch bent to take a closer look.  It appeared that the skin had been scraped off from being dragged over gravel or … good lord, had the bale of hay scoured the ribs as it dropped?  He could have been crushed.  Murdoch needed another brandy.

Beside the pills was another tin.  At least Scott knew enough to put salve on the abrasions.  But, this was Scott.  Of course he would.  Murdoch pulled a side chair over to the bed, sat down and gently moved the injured arm so he could get to the ribs.  When he was done applying the salve, he maneuvered the sling onto his arm.  As he lifted his head to pull it over, his hand cupped the back of his head and felt the silk of Scott’s hair.  Tears pooled in his eyes as the softness of Katherine came to mind.  She was so beautiful, just like her son.   So long ago, and yet, he could still smell the scent of lavender that had followed her wherever she went.

He secured the sling making sure Scott wouldn’t be able to move his arm.  He stepped to the bottom of the bed and pulled the quilt over him.  At least there was a promise he would sleep through the night thanks to the pain killer.

Murdoch’s stomach growled reminding him he hadn’t eaten.  It would have been nice to have a quiet dinner with his son, but tomorrow night.  There was always tomorrow night, and the next and the next.  It would be enough.  After all, both of his sons wouldn’t be going anywhere for several weeks, all because of a blessing that came in the guise of misfortune – the misdemeanor.

Part 3

“Oh, God.”  He groaned, twisted at the throb in his shoulder, head, and blaze of light piercing his eyelids.  Turning his face away from the glaring brightness, he shifted his body and couldn’t – his arm was bound tight against his side as his shoulder pulsed like it had its own heartbeat.  Many needs struggled to get through and he tried to recognize which was first.

Something rumbled mid-bed.  He glanced down expecting to find a dog.  Then realized the growl was coming from his body.  When was the last time he’d eaten?  He recalled having breakfast.  If today was today than it must have been yesterday morning.   Charlie Poe’s dilemma, his shoulder popping where it shouldn’t pop, a broken ankle, coming home with Murdoch, the bath.  Oh yes, the pain pills before the bath.  He knew he’d never get through it without some relief.  The doctor said two, he took two.  Managed not to drown in the deep tub and even managed to stumble to his room and get his pants on with one hand – a challenge.  After that, nothing.  Maybe one pill would have been enough.  Lesson learned.

Thinking he would turn over and just sleep till the throbbing stopped, something else was urging him up.  It was more than hunger, shoulder and rumbling belly.  He needed to pee; really, really needed to pee.  Damn.  He scrunched the side of his face into the pillow hoping the need would go away.   It didn’t.

He worked himself up into a sitting position and sighted his boots through half-mast eyelids.  How the hell was he going to get them on?  His shirt slipped off his right shoulder and he shivered, which didn’t help the liquid sloshing around in his bladder.  Fortunately, his right arm was agile enough to hike the shirt back on his shoulder.  Leaning forward, the shirt shifted across his back and he grabbed it, brought it across his left side and buttoned the top two buttons.  He would have untied the sling to get his left arm into the sleeve, but right now that was the least of his worries.  Murdoch would help him later.  But now there was the question of bare feet and a rocky walk to the privy.

Johnny had taken his slippers and not returned them.  His brother had scoffed at the need, until he’d had a touch of indigestion and needed to get to the outhouse in the middle of the night.  Murdoch had slippers; handy in fact.  His father always kept them at the side of the bed, rain or shine, day or night.  They would work.

He tilted at first but handled the short walk to his father’s bedroom without too many wall encounters.  As expected, the great slippers lay by the side of the great bed.  They were easy to slip on.  The only problem would be keeping them on as they were much too big, but a shuffle and slide would work.  He just hoped the slippers wouldn’t fall off and make it down the stairs before he did.

*****

“Does my father know you’re here?”

Obviously, Scott was up and had discovered their guest in the great room.  Murdoch hurried with the coffee pot and cups and banged into the room with a, “Yes, your father knows he’s here.”

It took Murdoch a couple of seconds to register that this son was really – this son.  Scott stood, halfway down the stairway and disheveled was an understatement.  Blond hair was going all different directions.  His shirt was stretched over his left arm, sling and all, and partially buttoned with the buttons in the wrong buttonholes.  The lopsided look at his shoulders was offset by one bare foot giving the overall effect of a strange, more balanced appearance.  Why was Scott only wearing one slipper?  That question was answered as Murdoch spotted the other slipper at the bottom of the stairs.  The slipper looked like his.  Was it?

“How are you feeling, son?”

Droopy eyes shifted his way.  “I could be better.  How are you?”  Those eyes turned towards the man on the couch.  “Should he be here?”

“He’s come to see me, but no, he should not be here.  Ah, are you hungry?  You missed dinner last night.”

Scott looped back to Murdoch.  “And yesterday’s lunch.  Yes, I’m hungry.  But first … I need to pee.”

That statement, especially in front of a guest, was so unlike the polite proper Scott that Murdoch was speechless for a moment.  “Ah, let me get that slipper for you.”  Murdoch set down the pot and mugs on the coffee table and picked up the empty slipper.  He turned it over and frowned.  “Is this mine?”

“Yeah.  Johnny has mine.  I borrowed yours.”

“But these are …  too big, son.”

“Obviously.  But they’re all I could think of.  I couldn’t pull my boots on alone.”

Scott limped down the steps like an old man trying to keep one slipper on.  Murdoch held the slipper as Scott slid his foot into it.

“Thank you.”

He scuffed across the room, never lifting his feet from the floor.

“Are you all right?”

“Yeah, Murdoch.  I’m fine.”  He stared at Murdoch, tired but appeared cognizant.  “Really.”

“Do you need help?  You know.  At the privy?”  Murdoch got the look he expected.

Scott’s nose tilted up several degrees.  “I haven’t needed help since I was two years old.”

“You had two hands then, son.”  Murdoch choked back a chuckle.  He felt guilty considering Scott’s condition, but his sons never seemed to miss an opportunity to throw a good natured dig.  The opportunity was too good to pass up.

“I only need one,” he replied as if it was above an explanation.  Scott bowed to the man on the couch.  “Good day, Charlie.  I won’t ask why you’re here and will pretend I didn’t see you.”

“I just need a couple words with your pa, then I’ll be gone.”

“Tell Molly hello.”

“I’ll do that Scott.  She’s powerful fond of both you and Johnny.”

Murdoch watched as Scott shuffled out of the room, not sure that Scott was as able as he thought he was, but he’d give him the benefit of the doubt.  Nevertheless, he’d check on him if he didn’t appear within the next fifteen minutes.

“Charlie,” he said while filling a mug with coffee.  “You shouldn’t be here.”

“I know, I know, Murdoch.  I just wanted to explain about yesterday.”

“Well,” Murdoch grabbed his coffee and settled deep into the couch.  “I’m listening.  I couldn’t get anything out of either of my boys yesterday.”

“It was all my fault.  I overloaded that dang wagon trying to get the hay on one trip.  It sunk into that mud, just like Ms. Aggie said it would.  Your sons came along and helped me.  That’s all there is to it.”  Charlie took a long drink of the coffee and set the mug down.  “I’m real sorry your boys got hurt.  It was an accident Murdoch.”

Murdoch studied the tired face and haggard features.  Charlie had a lot of things go wrong in the past few months, things he had no control over.  Still, Murdoch was worried.

“Charlie, I understand regardless that my sons were off Lancer.  I hadn’t given them permission to leave the ranch.”

“But they weren’t far onto the Conway spread.”

“It doesn’t matter.  They understood.”

Charlie spread his hands as if in appeal.  “Did you expect them not to help me?”

“No.”  Murdoch set his cup on the table and leaned forward, resting elbows on his knees.  “And I’m hoping the judge understands.  His orders, conditions were pretty explicit.  No contact, Charlie.”

“I know, that, Murdoch.”  Charlie tore a hand through his hair.  “But dang it.”  He huffed and looked at the ceiling as if praying for help.  Shaking a finger at Murdoch he declared passionately, “Those boys were only trying to help me.  The judge has to understand, and iffn’ he don’t, he shouldn’t be sitting in a seat of judgment.”

“I’m their father, Charlie.  You’re talking to the wrong man.”  Murdoch stood up needing to check on Scott and get Charlie off the ranch.  He knew none of his hands would say anything about Charlie’s visit but the quicker he was gone, the better.  “But, I think its best you don’t stay long.”

“What are you going to do, Murdoch?”

“Nothing.  I’m not going to mention this episode to the judge and I don’t think anyone else will.  Circumstances happen, accidents.  You needed help and I believe, or hope that it would be reasonable to expect my sons to offer aid.  They did not go to your home.  I think it best we leave it at that.”

Charlie rose from the couch and rubbed his palms against his trouser legs.  “Thank you, Murdoch.  I … well, I appreciate all you’ve done for me.  And I’ll pay you back, every cent.”

“I know you will Charlie.  Whenever you can.”   Murdoch rested his hand on Charlie’s back as he guided him to the door.  “Tell Molly hello.”

“I will, Murdoch.  I will.  She’s thankful, too, you know?  I don’t remember seeing her happier.”

“Good.  She deserves happiness.”

“More than I’ve given her, that’s for sure.   Goodbye then.  I’ll be real glad when all this is over with.”

“Only eight more weeks, Charlie.  It will go fast.”

Charlie looked up with a skeptical face.  “You think so?  I’m betting its hard keeping your sons in line.”

Smiling, Murdoch nodded.  “I don’t give up easily.  We’ll be all right.”

Murdoch watched as Charlie rode out of the yard – a fast walk maybe would be a better description.  Ranger wouldn’t be pushed.

Charlie had made bad choices in the past but paid for them.  Murdoch was all about second chances – for Charlie, Johnny, and even himself.  He’d left Scott behind all those years ago and so far, Scott seemed willing to overlook that fact.  Yes, second chances.

Speaking of which, where was Scott?  Almost a half hour had passed since he’d gone to the outhouse.  Murdoch was pretty sure he hadn’t fallen in, but he may have fallen asleep.  Then again maybe not given the atmosphere.  None the less he was missing.

He heard a clatter in the kitchen.  Maria wasn’t in the habit of dropping things. With a bad arm Murdoch hoped Scott wasn’t trying to make breakfast.

Scott was picking something up off the floor when Murdoch stepped through the kitchen doorway.  There was a mangled loaf of bread on the counter and coffee grounds littered the floor.

“What’s going on, son?”

There was a knife in Scott’s hand when he stood up.  “I was trying to cut a slice of bread.  It isn’t easy with just one hand.”

Murdoch took the knife from Scott and started cutting from the unmangled end of the loaf.  “I guess some jobs require two hands.”   He smiled at his own remark, not looking at Scott for his reaction.  He didn’t hear one.

“Did you manage to get any coffee into the pot?”  Scott remained quiet and Murdoch glanced at him.  Immediately a hungry, hollow twist of pity bottomed out in his belly.  Lines edged the fine features of his son’s pale face as his long fingers clutched the edge of a chair.

“Sit down before you fall down, Scott.  You’ll feel better once you’ve eaten.”

Scott nodded and sat down.  “I did.”

“What?”

“The coffee.  I did get some into the pot but not the water.”

“I’ll get it.  Here.  Start on this bread and I’ll cook up some bacon and eggs.”  Murdoch lathered the bread with strawberry jam and set it in front of Scott.

“Thank you.”  He took a bite, then another.  “It’s good.  Ah, you can forget the bacon but the eggs sound good.”

Murdoch filled the coffee pot with water and put it on the stove.  While the eggs cooked he prepared another piece of bread with jam for Scott.  He cut up some ham and tossed that into the fry pan and added some cheese.  Even though he’d eaten breakfast a few of hours ago, the smell was enough to make him add a couple extra eggs.  A mid-morning snack with his son would make up for the lost dinner.

“Here.  This will make you feel better.”  He pushed a loaded plate in front of Scott and reached for a fork.

“It looks delicious.  Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”  He poured fresh perked coffee into a large cup and topped it off with cream and sugar.

“I like my coffee black,” Scott said when Murdoch set it in front of him.

“I do too.  The sugar will bring color back in your cheeks.  At least that’s what my mother always said.  She was usually right.”

Scott smiled.  “Was she?  I’d like to hear about her some time.”  He took a sip of the sweet coffee.  “Hmm.  That is good.”

“I’ll tell you both about her when we’re all together.”  He watched as Scott ate his breakfast, content for the moment just to be sharing the warm kitchen with his son.  They ate in silence until both plates were empty.  Murdoch filled Scott’s coffee cup and sat back down.

“Do you want to go back to bed?”

“No.  Those pills have finally worn off.  They made me feel like I was only half here.”

“Your clothes look like it.  The buttons aren’t in the right holes, at least those you’ve managed to button.”  A beltless pair of trousers drooped away from a pale, flat belly where the shirt hung open.  His son definitely needed to fill up the sharp edges.

Scott glanced down.  “Well, I was lucky to get it buttoned at all given I was still half groggy from the drugs and my arm wasn’t in the sleeve.”  He rubbed his eyes with his good hand, then touched the top of his head.  “I suppose my hair is every which way.”

“It’s settled down a bit but could use a comb.  Do you need help with that sling?”

“I could use it, at least until I get the hang of tying it with one hand.”

“I don’t think that’s possible.  Maybe not untie it and just drape it over your head.  The trick will be settling your arm just right.  How’s it feeling, by the way?”

Scott shrugged.  “Let’s just say it’s letting itself be known.”

“You need a pain pill?”

“No.”  He shook his head.  “Not now.  Maybe later.”

Hesitant to break the warm spell of the kitchen, Murdoch still needed to ask the question.  “Charlie explained what happened with the wagon.  How you and Johnny came upon the wagon mired in the mud.  Wanted to help.  I don’t question your offer, Scott, but I’d like an explanation as to why you were off Lancer?”

Scott didn’t look up at him right away as his long finger circled the coffee cup.

“Scott?” Murdoch said, nudging him for an answer.

“We just, ah, thought as long as we were so close we’d pay Aggie a visit.  We hadn’t been off Lancer for weeks and,” blue eyes looked up at Murdoch.  “I didn’t think there would be a problem.”

“Didn’t you?  Why is that?”

“I don’t know Murdoch.  Why should there be?”

Scott was hedging, throwing the question back at Murdoch.

“If I recall, I said to check the southern boundary – only.  Not to go any further.”

“Well,” Scott tipped his head and rubbed a finger along the table top.  “I don’t recall a point being made that we couldn’t go off the property.  We didn’t think visiting Aggie would be an issue.”

“Son, don’t even try to talk around the fact that you and your brother understood to stay on Lancer.”  Murdoch sighed and leaned back in the kitchen chair.  “I wish I could make you realize how serious this whole situation is.  Not only for you but me as well.  I gave my word to the judge.  If I can’t follow through with my own sons, my word doesn’t mean much.”

At least that got a cringe on his son’s face.  “We didn’t mean …”  Scott sat forward, head down as his hand gripped the coffee mug.  “I’m sorry, Murdoch.  I guess we just didn’t think of it along those lines.”

Murdoch took a deep breath and blew it out.  He’d done stupid things as a young man, impulsive, reacted without thinking of others or the consequences.  He wouldn’t fault his sons for being young, especially given they were usually very responsible.  But this situation, robbing the train, was totally, totally wrong.  He’d had to do some fast talking to the judge for him to even consider not sending his boys to prison.  Good grief, the charge could have been a felony and years in prison!

“Murdoch?”

Scott’s warm voice bumped him from the worry.  He looked up into the face of his son, a son he loved with all of his heart.   He was sorry, Murdoch could see that.  If anyone could comprehend the ramifications of one stupid act, it would be Scott.

“We’ve got eight weeks to go, Scott.  Johnny will be down for most of those with a broken ankle.  I expect you to honor the agreement.  Do I need to put my instructions in writing?”  That would rankle but, by God, Murdoch would do it and get a signature if he had to.

“No sir,” Scott stated.  “No written orders are necessary.”

“Good.”  Murdoch pushed back from the chair and stood.  “Now, let’s get that shirt fixed and proper footgear on.  I don’t want you falling because you’re trying to keep those slippers on.”

Scott didn’t get up from his chair and took a sip of his empty coffee cup, then set it down on the table.  What else was on his mind, Murdoch wondered.

“Is there something else, Scott?”

Moving his shoulder in a shrug, Scott cleared his throat.  “More coffee?”  He offered his cup with a smile.  “Please?”

Wondering what his son was up to, Murdoch reached for the coffee pot and filled both mugs to the top.  He settled back into the chair waiting for Scott to say whatever was bothering him.  It was slow in coming and it was obvious Scott was trying to pull his thoughts into the right words.

“I remember you.”

Murdoch was surprised at the statement.  When, where?  What in the world was he talking about?

“At least, it took me a while to remember who you were and where I had seen you.”

Still not able to piece together what his son was talking about, Murdoch was stumped.  Had perhaps Scott seen him in his travels?  Murdoch knew Scott had been in St. Louis and other cities west of Boston, but he was at Lancer when Scott had been in Missouri.  From their past conversations, he knew there were years between their visits to that city.

“My memory has always been excellent, even as a child.  At my fifth birthday party I was introduced to a very, very tall man.  I recall being amazed at his height and the size of his hand when he shook mine.”

“You remember that?”  Murdoch whispered, shocked that his son recalled their first meeting.  A bitter meeting it was for Murdoch, an encounter mixed with joy at the first glimpse of his son and despair when he had to leave him behind.

“Not all, but some of it.  I know grandfather’s mood changed after your appearance.  Before that he’d been quite … happy, almost jovial.  His smile wasn’t as wide after you left, at least to my five year old mind.  I didn’t know why, but thought that giant man must have made him sad.  Then, when I stepped into the hacienda that first day, I recognized you.  You were that giant man, although not quite as giant as when I was five years old.”

Murdoch held his breath, wondering why Scott hadn’t mentioned this before.   He didn’t know what to say, was afraid to say anything.

“Did you come for me that day?”  Scott’s voice was hesitant as if afraid of the answer.

“I tried,” Murdoch murmured, ashamed of his failure.  “I tried.”  The first memory of his son was as a small, blond, polite little boy.  Now here he sat at his table.  How had those twenty years gone so fast that his little boy was now a grown man?  An honorable man that Murdoch could take no credit for.  He should have been his – he should have been the one giving him guidance, support and love.

“I would ask why you didn’t take me with you, but I’ve come to learn that grandfather can be … formidable.  Did he discourage you?”

Murdoch snorted.  “Good God that’s an understatement.”  He leaned forward with head bowed and arms on the table.  What could he say that would make any difference?  Words couldn’t change the past.  Now was what mattered and he needed to leave those bitter years behind him.  He had to or he would be consumed with ‘what if’s’ and ‘if only’s’.

“I’m sorry, Murdoch.”

He looked up into his son’s kind, handsome face.  “You’ve nothing to be sorry for, Scott.  Only that you weren’t with me.”  He was reluctant to ask but the words slipped out.  “Were you?  I mean sorry that you weren’t with me?”

Scott lowered his head as a sad smile flickered across his face. “More than you’ll ever know.”

Those few quiet words threatened tears but Murdoch blinked the sting away.  There was no way those empty years could be justified and he tried not to envision a little boy wondering, waiting for a father who never came.  Even now, the hatred he had felt for Harlan Garrett was only a poison that was self-devouring. He’d let it go years ago and focused on building Lancer.  He was grateful his sons were now home.  That had to be enough.  But was it enough for Scott and Johnny?  So far, they’d seem content with staying.  Even when Murdoch was enforcing rules they did not like.

“I’m sorry, son.  I could give you all sorts of excuses, reasons, but I should have tried harder.”

“No use in dwelling on something that can’t be changed.  Grandfather gave me everything I needed and more.  He, ah.”  Scott wavered as if afraid to say anything further.

“He what, son?”

Scott gazed around the kitchen before settling on Murdoch, a poignant look on his face.  “He loved me very much.”

Murdoch smiled and gently said “Of course.  That wouldn’t be hard to do.”

Blushing, Scott dropped his gaze.  Pulling himself up from the chair, he obviously wanted to dismiss the difficult subject.  “If you’d help me get together maybe I can do something useful.”

“The doctor said you needed to take it easy for several days, not use that arm.  A couple of new books I ordered came in and I picked them up the last time I was in town.  They’re by Dickens.  Take the next few days, enjoy them.  In a week we’ll pick up your brother and he’ll likely be taking a bit of your time.”

“Demanding is probably more appropriate.”

Murdoch laughed and followed his son out of the kitchen.  As they made their way upstairs, he wondered if the past would ever leave them alone.  He believed it could if they made the effort and he was going to do everything he could to make sure that happened.

When they got to the bedroom Scott grabbed a pair of socks and tried to get them on with one hand.  It was proving just as difficult watching him fumble with the bunching wool over long toes as it was not stepping in to help.  The shirt and sling was another matter.

“Here, let me help.”

Murdoch tried not to jostle the arm but it was inevitable there would be discomfort.  Ignoring the hiss of pain, Murdoch took off the sling and helped Scot remove his shirt.

“I’d advise getting the sleeve on your left arm first, then the right.  That left shoulder shouldn’t be twisted for a few more days.”

“Yes, well, I was a bit hazy when I was dressing last night.  I was lucky to get my pants on.”

Chuckling, Murdoch held the shirt as Scott slipped his right arm into the sleeve.   Before Murdoch buttoned the clothing, he noted the scrape on Scott’s ribs.

“We need to put a bandage over those ribs, son.  That way the salve won’t rub off and onto your shirt.”  Scott held the dressing as Murdoch tied strips around his chest.  He slipped the sling over Scott’s head and maneuvered the injured arm so it was supported from wrist to above the elbow.

“How does that feel?”

“It’s fine and as comfortable as it’s going to be for now.”

“All right.  So now the boots.”  Murdoch reached for the stiff leather and thought better of it.

“You said Johnny has your slippers?  Do you know where they are?”

Scott shook his head. “Who knows in that room?  If you find one, doesn’t necessarily mean the other is nearby.”

Murdoch couldn’t disagree.  Johnny wasn’t the neatest person in the world, although he was trying, especially after Maria scolded him for making more work for her.

“Let me take a look.”

The room wasn’t as bad as Murdoch thought it would be but it took a while to find the slippers.  Fortunately, they were stuffed in under the bed side by side.  For whatever reason Johnny had borrowed them, he obviously hadn’t used them since.  Dust bunnies had populated the footwear and Murdoch sneezed when he blew them out.  They floated down the hall to find another home.

Properly fitted slippers in place, they both went down to the great room.  Scott settled in the corner chair by the fireplace and opened the first book by Dickens.  Murdoch had plenty of work to do so he was going to take advantage of it while the house was quiet.  Within a few days Johnny would be home and between seeing to his needs and making sure Scott didn’t use that arm, those times may be few and far between. 

By the time he went to the kitchen to grab another cup of coffee he decided to tidy up before Maria came back to start afternoon duties.  When he returned to his desk, he was surprised to find that Scott had fallen asleep in the chair.  Obviously the morning activities had taken its toll.  Lifting the book from lax fingers, he set it on a small end table.  His son’s neck was at an odd angle and he debated waking him.  It would probably be as stiff as his shoulder when he woke up, but Murdoch decided to let him sleep.  He was young – he’d get over it quick enough.

Murdoch settled behind his desk for long hours of book work, reading the latest ranching journals and answering letters he’d been putting off.  One of those letters was to Harlan, long past due for a reply.  But Murdoch wasn’t feeling guilty.  Harlan had kept him in the dark for 24 years.  His father-in-law could stand to wait a few more days for a reply from Murdoch.

Epilogue

“Where is your brother?”

Johnny looked at him and smiled.  “Scott?”

The grin Murdoch aimed his way told him his father wasn’t falling for it again?  Dang it anyway.  The old man was too quick.

“Yes.  That brother and the only one you have.  Or is he prettying himself up for the judge?”

“He was ready the last time I saw him.  Said he was going to hitch up the buggy.”  Johnny glanced out the French doors at what seemed like an unusual gathering of hands and families.  The men, women and children all had their heads crinked up to something in the big old oak just west of the patio.   If they opened their mouths’ any further, a passing bird might bless them.  Johnny followed their gaze.

“Well I’ll be.”

“What?”  Murdoch stepped up next to his son.

“Scott.  He’s in the tree.”  What the hell was his brother doing at the top of a 40’ tree?

“Where?”

“Up there,” Johnny pointed, then extended his arm as far as it would go.  “Way up there.”

They both stepped out the door and craned upwards.  “What the hell is he doing?”  Murdoch’s question wasn’t happy.

Johnny scanned the faces and spotted a little crying girl being comforted by her mother.  “Hmm.  I’d guess Matilda’s kitten is doing what he does best.”

“He’s going to break his neck – that is if I don’t first.”  Murdoch groaned and swiped a hand across his face.

“Looks like he’s doing all right.  Damn, just look at that man climb.  Oh, he’s got the critter by the neck.  At least he knows enough to bring a sack along.”  Johnny had to admire his brother for getting his ass that far up the tree.  Scott shoved the cat into the bag and started his decline.

Murdoch groaned again.  Poor old guy, Johnny thought.  Although the last twelve weeks hadn’t been a picnic burrowing through a broken ankle and Murdoch’s rules, he figured his father probably got the worst of it.  Johnny would have put an arm around his shoulder to ease his fret but it was a tad too high.  He had to admire the man though for his never-give-up attitude.  Between the train robbery (which Johnny finally admitted was fool hardy) and his broken bone, to Scott not abiding by doctor’s orders and dislocating his shoulder once again, the old man had more than enough reasons to grumble.  Now Scott was flying from one limb to the next like he had wings.

Matilda’s tears dried up when Scott presented her with the bagged kitten.  He smoothed the little girl’s coal black hair and had a smug look on his face till he threw a glance their father’s way.  It wilted some, but when he winked, Johnny figured he was gathering defenses.

“Pretty good job there, Boston.  Had no idea you could hike like that up a tree.”

“Long legs, boy.  And years of practice – in my younger days.”  He chuckled and without warning ruffled Johnny’s hair.  Whatever set him off his excitement was still racing.

“What makes you think that kitten wouldn’t come down on its own before you decided to risk your life and limb climbing up there?”

Murdoch had a point, but then his brother could never stomach a crying female.

“That old tree has just enough limbs to make it perfect for climbing.  I wasn’t in any danger of falling.”

The old man wasn’t convinced and glared.  “It was unnecessary.”

His brother wasn’t giving into that.  “Murdoch,” Scott said in a tone as if reasoning with a child.  “I disagree.  It was fun.  I used to be the best tree climber in the block.  I’d forgotten what the world looked like from a branch 40’ in the air.”

“Well, remember it well because I don’t want it to happen again.”

“Ah,” Scott shot back.  “That’s not your choice.”

“I call the tune.”

“Agreed.  On the operation of the ranch.  Not on rescuing kittens.”

“Scott!”  His lips disappeared and Johnny thought he could almost hear teeth breaking.

His brother laughed.  HIS BROTHER LAUGHED.  Was he wanting to meet his maker?

“Back in Boston I could swing from one branch to the other and was the envy of every ten year old in the area.”  He threw his arms out as if the blocks of Boston were the world.  For a minute, Johnny knew it had been to his childhood brother and his eyes blinked away the unfilled spaces of yesterday.

“Yeah?  A regular yellow haired tree monkey, were you?”  Johnny smiled at the vision of a golden monkey and Scott.  Thought he even saw Murdoch’s lips quiver a bit even through his snarl of “You’re not ten years old.”

“Ah, you’re right.  Still, it was fun.”  Scott shrugged off his father’s worry and hitched an arm around his shoulders.  Johnny envied that Scott was tall enough to do that.  But his brother was no dummy.  He knew the action would mellow out the old man from his sour mood.  It did.

“Did you get the buggy hitched?”

“I did Murdoch.  There is a blanket in the back for comfort.  Particularly those ailing.”

Johnny snorted at Scott’s lopsided glance, obviously delegating him to the back seat.  Appeared he didn’t mind sitting next to their father this trip.

“Leg is fine, brother.  I can ride up front.”

“I’ll drive.  You two can fight over who sits where.  Ah, Johnny.”  Murdoch turned a pointed look his way.  “You’d best use the privy before we go.  Don’t want to keep the judge waiting for whatever reason.  Let’s keep him in a good mood when he approves your release.”

“Already taken care of.”  Again, his old man learned quick.  Even if he had to take a piss on the way to town he’d have to hold it now.  Then again, he’d never peed off the back of a moving buggy.  Wondered if the arch would be worth watching?

“Johhhhn.”

Damn, did his father know what he was thinking?  “I’m ready.  I’m ready.  Let’s get going.”

This trip to town was a lot smoother than the one twelve weeks before.  They talked about the pastures, corn crop, cattle along the way and a pretty little creek that bubbled fresh and clear.  Johnny relaxed in the laughter of his father and brother as they talked about this and that.  There was no wish for sleep or worry about jail.

“I wonder if the town will be as busy as it was twelve weeks ago,” Scott asked.

“No trials today, son.  Or hearings for that matter.  Just lose ends to tie up.  I expect we’ll run into Charlie and Molly unless they’ve already been.  Judge started early.”

“I hoped to see them,” Johnny piped in.  Not that he minded the company of his family, but once in a while it was nice to see someone other than those with Lancer at the end of their name – hands included.  He hadn’t been off Lancer since the accident and could feel an ice-cold beer slipping down his throat.

“Why brother, haven’t we been enough for you?”

For the most part, Scott was more than enough.  Johnny grinned and popped a stray pebble he’d found on the floor of the buggy.  This time it landed in the middle of Murdoch’s hat.  Dang it, his aim was getting sloppy.

“At least it isn’t the widow’s flowered hat.”  Scott picked the small rock off Murdoch’s crown and turned around with a side-eyed glance.  “Your aim is off.  Too much soft living.”

“Shit,” Johnny snorted.  “Like getting up before the sun, running stupid cows from one place to another, clearing brush out of streams full of rotting fish and crap, smelling beans and farts around campfires hotter than a Mexican desert.  Yeah.  I sure am living the soft life.”

He folded his arms behind his head and leaned against the blanket.  Well, he had to admit; at least the wool was soft.  Scott only laughed and threw the rock back at him.  It bounced against his chest and settled right where Johnny had found it.

Admittedly, there was something to say for his bad aim.  He’d left that life behind.  Still, he’d have to sharpen up.  There was too much at stake to let his guard down – a father, brother, Teresa.  Shooting pebbles that landed in the middle of a rose wouldn’t protect his family.

*****

Seeing the world from the top of a tree was exhilarating.  Almost as thrilling as the accomplished climb.  The kitten was a sound excuse to do something he hadn’t done in years.  A grown man stretching from one limb to another for no reason would have earned quirked eyebrows and silent observations about the strange man from Boston.  Now, Matilda and her mother thought him a hero and the hands would appreciate his physical skill.  Because that’s what this country demanded of its men – physical achievement regardless the deed.

The bump against his father reminded him of the last trip they took to town.  Then he’d rather have fallen off the buggy than touch the man who called the tune.  Looking back to that day, he wondered why it was so important no contact was made.  Did he think it would irritate his father?  Ridiculous.  His father wouldn’t have cared.  Maybe it was him.  Yes.  Definitely him.  Somehow connecting with Murdoch through the slightest brush against his body would have been an intrusion into the very heart of his father’s private anger.  Knowing he could over think things, he let it go.

There was much in the day to relish.  Spring like, light with promise and green on the new shoots of grass.  Breezes ruffled his hair and settled it like silk against the edge of his neck.  It needed a cut and summer would demand it, but now he enjoyed the rebellious touch that would have caused a wrinkled frown on his grandfather.  Scott noted the grey curls along the edges of his father’s ears and smiled.  Freedom came in many forms, including a night under the skies, hair that curled around your ears, and peeing unobserved against a tree in the middle of a meadow.

“What are you smiling at, son?”

The gentle question startled Scott.  He didn’t realize his thoughts had made themselves apparent.  He wasn’t sure his father would understand but decided it didn’t matter if he did.

“I was just thinking about – freedom.”

Murdoch chuckled as he maneuvered the horse skillfully around a pot hole.  “That’s a big subject.  Any particular aspect or reason?”

“Hmm.  The sunshine.  The breeze.  Blue in the sky, the wide prairie.”  How could he express the innermost lightness of his heart?  He was young, alive, with the whole world before him.  There were no cannons to dodge or blood on a slippery hill.  Marriage mates were not being previewed as his grandfather hinted at a suitable match.  Just breathing in the day was enough to make him joyful.

A quizzical look was all Murdoch gave him, but there was an understanding behind the absence of words.  He nodded, slipped a hand on Scott’s leg and squeezed.  “It’s all too fleeting, this youth.  But it still comes back to me on days like this.  It’s yours, son.  Don’t waste it.”

His father edged a half smile and flicked at the bangs that hitched across Scott’s forehead.  “Any young lady would envy those curls, son.”

Scott scrubbed hair behind his ears.  “I guess I’d best be cutting it soon then.  I don’t want any jealous ladies frowning at me.”

“Ha.  I don’t think there are many ladies who would be frowning at you.”

Scott wasn’t sure what his father meant, but figured it was a good thing.

“How’s the shoulder?  I hope you didn’t reinjure it while you were pulling yourself from branch to branch.”

Murdoch didn’t appear willing to let the tree climbing go but Scott decided the best thing to do was ignore it.  “It’s fine, Murdoch.”

“Hmm.  You said that the last time you pulled it out of place.”

“It was an accident.”  They’d been over this before and Scott didn’t see the need to go over it again.

“Yes, and that’s how injuries happen.”

“All right.”  Scott finally relented.  “I’m sorry.”

“It won’t happen again?”

He wouldn’t lie.  “I can’t promise.”  But Scott didn’t want to spoil the enjoyable time they’d just shared.  “I’ll be careful, Murdoch.  And I’ll give the cat a couple of days to come down on its own before I storm to the rescue.”

His father must have accepted that compromise.  “I appreciate that.”  With a gentle tap to Scott’s leg, Murdoch gripped the reins and pulled back.  “Whoa there.”

“Gotta pee Murdoch?”

Scott heard the smart-ass tone in his brother’s question.  He almost laughed but managed to hold it back to a muffled grunt.

“No, Johnny.  I do not have to pee.”  Murdoch stood and lumbered down off the wagon, handing the reins to Scott.  “Get up front.  My back is bothering me.  I need to rest it against the back of the seat.”

Johnny climbed over the front seat and settled next to Scott.  The wagon tilted and groaned as Murdoch climbed aboard.  With a contended sigh Murdoch ordered “let’s go.”

It wasn’t long before they were on the dusty streets of Green River.  Despite the reason for the visit, Scott liked the town.  The buildings weren’t as colorful or cozy as Moro Coyo but it was a forward looking community with the coldest beer Scott had ever tasted.  He didn’t know how the saloon managed to keep it so icy, but it was worth licking cool froth off your upper lip.  The card games were honest and the girls lovely.  A bit forward, especially Trina.

He’d caught her watching him when he first visited the saloon.  He thought it was because he was a newcomer, an easterner, a green horn.  When he finally couldn’t stand it anymore and asked her why she was staring at him all the time she shrugged, blinked with big green eyes and stated “I’m trying to imagine you without clothes.”  The beer that came out his nose was very uncomfortable but she smiled, offered a clean handkerchief and kissed his cheek.  It was a quick lesson learned that many said exactly what was on their mind in this country.

The judge would be holding business today at the sheriff’s office.  Scott found an empty spot for the buggy two doors down from the office and set the brake.  There were no feelings of dread and apprehension as he stepped into the cool, dark office.  Johnny’s bump on his arm followed by a grin was reassuring.  Robbing a train would never have been on Scott’s agenda, and he recognized they were very fortunate for basically getting away with it.  New experience notwithstanding, he’d never do anything like that again.  At least, not unless his brother had a darn good reason.

*****

“Edgar.”  Murdoch nodded at the judge sitting in the tattered but comfortable sheriff’s chair.

“Murdoch.  I’m almost ready for you.”  He signed a document and added it to a pile on his right.  There was another neat pile of papers on his left and he shuffled through it until he pulled out what he was looking for.

“All right.  Let’s get started.  I just have a few questions and you can be on your way.”

Whatever questions the judge had, Murdoch would answer them honestly.  At least he assumed the questions would be directed at him – until they weren’t.

“Have you abided fully by the parameters of this agreement?”  He was looking at Scott, not Murdoch.

“Ah, yes sir.   I feel we’ve followed your directions.”

“No contact with Charles Poe?”

“We have not gone out of our way to contact Charlie.”

Scott could talk around the best of them, but the way the judge settled back in his chair and eyed his first born, Murdoch knew he suspected there was more to the story.  Or perhaps he’d even heard about it already.  News traveled fast around the valley.  Charlie may have been in front of the judge earlier and admitted to the encounter.

“Have you had any contact with Mr. Poe?”

“Yes, we have.  But the scenario was beyond our control.”

Murdoch was tempted to butt in, but decided the judge would probably not appreciate his interference.  If things went south, however, there was no way he was going to stand by and let it happen.  He hadn’t crossed an ocean and built a 100,000 acre ranch from nothing by staying quiet in the shadows.

“What scenario?”

“We were scouting the borders of our ranch, spotted a wagon mired in mud and needed to help whoever it was.  Turned out it was Charlie.  The wagon was overloaded and there was no way he could get it out on his own.”

“I see.  Was Mr. Poe on your land?”

“No sir.  He was on the Conway ranch.”

“So, you were also on the Conway ranch?”

“Yes sir.”

“You said we were scouting.  Who else was with you?”

“My brother and I were checking the area for strays, and just making sure everything was as it should be.”

“And how did you find yourself on the Conway spread?”

“It borders our ranch for several miles.  In fact Aggie, or Mrs. Conway’s ranch house is just a couple miles from our line.”

“I see.  Could you see Mr. Poe from the vantage of your property?”

“No, but when we came over the rise we could see Charlie at the bottom of the hill.  That road is nothing but mud after a rain and overloaded like he was his wagon wasn’t going anywhere.”

“Just to confirm, whose property were you on again?”

“We were on the Conway spread.”

The judge scratched something down on the paper in front of him, then stared once more at Scott.  “If you could not see Mr. Poe from your land what were you doing on the Conway spread?”

Scott maintained his composure at the question and in all likelihood knew what the judge was getting at.  “We were close to the Conway home and decided to call on Aggie Conway.  She’s a good friend and neighbor and, well, we were so close we thought we’d stop by.  It was then we saw Charlie mired in the mud.”

Murdoch knew where the judge was going with his line of questions.    Would he ask Murdoch if he had given the boys permission to leave Lancer?  How would he answer truthfully and still keep them out of trouble?  Well, he could bullshit with the best of them and these were his sons.  He’d do what needed doing.

It didn’t take long to face the problem when the judge turned to him.  “Murdoch, I assume your sons had permission to leave the ranch as they were in your custody and subject to your authority.”

Before answering he smiled and looked at both his boys.  He’d pushed honesty and wouldn’t, couldn’t skirt around how important it was.  They both had looks on their faces as if they were wondering how he would answer the question.

“Judge, my sons have my permission to do what it takes to help those in distress, whatever the scenario.  If they decided to visit Aggie and came upon a situation that required their help, as far as I’m concerned they did the right thing.  They were both hurt in their attempts to assist but fortunately not too seriously.  Johnny suffered a broken bone and Scott a shoulder injury.  It kept them both somewhat confined for a few weeks but Charlie saved most of his load.  Charlie’s suffered through much in the past few months, most beyond his control and I think that’s what neighbors, friends are for, to help when possible.  Would you agree?”

A sardonic smile crossed the judge’s face.  “You always were a good talker, Murdoch.”

“I like to think I’m fair, Edgar, reasonable, not so strict to adhering to the rules that I can’t help my fellow man.  I hope my sons are the same way.”

“Well, it seems they are.”  He bent over the paper in front of him, scribbled a few more lines on it and straightened up.

“Charlie Poe was in earlier and gave the same story.  I like to think that I as well am a fair man and can interpret the law with a bent to the circumstances.   You two are off probation as far as I’m concerned.  Whether and how your father collects any fines levied is up to him and not a problem of this court.  I hope, if nothing else, that you’ve learned you cannot take the law into your own hands.”

It appeared the judge was expecting an answer from his sons.  Come on boys, Murdoch thought to himself.  Speak up!

“Yes sir,” Johnny said a little too eagerly.

“We certainly have, judge, and thank you.”  Scott, poised and confident.

Still Murdoch wasn’t too sure his sons wouldn’t do something stupid in the future if they thought it justified.  The judge must have thought so too with his final, “good luck, Murdoch.”

Murdoch thanked the judge and got them all the hell out of the office before anymore questions were posed to his sons.  They lingered beside the buggy for a few minutes, untied the horse and allowed him to drink from a water trough.  An ice cold beer with a big steak sounded good and the saloon that sold the best of both was just down the street.

“You fellas in a hurry to get home or are you up for a visit to Belle’s?”

Johnny snorted.  “You’re a smart man, Murdoch.  What do you think?”

“I think you two can buy.  You’ll be buying for a while by the way.  It was a good reminder from the judge.  You still owe me for the fines.  When we get home we can make some sort of arrangements on how you’re going to do that.”

“Does that mean in money or labor?”

Murdoch grinned at Scott’s question and the worried look on his face.  “Maybe a little bit of both.  With the amount due, I’m thinking you’ll be under my control for, oh, maybe another six months.”

“Hell,” Johnny swore.  “Maybe prison would have been better.”

Throwing an arm around both of his sons, he headed them down to the saloon.  “Boys, it’s a good thing it was only a misdemeanor.”

.

May, 2022

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT
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20 thoughts on “The Misdemeanor by Ronnie

  1. Good story. I enjoyed the conversations in the beginning. I just knew trouble was on the horizon when Scott and Johnny were together after a few weeks of probation. The scenes of Murdoch and Scott after Scott and Johnny’s injuries were well written and heartwarming.
    Good continuation to the episode. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thanks so much for your nice comments. It seemed trouble and the brothers together went hand in hand. It was one of the things that made the series. Glad you liked it.

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  2. Oh I loved this. Great episode tag to one of my favorite episodes. You really captured everyone’s positions very well. I loved Murdoch’s interactions with his boys and the breakfast scene where Scott tells him he remembered him was beautiful.

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    1. Hi Char. I always liked the episodes when all three characters were included. It’s what made the series. Murdoch would be a hard one to forget. Thanks much for the nice comments. I appreciate it.

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  3. I loved this story. I have often imagined how the boys would have to pay for the misdemeanor and this was a great what happened next.
    I loved the developing relationships and the conversations.
    Thank you for writing it.

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    1. Hi Jill. It was evident that Murdoch was not happy the brothers decided to take matters into their own hands. It would not have set well at all. This was a fun story to write. Thanks for the comment. I appreciate it.

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  4. This was a great story! Had to smile several times because of the fine humour. There were also tender moments like when Murdoch touches Scott’s hair and then thinks of Catherine and when Scott tells Murdoch that he remembers him on his 5th birthday. Thank you.

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    1. Caterina. I enjoyed writing this story very much. The characters had their humorous side, especially the brothers. I’m glad I was able to make you smile. Thanks so much for your nice comments. I really appreciate it.

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  5. Really enjoyed this story. I was worried til the end that the boys would be in prison for violating their probation. I still think they’d wind up in violation if not for their injuries. The story made me laugh.

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    1. Thanks Tonya. The boys did get by pretty easy for stopping a train. I always thought the misdemeanor excuse was ridiculous. Glad it made you laugh and thanks for letting me know.

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  6. Ronnie, I was so delighted when I saw you had written a new story, sat down and read it in one sitting. It’s been too long, my friend! Your story was amazingly wonderful as always. You are also still and always be, one of my favorite writers. Thank you!

    Like

    1. Vickie. How nice to hear your comments and thank you for reading. Your kind words are beyond encouraging. Thank you.

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  7. Loved your story. This is an excellent episode tag. So much to enjoy, the dialogs between the family, Murdoch trying to control his boys, their desire to help their friend, Scott trying to avoid bumping Murdoch, the humor, etc.. I haven’t watched this episode in a while. I guess it’s time to watch it again.

    Thanks for writing such a good fun story! You are such a talented writer. I wish I had inherited my father’s writing ability but alas not me.

    Like

    1. Hi Jane. Thank you. Those last lines from Murdoch as the family left the Poe’s homestead always intrigued me. I think that was one time Murdoch was really upset with his sons and who wouldn’t be for pulling over a train. There would surely have been consequences. Thanks so much for your words. They are appreciated.

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  8. Love this story so much I read it twice! There’s a real warmth between Murdock and his sons. You can feel how much they appreciate their family. Especially like when Johnny is teasing Murdock — made me smile. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks Carol. I’m so glad you liked this little story. With Murdoch’s last words in that episode I wondered how he was going to take care of the Misdemeanor. Thanks for letting me know you liked it.

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