Word count 4,395
For the past few days, Scott has been sneaking around the house. Peering around corners and glancing out windows, then going on his business like he had not a care in the world. And it was driving his little brother crazy. Johnny knew his big, Harvard-educated brother was up to something. Or no good. And he was determined to find out. Two can play this game, he smiled.
Johnny wasn’t the only one Scott’s behavior struck as odd. At breakfast the next morning, Murdoch noticed the quirky little half-smile playing on his eldest’s lips.
“Scott,” he boomed, patting his mouth with a napkin before tossing it on the table,“you look like the cat that swallowed the canary. What’s on your mind?”
“Nothing, Murdoch,” Scott replied, pushing his chair back. “Just a beautiful day, is all.”
Johnny, too, could virtually see the proverbial avian’s feathers on his brother’s smug countenance, and it annoyed the hell out of him.
He also rose, picking up his hat.
“You ain’t gettin’ away with this,” he vowed silently. “If it’s the last thing I do today.”
He pasted a brilliant smile on his face, the same one that had lulled so many saps in poker games. If he’d had any sense, Scott should have shivered in his boots.
As Scott was smiling, Johnny was looking.
Johnny slightly punches Scott in the arm. “Hey, Scott, somethin going on in that educated brain of yours?”
“What makes you think I’m even thinking. I’m just walking towards the barn. You know we have work to do.” Scott again smiled his deceiving smile.
“Ya know, Scott, if you keep smiling like that, I think your face is gonna crack.” Johnny stopped and intentionally stared long and hard at Scott.
“Well, what?” Scott said, still smiling, as he continued towards the barn. “Come on, we have that creek to clear. I want to get it done as soon as possible.”
Johnny’s blue eyes narrowed. “Why? We’re still going to town tonight? Aren’t we?” He asked, getting more suspicious by the second.
Without even looking at his brother.
“About tonight, Johnny. I thought I would just stay home. But don’t let me stop you.” Scott casually answered, hiding the smirk on his smug face.
“Fine!” Johnny grumbled and stormed over to Barranca. He had no intention of letting his brother off the hook that easy. ‘I’ll just let him think I went to town.’ He smiled wickedly.
Settling into the saddle, Johnny gathered the reins in one hand. He grinned down at Scott.
“Don’t know what you’re missin’, big brother.”
Scott’s suspicions centered on a small brown-eyed little saloon girl named Nicole, but he kept that to himself. Heaving an inward sigh at the thought of her tiny costume and deep dimples, he kept all traces of regret from his voice, knowing his brother would be making cast inroads in the competition for her affections tonight.
Sitting relaxed in the saddle, Johnny kept similar emotions off his own face, knowing he would be missing out tonight, too. But he had bigger fish to fry, as Maria always said.
“Trust me, I do,” Scott murmured.
“Well, ok, then,” Johnny said. “See you.” And much sooner than you think, he added mentally.
Scott smiled, slapping Barranca on the flank. The palomino took off, his hooves raising dust that hung in the night air.
“Thank God,” Scott muttered. “Thought he’d never leave.”
Hurrying to the barn, he saddled Charlie quickly. The train would be wheezing into the Green River station by the time he got there, he thought, mentally cursing his tenacious younger brother. Only someone who knew Johnny well would have noticed the studied casualness with which he had kept his sibling within eyeshot all day
Swinging into the saddle, he touched Charlie lightly with his spurs. Picking up speed, he was soon under the Lancer arch and on the open road, the stars lighting his way.
Hidden in a copse of cottonwoods, Johnny grinned as he saw Scott rushing past. Picking up the reins, he urged Barranca forward. They fell into place about a half mile behind the unsuspecting older brother.
“He’s like an open book,” Johnny told Barranca. “Makes it too easy, sometimes.”
Tonight wouldn’t be any different.
As Johnny was getting closer to Green River, he started thinking about Scott’s strange behavior.
He watched as Scott put his horse in the stable and headed for the train station.
Johnny smiled. “So that’s what Scott’s up to. He’s meeting Nicole at the station.
Johnny went to the other side of the station, where he knew the train pulled by first and before it got to the side where Scott was.
As the train slowed, Johnny saw Nicole standing, ready to get off the train.
Johnny hopped on beside her. “Hi, Nicole. I thought I’d meet you here, so you don’t have to go to the saloon alone.”
She smiles. “Why, thank you, Johnny. I missed you too.”
Johnny quickly ushered Nicole to the saloon, where she had a private room she rented upstairs. He knew she was coming home tonight after visiting her friend in Stockton. Both he and Scott were anxious to see her again, so he thought. He left her to settle and headed back to the train station, all thoughts of a night with her gone.
He spied Scott standing there, looking calm, or trying to be, watching the passengers embark one by one. He thought it best to get out of sight before his brother spotted him. Slipping around the building, he peered out of the corner, noticing Scott’s face lighting up and smiling at the last passenger as he stepped down.
Johnny groaned, “Murdoch is not going to be happy about this.”
He heard the old man say. “Hello, Scotty.”
Alone upstairs, Nicole smiled at her reflection, artfully patting a few stray curls into place. Johnny was so sweet, she reflected. No, sweet wasn’t the word. She paused, a slight frown marring her forehead. What was the word the other girls used? Handsome? Dangerous? Intriguing? The frown lifted. Sexy! That was it…Johnny was sexy.
And Scott? With his mellifluous voice, book learning, and gentlemanly courtesy, well, anyone could see Scott was a real catch. He was funny, too, with a sly wit that flashed now and again, sending her into gales of laughter. She loved a man with a sense of humor!
Down on the tracks, Johnny’s shoulders slumped as he watched Scott and Harlan from a safe distance. He controlled the urge to shudder at the thought of Murdoch’s reaction. He turned to flee before Scott spotted him. A drink, that was it. He needed a drink. A big one. Maybe more than one.
Tossing his hat on the bar, he ordered a shot of tequila. It coursed warmly down, lending him false courage. He wouldn’t let Harlan get to him this time, por Dios. Recognizing the signs of a man who needed fortifying, the barkeep poured another without being asked. A few more shots later, Johnny’s mood had improved considerably. It was Saturday night, and Nicole was upstairs..waiting.
Rounding the hotel corridor suddenly, he ran smack into Scott. The tray his brother was carrying went flying, drenching them both in chicken soup and toast. Mercifully, the milk simply soaked a large potted plant in the corner.
Chest to chest, they glared at each other.
“What are you doing here?” Scott gritted between clenched teeth.
“Me?” Johnny hissed, plucking a noodle out of his hair. “I could ask you the same thing!” he said silkily, in a tone that should have warned Scott.
Two pairs of blue eyes, one sapphire and one blue-gray, bored into each other.
Just then, the door behind them opened, and Nicole stepped out. “I thought I heard voices,” she exclaimed. Aghast, they both simply stared at the fetching young woman.
Another voice sounded from inside the room. “Nicole,” it asked, “what’s going on?”
Dimpling prettily, the girl extended a hand through the open doorway.
“Scott, Johnny,” she began. “I’d like you to meet my husband.”
A stunned Scott questions. “ Nicole! Am I hearing you right? This is your husband? Well, I guess you’ll be going out with Johnny or me anymore. It still doesn’t answer my question, Johnny. What are you doing here?”
Johnny looked somewhat lost in his thoughts. “ Hey, Nicole! What’s up with you. I thought you knew I was coming back.”
“Well, Johnny, I didn’t know my husband was out of prison. He was in my room when you dropped me off.” Nicole replied.
“Well, it looks to me, Scott, like we both have to find another saloon girl to see. Maybe this time we won’t share the same one. Huh!” Johnny giggles.
“Scotty, what’s going on. I am here waiting while you are. Oh! Great, it’s the half-breed brat.” Harlan looked out of his door next to Nicoles.
Johnny just glared at the Old buzzard while Scott groaned. Each paying Nicole no mind as she quietly slipped back into her room, easing the door shut.
Harlan’s old eyes narrowed, sneering at Johnny, “What’s he doing here, Scotty, and why are you both wearing my dinner?” He loudly demanded. Pointing to the mess splattered on the brother’s shirts.
“Ah….sorry grandfather, we had a…little mishap. I’ll go back down and get you another tray,” Scott hurriedly explained. “Go back inside. I won’t be long.”
Still frowning, Harlan only nodded as Scott headed down the stairs with Johnny on his heels. Once in the lobby, the younger Lancer grabbed his brother’s arm, spinning him around.
“You mind telling me why that old man is here? And when were you going to tell Murdoch?” he hissed, keeping his voice low.
“You mind telling me why you were spying on me, brother?” Scott countered. Avoiding the question, he knew he would have to answer sooner or later.
Johnny snorted, “Well, that’s obvious, brother, by how you’ve been acting. I knew something was up. So, I’m waiting.” He pressed, peering into his brother’s pleading eyes.
“Johnny, please, not now.” Scott whispered, “I’ll tell you later. And please don’t say a word to Murdoch about grandfather being here.”
Johnny stared open mouth at his brother. Shaking his head, he heaved a sigh, “When Scott?”
Nicole withdrew her ear from the door and stepped back, motioning at her husband to be quiet.
“Jeff,” she said thoughtfully, “I need you to do something for me. NO, not that.”
Crestfallen, he stopped nuzzling her neck, withdrawing his hand from her lowcut bodice.
Looking both ways, he slipped from the room, encountering no Lancers on the way. A few minutes later, he was at the telegraph office.
Harlan looked up at the gentle rap on his door. “COME IN,” he snapped peevishly.
“Oh, sorry, sir,” said the pretty young woman, dropping her armful of towels. “I must have the wrong room.”
She bent over to retrieve them, allowing the old man a good glimpse of her decolletage before popping back up. Her doe eyes sparkled at him.
Harlan’s eyes popped. Old he may have been, but dead he was not.
“I’m Lorraine,” she said, extending a small hand. “I’m in the next room. I ran out of towels.”
Blood rose to Harlan’s cheeks at the thought of her ablutions.
When Scott returned a short time later, he found his grandfather in an unwontedly good mood. The old man ate with gusto. After a pleasant evening spent catching up, Harlan rose, yawning. “I’m afraid the trip tired me out, Scotty. I must go to bed.”
“Of. course, grandfather. I’ll see you in the morning.”
In the next room, Nicole read the telegraph Jeff had brought her one last time before feeding it to the fire. Stroking his cheek, she shrugged off the hand he trailed down her naked back.
“Sorry, hon, but you have to find a place to go for a few hours. I need the room.”
The pressure of her lips cut off his grumbling. A few minutes later, he was gone. Nicole worked quickly, changing the sheets and plumping the pillows.
At midnight, Scott opened Harlan’s door gently, peering at the bed before closing it as quietly as he’d opened it.
He never realized the pile of pillows under the blankets was not his grandfather.
“My dear, I so appreciate your charms. It has been a long time since I’ve been aroused in such a delightful manner. Maybe tomorrow night we can meet again.” Harlan spoke softly to Nicole, unaware that Lorraine wasn’t her name.
“Why sure, Mr. Garret, anytime you’re in town. The pleasure is all mine,” Nicole answers.
“Here you go, my dear, a token for a good time.” Harlan gave her a hundred-dollar bill.
He sneaked back into his room, thinking, ‘ Scotty’s not going to find out at any time. I think I’ll stay in town.’
“Jeff, honey, I believe we are going to make it rich here with the old man. I think he’ll pay dearly for his beloved grandson. Now go get your men and grab him when he leaves the saloon.”
Scott, in the meantime, was just going into his own room down the hall from his grandfather.
Jeff and three of his friends spotted Johnny and waited until he left the saloon.
“This must be the old geezer’s grandson. He’s the one that brought Nicole upstairs. Look, he’s getting ready to leave.” Jeff quietly tells them.
“Boy, oh boy, what the Hell am I gonna tell Murdoch?” Johnny muttered to himself as he slowly made his way to where he had Barranca tethered behind the saloon.
“Certainly not the truth, I promised Scott. But he’s gonna ask why he didn’t come home with me.” Johnny pondered, suddenly feeling a headache coming on, a headache that will no doubt grow once he confronts his old man. “Damn Scott and his secrets, and what the hell is old Harlan doing here anyway, trying to take Scott back to Boston, no doubt.”
In no hurry to get home, Johnny turned the corner of the building when the hairs on the back of his neck tingled, and his senses fully alerted him that something was not right. Darting into the darkened alleyway, with only shards of moonlight to guide him, Johnny stopped, crouched, and listened. Gun ready.
“Where the Hell did he go?” Jeff growled.
“He was just here,” the other thug huffed.
“Well, go look over there, and I’ll go this way,” Jeff ordered.
Johnny watched as the two men hurried off in different directions. He blew out a sigh of relief and slowly stood up. He’d just holstered his gun when he felt the butt end of a rife slam into the side of his head. He saw stars and then total darkness.
“I got em’, boss,” the third man hollered. “That old decoy trick works every time.” He wickedly laughed.
The goon’s mirth was cut short, however, by cold steel smashing into his own temple. He skidded bonelessly down to flop beside Johnny on the ground.
“Yep,” Scott muttered. “Works every time.”
Moving quickly, he stuffed the thug’s bandanna in his mouth before stripping off his belt and using it to tie his hands before grabbing the miscreant under the armpits and dragging him into a dark doorway. Scott dropped the lout, stuffing him in as far as possible so nothing showed, before turning his attention to his brother.
Johnny was still out cold. Scott knelt beside his brother, slapping his face perhaps a little harder than he had to.
“Come on, Johnny! Wake up, dammit.”
Johnny’s eyes fluttered open. “OW!”
He rubbed the back of his head. “What the hell are you doin’, Scott?
“Saving your bacon,” Scott muttered’, slipping an arm around his brother. “Can you stand up?
“Of course. I’ve been hit harder’n that,” Johnny said, flinching as Scott pulled him to his feet.
“Next time, I won’t be so careful,” Scott promised him. “We have to hurry.”
“Where?” Johnny asked, wincing as his hat touched his tender head.
“The hotel,” Scott replied tersely.
Keeping to the shadows, they hurried back to the hotel, only to pause on the threshold, eyes widening.
Harlan stood in the lobby, Nicole beside him.
Unfazed at Johnny’s disheveled state, he raised his champagne glass toward the two men.
“Ah, Scotty, you’re just in time. Allow me to present my wife.”
“Well, Nicole, how often are you getting married, or did you tell grandfather about your husband, Jeff. Whom we laid out flat as he tried to kidnap Johnny,” Scott angrily said.
“What are you talking about, Scott? This lady is Lorraine, not Nicole. I think you are confused,” Harlan said.
“No, grandfather Johnny and I have been, shall we say, playing around with Nicole for over a year now.”
“Harlan, don’t listen to them. They are just jealous that we are married,” Nicole/Lorraine says.
“Hey, Scott, your grandfather’s dumber than I thought. He hooks up with a hooker and believes her lies. I tell you what, Nicole, let’s go to the sheriff and see what Val has to say. I’m sure he knows that you can’t have two husbands. As a matter of fact, here he comes up the stairs with your real husband,” Johnny laughingly said.
“Well, Well, Well, ain’t we a happy bunch,” Val snorted as he angrily shoved Jeff through the hotel door. Eying Nicole carefully, he added with a sly grin, “I believe this here fella belongs to you, Nicole. He and his little gang somehow managed to break out of prison, which is where he’s going right back. But he insisted he sees his Mrs before I lock him up.”
Very calmly, Nicole bold face lied, “I’ve never seen this man before, sheriff. This here is my husband.” She said, smiling sweetly up at Harlan, who had a ghastly look on his face.
“YOU BITCH!” Jeff screamed. “You sent me out to kidnap his grandson, so we could hold him for ransom.” He sneered at her, pointing to Johnny. “Said we could make a killing off that old man.”
“SHUT UP, you idiot!” The little whore yelled back. “Besides, that’s Johnny, not Scott. You got the wrong……” she suddenly realized she said too much. Clamping her mouth and glaring at Jeff.
“Interesting turn of events, don’t ya think, Harlan?” Johnny grinned then groaned, still, his headache growing by the second.
“Yes, grandfather, quite interesting,” Scott agreed. “What do you think, Val?”
Rubbing his scruffy beard, “Well, it ain’t right having two husbands. I say you have been snookered, Mr. Garrett.”
They all looked at the Old man, waiting for what they didn’t know.
Dreams of his honeymoon night going up in smoke, Harlan’s first thought was that he’d happily murder them all, starting with Johnny. Closing his eyes to blot them all out, he rubbed his nose, thinking.
Opening them, the old man looked at Lorraine/Nicole. “Is it true?”
She shook her head vehemently, slipping her hand into the crook of his arm. “No, don’t believe them, Honeybear!”
She put on a pleading face. “Jeff is Not my husband…I thought he was..common-law..but then I found out he had a wife in Abilene. And one in Matamoros… And Philadelphia.
Val’s eyebrows shot into his hairline. He rubbed his chin, impressed.
“So I really was free to marry you, baby.” She snuggled closer, pressing her breasts into the old man’s arm.
Harlan’s breathing sped up. So did everyone else’s as they anticipated them escaping their silk prison.
He passed a shaky hand over his brow.
Scott stepped nearer, concerned. “It’s all right, Grandfather. We can have it annulled in the morning.”
He yanked a chair closer, pulling his grandfather’s arm free of the harpy’s grasp.
Harlan sat, lost in thought, for a few minutes, before raising his eyes.
Extending his hand to Lorraine/Nicole, he spoke.
“No, Scott. I don’t think I want that.”
“Grandfather! What are you thinking? Nicole is just a whore. She has told everyone she has been with about her husband in prison, and I know she has a marriage certificate in her room somewhere. Can you arrest her on bigamy charges and get a search warrant. I have seen it myself,” Scott questioned with frustration.
“Hey, I know where it is, Scott. She gave it to me for safekeeping. Wow, lady, did you forget. You wanted me to marry you, so you gave it to me so I could pay for the divorce,” Johnny said.
“Sheriff, she is my wife. You can get a copy of the marriage certificate in San Francisco. She just wants the old man for his money.”
“Jeff, shut your mouth. You do know what’s up, don’t you?” Nicole says.
“Oh, I damn well know what’s going on, you bitch!.” Jeff growled, glaring at her. “You know what she does to old men she has no use for anymore?” He coldly asked Harlan.
“I SAID SHUT UP!”
Ignoring his wife’s outburst, he went on.”She has a way of disposing of them. Just ask her last conquest….no wait, you can’t cause he’s…DEAD!”
“JEFF!” Nicole screamed. She desperately turned to Harlan, trying to cuddle him, using her charms to persuade him her way. “Don’t listen to him, honey bear. He’s not right in the head. Prison and all you know.”
Johnny and Scott looked at each other, shaking their heads, thinking of their close call with her.
But that was enough for Val. “Alright, enough of this. I’m taking you both in. You for breaking out of prison. And you,” he huffed at Nicole, grabbing her arm and dragging her away from Harlan. ” For causing my friends a headache. But I heard tell of a black widow around these parts.”
Harlan’s head shot up. Nicole’s widened in fear, and Jeff just smiled.
“Brother, go get that paper she gave you,” Scott calmly insisted.
Johnny nodded and was out the door in a flash.
His face thunderous, Val hauled the two miscreants out.
Temporarily alone, Scott knelt beside the old man’s chair. The brief glimpse of the virile man of twenty years ago was gone, leaving only an old tired man in its wake. The sight made Scott’s heartache.
He put a hand on Harlan’s arm, saying nothing. The old man’s hand came up, covering Scott’s briefly, before falling back into Harlan’s lap.
Bounding up the stairs with his customary catlike quickness, Johnny returned with the document. Silently, he put the paper he carried in Harlan’s hand, then stepped back.
The old man scanned the document, then let it fall to the floor as he made to rise. Scott rose, putting a hand under Harlan’s elbow.
“Leave me be, boy,” the old man snapped with a dash of his accustomed hauteur. “I’m not a child.”
His back erect, Harlan ascended the stairs.
Left alone, the two Lancers looked at each other. Johnny rubbed the back of his neck, happily realizing his headache was gone.
Scott passed a hand over his eyes, then sighed.
“I need a drink.”
One more time…
All three men slept later than usual the next day, tired from all the excitement.
Scott gently rapped Harlan’s door, then opened it to find the old man before the looking glass, adjusting his tie.
“Morning!” he greeted the old man. “Are you hungry?”
“As a bear,” Harlan replied. “No pun intended.”
Johnny was already in the lobby, waiting for them when they came down. Tossing aside the. newspaper, he rose, smiling. The smile stayed on even when Harlan looked him up and down, raising an eyebrow at his attire. Harlan wasn’t getting his goat, not anymore.
After a hearty breakfast, during which they refrained from mentioning Nicole, the men gathered Harlan’s bags and paid the bill. Stepping onto the porch, Johnny inhaled deeply, looking around with satisfaction at the beautiful morning. With his headache gone, he felt like a new man.
At the livery stable, they rented a surrey and tied Charlie behind. Scott swung up, taking the reins.
Nearing the jail, the men saw a wagon and team waiting out front. Val emerged, prodding his reluctant prisoners up.
Nicole looked much the worse for wear today. Strands of hair escaped her chignon, and she looked tired and pale as if she had rested poorly. Beside her, Jeff looked surly, beard stubble covering his face as Val hadn’t trusted him with a razor.
As they drew abreast, Harlan tipped his hat. “Goodbye, Nicole.”
With Barranca keeping pace, the men left Green River behind. Several hours later, they stopped at a small stream to let the horses drink. Barranca waded in, snorting gustily, then dropped his muzzle to drink.
Harlan climbed stiffly down, Scott’s attentive hand at his elbow. Johnny lifted his face, enjoying the sun’s warmth, and rolled his head, easing any residual tension from his neck. His concern over Murdoch’s reaction to the unexpected visitor faded. That was Scott’s problem, not his. His curiosity was another matter, but he pushed it aside.
Johnny smiled, planning to filch a few ham biscuits for a snack when he got home.
After a brief rest, the men resumed their journey.
Harlan sat up straighter, looking at Scott.
“Are we almost there?”
“Almost,” Scott confirmed. “We’re on the outskirts now.”
A prickle ran down Johnny’s spine.
“What you talking about, Scott? We’re not anywhere near Lancer.”
Scott turned a beaming face toward him. “Shall we tell him, grandfather?”
“Now”s as good a time as any, I suppose,” the old man said.
Johnny’s temples twinged as if in a warning. He leaned forward.
“Tell me what, Scott? Spit it out.”
“Remember Bob McAllister?”
“Yeah,” Johnny returned. Last year’s downturn in the cattle market had driven their heavily mortgaged neighbor out.
“Murdoch’s been looking into buying his place and wants to expand our holdings.”
Johnny’s head began to pound as sudden horror encased him.
“I missed my grandson too much,” Harlan informed him haughtily. “So I bought it. We”re going to be NEIGHBORS!”
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