“To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.”
George MacDonald




All the outer walls of the hacienda were adobe, three feet thick and as solid as rock. They could probably stop a cannonball. The safe was embedded into the wall behind Murdoch's desk in the great room, a little to the left of the French windows and set just above the floor. Scott had noticed it on his first morning of real work on the ranch, when he sat in front of the desk with Cipriano to listen to Murdoch's orders for the day. But it wasn't until the morning that Johnny came downstairs for breakfast, and announced that he was staying downstairs, that Murdoch showed them both where he hid the keys and brought out the ledgers and documents he kept there.

Johnny, still too thin and looking as if his ever-present gun was too heavy for him to lift, didn't appear to be very interested. Murdoch gave them careful explanations of where to find the keys (two widely separated and unlikely hiding places that showed, Scott conceded privately, far more imagination and creativity than he'd expected from his dour father) and showed them how the smaller of the two locks was always a bit harder to turn. It was slightly offset, Murdoch said, but it made the safe more difficult to open, so he counted it as an extra security measure and had never bothered doing anything about it. Johnny opened this difficult lock twice under Murdoch's tuition. But he retired to the sofa when Murdoch tried to get him to just try it one more time, John, to be sure you've got the knack of it.

"I've got it, Murdoch." Johnny eased down onto the sofa with remarkable grace considering that he was still recovering from a bullet in the back. He punched at a cushion to loosen up the feathers, and slid it behind his head, stretching himself out with his feet on the sofa arm nearest Murdoch and Scott. He wasn't wearing boots and his socks, Scott considered, could do with some attention from Teresa and her needle. Not to mention Teresa and her washtub. "Lift the key up and to the left and then turn it hard. Got it. Let Scott have a go at it."

Scott didn't find that the lock was that much trouble either. The safe door swung open a couple of times and he, too, joined Johnny in rebellion against having to practice something that was essentially so simple. He was, of course, more polite about it. His grandfather had brought him up very well and had taught him to be courteous at all times. Manners maketh man, Scotty. A gentleman always finds his way in life eased by good manners and a little graciousness. It was a lesson Scott had taken to heart.

"I think we've mastered it, sir."

Johnny yawned. "It ain't likely I'll want to get into your safe anyway, Murdoch."

"You own a third of this ranch, John. There's more to that than just herding cattle. We'll all take our turns at the books, including you."

Johnny raised his head high enough to peer at them over his own feet. "Ain't you lost enough to gunhawks this year, Murdoch?"

Murdoch flushed, but Scott couldn't read him well enough yet to be sure whether it was from temper or embarrassment.

Johnny let his head drop back onto the cushion and his voice was soft. "Letting me loose on your books... well, you may as well have let old Day loose to rustle your cows."

Murdoch choked, and Scott said, stepping in hurriedly, "I'll be very interested to see how you keep the ledgers, Murdoch."

Johnny gave him a look that Scott could only describe as eloquent in its incredulity, but the truth was that Scott would be very interested. Ledgers were something that he knew quite a lot about, thanks to his grandfather's careful training. He'd spent a lot of his adult life working with them, using all the latest accountancy practices.

Murdoch's books were painfully neat. He had beautiful, flowing copperplate handwriting, every letter and numeral clear as crystal. A page from Murdoch's ledgers could have been used at Harvard as a teaching tool in how to keep perfect financial accounts. Scott said so. Murdoch just nodded, but there was no mistaking his gratification.

He used double entry book keeping. By far the most secure system, remarked Scott, turning over a balance sheet and nodding at the totals it showed. "And I'm impressed by how well you keep control of costs, too, Murdoch. This is as well run a business as I've seen anywhere."

"It's just a case of learning to be organised. You should have seen some of the mistakes that I made when I first started out, Scott. It took me a while to get the hang of it. Your mother helped me, you know."

Scott smiled. "I've never thought of my mother doing book-keeping."

"She was very good at it. You'd better come and look too, Johnny. You'll need to learn how to do this."

There was no response. Scott glanced up from his careful perusal of the ledger to see that Johnny's head had rolled to one side on the cushion. His eyes were closed and his breathing was soft and even.

"He's trying to do too much." Murdoch lowered his voice.

"Maybe Sam should have kept him in bed a little longer."

"Maybe. He was fretting and Sam thought keeping him down was doing more harm than good." Murdoch watched Johnny sleep for a moment or two. He tapped on last year's ledger. "I don't—" He broke off.

Scott gave him a quick glance.

Murdoch's mouth had tightened down and he was frowning at Johnny. "Maybe it's just as well."

Scott chose his words with care. "I should think that this will be very new to Johnny, Murdoch. He can't be used to this sort of work."

"Perhaps. I doubt that he kept detailed balance sheets of his gunfights." Murdoch's mouth turned down even further. "He's not a rancher."

"Neither am I."

Murdoch made the sound commonly written as humph . After a moment that he spent dividing his gaze between Johnny and the scene outside the window, he passed his hand over his face as if to wipe the doubt away and commented instead on Scott's facility with the books. Scott hesitated to say very much about his grandfather—little had been discussed about the past and Murdoch turned an alarming shade of puce whenever Harlan Garrett's name was mentioned—but did feel that he should acknowledge that Harlan had provided a solid schooling in business management and accounting practices.

"Grandfather says that I'm a credit to his training, sir."

"I'm sure." Murdoch's gloom deepened. He got to his feet. "Why don't you bring the books up to date, Scott? You won't need me to oversee it and I can trust... well, I can trust you to get it right. I think I'll go and have a word with Cipriano."

"Of course. Thank you, sir."

Murdoch nodded and his hand rested on Scott's shoulder for a second or two; a brief, tentative touch. Scott watched him go, frowning.

When he glanced at Johnny, he saw the dark blue gleam under the long lashes. "You're not actually asleep, are you?"


"And you heard what Murdoch said."


Scott winced. "I'm sure he didn't mean anything by it, Johnny. Except that he knows this kind of thing is easier for me given my background. I've worked in my grandfather's business for some years now. I'm used to working with figures, and my grandfather gave me a really solid grounding in all his techniques."

"That right?" Johnny sat up.

"He has interests in a lot of Eastern-based companies. I did a lot of work for him. We ran a very profitable business."

"Yeah, well, I was gunfighter, not a clerk. I don't know what a balance sheet is, so no I didn't keep one."

"It's a kind of tally."

Johnny's grin was a mirthless thing. "Oh, a tally. I sure as hell got one of those, Boston." He got up, a little clumsier now and needing the back of the sofa for leverage. "And sure as hell, it won't be the kind Murdoch likes." He stretched, careful of his back. His face didn't show anything, but his eyes were bleak. "I'm going to sit out in the garden in the sun. Maybe clean my gun. You have fun with that figure-work, now."

Scott nodded and let him go. He thought that Murdoch wanted to trust Johnny, but Johnny was so hard to fathom and wasn't exactly conciliatory.... He sighed and turned back to the books.

They really were beautifully kept. That copperplate handwriting would be easy to replicate. He practiced a few figures and nodded, satisfied. To the expert, of course, double entry bookkeeping held few terrors and Scott, Harlan Garrett's apt pupil, knew exactly how to work it. It wasn't going to be difficult at all, especially not with Johnny there. Any discrepancy Murdoch found in the future would be put down to Johnny's inexperience with figures.

Scott smiled. He really was a credit to Harlan Garrett's training and that old latin tag: abeunt studia in mores.

It was true. Practices zealously pursued do pass into habits.

Even bad ones.





1559 words



For the summer 2010 writing challenge on Lancer_Writers based on a list of Latin tags. Abeunt studia in mores means 'pratices zealously pursued pass into habits '' or practice makes perfect, perhaps.

July 2011