DISCLAIMER: On the advice of my Perfect Child, who shall remain nameless but whose initials are SouthernFrau, I am not disclaiming anything. I am, however, prepared to duck.
It was the sound of her laughter that caught his attention; the way it lifted with the breeze and hung there like an echo after a spring rain. Sitting there on the front porch swing, she was a fair little thing; with long hair the color of summer straw and pale eyes she would hide beneath the brim of her bonnet when someone looked her way.
She pushed the swing slowly with one foot, back and forth, back and forth; in such a way that every now and then the bare ankle and calf of her right leg would peek out from beneath her flowered dress. The woman was new in town, and there wasn’t a young man in Green River that hadn’t fallen over his own feet walking backwards for one last look.
Johnny had spotted her right off and knew this was “the one”. Well, this week’s “the one”, anyway. Picking himself up from the boardwalk, he dusted off the seat of his britches and tossed her a saucy wink which she totally ignored.
The fact she pretended not to be interested made the game even more fun.
Trouble was; she was a reader. Even now she had a book in her hands; a slim little volume with a leather cover and gilt lettering. Johnny, who had planted his dusty and compact rear end against the hitching rail in front of Baldemero’s mercado, still had a good view of the hotel’s front veranda; even with his hat pulled down against his forehead. So he watched the girl; watched her lips moving and her long forefinger gliding across the page. He suppressed a shiver as he thought of that finger skimming across his naked shoulders.
“So, little brother, do you plan on holding up this hitching rail for the remainder of our time in town, or do you actually plan on helping Teresa and I load the wagon?”
Johnny almost jumped out his skin. “Jesus, Scott!” he groused, taking a swing at his brother’s head without turning around. “Don’t do that!!”
“Do what?” the blond teased, leaning in closer. Then, following his brother’s gaze and spying the object of his sibling’s intense interest, “Oh-h-h-h…” The smile widened.
This time, Johnny did turn his head. Eyes narrowing, he slipped behind the Madrid mask. “I saw her first,” he ground out.
Scott flicked an non-existent piece of lint from his brother’s shoulder, and then used the same finger to straighten the younger man’s collar. If he was intimidated by the harsh glare, it didn’t show. “Actually, Johnny, Teresa not only saw the young lady first a week ago at church; she’s invited her to Lancer this Sunday for lunch.” Teresa was every bit as bad about picking up strays as his younger brother.
Johnny perked right up. It was Saturday. “No kiddin’?” he asked.
“No kidding,” Teresa echoed. She had just come through the door onto the boardwalk; one arm filled with an assortment of small packages. She stood for a time, a sly grin on her face as she smoothed her skirt and then her hair. She was fairly bursting to tell the next, but chose to relish her brothers’ attention. Then, feeling she was about to explode, she allowed the words to tumble out. “Murdoch suggested, since we had to come to town today, that I ask -- oh, her name is Cary L’Sabra -- she said it’s French, I think…” she exclaimed as she twittered on.
“Ask her what?” Johnny interrupted, wondering if she’d ever get to the point or at least finish and shut up.
Tsk, tsk. “To ask her if she’d like to come home with us this afternoon and spend the night, silly.” Sometimes, brothers could be so dumb.
Holy shit! Johnny thought, already cataloging the possibilities. First and foremost, to keep her away from Scott and the shit-load of books on the shelves in the Great Room.
Scott had buried his face in his hands and was shaking his head. Resigned, he pulled himself erect. Let the games begin, he mused, taking the packages from Teresa and loading them in the back of the wagon. He cast a wary eye at his brother, and then turned back to the young woman. “So, Teresa, have you asked notre petite fleur -- our little flower,” he translated, “if she is going to accompany us on our ride home?”
Our little flower, Johnny grinned to himself. He liked that. Flowers were for plucking, and newly discovered ones were always the best…
Teresa resisted the urge to clap her hands. “Yes,” she squealed, giving Scott an impromptu hug. “When you went looking for Johnny at the Silver Dollar. She said she was coming!”
Without even looking at him, Scott cuffed Johnny’s head. One thing about having a teen-aged brother who was constantly making up for a lost boyhood was that you knew even the most innocent remark could be, and very often was, perceived as being filled with innuendo. “Go,” he said, nodding his head towards the young woman sitting on the hotel porch. “We’ll be along.” When Johnny started to step off, he hauled him back. “Not you, little brother,” he chided. “Teresa will collect Miss L’Sabra. You are going to help me finish loading the wagon.”
Johnny’s first instinct was to argue, but he changed his mind when he saw the ‘look’. Scott was still pissed at him for disappearing when they first hit town. He shrugged. “It’s gonna be kinda crowded, ain’t it?” he asked, nodding towards the single bench seat. “I mean, it was bad enough this mornin’ when we had T’resa stuck in between us…”
Scott was leading the way back into the store. “She wouldn’t have been stuck in between us if you hadn’t tried to push her off the wagon before we even got under the arch,” he chided. He had made Johnny and Teresa switch seats. Smiling, he handed off a crate of tinned milk to his brother. “We’ll just arrange things in the back so the girls can sit on something soft atop these crates…” he gestured towards several other wooden boxes “… and they’ll be just fine.”
The brunet snorted. One of those crates contained Murdoch’s latest shipment of Scotch. He grimaced as his brother tossed a twenty-five pound sack of flour across the top of the box he was carrying; a thin white film covering his shirt front. “I could drive,” he offered. “She could ride up front with me.”
Scott nodded towards the front door. Bending forward slightly, he hefted a second case of canned milk. “I’ll be driving,” he said. Heading out the door, he led his brother towards the wagon. “Of course, I could have our guest ride up front with me…”
Johnny shoved past his brother. “Ain’t happenin’,” he declared, depositing the goods he had been carrying on the tailgate. He was facing the blond now. “Toss you for it,” he suggested.
“Ain’t happenin’,” Scott snickered. Johnny had an annoying collection of two-headed coins. He patted the tailgate. “You can, however, arrange the seating.” Grinning, he nodded at the front of the wagon, to the space under the seat. “Val talked Teresa into buying two more of those blankets he’s always pushing. That should make some sufficient padding for the young ladies…” he leaned slightly to the left to look past his brother towards the hotel “…although it appears that Teresa’s new friend’s derrière is…”
“What dairy air,” Johnny teased, jumping aboard and lifting his nose to sniff at the breeze. He knew damned good and well what the word meant; it was one of the first French words Scott had taught him. He began organizing the boxes and bags; stealing his own covert look at the two girls who were now standing in front of the hotel at the top of the stairs. The blond had her back to him and he realized for the first time she did seem to have little extra padding on her behind. Maybe even a bit more than Teresa. He shrugged. Town girls -- the good ones, anyway -- wore a lot of petticoats.
Scott stood back as his brother dropped down from the wagon bed. Together, the brothers lifted the tailgate and secured it. “If we pull up to the porch just to the other side of the steps, the girls should be able to step right into the back of the wagon,” Scott said. He nodded towards the blanket covered crates. “Nice job, little brother. I’m sure Teresa and her friend will be comfortable on the ride home.”
Johnny had moved to the front of the wagon and was hoisting himself up into the seat. “Let’s get ‘er done then, Scotty,” he called over his shoulder. He shaded his eyes and checked the sun. “You know how the Old Man is if we’re even a heart-beat late for supper.”
The elder Lancer son smiled. It was slightly more than an hour’s ride back to Lancer and the sun hadn’t even started its afternoon decline.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
He could hear the girls chattering behind him and was pissed that he couldn’t look back at them without being obvious. That fact that they were giggling and whispering didn’t help, either. Even Scott’s clever asides to the young women had been pretty much ignored -- an encouraging thing from Johnny’s viewpoint -- but it made the ride about as interesting as watching two old maids knit. He was actually glad when they finally crested the ridge. Automatically, in tandem with his brother, he mouthed the words he knew Teresa was about to say: “There it is, as far as the eye can see. The most beautiful place in the whole wide world; Lancer.”
Scott pulled the wagon to a halt; stifling the laughter as he elbowed his brother, both of them knowing that this was about as much of the world as their foster sister had ever seen. Johnny wasn’t quite so good at hiding the fact he was laughing, and was rewarded with a sudden thump to the back of his head.
“Johnny,” Teresa admonished. “You know you feel exactly the same thing,” she scolded.
He welcomed a reason for turning back to face the two passengers; disappointed when Teresa’s companion dropped her chin, the brim of her bonnet hiding the upper part of her face. “Someday, T’resa, I’m gonna take you on a little train ride to Sacramento, show you somethin’ really …”
“Shut up,” Scott interrupted; knowing exactly what his brother was thinking. Johnny was remembering their little trip to Justice Duvalier’s impressive bordello. “Just…shut…up.” He clucked to the team and they moved out.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was as frustrated as hell. The long afternoon had passed with Teresa and her new friend, Cary, taking a girls only tour of the hacienda and the outlying buildings and pastures. He’d watched them, holding hands like school girls, oooing and ahhing over everything from the bakers’ dozen litter of squealing piglets (in spite of the smell) to the chicken house with its foul-tempered rooster.
Well, at least the two of ‘em will have to sit still for dinner, he thought. Murdoch’ll make damned sure of that.
There was a solid tapping at his bedroom door just as Johnny was pulling on his clean comisa; the pale blue one with dark blue flowers. Scott called it his ‘get lucky’ shirt. “Yeah?” he called.
Scott stuck his head inside the door and then stepped into the room. “Pulling out the heavy artillery, brother?” he teased, pointing to the shirt.
The brunet eyed his brother, noting the dark blue shirt that not only complimented his brother’s ash-blond hair but his blue eyes. “And you ain’t?” he asked.
Scott’s head dipped slightly, a slow grin coming. He eased his long frame back against the door, shutting it. “Am I sensing the potential for a small wager, little brother?” he smiled.
Johnny was buttoning his shirt; hesitating as he considered the challenge. It was a familiar game. “How about ten bucks I get a kiss before you do?” he tossed back.
Scott was stroking his chin. “How about twenty bucks if you get a kiss before we retire?” he bargained. “Ten o’clock,” he clarified.
Sucker bet, Johnny thought, feeling cocky. Teresa would be helping Maria clean up after dinner, and she would be adamant that company shouldn’t help. Plenty of time to get the other girl outside and into the barn to look at the new litter of kittens T’resa didn’t know about yet. He thrust out his hand. “Done.”
They shook, and the blond looped a friendly arm around his brother’s shoulder and reached out to open the bedroom door. “So, what’s the plan?” he asked as they jockeyed their way through the door and into the hallway. “Not that I don’t trust you…”
Johnny laughed. “‘Bout as much as I’d trust you,” he countered. They had reached the top of the stairs. “Got me an ace in the hole,” he announced, his voice lowering. “Brand new litter of kittens in the barn, up in the loft. T’resa don’t know about ‘em.”
Scott gave his younger brother a solid whack on the shoulder. “Good plan,” he complimented. In step, they descended the staircase. “I will be watching.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The table was set in the Great Room. At first, Johnny was unhappy with the seating arrangements. Teresa had purposely seated Cary L’Sabra next to Scott, who was his usual charming self. But that was okay, Johnny reckoned. She was directly across from him; not that much of a stretch for a little toe tag.
Dinner progressed with the usual sense of order that Murdoch Lancer required at the evening meal. Wine was decanted and served, soup ladled into bowls and food portioned out so that each plate held meat, potatoes and another vegetable. (Johnny had learned the hard way that two helpings of potatoes didn’t qualify as two separate vegetables.) Conversation was kept polite, free of curse words, and there was absolutely no -- NO -- horseplay allowed.
Maria was just serving dessert when Murdoch turned to face his younger son. “Are you having a problem keeping that leg still, John?” he asked, frowning.
Johnny’s head shot up. He exchanged a look with Scott, immediately catching the way his brother suddenly sucked in his lower lip and stopped the smile. “Ah, no, sir,” he answered, quickly pulling his foot back. As a diversion, he knocked his fork to the floor and leaned down to pick it up. It was just enough time to peek under the table cloth for a quick look at the blond girl’s feet; which were pulled back and tucked beneath her chair. Shit! He righted himself in his seat and concentrated on his pie.
He was surprised -- pissed -- when Teresa actually accepted her guest’s offer to help with the dishes; so surprised he jumped up and started helping clear the table.
Murdoch exchanged a puzzled look with his elder son. “He’s not sick is he?” he asked, rising up from his chair.
Scott shook his head and followed his father over to the fireplace. “Not physically,” he answered.
“Please tell me he’s not in love again,” the older man muttered. He dropped into the leather chair, propping his feet up on the ottoman and leaning back.
The blond was rearranging the logs in the firebox. “In lust,” he observed, chuckling. “Again.” He reconsidered. “Miss L’Sabra has just moved to Green River, and I think every boy Johnny’s age considers her the new game in town. Teresa’s friendship with the girl has just given him the edge.”
Murdoch was filling his pipe. “And what about young men your age, Scott?’ he asked, smiling a bit as he saw the sudden frown. Scott didn’t like being reminded that, in his father’s eyes, he was still not quite grown.
“She’s a twit,” Scott declared, giving the topmost log in the fireplace a sudden flip. Fingertips of bright orange flames erupted as the resin-rich bark caught fire, the young man’s face bathed in a warm glow. He straightened, placing the poker back in the stand with the other fireplace tools. “She and Teresa kept up this constant stream of inane conversation the entire trip back to the ranch.” He made a mouth with his thumb and fingers, moving the digits rapidly up and down. Moving to the couch, he sat down, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, his fingers tented. “Teresa is a real chatterbox, but she can’t hold a candle to Miss L’Sabra.”
“And Johnny didn’t seem to notice?” Murdoch asked.
Scott’s face warmed as the smile grew. “I think he was too busy plotting to notice anything beyond the fact Teresa’s new friend was totally ignoring him.”
There was a soft sucking sound as Murdoch took a long pull on his pipe. “Plotting what?” he asked, not sure he wanted an answer.
“Conquest,” Scott replied. Seeing the look on his father’s face, he quickly rephrased his response. “A minor victory, sir.” He couldn’t help the next. “A small frontal assault.”
Murdoch Lancer was not amused.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was perched on the edge of the kitchen table, a dishtowel hanging around his neck. He was tempted to wrap it around his head to cover his ears. I, I, I, I, I … That seemed to be the only word he was hearing, and it was spilling out of Cary L’Sabra’s mouth with annoying regularity.
‘I use Pearl soap, Teresa, and only Pearl soap to wash my face. Oh, and I also use Lady Godey’s Face Cream. I also insist on Rose Water in my fingerbowls when dining -- I should have told you that before dinner.
‘I use just a pinch of rouge to color my cheeks and lips, and just a smudge of lampblack to shadow my eyes…’
She had actually batted her eyes then, reminding Johnny of the final fluttering of a dying butterfly, but nowhere near as pretty.
‘Oh, and face powder, Teresa! I only order the best, straight from gay Paris.’
Par-e, she had pronounced it, her voice rising on the long ‘e’ until she was almost shrieking. Between the onslaught of I, I, I,’s and the elongated ‘e’, Johnny was seriously considering shooting himself. If he actually had his damned pistol. Instead, he twirled the dishtowel into a thick band and tied it beneath his chin, totally covering his ears. It didn’t help.
“And that, dear Teresa; is what I do to maintain my natural beauty,” Miss L’Sabra declared, striking a pose.
Johnny slipped the towel from his head and fashioned it into a noose.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The clock in the Great Room began the slow grind that heralded the chiming of the hour. Johnny timed his climb up the stairs to coincide with the tolling; taking the first four steps in doubles, then counting off the rest…eight, nine, ten. When he reached the top, he made an abrupt left, passed his own room, and headed for Scott’s. Taking a deep breath, he opened the door and crossed the threshold.
Scott looked up from the book he had been reading. “You’ve forgotten the rule about knocking?” he groused.
Johnny shook his head. He shoved his brother’s legs aside and plopped down on the bed, his back resting against the footboard. “Nope. It’s right up there with takin’ my spurs off before lyin’ down on your bed.” He crossed his legs at the ankle, the spurs jingling as he flashed a lop-sided grin at his brother. The smile faded a bit as he dug into his shirt pocket. Taking out the gold piece, he flipped it to his brother.
The blond made a one-handed catch; snatching the coin midair. He held it up, rotating it between his thumb and forefinger, the gold catching the light from the bedside lamp. Smiling, he tossed the coin back to his sibling.
Johnny’s fingers were just as agile as his brother’s. “What’s this?” he asked.
Scott canted his head. “Amends,” he smiled. He laid the thin volume he had been reading across his chest.
The blond tapped his brother’s leg with the book. “For tricking you into a sucker bet,” he confessed.
“You knew I wasn’t gonna get a kiss?” The frown was becoming a pout. Johnny was downright put out by his brother’s sudden lack of faith in his ability to work his legendary charm on the fairer sex. Hell, there wasn’t a woman in the entire San Joaquin Valley -- young, old or otherwise -- he hadn’t charmed at some point or another since coming home.
Scott was carefully debating his answer. Johnny had grown up unsheltered in a rough world that hadn’t always treated him well; and had seen more in his short life than most people saw in an entire lifetime. But there was a part of him that had, remarkably, remained an innocent.
Lifting up the book he had been holding, he displayed the title for his brother. “L'Ilot de Lesbos: la Poésie de Sappho,” he read, the rich baritone resonating into the quiet. “Isle of Lesbos: the Poetry of Sappho,” he translated. “Miss L’Sabra dropped this book in the wagon when she was getting out, and I picked it up. It’s a selected collection of love poems…”
Johnny shifted on the bed, coming forward to run his finger across the cover of the book. “So you’re sayin’ I got to spout French poetry to her before we can swap spit?” he interrupted. Like that had a chance in Hell of happening.
“Don’t interrupt,” Scott instructed, holding up his hand. “It’s a collection of love poems by a woman, written for another woman. Well, actually, several other women.”
The brunet’s mouth opened and just as quickly snapped shut. A myriad of emotion swept across his face, his cheeks flushing as he realized what his brother was saying. “Bullshit,” he breathed. He shook his head to dislodge the distorted images that raced across his mind. The idea of two women together was about as appealing as the image of two men havin’ at it…
Scott began reading from the book. “‘Though in Sardis now, she thinks of us constantly and of the life we shared. She saw you as a goddess and above all your dancing gave her deep joy…’”
Johnny was shaking his head. There were times when he wished his older brother wasn’t so damned smart. He was about to voice his opinion when another thought suddenly kicked his think box in the ass. “Hey, Scott? That girl’s spendin’ the night; in T’resa’s room!! Do you think she knows?”
The blond suddenly sat up, lifting his legs over his brother’s as he pivoted off the bed and scrambled to his feet. Johnny was right behind him.
Suddenly, from down the long hallway, a glass-shattering scream pierced the late night quiet.
Scott turned to his brother. “She does now,” he answered.