Disclaimer: I’m taking the boys out to play, and if Fox has a problem with that, they can put their gripe where the sun don’t shine. Some cussing, some innuendo; a lot of boys being boys. Any similarities to persons living or dead are purely unintentional. (Did I mention I have a bridge in Arizona I’d like to sell you?) A little literary license here with the custom of Quinceañera, which will appear at bit later in the story.
Murdoch Lancer stood in the lobby of the Pacific Hotel, Sacramento’s newest and finest. Everything about the establishment was wealth and opulence; the posters that had been sent out to a select clientele boasting that the five story red brick building was the “grandest hotel West of the Mississippi”. From what the big Scot had seen, the promoters had not exaggerated.
As newly elected President of the California Cattle Growers Association, Murdoch had suggested the site as the place for the annual three day meeting. He had negotiated a handsome discount for the visiting ranchers; as well as free rooms for himself and his sons. It would be the first time the Lancer sons, just returned home this past spring, would be in attendance.
The proud Lancer patriarch was watching his boys now; a bemused smile on his face. After a creative game of Hide and Seek that took most of the morning, Johnny had finally been corralled and was now wearing the much hated suit and tie and was standing with his brother, Scott, taking in the scenery. Well, what passed for scenery in the mind of two young men who had an appreciative eye for the fairer sex.
Even Murdoch had been surprised by the sudden interest the daughters of the area ranchers had taken in the cattle raising business. His eyes swept the crowd as the fan-fluttering women. They came in an assortment of size and ages, and they had one thing in common: they were painted up and dressed to the nines. He watched as they began to strut their stuff; some of them subtle; others not.
“It’s your fault, you know,” the voice said.
Murdoch turned to eye his companion. Jess Simmons was grinning ear to ear. “Excuse me,” he muttered.
Jess began pointing at the crowd with the stem of his pipe. “Well, you did decide to bring your boys,” he responded.
The tall Scot snorted in disbelief. “And that has what to do with the purpose of these meetings?”
“Buying and selling; promoting the betterment of the breed,” Jess answered drolly. He cast a covert glance at a blond woman who was flanked by a flock of idiotically chattering plump hens. “Those young ladies are looking at your sons, Murdoch. Sizing them up as husband material.”
“My boys?” he asked. The idea of Scott and Johnny heading down the aisle any time soon was too far-fetched to believe. Then, using one of his younger son’s favorite phrases he growled. “That ain’t happenin’.”
Jess Simmons just laughed and slapped the big man on the shoulder.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Across the room, Johnny leaned in towards his brother. Even though the Old Man wasn’t standing next to them, he felt a need to whisper. “You feelin’ like a side of beef, brother?” Ignoring the fact Scott would scold him for outright pointing, he jabbed a quick finger in the general direction of the herds of females who were scattered about the room. What is it about women, he thought, they gotta run in tribes?
“Don’t point,” Scott admonished, smacking the offending hand. Still, he followed his younger brother’s gaze. What was it, the elder one thought, about creatures of the feminine persuasion that seemed to intensify when they gathered in groups of two or more; how they seemed to be plotting. He was immediately reminded of pictures from his childhood; engravings from the stories of the Salem witch trials. Covens, he mused. That’s what the room was filled with: clusters of covens.
The brunet was now standing with his hands clasped behind his back. No point in riskin’ Mr. Mind-your-manners poppin’ me on the fingers again, he fumed. He turned to look at his brother. “I gotta tell you, Boston, I’m feelin’ like a piece of meat!” When he saw his father glancing in his direction, he lowered his voice, and leaned in closer to his brother. “What they all doin’ here, anyhow? I ain’t seen this many females in one place since T’resa had that quiltin’ bee!”
Scott laughed. Teresa had organized a quilting bee, shortly after the trouble with Pardee was over; a way -- she said -- of bringing the valley back to some measure of normalcy. What it had brought was a good three dozen women to the Lancer ranch; all single and of varying ages, and quilting had been the last thing on their minds.
They had come to check out the widowed Lancer scion and his newly arrived sons.
A none-to-gentle poke in the ribs roused Scott from his musings, and he once again faced his sibling. Johnny was trying hard not to point, but he was gesturing with his head. “You ain’t answered my question, brother,” he murmured. “What the Hell are all these females doin’ here at the California Cattle Growers Association meetin’? And how come is it okay for them to be pointin’ at us with their fans and we can’t point back with our fingers?”
Scott laid a long arm around his younger brother’s shoulder. As the elder sibling it was his job -- no, his duty -- to enlighten his baby brother regarding what was and wasn’t permissible in polite society. It was also, he realized, an excellent opportunity to get even with Johnny for the long morning he’d spent chasing all over the city in order to track him down. “I take it,” the blond began, a mock seriousness in his voice, “you have never been to a debutant ball.”
Johnny’s head snapped up and he turned to stare up at his elder brother, a slow smile coming. “Well, hell’s bells, Boston;” he drawled, the blue eyes dancing, “I used to spend all my weekends ballin’…”
Scott elbowed his brother in the ribs. “This,” he interrupted, “is the western version of a debutant ball.” He told the lie with a straight face. “All the pretty maidens,” he nodded to the gathering crowd, “lined up in a row.”
The brunet snorted, but was polite enough to muffle the sound with his closed right hand. “Pretty maidens,” he breathed, an eyebrow rising. “As in…”
Scott snagged a glass of champagne from the tray the liveried butler that was passing by. “As in attractive virgins of marriageable age,” he interrupted. He gestured with his glass to no one in specific but the room in general. Not that he believed from what he was seeing there were that many unsoiled maidens in the crowd.
Johnny knew his brother was playing with him. He knew the why: he’d led his hermano on one hell of a chase through the seamier parts of Sacramento earlier in the day. What he didn’t know was just how vindictive Scott was feeling. And he sure couldn’t tell from the man’s face. Scott was one Hell of a poker player. “Attractive virgins,” he murmured. His eyes narrowed as his gaze swept the rainbow clad covey of fan-fluttering females. There wasn’t a one of them that didn’t look as if they hadn’t been poured into their dresses. “You ever seen so much bare skin? Outside a whorehouse, I mean?” he asked. “Look at ‘em, big brother. Dresses down to here,” he risked making a gesture at his own chest, “everything lookin’ like it’s ‘bout to spill over.”
The blond was actually sipping his champagne. “It’s the corsets,” he said knowingly. He lifted his glass in salute to his father, who was across the room.
“The corsets,” Johnny echoed. Scott sure knew a lot about women’s underwear, he thought. Well, at least society ladies underwear…
Scott nodded. “Yes.” This time when the butler came by, he liberated two glasses of the gold tinged bubbly; handing the second one off to his sibling. “They put on their corsets and have someone lace them up as tight as they can. It makes their waists smaller and pushes all the excess up, creating bosoms. You know; all that skin you are talking about that’s showing.”
Johnny peered out over the rim of his glass. He didn’t care much for champagne; the bubbles tended to make him sneeze, but the goblet kept his blue eyes and his mouth fairly well covered. Of course, the other thing about the French fire water was that it tended to affect him rather quickly, especially on an empty stomach. And he had snuck off well before breakfast; and had also missed lunch. He emptied the glass in a single swallow. “Guess that explains the big asses, too,” he snickered.
Scott canted his head towards his companion. “What?”
Johnny was grinning and his cheeks were beginning to flush. “Well, if those corsets push everything up;” he made a motion with both hands, his palms cupped, “only follows they push some of the…the excess down.”
The older man laughed, softly. “I yield to your logic,” he said, bowing a bit. “Do you see that blond over there,” he asked, indicating the woman with a subtle nod of his head.
Johnny followed Scott’s gaze, his eyebrows rising as he scoped out the object of his brother’s attention. The woman had hair the color of baled straw; almost iridescent yellow beneath the gas-fed chandeliers. It was pulled tight away from her face; so tight her eyes were almost slanted. She had enough powder on her face to look ghost-like; her lips painted a bright crimson, and there was some kind of bluish stuff on her eyelids. “How old you think she is?” he asked. Sometimes it was hard to tell with all the paint.
“In people years or dog years,” Scott smirked. The woman, who was not all that attractive, was attempting to look coquettish, and she was failing. Miserably.
“Bitch years,” Johnny decided. Snagging a glass of the bubbly as the waiter passed by, he did the ciphering and figured the woman somewhere at four. The bubbles tickled his nose.
“Four.” Scott echoed his brother’s silent thought. He was getting pretty good at doing that; reading his brother’s mind.
“And this is what passes for pretty maidens in Sacramento?” Johnny was biting the inside of his lower lip; right hand corner, in a valiant attempt to stop the laughter.
Scott was feeling the effects of the champagne; the gentlemanly façade slipping. He cast a sidewise look at his kid brother. Johnny’s usually stoic mask was sliding away, too. In fact, both Lancer sons -- now ruddy cheeked -- were looking considerably younger, and not very innocent. No. They looked very much like two adolescents who had just peeked through a keyhole to discover a room filled with naked women.
“There’s more,” Scott whispered. “Over there.” His head moved slightly to the right.
“Jesus, Scott,” Johnny exclaimed, eyeing the brassy blond. There was no way that hair color could be real. “You think she tried on that dress before she bought it?” The woman he was looking at reminded him of a plump sausage that had been tied tight in the middle to form two links. “What the hell do they lace those corsets with, to hold all that --” he actually giggled, “-- excess together?”
The usually verbose blond had to think about it for awhile. “Wire,” he answered. “Some kind of very strong wire.” He was instantly consumed with a horrific vision: every corset lace in the room suddenly failing. Instinctively, he flinched; as if he were about to duck.
Johnny didn’t miss the move. “Ka-boom,” he said. It was as if he could see inside his brother’s head. It was not a pretty picture. The waiter was passing them again, and in a quick and reasonably efficient move, he disposed of his empty glass and picked up a full one. He grabbed a refill for his brother, too; proud that he really hadn’t spilled all that much.
It was his turn to pick the next heifer. Johnny’s eyes widened as he tried to clear his vision; unsure if he was actually seeing three bovines or just one, tripled. Nope, he decided. There were three; a blond, a brunet, and another that looked like she had one of those yappy lap dogs curled up atop her head; its long tail hanging down her neck. “They’d have to pay me,” he muttered; “and I’d have to be stinkin’ drunk.”
Scott’s eyes narrowed as he zeroed in on the trio. “There is not enough money or enough liquor in the entire world -- the known universe -- to compensate me for even a minimal effort,” he announced, each word perfectly enunciated. He threw back the half-glass of champagne in a single swallow.
Somehow, the talk about money and all the liquor in the known universe was making Johnny weary. He followed his brother’s lead and downed his drink. “Not even for free?” he asked. His lips and his tongue were numb, but that didn’t stop him from being exceedingly clever. “We could put bags over their heads.”
Scott sniggered. “What part of not for all the money in the known universe did you not comprehend, little brother?” He was shaking his head. He poked his sibling with his elbow. “Over there,” he said, pointing to yet another clutch of giggling, gossiping females.
Johnny’s face erupted into a grin as he smacked his brother’s fingers. “That ain’t polite, you know,” he scolded. “My older, smarter and better looking big brother told me that.” He pretended to look around the room. “Wonder where the hell he got off to?” He perked up when he saw the waiter heading in their direction; frowning when the man did a sudden, very on purpose detour.
Scott did a quick sidestep, his long legs closing the gap between himself and the waiter’s full tray. “Your older, smarter and better looking big brother has probably retired, mainly to get away from you.” He appropriated two full glasses, which were half empty when he spun around to face his brother. “Here,” he grinned.
The younger man reached for the goblet, missed, but recovered nicely; considering. “Are we gettin’ drunk, Scott?” he asked; dead serious.
The blond moved in closer, his lips almost touching his brother’s left ear. The boy’s hair tickled his nose and he stifled a sneeze. “No,” he said finally, drawing the word out. “We are already drunk.”
“Ohhhhh,” Johnny drawled, nodding his head; his eyes once again sweeping the entire room, blinking when he realized he was seeing double and the faces were fuzzy. Still not drunk enough, he thought, cringing. He was roused from his reverie by a familiar voice.
Murdoch’s deep baritone rumbled from deep within his chest; his eyes narrowing as he stared down at his sons and heirs. “You two,” he began, the words clipped and precise, “have exactly one minute to get yourselves together and into the dining room!”
Johnny opened his mouth to say something he knew was going to be incredibly funny -- well, sure and certain to light the Old Man’s fire -- but immediately changed his mind as his father nailed him with a harsh glare. He decided he wasn’t going to need a minute. The look in his father’s eye was more than enough to sober him up. He swallowed. “Yes, sir,” he breathed.
The tall Scot swung his gaze to his elder son. “I assume you are responsible for this?” he seethed.
Using his thumb and forefinger, Scott pinched at the bridge of his nose. The move didn’t do one thing to ward off the sudden onslaught of pain. “Yes,” he confessed, “I am.” It was, he knew, pointless to even suggest otherwise. He was, after all (as his father often reminded him), the elder brother. Everything was his fault.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was sprawled out on his belly across the narrow bed, the only thing covering his dignity and his derrière the rumpled sheet that looked like a casualty of war. His hair, still damp from the night sweat that had left him sodden and slightly chilled, was a mass of dark ringlets that cascaded across his forehead; almost tangled in his ridiculously long eyelashes.
A single shaft of sunlight suddenly drew a white-hot line across his face, and his reaction was immediate. He covered his eyes with his left hand, too late to stop the blood-like smear across his eyeballs; and he winced. Sweet Jesus! he cursed silently, now seeing flashing balls of white light. Somewhere inside his head a thunder storm had just erupted, and the lightning was striking against his temples and the base of his skull trying to bust out.
The storm got worse as he felt the bed begin to buck. He screwed his eyes shut. Maybe it wasn’t a bed, he thought, bracing himself against the relentless up and down motion. Maybe Scott hadn’t been bullshitting him when he warned him about saloon keepers who drugged unsuspecting suckers and sold ‘em to the shanghaiers who stuck ‘em on boats headin’ for China.
That was it. Some son-of-a-bitch had slipped him a Mickey and he was heading out to sea!
And then he felt the fingers smacking against his now bare buttocks. Holy shit! It was worse than he thought. They’d caught him. All those damned crazy women that had pushed, prodded and poked at him at the dance Scott had dragged him to after the hour-long dinner. I’m gonna kill him, he thought, refusing to open his eyes. I get outta here alive, I’m gonna kill him!
The bucking came again; worse than before. Johnny felt his stomach lurch against his spine as the hand smacked his butt a second time.
“Rise and shine, baby brother! We’ve got a whole new day before us.” Scott used both hands to give the mattress a final, hearty heave. And then, recognizing the shade of green his brother’s face had just turned, he grabbed the flowered porcelain bowl from the stand beside the bed. He waited until the retching stopped. “Better?” he asked, gritting his teeth as he wiped the residue from his forearm with the corner of his brother’s sheet.
Swiping the back his hand across his mouth, Johnny pulled himself up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He began to chew, scraping his tongue with his teeth; changing tactics as he tried to dislodge the cotton ball that was stuck to the roof of his mouth. It wasn’t working. If anything, the ball of fuzzy fluff was getting bigger. It was a losing battle, so he decided just to hack it up. The bowl magically appeared in front of his face.
“How much have you got in there, boy?” Scott asked, genuinely amazed. He should have known better than to be surprised. His brother was a source of endless possibilities. And, apparently, a bottomless pit.
Rubbing his belly, Johnny waved his brother away. “Your fault,” he ground out.
“Of course it is,” Scott sighed. “Why?”
His face clearly showing his consternation, Johnny looked up at his brother and frowned. “You shouldn’t a bounced the fuck…” he stopped himself, “…bed up and down like that. Thought I was on a fuck…stinkin’ boat.” When he saw the look of puzzlement on his sibling’s face, he explained. “Shanghaied,” he said.
“From Sacramento,” Scott laughed. “We’re a bit too far inland for you to worry about being drugged and tossed into the hold of some China clipper.” He was debating what to do with the bowlful of vomit. Giving up, he simply carried it over to the dresser. “You need to get dressed.” He was already stripping off his soiled shirt.
Johnny flopped backwards against the pillow; instantly regretting the move. His head hurt. Hell, his hair hurt. “Nope. It’s Sunday. The Old Man said we could take it easy until train time.” He shaded his eyes and risked looking out the window. “Ain’t even noon yet.”
Scott was at the armoire. “We’re staying over another night,” he announced, shaking out a clean dress shirt. “Murdoch’s accepted an invitation to attend a baile.”
The brunet had lifted his head up just long enough to turn over his pillow; hoping the flip side would be cooler against the back of his neck. “I ain’t goin’ to no dance, and he can’t make me!” he groused. He shuttered, remembering his nightmare about the women. Forcing a bravado he didn’t feel, he waved his brother off. “Tell the Old Man I said to have a good time.”
Turning around, Scott smiled at his brother; his pale eyes betraying his amusement. “This is how it works. You get up; you get dressed. You tell our father you are not going to any dance.”
Johnny lips pursed. “Phhht.” He was scratching his belly button. The room was getting warmer now as the sun streamed through the window, and he bunched the sheet up around his hips, baring his legs to catch the light. If he was embarrassed at his near nudity, it wasn’t obvious. “I’ll just tell him I’m sick,” he declared, nodding at the basin that was sitting on the dresser. The odor was getting pretty rank. Putting on his best puppy-dog face, he rubbed at his belly. “Really sick.”
Scott smacked his brother’s bare foot with the back of his hand. “You ought to patent that look, little brother. Put it in a bottle and sell it to all the little children in town who want to get out of chores and Sunday school.” His mood became more serious. “Now get up and get dressed,” he ordered.
Johnny’s reply was a long, drawn out moan; as if he were dying. When he didn’t get any response, he opened one eye. Just in time to see his father come through the door. Screwing both eyes shut, he moaned again, louder; clenching his teeth and wrapping his arms around his upper torso. For effect, he rolled over onto his right side and drew his knees up to his chest.
Murdoch stared at his younger son. The boy’s bed was a mass of rumpled blankets and sheeting; Johnny’s tanned skin dark against the white linen. And there was a lot of skin showing. He was torn between the urge to cover the youth up, or to smack him on the behind. “And just exactly what is wrong with your brother?” he demanded, turning to the blond. “Aside from the champagne hangover.”
Scott hid the smile with the back of his hand. “I’m not sure,” he lied. There was no way in Hell he was going to tell his father Johnny had snuck out of the room during the night and had intimidated the desk clerk into finding him a bottle of tequila. Neither was he going to let his brother off the hook. Feigning a look of genuine concern, he canted his head towards his brother. “Before Murdoch came in, Johnny. I believe we were discussing the baile we’ve been invited to this afternoon? You were saying something about telling our father to have a…”
Johnny rolled over on his back. The look he shot at his brother would have killed a lesser man. Scott just kept grinning at him like a jackass. “Said I was gonna tell him I’m sick,” he muttered. Looking mournful, he turned his sad eyes on his father. “Really sick.”
Murdoch stepped to the side of the bed and laid the back of his hand across his son’s forehead. “No fever,” he observed. “You are not ill.”
The younger man scratched at his ear, as if he wasn’t sure of what he heard. “If Sam was here, he’d be remindin’ you he’s the one that’s got the license,” he complained.
“Yes,” Murdoch agreed. “And I’d be reminding Sam that he is not your father. Now get up.” Bending over, he picked up his son’s pants from the floor and held them out for inspection.
Johnny was grinning. There was vomit on the right leg of his dark trousers. “Ooops,” he said, trying to sound remorseful. “Can’t wear those.”
Murdoch draped the soiled pants over the railing at the foot of the bed. “No,” he agreed, hesitating just long enough to let his son think there had been a reprieve. “However, since Maria is well aware of your propensity for losing your lunch -- amongst other things -- she had the foresight to include some extra clothing for you when she packed my things.” He smiled broadly. “I’ve laid everything out on my bed.” He crossed the room and opened the door leading to the hallway, taking a quick look in both directions. Satisfied there was no one about, he opened the door wider. “You can use the bath room in my suite to get ready. Now go.”
Scott failed to stop the laughter; his pale eyes lighting as he watched a myriad of emotion sweep across his brother’s face: petulance, refusal, reconsideration and -- finally -- defeat.
Knowing the odds were two-to-one against him -- asshole older brother and brick shit house of an Old Man -- Johnny gave up. Which, of course, didn’t mean he had any intention of surrendering. He levered up off the bed, wrapping himself in nothing but the sheet and headed for the door; very careful to keep a considerable distance between himself and his father. He marched into the hallway.
Pleased with himself, Murdoch turned and gave a nod to his elder son. “That went well.” He shut the door.
In the hallway, a woman screamed.
Father and son jockeyed for position as they attempted to get through the narrow doorway; Scott turning sideways to squeeze through first. The maid was swooning against the opposite wall; slowly sinking to the floor. Johnny was no where to be seen, the only sign he had ever been in the hallway the abandoned sheet and the sound of a shutting door.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Impatient, Murdoch stood just outside of the door leading to the master bath. He had given up on the pacing. “What is he doing in there?” he ground out.
Scott shook his head. “I have no idea, sir,” he answered. Hands behind his back, he took another short stroll to the window. Whatever his brother was doing, he was taking his own sweet time.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Inside the bathroom, Johnny Lancer was taking a leisurely whiz; enjoying the scenery. He never tired of this particular wonder of modern civilization. Just the smell alone was a vast improvement over the one-holers he was accustomed to. Of course, having spent a lot of time moving about in open country, there had been a time when a farmer’s outhouse or a communal latrine had seemed pretty damned elegant, too.
But this… He studied his surroundings, taking it all in. Big, claw footed tub; gravity fed shower tank above; good sized sink with faucets for hot and cold. Diamond dust mirror above the sink.
And, sitting in between the basin and the toilet, a fancy little table filled with bottles and jars of everything a man could need to make him feel smooth and smell sweet. His right eyebrow arched. Hell, there was even a little bowl of candy; smack dab center of a white lace doily.
One thing about a man peein’. It was a one-handed job. Johnny snickered. Whenever he was in a similar position, he always had the same thought: left hand for his personal weapon, right hand free for his Colt. Or whatever. On this occasion, the whatever was that bowl of candy; filled with a variety of fruit shaped orbs. He reached over and fingered through the selection, looking for anything even remotely chocolate. Nothing. Then, spying a bright red piece, he picked it up. It was a good sized chunk of candy; although it felt kind of waxy. Shaped like a strawberry; smelled like one, too. He popped the sweet into his mouth.
Whoa! Just as quickly, he spat the thing out. It tasted like shit!
Or soap, he realized, as a small bubble formed on his lips; then popped. The realization was enough to make him sick to his stomach. He barfed. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he stepped over to the tub.
The shower felt pretty damned good, although the water striking his head didn’t help his headache very much. He was wishing now that bathrooms had back doors; and he scoped out the walls of the room, realizing that the only window was a small round one a good six feet from the floor. No help there. Not that he was going anywhere without his clothes.
Turning off the water, he grabbed a towel, wrapped it around his waist and stepped out of the tub. Damned if he didn’t have to take another whiz. He stood, tending to business, getting downright bored. For fun (since it felt like he still had a pint or two of champagne stored up in his kidneys), he began lobbing the fruit shaped soaps into the commode. He justified his actions with his own peculiar brand of logic. Hell, he thought, feeling benevolent. Sure don’t want to take a chance of the Old Man or Scott grabbin’ one of them things thinkin’ they were going to get a treat. Best thing is get rid of ‘em, he reckoned. Scott would be so proud of his right thinkin’.
Ker-plunk. The bottom of the bowl was getting crowded, and Johnny knew exactly what to do: flush. Another modern miracle Scott had explained to him. Make your mess. Pull chain. Water gushes down from tank. Trap opens. Water whirlpools down the pipes. Everything drops into the sewer; sewer carries it out to …
Well, he’d never let Scott get that far in the lesson, because he just didn’t give a crap. He laughed at his clever joke. Give a crap!!
More soap. More flushes. More water rushing down the drain in a whirlpool. Lots and lots of bubbles. Disappointed he was out of soap, he looked for other items to toss into the eddy. The next thing he picked up was a small hand towel; a bright blue swatch of thick, soft cotton.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch was pounding on the bathroom door. “John! Quit flushing that toilet, and come out here, RIGHT NOW!” He pounded harder when the toilet flushed yet another time. “JOHN!!”
Naked as the day he was born; Johnny Lancer finally opened the door and sauntered out into his father’s bedroom. He was digging soap out of his right ear with his little finger. “Jeez, Murdoch, give it a break. It ain’t like I’m hard of hearin’.” Shaking his head like a wet puppy, he made a face. “Still got me a bitch of a headache, too.”
The older man’s jaw tensed, his eyes narrowing. He was in no mood to be providing any sympathy. “That’s what happens when you guzzle champagne like drinking water,” he groused. It struck him then that his elder son wasn’t complaining of a similar malady. He dismissed the thought, assuming Scott was more used to the French wine. His right eyebrow arched as he surveyed his younger son. “Get dressed,” he ordered, pointing to the bed. “And you will not be drinking any more champagne at this evening’s affair.”
Surprised, Johnny -- who had just picked up his clean white shirt -- turned to face his father. Jeez. Somethin’ me and the Old Man finally agree on. As if he were being sworn in to testify, the brunet raised his right hand. “Swear to God, Murdoch,” he said solemnly. “I won’t drink no champagne.” He smiled up at the man and then gave a curt nod towards his brother. “Even if he tries to make me.”
Scott was sorely tempted to point out to his father that Johnny had not promised he would abstain from drinking anything else. He chose instead to silently acknowledge his brother’s nod with a single tip of his own head, as if congratulating his sibling on his clever ploy. In his head, however, he was already plotting his revenge.
Johnny was climbing into his pants. Maria’s choice of clothing pleased him: the black leather calzoneras and silver-corded bolero jacket more to his liking than the eastern cut tailored suit he had worn the previous day. The leather trousers he preferred wearing didn’t scratch like all holy hell, and he liked the feel of the soft lining that molded so perfectly to his lean frame. Besides, he kind of enjoyed the looks he got from the ladies when he made his entrance; the way they gave him the once over, as if they were counting the silver conchos on his pants legs. Fastening the last button at his right hip, Johnny did a slow turn; his arms outstretched. “So, brother,” he grinned, “beats the hell outta plaid, don’t it?”
Murdoch was eyeing his younger son, a slight smile coming as he picked up the boy’s jacket and handed it off. “Shoes,” he said, nodding at the pair of flat-heeled walking boots that were sitting beside the bed.
Johnny’s smile disappeared when he spied the black, low-heeled walking boots. It didn’t help that they were brand new. “No way,” he ground out. “I want my boots.”
“No boots, no spurs,” Murdoch announced. “We’re going to attend a dance, not a rodeo.”
Hell, Johnny frowned; my spurs are almost as good as the conchos for gettin’ a girl’s attention. “Boots,” he declared stubbornly.
Scott shook his head, knowing this was a fight his brother would lose. Finally, Johnny gave it up. Murdoch headed for the door leading to the hallway, leaving Scott to and Johnny to follow behind.
“You first,” Johnny said, stepping back to allow Scott to cross the threshold.
The blond started through the door and then changed his mind. “That’s not going to work this time,” he announced, pulling his brother forward. Johnny had used the ruse the day before to make good his escape and he wasn’t going to let it happen again. “Proceed,” he joshed.
Reluctantly, Johnny followed after his father. Scott pulled the door shut, unaware that behind him the plush carpet was becoming a great, soggy sponge. Water was bubbling from beneath the closed bathroom door, a veritable waterfall cascading from the porcelain toilet as the plumbing backed up and the gravity tank spilled unabated from above.
The great Sacramento flood had just begun.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny stood, back to the wall, his mood grim. The new boots -- sans spurs -- pinched like hell. It didn’t help that the ball room was filled with people who were dressed in formal attire; a please and thank you crowd making polite conversation and lying through their teeth. The compliments were as sincere as the words people used when attending a wake and making nice about the recently, much reviled deceased. He hated the hypocrisy.
In the background, the musicians began warming up. Scott winced when someone in the violin section appeared to be having trouble bringing the A-string into tune. “Oh-oh,” he breathed.
Johnny assumed his brother was unhappy with the sour notes. “Yeah,” he muttered. “he stinks.”
Scott was shaking his head. “It’s not the violinist,” he breathed. He gave a subtle nod in the direction of the far wall; towards their father. Murdoch was engaged in a deep conversation with an older gentleman; a distinguished looking man of regal bearing. The man was dressed in the fashion of the grand caballeros from the old California days, his dress and manner impeccable.
The brunet’s gaze had followed his brother’s. Momentarily, he experienced a clenching in his belly; the memories of his childhood in Mexico and the rigid caste system coming back to haunt him. “Recognize him?” he asked. Scott had attended all of the meetings during their stay in Sacramento; and had a good memory regarding names and faces.
“Señor Gaspar Mendoza de Quesada Hurtado,” Scott answered after only a brief hesitation. He had done an excellent job of pronouncing the name. “He has holdings that extend well into Mexico.” The blond smiled broadly. “He’s our host, little brother. The dance is in honor of his daughter, Josepha.” He paused. “It is her Quinceañera, Johnny, her fifteenth birthday. Surely, you are familiar with the custom.”
Johnny was still focused on the haciendado. “Yeah,” he answered; the contempt evident in his tone. He knew about the lavish parties the Dons arranged for their privileged offspring alright. Not that he had ever attended one. No. The peons were left only with the leavings after a grand fiesta; the discarded food they salvaged from the slop buckets after the celebrations ended.
Scott was sipping his drink. He had attended a Quinceañera during a visit to Spain when he was sixteen. He decided to ignore his brother’s petulant mood and to indulge in some more brotherly teasing. “It’s not so different from the gathering we attended yesterday,” he observed. “In fact, it appears all the pretty virgins…” he grimaced, “…are strapped in and once again lined up to offer their wares.”
The younger man snorted. “Seen better at the Silver Dollar,” he smirked. “And they don’t wear no corsets.”
“True,” Scott agreed. He gestured with his glass. “But, then, I don’t think our father would actually consider any of the young ladies,” his right eyebrow arched, “at the Silver Dollar suitable as wife material.”
Johnny frowned. “So who’s talkin’ about gettin’ married?” he asked.
Scott’s lips pursed as if he were seriously considering the question. Once again, he used his glass to gesture towards their father. “That is the true purpose of these little soirées;” he announced knowingly. “Debutant balls, quinceañeras. Prominent families presenting their daughters to society, hoping to find a suitable match.”
Suitable match, Johnny pondered. Whatever the hell that was supposed to be. “Match for what?” he asked.
Pretending to be shocked at his younger brother’s naïveté, Scott paused mid drink. Poker-faced, he continued. “Marriage,” he answered. “The heads of two notable families get together and choose suitable mates for their offspring; unite to build their fortunes, their properties.”
Johnny laughed; loud enough it drew an across-the-room frown from his father. “Shit,” he muttered, dropping his gaze to his boots. He struggled hard to resist the urge to polish the toe of his left boot on the on the back of his right pant leg, and finally gave up.
Scott exhaled, slowly. He’d seen the brief visual sparring between his sire and his sibling. He also recognized the look on his father’s face at this precise moment. It was Murdoch’s come here now and bring your brother expression. The Old Man was a master at silent commands. He reached sideways and tugged at his brother’s arm. “Murdoch wants us to join him, Johnny.” Inspired, he leaned in, close to his sibling’s ear. “Perhaps our father and Señor Hurtado have reached an accord.” He clapped his brother on the back. “You will want me to be the best man?” he teased.
Johnny pulled up short. “Best man for what?” he asked.
“Your wedding,” Scott answered. “Of course, there will be the traditional posting of the banns, the official announcement of your engagement.” He stole a look at his brother. “The very long engagement.”
The brunet’s face drained of color. His eyes narrowed as he cast a long look at his father. There was a hell of a lot of whispering going on between Murdoch and the haciendado. “Nope. No way.” He stared up at his brother. “Besides, you’re the oldest. You can get married.”
Scott was shaking his head. “It won’t work,” he observed. “Think about it, little brother. You speak Spanish, your mother was Mexican.” He shook his head. “Besides, I’m not as malleable as you are.”
“Malleable?” the younger man echoed.
The blond nodded his head. “Trainable,” he answered nonchalantly. He was still nursing his drink. “Between Señor Hurtado, his wife, the dueña, Murdoch and Maria, I’m sure they’ll whip you into shape to be a proper husband to the lovely Josepha.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he considered his brother’s words. His gaze swept the room as he searched out possible escape routes. Shit. He didn’t have a chance in Hell of making it through the crowd. Or past his father. “I ain’t gettin’ married,” he declared.
Scott hooked his brother right arm at the elbow. “Tradition,” he said, pulling his sibling along as he shouldered his way through the crowd. “No point in avoiding the inevitable, little brother. You know how it is once Murdoch makes up his mind. Not even God Almighty stands a chance of deterring him once he’s set his course.”
The brunet was dragging his feet. “Yeah? Well, God Almighty could take a few lessons from Johnny Madrid,” he muttered, “when it comes to handlin’ Murdoch Lancer.”
It was too much for the elder Lancer son. He laughed.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch Lancer watched as his sons approached. Scott, elegant in his pale suit, was obviously enjoying himself; a wide grin creasing the young man’s face, the blue eyes filled with humor. And Johnny…
Johnny was looking as if he were a lamb being led to slaughter by a Judas goat.
“Boys,” he greeted, drawing the word out.
“Father,” Scott hailed. He used the formal endearment out of respect, aware that Señor Hurtado was watching.
Murdoch smiled. “Scott.” His gaze turned to his younger son. “Johnny.”
Picking up the cue from his elder brother (the damned smart ass), he addressed his sire. “Papí.” It always worked; the diminutive expression of affection. Well, most times.
“Gaspar, may I present my sons; Scott and Johnny.” Murdoch gestured towards both boys.
Señor Hurtado bowed slightly and extended his hand; to Scott, and then to Johnny. His grip was firm; a strength in his hand that surprised the younger man. “El favorece a su madre,” (He favors his mother,) he declared, the words coming softly.
Johnny’s head snapped up, the blue eyes boring into the older man’s; his jaws tensing.
Murdoch reached out, his hand coming to rest on his younger son’s shoulder. “Yes,” he said, gently massaging the youth’s collar bone; feeling the tension. “Señor Hurtado was a guest at Lancer, Johnny; just after you were born.” He continued to rub the boy’s shoulder, turning the caress into a gentle pat.
Somehow, the soft words and his father’s touch eased the younger man’s distress. Still, he wasn’t sure how to respond.
Belatedly, Hurtado sensed his blunder. “Mi hija, Josepha,” (My daughter, Josepha,) he announced, beckoning for the young woman to join him. “Mi hija, te puedo presentar los hijos de Sr. Lancer, Scott y Juanito.” (Daughter, may I present Mr. Lancer's sons, Scott and Johnny.)
Johnny watched as the young girl, dressed in an immaculate white gown, and her dueña approached. The petite señorita was stunning, a shy but confident smile adorning a face that bore testimony to a long line of beautiful women; and a stark contrast to her much older, dour-faced companion. Already, the fifteen-year-old carried herself with a maturity belying her calendar years; and there was no question she was going to be an outstandingly beautiful creature when full grown.
Even Scott was impressed. He took the young woman’s hand, bowing politely as he kissed her fingertips. “Señorita.” Smiling, he found himself wishing she had an elder sister.
Johnny needed no prompting to follow his brother’s gallant example. “Es un placer conocerla, señorita,” (It is a pleasure to meet you, miss,) he murmured.
“Y usted, señor,” (And you, sir,) she responded graciously. The smile was markedly bold; her tone sensual.
The exchange between the two young people did not go unnoticed by Scott. Playfully, he jabbed an elbow in his brother’s ribs; canting his head and whispering in the younger man’s ear. “Perhaps her father would be willing to agree to a brief engagement,” he teased; “say for the term of your probation; which I’m sure he’ll overlook, considering.”
Johnny’s eyes widened and he immediately backed up; dropping the young woman’s hand as if her fingers were on fire. “Ain’t happenin’!” he fairly shouted. Then, he cheeks coloring, he faced his father. “We need to talk.”
Scott reached out and took his brother’s arm; certain from the look on his father’s face that a strategic withdrawal…hell, a full retreat…was in order. “The dance, sir,” he smiled. “I believe the dance is about to begin.” He was visibly relieved when the music seemed to increase in volume.
Murdoch reached out, snagging his elder son’s arm. “Not just yet,” he intoned. He turned to his host, “Con su permiso, Gaspar. (With your permission,) I need a moment with my sons.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The Lancer patriarch had shepherded his sons into the relative privacy and quiet of the palm-filled foyer that adjoined the grand ballroom. He had chosen a small, windowed alcove with a padded bench. Not that he had any intention of sitting; no his sons would be looking up at him. Taking his time, he unwrapped the cigar he had taken from his vest pocket; taking a whiff of the rum-smoked tobacco before finally lighting up. It took him a few pulls before he was satisfied, the air around his head turning a pale blue. “Sit,” he ordered, gesturing with the smoke.
Johnny cast a sidewise look at his elder brother, hoping Scott would pipe up with his usual ‘I prefer to stand, sir’. It was a ploy that usually worked quite well; and kept them -- almost -- at eye level with their old man, a decided advantage. But not this time, dammit.
The Lancer boys sat. Their father, they knew, was about to call the tune.
“I’ve known Gaspar Hurtado for a very long time,” Murdoch began. He gestured towards his eldest with the cigar. “Since before you were born. Lancer did business with him from the beginning. In fact, I purchased my first stallion from him; the foundation stud Pardee took.” The man’s face reflected his sadness over the loss of the horse. Pardee had driven the animal over a cliff as a lesson to Lancer and the other ranchers; after Murdoch had been shot. He took a deep breath. “Our relationship the last few years has been somewhat strained,” it was clear from his face he had no intention of discussing what had happened, “and the fact he extended an invitation to this celebration is a good indication he wants to change those circumstances.”
Unable to help himself, Scott gave Johnny a subtle nudge in the ribs. Swiping his hand across his upper lip he turned slightly, mouthing the words ‘suitable match’. Johnny’s response was immediate. “I ain’t gettin’ married!” he declared.
Murdoch had just inhaled and he stifled a cough as the smoke assaulted his lungs. “What?”
Johnny was sitting on the edge of the seat; his back rigid, shoulders back. “I ain’t gettin’ married,” he repeated.
Scott bit his lower lip, successfully stopping the laughter. When Murdoch turned to him, he simply shrugged.
It was more than enough to arouse his father’s suspicion. “Who said anything about you getting married?” Murdoch asked.
“Scott,” Johnny answered. “He told me all about these…” his brow furrowed as he fumbled for the word, “soiree things. About how two families,” he made a joining motion with his hands “get together, marry their kids off, build up their fortunes.
“Ain’t happenin’,” he vowed. “No way are you pawnin’ me off on someone just to get your hands on some more land or another stud horse…”
Murdoch felt a need to take another drag on his cigar. On one hand, he was annoyed that his elder son was toying with his sibling; on the other… Johnny had been a handful the past two days. His eyes narrowed, as if he were seriously considering his son’s words. “Well, there is that,” he pondered aloud. “A new stallion to replace the one Pardee destroyed.”
Johnny’s face drained of color. “You can trade Scott,” he bargained. “He’s the oldest; he should go first!”
Scott shared a mischievous smile with his father before turning back to his brother. “But as I pointed out earlier, Johnny, I don’t speak Spanish all that well; and my mother was from Boston.” He smacked his brother on the knee with the flat of his hand. “Clearly, little brother, you are the most logical choice.”
The brunet was grasping at straws; a drowning man searching for a life-line. Suddenly, he perked up. “I ain’t legal!” Grinning, he stared up at his father; proud of himself for being able to toss that one out. “Can’t get married until I’m twenty-one.” Cocky, he turned to his brother, and stuck out his tongue.
“But you can get engaged,” Murdoch reasoned. “It will be a very long, very proper engagement.” He sighed in mock sympathy. “Of course, it will mean giving up some things.”
Johnny was getting antsy; his right leg bouncing up and down with the same vigor and tempo of a highland dancer. Long engagement, my ass, he fumed. “What things?”
“Well, most certainly,” Murdoch resumed, his tone solemn, “your trips into Green River and Morro Coyo to visit the young ladies who reside in those questionable establishments you patronize.” He was frowning now. “Gaspar is a firm believer in a long, chaste courtship; with a strict adherence by both parties to morally pure thought and conduct, along with decent and modest behavior.” He inhaled. “And Señora Hurtado…” His face took on a grim expression.
“What about Señora Hurtado?” Johnny ventured, not sure he wanted to know.
“Señora Hurtado is the founding member of the Sacramento Temperance Society,” Murdoch answered. It was a small lie, well told.
Johnny didn’t like the way Scott was laughing; as if he knew some really funny joke he wasn’t going to share. He felt compelled to ask the question. “What the Hell’s a Temperance Society?”
The elder Lancer took yet another long puff on his cigar. “An organization dedicated to eliminating the manufacture and sale of all alcoholic beverages, and the closing of saloons and sporting houses.” Murdoch exhaled; two perfectly shaped smoke rings aimed at his younger son.
To Johnny, the smoke rings looked like matching wedding bands. Or handcuffs. And what kind of crazy idea was it to stop sellin’ booze, closin’ bars, and lockin’ up the whore houses? “I ain’t gettin’ married, and you can’t make me!” The petulant frown was a wonder to behold. And I damned sure ain’t givin’ up drinkin’ or havin’ a bit of fun!
Beyond them, from the ballroom, the music began with a flourish. Murdoch stubbed out his cigar in the moist dirt of one of the potted ferns. “The Grand March,” he said, nodding towards the room. “Time for you boys to queue up and find your partners.” He smiled. “I will be escorting Señora Hurtado.” He gestured towards the double doors. “Proceed,” he instructed.
Johnny remained seated when his brother stood up; but not for long. Scott and Murdoch helped him to his feet; each one taking an arm. “There will be dancing,” Murdoch announced, “and you will participate.” When Johnny started to protest, Murdoch silenced him with a single harsh glare. “And don’t give me any rubbish about not liking your fun organized, or that you have two left feet. You aren’t here to have fun, and Teresa has assured me you did quite well with your lessons.”
Damned T’resa, Johnny cursed mentally. Trickin’ me into learnin’ all those fancy moves and tellin’ me how I could show up Scott at that damned church social. Bet she knew exactly what the Old Man was plannin’. Hell, she’s probably already picked out her dress for the weddin’.
He attempted to pull up short. It didn’t work. Next thing he knew they were inside the ballroom and some strange woman was pulling him into line.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
He’d survived the Grand March; barely. And then the dancing began.
How he ended up with the brassy blond as his partner was still a mystery. They had been paired up for the March, forth in line behind Scott; who had managed to snag himself a little redhead. And then the orchestra played a waltz.
One-two-three, he counted.
“My name is Lucy,” she purred. She moved in closer. Her hand immediately dropped from his shoulder down to his waist. “And you’re Johnny Madrid. I know all about you!” She took a breath and snuggled in. “You are the most famous…”
“I’m Johnny Lancer,” he interrupted; silently wondering when people would wise up to the fact Madrid was something he had played at to make a living; to survive.
“…pistolero ever,” she babbled on, completely ignoring him as she continued talking.
He managed to tune her out, concentrating on the dancing. And then her hand moved again. Whoa! Her warm palm was now firmly planted on his right buttock, and she was groping. Johnny executed a perfect turn, his eyes sweeping the room in search of his brother. Two more spins and they were right beside Scott and the redhead. Peering over the blond’s shoulder, he cast a silent plea in his brother’s direction. The aroma of the woman’s perfume -- Jeez, she must’ve poured it on by the bucket -- was making him dizzy.
Scott grinned across at his red-faced sibling. Johnny was struggling to keep his partner at a proper arms length; but it was a losing battle. The blond biddy was closing in for the kill.
Thankfully -- Johnny was actually beginning to believe, this time, God had actually heard him -- the music ended. Out of breath from his tussle to get away from the blond, Johnny snagged his brother’s arm. “Did you see that, Scott?” he panted. “One more turn around the floor and she’d have been workin’ on unbuttonin’ my calzoneras!”
The elder Lancer son was scanning the crowd of fan fluttering females in search of his next partner. “Well, you did cut quite an imposing figure out there,” he observed, nodding towards the dance floor. “I’m impressed, brother. Those not-so-secret,” he grinned, “dancing lessons our sister gave you were worth the twenty dollars.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “You paid T’resa to teach me to dance?” he drawled ominously. The whole fuckin’ family was in on it. Ten to one, Maria was laughin’ her ass off about packin’ his extra suit.
Mexico was beginning to call his name. Loudly.
“Buck up, brother,” Scott murmured, bending close to his sibling’s ear. “Another dance is about to begin.”
Before Johnny could respond, a woman in a dress the color of puke green and mud colored hair piled to the ceiling grabbed his arm. “I’m Miss Chantilly Lace,” she cooed in a baby voice. Twirling a fallen curl around her finger and twisting her body so her pigeoned-toes turned inward even more, she added, “My daddy has such a funny, wunny sense of humor.” Making a face, she crinkled her nose, which only served to make her buck teeth even more noticeable.
The wrestling commenced.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch was enjoying a tumbler of whiskey. He lifted it to his nose, savoring the subtle bouquet before taking a sip. “Glenlivet,” he murmured. The single malt Scotch whisky was his favorite, and -- sadly -- unavailable in the States. Importing it from Scotland was out of the question, and he had reluctantly settled for Taliskers; not even a close second. “Where…?”
Señor Hurtado saluted his friend with his glass, his words softly accented. “My son, Guillermo, brought a selection of liquors back from the Continent when he returned home.” His smile was apologetic. “I remembered, from Juanito’s -- Johnny’s -- christening.”
The Scotsman nodded. “It was worth the wait,” he smiled, raising the glass; a bit of melancholy in his next words. “The whisky and my sons’ return home.”
Hurtado gestured towards the dance floor. Scott was dancing with his daughter, Josepha; the proper Bostonian as respectful of the young girl as an older brother. A smile touched the man’s lips as he spied the younger Lancer son. “The boy is quite the charmer,” he observed.
“The boy is just that; a boy, and still full of mischief.” His gaze followed the other man’s. Johnny’s current partner was holding on like a rat clinging to a sinking ship and her mouth was going a full speed. He smiled as he watched his son trying to untangle himself from the young woman’s grasp. Johnny’s hands were exactly where they should be; the brazen hussy’s hands everywhere but.
He heard it then; a sudden ping.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny’s eyes widened as he felt the buttons on the woman’s low backed gown begin to shift. It wasn’t any wonder; the damned dress was tight enough to choke a cow. He could feel the stiff stays in her corset beneath his fingertips, and had the sinking feeling deep in his gut something was about to give.
He was right. He felt a cloth covered button pressing against the fingers of his left hand as he heard a subtle rip. The button suddenly tore loose, shooting across the room to ping against the long mirror on the far wall. Instinctively, he moved his hand.
Big mistake. A second and third button soon followed the first. One was a near miss skimming across the top of the punch bowl; the other miraculously missed the twirling dancers to land dead center of Murdoch’s forehead.
Like bullets from a repeating rifle, the remaining buttons began random firing. Johnny counted to twelve before he realized -- after a quick glance in the mirror -- the back of the woman’s dress was open all the way down to the bottom of her tightly tied corset. Now the waist band of her ruffled panties was beginning to show, and the girl -- who was chattering like a magpie (still) didn’t even realize what was happening. (Although she seemed to be breathing a lot easier.)
As discretely as he could (although it was taking everything he had not to laugh), Johnny let out a low whistle, immediately catching his older brother’s eye. Scott’s mouth dropped open, and he bent forward slightly to whisper something in his young partner’s ear. The girl turned slightly, canting her head. And then she dissolved into a fit of definitely undignified snickers.
Ever the polished gentleman, Scott swept the giggling girl in a series of grand turns, heading directly for his brother. As the button missiles continued to fly, Scott dodged and skillfully maneuvered his partner until they were directly behind Johnny and the girl. “Take off you jacket, brother,” he urged; dancing in place.
The twit Johnny was dancing with finally realized they were the center of attention, but didn’t understand why. No, sure and certain she was the envy of every woman in the room; she pulled Johnny closer and snuggled against his chest.
In his hurry to pull loose of the grasping female, Johnny’s fingers became tangled in the cord at the small of her back; the one securing the laces of her one-size-too-small corset. Eyes wide, he tried to shake free only to know the horror of fabric being stretched to its frail limits. He bit his lip as the girl’s waist widened and her breasts began to deflate. He could only imagine what was happening to her ass.
Finally, he shook free. Quickly, he removed his jacket, gallantly placing it over the girl’s shoulder. Finally it dawned on the young woman what was happening. Without the confining restraint of the whale-boned corset, Miss Lace was able to suck in the first decent breath of the evening. She screamed; a long, ear-piercing shriek that not only rattled the Tiffany chandelier, but shattered a half-dozen empty crystal goblets.
L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Surprisingly, Murdoch had taken things extremely well; probably because there were an abundance of witnesses more than willing to testify to Johnny’s innocence. Miss Chantilly Lace had retired for the evening, loudly declaring that she was going to enter a convent until her humiliation was forgotten and her honor restored. Johnny figured she would be there for a long, long time.
When the excitement was over, the young man once again found himself the center of unwanted attention. The remaining fluttering females had immediately zeroed in on the Lancer brothers; proclaiming them true gentlemen, just like the heroes of the romantic novels they read and discussed in secret.
While the women were content to pat Scott’s shoulder or stroke his arm -- the former Lieutenant was really adept at close quarter skirmishing -- Johnny found himself being hugged, kissed and his cheeks pinched. After one too many pats on his compact rear-end, he backed against the wall and stood with his shoulders plastered against the cool marble. Unable to stand it any longer, he tugged at his brother’s coat sleeve. “So, brother, what do we gotta do to get outta here?”
Scott had just warded off another frontal assault. “Well, if it was the Silver Dollar, we could just toss coins,” he answered.
“Real funny, Scotty,” the brunet frowned. “Get serious.”
The blond grinned. “You won’t like it,” he said.
“Just get ‘er done,” Johnny muttered.
Scott clapped his hands together; not loud enough to cause any alarm, just a minor distraction. “While we’ve had a wonderful time, ladies, I’m afraid we are going to have to beg your pardon and excuse ourselves.” He put a long arm around his brother’s shoulders and pulled him close. “It’s really past his bed time, you know.” Mussing his brother’s hair -- something that made his sibling look much younger than his actual calendar years -- he continued. “Growing boys do need their sleep.”
There was a flurry of sudden, hushed conversation and the quick fluttering of fans. “Boy?” someone finally asked.
Scott nodded. “He’s not legally of age,” he confided. “And won’t be for quite some time.” He heard the disappointed sighs. “I thought you knew.”
En masse the covey of frustrated female quail dispersed. Johnny shrugged his brother’s arm away. “You couldn’t just tell ‘em the Old Man was gettin’ cranky and we needed to take him home?”
“Where’s the fun in that,” Scott grinned. “I thought you were tired of all the fussing.” He eyed the departing women. “Quite a group of fans you have there, brother.”
Johnny shoved himself away from the wall; but not before making sure their weren’t any stragglers. “Fans?”
“Admirers, aficionados; devotees,” Scott answered.
The brunet snorted. “Admirers?”
Scott was leading the way through the thinning crowd; heading across the dance floor towards the arched doorway where the Hurtados, their daughter and Murdoch were standing. “Usually referred to as fans.” He smiled across at his brother. “I met Edwin Booth at a salon in New York after the War,” he said. “He had some amusing -- and not so amusing -- stories to tell about women, and men, who considered themselves fans.”
Johnny had stopped at the punch table and was debating taking a drink. Turning slightly, he snagged a half full bottle of Jose Cuervo Especial from the liquor cart that had been left behind; frowning as he realized he had nowhere to stow it. “Hey,” he muttered, clearly annoyed, “someone swiped my jacket!” Forgetting his manners, he took a long swig from the bottle; the amber colored tequila going down like silk.
“Clearly the work of a fanatic,” Scott laughed. He positioned himself so that he was standing between Johnny and their father, allowing his brother a chance for another drink. But just one. Taking the bottle from his brother, he put it back on the table. “A fan is someone who is in control of their affection for someone they admire. A fanatic, on the other hand, is someone who will resort to all kinds of deception to fuel their fantasies.” He tugged at his brother’s elbow and they resumed walking. “Like someone who would take your jacket. Which, by the way, you will never see again.”
Scott’s gait was slower than usual; more relaxed. “Because one of those women,” he intoned, “has probably already got it curled up under her pillow.” He smacked his brother’s flat belly with the back of his hand. “In another hour, she’ll be making love to you in her dreams.”
Johnny shook his head. “That’s crazy,” he snorted. Closing his eyes, he tried to shake the vision away. Another immediately assaulted his brain. “It ain’t like my jacket would fit any of ‘em I seen tonight,” he mused. “Don’t think they make a corset that can squeeze all that fat in without some of it bustin’ out somewhere.”
The blond’s mouth turned up in a wry smile. “Your jacket, little brother, is going to be making contact with parts of the female anatomy never intended to…” he shook his head, the words drifting off into nothingness.
This time it was Scott that stopped; at a table where fresh fruit garnished with mint that had been laid out for the guests. He picked up a sprig of the pungent green and handed it off to his sibling, watching as the younger man took a small bit of the leaf and chewed. “Booth had a long list of stories about his more radical fans. Women who, unbidden, sent him unwanted gifts. Others who befriended his sister -- even approached his daughter -- in an effort to get close.” He was ticking the list off with his fingers. “Still more who sent him bouquets of flowers with personal items -- lingerie --” he clarified, “amongst the blooms.” A broad smile fired the blond’s eyes. “Once, in Chicago, a woman showed up at the restaurant where he was dining wearing a homemade replica of his Hamlet costume; and attempted to recite his lines!” Gesturing with his hand, Scott repeated the words in grand theatric style: “‘Alas, poor Yorick!’”
Still not sure if his brother was joking, Johnny poked him in the ribs. “Aren’t you ‘sposed to be talkin’ to a skull there, brother?”
Scott’s laughter was sudden, and genuine. “So you have been paying attention when I read to you!”
Johnny’s head dipped against his chest. “Yeah. But don’t tell the Old Man. He finds out, he’ll start askin’ me questions.” He was quiet a moment. “All that talk about Murdoch marryin’ me off. You two were just kiddin’, right?”
It was tempting, Scott thought, to continue the charade. Murdoch and the Hurtados were still engaged in a rather intense discussion, Josepha and her dueña having just retired to their rooms. He considered it for a time and then decided his brother had had enough. “Yes,” he admitted. “But that could change.”
Johnny crooked a finger at his brother, waiting to speak until Scott leaned in. “You got a couple a fans out there, too,” he whispered, remembering all the pawing and patting his brother had endured. “Could be someone might send ‘em a nice little love note, maybe even a proposal…” He grinned.
Scott raised his hands in the universal gesture of peace, and backed up. “Touché,” he smiled.
“Boys!” Murdoch’s voice boomed from the entranceway. “Are you about ready to call it a night?”
Both Scott and Johnny nodded; their “yes, sir’s” coming in unison.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The ride back to the Pacific Hotel was uneventful, Murdoch dozing off but still aware of his sons’ conversation. Pretending to be asleep, he listened to their banter as they compared notes on the evening’s activities. Johnny’s description of what he was feeling when the buttons started popping, about corsets and excess flesh, was being honed into a classic he would, no doubt, share with everyone at Lancer. Except, the older man mused, for Teresa. He would personally see to it that his ward never heard Johnny’s version of what had occurred.
Suddenly, both young men stopped speaking and Murdoch felt the carriage sway slightly as they both shifted to the right side of the buggy. Johnny was the first to speak, his voice low. “Fire?” he asked.
It was enough to fully rouse the older man. “What’s going on?” he asked, moving forward to look out the window.
Scott felt the buggy slowing down; the clip-clop of iron shoes breaking stride as the horses were pulled to a complete stop a half block from their destination. “No smoke,” he announced. He opened the door, stepping down into the street. Murdoch followed after his elder son; Johnny bringing up the rear.
The front portico of the large hotel was swarming with workmen; a bucket line formed beneath the archway. A dozen men were handing off buckets of water, dumping the contents of each pail into the street. Other tradesmen were evident as well, including a man studying what appeared to be architectural drawings. A smaller door just to the left of the main entrance was propped open, the traffic constant as what appeared to be disgruntled clientele exited the premises.
Murdoch was shaking his head. He stood aside as a man and woman stomped out of the building, and then crossed the threshold. Scott and Johnny were right behind.
The desk clerk was standing, head bowed, raking his fingers through his thinning hair. He had discarded his suit jacket; had loosened his string tie, and looked as if he was seriously considering suicide. When Murdoch’s large shadow loomed across the desk, he looked up. “Mister Lancer,” he greeted. He made an immediate about face, disappeared into the small office behind his cubicle, and just as quickly reappeared. The hotel manager, Mr. Deaver, a dapper little man, was with him.
Mr. Deaver took a deep breath. “It appears that something happened to the plumbing in your room…”
“My room?” The tall Scot echoed.
Deaver nodded. “Your bathroom, to be precise.” His eyes narrowed as he spied the rancher’s sons; taking special notice of the younger one who was trying very hard to look nonchalant. “We found a towel in the…” he hesitated, still uneasy with the open discussion of modern facilities, “…commode, along with several small cakes of soap.”
Grim-faced, Murdoch was surveying the damage. Water was dripping from what was left of the ceiling, traces of soggy plaster still evident on the desk and floor. He swung his gaze to the broad stairway, noting the wet carpet.
“It was, Mr. Lancer,” the manager began, “a veritable waterfall.” The memory of the water cascading down the stairwell was still vivid in his mind.
Murdoch’s jaws tensed, and without looking around, he reached back and grabbed his youngest by the collar and pulled him to his side. “Our luggage?” he ground out.
The manager nodded towards the dryer part of the foyer. “We took the liberty of packing your things.”
“I assume there will be a bill?” Murdoch almost choked on the word.
Deaver pulled several slips of paper from his vest pocket. “Our original agreement regarding your rooms stands,” he said. “As to the repairs, the best we can do now is the estimate from the plumber, the engineer, the carpenter, the…”
Murdoch cut him off with a wave of his hand. “You’ll take a draft on my account at the Union Trust?”
The manager was smiling now. “Of course, Mr. Lancer.”
Johnny watched as his father filled out the check, his eyebrows almost disappearing beneath his bangs as he counted the number of zeros. He almost gave up hope of ever seeing a decimal point. Swallowing, he cast a wary look at his brother.
“Scott.” Murdoch turned to face his elder son. “I want you to hail a cab and take your brother and our luggage to the train station. Now.”
Scott felt compelled to speak. “Sir, we’re not scheduled to leave until tomorrow morning.”
The Lancer patriarch’s face was a fascinating shade of puce. “What part of now do you not comprehend?”
Under other circumstances, Johnny would have doubled over in laughter. If he had a dollar for every time Scott had said the same thing to him, he’d have a small fortune. Well, at least until the Old Man got a hold of it. Still, the thing about the train bothered him. No way was he gonna sleep on a wooden bench waitin’ for a train; not in a town full of hotels.
Murdoch had taken a deep breath. “Wire Clay Porter. I’m sure he can arrange something before morning.” His right eye twitched. “As for you, John…”
The youth winced, visibly. Defensive, he engaged his mouth before his brain was in gear. “If we’re goin’ to the train station,” he nodded towards his brother, “where you goin’?”
A sly smile crawled across the older man’s face. “To see if Gaspar Hurtado is still awake,” he answered. With that, he turned on his heel and exited the hotel.
Johnny grabbed his brother’s arm. “What the Hell do you think he means by that?” he asked.
Scott shrugged. Heading into the foyer, he hefted the lighter of the two valises. “That perhaps he has reconsidered the idea of marrying you off,” he answered. “I’m sure the dowry will be more than sufficient to pay for the damages.”
Johnny grabbed the second piece of luggage. “That ain’t funny, brother. Not one damned bit funny!”
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Their wait at the train station was long. Not for the arrival of the locomotive or the palace car. Clay Porter had performed his usual miracle, dispatching his private train within an hour after receiving Scott’s telegram.
Murdoch, however, had yet to arrive.
“So where do you think he is?” Johnny piped up. The irritation was evident not only in his voice, but his up-and-down-the-aisle pacing. He was on his tenth go-round when he turned to face his brother.
Scott was lounging in one of the overstuffed chairs, reading one of the books Clay Porter always kept in the overhead storage cabinets. “Justice Duvalier’s,” he answered, not even bothering to look up.
That lit a fire under the younger Lancer son. “What!?” Johnny dropped down on his haunches, peering up at his brother’s face; willing the older man to look at him. It wasn’t working. “You mean to tell me the Old Man is in our whorehouse, with our woman, and we’re sittin’ here with our asses fallin’ asleep while we’re waitin’?”
His brother’s not-so-righteous aggravation brought a smile to the blond’s face. “Well, little brother, a man does have needs,” he smirked. “And, considering the stress he’s been under tonight, it’s better than the alternative.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “What alternative?”
“Marrying you off to Hurtado’s daughter, or…”
“Or what?” Johnny interrupted rudely.
“Exercising his fatherly prerogatives and dispensing some vigorous paternal guidance.” When he saw the annoyance on his younger brother’s face, he interpreted. “An ass whuppin’,” he whispered, leaning in.
The sound of the wood-stoked steam engine being fired up drew both young men’s immediate attention. Scott inhaled, his chest rising as he took in a lung full of air. “I think we can safely assume our father has arrived.”
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The train ride home wasn’t as bad as it could have been. By the time they were pulling into Green River’s siding, both young men had showered and changed into their work clothes. Johnny not only knew what he was going to be doing for the remainder of his foreseeable future, but just where his one-third share of the profits would be going for a good long while. He was seriously thinking of contacting the Pacific Hotel and demanding they name the suite of rooms he was paying to repair in his honor; a suggestion Scott thought particularly amusing. But they were both smart enough not to mention the idea to their father.
Blissfully, Murdoch had lost his voice after the rather harsh lecture he had delivered; managing only a series of sharp nods and gestures as they were getting off the train. He was going to the bank; his boys were to go directly home.
Scott grabbed Johnny and towed him in the direction of the livery barn, where Cheval and Barranca had been stabled during their trip west. They made a fast job of saddling up; both of them glad to be heading home.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
They turned their horses out into the pasture beyond the barn, standing a while to watch as the animals played at fighting and then broke apart to round up their mock harems. The brood mares scattered; the weanlings racing along with them on the opposite side of the fence.
Scott turned to face his younger sibling. “So when the time comes, brother, and you are ready to marry,” he said, looping a long arm across the younger man’s shoulder, “what kind of lady are you going to pick?” Together, they began walking towards the front door.
“A real one,” Johnny answered, “not some painted hussy who can’t take a breath for fear of poppin’ her buttons.” The memory of what had happened at the dance caused the younger man to chuckle, and it took a little time to get his breath. “One that smiles, all the way up to her eyes. And she’s gotta know how to laugh; really laugh.” He stole a look at his brother. “Soft in all the right places,” he continued. “Dark eyes and hair,” his mouth quirked up into a winsome smile, a certain longing in his expression as he swept his bangs away from his eyes; “maybe a bit of red in it when she’s out in the sun.”
Scott was nodding his head. “Someone who is going to care about you for whom you really are,” he counseled, “not for the person you pretended to be.” He wondered if any of the women they had encountered during their visit to Sacramento were really capable of making the distinction between Johnny Lancer and Johnny Madrid. He pushed the thought away. “It would be a good thing if she could cook,” he suggested. “Probably also might be a good thing if she liked pink.” He was teasing now as he tugged at his brother’s shirt collar. “Or salmon.”
Johnny smacked his brother’s hand away, but not very hard. “It’s red,” he declared stubbornly. “How many times I gotta tell you, Scott; this damned shirt is red!”
laughed. “Of course it is.”