Running to his bedroom, Scott pulled his shirt off over his head; he was in a rush to clean up for the evening meal. He had about five minutes to wash up and change clothes before the appointed hour of family dining and bonding. Even though Murdoch didn’t hold the reins on Scott as tightly as he did Johnny, the Lancer patriarch still expected his entire family to be on time for supper.
Normally, Scott was the punctual son, but this day had been one disagreeable incident after another beginning with his little brother at breakfast. Despite the trouble during the morning meal, thoughts of Johnny still brought an indulgent smile to his lips. God he loved having a kid brother.
In a petulant and peevish mood due to be roused from his bed by their father, Johnny had decided to square off with Scott over whose turn it was to clear out the creeks in the northern pastures. Murdoch had settled the argument by ordering Johnny to pick out a crew and get to it. Even though he had won the battle, Scott knew that the war was far from over. He could see the promised vengeance in his little brother’s eyes.
Tucking his clean shirt in, Scott headed for the stairs; suddenly he stopped and executed a precision military about face. An odd feeling assailed him, his eyes narrowed in suspicion, something was amiss but he couldn’t quite decide what. He didn’t have time to inspect his bedroom now but planned to come back as soon as he could excuse himself and make a more thorough inspection. Shaking off the eerie feeling, Scott dashed to the stairs and took them at a dangerous rate of speed, barely sliding into his place at the table before the grandfather clock chimed the sixth hour.
“Cuttin’ it kinda close there, aren’t you, Brother?” Johnny asked grinning, obviously tickled to be able to point out his brother’s near tardiness.
Not about to concede defeat, Scott quickly countered. “Not as often as you, my dear baby brother.”
Johnny frowned and huffed, just the response that Scott was hoping for.
“Boys!” Murdoch admonished. “It’s time to say grace.”
Murdoch watched as his two boys locked eyes, each determined not to be the first to look away. “NOW!” he bellowed. Reluctantly a blond and brunet head bowed as Murdoch said the blessing over the bounty that was spread before them.
Once the amens had been said, the food began to pass around the table. Murdoch noticed that Johnny had managed to avoid spooning a portion of the peas and carrots onto his own plate. It didn’t escape him that the boy had piled extra helpings of fried chicken and mashed potatoes though with two large slices of the fresh baked bread. He smiled to himself thinking, I’ll remedy that.
“Teresa, please pass the peas and carrots, dear.” When the bowl was passed to him he put a generous portion on his younger son’s plate. Before Johnny could protest Murdoch quickly informed him, “I expect you to eat every bite. No argument! There’s blueberry cobbler for dessert and you won’t be enjoying it if you haven’t cleaned your plate.”
Murdoch knew Johnny’s sweet tooth wouldn’t let the undesired vegetables stand in the way of a sugary treat. Sure enough the peas and carrots were soon disappearing only because he wanted to get them down as quickly as he could, masking the taste of them with lots of fluffy potatoes and gravy. Murdoch was determined to make his son appreciate other vegetables besides potatoes. Sam had warned him that Johnny badly needed a well rounded diet including fresh vegetables and fruit. Fruit was easy, especially if baked in some recipe with added sugar but vegetables could sometimes be a battle.
The conversation went pleasantly enough with the topics consisting of progress reports of the days assigned chores, the new litter of kittens that Teresa had found in the hayloft, Maria’s new batch of pickles, and Murdoch’s decision to go ahead and purchase the new bull he had been looking at for the last couple of weeks.
During the meal, Scott noticed his little brother kept looking at him from time to time as if he was trying to make his mind up about something. Suddenly it occurred to him that maybe Johnny might have something to do with the feeling he had that something was amiss in his bedroom. As soon as the meal was over, Scott excused himself explaining he wanted to get a book from his room.
Johnny stood and watched as his brother hurried from the room and without any prompting he gathered his plate, glass and utensils and headed for the kitchen. Teresa and Maria looked at each other puzzled at the boy’s actions since he rarely cleared his place at the table unless prompted by his father. When the ladies entered the kitchen a minute later, the young man was nowhere to be seen, but his plate had been scraped clean and laid on the counter with his utensils and glass placed neatly on top.
Quietly creeping up the back stairs, Johnny listened for his brother as he went. In the hallway he looked around to make sure he hadn’t been detected before quickly making his way to his room. He wondered if Scott had been the culprit that had been messing around in his room.
He didn’t have a lot in his room to be disturbed but the few items he did possess had definitely been handled. The brush and comb he kept on his dresser were still there but their positions had been switched around. He had first noticed the disturbance when he came in from clearing the creeks.
Johnny was a creature of habit due to his life as a gunfighter before coming home to Lancer. He always kept the brush on the left side and the comb on the right. Not only had they been switched but his shaving mug and razor had been moved to the back of the water bowl and pitcher. He always kept it to the right of the bowl.
Teresa or one of the other girls that helped keep the house clean usually dusted and cleaned his room two times a week but always put his things back exactly the way they found them. When he went come down for dinner he cornered Teresa and asked her if there were any new girls helping in the house. She had denied any new help had been hired. After finding out that Johnny was concerned that someone had been in his room she assured him that she had been the only one who had entered his room, and then admonished him for kicking his socks under the bed causing her to have to get on her hands and knees to retrieve them.
Johnny gave her an absent minded apology and went in search of his brother. Unfortunately, Scott hadn’t made it back to the ranch yet. Now he eased the door to his room open; he peeked in, sure he would find his brother rummaging around. It had occurred to him during supper that maybe Scott was trying to play a joke on him when he caught him watching him during supper.
The room was empty and with a quick glance about, it appeared that nothing else had been disturbed. Johnny was a little puzzled because if his brother had been the culprit then his excuse to go to his room would have been a great opportunity to do further mischief.
He figured that Scott was trying to teach him a lesson for the argument they had at breakfast. Truthfully Johnny was surprised that his older brother would stoop to this level, a long lecture pointing out how childish he had been was more his brother’s style. To be honest this was the sort of thing Johnny usually pulled himself.
Swiftly moving to the door when he heard movement coming from Scott’s room, Johnny contemplated whether he should confront his older brother or wait and try to catch him in the act. Deciding on the later, Johnny stealthily tiptoed back down the hall and descended the stairs to the kitchen. Needing an excuse for disappearing, Johnny decided to head to the barn and check on Barranca.
~*~ L ~*~A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott stood dead center of his room and turned in a complete circle, his blue-grey eyes intently studying his room. Everything seemed to be just as he had left it. Maybe the picture of him in his uniform might be slightly off. His many bottles of cologne were in perfect order but also seemed to be setting a little further to the right side than he remembered. He was pretty sure his little brother was responsible for the subtle disturbances in his bedroom. It certainly was Johnny’s style. The boy was clever with his mischief seldom slipping and giving any warning that a prank was about to be pulled… until it was too late. Scott reasoned that Johnny would know that any kind of shifting of his things would not go unnoticed and this was merely a prelude to worse things to come.
Scott decided to question the house staff before he confronted his oh so skillful baby brother just in case they had been cleaning in his room. The chances of that being the reason were slim since by his calculations they wouldn’t be cleaning until tomorrow if they continued to follow the schedule they had been using since he first came to Lancer. Maria was adamant about making sure the rooms upstairs were given a thorough spit and polish twice a week.
Scott shook his head at the idea of it being any of the house staff. Maria would not tolerate anything not being replaced exactly as it was found. No, this little prank had Johnny written all over and it was just a matter of having patience before he was caught. The boy was just trying to get him back for losing the argument over who was going to clean out the creek beds. Well, Little Brother, you are playing with one of the big boys now and you are in for a rude awakening.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The newspaper rattled as Murdoch lowered it upon hearing his ward enter the room. “Teresa, have you seen the boys?”
“Not since we left the table. Scott did say he was going to his room to retrieve a book he started last night. That was a while ago though.” She frowned thinking he had been up there a long time for just a book.
“Did Johnny say anything about his plans for the evening?” Murdoch asked wondering where the devil his sons had wandered off to.
“No, he just picked up his plate and glass and took it into the kitchen and stacked them on the counter. He was gone when Maria and I went to finish cleaning up.” Teresa said.
Hearing, Scott moving around in his room, Murdoch looked towards the ceiling. It seemed to be taking him a long time to find his book and where was Johnny. He doubted the boy was looking for a book as well. Frowning at not knowing what his two sons were up too Murdoch decided to finish his paper before going to investigate.
~*~ L ~* A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
With a distracted look on his face, Johnny scratched Barranca behind his ears as the palomino ate the apple he had cut up for him. “Something’s going on, Amigo, and I think that sneaky brother of mine is behind it.” Pausing to pucker his lips and tap them with his index finger, he reflected, “Scott got all pissy over that argument we had this morning and is trying to get me back. Don’t know why he’s all mad cause if anyone should be gettin’ even it should be me. I’m the one who got the privilege of clearing out the damn creeks.” Johnny continued to pamper his horse for a few minutes longer, the action calming him some. He didn’t want to go back into the house mad. If Scott was responsible for the prank, Johnny didn’t want to let on that he was number one on the suspect list.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott walked into the great room empty handed which didn’t go unnoticed by Teresa or his father.
“Couldn’t you find your book, son?” Murdoch asked.
“Huh? Oh…” Scott looked at his bare hand in confusion like he expected the book to just suddenly appear. Of course it didn’t and he knew he should come up with an explanation. “I thought maybe I would play a game of chess with Johnny instead.”
Scott looked around and noticed his brother was absent. “Where is Johnny?” he asked as he gazed up at the ceiling.
“I don’t know………” Murdoch began answering only to have Scott run from the room and back up the stairs taking them two at a time. Looking at Teresa, Murdoch’s mouth dropped open in confusion over Scott’s behavior.
Scott reached his room and flung the door open yelling, “Aha!” The room was empty and Scott felt slightly foolish for lunging into a vacant room ready to confront his brother with his foolishness.
Murdoch was still staring at the spot his oldest son had been standing in before he charged upstairs when Johnny strolled in from the front door.
Noting with a quick observation that Scott was missing, Johnny inquired, “You seen Scott, Murdoch?”
“He was here a second ago asking about you. When he noticed you were absent he charged back upstairs… Johnny, come back here!” Murdoch bellowed as he watched his youngest son head for the stairs in the same fashion as his older brother. “What in the hell is going on?”
Johnny headed straight for his room and barged in, certain he would find his brother hiding and moving his things around. The room was empty and nothing had been touched since he had left it just a few minutes ago. Confused, Johnny backed out of the room and backed straight into his brother, almost scaring him out of his boots.
“Geez, Scott! What are you doing lurkin’ around up here? Damn near scared me to death,” Johnny admonished his brother.
“I could ask you the same. Where have you been John?” Scott demanded, eyeing Johnny suspiciously.
“I was in the barn checkin’ on Barranca. You didn’t answer my question Brother,” Johnny retorted, jabbing Scott in the chest with an accusatory finger.
“If it’s any of your business I was looking for my book.” Scott raised his empty hand, palm up.
Johnny smirked at the fact that there was nothing in Scott’s hand. “You lose your book there, Boston?”
“No, I didn’t lose the book, I simply changed my mind. I thought a game of chess with my baby brother would be more stimulating.” Scott smirked; using the term baby brother had the effect he was hoping for.
“I ain’t no baby,” Johnny grumbled.
Scott ignored the reply and with his hand moving in a sweeping motion towards the stairs, he said, “Shall we?”
Johnny stood for a second longer glaring at Scott wanting to wipe that smirk off his face but he turned towards the stairs without saying a word and preceded him down the stairs.
As the boys walked into the room, Murdoch looked up from his paper and asked. “Have you two finished with your game of Hide and Seek?”
Confused by their father’s sarcastic question both sons mumbled answers that were really not meant to be heard.
For the next hour Scott and Johnny played a game of chess. Scott sat on the edge of the couch while Johnny sat opposite on the floor with the board sitting between them on the table.
Ensconced in a wing back chair, Teresa and mended one pair of white socks after another fussing about how a certain Lancer son seemed to always come up with holes in them. Murdoch was seated in his favorite chair enjoying his pipe while watching his sons compete against each other. Jelly was working on repairing tack that had become worn, smiling as he observed Scott and Johnny. He noticed that when one was studying the board the other was studying his brother. Something was going on between the two young men he was sure of it.
Scott seemed to be taking an unusual amount of time making his next move. “You gonna’ make a move tonight or what?” Johnny snapped.
“I’m carefully considering my options, if you don’t mind, so please don’t rush me.” Scott patiently replied.
A minute later Johnny once again complained. “Scott, I’m growing roots here. Will you move for Pete’s sake!”
Murdoch could see that an argument was about to erupt prompting him to step in to defuse it quickly before heated words were exchanged.
“Boys, time for bed.”
“Why?” Johnny looked at the clock noting it was only a few minutes before eight. “It’s still early and we ain’t finished our game thanks to Scott taking forever to make each move.”
“Now wait a minute. Just because I don’t toss my men around the board like you doesn’t make it my fault.” Scott protested.
“Boys! I said it’s time to go to bed and I don’t want to hear another word. You’re both so tired you’re fussing like small children,” Murdoch chastised.
Johnny and Scott glared at each other for another few seconds, finally Scott, who was always the diplomat, looked away first and apologized to his father and Teresa.
“I’m sorry for being so disagreeable. Perhaps you’re right. I’m feeling tired and bed sounds inviting. Good night, everyone.” Scott rose and quietly made his way to the stairs.
Johnny reached for the case that housed the chess set and began putting the game away when his father reached out and touched his shoulder speaking softly but firmly. “Go on to bed, Johnny. I’ll put away the chess set.”
Johnny stood up saying. “Yes, Sir. Goodnight Teresa, Murdoch.” He yawned as he walked away without another word.
“Something is going on with those two,” Murdoch said as he finished putting away the chess game.
“I’ve noticed they both seem to be acting out of character. Johnny asked me today if anyone had been in his room. Then tonight he picked up his plate and glass without being asked.” Teresa said as she folded the last pair of socks.
“Maybe after they get a good night’s rest their attitudes will improve.” Murdoch said. “I think we should all go to bed. Good night, Darling.”
“Good night. I’ll see you in the morning.” Teresa leaned down as she passed her guardian’s chair and kissed him on the cheek.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Upstairs, Scott sat by his window staring out into the dark, his book lying unopened in his lap. He got up after a while and began inspecting everything in the room, memorizing each item and their placement. He couldn’t prove anything because the changes had been so subtle. Well, Little Brother, you will have to be extremely clever from here on because I’m going to be right on your butt.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny stood and stared at the brush and comb sitting on his dresser. He was impressed with Scott. It still made him wonder just how his brother had managed to get into his room in order to play his little trick. Both of them had ridden out at the same time and he had returned long before Scott that evening. In fact, he remembered that Scott had been a huge hurry because he was so late. He didn’t think that his brother had ridden back just to play a trick on him since it would have taken too much time. Maybe it wasn’t Scott. Still who else would want to play tricks on him? It just had to be Scott.
Finally, Johnny decided to turn in. He was tired but wouldn’t admit it to anyone. He had been so mad that he had taken his frustration out on the work hoping to be in a better mood when he got home. It had worked until he discovered his things had been moved around.
Stripping, Johnny slipped between the sheets and tried to relax. Sighing softly a few minutes later, he got up and put the hated nightshirt on. It was an ongoing battle between him and Murdoch, who insisted he wear the irritating garment during the cooler months of the year.
If it was just his father who was so adamant about wearing the stupid thing he could have waged a better battle but Maria and Sam were always on his case with the excuse he was susceptible to colds. Maybe he was but wearing that damn nightshirt wasn’t gonna’ make any difference as far as he was concerned. Once he was properly attired for bed, Johnny climbed back between the covers and settled down.
He was on the edge of slipping off to sleep when he thought he heard the laughter of a child. He was too far gone to want to do anything about it and decided that it was probably Scott trying to make him think some spirit was messing around in his room. His last thought before falling into the deep dream stage was he would get back at his brother if it was the last thing he ever did.
~*~ L~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
For three days Murdoch watched his son’s as their behavior seemed to become more and more bizarre. It seemed that when one brother was out of the sight of the other the game of chase would commence. It was taking a toll on them physically as well as mentally. They both looked as if they weren’t getting any sleep and during breakfast more coffee was being consumed than food.
Murdoch was at his wit’s end wondering what to do about them. All his talking and often yelling was having no effect at all. He had just about decided that he was going to have to follow up on that threat of taking both boys to the barn and have a more aggressive discussion on their behavior.
Thus far all he had managed to do was send them to bed like cranky children when he saw them squaring off with each other. He knew a lot of their problem was they were fatigued but the extra time in bed didn’t seem to be having any kind of effect on them. It seemed each day they grew more tired and frustrated.
Murdoch had not really planned to make nightly visits to his boy’s rooms when they had come home to Lancer but with Johnny being shot he had started checking on him to be sure he was resting ok. It soon became a habit and had extended to Scott as well. He enjoyed checking on his sons and watching them sleep. Often he would find himself beside their bed unable to resist pulling their covers up and tucking them in. He had been denied that privilege when they were babies growing up and as long as there was no fuss from them he intended to continue.
Entering their rooms, Murdoch had expected to find them suffering from bad dreams or in the throes of restless sleep but both seemed to be slumbering peacefully. He was stumped as to why they were so tired every morning.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Just when Murdoch was about to take his sons to task for their behavior, things calmed down and it seemed that they had settled the problem between them. Once again peace seemed to settle over the hacienda and the days were pretty much back to normal. For the next several days the boys were laughing and teasing each other as if nothing had happened.
The boys hadn’t found any more strange occurrences happening in their rooms and Johnny hadn’t heard the laughter late at night for several days. He assumed Scott had grown weary of his little joke and had given up on it.
Scott had figured the same. He knew that Johnny probably had grown tired and was plotting his next caper against another unsuspecting victim. This close to Halloween more than likely it was going to be Jelly. Johnny had played some pretty elaborate pranks on the beloved handy man and it had almost been the undoing of both Jelly and Johnny once Murdoch had gotten his hands on the boy.
He was glad that things were getting back to normal. He had missed the teasing over the chess games and the pleasant conversations at the evening meals. He had been Johnny’s victim before but never had it been so vindictive. It was also unusual for Johnny to retaliate this long over something like losing an argument with his brother.
Unfortunately it didn’t last very long. Johnny walked in to his room and immediately he noticed things were not right. He spotted the drawer to his bedside table open. He walked over and there among the handkerchiefs, which Maria insisted he keep, was his brush and comb.
He knew that Maria and Teresa would never put them there because they knew he liked his things kept in their place. It wasn’t their style to be playing games anyway. The only answer he could come up with was it had to be Boston starting up again. The question was why. He couldn’t understand why Scott was rekindling their feud, but one thing he was sure of, his sneaky brother was going to slip up and Johnny was going to catch him in the act.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott stripped off his shirt and began soaping a rag to wash up. It had been unusually warm today and all he wanted to do was wash away the dirt and the sweat from his body. He would liked to have had a proper bath but there was no time before dinner so he would have to just settle for sponging off. He had just scrubbed his face and was reaching for a towel when he noticed it. The bottles of cologne had been totally rearranged on the dresser.
Scott wasn’t such a fanatic that he expected everything to be just as he left it but he had bottles of cologne that cost more and used them on those really special occasions when he was trying to impress a certain young lady who might have caught his fancy. The less expensive bottles he kept in the front because they were used more.
He stopped and looked around the room and noticed that some of his personal things that he treasured had also been moved. The picture of him and Johnny was now sitting on the bedside table instead of the small round table by the chair. He had been reading a book and had left it by the bed and now it was lying on the floor next to the wardrobe. Johnny, he thought. Only why would his little brother start this nonsense all over again. The boy rarely held a grudge and it was totally out of character for him to keep up this type of prank.
Scott was angry and determined not to be a victim any longer. He was going to catch Johnny in the act, and then haul his sorry butt to their father and let Murdoch deal with his youngest son’s shenanigans.
Quickly, Scott finished cleaning up and grabbed a shirt on his way out the door. As he stood outside in the hallway he glared at his brother’s closed door while he finished buttoning his shirt. He was tempted to barge in and confront the boy but he just didn’t feel like fighting before dinner. There would be plenty of time to deal with Johnny later.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch watched his two sons as they ate their supper. Both boys seemed lost in their own world and the only conversation was when Murdoch asked for reports on the work that had been assigned that day. Teresa tried to engage the boys in small talk but they only gave one or two word answers and after awhile she too gave up and ate the rest of her meal in silence.
Murdoch noticed the glaring had resumed as well. They had locked eyes and seemed to be in a starring contest, neither willing to give in. He sighed as he realized that they were once again feuding and he wasn’t going to tolerate anymore.
After the meal was over and Teresa had left for the kitchen with a load of dishes, Murdoch ordered his boys to join him in the Great Room. When they both sat and glared at each other instead of getting up he bellowed. “Now!”
Reluctantly they followed their father knowing that he was about to chew their ears. Hopefully that was all he was going to chew.
Pointing to the couch Murdoch said, “Sit!” Both boys sat down keeping a good distance between them.
“I don’t have any idea what is going on between you two but it stops now. I’m not going to go through this again. Whatever the problem is, fix it. Do I make myself clear?” Murdoch didn’t yell but he put it in a way that was clear that he was not going to tolerate any more of their foolishness.
Scott looked at his father and simply said, “Understood, Sir.”
Johnny mumbled , “Yes, Sir.”
“If you will excuse me I think I will retire to my room and read. I’ll see you in the morning.” Scott stood and left the room.
Johnny sat for a moment pouting but suddenly jumped up and announced, “I’m tired. Think I’m gonna’ go to bed too. Night, Pa.” He excused himself and ran after his brother.
Not sure he had actually gotten through, Murdoch went to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a generous amount of Glenlivet and took a generous swallow thinking to himself. I’m getting too old for this crap!
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was up early, dressed and ready to go downstairs, which was unusual since it usually took a second threat from his father to get him out of bed and ready for breakfast. He waited until he heard his brother’s door open and felt it would be safe to make his way down to breakfast. He wasn’t about to leave his room until he knew Scott was on his way downstairs. No way was he going to leave his sneaky brother up here alone so he could pull some more of his pranks.
When he opened his door he practically ran right into Scott. He was surprised to find his brother leaning against the wall opposite his door waiting for him. “I see you’re ready for breakfast on time for a change, Little Brother.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Johnny asked sarcastically.
“I would have thought maybe you might need a little extra rest with all the childish pranks you’ve been pulling lately,” Scott accused his brother.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Johnny asked, angry at Scott for talking in riddles.
“I’m talking about all the sneaky plotting and planning you’ve been doing and your childish antics,” Scott snapped, his own temper rising.
“My childish antics? Why you….” Johnny lunged at his brother only to be brought up short when a huge hand caught him by the collar and hauled him back.
Murdoch still had Johnny by the collar as he headed downstairs dragging his youngest with him. Once down stairs, he pushed the boy down into his chair none too lightly. He indicated with his head for Scott to find his own chair and sit.
He poured himself a cup of coffee before sitting himself and took small sips. He never said a word but the boys knew better than to continue their argument. Breakfast was eaten in tense silence. It wasn’t until everyone had eaten their fill that Murdoch finally spoke, then only to give the boys their chore list for the day.
As soon as his father assigned him his work for the day, Johnny got up and left to hitch the wagon and load it with the tools that would be needed for him and Eduardo to use mending the east fence line. He was glad that he and Scott were going to be working on opposite ends of the ranch. He knew that if his brother opened his mouth one more time he was probably going to put his fist in the middle of his face. He took up the reigns and as fast he dared he headed out to the work site leaving Scott and his frustrations behind.
Murdoch tentatively planned to send the boys to work alone on the east fence line doing repairs. He hoped that whatever was between them could be ironed out while they repaired the fence. Unfortunately, Scott had to finish up with some surveying for a new fence on the west side so the boys were sent in opposite directions. Hopefully by the time they returned they would be too tired to fight or decided it wasn’t worth fussing over.
All day Johnny pushed himself hard repairing parts of the fence that had been broken down by cattle or age. The only time the boy stopped was when he needed water. He didn’t even take a break to eat lunch but chose to continue pounding out his frustration on the fence posts and nails that held the devil wire in place.
An older hand named Eduardo was sent to help the boy out and no matter how hard he tried the older vaquero couldn’t make the younger man slow down and take a break. At lunch, Eduardo ate while shaking his head when Johnny refused to even stop to eat one of the sandwiches that Teresa had packed for their lunch.
“Come on, Niño, you must stop and eat something. Your papi would not be very happy if you risk your health over a fence,” Eduardo urged Johnny.
“I’m fine. I just want to finish this section and get on with the next. If we can finish up early then we can get back to the house early,” Johnny stated, stopping briefly to swipe the sweat plastered hair from his forehead. He was determined to finish and get to the house before Scott returned from his surveying job.
All day Johnny thought about the tricks his brother had been pulling on him and the more he thought the madder he got. The madder he got the harder he pushed himself until by mid afternoon the job was done and the only thing left for him and Eduardo to do was go back to the ranch.
They packed up the tools they had used and headed back to the hacienda with Johnny at the reins. He was even pushing the horses hard trying to make it back in record time. Finally, Eduardo put his hand over the boy’s and with a firm but calm voice he insisted that Johnny let him drive the rest of the way.
“You push too hard, the horses need to slow down. I’ll drive the rest of the way home.” Johnny didn’t argue but settled back pulling his hat down over his eyes. He knew he was being unreasonable but his anger kept fueling his actions.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny and Eduardo were finally in view of the Lancer arch much to the younger man’s relief. It was short lived, however, when he spotted his brother heading towards it just ahead of them. Johnny quickly gathered the reins from Eduardo, snapping the lines he sped the team up in order to catch his brother. He didn’t want Scott to have any time to get up to any more of his shenanigans. The horses were going way too fast, breaking one of the cardinal rules laid down by Murdoch, no horses were to be going any faster than a trot whether they were being rode or pulling a wagon when passing under the arch into the ranch yard. Johnny forgot or simply chose to ignore the directive in his haste to make sure Scott didn’t have a chance to sneak up to his room.
Murdoch watched his boys coming in and decided he would greet them. He was a bit surprised to see both of them returning this early as their assignments usually would have taken at least a couple of hours longer in his estimation. Scott came in just a bit faster than he usually approved but he decided to let it go since he wanted nothing but peace this evening for a change.
Scott handed the reins to his horse off to one of the hands, anxious to get to his room before his little brother had a chance to attempt more of his childish pranks. Just as he ran by his father he heard the older man speak to him.
“In a minute, sir,” Scott called as he hurried into the house and up the stairs.
Johnny pulled to a stop right up in front of the house where his father was standing. Without a word to Eduardo he jumped down, dirt puffing up around his boots from the impact. He was headed into the house when his father reached out to grasp his arm.
“Johnny!” bellowed a very frustrated Murdoch Lancer.
‘I gotta go, Murdoch!” Johnny pulled free from his father’s grip and climbed as fast as he could up the stairs yelling at his brother.
“Scott, you better not be in my room.”
Scott came out of his room yelling at his brother in kind. “The same goes for you, baby brother. Your childish tricks are getting really old.”
“Damn it to Hell!” Murdoch turned and stomped up the stairs after his two idiot sons. He was going to put a stop to this nonsense once and for all. By the time he had reached the boys they were in a full blown shouting match.
“My childish behavior! You think movin’ my stuff around and hidin’ some of it from me is not childish?” Johnny shouted back at his brother.
“I’m sure I don’t have a clue as to what you are talking about. All I know is you have been sneaking into my room moving things around trying to make me think I’m going crazy. Well it’s not working, baby brother!”
They were about to come to blows when Murdoch reached them. “Boys!” he barked; the veins on his throat engorged and blue from his ire. “Downstairs… both of you!”
Startled by the thunderous boom from their father, they clamped their mouths shut and stared at the irate man. Seeing the furry on his face the boys decided to do as they were told without another word.
Once inside the Great Room, Murdoch pointed to the two chairs that sat in front of his desk and ordered, “Sit.”
The boys planted their backsides in the chairs they had come to refer to as the Butt Chewing Chairs of Despair! It seemed every time one of them got called on the carpet, they found themselves sitting in one of these chairs waiting for their father to unleash his fury on them. Johnny had the misfortune of having occupied the Chairs of Despair more than Scott but the older brother had managed to make it to the chair a fair amount of times.
For some time Murdoch stared out of the picture window behind his desk. He knew to wait until he had his temper under control. Dealing with his two sons was going to require patience, if he was to get to the bottom of their feud.
“Murdoch…, I mean Pa,” Johnny timidly corrected.
“Not another word, John,” Murdoch stated firmly without turning around.
Johnny shot a worried look at his brother, who shook his head and placed his finger to his lips warning him to remain quiet and wait for their father to address them in his own time.
In no mood to be bossed by his older brother, Johnny silently mouthed off at him; making faces as well but was soon caught when Murdoch turned to face his delinquent sons.
“John! I’m this close to hauling you and your brother out to the barn to discuss this in a more aggressive manner.”
Johnny hung his head and began picking at his thumb, a nervous habit that no one had been able to break him from.
Murdoch studied his two sons sitting before him looking rather nervous. He rather enjoyed knowing they were intimidated by him; hoping that it would go a long way to ending their nonsense. He wasn’t sure if he could bring himself to follow through with a threat to the barn. Both boys were grown and had proven to be men in their own right. Well Scott had, but sometimes Murdoch had been sorely tempted to drag his youngest to the barn on several occasions.
Scott looked his father in the eye waiting for the reprimand he knew was coming. Johnny on the other hand kept his head down not willing to meet his father’s piercing glare.
After another minute, Murdoch sat down in his chair and cleared his throat. “I don’t know what all of this nonsense has been about but it’s over. Do you understand?” He stared at both boys expecting an answer.
“Yes, sir,” Scott quickly replied.
Murdoch sat patiently waiting for Johnny to comply as well. When he failed to do so in a timely manner, Murdoch addressed his youngest son directly. “I want an answer, John! Do you understand that all of this nonsense is over as of now?”
Johnny finally looked up at his father saying, “I don’t know if it’s over or not so how can I promise it is?” He shot a look at his older brother as he replied to his father.
“What are you talking about, Johnny?” Murdoch asked; his frustration showing in the nervous twitching of his right eye.
“I’m talkin’ about Scott going into my room and movin’ my stuff around tryin’ to mess with my head.” Johnny accused while glaring at his brother.
“Me? You’re the one who keeps sneaking into my room moving my personal things around and rearranging my dresser. I never thought you would hold a grudge this long,” Scott said with a look of disappointment that he hoped would appeal to his brother’s sense of fairness.
Johnny looked at his brother confused, “What grudge? What in the hell are you talkin’ about, Boston?” he asked not sure what Scott was referring too.
Pointing a finger at his older brother Johnny continued his tirade. “You’re the one who’s been sneakin’ into my bedroom hidin’ my stuff from me.”
The argument between the brothers was escalating out of control once again. Murdoch decided to stop it before it went any further. Putting two fingers in his mouth, he gave a shrill ear splitting whistle. “Enough of this!” he shouted.
The boys shut their mouths and sulked. Their arguing was getting them nowhere because each believed the other was guilty.
When the boys looked at their father the anger was evident in his face. His voice had a controlled menacing quality about it that made Johnny shiver.
“Johnny, have you been in your brother’s room?” he asked.
“No, Pa. Not without bein’ invited first,” he answered honestly.
“Scott, have you been in Johnny’s room?”
“No, sir, I have not. I might add that what he’s accusing me of is quite beneath me. I’m not prone to resorting to childish pranks. I much prefer to face my adversary face to face.” Scott replied.
“Me, too… what he said,” Johnny exclaimed; inclining his head towards his brother.
“So what you are saying is that neither of you have been making uninvited trips into the others room and rearranging items?” Murdoch clarified, tapping his desktop with a rigid finger.
“All I know is; I ain’t been in Scott’s room messin’ with his stuff. But someone has been in my room a couple of times and they keep hidin’ or movin’ my stuff around,” Johnny firmly insisted.
Scott studied his brother for a moment before he said, “If you haven’t been in my room and I’ve not been in your room, then that means someone else has been playing tricks.”
Murdoch looked at the boys and asked. “Are you sure you didn’t move things around yourself and just forget?” He knew it was unlikely, it seemed this time his boys were the victims of some of the pranks that always seemed to be going on.
“Why would I hide my brush in a drawer when I know I’m gonna’ need it when I clean up?” Johnny asked exasperated with the whole thing.
“Sir, I hardly think I would rearrange my dresser, and then forget,” Scott informed his father.
“Perhaps some of the women….” Before Murdoch could finish his conjecture both boys interrupted.
“I already asked Teresa,” Johnny replied.
Scott added, “I’ve made enquiries about new help but I was told that Maria and Teresa have been the only ones working on the second floor.”
Rubbing his face, Murdoch sighed. “Obviously someone is playing a trick on the both of you, more than likely someone you boys have targeted in the past and I’m not so sure they haven’t succeeded. You both are at each other’s throats. I want this fighting to stop. I’ll talk to Teresa and Maria and have them keep an eye out for anyone or anything suspicious. Now, not another word… do you understand?”
“Yes, sir, we understand. Don’t we, Johnny?” Scott nudged his brother.
“Yes, sir,” Johnny confirmed.
“You both need to go upstairs and clean up for supper. I suggest you put your heads together and try to figure out who is messing with you and stop fighting between yourselves.” I think Jelly is finally getting some payback. Murdoch went back to working on some papers on his desk, signaling the end of the discussion and telling Scott and Johnny they were dismissed.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny and Scott left quietly and walked up the stairs. Both lost in their own thoughts. When they reached their rooms, Scott turned and called his brother.
“Johnny, come in here for a minute. I want to talk with you.”
“About what?” Johnny asked suspiciously.
“What do you think?” Scott returned sarcastically.
Johnny looked at his brother for a moment and then preceded Scott into his room.
“Johnny, I want you to look me in the eye and answer me truthfully. Did you come into my room and rearrange my things?”
Johnny walked up to Scott and got right in his face. Tilting his head slightly he locked on to Scott’s gaze and answered with a solemn tone. “No, Scott. That just ain’t my style.”
Scott sighed with relief. “I didn’t think so but I wanted to be absolutely sure.” He smiled and invited Johnny to sit down on the bed with him.
“So if it ain’t you and it ain’t me then who do you think it is?” Johnny asked.
“I don’t know but I intend to find out. Whoever it is, will be in for a surprise himself.” Scott got up and stood looking at the things on his dresser.
“Johnny, you better go on and get ready for dinner. I believe we’ve made our father angry enough for the day. I don’t think he will tolerate either of us being late,” Scott warned his brother.
Johnny got up and went to the door. Before he opened it to leave he turned, “Scott, I’m sorry for accusin’ you. I should have known you wouldn’t do anythin’ like that.”
“I’m sorry too, Johnny. Don’t worry about it. We’ll figure it out. Now go on before you’re late,” Scott said.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
After supper the family retired to the Great Room. It was peaceful for a change and the tension was missing. The boys were playing chess for the first time since their squabble had begun. They were getting along fine but the usual bantering and teasing was missing. Teresa was busy sewing and mending clothes, most of them Johnny and Scott’s. Murdoch was reading the paper and watching the boys making sure they were not still harboring ill feelings towards each other.
By eight o’clock Murdoch decided to send them to bed. He had received reports that both boys had pushed themselves way too hard that day and the fact that they had managed to get back to the house several hours earlier than they were expected confirmed the reports. Eduardo had told the Patron that his youngest had not even stopped to eat lunch. Murdoch was not very happy about Johnny skipping a meal. Especially since he suspected it was so that he could get back to the house before his brother.
The concerned father watched as Johnny kept yawning and rubbing his eyes. It was a sure sign that the boy was bone tired. Scott was quiet and though he wasn’t yawning he looked as if he was about to fall asleep over the chess board. He also suspected that the boys had taken their frustrations with each other out on their chores. One thing about it, a lot of work had been accomplished during the time the boys had been feuding.
“Time for bed, boys,” Murdoch announced.
“What? It’s still early,” Johnny protested.
“Yes, it is but the two of you are dead on your feet. I’ve been told about how you have been working and not taking breaks. It’s not healthy and I’m not happy about it. You are both old enough to know how to take care of yourself and I expect you to take proper breaks,” Murdoch declared, shaking his head sagely, and then directed his next comment to Johnny, “and not skip meals.”
Johnny was about to make some retort when Scott reached over and took him by the arm. “Come on, little brother.” He stood up and pulled Johnny up with him. “I’m tired and I know you are too. We’ll both feel better after a good night’s sleep.”
They said their good nights to both Teresa and their father as they left the room.
Teresa replied, Good night, boys.”
“Good night, boys,” Murdoch echoed Teresa.
All the way up the stairs the boys remained quiet. Once they got to Johnny’s door, Scott reached over and opened it pushing his younger brother inside quickly. Placing a finger on his lips to forestall Johnny’s questions, he listened at the door for a minute to make sure no one was lurking about and listening. When he felt that they were truly alone he turned to Johnny and grinned.
“I know you don’t understand but I had to make sure that no one is listening. I want to talk with you before we retire for the night.” He indicated for Johnny to sit down on the bed while he took the chair and pulled it in front of his brother.
“We’ve established that we aren’t the ones playing these little tricks on each other. Now all we have to do is figure out who is responsible.” Scott said.
“Well it ain’t Murdoch, that’s for sure.” Johnny said. “He damn near took us out to the barn.” The thought of the discussion they would have had out there made Johnny subconsciously rub at his backside.
“No, it wasn’t Murdoch,” Scott answered thoughtfully. “What about Teresa? You haven’t upset her again, have you?” Scott looked at Johnny accusingly. He was always getting into it with their sister over one thing or another.
“No, we’ve been gettin’ along pretty good for a change. Besides, Murdoch and Maria both threatened our hides if we didn’t stop fussin’ over every little thing. I asked her and she swears she didn’t do it and that none of the other women have been up here,” Johnny said as he leaned back on the headboard making his self more comfortable.
“There’s no possibility that she’s denying playing these tricks in hopes of avoiding being reprimanded by Murdoch or Maria?” Scott wanted to be sure of her innocence.
“Nope, ‘cause I helped her clean out the chicken coop the other day and the day before that I repaired some of the rabbit cages for her.” Johnny grinned at Scott proud that he had been making a genuine effort to get along with Teresa. “Besides, she never gets mad at you and since you’re a victim too it wouldn’t be her. And another thing, I don’t think she’s sneaky enough to pull something like this off. She’s more of the squawk and tell kind,” Johnny informed his brother.
“I guess you’re right,” Scott replied thoughtfully. “It’s not really something she would think to do. Besides, she takes a lot of pride in how she keeps our rooms. I don’t think she would do anything that would take away from that.”
For a minute or two the brothers sat and thought about who could be responsible for the trickery that had them feuding. Suddenly the light went on for them both. “Jelly,” they said in unison.
“I bet he’s tryin’ to get back at us for last Halloween,” Johnny decided.
“Us? I didn’t have anything to do with it. You’re the one who nailed his table to the ceiling,” Scott reminded his brother; ruffling his hair.
“It was because of those stories you told us that gave me the idea. You know how you and those fraternity brothers of yours were always pullin’ stuff on the professors,” Johnny recalled, pausing to finger comb his hair. “Jelly was there when you were tellin’ us about it and he figures since you were the one who thought of it first, you’re just as guilty,” Johnny theorized.
Johnny started laughing as he thought of the way Jelly had come running out of his room tripping over Dewdrop.
“How did you ever get that table nailed up there by yourself?” Scott asked.
“It cost me a few beers but I found me two willin’ helpers and swore them to secrecy so they wouldn’t get into trouble,” Johnny said, remembering how he got Will and Gus to go along with his little plan with the promise of buying them all the beer they could drink the next Saturday night. They were perfect, since neither one of them could drink more than three or four apiece before they had to find someplace to sleep it off.
“How many times did you go in there and mess around with his stuff?” Scott asked trying to calculate how many days Jelly had left to really pull anything.
“I guess about five times. I tried to get in there a couple of times more but that damned goose kept soundin’ the alarm. It took me two tries before I figured out how to shut him up so I could sneak in there.”
“Jelly’s been in our rooms twice now and there’s still about three days before Halloween so I would bet a month’s wages he’s going to try something again.” Scott said thinking and smiling at the same time. A combination that Johnny liked since it usually meant Scott was up to something really sneaky and really good.
“What’s on your mind, Boston?” the youngest Lancer asked hopefully.
“In the morning we set a couple of traps. When Jelly enters the room to start his trickery again then he gets caught,” Scott revealed, clapping his hands and rubbing them together in anticipation.
“That sounds like a really good idea except for one thing, Boston, how will we know when he gets caught? We’ll likely be out on the ranch somewhere,” Johnny replied, leaning forward to thump his brother’s head with his middle finger.
“I’ll talk to Murdoch in the morning and suggest we take the day to make all those repairs that are stacking up around here. I’m pretty sure he’ll be glad to have us stay around the house and get caught up on Maria’s to do list,” Scott said.
“Ok, but we don’t really know if Jelly is the one responsible for all of this. He might be innocent,” Johnny suggested.
“If it’s not Jelly then who do you think it might be?” Scott asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe there’s a ghost in the house,” Johnny half-heartedly recommended.
“Well we shall find out for sure in the next few days.” Scott said as he rose to go to his own room. “Good night, little brother.”
“Night, big brother,” Johnny replied around a yawn.
The next morning the brothers got up early to set their traps. They didn’t want to be late for breakfast or risk getting into more trouble with their father.
Scott made the request for both he and Johnny to work close to the house that day so they could take care of the many repairs that had been piling up. Murdoch was more than glad to have the boys nearby so he could keep an eye on them and as a bonus the list of the little things that needed fixing would be seen to so that Maria and Teresa could stop harping about it. This way he didn’t have to pull a couple of hands off of more urgent chores and he could watch to be sure the tiff between them was finally settled.
All day Scott and Johnny worked around the barn repairing broken stall walls, putting new latches on some of the doors. The corral was now sporting a brand new gate and the troughs had been patched. Two pump handles had been repaired, one in the kitchen and one by the barn. Most of the hay for the winter had been stacked in the loft as well. It was amazing that they had managed to get so much done, however, because every thirty minutes or so one or the other would make a trip inside the house to check on the booby traps they had set.
Murdoch noticed that his sons were making a lot of trips inside and after the fourth trip his curiosity got the better of him. He tried to confront Scott on one of his forays inside but his oldest was in a hurry and put him off with a later sir as he ran up the stairs.
Since their father was starting to ask questions they didn’t want to answer the brothers decided to go in by the way of the kitchen. This went well for a couple of hours but finally Maria started chasing them out with her favorite weapon of choice a wooden spoon. It was close to lunch so they decided maybe they should wait until lunch before they checked again. After all it was only about an hour anyway and nothing had happened all morning much to their disappointment. They couldn’t resist, however, pausing once in a while to stare up at Johnny’s bedroom window.
Murdoch could hear Maria fussing in the kitchen but wasn’t sure what it was all about. When she and Teresa started putting lunch on the table she was still fussing about wayward Niños and tramping through her kitchen with muddy boots. He knew it could only be his boys causing her to squawk and fuss like a wet sitting hen.
He was beginning to think he was crazy. No, his sons were crazy. Their behavior for the last several days could only be described as bizarre. He decided he needed to have Sam come and check them over really well in the next couple of days. Something was going on with them and he wasn’t about to leave any stone unturned to get to the bottom of the problem.
That afternoon after lunch, Scott and Johnny decided in order to stay closer to their rooms they would tackle the things that Maria and Teresa had listed to be done in the house. They oiled hinges, repaired a couple of broken drawers for Maria, replaced some loose flooring on the back stairs, and made new cutting boards for the ladies to chop on. Once the smaller chores had been finished they decided to tackle the shelves Teresa had been asking for in her sewing room. For the rest of the afternoon things went smoothly and the only sound that could be heard inside the house was the hammering and sawing as the boys worked to please Teresa with the new shelves.
About three in the afternoon the peace was shattered by a high pitched scream, a thud, and then a long string of unlady like language in Spanish. Scott and Johnny took the stairs two at a time in their haste to see who the culprit was that had been playing tricks on them.
As they started up the stairs they heard their father behind them yelling, “What in the devil is going on here!”
Arriving at Johnny’s bedroom door they skidded to a halt in shock at what they saw. There sprawled on the floor was Maria, covered in mud. She had gone to Johnny’s room to gather laundry that he was forever leaving under his bed. When she opened the door a bucket that had been set precariously on top of the door tipped over, covering her from head to toe in mud. She had slipped in the muck, landing on her behind and the bucket fell next to her.
The boys were horrified at finding Maria on the floor, limbs spread in an awkward manner, instead of Jelly. They didn’t seem to have the ability to move or speak at first. Murdoch reached the scene and was just as mortified as his sons. He recovered quickly, however, and began to bark orders.
“You two help her up. Teresa, go with her to the bath house and help her get cleaned up.”
The boys quickly moved to get Maria up on her feet and as soon as she was steady Teresa helped her out of the room and to the bathhouse, nodding her head in agreement to Maria’s fussing about boys.
“You two… downstairs now!” Murdoch demanded his face beet red with anger. Just to make sure his youngest didn’t get lost he grabbed him by the back of his collar and began marching him towards the stairs, glancing back to make sure Scott was following close behind.
Once Murdoch had deposited Johnny in one of the chairs in front of his desk he indicated with his finger for Scott to sit as well. Inhaling so deeply his nostrils flared with each breath, Murdoch turned to the picture window and once again stared out, stalling in order to give his self time to control his temper. He was so close to carrying out his threat of a visit to the barn. Taking several more deep breaths and counting to a hundred very slowly he worked to gain some calm before facing his two reprobate sons.
Scott sat straight in his chair staring straight ahead while Johnny slumped in his chair; keeping his head down the whole time. He glanced at his blond brother from time to time, taking comfort in knowing he was not the only one in trouble this time.
It seemed like forever and yet too soon when Murdoch turned to face the boys. He stood and watched them for a second and even though the situation was serious he couldn’t help but find humor as he watched his grown sons squirming in their chairs. It was a prank he would have expected out of Johnny but he was surprised at Scott. His oldest usually exercised more common sense and was not as prone to pulling pranks.
When Murdoch finally did speak it was in a quiet yet chilling tone that revealed just how angry he truly was. “I know there is probably a perfectly good explanation as to why you rigged a bucket full of mud over your door, John.” Murdoch addressed his youngest son. It was after all his room where the incident occurred.
Johnny looked up at his father and gulped. When he opened his mouth to explain nothing would come out. Panic set in and he looked to his brother for help. Scott realized Johnny was in trouble and decided he would explain since he was just as guilty.
Clearing his throat, Scott began with an apology. “We’re sorry, sir, that Maria was a victim of our misguided attempt at catching a prankster in this house.”
Murdoch frowned when Scott admitted to trying to catch someone with their little booby trap. He wondered what and who the boys were referring to. “Exactly what are you talking about and who do you think is pulling these pranks?” He asked
“I’ll try to explain so you will understand some of our actions for the last few days.” Said Scott.
“Please do.” Murdoch stood folding his arms in front of him. He could hardly wait to hear his son’s explanation.
“It began when Johnny and I noticed that things in our room had been disturbed. As you know already, at first we suspected each other. I assumed he was trying to get back at me for the argument we had over clearing the creeks. He assumed the same of me as well. Not knowing that the same thing was happening to the other we silently blamed each other. So after you intervened and we realized we were both victims, we joined forces to the capture the fiend.”
Johnny listened as Scott tried to clarify what had been going the last several days. His brother was very good at explaining things and if anybody could get their father to understand it would be Scott. As his older brother continued to relay all that had happened to them, Johnny noticed that Murdoch’s expression had gone from tolerating to concern. In fact, at one point the older man turned pale. Johnny wondered if he was getting sick.
Murdoch listened closely as Scott tried to explain all the strange things that had been happening. He waited but his son never mentioned hearing a child’s laughter. He hoped he was wrong after all it had been several years since anything had happened. The last incident, in fact, had been when Teresa was just a child of around nine reporting that she had seen a little girl about her age playing in the upstairs hallway and wondered who she was. Murdoch had dismissed it then hoping that there would be no need to explain any further.
Now here he was listening to his children reporting mischief in their rooms. He had no intention of revealing what he thought it might be. His sons would have him committed for sure if he tried. When Scott had finished explaining Murdoch cleared his throat and sat down again not sure he had the strength to stand any longer.
“You two go upstairs and clean up Johnny’s room, and then clean up yourselves. It’ll be time for dinner soon and I don’t want either of you being late. Do I make myself clear?”
Before Johnny or Scott could acknowledge their father’s request, another loud scream echoed from above. Murdoch started to rise from his chair mumbling, “What the hell now?” Just as he rounded his desk he noticed that both of his sons were just sitting there with heads down. Realization dawned and he asked, “Another booby trap, I assume.” When he didn’t get a response he bellowed, “Up stairs NOW!”
As if the hounds of Hell were hot on their tails both boys sprinted for the stairs and rushed to Scott’s room. Just as they knew they would find her, there sat Teresa on the floor covered in mud, the same as Maria had been just minutes earlier.
Maria arrived mere seconds after the men and when she saw Teresa sitting in the floor covered in the same mud as she had been she began wielding her wooden spoon; catching each Lancer son on the bottom.
The brothers struggled to aid Teresa to her feet while the little Mexican spitfire was popping their bottoms; eliciting hisses and yelps. She didn’t stop her assault until the poor girl was up and moving towards the door. Only then did Maria put away her spoon. She reached for the poor girl and began to speak in a comforting manner as she led Teresa to the bath house to clean up.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
It took about an hour for Scott and Johnny to clean the mud out of their rooms. It took longer to get Teresa to talk to them. She was not in a very forgiving mood and chose to ignore them when they tried to make amends.
Once the bedrooms were spotless they went to clean up themselves. Both boys needed a bath and while they were heating water for the tubs they discussed their failure to capture their allusive prankster.
“I don’t think it is Jelly. After all the stunts you pulled on him last year, if he did want to seek revenge he would have jumped at every opportunity,” Scott rationalized.
“It could just be we were too busy checkin’ to see if we had caught someone and he didn’t have a chance,” Johnny countered.
“Maybe, but I doubt it. I think something else is going on and Murdoch has an idea what it is.” Scott began to take off his clothes and pile them neatly in a corner of the room.
“Yeah, ‘cause he got real pale at one point while you were tellin’ him about the way stuff was getting moved around.” Johnny flung his muddy clothes all over the room leaving them where they landed
For a few minutes the brothers just relaxed in their hot baths thinking about the events that had happened in the last several days. Someone was playing jokes on them both and they were no closer to finding out who it was than when it all began days before.
After soaking in silence for a while Johnny decided to make a confession to his brother. “Scott, I need to tell you something.”
Keeping his eyes closed and reclining in his tub, Scott asked, “What is it Johnny.”
Johnny hesitated, stalling for a moment. He didn’t want Boston to think he was crazy but it was bothering him and felt like his brother was the best person to tell. Picking up the rag and soap he played with them while he revealed his concern to Scott.
“The other night when I went to bed, I thought I heard a kid laughin’.” He was surprised when Scott suddenly sat up straight in his tub; splashing water over the side.
“What did you say?” he asked.
“I heard this little kid laughin’. I was almost asleep but I know I heard it. I thought it was you but now I know it wasn’t,” Johnny said, looking at his brother curiously. “You heard it too, didn’t you?” Johnny asked. He was sure by the look on Scott’s face that he had indeed heard the laughter. “Who do you think it is?” Johnny once again asked.
Scott sat and pondered on it a moment before he answered. “I really don’t know but I think maybe our father does. It was written all over his face when I told him how things were being moved when we weren’t present,” Scott observed.
“Yeah he did kinda get a sick look on his face. Didn’t know if that was because of us or what you were tellin’ him.” Johnny said as he began to scrub at his hair.
“Finish up, little brother. We have less than thirty minutes before dinner and I think we have been in enough trouble for one day.” Scott picked up his own bar of soap began scrubbing mud off his arms.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
That evening at dinner everyone seemed to be preoccupied with their own thoughts. Teresa had gotten over being mad at her brothers but she realized no one seemed very chatty this evening.
Murdoch did assure his sons that Jelly wasn’t the one who was playing pranks on them. He didn’t elaborate anymore and when Scott asked him if he had any ideas, Murdoch gave a vague answer and went back to eating his dinner. The meal was consumed in silence and when it was over, Johnny excused himself and went to the barn. He needed some comfort from his best friend, Barranca.
Scott went to the Great Room with his father wondering how he was going to broach the subject of his suspicions. He hadn’t even discussed his theory with his brother. He knew Johnny had grown up with superstitions but really didn’t think the boy put too much store in them. They were more traditions to Johnny than anything else. Admitting he thought a ghost was haunting their house was not real high on his list of priorities just now. He was having a hard time wrapping his own mind around it. It was insane to think it could be true but he had no other explanations for the strange things that had been happening to him and his brother as of late.
Scott watched as Murdoch sat at his desk with a booklet that looked like a report that someone had bound themselves with old ribbon. He noticed that his father seemed very engrossed with what he was reading and wondered what had him so fascinated.
Murdoch felt his son studying him and knew he owed the boys some kind of explanation but was reluctant to tell them the story. He wasn’t really sure he believed it himself but since he had been living at Lancer there were some things that had happened he couldn’t explain.
“Scott, I suspect your brother went to the barn. I was wondering if you could go and ask him to join me here. I need to talk to you both and I only want to discuss this once.” He needed to get this over with. He wasn’t sure how the boys would accept what he had to tell them or if they would think him totally daft for even suggesting such a thing.
“I’ll go and get him, sir. I’ll be right back.” Scott rose and quickly departed to fetch Johnny. He suspected Murdoch was going to reveal something about the strange things that had been going on lately.
When Scott arrived in the barn he didn’t find Johnny anywhere. He couldn’t understand where the boy could have gone. He usually spent a great deal of time with Barranca when he was feeling upset our uncomfortable about something. He saw a couple of the hands and asked if they had seen Johnny, but none of them had seen or heard from the boy since early before lunch.
Scott shook his head puzzled and yet a bit concerned. He decided to go back through the kitchen in hopes that Johnny might be there foraging for a snack. As he stepped inside he noticed the door to the sewing room was open and a light was shining inside. He cautiously made his way to the room and peeked around the door. He saw Johnny standing and staring at the tool box, a look of confusion and impatience on his face.
“Johnny, what’s wrong?” Scott asked.
“When Maria screamed do you remember we just dropped our tools and ran to her?” Johnny asked.
“Yes,” he swiftly confirmed.
“We didn’t put them up. Did you come back in here and put them away?” Johnny asked finally tearing his eyes away and looking at his brother.
“No, I didn’t. In fact we both were so busy neither one of us came back in here.” Scott was now starring at the tool box remembering how he had laid the saw on top of the lumber on the floor when all the commotion had begun. “Maybe Murdoch did.” He didn’t believe it even as he suggested it.
“No, he didn’t. He told me right before dinner for me to go and put the tools away so Teresa or Maria wouldn’t get hurt if they needed to come in here for something,” Johnny told Scott.
Not really knowing what else to tell his brother, Scott took Johnny by the arm and began to pull him to the door saying, “Murdoch wants us in the Great Room. He has something to tell us and it sounds like it might be important.”
The two entered the room and found Murdoch sitting in his favorite chair by the fire. The lamps had been turned down casting shadows on the wall, which flickered and danced when the flames were disturbed. The fire was crackling and popping from the fresh wood that had just been added to stoke up the blaze. Without being told both boys went to sit side by side on the couch facing their father.
Murdoch didn’t say anything for a few minutes but Johnny and Scott didn’t push either. They sat quietly waiting for him to begin in his own time. Finally Murdoch looked at the boys noting how young they looked with the lighting low and the look of expectation on their faces.
“What I have to tell you doesn’t necessarily mean that what has been going on lately in your bedrooms is related. I wish it were as simple as Jelly playing a joke on you or even some of the children who come and go in the house might be playing a little Halloween prank.” Murdoch stopped to let what he had just said soak in a moment before he continued.
“When I first came here with your mother, Scott, we came to a rundown hacienda that needed a lot of work. We literally lived in the kitchen and this room. We had a bed in here and we ate in here for almost a year. It took me that long to get the bedrooms upstairs to a point they could be used. Most of them were finished by the time she was about to deliver you, and then the raids began and I decided for her safety that she should be sent somewhere until it was safe again.” He paused for a moment as the familiar old grief briefly consumed him. “She had begun working on what is Johnny’s room now for a nursery. She never got to finish it and after her death I finished it hoping to bring you home. As you know I was never able to do that, so when Johnny came along we used it for him.” Murdoch took a moment to pause and regain some of his composure. It was still very hard for him to talk about Katherine and losing Scott to his father in-law.
Hoping to break the maudlin moment, Scott quipped, “So, Johnny’s room is a hand-me down from me.” He grinned and elbowed his little brother.
Murdoch smiled, grateful that Scott didn’t seem upset by the revelation. “I gave you that little history lesson in order to explain some things that I noticed while working up there. At times I would be working upstairs when your mother would call me and ask me to help her with something or to eat a meal. When I would leave I always made sure my tools were put away because I was afraid that if I didn’t get back to the room for some reason your mother might come up here and trip over them. When I would get back they sometimes would be out lying off to the side somewhere.” A faraway look softened his stern face as the memories dredged up more long suppressed feelings.
“I could never explain this and at first really didn’t think much about it. Then one day it was raining hard and very little work could be done outside so I decided to take advantage of the time and get in some extra work. Your mother was in the habit at that time of laying down for an hour or so to rest. She tired pretty easily after she became pregnant with you.” An image of his blonde wife nestled in bed, her hand gently rubbing her swollen belly, stalled his words a second.
“That afternoon I was working in the nursery because Catherine was anxious to get it fixed up for your arrival. I was measuring some boards to replace some of the flooring that had rotted out when I thought I heard laughter. I smiled thinking it was your mother at first. A few minutes later I heard it again and it was more distinctive. I realized it wasn’t the laughter of an adult but of a child.” Murdoch’s brow wrinkled in concentration as he struggled to recall the sound, exactly.
“I was concerned that one of the children that belonged to a hand might have wandered in the house. There were lots of places to hide but none were all that safe so I went in the hall to find whoever it was that was laughing. I saw a little girl playing down at the far end. When she looked up at me she smiled and held her hands up as if she were pointing to something behind me. I turned to see what it was that had caught her attention. I didn’t find anything so I turned back to her intending to take her back to her parents. I didn’t recognize her but I hadn’t met all the families of the vaqueros yet. I wanted to get her back to her mother because it wasn’t safe for her to be in the house playing and I was sure her mother would be worried about her if she didn’t know where she was.”
Scott and Johnny turned to look at each other, their eyes showing they both felt this story might be headed towards eerie.
“When I turned back the little girl was gone. I walked to the place she had been playing and it was very cold right there, like a draft or something. I thought maybe she might have gone down the stairs but when I went to look she wasn’t there. I never found her again that day. I assumed at the time that she returned to her family and shrugged it off.” Murdoch noticed that Scott had begun to squirm and wondered if it might not be from talking so much about his mother.
“Scott, are you ok?” he asked.
“Yes, sir, I’m fine. Please continue.” Scott wanted badly to hear more especially when his father was being so verbose about his life here with the mother he never got to know.
“I never heard or saw the child again until after your mother died. I was sitting in my room late one night and I admit I was drinking heavily. I heard the laughter again but at first I thought it was just my inebriated mind playing tricks on me. I ignored it and poured myself another glass and was nursing it when I heard the laughter again, only closer this time.”
All three Lancers shuddered, subconsciously glancing about as though the little girl might suddenly appear.
“I got up and went to the door thinking that maybe someone was trying to play a trick on me. There wasn’t another soul in sight. I walked down the hall and then I heard humming. It was so haunting that I could feel my blood turning cold. To be honest I was scared. I knew that I wouldn’t find anyone but I had to keep looking. I bet I searched every room upstairs looking for anyone who might be responsible.”
Johnny was suddenly over powered by the need to cross his self as he considered his father’s words.
“The harder I looked the louder the laughter. It was as if some child were playing a game of Hide and Seek. I was so far gone from the whiskey that I began yelling like a crazy man. I ran back to my room and the laughter seemed to follow me. I went to pick up the bottle to pour myself another drink and when I did I thought I felt a hand on my arm. When I looked to see who had followed me I saw nothing there. I threw the bottle of whiskey and it smashed against the wall. I remember it looked almost like blood running down it. The minute that bottle shattered the laughter stopped. I’ve never heard it again to this day.” Murdoch stopped and took a big gulp of his drink and closed his eyes for a moment. His heart was pounding but he was glad to have finished the story without prolonged interruptions.
The boys sat quietly thinking about their own experience. They hadn’t seen a child but both had heard the laughter.
Finally, Scott asked his father about the girl. “Murdoch, has anyone ever seen or heard the child since that time?”
Murdoch didn’t say anything for a while, but Johnny and Scott felt he wanted to tell them something so they sat quietly and waited until Murdoch told them about Teresa’s experience.
“When Teresa was about nine she and Paul were living in the house. Angel had left them long ago and Paul needed help with the baby. Maria was like a mother to her so I had Paul and Teresa move in. They took the two rooms downstairs. Teresa has always had the room she is in now and Paul stayed in what is now the sewing room.
“Teresa loved playing upstairs in the hallway. No one bothered her there because I was the only one occupying that floor and I only went up there at night for bed. She had the run of the hallway and sometimes she would play in the nursery with some of Johnny’s old toys. Not often but she seemed fond of the horses I carved for you.” Murdoch smiled at the memory of his little boy playing with the little ponies he had carved so meticulously for his first birthday. Johnny had shown a love for horses long before he could even walk.
“One day she told Paul and me about playing with a little girl up there. Paul didn’t think much about it because Teresa had lots of friends among the families that worked on the ranch.” Murdoch stopped and rubbed his face with his hands trying to gather his thoughts.
“I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it but I asked her if she had ever played with this little girl before. She hadn’t and wanted to know when her family had come to live on the ranch. Paul said she must have lived here a long time because there hadn’t been any new families hired for over a year. I could tell Teresa thought that strange because she knew everyone on the ranch. She was a very outgoing child and made friends easily. Everyone knew Teresa and was very fond of her. She was such a personable child.” For a moment he felt a twinge of guilt for knowing more about Teresa’s childhood than his own sons’.
“Anyway later that night I asked her what this little girl she had played with look like and Teresa told me item for item what the child had been wearing. It was like I could see the child standing in front of me. I never told Paul or Teresa that I thought the little girl was some kind of spirit. I don’t know if she ever revealed herself to Teresa again or not. As far as I know that was the last time she was ever heard from until now.” Murdoch stood and went to refill his glass.
“Murdoch, did you ever find out who she was or where she came from?” Scott asked.
“I did some research after Teresa saw the little girl. I’m not sure if it’s the same child but about 75 years ago a little girl was killed by Modocs along with her family. They had lived in the house before the family that I bought the place from. I suspect that maybe she had something to do with the sale of the ranch. I bought this land for little of nothing. When Catherine and I got here they had already moved out. The place was in bad shape like I said and I just figured that was why it sold so cheap. Now I’m not so sure.” Murdoch swallowed down the glass of whiskey in one gulp and set it down before returning to his chair.
“Are you saying that what has been happening to me and Scott is that little girl’s doing,” Johnny asked.
“I don’t know, son. I just know that when she makes an appearance it’s always around this time of year. It’s like her spirit wants to play games. Nothing bad has ever happened. Just a child’s prank is all.” Murdoch waited for his sons to reveal they were going to have him committed but instead Scott surprised him by his own theory.
“I think it is this child. I think she reveals herself to newcomers. This is our first October here. We’ve both heard her laugh late at night. The things that have been moved were never harmed just hidden as if someone were playing with us.”
“How long does it last?” Johnny asked quietly. Too quietly, in fact.
“What?” Murdoch seemed lost in his own thoughts and suddenly realized that Johnny had spoken.
“I asked how long she hangs around.”
“She’ll leave and won’t be seen again after October 31. Or that’s the way it’s always been in the past.” Murdoch answered.
“Well, I suppose we can deal with it for another three days then. She ain’t doin’ anything that’s hurtin’ anyone,” Johnny said as he got up to fix himself a drink. He offered to fix Scott one but the blond declined. He really wasn’t in the mood after what he had heard.
For another hour or so Murdoch and his sons sat and talked about other strange things they had seen in their lives. Nothing seemed quite as phenomenal as the little girl who haunted the upstairs hallway but it did help to calm down their frayed nerves. Finally, Johnny excused himself telling his brother and father that he was going to bed.
Later that night as he lay in bed, he heard humming. It was sweet yet haunting. He listened for a long time. Once in a while the little voice would break out laughing at some unknown joke.
Johnny wondered about the child and felt sad that her life had been cut so short. He wasn’t afraid or bothered by her spiritual presence but felt a bit of longing instead. It was before his time but he would like to have been able to help her family. She had lost something so precious but still her spirit seemed happy and carefree. He hoped that she would always be happy and that she would feel comfortable at Lancer.
Johnny turned over and pulled the covers over his shoulders. The nights were growing cooler every night and the extra blankets were feeling really good to him as of late. Just as he began to slip off to sleep he heard the little girl’s voice begin to sing again a song he himself had been taught as a child. It was a song his mother had sang to him when she wasn’t busy at the cantina or with one of her visitors. He hummed the tune along with the little spirit. When the song was over he smiled to himself and whispered, “Good night, miel.” His eyes closed as sleep over took him.