This is 5th in ‘The Surprise’ series, taking place several weeks after ‘The Easter Bunny’. If you haven’t read the first four, there may be parts of this that are confusing.
“Boys! Get in here, NOW!!” Murdoch stood at the door of the Great Room and yelled for his sons, then turned back to his desk and sat down. As he waited for Johnny and Scott to come into the house, he reread the letter that Victoria Barkley had sent him. As he read it, he continually shook his head. He couldn’t believe that Nick was in that kind of trouble. It sounded more like something Johnny, or possibly even Scott would have happen to them. He smiled slightly at the thought of Nick in that situation, and knew his sons would be even more pleased. The problem was, Victoria had asked for his help, and he was going to give it, or to be more precise, he was going to make sure that Scott and Johnny gave it.
He was just getting ready to yell again when his sons approached cautiously from the kitchen. He impatiently motioned for them to come over. “Boys. Sit down. Help yourself to some brandy.”
The young men’s pace slowed, and Murdoch immediately realized he’d made a tactical error in offering them some of his best brandy. He quickly corrected himself. “I mean some scotch.”
Johnny and Scott, apparently reassured, came up and sat down in the chairs in front of Murdoch’s desk. He waited until they were settled and reaching for the bottle before he started. “I want you to do me a favor.”
The bottle slammed back on the table, and both young men scrambled to their feet.
“Now wait just a minute!” Murdoch protested. “You don’t even KNOW what I’m going to ask you to do yet.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Scott replied. “Whatever it is, we’re not interested.”
“Johnny?” Murdoch asked hopefully as his boys turned and headed toward the door.
His younger son didn’t even turn around. “Nope, I learned my lesson about volunteerin’. I ALMOST got turned into a rabbit.”
“You know, I COULD order you.” Murdoch said.
Johnny and Scott were unimpressed and kept heading resolutely away from the danger.
Their father thought for a moment. It looked like he was going to have to use his secret weapon. “I’ve been thinking SERIOUSLY of getting rid of the cattle and going into turkey farming. What do you boys think?”
The young men’s pace faltered.
“Of course, the new wave over in Australia is kangaroo meat. I think that might be good as a second stock, don’t you?”
Johnny gave in first and sullenly returned. He plopped down in the chair in front of Murdoch’s desk and stared at his father. Scott followed a second later and sat next to his brother. “Who do we have to murder?” Scott asked resignedly.
“I don’t care if we have ta murder somebody as long as we don’t have ta dress funny while we’re doin’ it.” Johnny muttered.
Scott thought back to the Easter fiasco. “I guess you’re right. Murdering somebody wouldn’t be the WORST thing that we would have to do.”
Murdoch held Victoria’s letter up. “It’s funny that you mention murder, because that’s just what this is all about. It’s from Victoria Barkley.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “You want us ta kill a woman?”
Murdoch looked at Johnny, wondering if he was being serious. Before he could ask, Scott piped up. “You can forget it if whatever you have planned takes us in close proximity to Nick Barkley. I DON’T think he will be real friendly.”
Johnny nodded his head in agreement. “Yeah, I’ll choose the turkeys over Nick any day. They’re not half as loud.”
“Or as grumpy.” Scott added.
Murdoch shook his head. “That’s who this letter is about.”
Johnny brightened considerably. “Why didn’t ya say so? You didn’t have ta bribe us into killing Nick, that would be pure joy. I guess Victoria finally had enough of his bellowing, huh?”
Again, Murdoch stared at his younger son, wondering if this was Johnny’s version of humor, or he was really serious. Finally he shook his head; he wasn’t sure if he wanted to know. “You don’t have to kill ANYONE.” Murdoch snuck a look at Johnny; he DID seem genuinely disappointed.
“Then what is this all about?” Scott asked.
Murdoch sighed. “It seems like Nick’s in jail, and Victoria is asking for our help in getting him out.”
Johnny looked bewildered. “Why on earth would she want ta do that?”
“Ask us for help?” Murdoch asked.
“No, get him out.”
“He’s in for murder,” Murdoch said slowly as he watched Johnny.
Johnny shrugged. “If she REALLY wants ta help him, which I personally think is a huge mistake, I think that’s more up Jarrod’s alley.”
Murdoch shook his head once more. “It’s not quite that simple. He’s been accused of killing someone who’s disappeared, and she’s asking if we can do what we can to find that person and prove he’s alive.”
Johnny slowly shook his head. “How are we supposed to find somebody ALIVE if Nick killed him?”
“Nick DIDN’T kill him.” Murdoch said emphatically.
Johnny looked at his father skeptically.
Scott shook his head. “Why on earth does she think we can help her locate this person?”
“Because,” Murdoch said slowly, “the person that disappeared is Jelly.”
Johnny shot to his feet. “Jelly! OUR Jelly?”
“What happened? Scott asked.
Murdoch sighed. “According to this letter, Nick chased Jelly clear over to Fairfield before Jelly finally disappeared.”
“Smart man.” Scott observed. “Jelly, not Nick,” he clarified when his father looked at him.
“Evidently,” Murdoch continued, “Jelly had wired his sister to expect him, but he never showed up. Nick arrived there several days later, ranting about killing Jelly, and the lady had Nick arrested for murder. Nobody knows where Jelly is, but if Nick can’t prove he’s still alive, it doesn’t look good for him.”
Scott shook his head. “They’re not going to hang him just because the lady thinks he might have killed Jelly.”
Murdoch sighed. “It wasn’t just her. It seems like everyone from here to Fairfield heard Nick threaten to kill Jelly.”
Johnny grinned. “Poor Nick, you can bet everyone in the whole COUNTRY heard him.”
Murdoch stared at his younger son. “Johnny this isn’t funny. Jelly’s missing.”
Johnny snorted. “I’d be missing too, if a ticked off Grizzly Bear had been after me for a couple of hundred miles.” Johnny shrugged. “He’ll show up as soon as Nick calms down.”
“Nick IS calm now, and there’s still no sign of him.” Murdoch protested.
Scott looked at him skeptically. “Nick’s in jail and he’s calm? Must be a different Nick. I’m with Johnny, Jelly will show up eventually.”
“Yeah. Like after the hangin’. Then he’ll KNOW he’s safe.” Johnny smirked.
Murdoch glared at his two sons. “Fairfield, now! Unless, of course, you want to be turkey wranglers for the rest of your lives?”
Scott looked at his brother, who shrugged. “At least Nick’s in jail, so we should be perfectly safe. I mean, how hard can it be?”
The next morning, the boys headed out toward Fairfield. Johnny marveled at how Jelly had been able to stay ahead of Nick for all of those miles. He must be a lot spryer than he looked. Or, Nick’s “injury” hampered him a little bit. He thought the whole Easter Bunny fiasco just might have been worth it to see Nick Barkley running through town holding his backside. Johnny chuckled at the memory. Of course, he was sure that Nick wouldn’t find anything funny in the situation at all. Some people just didn’t have a sense of humor.
By the time they arrived in Fairfield, Johnny and Scott had come up with a plan. After discussing it endlessly, Johnny had convinced Scott that the quickest way to find out where Jelly had disappeared to was to question Nick. Scott had been hesitant to talk to that particular Barkley, although he didn’t show any hesitation at all in wanting to visit with another Barkley by the name of Audra. Scott had voted to visit the Barkley Ranch and try to find out the information they needed there. Johnny had finally convinced his brother that they didn’t have time for any romancing this trip, and that Nick would be safely behind bars when they talked to him; a situation that both brothers wholly approved of.
When they walked into the sheriff’s office in Fairfield, they could hear Nick bellowing from the cells. They waited a minute, and soon a harried looking sheriff appeared from the back and carefully shut the door behind him. He looked at the two men, and when he noticed Johnny’s gun, he brightened appreciably. “You boys here ta take the prisoner back to Stockton?”
Johnny shook his head, and the lawman’s expression turned sour. “SOMEBODY’D better get here soon, or I’LL be arrested for murder. That man has the biggest mouth of any prisoner I’ve ever had the bad luck to arrest. He’s given me a headache that I just can’t shake.” He sighed tiredly. “So what do you two want?”
“We want to talk to the prisoner.”
The sheriff looked skeptical. “Why?”
Johnny shrugged. “We want to talk to him about the man that he murdered.” Scott dug his brother in the ribs with his elbow, and Johnny amended the statement. “The man he was supposed to have murdered.”
The sheriff looked them up and down and jerked his thumb toward the cells. “You two friends of his?”
Johnny looked at the lawman in disbelief. “You mean FRIENDS with Nick Barkley?”
The sheriff nodded. “”Cause if you are, ya can’t see him; only family. Can’t take any chances of anybody bustin’ him out.”
“Believe me, sheriff, that’s the LAST thing we would want ta do.”
Again, the sheriff looked slightly disappointed.
“Are ya worried about us shootin’ him? Johnny asked.
The sheriff shrugged. “At this point, I think I’d pay somebody to shoot him just to shut him up. My head hurts.”
Scott shook his head. “I can assure you, sheriff, that Nick Barkley is NOT our friend.” Scott shook his head and mumbled to himself. ‘At least not at this moment.’
Johnny nodded emphatically. “We just want ta find out about Jelly. He was….” Scott shot him a threatening look. “…..is a friend of ours.”
When the lawman still looked skeptical, Johnny piped up. “Why don’t you ask Barkley if we’re friends?”
The sheriff looked uncertain. “I really don’t want to get him started again. You promise he won’t yell?”
Scott shrugged. “There’s only one way to find out.”
The sheriff nodded miserably and got their names. Holding his head in anticipation, he disappeared into the inner office, and a second later, a loud bellowing erupted from within.
“Friends? FRIENDS? JUST LET ME GET MY HANDS ON THEM AND I”LL SHOW YOU HOW FRIENDLY WE ARE! FRIENDS? LET ME AT “EM! I SHOULD HAVE KILLED THEM When I HAD THE CHANCE!!!!! ”
A moment later, the sheriff reappeared, still holding his head. “You can go in there. I’m going to the saloon, I definitely need a drink.”
“Don’t ya want ta take our guns?” Johnny asked quizzically.
“NO!” The door slammed on the way out.
Scott looked at his brother. “Well, it was YOUR idea, brother. You first.”
Johnny looked with trepidation at the door leading to the cells. Finally, he went over and cautiously opened it and peeked inside. He looked back at his brother and shrugged, and then stepped inside.
“How’re ya doin’ Nick?”
Scott was entranced as he watched Nick’s face. He had never actually seen someone’s face turn purple before. Nick opened his mouth, but before he could yell, Johnny interrupted him. “Before ya say anything ya might regret, we seem ta be your only hope of findin’ Jelly. So you’d better be real nice ta us.”
Nick’s mouth shut as he contemplated what Johnny said, but Scott noticed that his face got a much more interesting shade of purple.
Nick turned abruptly on his heel and plopped down on his cot. “It’s NOT worth it!”
“What’s not worth it?” Scott asked.
Nick turned and glared at the two men. “My life.”
“Where’s Jelly?” Johnny asked.
Nick looked at him like he was insane. “If I KNEW, DO YOU REALLY THINK I’d still be here?”
“Where did you see him last?” Scott asked.
Nick shook his head in frustration. “About twenty miles outside of this lousy town. Small place called Franklin.”
“And I assume he was still alive?” Scott asked and got a glare in return.
“If I was going to kill ANYONE, believe me, you two would be at the top of my list.” Nick said succinctly.
“That’s kinda how I figured it.” Johnny agreed.
“All right, Johnny and I will go to Franklin and try to get this straightened out.” He looked at Nick and grinned. “In the meantime, sit tight, that is, if you can.”
The yells followed Scott and Johnny out to their horses, where they ran into the sheriff. He looked at them mournfully. “Ya didn’t kill him, didja?”
Scott and Johnny rode out of town with Nick’s deafening curses ringing in their ears. After several miles, both brothers relaxed slightly knowing that they were probably safe from Nick’s revenge, at least for the time being. Just to be sure, Johnny rode another two miles before pulling Barranca to a halt.
“I say we just find some outta the way town and hole up for a couple of weeks or so. Nobody’ll know the difference.”
Scott shook his head. “Johnny, as tempting as that might be, do you REALLY want Nick to hang? I mean, if that happens, Audra will probably be depressed for a long time, and that means no dates with her for EITHER of us.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed and he bit the inside of his lip as he considered that possibility.
“And,” Scott continued. “If we don’t help Nick, Victoria just might forbid her to see us even if Audra wants to.” He saw his brother was weakening, and delivered the fatal blow.
“Besides, Murdoch would be in an even worse mood than usual if he should find out we didn’t even try, and I have NO intentions of being a turkey farmer for the rest of my life.”
Johnny finally sighed and then nodded reluctantly. Even with Murdoch and Audra figured into the equation, it was still tempting to let Nick hang, but the turkeys were the deciding factor. There was no way he ever wanted to see another turkey again as long as he lived. Even Nick’s bellowing was better than listening to those squawking birds.
“All right, we’ll do it your way”. Johnny said unenthusiastically. “But I don’t know how getting Nick outta jail could possibly be anything but bad news for either one of us. And besides, I don’t see how we’re gonna find Jelly anyway. According to Nick, the last time he saw him he was traveling with that stupid circus. Nick can be pretty persuasive, and he said he couldn’t get those circus people to tell him where Jelly was, so I doubt if they’ll be any friendlier to us.”
Scott smiled at his little brother. “Don’t worry, I have a plan.”
Johnny froze and looked at his brother fearfully. “Scott, I hate ta point out the obvious, but the plans you’ve had lately haven’t exactly been works of art.”
“They’ve been better than YOURS!” Scott said indignantly. “And besides, the only thing that was wrong with my plans was that YOU didn’t cooperate. Now, are you going to help with this one, or not?”
Johnny nodded his head in resignation. “All right, I’m listenin.”
Scott spurred Charlie forward. “Come on, we can talk while we’re riding. The sooner we put it into action and find Jelly, the sooner we can go home.”
“And the sooner Nick gets out and murders both of us.” Said Johnny glumly as he kneed Barranca forward and went after Scott.
By late that afternoon, they were about five miles away from the small town of Porter, where Nick had told them the circus was heading next. They crested a small hill, and down in the valley below was the circus, sprawled out and looking like a tiny town in itself. People were scurrying around, and the animals could be heard even from that distance. And smelled, Scott thought.
The two men sat on the hill for a moment, watching all of the activity. “Are you SURE this is gonna work?” Johnny asked his older brother for the hundredth time.
Scott looked at Johnny in disgust. “I TOLD you, YES, as long as you do what you’re supposed to and don’t mess it up.” His glance slid down to his brother’s waist. “But our story would be a lot more believable if you’d lose that thing.”
Johnny shook his head stubbornly. “Oh, no! It’ll just have ta be believable with it. I ain’t takin my gun off, ya never know when Nick might show up.” He thought for a moment. “And besides, that darn kangaroo is down there somewhere.”
Scott nodded his head in resignation. “All right, but can you at least TRY not to shoot anybody?”
Johnny nodded. “I’ll try, but I ain’t promisin’ nothin if Nick or that kangaroo show up. And I STILL think that we should just ride down and ASK those people if they’ve seen Jelly. It sure would be a lot simpler.”
Scott shook his head in exasperation at his stubborn brother. “I TOLD you, Nick already tried that and it didn’t work. And if we do that first, we would tip our hand. No, we’ve got to be subtle. Remember, don’t say ANYTHING about Jelly until we’re in and can do it without causing suspicion. We’re just going to pretend to be two drifters desperately in need of work.”
Johnny shrugged unenthusiastically. “I guess.”
Scott took off his hat and settled it firmly back on his head and then looked at his brother. “Are you ready?”
Johnny looked at his brother and nodded. “Let ‘er buck.”
Johnny and Scott slowly rode down among the tents, keeping their eyes and ears open for any trace of Jelly. They finally pulled their horses to a stop in front of a large wagon built like a house and dismounted. They tied their horses to a nearby bush and turned around to see a man watching them. “Can I help you?” he asked.
Scott immediately smiled and held out his hand. “I’m Scott and this is my brother Johnny. We were wondering if you had any openings available.”
“Openings?” The man asked.
“”We want jobs.” Johnny clarified.
The man looked at them suspiciously for a moment. “What kind of jobs?” he asked.
Scott shrugged. “Anything.”
“Anything, huh.” The man nodded and he looked at Johnny. “You’re the young man who returned my kangaroo, aren’t you?”
“I thought you said you worked at a ranch around Green River.”
Johnny shrugged. “We decided we really didn’t like the owner.” He said truthfully. “And I don’t think he likes us much. We were afraid he’d shoot us if we stayed there. He’s crazy.”
Mr. Meyers nodded. “That’s what I heard.” He looked at the two men critically. “I heard that whole family was crazy.”
“Well….” Mr. Meyers finally said hesitantly. “I usually don’t hire outsiders, but we ARE a little shorthanded. I do happen to have two openings, but I doubt if you would be interested…...”
“We’ll take them.” Scott spoke up quickly as Johnny nodded reluctantly.
The man looked at Scott dubiously, “Don’t you want to know what they are first?”
Both Johnny and Scott shook their heads. They were afraid if they found out, they’d never do it. It was much better to be surprised.
The man stared at them for a long time and then he finally shrugged. “All right, if you’re sure. The first job is working with the animals……”
“NOT with the kangaroo.” Johnny interrupted forcefully, involuntarily taking a step backwards.
Mr. Meyers smiled. “No, you won’t be working with the kangaroo, I promise.” He looked at Johnny quizzically. “I take it you didn’t get along with our star?”
“Nope. And I never want to get close enough to not get along with him again.”
Meyers laughed. “All right, no kangaroo.” He looked at Scott. “Do you feel the same way about him?”
Scott nodded his head emphatically. “No kangaroos.” He reiterated.
Mr. Meyers shook his head in amusement. “Don’t worry. The animals you’ll have to work with are not even related to kangaroos.”
Johnny nodded. “All right. In that case I guess I can handle it.” He looked at his brother hopefully. “Unless you want to try it?”
Scott quickly shook his head and shivered. Animals were Johnny’s specialty, not his. He liked animals, but he had no desire to be around a bunch of the wild beasts. He had been to circuses as a youngster and was well aware of just what kind of animals they had. If Johnny wanted to volunteer to get his head bitten off, that was his choice. There was no telling what kind of monsters they would be expected to work with. Personally, he would rather wait for a job that was a little less dangerous and a whole lot less smelly. “No, no, you can have it.” Scott answered forcefully.
Johnny shrugged in resignation. “I guess I’ll work with the animals,” he told the man.
Mr. Meyers nodded. “All right, do you see that tent over there?” he asked, pointing at a large, colorfully decorated tent with lions and tigers decorating the outside. “That’s where the menagerie is kept. Go over there and tell Ted that I hired you. He’ll tell you what he wants you to do.”
Johnny walked slowly toward the tent, studying the pictures of the ferocious carnivores that graced the outside. He turned back and looked at his brother once, wondering how he had been conned into volunteering for this job when Scott was almost sure to come up with something a lot less dangerous and a whole lot cleaner. He snorted in frustration. It seemed like he had been conned once again.
Mr. Meyers turned back toward Scott. “And you can come with me. I’ll show you what you have to do.”
Scott turned and took one last look at his brother as Johnny disappeared inside the Menagerie tent, wondering if he’d ever see his brother alive again. Then he shook his head. Johnny was good with animals, and besides, he had his gun. But Scott was feeling just a LITTLE bit guilty about railroading his brother into taking such a dangerous job. After all, he doubted if his brother had ever been to a circus before and Johnny probably didn’t realize just what KIND of animals he’d have to deal with.
Scott followed Meyers into another tent, and felt guiltier than ever when he saw it was sparkling clean and smelled of sawdust instead of manure. Scott sighed. This wouldn’t be bad at all. He felt another pang of guilt about his brother’s fate.
Scott’s guilt lasted approximately five minutes, just long enough for Mr. Meyers to outline Scott’s job and show him the costume he had to wear. He introduced Scott to a couple of other performers, who promised to show him the ropes, and then Meyers disappeared. ‘Coward’ Scott thought. As the performers waited impatiently for him to try on the outfit, Scott stared in disbelief at the outlandish costume and thought furiously about his options.
He shook his head. It seemed as if Johnny had lucked out once again. His brother had a knack for coming out smelling like a rose. All HE had to do was take care of a bunch of man- eating lions or tigers. That was a piece of cake compared to what was in store for Scott. How had Johnny known?
Scott kept staring at the costume, hoping that if he looked at it long enough, he could come up with an idea to save what was left of his dignity. Maybe if he really tried, he could somehow convince Johnny to change tasks with him; after all, Johnny really hadn’t been fair about it; he had selfishly INSISTED on volunteering for what he knew would be an easy job. Or, if he couldn’t convince him that way, maybe he could convince his little brother that he was worried about him getting hurt.
As the other performers stood around and impatiently tapped their feet, Scott continued to study the outfit and thought furiously for a way out. Finally, he shook his head sadly. No, Johnny would never go for it. Unfortunately his brother wasn’t dumb. He’d know that Scott was trying to pull something. The only thing Scott could do was to try and convince his little brother that turkey farming was fun and that Audra wasn’t that pretty anyway. And Nick would just have to find another way out of jail, because there was NO WAY Scott was getting into that costume.
An hour later, Scott came shuffling out of the dressing room, looking for all the world like the saddest man alive. He plucked at the sleeves of the costume, and looked down at the shoes. Why hadn’t he gone back to Boston when he’d had the chance? With a sigh, he walked out into the middle of the ring. With any luck, one of Johnny’s creatures would escape and swallow him whole. After all, Johnny couldn’t have ALL the luck.
After a long and exhausting day, Scott finally managed to escape and headed for the cooking tent. He had tentatively come to terms with the costume he had to wear; after all NOTHING could be as bad as that Easter Bunny costume. And besides, they were far enough from home that the likelihood of anyone he knew seeing him was almost non-existent. And, he argued with himself, even if they DID see him, they would have no way of knowing who he was. A twinge of doubt surfaced at that thought as he remembered the Easter Bunny fiasco, but the chances of anything like that happening again were almost impossible. After all, the kangaroo was safely locked up, Nick was in jail, Jelly was missing, and his brother was working at the opposite end of the circus. No, nothing at all could go wrong this time.
After he got some food, he returned outside and sat under the shade of an old tree and watched the trapeze artists practice. At least he hadn’t been asked to do that. He was sure that Johnny would never quit teasing him if he had to wear that prissy costume. Even the one he had to wear wasn’t that bad. But Scott had NO intention of telling his brother just what it was he had to do. After all, why give him ammunition. He didn’t need Johnny bragging about how dangerous his job was, or how brave he was. No, he would keep his job description to himself. With any luck, Johnny would never find out just exactly what Scott was doing.
His mind wandered to his brother, and he wondered how he was coming along with his animals. Again, Scott felt a twinge of fear at the thought of his brother handling those ferocious beasts. But he hadn’t heard any screams, and no one seemed upset, and he was fairly sure they would be if his brother had been eaten.
Actually, he thought that his plan was going along fairly well. In another couple of days, they could start nonchalantly asking about Jelly, and no one would be the wiser. His plan was foolproof, and Johnny would owe him an apology for ever doubting him.
Scott looked up quickly as a familiar form plopped down next to him on the grass. Johnny had obviously also visited the cook tent, but any smell of food was obliterated by a pungent odor arising like a cloud from his person. Scott’s nose wrinkled at the smell emanating from his brother.
“Brother, you stink.” Scott said.
Johnny’s eyebrows went up and he sniffed his shirt. “I don’t smell nothin’.”
Scott scooted away several feet. “You smell like a ……… a……….something. Just what kind of animals have you been around, anyway?”
Johnny looked at his brother for a second, and then back down at his plate of food and shrugged. “Lots of different kinds. Do you know that this circus has more exotic animals than any other circus in the Unite States?”
Scott shook his head. “No, I can’t say as I knew that, but that’s what you smell like………. Every exotic animal known to man.”
“I can’t help it, it was probably Josephine.”
Scott’s eyebrows shot up. “Josephine?” When Johnny nodded, Scott continued. “You need to tell your girlfriend she needs a bath.”
“She’s not my girlfriend, and she gets one, every day, she can’t help it if she still smells.”
Scott shook his head slowly. “All right, just who or what is Josephine?”
Johnny looked at him and grinned. “Josephine is an elephant.”
“An elephant?” Scott said in disbelief.
Johnny nodded. “Yeah. For some reason, she took a real shine to me. The trainer said she’s usually really dangerous, but she kept tryin’ ta follow me around like a puppy, and if I got too far away, she’d grab me with her trunk.”
Scott put his head down and smiled. Leave it to Johnny to tame the most dangerous animal in the circus without even trying. “So is that what you’re working with? The elephants?”
Johnny studied his food, trying to figure out just what it was. “Not exactly.”
Johnny shrugged. “What have they got you doin’?”
Scott managed his best scowl. “I asked YOU first.”
Johnny sighed. “All right, I just didn’t want ya to worry, that’s all. They said there was another bunch of animals that they’d been havin’ a lot of trouble with. They’d been attackin’ people and then getting’ loose and runnin’ off. After they saw how Josephine reacted to me, they had me try my luck with them.”
Scott frowned. It sounded as if his brother had been given some pretty dangerous animals to work with. “Maybe you should just refuse. After all, I don’t want you to get hurt.”
Johnny shrugged. “They’re not that bad. They just need a little discipline, that’s all. Of course, I can’t get too close yet, or they might attack me.”
“And just what ARE they? Or should I ask?”
Johnny smiled. “Well, let me see. I’ll give you a hint. You’re smart; so you should be able ta figure it out. They’re brown, they’ve got a bunch of hair around their necks and shoulders, they eat meat, and you’re not gonna find ‘em at Lancer.”
Scott sat back and studied his brother. For someone who was about to get eaten by lions in the very near future, he had to admit, his brother seemed awfully calm. “Aren’t you afraid?”
Johnny shook his head. “Nah, after all they’re just dumb animals. I just have ta show ‘em who’s boss, that’s all. I’ll have them eatin’ outta my hand in another day.” He looked at his brother. “All right, now what about you?”
Scott thought they just might be EATING his hand in another day, but kept that thought to himself. “Me?” Scott asked nonchalantly.
“Yes, you. What are YOU doin’?”
Scott shrugged and studied his food. “Well, I’m sort of a jack of all trades. I do a little bit of everything.” Scott winced when his brother asked the next question.
“Do ya have ta wear a costume?”
“Yes, but it’s not too bad.” He said breezily. “I mean, it’s nothing like the Easter Bunny costume. Actually, it’s sort of fun. And it takes LOTS of skill and practice. Actually, I was told it’s the most important job in the circus. ”
Johnny didn’t seem convinced. “Uh huh. Are you stickin’ with that story?”
Scott sighed in defeat. “Let’s just do our jobs and try not to get killed, and then find out where Jelly is.”
“All right, but I STILL think it would have been simpler just ta ask in the first place.”
Scott shook his head. “Brother, trust me. When have I EVER been wrong?”
Jelly wandered back into the outskirts of Fairfield, confident that he had finally lost Nick Barkley. He had never seen a more persistent person in his life. Nick just hadn’t given up, and Jelly had finally been forced to take refuge in the circus that had been traveling through town. He had convinced the owner that he was a gourmet cook, and had been given a job. He had traveled with the circus for a couple of weeks, and had made some good friends. When Nick Barkley had come storming in asking about him, he had been turned away cold. Jelly had been hiding in one of the wagons at the time, and had taken great delight in watching Nick’s face turn purple.
After Nick had stomped away, Jelly decided that the climate was definitely not healthy for him around there anymore, and he hightailed it back to his sister’s house several miles outside of Fairfield. He loved his sister Apolonia, even though he knew she wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. She was always getting confused. He had walked up to the house and she ran out screaming his name.
She grabbed him and clutched him to her massive body in a bone-crunching hug. “Beauregard, you’re alive!!!!!!!”
Jelly managed to extricate himself from her embrace. “Well of COURSE I’m alive.” He gave her his best glare. “And my name’s Jellifer, NOT Beauregard. I’ve told ya ta use my first name, not my middle name!”
She looked confused for a moment. “But ………..Jellifer, your first name is Mortimer and you…….”
Jelly straightened up to his full height. “Not anymore.” He interrupted. “I wanted something a LITTLE more glamorous.”
She shook her head dubiously. “Well as long as you’re all right, I was so worried…….”
Jelly glared at her in frustration and interrupted once more. “Now why in tarnation didja think I wasn’t all right?”
She took a big breath. “Because that awful man came into town ranting that he was going to kill you and that he couldn’t wait to get his hands on you and that when he caught you he was going to break you in half and then when you didn’t show up and he came back through town and he didn’t say anything more about it and you still hadn’t shown up and I thought he had killed you and then those two handsome young men came through town looking for you and they couldn’t find you either and then they left to try and find you anyway and I thought you were dead.” She nodded smugly.
Jelly’s mouth hung open as he tried to keep up with his sister’s train of thought. Finally his brain managed to process at least part of the information. “What two men?”
Apolonia looked confused again for a moment, as she tried to think back to what she had said. Then her face brightened. “Those two nice young men who work for you at your ranch they came by here askin’ for you and I told ‘em I didn’t know where you was but that I thought you was dead but they said they didn’t think so and they was gonna look for you and wanted to know if I knew where ya might be.”
Jelly turned pale “You didn’t say anything about them workin’ for me didja?
Apolonia’s face scrunched up once more as she tried to remember. “I don’t think so.” She smiled. “But you musta had ta look real hard ta find them two.”
“Why do ya say that?”
“’Cause they said their name was Lancer and I think it’s real cute the way ya hired them ‘cause their last name is the same name as your ranch.”
Jelly nodded quickly. “That’s the reason I hired ‘em all right. They ain’t worth much as workers.”
“Jelly, you’re so generous. Most men would send two worthless hands packin’, name or no.” She stopped her dialogue to give him another bone-crunching hug.
“Apolonia Aphrodite!!!!! Let me be!!”
He staggered back as she finally released her grip. Straightening his clothes, he huffed and shook his head. “Those two worthless boys. “Didja see which way they went? Looks like I’m gonna have ta try and round ‘em up.”
Apolonia shook her head and took another deep breath and Jelly winced as he waited for the onslaught. “Nope but they stopped by here on the way outta town and they said they had talked to that blustering fool and they had a good lead on where ya mighta gone but I said you was dead but they still said they was gonna look for you anyway and then they rode outta here headin’ west but I don’t know where they was headed except for where that other fella told ‘em ya might be, and I still thought you was dead.”
Jelly sighed. He had NO idea where to start looking. Evidently they had managed to talk to Nick without getting themselves killed, and Jelly was impressed. He didn’t know HOW they had pulled that one off. But he also had no idea what Nick had told them, and he SURE wasn’t gonna track Barkley down and ask him. He doubted if he would be as lucky as the two of them had been. No, eventually, the two wayward boys would return home, and he planned on bein’ there ta meet ‘em and give ‘em hell for neglecting their chores. Imagine runnin’ off chasin’ all over the country tryin’ ta find him when they should know he was all right. If they wasn’t careful, he just might fire them yet.
“All right, Apolonia, I’ve got ta git back ta the ranch. With those two shiftless hands gone on some wild-goose chase, I need ta get back and take care of business. If they come back by here, tell ‘em I’m goin’ home.” He thought for a moment. “And whatever ya do, DON’T say anything to ‘em about them workin’ for me. They’re proud men and I don’t like ta rub it in.”
“All right Morti…..Beaure……Jellifer…. I won’t say a word I know how modest you are and I won’t say a thing ta rub it in that they’re lazy and shiftless while you own one if the biggest ranches in the state and if they’d just work a little harder they could amount ta somethin’ too so you take care of yourself and I’ll see ya in a couple of months that is if you can get away I know how hard ranchin’ can be and what with those two shiftless workers it’s a wonder you can leave at all I’m leavin’ myself for a few days ta visit a friend in…………”
Jelly walked away, his head reeling. He wished that SOMEHOW he could get Nick ta have ta sit and listen to his sister all day. He didn’t know HOW that would turn out, but it sure would be fun ta watch. He chuckled. It surely would be fun.
Jelly decided he’d better stop into town and send a wire to Lancer, because he figured Scott and Johnny would eventually contact the ranch, and then they would find out he was all right. He shook his head. Or maybe not. Those two hadn’t been usin’ all their brains lately. Imagine them bein’ worried about him. He snorted. They should know he could look out for himself. After all, he weren’t no spring chicken, and he’d been watching out for himself for a long time. Especially from loud-mouthed bullies like that Nick fella. He was all bluster and show, and it would take a lot more than that to scare one Jellifer B. Hoskins. Why, he could take on that cantankerous Barkley with one hand tied behind his back.
After several minutes of walking, Jelly finally reached the main part of town. As Jelly meandered over toward the telegraph office, thinking of ways to get even with the foul-tempered cowboy, he was stopped short by a bellowing that he’d know anywhere.
Jelly bolted without even turning around, heading right out of town in the direction he had just come.
Scott cautiously stuck his head out of the tent that served as a dressing room for the performers and looked around to see if anyone was watching, most especially his brother. Just as he decided it was safe and started to take a step away from the opening, a small group of tough looking roustabouts came walking around the corner. Scott tried to duck quickly back into the safety of the tent, but his feet got tangled in some ropes, and he sprawled unceremoniously on his backside. Scooting backwards he made his way back inside the tent and lurched to his feet. He went to the mirror once more and appraised his reflection for the umpteenth time. Satisfied once again that no one could possibly recognize him, he resolutely walked to the opening and after taking a deep breath, strode out of the tent.
Looking around furtively, he walked toward the main tent where the performers were practicing their routines. After a few moments, he became a little more relaxed; no one paid him the slightest attention. After all, they were ALL dressed strangely. That thought brought on a grin; he wondered just what kind of a costume his little brother would have to wear. If there were any justice at all in this world, Johnny’s costume would be worse than his. He thought about some of the outfits the other performers wore and the grin became larger; maybe today wouldn’t be so bad after all.
When he entered the large big top, he was overwhelmed at all of the activity. Clowns and jugglers were running around practicing various acts; there was a seal act in the second ring, and there were trapeze artists flying above him. He shook his head slightly and then walked slowly over to one of the performers. “Well, now what?”
The man shrugged. “Now you practice your routine.”
The performer looked at him in disbelief. “Whatever routine you plan on using,” he explained to the simpleton. “You know…..your act?” The man prompted.
At Scott’s dazed expression, the man shook his head. “Well, you’d better start thinking about it. See that man over there?” He pointed at a tall elderly man sitting in the first row.
Scott nodded, and the man continued. “He’s the ringmaster. You’re going to have to run your act by him sometime today. If he doesn’t like it……” The clown made a motion with his finger across his throat. “You’ll be tearing down tents in the mud instead of performing. If I were you, I’d come up with something fast.”
Scott nodded his head and tried to think. He looked around at the other performers and tried to think of the routines that he had seen used in the circuses he saw as a boy, but his mind was blank. For some reason, this just didn’t come naturally to him. He knew he could never do what they wanted him to do and he realized he was in deep trouble. He KNEW he should have stuck Johnny with this job. This was right up his brother’s alley.
Johnny walked along the row of cages, trying to gather enough courage to open them up and see what he could do with the animals inside. He had worked them all individually yesterday, and everything had gone fine. But making all twenty of them mind at the same time amid the commotion of the big top was a different story. He wasn’t sure if his control of them was that good yet, and he didn’t want anyone to get hurt because of him. But much more importantly, HE didn’t want to get hurt because of him, and this bunch was entirely capable of having him for dinner.
When the menagerie boss had shown him these animals yesterday and told him to try his hand at working them, he had almost bolted. He was no coward, but he didn’t particularly want his headstone to read that he had been killed by this bunch of beasts. He figured Murdoch would probably be upset about it, too; it wouldn’t be very good for the ranch’s reputation. Or his, not that he’d have to worry about it by then. The only one that would probably get a good laugh over it was Scott. And Nick, not that THAT cowboy would EVER find out about this.
The man in charge had told him that the bunch was pretty vicious, and after a few minutes, Johnny had found out that he wasn’t exaggerating. Several had taken exception to his trying to tell them what to do, and had tried to attack him. Luckily, he was pretty quick on his feet and had avoided any bloodshed. After his initial hesitancy, things had gone fairly well and he had managed to show them who was boss, and they had actually started to obey him. That was, they had obeyed him until it was time to put them back into their cages. That had turned into…..well, a…..circus. If Agnes hadn’t come to his rescue, he would probably still be chasing them all over the camp. He sure was glad that she had decided to help him. He was going to have to make it up to her somehow.
He walked up and down the line, talking to his charges and trying to calm them down. He was also attempting to calm himself down before turning them loose. The menagerie boss had told him that the ringmaster would be watching him today to see how the act went. If it weren’t good enough, he would be fired, and he KNEW what Scott would have to say about that. Of course, if he couldn’t handle these guys, he wouldn’t be around to worry about his grumpy brother.
As he walked by each cage, the animals approached the front and rubbed against the bars as if inviting him to turn them loose. He smiled at their antics; they seemed so sweet and friendly when they were in their cages. He cautiously stuck his fingers in one of the cages, and was rewarded with a quick kiss from a pink tongue. Maybe he could figure out an act that didn’t involve turning them loose. Finally he could put it off no longer. With a sigh, he unlocked the cage doors.
Jelly ran for several minutes, and until he could no longer hear Nick Barkley. He thought it was a little odd; Barkley’s voice should have gotten at least a little closer, no matter how fast Jelly ran. He stopped and cautiously looked back. No Nick. He slowly made his way back toward town, expecting any minute to be bushwhacked, but before he had gone too far he heard Nick’s voice yelling for the sheriff, the judge, and anyone else unfortunate enough to be in town.
Since the voice obviously wasn’t moving, Jelly summoned up all of his nerve and snuck closer. Before he had gone more than a dozen steps into town, he realized that the disembodied voice was coming from the jail. Growing bolder, he approached the back of the building and the single barred opening. He cautiously approached the window; curious as to why the bellowing had stopped. He snuck closer still, and raised himself up on tiptoe to look into the cell. Immediately a hand shot out and grabbed him by the throat.
“JELLY!!!!!” YOU TELL THEM YOU’RE ALIVE - RIGHT NOW!!!!! OR BELIEVE ME, YOU WON’T BE!!!!!!!” Nick shook the unfortunate captive for emphasis.
Jelly managed to get his elbow in Nick’s face, and squirmed his way free. As soon as he was loose, he stepped back away from the window and looked at Nick like he had gone crazy. “Of course I’m alive, why in tarnation does everybody around here think I’m dead?”
“Because that darling sister of yours convinced everybody that I killed you, which I SHOULD have done just for all of the problems you’ve caused me. Now go tell the sheriff that you’re alive.”
Jelly looked at Nick appraisingly. “All right, I’ll go. But first, I want ta know where the boys are. Did you kill them, too?”
Nick shook his fist in Jelly’s direction. “I DIDN’T KILL ANYONE!!! YOU’RE ALIVE, AREN’T YOU?”
“Last time I looked. Now where’s them boys?”
Nick’s deep breath could be heard clear over at the saloon. “I have NO idea; all I know is that they’re not around me, a fact which definitely bodes well for their future.”
“Well…….” Jelly drawled. “If’n I don’t know where those two are, I reckon I don’t have TIME ta let the sheriff in on our little secret.”
Nick’s face turned purple. “Jelly, you either go in and tell the sheriff that I’m innocent, or……”
Jelly puffed out his chest. “As far as I know, you just might NOT be innocent. Maybe ya murdered them two boys in cold blood. I ain’t helpin’ ta turn a murderer loose.”
“YOU KNOW THEY’RE ALIVE!”
“Don’t know no such thing.” Jelly replied stubbornly. “And until I do, you ain’t goin’ nowhere, Mr. Nick Barkley.”
“Jelly, if you don’t get me out of here NOW, you’re going to wish you WERE dead.”
Jelly once more stubbornly shook his head. “Where’s them boys?”
Nick suddenly deflated. “I don’t know. I THINK they might be heading toward Porter.”
Jelly scrunched up his face. “Why Porter?”
“Because,” Nick explained patiently. “That’s where I thought you were heading, with the circus.”
Jelly nodded wisely. “Well, then, that’s where I’m headed.” He turned to leave.
“Jelly!!!! If I can’t prove you’re alive, the judge is going to HANG ME!!!!”
With a sigh, Jelly reluctantly turned back toward his nemesis. “I suppose Murdoch would be a mite upset if that happened.” He said reluctantly. “I guess I’ll see what I can do.”
Jelly made his way to the front of the sheriff’s office, and walked in. The sheriff was sitting tipped back in his chair with a wet rag on his head. As the door slammed behind Jelly, the lawman slowly took off the rag and cast a baleful eye in the intruder’s direction. “What do you want? And keep your voice down!”
“I just wanted ta tell ya I’m alive.”
“Congratulations.” The sheriff replied before putting the rag back on his head.
“And I ain’t been murdered.”
“In fact, I don’t even have a scratch!”
“You must be the luckiest man alive.”
“Well, I DO have some scratches, but they’re from when the Easter Bunny attacked me.”
The sheriff took the rag off of his face and stared at the old man. “The Easter Bunny.” He said flatly.
Jelly nodded furiously. “Yeah. We finally caught it, but then it escaped and tore up the town.”
The sheriff stared at him.
Shifting uncomfortably, Jelly felt like he had to explain further. “Ya see, it was comin’ in ta the henhouse and stealin’ eggs ta hide for the kids, and Johnny and I decided ta catch it. But after we shot Murdoch’s window out it dragged me into the brush, and that’s where I got them scratches. Course, they weren’t as bad as Johnny’s, ‘cause he flew into the bush instead a bein’ dragged in. Anyway, on the way into town we saw that there was a reward for it, and we turned it in and got fifty bucks. Then it got loose and I tried ta shoot it, but I missed and hit the wrong target.” Jelly chuckled. “It were an accident, but he chased me clear ta Fairfield before I lost him. Then I joined the circus and then I decided ta come back and I just though you should know that I ain’t dead.” He stuck his chin out in emphasis.
The lawman put the rag back over his face.
Jelly stood there uncertainly. “Well, OK. I just wanted you ta know that I ain’t dead after all.”
The sheriff sighed. “No, but you will be if you don’t get out of here. And whatever you do, I don’t want to catch you back in that saloon or I’ll throw you in jail. And believe me, you DON’T want to be in my jail right now.”
Jelly looked puzzled. “What saloon?”
“ANY SALOON!” The sheriff replied, and immediately winced. “Now get out!”
“All right. I take it I can go?”
The front legs of the lawman’s chair hit the floor with a thud, and one look at his face convinced Jelly that he had been dismissed. He scurried out the door and back toward the window. “All right, Nick. I told him.”
Scott wandered around the Big Top, watching the other performers and trying to get an idea for his act. So far, he couldn’t come up with a thing, and if he didn’t get an acceptable act together, he knew he could kiss his plan good-bye. He SURE couldn’t count on Johnny to keep them in the circus. Speaking of which……. He looked around, wondering where his errant brother was.
Scott wandered into the center ring, which was empty for the time being, and watched the other performers rehearsing their well-run acts. Everything was flowing smoothly and was running like a well- oiled machine. Scott was amazed at how so many performers and animals could rehearse while staying out of each other’s way and maintain order. It was organized madness.
All of a sudden, he heard a cacophony of noises coming from just outside the tent in the direction of the menagerie area. All of the acts came to a grinding halt as the performers stood frozen, waiting in dread for whatever creatures were making that noise. A moment later, a stream of brown bodies came flooding into the arena, growling and snarling at anyone that got near them as they fought there way to the center ring, right to where Scott was standing.
A split second later, the familiar form of his brother came dashing into the tent, yelling for everyone to stand still and not move. As everyone was still in shock from the animals’ frenzied entrance and no one had had time to move anyway, his instructions were obeyed to the letter. The performers were well aware of this bunch of outlaw animals’ behavior. Scott held his position until the first creature jumped at his face, and then he bolted and took off running, the slavering beasts one step behind him.
He ran toward the nearest exit, but a pile of equipment blocked that way out, so he turned and ran along the track, hurtling over props and racing past other entertainers. Because the rest of the performers had all wisely remained still, he was the only one the animals were interested in. They followed him, nipping at his heels as he hurled down the track. He came to an elephant standing in the way, and one look behind him verified he didn’t have time to go around, so he went under. The elephant never moved as Scott raced between his legs with the pack of beasts on his heels.
Johnny was running behind the bunch, shaking his fist and yelling for the animals to stop and come back, but they might as well have been deaf. They were having a grand time getting their exercise behind the hapless Scott. Scott darted between some of the clowns and jumped on one end of a teeter-totter that was used in one of the acts. The clown on the other end went flying into the air, landing with perfect precision in the middle of a group of acrobats that had formed a pyramid. The whole bunch went down into a crumpled heap and the pack ran right over the top of them, never wavering in their pursuit of Scott.
Scott continued to race along the track, leaving chaos in his wake. Several times one of the animals got close enough to playfully nip him in the rump, and each time he grabbed for his posterior before picking up his speed another impossible notch. Finally, he tried to jump a camel that was lying stubbornly and serenely in the middle of the track, ignoring the pandemonium surrounding him. Just as Scott jumped, the camel decided to get to his feet, and Scott landed facing backwards on the animal. Finally startled, the camel raced around the track one more time with Scott desperately trying to keep his balance. The camel and Scott finally disappeared out of a side opening, with the slavering pack in hot pursuit, and an irate and very vocal Johnny bringing up the rear. The rest of the performers watched the whole thing and then went calmly back to their rehearsing.
As soon as the animals were outside, the camel stopped next to the tent that housed the elephants. Johnny came running up as the beasts jumped up and tried to bite Scott as he sat on the dromedary’s back. Cursing, he yelled at the animals to get back to their cages, but they blithely ignored him. He was just steeling himself to grab one when Agnes came charging out of the nearby tent.
Johnny looked at his friend hopefully. She had managed to corral the beasts earlier, maybe she could do it again. For some reason, this bunch of man-eaters was laughingly afraid of Agnes. As soon as she saw what was going on, she marched up to the camel and stood next to it, shooting threatening looks at the pack. A few brave individuals put up a brave front, but when Agnes finally spoke, all of them turned and ran back to their cages.
“Thanks, Agnes, I really do owe ya.” Johnny said. He reached up and grabbed his brother and lifted him off the back of the camel. For some reason, Scott acted like he was in shock. Scott merely scowled at his brother and then without a backward glance he wobbled back toward his dressing room.
As Johnny was helping his brother down, Agnes kept her eyes focused on Johnny. She was in love. When Johnny turned toward her once more, Agnes took a tentative step toward him. Johnny reached out and touched her shoulder. He was really beginning to have feelings for this girl. She was pretty, she was smart, and most of all, she could really handle animals. It was a match made in heaven. “I really want to thank you. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t of come along. You really saved me. Thanks again.” He started to walk away to close the cage doors and then stopped and looked at her hopefully. “Maybe, if you’re not working with anyone else, you can join my act.” From the gleam in her eyes, Johnny knew that she wasn’t adverse to the suggestion. Maybe being in the circus wasn’t so bad after all.
Johnny caught up with Scott in the dressing room. He stared in disbelief at his brother’s strange clothing and was just getting ready to make a comment when Scott looked up and shook his head. “Don’t even THINK about it, brother,” he hissed. Johnny’s mouth snapped shut and he wisely kept it that way.
Instead, Johnny plopped down on an upended steamer trunk. “Well, now what?”
“Now, I get out of this RIDICULOUS costume. I guess everything happened for the best after all. I don’t think I could stand to dress up in this outfit again; I don’t even know why I did it the first time. This is even worse than that darned Easter Bunny outfit Teresa was so happy about. By the way, how did you know it was me?”
Scott’s eyebrows went up. “Care to elaborate?”
Scott shook his head in resignation. “Oh well, it doesn’t matter. No one else saw me in it, and no one will EVER see me in this or any other costume again.” He threw his costume shoes across the tent, where they came perilously close to his brother’s head. “And I KNOW WITHOUT A DOUBT that you’ll never tell.”
Johnny shrugged and gave his brother a mischievous grin. “I’ll never tell, but it’s gonna cost ya.”
“Yes, I figured it would. But it really doesn’t matter what it costs.”
“No, like I said, it’s over.” He looked at his brother speculatively. “And of course, I will get whatever it costs me back tenfold.”
Johnny looked at Scott suspiciously. “How?”
“I’m sure Val and a few other people in town would be HAPPY to pay to know exactly what you were doing in this circus. I’ll just auction the information off to the highest bidder.”
Johnny glared at his brother for a moment, and then dropped his head. “All right, point taken. Like you said, it’s over. The best thing we can do now is ta get outta here and go home before the circus decides to press charges.”
“What about Jelly? And Nick?”
Johnny looked at Scott in disbelief. “At this point, do you really care?”
Scott thought briefly before continuing to change his clothes. “No.”
Johnny smiled. “I mean, we looked, and we didn’t see Jelly anywhere. Isn’t that right?
“Perfectly. Now help me out of this costume.”
“And going back after Nick would definitely be dangerous to our health, and you KNOW Murdoch wants us nice and healthy for the upcoming branding season.”
Scott nodded sagely. “Exactly. We’ll only be doing what’s best for the ranch.”
“Right. Murdoch can’t fault us for that.”
“He certainly can’t.”
“The only thing we COULD do was to go back ta Lancer.”
“Right, it’s the only thing we COULD do.”
“Do you think he’ll buy it?”
“Not in a million years.”
Johnny sighed. “I guess takin’ care of a bunch of overstuffed feather dusters won’t be so bad after dealin’ with those darn……………”
The tent flap swung open. “You hold it RIGHT THERE!” The ringmaster came charging into the tent. “I want to talk to the two of you!”
Scott and Johnny froze and then each pointed at the other one. “It was HIS fault!” They yelled in unison.
The ringmaster looked back and forth and then shook his head abruptly. “What are you two talking about?” He shook his head once more. “Never mind. I just wanted to know how you managed it. How did you POSSIBLY do it? Have you been working with each other long?”
Johnny and Scott exchanged perplexed looks. Finally, Scott answered cautiously, “Quite a while.”
The ringmaster nodded. “I thought so. All right, let’s get down to business. About the money….”
Visions of the havoc that he and Scott had wrought in the tent swam before Johnny’s eyes. Another, even clearer vision of Murdoch’s reaction if he had to hock the ranch to pay for the damages immediately followed. “We don’t have any money,” Johnny said desperately, hoping that the ringmaster believed him.
Mr. Billings looked pleased as he looked back and forth between the two men. “Then we just might be able to come to an agreement on your salary. That was the best and most original act I’ve seen in a long time. Sit down, gentlemen.”
An hour later, a very pleased Mr. Billings left the tent, a contract firmly gripped in his hands.
“What are we going to tell Murdoch?” Johnny asked his brother.
“Whatever we do, we can’t tell him how much we’re making, or we’ll have to cut him in on the take.”
“Of course, if he wants to join us, he could always be the one that goes flying off the end of that teeter tooter.” Johnny suggested.
Scott smirked. “Or maybe he could be at the top of the pyramid.”
Johnny chuckled. “If you manage ta get him to do either of those things, I won’t mind sharing the money, it would be worth it just ta watch. I can just see him in one of those costumes.” He looked at his brother. “Do you think he’ll be mad?”
“Mad? MAD? What do YOU think? In case you’ve forgotten, it’s almost time for branding. At round up last year he was mad because you missed two days because you’d been shot. And now we’re both going to miss the whole branding season. Yes, I think it would be safe to say he’ll be mad.”
“Brandin’ season, I WILL hate ta miss that.” He said sarcastically before he looked over and nudged his brother. “Do you realize that we’ll make more money working here for ONE MONTH than we do working at Lancer all year? And no obstinate calves, mud holes, barbed wire, or fence poles.” He thought for a moment. “And no Murdoch, turkeys, or females obsessed with cleaning.”
“No, just slavering beasts, obstinate camels, and ridiculous costumes.” Scott walked over to the other side of the tent and picked up one of his shoes. He held it up like it might bite and then looked at his brother. “Next time, YOU get to be the one who runs around the track in a costume with a bunch of man eating monsters hot on your tail.”
Johnny looked smug and shook his head. “Nope. Mr. Billings was VERY specific, remember? No changes.”
Scott sighed. “All right. Just make sure Agnes is around to help. I don’t want to be dinner for that bunch of killers.”
“She will be there all right. Mr. Billings said she could join us in the act. In fact, he pretty much said we could have whatever we wanted.”’
“Maybe SHE can be the one that’s chased around the tent,” Scott suggested hopefully.
“I guess we could try it, but that means YOU’D have ta be the one that gets that pack of obstinate beasts back in their cages.”
Scott weighed the two alternatives for a moment before sighing deeply. “Maybe we SHOULD see if Murdoch wants to join us. I wonder how fast he can run?”
Murdoch went into the saloon and sat at the table closest to the window. He was hoping he could catch Sam so he could talk to him. He hadn’t heard from his boys for several weeks now, and he was getting a little worried about them. He knew they could usually take care of themselves, but after the events of the last several months, he wasn’t so sure anymore. Sometimes it seemed like he was living with a couple of clowns.
The bartender came over and gave Murdoch his usual bottle of scotch, but the rancher sent it back; he needed to slow down on his drinking a little, especially at eight in the morning. Instead he sat nursing a glass of water as he watched for the Doctor. After about an hour, he finally saw Sam driving his buggy up the street toward his office. Murdoch immediately walked out onto the boardwalk and waved him over. The doctor turned Bessie and came up to the hitching post in front of Murdoch.
Sam slowly and tiredly got down from the buggy, stretching his back as he did so. “What’s up, Murdoch?”
“Come on in and have a drink with me.”
Sam glanced at his watch, and then with a shrug he followed Murdoch into the saloon.
The two men went over and sat at the table Murdoch had just left. Sam looked with raised eyebrows at the glass of water, and shot an enquiring, and slightly disappointed, look at his friend.
Murdoch looked back at Sam and shrugged. “I thought I’d slow down a little bit; it seems like since the boys have been home I’ve been hitting the bottle pretty heavy.”
Sam nodded in understanding. “You and me both. And after that last business with the kangaroo, I think both of us were drinking WAY too much,” he hesitated for a moment before continuing, “and I don’t even drink.” He turned toward the bartender and motioned him over. “I’ll have exactly what Mr. Lancer here is having,” he said resolutely.
With a scowl, the bartender brought over a pitcher and slammed it down on the table. “Here, it’s on the house, and keep the bottle.”
Murdoch and Sam had worked their way halfway through the pitcher when a foreman from a neighboring ranch walked in. He saw the two men and immediately came over and grabbed a chair. “Mr. Lancer, I just wanted to congratulate you on your open –mindedness.”
Murdoch looked at him enquiringly, and the man continued. “If my sons decided to run away and join the circus, I’m afraid I’d be pretty upset. Especially if they did it at branding time.”
Murdoch nodded as if he understood what the man was talking about, and casually picked up his glass. “So you’ve seen Johnny and Scott?”
“Darn right I did. I took the missus to see the Meyers Brothers Circus over in Colton last week; she had heard they had this new act that was really somethin’. Everybody had been talkin’ about it and convinced her that we really needed ta go see it. Anyway, she kept naggin’ me and finally convinced me to go, and we were THAT surprised when it turned out that your boys were the ones doin’ this act. I never knew they were that talented; they had that audience eatin’ outta their hands.”
Murdoch motioned for the bartender to bring him a bottle, and when the man picked up another pitcher of water and started toward the table, Murdoch glared at him with enough venom to stop the man in his tracks. The bartender cautiously picked up a bottle of scotch and made a questioning motion. At Murdoch’s curt nod, the bartender quickly scurried over to the table.
As soon as the bottle hit the table, Murdoch grabbed it and poured himself a healthy slug. He downed it before asking Pete the next question. “And just WHAT were they doing that they were so talented at? Or do I want to know?”
Pete looked uncertainly at Murdoch before answering, sensing some sarcasm in Murdoch’s tone. “Well, it’s kinda hard ta explain.”
“Well…… I guess you could say it was sort of a comic routine.”
“Why does that NOT surprise me?” Murdoch ground out as he poured another shot. Sam watched Murdoch with a mixture of trepidation and amusement as Pete continued.
“There was a lotta confusion, with people runnin’ around and yellin’, and everybody fallin’ all over the place…...”
“Sounds about normal.” Murdoch interrupted. He downed the shot and then motioned toward Pete. “Go on.”
“Well, Scott kept trippin’ over his own feet, and Johnny was yellin’ and runnin’ after him, while Scott was knocking everybody over and causing all this commotion, and of course Scott was bein’ chased by these…..”
“I think,” Murdoch said, “that I’ve heard enough to get the picture.” He quickly poured another shot. He looked at Pete and asked sarcastically “Were they having fun?”
Pete shrugged as he looked at Murdoch uncertainly. “I think so. At least Johnny seemed to be. I’m not so sure about Scott; I think his rear was getting nipped pretty good by those……..”
Murdoch slammed his glass down on the table and glared at Pete and then quickly shot a glare in Sam’s direction just in case the Doctor had the urge to smile. “Scott’s rear is going to get a lot more than ‘nipped’ if he and his brother don’t get back here before it’s time for branding to start.”
Pete looked dubiously at the rancher. “I wouldn’t count on them bein’ back anytime soon.”
Murdoch’s brow knitted alarmingly. “WHY?” He ground out.
“Well……….” Pete grabbed the bottle and took a gulp before moving his chair away from Murdoch. “The circus is advertising that the act will be going on all season. They supposedly have a contract.” He took a flyer out of his pocket and cautiously tossed it on the table in front of Murdoch. Pete watched Murdoch warily, prepared to run if the rancher made a move in his direction.
Murdoch stared at the flyer for a moment, his neck going an alarming shade of red. When he slowly brought his gaze up to Pete and studied the foreman as if contemplating his slow dismemberment, Sam decided that an important part of practicing medicine was prevention. He suddenly remembered that he had an emergency somewhere else. Anywhere else. He grabbed Pete by the scruff of the neck and dragged him out of the lion’s den, leaving Murdoch scowling at his bottle of scotch and the flyer depicting his ex-sons on the cover.
Jelly headed for the outskirts of town, anxious to get to Porter and track down the two wayward Lancers. He wanted to make sure they were all right, because he didn’t trust Mr. Nick Barkley as far as he could throw him. Nossir, he was going to make sure that loud- mouthed, bad tempered cowboy hadn’t really done those poor helpless boys in.
He had stopped at the telegraph office and sent a wire to Murdoch letting him know that he was all right and that he was going to find Johnny and Scott and bring the boys home. It had taken him quite a while to come up with a message that made sense, because he only had a little bit of money and he didn’t plan on starving. He kept removing words from the message to cut down on the cost, but had finally been satisfied with the message and had given it to the perplexed telegraph operator.
The telegraph office just happened to be right next to the saloon, and although he very seldom drank, he decided to stop and get a quick beer in preparation for a hot dusty walk to Porter. He thought he’d stop at Apolonia’s house before he left and fix himself a bite to eat. If he was really lucky, she would already be gone visiting her friend and he wouldn’t have to listen to her. As much as he loved her, she was kinda hard to take sometimes. He shook his head; he just couldn’t figure out how somebody could talk so much and never say anything.
He was just walking up the steps to her house when he heard her yell, and a second later Heath Barkley came running out the door and dove into the bushes next to Jelly. Jelly looked up in time to see his sister lumber out onto the porch, a shotgun in her hands. Jelly had seen his sister shoot before and knew just how bad her aim was. Without hesitation he joined Heath in the bushes.
Heath poked his head up just as Jelly crashed into him, sending both men tumbling back into the shrubbery. Heath recovered first, and stared at the handyman. “What are you doin’ here? You’re supposed to be dead!”
Jelly reached up and grabbed Heath’s head and pushed it down just as a shotgun blast ruffled the leaves of the bushes they were hiding in. “How many times do I have ta tell everybody, I AIN’T DEAD!”
Heath cautiously poked his head out of the bush and looked up toward the porch. “Well, you will be if your sister doesn’t stop shooting at us.”
Jelly snorted. “Nah. As long as she’s aimin’ at us we’re perfectly safe. On the other hand, if she tries ta fire a warnin’ shot, you’d better run for your life.” He looked at Heath speculatively and his chin jutted out belligerently. “Just why is she gunnin’ for you, anyway? Did ya make unwelcome advances toward my sister?”
Heath’s eyes got big and he started to laugh, and then thought better of it. “No, Jelly, honest. I had just gotten there and she ran into the other room and grabbed the gun and came storming after me. I thought I’d better hightail it outta there quick. I don’t believe in arguin’ with irate females. ESPECIALLY when they’re armed.”
“Well, ya musta said SOMETHIN” ta rile her.”
This time Heath pushed Jelly’s head down as an explosion shattered one of the windows in the house. “All I did was introduce myself.”
“Well why in tarnation didja go and do that? Of COURSE she’d take a shotgun to ya. You’re the brother of the man that killed me.”
Heath started to reply, and then simply clamped his mouth shut and shook his head. He looked up toward the walk again as another explosion rent the air and a branch from a nearby tree came crashing down. “Well, DO something! She’s your sister!”
“Why do I have ta do something? I’m not the one she’s mad at!”
“Jelly…….” Heath said threateningly.
Jelly snatched his hat from his head and cautiously waved it above his head. “Apolonia! It’s me, Jellifer. Hold up on that shotgun.”
Heath heard the gun clatter to the walk as Apolonia dropped it and raced toward her brother. “Oh Jelly you came just in time to save me from that wicked man he’s the brother of that awful Nick Barkley that I thought had killed you and I still think he’s no good and I’m SO glad you’re here you saved my life.”
Jelly pried his sister’s arms from around his neck as Heath cautiously stood up. “Doggone it, let go of me! Heath here’s all right. He don’t mean ya no harm.” He jutted his chin out and turned toward the young Barkley. “Do ya?”
Heath shook his head and doffed his hat. “No ma’am. I just wanted ta find out where Jelly was, and why you thought Nick had killed him.”
“Hmmph. Well that’s plain as the nose on your face I THOUGHT he’d killed my brother ‘cause he said he was gonna kill him and then Beauregard here disappeared and then Nick came back into town and then I told the sheriff and then the sheriff arrested him and why would he arrest him if he hadn’t a killed him?” Her chin jutted out just like her brother’s.
Heath shook his head. It seemed as if brother and sister had the same sense of logic, but he didn’t have time to worry about it now. He had to get Nick out of that jail. “Look, Jelly, we have ta go the sheriff’s office and tell him you’re alive so he’ll let Nick go.”
“I already did.”
“Jelly, I just came from there, and my brother’s still locked up.”
“Well I can’t help it. I TOLD that fool sheriff I was OK.”
“JELLY! We’re going back, now!”
With a sigh, Jelly grabbed his hat that had fallen when Apolonia squeezed him and he swatted it against his leg. “All right, hold your horses, I’m comin’. I swear, I don’t know why it’s always up ta me ta get everybody outta these predicaments.”
Apolonia stood on the path and waved her hand at the two men as they disappeared down the street. “Don’t forget to write me all about that big old ranch and everything that happens and I’m leavin’ for the train station today to visit my friend and I won’t be back till next month and don’t forget to fire those two shiftless skunks that were here because you can’t be givin’ handouts to everybody and those two are just no good I can feel it in my bones and if you decide ..…….” Both men relaxed when they finally left her voice behind.
A short time later they walked into the sheriff’s office and could immediately hear Nick bellowing in the background. The sheriff remained in his chair and looked at Heath suspiciously and then his eyes then wandered over to Jelly. He studied the handyman for a moment, and then glared at Heath. “What’re ya doin’ with him?”
“This, sheriff, this is the man my brother is accused of killin’.”
The lawman looked up lazily and snorted. “Nice try, Barkley. Now get outta here before I arrest you for lyin to me.”
Heath stomped over to where the sheriff sat. “This is Jelly Hoskins!” He looked at the handyman. “Tell him, Jelly.”
Jelly nodded nervously. “That’s right sheriff. That’s who I am all right.”
“And how long have you been Hoskins? Since Barkley here bought you a couple of drinks?”
Jelly came up and stood in front of the sheriff. “It JUST so happens I’ve been me ever since I was born. And I DON’T drink.”
The lawman sniffed Jelly’s breath and nodded his head. “Uh huh. Now both of you get out of here before you have to spend the night in jail with HIM, and believe me, that’s NOT something you want to do.” He jerked his finger toward the cell that Nick was in.
“SHERIFF, THIS is the man that my brother was accused of killing….”
“Sheriff! Get me out of this jail, NOW!” Nick bellowed.
“I tell ya, sheriff, I’m me.” Jelly huffed.
“Let my brother out of that jail! He didn’t kill anybody!”
“Sheriff, you can’t hold me, Hoskins is alive! I didn’t kill him!”
“I mean it, sheriff, let my brother go, you have no reason to hold him!”
“I AIN’T DRUNK, and I’m who I am!”
Fifteen minutes later, the sheriff gratefully left the prisoners in charge of the deputy so he could go home and rest his aching head. He could still hear them and he was halfway down the street. They didn’t seem at all happy with their situation; they were all yelling loud enough to wake the dead. He’d probably get complaints about that from some of the townsfolk. Well, he’d just let that no-account deputy of his handle it. He had had enough, and if he stayed around that bunch one minute longer, he’d have to arrest himself for murder.
He was glad he’d put the old man in a different cell; he could hear the other two threatening him, and he didn’t need another murder in his town, if there really had been a murder at all. He shuddered at the thought of having to go over to Apolonia Hoskin’s house and see if the guy in the cell was really her brother. He sure wasn’t going to look her up tonight. With the way his head felt, he was afraid that listening to that woman just might do him in permanently. He snickered. The man who claimed to be her brother just might be related after all, he had made about as much sense as she usually did.
Murdoch re-read the telegram he held in his hands. He’d need trying to figure out just whom it was from and just what it meant for the last hour. He had the feeling it was important, but for the life of him he couldn’t decipher its hidden meaning.
I’m here stop. Boys alive? stop. Find out stop.
The more he looked at the unsigned message, the more he thought it just might be a ransom note. May be the boys were being held hostage by the circus. He sure hoped so, because at least then he would have SOME sort of explanation for the people in town about the boy’s new careers.
Murdoch fingered the note one more time. It had been sent from Fairfield, the place where Nick Barkley was being held for murder. Maybe there was some sort of conspiracy at work; he thought for a few more seconds and then made a decision. He was going to go to Fairfield and find out once and for all just what was going on. The more he thought about it, the more certain he was that his sons were being forced to do what they were doing. When he found the men responsible for his boy’s humiliation, he would make sure they never messed with him again. They would pay dearly for their audacity.
Jelly cautiously sat up and looked around. The Barkleys had finally fallen asleep after wearing themselves out yelling at him, each other, and the deputy. He figured it was well after midnight, and the town seemed quiet. He looked through the bars to the door separating the cell from the front office, and he heard the snores from the deputy even through the door. Slowly he reached into his pocket and got out the key he had picked up from the sheriff’s desk right before the lawman had locked them up. He tiptoed over to the door and put the key in the lock. The lock clicked open, and Jelly froze, worrying that the noise would awaken the two noisemakers in the adjoining cell. When they didn’t move, he stepped through quickly and gave one last glance toward Nick and Heath. He felt a twinge of guilt leaving them like this, but he figured it was a matter of survival.
He wasn’t sure if Nick intended to do all the things he had threatened to do but Jelly hadn’t lived this long by being stupid. He crept over to the door leading into the office and opened it, noting with satisfaction that the deputy was sound asleep with a pillow wrapped around his head. Jelly chuckled; apparently Nick was good for something after all. He glanced back one more time at the two Barkleys, and then his conscience got the better of him. After all, it WAS his sister’s fault they were in this mess. He bent down and sent the keys skidding along the floor into the Barkley’s cell, and then he turned and scurried out of the building.
Murdoch rode into Fairfield several days later. He was tired, dusty, his back hurt, and SOMEONE was going to pay, he just wasn’t sure who yet. He thought that before he went to the sheriff’s office he’d stop and get a drink; whatever was happening could wait a few minutes while he washed some trail dust out of his throat.
An hour later, Murdoch pushed open the door to the sheriff’s office. The lawman sat up quickly, the front legs of his chair hitting the floor with a thud. “What do you want?”
Murdoch was taken aback by the sheriff’s attitude. “Is that any way to talk to a taxpayer? I just wanted some information.”
With a sigh, the lawman nodded. “Sorry, guess I am a little edgy; the last couple of strangers that came in here were nothing but bad news. And on top of it, I STILL have a headache from all the yelling they did. Sorry, what do you want to know?”
Murdoch nodded. “I’m looking for a couple of men.” He looked through the open door leading to the cell area. “I see you’re not still holding Nick Barkley?”
The sheriff’s eyes narrowed. “And just what do you know about Barkley?”
Murdoch sensed the sheriff’s mood and decided to be cautious. “He’s the son of a friend of mine. She told me he was here, and I was just wondering if he still was or if he’d been released.”
“Uh huh. He’s “been released’ all right.” The sheriff studied him and sniffed at Murdoch’s breath as he got closer. “And what men would you happen to be looking for?” He fingered his gun, waiting for the rancher to answer.
“My two sons. Scott and Johnny Lancer. The older one’s a blond and the other is a little shorter and has dark hair.”
The sheriff nodded. “They came in here and talked to Barkley awhile back, then left. Don’t know where they went.”
Murdoch nodded. “All right. I’m looking for another man, too. His name’s Jelly Hoskins. He works for me.”
“Jarrod, slow down. I’m sure that they have found Jelly by now and Nick’s safely out of jail. After all, it’s been three weeks since I sent the telegraph to Murdoch.”
Jarrod shook his head. “I know, but I just wish we could have gotten here a little quicker.”
Victoria nodded. “I know, but the ship could only go so fast. Nick sure picked a good time, with both of us being out of the country, but I’m sure the Lancers found Jelly and took care of things.”
Jarrod looked at his mother skeptically. “Are we talking about the same Lancers? The two men who got themselves arrested for murder just for going shopping?”
Victoria shook her head. “That was just bad luck. It could have happened to anyone.”
“And I suppose anyone could have blown their own father up and destroyed their own house, too.”
“Jarrod, ANYONE can make a mistake….. or two.”
“What about shooting your Christmas tree?”
Victoria finally fell silent. Maybe Jarrod was right. She kicked her horse into a lope. She just hoped Nick was all right. If Scott and Johnny had gotten him out, he just MIGHT be arrested for murder. She didn’t think he’d ever forgive the Lancers for shooting his saddle.
“Well, brother, that went well.” Scott limped over to where his brother sat.
Johnny shrugged. “I thought it would work, but I guess it didn’t.”
Scott tugged at his shredded sleeve and replied icily. “No, it didn’t, and next time you want to experiment, count me out. It’s a good thing that Helen was there, or I’d have been a goner.” He sighed. “She can handle that bunch almost as well as Agnes can.”
Johnny looked at his brother out of the corner of his eye. “Yeah, and if I didn’t know better, I’d think you were fallin’ for her.”
Scott sat up straighter. “It’s purely a professional relationship. NOT like you and Agnes!”
“Uh huh. I saw ya hangin’ all over her behind the tent, whisperin’ sweet nothings in her ear.”
Scott turned red. “I was merely thanking her for preventing those monsters of yours from eating me!”
“And what about you and Agnes?”
Johnny glared at his brother. “Agnes and I have an understandin’, that’s all.”
“Uh huh. She follows you around like a love- sick puppy. Next thing I know, you’ll be asking her to go back to Lancer with us.”
When Johnny didn’t answer, Scott looked closely at his brother, who was studiously avoiding Scott’s eyes, and busily chewing the bottom of his lip. “Johnny, you DIDN’T!”
Johnny shrugged but didn’t raise his eyes.
“What in heaven’s name do you think Murdoch will say about that!”
“It ain’t his call!” Johnny said defensively. “I’m a grown man. Besides, he probably won’t even let US back there.” He snuck a look at his brother. “Do you think he’s found out yet?”
“Well, since branding season started almost a week ago, yes, I think he’s probably noticed that we’re not there,” Scott replied sarcastically.
Johnny sighed dramatically. “I MEAN, do ya think he knows what we’re doin’?”
Scott shook his head emphatically. “Definitely not.”
“How come you’re so sure?”
“Because little brother, we’re still alive.”
“Sheriff, you CAN’T lock me up simply because I know Jelly Hoskins!” Murdoch fumed.
“I ain’t locking you up because you know him. I’m locking you up because he works for you. For all I know, you’re responsible for three dangerous men escaping from my jail.”
“I had NOTHING to do with it!”
The sheriff shrugged. “Maybe not. But then again, maybe you did. I figure we’ll just sit here till the judge comes to town and he can sort it out. At least I’ll have ONE prisoner. Besides, you’re drunk anyway.”
“I’m NOT drunk. I just had a drink or two because I’m worried about my boys.”
“They looked like they could take care of themselves.”
Murdoch sighed. “I thought they could too. Now I’m not so sure. I think maybe they’re being held hostage.”
The sheriff looked at Murdoch skeptically.
“Please, sheriff, I have to find my sons.”
Murdoch started to answer the man, and then stopped. It was a good question. After all, branding season would be over in a few weeks, and he could always hire a couple of hands for a whole lot less than he was paying the boys. He sat back on the cot and closed his eyes. He’d have to think about this.
Victoria and Jarrod rode into town and stopped in front of the sheriff’s office. Jarrod grinned at his mother. “He’s not here.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s too quiet.”
Just then, a loud bellowing came from the office, and Jarrod looked at his mother. “Guess I was wrong,” he shrugged.
Victoria shot her eldest son a glare at his attempt at levity. “That’s not Nick,” she said and walked into the office. “Sheriff, my name is Victoria Barkley, and I came to find out about my son.”
The sheriff’s chair once more hit the ground with a thud. And he leaped to his feet. “OUT! Right now!”
Victoria stood her ground as the man approached. “I have a right to know where my son is, and if he’s still here, I want to talk to him.”
The sheriff glared at her. “You know darn good and well that he’s not here.”
“I do?” She said more calmly than she felt.
“Yes, you do. He and the other two broke out of jail two days ago.”
Jarrod shot a glance at his mother. “What other two?”
“One said he was the prisoner’s brother, the other one claimed to be Jelly Hoskins. Couldn’t prove it either way. Hoskin’s sister left town and won’t be back for a while.”
Victoria sat down on the empty chair. “They BROKE OUT of jail? MY sons?” She asked in disbelief.
The sheriff nodded. “Yep. But I have the mastermind of the whole plot in my jail right now, and he’s NOT getting out.”
“And just whom would that be?” Jarrod asked.
“Mister Murdoch Lancer. At least that’s who he claims he is. Could be the King of England for all I know.”
“May we see the prisoner?” Victoria asked stiffly.
The sheriff’s eyes narrowed. “All right, but if either of you try anything, I’m warming you, I ain’t in any mood to …..”
“I assure you, Sheriff, we just want to talk to him.”
Two hours later, Murdoch and Victoria were on their way to Porter to try to find their missing sons. Jarrod had headed back to Modesto to take care of ranch business since the rest of the family seemed to be occupied with more pressing matters. It had taken all of his skill as a negotiator, plus some broad hints about possible lawsuits for unlawful arrests, to get Murdoch released.
Getting Heath, Nick, and Jelly out of the doghouse was more difficult, and it wasn’t until Jarrod promised to return the three prisoners to the sheriff’s custody that the lawman finally shuddered and agreed to drop all charges against them as long as Hoskin’s sister dropped the murder charge and none of them ever set foot in his quiet town again. Jarrod grinned. His brothers might not be in trouble with the law, but by the look on his mother’s face, jail was the least of their worries. He wouldn’t give a lot for Scott and Johnny’s chances, either. Murdoch definitely didn’t look happy.
As they approached Porter, Victoria noticed numerous signs advertising the circus that was in town. Several signs showed pictures of performers, and two performers in particular bore striking resemblances to Murdoch’s wayward sons, except she couldn’t imagine the Lancer boys doing what the signs seemed to indicate they were doing. Victoria kept sneaking peeks, but Murdoch’s expression never changed, except for a tightening around the lips that grew more pronounced with each sign they passed. She was sure her expression wasn’t at its most pleasant either; when she caught up with her boys they were not going to be able to sit down for a month. From Murdoch’s expression, she figured that Johnny and Scott would have to spend about the same amount of time in an upright position.
“Nick, slow down. Haven’t you gotten us in enough trouble? Mother’s going to have our hides when she finds out what we did.”
Nick turned around and growled at his brother. “I don’t care. All she can do is kill us, and I’ll die happy if I can take at least ONE of those Lancers with me.”
“Nick, this wasn’t exactly Scott and Johnny’s fault.”
“Maybe not, but it’ll still make me feel better to kill them. And Hoskins IS DEFINITELY a dead man.”
Heath sighed. He had hoped that Nick might have learned his lesson, but it appeared that his big brother was still bound and determined to make someone pay for his humiliation. Heath smirked as he remembered the sight of his usually composed brother racing down the street after Jelly and holding his behind. He thought that Johnny might be right; Nick just didn’t have a sense of humor.
Scott poked his head out of the tent and looked around. So far, so good. His brother was nowhere in sight. He didn’t need his little brother snickering at him for going to see Helen. He really liked her, and besides, she had saved his life. Unlike Johnny’s feelings toward Agnes, he really didn’t know if he wanted her as a permanent addition in his life, but he had to admit he was quite fond of her. He wondered what Murdoch would say if both Agnes and Helen came back to Lancer with them. The more he thought about it, the better the idea sounded. After all, it just might take his father’s mind off of murder, and he was pretty sure that would be a good thing. At least he was fairly certain that Murdoch didn’t know exactly WHY he and Johnny weren’t there. He shuddered at the thought. Their father would be angry enough with them for missing branding season, but if he found out what they were actually doing……. He shuddered, unable to finish the thought.
He kept a wary eye out as he crossed the ground, and caught sight of Johnny walking with his pretty assistant toward the food tent. She had her hand on Johnny’s arm, and the two of them looked real cozy. Scott grinned; hopefully Johnny’s mind would be on something other than tormenting his brother. He walked by the advance man’s tent, and noticed a stack of the new flyers that had recently been distributed to all of the nearby towns. He had heard the new flyers were really great, and he stopped to look at them. His eyes got big when he noticed the cover, and a moment later he went racing toward where he had last seen Johnny, all thoughts of Helen forgotten. For that matter, all thoughts of living to see his next birthday were forgotten.
Jelly snuck into the Big Top and hunkered down next to some big half-barrels that were used in the elephant act. He pulled one partially over him and settled down to wait. He figured he’d just stay right here until the show. He was afraid if someone saw him now, he just might get thrown out on his ear, as he hadn’t exactly left the circus on great terms. For some reason, his cooking hadn’t gone over very well. The owner said it was the first time in the history of the circus they had to cancel a performance because of mass heartburn.
Jelly really hadn’t wanted to come back here at all, but as he was running out of town, he had happened to see a flyer and recognized the two men on the cover. He grinned as he realized that his two friends were alive; that is they were until Murdoch caught up with them.
He thought about just hightailing it for home, but he figured he’d better warn the boys about Nick, and also let them know that their cover was blown and to watch out for their Old Man, and this was the only way he could do that. He just hoped Heath and Nick didn’t show up and catch him before he could talk to Scott and Johnny. Those Barkley boys sure were persistent. At least Nick was. And he definitely didn’t have a sense of humor, that’s for sure.
Murdoch marched up to the ticket booth. “I want to talk to a couple of your performers.”
The man looked at him and shrugged. “Nobody gets in without a ticket.”
“I don’t want to see the show, I just want to talk to a couple of your men!” Murdoch blustered.
The man shrugged again. “So buy a ticket.”
Murdoch shoved the flyer in the man’s face and pointed to the picture on the cover. “Where are those two?” He demanded.
“Look, mister, I don’t know WHERE they are right now. I DO know that in exactly one half of an hour they’ll be in the Big Top, so why don’t ya buy a ticket and see them then?”
Murdoch was drawing a deep breath to argue when Victoria stepped up and plunked down a couple of coins. The man grinned at her and pushed two tickets toward the couple. “Thanks, and enjoy the show.”
Murdoch turned and shot one last glare toward the man as Victoria led him toward the Big Top. “Oh, don’t worry, we will,” he growled.
Fifteen minutes later, Nick and Heath approached the ticket counter. Nick turned toward Heath. “Pay the man.”
“Me? I don’t have any money.”
“Why not?” Nick glared.
“Because you were in too much of a gol-darned hurry to let us stop and get our money when we left the sheriff’s office, that’s why!”
Nick glared at his brother. “I got my gun. That’s all that was important.” He fingered his gun suggestively while he glared at the ticket taker. “I’m SURE we can come to an understanding,” he said softly. Heath hurriedly intervened and grabbed Nick’s arm. “ Come on, brother, we’ll figure something else out.”
Five minutes later, the two men were crawling under the edge of the tent. They poked their heads through just as a group of performers walked by, and they hurriedly pulled their heads back. They sat there a moment, and then Heath cautiously asked his brother. “Did one of those performers seem familiar to you?”
Nick shook his head. “I didn’t pay attention, I just want to find Jelly so he can lead us to Scott and Johnny before I kill him, and then I want to get out of here.”
Heath sat back and shook his head. He HAD to have been mistaken. There’s no way that Scott Lancer would be caught dead in a costume like that. Of course, there HAD been the Easter Bunny outfit. He took one more quick look in the direction of the performers, but they had disappeared. “Now what?” he asked his brother.
“Now we wait.”
Nick glared at his brother. “For one of those Lancer clowns to show up.”
Scott was pacing frantically while Johnny calmly got dressed. Scott shot his brother another disbelieving look. “Aren’t you the least bit upset?”
“But in all probability Murdoch knows EXACTLY what we’ve been doing!”
“And there’s a good chance that the whole VALLEY knows what we’ve been doing!”
“And that doesn’t upset you?”
Johnny stopped tucking in his shirt and calmly appraised his brother. “Nothin’ I can do about it. Besides,” he snickered. “I ain’t the one in the clown outfit.”
“I’m ONLY in a clown outfit because YOU conned me into it.”
“Uh huh.” Johnny grabbed a shoe and put it on.
Scott shook his head furiously. “This is the LAST performance I plan on doing. You can just find yourself another fall guy.”
Johnny stopped and looked at his brother. “And just WHERE do you plan on goin’?”
“Somewhere where they’ve never heard of clowns, Easter Bunnies, or BROTHERS!”
Johnny smiled. “What about Helen? You plan on takin her ta Boston with ya? I can just see ole’ Harlan’s face now.”
“You leave Helen out of this.”
Johnny shrugged. “I just don’t think she’d like Boston very much, that’s all.”
Scott glared at his brother. “And I suppose Agnes will like Mexico?”
Johnny sat with his head down as he thought about Scott’s words. “I think they’d BOTH like Lancer a whole lot better than either Boston or Mexico. Maybe we’d better try ta come up with some sort of an explanation ta give ta Murdoch when he finally shows up. With any luck, he’ll believe us. ”
“You mean IF he shows up, which I doubt! And I ALSO doubt he’ll believe anything we say.” He looked at his brother pointedly. “Would you believe us if you didn’t know better?”
Johnny shook his head slowly. “Nope. I KNOW better, and I STILL don’t believe us.” He grabbed his other shoe. “And by the way, Murdoch’ll show up all right. He wouldn’t pass up the chance of killing us.”
Scott put his head in his hands. “WHY didn’t we just resign ourselves to being turkey farmers?”
Johnny shrugged. “You’re the smart one, you tell me.” He pulled out his watch and looked at it. “Time ta go, big brother.”
Scott glared back at him. “I mean it, Johnny. This is our last performance. We’re going to quit before we get into trouble.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen! Introducing the Greatest Show on Earth! A collection of acts and performances that will take your breath away! Exotic animals from the far ends of the earth! Prepare to be amazed, mystified, delighted, and entertained!” The ringmaster walked back and forth, extolling the virtues of the circus and bragging about the acts.
Murdoch turned toward Victoria. “I’d settle for being ‘delighted’ in finding out that Scott and Johnny weren’t really doing what I THINK they’re doing.”
“And I would be delighted to find my wayward boys and give them a thrashing they’ll never forget! But as long as we’re here, I want to watch the show.” Victoria turned away from Murdoch and sat back in her seat.
Murdoch looked at her for a moment, then crossed his arms over his chest and impatiently settled back to wait.
Halfway through the show, there was still no sign of any of their boys, and Murdoch was getting impatient. He watched idly as a few of the roustabouts went over and started rolling some of the barrels into the nearby ring. The elephants started filing into the tent, heading for the ring, and at the same time a commotion was heard outside the tent.
Murdoch and Victoria, as well as most of the audience, immediately looked toward the noise, wondering what on earth could be making that awful racket.
One of the workers approached the barrel that was over Jelly and attempted to pull it off of him. Jelly grabbed the barrel and pulled back, sending the roustabout flying backwards and causing him to land on his backside. The worker furiously charged back into the fray and grabbed the barrel, starting a tug of war between the suddenly uncooperative piece of equipment and the roustabout.
Nick had been watching the show with disinterest, preferring to daydream about revenge, when suddenly his eyes snapped open. He elbowed Heath in the ribs. “LOOK!” he bellowed. “IT’S JELLY! Let’s GO!” He bolted down through the startled audience and jumped onto the track, leaving a reluctant Heath following behind.
Murdoch and Victoria sat up as they watched the tug of war for the barrel, and heard the audience laugh as the roustabout went flying. Victoria’s eyes got big as a man came running through the audience and leaped over the rail into the arena. They got even bigger when she recognized Nick. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught another form approaching. It was too late for her to stop Nick, but she had no intention of letting both of her sons make fools of themselves. “HEATH!”
Heath heard the command in Victoria’s voice and knew that to continue would be madness. The gig was up. He obediently and somewhat gratefully skidded to a stop and watched as his brother flew toward the hapless Jelly. He watched in indecision for a second and then turned and looked at Victoria. She was watching Nick in amazement, and Heath decided to save his brother from a murder rap. With one fluid movement, he jumped over the rail and went sprinting after Nick.
The commotion from outside the tent grew louder, and suddenly a mass of brown bodies poured into the tent, heading toward a single clown that had appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Murdoch looked closer and recognized the distinctive posture of his older son. Scott had just taken a few steps away from the slavering pack when his father’s voice stopped him in his tracks. “SCOTT!”
Scott turned toward the sound of the familiar bellow just as Heath collided with him trying to cut across the ring in an attempt to catch his brother. Both men went down in a heap as the pack converged upon him, but finding their fun thwarted by the still men, they looked around for more lively prey. After a second or two they spied the rapidly moving figure of Nick, and with snarls of anticipation they bore down on the running man.
Jelly saw the pack charging, but more importantly, he saw Nick. The expression on the approaching man’s face told Jelly all he needed to know, and with a huge effort he wrested the barrel away from the roustabout and once more pulled it away from him. He turned it over, and as it fell to the ground, he disappeared underneath. Nick skidded to a halt next to the barrel just as Jelly vanished. He looked around in frustration, and then turned toward the track just in time to see the pack bearing down on him. He watched the animals for a second, wondering if he could take them all out with his revolver. He drew the gun, but one of the animals jumped on him before he could fire, knocking it from his hands. He suddenly decided killing Jelly wasn’t all that important anyway; he turned and ran for his life.
At that moment, Johnny came running into the tent, yelling at the pack to stop. Johnny stopped in confusion when he caught sight of Scott and Heath disentangling themselves in the center of the ring, and the pack leaping after a somehow familiar figure running around the track. Johnny went flying after the bunch, trying to prevent them from harming the unfortunate man. As he ran by the elephants, one of them took out after him, scattering workers along the way.
Murdoch watched Johnny take off after Nick and turned toward the son he still had a chance of catching. He crossed the track and had just about reached Scott when Nick came flying by, the fierce predators at his heels. The animals streamed around Murdoch, sending him spinning, and he too landed on his tail. Reaching out, he tripped Johnny as he came by, but the next instant Murdoch was himself flattened as the elephant took exception to his move and sent him tumbling head over tail with his trunk.
Johnny took one look at his rolling father and decided it was every man for himself. He turned and ran toward the exit, with the elephant hot on his heels. Scott and Heath made their way over to the prone man and had just gotten him to his feet when the pack with Nick leading bore down on them once more. Scott and Heath dove to the side. Scott landed on a camel that immediately took off, and Heath collided with one of the horses. The horse lost its balance and smashed into one of the tent support posts, cracking it and causing the tent to sag alarmingly. Murdoch sat up shakily and got run over a second time by the rampaging bunch.
The rest of the elephants had been calmly going about their routine amid all of the confusion. At the end of their act, they picked up their barrels and lumbered toward the exit. One of the elephants picked up the barrel that housed Jelly and picked it up, spilling the handyman to the ground. The man looked around in confusion, and when he caught sight of Nick, he turned and ran, colliding immediately with one of the elephants. Startled, the animal took off, sideswiping another one of the support posts of the tent.
Nick caught sight of his nemesis from the opposite end of the tent, and headed toward him, murder on his mind, the snarling pack still hot on his heels. Victoria had been watching the mayhem, and decided she had had enough. She calmly climbed down to the track, and as Nick came running past, she grabbed him by the ear. The pack immediately started jumping on the helpless man, and Victoria let go of him and with her hands on her hips, shouted “DOWN!”
The pack hesitated and she turned toward her errant son. “WELL?” Nick opened his mouth, but before he could respond, the pack took off after Jelly and Victoria went flying as one of the dogs darted between her legs. Her vocal response to that occurrence was drowned out as the tent collapsed and billowed down over them.
Murdoch and Victoria sat with Sam in the saloon at Green River. Victoria thought it would be entirely appropriate for Heath and Nick to help Johnny and Scott build the additional pens for the new shipment of turkeys that Murdoch had ordered. After listening to Murdoch’s report on the profit that the ranch had made on the birds, she had instructed Heath and Nick to learn all they could about the fowl. She decided she was going to diversify as well and she knew EXACTLY who was going to be in charge of her new project.
Victoria took a drink from her glass. It was a little early to be drinking, but after the events of the last couple of days, it had seemed like a pretty good idea when Murdoch had suggested they go to the saloon and leave the boys to their own devices at the ranch. Both she and Murdoch had taken the precaution of locking up all of the firearms and had threatened their sons with bodily harm if there was so much as a cross word between them. The boys obviously had gotten the message, because none of them seemed to be doing any talking at all.
She just couldn’t believe that her sons had acted the way they had, but she was going to borrow a page from Murdoch’s book and make sure they were too tired to get into any more trouble for a long, long time. She took another sip from her glass and smiled as she remembered the chaos at the circus.
Murdoch caught the smile. “What are you thinking about?”
Victoria chuckled. “Just that if you and I want to give up ranching, we could get a job at the circus. The owner said that was the best comedy routine he’d seen in a long time, except, of course the finale where the tent came down. We’d have to leave that part out.”
“And if you don’t mind, I’d just as soon leave that ill-mannered bunch of dandified canines out of it as well.” He knocked on the cast that Sam had put on his leg and sighed. “I guess it could have been worse. I COULD have been run over by an elephant.”
Victoria laughed. “Those dogs were bad enough. I have never seen such an ill –behaved bunch of poodles in my life. They’re usually pretty quiet.”
Murdoch chuckled. “It took a while to convince me they were really dogs. “I’VE never seen such a silly looking bunch of canines in MY life. Maybe that’s why they were so mad. Maybe somebody showed them a mirror.” He chuckled again and signaled the bartender for another round.
“Well,” Victoria continued. “If the boys get to be too much for us, we know we can always run away and join the circus.”
Murdoch smiled. “I have the feeling the boys won’t be giving us too much trouble for quite a while.”
“With those boys, you never know,” Sam interjected. “They don’t seem to be real quick learners. By the way, did you ever find Jelly?
Murdoch and Victoria shook their heads. Murdoch sighed. “I’m sure he’ll show up eventually. After all, Nick isn’t chasing him this time.”
Victoria nodded. “No, just that pack of poodles. Besides, I told Nick that if he went within ten feet of poor Jelly, I would personally shoot him.”
“And what did Nick say to that?” Sam asked.
Victoria took another gulp of her drink. “He said it would be worth it,” she said darkly.
Sam turned and looked at Murdoch cautiously. “Did the boys tell you they were going to have Helen and Agnes join them at the ranch?”
Murdoch’s mood immediately darkened, and he polished off another shot. “I can’t believe they actually asked a couple of women to come to the ranch to live. What kind of lady would agree to it? And what will the neighbors say?”
Sam shrugged. “Murdoch, don’t pass judgment until you get to know them. After all, the boys aren’t complete fools.”
Murdoch choked on his drink and glared at the doctor. “Wanna bet?”
Sam thought about it for a moment, and then shrugged. “Well, OK. I see your point. But at least give them a chance.”
“The boys or the girls?”
Sam looked at Murdoch uncertainly. “Both. After all, Scott and Johnny said those two saved their lives.”
“I hope they don’t expect me to show my gratitude,” he mumbled. Murdoch looked glumly at the bottle. “ I have the feeling I’m going to be doing a lot more drinking in the future.”
Victoria nodded as she finished her drink. “You and me both. “I HATE turkeys.”
The three friends looked at each other and sighed. Sam motioned for another bottle.
An hour later, Abe Parker, who owned the Green River Hotel came running in. “Mr. Lancer, they’re here! They’re here!”
“Who’s here, Abe?”
“Agnes and Helen! They’re here!”
Murdoch looked glumly at his friends before answering. “So?”
“Well, what do you want me to do?” Abe said, panic showing in his voice.
Murdoch shook his head. “Don’t ask me, they’re not my problem.”
“But Scott and Johnny aren’t in town.”
Murdoch sighed. Just because he didn’t approve didn’t mean he had the right to be rude. “Give them a room.”
Abe stared at the rancher. “A room?” He squeaked.
Murdoch finished his latest drink. “Yes,” he said impatiently. “A room.”
“But Mr. Lancer….Sir.”
Murdoch turned toward the hotel owner. “What’s so difficult about that? You DO have vacancies, don’t you?”
‘Yes Sir. But I don’t think……..” He looked helplessly at the rancher.
Sam walked over to the window and looked out. He stood quietly for a moment, studying the street, and then he turned and walked back to the table. He picked up the bottle Murdoch had just ordered and calmly took a gulp directly from the bottle.
Victoria looked at him in alarm. “Sam, what’s wrong?”
Sam took another gulp. “Absolutely nothing that alcohol can’t fix.”
Victoria looked at him dubiously for a moment and then made her own way to the window. She looked out and saw Jelly holding Agnes the elephant and Helen the camel in front of the hotel, with an apparently subdued pack of brown poodles next to them. She walked back to the bar and picked up a large stein from the bartender then went to the table and grabbed the bottle away from Sam. She took a drink from the bottle and then filled the huge mug to the brim while Murdoch watched in disbelief. She slammed the mug down on the table and turned toward her friend. “Here. Don’t ask any questions, just drink.”