Word Count 1,370
An episode tag for The Experiment
Disclaimer: The characters belong to someone else. I make no money, and mean no harm in using them.
Setting: A year after Scott and Johnny returned to Lancer.
Summary: Murdoch turns a minor incident with his sons to his advantage.
Murdoch Lancer sat behind his large desk tallying the week’s profits and expenses over a glass of his best scotch whiskey. It was his Thursday night ritual of many years but in recent months he’d found he enjoyed it more than ever. Having Scott and Johnny home, sharing the simple act of running the vast ranch he’d built over twenty-five years with his sons, his flesh and blood, brought satisfaction he’d hardly let himself imagine. He took another sip and stopped to listen as a couple of horses rode up to the hacienda.
The sound brought a contented smile to Murdoch’s face. Scott and Johnny had been out all day, having been sent in opposite directions just past sunrise to handle two of the never-ending chores that went into running the Lancer spread. It was a daily delight to Murdoch that, despite the different and geographically separate tasks they were often assigned, they always seemed to find each other at the tail end of the day. Almost without fail, they would arrive home together each evening.
Today was pay day, which would account for the boisterous laughter he heard through the open doors. Lancer hands were paid each week on Thursday. Murdoch knew Scott, and especially Johnny, would be expecting their weekly wages tonight, with the intent of pocketing it and heading straight into town tomorrow night at the end of their workday. Since returning to Lancer last year, it was the two young men’s Friday night ritual. But this week, they had another think coming.
“Boys,” he called. “In here.”
The two young men approached somewhat cautiously on this night. Following their recent, misguided attempt to intervene during Murdoch’s experiment with a new type of prison reform, the sons had kept a low profile, not wanting to elicit any further displeasure from their father too soon. But Johnny had lost heavily at a poker game in Morro Coyo the previous week and was already a couple of bucks in the hole to his brother. His youthful enthusiasm won out over Scott’s more judicious nature.
“Payday, Murdoch!” he asked. “Can’t come too soon for me!”
Murdoch smiled at him affectionately. It was hard not to be affected by his younger son. He was a natural force of nature. Most people would assume Johnny, the former gunfighter, would be the difficult one. In fact, Scott was the harder one to deal with. Having been reared at Harlan Garrett’s knee, he played his hand close to the vest most of the time. It had not taken Murdoch long to realize that Scott’s most unguarded moments were always with his younger brother. Something in the two very different men connected in a way no one could have predicted. Murdoch had even begun to think he could see a resemblance in them in rare moments, when their heads were bent together and they were sharing a laugh. One dark, the other fair, but their grins were the same, he thought, and reminded him of his own mother’s smile.
“Murdoch?” Johnny interrupted his reverie. “It’s dark outside. Too late to be daydreamin’.”
“Hmm?” Murdoch shook off momentary detour into old memories.
“It’s payday, right?”
“Yes, Johnny,” Murdoch said. “It’s payday…. Of course, you and your brother have a debit to clear…..”
“A what?” Johnny asked, his brow furrowing in confusion.
Behind him Scott’s eyes narrowed but he remained silent, waiting to see what Murdoch would say next.
“The two cows you boys generously… donated to the prison farm.”
Now Johnny turned wary as well. They’d brought those two cows to the farm as an excuse to find out what Murdoch was up to, and to ensure their father was okay surrounded by hardened convicts. Somehow he’d seen through their gesture and turned them back with a stern rebuke… but he’d kept the two milk cows.
“Those cows were worth $7 apiece,” Murdoch said. “I gave you the family discount and deducted the cost from your weekly pay. I’ll let you work it off, of course. Which means you boys each owe $3 from NEXT week’s wages..”
Johnny looked stunned at first. He already owed Scott $2 from this week’s pay. Which meant…. “Aww. I don’t get cash in my pocket for … three weeks?” He turned to his older brother. “Scott, you got a couple of bucks I can borrow?”
“Ever heard the expression ‘borrowing from Peter to pay Paul,’ little brother?” Scott laughed. As he spoke, he moved fully into the room and came to a stop at the desk. He leaned one hip onto the desktop and crossed his arms over his chest, turning a knowing smile toward his father. “Of course, there is another way to account for those two cows we magnanimously donated to such a worthy cause.”
“There is?” Johnny asked hopefully.
“Is there?” Murdoch responded with interest. He leaned back in his chair and steepled his long fingers in front of him. His eyes twinkled as he waited for his eldest son’s reply.
“Yes, sir,” Scott declared with confidence born of a Harvard degree, not to mention years of listening at the knee of his grandfather the accountant.
“You’re accounting for those cows as though Johnny and I were ranch hands in your employ, sir. As though we just helped ourselves to two of your stock and gave them away. But Johnny and I are both one-third owners. We can consider those cows as a donation from our share of the stock. So simply reduce our inventory of approximately 10,000 head each by one head and then there’s no need to dock anyone’s weekly draw.”
Johnny grinned. It sure was good to have such a smart, well-educated brother, especially at times like this. “Yeah, Murdoch,” he chimed in. “You gotta stop treating us like hired help and start treatin’ us like equal partners. So just take those two cows outa our share of the inver—inva….” He looked toward Scott for help.
“Inventory,” Scott replied.
“Yeah. Treat us like partners and take those cows outa our share of the in-ven-tory.”
Murdoch nodded, contemplating the suggestion. “Yes, that’s another option. I’d like to consider a third alternative though.”
“What’s that?” Johnny asked, curious as ever.
“Instead of treating you like hands, or owners, I could treat you like disobedient sons. Then I’d just march you both out to the barn and tan your hides….”
Johnny’s sapphire blue eyes widened with shock and alarm and his well-hone instinct for survival kicked right in. He immediately began to back out of the room, shooting a fast, dark look at his brother. “Well—well, then, let’s just—let’s just go with that first plan then,” he blurted, looking over his shoulder as he continued to back up. “Yeah. Just take it outa my pay. I guess I’ll go change for dinner…”
Now Scott’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Since when does Johnny change for dinner?” he chuckled, turning back to their father. “It’s hard to believe but he’s actually a little scared of you, Murdoch. He just might really believe you’d—“ He stopped, seeing a look on Murdoch’s face that suddenly worried him.
“Might what, son?”
“Well, sir,” Scott began again, clearing his throat. “Like you might actually—I mean…. Well, Johnny’s only twenty, and frankly sometimes I think he could use a good—that is….”
Scott realized he was babbling, and cleared his throat again as he began backing out of the room himself. “Well, let’s just stick with your original accounting method then. After all, we agreed you’d call the tune…. I’ll be down for dinner in a few minutes.” Without another word, he turned on his heel and escaped up the stairs.
“Don’t you or your brother be late!” Murdoch called after him.
Murdoch chuckled to himself and lifted his whiskey glass to his lips. Tomorrow would be the six month anniversary of his sons’ return and he was looking forward to spending the entire weekend with them. Next week, he’d forgive their “debt” but for now, he would enjoy their company, and the fact they’d be on their best behavior for at least a couple of days. Yes, all was right with Murdoch Lancer’s world.
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