Disclaimer: Ha! What's to disclaim? Our Johnny turns 21
This is for the special ladies out there. You know who you are.
They were just finishing breakfast when Murdoch began listing the daily chores for his sons. Aware his father's gaze was resting on him and not on his brother (like St. Scott ever got the look) Johnny shifted uncomfortably in his chair and waited. The words came softly; not the best sign where the Old Man was concerned.
“We're going to try this again, son,” Murdoch began. He was smiling slightly; not that his son would notice. As was usual when his youngest was in the doghouse, Johnny's chin was almost resting on his chest and he was playing with his fork. The older man raised a single finger. “First, you are going to hitch up the wagon.” A second finger rose. “Second; you are going to get yourself into town and to Sam's office.” The third finger made its slow climb. “You are going to pick up the supplies Teresa ordered from Baldemero's. And then, my son,” the fourth finger appeared, “you are going to come directly home. No side trips to Val's office, no stopping at the Silver Dollar; no carousing at the Red Dog, and absolutely no...” the big Scot swung his eyes to his ward, Teresa, and tempered his words accordingly, “...no dallying at that other establishment where you seem to completely lose track of time, amongst other things.”
Johnny cringed. It was his 'dallying' at La Dama Dorada Cantina (The Golden Lady Cantina) that had caused his current dilemma: being first on the Old Man's Shit List. Not that his intentions hadn't been good. He'd taken the wagon to town -- Barranca was still pissed at him over that one -- it was just that when he got to Green River, there was Carmen, wavin' at him from the upstairs window, one shoulder bare, the other peekin' at him from beneath a blanket...
The younger man was rudely brought back to the here and now by the single word; his first thought the old adage about how it wasn't the fall that killed you, it was the sudden stop when you hit the ground. It was like that with his Old Man. The yellin' wasn't the bad part. It was when Murdoch got all quiet and almost whispered when he spoke. He sighed. “I lost the list,” he breathed. Along with his spurs, his watch, the hundred dollar bill he had stashed. He and Carmen were going to have a long talk. Just not any time soon, he realized, if the Old Man had his way.
Murdoch leaned back in his chair. “You are going to do this, John. If necessary, I'll send Scott along with you to make sure you don’t get in to trouble again.” The big man took a long drink of coffee. “I should have done that yesterday.”
Johnny's head snapped up. “I don't need a babysitter.”
Scott looked up from the letter he had been reading. He folded the single sheet of paper into precise thirds and slipped it back into the envelope. “It might not be a bad idea, little brother,” he smiled. “It's not like yesterday is the first time you got,” he raised a big-brother eyebrow, “lost.”
Teresa decided to put in her two cents worth. “That's right, Johnny,” she smiled; dabbing her lips just a bit with her napkin. “I seem to remember --” her brows furrowed, “--that time, before Murdoch decided to put in the bathrooms,” she was waving her fork now, “when you told us you were going to the outhouse, and Murdoch had to bail you out of jail in Green River the next morning.” She speared a sausage link. “And there was the time before when...”
Scott was actually snickering. He tried to cover the sound by pretending to cough, but Johnny wasn't buying it. “Come on, little brother,” he shoved back his chair. “By the time you finish this last biscuit,” he picked the roll up from the plate and tossed it to his sibling, “Teresa can make a copy of the list you lost, and we'll be on our way.”
Johnny was fuming now. He was chewing on the corner of his mouth, his lips curving in the pout that ordinarily signaled a major sulk. And he was a master at sulking.
Teresa smiled across at her elder brother. “Already done,” she announced, pulling the piece of paper from where it had been tucked in the bodice of her pale yellow blouse. “Some of us,” she smiled sweetly, “do manage to think ahead.”
The younger Lancer brother kicked back his chair and stood up. He watched as Scott reached across the table and plucked the paper from their sister's hand. “We'll be back in time for lunch,” Scott promised.
Johnny was already stomping his way out of the room and into the hallway. He paused just long enough to grab his hat and jam it on his head before jerking open the door.
Scott caught up with him in record time, the blond's long legs striding with military precision as he crossed the courtyard. “You'd think you didn't want the company,” he grinned, slapping his brother on the back and looping his arm around the younger man’s shoulders. “Remember, I've got the list...” For emphasis, he shook the piece of paper in his brother's face.
“Why don't you take that list and shove it someplace the sun don't shine, Scotty?” Johnny was grimacing against the pain in his left knee; trying hard to hide the limp and failing.
They had reached the barn; Scott taking the lead as they headed for the stalls where Zanzibar and Solomon were both rooting in the now-empty grain boxes. Zanzibar snorted in greeting; coming forward as Scott opened the gate. “I just might do that, little brother. Right up your posterior along with that burr that seems to be lodged there.” He turned to look at his sibling, his voice soft. “Sam does need to look at that knee, Johnny. It's been a week, and you're still favoring it.”
Johnny was already leading Solomon into the corridor; tying him off as he turned to pull the harness from the pegs. “Yeah, well that's what happens when a horse tries rubbin' you off against a fence. I figured you bein’ a cavalry lieutenant and all you'd be smart enough to know that.”
Scott was finished harnessing Zanzibar. “I’m also smart enough to know that if a horse does it the first time I ride him and I don’t correct him, he’s going to try it again.” He left the big bay and joined his brother, reaching out to grab the younger man's arm. ”So, just what is going on with you, Johnny?”
“Nothin'!” Johnny headed out of the barn, pausing to grab Zanzibar's cheek strap and positioning himself between both horses.
“I'm not buying that.” Scott reached out again, this time holding on fast to his brother's sleeve. Pulling his sibling up short, he shook a long finger at him. “It's your birthday!” he announced.
“Is not,” the other snarled. He tried pulling away.
Scott kept a firm hand on his brother’s arm. “Try again,” he urged.
The younger man was frowning; and he was purposely avoiding his sibling’s eyes. He relented. “Okay. It's my birthday. I meant it about not wantin’ any big fuss, Scott; but you'd think that on a man's birthday, he could at least take some time off... You'd think the Old Man...” Another unfinished sentence, filled with the same disappointment as the other.
Scott was grinning. They were backing the matched bays into the traces; working as a team as they fastened the trace chains and straightened the lines. Without realizing it, the two brothers were mirroring exactly each others movements; nimble fingers working the leather and pulling the lines into place. Scott wound the reins around the hand brake and pulled out his gloves. “It's your own fault, you know,” he ventured. “You were the one that told everyone at my party that they'd damned well better not try pulling any surprises on you, or act like it’s any big deal.” He paused, eyeing his brother. “In fact, if I remember right, you threatened to shoot anyone who even suggested some…” another break, his eyes narrowing, “… ‘lousy piss-poor fandango’.”
“I’m not talkin’ about any fuckin’ fandango,” the younger man argued. “I’m talkin’ about a day off and time to do somethin’ I want to do; not somethin’ someone else tells me to do!”
“Oh,” Scott said, not missing a beat. “You mean like yesterday, when you decided to drink yourself stupid and get robbed instead of picking up the supplies and going to see Sam.” He had the good grace, at least, to not laugh.
Johnny gritted his teeth and pulled out his own gloves; working them into place across his knuckles. “I hate fuckin’ December,” he groused. “Man can’t get any peace!” He stood for a time, his hands on his hips. “T’resa’s birthday on the first, you on the 19th, me on the 23rd , Christmas Eve Day, Night before Christmas, Christmas,” he was getting dizzy thinking of all the uproar, something he had only experienced since coming home; “the Old Man’s birthday on the 28th, New Year’s Eve! Jesus!”
Scott bit back a smile. “His birthday would be Christmas Day,” he noted. “Unless, of course, you subscribe to the Eastern Orthodox tradition of January 6th.” With that, he climbed up into the wagon. “Come on, brother. It’s not like we have all day.”
Johnny pulled his Stetson down a bit lower on his head, hiding his eyes. “I’m getting’ kind of tired of this, Scott,” he drawled, the words coming with obvious and only barely restrained anger.
The blond closed his eyes a moment, biting his lower lip before responding. He took off his hat, smoothing his hair a bit before settling the flat-crowned felt well back on his head. “Of what, Johnny?”
“Bein’ on probation. You and Murdoch keepin’ me on a short leash,” the younger man groused. Hands on his hips, he stared up at his brother; defying him to get off the wagon. He was primed for a fight; looking forward to one. “Two fuckin’ years…”
Scott leaned forward in his seat. He crooked a finger at his sibling; as if it was important they keep their conversation private. “Actually, little brother, it’s more like one year, nine months, three weeks and four days. If anyone was counting.” Cocking his head a bit, he stared down at the top of his brother’s hat, the smile lighting his pale blue eyes. “Not that it hasn’t been…interesting.”
A string of whispered curses, most of them in Spanish, floated on the early morning air. Johnny stood for a time; his gaze shifting between his smart-assed big brother and the front door of the hacienda. “Forgot somethin’ in the barn,” he lied, executing -- in spite of his sore knee -- a perfect about-face.
“Johnny?” Scott rose up in the seat slightly, and called after his brother.
Johnny wasn’t listening. He was already inside the barn, saddling Barranca. Wincing against the pain, the young man hoisted himself into the saddle without using the stirrup. Settling in, he touched Barranca’s sides lightly with his heels and -- breaking Murdoch’s rule one hundred eighty whatever -- rode the big palomino out of the barn; urging the animal into a full run before as soon as they came into the courtyard.
“Damn it, Johnny.” Scott pulled his hat off his head, swatting his thigh. Sometimes, he thought ruefully, the job of resident elder brother was a royal pain in the ass.
“Scott!?” Murdoch Lancer came out the front door of the hacienda just as the sound of Barranca’s hoof beats faded into the distance.
Scott was shaking his head. Resigned, he jumped down from the wagon. He waited for his father to join him.
“Where’s he off to?” the older man demanded; pointing a long arm in the direction of the Lancer arch. He turned a harsh eye on his eldest. “Did you tell him he could ride Barranca into town?” It didn’t happen often, but occasionally, Scott in his role of big brother tended to be more lenient than his father when it came to the rules.
“No, sir, I did not,” the younger man answered. He used the hat again to swat at his pant leg. “I’ll bring him home,” he vowed; settling the Stetson in place and turning to climb back into the wagon.
Murdoch was stroking his chin, his gaze fastened on the cloud of yellow dust dissipating on the horizon. “No, son,” he said softly. “This may work out to our advantage.” He turned, smiling across to his eldest. “I’ll go into town to fetch your brother; you take care of things here.”
Scott’s head dipped slightly, the brim of his hat hiding his eyes but not the wide smile. There were times his father could be absolutely cunning when he set his mind to it. “It sounds like my little brother is going to be in for one more surprise than we had planned.”
The big Scot was already heading back to the house to retrieve a jacket and his hat. “Several surprises,” he announced, his own smile every bit as broad as his son’s.
Murdoch made the drive into Green River a leisurely affair, feeling absolutely no urgency in his chosen task. He knew, in spite of the monkey wrench Johnny had managed to throw into the mix yesterday and again this very morning, Scott would carry out the plans they had been formulating for the past week with all the military efficiency of a field-trained officer. He smiled. This was going to be a good day.
Expertly, he guided the team down the street, waving in greeting as he saw Jonathan Randall entering his law office. The attorney returned the greeting, and then disappeared inside the red brick building; closing the door. Clicking softly to the horses and tugging slightly on the reins, Murdoch pulled up in front of Baldemero’s and parked.
The wagon ride had aggravated the old hip wound, and he stretched a bit as his feet touched the ground. Then, determined to forge on, he mounted the steps. He was in and out of the mercantile in the short span of less than five minutes; having left his list in Señora Baldemero’s capable hands.
Heading directly for Val Crawford’s office, Murdoch turned slightly to allow a gaggle of Saturday morning children to continue their game of tag on the boardwalk. He watched them for a time, enjoying the sights and sounds that only the very young can make, and then turned back to the business at hand.
“Good morning, Val,” Murdoch had knocked just once on the office door before he stepped across the threshold. Once inside the room, he removed his hat.
Val Crawford was standing at the potbellied stove that stood in the center of the room. “Coffee?” he offered, the enamel pot in his right hand. When he saw the rancher’s grimace, he laughed. “The real stuff, Murdoch. I only do the frying pan thing when I’m makin’ chicory to sober someone up.”
Murdoch laughed and nodded his head. He moved forward, taking a cup from the desk and holding it out. The coffee was strong, but good and he took a long drink before he spoke. His eyes swept the room, coming to rest on the holding cell. “No company yet this morning?”
The lawman had filled his own cup. He moved back to his desk, motioning for the rancher to join him. “Depends on what I find when I pull Johnny out of the Red Dog,” he grinned. He settled down into his chair, frowning a bit when the spring squeaked as he leaned back. Staring at his companion over the brim of his cup, he continued. “Thought the plan was you were going to keep him busy and out of trouble for the next couple of days.”
Murdoch had remained standing. “When have you known Johnny to stick to a plan; even one he knows about?” he smiled.
Val’s brown eyes warmed; the way they always did when he was thinking of Johnny. “Never,” he answered. Johnny Madrid was an instinctive creature; gut reactive with the natural, deadly response of a coiled rattler; and Johnny Lancer… He sighed. Johnny Lancer was a kid hell bent on making up for lost time; a lost childhood. Shaking the thought away, he addressed his young friend’s father. “I can toss him in a cell for the afternoon,” he offered. He was only half-joking.
There was a noise; metal against wood, as Murdoch set down his empty cup. “Don’t tempt me,” he joshed. Then, sensing an opportunity, “You’ve known Johnny a long time, Val,” he started, carefully eyeing the lawman for some response and seeing none. Unlike the majority of the people who were acquainted with Crawford, he didn’t underestimate the man. Val played the buffoon sometimes, but it was a smokescreen; an act carefully orchestrated to throw people off guard.
The sheriff’s face remained impassive, except for an almost unperceivable narrowing of his eyes. “Yeah, Murdoch,” he began, coming forward in his chair and resting his elbows on his desk, “I’ve known the kid a long time.” Shoving back his chair he stood up; keeping his tone friendly. “When the time comes, when Johnny decides the time is right; he’ll tell you. You got any questions after that, you know where to find me.” End of discussion. He crossed the room, grabbing his hat from the row of hooks on the wall, and opened the door. “Care to join me?”
Together the two men made their way down the street, shouldering their way through the increasing morning traffic. When they reached the saloon, Murdoch stood aside slightly as he watched Val hesitate at the batwings; the same move Johnny still made every time he entered a room. Then, shoulder to shoulder, the two men crossed the threshold.
Johnny was seated at a corner table at the back of the room, slumped back in the chair, his head back and his hat resting comfortably over his eyes. A half-empty bottle of tequila was on the table in front of him, along with a plate containing a large quantity of broken eggshells.
Val shook is head. “He’s the only one I ever knew who could do that,” he breathed. “Drink tequila and eat hard-boiled eggs at the same time.”
Murdoch’s stomach did a series of flip flops at the thought of the combination. “Only the very young, Val; only the very young.” The observation made, he crossed the room and reached out, tapping his son’s shoulder. “Johnny.”
The young man tensed and just a quickly wilted; seeming to sink even deeper into the chair. Murdoch bent forward; grasping his son’s faded Stetson and lifting it from the boy’s face to display the velvet fringed, closed eyes. “Maria not feeding you enough at home, son?” he asked softly.
Johnny’s right eye opened; cautiously, his left doing the same as he stared up into his father’s face, trying to focus. “Hey, Murdoch,” he grinned. He grabbed his hat and pulled himself up a tad. When he saw the lawman, he spoke again. “Hey, Val.” Lifting his right leg, he rested his heel on the table, pointing to his boot. “Got my spurs back,” he bragged. He didn’t mention the watch or the money.
“I heard,” Val drawled, noting the look on Murdoch’s face. He pulled out the chair across from Johnny and sat down. This, he thought, was going to be good.
There was a scraping sound as Murdoch pulled out his own seat. He settled his long frame into the armed captain’s chair, and took off his hat; brushing off the table before he put it down. “Have you been to Sam’s office?” he asked amicably.
Suspicious, Johnny took a deep breath. His father was being far too friendly. “No,” he drawled. He reached out, picking up the bottle, and poured himself a drink. The glass, however, remained untouched on the table.
“I see,” the older man nodded. “I seem to recall telling you this morning…” he raised his hand as he saw that his son was about to interrupt, “…you were to go to Sam’s office and have that knee checked out.”
Johnny shot his father his own version of the look. He nodded. “Yeah. You said somethin’ about takin’ the wagon, too.” The tequila was making him cocky.
Val watched as Murdoch’s jaws tensed, marveling at the man’s remarkable restraint. By this time, under ordinary circumstances, the rancher would have been grabbing his son by the scruff of his neck and physically dragging him out of the saloon. Hoping to keep a lid on things, he leaned forward, tapping the younger man’s arm. “Knee still botherin’ you?” he asked solicitously; his expression benign.
“Not so you’d notice,” the younger man answered. At this point he was feeling very little pain, anywhere. “Know what, Val?”
That lawman bit. “No, Johnny. What?”
This time, Johnny did pick up the glass. He drained it. “It’s my birthday,” he announced.
“No, shit,” Val declared. He actually looked surprised.
Johnny nodded. “Yep. Twenty-one,” he said. The drink was working, and he almost held up his fingers. He would have seen twenty. Leaning forward as if telling a secret, he whispered the next words in the lawman’s right ear. “I’m legal,” he announced. He grinned across at his father. “Means I’m off probation. Don’t have to do what the Old Man tells me.”
Murdoch picked up his son’s empty glass, pouring himself a shot of the agave-based, liquid fire. If it had any affect on him, it didn’t show. “Well, that’s not quite right, John,” he declared. “About the probation.” Smiling, he poured himself a second shot and downed it. “Val?”
The lawman snapped his fingers and two more glasses appeared on the table, along with a fresh bottle as the bartender quickly responded. “Murdoch’s got a point, Johnny,” he said, breaking the seal on the bottle of rye and pouring himself a drink. He shoved his hat back. “I’ve read those papers,” Hell, he’d memorized them, “and you ain’t officially off probation until the judge signs off.” He nodded. “Yep. The way they read,” he squinted a bit, as if the documents were actually in front of him, “Jonathan Randolph arranges for a formal hearing, your old man appears, and then the judge puts his John Hancock on the dotted line. Until then…” He shrugged.
Johnny’s bottom lip pursed slightly. “That’s bullshit!” He turned to his father. “Tell him that’s bullshit!”
Murdoch lifted his hand, his fingers touching his upper lip as he hid the smile that came when he realized his son was appealing for help; his help. “No, John,” he intoned. “It’s the law.” Shoving back his chair, he picked up his hat and stood up.
Undeterred, Johnny tapped Val’s shirt sleeve. “Tell him that’s bullshit.” He jerked his thumb in the general direction of his father.
Val actually had the balls to laugh. “Like the man says, Johnny, it’s the law.” He grinned across at the younger man. “Think you’re about to make a visit to Sam’s.”
Johnny’s brow furrowed. He stared hard at the lawman, and then turned to look up at his father. “I…” The argument died as he saw Murdoch’s right eyebrow arch.
Sam Jenkins finished wrapping the young man’s knee. “Still inflamed,” he noted. He looked across the table to where the elder Lancer was standing by the window. “Wouldn’t hurt for him to soak in the tub for a half hour when you get him home, Murdoch. And then,” he turned back to his patient, shaking a finger at the young man, “I want you to take it easy for the next week or so. Light chores,” he instructed. “No,” he stressed the words, “riding.” He was being overly cautious, but Johnny was a poor patient, and he rarely obeyed the time restrictions he was given.
“I rode Barranca into town,” Johnny said. He was buttoning the conchos on his left pant leg; studiously avoiding the physician’s eyes.
Sam turned again to face Murdoch. “I take it he did so without your permission?” he asked.
“He will be riding home in the wagon,” Murdoch declared. It was clear from his tone he was not going to tolerate any disobedience. “John.” He waggled a finger at his son, and then turned and headed for the door.
Gingerly, Johnny dropped down from the table; careful to land with his weight on his right foot. “Got anything I can take for an ass-chewin’, Doc?” he asked. “I think I feel one comin’ on.”
Sam smiled at the younger man and shook his head. “I’m sure you’ll get over it, Johnny.” He patted the boy’s shoulder. “Be grateful it’s just going to be a scolding.” The older man’s face was fairly beaming with affection. “The alternative, I’m sure, would be much more unpleasant; although I’ve never found either malady to be fatal.”
Johnny picked up his hat from the doctor’s desk. Unable to help himself, he returned the man’s smile. “Malady, huh?” he asked; not really expecting an answer.
“John!” Murdoch’s voice bellowed from beyond the open door.
It took another hour in town and a stop for a prolonged, private meeting at the bank until Murdoch was finished with business and they started home. They made the long trip in relative silence, Barranca tied off behind. Johnny would turn occasionally to look back at the palomino, then turn his eyes forward again; catching a glimpse of his father’s profile. The expected butt-chewing had not been forthcoming, and Johnny found himself feeling more and more uncomfortable. “Hey, Murdoch,” he started.
“Yes, son,” the man answered.
“You gonna chew me out?” the younger man asked.
The one-word answer -- the fact that his father had used the word nope, his word -- caused the youth to rethink his next question, but he asked it anyway. “Why not?”
Murdoch felt the team begin to pick up its pace as they passed through the Lancer arch. “The day is not over, Johnny. I wouldn’t want to waste a good lecture until I’m sure you’re done getting into trouble.”
Open-mouthed, Johnny stared at his father. “I hate it when you do that,” he groused.
The big Scot just smile. They were pulling up in front of the barn, and Scott was waiting. Murdoch called out in greeting to his elder son. “I’ve found your brother.”
Johnny glared at his father. Like he’d even been lost. He’d known exactly where he was, and pretty damned much what he had been doing; and it sure in hell wasn’t getting lost!
Scott was smiling. There was something about the way Johnny was perched atop the wagon seat; the younger man’s posture. “And the supplies he forgot to get yesterday,” he volunteered, checking out the back.
Johnny swung down from the wagon, hopping on his right leg. “Thanks, brother,” he growled.
“Don’t mention it,” Scott grinned. “We’ll take care of things now, sir,” he offered. Already, Frank and Walt were beside the wagon beginning to unload. “You,” he said, pointing a long finger at his brother, “can help.”
Feeling spiteful, Johnny pointed at his left knee. “Sam says I got to take it easy.”
“Sam,” Murdoch countered, getting down from the wagon, “said you’re not to ride. He didn’t say anything about unhitching the team or taking care of the horses.” He shared a covert wink with his elder son. “He did say, Scott, your brother needs to take a soak later.”
Scott nodded. “Well, I’ve got dibs on the upstairs bathroom tonight, sir. I’ve got a very special date in Morro Coyo this evening, and I’m going to need some extra time to get ready.” It was a glib lie, told with a straight face.
Murdoch understood now why Scott did so well when they were playing poker. “Your brother can use the bath house.” He turned to look at his youngest. “Besides, we wouldn’t want him putting any extra strain on that knee climbing the stairs.”
Johnny jammed his hat down on his head. He was swearing now; in two languages, under his breath. Thoroughly steamed, he joined the two ranch hands at the back of the wagon and grabbed a sack of grain.
Johnny stood at his brother’s shoulder, watching as Scott took inventory. They’d already unloaded the entire contents of the wagon, unhitched the team; groomed the horses, and he had mucked out Barranca’s stall. That part -- mucking out Barranca’s stall -- had been a direct order from Murdoch. Punishment, Johnny was certain, for having ridden the animal into town. “How many more times you gonna count this stuff?”
“Until we’re finished, little brother,” the blond answered. He was marking off items on the list; pausing a moment to search for something that appeared to be missing.
“Jesus!” Johnny mopped a weary hand across his face. His stomach was growling; more in frustration than in hunger. “Missed lunch, you know,” he lied.
Scott snorted. “You had tequila and hard-boiled eggs at the saloon. I heard Murdoch telling Cip.” It never ceased to amaze him; Johnny’s ability to feast on anything that was even remotely edible. Plus the fact the boy was always hungry and his appetite was almost insatiable.
“C’mon, Scott. My knee’s hurtin’.”
The blond immediately turned to face his brother. He could see tiny lines etched at the corner of his brother’s eyes and knew Johnny wasn’t lying. Folding up the list and sticking it in his pocket, he nodded. “We’re done.” He took a long look at the younger man. “You head for the bath house,” he ordered. “I’ll fetch you some clean pants.” He saw the look; the one that warned of an impending argument about the need for clean clothes, in spite of the stable dirt. “I might even be able to find you a sandwich,” he bargained.
Johnny’s face immediately relaxed, a slow grin coming and easing the lines at the corners of his eyes. “Some of that ham from last night?”
“Possibly.” Scott returned the smile. “Go,” he ordered.
The hot water felt even better than he had anticipated. He lazed back in the tub, grimacing as he stretched out his left leg and flexed it slightly. Gotta quit bein’ so damned hard-headed about doin’ what Doc tells me, he mused. He bent his leg; once, twice. Wouldn’t hurt if I listened to the Old Man, either. Told me to take it easy. Reaching down into the water, he massaged the knee.
Steam was rising in the room; clouds of gossamer mist that clung in shiny droplets to the windows and walls, uncut diamonds against the red interior brick. It was like being in one of the mineral caves he remembered from Mexico; the hot springs where the people came to be cured by the healing waters. Crystals grew in those caves, the mineral-rich water slowly dripping down to form permanent icicles. He’d broken one off once, when he was hiding out and recovering from a hand wound; used the piece of opaque crystal for a worry stone until his fingers healed. It had been his right hand.
He heard the door open, and just as quickly close. Rising up slight, he caught sight of a disembodied Scott; his brother seeming to float legless above the layer of steam above the floor. As promised, the older man was carrying a tray. “Half a ham sandwich,” he called. “A glass of buttermilk,” he lifted the opposite corner of the napkin, “and a small piece of mince pie.” He was laughing. “Maria doesn’t want to spoil your appetite for supper.”
Sitting down on the edge of the tub, he handed his brother the glass of milk. “Are you working the knee?” he asked.
Johnny was draining the glass and nodding his head at the same time. “Thought you had a special date,” he said, wiping his mouth with his wet arm before reaching for the sandwich. He took a bite; chewed, and then, his mouth still partially full; “what girl in Morro Coyo?” he asked.
“Didn’t say it was a girl,” Scott answered.
“Why, Scotty,” Johnny smirked. He gave his brother a limp-wristed wave and was rewarded with a cold sponge up aside the head. He was about to return the favor when he saw his brother had already changed. Nothing too fancy, he noted, somewhere in between dressing for dinner and Sunday-go-to-meetin’. “Okay, what lady?”
Scott had set the tray down on the edge of the tub. He disappeared briefly outside the door, retuning with a stack of soft toweling and a pile of fresh clothes. “Wash your hair and I’ll tell you,” he bartered.
Johnny disappeared below the water; his head full up soap bubbles when he rose up. He scrubbed; then rinsed, shaking his head like a wet puppy. “So?” he pushed.
“Nice lady. She has a younger sister.” Scot had cracked a window, allowing some of the steam out of the room. “I thought we’d do a double date.” He reached out, handing his brother a blanket-sized towel.
“Like that’s got a chance in Hell of happening.” Johnny stepped out of the tub; draping the big towel around his shoulders. He started to rub himself dry. Arms and chest first. “Old Man’s not too happy with me right now.” He was working on his hair now, but not too hard.
“That’s why I invited them here,” Scott announced.
Johnny stuck his head out from beneath the towel. “You already knew I was going to be in trouble with the Old Man today?”
Scott laughed. “It’s Saturday, Johnny. I can’t remember a single Saturday since you’ve been home that you haven’t been in trouble with Murdoch!” Then, mellowing, “And you’re still on probation.”
Johnny dropped the towel away from his body, folding it in half before pulling it around his waist and knotting it at one hip. “The Old Man told me. Val, too. All I remember that judge sayin’ is that once I reached my… majority, I was done. Well, I reached my majority today, and Murdoch still isn’t turnin’ loose.”
Scott picked up the blue shirt from the pile of clothing he’d brought with him and held it out for his brother to take. “The judge has to sign the release,” he said, remembering the terms he had read. “Until then…”
“Still think it’s bullshit,” the younger man snapped.
“They’re pretty,” Scott rebutted, changing the subject. “One of them has hair the color of gold; with touches of chestnut.” If the elder brother felt any guilt at all with his little deception, it wasn’t showing. “I’ll rewrap your knee before you put on your calzoneras.”
“Gold hair,” Johnny said, clearly interested. He moved over to the bench and extended his leg; watching as Scott patted it dry before putting on the bandage. “How old is she?”
Scott’s head was down. “Old enough, but not too old.” When he looked up, his eyes were completely guiless. He leaned forward slightly, enjoying the game. “The one with the golden hair is a virgin.”
Johnny stood up as his brother tied the cloth bandage in place and secured the edges, the towel dropping to the floor. “Really,” he asked, more than moderately interested. “One of them good girls Murdoch’s always talkin’ about?” he asked. He began climbing into his pants.
“Yep. So far.” Scott’s eyes were dancing when he stood up and looked across to his brother.
“So far,” Johnny echoed. He as fastening his belt. “Well, what we waitin’ for, big brother?”
They entered the house together, Scott’s arm firmly around his younger brother shoulders as he guided him through the door. Johnny was still pestering him about the golden haired girl, “C’mon, Scott. She got a name? Kinda need a girl’s name if I’m gonna…”
It was then the younger man noticed the strange quiet in the house; that and the fact the doors to the Great Room were closed.
Scott didn’t seem to be at all disturbed by the unusual calm. “It would probably be a good idea for us to clear this with Murdoch before the girls get here,” he was saying, leading the way to the arched doorway. Reaching out -- but still holding on to his brother -- Scott opened the doors wide; stepping back as he pushed his brother into the room.
The room was filled with people; all of them shouting “Happy Birthday!” Teresa in the middle of the floor urging them on. Johnny spun around to face his brother, a look akin to panic in the wide, sapphire eyes. Scott was grinning from ear to ear. “Invitations were pretty clear, Johnny. Party runs from six to ten. We’ve done our very best to make sure this doesn’t turn into one of those ‘lousy piss-pour fandangos.’” He nudged his brother forward. Teresa hurried across the room, grabbing her adopted brother’s arm.
Murdoch stood by the hearth with Val Crawford and Sam Jenkins watching the flurry of activity as more people came inside from the back garden area where they had been hiding, the noise increasing as the Simmons twins arrived along with their older brother, Reese. Soon the Great Room was filled to capacity; laughter rising to resound from the rafters.
On cue, the large Chinese lanterns that had been arranged in the garden were being lit; one by one, until the backyard area was completely illuminated. Music was playing now; and couples were disappearing through the doors to join the other dancers.
Murdoch watched as Teresa coaxed Johnny out through the open doors onto the dance floor as the small orchestra began playing a demur waltz. The young man cast a desperate look at Sam, pointing to his injured knee, only to find himself totally ignored by the physician, who waved him away. Soon Scott joined the other dancers, staying close to his siblings; he and Teresa both working hard to make sure their brother didn’t bolt.
“Ever see anyone work so hard to keep from enjoyin’ himself, Murdoch?” Val was standing to Murdoch’s right, enjoying a tumbler of the older man’s Talisker’s. He was nodding in Johnny’s direction. Teresa had requested another slow waltz and she was attempting to pair her brother off Molly Collins, her friend from Morro Coyo.
“He’ll be fine once Maria lets him know there’s chocolate cake!” Murdoch saluted his youngest son with an upraised glass as Johnny was once again pulled onto the patio.
The party progressed better than anyone had hoped; Johnny becoming more relaxed as he joined the festivities, doing so without the benefit of an over abundance of liquor.
And then it was time for gifts. The Great Room was chosen for the presentations; chairs hurriedly rearranged and the couch pushed closer to the hearth to open a great space up in front of Murdoch’s desk. Johnny was firmly ensconced on a large pillow at the center of the room; not completely settled in until Teresa was satisfied there a second pillow there to support his left knee. Then the packages were placed before him.
Murdoch, Sam and Val watched from their place by the fire, lingering over their drinks; laughing when Johnny opened the last present, a large box that contained a second smaller box, then a third box even smaller, and another, and another until the final box, about three inches square, was unwrapped. When Johnny finally opened the small pack it contained a collection of Mexican jumping beans. The room was instantly filled with the spontaneous laughter of two dozen or more young people; their parents joining in.
Finally, Maria called the crowd to the tables that had been set up on the patio. She and Teresa had spent the day preparing traditional Mexican foods; the centerpiece of the table a four-tiered chocolate cake lavished with fresh, whipped cream frosting.
Johnny was sitting on the edge of the couch downing a third piece of cake when the grandfather clock tolled ten and the crowd began to collect their coats to leave. Murdoch joined his son. “You need to say goodbye to your guests, Johnny,” he reminded, laying a tender hand on the younger man’s shoulder and giving him a gentle squeeze.
The younger man had to think about that for a moment. Then, realizing what was expected, he put the remainder of his cake down on the table and looked across at his brother. “I got to do this alone?”
Scott was shaking his head. He wondered if the day would ever come when his brother would actually say the words help me. “You should have stuck around the other night at my party so you’d know what to do,” he scolded. “Come on, baby brother. Papa and I will give you a quick lesson in the social graces.”
Murdoch shook his head. Johnny was looking truly uncomfortable. “Quit teasing, Scott. A simple handshake at the front door as everyone leaves, and we’re done with it.” He led the way into the hallway.
By 10:45 the proper thank yous and goodbyes had been suitably dispensed with, Val Crawford lingering after the others had taken their leave. He pulled Johnny aside, and they spent a good ten minutes with their heads together in an animated conversation until Johnny calmed down and the whispers became less intense; the younger man finally smiling and nodding his head. Both Scott and Murdoch heard the whispered, Thanks, compadre…
Johnny sauntered back into the room and picked up his piece of cake with his fingers. Company was gone now, and he didn’t have to mind his manners. Already, Teresa, Maria and Cipriano’s daughter were picking up the discarded wrapping papers and ribbons. Johnny’s loot was now stacked on the dining room table.
“Bed’s going to feel pretty good.” Johnny hesitated, sucking the remainder of the frosting from his fingertips; then putting his arms out in front of him as if he was debating stretching. He settled for a quick self-hug, the fingers of his left hand massaging the flesh just below his right shoulder. The smile came then, the soft smile he reserved for his father and brother those rare moments when he was feeling reasonably secure. “Think I’ll be turnin’ in,” he murmured.
“Not yet,” Scott said, shaking his head. “Family presents, you know.” He pulled a package out from the inside pocket of his jacket and presented it to his brother.
Murdoch was pouring a round of drinks. Talisker’s for himself, a snifter of brandy for Scott, a glass of sherry for Teresa, and a jigger of tequila for Johnny. He arranged them on the tray.
Johnny slipped the paper from the package Scott had handed just him; a long, slim box that seemed incredibly light. Scott’s gifts were usually well though out; sometimes practical, more often whimsical. “This ain’t like that thing you gave me right after I got here; that get well gift where the phony snake jumps out at me?”
Scott’s cheeks colored at the memory. The springed snake had popped out of what was supposed to be a tin of peppermint candy. Johnny had shot the thing three times before it hit the floor. They had been in the Great Room at the time, and Murdoch had not been amused. “No,” he laughed.
Carefully lifting the lid, and still suspicious, Johnny stared across at his sibling. When nothing happened, he peered inside the box; his mouth dropping open. Inside was a crisp, brand new one thousand dollar U.S. gold note.
The blond reached out, touching his brother’s arm lightly. “For an hour of your time, Johnny,” he said softly. “Any time you feel like you want to talk.”
Genuinely surprised, Murdoch eyed the piece of currency. He tapped the box with his rigid forefinger. “Good start for a savings account,” he suggested.
Johnny just shook his head. He closed the box, opened it, and then closed it again; finally shoving into his waist just to the right of his belt buckle. Even better for a trip to Sacramento, he thought. Then, canting his head, he looked up at his elder brother. “About that blond you were promisin’ me?” he asked.
Scott shot a look at his father. “I think she’s waiting for you in the barn,” he replied. With that, he looped a long arm around his brother’s shoulder, pulling the younger man along as they followed their father out the front door.
“Here.” Murdoch offered the package to his son. “It’s official now,” he smiled. Beyond them, in the Great Room, the ornate grandfather clock pinged the quarter hour, 11:45 precisely; the exact time Johnny had backed into the world.
Tentatively, Johnny reached out. “About the party and everything,” he began. The smile came then; the blue eyes touched with something more than humor. He turned his attention to the box, working it in his hands; the next words coming whisper soft, a baby’s sigh. “Gracias, Papi.”
Murdoch was staring into his glass, swirling the tumbler a bit. Light from the overhead lanterns bounced off the leaded crystal, the miniature prisms on the side of the glass catching the yellow glow and creating a myriad of tiny rainbows. He smiled at his son’s soft words; realizing again how it was always easier for Johnny to voice his deeper emotions -- gratitude, affection -- in his mother’s native tongue. “De nada, mi hijo. Fue me gusto.” (You are very welcome, my son. It was my pleasure.) Then, in English; “Open your gift,” he prompted gently.
“You already gave me the filly, Murdoch.” The awe was still in the younger man’s voice. The palomino had been a complete surprise; acquired from a breeder in Mexico whose imported Arabian stallion had produced a strain of offspring golden rich in color with the fine lines of its desert ancestors. He hefted the box his father had handed him; recognizing, even under the glossy paper, the feel of wood. “Gonna name her Esperanza.”
The older man smiled. “Hope,” he breathed. “She’s a fine match for Barranca. If they breed true, Johnny, in two years you’ll have yourself a decent enough stake to purchase more mares.” Impatient, he nodded at the package. “Last one,” he said, raising his hand. “I promise.” It had pleased him to see Johnny overwhelmed by the outpouring of affection and gifts that had been showered on him by family and friends; but he could also appreciate his son’s discomfort.
Again, the shy smile. “Okay.” Fumbling a bit, the youth tugged at the brightly colored ribbon. Teresa’s doing, he knew. She was the official Lancer present wrapper; occasionally borrowing a finger to hold a bow in place while she tied a knot, and she did the job with her usual grace.
“You can tear the paper, son,” Murdoch teased.
Johnny’s fingers were trembling. The entire evening had been a total shock to the younger man; a trap neatly sprung by his family and his closest friend, and he was still filled with the wonder of it. “Don’t think there’s much more…”
He smelled it then, as he pried loose the lid on the box he had assumed was holding a bottle of liquor; neat’s-foot oil and the aroma of carefully tended leather. Reaching into the cask, his fingers closed around the holster. His holster. Gingerly, he pulled out the rig; genuinely surprised. The pistol was there; the Colt revolver he had carried that first day he had arrived at Lancer, the same pistol his father had taken away from him when the judge had placed him on probation after the Lee Maxwell incident.
Murdoch reached out, taking the wooden case; watching silently as his son reclaimed a large piece of his past.
Johnny pulled the revolver from its sheath. He inhaled, the tip of his tongue sweeping against his upper lip as he turned the piece over in his hand. The walnut grip almost caressed his palm. And then he saw it.
The Lancer “L”. The medallion was the size of a small coin, inset well into the polished walnut; perfectly flush with the machine milled hard wood. “Murdoch…”
“I keep my promises, John,” his father intoned. “You are now officially off probation, and you are…” the big man smiled, “…legal.”
Strangely, the younger man didn’t seem to know what to do with the weapon. He laughed, cocking his head a bit as he looked up at his father. “Didn’t think you’d ever give it up,” he ventured, reholstering the pistol. Still, he seemed reluctant to strap it on.
“Like I said, son, I keep my promises.” Murdoch lifted his glass, finishing the last of his Talisker’s. “I thought I had taught you at least that much.”
Soft laughter again from the younger man. “Oh, yeah, Murdoch,” he grinned. “If I ain’t learned nothin’, I learned that! I can remember a couple a times it would’ve been just fine with me if you hadn’t,” the smile grew, creasing the skin at the corner of his eyes, “kept your promises.”
Murdoch reached out; the fingers of his right hand wrapping around his son’s neck as he pulled him close. “And that would be when?” he asked.
Johnny felt his cheeks coloring. “The whuppin’,” he answered.
“Which one?” Murdoch countered.
The younger man’s head dipped slightly. He was so close to his father now, the sweat-damp curls on his forehead brushed the bigger man’s chest. “The one you promised me if I didn’t clean up my mouth, the one you promised me if I took off without tellin’…” he corrected himself, “…askin’, the one…” He took a deep breath, realizing that in the past two years…what was it Scott had said? ‘Actually, little brother, it’s more like one year, nine months, three weeks and four days. If anyone was counting’… his father had pulled him up hard and short on several occasions.
“I get the picture, son.” Murdoch’s tone was gruff; his mood was not. He released his hold, his fingers lingering on the younger man’s shoulders. “Happy birthday, John,” he said softly.
“Not that easy; bein’ my Pa?”
Murdoch’s good-natured laughter came quickly, and once again he pulled his son close. “Anything but easy, son,” he answered truthfully. Then, almost as an afterthought, he smacked the boy -- his boy -- solidly across the rear end, as hard as he could.
Johnny backed up a full pace, his left hand going to his stinging rump. A short whistle erupted from between his lips. “Jesus, Old Man! What was that for?”
“A reminder, boy,” the big Scot answered. Turning slightly, he spied Scott waiting in the Great Room just beyond the partially open French doors. “In case you might be tempted to forget just whom it is that still calls the tune around here.” With that, he left his son, and headed back into the house.
“So. Were you surprised?” Scott stepped onto the patio, grateful the hanging lanterns had remained lighted.
Johnny snorted. “Proud of yourself, big brother? Leadin’ me on and all?”
Scott was holding full snifter of brandy; the liquor in his glass suddenly taking on an amber-like glow beneath the muted light. “It’s no small thing, Johnny, a man turning twenty-one; even under the best of circumstances. You…we…deserved the right to celebrate the milestone.” He saluted his brother with his glass, his mood less somber. “So how does it feel? Freedom?” He was only partially joking.
“Not all that different,” the younger man answered. He grinned up at his brother. “The Old Man just smacked me on the ass and reminded me he’s still the one callin’ the tune.” He was quiet a moment; the blue eyes dancing. “So how come you never get your butt whupped?”
Scott didn’t even hesitate before answering. “Because, baby brother, as the older, wiser, better looking bigger brother, my manners are impeccable; and my deportment totally without tarnish.” He moved closer to his brother, reaching out to put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “I never do anything wrong,” he translated.
Johnny wasn’t buying it. He knew better. His eyes narrowed. “Justice Duvalier,” he said. Just the two words.
The elder brother was mid drink, the brandy suddenly going down the wrong way. He lifted his hand to cover his mouth and stifle the cough; clearing his throat before he spoke. “Ah,” he began, “our -- ” he corrected himself, “-- my -- ‘ill-conceived bit of unnecessary mischief’.” Those were the very words his father had used in describing their misadventure in Sacramento.
“You took me to a whorehouse,” Johnny scoffed. “An expensive, private whorehouse; the same one where the Old Man was.” He reached out, grabbing his brother’s brandy snifter and stealing a drink.
Scott grabbed the goblet back before his brother had a chance to empty it. “And you,” he gestured with the glass, “snuck off, stole a train, and went back!” He was laughing now. “That’s the difference between us, Johnny. I tend towards ill-conceived bits of unnecessary mischief, whilst you create full-blown, catastrophic disasters. Which is why I can make peace with our father with a few well chosen words of apology, while you manage to goad him into full blown shouting matches that threaten to bring down the ceiling of the Great Room!
“And that, my boy, is why I don’t get my ass whupped!” He paused for a heart beat. “There were times in the past two years…”
“Actually, one year, nine months, three weeks and four days,” Johnny interrupted, smiling. “If anyone was counting.”
Scott nodded. His mood was more reflective now. He had actually marked the days off on a calendar he kept in his room. “Whatever. There were times when I wondered just how many meals you were going to eat off the mantle before you finally figured out there is a difference between reasoning with our father, and blatantly defying him.”
Johnny felt a sudden need to scratch his nose; the corners of his mouth twitching just slightly before turning upwards in a broad smile. The grin faded a bit but not much. “He gave me this back,” he murmured, hefting the rig. He felt no real desire to put it on. No need.
“Nice touch,” Scott observed, reaching out to tap the pistol’s butt with his extended forefinger; his nail tapping against the silver “L”. His voice lowered. “Its part of who you are, Johnny,” he said quietly. “It kept you alive and brought you home. Murdoch knows that. Deep down, he’s always known that.”
Johnny moved to the low wall; laying the pistol and holster down before hoisting himself onto the thick adobe. He was facing the mountains, his back to his brother; gazing up at the night sky, at the big half moon that bathed the land in a strange cold light, giving all the buildings a white-gold patina that made him think of the stories of El Dorado. “When I was a kid,” he began, the words coming softly, “all I ever wanted was a full belly, a fast horse and a couple of dollars in my pocket.” He was quiet for a long moment. “That, and the Old Man dead.”
Scott heard the sudden catch in his sibling’s voice and moved to join him. He stood behind his brother, his right hand making slow circles as he massaged the younger man’s back. Beyond them, he could see and hear Barranca pacing the open corral; the stallion having been moved from the barn when they realized the filly was coming into season. Small puffs of white vapor marked the palomino’s circuitous route; hot breath against the cold night air. “You hated him for a long time, Johnny. Don’t you think it’s time you let it go?” he asked quietly.
“I got no problem lettin’ it go, Scott,” the younger man replied, his voice whisper-soft. “But sometimes, it don’t let go of me.” He leaned back into his brother’s touch. His posture shifted slightly, easing. “Guess, legal or not, I still need the Old Man around to keep me toein’ the mark.” He turned, facing his brother, the moon washing across his countenance with the same light that touched and softened the landscape. “You, too, I guess.”
Relieved, Scott nodded. “Oh, yes,” he agreed, returning his brother’s smile. “And Val, and Teresa, and Maria, and Cip…”
Johnny reached out, swatting his brother’s flat belly with the back of his hand. “And Johnny Madrid?” he teased. “Gonna need him, too?”
Scott laughed. “I heard somewhere he’s a pretty decent backup,” he answered, “when circumstances call for extreme measures.” Reaching out, he ruffled his brother’s hair. “I’m turning in, little brother. Some of us old folks,” he grinned down at the younger man, recalling a dig his brother had made earlier in the evening when they were on the patio, “have to get up in the morning. Christmas Eve Day, you know. Teresa’s going to be running us ragged.”
The younger man was swinging his legs, his heels thumping against the stuccoed brick; staring straight ahead. “Bah, humbug,” he grouched; remembering the line from Murdoch’s recent read-aloud book, Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
“Are you coming?” Scott thumped the back of his brother’s head with his forefinger.
Johnny brushed the annoying finger away. “Not yet,” he answered. “Gonna just look for awhile.” It still thrilled him deep inside; that this was his place. His home. “Hey, Scott?” He was quiet again, just for a moment. “Thanks.”
Scott stared hard at his brother’s back, watching as the younger man pushed himself off the wall and headed toward the corral. “You’re welcome,” he called. And then, “Feliz cumpleaños, hermano!” (Happy Birthday, brother!) The words, long practiced with Maria in secret in the warmth of the Lancer kitchen, came with perfect inflection and pronunciation, the ñ turned just right, and the single “r” only slightly trilled.
Without turning around, Johnny lifted his hand and waved at his brother. He was smiling when he flicked the rope loop that secured the corral gate and slipped inside the enclosure. Already, he was crooning to the big stallion; watching as the animal came to a complete halt, ears at full alert, nostrils flaring. Then, dropping its head, the great horse moved forward at a slow walk, nose extended and lips fluttering in greeting. Johnny reached into his pocket, sucking in his already tight belly to retrieve an apple he had filched from Teresa’s hidden stash in the main pantry. “Better eat slow, compadre,” the young man cautioned, reaching out to scratch the stallion’s ear. “T’resa catches me swipin’ another apple there’ll be hell to pay.”
Laying his head against the palomino’s neck, the young man turned slightly, his gaze resting on the great house. One by one, the lights were going off. The patio first, the familiar scrunch of metal against metal coming as the miniature glass doors on the large lanterns were opened to extinguish the flames. The kitchen light next as Maria prepared to go to her room. He watched as Teresa’s light dimmed, then Scott’s.
Finally, only a single light remained. Johnny watched as Murdoch carefully adjusted the wick and then replaced the globe on the glass-shaded lantern on his desk; his gaze lingering as he saw his father cross the room, head for the stairs and disappear into the darkness of the hallway.
It was, he realized, the warm glow from the lamp on his father’s desk that centered him; a bright solitary beacon that had welcomed him home all those long dark nights when he had purposely defied his father; the constant beam somehow drawing him to the place and the man.
Drawing him home.