This story explores what might have happened if Jelly hadn’t interfered when Scott and Johnny were arguing outside the front door at Lancer.
He knew he shouldn’t have done it. Of all the intemperate, ill-conceived, unbrotherly things to do…
But that damn Johnny—sometimes you just can’t shut him up.
Like that remark he made on the way home from the McGloins’…
‘I’ve had a roll in the hay once or twice myself, brother.’
Then telling Scott to be sure he checked for stray bits of straw before he put his clothes out to be washed or the women would be suspicious and soon it’d be all over the ranch about him and Moira.
Well, let them think what they liked. Johnny obviously was. Besides, he’d already washed his hands of those McGloins. He’d given them twenty-four hours to leave and he sincerely hoped he never caught sight of them again.
The hot water felt good, soothing, but he still wished for a longer tub like the one they had in Boston, where you could really stretch out your legs.
The soap had gone missing somewhere. He moved his hand around the timber base and found the slimy lump near his foot. It left trails of white suds on his arms and chest as he smoothed it over his skin – but he had to be careful when he got to his stomach. At least there was no bruise. Johnny could pack quite a punch. But then it was a lesson he learned before. Damn it, he swore he’d never be on the receiving end of one of Johnny’s fists after the first time. Nor Johnny of his.
He had to admit it. He felt guilty.
But it was embarrassing enough being the talk of the town, let alone having your own brother getting in on the deal; coming out dancing a jig and talking of ‘your Irish lass.’
A brother: best friend one minute, worst enemy the next.
All Johnny had to do was shut up. Simply shut up. But no, Johnny just couldn’t keep his mouth closed, could he.
Then there was Moira.
He slipped down under the water and scrubbed at his face before sliding back up again—but it didn’t help. He could still see her…remember what the feel of her lips had done to him…
And Johnny had probably been standing outside the barn the whole time.
Aw, come on…you weren’t just talkin’.
As if it was any of Johnny’s business.
Well, she’d be gone by now, anyway. Hopefully. Left and gone for good. He rued the day he damn-well found her. The only honest time spent with Moira was in the barn because she couldn’t talk when she was kissing. But just for a moment there he glimpsed who she was under all the trickery and thieving and lies and…and yes, damn-it, he liked who he saw.
But a person has to want to change.
When he came out of the barn, everything went downhill. Not that things were ever really going uphill when it came to the McGloins. He’d had to lie to Johnny—a ‘gentleman’s lie’—and Johnny probably would’ve done the same. Besides, he was quite sure Johnny could read a coy smile and a skip in a girl’s step. If Johnny hadn’t badgered him at the well, he would’ve struggled to get his own smile under control when he left the barn.
Foolish mistake, really. He let Moira get to him. Her hands and lips certainly did. She knew every trick in the book when it came to getting a man to the place of no-return. God, he was lucky McGloin didn’t come to Lancer with his smooth tongue and a weeping daughter, telling Murdoch ‘the poor trusting dear had been defiled by his cold-hearted brute of a son.’
Just the thought of Murdoch getting a visit like that made him cringe. He could feel his face getting hot. Johnny was no stranger to trouble. He had a feeling Murdoch wouldn’t be too shocked if someone pointed a shotgun at Johnny. Disappointed yes, but not necessarily shocked. But what would he say if it was pointed at his elder son? He swallowed and scrubbed at his face; no, that image didn’t sit well with him at all. He’d changed from the man he was in Boston.
He had to face facts about Moira; she’d made him look a fool. They’d used him. So how come he could smile about that with Jelly and the very next moment be wanting to strangle his brother with his bare hands?
Your Irish Lass…
Okay, so he’d taken it out on Johnny. The brother who never got fooled, never made a mistake, never lost a fight. Who could take out that gun of his and make any man do what he said.
Scott sighed. He didn’t really like himself right then. None of it was true. Johnny made plenty of mistakes. Johnny would be the first to admit it, too.
Then what had him so steamed up? He still didn’t know why, but from the time Johnny walked out the front door Scott was itching for a fight and definitely not in the mood for Johnny’s funning. He even tried to warn Johnny. And how many times did he tell him to shut up? Funny thing was he expected Johnny to get mad with him quicker than he did. But that’s the thing about Johnny, it can take a lot to make him angry and lose control.
Jelly could see it coming. Pity he wasn’t quicker at getting Johnny moving—but then Murdoch’s probably the only one who can do that.
Murdoch. Just thinking the name made him grimace. The look on Murdoch’s face when he came out the door…
It had only been one decent punch apiece. And truthfully, Scott had been ready to walk away until Johnny smiled at him like that. Yes, he’d been that close to walking away.
But Johnny just had to open his big mouth and make that joke. Only it wasn’t funny and he was pretty sure Johnny knew he’d gone too far.
And the next thing Scott knew his own fist was flying out and heading straight for Johnny’s jaw and for just a second there it felt good. Really good.
He rubbed a hand over his stomach. He should remember Johnny usually follows a punch to the jaw with a low one to the gut. It didn’t feel like his brother was holding back too much, either. Johnny was furious all right.
It was hard to remember exactly what happened after that; a lot of rolling in the dust with neither one doing much harm. To be honest, he didn’t want to continue by then. As soon as he saw Johnny’s head snap back he felt more than a little appalled at what he’d done.
You ought to be ashamed…brothers fighting.
He squeezed his eyes closed but his conscience still squirmed so he picked up the wash cloth and covered his face with it. Damn. Damn. Damn.
The knock on the door startled him for a moment.
“Scott. It’s Murdoch,” the voice said through the door. “Can I come in?”
Oh, no, not now, Murdoch. “I’m just about to get dried.”
“This won’t take a minute.”
So he cleared his throat and did his best to sound at ease. “Come in.”
Murdoch walked in and brought a chair over. He couldn’t imagine Grandfather having a talk with him while he was in the tub. The thought made him smile - almost the first one of the afternoon other than the smile he shared with Jelly. He frowned.
He’d been taught not to mutter—but mutter he did. “No, not ‘something’ - just about everything.”
Murdoch nodded but didn’t speak and Scott’s irritation started to rise again. “Well, you might as well say it, Murdoch.”
Infuriatingly, Murdoch smiled - he smiled like he wanted to laugh - and that only made Scott angrier still. Scrubbing his arm with the brush didn’t help either – unless a man wanted red streaks on his body or no skin at all.
Murdoch leaned forward. “I grew up with a younger brother too, you know.”
“I remember. You’ve told us.”
“Did I tell you there wasn’t a person born who could rile me quicker than he could?”
He stopped scrubbing for a moment. “No, I don’t think you told us that.”
“Oh, yes. You have no idea.”
“Oh, I think I do.” Scott looked away.
“Well, just be thankful I didn’t resort to throwing washing water over both of you. My mother did that to us one time.”
He grinned up at Murdoch. Couldn’t help himself. “Did you ever throw the first punch?”
“Plenty of times.”
“Did you…” Scott went back to scrubbing, staring down at his soapy arm. “Did you feel bad about if afterwards?”
“Sometimes, although I’m sure there were plenty of times when I felt my brother deserved a good cuff behind the ears or whatever else I dealt him.”
He understood that feeling all right—or had an hour or so ago. “I don’t know what I feel right now.” He didn’t know it would be so hard to admit that. His words sounded stiff – unyielding.
Murdoch ran his finger along some stray suds on the edge of the tub. “I suspect it has more to do with a certain young lady than with your brother.”
Scott took a deep breath.
“You were a soldier, Scott. Have you forgotten to recognise who the enemy is? Or if there even is one?”
“And you’re telling me it’s not Johnny.”
Murdoch stood, then put the chair back against the wall. When he turned he looked down at Scott with a thoughtful look. “No, I’m just suggesting you think about it.”
Scott stared hard at a trail of soap suds drifting towards the edge of the tub.
“I assume you’re disappointed in me, Murdoch.” It had always been his grandfather’s favourite stance.
“Scott, you and Johnny would have to go a lot further than a tumble in the dirt to disappoint me. Besides,” and he grinned as Scott looked up, “the way I hear it, Johnny gave as good as he got.”
Scott rubbed his sore stomach. “You know Johnny.”
Murdoch nodded. “Not yet, but I think I’m beginning to. I’m beginning to know both my sons,” he added softly.
There’d been a few times in the past six months when he’d seen a glimpse into who Murdoch really was. The fight with Johnny seemed almost worthwhile of a sudden.
“I’ll see you at supper, then.” Murdoch stood and headed towards the door.
Scott waved a wet hand. He was just about to reach across for his towel when the door opened again and Murdoch put his head around it.
“There’s one thing I learned when I threw the first punch—it’s wise to be the first one to say sorry.”
Scott’s grin was easier to find this time. “It looks like we’ve learned the same lesson.”
The door closed and Scott reached for his towel. He couldn’t wait for Johnny to get home.
He knew he shouldn’t have done it.
He knew Scott was all in a pucker over that girl.
But that was the thing; he didn’t get the chance of seeing Scott all in knots over a pretty girl too often. It was usually him making those sorts of mistakes. Not Scott. Boy, Scott had sure given it to him when he’d given Melissa a horse and sent her back to Humboldt County.
Of course he hadn’t had a tumble with Melissa in the barn…
That Moira was a piece of work, though—her and her whole family of smooth talking swindlers. If Scott wasn’t careful he’d find old man McGloin turning up on their doorstep with a shotgun in his hand. Now that’d sure shock Murdoch some.
He grinned a bit as he hunkered down where the stream ran deep and splashed the water up onto his bare arms and chest.
He had a pretty good idea Murdoch wouldn’t be too shocked if someone was holding a shotgun to Johnny’s head—but Scott? Nope, Johnny couldn’t see that fancy talking brother of his being caught out like that, not without Scott being able to sweet talk his way straight back out of it.
Brrrr, the water was damned cold. Felt like it’d come straight off the mountain. It was hot work riding up here but now the sun was hiding behind clouds. Still, clouds meant the night wouldn’t be too cold.
Damn, he just couldn’t get any of this out of his head.
He didn’t really like the girl. Didn’t like any of the family from what he’d seen. Couldn’t understand for the life of him why Scott’d want to hook up with the likes of them. It was plain as day they were out to get what they could without paying a cent and they used some pretty dirty tactics if half of what Joe Talbot said was true.
Sure was a pity Moira had to come from a family like that. Still, if Scott was serious about her…
He bent double and ducked his whole head under. The water was cold enough to freeze a grizzly but it didn’t take the sting out of his jaw. He put a hand to it, and felt around. Boy, that brother of his packed a mean punch. He should’ve remembered that from last time.
Scott had been in the barn with her long enough; long enough to do more than just talking. Whispering in her ear and then some, more likely.
Boy, he sure hoped Scott wasn’t serious about her. Take himself—he had his own girls in Morro Coyo but he wasn’t about to marry any of ‘em. He didn’t exactly know if he was ready to see Scott snared by a female. Especially not a gal like Moira. Pretty enough thing if that was your style and more than likely experienced in the ways of getting a man to the point where there’s no stopping him - but that wasn’t usually the type of gal a man wants to marry. Well, not someone like Scott at any rate. The two just didn’t fit. Okay, maybe that was why he just had to tease that Boston brother of his - he couldn’t have Scott getting serious with a girl like that. Hell, he thought she was just a quick tumble in the hay for Scott.
Besides, he would’ve shut up if Scott hadn’t kept telling him to shut up. That brother of his could make him madder than anyone he knew; especially when he put on that uppity ‘big brother’ tone of his.
‘Shut up, Johnny.’
Boy, Johnny never went around telling Scott to shut up. And didn’t Johnny help him when Murdoch was ranting about giving away the piece of land? And Scott was pretty snappy to him about that, too. Only changed his tune when Johnny said he was throwin’ in with Scott.
‘You know, brother, I do believe you’re growing up.’
If anyone made a crack like that a year or so ago he would’ve shown them his fists. But nooo, he was real polite and let it go. It didn’t even rile him at the time. He was getting used to the ‘little brother’ stuff Scott went on with sometimes. He didn’t even mind the first few times Scott told him to shut up. In fact, he would’ve thought he was losing his touch if he hadn’t got a rise from his crabby brother. Sometimes Scott could be worse than Jelly.
But that didn’t mean he was gonna let Scott get away with being bad-tempered and tell him what to do. There was only one man around here who had any say in what he did—and even then Johnny didn’t always listen.
That made him grin but it didn’t last long. Not when he remembered Murdoch coming out to see him and Scott rolling in the dirt and Jelly yelling at them to break it up.
Mind you, once he sank his fist into Scott’s gut and saw him double over he really didn’t feel like going on. It was just that Scott came at him again and they both sort of ended up on the ground. They weren’t trying too hard by then but it just shows how pig-headed Lancers are because neither one wanted to be the first to stop.
It must’ve looked bad; him on top of Scott one minute then Scott on top of him. Both of them at each other and Scott saying, “You just never learn, do you brother,” and him saying, “I’d like to see you try to teach me, Boston.”
Whooee, Murdoch had a strong grip. The next thing Johnny knew he was being hauled up and Jelly had hold of Scott and it was all kind of embarrassing because once they stood up neither one of them wanted to look at the other.
Murdoch could put a nasty sting in his words. “Have you two quite finished?”
Scott answered first as he straightened his clothes. “Yes, I’ve said all I have to say.” He could’ve just come down for breakfast and been asking somebody to pass the eggs.
Johnny picked up his hat and started slapping the dirt on his clothes with it. He looked like he’d been swimming in dust.
“And you, Johnny?”
He looked across at Scott. Now that it was over he felt pretty silly about it all but it still stung that his brother had hit him in the first place. Sure, he’d gone too far when he knew Scott wanted him to stop but that didn’t mean Scott had a right to throw his fists around. “Oh, yeah. I’m done.”
Murdoch didn’t look satisfied but he nodded anyway. “Well, if neither of you have anything more to say and you’re both still in one piece, then I suggest you go and do whatever it is you were meant to be doing.”
And that was that. He got on Barranca and rode to the dam with Jelly.
Poor Jelly. He hadn’t been much company for him most of the ride up here. It didn’t seem to bother Jelly none of course—the man could talk the side off a barn whether anyone listened or not.
Johnny let out a breath. The cold water was giving him goose bumps. He guessed he wasn’t getting much done squatting here by the water. Damn, his jaw was aching. He ran his hand along it. Felt bruised too.
“You want somethin’ fer that?”
He swung his head around. “No, Jelly.”
“Here. Take this afore you catch yer death a’ cold.” He caught the scrap of towel Jelly threw him. “Don’t know what you wanna be doing sitting around half naked on a day like this and up here.”
He stood, rubbing the towel along his arms. “Jelly, you know I never catch colds. Can’t even remember the last time I had one.”
“Well now, what you go and say a thing like that for. Why anyone knows that as soon as you say somethin’ hasn’t happened then it’s bound to happen before you get so much as a chance to sneeze.”
Johnny threw him a look. “Jelly.” Sometimes Jelly said something even more dumb than usual.
“It’s true. Why my ole Aunt Mabel, she…”
He let Jelly’s talk drift right on over his head. It didn’t feel right. That’s what was gnawing at him. He’d gotten used to Scott and him getting on. Sure, Teresa got a bit uppity sometimes and Murdoch wasn’t all that great first thing in the morning but Scott and him, well, mostly they got along.
And now Scott had been having a ‘fit of the irates’ all week, as Jelly would say. It wasn’t Johnny’s fault those McGloins had sweet-talked Scott so much he didn’t know which way was up. If anyone danced a jig these past few days it was Scott. and the McGloins piped the tune.
“Well, what d’ya say, Johnny?”
He looked up and it was a bit of a surprise to find himself standing there, half dried, frowning at the ground hard enough to feel his forehead start to ache.
“Johnny, you ain’t listened to a word I said!”
“Sure I have Jelly. You were tellin’ me about your old Aunt Mabel who up an’ died after boasting that she’d never had a sick day in forty-four years.”
“Forty-three,” Jelly jumped in.
He grinned at him. “I know that, Jelly – I was just checking that you were listening.”
Jelly harrumphed and turned around to get the makings out for supper. “Well, you may be able to fool plenty a’ folk, Mr. Johnny Lancer, but you’re sure not fooling me.”
He flicked a look at Jelly then ducked his head and started towelling his hair. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jelly. Come on, tell me some more about Aunt Mabel.” Once his hair felt dry he took the towel off and looked up. “Wasn’t she the one with the seven husbands?”
“It was seven children and you know it and yer just tryin’ to change the subject.”
“That’s because I don’t wanna talk about it, Jelly.” He tossed the towel down then picked his shirt up from the rocks. “’Sides, I’ve already got a sore jaw from talking too much today.”
“Yeah, well Scott’s right—you got a smart mouth and you gotta learn to keep it shut sometimes.”
Johnny shook his head and turned to him. “Well, what good were you? If you know so much, why didn’t you try an’ stop me, huh?”
Jelly looked downright affronted. “I nearly had you on your darn horse and outta there but you just had to make that last crack about finding shamrocks under her skirts.”
Ooh, just remembering his words made him wince. “That was pretty bad, wasn’t it?”
“It sure were.”
“Well,” he waved the shirt in his hand about, “he’d got me mad by then. Anyway, you knew I was just teasin’. Just having me some fun.”
“Yeah? An’ you’re not gonna try an’ tell me you’ve never ended up with a sore jaw before when you was havin’ that kinda fun?”
He tried to hold back his grin. “Ooh, more times’n I can count.”
Jelly nod was pure satisfaction, then he squatted down to open a can of beans. “’Nough said.”
Johnny walked across to the fire, slipping his arms into the sleeves as he went. Damnation, he hated it when Jelly was right. He should never have made that crack. It just kinda slipped out.
“I never had me a brother.”
Johnny sighed as he did up his shirt. Jelly was like a dog with a bone.
“I know. You told us.” He threw Jelly a look. “Lots of times.”
Jelly emptied the beans into the pan, giving them a quick stir when they caught on the heat. “Well, Johnny, sometimes a person standing outside and looking in can appreciate a hot fire a whole lot better than the person who’s sitting right in front of it.”
Johnny kicked one of the blazing sticks back into place. He dropped his head. “I appreciate Scott.”
“Well, just you remember that a fire’ll go out lots a’ times but you can always get it goin’ again by tossing another log on it.”
He looked up at that, then scratched his head. “Jelly, sometimes I don’t know what in blazes you’re talking about.”
Jelly looked fit to burst. “Well, Johnny Lancer, if those ears of yours…”
“And sometimes—just some times—you make so much sense it’s damned scary.”
It took a lot of effort to keep his face straight while Jelly glared at him, checking that Johnny wasn’t bamboozling him none. Finally the old man puffed out his chest and went back to stirring the beans. “Well, a ’course I make sense.”
Jelly could sure make him smile, even when he didn’t feel like it much. Johnny stared into the fire, hands feeling for the last of the toggles on his shirt. Yes sirree, the very first thing he’d do when they got home was find Scott and tell him he was sorry. He tucked his shirt in then stretched his shoulders back. Yeah, Scott and him would have a good talk. Maybe he’d take Scott into town and buy him a beer. Introduce him to that pretty little blonde that started at the Red Dog last week. She was just the type to get his mind off Moira McGloin.
By this time Jelly was frying up some bacon. Johnny looked across at the horses. He really ought to bed them down for the night but first things first. Jelly had his head down and didn’t seem to notice Johnny coming up and standing right behind him. The sneeze, in the early chill of evening, was loud. Jelly jumped and nearly flipped the pan.
“You see – I told you how it’d be an’ it serves you right.” Jelly wagged a finger in Johnny’s face.
Johnny kicked at a rock, looking contrite. “Yeah, it looks like you were right, Jelly.”
“Ain’t I always. It’s just that no-one’ll listen long enough to what I’m saying.”
Johnny put his hands on his hips and stood there watching as Jelly got the plates out, muttering the whole time he worked. “No doubt you’ll be sniffing an’ sneezin’ an’ coughin’ the whole time we’re up here an’ I ain’t got no cotton to stuff in my ears so as you don’t keep me awake when you cough your guts up all night long and…”
About then Jelly stopped and turned around, looking awful suspicious.
It must’ve been Johnny’s grin that gave him away.
And that’s when Jelly got mad. Well, as mad as Jelly ever got. “Why you smart alecky good for nuthin’…”
Johnny could barely hear the rest once he’d clapped his hands together and doubled over while Jelly went on and on about how he ought to be ashamed to call himself Murdoch’s son. In the end he had to hold up his hands to stop the tirade.
“Jelly, now I told you that you only made sense…some of the time.”
“Oh, yeah. Very funny. Well, I’m gonna see how much sense you got by letting you dish out our supper while I sit back and rest my bones seeing as I done all the work so far.”
Johnny gave him a slap on the back. “That’d be my pleasure, Jelly.”
Scott stood on the patio and stared out.
He really needed his jacket. It was chilly out here this morning.
Breakfast had been a quiet affair. Murdoch liked his coffee hot and strong in the morning and his conversation to the point. His father talked about what needed to be done that day, wondered when Johnny and Jelly would be back, then put his head into the latest San Francisco newspaper he’d picked up in town yesterday. Sometimes Murdoch was surprisingly like his grandfather.
That left him to Teresa’s company. She went to town yesterday with Murdoch and he was pretty sure someone had had her ear about the McGloins and how the town saw his own part in the affair. He smiled to himself. She wouldn’t last a minute in a Boston drawing room. She was like a boiler about to burst from the time she put his plate of ham and eggs in front of him.
It was probably cowardly, but he swallowed his breakfast at twice his normal pace – fast enough to even do Johnny justice – and headed outside.
It was three days since Johnny and Jelly left and they’d half expected them back yesterday. One of the first things he learned about ranching was that no task was ever completed in the time you expected it to be. No, he wasn’t worried but he had to admit he was a little ‘toey’ as Johnny would say. He’d made up his mind to apologise to Johnny as soon as his brother got back and he wouldn’t have total peace until that task was done.
He even had trouble falling asleep the night before. He wasn’t usually prone to dark thoughts but he found himself sitting up and thumping his pillow back into shape when the hands of the clock were well past midnight. No, Johnny most definitely was not lying dead in some ditch or floating face-down in the dam and he wouldn’t wake up to find Jelly leading Barranca with Johnny strapped lifeless across the saddle.
He was a fool. How hard would it have been to reach out his hand and beg Johnny’s pardon before his brother rode off? That’s what he should have done. And knowing Johnny, he would have grinned at him, made some joke and ridden off laughing. He couldn’t remember Johnny ever holding a grudge. Not in the time he’d known him at any rate.
“It’s a little cool out here this morning.”
He half looked around. For a big man, Murdoch could move noiselessly at times. Scott nodded and his gaze shifted to the mist covered hills. Maybe Johnny and Jelly were still sitting around their fire having breakfast? No, you tended to wake early on a cold morning when you were camping, especially if the fire went out.
Murdoch rubbed his hands together. “It’ll be even colder up there.”
That made him smile to himself and he looked up at Murdoch.
“What?” Murdoch was all innocence
Scott let his smile show this time. “You’re getting to know Johnny and me a little too well, sir.”
One of Murdoch’s deep chuckles rumbled in his throat. “Yes, I guess I am at that.” He cleared his throat. “You know, I was pretty much expecting those two would be back by now. I’ve got a list a mile long of things that need to be done before the week is through.”
Murdoch could have had a career treading the boards.
Scott nodded, his own gaze back on those hills again. “I suppose I could always ride up there and hurry them along a bit. If you want me to that is.” His own note of reluctance was nice—not too overdone—even if he said so himself.
Murdoch ran a hand along his jaw. “You know, that might not be such a bad idea.”
“Of course, I’ve got plenty of work to keep me busy around here but if you really want me to ride up there...”
“Yes, you do that, Scott.”
He hardly waited to say, “Yes sir,” before turning to head back inside to get his hat, jacket and gun belt.
He paused in the doorway.
“I expect to see all three of you back here by supper.” Murdoch’s voice softened. “It can get a little lonely around here at night.”
“We will, sir.”
By his reckoning he was about forty minutes from the site where Johnny and Jelly were working.
Last night’s anxiety whisked away with a fresh breeze in his face. Out here he could even think of Moira McGloin without wanting to strangle her or the rest of her family. He supposed that was a good start. The whole episode was beginning to fade. There was no doubt he’d made a fool of himself. And as Jelly said, no doubt he’d do so again.
The forest was thick up here, so different from the wide stretches of grazing land down below, but the path he was travelling was reasonably straight. A slight curve took him around a bend and when he looked ahead he could see a rider coming in the distance. Just one rider. And it wasn’t Johnny.
Scott put a hand to his mouth and yelled, “Jelly.”
There was no sign of any response from Jelly but they were still some distance apart.
Scott kicked his horse into a gallop. There was no reason to be alarmed. There was any number of reasons why Jelly would be riding back alone. Maybe they needed some more supplies?
This time Jelly heard him and looked up but there was no welcoming wave.
“Where’s Johnny?” Still no answer. Jelly could be a stubborn old coot at times. They were easily within talking distance now. “Did you run out of supplies or something?”
“I told him. I warned him, didn’t I. But that brother a’ yours, he just never listens, does he.”
By this stage they were even with each other and Scott pulled his horse to a stop as Jelly did the same.
Jelly looked cranky rather than upset. Ooh, Johnny. He bet his brother had copped an earful for some reason.
It was always best to try and sound at least a little sympathetic when Jelly was going on like this but Scott’s patience was beginning to wear thin. “Jelly, where’s Johnny and why are you riding back on your own?”
“Scott, I told him it was tempting fate. But you know how smart alecky that brother a’ yours can be. He just laughed like he always does.”
“Jelly, what are you talking about?”
“Pneumonia, that’s what.”
All of a sudden Jelly’s ramblings didn’t seem so funny. “Are you telling me that Johnny’s got pneumonia?”
“Johnny? Humph, that’d be the day. You could dip him upside down in a frozen lake for a week and he wouldn’t take sick. That’s why I got it.” And with that he started coughing, deep and long enough to make Scott reach out a hand in sympathy.
“Jelly, you don’t sound too good.”
“Well, I tell you what, it woulda served him right if I’d kept him awake with this cough that’s been scratching at my throat all danged night long. But him, nope, he doesn’t even notice. Just sleeps through the whole night as peaceful as a baby. I could’a been lying there stone dead with my toes curled up and he wouldn’t have even noticed.”
Scott hid his grin as best he could. “You know Johnny. He always sleeps well.”
“Well considering it’s all his fault I took sick in the first place, the least he could’a done is lost a few hours sleep on my behalf.”
Jelly’s logic was mystifying at the best of times. It was probably wiser to let Johnny explain this latest peculiarity of Jelly’s. Besides, Jelly was coughing again and he really didn’t sound well at all. No wonder Johnny had sent him home.
“Jelly, you’d better get riding. You should be in bed with a cough like that.”
Jelly sniffed, then coughed again. “Well ain’t that what I’ve been telling ya.” He set his horse in motion again.
“So where do I find Johnny?” Scott called after him.
Jelly didn’t answer.
As it turned out, finding Johnny after another half hour’s riding was easy; that shirt of his was as good as a red flag, helped by Johnny doing a balancing act along the timbers of the newly mended dam wall.
Scott rode to the closest end, where Johnny and Jelly had made camp, and looked around while he waited for Johnny to notice him. They’d dumped the old, rotting timber from the wall in what had been the creek bed; in their place were a dozen fresh planks, inserted horizontally into braces, reaching about four feet high. The real back-breaking work would have been replacing the boulders and sandbags that had to be stacked either side of the timber. The dam itself, half full this time of year and nothing but mud at this end, stretched out behind; a pretty lake, surrounded by cottonwoods and bulrushes, fed by a small stream that meandered down from the mountains. Murdoch had dammed it up years ago by shoring the southern end.
The day was warming up. He rode across to the shade under the trees then took his hat off and ran his sleeve across his forehead. He grimaced. He should have rehearsed some words. At least given some thought to what he intended to say to Johnny. He could blame the McGloins for his touchiness…his bad temper…his…
“Hey there, Scott.”
Johnny was waving at him, wobbling just a little as he kept his balance.
Scott waved, then put his hat back on as he left the shade to ride closer to the dam wall.
“It’s lookin’ pretty good, isn’t it.” Johnny kicked at one of the timbers with his heel before looking along the wall, hands on hips, to survey his handiwork.
“You and Jelly must’ve been hard at it these past few days. By the way, what did you do to make him so sore with you?”
Johnny grinned. “You caught up with him, huh? You know Jelly; sometimes all you gotta do is breathe to make him mad.”
“He was mad all right—from what I could tell in between the coughing.”
The grin slipped from Johnny’s face. “He sound okay to you? I was getting real worried. Stubborn old coot. I’ve been at him two days solid trying to get him to ride home. Kept insisting he wouldn’t pass the buck and leave me up here by myself with the dam wall not finished.”
“He’ll be fine. Once he gets home he’ll have Teresa fussing over him.”
Johnny’s grin widened. “Better him than me.”
“So, are you all done here?”
“Sure. I just need to pack up my gear.” He swung his head towards the fire. “Unless you want some coffee and chow before we head back?”
Scott hesitated. From where he sat, Johnny’s words sounded smooth but the sea could look deceptively calm from a distance as well. “I’d like that but Murdoch wants us back by supper.” He grinned at Johnny. “I think he’s missing you.”
“Yeah?” Johnny wiped wet hands on the seat of his pants a couple of times. He looked pleased though, as he stood there and checked the small dam one last time before jumping down. After landing, he walked across to Scott’s horse and squinted up at him. “So, you come all this way to say Murdoch’s missing me?”
“Not exactly.” Scott caught sight of a twinge of wariness in Johnny’s eyes before swinging down. Once on the ground he faced Johnny squarely.
But Johnny took a breath at the same time and said, “Look Scott, about…”
They both stopped short.
“I didn’t…”/“Scott, I shouldn’t have…”
A slow grin spread across Johnny’s face. “We need to say any more, brother?”
“Don’t try and put me off, Johnny. This has to be said. I threw the first punch.”
Johnny shrugged. “I asked for it. So I guess that makes us even.” He held out his hand but there was a look in Johnny’s eyes that he didn’t quite trust.
“Even it is then.” Scott took the proffered hand. They shook on it, and Johnny’s grin widened as he let go of Scott. Scott let himself relax. For the moment there he thought…
The next instant he was on his back with Johnny straddling his stomach.
“I owe you a dust bath, brother.”
But Scott kept rolling as he hit the ground, grabbed Johnny by his shirt front and rolled Johnny under him, to finish sitting atop his brother. He looked down into Johnny’s face, pinning Johnny’s wriggling shoulders with his hands. “Good try, Johnny. What’s that you were saying about a bath?”
Johnny’s attempts to get up were half-hearted at best. He was laughing too much.
Scott grinned. “Truce?”
“Yeah, yeah—truce. Now get off my belly you big galoot.”
They clambered to their feet, covered in dust, then went looking for their hats.
“You’ve gained a bit of speed, Scott.”
They both brushed the dirt from their clothes.
“Must be all that beef Teresa feeds me.”
“Make that feeds—us. Nothing but beef; morning, noon and night.”
Scott took the last specks from his blue shirt. “Well, we are cattlemen, you know.”
Johnny threw an arm about Scott’s shoulder and guided him towards the camp. “Yeah, Scott, we sure are.”
With Scott’s help, breaking camp didn’t take long. It was just after midday when they left the dam and that meant plenty of time for a bath and a clean-up before supper. Teresa had loaded him up with sandwiches and they’d eat those on the trail as they rode.
While they were riding, Scott filled Johnny in on the aftermath of the McGloins’ invasion of the valley. And that set Johnny off again. He had to wipe his eyes when Scott told him about Ma McGloins’ tragic death.
It took a while, but in time Johnny was able to put a few words together. “Whoo-ee, that old man McGloin knows every trick in the book.”
“It’s called the gift of the gab.”
“The charms of a pretty daughter came in handy, too.”
Johnny spoke lightly, giving him the chance to reply or not. Scott shrugged. “I’ve decided to be philosophical about it all, Johnny. And I’ve learned in all this that a pretty daughter can hide a multitude of sins.”
“And every one of them committed by McGloin. So,” Johnny gave him a sideways glance, “you aren’t chaffing over Moira any more?”
“No. Not a bit.” And to his surprise, he found he really meant it. Well, almost.
Johnny lifted his hat for the breeze to cool his head. “I’m real glad to hear that, brother.”
“So am I. It’s time things got back to normal.”
Johnny nodded but that look was back in his eye again.
“So tell me, Scott—exactly what did you an’ that Irish lassie get up to in the barn?”