A Kaligirl Production
In terms of strange, on a scale of one to ten – ten being the strangest – Scott felt pretty certain that the last week and a half was approaching fifteen. The days had been marked by chaos, bordering on the surreal, and he found himself wondering with a fair amount of private frequency if his grandfather hadn’t been right; if accepting his father’s bizarre invitation to come out to his ranch in California was a mistake of grand proportions. Maybe the stage coach was the omen, he considered as he pulled his fingers through his hair. Maybe he should have stayed in Sacramento rather than giving over actual money for the privilege of travelling anywhere at all in that clap-rattling death trap.
Tonight, as he sat in his moon-drenched bedroom, breath scraping out of his throat while his most recent nightmare receded, he was almost sure of it. Tired but knowing good and well that any chance at sleep was shot, Scott dropped his head into his hands and concentrated on swallowing his heart down out of his throat.
He really should have known better, talking to strange Pinkerton men on dark streets. It could only lead to stranger ends.
That Agent Welby had to have been following him, that much was clear, the way he practically leapt from the bushes on one of Boston’s tonier streets. Scott had, himself, just leapt from the balcony of the delightful Barbara Harrison’s boudoir mere seconds ahead of her father breaking down the bedroom door. Frying pan into fire? he wondered when Welby stopped him before he was two minutes older, not so much asking his name as confirming what he already knew.
“Son of Murdoch Lancer?” Again, less a question than a statement of fact.
Murdoch Lancer and any dubious connection he might have to the man couldn’t have been further from his mind. In point of fact, apart from a desire to laugh at the absurdity of it all Scott felt…not much else. He had been on his way to meet up with Thaddeus and Charles at the Sleeping Lady, albeit a bit earlier than appointed, and he planned to see the sunrise from the other side of an evening spent in the not unpleasant fug of that favorite gaming hell. Even when the agent told him that his father wanted to see him, Scott almost kept walking.
“And he’s willing to pay,” Welby continued to his back. “All expenses to California and a thousand dollars for one hour of your time.”
That last bit had Scott not just stopping but turning in his tracks.
He shivered. It seemed that he’d managed to kick half his covers to the floor in a tangled mess and so set about bringing the heavy comforters back on board. The harder he tried to get the quilts sorted, though, the more tangled they became until he final gave the project up. Irritated, he wrapped one around his shoulders and quit the bed. The wood floor was cool on his feet and he briefly considered socks, but gave the idea up almost soon as he had it as that would have entailed lighting a lamp to look for a pair. So he padded through the silvery shadows of his room barefoot and looking something like a wayward princeling with the tail of his blanket trailing out behind him as he made his way to the windows.
His room overlooked the back corrals and tonight there were about two dozen head of cows and their calves milling about in there, periodically lowing to one another. As he listened to their soft calls, the scent of hibiscus filtering up on the cool breeze, he wondered at how utterly different his life had become. In Boston his room looked out over gas street lamps, the neighbor’s house across the street, and the hustle of the city. He wondered if he would ever start to yearn to return to it.
He’d certainly missed Thad and Charles the night he’d met Agent Welby, never made it to the Sleeping Lady; ended up wandering the city for hours before finally landing at home, in his grandfather’s study, and making serious inroads on a decanted bottle of Glen Ord. The Scotch had been a gift for his twenty-first birthday, the first and, at least stacked up next to this latest business, arguably far less bewildering piece of contact that he’d had from his father three years prior. And it had come to him by almost as perplexing a messenger, forwarded care of a James Harper.
Sitting in the muted light of the study, the same questions kept echoing through his brain: Why now? Why now quickly led to and why Pinkertons? which led to several more fortifying glasses of Scotch and an argument with Grandfather later that evening. One of many they would have over the course of the following weeks as he made the rounds to family and friends, tied up his affairs, packed and prepared to board the train into the West.
The journey had taken the better part of a month and afforded him plenty of time to investigate his thoughts about his father’s vague message. Well, until he boarded the stage for the final leg of the trip anyway. At that point all he thought of was the searing heat, his aching backside, and how many critters might be sharing his bed through two over-nights in as many dubious backwoods way stations.
“One hour of my time,” Scott snorted. He’d be damned and double damned if he was going anywhere that involved even a minute on board another stage coach. He’d sooner walk back to Boston if it came to that. So it was with a glad heart that he climbed out of the coach in Morro Coyo wearing his most expensive travelling suit, and prepared to meet his father for the first time with his best foot forward. Beyond that, if he hadn’t known any better Scott would have sworn that he’d been thrown down Alice’s rabbit hole.
He’d met his father, that was for sure, debatable about the best foot business, and the suit was now…God only knew where. Mrs. Cipriano – Maria, he mentally corrected himself. She’d insisted and Murdoch explained that they didn’t “stand on a helluva lot of formality around here” when Scott tripped and stumbled over the familiarity. Maria, then – Maria had likely gotten a hold of the suit and beaten it to within an inch of its silken life against a rock somewhere.
Not five minutes into the thousand dollar hour his father offered him a third ownership in his ranch. There was a stipulation, of course. Before he could lay claim to his legacy he would have to fight in a range war sparked off by a man called Day Pardee and his band of what Murdoch called land pirates. Land pirates. Scott shook his head. For heaven sakes. Next the Jabberwocky and Cheshire cats and a spirited game of croquet with live flamingos for mallets.
These land pirates, Murdoch’s range war, and the heart attack Grandfather was likely to have when he heard about all of this paled at best in the face of the biggest, the mother of all shocks. It turned out that Scott wasn’t Murdoch Lancer’s only estranged son. His newly discovered younger brother was to be the other third of Lancer. And one mustn’t forget young Miss Teresa, their father’s ward. Soon to be their adopted sister, Murdoch informed them over dinner last night.
Scott shook his head. “Croquet, anyone?”
All cynicism aside, though, he couldn’t escape the fact that he was curious about these people, this land. He was excited, the first he’d felt any such thing in so long that he’d almost forgotten it was even possible. He wanted to stay and get to know this new family of his. If he was being entirely honest, he’d known before he got on the train that he probably wouldn’t be returning to Boston anytime in the foreseeable future regardless of how things worked out with his father. He hadn’t even bothered to buy a round-trip ticket.
Grandfather had to have seen the writing on the wall, whatever Scott was or wasn’t admitting to at the time. It was part of why the old man had fought so hard to keep him there. Not the whole argument, but certainly its foundation. The painful fact of the matter was, though, the only reason he’d stayed in Boston after the War was because he didn’t know what else to do, where else to go. He was the boy who went for water in winter and came back with a flute in spring. His world made about that much sense. He had fallen out of his old life so completely he hardly recognized it as something that had once belonged to him.
And he had no idea how to fall back into it again, what life he was supposed to be living, though it seemed he was expected to just pick up where he left off. He couldn’t, though; didn’t know how. Scott almost wished he had come back with a limp or a lame arm, something obvious so people would stop watching him so cautiously, like he was some kind of a wild thing.
So he put a good face on interrupted, shielded himself in a bubble packed with easy things, blunt things: women and booze, gambling and fights. He’d floated along in it for years, until it seemed impenetrable, until it became such the norm that he hardly remembered there was any other way to live. Apparently his little bubble life wasn’t as bomb proof as he liked to think it was though. Murdoch had given it one unintentional scratch and the whole thing had come undone, left him more exposed than ever.
And now here he was, coming apart at the seams in California, complete with night terrors and muttering like some kind of mad man to cattle that couldn’t even hear him. Disgusted, Scott let loose a weighty sigh then shifted to wipe the small patch of fog left behind on the window.
The cattle were captured out in that corral for branding, Scott had been informed, though he was none too clear about the particulars of the operation. And Murdoch’s strange, halting attempt at an explanation hadn’t clarified the matter an iota. All he’d gotten out of the conversation was that tomorrow…today was to be his first day at actual cowboying. The rest of it just left his head spinning.
It always seemed to go like that any time the conversation swung anywhere near Johnny and his future, if any, at the ranch. It was unsettling to see and yet more unsettling that he was bothered by it. He knew they’d only just met but he’d already come to think of Murdoch as a man who went ahead in his life purposefully and confident in all that he pursued. Then his brother had gotten shot up and come close to losing his life in defense of the ranch. This event seemed to shake out this whole other side to their father that Scott never even suspected existed.
The picture of calm efficiency, Murdoch had been the one to take the bullet out of Johnny’s back, right there on the dinner table, and then sewed him up tight as a drum. To look at the man, anyone would think that he went around digging bullets out his sons every day of his life. It wasn’t until quite a few hours later as he sat on the edge his bed in much the same condition he’d woken up in tonight, tip-toing through the minefield of the day’s events that the details of things started to sink in.
His father mindlessly trying to wipe his hands off on a blood-soaked towel, finally chucking the towel and settling for his pants. “Clean him up,” he’d ordered, his voice dull, flat; a complete contradiction to the tears piled up in his eyes. Maria paused long enough in her bustle to quickly squeeze Murdoch’s arm. He pattered her hand absently before moving across the room like a man in a dream and poured himself a stiff drink. Tossing that off in one belt, he poured himself another then turned on them, looking at them as if the room and all its occupants had just materialized around him. Shell shocked was the only word for it, and Scott had an eerie feeling that he and Teresa shared the look. After a moment Murdoch’s features cleared, firmed and he scrubbed his hand across his forehead, leaving a red smear. “Put him to bed,” he said and the left the room by way of the French doors without another word.
The rest of the hands had not been standing idly by, helpfully wringing their hands through Johnny’s ordeal. Maria’s husband, Ernesto, organized a field hospital of sorts out in the bunkhouse. Knowing that it could be days before the county’s only doctor made it out to the ranch, Murdoch spent the rest of the already long day and into the night tending to the wounded.
Those that lived, and most of them did, were put up in the hacienda for recovery. Murdoch already had the whole Cipriano clan, all seven of them, installed in the downstairs bedrooms a month ago after Pardee tried to burn their house down with them in it. At this point the place was pretty well stuffed to the gills.
Watching his father bring some semblance of order to the swirling chaos, Scott began to understand just what Murdoch meant when he said he had a grey hair for every good blade of grass on the place. So after seeing his brother safely installed in his room with Maria and her team of ladies to look after him, Scott followed his father’s lead and went to attend to the dead with Teresa, brazen creature that she was turning out to be, doggedly following suit.
A week’s worth of funerals – Scott hadn’t realized just how many families lived and worked on Lancer, depended on the ranch for their survival. In that week he met them all. He’d never been kissed and hugged and shook by the hand so much in his entire life. All the time his father was somewhere nearby. Keeping an eye on them, Scott supposed, and was surprised at the sense of relief that accompanied it. That was during the day. Nights, Murdoch could be found at Johnny’s bedside and almost nowhere else.
Scott glanced at the clock as it began to strike the quarter hour, its mother-of-pearl face glowing by the light of the moon. Maria would be along soon to get him up to take over for Murdoch who she was probably at this very minute bullying about his need for rest and what a fat lot of good he’d be to anyone if he fell over with the exhaustion. Scott heard Murdoch’s grumbling right on the heels of that thought and smiled. Deciding to save them all the heart ache, he pushed off from the window and went to his chair. He dropped the blanket there, pulled on his pants and began stuffing himself into yesterday’s undershirt as he stepped out into the hall.
Scott almost stepped right into Murdoch who was practically being shoved out of Johnny’s room, startling them both.
“Sir,” Scott blurted, still wrestling with his shirt.
Murdoch grabbed his left arm just as it popped free of the sleeve, though just who was stabilizing who was unclear. He held on while Scott struggled with the right until Maria, all five feet of her, stepped out from behind his father and yanked the snarled sleeve almost down to his elbow. Murdoch let go then and Scott backed up a step, instituting some personal space in the somewhat crowded confines of the hall.
“I was just coming to spell you,” he explained as he finished pulling himself together. “How’s the patient?”
“Sleeping,” Maria said. “As your father should be.” She shot Murdoch a pointed look. “Hardheaded,” she muttered under her breath.
“I was sleeping until you came along, you old busy body.” Murdoch returned the look.
“In a chair does not count,” Maria fired back. Though their voices were subdued, it was clear that they were continuing an argument started on the other side of Johnny’s bedroom door. “And don’t call me old.”
“It does too count,” Murdoch growled and then turned on Scott with what sounded more like a threat than a promise. “I’ll come check on you two in a few hours.” He gave Scott a quick squeeze on the shoulder then headed down the hall – in the opposite direction of his bedroom – muttering something about a pot of coffee.
Maria threw up her hands, let loose a gusty sigh and started after the patrón, haranguing him in fluent Spanish with Murdoch responding in kind. Feeling slightly mussed, like he’d just been spit out on the other side of a tiny, localized tornado, Scott watched until they disappeared down the back stairs.
Never, in all his imaginings, had he conjured up this version of a life, of his father. There were times, now for instance, that he found it nearly impossible to assimilate and could happily lie down on the floor and stare up at the ceiling, it was so unexpected and just plain crazy. He snorted. There wasn’t a soul around who wouldn’t accept such a sight as par for the course and step right over him if they found him laid out in the middle of the hall, staring at the ceiling. Well, he reconsidered, they might ask if he wouldn’t like a nice cup of tea. With a shake of his head he let himself into Johnny’s room.
Awareness was slow in coming, his senses sluggish and thick. It was as if he were swimming through a great pool of cold molasses. Johnny wasn’t immediately sure of where he was or why he was there, and before he came anywhere near to figuring out just what sort of predicament he’d gotten himself into this time the door clicked open and his heart leapt up into his throat. The ensuing panic brought with it a roaring in his ears. Not alone then, he concluded dimly, wherever the hell he was.
His first overwhelming instinct was to put some distance between himself and who or whatever this unseen entity was. To this end he tried to sit up and scoot away from the energy coming at him in waves from somewhere on his right. But his body colluded against him, hissed at his audacity, and he couldn’t prevent the accompanying groan. He decided it was probably best to lay still a moment and try to figure out just what the devil was going on. He didn’t dare move his head, not if he intended to hold onto the content of his stomach…which probably wasn’t much he was willing to bet.
Soon the roaring died back to a dull throb and that was soon replaced with the sound of voices. His father’s for one. Johnny listened with interest. Murdoch was gritching at someone. Probably Maria, he thought, and then she chimed in as if on cue. They were at it again.
Now there was a relationship completely at odds with any he’d initially thought his father capable of, but there was no missing that they enjoyed sparring with one another. There was no missing the affection in it either. Scott, who had some experience with these things, said he’d never heard of such highhandedness in a servant. Servant, hell, Johnny had countered. Those two were old friends. An alliance, Teresa agreed.
A third voice was added to the crowd. His brother’s. Must be time for a change of the guard then, Johnny sighed, thinking that he was never going to know another moments solitude so long as he stayed in this bed.
Now there was a different thing. And that this brother of his was some kind of dandy from the East was almost laughable. Matter of fact, he had laughed when he heard the news. And he figured that ol’ Boston would end up with a bullet in his back for all his troubles, sooner rather than later.
Johnny snorted. Now look who’s laid up, shot full of holes. Could be worse, though, he considered. It had been worse. At least this time there was a bed, he thought, as the incident surrounding his current situation started piecing back together again. Pardee had shot him. In the back. Asshole. And it was Scott who had come for him, dragged him out of the line of fire. Scott had taken down Pardee in the end.
And he was here now, like clockwork, focusing his attention into Johnny’s bedroom. “You’re awake.”
“I guess so.” Johnny watched as his brother turned the knob and whispered the door shut.
“They said you were asleep,” Scott said, everything about him subdued.
“Who could sleep with those two carryin’ on like a coupla old cat ladies?” Johnny grunted and gingerly turned himself over, one socked foot sprouting out from beneath the covers. He squinted at the foot as Scott snorted and turned up the lamp.
“They are a formidable pair,” Scott agreed, dropped all of his weight to one foot and crossed his arms over his chest. “Hot date, fella?”
“If that means a trip to the chamber pot,” Johnny paused a moment to catch his breath, “then, yes.”
Scott made no moved to interfere but his eyebrows crept up while Johnny took a moment to triangulate the distance from the bed to the chamber pot and back again, and then added the embarrassing outcome of his last attempt to do on his own into the calculation.
He had come out from under his fever a couple days ago, restless and crotchety, insisting that he was fine. Better than fine. If someone would just give him his damn pants he’d show them all.
“Show us what?” Scott hadn’t exactly laughed, but his eyebrows did that creeping thing. “That you can break a horse?”
Stubborn. All he managed was to nearly break his damn neck when Scott finally relented, gave him the pants and stood back to watch as Johnny managed almost two not-so-solid steps before crumbling in a heap. Point proven, Scott’s at least, he’d gotten scraped up off the floor and secured under the covers before anyone else caught wind of their shenanigans.
Johnny struggled his other foot free of the covers. Scott’s amusement erupted on his lips, a small smile, and Johnny looked down to see that the nightgown they had stuffed him into was now hiked up to his thighs.
The smile swiftly grew to include Scott’s teeth. “Want a hand?”
“Yeah,” Johnny conceded with a sigh and lifted an arm. His brother took it firmly and hoisted him to his feet.
“Just let me take the weight,” Scott advised, securing an arm around his waist as they made their way together across the room. “You hit the floor again and the M’s will be back up here in a hot second.”
“The M’s?” Johnny tried to lift his head but it felt like someone had clapped lead hat on his head.
“Teresa’s shorthand for your cat ladies,” Scott explained. Johnny pulled away once in shooting distance of the chamber pot and Scott gave him as much privacy as the situation allowed.
“That Teresa,” Johnny huffed as they made their way back to the bed, Scott now assuming responsibility for most of his weight. “She sure is a nutty one.”
“Soon to be our nutty sister,” Scott said as he lowered Johnny back onto the mattress.
“Yeah, Murdoch asked me how I felt about it last night,” Johnny said.
“How do you feel about it?”
“I don’t know.” Johnny shrugged and set about needlessly arranging the already arranged blankets. “She’ll be safe. I want her to be safe.”
“She will be that,” Scott agreed as he inspected the empty glass on the bedside table for cleanliness. “I guess there’s an aunt up in Oregon who wanted to take her, too. They gave her the option and she chose to stay here with Murdoch. One can hardly blame her; it’s the only life she’s ever known.”
“And she’s loyal to the old man.” Johnny grimaced at the croaking sound of his voice and cleared his throat. “They all are. Pretty loyal to the old man, I mean.”
Scott nodded as he handed Johnny the glass of water he’d just poured. “I’m beginning to see why.”
Johnny took the glass and held his brother’s eyes for a long moment. Ever since he’d come back around to his senses he noticed a change in Scott, especially when their father came up. He knew the look of long held anger roiling through a man’s blood, in Scott’s case just under the surface like a volcano ready to erupt. That had all gone lately. Johnny certainly wouldn’t call it love, but the cutting edge was gone from his voice. Fully prepared to hang on to his own anger and resentments, he felt strangely like he was losing an ally.
“He’s always here.” Johnny broke the gaze and drank down his water. “Teresa says he’s hardly left.”
“You sound surprised.” Scott settled himself down in the chair next to the bed.
“Not surprised.” But he was surprised, and not sure why he’d bothered denying it either. He certainly wasn’t getting anything over on Scott whose look was not one of utter belief. “Just seems like there’s gotta be plenty else for him to be doin’ around here beside watching me sleep.”
“Oh, there is,” Scott assured him. “You’re not our only patient, you know. Place is starting to look like we’re running a hospital instead of a ranch.”
“Still strange, is all. It’s not like we really know each other or anything.”
Scott opened his mouth, sighed and closed it again. He sat quietly for a blink and then shot forward in his chair and relieved Johnny of his empty glass. “I’m going to take that to mean you haven’t talked to him about your mother yet,” he said as he put the glass down on the floor beside his chair and resettled.
“Have you?” Johnny snapped, not liking the turn this conversation was taking at all.
“Talked to Murdoch about your mother? No.”
The anger crawled over Johnny like he’d just been thrown into a fire and yanked the covers back, moving to get out of bed without thinking through the wisdom of the action. “I ought to come over there and jam my fist down your throat,” he said through clinched teeth and then groaned, sinking back to the pillows.
“If you could get over here,” Scott crossed his arms over his chest, “then I’d give you a shot at it, Mr. Madrid.”
His cheeks tingling with the heat of his embarrassment, Johnny turned away and curled in on himself. He could have kicked himself in his own teeth then and now for that angry outburst by the river, and in front of Teresa no less. It had just come spilling and before he could stop himself it was out. The heart of him, for all the world to see.
“You know what I mean,” he4 said, disgusted. “Have you asked him why you got raised up in Boston?”
“No, I haven’t. But I plan to, and that’s not what’s at issue right now.”
Scott was quiet for so long that Johnny figured the matter was closed, damn well hoped it was. But then Scott shifted and sighed, and Johnny knew he was just waiting. Far more patient than Johnny could ever conceive of being, Scott could whittle a man down to within an inch of his life with his silence.
“I’ll deal with the Murdoch in my own way, in my own time, if that’s all right with you,” Johnny said, knowing that he was being pigheaded and feeling too pigheaded at the moment to care.
“Before you get all hardheaded about the old man,” Scott shot him a pointed look, “or anything else, I think you ought to try and get some of that mess cleared up.”
“I’m not plannin’ to leave, if that’s what you’re sayin’.”
“I never took you for that big of an idiot.”
“Ain’t exactly been up to any heart-to-hearts lately, either, Scott,” Johnny said, hoping his brother would take the hint and let the matter drop.
The snort issued from the chair was downright explosive.
“Well, I think we both know better than to expect any fireside confessionals from the man anytime soon, Brother.” Scott snorted again. “Or ever.”
Johnny turned back over then with a small smile of appreciation. “Maybe he’s got a diary hid around here somewhere.”
“Maybe, but I seriously doubt he knows that he was supposed to have kicked you and your mother out all those years ago.” Scott’s voice took on a hard edge and he opened up with both barrels. “I saw the look in his face when you took that bullet, Johnny. Like Pardee had cracked him open and taken his heart right out. I was there when he took the bullet out of your back. He deserves a chance, Brother, and I think you’d do well to give it to him.”
Johnny blinked and tried to swallow down the burning sensation cropped up at the back of his throat. “Talkin’ about that piece of paper again?”
Scott stretched his long legs alongside the bed and let his eyes droop, one corner of his mouth turning up in a half smile. “Tell you what, I’ll carry the credit for us both for a while. Just until you’re up to taking on your share.”
“I can take care of myself,” Johnny said, picked up the penny dreadful sitting atop the stack of books on his nightstand and threw it at Scott’s head. It flopped through the air and hit him square in the chest.
Scott’s eyes popped full open upon impact and the other side of his mouth completed the smile. “Actually, I believe it’s your turn to read,” he flicked a lazy hand and sent the booklet sailing neatly back to the bed, “and you may want to back up a bit. You fell asleep on me the last time, just as things were starting to heat up.”
Johnny chuckled and shook his head, the fight going out of him almost as quickly as it had come up. He lay back and began thumbing through the pages. “The Commancheros were about to attack those poor settlers.”
“The Commancheros did attack. It gets better.”
Johnny read a few lines out loud and stopped. “Shouldn’t we wait for Teresa? She’s really likin’ this one.”
“Per Miss Teresa: she can drop into this thing at any point, read it so many times she could recite it from memory.”
“You two have better taste than the old man, anyway,” Johnny grumbled. “He’s been readin’ me that Homer book.” He pointed off-hand at the copy of the Odyssey now sitting at the top of the stack. “I think ol’ Homer was sippin’ on a bottle of laudanum when he wrote that thing.”
Scott laughed right out loud. Johnny gave a small smile and looked up at the rustling sounds coming from just outside his door.
She stood out in the hall, groggy and disheveled, and staring at the door as if it were the first she’d ever encountered. Teresa glanced down at the piping hot mugs in her hands and wondered, not for the first time, how she was going to manage to operate the knob. Hearing a sudden bark of laughter from within, her course presented itself and she kicked the door. A moment later it swung open, Scott standing on the other side, and she handed forth one of the mugs.
“Coffee.” Teresa moved past Scott and set about trying to find a place on the cluttered bedside table to set her burdens down. “Maria sent coffee,” she clarified.
“And it appears that you could stand to get some on board as soon as possible,” Scott said as he shut the door and returned to his seat.
Teresa spared his comment none of her attention and, unsuccessful in her search for open real estate, she thrust a second cup at Johnny and continued. “Not for you. Tea for you.”
“More willow bark?” Johnny groaned, but accepted the mug.
“I’m afraid so.” Teresa eyed the foot of the bed with the same look she’d been leveling at the bedroom door moments earlier. “Hold this,” she ordered Scott, thrusting her coffee at his empty hand so she could hike herself up onto the bed.
“And a good morning to you, too, young lady,” Scott said pointedly, but he took the mug.
“Mornin’,” Teresa said as she got herself situated. Scott added a bit about how comfortable she was making herself to the look and she ignored that too.
She was curious about these sons, these sons of Murdoch she’d been hearing about her whole life. All she knew so far was that she liked them. They were smart, also funny. They didn’t look anything like she’s imagined they would, though. Well, maybe Scott a little when he’d first arrived from the far away land of Boston with his ruffles and his starch. But definitely not Johnny. She was looking for some kind of a cross between a pirate and a highwayman to turn up at their door and was completely thrown by the soft spoken young man who hopped off the stage instead. Surprised her. Surprised them all. They weren’t expecting him on the same stage as Scott. They weren’t expecting him to need feeding up so badly.
She shook her head. “Can I have my coffee back?”
Scott handed it over. “Johnny and I were just about to start reading. He was worried that you might miss.”
Teresa took a gulp of her coffee and leaned forward to look at the book splayed spine up in Johnny’s lap. Her mouth turned up in a grin. “Red Rebels. My favorite.” She kicked at Johnny’s feet until he shifted them aside. “You fell asleep last time.”
“I got tired,” he said. “But I’m wide awake now and I hear it’s about to get real good.”
“How’re you feeling anyway?” Teresa asked, settling in.
“Like I been shot in the back,” Johnny said, sniffing cautiously at the tea before taking a sip. His face brightened. “Honey!”
“A spoonful of honey… Maria can be pretty cantankerous, but she’s not cruel.” She smiled. “Plus, there’s so many sickies around here, we’d have a mutiny on our hands if she went around pouring gallons of unsweetened willow bark tea down everyone’s throat.”
“Yeah, according to Scott we’re all full at the inn.”
“I don’t know for how much longer. Maria told Murdoch and Cipriano this morning that she intended to move back into their house soon. Maybe tonight. They’re arguing about it right now.”
Johnny snorted. “She’ll win.”
“But their place isn’t anywhere close to being ready,” Scott sang to the choir. “Pardee might have been a barbarian, but he was a barbarian that knew how to effectively burn down a house.”
“Tell it to Maria.” Teresa shrugged. “She’s ready to go home, that’s all I know. Made up her mind and counted to ten. I wouldn’t put it past her to have the fire damage sorted out herself before the sun goes down.” She sighed. “Place’ll start feeling awful empty once that crew goes home.”
“Bet you’ll be glad to have it back to normal around here.”
Teresa gave Johnny a sharp look. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Liking all of this commotion, are you?” Scott asked.
“It feels friendly again. It’s been pretty quiet around here since…for a long time.”
“I know how you feel. My grandfather’s house is pretty echoy and intimidating. There were a few times I picked a fight just to make sure I wasn’t the only thing alive in there. Me and the houseplants.”
Teresa smiled. Yes, she genuinely liked these two. When the Ciprianos moved back into their house and the injured went back to the bunkhouses and neighboring ranches it would quiet down considerably, but she had a feeling that with Scott and Johnny knocking about the place the hacienda would never go silent like before. Maybe it would feel like a home again.
“I wish it didn’t take Day Pardee to get you two here but I’m glad you’ve come and I hope you’ll stay. Murdoch too. He wants you to stay more than anything.”
Johnny and Scott both all but flinched and Teresa came close to regret. She almost didn’t say it, almost kept it to herself because she knew she might lose them, especially bringing Murdoch into it like that. But instead she threw caution to the wind and was glad she did. Let them wince and feel uncomfortable, she decided, they could take it. Better than feeling nothing at all. Uncomfortable would do until they came up with something better. She wanted them to stay and they wanted to stay, any fool could see it. And they always had Red Rebels until these silly men worked out a way to do it without sacrificing their pride. Teresa plucked the book off Johnny's lap and started reading.