Disclaimer: Usual blah, blah, blah.
Author’s Note: Cadbury sold the first box of Valentine Chocolates in 1868. I’ve taken a little ‘artistic liberty’ with the time frame for the “candy map”, but hey…that’s what fiction is all about. If we really wanted a history lesson, we’d all be back in school.
Oh. Its SF’s fault our boy had to ride -- or try to ride -- all the way home in that damned dress. And this was going to be a SHORT story; that it’s not, also her fault.
But she does keep a great selection of after dinner mints on hand.
Without any urging from its rider, the sleek palomino made an easy right; pulling up to the hitching rail in front of the Silver Dollar Saloon and coming to a complete stand still. Scott Lancer laughed softly, shaking his head, and watched as his younger brother threw his right leg over the saddle horn and slid gracefully to the ground. The young man didn’t even bother to loop Barranca’s reins over the railing; just patted the animal’s nose and started up the stairs.
Scott dismounted and tied his animal off. “You’ve been riding Barranca less than three months, Johnny,” he called out to his brother. “What other tricks have you taught him?”
Stetson now hanging against his back by the storm strings, Johnny stood at the swinging doors, waiting for his elder brother to catch up. “Well, he knows how to carry my sorry ass home when I’m drunk; from here, Morro Coyo and Spanish Wells,” he laughed. “Smart enough to pull off the road when I get sick, too.” He lifted a hand to his mouth, hiding the smile before he confessed the next. “Won’t leave town ‘til I buy ‘im a beer, though.”
Scott was rummaging through his saddle bags. When he withdrew his hands, he was holding several, red foil covered boxes of varying shapes and sizes. Slipping them under his arm, he double-timed it up the wooden steps leading to the boardwalk and joined his brother. “Shall we?” he asked, gesturing towards the doors.
The brunet hesitated. “What’s this?” he asked, tapping one of the boxes with his forefinger.
“Sweets for the sweet,” Scott answered, grinning. He started to swing open the batwings only to find himself held back.
“What kind of sweets?” Johnny queried.
“Valentine candy for the ladies,” Scott replied, purposely being vague.
The younger man was not deterred. He smelled a rat. He also smelled chocolate. “What kind of candy?” he pressed.
Scott lifted his brother’s fingers away from the topmost box and proceeded towards the door. “Now, Johnny, if I told you that, I’d have to shoot you,” he warned.
Johnny hurried to catch up with his long-legged brother. “Chocolate!” he accused. “You got a bunch of chocolate shipped in from Boston and you didn’t even tell me.” He made a grab for the stack of boxes.
The blond spun away, but not before smacking his kid brother’s fingers. “Actually, I had it shipped in from New York,” he announced. “Cadbury’s.”
Johnny was wagging his fingers at his brother. “Gimme,” he ordered. Chocolate was a recently acquired taste. Not that he hadn’t had it in Mexico, where chewing on the bitter cacao beans provided a quick source of energy. But his brother -- the smart-assed Boston Dandy gringo -- had introduced him to umpteen varieties of the sweet stuff: chocolate covered fruit, nuts and creams. Hell, even chocolate covered chocolate. And then, just to be mean, his brother had abruptly cut off the supply. Determined, he advanced on his brother. “I said gimme.” To drive home his point, he put on his best Johnny Madrid glare.
Scott laughed. He smacked his brother atop his head with one of the boxes. “Not only no, Johnny, but hell no!” The last time his baby brother had indulged his addiction for chocolate, Murdoch had caught him trying to cross the Great Room without touching the floor by swinging from chandelier to chandelier. “I have plans for these little tidbits, and they don’t include you! Now go play,” he ordered. Turning slightly, the blond spotted Rachel Fairchild. He waved to the woman and immediately took off in her direction.
The youngest Lancer son reached out to stop his brother and found himself with nothing but a hand full of air. “Shit!” Somehow, some way, he needed to get his hands on that chocolate. Soon.
“I don’t think I like the look on your face, boy.”
Johnny whirled around, a frown coming as he found himself face to face with Val Crawford. “Scott’s up to no good,” he growled.
“How do you figure that?” the lawman snickered. “He grub-staked you and brought you into town, didn’t he?” Grabbing the younger man’s arm, he pulled him across the room to a table in the far corner. “Sit,” he instructed.
The brunet sat; not that he was happy about it. Eyes narrowing, he swung his gaze to the lawman. “What’dya mean ‘he grub-staked you and brought you to town’?” he groused. “Since when do I need Scott…?”
Val raised his hand, stopping the tirade. “Since you busted your Old Man’s fancy jug he’d just filled with Taliskers, and he’s been takin’ it outta your pay,” he grinned.
Johnny slumped back in his chair. “And just how the hell do you know that?” he asked.
The barmaid had just delivered a fresh bottle of tequila and two reasonably clean glasses. Val reached out and poured himself a shot; a smaller one for his companion. “I’m the sheriff,” he said, taking a drink. “It’s my job to know everything that goes on in the county.” He wasn’t about to tell Johnny that Jelly had been in town, bursting to tell about the latest misadventure of the youngest Lancer son. “Shouldn’t been tryin’ to snitch that glass of tequila.”
“Gettin’ so a man can’t take a shit without someone tellin’ his business,” Johnny grumbled.
Val shoved the younger man’s glass across the table. “Drink up,” he grinned.
Johnny shook his head. “Nope. Don’t want it.” He pushed the glass back.
Suspicious, the sheriff canted his head. “You sick?” he asked. “Dyin’, maybe?” No response. He tried again. “I’m buyin’.”
“Nope,” the younger man answered; so involved in spying on his brother he missed the usually tight lawman’s offer to pay. His eyes were fastened on the crowd at the bar; the half-dozen women who were cozying up to his older brother. And the chocolate. Scott was handing out the boxes; all polite, his cheeks already smudged with lip rouge.
Val came forward in his chair, elbows on the table. He could see the wheels turning in Johnny’s head, the plotting and planning that was going on behind the blue eyes. “Maybe you ought to take yourself over to the Red Dog,” he suggested; although it sounded more like an order. “Leave your brother be and keep your sorry ass out of here before you get in trouble.”
Johnny was doing a good job of ignoring the lawman. The stack of foil-covered boxes Scott had placed on the bar was getting shorter by the minute. Mentally, he was doing the arithmetic, the calculating: there were seven working girls at the Silver Dollar now -- well, eight if you counted Rachel Fairchild, although she mostly made her money at the gaming tables -- and so far Scott had passed out almost that many boxes. But there were still some left. A sudden thought hit the young man. Scott was funnin’ him, just like he had about not loanin’ him money! That was it. Big Brother had bought him a box of chocolate, and he was just makin’ him wait. The brunet lifted himself up out of his chair.
“Johnny…” Val reached out and grabbed the youth’s arm.
“C’mon, Val.” Johnny smiled down at the lawman, his eyes dancing. He nodded towards the bar. “Ain’t you just a little bit interested in what’s in those boxes that’s got the ladies all int’rested?” He leaned down a bit. “Ol’ Scott’s gettin’ more attention with that candy than you ever got with them blankets you’re always tryin’ to trade for…” the smile grew “… services.”
Val’s gaze shifted to the cluster of women lounging at the bar. Several of the male patrons had also wandered over to where everyone was standing. Scott, being taller than most of the others was the natural center of attention and he was having a grand time explaining…
Knowing he was probably going to regret it, Val shoved back his chair and stood up. “C’mon,” he muttered, still holding on to the younger man’s arm.
Johnny fairly danced across the floor in his eagerness to get to his brother. He could actually smell the chocolate. He sure in Hell could hear the girls enjoyin’ it. There was more moanin’ and groanin’ going on at the bar than he’d ever heard in the upstairs rooms, and none of it was bein’ faked.
That kind of pissed him off.
The brunet shouldered his way through the crowd. Atop the bar was a large heart shaped box, the top already removed. Scott was pointing to something inside the inverted lid. “You can tell what each piece is by matching it to the corresponding shape on the diagram,” he was saying, his slim forefinger tapping against the cardboard. “These little ovals with the dark chocolate are orange cream,” he announced, lifting a piece from its nesting place. Smiling, he offered the piece of candy to Rachel Fairchild, watching as she took a single, delicate bite; her eyes fluttering closed, the dimple at the side of her mouth becoming more prominent. Her tongue flicked out, removing the last trace of the orange filling from the corner of her mouth.
It was more than Johnny could handle. Reaching out, he grabbed at a heart-shaped bit of milk chocolate that he knew, from what he’d seen on the candy map, was a strawberry delight. Before his fingers could close around the delicacy, Scott smacked his hand. Hard.
“Oh, shit!” Val muttered. The fight was on. The crowd at the bar scattered.
Johnny took a round-house swing at his brother’s head; only to find nothing but air as Scott ducked. Undeterred, he tried again. He wasn’t really looking to hurt his brother; just wanted to create a diversion. Anything he needed to do get his hands on that chocolate. No matter what.
The trouble with great plans -- at least most of Johnny Lancer’s great plans -- was they didn’t always go just, well…just as he planned. Nope. Nine times out of ten, some jackass would manage to butt in and screw up what he was attemptin’ to do and nothing would go right.
This time the jackass was Val.
“Johnny!!” The lawman’s long arms wrapped about the younger man’s upper body, effectively pinning the boy’s arms. He held on, a smile coming as old memories were suddenly rekindled. Then, letting go with one arm, he drew back his right hand and popped the kid on the ass. “Settle down!” he ordered.
The pout already forming, Johnny turned to face his tormentor. “Jesus, Val!” He was fanning his rear end, “…that fuckin’ hurt.”
“Good.” Val’s smiled; his voice lowering. “You got two choices here, Johnny,” he intoned. “You can take a little walk with me over to my office, or…”
Johnny knew what a trip to Val’s office meant; about the same thing as an invitation from his Old Man to take a short hike to Murdoch’s study. “Or what?” His tone was the same as the lawman’s; soft and pretty close to neutral.
“You can go have your own little party over at the Red Dog,” Val answered. There were times when the Lancer boys needed some time away from each other, and this was one of them.
Scott was watching the exchange between his kid brother and sheriff; a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Val was one of the few people other than Murdoch who could pull Johnny up short and get away with it.
“Red Dog,” Johnny muttered. His fingers were drumming on the bar. And then his hand darted out as he attempted to snag one of the still unopened boxes from the stack of chocolates.
“In your dreams,” Scott snorted, snatching the box away. He turned slightly and pointed to the door.
Johnny reached back and grabbed his hat, jamming it down on his head. “Girls at the Red Dog might like a bit a candy, too, ya know,” he groused.
“I’ll keep that in mind, little brother,” Scott grinned.
Val reached out, his forefinger thumping against the blond’s chest. “Don’t push it, college boy,” he warned. His hand swung away from Scott’s chest to point to the door. “Now, Johnny,” he ordered.
“I’m goin’,” the youth grumbled. He exchanged a long look with his sibling. This ain’t over, big brother, he fumed.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny stood for a time on the boardwalk, considering his options. And then the slow grin crawled across his face, firing his eyes; inspiration finally dawning. He stepped down into the street, giving Barranca a pat as he passed by. Instead of heading for the Red Dog, he made a sharp right, his pace picking up as he dog trotted towards the small church.
He sped up a bit when he reached the white picket fence that separated the parsonage’s back yard from the gravel road that led to the congregation’s cemetery. Using one hand, he hoisted himself over the fence, landing as lightly as a cat. He knew exactly where he was going.
In a brief gesture of respect, he flicked the brim of his Stetson; knocking his hat off. Then, a sly grin coming, he set about his task.
The previous afternoon, there had been a funeral. Uriah Toliver, Green River’s original undertaker who Johnny had suspected was so old he had actually struck the flints when God said let there be light, had finally bit the big one. The ensuing service had been grand.
There had been piles and piles of flowers; shipped in by train all the way from Sacramento.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The Valentine’s Day party at the Pritchard’s house was in full swing as Johnny approached the large front veranda. He took a quick peek through the front parlor window, smiling broadly as he saw Teresa and Molly Pritchard happily directing a game of musical chairs.
Moving across the porch, Johnny headed for the front door. He stood for a moment, polishing the toes of his boots one at a time against the back of his pant legs; grateful now that Maria had refused to let him come to the evening meal until he’d taken a proper bath and changed clothes. Clad in his blue shirt with the darker blue flowers, and his good pair of calzoneras he knew he would pass inspection. Taking a deep breath and squaring his shoulders, he knocked on the door.
“Johnny!” The single word came in unison as Molly Pritchard and Teresa opened the door.
“Ladies,” Johnny greeted. He flipped the Stetson off his head and bowed slightly; his right hand behind his back.
Framed by the light coming from the house’s interior, both girls giggled. Then, her right eyebrow arching and head canted, Teresa nailed her brother with a look. Folding her arms across her chest, she asked, “What do you want, Johnny?”
Johnny flashed his most innocent grin, his teeth showing. “Wanted to make up,” he said, bringing his right hand from behind his back. He was holding two bouquets of flowers, each neatly tied with white ribbon. Using his free hand, he offered the larger one to his sister; the smaller -- but just as colorful -- bunch of blooms to Molly. “For forgettin’ to get you a card.” The smile grew. “You, too, Molly.”
Molly’s hand darted out to take the proffered nosegay of poesies. Her cheeks flushed as she fingered the ribbon. “Oh, Johnny,” she gushed, reading the embroidered piece of silk. “Look, Teresa,” she declared. She held up the ribbon for the other girl’s inspection, her finger tracing the elegantly inscribed dearly beloved.
Teresa examined her own bow. In loving remembrance. Her heart melted, like it usually did when Johnny did something to redeem himself. She fingered the blooms, not really caring they were beginning to wilt. It was February, after all.
Blushing, Molly Pritchard’s nose was still buried in her flowers. She took a deep whiff, and then stood back. “You were invited, Johnny, before Teresa got mad at you.” She smiled. “But I know Teresa’s isn’t angry anymore.” She turned to her friend. “Isn’t that right?”
Teresa bopped her brother on the forehead with her bouquet. “I’m not angry anymore,” she admitted. She stepped back, opening the door even farther. “Come on in, Johnny.” Her smile brightened. “We’re going to be having the costume contest next.”
Johnny’s grin widened. He’d known about the costume contest; had overheard Molly and Teresa discussing it. It had, in his opinion, been a stupid idea when the girls had first voiced their plans, but now… He stepped across the threshold, something apologetic in his tone when he entered the hallway. “I can find me a sombrero and fix up a mask,” he suggested, “come as a bandito.”
Both girls laughed. “Oh, Johnny; don’t be silly!” Teresa giggled. “Everyone here knows those pants; you wouldn’t fool anybody.”
Johnny managed a blush of his own. Then, his face lighting up as if the candle had just been lit, he leaned in; his next words whisper soft. “You don’t think you could maybe dress me up as a girl?” he suggested. He turned his head to scope out the room full of young people; snickering a bit as he spied the Simmons’ twins, and sweetened the pot. “Put one over on Tim and Ned?” The twins were always pulling pranks on Teresa and Molly.
Teresa clapped her hands in delight at the idea of revenge, never even noticing that her bouquet of blossoms had begun shedding. She put them down on the table beside the door. Johnny could be so clever when he put his mind to it. “Quick, Molly,” she whispered, shoving Johnny towards the stairs. “We need to get him upstairs before anyone sees him!”
Johnny found himself being pushed and pulled towards the stairwell by two giggling females; not an unusual experience before Murdoch put him on a short leash. Or big brother wasn’t riding herd. Course none of those females had been his pain-in-the-butt just think of me as a sister, or an equally innocent seventeen year old town girl. Damned good thing the Old Man wasn’t here.
Teresa practically shoved him through the door Molly had just opened. Once inside the door, she hurried to adjust the wick on the table by the window. “Look at this,” she said, gesturing with an outstretched arm.
Molly was dancing in and out around the trunks and boxes on the floor. There were also two store-style racks. The girl disappeared behind one of them, and then peeked out, a large peacock feather fan in her hand, hiding her mouth. It drew attention to her eyes and Johnny realized for the first time just how blue-green they were. She snapped the fan closed with a flick of her wrist. “Papa bought them from that theatrical group that was passing through last spring, when the manager ran off with all the money.”
Johnny was picking through the rack of dresses, a curious expression on his face as his fingers skimmed the satiny fabric. He’d seen his Mama in dresses like this, when she had danced in the cantinas. He quickly pushed the though away.
Teresa was going through the dresses too. She turned to eye her brother, and then pulled a crimson colored frock from the rack. It was almost the color of his favorite shirt, and had embroidery. “This dress,” she crowed, holding it up for inspection.
The brunet scratched his nose, as if he was considering her selection. “Got a fan that goes with it?” he asked.
Molly was rooting around in one of the trunks. “This one,” she announced. She held it up, giving it the same flick of her wrist she had used to close the feathered fan. The fabric matched the dress, as did the elaborate embroidery: offset by the ebony and ivory handle and thin side panel supports.
Teresa was smoothing out the dress. She held it up for a better look, and then pressed it against Johnny’s chest. “It’s cut kind of low,” she observed. “You’ll have to take off your shirt.” A mischievous smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “And your calzoneras.”
Johnny shot a look at his sister. “T’resa,” he scolded.
Motes of dust swirled in the air as Molly dug further into the trunk. “Look, Teresa,” she said, sneezing when bits of down combined with the other debris. When she withdrew her hands she was holding a feathered boa, also red. She tossed it to her friend.
Now Teresa was on the hunt. Digging into a box at her feet, she pulled out a pair of black silk stockings, a pair of high-button shoes and a couple of frilly petticoats. Johnny was content to just stand back and watch.
Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. “Molly? Teresa?”
Frantically, the girls tossed their selections at Johnny, pushing him towards a freestanding, tri-fold dressing screen. “Coming, Mother,” Molly called, waiting to open the door until Johnny disappeared. When her mother stepped into the room, Johnny was nowhere to be seen. “Teresa and I were just getting ready to put on our costumes,” she fibbed; breathless.
Mrs. Pritchard, a spritely woman who didn’t look at all matronly, smiled indulgently at her youngest child. “Well, there’s certainly enough here to provide whatever you need. But you do know, Molly,” she chided, “you have guests downstairs who are also getting ready, and it’s rude to be gone too long.”
Molly returned her mother’s smile. “I know, Mummy.” She leaned forward, kissing her mother’s cheek. “We’ll be right down. I promise.”
The older woman nodded. “All right. But hurry.”
Both girls nodded contritely.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was busy behind the screen. Teresa had been right about his britches. They had to go. The shirt, too, if he wanted to pull this off. He shrugged. What the hell, as long as it got him the results he wanted.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
“Johnny.” Still flustered by Mrs. Pritchard’s unexpected arrival, Teresa was whispering. “Do you need any help?”
The youth was struggling to adjust the dress. The fit was pretty good at the waist, although he wasn’t quite sure what to do about the bustle. He shook his butt a bit until the damned thing seemed to settle in. The front of the dress -- what the Hell did T’resa call it? -- was another matter.
Teresa peeked around the screen. Her hand went immediately to her mouth to stifle the giggle. Johnny was tugging at the gown’s bodice, which was woefully lacking.
“Something missing?” she smirked.
Johnny glared at the girl. “Yeah,” he drawled. “Got any ideas?”
Deep in thought, Teresa was chewing on her bottom lip. Once again, the candle flared, but this time in the girl’s head. “Stuffing,” she said. She turned back to Molly, who was gathering up her own costume: a pair of trousers and a matching jacket. “Hand me some of those stockings,” she instructed, “please?”
Molly immediately did as she was asked. Her plan was to dress as a man; to be Johnny’s partner, and she really wanted him to look like a real girl. She tossed the rolled up cotton socks to her friend.
“Here,” Teresa said, handing the stockings off to her brother. When he seemed not to understand, she pointed to the front of his dress. “You need to stuff them in there,” she grinned, “to make yourself some…” her cheeks colored, “…bosoms.”
Bosoms, Johnny thought. What the hell kind of word was that? But he took the socks, turning around as he began jamming them into the appropriate places. He turned back to face his sister.
Teresa laughed. “You’re lopsided,” she observed.
Johnny sighed. Again he turned around and readjusted. No wonder they call ‘em pillows. When he swung around for inspection, he was facing two critics; Teresa and Molly. “So?”
“Well,” Molly started, “the dress is coming along nicely.” She swept Johnny head to toe. “But we’re going to have to do something about your hair and…” she was pointing to his boots.
Shit, Johnny thought. This was getting harder than he figured. Complex, Scott would have told him. He toed out of his boots, frowning when the girls saw the bottom edges of his long johns. “Give me a pair of them black stockin’s,” he ordered, wiggling his fingers at them. “And them shoes.”
The girls complied. Teresa, being a bit older than Molly, also supplied her brother with two elastic garters. She knew without a doubt Johnny would know just how to use them.
Jesus, he thought, wiggling his toes. How the hell do they walk in these things?
“You have to use this,” Teresa instructed, handing him a button hook. She could have helped him, but it was too much fun to watch. Behind her, she heard Molly rooting through another box; this time one that looked like a hat box.
“Here,” Molly said. She was dangling a blond wig from her fingers.
“No!” Johnny snapped. “Hell, no!!” Then, feeling sheepish, “Sorry.” He took in a breath. “Got one in a different color?”
Teresa snorted. “Beggars can’t be choosers, you know.” But she turned to Molly with a hopeful expression.
Molly dug through two more similar boxes, finally withdrawing another wig; this time a cluster of auburn curls.
“That one,” Johnny grinned.
The transformation was complete. Johnny Madrid Lancer was now -- eureka -- Juanita.
“All right. This is what we’re going to do.” Teresa had also transformed; to her usual bossy self. “Molly and I will get ready,” she had already decided she would also dress as a boy, “and then we’ll all go downstairs.”
Johnny’s agile mind was working. “Aw, T’resa, what kinda entrance would that be?” he asked. He winked at Molly. “There a back stairs down to, say, the kitchen?”
Molly perked right up at that. “Yes,” she breathed. “Out this door and to the left. You can go down the stairs, out the back door, and go around to the front.” She smiled brightly. “Then you could knock on the door, and Teresa and I pretend we know you -- that you are a friend -- and let you in!”
“Yeah,” Johnny drawled in agreement. “Good idea!”
From the bottom of the stairs, Mrs. Pritchard was calling; in that no nonsense you better be listening tone. “Molly! Teresa!”
Both girls eyes widened and they began, once again, tugging at Johnny; this time pointing him at the door. “Go,” they ordered in unison. “Give us about ten minutes.”
“Right,” said Johnny, hustling into the hallway.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
He made it down the stairs without breaking his neck, and with a new respect for women. How they ever managed with all their do-dads and frills was another of life’s mystery that tickled his sensibilities; like why he had to make his bed if he was just going to sleep in it again and having to eat green vegetables.
Johnny stopped in the kitchen just long enough to snag a couple cookies from the table, and then he headed out the kitchen door.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Val hesitated at the swinging doors of the Silver Dollar, his eyes sweeping the barroom. He shook his head, opening the batwings, and heading straight for the bar. “Boston,” he greeted.
Scott looked up, studying the lawman’s reflection in the mirror before turning around to face the man. “Val.” He saluted the man, lifting his beer mug. He was on his way to getting pleasantly inebriated.
“Johnny never showed at the Red Dog.”
That got the blond’s attention. “You don’t think he went to La Rosa’s?” he asked, putting his glass down and shaking his head when the bartender offered a refill. La Rosa’s was a cantina just south of town; a squalid place Murdoch had declared off limits not only to his sons, but the entire Lancer crew. Forbidden fruit of any kind always tempted Johnny.
“Even your brother ain’t that dumb,” Val groused.
“You sound just like Murdoch,” Scott sighed. “Why is it always your brother when Johnny is doing something he shouldn’t; or he’s wandered off somewhere he’s not supposed to go?”
Val smacked the blond on the shoulder. “Because you’re the smarter, wiser, better-looking big brother, and it’s your job to keep him out of trouble,” he laughed. Reaching out, he tapped the two remaining boxes of chocolate. “Ladies get their fill?” he asked.
“They are absolutely blissful,” Scott grinned.
“Reciprocated in kind, did they?” Val asked. “For the free candies?”
Scott had turned around and was now leaning back, his elbows resting on the bar. “Now, Val, that would be telling. And a gentleman never discusses…” His head dipped slightly. “Chocolate has been touted as a natural aphrodisiac, you know,” he teased.
“You’re full of shit, Boston,” the lawman snickered. His brow furrowed, his mood changing. “We need to find the kid. You know he’s damned well up to something.” Absently, his fingers were tapping on the lid of the topmost box of candy.
“Maybe he’s just off somewhere sulking,” Scott reasoned. “He was pretty upset about not getting to have any of these.” He nodded towards the boxes.
Val shrugged. “What is it with him and that damned stuff? And why the hell didn’t you just give him some?”
Scott snorted. “We had company at Lancer a couple of weeks ago; a friend of Murdoch’s from Sacramento. He’s a great fan of Maria’s cooking, and he brought her a box of chocolate confections from a shop there. Johnny got to the candy before Maria even had a chance to salvage the ribbon. Next thing we knew, Johnny was trying to cross the Great Room without touching the floor by swinging from light fixture to light fixture.” He laughed. “He missed the one in the hall.” Murdoch had just started down the stairs into the Great Room and had effectively blocked Johnny’s way. The collision had been earthshaking. Murdoch’s verbose reaction had shaken the rafters. Especially after he realized Johnny had started the trip by standing on his desk.
The lawman swiped his right hand across his face; the frustration quite clear. “We’ll split up, check out his usual hangouts.” He reconsidered. “As soon as I’ve had a drink,” he declared.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny had made his way up the back stairs to the second floor of the Silver Dollar. It hadn’t been easy, what with the damned high top button shoes and the long skirt. But, hell, when had his life ever been easy?
Besides, all he could think about now was the damned chocolate. And Scott, the stingy bastard…
The youth was leaning against the wall; considering his next move. Without realizing it, he lifted his left hand to scratch at the wig, the place it rested against his ears. Another pain-in-the-ass thing women were willing to fuss with. Go figure.
On the wall directly across from the young man was a glass-covered lithograph; a color print of stiffly postured jockeys and poorly proportioned butt-ugly horses taking hurdles in what was supposed to be a portrayal of a steeple-chase event. The poor quality of the art was enough to draw Johnny’s attention: he hated it when what he considered God’s most magnificent creatures were reduced to piss-pour renderings that lacked fire or life.
He leaned forward, using his forefinger to trace the elongated body of one of the jumpers. There was just enough light in the hallway, though, that he could not only make out the faded colors beneath the dust; he could also see his own reflection.
Talk about butt-ugly, he thought, his eyebrows lifting. His fingers drummed against the glass, the red fan dangling from his wrist. He gave the thing a snap, disappointed when it didn’t flare open like it had when Molly was playing with it; so he tried again. Nothing. He tried a third time. Still nothing. It was then that he noticed the small clip securing the accordion pleated silk. He used his thumb to release it. This time when he flicked his wrist, the fan snapped open, and he used it to cover his mouth and the tip of his nose; and then studied his mirror image. Better, much better.
He’d seen women use fans to flirt, and to hide flaws like bad teeth. One of the best he’d ever seen was Miss Rachel Fairchild; who certainly didn’t have any imperfections. But she sure had a way with her collection of fans. He’d watch the woman use her magic on Scott plenty of times, coquettishly hiding either her eyes or her mouth, depending on the game she was playing. But it always worked.
That’s why he had chosen the auburn wig. Miss Fairchild had auburn hair; another thing big brother was a sucker for. He grinned.
Hitching up the dress and petticoats and readjusting his ‘bosoms’, Johnny prepared for his grand entrance. He knew exactly what he was going to do. Pick a table in a back corner (out of the direct light), plant his butt in a side chair, cross his legs and hike up the skirt a bit; and then pull out the fan. And then he’d sneeze or something to get Scott’s attention. Great plan, he though smugly.
Heading down the hallway, he prepared for his grand entrance. He knew that by now there was a drunk or two that would be sprawled out across some of the tables, half-asleep and rotgut blind. But as long as they weren’t dead, they’d show some interest, which would also help in his cause.
He paused at the top of the dimly lit staircase, his eyes sweeping the room. It was only ten o’clock but pretty quiet; like it always was in the saloon between paydays or on week nights. The majority of the people were locals, playing poker or faro; plus an occasional ranch hand or two recently unemployed but still in shape to cozy up to some of the girls. And of course, Ol’ Scott and Val still suckin’ ‘em up at the bar.
Johnny spied the remaining boxes of chocolates at Scott’s left elbow. There were two of them! he gloated; and from the look of the ribbons, they had remained unopened. Mine, Johnny thought. Those suckers are mine!
Gingerly, he started down the stairs; slowly, keeping in mind the damned shoes and the narrow high heels. It always looked so easy when the gal’s were doin’ it; bein’ able to sashay down the stairs, their hips swingin’. Chewing on the inside of his lower lip, he concentrated, going down the steps one at a time; realizing there was more sway to his butt when he stepped toe, heel, toe, heel, as he descended. By the time he reached the bottom of the steps he was strutting his stuff like a pro.
That’s when he ran into Stringbean Scruggins, all six feet six of the lanky hog farmer. Stringbean wasn’t quite drunk, but he was certainly feeling good. And amorous.
“Oh, shit,” Johnny muttered. Side-stepping the other man, he started slinking towards the empty table next to the back door. Stringbean did some pussyfooting of his own, two-stepping sideways as if they were dancing.
“Hey, darlin’,” the farmer greeted. Hiccup. He tossed a five dollar gold piece onto the table.
Johnny backed up. Stringbean Scruggins was a reasonably prosperous man, something the ladies at the Silver Dollar was aware of; but the problem was there wasn’t enough bay rum in Zeke’s barbershop or southern California to disguise the scent of the hogs. He shook his head and played coy with the fan. “Go ‘way,” he murmured, his voice higher than usual; the fan now open and fluttering beneath his nose.
Stringbean just grinned and tossed out another coin; this time a gold eagle. “I got more,” he bragged.
The youth rolled his eyes. Big mistake. Thinking the pretty little thing was flirting, Stringbean was encouraged. “C’mon, honey,” the man whispered, nodding towards the stairs. “You can keep the window open.” He leaned in. “I’ll keep you warm.”
Johnny winced. He’d used the same line a time or two himself when he’d come directly into town instead of going home. “Nope,” he muttered. His eyes lifted to search out the small crowd at the bar and throughout the room. Jesus, this was getting hairy. Then, sure everyone’s attention was elsewhere, he wiggled his forefinger at the man.
The hog farmer’s face lit up like the rising sun, and he leaned in closer. Johnny popped the man on the chin, moving forward to catch him as he fell.
Instinctively, Val turned to face the source of the scuffle; a look of surprise crossing his face before his expression returned to normal. He reached a long arm out in front of Scott, tapping Rachel Fairchild on her shoulder. “You want to take care of this, or you want me to step in?” he asked. “Bein’ it’s one of your girls.” Val was one of the very few that knew that Rachel Fairchild was Clancy’s partner.
Rachel turned, canting her head. “That is not one of my girls,” she drawled, more than a tad annoyed. Miss Rachel Fairchild prided herself on how well she took care of her soiled doves; schooling them in manners and dress and other subtle arts, and one of the things she did was assure that the pooled profits were never spread too thin. Valentine’s Day or not, she was not feeling charitable. “And I will be taking care of it.” Pulling herself erect -- all five feet two of her -- she moved away from the bar. A bemused Scott and Val followed after her; keeping a respectful distance.
Johnny was slightly bent over. He had just propped Stringbean up in the chair to his right; so focused on the pig farmer he hadn’t noticed Miss Fairchild’s approach. The first thing he saw was a tiny, slipper clad foot; the toe tapping furiously against the plank flooring, creating a cloud of dust.
The youth sneezed. He quickly recovered, the fan snapping open. As he straightened up, he said nothing, just looked at the woman. His head dipped slightly.
Rachel Fairchild, a true southern belle, had survived the War of Northern Aggression a bit broken but certainly not shattered. Green River was simply a stopping place in a plan that she had carefully formulated, and no little interloper -- no matter how brazen -- was going to intrude; something she had proven on several occasions in the not so distant past. She reached out with her closed fan -- the emerald green one that matched her gown -- and placed it beneath the tart’s chin; slowly forcing the trollop’s head up.
Scott inhaled and quickly composed himself. Even with the briefest of looks, he immediately knew what he was seeing. His little brother’s baby blues. He jabbed an elbow in Val’s ribs and simply nodded in the direction of Rachel Fairchild. Val did an admirable job of remaining stone faced.
Miss Fairchild had seen the eyes too; just as the dark eyelashes fluttered at her unwanted attention. Well, well, well, she mused. She had witnessed Johnny Lancer’s frustration; recognized his lust for the chocolate, but she had never considered that he might go this far to gain access. A wicked gleam firing her eyes, she decided to allow the boy to think his charade was working. At least for now. She turned briefly to smile knowingly at Scott and lawman. Both men simply leaned back against the bar.
Feigning ignorance as well as sympathy, the woman leaned forward slightly, using her fan to discretely cover her bodice. “Are you in trouble, honey?” she purred.
Johnny suddenly felt a need to cool himself off, the fan flickering rapidly back and forth in front of his nose. He was still looking down; a frown coming as he realized some of his stocking stuffing was peeking up from the front of his dress.
Rachel reached out and began shoving the stuffing back in. “Sweetie,” she soothed, “let me help.” She shook her head, using her hand to cup the fake bosom and press it into shape. “Something bad happen to you, child?” she asked. “Some nasty man send you here to make your own way?” She was shaking her head now. “Isn’t that just the way of men,” she continued, “to take some small sweet thing and force them to sell their innocence.” The entire time she was speaking, she was remolding and reshaping the cotton stuffing, patting it harder and harder against the young man’s chest. “And before you’re even full grown!”
Johnny hadn’t been the recipient of such intense attention since right after Pardee had put a bullet in his back and he had been confined to bed to recuperate. He hadn’t liked it then, and he sure didn’t like it now.
“Don’t you have any place else you can go, darlin?” Rachel asked sweetly. The words dripped honey. “Come on, sweetie, you can tell me your name, can’t you?”
The youngest Lancer boy knew he was in deep shit if she kept asking questions and expecting answers. Keeping the fan in front of his face, he shook his head. Then, inspiration grabbed him by the gonads. It hurt, but at least his mind was working. He shook his head at the woman’s question, and then used one hand to make a sign pointing to his mouth and ears; at the same time sighing in a most pathetic way.
Rachel bit her lower lip. So the boy was going to pretend to be a mute. She reached out, patting the ‘girl’s’ cheek. “You’re probably hungry,” she commiserated, “aren’t you darlin’?”
Another sigh from the little lady, the stocking-stuffed bosoms actually rising and falling. Rachel turned slightly, addressing the bartender. “Hiram. Why don’t you get this poor thing some of those delightful pickled pigs’ feet,” she called, “and perhaps a small mug of that canned milk?”
Scott had to turn away; his shoulders lifting slightly as he fought the growing need to laugh. While Johnny was a fan of pickled eggs, he hated the brine-soaked pigs’ feet.
Rachel sashayed back to the bar. Deftly, she balanced the small bowl in her palm while hooking the cup of milk with her forefinger. Then, almost as an afterthought, she gave a subtle nod towards the unopened boxes of candy. Scott picked up on the signal right away; opening the largest of the boxes -- a full two pounds -- not even hesitating as he zeroed in on a milk chocolate shaped heart. Smiling, he deftly handed it to the woman.
Miss Fairfield turned her attention back to the crimson clad waif. “Here you go, sugar,” she drawled, bending low to place the bowl and cup down on the table. Then, her face still close to Johnny’s, she took a bite of the heart-shaped candy; cutting it almost perfectly in half. The strawberry crème oozed from the center, forming a bead of pink on the woman’s lower lip, which she provocatively wiped away with the tip of her tongue. “Want some,” she teased, offering the remaining bit of candy. Before Johnny could reach out, she popped it into her mouth.
That was the last straw. Just the scent of the candy -- Christ Jesus, strawberry and chocolate -- was just too much to bear. Johnny bolted from his chair and headed straight for the bar; not the easiest thing to do considering the bulk of his clothing and the damned shoes. Still, he managed to make the grab. Gathering both boxes of chocolate and pressing them against his chest, he dashed towards the batwing front doors and freedom. Scott was hot on his heels.
Scott executed the tackle just as Johnny made it out onto the board walk; both young men skidding across the rough planking to tumble into the street. Instinctively, Johnny let go of the box, aiming a fist at his brother’s head just before he realized he had lost his prize. Worse, that he had thrown it away. Bits of chocolate and paper were flying upwards in the air before gravity pulled them back towards the earth. And as fast as the candies pelted down from the air, Barranca began to scarf them up.
Johnny scrambled to his feet. With the fan, he swatted at the palomino’s nose, only to find himself faced with chocolate smeared teeth that were bared in challenge. He backed up a full pace, colliding with his brother as he watched the horse resume grazing. The scattered chocolates were being consumed at an alarming rate. “Damn it, Barranca,” he cursed, stooping down in a vain attempt to snag a piece of chocolate. The horse snorted, covering the delicacy and Johnny’s hand with a copious amount of spit. Johnny tried again, only to find himself facing bared teeth as Barranca’s lips fluttered and drew back in a menacing frown.
Scott was laughing. “Give it up, Johnny,” he snorted, watching in amazement as his brother’s horse splayed its legs and stood guard over the remaining pieces of chocolate. One by one, the bits of candy began to disappear.
But there was still hope. The smaller, unopened box of candy was lying on the ground, and it was in perfect shape. Johnny lifted his skirt and began to stalk the box, stealing covert looks at Barranca as he tip-toed towards the anticipated treasure.
Barranca’s head came up sharply; a piece of paper fluttering to the ground as he spit out the empty tissue. The animal’s ears came forward, nostril’s flaring. Then, like a coon dog on the scent, the big palomino dropped its head and snaked towards the foil-wrapped container.
Johnny was sensing victory. He leaned forward, reaching out with both hands.
Splat. Barranca staked his claim; planting his right forefoot atop the box.
“God DAMN it!!” Johnny stood, hands on hips, as the palomino used its nose to open the smashed carton. Greedily, the animal nosed its way through the contents. The horse was getting picky. Every so often, the beast spat out candy not to its liking: the chocolate covered nuts. Caramels, however, seemed to be the animal’s favorite. Barranca appeared to be shivering in delight as he chomped the chewy goodies.
Val had decided he’d had enough. “Johnny,” he called, the words coming whisper soft.
The lawman didn’t like the boy’s tone. “You get Barranca, get yourself mounted; and you get your sorry ass home.”
Scott was already checking Cheval’s cinch. His evening on the town was over; something he knew for certain when Rachel Fairchild waved him a smiling farewell as she disappeared inside the saloon.
“Gotta get my clothes,” Johnny declared stubbornly. He took a step towards Barranca only to know the frustration of having the animal back away. “And I need to get ‘im a beer.” He stared up at the sheriff. “You know he ain’t leavin’ here ‘til I get ‘im a beer.”
“Scott, get the damned horse a beer,” Val ordered.
The blond looked up from what he was doing. “Excuse me?”
“Get the damned horse a beer,” Val repeated. “Now.”
Scott debated arguing and then decided it just wasn’t worth the effort. Casting an evil look in his brother’s direction, he stomped into the bar. When he came back out, he was carrying a glass mug half full of foam.
Johnny grabbed the glass, frowning. “Shit, Scott! You know he don’t like the foam.”
“Live with it,” Scott groused.
Johnny grabbed the beer from his brother and took a step forward towards his horse. Barranca’s ears flattened, and he backed up. Then, reconsidering, the animal took the proffered brew and sucked up.
Val reached out and took the mug away from the younger man. “Go,” he ordered, pointing to the road leading out of town.
Johnny’s eyes widened. “I can’t go home like this,” he declared; as if it was actually someone else’s fault he was wearing a dress. Which it was, when he thought about it. Wouldn’t be in this mess if Scott hadn’t been so stingy with those damned chocolates.
Scott exchanged a look with his younger sibling; biting back the smile as he surveyed the younger man. Johnny was a total mess; everything askew. “He’s right, Val. I can’t take him back to Lancer dressed in those clothes.”
The brothers were shoulder to shoulder now. Val inhaled deeply and swiped his face with his right hand; shaking his head. He suddenly speared both brothers with a single harsh glare. “Is that right,” he breathed. It was a rhetorical question and he wasn’t about to wait for an answer. “Home or jail,” he threatened. Before Boston could open his mouth, he continued. “Disturbing the peace.”
The blond thought about it for a moment before conceding the fact. The scuffle inside the saloon and the one in the street were more than enough to qualify. “Johnny,” he said, nodding towards Barranca.
“Go to Hell!” the youth snapped.
“You’d rather Val send for Murdoch to bail us out in the morning?” Scott asked quietly.
Johnny’s head dropped as he considered his options. There were none. At least, not now. “Let ‘er buck,” he groused. Turning, he searched the street for Barranca, finally spotting the animal still trolling the street for whatever remained of the scattered chocolates. He put his fingers to his lips and whistled. It was a real pain in the ass trying to walk in the damned, pointed toed shoes. Barranca turned to look back at his owner, but made no move to obey the summons. Instead, the animal stretched out its neck; lips fluttering as if he were returning the whistle. Or making a raspberry. Reins trailing, the horse moved out again.
Scott shook his head. He mounted Cheval, moving up beside his brother and offering his hand. “Come on,” he prompted. “I’ll help you catch him.”
If looks could kill, Barranca would have been dead meat. Johnny grabbed his brother’s arm and swung up. Behind him, he heard Val’s loud guffaw.
“Better hitch up that bustle, boy!” the lawman called. The laughter erupted fully when Scott’s horse, resentful of its unusual burden, kicked out with its back legs.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Purposely ignoring his kid brother’s litany of curses in Spanish and English, Scott urged his horse forward. For a time, it appeared Barranca was going to co-operate; wait up for his stable mate. Just long enough for Johnny to dismount. And then the game would begin again. Johnny would take two steps forward, Barranca would do the same.
“Gimme your pistol,” Johnny ordered, looking up at his brother.
“You are not going to shoot your horse, Johnny,” Scott declared.
“Is that right,” the brunet muttered. He stopped dead in the street, glaring up at his brother when Barranca also stopped, some fifteen feet ahead of them. “I ain’t gonna kill ‘im, Scott; just crease his ass so he’ll mind when I call him.”
Scott laughed. “I’ll keep that technique in mind next time I call you, brother.” He reached out his hand again, gripping Johnny’s wrist as he hoisted him up. Touching his heel’s to Cheval’s flanks, he nudged the gelding forward. Barranca was also on the move. Once again, Johnny tried whistling; inhaling deeply when Scott elbowed him in the belly.
“What the hell did you do that for?” Johnny demanded.
“I value my hearing,” Scott complained. “If you’re going to insist on whistling for him, get down.”
Johnny slid from behind the saddle and moved forward. Once again, the shrill whistle sounded. Once again, Barranca ignored him.
They were now in front of the Pritchard house. Johnny reached up, grabbing Scott’s leg. “You need to stop,” he said.
Scott pulled up. “Am I allowed to ask why?” he asked.
“My pants,” Johnny answered. “They’re in there,” he jerked a thumb in the general direction of the front porch.
“Johnny Lancer!!” Teresa had opened the front door of the Pritchard house and was now standing on the porch. “I knew when I heard that whistle it was you.”
Shit. Johnny had hoped he would be able to sneak in the back door and up the back stairs. “Hey, T’resa,” he greeted, putting on his best smile. He felt a need to smooth the dress and straighten the damned wig. “Scott caught me before I had a chance to knock on the door.”
The girl had stepped down into the street. She was still wearing the costume she had put on earlier; a pair of men’s pants and a short jacket. It was clear from the expression on her face she didn’t believe one word her brother was saying. “Where have you been?” she demanded, her temper flaring as she shook a finger under his nose.
Instinctively, Johnny backed up; so suddenly the heel on his right shoe broke off and he listed to one side. Righting himself, he tried another smile. “Told ya,” he replied. “With Scott.”
Scott’s expression was benign as his gaze shifted from his brother to his adopted sister. “Johnny was here?” he questioned.
Teresa stared up at her elder brother. “Yes. We were having the costume party, and he was going to dress up as a girl so we could play a trick on the Simmons’ twins. And then he disappeared.”
Johnny was pretty sure he didn’t like where this conversation was going. He needed a diversion. “Val told me and Scott we gotta go home, T’resa,” he announced, sucking in a deep breath. “Get me my pants and shirt.”
The girl was standing stock still, her arms folded across her chest. She smiled at her sibling, but only with her mouth. Her eyes were almost rabid. Then, remembering what her brother had said to Molly when she had offered him the blond wig, she said, “No.” The smile grew. “Hell, no.” She made a sudden ninety degree turn and stalked back to the house. “And I’m not speaking to you anymore, Johnny Lancer. Not for a long, long, time!” She stomped through the open doorway; and then slammed the door.
Scott had the feeling it was probably a good thing Teresa was spending the night with the Pritchard’s. “Come on, brother.” Resigned, he once again extended his hand to his sibling. Barranca had already taken off again.
Johnny accepted the hand up. Once he settled in, the grousing began. “And you didn’t think to bring a fuckin’ rope?” he asked, his right hand reaching out to finger the empty leather straps above his brother’s right knee.
“I didn’t know I was going to be expected to deal with a jackass,” Scott grumbled. “Four-legged or otherwise.”
The brunet was highly insulted. “And what the hell is that ‘sposed to mean?” he demanded.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch Lancer was enjoying a leisurely late night ride; the pale light of a widening new moon bathing the landscape in a cool white light. His dinner with Aggie Conway had been a pleasant experience; a quiet and welcome interlude. What had come afterwards had been…
Contented, he smiled. Aggie had made a tempting offer, asking him to spend the night. In the past -- before his sons had come home -- he would have accepted her offer. They were, of course, always discrete in their relationship; but now things were different. Certainly, not in what they felt for each other, those feelings remained the same. But his boys were home now, and it was important that he behave with a certain amount of decorum; not only for his sake, but for also for Aggie’s. And if that meant a little polite deception, so be it. He did, after all, have the responsibility of providing a good example of genteel behavior.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
For what seemed to be the hundredth time, Scott pulled Cheval to a halt and deposited Johnny on the ground. Barranca was just a scant few feet ahead of them. The horse had slowed down a bit, but its actions were just as erratic. The palomino had been meandering down the road from side to side like a drunk. And the horse’s attitude had been downright contrary. He’d chased Johnny twice; seemingly pissed off by the young man’s attempted ruse.
Both times, Johnny had called to the animal with his right hand extended, as if he was offering a treat. Barranca had not been amused to find nothing but an empty palm.
Now they were within sight of the arch. Scott longed to be home. It had been a very long night. Sighing, he stretched, the creak of his saddle sounding across the late night quiet. Ahead of him, Johnny, hobbling down the roadway, was once again trying to seduce Barranca. It wasn’t working. Shaking his head, Scott urged Cheval forward. He came up beside his brother. “Give it up, Johnny,” he suggested.
Once again, Johnny swung aboard. Scott’s gelding was getting tired of the game, and his burden. The animal rebelled, kicking up its rear legs. “Goddamn it, brother!” Johnny growled, “You think you might train this jackass to behave?”
“May I remind you,” Scott ground out, “I am riding my horse, not chasing him.”
“And whose fault is that?” Johnny was squirming. Whatever it was that held the bustle to the back of the dress was poking him in the ass and it was uncomfortable. Damn T’resa! “You hadn’t made me spill all that candy, Barranca wouldn’t be actin’ all loco.”
Scott’s jaws were working. If I hadn’t made you spill the candy, he fumed. He pulled up. “Get off,” he ordered.
“It’s less than a quarter of a mile, Johnny. Either catch Barranca, or walk.” Scott had reached -- no, surpassed -- his limit of brotherly patience.
Johnny stubbornly remained right where he was. In fact, he wrapped his arms tighter around his brother’s waist. “If God intended for me to be walkin’, he wouldn’t have invented horses,” he argued.
Scott held Cheval in check, forcing the gelding into a tight circle when the animal fought the bit. “We need to get home, Johnny, without all this foolishness. And before Murdoch gets there.”
That quieted the brunet a bit. Scott could almost hear him thinking. “Maybe he’ll spend the night at Aggie’s,” Johnny suggested. He stifled a snicker. “You know she was cookin’ up something special for supper.”
The blond reached out, stroking the gelding’s neck in a further effort to calm it. “I know that our father will not spend the night at Aggie’s, or do anything to even hint there was anything inappropriate going on.” He gave Cheval a final pat. “Now, are you going to try to catch Barranca again, or are you going to shut up and ride?” When his brother hesitated, he continued. “Or, we can just -- what do you call it -- drag ass, and you can explain your attire to our Old Man.”
Johnny considered what his brother was saying. “I’ll ride.” He didn’t make any promises about shutting up.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch had stopped to enjoy the view. As much as he loved to ride, it still caused him a great deal of pain; the small fragment of lead that was still imbedded in his hip causing an irritation that required occasional periods of rest. Not that he minded on occasions like this. From where he sat he could see not only the entire hacienda but the road leading to Lancer.
He stood up in the stirrups. There was activity below him on the road. While age had diminished his near vision, his distance visual acuity was excellent. It was only what he was seeing that was puzzling.
Barranca, his younger son’s palomino, was riderless, and he felt a familiar clawing at his belly. But then he realized the horse was, for all appearances, grazing. And behind the pale horse…
The tall Scot’s eyes narrowed. His eldest son was mounted; and riding behind him…
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott heard the horse approaching at a full gallop just as he pulled up in front of the house. He looked up. “Oh, shit,” he breathed.
Johnny felt his older brother slump forward in the saddle. Half turning, he spied his father. His brother had already used up the good words, so he said nothing.
Murdoch pulled up; surprised when Barranca seemed to react badly to his arrival. The palomino looked as if he were going to charge; and then it appeared the animal was actually staggering. “Where’s your brother?” he demanded, his eyes boring into his eldest son.
It was one of those rare times where Scott was actually speechless. He was suddenly aware of Johnny burrowing into this shoulder as his baby brother attempted to hide his face. “Sir,” he began, finally able to speak, “this isn’t quite what it appears.”
The tall rancher was definitely not satisfied with the answer. “What it appears, Scott,” he ground out between clenched teeth, “is that you have apparently lost your brother, and to have found…” He could feel his temper rising and held his tongue, choosing to nod in the general direction of his son’s companion.
In spite of the situation, Johnny was snickering. Biting his lip wasn’t helping much, so he simply pressed his head deeper into Scott’s shoulder.
Barranca chose that particular moment to ramble over to Cheval’s side and to nuzzle the animal’s flanks. The smell of chocolate, which still emanated from Scott’s saddlebags, aroused the animal’s senses. Determined to find more treats, the palomino became more aggressive in its search; so intent he nosed Johnny’s leg aside, almost unseating the youth. Vindictive, Johnny toed the animal’s nose. The palomino responded in kind; baring its teeth a taking a swipe at the long skirt.
“What the hell is the matter with your brother’s horse?” Murdoch growled; watching in astonishment as Barranca pulled back, a strip of bright red satin clenched in the animal’s teeth.
Unable to dismount in the usual way, Scott swung his right leg over the pommel and -- in spite of Johnny’s tugging at his shirt -- slid to the ground. He turned his gaze to his father. “Chocolate,” he answered cryptically. Taking off his gloves, he popped Barranca’s nose.
Murdoch had dismounted. He stared at his eldest over the top of his saddle, as if wondering in the younger man had lost his mind. “Chocolate,” he echoed. Snorting, he jerked his head in the direction of the shameless Jezebel still sitting, head down, astride Scott’s horse, “And that?” he demanded.
Barranca was sidling over to Cheval again, nostrils flaring as he attempted, once again, to filch the still pungent but non-existent sweets from the saddlebags. Nipping at the leather satchels, Barranca’s teeth raked the bay gelding’s rump. It was enough of an insult that Cheval backed up, rearing slightly and settling briefly on his haunches.
For Johnny, this had been an evening of discovery; the most current moment of enlightenment coming as he rudely became aware that satin was not only shiny, it was pretty damned slick. Also, that bustles really didn’t help much when a horse dumped you on your ass.
The flurry of activity at the hitching rail became a sideshow. Johnny, in his hurry to get up, forgot about the broken heel on his shoe, and promptly fell on his butt; mistakenly grabbing for Barranca’s tail in an effort to regain his footing. The palomino, now in the full throes of his chocolate and beer high, objected. The animal turned and nipped at its tormentor, coming away with a mouth full of auburn curls.
Murdoch was stunned. “JOHN!” he roared. Reaching out, he dragged his younger son upright. Johnny was still unsteady on his feet, the broken heel keeping him off center.
“What?” Johnny stumbled forward, catching himself against the hitching rail. He turned around and stared up into his father’s face. “WHAT!?” he shouted, seeing the expression on the Old Man’s face.
Big mistake. Murdoch lurched forward, towering over his youngest boy. “Don’t you dare use that tone with me, young man,” he roared.
Johnny backed up. Or tried to. Pride over petticoat, he flipped backwards over the hitching rail, landing in a heap.
The front door to the hacienda opened wide as Maria appeared in the doorway; drawn by all the commotion. Up late, she had been waiting for the Patrón’s sons to come home, and had just prepared herself a cup of hot chocolate. The aroma seemed to flood the front hall and the patio. It was just enough to capture the attention of one very edgy palomino.
Maria screamed. Barranca headed for the front door. Iron shoes skittering across the slick tile, the horse took an immediate right and clopped down into the Great Room.
Johnny stood up. His first instinct was to run. Unfortunately, his father and his older brother were blocking the way. He found himself being herded into the house; into the Great Room. The three Lancers’ arrived just as Barranca turned around in front of Murdoch’s desk and raised his tail.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Some semblance of order had been restored to the Great Room, although the pungent scent of fresh horse manure still lingered in the air. Murdoch Lancer, a tumbler of scotch in his right hand, was pacing up and down in front of his desk. His two sons -- including the one still in the red dress -- were standing at attention. Well, Scott was standing at attention. Johnny, still wearing the broken shoe, was tilting slightly to one side.
“Chocolate,” Murdoch was muttering. He took a long drink. It didn’t help, so he took another. “I had assumed, John,” he began, the words coming through clenched teeth, “when we had our last discussion regarding your…perceived need…for chocolate,” his voice was rising “that you would not…” he fought to control the volume, “you would no longer be indulging yourself to the point where…”
“Didn’t have no chocolate,” Johnny piped up. “Barranca ate it.”
“Please, God,” Murdoch muttered prayerfully.
Scott was concerned. He wasn’t quite sure what his father was praying for; paternal patience, fatherly wisdom, the strength not to shoot his children. He hoped it was for all of those things.
No such luck.
“And you,” Murdoch growled, swinging to face his eldest.
“Did you or did you not buy the chocolate?”
Scott felt he was being cross-examined; and by a very good lawyer. He also had the feeling he was being railroaded by his kid brother. “Yes, sir. I bought the chocolate for the ladies at the Silver Dollar.” He could tell from his father’s face he needed something more to vindicate himself. “Also for Maria -- to replace the one Johnny liberated --” two can play this game, little brother he smirked, “and Cip’s wife, and Teresa.”
“I see,” Murdoch said, not entirely convinced of either son’s innocence. “And the fight in town?” He was fishing. And he was a very good fisherman.
“No fight,” Johnny said. “Just a minor disagreement.” Proud of his choice of words, he shot a look at his brother.
“I see,” Murdoch said again. “Where are your clothes, John?” he asked amicably.
Johnny’s eyes widened. He heaved a sigh, his lips pursing. “Uh… At the Pritchard’s,” he answered. No point in lying; not with Teresa due home tomorrow.
“And how did they come to be at the Pritchard’s?” Murdoch inquired.
Johnny’s legs were getting tired. Balancing on the damned shoes -- especially the one with broken heel -- was getting harder to do. And his feet hurt. He thought about asking the Old Man if he could sit down; maybe even take off the shoes. Asking about the dress, he knew, was a lost cause: the Old Man was enjoying his misery far too much for that to happen anytime soon.
“I asked you a question, John. How did your clothes come to be at the Pritchard’s?”
Shit. Shit, shit, shit. “They were havin’ a costume contest; at the Valentine’s Day party.” Truth.
Jeez, Johnny thought, do I gotta paint a fuckin’ picture? “T’resa and Molly had this idea it’d be funny if I dressed up as a girl. To fool the Simmons’ twins.” Partial truth.
Murdoch crossed the room to the drink table and picked up his brand new leaded crystal decanter and poured a drink. “I was under the impression, John, you and your sister were feuding, and she had very pointedly told you that you would not be welcome at the party.”
“We made up,” Johnny crowed. “Bought her some really nice flowers, an’ everything.” Stretchin’ the truth.
Murdoch was staring into his glass, as if there was something floating in the whiskey. “So, if you were attending the party at the Pritchard’s, how did you end up at the Silver Dollar feeding Barranca chocolates and beer?”
Johnny tilted to one side again; his foot falling asleep. He wasn’t quite sure just how to answer the question. At least not to his father’s satisfaction. C’mon, Madrid, think, he chided himself. “Gave him the beer,” he admitted. “But Barranca stole the chocolates.” Okay; this one’s getting’ pretty close to a lie.
Scott laughed. He immediately sobered when his father turned, briefly, to face him.
“John, I want you to listen very carefully to my next question,” Murdoch intoned. “Did you spoil Teresa and Molly’s party?”
God, Johnny fumed. How the hell does he think up all these questions? He was seriously considering waylaying Teresa tomorrow before she made it home and stashing her someplace until the Old Man forgot what he was pissed off about. And then he realized Teresa probably wouldn’t ever live that long.
“John. Did you spoil the Pritchard’s party?”
He knew the answer to the question, just like he knew his father wasn’t going to like it. “Not all of it,” he replied, his tone more flippant than he intended. Then, unable to help himself, he laughed. He sure had fooled the hell out of those girls; with the flowers and the frippery. And old Stringbean; tossin’ gold coins around, thinkin’ he was a trollop. Johnny was bent over now in laughter that grew when he exchanged a look with his brother. It was all pretty funny when he thought about it; even Barranca actin’ like an ass, charging through the door at Maria, and then goin’ into the Great Room.
Even the part about Barranca taking a dump on Murdoch’s desk was pretty damned funny when you thought about it; something he bet never happened before. Johnny was holding his ribs now, laughing so hard the tears were coming. Unbidden, he collapsed belly first over the back of the couch, grabbing a cushion to suppress the growing case of the giggles.
Murdoch Lancer was not amused. He put down his glass, catching a glimpse of his son’s skirt covered rear-end as the boy leaned over the back of the couch, laughing like a hyena. It seemed that the boy never learned; that all the scolding and lectures were useless. Perhaps, he mused, it was time for more drastic measures.
Crossing to the couch, Murdoch stood behind his youngest boy. Suddenly, he reached out, resting his left hand on the boy’s shoulders and holding him in place; his right hand delivering several extremely hard smacks to the boy’s posterior. Johnny found himself pinned in place as his father took care of business. Every time the Old Man popped him on the ass, he hollered.
Finally, the Old Man let up. Taking the boy by the arm, he pulled him to his feet, turned him around and pointed him towards the stairs; giving him a final swat on his fanny. “Bed,” he ordered. “And you better hope your sister is happy with how the party turned out when she comes home tomorrow.”
Johnny was rubbing his hind end. Scott fell in beside his brother, surprised when it appeared Johnny was actually sniffling. Together the brothers headed up the stairs. Scott didn’t even bother to go to his room first.
The blond watched as his brother kicked off the shoes he had been wearing, working hard to keep a straight face as Johnny made a game of removing the black silk stocking and the garters. Then, getting into the spirit of the thing, he turned to his elder brother and pretended to do a strip tease as he shimmied around the room.
Scott set on the edge of the bed, applauding his brother efforts. “You’re moving pretty smooth, little brother, for someone that just had their butt beat,” he teased.
Johnny was pulling the skirt up to his waist; the words muffled as he continued to undress. “Ah, hell, Scott,” he laughed, “it didn’t hurt none!” He poked his head out and turned the dress around, displaying the bustle. “The old man was whackin’ on this thing,” he said, punching the layered, stuffed fabric. “I didn’t feel nothin’! It was like havin’ a pile of pillows on my hind end.” At last he tugged the dress completely off and tossed it into a pile on the floor. He was wearing nothing but his long johns now. “Gotta remember this the next time,” he teased, hoisting the bustle. He did a little victory dance. “Yep! Didn’t hurt a bit…”
Scott was making desperate gestures with both hands, signaling for Johnny to shut up. As usual his brother ignored him; unaware that Murdoch was now standing behind him.
Johnny continued his little jig. “Yeah. The Old Man could have popped me on the ass all night, and it wouldn’t hurt no more’n a feather duster!”
“Is that right, John?” Murdoch asked.
The brunet’s mouth dropped open, but he didn’t turn around. Not yet.
Murdoch stepped into the room. “If you’ll please excuse us, Scott. Your brother and I have a few things to discuss.” He nodded towards the hallway. “And close the door, please.”
Scott tipped his head slightly to his father, reaching out to pat his brother’s shoulder as he passed by.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott had closed the door behind him, smiling a bit as he heard his kid brother pleading with their father. He couldn’t help but laugh when he heard Johnny’s final argument: “C’mon, Murdoch!” Ouch! “Scott’s the one that bought all the choc’late.” Whoa!
“Nothin’ would a happened if he just hadn’t been so fuckin’…” Damn, Old Man, that smarts!! “He shouldn’t a been so damned stingy…” Okay, okay, I got! It ain’t happenin’ again!!
The blond headed down the hallway to his room, closing the door and going directly to his desk. Picking up the large envelope he had received right after Christmas he went back to his bed; eased out of his boots and lounged back on the bed. It took a little time to adjust his pillows and his lamp just right, but he was finally satisfied.
Opening the envelope, he took out the thin catalogue and began thumbing through it as he searched for the proper page. Valentine’s Day had -- from his view point -- gone reasonably well, even with Johnny’s little ploys.
Wetting the tip of his pencil, he began making his list: Hollow chocolate bunnies, chocolate lambs, and vanilla crème eggs with yellow yolks. Since this holiday had gone so well, there was no reason at all to think that Easter would be any different…