The Soaped Window Escapade
(And It's Consequences)
Halloween was coming and the people of the San Joaquin Valley, especially those in the vicinity of Morro Coyo, Spanish Wells and Green River, were apprehensive. There were certain young men in the area that were notorious for practical jokes at any time of the year – let alone at Halloween. Many people had memories of horses switched, jack o'lanterns in empty buildings, drunks scared out of what wits they had by jack o'lanterns in their windows grinning down at them in the dark, rooms disassembled and reassembled in courtyards and all sorts of other stunts. The topper being a prize bull, belonging to Andrew Millar, being found in Andrew's hayloft.
Everybody knew that Johnny Lancer and his trio of friends known as the Prankster Posse which consisted of Kevin Millar – Andrew's son, Rico Portillo and Willie Mays were plotting something. The question was what? What would they pull this year? Scott Lancer, and new friend Nathan Pruitt, were putting their heads together to try and figure it out. Nathan had a lot of experience with practical jokes at Halloween from growing up in Philadelphia. Scott didn't have that advantage. His childhood in Boston had been privileged but practical jokes had not been part of his life until he joined the army at age eighteen. Those jokes had had a tendency to be cruel – played on the youngest and/or most inept soldiers. Johnny and friends weren't cruel but they were not to be trusted at any time unless the situation was truly serious.
“You say they've tipped outhouses? Removed furniture from rooms and recreated the room in the courtyard?”
“Yes, and swapped my clothes for some that would fit Murdoch and vice versa,” Scott said.
“I have two questions,” Nathan said with a laugh. “How do they find the time to pull all these stunts and what do they do for an encore?”
“There's one thing you need to learn aobut my little brother – and his friends,” Scott told Nathan. “They always find the time and the energy to have fun. Any kind of fun.” With a frown he said worriedly, “I don't know what they'll do for an encore. That's what worries me. There's a lot of time between now and Halloween for them to think something up. I'm not going to sleep until I know my stuff is safe and there are no giant chicken paybacks or anything set up for us.”
“Yes, you and I,” Scott told him seriously. “They're not likely to forget the results of the snipe hunt.”
“Don't worry about it,” Nathan said as he wiped his mouth with his napkin. “We'll survive whatever it is I'm sure. Meanwhile I've got to get back to the office. Dr. Jenkins is covering for now but it is supposed to be his day off.”
“I'll walk with you,” Scott said as he too finished his lunch and stood to leave.
As they exited the small restaurant, in Green River, they ran into Sheriff Val Crawford. Untidy as always, in a hurry as always, Val said a quick “howdy” as he hustled down the street toward Mayor Higgs' store.
Josiah Higgs had been warned, many times over, that he needed an attitude change and he needed to put his excess cash in the bank. The man never listened therefore he was the constant target of troublemakers, thieves and the Prankster Posse. It was this last group that was causing him problems now only it was he who was the problem.
“Put that down!” Higgs' voice could be heard several doors away.
“We just want to inspect the merchandise before we buy,” Johnny's voice answered him.
“You can inspect it after you pay for it.”
“That's not the way to do business,” Kevin's voice could be heard.
“Sí, Papa says you must check first – to see that what you want to buy is worth the money.” That was Rico Portillo – the Mexican member of the Posse.
“What's goin' on in here?” Val roared as he entered the store.
Startled, Willie dropped the apples he was looking over. The other two members of the Prankster Posse looked equally guilty but not Johnny. No sir. His blue eyes sparkled with fun as he looked at his lawman friend and beyond to his brother and Nathan.
“These troublemakers were going to mess up my store! They were pawing over the apples and making a mess.”
“Johnny?” Val looked at his friend for confirmation.
“We wanted to buy some apples. Is there something wrong with making sure we get good ones instead of shriveled, wormy ones?”
“They got no business messing up my nice, neat display,” Higgs protested.
“They got a right to make sure they're getting good stuff,” Val informed him. “You're gonna lose business if you make it difficult for your customers.
“Customers? These four are nothing but troublemakers,” Higgs complained.
“I think it's stretching a point,” Scott said, “to call Johnny and his friends troublemakers.”
“You'd say that because Johnny's your brother,” Higgs responded.
“I agree with Scott, Mr. Mayor,” Nathan said. “They're high spirited and full of fun but they're not really troublemakers.”
“You only say that because you and Scott are friends,” Higgs itold Nathan. “How would you like it if they came into your office and messed things up?”
“That would never happen,” Nathan informed the mayor. “They might like to have their fun – with you and others in the area – but they wouldn't mess up the doctor's officer. Too much depends on our being able to find what we need when we need it. Somebody's life could be in jeapordy. They like to play around but they would never endanger somebody's life.”
“Thanks, Nathan,” Johnny said.
“You're quite welcome, John,” Nathan said.
“Well who's gonna fix up my display? Ain't you gonna arrest them?”
“Arrest them for what?” Scott asked.
“I don't know! Disturbing the peace! Disorderly conduct.”
“Mayor, if I arrest them for disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct I'd have to arrest three quarters of your customers,” Val told him. “Somebody's always coming to me complaining about you.” Turning to the Prankster Posse and their intrepid leader he said, “Do me a favor and get what you want and then go home! I ain't in the mood to deal with His Honor and his complaints today.”
The four young men finished gathering the apples they wanted plus a few other things and finally left the store under the watchful eyes of the mayor, the sheriff, the new doctor and Johnny's brother. Two pairs of eyes were somewhat bemused, one was annoyed and one was exasperated. Mayor Higgs ungraciously accepted the boys' money and then shooed everyone out of his store. It was his lunch time and he was going to close up.
Once outside Val turned on the four pals and asked, “Do you have to do that?”
“Do what?” Johnny asked.
“Annoy him every time you come into Green River?”
“He started it!” Kevin exclaimed.
“Sí, all we wanted was to make sure we got the best apples we could for Kevin's Mamá.”
“That's right!” Willie chimed in. “Mrs. Millar promised to make us a pie – little pies just for each of us. We can't give her shriveled and dried up apples when she's gonna do us such a favor can we?”
“Is it really necessary,” Scott asked his brother, “to wind him up every time you go into his store?”
“Me? Wind him up?” Johnny was flabbergasted – or so he wanted his brother to think.
“Yes, you,” Scott replied. “You and your little buddies here aggravate him all the time.”
“He aggravates us,” Johnny defended himself and his friends.
“He aggravates everybody,” Val said, “but I need some peace and quiet so go away! Don't annoy him any more today – or the rest of the week!”
Somewhat chastened the Prankster Posse, and Johnny, put the apples they'd bought in a burlap bag and the other items in Kevin's saddlebags and rode out of town. Val went back to his office muttering to himself while Nathan and Scott walked back toward the house that Nathan shared with Sam Jenkins. Scott was muttering imprecations toward his little brother while Nathan was alternately shaking his head and chuckling to himself. He had no love for the pompous, overweight and foolish mayor but he knew the pranksters needed to tread lightly or Val would explode. The sheriff was close to doing that now. He'd had three barroom brawls, an attempted robbery and a transfer of a prisoner in the last few days. He was tired and he was cranky and it wouldn't take much to set him off. On top of that Halloween was only a few days away and he still didn't have a clue as to what Johnny and his posse were planning.
Unfortunately for him Sheriff Gabe, of Spanish Wells, was the next lawman to have to step in when the pranksters arrived to do some shopping. This time it was the Widow Eulalia Hargis who complained. It wasn't unusual for the older woman to have something to say but, when it came to the Prankster Posse she was more voluble than usual.
“You simply must do something about those boys!” she exclaimed. “They've made a shambles of my shop!”
Gabe sighed and asked, “What exactly did they do, Mrs. Hargis?”
“They spilled buttons all over the floor and knocked down several bolts of calico – that clumsy Millar boy even stepped on it! I can't sell material that has boot prints on it!”
“Are you saying they did it on purpose,” the sheriff inquired of the woman.
“Well, no, maybe not on purpose,” the widow admitted, “but you must at least talk to them about roughhousing in my store – or any other store. Why Murdoch Lancer, Andrew Millar and the other boys' fathers would be appalled if they knew how their sons were behaving!”
“Yes, ma'am,” Gabe agreed, “I imagine they would be.” Running his hand through his brown hair he told her, “I'll speak to Johnny and the other boys and see to it that they make amends for what they did to your shop.”
“See that you do,” the widow said before flouncing off indignantly toward her now untidy shop.
The four young men looked miserable as Gabe laid into them. It was the second time in as many days that someone had complained about them. They didn't mean any harm but, on occasion, they got carried away and forgot where they were.
Murdoch Lancer was glad that his son felt at ease enough to fool around with his buddies but wished that Johnny would restrain himself a bit more. Andrew Millar, Manuel Portillo and John Mays laid into their sons about their behavior to the point where Kevin, Rico and Willie weren't seen in town, or at Lancer, for almost a week.
Johnny was given a job to oversee that kept him close to the house for a week. He chafed under the restrainment and did everything in his power to try and get away from it to no avail.
Kevin's father had his son repairing fences on the side of their property farthest away from Lancer, Morro Coyo, Green River and Spanish Wells. This meant that he was close to the foothills of the San Benitos and not likely to be in any sort of mischief with his pals.
Willie was employed by Jim Talbot to repair fences, a shed roof and the stone wall around Maura's holly bushes. That kept him busy for a week.
Rico, in the meantime, was busier than usual at the Green River livery stable. Val kept an eye on him and was happy to see the young man diligently attending to his duties. He had no time to get into any mischief.
Maura Talbot clucked and fussed and jabbed at Eulalia Hargis and Mayor Higgs for being so rough on those “dear, sweet lads” who were “just a wee bit high spirited”. Maura was known for being a staunch defender of the Lancer boys and their friends. Nathan Pruitt grinned as her listened to her but kept his smiles hidden lest he be on the receiving end of one of her lectures for reasons unknown to him.
For all her defense of the Pranksters, Maura Talbot was no fool. She'd raised three sons of her own and had watched Johnny go from infant to lovable toddler who was always into mischief. She knew something was up – she just didn't know what. Nobody could have foreseen what they would come up with or the consequences of their actions.
“I don't know about you fellas,” Johnny said, “but I'm tired of being treated like a child!”
His friends were in hearty agreement. A week of being separated and, more or less grounded, had put the four of them in a rather foul mood. Seeing this their families had either grinned or walked on eggshells – except, of course, Kevin's sister, Kelly. Kelly couldn't care less if Kevin was mad because she was gloating over his having been grounded for the week. She was watching his every move for something to tell her parents about. Kelly had a reputation as a tattletale that was rather well deserved. At nine, going on ten, she hadn't changed much in the two years that Johnny had been back at Lancer and become friends with the other three.
Hearing their complaints, as he passed by the group on the boardwalk outside of the Green River saloon, Scott said to them, “Perhaps if you acted more like adults, than a bunch of children when you get together, Murdoch – and your parents as well – would treat you like adults.
“Oh what do you know?” Kevin snapped.
“I know that a lot of people are tired of your jokes and Murdoch and your fathers are tired of the complaints. That's why you were separated for the last week – to give our fathers some peace and quiet.”
“You'd think we were hurting somebody,” Willie complained.
“You're hurting your reputations as responsible young men,” Nathan said as he came upon the group while walking back to the office. He'd been to the jail to tend to one of Val's prisoners – a drunk who'd gotten himself cut up in a fight in the saloon they were standing outside of.
“Who says we're responsible young men?” Kevin demanded to know.
“Nobody,” Nathan replied, “and that's the problem your parents are dealing with.” With a serious look on his face he continued, “Look, fellows, I heard about your pranks from a couple of years ago and I also heard about how you were falsely accused of causing a lot of damage in some of the cemeteries around here. If you don't settle down and grown up nobody is going to take you seriously when they should.”
Johnny's reputation as a gunfighter was well established and everybody in the area knew that he could be deadly when need be. It was Maura Talbot, Aggie Conway and others that saw the young boy underneath that “tough guy” façade. After all he was only in his twenties and had had very little chance to be a “boy” since turning to the gun for his living when he was in his early teens. The other three were, in fact, very responsible young men when they had a job to do. It was keeping those four young men busy that was driving their parents to distraction and had them looking to people like the Talbots and Aggie and other respectible members of the community to keep them busy and out of trouble.
“We're only having some fun and what happened in Mrs. Hargis' store was an accident,” Kevin told them. “I paid her for the material I stepped on.”
“Accident or not,” Scott told them, “you'd better watch your step or you'll find yourselves guests of Val or Gabe for as long as they want to put you up and keep you off the streets. You're pushing your luck.”
The four young men went into the saloon and made themselves comfortable at one of the tables. All four ordered beers and sat, slowly sipping them, as they pondered the dilemma of how to have fun and not make people mad at them. They were, after all, just high spirited as Maura Talbot often said in their defense. An obnoxiously loud, and whiny, voice – that of Mayor Josiah Higgs – roused them from their reverie.
“I'm telling you there are too many young people with too much liberty to cause trouble,” the portly man opined to anyone who would listen to him. “Take Johnny Lancer and his 'prankster posse' as Scott calls them. They ought to be kept so busy they don't have any time to come into my store and cause trouble! Eulalia Hargis, over in Spanish Wells, agrees with me.”
“They're grown men, mayor,” Pete, the bartender, reminded him. “They do their work and then they have their fun. I don't see that they've done you any harm. What's a messed up display compared to being robbed or having your store busted up? Or robbed? What those boys have done is nothing compared to what they could have done.” Putting the glass he'd just finished drying on the shelf behind the bar, and putting the towel over his left shoulder, Pete continued, “You've been robbed enough times to know that the pranks that Johnny and his pals play on you – or anybody else in this town – are nothing but harmless fun. Maybe if you didn't fuss at them so much they wouldn't give you such a hard time.
Giving the mayor one last disgusted look Pete turned his back on him and went back to washing glasses and mugs. Mayor Higgs made a sour face and got up from the table. Brushing imaginary crumbs and such off of his suit he made his way out the batwing doors without ever noticing that Johnny and the Prankster Posse were sitting at a table close enough to have heard every word he said.
“We have to do something about him,” Johnny said to his trio of friends. “The question is what?”
The four of them put their heads together and discussed the situation but were unable to come up with anything right then. They finished their drinks and departed the saloon – each headed for home. Johnny and Kevin would ride together for a little bit but Willie lived in Green River and Rico in Spanish Wells. They walked together for a bit before Rico had to mount his beloved Eagle and leave his friend.
“Josiah Higgs, your windows are a disgrace!” Maura Talbot exlcaimed as she walked into his store on October 28. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself! And the store isn't much better. You'd be better off spending less time on fancy displays that encourage youngsters to mess things up and more time on cleaning this place so that people – women especially – will enjoy coming into your store to do their shopping! If I didn't need something you have that Señor Baldomero doesn't have and Eulalia Hargis doesn't have either I wouldn't set foot in your store!”
Maura was referring to the accumulation of dust on the shelves, faded materials and signs and the sand on the floor. The windows were so filthy that sunlight barely shone through.
“I don't have time to clean up,” Higgs declared. “I hire a young person to do it for me and they quit shortly after they start. How am I supposed to keep up with my book work and such if I have to take the time to clean as well.”
“That's no excuse Josiah!” Maura told him. “If you paid these young people a decent wage, instead of living up to your skinflint reputation, perhaps one of them would stay with you long enough to help you rebuild your business by keeping the place clean and neat.” Staring meaningfully at his expensive suit she added, “Try spending less on your clothes and more time cleaning up. Pay one of Manuel Portillo's youngsters or one of the Pittman's to clean the place for you. Either one would do a good job and they can certainly use the extra money!”
“How do I know they wouldn't steal from me?” the mayor/storekeeper demanded to know. “If they're that poor maybe I can't trust them.”
That remark got Maura's dander up. She loved all the children in the area but those families, as much as the Lancers, Millars and Mays', were among her favorites.
“Josiah Higgs I'll not have you casting aspersions on those families good names!” she exclaimed in anger. “They're good children who just happen to belong to families who don't have a lot of money. They're all as honest as the day is long and hard working. If they lived closer to the Bar T I'd have them working for me when I plan a party and need the extra help. You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
“I mean what I said!” the irate storekeeper exclaimed.
Maura reached into her basket and took out the items she had planned to purchase.
“ I don't believe I need these items after all.
With a final glare at the portly man she turned on her heel and flounced out of his store, her dark blue skirt swishing angrily as she did. Mayor Higgs looked on in dismay. He knew he'd offended the wrong woman. The Talbots, especially Maura, swung a lot of weight with the people in the area. He had a sneaking suspicion he was in for trouble and he was right.
“Whooee!” Johnny exclaimed. “Miz Talbot looks madder than one of Teresa's hens when it gets wet! Wonder who put a burr under her saddle”
Johnny, and his pals, had just exited the saloon and saw Maura as she marched down the boardwalk on the other side of the street. Her brown eyes were flashing, she had a frown on her face and her skirts were swishing loudly as she approached the buggy she'd driven into town. The boys crossed the dusty street quickly, while there were no horses or wagons coming, and went up to her.
“What's the matter Mrs. Talbot?” Johnny asked.
“You look like a cat that got its tail pulled,” Kevin added while Rico and Willie nodded.
“It's that pompous fool of a storekeeper who calls himself mayor!” she told them.
“Did he cheat you? Steal from you?” Johnny was anxious. Maura was like a mother to him – and, in some ways, to the other members of the posse. Anybody who hurt her would have them to deal with.
“No, dear,” Maura replied. “Nothing like that. It's the dismal condition of his store and his attitude toward the young people of this town and those around it that make me mad. He thinks none of you – Mays, Portillo, Millar or Pittman – or any others for that matter – are trusthworthy!”
The boys exchanged looks but wisely kept their mouths shut. Maura would think nothing of taking them to task for making disparaging remarks of their elders if she overheard them. That didn't mean that they weren't thinking them.
Johnny helped Maura into her buggy while Rico detached the hitching weight that had kept Barnabas from roaming while she shopped. Willie handed her the reins and stepped back beside Rico as Kevin took the weight and placed it under the seat. With a quick flick of the reins Maura left Green River nodding good-bye to Val Crawford, who was sitting in front of his office in the shade, as she drove by the jail. Val nodded back and then looked over at his buddy and friends. Something was up. He just knew it. They were talking among themselves and staring at Mayor Higgs' store windows. He decided to take a little walk over there and see if he could find out what they were up to.
“What's up fellas?” he asked. “Why did Miz Talbot leave in such a hurry?”
Fiddling with the stampede string on his hat Johnny answered,” She said something about the mayor. About him being a pompous fool and not accepting any of the young people as being trusthworthy.”
“She said that?” Val queried. “That Mrs. Talbot sure knows how to call a spade a spade and still be a lady,” he chuckled. “She's got Mayor Higgs pegged all right. He is a pompous fool. Like I said before you can make a jackass king of the jungle but that don't mean he ain't still a jackass.” Giving the four young men meaningful looks he said, “Just you boys stay clear of him unless you got business in his store. I don't want to have to lock you up for bein' in trouble with him and I sure don't want your pas coming down on my head for doin' it!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Johnny answered. “We'll be good – won't we fellas?”
The other three all murmured their agreement but Val gave them a look that said he didn't trust them and would be watching them. Then he continued on his way through town making the rounds to see what was happening, if anything, that required his immediate attention. He thought little else of his encounter with the Pranksters until....
Halloween was appropriately dark and spooky. Many people were on edge not knowing who, or what, was hiding in the shadows. Those who had been living in the area long enough to know about the Pranster Posse knew that they were planning something. Nobody yet knew what that was. The parents of Johnny's pals had wracked their brains to try and trip their sons up to no avail. Neither had Murdoch Lancer had any luck.
Scott had tried and Nathan, having been forewarned about their stunts and the false accusations of a few years ago in regard to tipped over and damaged headstones, had tried to find out what they were up to. They didn't have any luck either.
Teresa and Maria had tried to get it out of Johnny with bribery but that didn't work either. He figured if they cut him off from the baked goods he could always wander over to the Bar T and Maura Talbot would take care of him as she always did.
Nobody had any success and the four young men were now out and about and no one knew where they had gone. Murdoch and the other fathers just grit their teeth and sat back to wait for the inevitable to happen. Sooner or later there was going to be a rash of pranks and the boys would be in trouble with neighbors or the law.
There was a clinking noise in the alley behind Josiah Higgs' store. Furious whispers were heard and then silence. Soft footfalls and the indignant yowl of a cat whose hunting was disturbed.
The wind blew hard and rattled windows, signs and tree limbs. The dust swirled in the streets pushing paper and dry, rustling leaves around as if stirred up by some unseen hand. The skulkers used the noise to cover their activity. One of them kept a lookout at all times. It took them half an hour for them to finish what they had set out to accomplish. During that time Val Crawford passed by twice while making his rounds but heard nothing, Nor did he see anything.
Whoever they were they finished at Mayor Higgs' and then went off to light jack o'lanterns and place them in cell windows. Val was mighty cranky when he found that he had a jail full of frightened screaming drunks again. He knew who was responsible and he was going to make them pay.
“Aw shut up!” he told the men in the cells. “That ain't nothin' but a carved out pumpkin with a candle in it. I know who's responsible and they're gonna pay for this. That's twice they've done this to me and I ain't gonna forget it!”
November 1 found Josiah Higgs at his store bright and early. The sun was barely up but he was determined to open on time and do a brisk business. He parked his buggy at the livery stable and walked to the cafè for breakfast. Being a bachelor he had no wife to get his meals. After consuming his breakfast, and leaving no tip – something he was notorious for and got him lousy service – he headed for his store.
As he approached he wondered why the sun wasn't shining on his windows. It didn't take long for him to discover the reason and he let loose with a scream that Val heard all the way down the street in the jail.
“What's the matter?” Val asked breathlessly as he arrived on the scene.
“Look! Look at my windows!” Higgs exclaimed angrily. “Somebody's gone and smeared something all over them!”
Val walked up to the windows and extended the index finger on his right hand. Bringing back some of the substance on the tip of the finger he put it up to his nose and then his mouth. The smell seemed familiar so he put the finger in his mouth and regretted it immediately.
“Ugh!” he spit out the taste. “That's lye soap, your honor. Somebody's gone and soaped your windows for you. All you have to do now is get some hot water and wash 'em down like Miz Talbot was telling you the other day.”
Val was enjoying this particular prank very much though he didn't know how the perpetrators had gotten away with it without him seeing, or hearing, them.
“You think this is funny? I can't reach those windows and I'm not about to go climbing on a ladder!” Higgs was fuming. “You do your job, sheriff, and find out who did this or you'll be out of a job come time for your next review!”
“Sit down and shut up!” Val told the assembled group which consisted of Johnny, his pals, Murdoch, the Posse's fathers, Scott and Sheriff Gabe of Spanish Wells.
When the hubub had come to a halt Val looked at his buddy and the trio of fun loving young men he hung around with and glared. Johnny glared back while Kevin, Rico and Willie looked decidedly uncomfortable.
“It seems that there are people in this town...”
“And Spanish Wells,” Gabe added.
“...that have time on their hands. Too much time. So much time, in fact, that they snuck in here in the middle of the night last night and lit a few jack o'lanterns. I want to thank you very much for that,” Val looked pointedly at Johnny and the other pranksters. “I had me a night calming my prisoners down who were convinced the devil was coming to get them. Nice carving job. How'd you get them in the cell windows without me seeing, or hearing you.”
“Why are you asking us?” Johnny asked the irate sheriff.
“Because you fellas did it last year and the year before that and will probably do it again next year.” Val told him. “I ask you, Mr. Lancer, and you other fathers, do you know anybody else in this town – or any town around here – who would make a special effort to annoy the sheriffs at Halloween just because they can?”
“Speaking for myself,” Andrew Millar said with a glare at his unrepentant son, “I don't know where Kevin was last night but, given his reputation as a practical joker – especially since the formation of what Scott calls the Prankster Posse – it wouldn't surprise me in the least.”
“Any of you other fathers know where your sons were last night?”
“No, I'm afraid not,” Murdoch said, “but you can't make accusations without proof. You know that.”
“It ain't the jack o'lanterns I'm worried about,” Val told him. “Somebody, and I think I know who, soaped Mayor Higgs' windows last night.”
“The Widow Hargis' as well,” Gabe added.
“Yeah, and the Widow Hargis' windows as well,” Val acknowledged.
“What makes you think we had anything to do with it?” Johnny demanded to know.
“Quite simple,” Val replied. “I have def-defi-”
“Definitive?” Scott asked.
“Yeah, definitive proof that you fellas are responsible.” Looking at Johnny's bare wrist where his beaded bracelet usually resided he asked, “Why aren't you wearing your beads? Forget to put it on this morning?”
Self-consciously Johnny looked down. “No. I just thought I'd give my wrist a rest from it is all.”
“Couldn't be because it's broke could it?”
“No, it's not broken! What makes you say that?”
“Because I found this in the alley behind the Mayor's store.” Val held out a bead from Johnny's bracelet.
And I found this behind the Widow's store,” Gabe said as he held out a gold coin on a chain.
Kevin's face went pale. They'd looked all over the place for Johnny's beads once they'd realized they had come unstrung. Johnny had been so sure that they'd found all of them that none of them had bothered counting them to see if they were right. As for his lucky coin – he thought he'd just misplaced it in the laundry. He was known for forgetting to empty his pockets.
Four angry fathers glared at four self-conscious and guilty looking young men. One older brother – Scott – looked immensely satisfied that the Pranksters were exposed once again. Wisely, though, he kept his mouth shut. Nathan Pruitt, who had been called in to check Val's prisoners to make sure they were healthy enough to set free, stood in the background with a half smile on his face. This was his first time witnessing the results of the pranksters stunts and their exposure. This was much more interesting than the staff meeting he'd probably be in in Philadelphia at this time.
“Well?” Murdoch asked.
“Well what?” Johnny responded.
“What do you have to say for yourself?”
“We'd all like an answer to that,” Andrew Millar told his younger son.
“Nothing,” Kevin said.
Manuel Portillo scolded his son in Spanish. Scott wasn't able to follow the whole speech, his Spanish not being fluent. However, from the look on Manuel's face it was obvious that he was quite displeased with his son.
Willie was getting a similar scolding from his father. Murdoch just glared the glare that his sons had come to know so well over the last two and a half years. Johnny tried to look defiant but he was losing the battle with all these witnesses knowing that they'd been caught again.
“You might as well fess up fellas,” Gabe told them. “We have you dead to rights and you know it. Not even a plea from Maura Talbot could get you off this time.”
“The only question is,” Val said, “what's the punishment going to be?”
“If you gentlemen would allows my friends and I to confer for a moment we might just have the solution for you,” Murdoch said gesturing to Andrew, John and Manuel to follow him.
A few minutes later Andrew poked his head in the door and asked Val and Gabe to join them. That left Scott and Nathan to keep an eye on the four miscreants to make sure they didn't try to sneak out the back door.
“Now you've done it, little brother,” Scott said. “Murdoch and the others are well and truly angry this time.”
“Whatever possessed you fellows to soap Mayor Higgs' windows and the Widow's?” Nathan wanted to know as he took a seat behind Val's desk while Scott perched himself on the corner.
“Higgs is always complaining and giving us a hard time,” Johnny complained. “He deserves it. He's been told to quit but he keeps right on giving us a hard time! You heard him the other day. We messed up his 'pretty display' and ruined his business.”
“That hardly justifies what you did to the Widows though I will admit that Mayor Higgs can be hard to take.” Scott's blue-gray eyes were solemn.
“She had it coming too!” Kevin exclaimed. “She got upset when we accidentally knocked a few things over...”
“You were roughhousing in her store!” Scott reminded him.
“Yeah, but we didn't mean to do any harm – it just happened and then I tripped over my own feet and stepped on that material that fell on the floor. She charged me double what Ma would have paid for it if she'd wanted it!”
“That material costs Mrs. Hargis a good deal of money to import from New England or San Francisco,” Nathan told them. “How would you like it if you were in her shoes and a bunch of rowdies came in and messed things up on you?”
The door opened then. The argument that was about to ensue between the pranksters and the more responsible members of the group came to an abrupt halt.
“We've decided on your punishment,” Val announced. “After consulting with your fathers – and without consulting with either the mayor or the widows – we've decided that you're going to clean their windows for them. Inside and out you're going to scrub them until they're cleaner than they've ever been.”
“Furthermore,” Gabe continued, “you're going to do it in teams of two. There's a lot less chance of you getting into trouble if there's only two of you working together at a time.”
“You're also going to clean Mayor Higgs' store for him and restock his shelves – neatly – when you're done,” Murdoch added.
“And there's one more thing...” Val said.
Saturday morning found Johnny and Willie in Green River cleaning Josiah Higgs' windows and scrubbing out his store. Some of the smart alecks in town made a few passing comments about dishpan hands and gunfighters gone soft but none of them came close enough to risk Johnny getting his hands on them.
Kevin and Rico were put to work cleaning Eulalia Hargis' windows. The widow stood over them watching to make sure that they didn't shirk their chore. She stood on the inside pointing out any place on the window that looked particularly streaky or a corner that needed special attention. They were on the receiving end of comments similar to what Johnny and Willie got.
Shortly after noon they finished up at the stores. They were tired and hungry and looked forward to having lunch and maybe a beer or two at the saloon. The lawmen had other ideas.
“What do you mean start scrubbing?” Johnny asked Val. “Ain't we done enough cleaning up Mayor Higgs' store? Now you want us to clean the jail? We ain't doin' it!”
“Oh, yes you are, buddy,” Val said. “Unless you want to scrub the mayor's store ever week for a month or spend a month of Saturday nights locked up in my jail so's you don't get into any more trouble.”
“Does my papa know about this?” Willie asked.
“Your papa,” Val told him, “was the one who came up with the idea. “Now either you boys get to work or you'll be spending the next thirty days in my jail with your regular chores, and jobs, piling up waiting to be done when you get out.”
At the same time that Johnny and Willie were getting the bad news Kevin and Rico were getting the same ultimatum given to them by Gabe. They opted for scrubbing the widow's store and cleaning out her attic.
When sunset came the four young men were finally released from their punishment. They headed for the saloon in Green River to have a beer and then head for home. All four were exhausted and it showed. Nobody had ever seen the Prankster Posse look so subdued. Not penitent – just subdued. It seemed that this year's Halloween prank had backfired on them just as the raids on Jelly's watermelon patches had failed. Halloween was over but who knew what lay ahead for next Halloween? It was bound to be interesting whatever it was.