Word count: 3,009
Scott Lancer knocked on the door of the white-pillared house which the Barkleys called home. Johnny stood behind him, furtively glancing around to see if Nick might be waiting to ambush him. While he was 99% sure that the volatile Barkley son had been joking about Audra, he decided to take no chances. Nick could pack a mean punch.
A smiling Silas opened the door to the two young men and invited them in. “Mr. Scott, Mr. Johnny, it is nice to see you again. Mr. Nick was talking about you just the other day.”
“We’re happy to see you too, Silas,” the blond assured him. “We’ve come to pick up El Diablo.”
“Ah yes, Mr. Nick told me about that just in case he wasn’t back in time.”
“Nick’s not here?”
“No, he and Mr. Heath had to leave unexpectedly. There was a problem at one of the Barkley mines,” Johnny’s sigh of relief was audible in Scott’s ear, “but he told me to tell you that one of the hands would help you load up El Diablo on the special cart that was built to transport that vicious animal. Do you know he chased one of the hands for a half-mile just the other day? I know Mr. Tom bought that. . .bovine, but I wish Mr. Nick would turn him into steak.”
Scott chuckled as he patted Silas on the arm. “Oh, I suspect Nick thinks of him as almost a first cousin and that’s why he keeps him around.”
Silas blinked then smiled. “Mr. Nick does have a temper at times.”
Johnny coughed but said nothing.
“Well, I suppose we might as well go out and see our new charge, brother. I know you want to get back to Lancer as soon as possible.” Scott nudged the dark-haired man.
“But don’t you gentlemen want to come in and wait for Miss Audra and Mrs. Barkley to return? Mr. Heath told me to tell you that they might be back sometime today. He knew how concerned you were, Mr. Johnny. He said you even sent a telegram.”
Johnny flushed slightly. “He, uh, must have misunderstood. I was just makin’ a polite inquiry.”
“Perhaps, but I’m sure that Miss Audra and her mother would be delighted to see both of you.”
“Uh, mebbe next time. Scott’s right. We really have to go back to Lancer. ‘Sides I’m taking someone to the dance on Saturday. Nice girl, we’re practically engaged ‘n. . . .”
“Johnny, stop babbling and we’ll go find El Diablo.”
Johnny’s head bobbed up and down. “Good idea, Boston . Lookin’ forward to the challenge. Let’s go.”
The two men walked out to the bunkhouse, hoping to find one of the ranch hands to help them. Both had visited this ranch a few times so were well known to the Barkley people. Unfortunately, there was only person lying on his bunk and he was a stranger.
Scott took off his gloves and walked over to the man. “Excuse me, I’m Scott Lancer. I’m here to collect El Diablo. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
The boy jumped up from the bunk, banging his head on the upper bunk. Uh, sure. I mean, we all knew you were comin’ t’day. Most of the men rode out with Nick and Heath, but Les told me to stay here so I could help you folks.” The carrot-topped boy’s eagerness shone out of his blue eyes. “El Diablo’s out in the pen just waitin’ for you. I brung him in all by myself.” The young man’s skinny chest puffed with pride.
“You must be a top hand then.” Johnny winked at Scott. “What’s your name?”
“Ezekiel Lucas Carson but most people call me Luke. I’ve been workin’ for the Barkleys for two weeks now.”
“Well, Luke, Johnny and I would be most appreciative if you could help us load up the bull. We haven’t had your experience with him, you know.”
The boy’s face beamed at Scott’s remark. “Jest follow me. I ‘spected the cart myself and got some of our strongest ropes to tie him with. He won’t give you much trouble. He’s gettin’ up in years, but he still knows how to show them heifers a good time.”
“Sounds like he went to the same charm school as you, brother!” Scott gave Johnny a light punch in the arm.
Johnny only snorted and then murmured, “Don’t need no schoolin’ for that, just comes naturally.”
Surprisingly, El Diablo was most cooperative so it didn’t take long to lead the massive black beast into the cart and secure him with ropes. “He doesn’t seem too vicious now, does he, Boston ?”
“No, but I don’t think I’m ready to tangle with those horns or wave a red flag in front of him. Why don’t we get on the road? The sooner we have him back at Lancer, the happier I’ll be.”
After giving Luke a coin for his help, Scott took the first shift at driving the cart while Johnny followed behind on Barranca and leading Waterloo . At first it was a bit unnerving knowing that death was just behind his right shoulder. El Diablo was impossible to forget because of the constant snuffling sound the animal made, but after awhile Scott was able to tune out the noise and concentrate on his driving and the plans he had made for his return.
After several miles, Scott began to feel a vibration coming from one side of the cart. Glancing back he could see that the bull was not causing any disturbance, but he decided to stop anyway. Coming to a halt, he climbed down as Johnny rode up to his side and also dismounted. “Trouble?”
“Don’t know. I keep feeling this. . .rumbling when I’m driving. I think I’ll check the wheels.” The blond had no more than stepped up to inspect the one wheel when the cart began to tilt towards him. The motion panicked El Diablo who practically stomped through the boards and broke loose. In an instant one charging bull, desperate to escape found himself facing two terrified men.
With his fast reflexes, Johnny took in the sight of a tall tree not far behind him. If he could make it to the tree, the bull would be no more danger. Unfortunately, he caught his foot on a rock that jumped in his way, forcing him to his knees. The beast’s foul breath seemed to brush his cheek, but then he heard his brother’s voice shouting something at the bull. Ignoring everything else, Johnny righted himself and made for the tree. Scrambling up its rough surface, he didn’t stop until he reached the first limb.
Breathing hard, he looked down to see his brother also climbing a tree not far away. Standing between them, looking up, was their conqueror—El Diablo.
“You all right, Johnny?” Scott shouted.
“Yeah, never knew I could climb a tree that fast though.”
“Know what you mean. Didn’t think all that practice I had as a kid would come in so handy.”
“So what do we do? Can’t stay up here forever.” Johnny pointed out.
“I know. Surprised our friend there just didn’t make a break for it.”
“That blasted animal isn’t a friend of mine! This was your idea, you think of something!”
Scott sat quietly for a long moment. “Guess I could try to climb down and try to lasso him.”
“With what? When he got loose, Barranca and Waterloo took off.”
“Scott gave a tentative smile. “Guess I would need a rope. I don’t suppose. . . .”
” Boston , I’m not carrying my rope and even if I was I don’t think it would hold that monster.”
“Good point. He is strong. Just look what he did to that cart!”
Johnny looked down and then closed his eyes. That pile of toothpicks could have been him.
Minutes passed and neither man said a word. Then Johnny spoke up. “Guess. . .guess I could shoot him.”
“What? Nick would kill us. Do you know how much that bull is worth?”
“Do you want to stay up in that tree forever?”
“No, but I don’t want one of my best friends tracking me down and taking the price of that bull out of my hide either!”
“Well, think of something then! I gotta go. . .you know!”
“I told you not to drink all that coffee this morning! Besides, somebody’s bound to come along soon.”
“Yeah and come face to face with a killer with horns!”
An hour passed and then another. Happily, Johnny found a way to relieve his distress and only a tree had to pay the price, but he was just about ready to take out his six-shooter and end their dilemma when they heard riders approaching.
The bull also heard the approach as his massive head lifted from the pleasant task of chewing on grass.
Scott let out a loud yell. He did not want anyone to ride up unaware of what they would be facing. To the surprise of both Lancers, the riders continued to come on until they reached the clearing and stopped.
Sounds of laughter filled the air. “Boy howdy, Nick. You were right. There are some strange birds in the trees around here.” Heath Barkley winked at his older brother.
“Yeah, maybe we can shoot a couple of them for dinner!”
“Nick Barkley, what the hell are you doing down there? Put a lasso on that bull of yours so we can get down from here!” Scott demanded.
“Oh, I’ll do better than that, Scott.” Without hesitation, the dark-haired Barkley climbed down and started to walk towards the bull, crooning little sounds. In response the huge beast cocked his head and then started to approach the man. The two Lancers held their breaths, expecting to see El Diablo charge Nick, but instead the bull walked over and began to snuffle at something in Nick’s glove. “Okay, Heath, while he’s busy, you put some ropes on him. We’ll have to take him back to the ranch.”
As soon as the ropes were on the beast and he was secured, the two tree inhabitants climbed down and approached the Barkley Brothers. “How the hell did you do that? You told me El Diablo was. . . vicious,” Scott questioned.
“El Diablo is, but this is his twin, El Carino. He’s more like a big tabby cat. In fact, he’s Audra’s pet.”
Johnny grimaced. “Pet?”
“Yeah, you see when our father bought El Diablo, he was told that there had been two calves born. They looked just alike, but it turned out that their owner believed that El Carino would never be suitable for the ring while Diablo was a natural. Ol’ Tom Barkley wasn’t one for bullfighting so he bought Diablo for breeding. Audra convinced him to buy both and she took care of Carino until she started caring more about men than bulls.!” Nick glanced over at Johnny and winked.
“So you mean we were given the wrong bull?”
“That’s about it. When we got in, Luke told me how cooperative the bull had been and I figured out right away what must have happened. Went out and checked and there was Diablo out under a tree. Luke’s only been with us for a coupla weeks. Guess he didn’t even realize there were two look-alikes.”
Johnny took a deep breath. “Considerin’ what happened, I guess it’s a good thing we got the wrong one. Thought for a minute there we were goners.”
“Aw, Johnny, can’t believe you were really scared. Man like you,” Heath teased.
“Lemme tell you, Mr. Barkley, none of the men I ever faced had horns like those. I could almost feel one of ’em stickin’ me in the back!”
“I figure he’d only have pricked you at most. What’s a little blood between friends?”
At that moment Scott walked over to where his hat had fallen off, leaned over to pick it up, only to feel a sudden draught in his nether regions. Glancing behind, he could see the large rip in the seat of his pants and so could the three other men. Smirks became chuckles which became guffaws. With remarkable aplomb, Scott covered the rip with his hat and walked back to the others. “Would any of you happen to have a threaded needle on you?”
The next morning after a good night’s sleep at the Barkley ranch Scott, rip repaired, and Johnny headed out on Waterloo and Barranca. The two mounts had been tracked down in time for the Lancers to ride along with the Barkleys and El Carino to the Barkley home.
A good dinner, good wine, and laughter helped lift the spirits of the two visitors—that and Nick’s promise to send El Diablo (the real one) to Lancer by train. He even hinted that he and Heath might just go along to keep an eye on their property if Teresa didn’t mind putting them up for awhile.
Johnny quickly assured them that Teresa would be delighted to have them and that she might even make them a special treat.
The miles went by quickly under the sure gait of the golden and russet-colored horses until finally the two young men called a halt for the night. As before, they set up their camp with a minimum of effort letting the hot coffee chase away the chill of the evening. Then under the starlit sky they took to their bedrolls.
“You think Murdoch’s gonna be mad at us? He was countin’ on that bull.”
“He’ll still have the bull. It’ll just take a bit longer than he thought. Lancer’s not headed for bankruptcy you know.”
Johnny smirked. “Hear tell from ol’ Murdoch, you’d think that it was. Not so sure I wanna be a rancher if you have to worry about every penny. Man’s gotta have fun too.”
Scott smiled in the darkness. “That is how he has fun. He enjoys worrying about the ranch. It gives him an outlet for his frustrations.”
“Huh? I thought he took his frustrations out on me! Always yellin’ or sayin’ I’m not workin’ hard enough.”
“Johnny, I know you’ve had to put up with a lot from him, but some people are toughest on those they love the most. The thing is he’s not likely to change. I think he’s done most of the adjusting to having two sons that he’s going to do.”
“So what’s that mean? I’ve gotta grovel just to get along with him? Not me, no way!”
Scott sat up. In the moonlight he could just see the darkened form. “No one, least of all me, wants to see you grovel, but you can learn to handle him better. I know I’ve said this before, but I think you enjoy provoking him at times.”
“Well, maybe, but it’s just like talking to a stone wall sometimes. Do you know what he said when he told me about the pie?”
For a second there was only silence then Scott asked, “Pie?”
“Well, uh, you see, he called me in that morning just after you and Teresa left to set up the stage. He told me that the play had been changed. You were going to hit me with a pie instead of pretend to shoot me. Murdoch just kept sayin’ how he wasn’t gonna let me be humiliated. That there were some things a man shouldn’t have to do and how were the hands going to respect me if I let you hit me with a pie?”
“What. . .what did you say to him?”
“Well, I thought about it for a minute. I wasn’t all that happy about it at first then he just kept goin’ on and on about what a man could and couldn’t do—about the responsibility I had not to make a fool of myself. He said he had almost ordered Teresa not to do it, but she started crying and you know how Murdoch is when she cries, but he thought if he told me then I could step out of the way or something.”
“But you didn’t step aside.”
“No. I told him that I thought it would be a funny ending to the play and since I had chosen to play Snirkle I should play the part as written.”
“Even though you must have known Francesca intended it as pay-back?”
The dark head nodded. “I didn’t treat her too well that night. I never thought how embarrassed she must have been. All I wanted to do was get back and have a good time. Guess she saw it as only fair that I be embarrassed too.”
“But you acted like you didn’t know when we were talking afterwards. Why didn’t you say something? Teresa was sure you were going to explode,” Scott explained.
“The old man asked me not to. He said he didn’t agree with my decision and didn’t want the two of you to know what he had said.”
“So that’s why he didn’t attend the play! I thought it was strange that he received an invitation to dinner that night.”
“Yeah, guess he’s not the type of man who can laugh at himself. Maybe that’s why we don’t see eye-to-eye on most things.”
“Guess we better get some sleep. Long ride tomorrow, brother.”
“Right. Scott, there’s just one other thing, I plan to talk to Teresa when we get home. I don’t like her bein’ afraid to say things to me ’cause she doesn’t know how I’ll react. I know I’ve got a temper and sometimes I do crazy things, but I need all three of you.”
“Good to hear that. We need you too—and that’s no bull.”
Scott started to turn over for sleep, but stopped when Johnny got in his last remark, “Just how many chores are you willing to do so that I don’t tell Murdoch and Teresa how you ripped your pants?”
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