"You? Scott's supposed to go."
"Oh, he always gets to go visit the Barkleys. He's makin' himself oboxious up there."
"Did I hear my name mentioned?"
"Oh Scott, Johnny volunteered to get the mare in Stockton."
"To get the mare, or visit Audra Barkley?"
Johnny laughed. "Worried about some competition, Boston? You just know if Audra went out with me a few times, she''d forget you, Brother."
"Sure why not? A new saddle says I can get Audra Barkley to go out with me and her brothers won't object."
Scott's eyebrows arched. "Excuse me, but I seem to remember that you did take her to a social once, and she slapped your face."
"She did not! I had a bug on my nose. You know how I hate creepy, crawly things. She just got it off."
Scott grinned. "That's not what Jarrod told me."
"Jarrod--he's just like you--one of those refined types. You college men all stick together. So is it a bet?"
"It's a bet. I can really use a new saddle."
"All right you two. Enough. I guess it's only fair that Johnny gets to go to Stockton. Could you stop off in Modesto to see Bill Jacobs? I have some money for him."
"Sure thing. I'll leave first thing in the morning."
Turning to his older brother, Johnny smirked, "I'll be sure to tell Audra hello for you."
with sarcasm, Scott replied, "Thanks."
3 days later Johnny left Modesto. Bill Jacobs had insisted on Johnny staying overnight to talk over old times. The Barkleys weren't expecting him this soon anyway, but he was looking forward to spending time with the lovely Audra.
Riding up to the white-pillared house the following day, Johnny felt slightly nervous. If it had just been Audra and her mother, the Madrid charm would have carried the day; but he really didn't think Jarrod, Heath and especially Nick really cared for him. They were very protective of their sister. That's why Scott's easy familiarity with the Barkleys rankled so deeply.
Just then Audra appeared, dressed for riding. "Johnny! We received a telegram from your father about your visit. Come in."
He entered the parlor to be met by all of the Barkleys. Of course, Victoria welcomed him warmly, and even Jarrod seemed relatively friendly. Unfortunately, Heath remained silent except for a quick hello, while Nick positively growled!
"Johnny, we're so glad to see you. Scott has told us so much about you and Lancer."
Mrs.Barkley, but I wouldn't believe everything he's told you." At that,
the ladies laughed while the males looked like undertakers at a
$5.00 funeral. For one brief instant Johnny began to regret his bet with his brother.
Victoria rescued the moment with the announcement that lunch was ready.
The meal was excellent, but Johnny ate little under the
constant scrutiny of the Barkley men.
In a terse voice Nick remarked,"After lunch, let's go see the mare. I think your father will agree that she's worth the price."
"Oh, I know Murdoch trusts your judgment. Still I guess I'd better check her out." At that Nick growled again.
So Johnny joined Audra, Nick and Heath in looking over the mare. Hoping to ingratiate himself with Nick and Heath, Johnny complimented them on the beautul mare. "Murdoch will be so pleased with her. I'm ready to sign the papers now. It's handy that you have a lawyer in the family."
"So glad I can be of assistance," stated the eldest Barkley as he approached them.
"I didn't mean nothin' by that. It's just you know how you can't trust lawyers. I mean, well I know you're honest, but...."
Once again Johnny was saved by a Barkley lady. Audra suggested that she and Johnny take a buggy ride around the ranch since he hadn't seen very much of it the first time he had been there. "You can always sign the papers later. It's a lovely day."
"Well sure, I'd be delighted, Audra."
As Johnny followed her out, Nick said in a low tone, "Don't keep her out too late. It gets chilly when the sun goes down."
"Uh, no, of course not. We'll be back early."
Alas, Johnny Lancer's good intentions fell apart much like the buggy wheel which glanced off a rock in the dusty road.
Johnny's suggestion about walking back would have worked out well had Audra not sprained her ankle when the buggy tipped to the side.
Unfortunately, Johnny's next proposal about using the horse for Audra to ride on was also met with protest. While an excellent rider, Audra preferred not to ride without a saddle.
So they sat down to wait. Evening appoached bringing with it a slight chill. Johnny removed his jacket to put around the young woman.
"Audra, I am so sorry."
"It's not your fault, but it is getting cold."
Johnny moved nearer, putting his arm protectively around her shoulders. "I'm sure Nick and Heath will be here soon."
"Uh right." And they'll probably want my hide.
Just then they heard the approach of horses. Nick, Heath, and a stranger rode up.
Nick jumped down and ran over to his sister, "Audra, are you all right?"
"Just fine but let's go home. I'm cold." So they made their way to the Barkley where Victoria waited for her daughter's return.
immediately led Audra to a waiting tub of hot water. As she left, she turned
to Johnny, "You must be hungry. Silas has dinner for you in
"Thanks, M'am. That sounds good."
Heath walked over to the Lancer son. "Go ahead and eat. Nick and I need to talk to Revernd Dale."
that's right, you don't know him. Our friend there (pointing to the stranger
who had ridden with them) was visiting and insisted on going
along to find Audra."
"Sure. I'll just go find the food. Don't worry about me."
Johnny strode into the kitchen to find a plate of stew and some bread. It was delicious. The hot coffee was especially welcome.
Suddenly, Lancer heard loud voices. Nick was arguing with the Reverend Dale. "Just don't mention this to anyone. Nothing happened."
"Oh,dear. I hope you're right."
"Dammit, of course I'm right."
left the kitchen to stand outside the study. Since the door was open a
fraction, he could hear the Reverend's next words even though
they were not as loud as Nick's had been.
"But I do feel it's my duty to talk to that young man and convince him to do the right thing."
"RIGHT THING? Now you listen to me, my sister is not going to marry a gunfighter."
Heath's calmer voice interrupted, "Now Nick, you know he's not that anymore plus he's the owner of a big ranch."
"One-third owner! How can you even think of letting Audra marry Johnny Lancer?"
Marriage, ME? "Now wait a minute! He raced into the study. "I'm not marrying anybody."
Heath and Nick turned to him. "What's the matter, don't you think our sister's good enough for you?"
"No, I mean Yes--uh, it's just that I don't want to get married. She's a nice girl, really pretty; but well,you're right--my reputation is none too good."
"But you don't want to ruin her reputation, do you?" remarked Jarrod Barkley as he entered. "After all she's the innocent victim here."
"Innocent? Yeah, well sure, but I didn't do anything."
"Are you certain?"
A stubborn Lancer look entered Johnny's eyes. "Ask her."
"I will." Nick left to get Audra who soon reappeared wearing a dressing gown.
"Audra, we need to know if this gufighter did anything to you?"
"No." Johnny breathed a sigh of relief. "Not exactly."
"Not exactly? What does that mean?"
"He did kiss me."
The younger Lancer reddened. It was true, but damn it was just a kiss.
The Reverend Joe Dale tsked. "Oh dear, oh dear. If this should get out...."
Nick roared again. "Audra, how could you let him...."
"Well, I didn't have a choice."
"WHAT?" The cacophony of voices echoed in a crescendo.
Johnny felt the vise grow tighter and tighter. Why me? It was just a kiss. Surely she's been kissed before?
Just then, the bell sounded from the front door. Silas opened it to a blond, blue-eyed man.
"Scott! Am I glad to see you. They want me to marry Audra. I didn't do anything. Tell them! Tell them!"
"Brother, what have you gotten yourself into?"
"Nothing, I tell you it was innocent. The wheel broke and I kissed...."
"You kissed a wheel?"
"No, no Audra!"
"Oh," said Scott, "I'm not sure I want to hear this."
"Please, Scott. Tell them I'm too young to marry. They're your friends. Please get me out of this, Brother."
Scott looked at the young man with pity. "All right, I'll see what I can do. You wait here."
The blond Lancer went into the study to face the Barkleys and Reverend Dale. Some time passed.
Finally Scott emerged. "It's okay, Johnny, you can go. Let's get the mare and head out."
"Tonight? I mean it's late."
"If you stay 'til tomorrow, you might find yourself with a bride by nightfall."
"Oh okay, let's go!"
Thirty minutes later both brothers were headed back to Lancer with the mare on a lead rope.
"How do you get into these things, Little Brother?"
Johnny's face revealed his puzzlement. "I don't know; but you're not going to tell Murdoch, are you?"
"No, I won't. I'm just glad I stopped by the Barkleys' on my way back from Sacramento."
"Me too. I don't know what I'd have done."
"Yeah, you wouldn't have had me there as best man."
Johnny's face paled. He kicked Barranca into a gallop.
Scott eased his own horse into a trot. He'd take his time catching up to his brother.
to be sure to send those two cases of champagne to the Barkleys and their
friend, Joe. They all should be on the stage. And Audra
really earned her new gown from San Francisco. Well, that should keep Johnny off my back about Audra Barkley from now on--and I certainly don't think he's going claim that he won the bet!
With that thought, Scott started humming the wedding march to himself.