New Years Resolution: No more disclaimers.
Rated: R for naughty
Johnny sneezed. A cloud of dust billowed above and all around him, and he jammed a balled fist against his nose in a futile attempt to stop another explosion. “KA-CHOO!!” He wiped his snotty fist on his brother’s right pant leg.
Scott reached down from his perch, thumping Johnny’s bare head with a bent forefinger. “Be quiet!” he ordered. Then, extending his arm, he grabbed his brother’s collar and dragged him up the ladder.
“Jesus, Scott! You think you could ever do that without grabbin’ a handful of my hair?” Johnny was scrubbing furiously at the back of his neck.
“Perhaps if you’d ever bother to get that mop trimmed,” Scott snorted. “This was your idea, in case you’d care to remember.” He scooted back, making room for his brother on the wide plank floor.
Johnny’s eyes were adjusting to the near darkness. “Well, we’ve looked every damned place else up stairs,” he thumped the floor with his flat palm, “‘cept here, your room, mine and T’resa’s,” he groused. He had never truly realized just how big the house was until today: sixty-three rooms. Who the hell needs sixty-three rooms? The damned hacienda’s bigger than some of the towns me and Mama lived in…
“And his room,” Scott murmured, interrupting his brother’s dark musings. Like Johnny, his eyes were busy. They’d never been in the tower room before.
“You crazy?” Johnny asked; punching his brother’s arm. “How many times you been in his room?”
Scott held up a single digit. “It was not a pleasant experience,” he sighed.
Once? Johnny thought. Hell, he’d been in the Old Man’s room more’n a dozen times since they’d been home. Had his ears blistered good and proper every damned time, too; and once, when the Old Man was really on a tear… “Tell me about it,” he muttered, unconsciously rubbing his rear-end. Realizing his brother was staring at him, he levered himself up from the floor, turning the butt rub into a dusting of the dirt from the seat of his britches. “So where you think he hid ‘em?”
A bemused smile tugged at the corners of the blond’s mouth as he shoved himself to his feet. The family had celebrated Johnny’s birthday the day before, and now -- on Christmas Eve Day -- the young man was on the hunt for his anticipated Christmas presents. “Now why would Murdoch be buying Christmas presents for you when that’s Santa Claus’ job?” he teased.
“Phhht,” Johnny sputtered. “You think I buy that line o’ crap T’resa’s been yammerin’ about all month?” His eyes narrowed as he studied his brother’s face. “If that Santa fella’s real, how come we spent all that time haulin’ T’resa’s a… butt all over Morro Coyo and Spanish Wells pickin’ up that load o’ Christmas presents she bought?”
“Santa doesn’t bring things to grownups,” Scott chided knowingly. “Those gifts were for Maria, Cip’s family, Consuelo and others.” He was moving about the room now. Positioning himself just to the right of the trap door entrance to the tower, he did a slow turn as he viewed a 360º panorama of the estancia’s vast landscape. It was raining, lightly, and there was a mystical -- almost magical -- quality to what he was seeing; as if he were in a dream.
Johnny hadn’t missed the comment about Santa not bringing things to grownups; his cheeks coloring as he picked up on his brother’s sly humor and pulled a face. “Which is why we’re here lookin’ for what Murdoch bought me…us,” he corrected himself. As if he really gave a shit if his brother was getting anything. Hell, Scott’s birthday on the 19th, what with Harlan Garrett and all the crap he’d sent, had been like a trip to R.C. Terry & Co. in Sacramento.
Rubbing his hands together in anticipation of the yet-to-be-discovered treasures, Johnny began to prowl. “C’mon, brother. Starin’ out the window ain’t goin’ to help me find what I’m lookin’ for.”
The tower room was sparsely furnished; testimony to the fact it had been built for surveillance and not living space. There was a cot on the far wall, a small table with a kerosene lantern; two medium sized steamer trunks and a chair that matched the ones in front of Murdoch’s desk in the Great Room. Johnny was kicking at one of the trunks. “Think it’s locked?”
Scott joined his brother. He leaned over, manipulating the clasp on the trunk lid; nodding at the two straps. “You could help, you know.”
It was almost as if the younger man was waiting for permission, and he knelt down and attacked the left-hand strap with the same gusto he displayed when he was saddling Barranca for a night out on the town. He dispatched the second strap with the same enthusiasm. It took a little effort, but he pried open the lid.
Scott bit his lower lip to stop the laughter he felt welling deep in his chest. The trunk was empty. So was the second one.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The Great Room smelled of pine, the more subtle odor of the clove-spiked fresh apples Teresa had placed around the room adding a sweetness to the otherwise pungent evergreens. Other odors permeated the room as well; the aroma of nutmeg and cinnamon wafting from the kitchen. Garlands of pine boughs had been draped around the French doors; clusters of gilded pinecones glimmering in the muted light from the overhead chandeliers. There was mistletoe, too, suspended from the ceiling fixtures; the waxy white berries almost pearl-like against the dark green foliage.
The focal point of the room, however, was the large, long-needled Santa Lucia fir that was ensconced, tall and regal in the corner at Murdoch’s left. Scott and Johnny had selected the tree after a boisterous argument that had stopped only after their father’s intervention; Johnny reluctantly stomping off and complaining loudly about the stupidity of traipsing through waist-high snow when Maria had a perfectly good tree growing in the corner of her garden.
Things had calmed down significantly after the tree was actually brought into the house, and Johnny had been placated with several mugs of hot chocolate. Scott had pruned the tree to a symmetrical perfection, and all three youngsters had pitched in to do the final decorations. Murdoch had been content, happy to simply stand back and supervise; allowing not one bit of melancholy over what might have been to prevent his deep inner feeling of joy.
Roused from his musings, Murdoch’s brow furrowed as the tiny shadow seemed to crawl across the broad expanse of his desk. Looking up, he smiled; watching as his ward, Teresa, tip-toed towards his desk. She was carrying a tray with a pot of coffee, a small creamer and a single cup and saucer. He knew from her demeanor she had something on her mind. “I could use a break, darling,” he announced, putting down his pen and leaning back in his chair. “Thank you.”
Teresa poured the coffee, staring into the cup as she contemplated her next words. She yielded to her frustration. “They’re up in the tower,” she said finally, biting her lip. Tattling was not her usual forte; if anything, she generally was very reluctant to point fingers at her step-brothers. “Johnny and Scott.”
Murdoch sighed. He hated rainy days. Although chores were dispatched with great efficiency when conditions turned foul; the inclement weather left his sons with idle time on their hands. Johnny was a handful when confined to the house; his boredom generally a prelude to mischief and mayhem. And Scott was certainly no innocent when Johnny’s pranks were aimed in his brother’s direction. Giving his sons the benefit of the doubt -- it was almost Christmas after all, he dismissed the thought. “I suppose it’s just natural, Teresa, for the boys to go exploring.” He poured a generous amount of cream into his coffee. “You’ve lived in the hacienda all your life; this is something new for them.”
Teresa settled herself into the chair in front of the desk on Murdoch’s right; the same one Scott usually occupied, her shoulders slumped in defeat. “They’re not exploring, Murdoch. Johnny’s been searching all through the house for his Christmas presents, and now he’s gotten Scott to help him.” She threw up her hands in despair. “Maria found Johnny prowling around the pantry after lunch. Then he was in the laundry room.” She risked a look at the older man. “Consuela said every time she went into a room to dust, Johnny was there, poking about; even your study.”
“It’s driving me crazy, Murdoch! And Maria said if he steals so much as another single cookie,” she held up one finger, “she’s going to beat him brainless with her spoon.”
There was a sputtering sound as Murdoch almost choked on his swallow of coffee. Maria’s aim was always considerably lower than the boy’s head when she got after him for some real or perceived transgression. “The tower,” he said, putting down his cup.
Teresa nodded her head. “Johnny’s already gone through the rooms in the annex,” she pouted.
Murdoch pushed back his chair. Not for the first time since his sons had returned home, he wondered if he shouldn’t seriously consider revising the partnership agreement; or at least more firmly drawing their attention to the ‘I call the tune’ clause. Yes. It was time to take the situation firmly in hand and to make it perfectly clear who was in charge. He levered himself up out of his seat, the sharp pain that assaulted his right hip steeling his resolve.
Teresa jumped up from her seat. “I’ll come with you,” she volunteered brightly. There were times she actually enjoyed watching Murdoch scold Johnny; especially when the young man deserved his comeuppance.
Shaking his head, Murdoch ground out a firm no. “This is something I need to take care of,” he declared. “Before it gets out of hand.”
It’s already out of hand, Teresa moped; thinking of the tray of decorated cookies that had disappeared from the cooling racks, the ones Maria still didn’t know about yet.
Eyes wide, Teresa turned around to face the housekeeper. The woman was holding her wooden mixing spoon in her right hand, and was tapping the concave back against her left palm as she spoke. The words came softly, through gritted teeth. “Juanito,” she hissed. “El ha estado en mi cocina otra vez.” (He has been in my kitchen again.) The spoon was beating a steady, but increasing tattoo against her fingers. “¡Dos galletas de la docena, ido!” (Two dozen cookies, gone!)
Oh, this does not bode well, Murdoch thought. Maria, Teresa and Consuela had been baking and creating all kind of cookies, sweet breads and candies for the past two days; all in anticipation for the Holiday celebrations that would last from Christmas Eve until the New Year. And Johnny on the hunt to sate his sweet tooth… The big man cringed. “I’ll get to the bottom of this, Maria,” he pledged.
The woman’s right eyebrow arched and her spine straightened. The Patrón was quite masterful at managing his vast estancia, giving orders to his vaqueros, heading the California Cattle Growers Association; but in dealing with his young sons… In what she considered to be an act of Christian charity -- it was almost Christmas, after all -- she decided to take the man at his word. She muttered a prayer, crossed herself, and exited the room.
Murdoch stared after the woman. Fluent in Spanish, he caught every word she said; certain that was what she intended. He sighed. If he ever planned on having another meal in his own house, he was going to have to find his youngest son and serve him up as a human sacrifice to a woman who was descended from the Aztec.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny watched as Scott used the long hook to manipulate the trap door that concealed the tri-fold stairway leading up into the tower; smacking his brother’s shoulder as the door snapped shut. “So, where to next?”
Scott was brushing his hands together, dislodging the dust. “I’ve only just joined this scavenger hunt, brother,” he grinned. He hadn’t caught up with Johnny until the younger man had already pilfered the rooms in the annex.
“He ain’t hidin’ anything in your room, is he?” Johnny’s tone was suddenly accusatory, and the suspicion was clearly pasted over his entire face.
“Of course,” Scott answered; no small measure of sarcasm in his response. “Half of the things are in my room, and the rest in Teresa’s.”
Johnny’s expression softened. “T’resa’s room,” he murmured. “Hadn’t even thought of the Old Man stashin’ anything there.” He immediately made an about face and headed down the hallway.
Scott reached out, pulling his brother up short. “I was joking, Johnny,” he said.
Johnny cast a long look at the long fingers that were curled about his upper arm. “But you could be right,” he countered, his tone conspiratorial. He began unpeeling his brother’s digits. “The Old Man can be sneaky,” he reasoned, “and T’resa would be all for helpin’ him.” He tugged at his brother’s arm. “C’mon.”
Both young men jumped as Murdoch’s voice boomed from the from the first floor; their eyes growing big as they realized they could hear their father striding across the Great Room heading towards the stairs. Scott speared his younger brother with a harsh look. “Just what were you up to before I found you coming back from the annex?” he demanded.
“Nothin’!” Johnny shot back; much too quickly. He knew his answer wasn’t going to fly; not with big brother about to go all Lieutenant Lancer on him. “Aw, I snatched a couple of cookies from the kitchen…” He canted his head, the color draining from his cheeks as he heard Murdoch’s heavy tread on the bottom stair. “In here,” he ordered, heading for his own room.
Scott’s fingers closed around the nape of his brother’s neck. “It’s the first place he’ll look,” he hissed. He looked back over his shoulder to the door of his own room, changing his mind as it was apparent Murdoch was almost all the way up the stairs. “Bath room,” he ordered; shoving his brother toward the door on their immediate left.
Murdoch reached the top of the stairs just as he heard the door to the bath room close, his eyes narrowing as the latch snapped shut. Undeterred, and not giving a damned about propriety, he rapped on the portal. “John?”
Inside the privy, Johnny backed up, almost losing his balance and tumbling backwards into the tub. As it was, his butt slipped over the edge, and he hung there for a time, his toes pointing up towards the ceiling; the fingers of both hands clenched tightly around the rim.
Scott stared open-mouthed at his younger sibling; sucking in his bottom lip in a valiant and successful attempt to stop the laughter. He regained enough control to answer his father. “It’s me, sir,” he announced.
“What are you doing in there?” Murdoch demanded, again knocking on the door.
Johnny, who had just taken Scott’s proffered hand, shot his elder brother a quick look, the amusement clearly evident on his face. What the hell kinda question is that? Only two things a man ever does in a jake…The lop-sided grin came then, okay, maybe three things, if he hadn’t been to town in a while.
“Using the facilities, sir,” Scott answered, struggling to keep the humor out of his voice as he pulled his brother out of the tub. He knew exactly what Johnny was thinking. Frowning, he gave his sibling a quick nod, and then indicated the toilet.
Grinning, Johnny pretended total ignorance of what his brother wanted. Then, giving in, he unbuttoned his fly and proceeded to take a healthy whiz.
From the other side of the door, Murdoch could clearly hear what was happening, and felt somewhat the fool. Still, he was on a mission. “Have you seen your brother?”
Scott’s eyes closed briefly as he considered his answer. “Yes, sir,” he replied, content he was telling the truth. “He was out in the annex,” he hesitated, watching as his brother jabbed a finger at the octagon, stained glass window high on the wall between the sink and the gravity tank that fed the commode, “checking to make sure all the windows were closed.”
Ear canted towards the bathroom door, Murdoch’s right eyebrow arched. He didn’t know what he found more amazing; the story his younger son had actually been checking the windows because of the rain, or the fact his elder son seemed to have consumed, and was now disposing of, an amazing amount of liquid. “When you finish in there, Scott, I want you to help me look for Johnny.”
Johnny grinned up at his brother. Then, finishing his chore, he buttoned up; grabbed for the chain and flushed.
Scott waited an appropriate time then turned on the faucet to wash his hands; but took his time doing it. Johnny helpfully stood by to hand him a towel.
Together, the brothers skulked over to the bathroom door and pressed their ears against the wood. ‘Told you,’ Scott mouthed the words as they heard Murdoch open and then shut Johnny’s bedroom door.
Johnny’s brow furrowed as he cozied up to the door. “Your room,” he whispered. “Guest Room,” he repeated the word twice more before squinting up at his brother. “All the rooms ‘cept his and T’resa’s.”
Scott frowned as he heard Murdoch’s footsteps as the big man made his way back down the hallway.
The blond shook his head. “I’m going to have to go out there,” he said.
Johnny, his arms folded across his chest as he rested his buttocks against the sink, grinned; his teeth showing. “Yep,” he murmured.
“Coming, sir!” Scott turned the faucet on and then off again, his voice lowering. “You can’t hide in here forever, you know.”
Johnny reached out, easing the door open. “Says you,” he crowed.
Scott shook his head and stepped across the threshold; seriously tempted to drag his brother along with him. Johnny toed the door shut behind him.
“Sir.” Scott almost collided with his father’s broad chest as he exited the bathroom. “My apologies for the delay,” he stammered.
“You should probably cut back on the coffee,” Murdoch groused, completely missing the blank look on his son’s face. “Maria is not a happy woman,” he said, nodding towards the stairs. “Your brother has been lurking about in her kitchen and she’s threatening to go on strike. If you plan on eating another meal any time soon, you’re going to have to help me find Johnny.” Already, he was tugging his son’s arm and pulling him towards the stairwell.
Scott held up his right hand, a signal he had used often during the War to bring his men to a halt. The idea of Maria not serving any meals was giving him great pause. While he wasn’t anywhere near as addicted to the woman’s baking as his younger brother was, he was quite fond of her culinary skills when it came to preparing a full meal. “Perhaps, sir,” he said, actually succeeding in stalling his father and purposely raising his voice so his brother would hear, “we should approach this like a military problem. Find the enemy, engage him, and destroy him…”
Murdoch’s expression was unreadable, but he appeared to be considering the suggestion. Why not, he thought, feeling his usual pride in his elder son; his plan worked well with Pardee. “What are you proposing?”
Inwardly, Scott smiled. This was going to be easier than he thought. “That we separate, choose a starting place and then work towards a point where we come together.” He was gesturing with his hands, his long fingers knitting together and creating a trap.
Murdoch’s head canted towards his son. “Perhaps I can start by looking in the torreón (tower) room,” he prompted, gesturing towards the hallway.
“That won’t be necessary, sir,” Scott grinned, his cheeks flushing. “Johnny,” he breathed. “He’s looking for his Christmas presents. I thought it might be wise if I kept an eye on him.”
Like the fox guarding the chickens, Murdoch mused. He was considerably wiser about his sons and their shared penchant towards mischief than he had been when they had first arrived. They were young yet; young enough they could be taught a lesson or two. Patting his son’s back, he urged the younger man towards the stairs. “And what makes him think he’s deserving of any Christmas presents,” he declared loudly, managing to sound appropriately gruff.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny eased open the bathroom door, crouching down as he peered around the doorjamb. Pretty sneaky of big brother to pull off a stunt like this, gettin’ the Old Man outta the way! Pulling the door open even wider, he stared down the hallway. T’resa’s room, he thought smugly, pulling him self erect and rubbing his hands together in anticipation.
“Shit!” Johnny visibly tensed; his heart thudding to his belly. His senses were on high alert as he collapsed back against the wall and disappeared into the shadows as he instinctively made himself a smaller target.
Embarrassed, he laughed; softly. The soft, prolonged meow came then, the heavily pregnant cat winding itself around the youth’s legs; weaving in and out between both feet, snaking around his ankles as effectively as a rope being used to truss a bull-dogged calf. Johnny reached down, cupping the cat’s belly as he picked her up from the floor; scratching her head. “You ‘bout scared the caga (shit) out of me, gatita (kitty).” he whispered. “Johnny Madrid, done in by a cat!” He patted his chest, above his heart, with his free hand.
Scoping out the hallway for a final time, Johnny bent forward just enough to set the cat back down on the floor. His search for the hidden stash of Christmas gifts once again the foremost thought occupying his mind, he headed out. Teresa’s room was down the hall on his left; the last room before the stairwell leading down to the covered portico that led to the annex rooms.
He actually hesitated for a heartbeat before he opened the door and peeked inside his just think of me as a sister’s room. Not that he was any stranger to a woman’s room; well, what usually passed for a room. Most times there wasn’t anything but a bed, maybe a hook for hanging clothes; or a chair if the gal was creative. But this room…
Swinging open the door, he stepped in; the cat snaking in right behind him. Room? he mused, scoping out the place. Hell, it was a damned -- what would Scott call it? -- suite. He back-kicked the door shut. There was a big four-poster bed, and it had a top on it; all lace and frills. The bedspread and the curtains matched -- jeez, didn’t the girl know there was any other color than yellow? -- and everything had flowers. In addition to the bed, there was a nice matching over-stuffed chair and a built-in chest beneath the window. The bench had a thick pad and -- it was a cozy little window seat -- and there was a book peeking out from beneath one of the plump, tasseled pillows.
Carpet’s nice and thick, too, Johnny thought, turning his attention to the floor and curling his stockinged toes against the softness. It was a light color; so probably a good thing he wasn’t wearing his boots.
His eyes lifted to survey more of the bedroom. There were two dressers in the room, too. A smaller one right next to the door; lots of little drawers and compartments, and then this big hunk of dark wood along the far wall that looked like an entire tree had been sacrificed for its creation. Two long drawers towards the bottom, two smaller ones side by side at the top. They had locks on’ em, too.
There was a large diamond dust mirror attached to the large dresser; with ornately carved hinged wings that captured and reflected the assortments of bottles, boxes and trinkets that spread out across the broad surface. He reached out, fingering the lacy cloth that covered the dark, polished wood. It was nothing more than webbing; similar to the lace mantillas the women at Lancer wore when they attended mass. His Mama had worn lace like that…He purposely shook the though away.
What amazed the young man, though, was the variety of stuff that seemed to cover every inch of the dresser’s surface. Tiny little figurines -- ceramic animals that appeared to be roaming free range and hiding among the assortment of cut-crystal bottles -- peeked out here and there in detailed, life like poses. Unable to stop himself, Johnny picked up one of the small glass bottles; the one behind the porcelain dog that was sitting up like it was begging. The stopper appeared to be stuck, and he pulled it closer to his chest as he pried the piece of crystal free. It made a little popping sound that surprised him; enough that his hand jerked and the contents splashed onto his shirt.
He puffed out a breath, his eyes watering. It was like someone had boiled up a bunch of tea roses and trapped the pungent oil inside the bottle where it had fermented and increased in potency. Quickly, he replaced the stopper.
The next perfume was even worse. That one spilled against his shirt, too; and he wiped at the wetness. In his hurry to put the bottle back, he knocked over several of the miniature animals. Shit! Shit, shit, shit. What was it about women they had to have all this little stuff scattered all around? Hell, the only thing on the whole damned dresser that had any size to it was a round, covered bowl; and the top of that container had the stupidest looking bird perched right in the middle.
He lifted the cover off the dish, and heard music. Curiosity -- or maybe just plain male stupidity -- prompted his next move. He picked up the container for a closer look, lifting it slightly to look at its bottom, where he saw the wind-up key; which was slowly rotating.
Great! Now he had talcum powder all over his shirt. He looked down. And the fuckin’ floor.
Brushing himself off, Johnny decided it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. He changed his mind when he heard someone moving about in the hallway. Holding his breath, he cat-pawed across the room and disappeared briefly behind the long draperies that flanked Teresa’s windows; a low whistle escaping as he saw the mess he had made atop the dresser. Gonna have to fix that, he mused.
The footsteps faded away, and he relaxed. He stepped out from behind the curtains, hesitating when -- out of the corner of his eye -- he spied the book that was poking out from beneath one of the pillows on the window seat. Didn’t look much like the books from the Great Room, he thought. Curious, he picked up the thin missive; surprised when it fell open in his hands.
‘Dear Diary’ he read, at once recognizing Teresa’s delicate hand writing. Who the hell was Diary, he thought. Intrigued, he plopped down onto the window seat and began to read.
‘Dear Diary,’ he began anew. ‘Paco was teasing me. Again! I was gathering eggs in the barn, and he came up behind me and blew on the back of my neck. Before I could turn around -- I almost dropped all of the eggs -- he handed me this lovely bouquet. Silk flowers, Diary. Can you imagine!! Yellow silk flowers, just for me.
He said they were my Christmas present; an early Christmas present.
Paco made a place for us on a bale of straw; spreading out the blanket we always use. And then we started talking. About what it was like growing up here on Lancer, and how long we had known each other. He was so serious for a time, and then -- as usual -- he started teasing again.
I can’t believe he would bring up that time when we…
Johnny’s finger, which had been following below the words, froze on the page where the writing ended; his temper about two notches above where he wanted it to be after reading ‘the blanket we always use’. Quickly; he flipped the page and continued reading. Good thing, ‘cause he was this close to finding Paco and beating the shit out of him.
‘…were little and Cipriano and Murdoch found us swimming up in the pond.
It seems so
innocent now, all of us swimming without as much as a stitch of clothing
on. Murdoch was angry; but I’m glad it was him and not Daddy that found
me. He spanked me, of course; stopping immediately when I started crying.
(Well, when I pretended to cry!)
But Paco. Every time we talk about that long-ago summer, he teases me; telling me that the birthmark on my derriere…
Johnny stumbled over the word, sounding it out in his head and trying to remember all the rules Scott had told him about pronunciation and how vowels in English were different from vowels in Spanish; and this word... “Dairy-aire,” he muttered. Shit. Another word he was going to have to ask big brother about. He continued reading.
-- the one he calls my colibrí pequeño (little hummingbird)…’
Footsteps again, in the hallway. Maria, Johnny thought, closing the book and dropping it back down onto the small bench. I gotta get outta here…
He stood up, quickly surveying the room before his gaze focused on the calamity atop the dresser. Whoa. The glass bottles he had toyed with were all a kilter, and there was a fine dusting of white talcum everywhere.
The tabby cat was doing her snake dance between his legs again, making figure eights as it made love to his pant legs. He reached down, gathering the creature up in his hands; a wicked smile coming. Beneath his fingers, he could feel -- counted -- the bulges in the cat’s swollen belly, and he almost felt guilty for what he was about to do. But there was no way in hell he was going to hang for the mess on T’resa’s dresser. Carefully, he placed the cat among the litter. The feline spied its reflection in the glass, hissed; arched its back, and scratched at its mirrored twin; backing away and scattering more of Teresa’s bottles and tiny figurines.
Perfecto, Johnny grinned. As an afterthought, he bent down and tugged at the bottom drawer, surprised to find that the ornate locks were simply ornamental, and the drawer opened easily. He opened the one above it too, part way; and one of the smaller top drawers; arranging them until they looked like a series of steps.
Hell, couldn’t risk a mama cat breakin’ her neck or jigglin’ her babies loose tryin’ to jump down from something as high as that dresser!
Satisfied his work was done, Johnny padded across the floor. He pressed his ear against the door, hearing nothing; and then eased the portal open to step out into the hallway.
He stood for a time, debating his next move; grinning a bit when he heard the tinkling of glass behind Teresa’s door. If he could have, he would have patted himself on the back for being so damned smart about leaving the cat behind to cover up his transgressions. Suddenly, he felt that tap on his back; his eyes widening.
“So have you found your hidden treasures, little brother?” Scott whispered; his breath feathering the dark hair behind Johnny’s right ear.
Johnny would have elbowed his brother in the gut if Scott hadn’t had the foresight to anticipate the move. “No,” he groused. “Still lookin’.”
Scott was still behind his brother. “Not in Teresa’s room?” he asked, the question sounding more like an accusation.
Johnny shook his head. “Hell, no! You think I’m stupid?”
The blond considered answering the question, but changed his mind. “You are standing right next to her door,” he observed; “and you smell like a funeral gone bad.” The scent of the perfume was overpowering.
“Just got here,” Johnny lied. He turned, facing his brother; the next words coming in a hoarse whisper, one eyebrow lifting as he heard -- again -- the tinkling of glass. He could see Scott was aware of the sound, too. “Think maybe she’s got a mouse in there.”
“Huh-huh,” Scott laughed; a sound laced with disbelief and suspicion.
Before Johnny could respond, a voice came from the darkness at the opposite end of the hallway, drifting up the stairwell. “Murdoch?”
Instinctively, both young men stepped backwards; only to stop abruptly when -- from behind them -- a deep voice answered the other. “Teresa?”
The brothers exchanged a quick look, panic clearly plastered across their faces. “In there,” Johnny hissed, jabbing a finger towards Teresa’s bedroom door.
Scott was already shoving his sibling down the hall. “No!” His eyes scanned the hallway; the various doors on either side of the corridor. Murdoch was stomping his way up the back stairs; Teresa’s light step could be heard coming up the main stairway. “In there,” he ordered, indicating the first door on his left.
Johnny didn’t need any prompting. With the enemy approaching from both sides, he was certainly smart enough to realize escape was the only option. He reached out, grabbing the doorknob and pushed the door open; stubbing his big toe as his brother roughly shoved him across the threshold.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch climbed the final step; hesitating as he reached up to adjust the flame on the reflective lantern that was centered on the wall. The soft, yellow glow spread, pushing the dark shadows of the windowless hallway before it. Hands on hips, Murdoch studied the carpeted floor, a frown coming. There, in a chalk-like outline, were the clear footprints of a pair of stockinged feet; leading from Teresa’s closed bedroom door down the hallway to the threshold of…
…his own bedroom door.
The big man inhaled, deeply. As an afterthought, he placed a booted foot next to the footprint that was right in front of him; his right eye beginning to twitch. Johnny, he thought. Compared to his own foot, the boy’s footprint looked like that of a very small child.
“Murdoch?” Teresa joined the older man in the hallway; a puzzled expression on her face. The look changed from confusion to consternation as her gaze lowered and she saw the powdery white imprints against the floor. She tracked them with her eyes right back to their source. “My room!” she squealed. “Johnny has been in my room!”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott visibly winced when he heard the girl’s shriek. How in Heaven’s name? he thought. His eyes settling on his younger brother -- on the guilty look that flashed across the boy’s face before his chin dropped against his chest and the long hair effectively hid his eyes -- as he looked down to the floor. The footprints, which were paler now, were still evident. “Idiot!” he snorted, smacking his brother’s head.
Johnny was rubbing at his ear. “Now what?” he muttered, nodding towards the door.
Scott moved swiftly across the room. He released the clasp on the window on the far wall and flung it open. Then, turning around -- it would be insanity to jump, reason enough to hope his father would assume they had done it -- he jabbed a long finger at the large, custom-made bed.
Johnny grinned. Murdoch’s bed had been especially built to accommodate his long frame and considerable bulk. It stood higher than a regular bed; in fact, there was good twelve inches of clearance between the underside of the bed and the floor. Without any further encouragement, Johnny dropped down and snake-crawled his way under the bed. Scott was right beside him.
Johnny had to bury his face against his forearms to stifle the giggle. He closed his eyes so tight, tears welled at the corners, and his shoulders were shaking. Even the elbow in his ribs didn’t help.
“Shut up!” Scott hissed. However, he wasn’t doing that well either in stopping the laughter. It took everything he had to finally compose himself. Johnny had resorted to holding his breath.
The two young men were facing each other when they heard their father stride into the room.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch Lancer stood at the threshold to his bedroom, his jaws tensing as he continued to track his younger son with his eyes. Oh, the footprints were lighter now, a mere dusting against the patterned carpet; but still perceptible. He could even tell where Johnny had stood stock still for a brief moment; saw the evidence where the youth had scraped the toe of his sock against the back of his pant leg, leaving a minute mound of powder.
A sudden gust of wind from the open window caused the draperies to flutter and stand almost straight out, snapping loudly; and Murdoch shook his head. He headed across the room, poking his head out the window to look down at the shrubberies that grew close to the outer wall; actually surprised when he saw no evidence his sons had chosen this route for their escape. Scott, he thought. Scott would have opened this window as a diversion.
Johnny, he sighed, would have simply jumped. The frown came then as he remembered the Pinkerton report from Boston. He drew no satisfaction from the fact both of his sons were idiots.
“Murdoch!” Teresa’s voice filtered in from somewhere down the hall; the distress in her tone rousing him from his musings.
“Coming, darling,” Murdoch called. He shut the window and fastened it, turning and marching across the room back towards the door. Mid step at the threshold, he suddenly stopped; some instinct that had lain dormant prompting him to not leave the room. As delicately as a young maiden taking her first step onto a dance floor, the big Scot turned about and tip-toed across the room to stand; fists solidly pressed against his hips, beside the bed.
“Think he’s gone?” Johnny whispered the words, raising his head slightly to look at his elder brother.
Scott canted his head, listening. “Well, you know how he goes running every time Teresa calls him,” he answered.
“Home free!” Johnny crowed, a bit louder. “Teresa can take an hour to bitch about a hangnail…” He grunted a bit as he began scooting backwards.
Murdoch watched as his sons backed out from underneath the bed; Scott’s feet appearing first, Johnny’s shorter legs catching up. Both young men were snake-crawling at a reasonable clip, and still the man waited.
Right up until his sons’ butts were in plain view. Knees bent slightly, Murdoch squatted forward. And then, with as much power as he could muster and fueled by a father’s impatience, he smacked both compact rear ends with an open hand.
Ka-tunk! Ka-tunk!; followed by a whispered “Owww…” and a louder “Shit!” as both young men bumped their heads.
It was a satisfying sound to Murdoch’s Lancer’s ears. Reaching out, he grabbed first Scott’s ankle, and then Johnny’s; pulling both young men from beneath the bed.
“Murdoch-h-h-h…” This time, Teresa was almost wailing, and it sounded as is she was closer.
“Hallway,” Murdoch ground out. “Now!” He pointed the way.
Both young men had risen to their feet. Scott’s cheeks were flushed; Johnny’s were actually a deeper shade of red. He was rubbing his rump; pretty damned sure his father had popped his behind a lot harder than he’d smacked Scott’s. Still, warily, he followed his brother into the hallway.
Teresa was standing at the open door to her room. She was sobbing; her breath hitching as she attempted to speak. “Cat…” she managed, “…she’s … having… her… kittens…” her voice was rising, “…in my drawers-s-s-s…”
“Cat?” Murdoch breathed. He’d banished the cat from the house as soon as it was obvious she was pregnant. In fact, it had been Johnny’s assigned chore, since he was the one that had brought the cat home from Green River. “Cat?!”
Johnny could recognize a crisis when he saw one; especially when it was one that could culminate in his early demise. He reached out, tapping his brother’s arm. “Hey, brother? What’s a dairy-aire?”
Scott shot his brother a look, the astonishment clear in his face. At this point, however, he was willing to accept any chance at a distraction. “Derrière,” he answered dutifully, carefully pronouncing the word. “It’s French, Johnny; it means…” he pointed to his brother’s butt, “…rear-end.”
Johnny nodded a single time, the movement exaggerated. “Oh-h-h-h,” he drawled. He leaned in towards his brother. “Did you know that T’resa’s got a birth mark on her derrière?”
Murdoch’s head was swimming. How the hell had they gone from cat to kittens to a birth mark on Teresa’s bottom? His back stiffened. And how the hell did his younger son know it was there? “What?” The single word came from between clenched teeth.
“Hey,” Johnny said; actually managing to look hurt and surprised. “Ain’t like it was me who said she’s got one.” Hands firmly clenched behind his back, he leaned sideways a bit to peer around his father’s broad shoulder to smile at his step-sister. “Paco,” he said. Suddenly, his hands shot out from behind his back and -- thumbs touching -- he made a fluttering gesture with his fingers. “Paco calls it a colibrí pequeño -- little hummingbird,” he translated for his brother.
Murdoch was almost foaming at the mouth. “Paco!” His head swung back and forth between his younger son and his ward. “Paco!?”
Teresa’s sudden intake of breath stopped the sobs. She was too angry to cry; way too angry. “My diary,” she shrieked, heading directly for Johnny. “You read my diary!!”
Scott grabbed the girl around the waist and swung her away from his brother. She returned the favor by boxing his ears. He set her down on her feet and then took a long step back.
“Rooms!” Murdoch thundered. Using both arms, he gestured towards opposite ends of the hallway. “Go to your rooms!”
Instinctively, all three young people backed up. Scott was the first one to speak. “Really, sir,” he began; actually amused his father could even consider treating him like a five year old.
Scott’s bravery inspired Teresa. “But the cat,” she murmured; thinking of the mess in her bedroom. In her underwear drawer.
Johnny was even bolder. “C’mon, Old Man,” he joshed; giving his father’s ribs a poke. “It’s Christmas Eve. Presents?”
Normally, in the Lancer household, silence -- which was rare -- was considered a good thing. This was not one of those times.
“I am not telling you again,” Murdoch announced in a near whisper. “Go.”
One by one, the three young people began to slink away. Murdoch didn’t even bother to look in Teresa’s direction, knowing she would do exactly as she was told. The other two, however, the two sons he had paid a thousand dollars each along with a third share of the ranch, were another matter. They simply were not to be trusted. His suspicions were confirmed when Johnny attempted to follow Scott into his room. “JOHN!”
The youth visibly jumped. “Merry fuckin’ Christmas…” he muttered. He looked up just in time to see his father charging in his direction. Wisely, he ducked into his room and shoved the dresser in front of the door.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch had poured himself a double. Merry Christmas, indeed, he thought; staring hard at the Christmas tree, that was now alight. Maria had seen to the candle lighting; muttering the entire time about all the trouble she had gone to preparing an early supper for four people and how only one had shown up.
He sighed. It wouldn’t be all that long now before the traditional Christmas Eve gathering of the extended Lancer family; a tradition Scott’s mother, Catherine, had started and that he had continued after Maria and he had married. It had been a difficult thing to do -- the entire month of December held too many memories -- but he had persevered. And there had been Teresa to consider; something he and Paul had dedicated themselves to doing.
And this year his boys were home. He smiled. Everything that had transpired upstairs was still fresh in his mind, and not for the first time, he wondered if this kind of mischief would have reigned if the boys had been with him all along.
Somehow, in the brief time he had observed Johnny and Scott together, it seemed all too likely Christmas would not have been a very quiet time.
Downing the last of his Glenlivet, Murdoch levered himself up out of his chair. He could hear Maria and Consuelo in the kitchen; their easy banter about the kittens in Teresa’s dresser drawer, and how they had helped her tidy up her room. Teresa, who had been given a reprieve in the sure and certain knowledge Maria would talk to her about Paco, was with the women; and there was more laughter as the three females chattered about how the Patrón had sent his sons to their rooms like naughty little boys. And without their supper, too, Maria had pointed out. He could almost see her shaking her spoon.
He mounted the stairs by twos, taking a left and purposely bypassing Johnny’s room as he headed for Scott’s bedroom. He knocked; smiling when he heard Scott’s voice and the words ‘It’s open.’
Scott looked up. He was sitting in the overstuffed chair next to his bed; one leg crossed and a writing pad cocked against his bent knee. “Sir,” he greeted.
“Isn’t it a little late to be writing to Santa?” Murdoch asked, gesturing towards the tablet.
The laughter was soft, genuine. “I thought I’d write a little something on Johnny’s behalf, sir; seeing as this is probably the first Christmas…” the words drifted off. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said.
Murdoch shook his head. “There’s no point in avoiding the truth, Scott,” he said, struggling to keep the emotion out of his voice. He forced a smile. “All we can do from here forward is to make the Holiday what it should have been all along, for all of us. Agreed?”
Scott had risen from his chair. He went to the desk, putting the writing pad back into its proper place before opening the bottom drawer and withdrawing a bottle of brandy and two small snifters. “From Grandfather,” he said, putting the glasses down on his desk and pouring the liquor. He handed his father a goblet.
Murdoch savored the taste. “He toasted our marriage with this same brandy,” he said softly. “Just before your mother told him she was coming with me to California.”
The disclosure was a surprise to the younger man. “To the future,” he said, raising the snifter in salute. He emptied the glass. “So I’m forgiven?” he grinned.
Murdoch had mirrored his son’s action; draining his glass as well. He set the snifter upside down on the desk. “That remains to be seen,” he said, attempting to sound stern. “We need to get your brother.” When he saw the look on his son’s face, he risked a smile. “He pushed his dresser in front of his door when I followed him down the hall,” he said.
“Wise move,” Scott laughed. He put his own glass down. “Well, sir, you are a rather formidable figure.” He nodded towards the door. “Shall we?”
Murdoch stood back as Scott passed in front of him. Shoulder to shoulder, they went down the hall and stopped before Johnny’s door. Murdoch said nothing, choosing to simply nod at the heavy oak portal.
Scott knocked; twice. “Johnny,” he called.
There was a muffled thump, Johnny’s feet hitting the floor; and then the whisper of stockinged feet across the waxed planking. “You alone?”
Scott didn’t even hesitate. “Yes,” he answered. He had no intention of standing in the hallway until New Year’s.
Murdoch cringed as he heard the slow drag of wooden casters across the floor of his son’s bedroom. It seemed to take an inordinately long period of time, and he was sure and certain the floor would need to be refinished.
Casting his father a knowing, sidewise glance, Scott tried the doorknob. He felt it turn beneath his fingers.
Johnny opened the door and before he could react, found himself being bodily dragged across the threshold; Scott’s fist knotted in his shirt front. “You lied,” he accused.
Murdoch’s fingers closed around his younger son’s upper arm. “You will apologize to Teresa and Maria,” he said as he pulled his boy down the hallway. “There will be absolutely no discussion of, or about, cats, kittens, presents, birth marks, or humming birds.” He’d already spoken to Cip regarding Paco, and the young man had been told -- as had been Teresa -- there would be no more un-chaperoned meetings in the barn or elsewhere. “Understood?”
Johnny leaned back to peer around his father’s broad back; looking hard at Scott and totally amazed at what was occurring, surprised he wasn’t dead. Scott’s lips barely moved, but Johnny was good at figuring what his brother was saying. Just say ‘yes, sir’, the blond mouthed.
“Yes, sir,” Johnny said, coming forward; surprised at how easily the foreign words rolled off his tongue. Not that he was going to make a habit of saying them all that often.
Murdoch pulled up short. “What?” That had been far too easy.
Johnny’s eyelashes fluttered and he sighed. So much for the plan about not saying the words on a regular basis; but, man, he was hungry and he could smell food, lots of food. “Yes, sir,” he repeated.
Satisfied he’d been understood -- finally -- Murdoch nodded. “Proceed,” he ordered, gesturing with his hands.
Johnny took off like a shot. Without thinking about what he was about to do, he hitched himself up onto the banister and pushed off.
Scott hurried to catch up; his right hand clutching at the empty air. At the bottom of the stairs, he saw Maria, Consuela, and Teresa marching towards the Great Room, their arms laden with trays of food; like the Magi bearing gifts. Johnny was sliding side-saddle down the slick railing, and picking up speed.
Scott watched as Johnny used both hands and scrambled in a valiant attempt to stop his downward slide. He failed. His stockinged feet connected with Teresa’s rump, just about -- Scott figured -- where the hummingbird was in full flight.