A Monkey Puzzle Production
The thinnest sliver of moon light filtered into the large bedroom, breaking through dense cloud cover, if only for just a second, to wash the space and its heavy, dark wood furnishings in cool blue and deep purple hues. The seething storm quickly moved back in, casting a near full moon behind its cover like an uninvited guest and plunging the room into almost complete darkness. Only the light from the previous night’s fire remained, and it had long since ceased throwing off any heat; though the dying embers continued to peter and pop in the otherwise still room. In a shadowed corner, a small clock relentlessly ticked off the passing seconds, minutes and finally chimed the hour. 4 AM.
Murdoch opened his eyes a second before the first bong. He’d learned long ago, there was no easier way to get out on the wrong side of the bed than to stay in it too long. Besides that, this first hour was his favorite time of the day and he didn’t like to waste it. His eyes hadn’t been open a full minute before he had thrown back the covers and swung his feet to the floor. Patting the bedside table for a box of matches, he lit the lamp, slipped his feet into his house shoes, and pushing his hands through his silver curls, left his bed behind for the day.
Moving stiffly about in the weak lamp light, he took care of his morning ablutions in short order, mostly by touch and memory, his mind meanwhile turning back through the previous evening. It had been a good one, starting with the fact that they’d all managed to sit down to dinner together. Fall was always the busiest season but these last few weeks had been particularly crazy. Murdoch was literally never sure whether the kids were coming or going. Mere sightings had been a patchy business at best, though Maria was convinced that they had to be making it back to the house at some point because food kept disappearing.
They’d been down a pair of hands, so Scott had been working himself and his crew like a pack of hellions to get the fencing done ahead of another crew, already on the move, driving the portion of the herd not going to market up to winter pasture; Teresa was beginning to learn the run of the vineyard this year and so had been dividing her time between that, bedding down the beehives for the winter and managing her fall harvest. She and Scott both had been dragging themselves in at all sorts of dicey hours of the day and night, their schedules of late utterly defying Murdoch’s ability to predict.
And Johnny—well, he’d come home a couple of weeks ago, listless and splotchy and wondering what the heck the rash on his back was all about. Had he been stung? They’d all been willing to go along with the insect sting theory until he wouldn’t eat dinner. That was when Maria got a hold of him, Scott’s work load suddenly increased, and nobody had seen much of poor Johnny since; though rumor had it he was definitely on the mend from his little trouble with the chickenpox.
“You could fill a book with the things you don’t know, Murdoch Lancer,” he told his reflection and shook his head. Of all the damn things. It would never have even occurred to him to ask the boys if they had gone through all of those childhood maladies. Johnny, at nearly twenty years old, was just now getting around to this one and it had been a pretty rough case.
Lord, Maria had gone to war against this thing. Battalion aid headquarters, formerly known as the kitchen, had been transformed into a veritable sweat factory where Maria’s militia, as they’d come to be known, spent their days grinding oatmeal, and if they weren’t dipping Johnny into various consistencies of the stuff then they were drowning the poor boy in the juice of boiled green peas, or coating his copious and sundry pox in honey. Messy business and probably not the least bit comfortable, but it was all supposed to sooth the terrible itch and save him from scarring in the end, Maria assured.
Not that anyone could see that it was going to make a difference at this point. He was finally at the end stages of this thing, truly the ugliest part of the whole ordeal. He’d shaken the last of his fever off yesterday afternoon—one less thing to worry about—and was able to stay awake for more than an hour or so at a stretch. A development Maria, in particular, was dubious as to the benefits of, especially after Johnny launched a counter campaign—a campaign for freedom. She’d finally relented, concluding that if he had enough energy to harass her then he could put some of it to good use and set the table.
If Teresa’s melodramatic screams upon running into him unexpectedly in the hall hadn’t done it, then Scott pretty much took the rest of the wind out of those freedom sails when he went to round Johnny up for his first proper meal in a little over a week. “Have you looked in a mirror lately? You can’t go out there!” Out of this nonsense their new favorite pass time was born. Uglier Than Thou, they called it, and the three of them played with feeling. Murdoch chuckled as he cleaned up his shaving things, a process that actually took more time than had scraping the beard off his face.
Johnny’s freedom trail led him straight to the couch after dinner, which was really all he wanted. He liked a great big fire and so Scott had built up some kind of unnecessary, raging inferno in the fireplace, to his brother’s undying amusement and which Murdoch didn’t have the heart to protest. Out came the cribbage board, and Teresa and Johnny played hand after vicious hand against each other before somehow managing to wheedle him and Scott into playing doubles against them, a mistake Murdoch planned to not make again in future; though he had to admit that he had not been above talking his fair share of bull and matching them tale for wild, ridiculously outlandish tale.
Probably the strangest family in the neighborhood, Teresa had commented off-hand, and half watching as she and Scott tried to chuck popped corn into each other’s mouths while Johnny dozed in front of his bonfire, Murdoch found he couldn’t exactly disagree. And lord knew the neighborhood had plenty to say on the subject. They’d traveled some rough trail these last six months to get to last night, he reflected, and he wasn’t so naïve as to think that they were through all of the worst of it, but it seemed like things were starting to settle down into some semblance of normalcy, whatever the hell that was; he was starting to trust in this feeling that maybe his odd ball family really wouldn’t shake loose.
Murdoch dressed in the clothes he’d laid out for himself the night before, made a half-hearted gesture at straightening out the bed covers, and headed out to start the coffee - as always, his first chore of the day. Maria would be in soon and she always appreciated having a fresh cup waiting for her. For now, though, it was just him, alone with his thoughts and they were on the day ahead, as he made his way down the hall to the kitchen stairs, lighting wall sconces and shoving open a couple of windows along the way. The air was cool and damp, heavy with ozone; it felt like rain.
Rearranging the mental list of chore assignments he had running through his head, Murdoch rapped once and soundly on Teresa’s bedroom door as he passed it by. Reveille—Phase One, Scott had dubbed it. There were some mutterings from the other side which he ignored, though if translated probably amounted to something like, “I’m up”.
They had exactly one hour to put in an appearance after the knock, but by the time the aroma of fresh coffee had a chance to make its way upstairs - Phase Two of Murdoch’s wake up call - that was usually all that was needed to drag their sluggardly butts the rest of the way out of bed. They’d learned early and quick not to push it to Phase Three, which involved their father coming back upstairs and, as Teresa has said with Johnny’s whole-hearted agreement, things just got ugly from there. Smiling, Murdoch gave Scott’s door an extra hearty knock. Number One Son had gotten a tad jolly with the wine last night. The smile faded into a frown at Johnny’s room. His door was wide open and upon closer inspection, it looked like the room had gone largely unoccupied for the night. A mystery. He pulled the door to and continued on down stairs.
As he hit the kitchen landing his back spasmed violently, interrupting the supply list he was now compiling in his head. It was a few tense moments of gripping the handrail and cursing everything from the changing weather to his age, with gusto, if under his breath, before he felt confident enough to straighten up and test his body. Things seemed to be settling back down, so he let go the banister and opened the back door. It was still so dark that there was little to see beyond the back step and the pile of dirty boots accumulating on it, but the wind was picking up. There would be rain.
After rummaging around in the larder for the ground coffee, and then adding whole beans and sugar to the supply list, he stirred up the stove coals, threw in a couple pieces of fresh wood, and took the iron kettle down from its hook over the stove. Greasing the kitchen pump was soon added to Johnny’s chores as Murdoch filled the pot. And just what did that boy get up to after they all went to bed, anyhow, he wondered as he set the pot on the stove and continued his morning’s wander through his house, lighting lamps and opening more windows and doors along the way. Surely Johnny’s vanity wouldn’t have withstood him pulling something stupid like going into town. Passing through the rarely used formal dinning room, briefly splashing the space with the light of his lamp before plunging it back into darkness, Murdoch dismissed the thought entirely almost as soon as he had it and crossed the hall into the sitting room.
Well, that was one mystery solved, only to be replaced with another—Johnny was sitting in the large leather bound chair behind Murdoch’s desk, unmoving, head bowed chin to chest, apparently having fallen asleep over the account books. He must have lost some kind of bet, Murdoch figured, because short of an actual fire under his ass, there was little else that he could think of which would drive Johnny into the account books.
As he came closer, the light from his lamp illuminated the desk, which the kids had taken to referring to jokingly as Planet Murdoch or The Continent or (on Scott’s more obnoxious days), the Paterfamiliar Seat. Murdoch wondered if a localized tornado hadn’t hit the place. There was paper strewn all about the desks vast top. Almost smiling, he smoothed a hand down his son’s head as he passed on his way to open up the French doors. He stood on the threshold for a moment, taking in the rich smell of impending rain mixed with the rosemary growing a riot in Teresa’s herb garden and the hibiscus in bloom closer to the house. The hibiscus had been his first wife’s idea. “Run all of the cattle you can get your hands on, Mr. Lancer, but leave me the illusion that you’re not running them through the house.”
The creak of leather grabbed his attention and he turned back towards Johnny to find the young man staring at him, his eyes glittering strangely in the near dark. Murdoch returned to his desk to light the lamp. “Good morning, Son. Are you up late or are you up early?”
Frowning when Johnny did not answer, Murdoch moved closer to his son’s side, reaching out a hand to his face. But Johnny flinched away.
“When were you plannin’ on telling me about this, Old Man?” Johnny asked, his drawl low and thick, holding up a black portfolio before punctuating his softly spoken question with the solid smack of the document hitting the desk top.
Sweet Jesus. What was that horrible thud inside his head? Or was it out? Hard to tell. Barely sitting up, he cracked his eyes open for the first time that day, struggling to make out the clock through the gloom of his room, and groaned. Too dark. He collapsed back onto the pillows, nose wrinkling at his own breath, and ran his tongue experimentally over the sweaters that seemed to have been knitted around all of his teeth in the course of the night. Whatever time it was, surely it was too early.
He decided to take a moment to lay there and try to figure out what the hell happened to him. There were quite a few heated hands of Cribbage, he remembered, at which he had fared poorly. Himself and Murdoch vs. Beauty and the Beast; a lop-sided pairing if ever there was, and one he vowed never to find himself up against again. Teresa and Johnny played cards like a couple of blood-thirsty cut-throats.
A cranky little grunt escaped him as he shimmied down deeper into his covers. He had made up for his losses by drinking up the better part of a bottle of wine and smoking Murdoch’s Cubans and if his sticky mouth and already dully aching head were any indication, then Scott figured he was going to be paying dearly for last night’s Lambrusco today.
Thanking the lord that he’d managed to string the whole north pasture, ahead of schedule no less, he flopped over irritably, in search of a cooler place on the sheets. Finding none, he gave up, balled his pillow and wedged it tightly between himself and the mattress, apparently to prevent its escape, and mumbled, “Fifteen more minutes.”
Five minutes later he was rudely re-awakened by a loud clap of thunder, which was followed by the opening of the heavens.
“Hooray,” he squawked tonelessly into the pillow. They’d been watching this storm system amass the last couple of days, expecting it to break anytime. Now it had and, as providence would have it, Murdoch had given him the day off; though he suspected that this was not wholly the gift of mercy and benevolence that it appeared to be on the surface.
Johnny’s fever had only broken early yesterday morning and according to Murdoch and Maria, by the afternoon he was already bucking to be let off the tether. Scott guessed that Johnny’s plan had been to make such a pest of himself that they’d kicked him out of the house for the rest of the day. As if. Scott snorted and then pressed his fingers to his eyes, which felt like they were trying to pulse out of their sockets.
Evidently, the M’s guessed it too. The plan backfired. By the time Scott had dragged himself in from a day spent stringing what seemed to be, and no doubt was, miles of fence wire Johnny had apparently badgered them both into such a distraction that their father finally set him at the ranch’s account books. This, of course, was much to Brother John’s complete dismay. They’d given him options, Scott had been told; Johnny could have always tended to the ironing.
He couldn’t help it. He snorted again.
There was no way little brother was getting out of the house in this downpour, Scott reflected, and flipped himself face up, covers pulled to his nose, and scratched his belly. It occurred to him, as he watched giant rain drops splash through his open window, that he probably ought to get up and close it; but that was all the progress made towards that end. Instead, he lay there a few minutes more, knowing that if he didn’t make a move soon his father would be after him.
He grunted experimentally, rubbing a bit more sleep out of his eyes, when his bladder made its presence known.
There was nothing for it then, so Scott threw back his covers, raked his fingers through his sleep tousled hair and gingerly quit the bed. He stepped into last night’s pants where they sat on the floor next to his bed, crumpled down to two foot holes, made his way to the chifarobe as he fastened them and, once done, snatched a clean undershirt off the shelf. Casting a parting glance at his boots, he left his room in stocking feet. Destination: water closet.
By the time he’d taken care of business and reappeared on the upstairs landing Teresa had appeared in her door, yawning vastly, making absolutely no attempt to cover it, and shoving her arm through the sleeve of a jacket which she was pulling on over her nightshirt.
“Mornin’,” she mewed, still half asleep.
“Or something.” Scott scratched at the stubble on his face. “Where are you heading off to at this godless hour?” he asked, noting the heavy jacket and eyeing her booted feet.
“Barn chores,” she grumbled, pulling a hair tie out of the pocket of her jacket as she followed Scott down the hall to the back stairs.
“I thought you just had barn chores the other day, didn’t you?”
“Mm.” Teresa suddenly yawned again. “But the boys said Johnny’s pox were scaring the horses. So, I told ‘em I’d take care of it. Your eyes are all red.”
Scott snorted, and then wished he hadn’t. “That’s the Lambrusco talking.”
Teresa smiled. “Smell that?”
“Smells like Murdoch’s frying pan coffee special to me.”
“Come on, I’ll buy you a cup.”
“Make it two and if my head hasn’t rolled off my shoulders by then, I’ll give you a hand in the barn,” Scott offered, throwing an arm across her shoulders, and they both made idle note of Johnny’s open bedroom door as they passed it by.
“Think we might need a canoe to get out there, this rain doesn’t sound like it’s gonna let up any time soon,” Teresa commented as they stepped down into the kitchen. Frowning, she went immediately to take the coffee off the fire as it was boiling over, spattering and quickly evaporating on the stove top. Scott threw her a dish towel which hit her in the face. Wrinkling her nose at him, she quickly arranged the towel and used it as a hot pad. They took a look about the room and then back at each other. Boiling-over coffee aside, everything appeared pretty normal. Shrugging, Teresa pulled two largish mugs down out of the cupboard and Scott disappeared into the larder.
She was tugging on the towel, now burnt to the bottom of the coffee pot, sloshing as much into the cups as on the counter and popping berries into her mouth when Scott re-emerged from the pantry, arms loaded with honey and butter and jam. She traded him his cup for the honey.
“Look it, Maria left a whole bowl full of berries,” Teresa said and popped one into Scott’s mouth.
“Good thing I like my morning stimulants well-done,” Scott said, chewing and taking a tentative sip of the piping hot coffee. “My head thanks you, darling girl.”
He began rooting around the counters by the stove, opening random bins and boxes housing all manner of mysterious powders and flakes, until he uncovered half a loaf of bread left over from dinner the night before. Scott sat his coffee down and ate a handful of the berries before pulling a knife out of the block and hacking off several thick slices. “Toast?”
Teresa nodded as she hopped up on the counter top to fix up her coffee. Swinging her legs, the heels of her boots banging against the lower cabinet, she watched Scott toss the bread hunks directly onto the burners. “Oughta get Maria to do something about that mop on your head.”
“Getting pretty long, huh?”
“Longest I’ve seen it.” The smallest of smiles quirked a corner of her lips. “Probably give your grandfather fits.”
“I think I’ll keep it, in that case.” Scott shot her a smile of his own and added in a warning. “Hey, with the boots.”
“Gonna mistake you for that Custer guy in your pictures before long,” Teresa observed, desisting with the leg swinging.
This time he laughed. “I’ll take that as a compliment, young lady.”
“Hm,” she said, scissoring at the hair growing over his ears with her fingers. “We have the day off.”
“Mostly. Pretty exciting, huh?”
“I sure wasn’t going to turn it down. Hey, what would you be doing if you found yourself with this day off in Boston?”
“If I were in Boston?” Scott pretended to think it through. “Well, I certainly wouldn’t be up yet.”
“What time do folks get up in Boston?”
“Well, this folk generally didn’t roll out of bed until about noon.”
“Noon?” Teresa choked on a test sip of coffee.
“I know. Shocking, isn’t it?” Scott said blandly, lobbing off another bread hunk. “And then, once up, I would find the most frivolous way to spend all of my time. Yup, the more inane the better.”
Teresa giggled, mopping coffee dribbles off her chin.
“It’s true. Don’t tell Johnny though.” He cast his eyes to the heavens. “I’ve got him believing a more industrious citizen never graced the streets of fair Boston.”
Teresa was giggling wildly. “Now you’re making stuff up!”
Scott’s face clouded for a second and he shrugged. “Well—maybe. But California Scott thinks he shall take this day to catch up on some reading. And what about you? Have you got big plans for your day, I mean besides mucking stalls?
“Yeah, I was thinking about doing some studying after I go check on the grapes.”
“You’re going down there on you day off and in all of this driving rain?” Scott shot her a knowing look. “I think you just want to make sure you have an out from all the canning that Maria’s about to start.”
“Well—yeah.” Teresa conceded. “But life don’t stop just ‘cause it’s rainin’, Scott.” She pushed back her jacket sleeves so as to get better purchase on the coffee mug. “Rain is life.”
“You really like working in the vineyard, don’t you?”
Teresa suddenly beamed him a smile and nodded. “There’s still so much to learn, you know?”
“It’s a lot of work.” Scott used his fingers to turn the bread over.
“Yeah, but I like it. And once all my grapes come in, that’s when the real fun begins. Things should start to settle for you boys once the drive is done. But that vintner is going to keep me busy straight through the winter.”
“The ranch settles in for a long winter’s nap, the cattle and the bees and the flowers and the trees; all except for Little T, in her catacombs, concocting red and white elixirs, while the rest is covered in a blanket of snow.”
“A little snow up in the high country,” Teresa said, feeding Scott another berry. “Mostly rain down here. Lots of rain.”
Scott smiled as he bit down on the berry, thoroughly enjoying the burst of tart blended with sweet. “Rain is life,” he said, so that he would be sure to remember.
“Now you’re gettin’ it.” She returned the smile and touched the tip of a finger to his nose which he wrinkled. “Wonder where’s Murdoch.”
“I’m guessing he’s wandering around here somewhere, coffee in hand,” Scott said, catching Teresa’s eye and then dropping his gaze to the honey jar which she was showing no signs of tipping back up.
“You know,” she ignored the look entirely, “I’m thinking that he didn’t give us this day off as a reward for our good behavior.”
Scot barked in appreciative laughter. “Then you’re thinking what I’m thinking.”
“Give Johnny some company.”
“Keep him from kicking up another ruckus like yesterday, driving the M’s crazy.”
Teresa managed to laughed and simultaneously throw him an impish look, daring Scott to say something as she let the honey drizzle a little longer. A warmish gust of wind whooshed through the room, flickering the wicks of the lamps, followed by a door banging shut on the other side of the house and a sobering, very irritated bark of “Damn it, I said that is enough!”
They both leaned and craned, unsuccessfully trying to get a look through the kitchen door and deeper into the house before looking at each other again. Scott frowned and returned his attentions to breakfast, using his fingers again to snatch and flip the toasting pieces of bread. “Well. There’s Murdoch.”
Teresa snorted as she shoved a wayward lock of hair out of her face and began butter-and-jamming the first toasts off the burner.
“You got no right!”
“And there—is Johnny,” she said as his voice filtered back to them on the counter-current. “Where’d you pick up a word like ruckus, anyway?”
“Somewhere between you and Brother, no doubt,” Scott said, garnering an appreciative smirk from Teresa before she posed a question she herself clearly did not believe in.
“Think he went off after we all went to bed last night?”
“With that face?” Scott cut his eyes at the doorway and shook his head before taking a bite of the toast Teresa had just handed him. “Doubt it.”
“Well, I don’t do Dust-Up and Commotion until I’ve at least had my breakfast,” she said, wiping a smear of jam off Scott’s cheek before she dropped off the counter, her boots making a dull clump on the tiles as her feet hit the floor. “Whatever the heck he got up to, I’m staying well out of it.”
“Ditto.” Scott followed her to the table with the plate loaded down with toast and changed the subjected altogether. “If you want, after you go make sure the grapes haven’t drowned, I could help you with your studies,” he suggested, thumbing through one of the text books that had begun to accumulate on the kitchen table as Teresa started gearing up for her college entrance exams. “I might actually go down there with you. We could apply the whole wine operation to your mathematics studies. Take it out of the abstract and make it all a bit more fun.”
“You know, you’re a pretty smart cookie, Scott Lancer.” Teresa shook a corner of toast at him.
“Well, thank you.” Scott lifted his coffee cup in salute.
They nibbled on breakfast for a while in companionable silence, ignoring the occasional angry snippet that reached them from the Great Room.
“Think Murdoch maybe perked some of the perk out of this coffee.” Teresa rubbed at her eyes, sounding rather put out. “It’s not working.”
“That’s just because it’s three parts honey and only one part coffee,” Scott teased
Teresa ignored this shot at her taste in coffee. “Maybe we can spring Johnny and all go down.”
“For Operation Grape Patrol?” Scott looked toward the great room dubiously. “We’ll see about that. Let me go grab a jacket and my boots anyway and then we should maybe go,” he said as he got up from the table and made for the back doorstep and its resident pile of boots. “Horses aren’t going to feed themselves.”
Having stamped into yesterday’s dirty boots out on the porch and then poured himself fresh coffee, Scott returned to the kitchen to find Teresa leaning in the doorway off the formal dining room. Coffee cup held at her side, gripped by the rim, she nibbled absently on her toast, a deep frown of concentrated listening on her face.
“First of all, Maria’s going to kill you for dropping crumbs all over the floor,” he said, pushing gently at her head so that she followed it all the way into the dining room. “And then, Murdoch’s going to do you in for dropping eaves.”
She quickly regained her footing and shushed him. “I think it’s really bad,” she whispered.
“What, Murdoch and Johnny?” he asked, his own voice subdued as he tried to pass her. “They won’t even know we came through. Let’s go.”
“Wait,” she hissed. “Wait!”
“You’ll do well to keep a civil tongue in your head, boy,” Murdoch could be heard warning from the next room, above the din of rain and rolling thunder and the curtains snapping at the open dining room windows.
Her eyes widened, grandiloquently communicating an I Told You…, and they both stopped to listen.
“Or what,” Johnny challenged.
“Or we have nothing to say to each other. You’re trying to push this into a fight I’m just not having with you.”
His skeptical look doing nothing to inspire confidence, Scott turned back to Teresa. “Maybe it’ll burn itself out.”
“Now we can talk about this like two adults,” Murdoch was saying when Johnny cut him off.
“What’s to talk about? It’s all in there, isn’t it?”
“Johnny, son, you need to settle down and listen to me.”
“Don’t tell me to settle down. And don’t you dare call me son. I know you never really wanted me in the first place. What are you gonna do with a rotten sonuvabitch for a kid anyway.”
“Or maybe not,” Teresa said, her heart sinking, right along with Scott’s shoulders, in bitter resignation.
“That’s it,” Scott said, and it sounded suspiciously like a promise, as he made his way purposefully toward the opposite door.
“Scott!” Teresa hissed, dogging his heals. “Whatever happened to staying out of it?”
Her coffee forgotten next to his on the dining table, and her gnawed on toast also forgotten but still in hand, Teresa almost ran into Scott’s back as he stopped abruptly right inside the great room. Annoyed at having to regain her footing for the second time in almost as many minutes, she grabbed a piece of his jacket to steady herself and almost began to protest but the words expired in her throat as she looked up.
Scott would later swear that he actually witnessed quite a few shreds of his father’s patience blow to smithereens as almost in one swift motion, Murdoch backed Johnny all the way up to the lead glass window behind the Paterfamilial Seat and snatched the young man up by the arm. “Don’t you ever dare let me catch you talking about your mother like that again, boy.”
“Why not?” Johnny snapped, though real uncertainty clouded his face, if only for a split second, as he struggled to free himself. “You obviously didn’t think much more of her.”
Wondering vaguely how she hadn’t just fainted dead away from the shock, Teresa’s grip on that handful of Scott’s jacket tightened into something vice-like and she held on as if for dear life. Scott grabbed a piece of the door frame as if for same as his father shook Johnny once, solidly, demanding, “Just what in hell are you driving at?”
Scott and Teresa, knowing just exactly what the hell Johnny was driving at, sprang to life and into the room, their voices a confusion of pleas and warnings but Johnny’s broke over the din, his eyes never leaving his father’s, and shut them both up.
“Why did you kick me and my mother out?”
It seemed the air had literally been sucked out of the room as another set of French door banged shut. Johnny hurled the accusation at his father, shoved the words out of himself like a poison, a poison so toxic it dissolved the very earth beneath all of their feet. Teresa would remember the next handful of moments like a free fall; falling, falling into a great black chasm with only the drumming of the rain on the terra cotta roof tiles for comfort. And Scott.
He got a bracing arm around her as she sagged into him, stunned. They looked on, horrified and helpless, as all of Johnny’s defenses suddenly dropped. And for one terrifying second it was all there. All of it. Every inch of bitterness, anger, and hurt confusion that had ravaged most of his life. His face almost crumpled from the weight. But just as quickly he sucked it back down so only the anger remained on top.
“John.” Murdoch was firm. And calm; and though his grip on his son had loosened, he hadn’t let Johnny go. “I think you know better than that,” he said and then turned on Scott and Teresa. “Both of you, out. Your brother and I have some things to discuss and we don’t need an audience.”
They stood there for a moment, blinking at Murdoch like a couple of stunned owls, and some of the tetchy irritation at not being instantly obeyed came into his voice. “I’m not going to ask you again,” he snapped.
Galvanized, his arm still around Teresa’s shoulders, Scott turned them as one and they made their way back across the hall, through the formal dining room; he grabbed up their mugs on the way to the kitchen.
“I feel sick,” Teresa said, throwing herself down in a chair at the breakfast table.
“My head hurts,” Scott said, sitting down next to her and sliding a fresh cup of coffee her way. “I take that back. My head hurts worse.”
“Not the way to start the day.”
“Decidedly,” Scott agreed. “How can you eat that?” He enquired of what by now had to be some pretty cold toast which Teresa was alternately nibbling vacantly on and eyeing with no small amount of disgust.
“I keep hoping it’s gonna taste better,” she said glumly and put the cold dead toast down on the table and began absently nudging the it around the designs of the placemat, periodically glancing over her shoulder toward the great room. “I wonder what the heck brought all of that on.”
“I shudder to imagine what brought all of that on,” Scott muttered, dropping his face tiredly into both of his hands.
“You don’t think…”
Scott looked up at the strange wobble in her voice, caught her swiping impatiently at her eyes. “What is it?”
“He’s not gonna… Like before…”
Scott sighed, pulled her to him. “Johnny’s not going away again.”
“But what if…”
Scott cut her off. “Murdoch isn’t going to let him go anywhere.” Remembering the look of calm determination on his father’s face, he add a firm, “Count on it.”
“Ah! There are my two fantasmas!”
“Good Morning, Maria.” Scott planted a quick kiss on top of Teresa’s head and he tried to smile, though it came off as more or less a grimace, then jumped up and went to help the older woman divest herself of the wet poncho. Teresa pried herself up out of her chair and relieved Maria of the overfull basket of eggs in her arms.
“Either I am very late,” Maria paused to let Scott help her out of a sleeve of her slicker, “or you two are up very early—thank you, Mijo.” She interrupted herself as he hung her coat on a hook. “Gracias, Niña,” she thanked Teresa as her girl thrust a hot cup of coffee into her hands. “And I know I am not late. Hand me that towel, girl.”
Maria dried her face and wrung her hair our in the towel before taking a good look around the kitchen. “I see one of you has already been at my stove.”
“And considering that the whole place hasn’t been blown to Kingdom Come, I think you can safely assume that it wasn’t Teresa.”
Teresa whacked him on the arm.
“Oh, be nice Escocito,” Maria chuckled.
“I thought I was,” Scott protested as he took the damp towel from her and hung it to dry on the sink ledge.
“Where is Juanito?” Maria asked.
“Uh…” Scott flushed clear up to his scalp, as though he’d just been caught red-handed; though at what exactly was not entirely clear. He looked to Teresa for some support. “Johnny’s uh…”
“Why don’t you go to hell, Old Man!” Johnny shouted just then, his voice heard clearly through the house, even over the rolling thunder, and drawing all of Maria’s attention. “Oh, you wanna throw things? Well, I can throw things too!” Murdoch growled back, and it was followed by some ominous thudding sounds. They tracked the noise with their eyes. Apparently Murdoch and Johnny were on the move and for one heart-stopping moment they seemed to be heading toward the kitchen before they detoured and headed back the way they had come.
“Well, I guess he’s kinda…” Teresa winced at the sound of breaking glass. “I mean, the thing is…”
Maria dragged her own eyes from the ceiling to look from one and then the other of them before holding up a hand. “Stop,” she said, shaking her head and sparing Teresa’s get-up a disapproving frown. “Just stop. God hates liars, and I need to get breakfast on the table. Los dos de ustedes fuera mi cocina,” she ordered, shooing Scott and Teresa out her kitchen.
Having been thrown out of just about every room in the house at this point, Scott figured there was nothing left to do but those barn chores. Wordlessly, thankfully, he and Teresa ducked out the back door and made for the barn, relieved that they had been spared the awful ordeal of trying to explain something they didn’t fully understand themselves. Maria’s voice floated after them. She was muttering something about Teresa and if she hadn’t been around to see to her anyone would think that the girl had been raised by a pack of wolves.
It had started with the desk—all of those books and papers tantalizingly stacked and his frustration mounting. He’d known it was all wrong the second he accused Murdoch of kicking he and his mother out, all wrong, knew it as the words were spilling out of his mouth. This knowledge did nothing, however, to lessen his frustration. He took it out on the desk, took a vicious swipe at it, felt a certain satisfaction at the way the books landed so haphazardly, loose paper fluttered to the floor. It was so satisfying, in fact, that he couldn’t resist taking another, mightier swipe at the rest.
“Oh, you wanna throw things?” Murdoch sounded almost pleased. “Well, I can throw things, too.” And with that, he flipped a whole tray of glasses to the floor.
Unfazed, Johnny ripped the couch apart with wild abandon, knocking all sorts of statuettes, pictures and decanters of liquor over on his way across the room to the bookshelf where he pulled down two shelves of books.
“That’s the spirit!” Murdoch egged him on, yanking down a set of drapery and then knocked out a couple of shelves himself. Johnny picked up his father’s model clipper ship, held it over his head ready to make kindling of the thing when something, perhaps the absurdity of the situation, but more likely the oddly appreciative glint in Murdoch’s eyes coupled with the fact that he looked about ready to attempt a bit of arson, shocked Johnny back into his senses. He stood there, gulping air and staring at the man, all of the fight gone out of him, when a strange, near-hysterical laughter burbled up in him, perverse and almost as appalling as finding himself simultaneously on the verge of tears.
It had all come on so suddenly, so violently that for second there Johnny wasn’t sure what he was going to do and it was all made worse by Murdoch looking at him so tentatively and unsure, as if his son were seconds from detonating. Johnny honestly wasn’t altogether certain that he wasn’t on the verge of exploding into billion little pieces himself, though when Murdoch stepped through the wreckage, took the ship out his hands and put it on the dinner table, he though just might. Damn well hoped he would.
“Are you alright?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny turned away, certainly not all right and unable to remember a time when he’d been more embarrassed. His gaze was firmly planted on the floor, his arms wrapped around himself; he looked as if he were trying to keep his body from flying apart. He wanted to run. Yet, as badly as he wanted it, he couldn’t seem to make his feet follow through with the flight plan he had in mind. It was as if Murdoch had a gravity field all his own and far more powerful than his son’s. Johnny had begun hoping, instead, for a great hole to open in the floor and swallow him up right there or, barring that, that Murdoch would leave. But the old man just stood there, looking at him; witness to his shame and misery.
When Murdoch finally moved toward him, Johnny retreated a step, “I’m okay,” said, sounding anything but, and terrified that he was going to find himself in his father’s arms. Murdoch shot him an inscrutable look and used the table as a brace to crouch down and rescue some scrap out the rubble that had once been their living room. Johnny cast a surreptitious glance at his father through the veil of his lashes, curious in spite of himself. Murdoch caught him looking and promptly thrust a tintype into his hands.
“You don’t have to choose,” he said.
Johnny took it mutely, not quite sure what he had just received much less what to say, especially after Murdoch cupped the back of his head and pulled him in close. “The rest… We can deal with the rest,” he said. “But the first thing you need to know is that is not a choice you ever have to make. Do you understand me?”
It was clear that Murdoch was looking for some kind of yes or no answer. Stunned and spent, all Johnny could give him was a jerky nod, even though he wasn’t altogether sure he really understood anything at all. Murdoch looked around the room and shook his head. “What a mess,” he muttered and patted Johnny’s cheek before picking his way through the rubble to the dining room door and out, shaking his head all along the way. His father had gotten almost all the way out of the room before Johnny thought to turn the tintype over and what he saw there came as such a shock that he sat down right where he was.
He had no idea how long he’d sat in the middle of the floor, memorizing every detail, every scratch; the contented smile hovering on his mother’s lips; the intelligence in her eyes, the shine of her black hair which had always fascinated him; the broach clasped at her throat that he’d always known. It was her favorite; she wore it when she was getting fancied up— used to tell him stories about how a tall, handsome prince had given it to her. Johnny had always figured she was full of fancy. Or drunk. But look how she leaned, so trusting, into his father, so clearly in love with the man. And his father! Somehow he’d never really thought of Murdoch as having ever been any younger than he presently was, never mind that he apparently used to wear a mustache! How he held her with such care, like he knew that having her nestled in beside him was a miracle.
Hearing the sound of approaching voices, Johnny sighed, glanced at the tintype once more before tucking it between the pages of a book and picking up the nearest scrap that he could lay hands on. Murdoch was right, Johnny figured as he read the scrap he had picked up. He didn’t have to choose between them and that was the place to begin. His forehead wrinkled, he read the scrap of paper again, thinking he might also have to figure what on earth Murdoch was still doing with a ten year old receipt for the very hat that he’d clapped on head when he went out to give the men their orders this morning. And what was that receipt doing stuck somewhere in the book shelf? Taking a real look around, he noticed presently that the big shelf behind the dinner table seemed to have held a lot more than books and knick knacks.
Moving, he crabbed it over closer to the shelves, realizing for the first time that there were all manner of scraps and oddments scattered about. Those shelves, it seemed, were something of a treasure chest, giving Johnny a glimpse into the oddest corners of his father’s life. There were, of course, books, which up until now had held very little interest for him. He figured he’d been missing out because for six months he’d been living with this treasure right under his nose and hadn’t even known it.
There were those strange little paintings that Scott said went with something called a stereopticon. These he’d known about, though he’d yet to see what this stereopticon contraption looked like. There were letters, some obviously recent, some yellow with age, none that he dared read. Old cigar boxes spilled forth watch fobs and cuff links and hat bands. He hadn’t been dreaming it, and maybe only half out of his mind, when he’d thrown that jar and a bunch of marbles exploded from the shattered glass. He could almost understand the four year old theatre tickets. Almost. But, Jesus, what in God’s name was the old man doing with a tin of baby teeth?
“I like what you’ve done with the place,” Scott said, nodding appreciatively from the door way where he leaned, taking in the destruction and picking off his gloves.
Johnny looked up, his smile hovering somewhere between sheepish and nonplussed, from where he sat in the middle of the floor. “I was thinking it was maybe time for some new curtains,” he said, swiping at his eyes and trying to cover it by glancing at one set of the now half naked French doors.
“I’ve heard of a bull in a China shop, John, but this is just ridiculous.”
Johnny flashed another brief smile, pointing in Scott’s general direction. “You’re a mess.”
“Yeah, well…” Scott used his gloves to slap at the mud on his thigh. “You should see Teresa.”
“Should see Teresa wha…whoa.” Teresa cut herself off, coming around Scott and skidding to a halt. “Oh. My.” One foot hovering on the down step as she surveyed the wreckage, her mouth opened and then closed again. “Huh,” she said, and then after a bit more thought, “well at least the clipper ship survived this time.”
Scott and Johnny looked over at her. “This time?” Scott asked.
“Oh, yeah. Won’t be the first time this room’s been taken apart.” Teresa snorted. “That’s at least the third model clipper.”
“Get the feeling there’s a really good story there,” Scott said, smiling.
“Couple of ‘em,” Teresa assured and then pointed towards Johnny. “Whatcha got?”
Johnny looked down at his hand and the little black tin with tiny pink flowers painted all over and shook it, raising his eyebrows at the resultant rattle. “Guess the old man keeps a lot of stuff tucked away in these books,” he said noncommittally.
“Yeah, those shelves are something else, aren’t they?” Teresa swiped impatiently at her rebellious hair. “No telling what all he’s stuck in there.”
“I’ll say. Scott, you know about this?” Johnny pitched his brother the little tin. It rattled once in the air and then again when Scott caught it.
“I’ve come across a few odds and ends,” Scott said, briefly inspecting and then shaking the box. “Nothing to get excited about.”
“Guess it wouldn’t be until you saw it scattered out all over the place and then had to pick it up,” Johnny conceded. “It’s one thing to have to re-shelve a bunch of books, but try figuring out where a tin of teeth goes in all of that.” Johnny waved a hand generally about. “Or better yet, what in hell it’s even doing here in the first place.”
Scott stopped rattling the tin, a look closing in on horror creeping across his face.
“Oh, I was wondering where those got off to.” Teresa started to step all the way into the room but Scott threw out an arm and blocked her, his horror temporarily shifting, as he gestured to all of the broken glass scattered around the floor.
“Where are your boots, little girl?”
Teresa looked down at her feet, one heavy-duty sock sagging lazily around her ankle, and wiggled her toes. “Maria wouldn’t let me through the house with ‘em on after I dropped her off the milk.” She stepped back.
“Wait a minute, can we revisit the teeth issue here for just a second?” Johnny asked, pointing to the tin which Scott promptly handed to its rightful owner.
Teresa started to laugh. “They’re mine. Daddy and Murdoch saved ‘em.” She shrugged. “So, we’re going down to go stomp on some grapes in a little. Wanna come?”
“Guess I’m not contagious anymore,” Johnny said, satisfied by this explanation for the teeth, and hiked up a pant leg. “But probably chicken pox and wine grapes don’t mix.”
“Strangest family in the neighborhood, indeed,” Scott muttered, shaking his head. “Next we’ll be turning up boxes of chicken heads and vials of toe nails.”
“You could watch.” Teresa shrugged, apparently unconcerned by either the chicken heads or the chickenpox. “Better than being cooped up in here all day.”
“Yeah,” Johnny looked around at the mess, “Probably should get this all straightened out before I go anywhere.”
“Mm,” Scott agreed. “I guess you probably should. Looks like a cavalry unit stormed through here.”
“I really don’t even know where half of this stuff goes.”
Scott stepped down into the room and crouched to pick up a largish shard of glass. “I’d say a good deal of it now goes in the refuse bin,” he said, adding the shard to the trash pile Johnny had already started.
“Doesn’t really matter where it goes,” Teresa said, taking a seat in the doorway. “Maria’ll just come through and put things pretty much where she wants them anyway. The main thing is just to make sure she can actually get in here.”
“One of these days you’re going to have to tell us how it is you know so much about it,” Scott said.
Teresa smiled, but did not elaborate as she re-appraised the wreckage.
“I think maybe this one can be fixed.” Johnny said, drawing her attention as he picked up the body of a largish figurine that had once been a sleeping dog.
“There aren’t many things that can’t,” she said and bent to pick up the dog’s head which had rolled over to the entryway. “Probably take a little while for me and Scott both to get washed up and changed. If you’re not finished by then, I’ll give you a hand.”
“Speaking of which,” Scott got down to cases. “Who’s going first, you or me?”
“In the bath?” Teresa asked, tossing Johnny the decapitated dog’s head as she heaved herself to her feet. “I’ll flip you for it.”
They faced off, Teresa watching stoically while Scott dug a coin out of his pocket and positioned it on his crooked thumb. “Call it in the air,” he said and flipped.
“Tails!” she said and bolted.
“Why, you little…” Scott let the coin drop to the floor and shook his fist in the air. He turned to Johnny who was starting to laugh and threw him a wink before giving chase.
“If you cut around the side you might be able to catch her!” Johnny called after them.
“Never!” Teresa cried, apparently streaking through the kitchen if Maria’s loud admonishments were any indication.
“Miracle of miracles,” he muttered to his reflection, wiping the last traces of shave cream from his chin with a face towel, and not bothering to answer the knock on his bedroom door; pointless, since it was opened half a second later. Arguably the most privacy loving of them all, Scott was at a complete loss to explain how his room had become one of busier in the house, and he’d resigned himself early on to the fact that his was a family undaunted by the prospect of a closed door. That he’d managed to nearly finish his morning ablutions undisturbed was almost more surprising than the fact that whoever this was, and from the weight and position he guessed it was his father, had bothered to knock at all.
“Welcome, welcome!” Turning, Scott leaned back against the wash counter, threw the towel over his shoulder. A bath, some clean trousers, and a shave had done wonders for his mood. “A fair and pleasant morning to you, Sir!” He waved his father through the door.
“Well, it’s morning, anyway,” Murdoch said, hesitating on the threshold, one hand on the knob.
“Please, make yourself comfortable,” Scott invited. His father back upstairs once he’d gone down for the day was more than a little unusual, but the day had been something on par with extraordinary from the word go, so Scott decided to just let this one slide for the time being. “It’s so rare that we get visitors here at our little outpost, and when we do, we like to…”
Rolling his eyes, Murdoch waved him silent and committed to the room. “Enough,” he said, closing the door. “Have you had your breakfast?”
“Yes, Sir.” Scott answered, eyes darting suspiciously from the closed door, to the leather binder under Murdoch’s arm, and then up to his face. “I hope that you’ve not come to tell me something horrible. Like I no longer have the day off.”
“No, nothing like that, Scott.” Murdoch smiled, though it was far from easy or comfortable, and Scott felt his previous good humor dampen appreciably. “But, listen, I appreciate you helping Teresa with the barn chores this morning.”
“I don’t know what made her think she had to take care of it all on her own, goofy girl.” Scott grimaced. “There was no reason not to split it.”
“She’s a lot tougher than she looks, but still…”
“Murdoch, you didn’t come back up here to thank me for doing my job.” In common with his father, Scott was generally not one to beat around any bushes and, the fact was Murdoch’s obvious discomfort was quickly starting to erode at his nerves.
“No,” Murdoch frowned, “no, I didn’t.”
“What have you got there?” Scott asked, pointing to the leather binder and guessing that whatever it was, it was the source of this strange visit. Murdoch suddenly looked extremely uncomfortable and unsure, a combination which had Scott’s skin prickling nervously.
His father pulled the folder out, glanced down at it before looking back at him. “It’s a Pinkerton report. On you.”
“Is there, um…” At an uncharacteristic loss for words, Scott ran a hand through his hair, still wet and plastered at odd angles from his bath. “Uh, why?”
“Do you mean, why do I have it?” Murdoch asked, obviously unsure how to go about any of this.
“Well, presumably the Pinkertons didn’t track us down without there being some sort of a report,” Scott said, trying for blasé as he picked his shirt off the corner of the mirror and missing the mark entirely. “I mean why are you giving it to me...now?”
“Your brother found his last night…”
“Oh.” Scott blinked. Casting about for his senses, he missed a button on his shirt and had to start over again. “That’s what all of that was about.”
Murdoch nodded. “Part of it. I had been searching for the right time to speak with you both, privately. Should have dealt with it before now. But what with one thing and another… It almost seemed easier to forget about them. And then…” Murdoch stepped forward, offering up the report.
“I received a gift from you once, on my twenty first birthday,” Scott said and then immediately wanted to kick himself. He had no intentions on ever bringing that up, had no idea why he did just then; the words just fell right out of his mouth. But it had the bonus effect of stopping Murdoch coming at him with that file, and for that he was grateful. Scott shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“A bottle of Taliskers.” Murdoch remembered, eying him carefully. “I didn’t know if you ever got it.”
Scott turned away, felt his world starting to slide around; a nauseating, disconcertingly familiar sensation. “I sent a note.”
“I never saw it.”
“When I didn’t hear back I thought maybe you were dead. Until that Agent Welby stopped me on the street and said you wanted to see me.”
“I didn’t know…”
“And then you almost were…dead” Scott cut him off, turned towards his windows, suddenly, inordinately glad that he’d left them open. “I’ve figured a few things out, Murdoch. I know some of what happened, why you did it that way. I understand.”
“You don’t know everything, Son.”
“I know enough.” Scott nodded, almost as if to reassure. Though whether the reassurance was for himself or his father was unclear.
Murdoch sighed and advanced another step. “Scott…”
“So, I don’t need that,” Scott said, pointing off hand at the file and retreating from the thing as if his father were offering him Pandora’s Box. “I don’t want it.”
“Well, I want you to have it.” Murdoch stopped, obviously not expecting the conversation to take this turn, though he still held the file out. “It’s only fair.”
“Fair?” Scott swallowed, his throat suddenly parched. “Fair to whom, exactly?”
“Fair to you. And your brother.”
Scott gave a short bark of surprised laughter. “Well, I don’t see how there’s anything at all fair about those things, Murdoch. To any of us.”
“No. No, maybe there isn’t, Son, but I still want you to have it.”
“Burn it.” Scott glanced back to the windows, pictured himself falling backwards out of them, arms wide, his body weightless for a few blissful seconds, unblinking eyes filling with drops of rain which rolled down his face turned up to the storm soaked sky… He snorted, wondering where the hell his head got off to sometimes. “Whatever truths, half-truths, or out and out lies are in there, Murdoch, I don’t need to read about it. I know what happened to me. I was there.”
“I know, Son. And I can’t change the fact that I wasn’t, but now we’re here.” Murdoch speared him with that same firm look of unshakable resolve that he’d pinned Johnny with earlier and dropped the folder on Scott’s bed. “All of us.”
At once, Scott stilled, closed his eyes and let his head sink. It had all happened so gradually that he had hardly noticed, but he’d seen the pure truth of the matter in his father’s face this morning. And recognizing it now as his truth too, it settled into him; a simple, reassuring fact. He hadn’t really needed his father to say the words but, Scott silently conceded, they sure were damn nice to hear.
The sweet scent of clean air permeated his room and into him, sinking into his skin, still warm from the bath. He listened to the raindrops pattering off the leaves of the hibiscus, his mother’s hibiscus. It had actually let up quite a bit, the rain, and the sun was doing its level best to penetrate the clouds. But that morning’s storm had been necessary to settle the dust, clear the air. Make ready their ground for new things to grow. Teresa was right. “Rain is life,” he murmured.
“What was that?” Murdoch came a couple of steps closer.
“Can I ask you something, Sir?” Scott looked up then, looked Murdoch directly in the eye.
“Ask,” Murdoch said, looking for all the world like he was bracing for another go round.
“Do you, uh…” He hadn’t laughed, exactly, but he’d been unable to contain the smirk. “Do you have a Pinkerton report on Teresa, too?”
Murdoch blinked and Scott blinked back at him, his smirk widening into a toothy grin. Rolling his eyes, Murdoch cuffed Scott on the back of the head. “Oh, you’re about as funny as a crutch.”
“I’m just saying…” Scott picked a comb off the bureau top and put it to use.
“I’m just saying, don’t be a smart Alec,” Murdoch warned with a disbelieving shake of his head, a reluctant though genuine smile hovering on his mouth, before he headed for the door.
“I mean, I think she’s going to feel left out, that’s all,” Scott called to his father’s retreating back.
“I’ll see you downstairs, Son,” Murdoch groaned, still shaking his head as he closed the door.
It was a bad time to be in this room, he knew it before he even stepped in. There was already an excess of bodies in Maria’s kitchen, asking for this, pleading for that and generally getting into her way. Someone had set off the dogs outside, who’d in turn set off the chickens, and the whole lot commenced to barking and squawking out in the back yard before young Diego all but fell through the door, nearly ploughing Murdoch down and startling poor Felicia, already nervous and shy, into dropping a whole basket of clean laundry onto the floor.
Maria turned on them as Murdoch caught the panting boy around the collar and helped him to regain his feet. Diego went immediately, and with heartfelt apology, to help Felicia with the disorganized tangle of jeans and shirts.
“¿Diego, que haces aquí?” Maria snapped, already sounding worn out. Before he could answer she turned on the new girl, Annunciation, who was weeping over a pile of onions and apparently about to chop her fingers off. Maria took the knife from her.
“Papa sent me over to deliver a message to Señor Murdoch, Mama,” Diego pleaded his case.
“En la cocina, Mijo?” Maria cast her son a baleful look.
“Well,” Diego shot is mother a guileless grin as he stood up and handed Felicia’s basket back to her. “I was hoping you had some biscuits, too.”
Murdoch almost laughed at the young man’s sheer audacity, but managed to compose himself sternly, arms crossed. He’d taken up a place in the back doorway and out of the proverbial line of fire. “What did Cipriano send you to tell me, son?”
“That Ribbon Creek is up over its banks and the bridge has been washed away.” Diego gesticulated widely. “He is taking a few men off the fencing clean-up crew to go see about fixing it.”
“That’s fine, Diego. Tell him I said thank you and I’ll be out that way in a few hours,” Murdoch said and cast a quick glance at the plate of biscuits on the breakfast table.
“Gracias!” Diego grabbed two and was well on his way out the door when the loud pounding of boot heels had them all looking to the back stairs. Teresa shot into the room seconds later and Murdoch caught her by the back straps of her clean, though well worn bibs.
“Ack!” Teresa chuffed at her abruptly aborted sprint.
“Hey!” Murdoch reeled her in. “Hey, hey, hey! Come here a second,” he said, as if she had a choice. Maria shook her head and turned back to Annunciation’s hack job with the onions. “Where are you headed off to in such a hurry?” Murdoch asked, capturing her by the hand and pulling her closer still.
Teresa lifted her face to him, all eyes. “Goin’ down to stomp on some grapes,” she said, her hair already coming loose from its pigtails.
“I see.” Murdoch gave her hand a shake, could feel the energy thrumming though her. “Have you had your breakfast?” He asked and she nodded. “Good. Now, let me ask you this, what have I told you about running in this house?”
Teresa flashed a smile at him that could have lit up the heavens and Diego seconded it. “Don’t,” she summed up the gist of their prior conversations on this subject.
“That’s what I thought I said.” Murdoch spun her round and sent her back on her way again with a swat. “Off you go, Diego,” he ordered and gently nudged the boy out the door.
Diego was off like a shot and Teresa made it about five paces, almost to the hall, before she bolted, disappearing down the corridor and out of his sight. Murdoch shook his head as Maria came over from the stove carrying two cups of coffee. “It is my guess that you have not had one of these yet this morning,” she said in commiseration and pressed the one of the cups into his hand.
“You are too right, my dear friend,” he clinked his cup with hers, “but things are definitely starting to look up now.”
“Do you want bacon or sausage for breakfast?” Maria asked, shooing Teresa’s fat and notoriously lazy cat away from the door before returning to breakfast.
“Bacon,” Murdoch decided, reveling in the normalcy of the question when there came a loud thump down the hall followed by an ‘Ooph!’ and some laughter and Scott congratulating Johnny on the grace of his dismount and then all of their voices mixed up together moving quickly away. “Lord have mercy, Maria, what on earth did you feed these changos for breakfast this morning? They’re crazy!”
“They fed themselves, so whatever it is that those monkeys have gotten into,” Maria said with resign, cracking eggs into a bowl and whipping them with a fork, “se trata de un rompecabezas para mí.”
“A puzzle indeed. I’d have thought that Scott would have exercised some sort of civilizing influence at least on Johnny and Teresa,” Murdoch grumbled. “But, lord, if he isn’t starting to run just as wild as those two!”
Maria laughed. “I think perhaps Escocito does not have much of a choice in the matter. Juanito and Teresa, those two bárbaros are his weakness.”
“Barbarians? I like that.”
“It is good,” Maria glanced at him before pouring the whipped eggs into the pan with the bacon, “They are happy, no?”
A whooping sound brought his attention out into the yard. “Mostly, I think so, sí,” he said.
The morning’s down pour had turned to a light mist and the early sun slanted through the clouds here and there, turning the world into a peach. Across the dusky green of the wet grass Johnny sprinted, like a new colt, Teresa, fearless girl, not far off his heels and Scott behind them both at a more subdued pace. They raced across the yard, towards the gardens and the vineyards beyond.
“Juanito seems to have made a full recovery,” Maria commented as she paused beside him at the door and Murdoch snorted.
“Well, I’ll tell you, Maria…I think he’s going to make it after all.”
“I hope the living room is doing just as well. Come, eat your breakfast.” She put Murdoch’s plate down at his place at the head of the table and cleared her throat, dropped her voice a strange, husky octave and planted her fists on her hips, attempting a largely unsuccessful slouch. “And then clear out of my kitchen. Old Man.”
Laughing, Murdoch looked out on the expanse of his land, at the back corrals and the rolling hills and the mountains beyond, breathed in the freshness of the new day. Maria quickly patted his arm, then went to give Miss Annunciation something a little less disconcerting to do, and Murdoch’s eyes were drawn in the direction of the playful shouts of his children.
Scott had finally taken up the chase, his long legs carrying him into the lead. Just to know that even one of his gifts had gotten through to his older son in all of those long years was even greater than the giving of it. He was certain now, they had not been sundered.
Johnny caught Scott up again and jumped on his back. It was so easy to forget sometimes just how young he really was. As heartbreaking as it was to hear, to discover that his son had been living with such a vicious, life-rending lie, better that it was out. Better that Johnny get that venom out of his system so that they could find a patch of solid ground from which to grow.
Teresa tripped and rolled in the wet grass, then sprung up with a gleeful shout, her long pigtails bouncing at her back. The three of them tussled and rollicked along like spring cubs, disappearing from his sight over the crest of a hill. Murdoch sighed and took his place at the table, sat down breathlessly in his chair. They were still young enough to try to run between the rain drops and not care that someone might be looking. For now, it was going to have to be enough.