An episode tag to Cut the Wolf Loose
Here’s my answer to Wendy’s challenge to write a fic using some or all of a random list of words: roll, tumble, sweet, scrap, poetry, listen, search, propose, decline, outside, yesterday, spin, detective.
Well, just as Murdoch predicted to him and Johnny on the last leg of the drive, it was indeed a ‘sorry bunch of cowhands’ that assembled Monday morning at the edge of town.
He’d met Murdoch outside the livery after breakfast and they’d ridden over to where Jelly was already waiting.
One by one, Murdoch and he had watched the hands ride up and take their place around the chuckwagon. Most of the boys were already sagging in the saddle and they’d yet to ride even a couple of feet let alone however many miles they had to travel to get home. When it came down to it, the mounts - and Murdoch - were the only ones looking fit and rested and ready for the long ride back. Although when he looked closely, even Murdoch was looking a bit out of sorts. Perhaps he’d read one epithet too many - if he’d really followed through on his boast that he was going to do nothing all weekend other than read the Iliad. Dry work if you asked him. Besides, Cowper’s translation always struck him as the more interesting work compared to Pope’s flowery poetry.
Scott looked around. They were almost all here now; here in body if not in spirit. Most of the boys were pretty quiet. Jelly was doing the most moaning and groaning from the back of the chuckwagon – and about his feet of all things. And serve him right for boasting how he used to be able to dance any girl off her feet.
Murdoch didn’t seem to want to talk so Scott sat and waited – although the bay kept tossing his head and inching forward. Well, at least one of them was feeling fresh and ready to start for home. A few days at the end of a cattle drive certainly took a toll on a man. He was feeling it himself. He straightened in the saddle and stretched. Had it only been one weekend?
What a difference a month on a cattle drive makes to your outlook on life. He had to admit, if this had been the first town he’d visited after leaving Boston he would have considered it third-rate and shabby. But dusty streets and gaudy signs had never looked so good as on Friday afternoon when they’d ridden in.
Johnny had warned him about the Hirdy Girdy Palace. An open air ‘den of iniquity’ is what grandfather would have called it. But Johnny hadn’t warned him about the effects of a wad of money in your pocket after weeks of eating dust and beans and staring at nothing but steers. It went to a man’s head worse than champagne.
At least he’d had the sense to mostly stay clear of liquor. The spin of the wheel had been temptation enough. Of course the set up here had been humbler than the gambling dens they’d frequented in Boston but a wheel was a wheel when all is said and done.
And after all the ribbing he’d taken back in Boston, he’d finally developed a system that worked. First thing he’d do when he got home is send a letter off to Boston. Just wait until Mark and Eugene heard of this. It’d be almost worth the time and effort to travel back there, just to see the look on their faces.
Murdoch’s “Move’em out,” took him by surprise. He looked around and did a quick search. Not everybody was here yet.
“You waiting for Johnny?”
“Johnny’s a big boy. He doesn’t need anybody to wait up for him. Not now anyway.”
‘Not now anyway?’ And what was that supposed to mean?
“Well, I just had the feeling that you’re…”
“Scott, there’s a chance that Johnny won’t be riding back with us this morning.”
Now he was really confused. “Not riding back? Why?”
“Well, maybe one of these days he’ll volunteer. But if he doesn’t, don’t ask.”
And then Murdoch turned and rode off – leaving him with not much option but to do the same. He scanned the main street, just in case, but there was no sign of Johnny. The bay was fretting to get going - it was all he could do to hold him back - so he had little choice but to turn him and give him his head.
‘Not now anyway.’ There was something ominous about those words. What the devil was Murdoch talking about?
He hadn’t really given much thought to what Johnny had been up to all weekend. Johnny in a town like this – well, he certainly didn’t need Scott’s help or advice. Towns far worse than this one had been Johnny’s playground growing up. And Johnny’s skill with his gun and fists usually stood him in good stead for almost any situation.
Except one that he could think of.
It didn’t take him long to catch up to Murdoch but one look at that profile told him not to ask so he simply sidled the bay alongside his father and said nothing.
And maybe it hadn’t been such a good idea to eat a huge breakfast to try and stave off having to eat Jelly’s cooking at noon; it was starting to roll around in his stomach.
After a few moments he checked Murdoch’s profile again. Murdoch was frowning but he looked to be a million miles away. He certainly wasn’t hurrying to catch up with Jelly and the others. He was dragging his heels if anything, as if he was reluctant to put too much distance between themselves and town. Scott looked ahead again. Murdoch had plenty of demons in his past to contend with. Some of them Scott had dared him to confront from time to time but the longer he’d lived with Murdoch, he’d discovered that they weren’t entirely of his father’s making. No matter what your system, the wheel stops where it wills.
He reached forward and gave the bay a pat on the neck; the horse had settled down now – but only after having transferred his unease to his rider.
Well all this certainly took the shine off the last few days. By the sound of it, Johnny had got himself in some sort of a scrap – and not the fisticuffs kind if Johnny’s words last night had anything to do with it.
“Scott, I think I’m in love.”
Of course he hadn’t taken Johnny seriously yesterday. No one falls in love in one weekend do they?
And that was the devil of it - maybe no one except Johnny.
It had only taken Johnny a couple of days to fall for Melissa. And even less to fall for Julie if he’d read between the lines correctly after that fiasco. And then there’d been Mattie.
Now that he came to think of it, Johnny only needed to look at a girl twice and he was ready to propose to her. And you could do a lot more than look at a girl over the course of a weekend. But if Murdoch knew about this, then it hadn’t been a quick, tumble-in-the-hay sort of affair. That wasn’t the sort of thing Johnny told Murdoch about. Or Scott much, for that matter.
Damn, he really should’ve paid attention. What was it Johnny had said? Something about wanting someone to talk to – and it was important?
He ran a hand along the back of his neck. All that staring at the wheel must’ve stiffened it up a little.
But Johnny had seemed to understand last night. He hadn’t hung around at any rate. He would’ve understood that when you’ve finally got your system going you just can’t up and walk away at a time like that. Not with the kind of streak Scott had running. Anyway, Scott would’ve thought if it had been really important Johnny would’ve dragged him away regardless.
It wasn’t often Johnny said that to him. Come to think of it, he wasn’t sure he could remember a time Johnny had ever said that to him.
He vaguely remembered thinking that Johnny had found himself some sweet little thing and that maybe he needed Scott to use some subtlety and put in a good word for him with her father or something like that so that he could take her to a dance.
‘Don’t ask,’ Murdoch had said.
That sounded serious. Did Johnny propose? Did the girl decline?
And none of this explained where Johnny was now.
He rubbed at his neck again. One thing he *did* remember was Johnny saying he was going to eat at a cantina and have some ‘real’ food. Johnny’s idea of real food was the type that left you with your insides on fire, so he probably knew better than to ask Scott to go with him there.
Besides, Johnny did that sometimes – he’d just go off by himself without telling Scott what he was doing. He’d long since learned not to follow Johnny’s movements too closely – and Johnny pretty much treated him the same way.
If Johnny was here no doubt he’d say, “You’re being stupid, Scott. I’m fine.”
And maybe he was.
But that didn’t dispel the disappointment he felt in himself right now.
They hadn’t been riding all that long when Scott heard a horse coming up fast behind them.
He didn’t turn around. Murdoch did but he didn’t need to turn around to know who it was.
And then Johnny was alongside them. He didn’t say anything, just looked at Murdoch, and apparently that was all that needed to be said between them. Murdoch was good like that. Not like Grandfather. Grandfather would want to talk and find out every little detail. But Murdoch was good at hearing – sometimes too much so - when nothing had even been said.
So Scott took Murdoch’s lead - and said nothing. Not even when he noticed Johnny’s rig and hat were missing. As Murdoch said, maybe Johnny would tell him about that later but he wasn’t about to ask.
For the time being he just smiled. Perhaps their number had still managed to come up after all.
It was some time later, when they’d caught up to Jelly and the rest of the men, that Johnny looked across from Barranca. “So Scott, how’d that system of yours work?”
He grinned back. “It worked like a dream Johnny. Perfectly in fact.”
Johnny’s brows went up. “Perfect, brother?”
He always said that Johnny and Murdoch were cut from the same mould. Johnny’s ‘hearing’ was pretty good as well.
“Well...” There was nothing for it. As glorious as it had all been for a while... “Perfect - until that very last spin.”